Talking (& Eating) Turkey with Marco Pierre White

My first year is over, and a new one just begun

My first blogiversary

This week, Laissez Fare is one year old. When I first started the blog, I was already certainly a bit of a restaurant geek, but boy has that increased since I entered the world of food blogging and social media (well, twitter mostly). In the last 52 weeks, I have met many new friends, some of which remain virtual, but many of which have evolved into true and enjoyable real-life relationships. I have also broadened and honed my knowledge of food, wine and restaurants over the same period as the discipline of snapping and scribbling about my gustatory journeys has forced me to analyze and discern more about whatever it is I am eating or drinking, and the atmosphere and style in which it is presented.

I suppose my biggest embarrassment in the area of food is that although I perpetually pontificate about food (and occasionally wine), I am scarcely able to cook the most basic and humblest of meals myself. I would be the first to admit that it is a sad state of affairs when a (granted, self-proclaimed) food critic can’t even cook in his or her own right. But luckily my blog has begun to change that as well. ‘Year Two’ will be the year that Laissez learned to cook. So I look forward to keeping you informed about my progress in the kitchen, and any related nightmares.

Before I move on to the main part of this post (which incidentally is partly about me cooking), I would like to thank you for your interest and support over the last year. I hope you continue to find reason to return to my blog and that it keeps evolving into something better with each post. Thus, if you have any suggestions on how it can be improved, I am always open to ideas. I would like to thank Mrs. LF for helping me – indeed, she reads everything I write and contributes her own content on most posts – as without her fine(r) palate and judgement, the insights provided would not be nearly as interesting.

Before this turns into an Oscars acceptance speech, it just occurred to me that I would have never dreamed about sitting down and having lunch with Marco Pierre White a year ago when I was watching him grimace menacingly at a group of celebrities who revered him as a God as they attempted to learn how to cook in a professional atmosphere. But thanks to blogging, these kinds of experiences are happening more and more often. I am continually excited and inspired by learning more about food and wine, and the people who create it (of course, Marco would note that “Mother Nature is the true artist,” his favorite refrain), and I look forward to developing my knowledge, palate and horizons further in the coming year.

Stamford bridging

As many readers will know, Marco Pierre White was appointed the brand ambassador of Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd, a British farming business specializing in the farming of turkeys, in March of this year. Rightly or wrongly (and most food bloggers would say rightly), Marco has been criticized for ‘selling out’, as since retiring from the professional kitchen 10 years ago he has been using his name to support things which many foodies might deem down-market and even undesirable for a chef of his stature, including Knorr stock cubes and Bernard Matthews itself, which has had a series of high-profile issues in relation to the health of its birds and how humanely they’ve been treated, not to mention the fact that until 2005 they were the makers of Turkey Twizzlers, which were very publicly chastised by Jamie Oliver in his Jamie’s School Dinners television series.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the PR people behind the launch of a new campaign that is being sponsored by Bernard Matthews, in conjunction with Marco Pierre White, which is aimed at getting British people to eat turkey more than once a year at Christmas time. Matter-of-factly called ‘Change Your Meat Not Your Menu’, the campaign is aimed at inspiring all cooks, and in particular mothers, to begin using turkey in their weekly meal plans. They argue that “Turkey is high in protein and a great alternative to other meats. It’s versatile, tasty and perfect for everyday meals, and turkey breast meat is also low in saturated fat.” The campaign is also supported by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a well-known nutritionist, and Rebecca Romera, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing.

The campaign’s logo & slightly laborious URL

They cite a recent survey showing that turkey can easily be substituted in eight of the UK’s favorite meals, and as such have come up with eight recipes for these classic dishes that Moms typically make, with the only difference being that the original meat is substituted with turkey. Thus, using spaghetti bolognese as an example, by simply switching from beef to turkey mince, you could reduce your saturated fat intake by up to two-thirds (11g) per portion. There is a well-researched and detailed saturated fat calculator on the site, as well as recipes focused on ‘slimming’ and ‘leftovers’. But most interestingly, Marco has created four recipes himself, all based on simple ways of preparing turkey steaks and bringing out their natural flavor.

Of course, this is simply a new front in the recently re-branded Bernard Matthews marketing machine, and it is designed to sell more turkey. That said, I have always wondered why British people don’t eat more turkey than they do. Possibly it’s because the one time most people have it each year, it tends to be overcooked and therefore dry and rather lacking in flavor? I really don’t know, and as Marco points out, “Turkey has more flavor and more texture than chicken…and while consumers traditionally roast turkey there are many other ways to prepare this majestically delicious bird.” I remember from growing up in the US that we Americans consume turkey in a multitude of guises. In the States, you can get turkey burgers in most diners and turkey cold cuts are a staple inside deli sandwiches and childrens’ lunchboxes, not to mention its regular appearance in casseroles and, of course, at Thanksgiving.

