The Kitchin, Edinburgh

 

2014-02-07 12.20.02 To Edinburgh. For a delightful weekend at The Stand – one of my favourite clubs in one of my favourite cities. Yet again, I failed to go to the fabled Sweet Melindas, mainly because I get a free dinner at The Stand in the evening and if you’d tried their chicken burrito you’d understand. I have been wanting to eat Tom Kitchin’s food for a very long time though, and on a whim gave the restaurant a ring on Friday morning – to my amazement, they offered me a table at 12:15 as long as I vacated it by 1:45. I bounced down to a Leith like a very happy bunny, wondering if I was going to eat one, because that is exactly the sort of Scottish ingredient that Mr Kitchin is very passionate about, as I was about to discover.

Pheasant Jelly

Pheasant Jelly

The walk was a joy in itself; when there’s a bright blue sky and sunshine over Leith it’s hard to think of a more handsome city. I passed Fishers where I’d been fed so well in August and on to Commercial Quay and The Kitchin, which is very glass and bespoke yuppie flat development from the outside, but once inside smoothes its edges into something less severe – all dark wood, blues, purples and a very warm welcome.

Happy as I was to be there, I didn’t fancy shelling out on starters that generally hovered around the £20 mark as I wasn’t actually celebrating anything, but luckily the very reasonably priced set menu (£28.50 for three courses) had quite a lot of things I wanted to order on it. While I was deciding on them, one of the sunny pack of waiting staff who buzzed round the restaurant brought me a selection of crudités with a Strathdon blue cheese and buckwheat dip and a cheddar cheese stick that achieved the unique feat of making me like carroway seeds. This was simple brilliance – crunchingly fresh veg with the simplest presentation that made you wonder why every meal didn’t start like this. Soda bread arrived and all I wrote in my notes was ‘God this is light’. I ate the whole loaf.

Ravioli of monkfish liver

Ravioli of monkfish liver

A small rolled map of Scotland was popped on the table with the explanation that “the chef is very passionate about Scotland and Scottish produce,” which might have been a nice, if slightly twee touch were it not that you overheard the waiters repeat this mantra at every table, as a result of which it began to sound more like you were being initiated into a cult. Added to which, I was about to find out exactly how passionate Mr Kitchin was about Scottish produce by the far more effective method of tasting how he put it on a plate.

An amuse bouche of pheasant jelly set the tone – a deeply gamey wobble with a lively tang of apple, and a soft boiled quail’s egg with crispy bacon giving it a hint of the very best breakfast you’ve ever tasted. Just when you were thinking you couldn’t improve on perfection, the addition of a croquette of braised leg meat proved you could.

Ballotine of partridge

Ballotine of partridge

I don’t think I like Monkfish liver which is exactly why I ordered it – if I was going to find anywhere that made it work for me, this was probably the place. Another beautifully assembled dish, with a plump squid ink ravioli rested on minutely diced vegetables and shavings of squid and a delicate squid consommé poured over it at the table. The meaty fish and liver inside had the best touches of offal cooking about it – something felt slightly wrong with it which is what felt good. I still came away thinking that I wasn’t sure about monkfish liver, but interestingly, in the day or two since, it is the dish I keep on returning to in my mind, which can only be a good thing. Not quite my favourite dish of the day, but easily the most interesting.

A ballotine of partridge with winter vegetables could frankly have been wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes were it not for the accompanying cannelloni, also containing beautifully moist meat. The sauce was one of the most deeply flavoured I have ever encountered, almost oily in its intensity, and the last of my soda bread was called in to action to wipe the final slick away when no one was watching.

I was torn between the lemon soufflé and baked Alaska for dessert until one of the waiters fixed me with a far away look and said in a low voice “The soufflés are very good”.

THAT soufflé. And map.

THAT soufflé. And map.

