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

Saturday 17 August 2013

Gamekeeper's Menu at the Parkers Arms

August the 12th is the Glorious Twelfth. It marks the first day on which grouse can be shot in the UK (unless the 12th is a Sunday, in which case the season starts on the Monday). The Glorious Twelfth is important in the game calendar as grouse are the first of the game birds to come into season, and so it marks the start of the shooting season for feathered game (partridge follow on 1st September and pheasant and woodcock on 1st October).

There had been reports that the 2013 season for grouse was going to be a good one and I had been following carefully the tweets of Stosie Madi, chef-patron of the Parkers Arms at Newton in Bowland as she prepared a menu highlighting local grouse, and then driving over to collect the birds from the gamekeeper of a prestigious local estate, and then finally preparing the birds, including some strangely beautiful photographs of the birds' stomach contents. No, really, just look:
The Gamekeeper's menu is a 5-course set menu made up of canapés, game and onion soup, a whole roast grouse with all the trimmings, dessert and petits fours.  All this costs just £30, which I wouldn't be at all surprised to pay elsewhere just for the grouse.

My canapés were some lovely, light, puffy potato fritters with an amazingly good homemade mayonnaise with (I think) a light hint of garlic.
Canapés: potato fritters
The first course was an onion soup. Not really a French onion soup, and not really an English onion soup, but, as it was made with a rich venison stock, definitely on-message for a Gamekeeper's Menu.  As it was a hot summery day, I was worried about a French onion soup being a bit heavy and a bit too cockle-warming.  It wasn't.
Local estate-shot venison and English onion soup with Dewlay Lancashire cheese toastie
I'm really not at all sure how what should be the heartiest of French bistro dishes could have been made such a light starter!

As good as everything else was, the highlight was always going to be the grouse.  A whole roast grouse comes on a lazy susan, accompanied by (going clockwise in the picture below) some ever-so delicate game chips, a finger bowl (you are going to get stuck into the bird with your fingers...), a superb celeriac purée, a big bunch of peppery watercress, pickled blackberries and a blackberry-damson cheese, terrific gravy and a little croute topped with the bird's heart and liver (and a rasher of bacon that really didn't need to be there.
Grouse and all the trimmings
Grouse liver & heart on crispy bacon and a croute.
(Apologies for quality of photo: the camera was fooled by the white pots)

Some traditionalists might bemoan the absence of bread sauce, but really I didn't miss it. Maybe it could be useful with older birds as the season progresses? But this was only the 14th August, with young birds, not hung at all.
The grouse had been roasted with some butter under the skin, butter flavoured with heather and herbs foraged on the self same moors on which the grouse had lived. The grouse had (of course) been perfectly cooked, was tender and had a great flavour: there was none of the bitterness to the legs that is often found (and why the legs are often left uneaten, or slow cooked separately).  It really was worth digging around the carcase to extract the last bits of delicious flesh.

After a little rest (and further hand washing, as there's only so much grouse juices you can remove in a smallish finger bowl), it was time for the custard tart made with local eggs from Slaidburn.

Slaidburn egg custard tart
Custard tart at the Parkers Arms usually takes the form of the Portuguese pasteis de nata. Lovely softly set creamy custard.  On the side is a quenelle of crème Chantilly with an elderflower confit/marmalade.

Finally, there were some little petits fours, in this case a couple of small cubes of the Parkers Arms signature dessert, Wet Nelly (a sort of cross between treacle tart and mince pie, with a wider variety of fruit).
Wet Nelly petits fours
The Wet Nelly is always jolly good, but I thought that these showed that it works better as a slice of tart, rather a small cube.

I remember thinking that if this was a Gamekeeper's Menu, there must be a lot of extremely well fed gamekeepers out there; and equally that there are probably a lot of gamekeepers who'd like to have eaten as well as I just had.

Parkers Arms on Urbanspoon

Saturday 10 August 2013

The Olde Spot Bistro, Higham, near Burnley

The Olde Spot Bistro

If you open a farm shop, or virtual any rural business, these days you need to have a café.  When Roaming Roosters opened, they didn't mess around. They opened the Olde Spot Bistro, which is without doubt one of the busiest restaurants I've seen in a long time.  Vast numbers are attracted by a no-nonsense menu of local produce, cooked in a straightforward, almost homely manner, but above all - and this is what is particularly notable - cooked with genuine feeling and no little skill.

