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9 posts from October 2005

30 October 2005

Tastingmenu - read, weep

I do my best to make the content on this site as interesting and relevant as possible.  I also try to make it look good.  I've even been mulling a bit of a redesign of the site. 

However, I might as well give up.  Tastingmenu has always looked astounding and recently got even better.  They have developed a cookbook - Autumn Omakase - that is stunning and free. 

On the site they describe it as

One tasting menu. Nine recipes. One hundred-twenty four pages of obsessive detail. 399 gorgeous photos of every step, not just of the final dish.

Do yourself a favour - go and download it, now.  Even if you can't read, still download it - the pictures are mindblowing.  The fact you can get this for free does raise the question of why we buy expensive cookbooks with crap photos and recipes.

28 October 2005

The Man from El Bulli, he say Non

I forgot to put into my diary which day the reservations opened up for El Bulli for the 2006 season.  Given that they have bazillions of requests for about two tables I realised my chances were limited.  Next year will be additionally busy given that the restaurant will be shut in 2007.

Anyway, I received today the response to my original email, which, other than niceties said

I would like to reserve a table for 2 people on any date, at any time, for 2006.

And the response I got today was

Apreciados Señores,

We regret not to be able to please your request.  Our problem increases since to the clients who wish to return we must add all the people who wish to visit El Bulli for the first time. We have started reservations management on mid October and have received again on the first day an extraordinary demand that has surpassed ours limited possibilities of reserves for one season. We apologize to you.

If you wish you can consult to us when the beginning of season approaches or near the date or dates in which you can visit to us. We must confirm many dates and, once fixed, we must reconfirm all a week before.

We will be at your disposal at [email protected] or at telephone  +34 972 15 04 57  (during the season, from 3.00 p.m.).


Luis García

I shall of course do as Snr García recommends and try again.

27 October 2005

Google to help with recipes

Epicurious and Recipe Gullet had better watch out.  It seems that Google is on the recipe case.  According to leaks from the mighty campus, Google is testing a new product, currently called Google Base, that will be an über-database.  It seems from various blogs and screenshots that Google wants punters to upload any data sets they want and this information will then be searchable based on Google algorithms. 

Google Base has a number of pre-defined categories, one of them being recipes.  It will be interesting to see how this works.  It could be a nightmare free-for-all where ounces and kilos mix with abandon.  Or, if Google manages to pull another stoncker out of the hat, it could be a dream.  Afterall, despite eGullet's opinion of itself, it doesn't have anything even approaching the reach of Google.  Which means, there is much greater opportunity of finding that rare recipe for the dish you ate on the road between Jaipur and Agra.

Although there has been a lot of noise that this is Google trying to compete with eBay, it seems to me that this is more likely to be Google trying to create an alternative to individual webpages and blogs.  I think Google's offering could be attractive to those out there who want a way to sort and share their information, are comfortable with the Google interface but spooked by anything more technological.

Currently, it's offline, but the screenshots linked to above (from Google Blogoscoped) all originated from base.google.com.

26 October 2005

Are UNESCO foodies at heart?

I'm not one for over-weening regulation, give me a free market anyday.  But, the decision by UNESCO (the United Nation's cultural arm) to "promote the diversity of cultural expressions" may have some interesting consequences for the global food industry - and not the crappy end of the market, but the decent, dare I say, gourmet, market.

UNESCO has reached an agreement that all participating member states will protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions.  Essentially this is a protectionist measure.  UNESCO made no attempt to define what is a cultural expression, it is what people want it to be.  It would therefore seem to protect everything from Morris Dancing in the UK, to foie gras production in France.  If you are an interested party and decide that what you are doing adds to the cultural diversity of the UNESCO member states, then you are, in theory, protected by this agreement. 

Food is one area that is often cited as being cultural and one can see the benefits of such an agreement to foie gras producers fighting the movement to ban their products.  The farmer's argument, especially in France, is that this is a cultural product, the UNESCO Convention works to promote that and any attempt to interfere with cultural diversity is contrary to the Convention.  In theory, that's fine for protecting the general production of foie gras.  It's less fine if the Convention is pushed to its logical conclusion that only France can produce foie gras, because it is such a central part of French culture.

However, we don't need the UN to make such rulings.  Afterall, this week the European Court of Justice ruled that only feta cheese produced in Greece is feta.  I'm not going to go into the merits or otherwise of the Court's decision.  There are numerous food products that are given "Protected Designation of Origin" status.  Think Champagne, Brie de Meaux, Kalamata olives, Parmigiano Reggiano.  The list goes on and on, so one can see why the Greek feta producers were so keen to get PDO status for their product. 

What is interesting is how the UNESCO agreement will sit with the EU's support for PDO status.  Unlike the ECJ, UNESCO's Convention has no way of ensuring compliance.  As the press release to the Convention says

"The Convention does not include any mechanism for sanctions."

Therefore, there's nothing binding about the Convention and there's no way of making it binding.  But, one has to believe that the Convention came about, at least in part, because of bodies such as the ECJ making rulings in favour of specific geographies and the produce that comes from them.

