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!

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Bar Boulud – The Right Place at the Right Time

Bar Boulud
At the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Dinner: starters approx £6-11, mains approx. £12-22, desserts £6-8, plus a number of special menu items such as charcuterie (individual items £6.50-11, platters at £14 or £28) & burgers (£12-13.50)
  • You can click on any of the images below for full-resolution files

I didn’t know what to expect from Daniel Boulud’s first UK outpost. Reviews upon its opening came in thick and fast. Most of the sentiment was positive, though some commented that its interior was devoid of personality. For my part, seated in the bar area on a weekday evening, the place seemed quite lively (this was probably enhanced by the animated and captivating sommelier, who was our unofficial host for the evening) and had a nice buzz to it. The food was generally very good (though desserts were somewhat of a disappointment), the charcuterie was nothing short of spectacular, and the restaurant is not as expensive as you might think. It’s a good addition to the neighbourhood and is a clever move from the prolific and successful Franco-American restaurateur...especially given that Heston will be serving ‘Dinner’ very soon in the same building.

Bar Food at Bar Boulud

Food blogging is a peculiar pursuit. You often get invited to events, you sometimes go, and once in a while they are really great. This was one such occasion. I met Heather Cowper at a rather random event hosted by lastminute.com a few months back. This was interesting because she is not a food blogger, but a travel blogger – another obscure species – and I had never met one before (I had seen them in cages, though). We had a nice chat and, somehow, I must have not come off as a complete bore and/or tosser.

How do I know this? Because when she organized a meal at Bar Boulud (BB) at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (MO) for a table of bloggers (Krista and Gourmet Chick were also in attendance), she for some inexplicable reason decided to invite yours truly. Laissez fare enough. Pardon the appalling pun-itive damage (gag), but I am stuck in an airport and my plane is more than three hours delayed and ain’t leaving until midnight at the earliest. So there.

Anyway, back to the task at hand. The big DB and his BB (there are, as of yet, no plans for a BB’s Little Brother). From my experiences of his establishments in New York over the years, I like the guy, his food and the way he has his restaurants run. His flagship restaurant has always served excellent food, if a bit safe, and his less formal offshoots are generally very solid as well (check out a great review from Ulterior Epicure of a recent meal at Café Boulud).

For New Yorkers in particular, and to some degree throughout the US, DB has a big profile – á la GR (apt acronym?) in the UK. Along with Danny Meyer, Keith McNally and a few others, he’s definitely one of the big players on the Manhattan restaurant scene. So it’s interesting that he’s decided to give London a shot, especially when so many NY transplants have bombed so quickly.

They have a doorman

BB has its own entrance on the left side of the MO, if you’re facing the building. It’s fairly nondescript, so if you didn’t know about it and weren’t a hotel guest, you’d probably just keep walking, despite the doorman decked out in a black suit.

I managed to find it easily enough and, as usual, arrived a bit early, so took a stroll through Harvey Nichol’s fifth floor of food and drink (well, I just hung out in the wine department and contemplated their exceedingly good range of Champagne). I just barely managed to get out of there without purchasing anything.

They have their own napkins

Upon entering BB, I wasn’t exactly sure who else I’d be dining with, but was lead to a rectangular raised table in the bar area, which afforded me a good view of the front dining room. There were two other bloggers already there who I didn’t know (Anthony, who runs the very cool Mr & Mrs Smith travel blog and Eva), making me fashionably not first one to arrive. 🙂

Before moving on, I would like to clear up one inaccuracy that I’ve noticed in reports about the restaurant. There are windows, and they do provide some natural light – granted this is only in the front of the dining room, but they are there. So there.

And they have David, an extremely feisty & passionate sommelier, who’s the life of the party...and the lifeblood of the restaurant

Before I knew what had hit me, David Vareille, the restaurant’s sommelier had taken the stage at the head of our table and began regaling us with entertaining tales about the fermented grape juice he was bursting to tell us about. This guy is a treasure. He is outspoken, very knowledgeable and definitely beats to the tune of his own drum. There are some real gems within his cellar’s booty, and we were lucky enough to taste a few of them, many of which won’t set you back all that much.

