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Friday, 21 November 2014

Fit for Royal Tea - The Afternoon Tea at Hotel Café Royal's Sumptuous Oscar Wilde Bar

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector and Luiz Hara

Everything about the High Society afternoon tea at the Hotel Café Royal screams opulence. First, the room. The Oscar Wilde Bar took four years to restore to its former glory, a rococo extravaganza of gold and mirrors and cherub painted ceilings. It now looks exactly the same as the room where Wilde once lunched, except I've a feeling he didn't fare nearly as well as we did.

To drink, there was Veuve Cliquot champagne and a choice of 21 different teas, some of them exclusive blends made just for the hotel. We tried one of them - Celestine - a subtle, light black tea with a hint of vanilla, and a very refreshing triple mint tisane.

Our maître d' was eager to explain the menu. There was a lot to get through - three pages of my notebook covered in scribble. It all sounded incredible: not a white bread sandwich in sight - the chefs have clearly let their creativity take charge.

An amuse bouche arrived, a 'Low Sidecar Muffin', along with a lovely story about Victorian muffin sellers who used to ply their trade in Regent Street outside. The modern day version came adorned with a generous swirl of truffle cream cheese and a pipette containing apple juice which you could squirt inside. Light and moist, it got things off to a great start.

Then came a vast tiered stand of savoury sandwiches and pastries: a brioche roll with prawn cocktail, and a beautifully crisp gougere filled with goats cheese and the slight sweetness of wine jelly.

There was a roundel of chorizo Wellington, a sort of next level sausage roll, a bun topped with crackling and stuffed with wild boar salami. Next, a toasted bagel piled with silky smooth smoked salmon and horseradish mayo, and my favourite, a beetroot bread sandwich with cream cheese and a sliver of cucumber, topped with caviar.

We were already getting slightly full, but more was to come. Much, much more.

A palate cleanser, a tiny glass of plum and lychee iced tea was tart and refreshing. It came with a mousse like disc of chocolate and hazelnut marshmallow, the first time I've seen chocolate and hazelnut described as a palate cleanser. But why not? It was delicious.
The beaming maître d, who by this stage was beginning to seem like an old, beloved friend, ferried over another vast tier of cakes and pastries, with not one, but two baskets of warm scones. There were dishes of strawberry jam and clotted cream and a tiny bowl of lemon curd. And another three pages of description in my notebook.

I tried a raisin scone, loaded with jam and cream. It was warm. It was melt in the mouth. "Buttery, isn't it!" said our waiter, as more pots of tea arrived. He wasn't wrong.

We tackled the cake stand. A mini flower pot contained a fabulous mix of apple purée and pistachio paste, crowned with a buttery crumble. There was a neat cube of banana opera cake layered with passion fruit cream. Choux buns cradled a hidden filling of lemon curd. There were vivid green macarons, spiked with absinthe, herby and sticky.

I tried a disc of shortbread topped with apple purée, blackcurrant crème and the thinnest chocolate glaze. It was....I searched for a word....buttery. By this point we could barely move, but the feast wasn't over yet. On the counter were three whole cakes which you could order by the slice. Our friendly maître d was desperate for us to try them. "The lemon drizzle is gluten free!" I went over for a look, unable to resist a piece of the hazelnut cake, beautifully light and moist with just enough hazelnut frosting and the crunch of caramelised nuts. And, of course, so very, very buttery.

Four hours after the tea began, I was ensconced in a vast leather chair in the hotel lobby, clutching a takeaway box of the scones we hadn't quite been able to finish, fretting about the rain. A concierge leapt into action, lending me not only a hotel umbrella "oh, bring it back whenever you're in the area..." but also going the extra mile, finding some waterproof covers to protect my new shoes.

The afternoon tea at Hotel Cafe Royal isn't cheap - £42 per person, or £55 with a glass of champagne. But it's opulent. It's inventive. And the staff are all prepared to go above and beyond, to make sure you have the best possible time.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Brasserie Chavot Revisited and a To-Die-For Cassoulet!

