Sunday, 17 September 2017

Alchemy at Alchemilla

I'm always proud to think that Nottingham plays host to one of the country's finest restaurants and I've often hoped that one day another might come along and pique the interest of the Michelin inspectors. With the opening of Alchemilla, that hope may be closer to being realised.

Based in a refurbished Victorian coach-house and less than ten minutes walk from the city centre, Alchemilla is the brainchild of head chef and owner Alex Bond, who was previously a chef at, amongst other places, the aforementioned Restaurant Sat Bains. Before Alchemilla opened, the building in which it resides had been derelict for over a hundred years so this is no small investment and gamble for Bond. If its early days are anything to go by however, the gamble will pay off handsomely.

Upon entering the building the first thing you see is, unusually, the open kitchen where Bond and his team work their magic. Just past this is the main dining area, all open-brick arches and ferns on the walls; while off to one side is a more contemporary-looking bar area. Our group forwent any pre-dinner drinks though and settled straight down for the evening. We'd already decided in advance to go for the ten course tasting menu (they also offer five and seven course options) before caution and frugality were thrown to the winds as we chose the accompanying wine flight for our drinks. After some warm and crunchy home-made sourdough bread was polished off the fun and games proper began.

Our seven savoury servings ranged from good (the crab and kohlrabi, celeriac and mushroom and leeks, cheese and hazelnuts), to excellent (the cauliflower fungus(!), squid carbonara and duck and carrot) to "Oh my God that's heavenly." This was reserved for the black pudding, eel and beetroot. A slab of the softest black pudding I've ever tasted was covered by a small slice of smoky eel and smeared with a beetroot sauce. Puffed wild rice added a touch of crunch to finish the whole delicious creation off nicely.

Crab and kohlrabi

Duck, carrot, rhubarb and nasturtium


The three dessert courses were also top notch. Freeze-dried apple pie retained all its crunch and flavour when it thawed and was served with a warm poached apple; a crunchy chocolate tuille sat atop rich chocolate ganache and banana ice-cream while slivers of lime zest and a smudge of miso caramel added wonderful saltiness and zing; and finally blackberries and an almost-sour 'cultured cream' were matched with a deep and delectable beetroot sorbet.

Each of the ten courses was served with a well-matched wine and there were some real crackers - in particular the Beaujolais which accompanied the black pudding and the sweet Chateau Doisy-Vedrines served alongside the chocolate dessert. The final wine was a red Lambrusco, which was something I didn't realise existed.

Service was very good. We were there for a long time but never felt like there was too much of a wait between courses. Our wine waitress was excellent, taking time to provide detail about each wine and explain why it had been matched with the particular course. Similar explanations for the food were unfortunately missing however - it would have been nice to have learned a bit more about each dish, in particular the unusual ones such as the cauliflower fungus.

My only other grumbles are so small that I almost feel guilty writing them. There was no amuse bouche. (#firstworldproblems) You may argue that with ten courses you don't need an amuse bouche, and you'd be right; but it's always nice to feel you're getting a little something more than you paid for. Also we were sometimes left guessing which cutlery we should use for each dish, as a number of the courses were served in high-sided bowls and consisted of both solid and liquid elements. This is me being very picky however and none of the above detracted in any way from our experience.

The meal and wines represented really good value for money, service was slick, smooth and friendly and the environment was very smart indeed. If Alchemilla can tick all these boxes within two months of opening then the future really is bright and I can't wait to see how it develops over the years to come. I hope the people of Nottingham recognise they've got a real gem on their hands here - and I hope the Michelin inspectors recognise it too.




Monday, 28 August 2017

London, Lille, Lovely!

After a fun weekend in Lille in 2016 we decided another trip was in order. This time though, rather than sampling the city's brasseries we booked something a bit more special. More of that later though. To make a full weekend of it we had a day in London en route. But what to do in the evening? What's that you say? A three course meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant for £38? With a cocktail? On a Friday evening in Mayfair? Where do we sign up?

Where do we get in more like?

