Guest post by Kelly Atkins.

After much persistence this year I finally caved in and agreed to join my mother on a mother daughter trip with some family friends to Germany.

Faced with the possibility of having to finish my Christmas shopping in the hustle and bustle of Oxford Street, I decided the week before Christmas was better spent getting into the festive spirit in Dusseldorf’s Christmas Market.

Unlike any holiday I have been on before I had not booked, planned or googled anything – I really had no idea what to expect. But after Kavey offered me the opportunity to write this guest post one thing was certain… I was absolutely going to consume more food and drink than necessary, all in the name of research.

The Hotel

Hotel Flora was exactly as described elsewhere – clean, well positioned with friendly and incredibly helpful staff, providing you have no need to alter your booking or discuss money.

One of the best parts of staying in this hotel is that it offers free tram travel for the duration of your stay and the staff will happily talk you through the location of the markets and the great places to shop and eat.

The Christmas Markets

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Due to building work, this year, unlike others, the markets were split up into a series of smaller areas making it harder than usual to navigate.

Known for its ambience and selections of hand crafted gifts the Dusseldorf markets particularly come alive throughout the evening when the lights create a picturesque scene and locals come and join the tourists to enjoy a mulled wine or cold beer.

The gifts available are so beautiful you could almost be convinced that buying miniature gingerbread houses is what all your friends and family want to receive this Christmas – but it is the food and drink that keeps you coming back.

No Christmas market would be the same without a German sausage on offer and as suspected the Bratwurst lived up to its reputation, but there were many other options on offer. Crepes, gingerbread and tea cakes were perfect for those with a sweet tooth and with most stalls offering a try before you buy you could make sure you bought a flavour you were sure to enjoy.

Here are some of my favourites as well as my disappointments from the stalls:

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Fritters – Not particularly my favourite out of all of the food options due to it being incredibly greasy to the point of sickening. The most impressive part of the Fritters is by far the way they mass produce them with industrial mixers in full view of the market.

Kinderpunch – is quite literally Christmas in a cup. Made with eggnog, white wine and a German buttercream, even when it was snowing in Germany it managed to warm me up.

Raclette – Saving the best until last – who knew cheese on toast could be so addictive? This has to be for me the best thing I consumed throughout the entire holiday, so much so I went back more than once. The melted cheese is scraped onto a choice of flavoured breads, including garlic and herbs and even writing this makes my mouth water.

Despite being a Swiss and French dish this highlighted one of the best parts of modern Christmas markets all over the world – the opportunity to experience a range of different cuisines from guest stalls. I have since heard that there is a Raclette stall in Borough Market and I’m already planning a trip there to try it out!

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Evening Meals

Dusseldorf like the majority of European cities has a wide range of cuisines at a range of prices.

Feeling rather tired the first evening we only ventured next door to Auf’m Hennetamp, a Greek/ German restaurant which initially seemed like a bizarre combination.

Auf’m Hennetamp were incredibly welcoming and were happy for us to avoid set meals and served platters of meat, fish and salad for us all so that we were able to sample a range of different dishes. This was the cheapest of all of the restaurants we ate in over the course of our stay. We were able to eat 2 courses with wine for as little as £15 per person and we were even given a shot of Schnapps to try at the end of the meal and before being promptly told that it was not customary for women to drink Schnapps in Germany.

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Cape Town as the name suggests is a South African restaurant famous for its cocktails. But it was in fact the food that excelled all expectations.

Between the four of us we tried a mixture of Ostrich Stew, Beef Clay- Pot, Traditional South African Chicken and Cape Town Vegetable Stir-fry. Not only were the dishes beautifully presented but each mouthful, even down to the last vegetable was packed full of flavour and seasoning that we all felt a desperate need to finish every bite, despite all feeling full half way through.

The infamous cocktails for myself lived up to their reputation, however they did seem to change in flavour every time a new one was made. I like to think this was not because I was becoming more intoxicated but that, as I suspected, the ingredients seemed to be subject to change.

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Another great foodie experience…

In the majority of pubs in Dusseldorf you are able to order a takeaway from a selection of authentic restaurants nearby. Ranging from Thai to Italian you can relax in a laid back pub environment and take your pick to suit your stomach. Even better still – the pub will put the takeaway on a tab so that you can pay a full bill at the end of the evening.

The Best Parts

Aside from enjoying a relaxing break with my mother and family friends the most enjoyable part of the Christmas Markets is the ability to get involved in all areas of the market. During my time there I was able to get behind nearly ever stall I requested and aside from the merry go round which I have been informed I am definitely too old for I was able to try my hand at it all.

As we are already looking at Belgium for this year I can safely say – I am a Christmas market addict!

 

If you’re in the UK and like watching food shows, you’ve probably already seen, or at least heard of, A Question of Taste.

It’s the pilot series of a new quiz show currently airing on BBC2 on Monday nights. Presented by Kirsty Wark, it seems loosely based on the format for A Question of Sport. In a nutshell, two teams of foodies compete for points but no prizes, by answering a range of questions on ingredients and cooking techniques, TV cookery shows and chefs, and even a little food history and science.

Yours truly is one of the contestants; my episode airs at 7.30 pm, Monday 30th January on BBC2.

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My fellow team members are Danny and Dan and together, we are Three Like To Eat.

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Produced by Silver River, the company launched by successful producer Daisy Goodwin, I don’t think the show quite hits the mark and I’ll be surprised if the BBC commission another series, though you never know; food TV is still hot property and this is that rare entity – a family show for all ages, if they don’t get bored silly.

Kirsty Wark is a good presenter, I like her personality and her style, though I’d prefer to see her engage in a lot more banter with the contestants, and make the show more fun and lively. As it is, it feels stilted and dull! The torturous run-through of the rules before each round is… boring in the extreme! And I know I’m not alone in finding William Sitwell’s role in the Kitchen Corner particularly annoying and patronising, even more so having seen that he doesn’t know in real life the information he’s reading out as the resident “expert”. Ever since Countdown had a lexicographer on hand to provide alternative answers and extra information, it seems that other quiz shows feel they must follow suit, and here, it doesn’t seem to work.

That said, I did have a lot of fun participating!

I know I’m going to cringe my way through this, not least because the need to smile throughout filming was strongly impressed on us before we went on air. I’m convinced the result will be Danny and I gurning at each other, whilst Dan looks suavely on!

There’s also a point at which Kirsty miscalls us Three Like It Hot, which makes me giggle for some time. But after the quiz is finished, the crew have her run through a number of do-overs, including that segment… so the audience won’t understand just what I’m giggling at!

For me, it’s been great fun watching the series, as every episode has featured friends of mine, usually at least three people and in one episode, all six contestants!

Watch, enjoy, giggle with derision, but be gentle!

Watch on youtube.

 

The last time I popped into the Angel & Crown pub my fellow customers included an elderly bloke drinking beer alone, a middle-aged couple sucking each others’ faces desperately – a first date I reckon, a couple of American tourists – no doubt befuddled that this dull and uncared-for environment was the famed British meeting place they’d heard so much about. And me, meeting a friend in a suitably central location where we could be sure of a table and seats.

