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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Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley – Petrusalvation

Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley
The Berkeley
Wilton Place
London SW1X 7RL
Website
Map
Online bookings

  • Menus: prix-fixe lunch menu at £20 (2 courses), £28 (3 courses) or £50 (3 courses plus wine pairing chosen by sommelier); dinner is £80 for the 3-course à la carte menu, £85 for the ‘du jour’ menu (weekends only), £98 for the ‘prestige’ menu & £120 for the ‘gourmand’ menu (weekends only)
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr page

I was pleasantly surprised by the generally wonderful food I ate during a recent lunch at Marcus Wareing’s plush premises, which still retain the refrain of red Bordeaux from their previous proprietor’s rein. Nearly every dish was unabashedly redolent with robust & clearly delineated flavors that sang on the palate, while service was professional & well-meaning. Sure, the backdrop may be a bit dated & smack of economic excesses; and yes, the clientele seems to fit a particular stereotype, but the food certainly makes the attractively priced prix-fixe lunch tempting. And once you’ve had that, you might be tempted to explore further should your purse strings be flexible enough to cope. It’s not the most exciting or trendy restaurant in London right now, but the cooking certainly sets the bar high.

Curing my curiosity

I had been in London for a week, mostly for what turned out to be an exceedingly stressful and long week of work. However, after visiting Mrs. LF’s family in France on our second weekend in Europe, and returning to London with two days off before heading back to the US, I was looking forward to some relaxation, and hopefully a good meal…or two.

The day after our arrival the weekend prior, we had the good fortune to dine at the chef’s table of Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, and his first in London. I hope to post about that meal next, as we had a great time – Baby LF included – and generally enjoyed the food. My only other fancy meal for the trip was originally supposed to be at Pied à Terre, the dual Michelin star stalwart on Charlotte Street, at which I enjoyed a meal with my parents a number of years ago. However, with news that its head chef Shane Osbourne was to be departing rather soon, my dining colleague and I decided it might be more fun to try somewhere else.

In fact, in planning my London trip, I had originally thought about trying the seemingly good value prix-fixe lunch menu at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley, despite the fact that I have never been a great fan of the current name adorning the restaurant’s masthead. Having never met the man in person or tasted his food, ‘who am I to judge anyway’ is a fair enough question. I guess I have just never liked the way he comes off on camera, or in press comments/interviews, or through accounts of him from people I know. However, I was informed by my partner in crime that the kitchen’s current head chef was definitely a talent (formerly holding the position of sous-chef at noma in Copenhagen) and, as I had always wanted to see what all the fuss was about anyway, it seemed like a grand idea – or at least a grand setting.

The restaurant’s Bordeaux red tones remain the same, even if the name has changed

If you enter the hotel from Wilton Place, just off Knightsbridge, you head straight to your right, through an open and pleasant informal dining space. Once through this area, two doors stand before you, they are opened (of course you would not open them yourself at a 5-star hotel), and you enter a fairly intimate rectangular dining room.

As I was the first one to arrive, I was seated on a cushioned bench at one of the three squat tables that serve as the waiting area, and I must admit I felt rather awkward on my own seated next to two smartly dressed older couples who were enjoying aperitifs and some nibbles before taking their proper seats. After fiddling with my phone for a bit, I was about to order some Champagne as this seemed to be what one should do (and I never say no to some good Champagne), but my partner in crime arrived just in time to prevent a minor fleecing of funds from my wallet.

As you would expect, the dining room tables were traditionally and faultlessly appointed, with perfectly ironed linen, fancy napery and so on and so forth. As many UK readers will know, this restaurant was formerly called Petrus, and was run by Gordon Ramsay Holdings before Marcus and Gordon went their separate ways in not such an amicable fashion. Ramsay recently, and rather ridiculously if you ask me, opened a new restaurant of the same name not that far away from the original one. Old habbits, and aging egos, die hard it would seem.

In any case, the dining room that David Collins designed in 2003 for the original Petrus remains largely the same so far as I could tell, with rich claret being the color of concentration. The metal gridding adorning the windows is reminiscent of a wine rack, reinforcing the theme. Tables are very well spaced, and parties of two are seated at four and eight o’clock. It is a formal room and most of the guests on the day we dined were probably over 50 and all very well turned out. I wondered if the food would be as traditional as the setting.

Tour de flavor

We were presented with a number of menu options, but in the end decided to go with the prix-fixe menu, which gives you two options for starters and mains and three choices for desserts, plus the amuse bouche(s), pre-dessert and petit fours that you expect at a restaurant that is catering for an inspector or two from a particular tire company. All in all, I thought it was pretty good value at £38 if the cooking would hold muster, and even better at £50 with a wine pairing thrown in.

In order to be completely transparent, for one reason or another – either because of our photo snapping or because of the name on our reservation – we did receive a few extra courses, which we had not asked for and for which we were not charged (these were: starters 1 and 3, which came with accompanying wines, plus possibly an additional pre-dessert).

