Blue Hill at Stone Barns – Precious…Little

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, NY 10591
USA
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  • Menu: normally there is an option for 4, 5 and 8 courses priced at $85, $105 and $135 respectively (the 4-course menu is only on Sundays); our 8-course Valentine’s menu was $195/person (food only)
  • See the entire set of photos from this meal on my Flickr

After having had a fantastic meal at the restaurant many years ago, our recent meal – which was a set 8-course menu for Valentine’s Day – proved to be a disappointment overall, firstly because the service was awkward; secondly because the portions were in general too small; thirdly because some of the dishes just didn’t work; and lastly, because it did not seem to stick to its raison d'être of providing a ‘farm-to-table’ dining experience. Having said this, a few of the individual courses were exceptional, demonstrating that there is talent & creativity in the kitchen – but we felt that the restaurant had slightly lost its way based on this particular visit. We do however remain loyal fans of the less formal café, which we frequent quite often.

Going local for locavore

About five years ago, when still living in London, I made a trip to New York to visit my brother. We ended up taking a road trip up to Maine and, just as we were setting out, we decided to stop off for dinner at a place he knew about not too far outside of Manhattan. The restaurant was located on a large plot of farm land owned by the Rockefellers and a hot chef had not-that-long-ago established a restaurant on the premises, which had become one of the more talked about kitchens (and larders) in the New York area.

We arrived in the late afternoon and went for a walk around the grounds. We didn’t have a reservation, and the restaurant was full for dinner, but they let us sit at the bar, where we could order the same food being served in the main dining room. The bar stools turned out to be very comfortable, and the person serving our food and drink was both knowledgeable and affable. We decided to go for the ‘farm-to-table’ menu, which meant that all of the things we ate came directly from their farm, or other local farms.

Beet Burgers (photo courtesy of http://thebeersessions.com)

I fondly remember the pleasure we took in experiencing the amazing vegetables served to us that day, stripped down and sometimes nearly naked. The singularly perfect mini ‘beet burgers’ stand out in particular in my memory as one of the best bites I had before I began keeping track of dishes so ardently via my blog.

As many of you know, I moved back to the US about 6 months ago (boy, that went quick!). So imagine my surprise when I discovered that we live less than a 15-minute drive away from Blue Hill at Stone Barns.

Some of the rustic food on offer at Blue Hill Café

Since realizing our close proximity, we have gone many times to the casual Blue Hill Café for lunch, and have always enjoyed the rustic food on offer, especially their soups and the amazing savory cheese scones (you can see some photos here).

Savory Scone from Blue Hill Café

They also have regular farmers markets on the grounds, which are always fun and useful. My only niggle with the place is that they charge $5 for the privilege of parking your car on-site, which I find a tad strange and off-putting.

A winter wonderland

Anyway, I needed to plan something special for Valentine’s Day, not simply because it was V-day, but because Mrs. LF’s birthday falls on the same day and our wedding anniversary in the same week. So I figured a perfect solution would be to plan lunch at Blue Hill’s fine dining restaurant at the farm. I booked it online and made a note that we would also be bringing our 8-month old daughter.

After some emailing back and forth with the front of house, they said that while they didn’t have highchairs in the dining room they did have “tables…that are more comfortable for our younger guests.” That sounded promising and, given that Baby LF is a star when dining out with us, we thought we would be fine as long as the meal didn’t last more than a few hours. We arrived early and, just like in our back yard, there was still snow covering the ground at the farm, which had been there since late December.

Mooove this way please, folks

We walked into the reception area, checked our coats and waited to be seated. Baby LF was still in her stroller as we assumed that she would sit in that by the side of our table throughout the meal, as she normally does. However, this is where things got slightly awkward. The person who greeted us *very quickly* told us that there were no strollers allowed in the dining room. We were a little unprepared for this news, given that our plan had involved her using the stroller throughout the meal. Given that I had specially ordered flowers, which were meant to be waiting on the table, and had also purchased a special gift, which I would present to Mrs. LF table-side, I was concerned that the whole situation was going to unravel as we couldn’t understand how our daughter was going to be able to sit with us during the meal.

Luckily, the person who seemed to be in charge came by after a few uncomfortable minutes and put us more at ease, explaining that there was a table with bench seating and that she could sit in the corner between us, supported by pillows – and that, in fact, his young child had recently done so when they dined in the restaurant. His attitude was one of accommodation and he approached us in good spirits, as opposed to the brisk and borderline confrontational ‘welcome’ that we had initially received. It was weird, because in the end, we found out that the person who had first greeted us so abruptly was actually the person who had been corresponding with me via email. All he had needed to do was explain the situation in a more constructive way and relay the fact that they had a “better” solution for us than leaving our daughter in her stroller for the duration of the meal. However, this did not happen, and we began to feel even more nervous than we already did about bringing a baby into a fine dining room. I think it made them nervous too, because there was definitely some friction, and perhaps they are not used to dealing with infants in the restaurant. As far as I see it, restaurants have two choices in this regard: (a) either don’t allow children, which is perfectly fine and within their prerogative, or (b) do allow children…and if you do, don’t make your guests feel self-conscious about brining them.

(It should be noted that as we are very new to the area and don’t have anyone who can look after our daughter as of yet, we really have no other option than to bring her with us wherever we go…hence when we go out for lunch she accompanies us, and we have never had an issue, either from the restaurants we have visited – some of which have been quite fancy – or from her [as she loves dining out too!]).

Mr. LF gets romantic

In any event, when we were finally brought to the table, we were pleasantly surprised by the layout, and Baby LF absolutely loved sitting with us like an adult. She was very comfortable and could sit up or lay down with plenty of room. We were also in the corner, out of the way, so the restaurant was probably happy too.

We were so busy getting set up for the meal that Mrs. LF didn’t even notice the flowers I had ordered for her, so I had to subtly point this out to her! 🙂

The main dining room

The main dining room is simple and stylish, with dark wooden beams running across the ceiling in a maze of rectangles and triangles, plus a stunning floral arrangement in the central service area. As there was only one menu that day – especially for Valentine’s – we didn’t really need to look at the menus because there were no options, but of course I did anyway.

Petite portions, incongruent ingredients

We were in better spirits, and although my own spirits would be provided through the suggested wine pairing, I ordered a celebratory glass of Champagne for my better half.

For the lady: NV Pierre Mouncuit, Blancs de Blancs, Grand Cru, Oger Champagne / Por moi: 2006 Schramsberg Brut Rosé, Calistoga

Her Blanc de Blanc from Pierre Mouncuit was exceptionally good and I snuck a few sips when she wasn’t looking. My own American fizz was pleasant enough, and these pink and white sparklers were going to serve another purpose besides mirroring my flower arrangement – we would sip them while nibbling on our amuse bouches and also for the first course.

Amuse Bouche: Farro Crisps with (from left to right) Ricotta, Sweet Potato, Pâté, Speck & Butter

Soon after our menus were taken away, a slate stone donning colourful dabs of edible spreadables appeared, which we were meant to function as toppings for the thin farro crisps. They were all fairly nice, though none were particularly memorable. The least successful for me was the butter, which just seemed odd to spread on such thin bread due to its texture. Also, the bread was very brittle – sort of like a papadum – and it kept disintegrating no matter what we tried to spread on top of it. As a side note, we asked the waiter what the pâté was made out of (we presumed it was liver from chicken or some other type of poultry) but he didn’t know. He tried to find out and came back and told us something rather unintelligible, and I still don’t think he exactly understood himself. 6/10.

The sparkling wines both went well with these various bites, but particularly the Champagne, which had a nice bite of its own.

Amuse Bouche: Grapefruit & Pomegranate Juice

After these nibbles were cleared away, they brought us glasses of fruit juice, presumably to cleanse our palates. This struck us as a bit odd, mostly because we couldn’t imagine that the grapefruit and pomegranate hailed from the farm (or a nearby one), and we thought that local sourcing of ingredients was the whole raison d’être of the restaurant. It should be noted that the glasses weren’t poured evenly, with one very clearly containing more juice than the other – and you don’t expect this lack of attention to detail in a restaurant like this. It was also just slightly odd to drink a fruit juice after the little bites we had just eaten (plus drinking fruit juices with rich and meaty foods isn’t good for your digestion).

