Brasserie

Brasserie de l’Est, Lyon

Lyon, ‘the gut’ of France, is a city built on food. Almost every street is lined with boulangeries and bouchons; the air rife with the pungent stink of andouille sausage, of yeast, and the sweet perfume of praline. The culture of gastronomy lies embedded in every shelf lined with foie de canard, or gooey St Marcelin cheese. The Lyonnais understand food because they live it. It all makes for remarkable viewing. No one embodied the ethics of this city more than Paul Bocuse, the sadly departed leader of Nouvelle cuisine whose footprint can be seen everywhere. His three star restaurant sits on the outskirts of the city, whilst in the centre you’ll find his face painted onto a wall near Les Halles Bocusse, as well as a handful of restaurants, brasseries, and comptoirs bearing his name. He built this city. He built this city on Coq and bread rolls.

We have dinner at one of those brasseries on Bastille Day, a move that was forced when the terrace at Christian Têtedoie cancelled our reservation at the last second when the clouds rumbled louder than my gut. We head to de l’Est, conveniently near our accommodation in a now defunct Metro station. The initial signs are great; the place is buzzing with an open kitchen showcasing the brigade at work with their tall hats skimming the ceiling. We order a bottle of Morgon 2013 for a very fair 49 euro from a front of house team running between tables. If there is one thing I love about Lyon more than any other it is the price of wine from it’s surrounding areas.

It would be unfair of me to criticise any element of the meal without pointing out the positives, which are the ingredients, for which obvious care has been taken in the sourcing of. Both of the starters have parts that shine; the dark and sweet jamon on the pasta, and the parmesan and lettuce on the Caesar salad, but they are ultimately dull renditions. The pasta on the former is slightly overdone and lacking any texture, the chicken on the latter bland in comparison to the brilliant poultry we ate otherwise. When both of these are a fraction under 15 Euros these become unacceptable errors.

With dishes sold out quicker than a Tory government NHS, I end up with a vegetable tart for main. It feels like an afterthought, and knowing the French attitude to dietary needs it probably is. The proportions are out; too much of the too thick courgette, not enough of the rest. The delicate flavours of vegetables strangled by a massive pesto. The other main is the pluma cut of Iberico pork. The meat is medium rare and a little under-rested, but the big problem lies with the risotto which is underdone. That pork dish is 30 Euros, a price I mention because there is not much to love. We have two desserts; an assault on chocolate which is too much to finish and a rum baba that we do. The baba is very good, though not as delicate as one we had two nights prior for half the price.

The bill comes in at over 150 Euros, a price that is a third more than our favourite meal in Lyon and probably double what it was worth. As an aside, Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse is less than a kilometre away and where we found ourselves each morning. Here you will find the very best of the local produce; perfect cheese from Mère Richard, the best in bread, handmade chocolates and macaroons, wines of the Côtes du Rhone and Beaujolais, and tricolour of Bresse chicken. It is a culinary heaven. It is here that the true legacy of Monsieur Bocuse lives, not in a very average brasserie trading off his name.

5/10

Pictures by Nosh and Breks

The Ivy, Birmingham

I, like many others, have an Ivy story. I went about fifteen years ago, coerced into one of those too-late-for-lunch-too-early-for-dinner slots that they stick non important folk in. If I recall correctly one of the blokes from Steps was there, chin raised, desperate to be noticed. I had Bang Bang chicken to start, shepherds pie to follow, a decent bottle of white because I wasn’t red ready back then. It was nice, maybe not worth the £150 bill which at that point was my most expensive meal to date. Oh, how times have changed with my restaurant expenditure. The flagship Ivy remains a West End institution, pulling in the crowds with the lure of celebrity and the most accessible of menus.

Common sense dictated that this is a formula that should be rolled out, which, after 24 other sites across the country finally sees them bringing their brasserie format to Birmingham. The dining room is a beauty; stained glass lines the facade with deep booth seating in a multitude of tasteful shades. Artwork arcs back to Picasso’s more progressive work in the 20’s, an era that fits the overall theme of Art Deco. It’s clearly working; on the mid-week evening we dine they are turning tables away.