In any case, I was invited to head down to Marco restaurant inside hallowed grounds of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge complex, to have lunch with the big man and sample the turkey dishes he’d come up with for the campaign.

Behind the gray facade, the restaurant’s namesake was ready & waiting

After being given a tour of the new campaign website and speaking to the experts on hand, we were eventually whisked off to a large round table in the center of the quite swish dining room, and Marco emerged from the kitchen just like he does on television: ridiculously large knife and constant wiping of it (check), slightly menacing blank stare (check), black and white checkered shemagh on top of head (check). After staking out the table of journalists and food writers sat in front of him, Marco’s presenting persona (i.e. the one you see in his TV programs) gradually began to recede into the background and the real Marco stepped forward.

Marco cooks

After trotting back into the kitchen to finish preparing the dishes, Marco reappeared baring gifts of an aquidaen nature.

Marco’s Turkeys on Horseback

The first dish he brought out was a plate chock full of what he called turkeys on horseback, a throwback to 70’s canapés, except these were made with turkey breast, of course. I have to say they were very delicious, although the turkey flavor was slightly muted by the salty streaky bacon and sweet prune and mango chutney.

As he took a few questions from around the table, Marco visibly became animated and very passionate, not only about turkey, but also about food and cooking in general. A light had been switched on (which shone through his eyes), and it was suddenly clear for anyone in doubt that we were in the presence of a true master. A simple question about which herbs and spices would go well with turkey (a few of his answers were sage and thyme for more a more traditional spin, or ginger and coriander if you wanted to open the route to Asia) led to discussions of all kinds of food-related topics.

Subjects discussed included how to perfectly poach an egg, and why it sometimes goes all wrong at home (the main points were that you need a very deep pot and should use vinegar); why people have different palates (in his opinion, the palate is formed through childhood flavor experiences, hence this is why he believes that British people from his generation have quite simple tastes); and more technical discussions, such as the perfect temperature to cook turkey steaks (he said it depended on the oven, but cooking it slowly in the mid-60’s [centigrade] with some kind of crust on top would help to keep it moist). Some of the things that stuck in my head were hearing him talk about how he is “more interested in the technical side of gastronomy” (indeed, he seemed to have an almost Blumenthal-like approach to solving problems such as retaining moisture in meat) and that “it’s all about the ingredients, not just making it look pretty.”

Along these lines, the simple recipes he has constructed are designed to show off the turkey to the best effect and to complement and lift it, rather than cover its inherently robust flavor. It was clear that getting back in the kitchen to invent new dishes (even if they all focus on turkey) had re-energized the man and he practically danced back to the kitchen to bring out the next dish.

Soon, Marco brought out a very large turkey steak topped with a thin walnut crust. Besides walnuts, the crust included Gruyere, breadcrumbs a bit of butter. It was amazing how he had managed to preserve the moistness of the turkey (one of the key functions of the topping), and the cheesy and nutty flavors indeed complemented the lovely natural flavor of the turkey.

Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Genuinely excited that the table had liked this first turkey steak dish, Marco dashed back to the kitchen to fetch some more grub. Next up was a reinvention of another classic, and a favorite comfort food of mine, Welsh Rarebit. The catch here was that instead of a base of toasted bread, a large turkey steak was used. As with the last dish, he sliced up the large turkey breast with that mahoosive chef’s knife and used the knife to deliver a small piece of the turkey onto everyone’s plate (no, we weren’t scared one bit). He was patient and the consummate host as he got our feedback (everyone loved it) and discussed the topic of turkey further.

After the rarebit, a similar dish of turkey napolitana (which had a crust of tomato purée, mozzarella, chopped black olives and basil leaves) was served in the same edgy manner, and while good, it wasn’t as tasty as the rarebit was to my own palate.

Marco’s Turkey Steak with Sage & Onion Stuffing

Last up in the turkey breast parade was one topped with sage and onion stuffing, which did remind me of a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal – more familiar but still ever so moist and flavorful.