Another great feature of BB is that they feature a large bottle of the day, every day. David picks a magnum (or other large format bottle) that he thinks is interesting for whatever reason and then comes up with a very reasonable price per glass, so that customers can experience a wine they may not otherwise be able to try. For example, if he opened up a Mouton or a Lafite, you might be able to sample a glass for around £45-55 (depending on the vintage), which although still ridiculously expensive, is reasonable within the context of this royal couple of the wine world. It’s worth popping down just to see what the large bottle of the day is. I think he should start a twitter account and announce what large bottle they will be serving that day and name the price.

But once again I digress. We were there to eat some food, right?

A Meeting of Meats

As I’ve already written a lengthy preamble – hey, what else is new – I will be sparse with my culinary comments. You may think this is a deliberate choice, but the reality is that I had a bit too much of David’s wines, didn’t take notes, and that my detailed recollection of everything is slightly patchy at best. So I am sparing you from my usual more anatomical dissections. Everyone can drink to that.

Charcuterie Board & Mustards

Okay, so if you don’t read another sentence after this, pay attention to this one. We were able to sample all of their charcuterie…and it is phenomenal – I would recommend going alone just for this if you’re in the mood for that kind of thing.

All of the chartcuterie is courtesy of Gilles Verot, who (from memory) supplies DB’s establishments on the other side of the pond, so you don’t need much more background than that. Of particular note for me were the Tourte au Canard (duck, foie gras, figs and pastry crust), Pâté Grand-Père (coarse country pâté, foie gras, truffle juice and port), Lapin de Garrigue (Provençal pulled rabbit, carrot, courgette and herbs) and the Jambon de Bayonne (Basque cured ham).

A plate with a variety of vegetables, olive oil-marinated cod, shrimp and aioli dipping sauce was also brought out (not pictured), and while the sauce was nice, I don’t think I would have paid the £18 for this platter. Strangely enough, the thing I enjoyed most on the plate was the exceedingly fresh and crunchy radishes.

Sausages in Small Pans

Next, some sausages appeared – and they just kept coming. I wish I had taken notes, but I didn’t, so all I can tell you is that I loved the spicy sausages on the left side of the above picture. The one on the right wasn’t bad, but was in my bottom two.

Boudin Blanc

I had read rave reviews of the boudin blanc sausages, but I would actually make these the other sausages in my bottom two. They were rich, due to the infusion of truffles, and soft, but they didn’t hold much interest for me. Not bad by any means, just not a personal favorite. The accompanying mash was pretty good.

Thai Sausages

I actually enjoyed the pork-filled Thai sausages a bit more. They had a firm texture, sort of like a Swedish frank, and were accompanied by a nice spicy sauce and Asian garnishing with papaya on the side – they went down a treat.

Boudin Noir

The darker boudin babies were rich, but not too rich for my blood (another bad pun, as they are made from blood and pig’s head), and were complemented by scallion potato and piment d’espelette. They would make a nice big appetizer or a smallish main course, and would probably leave you quite content with life.

The DBGB Piggie Burger

There has been a lot of hype about BBBs (last B = burgers, keep up already). We were lucky enough to have a sampling of all three. This meant that they cut each burger up into quarters, so we could mix and match. The disadvantage of this was that they got a little bit cold, but I wasn’t complaining. They were all cooked well (medium rare) and had brioche-type buns (the ‘Frenchie’ bun was slightly peppered and the ‘Piggie’ bun had cheddar baked in). As Krista pointed out, though, none of them were toasted, nearly a cardinal sin for some burger aficionados. The quality of the meat, and the rest of the fillings, was excellent and I enjoyed them all. They didn’t get me particularly excited, but they were some of the better ones (top three) I’ve sampled in London. Out of the three variations, I enjoyed the ‘Yankee’ the best (it’s the plain one, and I usually like my burgers fairly unadorned) and the ‘Frenchie’ (my wife is French, but that’s not why – I particularly enjoyed the green chilli mayonnaise and BBQ pulled pork).

Loup de Mer au Citron Confit

Better still was the main course of lemon sea bass which we shared. I only had a few bites, but the skill of the kitchen was obvious here. The fish was very fresh, had been cooked perfectly, with a crispy golden exterior, and kept moist and flaky inside. I loved the accompaniments as well. This was a simple but fairly flawless dish.

