ARZAK

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Txistorra with beer and mango, flavoured with smoked paprika

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Banana and squid cooked in a rich fruity squid ink sauce

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Raspberry bitter with a vermouth infused melon stopper

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Marinated sardine filled with a mousse of small fish, strawberry and strawberry infused balsamic

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Sea bream marinated with “patxaran” and dusted with purple corn

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(Cromlech) Crispy manioc hydrated with huitlacoche stuffed with a preparation of onion, foie gras and green tea

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Marinated scarlet prawns on lemongrass and mint served with an unctuous preparation of beetroot covered by crunchy krill

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Sautéed lobster with fresh pollen, sweet and acidic flavours with blue honeycomb

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“Red” egg cooked at 65’C, a thin film of piquillo pepper, cereal ferments and crispy pig’s trotters. Flavours of saffron and parsley.

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White tuna belly with green melon (infused with malibu), chewy dried jack fruit salsa. Dusted with mint.

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Grilled monkfish Cleopatra together with pecan nut paste and hieroglyphic forms of pumpkin and chickpea

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Line caught squid with walnut and ginger paste, psyllium sauce and black tomato

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Roast lamb loin over a nut and armagnac spread accompanied with yuca and “guitar” shavings which envelope the whole dish in a light cypress aroma

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Roast pigeon with beetroot, spirulina and feathery purple potato crisps. Traces of mastic (pine). Served on a tablet showing a roaring fire.

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Acai berry granita, yuzu ice cream, crispy raspberries, grapefruit pieces and mint

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The big truffle ‘after’. Creamy chocolate and carob filling wrapped in spun ‘cola’ sugar and Langue cocoa.

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Lunar chocolate cube with a fluid core of mint, neroli and kiwi

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Petits fours

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Tapas Molecular Bar, Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, Japan, March 2015

Japanese restaurants are a hard nut to crack for the international traveller. Booking policies are as you’d expect from a nation that forbade any communication with the outside world for centuries. Signage is often non-existent, windows are screened and (apart from the national obsession for plastic food displays) there is little to dispel the  impression that restauranteurs aren’t particularly interested in attracting anything other than local trade. If there’s any doubt then reference the fact that a number of the most respected chefs have rejected the Michelin awards system -anxious to avoid an influx of gaijin trophy hunters. So the related fact that Japan’s total of Michelin stars awarded exceeds those of the US, UK and Spain PUT TOGETHER is even more remarkable.

As part of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, Tapas Molecular Bar is one of the few notable dining spots that makes it easy to reserve from overseas without the help of a concierge. We book it for early on in our stay, trusting that over the following days we’ll find our Tokyo feet and root out some other good’uns amongst the 160 000 restaurants in town.

A breathtaking trip to the 38th floor of the hotel, a vertiginous pre dinner cocktail, and we’re sat with 7 other guests at the counter, unpacking our own personal toolbox ready to start chipping away at the fifteen course menu.

Expanding hot towel

Expanding hot towel

Tool box

Tool box

First on the pass (literally under our nose) is a nitrogen poached potato mousse encasing a spoonful of caviar. Smash the crunchy carpace to get to the yummy eggs inside. The chef talks us through the dish as he prepares it and then answers our questions as we navigate each course. This is a recurring theme throughout our meals in Japan, but never as entertainingly as this one.

Macaroon: potato/caviar

Macaroon: potato/caviar

Mushrooms: forest/moss/wood

Mushrooms: forest/moss/wood

Also in the earthy/delicate vein, a little ‘mushroom’ of fried potato, veiled in truffle slices and porcini powder and sitting on a sweet pea and iberico puree. A dewdrops from a pipette of argan oil gives a musky edge to the dish. Ras al hanout gives the flavours a fragrant buzz.

As we’re finishing off, the activity behind the counter focuses on filling potato tuiles with a mix of sous vide iberico pork, apple and cucumber with a little hoi sin. A little wad of sesame oil/maltosec ‘ash’ completes the cigar before smoking. Cue cigar-smoking selfies and the already relaxed atmosphere around the bar hits a new level of bonhomie.

