Friday, 30 October 2009

An evening with Paul A Young

Just 6 months ago I started this blog late in the evening, after getting home from the Guardian Word of Mouth's marvellous easter chocolate tasting event. I'd been an avid blog reader for years and had been more and more food-related posts on my general, personal blog. But something about experiencing such wonderful chocolate in the company of journalists, food bloggers and plain old food lovers crystallised my long simmering intention to create a food blog of my own! I spent much of that night and most of the next day working on the blog, and copying old content across from various other locations.

"Kavey Eats" was born as I munched on a goodie cup of Paul A Young's basil chocolates.

Later that month, I visited his Camden Passage shop and treated myself to a box (above). I posted photos and feedback on the beautiful chocolates.

Paul A Young - man and chocolates

So, one of the best consequences of being a food blogger so far, is being lucky enough to attend the chocolate tasting evening hosted by Paul A Young himself for a small number of food bloggers, a few weeks ago.

Fellow bloggers at the tasting event

Kicking off in the Camden Passage shop after it's closed for the day, the event consists of about 10 of us crammed into a make-shift arena of chairs as Paul talks us through tasting a number of high-end chocolates, or couvertures, as he most often calls them.

Ready to start!

It smells of chocolate. Rich, complex, earthy chocolate. And you know, many chocolate shops actually don't! This, explains Paul, is because Paul A Young chocolates are made right there on the premises. "It's got to be a sensory experience!" Paul says, explaining that they had to battle against Health & Safety rules to be allowed to display his chocolates in the open, and not behind glass.

When I say "their" and "they" I'm referring to Paul and his business partner, James Cronin. Sharing a passion for really high quality chocolate, made traditionally and to the highest standards, Paul and James started the business in 2001, developing for others before launching their own products and shops.

Before this, Paul was a chef. It just wasn't possible to cook at the top level in the North, he explains, so he made the decision to move down to London to work for Marco Pierre White as a pastry chef – becoming a "Marco boy!"

He learned a lot from Marco but he's keen to point out how his priorities differ. "For Marco, the most important thing is the product. For me, the most important things are the product and my team."

"No one will be as passionate as James and I about chocolate. But the team we have now - if any of them leave, I will cry – I want people in the shop who, when they are infront of you, can emulate everything I'd want to say!"

Partner James Cronin

All the chocolates are made by hand, not just hand-finished, and using the very best ingredients Paul and James can find. Artificial ingredients are eschewed and machines are shunned. Thus no refined white sugar, no vegetable oils, no ready-made flavourings, no bleaching agents, no preservatives… But fresh herbs, real fruit, pure distilled oils and home-made extracts, unrefined (Billington's) sugars and proper cacao butter…

There is also a focus on ethical sourcing, striving to use fairtrade, organic ingredients where possible. "No matter how busy we get – how big we get, are getting, have got, will get – the quality of the ingredients is the most important."

And Paul is keen to stress that when they say "by hand" they mean exactly that. They don't even use tempering machines, but temper by hand on large marble slabs. Paul asks, "This works in Belgium and France - why can't it work here? Why does everything have to be industrialised?"

Speaking of cacao butter, did you know that "cacoa butter is the most expensive bit of chocolate", not the solids? I didn't.

As chocolate seems to be sold on the basis of cacao solids content, Paul believes that "white chocolate should be called zero percent chocolate." And, since cacao butter is such an expensive and key ingredient, "chocolate made with vegetable oils instead of cacao butter shouldn't be called chocolate at all! It's just chocolate flavouring!"

Paul has another reason to decry the use of vegetable oils in chocolate. Often, when a product lists vegetable oil as an ingredient, it's referring to palm oil. This substance is controversial because of the destruction of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of acres of virgin rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations. Not only is this bad for the environment, it also robs a vast array of wildlife of it's natural habitat, including the beautiful orangutan, with whom ginger-headed Paul feels a curious affinity! Ironically, the demand for palm oil (and the resulting ravaging of the rainforest) has increased due to the Western appetite for bio fuel, touted as the environmentally-friendly option. Whilst it may produce less emissions, it's production can be anything but benign. Of course, palm oil can be produced sustainably - the problem is that it's so difficult for the consumer to find out whether the palm oil in a given product has been sourced ethically or not.

Find out more at the Orangutan Foundation website

So, after learning about what makes Paul and James tick, it's down to learning more about chocolate.

Firstly, we talk about beans. There are three main varieties of beans used in chocolate - forastero, trinitario and criollo.

Forastero is the most commonly grown group and consists of wild and cultivated strains. It's a hardier and higher yield crop and hence, is the most widely used. It's what you'll find in inexpensive, mass-produced chocolates.