We were so busy reading the plaque denoting the place where the Queen had been born that we walked straight past the entrance of Hakkasan Mayfair and had to double-back. The well-hidden doorway took us through to the plush interior before we were ushered to our seats in the downstairs dining area.

As we were dining before 18:30 we each chose the "Taste of Hakkasan" menu: three courses and a cocktail for the incredibly reasonable sum of £38.00 per person. Though this menu doesn't include the full choice of what Hakkasan has to offer it still has a wide variety of dishes. From the menu we both went for the dim sum starters; for our mains I had the Sanpei chicken claypot whilst Clare chose the stir-fried beef in Merlot.

The starters were tremendous. Three dumplings each, including plump, juicy prawn and a caviar-covered scallop, a wonderful chilli sauce with brown shrimp and the same venison puff that Hakkasan's sister restaurant Yautcha also serves. Light, flaky pastry with a shiny-sweet sheen encasing rich chunks of venison.

Dim sum starter

Our mains were equally impressive. The beef was full of deep and smoky flavour while the chicken packed a pleasingly spicy punch. The meat was accompanied by a generous helping of jasmine rice and a bowlful of crunchy asparagus.

To finish the evening we opted for a cherry delice and a Jivara bomb. The former was a slab of cherry mousse on a crunchy base, accompanied by a deep cherry sorbet and pistachios. The Jivara bomb turned out to be an impressive ball of rice crispies coating some delicious hazelnut praline ice-cream. Our waiter poured hot, gloopy chocolate sauce over the spherical sensation whilst a nutty crumb and freeze-dried raspberries completed the plate. A pinch of popping candy provided the explosion!

Jevari bomb

A notable mention must also be given to the cocktails. Clare's "Hakka" was a tropical mix of vodka, Sake, lychee and coconut; and my "Green Destiny" was, no, not a sword with ornate markings, but a refreshing blend of vodka, cucumber, kiwi and apple.

Service was good. It took a little while for our starter to appear but our waiter duly apologised and, to be fair, we had turned up earlier than our booking time and been seated immediately. The whole experience was excellent and represented brilliant value for money and they certainly didn't skimp on the portions. For anyone wanting to try some top-quality Oriental food in London, Hakkasan is definitely worth the visit.

And so, on to Lille.....

La Table is based at the rather charming Clarence Hotel in Lille, which itself is barely five minutes walk from the city's Grand Place. As usual we arrived early, but this wasn't a problem and we were swiftly escorted to our seats in the beautiful, wood-panelled dining room. Rather than enjoying an aperitif on the terrace we dived straight into our meal and wine choices for the evening.

We opted for the "Pur" menu of four courses and a dessert. Rather unusually this didn't contain any meat. Our first starter was purely vegetable based while the other dishes all contained fish. Apart from the dessert of course. That would've been weird. Before any of these arrived however we were treated to the amuse bouche which included a nicely grilled and crunchily-coated oyster and a seafood bisque with, unusually, some slivers of rich cheese. This being France we were brought a wide range of breads accompanied by a trio of butters of which the fish one was particularly tasty - almost like a really light mackerel pate.

Starter one was a runny egg yolk with some crunchy courgette, nicely-salted courgette crisps, a piquant pepper puree and some caramalised almonds to add a touch of sweetness. This was a very pleasant mix and beautifully presented with a blaze of colours and a real vibrancy to the plate.

Chapter one of the subsequent seafood trilogy consisted of slivers of perfectly cooked squid covered in an intensely nutty pistachio-based vinaigrette. Creamy avocado and crunchy balls of lightly-pickled cucumber rounded out another excellent dish.

Squid

Next up was lobster, and boy was it good. A couple of respectable chunks of sweet meat were complemented by a small, fried, pea pierogi, peas and sweetcorn, buttery strings of grilled leak and wonderfully salty bacon slices which were nothing so much like Frazzles. That's a good thing. Oh, and it was all drizzled in a lobster sauce so good it had us both wanting to lick the plates clean (but retaining our dignity and not doing so).

Our final main was an impressive slab of flaky hake, perfectly seasoned and nicely salty. It sat upon a saffron sauce and shared the plate with tomatoes of varying sweetness and texture, earthy chanterelle mushrooms and a crispy cuboid of polenta. All very lovely.