Oh my god. That is all. The lightest thing but beautifully rich with a smear of curd running through it and a slight sugar crust around the edge – and a quenelle of just soured crème fraîche ice cream to redress the citrus and heat when you wanted it. I started to understand the look in the waiter’s eye. I think he was trying not to cry. I don’t think a pudding has made me this happy in a long time.

By this time, my appointed hour was nearly up and I offered to go through to the bar for my coffee to free up the table – I particularly liked the fact that they didn’t ask me to. Petit fours of a very indulgent carrot cake and a rhubarb macaroon seemed the perfect end to the meal, but once again Tom Kitchin proved there was time for an extra touch by walking in to the bar to check that everyone had enjoyed their lunch. This didn’t look like showing off, but a genuinely heartfelt wish to have a few words with each table to ensure they’d enjoyed themselves and I particularly appreciated the chance to whimper at him about the soufflé.

2014-02-07 13.30.15As I walked back up to town, I tapped the following into my phone:

“There are times when the opportunities my job affords me make me absolutely glow with pleasure. This was one of them”.

And it was. That was when I noticed Tom had followed me on Twitter. Oh he’s good, ladies and gentlemen, he’s very good indeed. 2014 – the bar has been set.

 

Feb 2014

Taverne du Passage, Brussels

 

2013-11-18 15.06.40If I wrote about my ideal restaurant, like George Orwell’s pub in The Moon Under Water, I would probably come up with something like the Taverne du Passage in Brussels, which is I think what lulled me into making one of the greatest mealtime misjudgements of my life. The fault is entirely my own. I would return in a heartbeat, but the nightmare that played out in front of me, whilst not strictly Orwellian in nature, would hardly have looked out of place in Room 101.

Toast Aux Champignons de Paris

Toast Aux Champignons de Paris

Things started so promisingly. A tram from the station and a quick walk to The Grand Place – one of my favourite places anywhere (a direct result of a family holiday as an impressionable child who remembers it as the first bit of foreign he ever saw, even if it almost definitely wasn’t.) We had no idea where we were going to eat, and were happily sauntering along when we happened upon the quite stunning Galerie de la Reine, or passage (it’s important that you pronounce it pass-arge for added continental effect.)

The Taverne du Passaaarge just had that look about it, one that makes you curious as you approach, fascinated as you draw level, and nagged back as you pass. Good, sturdy waiters of a decent vintage, with white jackets and epaulettes (epaulettes!) bustling around linen laid tables ordered neatly along the walls in long booths, another line of tables down the middle, black and white tiled floor, glass, mirrors and art deco fabulousness. The menu was wall to wall French classics, even if they’d probably argue, with some justification, that they were Belgian.

“We’re eating here” I said, and very soon we were.

Croquettes de Fromage

Croquettes de Fromage

My mushrooms on toast, or ‘Toast Aux Champignons de Paris’ (told you it was French) were stupendous, mainly because they were just mushrooms on toast. All that had been added was butter and a little parsley and I can’t recall ever eating something for which the phrase ‘does exactly what it says on the tin’ was more apt, were it not impolite to mention tins around food this good. Croquettes de Fromage were the best version of this Belgian classic we tried – again, simplicity itself, but done properly, cheesy potato wrapped up in a crispy breadcrumb coat leaves you very little to complain about.

Similarly, I cannot have any complaints about what happened next. I can’t even say I wasn’t warned. Our waiter, who appeared to be the youngest in the building by several decades, had already turned his head quizzically to one side as I ordered and said,

“You know what it is, yes?”

One of these...

One of these…

And I had blithely waved away his concerns, safe under the idiot assumption that what I was getting was some sort of mildly ofally thing that one really must have in these sort of surroundings. I think the imbecilic words, “Well if I’m going to eat it anywhere, darling,” may even have escaped my lips at some point, little realizing that what I was about to have should NEVER BE ORDERED IN ANY RESTAURANT ANYWHERE EVER. The hustle and bustle of a busy (and brilliant) restaurant clearly covered the cry of amazement and glee that went up in the kitchen, and quite possibly throughout all good kitchens in continental Europe when they heard the news;

‘The Englishman has ordered Tête de Veau!!!’

