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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Wonders from Windermere at London's Selfridges

Words & Photography by Su-Lin Ong and Luiz Hara

This is dinner #4 in Selfridges’ inspired Summer series, #MeetTheMakers, and the surprises become ever more dazzling.  You’d be a lucky diner if you managed to be quick enough to book all five dinners. Indeed there have been some who have enjoyed every one in this real treat of a tour of unexpected UK culinary hotspots; the best kind of gourmet staycation, for sure.

Chef Conor Toomey and Head Sommelier Dawn Davies

Tonight’s guest chef is Conor Toomey, Head Chef at The Restaurant at Storrs Hall in the Lake District.  His usual dining room has huge picture windows and dreamy views rolling down to Lake Windermere.  His team of five have swapped it for Selfridges glossy mirrored Corner restaurant.  We are all set for six very English courses and a flight of wines from round the world to match – selected by Selfridges head of wine Dawn Davies, who is our sommelier for the night.

Conor’s written menu is a handy fast read for those of us impatient for our dinner: Avocado – Octopus – Veal – Huntsham farm pork – Peach – Coffee and chocolate.  Somehow we know that each course is much, much more than that.  These are dishes that are an artwork and feast in themselves.

Throughout this colourfully textured dinner, we can spot the tricks and tactics which Conor adores using to make each course flow.  We marvel at his imagination and skills in freeze drying and dehydrating to create airy powders and granules.  It seems he can work magic on anything – we taste almond, tarragon, raspberry and even chocolate, all creating delicate magic veils across our dishes.

Our first course is a silky milky avocado cream, aged parmesan and lacy shavings of summer truffle surrounding a precision cut spearhead of baby artichoke.  You want to disassemble the chef’s creation and savour each on its own to get the purity of his chosen flavours.

To accompany this, our wine is an uplifting Chilean that’s all fresh gooseberry and garden grassiness - Vina Litoral Ventolera Sauvignon Blanc.

The next dish has every nuance of savoury saltiness.  Slow cooked octopus, baby heirloom tomato, a smoky chorizo jam, peculiar salty fingers that pop delicate saltmarsh brininess, and a hint of anchovy.  Chef adds his wispy cress-like pennywort, foraged from the Lakes.

Partnering the octopus, we drink a deep mature Rioja viura with surprising freshness.  This 2004 has an oaky depth that balances the saltiness of the food: Bodegas R Lopez de Heredia, Vina Gravonia Blanco Crianza.

Tastes become richer and textures more diverse, as we are served roast veal sweetbread with an unsuspecting cube of beef shortrib, crunchy baby beetroots and delicate anise-like tarragon.

Our first red arrives.  The Cambridge Road Pinot Noir 2011 is a confidently rich New Zealand wine from Martinborough in the south of the north island and a great match to the roast sweetbread.

The hearty, elegant main course is pork served three ways and comes as a butter-soft bar of belly, plus 55 day aged middle white pork laid on a cushion of pulled shoulder.  Rings of barbecued onions and an intense velvety apple sauce accompany it.

With this comes an unusual South African Swartland wine: Three Foxes The Castillo 2009 Syrah.  It is a slightly cloudy style; very natural, and showing very little intervention.

There are two desserts – perfect for every dinner when it’s impossible to decide upon fruity or creamy.  An unusual peach melba experience presents us with meltingly baked peach, raspberry sorbet and pink wafer shards with the taste of pressed candy floss. The treasure is a soft crushed raspberry which lays hidden.  It floats in a pool of the most translucent, coolest custard imaginable.

Giving away no hints on the nose, but yielding explosive fragrant sweetness on the palate, is a Clos Lapeyre ‘La Magendia de Lapeyre’ 2011 Jurancon from SW France.

Finally, our Windermere dinner draws to a reluctant close with frozen coffee cream, aerated sponge and creamy chocolate Namelaka.

We sip a Sercial 10 year old vinhos Barbeito: a medium sweet Madeira which enhances the dessert flavours with a caramel lushness.

Three hours later, and we feel the evening has just started.  We’ve been busy figuring out every note of taste and nuance of skill, but that hasn’t distracted from the sheer easy pleasure of enjoying this symphony of a dinner.

Chef Conor Toomey and his team

#MeetTheMakers at Selfridges' The Corner Restaurant
The six-course dinner was priced at £75, and including wine flight, £110. For more information about the series of #MeetTheMakers dinners, visit the Selfridges website here.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A Flavour of Wiltshire's Best - #MeetTheMichelin Richard Davies at Selfridges

Words & Photography by Marina Benjamin and Luiz Hara

Richard Davies is the third Michelin chef in as many weeks to take over the kitchen at Selfridges’ The Corner Restaurant for the #MeetTheMichelins dinner series. This is a fabulous initiative by Selfridges giving some of the most talented UK chefs a platform to demonstrate haute cuisine from outside London. With a beautifully balanced six-course menu (priced at £75, with an additional £35 for the wine flight), Richard Davies treated us to a taste of Wiltshire – not least its tasty locally-reared pigs.

