Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

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

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

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

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

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

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

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

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

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

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

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

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

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

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

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

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

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

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

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

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

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

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

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

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

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

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

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

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

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

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

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

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

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

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

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

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

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

Recession Special is Still On!

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

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

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

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

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

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

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

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

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

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

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

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

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

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

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

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

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

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

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

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

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

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

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

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

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

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

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

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

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

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

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

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

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

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

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

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

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

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

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

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

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

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

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

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

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

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

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

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

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

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

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

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

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

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

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

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

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

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

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

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

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

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

Sparkling

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

White

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

Red

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

Sweet

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

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

#   #   #

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

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

All the best for 2011!

Advertisements

Restaurant Sauterelle – The Dark Horse in D&D’s Stable

Restaurant Sauterelle
The Royal Exchange
Mezzanine Level
London EC3V 3LR
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Starters from £8.50-12.50, Mains from £17-23, Desserts at £7.20; Set Menu at £19/2-courses or £22/3-courses

Restaurant Sauterelle doesn’t seem to carry a high profile, even though it is
situated within the grand confines of The Royal Exchange and is part of the
Conran empire. On our visit, I was continuously and pleasantly surprised by
the technical skill of the kitchen and the flair of the chef, and was inspired by
many of the dishes which combined the best of French and Italian cuisine
through the advantageous purview of an outsider’s interpretation (Head
Chef Robin Gill is Irish). While not every course was as good as the next,
there is certainly much promise here and I can only imagine it going from
strength to strength in the coming months and years, so long as the
core team stays intact.

Getting paid royalties at the Exchange

An email popped up in my inbox a while back, inviting me to review a restaurant I’d never heard of before. This was unusual for two reasons: first, I like to think that I know about most restaurants of a certain calibre in London (well, I try my very best to), and second, once I did my research, it seemed like a place I’d actually enjoy trying out. Oddly enough, my foodie friend Mathilde had received the same offer. We therefore asked if we could do a meal together with our partners, and were eventually told that this would be fine. In the interests of fair disclosure, we paid for half of the meal.

Banking in on grand surroundings

The establishment in question, Restaurant Sauterelle, must have one of the grandest backdrops of any restaurant in London. Situated on the mezzanine level of The Royal Exchange, it is the fine dining arm of the catering operation which covers the ground and mezzanine levels of the building, all of which is run by D&D London, i.e. the Conran collection. (You can click on any of the images in the review to get the full-resolution images, or alternatively the complete set of pictures is available on my flickr account).

The ground level of The Royal Exchange

The large and open ground floor is essentially a bar (though they serve some food too) which is called the Royal Exchange Grand Café, and it overflows onto two opposite sides of the mezzanine level to make for quite a lively after-work drinks spot for the local City clientele.

One side of the mezzanine bar

Restaurant Sauterelle takes up another quarter of the mezzanine level, and is actually not that big of a restaurant within the context of the catering operation as a whole. A slice of the kitchen is visible from most of the tables in the restaurant, and it has airs of a fine dining room, with crisp white linens and accents of blue throughout. It is a pleasant dining space that is kept rather quiet by virtue of glass plates which have been fitted in the arches on the mezzanine ledge, cosseting diners from the riffraff down below.

The kitchen, the view & le table

A French, Italian & Irish Tour de Force

The Head Chef is Robin Gill, a young Irishman whose cuisine I guess I would characterize as mostly French, but with his own flair for invention and innovation. Most of the dishes on the menu sounded very appetizing – with a number having notably interesting combinations of flavors and ingredients – and we eventually decided to go for a tasting menu of sorts, where Chef Gill would determine what we got. We were excited and hoped our carte blanche experience would be a memorable one. In what I thought was a nice touch, the kitchen provided us with 2-4 different dishes for each course (instead of everyone having the same thing)…I think they knew this was a table that would be happy sharing the dishes (and we were, at least to a certain extent :)). The very pleasant Slovenian sommelier eventually convinced us to go for a wine pairing with small tasting glasses (roughly 100ml) for most of the courses, although a few wines covered two courses.

