21 February 2011

Butter Shortbread with Cloudberry Cream – Recipe

Shortbread is so simple to make and is the perfect accompaniment to a reviving afternoon mug of builders' tea. I had always assumed shortbread biscuits were the sole preserve of the British, having originated in Scotland, so I was a little surprised to learn that there is a strong tradition of making shortbread across Scandinavia. In Sweden these biscuits are evocatively known as drömmar, or 'dreams' in English, while in Denmark pebernødder biscuits have a touch of cardamom and cinnamon in them and are popular at Christmas time. I haven't been able to find a definitive translation in Norwegian. The closest I can get to is småkaker av mørdeig, literally 'small cakes of shortcrust',  or smørkaker (butter cakes), so if anyone can shed some light on this I'd be very grateful.

I thought I'd add even more of a Scandinavian twist to these shortbread biscuits by making some cloudberry cream to serve alongside them. Cloudberries (molte in Norwegian) are quintessentially Scandinavian. These hardy berries grow across the Nordics and can survive temperatures as low as  -40°C. Cloudberries are somewhat elusive; appearing in late July they are gone by early August. They are also very difficult to cultivate and, as such, are considered a rare and expensive delicacy. My in-laws regularly go cloudberry picking near their home in the hills of Gudbrandsdalen every summer, jealously guarding the best spots (although they have promised to reveal their secrets to me someday). So why all the fuss then? Well, quite simply, the taste of cloudberries is extraordinary and unlike any other – sweet, with an intense floral aroma that is musky, exotic even. I like to eat them fresh, with a sprinkling of sugar, maybe a drizzle of cream too if you insist. As their season is so short it is most common to find cloudberries in jam form. Here I use cloudberry compote made by gently cooking cloudberries with sugar.

Ingredients (makes 8-10 biscuits)
For the shortbread:

  • 180g plain white flour
  • 125g unsalted butter
  • 55g caster sugar

For the cloudberry cream:

  • 200ml whipping cream
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 4 tbsp cloudberry compote

To make the shortbread biscuits:

  1. Preheat the over to 180°C
  2. Beat together the butter and sugar
  3. Sift in the flour and mix together; it will look a bit like breadcrumbs at this stage
  4. Turn out the mixture onto a work surface and combine to make a dough
  5. Roll the dough into a cylinder about 3-inches thick
  6. Slice the cylinder into biscuits ½-inch thick and place on a baking tray
  7. Prick each biscuits 3-4 times with a fork
  8. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until golden
  9. Once cooked, place on a wire rack to cool
  10. Before serving, dust each biscuit with some caster sugar

To make the cloudberry cream:

  1. Add the sugar to the cream and whip to form soft peaks
  2. Gently fold in the cloudberry compote

Serve with a big mug of strong tea.

16 February 2011

The Sportsman, Seasalter – Restaurant Review

The last few weeks have been fairly quiet on the blog front. I've really wanted to write, but every time I try and put digital pen to digital paper the words just don't seem to form, and the letters remain jumbled and stubbornly stuck in my mind like some tin of Alphabetti Spaghetti. The main reason for this is a trench of work-related crap that I'm wading through at the moment, enveloping me in alternating clouds of ennui and worry. I'm not going to drag this blog off topic, or into a melancholy funk, so that's all I'll say for the time being. So, deep breath, Zen thoughts, and time to transport myself to a happier place by reminiscing over a wonderful lunch I had at The Sportsman pub on the windswept coastline near Whitstable in Kent.

The Nibbler family had rented a house with some friends in Whitstable for the New Year festivities, and we decided to see out the last day of 2010 with lunch at The Sportsman, a short drive away. The journey alone was memorable enough – an exposed coastal road that meanders into increasing remoteness. I had to check the GPS a couple of times to make sure I was headed in the right direction, and just as I thought we had passed the last traces of civilisation, there it appeared, a somewhat shabby, whitewashed pub. Despite our early lunchtime booking, a sign in the window reassuringly proclaimed the restaurant to be fully booked for the day, so be warned if you plan on dropping by unannounced as it looks like you have to do the very un-pub like thing and reserve well in advance. The interior of the pub is fairly spartan with wooden flooring and unadorned wooden tables throughout, but the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. A crackling fire radiated cosy warmth and our mouths began to water as we gazed at the day's menu chalked up on a blackboard next to the bar.

