Oatcakes! Thursday, Mar 14 2013 

I’ve talked about Welsh cakes on this blog before, and also several other kinds of cakes (probably). But this morning I got served one I’d never tried before…a NORTH STAFFORDSHIRE OATCAKE. This is because my husband has been reading Seb Emina’s Breakfast Bible and getting ideas.

So what is an oatcake exactly? It actually has more to do with a pancake than a cake, with you making up a batter in a similar way. Mix together water and milk and separately prepare some yeast with sugar and warm water until frothy. Mix the yeast liquid with salt, flour and oatmeal before incorporating the water and milk mixture. Leave to rest for at least an hour in a warm place, so perhaps do this the night before if you plan on an oatcake breakfast the following day. Cook just like pancakes, but take 2-3 minutes for each side.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? We’d recommend making sure your pan is well-greased, as our first one stuck a bit this morning.

And the verdict? We noted several good things about oatcakes. They are more like savoury crêpes (what the French call “galettes de sarrasin”), so can be served with a variety of savoury crêpe style toppings, such as bacon, cheese, sausage, ham, or egg. I reckon a poached egg is a great idea so that you have a good combination of textures (the runny yolk of a poached egg hitting the crispiness of the oatcake must be a beautiful thing). The fact that oatcakes contain oats (WELL, OBVIOUSLY) also means they are uber-filling, so great for getting you through a busy morning at work while breaking up the monotonous routine of porridge, cereal or normal pancakes. Plus, speaking of busy mornings, the fact that they are so filling means that you only need one each, meaning less time spent at the cooker when you could be chatting at the table. And drinking tea. (Speaking of which…)

So go on – get your oatcake on 🙂  And if you try any new adventurous toppings, be sure to let me know 🙂

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Food TV Review: Masterchef (series 9, episode 1) Wednesday, Mar 13 2013 

L-R: Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale, Claire

L-R: Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale, Claire

Another year, another series of Masterchef. I know some people feel, as with many reality TV shows, that after so many years the format has become stale and overly emotive. However, as I’ve only been watching it for 2 years (with this being the third), I’m still enjoying myself, and looking forward to another winner of the calibre of Thomasina Miers, Tim Anderson and Shelina Permalloo being discovered as a result of this process. With Thomasina now being firmly established as a cookery writer and presenter as well as proprietor of her own Mexican restaurant in London, and with Tim’s Japanese-inspired restaurant set to open in Shoreditch this spring, it’s perhaps fair to say that the winners of this show don’t fade into obscurity after their big win, with them genuinely able to capitalise on their love of food and newly-developed expertise after the show is over.

So what of the new series? The initial rounds appear to have been set up differently this year, with the first 50 contestants being split up into groups of 5. We then get to see one group of five per knockout-round show, enabling us to get to know them better even from day one. This Tuesday evening it was the turn of Emily, Sarah, Rowan, Dale and Claire. While Dale kept his cool throughout and managed to produce excellent food, and Emily’s sense of daring and natural cook’s palate impressed the judges, the other three made silly mistake on silly mistake, which saw them eliminated quickly.

Some aspects of the programme have remained the same for these initial rounds, with contenders being asked to cook dishes according to the whims based on the plate of ingredients set in front of them, with all contestants having the same ingredients in order to facilitate the judges’ comparisons later. A little bit of “freer” cooking is permitted towards the end of the episode, so the whole thing isn’t completely regimented.

There are also some interesting additions, with three of the five contestants being sent into a professional kitchen in the very first show. If I recall correctly, this did not happen before until much later in the selection process in previous series. However, it appears to be a good thing, as it gives contestants a chance to see if they can cope with the pressure early on, and to develop skills from a much earlier stage too. The palate test is another worthy segment of the programme, with John Torode cooking a dish, allowing the contestants to taste it and pick up on as many of the ingredients it contains as possible, and with the contestants then finally being given all of the ingredients (plus a few false friends to deliberately throw them) and being asked to cook the same dish themselves without a recipe. This not only shows whether the contenders have a natural cook’s brain, but also whether their tastebuds’ perceptions can be translated into practice.

My only criticism would be India Fisher, the BBC’s choice of voiceover artist. To my mind, it makes no sense to have someone doing the voiceover for a food show when they clearly have gaps in their knowledge. Sorry to be anal, but it’s pronounced “crem patissiAIR”, not “crem patisserEE”, and the little pieces of bacon are just “lardons”, not “bacon lardons” (as opposed to what? Banana lardons? Fish lardons? You cannot have lardons made from any other ingredient!). Sadly I suspect that we are stuck with her for the whole series – but if that’s the only thing that’s wrong, then let the good times roll.

