Saturday, June 8, 2019

L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele

The World’s Best Pizza. This honorific has been conferred on the pizza served at L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples. L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele has opened a 120 seater outlet in London bang opposite Baker Street Underground Station.

The location is barely 2 doors away from the Lloyds Bank at Baker Street the site of a major robbery in 1971. The thieves had rented a leather goods shop, two doors away from the bank, and tunneled a distance of approximately 50 feet. To avoid being overheard, they dug only during weekends. Almost 3 Million Pounds were stolen and the robbers wrote a message on the wall reading “Let's see how Sherlock Holmes solves this one”.  Baker Street being the home of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. A movie made in 2008 called "The Bank Job" starring Jason Statham was based on this robbery.

Anyway, back to the world’s best pizza. 

L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele opened in Naples with origins that can be traced to 1870. Since then it has been 5 generations of the same family that have run the business. The original pizzeria in Naples is highly regarded and is often referred to as “the Sacred Temple of Pizza.” Recently, the family has opened pizzerias in several cities, Rome and London being just two.

Now L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele does not serve up any old pizza, no sir, they serve the authentic Neopolitain pizza. You may well ask what is an authentic Neopolitain Pizza? The answer is simple. A true Neopolitain Pizza has to comply with the simple yet exacting rules set by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. These rules set down the type of tomato to be used – San Marzano or Roma only – the flour, the kneading and so on. A crucial rule stipulates that the oven temperature should be a rather staggering 485 to 500 Degrees Centigrade and the pizza be baked for between 60 to 90 seconds. The searing heat produces a characteristic Leopard skin pattern on the crust. Mind you, your home oven will not get hotter than 250 Degrees Centigrade which is barely half of what the Association stipulates, so forget about making one at home.

We had made a reservation and on reaching were escorted to a table by the windows. What strikes you as soon as you entered is the heat emanating from the oven. The oven was some distance away in the center of the room. The pizzeria was very busy. Not only was the place quite full but you had a continuous stream of walk in’s either doing a take away or delivery boys taking away ordered pizzas.

Above: You can see how large the pizza is. The box is inadequate.

The original L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples offers only 2 pizza’s the Marinara which has tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil [no cheese] and the Margherita which has Basil instead of Oregano and Cheese. Here in London the menu is expanded with them serving 6 pizza’s, 1 Calzone and a fried Pizza. You have just the pizza on offer, there is no question of customising it. There are no extra toppings one can opt for. No, extra onion, capsicum, barbeque chicken Jalapeno Baby Corn or God forbid, pineapple. You get just one size of pizza. There were also starters and desserts.

In Italy, it’s almost always beer that is drunk with pizza, while in London, people drink wine. So, a bottle of white was ordered along with a platter of Charcuterie and Mozzarella. This was a large platter with 5 different Charcuterie. Also served was simple deep-fried pizza dough called Nodinis. They were light, airy and non-greasy, delicious to break off and eat with the meats. Reasonably good quality stuff. Just right and hit the spot.

Above: The golden stuff is the delicious light Nodinis

The pizzas we could see were large. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana rules mandate that the pizza should be no smaller than 31 cms diameter. That is well in excess of 12 inches. There was no way we could have ordered two Pizza and finished them. Neither could we box them which is what lots of tables were doing, as we were catching a flight the next morning to return home. A Napolitana Pizza was ordered which was basically the Margherita with Anchovies added. We asked the server to have the pie sliced so that handling would be easier. What turned up was large, looked delicious and was really really hot.

Above: The Pizza.

Above: The characteristic Leopard skin charred crust

Above: A dessert. No, it was not Tiramisu

We have eaten some decent pizza in London at our favorite Delfino. This however was a class apart. There were obviously several small differences and enhancements between a decent pizza and an authentic Neapolitan pizza. The biggest elevating or distinguishing factor, according to me, is the sheer heat of the oven. The heat manages to thoroughly cook the base so you are not left with the proverbial soggy bottom. The moisture on the base is contributed by the sauce. This is a floppy pizza and not the papad crisp kind so beloved by us Indians. The cooked and thin crust meant that you were not made full by eating masses of dough, the pizza was actually light. Contributing to the lightness was the minimal sauce, just a single topping of salty anchovy and a sprinkling of Mozzarella, not fistfuls of processed cheese. This was good pizza, a marked difference from anything else we have ever eaten.

We thoroughly enjoyed the pizza. I must caution you, if you are used to Indian pizza which is almost always over sauced, extremely spicy, over topped and laden with cheese, this authentic Neapolitan pizza is difficult to appreciate. You may well feel shortchanged. 

