22 December 2010

2010: My Ten Dishes of the Year

I sit writing this from a bitterly cold Oslo. Sunshine and warmth seem like a long-distant memory. Walking outside is a somewhat surreal experience as shadowy figures dressed in thick duvet-like jackets shuffle along the half-lit icy pavements. But it's not that bleak really. The winter solstice has just passed, and with it we can slowly expect the daylight hours to get longer and our depleted vitamin D supplies to be replenished. Christmas is just around the corner, and of course we have a fresh new year with all its challenges and delights to look forward to.

Now, what good would an end-of-year article be without some sort of look back at the year gone by? Yes folks, it's time for a clichéd top-ten list! Without further ado, I bring you my ten best restaurant dishes of 2010. Drum roll please.

In reverse order, these are:

10. Caviar with Crab and Shellfish JellyJoël Robuchon, Monte-Carlo
What a way to start a meal! A little trompe l'oeil that looks like a whole tin of sevruga caviar is, instead, caviar atop layers of shellfish jelly and sweet crab meat. A perfect blend of flavours – rich, luxurious and a blast to eat, making you feel like a billionaire oligarch. Mwah-ha-haa!

9. Yose TofuYashin, London
This was perhaps the finest tofu I have ever tasted. Served still warm, and barely set, it came with freshly grated wasabi and diced tosazu jelly, whose tart acidity was a perfect complement to the clean and fresh flavour of the tofu. Within seconds, we had scraped the bowl clean, and promptly called the waiter over to order another one. Heavenly!

8. Tartaleta de Chocolate con CajetaTopolobampo, Chicago
Second best dessert of the year is from newly Michelin-starred chef Rick Bayless. This titan of Mexican cuisine is a favourite of President Obama and I can see why. This tart consisted of luxurious, silky-smooth, dark Mexican chocolate sat atop a thin layer of soft, gooey cajeta (goats' milk caramel). This ensemble was lightly sprinkled with flakes of salt and encased in crumbly pastry. Accompanying this was a scoop of goats' cheese ice cream, toasted marshmallows, and graham cracker 'gravel'. Who knew chocolate and goats' cheese would go so well together!

7. Mascarpone Cream, Sponge Pudding, Almond Foam, White Truffle from AlbaHélène Darroze, London
The undisputed best dessert of the year was this innocent looking number from Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. The cool, sweetened mascarpone was offset by a warm, eggy, vanilla sponge pudding. The residual warmth of the rich sponge was just enough to bring out the flavour of the abundant Alba truffle shavings, so that those wonderful aromas enveloped everything. The almonds and oh-so-light almond foam added a touch of perfumed nuttiness and a variation in texture. When combined, the flavours were nothing short of breathtaking – think of it as 'trifle of the gods.'

6. O-toro nigiriSushi Dai, Tokyo
I thought I knew sushi until I ate sushi in Japan, and then I realised everything I knew about it was wrong. The main culprit was this simple piece of o-toro nigiri served to me at Sushi Dai in Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market. Pristine tuna (bought a few hours before) had a beautiful spider's web of rich marbling. Eating it was such a sensual experience; the cool flesh of the tuna juxtaposed by the perfectly al dente and lukewarm rice. I hardly needed to chew, the buttery tuna just melted on my tongue. Epic.

5. White Truffle RisottoLaunceston Place, London
Without doubt, the finest risotto I have ever had – rich and creamy with an oh-so-perfect consistency, full of that intoxicating white truffle aroma – I shall be having warm fuzzy dreams about this dish for a long time to come.

4. Guinea FowlOscarsgate, Oslo
At this tiny Oslo restaurant, Swedish chef Björn Svensson is performing little miracles with food. Meltingly tender guinea fowl was served with apple purée, beetroot, and potato. Scandinavia on a plate.