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Cigar: Iberico pork/vegetables/sesame ash

Tuna smoked for three seconds over wakame and bonito flakes on hot stones with a little seawater added for steam is added to a subtle salad of yuzu-marinated abalone, ice lettuce, dried seaweed and popping sea grapes (umbiro) from Okinawa.

Ceviche: tuna/abalone/yuzu

Ceviche: tuna/abalone/yuzu

Seared king crab in a hot cauliflower mousse covered with a blitzed frozen parmesan ‘snow’ is a stark reminder of how little cheese figures in the Japanese palate, and how powerfully parmesan can cloak the flavours of ultra fresh seafood.

Frozen crab: seaweed/ice/sake

Frozen crab: seaweed/ice/sake

Bisque: mushroom/truffle/smoke

Bisque: mushroom/truffle/smoke

More smoke (subtle chamomile this time) fills a kilner jar of truffley mushroom veloute to pour over little leaf-shaped mushroom leaves and mushroom leather.

A ‘BBQ’ of foie gras glazed with sake must floats over dry ice. Green grape infused with muscat wine and finished with a lick of truffle honey adds delicious sweetness.

BBQ: foie gras/shisu glaze/muscat grape

BBQ: foie gras/shisu glaze/muscat grape

BBQ: foie gras/shisu glaze/muscat grape

BBQ: foie gras/shisu glaze/muscat grape

After those rich Western-influenced flavours, a palate cleanser of spherified pickled plum juice flecked with shisu prepares us for the next act…

Spherified pickled plum/shisu

Spherified pickled plum/shisu

…which calls for a good rummage in the toolbox. Tweezers to eat delicious nuggets of lobster poached in miso butter with poached onion and uni (sea urchin roe -its the stand out Japanese ingredient for me.The whole nation’s obsession with freshness, provenance and purity concentrated in the delicate, seawater flavours). Then the matches for lighting a little oil lamp to arm a test tube of somen noodles in jellied dashi soup. Lobster: uni/somen/seaweed

Lobster: uni/somen/seaweed

Lobster: uni/somen/seaweed

Lobster: uni/somen/seaweed

If the lobster dish puts the diner in the driving seat, the next course is all about the skill of the chef. A incredible confection of charcoal-black taro batter layered with lard and the deep fried: lard melts, wisps of batter crisp to form a honeycomb shell encasing black pepper beef with truffle honey. Wisps of black truffle add to the unctuousness.

Bee Hive: taro/wagyu/honey

Bee Hive: taro/wagyu/honey\

Beggar's Chicken: guinea fowl/savoy cabbage/chestnut

Beggar’s Chicken: guinea fowl/savoy cabbage/chestnut

Guinea fowl comes as two courses. A sous vide breast (62degC/45 minutes) is followed by an incredible looking bun of charcoal colours bread dough baked with a filling of guinea leg and chestnut wrapped in sesame leaf. The flesh is a little dried out by the process which is a shame as the initial effect is impressive.

Beggar's Chicken: guinea fowl/savoy cabbage/chestnut

Beggar’s Chicken: guinea fowl/savoy cabbage/chestnut

Tape measure menu

Tape measure menu

Dessert is served. Trifle of yoghurt, granola and berries is pleasant, if unexciting. The ‘eggs Benedict’ is a corker though: a disc of brioche french toast with sugar crust blowtorched like a perfect bread pudding. On top is a mango and papaya ‘yolk’ surrounded by spherified almond cream. A spoonful of mango mascarpone completes the look.Great flavours and a fitting end to an engaging, light hearted romp through molecular techniques with a uniquely Japanese sensibility. Not every dish hit the spot but the whole was a great introduction to Tokyo dining: tiny counter, conversation with the chefs and other diners, cooking under your nose, dedication to the joy of eating out. We leave ready to discover what else the Japanese food scene has to offer.Breakfast Trifle: yoghurt/berries/cereal & Eggs Benedict: papaya/almond cream/mascarpone

Breakfast Trifle: yoghurt/berries/cereal & Eggs Benedict: papaya/almond cream/mascarpone

After Eight: chocolate/mint/meringue & Lollipop: red bean/tangerine peel/coconut

After Eight: chocolate/mint/meringue & Lollipop: red bean/tangerine peel/coconut

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Paul Ainsworth at no. 6, Padstow, Cornwall, August 2014

Mention the town of Padstow and Rick Stein’s is going to be the first name that comes to mind. On our August visit his brand is in evidence throughout with cookshops and home stores added to the ever-growing list of restaurants and hotels, the streets crowded with Stein-hunting visitors.

