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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Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – It’s Technically Delicious

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
at The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
Website
Map
Online Reservations … but you will likely need to try the old-fashioned way on +44 (0)20 7201 3833

  • Menu: starters £13.50-16, mains £26-36, sides £4.50, desserts £9-12; the chef’s table accommodates up to 6 people and there is a minimum spend of £900 for the table
  • You can view the entire set of photos from this meal on my Flickr site

Heston Blumenthal’s first London restaurant has set the UK’s food media into a frenzy. And with some good reason – the food is pretty good. In a similar vein to the Fat Duck, there is a lot of work that goes into the creation of each dish – both intellectually and in terms of the technical skill required to consistently replicate each deceivingly simple dish on a much grander scale than any of his Bray outposts. The kitchen generally pulls it off, and the service seemed to be pretty spot-on when we dined there (though we were at the chef’s table, so you would expect nothing less). Don’t come expecting the dramatic culinary theatre that Heston is famous for at the Fat Duck – and on many of his TV programs – as the dishes here are far more straightforward in their presentation, with a few exceptions. With a windowful view of Hyde Park – thanks to the newly installed floor-to-ceiling windows – and its very own Swiss watchmaker-fashioned rotating gas-fired rotisserie for pineapples, it’s definitely worth trying when in London.

Much ado about something

First things first. This post is late in coming. Very late. I won’t bore you with why, but apologies for the lack of activity for the last month or so.

This is the last of my posts from the at-one-point recent trip to London I made earlier this year. And what a way to end. But in every end there is a beginning, as one of my favorite poets often said.

The only way I could actually score a table at what was then being billed by most as the hottest restaurant opening in London in a long time, and by some as the best new restaurant in the world (which was probably taking things a little too far), was to book the chef’s table. When I enquired, I found out that there is technically no fee for booking the table, but there is a minimum spend of £900, which can be split amongst up to six guests…so definitely the more the merrier. The £150/person price, in the case of six, pays for the tasting menu, which enables you to sample much of the à la carte menu. Drinks and service will cost extra.

One small point, which relates smaller people. We wanted to bring our daughter with us (who at the time was nine months old), and although this seemed to present a problem at first, the issue was eventually resolved (indeed, there had been no issue in the first place but we seemingly had been misinformed the first time around), though not without some time and effort.

In any case, I will assume for the benefit of most readers that you know who Heston Blumenthal is (if not, see my previous review of his Michelin 3-star restaurant in Bray), and that you know that ‘Dinner’ is his first restaurant in London. You can read about the word play – a typical example of Heston’s historical whimsy – on the restaurant’s website or in many of the other reviews out there. Apparently, the Mandarin Oriental, in which the restaurant is housed, insisted that they use his name on the masthead, even though he personally will not be the chef at the restaurant – a fact he has been refreshingly transparent about from the beginning. Heston’s right-hand man, Ashley Palmer-Watts is in charge of quite literally a small army of chefs (there are more than 40) and kitchen staff, most of whom remain cleverly shielded from the restaurant’s customers, who are likely none the wiser.

Conference of the chefs at the pass

There are 126 covers at Dinner, which makes it by far the largest of Heston’s restaurants – the Fat Duck only has about 40 covers by comparison, and his two pubs in Bray (the Hinds Head and The Crown) are also far smaller. The part of the kitchen that is visible to diners is open, though mostly covered by a sheet of glass that comes down from the ceiling. There are two large islands in the kitchen, which were custom-made by Rorgue, that utilize multi-point induction hobs. As many readers will already know, Heston is well-known for using the sous-vide (or ‘water bath’) method for cooking many of the proteins in his dishes, and there are correspondingly seven large built-in water baths in the main kitchen itself. There is also a Josper oven, which can reach temperatures of over 930° F, which is used for the beef dishes.

A chef in the hidden prep kitchen behind the chef’s table (the thin windows can be automatically made opaque whenever they wish so diners can’t see through)

In addition to all of this, there is a pastry kitchen, which is more or less hidden behind the chef’s table, and there are more prep kitchens located out of site in the bowels of the hotel.