Marco’s experimental roast turkey joint

After what we thought was the last dish, Marco brought out a magnificent, glistening specimen. If someone wouldn’t have told us what meat it was, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was something else (pork, maybe), but it was indeed a turkey joint, with the bone left in. He had been slow-roasting it and it had the most amazing golden glazing on the outside. He had cleverly stuffed it just under the skin with a simple concoction of sage and onion, and he carved it into individual portions and served it to us himself. This was a real honor, and I couldn’t believe how it tasted…almost like a well-roasted lamb, it was moist and had bags of flavor. My mother does a very nice roasted turkey, but it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to this (sorry Mom). Marco had also prepared his own gravy, which he kept jokingly calling “Bernard Matthews’ World Famous Gravy” as there was a company representative present at the table, which was spot on as well. No, it’s not for sale (yet).

Well, after being saturated with meat that was low in saturated fat, I was completely full. Luckily, I happened to be sitting next to Marco, and we had a short and highly enjoyable conversation about – big surprise – food. After discovering I hailed from the Pacific Northwest, he got very excited and proceeded to tell me about a supperclub he had gone to in Seattle, Washington which he was completely enamoured with, as the farmer who reared the meat they were eating was present at the dinner and introduced the dishes that included his meat himself. In general, he has quite a cynical view of the current state of food in the UK (“…it’s all about celebrity chefs here”), whereas he has found that in the US “…people are generally more passionate about the food itself.”

After wrapping up our little conversation, I headed for the hills (well, the West End) and decided that my next task would be to try and recreate one of his turkey recipes at home later that week. After all, they were intended to be simple and easily replicable by the amateur home cook, so I figured if I could make it taste good, anyone could!

Laissez cooks

The next weekend, I decided I would try the Turkey Welsh Rarebit recipe (as Mrs. LF and I both like Welsh Rarebit on toast) and we headed to the supermarket in search of some turkey breast steaks. I couldn’t find any Bernard Matthews ones (Oliver Thring had kindly reminded me that I should try to use their turkey to make it more ‘authentic’), so I bought the only ones on hand, which happened to be organic and free range, so probably all the better.

The recipe card for Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Back home, I went through the recipe and gave Mrs. LF strict instructions not to interfere, although she did pace about the kitchen to make sure I didn’t do anything totally stupid. I thought I did pretty well overall, except for getting a bit too uptight about ensuring the uncooked crusts were perfectly moulded and covered the turkey breasts evenly and completely (I am still way too anal in the kitchen, and Mrs. LF can’t stand it!). I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, as of course I wanted them to look just like the beautiful picture on the recipe card!

My version of Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Well, it didn’t look quite like the image on the card, but I think they turned out quite nicely (no?). Mrs. LF also taught me how to prepare a good vinaigrette for our accompanying salad (see, I really am an amateur).

I am pleased to say that they tasted d*mn good! While they weren’t quite as moist as Marco’s breasts (ah-hem…), the flavor was just about the same and, most importantly, Mrs. LF was really impressed.

So there you go, a relatively healthy, easy and quick recipe for your weekday dinner!

And thank you for bearing with me on my first paltry poultry post. :)

*Note: many thanks to the team at Clarion for organizing the event*

Jamie’s Italian – The Essex Cowboy Rolls ‘Em On Out

Jamie’s Italian
Unit 17
2 Churchill Place
Canary Wharf
London E14 5RB
Website
Map
Reservations: the restaurant operates a no reservations policy

Antipasti from £2.50-6.50, pasta from £5.95-11.25, mains from £9.95-16.95, sides approximately £3, desserts £3.95-4.95

The Essex Cowboy tours the US of A on his current TV series

The Essex Cowboy tackles the US of A head-on in his current TV series

You certainly can’t fault the sourcing of ingredients, the fun décor, the vibrant atmosphere & the prices, but the food didn’t live up to our expectations. For this price bracket, though, I don’t know how much better an Italian chain restaurant can get.

You certainly can’t fault Jamie's Italian's sourcing of ingredients, the fun décor, the vibrant atmosphere & the prices, but the food didn’t live up to our expectations. For this price bracket, though, I don’t know how much better an Italian chain restaurant in the UK can be.

Jamie, take two

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that I was pretty much blown away by the meal we had in the Dining Room of Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen in East London a few months back. The painstaking sourcing of ingredients and the way they were showcased on the menu was simply fantastic. Since that meal, we have wanted to return to Fifteen to eat at the less formal ground floor trattoria, or alternatively at one of the cheeky chappy’s Italian joints, which have begun sprouting up around the Southeast in the last year or so. So, when the first London branch finally opened up a few weeks ago in Canary Wharf, we thought we’d head down there and check it out.

