Wednesday 20 November 2013

Ten years of lunches at L'Enclume, Cartmel

I've realised that it's been a while since I posted anything here about my meals at L'Enclume.  My past few visits to L'Enclume have provided some exceptional food: it is rather difficult to believe, but my latest meal showed a marked improvement on other meals there in 2013.

I was last at L'Enclume in August 2013, and since then they had been crowned the best restaurant in the United Kingdom by the Good Food Guide and it had been announced that Simon Rogan would be taking on the restaurant in Claridges in London.  Nothing ever stands still at L'Enclume, even less so for Simon Rogan himself.
On this visit, in the middle of November 2013, the changing seasons meant much of the menu had changed: some dishes were subtly different; some were entirely new.

This, and a brief chat with Simon Rogan about his plans for the Claridges restaurant, got me thinking on the way home about all the changes that I've seen at L'Enclume, and, after the quickest bit of maths, I realised that I'd been going to L'Enclume for ten years, my first visit being just a few months after it opened in 2002.

It would be far too long a post to run through all the changes that those ten years have seen, but before going on to my November 2013 meal, I thought it might be interesting to revisit my first report of L'Enclume, written in June 2003.  There are no photographs from back then, which partly explains the vagueness of some of the descriptions.

L'Enclume was undoubtedly the north of England opening in 2003.

Getting the non-food stuff out of the way first: the setting is quite splendid. A converted smithy (hence the name: French for "anvil"), with cooling whitewashed walls. White table cloths, good cutlery, good glasses.  Even the lighting is good.  A conservatory for aperitifs that's not too conservatory-like and a lovely garden with a stream running past, all nestling below Cartmel Priory.  On a warm day, it's very difficult not to linger - even to the point of having a cafetière rather than an espresso after the meal.  Cartmel is not exactly a busy metropolis, but L'Enclume and particularly its garden provide a complete oasis from the outside world.

I have been several times now, and the standard of cooking has been consistently high and innovative. First impressions of the menu are of a Blumenthal/Fat Duck type striving for effect. But while Blumenthal is more about technique, Enclume is about tastes and textures with Marc Veyrat overtones, underpinned by a strong classical technique. Particularly looking at the menu, but also at the food when it arrives on the plate, it is easy to get the impression that there is a striving for effect. That may well be - and I suppose in the crowded market of the Lake District you perhaps need a USP - but the key is that it all works, and often better than it sounds. Menu descriptions tend to the listing every ingredient in a dish variety, which can make you slightly nervous when it comes to something like a "calamint, bark and blossom infusion", but the weirder sounding stuff stands out as weird far more on the page than it does on the plate. Unusually for a Lake District kitchen, there is no sticky toffee pudding (thank goodness) - anyone with withdrawal symptoms can pick up the famous (but not that good, in my view), Rick Stein Food Hero version, from the village shop just down the road.

There are, I believe, 5 menus - a TDH at about £20, the à la carte, and three "Taste and Texture" menus: a seven course "Introduction" at £50; a twelve course "Intermediate" at £75 and a 19 course "gourmand" menu at £95. With the carte at least come the freebie appetisers and pre-desserts.  The wine list is very well chosen.

I have been for lunch on several occasions, and so far always opted for the carte. The first time was a standard 3 course affair that I now can't remember in its entirety. A dish of turbot and oxtail gayette was quite superb: not at all surf and turf - all elements were perfectly executed and worked harmoniously. This was followed by a Monkfish 'cinq saveurs' that I can't remember much more about than a spicy crust and enjoying enormously. My companion's starter was a "foie gras hors d'oeuvres", comprising I think 4 little foie gras goodies - terrine, pate, fried and a Marc Meneau style cromesqui. Personally I think the foie gras cromesquis, which seem to be becoming more common, are better as a tie-ruining (for the uninitiated) appetiser, than as a substantive element of a dish.

One visit was on 5th June 2003 - a gorgeous boiling hot day, with the sun beating down, while the ducks played amorously in the stream. Indoors was cool, pleasant and welcoming. So I sat outside in the sun (!) with a glass of very good citron pressé (which had to be made in the kitchen for some reason) while I read the menu. Rather than a starter-main course meal, I chose three starters, and asked for a glass of appropriate wine with each. It is a mark of the high standard of the staff that they are unphased by such requests (and indeed hadn't responded "yer wot?" to the request for a citron pressé).

Things got underway with a slab of slate bearing three "freebie" appetisers:
A shot glass of superb asparagus velouté - quite excellent - beautiful colour and an excellent intense flavour.
Dauphinoise potato with leek - not so good. A bit underseasoned and undercooked. I like the cream for my dauphinoise to have been cooked for a while. This was like a warm vichyssoise before processing. Which now I write that, I realise was exactly what it was! The description was wrong, maybe.
Last of the appetisers was a red pepper bavarois. Again in a shot glass. A quite exquisite texture and hugely intense flavour. Superb.

Excellent bread, including a saffron bread, and a sea lettuce bread among about 5 varieties with Echiré butter.

My first course was a sweet woodruff jelly, pickled cucumber, flaky crab, oscietra caviar and "nearly-caramelised baby squid." Each element was superb in itself.  Sweet woodruff has a refreshing taste all of its own (and is representative of a number of less common herbs that appear on the menu - maybe chef Simon Rogan is a bit of a forager?), the pickled cucumber was 'spaghetti'd' and slightly sweet, slightly sour , the flaky crab was very fresh tasting white meat that had somehow been fluffed up (you might even imagine that each 'grain' had been separated by hand) and then loosely formed into a neat quenelle. The squid was excellent - tiniest squid imaginable and, as the tin said, nearly caramelised. Everything on its own was quite perfect, but the combination of tastes and textures was simply exquisite. The only drawback might have been that the third of a coffee spoon of oscietra was not quite enough to stretch beyond more than two mouthful combinations (if you see what I mean). They selected a glass of Mosel Riesling Kabinett to go with this, which it did - rather well in fact.