3. Flame Grilled Mackerel with Cucumber, Celtic Mustard and ShisoThe Ledbury, London
A classic by The Ledbury's Brett Graham. This is the dish most people rave about. Mackerel can be a tricky fish to tame – its oily fishiness is always in danger of overwhelming the taste buds. Here the fish was cooked to perfection; the core of it was soft, almost sashimi like, while the skin magically retained a smokey crispness. Accompanying this was a little parcel of smoked eel wrapped in a translucent film of cucumber jelly. A lightly pickled cucumber and delicate leaves of shiso and coriander cress added the needed acidity. I was lost for words at how good this dish was – one of the real highlights of the meal. Magnificent!

2. Langoustine with Oyster, Parsley and Seawater Emulsion, and Rye CrumbsNoma, Copenhagen
In July, I ate at Noma, and the "world's best restaurant" lived up to the hype and more. This dish brought the house down for me. The most perfect langoustine, barely cooked, was placed on a warm basalt stone that was dotted with small pearls of oyster, parsley and seawater emulsion. A purple powder of seaweed was sprinkled over the stone. This was a dish you eat with your hands and we were encouraged to "make art" as we dipped the langoustine in the emulsion. I closed my eyes and felt transported to a beach on a hot summer's day. Simply amazing.

And the winner of the Nordic Nibbler best restaurant dish of 2010 award is ... *opens envelope* ....

1. Black Truffle Explosion, Romaine, ParmesanAlinea, Chicago
Alinea totally and utterly took my breath away. The level that head chef Grant Achatz is cooking at now is just astounding. Alinea is on another planet altogether. The Michelin gods saw fit to deign this restaurant with three stars in their inaugural guide to Chicago. Every dish of the meal I had there was stunning, but the standout dish for me was a one-bite symphony of flavour called 'Black Truffle Explosion.' A wafer thin ravioli was filled with the most intense warm black truffle broth. It was eaten in one bite, releasing a cascade of unworldly truffle flavours.

This exercise was actually a lot harder than I imagined. The highlight of the year for me was undoubtedly my meal at Alinea, and at least half of the list could easily have been dishes from the newly crowned three-Michelin star Chicago restaurant. But there were lots of other incredible highlights, and looking back I feel very lucky to have been able to sample such wonderful food. I'll be honest, part of me can't wait to see the back of 2010, it's been that sort of year, but looking back at some of the happy memories, maybe it hasn't been so bad after all?

So, what have been the standout dishes of the year for you? What is your top-ten food list of 2010?

Finally, here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

20 December 2010

Launceston Place, London - Restaurant Review

I am a relative newcomer to Launceston Place. I first heard of the restaurant when I watched one of their former chefs, Steve Groves, win the BBC's Masterchef: The Professionals 2009 TV show – you know, the one that introduced the fabulous and terrifying Monica Galetti to an unsuspecting world. My interest in the cooking of Launceston Place's head chef, Tristan Welch, was piqued, but it's taken me this long to actually eat there. But as a worried teenage girl might say, better late than never.

Launceston Place has been around for quite a while, feeding Kensington's lunching ladies unremarkably for years. The restaurant was said to be a favourite of the late Princess Diana, whose former home at Kensington Palace is just up the road. In 2007, D&D (formerly Conran Restaurants) bought Launceston Place and embarked on a refurbishment project, installing the then 28-year-old Tristan Welch as head chef in the process. Although young, Welch has cooked at some top restaurants, gaining experience at Aubergine and Le Gavroche in London, and at Alain Passard's legendary three-Michelin starred restaurant, L'Arpège, in Paris. Before starting at Launceston Place, Welch was working at Gordon Ramsay's two-Michelin starred restaurant Pétrus under its then head chef Marcus Wareing. (Update 09.02.12 It was announced that Welch has left Launceston Place and Timothy Allen from the two Michelin-starred Whatley Manor would be his sucessor).

Launceston Place is located in a quiet residential area of Kensington, and inside it feels very intimate and cosy. The restaurant comprises of different rooms, so it never feels crowded. Dark walls and floors add a little moodiness without being overly gloomy, while pristinely laid tables are well-illuminated by strategically placed lights. The odd candle here and there adds a welcome touch of cosiness. It is the quintessential perfect date place (probably not first date, mind) – quiet enough that you can hear each other speak, but with a pleasant surrounding buzz of conversation so you don't have to worry about being overheard.

