Lunch @Bulrush, Bristol

If there is ever a good time to get out to a decent restaurant for lunch it is in the week of a General Election and the fallout from an unexpected result. We are seeking refuge from the continuous media commentary by meeting Ralph & Chedzgal at Bulrush in Bristol. Bulrush is a coalition of George Livesey’s culinary skill in the kitchen and Katherine Craughwell’s passion for wine and seasonal cocktails.

We all take our seats and, on Katherine’s recommendation, Ralph & Chedzgal both elect to have a glass of Terres Falmet Carignan, an aromatic fruity red from the Languedoc region. Rock has a glass of Loureiro, a refreshing and well-balanced white from the Vinho Verde region of Portugal. I’m choosing a past favourite, Nor’hop, a floral pale ale from the Bristol based Moor Brewery. We are already starting to relax.

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We are presented with an amuse-bouche. It is a broccoli mousse with port & cider vinegar and served with an alliance of Guinness crackers, crème fraiche and oats. It looks and tastes fabulous.

Rock starts her campaign with the barbecued asparagus with elderflower hollandaise and Roscoff onion. It arrives looking like an elegant haystack of asparagus and onion sitting on bright yellow hollandaise. She loves it. Chedzgal bravely votes for braised pig trotter with smoked eel and an apple dashi. To me it looks as unelectable as it sounds – but Chedz is clearly enjoying herself. Ralph and I both swing toward the blowtorched sole with gazpacho, almond & pickled grape. Another dish that is beautiful to look at and beautiful to eat.

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Barbecued asparagus, elderflower hollandaise & Roscoff onion

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Blowtorched sole, gazpacho, almond & pickled grape

I labour under the impression that great starters do not always mean great main courses but remain hopeful. Skate with crab, pickled peach & radish liberally decorated with flower petals and circled by a bisque arrive for Ralph & Chedzgal. Wow! I’m taking the conservative option of Hereford beef with seaweed and baby turnips. It is sensational. Rock is having the plaice with peas, broad beans & salted strawberries. I’ve run out of superlatives….

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Skate, crab, pickled peach & radish
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Hereford beef, seaweed, baby turnips
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Plaice, peas, broad beans, salted strawberries

 

The decision as to whether we have dessert is something of a landslide! We’ve lost any ability we may have had to be strong and stable. Chedzgal has the pine mousse with lemon sorbet, toasted almonds and frangipane. Rock & I share the BBQ apricot, apricot stone ice cream & rosemary meringue. Ralph has the Cheddar Valley strawberry, strawberry sorbet, chamomile & wheatgrass parfait. Another wow from everybody in our constituency.

And yet, one of the best moments of the meal is still to come! If you order coffee here, you also receive a party of petit fours. Bulrush petit fours are unlike anything I’ve had before. They look and taste like turkish delight, liquorice allsorts and toffee fudge but they are much better than that. A brilliant trick of design and taste.

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Throughout this meal George, and his colleagues in the kitchen, have shown great skill in their use of unusual ingredients and a fantastic touch when balancing unconventional flavour combinations. No room for debate  – this is quite simply one of the best meals we have had in the UK.

Lunch@The Artist, Bucharest

We are in Bucharest and we are looking for an unforgettable food experience. After a little research, we have settled on lunch at The Artist . Dutch chef, Paul Oppenkamp uses the kitchen at The Artist to create ‘delicious sculptures through the magic of texture, flavour and colour’. We are excited at the prospect.

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The restaurant is quiet when we arrive but it soon starts to fill up. I order a bottle of Ursus, a popular local Romanian lager. It is significantly better than other local beers I have tasted but that is not saying much – Romanian beer has not yet reached the heights of some of its European neighbours. Rock has The Artist Cocktail – a combination of lemongrass and elderflower, topped up with prosecco.  She is already enjoying herself.

The menu here is full of interesting dishes and they offer the option of spoon tasting! If you want to try all the starters, for example, they will give you a spoonful of each as your starter. Even the bread here is an event – small fresh, delicate rolls are served with olive oil foam and a special salt. Beautiful.

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Parmesan roll with olive oil foam

Then we have a dramatic amuse-bouche. Whipped brie, granola and an intense orange gel served on a bowl of dry ice and accompanied by sunflower seed crackers. Wow – great food with built in entertainment!

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Whipped brie, granola and orange gel

Unusually, Rock and I choose the same starter, hot smoked grilled trout with polenta, black garlic, onions, and whipped white cheese wrapped in a tomato gel. The trout is presented in a glass dome filled with smoke and the accompaniments are set out in a curve around the edge of the plate. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to eat.

