Monday, 23 February 2015

Poached brill with smoked oysters and clams, monk’s beard, burnt kale and caramelised shallot

Working in the line of work that I do, I’m very lucky to have access to some really fantastic produce. For my dad’s birthday last year, my present to him was a large turbot. He has always loved eating fish, and the times when I was a child and he’d constantly encourage me to eat ‘disgusting’ mussels, get stuck in peeling prawns or cooking things like skate from an early age helped form the foundations for my own passion for food. That night we roasted the whole fish simply, sat on a bed of roasted lemons and fennel and surrounded by clams and mussels. A wonderful and memorable evening. Since then I’ve always wanted to have another go at cooking with a large flat fish, but have never had the occasion. Last week I ended up thinking ‘sod it’, and phoned up our lovely Cornish suppliers at Newlyn. A couple of minutes later I had a sizable brill ordered to wing its way up to me for later in the week. 

With the larger flat fish such as turbot and brill there are two real choices to go for. The smaller fish between 1-2 kilogrammes are lovely cooked whole on the bone and make a cracking meal shared with a few people. But the bigger ones are something else, true dustbin lids that you can fillet or steak and still get a proper chunk of flesh from. Certainly something for a special occasion, or in this case, a blog challenge. When it arrived, I was taken aback at quite how big it was. At 2.7kg there was no chance of it fitting into my small fridge at home. So I got to work with it straight away, taking off all four fillets and making sure the bones and roe were kept so that I could use every single bit possible. Ideally I would have cut the fish into steaks, or tranches, on bone to maximise flavour. Unfortunately though my knives just weren’t heavy enough, and I had to make do with fillets. The plan was to cook them very gently in a strong fishy and buttery poaching liquid, allowing no chance of them going dry.
When using fish of such freshness and quality I didn’t really want to confuse it with a pile of other flavourings. So for this recipe I stuck along with tradition and nature, pairing simply with some sea vegetables and shellfish. The smokey flavour in the sauce and the burnt kale was inspired by my recent visit to The Manor in Clapham, and in this dish it adds a subtle contrast to the buttery flavours that I have also used.
Monk’s beard has long been on my list of ingredients to use, but in previous years I’ve found it tricky to get hold of during its swift season. This time around I luckily managed to order some from the wonderful Quality Chop Shop. If anyone hasn’t been, make sure to pop in when you’re next around Farringdon/Exmouth Market; it’s an absolute trove of great produce and gorgeous cooking paraphernalia.
Serves 2
For the brill:
2 fillets of brill, taken from the thickest part of a 2.5kg fish, skinned 
2 good knobs of butter
For the fish stock:
The bones from the brill 
1 glass of dry white wine 
1 carrot, chopped 
1 leek, chopped 
2 cloves of garlic, crushed 
2 shallots, sliced 
1 fennel, sliced 
1 bay leaf 
1.5 ltrs of water
For the burnt kale:
2 handfuls of curly kale 
50g almonds 
½ a garlic clove, grated 
1 lemon, zest and juice 
Extra virgin olive oil
For the kale and monk’s beard:
1 handful of monk’s beard, washed and trimmed 
1 handful of kale 
1 good knob of butter 
A squeeze of lemon juice 
2 tbsp of the fish stock
For the caramelised shallot: 

3 shallots, thinly sliced 
A good knob of butter 
1 tsp of sugar
For the smoked clams, oysters and sauce:
20 clams 
4 oysters 
2 ladles of the fish stock 
1 handful of straw 
2 knobs of butter 

Preheat the oven to 190⁰C.
First make the fish stock. Drizzle a little olive oil over the brill bones, season well and roast in the oven for about 20 minutes, or until lightly caramelised and golden. Meanwhile, heat some oil in a large saucepan and lightly brown the root vegetables. When the bones are roasted, transfer to the saucepan with the bay leaf and add the wine. Bring to the boil, then cover the ingredients with the water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 20 minutes, then remove from the heat and strain into a clean saucepan.

Turn the oven up to 200⁰C.
Scatter the kale for the burnt kale on a roasting tray and toss in a little oil and seasoning. Put in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until dark and charred. While the kale is roasting, set a dry frying pan on a medium-high heat and toast the almonds until golden on both sides. Transfer both into a food processor with the garlic and lemon and blitz until finely chopped. Trickle in a little extra virgin olive oil (about 2-3 tbsp) to bind everything together into a pesto-type consistency. Taste and season, it should be bitter and citrusy.
For the caramelised shallot, melt the butter in a saucepan and add the sliced shallots. Season well and add the sugar, then cook gently for about 20 minutes, or until golden and sticky. Keep warm. 

