Monday, 28 November 2011

Fine food amid the madness

The last few weeks have been a tad bonkers on the work front – hence the paucity of posts – but the cooking and eating have been maintained reasonably well, even if the time to write everything up has been lacking.

Here’s a sketched view of the eating-out side of things – the home nosh will (I hope!) follow in due course.

Last weekend, I was in Glasgow briefly for work, and on the Saturday, we had our traditional staff dinner – this year, at a restaurant called The Living Room.

For those who may recall the story of our meal this time last year, you’ll be reassured to read that this was much, much better.

Nice service and some very nice food.

I had a chicken liver parfait to start, with a redcurrant and port jelly. Now, it wasn’t so much a “jelly” as a sauce, and the parfait wasn’t really set quite enough, but it did taste good and the presentation was good too.

My main course smoked haddock, with a mustard mash, wilted spinach, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce. Very good; very nice.

And for dessert, a chocolate and salted caramel tart with a little vanilla ice cream. The tart wasn’t as I’d expected, but was light and very tasty.

Portion size was excellent – not ridiculously large – and there was a decent selection of wines that started at under £20. We had a La Croix Vermentino – a sauvignon blanc from the south of France. My colleagues, remembering last year’s debacle over the wine prices, made me select again – simply because I had initially stated that I wouldn’t.

The bottle was £16.75 – the second cheapest on the menu, which kept them all happy. It was light, fresh and had alcohol in it. Personally, I’d have selected something different – but I know where that got me last year!

The service was pleasant and helpful. My only real complain would be the noise. It’s busy to start with, so having an amplified live pianist-singer made it very difficult to converse, even though our party was in a sort of side room.

Glasgow ended chaotically, with my Sunday evening flight back to London cancelled due to fog at City Airport. I was then rescheduled for a Heathrow flight at around the same time. So no problem.

But what I didn’t know was that Heathrow was fogged in too. With my baggage already checked in, they couldn’t transfer me to a Stanstead flight.

When would we be likely to depart? Oh, about sixish. Oh, about eightish. Oh, about tennish.

At that stage, I walked out, went across the road, checked into a Holiday Inn and slept. The following morning, back in the airport itself before 7am, I discovered that one flight had already been cancelled for the same reason – but that they were ‘hopeful’ of things sorting themselves out sometime soon.

I rescued my bag, got a cab back into the city centre and caught a train with five minutes to spare, finally arriving back into London at almost 12.15pm. Knackered.

After just a short respite, it was off again on Thursday – this time, to Leeds for my niece’s graduation.

Staying at the same hotel as my parents, I had to show them the hotel’s menu that evening in order to convince them that it was limited and pricey, and my idea of a nearby restaurant I’d tried, earlier this year, was far better.

I got the three of us into Sous le Nez – and we made it in time to make use of the excellent value early evening menu – £24.95 per person for three courses, plus a half bottle of wine each.

Here, I enjoyed a nice chicken liver parfait – much more set than in Glasgow and, I think, the better for it, even if it didn’t have such a creative source/jelly.

It came with a muffin-like brioche and some piccalilli. Good stuff.

For a main, I opted for seared pigeon breast with mustard horseradish and parsley mash, chorizo and a thyme jus.

The bird was lovely – I did find the large disco of chorizo very tough and, to be honest, I don’t think it really added anything.

For dessert, I went simple, with a duo of sorbets – blackcurrant and lemon.

My parents enjoyed it too – in spite of their general aversion to all things French.

The following night, after an amazing day – and one that was emotionally exhausting, for various reasons – we went to Brasserie Blanc with my niece and her boyfriend, for a celebration dinner.

The restaurant was her choice. My mother, although utterly accepting that it was her granddaughter’s day and her choice, had been nervous.

Two weeks before, I’d sat down and read the entire menu to her over the phone, to reassure her that there would be plenty to choose from that they could eat: French food, in other words, is not just mussels and frogs’ legs and snails.

It’s interesting that, I realised, neither of them had a real clue about the massive influence of classic French cooking.

They started with a celeriac and apple soup – and both raved. I’m afraid I cringed when they ordered rack of lamb – well done – but they enjoyed it and that’s really the only thing that matters.

I opted for confit chicken, haricot bean & prune terrine as a starter – a fascinating creation with remarkably light texture and an intriguing taste.

After that, a special of the day – pork leg confit, with a riff on mushy peas (crushed garden peas with rosemary) and they swapped the new potatoes for a carrot and swede mash for me.

Yes, I know it was all going a bit OTT on the confit front, but I decided I really was just too tempted. Very nice it was too: moist and tasty. The whole dish was delightfully colourful.

For dessert, I just about managed a leafed dark chocolate slice, which was really a slice of torte with three different textures to it: a dense sponge-like centre, with surprises of crispiness, and a ganache on top. Very good.

We had a bottle of rosé between us: the men finished with good whisky, my niece with a champagne cocktail, my mother with coffee and me with a glass of Muscat.

Another most enjoyable meal – and also very good value, and cheaper that the hotel.

Now, more travel awaits: on Tuesday, I head to Birmingham for one night for work. And then, on Thursday evening, it’s off to Paris for some Christmas shopping and, of course, some rather good food.

No bookie would give me odds on the meal on the Eurostar not being massively better than the filled ‘croissant’ that East Coast Mainline served on the way back from Leeds.

Two fine French meals and the trip ends with something inspipid and damp and cold and lacking in any of the buttery crispness and flakiness of the real thing – the real French thing.

Still, it’s probably good to be reminded of how poor food can be sometimes – just so you really do appreciate the good stuff.

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