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Hot smoked grilled trout, polenta, black garlic, whipped cheese & tomoto gel

No spoon tasting yet but it’s coming soon. Rock decides to have the white cod for her main – served with zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant and a gentle curry. It is sensational. But I’m going for spoons – I have a spoon of every main course – white cod, chicken, jumbo prawn, veal fillet, sea bass and lamb fillet. The portions give you enough to understand and appreciate the flavours of each dish but not so much as to make you feel like a glutton.

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White cod, zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant and curry.
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Spoons of lamb fillet, jumbo prawn, chicken, sea bass & veal fillet.  Bowl of white cod.

We don’t want this experience to end so, without really needing more food, we decide to share the dessert spoons. Another bit of theatre now follows. Paul comes out of the kitchen with a pestle and mortar. He places the mortar, which contains orange zest, mint and basil leaves in front of Rock. He pours dry ice over the leaves to freeze them and asks Rock to crush the leaves with the pestle. This releases the fabulous smell of mint, basil & orange and, into the crushed leaves, he drops a ball of cucumber sorbet – this is both a palate cleanser and a stunning first dessert.

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Cucumber sorbet with mint, basil & orange zest

The sorbet is followed by spoons of strawberry & white chocolate, a chocolate cigar with salted caramel and coconut and a raspberry cone with berries. Extraordinary. We draw out the experience further with great coffee and an exquisitely intense chocolate truffle.

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Spoons of salted caramel, chocolate & coconut, raspberry cone & berries, strawberry & white chocolate

The Artist is a very civilised, quiet and unassuming restaurant. The people here are polite, very helpful and very keen that their diners enjoy themselves. The food is presented in extraordinary ways and the flavours match the aesthetics. This has been one of the best eating experiences we have had anywhere in the world. It has been truly unforgettable.

Lunch@Rick Stein’s, Marlborough

The Rick Stein food empire has finally spread to Wiltshire and we are meeting our friends, Sassy & Jem, for lunch at his new restaurant in Marlborough. The Restaurant is in an 18th century listed building called Lloran House and it opened just a few weeks ago. Between us, we have experienced many of Rick Stein’s other eating establishments with some mixed results, from fabulous to poor. Here’s hoping today will be at the fabulous end of the spectrum!

Rock and Jem both have mackerel to start but prepared in different ways. Jem has the grilled mackerel fillets served with pickled autumn vegetables, chervil and chilli oil. Rock has the mackerel escabeche, fried and then marinated in olive oil, white wine vinegar and herbs. Sassy has the gigantes (giant butter beans) with tomatoes and greens. I have the crab linguine with tomato, garlic, chilli and spring onion. So far, so good.

Jem and I decide to sample the wine list. I have a glass of the Le Tuffeau, a zingy French sauvignon blanc and Jem has a glass of Rick’s own Spanish white made from viura and verdejo grapes. Both wines are very good.

Unlike everyone else at our table, I am not having fish for my main course. I have been tempted by the prospect of the pithivier filled with duck, porcini, red wine and Armagnac. The pithivier is enormous, big enough for at least two people, and served with new potatoes and cavolo nero. It is rich in flavour and tastes beautiful but, if I eat the whole pithivier, I may have to be carried out.

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Rock and Sassy both have the pan fried fillet of hake served with champ mash potato and wild mushrooms. The hake is perfectly cooked and the champ is beautifully smooth, though they would both have preferred less champ and more vegetables. Meanwhile, I am still working my way through the pithivier.

Jem is having the John Dory a la Carlina, pan fried John Dory fillets with a rich sauce of tomatoes and capers. The conversation moves from travel to books to TV and then onto live music. I’m too busy to talk though – I still have a quarter of the pithivier to deal with!

On a trip to the loo for a lie down… I discover that the restaurant is much larger than it looks from the outside. It has two floors and there are at least two dining rooms on each floor. I resist the temptation to run up and down the stairs a few times to aid the digestive process and hope that, over time, I will find a tiny space for dessert.

We continue talking and, when the time comes to order dessert, I know I should follow Rock’s lead and simply order coffee. But, I don’t. In a moment of abject greed, I order the marmalade cheesecake served with a blood orange granita. Sassy has the Riz Au Lait, a warm rice pudding with spiced pineapple – which she says is her favourite dish of the day and Jem has the crèma catalana – a catalan crème brulee.

