Dinner by Heston @ Mandarin Oriental Hotel

There has been a lot of hype over ‘Dinner’ since it opened in early 2011, Heston Blumenthal’s latest endeavour in collaboration with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Shooting straight to number 9 as a new entry to the league tables of The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants and praised by the most discerning of food critiques, I was chuffed to bits when my friend made a lucky last minute reservation as a treat for my birthday.

A world away from the alchemy that The Fat Duck brings, Dinner is a much more modest affair. Its ‘USP’ is a menu inspired by British gastronomy of times gone by, elevated to the present era through contemporary cooking techniques. As you browse the menu, the approximate date of each dish is noted, and a brief blurb on the reverse reveals the inspiration behind each one. Little cards were placed on the table with random facts, however these read more like an excerpt from an encyclopaedia and were a bit lost on me…

Located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and backing onto Hyde Park, the ambience is what you would expect of a high end hotel in prime location London. Decor was subdued, dark wood dining furniture and low hung, slightly medieval looking chandeliers with candle-like lights. The visual stimuli really came from the glass chamber of chefs located to one side of the dining room, and we were delighted to bag a top spot with tranquil views of Hyde Park to one side and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen to the other. We weren’t lucky enough to have Heston on site on the day, but had plenty of opportunity to catch Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watt as he commanded the service of his rather calm brigadier of chefs.

Suitably seated and pondering which of the lovely cocktails we were about to order, we were greeted by the sommelier who persuaded us to go for the “very, very, very good” champagne instead of the cocktail. The champagne was nice, but on reflection felt as though he was a little pushy in his recommendation, and can only assume he did this as pouring two glasses of champagne is much easier than making two different cocktails. The wine menu was extensive, but expensive! The cheapest bottle of red was about £35 and £40 for white.

So for the starters. Tempted as we were to go for the now legendary Meat Fruit (chicken liver parfait cleverly disguised as a glossy tangerine), we wanted to sample some of the other dishes on offer. My friend chose the Hay Smoked Mackerel c.1730 (with Lemon Salad, Gentlemen’s Relish & Olive Oil) at £14.50. Pretty as a picture, I didn’t try any but was assured that it was light, well balanced and tasted good.

I opted for the Roast Scallops c.1820 (with Cucumber Ketchup and Borage) at £16.50. The scallops were juicy and well cooked, as you’d expect from a Michelin Star restaurant. The cucumber relish was tasty, slightly sweet and acidic. I particularly liked the cooked cucumber chunks, something I’ve never tried before. Overall it was really accomplished, but I think it could’ve done with another variation in texture as everything on the plate was soft and wet.

For main course, my friend chose the Black Foot Pork Chop (with Hispi Cabbage, Lardo, Ham Hock and Robert Sauce) at £30.  So called ‘black foot’ aka ‘pata negra’ from the Iberico Hams typical of the Basque country. The chop was generous is size and the mouthful I tried was juicy and flavoursome. A quick search on Wiki reveals that Robert sauce is one of the oldest compound sauces on record, a version of which is cited in Le Cuisinier Francois (1620) by one of Henry IV cooks. Lucky Henry, the sauce was very good indeed.

I chose the Veal Sweetbreads with Morels and Asparagus (featured image).  This was one of the specials for the day and I didn’t manage to catch the date of origin. Very happy with my choice, the sweetbreads were lightly crumbed and perfectly cooked.

In contrast to the starters and desserts, the mains seemed far less complex.  More along the lines of ‘meat and two veg’ (although by the sounds of the feast that Henry IV had on his Coronation in 1399 it’s no small wonder!). Not that good food needs to be complicated, but after comparing the pictures of the mains with the other courses, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from different restaurants.

The first dessert was Brown Bread Ice Cream c.1830 (with Salted Butter Caramel & Malted Yeast Syrup) at £9.50. Creamy, sweet, salty and malty with a bit of crunch and refreshing cubes of melon to cut through the richness.

A must for the chocoholics, we also ordered the Chocolate Bar c.1730 (with Passion Fruit Jam & Ginger Ice Cream) at £9.50. The chocolate bar with a layer of very sweet passion fruit jam was insanely rich, a little too rich for me. I loved the ginger ice cream but don’t think it quite stood up to the intensity of the bitter sweet chocolate.

To finish the meal, we were given complimentary Chocolate Ganache.  A nice touch, but had we known this was coming we’d have gone for something other than the Chocolate Bar for dessert. Definitely a case of chocolate overload!

