St John’s Eccles Cakes

Oh how I miss St John.

I miss those sneaky mid week lunches at Bread and Wine and buying my Eccles cake before I ate just in case they were all gone by the time I finished.

This year has been the year for conquering recipes. Finally having a kitchen to myself makes me feel much more free to hog it all day, make a huge mess and use every pan in the place. I can give time to those recipes I have put on the back burner.

Making rough puff pastry is one thing I’ve had a bit of a head block on. You think, it’s too hard, too time consuming and you decide won’t attempt it.

In reality, it’s not that hard and it’s not that time consuming. More than that, it’s very satisfying to realise you can do it. Although I did have to watch a youtube video to make sure I understood the pastry rolling and folding instructions correctly.

These cakes originate from a small town called Eccles which used to be in Lancashire but has since been enveloped as a suburb of growing Manchester. Purists would include lard in the pastry although St John have omitted it. Traditionally the three slits in the top represent the Holy Trinity. The recipe for these little flaky current filled pastries was shared here in The Guardian.

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St John and the bone marrow, parsley salad

Any excuse to have lunch at St John Bread and Wine and I was there. I was living on the other side of London so I would somehow incorporate it into a shopping trip to Shoreditch on my day off or on the way to see a friend, anything. As I sat there, usually dining alone, I would pour over the menu wondering if I should order a few starters, and how many I could fit in by myself, or a main and dessert, decisions, decisions.

After reading Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential, some years ago, I remember he was asked if he had to choose his last meal ever it would be St John Restaurant’s bone marrow and parsley salad. When Anthony Bourdain speaks I tend to take note.  So where was this great bone marrow salad that they supposedly serve here at St John? I’ve never seen it on the menu?

After speaking to one of the chefs it all became clear. I had to go to St John Smithfield (HQ) if I wanted the dishes St John was famous for, the dishes people travel great distances to consume. St John Bread and Wine is the baby sister, and as such have a wider scope in which they can create dishes whilst still in keeping within the ethos of St John.

When I think of St John I think of food cooked simply to bring great British produce to the table with a minimum of fuss, and the bone marrow and parsley salad.

Obviously I had to make a trip to St John Smithfield to check it out and a few times after that just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke or anything…

I ate it thinking Anthony you are right, you are so right! The rich bone marrow fat pulled from the centre of the bone looks slightly unnerving sitting on the toasted bread so the fact that you then cover it with leaves of parsley, salty capers, thin onion and wet salt, makes it easier for the first bite to get to your mouth.  After that you don’t care. I didn’t care that I sat in a rare print 1950’s dress with stockings and heels, my hands covered in bone marrow fat and my face feeling like it was as well. I could have another one but I had already ordered a main.

Yes I know that people have been eating bone marrow for centuries and St John didn’t totally invent the dish or anything, but they did put it on the menu along with alot of other foods and cuts of meat, people had forgotten about. Yes pigs head comes to mind along with various sea vegetables.

The brill and slow roasted fennel was beautiful. Perfectly cooked fish with super crusty buttery skin, love it, although the fennel was a bit heavy in olive oil for my liking. Anyway I had just had the bone marrow, I was happy.

My favourite ever dessert from St John B&W was a lemon posset with the best shortbread I have ever had. A cherry tart with sour cream ice cream came very second close. Today all I could fit in was a lemon sorbet with the obligatory vodka shot.

At both sites St John have their bakery section open for select public purchases. I can never leave without bagging a loaf of their heavy tasty bread and a eccles cake, today I thought I may as well pop in some freshly baked madeleines along side my haul. They bake them to order so there is often an amazing smell wafting out of the bakery.

Slowly spooning the cleansing, refreshing sorbet into my mouth, I sat there planning how it would be so easy, and not to mention cheap, to make the bone marrow salad myself. Of course I haven’t yet, probably just as well, I’m guessing my coronary arteries would not thank me for that regular dose of fat.

