Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A bit of a fiasco...

You know when some programmes don’t work? They just aren’t that funny but the canned laughter makes you think that you should laugh? Or films where they throw in every plot line taking it from implausible to downright surreal? Like those mobile phone ads, some executive types have an idea in the boardroom and everyone throws in their two-penneth’s worth leading to complete lack of focus. The same applies to restaurants in a group.

A night for catching up in an old haunt in Covent Garden followed by a cheap meal and a chance to try something new brought me and my brother Ben , and our guests to Kitchen Italia.

There have been many businesses at this location since the cellar housed the Freedom Brewery (I used to really like their IPA, but I am a wine drinker... what do I know?). Always bustling and lively. Tonight though, it was empty save for a table of foreign students. Empty, quiet and very, very large. In fact, apart from the smiling staff it was rather soul-less!

Deciding to keep the evening light, we started with bread, olives and pizza nibbles, and then order a main and maybe a pudding for the sweeter toothed, wine (noticing that it was by the carafe rather than an option of glass, carafe or bottle, and at what mark up?) and endless water. At this point I noted that the menu issue is November 2009 which says that they should consider an update!

Bellinis were suggested while we thought about our orders. It was written down as a “White Peach Bellini” (now to be pedantic, is there any other kind? When Arrigo Cipriani invented it at Harry’s Bar all those years ago it was the Bellini rather than as something that implied variety). Peachy, yes, but a bit flat due to the amount of the juice.

“Focaccia with Extra virgin olive oil” for Ben and his beau. Bready rather than golden, moist and spongy, and a bit dry. However, being surrounded by bottles of olive oil, from the shelves around the restaurant to the trough in the table, there was opportunity enough to rectify this. (And what a choice: natural, garlic, chilli, herby, dopey, sneezy, etc… Ok I’m being silly now). Links on the website tell you that their oils are from Marfuga a fattoria in Umbria that has a picture of the owner and his wife that reminded me very much of the photograph on the box of the seventies game Mastermind, with the gorgeous Eurasian lady and the sleazy Mafia don.

I thought that F and I would go for the garlic, parsley and butter pizza would be a lighter alternative (well she and I both have our figures to think about). The thought of a warm slightly crusty flavoured base, oozing garlicky and herby oils and made richer by the butter, the kind that you need a few napkins to clean your hands and mouth; peppery herbs and the slightest dusting of flour, all combined to make an effective but simple starter. But we agreed that this was floury and cardboardy, scratchy and tasteless. Like the atmosphere, rather lifeless. There was no evident richness from the butter and the herbs looked dried. (I didn’t get to the olives as they had already been consumed at the other end of the rather large table).

The main courses arrived surprisingly quickly, Mafaldine (pasta ribbons with crinkly edges to you and me) with spicy sausage, two of those. Tagliolini with black truffles and Gnocchi with peas, mint and Gorgonzola.

Generous crumblings of spiced sausage meat kept moist by a rich tomato sauce and perfumed from the fennel was not to be. The pasta, a good sized helping, fennel flavoured and peppery, lacked evidence of the spicy sausage which was hidden by breadcrumbs and sauce. It looked like it had been baked, the tomato sauce was dried out, like a red version of sea weed clinging to hot rocks. Was it the service counters lights? And why would that be when the mains arrived quickly?

F wanted the truffle on tagliolini with a light mushroom cream sauce, as she felt it sounded filling and rich. Mushrooms sliced, fried with garlic and herbs, tossed into the pasta, and given lightness of colour and mellowness of flavour from a modest amount of cream, speckled on top like caviar, the black truffle and some pepper. A sweetness of mushrooms, sourness of spicy pepper, nebulous perfumed truffle filling the mouth, all tempered by the cream. Tempting isn’t it?

Where was the mushroom cream sauce that F imagined clinging to the strands of pasta and speckled with pepper and truffle (or was that the description of the colour?) Modest amounts of cream? This was virginal! The truffle itself tasted of wood; chewed pencil. No ethereal perfume, no comforting creamy richness. Nothing. Again, a rather unenthusiastic experience for F.

So to me. My plate was altogether different. Well it was gnocchi not pasta, so bound to be. I always remember watching cookery programmes where they said that gnocchi is not difficult to make but easy to mess up.

A plate of several quail egg sized gnocchi, cloud-light to the bite and maybe flecked with a little herb (maybe not), tossed in a creamy sauce, lightly spiced from the green vein of the Gorgonzola, the richness cut through by the pea and the hint of mint that brings down the pea’s sharp greenness.