A casual yet carefully considered interior

The design of the restaurant is pleasant enough, without demanding your attention. But once you begin to look around, you do notice that in true Heston style, no detail in this Adam Tihany designed room has been left unconsidered. The space is very open, with high ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows that were newly installed with the changing of the restaurant’s guard. Brown and gray hues dominate the lower reaches, with wood flooring, unadorned wooden tables, and classy cushioned banquettes. Then there are the oft-noted jelly mold (or possibly cake mold) lamps and the Swiss watchmaker Ebel-designed chrome and steel pulley-operated rotating gas fire rotisserie…for what else but pineapples. The front of house is also smartly attired in well-tailored suits and waistcoats.

We were lucky enough to be dining at the chef’s table

Being at the chef’s table, we had the benefit of each course being presented by the head chef himself. The table itself is very spacious and comfortable for the full party of six, and is arranged in a u-shape that directly overlooks the pass of the semi-open kitchen. Ashley wasn’t there on the day of our visit, but we couldn’t have been happier with the extremely personable Sous Chef Dale, who was heading up the kitchen in his absence.

With Baby LF comfortably seated in one of the corners of the bench seating, some of us opened the beautiful boxes that had been laid down in front of us to peruse the tasting menu.

Lunching at Dinner

The good thing about sitting at the chef’s table is that you get to try a lot of what the normal menu has to offer. In fact, there are no special courses, but rather tasters of the à la carte menu, plus a little surprise at the end which has not yet been rolled out to the main dining room so far as I am aware.

No, it’s not a jewellery box, it’s just your menu, complete with a metal scroll-holder

We did have a quick a look at the menu, although you can obviously keep it a surprise and take it home as a souvenir. However, I wanted to ensure we would be able to taste all of the dishes I had in mind – by this point I had distilled all of the reviews into a list of must-try dishes – so we ended up adding a couple more things to share between the table, something the kitchen was happy to accommodate.

Bread & Butter

While we waited for the first course to arrive, we nibbled on some good quality bread and salted butter, and got comfortable in our little semi-private enclave.

HAY SMOKED MACKEREL (c. 1730): Lemon Salad, Gentleman’s Relish & Olive Oil

This was a pleasant, light and flavorful beginning to the meal. Gentleman’s relish is the nod to history within the dish. Also called patum peperium, it is basically an anchovy paste, which in this case was quite mild and was formed from garlic and anchovy paste as well as a lemon mayonnaise. The pickled lemon salad on top interplayed well with the smoked mackerel, which had a good texture to it. It was perhaps not the most cleanly plated dish, but the flavors worked harmoniously and I enjoyed it. 7/10.

MEAT FRUIT (c. 1500): Mandarin, Chicken Liver Parfait & Grilled Bread

I don’t think there is much to say about this dish if you have already read about it elsewhere. Suffice to say that if you did not know that the inside consisted of chicken liver parfait, you could easily be forgiven for thinking it was an actual mandarin orange, so accomplished was its guise (for those interested, the parfait is frozen so that the gel can set and then it defrosts naturally). The only thing that was not edible was the faux stem and leaves plucked into the top of the creamy spread. What I will say is that the mandarin flavor provided by the outside jelly casing provided a faint but lovely citric counterpoint to the rich foie gras pâté. Jelly is historically a common partner to foie gras, so perhaps this was the nod to the past that the dish was going for. The bread was grilled nicely, with five distinct lines of char, and was the perfect vessel to carry this little ball of mandarin madness to your eagerly waiting mouth. (As a side-note, I am sure the hotel is not too upset that the this dish has almost become the mascot for the restaurant given the fruit after which it was fashioned :)). 9/10.