Bob Bob Ricard, Soho

If there was ever a place I felt at home in, a place that really feels like ‘me’, it’s Bob Bob Ricard. Nestled in the streets of Soho you enter into something straight from the opulence of the Orient Express. 

Attention to detail is what I love at Bob Bob Ricard. The ‘wallpaper’ is actually custom made, hand printed origami paper, the beautiful wood detailing, marble bar top and the tiny velvet curtains that enclose you into your own private booth, so luxurious and it doesn’t stop there…there is the much loved button for Champagne!If you love long lunches running into decedent evenings you will certainly find a home at Bob Bob Ricard. Does it sound like I love the place? Oh yes, and let that be a warning if you continue reading.

If you really like good wine you might be interested to know that at BBR they have a “reserve wine price guarantee”. So while other restaurants can make 300% on a bottle, BBR  charge no more than £50 on a bottle of reserve wine. Perfect if your planning on a celebration and a few bottles of vintage Champagne. It also makes reading the menu very interesting when it is noted the price of what other establishments charge for the same bottle. Clever.

Delicate cocktails, each served in a different style of glass. The signature cocktail is the rhubarb gin and tonic and it is amazing. No really, even if you don’t like rhubarb you will like what they have done to it in this cocktail.

My favourite snack, perfect pick-me-up and shopping stop off, is a glass of Kauffman’s 2006 vodka served with Iranian caviar, sour cream and warm blinis. A sip of icy cold Vodka quickly followed by a mouthful of warm blini and caviar….divine. My first visit to BBR’s was for a London Food Blogger’s dinner kindly organised by Niamh of Eat Like A Girl. I have a lot to thank her for.

So this was my introduction to the ‘Russian way’of Zakuski, the combination of vodka and food and the way in which it can open up the flavour of food. This ox tongue and quails egg in aspic and horseradish cream, was served was served with ice cold vodka (-18°C) that you drink as a shot before quickly popping an already prepared fork full of the aspic and horseradish into your mouth. The flavours seemed to love the shot of vodka as much as I did.

The Anglo-Russian ownership comes through in the interesting menu, but it works. I think they blend the two cuisines very well. The veal Holstein with quails egg, anchovies and truffle mash is a dish apparently named after Count Holstein, foreign minister under the Prussian leader, Bismarck. It is served with a secret BBR sauce that has deep smokey undertones.

The beef onglet (using beef from O’Shea’s of Knightsbridge), served with caramelised onions. Green peppercorn sauce, buttery peas and carrots come on the side served in silverware. The beef was medium rare, tender and full of moisture and the onions sweetly sautéed.

Striped strawberries and cream souffle is light and airy served with extra cream and strawberry coulis. If only my souffle’s turned out anything near as good as this one and I’d be dancing by the oven.

Leonid and Richard (aka Bob and Ricard) know what people want,….to feel good. They do such a good job that I hardly notice the rising price of my bill, but BBR’s never set out to be cheap and cheerful, and I’m glad.

You could never walk into Bob Bob Ricard’s without coming out feeling like you have just escaped on a little trip back to a decadent 1930’s. A place where women wore slinky backless silk dresses with big fur stoles, and gentlemen looked like Clarke Gable, and everyone was a VIP.

The Ledbury

I have been waiting to set foot in The Ledbury for years, distracted by this and that, how could I have let it pass me by for so long?  Shame, shame on you Ms Macaroon.

Dinner with a group of Australian bloggers could be at no other place. The chef, Brett Graham, fellow Australian, had this year received his second Michelin star, definitely time I got myself there. Ms Gourmet Chick, Greedy Diva, Catty, and I were joined by Claire Scott from D’Arenburg wines. Over numerous emails we had arranged for Brett to create a menu, just for us and specially selected wines from D’Arenburg and Katnook. Unfortunately Jo Jericho, from Katnook wines,  couldn’t make it, due to her impending departure back to Australia but, she still managed to dropped off some wine for us earlier in the day.

Posh jewellery on, a silky black number and my new Rupert Sanderson heels and I was off…..this was going to be good.

