Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Goring Dining Room* - Revisited

To read about our previous visit click here.

We had eaten at the Goring Dining Room in March 2013 and loved it. What had impressed us very much was the fabulous bar. Then, earlier this year, the Goring Dining Room was awarded 1 star in Michelin. We thought to ourselves why not go back for a second visit.

This time we booked ourselves a table at a reasonably late 8.00 pm. The plan was to visit the bar, have a pre-prandial drink and then go to the Dining Room. That is exactly what we did.

The Goring has an unimpressive entrance. A short flight of steps leads you to a door which is opened by a doorman and you are virtually at the bar. We entered and were shown a table. The bar was as impressive as the last time we were there. While you could sit at the actual bar, we saw that no one actually did, so we were quite happy to be shown to a table. The escort politely asked if we had a reservation for dinner. I do not know if this is default practice of asking people this question, but we answered in the affirmative that we had a table under HRH the Queen of Kutch’s name at 8.00 pm.

The carpeted bar had lowish seating on extremely comfortable sofas and single seater arm chairs. The lighting was low and the hum of conversation just added to the quiet dignity of the place. There was no standing allowed in the bar, so the capacity was controlled. We looked around; we were the only brown faces. The crowd was older, white and rich. There were no jeans or sneakers in sight. Just a large number of older men and women having a drink in extremely convivial surroundings. No piped music, no guitarists or other musicians, simply the tinkle of glasses, the sound of a cocktail being shaken and the buzz of conversation. Boy, this was my kind of place.

Menus were placed on the table, HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered a Martini while I had a Negroni, by far my Cocktail of choice. The drinks arrived as did some nuts and wafers. Both drinks were revivers, in other words, unwatered down. It was just alcohol and ice. Soon, having downed the first drinks, we ordered two more, as we say in India – “repeat”. At this point the Captain from the Dining Room turned up carrying menus under his arm and reconfirmed if we were dining at the Hotel. Obviously the Escort had communicated this fact to the Dining Room. On being told yes he put down the menus, and we told him we would finish our drinks and be there shortly. A few minutes later he turned up again and asked if we had seen the menus and decided. Indeed we had. So, we gave him our orders and by and by finished our drinks. We walked to the Dining Room. No fuss, no drama and no waiter running behind you with a bill. The drinks would be added to our food bill.

I still maintain, the Bar at the Going is the finest we have been to in the world.

The Dining Room is large and the colour of the upholstery and carpeting is Cream & Beige with Swarovski Chandeliers hanging down from the ceiling. Outside the Dining Room is a Bronze Statue of the Queen Mother who used to frequently eat here. The food is described as British, so, not only do you have British ingredients, but the classic British dishes of Beef Wellington and Kedgeree are on the daily changing menu,

The food menu was a fixed price 3 course meal. There were a few extra dishes listed which were available at a supplement, Caviar for example, or Lamb or a jar of Potted Shrimps. Vegetables were also charged extra, which I thought was a bit of a rip off. A bottle of Sancerre was ordered since it was going to be Fish and Eggs for the main course, and we waited for our meal.

As a first course, HRH The Queen of Kutch wanted to go as they say “off Piste’, so unusually for her she ordered Chicken Soup, Glazed Wild Mushroom, Confit Egg Yolk, Celery. Chicken is not something she eats, nor is a soup. Additionally, the dish had Confit Egg, which is a thoroughly modern cooking technique. A Confit Egg is something that we have wanted to eat but for some reason never been able to. To Confit an Egg Yolk what is done is that the Yolk is submerged in oil - it could be simple oil or oil flavoured with say Rosemary or other ingredient - and cooked at a temperature of between 63C and 65C for about 45 minutes. This is also sometimes described as a 63 Degree Egg. The Yolk remains soft but yet stable and can be handled. This was a good dish, looked as pretty as a picture. HRH The Queen of Kutch adored the dish.

I, on the other had a diametrically different starter. A very traditional Beef Tartare with Pickled Onions and Mushroom Ketchup. I quite liked the idea of the Pickled Onions, you retained a traditional ingredient in the dish – onions – but by pickling them added the acid and removed the harsh onion taste. I required a grind of salt from the Salt Cellar, and once that was done, the dish was excellent.

Well begun.

It was time for the main courses and it was South Coast Brill with Cauliflower, Scottish Girolles, Sea Herbs and Smoked Mussel for HRH. Once again, the food was excellent. The Skin of the Brill wonderfully crisp and Golden and the Sea Herbs were quite unusual.