Before the meal began Davies popped out of the kitchen to meet everyone – he informed the assembled foodies that he hoped we’d like the pork belly dish he’d selected as a main course.  As he talked, lines of waiting staff emerged from behind him with plates of curling prawn crackers and boules of lightly whipped taramasalata, they meandered around the tables pouring glasses of the store’s own-label Adami Prosecco. This was distinctly peachy, and a wonderful companion to the intensely-flavoured crackers and salty roe. You could feel diners relax, and the volume of chatter rose accordingly.

At the Bybrook Restaurant at the Manor House Hotel (part of the Exclusive Hotels Group) near Bath, Davies has become known for his French-with-a-twist leanings, and for his lightness of touch. These qualities were in evidence here in spades, beginning with the loose heap of finely chopped beef tartare – which came with asparagus shavings, a quail’s egg, and smoky charcoal mayo.

It was melt-in-the-mouth delicious, and so summery and light that the sommelier paired it with a medium-bodied white wine, a blend of viognier and sauvignon blanc by Montesco Verdes Cobardes. It worked a treat and retails for a snip in the store (£16.99).

Staying with terroir, we moved onto duck – slices of smoked breast meat and a croquette of duck leg confit cooked with pickled shiimeji mushrooms. The textures were fabulous, when combined with crunchy candied macadamias and yielding vanilla-poached pears.

We drank a perky Beaujolais (Moulin a Vent Thibault Ligerbelair) that gave off banana on the nose and was riddled with liquorice and redcurrant (£26.99).

The mackerel dish that followed didn’t quite hit a high note for me. Though the fish was succulent and sweet-cured, the watercress velouté lacked bite and the celeriac remoulade made with horseradish instead of mustard needed more heat. The flavours melded harmoniously, but I was after a marriage of opposites.

The accompanying Austrian Hirtzberger Riesling Federspiel however, was flawless (£49.99).

Davies’ pork belly did not disappoint. It was succulent and full-flavoured, and a super-intense celeriac purée and apple compote really made it sing.

Heritage carrots completed this wonderful dish, as did the complex and deep-flavoured 2012 Quadratur from Coume del Mas, Cote de Roussillon (£34.99).

After a refreshing yoghurt and blackcurrant palette cleanser, the menu was rounded off with a Valrhona Chocolate tian, with cherries 3 ways – boozy in the middle, jammy in the obligatory smear, and with a few marinated halves for contrast. It was heaven on a plate, and a perfect end to the meal.

Selfridges’ in-house sommelier Dawn Davies pulled yet another rabbit out of her hat with a delicious chilled Spanish dessert red from Mataro Alta Alella, that was neither cloying nor fortified, but had enough strength to hold its own against the powerful cherries (£27.99 for 500ml). Excellently judged wines lifted this meal to really superlative heights.

I strongly suspect that dinner bookings at the Bybrook Restaurant will be in sore demand from Londoners with a newfound zest for Wiltshire’s best.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The Real McCoy of Teppanyaki Experiences at Matsuri

Name: Matsuri

Where: 15 Bury Street, London, SW1Y 6 AL

Cost: There are three set menus, priced at £65, £100 and £145 per person. From the à la carte menu, starters cost from £5 to £10, with sashimi platters from £14 to £68, sushi platters at £29.50 or £39.50, and teppanyaki from £23 to £68 for a whole lobster.

About: Matsuri is a long-established Japanese restaurant in London's plush St James district, home to many venerable gentlemen's clubs, as well as St James' Palace and Chatham House. It is also a stone's throw from royal grocer Fortnum and Mason's, Paxton and Whitfield's cheese shop, and the bespoke shirt makers of Jermyn Street.

Matsuri offers Japanese style teppanyaki dishes. Teppanyaki (teppan meaning iron plate and yaki grill or fried) refers to dishes that include meats, fish and vegetables cooked on a very hot iron plate, which imparts a lovely char-grilled flavour to these ingredients.

There is always an element of theatre when eating at teppanyaki restaurants - guests sit around a station while a chef rustles up their dishes. Matsuri is among the most upmarket teppanyaki restaurant in the UK, with dishes, standards of cooking and prices similar to those in Japan.

Owned jointly by the Japanese food giant Kikkoman and JR (Japan Railways), the restaurant is adorned with photographs models of the Shinkansen (Bullet) train and other tasteful artifacts.

What We Ate: We started with a platter of white fish sushi and sashimi (£27).  This included seared yellow tail maki rolls, with nigiri of seabass with yuzu kosho, turbot with yuzu plum and sea bream with spring onion. The platter finished with a sashimi of scallop, yellowtail and king prawn. The centre piece was the head of the king prawn served tempura style in a magnificent blue crystal bowl.

The tempura course included jumbo shrimp, jumbo shrimp head wrapped in shiso leaves, and squid wrapped in shiso leaves. I found the batter a little thick, but the quality of the seafood was excellent, the squid was meltingly tender (not an easy texture to achieve when deep-frying squid) and I enjoyed the addition of shiso in this tempura.