Champagne, bread & butter

While we were anticipating what was to come, we busied ourselves with champagne and some very good bread and butter. One of the butters contained seaweed and was excellent.

Amuse Bouche: Jerusalem artichoke velouté, soft poached quail egg rolled in celery salt bread crumbs, wild mushroom & truffle purée

The palate teaser arrived in a beautiful little turquoise glass bowl that bowed towards you so you could peer inside without having to bend down too far. A velouté of Jerusalem artichoke was then poured on top of the medley of ingredients and brought forth a very pleasing aroma. The waiter reminded us that a Jerusalem artichoke is not really an artichoke at all – in fact, it is a type of sunflower, of which the tubers are used, and has nothing at all to do with Jerusalem. In any case, it was a little explosion of flavor, with the rather sweet flavor of the Jerusalem artichoke poking its head out first, and then a second layer of flavor added by the subtle aroma and taste of truffle, followed by the wild mushrooms. The quail egg was cooked perfectly, ever so soft and oozing with a brilliant orange interior when broken. Everything worked together and not a note was out of place in this little opening number. 9/10.

Mathilde seemed to agree, noting that “This first dish was an in-depth introduction to Robin’s cuisine: an adventurous and successful way to mix flavours at their best.”

Starter 1: Pan-fried diver scallops, toasted cauliflower in textures, purée & pickle, apple-caramelised suckling pig belly with soy lime glaze

The starter of scallops and suckling pig was probably one of my favorite dishes of the evening in terms of conception, presentation and taste. I thought it looked beautiful and the slightly challenging idea of a très posh ‘surf and turf’ was intriguing. The most interesting thing about the dish was that while the scallops had been seared perfectly, they were actually quite mild in flavor on their own. However, when taken together with the pork or any of the exceedingly delicious vegetable elements (which were definitely more than just garnishing), the flavors interspersed with each other and the whole thing came alive on your palate. The suckling pig had a good crackling as well, which helped with texture variation, and the cauliflower part of the dish was sublime – and that’s coming from a man who’s not too keen on cauliflower. The little citrus kicks from the apple and lime were subtle, but ever-present, and also added an interesting and pleasant sensation to the dish. 8.5/10.

Although I don’t think Mathilde enjoyed the dish as much as I did, feeling that the scallops were “…lacking a kick despite the pork,” she noted that “on the other hand, the cauliflower purée was a nice addition to the dish and our Maestro managed once again to bring a common vegetable, in this case cauliflower, to the next level.”

We had opted for a Gavi wine (2008 Gavi, La Giustiniana, Piedmont, Italy) to go with the first two courses. It was a rather typical but good example, being very dry, crisp, clean and precise; it also opened up a bit in the glass to reveal a round fruit profile. It went nicely with both the amuse bouche and the scallop/suckling pig combo.

Starter 2: Smoked foie gras cooked sous-vide, poached fruit, grapes, quince & prune glaze, walnut toast (the dish was served at the table under a glass bowl of oak smoke)

Chef Gill’s take on foie gras was certainly interesting. It had been marinated and then cooked sous-vide – placed in a plastic bag and slow-cooked in hot water for a long period of time, in order to retain as much flavor as possible – and the result was an exceedingly light and delicate foie gras which still retained the essence of the flavor that everyone knows and so many love. The smoke added more of an olfactory dimension to the dish, but then again smell is so interlinked with taste that there definitely was an undercurrent of smokiness on the palate too. The fruits and accompanying walnut toast were perfect bedfellows for this little wobbly morsel. It was also nice to see the appearance of quince, which was just detectable in and amongst the other fruit flavors. 7/10.

Starter 3: Squab pigeon cooked medium-rare, with the legs confit & caramelised with juniper, pan deglazed with Muscat salted grapes, served with celeriac ‘coleslaw’, watercress, white truffle & foie gras shavings

I only had a bite or two of the pigeon, but thought that it was a successful dish. I loved the salted Muscat grapes, and thought the carmelization on the pigeon was well executed, giving it a slight sweetness that goes so well with the gaminess of the bird. I think my favorite part of the dish was actually the celeriac ‘coleslaw’, which to me looked like pasta and reminded me of my recent meal at l’Arpège in Paris due to the playful use of the modest ingredient of celeriac. 7/10.