Criollo, representing only a few percent of all cocoa beans grown, is the most expensive cocoa on the market. Wiki informs me that there is "some dispute about the genetic purity of cocoas sold today as Criollo, as most populations have been exposed to the genetic influence of other varieties." As criollo strains are hard to grow, vulnerable to environmental threats and lower in yield, they are less popular with cacao farmers.

Trinitario is a hybrid of criollo and forastero. It's grown and used more widely than criollo and represents about 15% of the world's production.

Each variety of bean has it's own flavour characteristics. Forastero is strong in classic cacao flavour, but it's flavours dissipate quickly, which can make it seem quite bland. Criollo is nutty, with a hint of bitterness and has a more complex aromatic structure which lasts longer in the mouth. Trinitario, with elements of both, also offers more complexity than forastero.

But flavour and aroma in chocolate is not all about the bean variety, as Paul explained. The fermentation process governs acidity content, ensures that "horrid" volatile compounds are eradicated and determines how successfully the beautiful aromas of the cacoa are released. This is what gives the beans the chocolate flavours we know and love. Further research tells me that it's also important to harvest cacao pods only when they are fully ripe – unripe beans have a lower cacao butter content and insufficient sugars in the pulp for full fermentation.

And then there's provenance too, or terroir, as the French would put it. Where the beans are grown has an impact on their flavour – Madagascan cacao, for example, has a distinct citrus taste.

So it's no surprise that some of the top producers elect not to reveal the variety or provenance of some of their chocolate, choosing instead to let the taste of the chocolate speak for itself.

During the tasting, Paul talks a lot about the characteristics of different chocolates, and how some provide great initial depth of flavour, others give a lovely melting mouthfeel, and others still provide strong secondary notes for enduring aftertaste. And then explains how he carefully combines them to achieve just the balance he needs for each of his creations. And that's before one brings into the equation the combination of the chocolate itself with all the other ingredients such as herbs, oils, fruit and so on!

Although Paul reminds us that chocolate tasters should let the chocolate melt on the tongue whilst breathing in deeply, it's so hard to resist the urge to chew. Still, I concentrate hard, keen to perceive all the subtlities of flavour and smell.

An animated tutor

Here are the chocolates we taste, in order.

Valrhona Jivara Milk 40%
As the first thing I get is a strong caramel flavour, I'm not surprised to learn that this chocolate is made with brown sugar rather than the white sugar more commonly used in milk chocolate. The consensus is that the round, malty flavours are comforting but I dislike the caramel taste and give a score of just 3/10.

Amedei Toscano Brown Milk 32%
This chocolate is made with cane sugar. I find it a bit bland and milky. Paul tells us it works well with nuts and biscuits. 4/10

Michel Cluizel Milk 50% Madagascan
The others do better at detecting the characteristic fruity nature of the madagascan beans. I find them harder to discern and find this one quite unpleasant. I give it just 2/10.

Amedei Toscano Black 63%
The first thing I notice is the loud clack on biting down on this chocolate! I say it reminds me of coffee and Paul nods and says it's the acidity from the fermentation and the flavours of the roasting coming through. I think I'm out on my own when I describe the aftertaste as reminiscent of cardamom. Others describe the taste as toasty and mention honey. I love this and give it a top score of 10/10!

Valrhona Manjari 64%
This chocolate is made from a blend of bean varieties but all are grown in Madagascar. This time I can really taste the citrus fruit zing and it makes my mouth water. It has a round, sweet flavour that reminds me of a very grown-up Bournville! Paul tells us it works well with sea salt and red fruits but not with winter spices. 6/10.

Michel Cluizel Los Ancones 67%
I don't taste much at first but it comes through eventually. Paul confirms that this one is all about the aftertaste, at the back of the tongue. Los Ancones is a specific plantation that grows a variety of beans and this chocolate is made from the first of 2 annual fruitings. It's muddy and smokey and slightly mocha. I reckon it's a 5/10 verging on 6/10 if I'm being generous.

Amedei Toscano Black 70%
Without a trace of bitterness this chocolate gives me flowers, molasses, toast and mustiness. It's wonderfully rich and complex and I can't decide whether it's a 9/10 or a top 10/10.

Michel Cluizel Blended 72%
This one is made from a blend of beans from different sources. Others menion coconut and hazelnuts. I literally spit this out into a napkin. I absolutely hate it, which is unusual. It's rather embarassing actually! 0/10

Amedei 9 75%
Hmmm, it seems I'm an Amedei girl, though I hadn't known it before this evening. The beans are grown on the family's own 9 plantations and are considered to be the "family treasure". This is so wonderfully rounded, with so many different flavours including rich dried fruits. It's perfect for everyday eating. Paul says it's been blended specially to produce that complexity. Again, I can't decide whether it's a 9/10 or a 10/10.