The final verdict? I think those reviewers that have marked Dinner down for a lack of “WOW’ factor and theatrics have missed the point. If you go with expectations of iPods in shells and dry ice you’ll be sorely disappointed.  If you go with expectations of “What you see is what you get” then you should be pleased.  Each dish was a fine example of what it claimed to be – cooked using modern techniques and delivered in a no fuss or frills way.  More typically “British”, you could say.

Pricewise – there’s definitely others out their serving food of a similar standard at a fraction of the price.  The excessively expensive wine menu is also a deterrent. A three course meal for two with wine will leave you little change from £200.

The service was meticulous but pushy at times, I don’t have a problem with my glass being topped up every 5 minutes but I do take note of the sommelier pushing the champagne aperitif.

Would I go again? Hmmm…the jury is out on this one.  The problem is I can almost taste the other dishes already – precisely because what you see is what you get, no hidden tricks or surprises. Might just wait for some of the hype to die down and for a few more of the dishes on the menu to change before I venture back. We were very lucky with the last minute reservation and location of the table, I would book far in advance for this as the experience wouldn’t have been the same in some of the tucked away spots with restricted views.

New addiction alert: Smoked Bacon & Scallop Sandwich

Bacon and Scallops have always been good friends, a tried and tested combination I’m sure many of you have tried before.  Only this time, try it in a sandwich. Salty, smoky, chewy bacon meets sweet, succulent scallop, wedged in doorstep slices of the softest white loaf.  This will make you raise your eyebrows I’m sure – that was my reaction when I first heard of it. But trust me, it’s good.  Better than good.  It’s ‘Up There’ with the All Time Top Weekend Breakfasts.

Don’t mess around with crap bacon for this. It’s got to be good quality and thick cut. I had some of my favourite smoked molasses bacon from Brixton Village Market, and some very fine hand dived scallops from Moxon’s Fishmonger, roe still intact.

The choice of bread is also important – you want a super soft white loaf – cut thick enough to hold everything in place as you munch away.  After frying the bacon, I quickly seared the scallops and roe in the same pan, adding a little butter.  Once cooked I let the scallops rest, and wiped the pan clean with one slice of the sandwich bread before assembling the tastiest sandwich ever. Enough said.

Fiery BBQ Pork Ribs with Holy Fuck Sauce

With London weather as good as this, it seems a sin to cook in the kitchen instead of firing up the BBQ nestled in my uber small garden. I feel for the neighbours upstairs as they slam their windows shut to stop the smoke from billowing in, but I just can’t help myself. The unmistakable taste of charred meat on raw flame is too big a temptation to resist.

Last nights offering was slow cooked Pork Ribs, basted in the deliciously fiery but flavoursome Holy F@*k sauce. Not for the faint hearted, these ribs will leave you tingling for hours.

For those of you not already acquainted with Holy F@*k Sauce, this kick ass hot sauce is the creation of The Rib Man – a street food god hailed as serving up some of the best ribs and rib rolls in London.  The sauce is made with Scotch Bonnet and Naga Bhut Jolokia chills – the hottest in the world….reach for the milk!

The Rib Man has gained himself a bit of a cult following of late, and his special brew sauce is being put to the test in all manner of dishes, from French Toast to Burgers to Pizza. My tribute to the cause are these ribs – slow cooked in the oven with a few aromatics for a couple of hours and then smothered in the fiery sauce before finishing on the flame.

This is the way to do ribs – they were MEAN – meat falling off the bone, with a charred, sticky, fiery hot coating. The perfect distraction for all this summer sunshine if there ever was one.

Simply done – I cooked the whole rib in the oven on a low temperature for 2 hours – with 1 roughly chopped leak underneath, 8 peppercorns, 5 cloves, a couple of star anise and a good glug of water (covered tightly in foil).

Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little, then pour any of the baking tray juices into a saucepan and reduce until you have thicker syrupy sauce.  Add some Holy Fuck Sauce (how much is up to your discretion) and a squeeze of ketchup and cook out for a further minute or so.  Baste the ribs generously, and place on the BBQ. Turn the ribs and rebaste every couple of minutes to guarantee a deliciously sticky and charred rib.  My only advice is to do more than you think as they’ll be gone before you know it!

