Thursday, November 29, 2012

Le Gavroche revisited

Le Gavroche. Quite simply, according to HRH the Queen of Kutch and myself, the finest restaurant in the World. We have yet to go to a restaurant that has everything, food, service, atmosphere, charm and most importantly consistency. Each of these attributes have to be read with superlatives. The reason why the restaurant is always full with bookings shutting almost on opening are not far to see. Unless you are very lucky or very powerful reservations are almost always available three months later. No this is not a hoax. Our reservations were made well in advance of our even booking out air tickets.

You must have read my previous post on Le Gavroche. This time we were joined by our close friend the Doctor Businesswoman and for a change of pace, HRH the Queen of Kutch will take it on from here...

The entrance to this temple of good food was sparkly and silvery white for the Christmas season and walking in brought a smile to our faces. We were greeted at the small foyer, our coats were whisked away and we were efficiently led to our table. Our reservation was for 7pm and the restaurant was half full when we entered. A good sign surely. The buzz was happy and relaxed and restaurant staff buzzed around efficiently. Once we were seated, the captain in charge of our table offered branded bag hangers to get our evening bags off the floor. We were handed the menus and for several minutes we sat in silence, contemplating the menu and glancing around as servers and captains and sommeliers buzzed around in what seemed like a smooth choreographed dance. Silent, efficient, unobtrusive and always friendly.

One of our constant companions

A round of bubbly was promptly brought to our table and a plate of delightful Canapes was placed on our table. We poured over our menu for what seemed like ages because so much of the food seemed so inviting, it was difficult to choose. Since the reservation was in my name, I was deemed to be the host and I was the only one given the menu with the prices. Both the Gourmet Lawyer and the Doctor Businesswoman had guest menus with no prices given. Rather old world and utterly charming.

Once we had decided what we planned to eat we were given the heavy tome which passes for a wine list. The choice of wines is truly impressive and range from a happy 30 GBP to a stiff 5 digits. This caused another long think till we settled on the house red, a Languedoc, made from Grenache Noir and Syrah which has been made by ace wine maker Michel Chapoutier especially for Michel Roux. A good wine at a great price. With the wine came an Amuse Bouche of Arancini with a Truffle Vinaigrette.

Arancini with a Truffle Vinaigrette

Starters arrived soon enough and all three of us were delighted with our choices. Scallops with Squid Ink and Black Curry Powder for the Gourmet Lawyer, Lobster Mouse with Caviar for the Doctor Businesswoman and a Foie Gras and Confit Carrot Layers, Ice Wine Vinegar Jelly, Pomegranate and Radish for me. Light hilarity followed the arrival of the starters when I protested that my food was not brought out under a cloche while the other two were. The captain charmingly pointed out that my starter was cold while the other two were hot starters and hence the cloche. He promised me a cloche for my mains. All three of us were thrilled with our starters and for a few minutes we oohed and mmmed with satisfaction. My fabulously luxurious plate of food was absolutely delightful with surprising bursts of flavour.

Lobster Mousse with Aquitaine Caviar and Champagne Butter Sauce

Scallops with Squid Ink and Black Curry Powder 

Foie Gras and Confit Carrot Layers, Ice Wine Vinegar Jelly, Pomegranate and Radish

By the time mains arrived, we had demolished the wine and another bottle was asked for. No cloche for me again! By this time the entire front of house was in the know and the General Manager came and explained how a rectangular dish could not have a cloche. The Gourmet Lawyer has written far too much about the superb food we have eaten at Le Gavroche so I will not get into the details but will say that all our food surpassed expectations and it was the general consensus that this was probably the best restaurant food we had ever eaten. Each plate was an absolute work of art so we really were eating with all our senses; sight, smell, texture, taste...

