Tag Archives: French cuisine

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Camden Kitchen

My favourite proverb – and, sorry you won’t find it in the bible – goes “blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed”. When, years ago, a friend took me to Lindsay House in Soho, I hadn’t the least idea who the chef was. An amiable porky geezer with an Irish Country boy accent, he emerged from the kitchen at the end of the evening to greet some regulars. The name, Richard Corrigan, meant nothing to me then, though I subsequently got to know him well. On the night, though, his cooking blew me away.

When Richard announced his return to Ireland to open Bentley’s I got quite excited. Surely here would be a restaurant worthy of gracing that fine town house on Stephen’s Green? Alas no. The menu was, by and large, a yawn fest; the cooking, unless our hero was in the back tweaking and kicking butt was woefully imprecise. I was, too, less than whelmed by the Dublin debut of Marco Pierre White a man whose cooking once had me surreptitiously running my finger around the empty plate but who now lends his name to a diner for the chattering classes.

Gallagher? McGrath? Both their recent enterprises disappointed me. Were these guys better when we didn’t know who the hell they were? Having become ‘a celebrity’, does a chef take his foot off the pedal? Or is it simply that the volume of hype heightens our expectations to the point where it would be nigh on impossible for the gastronomic effort to deliver?

I had heard nothing, sweet nothing, about Camden Kitchen. I couldn’t recall any opening junket or any press release trumpeting its merits. I had visited the premises before, they used to house a tapas bar that was a byword for mediocrity. The dining is on two levels. The ground floor, seating approximately twenty, had been simply but tastefully got up. At one end was an open kitchen where three people were preparing food in an atmosphere so serene you’d have thought they had taken Trappist vows. You couldn’t tell by their demeanour who was in charge, we somehow sort of guessed it was the guy in the middle, he looked vaguely familiar. I immediately started turning the pages of the Filofax in my head but we were having dessert by the time I came up with the name.

Padraic Hayden used to cook at Still at the Dylan Hotel in Dublin 4. At the time this restaurant was one of Dublin’s undiscovered gems for the quality and inventiveness of the cooking, the civility of the staff and the style and comfort of the room. If there was a distaff side it was that prices could escalate skywards if you lost the run of yourself and started ordering dishes fettled from glamorous ingredients.

The food at Camden Kitchen is less exotic than Padraic’s previous billet, for sure, but it has plenty going for it. From the off, Sibella plumped for goat cheese croquettes, with dressed baby leaves, apple purée & beets, omigawd, I thought, 1995 revisited. But no, the aesthetic shape of the croquettes, their featherlight crisp crust, the tartness of the purée and the freshness of the salad ingredients made you realise why this dish, so often murdered, was such a good idea in the first place. Meanwhile, I was oohing-and-aahing over the foie gras and girolles a majestic combination so easily ruined if the foie is cooked beyond evanescent. Not so here, it oozed luxuriously down.

The bright young waiter/sommelier busied himself sorting a medley of white wines for Sibs. With rabbit and black pudding to follow I wanted a red of some delicacy. The Alsace pinot noir, mellow, uncomplicated, coped perfectly. My rabbit dish was a triumph. Sensibly, Padraic had elected to use a soft textured black pudding, not the chewy Clonakility. Coco beans, sprouting broccoli and pancetta added further variety to the composition. Lots of people were eating this dish. Are we at last losing our fascination with fillet and hen tit? I do hope so. Sibella had picked another winner, the organic cured salmon, with fresher-than-fresh crab meat, fennel and apple, a brilliant combination spanning a range of textures and flavours.

We crossed swords over dessert, forks flashing across the table as each reluctantly yielded to the other a morsel of the Bourbon vanilla panna cotta, with fresh raspberry and shortbread or the citrus creme brulée, with shortbread biscuits, coconut and an intriguing lychee sorbet. What we really wanted was the whole bloody lot on one plate – I am not, generally, a dessert person so was amazed that I found it so hard to share. I topped the feast off with an espresso better than Dublin restaurant norm and called for the bill. We’d spent €120 on three courses apiece plus a bottle and three glasses of wine and a coffee and didn’t begrudge a sou. Mulling it over, I reckon Camden Kitchen and its ilk are the converse of the ‘oh so safe’ eateries exemplified by MPW. If there’s to be a battle for the diner’s buck in these tight times I hope the good guys win out. Fingers are xx’d Padraic doesn’t become famous.

CAMDEN KITCHEN, 3A CAMDEN MARKET, GRANTHAM STREET, DUBLIN 8 TEL: 01 4760125

RATING

Food ****

Wine ***

Service ****

Ambience ***

Overall ****

RESTAURANT REVIEW – Olivier’s at The Schoolhouse

Were I to make a list of the qualities I demand from my ‘dining companion’ it would be a very short one. A healthy appetite and, ideally, a willingness to push the frontiers would do. I still remember with horror the night I was dining with A Famous Person who, halfway through the meal turned round to me, saying “All this stuff is rather wasted on me; I only eat to stay alive.” I do like to take someone with an appreciation of décor, to cover up my deficiencies in this department – if the grub is fantastic (or terrible) I maybe wouldn’t notice whether the chairs are black leather or gold velour.

Reviewers differ in ways of referring to their ‘co-pilots’. Some opt for initials, leaving the reader to ponder whether ‘SG’, let’s say, is Serge Gainsbourg or Sam Goldwyn. Others leave clues – ‘depressing singer-songwriter’ or ‘accident-prone goalkeeper’. My own preference is to cloak my guest in a pseudonym you’ll have noticed Bangles, Sibella, Petite Chef, etc cropping up. It’s not often that I break someone’s cover but this week I’m going to reveal that my guest ‘KD’ is the foodie lady behind The Cookbook Club, one of the most inventive and enjoyable innovations to hit the Irish dining scene in 2010 (check it out on www.the cookbookclub.ie, I’ll say no more).

