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Tuesday 23 December 2014

Stelle di Stelle Pop-Up Dinners at Harrods - Giorgio Pinchiorri and Annie Féolde (3-Michelin Stars, Enoteca Pinchiorri of Florence)

Words & Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: Stelle di Stelle Pop-Up Dinners at Harrods

Where: Harrods, 87-135 Brompton Road, London, SW1X 7XL, http://www.harrods.com/content/the-store/restaurants/stelle-di-stelle

Cost: Stelle Di Stelle offers two set menus, one for lunch and one for dinner. Dinner includes six courses and an aperitivo for £115, or £140 with matching wines and beer. At lunchtime, a four-course menu and aperitivo is also available at £65 or £85 with matching beverages.

About: Stelle Di Stelle is a series of pop-up dinners taking place on the lower-ground floor restaurant at Harrods (in the space previously occupied by Frescobaldi) and is run in association with Identità Golose, a culinary association established to promote modern Italian cuisine. 

From September 2014 to January 2015, Harrods welcomes five of Italy’s best restaurants, with 13 Michelin stars between them, to take up residency in-store. Hosting for one month each, the Italian chefs will provide diners with a special edit of their signature dishes. 

For December, Stelle Di Stelle is being run by restaurateur and sommelier Giorgio Pinchiorri and head chef Annie Féolde, of the three Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. The partnership between Pinchiorri and Féolde is one of the most long-standing and illustrious in Italian cooking. Enoteca Pinchiorri began as a wine cellar and tasting room in Florence in 1972, with Annie Féolde starting to serve dishes to accompany the wine in 1974. It went on to become one of Italy’s best restaurants. Féolde was the first woman in Italy to be awarded three Michelin stars, whilst Pinchiorri has amassed one of the best wine cellars in the world, with over 145,000 bottles and a particular focus on Italian wines.

Today, Féolde is supported by head chefs Riccardo Monco and Italo Bassi and remains dedicated to using culinary experimentation to give new life to the history and cuisine of Tuscany.

What We Ate: Visiting in the evening, we went for the six course set menu with matching wines.

The meal began with an aperitivo of Grana Padano flakes and prosciutto - both the cheese and the ham had a creaminess and an understated saltiness that gently whet the appetite. They were accompanied by a selection of Italian breads, including a traditional Tuscan white loaf and a Focaccia so light and delicately flavoured with rosemary it was a great accompaniment to the amuse bouche.

The first course was a chestnut mousse with pancetta, pine nuts and rosemary-infused olive oil. The mousse was silky in texture, making it light without being overly aerated and fluffy. The saltiness of the pancetta and the crunch of toasted pine nuts perfectly complemented the subtle sweetness of the chestnut.

This was followed by octopus cooked in olive oil with pumpkin cream, coffee pearls and watercress sprouts. In a 3-stage cooking process the octopus was poached and cooked confit, before being roasted ahead of serving. This ensured that the flesh remained tender and soft, even in the thickest parts of the octopus tentacle. Alongside the smokey coffee flavour, the pumpkin cream supplied an unlikely warmth and depth to the dish, a theme that would continue in the meal’s second seafood course.

For the third course, however, we were served a poached egg with Alba white truffle and Grana Padano fonduta. The combination of truffle and cheese brought a new intensity to the meal, and was given balance by the addition of a broccoli mousse. There is an Italian tradition of using egg as a pedestal for the bold flavours of truffle, and here the addition of fried breadcrumbs provided a welcoming contrasting texture.

The egg was followed by another excellent dish, fusilli al ferretto with artichokes, scampi and liquorice powder. The fusilli al ferretto are a star of the Enoteca Pinchiorri menu, and Féolde’s spirals of pasta are slender and tightly wrapped, giving both a more delicate appearance and a stronger texture. Like the pumpkin cream served with the octopus earlier, the artichoke provided a warmth that resounded throughout the dish, offset by the sweetness of the liquorice powder.

The fifth course, a rack of lamb topped with garlic and thyme and served with soft and hard polenta with cavalo nero was similarly impressive. I enjoyed the contrasting textures and clean flavours of the polenta against the medium-cooked lamb and the addition of white thyme crumble.

The dessert, we are told by our waiter - a combination of bread, chocolate, oil and salt -reflected Féolde’s memories of her childhood in Florence, in which these three ingredients were given to children as a reward for good behaviour. A chocolate mousse was served inside a dark chocolate bar, and alongside a dark chocolate crumble. The bar was sandwiched between an olive oil and salt-infused biscuit, the sharpness of which was a much needed counterpoint to the richness of the chocolate. Despite this, however, the dessert lacked the complexity of the other dishes. The trio of flavours was delivered well, but the dish lacked either the lightness or the depth that generate true love for a dessert course in my opinion.