The Angel & Crown has been welcoming punters through it’s doors since 1727, so it’s tired bones were in need of a facelift and new lease of life.

Enter brothers Tom and Ed Martin, who’ve been building up an impressive gastro pub business since opening The Well, back in 2000. Since then, they’ve transformed several more pubs (including The Gun, The Botanist and The Cadogan Arms) and also launched the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms in the Montcalm Hotel.

They spent only a few weeks tarting up the Angel & Crown before re-launching it as another gastro pub. Downstairs is more of a drinkers’ room, though a bar snacks menu offers a range of tasty treats including sausage rolls, pork pies, half a pint of prawns, a fish finger sandwich, scotch eggs and more. An elegant upstairs dining room is the best place to order from the main menu, which currently offers starters of pig’s head terrine, Dorset brown crab meat on toast and cod cheek, cod tongue and fennel pie, mains of boiled Essex ham hock with peas pudding and parsley sauce, Herdwick mutton hot pot, flank steak with green peppercorn sauce and chips and battered haddock and chips. Desserts include an intriguing Angel Delight butterscotch crème brûlée, Devonshire custard tart with tea steeped prunes and Cashel Blue cheese with truffled honey and raisin toast.

They’ve not forgotten the drinks either, and aim to offer some decent cask ales such as Sambrook’s Junction and Adnam’s Bitter, and rotating guest brews. They have a short but interesting list of bottled beers too. Wine drinkers, cider lovers and cocktail fanciers are also catered for, with a short but sweet selection.

The new-look pub hasn’t been open long – the Martins took over late last year, spent just a few short weeks doing the place up and opened for business in mid-December.

Pete and I were invited along in early January to sample the new menu.

We were seated in the private dining room upstairs, which seats 10 comfortably, but can squeeze in a few more. Be warned though, that it’s a bit of a thoroughfare, as guests making their way to the main dining room will constantly pass along one open side of the space.

For canapes we were served a range from the bar snacks menu – pork crackling with apple sauce, black pudding scotch eggs with HP sauce and devilled whitebait with tartare sauce.

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The pork cracklings turned out to be generous slices of roast pork with crackling attached. The first batch that came out were delicious – soft tasty pork and crunchy crackling – but the second batch failed on the crunch test, with soft, chewier skin. The apple sauce was far too thick and quite dry, making it impossible to dip the pork pieces into it – I used a knife to lather it on instead. It tasted nice.

The black pudding scotch eggs were marvellous, perfectly cooked and with very good flavour.

The devilled whitebait lacked any obvious devilment but were served hot and crispy. The tartare was a little bland.

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The starter of potted smoked mackerel with dill pickle was served in a small kilner jar with a couple of small slices of toast on the side. The mackerel was a soft, juicy mix of fish, yoghurt, butter and chives and was very lovely indeed. That said, I’d describe the dish as a soft smoked mackerel paté rather than potted, which is, in my head, something preserved in lots of butter, with the addition of salt and pepper and maybe some ground spice. I loved the juicy dill pickle and could have eaten another. My toast was a bit soggy, though Pete’s was nice and crisp – perhaps a large batch were stacked into a basket during prep and the ones at the bottom steamed in the heat of the rest?

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For our main course each of us were served a hugely impressive pheasant and partridge pie with roast bone marrow. Like Jesse Dunford-Wood’s Cow Pie at The Mall Tavern, the marrow bone created a pie funnel and was visually very appealing. The pastry lid itself was delicious, cooked to give a crisp top and beautifully soft underside, just as I like it! For me, the partridge and pheasant were both quite dry, though the flavour was very nice. And I found the sauce very thin and with a deep layer of oil, perhaps rendered out from the marrow during cooking? I did enjoy removing the marrow bone and slipping the beautiful fatty marrow bone out of it; a real delight! It was a gorgeous looking pie, and with nice flavours too but textures weren’t on the money, in my opinion. I’d love to try Angel & Crown beef and chicken pies, as I think these are easier to keep tender.

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With the mains were served some smashing sides – quick fingers fought over light and crunchy peppered battered onion rings, mashed potato was soft and buttery, and earthy swede had been well cooked and properly seasoned.

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Our dessert of chocolate mousse, cornflakes, crème fraîche sorbet didn’t work on a number of levels. Firstly, I really didn’t like the combination of the sharp crème fraîche with chocolate. I wasn’t alone in that comment. In addition, although we were told they used a 70% Valrhona chocolate in the mousse, the flavour was oddly milky and with a distinct flavour of coconut running through it. The texture wasn’t smooth and velvety, but rather grainy. It just didn’t work. The only element I enjoyed was the shard of cornflakes set in dark chocolate, which was a delight.

Drinks wise for me, I needed to stick to the softs, as I would be driving our car home from our local station. The barman rose magnificently to my challenge, when I told him I would like a virgin cocktail and that I had a very sweet tooth, he made me a perfect French Mojito with just the right balance of mint, sugar and lime, with a dark red fruit cordial, I think blackberry.

I did allow myself a small glass of Pedro Ximinez from La Gitana, Spain which was served with dessert. As always, I loved the caramel and dried fruit flavours of one of my very favourite tipples. A dessert in its own right, this blew the chocolate mousse out of the water.

Pete enjoyed the cocktails, wine and beers offered as matches during the meal. Here what he thought:

On arrival, and with the canapés, Pete enjoyed a St Martin’s Mule – a blend of dark rum, vanilla vodka, fresh lime juice, homemade cinnamon syrup and ginger beer. Luckily, as Pete doesn’t much care for cinnamon, he didn’t really taste the syrup much. He described his drink as strong and refreshing and added an odd little addendum that it was “cold and made his teeth hurt”!

The beer match for the potted smoked mackerel starter was Darkstar Hophead, a pale beer but quite strongly hopped, dry and with a floral aroma (from the hops); the hoppy flavour balanced out the oiliness of the fish very well. A great match.

Wine lovers were presented with a Dr Burklin Wolf trocken 2010 Reisling. Just as we were advised, this dry Reisling cut through the fish, and was robust enough in flavour to complement it rather than get drowned out by it. Another good match.

On to the pie and Sambrooks Junction. “You can’t go wrong with this one”, a lovely bold beer that has a malty nose and a rich, sweet caramel flavour with malty and hoppy notes. Worked well with the pie because it’s big and sweet and rich; a less substantial beer would have been overwhelmed by the flavours in the pie, but this stood up well.

The wine match for the pie was Chateau Musar’s Musar Jeune 2009, a blend of cinsault, syrah and cabernet sauvignon. After our trip to Lebanon last year, we appreciate seeing Lebanon reds sold more widely in the UK. That said, whilst this was certainly a lovely wine, it wasn’t punchy enough to hold its weight against the strong flavours and oiliness of the pie filling.

Attending a special blogger event, ours wasn’t a typical experience of dining at the pub, but it did allow us to get a feel for the skills of the kitchen. Whilst, for us, there were some issues with some of the dishes, these are mostly easy to resolve (though I’d start again with that chocolate mousse dessert). Both of us felt that the food showed enough promise that we’d be happy to go back, and we particularly appreciated the handy location when looking for a central place to meet friends.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of ETM group.