Steel, Glass, Oliver

Two Sundays ago, we needed to walk. We had the pleasure of a five-hour lunch at a certain plump bird in Bray the previous day (I will eventually post about it, but still want to digest the experience for a bit longer), and just needed to get out and do something. A decision was made to drive to the East end and explore. It was a much overdue trek as there are so many interesting things going on in this part of London, and I don’t have a clue about most of them, besides the virtual insight and tips I receive from the twitterati.

After walking around the City for a few hours, eventually the inevitable happened (drum roll please): we got hungry. We wanted something simple and satisfying. After the experiencing the wonders of intricate little plates of perfection the previous day, and being somewhat frustrated that there wasn’t more of each course (but in a good way), we just wanted a big hunk of British pork, or something along those lines. We just missed our window at St John for this type of fare, we skipped Albion as it seemed a little to snacky, and decided to head to the little island along the Thames, where you need a security check to get in.

I hadn’t been to Canary Wharf for a good few years, and it was much as I remembered it. On a weekend, it is pretty eerie: glass, steel and silence. It is also a bit confusing driving there if you’ve never done it. As you follow the signs with the blue box and the white ‘P’ inside, you seem to go around in circles and never actually find the parking garages. But eventually we did, and then discovered the hidden underground mall which is impressive, with a huge Waitrose and a number of the usual shops. We saw a big pink sign on one of the columns which we thought would lead us to the restaurant, which we had seen from our car, but annoyingly it had no directions on it. It just stated the address again, which is useless if you’re not a resident of Canary Wharf.

Hot on the trail...

Hot on the trail...

Eventually, we found our way back up to street level, and walked over to the restaurant. As you can see, it looks rather imposing from afar, but in reality, it only occupies a small portion of the space within the black steel and glass shell.

Jamie's Italian - Exterior 1 Jamie's Italian - Exterior 2 Jamie's Italian - Exterior 3

A rather imposing facade

Inside, you quickly realize that the theme is wood, not steel and glass. Just check out those bar tables that are made out of mongo tree trunks. We were quickly and warmly greeted by the hostess and seated at a table near the entrance of the restaurant. This was because, despite it being just before 5pm on a Sunday in Canary Wharf, the place was heaving. Lots of couples, lots of groups and lots of families. At least we didn’t have to queue!

Jamie's Italian - Wood Stump Bar Tables Jamie's Italian - Kitchen Towell Napkins

A very wooden theme – the kitchen cloth napkins with “Jamie’s Italian” inscribed on them are a nice touch

P9060236 Jamie's Italian - Pasta Machine Jamie's Italian - Meat & Veg

The place is huge, vibrant, colourful & fun

Big menu, but can we have some more mains please?

The menu is the same at all branches of Jamie’s Italian, and it is huge. I am certain nearly everyone can find something that sounds appetizing to them, and there are in particular a lot of antipasti, pastas (all of which come in small or large portions) and side dishes. The only thing that struck me as sort of odd was that there are not really that many main course options in comparison, and a few of them don’t seem that Italian (i.e. there are two types of steak and one hamburger out of the seven non-salad main courses). In any case, there was a lot of deciding to be done, and we eventually got there after asking our waitress a few questions.

“Truffle tagliatelle: finely shaved wild black truffles folded with butter, parmesan & nutmeg, a real luxury” (small portion, £5.95)

“Truffle tagliatelle: finely shaved wild black truffles folded with butter, parmesan & nutmeg, a real luxury” (small portion, £5.95)

I started with a simple dish of pasta, which was cooked al dente and had a decent flavor to it. The mild summer truffles came through a little, not a lot. I think there was truffle oil within the butter sauce as well as in the tiny little bits of shaved truffle that I could see in the dish. The portion size was perfect for a small pasta course, and while it didn’t blow my socks off, it was a satisfying opening to the meal – and I suppose at £5.95 you can’t complain too much about a decent butter and truffle pasta. 6/10.

“Sausage pappardelle: slow cooked Italian sausage, tomatoes, red wine & parmesan with crunchy herby breadcrumbs” (small portion, £6.45)

“Sausage pappardelle: slow cooked Italian sausage, tomatoes, red wine & parmesan with crunchy herby breadcrumbs” (small portion, £6.45)

Mrs. LF described her sausage pasta dish as “satisfying comfort food.” She said that while it didn’t make her say “ooh, ahh, or wow”, it was a decent dish of pasta. The sauce didn’t have enough of that sweet, rich tomato flavor you expect in a good ragù and was a little too bland. It certainly didn’t hold a candle to the flavor of a similar dish we had at Bocca di Lupo a few weeks ago (the caveat there being that BDL’s pasta was bathing in a pool of oil, while this one wasn’t), but it wasn’t a bad effort overall. 5/10.