Even though I have clearly eaten far too much today and may spend the night dreaming about a giant pie, with the wings of a duck, flying towards me…..the overall experience has been towards the fabulous end of the scale!

Lunch@The Porter, Bath (take 2)

The political balance of the world has recently been destabilised by unexpected results on both sides of the Atlantic. Concerned, we are aiming to bring a greater degree of sanity to our lives by having lunch with our good friends Ralph and Chedzgal. We are back at The Porter in Bath, for the second time this year, to meet them. For an hour or so, by proxy, we will be in an alternative reality! 

The Porter is civilised without being too stuffy. Chedzgal and I both launch our campaign with a carafe of Lacrimus Rioja, a bright young tempranillo with some primary notes of aged oak. In a concerted effort to create some sort of culinary coalition of eating experiences – we all vote for different candidates from both the starter and the main course menus.

Rock elects to have the pheasant and smoked bacon terrine with rosemary focaccia and a deposit of fig purée. Ralph has the braised pedigree pork rillette with pickled apple, Bramley apple purée and toasted sourdough. Chedzgal lobbies for the Little Haven crab with Bath Harvest lemon infused rapeseed oil, pickled carrot and a party of lavosh biscuits. I have the beautiful Pembrokeshire crab with squid ink spaghetti. We all make noises of approval, except Ralph, who ignores the majority…. he is not enjoying the rillette.

Ralph is happy to move on to the grilled plaice with a convention of hand-cut chips, leeks, spinach and a fish velouté. Chedzgal selects the slow roasted shoulder of lamb on a platform of smashed swede & potato and served with a port wine sauce. I have the honey roasted duck breast with dauphinoise potatoes, roasted carrots, cassis sauce and a marginal amount of celeriac purée. Rock’s choice is the corn fed chicken breast with a landslide of savoy cabbage & chorizo, sauteed potatoes and a Madeira sauce. All these dishes are very good indeed… even Ralph joins the delegation in having a good time!

Rock and I swing toward sharing the vanilla pannacotta with warm apple & blackberry compote and oat crumble. Ralph has the clementine crème brulee in congress with blood orange sorbet and candied almonds. Chedzgal opts for the salted caramel chocolate mousse with peanut butter ice cream. We all embark on a policy of bringing the proceedings to an end with a mint tea.

It is difficult to trump the experience of fine food and wine enjoyed with fabulous company….it may not put the world to rights but we feel better for it!

Lunch@The Barbary, Covent Garden

Rock and I are standing in a queue, waiting for The Barbary to open its doors. We’ve had to come early not only to ensure we get in, you can’t book, but also because we are going to the theatre later. The Barbary takes its inspiration from the food of the North African Barbary Coast. It is the sister restaurant to The Palomar in Soho that we visited about a year ago and loved.

The doors open and we are led into the restaurant which has a u-shaped kitchen bar at the centre. Diners sit on bar stools and watch as their food is being prepared.  The area inside the bar is a hive of activity as chefs, grills and ovens all work together to create fabulous smells and flavours. I think this is going to be extraordinary….

Also behind the bar is Esther, who cheerfully takes us through the menu, explains how everything works and delivers my Fevertree ginger beer. Once we know what we are having – it is great fun to follow each dish as it goes under the grill or into the oven.  Food is served as soon as it is ready.

Arayes – grilled pitta pockets filled with lamb & beef, onion and various herbs arrive with a tahini dip. Ashkenazi chicken liver is like a coarse paté served with spring onion and a strip of pickled gherkin. Pata Negra neck is a fillet of chargrilled pork that comes with ras el hanout, baked confit garlic and date honey. Terry’s Tirshy is a fabulous dish of sweet pumpkin dressed with toasted almonds. Cauliflower jaffa style is a combination of deep-fried florets, tomato and lots more herbs and spices. We feast our way through all of this with a naan e Barbari – possibly one of the best naan breads I have ever eaten and cooked in the clay oven only three feet from where we are sitting.

If all of that was not enough, we still have time for dessert. We decide to share a combination of Medjool date ice cream and baklava. The baklava are beautiful and the ice cream is an ideal accompaniment. Fresh mint tea helps us to digest all this fantastic fare.

I thought this was going to be extraordinary….actually, it was better than that.

Lunch@Carters, 2016

Today we are going on a food adventure. Rock and I have been to Carters before and we know we’ll have food experiences that are both interesting and unusual. We are having lunch with our dear friend Douglas who, until now, has not had the opportunity to visit Carters.  Hopefully, he will enjoy himself as much as we did last time we were here.