Canapé 1: Crispy Fried Chicken, Pickled Mustard Seed Mayo & Waffle

First out of the kitchen was a warm and delectable little morsel. The textures of crispy chicken skin and soft waffle were appealing, with a slight trace of good poultry flavor and an excellent creamy mustard giving it some verve. If someone in America’s Deep South tried to distil some of the classic dishes from that region into a refined party canapé, this quite possibly would have been the result.

Canapé 2: Taramasalata, Radishes & Herbs on Melba Toast

One of my dirty kitchen secrets is that I quite enjoyed a particular supermarket’s tub of taramasalata when I lived in the UK. Slightly pink, creamy and salty, it always did the trick for a quick no-hassle snack. This version, besides being extremely beautiful to look at – with the micro herbs and delicate radish slices – was miles removed from the commercial stuff. It was definitely the best taramasalata I have I’ve ever had, including versions from well-known Mediterranean restaurants and a few home kitchens. Another extremely refined nibble that was not shy in the flavor department.

Canapé 3: Smoked Aubergine Dip with Mint Yogurt & Melba Toast

Sticking with the Mediterranean theme, we were given some more crisp melba toast in a basket, with a wonderful dip of eggplant and mint yogurt, which was quite ambitiously salted, but this worked due to the creaminess of the yogurt and the faint sweetness of the mint.

I was surprised with all three canapés as I had expected to be served very traditional French or British foods at the restaurant, and we had already been flown to the South of the USA and back to Greece. I was wondering what would come next.

I would give this opening trio of snacks an 8/10 as they were bursting with flavour and pretty original, at least within this context, and compared to my expectations.

Amuse Bouche: Butternut Squash Soup, Ginger Foam & Ginger Crunch – Served with Peanut Breadsticks

Our next course came in a narrow glass that contained what appeared to be some sort of deep orange milkshake, replete with whipped cream and toppings. It was in fact a butternut squash soup, which had a lovely creamy texture and was perfectly seasoned. The slightly sweet accent from the froth on top and the spice of ginger elevated this dish to live up to its appetizing presentation. Another strong dish, another 8/10.

Starter 1: Raw Orkney Scallops, Tapioca, Australian Finger Lime, Wild Strawberries, Lemon Vinegar & Thai Basil

We both received the next dish which, in my opinion, was one of the more beautiful plates I have had the pleasure of looking at in while. Luckily, the taste again lived up to the promise of the presentation. This dish was all about the sweetness of the Scottish scallops being married to the bright acidity and tang of the finger limes and lemon vinegar. Some additional sweetness was provided by dainty wild strawberries and a few sprigs of Thai basil. This cold plate warmed my heart and reminded me of my frozen plate of sea urchins at noma a few months prior (possibly because of the connection between the Orkney Islands and the lone Scotsman who caught the sea urchins at the Northern tip of Scandinavia). 9/10.

Starter 2: Smoked Goats’ Cheese, Shallot, Mint & Potato Bread

Next came the starter I had actually ordered from the menu. This was pure genius and not at all what I had been expecting to find at a ‘fine dining’ restaurant. It was probably not such an expensive dish to put together, but its rich flavors proved you don’t need fancy ingredients to make something taste amazing. The shallots had been beautifully cooked and were hence exceedingly sweet. This allied well with the smokiness that ran through the dish, from both the cheese and the char on the potato bread. The yogurt was excellent, as it had been in our canapés, and the mint – which arrived in both liquid and leaf form – not only added a pretty visual accent, but a significant layer of flavor too. I almost licked my plate clean. 9/10.

Starter 3: Langoustine, Black Pudding, Blood Orange & Leek

Another unannounced dish was presented shortly thereafter, and this one was also a looker. A classic combination of black pudding and langoustines was executed very well, but it was again the minute but flavorful accents that set this above other versions that I’ve had of this pairing. Besides its citrus notes, the blood orange added good acidity to cut through the sweetness of the langoustines and the richness of the black pudding. The langoustines were very close to the texture and sweetness of the ones I had at noma, and they were cooked very well, retaining their moisture and soft texture. 8/10.

Main Course: Cornish Pollock, Orecchiette, Dead Nettle, Preserved Lemon & Olive

Unfortunately, one of the two dud notes in this thus far edible symphony was my main course. I have had Pollock a few times before, and it has never been my favorite of fishes, but I thought in such a kitchen they might be able to elevate this humble craniate to new heights. Sadly it was not to be. The fish itself seemed a little too dry to me, and it just didn’t have much flavor. The same couldn’t be said of the accompaniments, which were actually excellent…on their own, that is. I really enjoyed the robust flavors that came from the green nettle (mimicking pesto in texture), the particularly sweet tomato (did they add a sweetening agent?), some bittersweet preserved lemon and purple olives. The homemade pasta they came with was first-rate too, cooked as al dente as you’d get in a proper Italian restaurant. So if it had just been a bowl of pasta with sauce, great, but unfortunately the fish and the rest of it just didn’t integrate at all and I almost didn’t see the point in finishing the fish itself. 6/10.