I didn’t take a clear photo of it (so no image), but we also sampled the Chop-Chop Salad, an homage to New York I suppose, which was quite refreshing given all the meat resting in our belabored stomachs by that point. It was actually a really enjoyable salad and it’s available at lunchtime for £6.50, though if you want to put a half lobster in it – which I thought was totally unnecessary and counterintuitive as lobster is a luxury ingredient and salad ain’t, right? – that will cost you an extra £15!

Gâteau Chocolat-Frambroise

Unfortunately, many of the desserts were a disappointment, a shame as they all sounded (and looked ) so good too. The chocolate and raspberry cake was perfectly passable, and was certainly nicely presented, but it lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. No X Factor, so maybe it should audition for Gâteau’s Got Talent.

Gâteau Basque

The humble Basque cake was also fine, and a pretty honest rendition of the classic dessert from the region. I guess these kind of simple cakes are not really my thing, so while it was good (not overly dry and plenty of flavour), it didn’t send my pulse racing.

Tarte Mocha Chocolat

The chocolate mocha tart was better, with a deep rich chocolate flavor and a luscious sphere of caramel ice cream plopped down beside it.

Coupe de Fruits Exotiques

The above dessert served in a Martini glass was as pretty as a picture, and was a refreshing taste after the aforementioned tartage. Again, nothing earth-shattering, but the mascarpone foam and the coconut-passion fruit sorbet were both enjoyable.

Íle Flottante

Possibly the best of the bunch was the classic French dessert of Íle Flottante. It was pretty perfect, and nearly as nice as the one I had at Arbutus a while back (which, by the way, is currently the banner image at the top of this blog), though it did lack the crunch factor that makes the latter one so memorable. Anyway, BB’s version had air-light meringue and the crème anglaise and strawberries were the perfect foil. It was very moreish.

Coupe Peppermint

The biggest let-down of the evening for me, however, was the chocolate mint dessert. Pourquoi? Because, despite my love for fine cuisine, I simply adore mint chocolate chip ice cream – it’s a childhood thing – and always order it if it’s on the list and doesn’t look too fake a shade of green. I pretty much love anything that has chocolate and mint together (Aqua Fresh, you listening?). I don’t know why, but this just tasted wrong. Something in the mint smacked of artificiality. I would doubt that they use any dodgy ingredients at BB, but it just let me down…so I went back to my work as producer of Lost, i.e. I made that floating island disappear.

Unloved Regions, Lovely Wines

David walked us through some brilliant regional French wines over the course of the evening, selecting particular bottles to go with the different courses. He is particularly partial to Burgundy as he hails from near Chablis (coincidentally one of my favorite wine regions).

2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix

My favorite wine of the evening came from the Southern end of the Côte de Nuits in Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. It was a stow-shopper, especially when considering the price when compared to some of the fine white Burgundy that it might be mistaken for during a blind tasting. A complex, exotic and highly perfumed nose of apple, peaches, pears and subtle smokiness revealed a superbly balanced and full-bodied behemoth of soft fruitiness, honey, cream, a touch of spice and a vibrant streak of minerality. This was wonderful stuff, and while not cheap at £15.50 a glass at BB, you can get a bottle at under £25 retail. Highly recommended.

2006 Domaine Didier Charavin, Rasteau (Prestíge)

Many people have probably not heard of the area around Rasteau in South-eastern France (the Provence-Alpes-Côte- d’Azur region)…either had I…but this wine will make you stand up and take notice. The Charavin family are well-known in the region and Didier took over the domain in 1985. They make three cuvées and the Prestíge draws upon Syrah (30-40%) and old vine Grenache for the rest, being aged for 6-9 months in demi-muids. It is certainly a full-on wine, similar in many ways to a powerful Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it needs a strong dish to bring out its best. A melange of gamey notes, lots of dark fruit, and maybe a bit of leather, it was very round and hugely satisfying. Not one to sip on its own, but when paired with a hearty stew or meaty dish, it is a special wine. It goes for £32.50 a bottle at BB, but I’d be surprised if it cost much more than £15-17 retail (if you can find it).

