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Archive for November, 2009

 7pm on a Saturday night. In a hotel room, tie going on, dinner jacket at the ready, freshly brushed clean. Wife looking stunning, just out of the salon. Butterflies going through my stomach at what is coming up. I would never think that I, as paying customer, could be so nervous about going to a restaurant. Then this is not just a restaurant, it’s Le Gavroche. One of the few two Michelin star restaurants in the country. Le Gavroche, it sounds like a show and I have to say it was like going to one. I’ve heard the workings of a top class restaurant be compared to a show before and it is so apt.

Le Gavroche Place Setting

 The rain is coming down, so it’s into a taxi. The driver hardly able to understand why we are willing to pay to go as far as a 10 minute walk. I explain my Wife’s newly quaffed hair and he laughs understandingly, obviously a married man himself. We arrive outside the restaurant, a very smartly dressed lady open the door to us, letting us in from the cold & wet. It’s just a door, no grandeur, a small cloakroom and we give our name. We’re shown straight downstairs to our table, through the bar which is decorated a deep red, Christmas decorations up mainly in green with red berries. A real Christmas tree on the stars with red gleaming lights leads us downstairs. Our table for two is set between two other small tables and the sight that greats us is Michel Roux Jnr’s caricature on a plate smiling at us. There’s no pretentiousness, the staff treat us the same as all other diners.

We are also greeted by a frog, sticking his tongue out at as cheekily. Le Gavroche put a sculpture on every table, made from cutlery, they stand there watching you and ensuring you are having a good time. My wife sits on the bench seat looking out across the restaurant as I watch the show through the mirror behind her. It is watching this that I truly understand why the theatre remark is made. Each member of staff taking their part, the waiters working together, arriving at your table  to serve both of us together as each act of food is presented.

Frog Sculpture

My wife peruses her menu which has no prices on it, mine showing me exactly how much everything is, a worried look crossing my face at times with some of her choices. We decide on the food and wine, a Pouilly Fume which is one of my favourite white wines when budget allows. Our starters arrive, Ballotine of Froi Gras rolled in gingerbread with prune & fig steeped in brandy and wafer thin ginger biscuits. Chicken salad for me with crispy skins, oysters and pickled mushrooms. We sit in silence, unable to speak as the food does all the talking by making you want to take another mouthful. I have tried making Michel Roux’s ickled mushrooms and they were very nice, here at Le Gavroche, they were on another level.If my mushrooms were the 1st floor rooms, Michel Roux’s were the penthouse.

There is plenty of time between starter and main course, almost making the anticipation unbearable. Now having tasted our starters and appetizers I am craving more food, my mouth is going on its own journey, my mind still wondering how chicken can taste that good. My wife notices I am not talking a lot as I am still mesmerised by the mirror and watching the events unfolding behind me. You can hear lots of comments about the food, people gasping, asking what was in the dish, wanting to know how Chef makes the dish.

Main courses arrive, two plates put in front of us, silver plate covers on them and the next act begins. The lids are raised as if they are the curtains opening. My wife opted for roast suckling pig with crackling, peppered sauce with golden raisins and shalots confit, a meal that is on the menu for a minimum of two people only she didn’t read that part. However the waiter said he would speak to Chef and it would be no problem. So there it was, a one portion of a two portion meal and no they didn’t charge us the full price for it. I had gone for roast saddle of rabbit with crispy potatoes and parmesan presented in a tower. The potatoes were made like they had been put through a spaghetti maker, then twirled into discs. Each mouthful was a delight, soft tender meat mixed in with crispy fired potato and then the cut of the parmesan.

How's that for a birthday cake?

