Oz Clarke on Summer Food & Wine Pairings

Even though here in the U.S., people consider today the last day of summer, it is still technically summer until September 21!

In the above video, Oz Clarke — one of the world’s leading wine experts — gives some brief thoughts about food and wine pairings that he enjoys during the warmer months … from what do drink with Parma Ham and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and more.

This version of the video was made for readers of Laissez Fare, and was made possible by the Discover the Origin Campaign (@discoverorigin). They are an EU and professional body that works to raise awareness of specific PDO products’ origins and production processes — celebrating the qualities of excellence, tradition, natural resources and fair production of these products.

Hope you enjoy the short video! (Oh, and the “hot weather” Oz refers to is in the UK, where people aren’t accustomed to the type of heat they’ve experienced this summer).

Stay tuned, as I will try to post some highlights from a recent trip to France in the coming weeks.

All the best,

LF

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An Interview with Olivier Magny, Wine’s Leading ‘Terroirist’

Best-selling author Olivier Magny's newly released "Into Wine" has something for everyone who's "into wine"

Best-selling author Olivier Magny’s newly released “Into Wine” has something for everyone who’s “into wine”

Paris native Olivier Magny is a true entrepreneur. And, as a sommelier, wine educator and TV host with his own Parisian wine bar, he’s got quite an impressive wine résumé. But somehow I don’t think that’s what he really wants you to focus on. I believe his true aim is to pass on his boundless enthusiasm for the richly diverse world of wine to anyone who wants to listen, and to make sure they enjoy themselves along the way.

Hence his newly released book, entitled Into Wine. It serves as a wonderful gateway into the often confusing and complex world of wine. And I recommend anyone with even a passing interest in wine to read it, and take its contents seriously. For although the book comes across as simple, there’s quite a bit of thought hiding behind its playful diction. Even so-called ‘wine experts’ are sure to find some useful information within its pages (take note particularly of the detailed appendices).

Into Wine is written in a colloquial style and broken into tasting-size pours — with interesting, and often provocative, statistical and anecdotal call-outs sprinkled throughout. The book brims with energy, enthusiasm, an unmistakable joie de vivre and a somewhat boyish sense of humor. You could say it pulsates with life. And that’s just what Olivier believes that soil should do … because this is what leads to complex, unique, interesting wines that reflect their local cultures.

Yes, you see, Olivier is a self-proclaimed Terroirist. Now terroir is one of those French words that don’t translate well into other languages. But if you had to approximate it concisely, you could say it means “a sense of place.” And many people believe that certain methods of farming and winemaking can lead to wines that actually express the “place” they come from in your glass.

The starting point for someone looking to craft such a wine (well, actually, any wine at all) is the vineyard. Today, there are strongly held beliefs and feelings on both sides of the fence about organic and biodynamic farming, and the so-called ‘natural’ wines that such methods often help to produce. No matter what side you tend to gravitate towards — and especially if you’ve never thought or heard about any of these things in the first place — the best policy is to let everyone have his or her own say. And that’s exactly why I asked Oliver to do via the below questions.

So I invite you to listen. And if you have comments, please use the comment function below on this post or contact Olivier via his own website.

Chin-Chin!

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Q: Why did you decide to write Into Wine and who is your intended reader?

Anyone with an appetite for wine and an open mind should enjoy Into Wine. The idea behind it is not only to share knowledge and insights, but also to take a step back and look at the bigger picture of what wine teaches us, far beyond wine.

Q: Your book comes across as refreshingly direct and down-to-earth, and is injected with enthusiasm and humor. Indeed, this seems to be the point: to write a wine book that doesn’t talk down to the reader or use unnecessarily flowery terminology. How do you strike the delicate balance between (a) retaining this attitude at all times, while (b) conveying what is often necessarily a lot of complex information that people will need to learn about the subject(s) at hand?

Thank you very much. I’ve perfected this art for ten years at O Château. Every day, I have people in front of me that come from all walks of the wine life. Your wine pro will be sitting next to a complete novice, and my job is to make sure both have a great time and learn a lot. My daily challenge for ten years has been to strike that delicate balance between informative and fun, for everyone. Keeping things factual and genuinely helpful is as much of a requirement for me as keeping them light-hearted! The fact that both seasoned sippers and complete rookies have been raving about Into Wine tells me that I didn’t mess up completely!

Olivier … with his hands full

Olivier … with his hands full

Q: You place huge emphasis on the notion of terroir, and the importance of becoming a ‘Terroirist’ — not just with respect to wine, but also in terms of one’s whole approach towards living. How would define the concept of terroir in its simplest form. And, if you were to distill its importance for you into five points, what would they be?

To me, terroir is this: a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘here’ should be different from a wine, an apple, a cheese or a person from ‘there’. That is what makes life not only delicious but also interesting. Terroir is absolutely essential and if I were to give you five reasons, I’d say:

  • Our world destroys differences at an incredible pace: the logic of terroir is first and foremost a logic of cultural resistance that fosters genuine diversity.
  • Our world destroys our soil at an incredible pace: we need to re-think the way we farm and terroir is the most reasonable angle to tackle this fundamental issue.
  • We are a very unhealthy crowd: exponential expansion of certain diseases and afflictions is closely linked to the way we eat and drink. Terroir helps fix that problem.
  • Terroir gives us deliciousness — which is rather significant in my book!
  • Terroir is about caring: for the soil, for the food, for the wine, for the ones we love. I think this whole world would be better off with a bit more TLC. 

Q: A significant part of the book is spent discussing “living” soil versus “dead” soil. How does this manifest in a wine (or in food that’s grown on the soil)?

Wine or food made from dead soil is somewhat similar to what zombies are to humans: they’re there, but good lord are they dirty and soul-less!

Q: Speaking of soil, there has been a lot of debate in wine circles recently regarding whether you can actually taste the minerals present in the soil that surrounds the vines in the final, bottled wine. What is your take, and how does this (or doesn’t this) relate to terroir?

On these subject matters, I try to stay clear from all the ‘blah-blah’ and look only for the hard science. And well, current science is not conclusive on this point. What I believe in (and what science does corroborate) is that the complexity of a wine vastly mirrors the life of the soil. Does it follow that a chalky soil gives us a chalky tasting wine? Honestly, I don’t really care! What I want is for that chalky soil to be alive and well, and for the wine made from it to be delicious!

Q: Let’s forget bout “minerality” for a moment. Can you describe why you see organic and biodynamic farming — not just for wine, but also for all produce — as such an important thing for the world? And can this really, as you suggest, help solve our environmental and cultural woes as well?

Well, what’s for sure, and I explain why in the book, is that the status quo would lead to more famines, devastations, hurricanes and wars. So we need a new model. And I believe the best model is simply one based on common sense and empiricism. Many pioneers have been showing the way, proving to us that another model was not only possible, but also eminently viable — from an environmental, financial and cultural standpoint. The more people realize this, the closer we’ll get to getting our governments to stop rooting for toxic and destructive corporations, and to start rooting for us instead.

Q: Even if the mass market of global consumers eventually decided that this was the way to go, there is the troubling issue of the economics of it all. At the moment, even middle-class people might have a difficult affording organically or biodynamically grown foods and wines (unless you think this is just an issue of priorities?). So how can this be a realistic goal for the population at large, and can this type of farming ever become less expensive than the techniques employed by ‘Big Ag’ today (i.e. GMOs and so-called ‘industrial’ farming)?

When you go all the way to the ownership structure, you realize that ‘Big Ag’ is owned by the same crooks that own ‘Big Pharma’, ‘Big Banks’ and ‘Big’ whatever. We say corporations, but at the end of the day, the singular should almost apply. So what you’re looking at is a tremendously profitable business model: feeding people to make them sick while keeping them ignorant and making money every step of the way. But it’s also, and more importantly, a sickening project, if you take the time to think about it. The fact that any menu at any fast food restaurant is cheaper than two pounds of regular (i.e. organic) tomatoes is not chance; it is because one side of the system is subsidized while the other is penalized. So ‘the market’ gives us a price, and we’ve been conditioned to accept it as the reflection of a form of truth, or at least of an acceptable order of things. But then again, if we confront that with a hint of common sense, we quickly realize that ‘the market’ is full of crap. Literally. 

I explain in the book that so-called ‘conventional’ farming is not cheap at all and that it does not even have high yields. It simply means that each farmer will produce a lot. The fact that this one farmer is crippled with debt (often leading him to suicide), the fact that he produces toxic food (leading to exponential cancer rates in the general population), or the fact that he kills his soil (thus making future generations even more dependent on ‘Big Ag’) never seems to trouble anyone.

Resistance is of course in order, and education is Step 1. Step 2 is changing what and where we buy. And if enough of us do this, then we’ll have something good going on, for the powers that be will see something that they care about: a market! And when the market is big enough: things will change for everyone.

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy's leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

The vineyards of Paolo Bea in Umbria, one of Italy’s leading biodynamic estates (taken from a visit there in 2011)

Q: There has been a lot of talk about the decline of French cuisine (with recent books such as Au Revoir to All That, etc.). You add to this general sentiment, and touch on the fact that France’s wine culture is headed seriously in the wrong direction (and fast). Why is this, and how do you think it can be reversed?