Roast Squab Pigeon, Foie Gras & Pastilla - with the sauce poured over

Stone Bass and Pastilla, Scented with Arabian Spices Fennel, Red Rice and Meat Jus

Cumbrian Rose Veal, Creamed Morel Mushroom Sauce and Mashed Potatoes

Dessert followed with glasses of Calvados, Cognac and Dessert Wine and surprise surprise, my Baba au Calvados came to the table under a cloche! Much amusement and laughter and it really was charming to see how a silly joke by me was indulged and the concept of ‘customer delight’ was of paramount importance.

Pana Cotta with chopped fruit

Baba Au Calvados

Chocolate Ice Cream with Fruits

It is pointless here to say we love Le Gavroche for the food. That is a given. It’s really the entire experience. The charm, the efficiency, the grace, the seamless ballet during service and the quiet luxury are what really makes the restaurant special.

We love the restaurant and will return again and again...inshallah

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burger And Lobster - London

Followers of this blog will recall how I have written about the Burger craze in London. Everywhere you look a new burger joint has opened. They are normally stripped down, simple, sometimes with loud music, and always with their followers claiming that their burgers are really the best the juiciest and the tastiest. The old school burger joints comprised of Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Byron, Black & Blue and Hache. The new kids on the block are Meat Liquor, Tommi’s Burgers and Burger and Lobster. There is even a new Hot Dog place called Bubbledogs that serves only Hot Dogs and various types of Sparking Wine. There are also high end burgers available at Bar Boloud, the Cut a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, This is in addition to non specialist places serving burgers, almost all the pubs, all of the chains – MacDonald’s, Burger King and so on. Burgers are big in London.

Lunch was at Burger and Lobster. This is an offshoot of the Goodman Steak Restaurants. It’s Russian owned, and from one outlet [Goodman] at Maddox Street, in 3 years they now have a total of 6, 3 Goodman and 3 Burger and Lobster.

The concept is simple. No reservations. You queue up and get a table. No holding tables for friends, only if all of you are present will you get a table. There is no menu. They serve just 3 things. A Burger with cheese and/or bacon, a Lobster Roll and ½ a grilled Lobster with butter. Everything comes with salad and chips. Each of these costs a flat GBP 20. That is it. Of course there are drinks and deserts. No confusion, no inventory, no fancy cooking, no utensils and no crockery. Everything is served on a large metallic tray with a paper mat. No plates, no breakage no fancy dishwashing. Costs stripped down to the minimum.

The restaurant itself is done up in a warehouse look with exposed wires, minimalist lights and exposed air-conditioning. Tables are simple wooden topped tables with no table mats or napkins. Paper napkins are provided. Food is delivered swiftly, eaten as quickly and you are out in 30 minutes flat.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered the Lobster Roll. The Roll was made with really excellent bread about 9 inches long absolutely stuffed with large pieces of lobster dressed with Mayonnaise. No bulk adding tomato, celery etc. just chunks of sweet lobster and a mayonnaise with a sprinkle of chives. She pronounced it as delicious. I had a bite, it was really good. The Lobster pieces were large, almost unwieldy, not the rubbish of chopping up the lobster mixing it into Mayonnaise and spreading it on bread. This was a large quantity of quality Lobster. She was delighted.

I ordered a Burger. It was delicious. The burger was bigger and better than the Burgers at any of the usual specialist burger places. The meat was far tastier and the grind far coarser. Lots of tasty bacon. I was delighted.

This is in reality an expensive burger. GBP 20 is steep. At Byron you get a Bacon and Cheese Burger for 9.25 to which you add chips 3.00 and a small salad 3.50 and you pay 15.75. At Black and Blue they cost 13 and come with the chips and salad. My guess is that the Burgers at Burger & Lobster subsidise the Lobsters. Despite all this, I think this was a better burger than what I normally get. If you are willing to pay the price, you get a better product.

Burger at Black & Blue

A simple concept well executed. When leaving I asked the manager how many the restaurant seats? 69 at one time and they turn tables many times a day. The rush starts at 12 noon at opening. All 69 places were taken by 12.20. From then till about 3 the restaurant remains packed. Then at dinner time it starts again. That my friends is a winning formula.    