Amedei Porcelana
Paul decides to treat us to a tasting of what is often referred to as the world's most expensive chocolate. Made from a variety called called "Porcelana" for its porcelain-like color, and prized as a genetically pure strain of criollo this is the only chocolate to set one of our number sneezing madly – an unusual reaction! I find the texture slightly grain and the flavour reminds me of coffee. To my relief, I don't like this quite as much as some of the other Amedeis and give it 8/10.

Valrhona Madagascan 100% Manjari Pate
Pate is also known as paste, liquor or mass. It's essentially just the pure beans, ground down into a paste. There is no sugar, no salt, nothing. At first it's bitter, as you'd expect, but not massively so – I'm left with a mild sourness of flavour. Some of the group are very taken with this, but for me it's a 3/10.

Paul mentions that he did have an 85% Valrhona which he hated, so stopped using it, but that there are other high percentage chocolates that are lovely.

Time to taste Paul's creations

It's time to move on from the chocolate to sample some of the creations Paul has developed. I'm reminded again just how nuanced and skilled a job it is to select and blend chocolates and then combine them with other ingredients to produce a finished product that satisfies on so many levels.

To my delight, I can see on Paul's tray some of his Marmite truffles and his Port & Stilton truffles. Both are amongst those I really liked in the selection I posted about back in April. When developing the port and stilton chocolates, he started out only with stilton. He "made them and then they exploded – put a mouldy cheese into a tight shell and it goes Pooh!" Adding the port was partly about flavour but also a way of using alcohol as a preservative to stop the blue cheese mould from growing. The third variety is Paul's award-winning Sea Salt Caramels (in which he uses butter, cream and real sugar not glucose, he reminds us). Delicious!

The shop also sells hand-made ice-cream and chocolate brownies; the latter are seriously squidgy, rich, fudgy affairs.

It's all about the Tcho-colate!

Finally, Paul calls James to the front of the class to introduce us to Tcho. Paul and James are extremely proud to be the first UK stockists – infact the first non-US stockists – of this innovative American brand and James relates how he visited them at their base near San Francisco and learned first hand about their business. Tcho visited producers all around the world looking for the best beans. Infact, they went further than simply looking – they gave producers and farmers direct feedback which helped them to improve. Usually, cacao farmers have very little understanding of their own product, as they sell the raw cacao pods which are processed elsewhere. Tcho took portable labs out to the farms and performed a two day fermentation process which allowed the farmers to taste their own produce, often for the first time. They then developed hundreds and hundreds of versions before settling on their eventual production versions, some of which we tasted with Paul and James.

Tcho have chosen to name their bars according to their dominant flavour characteristics. Hence there is a Citrus, a Chocolatey, a Fruity, a Nutty and Earthy and a Floral. We tasted the first four.

The Citrus bar, unsurprising now we know the characteristic of Madagascan beans, is 67% and made from Madagascan cacao. It's a subtler, fruitier citrus than the Valrhona Manjari bit still clearly Madagascan. 6/10.

The Chocolatey bar is a 70% chocolate made from Ghanian beans. It is reasonably chocolatey, and has a hint of alcohol, for me. But it's not as intense or deeply chocolatey as I expected. 4/10.

The Fruity bar beans are from Peru and it's 68%. It has a mushroom cave dankness but is fruity at the same time. It reminds me of pu erh tea. 5/10.

The Nutty bar is also from Peru and is 65%. It has a completely different characteristic to the Fruity bar though I detect coffee notes, rather than nut. It's really, really smooth and creamy and silky too. And sweeter than one might expect of a 65%. I like it. 8/10.

By this stage, I know I'm not alone in feeling rather full and, with great timing, have just reached my limit for chocolate for the day.

We are offered a kitchen tour, during which Paul points out molds, ingredients and a huge block of cacao butter before showing us a picture of a checkerboard skull that he's been commissioned to recreate in chocolate!

Clearly exhausted from working long, long days often 7 days a week, Paul is also extremely gregarious and the conversation swings from his opinion of the competition to his recommended recipe for chocolate cake.

Finally we call an end to the evening. Goodie bags clutched possessively in our hands, we traipse out into the dusk of Camden Passage and wend our ways home, heads full of a newly-reinvigorated passion for all things chocolate.

Paul talks to friend and PR Kate Nudge

Many thanks to Kate for organising the evening.

Paul's book, Adventures with Chocolate, is out this month, and available through the new Kavey Eats Amazon Store.


Monday, 26 October 2009

Can you help? Blaggers' Banquet for Action Against Hunger

Fellow blogger Niamh from eatlikeagirl is leading the ranks to organise a magnificent Blaggers' Banquet to raise money for Action Against Hunger.

The event is being held on November 15th at Hawksmoor restaurant, in London.

As Niamh explains: "This will be an exciting dinner created entirely by bloggers and using only food that they have blagged and that they themselves will cook and serve. There will also be a blaggers’ auction, where we will be auctioning exciting items we’ve blagged. This auction will be two fold, a portion of it on the night, and the rest in the weeks following."