France is in the eye of the tiger of the globalist project. Cultural destruction in France over the past 40 years has been absolutely mind-boggling. The loss of the wine culture is just one tiny aspect of this cultural tsunami. But I’m hopeful: some young French people are starting to get interested in wine again — though not because they love the French culture; rather instead to imitate New Yorkers! Plus French wines are going through such a phase of Renaissance right now that the French won’t be able to ignore it too long even if they tried.

Q: As a Frenchman, and self-proclaimed lover of French wine, do you think the iconic wines of Bordeaux (i.e. the Grands Cru Classeés) will eventually become more terroir-driven and/or farmed organically or even biodynamically? Is this important at all?

The results of biodynamic farming are obvious and the word is spreading fast throughout the world. When they refer to Bordeaux, most people actually think of the 61 Grands Crus Classés. There are thousands of wineries in Bordeaux that do not have the luxury of having the wealthiest people on earth buy their wine no matter what. In Bordeaux, change will come from below. And it will slowly but surely force the iconic châteaux to come to it. When you see the tremendous progress of Château Pontet-Canet since they adopted biodynamic farming, you can only imagine how amazing Latour would taste if they went down that road!

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

The influential California winery Ridge Vineyards has started to put detailed labels on its wines — is this a good thing?

Q: What is your stance on how wine is labeled? Some brave pioneers like Ridge Vineyards, for instance, are beginning to label everything that goes into their wine. Is this the way forward?

I have a general uneasiness with our current reverence for transparency. If everybody does their job properly (the winery, and also the wine store), such extremes are not needed. Decency and professionalism go a long way!

Q: A lot of newcomers to wine might not know how loose the rules are in US wine regions. For instance, the fact that 15% (or more) of the wine may not be the variety, vintage or region stated on the label. French AOC rules (and similar systems in other European countries) tend to be stricter. But there has also been criticism and disenchantment over the AOC system as of late. Are you a supporter of the AOC system and what do you see as its key advantages and/or failings? 

I think the AOC system is terrific. It fosters expression of local differences and deliciousness, while doing something we rarely do these days: recognizing the importance of our local heritage. Now clearly, out of mere coherence, the agency that regulates it needs to ban usage of many terroir-killing pesticides, and I believe it will down the road. But overall, wine producers and wine drinkers alike all much better off with the AOC system than without it.

Q: For people that are just after a reasonably wine that tastes delicious, and don’t want to engage intellectually in the process of learning more about wine, what do you recommend? Do you believe that progressively drinking better wine over time inevitably leads to increased curiosity in wine drinkers, and does this really matter in the end?

I’d say stop buying wines from a supermarket and start buying from a wine store instead. Then let them guide you! It’s that simple … and then, well, some people will end up becoming more well-off or more interested and will go for better wines, and some won’t. And you know what? Both are just fine!

Q: Are some wines simply better than others, or is beauty (and deliciousness) in the mouth of the beholder?

Both — fully.

Q: Where can people find the best values in terroir-driven French wines? How about outside of France?

In France I’d say the Loire Valley, Alsace and the Languedoc. Outside of France: New Zealand, Italy and Portugal would be my destinations of choice. But we live in a formidable period where the culture of terroir is starting to spread everywhere. It’s a very exciting time to be a wine lover!

Q: You talk about how important it is for people to get out and visit actual wineries and winemakers. If someone from the US has never been on wine-centric vacation, what is the first region they should the visit — one at home and one abroad?

In the US, well, I’d recommend exploring the wine regions of Oregon or Washington state. It is easier to talk to the people in charge than in California, which makes learning more fun and easier. The general vibe is a bit more rural and a bit less commercial. Abroad, well, I think Alsace is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets (especially if you like whites).

Q: I’ve personally never experienced it, but many people say that certain wines give them headaches. Can you discuss the relationship between such headaches and SO2 (also the differences between volcanic S02 and SO2 that is a by-product of petroleum)? Is this what is causing these headaches?

The truth is, the hard scientific knowledge regarding wine and headaches is lacking. Excess is a common cause! Now, sulfites are a common scapegoat. But you look you at it in detail, you learn that the problem doesn’t lie in sulfites, but on the one part on their origin (that should ideally be volcanic) and in their dosage. Both for the wine and for the consumer, the problem is an excess of sulfites, not sulfites per se. As a general rule, do not settle for wines that give you a headache, as headaches from wine usually stem from sloppy grape growing or winemaking (or both). I have put together a list of wineries I recommend in the appendix of the book. Readers should find that to be a very helpful resource.

Q: What is the one thing you want people to take away from Into Wine?

That resistance has never been so necessary, and so delicious!

Q: You tell us quite about yourself in the book — but what is something that we may not know?

I am madly in love with my wife! 🙂

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If you want to get the book, there is a great deal if you purchase Into Wine through this link.

Please note: I have no personal relationship with Mr. Magny, and in fact have never met him or been to his wine bar.

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!

Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

Quite unintentionally iconoclastic in its timing, I am publishing a list of some of the best things I ingested during 2010, now that it’s already 2011. I know, I know…forever behind the times. (The ‘unintentionally’ part – if you happen to care – is because I was stuck in Florida due to the storms in the Northeast of the US and didn’t have access to my laptop with all of my photos and notes).

I have decided against posting favorite meals in favor of the most enjoyable dishes of food and glasses (or bottles) of wine, which gives the added benefit of highlighting some excellent establishments and vintners about which, for some reason or other – call it laziness or busyness – I have yet to post a fuller review.

I have made no distinction between the type of place in which the food was served and have included a few oddballs for the fun of it. I thought maybe it might be easier to digest (pardon the pun) by dividing the list into different parts of the day. I didn’t necessarily have all of the dishes at the specified time of the day (though I mostly did), but assigned them to the mealtime that people would be most likely to consume them.

But without further adieu, Maestro, drum-roll please…

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

Well, to come clean, I didn’t actually order this, it was Mrs. LF’s dish. But she swore at the time that “this is the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had” – no small praise indeed. I tasted it and had to concur – it was pretty darn good, as many things are at The Heathman. Not particularly exciting, but very, very good. I think even Monica, Michel Roux’s sous-chef would have been happy with the perfect hollandaise sauce. 🙂

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

Exceedingly light and perfectly crispy, these were the surprise hit of our recent pilgrimage to one of the bastions of my childhood memories. Their famous apple pancake (which is about the size of a small horse) was still largely as I remember it, but I think my taste buds have moved on a bit since I was 10 years old – it’s pictured below so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

Childhood Memories (But No Award): Apple Pancake at The Original Pancake House

It is delicious, but just a little too sweet for me nowadays. It is still a unique and memorable dish, though.

Best Non-traditional Brunch Dish:
wd~50, NYC

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese at wd~50

Out of all of the immensely whimsical and delicious dishes on wd~50’s tasting menu when I visited with Brother LF, this was quite possibly my favorite, in no small part due to the presentation. I mean, it does look like an ‘everything’ bagel, right?…but it’s ice cream, not bread! It tasted like one of the quintessential New York breakfasts of nova, cream cheese and bagel, but in a very grown up and refined way. It was a painstakingly and lovingly created reinterpretation of a piece of Americana – in a word: wonderful. I savored each dainty bite that I took. If I would have had Heston’s Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream from The Fat Duck in 2010, this may have beat out wd~50.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

My favorite place for my daily coffee (when I am near one, that is). I also like Joe the Art of Coffee too, and frequent the one in Grand Central Terminal when I commute into NYC…though the West Village one is much more cozy and you can sit down.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

Father LF swore by it, and I swore it couldn’t be good, but in the end elderly wisdom one out. The foam was perfect and the espresso excellent.

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

Sorry, no photo for this one, but Mrs. LF swore it was the best mocha she ever had, and from my wee taste, I thought the balance between sweet and bitter was pretty amazing. I love this London coffee-house too – definitely one of my favorites, and the lunch fare is good too.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

I’ve tasted a lot of brownies in my time, but this blows them all out of the water. It is at once indulgent and addictive, and it became an expensive yet highly worthwhile habit of mine (at Mrs. LF’s begging, of course) to buy copious amounts of these rich brownies whenever we (she) had a hankering for them in the few months after we discovered them and before we were leaving London behind  us. If you are in London, or if you visit, try one at Paul’s charming shop in Camden Passage in Islington. If you like brownies, there is a very comprehensive review of some of the better ones on offer in the London area on @mathildecusine‘s blog here.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

I had read about these oddball cream puff shops somewhere or other and before realizing that they had a location in London (which closed a few months ago), I found one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They do what it says on the tin, so to speak – effortlessly light puff pastry gives way to a lovely cream filling – they are also very addictive, so be careful.

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

This cubano sandwich consisted of pork belly, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Let me just say this: it was not only my best sandwich of 2010, it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Mrs. LF concurred. Now, maybe I don’t know all that much about sandwiches, but I know what I know. If you ever go to Portland, go to Bunk and try this if it’s on the menu (which changes daily).