Monday, November 26, 2012

BAPS Swaminarayan Temple Neasden London

I am not a praying man, I am not a believer in God, or `poojas’ or rituals. The pseudo Godmen who now seem to be everywhere completely get my goat, without exception. However, I do visit many houses of many Gods. I have also visited several Churches, Cathedrals and a few Temples in South India. All this has been in recent times purely as a traveller, as a visitor, to see something of startling beauty. Siddhi Vinayak at Prabhadevi Mumbai, the Balaji Temple at Tirupati, the Nathdwara Temple, Vaishnodevi, all of which are `hot’ temples hold no charm and I have never been to any of them. So visiting these places for their `power’ is not of any attraction for me. These temples have no particular beauty either. The Saint Peters Basilica at the Vatican City in Rome is an utterly beautiful building. The Golden Temple in Amritsar is quite beautiful. Many of the churches I visit in my travels across Europe are stunning. There is always a sense of peace, dignity and reverence. You feel calm, you feel fearful and to some extent intimidated by the surroundings.

Our FPG [friend, philosopher and guide] whom I had written about earlier, suggested that we visit the Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha’s [BAPS] Swaminarayan Temple at Neasden a suburb in North West London. I was reluctant, but HRH the Queen of Kutch, who is far more open-minded in matters of `God’ was enthused. So off we went.

A short 20 minute ride on the Jubilee Line Underground train got us to Neasden. The FPG drove up in his open top car and we were soon at the parking lot of the Temple. As we entered the parking lot, I thought, “Groan, welcome to India”. This was the first parking lot I have seen in all of Europe where you had security guards telling you how and where to park. It seems that people who live and drive in London suddenly loose all abilities to park when they enter the Temple!!

Soon, we were really in India. 

No Cameras, 

Switch off your mobile.

Wear clothes that are below knee length.

Take your shoes off.

No chewing gum.

No outside food and drinks.

No smoking.

No bags.

No entry.

For staff only!!! 

You must wear footwear when using toilet. Please use footwear provided!!

The list of instructions seemed to be endless, as cruel and unreasonable as the best in India.

Then we had to go to security, frisking and get our purses X-Rayed.  The only language I could hear was Gujarati. Inside was a certificate from the Guinness Records stating that this was the largest Hindu Temple outside India. This was a bit of a fake record, much like a lot of the `records’ that the little master Sachin Tendulkar has thrust upon him.

After we got thru this we had scores of older Gujarati men telling us what to do and where to go at every step.

`Men on this side’,

`Women on that side’,

`Please sit down’

‘Please do not stand here’

`Please stand there’

As we entered the main Temple on the first floor, I saw a huge display of vegetables. Yes vegetables. And when I say huge I mean about 400 square feet!.  Done rather attractively I must say. Purple Aubergines neatly arranged with orange carrots and green `Doodhi’ and red Tomato. All very pretty though bizarre. The Deity/God/Statue was behind closed doors. People were sitting around while the instructions continued unabated. By this time I was at the end of my tether, so I walked out and stood downstairs. As I was walking down, the doors of the sanctum sanctorum opened to loud `Bhajans’, cheerleading clapping and chanting. I was well and truly done by this stage and I waited for FPG and HRH the Queen to finish the Darshan.      

On the way out, we were walking to the car when we saw that there was a store attached. So we entered. Now this was the best part of the whole complex. It was an Indian store, a Gujarati supermarket. Every variety of daal, lentil, pulse. Counters of delicious Gujarati snacks, deep frozen, `Farali Pettice’, `Vatana Pettice’, `Methi Thepla’, `Pizza Flavoured Samosa’ and a most delicious and intriguing `Paratha Toastie’. This was a Paratha shaped like a toast which you popped into your toaster. Sounded absolutely delicious. I insisted that FPG buy a pack for breakfast.