Next up was a nage of langoustines with green vegetables (i.e. peas, beans and broad beans) cooked in a calamint, bark and blossom infusion. Quite exceptional langoustines, perfectly cooked. Stunning colours and flavours on the plate. Presentation of all the dishes is very good indeed. This was matched well by a glass of good, if rather warm muscadet.

Third came Lozenges of quail, roast ramsons (bit late in the season for ramsons, isn't it?), bergamot salsa and a smoked papaya vinaigrette. Another splendid dish, again each component well done (though I'd not have guessed at smoked papaya in the sauce if it had been served blind) and the whole managing to be greater than the sum of its parts. I find it very interesting the way that all components of a dish are excellent in themselves, and thoroughly enjoyable on their own, but when you put it all together on the fork it takes it to a different level. There is a very assured hand at work in the kitchen. The quail breasts were perfectly cooked and served on the finest of finely chopped brunoise of apple and carrot - certainly no more than a sixteenth of an inch perfect cubes. I have to pity the poor person who'd chopped them.
A glass of surprisingly good chardonnay from the Veneto came with this, again a touch on the warm side unfortunately.

Then there were the pre-desserts, which I have forgotten entirely, though I'm pretty sure shot glasses came into it again.

Dessert proper was an upside down coconut soufflé with roast pineapple and a mango chutney ice-cream. The plate arrived, bereft of any sign of souffle, but with a palm tree painstakingly constructed of tuile biscuits glued together with caramel and a slice of highly spiced roast pineapple topped with the equally heavily flavoured mango chutney ice-cream. Seconds later a teacup containing a souffle appeared and was ceremoniously up-ended onto my plate. Well, yes, it was now an upside down souffle. The coconut souffle itself was - I'm sorry, I'm going to use the e word again - excellent. No trace of egginess, no trace of the dreaded dessicated coconut, but just an elegantly perfumed textbook souffle. Excellent. I have to say I found the mango chutney ice cream a little on the overpowering side.

As if you might not have had enough puddings, coffee comes with a shot glass of very good, spongeless tiramisu and a chocolate filled doughnut.

The only weak points in the whole meal were the over-flavoured mango chutney ice-cream and the chocolate donut petit four, which was a little chewy.

Everything else was characterised by the innovation of the combinations, the use of unfamiliar ingredients and the intense, very clean flavours.

I have no reservation in saying that this should get a very very high 8/10.  Properly chilled wines by the glass, a little more flavour and seasoning in the vichyssoise cum dauphinoise pre-starter and a milder mango chutney ice-cream would make it an easy 9/10.

I really hope L'Enclume proves a commercial success, as it is a much needed injection of style and skill into the North Lancashire dining scene. (Any Lancastrian will tell you that Cartmel really is part of Lancashire, whatever the 1974 boundary changes said ...)

It's interesting to reflect on what's changed, and what hasn't.  Behind the scenes, the kitchen has just this year been extended and completely refitted. and Simon Rogan has taken over what was the adjacent post office and turned it into his development kitchen, Aulis (itself still be refitted at the time of this visit). The garden has reduced in size considerably, yielding to an extended conservatory that has more than doubled in size and now has the best tables in the dining room.  It's still one of my favourite dining rooms in the country, and there's still the same relaxed feel, helped by well-orchestrated staff who make everyone feel at ease.

The big change has been in the food.  Rogan has, after a few not-quite-false starts in the earlier years, now found his own style and niche.  That's not to say there aren't occasional influences from elsewhere.  Some might even be unconscious.  As is evident from my 2003 report, there were already marks of the now well-known Rogan style from the beginning, with things like calamint and sweet woodruff taking the limelight.  What is dramatically different in the 2003 report, however, is the presence of things like foie gras, oscietra caviar, papaya, pineapple, mango etc.  Now all the ingredients at L'Enclume come from the British Isles, and indeed increasingly the majority come from Simon Rogan's own farm down the road from Cartmel, which supplies all his restaurants and continues to expand to meet that demand.

The menu structure is much simpler now: in the evening there is just one menu, with 20-22 courses, while at lunchtime there is the same tasting menu, plus a shorter 6-course menu.  The prices make an interesting comparison. In 2003, a 7-course menu was £50, while today the 6-course lunch is just £45.  In 2003 the 19 course "gourmand" menu was £95: today the main tasting menu is £120 for 22 courses. (Though it's worth noting that "courses" is a generous description, for today it includes a number of small appetiser tastes.)  Looking at an online inflation calculator, I see that 2003's £95 would today be £127.22.  So (please look away now, Simon Rogan or anyone employed by him!), if anything, the price of the main tasting menu has gone down.  And they have two Michelin stars and have been accorded the title of best restaurant in the UK now.  £120 is a hell of a lot of money for lunch, but I would argue that it is impossible to argue that it's not great value.

You can spend £53 to watch Manchester United play for 90 minutes. The £120 menu at L'Enclume will take four hours of your time, and you get fed too.  For £125 you can get to drive a Ferrari for four laps round a race circuit.  At the time of writing, it could cost you between £198 and £230 to get a seat at the Royal Opera House to watch Parsifal on 2nd December 2013.  If I needed to get a train to London tomorrow, it'd cost me nearly £160 to be there by 10am.