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Best Burger (Two-Way Tie):
Shake Shack, NYC
Café of Love, Mt. Kisco, New York

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

Now I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, but I don’t eat them all that often…or at least I didn’t until I moved back to the New York area. In any case, I tend to like the more fast-food style burgers, and I prefer my patties smashed, thank you very much. Out of the ones I had this year, my favorite had to be Shake Shack, despite how unoriginal this may be and how many moans I may get from the New York and/or East Coast burgerati. But hey, it was just really good. In fact, I couldn’t fault it in any way. Oh, and by the way, my malted peanut butter shake was off the hook too, using the parlance of our times.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Grass-fed Beef Burger with Brie, Apple Butter & Smoked Bacon at Café of Love

Having said all that, every now and again, I get the hankering for one of the constantly-evolving offerings within the ‘gourmet’ burger category at more hoity-toity restaurants. In the not-so hoity-toity but horrendously named restaurant called Café of Love near where I live in Mt. Kisco, New York, they had a burger that I just had to try based on the description. Well, it tasted even better than it sounded on this occasion. The beef itself was excellent and had been perfectly charred on the outside and was nice and pink in the middle. The combination of creamy cheese, apple butter and smoked bacon was genius and the brioche bun was the perfect vessel for this mini heart-attack sandwich. It came with its own flowerpot on the side, which contained really good thin-cut frites that were perfectly salted. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but this was probably the best burger I had in 2010. Now, maybe they can work on their name?!

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

In this category, I would like to make an honorable mention for Five Guys. I had two burgers of theirs before the end of the year and thought they were excellent. Although you can’t specify how you would like it cooked, it comes medium, which seems to work for their burgers. They are very, very good burgers from what I could tell from the two Manhattan outposts I visited. And their fries actually taste like potatoes – no, I mean that. It took me a second to get used to them, because they were clearly from very fresh Midwestern potatoes and prepared with fresh oil: delicious. Just be careful, all you can get there are burgers, hot dogs and fries. Seriously.

This year I hope to try the Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, The Breslin‘s lamb burger, and also visit Corner Bistro…all in NYC.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

Okay, so I didn’t eat too many hot dogs, but I was resolutely shocked when these turned out to be so good. A New York institution, and in my humble opinion deservedly so, these are exceptionally good hot dogs…

Recession Special is Still On!

…especially with the ‘Recession Special’ that’s currently on – you can save $1! 🙂

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

After having my first-ever cornmeal-crusted pizza from Otto in London (see review here), I was eager to try the pizzas at their alleged source of inspiration in Portland, Oregon – Oregon being my home state. We actually ordered the pizza to pick-up, although there is a nice little dining room at the restaurant too. We had two varieties, but my favorite by miles was the ‘Sausage Classico’, which was made up of mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage and tomato sauce. These are actually more like pies than pizzas, but the crust is really unique given the cornmeal content. It is light, golden and crispy, and makes for the perfect base to the hearty toppings. I am now getting a taste for this stuff – when will NYC get a similar joint?

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

When Russell Norman opened up Polpo in London’s Soho a while back, I was a fan from my first visit. The restaurant’s first offspring, though not originally planned to be by its parent, is the tiny and charming box of a dining room called Polpetto…or as I affectionately call it, Mini-P. Anyway, it was the venue for my last fun lunch in London – and my dining companion @BigSpud wrote about it (sort of) here. We mostly had cicchetti and my favorite of the bunch was this stunning meatball, in all its unadorned glory. Deep, rich duck and punchy porcinis mushroom with a robust sauce made this stand out as much in my mind as it did against its little stark white plate.

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille at Gauthier Soho

Okay, so it’s a French restaurant, but it’s risotto, so hey.

As I said in my preview of Alexis Gauthier’s new restaurant: “Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception as his new Soho townhouse. The petite mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.”

Honorable mention must go to an excellent seafood risotto I had at Fifteen Trattoria. You can read more about that here and there is a photo below.

Honorable Mention: Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare’ with Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine at Fifteen Trattoria

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

This dish wasn’t mine, but I got a few bites anyway. Besides its rather arresting beauty on the plate, it also tasted d*mn good. The richness of the lamb was cut through by the tangy goats cheese and the toasted pistachios added not only a note of sweetness and a pinch of saltiness, but also a chewy texture which rounded out the dish. The watercress provided a fresh and peppery contrast. It was original – to my mind – and superb.

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

Despite some odd sightings of fresh produce by @DouglasBlyde (see here), Terroirs is a haunt of mine, simply because they have consistently delivered me good and unfussy food that is well executed, plus they have a fantastic array of natural wines, many of which have proven to be very good. Anyway, on my last London meal of 2010 with my good Welsh friend, we ordered the steak tartare. The waiter said to order it spicy, so we complied. Thank god we did. It was one of the best versions of this bistrot classic I’ve had. We were both mesmerized. If it’s on the menu, order it.

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

If you live in London and haven’t been to the Hidden Tea Room, do yourself a favor and book it. Aside from having the best and freshest baked goods you are likely to get at an afternoon tea in London, it is also a lovely underground restaurant experience. There is a rectangular table with jovial strangers who obviously share at least one interest with you (food…or tea, I guess); or if you are particularly delicate in nature, you can go with your friends. In any case, Lady Gray’s scones and cupcakes are excellent and Mrs. LF and I popped our underground restaurant cherry here – so it will always hold a fond memory for us. Oh yeah, and there is an excellent assortment of fresh, diverse and exotic teas.

Other excellent afternoon teas we had in 2010 were had at The Wolseley (somewhat surprisingly), Browns Hotel and Bob Bob Ricard.

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

The kick-off to my first meal at George Mendes’ Aldea was as beautiful as it was flavorful. I savoured that rich bisque for as long as I could and soaked up even more of the sea with my oyster. It was an extraordinary beginning to a very good meal. You can see and read more photos of our meal here. I was also happy to see that the team picked up its first Michelin star this year.

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

Pretty much everything we had at The Sportsman was excellent, but this was the bite that stood out in my memory as the best of 2010. Full stop.

As I said in my review earlier in the year: “This was basically spring arriving on a plate. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible.” It received a very rare 10 out of 10, and deservedly so.

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

After this enjoyable meal with the London Food Detective, I remarked: “I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful.”

Most Creative Use of a Bean in Supporting Role:
Viajante, London

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

This was one of the more interesting presentations of a plate (or in fact, slate) of food this year. In my review of the meal, I wrote:

“A roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs. It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen.”

Best Dish Incorporating Goose Eggs & Soldiers (of Toast):
Launceston Place, London

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

Firstly, apologies for the especially poor photo, but this was taken with my old, archaic and generally not so useful camera. Right at the beginning of 2010, this was nonetheless one of the best dishes I had for sure. My thoughts at the time, which haven’t changed, were: “It was cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque).” This was a 10 out of 10 all the way.

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes at Matbaren

I loved my meal at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren and this was the stand-out dish for me of the evening.

As I wrote in my post about the meal: “…for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste!”

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coullis at Morgan M.

You may recall me saying something along the lines of…“This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no? Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot. The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate.”

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

Another memorable London meal took place at Sushi of Shiori, a sushi restaurant that accumulated a scale of press disproportionate to its own modest size (it seats about 12 at most). I dined with @LondonEater (see his reviews here and here), and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company – my mini-review and photos are here. Aside from having the pre-ordered omakase, we ordered an extra course of truffled scallops. I remember exclaiming that this was an actual explosion of flavor in the mouth (so many times, people just use that term half-heartedly). I don’t know what the chef does to his secret paste, but the tiny amount dotting surface of the raw scallops really does explode in your mouth and somehow complements the sweetness of the scallops perfectly. I loved this, and it is quite affordable at about £2 a pop.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

Cold Fried Chicken, Buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar at wd~50

Okay, so nearly everything I had on the wd~50 tasting menu was pleasurably challenging for my senses – both visually and in terms of taste, texture and temperature – but this dish stood out in particular. This dish brought back so many memories of good fried chicken. It was served slightly cool and was absolutely delicious. My favorite part of it was the heat – those little dollops of orange sauce packed some serious power, and this enlivened the whole dish. Playing off against this was the creaminess of the buttermilk-ricotta cloud, which helped manage the spiciness. But the touch of genius here was the caviar, which added an extra element of saltiness on top of the chicken, cream and Tabasco. It was superb.

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

I don’t think anyone would be able to question Chef Humm’s ability to cook a whole bird. The even browning of the skin, its crispiness and the juiciness of the duck were outstanding. The lavender glaze gave it an intriguing and subtle flavor, with peaches and other hidden joys dancing around on my palate. While not quite as exceptional as the Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus I had at l’Arpège last year – which is to date the best duck dish I’ve ever tasted – this was still pretty fantastic. It was an interesting and not unwelcomed contrast to some of the more modern elements during my first meal at the excellent Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

But of course there is no photo due to the restaurant’s no-snapping policy – sorry, but don’t snap at me. The following description will be in my forthcoming review of ko, where I dined with @catty.

