Monday, 8 February 2016

Just Short of the Marc

If you've watched any reality TV-style cookery programmes over the last few years then you'll recognise Marcus Wareing as the steely character who's caused many a novice chef to tremble in their aprons. And a few of the more established ones too. Happily, since taking over the mantle of judge in MasterChef: Professionals from Michel Roux Jr., Wareing seems to have mellowed somewhat. As we made our way to his eponymous restaurant located in the Berkeley Hotel, we were excited to see what it had in store.

Being a Saturday night, the a la carte option wasn't available so it was 8 course taster menu or bust (though there was a vegetarian variant too). This taster menu did offer a choice of lamb or duck for the main however. After making our choice (both duck) and enjoying our amuse bouches of puffed potato balls, goats cheese and a prawn cracker, we were brought our bread and first set of cutlery before being asked to choose our wine for the evening. This was a little odd though hardly earth-shattering, and indeed our freshly-selected bottle was served up midway through the first course proper.

I can't fault any of the food, or the service, or indeed anything to do with the evening; yet I was left slightly and strangely unfulfilled. Each of the courses was cooked perfectly and all were delicious, and there were a number of real highlights: the quail breast served with pigeon tartare and blood orange was wonderful. The crossover dish of Nottinghamshire (yay!) Colston Bassett Stilton with candied walnuts packed a real punch and the gooey sauce which seated the second dessert was a joy. But these were highlights of an evening - not a lifetime. That's the best way I can put it. I'll be talking and thinking about certain dishes from other meals for years to come, and I just don't think I'll be doing that with any of the courses we were served at Marcus.

Quail, pigeon and blood orange

As an example of a high-quality classical restaurant Marcus ticks all the boxes; but if you're looking for something a bit more contemporary, challenging or innovative then you might be better served looking elsewhere. This isn't a criticism in any way and, of course, food is a very subjective thing, but it was Storm Imogen that nearly blew us away on the evening, rather than anything we'd eaten.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Curtain Call

If Salvador Dali had hung up his paintbrushes and moved into the restaurant trade, the result may not have been unlike The Man Behind The Curtain. This wonderful Leeds eaterie has a touch of the surreal to it, along with more than a small dollop of brilliance.

The quirkiness begins before you even get to the front door, as to enter the restaurant you need to walk through one of the city's higher-end clothes shops. But while the threads seemed a bit overpriced and guilty of style over substance, The Man Behind The Curtain was totally the opposite.

Head chef Michael O'Hare went down a storm in the 2015 series of the Great British Menu and his restaurant has definitely benefited from the exposure. There's not a Saturday booking to be had throughout the rest of 2016, so we thought ourselves very lucky indeed when we were ushered into the main eating area, which looks more like a modern art gallery than a Michelin-starred eating establishment.

Upon taking our plain-looking but comfortable seats we were presented with the menu and wine list. The food choice was easy - which is to say there wasn't one. Of an evening only the 12 sequence tasting menu is available (there's a 7 sequence version available at lunchtimes). The wine selection required some thought however, and we plumped for the accompanying flight, degustation or whatever you wish to call it.

It's fair to say that the food was the most eccentrically presented we've ever eaten. But this wasn't just frivolity for the sake of it - there wasn't a single dish that didn't taste fantastic. Starting with langoustine tartare and octopus, taking in the sights of rabbit paella and deep-friend snail on the way and ending with a cupcake in an edible case, this was a wonderfully judged and varied meal. The highlights included the 'Emancipation' fish and chips dish which wowed the notoriously hard-to-please Marcus Wareing on the aforementioned BBC2 programme. Deliciously flaky cod was smothered in squid ink and dashi and topped with an unruly thatch of grated potato, which was great in itself but really elevated by scraping it through the vinegar powder which dusted the plate.

Emancipation (or fish and chips)

However, as good as this was it was bettered by the main course and the first dessert. The former was some perfectly pink Iberico pork, joined on the plate by sour and salty anchovies and a pile of edible 'cinders' (tiny shards of crunchy, squid ink infused bread). The latter matched crunchy, rich, dark chocolate cunningly disguised as tinfoil, with silky potato custard (yes, really), beetroot tinged puffed potato (yes, really, again) and violet ice-cream. Sounds bizarre, looks incredible and tastes sensational.