Angel & Crown on Urbanspoon

 

When I was sixteen I had my wisdom teeth taken out.

Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

My best friend’s mum gave me a brown paper bag of clementines as a ‘get well soon’ gesture. They were the tiniest clementines I’d ever seen, little more than an inch in diameter. I loved these adorable miniature citrus fruits and have always bought them whenever I’ve come across them since, which hasn’t been often…

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But I looked for them last winter, and again over the last few months, and couldn’t find them anywhere. Worse still, more than one fruit stall vendor looked at me like I was asking for oranges grown on Mars! Occasional sightings by friends (in non-local shops) convinced me I wasn’t going crazy.

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Finally, I found these baby tangerines in my local Waitrose and had to put them in my basket. (I didn’t have a choice, they were calling to me, “Eat me, Kavey, eat me!” they squeaked).

I candied them, using the same recipe I first tried for Christmas day, and made again a few days later.

No alcohol this time, just sugar, water and the little oranges. Delicious!

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These oranges are so cute, I can’t resist sharing photos, even though I blogged the recipe so recently.

 

At the end of September last year, I turned 40; a number imbued with all kinds of emotional baggage, with references to the hill of life and one’s position on it. But for me it was an excuse for a party and I had a really great day, surrounded by family and friends, new and old. I was overwhelmed by thoughtful, generous and perfectly-chosen gifts, but one in particular really took my breath away.

Here’s the clue my sister gave me:

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You’d think I’d have guessed immediately, wouldn’t you? A food obsessive like me, with a particular fascination for watching chefs on the telly and visiting restaurants. But to my embarrassment, I didn’t twig. My only excuse is that I was so flustered by the sudden surge of cake-toting guests arriving that I wasn’t really thinking straight!

But the next clue was a printed tasting menu, and it’s at that point I started screeching with excitement.

My sister shares my birthday. She’s three years younger than me… but about 10 years younger in looks and several years ahead when it comes to behaving like a grown up…

For my 40th (and her 37th) she would take us to The Fat Duck.

It took a while to secure a reservation, but eventually our January lunch date rolled around.

I realise there are a thousand reviews of The Fat Duck already on the internet, but it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had so I’m still going to add one more review to the mix. And it’s going to be chock full of clichéd superlatives like incredible, fantastic, wonderful, magical! If you can’t bear gushing, click away now!

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Although the day started with a downpour, by the time we arrive in Bray, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. We park in the car park for the Hinds Head pub and pop in for a drink in the bar. I enjoyed a meal in the Hinds Head a few years ago and it’s a worthy destination in its own right, as the stream of diners arriving for lunch testifies.

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As we leave, the bar man asks if we are having lunch at The Fat Duck. When we nod, he tells us that Heston is about today, filming for something or the other, so we might see him. We don’t. But kitchen and front of house teams are evidently trained to work like a well-oiled machine, whether or not the great man is present.

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We walk into a restaurant with most tables already taken, and are soon seated amongst the smiling diners.

Unlike many Michelin-starred restaurants, the interior here is quite simply styled. White walls and table linen lend a feeling of space, much needed given the low beamed ceilings. Table decorations are minimal and there are a couple of colourful but unchallenging pieces of modern art on the walls. Tables are nicely spaced out and the overall vibe is very relaxed.

A bottle each of sparkling and still water are ordered, and the tasting menu for the day presented.

We are asked if there are any problematic ingredients. I explain that whilst I don’t have either an allergy or an intolerance, I find the flavour of aniseed very difficult, it makes me a bit nauseous. As one of the dishes is described as salmon poached in a liquorice gel, I say it would probably be a no-no for me, but as I’ve not given any advance notice, I am happy to simply skip it, if the liquorice is integral. To my delight, the waitress pops away for a moment before returning to our table and offering to replace the salmon dish with turbot. She also points out that another dish is garnished with shavings of fennel bulb, but that it can easily be left out if I prefer (yes, please) and that one of the desserts contains a little fennel, to which I reply that I’m OK with a hint of it, if it’s not a dominant flavour. Whilst I appreciate that this level of service is no doubt standard practice for a restaurant of this calibre, I am still impressed at how accommodating they are, given my failure to let them know my preferences ahead of our visit.

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With fourteen courses listed on the menu, we are both surprised when an amuse bouche is served. Described as aerated beetroot with horseradish cream, these bright red and white, feather-light spheres are a revelation of texture and taste; they have a honey-comb texture and the distinctive sweet sharp flavour of beetroot and are sandwiched together with a mild cream which gives just a nudge rather than the usual kick of horseradish. Best of all, the flavours linger and linger…

I wish Heston from Waitrose could replicate these for the mass market!

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Next are the famous nitro poached aperitifs. Given a choice of vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or Campari soda, I choose the Campari, which also contains blood orange, and my sister opts for the vodka and lime with green tea.

Whilst freezing in liquid nitrogen is not exactly old hat, it’s also no longer as unexpected and surprising as it must have been for early customers, but it’s still a fine piece of theatre and fun to watch. Our waitress squirts liquid onto a spoon, turns it for a few moments in the liquid nitrogen, dusts it with a puff of pink or green powder and puffs an accompanying perfume into the air as she instructs us to eat the ball in one mouthful.

It’s far too big for me to manage that, so I make a mess as I break into mine, and the liquid centre spills out, but I try and pop the rest into my mouth as fast as I can. It’s a very refreshing taste, a real cleanser of the palate before the meal to come, but so cold it makes my teeth ache a little more than is pleasant.

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Having tasted Heston’s supermarket version of his mustard ice cream, I’m excited to try his Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho. Like the Waitrose copycat, the ice cream perfectly balances the sharp kick of mustard with the sweetness of ice cream. Unlike the Waitrose one, it’s much smoother in texture; silk-like. The red cabbage soup is thin, with tiny pieces of cabbage. For me, it’s so strange to taste the very essence of this crunchy vegetable in a liquid format. The two elements marry well together, and I enjoy the dish far more than I expect.

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The first thing brought to the table for our next course is a wooden box of oak moss with two plastic containers labelled Fat Duck Films. Shortly afterwards we’re presented with truffle toasts on a wooden board and a deep round bowl in which we can see a pink quenelle sat on pink cream.

We are told that the oak moss represents the mossy area at the base of oak trees; where truffles are most commonly found. Instructed to open our little boxes and place the thin sheets of film on our tongues, our waiter pours a kettle of liquid over the oak moss, our table is covered in white “smoke” and the aroma of an oak-wooded forest fills the air.

Heston is keen that customers understand how taste and aroma combine to create flavour, and this impressive display brings the message home a second time.

The white bowl protects a perfect little spoonful of rich chicken liver parfait. The layers beneath are crayfish cream, quail jelly and right at the bottom a jewel-green layer of pea puree. A tiny fig tuile is perched in the parfait. Tiny slices of radish and herb adorn the truffle toast. So many flavours, all of them shockingly intense, and yet somehow they all merge together so beautifully.