Words & photography by Marina Benjamin and Luiz Hara

Name: Brasserie Chavot

Where: Conduit Street, London W1S 2YF, http://www.brasseriechavot.com/

Cost: Nibbles, such as olives, nuts or freshly baked bread, are priced at £2.50 and aperitifs at £5.00. Starters range from £9.50-£13.50, mains from £17.50 to £26.00, sides £4-5.50, and desserts from £7.50-£9.00. Cheese is sold at £4.50 per gout, and served with a chewy slice of walnut bread.

About: Eric Chavot’s latest London venture is next door to the Westbury Hotel, where we began our evening. The Westbury’s Polo Bar has a grand ocean-liner type of elegance complete with plush carpet, blue velvet chairs and Swarovski crystal-beaded curtains. We enjoyed our cocktails there then progressed to Brasserie Chavot’s chandelier-hung and many-mirrored room.

Our second visit to Brasserie Chavot, (previously reviewed here in 2013), the restaurant describes itself as a Brasserie. It is relaxed and unstuffy as a brasserie should be, but the food is more refined. I suspect the appellation is meant to celebrate Chavot’s style – hearty, traditional, home-cooking – rather than substance of his food, which is sophisticated.  

The opulent dining room is a treat to eat in; lamp light flickers in gilded mirrors, the chandeliers glint. Even the floor has not been neglected - it is tiled with an intricate mosaic of tiny ceramic tiles in earthy shades.

While we decided what to eat, everything being tempting, we enjoyed a glass of excellent Ruinart Champagne (£19.50).

What We Ate: We opted for a mix of classic and modern French starters. The steak tartare (£11.00) arrived in a deep scoop of a bowl. It was well seasoned, the meat bejeweled with slivers of capers and parsley, the egg yolk adding just the right amount of creamy richness. It was served with delicious griddled sour dough, creating a sparky match of crunch and cream.

Our other starter was deep fried soft-shell crab with a whipped aïoli (£12.50) that had a distinct saffron kick. It was posh comfort food, yummy and moreish -  a Chavot signature dish and well worth trying.

The wine parings were well matched, sold by the glass and described only by three descriptors meant to conjure taste and smell. Wine number one, a cheeky red number was described as “hubba bubba gum, red fruit candy, raspberry” (it turned out to be a delicious spice and berry scented 2011 Moulin à Vent). The white was fresh and minerally, the words used to describe it on the menu were ‘grapefruit, white pepper, crushed stones’ (It was a Muscadet ‘Geniss’).

With the edge off my hunger, I took the time to look around the dining room. There was a pleasing lack of suited businessmen, and a preponderance of soft-spoken tourists – it was warm without being loud.

As we waited for our main courses to arrive M.Chavot treated us to a surprise course, a pan-fried filet of bream, served atop a tumble of warm nicoise-style salad, made with shaved fennel, cubed potato, black olive and tomato. A beautifully-judged dish, it balanced acid and sweet just so, and we fell upon it greedily.

If I were eating at home, I’d have stopped there, pleasantly near-full, with perhaps room for a few mouthfuls of this or that. But the main courses were so delicious we managed them without any protest. For traditionalists, the cassoulet de canard et cochon (£22.00) cannot be beaten. Although it was not traditional in the strict sense of the word: the sausage was not Toulouse, the pig replaced goose, and instead of the garlicky crumb, there was a lip-smackingly good giant crouton smeared with a bright slick of parsley and garlic pesto. The duck confit was rich and melting, the pig belly chewy and flavourful, and instead of white haricot beans, the meat lay on fat, flavoursome butter beans, slow-stewed with tomato.

The modern main was a canette (apparently much more tender than the male canard), its skin sticky with cherry reduction that had caramelized on the griddle, the meat succulent and almost gamey ( £21.50).  This was served with two elongated tubes of the lightest homemade macaroni, delicately sauced in a bechamel made with gruyere, parmesan, and a hint (just right) of truffle. This was exquisite, and surprisingly light. If only I could have somehow acquired an extra stomach, I could have tried the lamb.

To follow on from the rich and oaky Californian Chardonnay we sipped with our bream (Kendall-Jackson, 2013, £39), we tasted a Uragunan Bodegones, tannin rich and not so sweet as to overpower the cherried duck, (£42), and deep, iron- rich Hungarian Bolyki, a delicious blend drunk in the middle-ages by Turks who dubbed it  ‘bull’s blood’ (£48).