Well, the creamy sauce was indeed creamy, with a light touch of Gorgonzola. Although too much cream for me, there was some balance. A few peas, not very many, and a subtle hint of mint gave the sauce a bit of freshness, preventing it from being sickly. The dumplings themselves had some lightness to the initial bite but were more marshmallow in texture. I was still pulling it off my teeth at the end of the meal.

So what went wrong? Well as I said, this smacks of a group of executives wanting this to be everything to everyone without really focusing on what that ‘everyone’ is. Who are they trying to compete with, Carluccio’s or Wagamama’s (if the latter then they have missed the point of Italian eating, surely)? In this case, the group of executives is from a company called Sweet Potato, an investment company that operates several brands including, rather surprisingly, Villandry and Villandry Kitchen, both of which are quite successful and the latter, in Chiswick, I have already covered in a previous post.

Overall, aside from the friendly and attentive staff, we were left with a cavernous sense of disappointment, as lifeless and empty as the restaurant itself.

Kitchen Italia 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX T 020 7632 9500 E

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Resistance is futile...

Silent and clear spring skies, thanks to Iceland’s volcano, made this particular Friday even harder than usual to resist escaping the chains of wage slavery early. So I pushed the ‘off’ button on my computer, told my work colleagues what I thought of them (I didn’t actually, but one day... one day!!) and headed down to Borough Market to get some gastronomic inspiration, purchase a bottle or two of wine, and meet with a few fellow bloggers and tweeters.

Coffee fuelled chatter between @Tehbus, @gingergourmand, @KaveyF and me, in the ever bustling Monmouth Coffee shop, came to a conclusion when we decided to go next door to Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Where the outside was noisy, busy and colourful, with it’s Victorian terrace of tea coloured bricks (where’s the bunting?) and glossy paint touches, the interior was spacious, cool and white walled; hallowed even. Hints of dampness barely noticeable against the strong aromas circulated around the shop; temptations of hard, soft and cream cheeses piled up on counters, slatted shelves or in tubs, lured the customer to purchase. This was the perfect environment for a cheese lover; pieces of heaven, rind coated and wrapped in waxed paper.

I held back, merely happy to watch Kavey’s love and knowledge of cheese in action. My hands remained firmly in my pockets refusing to open the floodgates of purchasing (the principle being that one purchase leads to an avalanche of useless purchases and eventually to an empty wallet and a red face). And I did hold back. I resisted, I really did. However, in the street by the entrance to the shop, they had pitched a stall of their top sellers. And that is when it happened. Like Kavey’s Stichelton, I crumbled in front of everyone, and bought the cutest little ‘handbag-dog’ of a cheese: Milleen.

So how does one go about describing this pocket of joy? This modest purchase, this tan and mud coloured roundel of about 4 inches in diameter; soft-skinned rind speckled with mould and the criss-crosses where it had been resting? How indeed?

Made from pasteurised cow’s milk and traditional animal rennet, it is washed in water. The humidity and proximity to the coast (Eyeries, Co. Cork) does the rest, creating the perfect environment for the soft cheeses the Steele family produce, according to the Neal’s Yard.

Released, at home, onto a wooden board, the kitchen filled with high smells of cabbage, earthy muddy aromas, straw and a hint of, well, wee actually. Yes, I said ‘wee’ (did they really only wash the skin in water?!) Clashing with the strong aromas of a simple roast chicken I could barely smell the wine that I had also bought at the market (a post on that later). Having been wrapped in waxed paper, in a bag that sat in my rucksack, it was clear why I nearly had the carriage of the train to myself.

Cutting into this cheese was almost ritualistic; silence and awe (helped by a candle lit room). Barely resistant skin gave way to a light cream soft centre. Salty sweetness on the tongue, made rich and luscious by a creamy egg yolk quality. This gave way to a slight graininess (that possibly meant it should have been brought out earlier), contrasting with the grassy elements of the rind, toffee cloyingness to the teeth and long lasting flavour.

Ignoring any bread, I went hell for leather with the Milleen and the (almost) matched glass of wine. And so it went. Gone. Disappeared. A mere will-o’-the-wisp of a cheese, or maybe I was really just plain greedy. However, sated, I was glad I only fell for the one cheese.

Neal’s Yard Dairy, Borough Market, 6 Park Street LONDON SE1 9AB
T (0)20 7367 0799 E

Monday, 5 April 2010

Woodbine’s Good Friday Fish Pie Experiment

An abortive attempt to booze cruise my way through Norman France left me with an empty fridge and the question of what to eat. I should have been sitting in front of a mouth wateringly hot and cheesy galette, maybe with some added local ham, tan in colour and grainy in texture and served with sparkling locally made cider in an earthenware tea cup; bubbles complimenting the grainy crepe.