Chain Review: Langan’s Brasserie Saturday, Aug 18 2012 

Having experienced a shoddy breakfast during our early-morning get-up at the hotel we were staying at in northern France, by the time we’d driven to Calais and got on the ferry to set sail for England we were keen to refuel. We therefore decided on the Langan’s Brasserie option, which has since evolved to cover several branches on board P&O ferries as well as locations scattered throughout west London.

Even if our breakfast in France had been poor, I had ultimately already eaten (cereal and bread) so did not want much. I therefore ordered a rack of toast and enjoyed the complimentary orange juice that was served to every customer and turned out to be of very high quality. My husband plumped for the brasserie’s fuller breakfast option: this offered a starter, full cooked breakfast and additional drink for £13. He ordered a pot of tea as his drink, which I promptly stole. He then went on to feast on porridge and a full English, which consisted of egg, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, mushrooms, and bubble and squeak. As if that wasn’t enough, for your £13 you also get a generous basket of mini bread rolls and pastries served with butter, honey and different types of jam. This was all filling, satisfying, and generally really hit the spot. The portions were large and you could easily do as we did – share one £13 breakfast menu and then order extras if needed. Service throughout this experience was discreet (sometimes too discreet as the staff were not always prompt), friendly, and overall added a touch of class to proceedings.

We were therefore keen to take refuge there again from the ferry’s hustle and bustle during our return crossing about 10 days later. On this occasion it was around tea-time, and unfortunately we had a very different experience. Staff were standoffish almost to the point of being rude when they discovered we weren’t going to be wanting a full meal (and who does want a full meal at 4pm – seriously?) – and in any case it’s not as if they had customers bashing down the door wanting full meals ahead of us, as we along with another party were the only customers in the restaurant (which was a large venue with plenty of covers).

When we did come to order, we had difficulty choosing, as we had hoped for something more along the lines of afternoon tea, which it appears that Langan’s does not offer. Trying to order something remotely appropriate to tea-time, I ended up ordering a cheese plate while my husband ordered a bowl of strawberries and cream (both of these dishes, by the way, turned out to be mediocre and not to the standard of the breakfast we’d enjoyed the previous week). We also then ordered tea, because the weather was miserable and we fancied it. This (I admit) somewhat unconventional order raised a few eyebrows with the staff, but I was not impressed by their reaction, having worked in the service industry previously and knowing that no matter what a customer does, says, or orders (unless you get into the territory of hitting and swearing etc) it is your job to comply and be as polite to them as to any other customer. This did not seem to be a priority at Langan’s on this particular day, where we also heard them make an uncalled-for comment relating to members of the other party’s clothes (I admit they were dressed ridiculously for the venue, but again, this is not staff’s business; they are paying customers like any other). As a result of these reactions, and the generally slow service that followed (despite, again, the fact that the restaurant was practically empty), we were keener to leave as soon as possible, rather than lingering and enjoying the food (as during the first visit).

It seems to me, as someone who used to visit Langan’s aboard P&O Ferries regularly as a child and remembers queues stretching out the door (you used to have to reserve a time for later in the sailing and come back if you weren’t quick enough to get a table at the start), that their reputation has gone downhill in the intervening years. Service and food are inconsistent, and can prove either very good or truly terrible. Langan’s projects a very good image through the presentation of its menus and restaurants, and indeed through its competitive pricing, but at time lets itself down through average food and lacklustre service. It’s possible that its London restaurants provide a sparklier experience, and that indeed the P&O branches vary according to who is running them (meaning perhaps that we got lucky on one day and not on another). However, as a result of the second experience we now feel that we cannot rely upon them adequately for the welcome and high quality promised by the brand. We are now convinced that P&O’s club lounge – which, at £12 per person, promises champagne, tea, coffee and soft drinks included in the price, along with luxurious facilities (which we have now seen, as we went to inquire about the service immediately upon leaving Langan’s), newspapers and snacks. We’ll know what to do next time – and I almost feel sorry for Langan’s that their service is now so inconsistent and has gone downhill in this way.

http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/brasserie.html

Langan’s London locations can be found here: http://www.langansrestaurants.co.uk/booking.html

for information about Langan’s Brasserie on the Dover-Calais route, follow this link:http://www.poferries.com/tourist/content/pages/template/onboard_dover_-_calais_langans_brasserie_onboard_-_the_brasserie_DOCA.htm

Afternoon tea review: Royal Crescent Hotel Sunday, Sep 11 2011 

We managed to snag an afternoon tea for two at the Royal Crescent Hotel courtesy of Maximiles.co.uk (I had been saving my points up for a while for this one). It granted us an afternoon tea for two people worth £25 each, and we were rewarded with a languorous afternoon in a beautiful setting.