Though the bar at The Schoolhouse was heaving, the restaurant was quiet. I was not surprised. There is value in it for a business prepared to shout about what it doing yet noise of the recent changes at the Northumberland Road hotel was so low key it would need a basso profondo to sing it. The cooking was now in the hands of the talented Olivier Quenet of La Maison  in Castlemarket, formerly responsible for the stylish pub fare at Vaughan’s of Terenure.

I do like the room, although with its high ceiling it’s difficult to cosy up. There’s one duff table by the door – avoid if possible, as we did. Tables are a decent size, each with its own space. Chairs are comfortable. Glassware and table linen are of excellent quality and the waiting staff, from the off, proved civil and professional. We might have guessed, but didn’t until we were handed the menu, that this was going to be ‘fine dining’. I’m sure our intake of breath was audible as we realised there was no table d’hote nor ‘two for twenty-five’ special.

Still, the menu, in French with English translations, winked and waved like a siren. Every supplier was name-checked, viz: “Salade de noix de St. Jacques du petit bateau de John O’Donnell (Balbriggan)” which is what I ordered for my starter. Five plump, sweet, caramelized scallops with a generous amount of cauliflower puree, a scattering of crisp salad and a nicely restrained hazelnut vinaigrette. KD’s butternut squash soup, perked up with a discernible trace of nutmeg was another winner.

My braised wild partridge main course came with a lovely jus (gravy not emulsion) and, a nice touch this, the trimmings arrived on foot of the main plate, made into a warm salad. The bird itself was perfectly cooked, tender and succulent, on a bed of chicory a vegetable rarely seen these days. The trademark slight bitterness pointed up the feathered game a treat. KD had what would have been my second choice the ‘Cote de porc Saddleback organique’ from Coolanowle House in Carlow. Yes, there was a square of the commonplace belly. There was also a large thick-cut chop and some melt-in-the mouth black pudding made from the same breed. Truly, pork as good as it gets.

We selected a simple Chardonnay from the Pay’s d’Oc to accompany the starters. Then a bottle of Cahors red (thankfully, in the modern style of Cahors, not the savage, colour of school ink tipple) which complemented the robust flavours. There’s a good deal worth drinking on this savvy list but much is arcane, so average punters won’t find too many of their regular stand-bys. As with the food, the restaurant’s wine suppliers are top-notch and even at lower levels (a relative term since the base bottle is €24), there’s no crap. Relax and put your fate in the hands of the excellent young French sommelier would be my advice.

To finish we split a dessert – a wonderful adult version  of one of those kids’ ice creamy treats, with pear, caramel, fresh yoghurt and good vanilla ice cream  – and cheese, a selection from seven or eight Irish cheeses all in prime condition.

We found we had spent €141, ex-service. Knock off the two glasses of white and that’s €125. Seems maybe expensive but I’ve lost count of the times I’ve spent €100 on 2 x 3 courses and a bottle of humdrum wine and come away feeling robbed. From the service to the sparkling glassware to the even more sparkling food, at the Schoolhouse everything was top notch. I really want things to work out for these guys. Olivier Quenet is an exemplary chef and a decent skin. Creating a fine dining establishment in the current climate seems a brave and risky move. What’s more, fine dining in the proper sense needs more bodies to service the customer than were in evidence the night we were there. I’d like to think they will be able to gear up their game when they get busy, as I fervently hope they will.

RATING

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience **

Overall ****

The Schoolhouse, 2-8 Northumberland Road, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4 tel: 01 6675014

Restaurant Review – The Lock Brasserie

As one who once put his money where his foodie mouth was, I have an enduring admiration for restaurateurs, most of whom work heroic hours for the sort of reward that could probably be exceeded if they’d stayed in bed and put their savings in prize bonds.

Very few of the restaurants now considered members of the Dublin dining establishment have had it easy. I can’t think of one that was an overnight success and most have had wobbles along the way. Ask Ross Lewis, Kevin Thornton, Derry Clarke, I’m sure they’ll give you chapter and verse.

What always amazes me is when a restaurateur who has climbed inch-by-inch up the greasy pole of profitability by dint of a combination of talent, hard work and that rare commodity cop-on decides to open another outlet. Take, for instance, Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt who, within weeks of begetting a first child, have begat a second restaurant. Having nurtured Pearl Brasserie to the age where, in Sebastian’s words “it rattles along nicely” and, obiter, picks up awards along the way (Food & Wine Magazine Restaurant of The Year 2009) they decide to acquire and re-open Locks. Mad or what?

Making a go of Locks is undeniably the most challenging yet intriguing restaurant project in Dublin. Picked up and dropped into any other city in Europe the canal bank at Portobello would be awash with restaurants, cafés, bars, etc. As it is, Locks and the estimable Nonna Valentina stand alone and the adjacent waterside remains the province of swans, joggers and snoggers.

Back in the 1980s Locks, along with the Coq Hardi and the Mirabeau was a place that caused you to exclaim “Hey, someone in this benighted country must have money!” I was taken there once; you could hardly see across the room for Havana cigar smoke and a tramp could have got a year’s pleasure from a night’s discarded butts. Paradoxically, Locks descent started around the time the rest of us acquired enough sponds to dine out under our own steam. In decline, it changed hands and became an all-things-to-all-people eaterie and that didn’t work either. Despite good chefs, a semi-scenic location, parking outside the door and a room other restaurateurs would kill for, Locks Mks 1 and 2 eventually didn’t hack it.

So what of Mk.3? Sibella and I arrived and were delighted to find  Thomas Pinoncely, formerly of Pearl Brasserie, installed as maitre d’. Thomas is one of those suave-but-not sticky, friendly-but-not effusive meeters’n’greeters and it was early evident that his version of hospitality is rubbing off on the front-of-house staff. Chef is Rory Carville who has done stints at The Four Seasons and L’Ecrivain in a peripatetic career, a man with a reputation for revering the fresh, wild and real.