“ ‘Spiedini’ Sicilian pork skewer: free-range British pork fillet stuffed with Italian cured meats, breadcrumbs & parmesan – served with lemon, garlic & oregano dressing” (£11.95)

“ ‘Spiedini’ Sicilian pork skewer: free-range British pork fillet stuffed with Italian cured meats, breadcrumbs & parmesan – served with lemon, garlic & oregano dressing” (£11.95)

Somehow I think I missed the word “skewer” on the menu when I ordered this for my main course. I had been imagining a big hunk of pork stuffed with various Italian treats. But that’s my fault, not the restaurant’s or menu’s. The dish was presented nicely on a wooden tray, and it tasted good too. The outside layer had been deep fried in bread crumbs and parmesan and contained a variety of cured meats inside. My two main thoughts were that (a) it was a little too salty overall as some of the cured meats stuffed inside the balls were quite salty themselves, and (b) it wasn’t a particularly satisfying main course as there were only 6 little spheres, and you could eat them in one bite each if you so chose. The side dish, which I guess you were meant to use as a dipping sauce, was a mixed vegetable paste which had a smoky ratatouille taste to it, but unfortunately that’s not really my bag. 5/10.

  “Lamb chop lollipops: grilled Welsh mountain lamb chops, cooked ‘al matone’ under a brick with a special minted sauce, chopped roasted nuts and soft herbs, ‘delicious!’ ” (£13.85)

“Lamb chop lollipops: grilled Welsh mountain lamb chops, cooked ‘al matone’ under a brick with a special minted sauce, chopped roasted nuts and soft herbs, ‘delicious!’ ” (£13.85)

Mrs. LF found the wooden slab to be very impractical for her lamb dish. It was too narrow and the lamb kept falling off the sides. The lamb itself was overcooked, with no pink at all left inside, and also had too much of the black, brittle char from the barbeque on the surface of the meat. The meat didn’t have a particularly striking flavor, and when Mrs. LF tried to chew on a bit of the fat (unseemly for a lady, I know), she said it tasted kind of weird so spit it back out. It came with three sauces on the side, and none of them really complemented the lamb all that well, which they really needed to do in order to lift this dish to be worthy of its £13.85 price tag (there were only three chops, so not a big portion). Unfortunately, they all failed. The weirdest one was the “special minted sauce” which in fact barely tasted at all of mint. When we asked our waitress if it was supposed to be a “mint sauce”, she went to the kitchen and relayed the message that it was actually “an herb sauce with a little bit of mint.” The problem was that you didn’t get that nice refreshing taste of mint that the menu alludes too, and that the sauce itself was too oily and too bland. We were disappointed with the dish as Mrs. LF can make lamb chops at home that taste better than these did by a mile. 4/10.

  “Gennaro’s salad: fresh broad beans, rocket, mint, salted ricotta & pecorino” (£3.25)

“Gennaro’s salad: fresh broad beans, rocket, mint, salted ricotta & pecorino” (£3.25)

The salad, presumably an inspiration from Jamie’s original mentor in Italian food, Gennaro Contaldo, came in a deep bowl and was huge and fresh. The little broad beans were the best part for me, and I wish there had been a few more sprinkled throughout.

“Our special tiramisu: classic Italian coffee flavoured trifle with mascarpone & chocolate” (£4.75)

“Our special tiramisu: classic Italian coffee flavoured trifle with mascarpone & chocolate” (£4.75)

I didn’t hold out much hope when the tiramisu was placed in front of me. I guess, to me, it just didn’t look like tiramisu: a bit too cakey with a chance of being overly dry. But I was pleasantly surprised. It actually tasted quite good, with the coffee flavor coming through clearly and a strong chocolate taste. It wasn’t too dry and there was a dollop of mascarpone on top and also a layer of it within the Italian “trifle.” There was also a nice surprising hint of bittersweet orange throughout the dessert, which I thought complemented it well. Imagine a shot of espresso in Italy with a little sliced peel of orange in it, and I kind of see where they got their inspiration. 6/10.

Gennaro’s Amalfi orange tart: crisp pastry filled with ricotta, orange & candied fruit, served with mascarpone

"Gennaro’s Amalfi orange tart: crisp pastry filled with ricotta, orange & candied fruit, served with mascarpone" (£4.95)

We were also both surprised at how the orange tart looked. We had literally been expecting a “crisp pastry” (i.e. thin and flaky) and that it would be “filled with orange & candied fruit” (i.e. stuffed full of ricotta), but as you can see, it appeared to be a rather dry cake instead, with only a tiny bit of filling. Despite our initial misgivings about the appearance, it tasted good, and was a fairly generous portion. It had the same bit of mascarpone on top and bittersweet orange running through it. The pastry itself wasn’t anything special, though, and in the middle of the tart Mrs. LF discovered a huge solid bubble of pastry that came from either the top or the bottom, which meant that there wasn’t enough of the filling inside. When she thought about it, Mrs. LF realized that she has had this dessert a number of times before in Italy – apparently, it is eaten a lot around Easter time – and said that this version wasn’t particularly good. 4.5/10.