In some ways the desserts were the least of the feast. We ate a delectable baba au rhum,  served with a flavourful pressed pineapple, and a deconstructed lemon tart, with excellent pastry, but the soft piped meringue was texturally hard to distinguish from tart lemon curd.

The hospitable sommelier, Andreas Rosendal, is not just knowledgeable, but playful. He enjoys discovering wines from unlikely places (there’s a Syrian wine on the menu), and trying them out on diners. We enjoyed some truly delicious desert wines; a late harvest Juracon (£7.50), which was aromatic without being cloying, and Pineau de Charantes (£10), complex and grapey. But the star turn was a Uruguayan Alycone (£10), spicy with chocolate, but with vanilla and caramel hits.  

Likes: the luxurious dining room, and the to-die-for cassoulet.

Dislikes: feeling a bit too full to walk home, but it was entirely my own doing. What’s more I’d do it again.

Verdict: For hearty yet sophisticated French fair in London, Brasserie Chavot is among my favourite places in London. The cassoulet warrants a visit in its own right. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Young British Foodies Taking Over The Tate Modern Restaurant This November

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector and Luiz Hara

The setting is stunning: the view, a vista of London framed by the Thames and the dome of St Paul's. High up on the sixth floor of London's Tate Modern, this year's Young British Foodie Award winners have staged a restaurant takeover, with a set three course menu every Friday and Saturday night throughout November.

We were invited to a lunchtime preview, along with YBF winning chef Tomos Parry, who devised three of the dishes himself and consulted with the Tate's chefs on the rest of the menu. The idea was to incorporate as many YBF champion products as possible, from Argan oil to Mexican cheese - and one of the desserts comes courtesy of Baking category winner Noisette Bakehouse.

We started with some dangerously delicious E5 Bakehouse Hackney Wild sourdough, trying hard to avoid filling up on the huge chunks of moist, tangy bread before the rest of the meal arrived. I wish I'd saved some for my excellent starter - grilled leeks thyme browned butter with goats curd: it would have been ideal to mop up the soft mounds of cheese.

Other starters included a salad of smoked duck from the Artisan Smokehouse, decorated with some crispy fried quails eggs, and a large platter of charcuterie.

I ordered the vegetarian main: a vast bowl of creamy risotto, with plenty of beautifully cooked wild mushrooms and some slightly unneccessary slices of rye toast with more melted cheese. Hearty and substantial: it really didn't need the extra bread.

I could see others enjoying a plate of cod adventurously paired with chorizo and a mango and black mustard seed confit, and another of Tomos's dishes - confit and grilled Welsh lamb belly with quinoa, yoghurt and barbecued chunks of cucumber. All part of his bid to showcase the best of his native Welsh produce.

Beef Fillet, Scottish Girolle Mushrooms, Potato Fondant

By this point I was pretty full, but the desserts were on their way: I shared a plate of baked cheesecake made with blueberries and Gringa Dairy's queso fresco - the first time it's been used in a dessert - and the Noisette Bakehouse frangipane tart with plums and shortbread crumb. I had been expecting a toasted cornmeal cake with peach curd, but the slice of tart - with some whipped cream - was moister than it looked, and the slices of poached plum on the side were an autumnal treat.

Tate head chef Tony Martin came out for a quick chat - telling me he'd been really inspired by the new ingredients and planned to use several of them again on his regular menu, especially the Argan oil and some of the cheeses. A fitting endorsement of the quality of the young producers discovered by the YBF team.

At £47.50 for three courses, with a 'Stellacello' cocktail on arrival, this certainly isn't cheap: reflecting the prices on the regular Tate Modern menu, and the admittedly unrivalled setting. 

For another £14 you can get matching wines or beers curated by award winning sommelier Hamish Anderson. Bookings are by telephone or email, see details below - and if you can't make it, then you can always try Tomos Parry's new project - Mayfair grill Kitty Fisher's, which opens next month.