From the a la carte Sibs selected the goat cheese beignets, a tastefully appropriate presentation of this eternal crowd pleaser. I homed in on the (bottom to top) daube of beef, monkfish cheek and foie gras. For ages I just stared, marveling at the serendipitous combo of three of the things I like most; the glistening fish, the crisp-yet-deliquescent foie, the juicy beef – seduction on a plate. Or thankfully in a dish, as there remained a heavenly sauce to mop up with the good bread provided and enjoy like the encore at the end of a great gig. A short odds candidate for ‘starter of the year’, I decided.

“The rare breed pork belly or the lamb?” I enquired of Thomas. “The pork, undoubtedly. It is the chef’s signature.” I needn’t really have asked. The words ‘rare breed’ always suck me in. There’s a universe of difference between the flesh of a cosseted Gloucester Old Spot or a Tamworth and that of a flabby cartoon porker that’s been fed on God knows what. This piggy king came crowned with two tortellini, both stuffed with pork shreds and soused with a sherry vinegar reduction. The presentation was modern – dots and zig-zags of a pea puree and good tart apple sauce. In contrast the vegetables we’d ordered were delivered in traddy-looking copper pots – crisp small chips (I’m getting a tad fed up of the ubiquitous fat feckers) and a harmonious mélange of small peas, garlic, pearl onions and celery, styled ‘a la francaise’. Sibs had a wonderful piece of hake, a much under-rated fish, again pristinely arranged. Locks’ new chef has created a see-saw where ‘food you’ve just got to eat’ and ‘food so pretty you shouldn’t spoil the picture’ swing back and forth before coming to rest at the ‘eat me’ end. Sebastian Masi has this talent in spades so I’d guess he was pleased to find someone cast in his own image.

I wimped out of dessert, taking only a selection of (excellent) ice creams and sorbets. Then I was mildly miffed to find I could indeed have eaten Sibella’s ethereal strawberry fool, with ice cream on the side too. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist espresso and was, of course, disappointed. Why is it the last thing you have before you leave a restaurant is so often a let-down? (Memo to all restaurateurs: get over to Third Floor Espresso on Middle Abbey Street and watch Colin Harmon in action). On the other hand wines, some available by glass or 375ml carafe, were excellent. We took an Alsace Pinot Blanc (Meyer-Fonne, fine producer) and a Cote du Rhone smugly secure in the arcane knowledge that they bore the hallmark of Le Caveau and Simon Tyrell, two of Ireland’s best specialist importers. Service throughout was first rate.

We parted with €121, ex-service, including coffee and two carafes of wine. I already love Mk 3 or The Lock Brasserie to bestow its proper title. I intend going back, next time for lunch and soon, picking a day in which sunlight floods that gorgeous room, lingering for as long as they’ll let me.

Rating

Food ****

Wine ****

Service ****

Ambience ****

Overall ****

The Lock Brasserie, 1 Windsor Terrace, Portobello, Dublin 8 Tel: 01 420 0555

Les Freres Jacques

Last week El Bulli, “the best restaurant in the world”, closed its doors. Owner Ferran Adria, high priest of avant garde cuisine announced that activities would be suspended for the 2012 and 2013 seasons Up till last week El Bulli was only open for six months out of every 12 and, even then, only for one sitting at dinner. When you take into account the number of places available and the number of people who applied to dine there, the odds against getting a booking were longer than 125-1. Now, by the very act of closing the restaurant, Adria has taken this exclusivity to undreamed of heights.

It seemed surreal that on the day the closure was announced I had booked to dine in a restaurant that’s the diametric opposite of everything El Bulli represented. One where you would be in no way surprised if the menu were presented carved into inch-thick slabs of Liscannor with sole meuniere as the house speciality. Les Freres Jaques, a Dame Street fixture when I came to Ireland 24 years ago, proclaims itself as a ‘French restaurant’. Accordingly, it sets out its stall, using good table linen, conventional cutlery and subdued lighting to achieve a quasi-Parisian feel, an aura reinforced by the waiting staff whose patter veered between French courtesies and ‘Allo, Allo’ phraseology, all delivered in tones so sonorous I wondered if the Olympia next door was putting on a Moliere fortnight and were these guys actors doing nixers on their nights off.

The restaurant, I’d venture, aims to attract wealthy but conservative diners; those who could afford to eat in L’Ecrivain but would find Derry Clarke’s ketafi-clad prawns a gastro-bridge too far. I suspected that there’s also a pitch at the American market, judging by the ambient temperature, more Sanibel sauna than Les Halles. Sure enough, when I got home, there it was, lauded in ‘Frommers’.

It’s said amongst food hacks that the proprietors of Les Freres Jacques are notoriously antipathetic to criticism and a legend has grown up that some of us have our mug shots pasted up behind the till. I managed to escape detection, booking in the name of the late (as usual) Knocklyon Princess. One of the best things about Les Freres Jacques is the entrance door. It has one of those little grills through which you announce your credentials before being admitted. I’d seen the sixties’ movies. “Joe sent us,” I said. So far as I could tell no one who came after us got turned away. This seemed like a missed opportunity. By telling every fifth diner to sling his hook you’d gain a reputation for exclusivity which would create more business, a la El Bulli.

I took the table d’hote, the Princess the a la carte. Jean-Claude, as I’ll call him, brought an amuse bouche, two tiny puff pastry hearts enclosing fragments of smoked salmon bathed in what tasted like Marie Rose dressing, looking somewhat forlorn on the huge plate, devoid of any garnish.

My 4-courser included a soup. This was a Dublin-French version of one of those things Thais and Vietnamese do so well, an aromatic broth with Asian greens & pork dumplings. The concept was spoiled by the muddy broth, oxtail soupish in texture and flavour.

Seared lamb kidneys with a grain mustard sauce pleased me, though the kidneys were slightly overdone. The accompanying baby potatoes were unnecessary, given there was a main to follow. Herself seemed happy with confit of de-boned duck leg wrapped in crispy skin with turnip pureé and cassis sauce.