Fully recommended.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Discovering Sichuan food in London

Here is a fact you may not know. UNESCO has declared Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province to be a city of Gastronomy. This is on account of the sophisticated cuisine that the Sichuan Province offers. On some further research, other cities similarly anointed are the wholly obscure Buenaventura, Burgos, Cochabamba, Denia and Hatay among others. I am not sure if Chengdu would be proud of being tagged with its sister cities.

Sichuan, Szechwan or Szechuan, however you spell it is a distinctive regional Chinese cuisine. The food is spicy with Chili. It is often oily, garlicy and uses Sichuan Peppercorns to provide that distinctive ‘Ma La’ flavor. Sichuan Peppercorns at once numb the mouth and electrifies your lips and tongue. An utterly delightful sensation.

Most Chinese restaurants worldwide are Cantonese. This is the food we are most familiar with. In India. Our lives were forever changed by the introduction of Sichuan cuisine by Camellia Panjabi in 1978 at the then brand-new Golden Dragon in the Taj Mahal in Mumbai and the House of Ming at the Taj Mansingh in New Delhi. Today, that Sichuan food has been wholly bastardised to become Chindian or as Vir Sanghvi calls it Sino Ludhianvi cuisine.

I have recollections of being taken to the Golden Dragon as a child, though I cannot remember my parents or anyone else mentioning Ma La. The food was simply better cooked and somewhat spicy as opposed to the non five star Cantonese restaurants you had in Mumbai then. New dishes like Golden Fried Prawns, Hot & Sour Soup and Candied Toffee Apple or Banana were all the rage. I doubt very much the food was truly Sichuan. Those were simple times; we were simple people and we were rather gullible.

Today if you order deep fried Chinese food, such as Spring Rolls, you will be served this with a lurid red spicy sauce which is called Szechuan Sauce. This sauce has nothing to do with the real McCoy. Most street stalls offer Dragon Rice or Szechuan Rice which is flavoured with this spicy sauce. A bowl of the sauce is kept on tables to further spice your food and I suspect to add the element of ‘Daal’ with which we eat rice. This Szechuan sauce has no Sichuan Peppercorns.

Inexplicably, on this visit to London we decided to eat Sichuan food. We had heard and read a lot about Jin Li - a Sichuan restaurant. The original was at Lisle Street, adjoining the pub we frequent. A newer and bigger outpost opened a few 100 meters down at Newport Place, and we thought the we should visit it with our London Friend Philosopher and Guide whom you have who you have read about earlier.

Jin Li was disappointing. The flavours were very muted, toned down for the white population. No real Ma La. However, we did have some very good starters, the classic Smashed Cucumbers, Cold Jellyfish and Century Egg. Mr. & Mrs. London Friend Philosopher and Guide were most apprehensive with the Jellyfish and Egg, but, with our enthusiastic prodding they ate and they loved both.

Being unsatisfied with this experience, we then made a booking at Barshu a long-standing Sichuan Restaurant. The estimable Fuchsia Dunlop was a consultant here. She is a powerhouse of knowledge on Sichuan cuisine having studied cuisine and language in Chengdu and authored several excellent cookbooks on Sichuan cuisine. The restaurant was absolutely heaving, and we were herded into a lower level dining room.

A bottle of white wine was ordered and we were ready to eat. First up was Numbing and Hot Dried Beef. This is a classic Sichuan dish. Ma La hit at once. This was the real stuff. The beef is tendons from the leg which any Western butcher would discard. The thrifty Chinese use the humble tendon to make this dish. The Beef was tender though not exactly melt in the mouth. It does have a slight chew. Went well with the cold wine.

Numbing and Hot Dried Beef

The main course was something we decided to splash out on. This was a whole Sea Bass, filleted and served with Sizzling Chili Oil. First a big empty bowl was brought out with a sieved spoon. Then came a larger bowl choc-a-block full of red chillies, floating in a deep sea of oil. Submerged in the oil was the fish. The waiter sieved off the Chillies and served us the fish. The fish was perfectly cooked. The flavours were quite something. Your mouth was suddenly tingling with the Ma La, and a different heat of chilli adding to the excitement. This was a real winner dish.

Above: Sea Bass, filleted and served with Sizzling Chili Oil. See the volume of Chillies

After removing the Chillies you have fish, Beansprouts Oil and the Sichuan Peppercorns floating

Two classic Sichuan dishes, Mapu Tofu and Dan Dan Noodles were also ordered. The Mapu Tofu was richer, with deeper flavours than I have ever tasted. The Dan Dan Noodles had an added element of Sesame Paste which is used in Sichuan Cuisine. This sesame paste is not the same as Tahini, but at a pinch, you could use Tahini. A small bowl of plain steamed rice was ordered to tone down the heat.