As you can imagine, we're looking for food suppliers to help us with ingredients for the meal and any other suppliers to help us with items for the auction. Please get in touch (either with me at or with Niamh at to discuss and donate.

For those of you interested in attending, please bookmark Niamh's blog, eatlikeagirl, where more information will be posted as it becomes available.

A big thank you to the suppliers who've responded to my blagging requests so far:

(All the suppliers who've responded to the many blagging bloggers will be listed and thanked on a special Blaggers Banquet website, coming soon).


Saturday, 24 October 2009

A story of romance, love, cheating, jealousy...

Some of you might know that Pete and I recently attended a photography workshop held in the beautiful abbey in Inzigkofen, Germany and hosted by friend Chris Marquardt. We had a wonderful time learning new skills, practicing and having our passion for photography reinvigorated. We also had fun chilling out with our fellow participants.

During the 4 day workshop we were also given a project for which we split into groups. I partnered with the lovely Fabrizio, a handsome polyglot Italian living in Switzerland, married to a Czech, spent some months in Japan... you get the idea!

Chris gave us absolutely no parameters for our project but we had just three one hour sessions in which we had to decide on a subject or theme, carry out the project and be ready to present it to the rest of the group in a 10 minute presentation.

Oddly, given the eventual subject of our project, we really did come up with the idea together. I started off suggesting a set of images featuring a little espresso coffee cup, then it flew backwards and forwards between us as we decided to make it a story, then a love story, then a story of romance, love, cheating and jealousy...

We storyboarded to work out which scenes we needed to shoot and then went about capturing the images. I had great fun googling for red lingerie, pasting images into a document and then asking the bemused abbey administrator to print the page out for me!

Then we did a quick, slapdash processing of our RAW images so that we could put them into a powerpoint presentation, into which we also inserted text explanations. Our intention was for the style to be that of an old silent movie, though we decided to stick with colour images, not black and white.

The finished project isn't as polished as it could be, but given just three short hours, we were really pleased with it and really enjoyed presenting it to the group. They seemed to really enjoy it too!

And what is it doing on my food blog?

Well, it the cast ARE coffee cups!!!

Enjoy and let us know what you think!


Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Restaurant Review: Leong's Legend

I've been wistfully reading many reviews and tweets about Leong's Legend over recent months and been meaning to visit for quite some time. So I was really pleased to be able to make my first visit with regular customer, Helen, the lady behind one of my very favourite blogs, World Foodie Guide.

Leong's Legend, Macclesfield Street, ChinaTown, London

We met for lunch on the first Friday in October, just as autumn finally barged the last days of summer well and truly out of it's way. We quickly got to ordering, eating and chatting.

Braised Pork Belly Rice (£4.80)

From the price, we assumed the pork belly rice would be a smaller dish than was delivered. When the huge pile of meltingly soft belly pork pieces, mound of rice and rich dark sauce arrived, we knew for sure we'd over ordered! This one dish would be a hearty lunch on it's own! Definitely not one for the diet-conscious, the fatty pork was spoon soft and cooked in a delicious, sweet savoury sauce. One of my favourites!

Taiwan Spicy Beef Noodle (£4.80)

As with the pork, the noodle soup was a much larger dish than we'd expected for the price. This was filling but nothing special, a little bland and boring.

Beef Noodle Soup and 2 Taiwan Mini Kebab with Pork (£2.60 each)

Even though we had far too much food, I'm glad Helen suggested ordering one mini kebab each - "far too tricky to divide", she said. "And far too delicious to want to", I thought! I loved these! Inside the soft pillow of dough was an explosion of tastes and textures including soft pork, supple pickled vegetables and crunchy peanut sauce. I's going to be hard not to pop in for one of these every time I'm passing!

Legend's Siu Long Bao (8 pieces £5.00)

The sui long bao were just as good as I'd been lead to believe by the various food bloggers and twitterati in the know! That said, I've never before had sui long bao - a steamed dim sum dumpling containing hot liquid alongside the regular meat filling - so I can't compare with other examples. Extra care is needed in order not to burst the delicate parcels and lose all the tasty broth, though it's an equal challenge not to burn one's mouth on it either!

Prawn Dumplings (4 pieces £2.50)

Perfectly acceptable, fairly ordinary prawn dumplings. No better or worse than those I've had in many other places.

Roast Pork Cheung Fun (£2.80)

Both Helen and I agreed that the
cheung fun was disappointing. The rice noodle roll (wrapper) was flabby, the roast pork bland and the dipping sauce somewhat insipid. I would not order this again here, though it's something I have often elsewhere.