Now we get to the best part which is strange for me as I am known not to be a desert man. I just couldn’t decide and went for the Chef’s selection while my wife had caramel mousse with pear, ice cream and as you can see a candle and birthday message. I had rung ahead to the restaurant to let them know we were celebrating her birthday and I didn’t have to mention it once we were there. They just arranged the rest. It really made her night and for a few seconds, took her eyes off my plate. The assortment was shortbread with fresh raspberries, a shortbread basket with vanilla ice cream, what looked like a profiterole filled with cream and rum and boy was it filled with rum. Then I had a mousse with passion fruit coulis on top which was sharp and then fresh with the mousse underneath. Fifth desert they showcased at the Taste of London this summer, a bitter chocolate and praline indulgence with real gold leaf on top. The final taster on the plate was a chocolate mousse type desert with what I would call fizz whizz or moon dust, basically popping candy. A desert that not only tastes of the best chocolate in the world, it also takes you back to your childhood. A fun and extremely tasty desert.

After coffee we decided to have an after dinner drink in the lounge as I needed to sit back and relax a bit, my stomach wondering if it can stretch any further. We sat back, enjoyed what I think is the best tawny port I have ever had, smooth and smokey. My wife savoured her Le Gavroche Armagnac 1987. She was also saying that it’s the best she has ever had. We asked for the bill, almost reluctant to leave after three hours, and noticed that the after dinner drinks were not on there. It’s one of those moments as to what to do. Well we were honest mainly because we had enjoyed the night so much. The waiter smiled, thanked us and told us there would be nothing added to the bill, effectively the drinks were on the house. We departed with a smile, feeling full and mouths still somewhere else, probably downstairs in the restaurant. We look out the door and the rain has abated so we can make the short walk to the hotel. The door is opened and we walk onto the street, the curtain comes down and the show is over.

The whole experience is hard to describe and is something I would advise you all to do for yourself, even if you have to save up for it for a year or more. I do now face some problems after going to Le Gavroche……… where do you go from there? How do you beat it for a gastronomic experience? I will be sure to let you know when I find the answers.

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I have had many conversations with people in the past over the restaurants my wife and I visit. The usual comments are “They’re posh”, “They look down on you” “I don’t feel comfortable”. I also have a habit of trawling through review sites and it is the usual findings, people love to complain. Not enough is said when you have a good experience. Now I know the reason for this. If you have a good experience you think “well that’s what I paid for, so it’s what I expected so what’s the point in telling anyone that I received what I expected?” If you have a bad experience you get so incensed at times, you tell everyone you know about it.

I want to focus though on the idea that only the rich and well-educated can go to top restaurants. Now me and my wife are not rich, we save up for meals at Michelin starred restaurants and go to about two a year. We have a love for food so we indulge in it. Call it a hobby. People spend hundreds of pounds a year doing their car up, collection any object shaped like a frog. You spend your money on your passions. Ours happens to be food.

We had a particular experience some time ago that I would like to use as an example as to why I feel anyone can enjoy the best restaurants in the world and hopefully get across the message that you are never good enough to dine at them.

Last year we booked a meal at Maze in Grosvenor Square, Mayfair. A Gordon Ramsey establishment, Head Chef is Jason Atherton. Now we booked a Saturday lunch there after seeing Jason on the Great British Menu on the BBC. It was mainly me that wanted to go, although my wife wasn’t exactly complaining. Now most restaurants have a table turn around so you have to vacate your table within a certain time. Tip one, book one of the later sittings, so for lunch, find out when they stop having a turn around so you can relax and not be rushed. The same goes for the evening. This way, when you finish your meal you are not being ushered to leave your table for coffee or after dinner drinks.

The girl who served us at Maze was excellent, she was polite professional. This is where many diners feel the staff look down on you. I find that the staff will leave you alone and they wait for you to make conversation. They take your lead and too many people do not realise that. Okay, I am a real fan of Maze and was very excited to go. My first question “Is Jason in?” Unfortunately he wasn’t. I then let the waitress know that there was one reason I wanted to go to Maze and that was for the BLT that Jason made on the BBC show. She laughed and suddenly there was a moment to relax, she knew we were there to enjoy the experience and we were normal people. We asked about what goes on behind the scenes, what Jason is like as  boss, do they see Gordon often. It got to one point that she almost sat down with us as we the customers, had made her feel so comfortable.