On such an occasion a glass of Champagne was essential. Brett had been off shooting game that day so he was not in the kitchen but that didn’t stop the flow of great food coming out of the tiny kitchen. The canapè was a tartlet of foie gras with hazelnut crumbs and shiso leaves, a mouthful of soft melting buttery foie gras with textures of crispness in the delicate tartlet and ground hazelnuts.

The decor of the place is a bit dated with large wood panel columns and inset flower arrangements. Although I hadn’t even noticed until half way through the meal as I was so focused on the food.

Soon after our amuse bouche arrived. Quail egg encased in kataifi pastry chestnut puree and shaved truffles. This was definitely a starter to get your taste buds going. The textures and flavours worked so well, melting in your mouth.

Hampshire Buffalo Milk Curd with Saint-Nectaire, Truffle Toast and a broth of Grilled Onions. I don’t think I could choose a favourite from our menu, but if I had to this would win the interesting dish award. As you are mesmerized by the thick truffle toast the waiters pour the sweet grilled onion both over the dish. It’s not until you plunge your spoon into it that you discover the set buffalo milk curd at the bottom of the plate. It was divinely smooth, and the truffle toast….needs no explanation.

We were now getting into some more serious wines. A 2005 Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra was paired with our next course, Root Vegatables Baked in Salt and Clay with Lardo Di Colonatta, Roasting juices and Hazelnuts. Like a city of towers, the sweet colourful roast vegetables stood beautifully together. Yes the turned jerusleum artichoke looked like a witchetty grub, coincidence or not, but cute.

Roast Cod with Truffle puree, Cauliflower, Parmesan Gnocchi and Sea Vegetables. Beautifully flakey cod with a perfectly formed dense parmesan gnocchi and, again, a form of black truffles. I just love truffle season!!

We still had another dish to come! I was starting to feel rather full by then. Our next course of Loin of Roe Deer Baked in Douglas Fir with Beetroot, Bone Marrow and Malt was accompanied by a reminder of how big Aussie Reds can taste, 2002 d’Arenburg “The Dead Arm” Shiraz, McLaren Vale. This wine brought back such good memories of what a good Australian Shiraz tastes like. Big, bold flavours which have been somewhat tamed over time in a bottle. The venison was so juicy and tender draped with silky mushrooms. The whole dish really worked so well together.

Still sipping on my “The Dead Arm” shiraz, along came our pre-dessert. A passionfruit mousse with a creamy Sauternes froth, was actually better than my dessert. Catty will disagree but I prefer light fruity desserts. It was engulfed in no time.

Dessert was Brown Sugar Tart with Muscat Grapes and Stem Ginger Ice-cream. The tart was beautifully smooth with a rich caramel flavour. The stem ginger ice cream was divinely smooth. I love ginger and I thought it worked well to cut through the richness of the sweet tart along with the grapes.

It didn’t end there of course. Petit Fours were presented to you to choose from on a bed of shaved chocolate. The violet meringues were soft and creamy. I couldn’t fit anymore food in by that point, so I didn’t try the other petit fours on offer, but they look gorgeous.

A pot of mint tea and I was then rolled into a taxi home. The Ledbury was indeed one of the best meals I have ever had in London. Brett Graham deserves all the praise and attention he has been receiving lately. I wish I could come back again and again and again and again.

 

Anna Hansen at the Friday Food Club

Anna Hansen, a New Zealander who started her career in London with Fergus Henderson at the former The French House in Soho and then with fellow New Zealander Peter Gordon at Green St, The Sugar Club and with him opening The Providores. She bravely decided to open her own restaurant. A scary venture and not without it’s perils along the way. Whilest setting up The Modern Pantry, in Clerkenwell, Anna was told to ‘forget it’, ‘cut your losses’, before she even opened but I’m glad she has a persistent drive, that spurred her on, and so The Modern Pantry was born.

This was my second visit to The Friday Food Club, the first being the Mark Hix Takeover. So I knew I was in for a treat. They were generously hosting another dinner in support of the charity, Chance UK.  Anna had also given up her free time to help them raise some money. Friday Food Club hosts, Lee and Fiona are lovely, welcoming and fun. They have a beautiful historic flat and in Blackheath. I knew the way.

