Cookbook review: Valentine Warner’s What To Eat Next

For a man who can hardly be described as having courted controversy – he doesn’t swear obnoxiously a la Gordon,  have high-profile relationship dramas like John Burton-Race, or even campaign aggressively as Hugh does –  Valentine Warner seems to incite quite strong love/loathe feelings amongst cookbook readers. Personally I like his ethos (globetrotting but with British ingredient passion), but not so much the personality (bit of class war chippyness on my part). He’s certainly not a man I’d pull off a shelf for the love of his face, so I’m baffled by the choice of a cover with a picture of the man licking crabby fingers as if he’s the Y chromosome’s answer to Nigella, but I know a lot of women of a certain age who’d disagree with me.

5 things you should know about this book

  1. Men are from mars, women are from the photography studio. When it comes to cookbooks, men really don’t seem as visually led as women. Every woman I know complains about lack of pictures with recipes, but when given free rein my (artist) husband instantly picked a dish with no picture. Which really needed a picture. Everyone knows what a quiche looks like, can easily visualise a tomato and basil tart. It’s the things you haven’t seen before that really need photographic help.
  2. Teach yourself. Valentine’s not a cook who’s going to hold your hand and baby you through things – if a recipe needs a chicken thigh skin-on, deboned and butterflied he expects you to know how to do that. Or at least how to look it up on t’internet. Sheesh c’mon, he’s not your momma!
  3. 2 is the magic number. We don’t all live with spouse, rover and 2.4 children. It’s refreshing to have a cookbook where most recipes serve just a deuce.
  4. Lady Fwahfar told me….If waffling name, event and connection-dropping annoy you (as they do me), don’t read the intros. I’m not sure why authors feel we need to know that a recipe was inspired by a trip to the Algarve on a rainy Tuesday in 1964 with Tom Ford and his dog Bessy. It’s probably done to add ‘personality’.
  5. Flautas make a cracking breakfast, cold from the fridge with salsa and sour cream. In fact, thanks to the punchy flavours Valentine is so fond of, a huge number of the recipes from this book are just as fantastic cold the next day, or perhaps at midnight by the light of the fridge door. Maybe he is the male Nigella after all….

3 recipes I tried that you should too

Roast chicken, tomato and celeriac remoulade sandwichRoast chicken, tomato and celeriac remoulade sandwich
Crispy skin, tangy intense tomatoes, rich remoulade, all piled on thick sourdough – what’s not to love?

Finger-licking shrimpsFinger-licking shrimps
I’m not usually a fan of tomatoey sauces on prawns, but the smokey chipotle flavour of this was  real winner, and has a much milder flavour than my usual firecracker prawns so won’t scare the chilli-phobes.

Chorizo and potato flautasChorizo and potato flautas
Cooked potato and chorizo stuffed in a corn tortilla and fried. Move over faijita, it’s time for the flauta to take over, especially on cold, grey days.

The scores

Take to bed-ness: Is it gorgeous? Informative? Do you want to curl up in bed with it?
7/10

Marigold rating: Do the recipes create mountains of washing up? Do you suspect a team of sous chefs were behind this? Does a home cook, ultimately, stand a chance?
6/10

Mothball-ability: Is it, despite all appearances, going to sit on the shelf gathering dust?
8/10, it’s been in regular use in my kitchen ever since I got it, definitely not one for the back of the cupboard.

Other recipes that caught my eye

Spicy cracked crab claws; Weekend breakfast anchovy & parmesan baked eggs; Beetroot salad with blackcurrant; Asparagus cigars; Pommes aligot; Grilled quails with almond mayonnaise.

BBQ Shack at the World’s End pub, Brighton (review)

Brighton trainAs a huge fan of American BBQ I was thrilled to read Jay Rayner’s recent glowing review of the food at The World’s End pub in Brighton, my hometown of London being somewhat oversaturated with disappointingly mediocre examples of this fine cuisine born in the heat and smoke of the South.  So recently, when family duty saw me down in that corner of the world I hurried with unconcealed excitement to this unassuming little pub on the distant outskirts of Brighton’s central shopping district, ready for a feast of ribs, wings and slaw.