Iced Pearl Tea with Milk (£3.00)

We washed down as much of this feast as we could manage (and believe me, we crammed in a lot) with Iced Pearl Tea with Milk. I love the big black tapioca pearls often served with fruit juice, smoothies and iced tea and coffee. Leong's Legend tea was made as it's commonly drunk in India - brewed very strong with lots of milk and sugar. I couldn't drink it hot, but it worked well with ice and pearls.

As you can imagine, we didn't manage to finish it all, but we gave it a good try! Our bill was about £17 each, with service. You could eat a generous lunch here for a tenner or less very easily.

Whilst I won't be abandoning my longtime China Town dim sum haunts (the cheung fun was disappointing and, of course, many dim sum dishes were not available here) I have certainly added Leong's Legend to my shortlist of places to pop into for a tasty, inexpensive lunch in town.

Leong’s Legends on Urbanspoon


Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Restaurant Review: Jun Tanaka's Pearl

Last year, my sister and I enjoyed a wonderful meal out for our birthday. We decided to do the same again this year.

Jun Tanaka has appeared in a number of TV cookery shows and I have always been impressed by his quiet, focused energy and his creative cooking style so this year my sister and I chose Tanaka's Pearl restaurant, located within the Rennaisance Chancery Court hotel near Holborn tube station.

On booking, I mention that the meal was a joint birthday celebration for my sister and I and ask whether we might be able to have a brief peek in the kitchen, if it is not too busy or inconvenient. They make a note of the occasion and of the request, which will depend on how busy it is on the night.

Arriving early I am warmly greeted by reception staff, including manager Russell Cock. He invites me to have a drink in the attractive bar. It's a lovely, elegant, bright space and I particularly like the way individual spaces are separated by pretty glass-beaded curtains and lights.

From the extensive drinks menu I order a raspberry rocket, a non-alcoholic cocktail with raspberry cordial, mint leaves, lime juice and ginger ale. It brings to mind, as I hoped it would, a refreshing mojito, an enduring favourite of mine. With my drink I'm served a generous dish of mixed nuts. My sister arrives not long afterwards, orders her own cocktail and we catch up about our birthday celebrations and gifts so far.

In one of those strange but delightful little coincidences that crop up in life, my sister was born exactly 3 years and 5 minutes after me. I really love that we share our birthday, though I guess I've never known any different. Perhaps if we weren't so close, I'd feel quite differently! The good news is that as well sharing our birthday, we also have a very similar taste in food. An evening of fine dining such as this is a perfect mutual gift for us to give to each other!

The time of our booking comes and goes and no-one comes for us, so eventually we ask a barman to check and are soon shown to our table, my unfinished drink taken through for me. The restaurant is surprisingly empty, and doesn't get much busier through the evening. This doesn''t bother me - whilst I prefer not to be the only diner in a restaurant, I don't need it to be heaving just to provide me with a buzzy atmosphere.


Having been presented with the menus, a selection of canapés is served. I'm afraid I dig in before I remember to take a photo, so the canapé nearest to you (in the photo above) - an unbelievably smooth and rich chicken liver parfait served with two tiny toasts and a dollop of chutney - is half-eaten! (Yes, we do share each of the canapés!) Next is a little quenelle of salmon rillette, a perfect melting mouthful. Behind that is a breadcrumbed ball of mushroom risotto - what I'd call an arancino - creamy with earthy funghi flavours. And in the farthest spoon holds mackerel and vegetables escabeche - pickled with a light touch that allows the fresh fish and produce to shine.

Spoilt for choice on the menu, we realise we are both dithering over the same two starters and two mains so agree to order one each - I choose which of the two mains I'd prefer, my sister chooses which of the starters she fancies most. Whilst the main menu is, in my opinion, very reasonably priced (at 1 course for £32.00, 2 course for £47.00 or 3 course for £55.00) the wine list is rather expensive, with very few choices in it's many, many pages for anyone on a budget. My sister orders a glass of red wine, and some tap water for the table. I stick with my cocktail.

Oddly, as my sister gives her wine order, I'm asked the rather strange question of whether I'm drinking alcohol at all this evening. Not whether I'd like to order any wine, but specifically, whether I'm drinking alcohol. My sister and I are a little bemused by the question... until the staff serve us with a complimentary glass of champagne for my sister, and a (different) non-alcoholic cocktail for me. What a lovely gesture this is and sister and I beam at both the birthday wishes and the drinks! (My sister's red wine is not brought to the table until she's finished her champagne).

amuse bouche

Next to arrive are plates bearing an amuse bouche of roasted root vegetables with shaved chestnuts, sage and onion foam and onion rings. Delicious, and quickly polished off!