We're seated promptly and presented with menus for our dinner. The menu here is a showcase for Welch's unique interpretation of British food, and it is a real dilemma choosing from it; everything sounds good. At £58 for six courses, the tasting menu seems like decent value, so we opt for this. The only slight distraction was the fact that given it was still the Alba truffle season, there were white truffles to be had! Sensing my interest, the waiter quickly brought over a fine smelling specimen for me to marvel at. For a suitable supplement you could have truffles sliced over any dish, probably even over yourself if you paid enough. But more on this later.
The first food to arrive was a little snack of spiced crisps, tied together neatly with a ribbon. They looked fantastic and tasted of...erm...crisps.
Next, some bread that was presented with salted butter and pickled herrings, served in a ubiquitous kilner jar. I'm not a fan of pickled herring; all that fishiness and acrid acidity is just wrong. Look, I live in Scandinavia – the home of the pickled herring and source of the best examples – and such is my dislike for them that I avoid them at all cost. So believe me that when I say I was totally stunned by how good the pickled herrings were here, I really, really mean it. Here was a delicious meal in its entirety; soft, plump pieces of mildly pickled herring served with warm, chewy bread, and luxuriously rich butter. Oh là là, what a way to start!
The amuse bouche was next, and this was a sort of deconstructed Waldorf salad. Celery sorbet was served with thin apple batons, candied walnuts, and a dollop of whipped cream. I took a bite and ... fireworks! It was a fantastic mix of these classic flavours; the cool sorbet almost fizzing on your tongue, with fresh tartness from the apples and a touch of sweetness from the candied walnuts. Every mouthful seemed to be accompanied by involuntary chuckles of delight.
You know those Alba truffles I mentioned? Well, it transpired that I may have agreed to have some. Apparently, the previous day's consumption of unholy amounts of white truffles at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught had done nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for more of those pungent white diamonds. We decided to have just one of the courses topped with the Alba madonna for a reasonable £10 supplement each. The obvious dish for this was, of course, risotto. The tasting menu listed a cep risotto with Spenwood cheese, but we were also offered the possibility of having a 'plain' white truffle risotto instead (how can anything with truffles be called 'plain'). In a classic fit of indecision we ordered one of each to share and hedge our bets, which turned out just fine; I got the white truffle risotto and Mrs. Nibbler the cep risotto and n'er the twain would meet, as we were both reluctant to relinquish our plate to the other.