Just how does one make chicken liver parfait so smooth, quail jelly so very meaty, crayfish cream so rich, pea puree so fresh and sweet?

“Is that you humming?” asks my sister, as I savour each mouthful. I realise it is, and nod. “Stop it!” she tells me, but her smile says she’s loving it every bit as much.

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As promised, the shaved fennel has been omitted from my snail porridge, and replaced with a garnish of pea shoots instead.

With or without the fennel, neither of us fall for this famous Heston dish.

The snails are certainly softer and less chewy than I’ve often experienced, but still with that familiar muddy taste. To my surprise, I don’t even notice the Iberico Bellota Ham, it doesn’t register against the porridge – a thin green sludge with soggy oats through it. It tastes of… green, and that’s as well as I can describe it. It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t thrill either and I can’t help but think that I’d have enjoyed a portion of the top quality ham on it’s own, far more.

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Like the snail porridge, the next dish – roast foie gras, barberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit – comes out completely assembled and ready to enjoy. Konbu seaweed is one of the two main ingredients of Japanese dashi stock and Heston uses it here to great effect; a paper-thin layer of jelly sits beneath the foie gras and more konbu is mixed with chives and sprinkled over the liver; it imparts a subtle mushroom or Marmite taste – that savouriness known as umami. The foie gras is perfect in every respect with a wonderful richness of texture and taste; a delicious buttery meaty fat that melts away on the tongue. Barberry is not something I am familiar with, but the tartness it brings is very welcome. Tiny leaves of sorrel also add their tiny sour note.

My sister raises her eyebrows when I try to remember what the thin crunchy crab biscuits brings to mind, and suddenly announce “roast chicken flavour crisps”. But it’s exactly what the translucent shards remind me of!

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As soon as the silver foil stamped bookmarks are placed in front of us, I start to smile, remembering the Victorian episode of Feasts in which Heston took inspiration from Alice in Wonderland to create a Mad Hatter’ s tea party.

‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’
‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’
‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

Bowls of strange things are placed in front of us and gold fob watches are presented in a glass case. We take one each and drop them into our tea cups, stirring to produce a beautiful amber-coloured stock decadently flecked with gold leaf from the wrapper.

The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea…

Our waiter pours the rich broth into our bowls, and our mock turtle soups are ready.

There’s so much going on it’s hard to know where to start, but I begin with a spoonful of the meaty liquid, including one of the neatly cut strips of truffle. Mmmm! The wobbly yellow and white mock turtle egg, with the tiniest of mushrooms poking out of it, is made from turnip jelly, swede juice and saffron. I’d never have guessed, as it tastes of mushrooms to me – perhaps that’s the power of deliberate suggestion? Inside a white wrapping of lardo – cured fatback – is a densely pressed block of meat. The lardo is di Colonnata, reputed to be the very best. On top of the meat are impossibly neat cubes of white, green and black. I love the flavour the cucumber brings, and more earthy truffle, but have to ask the identity of the white turnip, which I can’t taste very clearly.

Whilst I like the tastes and textures and do enjoy the dish, I don’t think it pulls together like the oak moss extravaganza, nor are the individual elements quite so mind-blowingly perfect. It’s more about the fun of the story (you need to allow yourself to revert to childhood a little to enjoy this; if you’re too stiffly sophisticated you’ll fail to be charmed) and the strange appearance of the various parts than about a comprehensively balanced dish.

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Sound of the sea is another very well known Heston dish. A large shell is placed by each of us, and we pull out the protruding headphones and pop them into our ears. For the next several minutes we are left alone, listening to a recording of breaking waves, seagulls and the distant sounds of children playing.

Having deliberately avoided reading a single Fat Duck review since my sister first announced our visit (and blessed with the kind of appallingly bad memory which means I remember next to no details from reviews read previously) I start to wonder if this course is just a sound sensory experience, and doesn’t actually feature any food at all.

And then, finally, the dish arrives.

Served on a plate of glass suspended above a wooden tray of sand, the elements are presented like fish and seaweed on a sandy shore, with a line of foam left behind from the last breaking wave.

We eat with our headphones still in place, enjoying the dish with our eyes, ears, nose and taste buds.

There are three pieces of fish – mackerel, halibut and yellowtail kingfish – which have been lightly cured with citrus, bergamot and redbush. The seaweed varies in appearance and texture; the only familiar one is samphire; my favourite is the small red and yellow pellet-shaped seaweed that bursts salty liquid in the mouth. The briny foam is made from vegetable and seaweed stock and adds a taste of rock pool sea water. And oh my goodness, that sand, the most amazing element of the dish – a delicious crunchy powder made from tapioca and fried baby sardines, allowed to clump into small and large granules for a more convincing sandy texture.

I expected this dish to be style over substance, clever rather than enjoyable, but actually it is a delight to eat and yet another example of Heston’s determination to have us engage multiple senses at once.

Click here to find out more about the thought processes and research behind the dish. Click Start and then click on the sea shell.

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For our next course, we are served two different plates.

My sister has the menu item salmon poached in a liquorice gel with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. Echoing the colour of the fish roe are tiny pieces of pink grapefruit; this really is a stunningly beautiful plate. When it arrives, I can smell the liquorice quite strongly, and am glad I asked to switch. But when she breaks through the slightly crisp coating to the beautifully moist fish within, and tastes it, my sister assures me that it doesn’t taste much of liquorice! It’s not a flavour she’s a huge fan of either, so I’m persuaded to try a tiny bite, and agree – if anything, it tastes more like unsweetened cocoa than aniseedy liquorice. Unsurprisingly, I don’t love this, but sister judges it another beautifully balanced dish with lots of strong flavours that manage not to overpower the more gentle ones.

My turbot comes with artichokes, morel mushrooms and a verjuice sauce. It’s a far subtler dish altogether than the salmon, and if you were to try only a bite of each in turn, you’d judge mine bland. But actually, it’s not at all, and with each bite I find myself appreciating the gentle flavours and that marvellous sauce a little more.

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Size-wise, the saddle of venison with beetroot soubise and risotto of spelt and umbles is the most generous of all the courses, a fact that doesn’t fill us entirely with glee, given that we’re now pretty full from the previous nine courses and know we still have five more to come. But it’s so darn good that we smile and smack our lips all the way through it, once again.

The word melting is over-used when it comes to tender meat and yet, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe the texture of the venison, probably the softest I’ve ever had. And with the hint of game flavour that differentiates it from a bland beef fillet.

A powerful reduction serves as gravy, whacking the taste buds with an intense meaty punch.

Luckily, that’s offset by the use of beetroot in two forms. Like the aerated spheres right at the beginning of our meal, the beetroot sauce is the very essence of this root vegetable and a nice balance between sweet, tart and earthy. I’m told that, like a soubise (onion sauce), the beetroot sauce uses béchamel as a base. The pickled baby beetroot pieces (in two colours) provide something more solid to bite into.

Also on the plate are several tiny sprout leaves; inside the curved cup of some of them are little cubes of something sweet, mushy and with a really strong, sweet kick. They’re so distinctive a taste, but I struggle to place them; a member of staff comes to my rescue and identifies them as candied chestnuts. I’d never have guessed in a million years. And actually I’m in two minds about them – they make me stop and furrow my brows in an effort to work out what they could be, and that certainly makes me focus even more on my food, not that I wasn’t doing so already. But I’m not sure the strangely perfume-tasting sweetness goes well with the rest of the dish.