Before the starters, we are offered bread. I think the one we both choose is a rosemary foccacia. Certainly the savoury zing of rosemary comes through clearly.

scallops starter

My sister's starter of curried scallops with parsnip puree, apples, cauliflower and semi dried grapes is beautiful to look at; a real work of art on the plate! Any thoughts that the punchy spices might overwhelm the delicate sweetness of scallop are quickly dismissed. Each component is distinct and delicious, and yet they blend together very well.

langoustine starter

But I love my poached langoustines with buckler sorrel, chilled pumpkin and ginger soup even more! The soup is not only visually vibrant but wakes up the taste buds too. The langoustines are soft and sweet. I'm not sure what the darker drizzles are, but they add both another texture and a sort of sweet sour flavour - perhaps tamarind based? I reckon I could happily eat this dish every day for a month and still be just as pleased with it.

lamb main

My sister's roast loin of marinated lamb with pastilla, couscous, greengages and cobnuts, yoghurt dressing is beautiful, with the lamb itself tender, flavoursome and cooked pink, as expected. But whilst both of us like this dish, we don’t love it. The pastilla spices seem to bear no relation to those used in the Maghreb; certainly I can’t detect any of the traditional cinnamon warmth and sugary sweetness we so fell for when enjoying pastilla in Morocco. Infact, it may more accurately be described as a samosa given it's flavourings. While I expect and even appreciate the way that innovative chefs put their own twist on existing dishes, if they choose to use names belonging to traditional dishes, I do think their creations should bear some similarity to the originals! The couscous provides a carbohydrate filler rather than anything exciting in terms of taste or texture basis; nothing wrong with it but nothing to sing about either. And the yoghurt dressing gives a refreshing but not particularly luxurious finish to the dish, perhaps more suited to the warmth of summer than the cooler days of autumn.

guineau fowl and lobster

I am happier with my main of guinea fowl and lobster fricassée with tarragon, macaroni and quince puree. The various cuts are well cooked and deeply meaty, bolstered by the generous, dark gravy pooled at the bottom of the plate. Much umami pleasure that has me mmm-ing and aaah-ing until my sister glares at me! I can’t discern much flavour in the pretty orange pasta tubes but I like the firm texture and autumnal colour they provide. The flavour of the lobster is a bit lost in this dish, next to the robust showy taste-bud dancing of the guinea fowl, and it is also too soft for my taste - not quite mushy but certainly lacking any firmness or bite. Nevertheless, I really love this dish and even ask for a spoon so I can scoop up the last drops of gratifying gravy!

We deliberately take our time placing our dessert order, to give us time to relax and chat, though I’m sure we could have ordered and asked them to hold. Before our chosen dishes we are first served with a pre-dessert of muscat grape shot topped with muscat foam. Served in a shot glass with a small straw provided, the dark red liquid is intensely sweet, heady essence of muscat grape. In contrast, the pale pink foam is mouth-puckeringly sharp – I wonder if they’ve made the foam using an extract from the bitter skins of the grapes and juiced the flesh for the main liquid?


Tiramisu is just tiramisu, right? Wrong! My sister reckons this is one of the best she’s had, and likes the crumbled amaretti biscuit topping as well as the elegant presentation. The amaretto ice cream is heavenly and has a lovely, granular texture - my guess is that it contains both amaretti biscuits and amaretto liqueur. A simple dessert elevated to a higher level.


Again, I’m thrilled with my choice of caramelised apples with salted caramel mousse, thyme ice cream and honey jelly. The amber spheres of apple are perfectly cooked and caramelised, retaining a nice bite without being too hard. I'd expected miniature toffee apples but these are so much more refined than that! Salted caramel mousse does exactly what it says on the tin; the hard salty flavour at odds with the silky light texture in the most delightful way. Thyme ice cream adds an unusual and surprisingly successful savoury component to the plate, and I like that it’s not overly sweet. And finally the honey jelly; so strange to taste pure honey in a gelatinous format! It's a well-chosen honey too, a strong and distinct one. Whilst the narrow biscuit sticks make the dish look even better, and no doubt add another texture to the mix, I don’t like them at all so leave them to one side.

Throughout our meal, service has been excellent. Our main waiter, Teddy, has been attentive, helpful and friendly as have the rest of the team looking after us. At one point, Teddy brings over a show copy of Tanaka's recently published book, Simple to Sensational, which I have asked about. Whilst we're flicking through it, restaurant manager Russell pops by and chats to us about it, pointing out a few of the recipes he's personally tried at home. He also lets us know that he'd be happy to give us a little tour after our meal to show us the wine room, the kitchen and the private dining area.

I really like the book and will add it to my Christmas wishlist. I've not come across the concept before: Tanaka presents a simple dish such as tuna niçoise and alongside it, a sensational version that turns it from a good everyday meal into something rather more special. Both the simple and sensational recipes look eminently achievable for the home chef and there are several that catch my eye.