Unlike at Hélène Darroze, here the white truffle was sliced over the risotto tableside. It's such a spectacular piece of culinary theatre, and I will never tire of seeing it. The waiter pulled a trolley over to our table, upon which lay a truffle grater and a solitary Michael Jackson-style white glove (hee-hee, shamone!) He then proceeded to slice oodles of the magical stuff over our risottos. It was, without doubt, the finest risotto I have ever had – rich and creamy with an oh-so-perfect consistency, full of that intoxicating white truffle aroma – I shall be having warm fuzzy dreams about this dish for a long time to come.
The next dish was "West Coast scallop roasted with aromatic herbs from the coastline." A single, but plump scallop had been cooked to perfection and served in its shell with a herb butter sauce. I'm not quite sure what the herbs were, but they apparently change according to what's available at the time. With stunningly fresh seafood such as this, a light touch is required to let those fresh flavours shine, and that's exactly what this dish provided.
Next up was a regular feature on the Launceston Place menu – truffled duck egg on toast. Here, a soft boiled duck egg was served with some grilled bread, truffle purée, and slices of Somerset truffle. I loved the simplicity of this dish, but thought the execution was just a little off target. The duck egg had perhaps been cooked a fraction too long (but I suppose people's preferences vary) and the dish was barely lukewarm when it arrived. Also, while pleasant enough, the Somerset truffles are no match for the pungency of their Italian rivals. Don't get me wrong, though, this was still a very fine dish.
The next course was baked lemon sole, served with shrimps, coastline vegetables and early potatoes. A beautiful fillet of lemon sole was a lesson in how to cook fish, and the accompanying brown butter was a delicious addition. The tiny prawns provided lovely bursts of shellfish sweetness.
For the main course, we chose Tamworth suckling pig, which came served with roasted radishes, potato purée, wild chervil, and an onion purée. A "suckling pig" sauce was then poured over the top tableside. Two different cuts of the pork were served: loin and belly. The former was fork tender, while the latter had a glorious layer of crisp and fatty crackling. This was a perfectly conceived and executed dish. I particularly loved the little thumb-sized radishes, which had a pleasing mild pepperiness to them.
For our pre-dessert, we were served a red wine mousse served with pear sorbet and ginger. Appropriately, given the season, the dish was full of those spicy Christmas flavours such as cinnamon, star anise, ginger and cloves – a fun take on stewed pears.
For dessert we had rice pudding soufflé served with raspberry ripple ice cream. As a nice little touch, the ice cream was presented in a little jam jar, from which the waiter took a scoop and transplanted into the warm soufflé. When I first saw this dish mentioned, I was curious as to how it work; a soufflé should be feather-light, while rice puddings can be pretty stodgy. In the end, the effect was magnificent. The soufflé was spectacularly airy, while still giving your teeth something to chew on. The raspberry ripple ice cream slowly melted into the dish to provide a glorious sauce.
As if we weren't stuffed enough, some mini madeleines were brought out with the coffee. I thought I was too full to have any, but then I took a bite. Oh. My. Goodness! They were powdery soft, yet still moist, their residual warmth releasing a sweet vanilla fragrance across the table. We dipped them in the accompanying pot of cream and ate them in stunned silence. It was a beautiful way to finish the meal.
Based on my meal at Launceston Place, I find it rather bizarre that the Michelin people haven't bestowed this place with one of their stars. OK, Michelin stars are certainly not the ultimate arbiter of quality, but still, this sort of place is exactly the kind that gets starred. Did Tristan Welch say something unkind about Bibendum's weight and hurt his feelings? It's almost as if Michelin have gone out of their way not to star this place. Oh well, the world works in mysterious ways. (Update 27.09.12: Michelin announced that Launceston Place had finally been awarded a star). 

Launceston Place is exactly the sort of local restaurant you'd want in your neighbourhood: small and intimate, and serving exquisite food without costing an arm and a leg. It has just enough fanfare to make it special, but not too much that it becomes a chore to eat there regularly. Judging by the various reviews that have been written in the last couple of years, Welch's cooking and Launceston Place seem to be on a rapid upward trajectory. Surely, as a chef, Tristan Welch is just getting into his stride, and I'd expect even greater things to come from him. Go now, and see for yourself.

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  9 / 10

1a Launceston Place
London W8 5RL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7937 6912

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

16 December 2010

Reindeer Stew (Reinsdyrgryte) with Thyme Dumplings – Recipe

Seasons greetings! Christmas is rapidly approaching, and what better way to usher in the yuletide festivities than by making a hearty reindeer stew.

Say what!

Yup, reindeer stew.

Oh, come on. Why are you looking at me like that? Now I know for some, the thought of eating Rudolph, Dasher, Prancer et al. may be horrifying, but hear me out; this is no time for anthropomorphic sentimentality – reindeer meat is a delicious treat that should not be missed! It has a wonderful taste, akin to a gamier version of venison, and is tender, very lean, and packed with vitamin E and omega-3. The meat is extraordinarily dark, so much so that if you didn't know better you'd think it had been smoked. Reindeers have been a part of Nordic cuisine for hundreds of years, and its meat is widely eaten here in Norway. Reindeer meat is free-range, sustainable, and healthy – perhaps just the sort of thing we should be eating more of?