...things is not...

…things is not…

I’m not sure I possess the descriptive powers to do justice to what appeared in front of me. I only know that time slowed and a specific kind of silence fell across the table as we contemplated what I’d done. I imagine this is what fillets of Blobfish look like, garnished with a massive slug. Grey flaps of ick wobbled under the knife, while the tiniest shavings of gristly meat did their best to hide themselves within the folds of fat. The only recognizable thing was the slug, which was in fact a great big calf’s tongue, sitting there threateningly and scaring my potatoes.

...Tête de Veau

…Tête de Veau

Let’s be clear. I like interesting things. I like stuff made with heads – my crispy pig’s head croquette at The Hand & Flowers was joyous. What I thought I was going to get here was something along the lines of fromage de tête – brawn by any other name – and when done well, as it often is across the Channel, a thing of beauty. That is not a description which was ever going to attach itself to my plate of calf’s head, which was now staring back at me, eyelessly. Apparently there are various clubs and societies dedicated to this dish whose members tend to sound like something out of the Darwin Awards, or at the very least dangerous sports enthusiasts, psychotic mountaineers and Great White hand feeders. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what was brain, and what was not, I scraped what ‘meat’ I could from what I hoped were jowls, and ate almost all of the tongue. Tête de veau is accompanied by sauce ravigote, the version here best described as nuclear egg mayonnaise, with a mustard hit specifically designed to kick the shit out of whatever it is smeared upon. For that, I am eternally grateful. I would be lying, however, if I said I cleared my plate.

Sole Meuniere

Sole Meuniere

I did what I could. My girlfriend had sole meuniere. It was exquisite, and she let me have much more of it than usual, clearly out of pity. Sadly, the last mouthful of delicate fish revealed a piece of tongue she had hidden beneath it – the result of a greatly appreciated gesture of sympathy that she had been unable to complete. There was a plate of mixed vegetables too, which were perhaps the only real evidence that this might not be the perfect restaurant – I thought they resembled leftover Chinese, but by this stage my critical faculties had deserted me.

Crème brulee, chocolate mousse & suggestive biscuit

Crème brulee, chocolate mousse & suggestive biscuit

I had a crème brulee – I’m pretty sure it was excellent – and there was a chocolate mousse with a speculoos biscuit poking out of it slightly rudely that was a little heavy but perfectly acceptable. With coffees, the bill was €104 excluding service, which seemed about right for the ‘experience’. Next time I am in Belgium, I fully intend to revisit Taverne du Passage, and have a fabulous meal. I will just make sure I avoid this particular homage to cattle, if you’ll excuse an Orwellian pun. Despite what Nigel Farage, Norfolk and half the Tory party may think, we cannot blame Brussels for everything that goes wrong in Europe.

 

Jan 2013

Den Gouden Harynck, Bruges

 

i j If you ever need chocolate, lace, waffles, beer, mussels or endless references to Martin McDonagh’s rather good 2008 film, you will find them in Bruges. We took a short break there simply for the sake of it rather than because we’d accidentally shot any children whilst assassinating priests or wanted to find midgets dressed as schoolboys. We did climb to the top of the belltower, but were unable to throw ourselves off as all the openings are covered in wire mesh.

Bruges is a beautiful medieval city that has been attracting visitors for centuries before Colin Farrell turned up, despite what social media seems to think when you tell it you’re going there. Some of the architecture might well be described as ‘chocolate box’, but then that’s probably why it holds such a vast number of chocolatiers. We had a very pleasant time wandering around and hardening our arteries whilst trying not to turn our ankles on the cobbles. I suspect the combination of alcohol, confectionary, cobbles and canals make Bruges quite a dangerous place to live, but it’s marvellous for a long weekend.