Pork, anchovies and 'cinders'

Tinfoil chocolate and puffed potato

Service was slick throughout and the staff were knowledgeable and engaging. The wine accompaniments were excellent and brought an extra dimension to each of the dishes, though they were all trumped by an incredible, orange-and-olive infused red Vermouth. An eclectic mix of music set a relaxed atmosphere and there's generous space between the tables. The lighting was a tiny bit dim, but was regularly punctuated by the cameraphone flashes of any number of gobsmacked diners. This level of restaurant doesn't always feel like value for money but The Man Behind The Curtain did, with both the food and matching wine together costing less than many a tasting menu at similar establishments.

If you can't get there during the week then you may have quite a wait before sampling the wonders of The Man Behind The Curtain. Believe me though, it'll be worth it.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Sublime to the Ridiculous

If you're a Nottingham Forest fan, or indeed if you just live in Nottingham, it's highly likely that you'll be aware of I Believe in Miracles; Johnny Owen's recent film. Charting the rise of Forest under Brian Clough - later joined by Peter Taylor - from second-tier mid-table obscurity to Champions of Europe, the film recently enjoyed its World Premiere at the City Ground and, since general release, has been garnering positive reviews.

Having finally been able to see IBIM my first feeling, after the film-long smile had vanished from my face, was envy. Being born in 1973 I was just a bit too young to fully appreciate what that Forest team accomplished. Indeed my first memory of them was being taken to one of the European Cup parades - the second one I think - by an auntie and uncle. My first taste of watching Forest play live wouldn't come until a few years later. I realise that compared to some, younger, Forest fans I've still been quite lucky with what I've seen the Reds do first hand: winning Wembley cup finals, a third-place Premier League finish and an unlikely UEFA Cup run are not to be sniffed at. But you're talking about winning arguably the world's pre-eminent club football competition here. Twice. In a row.

After the envy came the wonder. I hadn't really realised just how good a player John Robertson became, but the film really brought this to life. Watching him jink past opponent after opponent, whip in inviting crosses and score the odd goal was an absolute joy, and I can only imagine the buzz that must've gone round the crowd witnessing it in person.

Nor had I truly appreciated the quality of football that Forest team played. Obviously they were good - the trophies and 42 game unbeaten league run bear that out - but the results weren't at the price of style or entertainment. The common conception is that football now is much faster, and indeed it may be. However, unless my viewing of IBIM was in fast-forward it still looked pretty rapid to me. Attacking football back then was also hampered by pretty-much uncensored defending and pitches that you wouldn't be surprised to see some previous evolution of humankind dug up from, perfectly preserved in the gloop. Think Jake Buxton, but slightly more intellectually advanced. Yet the team in red (and sometimes yellow) overcame this, and the footage in IBIM was filled with intricate triangles, pinpoint passing, galloping runs and clinical finishes.

I'm pretty sure most Forest fans will have seen I Believe in Miracles by now. If not, and if you can, please do. If you can't; get the DVD pre-ordered. If you haven't got a DVD player then buy one. You really won't regret it.

By now you may be wondering where the 'ridiculous' part of this blog comes in. Well, foolishly (but luckily), I booked my trip to the cinema on the night that the current incarnation of Nottingham Forest were playing a live televised match away at bottom-of-the-Championship Bristol City. There's not really much more I need to say.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Nottingham Forest 1 - 2 Middlesbrough

It's been a fair few years since anything that could be termed as hair has covered the majority of my cranium. Usually I lament this fact. However, following Nottingham Forest's home defeat to Middlesbrough, it was probably for the best; because any lustrous locks I had left would have been lost, strewn over the concrete of the Trent End having been yanked out in pure frustration. You see, for all Middlesbrough's attacking play and created chances, their two goals both came from Forest mistakes. Forest themselves passed up two gilt-edged scoring chances. On such margins are matches decided.