Although slightly less well known, another of the town’s adopted sons has been winning national recognition (and a Michelin star) for his food in the last few years. The shuttered windows of Paul Ainsworth’s eponymous restaurant provide a cool, contemporary space a little removed from the throngs outside. Although the decor is more smart boutique than ye olde Cornish, the West Country ingredients championed in the menu and the work of local artists and craftsmen on the walls and the tabletop give a strong sense of place.

On a Summer lunchtime visit we’re shown to a table in the shady front dining room. There’s also some outside space and a room upstairs. Our servers are relaxed and confident, their easy professionalism setting the tone for the meal to come. First to the table is excellent sourdough and homemade butter with an extra dish of whipped cod roe and crunchy pork. The focus of the kitchen is clear from the outset: well crafted food with interesting twists but always the emphasis on taste. Ainsworth’s flavour combinations are quite conservative by current standards and our lunch suffers not at all for that.IMG_5577

Super fresh mackerel comes lightly charred with an array of foliage and light, pickly flavours. The bold flavour of the fish more than a match for a few shavings of ham. Good eating.

paul ainsworth, no. 6, mackerel, flowers

Torched Cornish mackerel, celeriac remoulade, parma ham, cucumber

Pork features again with a plump oyster enrobed in unctuous, fatty Cornish salami. The fennel and apple remoulade lightening and brightening.

Crisp Porthilly oyster, cured pork, green apple, fennel

Crisp Porthilly oyster, cured pork, green apple, fennel

The next dish is a surprise: there’s no indication in the menu that it will feature a soup. I’m worried that my usually soup-phobic other half will turn her nose up. No danger: she’s satisfied by the rich little canapés of bone marrow and caviar on the side and I’m happy to slurp down the last few spoonfuls of velvety parsley emulsion.

Hampshire Watercress beef Marrow ~ sour Cream ~ Cornish sea salt caviar

Hampshire Watercress beef Marrow ~ sour Cream ~ Cornish sea salt caviar

A middle course of seared foie gras atop sweet peppers and a ballottine of ham belly is one of the few dishes on the menu without a local ingredient as it’s star. Perhaps incidentally, it’s the only dish that doesn’t inspire. It’s a little bit dull, overly rich and the hazelnuts and peppers sit uncomfortably with the other elements.

middle white 'ham belly', foie gras, sweet red pepper, smoked almonds

middle white ‘ham belly’, foie gras, sweet red pepper, smoked almonds

Back on form with a quenelle of fantastic Port Isaac crabmeat and day boat cod. The skin has been salted, dried and deep fried to a crisp little puff. The opulent shellfish sauce is spiked with a little fenugreek. This is a type of dish that I’ve tasted many times before but the top quality ingredients take it to the next level. Beautiful.

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The monkfish dish is more ambitious. First taste of the hoisin broth is brutally strong but once I heed the waiters explanation and use it to dress the stirred in crunchy leaves, the dish balances. The monkfish never gets the chance to really shine in this assembly, but it’s a nice dish nonetheless. Dish descriptions by the staff display their deep knowledge of the menu. No one puts a foot wrong and they’re happy to talk at length about the ingredients and they’re provenance.

Day boat monkfish, Gram pound duckling, clear peking broth, 'PYO' salad

Day boat monkfish, Gram pound duckling, clear peking broth, ‘PYO’ salad

'literally my bread and butter' vanilla ice cream, toffee and oak beer

‘literally my bread and butter’ vanilla ice cream, toffee and oak beer

Desserts are delicious. The homage to Gary Rhodes masterful bread and butter pudding is perfectly execute. No chef will ever better this version of the classic. The caramac, chocolate and pistachio confection is indulgent and fun.

chocolate, pistachio, caramac, chocolate sorbet

chocolate, pistachio, caramac, chocolate sorbet

chocolate, pistachio, caramac, dark chocolate sorbet

chocolate, pistachio, caramac, dark chocolate sorbet

A long drive back to London gives us a chance to ruminate on an excellent meal. Flavours are clean, honest and satisfying. Paul’s impeccible culinary roots (and probably his local audience) don’t allow for much overcomplication or cheffy grandstanding. There’s entertainment in the dishes but not at the cost of taste. Lunch of the Summer.