There’s not much sign of provenance on the menu, no listing of suppliers. These days if restaurants go the extra mile to serve decent ingredients they like to boast about it. But then maybe that’s not the French way. At the foot of the menu was written ‘Is de scoth mhairteoil dheimhnithe na hÉireann ár gcuid mairteol’ which must puzzle a lot of customers. Anyhow, the Knocklyon Princess said her fillet of beef, a whopper, was good and tasty. This was more than can be said for the accompanying overcooked ‘Irish flag’ veggies and nigh-raw roast tatties. I had the slow cooked lamb shank which was huge, tender and succulent. Alas it came accompanied by one of the most shocking misconceptions I’ve encountered in years of dining. I’m quite fond of ‘Yorkshire caviar’ – mushy peas to you, especially when coupled to a good ‘one-on-one’. These were ‘minted’ – to the extent where I now knew what Rowntrees do with the material they take out of the middle of Polos to make the hole. The chef then drenched the peas in vinegar. This menthol bomb cleared my sinuses a treat but utterly ruined the bottle of Domaine de L’Hortus we’d chosen to accompany the good meat. Why, why, why? This carry-on isn’t French. It’s Britain, circa 1954. In years of hobnobbing in restaurant circles I’ve never met a French chef who could suppress a sneer at perfidious Albion’s penchant for coupling lamb to mint sauce. After this heresy, the sheer ordinariness of my (probably) bought-in pear and almond tart hardly registered.

Les Freres Jaques? French, it’s not. It’s very Irish, though, rooted in the ‘big feed and nothing-that-will alarm’ school of gastronomy which will suit those who despise the invasion of Bocuse and co, never mind Ferran Adria with his molecular fireworks.

Verdict: French, mon cul. Except maybe for elderly in-laws and visiting Midwestern Americans.

Rating: **

Les Freres Jacques, 4 Dame St., Dublin 2  Tel: 01 679 4555

Boeuf a la Bourguignonne

bb-ingredsIn response to an inquiry on the forum, I’ve dragged up an article I wrote some years ago and a recipe, in fact, MY recipe, for this classic dish.  Enjoy!

The Culinary History

Burgundy, thanks to its inhabitants having an all-consuming devotion to colouring matters (plus a skilled publicity campaign conducted by the mediaeval dukes who ruled the province), has come to be regarded as the epicentre of French and astronomy. Strange then, that the dish that has become such a worldwide flag waver for the region should be a rustic peasant a thing.

The food writer Elizabeth David described Boeuf a la Bourguignonne as “a favourite among those carefully composed slowly cooked dishes which are the domain of French housewives and owner cooks of modest restaurants rather than of professional chefs.”

although Burgundian origin, it is now regarded as a quintessentially French dish, found on the bill of fare in restaurants as far apart as Paris and Marseilles, not to mention bistros from Manchester to Sydney.

In France itself you often find it written down on menus simply as ‘Bourguignonne’ and, what’s more, in French butchers shops you’ll often see a slab of meat marked out for its culinary purpose, i.e. ‘bourguignonne’ rather than “topside” or “shoulder”.

Simon Hopkinson and Lindsay Bareham have an excellent recipe in their entertaining review of retro cuisine, ‘The Prawn Cocktail Years’. I think it’s out of print but if you do come across a second-hand copy, it’s a joy. Paul Bocuse has a recipe in his maius opus, something you would hardly expect from the arch moderniser.

The first English-language edition of the ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ segregates ‘Boeuf Bourguignon’ and ‘Boeuf a la Bourguignonne’. The recipe for the former the mushrooms are omitted. This seems to be the sole difference. The “female version” must be the simplest recipe ever presented, if not exactly the cheapest containing the instructions just “lard the meat and marinate in brandy. Then braise in red wine.” Committing a bottle of cognac plus a bottle of Burgundy to a humble stew would give both  my wife and my bank manager palpitations so I feel I’ll never make this version!

Most culinary experts agree that it is de rigueur to incorporate a pig’s trotter or a calf’s foot to yield a nourishing, rib-sticking gravy. At the same time opinions are divided as to whether to marinate the meat or not.

What you include – according to the experts

The ingredients in this list are, by consensus, the common ones.

1. Well hung, sinewy beef- chuck, topside, shoulder and shin have all been mentioned by various chefs and writers. The beef should be sliced into large pieces, weighing-some recommend-up to 150 grams per piece. From this it will be evident that the miserable cubes adopted by the pub lunch trade clearly have no place in this dish.

2. Red wine – the general consensus is that the wine used should be Burgundy. Obviously, you don’t go rooting down the cellar for a bottle of your finest Domaine de la Romanee-Conti!

3. Pig’s trotter, split lengthways, or a calf”s foot. I can’t recommend this addition  highly enough. It makes the sauce rich, silky, and even more flavoursome.

4. Streaky bacon, cut into thick match length strips.

5. Onions. Around two dozen small round onions, peeled and left whole, seems to be the consensus. I tend to use shallots when I can get them.

6. Mushrooms. Again, around two dozen.

7. Bouquet garni. Parsley, thyme and a bay leaf are the favoured constituents.

8. Brandy. For the sake of authenticity, you would have to use marc de Bourgogne but, considering the small quantity involved, cognac, armagnac,  Greek or Spanish brandy would be fine. Almost every recipe I’ve ever read involves chucking in a glass of brandy and setting it on fire. The addition really does make a difference to the dish and the flames are welcome, alleviating the boredom that comes from slicing 2.5 kg of beef and peeling a mountain of shallots.

9. Garlic. When it comes to garlic, the pundits diverge on the subject of its quantity and even desirability, ranging from nought (Paul Bocuse) to 8 cloves (Simon Hopkinson). I’m somewhere in between.

The Recipe

Ingredients

One bottle of Burgundy, or other red wine

1 large onion, chopped

2 celery ribs, chopped

4 cloves of garlic

bouquet garni – 2 dtdp parsley, 3 sprigs thyme, 2 bay leaves

2 – 2.5kg sinewy beef, chuck, shoulder or shin, approximately 15-20 mm thick

sea salt and freshly milled black pepper

2 to 3 tbsp plain flour

one calf’s foot or a pig’s trotter, sliced lengthways

120 g thick cut streaky bacon, cut into match length strips

1 glass of marc de Bourgogne, cognac or other brandy

500 ml stock

two tablespoons olive oil

200 g unsalted butter

24 shallots, peeled

24 button or small chestnut mushrooms

2 dessert spoons chopped parsley for garnish

Step-by-step

1. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C.

