Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Le Cristal de Sel, Paris

Le Cristal de Sel
Confiture - Mirabelles Verveine

Unfortunately I can't tell you about the best meal I've had in London of late as its location is a bit 'hole-in-the-wall' as yet.  Rest assured, as soon as I can, I will.  In the meantime, to make up for my little tease, I've decided to tell you about my favourite restaurant in Paris.  This is not a new find.  I've been eating at Le Cristal de Sel since soon after its opening in 2007.  Chef Karil Lopez and front-of-house Damien Crepu were both formerly at the renowned Hôtel Bristol.  Every time I've eaten at Le Cristal de Sel the experience has been sheer pleasure. 

From both outside and in the place reminds me of an '80's Italian trattoria.  You need to know this or you will walk straight past, as I did on my first visit.  After hearing of the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on some restaurant openings of late, it's refreshing to see the money has been spent on the important things rather than on ripping out what has gone before in search of style and ambience. 

With the Chef being ex-Hôtel Bristol you might expect complicated dishes.  Whilst his classical training is obvious, particularly in saucing, he is confident to let a great ingredient speak for itself, from a slab of simply cooked Simmental Beef to a slice of first-class charcuterie.  Then again, his buttery-sauced Ravioles de Languoustines is a thing of beauty and tastes sublime.  The wine list is short, carefully selected and Damien's recommendations have always proved to be good.

On this Spring visit we chose from the fantastic value lunchtime Menu du Jour at 18 Euros for 2 courses and started with 'Oeuf cocotte cuisiné comme une raclette, jambon de Savoie et rattes à la ciboulette' a raclette-type dish of eggs, savoy ham and ratte potatoes with a buttery chive sauce.  Deeply comforting (but then I'm a sucker for the combination of ham, potato and eggs).  A classic charcuterie selection presented on a slate platter was small but good.  We both chose a main course of Duck Breast on soft polenta served with a wonderfully spiced sticky sauce.  We showed admirable restraint in skipping pudding - a signature dish of beggar's purse pancake with apples and caramel sauce is damnably hard to resist - but we had plans for les gateaux later on.  On a day-trip to Paris, you've got to pace yourself and we'd already succumbed to the Chocolat chaud and some samples at Un Dimanche à Paris soon after arriving on Eurostar.

In any down-time, Chef makes exquisite jams as and when different fruits come into season.  I can recommend leaving with a jar of Mirabelles Verveine for spreading on a crisp baguette.

Staff are young and the place is run like a big happy family without ever losing sight of the paying customer.  It's the perfect neighbourhood restaurant that's worth going out of your way for.  The front-of-house is always welcoming, the quality of the ingredients is high, the cooking is exceptional, and everyone, including the staff, seems to be enjoying themselves.  There is a slight air of eccentricity about the place - not at all staid Parisien.  What more could you want from a restaurant.  The location is off the beaten track but the Metro is good so why not use it. 

Le Cristal du Sel
13 rue Mademoiselle
75015 Paris
Metro: Commerce

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Outdoor English Asparagus

The first outdoor grown English Aspargus has arrived at Tony Booth's Druid Street arch.  Grown on the Isle of Wight, it's on sale for £10 a kilo.  Delicious steamed and seasoned with pepper and Noirmoutier Sea Salt with Seaweed, available from Real France on Borough Market.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Easter Simnel Cake

Simnel Cake

Now I know I alerted you to Leila's Italian Easter Cakes - Colomba - recently, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate our own English specialities.  Simnel cake is traditionally baked for Easter and is a lighter version of Christmas fruit cake.  Dating from Medieval times, it was baked by daughters in domestic service as a gift to take home on the fourth Sunday in Lent.  This day was known as Mothering Sunday, now more commonly referred to as Mothers Day.  Simnel is believed to derive from the latin word Simila - fine wheaten flour with which the cake was made.
From its orgin as a cake baked to mark a holiday over 400 years ago, it took on more Christian religious connotations.  In Simnel Cake almond paste (marzipan) is layered between the fruit mixture before baking.  Traditionally, after cooling, it is topped with another layer, and eleven balls of marzipan are placed around the edge to symbolise Christ's faithful apostles (Judas being omitted).  The cake is then toasted under a grill to lightly brown the topping. 