The teppanyaki course was wagyu beef with white and green asparagus (£75), and black cod marinated in ginger, soy sauce and miso (£26).

I enjoyed the black cod being cooked this way (miso is the usual marinade but it does not quite work with teppanyaki).  The ginger gave it a deliciously spicy, savoury quality to the dense fish, and the skin became crispy and crunchy from cooking on the hot plate.

The wagyu beef was wonderfully rich, tender and flavoursome, and was served with some magnificent garlic fried rice, one of the very occasions when garlic rice is served in Japan i.e. with grilled steak. To accompany the beef, two sauces were offered – the wasabi cream, which was hot and creamy, and the special 'wagyu sauce' made with red wine, mirin, chilli and soy sauce. This was rich and spicy, a little like a Korean bulgogi sauce. Personally I thought the latter rather overpowered the wagyu beef.

Alongside the Teppanyaki, we had a red miso soup (£3.50), with nameko mushrooms, wakame seaweed, tofu and spring onions. I loved this  – red miso makes for a rich, beefy-tasting broth rather like a posh Bovril, while the nameko mushrooms with their slimy texture (not a great way to describe this mushroom but I cannot think of a more befitting word), were a great addition, I haven’t had them since my last trip to Japan.

For dessert, we opted for the restaurant's signature Fire Ball Ice Cream with mango (£6.50). There is a nice sense of theatre about this dish as the mango slices and ice cream are quickly flambéed over the hot iron plate before being served.

We also had some delightful wakamomo (baby stoneless peaches), with lychee sorbet and Mio sparkling sake (£8), served in a Champagne flute. I love wakamomo, so this was a great treat - refreshing and palate cleansing.

What We Drank: While the teppanyaki meal we had at Matsuri was very good indeed, the highlight for us was the restaurant’s fantastic wine cellar.

We entrusted our wine pairing to the Head Sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo, and he did not disappoint, choosing a selection of rare and unusual Italian and French wines that tickled the curiosity and palate while still maintaining value for money.

The cocktail of the month when we visited was London Sky (£12) - Nigori Ginjo sake with fruits and elderflower. Served with a sprig of mint, this had a touch of sweetness and a savoury notes from the sake. We also sampled the Miss Kubota cocktail from the Signature list - sake, lemon juice and lychee liqueur, decorated with physalis (£12). This was very refreshing from the citrus fruit, and aromatic from the lychee liqueur.  There was a comprehensive list of cocktails priced from £9 for a Negroni to £13 for a Champagne-based Nashi Royal with Asian Pear.

With the sushi and sashimi, we had a glass of Tiefenbrunner, Kirchleiten Sauvignon 2012, from Sudtirol, Alto Adige, Italy (£58 per bottle). This comes from volcanic soil giving a delicious minerality, and was rich, elegant and with crisp acidity and a long finish.

With the tempura, we had a glass of Pouilly Fumé 2012, Domaine Alexandre Bain, from Pierre Precieuse (£53 per bottle). This was a biodynamic wine, unfiltered, with just a hint of oxidation. Golden in colour, and slightly opalescent, it had lovely green apple on the palate.

With the teppanyaki, we had a Sicilian red, I Vigneri (£89 per bottle), from 100 year old pre-phylloxera vines.  Made from rare Nerello Cappuccio and Nerello Mascalese grapes, the vines were grown in goblet formation on volcanic, lava soil. Foot pressed, and matured in oak casks, this was a very elegant wine with red berry fruit.

With dessert, we had a glass of sweet Umeshu plum wine, served unfiltered and with a heavy sediment. Having been left on the stalk until the fruit was botrytised, this had a rich sweet almond nose, and sweet plum flavours on the palate.

As a digestive, we opted for the 21 year old Hibiki Suntory Whisky, in a very beautiful bottle that looked more like a decanter.  This was a top quality Japanese whisky.  

The restaurant offers a wide selection of wines and sparkling wines by the glass, from £9 to £23. In bottles, white wines start at £37 (for an Italian Blanc de Morgex et De La Salle), and reds at £39 (for a biodynamic Faugeres from Languedoc-Roussillon), and escalate rapidly from there.

There is an extensive sake menu, as well as a “Sake Course Menu” for £40, offering 5 glasses of sake.  There are two wine flights, priced at £44 and £60, each offering 5 glasses including a Champagne, white, red and sweet wines. 

Likes: The white fish sushi and sashimi platter was superb, and reasonably priced at £27. The Wagyu steak was excellent. The wine selection, chosen by sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo, was original and interesting. I would strongly recommend one of the wine flights.

Dislikes: Prices are steep but these reflect the quality of the ingredients and the location. It would be nice if a more affordable teppanyaki menu option were available, not necessarily including wagyu beef or black cod.

Verdict: Matsuri offers the real McCoy of teppanyaki experiences in the heart of London’s Mayfair. A fantastic wine cellar and an expert sommelier made for a very special evening. Recommended.

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