Course 1: Stone Barns Panther Soy Beans, Tofu, Oyster, American Sturgeon

The first of the proper courses was now upon us. I was so excited by it that I forgot to take a picture of the plate before I had eaten the oyster…oops. My anticipation was warranted, as this was a phenomenal dish. There were clean, precise, complementary flavors and textures: the saline taste of the oyster blended into the slightly tart soup, with a salty accent from the caviar and lots of mouthfeel variation from the chewy soybeans and spongy tofu. It was a very compelling dish, though I wasn’t sure how oysters or sturgeon fit the farm-to-table bill, but at least the sturgeon (and maybe the oysters) were American. 9/10.

The sparkling wines that we continued to sip also suited this course very well.

Course 2: Farm Eggs, Brioche, Pancetta, Spinach, Leeks

The presentation of the next dish was wonderfully whimsical. A ceramic egg crate was placed in the center of the table, containing a soft-boiled egg for each of us, along with toast soldiers and some fun accompaniments. There was nothing in particular that stood out flavour-wise with this dish – although the spinach was pretty amazing – and sadly, in my eggcitement, I forgot to sprinkle some of the pancetta inside my shell before I had nearly scooped out all of the soft loveliness inside. It was a fun and playful dish with good flavors, but certainly nothing mind-blowing. 6/10.

The accompanying wine was a 2007 Vinatigo Gual from the Canary Islands. It had a strong edge to it, which was alleviated when sipped in tandem with the dish, and I grew to like it by the time my glass was empty. It was an interesting idea for a pairing.

Course 3: Greenhouse Greens, Winter Flavors & Textures

I think we were both struggling to control our giggles when they put down a bowl of leaves in front of us in a very fancy glass, with three pots of mostly-vegetal ‘winter flavors & textures’ placed in the center of the table, presumably for us to share. We were also given chopsticks for this course, and I almost felt transported to Japan. There was not much – if any – of a dressing on the leaves, and they tasted about the same as the greens we get from our local farmers market (or even normal market to be honest).

Course 3: Winter Flavors & Textures Detail (Pickled Radishes, Eggs & Ham, Olive Tapenade)

The pickled radishes worked well when they were interspersed with the greens using our chopsticks, but the tapenade seemed a peculiar combination for a plain salad, and while the little strips of cooked egg and ham were nice enough, they also didn’t add any particular sparkle. This was a disappointing course for us, but at least most of the ingredients were from the farm or local area (though I don’t know about the olives). 5/10.

The sommelier poured a glass of 2001 August Kessler, Kabinett Trocken ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ from the Rheingau district in Germany to go with this dish. It was refreshing and offered apple on the palate with good acidity and a little bit of length, and was a decent combination – I thought it worked with the saltiness present in the salad. It was also nice to see German wine being used in a wine pairing, as it is often omitted seemingly without reason.

Potato & Onion Bread

After the salad came the bread. And they had not skimped on that. It was an excellent loaf of potato and onion bread with a particularly crispy and enjoyable crust. It came with good-quality butter from a nearby farm. Maybe the heartiness of the bread was meant to balance the lightness of the previous course, or maybe it was provided so we could mop up the sauce from the next course…?

Course 4: Maine Scallop & Sweet Shrimp, Curried Cauliflower, Grapes, Almonds

The scallop dish was probably my favorite of the savory courses. It had a simple yet striking presentation and it held my attention on the palate too. A perfectly seared, humungous Maine scallop was the central component, and its underlying sweetness was aided and abetted by a thin patty of sweet shrimp (which was mixed with herbs and spices) that rested on its crown. But the reason for the success of the dish was the deeply flavored golden curry, which was gently but not timidly spiced. The cauliflower and almonds added crunch, while green grapes lent little bursts of sweetness. It was pretty much a faultless dish; I only wish there had been a little more of it. 9/10.

I am not sure how much I agreed with the wine they poured with it, which was a 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux, ‘Les Terres Blanches’ from Meursault in Burgundy. Mrs. LF felt that it cancelled out the flavors of the curry, and I sort of agreed. It is a shame as it was a good wine in its own right. I perhaps would have gone for something a bit more exotic.

Course 5: Bourbon Red Turkey Crépinette with Romaine Lettuce, Portobello Mushroom, Jerusalem Artichoke & Truffle Sauce

The giggles that we had held in check at the sight of our crystal bowl of salad leaves suddenly returned when the fifth, and pretty ridiculous, course was presented to us. I mean, come on, just look at it. As they say in England, were they taking the p*ss? Apparently not, as the waiter dutifully explained the three vegetables that wrapped around the little balls of turkey crépinettes.

The three spheres of sausage – which were tiny! – were perfectly fine, but we really felt a bit cheated by this course. The only thing that attempted to save the dish was a particularly intense dab of black truffle sauce. Intrigued, I asked the waiter where the truffles came from, as I wasn’t sure if there were local truffles in the Hudson Valley. He once again didn’t know and went to the kitchen to check. After a few minutes passed, he came back and informed us they were, in fact, from Australia of all places. This was evidently the first he had heard of this too. By this point I was pretty sure that the restaurant had lost its way a little bit since my last meal there. I mean, I can understand that in the dearth of winter, it must not be easy to source a large and interesting menu from purely local produce (though noma seems to do it from a very cold Scandinavia), but why couldn’t they have utilized some local forest mushrooms and made a concentrated sauce out of them? 4/10, mostly because of the stingy portions (and if you read my blog, you will know that I am not usually one that is into large portions, so this is saying something).

At least we were given a terrific tipple to drink with it, in the form of a 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ from Piedmont. It has a lovely acidity to it, which kept it from overpowering (what little there was of) the turkey and truffles.

Course 6: Grass-Fed Beef, Chickpeas, Watercress, Humus

The final savory course unfortunately didn’t do much for us either – in fact, it was just plain weird. Some beautifully cooked and quite mild-tasting beef (which I believe was from the Hudson Valley) had been placed on top of some chickpeas and humus. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Well, it didn’t go together any better than it sounded on paper as far as the tastes and textures were concerned. Texture-wise, it was a very mushy affair, and it was a very odd combination in the flavor department too, with everything tasting fairly muted and nothing enhancing anything else. I didn’t understand the logic behind the dish, and also wondered where they sourced their chickpeas from as they normally grow in a very warm climate (maybe they used their greenhouses?). I don’t mean to harp on about the sourcing of ingredients – well, yes I do – but this is one of the main things on which the restaurant has historically prided itself. Just look at their description of their own menu; or rather, their lack of a traditional menu. Oh, and by the way, this portion was also pretty small. 5/10.

The red wine that we drank with the beef was a 2001 Rioja Reserva from Señorío de P. Peciña, which was a perfectly pleasant example that worked well with the beef.

Single Estate Costa Rican Nararno Cattleya Coffee, Roasted at Irving Farm (Millerton, NY)

Right after our unsatisfying meat course plates were removed, a waiter came to the table donning coffee and tea menus. I noted that these beverages could only be obtained by paying a supplement to the already hefty price of the meal (which had so far left us wanting in many ways). Despite this, I did want a caffeine jolt to liven things up, so I ordered the house drip coffee for an extra $4.00. I assumed that it would be brought out either with or after our dessert, but no, it arrived a few minutes after I placed the order…before the pre-dessert. Now, I have dined out at a fair number of nice restaurants, but I had yet to see this. Maybe it’s just that I’m now used to European customs, and that this is an American one, but I found it very odd, and asked the waiter to bring some fresh coffee back with, or after, the main course, which he did with a slight look of puzzlement.

Course 7: Blue Hill Farm Yogurt Sorbet, Granny Smith Apple & Celery Gelee, Noble Sour Vinegar

I did take a better picture of the pre-dessert but I wanted to use the above image to convey a sense of how teeny it actually was. Okay, it was a pre-dessert, so it shouldn’t be too substantial, but this was part of a trend throughout the meal. In any case, this tasted very good and it functioned well, enlivening and clearing our palates for the main dessert, which was soon to come. The addition of the vinegar was a nice touch. 7/10.

