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6 posts from December 2006

29 December 2006


I am in the process of reading Hervé This' Molecular Gastronomy.  Heston Blumenthal praises This in this month's Observer Food Monthly.  I was trying to explain why to Silverbrowess last night.  Although the phrase might be clumsy (as Blumenthal explains) Molecular Gastronomy has been pinned to a movement led by chefs like Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Thomas Keller.  They are differentiated because they all believe that a strong scientific grounding is essential in the kitchen.  Silverbrowess argued that using science is not really cooking, I disagreed.  When most people want a soft boiled egg they know it takes about three or four (not eight as I said originally, oops) minutes in boiling water, but they don't understand why - and what about if you were on top of Mount Everest?  Similarly, some people know how to cook a rib of beef so that it is rare in the middle, but do not fully appreciate the process of cooking the meat and how it changes as it is heated.  Applying science in kitchen should mean we can always boil an egg perfectly and never again suffer dried out roasts.  Using or at least understanding the science, helps to ensure we get things right in the kitchen.  It is not all about snail porridge or ISI whips.

Until recently, the scientific stuff was the preserve of exclusive and expensive restaurants such as The Fat Duck or El Bulli.  Their chefs had the time and money to research.  At Bacchus they are trying to make this kind of food far more accessible.  The restaurant is in an old pub in Hoxton, an area of London's East End that has undergone significant gentrification over the last few years.  It still looks like a pub, but a smart one with dark woods, muted lighting and an expensive looking sound system.  The kitchen, and most importantly the pass, are directly opposite the door, so the first thing you see as you walk in is chef Nuno Mendes.  His floppy, lank black hair, wispy goatee and brooding manner give him the appearance of a young Salvador Dali.  Some might argue his creations are just as outlandish the artists' paintings.

When we sat down we were told some of the dishes, including the nine-course tasting menu were unavailable.  The inter-Christmas/New Year period meant they were unable to get all their usual produce.  We were also told there was no salmon, where necessary it would be replaced with halibut.  I am not sure this is a like for like swap, but both are fairly meaty, dense fish and clearly Nuno thought it would work.  We were advised to try the two house cocktails.  I cannot remember what they were called but they were both served in martini glasses, with a thick layer of foam atop a colourful liquid.  Silverbrowess' was much more refreshing, with strong hints of apple and citrus, making it quite a summery drink.  Whereas mine was much more seasonal, with lots of spice, orange and cinnamon.  They were fine, but a bit too sickly sweet for me.

If I have any criticism of the meal, it is that orange and cinnamon featured far too frequently.  I know it is the season for citrus and spice but after a while it began to grate.  Especially as the cinnamon was so intense.  I appreciate the kitchen were trying to create a theme, but they could have been a bit more subtle about it.

However, I need to caveat my criticism of the cinnamon, because it was the sheer intensity of flavour that set this meal apart from so many other restaurants.  This was best demonstrated at the beginning of the meal with the amuse bouche of tortilla and our starter of Sweet potato veloute, spiced onion cake, greek yoghurt foam.  The tortilla tasted just as you would expect of a good spanish omelette: egg, potato and onion, plus a hint of paprika.  Except, this was more like a thick soup than an omelette.  It was a perfect example of understanding the ingredients, getting the best out of them, but using them in a new way.  I accept there is not necessarily much merit in redesigning something perfectly good, but it was a clever dish and tasted good.  It also acted as a sign-post to the diner that they were about to experience a meal with a few twists.

The depth of flavour of our starter was particularly complex.  If you tasted each item by itself, it tasted of the most flavoursome sweet potato or greek yoghurt, but once you started combining the various bits and pieces, it became something new, constantly evolving as you ate.  The spiced onion cake was more like a crumble and the texture worked well with the almost-viscose veloute and foam.  However, the spice I noticed most was the dreaded cinnamon.

For main course Silverbrowess had the Halibut (formerly salmon), black olives, date and hazelnut puree, pate de brique.  The dense sweetness of the date and hazelnut worked beautifully with the black olives, which were essentially served as a juice, rather than solid.  The combination of salt and sweet was in perfect harmony.  As with all the fish on the menu, and I believe most of the meat, the halibut had been cooked sous-vide, because, when done properly, it ensures perfectly cooked fish.   As was the case last night.

