French

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.

Le Gavroche, May 2019

As I watched the Notre Dame burn live on television I had an overwhelming sense of sadness. Every time I have been to Paris it has been pinned by trips to that cathedral. I’ve stood on the inside of its vast ceiling with three different girlfriends, spanning from sixteen years ago to four. That city has housed me when I’ve been broke financially and also literally following a car accident. I’ve been there on the universal credit that is other people’s generosity, surviving on baguettes and poor French, and I’ve also been on long weekends eating in the best places in town when the pockets have been deeper. It’s always in sunshine; the sun always shines on the Notre Dame, even on bitterly cold winter days timed loosely around Valentines without the higher rentals on the actual day. The spire crashing down took my mind to the back of the building, past the vast gardens to that awful bridge that ajoins the island to the Latin Quarter where couples attach padlocks in a sign of everlasting love. I was once half of one of those couples. Those locks have since been removed, I’m told. It might be just a tourist attraction to some, or an image on tv of a place they’ve never been to, but to me that place holds a million different emotions for people I’ve loved and who never deserved to be hurt by my selfish actions. C’est la vie. If the last paragraph confirms anything, it is that you should never go to Paris with me.

Le Gavroche holds a similar spot in my innerbeing to the point that I almost never booked it. Ever had that perfect date day where all the bad points are forgotten and you swear that you will never need another? I had that twice at Le Gavroche. Both times from the same girl at two at very different stages of the relationship. The first was five years ago before this blog started when my obsession was in its infancy. We were high on nerves, unsure of what to expect. Michael Roux Jnr came out and posed for a picture to which Facebook erupted. We had a great lunch, went to a few great bars after and she scoffed a Burger King on the train home before falling to sleep. I had butterflies in my stomach, which was odd because I don’t recall them being served with lunch. The last visit was two years later. We downed a bottle of champagne on the train, another in a bar in Shepherds Market, and another when we reached the restaurant. No MRJ this time, but I did have a rather glorious birthday cake emblazoned with my name, which is a sure fire way to win over this arrogant drunk. We went to more great bars and I went to bed far earlier than anticipated. Memories, hey. Just by thinking of Le Gav I feel like I’m trampling over her. But ultimately the complexities of relationships equate to far more than staring at each other for a couple of hours over food. It is just another room, in another street, of another city. I can’t attach myself to it anymore than a TV show I watched, or a shirt that I wore on a date, or Paris, that beautiful city that I fall in love with every time I visit (do not go with me to Paris). My present girlfriend is my priority and she wants to go to Le Gavroche, so that is where we are going, regardless of what atrium of my cold heart it resides in.

It hasn’t changed. I doubt it ever will. It still reeks of old money and haughty accents. The customer is still king, and certainly not queen, given that females are given a menu devoid of prices. On the lunch we dine we count seven different front of house to our table and there are plenty more orchestrating around the floor in smart attire: the atmosphere starts a little stiff, though the mostly French team slowly open up to a formal service with a little dry humour. At one point I joke that we could just survive on twenty of the mini baguette loaves; thirty seconds later more bread is offered. The best teams communicate in silent gestures. There are few teams better than Le Gavroche.

The food is as old school as the clientele. Well heeled but ultimately of a bygone era. Everything is cooked in mass amounts of butter – no bad thing – and is oligarch rich. Canapés of a chicken tart and a puff pastry twist flavoured with Parmesan do not set the world alight, whilst the amuse of tempura prawn with avocado purée felt too simplistic for a restaurant bestowed with two stars. We do not get near the twenty servings of bread, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t try. Pile it inch thick with some of the best butter you’ll ever taste.

We supplement the lunch menu with a soufflé Suisse to start, because it’s my favourite dish in the world and I want Claire to try it. The volcanic spew of fluffed-up egg whites is cooked on double cream before being finished under the grill with cheddar and gruerye. It is cheesy, light, and probably very bad for you. Much like I was in my early twenties. A Waldorf salad has been spun through a blender; the celery now celeriac remoulade, the apple a little purée with balsamic on the side. It comes with two teeny chicken wings crisscrossed like a pirates flag. The dish works; I just wished there were more of it. The other starter is a kind of a squid ragu on brioche with a wild garlic purée. It’s an assault of big hitting flavours, the squid more a back note and texture. It’s delicious. Michel Roux Jr comes around, smiles, poses for pictures and moves on. It’s a nice touch that adds value.