What We Drank: Unsurprisingly, given its name, the focus at Enoteca Pinchiorri is as much on the wine as it is the food, and that was no less the case here. Appropriately for the time of year, the meal included a duo of Ferrari Astis. The first, served with the Grana Padano and Prosciutto, was a light spumante providing a great background to the salty aperitivo.

The second course was served with a Rosso Di Montalcino Doc San Polo 2012, a Tuscan red with light tannins and notes of plums, blackberries and black cherries, making it a good companion to the hearty seafood dish. 

It was followed by the second of the Astis, a Special Edition 2002 Vintage Giulio Ferrari Riserva del Fondatore. Unlike the spumante before it, made with a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, this blanc de blanc wine was made to a blend that Giulio Ferrari had kept secret his whole life. The fruitiness typical of Chardonnay was complemented by an incredible brioche flavour, developed over more than 10 years of ageing. This depth made it a worthy challenger to any champagne, and an ideal companion to the bold flavours of the white truffle and Grana Padano.

Surprisingly, the fourth course was served with a beer, the Moretti La Rossa, a double bock beer made with 100% malted barley. This gives it a dark amber colour and a rich sweet taste that went well with the caramelised artichokes and liquorice powder. A wine might have stood more delicately in its place, but the beer brought out the most comforting elements of this wholesome pasta dish.

The lamb was served with a Poggio Al Tesoro Mediterra IGT Toscana 2011, another Tuscan red made with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes. This was an undeniably full-bodied wine, with notes of tobacco, black pepper and plum and a chewy consistency that made it a strong companion to the meat course.

Finally, the dessert wine, a Giovanni Allegrini Recioto Della Valpolicella Classico DOCG 2010, had an incredibly complex sweetness, with aromas of prune, blackberries and clove that made it a valuable companion to the simplicity of the dessert.

Likes: There is so much to like about Giorgio Pinchiorri and Annie Féolde’s takeover of Stelle Di Stelle. Fantastic ingredients and traditional combinations are brought to life with such complexity that they feel brand new. Surprises on the pairing menu, such as magnificent Giulio Ferrari Trento DOC 2002 and the Poggio Al Tersoro Toscana gave the meal a celebratory feel - ideal for December.

Dislikes: Few rooms could do justice to the quality of the Italian cuisine on offer here, and this space on the Lower Ground floor of Harrods is not quite one of them. It does succeed in providing an escape from the end of year mayhem on the shop floor, however, and ensures that the focus remains on the artistry on the plate.

Verdict: If you haven’t made it to Giorgio Pinchiorri and Annie Féolde’s three Michelin-starred Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, Stelle di Stelle at London’s Harrods may be the opportunity you were waiting for, and right at our doorstep. Recommended.

Friday 19 December 2014

Christmas Afternoon Tea at Grosvenor House

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector and Luiz Hara

I was dashing, literally, straight off a flight from California where the sun shone low over the Pacific and my lunch was heirloom, heritage and 100% organic. London, by contrast, was freezing and frenetically busy, but there was the promise of Christmas in the air. And afternoon tea, in Mayfair.

The Grovesnor House, right on Park Lane, was bedecked with festive decorations and a veritable forest of Christmas trees. A five star hotel, it was awarded the Guild of Tea award of excellence in 2013, a true mark of quality and consistent standards.

Thankfully out of the cold, there was a warm welcome inside: getting off to a grand start with a glass of Piper Heidsiek champagne and another containing a refreshing mix of mango juice and tiny cubes of tropical fruit.

There was a good selection of leaf teas, although many came with a £3 supplement: we were happy with our choices of Lady Grey, heady with citrus and bergamot, and a light, fragrant White peony.

Our excellent waitress ferried over a tiered stand of finger sandwiches and little cakes: a festive collection on offer over the Christmas period. The sandwiches were freshly made if a little conventional: prawn, egg mayonnaise, smoked salmon, ham and cucumber - and one with home smoked turkey and a touch of cranberry sauce.

While we waited for scones, we tried some of the patisserie. The red velvet macaron was squidgy and well made, and we also enjoyed the gingerbread white chocolate mousse and a shot glass of whisky pannacotta with plum compote.