Brothers Stephen and Philip Harris took over The Sportsman pub in 1999 with financial backing from their music producer brother Damian. Philip was tasked with running the bar, while Stephen set about running the kitchen. The family link continues with Emma, Stephen's partner, managing the front-of-house. Remarkably, Stephen is entirely self-taught as a chef, learning his craft by eating his way through the menus of some of the world’s top restaurants. His initial inspiration for The Sportsman came from a meal he had at Chez Nico, Nico Landenis’s legendary London restaurant, which at the time held two Michelin stars. The idea was to bring that rarefied level of cooking to a pub; Michelin-standard food, without the Michelin-standard snobbery perhaps. Their efforts were recognised when, in 2008, Michelin awarded The Sportsman one of their coveted stars.

The Sportsman offers a tasting menu that is only available on weekdays if you order in advance. Disappointingly, although this was a Friday, the tasting menu was not on offer – I suppose New Year's Eve should probably count as a weekend on a technicality. Anyway, we needn't have been disappointed as the à la carte menu listed more than enough tempting dishes to keep us happy. Harris's focus is very much on sourcing or producing quality local produce and treating it kindly and intelligently. Each dish therefore is a showcase for local ingredients, and it was so exciting to think of such a thing as the 'Kent terroir', a place I had only ever, to my shame, associated with apples and oysters.

To begin we were offered bread. Not usually something to fawn over, The Sportsman’s offering was staggeringly good. Crumbly soda bread bursting with sweet malt notes, dense chewy sourdough, and soft rosemary focaccia were as good as any I’ve ever had. The accompanying house-made salted butter was luxurious in its richness, and even the salt used was special, it being made with seawater from just across the road.
For starters I chose the simply-titled pork terrine (£7.95). What arrived was a thick slab of coarsely cut pork speckled with herbs and elegantly wrapped in cabbage. This was served with apple mustard, pickles, toasted bread, and the most obscenely good pork crackling. The meat was sublime and is sourced from nearby Monkshill Farm, part of The John Townsend Trust, a charity set up to help deaf children. From start to finish this dish was pure bliss.
My friends started with pickled herring and cabbage salad (£5.95) that glistened with freshness, and poached rock oysters with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar. I wasn’t quick enough to take a snap of the latter, and it had been wolfed down by the time I had fired up my point-and-shoot.
For his main course my friend went for roasted goose (also from Monkshill Farm) served with mashed potatoes, hazelnuts and apple sauce (£18.95). It looked a bit of a mess on the plate, but my friend reported it to be excellent. My eldest daughter, Little Miss Nibbler, had opted for tagliatelle carbonara (not pictured), which she loved. I tried a bit of this and was impressed with the quality of the pasta; thin, bouncy ribbons with a perfect chewy texture.
Meanwhile, I had chosen seared Thornback ray with brown butter, cockles, and a sherry vinegar dressing (£18.95). Accompanying this was a separate plate of mashed and boiled potatoes. Skate wings have to be one of my favourite pieces of fish, and here they were served simply, but flawlessly. A thick piece of wing had been cooked perfectly, its flesh coming away in long juicy strands. It sat atop a mound of wilted spinach and came with the classic addition of nutty beurre noisette, whose richness was cut by a sherry vinegar dressing. The dish's crowning glory was a sprinkling of tiny cockles. It wasn't so long ago that the only cockles you could find in Britain were those drowned in vinegar and cheap white pepper, the majority of them having been exported to France or Spain. To see these little bivalves sitting proudly on the plate waving the flag for British seafood made me very happy indeed.
For dessert I had cream cheese ice cream served with pear purée, meringue and crumble crumbs (£6.95). This was one of those dishes where each component seems ordinary in its own right, but when combined creates a stunning confluence of flavours. The cool freshness of the ice cream went so well with the slightly tart purée, and the meringues and crumble added just the right amount of sweetness and texture. This was a very well thought out dish that was executed perfectly.
However, I suffered a serious case of food envy when my friends’ desserts arrived as they had gone for the warm chocolate mousse (£6.95). In their benevolence they let me taste some. I can safely say my search is over – the best chocolate mousse in the world is right here, in Kent! Fluffy folds of airy, but powerful chocolate mousse sat on a layer of salted caramel sauce, the sweet intensity of the combination tempered by a mild milk sorbet. I don't usually do chocolate for dessert, but this was the stuff of warm fuzzy dreams.
Lunch at The Sportsman was a truly singular pleasure. This meal would also mark another special occasion: my 4-year-old daughter’s first experience of a Michelin-starred restaurant. Although Michelin is certainly not the ultimate arbiter of culinary excellence, the fact that virtually all professional chefs (at least in Europe) regard recognition by Michelin as the highest accolade speaks volumes. Indeed, within the confines of "modern European cuisine" you know that a restaurant bestowed with one or more of the famous tyre company’s stars will generally serve some remarkably good food. And that is what I wanted Little Miss Nibbler to experience: the magic of exquisite food. I wanted her to marvel at the ritual of eating in a restaurant, to taste food she's never seen the likes of, and for her to see the adults' joy and near reverence of the whole experience.