Shaved Foie Gras, Lychees, Pine Nut Brittle, Riesling Gélee

This was certainly one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet-yet-tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they ware placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and, to me, it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavor of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat.

I also immensely enjoyed one of our two foie gras dishes at wd~50, but I couldn’t give Chef Dufresne another award, so he gets an honorable mention. There is, however, a half-decent photo below and a full description here. (And yes, I know it’s not frozen in the process, but hey…).

Honorable Mention: Aerated Foie, Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum, Brioche at wd~50

Best Desserts (Three-Way Tie):
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma, London
Fifteen Trattoria, London
Eastside Inn, London

Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry at The Loft Project

This was the most memorable dessert for me of the year. Although not particularly complicated in conception, the fresh combination of flavors was nonetheless dazzling.

Here’s what I said in my review of the amazing evening: “A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intensity of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.”

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

Not too long ago I had a simple dessert that the kitchen knocked out of the park, as we say in America. It was the best pannacotta I can remember having and got the fabled 10 out of 10.

In case you didn’t read it, and care to, here’s what I said: “The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.”

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

Unfortunately, I never got to properly review the ‘bistrot’ side of Bjorn Van der Horst’s Eastside Inn before it sadly closed towards the end of 2010. However, I vividly remember the intensity of chocolate that was perfectly paired with a memorable tonka bean ice cream. As always with Bjorn’s food, it was also stunning to look at.

Weirdest Dessert:
(Note: that doesn’t mean it was bad!)
Il Baretto, London

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries at Il Baretto

When I had some time to digest the experience (and the dessert), I reflected: “It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert.”

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

If you follow this blog, you will know my hands-down favorite martini is at Dukes Bar in London (see here and here), when it is served by the ever-affable and supremely knowledgeable Alessandro Palazzi.

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

Not only do Leonid and Richard have the now ‘soooo 2010’ Champagne buttons at the booth-seating-only tables at this fabulously individual creation, which could have only resulted from the marriage of Russian and English (business) partners, they also have the lowest mark-ups I’ve come across of some really excellent fine wine. This means you can (better) afford to indulge yourself in a special bottle or glass of wine when going out on the town. And the food is generally very good across the board too. For a peek at their current wine list, click here.

FYI, @gourmetraveller also has an excellent BYO guide for London restaurants here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

This list is from across the board…glasses and bottles I remember that I particularly enjoyed and/or found memorable. I have probably missed some out, but I hope not. They are listed chronologically and then alphabetically within each vintage.

Sparkling

  • 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc
  • 2004 Duval-Leroy Champagne Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut
  • NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne, Brut Réserve
  • NV Henriot, Brut Souverain
  • NV Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noir
  • NV Thiénot, Brut
  • NV Vincent Laroppe, Cuvée Alfred Laropp

White

  • 1992 Haut-Brion Blanc
  • 2001 & 2009 Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2004 Lafon Meursault
  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Sec, Le Mont
  • 2005 Les Plantiers de Haut-Brion
  • 2006 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc
  • 2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix
  • 2006 McHenry Hohnen, 3 Amigos
  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 d’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab
  • 2007 Domaine Gauby Blanc
  • 2007 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2007 Felton Road Chardonnay, Block 2
  • 2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc, Les Sétilles
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano
  • 2008 Benmarl Riesling
  • 2008 Beringer Chardonnay, Private Reserve
  • 2008 Domaine William Fevre Chablis, Champs Royaux
  • 2008 Trimbach Riesling, Reserve
  • 2009 Adair Cayuga White
  • 2009 Arietta “On the White Keys” (Semillon)

Red

  • 1964 Haut-Brion
  • 1985 Haut-Brion
  • 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Bahans Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly
  • 1998 Château Pichon-Longuevile Baron
  • 1998 Château Lafite-Rothschild
  • 1998 Poliziano Le Stanze
  • 2000 Château Vieux Chevrol
  • 2001 Château Musar
  • 2001 Château Palmer
  • 2001 Château Pavie
  • 2001 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion
  • 2005 Montes Carménère, Purple Angel
  • 2006 Domaine La Tourmente, Syrah, Chamoson
  • 2006 Herdade do Arrepiado Velho, Arrepiado
  • 2006 Neyen Syrah, Limited Edition
  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs
  • 2007 The Sum, Seventy Five Wine Company, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Domaine Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Sierra du Sud
  • 2008 Monty Waldin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2008 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tavola

Sweet

  • 1999 Château Coutet
  • 2003 Château Rieussec
  • 2006 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Gold Reserve
  • 2006 Leduc-Piedimonte, Ice Cider
  • 2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata

In the coming year, I am aiming to develop a better understand of grower-producer Champagnes (i.e. ones that are terroir driven by the people who grow the grapes), deepen my cursory knowledge of some major European wine countries – namely Italy, Spain and Germany – and, of course, get a better handle on the domestic North American wine scene…as well as becoming more familiar with countries such as Chile and Argentina in South America.

#   #   #

So that is the end to a wonderful year of food, wine and friendship shared over the two. Here’s hoping 2011 will be even more exciting and enjoyable. I look forward to sharing with you what I can from the shores of America – or wherever else I may be lucky enough to travel – with an exciting review coming up very soon.

Thanks for putting up with me, and a very Happy New Year.

All the best for 2011!

The London “High Class Martini Tour”

Note: the full set of high-resolution photos from this escapade is available on my Flickr account

What about Bob?

It started innocently enough, but it didn’t quite end that way.

I’m not sure I expected it to, though. After all, when @jezmd and I hatched the idea of doing a “High Class Martini Tour” around some of London’s more noteworthy cocktail caverns, it could only end in loss of sobriety and, quite possibly, much more.

I should start by saying that I’m not much of a drinker of spirits – wine has always been more my thing – but as of late, I’ve been trying to get my head, and my lips, around a range of liquors and cocktails that I wouldn’t have even been able to sniff five years ago without recoiling violently. I have a newfound appreciation of the nuances of single malt whiskeys (thanks in part to the resource otherwise known as @cowfish and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, also on twitter as @SMWSLondon), as well as gin and vodka in their various guises.

Anyway, @jezmd and I started bandying around ideas about this theoretical tour in the misty vapour of aptly named twitosphere and pretty soon a few others expressed interest. In the end, it was the two of us plus @chrispople, @essexeating and @vachonline who set quite an ambitious plan. Google walking maps were devised (you presumably already know I’m a geek), the stops of this whistle-stop tour were debated, and we finally arrived at that accommodating avenue called Consensus.

Yes, I clearly have too much time on my hands

The plan was simple enough: we would partake in a martini at as many of the following places as possible, and in the most logical order so as not to waste valuable time walking (and not drinking). Our hit list: Bob Bob Ricard would be our starting point (as it also seemed a good place to get a bit of sustenance before embarking on our boozy afternoon), then we would visit Quo Vadis’ private members club, the downstairs bar at HIX Soho, the upstairs bar at Rules (where spirit wizard Brian Silva resides), the civilized seats at Dukes Bar (overseen by the incomparable Alessandro Palazzi), and the rather recently revitalized surroundings at The Bar at The Connaught (whose Italian-led team has recently picked up some major awards in the land of liquids). LAB bar was also thrown around as an idea, but we thought there might be too many places to visit in one afternoon, so it was nixed. We realized this wasn’t totally comprehensive, but c’mon, it was pretty comprehensive for ONE AFTERNOON! 🙂

My golden ticket for a WUI (walking under the influence) around London?

The afternoon started off with yours truly meandering quietly through Golden Square, just across the street from our first target. Strangely enough, I spotted a golden elephant in the golden square and thought this auspicious moment worthy of a snap. But fare forward, travellers – no time for chit-chat.

Martini o’clock

I was late, I was late, for a very important date. Leonid (aka Bob [Bob]) had been kind enough to offer us a table at his deluxe deco diner, and had also generously offered to make our stay somewhat less of a (financial) burden, consummate host he is. Therefore we not only partook in some Bob-tinis, but also ate some Bob-burgers (but no Bobcorn, mind you – and that one’s actually on the menu).

We knew for whom this bell was tolling

Thus, we ordered our first round of drinks for the afternoon. Well, actually a few guys ordered a pre-first round of drinks, if memory serves me right.

Yes, that’s what we were there for

Chris had his eye on a perfectly translucent Bloody Mary (perhaps Bob let the vampires attack it before serving?), which I got a sip of and was…pardon me, I can’t help myself…bloody fantastic.

I had forgotten that they gave us some olives – but clearly that Martini ain’t clear (must have forgotten to photograph the one that was sans rouge)

I seem to recall Chris explaining that they exact the pure juices of tomatoes and let them extract overnight, or some such shenanigans – but the result is shockingly good, both for the shock of the lack of color and for the taste.

Cucumber Martini at Bob Bob Ricard

For my part, I ordered the Cucumber Martini, which is made of Hendrick’s gin (one of my widely available favorites), cucumber and elderflower cordial. It was okay, but I thought it a tad too sweet. I much prefer the rendition over at Dukes Bar, which is better balanced in my humble opinion.