Scallop cerviche

Scallop cerviche

Inevitably we indulged in moules frites, chocolate fondues and beer stews, but a quick Google search had led me to the slightly more refined doors of Den Gouden Harynck (which I’m certain translates as The Golden Herring, but you try finding a free Flemish translation service online,) a one Michelin starred restaurant owned and run by Philippe and Marijke Serruys, which I was quite excited about, with, it turned out, very good reason.

The restaurant is located in a back street behind the main art gallery, making it both central and yet somehow a little like your own private discovery. We were shown into the smaller of two rooms – the larger held far more tables, here it was just us and another group which meant the whole atmosphere was perhaps a little more restrained, but also gave us ample opportunity to concentrate on the food. This was formal dining, but the staff were unstintingly friendly, welcoming and patient with a number of my idiot questions which all made for a rather special experience. We opted for the four course tasting menu, although an inability to ignore the cheese trolley, amuses bouches and petit fours meant we ended up with considerably more than that.

Seed-crusted bream

Seed-crusted bream

An initial shot glass of salmon with a wasabi cream and salted lemon was a palate tingling glimpse of things to come and was soon followed by perfect bread rolls, which kept on arriving (I was told to stop at three) as did a little marinated sardine with beetroot puree – a little too fishy for my other half apparently, but I thought the earthy beetroot balanced out the oiliness of the fish very pleasingly. I was pretty pleasinglied all round if I’m honest.

An opening salvo of scallop cerviche was one of those happy dishes where you can taste everything separately and yet it all works together beautifully. Raw scallop can be a bit soapy, but here it zinged with freshness, picking up little hits of balsamic, rock salt, dill, chive and miniscule shreds of cauliflower. Frankly I’d have liked more, but luckily M. Serruys knew what he was doing with portion size – not one of my strong points.

Venison noisettes

Venison noisettes

Seed crusted fillet of bream was cooked to perfection with the bite of the seeds married to the moist fish in a way that has seen me buy four seed mix from Tescos in what can only be described as a triumph of hope over expectation. Unfortunately, the arrival of ios7 means I can’t work my dictaphone app properly and have forgotten exactly what the accompanying puree was (mushroom?) but it worked perfectly with some caramelized cabbage and basil dressing. This was  superb cooking, even if it is really annoying to eat it with a guy trying to work his dictaphone.

Luckily, I definitely remember the main course of small noisettes of pink venison topped with lardo and singing in perfect harmony with a quince puree, mushrooms, cranberries and lardons. I don’t like Brussels sprouts and my girlfriend doesn’t like parsnips so the fact that they both made such brief appearances on our plates should tell you everything else you need to know.

hI’m not going to tell you about the cheese board. Just look at the accompanying picture and tell me you could have resisted it. Especially not accompanied by prune and walnut bread, homemade piccalilli and an apple reduction. Dessert was a martini glass filled with passion fruit and berries like the poshest fruit salad, elevated to something totally other with an anjelica herb ice cream and tuile that added texture, a change of temperature and even further sophistication, were that possible.

photo 1By now I was pretty much in a making funny noises and being told not to lick the plates kind of mood, and the waiter was lucky I didn’t hug him when the complimentary petit fours, chocolate mousses and fruit jellies appeared. As did the chef to enquire whether or not we were being looked after, which we were very happy to answer in the affirmative. Our bill came in just shy of €200, without service. photo 2A small tip (literally) – you don’t appear to be able to leave gratuities on cards in Belgium which was a shame as the service was faultless (sadly we didn’t have much cash on us.) I’m not sure when I shall next be in Bruges, but one thing is for sure, when it is mentioned in future I shall be thinking a lot more about food being finished off than people. If you don’t get the reference, watch the film. And then go to Den Gouden Harynck and eat the food.