Some of my earliest memories involve food, and I have vivid childhood recollections of being taken to restaurants by my parents – the wonderment and excitement of it all! Somewhere along the way, whether by familiarity or indifference, this sense of magic gets lost. Lunch at The Sportsman with my daughter brought those happy memories flooding back. The lack of frippery here, so often present in Michelin starred restaurants, allows you to focus solely on the food. It is also this same sense of informality that leaves you totally unprepared for the sheer quality of cooking to come out of the kitchen. As a family affair, the pub really is a labour of love, and this passion for impeccable food and service shines through in everything they do. Eating at The Sportsman was certainly a highlight of the year for me and, judging by Little Miss Nibbler’s broad smile, she seemed to have enjoyed it too.

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

The Sportsman
Faversham Road
Kent CT5 4BP
Tel: +44 (0)1227 273370
Sportsman on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

1 February 2011

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials), London – Restaurant Review

Meat and fire have such primal appeals about them. Oh, how the first human to grill their woolly mammoth must have wept at that first bite of charred heaven. I mean is there anything better than great big slabs of Flintstone-sized beef seared over an open flame and washed down with some red Burgundy? Fire. Flesh. Wine. It's almost biblical! So when I set about organising a boys' night out with five of my dearest friends, it seemed appropriate to come to the church of carnivores that is Hawksmoor and worship at its altar of all things meat.

The original Hawksmoor opened in London's Shoreditch in 2006 and rapidly built up a fanatical following due to its sublime steaks and eclectic cocktails. This restaurant is the second venture of restaurateurs Will Beckett and Huw Gottby, and opened in late 2010 in the old Combe brewery in the heart of Covent Garden. It continues in the same vein as the original, offering an almost identical menu, but on a larger and slightly more polished scale.

On entering through the heavy double doors, I descended the steps to the underground bar passing a playful "Beef and Liberty" sign on my way – presumably a relic of London's legendary steak club, the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, which was active in the 18th and 19th centuries, and from which Hawksmoor takes inspiration. I'm not a fan of subterranean dining spaces, the lack of windows usually make me feel like I'm in some sort of claustrophobic bunker, and the low-slung ceiling and dim lighting of the bar area here didn't help matters either. However, the main restaurant was cavernous enough, with a vaulted brick ceiling and beautiful parquet flooring adding to its charm.

As I was among the first to arrive, I took a seat at the bar to wait for the others. The bar menu here is quite an extensive affair, listing some classic and fantastically quirky cocktails, with names like 'Alamagoozlum' and 'Johnny-from-London'. I shouldn't have been surprised by the quality of the drinks as the bar is run by 'Shaky' Pete Jeary, one of London's best mixologists, and is definitely worth a visit in its own right. I ordered a 'Tobacco Old Fashioned', which is made with Hawksmoor's own tobacco-infused bitters, and was one of the finest examples I have tasted. My friend's 'Hawksmoor Fizz' was a cooling and zesty mix of gin, lemon, cream, orange flower water, and egg white. Both drinks were made with extreme precision, and we watched in awe as the barman carefully and methodically created our cocktails.

Once the rest of our group arrived, we were shown to our table in the adjoining dining room and presented with menus. Obviously, steaks would be the order of the day, and the available cuts and weights are chalked up on blackboards around the dining room. Given the amount of meat we planned on ordering, we somewhat hesitantly chose a selection of starters to share.

Half a dozen Cumbrae rock oysters, served with their briny juices intact and traditional mignonette sauce on the side.
Grilled Poole clams with bacon came served with a wedge of dense bread, perfect for soaking up the delicious juices.
Roasted bone marrow and slow-cooked onions were smeared over grilled bread and greedily wolfed down. A little went a long way though as the bone marrow was impossibly rich and creamy with a deep beefy taste.
We also ordered some Tamworth pork belly ribs. These had been slow cooked to a state of melting softness. By far the best of the starters, they disappeared instantly. So quickly, in fact, that I didn't even have time to take a snapshot of them. We had also been tempted by the Dorset blue lobster with hazelnut butter, but surprisingly the restaurant had already run out of lobster, even though it hadn't yet gone 8pm.