Reindeers have been an integral part of the identity of the Sami people for centuries. The Sami are the Nordic's only indigenous population and they predominantly live in northern Norway (with some also living in Sweden, Finland and Russia). It is estimated that around 10% of the Sami population is involved with reindeer husbandry. Reindeers in Norway are semi-wild; they are allowed to roam freely in Finnmark, way up in the Arctic Circle. However, it is the Sami people who shepherd them on the long journey from their inland winter breeding grounds to the spring grazing pastures on the coast and back again. Traditionally the whole family would be involved, and along the way they would sleep in lavvu tents, gathering round campfires to sing evocative yoiks (a traditional form of Sami song). Nowadays, snowmobiles have replaced skis, but the core of this fascinating tradition remains intact and unchanged. (For some truly stunning photos of Sami culture, check out the work of Erika Larsen).
Photo © Richard Canadas
Now that the temperatures here in Norway have plummeted, huddling round the dinner table with a piping hot plate of stew is just so warming and comforting. With young kids in the house it's also great to be able to make something that doesn't need much attention, and stews fit the bill perfectly.

There is a traditional Norwegian reindeer stew called Finnbiff, made with frozen shavings of reindeer meat, cream, mushrooms, and bacon. Although tasty enough, I wanted to make something a bit different, so I devised a simple recipe that is not too dissimilar from a classic beef bourguignon. The base is a standard mirepoix, to which I add game stock and red wine. Reindeer goes so well with juniper berries, so I throw in a few lightly crushed berries to give that lovely distinctive juniper note to the dish. I also bulk it out with some delicious and easy thyme dumplings which are adapted from a Jamie Oliver recipe. Just try not to hum "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" while you make this, as I caught myself subconsciously doing!
 Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 600g reindeer meat (preferably shoulder), cut into cubes
  • 150g bacon, sliced
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 2 sticks of celery, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 400ml game stock (or use beef stock)
  • ½ bottle decent red wine
  • 200g button mushrooms, sliced
  • 3 juniper berries, lightly crushed
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2tbsp plain flour
For the dumplings:
  • 200g self-raising flour
  • 105g butter
  • 2tbsp thyme, chopped
  • a little water
  1. Fry the bacon in a little olive oil in a suitable casserole pan
  2. Add the carrots, onion, celery, and garlic and continue to cook gently until softened
  3. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside
  4. Dust the reindeer meat with seasoned flour, add a bit more oil to the pan and turn up the heat
  5. Brown the reindeer meat; you may need to do this in two batches
  6. Add the cooked vegetables back into the pan, along with the wine, stock, mushrooms, bay leaf and juniper berries and bring to the simmer
  7. Meanwhile, to make the thyme dumplings, place the ingredients into a food processor and blitz until you get a fine breadcrumb-like consistency. Now add a touch of water gradually, until you get a firm, but not too wet dough.
  8. Form the dough into golf ball-sized balls and float them on the top of the stew
  9. Cover and cook on a very low heat for 1½ – 2 hours
  10. Serve with lots of buttered green beans

14 December 2010

Bincho Yakitori, London – Restaurant Review

Following on from a surprisingly decent lunch of udon noodles at Koya, I thought I'd continue with the Japanese theme and popped into nearby Bincho Yakitori for a couple of cheeky skewers of grilled goodness.

Bincho Yakitori is modelled on a Japanese izakaya: a kind of bar that serves small plates of food to go along with your booze. In Tokyo these range from uber-seedy places in Shomben Yokocho ("Piss Alley"), where you drink rotgut sake, to slick Michelin-starred joints such as Rokkaku.

Bincho is a yakitori-ya and, although the word yakitori translates as 'grilled bird' (typically chicken), the restaurant serves a variety of food, with most being prepared on the long charcoal grill that dominates the room. The first time I tried authentic yakitori was at Bird Land, one of Tokyo's finest yakitori restaurants (see my review here), where I was totally blown away by the quality and freshness of the chicken, and wondered if I could repeat that experience outside of Japan.

I decided to stick with traditional chicken yakitori and took advantage of the specials board that displays things such as chicken hearts, skin, necks, and chicken oysters: those little lumps of flesh found near the back of the bird. I ordered nankotsu (chicken cartilage) from the specials menu, and sunazuri (chicken gizzard – a muscular part of the chicken's digestive tract) and tsukune (minced chicken balls) from the à la carte. The menu lists the price per skewer and there is a minimum order of two skewers of each item.