Above: Mapu Tofu 

Above: Dan Dan Noodles 

The meal at Barshu was really good, and the food was not watered down to suit western tastes.

We were hooked. I remembered a very favourable review of a restaurant called Sichuan, in the City, off Liverpool Underground Station. A booking was made for Friday dinner. Chef Zhang Xiao Zhong is in charge of the kitchen. He was previously head chef at, yes, Barshu as well as at the very highly rated Hutong that opened in the Shard. Now he was here. We visited a nearby pub, sat on an outside table and enjoyed the modern skyline that the City offered.

As we walked in the restaurant was full. Luckily, we had a reservation and were soon seated. We had decided to order new dishes, and not fall into the trap of the familiar.

First up, Pigs Ears. Stunning. This is a dish served cold, with copious quantities of Chilli Oil and Sichuan Peppercorns and some raw garlic. A dash of Chinkiang Vinegar balances the dish. This is ideal to have with a drink.

Above: Pigs Ears

For our main courses we had Pork Belly double cooked with Sugar, Soya and Sichuan Spices with a Bean Paste and Chinese Black Mushrooms. Chairman Mao loved this dish, and why not, what is not to love? This was accompanied by something we make at home, poorly it turns out, Aromatic Deep-Fried Beef with Cumin, our humble Jeera. I love this dish, though HRH the Queen of Kutch does like it as much.

Above: Pork Belly double cooked with Sugar, Soya and Sichuan Spices with a Bean Paste and Chinese Black Mushrooms 

Above: Cumin Beef

You have to have greens, so we picked one of our favourite vegetable Karela, the Chinese use it a lot, stir fried with minced Pork.

Above: Karela with Minced Pork 

Once again, a truly wonderful meal. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Nothing namby pamby, full on flavours and full on spicing. Question is, do we go back to Cantonese? Of course we will, but we will be sure to add a few Sichuan meals to the mix as well

Of the three, Jin Li was disappointing for because the food was toned down. Barshu and Sichuan were both excellent. In retrospect, I would go back to Barshu, not because the food is better than Sichuan, but because getting to Barshu which is in Soho is less of a schlepp than getting to Sichuan.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Core By Clare Smyth **

The potato is the 4th largest food crop. Corn, wheat and rice surpass potato. It is believed that the potato was introduced to Europe by Spanish sailors returning from South America. The Portuguese introduced “Batata” to India. In Ireland, the Potato Famine, it is said, totally changed the country;s demographic, political and economic landscape. Potato is beloved all over the world. For us in India, with are very carb heavy diet, potato is most often an ingredient, often masquerading as a “vegetable” despite the potato having poor nutritional value.

Clare Smyth is Irish, whose potential was seen by Gordon Ramsay. In 2002 when she was just 24, she was snapped up by Ramsay and in 2004 became Head Chef at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. This Restaurant was awarded 3 stars in Michelin in 2001 which it holds till today. In 2007 Clare Smyth was appointed Chef Patron [which means she had an ownership in the restaurant] becoming the first female chef in the UK to hold 3 stars in Michelin. In August 2017 Clare Smyth opened her own restaurant Core by Clare Smyth in Notting Hill. In 2019 she was awarded 2 Stars in Michelin.

We had eaten Clare’s food at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay several times. We were quite eager to dine at Core, so a reservation was made. We had an early 6.30 pm reservation on a glorious summer day in London.

The restaurant is in a predominantly residential area. You enter through a bar, which was empty and are led inside past an “open” kitchen. The Chefs greet you as you are escorted to your table. I used the word “open” as the kitchen is not really open but, is fronted by floor to ceiling plate glass, giving you unrestricted viewing.

The dining room seats about 55 people at a time, and got 90% full pretty soon. The room is bright with wooden flooring and minimal carpeting. Blond wood, creams and light brown are the colours used. No tablecloths, but some sort of slight padding covers the tables, somewhat like the upholstery on dashboards of expensive cars, you know what I mean, padded leather. A small footstool for ladies to perch their expensive purses. Music plays softly, I could hear the distinctive sound of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s guitar in David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. Cutlery was good quality stainless steel.