Served alongside the main plate is a little bowl of rich, wet risotto, sealed with a layer of mushroom and madeira jelly, studded with cubes of venison heart and flavoured with braised shoulder and chicken stock. Umble, by the way, comes from ‘umble pie, a pie filled with liver, heart and other offal.

On top is a square of breaded sweetbread and crunchy candied spelt that make me think of the honey monster.

The risotto is magnificent in its entirety and work brilliantly well with the venison and beetroot.

It’s also our last savoury dish and we mentally prepare for the onslaught of sweets.

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Hot and iced tea is served with firm instructions not to rotate the glass at all as we drink it. My sister picks up the sensation of hot on one side of her mouth and cold on the other, straight away. I gingerly pick up my cup, taking care with its orientation, but my first sip is all warm, as is my second. Only on the third sip does the distinct separation of temperatures kick in and then it’s perfect! And alarming!

The liquid is thick, like a liquid apple jelly before it’s set, and the flavour reminds me of Turkish apple tea too. But when I ask one of the staff, I’m told that it’s actually earl grey tea! “But, the hot one tastes a lot sweeter to me,” I say. Am I imagining that too, like my impression of apple? No, I’m right; she explains that they adjust the acidity in order to ensure that both the hot and cold versions have exactly the same viscosity, so they don’t run into each other.

Clever stuff, and really rather strange. I carefully turn my cup through 180 degrees and giggle when the hot and cold sensations in my mouth are neatly reversed. At the bottom of my cup is a small reservoir of cold tea, which explains why the first two sips were all hot – mine must have slipped a little when poured into the cup.

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The Taffety Tart with caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon (which the menu reveals is from c. 1660) is just beautiful. As mine is served, a waitress explains that they’ve omitted the tiny fennel leaves and crushed fennel from the garnish beneath the sorbet, so all that remains is the fennel flavour within the tart itself. And yes, I can taste it in the cream that sandwiches those paper thin leaves of pastry, but it’s mellow enough that my brain can focus instead on the lovely caramelised apple, sat in two thick gelatinous layers towards the bottom of the tart. The rose and lemon flavours are just wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of blackcurrant sorbet so I give mine to the sister, who in turn passes across her unwanted rose petals. Result!

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If you watched Heston’s In Search of Perfection, you might remember his black forest gateau creation, fondly listed on the menu as The “BFG”. At first, I can do little more than admire it (and grab a few snaps). The menu also refers to the smell of the Black Forest and this is achieved with a puff of kirsch perfume.

The precision of the straight lines and squared corners, the even coating of chocolate and the shaping of that teardrop of kirsch ice cream are hugely impressive. Cutting into the cake, we marvel at the individual layers; a sweet crunchy base, aerated chocolate (like a posh Aero bar!), dense moist chocolate cake, sweet sour black cherries and chocolate ganache and white kirsch cream. On top is a beautiful kirsch-soaked cherry complete with a knotted stem. Next to the gateau is a smear of cherry, a veritable beach of grated chocolate and that kirsch ice cream which packs such a strong alcohol kick that we wonder about its impact on a driver’s blood alcohol levels!

Again, Heston’s attention to textures, tastes and aromas combines to lift what is already a huge favourite of mine to a whole new level.

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By the time the whisk(e)y gums are served, attached to a map inside a wooden photo frame, we are really very full. As I’m not even a fan of whisky, I ask if there’s a way I might take the gums home for my husband, without the attendant frame, of course. Sadly, I’m told they’re too soft and will liquefy within an hour or so; when I pick one off the glass I appreciate just how soft and squidgy they are, adhering to the glass purely because of their wet sticky surface. They remind me of the sticky wall walker toys of my childhood; we used to throw them against the enormous windows at school and watch as they tumbled down the surface, limb by slimy limb. I resist throwing my whisk(e)y gums at any nearby windows and eat them, in the order indicated.

1 Speyside – Glenlivet
2 West Highlands – Oban
3 Orkney – Highland Park
4 Islay – Laphroaig
5 Tennessee USA – Jack Daniels

As expected, the flavours of the respective whiskies come through loud and clear; the dry pepperiness of the West Highlands, the smoky peat of Islay and the sweet caramel of Tennessee whiskey. I’m a bit confused by the order, as they don’t seem to be arranged by strength of flavour; I can’t discern any pattern.

I like this course but I don’t love it, and I wonder who might? As a non-whisky drinker, whilst the sweetness takes the edge off, the whisky flavour is still a bit overwhelming. But wouldn’t a real whisky lover find the sweetness a distraction from flavours they know and hold dear? Perhaps not. Since Pete isn’t here to contribute his opinion, I have no way of knowing…

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At last, out comes a striped pink and white paper bag each. This course is called Like a kid in a sweet shop and is presented with its own menu card which we are encouraged to smell. It’s meant to evoke an old-fashioned sweet shop, but to me it smells like old-lady toilet freshener, or like stale marshmallows, if I’m being more generous. Still, it lists the four goodies inside, which we take out and admire before putting away again to enjoy later. After fourteen courses, we’re not alone in deferring the fifteenth!

At home, a few hours later, I investigate my little haul.

Firstly, a white envelope with what looks like a rubber seal. It breaks so easily as I pull open the envelope that I realise it’s chocolate and pop it into my mouth. Inside is a beautifully painted white chocolate playing card, filled with raspberry jam and crumbled biscuit. The menu card reminds us that the queen of hearts, she made some tarts… It’s wonderful!

The aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly is like a cross between a posh Aero bar and the orange jelly inside a Jaffa Cake. Very nice!

Apple pie caramel comes in a clear edible wrapper. Popping it into my mouth whole, I enjoy the tastes of both apple and caramel but it doesn’t put me in mind of apple pie. The edible wrapper reminds me of the White Rabbit sweets I used to enjoy as a child, which came in printed rice paper wrappers.

The only item in the bag which I don’t like is the strange coconut baccy, described as coconut infused with an aroma of Black Cavendish tobacco. Presented in a little pouch, just like real loose tobacco, it looks more like elastic bands and the texture isn’t far off either. Chewy stretchy strands of coconut with an unpleasant flavour; I’m not a fan at all. A shame, as I love the Artisan du Chocolate tobacco chocolate, which they originally developed for Heston, so I know that tobacco can work in a sweet.

At £180 per person, the experience we’ve just enjoyed is certainly expensive. But when we realise that this comes to just £12 per course, with still and sparkling water included, we both agree that it’s also good value. Each one of the courses reveals an incredible amount of work on many different elements brought together perfectly on the plate. Service is added at 12.5% but I would imagine that some of the £180 price tag must also cover the staff-intensive service, where dishes are finished or explained at the table and staff are constantly on hand to top up drinks and answer questions about the food.

Is it worth it? As my sister’s guest, that’s not for me to answer but I can tell you that it was certainly one of the most exciting dining experiences of my life, with some dishes that really did take my breath away.