Our meal warrants that success; it works because it’s accessible, fairly priced and has an eye for detail that belays its reputation as a chain. A salad of crispy duck has Asian accents throughout. Everything has purpose, from toasted cashews for texture to cubes of melon for relief. All of it is smartly dressed with just enough acidity and heat. It feels like a bargain at £7.95. Likewise new season asparagus with a mozzarella so rich it could pass as burrata, broad beans, and a verdant pesto. The ingredients are treated with respect. That goes a long way in my world.

A whole sea bass is accurately timed, though the delicate fish is given a bit of a bashing by the big hitting flavours of fennel, olives and capers. The poor thing never stood a chance; you can tell by the shocked look in his eyes. And then there’s more duck, this time in an aromatic Thai style curry that could pass muster in many of the cities oriental restaurants. There’s flavours of galangal, lemongrass and the lurking back note of chilli. The fifteen quid this costs includes rice; a price that seems very fair to me.

As tempted as I am to bow to the Instagram crowd and order the melting chocolate bomb for theatre, we opt against dessert. Naysayers will say it’s not the proper Ivy and they’ll be right, but I don’t believe there is a sustainable market for one which would be double the price of this. They’ll also no doubt say it’s another chain, which is absolute nonsense. The arrival of this Ivy has further enhanced the reputation of the city, filling a gap for consistent brasserie style food at a price point that isn’t going to break the bank. I’m glad that The Ivy group has made the step into Birmingham and I can see myself sat by those stained glass windows with a main course and glass of wine for many an evening to come.

8/10

I was invited to review The Ivy

Transport was provided by A2B Radio Cars

Like this blog? Good, me neither. Still be a good egg and vote for me in Best Food Blog here

The Townhouse, Stratford-Upon-Avon

The Townhouse know how to do weekend stays.  They understand the desires of a customer over the stereotypical stuff we are expected to want from a hotel stay, but never actually do.  Fluffy bath robes are out, a decanter full of port is in, because anyone sane would take fortified wine over post-shower warmth.  Nespresso machines and tea pots.  We get oversized mirrors and showerheads, both of which are ideal for my massive head.  It’s a details place, that much is obvious, with tasteful, well appointed rooms.  It is one of the better places I have ever stayed in, and this was before they gave me two breakfasts the following morning.

thumbnail_J170306_TownhouseStratford__OH017[TIF20181752004]

But I’m a restaurant blogger (award winning, would you Adam and Eve it), so lets get down to the nitty-gritty.   The restaurant here is adjacent to the bar, a warming space of dark woods and moss green.  On the evening we are here there is a band on, a thought that had me running for the hills until the opening chords of TLC’s Waterfalls played.  In truth, it sits very comfortably between those locals who know the quality to be had here, and for those visiting this town who have took a punt on the website and central location.

IMG_9886

IMG_9893

I have no problem in saying that the food far exceeded our expectations, which isn’t to say that those expectations were low, just that we wasn’t expecting a couple of dishes to knock us sideways.  A scallop starter would be one of those dishes.  The mollusc has been cooked with a blow torch only so that the centre was rare and the outer a speckled black.  The circular plate design was a pretty as a Gainsborough, the base formed of sweetcorn puree, for which the scallop, chorizo, and broad beans were placed on top.  It’s cohesive in flavour and thankfully not overly sweet as mind imagined, it is a grain of salt on each scallop from being something astonishing.  If any dish shows their desire for accolades it’s this.

IMG_9888

Another starter was far simpler in construction.  Potted duck features all of the bits of the animal that require patience and plenty of rendered fat to make tasty, pulled into a jumble and pressed back into a jar.  On top is a fig chutney that is sweet and warming, on the side is an apple salad.  The eating is a simple process of smearing it all thickly on to bread.  It’s an honest bit of food that would comfortably feed one with a pint of beer at lunch.

IMG_9889

A chicken main has a well cooked supreme, with chick peas, a little chorizo and courgettes.  It’s nice, but it’s crying out for more acidity.  A big squeeze of lemon juice to tie it all together or… or… this caponata side dish that went a little too well with the chicken.  Once combined the dish took on a new persona, one a little more shouty and naughty.