So, what do you get for £120 at L'Enclume?  Beyond enjoying the experience and the setting and using their heating and lighting for four hours, that is.

First to come out of the kitchen, after they've checked for allergies, dislikes or just plain faddishness, are a series of small one-bite appetisers/canapés or whatever you want to call them, each of which counts as a course in the total 22.

There are some standard, unchanging items on the menu now, Rogan signatures I suppose, and the first thing to come out is one of them: oyster pebbles.
Oyster pebble with oyster leaf
The oyster pebble is a small meringue, coloured and flavoured with squid ink, filled with an oyster cream and a fine dice of apple.
Interior of the oyster pebble
Starting what was to become a trend throughout this meal, the oyster pebble was notably superior to the last couple of times I've had it: the meringue was much lighter and more melt-in-the-mouth.  I continue to be amazed by the oyster leaf that always accompanies the pebble and its pure oyster flavours.

Next came a new dish for me, described on the menu as radish and blackberry, but between the menu being printed for me and it coming out of the kitchen, the blackberry element had turned into a horseradish cream.
Radish and horseradish
This is a single radish, which has been carefully hollowed out and filled with a light, well-balanced horseradish cream.  A combination I don't recall having come across before, but which worked very well.  I couldn't but help thinking this must be superior to whatever form the blackberry filling might have taken.

The next three dishes came together.

In the foreground is another fixture on L'Enclume's menu, the delicious little nugget of smoked eel, this time served on a little ham fat.
Interior of the smoked eel with ham fat
I've also now had the left rear thing (in the plant pot) a few times: it looks like a black truffle, but is in fact Ragstone goats cheese that has been rolled in a sort of malt soil. Last time I had this, I thought it needed further work, as it was a bit claggy in the mouth, just like a piece of cold young goats cheese.  Whether it was simply a better log of Ragstone they'd used this time, or the new addition of a touch of tarragon, or some other intervention, I'm not sure, but this was a huge improvement this time thanks to be a lot lighter, although I don't believe the flavour was much different.

The final element of this trio was a riff on a common combination of flavours at L'Enclume: Jerusalem artichoke and truffle.
Artichoke with truffle
This was a delicious couple of mouthfuls: a thin crisp of jerusalem artichoke topped with what seemed to be a black truffle paste, then some cubes of cooked artichoke which seemed to be bound with puréed artichoke, then all topped with grated (English, of course) truffle.

We're still in the appetiser section of the menu, but now the portions start becoming slightly larger.  The next dish was another new one for me: a truly beautiful looking scallop tartare, presented in a queenie shell, with English caviar (that's caviar produced in England, not a euphemism for anything else) and some little dots of a purée of a sea herb, whose name I've forgotten. I thought this was a fabulous dish.
Raw scallop, caviar
Pigeon with offal ragout was another new dish for me, though I've had the bolognese ragu-like bird offal before.  Big punchy flavours from the ragu, some kale (I think) and a perfectly cooked pigeon breast with some good (presumably) pigeon jus.  It's worth saying that all the stock-based meat jus sauces at L'Enclume are terrific.
Pigeon with offal ragout
And then finally to round off the appetisers, the signature porcelain sack which has contained something different every time I've been.  This time it had all the flavours of potted shrimps on toast.  Some sweet Morecambe Bay shrimps in the bottom, some lettuce and brown bread emulsions, topped with a powdered mace butter and a couple of tiny lettuce leaves.  These sacks never photograph well, as all the goodness is hidden.
Shrimp, brown bread and lettuce
Once you have got through the appetisers, the bread comes: now very much fixed into three standard types: a sort of soft pumpernickel-like roll, a wholemeal made with local ale, and an unbleached white with the merest hint of onion.  New this time was that the bread came not merely with the usual excellent butter, but also with lard whipped with crisp ham and apple.  Or as the granddaughter said to the grandmother on a neighbouring table "it's dripping, gran."
Dripping and butter

The next dish on the menu was one I've had so many times that I set the kitchen the challenge of coming up with something different.  The challenge was readily accepted, and I was told the replacement dish would appear later in the meal.  So this time, there was no cod 'yolk' with watercress, salt and vinegar, but here it is from a previous meal:
The cod yolk is a cod mousse encased in a gel coloured with saffron, a sort of garlic mayonnaise emulsion and puffed rice flavoured with salt and vinegar powder.  Put it all together, and the flavour is not a million miles from fish and chips.

So, not having that, I moved straight onto the fabulous Westcombe dumplings: light, ultra smooth dumplings made from Westcombe Cheddar cheese,  this time served with an almost beefy beetroot broth, some thinly sliced raw beetroot and a few leaves.
Beetroot broth, westcombe dumpling and shoots
The venison tartare that followed is another dish that has become a standard on the menu, and a Rogan signature, to the extent that it also features on the menu at his outpost in The French in Manchester's Midland Hotel, though there it is for some reason made with beef, not venison.
Valley venison, charcoal oil, mustard and fennel
The venison is marinated in just a touch of the coal oil, giving this raw meat the flavour of having been barbecued.  The yellow blobs are a mustard mayonnaise; the leaves are baby fennel shoots, and the candied globes contain are a bit like liqueur chocolates, without the chocolate and a liquid fennel interior.  The whole thing sits on a sort of caper jam, that's really delicious.  Another dish where, picking up what I first wrote in 2003, the individual components were all superb, but when you put them all in your mouth together it genuinely becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Next came another dish where the content changes regularly, but is always driven by the crockery, which necessitates an "en deux services" approach, with the same core ingredient done in two different ways.  What comes to the table is a bit like a handle-less mug with a lid.  On the lid is a wafer/crisp of some description topped with some of the core ingredient in a raw form and other stuff. The waiting staff explain this, and tell you'll they'll return to explain the second part of the dish when you've eaten part one.  As you can imagine, rather like the earlier sack, photographing the inside of a mug with stuff layered up inside it, is never going to be very successful, so apologies for that.