It’s not a meal I will forget for a very long time to come.

The menu changes only slowly, so I wouldn’t rush back anytime soon, but should I notice in a year or few’s time, that most or many of the courses have changed, I’ll be back in a heart beat.

With enormous thanks to my beautiful and generous sister. x

The Fat Duck on Urbanspoon

 

Another great guest post by Matt Gibson.

The other day, I woke up and realised I had no coffee in the house. The fact that this realisation terrified me might give you some idea of the relationship I have with caffeine. It’s a geek thing.

Luckily, I remembered I *did* actually have some coffee. The only problem was that what I had, tucked away in the back of a cupboard, was a bag of unroasted green beans.

So. Out with the popcorn maker!

Yes, the popcorn maker. I’ve had one hanging around since I read a fellow geek’s blog post about how you could convince a hot-air popcorn maker to roast coffee beans. A week after I read that post, I saw one going on Freecycle. They’re just the kind of appliance that people buy on a whim, use twice, and then relegate to the back of a cupboard until the next clear-out, so Freecycle is a pretty good source for them.

The next bit is more easily shown than told, so, without further ado, here’s me, on a Saturday morning, making a cup of coffee all the way from a handful of green beans to the mug:

The coffee tasted pretty damn good. It helps that green beans last for *ages* compared to roasted beans, which is excellent motivation for home roasting.

If you want to try this at home, (a) see if you can find a friend with a popcorn maker they’ve not used since 1988 and steal it, and (b) look to somewhere like Has Bean for supplies – all their beans are available to buy green.

Enjoy! But do bear these caveats in mind:

  • The same hot air that’s designed to lift the popped corn out of the machine also blows out the chaff (the papery “skin” of the beans.) The chaff starts floating off soon after you put the beans in the machine, and is much harder to catch in a bowl than popcorn. Be prepared to sweep up afterwards.
  • You normally roast coffee to somewhere between first and second “crack”. Each coffee bean makes a sharp little cracking sound once, near the beginning of the roasting, and then again, a few minutes later in the case of my popcorn maker. The longer you leave it, the darker the roast, which I like, but it’s a fine line between “French roast” and “burned to a cinder”. This guide may help.
  • Coffee roasting takes longer than popping popcorn. Be careful your popcorn maker doesn’t overheat! Watch for deforming plastic, etc. Don’t leave it unattended. Basically, don’t try this at home, kids, unless you’re prepared for unexpected consequences.
  • You can, of course, buy “proper” home coffee roasters, but they’re more expensive. And less fun, in my opinion, than repurposing something orange and plastic from the 1980s and bending it to your will.
  • If you’re going to point an expensive camera lens into a hot-air popcorn maker’s exhaust port, make sure you do it from a safe distance. I got away with it, luckily.
  • You probably want your beans to “rest” a while after roasting to “de-gas” them. The typical advice is to wait around a day between roasting and using the beans. In practice, though, the coffee tasted fine to me straight away, but that might have been because I was caffeine-starved :)
 

Some time before Christmas, I was invited by Asda  to attend a blogger event at Leiths cookery school. You may have seen the TV adverts promoting the partnership between Asda and Leiths, whereby Leiths have given their stamp of approval to a selection of the Asda Extra Special range.

I’ll admit that I reacted in a very unbecoming way, disdainful that a respected professional cookery school would be endorsing a range from what I perceived as a cheap supermarket with products to match. So I’ll put my hand up and state that I was wrong, unequivocally wrong. Every single one of the products I’ve tasted from the Asda Extra Special range has been excellent, and would hold its own against products from any other supermarket, whether that’s Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose or M&S. When I take prices into account, I’m even more impressed and genuinely disappointed I don’t have a branch near me.

At the school, Leiths Managing Director, Camilla Schneideman, explained that her team had not only handpicked their favourite products, based on taste and quality of ingredients, but they had also developed a range of recipes using the products, to give Asda shoppers some fresh ideas on how to use them well. Initially, the partnership focused on Asda’s Extra Special Christmas range, but I understand it will be an on-going partnership through the year.

Rather then sit down to a meal prepared by someone else, we scrubbed up, put on our aprons and spent a happy couple of hours in the Leiths’ kitchens, cooking a festive feast using the Leiths recipes. In teams of 4, we cooked canapés, starters, a main with sides and a delicious pudding. Luckily, some of the ingredients preparation had been done for us, such as peeling and weighing, so we were able to do a lot in a relatively short time. Only after all our hard work did we sit down and enjoy the fruits of our labours. My stand out favourite was the rich gravy accompanying the rack of venison, and the chocolate Yule log, but everything was very tasty.

Asda kindly offered a Christmas hamper for a Kavey Eats competition, but as I was running a fair few competitions during that period already, I asked for a non-seasonal hamper instead, to cheer someone up through the new year blues. Being a picky sort, I made the selection myself and have chosen everything from biscuits and popcorn to crisps and nuts to balsamic vinegar and dipping oils to pasta and pesto to chutney, gravy and honey. There’s even a nice bottle of red wine and one of bubbly cava!

Asda Extra Special 16 Mini Meringues 65g Asda Extra Special Aceto Balsamico di Modena 250ml Asda Extra Special All Butter Parmesan & Garlic Mini Twists 75g Asda Extra Special Artisan Bakery Soft Baked Apple Cookies 250g Asda Extra Special Artisan Bakery Stem Ginger Chocolate Biscuits 150g Asda Extra Special Belgian Milk Chocolate & Pecan Popcorn Clusters 150g Asda Extra Special Caramelised Onion Chutney 320g Asda Extra Special Cracked Black Pepper Ciabatta Croutons 85g Asda Extra Special Garlic Dipping Oil 250ml Asda Extra Special Hand Decorated Toffee Cake Asda Extra Special Hand Finished Apricot Crumbles 80g Asda Extra Special Italian Conchiglioni 500g Asda Extra Special Italian Pesto Alla Genovese 190g Asda Extra Special Rich Beef Gravy 300g Asda Extra Special Spanish Orange Blossom Honey 340g Asda Extra Special Spiced Plum & Ginger Marinade 275g Asda Extra Special Lightly Salted Vietnamese Jumbo Cashew Nuts Asda Extra Special Hand Cooked Mixed Vegetable Crisps with Sea Salt Asda Extra Special Marques Del Norte Rioja Reserva 75cl Asda Extra Special Mas Miralda Cava Vintage 2010 Brut 75cl

Contents of Prize Hamper: Extra Special mini meringues, Extra Special Aceto Balsamico di Modena, Extra Special all butter parmesan and garlic mini twists, Extra Special soft-baked apple cookies, Extra Special stem ginger chocolate, Extra Special Belgian milk chocolate and pecan popcorn clusters, Extra Special caramelised onion chutney, Extra Special black pepper ciabatta croutons, Extra Special garlic dipping oil, Extra Special hand-decorated toffee cake, Extra Special apricot crumbles, Extra Special Italian conchiglioni, Extra Special Italian pesto alla Genovese, Extra Special rich beef gravy, Extra Special Spanish orange blossom honey, Extra Special spiced plum and ginger marinade, Extra Special Vietnamese jumbo cashew nuts, Extra Special vegetable crisps, Extra Special Marques Del Norte Rioja Reserva, Extra Special Mas Miralda Cava Vintage 2010 Brut

 

How to enter

You can enter the competition in 2 ways.