Put the wine, chopped onion, celery, garlic and bouquet garni into a non-reactive (stainless steel) saucepan and bring to the boil. Ignite the wine and allow the flavours to subside. Turn down the heat and simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the wine is reduced by half. Season the beef and roll it in the flour.

Melt the oil and butter in a large frying pan or saucepan on top of the stove.

2. Put in the bacon and fry until  brown, stopping shorty of crisp. Remove and reserve. Brown the beef, cooking only a few pieces at a time. Colour well on both sides, remove and reserve.

3. Put the pig’s trotter or calf’s foot into the pan and fry on both sides until well coloured. If there is a good deal of fat in the pot, remove most of it by skimming with a kitchen spoon. Turn up the heat, toss  in the brandy and ignite. Strain the reduced wine and pour into the pan. Add the stock. Return the rest of the meat to the pan.  Cover the pot and braise the meat for two hours. Remove and skim off any scum from the surface.

4. Add the shallots and mushrooms and braise for another half-hour or until the meat is tender. Added at this late stage they won’t shrink to nothing. Remove the trotter or calf’s foot. Check the seasoning.

Serve with plain boiled or mashed potatoes and a plain green salad to refresh the palate.

To drink… Burgundy?????

"What they want is a lovely gravy, not a bloody jus, acne on a plate…" – Keith Floyd, RIP

One of the first tasks I undertook when I joined Food & Wine Magazine back in the nineties was to interview Keith Floyd. It was far more  pleasure than duty because I’d long been a fan of  the seminal Hole in The Wall in Bath where Keith assisted or more probably hindered George Perry in his attempts to bring an Elizabeth David-inspired French cuisine to an initially sceptical British public and I was also a lover of Keith’s TV cookery programmes. Before Keith you had Fanny &  Johnny Craddock, ‘One Foot in the Grave with pans’ and jokey ‘English public schoolboy meets Dame Edna’ Graham Kerr, the self-styled  ‘Galloping Gourmet’. Hardly enough for a young man with a sharp knife and rampant tastebuds to latch on to. No, it was Keith who made cooking sexy, convincing us bloods that cooking, for men, was cool and, for the world, easy. “Bit of this, dash of that, turn up the heat, take a swig and… presto!” His cookbooks, God knows how many, were great reading too.

I’d been told that he was ‘difficult’ which couldn’t have been farther from the truth, sober at least. At the time he’d just married Tess and couldn’t resist showing her off to me. Alas, like the other three, this union ended in divorce. Keith and I that day bonded over the same things – black sole, wild mushrooms and “those bits of the cow other people throw away”. One thing he told me has stuck in my head ever since. “What the punters want,” he said “is a lovely gravy, not a bloody jus, acne on a plate”. We talked about music. I’d heard he was a fan of The Stranglers and Keith confided that Hugh Cornwell played guitar in Chandos Road, one of his early Bristolian ventures, a restaurant called simply “Restaurant” because he had sold his name and couldn’t use it.   “I’d nothing else to flog”, he grimaced. He had some hilarious tales of the three-year party that was Kinsale but a few other people will have to pop their clogs before I reveal all..

I’ll leave others to delineate in detail the multiple restaurant failures, the bankruptcy and the drinking bouts. Although Keith did say to me that the compression of 100 hours of filming into 8 episodes meant was the reason he was seen with a glass in his hand more often than not. Yeah, right, Keith. One other luminous memory of Keith Floyd was dining with my daughter, then at university, at his gastropub (probably the first by a long chalk) The Maltsters at Tuckenhay in Devon. It was in this place that Keith personally under wrote a round of drinks costing £36,000 and went wallop in the aftermath. I still savour the pig’s trotter I ate there that day – stuffed with ‘the liver that dare not speak its name’ and swathed in an Armagnac-flavoured bechamel. It was cooked not by Keith but by his then employee Jean Christophe-Novelli, the chef of whom there were occasional sightings in Dawson Street earlier this decade. The dish was an ultra-harmonious match for a Seghesio Cortina Ranch Zinfandel of a very good vintage. Of such repasts are stellar memories made.

So hail and farewell, Keith, sadly missed.  And thanks for all the food.

Keith Floyd,  28 December 1943 – 14 September 2009

La Maison

The town I grew up in was described in a Victorian gazetteer as “ill-built, but of good entertainment”. Eighty years later the entertainment had migrated up the A6 to Manchester, otherwise no change. The town council was known for its slothful attitude and reluctance to spend money to make the town a civilized place to live. Take the annual water shortage. The tiny reservoir in the hills was insufficient for the town’s needs, so every summer brought the local equivalent of the glimmer man round to make sure no one was watering their garden, plus a rash of pamphlets through the door advising citizens to ‘Put a Brick in Your Cistern’ or ‘Take a Bath with a Friend’. Eventually the corpo, goaded into action by the threat of non-payment of rates, resolved to build a second reservoir. This they did, only to find, when it was completed, that the water level in the original was dropping alarmingly. An engineering miscalculation meant that water from the first reservoir was percolating into the new one.

This sad scenario parallels what often happens when a restaurateur opens a second outlet. All too frequently an immense effort goes into kick-starting the new enterprise, while the original suffers. In a ‘worst case’ situation standards slide at both outlets as the proprietor shuttles between the two in an effort to steady the ship. So I was a tad alarmed when I heard that Oliver Quenet whose culinary flair so impressed me when I reviewed Vaughan’s of Terenure a year ago had taken over La Maison des Gourmets in Castle Market and had, at the same time, retained his former charge. A quick check with friends who eat there regularly assured me that things were as they were, so I phoned La Maison, as it’s now called, to book a table. They didn’t take bookings but sounded reassuring on the phone, along the lines of “If there are only two of you, give us half an hour’s notice and you’ll be all right”, an unstated “we’ll squeeze you in” vibe came down the line.