The usual Friday Food Club welcome a glass of de Chanceny Cremant de Loire Brut was accompanied by some Krupuk quail eggs with a chilli lime dipping sauce. Perfectly cooked little balls of quail egg covered in egg yolk and rolled in crumbled Krupuk and crispy deep fried. Krupuk? I hear you say, what if I said it is what prawn crackers are made from. Oh ahha I hear you say. So when deep fried they puff up around the egg, clever huh. The thick chilli lime dipping sauce coated and stuck to the krupuk so it reached your mouth without dripping off everywhere.

Sugar-cured New Caledonian prawn omelette, spring onion, coriander with a smoked chilli sambal is a signature dish at The Modern Pantry. A softy fluffy omelette encasing flavoursome prawns, nudged into fusion with a smoky sambal. I have to say, I think prawns from the Pacific are some of the best in the world. They seem to have so much more flavour.

Pan fried cod, chorizo and clams, squid ink mash with samphire. This was my favourite dish of the evening. The squid ink mash not only looked interesting but tasted fantastically creamy with a hint of natural squid ink . Little clams from Cornwall, soft flakey cod, salty samphire and little bites of chorizo all holding their own big flavours but together not over powering each other.

I can’t think of a better way of getting your hands dirty than in a big sharing bowl of Singapore style wokked crab with Thai basil.  Big Cornish crabs wok cooked in a fantastic sauce of sweet palm sugar, soy sauce, sour tamarind, smoky pimento,and a hint of a chilli.  I love getting stuck into food like this. A little bit more chilli for me please.  Breaking the long crab arms to scoop out the sweet crab meat, it’s a voyage of discovery. The sauce/broth at the bottom of the bowl was too good to leave behind and I slurped it up with my dessert spoon. No one else at the table seemed to be interested in the bowl then. I sound like such a glut, but it would have been a crime to leave it behind.

A new spoon in hand and I was ready for dessert. Sticky coconut balls stuffed with umeboshi and palm sugar, coconut sorbet, tamarind caramel topped with micro red shiso leaves. What I like about Anna’s cooking as that it is never boring. Her coconut balls were filled with umeboshi, the japanese pickled plum sauce,  interesting but not my favourite dessert. In Japan umeboshi is commonly served as a condiment to rice or tucked in a rice ball wrapped in a nori sheet. The coconut sorbet complemented the sweet/sour caramel very well.

Anna describes her food as fusion, and she realizes that it’s not for everyone, but a style you should not dismiss. She certainly pushes the boundaries in terms of unusual flavours and textures, but she makes them work. If your a fusion fan, you will love Anna Hansen’s style of combining unusual flavours. If your not a fusion fan, why not? Don’t be boring, try something new.

Racine

Impromptu lunches can sometimes be the best. My first visit to Racine was just that. A weekday excursion to see the Grace Kelly exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum definitely required a lunch to match, and Racine certainly did just that.  

So on my second visit I was armed and camera ready. You enter through the glass doors to peak behind the curtains into a buzzy French brasserie style dining room. The sort of place you can imagine eating and drinking with friends over a long lunch. Chef, Henry Harris, has taken inspiration from the brasseries of Paris to bring solid bourgeois style French cooking to London.

Diver caught scallops with celeriac puree and bacon, sounds good huh. When the dish was first sat in front of me I thought someone had come to blows with the scallop trying to prise it out of the shell (yes don’t laugh). Then on closer inspection I realised the scallops were huge and were actually divided (there is another piece on the other side, you can’t see in my snap). Big fat juicy scallops beautifully caramelised so that they were seared on the outside and only just cooked in the centre. The celeriac puree wasn’t completely smooth but I can forgive that because there is a curly piece of bacon on the top. This was a manly starter.

There is quite alot to choose from on the menu, à la carte, specials, or set lunch. If you like good steak, Racine uses O’Shea’s of Knightsbridge, which supplies excellent 37 day hung, grass fed beef. I chose the partridge from the seasonal menu. I ‘ve had it, at other establishments, where it was so rare I thought they just cut it off the bird straight onto the plate. Some may say that is perfectly acceptable, but it’s not the way I like it. Racine cooks it just the way I like it. So the breast actually reaches the pan but is still gorgeously tender and pink to the bone. Served on a bed of cabbage with wild mushrooms, roasted shallots, delicious.

The staff are ever so friendly and very helpful when choosing wine to match. I always need help, and anyway I figure they are the experts, well more than I am. They have never  failed me.

I remember the lemon posset I devoured on my first visit, divine. Feeling quite full at this point I went for the lemon sorbet with vodka for dessert. I excpected one possibly two small scoops so I was a bit shocked when this mountain arrived. I have noticed sorbet with vodka shots seem to be a common theme of late, not that I’m complaining.

Racine seems to be a place of consistency. Excellent well presented food, great lunch deals in a very pleasant dining room.

So feeling the comfort of a lovely meal and the carefree attitude of a few glasses of wine, I set off to Harvey Nichols for some light afternoon shopping……

The Harwood Arms

Finally, after all the hype had died down, I was reminded that I had been trying to get a table at The Harwood Arms. Ms L and I had tried so many times, but finally managed to get a table for a Sunday night.It was very quite when Ms L and I arrived at 730pm, it didn’t last long. Refurbished in September 2008, the pubs interior is of simple decor, mismatched chairs and coarse linen napkins tied with raffia. I liked it.  Although we were the only the second seated table, the other table having already ordered, we seemed to wait quite a while to be served. I know you need to give people a chance to peruse a menu but I’m impatient once I have decided. I was also ravenous after being out late the night before. Their absolutely delicious soda bread kept me at bay.A lovely bottle of red was recommended to us and we were settling into Sunday night. A soft French Pinot Noir, was a good overall choice for the dishes we had chosen.I chose the Kennet River Crayfish and saffron soup with crayfish cocktail toast from the specials board. Sounded good to me, but it was a disappointment.

On first sight, it looked good and I liked the presentation on the rustic timber board. The soup was lovely but the crayfish cocktail toast tasted like bad coleslaw. It spoilt the whole dish for me.

Ms L chose the Crisp brawn with tarragon mustard and broad beans stewed with smoked bacon and gem lettuce. The colours of the crispy fried brawn against the bright green of the tarragon mustard and broad bean stew, brought comfort to my eyes. Judging from the noises coming from the other side of the table it was good… nom, nom, nom. Crisp brawn, fantastic.

The main, whole butterflied and stuffed mackerel with a sour dough crust, Isle of Wight tomatoes, wild rocket and horseradish, was also a bit disappointing. The fish was well cooked but the sough dough crust didn’t bring anything to the dish and the stuffing….what stuffing???A few herbs maybe, for £14.50.

Ms L chose off the specials board, the grilled steak of Bershire Roe deer and Douglas Fir sausage. A dish of tender meat she enjoyed but it was served on a timber board with a dinner plate for you to transfer the dish onto, so that you could manage to eat it without it all falling off the board. A smallish portion for £16.75, I thought.

We both chose the peaches poached in lemon verbena syrup with raspberry ripple ice cream for a light dessert. The peaches were beautifully cooked, and softly scented by the lemon verbena. Raspberry ripple ice cream, what’s not to like. It was a lovely end to the meal.

If I didn’t know this place had rave reviews and had recently been the first pub in London to be awarded a Michelin star, I would have thought it was pretty good pub grub. Unfortuntately I did come knowing all this, so I expected something worthy of  all the praise. It’s great that they source alot of produce from small British suppliers, but that’s not unique anymore. I actually think it’s expected now, more and more, especially if they have been granted a star.

It was good, I’m glad I went, and even though I live relatively close, I think I will stick to my local pub which serves good reasonably priced food. I can walk in and always find a table. It’s still a pub for the locals.