A warm welcome at no. 6

A warm welcome at no. 6

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Five Fields, London

Five Fields popped into our consciousness with a surprise top spot in last year’s Square Meal Best Restaurant category. The Chelsea newcomer inspired plenty of column inches but not all complementary. In a culinary era where the merit of a chef is largely judged on the simplicity of his dishes, the complex plates of food here have offended some of the more austere London reviewers.

The name Five Fields refers to their farm in East Sussex and chef Taylor Bonnyman wastes no opportunity to carpet his dishes in tiny roots, shots, flowers and sprouts that are presumably plucked from said fields (although on our Autumn visit much of the herbage is clearly from more conventional sources). Does every leaf and stamen contribute to the overall flavours of the foie gras dish below? Not for my palate but it looks gorgeous and doesn’t detract from a delicious parfait.

Foie gras & beetroot

Foie gras, shemeji mushrooms, beetroot

‘Rockpool’ starter arrives as no less than three separate courses. A zingy bloody mary granita covering diced oyster and cucumber tartare pairs a fantastic dish of Japanese seasoned seafood. A long snaking column of cured mackerel, caviar, smoked eel glazed with miso, bonito flavoured tapioca is anointed with blobs of wasabi foam, pickled ginger and yuzu meringue. All rendered with just enough punch to shine without overpowering each other. We’re basking in this rockpool.

Rockpool - Oyster tartare bloody mary granita

Rockpool – Oyster tartare bloody mary granita

Rock pool - Smoked eel, mackerel, Langoustine

Rock pool – smoked eel, mackerel, caviar

Rockpool -langoustine withpeanut paste, tom yum gel and a shellfish and kaffir lime bisque

Rockpool -langoustine with peanut paste, tom yum gel and a shellfish and kaffir lime bisque

Last of the rock pool dishes -a lovely big langoustine given the Thai treatment- isn’t so successful. Neither the ultra-fresh cold water seafood nor the muted slightly muddy Asian flavours benefits from the arranged marriage. Aside from that, the overall impression (aided by plenty of unpublished extra courses) is of a generous spirit in the kitchen, happily dispensing bountiful produce and beautiful flavours in equal measure.

Main courses are good -at times really lovely- but after such a riot of sweet/smokey/fermented/spicy flavours, the beautifully cooked entree cuts of meat are a little let down by their more restrained European-style garnishes. Pumpkin and cranberry don’t deliver the expected sweet and sourness to the game dish; the snails in the lamb dish could have injected some garlic butter pzazz but didn’t. It’s as if the menu took a deep breath after the joyous round-the-world dash of the starters and is now strolling towards coffee in a far more genteel manner. Red Grouse Pumpkin, Cranberry and Trompettes

Red Grouse
Pumpkin, Cranberry and Trompettes

Yorkshire Lamb Onion, Snails and Ewe's Cheese

Yorkshire lamb
onion, snails and ewe’s cheese

Desserts feature some exciting combinations that work effectively and look lovely on the plate but are only occasionally delicious. Heavy use of usually-savoury ingredients robs them of the satisfying richness that I look for at the end of dinner (beautifully unctuous lemon brûlée is a notable exception but proves the rule).Champagne mousse, cassis sorbet

Champagne mousse, cassis sorbet

Chocolate Plum, Oats and Yoghurt

Chocolate,
plum, oats, yoghurt

Mango Peanut, Celery and Buttermilk

Mango
peanut, celery, buttermilk

Lemon & Coffee  Lemon Brulee and Butternut Squash Ice Cream

Lemon & coffee
-lemon brûlée, butternut squash ice cream

Service at Five Fields is a delight. Staff are friendly and attentive to just the right extent. The revelation that the maitre d’ googles each guest’s name before arrival to discover anything that might improve our visit is surprising in a good way. Hospitality is dispensed with charm and professionalism here; in the end (just like the kitchen) it feels flattering that they went to so much trouble.