Langoustine, parsnip, black pudding, hazelnut and cured yolk
On this occasion, the first stage was a thin wafer topped with a tartare of langoustine that seemed to have been lightly bound by a mayonnaise or something a little creamy, some hazelnuts and an egg yolk that had been cured till hard and then grated.  A slightly odd-sounding combination, but very enjoyable.
Down in the basement of this course was some impressive langoustines with a langoustine custard, a couple of cubes of a fairly soft, but underpowered black pudding. The menu tells me that parsnip came into it somewhere: perhaps the white espuma-like substance hiding everything else in the second photograph?  The combination of langoustine and black pudding was good, but on balance I preferred the first stage of this dish.

Simon Rogan and his head chef, Mark Birchall, can elevate humble vegetables to the most remarkable of dishes.  I remember, for example, an astonishing carrot dish three or four years ago.  On this visit, potatoes were centre stage for this next dish.
Potatoes in onion ashes, lovage and wood sorrel
There are a couple of confit small potatoes and some potato crisps on a little bit of shallot purée. The extras - the onion ashes, the lovage purée and even the wood sorrel really add something.  Such a simple dish, but one that delivers on all levels.  If you want to know what  a three Michelin star potato looks like, it's that. Or should be.

Now, about two hours ago, I'd skipped a course (the cod yolk), and it was time for its replacement: sweetbreads and carrots.
Sweetbreads and carrots
Nicely cooked lambs sweetbreads and very carroty yellow carrots and orange carrot purée, with a couple of wood blewits and some flower petals. I enjoyed this greatly and, particularly considering it was created on the fly, it worked really well in terms of flavours, though I wonder whether there might have been something texturally missing if this were going be developed into a dish for the menu.

I always find the large tasting menu at L'Enclume has a nice ebb and flow throughout, eschewing traditional ideas of fish before meat and such like.  So on this occasion we went from the richness of the sweetbread and carrot dish to the light delicate Dover sole dish that followed.  Somehow that flow always seems to work.  I suspect the often overlooked impeccable timing may have something to do with that, as the speed at which dishes come out of the kitchen and are served similarly ebbs and flows.
Butter poached dover sole with razor clams, leeks, nasturtium butter
This was a delightful dish combining the sweet fish and shellfish with the charred leeks, the salinity of (I think) sea beets and the spiciness of the nasturtiums: the nasturtium butter in particular was verging on the revelatory.  The sole had been boned and then the fillets glued back together again before being poached at a low temperature in butter: on some recent visits, I've found the fish cooked in this manner to be a bit too underdone, but on this occasion it was perfectly cooked.

The savoury part of the menu now drew to a close with a dish that didn't really need the rather impressive new cutlery.

Laguiole knives seem to be becoming more commonplace in restaurants, but of course they're French, so do not fit with L'Enclume's ethos of sourcing only from the UK.  Last time, at this stage in the meal, it was a local horn-handled knife by Abbeyhorn of Carnforth.  I have to say that its Studio William replacement is much classier and more befitting of L'Enclume. Not that the beautifully tender dexter beef that arrived after the cutlery really needed such a sharp knife.
Aged Dexter, cabbage, mushrooms, salsify, dittander
The beef was excellent, topped with some smoked bone marrow.  The salsify, one of my favourite vegetables, was as delicious as ever, though I wonder what it gained from being puréed. The mushrooms were hen of the wood mushrooms, and I was immediately won over by the dittander emulsion.  Dittander is a herb than needs wider exposure: it's flavour - between horseradish and wasabi - is terrific.  What didn't impress me so much was the cabbage, which was very lightly cooked and also went cold very quickly.

Previously, we've gone straight from the main meat course to desserts.  At this meal, however, there was something of a reprise of how the meal started, with a couple of small tasters.
Milk skin, chestnut, truffle
This was fabulous: the delicate milk skin contained a truffle ice cream and then with some chestnut grated over.  It doesn't sound much, but it was a terrific mouthful.
Burnt pear and beetroot
Burnt as in sort of bruléed, I think; sweet cheese and a beetroot purée on top.  Nothing wrong with it, but it just seemed a bit uni-dimensional to me.