You have 3 menus, a 7-course classic tasting, a 7-course seasonal tasting and a 3 course A La Carte. The menus were on a 3-fold card not the traditional leather-bound folder. The wine list was the traditional leather-bound tome. We opted for the 3 course A La Carte. A gin and tonic to start with and a Sancerre to drink with our meal. We were subjected to the usual question; do you have any allergies? Nope, we eat everything.   

Once the drinks arrived and we had our first sips, up came Canapes. Smoked Eel with Dashi Jelly, Parsley and Nori on which Eel vinegar was sprayed with a sort of perfume bottle. A slightly disappointing Smoked Duck wing with burnt Orange served under a glass jar. This was similar to what Smyth served at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Disappointing because the wing could have/should have been crisp, but was instead flabby. A brilliant Parmesan Gougeres with Pea and Mint which was truly astounding. However, the best of all was a Foie Gras tartlet with Madeira Jelly. This was stunning.

Parmesan Gougeres with Pea and Mint 

Smoked Eel with Dashi Jelly, Parsley and Nori 

Smoked Duck wing with burnt Orange 

Foie Gras tartlet with Madeira Jelly 

One of the signature dishes at Core is “Potato and Roe”, what with Clare Smyth’s Irish background. This is what I had as my first course. A Charlotte Potato is cooked very skillfully, with its skin. This is served with a Dulse [seaweed] Beurre Blanc [White Wine and Butter sauce]. The Potato is garnished with Herring and Trout Roe and fermented potato chips. These chips mimic the classic Salt and Vinegar wafers that are so popular in the UK. This looked great, but, alas, it was simply a dolled-up potato. Probably the best cooked, potato tasting potato that I have eaten; however, nothing could detract the fact that ultimately it was a potato.

 Potato and Roe

HRH the Queen of Kutch had a butter poached Langoustine with Veal Sweetbread. This was garnished with Fennel Puree and served with two sauces, Vin Jaune and a Lobster Bisque. Vin Jaune is a yellow Sherry type wine from Spain. This was a good dish.

Langoustine with Veal Sweetbread

One peculiarity was that on all tables, including ours, a young Chef, in full whites, appropriately stained, with tattoos was pulled out of the kitchen to serve us the starter and explain what it was. I found this idiosyncratic. This seemed to happen only for the first course, not any other. When I first saw the Chef come out at an adjoining table, my though was there was a complaint about the food. I know that this is the style in Scandinavia, but here it seemed to jar. Pulling the Chef out of a kitchen cannot be helping the smooth flow of the kitchen. The Chef’s are sweaty and their whites stand out among the dark suited waitstaff. What would the Chefs tell diners that waitstaff could not? I just did not imagine!.    

Main courses were Roast Monkfish, Morecambe Bay Shrimps, Swiss Chard, Brown Butter, a thin slice of Brown Bread with a Brown Bread Sauce for me. Really good. HRH the Queen of Kutch had the exquisite Duck with Red Grapes. This dish consisted of a artfully cut Duck Breast served alongside Duck Liver garnished with Grapes. On this a Nepalese pepper called Timut was ground. Timut Pepper has citrussy notes and you could call it a cousin of Triphala and Sichuan Peppercorns.  Please do have a look at the skill in slicing each grape and arranging it on top of the pastry containing Duck Liver. Duck and Grape being a classic combination, a sweet/tart fruit with game. The Manager told us that one Chef [obviously a newbie] has the job of hand slicing grapes. Once again, this dish was excellent.

Roast Monkfish, Morecambe Bay Shrimps, Swiss Chard, Brown Butter

Duck with Red Grapes

Then came a pre dessert called the 'Core Apple'. This is a sort of ode to the name Core. It was a perfectly formed, realistic looking mini apple that was served. This consisted of a apple flavoured mousse with a core of caramelized apple. Like a Tarte Tatin. Delicious.

Core Apple

Desserts came next. A wonderful Lemonade Parfait. Please do look at the photograph. The honeycombed spun sugar top is a work of art in itself. This honeycomb top is a hexagon as is the jelly base on which the Parfait is set. Not only is this delicious tasting, light, limey lemonade but it is beautiful to look at.

Lemonade Parfait

The other dessert was called the ‘Core Teaser’ another bit of high level pastry work. Chocolate, malt, Hazelnut and some exquisite light as air honeycomb. The plate it was served on was something that blew my mind. The plate was filled with Goose Feathers. How they got the feathers in without damage is a mystery to me.

Core Teaser

After the desserts came the Petit Fours.

All in all, an excellent meal with good service. Of course, recommended. An A La Carte meal without alcohol or service costs £95 per person which is about INR. 9500. Worth it? At this level, I would say yes.