I ordered the Goring Dining Room Speciality – the Glazed Lobster Omelette with Lobster Caesar Salad and Triple Cooked Duck Fat Chips. A Buttered Hispi Cabbage was my vegetable. This dish was earlier a First Course, but with the arrival of a new Chef, the dish has been upgraded to a main course with the addition of the Salad and Chips. What is there to not like in this combination? The Omelette is luxurious with the Lobster, gooey with the lashings of Béchamel, rich with Cream, cheese and eggs. And, as if that much Lobster was not enough, the Salad had even more. To add even more calories you have the wonderfully, crisp on the outside and Soufflé like on the inside, duck fat chips. Indulgent comfort food.

We decided to not have two desserts but rather, one Cheese platter chosen from the several British Cheeses from the Trolley and one decidedly wonderful sounding dessert of Manjari Chocolate, Milk Jam, Salt Caramel Mousse and Milk Ice Cream. The Cheese was served with some crisp Fig Bread and Quince Jam. The Cheese was nice – I chose 4 a Washed Rind, a Blue, Cheddar and a Brie style - but nothing to rave about. The Chocolate on the other hand was really good.

In the end, we had a thoroughly wonderful evening. The Bar was a joy and the food competent. The service was decent and we had really nothing to complain about. What more does one want?

Monday, November 28, 2016

Berry Bros & Rudd - Wine Merchants. One day wine school.

We drink a lot of wine when in London. There is just so much available at so many price points that buying wine is easy. Every meal we have at the serviced apartment we stay at is accompanied by wine that we have bought. Every meal at a fancy restaurant is accompanied by wine. Champagne drinking starts on board the flight from India and ends with a final glass on the return flight. We like wine.

Most times we bought wine that cost about £ 10. If we were slashing out we would go to a maximum of £ 30. The wines were so good. Just so much better than any Indian wine.

London has some serious wine merchants. In the days gone by you had two chains of stores that really made wine so accessible – Odd Bins and Nicolas. Tragically over the years both chains have shut. Then we shopped for wines either at a slightly upmarket retailer Jeroboams or bought wine reviewed by the London Times or equivalent London newspaper from a supermarket. One of our all-time favourites was a Red made by Michel Chapoutier and sold by Waitrose – this was a real bargain [or so we thought].

Then about 4 years ago came the upstart Hedonism, about which I have written earlier. We started to frequent the store and got some good wine.

A couple of years ago we stumbled into the magnificent Berry Brothers & Rudd a 317 year old wine merchant in St James. Why we had not been there before will remain life's mysteries. This was a real eye opener for us. Just to give you a perspective and the fascinating history, in 1698 the store opened as a tea, spice and snuff merchant, as these three would have been a very very precious commodities then. The store was conveniently located just outside the St James Palace where King Henry VIII lived. You must know about King Henry VIII – the King that separated the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, he of the six wives who are best remembered by “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”.

The store had a huge pair of scales, which still stand proudly in the centre of the store, to weigh the bags of tea and spice. The store launched the world’s first loyalty card. Anybody who had the loyalty card could get himself weighed on the scales free of cost! This was a huge attraction as, if you wanted to get yourself weighed in those days you had to go to an Apothecary – or pharmacist and get this done at a cost. The store still has leather bound registers from those days – with special pages earmarked for regular customers – giving details of the weight of people. Some notations are amusing, I had a heavy meal and I wore my heaviest boots, to justify or explain the weight gain! How little things have changed over the years.

Then, there was a fire in the St James Palace and the wine stock was burned. So an opportunity to stock wine in the cellars below the store was identified and since then Berry Brothers & Rudd became wine and spirits merchants. They were the owners of the Cutty Sark whiskey for many years which they sold in 2010. Their revenues today are in excess of £145 Million.

They now stock more than 9 million bottles in humidity and temperature controlled cellars in Basingstoke in Hampshire. One fascinating service they offer is known as “Cellar Plan’. You can buy your wine which you believe will be ready for drinking in say 5 years and they will store it for you. Of course this is a hugely risky affair for you as owner of the wine as well as something you need to have staggering knowledge of. To be able to predict that a certain wine will be ready for drinking some years in the future, is to me, a skill that is unimaginable.

Today the miles of cellars under the store have been converted to state of the art conference rooms, dining rooms and function rooms. The shop on top continues to function and is absolutely wonderful. The company is still family owned by the same two families the Berry’s and the Rudd’s. The most popular wine they sell at £9.90 is the absolutely glorious Good Ordinary Claret. The wines are so good, and such good value for money that we have started buying all our wine from the shop. Once you are registered with them, record is kept of every bottle you buy. So you have a record and can make notes and remember which wine you bought and liked or disliked. The staff are friendly and totally without any sort of attitude. They give you as much care and attention if you are buying the £9.90 the Good Ordinary Claret or something that costs hundreds or thousands of Pounds.