The next dish, with its slate on slate pun, I've had in a couple of guises.  This time the ice-cream in the edible slate was made from grapes grown in Cartmel.  Very refreshing, and also moving us onto the sweeter aspect of the menu.  The lemon verbena "cake" and cobnuts worked well with it.
Cartmel grapes, cobnuts, lemon verbena
The next dessert was another one that's well night impossible to photograph particularly meaningfully; and indeed as you eat it, you might as well have been eating it blindfold, as it's really a dish where you just shove your spoon in and take a mouthful of it all mixed together.  It is, boringly needless to say, entirely delicious.
Buttermilk custard with caramelised quince, rosehip, muscovado, honey oats
Next was a meadowsweet frozen mousse with apple, a walnut crumb and a few baby sorrel leaves that really added something.  Another good dish that pretty much rounded off the meal.  I'm a huge fan of Simon Rogan's style of not particularly sweet dessert courses.
Meadowsweet, granny smith, sorrel and walnuts

Other than coffee/tea, the final things to come to the table are an empty wine glass and a large pebble into which have been drilled holes to take tiny little cornets of ice cream: on this occasion I think it was a celeriac cornet filled with celeriac ice cream, a parsnip cornet with woodruff ice cream and a raspberry (they said raspberry) cornet with a sweet cheese ice cream.
Celeriac, sweet cheese, woodruff
Then the final item on the printed menu and the wine glass are united.  An apple juice fizz with a hint of douglas fir.
Douglas fir and apple

Coffee is always good, the herbal tea trolley is a joy to behold, as well as producing a really delicious mint based tisane.  I have reservations about the petit four now, though.  For at least a couple of years now the petit four has been a circle of aerated chocolate, topped with a Kendal mint cake ice cream which itself has been coated in chocolate.  I expect most customers' appetites are flagging at this stage and not interested in petits fours, but - particularly compared to earlier years - it rather seems that the kitchen's interest has flagged at this stage too.  This doesn't seem to quite match the ambition and constant change and search for improving on excellence that runs throughout the rest of the meal.  It also marks a notable departure from the philosophy of only using British ingredients.

I think it wouldn't be inappropriate to vary the petits fours seasonally, and return to maybe the style of July 2010 (though not those black tables, please!)?
L'Enclume coffee & petits fours, July 2010

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Wednesday 23 October 2013

Game Week at the Freemasons, Wiswell: Roger Jones of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn

I always think hard about these guest chef nights at restaurants. The guest chef is working in a strange kitchen, with a bunch of cooks s/he's probably never met before, let alone worked with, and quite often with the host's suppliers not their own.
From the customer's point of view, you might be getting the guest chef's recipes, but you're in the dining room, which isn't the guest chef's dining room, the staff aren't theirs, neither is the wine list, coffee machine etc.  My point is, you're not getting the experience of going to the 'other' restaurant.  So, for me, the guest chef has to be sufficiently far away that it would be a real trouble (and expense, because these nights are never cheap) to get to.  Either that, or some element of competition or fun/theme that attracts me.

Little Bedwyn, between Marlborough and Newbury, is well over 200 miles from me, so a night at the Freemasons at Wiswell certainly wins on that score.  It's still not the same as going to the Harrow at Little Bedwyn though. But a lot easier.

Roger Jones has held a Michelin star at The Harrow since 2007.  But since Paul Heathcote hung up his apron, Michelin hasn't been able to draw its attention away from Northcote and the Box Tree, and they seem to be very reluctant to recognise the achievement of anywhere inbetween. Other guides largely follow suit. Certainly the Freemasons at Wiswell must be edging close to a star, but for this one night there was one star in residence.

One glance at the menu and I tried to tweet a picture saying, "Yes, that is going to do very nicely." But the signal in Wiswell is too bad to do that.

But before that, there were a couple of canapés to deal with.  First came a ball of tuna sashimi filled with a wasabi-flavoured cream cheese on a shiso leaf.  For me, I thought it was marginally too big, and could have coped with a little less of the filling: it was quite difficult to bite in two elegantly, but too big to pop in the mouth whole. The filling was, however, jolly good: like Boursin that's been on its holidays to Japan and wishes it hadn't come back. Not sure if this was Roger Jones' canapé, or whether host, Steve Smith had done both canapés.
The second canapé was one of Steve Smith's: a foie gras hot dog.  I've had this before, though as an accompaniment to soup.  This is a foie gras enriched boudin blanc which has been breadcrumbed and then fried, before being presented in a mini brioche bun.  Personally, I'd quite like to try these without the crumb and less pungent ball-game ketchup and mustard. Now I've written that, I can't get the idea of a truffle mayonnaise and a roast chicken fluid gel out of my mind over an un-crumbed foie gras hot dog.  Consider the challenge laid down, Mr Smith.
Steve Smith's foie gras hot dog
We then moved on to Roger Jones' menu proper, starting with a shot glass of Bull Shot - this was a really rich, deeply flavoured, jellied game stock spiked with vodka. I've had these Bull Shots before occasionally, but this one was distinguished by the really superb game consommé and just enough vodka that you could notice it, but not the alcohol.  And if that wasn't enough, the shot glass was topped with an excellent little biscuit.
Bull Shot
This was followed by Cured and Marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices.  The lobster tail had been marinated in extra virgin olive oil and spiced Halen Mon sea salt, apparently spiced with Thai Lobster Chilli Jam (which I couldn't really detect). It was presented on a large shiso leaf (which really added something), together with a rather interesting salted wafer-biscuit-cracker thing, some diced tomato and little blobs of pea purée and of carrot purée.  I didn't think the two purées really added much: if anything they took away from the freshness and brightness of the rest of the dish.  But the lobster was really terrific: a beautifully balanced set of subtle flavours.  For some reason it had never occurred to me reading the menu that the lobster would be merely only very lightly cured, so it was almost like a sashimi of lobster.  What you can't see in the photograph (it's behind the cracker) is that each plate had a perfectly prepared slice of the claw: the central cartilage had been neatly removed and then presumably the claw was reformed before being sliced vertically.  A terrific dish.
Cured and marinated Pembroke Lobster, Asian Spices
It was at this point that I re-read the menu and realised that Roger Jones had been really rather clever with the menu. The bulk of the menu could have been prepared in the kitchen at the Harrow in Little Bedwyn, entirely within Roger Jones' control, and brought up with him in the boot of the car. The amount of preparation needed from Steve Smith's brigade at Wiswell may well have been minimal, as indeed was the cooking required on the evening - which probably explained why the evening ran more smoothly, with fewer longeurs than is often the case with similar evenings elsewhere.