IMG_9891

IMG_9892

The other main didn’t need the caponata for attitude – it had bags of the stuff.  Pork loin cooked so that it was blushing, with discs of black pudding and apple, new potatoes, and the kind of sauce I would run off with, had doing so twice in one year not been so frowned upon.  The sauce itself was a reduction of the hardy bits of pig, a little cream, some mustard and finished with chives, that held everything together in one big hug.  My partner, heaven forbid herself a food blogger, called it one of the best things she had eaten this year.  For once, she was not wrong.

IMG_9890

Desserts were nice enough, though an obvious area for improvement given the quality served before.  A “‘neatened’ mess” was exactly that, a kitsch looking collection of strawberries and cream which were a vehicle for a pleasant meringue crown.  I preferred the treacle tart with clotted cream, which had a good depth of flavour.  In my opinion, the sugar content for both could have been reduced, but it’s worth noting that I do not have the sweetest of teeth.

IMG_9894

IMG_9895

We drank with this a very nice Gavi from a very fair wine list.  After we sauntered into Stratford and then decided that we liked it more back where we were, and made our way into the bar to watch the last of the music.  The Townhouse is that kind of place – approachable and friendly, perfectly pitched at it’s cliental.  It also has a kitchen that is capable of some serious cooking; there are places not as competent as this locally with two rosettes, so this should be their aim.  For mid-priced dining in Warickshire, I can think of nowhere I would recommend more.

8/10

I was invited to stay at The Townhouse by Shakespeares England.  For more information please see http://www.shakespeares-england.co.uk

Tom’s Kitchen, The Mailbox, Birmingham

I’ve been spoiled with good food recently.  I can feel it across my waistband and as a nagging ache on the left hand side of my chest. I’m not complaining, I live a good life with many trappings, but I did I know I was going to have eaten so well over the last two weeks? No, probably not. Simpson’s was always a given, and I knew enough of Matt’s cooking to know that I was going to enjoy Cheal’s. But did I really expect Tom’s Kitchen to deliver a great meal? Honestly, not on my nelly. I went to the launch party, I met Aiken’s (my fiancé has a crush on him. Strange taste in men, that girl), I ate the nibbles. They were good, nothing more. And then the company themselves downplay what they do, describing the restaurant as a brasserie serving British favourites and comfort food classics. Thanks, but I can rustle that up at home to a decent standard.

IMG_8765

So here we are, in a tucked away corner in The Mailbox, finding out that Tom Aikens excels in, of all things, modesty.  The kitchen here is producing some very high quality cooking, they’re just not shouting it out from the rooftops.   Whoever has designed the room needs a promotion.  It’s a chic space of oversized yellow chesterfields, with splashes of dark green, all under the base colour of soft sand.  Tables are well spaced, service is buzzy and friendly.

A parfait of liver would be the first proper thing to eat. It’s smooth and distinct, the richness ramped up by the addition of foie gras to the chicken offal.  We smear it inch thick on to toasted brioche, apply both cornichons and chutney and away we go.  The parfait is as textbook as it gets.

IMG_8769

And then things go up another level.  Venison loin is rare, with red wine poached pear, beetroot gratin and a puree of the same root.  It’s a cloud of purple with only a dome of braised leg croquette stopping Whoopi Goldberg from winning Best Supporting Actress for it.  What impresses most is the precision of it all – every element has been cooked and seasoned to perfection.  It punches way above brasserie level and more into the kitchen of somewhere like Turners, incidentally where the Head Chef previously worked.

IMG_8771

A similar story was had with a special of Guinea fowl supreme, on the most addictive of barley risotto spun with confit duck and hazelnuts.  Its deceptively simple looking, though had massive flavour throughout.  If they had this dish on the menu in one form or another, I would be back fortnightly to eat it.

