Review: Septième Péché, Bordeaux

Bordeaux is a delight for foodies of a certain stripe. If your idea of pleasure runs to chocolate, macarons, cheese, patisserie and fine wine then this is the place pour vous. It also has oodles of interesting looking places to eat, once you get over the standard set that appear in all the “Top 5 Places To Eat in Bordeaux” articles scattered over the internet. The one that we found, with a Michelin star to its name indeed, was Septième Péché. Whose name translates as the seventh sin, not the seventh fish as I had assumed.

This is a small restaurant tucked away on a big street. The two dining rooms are simple with some bold photographic art on the walls, and the service was friendly and pleasantly informal as French Michelin’d places go. Needless to say there was some pricey Bordeaux on the wine list, but there was plenty at the more reasonable end too.

Our five-course menu started really well with a shot glass of hot and deep crab bisque. A little too hot, actually, we had to juggle the shot glasses gingerly by the base. First starter was a salad of very toothsome squid and herbal greenery, topped with a disc of squid ink pasta. Then the speciality of the house, a gently coddled and breadcrumbed egg served with various fungal goops. Och, actually it was a very pretty plate of food, and fully fungal in taste too, but it was essentially four purees attended by an almost liquid egg and a little bowl of mushroom broth on the side. I’m glad I hadn’t scoffed all my bread as this needed a mop rather than a fork.

For main I chose the cod, a well cooked piece of fish with a very sprightly accompaniment: oysters, celery and sauce bearnaise all tied together with a warm oyster sauce. This bounced around on the palate really well; salt from the oysters, butteryness from the sauces, fresh green crunch from the celery. The other main was a good plate of pigeon, including breast and leg and a tiny cigarette of offal. Tasty. It was presented under a glass cloche full of bonfire smoke, and I do rather like my dramatic touches so I can forgive the watering eyes.

Pre-dessert I liked; lime sorbet, vanilla espuma and a shot of tangy lemon in a test tube. Proper-dessert I didn’t like; a plate of chocolate that was all about presentation. The chocolate mousse was perfectly good, but the white chocolate globe was contained in a ridiculous and rubbery spherification that we all enjoyed chasing around my plate with forks until it was finally pierced. Inside? Melted white chocolate goop. There was a curl of sugar and a decent passionfruit sorbet too. To be fair, the other dessert, a dramatic looking precipice of bright orange tuile with an intriguing white spaghetti fuse, was a very tasty mango affair with a zingy sorbet, although the coconut spaghetti was more fun than flavour.

It’s a small restaurant with an ambitious chef, and I think the odd miss-hit in the balance of textures and flavours was forgivable for the E60 price tag. To my mind it’s one of those roulette restaurants – go along on another day, and the chef might nail five perfect dishes. Worth a visit.

Review: Le Gabriel, Bordeaux

Look, this is just getting ridiculous. Here’s a general request to all the fine dining restaurants I’ve tried in France over the last couple of years: pop out, buy one of the delicious little gateaux from any of the fine patisseries within a few yards of your restaurant, pop it on plate and present it to me for dessert. Seriously, in the last four Michelin-starred restaurants I’ve been to in France I haven’t had one dessert to match a nice bit of patisserie. Le Gabriel turns out to be no different.

Le Gabriel is the “old standard” of Bordelaise fine dining; it’s been there for years on one side of the grandiose La Bourse square, bistro beneath and bastion of white linen above. Old guard it may be, but the menu boasts that innovation is one of their hallmarks, so is the food still relevant?

We didn’t really love our dining room; it was a side room with only two tables, the other being occupied by an octet of septegenarian American cruise ship passengers. Except for the vividly twee chandelier the decor was starched and uninteresting, and the service was pretty starched too. Not cold, just exceedingly professional. If the Americans were here to “experience French haute cuisine” then they must have been delighted.

Pre-starter of asparagus foam on a pea puree was seasonal and tasty, though it was rich rather than bright and fresh. This set us up nicely for the obligatory foie gras dish (it’s so ubiquitous on French fine dining menus that they might as well formalise it as “The Foie Gras Course” in the same way you’d have “The Fish Course”). This was a flippin’ excellent specimen, though. The shard of smoked black tea caramel on top was super, so was the smoked duck mousse beneath and the base of wild mushroom duxelles. Nice foie gras in the middle. Final starter was extremely dramatic: a sea urchin, hollowed out, filled with a sea urchin risotto and topped with vanilla foam.

Two fish courses followed. A pungent piece of red mullet paired with asparagus, would have been better balanced with more of the sharp sorrel pesto that came as a single pathetic dot. The langoustine tail was underdone for my taste; I like it cooked almost opaque and meaty rather than gelatinous in the middle. Vivacious and colourful accompaniment of grapefruit, carrot and peas though.

The main course was an absolute star. Veal sweetbread, beautifully cooked, and accompanied by a bitter coffee sauce. The bitterness was balanced by a variety of sweetcorn things; a rich veloute, a polenta chip, popcorn, fried polenta cubes and some fine dice of baby corn. Definitely one of those never-had-this-combination-before dishes, and a great one at that.