What does this mean for us food lovers?  It should help ensure that we get original products.  Hopefully, that means the best products, but there is no certainty of that.  If there is a general move towards protectionism, it might also mean higher prices as supply is reduced.  The PDO status affects the name given to products, not the way they are produced.  As such, cheeses similar to Parmesan can be made elsewhere, but only those from the Reggiano can be called Parmigiano Reggiano.  It is not clear whether the UNESCO ruling will act in a similar way, but if it's not, then this could further add to prices.  It would seem to be an impossibly large task to police it any other way.  The other impact that comes to mind is that it is yet another hit to those producers who make products that are to intents and purposes the same, just not made in the relevant region.  Judy Bell's Shepherds Purse Cheeses, that she called yorkshire feta are going to have to be entirely rebranded.

As with all these global decisions, one often has to just wait-and-see before we can judge just how effective the Convention is going to be.  It would be nice to think this will work out and will on the one hand help protect cultural diversity, but not be used as a protectionist tool.

17 October 2005

The Dashwood ****


Spent the weekend at this new hotel, with a really excellent restaurant at heart but which has tendencies towards ambivalence (how wanky does that sound).

The place has only been open for about 3 months and has boutique hotel written all over it - but don't knock it because of that. This is not your average hotel restaurant. The cooking is self assured, although at times someone goes a bit heavy handed on flavour. A roast plum tomato soup was excellent, ideal for a cool autumn night, but spoiled slightly by being a bit too sweet. I don't reckon the tomatoes were really that sweet and I think someone added a tsp too much of sugar or tomato paste. However, my leek and stilton soufflé was perfect. It was light and creamy but full of the flavour of the two main ingredients.

My tuna on curried lentils tasted perfect. The fish being a chunky steak, a good few inches thick. Unfortunately, again it was let down by someone being a bit overzealous in the kitchen. This time by half of it being cooked to medium, whereas the other half was cooked to the seared I asked for.

The crème brulee tasted delicious, but suffered initially for the sugar crust being warm, but the custard being cold. After returning it to the kitchen once, the second one that came out was the right temp, just, but the crust was a soggy skin, rather than crispy.

The odd thing is that despite these mishaps I really enjoyed my meal. Clearly they've got things to sort out. I don't understand why restaurants continue to serve olive oil and balsamic together in a dish with bread. Especially when the oil and vinegar are both sub-standard. The vinegar being yackingly sweet, the oil being totally unremarkable.

The bread however, was mind blowingly good. With the pass open to the restaurant, we could see the brigade regularly removing freshly baked loaves from the oven. Clearly someone was putting in a lot of love to the bread, unfortunately it was being spoilt if anyone was silly enough to introduce it to the oil/vinegar combo. When paired with butter, it was mighty fine.

Final gripe, the orange juice at breakfast was synthetic tasting stuff from schweppes. In my book, there's no excuse for this, although they mumbled something about a big order, not enough demand blah blah. Tropicana would have been better than schweppes' virtual concentrate.

Despite all this, I had a great meal. I think things like the olive oil are so easy to sort out and I get the impression that chef Marcel Taylor (no idea where he was before) is still finding his feet in the restaurant. The menu was interesting and enjoyable, with good nods to seasonality (e.g. veg special of roast pumpkin). Re-reading this post, it all looks negative and it really isn't meant to come across that way. I think the only reason I give a toss about oil, oj etc etc is because by correcting these small things they could make this a great, solid restaurant for special weekend lunches.

I haven't mentioned the wines yet. The current list is very reasonable with bottles of red running from c.£10 - c.£45, but pretty short, no more than 10 wines per colour. However, I get the impression they are updating the list, if for no other reason than putting on the vintages that are currently absent.

Give this place another month and with any luck it will have sorted itself out. The restaurant was booked out on both Friday and Saturday night, and relatively busy on Saturday lunch. It seems to be popular with someone.

The rooms in the hotel were beautiful.  There are two buildings on the property, the main one with the restaurant and a barn at the side.  We were in the barn.  Our room had lots of the features you'd expect - power shower, posh smelly things, flat screen TV with DVD.  It was all peaceful muted browns and beiges.  Yes, it might not be entirely original, but it was perfect for a weekend break from London.  Just what we needed.  Clearly the owners put in a lot of effort to make sure the details were right.  I know, why can't they get things like orange juice right, then?  Anyway, the combination of the rooms and food definitely make it worth visiting.

In case management ever read this I have a quick request.  Please don't have such a Flash heavy website.  It's a pain in the arse not being able to copy your postcode into a mapping programme or website.  It looks good, but is not user friendly.

The Dashwood, South Green, Heyford Road, Kirtlington, Oxfordshire, 0X5 3HJ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)1869 352 707

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think
So far, I'm the only one with any thoughts, as far as I can tell

12 October 2005

Zvika New York Deli **



Kosher restaurants are few and far between in London, especially in the West End.  So when Zvika opened just off Oxford Street, earlier this year, there was palpable excitement amongst those of us who crave after a bit of kosher meat during the work day.