A basket of warm, light scones arrived with a choice of jams, which was a nice touch: we chose gooseberry, rhubarb and ginger and raspberry - and it all came with a vast bowl of clotted cream which can only be a good thing.

We were pretty full by this point, but there was a whole table of larger cakes to choose from too: the Red Velvet came highly recommended, and we couldn't resist trying a slice.

A good move, as it turned out: the cake was moist, light and not too sweet, with a generous layer of cream cheese frosting.

The Christmas afternoon tea is available for £39.50 per person, or £50.50 with champagne, reflecting the prices in this part of town. It's a comfortable room with wonderful service - if only the food was a little more adventurous, we'd have come away even happier.

Grovesnor House
86-90 Park Lane, London
0207 499 6363
Afternoon tea can be booked here

Wednesday 17 December 2014

Quattro Passi - For the Finest of Italian Produce and Cooking in London's Mayfair

Name: Quattro Passi 

Where: 34 Dover Street, London, W1S 4NG, www.quattropassi.co.uk

Cost: Antipasti cost from £12 to £40, starters range from £12 to £30, main courses from £29 to £40 with side dishes at £4-5. There is a tasting menu priced at £80 for 7 courses. There is also a 2-course business lunch menu, Monday to Friday, for £25 per person, and 3 courses for £35. The restaurant is also offering a New Year’s Eve 7-course tasting menu for £222 including a glass of champagne on arrival.

About: Quattro Passi is a new restaurant in Dover Street, opposite The Ritz, which aim to bring the fresh flavours of Campania in Southern Italy, to London.

Chef/Patron Antonio Mellino has earned two Michelin stars at his landmark restaurant in Massa Loubrense in Campania, a region which many chefs say grows the finest lemons in Italy. He has moved his family to London with the stated aim of introducing real Italian fine dining.

Mellino, his sons Raffaele and Fabrizio and a top front of house and kitchen team, bring the skills perfected at his Amalfi coast restaurant, along with the light and simple pasta and seafood dishes and fabulous grills on which his reputation has been built.

The menu is impressive (with prices to match) featuring some of the finest produce Campania and other Italian regions have to offer. On our visit, mains included fish dishes like Amalfi lemon and basil infused monkfish, caramelised pears and chestnuts, homemade pasta with white truffles of Alba, or duck glazed in carob honey with Earl Grey creme caramel. 

What We Ate: We opted for the 7-course tasting menu priced at £80 per head. We started with an excellent platter of burrata cheese served with sweet pomodorino tomatoes and rocket leaves (representing the three colours of the national flag) doused in a treacly balsamic vinegar. The burrata was stunningly creamy and as good as the ones I enjoyed on my last trip to Campania.

Of note was also Quattro Passi’s generous bread “basket” – freshly baked in the restaurant, it featured a number of Italian classics including grissini, focaccia and friselle.

To follow, we had a magnificent linguine pasta course with courgettes and Parmesan cheese sauce.

Having just returned from a visit to the white truffle international fair and auction in Alba, I have come to appreciate these lovely little funghi. At Quattro Passi, we were served tagliolini pasta with generous shavings of white truffles – I loved the ingenious simplicity of this dish, the best way to appreciate the wonderful aroma and flavour of this Piemontese delicacy.

The fish course was mint-crusted turbot with a millefeuille of courgette and red turnips. Although the turbot was well made, the whole assembly lacked punch and focus in my opinion, with a rather bland courgette dish.

The main course was Fassone beef tagliata (fassone is a Piemontese breed of cattle highly regarded for the flavour of its meat), served with spicy broccoli, potato millefeuille and blackcurrant sauce. The beef was served medium rare, deliciously tender and indeed with a great depth of flavour. I was a little disappointed by the broccoli though, which despite being well flavoured, was a tad too soft for my taste.

For dessert we had the quintessential Italian dessert - Tiramisu with coffee ice cream and chocolate. With a milimetre-thin layer of cake, then microns-thin bitter chocolate, interspersed with dots of airily light mascarpone, this was a deliciously light and refined version of an often stodgy classic. I loved it.

What We Drank: Sommelier Diego served us a matched flight of wines. We kicked off with a glass of Quattro Passi's own label Champagne, from Epernay.

With our first course of burrata, we had a glass of Greco di Tufo, Vinosia 2013 from Campania, with fresh acidity, minerality and stone fruit flavours. 

Next came a glass of Ca' del Bosco 2010 from Curtefranca. With exhilarating minerality and steely fruit, this was a great example of one of Italy's best wines - a blend of Pinot Bianco and Chardonnay, from a top producer.