The next dish was Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel. Another really terrific dish.
Carpaccio of Northumberland Roe Venison, Wiltshire Truffles, Foie Gras Macaroon, Salted Caramel
Very good venison, sliced thick enough to be able to really taste it, but thin enough that it felt sexily silky in the mouth.  There was just a hint of something beyond the venison (identified on the menu as spices, truffle and cep dust), which would probably have been more noticeable by its absence than immediately identifiable by its presence. 
A slice of a small torchon of foie gras was the filling in a salted caramel macaroon, which initially seemed to be more of a counterpoint than an accompaniment.  But when combined with the reduced PX sherry dressing and the fresh (and massive) Wiltshire truffle that was liberally grated over half the plate at the table, it was really tied into the dish as a whole.  The menu also mentioned crisps, but neither of us could find anything on the plate that could be called crisps.

The final savoury dish was grouse: Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates. Without a doubt (and leaving aside proper whole roast grouse with the traditional trimmings) this is the finest grouse dish of the last couple of years.  The breast was beautifully cooked and had a good flavour, without being excessively gamey.  The grouse bon bon was almost worth the trip on its own: a really good combination of grouse, black pudding, foie gras, chorizo and raisins.  A slightly odd combination maybe, and it would be easy to sigh at the use of the now ubiquitous chorizo, but there's no doubt it that really worked.  I could have eaten lots of these grouse bons bons.

When we initially read through the menu, we also wondered what on earth was the point of adding dates to parsnip purée. But by golly, it's good and I'll certainly be trying that one myself.  Though it did rather underline Roger Jones' apparent love of having something a bit sweet on most dishes.
Breast of Young Grouse, Bon Bon, Parsnip Puree, Dates
The interior of the foie gras bon bon

Dessert was a plate of blackberry things: blackberry parfait, a blackberry jaffa cake, a blackberry and champagne chocolate truffle and a distinctly moreish blackberry sorbet.  All the elements were spot on.  The chocolate truffle (in the background on the photograph) was momentarily challenging as everyone worked out how to eat it (cue the sound of a lot of spoons crashing onto the plates across the restaurant as everyone tried to cut it vertically), but once you went in horizontally, you found a remarkably thin, well-tempered chocolate shell filled with a ganache that tasted of what it was meant to.  Even if it perhaps wasn't the most visually appealing element, he blackberry jaffa cake seemed rather inspired to me: clearly a jaffa cake, adding a bit of weight to the dessert with its sponge.  A very nicely balanced dessert.
We had started with a 1970s hangover cure, the Bullshot, and finished on something remarkably similar. Resurrecting the now pretty much disappeared tradition of the end of meal savoury, with that classic, the Welsh Rarebit.  Remarkably, this wasn't the first Michelin-starred Welsh Rarebit I've had, though this deserved its rating far more than the other (at the Pipe & Glass in Yorkshire).  It's a bit boring to say it again, but this was quite possibly the finest Welsh Rarebit I've ever had.  Probably the most remarkable thing about it was how light it was, as well as the very finely judged balance of flavours.
According to the menu there are three different Welsh and English cheeses in it, along with fish (which we identified as anchovy), tamarind, ale and spices. All served on beer and truffle toast.
Welsh Rarebit
As we were both driving, we shared one of the matching wine packages.  Somewhat unfortunately, the wines were selected from the Freemasons list, not the utterly stupendous wine list of the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, which I've just spent an hour reading, or rather lusting over online. But the sommelier at the Freemasons had done a good job for the most part.
A very nice, 2011 The Opportunist Sauvignon-Riesling blend was a beautiful wine, excellent with the lobster.
2011 Sherwood Pinot Noir from New Zealand's Waipara Valley was not a wine to my taste, tooth-achingly young, and reminding me of Vimto-flavoured boiled sweets with added sherbert. It did not, we thought, go particularly well with the venison either.
2009 Painted Wolf Madach from Stellenbosch (a pinotage dominant blend with grenache, syrah, mourvedre and a bit of merlot) was also far too young really, but was a very good wine that worked extremely well with the grouse dish.
The All Saints Rutherglen Muscat served with the blackberry dessert avoided being cloying with some good acidity, and I thought the coffee and berry flavours worked well with the dessert.
A champagne flute of Wiswell Brew (a light session ale) was fine with the Welsh Rarebit, but felt a bit of a cop out, as surely there must be something on the Freemasons wine list that would have worked without risking mixing grain and grape. I'm thinking of a nice palo cortado.

The Harrow on Urbanspoon Freemasons at Wiswell on Urbanspoon

Monday 30 September 2013

Manchester's Yang Sing in 1997 and 1999

Here's something a little different, that I came across in an email archive earlier today: two old reviews of Manchester's Yang Sing. 

These come from the times when nobody had heard (or even thought) of blogs, and even Google didn't exist. Incredible to think that there are people out there, who can't remember the world before Google!  Actually, by the time of the second review below, Google existed, but was still waddling around in its nappies, being just 8 months old.  

Nobody then, apart from publishers of cookery books and magazines, had thought of taking photographs of the food that came to your table.  So, unsurprisingly, there are no pictures to illustrate this post.