Our bill paid, Russell arrives to talk to us about the restaurant and take us on our tour. One of the nice features of the dining space - as well as the high ceilings, beautiful lighting, well-spaced out tables and calming colour scheme - is the modern, walnut-clad wine cave in full view of the diners. Not only does it provide an attractive focal point, it also allows the sommeliers to retrieve customers' orders quickly, without a long trip to a far-away basement.

The kitchen is surprisingly small given the size of the dining room, and is a hive of calm, focused energy when we're taken inside. Russell confirms how seamlessly the kitchen team work together and how much respect they (and he) have for Tanaka's leadership, creativity and skills as a chef.

Lastly, Russell shows us the private dining area, in what was once the entrance lobby of the former bank in which this rather grand hotel is housed. It's a listed building, which greatly restricted what they could do when creating the restaurant a few years ago (and why they were unable to knock down any walls to make the kitchen any bigger). Happily, I can report that they've created a beautiful restaurant in the space; one that shouldn't be dismissed as a mere "restaurant hotel" and all that implies.

Russell again wishes us a happy birthday as he walks us back towards reception. The tour is a lovely end to a wonderful evening.

Happy birthday, sis!
Pearl on Urbanspoon


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Green Tomato & Raisin Chutney

Having made jam (and marmalade, pickles, chutneys and ketchups) for the first time ever in August, I've really caught the preserving bug. And it's proving to be a perfect way to use and store our home-grown vegetables.

We planted our tomatoes out a little late this year so, although the yield has been fantastic, most have not had time to ripen.

tigarella tomatoes
Back in September, I used some of our green tomatoes to make some chutney. I didn't have all the ingredients for any of the recipes I had to hand so I decided to improvise. The result was even better than I expected; I'm so pleased with it!

Kavey's Green Tomato & Raisin Chutney
1 kilograms green tomatoes
250 ml malt vinegar
250 grams raisins
165 grams sugar
5 cloves garlic
2/3 tablespoon ground cumin
2/3 tablespoon sweet paprika (optional)
Salt (to taste)

  1. Place all the ingredients, except for the sugar, into a pan and bring to the boil.
  1. Turn heat down and cook covered until tomatoes are soft.
  2. Uncover, add sugar and boil briskly until the mixture reaches the desired consistency.
  3. Taste and adjust seasoning, spices, sugar and/ or vinegar, as required.
  1. Transfer into hot sterilised jars (both jars and chutney should be hot), seal and leave to cool.
  1. Label and store in cool, dark cupboard.
Note: I sterilise my jars in the oven, putting a tray of jars into a cold oven, setting the temperature to 160 C, and leaving the jars in for at least 10 minutes once the oven has reached temperature. The lids I boil in a pan and then lay out to dry on a fresh teatowel.

The finished chutney is quite a dark one, with a strong flavour. It's kind of a mix between the flavours of a fruit-based chutney and the picquancy of Branston pickle. It makes a great accompaniment to strong cheese.


Thursday, 8 October 2009

Pierre Koffmann's Pop-Up Restaurant at Selfridges

When I first heard about Pierre Koffmann's pop-up restaurant I was very excited! Koffmann is a living legend and, as part of the London Restaurant Festival, he is running a restaurant on the roof of Selfridges. Having never dined at La Tante Claire, I was really keen not to miss out.

Unfortunately, the festival week coincides squarely with a long-arranged overseas trip and I could only attend a single date of those initially on offer. (The pop-up has now been extended to the end of October, and it seems extremely likely it will be extended further).

Imagine my delight when I secured a lunch reservation for 2 on the first day of opening. And then an entire month of anticipation and salivation which culminated in my glorious meal today.

As Pete wasn't able to come with me, I offered a fellow food-lover friend, Jennifer of Chocolate Ecstasy Tours, the second place and we met, giddy with expectation and hunger, outside the famous department store.

With a noon booking, we were amongst the first to arrive, and it took us a few moments to find the dedicated lift up to the roof restaurant. The doors opened to a winter grotto scene with a beautiful white light sculpture and corridor leading through to a reception area, then up into the large marquee.

stepping out of the dedicated lift

If you're feeling nervous about the marquee element, fret no further. This is a marquee in name and shape only; solidly built, beautifully decorated and with not a breeze of cold October air, it's warm and cosy and elegant.

The dining space is charming. Tables are generously spaced out and elegantly dressed. The windows let in lots of light. From the apex of the high marquee ceiling hang quirky antler chandeliers, like those in The Bull & Last pub in Highgate. And along the length of the inside wall hang black top and bowler hats, some converted to lightshades. A fun space with a nice balance between traditional and innovative.

the airy dining area

Initially seated by the huge windows, with views over London, we quickly switched to a table against the opposite wall; much cooler than the window seat and still with terrific views. Menus handed out, we got down to the important business of choosing and placed our orders.

Budget-conscious, I opted for tap water, which was courteously provided. Jen also had a glass of white wine from a wine list with a surprising number of very reasonably priced options.

