Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011

I know I haven’t been as actively blogging this year. Lots of things have changed. Our daughter is now one and a half, and I have been eating (and generally spending a lot more time) at home than I did in 2010. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been traveling and going out to eat – I have, but just not as frequently, and more often at casual places that we can go to together as a family.

I have still made it to my fair share of more ambitious restaurants, just not at such a frenzied pace as in the previous two years. I have also been eating much more near where we now live (in Connecticut) rather than Manhattan – not because it’s trendy to ‘eat local’, but because it’s easier and there is actually an abundant variety of excellent eateries nearby, particularly in ethnically diverse towns and cities such as Port Chester, NY and Stamford, CT. Sometimes, you find the greatest things when you don’t expect to, and these are the best discoveries.

While I still plan to keep writing on this site going forward, beginning in 2012, my words and images will also be appearing in some other places, including the ever-entertaining Arbuturian and the newly launched Bespoke Blog…so look out for my features there. My first piece for The Arbuturian, which recounts a fantastic meal at a vegan Japanese restaurant in New York, can be found here.

But on to the task at hand…

It is always hard to siphon down a year of eating and drinking, but I’ve tried my best to include only those dishes and drinks that were truly memorable. Hopefully I’ve gotten the balance right and you enjoy seeing both some familiar and not so familiar names in my rambling list.

Given what I mentioned above, this year I am also including a segment on the food I have enjoyed eating most at home, which I hope will highlight some of the amazing farmers, growers and restaurants/food retailers we have in the Tri-State area, particularly in Connecticut.

Although much of this year’s list comes from the US (as I haven’t been traveling as much), there a number of entries from the short but hugely enjoyable trip I made to Copenhagen, a longer trip to Italy (including Rome, Umbria and Tuscany) and a brief sojourn in my former home of 10 years, London. I also had some great food during my first trip to Brazil, but somehow none of it made it onto the list.

Sadly, I didn’t make good on last year’s resolution of cooking more often (well, really learning how to cook in the first place). I have my wife to blame (or thank?) for that as she is so good there often seems little point in me trying. But I’m going to make it my resolution again. Maybe I will try my hand at baking since she doesn’t know how to do that. I haven’t checked to see if I have cold hands, but hopefully I won’t get cold feet.

In any case, enjoy the list and, as always, please send your suggestions of new and exciting places I should try.

Here’s to a wonderful 2012 ahead, and thanks for continuing to support me through another great year.

PS – while I haven’t been blogging as much, I am quite active on twitter and, more recently, on instagram (username: ‘laissezfare’), so follow my tweets and picture posts on those channels as well if you so desire. Also, many of the photos below come from my instagram or un-filtered iPhone images, so apologies in advance for the inconsistency in quality.

~ AT HOME ~

For a number of months now, each morning at Chez Laissez begins with a glass of what I have affectionately coined the ‘green sludge’. It is not as bad as it sounds, and is actually quite tasty once you get used to it. It all started when we purchased a great blender earlier in the autumn. The concoction consists of a variety of organic leaves, usually including a mixture of kale, chard and arugula (rocket), spirulina and macca powder and goji berries, with a touch of banana or apple to make it more palatable. The natural and slowly released energy boost is amazing, and it helps to ensure we get a good dose of enzymes to tackle the day. I find I actually don’t need any coffee in the morning now, but since I like it so much I still often have an espresso or macchiato – not a Caramel Macchiato, which ‘doesn’t exist:) – once I get to Manhattan.

Morning Sludge

We also recently purchased a very good dehydrator for our home kitchen, and my wife has been making all kinds of healthy and delicious snacks for us over the last few months, which you may have seen me tweeting about. We use only raw ingredients for these snacks (i.e. not heated/pasteurized) so they retain their full nutritive properties. My favorites are the kale chips, for which she makes a variety of seasonings. More recently, she is also making cookies from raw cacao, coconut oil, dates and nuts (cashews and almonds), which are also excellent.

Kale Chips

We don’t eat a whole lot of meat at home, but when we do, we like to know where it comes from and how it was raised. This means we source most of it from local farmers markets.

Some of our favorite steak & eggs

Our favorite beef comes from Four Mile River Farm, which practices excellent animal husbandry and sells dry-aged beef of very high quality at very reasonable prices. We have also bought grass-fed steaks from New York Beef, which is also good.

Four Mile River Farm Ribeye Steak with Brussels Sprouts

We love the eggs we get from Fishkill Farms at one of our local farmers markets. They come from pasture-raised, heritage breed hens that move in mobile coops and their eggs are downright delicious.

Fishkill Farm Eggs & Tarry Market Bread (Tuscan Farm Loaf)

We now buy these by the boatload, and often have them for breakfast with some excellent bread from Tarry Market, which we rate as the best bakery in our area. I have heard that they supply much of the bread to Batali/Bastianich restaurants in the NY area, but have not had this corroborated…they do have a huge facility that takes up a large block in Port Chester. Fishkill Farms also sells excellent organic fruit and vegetables (although they’re not officially accredited), which we buy weekly.

Lastly, one of the best things I ate this year came courtesy of my mother-in-law who just returned to Normandy after a two-week long stay at our home. It was a traditional Norman dish of Poule au Blanc and it was simply out of this world. We bought two old hens from Fishkill Farms and she did the rest. The iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice, but the cream sauce was almost literally to die for. We had this for her 77th birthday.

My Mother-in-Law's Poule au Blanc

Also excellent was a house-made foie gras terrine (mi-cuit) from Restaurant Jean-Louis in Greenwich. We had this with some toasted brioche and a sweet and sour onion spread, which worked great together. The next night, she used the fat from the foie gras to sauté some fingerling potatoes – that was also something to remember.