Here, then, are the reports I submitted to the Good Food Guide on Manchester's Yang Sing in 1997 and 1999.  

From: Stevenson A
Sent: 13 February 1997 16:55
To: 'Good Food Guide'
Subject: New Year's Eve at the Yang Sing, Manchester

Chinese New Year's Eve that is.

Last Saturday a sudden craving for dim sum came over me and there was nothing for it but to get in the car and head for Manchester, pausing only to collect my father on the way for a dim sum lunch at the Yang Sing.

It was busy, though not as busy as  one might expect for the eve of Chinese New Year - perhaps the Chinese community were saving themselves for the next day's festivities.  Having said that, we got the last table available.  Shortly after we sat down queues started to form, with at one point around 20 people waiting for tables.

The dim sum are a mixture of trolleys (stationary, unlike some of the London establishments) and kitchen prepared.  The menu advises you to order from a waiter as "you may have difficulty in making yourself understood in Cantonese to our trolley girls"!

Service is more civil and good humoured than many Chinese restaurants, though on Saturday's showing male waiters wearing glasses are the best bet if you want something.

Prawn and crab parcels come deep fried with a succulent prawn, but rather tasteless and sparse crab meat.  Deep-frying was clean and crisp.

Cheung fun filled unusually with carp were a good specimen.

Deep fried cuttlefish balls with coriander were startlingly good.  A fresh flavour and great combination of flavours and textures.

Beef rolls with yam Shanghai style had a mixed reception.  They were shreds of beef  wrapped in bean curd, steamed with a pureed yam sauce.  The rolls themselves weren't bad, just a bit unexciting, but I found the bright yellow yam sauce really quite unpleasant.  My father on the other hand liked it, and went so far as to say that if he'd come up with something like that in the kitchen he would have been very pleased.

We were sat at a window into the kitchen, behind which were hung all the roast ducks, suckling pigs, char-siu pork, chickens etc, of which there was quite a rapid turnover.  We could resist no longer and ordered a portion of duck.  Unlike most other Chinese restaurants I've been in (mainly London) this arrived boned, rather than hacked into slices through the bone with a cleaver, leaving shards of bone to attack the inside of your mouth.  This was - to clarify - boneless.  It was also succulent, beautifully flavoured, with a nice crisp skin.  Served with the usual sort of soy sauce broth over it with the addition of some good crisp peanuts, which did absolutely nothing for the duck.  I suppose it just made it in marketing-speak a value-added duck.

Fried dumplings with wind-dried meats and chinese greens were nicely done and an explosion of flavour.  The (shallow) frying adds a nice degree of crunch to the outside of the dumpling, but without going the whole hog of deep frying.

We had other dim sum as well, but they have disappeared into the haze of my memory.

We finished with deep-fried custard filled bun things.  Wai Kong Bau they may have been called.  On the menu they're down as steamed, but vastly improve when deep fried.  The flavour and texture are not unlike hot fairground doughnuts, but with a delicious thick eggy custard in the middle.

Chinese tea (the pot refilled once) and a brandy for my father who's still not entirely sure about the effects ethnic food might have on him brought the final bill to £32.

A Chinese horoscope came free!

From: Stevenson, Andrew
Sent: 11 May 1999 20:43
To: Good Food Guide (E-mail)
Subject: Yang Sing, Manchester

A new dim-sum menu.  Gone are some of the old favourites and in come things like steamed seafood and yam tarts with coconut sauce.  The tart base was made of the same dough the little white steamed buns are made of, and the coconut sauce was delicate and fragrant.  The seafood comprised queenies and king prawn.  And the whole thing worked marvellously - even for someone who doesn't like coconut and doesn't like steamed dim sum.  There were some little wind-dried oyster and char siu pasties with feather light ultra-short pastry, deep fried sesame chicken cakes - the chicken minced, reformed and coated in sesame seeds and poppy seeds before being fried.  Crispy fried stuffed chillis, plus a few more.

And to "pander" to (or rather tease) one of the party who generally much prefers a roast dinner, we worked our way through the major part of the roast section of the main menu.  Some excellent suckling pig, similarly good roast duck and some soy roast chicken.  The latter, like most of the roasts, appears twice on the menu: once in the roast meat section and once in the rice section, the difference being that the latter are about £2 cheaper than the former.  We took the soy chicken with rice, and it would be difficult to imagine that there could possibly have been more chicken in the version without rice!!  This was the first time we'd tried the soy chicken, and we were surprised at just how succulent and chickeny it was.

I do hope that the Yang Sing will be able to make it back into the GFG next year (although they are still supposed to be re-opening in the old premises), and with the rating it deserves - which is a good 5 or 6.  It has the benefit of consummate reliability and high standards, which many other Manchester restaurants only seem to be able to dream about.

Andrew Stevenson

Interestingly, in response to the 1999 email, I got a response thanking me for my report. The response came from no less than Jim Ainsworth, the editor, and indeed in my view probably the last really good editor that the Good Food Guide had. 

The Yang Sing has had its ups and downs over the years, but in my experience more often due to the vicissitudes of fashion, something which is particularly fickle in Manchester.  It had been dropped in 1998/99 because of the fire and the relocation to temporary premises.  Once again, the Yang Sing has been inexplicably dropped from the Good Food Guide's 2014 edition.  A quite bizarre decision, from an increasingly bizarre and partisan guide that has lost its way.  If anything the Yang Sing is better today than it was last year, or even 16 or so years ago, when the Good Food Guide described it as probably the best Cantonese restaurant in western Europe (I may be paraphrasing, but they certainly said something very much like that).