2009 Domaine Les Yeuses (Vin De Pays d’Oc, France), Vermentino & 2008 Salomon Undhof (Hochterrassen, Austria), Grüner Veltliner

Toward the end of the meal, a pair of whites emerged. The charming Vermentino was a good example of the grape, and produced baskets of exotic fruits and bouquets of fresh flowers in my mind. I had a few glasses of that, and found it more intriguing than the perfectly acceptable but not particularly memorable Grüner pictured above.

As a side note, another wine I really enjoyed during the meal, but forgot to photograph, was the 2007 Benoit Cantin from Irancy in France, which was crafted from 100% Pinot Noir. I have had a few other Pinots from the same appellation and not been overly impressed, but this was a beauty. A somewhat typical nose of cherries and berries, what sticks out in my mind was the elegant and soft tannins and the depth of the cherry flavour. It had a nice finish too, not all that long, but refreshing. It sells for £10/glass at BB, but if buying retail by 6-bottle case, it goes for about £16/bottle, which is good value indeed.

Lastly, as we dusted off the desserts, David brought a nice alternative of a sweet wine out for us to try. Actually it wasn’t wine, per se, but an ice cider (cidre de glace) from Quebec. It was new to me, but it was a wonderful idea, and would complement any dessert with apple or pear very nicely – it was perfectly balanced with great hit of acidity to balance the sweetness of the dominant apple flavor.

Perfectly Fine to Wine and Dine

My overall experience at BB was a positive one. There were no real duds in terms of the food (and we had a lot of it), although I don’t think the aioli would be worth ordering. As already mentioned, the charcuterie was as fine as I’ve had in London and the burgers were prepared with good ingredients, cooked well and tasted like…well…proper burgers. I thought the sea bass was fantastic, and would order it again. Aside from some of the desserts, many of which sounded and looked better than they tasted, the kitchen showed a very good pedigree and potential.

Open Kitchen & Bar Seating

Of course, I was sitting with a group of chatty and friendly bloggers, and the restaurant did sort of pander to us throughout most of the meal. Plus we didn’t pay a penny. So I can’t vouch for the experience you would have if you came as a couple or small group for dinner at BB, but my guess is you’d like a lot of it, and that the service would be pretty polished. But eating out is a subjective thing, and a lot of it can depend on the day.

It’s a weird thing: while I really enjoyed it at BB, I haven’t felt a strong urge to return since – nothing against them, probably just more to do with my food cravings at the moment, or possibly the fact that we pretty much ate the entire menu so there are no surprises left (?) – although I would certainly drop by to see what magnum they were serving by the glass, and maybe munch on some sort of meaty number(s) to keep me sober.

I also found it personally amusing that DB had decided to come to London at around the same time I had decided to move back to New York – I hope that both of us have chosen the right place at the right time. At the worst, BB can serve as spillover for those who can’t eat ‘Dinner’ with Heston from the beginning of December (according to the good folks at the MO), and he does have all those well-heeled hotel guests, so I would guess that BB will be around for a while.

Storm Troopers would feel at home

Finally, I found it odd that the B-room at BB was completely stark – all white, no red (and certainly no blue). What a contrast to the burgundy-themed restaurant. I don’t mention it for any other reason that I took a photo of it and thought it odd while perusing the shots I took from the evening. So there.

PS – last random bit of info – in the middle of our meal, the former MP and PM, MT, walked into BB with an entourage of about three. I guess right now, this is somehow the place to B.

*Note: I have been to Bar Boulud in London once, it was for dinner, and I was a guest of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park (and thus didn’t pay anything toward the bill).*

Bar Boulud (Mandarin Oriental Hotel) on Urbanspoon

Doughnut Burger – Delicious or Dire?

The Vodoo Doughnut Burger - the name says it all...

The Voodoo Doughnut Burger from 'The Original: A Dinerant' in Portland, Oregon - the name says it all...

My cousin forwarded this blog post to my brother, who then forwarded it to me.

It hails from Portland, Oregon (USA) and I am really not sure what to make of it – on the one hand it is totally disgusting, but on the other hand I am slightly intrigued.

What do you make of this odd concoction?

The Original: A Dinerant on Urbanspoon