Course 8: Chocolate Brioche, Granola Ice Cream, Milk Jam

I also have other pictures of the chocolate brioche, but I liked this one the best. If you care to, you can see how miniscule this portion was in reality by looking at this photo…and this was the main dessert. In any event, I wish this dessert had been bigger, because it was spectacular. It was probably as good as any gooey chocolate dessert I’ve had. It didn’t do anything ‘out of the box’, but what it did do, it did perfectly. The accompanying ice cream did taste faintly of granola, but it was more of a canvass on which to enjoy the rich dark chocolate and golden brioche. I don’t remember tasting any jam, but maybe I am mistaken. Credit where credit is due. I give it a 9/10 only because the portion again seemed stingy.

The last of the wines was a 1996 Moulin Touchais from Coteaux des Layon in the Loire Valley (a sweet Chenin Blanc). It was excellent and I was glad they decided to do something different than a Sauternes or a Banyuls.

Petit Four: Vanilla Milkshake

With my newly poured coffee, we were given a few petit fours. One was a dainty little milkshake, which was pretty plain vanilla, as they say – nice but nothing to brag about.

Petit Four: Chocolate Sandwich

The second was a little wedge of chocolate, with crispy edges, which from memory was very nice. I would give the petit fours a 6/10 overall as there didn’t seem to be any real imagination behind them, and if you are just going to serve a vanilla milkshake in a place like this, it should at least be one of the best vanilla milkshakes your guests are likely to have had…and, for me, it wasn’t.

Spots & Stripes

We asked for the bill and the three of us were on our way. I should note that the gentleman who had made us feel very uncomfortable at the beginning of the meal did come by towards the end of the service and was in much better spirits – he was very pleasant and I assume he was trying to make amends for what we felt was an initially abrupt and slightly icy greeting. He was also very helpful as we exited the restaurant and was definitely rolling out the charm. I hope it wasn’t simply because the staff had probably seen us photographing the food throughout the meal.

When refinement goes too far

I had very mixed feelings about this meal, but most of them were negative. A lot of this was not to do with the food itself, but rather being made to feel quite on edge from the word ‘go’. We felt very self-conscious throughout the meal, and I don’t think we were just being paranoid. It also felt as if the people serving us were walking on eggshells, possibly because we had a baby with us. However, as Mrs. LF said, rather than being nervous about having a child to deal with (who, by the way, was pretty much perfectly behaved), the front of house should have taken this as a challenge to make us feel even more welcome and comfortable, just to show that they can handle anything that comes their way. For example, I can’t imagine that if Restaurant Gordon Ramsay allowed children they would make you feel unwelcome, but would rather make the meal unforgettable by making you feel like you were at home from the moment you entered their domain.

In terms of the food, it was really a mixed bag, with a few real high notes, but also some dishes that felt like they had lost their way. Our overwhelming feeling was that we had been slightly short-changed, with many portion sizes verging on miniscule. Also, there were some really incongruous dishes, which didn’t function at either the flavor or textural level I would expect in a restaurant such as this, and especially at the price for the set tasting menu.

For me, the magic of this restaurant when I first dined there years ago was its paired-down ethos of presenting remarkably fresh produce in intriguing yet simple ways. Based on our more recent meal, it would seem that the kitchen has tried to refine the dishes so much that they have taken some of the joy and soul out of the food. Indeed, the overall feeling throughout the meal was that everything was being slightly forced – it just didn’t flow naturally. This is a shame as there is obviously plenty of inventiveness and skill in the kitchen, but they seemed to have lost their way a little bit based on this meal.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 6.5/10

Wine: I didn’t get a chance to look through the wine list in detail at the restaurant, as I wanted to go for the pairing – which was very good – but they definitely have a well-researched and broad list, though I didn’t have time to research the mark-up levels. For reference, the wines I had with the pairing are all listed below, as well as pictured (except for the pink American sparkler).

The Wine Pairing Labels

Wines Served in the Pairing

  1. 2006 Shramsberg Brut Rosé (Calistoga, CA) [not pictured]
  2. 2007 Vinatigo Gual (Canary Islands)
  3. 2001 August Kessler Riesling Trocken, ‘Rudesheimer Bischofsberg’ (Rheingau, Germany)
  4. 2005 Jean Michel Gaunoux Meursault, ‘Les Terres Blances’ (Burgundy, France)
  5. 2003 A&G Fantino Barolo, ‘Vigna dei Dardi’ (Piedmont, Italy)
  6. 2001 Señorío de P.Peciña Rioja Reserva (Spain)
  7. 1996 Moulin Touchais (Coteaux du Layon, Loire Valley, France)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Blue Hill at Stone Barns twice, once for lunch in 2006 and this time for dinner in 2011*

Blue Hill at Stone Barns on Urbanspoon

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Talking (& Eating) Turkey with Marco Pierre White

My first year is over, and a new one just begun

My first blogiversary

This week, Laissez Fare is one year old. When I first started the blog, I was already certainly a bit of a restaurant geek, but boy has that increased since I entered the world of food blogging and social media (well, twitter mostly). In the last 52 weeks, I have met many new friends, some of which remain virtual, but many of which have evolved into true and enjoyable real-life relationships. I have also broadened and honed my knowledge of food, wine and restaurants over the same period as the discipline of snapping and scribbling about my gustatory journeys has forced me to analyze and discern more about whatever it is I am eating or drinking, and the atmosphere and style in which it is presented.

I suppose my biggest embarrassment in the area of food is that although I perpetually pontificate about food (and occasionally wine), I am scarcely able to cook the most basic and humblest of meals myself. I would be the first to admit that it is a sad state of affairs when a (granted, self-proclaimed) food critic can’t even cook in his or her own right. But luckily my blog has begun to change that as well. ‘Year Two’ will be the year that Laissez learned to cook. So I look forward to keeping you informed about my progress in the kitchen, and any related nightmares.

Before I move on to the main part of this post (which incidentally is partly about me cooking), I would like to thank you for your interest and support over the last year. I hope you continue to find reason to return to my blog and that it keeps evolving into something better with each post. Thus, if you have any suggestions on how it can be improved, I am always open to ideas. I would like to thank Mrs. LF for helping me – indeed, she reads everything I write and contributes her own content on most posts – as without her fine(r) palate and judgement, the insights provided would not be nearly as interesting.

Before this turns into an Oscars acceptance speech, it just occurred to me that I would have never dreamed about sitting down and having lunch with Marco Pierre White a year ago when I was watching him grimace menacingly at a group of celebrities who revered him as a God as they attempted to learn how to cook in a professional atmosphere. But thanks to blogging, these kinds of experiences are happening more and more often. I am continually excited and inspired by learning more about food and wine, and the people who create it (of course, Marco would note that “Mother Nature is the true artist,” his favorite refrain), and I look forward to developing my knowledge, palate and horizons further in the coming year.

Stamford bridging

As many readers will know, Marco Pierre White was appointed the brand ambassador of Bernard Matthews Farms Ltd, a British farming business specializing in the farming of turkeys, in March of this year. Rightly or wrongly (and most food bloggers would say rightly), Marco has been criticized for ‘selling out’, as since retiring from the professional kitchen 10 years ago he has been using his name to support things which many foodies might deem down-market and even undesirable for a chef of his stature, including Knorr stock cubes and Bernard Matthews itself, which has had a series of high-profile issues in relation to the health of its birds and how humanely they’ve been treated, not to mention the fact that until 2005 they were the makers of Turkey Twizzlers, which were very publicly chastised by Jamie Oliver in his Jamie’s School Dinners television series.

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by the PR people behind the launch of a new campaign that is being sponsored by Bernard Matthews, in conjunction with Marco Pierre White, which is aimed at getting British people to eat turkey more than once a year at Christmas time. Matter-of-factly called ‘Change Your Meat Not Your Menu’, the campaign is aimed at inspiring all cooks, and in particular mothers, to begin using turkey in their weekly meal plans. They argue that “Turkey is high in protein and a great alternative to other meats. It’s versatile, tasty and perfect for everyday meals, and turkey breast meat is also low in saturated fat.” The campaign is also supported by Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a well-known nutritionist, and Rebecca Romera, an Olympic gold medallist in rowing.

