The zing of coriander,
The burst of lemon grass,
The hum of chilli.
Fragrant and soothing,
Crisp and silky.
A hug and a slap at the same time.
Every year on my birthday we try and do something special and this year to celebrate J booked us a table at London’s newest celebrity hangout, The Chiltern Firehouse. Anybody and everybody who is worth their celebrity salt has been, so why should we be any different?
It’s famously difficult to get a table at but getting a table here for lunch was a cinch compared to Noma and that would be my recommendation, lunch rather than dinner. The restaurant oozes California cool and has that kind of understated elegance that attracts the eclectic moneyed crowd from all over London and I suspect the local Marylebone and Mayfair set use it as their local.
The main room has an expectant, excitable hubbub with everyone is on the lookout for famous folk and on this occasion, the best we could do was Meg Matthews, not quite the dizzy heights of The Ivy Club where I shared a urinal with Liam Neeson.
Attentive staff fuss and flit, focused on getting us served quickly (we were told they needed the table back in 90 minutes when booking, all the pricey/posh restaurants annoyingly do this). Service is sharp but not stuffy and a businesslike sommelier guided us to a medium priced South African Cab Sauv which I figured would be worth the investment (it was my birthday after all). It was chewy and rich with a reassuring deep dimple in the base of the bottle, my not very scientific way of knowing if any wine is good. Julie quaffed nicely oaked but pricey Californian Chardonnay by the glass and we were all set.
After randomly bumping into another guy from Leeds in the toilets (I know), we got down to ordering from the confidently brief menu, which featured restaurant safe bets alongside interesting asides. There is no outrageous risks to be taken here — it’s all safe territory but done very, very well. Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes clearly takes the view that internationally famous folk and the well-heeled like their food recognisable and translatable but with a bit of a twist.
That said the crab donuts were a stunningly original confection, salty, seafoody. sweet and doughy. I wanted to order another plate right after I’d eaten them.
My steak tartare starter was a classic DIY blokey dish with some much needed hot sauce on the side whilst J’s starter of cured sea trout was the hands down winner in terms of taste.
I think my main of unsettlingly (very, very) pink Iberico roast pork was the winner although served with raw and cooked sprouts, it sounds bizarre but it worked fantastically well. J’s monkfish was a plateful of meaty, fishy tenderness with bright, clean flavours. On the surface, the Firehouse doesn’t look like its expensive but the booze soon escalates the bill into Michelin territory although I would say the food isn’t in the same league as say Murano, but the prices are in the same zone.
So is it worth the hype? On balance I’d say yes. It’s definitely an ‘event’ restaurant, a place to go when there’s a special anniversary and for mere mortals the price point dictates it’s not an everyday restaurant. Food and service is at the top end of efficient and competent and you can definitely eat better in London for less money. But it’s the overall experience that lingers: the sparkling candlelit patio, outdoor fire, the crackle and buzz of a room filled with people enjoying life.
Thursday night this week was a swanky dinner in aid of the Princes Trust at Prince Charles’ private residence in the Cotswolds, Highgrove House. It was a real treat to be invited to this event and although it was a bit of a trial getting there from London (where I’d had various meetings), I donned my black tie and entered the fray.
Security was, as you’d expect, tight with all mobile phones banned from the estate and photo identification required to enter Highgrove. I have to say not being able to tweet and take pics was a shock to the system, one that my wife found highly amusing, who was gutted not to be invited.
Highgrove is as perfect as you’d imagine and the event was held in the formal events part of the house. The champagne reception room walls were covered in Prince Charles’ watercolours – he’s no slouch either, they were very good – whilst the ballroom walls were adorned with no doubt very valuable oils of Charles and other royals. Although Charles wasn’t there in person, he could well have been as we dined beneath a rather familiar looking portrait of a rakish looking Prince of Wales resplendent in a kilt and smirk.
World famous cellist and brother to the theatre impresario Julian Lloyd Webber performed an exquisite recital on the cello to a captivated audience. It struck me it was like a performance that could have been happening over a hundred years ago, this kind of classical music is so enduring. Some of the music he played reminded me of the musical accompaniment to silent movie classics, in particular Harold Lloyd’s Just in Time or Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. Praise indeed.
Later on we were treated to a recital by the highly acclaimed violinist Julia Hwang which was another captivating, transformational performance. It really is fantastic to hear this level of musical talent and quality up close and personal.
The event was in aid of The Prince’s Trust who are a brilliant charity helping disadvantaged young people get back on their feet and out into the workplace. It was moving to hear Prince’s Trust ambassador ‘G’ talk eloquently and sparingly about his life of addiction to alcohol and drugs and how the charity had helped turn his life around. He’s just bought a new van for his plumbing business in Bristol and although it’s not all plain sailing, he’s in a better place than he was before. It was a powerful testimony to the work of The Prince’s Trust.
Dinner and drinks were all of the highest order and having attending these kind of dinners before, the food usually ranges from bad to awful. Given the head chef is Prince Charles’ own chef at Highgrove then we were clearly in good hands. The kitchen didn’t put a foot wrong and special mention has to go to the cheese plate and port accompaniment, which rounded off a wonderful dinner.
One of the many hazards of being an avid foodie and obsessive social media type is the inevitable picture taking at the dinner table in restaurants. I’m keen to tweet and blog about my food (and those of you that follow me will no doubt know that) but I do prefer to keep the picture taking bit low key.
I understand that some foodie/social types like to keep the image quality at the top end but I do draw the line at DSLR kit in a dining room. Even the smaller point and shoot can be a pain. So the iPhone is the camera of choice for me, especially the later models like the 4S which has a very good camera on it, so much so that I now find no reason to carry my Canon Ixus around with me.
Even restaurants have got used to customers discreetly snapping away. The other evening I was trying to take a photograph of our stunning meal of Pyrenean milk-fed mountain lamb in Kendell’s Bistro, but the romantic lighting was not helping. The manager was alive to my photographic predicament and even offered to turn the ‘big’ light on for me. The lamb was seriously good, by the way.
Even with discreet iPhone cameras it can get out of hand if multiple diners are all snapping away and it’s interesting how more and more people are taking pics of their food, especially in nice restaurants. Somebody said to me recently ‘eat it, don’t tweet it’ which I took as a polite rebuke for my obsessional habit but do you know what? I’ll do both thank you very much.
Now I realise that even the title of the post will have some wine buffs up in arms.
Chardonnay is not a wine grape that has covered itself in glory in recent years. It has come to stand for all that is crass and commercial in modern wine with artificially oaked and chemically enhanced Australian and Californnia wines making Chardonnay a veritable swear word.
In fact now it’s so difficult to find a decent one the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction with little or nothing on the shelves – the fashion right now is for highly acidic Sauvignon Blanc whites which I like, but…
Heres where I come clean. J and I developed a taste for buttery, oaky Chardonnays on trips to California and over the years we have been relentlessly searching for similar wines in the UK – imported from California or South Africa or even France – to no avail. We’ve come close with Majestic Wine having a small but perfectly formed selection, but their buyers must find the whole notion of oaky Chardonnays abhorrent as they are few and far between. The likes of Harvey Nichols has a few nice options but they are fearsomely expensive. It seems the American like many wine-producing nations like to keep the best for themselves.
Imaging my joy then when passing independent wine and liquor store Latitude in Leeds when I popped in on the off-chance they might have a few options. Well, I struck pay dirt with the manager proudly displaying his wares of ‘unfashionably oaky Chardonnays’ (my words not his, by the way). There was plenty to choose from and after signing up for their loyalty card ( I think I’ll be back there very soon), I scuttled off to see how the promising Napa Cellars 2010 Chardonnay would fare when paired with a delicious hand-picked crab salad.
Well it was off the scale – well-balanced oak, creamy and buttery and notes of caramel at the finish. Too much for some people I’m sure but we marvelled as the deep creamy yellow slid around the glass. Probably the nearest we’ve had to the up scale Napa Chardonnay we tasted last year in California. Nirvana in a glass.
I think I’m going to be on first name terms with the guys at Latitude very soon…