Put a small saucepan on a medium-high heat. When hot, add the clams and a good ladle of the fish stock. Put the lid on and shake gently once or twice, then allow the shellfish to steam for 3-4 minutes, or until they are all open. Use a fork to remove the clams to a bowl and add another ladle of fish stock to the saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Open the oysters, draining their juices into the saucepan as well. Take the pan off the heat and poach the oysters for about 2 minutes, or until just cooked. Remove from the pan and add to the clams. Pour the clam and oyster liquid into a bowl. Put the straw into the bottom of your smoker and light well. When the flames have gone out and the straw is smouldering, put the clams, oysters and the bowl of liquid onto the shelf above and smoke for 5 minutes. Remove the smoked shellfish and sauce and set aside until needed.
Heat up the large saucepan of fish stock and bring to a simmer. Stir in the butter for the brill, then remove from the heat. Season the brill fillets, then lower into the liquid and poach, using the residual heat to cook the fish. After 5-6 minutes it should just be cooked through. 

While the fish is cooking, melt the butter for the monk’s beard and kale in a saucepan. Add the kale and monk’s beard and a couple of tablespoons of fish stock. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes until the greens are cooked but still al dente. Squeeze in the lemon juice.
Reheat the smoked sauce and whisk in the butter until thickened and emulsified. Add the clams and oysters and gently warm through.
To serve, spoon a bit of the burnt kale and almond onto each plate and top with some of the kale and monk’s beard. Add a good tablespoon of the caramelised shallot and scatter over the clams and oysters. Position a piece of the brill on top and finish with a good amount of the sauce.

Monday, 9 February 2015

Restaurant review: Café Murano, St. James’s

Well, this week I have to say that I have been royally treated. After a delightful mid-week trip to Clapham and The Manor (see last blog post) I was fully prepared to never eat again, and allow those lingering flavours to ember on my taste buds. But the weekend marked five wonderful years with my dear Katie, and as always our idea of celebration is a proper meal out. Traditionally this would be at Hawksmoor at Spitalfields, a stone’s throw away from our very first date. This is always an enjoyable if not reliable way to spend an evening, but I was excited that this year we would be ringing the changes. Also, I should say that an ‘accidental’ wing rib at the excellent Hill and Szrok the night before solved our steak fix. A few weeks ago I wrote of my inspiration from discovering Café Murano, and with all of the scurrying around in between our booking crept up fast. I adore and champion eating at the wonderful small and humble restaurants local to me, but there is also something joyous about getting dressed up and making your way into town for something a little grander. It’s such a rare pleasure, but always gives a celebration like an anniversary a sense of occasion. When we slipped through the heavy curtain and got our first glimse of the restaurant, with long, lamp-lit marble bar, beautiful wine racks and bustling tables I knew we’d made the right decision. Some places feel the need to fill a dining room with music and create an atmosphere, here there was just the comfortable sound of chatter, wine glasses and cutlery. Other reviews will run through a history of the other famous restaurants to inhabit this space, but upon my entrance on Saturday night this didn’t matter a jot. 

What was constant during our visit, from the very first interaction to the last, was that we witnessed a total masterclass in service. Nice, friendly service is all well and good, and thankfully common in the vast majority of my dining experiences. But this blew everything else out of the water. Some restaurants just don’t quite get it, particularly the stuffier places. Places where you are immediately mobbed by highly-polite yet clinical robots and left cold and out of place. Good training is one thing, but having the right people is another and Café Murano really nailed it. Everyone was confident, chatty and engaging. There was never that awkward pause and back-straighten as soon as a member of the waiting staff approached. Even little things like how every time one of us left the table, our napkin had been folded for our return. The service was so seamless that it took a couple of times before we even noticed that this was happening. We were truly made to feel special throughout our evening.
Big nights out are always made better started with a cocktail, and the tangy and dangerously drinkable Frank 75 got things off grandly. Such a boozy beginning also loosened us up whilst browsing the menu. I was flattered when our waiter apologised for the lack of osso buco that had inspired me for my last recipe on this blog. Katie scoffed that everything I ordered seemed to include her nemesis the black truffle. With cicheti, antipasti, primi and secondi decided we certainly weren’t going anywhere for a while. Lovely slices of uniquely flakey focaccia appeared quickly with soft, fruity oil poured from a height. As if we needed something to keep us going. But those moments before the food arrived were not wasted, it was great to gaze across tables and open the window to other people’s evenings; a smart early date, some theatre goers, a celebration like ours and a couple of old, leathery men who looked like part of the furniture. The room too was also full of little details. The circular lighting set at just the right brightness. Those wonderfully designed wine cabinets. The cookbooks on the square block shelving. Enough to be visually drunk. 

