Review: Roganic, Marylebone

By now Roganic has been pretty much reviewed by everyone. If it wasn’t enough that whispers of Simon Rogan’s inventive cooking in his far-flung Cumbrian kitchen have been leaking down to the smoke for a few years, he then appeared on Great British Menu and uniquely got all four of his courses into the final. I was almost surprised to get a lunch table with less than a week’s notice.

I was lucky enough to enjoy Simon’s food at L’Enclume in Cumbria four years back. Yes, I discovered him before he was famous. Pity I only thought to start food blogging a year ago! That meal was instantly my favourite ever, so I was trying to hold my expectations in check for Roganic.

The first thing you notice on arrival is that this is definitely a pop-up restaurant. We were casting around for the front door, because the only obvious way in would be pretty much straight onto a table of diners. But so it is, just a low Scandinavian sideboard denoting the reception area. The dining room is very simply furnished, and if I was to aim any kind of criticism at Roganic it would be that someone booking here expecting an £80 menu to guarantee a magical and romantic evening might be disappointed at their surroundings and table. But hey, it says pop-up on the website so caveat emptor. The food is marvellous.

We did plump for the 10 course menu, so I’m going to focus on highlights. Every plate was beautiful, like a little culinary jewel, and every plate included something you might have never tasted before or at least very seldom. Calamint? Coal oil? Pennyroyal? Sea purslane?

The absolute star was mid-way through what was a remarkably light meal. Slivers of raw mackerel on a vivid green swirl of lovage cream, with some lightly pickled red onion and dressed with coal oil. The spanking bright celery flavour of the lovage worked beautifully with the slippery and chewsome bits of fish, while the completely original tang of coal oil elevated what was already lovely into the realm of bug-eyed awe. Remember the scent of coal tar soap? This was the taste. Without the soap. Obviously.

Of the desserts, my favourite was surprisingly not the Great British Menu-winning poached pears with sweet cheese ice cream – which was a delicious and aetherial ending – but the first dessert, a piece of cherry cake. The cake was moist and rich, paired with a dollop of tangy goat’s milk cream, some perfect plump cherries and a few little sprigs of pennyroyal. This wild mint sings as bright and clear on the tongue as a blackbird on a winter morning in the Lake District, and it lifted every mouthful of the more-ish cake.

Simon’s use of herbs is perhaps the single most outstanding element of his cooking. These days you aren’t a top-drawer chef unless you can throw some foraged ingredients on your menu. Yet very often I find myself nodding appropriately at the inclusion of hedgerow greenery on a dish despite either failing to detect any interesting flavour at all or finding myself tasting it and thinking “okay, worthy, but I can see why it isn’t cultivated any more”. But the unusual herbs on show today were often the single pure notes that made the whole dish sing: my hat off to pennyroyal, celery-cress, calamint and anise hyssop.

If you’re a city slicker and unlikely to venture as far as Cumbria, you should get to Roganic before it ends its two year run. There’s even a £29 lunch menu with starters and dessert from the tasting menus, which I’d suggest is brilliant value. The tasting menus are bang on the money for some memorable cooking from the stable of one best chefs currently working in the UK. If I’m making comparisons, there’s less theatre but more inventive components than Heston’s Fat Duck, and there’s less presentational flair but more frankly delicious dishes than Rene’s Noma. Yes, Simon Rogan is definitely in that league.

Review: Gessler at Daquise, Kensington

Gessler at Daquise is an old-school Polish restaurant just by South Kensington tube. In every detail the experience has been conceived to get you reminiscing fondly about your years in Eastern Europe, even if you’ve never been on so much as a weekend break to Prague. It’s a Marmite restaurant; you’ll love it or loathe it, depending on your mood and preference, so all I can do is describe the show and leave you to decide.