With the fish, we had a Sauvignon Blanc from Vigna Maso Tratta, La Vis 2013, from Trentino. With gooseberry and  nettle notes quite prominent, this nevertheless had a depth of flavour to make it a good match for the turbot. 

With the main course came a Chianti Classico 2011, from Peppoli, Antinori. Again from one of Italy's top producers, this was oak aged, with a heady nose of great complexity - sweet red cherries, raisins, vanilla and cedar among others, and tremendous length.   

For dessert, we had a passito wine, Roce Roce from Vinosia, 2010 made from Fiano d'Avalino grape. Named in Neapolitan dialect, it means 'sweet sweet'. Golden in colour, it is light in style with apricot aromas, and a long satisfying finish.

Likes: There is some superb quality Italian produce here, both on the table and in respect of wines. Such produce never comes cheap, and having spent time with some of Italy's finest food regions over the last few years, I think this restaurant really does serve some of the best produce of Italy. A perfect meal here would start with the burrata, followed by the pasta with white truffles, the fassone beef and ending with the wonderful tiramisu. The 7-course tasting menu at £80 is good value as is the £35 set business lunch which I am still to try.

Dislikes: Some have criticised the noise level at this restaurant, personally I could not see the issue. A few more affordable/accessible options on the a la carte menu would be welcome.

Verdict: Superb Italian produce very expertly cooked, for Italian fine-dining Quattro Passi is as good as it gets. Highly recommended.

Thursday 11 December 2014

Why Should You Go to Sweden? The London Foodie Goes to Stockholm to Find out

The Swedish Lapland, the most northerly part of the country, is a very special place. I got to visit its capital Lulea and the surrounding forests and islands a couple of years ago – I went hunting, slept in a tree-house, ate reindeer, and nearly (but not quite) ended up skinny dipping with a bunch of Swedes.  These fond memories are still very much with me today (reviewed here). 

So when the good people at Visit Sweden asked me earlier this year whether I would like to return to Sweden, but this time, to Stockholm, the country’s capital and the gastronomic hub of Scandinavia, I did not think twice.

The visit took place during Stockholm Gastronomic Week and the Bocuse d’Or Europe competition (the most prestigious chef competition in the world being hosted in Sweden for the very first time), among other culinary events.

As in London, the food scene in Stockholm has enjoyed a complete revolution in the last 20 years. The city now has some fantastic delis, restaurants and artisan microbreweries as well as coffee houses, food markets, chocolatiers and everything else we have come to expect from any major European foodie destination.

One such place was Wienercaféet, founded in 1904, this is the place to experience the Swedish “FIKA” (or coffee break). Here we met Daniel Lindeberg, the creative Director at Wienercaféet and co-owner of the two-Michelin starred Restaurant Franzén.

A stunning place, this Grande Café’s signature pastry is known as Princess Cake – a superbly light sponge around layers of cream, jam and green-coloured marzipan (www.wienercafeet.com).

The elegant food hall Östermalms Saulhall was another foodie destination not to be missed in Stockholm.

It has been supplying the well-heeled Swedes with some fantastic native and international ingredients since 1888.

Today it is home to restaurants, champagne and seafood bars, as well as butchers, cheese and fishmongers, bakeries and more. It is the place to go for top quality ingredients, learning about their provenance and meeting the makers themselves (www.ostermalmshallen.se).

The Swedes’ love for fresh fish, caviar and their respect for natural, seasonal ingredients strike a chord with me as they share common values with Japanese cuisine. Shibumi is a newly opened Japanese-Scandinavian restaurant we visited on our first evening in Stockholm. Chef Sayan Isaksson, a Thai-national by birth, prepared us an interesting 6-course menu at Shibumi (SEK 1,250/£105 plus 5 beverages SEK 950/£80, total = £185). I enjoyed most of his creations, but truth to tell, I felt prices were eye-wateringly expensive.

I loved his dry-salted monkfish, with lightly smoked monkfish liver (known as ankimo, the foie gras of the sea), tobiko eggs (flying fish roe) and frozen dashi (Japanese stock made from bonito fish flakes and seaweed).

Another highlight was the Shibumi Sliders made from tender beef short ribs cooked over 48 hours. Served in a brioche bun with Japanese mayonnaise and plenty of kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage), they were delicious (http://www.esperantorestaurant.se/en/).

A more affordable choice was Långbro Värdhus, where we had a magnificent Swedish lunch cooked by Fredrik Eriksson. Långbro Värdhus is an former doctor’s villa, full of charm and with a very homely feel, despite being a full-fledged restaurant. The food was traditional Swedish fair: fresh, well-made and delicious.