Petits fours -fennel hard candy and chocolate truffles

Petits fours -fennel hard candy and chocolate truffles

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Faviken, Jamtland, Sweden

#34  of The worlds 50 best

We arrive at the welcoming fires of the Faviken estate, with the warning that the doors are locked to latecomers fresh in our mind. It’s been a fraught drive around the mountain from Are, the last part completed on tiny icy roads and without the benefit of a GPS signal. No matter. The door is still open and we are warmly greeted by Magnus Nilsson, who helps take our coats to hang alongside the far more famous fur on a hook behind himP1140760

Into the next room and we join the other ten diners, all of whom are staying the night in Faviken’s rooms and are already nibbling and making polite conversation together by the fire. The room is unashamedly folksy, as is the plinky plonky Swedish soundtrack. We’re served a homemade rhubarb aperitif and then a glassy flaxseed (linseed) wafer is up first. The super-healthy little germs are baked in a potato starch batter and served with a blue mussel dip. The emulsion is unctuous and glossy: echoing the texture of plump, barely cooked mussels. The whole is wholesome and tasty. P1140763 Next is a broth of Jamtland leaves enriched with dried reindeer. Boiling water is poured over the dry ingredients in a little glass pot to produce a dashi-like tea. Intensely savoury, slightly rank and gamey, the brew is drunk from little cups with a few forest berries and a little dried mushroom powder. The food tonight will always be fascinating, sometimes genuinely delicious. This is definitely the former and undeniably toothsome but a bit too weird to be more than interesting.

Not so the next. A signature Faviken dish that uses pigs blood as the main ingredient of a batter that is cooked on a croustade iron. The hot croustade is dipped in three more rounds of pure blood to form a rich, glossy shell. Fill this with a blood custard and top with wild trout roe and Nilsson has come up with a playful little canape that looks like sushi, sounds like hell, but tastes superb. The fresh creamy little caviar pearls are a revelation. Gently popping bubbles of ultra-clean flavour over the robust piggy tartlet.

P1140770 Now the bites come thick and fast. A sourdoughnut of pigs head with a slice of dried gooseberry sprinkled with bright green spruce salt is skewered on birch twigs. Vaguely oriental and very yummy.

P1140771 The final pre dinner treats are provided by the slightly macabre hanging cures that we are soon to be sitting under in the dining room upstairs. Little slices of cured ham from a sow hand-picked for her plumpness. Locally reared pork plays a big part in the menu at Faviken.  The meat has a pure porky flavour with none of the fish notes found in industrially farmed pigs. Next, is a little sliver of 3 year aged herring -salty and slightly cheesy- served on rusk with sour cream. The herrings are salted (I think) and then air dried hanging from the ceiling. The controlled lacto-bacillic fermentation process imparting a far less aggressive flavour than the great age of the fish would suggest. P1140779   Preliminaries done, we’re invited upstairs. With just five limed wood tables lit by candlelight, the whole focus of dining room is on the central island, to which trays of food are brought by the chefs and dispensed with an explanation (in Swedish of course) by Magnus or his second. The folksy theme continues, and we start to relax into the cool but friendly Nordic hospitality.scallops faviken juniper Plump cold water scallops come first. Still cooking over smouldering juniper branches and birch charcoal, the hefty shells are brought to the table. The meat is simply moistened in a little broth made from the cleaned offal: mild sea flavours and a little smokiness.

Next a section of roasted King crab claw. The moist flesh of this voracious Arctic predator is clean tasting enough, but a spray of white vinegar takes it to another level. The sweet, rich nuttiness of ‘almost burnt’ cream makes a rich foil. Nielsson usually makes a point of not cooking milk products as he believes it brings out too much sweetness, but here he aims for that with delicious effect.       P1140797

The marriage of land and sea flavours in the crab dish makes perfect sense, but the next dish is harder to fathom. A two-course affair, this begins with poached turbot, sunflower seeds rolled in herb salt, vinegar jelly and chlorophyll oil: a mixture of the marine and agricultural that refuses to gel. The follow up of turbot stock frothed with buttermilk rounds off the lingering flavours but it’s too late by then: the first bit just didn’t work.

