Sunday, 27 June 2010
Taste of London 2010 and the Taste Awards
I eat out a lot, but not half as much as I'd like. And, despite what you might think, I've not actually been to that many "fine dining" establishments.
I'm stymied not just by cost, but by geography - I live out in the sticks and so if I'm having dinner in town, I need to plan carefully or else risk missing the last train home.
So Taste of London has always been a bit of a thrill for me - in fact, I went to the very first one, back in 2002, which was held in Lincoln's Inn Fields. I mean, what's not to like? It's a festival of the finest restaurants that London has to offer all in one spot at the same time at a reasonable* price. What's more, the head chefs themselves are usually there, cooking and dishing up in full view, and for a chef groupie like me (sorry, Marina), it's pretty damn exciting - like Glastonbury for the food-obsessed.
*I say reasonable - in fact, entry is extortionate, but there are offers, and once you're in, the dishes are more or less fairly priced for what you're getting - and much cheaper than it would be in the restaurants themselves. Mind you, you are standing outside like a numpty using paper plates and plastic forks. Oh well.
So after bumping into tehbus, our first stop was Launceston Place to say hello to Tristan Welch and his crew, and to score some suckling pig.
It came in the guise of Spit Roast Old Spot Suckling Pig and Black Summer Truffles in a bun with truffle mayonnaise and a slab of crackling - a posh pork burger if you will.
Fab stuff and it reminded me why LP is my favourite place.
We also had a tour of the tiny kitchen where I got up close and personal with the 2nd of the 30 pigs that they had stocked for the festival. Sadly, I failed to try the Goose Egg and Chips (a variant of a dish Tristan made on Great British Menu 2010), but I did have two (count 'em) glasses of Strawberries, Champagne and Clotted Cream, which sounds wrong but decidely wasn't.
I then went for a wander to suss out the other queues. Everyone was doing a roaring trade - the gorgeous weather helped no doubt.
I met up with Kavey to check out Tom's Kitchen and Club Gascon.
Both had foie gras dishes up for grabs and I'm a sucker for foie gras.
Tom's Kitchen was serving Foie Gras Parfait with Grape Chutney served on Brioche.
The parfait was creamy heaven - like meaty butter - but the chutney was just a fancy Branston's which was a bit less impressive.
I much preferred Club Gascon's take on it - Pimm's Foie Gras "Plancha".
Pascal Aussignac himself prepared the dish for us - lord knows what the foamy stuff he spritzed it with was, but I liked it.
The generous lobe of foie gras had been seared to crusty goodness and its caramel flavours married beautifully with the chunks of fruit and alcohol in the Pimm's.
It really, really shouldn't have worked, but it did, and alarmingly well.
Next up was Bea's of Bloomsbury, where we marvelled at the glorious meringues, sipped amazing fresh and fruity lychee martinis made by Bea herself and pretended to be cool and dainty (at least, I did).
I met up with another friend then, and Salt Yard drew us in with their offerings of Courgette Flowers stuffed with Goat's Cheese and drizzled with honey and Smoked Octopus a la Gallega with Crispy Shallots.
I know I've said I don't like goat's cheese previously, but I'd never had courgette flowers before and couldn't resist. And afterwards I still didn't like goat's cheese. Make of that what you will.
As for the octopus, it was too salty and there wasn't enough of it - I left the potato clods which made up most of the dish.
Next on the hitlist was Odette's and Bryn Williams (another Great British Menu alumnus).
There is clearly something about me that means that whenever I ask a male chef to pose a photo, they just stick out their tongue.
I get no respect.
We tried Odette's Whipped Goat's Cheese, Pickled Beetroot and Regent's Park Honey first.
The lightly pickled beetroot was delightfully sharp with a good crunch and the delicate mousse-like cheese almost averted my goat's cheese antipathy - but not quite.
The Braised Welsh Pork Cheek was much more up my street and, though a little heavy for the weather, it was still delicious.
However, there was no sign of the advertised spiced pineapple as far as I could see.
Odette's Rack of Welsh Lamb served with Pea and Mint was my favourite of the three we tried.
I could have inhaled the peas quite happily as they were so fragrant and sweet, and the lamb was so tender, I picked up the bone and gnawed at it.