Fresh Apple Martini at Bob Bob Ricard

Others opted for the slightly more feminine allure of the Fresh Apple Martini, composed of apple, Manzana Verde, Zubrowka, apple juice and lemon juice. This was better and I was sorry I hadn’t ordered it. But that was not such a big deal, because food was on its way.

The BBR Hamburger with a Single Slice of Kraft Singles

Unlike so many other places around London, which publicly extol and actively market the virtues of their beef patties, trimmings and buns, Bob had kept his burger more on the down-low. I can’t say I was surprised that it was good – most things I’ve sampled at BBR are pretty well executed and flavourful – but it was better than I had expected by a good mark. In fact, it was one of the better burgers I’ve had in London (it would probably make the top-5). Plus I love that he somehow sources Kraft Singles – which he said can sometimes be difficult – because it has that extra pang of nostalgia for me. At least he doesn’t tell you the ingredients of what’s in that nearly neon yellow-orange maniacal miracle of molecular mechanics, but you can find out here if you care to.

So we drank pretty well and ate even better and, with our bellies full, we were feeling confident in our ability to beat the odds and drag ourselves to all of the selected destinations. Luckily, pit stop number two was only a few steps away…

I may have been the only one slightly disappointed that I hadn’t pushed the button I usually do when sitting in a booth at BBR

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Exploring down under

Yes, we arrived at HIX Soho a few minutes later, and some eager beavers were already checking in on foursquare – as you can see from the image below (alright, alright, so was I, so was I).

Some geek ensuring he checks in first on foursquare

A neon sign instructed us that the bar was downstairs. By the way, I think the neon artist in question is the same one who does the rather funky ones that adorn Bloomberg’s London offices.

The arrow told us to go down below

Once in the engine room, we lined up along the empty bar, ready to get this party started properly – no food this time, you see. I had never been here before and, while I liked the way the upstairs dining room looked (based on my 5 second peek-a-boo), I did find the downstairs bar slightly odd. It felt as muddled as one of their premium drinks: mostly modern with monotonous white tiled floor, glass walls, stainless steel bar, fairly random slimline chairs, and then a token gesture of warmth layered on top in the form of a pool table (too squeaky clean), an oriental area rug (which just looked odd), a few soft chairs, an old-looking leather couch and various other elements…suffice to say, it just wasn’t working for me. But hey, we were there for drinks, not décor, so we made our orders with the very professional looking barman.

Our drinks being individually prepared

Said barman began preparing our beverages of choice. He was very silent and exacting, and took a very long time with them – so I was expecting something out of the ordinary.

Each was served in its own unique crystal glass

One nice touch at HIX Soho is that they serve each drink in its own unique vintage crystal glass. They also chill the rest of the drink in its own silver vessel, which lies submerged in a glass of ice.

Vodka Martini at HIX Soho

I generally prefer vodka martinis so that’s what I ordered. I thought it was okay, but it was simply too warm (despite all the ice?!), and therefore didn’t work for me. The flavours weren’t bad but the temperature killed it.

Dirty Martini at HIX Soho

@Vachonline decided to get dirty on us, and his choice of drink is pictured above – I recall that he liked it but didn’t love it…and that seemed to be the general consensus here.

An even number of odd quail’s eggs

Some brave cowboy had decided to order some of their quail’s egg shooters – we had heard they were good (or strange, I can’t remember), and were therefore intrigued. Composed of the eggs (of course!), streaky bacon, chives and sea salt, they were certainly odd and not completely appetizing for some reason. If you want more details (I don’t), you can see @gourmetraveller’s post on them, and other Hix creations.

We left on that savory note and wound our way to the next station on the Tipple Express train.

Hix on Urbanspoon

Cocktails fit for a duke

Our plans to visit another Soho haunt were scuppered as we weren’t able to wangle bar seats at Quo Vadis’ private members club. So we scratched that from our rapidly deteriorating memories and marched on to the posh backstreets of Mayfair. I was informally leading the gang to my own favourite martini hideaway, the serene surroundings of historic Dukes Bar.

Elephants on parade

As we passed by another surreal looking elephant – okay, it probably didn’t look that surreal, but I had a fair amount of ‘spirit’ in me by that point – I couldn’t help remember the slightly terrifying scene from Dumbo (well, it is terrifying when you’re 5 years old!) where the pink elephants are on parade – was I that little pink elephant leading the others?

“Look out! Look out!
Pink elephants on parade
Here they come!
Hippety hoppety
They’re here and there
Pink elephants ev’rywhere
Look out! Look out!”

The lyrics seemed apt to say the least…

We were heading into a place whose denizens are mainly hedge fund managers and rich American businessmen. Yes, this is the place that supposedly inspired Ian Fleming for his “shaken not stirred” martinis, and they are quite simply the best I’ve had to-date, probably aided by the fact that they are served by the legend that is Alessandro Palazzi, my favourite barman in the world. So you can see I a biased…but not without good reason. (For more details, you can see a previous post on the place here).

Luckily we had booked (even though you can’t technically)

I had pre-warned Alessandro that we were coming and he assured me he would “take care of you boys”, so I knew all would be well, and all manner of things would be well.

Dukes, it’s like really old n’ stuff

While this trolley doesn’t actually hail from 1908, the bar does, and they are famous for preparing your drinks in front of your eyes as you sit and marvel at their modest magicians.

The great big green olives

We were welcomed with the ginormous green Italian olives I have come to love, and also some silver bowls of salty crunchy things that taste great and make you want to drink more. These are bottomless and come included in the (rather steep) price of a martini at Dukes. But let me tell you – and listen well – one Dukes martini will do more damage than two at most other places.

The glasses were frozen

The Dukes martini is actually very simple in its conception, as are many of the best things in life. It all starts with frozen glasses. The vodka and gin are also frozen at a special constant temperature, ice is never used, and the martinis are never shaken (or stirred for that matter).

Alessandro got to work

As we nestled into our new surroundings, Alessandro entertained the gang with anecdote after anecdote about his favourite cocktails, a few of his secrets, his travels and other manner of things.

A little bit of Polish vodka here

The vodka they normally use for their martinis is Potocki, which comes from Poland and purely expresses the charm and full flavor of that country’s rye.

A little bit of discontinued Crown Jewel there

For gin, they often recommend Beefeater’s Crown Jewell which, as I understand it, has sadly gone out of production. It is known for its intense aromas and also its very high ABV.

And then some shaving of orange peels

Some of us were starting off with the Dukes rendition of Ian Fleming’s Classic Vesper, which is made from the aforementioned gin and vodka, plus Angostura Bitters and Lillet. There are some secrets to this original version, but I suggest you get yourself down to Dukes and discover what they are for yourself as there are many (and generally not very good) pretenders to the throne.

And artful placing

Alessandro put the final touches on our Vespers and we were off.

The unveiling of my new favourite gin

As we were having such an amazingly relaxed and enjoyable time, we went for a second round of drinks. For this, Alessandro suggested the gin lovers in the group we taste one of his favorite newer gins to hit the scene. It’s called Sacred Gin and it is distilled by a guy named Ian Hart in Highgate (Norf London) in his own micro-distillery that is housed within, well, his house. I won’t say much, but I thought it was phenomenal. You should really read some of the articles on his website as it is quite an interesting story.

Gin it goes...

Anyway, the next round of drinks was poured and we were ready for double trouble…

And there it stayed (for a minute)

There was a mish-mash of martinis and other drinks abounding:

One pretty lady

One standout Old Fashioned

Essex drinking (and not eating for once)

Painting the town, well Mayfair, red

After another hour or so of leisurely conversation and the revelation of a few of Alessandro’s secrets (see below), we decided we should be making our way, even though I don’t think most of us thought getting up was a very good idea at this stage.

We had moved from Bob Bob Ricard to Bob’s Bitters (a secret bar cabinet weapon)

In my opinion, the drinks were – as usual – little short of astounding. They had wonderful balance, finesse and beauty, and I think most of my companions would agree (if not, speak up). We asked Alessandro who he reckoned were the best bar men (and women) in London, and after naming Brian Silva (who inspires even him), we really thought we should pay Rules’ bar a visit. But sadly Brian wasn’t there on that day, so we opted to traipse over to Alessandro’s other recommendation, “The Bar” at The Connaught. As he is quite friendly with them (hey, they’re also Italian), he called ahead for us and made sure we had a seat…he also asked them to “take care of these boys”…you’ve gotta love this guy!

Dukes Bar on Urbanspoon

Posh Italians with white gloves

You have to admit, the UK does have the strangest signs in the world

As we crisscrossed the fine streets of Mayfair, we minded the sign on the side of the pedestrian crossing leading up to The Connaught – what is it with this country and its road signs? How could a pedestrian need to mind a ‘low tree’, and it wasn’t even low to begin with?!

We were seated in the middle of the poshest of bars, a little the worse for wear

Okay, this bar was, in a word, bling. This is where you’d take a girl for a drink if you wanted to impress. Somehow we didn’t quite fit in, but we weren’t in a state to care about that at this point. We just wanted our drinks.