2006 Disznókö Tokaji Aszu, 4 Puttonyos

Much like Billy Joel, we were quite content with a bottle of white and a bottle of red for our meal (even though it wasn’t an Italian restaurant) as not everyone was drinking. However, with the meat fruit I sort of made people have a glass of this above Tokaji. Good thing too, because it was pretty remarkable. It was elegant and had a lingering clean finish that kept it from being anywhere in the vicinity of cloying, and it paired remarkably well with the meat fruit. Highly recommended.

RICE & FLESH (c. 1390): Saffron, Calf Tail & Red Wine (Extra Course)

I had really wanted to try Heston’s version of Risotto Milanese, which at Dinner dons a rather more evocative moniker. The table was split on this one. While the rice was perfectly al dente and the calf tail was gorgeously rich, the dish did have a very strong zing of acidity to it – I would assume from the saffron – and while I didn’t find it off-putting, some did. I thought the garnishing of red amaranth was a nice touch. I will refrain from scoring the dish as everyone just had a spoonful or too and it wasn’t mine alone.

SALAMUGUNDY (c. 1720): Roast Quail, Marrowbone & Horseradish

This dish seems to have gotten a bad rap from many people who have been to the restaurant and reviewed or commented on it. I am happy to be contrarian here as everyone at our table – including me – thought it was pretty excellent. Maybe it was because ours had quail, and I think that the version most people have had contains chicken oysters instead. The quail’s breast was very nicely cooked and went well with the little wobbly discs of bone marrow and the roasted vegetables. The dish was bound together by a horseradish fluid gel, which was made from milk that had been infused with horseradish and then thickened. Some people have commented about the (lack of) quality of the salad leaves, but they seemed perfectly acceptable to me on this occasion. The plating, as with the first course, did seem a little haphazard, but I guess this was purposeful. 8/10.

ROAST TURBOT (c. 1830): Cockle Ketchup & Leaf Chicory

There were lots of varieties of ketchups swimming around before Mr. Heinz reared his head (there is cockle, cucumber and mushroom ketchup on Dinner’s menu alone), and this was the historical element in the turbot dish. Besides the fish, there were baby chicory leaves which were quite bitter and some cockle ketchup which was meant to offset the astringency; the ketchup was made from thickened mussel stock, combined with fresh cockles, capers, gherkins, pickled lemons, pickled shallots, herbs and a tiny bit of tartar. Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone enjoyed the flavors of this dish too much, although the turbot was skilfully cooked. A persistent taste of the sea, which was not particularly pleasant to me, seemed to overwhelm everything else on the plate. Possibly someone else’s cup of ‘t’, but not mine sadly. 5/10.

BLACK FOOT PORK CHOP (C. 1860): Pointy Cabbage & Robert Sauce

Our palates were soon enjoying themselves again, however, as the next course was one of the favorites of the afternoon. This was one of the best pork chops I have ever tasted. We were only given a few slices each, but the whole chops are very thick and come from the fabled Spanish Pata Negra pigs which have excellent marbling that helps to create a very juicy piece of meat. The crunch from the cabbage and the punchiness from the small amount of the modernized Sauce Robert were the perfect complements for this perfectly simple dish. This was a case of sous-vide cooking working perfectly. The texture wasn’t gummy and it almost felt as if you were eating a fine piece of steak. 10/10.

Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips

I had forgotten to order some of Heston’s famous triple-cooked chips, but luckily the kitchen had taken care of this without me asking, and was kind enough to bring out a number of little tins of these thick-cut beauties. They were simply divine. Although I do prefer a thinner frites, it is hard to argue that these are not textbook perfect – so crispy on the outside and so soft and luscious at the core. It was a wonderful bit of starch to go with the last savory dish, which arrived at the same time. 10/10.

SPICED PIGEON (c. 1780): Ale & Artichokes

Dale explained that when they were doing their research for the menu, they came across two historic pigeon dishes, one served with ale and one with artichokes. So they decided to combine these. The pigeon breasts had been gently cooked in a water bath at 56° C for 20 minutes, which rendered them nice and tender; however the skin did have some welcome crispy caramelization to it. Amongst the artichokes were also sprinkled a smattering of onions, rocket and thyme, and the pigeon sauce was finished with an organic ale, which was fairly bitter – but this contrasted nicely with the sweetness from the artichokes and onions. Mrs. LF has never to my knowledge enjoyed a pigeon, but she couldn’t stop raving about this one. I had been worried that the sous-vide cooking might make it a very bland dish (I have recently had meals at very accomplished restaurants where this method took the enjoyment out of the main meat courses) but it again worked well in this instance and made for a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable dish. 10/10.