For snacks we picked on delicately fried fritto misto and well-handled truffle arancini, such things often so criminally bastardised were a perfect start here. My small plate of slithered raw beef with tiny white beans and a less-tiny heap of black truffle was the thing I looked forward to most and it really didn’t disappoint. With such a dish it is easy to misjudge the simplicity, but the meat was well seasoned and coated with more of that oil, with the subtlety of the truffle and texture of the pulse. Katie swooned at her creamy burrata and smokey grilled aubergine. With courses this good so early in the meal it made for excited anticipation for the roll of courses still to come.
More truffle tried to conceal beautiful dainty little duck tortelli sitting in gooey rich meaty sauce. Where it was all about subtlety in the antipasti, our pasta punched with flavour. I was inspired by photos of the osso bucco before, but now I was inspired by the taste of this. That pasta was something a future recipe will certainly be revisiting. The venison ragu in front of Katie was equally comforting, with tomato adding a welcome acidity to meltingly tender game. 

Although there had been no ‘winner’ in previous courses, Katie was adamant that I had achieved this with my cod main. The fist-thick loin itself was cooked to soft perfection inside a golden, crunchy crust, and sat atop a sea of buttery lentils spiked with strands of prosciutto. It was the sort of food that given a chance you could eat every night through the winter. Katie’s lamb wasn’t too far behind though, also rustically perched on a bean stew flecked with vibrant salsa verde. These dishes were just the food that reached to my core. Fantastic ingredients cooked simply to achieve the deepest flavour and satisfaction. They were presented well and looked smart on the clean plates but that wasn’t the point. The glory was in the eating.
We were allowed a short break after this onslaught of food. I was full to the point where I worried that my eyes would pop out to meet the insides of my glasses. Well-written dessert menus are deviant things, there to tempt and lure even the most overcome. And how can you refuse when you are given a piece of paper promising Amalfi lemon tart, baked pear, ricotta and amaretti or chocolate and almond cake. And those staff were so nice. And it was such a nice room to spend an evening. Oh sod it, we’ll share. We were practically immobilised yet had gone and ordered yet another something. But wow. I’ve made and eaten a lot of lemon tarts, and this one was right up there. You felt like if you wobbled it for long enough it must surely burst. When we dreaded eating more it was light and perfect. 

Then we got given more. The insightful front of house had already congratulated our anniversary, but this was made concrete in those eleven letters miraculously being piped in chocolate surrounding three perfect balls of ice cream. When we were in dire need of something sharp, the mango, pear and blackberry scoops came to the rescue. We also ordered some short, reviving coffees when the sommelier approached with a mischievous grin on his face. Cradling a lethal bottle of grappa, he poured us a glass to send us on our way.
It’s often the little things that you remember of a meal, but those two acts of kindness and surprise were part of something much bigger. We had been totally looked after and were humbled, both in service and in food. I think we might have set a new anniversary trend, but I will be returning long before that. When everyone is so obsessed with new openings or food trends, they need to remember what brilliant places we already have.

Restaurant review: The Manor, Clapham

Having lived in north and east London for a few years now, I’ve been getting happily accustom to the smattering of small, interesting restaurants popping up right on my doorstep. Som Saa have lit the charcoals in the arches just across the park, Hill and Szrok take the meat off the hooks and invite diners into their Broadway Market butchers, and it’s only a few minutes further to Sager and Wilde for the promise of a decent glass of wine and a melting toastie. They join old hands at places like Trullo, The Empress and Trangallan, and are all reachable within 20 minutes from my flat. This was heavy on my mind as TFL advised me in the bluntest way possible that my planned dinner booking would require bus, train and foot. I had to double take. It may as well have said air, land and sea. But there was promise that wrapping up warm on the first snowy day of the year to travel right across London would be worth it, and I was not so quietly excited. In fact I since I booked my table at The Manor my anticipation had been steadily building. I felt like I could recite the menu by heart, along with a handful of newpaper reviews that all shouted GO GO GO. So if there was a fall to be had I had well and truly dug my pit. Nine stops on the tube would be a long trudge for any disappointment to marinate. 