Adjoining the shop was a restaurant. This was getting better and better. The restaurant was run by a Sardar from Ahmedabad. The food served was pure vegetarian – naturally – and was `Satvik’ to boot. No onion no garlic. Boy I needed a meal there to offset all the beef, pork, chicken, duck and wine that I had been imbibing over the last few weeks. This would certainly purify me. So in we went. Punjabi Samosa Chaat, Khasta Kachori Chaat, Idli Sambar and a plate of Samosa. The food was good by any standard though extremely spicy as in `tikha’. The waitress was a Gujarati from Dahisar in Mumbai. All good cheer, bonhomie and smiles. Stomach filled we departed happy souls.    

Moral of the story. Food gives you more joy, happiness, warm feelings, bonhomie, positive thoughts and everything nice than any God, Guru or Temple!

It was a reasonably nice, large and clean Temple. It did nothing for me spiritually, but you know my views. HRH the Queen who is more of a believer came away untouched. Just too much supervision and passive agressision. Just too much treating people like mindless sheep. You can take a man out of India but you cannot take India out of a man. Put about 200 of these people together you will have a mini India. I did not come to London for this. I come to escape India.

Sorry folks, no photos. The Temple bans taking of photos, my camera had to be turned in.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester - London

Alain Ducasse is a giant. He is not Britain centric. His domain is France and Monaco with outposts in Hong Kong, Japan and the USA. He presently holds 21 Michelin Stars. When I was at the Le Cordon Bleu one of my instructing chefs Franck Jeandon had worked for Alain Ducasse in New York. I asked Chef Franck what made Alain Ducasse so great. The answer was, and I quote `Ducasse will look at a carrot and think, how much money can I make with this.’ This was not to suggest that Ducasse was a mercenary, but the answer was far deeper, it showed how intense the skill of this man was, that he could cook a humble vegetable in such a fantastic manner that a cynical punter would pay money to eat it. Ducassse style of cooking is still classical, he has no foams, jellies and chemicals, just good old recognisable food skilfully crafted, and beautifully cooked. Neither me nor the Queen are fans of the Heston Blumenthal type of molecular gastronomy cooking. Real food any day for us.

There are only four restaurants that have 3 Michelin stars in the UK. Alain Roux’s wonderful Waterside Inn at Bray, Blumenthal’s fantasy food Fat Duck also at Bray, Gordon Ramsay's delightful Royal Hospital Road and Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester.

We had a rather early 6.45pm table, but we were willing to have an early diner for the pleasure of eating at the restaurant. The day was very rainy but luckily it cleared up so we did not have to carry our umbrellas to the restaurant. The restaurant is part of the Dorchester Hotel, which is, in my opinion, not the greatest location to have such a high end restaurant. The character of the Hotel with its processes, staffing and image are often at odds with or compromise the independence and freedom of an individual restaurant. But, I stress, this is my opinion, I may be wrong.

The Restaurant itself is pleasantly appointed and ticks all the boxes necessary, sliver cutlery – check, multiple menus – check, a tasting menu – check, a footstool for the ladies to keep their purses – check, French staff – check, extensive wine list – check, high staff ratio – check. The boxes not ticked, menus without prices for the hosts – missing, coats whisked away on your entry and miraculously reappearing on your exit – missing. The restaurant is located in the middle of a long passage that serves as a lobby that is the sort of spine of the Hotel. It was a bit disconcerting to walk thru the very busy, albeit very glamorous lobby to get to the restaurant. Our coats were taken and we were soon seated and handed 3 menus. One contained the A La Carte and Tasting Menu, the other was a special Autumn Menu and the third was the Wine list. The menus were explained to us and after that one of the senior captains came across with a wooden box looking like a Humidor which had inside a few White Truffles. On opening the box you got the intoxicating aroma of Truffles. We decided on the A La Carte. Since it is Truffle season as I have been writing, the Restaurant had a special; you could order 3 grams of the White Truffle to be shaved on your food. Mind you this was not like Tabasco where you could add a few drops on anything and everything, only a few of the A La Carte dishes could take the Truffle. We chose our food and wine and enjoyed the glass of Champagne while the food arrived. With our Champagne we got a mound of some utterly delicious Gruyere Gougeres.        

Before the first course we got an Amuse Bouche. Reasonably simple. Finely cur Granny Smith Apple [correct word was Brunoise of Granny Smith] with a Quenelle of Cream, Toasted Pine Nuts and a Parsnip Veloute. A good combination. Just got the gastric juices flowing.

For our first course HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered “Sauté Gourmand” of Lobster which was served with Truffled Chicken Quenelles and homemade Pasta. This was pronounced as being really good. You got medallions of Lobster tail sautéed, some tubes of Pasta and delicious chicken Mousse in a Quenelle. This was topped with a Nantua Sauce which is made using white sauce flavoured with roasted lobster shells. Just looking at the dish makes you want to eat it.

I ordered an Alain Ducasse creation, a dish invented by him the Cookpot of British Terroir vegetables Girolles and Montgomery Cheddar. Since we were in Britain the Cookpot consisted of British vegetable. In his other locations, vegetables and a cheese of that location are used to make the Cookpot. This dish was a stunner. It was totally vegetarian. At the bottom were some Girolle mushrooms as well as some simple Mushroom Duxelle [Mushrooms chopped, Shallot, Parsley all cooked together] Also in the Cookpot were roasted Butternut Squash and Roasted Apple and an assortment of leafy vegetables topped with some Cheddar. The whole pot is sealed with Puff Pastry and cooked. The dish was totally delicious, healthy and every morsel perfectly seasoned and cooked.

Four our mains we had both requested that White Truffle be added. HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered Hand-dived Sea Scallops, Parsnips, Jerusalem Artichokes and Fried Salsify. The dish also had some Parsnip cooked in Balsamic Vinegar. The Scallops were huge. I had not seen such large Scallops ever! They were perfectly cooked, seared on the outside and just underdone in the centre. The sweetness of the Scallops was quite something. The crunch of the Salsify Chips gave an interesting contrast. The Truffle shaved on top made the dish extra special. A great dish once again.

I ordered Veal Loin, Girolles and Culatello with fresh Almonds and a Veal Jus. Girolles are once again on the plate simply because its Autumn, mushrooms are everywhere and every restaurant wants to serve them. Culatello is the best part of a Parma Ham. Once the Captain shaved the Truffle on top the heat from the meat and vegetables hit the Truffle causing a release of even more aroma. The dish was incredible. The extreme savouriness of the sauce was accentuated by the Truffles. The vegetables accompanying the Veal were also expertly cooked. Look at the vivid colour of the carrot and the lettuce. This was skilful and caring cooking.

Then it was time for dessert. Rum Baba is another of Alain Ducasse signature dishes. A Rum Baba is very rich yeast cake. It’s richer than a Brioche. The cake is normally a 2-3 inch cylinder and is served with whipped cream. The cake itself is doused in Rum. To make it special, a tray with 5 different rums is brought out by the Sommelier. The rums range from a very fresh smelling white to richer, spicier and denser dark rums. I chose mellow dark Rum from Cuba. The Rum Baba arrived, was cut open whipped cream spooned on and the rum poured. I had a spoonful and nearly fainted with pleasure. It was gorgeous, luscious, spongy and rich all at the same time.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered a Praline-Chocolate biscuit with Vanilla ice cream. The biscuit was outstanding. It had what I thought was Cassonade sugar which is a sort of crystallised brown sugar used in French baking. It’s extremely brittle and shatters in the mouth.  Really very good. The Vanilla ice cream was ordinary in comparison.

As if all this sugar was not enough we got some Petit Fours. This consisted of two types of Chocolate, milk and bitter and 6 Macaroons. The chocolates were good but the Macaroons were much better that what we have eaten from Laudree and Pierre Herme. I believe the reason for that is the fact that these Macaroons are probably fresher and the moisture has not affected them as much.

Thus ended a fabulous meal. The food was top notch. The service was below the standards of the food. It was erratic. There were so many occasions when the bus boys brought out hot food from the kitchen only to find no empty table to set down the tray or to find that there were no waiters to serve the food. Empty plates sat on the diner’s tables for quite an inordinate time before being cleared. The service had no particular discernible system and certainly no charm. Being one of just four 3 star Michelin restaurants in the UK did this experience feel at all special and extraordinary? Unfortunately not, while the food was really good the rest of the elements did not add up. When leaving, the hostess took us along the long length of the lobby across to the other side to retrieve our coats. Why could the coat cupboard not be closer to the restaurant? Was this a constraint of the hotel in which the restaurant was located? Did the blandness and extreme obsequiousness that Hotels have overwhelm the character of this Restaurant? I think yes. But I will never know the correct answer, as it is very unlikely that we are going back.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Empress of Sichuan - London

I had written about our meal at Empress of Sichuan some time ago. Its not often that I write about the same restaurant twice but this one merited it. We did have a very good meal there, so we thought; why not give it another shot. You often have a problem when you re-visit a restaurant where you had a particularly good or pleasant meal. The second visit ends up somehow disappointing. Either the food is just not right; you order something that is not good, the waiters are different and do not respond to your excitement, so many factors. This has happened to us too on more occasions than we care to remember.. Anyway, we decided to give Empress of Sichuan another shot.

A pleasant walk in the refreshing London cold got us to a nearby pub where we had a couple of drinks. Then it was time to walk across for dinner. The restaurant was 80% full, and full of Orientals happily dipping their chopsticks into large bowls of soup on a heater. Yes, they were enjoying the interactive thrill of a Mongolian Hot Pot. It’s quite a good thing to have on a winter day especially with a few friends who eat the same things as you. It gets more enjoyable if you have some intoxicants with the meal. The hot pot costs some GBP 24.50 per person and is unlimited. You get all types of seafood, meat, vegetables and tofu. You are warned that you can eat for only 2 hours. After that all food is charged for!!!

On looking at the menu we were confused. So many dishes leapt out waiting to be ordered. There were just two of us!! For starters we got a cold starter of Sliced Pig Ear with Chilli Oil. What a knockout dish. The strong Ma La sensation of the Sichuan Peppercorns with the Chilli Oil and the Fried Sichuan Chillies went so well with the cold crunchy Pigs Ears and the slivered Cucumber. This was a truly delicious beginning to our meal. After the starter our lips were really tingling. Wow!

One of the restaurants specialities is the most unimaginatively named Steamed Beef with Rice Paste in Bamboo Tube. Despite the clinical name we ordered this. This was the second knockout punch. Beef short ribs, some of the most melting cuts of beef, were slow cooked and the added to the heavily spiced ground rice. This was a dish that in my view was comfort food. It was warm, it was soft, the meat was tender, fall of the bone melting, there was spice it was porridge like consistency – in other words comfort food. Absolutely brilliant dish.  This dish though spicy with chilli did not have any Sichuan Peppercorns, so the spice was different.

In addition we ordered something we have had quite often at the China House at the Hyatt at Kalina in Mumbai. Here it was called Double Cooked Pork Belly Slices with Chilli & Onion. At the China House it’s called Wok Cooked Pork. What the dish it is, Pork Belly which is cooked whole, then thinly sliced like bacon and then it’s given the second cooking. To accompany this we had a single bowl of Egg Fried Rice. The contrast between the dish at the Hyatt and the dish here was dramatic. This was a robust dish, with the funky and salty bursts from Black Beans and the heat of Green and Red Chilli all cooked in a healthy amount of chilli oil. The dish at the China House seemed correct but simply `kanjoos’ or stingy or un-generous when compared to this one. Think loving indulgent grandparents versus a wicked step mother, both are related to you but one is mean, the other large hearted. I do not know if my simile is apt but I am sure you get my drift. I have attached the photo of the dish at China House. You can make your own decision.

The dish at China House

For desert we had bought a few Macarons from Laudree. Took the edge of the spice.

It was a monumental meal. Superb on all counts. A bit heavy on the chilli front but I am not complaining. The whole meal has cost less than a single main course at Alain Ducasse where we are headed the next night. But such is life. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Hedonism Wines - Mayfair London

Very rich, megalomaniacal, powerful and egotistical people often do a lot of good. Take the example of Shah Jehan who constructed the Taj Mahal. Take the example of someone like Donald Trump who has made the luxurious Trump Towers and other buildings in the USA. Take the example of the Sheiks in Dubai who have constructed the magnificent building in Dubai that I have waxed lyrical about in previous posts.

Now from megalomaniacs on to alcohol. Or more specifically - alcohol retail. Alcohol retail is big business all over the world. Alcohol retail has many dimensions, in as much as you have shops in India selling predominantly spirits and beer, shops in France sell predominantly wine often just the local wine and in the UK you also have shops selling predominantly wine. Supermarkets predominantly sell beers, ciders and spirits. So, to put it differently, it is not often you get a store with everything.

Up comes Evgeny Chichvarkin a Russian oligarch who made money in Russia in retailing mobile phones. He was falsely accused of kidnapping and extortion but the charges were dropped. He moved to London and was marking time thinking of what to do. Whenever he ordered wine, he received strange answers, basically the shops treated a customer with the least respect. One day was looking for a particular wine and his local retailer did not have it. He called all the big stores, Harrods, Berry Brothers, Fortnum & Masons, all of whom said they did not stock that particular wine. This situation he thought was unacceptable, and he set about correcting it.

First he poached the chief wine buyer from Harrods and set about buying wine. They spent 18 months buying wine from all kinds of suppliers. They then identified a space in Mayfair - a huge 2 floor retail unit and filled it with the wine. They have some 3500 types of wine and some 1000 types of other alcohol. In addition they have all the paraphernalia used in wine drinking, decanters, glasses and what have you. Next up they staffed the store with 12 multilingual staff, many of whom were Sommeliers at restaurants to help customers buy the wine.

We walked in one afternoon and were astounded. The wine collection was, to us, completely incomprehensible. This was because we simply have no knowledge of wine. But looking at the spirits also available, I was truly staggered. Every type of Vodka, every whiskey – American, Canadian, Irish, Japanese, Scottish and Indian, yes, Amrut Fusion and Amrut Peated Malt were both available – brandy, Grappas, Tequilas, Liquers, Bitters, some 40 varieties of Gin. You name it, they seemed to have it.

We bought a bottle of wine to have with our dinner. It cost very little, but the service given to us was unmatched by any shop we have been to in the past. Wines there cost upto GBP 130,000, ours cost a very small fraction of that. The shop will deliver any wine to any location in Central London or to a hotel or even a private jet. Now is that not service?

I was very pleased with the shop. I will certainly be back to buy more wine. Such friendly staff, why not go back? None of that snooty French attitude or contempt for a people with limited wine knowledge. Just smiling, helpful, knowledgeable service.

Well done 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Toulouse & Le Bon Vivre

Toulouse. A brilliant city. Smaller than Paris, not as pretty but the people are just so friendly. The vibe is good. It’s a small city with a mostly pedestrian city centre full of quaint and pretty shops. Artisanal chocolate makers, bakers, pasty makers cheese-mongers and even cheese-agers are all to be found here. The city reminds us so much of Lyon and Bologna and touches of Bergamo.

No tea served here.

Geographically Toulouse is at the border of Spain, very close to Barcelona. It is built on the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement and a lot of the red brick buildings in Toulouse give it the nickname La Vile Rose The pink City) the Spanish influence on Toulouse is quite heavy. The buildings look so much like the buildings in Spain it’s pretty eerie. The architecture is definitely Spanish/Portuguese. Also, there is a lot of Tapas available in a peculiar French way. In fact, Toulouse is the only city in France to have bi-lingual street signs; in French and Occitan - the original language of the region which is more like Catalan than French! When we arrived in Toulouse, the weather was more like the balmy 20 degrees one would find in Barcelona than the bracing 5 degrees we had left behind in Paris.

You may well ask why we are in Toulouse. The answer my dear reader is very simple. We are here to enjoy French Regional cuisine and of course to see the wonderful Airbus factory. French Regional cuisine you say? Yes. This is an area where Ducks grow very well. So the clever French have made a few great dishes around duck. First of all you must have heard of Foie Gras. That is force feeding a duck or Goose until its liver in engorged. The liver is a delicacy the world over. Well, with the number of ducks around this is Foie Gras city. What do you do with the rest of the duck? With the Legs you make confit; that is preserve the legs in the abundant duck fat. It’s a delicious dish. The Duck Breast is also eaten naturally, both normally as well as smoked. So, duck is big here. Goose too. Then there is the delicious Toulouse Sausage, made with pork, garlic and wine. The famous Bean and Duck and Pork dish Cassoulet is a local speciality as is the loads of wine from the Langudoc region. With so much Pork and game, these clever Frenchmen also make all manner of Pate and Terrines with the produce. This is really food heaven here. So we are here to eat.

Toulouse is also the centre for aviation and space travel in France and the Airbus factory is located down the road. So that is on the agenda as well. We have bookings for 2.30 pm on Saturday.

Meal 1 was at the most renowned local food restaurant called Le Bon Vivre, or the Good Life. This is a really famous restaurant and chefs from far and wide recommend visiting this when asked. To start we ordered a portion of Pork Liver Pate and a bottle of Beer to wash it down. The Pate was top class. Homemade and not factory bought.

Then we had to order our starters. HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered a Burgundy special dish, Eggs poached in a Red Wine Sauce. Burgundy food again! Are you following my drift? Anyway, the dish arrived of two perfectly poached eggs with the classic Burgundy Red wine sauce with the 4 traditional garnishes – Shallots, Bacon Lardons, Fried Bread and Mushrooms. Superb dish.

Foie Gras with Garlic

Eggs poached in Red Wine

I had to order the Foie Gras. We were in Foie Gras country and I do quite like it. This restaurant specialises in Foie Gras with Roast Garlc. Large pods perfectly baked thus the garlic inside is soft and sweet.

The buzz in the restaurant was quite lively and many of the patrons were quite obviously local, which is always a good sign.

For mains I ordered a Cassoulet (which is what we were in Toulouse for) and HRH asked for a Confit Duck. Mains arrived soon enough and I must say the portions were extremely generous. My Cassoulet was enormous and I could see HRH was going to struggle with her Duck.

The Cassoulet was everything I had hoped for. Robust, hearty and extremely satisfying. HRH seemed less happy with her Duck Confit which had a thick layer of un-rendered fat. Although the skin was crisp and the meat flavourful and very delicious, a little more time rendering the fat would have done wonders to the dish. Her potatoes cooked in goose fat though were sinfully good. The colour that potato gets when cooked in goose or duck fat is quite unique, golden.


Duck Confit

All this with a bottle of the regional wine - Cahours - and we were two happy bunnies. The tables at Le Bon Vivre are extremely close together and we soon in deep conversation with the couple at the next table.

Dessert was a floating island for me and a round of Armagnac. A very pleasant evening and a perfect introduction to eating out in Toulouse. The walk back to our hotel was 30 seconds!