Le Manoir Aux Cat-Cat Saisons
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.
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.
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 :)).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
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.*