Mathilde felt that this dish “…was probably the most interesting in terms of the combination of flavours. The pigeon was well-cooked and, once again, the celeriac – this time presented as ‘coleslaw’ with watercress – added a good kick to it.”

To go with the gamey flavor of the pigeon and the richness of the foie gras, the sommelier had suggested the rather adventurous option a tawny port instead of the done-to-death Sauterne pairing. We were game (pardon the pun), but unfortunately neither myself nor @dewilded thought it worked very well with either dish as it was simply too overpowering and concentrated to blend well with some of the rather subtle flavors. That said, on its own, the 10-year-old Warre’s Otima from Portugal was perfectly fine, exemplifying an abundance of caramel, dried fruits and a dash of honey.

Main Course 1: Halibut coked sous-vide with vanilla oil, grilled day boat squid, pine nut sauce vierge, fennel, dill potato gnocchi & avocado

I didn’t taste the halibut, but Mrs. LF did and thought that “…the fish was quite bland on its own, although it had been very well cooked. The vierge sauce, however, was delicious. The issue I had with the dish was that the flavor of the sauce somehow didn’t integrate well with the fish – they seemed to remain too distinct from each other whereas, for example, in a fish dish I made the other day, the subtleness of the seabass seemed to merge effortlessly with its stuffing and sauce.” 6/10.

Interestingly, I think our blogging counterpart enjoyed this dish more than I did, stating that “The halibut was served with a very lemony guacamole that balanced the dish very well, supported by the pine nut sauce and the fennel.”

Main Course 2: Roast cod, smoked eel, rouille, polenta, parsley fregola, poached salsify, sea greens, bearded monk & samphire

I was un-wowed by the roast cod dish which, by the sound of its description, set itself up to be a plate of food bursting with flavor. The cod had been well cooked – moist, flaky, just firm enough – but it didn’t have that much taste on its own, and I didn’t think the golden polenta crust added much to the flavor profile, although it looked very pretty set against the green and white elements of the dish. The parsely fregola was also on the bland side for me, and the other vegetal elements didn’t add enough of a punch to make it an interesting dish. The real saviour of the dish was the smoked eel, which was truly excellent and livened up the pasta and fish with its deep flavor whenever you got a bite of it. Maybe the strong flavor of the smoked eel and the rouille were meant to counterbalance the subtleness of the rest of the ingredients, but for me it was just lacking that je ne sais quoi overall. 6/10.

To accompany the fish dishes, we had decided upon a 2007 Chablis 1er Cru (Cote de Lechet, Domaine Bernard Defaix, Burgundy, France), which did what it said on the tin. It was a little steely, and had a very fresh citrus fruit spine to it and a good bit of length. I enjoyed it a lot and it was an improvement over the last pairing of port.

Main Course 3: Pyrenees lamb rack, caramelised sweet bread, kidney, slow cooked belly, butter bean, salsa verde, smoked aubergine, kalamata olive

I agree completely with Mathilde on this, and I quote: “This dish revealed Robin’s love for tasty food and it was a true explosion of flavours and textures. The tender lamb and smoky aubergines played the usual perfect couple, while the kidney and the slow-cooked belly added different levels in term of tastes and textures.”

It was indeed a very engaging and concentrated dish, and I thought it had been executed fantastically, from succulent sweetbread to pink and flavorful rack of lamb, to surprisingly palatable offal, to masterfully cooked and marinated vegetable components. It was a tour de force. 9/10.

Main Course 4: Beef fillet, slow-cooked cheek tarragon mousse, bone marrow & shallot gastric, parsley grilled leek

Unfortunately, as good as the lamb was, the beef seemed to let the whole table down. The fillet itself was simply lacking in flavor and had been cooked to beyond medium. The grilled leek was also lacking in inspiration and it felt like the whole thing would have benefitted from a little bit of sauce to tie things together. The slow-cooked beef cheek, tarragon mousse and bone marrow concoction was good, however, and was neatly encased by a round slice of shallot. It was by far the most interesting thing on the plate, which is a disappointment as you expect a well-aged piece of beef fillet to deliver on all counts when in the hands of a chef with obvious talent. 5/10.