I met The Lit’ry Chick in Grogan’s from where I phoned the restaurant to say “We’re next door”. The response was “Fine, come round” which caused me to think the place was bereft of customers and gagging for our arrival. I couldn’t have been more wrong. In fact the ground floor was jammers, so we were directed upstairs to a pleasant room about two thirds full. As the restaurant’s name (and that of the chef) suggests, La Maison is quintessentially French and authentically rustic French at that. I was surprised to find andouillette on the menu. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, andouillette is a smoked sausage fashioned, usually, from pig’s intestines, a thinner and less offensive version of the foetid andouille. To borrow and paraphrase the old saying about playing the accordian, I consider a true gentleman to be a person who could eat andouille but doesn’t. The andouillette on the menu is AAAAA. A fellow critic in her review made much of the fact that this was a ‘5 A’ andioullette. Fine, as long as you realise there’s no such thing as a 4A one – this mnemonic signals the approval of the Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentiques – which does mean, though, that it is indeed the pig’s bollocks of these pongy snags.

The waiter/sommelier arrived to guide us through the short but interesting list on which I recognised wines imported by Enrico Fantasia and Charles Derain, ex-sommelier of Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, sound thinking. He put in a plea for the Bourgeuil 2004 to which I acceded, only to find it thin and characterless, a thorn among roses. Everyone else seemed to be drinking it and not many were impressed. I can only assume they have shedloads down the cellar and your man had been told to shift it.

Lit’ry Chick was quick off the mark and took the asparagus with poached egg and foie gras for starters. I had a nibble and it was everything the ingredients promised. I was very happy with my own plateau des pâtés du jour, three pâtés and some rillettes accompanied by rather good bread. Lit’ry Chick then astounded me by taking the andouillette which came with wholegrain mustard and fine pommes Lyonnaise. Bravo! I chickened out and ordered the lamb shank, tender and tasty, accompanied by superb pommes boulangere. We shared a side dish of exceptionally good ratatouille.

Desserts, as expected, pleased. I flirted with the tarte tatin before opting for the French cheese selection while Lit’ry Chick took a delicious chocolate confection. Coffee was, ah um, say no more but I’ve learned to expect little from Les Francais.

There was absolutely no sign of ‘second restaurant syndrome’. La Maison is one brilliant bistro, the kind Dublin needs more of. At last L’Gueuleton has some decent competition in this idiom. Coffee apart, the only negative I can think of is you need a large shoehorn to get yourself into the bogs.

Verdict: Nice rooms, caring staff, decent linen and glassware and glorious food at sensible prices.

The Damage: €115.50 for 2 starters, 2 mains, 2 desserts, mid-priced bottle of wine.

Rating ****

La Maison, 15 Castle Market, Dublin 2, Tel: 016727258.

Venu

 

Keogh’s in South Anne Street, early doors on a Wednesday eveningvenu1, was well nigh empty. Which isn’t to say publican Louis Fitzgerald was having conniptions. No, the customers were all outside, a great raft of them lorrying down the bevvy while savouring the sunshine. Great to see that the good old Dublin custom of drinking pints/talking shite is still in vogue. Bangles, resplendent in flamboyant summer plumage, rocked up bang on time.

 I tilted the panama to a jaunty angle and we sauntered down the street to dine at Venu Brasserie. Entering the building involved a Tardis-like experience. With the noise of the revellers fading in the distance, you stepped into an office building whose bland, impersonal interior could have held suits selling pensions, if any such still exist. Descending into the basement, you were fast-forwarded into the disco bar slickery of 1980s London. Here, we paused while we awaited a call to table, watching the resident ‘mixologist’ juggling ingredients, which he did rather well. Eventually, we found ourselves in the dining room, a veritable split personality – 1950s railway buffet-meets-60s coffee bar. All sorts of gimcrack vied for attention – the lights, coloured glass versions of the old-time driers that hairdressers lowered over madame’s newly-coiffed beehive; the small gilded nymphs, perching in bare trees; the abstract art (large nipple-free tits) on the back wall. Altogether the sort of mish-mash that gives interior design a bad name, in my opinion.

 A waiter came to take our order, making an attempt as he did so to flog us a brace of pre-prandial cocktails. “No thank you,” we said. For starters I took the Clogherhead crab salad, prettily fettled. Topped by a ring of pink grapefruit, it screamed “fresh!” It was, however, upstaged by Bangles’ asparagus salad, where the arrangement was picture perfect, a wrapping of lamb’s lettuce and a small pool of lime mayo studded with dark-roasted pistachios counterpointing the green spears and giving you that hard-to-define feelgood feeling. The asparagus was cooked to perfection. This clean, green, not overly cheffy treat claims our nomination for Best Presented Dish of 2009 if such an award exists.

 The bar had been set high. In contrast, my burger seemed a bit of a plain Jane – until you actually bit into it. Under the flat and, thankfully, crusty bun magical things were going on. I stuck the fork in and melted foie gras oozed out, double yum; the flavoursome patty and the onions in red wine were interleaved with a black truffle mayo that tasted of… surprise, surprise.. black truffles. Here was the ultimate kick-ass gourmet burger. All other burgers masquerading as ‘gourmet’ – and there are loads around town – should keep a low profile. Nice chips too, if shaded by the ones at Chez Max the week. Bangles had commandeered an oriental-style chicken breast. Dubbed ‘Bombay’, it was one of those things chefs dream up from time to time to stop themselves getting bored with the classics. This one, unlike most, worked, majoring as it did on the quality of the chicken and the accompanying coriander couscous.

 I had almost forgotten that Venu’s proprietor is Charles Guilbaud, son of the unsinkable Patrick, a man who’s already seen off two recessions, earning a Michelin star for each. In fact I glimpsed Patrick and Sally dining there that night. They can be proud of what their son-and-heir is putting on tables. Doubtless he spent his childhood watching RPG’s Guillaume Lebrun.