Once again I was surprised by Dougie Freedman's team selection, though this time it was the attacking nature of the line-up which was the shock. Forest gave home debuts to Chris O'Grady, Ryan Mendes and Nelson Oliveira, kept the same back five that started against Birmingham City and dropped Jamie Ward to the bench, with Henri Lansbury, David Vaughan and Ben Osborn completing the midfield. The visitors included their big-money summer captures Stewart Downing and David Nugent, enhancing an already strong team containing the likes of George Friend, Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton.

Barely three minutes had passed before one of these recruits - Nugent - had given Boro the lead. An underhit Matt Mills backpass allowed Albert Adomah a clear run on goal. The winger's shot was saved by Dorus de Vries but Forest never properly cleared, and eventually Friend's cross found the former Foxes frontman who steered the ball home.

Minutes later Mills had atoned for his mistake by hauling the Reds level. Lansbury's corner found the centre-half in space and his neatly volleyed finish gave visiting keeper Dimitri Konstantopoulos ('Dimi' on his shirt - and for the rest of this review) no chance. Phew - what a start!

It wasn't long before the visitors troubled de Vries again, this time following another Forest corner. After Boro's defence had cleared the danger Downing raced clear, only for the sprawling Reds stopper to repel the attempt with an outstretched leg. The breathless beginning to the match saw a momentary pause as Mills slumped to the ground with an injury and was replaced by Jack Hobbs. One hopes it was just a precaution rather than anything serious, as Mills and Wilson were beginning to look like a formidable partnership.

Unfortunately there was little formidable about Forest's defending through the remainder of the first half. De Vries continued to earn his corn with a double save from Nugent and Adomah before Boro were awarded another corner which they played short. The resulting cross found the head of Wilson whose back-header only picked out ex-Forest loanee Daniel Ayala. De Vries rushed out but could do nothing to stop Ayala nodding home to restore the visitors' lead. Neither side was to trouble the scorers again before the interval so it was Boro who ended the first half with their noses in front.

Their noses nearly Pinocchioed further ahead after the restart as de Vries saved yet again from Adomah, but Forest themselves should've been level moments later. Willianesque winger Mendes found himself clear through but his shot was smothered by the spreadeagled Dimi. The better option would've been to square the ball to the unmarked Oliveira, but that's easy to say with hindsight.

The match was really open now. Forest cranked up the pressure but Boro continued to play through them at will. Oliveira and Jamie Ward - who had replaced Osborn at half time - both went close with long-range efforts before the moment which ultimately decided the match. A long ball from the Reds defence could only find visiting defender Ben Gibson. His attempted chest trap rolled down his arm and the handball was spotted by the linesman who flagged for a penalty (well, he actually pointed his flag towards the corner rather than putting his flag across his chest, but the spot-kick was still given).

Up stepped Lansbury to drill his penalty down the middle as he had the week before against QPR. However, unlike Rangers goalie Alex Smithies who obligingly dived out of the way, Dimi hung out a leg and deflected the ball away. Not only that, but he was quick enough to get up and tip Ward's header from the rebound wide of the post. Forest continued to press, making Jonathan Williams the fourth new Tricky of the day, but they were unable to find the equaliser and, in a reverse of last year's result, Boro claimed the spoils 2-1.

It's hard to be too critical of the effort that Forest showed. Had the two mistakes which led to Boro's goals been avoided, and the penalty and Mendes chance been taken, they could easily have won this game. If they attack with the vigour they showed against Boro they'll win more than they lose. Though, if they defend like they did at times then....well.....

De Vries could do nothing about either goal and made some excellent saves. Mills, Wilson and Hobbs all had uncomfortable moments in defence but Eric Lichaj and Daniel Pinillos were solid at full back - against quality opposition. O'Grady was muscular up front and Oliveira showed real quality at times. Mendes could be a real find if he can sort out his decision making but the pick of the bunch was Lansbury. Once again he played deeper, protecting the back four, and once again he was outstanding - penalty miss aside. A real captain's performance.

Taking this game in isolation it was disappointing to lose. However, I'd have taken a win and two draws from the three matches against QPR, Birmingham and Boro, so two wins and a defeat is by no means a bad return. The team is certainly playing better than earlier in the season. Sort out the defensive mistakes and be a bit more clinical at the other end and we'll be OK. If the Boro game is anything to go by, we'll certainly be entertained.