Our chosen foil for the lamb and beef courses was a 2005 Rioja (Cune Reserva, Spain) suggested by the sommelier. As with so many red Riojas, it was a very satisfying red wine, offering plenty of ripe fruit, softness and smoothness, with the oak being pretty well integrated. It was a good choice indeed, and probably not a bad buy in the supermarket (it retails for about £10/bottle).

Some details around the table

A brief & private intermission

The very friendly and accommodating restaurant manager, Carl Couchesne, asked us if we would like to take a breather before dessert and offered us a tour of the building. A walk sounded like a good idea at this point, so we followed our leader as he disappeared around the corner. He gave us a potted history of the various phases and changes that The Royal Exchange has been through, and history buff / knowledge sponge @dewilded added his own colourful anecdotes along the way. We were shown some beautiful paintings that adorned the sides of the building, a few of which are pictured below.

Around the edges of The Royal Exchange

As we continued around the mezzanine level of the building, Carl next showed us the private dining space that is at the disposal of the restaurant. The private dining facilities are located on the opposite side of the building as the main dining room and would certainly make for an impressive venue for an important event or meeting.

The private dining facilities

We finished circling round the last side of the rectangular level by passing through the other side of the mezzanine bar and, after stepping past the kitchen, were back in the dining room and ready for our sweet courses! I am glad to say that these certainly didn’t disappoint.

Dessert 1: Poached pear, cardamom popcorn, white chocolate & grue de cacao panna cotta

The first dessert I spied was a playful looking little thing. The poached pear was simple but delicious and flavorsome, which is not always the case in a pear desert; it had clearly been well marinated. The cardamom popcorn also definitely worked nicely as a sideshow, although Mathilde didn’t agree, complaining that she “couldn’t really taste the cardamom in the popcorn, even if it added a funny touch to the dessert.” The white chocolate and grue de cocao panna cotta was luscious, with a perfectly smooth texture and good depth of flavor. It was a very light and pleasant little dessert. Mrs. LF said it was her second-favorite dessert, and that it was the best pear dessert she’s had in a long time. I seem to recall that it was not on the menu yet, so hopefully it’s been added now. 8/10.

Dessert 2: Banana and walnut cake, peanut brittle, caramelised bananas, peanut butter ice cream

I was only afforded one bite of this dish due to its popularity, but loved it. The banana and walnut cake was moist and infused with both flavors in equal proportion. Being American, I have a particular penchant for peanut brittle (it’s a bit thing in some places in the US), and thought this example was excellent. But by far the best thing on the plate was the peanut butter ice cream, which was simply to die for. 8/10.

It seemed that the tall French blogger and I were once again on the same page as she has “…always been a huge fan of banana and walnut; it was my favourite cake when I was a kid, so it could hardly go wrong. The peanut butter ice cream worked very nicely with the cake and balanced the strong banana taste. This dessert was once again a good proof of how much Robin loves playing with texture and flavours.”

Dessert 3: Rhubarb, walnut crunch, vanilla, mint, rhubarb ice cream

For some reason, I seemed to be the only person who really enjoyed the rhubarb dessert – in hindsight, this may have been because the other deserts were much more naughty in comparison. To me, its fresh, zingy tartness was very refreshing and softened well by the lovely ice cream. It was the dessert in front of me, so I had a good deal of it since my companions preferred to focus their attentions elsewhere. 7/10.

However, the now nasty Mathilde 🙂 reflected that “The dessert didn’t come with any flavours worth remembering. It was fresh and light but didn’t match the other desserts that we were presented that night. The walnut crunch didn’t manage to create a strong enough texture to make it more appealing.”

Dessert 4: Star anise crème brulée, mandarin, ginger tuile

As much as I liked my tangy rhubarb, I was slightly jealous of the crème brulée that was placed in front of @dewilded. This was probably the best dessert out of the four, even though I enjoyed them all for different reasons. The essence of star anise had been captured and infused perfectly throughout this wonderful circular tower of sweet cream, with its perfectly ‘burnt’ crown. This, when combined with the truly sublime mandarin cream (it was that good), was indeed heavenly when topped off with a little chunk of the crispy ginger tuile. 9/10.