Jamie's Italian - From Above Jamie's Italian - Grafitti in Stairwell Jamie's Italian - Kitchen Window

The dining area and the kitchen are big – so’s the graffiti on the stairwell walls

Jamie's Italian - Male & Female Jamie's Italian - The Venerable

Jamie's Italian - Bathroom Mirrors

Jamie's Italian - The Real Crapper

The toilets are pretty cool, I loved that the bogs themselves are actually “crapper’s” and that the rim said “The Venerable” on it

Il Verdetto

We had high hopes for Jamie’s Italian adventure, and really wanted it to be good given that we loved Fifteen and are generally fans of what Jamie Oliver is trying to do (i.e. get the country to eat better). But maybe our hopes were too high. After all, this is a casual chain of Italian restaurants that he wants to roll out across the UK. And generally (but not in all cases, i.e. the lamb main course) it tastes just fine for a mid-priced chain of Italian restaurants.

I think it’s also important to mention that these restaurants seem to be a great place for families; they were very child friendly from what we could tell from our vantage point. And maybe that’s the point. He is consciously opening these restaurants in mid-sized cities where the family element will be much more important than in places like central London, which will attract tourists and couples more than family bookings. I suppose the Canary Wharf location is clever in that it caters for the still massive amount of workers there, for whom it makes a wonderful pit stop for lunch or a quick meal after work.

But put simply, Jamie’s Italian ain’t Fifteen, and I don’t think I’d hurry back as the options in London are simply too great and Canary Wharf is a big trek from both my home and work.

One final note: if you drive to the restaurant, you will have to pay for parking in the nearby garage – I believe it was £3.50 for <2 hours and £5.00 for <3 hours.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 5/10

Wine list: 6/10 (some good, reasonably priced wines, almost all of which you can have by the glass or a 500ml carafe)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Jamie’s Italian (Canary Wharf) once.*

Jamie's Italian (Canary Wharf) on Urbanspoon

Fifteen Dining Room – The Best Real Italian Experience in a London Restaurant?

Fifteen
15 Westland Place
London N1 7LP
Website
Map
Online Bookings

Dining room tasting menu at £58/person and wine pairing at £40/person

The best re-creation of what is good about Italian cuisine I've had in London

Quite possibly the best re-creation of all that is good about Italian cuisine I've had at a restaurant in London

The Background

I had wanted to go to Fifteen for a long time after it first opened, but then sort of forgot about it as it is not on my side of town and there were so many other restaurants to go to.  Then, a few months ago, I saw Jamie’s Kitchen on replay TV for the first time and got very interested in going again.  So, without further adieu, I booked a table.  I asked for a table in the Dining Room, which is the more formal area that is located downstairs in the basement, and which has a set menu (currently £58/person), where you can choose between 4 options for each of the 4 courses (insalate, primi, secondi and dolci/formaggi).  The less formal Trattoria area on the ground floor has an a la carte menu which is more reasonably priced.  Quite uncharacteristically, I didn’t read any reviews or canvass for any opinions about the place before going (maybe I didn’t want to tempt fate?) – so I really had no expectations whatsoever.

The Opening – Upstairs

Our table was booked for 9.15pm as this was the earliest time I could get, even more than a month in advance.  Despite a very warm day, it was pissing down a little bit and quite overcast, so the exterior impression of the place was not so amazing and the little street, which is just off City Road, seemed to be rather deserted.  But, not to worry, all of that changed once we stepped through the front doors.

For those of you who haven’t been there, just after you enter the building, you are confronted with a wonderful cornucopia of smells emanating from the open kitchen that is straight in front of you.  There is a nice little bar to your right, and the tables for the Trattoria on your left – with a bar area at the very back on your left.  The initial impression was good, there was a nice general buzz about the place; it had a very convivial atmosphere.