The campaign’s logo & slightly laborious URL

They cite a recent survey showing that turkey can easily be substituted in eight of the UK’s favorite meals, and as such have come up with eight recipes for these classic dishes that Moms typically make, with the only difference being that the original meat is substituted with turkey. Thus, using spaghetti bolognese as an example, by simply switching from beef to turkey mince, you could reduce your saturated fat intake by up to two-thirds (11g) per portion. There is a well-researched and detailed saturated fat calculator on the site, as well as recipes focused on ‘slimming’ and ‘leftovers’. But most interestingly, Marco has created four recipes himself, all based on simple ways of preparing turkey steaks and bringing out their natural flavor.

Of course, this is simply a new front in the recently re-branded Bernard Matthews marketing machine, and it is designed to sell more turkey. That said, I have always wondered why British people don’t eat more turkey than they do. Possibly it’s because the one time most people have it each year, it tends to be overcooked and therefore dry and rather lacking in flavor? I really don’t know, and as Marco points out, “Turkey has more flavor and more texture than chicken…and while consumers traditionally roast turkey there are many other ways to prepare this majestically delicious bird.” I remember from growing up in the US that we Americans consume turkey in a multitude of guises. In the States, you can get turkey burgers in most diners and turkey cold cuts are a staple inside deli sandwiches and childrens’ lunchboxes, not to mention its regular appearance in casseroles and, of course, at Thanksgiving.

In any case, I was invited to head down to Marco restaurant inside hallowed grounds of Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge complex, to have lunch with the big man and sample the turkey dishes he’d come up with for the campaign.

Behind the gray facade, the restaurant’s namesake was ready & waiting

After being given a tour of the new campaign website and speaking to the experts on hand, we were eventually whisked off to a large round table in the center of the quite swish dining room, and Marco emerged from the kitchen just like he does on television: ridiculously large knife and constant wiping of it (check), slightly menacing blank stare (check), black and white checkered shemagh on top of head (check). After staking out the table of journalists and food writers sat in front of him, Marco’s presenting persona (i.e. the one you see in his TV programs) gradually began to recede into the background and the real Marco stepped forward.

Marco cooks

After trotting back into the kitchen to finish preparing the dishes, Marco reappeared baring gifts of an aquidaen nature.

Marco’s Turkeys on Horseback

The first dish he brought out was a plate chock full of what he called turkeys on horseback, a throwback to 70’s canapés, except these were made with turkey breast, of course. I have to say they were very delicious, although the turkey flavor was slightly muted by the salty streaky bacon and sweet prune and mango chutney.

As he took a few questions from around the table, Marco visibly became animated and very passionate, not only about turkey, but also about food and cooking in general. A light had been switched on (which shone through his eyes), and it was suddenly clear for anyone in doubt that we were in the presence of a true master. A simple question about which herbs and spices would go well with turkey (a few of his answers were sage and thyme for more a more traditional spin, or ginger and coriander if you wanted to open the route to Asia) led to discussions of all kinds of food-related topics.

Subjects discussed included how to perfectly poach an egg, and why it sometimes goes all wrong at home (the main points were that you need a very deep pot and should use vinegar); why people have different palates (in his opinion, the palate is formed through childhood flavor experiences, hence this is why he believes that British people from his generation have quite simple tastes); and more technical discussions, such as the perfect temperature to cook turkey steaks (he said it depended on the oven, but cooking it slowly in the mid-60’s [centigrade] with some kind of crust on top would help to keep it moist). Some of the things that stuck in my head were hearing him talk about how he is “more interested in the technical side of gastronomy” (indeed, he seemed to have an almost Blumenthal-like approach to solving problems such as retaining moisture in meat) and that “it’s all about the ingredients, not just making it look pretty.”

Along these lines, the simple recipes he has constructed are designed to show off the turkey to the best effect and to complement and lift it, rather than cover its inherently robust flavor. It was clear that getting back in the kitchen to invent new dishes (even if they all focus on turkey) had re-energized the man and he practically danced back to the kitchen to bring out the next dish.

Soon, Marco brought out a very large turkey steak topped with a thin walnut crust. Besides walnuts, the crust included Gruyere, breadcrumbs a bit of butter. It was amazing how he had managed to preserve the moistness of the turkey (one of the key functions of the topping), and the cheesy and nutty flavors indeed complemented the lovely natural flavor of the turkey.

Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Genuinely excited that the table had liked this first turkey steak dish, Marco dashed back to the kitchen to fetch some more grub. Next up was a reinvention of another classic, and a favorite comfort food of mine, Welsh Rarebit. The catch here was that instead of a base of toasted bread, a large turkey steak was used. As with the last dish, he sliced up the large turkey breast with that mahoosive chef’s knife and used the knife to deliver a small piece of the turkey onto everyone’s plate (no, we weren’t scared one bit). He was patient and the consummate host as he got our feedback (everyone loved it) and discussed the topic of turkey further.

After the rarebit, a similar dish of turkey napolitana (which had a crust of tomato purée, mozzarella, chopped black olives and basil leaves) was served in the same edgy manner, and while good, it wasn’t as tasty as the rarebit was to my own palate.

Marco’s Turkey Steak with Sage & Onion Stuffing

Last up in the turkey breast parade was one topped with sage and onion stuffing, which did remind me of a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal – more familiar but still ever so moist and flavorful.

Marco’s experimental roast turkey joint

After what we thought was the last dish, Marco brought out a magnificent, glistening specimen. If someone wouldn’t have told us what meat it was, we could have been forgiven for thinking it was something else (pork, maybe), but it was indeed a turkey joint, with the bone left in. He had been slow-roasting it and it had the most amazing golden glazing on the outside. He had cleverly stuffed it just under the skin with a simple concoction of sage and onion, and he carved it into individual portions and served it to us himself. This was a real honor, and I couldn’t believe how it tasted…almost like a well-roasted lamb, it was moist and had bags of flavor. My mother does a very nice roasted turkey, but it certainly couldn’t hold a candle to this (sorry Mom). Marco had also prepared his own gravy, which he kept jokingly calling “Bernard Matthews’ World Famous Gravy” as there was a company representative present at the table, which was spot on as well. No, it’s not for sale (yet).

Well, after being saturated with meat that was low in saturated fat, I was completely full. Luckily, I happened to be sitting next to Marco, and we had a short and highly enjoyable conversation about – big surprise – food. After discovering I hailed from the Pacific Northwest, he got very excited and proceeded to tell me about a supperclub he had gone to in Seattle, Washington which he was completely enamoured with, as the farmer who reared the meat they were eating was present at the dinner and introduced the dishes that included his meat himself. In general, he has quite a cynical view of the current state of food in the UK (“…it’s all about celebrity chefs here”), whereas he has found that in the US “…people are generally more passionate about the food itself.”

After wrapping up our little conversation, I headed for the hills (well, the West End) and decided that my next task would be to try and recreate one of his turkey recipes at home later that week. After all, they were intended to be simple and easily replicable by the amateur home cook, so I figured if I could make it taste good, anyone could!

Laissez cooks

The next weekend, I decided I would try the Turkey Welsh Rarebit recipe (as Mrs. LF and I both like Welsh Rarebit on toast) and we headed to the supermarket in search of some turkey breast steaks. I couldn’t find any Bernard Matthews ones (Oliver Thring had kindly reminded me that I should try to use their turkey to make it more ‘authentic’), so I bought the only ones on hand, which happened to be organic and free range, so probably all the better.

The recipe card for Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Back home, I went through the recipe and gave Mrs. LF strict instructions not to interfere, although she did pace about the kitchen to make sure I didn’t do anything totally stupid. I thought I did pretty well overall, except for getting a bit too uptight about ensuring the uncooked crusts were perfectly moulded and covered the turkey breasts evenly and completely (I am still way too anal in the kitchen, and Mrs. LF can’t stand it!). I was a bit worried about how they would turn out, as of course I wanted them to look just like the beautiful picture on the recipe card!

My version of Marco’s Turkey Welsh Rarebit

Well, it didn’t look quite like the image on the card, but I think they turned out quite nicely (no?). Mrs. LF also taught me how to prepare a good vinaigrette for our accompanying salad (see, I really am an amateur).

I am pleased to say that they tasted d*mn good! While they weren’t quite as moist as Marco’s breasts (ah-hem…), the flavor was just about the same and, most importantly, Mrs. LF was really impressed.