They’ve taken over a long-established place called Daquise that was obviously slowly falling into disrepair. I say obviously because they have deliberately not renovated, leaving the paint blistering and lumps of plaster missing higher up on the walls. An old dumb waiter remains in situ, with the scuff marks of decades but still in use as the kitchens lie beneath us. This knowing tattiness extends to the dining experience, as chefs in distinctly non-uniform whites trundle into the dining room to serve you your food out of a collection of

battered and gnarled pots and pans that look like they’ve been gathered from a variety of Youth Hostel and student kitchens. It’s nostalgia for a time and place you never actually experienced, and it works so well I’ve got to applaud.

So what about the food? Authentic, most definitely. Hearty, meaty, warming, Polish fayre. We only stopped for main courses. Maureen’s beef roulade stuffed with pickles was a dark piece of meat with a slow cooked paprika-y earthiness to it, served up in a pool of gravy with buckwheat and beetroot. Our friends had, respectively, a decent steak served with fried onions, mash and cooked-to-extinction beans, and a rather anaemic half a chicken with lemon gloop and a big pot of chickeny broth on the side. I went for veal brains scrambled up with

egg and scattered liberally with dill, and a side of beetroot; huge chunks of it with a horseradish cream poured over. To top it off we did exactly what you’d do on a weekend trip to Eastern Europe; four glasses of the house red, drinkable plonk in those loveably cheap round wine glasses that I hadn’t realised were still being made.

I loved the experience, but then I like Marmite. I do have to agree with others around the table, the food was good but fairly rustic. If you boil your beans for half-an-hour you can’t claim to be doing any more than turning out typical regional cooking. At around £17 for a typical main course that makes it rather expensive as a dining proposition. Whether it’s good value for you would very much depend on whether you’re yearning for a taste and an experience of someone else’s beloved motherland.

Review: Duck & Waffle, City

I don’t know how long Duck & Waffle will remain a 24 hour restaurant. It’s on the 40th floor of almost the tallest building in London, with no sign at street level that there’s even a restaurant here to attract any passing trade. And given that the city isn’t exactly the buzzing hub of London’s nightlife I’m not entirely sure who they’re hoping will show up at two in the morning for a smoked haddock scotch egg and a £100 bottle of wine?

Anyway, in other cities around the world people pay good money to whiz up 40 stories in a soundless space-age glass elevator and gawp at familiar landmarks from an eagle’s eyrie. So given the chance to look down on the top of the stately Gherkin as a mere by-product of having dinner, and not a high-falutin, mortgage-inducing ten course tasting menu either, every visitor to London really ought to book a table here. Heck, if you live in London you should try Duck & Waffle once too. I’m just not sure the food on offer is good enough to persuade me to do it twice.

It’s sharing plates, by the way. An idea so novel that our waitress felt the need to explain the concept. She also giggled at me when I sniffed the wine rather than tasting it (“Heehee! Why did you do that?”) which was a cute insight into the level of experience of some of the staff up here in the clouds. I have to say though that service was always friendly and mostly useful.

The signature dish is a leg of crispy-skinned config duck on a sweet waffle with a fried duck egg and a pot of dark maple syrup sauce. It’s Chinese crispy duck crashing into an American breakfast; sweet, unctuous, meaty, bready, you’d be daft not to order it. From here on all the dishes seemed to be a bit hit or miss, the menu something of a lottery.

A really big smoked haddock scotch egg with curried mayo was an interesting way of de-constructing and then re-constructing kedgeree, although very, very salty. Three tiny Herdwick lamb cutlets were delicious on a bed of pureed aubergine. Fish of the day was four tiny nibbles of salmon served on a big brick of Himalayan salt. Nice presentation, but someone didn’t think through how such a miniscule quantity of food would be received at table. Grumpily. Then again there was a generous blob of good rabbit rillettes on toast. And a bag of super sweet/salty/spicy crispy pigs ear strips that were very moorish. They bring out the dishes whenever they’re ready, and apparently the heritage tomato salad takes a long time prepping. Pity, as we were gagging for some fresh veg after what was quite a

hefty load of meat, carbs and salt. The tomatoes when they came were good, but the flavour came from the (salty) dressing rather than the colourful but flavourless fruit.