I was early, and instead of doing the sane thing and finding a bar to prop for an hour, I decided a quick reacquaintance with Clapham was in order. It had been years and I was surprised. Yes, the same crap bars guffed out the same music that threatened to drown out recruitment consultants comparing shiny ties and cufflinks. But round the edges it showed that it wasn’t just the north that was enjoying its crop of food prospects. Perhaps a slightly ridiculous enlightenment, as restaurants such as Trinity and The Dairy have been making their mark for a good while, but aside from that were the little side street, neighbourhood restaurants; all dim-lit and full of bustle. And then there was The Manor itself. And I have never been to an eatery more brimming with surprises. The cleverly partitioned room gave an illusion for somewhere far smaller, where every area had its own intimacy. A mixture of scribbled graffiti and traditional old house relics adorned the walls, whilst the well-spaced tables were etched like a mischievous school child’s. It was refreshing to be somewhere injected with a sense of casual fun. But make no mistake, beneath all of the doodles lay some serious cookery.
Now back to that memorised menu. For a largely indecisive chap like me this was torture, and for all my revision I was still none the wiser. Everything read brilliantly, with each dish both simple yet intriguing. Staunchly seasonal British ingredients were hay-smoked, fermented or burnt, and combined with the more foreign influences of kimchi, medjool dates and wakame. Little bits of charm were also adorned here and there; at first I blindly assumed that the “Sweet Promise” and “JulieGirl” next to the fish courses were some sort of zany preparation technique, but as a frequent visitor to the coast I also recognised that they could well have been the names of the boats in which they were landed. A nice touch, and in keeping with the small-scale growing and supply ethos adopted by both the Manor and sister-restaurant The Dairy. None of this though could help us decide, and there was an extreme FOMO going on. 

The first food to arrive at our table was a small loaf of beautifully warmed bread with a pebble carrying a heap of chicken skin butter. It was just the very thing needed to set us up for what was to come, yet if all food had ended there I would have left a very happy customer. It was that good. I was surprised we had any left by the time the bowl of Cornish crab, charred celeriac and buttermilk came. This was an absolute delight, with rich chunks of crustacean and wafer thin smokey celeriac bathing in a cloud of stupidly light, slightly acidic buttermilk. Everything danced along to the same swooning harmony; it was comfort food at its very best. By this point extra bread had been offered, which made excellent dunking until every morsel was gone.
Two vegetable plates arrived next. Both simple menu descriptions could easily have been taken as side dishes or menu filler; a bowl of greens and some cauliflower, but they were so much more. They were a masterclass in how to treat such humble produce and transform it into something incredible, the sort of thing that you want to feed to those boring folk who won’t eat unless there is a slab of meat. The cauliflower was all layers of subtle-yet still savoury sweetness, whist the kale and cavolo nero hid a depth of glorious char. 

At this point another surprise at the arrival of chef and owner Robin Gill carrying two off-menu dishes. It was great to talk through the menu with the man who had designed it, although after what we had eaten already I’m sure it may have been a borderline gush-fest. The smoked eel, cultured cream, new potato and sorrel that he left us with was yet another triumph, and as a diner there is nothing more special than the hosts going an extra mile. The fish courses proper came soon after; a perfectly cooked piece of on-the-bone skate balanced beautifully with earthy mushroom and salsify, and clean and refreshing mackerel, nori and cucumber. With the massive amount of technique and ingredients running through the menu, most restaurants serve something that just doesn’t quite work. Here there was no sign of a bum note.
When a meal heads towards dessert, it sometimes feels like things start to go a little through the motions. Not here. This is where the fun really began. Invited up to the ‘dessert bar’, I couldn’t help thinking of childhood trips to Pizza Hut and endless bowls of synthetic soft-scoop. Instead we sat at a smart bar overlooking a super-clean and professional pastry section. Here we were introduced to pastry chef Kira, who was nothing short of brilliant. Despite us asking a billion questions and snapping away with cameras, she was composed and entertaining as she made us two desserts each. She told us that for the first time at a restaurant she had been allowed creative freedom and it showed; each bowl looked and tasted wonderful. The first I had was a lemon sorbet with gin and cucumber which managed to totally cleanse and cut through the total glut of consumption so far. This was followed by apple parfait, feather-light meringues and a sorrel leaf that emerged from a cloud of liquid nitrogen, so brittle it could be broken with the back of a spoon. Kira told us that she had performed for over 70 that day, yet every quenelle of ice cream or piece of garnish was handled with patience and perfection. 

The last surprise of the meal was the price. For a long and winding meal packed with dish after dish of hugely impressive food we couldn’t believe it. Had this have been in a marble-columned hotel in town it could easily have been four times more and you wouldn’t have blinked.
So I can conclude with nothing different to what I had read pre-visit. GO. This is the sort of restaurant that you want to take each and every one of your friends to, the sort you want just around the corner to visit every week.