The Finale: Madagascan dark chocolate Easter egg, salted caramel, muesli, cardamom truffle (A collaboration between Paul A Young, the chocolatier, and Chef Gill)

After all of these desserts, we were slowly preparing the little capacity our stomachs had left for the final and highly-anticipated course. Mathilde had kindly organized for us to sample a new dessert that Restaurant Sauterelle is offering throughout the Easter period. It is collaboration between the highly regarded chocolatier Paul A Young (one of whose shops is also in The Royal Exchange) and Head Chef Robin Gill. To say this was good would be the understatement of the year. It was a fascinating architectural construction. A foundation of homemade muesli comprised of toasted nuts, dried fruits and toasted parsnip crisps provided multiple textures – some chewy, some crunchy, some soft – and an array of flavors that ranged from grainy, to nutty, to sweet and slightly salty. The walls were buttressed by palate-awakening cardamom truffles, and this magical little mountain was capped by vanilla snow.

And then there was the egg…oh my god, the egg! It was eventually split open simultaneously by all four of us and its rich dark chocolate shell (64% Madagascan) was to die for on its own, but sublimely enhanced by what is probably the best sea-salted caramel I’ve ever tasted. To elevate it to further heights of luxury, the chocolate shell was inlayed with edible 23 Carat gold leaf and Champagne was added in order to give “a vibrant finish to this chocolate delight.”

It is very difficult to describe the experience of eating this beautiful creation, but it was a great communal endeavour and all of the flavors and textures made it the most interesting, engaging and fun course of the night for me. If you go and they have it, order it. 10/10.

After all of my rambling, Mathilde said, “The only thing I can add to the excellent description written by LF is that we all left the room thinking that the egg would be the perfect breakfast. The combination of chocolate, muesli, fruits, etc., all balanced at their best, would make everybody look forward to the most important meal of the day!”

The thrill of new discovery

Overall, I was very impressed with the food at Restaurant Sauterelle: it was varied, interesting, for the most part very flavorsome, and cooked with a high technical ability. The service was attentive and pleasant throughout, the sommelier had been very helpful and friendly, with most of the pairings she helped us to select working well together (save for the port).

Chef Gill came out of the kitchen at the end of our meal – indeed, we were the last table standing – and struck me as a clearly talented, ambitious and passionate young chef who had been integrating all of his various cooking experiences into his culinary repertoire. For example, he spent time cooking in Italy, and this can clearly be seen through the way he works with vegetables, while his experience in French kitchens has obviously imparted much technical skill in his cooking (i.e. as you will have noticed, he is a fan of the Troisgros inspired sous-vide method).

We ended up walking out with him and his energetic and garrulous nature (he’s Irish after all :)) was a delight. As we went our separate ways, I couldn’t help but think what a lovely evening it had been. We had discovered architectural beauty (I had never been inside The Royal Exchange), new and memorable food, and had been able to share it with friends who appreciate such experiences as much as we do.

Mathilde summarized the evening as such: “On my way to Sauterelle, I didn’t really know what to expect and, after a quick look at the menu online, I wasn’t sure about the different dishes. But once we stepped into the restaurant with such a particular atmosphere and set-up, I started seeing things in a very different way.”

“And when the plates were served, the first forkfuls were a true revelation in terms of flavour and well-balanced textures. Robin is definitely a talented chef who knows how to leverage the tastes and the essence. Each dish is an expression of his love for fresh ingredients and, like a kid in the playground, you feel that he is having fun in his kitchen!”

I concur and, just like Heston Blumenthal, I always enjoy feeling like a kid in a candy store when I am about to embark on a new culinary adventure.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: I didn’t have much of a chance to peruse the entire wine list, but it can be found online here.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Restaurant Sauterelle once, it was for dinner, and I was invited by the restaurant. We paid for half of the bill.*

Sauterelle on Urbanspoon