A little something called the bank holiday weekend conspired against me however, and when we rocked up early Sunday lunchtime (food served “12-‘til it runs out”) we were told by a weary server that much of the menu was sold out, including those famous ribs.  Ah well, I said, save that for next time, what I’m REALLY craving now is some hot wings. But no, they’re not on the menu either, not ever in fact – how can you do American BBQ and not have wings?  Aren’t sticky, BBQ- or hot sauce- glazed wings charred from the pit, succulent within, and served with their best-friend-in-bad-taste, blue cheese sauce, a key staple on any menu of this sort?! Apparently not here, a BBQ restaurant located in a cavernous dark wood-panelled pub catering largely (when we were there) to the football-watching locals.  I desperately wanted to like it, being a big fan of anywhere I can curl up at 1pm with a pint and a book, but nowhere that shuts its windows and rolls down its shutters on a bright sunny day, just in order to improve the visibility of its three giant projector-screen televisions, is going to win with me, no matter how many leather sofas and walls of books it has.

BBQ Shack at the World's End pub, BrightonBack to the food, and once we’d recovered from the ribs and chicken wing disappointments there was plenty to choose from that whetted the appetite and we eventually settled on a beef brisket bap and chilli-cheese hot dog, plus sides of fries and coleslaw.  When it arrived it transpired that the ‘fries’ were in fact big chunky chips, just as one might have from any chippy on the pier (when I order fries I want FRIES dammit – American, thin-cut, FRIES) and the hot dog was actually a huge fat sausage of the Cumberland variety I suspect given how pungent it was with herbs. Neither item was at all unpleasant (the chips in fact were excellent), but also emphatically not what was expected or desired.  The beef brisket was flavoursome and tender, a clear indicator of someone skilled at the grill, and the chilli on the hot dog was proper old-school: no namby pamby mince here, just huge chunks of slow-cooked meat and tender little pinto beans.

Sadly the good ended there, with everything else a bit of a letdown (again, not bad precisely, just not, well – not what you expect from somewhere Lord Rayner describes as the home of “real BBQ”).  Everything cried out for sauce but all the condiments on offer – and let’s face it this kind of food is DESIGNED for condiments – were ridiculously vinegary: the ketchup, chipotle BBQ sauce, the ‘very hot’ chilli sauce (not hot), the jarred jalapenos, everything, right down to the otherwise fruity and flavourful sauce that accompanied my hot dog.  I like acetic acid as much as the next person but I quickly felt my mouth pickling under the influence, and there was no doubt everything needed the lubrication – I suspect the otherwise tasty chilli had perhaps been stewing under a hot lamp since the beginning of the bank holiday.

Would I go back?  Well yes, to try the ribs denied me on this occasion, but I won’t be making a special trip, and in all honesty I think for your American BBQ needs you’d be better off at Bodeans.

The World’s End Pub (http://www.bbqshack.co.uk)
2 main meals with sides and two drinks –£23.26.
World's End on Urbanspoon

Better late than never: Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental

When Heston Blumenthal opened his new restaurant, Dinner, at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London it was one of the most hotly anticipated and talked-about restaurant launches this country has seen in decades.  In December last year, when reservation lines opened, they took a staggering 6000 bookings on the first day, and the restaurant has remained more or less fully booked ever since.  Early reviews were mostly positive, at least compared to its sister-restaurant-in-spirit, that other hymn to olde English cookery – the Gilbert Scott at St Pancras, and after 6 months of it being open I decided it was high time I went to see what the fuss was all about, and whether a £70,000 clock-turning-spit really could make a pudding as special as the tipsy cake was rumored to be.