At lunchtime you can choose from a menu of 3, 5 or 8 courses. Most courses are modest in size but, whichever number you choose, you also get three additional ‘snacks’. Three courses plus three snacks will be enough for us. While we study the menu we order a glass of Auratus Alvarinho for Rock, a beautiful Portuguese Vinho Verde and a fabulous IPA from the Long Arm Brewing Company for me. Douglas is keeping his head clear for the food experience to come.

The first snack arrives – chicken liver cereal. A breakfast bowl of cereals, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and herbs that cover a delicate chicken liver paste. It is extraordinary how they have managed to produce such a mixture of fantastic flavours and textures that all work together in a small dish. Douglas is already impressed.

The other two snacks are not quite as inspiring. The Ogleshield Gougeres are small choux pastry affairs, similar to a profiterole, but filled with Ogleshield cheese. The Brixham scallop with coral roe dashi and kelp is tiny but full of flavour.

For our first course, Rock and I both choose the flamed mackerel with greengage and back fat. When it is presented the dish does not look that inviting – but it does taste a great deal better than it looks. Douglas has clearly made the wisest choice! He is having the Mayan gold mash with marrow bone gravy. Rock and I both have to try it and we all agree that it is a joy.

Next Rock is having the North Coast hake with black garlic, trompettes and shiso. It looks extraordinary…a mound of black & purple sitting in a black pool. Again, the flavours are just superb. Douglas and I are both having the red-legged partridge with polenta and wiltshire truffle. I’m not the biggest fan of truffle, it can be overpowering, and there are a considerable number of truffle shavings on my plate. But, I should not have been concerned – the kitchen has balanced the truffle perfectly with the partridge. Excellent.

For dessert Rock and Douglas both have the black fig tart with Moseley Honey and fig leaf ice cream. I’m having the salted caramel mousse with Russet apples. Both desserts are beautiful. We know this food adventure is drawing to a close but we are enjoying ourselves so much we order coffee.

It is explained to us that they do not do traditional coffee here but a pourover, drip filter method of brewing. We cannot resist. Several items of equipment are brought to our table as the method is explained to us at some length. There is a point when we all believe that the resulting coffee cannot possibly live up to the hype….but is is very fine coffee indeed.

Overall, our latest visit to Carters has been fabulous. Even better, we have shared the experience with Douglas. This is a place that every food lover should visit!

Dinner@Bica do Sapato, Lisbon

Last night in Lisbon and last night in Portugal….we need to finish on a high. Bica do Sapato is a smart restaurant housed in an old port building. Glass walls on one side give fabulous views over the waterfront and photographic panels on the other walls change every now and then to create a more interesting environment. Music plays gently in the background and the whole feel of the place is very sophisticated.

Nearly every time we have dined in Portugal we have been presented with bread and olives while we look through the menu. We usually send them back because we know there is a cover charge and we don’t want to pay for something that we are not going to enjoy. Here, however, the bread selection and the olives look beautiful and are accompanied by a chicken liver paté and a lightly spiced butter. We’re not sending any of this back…

Once we have decided on food we ask about which wine would complement our dishes and we both have a glass of the Casa de Santar Reserva, a fine and fruity Portuguese red.

Rock is having the stewed pork cheek with creamy potato purée and a poached quail’s egg. It is absolutely beautiful. I have chosen the grilled swordfish served with couscous, tomatoes, lemongrass and ginger. It is superb – the swordfish is meaty enough to work well with the fabulous flavours of the lemongrass and ginger.

For dessert we decide to share the lemon meringue tart with red fruit sorbet. Instead of simply giving us two spoons – the kitchen divides the tart onto two plates each with a quenelle of sorbet. Fine pastry, tangy lemon, delicate meringues and a lovely sorbet. A fitting end to an elegant and enjoyable meal. We would have stayed for coffee, and maybe a port, but the gentle background music has changed…

Earlier we were getting music similar in style to Richard Hawley or I Am Kloot and these helped to enhance the ambience of the restaurant. This changed to something that sounded like a cross between Bon Jovi and Anthony & the Johnsons – the volume has been turned up and some of it sounds like harrassed wailing. It all feels very intrusive and entirely inappropriate.

Overall, we loved the food and the service. The restaurant is a fabulous and sophisticated setting. Whoever is in charge really needs to make sure the music is in harmony with the food, the setting and the people who are paying the bill!