The YBFs Tate Modern Restaurant Take-Over launched on Friday 7th November and will run every Friday and Saturday night until 7th December. A three course set menu including an arrival cocktail, bread and coffee is priced at £47.50.  For more information and to make a booking call 020 7887 8888 or email tate.modernrestaurant@tate.org.uk

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

#BehindTheScenes at The May Fair Kitchen

The newly opened May Fair Kitchen invited me to spend a couple of days with them to show me what really goes on behind the doors of a busy West End restaurant. An experience like no other I have had in my 5 years of food blogging, so how could I resist?

#BehindTheScenes at the May Fair Kitchen was an exciting 2-day project that saw me travelling around the Southeast to visit the farms and meet the families responsible for growing the vegetables and the livestock for this restaurant. I also had the opportunity to visit their meat supplier Aldens in Oxford, have a butchery demo, and back at the restaurant, shadow the Head Chef Matthew Downes during busy service hours for a day.

 May Fair Kitchen's Head Chef Matt Downes

May Fair Kitchen offers a simple dining concept: with no starters or multi-course tasting menus, it focuses on serving a single, perfectly executed dish from a choice of top quality meat, fish or seafood from the grill. An accompanying sauce and perhaps a side dish are the only other choices diners need to make.

At the heart of this restaurant’s philosophy is provenance. But why is this so important? “The food at May Fair Kitchen is all about the ingredients we get from our suppliers” Head Chef Matt Downes tells me “We try and do as little as possible to them so as to maintain their natural flavour and freshness. Knowing where our ingredients come from, and keeping tight control over their quality are key to what we do at May Fair Kitchen” he explains.

It was an early start as the May Fair Kitchen team and I set off on our first visit to Holland Farm near Oxford. Owned by Johnny Alden, this farm has been in the Alden family for generations and supplies some of the meat to the family’s butchery business. Here, we spent a couple of hours in the company of Johnny who was kind and patient enough to answer all my questions about his steers and heifers (these are male/female beef cattle, whereas the word used for dairy cattle is cow, I was surprised to learn).

Farmer Johnny Alden at Holland Farm

I learnt among many other things about the process of grading the quality of meat in the UK as cattle are slaughtered. Following slaughter, a beef sample from each carcass is scanned and scientifically analyzed to give an independent quality grading.

The quality and flavour of the steaks you prepare at home is really anyone’s guess if you are not purchasing meat from a reputable butcher or at least one who strives to retail highly graded meats.

So if you think you are about to get a terrific deal for exactly the same cut of beef you have seen dearer somewhere else, think again. Higher grades will demand higher prices and vice versa. And indeed it all comes down to provenance – knowing your suppliers and where your meat comes from will help you buy better quality meat.

Same Cut, Completely Different Beasts!

The quality of meat is not only dependent on genetics – better heritage bloodlines will yield better quality meat, but environment is also key. Cattle that are well looked after and fed, that roam freely whenever possible and are not under stress, will produce more flavoursome meat. The beef at May Fair Kitchen is sourced from family run farms where cattle are reared using traditional practices. They are given the freedom to roam and are outdoor reared for about 9 months in the year, as are those beautiful beasts I saw at Holland Farm, raised by Johnny Alden.
Beef Cattle at Johnny Alden's Holland Farm

From there we hit the road again for a visit to Aldens Butchers. The supplier for all the meat for the grill of the May Fair Kitchen, Aldens was founded in 1793 by Isaac Alden and is still owned and run by the same family.

Headed today by Matthew Alden, I was lucky enough to meet him and be shown around Aldens’ state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities in Oxford where 4-5 tons of meat are handled every day.

Matthew Alden of Aldens Butchers, Oxford

Again, this was a fascinating experience – the sheer volume of meat under one roof was staggering. We were given a butchery demonstration by one of Alden’s master butchers. It was a privilege to be shown the quality of beef used at Aldens as well as tapping into such expert knowledge.

Butchering is an art - in addition to the rigorous training (a minimum of 5 years), this is hard labour and physically demanding. I came away from this experience with a profound respect for this skilled trade – one that I am told is sadly in short supply in the UK.