Roaming Roosters is primarily a butchers, with chickens and pigs reared on-site: if you go to the toilets, at the end of the corridor a (locked) door provides a viewing platform on to the next generation of roast chicken and bacon.
Chicks not yet ready to go outside

As it's owned by livestock farmers, the menu is consequently meat heavy, but with a coy "don't tell the boys next door" fish section and a couple of token vegetarian dishes. The style tends to the homely and familiar, with a bit of a hint of the sort of dishes you last saw at a 1980s dinner party, but none of this is in a bad way.

Our starters included a really rather good prawn cocktail. Prawn cocktail has made something of a comeback in recent years, but generally in an ironic or deconstructed mode. Here it's unashamedly un-deconstructed, and in a large portion, complete with hunks of good bread. My only criticism would be the use of pre-pack butter portions, which (however many of them you're given) always look mean and are a waste of packaging - both things which really seem to be out of synch with the way Roaming Roosters and the Olde Spot Bistro operate. Odd.
Prawn cocktail
Garlic mushrooms are mushrooms baked in a cream sauce, heavily laden with garlic, and Sykes Fell cheese (a Lancashire-style cheese made with sheep's milk).  This is serious comfort food and, at the same time, not for the faint-hearted.
Creamy garlic mushrooms
A special of spicy prawns with garlic and chilli was a bit clunky, and wasn't the king prawns we had for some reason assumed it would be. Nothing a competent cook couldn't knock up themselves at home, but very tasty, and it's worth noting the prawns had by no means ended up being overcooked.
spicy prawns
For me, the star of the main courses is the burger, which to my mind is without doubt the best burger I've yet come across in Lancashire.  The beef patty itself is good meat and stays nice and juicy whether you order it rare or medium: it's also notably well-seasoned.  The burger is topped with a good mature cheddar, the excellent Roaming Roosters bacon (quite simply the best bacon I'm sure I've yet come across) and French fried onions, all in a good bap.  Good chips, some very good tomato relish and a bit of good salad round it all off.  I'm not sure why they bother with the silly squiggle of balsamic glaze though.
Terrific burger
No problem getting a properly rare burger here

A rib eye steak was a little thin for my tastes, but that's a factor of the size of the original beast and cutting the steaks to a price point. It was, however, very good steak (as you'd expect having a butcher's attached) and cooked exactly as requested.
Rib eye steak
A third main of belly pork was pretty good, but unmemorable enough that not even the photograph can really help fill in the details.
Belly pork, fried I think. Looks like a tomato or red pepper sauce?

There is a brief dessert section on the main menu, but this is supplemented with lots of special desserts on the blackboard.  Desserts are very much in comfort food mode too: large, filling, calorific and traditional.  The star for me is the really terrific jam roly poly pudding: excellent roly pudding, lots of jam and it all comes in a lake of custard. Satisfied-sigh-inducing stuff.
Jam roly poly
Sherry trifle too was spot on, very traditional and just a little sinful.
Bread and butter pudding with a whisky glaze was unfortunately on the heavy side of bread and butter puddings, and we thought the whisky glaze was lost, probably in the re-heating process.  It would be best to give it another quick brush with the glaze while it's on the pass: that wouldn't really cost much and would give customers that little gosh-I-can-actually-taste-the-whisky feeling.
Bread & butter pudding with a whisky glaze
Sticky toffee pudding was an exception that didn't thrill.  The actual pudding element was just too big a portion in relation to sauce, and in any event wasn't the best we've tasted by far. The sauce had been over-reduced and had set on the plate meaning it wasn't really sauce any longer, just some semi-set butterscotch.  (The chef, Karl Reader has since been in touch to say that my photograph isn't their sticky toffee pudding, but is in fact a steamed treacle sponge pudding and syrup.  Well, that would explain why it didn't seem such a good sticky toffee, though I think my comment about the size of the piece of pudding in relation to sauce can still stand.  Presumably another diner was thinking their treacle pudding tasted more like sticky toffee?)
Sticky toffee pudding Steamed treacle sponge pudding
Fortunately a strawberry shortcake at a more recent, summertime meal, was jolly good, though - to be hyper-critical - it would have done it no harm had the cream been whipped a tiny bit less and maybe sweetened slightly.
Strawberry shortcake
I always enjoy The Olde Spot Bistro. It does not pretend to be anything it's not and does what it does very well indeed.  I believe it's still not a year old (my first visit was in November 2012), but is incredibly popular.  Both kitchen and front of house perform very well and very efficiently, allowing tables to be turned rapidly and repeatedly to help reduce queueing: I don't think I've ever seen anywhere that has such an amazing throughput of customers. Though you never feel rushed.