So there you go, a relatively healthy, easy and quick recipe for your weekday dinner!

And thank you for bearing with me on my first paltry poultry post. 🙂

*Note: many thanks to the team at Clarion for organizing the event*

Pierre Koffmann – Restaurant on the Roof: A Pretty Place, A Pretty Penny

Pierre Koffmann – Restaurant on the Roof
Selfridges & Co
400 Oxford Street
London W1A 1AB
Website
Map
Reservations: 020 7318 7778 or restaurantontheroof@selfridges.co.uk (there were a few lunch tables still left as of Sunday afternoon)

3-course menu at £75/person

Set in one of the coolest dining spaces I’ve seen this year, Pierre Koffmann’s Restaurant on the Roof is an experience well worth the not insignificant cost, if you can still get a table. For me, the food was hit & miss and, if I’m honest, a bit of a let-down. But I was grateful to be able to sample some of the flavors from this culinary legend’s repertoire and one has to admire the significant and constructive influence he’s had on the UK restaurant industry.

Set in one of the coolest dining spaces I’ve seen this year, Pierre Koffmann’s Restaurant on the Roof is an experience well worth the not insignificant cost, if you can still get a table. For me, the food was hit & miss and, if I’m honest, a bit of a let-down. But I was grateful to be able to sample some of the flavors from this culinary legend’s repertoire and one has to admire the significant and constructive influence he’s had on the UK restaurant industry.

I heard it through the @vines

When I first learned about what is hopefully the inaugural London Restaurant Festival a few months ago, one of the events that I was most interested in was the pop-up restaurant that chef Pierre Koffmann would be opening on the roof of Selfridges.  I have ‘only’ lived in London for ten years and never had the chance to eat at his now legendary restaurant Tante Claire, which held 3 Michelin stars and used to be pretty much the place to eat in the capital back in the day. Coincidentally, the same space is now home to Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous restaurant, which is one of only three restaurants in the UK to maintain the coveted astral trifecta from the chubby dude who dresses in white tires. Besides Tante Claire, Koffmann is famous for having tutored so many of the people who have today emerged as celebrated and/or celebrity chefs in the UK (including Gordon).

So I was going to try my damndest to get a taste of his food. But given that the restaurant was originally only going to be open for a matter of days (now, given such strong demand, it seems it will stay open as long as he wants it to), I figured all the tables would be taken up by a mix of restaurant critics, his friends, various a-to-z-dash celebrities and London’s great and good. Not moi.

But there was a saving grace. My relatively new ‘friend’ on twitter, one @richardvines (chief food critic for Bloomberg), tweeted the reservation line and email address before it was announced to the general public, and I somehow snagged a table for what I then thought would be the only Sunday lunch slot in existence, which was when I believed another chef alumni whose food I’ve been wanting to taste would be joining the big man.

For once, Laissez got lucky.

The name is Bond

I tried to avoid and ignore the various reports emanating from the social media world after the opening, but was too weak in the end. Most were full of praise, so my excitement was further piqued.

Mrs. LF and I made our way to Selfridges on a gray Sunday afternoon and I kind of guessed we’d have to get up there via the elevator. And this was partly true.

What I didn’t realize was that there would be a separate elevator reserved exclusively for the few and the privileged who had managed to secure a table at this exclusive roof-top restaurant, and that this lift would be manned by a six-foot-something attractive blonde woman. She checked out my credentials, confirmed everything was in place, and we were on our way up in the world.

Going up in the world – the coolest elevator in London this month?

Going up in the world – the coolest elevator in London this month?

I didn’t know if there would be any sharks with lasers up there, but at this point I definitely felt like James Bond and not much was going to surprise me.

Quite a place you’ve got up here

The elevator intrigue was only the beginning. When we got out of the lift, we walked into a contemporary white doily of a room, which led to a rather long white corridor, which led to little lobby of sorts (replete with cloakroom and funky modern art), which led to a makeshift bar, which led to what is probably the coolest dining space I’ve seen in a long time, where our table was ready and waiting for us. A brief pictorial tour can be found below. (Feel free to click on any images below for full resolution images).

Sharks with lasers? This way, Mr. LF...

Sharks with lasers? This way, Mr. LF...

Just head down that rooftop corridor...

Just head down that rooftop corridor...

Huh? Another tall & attractive woman

Huh? Another tall & attractive woman

Okay, maybe 'Ghost Girl' (by sculptor Kevin Francis Gray) ain’t that attractive after all

Okay, maybe 'Ghost Girl' (by sculptor Kevin Francis Gray) ain’t that attractive after all

Shall we go in, then?

Shall we go in, then?

Yes, but first, let’s check out the cool bar

Yes, but first, let’s check out the cool bar

And the immensely cool room

And the immensely cool room

And the fixtures

And the fixtures

Yes, I would say this was the coolest looking restaurant I’d been to in a long while, although my recent visit to Sketch’s Lecture Room & Library (stay posted for more on that) was also jostling for that position. Whoever designed this space had a little stroke of genius as it was very playful and avant-garde yet sufficiently reined in to avoid being over the top. I loved the cool gray-blues, the clean whites and the straw colored floor covering. Even the black chairs with tall backs were different and tied in nicely with the top hat motif. It was all very Magritte. Bravo.

From mystique to rustique

Having declined the offer of a cocktail or a glass of champagne – too much wine tasting as of late – we were presented with the menu. This is when the next little shock came. 3 courses for £75. No à l carte pricing. Now don’t get me wrong, I was prepared to pay for this experience, but it was a bit more than I had bargained for, and I sort of hoped details like this would have been more forthcoming ahead of time.

After hearing about the specials of the day on offer courtesy guest chef Eric Chavot (of Capital fame) – a raw scallop ceviche starter and a main course of braised beef cheeks – we got gave the very polite yet not so confident waitress our orders…and waited.

Some very satisfying bread

Some very satisfying bread

In the meantime, we were offered bread. The white country baguette was superb, and was definitely some of the best bread I’ve had in a restaurant as of late (also excellent was the sourdough at Launceton Place – more to come on that too). It had one of those crusts that has been cooked through so well, it could do serious damage to your gums. The crust had a very satisfying almost burnt flavor and the middle was full of huge air pockets and possessed exactly the right amount of chew. Very satisfying, though the butter didn’t seem that special. 9/10.

Amuse Bouche: Duck Rillette on Brown Toast

Amuse Bouche: Duck Rillette on Brown Toast

Shortly thereafter, an amuse bouche of duck rillette arrived. Traditionally made from pork, I had never tasted a rillette of duck, and wasn’t disappointed. It had a lovely soft texture, an indication that it had been cooked in lots of fat, and was well salted. A nice little rich mouthful or two that was quite rustic in appearance. 6/10.

Starter 1: Pressed Leeks and Langoustines with a Truffle Vinaigrette

Starter 1: Pressed Leeks and Langoustines with a Truffle Vinaigrette

Mrs. LF wasn’t feeling particularly well and didn’t want anything too heavy, so opted for the pressed leeks. As you can see, it was a beautifully presented and simple dish, with only about four elements to it. This of course meant that the ingredients themselves had to do the talking, and according to Mrs. LF most of them had plenty to say. The leek terrine itself didn’t have that unpleasant taste that leeks can often have and was exquisitely prepared, with a very pleasant texture. The vinaigrette was also excellent and , although the truffles weren’t that pungent and didn’t come through very strongly, it had the right amount of acidity and she liked it so much that she mopped it all up with a piece of that glorious bread. The langoustines were perfectly cooked and very sweet, nicely complementing the sharpness of the vinaigrette and the freshness of the leeks. 7/10.

Starter 2: Cocktail of Scottish Lobster and Avocado with a Lemon Jelly

Starter 2: Cocktail of Scottish Lobster and Avocado with a Lemon Jelly

My cocktail starter was a throwback to the classic (some would say old fashioned) presentation of prawn cocktails. It looked the part though, with the reds and pinks of the langoustine against the green of the avocado giving it a very fresh appearance. It had a very refreshing taste too, with the sweetness of the lobster being well offset by the sharpness the diced cubes of apple, the vinaigrette and the little translucent gelatine squares (which were so mild, you could barely taste them when isolated from the rest of the components). The little smear of smooth avocado versus the crispness of the apples and the thin slices of iceberg-looking lettuce also provided a good array of textures. I would like to emphasise that the high quality of the lobster itself. All in all, it was a good dish, but there was no ‘wow’ factor for me. 7/10.