Foie Gras Terrine from Restaurant Jean-Louis (Greenwich, CT) Paired with 2006 Château Suduiraut

~ ODDS & SODS ~ 

There is a Mexican restaurant named Bartaco near our house that makes you feel like you are on vacation when you dine there during the warmer months of the year. It is on the water and is designed like a beach resort of sorts. Their food is generally good, but there is one dish we always order…strangely enough, it’s a variation on corn-on-the-cob (pardon the iPhone pic). It’s about as good a version as I’ve had.

Grilled Corn with Lime, Cayenne & Cotija Cheese from Bartaco (Port Chester, NY)

Another nearby restaurant we discovered was Chili Chicken in Stamford, CT, which serves Indian Chinese food. Their fried okra dish was addictive as crack (not that I would know) and is the best thing we’ve had from there so far.

Crispy Fried Okra with Onions and Green Peppers from Chili Chicken (Stamford, CT)

I was lucky enough to enjoy some very good pizzas this year, the best of which were in – go figure – Italy. A casual family restaurant in Rome’s Monteverde neighborhood served an excellent Neapolitan style margherita. All the photos from that meal can be viewed here.

Margherita Classica from La Gatta Mangiona (Rome)

At our relatively new family hideaway in Umbria, a local pizzaiolo constructed an excellent meal of at least a dozen different types of pizzas for about 30 people. The standout of the evening for me was the speck pizza, and I also enjoyed the non-traditional dessert pizza with Nutella and peaches. Below, you can see the first pizza he made: just dough sprinkled with sea salt and a touch of olive oil. All of the photos from this meal can be found here.

Pizza Night in Umbria

While on the same trip to Italy, we had an unbelievable lunch at Arnaldo Caprai winery cooked up by Salvatore Denaro, who has to be one of the most jovial chef/hosts I’ve encountered. There were two courses that particularly stood out as being perfect versions of their respective dishes, the caponata and panzanella. There are tons of photos from this lunch, including some funny ones from the kitchen, all of which can be seen on my flickr set.

Panzanella from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Caponata from Salvatore Denaro at Arnaldo Caprai Winery

Back in the US, I also had some great sandwich-type foods this year. My new favorite sandwich shop in New York is the Cambodian sandwich specialist Num Pang, whose five-spice glazed pork belly is definitely a standard bearer.

Five-Spice Glazed Pork Belly Sandwich from Num Pang (New York)

Ever late to the proverbial party, I finally had the chance to sample the famous Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern in the latter part of the year. I really can’t think of how it can be improved; it is a thoroughly conceived and rigorously executed beefy affair. Sure it’s $26 but that’s all you need to eat for the meal and it’s both perfect and perfectly satisfying.

Black Label Burger from Minetta Tavern (New York)

My favorite burger closer to home comes from the excellent Burgers, Shakes & Fries. Their meat is a bespoke blend from Master Purveyors in the Bronx (who supply a lot of the famous steakhouses in the Tri-State area) and is really good. The twist here is that the sandwiches are served on ‘Texas Toast’, which in this case is simply toasted bread that has been slathered with butter on both sides. After trying the various iterations, I like the single patty burger with a slice of cheese. The meat does all of the talking and doesn’t need much support. They also serve the best onion rings I have ever tasted.

Double Cheeseburger & Onion Rings from Burgers, Shakes & Fries (Greenwich, CT)

On a healthier note, my favorite food truck for lunch in the City is a rather new Colombian operation that serves arepas. All of their ingredients are organic and meticulously sourced. In addition to the traditional corn base, they also offer more innovative versions, for example one made with quinoa flour, and others with brown rice flour and flax seeds or sesame seeds. My favorite is the quinoa, and I either get it with just hogao and all the fixings, or occasionally a vegan ‘chorizo’ sausage (which is made from soy and comprises over 20 ingredients, including red wine for the color). They are small but if you eat it slowly it fills you up for the rest of the afternoon. Delicious.

Quinoa Arepa from Palenque Food Truck (New York)

 ~ BENIGN BEGINNINGS ~

One of the best appetizers I had this year was seemingly one of the simplest, a burrata from Roscioli in Rome, which is definitely the best version of the creamy cheese dish I’ve had so far. All the photos from that excellent meal are here.

Burrata from Roscioli (Rome)

Along the same lines, the ceviche di spigola (marinated raw sea bass with oil, lemon, onions, chili and fresh coriander) I had at another Rome restaurant – Osteria La Gensola – was vibrant, bright and fresh, the perfect beginning to our meal.

Ceviche di Spigola from Osteria La Gensola (Rome)

Another wonderful light starter came from the most unlikely of places. Spuntino, Russell Norman’s third of five London restaurants in roughly two years, is known more for some of its delicious yet artery-clogging dishes. But the thing I most enjoyed during my meal there was a salad. Possibly this was because it came after a few of those very rich dishes and my stomach was craving greens, but in any case, it was excellent and definitely worth ordering if/when on the menu. My review of the meal can be found here.

Duck Ham Salad with Pecorino & Mint from Spuntino (London)

Another stand-out appetizer also hailed from Italy, although this time from a restaurant in the picturesque hilltop-perched Umbrian village of Montone. During a great meal at La Locanda del Capitano, chef Polito served his own variation on the cappuccino, which included a hill cheese fondue, a quail’s egg and fresh truffle ‘snow’. Need I say more?

‘My Cappuccino’ from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

While in London during the spring, I had the pleasure of sampling James Knappett’s food at the two Michelin starred Marcus Wareing (he now cooks with Brett Graham at The Ledbury), and one dish still sticks out in my mind, both for its beautiful plating and its unique flavors. You can read more about the excellent cold, raw scallop dish I enjoyed here; it really was as pretty as a picture.

Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil from Marcus Wareing (London)

The last of the lighter plates to make the list was also a cold plate, served in Copenhagen during a very cold January evening spent within the warm environs of noma. You can read a full description in my review of the meal, but the main ingredient was sea urchins – it was a breathtaking dish. There were many other things from noma that could have easily made this list (including a plate with pine branches and one centered around an intense Gotland black truffle sauce), but this was my personal favorite.

Sea Urchins and Frozen Milk, Cucumber & Dill from noma (Copenhagen)

~ MAGNFICENT MIDDLES ~ 

It is often difficult for the ‘main’ dish, or dishes, in a multi-course menu to stand out as the most interesting of the meal, even if they are delicious in their own right. The preceding procession of nibbles and smaller plates are designed to whet your appetite, inducing you to salivate and preparing you for what is still to come. By the time you arrive at a meat or fish course, the portion is usually more substantial and can often become too rich and/or monotonous to finish. Happily, I had a number of ‘middle’ dishes that rebelled against the odds and still live on in my memory.

One of the best ‘middle’ dishes I had in 2011 came from a meal at Eleven Madison Park that started out great but didn’t finish as strongly (the meal was toward the midpoint of the year, before chef Humm and the General Manager bought the business from then-owner Danny Meyer). It was one of the best-cooked lobsters I’ve had and was completely delectable.

Lobster Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola from Eleven Madison Park (New York)

We had the pleasure of dining at the chef’s table at Heston Blumenthal’s first London opening in the spring, and many of the dishes were excellent. The one savory course that stood out, however, was the pigeon. My wife doesn’t ever like pigeon, and she was licking the plate with this one. Other excellent dishes that almost made it onto the list were the Black Foot Pork Chop and now ubiquitous Meat Fruit. You can read more about the pigeon dish, and the meal as a whole here.

Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780) with Ale & Artichokes from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

One of the most interesting and delicious main courses I had was actually a vegetarian dish from the Japanese restaurant Kajitsu in the East Village of Manhattan. It was painstakingly plated and stood out for the variety of textures, temperatures and flavors. A full account of the meal can be found here.

Autumn Vegetable 'Fukiyose', Cedar Grilled Yomogi Nama-Fu and Portabella Mushrooms & Komatsuna Oshitashi from Kajitsu (New York)

A diametrically opposed dish, in both spirit and substance, was equally as tasty. This came from the excellent Commerce Restaurant, which is ironically in the West Village, the opposite side as Kajitsu. While it doesn’t often get the press it probably should, Harold Moore is a terrific chef that is both generous to his patrons (he is there night in, night out and actually cares that all of his customers are well taken care of), humble in his manners and genuine in his spirit. His food strives to make you comfortable and satisfied, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Some of the best things I sampled there were his carnivorous sharing plates. My favorite was actually the lamb (and pardon the instagram image below), although the chicken is more fabled, as you can see from this Ozersky TV video. One of his classic American desserts is also included in my favorite desserts of the year…read on.

Rack of Lamb on the ‘Things to Share’ Section of the Menu from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

La Locanda del Capitano makes its second entry with a superb main course of cinghiale (wild boar) that was hunted, killed, prepared and served by the head chef. It was the best example I’ve ever had of wild boar meat, and is worth seeking out if you’re ever in the area.

Montonese Wild Boar Braised with Scallions & Celery Herb Seasoning from La Locanda del Capitano (Montone, Italy)

Last of the top main courses of 2011 was a pleasant surprise from a casual little Ethiopian restaurant in Westchester County, NY called Lalibela, a name shared by many Ethiopian restaurants (indeed, our favorite one in London had the same name). We had a combination platter for two, which was great for lunch.

‘Taste of Lalibela’: Siga Wat, Yebag Wat, Doro Wat, Misir Wat, Shiro Wat & Gomen from Lalibela (Mt. Kisco, NY)

~ SWEET SURRENDERS ~

Although 2011 was a much healthier year food-wise than 2010, I managed to sample a great number of sweet treats which were totally worth the sugar and calories. In addition to some of the staple sweets we stock at home, such as Mast Brothers dark chocolate bars, we found some other great desserts in our local area. These included the best cannoli I have found in the Tri-State area (courtesy of a rapid-fire tour of Stamford, CT with perennially well-informed Jim Leff), wonderful pistachio and dark chocolate gelato from Daniella’s Gelateria in Greenwich, and also Daniella’s hot chocolate.

Cannolo from Sal’s Pastry Shop (Stamford, CT)

Gelato & Hot Chocolate from Daniella's Gelateria (Greenwich, CT)

Some other treats I enjoyed outside of restaurants were from some of the better-known bakeries, including Bouchon Bakery’s classic lemon tart and Ladurée’s traditional macarons, of which the rose flavor consistently one of the best – but all are exceptional. I am glad they finally have a shop in New York, although they may still be working out some kinks, as there seem to be variations in quality from many reports.

Lemon Tart from Bouchon Bakery (New York)

Assortment of Macarons from Ladurée (New York)

A number of great sweets were consumed on our trip to Italy, but the following were my favorite. Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me find the name of the bakery in Rome from which I had the amazing sfogliatelle. But I have a picture of the lovely man who made them!

Sfogliatelle from Rome…and the baker who made it

Also excellent was a simple dessert of two components from Trattoria da Teo, which serves rustic dishes in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. It was so good we ordered a second.

Mascarpone & Wild Strawberries from Trattoria da Teo (Rome)

My other favorite restaurant dessert from Italy also contained cream and berries and came from L’Asino d’Oro, home of one of Rome’s best-value lunch menus. You can read more about the meal here. I didn’t expect much from the description of the odd-sounding ‘Strawberry Tiramisu’, but the proof in this case really was in the pudding.