Hake

Dessert was a baked fig which resembled an upturned mushroom. With this was served some zingy lemon yoghurt ice-cream, a blizzard of blueberries and an odd, chewy slice of what seemed to be a blueberry jelly encrusted with crunchy nuts. Together it resulted in a light and not-too-sweet end to a very impressive meal. After-dinner coffees were served with some excellent petit-fours including Amaretto-soaked plums and a small, rich chunk of salt-covered chocolate.

Our whole evening at La Table was an absolute delight. The dining room was opulent without being stuffy, the meal was delicious yet not overly heavy and the service was really, really good. I'm not sure a non-English speaker in London would get their menu and wine choices read out to them so clearly in their native language but that's exactly what happened here. Special mention must go to the sommelier Romain who was utterly charming.

For a special meal in a fantastic setting in a wonderful little city, La Table at the Clarence Hotel in Lille will take some beating.










Tuesday, 6 June 2017

An Impassioned Plea

I know you’re probably all sick of politics right now but I make no apologies for posting this.

This general election is probably the most important one of most of our lifetimes. It’s not just defining what kind of place our country will be for the next five years, but likely for decades beyond that.

This could be the last chance for five years that we’ll all have to have any kind of say and influence on the direction of our country, and if we don’t make our choice wisely the country could end up taking a direction that many of us do not want.

We can do something about this. Our vote does matter. In our local election recently, the majority of the winning candidate was less than forty votes. You may think politics is boring – and you’re often right. But thinking that it doesn’t affect you or that you can’t affect the outcome is totally and utterly wrong. It does, you can and you will – but only if you get out and vote.

As for who you should vote for, that’s obviously up to you. Anything else I say will be biased and you’ll probably choose to ignore it, but I’m going to say it anyway. On a personal level, the recent years under the current Conservative government haven’t affected me profoundly. However, they won’t be getting my vote in the election – Labour will. Why?

Because I know I’m very, very lucky. I have a job, a house and my health. Many millions of people don’t have any or all of these things. I also realise that life is fickle and fragile and these circumstances can change in an instant – a fact which has been brought sharply into focus after the last few weeks. All it takes is being in the wrong place at the wrong time and your life can be turned upside down. I believe that if I needed a government to support me and my family if something awful did happen, I couldn’t trust a Conservative one to do it. Irvine Welsh sums it up far better than me: "When you're not doing so well, vote for a better life for yourself. If you are doing quite nicely, vote for a better life for others."

I'm also deeply concerned for the future of our country. We’re about to enter a massively important set of negotiations with the European Union where we have no idea what the outcome will be, and we don't enter these negotiations from a position of strength. Theresa May keeps telling us that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ but she’s never actually said that that means; for me, for you or for the whole country. She’s also seemingly proud of going into these negotiations to be ‘difficult.’ How will that help? Surely we should be going in to reach as mutually beneficial an agreement as possible? We don’t need someone difficult. We need someone collaborative and empathetic and Theresa May is not that person. Jeremy Corbyn may not be either, but he appears to have more of those qualities than the current Prime Minister does. And that could be hugely important in the months and years to come. Labour also have Sir Kier Starmer as their Shadow Minister for Exiting the European Union. A highly respected and experienced QC. An individual who's far more likely to be able to negotiate a better deal than David Davis.

How can we trust a leader who calls a massively important election; then, instead of debating with the other party leaders in front of millions of concerned voters on TV, sends a colleague still grieving the death of her father a couple of days earlier? How can we trust a leader who’s had – as Home Secretary and Prime Minister – seven years to work on the issue of terrorism but comes up with a ‘plan’ four days before an election? Not to mention that during that time as Home Secretary she presided over a 20,000 cut in police numbers and over 1,000 cut in armed police. How can we trust a party whose entire campaign seems to be based around the ‘strength and stability’ of this leader, when she’s shown herself to be anything but? Mrs. May seems obsessed with telling us all how strong and stable her leadership is. To me it sounds more like she’s trying to convince herself. How can we trust a party whose Foreign Minister – the country’s representative on the world stage – appears to be a bumbling fool, but is in reality a calculating, vainglorious career politician who gambled the future of the country for his own political ambitions?