My main course of Warm cod, sofrito traditional, espuma de bacolao and honey was equally  good.  The espuma, yet another conceit of MG, was astounding.  It was a foamy combination of salt cod and potato.  It was very nearly the epitome of the perfect potato dish, that was until I tasted the side of Truffle potato puree, which I could have happily eaten double portions of.   Although very unseasonal, the tomatoes, hiding underneath the cod had great flavour, very sweet.  Less of a success, was the flavour of orange, that I think came from an oil, that seemed to spike the dish.  However, as with the starter I found this dish a revelation, every flavour and texture working in harmony with the next.  We also tried Spinach Catalan side dish.  It was a great combination of flavour and texture: raw spinach leaves served with a reduction of pine nuts and currants.

We could not decide which desserts to have, so asked Jay, the general manager, to choose for us.  She suggested a tasting plate (excluding the chocolate cake, because there was a problem with the ovens so it had not been made).  Of all the courses this was the most disappointing.  The roasted pear ice-cream served on the black olive financier was good, but not great.  After the flavour assault launched in the previous two courses, dessert seemed a bit muted.  Cinnamon reared its head in spades on the plate, especially in the polenta cake.

Simply put, the meal was exceptional.  That may be because I have met Phil Mossop the owner a couple of times and made the booking directly through him, so we got special treatment.  From the obvious pleasure of other diners and the good reviews, I do not reckon that is the case.   An exceptional meal and experience is this restaurant's stock in trade.

The only serious criticism I have heard is from a friend who writes about food and wine for a few national newspapers.  He and another food writer were having lunch at Bacchus and complained in particular about the service.  Although it was not spot-on last night, it was good.

It is worth noting this restaurant has only been open two months and Phil is displaying either great trust or stupidity in his staff because he is on holiday at the moment.  On the basis of last night, I think Phil was displaying well placed trust, because although the service was a bit patchy from some of the staff, Jay was exceptional.  She was exceptionally attentive and her enthusiasm for Nuno's cooking was infectious.  However, she was let down by some of her colleagues.  I asked the waitress who served the bread whether it was made in the restaurant.  She said she didn't know but would find out and come back to us.  She didn't.  In many restaurants this is only a minor glitch, but in Bacchus, where there is so much focus on the techniques behind the food and its presentation, it seemed odd that she didn't know and forgot to ask.  However, at the risk of repeating myself, Jay was very good.  She even apologised over the minor delay, two minutes at most, of one of the house cocktails and comped us the drink.  An unnecessary, but welcome gesture.

This restaurant deserves all the praise it has received so far.  They are successfully (with the exception of desserts) introducing new cooking concepts and therefore new flavour profiles to a wider audience.  They are doing it in a very relaxed atmosphere, with generally good service.  For many Hoxton is the arse-end of beyond, I would not let that put you off.

Bacchus, 177 Hoxton Street, London, N1 6PJ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7613 0477

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What others say

The Observer - for the most part, it is delicious and never less than intriguing.
The Sunday Times - Given that there was a bit too much spume, air and foam for my liking, the food was remarkably inventive and cleverly thought out. The flavours were at worst interesting and at best inspired.

27 December 2006

The Reindeer

It is questionable whether a write-up about a restaurant that has now shut its doors for good, or at least for a year, is a timely one.  I suppose at best it is useful for posterity.

It is also questionable whether a write-up based on a meal on the last night of a now closed restaurant is useful at all.  It is generally considered bad form to review a restaurant in its first couple of weeks because they are only just getting into their stride (viz St Alban's soft soft opening compared to its soft opening) and should be ironing out some cracks.

So where does that leave me writing about my meal at The Reindeer on its last night of operation?  Again, there might be some value in it for posterity and my own vanity.  I can say, "I was there" if it turns out that is important.  Silverbrowess and our friends the Newlyweds, are also able to make that claim.

The Reindeer received a lot of interest recently for two reasons: it is hip and like all things hip, it is fleeting.  It was opened by the team behind Bistrotheque, and was only open for the month of December.  And even that was truncated: 1 December - 23 December.  I understand that they might repeat the experiment next year in New York and so on around the world.  If they do, I am not sure whether I will bother becoming a Reindeer groupie, other than for the benefit of saying "I was there."  I am unsure where Silverbrowess and the Bythennotsonewlyweds will stand on the matter.

The food was very good, especially given the high risk that the theatre of the restaurant risked overshadowing what was put on the plate.  I have not eaten at Bistrotheque but clearly from the respective menus (The Reindeer, Bistrotheque) the food is of a type.  However, we were told that none of the staff, either front of house or in the kitchen are the same.  The owners were explicit they wanted separate ventures.