Strawberry Tiramisu from L’Asino d’Oro (Rome)

One of the most satisfying desserts of the year came from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, its second appearance in this year’s round-up. It was essentially a brioche and butter pudding with brandy, with the addition of one of the most meticulously roasted pineapples you are ever likely to find. You can read a full description in my review of this meal here.

Tipsy Cake (c. 1810) with Spit Roast Pineapple from Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (London)

My favorite apple pie comes from Mrs. London’s in Saratoga Springs, NY. Wendy (aka ‘Mrs. London’) makes it at the bakery, but also serves it at her son Max’s restaurant next door. The ice cream is homemade too. Both places are worth visiting if you’re even in Saratoga for the horse racing or other reasons. The bakery also serves a very worthy version of Kouign Amann.

Apple Pie & Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream from Max London’s (Saratoga Springs, NY)

One the most surprisingly good sweet things I ate this year came from Commerce, which served the rack of lamb I mentioned above. I have never had a coconut cake I particularly liked, but the name of the dish speaks for itself, and is not incorrect, at least in my own experience. Its moniker is simply ‘The Best Coconut Cake’. While it carries a price tag of $10, it is money well spent. Sadly, I don’t have a great picture, but you can get the general idea from the image below. It has the perfect consistency and is not overly sweet, the main problem that affects most examples of this cake.

‘The Best Coconut Cake’ from Commerce Restaurant (New York)

As a testament to the fact that great things often come when you least expect them, one of the best key lime pies I’ve had comes from a small steakhouse chain whose Boca Raton, Florida branch I visited twice in the last 12 months or so (the other location is in Boston). It was just as good on both occasions, the secret being that they (of course) use real Key limes and also make a delectable graham cracker-esque crunchy crust. If you ever go, their bone-in filet mignon is pretty darn good too.

House-made Key Lime Pie from Abe & Louie’s (Boca Raton, FL)

As it is getting cold now, I am reminded of a part-frozen dessert I had while in Copenhagen. It was my final course at Kødbyens Fiskebar, which consisted of sea-buckthorn as both a grainté and gel, with a base of crème made from tonka nut and white chocolate. The tart and creamy contrast was perfectly judged. You can read the full description here.

Sea-buckthorn as Grainté and Gel, Crème with Tonka Nut & White Chocolate from Kødbyens Fiskebar (Copenhagen)

~ FERMENTED FINDS ~ 

Most of the wines listed below are not particularly pricey (though all is relative), so I particularly enjoyed discovering them as I can afford to buy them again in the future. There were a few precious – in both sense of the word – bottles that I enjoyed on special occasions, but these were mostly the exception this year.

Now that I have a proper wine storage solution, thanks to the impressive Liebherr unit that arrived on my birthday courtesy of my generous parents, I have been buying a lot more wine as of late. I have also found that I’ve been buying a lot of my wine online, through excellent new sites such as Lot18 (click here to join, it’s free). There are also a number of excellent wine merchants I frequent, including Zachys, Sherry-Lehmann, Chelsea Wine Vault, Tarry Wine Merchants (which adjoins to the aforementioned Tarry Market) and the extremely competitively (online) priced Rye Brook Wines. Frankly Wines is also a great little shop, but I rarely get downtown to visit. 

Sparkling 

  • N.V. Claude Genet Blanc de Blancs Grand Cru
  • N.V. François Chidaine Montlouis-Sur-Loire
  • N.V. Jacques Lassaigne Champagne Les Vignes de Montgueux Blanc de Blancs
  • N.V. Jaillance Crémant de Bordeaux Cuvée de l’Abbaye
  • N.V. Pierre Gimmonet & Fils Brut Blanc de Blancs Premier Cru
  • N.V. Pierre Moncuit Blanc de Blancs Grand Gru Oger
  • N.V. Scharffenberger Brut
  • 1997 Salon ‘Le Mesnil’ Brut Blanc de Blancs
  • 1998 Henriot Brut Millésimé
  • 2002 Moet & Chandon Dom Pérignon Brut

White

  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 Domaine du Chalet Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2008 Bruno Giacosa Roero Arneis
  • 2008 Domaine Huët Vouvray Sec Clos du Bourg
  • 2008 Nicolas Joly Savennières Le Clos Sacré
  • 2008 Wind Gap Chardonnay
  • 2009 Arwen, Lilleø Vin
  • 2009 Casa Marin Sauvignon Blanc Laurel Vineyard
  • 2009 Evening Land Vineyards Pouilly-Fuissé
  • 2009 Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium Lazio IGT
  • 2009 Paul Hobbs CrossBarn Chardonnay
  • 2010 Arnaldo Caprai Grecante
  • 2010 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc

Red

  • 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo ‘Vigna dei Dardi’
  • 2003 Paolo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Passito
  • 2005 Baigorri Rioja Crianza
  • 2005 Bodegas y Vinedos Finca Anzil Toro Vendimia Seleccionada
  • 2006 Yering Station Shiraz-Viognier
  • 2007 Ampelos Pinot Noir Lambda
  • 2007 Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) Médoc Réserve Spéciale
  • 2007 Bodegas Felix Callejo Ribera del Duero Crianza
  • 2007 Clos Du Val Pinot Noir Reserve Carneros
  • 2007 Sella & Mosca Cannonau di Sardegna Riserva
  • 2007 Seventy Five Wine Company The Sum
  • 2009 Domaine de Villeneuve Châteauneuf-du-Pape ‘Les Vieilles Vignes’
  • 2009 Venta Morales Tempranillo
  • 2010 The Pinot Project

Sweet 

  • N.V. Josette et Jean-Noel Chaland Chardonnay Vendange Botrytisée
  • 2006 Château Suduiraut
  • 2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos
  • 2009 Domtalhof Rheingessen Riesling Auslese
  • 2009 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Late Harvest
  • 2009 Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Auslese

Beer

  • I am not the world’s biggest lover of, or expert on, beer (by a long shot) but my friend recently introduced me to the Three Philosophers, which is quite nice.