By now we’re full and yes, I know we’re not halfway yet. I want to give my duck main my full attention but I’ve one eye on the cheese trolley that is sat in the corridor. The duck is a sizeable breast with crisp skin and rare meat. A few spears of asparagus and oyster mushrooms are strewn atop of a potato fondant that tastes more of butter than spud. A potato has no right to taste this good. The star is the deeply flavoured duck sauce that joins all the dots. Sauces like this take time, and that shows. The other main compromises of a large sea bass fillet, endive, broad beans, and blood orange, all coated in a butter sauce just on the off-chance you thought it was sounding a bit healthy. The cooking and seasoning is impeccable. It can’t be faulted.

Before desserts come we play a fun game as I try to steer Claire away from the £50 glass of sweet wine on to one half the price, eventually taking to showing her the prices. How very ungentlemanly of me. We finish with the sorbet trolley for Claire and the cheese trolley for me; I win. It’s the kind of thing missing from modern cooking: we exist in an era where this level of generosity is dead, where choice has gone, and desserts shunned in favour of shrubbery. Le Gavroche refuses to bow to trends and good for them. The bill runs into several hundred, though Claire enjoyed the spectacle and you can’t put a price on that. She’s seen with her own eyes what I’ve told her about on so many occasions. I’ve had another one of those days in Le Gavroche. I don’t think there’ll be a need to visit again.

If I could have got the A2B to London I would have. I didn’t, but they kindly got us to the station and back.

Daniel et Denise, Lyon

Much like pintxos is the Basque equivalent of tapas, the bouchon is the bistro which belongs to Lyon. Sure there is an emphasis on offal and meat in general, and the twenty or so officially listed as bouchons mark out their territory with red and white chequered tablecloths, but there happens to be no rules, no criteria to call your own restaurant one. We knew we wanted a bouchon experience, one that encapsulated it to full effect, and I turned to many articles and Twitter for help. One place stood out; Daniel et Denise, the micro-chain of bouchons by Joseph Viola. Viola has pedigree far beyond home style cooking; in 2004 he won the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France – an award for Frances best craftsmen – and followed this up in 2009 by becoming World Champion at pastry.

We have that winning pastry dish as a starter, but not before we dredge shards of toasted bread through a soft cheese dip, and munch on some excellent bread with cornichons and tiny pickled onions. And a quick word on the wine; why aren’t there more places in the world like here? We take two carafes, served chilled in branded bottles and equivalent to two-thirds of a full bottle. One, a beaujolais from Brouilly, the other a Provencal rose. Both are ten euros each, a steal for the quality.

Now, back to that pastry, which if you have a Greggs steak bake as your standard bearer is going to be a shock to the system. A 2cm slice of heaven, the pastry being the structure on the plate that dissolves in the mouth. No soggy arse. The filling is an unashamedly decadent blend of foie gras and sweetbreads, protected by a dark jelly only achieved by cooking out the collagen in bones. It is the perfect slab of pate en croute that shows up many others over a long five days, needing only a quenelle of quince in a jam-like state and a well dressed salad to stop it careering over the edge. The other starter is eggs meurette, a classic in French country cooking. Two eggs are poached in red wine before the cooking liquor is reduced down with onions, button mushrooms, and bacon lardons. The eggs are then reintroduced with croutons and a parsley garnish. The mixture of runny yolk and slightly aromatic reduced wine is gloriously rich, the kind of dish that I could eat repeatedly if it were always this good.

I was only ever going to have the Bressé chicken for main, given that you hardly see them in the UK and when you do, it is at a price I simply can’t afford. The chicken is the only one to be protected by AOC, a control on appellations, with Bressé being one of only two meats to be awarded it. Having never eaten it before I was curious to see if it is worthy of the money. Short answer: massively. It tastes like the chicken that your nan claimed she used to eat, even though you know she is lying through those false teeth of hers. The breast meat flavour punches through the creamy mushroom sauce and morels, whilst the leg meat is dark and almost gamey. A joy, and one I felt lucky to eat. Across from me is a rolled veal shoulder, in a sauce of thickened cooking liquor and mushrooms. The knife has no part to play in this scene, the meat folding away like creased paper sheets. With these we get the chips of all chips. Thin, circular discs fried thrice in goose fat. I should also mention the sides of carrots, and macaroni gratin, but those chips! We genuinely fight over them. I win of course, because I am physically stronger.

Dessert course features both the meal highlight and lowlight. A clafoutis tart of sorts is nice enough, but, in a meal that stands out because of quality produce and care, the cherries don’t really taste of anything. But then there is the rhum baba, a favourite dessert of mine. The bastard hybrid of cake and bread is soaked in am aromatic syrup, split down the centre and drenched in rum. When done right, it is one of life’s great things. This is the best one I’ve tried; light and full of flavour. It is better than the revered Ducasse version.

So good was the meal here that we considered coming back the following day, before deciding we should probably try and see what the rest of Lyon was like. What we did agree on was that this is the kind of bistro cooking that totally evades us in the UK for some reason. That needs to change. Daniel et Denise is an oddity; a truly memorable restaurant experience that doesn’t break the bank. Our dinner, with three courses and a carafe of wine each, tips in at £115.00, though with a 33 euro set menu on offer you could easily shave a third from that. We loved it, because it’s honest and the team are passionate and friendly. I gather that Joseph Viola once came to Birmingham to cook in a park at a food festival. I’d give my right arm to have his little group open up in my city on a more permanent basis.

9/10

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

Bistro du Vin, February 2018

The customer is always right, right?! Nonsense. The customer is rarely right. We moan about wine being cold, and wine being too warm. Order cuts of good animal to be cooked until cremation and then say it’s too tough. I’ve personally witnessed someone send back a chicken dish because they were unaware that a supreme had a bone protruding from it and heaven forbid that a once living creature was built upon a skeleton. And don’t even start me on complaints about bread being cold. It’s tough. As front of house you can lose your temper and have it end up on TripAdvisor, or you can nod politely and take the disdain back to the kitchen. The customer may not always be right, but we want to feel like we are. And that is a key component to good service.

The recent spate of restaurant closures in Birmingham has had me thinking a lot about service. There have been horror stories from some of those now gone including screws in lamb and non-existent service. Either these places gave up early in anticipation of closure, or they lost sight of the customer. This industry embodies a ride or die philosophy – mess up once and its unlikely you’ll see us again. Bistro du Vin have taken heed of the customer. They found that from previous menus the more traditional French dishes were being ordered over ceviche and other worldly preparations. They’ve listened and now the new menu is a trip around the classics of France. There are snails and steak tartare. Veal and bouillabaisse. It’s French and proud, all baguettes in bicycle baskets and haw-he-haw-he-haw. There is hardly a sniff of other cultures; just how the upturned nostrils of the Frenchies like it to be.

This cuisine is difficult to pull off, it leans heavily on quality ingredients and sturdy technique. They have nailed it, delivering a meal with more consistency than you are realistically likely to experience in the faux tourist traps of Paris. Snails arrive in the casket of their shell, the parsley and garlic butter used to the stuff the crevice still bubbling away in the ceramic pot. As with so much of French food, part of the theatre is the eating; the breaking of the yolk garnish on the tartare, a mariniere that stains the fingers. Here it is working the meat out of the shell with the corner of a fork. The effort is worth it. I could romanticise cooking like this all day long.

Mushrooms on toast are just that, though the fungi is carefully cooked and the Madeira cream sauce well judged. French onion soup, all brooding beef stock and tangled allium, is topped with a thick slice of gruyere that seals in the aroma until it is released into the soup. The portion is a meal in itself which I don’t even come close to finishing. I’ll be back to give it another go when there is less food and wine to contend with.

And what man can resist a perfect cassoulet? Not I. Huge chunks of salted pork and garlicy Toulouse sausage, with a confit duck leg sitting central for good measure. In lesser hands the long stewing can turn the white beans to mush; not here, when each still retains bite and purpose. It is one of those dishes that requires patience to let the components court one another, and here they are, more familiar than the gene pool in Norwich. It is superb.

Now the nature of today’s lunch means that some serious wines come out to play. Perhaps the most unique of these being a Rasteau Rouge 1998, a red dessert wine that has port on the nose and a lovely sweet finish. It’s not the ideal match to my ile fonttante but frankly who cares? I’m enjoying myself too much. The meringue is poached to a fluffy cloud and dusted with finely chopped pink praline, the custard it sits on full of rich vanilla. I love this dessert and this was as good as a Michelin starred version I had in Paris. We finish with cheese from the trolley, immaculate in condition. And more port. There is always room for more port.

So they’ve listened to the customer and delivered what they have been asked of. A menu unlike anywhere else in the city; one of Gaelic romanticism and dishes built on the very foundation of getting the very best from the produce. Its a crowd pleaser – a menu that will not tire anytime soon. It tastes exactly how you imagine the food of France to taste, full of bluster and garlic notes and sturdiness. From top to bottom its brilliant. Merci, Bistro du Vin.

I was invited to a preview lunch of the new menu

Transport provided by A2B Radio Cars. Download the app here; http://www.a2bradiocars.com

Bistro Du Vin - Hotel Du Vin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester, London

The promenade of The Dorchester hotel is full of those having afternoon tea.  It is a curious mix of ladies who lunch, those celebrating, and hotel guests.  The class and the crass, if you like.  There are pearls and gowns beside velour tracksuits.  Cut glass English accents are interspersed by shouty American ones.  It is a lovely space where new money meets old money with a shared interest in the most luxurious of hotels.

We walk through that promenade and turn left into the dining room of Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester.  It is bigger than I expected, with washed grey walls, immaculate white linen, deep chairs, and an army of staff.  The latter are everywhere, an orchestra of tailored suits and foreign accents who are trained into pouring wine simultaneously and expertly covering up stains with smaller sheets of linen.  Each are aware of their individual roles in us leaving replete and suitably poorer than when we left.

After turning down the attention of a champagne trolley we are presented with a generous pyramid of gougeres – those lovely savoury choux buns flavoured with cheese.  These are nice, a little light on the emmental cheese flavour, and not as good as those at Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road (an obvious comparison given it is London’s only other 3*).  The less said about the amouse bouche the better – a curious blend of cured John Dory, lime and peanut that was never going to work.  If 2017 serves up a more ill-conceived dish I shall be very unfortunate.

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We tried much of the bread to mostly great success.  A farmhouse bun was as light as a pillow and delicate with the back note of pork lard, whereas a black olive was a little muted on flavour.  Best was a bacon fogasse that had us going back for seconds, thirds, and, in my case, fourths.  Who said not to overfill on the bread course has never eaten this.  It’s the ultimate breakfast of knotted bread and cubes of fatty bacon.  We smear it inch thick with a lovely salted butter that has been shaped into an onion, whilst sneering at the aerated cream cheese option that looks and tastes like hair mousse.

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Our first course hit the mark.  A crumbed egg gave way to the brightest of yolks that served as a sauce for the smoked corn, chicken oysters and onion stuffed with chicken mousseline.  A corn tuile was a superfluous addition that the dish did not need, but the rest was indulgent and cohesive.

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And then, well, it all slumped for a while during mains.  A lamb rump was perfectly cooked, seasoned, and rested, with chickpeas, a hummus like puree and pickled onions.  It was nice.  In the same way that Songs of Praise is nice, or making daisy chains.  Impossible to fault, but equally hard to get excited over.  The thrill of dining here is lost amongst the fear of being anything other than perfect, as if the weight of Michelin hangs more heavily here than anywhere else I have dined at it in the country.  There are no risks being taken.  A word on the sauce though, it was an incredible thing that only a classic French approach can result in.

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The other main was a technically astute squid stuffed pasta, with various preparations of octopus hidden under a canopy of leaves.  The overriding flavour is one of citrus that lifts and occasional dominates all it coats.  The octopus was tender, the pasta silky, but three stars?  Really?  It’s all far too safe.

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You get the mignardises here before dessert, why I simply could not tell you.  What I can tell you is that they are all delicious, with some of the best macaroons I have eaten, cocoa coated almonds, nougat, and chocolates.  A lot of work goes into these and it pays off, with a salted caramel toffee disappearing to a nothing on the tongue.  Really lovely stuff.

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Desserts were true three star calibre.  An almond sponge has the lightest of textures, with poached apricot’s and almond granita.  Like the savoury courses there is nothing to fault but this has character; it stands up and demands attention.  Before I move onto my dessert, we were given an additional course because we were celebrating.  Its strawberries and cream for the child at heart, one perfect quenelle of milk ice cream, another of strawberry.  Little meringues of raspberry provide texture, with a singular fruit crowning it all.  The depth of the ice creams are truly staggering.  There is obvious skill in this part of the kitchen.

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The best course of the lunch deserves a post of it’s own, but I have a liver to kill and only  limited time to do so, so you’ll have to make do with this paragraph.  Chocolate and passion fruit.  It sounds simple enough.  Wrong.  Two tempered chocolate domes, one filled with a white chocolate mousse, the other a passion fruit mousse and topped with passion fruit seeds so that it resembles a halved fruit.  Have a look for yourself.  I couldn’t believe it as I cracked into it and I was 30cm away.  More chocolate as a creme, tuile, and crispy covered puffed rice.  Central to this was a vivid passion fruit ice cream that perfectly balanced it all out.  I’m not a dessert man because they are too often an afterthought, but this is up there with the very best sweet courses I have ever had.

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We finish with coffee and a tea trolley where you choose your own plant for an infusion.  It’s a lovely concept, typical of a place where every thought has been considered for the consumer.  Apart from the food that is. See, my biggest problem with Ducasse is a simple one:  Exactly one week one after dining here I have to refer to notes to remember much of what we ate.  I remember the splendid company and wonderful service.  I remember how charming the restaurant manager was.  I remember that the desserts were unquestionably three star level.  But the savoury stuff was mostly forgettable safe cooking, hovering around the two star level if they were lucky.  It’s nice.  But then nice just doesn’t cut it when this sort of money and reputation is involved.

7/10

Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hotel du Vin, Birmingham

I first stayed in Birmingham’s Hotel du Vin on the day of my 21st, a decade and a bit ago, when an ex-girlfriend treated me ahead of what has gone down as one of the cities wankiest ever birthday parties. If memory serves me correct, I wore a white suit and vest, the only colour emanating from me being a deep orange fake tan that Trump would have been envious of. I got drunk, wasted the rooms intentions and woke up to the sound of her boffing into a bin in the morning. She was a class act, was Mel. Fast forward six months and she is driving out of Bristol’s Hotel du Vin alone, whilst I am in the bath unaware of the messages she has found on my phone. This would turn out to be a reoccurring theme in my adult life. I’ll never learn.

So, I guess that when I think about it I have always had a good relationship with the group. I’ve stayed in their hotels, I’ve drank their whisky, I’ve eaten their food. I’ve actually always been a fan of the grub here, it’s classic Gaelic stuff that goes so well with wine and big comfy beds. I’ve eaten wobbly terrines with pockets of jellified fat in between soft meat, coq-au-vin’s with the richest of wine sauces, and marbled steaks crusted by heat on the outside and blue in the centre. This is all from a panelled dining room rich with art, that feels like the home of somebody far wealthier than I will ever be. It is a very romantic place to eat dinner.

Tonight I am here in the company of other blaggers bloggers, including my new girlfriend, who will inevitably also go through my phone one day and depart quickly into the sunset. All of us are here to try the new Summer menu and to drink lots of wine. It was not a difficult invite to accept. The new menu sticks to what they do best, with a few surprises here and there. A charcuterie board is hard to get excited over, though the meat is of obvious quality and balanced well with the astringency of the lightly pickled veg. Much better is a scallop ceviche, generous in portion with three of the shellfish sliced thinly and returned back to their shells. I happen to love raw scallops like this, dressed in a little lime juice to break down the proteins, salt and sugar, with pops of sweet pomegranate seeds and the occasional tingle of chilli. It’s light and refined. I shoot the juices direct from the shell because it demands so.

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I order porchetta because I am a man of taste. It transpires to be an inspired choice, a fat roundel of roast pig with a quenelle of apple sauce and a stick of crackling that my dental plan would not approve of.  The best bit is the sticky glaze of reduced onions and stock around the edge that adds funk and definition.  It is rustic in the best possible sense; a dish built around bold seasoning and big flavours. At £16 it is a bargain.

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A lamb main was far more refined, which, at £27, it bloody should be.  The French trimmed rack cooked to an accurate medium, with a salad of feta, charred baby gem, green beans and peas.  There is punchy seasoning and everything is cooked well, but how keen you think the price is I will leave to your discretion.

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Desserts saw theatre produced to a level that very few can accomplish in the city.  Crepe Suzette is a staple of The Ritz with good reason, it has interaction and flames and is damn right bloody delicious.  Here it is almost identical; pancakes, orange juice and zest, butter, and brandy flambéed as you watch tableside.  Just order it and thank me afterwards.  It makes the apple tart look ordinary.  Spoiler alert:  It is not.  The pastry is delicate, the apples treated with respect and just cooked through.  It is classic French patisserie work crafted in a hotel kitchen in Birmingham.

With this dinner we have lots of wine, which, this summer, is a celebration of Pinot, a grape I happen to have a lot of love for.  Unsurprisingly, it is an extremely will curated list.  Somewhat more surprisingly, it happens to be very affordable. Experience tells me that a meal here is going to creep over three figures, and if you want my opinion, I would tell you that is money well spent.  Hotel du Vin isn’t going to rewrite the culinary recipe book, but it is going to feed you honest French inspired food for a fair price.  And that happens to be perfectly fine with me.

I was invited to the launch of the summer menu at Hotel du Vin by Delicious PR

Bistro Du Vin - Hotel Du Vin Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Galvin at Windows, London

I have a love / hate relationship with restaurants which boast about their views.  When done well, like Rofuto back in Brum, the view becomes secondary; a bonus to the food which demands the attention of the plate, not the traffic levels below.  On the flip of it, like in MPW at the Cube, it can be a distraction to some pretty abysmal food, even if the booking was knowingly done so mostly for the view.  Or you could be sitting halfway up the Eiffel Tower, in Le Jules Verne, paying three hundred quid for a jellied beef soup and some cold veg.  I’ve done all three and I know all too well that a good view is not a guarantee of a good meal.

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And then there is Galvin at Windows, a smart restaurant perched high upon the top of the Hilton Park Lane, with arguably the best view in London and a Michelin star to boot.  Its position in the heart of Mayfair has Hyde Park to one side and the city positioned far to the other.  It demands a picture, or several, in our case as we peer over St James Palace from our seat.  The room has an art deco feel which feels smart, the army of waiting staff gliding over the thick carpet, led by a certain Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame.  The impeccable service and glorious view would be nothing without good food, which it delivers in abundance.  The kitchen, headed up by Joo Won, is a tour of France, with our set lunch the flavours of Marseille – the southern port city where seafood is central to its cuisine.  At £55.00 for three courses and half a bottle of wine, it must be up there for one of London’s best value lunches.  The bread we munch on whilst perusing the menu is well made, in particular a pretty plait of warm white which more than compensates for the fridge cold butter.

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I should learn to trust the kitchen more in these places – on paper none of the starters appealed, leaving braised lamb and salt cod as the most interesting sounding option.  It delights, the creamy flakes of opaque cod adding an additional seasoning to the softly braised belly.  There is a gentle heat from a garlic cream, pops of saltiness from capers and an underlying depth from the rich cooking liquor.  I chase the last dots of the sauce around the dish whilst mentally applauding the impeccable balance of it all.  On the other side of the table is a salad of young artichokes; the vegetal nuttiness held in to place by slices of peach and blobs of whipped curd.  It was mid July on a plate, the herby dressing and slithers of olives providing a nice counterbalance.

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We trust our charming waiter and take the vegetable tart as one of the mains.  He is right; the veg that sits on top of the crisp base has been sourced with obvious care – it is a mile away from the tasteless stuff we have become accustomed to.  Crumbled Saint Felicien adds a delicate luxury, as does a gazpacho like sauce which is poured tableside.  It is received better than the braised feather blade with nicoise salad.  There is very little wrong with it; the elements of egg, olive, tomato and anchovies all working with the beef, but it is disjointed – the protein too large and heavy for its nimble salad.  I leave half the meat and have to explain myself to the waiter.  I think he understands.

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Dessert restores order.  A take on clafoutis may have been refined to the point of a new identity but it takes great, so who cares.  The soft dough is full of almond flavour, the macerated fruit an obvious foil for the richness.  A basil ice cream is mercifully restrained and sits nicely amongst it all.  A lemon parfait is all balanced acidity with aerated lemon curd and wedges of softly caramelised apricots on top of a tuile base.  This is a kitchen that understands texture and flavour.

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Nobody can claim that the cooking here is provocative or dangerous in any way.  On the contrary; it is classical and restrained, comfortable in its own skill and confident in its own ability.  None of what we ate was fireworks, though everything was considered and accurate in its delivery.  It would be easy to come here and admire the view and get Fred to pose for a photo.  We did.  But there is much more to enjoy about Galvin at Windows, with the classically French cooking worthy of a trip of its own.

8/10

Galvin at Windows - London Hilton on Park Lane Hotel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Gauthier Soho, London

The menu at Gauthier Soho reads like porn to a tragic food fan like me. It’s an ode to seasonality from the seasoned hands of a French wizard. It talks of truffles and lobsters and foie gras and cuts of beef from places in France that sound fun to visit. It has veloutes, fondants, and torchons. The only way it could be any more Gaelic is if the bread basket was mounted to the front of a bicycle. It’s the kind of menu that requires attention.

The building also requires attention. A town house in murky Soho, with a bell on the door to gain access. It has three floors on which to eat and basement from which they cook. The décor is understated, the tables generous in space and with a single candle to provide light, which did wonders for my fading looks but little for the photo’s. I know it’s asking a lot, but you’ll have to trust me with a lot of the dishes as the pictures are too poor to do justice to what was served.

What was served was three hours of exhilarating food, starting with a perfectly cooked lobe of foie, roasted peach and elderflower crisp. The fruit and forage providing the acidity and sweetness to stand up to the fatty liver. A veloute of pea had goats cheese and confit lime, each giving a little interest with every mouthful. Its very clever cooking, showcasing technique and a knowledge of ingredients. This was approach was evident in a jaw dropping risotto of black truffle. The flavour deep and controlled, the grains loose and evenly cooked. There was perfume from the truffles and a meatiness from the veal stock which leant against the edge of the bowls. Never have I eaten a better risotto.

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A singular piece of stunning crispy pork belly was served with two pieces of loin stuffed with olives, some apricots, and beetroot that was a little too al dente for my liking. This was the only time in the meal that it felt out of proportion, with too much of the loin and not enough of the unctuous belly to balance out the tart apricot. There was more of the beetroot on a veggie main with tempura leaves and a ricotta and basil gnocchi that could have been a lot lighter. The kitchen was quickly back on form with a crimson red beef fillet, fondant potato and marrow stuffed with bone marrow. This was proper, grown up cooking, the fondant in particular oozing with butter.

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Charlois Beef

To finish off proceedings we had a cheese plate and two desserts. The first was a strawberry mousse, with wild strawberries, lemon sherbet sorbet and a tuile that was allegedly made from balsamic. It was a stunning dish that made the showcased the end of season strawberries at their very best. The final dish was a chocolate croustillant that Gauthier learnt plying his trade at Alain Ducasses’ three star restaurant in Monaco. It is the fourth time I have had this dish and this one is every bit as good as those I have previously had in establishments bearing Ducasses’ name. The chocolate and praline layers creating something textually reminiscent of a kit-kat, but a flavour so indulgent you feel the button of your trousers tighten just by looking at it.

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Louis XV

So there you are, five hundred or so words of me blathering on about a house in Soho that cooks up brilliant dishes from it’s basement. The food here doesn’t follow trends – it follows seasons and it does so with the up-most of appreciation.  Everything here is treated with respect and the technique which has sat at the forefront of French cuisine for hundreds of years. Escoffier would be proud. Ooh La La.

9/10

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