We were greeted promptly and offered a drink at the bar as we were about 15 minutes early.  It was quite empty at the bar although the Trattoria was pretty full, and after a few minutes a number of diners joined us in the bar and it became much busier.  We chose 2 drinks from the cocktail menu, which has various homages to Italy and a regularly changing range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks (they say their bar staff meets once a week to decide on the cocktail menu for that week…).  My wife’s non-alcoholic concoction was very fresh and more-ish – she drank it in about 1 minute – and my drink, which was served in a chilled martini glass and featured fresh strawberries and limoncello, was really tasty too.  An excellent start, then.  After just about finishing our drinks, we were led down the stairs to our table…

The Main Event – Downstairs

The Dining room has its own little reception area (with a desk made out of a beautiful wood carving) and also has its own staff.  We were greeted and seated by a very warm and friendly Turkish waiter.  It turned out that we had been given a great table for 2 (table #11, fyi) which was all the way in the back and very private.  It was like our own little half-open cocoon, with the walls of white leather squares making it feel like sort of like we were inside a fancy handbag…but in a good way.  We were afforded a view of the whole (and full) dining room from there, and it is a nice space – well laid out and decent acoustics that make it vibrant but not overly loud.

After pondering the very appetizing-sounding menu, we eventually came to decisions on our respective dishes.  We then asked for some help from the sommelier in trying to find out what wines we could try to complement the meal.  He was a very nice and personable Australian guy, and was extremely helpful throughout the course of the evening in explaining the wines in detail and also having a good deal of knowledge about the food we were eating (which is not always the case).  I ended up going for the wine pairing (£40/person), which included a glass of champagne, 3 125ml glasses of wine for each course, and then a 100ml glass for dessert/cheese.  My wife opted for 2 glasses spread over the 4 courses.  Wohoo, so off we went.

After ordering, the sommelier came back and poured my champagne (Gosset Brut Excellence, NV – Ay, France), which was nice – I am not a big champagne drinker but I thought this one was delicate and pleasant.  Mr. Turkey came back quite soon with Fifteen’s version of an amuse bouche – a selection of salamis, olives, focaccia and dipping olive oil.  The salamis were truly exquisite – I honestly cannot remember having better, whether in London or in Italy.  They were quite soft in texture (which is not usually my preference), but the flavor…man, the flavor…was so bold and beautiful.  There were apparently 4 different types, although we weren’t informed about this until afterwards (?!) – one with porcini, one with truffles, one with wild boar, and another which escapes me.  Anyway, they were divine, and that is that.  The olives were also very good (reminded me of those served in Duke’s Bar, which slightly trumped these), and the olive oil used for bread dipping was really nice too – great depth of olive flavor with a good piquancy.  So, would this be a precursor of things to come?…

For my insalate, I had ordered the ‘Bruschetta of freshly picked dressed crab with zucchini, salsa rossa piccante and fennel tops’.  I have to say that this was one of the best things I’ve eaten in recent memory.  The crab was extremely fresh and perfectly seasoned, and the salsa rossa was delicious and had a warm, mouth-coating heat.  The bread was nice and crunchy and it worked beautifully together.  My wife had the ‘Incredible mozzarella di bufala Compagna with Italian flat peaches, mint, heather-honey roasted almonds and funky leaves’.  It also tasted as ‘incredible’ as it sounded, with all the flavors being brilliant individually and also working in concert (the bufala was particularly excellent), and it became very clear to us at this point that the produce and quality of raw ingredients at this restaurant was truly excellent and at the forefront of Fifteen’s ethos.

So, would the primi (pasta) course disappoint after such a great initial course?  I am pleased to say the answer was a resounding ‘no’!  My choice was the ‘Risotto bianco (vialone nano) with girolles, flat leaf parsley, chilli, garlic and truffle pecorino’.  The risotto was cooked perfectly – with the rice grains having the right firmness and just a tiny bit of gooey-ness – and the other elements of the dishes worked really well together.  The mushrooms lent an excellent flavor and the cheese and garlic flavor was well infused throughout each bite, with a little hint of truffle always in the background.  I am usually disappointed by risotto dishes as it is often too much of the same, but this one really hit the spot; the portion was also a perfect (not too big, not too small).  My wife had ‘The lightest potato gnocchettini with a rare-breed Cumbrian pork and beef ragu, parmesan and Fontodi olive oil’.  It was also a very successful dish, and the ragout was honestly one of the best I have had – perfect in every way.  The only complaint I had from my small taste of this dish was that the gnocchettini were a bit too soft for me and weren’t chewy enough – they sort of dissolved in your mouth – but maybe this is what they’re supposed to do.  It was also a nice sized portion that left enough room for the main course…which, by this time, we were very eagerly anticipating.