French and Grace (and a bit of Jay Rayner)

The tables were turning in more ways than one when I popped in to get my fill of Jay Rayner at French and Grace (Brixton Village) this Easter. This all came about from a challenge given to Jay by the editor of The Observer Magazine – the challenge was to make as much profit as possible from a mere £100. What with being a food critique and fan of Brixton Village himself, the natural conclusion of course was to devise, cook and serve a cheap but tasty Special to the ogling public (that includes me). Was this kind or crazy for the girls at French and Grace to accept?!?

Jay’s dish du jour was announced a few days before to “a bunch of people on Twitter who are so desperate for a distraction from their jobs that they will read anything” (again, that includes me) – Slow cooked Pork Belly with White Beans – sounds good to me.

Donned in chef whites and a Marco Pierre White-esque bandaner, Jay didn’t look 100% himself in the cosy kitchen, and understandably so for the service was a busy one and the punters were keen to converse. The kitchen is on full display and we were sat close enough to hear the chopping of knife on board and fat sizzling away in the pan.  I’m no stranger to the sensation after working in a french chalet with an open plan kitchen for 6 months, trying to juggle 6 pans, chit chat and children tugging at my apron strings. Alas, nothing that Rosie and Ellie (the founders of French and Grace) don’t have to contend with on a daily basis!

And so the food arrives. I went for the Pork Belly Special and my man chose the Uber Wrap, a Middle Eastern inspired dish with Lamb Merguez (spiced lamb sausage), Halloumi, Hummus and Salad in a flatbread.

The Pork Belly I have to say was really well cooked – gloriously tender meat, no knife needed here, with just the right amount of juicy fat. It was nicely caramelised so full of flavour, and the jus which was flavoured with thyme, oozed into the beans and brought the whole dish together.  Every bean on that plate was squashed to mop up the meaty pork sauce! A simple, no frills dish that was well executed.

I had a mouthful of the the mans Uber Wrap which was equally tasty.  The combination of lamb and halloumi is always a crowd pleaser and I thought the Merguez had a decent amount of spice.  The typical menu at French and Grace has a strong Middle Eastern theme with Mezze platters, Flatbread Wraps and other specials that change frequently.  I’m keen to return and sample more.

Big thanks to the team at French and Grace for a lovely lunch – I hope you enjoyed your post service drink!  Well deserved indeed.

Street Kitchen

I’ve walked passed Streetkitchen many a time and now I’m kicking myself for not stopping by a little bit sooner. Nestled in amongst towering offices just off Broadgate Circle, the gleaming van stands valiant and proud.  Almost heckling at the Gaucho just a stones throw away across the square.

A joint collaboration between Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka (formerly of Pearl) and launched in 2010, their aim is to serve simple and healthy bistro style dishes to people on the go.  All their ingredients are 100% UK sourced, with environmental sustainability in mind. Their menu changes frequently to show case seasonal British produce at its best, with meat, fish and vegetarian options to suit all appetites.

I chose the Mackeral dish at £7.50 – every element of the dish tasted good.  It was all well cooked, and very well seasoned. The mackeral fillets were pan fried with a slight crispy skin and moist flesh.  The crushed potatoes were buttery, the sprouting broccoli was still al dente and the roasted beetroot finished with a light vinegar dressing cut through the richness of the mackerel and buttery potatoes perfectly.

All served with a friendly smile, I’ll definitely be back for more.  At £7.50 it’s not the cheapest lunch to-go, but I’d rather spend an extra quid and get something seasonal, sustainable and cooked with passion, than eat from the many nondescript chain establishments that dominate the local area.

A new addition to the Airstream menu that I’ve been tucking into recently…(£6.50) soft poached eggs with roasted field mushrooms, buttery crushed potatoes, pickled red onions, Old Winchester Cheese, Roasted Tomato Pesto and Rosemary Breadcrumbs…..one word….YUM.   Makes a dull day at the office so much better.   I just wish they were open for breakfast!

Really appreciating Streetkitchens attention to detail with the dressings and ‘sprinkles’ on each of their dishes.  The roasted tomato pesto and rosemary breadcrumbs went fantastically well with the poached eggs and mushroom combo, and the pickled red onions added enough acidity to cut through the richness of the yolk and potatoes.

Perhaps the ‘Holy Grail’ choice for many at Streetkitchen is the Crispy chicken option (£7.50), with those signature potatoes, pickled red onions, bacon, chunky croutons, lettuce and Old Winchy Mayo.  Good to see chicken with the skin on for a change.  Yes it’s indulgent, but the extra calories are worth it as the chicken is cooked to crisp but moist perfection.