As the lunch went on, we continued the banter, very relaxed and generally having a very enjoyable experience. We were invited to look around the kitchen and as we had one of the last sittings, we were invited to stay as long as we like until evening service started. From front of house to kitchen staff, we were welcomed as if we dined there every day. The point is, we talked to them. When you go somewhere like this, even if you have had to save up for a year, you have the money and the right to be there. Remember that most of the people who will be serving you are often earning less than you. They are normal people just like you.

I got quite annoyed reading a review on TopTable about Maze and other top restaurants. Someone said they had saved up and their main complaint was that the staff didn’t talk to them. You, the customer, must make conversation. Tell them you’re excited to be there, tell them you’ve never tried something, tell them you do or don’t like something. That is a really big point, they are cooking for you, tell them if you didn’t like it and why. You will be surprised by the reaction. I have known restaurants to serve another dish on the house. (Don’t just say it for the sake of trying to get a freebie, you have to be able to say why you didn’t like it). I have done this at a restaurant and the reaction was a thank you, I think it made them understand why most of the dishes had gone back hardly touched.

To take it to bare bones I would say follow these simple rules:

  • No one is above you
  • You belong there
  • Make conversation
  • Treat the staff how you expect to be treated
  • Enjoy yourself, you deserve it

Please go out there, experience fine dining and enjoy it. After all, you’re the one paying for it.

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What’s in a name?

After much deliberating, soul searching and twitting, I have finally decided upon a new name for this blog. Feeling ‘Simon’s Food Blog’ was firstly boring and secondly a bit obvious, I went in search of something a bit more original. Okay, somewhere I went wrong with the orignal part, using my name which appears in a well-known nursery rhyme. I did look at using ‘Simple’ in there somewhere. Then using my surname, Jury, I thought of a play on that such as ‘The Jury is out……. for Dinner’ or Jury’s verdict. However, these both sound like critic’s pages and I imagined lots of legal minded people finding my blog to be upset it was about food and not the Law.

I have had feedback from friends and twitters alike which has led me to the final name, although still hope the pie fans out there do not get too upset that this blog is not all about the pies (and no I didn’t eat them all either). I thought back though to a visit to the Farmers Market on Saturday where I spoke to the Fudge and Pieman. Only now has it hit me that there I was, Simon (stop sniggering to yourselves and adding simple), talking to a Pieman and we talked about other things and not just their pies. Oh and just so you know yes he did show me his wares and I did have a penny to spend (insert your own innuendos and puns).

So I think, all in all, the new name is quite apt.

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Looking over the last week and then the coming month there seems to be trend for trying something new. My cooking has always had a fairly limited range, i.e., a pasta dish or two, sunday roasts with a slight twist, a lot fo the time, meat and veg with maybe a little something added. Since going to this year’s Taste of London I have noticed I am becoming braver and all of a sudden it seems to be happening at once. I think it was partly getting to speak to Richard Corrigan and Michel Roux Jnr that may have sparked off this bolder approach. To hear the passion in their voices and their encouragement. There was a general message of “go and try something new”.

Well it has taken a slow build up and during the week I tried pheasant for the first time. Not only did I try it, I cooked it myself which I thought pretty daring as I had no idea how it should taste or what the texture should be like. Given that, I still know I slightly overcooked it, i just didn’t feel as tender as I thought it should. I served it with some simple veg and a sauce made with the marinade and mainly let the bird do the talking. Also I was so worried about cooking the pheasant I didn’t want to have to concentrate too much on anything else.

I also bought some baking beads. I am not really a desert person and yet have volunteered to make the desert among other things for a family dinner. I need the beads to blind bake the pastry. I have tried to cook with pastry in the past and it’s nearly always a disaster. So I thought these might help, more in that they will focus my mind and make me believe I can do a good job. You don’t always need the right equipment and there are alternatives. Sometimes a small thing (they cost about £3) can just give you a little more confidence. I remember rock climbing and struggling on a climb, a fellow climber next to me gave me some of his chalk and hey presto, I went flying up the rest of it. Did the chalk help? maybe a little. Did my mind-set change? yes. I went from “oh I can’t do this” to “I won’t let this beat me”.

So here I am now, a few weeks left in the year and every big meal I will be making, bar the main course on Christmas day, is something completely new. I even bought some saffron yesterday for one of the recipes. An ingredient I have looked at many times and never had the courage to buy, let alone use it. I’m even making a sorbet that I can not track down a recipe for on the web.

I’m not saying everyone needs to try something new every time you cook. Sometimes, just add one ingredient you may not normally use. Try a different salad dressing, have a game bird for a roast one day, try a different cut of meat. It’s not got to be a great departure from anything you know. Small steps though can lead to some big jumps.

Another first coming up is a visit to Le Gavroche. Michel Roux Jnr’s 2 michelin star restaurant in Mayfair. This must be one fo the best ways to try something new. This lends itself to trust, trusting him to put something before you that you have never tried and to give it a go. I will without doubt be choosing food that I have not experienced and purposely going for those dishes that are alien to me, or the combination may be alien. I know in turn the experience will open my eyes further to the world of food and help me to experiment more in the kitchen.

I would love to hear from anyone who is also going to be trying something new, I know it’s not the New Year yet, why wait until then to make a resolution to try something new.

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An easy dinner

My friends sometimes think I only eat fresh, homemade produce and whilst I would love to say that’s true, I think everyone now and then just wants something easy (especially when you’ve just done your food shopping). Tonight we had a couple of pizzas from the fresh Pizza Express collection in Tescos. Spinach & Ricotta and Apollo Pesto. Also had a sun-dried tomato flat bread from the Tescos chiller. Add a pre-packed rocket salad and some Moruno Tescos finest tomatoes. So far, all from a major supermarket. My argument for the tomatoes is I can’t find anywhere local that does anything other than your basic tomato. The tomatoes I have to say are lovely, could eat a barrel load of them, sweet and so flavoursome. This basic meal was made pretty amazing by the simple additional of some basic ingredients.

First I added some Balsamic vinegar, Riserva di Famiglia from Acetaia Dodi. Amazing vinegar, not from the Modina region where your usual will come from in the supermarket. We met these guys at taste of Christmas in 2008. Nice guys, let us taste every age of balsamic and they were from the actual company in Italy. That’s dedication for you.

Then drizzled a little White truffle olive oil. Okay I know this stuff can be expensive over here. We had the pleasure of recently visiting Sicily and got our oil fr om there. I have to say it is the best I have ever tried and that includes samples from places such as Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges. My advice is try Oil & Vinegar. They do a superb white truffle oil and it’s better value than the major supermarkets (and tastes better in my opinion). If you’ve never tried it, go to Oil & Vinegar, they always have some on their sample table. It is the most expensive oil they do but well worth it. Don’t cook with it, drizzle a little (you really only need a little) on salads.

Then two ingredients from Cassidys Deli in Great Dunmow. Balsamic onions. They are just taste bud blowing. Came across this type of onion in the Selfridges Champagne bar. Have bene searching high and low for them since then and luckily Cassidy’s started following me on Twitter recently so I went to see them. Also got some Stuffed chillies from them, Small chilli pepper stuffed with a cheese and herbs.

Cooking time in total – 15 minutes.

An off the shelf dinner stepped up another level by some easy simple additions. That really is all it can take sometimes to impress your friends or just have a snack that’s different from the ordinary.

P.S. Just gone back to the fridge for more tomatoes.

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Hello

Some people will know me as Simonlovesfood on Twitter. I am hoping to put some good posts and links on here very soon. The aim is to show that good food and drink is available to all. You don’t need to be an expert and you don’t always need to spend a lot of money. I will let you know about my experiences, where I shop locally and who can give you advice when you need it. I am no expert and will not claim to be. I enjoy food and talking to others about food. So please feel free to send in recipe ideas, experiences of dining and where to shop. Anything food and drink related. Look forward to hearing from like-minded people soon.

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