IMG_8772

Alas, the pudding we shared was good, though not of the same ridiculously high standard of the two mains.  Iles flottantes, floating islands, or Mrs Bettons Snow Eggs as they appear here – call them what you may – are the ultimate use of an egg; poached meringues for the whites, custard for the yolks.  Good enough to eat as just that with toasted almonds, though here with a blackberry jam that dominates and honeycomb, in the only technical slip, that has the tang of alkaline from raw bicarbonate of soda.  It’s still tasty stuff, and we finish all of it, but it feels a bit of let down given the savoury courses.

IMG_8774

This being The Mailbox it comes at a price. Starters are typically £7-10, the Guinea fowl was £18.00 and that venison at £26.00. Desserts rarely fail to hit a tenner. Is it worth it? Yes, I’d pay that for either of those mains any day. Quality like this comes at a price, and I’d argue that a total bill of under £90 for the above, including two large glasses of wine represents good value. Tom Aikens can cook, anyone who knows his pedigree can tell you that, but this is a team working to his specification in his absence and they are doing his name justice. Brasserie? Debatable. Seriously good addition to the cities restaurant scene? Undoubtable.

8/10

A proportion of my bill was comped by the restaurant

Tom’s Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gusto, Birmingham

I’d like to think that places like Gusto are a sign of just how far Birmingham has progressed over recent years.  I don’t think it would have fitted in five years ago when the city was still finding it’s culinary feet, or even two years back when areas such as Edgbaston and Moseley were making massive indentations into antediluvian stereotype.  Now, less than six months after its opening, it feels like a staple of Colmore Row – rewarded by a full dining room whose attitude towards dining out is more open.  It sits underneath the Grand Hotel, right in the heart of the financial district.  Inside you’ll find one of the prettier dining rooms in the city, one that nods towards the 1920’s without ever compromising the simplicity of modern interior design.  Glance around and you’ll see slithers of stained glass and splashes of marble, with circular wooden tables that suit tables of four far better than just us two.  It evokes the dining rooms of New York’s Nolita district, a style that matches a menu full of the bastardisation cuisine that is American-Italian.

img_8476

Now, you may, or may not, be aware that Gusto is a chain.  Whether that bothers you or not depends on how much time you like to spend shouting at birds in the street.  Me, I couldn’t care less, it obviously works or else they wouldn’t have sloped down from the north to Birmingham.  The first thing I ate happened to be very good indeed.  Torn shreds of braised pork, with gnocchi and cherry bell pepper, all dressed in light rocket pesto.  The gnocchi is light and lends itself well to the rest of the plate.  There is heat from the peppers and plenty of robust seasoning.  It quickly disappears.

img_8477

Duck comes medium-rare as requested, on a warm salad of pulses and roasted winter veg.  It’s succeeds in being lighter than it looks, simultaneously fresh and earthy, though we welcome additional carbs in the form of fries dusted with parmesan and truffle. Lamb Cacciatore is a traditional Italian Easter dish of slow cooked ovine, here presented as a gutsy stew rich with tomato and red wine.  Like everything else we try, it’s considered and well cooked, the working muscles of the lamb cooked until they offer no resistance to fork nor teeth, with a dollop of pesto to cut through some of the richness.  Portions are on the American side of large and we find no room for dessert, despite a mischievous sounding Nutella calzone.  I’ll be back for that, don’t you worry.  The bill, with a nice bottle of Barbera, comes to a very fair £63.00 for the two of us.

img_8478

img_8479

I go back a few days later whilst waiting for a phone screen to be fixed in the Apple store.  There I have a pizza with cured meat and chillies that sits amongst some of the better pizza to be had in the city centre.  The base is thin and crisp, the toppings generous and of a high quality.  It makes for an ideal dinner for one with another glass of red wine too cheap for its quality.

Pasta, pizza and so forth; without ever mentioning the word Italian, Gusto have served up some of the better examples to have in Birmingham.  Yes, I know it’s not authentic; it’s immigrant food galvanized on the East coast of America, but it happens to be a damn sight better than the generic paint-by-numbers tosh we have come to accept as a given by more established Italian restaurants.  It is a welcome addition to the city; stylish, affordable and with a clear identity.  If only every group had the same high standards as Gusto, I would welcome them all with open arms.