Mercifully the roasted turnips that arrived with half a grouse were a solid hit of fine vegetable. But half a grouse is not a sharing plate. To eat half a grouse you need to tear into the bird with knife and fork, devouring the obvious bits of meat in a couple of bites and then winkling out all the tasty little shreds while bones and flecks of bird fly everywhere. At some point you’ll want to pick it up and chew the particularly awkward bits off. How this can be a pleasure to pass around a table of four I just don’t know. Good grouse, though.

Puds were good, without being epic. Maureen’s torrejas with caramel apples were the best, a cast iron pan full of sticky deliciousness. My peach melba was lacking in the promised caramelised almonds, but this was swiftly rectified (good service, see?). Unfortunately the almonds were bizarrely the saltiest item we had all evening and destroyed the otherwise nice peach melba without mercy.

The wine list is heavily weighted towards three-digit bottles, which I’m sure irritates almost anyone who prefers to spend more on their food than their wine. Because like us, they’ll have to choose from the handful of cheaper options. That said, we found a good New Zealand Gewurtztraminer at £40. The noise level in the all-glass-walled dining room began the evening at “buzzing” and rose to “shouting at the waitress” before subsiding again around 10pm. Oh, and did I mention the views are astonishing?

Duck & Waffle is fair value given the location, we managed £40 each sharing one bottle of wine between four. So having said I wouldn’t come back here, I probably would. I would visit again if I came up to town with my parents, for instance, or some friends. I’d bring them for the views and the experience, and by picking carefully from the menu we’d have a pretty good bite to eat with it.

Review: The Lion, Leintwardine

Why do so many restaurants and cafes insist on putting cappuccino on their menu then serving up a huge cup of hot milk with a mouse’s bladder of coffee squirted into it and a spoonful of phlegm on top? Is it the misguided belief that bigger is always better? Is there a quiet majority of British punters that I’m entirely unaware of who actually like this? If anyone can inform me, please hit the Comments section. I know this isn’t just my own preference. I can quite easily imagine the reaction of any Italian presented with such a concoction: the initial look, mingling curiosity and surprise; the sip, followed by a very Mediterranean grimace; the shaking head and gale of disbelieving laughter.

Of course, the real villains are me and you, the consumer. Until we laugh at horrible coffee and refuse to pay for it, restaurants won’t improve. What would you do if you ordered “scallops with chorizo and cauliflower puree” and received a huge bowl of cauliflower puree with one tiny anaemic scallop perched on top and no discernible chorizo?

The Lion at Leintwardine, alas, is certainly a member of the crappuccino club. I’d love to say that the meal was by contrast faultless, but I can’t. It was decent enough. Let’s have a look…

For starter I chose chicken liver parfait, for two reasons: it was twinned with an intriguing “baby onion parfait” and boasted smoked brioche accompaniment. Well, the brioche was a bit dry and didn’t present any smoky flavour. And of course the menu was at fault; the onions were in the form of a sticky chutney, not a parfait at all. Boooo! In the event I didn’t complain, as the onions were delicious. The parfait was okay, but not as smooth or firmly textured as I’d like. Maureen’s tartare of smoked salmon lacked balance; the plentiful capers might have been fine with a salmon tartare, but with the already salty and smoked salmon they were overkill. The yogurt mousse and pickled apple accompaniments were a delicious hint of what the dish could have been.

My main of Gressingham duck arrived overcooked, but there was no problem sending it back and it appeared with a new piece of nicely pink duck in less than five minutes. Dauphinoise were pretty good, a fine gravy, but the confit garlic were quite harsh. Somehow I think including them in the cooking rather than scattered on as garnish

might have worked better. Maureen’s seared tuna was not. It was cooked tuna. To be generous, it was still moist enough to be palatable but a disappointment nevertheless. The warm salad of new potato, peas, sun-blushed tomatoes and soft-boiled quails eggs worked well enough for a gentle dish.