You of course enter via the famous Royal Crescent in Bath, a semi-circle of Georgian houses that have been inhabited in the past by such luminaries as Isaac Pitman, George Saintsbury and Thomas Falconer. Service at the front desk is slick, polite and smart, with us being immediately directed through the door and across the garden to where afternoon tea is served. This took us across a beautiful lavender path and into a tastefully-decorated salon, where the purple theme is wonderfully continued alongside shades of taupe and green. (In spite of the sunny picture above, it was a rather blustery day when we visited, so we opted for indoor seating.)

The sleek service at the hotel’s main entrance was contrasted by the slightly more bungling service inside the salon. The waiters did not seem to know what to do with our voucher and for a brief moment I did worry that they wouldn’t accept it and that we’d end up paying the £50. Now, on the one hand, I’ve been there and done that: I worked in all manner of service professions (waitress, hotel receptionist, cashier…) while a student, and can still recall the horror I would feel when presented with something unusual that I just didn’t know what to do with and that a more experienced member of staff had to deal with for me. This is normal part and parcel of any job. HOWEVER – we also redeemed another voucher recently via the exact same method (purchased using points via Maximiles, and then redeemed via http://www.buyagift.co.uk before booking with the retailer in question) in order to book a hotel room for November with The Marquis at Alkham, and their guy knew EXACTLY what to do with the voucher. So my point is this: if the establishment is going to offer such a voucher scheme, then why not train your staff properly in how to process it?

Anyway, once we’d got settled (and, to be fair to the waiters, they did do their best), we were talked through the entitlements of our voucher and the offerings of the afternoon tea. The £50 in question got us a pot of tea each (Lapsang Souchong for me, a more traditional English breakfast for him), and a three-tiered tray of sandwiches (on the bottom tray; including salmon and egg fillings), cakes (on the second tier) and scones and buns (the crowning glory). The tea was all very well, although I have seen more care and attention taken in tea rooms in Bath town centre, which provide individually-set timers for the steeping of each teapot (for example). The sandwiches, too, were crust-free and more than acceptable taste-wise, but fairly standard fare (comparing favourably to the similarly-priced afternoon tea served at the Randolph in Oxford). The only downside was the egg filling – my dislike of eggs meant my sandwich with this filling in it had to be passed to my husband.

This didn’t actually matter, though, as we had skipped lunch in favour of this occasion and were glad we had: the amount of food didn’t look like very much on the tray, but with at least 2 or 3 sandwiches each (it may have even been more like 4), 3-4 cakes each and then a scone and a Bath bun each, the afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent, even at its most basic level, is like a meal in itself. Upgrade, and you can get extra pastries, cheesecakes, tarts, champagne and strawberries thrown in too.

The Bath bun, with its intense load of sugar packed atop it, was delicious but a messy eat – utilise your napkins to the full, people. And while the scones were served with raspberry jam (what’s up with that? Only strawberry will do for the uber-traditional scone consumer), they too were delicious and satisfying. If the hotel had wanted to continue the traditional theme, Sally Lunn buns could have also been included. However, the selection of small cakes served was delicate, beautifully decorated and not at all sickly (in fact, the whole thing went down very nicely). By the end we were STUFFED – you certainly get a lot of tea and food for your money.

Our afternoon was complemented by the discretion of the waiting staff (we in no way felt harangued, harrassed or hurried) and the views over the gardens, which were unobstructed and clearly visible from our seats. We did not experience the poor service experienced by other reviewers, either, and for the full afternoon tea and sumptuous setting, we would certainly return. However, if you want a more low-key tea and cake, try any one of the excellent city tea rooms.