We started with a varied platter of fish and accompanying sauces – smoked, raw and caviar including one of my favourites - Kalix Löjrom. This roe is normally referred to in gastronomic circles as the "gold of the North" as it comes from the Swedish Lapland, where I first tried it two years previously.

To follow we had a selection of different mains served buffet style. I went for the pork rillettes with roasted beetroots and sourdough, and was very happy with my choice. This was one of the finest meals I had during this trip and the prices were also surprisingly affordable (www.langbrovardshus.se).

From Långbro Värdhus, we headed to the city’s pier to catch a boat for the Island of Fjäderholmarna, the first stop in the Stockholm archipelago, a breathtaking landscape of 30,000 islands (www.fjaderholmarna.se).

There we visited Rökeriet (the Smokery), an elegant restaurant with great sea views, for a taste of the archipelago – myriad smoked fish and seafood of the highest quality (www.rokeriet-fjaderholmarna.se).

Also on the Island, the Fjäderholmarna Brew Pub was another interesting find – a microbrewery and pub manned by two Swedish friends Pelle Ågren and Andreas Willman.

Here we had a tasting of their 3 craft beers including a fantastic IPA, Libertas, as well as a visit to their brewing quarters (http://www.fjaderholmarnaskrog.se/english/On_the_island/brewery.html).

Back on dry land, we headed towards Södermalm for a foodie tour of this bohemian and eclectic district of Stockholm. Södermalm has a number of fantastic delis, quirky food shops, restaurants and bars, and it is here that the foodie crowd of Stockholm gathers.

Of note, Pärlans was a vintage caramel shop, and walking through its doors was like entering a time-warp to the 1940s. Their flavoured caramels were made on the premises, and were delicious (http://www.parlanskonfektyr.se/).

One of the main lunch hangouts in Södermalm is Meatballs for the People. Here we tried a number of delicious variations on this Swedish national theme. There are no fewer than 14 varieties of organic meatballs on offer, made from, among other things,  rooster, elk, bull, boar, salmon, reindeer and turkey.

My favourite was the reindeer meatball, which I enjoyed with a sweet and sour cucumber pickle, creamy mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. If your only experience of Swedish meatballs is from Ikea, I highly recommend a visit to Meatballs for the People for a taste of the real thing (http://meatball.se/hem/).

The main focus of this trip, however, was the Bocuse d’Or Europe competition taking place at the Gastro Nord venue in Stockholm, and the fact that Sweden was hosting it for the very first time (www.bocusedor-europe.com).

This world famous competition, the chef’s equivalent to the Oscars, is very highly regarded in the industry. It saw 20 European chefs, each representing their own country, compete using only Swedish sourced ingredients, with only 12 countries qualifying to proceed to the world championship in Lyon in 2015.

Competitors had 5 hours and 35 minutes to cook a fish and a meat dish for 12 judges, many of whom were themselves Michelin multi-starred chefs. This was a really enjoyable experience, with a boisterous, partisan crowd supporting their national chefs, rather like national teams in the World Cup.

The arrival of the Bocuse d'Or Europe in Stockholm signifies the long heralded rise of Swedish food. In the UK, sales of Swedish food are up by 30% since 2006 and Swedish restaurants and bakeries are popping up everywhere in London. Michelin-star restaurant Hedone in Chiswick, West London, has received rave reviews since its opening in summer 2011, as has Swedish bakery Fabrique, which opened in Shoreditch at the end of 2012.

It will come as a surprise to few Eurovision devotees that the winners of this Bocuse d’Or Europe were Sweden, Denmark and Norway, with France in 4th place. Sadly neither Spain nor Italy made the cut.

The UK, represented by Adam Bennett, head chef at The Cross in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, came 6th in the competition. This means that Great Britain has qualified for the Bocuse d’Or final in Lyon in January 2015, which I will also be reporting on.

Preparations for the Bocuse d'Or Gala Dinner

I was blown away by the dynamic food culture of Stockholm, as well as its urbane elegance and charm. There is plenty to see and experience in Sweden, either in its Lapland or the capital, and what I experienced on my two trips convinces me that Sweden is now one of the gastronomic destinations of northern Europe. Travelling foodies take note!

Bocuse d'Or Gala Dinner
For more information on Sweden and its food scene, go to www.visitsweden.com/food and www.tryswedish.com .

For more information on Bocuse d’Or Europe, go to www.bocusedor-europe.com.

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