« July 2010 | Main | September 2010 »

4 posts from August 2010

31 August 2010

Rosh Hashanah 2010

That nip in the air this morning means only one thing: Rosh Hashanah is around the corner and that means time to think of large quantities of food to feed the masses.

Actually, this year the masses are a bit depleted, so I reckon bollito misto is a bit too full on.  Perhaps time to reprise salt beef or pot au feu?  Certainly an opportunity for chopped liver and chicken soup is a given.  I'm not sure I'm in the mood for kreplach (which I now see I've never written about, something else to add to the to do list), but they are very good, so they might make the cut.

I think I will delve into one of the Ottolenghi books for some salad inspiration.  With the lunar calendar dictating that Rosh Hashanah falls relatively early this year, I might just still be able to take advantage of some late summer bounty.  It also means that I'm late in the game thinking about my menus a week and a half in advance.

I always get a bit stumped on desserts although my apple and pepper sorbet tends to be quite popular and family can always be trusted to bring cake, fruit and other delights.  Maybe I should make a second sorbet, something berry related might work well.

Time to get thinking and ordering.

23 August 2010

Podcast with Nathan Myhrvold

image from www.silverbrowonfood.comIt is fairly clear that I was sceptical of the merits of Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.  After the fact, I thought I should probably give Nathan the right to reply and asked him if he'd do an interview with me, which he graciously accepted. You can listen to the interview below.  It's also available in iTunes.

Having spoken to him and read the new excerpts I'm more convinced.  I understand what he's trying to do and it's a massive task: it's codifying a particular method of cooking, from soup to nuts.  He knows it's a risk, but credit to him, it's a risk that he's taken on entirely himself, even setting up his own publishing company.

I do still have an issue with the price, which is now at $500 on Amazon, compared to $421.87 when I wrote my original piece two weeks ago.  I accept Nathan's argument that restaurant meals are easily that expensive and the pleasure is fleeting, whereas this will be around forever.  However, restaurant meals at that price are meant to be rareified and I can't overcome my inherent bias that books are meant to be democratic and accessible to all.  At that price they're certainly not, and I can't imagine many cash strapped British libraries are going to put in their orders anytime soon.

The level of research that has gone into the book is clearly outstanding.  Particularly interesting was learning more about the content of the book.  I was pleased with the passion with which he spoke of the coffee chapter and delighted to hear that James Hoffman of Square Mile Coffees had consulted on the chapter and praised it so highly.  I also think the way they've thought about recipes is very clever, see page 6 of this pdf for more - it's an example of the way they approached the whole task with a blank sheet of paper.

I did feel a bit guilty when I asked Nathan if in the water chapter they'd dealt with it as a drink.  There is a pause after I ask the question and he admits that is something they forgot.  Hopefully, Nathan was not reminded of Dr Johnson as I fleetingly was.

Finally, before we get to the main event, I really have to apologise for the appalling sound quality.  I need to sort out a more sophisticated way of doing these podcasts.

Link to mp3 of Nathan Myhrvold podcast
Anthony Silverbrow - Silverbrow on Podcasts

10 August 2010

The River Café

Am I a tosser?  I know that's a leading question, especially on a blog where anyone can leave a comment, but I'm interested to know your thoughts.  I ask the question because I think that I went to lunch at the River Café hoping I'd have a bad meal.

That's right, I, someone who enjoys their food, reads obsessively, cooks a lot and eats out on a regular basis, was hoping that my lunch at what is regarded as one of the country's finest restaurants, a restaurant that is still recovering from the loss of one of its linchpins, that was recently burned to the ground, was going to be a bad lunch.  That must make me a tosser.  It must.  I aspired to be a gastronome with impeccable taste who can spot the emperor's new clothes (and who mixes his metaphors).  And thus a smug tosser.

The main reason I thought I'd have a bad meal, was because I did last time I was there in October 2009, when it was pretty awful.  I was with my family and we were sitting in the River Café equivalent of Siberia, the large table by the bar.  The food we got was dull, the portions small.  Particularly worthwhile of mention was a dispiriting and ungenerous plate of bagna cauda, a dish that should be about sharing snappingly fresh vegetables, dipped in buttery fishy goodness. The vegetables were flaccid, the sauce was flat.

This time, both of the people I was eating with love it.  One is a regular who does her best to eat as many meals a day there as possible.  She was devastated to learn of my bad experience.  The other is a super trendy designer who's as partial to a good meal as I am. I wanted to lift the scales from their eyes and prove it just ain't all that.

I wondered if I might have a better meal than expected when I spotted that Angela Hartnett was having lunch two tables away - you can take it neither she nor we, were sitting in Siberia.  This time we were in the middle of the room, close to the oven.