The restaurant itself is mostly unremarkable, being located in a vast hotel it is inevitably a large, echoey and rather dull space, with the now ubiquitous ‘open kitchen’, the only real highlight of which is the aforementioned massive clock mechanism, which is quite magnificent in a Zurich watch advert kind of way, and an admittedly droolsome view of pineapples, sticky with glaze, turning on gigantic spits in one corner of the kitchen.

The menu is not long, and is especially short on description – the waiting staff are clearly primed to answer all questions with a 20 minute history lesson – but as I prefer to make my menu choices without a tour guide and encyclopedia we just opted for whatever sounded most interesting.

Meat Fruit (c.1500) – mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread
Salamugundy (c.1720) – smoked calves heart, beetroot, horseradish & walnut

Dinner_starters_mosaicBoth our starters were excellent modern interpretations of some of the more famous classic old English dishes, but meat fruit is THE signature dish at Dinner, and in fact I didn’t see a single table that failed to have it – even the large Japanese family next to us who otherwise ate solely from the fish options on the menu. Despite being a rather dry pun on the name of the hotel in which Dinner resides, this dish really is a show-stopper, and as delicious to eat as it was a delight to look at. On the outside is a tender jelly layer so ethereal in lightness it’s a wonder how it holds in the mass of parfait within. It is intensely aromatic and fruity, tasting exactly like biting into a fresh mandarin with a burst of juice that washes over your palate, making way for the intensely smooth and creamy liver parfait inside.

This is a rich and indulgent dish, one that Heston (and indeed the actual man in charge: Ashley Palmer-Watts) can be hugely proud of, it is so far from being the gimmick some have mistaken it for that I wouldn’t be surprised if it is still on the menu in a decade or more’s time.  Our other starter, the ‘Salamagundy’ was essentially a very good cold-cut salad; the thinly-sliced smoked calf’s heart flavoursome and astoundingly tender, well counterpointed by the sweet-sour of the pickled beets and the bite from the horseradish, with the walnut adding welcome texture.

Powdered Duck (c.1670) – smoked fennel & potato puree
Spiced Pigeon (c.1780) – ale & artichokes

Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin OrientalDinner by Heston at the Mandarin Oriental

Main courses were tasty but distinctly more pedestrian, a powerful reminder that Fat Duck II this ain’t. Powdered Duck was the big failure of my ordering policy, I’d been hoping for something dry, crisp, crunchy, but what it was in fact was duck leg confit (the ‘powdered’ referring to the salt cure) in a bitter meaty glaze that frankly was either over-reduced or had been made from bones that had seen rather too much of the inside of the oven. Of the two legs served, one was almost entirely fat and skin, no meat at all, and when I pointed this out to the waitress she managed to fail in epic fashion by just nodding sagely and saying “yes duck leg is very fatty”. No madam, this isn’t very fatty, this is ALL fat. But never mind…

I shoved the duck over to hubby to finish and instead gorged myself on its accompaniment, the most buttery, creamy, silky potato puree I’ve ever tasted. Joel Robuchon reputedly made mash so indecently good it was made with equal amounts of butter to potato, this tasted like it was more 70/30 in favour of butter, with perhaps a splodge of cream for good measure. Hell on the waistline, heaven on the palate.  The spiced pigeon was very well-executed and tasty, albeit not particularly novel; a very nice pigeon breast, poached with what today would generally be considered a very Oriental-seeming mixture including star anise, cinnamon and so forth, but which a fairly cursory inspection of pre-industrial British recipes will reveal to be as English as mulled wine and mince pies.  It was accompanied by an ale-based reduction suspiciously similar to the glaze adorning the duck, though better tasting for being less reduced.

Tipsy Cake (c.1810) – spit roast pineapple
Taffety tart (c.1660) – apple, rose, fennel & blackcurrant sorbet

Dinner_desserts_mosaicSo, the grande finale – that ridiculous, preposterous, outlandish spit-roasted pineapple and its friend the Tipsy Cake.  A dish that takes an already buttery dessert bread (brioche), then bakes it in a bath of syrup made from butter, alcohol and sugar, then serves it with a technically healthy item (fruit) basted in yet more butter, alcohol and sugar – how could it not be wonderful? And indeed, it was wonderful. I don’t actually have much of a sweet tooth these days, so found it rather heavy going towards the end of the dish but gods was it worth it. Every mouthful was sweet, rich and moist, and a bite of still acidic pineapple (for all its buttery glaze) cut through beautifully. Sitting next to this boisterous, star studded dish was hubby’s choice of taffety tart: a delicate, rose-scented and beautiful example of the patissier’s art, which was delicious but utterly overshadowed by the accompaniment; a sorbet of unbelievable depth and richness which instantly took me back to childhood summers, sucking Blackcurrant and Liquorice sweets doled out in carefully rationed doses by my grandmother.

Amuse bouche: white chocolate & Earl grey ganache

Dinner by Heston at the Mandarin OrientalStuffed to the gills, overdosing on sugar and butter, it was all we could do to wolf down the delicious amuse bouche, decline the coffee and petits fours and stagger out into the sunshine before we exploded. And our verdict? Olde English recipe-diving may have more than a hint of gimmick to it, but regardless of the provenance of the recipes, in general the chefs here are doing it at the top of their game, with spectacular results.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Wagamama

Chilli Beef RamenMany years ago, when I was still new to the food blogging lark and lived a relatively sheltered life away from the capital, a friend told me about a sensation that was sweeping the country – Wagamama. Back then the notion that there was oriental food other than Chinese and sushi, and that you might sit on benches elbow-to-jowl with complete strangers to eat your food outside of school dining rooms was rather novel. Hard to imagine these days when you can hardly turn a corner without bumping into a noodle bar, but as it turns out, when I discovered it Wagamama wasn’t new at all – their first restaurant opened in 1992.

Quality chain restaurants are one of the restaurant trends of the past decade which I genuinely am happy for (although I know there are some who think they’re anathema). The likes of Wagamama, Itsu, and Pizza Express may not serve haute cuisine, but they all serve tasty food at a reasonable price, and you can be sure that the menu item you loved in Birmingham will be just as tasty as the one you have in Edinburgh. True, you can make the same boast about McDonalds (although maybe not with the word ‘tasty’ included), but Wagamama and its fellows serve real food cooked by real chefs and it’s still as consistent as the nasty slop pumped out by the machines at Burger HQ factory.

Nowadays, living in London and over-exposed to a wealth of restaurants so vast it would take a lifetime to scratch the surface, I still find myself going back to Wags (as its known both in my household and at work) on a regular basis, and I’m not the only one. Scarcely a week goes by without a group from work having lunch there, and visiting friends on the lookout for a pre-theatre bite are always drawn to the now familiar black, white and red sign which seems to be on every second street. The secret with Wagamama is to stick to the core menu – there are dishes on there which are iconic for a reason. Katsu curry is so universally popular that, now that they’ve introduced a vegetarian version, at a recent lunch with twelve other people all but one of them ordered it. I don’t order it anymore, but that’s because I became so addicted to it my husband and I devoted insane amounts of time to working out the top-secret recipe, and now I cook it at home instead.

For the novices amongst you, I thought I’d revisit my original trip to Wagamama, formerly published on Souperior at its old Blogger home, republished here [with edits] out of pure nostalgia.
keep reading……

Benares

Glass of Journey's End Chardonnay 2006, South AfricaAs a treat for turning another year older, my other half took me to Atul Kochhar’s Michelin-starred Benares on Berkeley Square. Benares offers Indian cuisine of the finest order, with recipes taking their inspiration from all over the sub continent, and although Kochhar’s latest venture Colony has come in for quite a lot of stick, the flagship Benares is somewhere I’ve been dying to try ever since Atul was a guest lecturer back at Leiths Cookery School.

read on…