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You could come up with a less mouthwatering concept than a plate of singed raw Brussels sprouts and lupins (I know this because one of Scandinavia’s least appealing dishes features further down the menu), but not many that prove to be so tasty in the flesh. The crunchy leaves sit on a buttery mousseline of mustard-flavoured lupin and sprinkled with flakes of lupin crisp. Surprising and delightfully fresh flavours and textures with every forkful.

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Barley pancakes with sour onions were a little oily looking but tasty enough.

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Cockles injected with beer: exactly how that sounds.

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Little boiled potatoes are served in a pile of Autumn leaves to be picked out and smeared in ‘the good butter’ before wolfing down whole.

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Our server was delighted to present us with the this dish: the Icelandic classic that is quail’s eggs rolled in an ash of sheep shit (a title that sounds only slightly more attractive when delivered in a Swedish accent). Thankfully possessing more of a burnt grassy- than a faecal flavour this comes with a mousse of dried trout for dipping sprinkled with chopped  trout and pickled marigold petals.

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Grains, barley and seeds from Jamtland make a porridge that is sprinkled with pickled carrot and a dollop of butter. Beef stock poured on through moss to form a rich, hearty broth.  P1140823

A slice of rich and fatty pork chop is daringly rare -like a chunk of foie gras- accompanied by a puree of burnt bird cherry stones and a nutty vinaigrette of cherry juice and cherry stone oil. This was a satisfyingly meaty conclusion to the savoury section of our meal.

Pork main course

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As I’m driving, we opt for the alcohol-free option of the juice of Ingrid-Marie and aroma apples that have been frozen through the winter. Spoiler alert: this solves the mystery of what has been athletically squeezed in the press at the side of the room throughout the meal.

Apple juice

Very fresh cottage cheese topped with carrot chippings and parsley bridges the gap between sweet and savoury. The carrots a flavoursome but quite dry: presumably from the months stored under the snow.

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A surprise extra course of meringue egg shells filled with thick colostrum (the milk of cows in late pregnancy) and blueberries. Fragile.

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Spoonfuls of sweetened blueberry ice alternate with a little hit of heavy cream and fermented blueberries.

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Chilled curdled woodruff ‘milk’ sits on a warm curd pudding. Bracingly bitter and slightly medicinal tasting.P1140834

An egg yolk preserved in sugar is mashed into crumbs of pine bark cake, as richly vegetal and luxuriously flavoured as any single-estate dark chocolate. With a dollop of wicked ice cream on the side and a drizzle of meadowsweet syrup this seemingly bizarre combination of ingredients is handled so deftly that it has the comforting effect of eating a really classic pudding.

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The last course is a classic. A fantastic sabayon of farmyardy duck eggs blankets iced raspberries and hand-churned milk sorbet. A few beautiful ingredients, some time-honoured technique and a perfect balance of flavours. Faviken at it’s best.

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Invited back downstairs, we finish with an outrageously vast selection of petits fours, some local infusions and a few words from the chef (Note: this a unexpectedly pricey add on. Anyone on a budget could do worse than skip this section of the meal). Snus -home made chewing tobacco- we decline.

Chewing tobacco

A totally unique experience, Faviken welcomes, challenges and ultimately satisfies the diner. The food is at it’s best when revelling in the austerity imposed by it’s location. Definitely worth the pilgrimage to the frozen North.

Frozen Sweden

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Sola -Paris

Stuck for a last-minute booking during a recent visit to the French capital, we resort to googling blogs and reviews. A small, but growing, genre of Parisenne cuisine begins to emerge: Franco-asian. Unlike the grandstanding fusion cooking of the eighties/nineties, with it’s confusion of tropical fish, exotic meats, multinational flavours and heavy dependence on air freighted ingredients; this is an altogether more grounded affair. Leaning on great local produce but seasoned with a fresh Asian sensibility this wholesome, pared-down cooking owes more to Noma than to Nobu. Theories on where the mini-trend has come from seem to vary but a number of young chefs from Japan in particular who came to learn at the city’s three star temples have chosen to stay and open the sort of uncomplicated, reasonably-priced dining rooms that are hitting the spot with diners all over recession-squeezed Europe.