Berry Brothers & Rudd run almost 300 courses every year. These all have to do with wine, obviously, from pairing wine with food, to courses on specific wines to wine appreciation. HRH booked us into an all-day Wine School course. This included lunch. So off we went on rainy Saturday morning. We had to taste and learn about 12 wines followed by a glass of Champagne and then have a wine pairing with the meal. We were both looking forward to this. There were 30 of us on this course. The course was being conducted by Rebecca Lamont head of the Wine School. We had place cards and were soon seated, and ready to go.

On the table in front of us were 12 glasses of wine, 1 glass of water, 1 bottle of water, a spittoon and some notes. We could drink the wine but were asked to sniff, swirl, sip and chew before spitting it out. We were told to drink a lot of water, I drank 3 bottles. The differences in wine were dramatic. Obviously the wines were chosen as being the most representative of the type, and each type had a wine from the Old World and the other from the New World. This was really interesting.

The Spitoon

We learnt a lot. For example you may have had a wine that said on the label that it was say 40% Oaked. Now what did that really mean? Very simply it was much like making an Orange Squash. The bottle was simply comprised of 40% of one wine that was matured in Oak barrels and the balance 60% of the bottle consisted of wine that had not! Or that in the UK tax of £2.08 is paid one every bottle of wine. So if you are buying a bottle in retail that costs say £4.00 you can imagine how really poor the wine inside would be. Or that a higher alcohol content in the wine results in an heavier mouth feel.

Some of the tastings were quite revealing. Remember that we were blind tastings; I preferred a £13 wine to a £78 wine of the same kind. The whole tasting was fascinating. Then we had to break for lunch. A glass of Champagne was served. It was very refreshing after all the wines we had tasted. I must confess that out of the 12 glasses we tasted I must have drunk possibly 5 teaspoons. The rest was spat out or simply left in the glass. But sniffing all those glasses left one a little lightheaded and the sipping and chewing all of them made you feel like you had drunk a lot!

Lunch was a sit down affair with a printed menu and 6 wines to be tasted blind. These 6 were from what we had tasted earlier. We were to decide which of them worked best with the food we were being served. This was even more fascinating. The wines that tasted inferior in the cold classroom suddenly tasted brilliant when paired with food. We also learnt that heavily Tannic wines – the Shiraz or Syrrah - are dulled by meat protein. This was amply demonstrated when eating the Venison with the Shiraz. Mind you, in India you get a lot of Shiraz which we dislike. In retrospective, my guess is the reason for disliking Shiraz in India is because we are given Shiraz to drink before the meal. If we were given Shiraz with a meat based meal I am certain it would be far more drinkable. When the meal ended, the Chef Stewart Turner came out to rapturous applause. His food was really good.

Gin Cured Salmon

Roast Venison 

Blackberry & Apple with Custard 

At the end of the day, I was struck by three factors. First, the sale of professionalism with which this course was run is quite unlike what we are used to. Just to put things in perspective, we were given in total 12 + 6 glasses of wine. So that is 18 wines multiplied by 30 people. Just to run this one class Berry Brothers & Rudd had to provide 360 wine glasses, all spotless and polished and all exactly the same. Second was the quality of the class material itself. The level of competence and skill of our teacher Rebecca Lamont was excellent. She was really good. Coupled with this knowledge was the manner in which the class was constructed. Wine is such a huge subject, but the ability to distill all this subject matter into easily understandable simple concepts for novices like us was something that comes with intelligence. The last was the quality of the food served. I was simply gobsmacked. This was high end food served to 30 of us, all served hot, or cold, when required, and beautifully presented. I am sure you will see this in the photographs.  

Friday, November 25, 2016

Prague - The food

Czech food falls within the classification of Austro Hungarian Cuisine. Austro Hungarian cuisine itself is an amalgam of culinary traditions of various nationalities [Austrian, German, Italian, the erstwhile Czechoslovakia and the Balkan States, Hungary and even Poland] which form a sort of common theme. Of course, localities have local specialities. 

So, for example, Goulash, will appear in traditional menus in Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The Wiener Schnitzel, appears in menus across Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and of course Italy where it is known to us as Veal Milanese and is eaten with a Saffron Risotto. Charcuterie is another common thread with sausages being a unifying food. Obviously, Charcuterie implies the cuisine is Pork based. The Pork Knuckle, grilled, appears on menus of restaurants serving traditional Czech food, and, in Germany it is equally popular and called Schweinshaxe. Dumplings of various kinds are another common food as is the heavy use of Poppy Seeds.

