Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Sustenance and sustainability...(not a Jane Austin sequel)

Moonlight glistened on dark water and the reflection of light sparkled, adding a dreamy quality. Dreamy? Isn’t this Newcastle? Well, er, yes. Between the Millennium Bridge and the wonderfully monolithic wrought iron Tyne Bridge, that makes Newcastle’s landscape famous; along the quayside, with Baltic, the brutalist art museum, and Norman Foster’s undulating curves of the Sage (Newcastle’s equivalent to the Sydney Opera House, according to the taxi driver), in the new heart of Newcastle, lies one of the City’s prize assets.

Café 21 is the inspiration of Terry Laybourne, author of the cook book Quest for Taste, and the first chef to bring a Michelin star to the North East. Although the Café's aim is for informality, the initial impression, from the sleek bar, dark wood surfaces, dimmed lights and hushed tones of the diners (through enjoyment, I should add), is of formality and this is reflected in the menu, bringing together classic European dishes and English food, most of which is locally sourced from artisan producers.

A combination of work and a chaotic journey north had darkened my mood. It was late and I was tired and cranky, so I felt disappointed that I didn’t have time to indulge in a couple of dishes or more. I settled, though, on the one dish that could ease my mood and hit all my bases at once; the North Country Hot Pot (well I am in the North!) with ham knuckle smoked sausage pork belly and lentils. Pork, pork and smoked pork! (Did I mention the pork?)

Brought to the table in a cocotte big enough for two but with a perfectly portioned plate for one. A cloud of steam released the sweet smell of meat and muted woody aroma of lentils as the lid was lifted.

Succulent hock from Middlewhite pigs, boned and slow cooked, pulling apart to the touch of the fork, and with biting-into-velvet softness. Adding to the richness of flavour, a generously thick slice of salted pork belly, stripes of pink meat and full flavoured off-white fat. Smoked Morteau sausage from Lyon, thick cut discs, finished the combination of meat flavours, spongily resistant and gently smoked; sweetness, smoke and savoury. Smooth textured lentils cooked in ham stock formed the luxuriant base to which fibrously crunchy French beans, wilted baby leaks and green leaves, chateau-cut carrots and potatoes, were added. Fully satisfying and just right, so sad it had to end so quickly.

Back to the dreamy quality of Newcastle, and the palate of colours, sights and sensations in my mind as I drift off to sleep with a smile painted on my face. I am looking forward to going back.

Café 21, Trinity Gardens, Quayside, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 2HH T: 0191 222 0755

Sunday, 21 March 2010

You can’t always get what you want...

As Julie Christie might have said in the film Darling, “Chelsea is so gay” (well not in the modern sense of the word, but then again, I was surrounded by interior designers and arty folk so who knows?) Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Instantly trendy places come and go like shooting stars, and older ones from the time of Darling exist but never adapt. And, two minutes walk from the King’s Road is such an establishment.

Pellicano sits behind the lumbering blocks of flats on Sloane Avenue, and is frequented by the transient clients staying there or local people. Although it had a modern feel it was still very old fashioned. So it was with a certain apprehension that, dressed to pull and surrounded by the arty and interesting crowd, I accepted a glass of light and apple and lemony Prosecco and joined in the revelry. But that was where the problems began.

I was hungry, very hungry, so I decided on a starter of Tagliatelli with Rabbit; visions of creamy yellow tagliatelli contrasting with pale pink fleshed rabbit and flecks of maybe, parsley or thyme. However, reality kicked in the moment it arrived.

This was a rather hearty portion for a starter (serves me right, I guess), and my vision of pale yellow pasta and meaty ragu was distracted by a rather mean desert spoon serving of shredded and cheesy rabbit meat placed in the centre on top. The pasta itself while glistening was slightly over-cooked.

Over-cooked? Well that might be a bit harsh, but I wonder; were they catering for an English palate or were they too busy to cope? Either way, it is meant to be the genuine Italian article. Regardless, it was just a little too soft. Not al dente enough. (I once went to a place near the Vatican that served pasta so al dente that I wondered if water had actually been applied. But I digress).

I guessed that this was farmed rabbit, rather than a fuller flavoured wild rabbit, as it didn’t have that slightly woody, gamier quality that I thought it should have (it has been a while since I last had rabbit so please correct me if I am wrong), and it is the end of the hunting season. Drowned by the flavour and made slightly greasy by the cheese, it tasted more like the meat in a tin of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup, so a desert spoon was more than enough. I was left with an acrid after- taste and the desire to dive into a glass of the red wine staring back at me in a wanton manner.

My main course Quail with Fennel and Pancetta on Polenta. Again, I imagined pancetta wrapped roasted birds on a bed of golden polenta. This was close, presented with Italian panache and looking quite appealing, there were two pretty, boned, roasted-to-a-chestnut colour quail nestling in soft, creamy mash and surrounded by a rich meat jus; two bronzed bathers on a golden atoll surrounded by a dark sea; parmesan and sweet saline smells from the polenta and pancetta. Ah, but again, what met the eye failed to meet the expectations of the mouth and mind.