Glitzy, eh?

Yeah, bling.

Amuse Bouche cocktails – now that is well classy

The Connaught was so refined, we even got a liquid amuse bouche before our drinks were prepared. I vaguely remember it was fruity, refreshing, nice and not alcoholic. The munchies were also good, sweet roasted nuts and black pitted olives, although no way as good as those monster green Italian olives at Dukes.

What am I going to do with these lowlifes?

The exceedingly professional staff must have been in quite a quandary with our motley crew occupying prime position at the dinky round table smack-bang in front of the bar.

I know, I’ll poison them with my medical-looking remedies

Therefore, they decided to poison us. But at least they had the good humor to let us choose our particular poisons. I seem to remember for some inexplicable reason that I went for grapefruit and vanilla…and I’m meant to have a palate.

And I’ll throw in some of these too, just for good measure

At The Connaught, they shunned Bob in favour of these bitter bottles.

The tiniest dose will take care of these squatters, let me just put on my white gloves...

They do take their drinks very seriously, and even donned white gloves as they carefully measured out the dosages.

I can cover it all up with this high falootin’ gin

They also seem to really like Tanqueray No. Ten, but I didn’t have it as I opted for vodka.

Then some vermouth

They then fiddled around with the other necessary components.

And Vodka for that weird-looking American guy who keeps taking photos of me (don’t you hate tourists?)

Adding vodka for me.

Yes, I’ll give them a show all right

Then a bit of a high-wire show.

Our Connaught concoctions

I didn’t get a great shot of the drinks, but they were very pretty.

They even gave us the recipe card (poison omitted of course)

In a nice (if slightly corny) gesture, they let us take a recipe card home with us so we could try it for ourselves.

As I said, they certainly take their cocktails seriously here, but somehow it was lacking in soul – it was almost as if they were trying to show off how good they were, rather than allowing their guests to discover this slowly for themselves over the course of a few drinks – which I much prefer.

Bar at the Connaught on Urbanspoon

After paying up, we stumbled out back onto the surprisingly bright streets of Mayfair and headed our own ways , vowing to organize a “High Class Old Fashioned Tour”, on the back of the outstanding Old Fashioned(s) served up at Dukes.

As Mr. T said, “I pity the fool[s].” 🙂

Long live these libations, I say.

A Tale Of Two Coffees…Well, Sort Of…

Okay, maybe three coffees, maybe four, or maybe more…

As some of you may know, I really do love my coffee. Always have. Ever since I first started drinking the stuff about fifteen years ago at a drive-through espresso shack in the parking lot of my small town’s big supermarket, I have been hooked.

You see, where I grew up in the US, even truck drivers drank decent espresso 20 years ago, and that’s saying something in a country where in most places the best coffee you could hope for at that time – if it wasn’t instant (pardon me while I blow chunks) – was an archaic version of Boyd’s that hadn’t been scorched by sitting around too long on the burner and where the tea you normally got served was Lipton Yellow Label (yuck!).

As I pressed down on the accelerator of my gray Nissan Pathfinder each morning before high school, racing toward my Mecca which was that espresso shack, anticipating the bitter-sweet attack of my morning Mocha (complete with chocolate malt ball on top of the lid), knowing that it would give me that jolt I needed to see the morning’s classes through, I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to give up the stuff. Sure, I’ve tried to wean myself off of coffee (and caffeine) a few times – for punishment, my body gave me worse headaches than most of my friends had when withdrawing from cigarettes – and I even succeeded a few times, once for over a year.

These days, my palate has moved on and prefers something less sweet, namely a simple espresso or the occasional macchiato. I like my coffee the way it comes, no sugar added please, whether it be white sugar, brown or what have you. I have also become pretty finicky over the years when it comes to my morning ritual (occasionally, if really tired, I have an injection after lunch). Having tried what are purportedly the best places for coffee in many of the countries and cities that are meant to have the best coffee, I can honestly say that only the rare occasion have my eyebrows perked up and my taste buds said, “Hey, now this is one of the better coffees I’ve had in a long time.” I would not say that I am elitist about coffee, though, I just know what I like and, even better, what I don’t. For example, when in New York, if in a diner, I might still order coffee, but I just know it will be diner coffee and set my expectations accordingly.

The coffee scene in London has improved dramatically in the 10 years that I’ve been living here. Although a lot of the chains serve very poor coffee and are often inconsistent across their branch network, there are now a number of places dotted around this fair city which serve up a pretty good cuppa joe. Not a lot, but some – hey, such is the march of progress.

But before moving onto the major chains, I would like to focus on two places in particular. Within a 10-minute walking radius of my workplace, there are a couple of very good coffee houses. Unfortunately they don’t happen to fall along the straight line that I walk from tube station to office door, so I don’t frequent them every day, but when I feel the need for caffeine or the burning desire for a good espresso, it is to them that I most often turn. They are my mid-morning or mid-afternoon luxury, my fix, my me-time.

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden Branch)

The original Monmouth coffee shop in Covent Garden

The original Monmouth coffee shop in Covent Garden

The first is probably the most established of the well-respected coffee houses in London, the original Monmouth in Covent Garden. Having tried all of their espresso based drinks and their black coffee (Americano), I have settled on ‘dry cappuccino’ as my beverage of choice, although all their drinks are fantastic and they probably do make the best Americano I’ve had in London. Their house espresso blend has a nice intensity, lots of chocolate on the palate and is very smooth, with an almost velvety mouth feel. To me, it has a lovely rich, round flavor that beautifully balances the sweeter fruity notes with a not-too-harsh streak of acidity. Paired with the dense and luxurious yet butterfly-light foam from Monmouth’s organic milk to balance the just slightly bitter tannic undertones of the espresso, it is a very competent, highly enjoyable espresso drink and does the trick for me every time.

dry cappuccino at monmouth

Monmouth’s dry cappuccino with cocoa powder

booth for one

I love Monmouth’s passion and quirkiness: A booth for 1 please? Of course Sir. They also try to keep the few tables that they do have mobile-free...how quaint 🙂

coffee beans at monmouth

Some of the coffee beans on sale at Monmouth (they can grind them for you too)

The gist of it: Their drinks are consistently good, and I just like the charm of the place and the impressive knowledge and passion of most of the staff. I mean, they have a wooden bench and table for one person – how quirky and great is that? They also sell a wide range of coffee beans that are painstakingly sourced from around the world and can tell you all about the differences between them. There is normally a long queue if you don’t know what times to go, but I like that it’s on a little street in Covent Garden, that remains slightly funky and has a nice vibe and independent streak about it. I don’t really like the one across from Borough Market as it is too large and too busy.

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden) on Urbanspoon

Caffè Vergnano 1882

the entrance and the artistry

The entrance (left) and the artistry (right) of their cappuccino

The only other place in the area that really sways me away from Monmouth is a rather new and somewhat flashy upstart. Set along the shop-fronts on an unlikely stretch of Charing Cross Road (unlikely in the sense that you don’t expect a serious coffee house here amongst the touristy drek), it is none other than Caffè Vergnano 1882. I have been in a number of times now and haven’t exactly gotten to the bottom of what the 1882 stands for (okay, I haven’t really tried to find out), but that is beside the point. The small chain has been set up by Luciano Franchi, whose family has been working for three generations in the London food industry. They apparently supply coffee and related machinery to the Italian Embassy, for whatever that’s worth.

the silver elektra belle epoque

The grand dame herself (the machine that is)

But the best thing about walking into Caffè Vergnano is seeing their gargantuan silver madame, the holy grail of espresso fabrication, the elegant and maniacal stainless steel workhorse that pumps dark brown blood through its veins, the aortic arch from which the pulse of Verganano’s espresso emanates. Yeah, it’s the big honkin’ shiny espresso machine that you can’t miss from the window. It is the Elektra Belle Epoque, and on its crown is perched a peering eagle.

To make a long story short, it makes a mean cup of espresso. Their own blend of espresso is composed of seven single-origin beans (including the elusive and expensive Nicaraguan Maragogype) and it is one of the nicer ones I’ve had, certainly one of the top in London. It has a full and broad flavor spectrum and, to me, has a tad more bitterness beneath it than Monmouth’s, though without being cloying. My favorite incarnation of Vergnano’s espresso is a double macchiato, with the little bit of foam providing a tiny cushion of creaminess to offset the fine espresso flavor.

The other thing I like about Vergnano is that it is sort of like an Italian espresso bar. You can order your drink and have it standing up at the counter – or if you want you can sit down or walk out with it. With each coffee they also give you a little Italian biscuit or chocolate (I have never figured out if it’s the drink you order or the luck of the draw that determines which one you get), and I think it’s a great little touch. I would probably describe the service at the Charing Cross Road branch as ‘professional’. It’s not warm, it’s not touchy, it’s not personal, but it’s not rude or mean either. They are just there doing their job and trying to provide you with a good drink.

The gist of it: I haven’t been to their other branches, but I think that this one is great. No-nonsense accomplished espresso drinks and the holy grail of coffee machines staring you in the face. Plus you get a little treat with your coffee and can stand at the bar.

