Tuesday 28 May 2013

Chateau Musar Evening at the Parkers Arms

Chateau Musar wine tasting night
11th May 2013
Parkers Arms
I've been a fan of Chateau Musar, the best known of the several wine producers in Lebanon, for many years now, and I've been a fan of the Parkers Arms almost since the current team headed by Stosie Madi in the kitchen took over a few years ago. Stosie has some Lebanese ancestry, and I've always kept an eye out for anything middle-eastern on the menu (the lamb kofte with home-made pitta breads, for example, are always a joy).

So it was a privilege, through the medium of Twitter, to introduce Stosie and Ralph Hochar of Chateau Musar UK, and let them get on with coming up with a plan.

This evening was the result of that planning. Stosie created what read like a traditional Lebanese menu, but was strongly influenced by the wonderful ingredients that Lancashire can offer, her own style of cooking and a pinch of understanding of what her customers would eat. The wines were chosen by Ralph Hochar and sourced through D Byrne & Co of Clitheroe.

For more background on Chateau Musar and some tasting notes on some remarkable old vintages, see my post here.

(I should add the disclaimer that as a result of the introduction of Stosie Madi and Ralph Hochar, and the encouragement I gave to the development of this evening, I was given a discount for the evening. My comments are, however, not influenced by the not-at-all-a-freebie, and my attempts to find different superlatives all reflect the quality of the cooking.)

We started in the bar with copious quantities of Musar Jeune Rosé 2011 and platters of mezze circulating. 

Unfortunately balancing glass and camera, together with half-eaten platters doesn't make for particularly appealing photographs.
Falafels, made with garden peas as well as chickpeas, were light and tasty, and came with a lovely smooth hummus.
 The Makanek sausages, made and smoked in-house from local lamb and beef, were particularly good, having been given a pomegranate molasses crust before being grilled over charcoal.  These came with another dip: an excellent smoky baba ghanoush.  I'd be delighted if these made a reappearance on the Parkers Arms menus.
Makanek sausages
Fatayer were great little pasties with a sweetish and very moreish filling of wild garlic and caramelised onion.
There was also some delicious, almost refreshing tabouleh (the ubiquitous bulgur wheat and herb salad of the Middle East, here with some chopped tomatoes too), and some toasted flat breads with a Lebanese version of what we perhaps more commonly know as tzatziki, here using Stosie's home-made yoghurt.
Flatbreads and yoghurt dip

Chateau Musar, Musar Jeune Rosé, 2011 
This has a bright attractive pink colour. There are strawberries & pomegranate on nose with a hint of minerality.  Nice soft on the palate, this has gentle sweetish red fruit with a nice pleasant character. Very clean finish. This is a good rosé with a nice, interesting character. 88/100

After moving through to the dining room, there was more Khobez flatbread, now with a powerful za'atar herb oil for dipping, which was rapidly mopped up by our table.

Ralph Hochar briefly introduced the wines
The first real course of the meal was a fascinating Chorba Mloukhiyeh - a chicken and Jew's mallow broth, with Goosnargh chicken, shallot vinegar, puffed wild rice and yet more flatbread, here crispy, which we were instructed to crumble into the soup.  I really liked this, though it was  a dish which needed to be eaten as a whole in big mouthfuls, allowing all the flavours and textures to meld together, rather than picking at individual elements. My first taste of the odd, almost okra like slimeyness of Jew's Mallow.
Chorba Mloukiyeh without the broth ...
... and with the broth

The Chorba Mloukiyeh was served with
Chateau Musar, Musar Jeune Rouge 2010
A big blackberry-laden nose. There's powerful black fruit on the palate. Ultimately, it's a fairly simple wine, but gains some complexity from the drying tannins on the finish.  87/100

Kibbey Nayeh was probably the dish that had been most adapted to the Lancastrian palate, as rather than being made with pulverised raw lamb, this was a hand-chopped venison tartare.  There was a superficial resemblance to Simon Rogan's venison tartare dish, but really it was only superficial.  The Parkers Arms version had a superb, delicate middle-eastern spicing, counterpointed by the dots of pomegranate molasses, and the cracked wheat crisps added more of a crunch than Rogan's version has.
Kibbey Nayeh
Just for fun, here's Simon Rogan's venison tartare from a meal at L'Enclume in May 2013
I've thought about it several times, and while it's a little unfair to compare such different dishes, I find it really difficult to say which I prefer: both are excellent in their own ways.

The Chateau Musar, Hochar Père et Fils 2007 was served with the venison:
The Hochar Père et Fils is made only in a red version.  It isn't a second wine of Musar as such, but rather is sourced from a single vineyard planted over 50 years ago near the village of Aana in the Bekaa Valley.  The wine has a lovely, integrated nose with red and black fruits, and more than a touch of cough medicine. Really good palate: it feels very integrated with some nice spicy notes. Great length.  90/100

Our next course was eagerly anticipated by me, as I'd had the accompanying rice with fish at the Parkers Arms before: Siyadiyeh - roast, spiced hake served with a caramelised onion pilaf and a buttery lemon sauce.  Nicely cooked fish (not always that easy when you're doing a banqueting style service), with the rice living up to expectations, and the sauce utterly delicious.