 

Originally posted Dec 2013

The King William Pub and Dining Rooms, Bath

 

y2As a former schoolboy and resident in Bath, I have walked down the London Road at all times of day and night, and in all sorts of states. The traffic island by the bridge leading out on to the Warminster Road was the scene of a miraculous discovery by a search party in the wee small hours many years ago. I can say nothing except about what was found except that (most of) it had been purchased at The Hat & Feather the evening before

anyone with a passing knowledge of Bath in the eighties and nineties will know what I mean. The London Road itself used to become progressively dodgier the further you went along it – there was a famous stabbing at the Longacre Tavern a few years ago, and any pub whose history includes both the words ‘famous’ and ‘stabbing’ is probably best avoided. This has become easier as the road itself has somewhat gentrified, a process which has included the little-mourned departure of The Longacre Tavern.

Black pudding Scotch egg

Black pudding Scotch egg

The best known pub in the area now is a very different beast, and has attracted acclaim far and wide for both its food and its attitude. I first went to the King William one hungover morning some years ago after a friend’s wedding, having heard good things and in need of a Sunday roast. The roast was excellent, but the price tag gave me a bigger headache than the one I’d brought with me. However, they were clearly ahead of the curve, as the eye-wateringly expensive Sunday lunch has become very much the norm these days – happily on this visit, the bill seemed far more reasonable.

Crispy pigs ears

Crispy pigs ears

My friend Philippa, who has appeared in Food Ponce a couple of times, has had the very good sense to move to Bath and as I was working there in the evening, lunch seemed a mind-bogglingly stupid thing not to do. The King William is the kind of space that the phrase ‘lovely little pub’ was invented for, with its relatively tiny bar snuggled in between two rooms containing the kind of furniture that is probably a lot more expensive than it looks. It is almost impossible not to fall in love with a place that offers crispy pigs’ ears as a bar snack so I ordered some. To be honest, they were a bit more crispy than ear-y, but tart(ar)ed up they made a marvellous nibble and I was just glad they were there.

Chicken livers

Chicken livers

There is a perfectly sound bar menu including pretty much everything you’d expect – fish and chips, steak, a burger – and a changing lunch menu, with three options for each course, none of which were exactly rewriting the rulebook, but then we have rules for a reason. A gorgeous black pudding scotch egg came with a perfectly runny yolk and a homemade piccalilli with just enough wince to cut across it. Chicken livers on toast are simple enough to do, and therefore very easy to cock up, which they avoided with perfect cooking and a rich creamy sauce subtly undercut by thin strips of what may well have been ever so slightly pickled mushrooms.

Wild mushroom, pearl barley and parmesan

Wild mushroom, pearl barley and parmesan

For main course, wild mushroom, pearl barley and parmesan was exactly the earthy delight you’d imagine – with shards of parsnip to elevate it from comfort food to something a little more refined. My pan-fried haddock with shallot and caper potatoes and caper butter looked divine, although I generally believe bowls are for fish to live in rather than to be served on. It was cooked to perfection with a crispy skin and everything tasted fine except, and it pains me to write this, the fish. We both tried it and agreed that it retained that slightly fishy tang denoting a slight lack of freshness, which is really not what you expect from somewhere doing everything else so well.

Pan fried Had It

Pan fried Had It

It always strikes me as a little odd when wines are described as drinkable, as you would think that was the least they should aim for, but both a Maccabeo Chardonnay and a Picpoul de Pinet were exactly that. Desserts didn’t really tempt us as neither of us felt like brownies or brioches or cheese at lunchtime and so we asked for the bill. By this time, the bar was unsurprisingly full, although in one this size that’s not all that difficult, and the smiling manager handed me a bill for £50 excluding generally excellent service. I was far too English to mention the fish, and it seems uncharitable to bring it up again now, but I do so merely to highlight how pleasant the rest of our experience had been. The King William is a fine pub that deserves to be doing as roaring a trade as its size allows, and on my next visit, I’m sure that fishbowl will be nothing more than a distant memory.

 

Originally posted Nov 2013