Sunday, 13 September 2015

A Co'g in the Machine

The day before transfer deadline day, I asked someone - who would've known - if there was any likelihood of any incoming players at Nottingham Forest before the window closed. This person confirmed that manager Dougie Freedman was hoping to bring a striker (and an attacking midfielder) to the club. When I enquired about the chances of this deal being completed, I was told that Forest were confident, as nobody else was likely to want him. Hardly a ringing endorsement. 

When the name of this striker was revealed as Chris O'Grady, I wasn't as disappointed as some, as I remembered him having a decent game and scoring against us for Barnsley a couple of seasons before. It's fair to say that his career had stalled though, following a £2m move to Brighton and Hove Albion. 

As the deal was completed on deadline day, the entirely ridiculous but entirely predictable Twitter backlash was in full swing. Some observers were guaranteeing our relegation, as we were bringing in O'Grady to replace Michail Antonio - whose move to West Ham United was edging ever closer. If you looked at the numbers you could see what they meant: Antonio had scored 15 goals in the previous season and assisted almost the same amount - from wide midfield; while O'Grady's return was 1 solitary goal. Numbers, however, don't tell the full story. 

Anyone who had seen Forest play this season would have realised that asking a still-maturing 18 year old Tyler Walker, or a worn-and-torn, twice-long-term-injured Dexter Blackstock to play up front alone against strong, rugged, experienced Championship defenders was expecting too much. They needed help and, working within our well-publicised restrictions, O'Grady was the man. 

I won't lie; first impressions against Queen's Park Rangers were not too favourable. Good hold-up play was spoiled by poor layoffs which failed to find their targets, and a neat turn was rendered pointless by lacking the pace to escape a defender. Gradually though, O'Grady grew into the game. A couple of neat, chipped passes from Matt Mills were controlled and given smartly to more gifted teammates; and a lovely ball through the legs of a defender set Eric Lichaj through on goal. 

Then, after Forest had fallen behind in the second half, came the moment which turned the game. O'Grady chased down an awkward-looking back-pass and pilfered the ball from Rangers' keeper Rob Green, who had failed to control it. Green hauled him down and the referee was left with no option but to give the penalty and dismiss the hapless goalie. Henri Lansbury dispatched the spot-kick and Forest were back in the game. 

The best was yet to come though. A flicked headed pass from O'Grady found fellow debutant Ryan Mendes. The Cape Verdian (yup) scampered away and his threaded pass released the third of Forest's deadline day acquisitions, striker Nelson Oliveira. His low drive eluded the Rangers' substitute goalkeeper and gave Forest an unlikely but welcome victory. Cue one Man of the Match award and a pleasingly emotional interview for O'Grady, and a thoroughly satisfying debut was at an end. 

It would be foolish to get too carried away after one game, just as it was foolish to write O'Grady off before he'd kicked a ball in the Garibaldi. I don't see him being a prolific scorer; indeed I'd be surprised if he reached double figures this season. However, he seems to know how to play in Freedman's preferred system, and if he can continue to show the strength and effort he did against Rangers, and chip in with the odd goal as well, then he'll prove a few Forest fans wrong. For the team's sake, let's hope he does. 

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Street Food

Blink and you'd miss Pollen Street. It's an unobtrusive little thoroughfare just a few minutes walk from London's bustling Oxford Circus, and is also the home of Pollen Street Social; the flagship restaurant of Skegness-born chef Jason Atherton - a former Great British Menu winner and occasional TV presenter. Since it opened in 2011, Pollen Street Social has been doing pretty well, gaining a Michelin star and a number of other awards; so we were pretty excited to finally be paying our first visit.

After a cocktail each at the impressive bar attached to the restaurant, we were shown to our seats, despite having arrived over half an hour before our booking time. There was a little confusion before our meal began; with our amuse bouche (just called 'snacks') being served before we'd actually ordered or chosen our wines. When we did order, it was the eight-course tasting menu with venison main course. Rather than a bottle of wine, we wanted glass of white wine for the earlier courses and a red for the mains and desserts. The restaurant was happy to do this and the excellent sommelier's selections were both nicely matched to the food. The aforementioned snacks included a memorable parmesan foam mixed with mushroom tea and a miniature sweetcorn muffin topped with cold cucumber and broccoli, which was far nicer than it sounds.