The wine with the hake was a bit of a treat: the completely unique Chateau Musar white - not a terribly old version (it ages amazingly), but drinking very well and served, correctly, at room temperature.

Chateau Musar White 2005
This has a mushroomy, nutty nose with hints of lanolin ... and lots lots more. Fascinating palate, almost defying description. It has a rich, velvety texture. "Multi-layered" hardly suffices to describe its complexity. Really fascinating, gorgeous stuff.  Lots of umami. Remarkable. 93/100.

Lahem Meshwi came next: charcoal-grilled marinated lamb from the Cockerham salt marshes, served with aubergine confit and purée, grilled onion, confit garlic and a lemony lamb jus dressing.  Beautiful lamb, terrific flavours.
Lahem Meshwi
Oh, and there is no way I could not give a special, separate mention to these amazingly good lamb-fat and za'atar roast potatoes. Wow.
With the lamb, we drank the last of the wines, the prime cuvée, the Chateau Musar Red:
Chateau Musar Red 2005
The nose has some subtly perfumed red fruits with sous-bois notes, but also some horse sweat notes. There is huge depth immediately on the palate.  Musar usually only starts to show it's best after some years, but for such a young Musar, this has a really remarkably classy feeling. It's very poised, elegant and rather feminine. There's a good tannic structure to give some backbone, but the tannins are not at all aggressive. Is there such a thing as an early drinking Musar? This could be it. 93/100

We then moved on to some generous pours of Musar's Arack. Chateau Musar L'Arack de Musar
A very good clean arack. Not much more you can say. Although we all try it neat, it's not something to drink neat: Ralph Hochar recommends one part arack to two parts water.

Arack (the aniseed spirit made and drunk across the Middle East, Turkey and Greece) would not have come immediately to mind as something to drink with a fresh curd cheese, but I thought it actually worked pretty well with the next dish.
Gibneh Beida was Stosie's home-made soft, fresh curd cheese made with milk from Gisburn, rolled in a pistachio crust and served with a pistachio tuile, a bright, clear, rosehip jelly and an unctuous Amar el Din (i.e. apricot) sorbet.
Gibneh Beida
The Arack was much more of a natural partner for the final instalment of an excellent evening of food and drink: Qahwa, Halwa Makroun bil Loz & Namoura.  Coffee subtly infused with cardamon, and served with two utterly delicious, incredibly moreish sweetmeats: some almond shortcakes and what the menu said was a semolina and elderflower syrup cake, but was actually two different syrup-laden cakes.

I hope it will be possible for the Parkers Arms and Chateau Musar to repeat this event next year, maybe, and also that it might mark the start of more wine evenings, allowing Stosie Madi to express further aspects of her heritage.  Hmmm ... could lamproies à la Bordelaise be one step too far for the Ribble Valley?

Parkers Arms on Urbanspoon

Monday 27 May 2013

Heathcote's Brasserie, Preston

I like Paul Heathcote, or Paul Heathcote, Esq. MBE as he should properly be called: he's a good bloke and a mighty fine cook. I've followed his work and been on nodding terms with him almost since he first moved back home to Lancashire to run the kitchen at the Broughton Park Hotel (now the Preston Marriott), though I may well have eaten his cooking before when he worked at Sharrow Bay or under the great Michel Bourdin at the Connaught Hotel in London.

He moved on from Broughton Park in 1990 to open his own restaurant in Longridge that became the 2-Michelin starred flagship for a large, varied group of restaurants across the north west.  Paul Heathcote's two remaining restaurants are both in the same building in Preston's Winckley Square.  The Olive Press is downstairs, and the Brasserie is upstairs, both with a completely different vibe.

The Brasserie is a big space (I wasn't even in the main room, which remained unused) and on the December lunchtime when I popped in for this meal, there were only two other tables occupied, so it felt a little soulless, and staff managed to do that being too busy being at a loose end to be entirely effective thing.

The menu is attractive, with plenty of interest, and in addition there was (I realised later) a good value set lunch, which I wasn't shown.

Bread was a nice fruited malt loaf came, but the single slice in the bottom of the rustic little box looked a bit mean, smacking a bit too much of tight portion control.

I started with black pudding fritters with poached egg, buttered peas and lettuce.  The latter two elements, with some unadvertised lardons and pearl onions, made a very good petits pois à la française.  Heathcote's black pudding used to be one of his signature dishes (and has returned in its classic 2-star form to the menu since this visit): here too, the black pudding was homemade, the breading light, and the frying clean.  A very good dish; light and yet satisfying at the same time.
Heathcotes black pudding fritter, poached egg, butters peas and lettuce
One service failure came when the first course plates were cleared: they were put on a tray on a stand which had been brought to the table, and then left there, until the mains came. Bizarre.