Sola in the Latin Quarter is one such. Chef Hiroki Yoshitake presides over the open plan kitchen overlooking a few tables upstairs. Below ground, the surroundings are more  distinctly Japanese. Seating is recessed into wells in the floor. Rough stone, natural tones and pale woods predominate. Apparently, much of the tableware and serviceware is made by the chef’s wife, a potter.

Downstairs in the 'Japanese' dining room

Downstairs in the ‘Japanese’ dining room

Calmed by the low lighting and gently considerate service (in Paris???!!), we chose the tasting menu. A dryish Riesling (about £40) provides good fit with the fish-heavy menu. A cup of lobster bisque with parsnip cream kicks thing off. Tasty, but fairly unremarkable. The cured foie gras that follows is far more exciting. Crispy brulee crust tops a little finger sandwich, a hint of apple and the earthy crunch of  chervil root in support. These little vegetables are beautiful: a delicate, pretty version of something usually only served as a puree. Roots form the backbone of the menu and the maitre d’ later tells us that the chef grows all of these himself.

Foie gras, cane sugar crust, brioche, apple puree, chervil root and leaves

Foie gras, cane sugar crust, brioche, apple puree, chervil root and leaves

This common theme supports a menu that segues gently through its courses. Ingredients are cooked gently or not at all. There is little butter or cream in these dishes and this, along with the sympathetic seasoning, allows the fish and vegetables a chance to shine in all their crisp freshness. Restraint like this is a mark of real confidence and a true understanding of what makes a meal into a whole. The raw precedes the cooked and the strong flavours associated with roasting are saved to punctuate the climactic savoury courses. The seasonings too are introduced in a logical progression: fresh citrus moderates the earlier fish dishes, the punchier notes of vinegar follow.

Raw scallop, turnip (shaved, tartare, emulsion), pear balls, yuzu

Raw scallop, turnip (shaved, tartare, emulsion), pear balls, yuzu

Cockles, parsley, capers, shallots, parsley root

Cockles, parsley, capers, shallots, parsley root

Grilled squid, celeriac puree, apple, braised celeriac batons

Grilled squid, celeriac puree, apple, braised celeriac batons

Tranche of seabass, red and yellow carrots, lemon balm cress, fish fumee, citrus gel

Tranche of seabass, red and yellow carrots, lemon balm cress, fish fumee, yuzu gel

The ultimate fish course -turbot with alliums fried, seared and pickled- has a little slick of vinaigrette gel to inject the final zing to this section of the meal.

Turbot, leeks, pickled onion, vinaigrette gel

Turbot, leeks, pickled onion, vinaigrette gel

A couple of chunks of lightly cooked (actually quite pink) poulet de Bresse and some cabbage make up the main meat course. A little sparse but nice crispy skin.

Chicken from Bresse, grilled cabbage, shaved salsify

Chicken from Bresse, grilled cabbage, shaved salsify

To tee up the sweet courses we order a little bottle of sparkling sake. We had this last year as part of a tasting menu served by Sat Bains at the Electrolux Cube. It was a revelation then and now. First dessert is a refreshing fruit salad with a meringue lid. The palate hardly needs freshening after such light food but it’s pleasant nonetheless. A complex confection of chocolate, coffee, nuts and cream closes with a satisfying dairy richness.

Meringue, lychee (fresh and sorbet), raspberry, mandarin, pineapple

Meringue, lychee (fresh and sorbet), raspberry, mandarin, pineapple

Chocolate ganache jelly, coffee chantilly cream, cookie balls, roast hazelnut, chocolate meringue, cacao tuille, vanilla ice cream

Chocolate ganache jelly, coffee chantilly cream, cookie balls, roast hazelnut, chocolate meringue, cacao tuille, vanilla ice cream

There seems little point in trying to trace the line between French and Japanese influences in the food at Sola. Great locally-sourced ingredients treated with a respect bordering on obsession. That’s a true fusion of energies.

Two tasting menus, cocktails, two bottles around £220

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Dabbous -London

A meal at the most hyped London restaurant du jour needs to be approached carefully. A quick glance at the reviews on google yields a host of vocally disappointed diners who were expecting…not too sure what: a meal that transcends or surpasses the restaurant  experience? This is a little unfair to the team behind Dabbous and probably says more about the expectations of the British diner in a post-Heston world than any failing in the cooking or hospitality at what (on entering) seems a fairly modest cornerspot dining room, after all.