The quails were stuffed with the fennel and pancetta giving them a plump cuteness and keeping them moist. Sadly, however, the overwhelming flavour was of pancetta; pancetta, pancetta, pancetta. The subtlest hint of aniseed and the tiniest meaty taste of the quail struggled to rise above the bacon. Nor were they helped by the not-so-subtle parmesan in the polenta, nor the jus. Keeping with the sixties film quotes, Michael Caine’s “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” cry to his bomb expert for a more subtle approach to cracking a nut comes to mind, the complete lack of balance in flavours and excessive use of bacon was equally heavy handed.

Will I go back? Let’s put it this way, the only things that came out tops were the prosecco and the postcard that came with the bill.

Pellicano, 19-21 Elystan Street, London SW3 3NT

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The pleasure of Polpo..

Polpo is a busy and bustling Venetian style ‘bacaro’ in Soho, which serves light plates of regional food and wine, and was once home to the painter Canaletto. Having read so many excellent reviews and, on a few occasions, pressed my nose to the window like a Victorian waif to peer inside, I leapt at the invitation by @R_McCormack and @Tehbus to go for lunch.

Arriving fashionably late (I now realise what that term means… London Transport!) I was greeted by Russell, he of Polpo and @polposoho, who took me down toward the back bar and offered me a drink as I met my fellow tweeters. What was so good about the whole experience (apart from the food Russell, apart from the food) was the feeling that we were just picking up a thread of conversation, as if we had known one another for years and could go on talking until the sun went down; a real treat.

So what did we eat? Let’s start with the appetisers we shared: Two perfectly formed mouth sized balls of Arancini served skewered on a long cocktail stick. Golden crispy coated rice mixed with cheese that pulled away in chewing-gum fashion as it was bitten in half. Crunchy skinned fondue soft centred balls, given texture by the rice; richness and lightness.

White moussed puffs of creamy salt cod, a nebulously light taste of fish on a golden disc of polenta; softness, lightness, fishiness atop the gently resistant-to-the-bite grilled polenta. I should say salted cod, because of the difficulty in shipping in salt cod from Italy. Either way, the chefs have worked on interpreting and translating day-to-day cod into the salt cod before us; clever stuff.

The non-fish eating member of our table allowed me to dive into the salt cod (why does “swim with the fishes” come to mind? This is London, not the Bronx) in exchange for the prosciutto and mozzarella.

Round 2 (Now I have the theme to Rocky in my head), the plates. I don’t normally get excited about Fritto Misto. I guess it is because it seems like an easy option rather than going for something more creative, more unusual; different. However, I am glad it was chosen. I really enjoyed the sunshine yellow, lightness of the batter and the melt in the mouth squid; the soft and sweet prawn meat, and crispy crunch texture of the fish; more-ish, greedy temptation.

A salad, well, it’s a salad right? Not quite. Aniseed flavoured shaved fennel, curly leaves of endive; a bitter sweet blend of flavours, mixed with slightly perfumed almonds. That is a cleansing salad!

Pork belly, a clear favourite; meaty-succulent sweet and tender enough to pull apart with the fork; contrasting textures of softness and crunchy hazelnuts and crisp peppery radicchio.

A fresh yeasty based Pizetta arrived, cooked to perfection (for me) egg with runny yolky richness, subtle cheese flavours and garlic perfumes cut clean by spinach.

In my greed and praise for the other plates I almost forgot this, and how could I? A deliciously rich flavoured terrine of tender, dark rabbit meat, refreshingly light, crumbling under the knife onto the thinnest of French toasts; pinky meat flecked with sweet apricot and subtle herbs.

Embracing the Venetian theme, the gastronomic carnival continued. Round 3 (ding ding): The ox tongue and lentils was an ‘out there’ choice, something I was curious about but needed to taste. Nor was I disappointed. Meaty-firm slices placed fallen Domino style (did you spot that reference?) on a slightly minty lentil bed. Velvety pulses, tender meat, and a fresh flavoured herb brought extra life to the dish.

Blackness brought a deliciously Gothic end to our choices from the squid ink; liquorice smiles bringing levity to the conversation. Cuttlefish, simmered slowly, so very slowly in its own ink given an almost electric charge by a tangy gremolata. @R_McCormack and I were in two minds about this (well for this course, there were only two of us eating!) Whilst the joy of cuttlefish ink is found in the deep, rich, earthy brine quality that lingers on the tongue, coating the mouth with its long finish, the lemon zest adds another dimension, keeping it fresh and light; which I liked. This was served with a side plate of soft polenta drizzled in olive oil.

And so we stopped; the huge selection and our expanding waistlines brought an end to the feast. To ensure we were steady on the road, my tweetamies had Affogato al caffe. Like a flashback from the 70’s with Coca Cola floats, the gelato, rich and egg yolk yellow-cream was placed on top of the espresso to melt and dissolve into the drink. I looked on with envy.

This was such a good experience, made great by the food and conversation. I am looking forward to returning. Thanks to Russell and the Polpo team, and of course my tweeter friends.