The Royal Crescent Hotel
16 Royal Crescent
Bath
BA1 2LS
Telephone: 01225 823333
Fax: 01225 339401
Email: info@royalcrescent.co.uk

Restaurant Review: L’Autre Pied Sunday, Sep 4 2011 

Having read about the reasonably-priced L’Autre Pied, the sister restaurant of Michelin-starred Pied à Terre, in the national press, I couldn’t wait to sample some Michelin-starred cuisine without breaking the bank. So on a very rainy Sunday in Marylebone, it was only a hair-raising drive from Berkshire to our hotel and an expensive Tube ticket later that we found ourselves outside the very quiet L’Autre Pied. The fact that we’d booked for 12.00 (it was all they’d had left, even a couple of months in advance), meant we got to dine in peaceful leisure; by 13.00, it was full and thriving. Private dining options are also available (book in advance)

Service was impeccable and discreet at all times, and a selection of complimentary (warm – appreciated given the rain) nut and seed breads was forthcoming in seemingly unlimited supply. A range of menus is available according to whether you are there in the week or at the weekend, in the daytime or in the evening, whether you want a set menu or to eat à la carte, or whether you want something simple and seasonal or an extravagant £62 8-course tasting menu. Despite the array of choice, the staff are there to cater to your every need (the aforementioned tasting menu is even available in an alternative version for herbivores) and whim without being overbearing, and the experience is 100% pleasant and uncomplicated.

The starter of risotto was creamy, light and flavourful, and while the delicately-seasoned white fish was somewhat forgettable, the perfectly-cooked guinea fowl more than made up for it on the other side of the table. The bitter chocolate crème with which we ended the meal provided an intense hit of flavour, and left us feeling satisfied in the extreme.

While the wine list is sadly a little expensive, it provides everything that you could want whether your budget is limited or you are more of a connoisseur. We enjoyed wines from Europe (a Macon for him, and an enjoyable white from either Austria or Hungary for me – I’m flawed, I don’t remember which) during our meal and certainly could have been tempted by the Rivesaltes by way of a dessert wine!

The bill came to around £80 for the two of us, which is a little expensive for a lunch, but not for a Michelin star. You could argue, though, that for a Michelin star you expect more innovation – but for the sheer quality of the food, discretion of the staff, changing seasonal menus and the sumptuousness of its nature-themed surroundings, I would go back in an instant.

5-7 Blandford Street, London W1 3DB

020 7486 9696

Restaurant Review: Watatsumi Tuesday, Aug 30 2011 

We came to Watatsumi on a Sunday evening in July wanting just a light meal to complement our stay at the Club Quarters Hotel on London’s Northumberland Avenue. There are two entrances – one through the hotel, and one from the street, and we were impressed to note the towers of fire greeting guests at the street entrance. We entered through the hotel, though, and with some trepidation, as most of the other establishments in the hotel (primarily a business destination) appeared to be closed. Nevertheless, even though there were no diners inside, I spied members of staff and laid tables, so went in and asked if they were doing dinner. The waiter I approached was quite sarcastic in his response (something along the lines of “errr….yeeeees, this IS a restaurant *rolleyes*”), which arguably doesn’t give a very good impression of the place. So we went in, took our seats, and started combing the menu for something that would just hit the spot in the evening, having had a gut-busting lunch at L’Autre Pied in Marylebone (more of which another time). Inside, the restaurant is elegantly and opulently decorated without being vulgar, and definitely has a sense of place.

The menu veers between standard British choices with a Japanese twist (such as miso Gressingham duck breast with kumquat compote) to truly traditional Fuji burgers, tempura and kushiyaki. I personally plumped for the tempura prawns, which came in crispy batter to die for, although I was hoping that the tempura sauce would have a little bit more zing. My husband went for sashimi, and having eaten out at Japanese establishments on multiple occasions in Paris (where the cuisine is very popular), I had the impression that he was a little underwhelmed. Nevertheless, there seems to be something to cater to every taste, whether you are part of a large party and want an adventurous tasting menu, or whether you are a conservative type who is inexperienced in the way of Japanese cuisine.

Watatsumi promises to go ‘beyond sushi and sashimi’, but while I certainly saw plenty of things on the menu that I didn’t recognise, the dessert menu was disappointingly entirely recognisable – with its choices of ice cream, chocolate fondant, and cheesecake, the only even remotely Japanese thing hiding in the list was mini mochi (a sticky rice, ice cream and lychee liquor concoction). If I’d wanted dessert that evening, I probably would have tried this, but if you’re hoping for a more extensive range of Japanese desserts, don’t come here. Things fare better on the beverage front, with more traditional Japanese teas being offered alongside more familiar coffees, which we did sample. The Japanese teas offered a nutty, rice-like flavour that was a little strange at first, but strangely did seem to round off the meal nicely, acting as a sort of cleanser.

We did not sample any alcoholic beverages, but it seems that the mix is about right, with sake and rice wine sitting on the menu alongside champagne and rosé. Japanese beers and whiskies are available, too, as is a string of exotic fruit juices.