The Labour manifesto appears fair, balanced and inclusive and contains – albeit at a high level – costings of how they’d pay for things like scrapping tuition fees and more funding for the NHS. The Tories' manifesto scraps free school lunches but introduces breakfasts. At 7p per child per day. It pledges £8bn ‘extra’ funding for the NHS without saying where it’s coming from (although one of their ministers has said it’s just repurposing existing spending). And that’s before we even get started on social care, cutting spending on public services, fox hunting and the ivory trade.

You may not want to vote Labour, and that's fine. None of the parties are perfect. However, by voting tactically, there's still a chance to stop the Conservatives from claiming an overall majority and forcing through their plans for the next five years. You can find out how to do it here. Five more years of Conservative policy and a Brexit deal that's no good for anyone but the richest could leave our country on its knees. Please don't let this happen.

Finally, to anyone reading this who’s between 18-34 years old, I imagine you could be disengaged from our politicians. If so I couldn’t say I blame you. However, you’re probably the most important group of prospective voters in this election, and you’re also probably the group of prospective voters to whom this election is most important. You might be at university, or thinking of going there. You might be looking for work, or just started it. You might be trying to get onto the property ladder. Which party do you think will help you the most? Which party has the interests of the young at their forefront? Your vote matters so much, it’s vital that you use it. If it’s sunny on June 8th get out and vote. If it’s raining, get out and vote. If there’s a plague of frogs and locusts, get out and vote. Because if you’re not happy with the Conservative government then this is your chance to temper them – the only chance you’ll get for a while. And you can guarantee that, whatever the circumstances, the majority of their supporters always vote.

Whoever you do vote for in the end though, the most important thing is that you get out and vote. If you don’t like the direction you think the country is heading in, or even if you do, you have the chance to influence that direction. Around 30% of eligible people didn’t vote in 2015. If they had voted they could’ve made a difference. Please don’t be one of those this time round.

Thank you.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Safety Dance

So, the season at the City Ground finished much as it had begun, with the stadium bathed in sunshine and Nottingham Forest scoring freely and securing three points. That doesn't tell the story though, not a bit of it. This is some of the story...

51 x points
2 x away wins
3 x managers (albeit one interim)
2 x of them no longer manager
3 x takeover attempts
2 x of them failing
4 x different goalkeepers
1 x undersold bright young prospect
1 x sold captain
Hundreds x fans blocked by Fawaz on Twitter
2 x Directors of Football
1 x league double (thanks Ipswich)
2 x goal difference keeping us up
1 x new hope?

All the above, and so much more, led us to midday on Sunday 7th May. The objective was clear: match Blackburn Rovers' result, ideally by winning, and winning by enough goals to make their task away at Brentford as difficult as possible. We couldn't rely on anyone else, we had to do this ourselves.

The fans played their part, resulting in the highest home attendance of the season; even the weather did too, with early clouds giving way to glorious sunshine. Could the players live up to the billing though, which they'd failed to do all too often this season...?

Early signs weren't great - in fact they couldn't have been much worse - as Blackburn and Birmingham triggered the Doomsday Scenario by taking 2-0 and 1-0 leads in their respective matches. Forest dropped into the bottom three. The only crumb of comfort was that we hadn't fallen behind, but we so nearly did. Only the outstretched left hand of wrong-footed goalkeeper Jordan Smith kept us level; incredibly palming onto the crossbar a deflected Dominic Samuel shot. It's not too great an exaggeration to say that Smith's save saved the season.

And minutes later its importance became clear, as Jamie Ward latched onto Eric Lichaj's throw-in, lifted the ball over Ipswich keeper Bartosz Bialkowski and got comprehensively cleaned out. Watching from behind the sofa at home as I was (#notarealfan) I was just gutted that the ball had been cleared off the line. I never even thought of a penalty. The referee did though and that's what matters. Up stepped Britt Assombalonga to sweep the ball into the top corner and rekindle hope. For the moment, Forest were safe.