Pudding. Apparently often the saving grace of a meal. Both nicely presented. My summer pudding was fine, though a bit heavy on the gooey bread. Maureen’s chocolate tart was fine, though a bit heavy on the pastry. I think the puds sum up the meal fairly well: it was all okay.

If you were staying at the hotel here you’d probably be happy enough with having this dining room downstairs. It’s a handsomely furnished small country hotel and the service was friendly and useful from everyone. And the food was okay. But at £45 each including a bottle of wine I’d say you should be able to find better.

Bilberry Tart, Tarte aux Myrtilles

If you’re familiar with the French bakery-cafe chain Paul then you’ll know they do a mean Tarte aux Myrtilles, so deeply purple as to be almost black and utterly loaded with the tiny berries. For me, Paul are one of the few places helping to rescue the word “chain” from being shorthand for “crap”.

I’ve noticed, while seeking recipes, that myrtilles translate into English as “blueberries”. But they’re not. They’re not the fat, blue American imports that Tesco & co refer to as blueberries at all. They are bilberries, whortleberries, wimberries, or whatever local dialectal term for the wild English blueberry you care to name. I wish the supermarket sold these by the punnet, just so I could get them a teensy bit out of season.

But since it’s August and we’re still enjoying tramping into the hills to pick loads of bilberries of our own I decided to make a tarte aux myrtilles. Bilberry tart, as we ought to say. I found a good looking recipe here on La Recette du Jour and didn’t really play with it much at all.

The result was bloody fabulous. Okay, along the way I over-cooked the first pastry case. The instructions said 20 minutes, I checked after 15 and it was too far gone. Lesson: your oven and your cookware are your own, don’t trust the recipe, trust your eyes.

But the second time, the result was a tart-and-a-half! Dead simple sweet crunchy pastry to go with the ever-so-slightly tart but mostly sweet bilberries. The tiny bit of simple custard in the recipe turns the same black-purple as the berries and is scarcely present as a binding, so you’ve essentially just got beautiful fruit and pastry. Veronica at La Recette suggests serving with a blob of crème fraiche. Non. Superfluous to requirements. Just the tart, I promise you.

Bilberry tart (Tarte aux myrtilles)

350g bilberries
170g plain flour
85g caster sugar
85g butter
1 egg
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tbsp crème fraiche
  1. Cream together the butter and sugar in a bowl until pale and fluffy (easier if the butter isn’t too cold)
  2. Sieve the flour in and use a cutting motion to mix it in until you have a crumbly mixture
  3. Add about 1 tbsp milk, mix together with a fork and eventually use your hand to pull it all into a ball of pastry. Wrap in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for 30 minutes or more
  4. Pre-heat the oven to 200C and grease a 22cm tart tin
  5. Roll out the pastry to just over the size of the tin and transfer it. If there’s one problem with this simple pastry it’s that it falls apart very easily. Don’t worry! You can mush bits back together and basically mould it with your fingers once it is in the tin. In fact, the edges of the tart only need to be a centimeter or so high, and it may be easiest to form them by squishing the pastry up from the base.
  6. Pop the tart tin in the oven for about 15 minutes, but what you’re really looking for is the pastry to be going lightly golden, not properly brown. Take it out of the oven, and turn the oven down to 180C
  7. Add perhaps a half tablespoon of sugar to the bilberries, just to balance the tartness, then tip them all into the pastry case. Stick it back in the oven for another 10 minutes
  8. Meanwhile, beat the egg with the tablespoon of sugar and a big tablespoon of crème fraiche
  9. Pour this mixture slowly all over the bilberries, then put the tart back in the oven for a final 15 minutes, although what you really want is for the visible bits of custard to be set and a bit browned. Turn the oven off and leave the tart inside for 10 more minutes, then take it out to cool
  10. Wait as long as you can, then enjoy!
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