Caffé Vergnano on Urbanspoon

Honorable Mention: Flat White

flat white @ flat white

A flat white at...Flat White

Although it is really a trek from my office to Flat White, I’ve tried this Soho-based coffee house a number of times and almost think I’ve walked into a funky little American coffee house on a college campus somewhere. There is always rock music on the radio, the staff sort of ignore you (at least me!) and I don’t really like the vibe all that much (it’s a bit up its own backside if you ask me), but the coffee drinks are pretty good. Here, I like the eponymous drink the best.

Flat White on Urbanspoon

At the Top of My Wish List: Gwilym Davies Espresso Cart

gwilym

The World Barista Champion (photo courtesy of youngandfoodish)

I really want to taste an espresso drink from Gwilym Davies, recently crowned the World Barista Champion, who runs a few coffee carts in the City, but haven’t tracked him down as yet. Youngandfoodish did a great little write-up on him recently, and reckons that Gwilym just sees himself as “the last [person] in a line that stretches from grower(s) to roaster to barista and determines the quality of the cup.”

So why do I go to Pret?

Well, after focusing on these two gems, here comes the hypocritical bit. In spite of these places being pretty close to my place of work, I still get my morning shot from one of the larger coffee chains that uses a push-button espresso machine. I know, the travesty, the indecency, the illogicality (is that even a word?) of it all. Come on, go ahead and bombard me with comments about what a sell-out I am, I am expecting it. I just want to be honest, though!

Yes, I will admit it. My morning ritual is to stop by a tiny branch of Pret A Manger located directly on my walking route to the office. They make me a single, slightly long macchiato with just a dollop of foam on top. I like the taste and I like the two or three people who serve me each morning. They are always there, they are exceedingly friendly, they know me, they know what I like and we have a little chat from time to time. Oh, and it costs £1.25, so about half of the two places mentioned above. So, out of the chains, my preferred one is Pret. I think their espresso is perfectly good; it is convenient (hell, they are everywhere) and they are in my experience the most consistently professional, cheerful, fun and well-trained staff out of any of the national chains.  So here’s my little list of the big boys, in descending order.

The Big Boys

  1. Pret A Manger – see rationale above.
  2. Pret a Manger on Urbanspoon

  3. Coffee Republic – always liked their coffee, though they don’t seem to have many outlets these days.
  4. Coffee Republic on Urbanspoon

  5. Caffè Nero – I never really had a big affection for Nero, and think their espresso is simply too bitter, but they’re pretty consistent and it’s not all that bad. They really try with their food offerings too, and it is packaged well, but it just never tastes very good in my experience. The places all have the same vibe, and I sort of like it, I just never leave that satisfied in any respect.
  6. Caffe Nero on Urbanspoon

  7. Starbucks – can’t put them as number three, as they are more the Häagen Dazs of coffee than a real coffee house anymore, but if their normal drinks are made well, they are pretty good. Their espresso is actually okay to me, but is a bit bitter for some people. The main problem with Starbucks in the UK is the lack of decent training of the people making the drinks – it’s simply all over the place. They often burn the milk…
  8. Starbucks on Urbanspoon

  9. Costa – I have tried this place about once a year for the last 10 years and have always hated it. I may be wrong, but that’s always my conclusion. They are making a big advertising push now saying that they don’t push buttons (a stab at Pret, presumably), they hand craft their coffees, so maybe I should give them another try. Should I? Am I completely wrong?

As a side note, after noticing the huge PR blitz around McDonald’s recently re-launched coffee offerings, I eventually succumbed and used a free coupon from the Metro newspaper to try a cappuccino from my local branch of the golden arches. It was Horr. Ibb. Uhl. Not exactly unexpected, but not exactly drinkable either. Milk severely burned, espresso extremely bitter and unbalanced. Puke.

In fact, they are really annoying me these days with their ad campaigns – they have ripped off the best tune from Disney’s Robin Hood (which was one of my favorite movies when I was a child) and are trying to make people believe they’re all into local farming and are a shiny, happy friend of the farmer. They should get real about what they really do and people should not drink their coffee, because it sucks…big time.

So, that’s my little coffee tale. Let me know what you think. I wrote this all at once without thinking too much, so maybe I’ve missed something (?). Let me know.

Disclaimer: I have yet to make it to a lot of the little artisan coffee shops in London (i.e. Fernandez & Wells and so forth), so would be interested to know your opinions of other establishments and your recommendations.

Over and out for now,

LF

A Bit More Wining – Saturday at Vinopolis with Oz Clarke + Some Chefs, Critics & Tapas

oz clarke five wines for tasting

We spent a long and enjoyable Saturday at Vinopolis, first enjoying a wine tasting with noted wine expert Oz Clarke, then a self-guided tour of Vinopolis, then popping out for some satisfying tapas at Tapas Brindisa in nearby Borough Market, and finally a front-row seat at a Chef vs. Critics quiz show which included some of the UK’s best known food personalities

The Wine Wizard, Oz

For better or for worse, twitter seems to be my best friend as of late in terms providing access to some great food and wine experiences, and often for free!

As readers of the blog will already be aware, it was through an early leak of the booking line number from fellow tweeter @richardvines that I was able to secure a table at Pierre Koffmann’s pop-up restaurant on top of Selfridges.

More recently, I also scored two free tickets to a wine tasting with well-known wine personality Oz Clarke held at Vinopolis through a competition organized by none other than @vinopolislondon. I was very excited to meet Oz after seeing the first two series of his program with James May, where they first visited France and then California in order to educate the lager-loving petrol head about the merits of fermented grape juice. Oz’s down-to-earth attitude and no-nonsense (and, for that matter, no-pretence) approach to wine is refreshing and, in my view, well suited to today’s average wine consumer, who can easily be put off and alienated by wine experts preaching from upon high.

So Mrs. LF and I headed down to Borough Market for our 3pm date with Oz and five of his top wines for 2010. The event took place within the cavernous vaults at Vinopolis, which are used for their own events and I presume would also make an excellent venue for corporate events and other private shindigs as well. The vaults originally stretched from Vinopolis’ location (just a few steps Northwest of Borough Market) Eastward down the river all the way to the end of Tooley Street and were the center of the British wine trade in Victorian times up through the beginning of the second world war.

As you can see below, it is quite a cool space, and so it was that…

...the stage was set...

...the stage was set...

...then was filled.

...then was filled.

The audience was ready...

The audience was ready...

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

...and Oz’s eye was on the prize.

I wasn’t exactly sure of the format of the session, but it ended up being a lot of Oz doing what he does best: storytelling. In fact, he is a master storyteller, which makes sense given his earlier career in theatre with such troops as the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and The Old Vic, amongst others.

While we did taste each of the five wines he had selected – usually with him nonchalantly asking the audience “Shall we have a swig of this one?” or something similar – and while he did offer some brief and insightful thoughts on how he thought the wine tasted, what I remember most are the accompanying stories he used to bring the countries and wineries that these wines came from to life. It was brilliant entertainment that was educational at the same time, and everyone seemed to be having a good time, Oz included. Although I did wonder if it would be a bit boring for him doing two further sessions of a similar nature that same afternoon, complete with book signings at each. But, alas, I guess these are the trappings of success, eh?

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

Oz’s storytelling reaches its peak as he recounts the gales he experienced while at a vineyard in Northern Chile

You can find my brief notes about the wines we sampled below, some of which were pretty outstanding for their respective price brackets.

  • Roederer Estate Quartet, Brut Sparkling Wine NV (Anderson Valley, California)
    • Notes: Very fruity (notably pear) with beautiful miniscule bubbles, a tad of toastiness and serious depth. Interesting to note that, according to Oz, there are about 7 million bubbles in each glass of champagne (to be fair, though, he didn’t know which poor sod had been sad enough to do that research). Fair value at £19.99 in my view, as it is comparable to decent entry-level champagnes, if not a fair bit nicer than some of them.
  • 2008 Villa Maria Cellar Selection, Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand)
    • Notes: I have tried the 2007 ‘normal’ version and thought it was a great, classic Kiwi Sauvignon. This wine had a light and bright appearance, a nose of apple, lime and fresh grass, and on the palate it was dominated by greens as well (green apples, grass, nettles, even green pepper). The bottle has a screwcap, which Oz rather likes as he believes it is better for fresh, young white wines and obviously far more consistent than cork. A fine Sauvignon for £10.19.
  • 2005 Kooyong Estate, Chardonnay (Mornington Peninsula, Australia)
    • Notes: For me, this was the clear winner out of the five. It was a marvellous chardonnay, with a golden, rich straw color in the glass, a slightly citrusy and floral nose (plus some butter), and a little streak of refreshing acidity along with some fruitiness to balance what I thought was mostly a creamy, buttery, smoky and nutty depth. It had excellent length. Not inexpensive at £18.95, but it was one of the better chardonnays I’ve tasted recently, and certainly compares strongly with white Burgundies in the same price range. I wasn’t all that shocked to see that it was Oz’s #1 wine for 2010 in his new book when I opened it up after getting home.
  • 2006 Vina Falernia, Syrah Reserva (Elqui Valley, Chile)
    • Notes: A lovely deep, dark red in the glass, with a lot of smoke on the nose. On the palate it was again smoky, with notes of cigar tobacco and also some blackberry fruit. It was a very intense wine, and I agree with Oz in that it does have a very Northern Rhône feel about it. Cracking value at £10.95 in my opinion.
  • 2006 Yalumba ‘The Scribbler’, Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah (Barossa Valley, Australia)
    • Notes: To be honest, I forgot to write anything down about this wine as I was a bit caught up on one of Oz’s stories. Oz says it “has a fascinating initial flavor of blackcurrant and mint, scented with a few drops of eucalyptus oil and a scrape of lemon zest. There’s some decent rasping tannin too and the whole experience is hugged by plump, chocolaty Shiraz.” Literally couldn’t have said it better myself! £14.99 a pop.
Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