POACHED RHUBARB (c. 1590): Rosehips & Rhubarb Sorbet

The first of the sweeter dishes was upon us, and there was a bit of controversy here. Most people didn’t care for it too much, but more interestingly, all of us could swear that we tasted beetroot somewhere in the dessert. Not that this was a bad thing, but the kitchen confirmed that this was definitely not the case. We were stumped. So far as I could tell, it was composed of a rhubarb sorbet with fromage blanc and rosehip jam beneath it, plus a (possibly raspberry) tuile. The beautifully presented stalk of rhubarb on the side had been soaked in Campari and was nice enough. It was a fresh and pleasant dessert but the taste of it certainly didn’t wow me. 5/10.

What do you do for a living? Oh, I glaze pineapples

I decided to have a closer look at the craziness of the pineapple grilling apparatus, and got a few pictures of the glazing process. It may be gimmicky, but it is a pretty classy gimmick if you ask me. Luckily, I got to taste the fruits (literally) of the poor pineapple glazer’s labor a little while later.

TIPSY CAKE (c. 1810): Spit Roast Pineapple (Extra Course)

This was without a doubt my favorite of the desserts we sampled. The brioche cake was soaked in the most luscious mix of sugar and brandy (and quite a bit of brandy, hence the name). I can never get very excited about bread and butter pudding – although it is one of Mrs. LF’s favorite things – but I would definitely look forward to eating this most nights. The effect of the rotating roasting on the pineapple was perfect as it had been cooked evenly through and was nicely caramelized on the edges. I thought it was a marriage made in heaven. 9/10.

TAFFETY TART (c. 1660): Apple, Rose, Fennel & Blackcurrant Sorbet

We had eaten what I believe was pretty much the same dessert at the Fat Duck a while back, and I remember writing that besides being one of the most beautiful desserts I had ever come across, it was also truly delicious. I don’t know if my taste buds have moved on or what, but I just didn’t enjoy it this time around. The dessert divided opinions around the table, as had a few of the earlier courses, and I was very let down as this was one of things I was most looking forward to. It still looked very pretty, though instead of being rectangular it was now triangular, reminiscent of the poshest slice of pie you might ever see. It consisted of caramelized puff pastry, and from the bottom up there was a caramel jelly, then caramelized apple, then fromage blanc with rosewater. Beside the blackcurrant sorbet were some crystalized rose petals, fennel seeds, apple fluid gel and some actual fennel. To me the sorbet was too strong and the lovely apple flavor I remember from the Fat Duck version seemed to be absent this time around. 5/10.

NITRO ICE-CREAM TROLLEY

I am not quite sure how the white futuristic ice-cream trolley, from which ice cream is fashioned before you through the use of liquid nitrogen, harkens back to the Halcyon days of British gastronomy, but this is Heston, so you have to give him some leeway, right? In any case, the pastry chef came out of the kitchen and whipped it up in front of us. They said they were still trying to work out some of the kinks with the machine and this is apparently the reason that they haven’t brought it out to the main dining room yet. They said they wanted to make it look like it could have actually been a mixer of some kind way back when, which I guess they have succeeded in doing, but I am not sure why they made it look like something from the Jetsons instead of something more archaic (like they did with the spit roast, for example).

Getting my nitro fix

In any case, there was only one option in terms of flavors: vanilla. So we all had this plus any combination of the four toppings we wanted. I chose freeze-dried raspberries, as the above picture can attest. I didn’t particularly like the ice cream itself because it was simply too soft and hadn’t set properly yet (you can also see this from the photo, which was taken right after it was handed to me). The cone, however, was downright delectable, and was made in-house. After so much of a build up, the ice cream was a bit of a let down. I am sure they will perfect it eventually though. 5/10.