 The wine list, old world biased, held some interest. Neither of us was in great drinking form, though, so Climbing Hill, a relaxed, uncomplicated but sound Aussie Chardonnay, not too tinned-fruity, fitted the bill nicely. In view of the brasserie’s connections I did feel slightly traitorous, not drinking French.

Come dessert time I was fairly stuffed, having pigged out on the chips. I took an espresso and it was a good one. Bangles opted for the peach melba of childhood memory. It was a lateral version, a return to the high presentational plateau evinced by the starters. As she said “A far cry from the Slieve Donard version, circa nineteen blahdy-blah” (doesn’t want to give away her age!). The friendly waiter redoubled his efforts to sell us cocktails “A refreshing dessert cocktail, sir and madam?” And afterwards, “May I recommend a cocktail to finish with?” This kid has some go in him, fair play. His pitch, too, had a playfulness, a pleasant manner that didn’t have you saying “Piss off and take your cocktails with you.”

 All in all, we spent €96.50 and didn’t begrudge it. There is a ‘Summer Menu’ that represents incredible value for money – 3 courses for €22.50 – though as none of the mains on it were what we felt we needed on the night we were not tempted to try it. Overall, we liked Venu. So much so we’re going back for the cocktails when we’re in better drinking form.

 The damage: £96.50 ex-service for 2 starters, 2 mains, 1 dessert, coffee, bottle of wine.

 Verdict: Spot-on cooking, friendly service, good value. You may love the room, I didn’t.

 

Venu Brasserie, Anne’s Lane, Dublin 2 Tel: 01 6706755

Pearl Brasserie

At every occasion where restaurant folk gather together whispers of impending doom and gloom abound; pushing the gossip, rumour and scandal, inconsequential chat and merry piss-taking into the relegation zone of the conversational league table.
News of the demise of Poulot’s helped ruin my week and, I suspect, that of many others concerned with the business of eating and drinking. My heart goes out to Jean-Michel and Lorna Jean, two of the nicest and hardest-working people I know.
At the same time, the show must go on. There are covers to be filled and diners to be fed. Sebastian Masi and Kirsten Batt’s Pearl Brasserie, bucked by a couple of recent awards and a tarting-up, seemed to be doing okay, with a near full house on a Tuesday night. The makeover is only gorgeous; warm-but-restrained decor including opulent chandeliers and standing lamps looking like huge bulbs of garlic that I wanted to steal. They have also taken the opportunity to create some small booths that permit intimacy, at least in the emotional sense. Dining here we were, in effect, alone in a crowd as our cosy cocoon afforded a peep at what was going on in the parallel universe of the dining room.
As soon as the personable young waitress sussed that Bunting and I were not an item she pulled the round table forward to give us more legroom. Her precise observation allied to prompt action was the prelude to what was to become a recurring theme throughout the evening. I don’t think I’ve been as well served at a restaurant in years. What’s even more remarkable is that Thomas and Julien, the first team, were not there on the night. In their absence the rest, including a young French guy who’d only been there a fortnight, performed heroics on a par with those of Arsene Wenger’s novice footballers a few days before. As with the Arsenal’s win, it was a team effort. No one copped out or hid or lolled around uncaring. They were all looking out for each other and keeping a weather eye on the diners, just how it should be.
Of course the best service in the world is useless if the cuisine is crap. Having eaten Sebastian’s food before, I had a certain amount of confidence and, on the night, that confidence was not displaced. My crab meat starter banished the memory of a couple of horrible efforts I’d endured in recent weeks. How often do you get a timbale or terrine of crab labelled ‘fresh’ that actually tastes fresh, as in ‘this crustacean has actually been in the sea within living memory’? When on those rare occasions you do, crab meat can taste better than lobster and so it was here. Bunting took the organic Irish salmon with a fennel and orange salad, a dish which stands or falls on the quality of the ingredients. This in no way disappointed.
Bunting chose the wine and I was very happy with her selection, an Arneis. Arneis is a white grape variety originating from Piedmont in northern Italy where it has been grown from at least the 15th century. In Piedmontese, the local language, it means ‘little rascal’ so called because it is regarded as a somewhat difficult variety to grow. It has been cultivated since the 15th century in the Roero region in the hills north of Alba where the famous truffles come from. Wines made from the Arneis grape tend to be dry, crisp and floral with notes of pears and apricots. They are sometimes, disconcertingly, slightly sparkling and disappointingly light in body. This one was still as a mill pond with an impactful mouthfeel that stood up well to our main courses.
Squab pigeon is one of my favourite things, cue for song and the squab ‘two ways’ is something of a speciality of Sebastian’s. The breast, properly pinked, was served interleaved with silky foie gras and the leg came as a kind of grown-up’s lollipop; the shredded meat, wrapped in the skin, was juicy and succulent. It came with a startlingly aromatic black truffle mash. Bunting’s loin of Irish veal looked an absolute picture on the plate, studded with cubes of piquant beetroot in an aesthetic arrangement. You could have hung it in the National Gallery down the street. I’m not into food display for its own sake but this was very striking and tasted good too. We tucked in happily, finishing the Arneis and summoning up a couple of glasses of a civilised Minervois, “a favourite of Julien’s”, so we were told. The mains were accompanied by a bowl of pak choi, lightly drizzled with soy sauce and some precision-cut chips, my personal nomination for Best in Town. Oops, nearly forgot to mention the delight that separated starter and main, a wild strawberry sorbet floating in a small lake of vanilla vodka. You wouldn’t think this would cleanse the palate but it sure did. In fact its excellence caused us to call for a selection of ice creams – we chose pistache, rum and raisin and mango sorbet – for dessert. Coffee (espresso) was fairly priced and fairly decent, though the blend could have been tweaked to give less ‘woodiness’.
For all the above I divvied up €146.90 ex-service, an amount that places Pearl towards the top of the second tier of Dublin restaurants. I came away with the highest respect for the integrity of the ingredients, the high culinary standards, the beguiling décor and, last but not least, the service, which, to this gnarled, begrudging old pro, achieved levels that shouted ‘others please copy’. Restaurants, like any other business, tend to fluctuate. Performance is a ‘now’ thing, tomorrow may tell a different story. But there’s no doubting that Pearl Brasserie is, at the minute, a strong contender for Dublin’s best overall dining experience.
Rating ****1/2
Pearl Brasserie, 20 Merrion Street Upper, Dublin 2
Tel: 01 661 3572