A quick diversion where I was introduced to Michel Roux Junior as "a blogger who writes about MasterChef", and M Roux's face clearly indicated that he thought I was an idiot.
We faced disappointment at our next pitstop Sake No Hana. Though their Blue Swimmer Crab and Rice Cracker Croquette had an enjoyably crunchy shell, inside was just bland bechamel and not a trace of crab.
And whilst the Seared Tuna and Green Tea Soba Salad had meaty fresh tuna, the soba itself was insipid.
We fancied another dessert at that point, so chose Mexican Doughnuts and Butterscotch Sauce and a Frozen Mojito from Asia de Cuba.
The doughnuts weren't quite sweet enough for my liking and also a little cold and chewy, but the mojito was a veritable slush puppie from the gods.
At this point, a trip to Dinings seemed in order. I wanted something to balance out the stodge of the doughnuts, so my friend and I chose their Sea Bass Carpaccio with Ponzu Jelly and Fresh Truffle.
This zingy little number was the star of the show as far as I'm concerned, closely followed by Launceston Place's Pig and Truffles (off-topic: I am slightly disturbed that I seem to be getting used to eating truffles. This could prove an expensive habit).
But the restaurant that I really wanted to visit was Simon Rogan's L'Enclume which was there as a pop-up for Action Against Hunger.
L'Enclume is regarded by some as more innovative than the Fat Duck, so there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to try the offerings from this Lake District legend.
We went for all three dishes - first was Sillfield Farm Pork, Azur Star, Mustard and Wood Sorrel. If you're wondering, Azur Star is apparently a type of kohl rabi - I mean, I knew that, obviously. Obviously.
This was a well-judged blend of flavours and textures - sharp and punchy sorrel and mustard, softly rich pork and crisp kohl rabi.
The Set Lovage Cream with Tornado Tomatoes, Jellied Lamb and Chives was slightly less successful - like a meaty trifle, it was neither here nor there.
The lovage provided an aniseedy touch, but those tornadoes barely raised a breeze and the lamb wasn't a patch on the sviðasulta I'd eaten on the street in Iceland.
The last dish from L'Enclume was Colleen Baby Potatoes, Oxeye Daisies, Smoked Eel and Purple Wight Garlic (picture at top).
This was the prettiest dish I'd seen all day, but the taste didn't quite live up to its looks - like the octopus from Salt Yard, there was too much salt and starch, not enough fishy protein.
And after all that gorging, I was lucky enough to go to the Taste of London launch party, where Joe Warwick, Charles Campion and Gizzi Erskine presented the inaugural Taste of London awards to the restaurants that offered the top three dishes at the festival.
Somehow, stupidly I'd not managed to try any of the winners, but for what it's worth they were:
BRONZE AWARD - The Modern Pantry with Chermoula Baked River Trout, Quinoa, Tomatillo and Preserved Lemon Salad, Spiced Seeds and Tahini Crowns.
SILVER AWARD - Fino with Cochifrito Suckling Pig.
GOLD AWARD - Trinity with Pig's Trotters on Toasted Pain Poilane, Fried Quail Eggs, Sauce Gribiche and Crackling.
Thankfully, these dishes are all available on their regular menus, so it looks like a few pilgrimages are on the cards for me.
And then Jay Rayner treated us to a tune or two on the piano and some drinks may have been drunk.
I met the lovely Paddy Plunkett from Neal's Yard Dairy, who kindly offered to give me a tour round his cheese maturing rooms (I will take you up on this, Paddy), and Ed Franklin from the Sustainable Restaurant Association (aka the SRA) - a laudable venture if ever I heard of one; several of the restaurants at Taste have already signed up.
And then I realised I still had tonnes of Crowns left (the bastarding Monopoly money you use to pay for everything which you always buy too much or too little of), so I spanked them on six Oysters Naturel from Bentley's - these were enormous, briney nirvana - a couple of macarons from Laduree (salt caramel and rose - faboosh) and this last baby - Colony Bar and Grill's Grilled Scallop with Chilli, Garlic and Yuzu Butter.
I think it was good, but it was so blisteringly hot I damn near burnt the roof of my mouth.
Thus chastened, but still pleasantly full, I left Taste extremely happy, and already looking forward to the next instalment.
Taste of London
17-20 June 2010
Thank you to Brand Events for the press pass