Yang Sing on Urbanspoon

Sunday 18 August 2013

El Gato Negro Tapas, Ripponden

El Gato Negro Tapas
1 Oldham Road

I first went to El Gato Negro a good few years ago and was extremely impressed by the food, but then for some unfathomable reason (apart from the distance) never returned.  But earlier this summer, I was making a list of restaurants to visit and revisit, and El Gato Negro came up.  It's not even that far to Ripponden, which is just a short distance from Junction 22 or 23 of the M62. Easily done for me for lunch, though too far in the evening.

Not a lot seems to go on Ripponden: I presume it's now mainly a feeder town for Halifax, Huddersfield and the Leeds-Bradford conurbation, which probably explains why El Gato Negro is only open for lunch on Saturdays (though I see they've now started opening one Sunday lunch a month).

Inside, the building's former existence as a pub isn't entirely lost, with (reupholstered, thankfully) banquettes around the walls of the clearly identifiable former rooms.  As you enter, there is a small ham and charcuterie slicing station before you go through to the main room and the bar it contains.  Tables are fairly closely packed and a little cramped, but even on the hottest summer day the old stone building stays cool and airy.

Service is good and knowledgeable.  A request for a glass of manzanilla was responded to with a quarter bottle of excellent manzanilla: a great solution to the problem of even 500ml bottles fading before they've been finished when served by the glass.
There's an interesting, short wine list pretty much exclusively Spanish, if I remember correctly. Sparkling and still water comes from a snazzy looking machine behind the bar - presumably it's filtered tapwater?
The menu is your placemat (plus some blackboard specials).  You also order via your placemat, which I have to say feels a bit of a gimmick, but it works well: you nominate one person on the table to write the number of each dish you want in a little box next to each dish on the menu; the waitress takes that placemat away, presumably enters it onto the computer; and then the menu/placemat is returned to you.

On a couple of visits, we managed to eat through the better part of the menu. Everything was good, and while not everything was an absolutely unqualified success, there was nothing I'd not order again.  Tapas restaurants are ten-a-penny these days, but none I've been to, even Paul Heathcote's late lamented Grado in Manchester, come anywhere close to El Gato Negro.

Anchovy fillets on crostini
The anchovy fillets had very clean flavours and the crostini, while light and thin, had just enough body not to crumble away when you tried to eat them.

Acorn-fed jamón Ibérico from Barcelona
For me, the accompanying celeriac rémoulade, which was quite possibly the best I've ever had, outshone the quality of the Iberico ham.

Pan Catalan
The Pan Catalan, with olive oil, garlic & fresh plum tomato showed just how good this simple dish can be when prepared by someone who understands the ingredients.

Hand-picked white crab meat, avocado purée and gazpacho
This verrine was one of the best dishes, packed with excellent white crab meat bound in a light mayonnaise, on top of a smooth avocado purée. The crab was topped with a truly excellent gazpacho: I'd have been very happy with a bowl of that gazpacho, but apparently a cold soup, even in summer, would be a step too far for many of the customers.

Beetroot salad with picos blue cheese
This was a dish off the specials menu on the blackboard, a wonderful beetroot salad with green beans, Picos blue cheese & spiced walnuts: an excellent combination of flavours and textures. A dish that just makes you smile.

Morcilla scotch eggs
Interior of the morcilla scotch eggs
Morcilla scotch eggs come topped with a little aioli and an apple gel. As these are tapas size portions, the eggs are quails' eggs, which, as you can see, are perfectly cooked.  The crumb is very light and the morcilla is good, though not the best I've tasted. (The morcilla from Levanter Foods is much more exciting.)

Grilled sweet potato topped with chorizo and baby squid
This was a bit of an odd one. A long slice of ever-so-slightly undercooked sweet potato topped with small chorizo sausages and very tender baby squid.  The flavours were pretty good, but the squid seemed to get lost a little, and somehow this felt one of the weaker dishes, not quite living up to expectations.

Spiced aubergine with lavash crisp bread and cucumber and mint dressing

The aubergine element of the same dish

Salt cod croquetas with aioli
Salt cod croquetas were very good, but perhaps lacked something of the vibrancy of other dishes, and we agreed that a litte more of the salt cod in them would have really helped.

Seared hand-dived scallops, pea purée, morcilla and crispy Pata Negra jamón
 Excellent scallops, perfectly cooked with a classic combination of ingredients. Not really much more you can say.

Tortilla is on the menu as 'tortilla of the day' and is cooked to order (or at least ours was). I think today's tortilla was leek and cheese. Without doubt, the best tortilla I've had.  So much lighter than you usually find, with the leek and cheese giving just a subtle flavour.
Tortilla of the day
Duck egg yolk with Alejandro chorizo & migas breadcrumbs
Another dish from the specials menu that proved an absolute winner: the slow-cooked egg yolk providing the rich, luxury counterpoint to the simple, rustic breadcrumbs and chorizo. A great dish: we had to restrain ourselves from ordering another!

New season rack of local lamb, alubia bean and rosemary purée, minted peas
Some excellent lamb, simply roasted with what seemed (in my ignorance of Spanish food) a rather English addition of minted fresh peas, and then back to Spain with the bean purée subtly scented with rosemary.

Onglet steak with patatas pobres
 Apologies for the poor quality of this stupendous onglet steak: I really can't remember having had one more tender.

Torta del Santiago

An excellent torta del Santiago came warm from the oven, and was served with salted caramel ice cream.

El Gato Negro Tapas on Urbanspoon