I had ordered a glass of the 2007 Moreau Chablis 1er Cru (£11.50 per 175ml glass), to go with my starter, but as it was brought out very early on in the meal, there was only a bit of it left by the time the starter arrived – greedy old me. As with many Chablis, its nose was fairly discreet, but there was a hint of something floral and a certain undercurrent of sulphur. In the mouth it was actually fruitier than I had expected and was quite a full and round wine. It was very intense and had a small pang of saltiness. The little bit of it that I had left perfectly complemented the sweet langoustine and sharp citrus flavors in the dish. 7/10.

Main Course 1: Eric Chavot’s Special of Braised Beef Cheeks

Main Course 1: Eric Chavot’s Special of Braised Beef Cheeks

This was another rich and rustic dish which reminded Mrs. LF of dishes her grandmother used to make in the countryside of Normandy.  It didn’t quite live up to that memory, though. I only had a bit of it, but agreed with her general sentiment. While the meat itself was very soft on the inside, there were thin tendrils of drier meat on the outside which had an odd, unpleasant and intense flavor which was almost gamey. I don’t know if something technically went wrong with the dish or not, but I am guessing that taste should not have been present. The side of mash was excellent, and you can read more about the potatoes below as they also made an appearance in my main course. 6/10.

Main Course 2: Pig’s Trotter Stuffed with Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms

Main Course 2: Pig’s Trotter Stuffed with Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms

Even though many of the other dishes on the menu sounded more appetizing to me at the time, I don’t think I could have forgiven myself if I didn’t try what was probably the most famous of Koffmann’s signature dishes, so I went for it. As I’d never seen an image of the dish, it certainly looked unique to me; not necessarily that appetizing, but certainly unique. The skin directly above the pig’s toes neatly wrapped around the filling to make a perfect cylindrical casing which definitely appeared like it would pack a flavor punch.

However, with all the build-up and hype surrounding this dish, I was pretty disappointed. Maybe I am just a gastronomic neophyte, but it just didn’t do much for me. The skin itself was quite soft and rubbery and had distant echoes of a distinct and not so agreeable piggy flavor which thankfully stayed in the background and didn’t perform an all-out assault my taste buds. If you want to get really picky, I noticed that some of the hairs still remained on one part of the skin, indicating that it had probably not been singed perfectly.

As for the innards, they looked like a soft white mash of something like strangely textured potatoes. Of course, it was really a bunch of sweetbreads shoved inside the bottom of this poor piglet’s foot. It tasted very rich, but for me it lacked a distinct flavor. It was sort of like eating a huge amount of perfectly soft and fluffy scrambled eggs that were too succulent for their own good. I kept eating it mostly because I felt obliged to finish this chef’s heralded masterpiece, and I really should have stopped before finishing, because although I didn’t realize it then, my stomach would still be trying to digest it at 2am that same night.

I also didn’t think the textures of the dish were particularly well balanced: there was the sort of stretchy skin, the scrambled egginess of the sweetbreads and occasionally the slight chew of a morel (which were very nice by the way). As Mrs. LF succinctly explained how I felt to me (even though she hadn’t tasted it), “It just wasn’t the kind of dish that you took one bite of and loved so much that you dove back in as soon as you could.”

Strangely enough, the high point of the whole plate for me was the mashed potatoes, which were faultless. They were near on as good as those served by Mr. Robuchon, having that soft, creamy texture which you know only comes through huge amounts of butter and cream. And besides having a perfect texture, they were also exceedingly well seasoned. I kept combining each bite of organs and skin with a good dollop of potato to make it more palatable for me. I should also say that the underlying sauce that was scattered about the plate was also extremely good.

So, while I loved the idea of it, it just wasn’t for me in the end. I am very reticent to rate this dish, as for me the taste was simply not agreeable and if I was going on taste alone it would get a very low score. However, given the subjective nature of the exercise and the trust and respect I have for the chef, I think a 6/10 is probably about right.

My wine accompaniment for this course was a glass of the 2002 Phileo Shiraz (South Africa) at £9 per 175ml glass, which was excellent. It was bursting with red fruit flavor – very fruit-forward for a Shiraz, even from South Africa – and was luscious. I remember soft tannins, some sweet oak, a little bit of coffee (or leather…well, something sour) and a little burst of acidity. It was rich enough to handle the trotter, and that’s saying something! 8/10.

Dessert 1: Pain Perdue with Sweet Pineapple and Coconut Ice Cream

Dessert 1: Pain Perdue with Sweet Pineapple and Coconut Ice Cream

Her highness wasn’t all that pleased with her dessert. She had been expecting a traditional Pain Perdue with the ‘sweetness’ of pineapple that was advertised in the menu’s description. While the texture of the bread was very appealing – soft yet firm and with a tiny bit of crunch left in the crust – everything just seemed drowned out by the alcohol that was ever-present in the syrupy sauce. Had it been a movie, the pineapple flavor would barely have got a mention in the credits (maybe something like ‘Key Grip’). On the other hand, the coconut ice cream was fabulous. So, another mixed bag. 5/10.

Dessert 2: Gascon Apple Pie

Dessert 2: Gascon Apple Pie

I am happy to say my apple pie was really good. The apples were very sweet and had the wonderful texture of being just cooked on the outside and still soft on the inside. The caramelized goo was good too. It had a strong burnt toffee flavor to it, which may have been too overpowering for many, but I loved when it was combined with a little bit of crème fraîche (provided in a little bowl on the side). The three thin constructs of what I believe were filo pastry were light and crispy and complemented the more gooey elements very well. It was one of the better apple pies I’ve had in a long time, although Mrs. LF didn’t rate it as much as I did (but hey, she’s French). 9/10.

After a bit of consultation with the sommelier (who was pleasant and seemed knowledgeable), I arrived back at my initial and quite unimaginative thought of pairing the apple pie with a Sauternes. But I was glad I did in the end, because the 2005 Carmes de Rieussec (at £12 per 125ml glass) was really good. It is the second wine of Château Rieussec and has been owned by Lafite for a long time. It had the classic characteristics of a good Sauternes: lots of sweet orange blossom on the nose, along with notes of honey. It had a very syrupy texture and tasted of the honey and orange it smelled like, plus some tropical fruit thrown in for good measure. It had just enough sharpness, quite a spicy and peppery finish, and a lot of length too. It was a real treat with that delectable apple pie. 8/10.

Petit Fours

Petit Fours

I ordered a double espresso as a long walk alone was not going to keep me alert for the rest of the afternoon. It was served by itself, and we were disappointed that for the prices being charged there were no petit fours. But a minute later, one of the waiters came back to our table with a nice little assortment of sweet nibbles. I didn’t care much for the mini financier (back left); the thin, crisp biscuit of seeds was good but not memorable; the miniscule lemon tart was perfect; the chocolate had a nice burnt caramel center; the nougat had a very pleasant and strong pistachio flavor; and the truffles (which in England are not just for Christmas, unlike in France) were bloody excellent. The coffee itself was Musetti and was perfectly fine.

The times they have a’changed

I think my overall feelings have been clearly communicated through the descriptions of the design of the space (amazing) and the food (somewhat old fashioned and rustic yet with a certain noble elegance – but hit and miss for me). As for the staff, we had a nice chat with one of them at the close of the meal who said that most people there were from Selfridge’s events team, or other parts of the store. Overall, I didn’t mind that the service wasn’t perfect, as there was a fairly laid back attitude up there and it just all felt very luxurious and novel.

Another thing that Mrs. LF and I discussed was that, at the time that Koffmann and his signature dishes came on the London dining scene, they must have been unique, exciting and had a certain flair not often seen at his contemporaries’ establishments. But food, and fine dining in particular, has moved on a lot in the last 15-20 years in many ways. With so much competition at the higher end of the restaurant world, so many new technological innovations, and so many young chefs trying to make their mark and be ‘unique’, I guess his food just seems a bit dated. I wouldn’t have minded had the food been like what Mrs. LF described – where, after one bite, I would be right back in there scoffing up the rest of it because it was so delicious – but for me it mostly wasn’t. Granted, it was one meal, but in a restaurant that by its definition is ephemeral in nature, this was the only chance it (and I) had.