We took to the road yet again heading towards one of the Watts Farms in Orpington, Kent. Watts Farms supply all the vegetables that come into May Fair Kitchen - started by Donald Watts in 1952, it is still owned and run by the Watts family.

Today the Watts Farms have 10 different sites totaling 600 hectares spread across Kent, Essex and Bedfordshire. They produce over 60 types of produce including vegetables, fruits, salads and herbs as well as being one of the UK’s largest growers of fresh herbs and chillies.

A purple kale forest at Watts Farms

Ed Gray of Watts Farms
Back in London the next day, I made my way to Stratton Street in plush Mayfair for the opportunity to work alongside head chef Matthew Downes at the May Fair Kitchen during lunch service. Service hours are busy as I know from first hand experience, so I just hoped I would not be in the way!

Open plan kitchen at May Fair Kitchen

Chef Downes welcomed me into his kitchen and introduced me to the team on duty that day – Matt his sous-chef who has recently returned from 6 years working in Antigua, his two chef de partie Abdulla (a fellow Cordon Bleu graduate) and Pascale, and lastly Nico, a young Italian commis chef who recently joined the team.

Abdulla shucking oysters

From station to station, I shadowed each one of these guys, and was truly impressed to see the care and diligence as well as a great sense of pride that each one had while preparing their dishes.

Head Chef Matt Downes showing me the ropes at the stock section

The grill station was particularly fun – Pascale was in charge here – grilling fish or seafood and meat, and sometimes a mixture of the two as in the impressively huge tiger prawn and Iberian chorizo skewers, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes.

Pascale in the grill station

Italian Nico, as well as being in charge of the bread rolls (these are supplied by Franconia Bread House), was also dishing out the amuse bouche – a delectable thimble of hot celeriac cream soup with a piece of salty and umami-laden blue cheese.

Nico, the the newly recruited commis chef at May Fair Kitchen

The restaurant offers a few vegetarian options, and these were being taken care of by Abdulla. I loved the presentation of his quail’s egg, blue cheese and lemon ravioli as well as the mouth-watering creaminess of the wild mushroom and truffle risotto he prepared. Perfection!

The head pastry chef for both the May Fair Hotel and Kitchen is Rana – his dessert trolley is a work of art, showing great patisserie skills and a highly sophisticated eye.

Befitting its location (the restaurant is inside the swanky May Fair Hotel), no expenses were spared in the design and look of the place. The restaurant has gorgeous wooden floors and wall paneling, marble stone tops, and huge glass windows allowing plenty of natural light to flood in.

The fish and seafood display is possibly the most impressive I have seen in London – very fresh and delivered every day, most crustaceans were displayed still alive and kicking on huge amounts of crushed ice.

After service, it was time for lunch, which I shared with Chef Matt Downes and Steven Humpherson, the restaurant’s food and beverage manager and front of house guru. Steven is responsible for training and managing the restaurant’s front of house staff – and he is doing a brilliant job, as the skilled service I was about to experience showed me. Each of the waiters has visited the restaurant’s meat, fish and vegetable suppliers just as I did, and know their provenance at first hand.

But as we all know, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. So how did May Fair Kitchen’s simple, no fuss cooking approach, and their focus on provenance and quality of ingredients measure up, judged by the food on my plate?

How could I resist these bad boys?

I went for the Iberian spiced chorizo and smoked garlic tiger prawn skewers (£29). Simply grilled in paprika and garlic infused olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, these were the juiciest and possibly the most delicious surf and turf combination I have ever tried. They were so good, my stomach rumbles as I write this.

I also ordered a side of triple cooked hand-cut chips. The potatoes were cut into thick chips, steamed, deep-fried and then drained. Before serving, they were deep-fried again in duck fat giving them a wonderfully rich flavour and perfect crispness.

I thoroughly enjoyed my two days behind the scenes at the May Fair Kitchen. This is a restaurant with a vision I hope other UK establishments will follow – that of serving top quality ingredients of impeccable provenance prepared with great skill and minimal fuss. Perhaps a lesson to us all.

The May Fair Kitchen
The May Fair Hotel
Stratton Street
London, W1J 8LT
For reservations call: +44 (0)20 7915 3892

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