We squeezed in some well kept cheese, and then a bright and zippy pre-dessert. But dessert itself was a disaster. Chocolate and carrot sounds like a brave combination. The carrot and cumin sorbet on top was great, and the thin tempered chocolate cylinder was beautiful and crisp. But inside there was essentially some barf. Some kind of mild milk chocolate mousse with some carrot creme and a fine dice of raw carrot. Essentially, barf. It’s not often that all four diners leave some pudding on the plate. Which is a shame as the rest of the meal was delicious.

So: some truly great cooking, one terrible dish, some innovative combinations that worked very well, somewhat starchy surroundings. The menu was E120 per person, and really that’s a bit too much for the food we enjoyed. But then again, maybe I’m just bitter about the pudding?

Review: The Parkers Arms, Forest of Bowland

There are Jospers, Inkas and Big Green Eggs sprouting all over the restaurant kitchens of Great Britain, and of course the food on our plates is all the better for that kiss of char and smoke. It’s easy to think of it as a new thing, something brought over from the barbecue cultures of the US or Australia. It’s only when you enjoy a beautifully grilled steak in an atmospheric and quintessentially pubby pub like The Parkers Arms up in the wild Forest of Bowland that you realise, of course, this is what food always used to taste like. Okay, maybe not so damn good, but go back beyond a century and fundamentally everything was baked, roasted, boiled and grilled directly over wood fire and coals. Mmmmmm.

The Forest of Bowland is an utterly unspoiled area of fell country tucked between the Lancashire coast and the Yorkshire Dales. This is terrifically convenient, because everyone goes to visit those far more famous fells and Bowland is left to quiet, wild splendor. The Parkers Arms has an enviable position in the middle of all this, overlooking the River Hodder from the village of Newton-in-Bowland. The pub is a beaut, a big welcoming room with a roaring fire and plenty of room at the bar. Plus a few tables for dinner! The local beer is good and there’s a decent little wine list with three of each colour by the glass.

I never have soup to start, but we’d been driving past drifts of wild garlic all day, so the wild garlic and potato soup was too good to pass up. I was smitten with the bread alone, a lovely strong chunk with a good crust and a smokiness from being warmed on the grill. The soup was a perfect balance; not creamy, not austere, very garlicky. Maureen’s mussels and spatzle in seafood broth was delicious, strongly shellfishy and not too creamy either. And not a single duff mussel.

For mains I had the 28 day skirt steak, a favourite of mine already but this piece was just wonderful and cooked to perfection. Traditional accompaniments – big grilled tomatoes and mushroom, fat onion rings, triple-cooked chips (good triple-cooked chips) and a heap of refreshing watercress. All kinda dressing really, the steak was the thing. Maureen hit on a game pie, drawn to the hand-raised hot water crust pastry. I’m not pastry chef enough to know what that even means, but in practice it was a beautifully crisp, sturdy, tasty yet not heavy pastry around a superb game and pork filling with a really strong herby flavour. The dish worried me on arrival; pie, chips, veg, no sign of any gravy. Uh-oh, no gravy. Y’know, I would dearly love to know how they make a meat pie filling so delicious and moist that it needs absolutely no gravy. Best pie ever.

I squeezed in a wet nelly before leaving. It’s a traditional Lancashire pudding, what do you think I meant? Something like a treacle tart, but absolutely packed with dried fruit and citrus peel, the citrus present enough to cut some of the richness out. It fit the location perfectly. I do love the occasional pub meal where I feel like I might have slipped backwards a couple of centuries. Alas, the car waiting outside always gives it away. Next time I visit the Forest of Bowland I’ll be back to the Parker’s Arms like a shot.

Review: Loves, Birmingham

I’m still trying to fall in love with Birmingham. Okay, I know where to find a decent coffee and a bite of lunch. I’ve also found a couple of (yes, two!) independent shops that I like. The Custard Factory is trying hard to be a bubbling little bohemian hotspot for artists and media types, it’s just that all the unrented spaces there have the depressing feel of missing teeth. The Jewellery Quarter seems pretty sparse in terms of interest, so I hope the few places that are there are as good as folks say. Brindley Place, just like the city centre, is simply big chain heaven. The couple of indie places there will hate me for saying that.

Just beyond Brindley Place, tucked in an entirely residential area where you’d never expect to go looking, is Loves Restaurant. It’s got a smart modern dining room with a big window for the canalside view. I should qualify that “view”: a small paved square with a strip of brown water running through it, surrounded by 1990’s apartment blocks and adorned with two Canada geese (that our waitress helpfully explained could not be eaten because they are apparently “the Queen’s ducks”). As I say, it’s an unlikely spot to go looking for fine food.

There are good looking tasting menus, but we went for a 3 course lunch. My starter of pressed venison with pickled cauliflower and tiny onion bhajis was an original, and the flavours balanced well. But after a couple of mouthfuls the cold, moist texture of the shredded venison began to bother me. Maureen scored a coddled egg swimming in jerusalem artichoke soup, which nobody can possible dislike. Good egg, good soup, good.