The bread basket offered freshly baked (and still warm), mini baguette, plain white or tomato. While we were enjoying this, the amuse bouche arrived.

amuse bouche

Langoustine bisque with potato foam was absolutely packed with flavour. The foam was quite surprising, providing a really clear potato taste without the usual heavy texture. A lovely start and both Jen and I mopped up every last drop with our bread; sod couth, who needs couth?!

lobster cocktail

My starter Cocktail of Scottish Lobster and Avocado with a Lemon Jelly was served in a martini glass and looked spectacular. And wow, it tasted fantastic too. As well as generous, perfectly cooked chunks of lobster and fresh avocado, I found little pieces of sharp lemon jelly, a light crispy salad and tiny cubes of apple, all pulled together with a light dressing. The avocado mousse on top was also a tasty addition. I savoured every single mouthful!

leeks and langoustine

Jen's starter of Pressed Leeks and Langoustines with a Truffle Vinaigrette was also striking and satisfyingly generous, too. It was simple, yet beautifully executed with a lovely flavour in the langoustine sauce. It seemed less exciting than mine on first glance but was actually very delicious.

(Luckily, Jen is of the same mind as I am - that tasting each other's dishes is an absolute necessity so we both sampled each other's choices!)

wild seabass

Jen's Pavè of Wild Seabass with an Artichoke Barigoule was a beautiful piece of fish. Again, the portion was generous and the fish was nicely cooked. With it were some very tasty potatoes - we asked about them and one of the staff headed off to check with the kitchen, and returned to tell us that they hadn't been sure until the last minute whether they'd be able to get this variety, called corne de gatte and grown in France, but were very pleased they did - google shows me these are simply pink fir apple potatoes. Slow-cooked garlic and tiny onions/ shallots were beautifully sweet, carrots fresh and light. The artichoke, I wasn't as keen on, but Jen enjoyed it.

a Koffmann signature dish - pig's trotter

I was quite nervous about Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Veal Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms. I've enjoyed sweetbreads before but never eaten trotter and had no idea whether I'd like it. But it's a dish so strongly associated with Koffmann that I just couldn't miss the opportunity to try it. Luckily, I liked it! Not a dish for the diet-conscious, the sweetbreads and mushrooms were wrapped in the thick, gelatinous fat of the trotter. I had expected some crispness to the skin but instead it was more like slow-braised pork belly fat. Unctuous and silky. It was served with an extremely good mash, two beautiful, paper-thin bacon wheels and a thick, savoury sauce.

By this point we were both feeling quite full but of course, we ploughed on and ordered desserts!

apple pie

Jen chose the Gascon Apple Pie. Wow, what a fabulous dessert! Thin, strong crunchy pastry sheets formed a thick base beneath the apple and then a protective lid of wildly folding flaps, above. Beneath the apple, they formed into a thick, chewy, crispy, caramel-infused layer of heaven! The apples were soft but with just enough firmness to retain their shape. And the caramel sauce was marvellous. Whilst we were eating, an elegant lady who we think is perhaps Pierre's partner/wife, Claire, came over to tell us about the very special flour used for the croustade pastry and also how, on a recent holiday, Pierre had eaten this dessert every single day! We could understand why!

Pistachio soufflé

I went for the Pistachio Soufflé with Pistachio Ice Cream and was not disappointed. Whilst the ice cream was nothing to write home about, the soufflé was a revelation and the second really fabulous dessert souffl
é I've had in the last few weeks. Beautifully risen, dusted with chocolate and icing sugar, fluffy inside, with a smooth and creamy pistachio taste it was just magnificent. I didn't really have room to finish it but I did anyway!

petits fours

We wondered at this point whether we'd soon be rushed on, as the two hour turnaround time had been stressed to me both on making the reservation and when they called to re-confirm yesterday. Service had been very warm and friendly, but a little haphazard and it was already gone two o'clock, the time we should have left. But there were other tables free and we went ahead and ordered mint tea. To our surprise, no petit fours were served with it, though Jen knew from her contacts that some had been made, so we asked and a plate was quickly bought out to us. William Curley chocolates, a little lemon and raspberry tart, some nougat, a sesame crisp, a pate de fruit and a miniature loaf cake infused, we think, with rum - this was a generous plate. Can you believe, I was so full I could not even eat my share, though I did try everything!

By half past two we flagged down one of the ladies who seemed to be in charge - I think it may have been the same Dawn who managed early reservations - and asked whether it might be possible to have a copy of the menu each, signed by Pierre and by Eric Chavot, working with him in the kitchen. This was very kindly arranged and we were as pleased as punch with our lovely mementos.

What a truly wonderful experience! I know many of my food-loving friends are visiting over the next couple of weeks; I hope you have as lovely a meal as we did!

Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the Roof on Urbanspoon