Pearl Brasserie



French cuisine has had an immense bearing on the food we eat in restaurants here today. I think it’s entirely fair to say that the significant influences on what’s come to be called ‘modern Irish cooking’ have been the classical training undergone by the chefs (no need to name them) who pioneered our transition from third to first world country in dining terms and the seeming revolutionary writings of Elizabeth David whose French Provincial Cooking opened the eyes and mouths of a generation of food lovers to new gastronomic experiences.

Sebastian Masi is, without doubt a very talented chef. He came to Ireland from France to work for Patrick Guilbaud and eventually ended up at the late lamented The Commons on Stephen’s Green. He had the best of times there, witnessing the acquisition of its Michelin Star and leaving before that establishment lost the run of itself in what many believe to be the harbinger of a general recession, going down Titanic-like with all hands in a welter of finger pointing.
By this time Sebastian and his partner, Kirsten Batt, had set up Pearl Brasserie on Merrion Street. I went there for dinner with a bevy of chefs and restaurateurs on foot of our inaugural Restaurant of The Year Award lunch and the subsequent socializing. I remember thinking that the food was excellent and reasonably priced but that I’d spent a fierce amount of money, must have been the wine. So it proved. I’ve found out since that the life-is-for-living EuroToques bunch seem to have the ability to drink Premier Crus Chablis as if the whole of Burgundy has been zoned for redevelopment.
What would my conclusions be this time, I wondered, as I drifted down the steps, flanked by my two venerable dining companions Ruby and Pearl. Hopefully the liquid intake would be more frugal on this occasion.
We were greeted promptly and pleasantly and ushered to a table in the corner of the room, where we could observe the other diners and breathe in the ambience, a quintessential part of the pleasure of dining out so far as the girls are concerned. They commented favourably on the décor. I studied the menu.
I had expected a more overt French influence on the food and cooking style. Indeed, Pearl Brasserie’s website, which I’d looked at a couple of days before, had stressed the French connection. Sebastian himself had reinforced my expectation by providing a recipe for traditional poule au pot for a feature in F&W last autumn. And you would imagine that a restaurant that calls its starters entrées and its main courses plats principals would be distinctively French. But the food on offer seemed quite ‘unclassical’, more international new era, if not quite fusion-tinged. In fact, not very French at all.
When it comes to bunging down three courses plus cheese and coffee, Pearl and particularly Ruby, are simply not at the races. How anyone can forgo such delights as crab bisque, gravadlax and sauce vierge or pan-fried duck foie gras is simply beyond me. Mind you, this gastro-rectitude didn’t stop them scamming a slice of my lobster ravioli, which was wonderfully counterpointed by a spicy red pepper compote and baby spinach. When it came to mains, the available choice was tilted heavily in favour of fish and one cannot help feeling that this is where Sebastian Masi’s heart lies. If you included the market special (John Dory, with what on more pretentious menus would undoubtedly have been referred to as ‘caviar of beetroot’) things piscatorial outnumbered birds and beasts by 6-4. We didn’t see a vegetarian option listed but I presume there must be one. The JD tasted as if Saint Peter had just plucked it from the sea; Ruby’s seared king scallops with a parsnip and black truffle mousse was so appealing I was tempted to order it as a second plat principal and forgo dessert; Pearl’s pan-fried sea bass justified her faith, imaginatively accompanied, as it was, by flavoursome baked cherry tomatoes and a brilliant sweet potato risotto – who have thought of it?
I think by now you’ll be beginning to get the picture – all the foregoing is hardly French cusine is it? But to be truthful it didn’t matter. I’d got over my pre-prandial primeval yearning for a sticky daube de boeuf. Main courses were priced at e18-26, vegetables extra and here I’d take issue with the restaurant’s policy. I’m not looking for a mountain of mash or a whole head of cabbage but a few veggies with your main doesn’t go amiss and I think, in this day and age it’s taking the proverbial to charge a fiver a throw for mash, fries, garlic mushrooms and stir-fried chinese cabbage.
The wine list needs revising, in my opinion. There were many interesting bottles (Durbanville Hills Pinotage, Bonny Doon Riesling, Chateau Kefreya from the Lebanon) showing the compiler had done his/her homework but only 3 items out of 48 were priced under e28. We took a bottle of Sancerre Domaine Vacheron 2001, one of my favourites, but not cheap at e49.
Of our desserts, one worked one didn’t. The chocolate mousse was a triumph, as the picture shows, voted delicious by all three of us and deserving of a more exotic title. But my basil sorbet with a basil vodka combined a killer alcohol fix with the flavour and something of the texture of rotting lettuce. Sorry, no. I don’t bear a grudge, I’ve made similar boobs myself – I have a freezer full of Bloody Mary sorbet which everyone hates but me.
The bill came to just over e170, service discretionary and while we’re on the subject the service was exemplary – polished, professional, polite. The décor is exquisite, the ambience warm and comfortable. The cooking (once you’d banished your Gallic aspirations) would satisfy the most critical. But I was left with the slightly uncomfortable feeling that I’d paid over the odds for what we’d had – one starter, three mains, two desserts, two coffees, a Bacardi and a good, though not benchmark bottle of Sancerre. To be truly memorable, I believe Pearl Brasserie has to find a formula that will banish this malaise.

Pearl Brasserie, 20 Upper Merrion Street, Dublin 2 Tel: (01) 661 3572 Web: www.pearl-brasserie.com
Lunch Tues-Fri 12-2.30 Dinner daily 6-10.30

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