Rather disappointingly for this write-up, the breadth of dishes around the table was limited.  Me and Mrs Newlywed both started with a very tasty celeriac and black truffle soup.  White truffles are usually the superior model (and nearing the end of their season) but the soup was excellent.  It was rich, with distinctive nutty, earthy flavours.  I don't think that truffle oil was added, but if it was, it was decent stuff, not the over chemicalised slick too often glugged by chefs trying to impress.  Silverbrowess opted for a roquefort, walnut, pousse and orange salad, which she said was good, Mr Newlywed had a similar verdict on his smoked salmon.  For those wondering, pousse is a type of spinach.

For mains, me and Mrs Newlywed both had the veggie option of a pithivier of roast veg with sprout tops, camembert and chestnuts.  This was an exceptional dish.  I fall into the lazy school of sprout haters, but combined with pungent camembert and sweet chestnuts, the almost sweet sprout tops (tasting not too different from turnip tops) were the highlight of the night.  Chestnuts and sprouts are a fairly traditional Christmas dish, adding Camembert to it, lifted it above the normal dross doled out on December 25th.

Silverbrowess and Mr Newlywed both opted for the poached trout, wilted spinach, caper and lemon butter.  Again, both deemed it very nice.  It didn't blow my socks off but was a solid dish with strong flavours.  The trout was beautifully cooked, with the skin glistening.  The flesh yielded to the fork in dense white flakes.  Desserts were similarly well accomplished, helped by the demob happy staff who were happy to chuck comped dishes and drinks our way all night.  My favourite was the bread and butter pudding, easy to do well but so often cocked-up.

This was a very enjoyable meal, the food was good and the service was excellent.  There was a real sense of it being the end of term for the staff.  From what they were saying, Christmas would be a well deserved rest.  Our waiter told us they were notching up fifteen hour days, I heard a waitress say that in two weeks she had worked over 200 hours.  Clearly they have not heard of the Working Time Directive.  However, despite a relaxed air and shattered staff, service was excellent.  I was a bit disappointed at the number of dishes off the menu, especially the wild mushroom and champagne risotto and the four of the twenty reds all dried up.  But given the place was only open for a month and this was the last night, it could have been worse.

It is irrelevant to say whether I would go back again but I will say that if they do move to New York next year, I would strongly suggest that for some fun and decent food you go along.  It will not be an astounding meal, there is no point Frank Bruni reviewing it, but it will be a very good meal, you will enjoy your meal and more importantly, the evening.  Does anyone really want much more from a restaurant?

15 December 2006

A breather

Technology and bad time management have prevented me from writing sooner.  What I had wanted to say was that things will be quiet during December as I am on holiday. 

Try not to miss me too much.

04 December 2006

Jerusalem artichokes

Given my dinner of Jerusalem artichoke soup last night, Matthew Fort's warnings about unintended consequences is exceptionally timely.

03 December 2006

Serious Eats

Serious Eats launches officially tomorrow, Monday 4 December.

It is the brainchild of Ed Levine and appears to be yet another attempt to form an online food community.  The difference with this one, is that it has got some high profile bloggers writing and editing: Adam Kuban of A Hamburger Today and Slice, Meg Hourihan of Megnut, Alaina Browne of A Full Belly and Adam Roberts, The Amateur Gourmet.  If they can pull it off, they could be on to a winner with this site.  They are all excellent writers with good knowledge.  They might be able to succeed where Chow is still flailing around.

From the preview I have seen, the site looks good and has some interesting content.  For example, they have video of a discussion between Jeffrey Steingarten (author and Vogue's food critic) and Susie Essman, Susie Greene in Curb Your Enthusiasm.  They are chatting about their fantasy dinner dates - Jessica Simpson for him, Sigmund Freud for her.

Whoever wrote the blurb for the website described it as "the first website for serious eaters."  This self-important statement may come back to haunt them, unless it is said with tongue firmly in cheek - I fear it is not.  Having said that, they do have some heavy hitters behind them and if nothing else, once all those bloggers above put up posts announcing its launch, it will drive a lot of traffic towards the site.  Although, visitors alone does not ensure the quality of a site.  What might make this one work however, is the combination of decent editorial and member participation.

The site includes a forum for members to chat about food, a best of the web section, where the site's editors post what interests them from other blogs/websites, as well as the aforementioned videos and essays.  This will be one to watch.

01 December 2006


If you like Cinnabon, you may not appreciate Gridskipper's take on this fine dining establishment. The money quotes are:

The Cinnabon itself is something of a modern marvel of mankind. Hardly anything that came out of the Earth finds itself present.

Oh, and

One thing the Cinnabon is is delicious. Who can resist the warm semenlike sauce, running down the chins of patrons like a confectioner's bukkake party?