The two main regions of erstwhile Czechoslovakia are Bohemia and Moravia. Today the Czech Republic is in Bohemia while Slovakia is in Moravia. Differences appear in these two cuisines. The Czech Republic favours beer while Moravia wine. Sheep farming is dominant in Moravia so Slovakia has a lot of Sheep Cheese.

A Czech menu is rather interesting. Firstly, Pork is by far the most consumed protein. Duck, Goose and Rabbit are extremely popular too. Pike and Carp abound. Beef is popular too. There is plenty to eat.

We were staying in the Old Town area also known as Prague 1 – this is a postal code. Prague 1 encompasses the Old and New Town which, as you would have read, are the main tourist hubs in Prague. This at once is an equal advantage and disadvantage. Being a tourist hub, you get plenty of the bottom of the barrel [cost wise] Doner Kebab places followed by the Pizza places, pizza and pasta places, oddly Thai and Vietnamese places and sort of multi cuisine places serving all kinds of food with a smattering of Czech specialities. We had no intention of eating in any of these.

Being the tourist hub there were some very good restaurants too. We had decided to stay away from any that had stars in Michelin. We wanted to eat the best of the local stuff. Just as you would go to say Karims and Pandhara Road in Delhi, or Trishna/Apoorva/Gajalee, Britannia and, maybe, Bombay Canteen in Mumbai.

Before getting into the dinners we had, I must tell you about the spartan and delicious lunches we had. Sausages are big in Prague. The grilled Klobasa or Kielbasa [in Polish] is a thing of beauty. Klobasa are either filled with beef or pork, each paired with mustard. The skin has a nice taut snap to it. These are spiced with chilli peppers and garlic or cumin and garlic. Some have Paprika. There was also a delicious smokiness to the sausages that was the result of smoking them. Eating these beauties was a real pleasure. The sausage stalls at the end of Wenceslas Square are traditionally where you eat a sausage. Of course you could eat them elsewhere too and they will be equally delicious. 

The other great delicacy is known as Prague Ham. This, the Czechs say is as famous as the Spanish Bayonne Ham. I would take this with a pinch of salt. But the ham itself is very good. Large hams are fitted onto Rotisseries and cooked over open wood fires. You order a portion and the man sliced of a hunk, cuts it, weighs it and gives it to you. This was without doubt the best hot ham I have ever eaten anywhere. This was at one of the stalls in the town square.

The first night we asked the Concierge at the Hotel to recommend someplace for dinner. The recomendation was Mincovna. This was in a side street leading of the main square in Old Town. The menu looked decent and we sat down for a meal. Beers were ordered and as starters my little eye spied Duck Rillettes. If you ever see Rillettes on a menu, order it without thinking. A Rillettes classically, is pork shoulder, spiced with Juniper, Bay, Pepper, Nutmeg and Clove that is cooked very slowly in its own fat till the meat falls apart. This is then salted and made into a rough paste, put in a jar with a further layer of fat on top to prevent oxidization and aid preservation. When eating you spread the Rillettes on toast. In France, Rillettes are often simply placed on the table for you to eat while waiting. Rillettes are also made with Goose, Duck and Rabbit. Basically, meat with a heavy fat content. Modern versions are also made with Salmon. This was delicious with the cold beer.

HRH the Queen of Kutch ordered fried cheese. This is a Czech classic. You get two versions of cheese. One is the fried cheese, much like the Cheese Pakoda we are familiar with, except that the cheese is not covered with a Besan batter but is breaded. The second version is where the cheese is pickled with lashings of paprika. This too was delicious with the cold beer.

For my main I had to have the Goulash. This was made with pork and was served with potato dumpling. Evidently the Chef had one party trick, which was to serve crisp brown onion with every dish. The Goulash was decent however the dumplings were a waste of calories. Remained uneaten. HRH the Queen of Kutch had a roast Goose Leg with Pancakes. This was a good dish. Crisp Goose skin, soft melting interior, what more can one want. In the end we left feeling disappointed. We knew we had to do a fair amount of our own research to get decent dining options.

The next night we had identified Vkolkovne [no, I cannot pronounce it either] a Czech Pub in Josevof for dinner. Under the section "Beer Snacks" – which we had seen in pubs in Belgium and Germany – was the other variety of Cheese popular in Prague. Pickled and with lots Paprika. This was good. The beer went down well.