Entry 1 – Answer the question
Leave a comment below, answering the following question:
What’s your best tip for combatting the January blues?

Entry 2 – Tweet
Tweet the (exact) sentence below:
I’d love to win an Asda Extra Special hamper from kaveyeats.com #KaveyEatsAsda

Rules & Details

  • The deadline for entries is midnight GMT Friday 27 January 2012.
  • One blog entry and one twitter entry per person.
  • The winner will be selected from all valid entries using a random number generator.
  • The prize is a hamper of food and drink from the Leiths Approved Asda Extra Special range, with an approximate value of contents of £50 (based on current prices). The prize includes delivery, and can be delivered to UK mainland addresses only.
  • Asda reserve the right to substitute any items that are out of stock for other Leiths Approved Asda Extra Special items of a similar value.
  • The prize cannot be redeemed for cash.
  • The prize is offered directly by Asda.
  • Valid entries must contain either an email address or twitter account, for contacting the winner. For those leaving a comment using their blogger/ Google ID, please make sure an email address is visible in your profile.
  • The winner will be notified by email or twitter. If no response is received by the end of Tuesday 31 January, the prize will be forfeit and a new winner will be picked and contacted.

*If you don’t have a secondary email address already and are nervous about sharing your main email address on the internet, why not set up a new free email account on hotmail, gmail or yahoo, that you can use to enter competitions like this?

Thanks to Asda and Leiths for inviting me to the Extra Special cookery class and for offering this prize.

Congratulations to the winner, Riocaz.

Jan 152012
 

When invited to review relatively new restaurant Greenleaf, it was described to me as “a lovely Chinese restaurant […serving] really lovely food, very different from the greasy little restaurants in Chinatown”. I can’t say I’ve found the food in Chinatown restaurants particularly greasy but evening menus are certainly formulaic and most offer little to excite. (I visit most often for dim sum lunch.)

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I checked out Greenleaf’s menu before accepting the invitation, and certainly there were a few dishes that caught my eye; things I’d be tempted to order, as they weren’t your run-of-the-mill chicken in black bean sauce or sweet and sour chicken, though certainly there are familiar classics on the menu too.

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Certainly, the interior was a nice change; modern and attractive in white and shades of warm grey with a simple circle motif wall pattern, bonsai trees in the alcoves and modern white light shades.

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From the tea menu I ordered a pot of Tie Guan Yin Blue Tea (£2.50), listed as a “lightly-fermented blue tea with mild scent but strong tea taste […] refreshing and stimulating“. I drink a lot of oolong, and when my tea first arrived and a cup was poured for me, I was sure I’d accidentally been given the Dan Cong Jasmine instead, so heady was the floral jasmine aroma but so lacking the normal oolong taste. I was assured that it was tie guan yin, so decided to let it brew a little longer. Of course, the waiter was correct, after a longer steep, the distinctive flavours of oolong revealed themselves and I began to realise this was an absolutely fantastic example. Much paler than the tie guan yins I have previously tried, but with a complex and full bodied taste, I felt this tea boded well for the meal to come. The waiter was proud to tell me that this tea is from very near where he grew up.

When my friend finally arrived, we tucked into a selection of starters from the a la carte menu.

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Softshell crab in salt and pepper (£5.50) was crunchy, well seasoned and with lots of flavour.

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Grilled scallops with Japanese BBQ sauce (£6.80) were delicious, though the cherry tomatoes distracted from the taste – we decided they must be for garnish. I love miso paste, so these were always going to be a winner for me.

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Grilled minced pork dumplings served with vinegar (£4.50) are fairly ubiquitous so these had to live up. They did: generously sized, so juicy inside that they spurted as we bit into them and with wrappings which had a lovely balance between soft, chewy and crunchy. The flavours were spot on.

So far so good but we had picked up on one thing neither of us liked at all; every dish we’d been served so far was garnished with out-of-season fruits. Plump raspberries appeared on all three dishes, not to mention those cherry tomatoes…

Time for some mains…

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First out were the Stir-fried tiger prawns with garlic, chilli and sesame in breadcrumbs (£8.80). Yes, that’s two more out-of-season raspberries! Although the prawns were large, there were only two in the serving, which is a little steep for just under £9. The breadcrumb coating was delicious, with lots of salt, chilli and richness of flavour. This made up for the prawns which, whilst well cooked to the right texture, lacked any real flavour of their own. Really good fresh prawns have their own sweetness which would have been noticeable even through the strongly flavoured coating. We enjoyed these but they didn’t blow us away.

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The next dish did, though! Described as Stir-fried ground beef fillets with mushroom in red wine sauce (£11.80), I was expecting minced beef, but what came out were generous chunks of silky soft beef and mushrooms in a delicious sauce. Both of us were mesmerised with this fusion of a European red wine and mushroom sauce with the Chinese flavours of ginger and spring onion. I’d never have expected it to work but we both really loved this dish, to our surprise. (And yes, that’s more raspberries you can see nestled in the greenery, there!)

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Our waiter suggested we try a clay pot dish when I asked him what he felt was unmissable from the menu. We chose the Stewed tofu with prawns, chicken, scallops and pork (£13.80) and it was marvellous! Even with big fat prawns, chicken, pork and scallops, the tofu was still the star of the show. These circles of fried tofu were so meltingly soft inside, they almost felt like liquid balls bursting in the mouth. I was amazed by the braised bean curd at Pearl Liang last year; this tofu clay pot dish was even better!

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We finished off with more tea and macarons. You guessed it, they too were served with out-of-season fruit. In fact, the only dishes to escape this obsession of presentation were the tofu hot pot and the steamed rice. The macarons were decent enough.

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Although I usually take PR claims for new restaurants with a pinch of “they would say that wouldn’t they” salt, I have to concede that this one was right on the money with her “really lovely food” recommendation. Everything was good, much of it was excellent.

With the exception of the tiger prawns, I thought prices were very reasonable. Our bill, including two glasses of wine, came to £65 plus service. And of course, we ordered 3 starters and 3 mains between two of us; you could knock a third off that bill by being less greedy!

A lunch menu of dishes served with rice or noodles is also available. Most dishes between £6.50 and £7.80, with one at £8.80.

After our meal we popped downstairs to view the two karaoke rooms. Both spacious, with comfortable banquette seating, they hold a maximum of 12 and 15 people respectively; I recommend you visit and check how many you think is optimum for each room as I’d probably go with 8 and 10. Rather than a separate room charge, they are rented out with a minimum spend requirement (£200 and £220) which is less than £25 per person for the group sizes I’d book; very easy to eat and drink that much during an evening. Guests can eat in the main dining room or down in the karaoke rooms, as they prefer.

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Greenleaf.

Greenleaf Restaurant & Karaoke on Urbanspoon

 

I can’t recall where I first read about Garlic & Sapphires but it must have been a positive review as I immediately added the book to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks to kind friends, it popped through my letterbox over Christmas and I tore through it during the first two days of the new year.

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The fourth book by former restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, Garlic And Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic is a wonderfully entertaining meander through Reichl’s working life at The New York Times. Essentially a string of anecdotes strung together with a simplified personal narrative, it’s almost always amusing, often enlightening and occasionally touching too.

Tales of creating deliciously audacious disguises with wigs, wardrobes and wicked backstories are interspersed with stories of visiting many of New York’s best known restaurants, and many lesser known places as well. These chapters include the restaurant reviews as they were published in the paper, giving a great insight into how Reichl translated the multiple visits she made to each restaurant into succinct and pithy pieces for print.

Keen cooks may also appreciate the seventeen recipes Reichl has shared; related to events in the book, they range from New York cheesecake to hash browns to vanilla cake to spaghetti carbonara.

At first, Reichl revels in her new role, relishing the chance to transform herself into an increasing number of alter egos which we too can giggle and gasp over. But just as the reader pales of the endless parade of new characters, so does Reichl, increasingly dissatisfied with these deceptions and her own changes in behaviour as a result.

It’s not a deep book, by any means, and yet we do go on a journey with the author from start to finish.

An enjoyable read; perfect for a long hot soak in the tub or whiling away the time in the airport lounge or on the train.


Garlic And Sapphires by Ruth Reichl is currently available in paperback on Amazon for £5.30 (RRP £8.99).

 

Charles Campion‘s Banana Cake is a recipe I copied across to my blog from a post that originally appeared on a food chat board, or in my general online diary, or was sent via email… or in one of the many places I shared my food experiences before I finally realised I was “stealth-blogging” and set up Kavey Eats!

It’s such a good recipe I always intended to go back and add photos the next time I made it… but, although I’ve enjoyed making and eating it so many times since, I never have.

My talented-photographer-friend Matt Gibson made it recently and showed me his gorgeous photos. My brain started to tick tock tick tock and I discarded the plan to simply slot his photos into that old post, and asked him to guest blog it afresh instead.

Sharing the same recipe on a blog twice might be odd but Matt’s lack of food processor means he’s brought some new advice to the recipe, not to mention his confirmation that it’s a doddle even for novice or nervous bakers.

Over to Matt:


One evening, a week before Christmas, I peered into my fruit bowl. My three remaining bananas stared forlornly back at me. Over-ripe and — based on evidence from the two I’d already eaten — also rather bruised underneath. What to do?

Twitter to the rescue. “Got a banana bread recipe” I asked. “Only this one I’ve found is American, and I have no idea how many bananas there are in two-and-one-third cups.”

Auntie Kavey responded instantly, pointing me at her Charles Campion’s Banana Cake page. Not only did it sound easy — always a bonus for an inexperienced baker like me — but it called for three medium-sized bananas, exactly what I needed to make use of.

So, I dived in, stymied briefly by the local Co-Operative supermarket having run out of both eggs *and* caster sugar (hint, Co-Op: more people than normal are probably baking stuff in the week before Christmas.)

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Another minor speed-bump in my road was the first instruction in the recipe, “Measure all ingredients straight into your food processor and whizz into smooth batter,” which rather assumes you own something as fancy as a food processor. Still, at least I’ve got an electric whisk. Instead of boshing it all together I cubed the butter, which I figured would be the difficult-to-mix bit, and rubbed it into the sifted flour and sugar until I had a breadcrumb-like consistency. Then I added everything else, roughly mixing as I went. Finally I took up my electric whisk and zizzed the mixture to a nice smooth batter.

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And that was the hard work done, really. I poured the mix into my greased, floured loaf-tin. Pausing only briefly to check I was neither very young, very old, nor pregnant, I took my life in my hands and tasted a wooden spoon’s scraping’s-worth of the cake mix that had clung on in the bowl. Niiiice. So, all the signs were good.

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I popped the loaf tin straight into my pre-heated oven, did the washing-up, and went to post some “before” photos on Twitter. This is the 21st century, after all; if you’ve not tweeted about it, it hasn’t happened.

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About forty-five minutes later I was walking past my kitchen door and had to stop and stick my head in and inhale the lovely banana-ey bready smell that was coming from the oven. Another fifteen minutes and I was pulling open the oven, crossing my fingers, and manhandling the loaf tin onto the kitchen worktop with two strategically-positioned tea towels (I know, I know. “Oven gloves” has been just above “food processor” on my kitchen equipment shopping list for about eight years now.)

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It looked good. Dark-to-golden brown, with a nice light sponginess showing through the split that had formed on the top. After a few minutes, I gently tried to slide the loaf out, but it felt a bit too wobbly and was clinging to the sides, so I tried to practise some patience and left it to cool in its tin for a while. Once it wasn’t so hot, it slid out more easily, and kept its nice loaf shape as I rolled it onto the cooling rack, though the gooey bottom did sink a millimetre or so into the rack as it settled densely down.

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After my disaster with Nigella’s Dense Chocolate Loaf Cake, which stayed entirely liquid in the middle when I made it, I was a little scared to finally start slicing into my banana cake, but my fears were unfounded. It was a little gooey at the bottom, but pleasantly so, and the rest was a lovely moist cake with a delicious light crust on top and at the edges (the end parts were my personal favourite.) The banana flavour was good, and I hadn’t overdone the vanilla, despite my worries.

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All in all, this was a fantastic recipe, easy for the baking beginner, even if you’re only armed with a £4.99 electric whisk from Argos that smells a bit like a Scalextric car when it’s running. You’ll never let over-ripe bananas go to waste again.

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My beginner’s tips:

* “a few drops” of vanilla essence is just under a quarter of a teaspoonful.
* Wait until the loaf’s cooled a bit before you try to de-tin it.
* Don’t shop for cake ingredients in the Co-Op just before Christmas.


Here’s the recipe again with my original notes below. ~ Kavey

Gooey Delicious Banana Cake

Ingredients
175 grams caster sugar
225 grams white self-raising flour
100 grams unsalted butter (I always use lightly salted actually)
3 tablespoons fresh milk (I used fully skimmed as that’s what we buy)
2 large fresh eggs
3 medium sized, very ripe bananas
A few drops vanilla essence

Method

  • Preheat oven to 185 C (adjust down for fan ovens).
  • Measure all ingredients straight into your food processor and whizz into smooth batter.
  • Butter a large loaf tin well, then throw in some flour, tap and turn the tin to coat the flour over all surfaces and then tap out any excess into the bin/ sink.
  • Pour the batter into the tin.
  • Bake for an hour.

Note: Campion says “Because we are looking for a soggy end product, the old-faithful test of sticking in a skewer and withdrawing it clean is not appropriate. With practice you’ll simply need to glance at it to tell. In the meantime, because of the style of cake we’re trying to achieve, there’s a wide margin of error to make things easier.”

Note: If it helps, I find the cake rises delightfully and the top turns a lovely rich chocolatey brown (darker than golden brown) and also usually splits, like a lemon drizzle cake.

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All images by Matt Gibson.

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