Those restaurants that do exist, such as Six-13 or Bevis Marks tend to be smart sit-down affairs.  I believe that only Reuben's on a pretty inaccessible stretch of Baker Street does take-away and is in town.  Like Reuben's, Zvika New York Deli (why the New York, it's in London? duh) goes strong on the salt beef and latkes tradition of heimeshe food.  This is traditionally the kind of stuff that was great for building up the fat when you were tilling the land and freezing your arse off in a field somewhere outside Lvov.  It's not so good if you're stuck behind a desk all day, but you are still building up the fat.  Nonetheless, there is a place for this food and if I'm honest, I love the idea.  Unfortunately, the execution rarely lives up to expectations.  Zvika is no exception.

First, its location is odd.  It is as I've said, just off Oxford Street - in theory fine, especially as it's the Soho side, near Tottenham Court Road.  However, by some impressive miracle, the owners (Zvika I am guessing is one of them) have chosen the one street in Soho with minimal passing traffic.  Nonetheless, they've got a corner site, which I'm told is always a good thing - although I've no idea why that's the case. 

On the ground floor is the take-away.  As you walk in there's a large glass refrigerated display case, behind which are a number of grills, microwaves and other similar accoutrements.  It was slightly odd to see that half of this display case was entirely empty, whereas the other half was crammed with metal tubs of salads, hoummous and the like.  I decided to try out the restaurant up-stairs as opposed to the uncomfortable looking window bar on the ground floor. There is also seating downstairs.

A winding narrow flight of stairs, opens onto a brightish room which is snug to say the least - although gives the pleasing impression of being hidden away and far from the madding crowd of Soho.  A plate of coleslaw was presented.  As an amuse bouche, I suppose.  It was fine, nothing special and could have done with some pitta, but given that it lacked onion and was nice and peppery, I was happy to finish it off.  I ordered some babaganoush and pitta to start followed by the salt beef sandwich and the Jewish Stella - Diet Coke.

The babaganoush I am convinced was not babaganoush.  It looked and tasted more like aubergine in tomato sauce.  It was nice, again it won't blow you away, but it wasn't what I ordered.  I didn't kick up a fuss because I couldn't be bothered and I noticed some of the difficulties my fellow diners had in getting the waitresses to understand them.  The waitresses were very sweet but simply couldn't understand the punters - I got slightly concerned when one of the familiar looking chaps behind me was trying to enquire whether any of the bread had sesame seeds in it, as he had a deathly allergy.  Having left my adrenaline pen at home yesterday, I decided not to hang around too long to see if she really understood what he was saying.

Anyway, after the baba/aubergine disappeared, the sandwich soon arrived.  It wasn't too bad, it was moist and there was a decent amount of meat piled between the soggy rye.  Although, I reckon that if a 2nd Avenue refugee was given this sandwich they'd pass out with hunger or storm out in indignation at the paltry quantity.  This was not New York deli quantities, although for that matter, we don't want New York deli waistlines.  The potato salad it was served with, tasted of mayo and nothing else, and the new green cucumber was slightly shrivelled.  The best I can say is that it was okay.

I decided not to stick around for dessert, the mellifluous tones of Frank Sinatra and the heavy food meant I was dozing and the last thing I needed was a depth-charge for dessert.  I did have a lemon tea, which although seemingly impossible to get wrong tasted odd.  Somehow, despite both tea bag and lemon slices being present, it tasted of neither.

I hope Zvika does well but I fear it won't.  The quality just isn't that good and there seem to be quite a few mistakes.  With the exception of the two ladies sitting opposite me, who were bandying around ideas for a new TV food programme, something about the viewers reviewing restaurants, I heard several of the other tables complaining that what they ordered had not arrived, or the menu didn't tally with the plate.   If, however, they can raise the quality and get things right, then hopefully it will still be around in six months time and continue to cater to those shtetl cravings.

Zvika New York Deli, 8 Great Chapel Street, London, W1F 8FG, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7434 2733

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think
So far, they're keeping quiet

11 October 2005

Culinary sins

What with it being the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and generally a time of reflection and repentence, my thoughts turned to the culinary sins I've committed over the past year.  None of us is a paragon of virtue and we have to come clean when we've cocked-up.

As I see it, my sins, not in order of severity, are:

  1. Throwing away some just cooked spinach, because although it was just cooked, it had just been cooked for about half an hour too long and looked vile.  It didn't taste too good either.
  2. I used some lamb bones in a beef stock because I was worried that I didn't have sufficient quantities of dead cow.  I was wrong and paid sorely with a fatty stock - Thomas Keller would not have been impressed.
  3. I haven't sharpened my knives regularly or sufficiently, resulting in the skin tearing on at least one tomato.
  4. I have, on some occasions, stored my eggs in the fridge.
  5. I have for ease, purchased salad-in-the-bag, rather than doing the washing and cutting myself.

These are the ones that immediately come to mind, and for those I am sorry and fully repentant.  I am sure there are many others and for those too I am sorry and fully repentant.

With any luck, next year won't be full of so many slip-ups and instead I can steer a straight and narrow culinary course.