While arguably a little on the expensive side (£9.50 for 5 tempura prawns), the restaurant’s beautiful Zen-like setting and premium central London location certainly go some way to making up for it. A great place to go where all of the family – whether Volcano virgins (a Volcano, to you and me, is a salmon, avocado and tempura mix) or sure about sashimi – can definitely find something to like.

7 Northumberland Avenue, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5BY

reception@watatsumi.co.uk

020 7036 8520

Restaurant Review: The Thai Orchid, Maidenhead Monday, May 3 2010 

To talk of eating my way across England might be a bit of an exaggeration. I’m actually not very well-travelled. In fact, Birmingham, Cambridge, Coventry and Edinburgh are the only places I’ve been to in the UK that are north of the Watford Gap (unless Oxford also counts? I’ve never been much of a geographer). So I’m really quite the Southern fairy at heart, and as you can imagine I’ve sampled a fair few of its gastronomic delights. My 10-day trip to England last week was full of culinary wonder just by itself.

However, as you will see from this first wave of restaurant reviews, not very much of the food I consumed this week was very ‘British’ at all. Sure, there were goodly amounts of Jammy Dodgers, fruit crumbles, Waitrose sandwiches and whathaveyou (and certainly there will be a few reviews from this trip of outlets selling British food), but perhaps reflective of Britain’s culinary diversity, plenty of it wasn’t.

And so we arrive at our first review: THE THAI ORCHID, located in Maidenhead, a fairly middle-class suburb about 40 minutes west of London. I had visited once before, and the restaurant is a general family favourite. Part of this is probably the fact that it’s less than 15 minutes’ walk from the family seat, meaning that everyone can drink as much as they want. But there’s more to it than this. If you can ignore the restaurant’s proximity to a petrol station and main road, and look the other way, the fact that it’s opposite the Thames (with a nicely picturesque bridge to boot) means it does actually have a rather prettier setting than it first might appear.

Then, of course, there’s the restaurant exterior and interior.

The elephants got nicked, sadly. (You know I said Maidenhead was middle-class? Well, it is – as perhaps evidenced by the copious numbers of flash cars, leafy estates, and brand new yuppie apartment complex round the corner from the Orchid – but it also has a considerable population of chavs.) You also can’t really see it, but to the left there’s also a pretty water feature, which is at its best seen at night. Indoors, you can look forward to sumptuously traditional Thai interiors, including extremely detailed wood carvings on the walls and tables.

The restaurant is always busy, and the night I went was no exception. The restaurant is extremely popular in the area (while this is partly down to the excellent service it provides, it’s also perhaps due to the lack of Thai competition in the area. Chinese and Italian restaurants abound, but this place is more unusual and this is likely recognised by its clientele) and you are advised to book a table in advance. However, this does not seem to affect the rapidity of the service, with waiters and waitresses being attentive, friendly, accurate and speedy.

Speediness in a restaurant is not always a good thing; chances are there’s something wrong with a place that can dish up a risotto in five minutes flat. At the Thai Orchid, though, the quality of the food is definitely not compromised in any way: while no vegetarian food was ordered on this occasion, pork, seafood and chicken were all deemed excellent. The starter plate is perfect for sharing, shows excellent portion control, combines vegetarian and meat dishes effectively, and is beautifully presented. The main courses were kept warm successfully on the table throughout the entire meal and there was enough to go around, but again, portion control was very good: we were satisfied, but not stuffed to bursting and not in a situation where we were leaving a lot of food on the plate.

This left only two things – dessert and wine – and these both carried small disappointments in one way and another. While the wine list was comprehensive, on the occasion that we visited they were unfortunately all out of Thai wine (so it was to the good old faithful Pinot Grigio for us, which, even though it complemented the meals well and was wonderfully cooling and fresh against the spices used, is not exactly authentic). Equally, the desserts trolley is always impressive, providing everything from fruit salad to Crunchie cake (yes, really), this lacks authenticity, and the restaurant would benefit from adding a few more traditional desserts to its trolley (such as coconut ice cream).

After that a few of us had mint tea, which was adequate, but ultimately did not have a patch on the mint tea served in good Moroccan restaurants.

Nevertheless, the Thai Orchid offered a pleasing experience all round – and, of course, living so close meant that we were able to walk off at least a few of the calories we’d just consumed.

********

Address: 2 Ray Mead Road, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 8NJ
Tel: 01628 77755 (you might need to stick a 6 in front of that first 7, though)

Average cost per person: £31 (excluding drinks, taxes and tips, as calculated by http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk)

Website: http://www.thaigroup.co.uk