I am particularly fond of ground almonds.  They add so much to the taste and texture of cakes yet produce so many different results - from English fruit cakes to Italian "Torta di Mandorle", Spanish "Tarta de Santiago", French "Financier", and many more.  With Simnel Cake, I love the almond paste which is sandwiched between the fruit cake mixture, but the paste decoration never appeals to me.  Unless you plan to eat the cake straight away, the topping hardens and dries out.  My version (recipe below) keeps better, and satisfies my appetite for the almost toffee-like quality you get from baking the almond paste inside the cake.  Unless you are concerned to have the cake look traditional, I recommend two layers of marzipan sandwiched by fruit cake mix.  Yes you may get a little sinking in the middle and have no way of disguising the fact, but I'd rather have a tasty cake than a perfect looking one.  This is how I like fruit cake.

Simnel Cake
(for an 18cm round tin)

170g plain flour
1½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon mixed spice
Pinch of salt
140g butter (very soft)
140g Muscovado sugar
2 medium sized eggs, mixed well
380g of currants, raisins and sultanas in roughly equal measure
40g candied peel
Grated zest of  1 orange and 1 lemon
Juice of half an orange
300g Marzipan (almond paste)

Heat the oven to 150C/Gas 2.  Butter an 18cm round cake tin and line the bottom and sides with parchment or greaseproof paper.  Sift together the first four ingredients.  Cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy.  Add the eggs in four lots beating well with each addition (add a tablespoon of the flour mixture if it starts to curdle).  Fold in the sieved flour mixture, then the dried fruit, peel and the orange and lemon zest.  Loosen the mixture with the orange juice.  Spread one third of the mixture in the cake tin.  Divide the marzipan in half, roll into two balls and flatten each with the palm of your hand into roughly18cm rounds.  Place one round in the cake tin, top with another third of cake mix, and repeat.  Smooth the top and bake in the oven for 1½ hours.  Cool in the tin.  Turn out and wrap in foil.  This cake benefits from keeping a day or two. 

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Alphonso Mangoes - Food Find

Unseasonably cold weather has caused a 30%  reduction in yield in the Alphonso mango crop, so this year they will be harder to find and more expensive than usual.  Tony Booth has them this week at his Druid Street arch but expect to pay £2.00 each.  Definitely a special treat.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Potato Pickings - How special is the Jersey Royal?

"Pink Fir Apple" Potato
By now you will probably have noticed the tiny Jersey Royal potatoes arriving in the shops, and you may wonder why I haven't sent out a Food Find alert.  Well, the reason is that I blog about what I consider to be good and for the last few years, sadly, I don't think Jersey Royals meet my criteria.  The Jersey Royal is grown in the British Channel Island of Jersey.  Having an EU "Designation of Origin", Jersey Royals cannot be sold as such from anywhere else.  The variety of potato is in fact "International Kidney", alluding to their distinctive kidney-shape, and they are grown under this name elsewhere in the UK, though not widely as they are susceptible to blight.

The things that made Jerseys special were the early crop and the effect of the local vraic seaweed which was spread over the potato beds.  The Channel Islands are milder than most other areas of the UK (with the possible exception of the Scilly Isles), and the potatoes are grown on the steeply sloping south-facing hillsides of the island.  These days the beds are more likely to be swathed in black polythene to speed up growing for an even earlier crop.  It's also not considered cost-effective to haul the seaweed up from the beach.  The first Jerseys to go on sale are little bigger than marbles and are known as "mids".  To my mind, they taste OK but not special.  By the time outdoor-grown English asparagus (May to mid-June) is available the potatoes will be larger (this size is referred to as "small ware") and I think they taste better for it.  I'm sure there must still be some farmers who grow Jerseys in the traditional way but their potatoes are certainly not getting to me.  If you find a source in London, snap them up - and please let me know.