I was initially surprised by the price of the meal, but I guess it was fair given the novelty of the whole affair. I mean, it is a unique experience (and possibly the last opportunity) to be able to taste Koffmann’s food, and given the expenses that went into creating the restaurant – for example, the kitchen was lifted by a crane from the sidewalk onto the roof, and I’m sure the designers didn’t come cheap – I suppose it’s justified. I was glad to have been part of it, and overall we had a very pleasant afternoon up there in the sky.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 6/10

Wine List: 7/10

Wine Selected: 8/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

PS – As a side note, Selfridge’s should do some serious thinking about what they do with this great space next. Apparently, in the thirties the wealthy used to play croquet and god knows what else up there, and given the amazing transformation they’ve given the rooftop for this event, I am sure they can dream up some more tempting and tantalizing venues.

Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the Roof on Urbanspoon

Eastside Inn – Bjorn is Back & This Time It’s Personal

Eastside Inn
40 St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
Reservations: Bistro +44 (0)20 7490 9240 / Gastro +44 (0)20 7490 9230
Website
Map

We ate in the ‘Gastro’ side of the restaurant, where you have the choice of the ‘Menu Classic’ at £45/person (3 courses) or the ‘Menu Discovery’ at £65/person (a 7-course tasting men), plus an optional cheese plate at £15/person, which includes three wine pairings (one for each cheese)

A very generous & personal gastronomic journey, with good service and plenty of promise

A very generous & personal gastronomic journey, with good service and plenty of promise

Disclaimer

I think it is only right to place a disclaimer at the beginning of this review. You see, Bjorn van der Horst is one of my favorite London-based chefs. I loved his food when he was heading up the kitchen at The Greenhouse, and La Noisette, his Michelin-starred restaurant that fell under the umbrella of the Ramsay Empire, was one of my most-loved London restaurants. However, after only about 18 months it met the same ill fate that so many restaurants at 164 Sloane Street had faced before it: La Noisette was Gordon Ramsay Holding’s second failed attempt on this site and, before that, Ian Pengelley (now of Gilgamesh fame) and private members club Monte’s (which involved both Alain Ducasse and Jamie Oliver at different points) both failed to survive there as well.

But it is often out of difficult situations that the best things are born, so you can imagine my excitement when rumors began circulating that Bjorn was going to start up his own restaurant in central London as the next step in his culinary career. As per my previous post, I had been waiting for his new venture, Eastside Inn (maybe an homage to New York?), to open for ages, and it finally did open its doors about five weeks ago. So, was my exuberance well founded?

Eastside Story

Bjorn has launched Eastside Inn in partnership with his wife Justine. They have decided to split the restaurant into two distinct sides, which are connected by a large open kitchen which services both sides of the restaurant. In fact, there are actually two separate entrances to the building, one for the ‘Bistro’ and one for the ‘Gastro’.

The Bistro side is more casual, with a number seats at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, some tables against a long and burgundy-colored banquette, and a few other scattered tables. It serves mostly French classics such as charcuterie, cassoulet and a plat du jour, and is the less expensive of the two areas. Hors D’oeuvres range from £3-6, Entrées from £7-12, Main Courses from £12.50-18, and Desserts are £5-7.

We ate in the Gastro side of the restaurant, which is a small, modern and contemporary room. Here, there are 24 covers by my count (plus a private dining room), and you have the choice of the Menu Classic, where you choose your own 3-course meal for £45 (alternatively, you can ask for it to be a surprise and let the kitchen dictate on the dishes for you), and the Menu Discovery, which is a predetermined 7-course tasting menu for £65. Each menu includes three amuse bouches, and you can also opt for the cheese plate for an additional £15, which is inclusive of three wines which the sommelier has paired with each of the cheeses.

The Opening Acts

We arrived a little late as, unfortunately, Mrs. LF’s wallet had been stolen on the tube ride over to the City :(. We eventually tracked down the place, chose the right door (literally), and entered. We were escorted to our table in the relatively long, narrow triangular shaped Gastro dining room and were surprised to see that we were the only people there at 8pm. The room did feel slightly awkward, but I didn’t personally mind it too much. There are some paintings toward the back of the room, but none in the front, which makes the walls in the front seem a little barren. The dark wooden legs of the orangey-red leather chairs seemed like they had already been chipped a little, which was odd, considering the restaurant only just opened. The significant problem, however, is that the floor-to-ceiling window facing the street is covered by a thin see-through white veil. Mrs. LF therefore had a view of the not-so-attractive St John street by night. She correctly commented that in a fine dining room like this, you want to feel like you are completely removed from the outside world, like you are in a little, cosy cocoon where you can focus on your company and the food. And the odd window and curtain don’t quite give you that cosseted feeling.

We were greeted by one of our waiters (we had a few throughout the night), who was very pleasant, and we also had a consultation with the sommelier once we had decided we would be going for the tasting menu. Thierry, the sommelier, was very personable and helpful, and we eventually arrived at a small-production, biodynamic, unfiltered Sancerre from 45 year-old vines (Sebastien Riffault’s “Akménimé” 2007 at £55 a bottle) as most of the dishes seemed like they would go well with white wine. More on that later.

As we waited for our bouches to be amused, we were very surprised to have Bjorn himself come over to our table, introduce himself and have a quick chat with us. Later on, his wife Justine also made an appearance, and was very charming. Both visits were much appreciated and you can tell that both they and their staff are very excited and passionate about this new venture, curious to see what their customers think, and eager to please. The restaurant (at least the Gastro side) did slowly begin to fill up as the evening went on, and was probably half full by 9pm, and stayed that way.

The Pièce(s) de Résistance

After having the chef at our table for a minute (not quite a chef’s table, but close), it was onto the food.  And there was a lot of it to be had! First were the three amuse bouches, which are meant to ‘awaken your palate’, according to the menu.

  • ‘Toulouse’ was half-cooked foie gras on thin slices of crispy bread. It was simple, delicious and quite large for an amuse bouche. The foie gras had a noticeably sour tinge to it, which was different from others we’ve had, but didn’t detract from our enjoyment. 8/10.
  • ‘Paris’ was a cube of fromage de tete (i.e. the stuff inside the head of a young cow), which was combined with slices of tiny cornichon, capers, and a sprinkle of caviar. It had a very rich flavor and the veal sauce that the tete was engulfed in was out of this world. 8/10.
  • ‘New York’ was a piece of hamachi with a citrus and soy dressing, sesame seeds miniscule radishes and a tiny bit of jalapeño. The flavour combinations were precise and right on, and it was a fresh hit to the senses that certainly did awaken the palate. More Hawaii than New York for me, though :). 8/10.

You may wonder why these cities were chosen for the amuse bouches. I am guessing it is because the Swiss born van der Horst, who has a Dutch father and a Franco-Spanish mother, grew up partly in France and also lived in New York – but who knows.

Now that our mouths were fully awake and at attention, we were ready for the procession to begin.