Main courses were the bog standard Schnitzel for me. I like Schnitzel, crisp on the outside, sharpened with a squeeze of Lemon and accompanied by a Potato Salad. Simple tasty food. You cannot possible go into raptures over such a uncomplicated dish. HRH the Queen of Kutch had grilled Pork. Of course, she could not finish her portion so I got a slice. It was excellent. Moist Pork, smokey from being grilled and extremely tasty. This was a far better meal and atmosphere than the previous night at Mincovna. Things were looking good.

Cestr was another highly recommended place. This restaurant specialised in beef. We thought that why not have a good steak in Prague and cancel our reservation at Zelman’s Meats in London. So we went ahead and book at Cestr. The restaurant is located in a huge office building. The place is large and buzzing.

We were served an amuse bouche of toast with a Pumpkin puree. Decent. A wine was ordered, Moravian, to go with our steaks. We were handed a menu, sealed with a sticker. We opened it up and were delighted. Lots and lots of options leapt out. First up for HRH the Queen was a wonderfully clear Consommé – Double Beef Broth with a Poached Egg. Rich tasting, full of flavour, crystal clear, no oil floating on top. The Egg Yolk that oozed when cut enriched the soup. This was good cooking. Very simple classic French techniques to make this Consommé. I ordered a Beef Carpaccio. This too was very good. I admit that this is not a Czech dish, however, this was totally local. The beef was from a Czech breed of cow, the cheese on top was local hard cheese. I loved the dish.

For our mains we shared a T Bone made with the local breed of beef. This was good, but, unfortunately, nowhere quite as good quality as what we have eaten in London. Mind you this was a specialist beef restaurant and at the top of its game. London is a big city. The food in London is far better, alas. A plate of Spinach and Potato Chips accompanied the Steak.

To finish we asked the waitress what her favourite dessert was. Stuffed Dough Buns filled with poppy seeds and rum-flavoured mousse was her suggestion. They were excellent. A good suggestion. To wash this down was two glasses of spirits – Aged Slivovitz and Pear Brandy. This was a mixed meal. The starters and desserts were very good, unfortunately the main event was sub-par.

The last meal was at Lokal a very highly regarded restaurant close to Josevof. This was huge. It could seat 250 at a time. Once section had a smoking section, one had a non-smoking. This is one of the few places in Prague that sells unfiltered Pilsner Urquell on tap. By way of background, Pilsner Urquell is beer that was first brewed in Pilsen, close to Prague. This was where the largering process was discovered and beer as we know it today was first made. Today Pilsner Urquell is owned by SAB Miller and brewed all over the world. However, it is only in Prague you get the original unfiltered stuff. Kozel is another local beer, also available unfiltered. I had a glass of each. Cold, crisp and light. While on the subject of beer you get beer in several combinations. Hladinka (Smooth, half brew and half foam in the glass), Šnyt (two fingers of beer, three fingers of foam, and one finger of empty glass), Mlíko (Milk, a beer almost entirely of foam). Why anyone would want to drink a glass of foam is beyond me.

When we entered at our appointed time of 8 pm, Lokal was absolutely heaving. We were ushered to our table. It was a wonderful atmosphere. Menus were handed out and we ordered. It was to be three starters. The specialities of Lokal, Prague Ham with Horseradish, Fried Cheese and Rillettes with Crisp Pork. All three were knockouts. Each the best examples of these dishes that we have tasted. The Fried Cheese was just this side of melting and far better than the fried cheese at Mincovna. The Prague Ham was cold, and sliced thin. The Horseradish was sharp and delightful with the Ham. The Rillettes had these salty crunchy bits of Pork skin. Delicious.

For our mains I could not resist the last chance to have a Goulash. This was a Pork Shin Goulash served with a Dumpling. This was a Dumpling made with some care, it was nice, just right to soak up the Goulash. We needed some vegetables so a side order of Spinach was appropriate. HRH the Queen was not very hungry, so she ordered a Spicy sausage that was served with grated Horseradish and Mustard. This was a very good Sausage. The portions were small. As we have observed, smaller portions often means that the food is better cooked. This was exactly the case here. The food was very good.

We were still not done. Dessert was what is described as Traditional Czech Biscuit which is a biscuit with lots of whipped cream dusted with Cocoa Powder. The other was Meringue with Chocolate. Both desserts were pleasant.

The last meal had to end with a glass of Mint Liqueur for me - I recall the Crème De Menthe I used to have all those years ago - and Slivovitz for the Queen. It was a wonderful final meal to our final night in Prague.

In the end we had a range of meals in Prague. Some dishes were really world class and others were ordinary and disappointing.