Continuing the tale of two sittings, I had an issue with my main course of fish. The lemongrass cream and the herbed quinoa were both very good, lovely in fact. But the fish was a strong piece of coley, and moreover its skin was blackened to a very bitter crispiness. So the subtle pleasantry of the cream and quinoa were lost, lost, lost when tried with the fish. I enjoyed them with the mashed potato instead. Maureen, meanwhile, has some beautifully sweet and sticky pigs cheek with a lovely anise-y flavour, crumbled black pudding and a bit of crispy-coated pig tail to go with. This was a pretty plate, with a lovely glossy jus, and tasted great too.

So I suppose it’s no surprise that I liked Maureen’s pud better too. A really sticky white chocolate ganache went very well with a fragrant and smooth mango sorbet and a really scrunchy shard of chocolate caramel. Never gonna complain about that. My choice was lemon drizzle cake with a raspberry and basil sorbet, and really those rasps needed a load more sugar. The cake was pretty good, which I guess is damning with faint praise.

I think that for £30 Maureen got a good lunch, whereas although nothing of mine was actively horrid I wouldn’t have wanted to pay so much. I think I want to go back some time and try the tasting menu. There were some lovely touches – I haven’t mentioned the “aromatic tomatoes” that accompanied my fish, which were little aromatic hits of genius – so I do need to find out whether today was just me picking unlucky from a short lunch menu.

Review: Story, Tooley Street

Customer: “That was a really good tasting menu. X and Y were particularly brilliant. I must admit though, we all thought the four desserts were a bit repetitive, all basically ice cream. One dish with a pastry element or a bit of cake might have been good…”

Waiter: “To be honest sir, you’d never get anything like pastry or cake on a menu like this. I’ve never seen it in all the restaurants I’ve worked in…”

Customer: “Oh, silly me, we must be simple country folk who never eat out and haven’t enjoyed cake and pastry elements in tasting menus right across the UK and around the world. D’oh, I’ll just shut up now shall I?”

Okay, I didn’t say the last part, because after all we had just enjoyed a very good meal, but I certainly thought it. It really doesn’t do a waiter any good to tell the customers that their feedback is basically crap and unwanted, even if that’s how he feels. It certainly was a bum epilogue to what had been rather a good Story up until that point. D’you see what I did there?

Story sits on its own in a smart little wood and glass building at the Tower Bridge end of Tooley Street. The interior is darkly modern with some fun gothic elements in the wall art, the raven perched overhead and the collection of books across the room. It’s good, ‘cos I love books. There’s some vague idea of the menu as a narrative, but really it’s just food that makes you come over all Dickensian. What else could you do, faced with a dish of “potato, turnip and coal”?

This is a proper ol’ many-course tasting menu full of invention and intention. Seven canapes showed up in quick succession, including a delicious bite of some of the nicest black pudding with not-quite-enough apple puree on top, rabbit fingers (like fish fingers, but rabbit and topped with spiffy bergamot-pickled carrot and tarragon cream), startling faux-Oreos (squid ink biscuits sandwiching a smoked eel puree) and many more.

Next I got to be smug, because I had spotted that the candle on our table was burning faster than it ought to, and sure enough the “wax” puddling in the candle holder was actually beef dripping. The bread was good and grainy, and with a vinegary tongue and jelly relish to balance the dripping this was perhaps my favourite bread course ever. ‘Cos it was fun, as well as tasty.

We then sailed through some magical starters, including a disc of foie gras with a brilliant bitter brulee topping and a bright pear relish, slivers of scallop and the aforementioned dish of potato, turnip and coal. This turned out to be some very cheesy mashed potato with rich butter hiding a puddle of coal oil (alas, more drama than taste) and gifted with two tiny turnips. I love tiny turnips. Neat dish.

The main course was a toothsome piece of beef with a bitter watercress puree and groovy whole grains, the whole dish very salty; only forgivable because on a menu like this the main course is half-a-dozen bites anyway and the salt cut through the bitter cress.

So to the puddings. The “palate cleanser” has taught me what rapeseed oil ice cream tastes like; it tastes like licking a barnyard. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every novel and challenging taste this evening (and the jerusalem artichoke ice cream was yet to come!), I’m just reporting for your interest that rapeseed oil ice cream is one taste I won’t be seeking out again. The next dish, of dill sorbet and almond ice cream, was absolutely smashing. Then there was a milk ice cream with textures of milk. Then the jerusalem artichoke ice cream with pear, another new dessert experience for me that I’m glad I’ve had but won’t be scanning menus for in future. And you see my point about the repetitive desserts?

Where did we get to? I enjoyed the heck out of Story, the chef here is clearly loving the challenge of both pulling together a menu with a real sense of theme and focus, but also making sure that he innovates and experiments at the same time, and I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. It’s a bumpy ride over one or two dishes, but then I said exactly the same about Noma; y’know, best restaurant in the world two years running Noma. Innovation is tough. The ten course menu is £80 and I think that’s about right for the effort and technique on display. There’s no a la carte; it’s 6 or 10 course tasting. The wine list is on the steep side; we had to roam into the £50 range to pick bottles we actually fancied. If you like food you can talk about, give it a go.

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