  • Course 1: Almond Gazpacho with Smoked Paprika Prawns and Tomato Sorbet. This was a very refreshing, multi-layered dish. The shallow white bowls came out with the pinkish-red tomato sorbet in the middle, along with the smoky prawns. The cool beige almond soup was then poured by the waiter. The dish was very satisfying, and we seemed to discover another element to the dish in each bite, which kept it from being too much of the same. The gazpacho itself was delicately sweet, and melded very well with the smokiness of the prawns (which were excellent), with the tomato sorbet giving it a cold and balancing burst of sharpness. The paprika flavour came through in the right dose, and we also detected some soft chilli flavor, coriander and toasted almond flakes in different bites – which all went together brilliantly. 8/10.
  • Course 2: Raw Diver Scallops with Sea Urchin Vinaigrette. The scallops themselves were excellent, full of that sweet and round scallop flavor and seasoned minimally but well. I had refrained from sea urchin in the past, so was not sure to expect. The urchin itself was quite bitter and did complement the sweetness of the scallops but, to quote Austin Powers, I just wasn’t sure whether it was “my bag, baby”. The bright orange and green sauce that skirted around the edge of the plate, which seemed to comprise of orange, sesame and lime juice, was excellent, with the scallops too. Overall the dish was a definite winner, especially so if you really like the unusual taste of sea urchin. The scallops and urchins definitely released some salty flavors in our wine, which beforehand had seemed quite balanced between acidity, fruitiness and alcohol, which added an interesting dimension to the dish. By the way, another facet of the wine was the fact that it  had an unusually oily texture to it throughout the meal (when you swirled it around in the glass, an oily residue clung to the sides). I give the scallops 7/10.
  • Course 3: Watermelon Salad “Matthew Norman” with Courgette Flower, Feta and Tapenade. This was a very refreshing dish, as you would expect with watermelon. I thought it would be in danger of being too salty, what with the double whammy of feta and olive tapenade versus the lonely watermelon, but Bjorn and his team were too clever to fall into that trap. Neither the cheese nor the tapenade was overly salty and the flavors gelled well together, and were aided by a bit of fresh chervil as well. The most unusual, and possibly the best part of the dish, were little chunky slices of pickled watermelon – the firm bits from just under the skin were used and it added a nice twist to the dish. The courgette flower, which had been battered tempura-style, was fried perfectly and very more-ish. FYI – if you don’t know who Matthew Norman is, he is a Guardian food critic, and heavily criticised this dish at La Noisette, so Bjorn decided to name it after him eventually. You have to admire his cheek. 7/10.
  • Course 4: Poached Wild Turbot with Jersey Royales, Snails Confite and Beurre Rouge. This was pure class. The small piece of turbot was poached perfectly, retaining its firmness but flaking apart gently when you manoeuvred it with your fork. In fact, the fish was so fresh and well cooked, it would have been excellent served plainly on its own. But the beurre blanc (rich and succulent, as it should be) and the beurre rouge (which provide a bit of vinegar tanginess), with the addition of well executed seasonal potatoes and samphire elevated this dish to ‘gastro’ heaven. The snail, which was served whole, was very well done too and swam in those blissful sauces…and I don’t even like snails that much. A full 10/10.
  • Course 5: Roasted Pigeon with Gooseberries, Swiss Chard and Girolles. Don’t worry, there was some red meat, too. The bird was cooked exactly how I like it, a nice deep red. The accompaniments worked particularly well, and the jus was probably the best thing we had besides the turbot dish. Alongside the pigeon, there was a small silver plate which contained a single, circular, crispy piece of rye bread with a schmear of pigeon liver pâté which was bold and rich, and a nice little touch to complete the dish. The Sancerre, which had gone pretty well with the rest of the courses, actually seemed best suited to this dish, which was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.  9/10.
  • Course 6: “Ice Cube”. You know you’re in a fine dining restaurant when you get pre-desserts! The huge rectangular ice cubes were brought out on plates dressed with white napkins around them, and the top-side of each cube had a slightly depressed semi-circular area which had been carved away so that a little scoop of basil sorbet could be perched on top of it. The sorbet was very refreshing, and had a very strong sweet basil flavour – a good palate cleanser, which is the point of it, I suppose. 7/10.
  • Course 7: Cheese Plate. We decided to share one portion of the cheese plate, which consisted of some Stinking Bishop, a Comte-style cheese and a Stichelton. We also got two triangles of La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese, which was apparently put on the cheese board as it reminds the chef of his childhood (there is also a poster of the Laughing cow in the Bistro side of the restaurant). The Stinking Bishop, which as the name infers is quite a pungent, rich, full-flavored and soft English cheese, was paired with a Rose Champagne, which provided for a very innovative and successful pairing. The Comte-like slice was my kind of cheese, hard, nutty and strong, and was combined with a Mas Amiel (a white wine from Maury, made from Grenache). The full body, texture and packed fruit flavor complemented the cheese nicely. The Stichelton, which is the same as Stilton but made with unpasteurized milk, was perfectly matched with a sweet white Jurancon wine from La Domaine de Souch. The cheese course was extremely generous, and I have never seen in done in this fashion, with each cheese being precisely matched with an accompanying wine. Bravo! 9/10.
  • Course 8: White Chocolate Wonder with Raspberry and Pistachio. The desserts at La Noisette had been one of the best parts about the meals there – always fun and exciting – and I am happy to say that this doesn’t seem to have changed with the moving of venues. Our ‘wonder’ spheres came out in all of their circular glory, dusted various colors of sugary spray paint, only to be dissolved by the hot raspberry sauce, revealing a creamy pistachio paste core. Now, I am not the biggest fan of pistachio in desserts (in fact, I was slightly underwhelmed at Le Manoir Aux Qat’Saisons with their pistachio soufflé earlier this year), but I have to say this was phenomenal. The combination of the milky white chocolate, the sharp sweetness of the raspberry sauce and the richness of the pistachio flavor really worked well together. This is one of the best desserts I’ve had recently – it still won’t touch The River Cafe’s Nemesis, but they are completely different after all, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the taste sensations and the theater this dessert. 9/10.

A few side notes:

  • This may be controversial (and intentionally so?), but there is no bread served with the tasting menu. We didn’t have a problem with this personally, but we did ask about the policy as we can imagine a lot of people having a serious issue with it (our only niggle is that we like to have it to mop up good sauces and all the stray bits of dishes that are left at the end). Apparently, Bjorn believes that you have so many different things to eat during the course of the meal, bread would only fill you up early on in the meal and your stomach space would be wasted. They do buy in bread, which is supposedly very high quality, from a French baker based outside of London (near Uxbridge if I remember correctly?). And I would like to stress that there was bread on offer with the cheese course, and it was good quality.
  • One of the only disadvantages of the tasting menu was the fact that we didn’t have the signature Foie Gras with Espresso Syrup and Amaretto Foam, which I had been craving since La Noisette closed, but I suppose I will have to go back and have it another time!

Conclusions

As we had hoped, we had a really good night at Eastside Inn. The service was excellent throughout.  It did seem like there were a lot of staff members considering the number of diners, but I guess this is the risk you run with a new venture. That said, everyone we interacted with was very friendly, charming, professional and knowledgeable. You definitely get the feeling that they are excited and proud to be a part of Eastside, and that they want it to succeed.

The food was of a very high quality across the board, and truly superb in a few instances (read: turbot, pigeon and wacky dessert creations). It is classic Bjorn van der Horst fine dining fare, and it goes from strength to strength, replete with challenging combinations and a real sense of personal flare in each dish. I hope that the menu changes often and reflects seasonal and local produce moving forward, as I think this will be important in drawing back repeat customers for the more fancy side of the restaurant. As noted above, we haven’t eaten in the bistro side, but we did walk over there after our meal to have a look at the menu, and some of the dishes looked very promising.

These days, it is quite rare to find a chef of Bjorn’s standard in London with his or her own place that has really made it their own, and Eastside Inn is dotted with quirky little personal touches throughout (like it or not) – from the Laughing Cow cheese, a little pot of homeade yogurt with red fruits and thyme covered in a cloth a la Bonne Maman served between two of the courses, to the very personal choice of artwork (Chris Gollon), to the whole way the place has been set up in two distinct restaurants. It is nice to see someone of this calibre who is focused on just one venture and wants it to succeed by making people happy by serving high-quality food with good service at reasonable prices.

When I think back on our evening, the one word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘generous’. And I think this is because it is a very personal project for Bjorn and his wife. They want to make you feel at home. You are offered not one, but three amuse bouches; you get not one but three glasses of wine with the cheese plate, which have been selected to complement each specific cheese; and there are little surprises throughout, such as the mysterious ‘Ice Cube’. Considering the prices charged and the quality of the food, it is very good value for a London restaurant that is surely a 1 or 2 star Michelin star contender.

While there are some minor things that will hopefully iron themselves out over time (for instance, the decor could use some tweaking), I think there is tremendous potential for Eastside Inn to establish itself as a serious stalwart on the London gastronomic scene.

PS – for those that are interested, they have a jazz trio every Thursday and Friday night from 10pm onward, and Bjorn also offers a series of cookery master classes, which sound practical and fun.

Rating

Ambience: 6.5/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8.5/10

Wine List: 7/10

Wine Selected:  7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Eastside Inn once, although I dined at Bjorn’s former restaurant, La Noissette on a number of occasions.*

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