Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Sportsman, Seasalter: A day out at the seaside

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Part of my epic week off of eating included a long awaited visit to Seasalter and a lunchtime session at the Sportsman. After having witnessed my friends one by one making the journey to the coast, and having missed out on a visit on more than one occasion, I was desperate to get there. And get there I did.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

With my sister at the helm, we bombed our way down to the Kent coastline in my mums car, keen not to suffer the same debacle as we had at Purnell's the previous day. We were clearly too keen as we rolled into the car park nearly an hour before they opened, and walked around in the November morning for a bit instead. This clearly didn't last long as the sea breeze and overcast weather engulfed us, so we entrenched ourselves in the warmth of the car until the front doors opened.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Joined by Matt and Andy, we waited patiently, and at 12 o'clock, on the dot, we were welcomed in and sat in front of the roaring fire with a pint of red ale. No sooner had we supped a few sips, and then the food started to roll out of the kitchen, with most of the ingredients all extremely local. We were in for a long and exciting lunchtime...

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Pickled Herring and Pork Crackling
Yep, I ate herring. And you know it wasn't so bad. Together with the sweet relish, crème fraiche and soda bread that it was on; I managed to eat it, which is praise alone for herring. The pork crackling was supreme, not overly salty and not overly break-your-teeth hard. Served with apple and mustard dip, perfect to get your taste buds tingling and your appetite flowing.

The Sportsman, Seasalter
The Sportsman, Seasalter

Oysters - Apple foam and ham, Angels on horseback
Of all of the fruits of the sea, it is the oyster I have feared the most in the past, but if they all taste as good as these did, the future is bright. The first lot were raw and very fresh, the only way to eat oysters I am told. With the apple foam hiding the sight of the mollusc, I dove in and the meaty flesh was salty and creamy, tasting very much of the seaside. The fact that it didn't repulse me was a start, and the realisation that I was actually enjoying it was a revelation. The apple foam just gave the mouthful a fruity hint, and the home cured ham added an additional flavour and texture. By the time the next lot turned up, I was fully prepared and ready to go. The "Angels on horseback" were oysters wrapped in bacon and cooked, and were an absolute revelation for me. Served with a dab of parsley sauce, I wolfed mine down; my fear of oysters apparently had evaporated into the ether.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Seafood broth
After a brief interlude of bread (which included some of the best focaccia I have ever tasted), we were brought a shallow bowl with various morsels of seafood placed very deliberately around the bowl. I took a deep breath (as I so often do) and the smell of the fresh seaside was overwhelming. I could have been outside sitting right next to the shore. A broth made from the bones of the turbot we would receive later in the meal was carefully poured over the seafood, producing a light and delicious soup.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Slip sole with seaweed butter
Next, more seafood, but this time in the form of a delicate slip sole, cooked perfectly and doused in seaweed butter. The flesh needed minimum prising away from the bones, and the slightly irony seaweed butter lifted the fish. Perfectly simple, perfectly executed, unbelievably tasty.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Autumn Salmagundi
Who would have thought that a purely vegetarian dish would be my favourite? Originating from the 17th century, it is essentially a salad made with whatever you can lay your hands on. This version uses up a selection of autumn vegetables, all cooked in different ways, some raw, some boiled, some fried. The poached yolk at the bottom was the icing on the cake, a fantastic dish, hard to describe, one that just needs to be tasted.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Braised Turbot with Crab
After a meaty interlude of the Sportsmans own ham, we moved on to our last fish dish, a perfectly cooked piece of turbot sitting on greens in a bisque sauce and topped with delicate flakes of white crab. This dish just emphasised why turbot is considered the king of the sea, the generous steak so meaty and packed with flavour.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Lamb
The next and last savoury course was a symphony of lamb. First, we had slivers of bread crumbed lamb breast brought out with a slightly overly sweet mint sauce, not really to my taste. However, the trio of lamb that followed was simply stunning. Three different cuts, once again beautifully cooked, served in simple gravy. Just like all the dishes that preceded this one, uncomplicated, well cooked, letting the flavours of the food talk for themselves.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Blackcurrant Lollipop and Cake Milk
So concluded the savoury courses, and at this stage we were severely flagging. Stuffed to the gills full of excellent food, we were reinvigorated by the arrival of the blackcurrant popsicles dipped in cake milk. The popsicles could have done with packing more flavour, but the cake milk was a revelation, tasting as if someone had chucked a cake into a blender, added milk and juiced it.

The Sportsman, Seasalter

Iced cream cheese and pear
Another revelation and one of my favourite dished of the day. Ice cream made from cream cheese mixed together with a smooth pear puree, and added crushed biscuits to add texture. Such a wonderful combination and a wholly new for me. I must have been up to about a 3rd wind by now and powered through.

By now, we were totally beat and even with the big finale of assorted desserts being absolutely fantastic, we threw in the towel (after we had a taste of all of them first, of course). We were first in at 12 and almost the last lot out at 4pm. 4 hours of non stop eating; I have never felt so full yet so happy. It may not be in London, but is a mere train ride away (or car journey if you're lucky enough to know someone who is willing to drive you) and will serve you some of the best food you will taste. The tasting menu at a mere £55 is a bargain and although they only serve it during the week, I heartily recommend you take a day off and enjoy a day at the seaside. You won't you regret it.

The Sportsman - Faversham Road, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent CT5 4BP

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Friday, November 19, 2010

Hibiscus, Mayfair: A tale of two halves

Hibiscus, Mayfair

Whenever I spend any of my holiday time in London and not abroad, I invariably end up hunting for some good places to eat. The capital is awash with great lunch deals and these “holidays” are one the only times that I get to indulge. Hibiscus is a great example. A popular two Michelin starred restaurant where the three course a la carte will set you back a royal sum of £75. Not necessarily nosebleed territory compared to some of its neighbours, but still steep compared to a very affordable £29.50 for their lunch menu.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

As sister number 2 was also off work, and she enjoys food almost as much as I do, she decided to join me on various jaunts during a week of eating (which would include a trip north to Birmingham and one east to Seasalter). The dining room was much smaller than I expected, with about 15 tables spread out over the compact dining room. I found the island in the middle of the room (where much of the food went when it came out of the kitchen) a little odd, but I guess it was fairly practical for distribution purposes in a small dining room. Between the two of us, we managed to cover off most of the lunch menu options.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

We were first brought out what we were told was a Hibiscus fizz with a pineapple foam, which was ideally to be consumed in two mouthfuls. Innocuous enough and the first mouthful brought a pleasant taste of hibiscus with a slight hint of pineapple. The second was far more interesting and a lot more unexpected, as we encountered some spherified (sp?) pineapple juice, which burst in the mouth and flooded your mouth with pockets of tangy pineapple juice. In the words of Rob Brydon, “my bouche was amused”.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

The starters arrived and my royale of parmesan was crowned with some candied walnuts and doused with a warm salsify veloute. The strong flavour from the parmesan slowly melded together with the veloute, and with the walnuts adding a different texture and pockets of slight sweetness, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish. A good balance of flavours and textures. My sister’s crab and lobster salad (£5 supplement) was pronounced as highly enjoyable, although she was slightly put off by the intensity of the little dabs of liquorice on the leeks.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

With my sister “calling dibs” on the blanquette of pork, I opted for the equally appealing 48 hour cooked Ayrshire rib of beef (£10 supplement). Served with an intense but absolutely delicious white beetroot and horseradish purée, the beef was as tender as you would expect a piece of meat which had been cooked for two days to be. Again, I thoroughly enjoyed this dish, but with a hefty £10 supplement, I would have expected a little more from this. More puree than just a little dab would be a good start. Sister’s dish was excellent as I expected and I was filled with a little bit of jealousy, although I did manage to sample a good few mouthfuls. The smoked mash was plentiful and a little out of place, with the strong flavours detracting from the real star, which was the perfectly cooked pork.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

So far so good, but unfortunately it all went downhill for me at this stage. My dessert of iced chestnut parfait with a Sharon fruit sorbet was just plain weird. The flavours were all rather muted but incredibly one dimensional and lacked any real penetration of flavour. I can’t criticise the execution, just the flavours which didn’t agree with me at all. My sister’s fig dish wasn’t really to her taste either, but I thought it was pretty decent, with well cooked figs and a punchy raspberry sauce/gel.

Hibiscus, Mayfair

I was disappointed with a sad ending to what was otherwise a pretty decent meal, and opted for a cappuccino to drown my sorrows. What arrived was such milky drivel with no discernible coffee flavour that Starbucks down the road would have been embarrassed to serve it. The petit fours that accompanied it included an over salty salted caramel, a smoked fudge which tasted of smoked haddock and a weird herbal white chocolate truffle.

As I have got older, sweets have swiftly become my favourite part of the meal and such a damp squib of an ending left me with a bad taste in my mouth, regardless of how much I may have enjoyed the first two courses. And what started out at £29.50 set lunch soon adds up with all the additional supplements. Don’t get me wrong, you can eat well without all the supplemental dishes, I just don’t see the point of having a lunch menu when a third of the menu contains a significant additional cost. All being said, the quality of the cooking cannot be disputed and I enjoyed much of the meal I was presented with. Just sort out the desserts and the coffee.

Hibiscus - 29 Maddox St, London W1S 2PA

Hibiscus on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Valentina, Putney: Eating with a vegetarian, take 2


Valentina, Putney

My name is EuWen and I am friends with a vegetarian. It started 13 years ago when we were both fun-loving, meat-eating individuals. The signs were there from the outset when she refused to eat any seafood of any sort, let alone go near it. I remember the day I took her to the London Aquarium and spent an hour by the manta ray pool, convincing her to touch one (I failed). Over the years, I saw her descent into Vegetarianism as she started to shun meaty goodness in favour of al dente vegetables. Murmurs of "I just don't feel like it" turned into "I just don't want it", and after a long battle, she finally announced about five years ago that we had lost her to vegetarianism.

Valentina, Putney

I am joking of course. For all the haters, I do realise that being a vegetarian isn't an affliction, but it does make it slightly tricky when you want to go out. In my eyes, it's actually harder than having a nut allergy in some places as the choices are so limited and with staunch vegetarians such as my friend, actually put off by the taste and texture of meat, where the slightest whiff of meat stock will put her off, not all dishes are as well labelled to contain meat products. When her mother came down to visit my family, choosing a place on the hoof was never going to be an easy task, but I settled on Valentina in Putney, a nice little Italian deli with a restaurant upstairs and handy for all parties to get to (accept me, ironically).

Valentina, Putney

Personally, I thought the food was pretty decent. For starters, we ordered a plate of meats from the deli (antipasto della casa), which arrived as a selection of meats, a smidgen of provolone, an assortment of pickled veg, all topped off with a mozzarella ball and a cerignola olive. Every part of this was absolutely wonderful, and I only wish that there were more olives and mozzarella balls as these were truly superb.

Valentina, Putney

An accompanying fritto misto was also excellent. Pieces of tiger prawn, calamari, red mullet and courgette battered and deep fried to a crisp. Each piece was light and as grease free as you could hope. Personally, I didn't see any of the mullet, but that wasn't to say there wasn't any. My father would probably have hoovered that up and I was solely focused on the excellent squid.

Valentina, Putney

My main of scallopina al funghi was decent enough, with strips of veal cooked together with mushrooms, asparagus and white wine. Although under seasoned for my palate, and slightly overcooked, I still actually enjoyed it. The whole dish was woken up with a few more pinches of salt and pepper and I devoured it all without a scrap left.

Valentina, Putney

Other mains of quail and spaghetti vongole met equal nods of agreement, whilst the special of squid ink pasta with mixed seafood received rave reviews. The long black strands of pasta were packed with that subtle taste of the sea that only squid ink seems to impart and the generous portions of seafood kept its recipient very happy.

Unfortunately, the vegetarian in our group didn't fare as well. Her original request for penne a la Napoletana to be served with gnocchi instead was met with nods and "of course", arrived actually just as the original gnocchi spacca Napoli, complete with a 'braciola' of rolled beef, not exactly ideal for a vegetarian. This went straight back and returned with the gnocchi steeped in a seeming blend of tinned tomatoes and cream, not appetising, and unfortunately not what my friend had ordered. This lay untouched but for a few mouthfuls (one from her, and one from me), and she went home hungry and looking for food.

My overall impression of Valentina was pretty good. I enjoyed the food and the service wasn't that bad either. Obviously the mix up of the vegetarian dishes and the overall lack of (V)'s on the menu meant that this probably wasn't the best choice for a vegetarian, but we all still managed to have a good night nattering and catching up with each other. The starters were very good, and the mains weren't too bad either, and with a bill of £90 for 5, it came to a very acceptable bill for the evening. Not sure if I could ever make the schlep over to Putney to eat there again, but you're ever in the area, this is a good choice for some decent Italian fare. Just don't bring a vegetarian.

Valentina - 75 Upper Richmond Road, Putney, SW15 2SR

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Warrington, Maida Vale

The Warrington, Maida Vale

Gordon Ramsays empire has been growing at an astounding rate of late. Amidst rumours of financial issues and chefs leaving to do their own thing, Ramsay has still managed to build a growing international empire. One area in which Ramsay has expanded into is the “gastropub” movement, with investments in the Narrow (Limehouse), the Devonshire (Chiswick) and the Warrington (Maida Vale). Asked to go along by their PR and give a “British Fortnight menu” at the Warrington a whirl, I gladly obliged and dragged my sister along to see what it was all about.

The Warrington, Maida Vale

The Warrington is located in leafy Maida Vale, quiet and surrounded with the aura of the suburbs. The pub itself is incredibly grand with high ceilings and ornate fixtures, quite “busy” but ultimately quite aesthetically pleasing. Upstairs is where the somewhat more demure restaurant is located and dominated by browns and beiges, boring some might say, but I rather liked it. On arrival, it turned out that a fellow blogger in Essex Eating was there with his other half, so we joined tables and put the entire menu through its paces.

The Warrington, Maida Vale

Mushrooms on toast with a poached egg - Whilst we were perusing the menu to see what we wanted, the maitre'd seemed incredibly keen for us to try one of his favourite dishes, simply mushrooms on toast. This tasted exactly how you would expect, earthy on toast drizzled with olive oil. The poached egg was perfectly cooked and oozed it's prize of a golden soak all over what lay beneath them. Nice and simple, but nothing more.

The Warrington, Maida Vale

Bowl of clams, parsley and pear cider - I've got a real thing for clams at the moment and this dish was a simple combination of great flavours. My starter of sweet clams were cooked a la marinière, with pear cider being used instead of white wine. Really delicious.

The Warrington, Maida Vale

Braxted Hall double lamb chop, samphire and smoked garlic butter - After such a satisfying starter, I wasn't sure that my main could live up to it. Thankfully what was put in front of me didn't let me down. I always like to have a good sniff of my food before I eat it, and the smell of the smoked garlic butter was just divine. The sweet lamb was accented by slightly salty mouthfuls of samphire, and the generous creamy smoked garlic butter brought all the flavours together. The crushed potatoes underneath provided the carbs. A fabulous dish, comprising of a mere 4 main ingredients.

The Warrington, Maida Vale

Lemon posset - A straightforward lemon posset packed with zesty lemon, well made. The shortbread on the side was sweet and crumbly and went well together.

The Warrington surprised me. I was expecting overcomplicated dishes trying to be more than pub food, but what I got were simple dishes, well prepared and pared back to let the flavours shine through. Service was excellent, but you can't really judge it too reliably on an invite as they are often focussed on impressing, but with the company I was with, it all led to a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The set menu is due to change every two weeks and is currently focussing on the fruits of Autumn, and at £22 for three courses, it's excellent value. A great experience and I would quite happily return.

The Warrington - 93 Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale, London, W9 1EH

Warrington on Urbanspoon


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