The wait between snacks and course one of the menu proper was a little long, and it took a couple of prompts before the opening course finally arrived. It was worth the wait though, taking the form of a cold pea and langoustine broth poured over a pea sorbet and langoustine tail. The sweetness of the shellfish and peas were nicely balanced by a smoky garlic flower and it was a fine start to our meal.

Our second course blew it out of the water (or chilled broth) however. This was a salad of crab meat with coriander and tiny apple chunks. Accompanying the crab were zingy globules of lemon puree and a delightful dome of brown-bread foam. Mixing the foam and meat tasted like the nicest crab sandwich you could ever hope for, while the apple added a satisfying crunch to the overall softness.




Next up was 'Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.' Not the traditional Scottish dish perhaps, but very nice nonetheless. The tatties were, in fact, spaghetti-like strands of potato, which were smothered with a rich lamb ragout and sauce. The dish was more like a spaghetti bolognese, but that was no bad thing.

The first of the mains was a meaty slab of halibut, which seated a couple of cockles and covered a smattering of spring onions. Perfectly cooked fish and almost-sweet onion made for a winning combination, though the thin potato slices didn't add much to the dish for me.




There were no such passengers in the second main though; everything on the plate contributed to the other real standout dish of the evening. Two perfectly pink ovals of venison were ably assisted by honey-spiced beetroot, smears of red cabbage purée, tiny cubes of pickled apple and a pair of sharp blackberries. Not physically sharp, obviously. That would've been weird - not to mention dangerous. Every combination of flavours on this plate was a delight, with the venison and beetroot mixed together being particularly memorable.

Following the venison was the crossover (here called transition) dish of goats cheese ice-cream on a malted biscuit and drizzled with sweet syrup. I'm not a huge fan of goats cheese and the sourness of the ice-cream would've been a bit much for me, had it not been tempered by the sweet and crunchy biscuit. The dish as a whole worked, but I'm not sure I'd want too much of it.

Pre-dessert was a cloud-like vanilla foam, smothering some pumpkin granite (curse my spellcheck for not adding the accent to the 'e') like low-flying cumulonimbus over a bright orange field. Very tasty it was too, with crunch provided by caramelised sesame seeds.

And then to the dessert. The blackcurrant Eton Mess contained all the components of the traditional favourite but was presented with a twist - this being that the meringue was on the outside. So, breaking the crispy exterior of what looked like a white ice-hockey puck was rewarded with sour blackcurrant sorbet, a crunchy biscuit base and some delicious cream which might have had a subtle hint of cheese flavouring, though I might have imagined it.

We'd noticed our fellow diners receiving some interesting-looking petit fours, so to finish the night we ordered a cappuccino each to make sure we wouldn't miss out. These were a great way to round off a very accomplished meal and could've been a course in their own right. Atop a mini ice-cream cone sat a white-chocolate covered sphere of apple sorbet, while the cone itself contained a blackcurrant sorbet. This was served with a pot of rich chocolate and bergamot sauce and - nicest of all - a warm Bakewell pudding which had the almond and cherry flavour and a hint of egg custard about it. Mr. Kipling certainly never made them like that.

While the meal was pretty much faultless we had a couple of gripes with the service. Our main waiting staff and the sommelier were all great, but the wait for our first course was - as mentioned before - longer than it should've been. We were also left twiddling our thumbs before paying, and indeed we had to ask a passing waiter for the bill. This was slightly irritating as another member of staff had previously removed the rack which held the mini cones and could clearly see that we'd finished, but didn't think to ask whether we wanted anything else or were ready to pay.

These are small complaints though and certainly didn't spoil the overall experience. The food throughout was wonderful; I don't think I've ever had better venison and the brown-bread foam with the crab dish was inspired. Perhaps a couple of tweaks to the service are needed to take Pollen Street Social to the next level, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to come back.


Now is the Window of our Discontent

Actually, it might not be. It's hard to know for sure until we've seen all our new arrivals play. But, in terms of numbers in and out and wages saved, and considering the restrictions that we've been working to, I think we've done a pretty good job.

