It had been the sort of day when the sun had gone AWOL, leaving us with greyness and the barely-interested efforts of the rain.
So what could possibly cheer me up on such a day?
Well, around two months ago, I picked up a tweet from Raymond Blanc that advertised a charity dinner that he and Bruno Loubet were going to give at Bistrot Bruno Loubet in late March for Hospitality Action, an ‘industry benevolent organisation’ that’s over 170 years old, and helps workers in the industry who are in need.
Giddy with delight at having such an opportunity, and so close to home, I snapped up tickets.
And then, as the day itself came closer, worked myself into an ever more nervous state: nervous that we’d find ourselves in an uncomfortable environment; nervous that I’d landed us in a situation where we’d be expected to fork out loads more cash; nervous that I’d manage to completely misunderstand the dress code (‘lounge suit’) and look utterly out of place, and nervous that it would be a let down in some way after all my own excitement.
None were to have any foundation in reality.
The evening started at the Zetter Townhouse – a 13-bedroom Georgian townhouse, with interiors by Russell Sage – which is a new addition to the Zetter Hotel, just across the cobbles of St John’s Square and the home of Bistrot Bruno Loubet.
The townhouse doesn’t open until April, but we were afforded a look inside for the champagne and canapés part of the evening.
The canapés were little warm Parmesan biscuits – soft, delightfully cheesy, with a pleasant greasiness but yet still beautifully crumbling – and twists of buttery, light puff pastry that held pieces of anchovy saltiness in their embrace.
Moving across to the restaurant, already starting to relax, we found ourselves seated at a table of eight. Three of us were women – all of whom had recently made their own duck confit! So it was clearly a serious foodie gathering and indeed, all very friendly.
After a couple of initial speeches to introduce the evening, including one by Blanc himself – as enthusiastic and passionate as ever, explaining that it is a very cruel, hard industry, and that more legislation is needed to protect those in it – we played a little game and did a little light fundraising.
All of which served to further ensure that nobody was doing airs and graces or feeling awkward. It was most certainly not that sort of affair.
But what of the food? After all, this was might have been charity, but it was also dinner!
To start, we had a spring vegetable salad with air-dried duck, Parmesan mousse and Banyuls jelly.
Oh my! The duck was stunning – and to think that it was exactly what Blanc had been demonstrating on TV just over a week earlier. I really have to work out how to hang a duck breast in the fridge to make this.
The baby vegetables were so small that I cannot imagine any shop selling them – which pretty much declares that they came from Blanc’s own organic garden at Le Manoir. Baby carrots, peas and broad beans were accompanied by asparagus that was as thin as a thick chive, but still packing wonderful taste.
The jelly added a different texture and a sharpness, while the tiny, piped blobs of Pamesan mousse brought a sweet softness to a dish of exquisite freshness.
Next up was a mackerel and prawn burger, with a piquillo ketchup, a potato ‘fish finger’ and cucumber salad – a really funny riff on fast food, and full of more tastes and textures.
The ‘burger’ was dense but full of delicate flavour. The ‘fish finger’ was smooth inside but with a wonderfully crisp casing, while the ketchup gave off the lovely flavours of roasted peppers – and reality to the word ‘piquant’.
The little salad – itself a play on the garnish you get in a fast food joint – was thinly sliced red onion with ribbons of lightly cured cucumber and dill. And it too was a delight.
I just about had a view of the kitchen. The culinary gods were joking and chatting, and it was with great pleasure that I saw Blanc pick up a ladle occasionally and taste something – he really does do what he tells everyone else to do in A Taste of My Life.
The burger was followed by tournedos of rabbit, with braised celery, puréed pumpkin, a deep, dark jus and lovage pesto – so many hallmarks of Loubet’s cooking.
The rabbit, which was a tight, deep circle of flesh, wrapped in bacon and with a little rabbit liver inside (see the description here of his hare royale), was stunning. The first taste made your eyes flutter closed automatically in deep pleasure and awe.
And the pesto was a wonderful shot across the sweetness of the dish; a contrast that added so much to it.
It was more Blanc for dessert, with a white chocolate mousse, as light as air, on a base of dark chocolate and all encased in a wafer thin dome of marbled dark and white chocolate, with shortbread nougatine and orange vincotto.
A dish of real beauty, amazing skill and fabulous tastes and textures.
Stuffed alomist to immobility, I managed to eat just one of the petit fours that came at the end – a single macaron – of a meal that I can barely do justice to in words.
And there was no skimping on the wine either.
One of the things that fascinates me about Blanc is his ability to combine different textures and tastes and even temperatures. So shortly after having read his own thoughts on all this, and while Kitchen Secrets is still playing on BBC2, to be able to actually experience these things was an awesome learning experience – and a quite dazzling culinary one.
It might all look wonderful – it does – but this is not simply looks for the sake of looks. The food tastes sublime. There are so many contrasts, yet every dish comes together beautifully as a balanced whole.
After, I spoke to one of the organisers and asked if it was possible to meet the man himself and get him to autograph A Taste of My Life, which was in my bag.
Unfortunately, he’d had to go – it’s a fair way back to Oxfordshire. But she offered to take the book and get him to sign it, before sending it back to me: it was a delightfully kind offer that I have taken up.
I did, however, manage to speak to Bruno Loubet – the evidence is at the top of this post, as The Other Half joined me for a pic (and no comments about our size, please!).
He’s utterly charming, gracious and down to Earth. Indeed, when the friends who had initially recommended the restaurant were themselves back there a couple of weeks ago, they were astonished – and charmed – to see him washing up in the kitchen.
All in all, a fabulous night. And it raised over £17,000 for a most worthwhile cause. Thank you to everyone for making it such a wonderful experience, from the Zetter's owners, to the staff (who as always, provided lovely service), to Hospitality Action's team and, of course to the wonderful chefs and their team in the kitchen.