My main course was an excellent dish of lemon sole (coyly called Morecambe Bay sole on the menu, presumably allowing cheaper soles to be substituted if necessary) with crushed potatoes and a very generous helping indeed of warm potted shrimps.  A whole sole with what must have been getting on for a fiver's worth of shrimps retail for £17.50 was good definitely good value.  The sole was cooked absolutely bang on, and the whole dish hung together really well.  I was impressed.
Morecambe Bay sole, crushed potatoes, warm potted shrimps
I didn't have dessert this time, but if you go, do bear in mind that there is no finer bread and butter pudding than Paul Heathcote's.

So, on this brief visit, excellent food, let down a bit by front of house staff and setting, though I think the FOH failings were all down to them being too quiet.

Heathcotes Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Mezzo, Salmesbury, Lancashire

Mezzo Italian Restaurant & Bar
Preston New Road

YAFI, as Manchester Confidential would say (see the Guardian on Britain's obsession with Italian restaurants here).  Yet another identikit Britalian pizza pasta joint, I'd say.  Of course, this is what a lot of customers want, and you can't blame restaurateurs for responding: they're in it to make money, not act as charitable foundations for foodies.

A lot of money has obviously been spent doing up what had been a grotty Italian (itself converted from a roadside pub) that had closed down some time ago.  The money's resulted in a lot of bling, that I just find tacky, and formulaic.  Blue neon signs outside, black ash tables, paper napkins in glasses, open kitchen, desserts ready made and plated in a glass fronted fridge, grissini in plastic packs on the table. Grissini were novel in 1973, but by about 1978 most people had realised that these crisped up bits of cardboard had no merit whatsoever.

Mezzo's dining room
We went for lunch, without booking.  The restaurant was empty when we arrived (two other tables, a two and a four, arrived after us).  Service seemed irritated to have to be there.  We were seated on what pretty much seemed to be the nearest table to the entrance, by the waiters' station.  A pretty duff table by any measure, and not helped by having a wall-to-ceiling wine display case towering over us, which was both claustrophobic and also hid us from the waiters.

Plastic laminated menus were brought, and the aperitif order taken: Aperol Spritz was a very good example. When a waiter came to take orders, we asked if there were any specials on today.  He looked surprised at the request, but went away and brought us a paper specials menu.  Sorry, but why not give customers the specials menu without them having to ask for it?

The menu is part standard Britalian (spaghetti carbonara, penne arrabiata, pizza, veal escalope with mushrooms in cream sauce, bruschetta, stuffed mushrooms), and part blast-from-the-past (salmon and prawns with marie rose sauce, steak with peppercorn sauce, scampi thermidor, sole in pernod and cream sauce, duck with orange sauce, and of course there's a version of Chicken Kiev), all wrapped up in Italian names.  I have to say, I'm much more a fan of the latter than the former: these old seventies classics can still be highly enjoyable dishes when done well.

We asked for some bresaola to start with to share, to be followed by calamari fritti and verdure fritte (deep fried vegetables with some garlic mayonnaise). All three came together, which meant moving most other things off the table to fit them on. To be fair, both calamari and veg fritters came on long plates, with the food piled up at one end, so we'd still have had to move side plates and glasses to accommodate the size of the plates on the small table.  Surely it's a simple basic calculation all restaurateurs should be able to make: will the plate fit on the table?  It's not even as though a plate that size was necessary.
Calamari in the distance, bresaola in the middle, and deep fried vegetables in the foreground
Note our side plates have had to be moved to the centre of the table so the rectangular plates would fit.

The bresaola was fine, but didn't strike me as anything special. Calamari were good if similarly undistinguished, though looking at that picture above, it strikes me that you don't get a great deal of squid for £7.
The vegetable fritters would probably have been better if they'd not all been chucked in the fryer together, and so came all pretty much in one clump.

Sirloin steak tagliata was pretty good. You have to admire Italian restaurants for turning slicing a grilled steak and sprinkling a bit of olive oil on it into a dish.

Scampi thermidor
My scampi thermidor (or thermador, as the menu had it) was actually very good and the real star of the whole meal. Beautiful langoustines, very gently cooked in a nice sauce that didn't overpower the scampi.

We didn't have desserts largely due to them being utterly uninspiring, but also because they seemed to be all pre-portioned and pre-plated in a fridge between the kitchen pass and where we were sat.

We had espresso and a macchiato, both of which were very good.  So good that we ordered second coffees.  Why on earth would the waiter bring a second pot of sugar sachets?  Why would he put the new sugar pot on the table next to the one that was already there? Come on: wake up! If we'd had a third espresso, would we have got a third pot of sugar?
A lot of sugar for two coffees. Always useful to have the salt and pepper for the coffee too...

The wine list does that Britalian thing of pretty much listing only the DOC (or other designation), with no vintages or producers: the only producers mentioned are those of the champagnes.  Why do so many such places do this? I don't know about you, but it makes me feel like they have a really low opinion of their customers: "you don't need to know details, you won't understand things like vintages and producers." I suppose, as most of it is under £25 a bottle here, there's not likely to be much of any note or interest.

Mezzo Italian Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon