Restaurant Review: Le Thé, Geneva Sunday, Aug 3 2014 

lethegeneve

courtesy of Kokille46, TripAdvisor

This hidden treasure in the European centre of Geneva is a good five minutes’ walk from the main attractions, but often it’s five minutes’ walk that can make a real difference. Le Thé – one of many of the city’s cosmopolitan offerings – is a Chinese restaurant which also functions equally as a tearoom (hence the name). The main giveaway is the entire wall of teas and teaware that greets you as you enter, all available for purchase at a varying range of prices. However, they also serve a traditional Chinese menu, which is so popular that booking is advisable even on a weekday evening.

Nevertheless, the tea-house theme is prominent throughout, thanks to the leafy bowers, bamboo ‘walls’ and the use of chunky traditional teapots as decoration (as well as sale items and practical use). You have plenty of time to admire these, as service is on the leisurely side, but the food is worth the wait: the dim sum and steamed breads, available with a variety of fillings, are all excellent, and are washed down easily by the highly palatable (and affordable) Chinese wine on offer. Even if you finish with a gelatinous rice dessert, and amply sample the wide range of teas and other dishes offered, the food is light on the stomach and ultimately a good value offering, with the relaxed pace of service making for a perfect way to unwind. Would definitely return for more of this authentic cuisine and adventurous range of beverages.

Rue des Bains 65, 1205 Geneva, Switzerland
+41 79 436 77 18

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Restaurant Review: Clos Maggiore, London Sunday, Jan 19 2014 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClos Maggiore is reputed to be one of the most romantic restaurants in London, and the origin of this reputation is clear from the moment you enter: what loved-up couple wouldn’t want to eat beneath skylights and fairy light-entwined flower bowers, with a roaring log fire in the background?

Luckily, the food matches expectations too. At an affordable £22.50 a head, the prix fixe menu consists of three courses during a weekend lunchtime service, and impressions are good from the beginning. The Scottish crab mayonnaise with celeriac remoulade is light and refreshing, while the confit goose, Serrano ham and cranberry ballotine served with toasted sourdough keeps up the festive theme even in January – a good call when everyone is feeling miserable after all the Christmas decorations have been taken down (although those watching their waistlines may prefer the crab).

The starters were perhaps a little more enjoyable than the mains, although only fractionally so. The veal belly went down well, and the guinea fowl was so tender that you could practically cut it with a spoon. The latter came with the smoothest mash on the planet and smoked bacon, as well as a rich red wine sauce. Side orders are perhaps unnecessary, but if you would like one, we can vouch for the spinach, which is fresh and not at all stringy, and of which one portion served two people comfortably. All of this was chased down with a glass each of an excellent red wine from Puglia, which comes from Clos Maggiore’s well-stocked wine cellar.

By this point, the small restaurant was virtually full. Even though there appear to be many people eating inside it, this is achieved only by the clever use of mirrors – in reality, there are no more than 40 covers or so. Having tried to book a month in advance before Christmas and been unable to get in, further difficulties were experienced when attempting to book for dinner. This is clearly a popular haunt and booking in advance is without doubt necessary (with lunch being easier to get a table for).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPortions are generous, so cheese is definitely an optional extra. Dessert could be described as traditional with a twist, with the menu featuring Calvados pain perdu, and pear crumble with cottage cheese ice cream. The latter was full of contrast thanks to the crunchy topping, the soft fruit, the sweet sugar and spices and the tangy cottage cheese. However, on the whole both desserts leaned more towards the homey than the refined. This was greatly compensated for by the excellent sweet wine from Veneto that accompanied it, and by the high-quality coffee that followed (which was better, ironically, than the coffee served at Gauthier Soho, which costs twice as much). The petits fours were also a naughty but nice bonus thanks to the combination of chocolate, walnut and orange.

At around £80 for two people for Sunday lunch (including wine, coffee and service), this makes you feel like you’ve had a treat without breaking the bank. While Clos Maggiore, despite its name, lacks a clear Italian identity beyond a few token wines and one pasta dish on the menu, the food is indulgent without being overpriced, and with its prime location just off Covent Garden, definitely comes recommended for anyone visiting London.

33 King Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 8JD

www.closmaggiore.com

Restaurant Review: Kisbuda Gyöngye, Budapest Thursday, Jan 2 2014 

Whenever we visit a new place, we like to avoid the tourist traps and try traditional specialities and places that the locals enjoy. This led us to Kisbuda Gyöngye on a recent trip to Budapest, meaning we had to take a taxi out of the city centre to a quiet residential street that you would never just stumble upon. (For what it’s worth, though, it can also be reached by bus or tram. There is also a brasserie named Remiz, also just out of the city centre, run by the same proprietors.)

This slightly secretive location added to the traditional appeal of the food and decor, as did the restaurant’s reputation of having hosted celebrities and diplomats as well as members of the public. We were also welcomed warmly and our meal was accompanied by live piano music throughout, which made the experience of eating there even more memorable.

So what of the food itself? We were keen to stick to traditional food, and so started with the catfish soup, which contained generous hunks of fish and proved filling, with a pleasing hint of spiciness. Portions are extremely generous in Hungary, so if you plan on having this as a starter, just tell the waiter so that the portion size can be adjusted for you. Following this came a dish of letscho and a flavourful paprika beef stew, served with pasta.

scotch egg is not a scotch eggAfter enough food to feed an army, it’s surprising that we bothered with dessert, but bother we did, thanks to the temptation of another Hungarian speciality on the menu – szilvásgombóc. These are sweet dumplings with a plum jam filling, which are covered in breadcrumbs and then deep-fried. So despite looking like Scotch eggs that moved to Hungary in search of more lenient licensing hours, they are most definitely nothing of the sort. As for the overall taste experience, we found them a little heavy. Despite this, though, we weren’t put off Hungarian food (at this restaurant or otherwise) and would definitely return due to the quality of the welcome, the quality of the food, and the good value for money (we paid no more than £30 for all of this for the two of us, including a glass of nondescript Hungarian wine each).

And we urge you to visit too: the saddest thing about our visit was to see the clearly hardworking proprietor and pianist working all night for so few visitors, in an empty restaurant that (the staff told us) sees more visits during the day from people who work in the area. Budapest is, on the whole, a much neglected European city by tourists, and its restaurants and food deserve more than this.

H1034 Budapest, Kenyeres utca 34

http://www.remiz.hu/kisbuda/kisbuda_etterem_en.html

Restaurant Review: Gauthier Soho, London Sunday, Dec 29 2013 

During one of our recent stays at Club Quarters’ Trafalgar Square location, we were looking for a convenient spot to dine after a matinée concert and cheeky visit to Fortnum and Mason. Having been unable to get through the door of the fêted Covent Garden restaurant Clos Maggiore, we had made a reservation at Gauthier Soho, which is conveniently located a short walk from the hotel.

The uniqueness of the restaurant is apparent even before you’ve stepped through the door: dressed up as a glamorous London residence, it has a shiny black front door not unlike that of Number 10 Downing Street, and you have to ring the doorbell in order to gain entry, which all adds to the sense of occasion that is at times lost these days when dining out. This is nicely combined with a warm yet professional welcome from the overwhelmingly French staff, who continued this demeanour throughout the night’s service.

There are several options in terms of dining at Gauthier (à la carte; 3 courses, 4 courses, 5 courses; 7-course tasting menu…), but these are all presented in a clear manner both orally and in writing. This is made even more impressive thanks to the excellent (albeit expensive) wine list that complements it. As well as a range of bottles to suit every taste, wine by the glass is also available – we enjoyed a wonderful Barbera, which is a slightly carbonated red wine due to the unique maceration process involved in making it. It combines fresh fruity flavours with ashy, mineralised ones, which suited our hearty main course well (more of which later). We also had a glass each of Sauternes and Jurançon with our desserts, which balanced botrytis and freshness pleasingly.

Gauthier’s seven-course, £70 tasting menu appears tempting and of good value, but even three courses (which we opted for at £40 a head) still makes for a plentiful feast. The restaurant’s use of seasonal ingredients and its formal French finish arguably makes it a more affordable “Manoir-lite” which makes you feel like you’ve had a quality meal with plenty of wow-factor while not making the meal the centre of your day. To begin, there were canapés, consisting firstly of delicate cheese straws, and secondly of colourful tomato jelly on mini bruschette, offering appropriate contrasts in texture, and an idea of the quality of flavour to come. But before our starter there was also an amuse-bouche, in the form of a truffle and mushroom raviolo on squash purée. Suffice it to say that this was worthy of a whole bowlful by itself, heightening the anticipation of your meal even further.

One side of the table had chosen an apple and pancetta salad, which was served with appropriately autumnal vegetables (celeriac and marrow), as well as an aged vinegar dressing. The other side of the table took soup to new heights thanks to the head chef”s chestnut and pheasant concoction. While the aniseed infusion perhaps could have had a more intense flavour, the pink liver that it came with was a perfect complement, and the crispy onion rings and leaves added great textural adventure. In terms of the main course, the wild duck served two ways proved tempting, but ultimately two plates of the Highland venison were ordered, to no regret. Served with pears poached in red wine, caramelised pumpkin, and truffle and celeriac purée, the tannic flavours intermingled playfully with the sweetness of the pear, pumpkin and celeriac, and were given added depth by the earthiness of the truffle. As for the venison itself, it came cooked to perfection (even though I had forgotten what “à point” was in English when asked how I would like my meat cooked), thus leaving us sorry that it was gone once we had cleaned our plates (it is a testament to the portion sizes and the lightness of the food that we did not feel as stuffed as a Christmas turkey).

The dessert menu offered a host of temptations to celebrate the festive season indulgently. While the dark chocolate mousse with crunchy praline was a serious contender, as were the refreshing-sounding blackberry, rose and pineapple sorbets, in the end one meal was completed with the restaurant’s “mandarine givrée”: a frozen mandarin orange that has been hollowed out and then refilled with the mandarin segments, before being served with extra segments, edible flowers, orange jelly, and a chocolate orange stick. While the shortbread in the description was conspicuous by its absence, and the tarragon could have made itself more obvious, the flavours, textures and temperatures combined to make a refreshing, low-fat, festive and original finish to the meal. On the other side of the table was another delight: a pear millefeuille served with cider ice cream, which again proved fruity, refreshing, contrasting and original.

To end our meal, disappointing coffee was served with far superior petits fours: a cherry marshmallow, a chocolate financier, and even a mini mince pie (whose wafer-thin pastry, full flavours and highly diminutive size all proved notable). This epitomised the beautiful harmonisation of French and English traditions that Gauthier Soho is producing in its kitchen – and is just one of several reasons why we would go back (regardless of the circa £150 bill for two).

21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF

Telephone: 020 7494 3111

www.gauthiersoho.co.uk

Restaurant Review: La Coupole, Paris Sunday, Nov 3 2013 

Paris is inextricably linked with a host of writers and artists that have passed into legend: creatives from Edith Piaf to Ernest Hemingway, and Pablo Picasso to Josephine Baker, have taken pleasure in the city of light and used it as their inspiration. La Coupole is no exception: this Art Deco restaurant, in the unassuming location of the fourteenth arrondissement, has seen all of these famous faces and more meet and romance under its roof. Today it continues to welcome locals and tourists alike – although despite the place’s eminence, it remains surprisingly easy to get a table (alright, so October isn’t exactly high season – but still). So is this ease of reservation a bad omen? Has La Coupole, after years of basking in its legendary status, finally succumbed to a rut of mediocre food and overpriced drink, and bitten the dust?

Not at all. It’s evident that there are many local businessmen who visit the establishment regularly, judging from the welcome accorded to them by staff, and regular local visitors are always a good sign. However, newcomers are certainly not frozen out either: we too were greeted warmly, despite my mother blatantly being a tourist, me being 20 minutes late, and us ordering nothing more exotic than tap water to drink. On the whole, this was most unFrench but most pleasant.

Very French, however, was the food. Having plumped for the two-course €30 menu, we began with a classic of a main course: a beauty of a Hereford steak, served with chips and Béarnaise sauce. Cooked to perfection (we asked for medium rare, and that was what we got), the meat was beautifully tender and flavourful, with a wonderful crust serving to contrast the Béarnaise sauce in both flavour and texture. This dish also represented exceptional value for money: if we had ordered it à la carte, it would have cost €25 by itself.

Dessert, equally, did not disappoint: while my mother ordered the dessert of the day (a layered pistachio and raspberry concoction), I went for another French classic: a fondant pudding made with Guanaja chocolate, served with salted caramel ice cream. While texture-wise it was a little dry (with my opinion likely being influenced by the most wonderful chocolate fondant recipe I have found, by London-based chocolatier Paul A Young), the flavours were undoubtedly supreme.

Staff were swift and courteous throughout proceedings, which was impressive given the size of the place, which has hundreds of covers. We did, however, have time to admire the art adorning the walls and ceilings of La Coupole. While some Art Deco features have been kept, such as the rectangular golden columns, there is also a fair amount of graffiti-style modern art on the walls, which doesn’t appear to be of as good quality and detracts from the venue’s 1920s history. Nevertheless, the surroundings are magnificent, and as far from red-and-black restaurant clichés as you can get.

While some might consider a price tag in the region of €60 for two people as being a little expensive for lunch, you without doubt get value for money: excellent food, bustling surroundings (even on a weekday lunchtime in low season), a unique taste of history, and yes – even efficient and friendly service. Now THERE’S something I never thought I’d say in Paris. Wonder if Hemingway would agree…

102 boulevard de Montparnasse, 75014 Paris

www.lacoupole-paris.com

Café Biarritz, Budapest Tuesday, Oct 29 2013 

Budapest is an excellent destination for young independent travellers: there are plenty of bars, museums and shops to get stuck into; a beautiful riverbank upon which to walk, picnic and admire the views; and, of course, a myriad of restaurants offering everything from traditional Hungarian fare (of which more later) to modern city-slicker cuisine. The Café Biarritz, situated very close to the Hungarian parliament, offers a meeting of the two cuisines, with dishes ranging from the orthodox Kaiserschmarrn to the more cosmopolitan offering of fried goose liver slices with a red wine sauce. This was done more successfully, arguably, than any other restaurant visited throughout the weekend in Budapest, by taking all of the best bits of the thoroughly modern Sofitel Chain Bridge’s Paris Budapest restaurant and those of the historic Kisbuda.

Quiet at the weekends, the Café Biarritz mainly hosts government employees during weekday lunches, and so we were able to enjoy a tranquil meal in the midst of an airy-looking interior. As one would expect during a quiet time for a restaurant, service was at all times polite, attentive and accurate. The food also did not disappoint, either in terms of portion size (which at the Café Biarritz is actually sensible, unlike at many Hungarian restaurants where portions are grossly oversized) or in terms of quality. The starters – a pumpkin soup and pork pâté – were superior in both taste and presentation, far exceeding what we could make ourselves at home (which is, ultimately, what we seek when dining out: excellent food prepared beyond our own capabilities, within a relaxed and tranquil environment). Meaty and satisfying, the pâté was balanced by a refreshing vinaigrette, while the soup achieved incredible depth and smoothness of both flavour and texture, going beyond the purée-like texture of most homemade soups. The truffle oil garnish of the soup added even further dimensions.

The main courses also did not disappoint, with the ox cheek stew having clearly been cooked slowly over a period of hours, contributing to a melt-in-the-mouth texture and rich taste experience. This was contrasted nicely by the traditional ‘noodles’, which were actually more pasta-like in shape, and whose doughy, slightly porous consistency and neutral background flavour helped to soak up the plentiful sauce. On the other side of the table was fried foie gras, served with an innovative apple chutney and crispy potatoes, again proving the Café Biarritz’ ability to marry the modern and the long-established.

With this, glasses of Hungarian red wine were served, which provided a taut combination of spiciness and restraint in the flavour. Overall, the wine list offers many affordable local options, with several choices being available by the glass, which is always appreciated. Sparkling water served from a siphon was also a welcome feature of the meal’s accompanying beverages.

After all of that, sharing a dessert seemed to be the way forward, and while faced with many delicious choices – we were assured that the tiramisu was worth a detour, and the orange and cardamom cheesecake seemed too good to refuse – as soon as the words “traditional” and “Hungarian” slipped out of the waiter’s mouth, we knew we had to go for the Kaiserschmarrn (even though we didn’t know what it was, really). When in Rome, and all that (well, Budapest). Luckily for us, the Kaiserschmarrn is completely delicious: essentially a thick, crunchy pancake with a caramelized outer coating, it’s most usually served warm and with jam (in this case, apricot). One serving of this rich pudding was certainly enough for two, which we followed up with acceptable espressos.

This totalled around €35 per person, which is not bad for such a high-quality lunch. Its generous (but not ridiculous) proportions and tranquil setting make this truly an oasis in Hungary’s bustling capital, meaning that a return visit would always be desirable.

1055 Budapest  Balassi Bálint St 2, Hungary

http://www.biarritz.hu

Ferret’s findings Tuesday, Aug 27 2013 

Five ferrety posts you may not have seen yet! Apart from a few relatively new posts that you may not have seen yet, take time to check out these vintage wonders that have been read only by a lucky few:

  1. Spice up your life! In which Ferret extols the virtues of ginger.
  2. Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares! In which Ferret wonders how far the outbursts on this popular show are staged.
  3. Food Book Review: Food and Philosophy. In which Ferret muses over many deep foodie questions, including the criminality of pickiness and whether food critics’ views are really ‘truer’ than ours, or if they’re just more eloquent.
  4. Restaurant Review: Georgia Brown’s. In which Ferret visits this heartland of Southern American cuisine.
  5. Wake up and smell the coffee. In which Ferret sings the praises of its chosen coffee machine.

Time-travel back through the annals of FFW and enjoy 🙂

Restaurant Review: Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Oxfordshire Friday, Aug 9 2013 

ruralness...

ruralness…

After working my butt off for Edexcel doing some extra marking this term, I decided the time had come to spend a proportion of it on something really cool. And that something was a meal for two at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – Raymond Blanc’s Michelin-starred establishment in rural Oxfordshire. When I say rural, I really do mean it: you either have to drive there yourself (and eschew the drink – which may not be a bad thing, as I’ll go on to explain), fork out the necessary £60 for the taxi round trip between Oxford railway station and the restaurant (adds expense to an already expensive day), or get the bus from Oxford town centre to the Manoir (which only runs once an hour, and not even from Oxford station, so is most inconvenient time-wise). The most expensive option would be to stay at the Manoir itself (having driven yourself there) to give yourself a chance to sleep off the various excesses that you’re about to indulge in. Luckily, an alternative was available to us: the mothership always enjoys shopping at Bicester, which is about a forty-minute drive from where she lives, and as we were staying with her, she offered to drive us there and entertain herself at the shopping village until we were done. GOOD TIMES.

(Sorry for the preamble, but getting yourself there really is a faff and is something you need to consider.)

Getting the actual reservation itself was not difficult (perhaps because of the difficulty of getting to the location, fewer people want to go there). We rang up a mere 2-3 weeks before wanting to go there and were able to get a table easily, even though we were going at the end of July, at what I thought would be high season (surely more people want to enjoy the Manoir’s beautiful gardens in July than they do in February?). Anyway, this is reassuring for potential diners.

a light dig at our froggy friends

a light dig at our froggy friends

Staff behaviour was virtually impeccable throughout proceedings – from the friendly yet professional way with which they took our reservation and directed us around the grounds and restaurant, to the flawlessly formal service with which they served us on the day. The only slight letdown was that my (French) husband overheard some of the waiting staff insulting a couple of the diners once away from them (in French). WHOOPS. Never assume when working in service that the general public will not be able to hear your comments, even if you make them in another language.

The staff also put up with my enquiries as to whether Monsieur Blanc was in the house that day – a question they must get all the time. (I asked twice – once at the beginning of the meal and once at the end, to two different members of staff – just to be sure.) Sadly, he wasn’t – but this will be just one reason to go back another time, I’m sure, to try my luck again.

However, I don’t only suggest a return visit in order to try to meet Raymond Blanc (or even his long-suffering associate, ADAM!). The food was quite simply beyond reproach – which you’d expect after paying £79 per person for 5 courses (plus cheese, for an extra £24 per person – so make that £103 per person). The menu changes monthly thanks to its seasonality, and as a result the fresh flavours of the ingredients used simply burst onto your tongue. This extended equally to the canapés (taken outside prior to the meal) and to the petits fours (taken with coffee at the end). There is of course the opportunity to sample the drinks menu before eating, but we chose to just have tap water. And to be honest? The staff seemed fine with that. There’s no feeling of being looked down upon because you’ve effectively ordered something that’s free. And frankly, when you’re paying that much, you ought to be able to squeeze out every free thing you can get :p

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first course took the form of a stunning gazpacho, made using Blanc’s method of hanging cherry tomatoes in a muslin sheet to extract the juice. We’ve seen him do this on TV, and not only is it time-consuming (it takes around 3-4 hours for every 2kg of tomatoes used), but it’s also expensive (only cherry tomatoes are used). However, I’m happy to report that you get what you pay for. IT WAS DIVINE – beautifully clear and providing an intense hit of flavour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next course promised two things that I don’t normally enjoy: salt cod (which to me tastes of nothing) and octopus (whose texture I often find rubbery and displeasing). However, experience of other Michelin-starred establishments tells me that you sometimes just have to put yourself in the hands of the chef, even if you don’t usually ‘like’ a particular food. Was I ever glad I did when I saw and tasted this…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…which, needless to say, provided a delightful combination of flavours and textures thanks to the firm yet NOT rubbery octopus, the reliable neutral background of the salt cod, the sheer variety of fresh herbs and vegetables, and the innovative addition of the olive oil jelly. Quite simply a revelation.

This was followed by something arguably more prosaic: a poached egg on a bed of spinach. Nonetheless, it was simplicity done well, with arguably the most notable aspect being the preparation of the spinach itself. This green leafy vegetable can so easily be stringy or gritty, but thanks to it being so finely chopped and beautifully cooked, it was the best spinach I’ve ever eaten.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll this was topped with crispy bacon bits, microherbs, and chopped nuts. SIMPLY YUM.

We consumed all of this with a bottle of Fleur de Savagnin, which is a white wine from the Jura region of France. While it was a high-quality wine with an intense, oaky, mineral-like flavour, it seems a bit cheeky to charge £75 in the restaurant for a wine that can be bought for £15 online (yes, we checked). A 50% markup is normal – so it would have been perfectly usual to have been charged, say, £30 for the wine. Sadly, the price tag of £75 reflects the high markup that Le Manoir imposes on all of its wines. However, recognising that it wouldn’t go brilliantly with the meat course, we chose a glass each of a red wine from Tuscany, which we enjoyed slightly less than the white (which was just as well, I suppose). As for the meat course itself:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis lamb, on a bed of vegetables, was the ultimate in freshness, seasonality and technique. The mixed vegetables were beautifully crisp, and the lamb was perfectly cooked (you can see it’s quite pink) according to the French style of cooking. Much is made in the restaurant of the general Frenchness of the outfit, which fits in well with the whole Raymond/Maman Blanc story that the place is constructed around. By this I don’t mean that the waiting staff wear berets and your food is brought out to the tune of La Marseillaise, but more that the menu is written bilingually, your food is introduced with a polite “Madame, Monsieur…” and the waiting staff even at times speak to each other in French (even when it is clear that they are not French), which all means that formality has a slight edge over friendliness. A few baby roast potatoes, or even a miniature Yorkshire pudding, would have completed the Anglo-French fusion of this dish.

We also added cheese to our menu, and while £24 seems like a lot to pay for a plate of cheese (and I didn’t even photograph it, because cheese just looks like cheese, right?), what you pay for is the knowledge of the maître fromager, and the sheer selection of cheese on offer. Naturally there was more of a leaning towards French cheeses, but there were English ones on offer too, and the range was sufficiently vast as to cater for every taste under the sun: whether you like your cheeses strong, oozy, mild, hard, peppery, fruity or whatever else, it was all there. And of course, everything we chose was delicious.

After this came dessert. And WHAT a dessert: chocolate for luxury, and raspberry to cleanse:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While I don’t like the combination of chocolate and raspberry itself much (in the left-hand picture), it proved an excellent complement the opulence of the dark chocolate (Blanc, like Blumenthal and several other top chefs, uses Valrhona). The crisp chocolate disc contrasted the soft mousse and crunchy base brilliantly, while the raspberry sorbet was impossibly smooth, with not a hint of graininess, served atop fresh raspberries.

I chose hot chocolate to end my meal, but delicious though it is, I wouldn’t recommend this: you’ve already eaten a large meal and the hot choc is a bit too rich as a follow-up (not helped by the fact that you literally get enough for 2-4 people when you order just one). Definitely go for coffee afterwards – it’s of good quality (although still not the best we’ve tasted) and you’ll enjoy the petits fours it comes with so much more:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Him indoors says the lavender nougat that you can just about see at the back of the tray was DIVINE. He snaffled it while I was using the toilet facilities, which are all very nicely furnished. Use the disabled toilet downstairs if all the vino is getting the better of you.)

All of this set us back a little over £300, and despite the expense, we would revisit, although we would probably just have two separate glasses of wine each, rather than a whole bottle between us plus an extra glass each. It is, after all, Le Manoir aux QUAT’Saisons…which means that while visiting in the summer is worthwhile just for scenes like this:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…we still have three seasons to go. Nous attendons avec impatience une autre visite alors 🙂

Restaurant Review: Ellen’s Stardust Diner, NYC Sunday, Aug 4 2013 

ellens1On our most recent trip to New York City, I decided an appropriately ‘fun’ surprise would be to take my husband to Ellen’s Stardust Diner. This was my second choice, after reading online that late-1990s favourite Mars 2112 had declined significantly in the intervening years. So Ellen’s it was! I helpfully neglected to tell him indoors that the main feature of Ellen’s is the restaurant’s singing wait staff, who sing songs from Broadway musicals. Did I mention that his favourite musical was this?:

i.e., THAT HE DOESN’T LIKE MUSICALS?

(This makes me a really bad person, doesn’t it?)

So apart from this being a place that most likely didn’t float my husband’s boat as much as mine (I LOVE musicals), was there anything else for us to dislike?

Unfortunately, yes.

First of all, there was the line. I know that it was a Saturday night in New York City, in what was beginning to be high season (early May). However, there was nothing on the website that indicated that you ought to reserve a seat or indeed that this was even possible (looking at it again, they only accept reservations for parties over 20 people). So to find a queue that literally stretched out the restaurant door, round the corner and along the pavement was a little bit of a shock. To have to wait half an hour to even get in the door, for something that you know won’t be gourmet cuisine, is never the best start to the evening, despite the concierge’s clear efforts and communication showing that they were doing everything possible to get everyone seated quickly.

But eventually we got in, and were ushered to one of the balcony/gallery seats, which doesn’t affect your view of the action, as the singing waitstaff are naturally moving around constantly to serve food and to sing. There’s certainly no danger of you not hearing the action, as the acoustics are certainly loud even if they’re not very refined or balanced. (Singers sometimes missed their cues thanks to the noise of the restaurant drowning out the backing track.) The loud music serves to make this the main event, rather than the 50s diner-inspired food, which is in some ways a good thing (or perhaps not, if you don’t like musicals). More on this later.

We all know that wait staff in America are paid badly and rely heavily on tips to make a living, which to me seems inherently wrong. What seems even more wrong (if that’s possible) at Ellen’s is that staff effectively beg for even more tips by passing around a bucket as ‘payment’ for their singing. Of course customers aren’t obliged to pay up, but it does make you wonder: just how badly are they being paid? Are they being exploited, or just maximising their resources?

This all serves to distract diners from their food, which is average at best. The ice-cream soda I had at the start was frankly the best bit, and probably only for the novelty of it. Our main courses (Brooklyn Brisket – a steak and provolone sandwich served with potato pancakes – and Stardust Nachos) were huge and greasy. I know it’s America, but surely smaller, better-quality portions are the way forward? Or is the hope that you’ll be so distracted by the singing that you won’t give a monkey’s about what you’re eating?