The moment nearly didn't last long though, as an Ipswich corner found the head of Christope Berra who glanced it just wide. Half time came with Forest outside the drop zone by the most slender of margins. A goal in any of the three relevant matches could change the whole picture, and it wasn't long into the second half before the goals came.

Firstly Brentford clawed a goal back against Blackburn, giving Forest a bit more breathing space. Not long afterwards, Chris Cohen received the ball outside the Ipswich box, drew back his left foot and let fly. And fly it did - via a Town defender and into the top corner. The emotion on Cohen's face reminded me of when he scored the brilliant 3rd goal away at West Brom in the first of Billy Davies' playoff seasons, so long ago. Safety was close now - so close we could almost touch it.

It should've been closer still when Assombalonga's pass released the outstanding Ward who drew a foul in the box and another penalty. Britt couldn't seal the deal though as Bialkowski brilliantly tipped over. Would this cost us? Was there to be one more twist? Not this time. For, minutes later, Assombalonga ran onto David Vaughan's quickly taken free-kick, drove into the box and smashed his second into the roof of the net. Relief all round. A third goal from Blackburn ultimately proved futile and it was they who slid into League One. But it was close. Far too close.

In the end, season 2016/17 finished much as the previous one had, with Championship status preserved and the club potentially on the cusp of new ownership. If the deal should be completed this time (and I'm certainly counting no chickens yet) then who knows what lays in store next? Out of the frying pan, or a new hope? Only time will tell.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Wow For Yauatcha

"Are you sure you want to order that?" asked Lisa, our charmingly chirpy waitress. "It's a lot of food." "We'll be fine," we assured her. Had she seen how much we eat? Plus, well, it's a Chinese isn't it? We'll be hungry again half an hour later. After polishing off our desserts and feeling like Jabba the Hutt after he'd pigged out on those frogs he eats however, we had to concede that Lisa was right.

Having never visited Yauatcha in Soho before and having been flummoxed by the sheer choice on the menu (and not knowing what some of it even was), we'd decided that the Yauatcha Signature Dim Sum Menu was the way to go. If I were to go again - which I certainly would as it was excellent - I'd be braver and make my own choices.

Anyway. Before the menu proper we'd been presented with some slivers of cucumber and dipping sauces (soy, sweet chilli and slap round the face chilli), and selected our drink for the evening; a carafe of sake served in a cunningly-fashioned bottle with a reservoir for crushed ice which kept the drink cool yet undiluted.

First up was a tremendous venison puff: crisp, sweet, flaky pastry encasing rich meat. From then on things became a blur of dumplings; each of them light, some steamed, others boiled, and all packed full of wondrous fillings. The 'lasagne' - tubes of rice-flour 'pasta' crammed with mushrooms - was particularly good. The crab salad from the menu wasn't available. However, the duck salad we received in its stead was fabulous. Rich, flaky duck with a mixture of leaves, herbs and pomegranate seeds.

It was the seafood soup which first made us realise that Lisa knew her stuff, as the dumpling it was served with was truly a giant amongst dumplings. A tasty giant though - stuffed as it was with scallop and crab meat. More duck, shredded in front of us and served up with pancakes and a deep Hoisin sauce, was next, before crispy squid and baby pak choi finished the job. We couldn't quite manage to do the same though, not without leaving a bit of room for dessert anyway.

Service was brisk and friendly, and Lisa seemed mortified to learn that we'd been given the bill before our dessert had arrived. As we'd turned up earlier than our reservation time and been told we'd need to vacate the table by 20:30 we'd actually thought it was just the restaurant being efficient rather than a mistake. No harm done anyhow. Value-wise, Yauatcha was pretty good. Our tasting menus, the sake and the service charge all included came to just over £100, which for the quality and quantity of food was a steal. If we'd picked our own dishes we could've probably knocked that down into double figures.

I'd definitely visit Yauatcha again, and would probably make my own menu choices next time. My belt would definitely thank me for it.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

The Joy of Tex(ture)

The Marble Arch end of Oxford Street can be pandemonium at the best of times (I'm looking at you Primark). However, a few minutes walk away you can find an oasis of calm, coolness and cracking culinary concoctions. It's called Texture, and it's magnificent.