Olde Spot Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday 5 August 2013

The Castle Dairy, Kendal

The Castle Dairy
Wildman Street
Kendal LA9 6EN

The Castle Dairy is probably the oldest occupied building in Kendal, dating back to the 14th century.  It must, by my reckoning also be one of the oldest restaurants currently operating in Kendal, although not continuously.

The street facade

I remember it in the 1970s, when it was not a new restaurant, run by two women (I was going to say 'old women' but that might just be how I remember them because I was much, much younger at the time) with something of a fearsome reputation.

They are long gone, of course, and between 2007 and 2011 the Castle Dairy's doors were closed and the building fell into disrepair, to the extent that it was included on English Heritage's 'Heritage at Risk' register in 2010.

The Castle Dairy reopened in 2011, having been taken on by the local further education college, Kendal College.  It now provides valuable work experience in the kitchen and front of house for Kendal College apprentices; on the evidence of this visit it also provides some very fine food.

Certainly on this visit it does not appear to run like many catering college restaurants, with lecturers supervising students: there was just one person working front of house, and (if she was one of the apprentices) doing her lecturers proud, as she was very good. 

The main hall

I dread to think what Kendal College's health & safety people make of this fireplace
Inside it seems pretty much unchanged.  As befits such an old building, small corridors link a number of small rooms.  There's a lot of old wood, flag floors, and (on this spring day) a fire blazing in an old range.

There are two menus at lunchtime: an à la carte and a "bar menu" (not that there's really a bar area as such).
Bread is, I believe, from Kendal's excellent Staff of Life Bakery: a fabulous elderflower sourdough and a slightly underbaked brown/granary(?) bread were offered.  It's great that they're supporting a local small business like Staff of Life, but - particularly for a restaurant related to a catering college - it seemed a bit of a cop out.  Or maybe they put apprentices into Staff of Life?

My first course was shown as a special on the menu, though as it's a laser-printed sheet, I'm not sure why there's a need to have a couple of items billed as specials on what's not a long menu.

Poached smoked haddock with a wild garlic and haddock brandade, crispy (i.e. breadcrumbed) quail's egg and Lakeland pancetta. This was early April and a bit too early for wild garlic in Cumbria this year, which struck me as a little odd. But apart from a query over where they'd got wild garlic, there was nothing in the dish to fault. The haddock was perfectly cooked, the quails eggs were spot on, with the yolks still runny, the bright green brandade was ultra smooth, yet retained the full flavour of both the wild garlic and the haddock.

Main course was a lovely pigeon dish.

Pan-seared wood pigeon with liver parfait, cumin-spiced fregola, swiss chard and a carrot purée. Excellent dish again with all the ingredients perfectly cooked and working very harmoniously.

Orange torte with blood orange sorbet
Unfortunately the dessert was a bit of a let down. An orange torte with a blood orange sorbet. The sorbet was beautiful, but the torte was just a bit too technically perfect, like a patisserie student's first torte-by-numbers attempt. It was just a bit heavy for me, not least because it was at least 50% chocolate, which wasn't mentioned on the menu at all. Some orange flavoured whipped cream hadn't quite worked either, having somehow managed to take on the texture of commercial squirty cream.

Very good espresso after.
Upstairs is an art gallery (for the College's art students), but also houses some of the ancient fixtures and fittings, including rather oddly a massive oak 4-poster bed. This must be about the only restaurant in the country with a bed that's not for sleeping in.

The Castle Dairy on Urbanspoon