Let's look at the outgoings first. It was always likely that we'd lose one of our 'crown jewels' and so it proved, with Michail Antonio sealing his £7m move to West Ham United on transfer deadline day. We'll miss his pace, power and spectacular goals, of that there's no doubt. However, we have at times been over-reliant on him and it'll be interesting to see how the team's style of play changes now he's not here. The profit made from his sale should hopefully see us clear of the transfer embargo next summer - and that had to be the club's highest priority.

After being kept out of the squad by a 17 year old Academy player against Cardiff; Jamie Paterson's days always appeared to be numbered. Whether he will rekindle his early Forest form at Huddersfield, or instead fade away in a similar style to Radoslaw Majewski after his loan there last season, remains to be seen.

It made sense to allow Stephen McLaughlin to move on, as it did to release Danny Collins, Dan Harding and Greg Halford. And - though it may have cost the club something in terms of payoffs - getting Jamie Mackie, Djamel Abdoun and Majewski off the wage bill just had to be done.

Given the interest shown in Henri Lansbury and Michael Mancienne during the transfer window, I think we got off pretty lightly in terms of the players who left the club.

So, how about our new acquisitions? Matt Mills has made a pretty solid start to the season, as had Jamie Ward, until he was struck down by an unfortunate but predictable hamstring injury. Hopefully it won't keep him out for long or reoccur, as his energy and tenacity was plain to see in his early matches.

It's a bit early to judge Daniel Pinillos and Kyle Ebecilio yet, though based on the Cardiff match, the former could be a decent signing. He looked composed on the ball and got forward well in support of Antonio (who mostly ignored him).

I remember Chris O'Grady looking lively against us for Barnsley a couple of seasons ago, though by all accounts he's gone off the boil somewhat since he joined Brighton. Hopefully a return to his home city can rekindle his previous form. With our paucity of options at front at the moment, he was certainly a signing we needed.

Ryan Mendes is a total mystery to me, so how good a replacement for Antonio he'll turn out to be remains to be seen. I don't think it's likely that he'll chip in with 15 goals and nearly as many assists though. Nelson Oliveira could be quite a coup, as he was reportedly lined up for a deadline day move to La Liga side Valencia before Forest stepped in. He didn't set the Premier League alight with Swansea, but anyone who's in double figures of international caps for Portugal must surely have something about them.

And finally - and presuming his loan is also approved - Jonny Williams is a skilful midfielder who Dougie Freedman knows well, having managed him at Crystal Palace. A younger lookalike of David Vaughan, he plays a similar style of game too. Indeed his ability to carry the ball led some Ipswich Town fans to dub him 'Jonnyesta' during his loan spell there.

These players all come with some risk. After all, there are reasons they've all been released or loaned out - be it loss of form or injury. That's the reality of the market we're currently shopping in. Breaking our transfer record three times or paying a £2m loan fee just wasn't an option this close season. Bearing that in mind, the list of players we've brought to the club is - at face value anyway - pretty impressive.

Of course, it wouldn't be a transfer window at Forest without some kind of foul-up. This time it came in the form of the successful, then failed loan signing of Ben Hamer. The long and public courting of Michael Frey was also mildly embarrassing, though one can understand the reasons behind us ultimately pulling the plug on the deal. The on and off pursuit of Burnley's Lukas Jutkiewicz was fruitless, but as this meant that Henri Lansbury remained at the club then this wasn't too much of a loss. The final two (hopefully three) loan signings were incredibly drawn out too, with two of them confirmed nearly a full three days after the transfer deadline and one of them still to be rubber stamped. Presumably that was due to the club being extra cautious not to jump the gun, which is probably no bad thing.

The proof of the pudding will be in the football, there's no doubt about that. There's also no doubt that falling foul of the League's FFP embargo in the first place is firmly the club's fault. One can only hope that Fawaz will have learnt from the difficulties of this transfer market and that he'll ensure we never end up in this position again. But, on the whole, I'd say we've made the best of the situation we were in. Hopefully the players we've brought in will settle quickly and we'll push on from here.