This all came to $50, including tax and the requisite tip, which seemed too much for what we got. (Bear in mind we ordered no desserts, no side dishes, and no drinks other than the ice cream soda.) Yes, I know it’s New York, on a Saturday night, at the beginning of high season, at what I understand is a relatively high-profile establishment. But surely quality of food has to count for something? We were left feeling disappointed at the mediocrity of the whole thing and generally poor value for money. It’s probably a good visit if you go with mid-week with friends who love musicals as much as you do, and if you just want to eat ice cream. But apart from that, we came to the conclusion that we’d rather stay home, make our own food, and watch the Simpsons’ musical version of Planet Of The Apes, as all Ellen’s did was make a monkey out of us.

1650 Broadway @ 51st Street, NY 10019

Reservations only accepted for parties over 20 people. Phone 212-956-5151.

http://www.ellensstardustdiner.com/

Restaurant Review: Mintwood Place, Washington DC Sunday, May 12 2013 

Most people perhaps don’t see America as being synonymous with fine dining. However, Mintwood Place, located in the north of Washington DC, certainly proves that assumption wrong – and I hope you won’t attribute it all to the chef being French (but don’t worry – he’s been in the US a while now, so has lost his surliness).

Cedric Maupillier is the cousin of my husband’s boss, and so it was by this token that we were invited to check out Mintwood Place during our most recent trip to the United States. We were glad we did – friendly wait staff and a lively atmosphere awaited us along with five-star quality food, which we had the opportunity to sample over two separate visits (more of which later).

During the first visit, we couldn’t resist the maple pork crackling from the nibbles menu, and while perhaps the maple flavour could have been stronger, it was definitely there, and in any event, the star of the show was without doubt the texture – you will never have crackling this light in your life, which makes it incredibly moreish. (The secret? A dehydrator.)

Next, my husband indulged in a starter of grilled baby octopus in a rouille sauce, which proved the epitome of fresh ingredients cooked well. Rather than becoming rubbery, the octopus reportedly had a melt-in-the-mouth texture, and was served with a salad and bread alongside the rouille sauce to truly make the octopus the star of the show.

baked alaskaFor mains came cast-iron Amish chicken on one side of the table, and wood-grilled shrimp and mackerel (with beetroot, goats’ cheese, and espelette curd). Credit goes to the chef for ensuring that the mackerel was not too oily and that its full natural flavours came through to harmonise with the garnishes. The Amish chicken (so-called due to being a bird raised by the Amish) was wonderfully moist and tender, and piqued my tastebuds for my dessert to follow: a baked Alaska flambé, which had flaming rum poured over it at the table and which burned merrily for a good minute or so, giving the meringue a beautiful marshmallow-like texture. The cake and ice-cream inside were also light and fresh, making for a perfect end to the meal. I didn’t take a picture of it, but it did look pretty much as you see it on the left-hand side here.

With all of this we enjoyed an exceptional and affordable Riesling, and with its warm glow still enveloping us, we went to chat to Cedric after the meal, with all of the kitchen activity still going on behind him. This conversation led to him asking us to dine there again in three days’ time, which was an invitation we happily accepted. This time dinner was generously on the house, and kicked off with the burrata, kale, hazelnut and apple salad, which offered pleasing contrasts in texture thanks to the fried and uncooked kale, and the softness of the burrata, as well as slight sweetness from the apple (I’m not a massive raw apple fan though texture-wise, but that’s not the chef’s fault).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was followed by a spectacular special: tempura soft-shell crab with chickpea purée, a selection of crudités, and an edible flower garnish. It was a thing of beauty to say the least; a real rainbow on a plate! Needless to say, it was also light and flavourful. Cedric also brought the crab out to say hi to us before it hit the pot so that we could see its freshness for ourselves (it was still moving). Dubbed one of the best burgers in the US, the wood-grilled bacon cheeseburger that followed it also definitely hit the spot, thanks to the tender meat, crispy bacon, and high-quality cheese. Then it was pudding time, and we were brought a duo of desserts to try: a strawberry crumble, and a vanilla crème brûlée. The latter was packed full of vanilla and had a satisfyingly crunchy top (think the scene from Amélie), while the former offered pleasing variations in texture and an intense hit of flavour. We matched all of this with a heady Pinot Noir from Oregon, which particularly matched the burger well.

Needless to say, we will be back: the restaurant still has far too many brunch dishes and house cocktails we haven’t yet tried. Hangover Special with a glass of La Dame En Rougissant? Don’t mind if I do.

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