I hope you enjoyed my review of the best bites & sips from 2011 and look forward to keeping you up to date on my findings in 2012 and beyond!

Le Manoir Aux Cat-Cat Saisons – A Purrfect Underground Dinner with Friends

Le Manoir Aux Cat-Cat Saisons
Big Flat
Something Mews
Highgate
London

We were entering the domain of the Cat called Cat...Jedi mind tricks and good food were sure to follow

We were entering the domain of the Cat called Cat...Jedi mind tricks and good food were sure to follow

Come Dine with Us

A few months back, we met up with our good friends and got to talking about the wonderful cult hit TV program, Come Dine with Me. My friend, let’s call her ‘Madame M’, is as completely obsessed with the show as we are, and had even considered following up on a leaflet she got through her letterbox asking for applicants in her area. She decided she liked the idea, but just without the TV. So we came up with the brilliant notion of doing a ‘Come Dine with Me’ with a few groups of friends, just without cameras and all of that hoopla. We haven’t quite gotten around to it yet, but I did get a slightly intriguing invitation to “come ‘round to ours for a really casual bite to eat”, at which a few of our other friends might attend. So a few weekends ago, we turned up, and were a bit surprised at what we found.

Before going into the meal that was to ensue, I must make you aware of the most important fact about my friends, ‘Dr. J’ (no, not the basketball player) and ‘Madame M’. They have a beautiful, gourmet, well fed (i.e. often plump) orange striped cat. He is quite an unusual fellow, and they are completely obsessed with him – it is as if he is the child they have not yet had. He rules their home, and their next door office, and what he wants goes. His name is ‘Cat-Cat’ or ‘Cat Called Cat’ (yes, seriously), and there is no doubt that he rules the roost.

No doubt who’s King here, then...

No doubt who’s King here, then...

A bit more than expected

Upon arrival, Madame M took our coats and bags and showed us straight out the back door to the Middle East – literally. They had somehow constructed a tented area with cushions, candles and such in true Bedouin fashion. It was a sunny late afternoon, and it actually felt like we had been transported somewhere very far away from a Highgate mews.

A large pitcher of a wonderful chilled Pimms concoction wasn’t far away and our glasses were filled and refilled seamlessly. There were certainly a lot more people than I had expected, but you never know who might turn up to these guys’ abode. The kitchen was also in a quasi ‘lock-down’ mode, but I was officially granted a ‘press pass’ as I had promised to immortalize Cat-Cat and the meal through my blog. I was even allowed to take photos. And thus it was that a little casual dinner for a few people turned into a well thought-out seven course feast for 12 friends. In typical fashion, they were planning to pull this feat off with only about 3 hours of planning. Some people are just laid back, man.

Filet of Beef

The pure glory of a 21-day hung filet of locally farmed British beef

The Food Doctor gets to work...

The Food Doctor gets to work...

Once I was finally allowed into their large open kitchen, I realized that this meal was truly no joke. Dr. J had bought an amazing locally farmed English beef filet which had been hung for 21 days and some mean looking Welsh lamb chops that had been French trimmed. I documented quickly but didn’t dawdle as there was some serious work going on and I didn’t want to be in the way. Back to the tent I went.

Place settings had been set at their formal dining room table and also along their beautiful wood and glass coffee table with a U-shaped couch arrangement. I was also magically appointed sommelier for the evening simply because I am so obsessed by wine these days, and not because I actually had a clue what I was doing (well, maybe some sort of inkling :)).

Course 1: Watercress Soup

Course 1: Watercress Soup

The first course was actually served outside in the tent as it was so pleasant out there. This was a beautifully simple start to the meal. The soup had a perfect consistency, nice and thick (thanks to a bit of potato that was blended into the vegetable stock) but not too much so, and had a very good depth of flavor, with a little dollop of crème fraîche giving it that little bit of luxury. Besides watercress, there were undertones of leeks and garlic. It was a well executed starter that was in tune with the season. 7/10.

The good doctor prepares the carpaccio

The good doctor prepares the carpaccio

Course 2: Filet of Beef Carpaccio with Mustard & Side Salad

Course 2: Filet of Beef Carpaccio with Mustard & Side Salad

Next up was Dr. J’s perfectly executed beef carpaccio. He had seared the edges of the filet perfectly evenly and there was a crispy crust of herbs encircling each thin slice on the outer rim. The expertly executed simplicity of this dish allowed the true star of the show – the well-hung piece of English beef (pun definitely intended, as it was such a big hunk of meat) – to bask in its own undisputed glory. It was lovely with the bit of mustard and the accompanying salad was also elegantly sparse, with high quality, thinly shaved parmesan and fresh rocket with a tangy honey, white wine vinegar, olive oil and mustard dressing. 9/10.

Course 3: Seared Scallops with Coriander Masala & Lemon

Course 3: Seared Scallops with Coriander Masala & Lemon

The next instalment was very pleasant and a good portion size in context of the entire meal. While one of my Indonesian scallops had been perfectly seared and was juicy, fleshy and sweet, the two others had been just slightly overcooked, which made for a more rubbery texture that somewhat masked the underlying flavors. This was probably inevitable, though, given that there were by my count about 36 of them served all at once. The scallops themselves were very fresh and the accompanying sauce (well, more like a paste in terms of consistency) of coriander, mint, cumin, garlic and extra virgin olive oil was a very innovative pairing of flavors which worked exceedingly well. 6/10.

I had brought along a bottle of 2006 Bodega Catena Zapata Chardonnay (Argentina), which I thought would go especially well with the scallops, and we weren’t let down. A good match if I do say so myself, with the richness of the chardonnay marrying well with the sweetness of the scallops and the slight tang and depth of flavor in the coriander paste.

Course 4: Pancetta, Pea & Broadbean Risotto

Course 4: Pancetta, Pea & Broadbean Risotto

Next up was a little serving of risotto which was served in beautiful cocktail glasses. Top marks for presentation, however at the chef’s own admission (Madame M in this instance), the risotto had been prepared earlier and was being reheated before serving. This led to the very common problem that we’ve probably all experienced in an Italian restaurant: it was too dry and lacked that luxurious unctuousness that a good risotto oozes, which contrasts so well with some perfectly al dente rice. This was a real shame because the classic combination of pancetta, peas and broadbeans was delicious and the flavor really worked, plus it was well seasoned. 4/10.

Course 5: Lamb Chops in ‘Top Secret Marinade’, Mashed Potatoes & Broccoli

Course 5: Lamb Chops in ‘Top Secret Marinade’, Mashed Potatoes & Broccoli

The main, main course was excellent. The lamb chops had been marinated for a long time in a ‘secret’ concoction, and not even my press pass was going to get me the ingredients to that sweet elixir. Whatever the case, it was damn good – succulent, juicy and full of flavor. I could have easily dusted off two more. The mashed potatoes could have been more silky and creamy and the broccoli had a good consistency although it wasn’t really seasoned that much. 8/10.

The smiling chef prepares the strudel

The smiling chef prepares the strudel

Course 6: Apple Strudel with Vanilla Ice Cream

Course 6: Apple Strudel with Vanilla Ice Cream

The dessert was a simple Apple Strudel with nicely cooked sweet apples and dark raisins resting on a bed of filo pastry. The thin pastry was crispy and it was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, which is never going to be a bad combination (unless you’re my father, who insists on chocolate ice cream with everything – even apple pie!). 6/10.

Course 7: Petit Fours

Course 7: Petit Fours

After the dessert we moved back to the tented outdoor area where we were served some petit fours of flapjacks and chocolate brownies. There was nothing remarkably memorable about them in comparison to some of the previous courses (they were store-bought after all), but they were still much appreciated and tasty with a glass of fresh mint tea. 5/10.

The evening stretched on in a very leisurely fashion, with some of the guests partaking in a much fussed over shisha ritual, some lighting up classy cigars, some sipping on Bailey’s or single malt whiskey (or both), and some making sure that all of the leftovers were not going to waste (see  middle picture below).

The Tent & Barby Cat-Cat Does His Thing After Dinner Relaxation

The best Sunday evening in ages

All in all, it was a tremendous evening and a great time was had by all (and I do hope this included the joint chefs, as they really put a lot of work into the meal). Madame M and Dr. J were the consummate hosts, plying their guests with drinks which were magically refilled at the right moments. And while they were constantly busy, they appeared to be completely laid back and shiny, happy people throughout the evening. Their living room had been set beautifully, with candlelight and nice wine to get people into the mood. And the Bedouin tent was truly inspired.

The overall quality of the food was of a very high standard for such a quickly planned event for a lot of people, and while there were a few shortfalls here and there, that is not what anyone will remember. Rather, it is the generosity of the hosts, the pleasure of spending a lingering evening with new friends and old, and the laid back yet passionate culinary impulse behind the whole evening that will stay ingrained in our memories for a long time to come.

Long live the Master of the House, Cat called Cat, and his loyal subjects.

Bravo!

Rating

Ambience: 10/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Le Manoir Aux Cat-Cat Saisons many a time, but never so formally and never so nicely. Hats off to Madame M and Dr. J.*

Dinner for 5 at Home – Courtesy of Ottolenghi & the French Countryside

Mrs. LF and I invited three good friends over for dinner on Friday. She did all of the cooking – unfortunately, not much new there – although I was working all day. We had a wonderful evening, which was part inspired by Ottolenghi and part inspired by the French countryside. Not a bad combination, I say!

The starter was directly from the Ottolenghi cookbook, which my wife swears is the best cookbook she has ever bought, and I can attest to the results – bloody excellent every time, and she’s made about 10 recipes so far.

The dish she chose was ‘Chargrilled asparagus, courgettes and manouri’, although we substituted halloumi for the manouri cheese as we can’t find it nearby our place. Although it looks like a simple salad, as with many of Ottolenghi’s recipes, there is more to it than meets the eye, and it did require quite a bit of prep work, and had a lot more ingredients than you would imagine…but that’s what makes their food so tasty, memorable and recognizable.

The Ottolenghi went down a treat

The Ottolenghi salad went down a treat

A close-up of the deceivingly simple salad

A close-up of the deceivingly simple salad

As an aperitif and to go with the starter, I had selected a slightly chilled Georges Deboeuf 2008 Beaujolais Nouveau, which was really excellent (you can get it at Whole Foods for a discount right now).

The Georges Dubeuf 2008 Beaujolais Nouveau (Cuvee Speciale) was light, fruity and highly quaffable, just as a good Nouveau should be - nice and light with the salad

The Georges Duboeuf 2008 Beaujolais Nouveau (Cuvee Speciale) was light, fruity and highly quaffable, just as a good Nouveau should be - nice and light with the salad

The main course was made possible by Mrs. LF’s cousin, whose parents own a large country home in France and whose mother grows her own vegetables and keeps her own chickens. She stayed with us a few week’s ago and brought a freshly slaughtered chicken in her bag on the Eurostar (how do they allow this, I know?!), so we had been keeping it in the freezer to bring out for a special night with more than just the two of us…as it was one big bird.

The chicken was very ‘free range’, as you could tell when you saw the joints and bones, which were larger and darker than any chicken you can get in UK supermarkets. The meat was also generally darker and a bit tougher than a UK supermarket chicken, which is the way it should be, and it really had a great flavor running through it. As usual, Mrs. LF had roasted it to perfection, with the skin thin and very crispy, and the bird moist throughout. It was served with fresh green beans, roasted potatoes (which is a secret recipe from her mom) and garnished with roasted garlic and a mish-mash of apples, onions and such. Delish!

The properly 'free range' chicken smuggled in from France, all set and ready to go!

The properly 'free range' chicken smuggled in from France, all set and ready to go!

A close-up of Mrs. LF's main course

A close-up of Mrs. LF's main course

We still had some Pouilly Fumé left over from our wedding earlier this year, and thought it would go nicely with the chicken, which it did. To me, it had the trademark ‘cat piss’ smell on the nose, and was very citrusy and acidic, which cut through the sweetness of the fruit/onion accompaniments and melded well with the bird.

2007 Pouilly Fumé, Domaine del Bel Air (Mauroy Gauliez): sharp citrus flavor with good minerality and acidity, a good compiment to the chicken

2007 Pouilly Fumé, Domaine del Bel Air (Mauroy Gauliez): sharp citrus flavor with good minerality and acidity, a good French compliment to French the chicken

The dessert was also an homage to Ottolenghi, and was a re-creation of what is probably our favorite of their desserts, the dangerous and renowned lemon and marscapone tart. This was Mrs. LF’s first attempt at making pastry and it turned out well overall. One of the secrets to this tart – and, by the way, they don’t tell you how to directly make this dessert in their book, but do give you the three processes of pastry, lemon curd and marscapone cream in different places throughout the book (!) – is the lemon zest in the pastry shell and the subtle crunchiness (maybe of semolina) that it has when you buy it in the store. It didn’t turn out as an exact copy of the version you can buy in their shops, but it was still darn tasty. I will  let the picture do the talking here – ’nuff said!

A re-creation of the famed Ottolenghi lemon & marscapone tart

A re-creation of the famed Ottolenghi lemon & marscapone tart

Our guests wanted a dessert wine, and unfortunately I didn’t have one that would work with the lemon tarts in my little faux cellar (and Mrs. LF said I was not to buy anymore wine, as she wants us to drink what we have first…urgh!).

In any case, we opened a bottle of some really lovely white sweet wine that we found on our travels to Switzerland last year around Christmas time. We had a remarkable Swiss Syrah wine when having a steak at the legendary Café de Paris in Geneva, and liked it so much that we hunted down the winemaker (Bernard Coudray of Domaine La Tourmente) and set up an appointment to go and visit him in the Valais canton the next day, even though he was officially shut :). We bought some of the Syrah, some of a red blend which is the only one he ages in oak, and some of this, the very fruity and acidic Johannisberg. While it didn’t go with the tart (way too acidic and therefore cancels out the fruit taste of the wine), it was still nice to have, and I drank it more as an after-dessert drink.

2007 Chomoson Johannisberg (La Tourmente): one of the nicer little sweet wines I've had in a while - but good luck finding it outside of Switzlerand (they only export 3% of their wine!)

2007 Chomoson Johannisberg (La Tourmente): one of the nicer little sweet wines I've had in a while - but good luck finding it outside of Switzlerand (they only export 3% of their wine!)

Well, after that we finished up with a digestif of Thunder toffee vodka (I know, a bit strange, but we had bought some at Taste of London and wanted to see how it was), which had been in the freezer for days. It definitely tastes more like vodka than toffee, but it does have a subtle burnt caramel taste to it…not bad.

All in all, it was a wonderful way to end the week and usher in the weekend :).

Monty’s Dry French White, Roasted Quail & Proper French Beans

A pale, light and wonderfully fresh country wine that is reminiscent of French cider on the mid-palate and the finish

A pale, light and wonderfully fresh country wine that is reminiscent of French cider on the mid-palate and the finish

Last night, Mrs. LF cooked up a simple little storm. 4 roasted quails with garlic and a slightly lemony glaze to them. The quail were from Waitrose and were £4.50 a pair – they certainly were good.

The birds were accompanied by ‘proper’ french beans, which had been smuggled from Mrs. LF’s cousin’s farm, where her mother grows a variety of fruits and veg. They also keep chickens, and our lovely little cousin also managed to stash away a freshly slaughtered chicken in her bag on the Eurostar to bring to us too – we have frozen it and are saving it for when some friends come around next week. In any case, they were excellent, cooked with a bit of garlic, and for some reason only took 5 minutes to cook vs. the normal 15 minutes with the organic store-bought green beans we normally have. Go figure.

We were very excited to try our bottle of Monty’s Dry French White wine from the recently released 2008 vintage. And this anticipation wasn’t misplaced. Quite pale in color, it was a true country wine: strong, one-dimensional, lots of fruit, lots of acidity. Mrs. LF pointed out that it smelled of apples and then we all realized that its aftertaste reminded us a lot of French cider. The wine was an excellent partner for the quail – simple food, good table wine – and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

Next, we need to try one of our 2 bottles of Monty’s Red from 2008, for which I am now holding out even more hope. And I think I may head down to Roberson Wine to see if I can get another bottle or two fo the white, if they have any that is.  It seems to have already disappeared from Adnams’ website, where I ordered it from in the first place…

The Priviledge of a Home Cooked Iranian Feast!

So here’s the deal. About 10 years ago, while I was still living the US and was on a trip to London, I had an amazing meal at the home of my good friends’ parents. My two friends (who are brothers) are Iranian, and their mother has such a good hand in the kitchen that 10 years later I was still salivating over distant memories of my first and only meal at her home.

Iranian food, when cooked properly at home by a skilled cook, has to be one of the best cuisines in the world. Unfortunately, I have found that, at least in London, it is nearly impossible to find any Iranian restaurant food that is remotely satisfying compared to ‘the real deal’. Restaurants are supposed to serve better kebabs than you can make at home (and from what I understand the kebabs at restaurants inside Iran are truly out of this world), but it is very rare that I have come across one which I have enjoyed unconditionally in a London-based establishment. In fact, the home-cooked kebabs I have had at friends’ houses are usually far better than the ones I have had in restaurants here.

Oh yes, sorry, back to the story…

Anyway, about a month ago I began pestering my friends to have their mom ‘invite’ me and some other friends over for a follow-up meal. Now I know this is pretty rude, but what else can you do when you need your fix? Eventually, a date and time manifested and everything was in order.  And last Sunday was the magic day.

The meal lived up to all expectations, and some of the food exceeded them. There were about 12 of us all together, and we had an amazing, relaxed meal. I have posted some photos of the food below to let you have a little peak.

An overview of the processions!

An overview of the processions!

After sitting in the, erm, sitting room and chilling out over some drinks, it was time for the main event. Of course, I should mention that even when you sit around in an Iranian household, you will be surrounded by food – in this case, various assortments of nuts, sweets, fruits, tea, beer, wine, etc. – and they will softly implore you to have as much as you can stomach. Perfect just before a big meal :).

So, what was on offer? Well, there were two types rice:

Polo – traditional white Iranian-style basmati rice

Traditional white Iranian style basmati rice, with saffron infused throughout, and usually eaten with butter and a little sumac

Traditional white Iranian style basmati rice, with saffron infused throughout, and usually eaten with butter and a little sumac

Havij Polo – carrot rice (one of my favorites!)

Iranian carrot rice - to die for!

Iranian carrot rice - to die for!

To accompany the rice (or, rather, the other way around?) was:

Ghormeh Sabzi- a traditional green Iranian stew (often called the ‘national dish’ of Iran), another favorite of mine.  Some of the main ingredients are parsley, leek and fenugreek (which make it a dark green color), and it usually includes red kidney beans, onions, chives, dried limes (which are key) and lamb or veal. The dried limes, which are left in the stew, give it a very sour kick, and it has a deep flavor of green herbs. The texture of the beans and the softness of the stewed meat make this one of the world’s truly unique and delicious dishes, though it is an acquired taste for some. The one we had on Sunday was one of the best I’ve ever tasted.  Faultless and perfectly balanced. This goes with the plain rice, which is the perfect complement. And for those of you who have not had rice made Iranian style, it is by far the best and tastiest method I have come across for cooking basmati rice. Of course, it is probably the most fattening, too, but who’s counting?

One of the most unique and delicious dishes in the world - an acquired taste for some, though

One of the most unique and delicious dishes in the world - an acquired taste for some, though

Gheymeh Bademjan – another amazing dish, though not one I’ve had very often.  It’s key components are aubergine/egg plant and yellow split peas. The rich brown sauce is composed of various other ingredients, some of which include onion, garlic and tomatoes. This was a rich dish, with the eggplants being slow-cooked to perfection with no bitterness, and the split pea stew completely delectable. You eat this with the plain rice, fyi, and with some plain sour yogurt if you want.

A rich mix of aubergine, yellow split peas and a whole lot of other good stuff!

A rich mix of aubergine, yellow split peas and a whole lot of other good stuff!

‘Chicken Dish’ – pathetic description, I know, but this is apparently the best translation from Farsi (?!) according to my friends. Anyway, you eat this with the carrot rice (and yogurt if you want), and this was the best combination of food I’ve had for some time. It is sweet as it is cooked with carrots and cinnamon, very delicate and so tasty that you cannot stop eating it. The chicken must have been marinated forever as the flavor was present in every bite (not just on the outside), and was cooked perfectly too – it just fell off the bone while retaining a soft but firm enough texture.

Traditional Iranian chicken dish usually eaten with carrot rice - an amazing combination

Traditional Iranian chicken dish usually eaten with carrot rice - an amazing combination

The above was also served with a simple salad of greens, mint and radishes, and then afterwards a slightly more complicated salad was served (which is very Iranian, and French come to think of it – but then again, the word for ‘thanks’ in both Farsi and French is merci…so there is definitely some commonality / stealing going on between these two nations :) ).

Cleansing the palate...

Cleansing the palate...

The photos simply do not do this meal justice, but at least you can get an idea of our wonderful Sunday evening.

The evening was capped off by retiring to the sitting room again and sinking into some huge Iranian chairs which their family had brought over from Iran when they first moved over here. This furniture was probably more suited to the larger house they had in their home country as it looks slightly like it is on steroids even in a rather large detached London home – but whatever the case, the chairs were very comfortable to pass out in!

And, of course, some more cakes and sweets were had with tea (Gaz,in particular, which is the Esfahanian version of nougat) as conversation rambled on through the night.

A perfect Sunday evening, all in all.

ADDENDUM - in all the excitement of writing about this meal, I forgot to mention one of the best parts – the ‘taa-dig’!  Taa-dig is the hard, crispy bits that are at the bottom of the saucepan in Iranian rice dishes and, if done well, they are very naughty and damn tasty.  On this occasion, my friend came out of his mom’s kitchen with a small plate of the taa-dig from the carrot rice in one had, and a mouthful of it in the other, as he knew it would be a hot commodity that the vultures would devour instantaneously upon it touching the table.  It was made of thin sliced bread, and was a mouthful of crisp, bready, buttery deliciousness – I managed to score a substantial portion, which others tried to steal from me throughout the course of the meal.  The normal polo had a potato taa-dig, which was also great too, but not as popular or as tasty as the bread-based one.  Sorry, no picture of these…