Earl Grey Tea & White Chocolate Ganache with Caraway Shortbread Biscuits

This intensely sweet concoction was served in a little teacup (without a handle) and saucer in a nod to the tea-flavored component of the ganache. I found it slightly awkward to eat and it was also a little too sticky and sweet of an ending for me. The bergamot taste came through well, but it was just too overwhelming for me after all we had eaten. 5/10.

All’s well that ends well

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea of my overall feelings about the restaurant from the somewhat mixed thoughts I (and my friends and family) had about the food. Generally speaking, there is a tremendous amount of technical skill that goes into each dish at Dinner before they even make it to the open kitchen to be finished for serving. There is also a ton of thought put into not only the historical inspirations behind the dishes, but also into the flavour combinations and balance of textures within each plate of food. While it may not be presented as fancily (or fancifully) as it is at the Fat Duck, the technical prowess of the kitchen would be hard to fault. However, this undertaking is at the other end of the spectrum from other new and interesting restaurants in London and elsewhere, which tend to focus on the quality of the produce itself and attempt to let the natural ingredients speak for themselves to different extents. These establishments do not employ the technical wizardry (or the 45 or so chefs) that Dinner does. This doesn’t make one better or worse than the other, as the enterprises have very different philosophies and aims, but it does make it a very different experience.[1]

Our own experience at Dinner was overall a very positive one. From the moment we were greeted and seated at our table, we were exceedingly well looked after. (The only instance where this didn’t happen was right toward the end as service was winding down, where things seemed to lag a little bit). Mathilde (@mathildecuisine), who joined us for the meal, was observing Lent at the time and they catered to her needs well from what I could see. Being Mathilde, when Mrs. LF asked the kitchen for some yogurt for Baby LF, she also asked for some too. Yes, this is the same woman who asked for hot chocolate at noma when only tea and coffee were offered :). As with the Danish hot chocolate she received then, she was very impressed by the quality of the simple offering of yogurt at Dinner.

I generally enjoyed the food, but the lows and highs seemed to be more exaggerated that I had expected they might be. I suppose the only dishes I didn’t really enjoy were the roasted turbot and the Taffety Tart. Although a few of the other dishes didn’t stimulate my taste buds all that much, the pork, pigeon and tipsy cake were pretty amazing in their own right.

I didn’t feel like a lot of things were all that new at Dinner (though their descriptors may try to convince you otherwise with their historical verbiage) but I did think a lot of things were excellent. And they made us feel very comfortable. We had a lovely long lunch, with Hyde Park as our backdrop, and got to catch up with old friends in a splendid setting. And you can’t really complain too much about that.[2]

Rating

Ambience: 8/10 (for the chef’s table only; I haven’t dined in the main room)

Service: 8/10 (again for the chef’s table)

Food: 7/10

Wine: the list is comprehensive (as you would expect) but the mark-ups can be stiff, and seemed to average about three times what it would cost you in a retail shop.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal once, and it was for lunch at the chef’s table* 

*Note regarding the title: In case you were wondering (I know you weren’t), the title of the review is a play on words with regards to the famous jingle (in America) for the iconic breakfast ‘cereal’ Lucky Charms.*


[1] For example, this other breed of restaurants – call it the ‘new naturals’ or what you will – also focus heavily on seasonality and availability of local ingredients, whereas I could envisage the menu at Dinner could remain more or less the same throughout much of the year, serving what it wants to serve, rather than what is abundant and fresh during each season. This is not a criticism so much as an observation.

[2] One thing I think they should watch out for is not to fall into the same trappings of the Fat Duck with regards to the menu remaining fairly static over time. As this is a larger restaurant and people will be able to return more easily than at the Fat Duck, they need to mix things up to keep it interesting for diners. I would also humbly suggest that they try to at least acknowledge the changing of the seasons when introducing new menu items.

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