Men at Work

Our waiter asked us if we would like a tour of the kitchen as we waited for our desserts, and we certainly had no reason to decline. It turned out Marcus was not in the kitchen – I would guess he was in St Pancras Renaissance Hotel at the then soon-to-open (and now opened) The Gilbert Scott, his second London restaurant – but his head chef, James Knappett (who is on twitter, by the way), was present and had a lot of interesting things to say. I think the three of us actually ended up talking for nearly half an hour, and we learned a lot about the restaurant’s extremely high quality of sourcing of ingredients, plus the serious effort they put into making as many things as they can in the kitchen from scratch (including all of the pastas, for instance). It was also great to see them finishing all of the plates going out at the pass.

Pre-Dessert: Cubed Cake (Possibly Caramelized White Chocolate) & Honeycomb

After our seventh-inning, and eight-course stretch, we returned to our table, where we were met with another delight. I am not sure exactly what this creamy cube of a cake was called, but it was delicious, with a decadent dark chocolate layer on top, and some crumbled honeycomb whose crunchiness and mellow sweetness worked perfectly with it. 8/10.

Pre-Dessert 2: ‘Manhattan'

Given my current city of work, it was a shame that the other real shortcoming in my meal was the ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert. I really can’t recall much about it except that both my dining partner and I didn’t like it at all. It was a shame considering it was quite an attractive little glass. I prefer not to score this as, if I did, it would probably be around a three and disproportionately bring down the score for the overall meal. My strong reaction to it was probably due to my dislike of the flavors inherent within the glass (I remember something like blackcurrant and/or kirsch, neither of which I care for much).

Dessert: Custard Tart, Rhubarb & Black Pepper

We both ordered an evolved version of Marcus’ Wareing’s now classic British dessert, which originally made it through to the final event in the first series of The Great British Menu television, and, and was served to HRH herself. I didn’t fall in love with it, but I did enjoy most elements of the complicated plate, with its pink, creamy Hershey kisses, candied rhubarb, crispy crumbs and ice cream. The custard tart itself was very good, but I thought there was too much going on otherwise – it all seemed a sideshow, a distraction. The flavour of black pepper did come through very strongly, and I had mixed feelings about how this interacted with the sweeter-than-expected rhubarb flavour and the firm custard itself. I think the original version may have been better, though I never tried it. I would personally pare this down a bit more, at least presentation-wise. 6/10.

2005 santadi latinia (sardinia)

The sommelier recommended a sticky wine from Sardinia to go with dessert and it was pleasant enough though it didn’t get my palate racing. It was also quite aggressively priced, but I couldn’t complain given the extra courses and wines we had been given.

Bonbon Trolley

We were both totally stuffed at this point and, despite my noted sweet teeth, I couldn’t bring myself to sample a single sphere from the prodigious and immaculate bonbon trolley. 😦

A splendid surprise

As I pointed out at the beginning, my expectations were not very high before our meal, and most of the food we were served far exceeded them. For the most part, each dish had been technically very well prepared, and the unifying theme – as there didn’t seem to be a particular type of cuisine being served – was the fullness of the flavors. Out of the all the dishes we tasted (and that was a fair many), the only dish in particular seemed lacking in this department was my companion’s starter of mackerel, cucumber, beetroot, carrot, finger lime and chilli.

Pretty Picture, Muted Flavors

It looked beautiful (see the photo above), but it just didn’t function well as a whole, and was quite bland, with the star of the show – the mackerel – leaving something to be desired. (I must add that his main course of beef cheeks and bone marrow was completely the opposite, with deep flavors that begged to be eaten). The only other thing we both didn’t like was the cute little ‘Manhattan’ pre-dessert, but this is nitpicking. The fact is the food here certainly belongs in a small handful of the best London ‘fine dining’ restaurants.

Marcus, Part Deux

The service throughout the meal, which was delivered by a diverse cast of characters, was generally very good. Besides one person who I think took himself a tad too seriously, everyone was knowledgeable, friendly and professional. The interaction was definitely on the formal side, but this is what you expect at such a venue.

If I still lived in London, I don’t think I would be chomping at the bit to return asap, but I certainly would like to explore more of the menu as I think the kitchen is performing at a very high level. And if I had a business meeting or formal occasion to celebrate, this would definitely be one of the places I would consider. I guess this is proof that you can’t always judge a chef by his TV cover(age). Good show.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is a seriously thick, heavy, leather-bound tome of over 40 pages, which has some great wine from excellent producers. There is a good selection by the glass and half bottle too, although it seems very aggressively priced across the board, with mark-ups of 4 times or so common throughout. You can see a list of the wines we had by the glass that the sommelier chose for the pairings with our dishes.

The wines we drank

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley once, and it was for a weekday lunch. Please note above that we received two extra starters – with accompanying wine – plus possibly an extra pre-dessert, for which we did not ask and did not pay of, likely as we were either known to the house or simply because they saw that we were interested and taking photos of the food*

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