For the secondi, I had opted for the ‘Slow-braised shoulder of Pete Gott’s rare breed pork (cooked in apricot, white wine and rosemary) with borlotti beans, spinach and pan juices’.  For me, this was the standout dish of the meal – and that is saying something, given how glowing my commentary has been so far!  I don’t know who this Pete Gott is (I am going to learn), but his pork was the best I’ve tasted in the UK so far.  And it was slow-cooked beautifully, with the white wine giving it a good kick of acidity and the apricot flavor providing some sweet fruit with tang of bitterness.  It was tender, the beans were a perfect partner, and I loved every bite of it.  With the pork, the wine pairing was the 2006 Vesevo ‘Beneventano’ Aglianico (Campania, Italy), and it was by far the best wine we had during the meal.  It was a great expression of the Aglianico grape (one of my favorite Italian varietals), and was rich, smooth and fruity with some tannin and a little bit of acidity to keep it balanced.  It was an excellent choice to go with the pork.  (I haven’t mentioned the other wines because while they were all very nice, none stood out in my memory, so not worth further lengthening this wordy review :) ).  My partner in crime had selected the ‘Char-grilled English asparagus with poached organic hen’s egg, shaved parmesan and dried porcini <macaroni cheese>’.  While somewhat less exciting than the pork, it was a very worthy main course: the asparagus was fresh, the hen’s egg was a nice flavor and runny, and the porcini mushrooms were tasty.  Suffice to say, we were very, very happy and content diners at this stage.  And very much looking forward to the desserts!

Right, so let me tell you about the dolci.  I had been in the mood for tiramisu for a few days before eating at Fifteen, so when I saw ‘Tiramisu semifreddo – our version of the classic <pick me up>’, I didn’t even look at the rest of the options (well, I did, but that statement was just for effect).  It was out of this world.  The white part of the tiramisu had been slightly frozen as advertised, and had an unbelievable burnt caramel sauce on top of it, and a deep, rich chocolate ice cream on its side.  Put them all together and we are talking dessert heaven – I can still taste that burnt caramel-ey taste now.  The accompanying dessert wine, a 2005 Anselmi I Capiteli (Veneto, Italy), was very pleasant, sort of like an Italian version of Sauternes, and to my surprise went pretty well with the tiramisu.  Mrs. Laissez Fare had the ‘Basil panna cotta with first of the season strawberries (marinated in limoncello and balsamic) and shortbread’, which was very fresh and satisfying, though nowhere near as memorable as the tiramisu.

The Verdict

If you’ve actually gotten through all of this review, it goes without saying that I pretty much fell in love with Fifteen (at least the Dining Room).  We kept on getting wowed by each course, which is quite hard to pull off over 4 courses plus a teaser to start with.  The quality of the produce, meats and cheeses was second to none, and it is obvious that the selection of these ingredients is done in a comprehensive and painstaking manner.  All of the food that we had was also very well seasoned.  For me, Fifteen’s Dining Room came the closer to re-creating all that is good about eating good Italian food in Italy than any other restaurant I’ve been to in London…and there are quite a few very good Italian restaurants in London.  The only other thing that comes close in that sense is River Cafe (I have been there twice and it is also excellent), and I have also always been a fan of Ristorante Semplice.  People will always debate (and I’m sure others have other favorites), though after my first visit to Fifteen, I think it stands out.  The other thing which you completely forget about in the midst of all this good food (well, at least I did) is that everything has been prepared by chefs that are in various stages of training and development, which is extremely impressive.  If you don’t know about the Fifteen Foundation, you can read more about it here.  The restaurants – there are now Fifteens in Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne – are also registered charities that “exist to inspire disadvantaged young people – homeless, unemployed, overcoming drug or alcohol problems – to believe that they can create for themselves great careers in the restaurant industry.”

The service was excellent throughout – friendly, efficient and genuine.  The courses were also timed well, coming out in regular intervals with a little break in-between.  In particular, the sommelier did a fantastic job of spending time with us, answering our questions and explaining the various facets of the wines.  He was very personable and acted relaxed and natural throughout, which is impressive as it was very apparent that he was in constant demand from the rest of the tables, and when he did leave us each time he kind of sprinted to the next table or to fetch some wine.

I have to hand it to Jamie Oliver and everyone at Fifteen.  It was one of those rare occasions where everything went perfectly.  We left so happy and satisfied.  I am now eager to return to the Dining Room, try the Trattoria, and get to one of the Jamie’s Italian outfits that are starting to sprout up around the South of England.  Unfortunately, my expectations are now pretty high.

Rating

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 10/10

Wine: 7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only been to Fifteen Dining Rooms once.*

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