Take-off was confirmed with my starter of antipasti di verdure, comprising roast plum tomatoes, zucchini 'alle scarpece', stuffed pepperoncino peppers and wood-roasted Violetta aubergines. The delicious fruity, juiciness of the veg, was testament to great vegetables and a deft hand at the wood-fired stove.

Fish and grapes work well in sole veronique (a plate of this at Scotts about 20 years ago remains a defining dish for me), but when dealing with a fish as base as sardines and the grapes are now raisins and there's pasta chucked in for good measure, we're not talking about a delicate dish.  But as linguine con le sarde - with sardine fillets, saffron, pine nuts, raisins, parsley and lemon, it was a symphony.  I'm a big fan of sardo in saor, the Venetian dish of pickled (sort of) sardines.  The flavours here were not dissimilar with the sweetness of the raisins and the tartness of the lemon juice.  The fish, saffron and pine nuts ensured there was a depth of flavour.

I chose fish for main course as well, the branzino ai ferri - chargrilled then roasted wild sea bass with fennel branches, lemon & Pinot Bianco with peas sott'olio and spinach.  Again another delicious dish.  At room temperature it was a perfect summer light summer dish, welcome after the surprising heft of the primi.

By dessert, things were getting a bit hazy, but I do know that the Lemon Tart was an exemplar of its type.  I also know that I fail to understand the wonder some people attach to the Chocolate Nemesis.  On a more positive note, the caramel ice cream was perfect and shows this king of desserts is given its due.

So the emperor was wearing his finest robes.  I am duly humbled.  I could if I wanted argue that the waitresses failure to acknowledge that she had sploshed a fair bit of wine across the table as she clumisly poured for us, is a sign of arrogance.  But I won't.  The service was rather cold, but I'll let it pass because I was won over by the food.

I stand by the fact that my previous meal really wasn't good.  I also accept that this meal really was.  I think I need to go back for a best of three.

Google Maps

The River Café, Rainville Road, London, W6 9HA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7386 4200

09 August 2010

Who needs Modernist Cuisine?

It was announced over the weekend that the website for Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking has been launched.

Modernist Cuisine is a book due out next year.  The list price is $625 (although at the time of writing is available on Amazon for pre-order for $421.87) and is co-authored by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.  Myhrvold is the big name (and money) behind the book.  For those that don't know him, he came to prominence as chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft.

For all that money you get a five volume, 26 chapter behemoth running to over 2200 pages.  At the list price that works out at $0.28 per page, or $0.19 per page at the current discount.  That doesn't sound so bad, but then compare that to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.  Widely regarded as a seminal work and essential for any kitchen, it runs to 896 pages and is listed at $40.  Or, $0.04 per page. McGee's is not illustrated and has been around for years.  But if Modernist Cuisine is going to justify the extra expense, the book will need to attain some lofty heights.

It is no great surprise to see that they're making a virtue out of the printing, at that price it needs to be a work of art.  The table of contents indicates an inexhaustible approach to the vast topic at hand, it also looks quite pretty (see below). The website however looks rather bog standard and simple.  Whilst I'm all in favour of the paired down aesthetic (look around this post), I expected a richer experience than what is currently available.

Beyond the cosmetics I do wonder about the substance and whether the book really is additive.  It feels like much of it has been written before and by similar individuals.  I've already got This, Blumenthal, who writes an introductory chapter and McGee who has given a blurb.  I'm pretty sure I'll be buying McGee's latest and Aki and Alex's Ideas in Food to learn more about what I'm cooking.  But that will set me back £36.59 at list price. I'm sorry to harp on about price, but I do fear that at $625 that is what is going to set this book apart.  And with a December publication date it is surely going to be on all those Christmas lists for "What to buy the foodie who has everything".

The website doesn't help me understand why I need this book.  Perhaps this is just a failing of the current marketing effort.  The book isn't due to be published for some time and they're still in the beta phase, trying to drum up interest, perhaps the odd blog post. (They saw you coming. Ed.)

Or is my understanding not the point?  Is it a rich man's folly?  More about the author, Myhrvold indulging his passion, than the reader?  Not having read it, I've not a clue and it would be wrong to pass judgement on the printed edition.

I don't think the website does the book any favours.  If this is to be a serious addition to our understanding of food and the way its prepared, Myhrvold will need to demonstrate that it is more than a beautifully printed book with some stunning photos.  There needs to be innovation and academy on the printed page.

I genuinely look forward to seeing one in the flesh, it's the type of thing I'm sure Foyles will stock, and then I'll revisit the subject of whether or not this is an expensive indulgence.

Modernist Cuisine Table of Contents

UPDATE: See the comment from Ryan below for further content (pdf) from the book. Ryan took the photographs for the book.