8/10 

 

 

Waterside Brasserie, Stratford-Upon-Avon

I seem to have spent a lot of my summer in and around the Stratford-Upon-Avon area. When the sun is shining I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to spend a day than rowing its river, or nestled up on its banks supping on a cold glass of wine.  When the sun is locked behind stormy clouds, such as on our last trip, we wind down our days by submerging in its rich history, visiting the home of some bloke called Shakespeare, who wasn’t in on our last trip but seems to be very popular judging by the queues.  I have a lot to thank Shakespeare for, because it wasn’t for the hordes of tourists who come to pay tribute to the mans words in this wonderful part of the world, those lovely folk at the Shakespeare’s England would not have kindly arranged for this particular trip.

018

Our base on this occasion was The Arden, a fine boutique hotel directly opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.  From the window of our spacious room we had a full view of the theatre, with the river Avon peeking out from both sides.  Its a glorious place to be, opulent, and seemingly aimed at a more affluent traveller and theatre goer.  The restaurant here is the Waterside Brasserie, a large dining room with hues of purples and brown which looked positively bustling pre Shakespearian show and far more lonely when we sat down at the exact time the room departed for some theatre.

The Arden, Stratford

Copyright 2010 Matthew D. Shaw. See licence supplied with this image for full terms & conditions. Copy also available at: http://www.matthewshaw.co.uk/copyright.html

From the off the talent in the kitchen is clear.  Accurately seared scallops, milky white and medium rare in the centre, with ricotta and bacon wrapped in most delicate of ravioli.  Moisture comes from a vivid green puree at the base which creates enough interest to not require a sauce.  My girlfriend declares it her second favourite dish of the year, high praise from a lady who probably could find fault in the life of Mother Teresa.

031

And then there was butter poached chicken breast, supple and dotted with tarragon, paired with charred bits of sweetcorn and leek that added a subtle sweetness to the dish.  At one side stood a croquette of the darker bits of the bird that offer a depth of flavour more attuned to working muscles.  As with the scallops, it was a concise plate of food with not an ingredient wasted.

032

A lamb main course was generous in size, with thick cuts of rump and two rolled spirals of crispy breast. The rump was cooked correctly to medium and would have benefitted from another two minutes resting, whilst the breast was a lovely thing, all unctuous and sweet meat that offered little resistance to the knife.  The accompaniments of dauphinois potato and a smokey aubergine puree helped along by a light lamb jus and garlic notes that underpinned the entire dish like a French dressmaker.  It’s a proper bit of cooking, sizable in portion and price at just over £20.00.  A tranche of cod cooked separately in a bamboo steamer was a minute overcooked, yet still ate well when added to the bowl of the mixture of glass noodles and various stir fried veg dressed loosely in a sauce heavy on soy.  There was a nice lime acidity which cut through the deep umami notes of the dish.

036

We struggled to find room for dessert, plumping for a butter milk panacotta that looked to be the lightest option on the menu.  The panacotta was well made; just set and quivering, with fresh blackberries, a coulis of the fruit, dainty rippled meringues, and more of those blackberries, this time poached in a balsamic.  As the pan pipe version of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ threatens to spoil what has thus far been a lovely evening, we find that balsamic blackberries are far too sharp on their own and an absolute delight when taken with crunchy bits of egg white and a soothing set cream.

039

We never saw a bill on this occasion though we totalled up our food and wine to be around £80.00, both agreeing that the meal is good value for the quality served.  Afterwards we sat at the curved bar which anchors the room and enjoyed a cocktail, soon to be joined by the throngs of theatre goers with similar ideas.  In an area with such concentrated tourism it would be easy to make a quick buck serving low quality food at high prices, and others do, as we found out the following day.  Instead The Waterside Brassie is intent on producing clever cooking, executed to a level well above the norm of other brasserie’s.  It is the best food that I have eaten in Stratford and in a cracking location to boot.

8/10

My meal at the Waterside Brasserie and stay at The Arden was complimentary , organised through Shakespeares England, the official tourism guide for Warwickshire.  For more information please see www.shakespearesengland.co.uk

Waterside Brasserie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato