08 December 2006

Comptoir Gascon

After the magical annual carol service at St Bride's Church, we wandered in the direction of Smithfield market, looking for something to eat. There were a plethora of possibilities, but we stopped at the first one we came to: Comptoir Gascon, which used to be a fancy deli in which you could eat a bit of lunch, and is now mainly restaurant which seems still to sell a bit of food and wine.
We weren't desperately hungry, having just devoured some minced pies, brioche (why was this deemed Christmassy?) and some Rioja, all courtesy of the good Baron Reuter.
The food here is hearty, not for those of weak stomach, and not a comfy place for vegetarians.
I went with a starter portion of Salade Landaise - green beans, foie gras, confit duck, geziers. Hungerpang's chose a main course of Onglet beef (sort-of-skirt) served rare with Bordelaise sauce, and we asked for chips and a portion of lentils and bacon. The latter never came, but the portions were so large that this was not a problem. The salad had top quality ingredients, but didn't really mesh. I can't complain much about something with foie gras in. The onglet was superb - beautifully marbled, "bleu" rare, but sliceable, chewable, and served with a rich thick red wine and slow-cooked onion sauce. Chips were excellent.
The place has a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere, and the prices are not astronomical, particularly the wines. We drank a bottle of Irouleguy 2003, the grapes listed as "Tannat and Cabernets". I was worried the heat that year would have made it over-jammy, but it probably just made the Tannat come into its own.
We finished off with a Creme Catalan, although I thought that wasn't the same thing as the creme brule which arrived. I need to check, I suppose.

05 December 2006

White truffles - mystery and revelation

When you regularly walk past boards advertising white truffles at £2000 a kilo, it is easy to wonder what all the fuss is about. Sometimes in Booth's at borough market they let us sniff the jar they keep them in. The other day, I saw a chap buying a small one for £15, and realised that it was possible to afford to try them.
When we were looking, the smallest was £25's worth, so that was what we bought. He said it would serve four. It seemed like a good idea to buy some fresh egg taglietelle to go with it.
Then we got home.
All our cook books think it is too fancy a topic to cover. There are no details on what to do with a truffle, how to store it, how to clean it, and hardly any recipes. There were a lot of little holes in the truffle, with fine sand and grit in. I tried using a toothbrush on its own, but resorted to water assistance. Straight after this, Hungerpang found an exhortation on the internet to avoid contaminating truffles with water.
I found only one recipe, which added merely butter, parmesan and grated nutmeg to the pasta, and grated the truffle over the top. This is easier said than done - it was quite brittle, and we ended up with chunks and fragments everywhere.
The result was pretty spectacular. Very pungent, a powerful gastronomic experience, but not necessarily the most pleasant in the world.
That used up only half of it. I had most of the rest for lunch today following the same recipe, discovering that a pototo peeler is an excellent tool for grating truffles with!

01 December 2006

Butler's Wharf Chop House

I thought the only Conran restaurant worth going to was Plateau in Canary Wharf, but after last night have had to revise my ideas.
It was the service that really stood out. They managed that balance of being totally attentive and well drilled, without appearing formal or imposing. Hungerpang mentioned to one waiter that he would move to drinking red wine, and was instantly supplied with a clean glass by another waiter. The room was pleasant, perhaps a little draughty, but the view of Tower Bridge obscured by heavy scaffolding. We (eight of us) were pleased to be seated at a round table, which is much more fun for a sociable group.
The menu had a confusing layout - fairly typical Conran - so you could easily miss some of the main courses on offer. It was hearty British fare, with a special seasonal emphasis on game. The breads were excellent, and not particularly gimmicky or Italian. I chose game broth, a richly flavoured consommé with mushrooms and parsley. Others tried lambs kidneys on toast, smoked salmon, game terrine and potted shrimps. No-one tried any of the oysters on offer. For main course, the steak and kidney pudding appealed most to me. It came coated in gravy, so I couldn't tell if they'd achieved the elusive crisp crust, but not enough gravy to last me to the end. Portions are generous here, and I couldn't finish the pudding. Other things tried were fish and chips, venison shank, mushroom tartlet, pheasant with red cabbage. All were traditionally flavoured, pretty good, but no better than you could achieve at home with a little patience. Only 2 of us had space for afters, both opting for the bread-and-butter pudding, though angels on horseback attracted interest. The bread and butter pudding was huge! Fully a 5-inch cube of dense bread and custard. Hungerpang managed about 2/3rds of his (with a tablespoonful to me), but our friend could only manage a pathetic quantity. We all had coffee, which came with a few little chocolate petit fours of unimpeachable quality.
The thing I really didn't like about this place with its jolly atmosphere (a bit too loud, perhaps) was the prices of the wines. In trying to find something under £40 pound a bottle, you could look through several sections without joy. I repeatedly had to rebuff the somelier's recommendations with a "no, that's out of our price range", and really struggled to find 4 bottles to drink. We had an Argentinian Malbec called Clos de los Siete (£36), a couple of bottles of Rioja Marques de Riscal 2002 (£29.75), a Portuguese Douro wine called Quinta de la Rosa (£29.95), and a white Verdejo, Jose Pariente from Rueda in Spain for £25.75. These are almost the only wines under £30 on the list.
The bill came to £73.50 per person, which was a good effort on our part in contrast with the previous trip to Gaucho Grill, which tallied up to over £90 a head.