After having been guided to our seats (despite having arrived twenty minutes early), one of our many charming waiters explained to us how head chef Agnar Sverrisson would treat us to his representation of Icelandic cuisine. Never having been to Iceland I can't vouch for the authenticity of our experience. I can comment on the taste and quality though, and both were absolutely top class.

A bowl of assorted crackers and a mild blue cheese dip, and some crusty bread accompanied by intense olive oil and Icelandic lava salt set things up nicely before the meal proper began. Our appetiser was artichoke soup, and fine soup it was too, given crunch with the inclusion of hazelnuts and depth with a hint of truffle.

On paper I wasn't expecting much from the beetroot, walnuts and Gorgonzola snow which followed, but on the plate it was an absolute revelation. Three hefty chunks of earthy beetroot joined crunchy walnuts and the creamy snow to create a wonderful mix of tastes, temperatures and textures. The portion size was pretty respectable too, and I find myself considering if this was why Iceland seems to have a proliferation of strongmen, eating helpings like this. A selection of herbs rounded the dish off beautifully.

Beetroot

Anjou pigeon, pink and succulent, was next. Slivers of pickled calcot onion provided welcome sourness and textures of corn (including salty bacon popcorn and lovely sweetcorn) added smacks of salty-sweetness to another excellent dish.

Pigeon

The strong aroma of smoked eel ushered in the next course, though the fish itself was surprisingly mild in flavour. The bonito broth in which it sat was also pleasingly subtle, as was the crispy quinoa, while slices of pickled turnips gave the course a wonderful zing. As Nottingham people would say it 'made your tabs laugh.' (Look that up, readers from anywhere else in the country).

A departure from the advertised Icelandic lamb made up the meat course, though I'm not sure the lamb could've matched this absolute triumph. Deep, beefy ox cheek, rib eye so spongy and soft I could've lain upon it and got a fantastic night's sleep, crunchy chips that were more like sculpted roast potatoes, a fruity Port sauce, a smear of horseradish and an olive oil zabaglione. Imagine the very best bits of the very best roast dinner and you'd be getting close.

Blood orange granita and basil (I think) sorbet freshened things up nicely before a really interesting finish to the tasting menu. White chocolate mousse, not too sweet, joined chunks of cucumber and sprigs of dill to make up a dessert which was light enough to end the proceedings on a real high. We skipped the optional cheese and had coffee instead, which was served with some of the best petit fours we've ever had. The warm, crunchy pistachio Madeliene was particularly enjoyable.

Petit fours

Service was excellent throughout and the almost-salty Chardonnay the sommelier suggested was great, and within the price-range we'd asked for. The dining room was large and grand but the atmosphere was relaxed and easy-going, unlike other London restaurants we've visited before. There really wasn't a duff note all night.

Texture certainly lives up to its name as each course had it in abundance. But texture is nothing without taste, and this meal certainly had that too. If this is what Icelandic cuisine can offer then a visit to the land of the midnight sun may well be in order. If not, then a return to Texture will do very nicely instead.





Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Empty Beds and Empty Baskets

An ode to Arnie. To the tune of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables from Les Miserables (sung by Eddie Redmayne here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eqqSa9n2ZQk)

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty beds and empty baskets
Now our cat has sadly gone

Here he dreamed of chasing birdies
Here it was he played his games
Here he meowed about tomorrow
But tomorrow never came

From his scratchpost in the corner
He could see the trees and lawn
And he rose with whiskers twitching
And I can see him now, the very mice that he had caught
He played with and he chewed them
By the lonely garden gate, at dawn

Oh my cat, my cat forgive me
That I live when you are gone
There's a grief that can't be spoken
There's a pain goes on and on

Phantom meowing at the window
Phantom jingling by the door
Empty beds and empty baskets
Where my cat will sleep no more
Oh my cat my cat, don’t ask me
What your scratching post was for
Empty beds and empty baskets
Where my cat will sleep no more