So we arrive with lowered hopes. Seated at a plain wooden table, we take in the surroundings -exposed concrete, pipework, copper faucets, waiters in braces. A mix of enthusiastic eaters, business’y types chatting and a table of snooping chefs. In spite of the epic waiting list, it doesn’t have a rarified food temple atmosphere.

Bread -sliced and studded with hazelnuts, poppyseeds and something like carraway- has a pronounced smoky savour. It comes in a paper bag that initially looks like a pretension but proves simply functional in keeping crust and crumb warm and fresh throughout the meal (or as long as it lasts -it’s fantastic and, smothered in freshly whipped butter, rapidly disappears).

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Good start, but the first course proper looks like it’s going to be hard to love. A big chunk of avocado (in admittedly superb nick, apparently it’s been brined) sits in a deep bowl with heavily roasted pistachios, lemon balm, chives and a chilled onion broth scented with something called Osmanthus. Things look bleak: those carping reviewers had it nailed? But spoon by spoon it all starts to work together. Rich avocado, toasty nuts, grounded by alliums, lifted by the heady infusion. It brings on a warm, peaceful glow in us both. It’s all going to be OK: we’re in safe hands.

Avocado, pistachio, lemon balm, chilled osmanthus infusion

Avocado, pistachio, lemon balm, chilled osmanthus infusion

Next up is a speckled endive salad. The bitterness of the leaves acidulated with pink grapefruit, freshened further with mint leaves and then grounded with savoury gingerbread crumbs and vinaigrette. Great balance again.

Speckled endive, gingerbread, bergamot, mint

Speckled endive, gingerbread, bergamot, mint

The next courses flow by in a buttery haze. Coddled egg filled with mushrooms in a buttery emulsion. ‘Mash and gravy’ with black truffles (the quotes are mine, this really is just super rich Paris mash and jus covered in shaved truffle -love it).

Coddled egg, mushrooms

Coddled egg, mushrooms

Mash, gravy, black truffle

Mash, gravy, black truffle

The fish course is a stand out for me. Glassy-fleshed roast halibut with a sticky layer of caramelized fat sits next to a proper dill pickle and a dollop of yoghurt creamed with mustard and molasses on a stunning Montgolfier plate. A single oyster leaf adds a seaside note to a deceptively simple assembly. Each element contributes a precise measure of flavour and texture. In a dish as stripped back as this, everything has earned its place, and everything needs to be perfect. It is.

Roast halibut, mustard & molasses, dill pickle

Roast halibut, mustard & molasses, dill pickle

 

A well crackled piece of suckling pig belly struggles a bit with too much mango chutney, but we’re totally won over by now and the last savoury scores again. Slices of rare beef star in a sort of reimagined Danish-open-sandwich-flavoured-salad-with-a-sauce. Flavours of capers, cornichons, pumpernickel and crunchy watercress underscored by a warm buttermilk and horseradish broth. Looks messy but feels like exactly the right sort of thing to be eating for a weekday lunch in a sort-of-Scandi-looking-diner.

Roast suckling pig, mango chutney

Roast suckling pig, mango chutney

 

Rare roast beef, watercress, buttermilk, horseradish

Rare roast beef, watercress, buttermilk, horseradish

Desserts are pleasant and wholesome -no massive challenge to the kitchen or the diner- and none the worse for it. First a refreshing confection of blood orange in a few simple guises with a drizzle olive oil and a few leaves of marjoram. Following that a striking cut glass coupe with a baba-like barley sponge pillowed in fluffy vanilla cream.

Blood orange, olive oil, marjoram

Blood orange, olive oil, marjoram

 

Barley flour sponge soaked in red tea, Tahitian vanilla cream

Barley flour sponge soaked in red tea, Tahitian vanilla cream

Canelles topped with griottine cherries round off a meal that leaves us hugely contented. Just the right combination of known and surprising. No tortured concepts or ingredients. That feels like exactly what the meal was designed to do: not trancend the modern restaurant experience, just deliver it beautifully.

Tasting menu for two, one glass wine, two cocktails £163.69

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