So, following the principle of "good things come to he who waits", this year I'll be biding my time and waiting for my own crop of salad potatoes.  A nice waxy-fleshed Charlotte is my 2011 choice planted a couple of weeks ago, on a bio-dynamic 'root' day.  I'll have to wait until July to enjoy them, but enjoy them I will.  In a week or so I'll also plant some Pink Fir Apple potatoes for harvesting in August/September (see above for a picture of last year's).  Maybe next year I'll even plant International Kidney, feed them with seaweed fertiliser, and have a taste-off with Jersey Royals.  I'll probably fall flat on my face, especially if they get blighted, and maybe it'll make me appreciate Jersey Royals more.

In anticipation of you finding some good salad potatoes, here's a simple, classic potato salad recipe from Simon Hopkinson. The peeling of salad potatoes is one of the few subjects I am in disagreement with him about.  He is somewhat messianic on this point.  At least he does concede that Jersey Royals don't need peeling - being papery, the skins simply rub or scrub off - but he is adamant that all others should be boiled then peeled.  For me it depends on the variety and I certainly don't peel young Charlottes or Pink Fir Apple.

Potato Salad (Source: Simon Hopkinson - Roast Chicken and Other Stories)
(Serves 4)

700g/1½lbs waxy salad potatoes
salt and pepper
3-4 sprigs of mint
1 tbsp Dijon mustard (smooth)
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
5 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
A few spring onions or chives

Scrub the potatoes and boil in salted water with the mint until just cooked.  Whisk together the mustard, vinegar, salt and pepper, then whisk in the oils.  Drain the potatoes and discard the mint.  If the potatoes are bigger than marble size, cut in half longways (it looks prettier and exposes a larger area of flesh to the dressing).  Whilst still hot, add them to the dressing.  Snip the spring onion or chives into the bowl and gently mix to coat the potatoes.  Lukewarm is the perfect eating temperature for this delicious potato salad. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Colomba, Italian Easter Cake - Food Find

Leila had Colomba, the traditional dove-shaped Italian Easter cake, at Druid Street (Arch 104) today.  Made with a natural sourdough starter, they’re from the same Trieste bakery that supplied Leila with the fabulous Christmas Pannetone.  Available for the next few weeks, you can also buy them from Leila’s shop at 17 Calvert Street, London E1

Thursday, 7 April 2011

St John Hotel - "From Table to Bed"

St John Hotel 'Breakfast Buns'

Forget about the glitzy opening of the new "chic and cool" 192 room W Hotel overlooking London's Leicester Square.  The real news is the opening of Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver's 15 room St John Hotel right across the road, nestling on the edge of Chinatown.  The rooms come in three sizes - Mini-Grand, Urban Hut and Post Supper - and a three bedroom rooftop suite.  As you would expect from St John, the rooms are "designed to have everything the traveller needs, and nothing they do not", but they promise "with a touch of glamour".  (See the links below for room rates and photographs).

The building used to house Manzi's fish restaurant with rooms, an OK kind of place as I recall but it was there for 60 years.  The main thing I remember about it was the painted ceiling, which I believed celebrated its former incarnation as a bordello.  Thankfully the artwork has gone.  Living in London I'm unlikely to get to stay in the hotel but after popping in for breakfast this week I'm most definitely going to be spending time in the dining rooms.  The style is recognisably St John, even down to the practical trademark coat-pegs all around the dining room.  As always with St John, it's almost Quaker in its lack of frills.

I'd been hearing talk of "Justin's buns" for months.  Justin Piers Gellatly is St John's brilliant baker.  There was a "Viennese" influence. "Anchovies" were mentioned.  There would be "savoury" buns to eat with champagne, and "sweet" ones for tea.  The recipe was being "perfected".  I was beginning to dream about buns.  I tried in vain to fight my way past the harassed builders last week but finally I made it inside and my anticipation levels couldn't have been higher.