Oz and Laissez’s Big Wine Photo

After the session, we purchased a copy of his pocket-sized 2010 wine guide and I had a brief conversation with the big man himself while he signed our book. I have used his 2009 guide quite a bit this year, and found his recommended wines to be very good for the price in general, with the exception of one or two which didn’t suit my taste. So I am much looking forward to taking advantage of his 2010 guide, which seems to be composed of much different wines than last year’s collection of 250 recommendations, although some of the same producers do feature heavily in both (i.e. Tim Adams, Primo Estate and Villa Maria).

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

Wine guide authors & publishers: how can you can make your readers’ lives easier?

One thing I would suggest, both for Oz, and for other authors (and publishers) of such annual guides, is to make their recommendations more usable for readers. For example, while they do list which suppliers carry each wine at the end of the description, there is no way for you to easily find which bottles out of the hundreds in the book are available at, say, Waitrose or Tesco when you walk in.

At the beginning of the year, I actually created my own spreadsheet, which is broken down by supermarket/wine shop (the ones I tend to visit the most), and what wines are available at each place that I have found interesting from all of the different wine magazines, guides and books I have read as of late. It is a fairly simple thing to do, but it is extremely time consuming and labor intensive for the consumer (and only geeks like me will take the time to do so).

So, my suggestion to publishers and authors is simple: include an index in the back of your book that is organized by store. It should just be a simple list with the largest national supermarkets and wine merchant chains in bold and all of the wines in your book that are sold at each store underneath (organized by white, rosé, red, sweet), along with the page number that the detailed review can be found on. There is no need to include all of the smaller/independent wine shops in this index if there are tons of them mentioned in your book/guide, but it would be great if the next time we walk into a supermarket or major wine merchant, we can be armed with a list of wines we might be interested in buying without having to commit the information to memory or create Excel workbooks :).

…In any case, the tasting session and chat with Oz were great, and Mrs. LF and I both enjoyed our time very much. But it turned out that our day at Vinopolis wasn’t over just yet. The kind people there had given us complimentary tickets for a tour around Vinopolis itself (which I had done before and enjoyed doing again), and also some more free tickets to attend the ‘Starter for Ten’ quiz show, which was one of the London Restaurant Festival events, that happened to be held at Vinopolis in another of their many private function rooms. With the prospect of seeing such chefs as Richard Corrigan and Rowley Leigh fight it out with critics including Giles Coren and Matthew Norman, we would have been stupid to pass the opportunity up.

So, after winding our way through the Vinopolis tour, we headed to Borough Market to get a spot of early dinner before the quiz began.

Briskly to Brindisa

Unfortunately, the market had pretty much wound down by the time we headed out, but fortunately Tapas Brindisa was open, and somehow they had a table for two. Perfect! I had always wanted to eat here given how popular it seems to be amongst foodies, but this was the first time I’d actually tried, so I was excited.

After perusing the menu for a while, we decided on a few dishes and they came out very quickly, with the exception of my sardines, which I checked on twice, and after assuring me they had been ordered (twice) finally appeared about 10 minutes after all of the other dishes had been polished off (?!).

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

Spanish Potato Omelette (£4.50); Grilled Lamb Cutlets with Allioli & Fresh Mint Sauce (£8.75); Onion & Rocket Salad with Pear, Quince & Kokos Vinaigrette (£3.20)

First to arrive were the omelette, lamb chops and salad.

The potato omelette was surprisingly good for being such a plain dish. I thought it was seasoned well and it had a very good texture of half egg, half soft potato. Mrs. LF agreed, and enjoyed it mucha. 7/10.

The lamb chops were also well seasoned and nice and moist, though they had spent maybe a minute too long on the heat for my liking and were just barely pink in the middle. While there was a fairly spicy allioli to accompany them, I didn’t particularly like it and ate them solo for the most part. They were fine, but didn’t have that extra flavor hit to make them stand out and be memorable. 6/10.

The salad was the disappointment of the bunch. It was really a salad of red onions, with not much rocket and the pears being almost nonexistent. But the thing we both noticed (and still remember) was that it had a very strange taste permeating throughout. At first, we thought it must have come from the quince, but then again quince is a fruit, and that didn’t make any sense. I thought it tasted like corn nuts, but slightly sour ones. Maybe it was the ‘Kokos’, but I don’t know what it/they are. In any case, neither of us liked this distinct flavor. 3/10.

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Pan Fried Padrón Peppers (£5.00)

Despite at first glance all looking alike, there were a couple different types of peppers on the plate, some of which had a wicked little kick (Mrs. LF’s nose began to run), and some of which were very mild. They all had a rich, sweet taste and a nice sour acidity to boot. We only ordered them because the huge and rambunctious table next to us had a plate of them and they looked too good to pass up. Plus Mrs. LF fancied eating them with her omelette, which did turn out to be a good combination. We really enjoyed these green little guys. 7/10.

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

Pan Fried Sardines with Red Onion Salad & Chilli (£6.50)

The sardines finally arrived and they were alright too (they certainly were very nicely presented). The fish was soft and meaty and had a nice flavor to it, and I enjoyed the hints of chilli. The skin was pretty soggy though, and seemed to be intentionally so (don’t know if it’s supposed to be for fried sardines?), which didn’t make it all that pleasurable to eat. All in all, another solid but uninspiring dish. 6/10.

I have to say that I did rather like the place overall. I enjoyed the buzzy atmosphere, the quick turnover of tables, and it seemed like everyone there was genuinely having a good time. It is certainly a good place to come with friends and spend a leisurely weekend afternoon. They also have some decent Spanish and Portuguese wines available, both by the glass and bottle. We didn’t order that much, but what we did have was generally cooked well, although from the dishes we chose, I didn’t really see what all the fuss was about. When in the area again, I would definitely go back to try sample more of the food.

Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Chefs vs. Critics & One Confused Host

After the tapas, we headed back to Vinopolis to watch the quiz show that pitted four famous critics against four well-known chefs. In true University Challenge style, the event was hosted by none other than Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge before Paxman began residing over proceedings in 1994.

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Another empty stage at another of Vinopolis’ private rooms

Richard Corrigan (Corrigan’s Mayfair & Bentley’s) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) and Thomasina Meirs (Masterchef Winner and of Wahaca fame) arriving to take their places

The questions had been designed by Fay Maschler, one of the two key organizers of the London Restaurant Festival, and were actually quite difficult, with a number of them baffling the chefs, the critics and audience alike. There were some obscure music-related questions (one where the contestants had to name the composer of songs that ostensibly had something to do with food) and also a few image-based questions (one where they had to name what restaurant was being pictured).

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

Confound this newfangled technology, thinks Bamber

The most amusing part of the whole evening was the fact that the very posh and measured Gascoigne could not for the life of him figure out how to change the contestants’ scores correctly. He kept giving points to the wrong side and detracting them from the right one. The audience kept heckling him, but he just didn’t seem to understand how the heck to work the controls. The tech guy from the back of the room had to interject a number of times, coming up to the stage and changing the scores for him. Gascoigne did seem to keep correct scores by writing them down on a piece of paper (old school indeed :)), and one of the organizers in the back of the room was paying attention to every detail and seemed to have the same score as Bamber. I’m not so sure they had it right, but it made for a lot of laughter and fun for the audience.

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen

Giles Coren was licking his lips at something...however there was no food to be seen & can't we have a smile Toby?

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time

The chefs got off to a bad start, but it was neck-to-neck at the finish – at least they had a good time (can't remember what Thomasina was laughing about)

Rowley Leigh (Le Café Anglais) seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

Rowley Leigh seemed be by far the most knowledgeable of the chefs, while Richard Corrigan (of Corrigan's Mayfair and Bentley's) only seemed to know the answers to questions he wasn’t allowed to answer, continuously ringing his buzzer during the other side’s bonus questions, which was also quite comical

In the end, the hour-long quiz was extended by about another half-hour or so and was quite enjoyable for all, especially the audience. We were glad to have been able to see these two often hostile factions let down their hair and have a good time in the spirit of friendly competition.

After a very long day out, mostly spent within various parts of Vinopolis, and with probably a bit too much wine involved (we had complementary cocktails before the quiz show too :)), we headed back towards London Bridge station to get some z’s.