And so, on to the main courses. Although I have heard good things about the burgers at Hawksmoor (it seems no review of Hawksmoor is complete without a mention of their infamous kimchi burger), it was vast quantities of red meat we were craving. Unlike at London rival Goodman, the steaks at Hawksmoor all come from a single breed – grass-fed Longhorn cattle reared in North Yorkshire by The Ginger Pig – and are dry aged for at least 35 days. They are then grilled to perfection on a fiercely hot charcoal grill. Your choice is simply one of cut and weight.

I'm a sucker for Porterhouse steak – with a combination of succulent sirloin and tender fillet, they are a meat lover's dream cut, and we ordered 900g versions of this steak (medium-rare, naturally) to share in pairs. They arrived in cast iron skillets; handily pre-cut to make sharing easier. We also ordered some sauces on the side and managed to select from most of what the restaurant offers: Béarnaise, peppercorn, Stilton hollandaise, and bone marrow gravy. Sides of beef dripping chips, triple cooked chips, roast field mushrooms, and creamed spinach were the token vegetables in this veritable meat feast.
The steaks arrived beautifully cooked and well rested, with pleasing thin seams of creamy yellow fat running through them. The surface of the meat had a mouth-watering char to it that tasted every bit as good as it looked with an intensely savoury smokiness to it. The tender beef had a remarkable depth of flavour and an almost sweet mineral taste that only grass-fed cows can produce. A touch more salt was needed to lift the flavour, but that's to be expected, as it's difficult for the seasoning to permeate through a cut this thick. The side dishes were good too, although I couldn't really discern much difference between the beef dripping chips and the triple cooked chips. The only disappointment was the Béarnaise sauce, which didn't have enough acidity or tarragon and was far too creamy as a result. Goodman's version, in contrast, is a real joy.
Please spare a thought for my dear friend though. Such is his love of meat that he dispatched the waitress to find him his own personal cut of Porterhouse, the bigger the better. The end result was a 1.1kg behemoth that sat on his plate like some obscure anatomical specimen. To his (dis)credit, he finished the lot, leaving a huge T-shaped bone that looked like it had been bleached clean. He then spent the rest of the evening fending off incessant meat sweats. Maybe not quite as impressive as these two, but remember, my friend had already had starters too!
Desserts were a bit of hazy blur to be honest, as by this stage we'd had more than a skinfull. I seemed to have ordered a powerfully alcoholic jelly and cream number that wasn't very pleasant at all. A caramel and peanut thing was much better though, the ice cream in particular being luxuriously smooth and rich.
Throughout the meal we drank a truly stunning 2005 Vosne-Romanée. Packed with red fruit, it had a heavenly flavour and a fantastic sense of vitality. With our puddings we couldn't resist the allure of a 1998 Château d'Yquem – the nectar of the gods – which was sipped in near silence. Extraordinary!

After dinner, we gingerly took our meat-laden bellies back to the bar for some more drinks. There, we noticed a gruesome sounding "Zombie" cocktail, containing three different kinds of rum, grenadine, grapefruit, and lime, with a hefty slug of absinthe thrown in for good measure. Somewhat ominously, this drink came with a limit of one per person. Intrigued, we asked the waitress what it was like; "it's a good beginning to the end of the night" came her reply. We ordered two. Five minutes later, a couple of glass goblets the size of melons arrived. After that I don't remember too much to be honest, other than the bill being brought out, which came in just north of a rather sobering £1,600 between the six of us. Oh, and I may or may not have tried to hire a bicycle rickshaw to take me back home to Battersea, a 4 mile trek away.
Hawksmoor Seven Dials is a really fantastic addition to London's dining scene. I love the bar, I love the bustling, raucous dining room, and I love the super-friendly service, and of course the steaks are good enough to satisfy the most demanding of meat lovers. It's a perfect place for hanging out and laughing with a bunch of friends over good food and wine. As far as the steaks go, though, I think Goodman still has the edge, mainly due to the variety of beef they offer and their slightly better execution, but these two restaurants are probably the best steak houses in the capital at the moment and both are operating at a very high standard indeed.

So, Hawksmoor: Meat. Fire. Wine. What more is there to say? Just go!

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

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials)
11 Langley Street
London WC2H 9JG
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7856 2154
Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon
Square Meal