You won't find the ubiquitous buffet breakfast at St John Hotel.  The menu is small but perfectly formed.  There is Granola, Fruit Compote and yoghurt, Arbroath Smokie with Potato and Egg, Ham, eggs and fried bread, Devilled Kidneys and Mushrooms on Toast.  The perfectly boiled eggs were served with excellent Anchovy Toast soldiers and we had good orange juice and excellent tea, though the espresso is not the best as yet.  And there were my longed-for Buns - one butter bun, one spiced and one raisin - and boy were they worth the wait.  I can confirm they are indeed bun-shaped and exquisite, but how to describe them.  Served hot from the oven they have a texture somewhere between croissant and brioche, but with the weight of a bread.  There is something quite 'lardy cake' about the texture, albeit a butter version.  They are sticky, rich and buttery with subtle spicing and top quality fruit.  Fortunately I was not breakfasting alone or I'm sure I would have polished off the lot, despite the size.

Tom Harris, former Sous-Chef at St John restaurant is in charge of the kitchen.  I can't wait to try lunch.  Then there's Tea (or champagne), for a "Little Bun Moment" - anchovy, prune, chocolate.  Oh, and then there's Supper, and the Late Night menu served until 02.00.  "From Table to Bed" indeed - maybe I will need a "Post Supper Room" after all.

1 Leicester Street
Off Leicester Square
London WC2H 7BL

UPDATE - The hotel and restaurant are no longer part of the St John group.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Rhubarb & Ginger Polenta Cake

Rhubarb & Ginger Polenta Cake

The English forced rhubarb season seems to have been longer this year, and I've still not run out of things to do with it.  Having allowed my allotment rhubarb to do its own thing this winter (you should only force a plant every other year - by covering the crown with an upturned bin to block the light - so that you don't exhaust it), I still have that to look forward to a little later.  The flesh will be denser and less sweet then, and more suitable for rhubarb crumble.  Meanwhile market availability of the beautiful pink sticks of the forced kind is almost at an end so I'm enjoying its final fruiting in such treats as this gorgeous Polenta Cake.  The rhubarb needs to be poached with less sugar than if you were to use it as a compote due to the sugar content of the cake.  The polenta adds a pleasing crunch to the soft slipperyness of the rhubarb.  My recipe was, as so often, influenced by the brilliant Nigel Slater, though I've opted for ginger as my spice and made a smaller cake.

Rhubarb & Ginger Polenta Cake
(for an 18cm cake - enough for 6)

400g forced or young, pink rhubarb
50g caster sugar
80g coarse polenta
140g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
100g caster sugar
100g cold butter, diced (plus a little extra for greasing the cake tin)
Grated zest of half an orange (optional)
1 medium egg mixed with 1 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon demerara sugar

Pre-heat an oven to 160C.  Wash and slice the rhubarb into 3cm batons and place in an oven dish and cover with the 50g of caster sugar.  Cover with foil and cook for 35-40 minutes.  The fruit should be soft but still retain its shape.  Drain and keep the juice separate.  
Turn the oven up to 180C.  Butter an 18cm (deep) cake tin.  Mix the polenta, flour, baking powder, caster sugar and ground ginger together then rub in the cold, diced butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.  Gently stir in the orange zest and egg and milk to form a slightly sticky dough.  Cover the base of the tin completely with two thirds of the mix, place the rhubarb on top leaving a 1cm edge around free of fruit.  Place the remaining soft dough on top in random dollops but be a little more particular around the edge so as to contain the fruit when baking.  Sprinkle the tablespoon of demerara sugar on top.  Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown.  Leave for 10 minutes before turning out.  I think it needs no accompaniment but you could serve it with the saved juice if you wish or a little cream or crème fraîche.