However, the sea was too choppy for the ferry (a catamaran style, hence it not running) and I returned with an unchecked shopping list and a bag empty of duty free delights and French produce.

The fact that Waitrose had an offer on their fish pie mix had nothing to do with it, not at all. I had the spring of the Easter bunny, the joys of Easter, the inspiration of the old tradition of fish on Friday, and what better day than Good Friday? I decided to tackle my very first Fish Pie (no, it really is my first time) and see how it goes.

My mouth was watering for flakes of pearlescent white fish, pink sweet prawns, rich salmon flavours and hints of smoke from the haddock; elements of spring from the fresh, green petit pois, contrasting sharply with velvety egg yolks, peppery parsley and the slightly salty creamy fish sauce. Sliced potatoes layered fish scale style on top to complete the picture. Hang on... sliced potato? Well, yes. I want my pie’s topping to reflect the contents. (I have sighed at several recipes by the great and good who have mashed their potatoes. Is it just me?)

The mixed bag consisted of ivory white fish (Coley? I forgot to ask), bright golden smoked haddock, glistening salmon chunks in orange-red hues, and from the freezer, pale pink prawns, petit pois, and a further sliver of salmon asking to be used up. The rest came from a raid on the cupboards.

So off we go:

1lb of mixed fish
250g prawns (defrosted)
150g frozen petit pois (defrosted)
1 scallion shallot (banana shallot)
3 eggs hard boiled and quartered lengthways

1 bay leaf
500ml fish stock
250ml white wine
250ml double cream
2 egg yolks
Juice of a lemon
Salt and pepper for seasoning

1lb potatoes (maybe a bit less) sliced to about ½ centimetre thickness.

Mince the shallot and place in the bottom of a pan with the wine and bay leaf, boil for a few minutes then add the fish stock. To the liquid add the cut up pieces of fish and poach for about 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in separate jug, mix the egg yolks and cream together with the lemon juice, and season. Drain the fish, returning the stock to the pan, and place in a deep sided gratin dish which has been buttered. The sauce is made by spooning about 2 tablespoons of the hot stock into the cream mix, then pouring the cream into the pan of hot stock, whisking constantly. This needs to boil until it is reduced to a double cream consistency (do not be afraid to let it really bubble).

To the gratin dish of fish pieces, add the prawns, peas, some parsley the hard boiled eggs, mixing carefully. Pour over the thickened sauce and then place the potato slices on top (some will sink but it should settle) in a scale style.

Place the dish on a baking tray to avoid the sauce bubbling over and bake at 180c for 45 minutes or until the potatoes are done. Serve with a sprinkle of parsley and some lemon wedges.

So how did I fare? Well, not a bad first attempt, even though I say so myself. Any thoughts or tweaks? The sauce could have benefited from further reduction, and I only used half a lemon. It did have good flavour thanks to the stock and the egg cream thickening (rather than the cloying effect a roux can give). However, if there had not been smoked haddock in the mix, I might have thrown in a tiny frond of tarragon, a mellow aniseedy contrast to the lemony zing. I might have added a sharp saline kick of smoked bacon. There could have been potential to add anchovy essence, the sharp briney fishiness working well with the boiled eggs...if, if, if... If I had done that, perhaps I would be moving from fish pie to lily gilding.

A bit of a tart...

Having made a mess in Aunt J’s kitchen with my Good Friday fish pie experiment, she, with the patience of a saint, then took me to where she stores the wine to see what was on offer. Chardonnay came to mind; lemon zing and light oak complementing the smoked fish and the lemon juice that had been thrown into the pie. However, the answer lay in the word “experiment” and, as with the pie, so with the wine, with a bottle of Domaine Ventenac, Vin De Pays Cotes de Lastours, 2008, Chenin Colombard 12% (Waitrose, £6.99). Oh dear, oh very dear.

Pouring the wine into our glasses, the colour was a light straw colour, very pale. Lifting it up to a white background it was possible to make out the green tinges of the wine, giving hints to what was to come on the palate. My glass was a little too dish-washer worn to notice any legs but the rim was as clear as the wine itself.

Putting my nose into the glass and trying to avoid the pervasive smell of fish that was wafting around the house, there were light floral hints and appley greenness; citrus, some pears, and an apricot honey that gave it a light almost sugary quality. However, it was very green.

What hit the mouth initially was the instant gooseberry and sharp mineral flint sourness; an insanely mouth puckering acidity of Granny smith apples and quince tartness (potentially from the additional Gros Manseng in the blend, though this is only meant to be about 10%). Redeeming this slightly was the vague honeyness from the Chenin, a honey and lemon lozenge; lemon pith; grass and herbaceousness; metallic pencil-lead flintiness. The creamy element had an almost, and I feel strange sharing this with you, raw and beaten egg white flavour before sugar has been added. Think meringues with a hint of lemon (I use lemon, some people use vinegar, a technique I picked up from Arrigo Cipriani’s “Harry’s Bar Cook Book”).