Yakitori is not fast food; the idea is not to char everything into a smoky oblivion, but instead to gradually cook everything to the perfect level of doneness. I was seated at the counter in front of the grill, which gave me a perfect vantage point from which to watch the chef cook over the warm glow of the charcoal. The charcoal used at Bincho is imported from Japan, presumably a similar bincho-tan charcoal to that I saw used at Bird Land. I watched intently as the chef carefully prepared each skewer; a little dab of tare (a Japanese basting sauce of sake, mirin, and soy sauce) here, a little pinch of salt there, all the while constantly rearranging the skewers on the grill so as they received the optimal level of heat. I struck up a friendly conversation with the chef, and it turns out he is from the same region that the heavenly and fragrant Oku-kuji shamo chickens I had at Bird Land come from. I felt a little guilty as he said our discussion had made him hungry.
Tsukune (chicken meat balls) and nankotsu (chicken cartilage)
I'm by no means an expert on Japanese food and, while it's always going to be unfair to compare Bincho Yakitori to Japan's finest, I was simply amazed at the quality of the yakitori made here. The nankotsu (chicken cartilage, £3.00) was sensational – both chewy and crunchy, and perfectly seasoned with an intensely savoury chicken taste to them. A few drops of lemon lifted that roast chicken flavour further.

Sunazuri (chicken gizzards, £2.80) were satisfyingly chewy with a lovely flavour of dark chicken meat. However, it was the tsukune (minced chicken balls, £3.60) that really stole the show. Wonderfully soft and light meatballs were perfectly cooked and very juicy. They had been slicked with the perfect amount of tare sauce, which gave them a slight hint of sweetness. Dare I say it, they were almost better than those at Bird Land.
Sunazuri (chicken gizzard)
Bincho Yakitori is a fantastic restaurant offering tremendous value for money and, at least based on the chicken yakitori I had there, serves wonderfully authentic Japanese yakitori. I can't wait to go back and try more items from the menu (I had desperately wanted to try the grilled chicken skins, but they were sold out the day I went). So if you need a fix of some original Japanese grilling then head to Bincho, you won't be disappointed.

Food:        7 / 10
Service:     7 / 10
Ambiance: 7 / 10

16 Old Compton Street
London W1D 4TL
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7287 9111

Bincho Yakitori on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

13 December 2010

Oslo Christmas Market (Julemarked)

This weekend I took advantage of a brief respite in the freezing weather we've been having and headed off to the Oslo Christmas Market (Julemarked). The market is held every year in the shadow of the imposing Oslo City Hall (Rådhus). This year around 80 exhibitors were present, who were selling homemade jewellry, pottery, artwork, textiles, and food. The focus here isn't really on food, though, and the food offerings were rather limited compared to the rather excellent Matstrief food festival held in the same location. To be honest, the whole event was a tad disappointing, with some stands selling tacky knick-knacks with dayglo, star-shaped price stickers plastered all over them, but there were still a few interesting food related things to see and taste to make the visit worthwhile.

In addition to the ubiquitous hot dog (pølse) there were delicious warm waffles, lefse, cured fish and meats, cheeses, aquavit tastings, mulled wine (gløgg), and other unusual treats such as reindeer soup (well, it is Christmas after all)!

So, with minimal description, here are a few photos from the event:
Reindeer horns

View from the market across Oslo Fjord

Warming up inside the Sami tent
Beautiful leather bound books. Norwegian arts and crafts are also available at the market
Burger stand Norwegian style - Elk Burgers
Gløgg - Norwegian mulled wine, with or without booze
Many fiery aquavits were available to taste
Award-winning Norwegian spekeskinke (cured ham), from Bekkereinan in Kvinesdal
A variety of sild (pickled herring) - cranberry, sour cream, and cherry
Rakørret - the dreaded fermented trout, aka rotten fish! 
Treak - a delicious old Norwegian toffee made with juniper berries
Reindeer soup!
Traditional Norwegian trekopper - wooden cups

Smoked reindeer salami
Reindeer pelts 
The Oslo Christmas Market is open from 25th November to 22nd December from 11.00 to 20.00, Monday to Friday, and 11.00 to 18.00 on Saturday and Sunday. Access is free, and more information can be found on their website.