Leaving the glass to rest further in the hope that the woody, bitter herb after taste would lift, and the floral and honeyed qualities of the Chenin would come to the fore, my mind wanders to the wild and rocky garrigue of Lastours, only tamed by the vineyards of Alain Maurel’s winery, as the website would have you imagine. This, of course is slightly fantastic as Domaine Ventenac sits in the foothills of the Black Mountains, the same ones as St. Jean de Minervois and St. Chinian though about 50km further west. But we are 10km north of the very dramatic Carcassonne the medieval town rebuilt by Viollet le Duc and star back drop of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, so the fantastic allusions should remain.

Given the vines grow in a good draining mix of crumbly white calcium soil with an underlying magnesium loam (both of which would explain the flintiness of the wine) and some clay (preventing the grapes drying out completely), there is little danger of producing flabby wines. Strong Mediterranean winds from the south and cooler breezes from the Massif Central in the north give the vines plenty of air, avoiding the mildew that the Colombard is prone to.

Returning to the glass, there is a faint mead-like quality of honey on the nose. After a while some of the edge has gone giving over to the nicer honey subtlety, this is followed by the fruity citrus follow up... high, high high acidity. Puckering sharpness returns but less dramatic than before. It has lost its bitter herb quality. The long, long, very long finish is of riper apples but definitely Granny Smith rears her aged head here in this young wine. Still got that mouth-watering long finish some minutes on.

What amazes me is the disappointing combination of these grapes, bottled up to sound like something a bit ‘classy’ (to use a term). Chenin, a native to the Loire, gets full honeyed dried apricot flavours and aromas in warmer climes such as the obvious South Africa. Here, in the Languedoc, where the climate is much warmer and drier than the Loire, this wine is high in acidy and very little else. The honeyed apricots are trampled on by limes, quince, bitter apples and flint. Mix this with the neutral crisp sharpness of Colombard, a grape used mainly in the production of Cognac a little further west, throw in a touch of Gros Manseng (I admit having to look that one up!), and this is the result: disappointment.

Overall, my thoughts about sipping a gentle creamy and slightly buttered chardonnay still remain (though I am no great wine matcher). The label on this wine bottle says it is perfect with seafood and shellfish; however, it is too flinty and acidic, and would destroy any subtle sweetness that you get with a scallop or a prawn (or whatever). This would be great with a lemon tart, clearly because it is lemon pith and it is very tart. Whilst it did mellow, I wouldn’t want to have this again (not even with a lemon tart). For me there is no rounded edge, no honeyed apricots and no creaminess.

Adding some camp to Campari...

I have to admit, the end of Lent gets me itchy and excited. My enforced teetotal abstinence is coming to an end (I feel that if I am entitled to a holiday, why shouldn’t my liver!?) and I crave the most knockout of drinks rather than a simple glass of wine; gins, vodkas, light coloured spirits, Negroni Sbagliatos. Negroni Sbagliatos? Ok, so not an obvious choice.

Down the dark, narrow streets, firmly in the Centro Storico of Rome, minutes from the Piazza Navona and close to the Sant’Angelo Bridge and Pantheon, is a buzzing bar, heaving with all sorts of Romans and tourists: Antico Caffe della Pace. It was here I tried my first real Negroni, and here also, that I discovered its slightly more fey but infinitely more enjoyable sister, the Sbagliato.

The Negroni, according to the cocktail books of old, is 1/3 Cinzano Rosso, 1/3 Campari and 1/3 gin, served in a shot glass with ice and a twist of lemon peel; bitter herbs from the Campari (the drink of the Romans) mix with nutty gin and the sweeter lifting vermouth of Cinzano Rosso. The lemon peel continuing to bridge the bitter elements, the ice punching through the heavy elements of the liquors.

Where the Sbagliato differs is the lack of gin, instead using Prosecco. More frivolous, more drinkable and less likely to make you keel over mid conversation. Served in a longer glass, the same measures apply for the Campari and the Cinzano Rosso, pour the blend over the ice and then top up the glass with Prosecco. Finally, add a full, fat, round slice of orange not a peel of lemon. Lighter in flavour the bitter herbs are sweetened by the lemon and apple elements of the sparkling wine. Complementing this is the orange slice which again serves to bring the herbs and bitterness together with the sweeter vermouth elements and, of course, the light fruits of the wine.

Salivatingly satisfying, hugely restorative and better than chocolate... well almost... Happy Easter.