What’s mine is yours…

Review of NOPI 15 February 2012

Some people are very territorial about their food.  They shudder at the very thought of sharing a plate of food with another person.  Perhaps it’s just part of our British reserve to create an invisible force field around our food.  God forbid any brave soul should cross this imaginary line and take anything from another’s plate.  You may get away with a snarl and rap across the knuckles. I’m sure there are a few people who would gladly turn their cutlery into an arsenal of lethal weapons to protect their dinner from an interloper. If you are this type of person then NOPI is most definitely not the place for you.

NOPI describes itself as a “brasserie with a twist”.  Open all day, the concept behind Yottam Ottolenghi’s latest venture is to provide a variety of dishes for your table to share (three savoury dishes per person are recommended).  In keeping with this casual notion of dining the restaurant décor is simple bordering on sterile.  White dominates from the walls, tiles and marble tables.  Warmth is added through the use of brass on the bar and the striking pendant lights.  In contrast to the pale surroundings the waiters wear the standard black livery of the typical brasserie. A great deal of thought has gone into the detailing of the restaurant.  A signature golden ring crops up everywhere from the corner of the menu to the collars of the waiters shirts.  Even the napkin holders are weighty brass rings (which were hastily removed from our table possibly to deter any light fingered diners taking home a souvenir).  Things get even more informal downstairs with two large communal tables where guests are bunched together and can view the chefs at work in the open kitchen. 

There were four of us in our party and 12 dishes seemed like an awful lot of food (I had visions of us having to balance some plates on our heads in order to accommodate them all). Our amiable waiter reassured us our selection would be staggered so that at no point would our table become swamped.  Our next issue was whether or not we would be able to find 12 dishes from a menu of 16 items.  We needn’t have worried.  Just reading this adventurous menu makes you salivate. There was not one thing on the menu that I would not have eagerly devoured.  Fortunately, my dining companions had eyes to match the size of their bellies so we sensibly ordered eight dishes with the option to add more if we wanted. 

The flavours of the menu are nestled in the Middle East with dishes such as smoky roasted aubergine with black garlic, harissa and pine nuts or baby octopus with skordalia and ras al hanout spices.   There are also oriental inspired dishes such as seared scallops with pig’s ears and black bean and ginger sauce.  Everything we ordered was sublime particularly the tender ox tongue with pickled sour cherries and horseradish cream.  If I had to pick a fault (and this is tricky) I would say the seared lamb cannon was light on the lamb and heavy on the celeriac salad containing sour barberries (which can be an acquired taste for some).  Although each plate was quite petite, twelve dishes had been just about enough for us.  However, we did manage to share three desserts including some delightfully light miniature coffee and pecan financiers with maple cream.  As promised our selection of dishes was seamlessly supplied with clockwork precision and our carafe of tap water was regularly replenished without us having to ask for it to be done.  Be aware that this tempting pick and mix approach to dining can easily lead to a hefty bill (each item costs between £8 and £12.50) so although your experience will be cheerful it is unlikely to be cheap. 

The one downside to sharing food is that inevitably you make a mess which is possibly why some people are so against it.  With bellies full we surveyed the remnants of our meal on our table.  In a snobbier establishment we may have felt embarrassed to have created such carnage.  Not so at NOPI.  What you get here is excellent food and impeccable service in a chilled, convivial environment.  The ensuing detritus is just part of the NOPI experience. And besides, marble is so easy to keep clean even if it is white…

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There once was an ugly tuber….

 The dreaded Jerusalem artichokes!

In the vegetable kingdom nothing is shunned quite as much as the Jerusalem artichoke.  Its gnarled form seldom makes an appearance among the bright and beautiful vegetables on the supermarket shelves.  Its knobbly exterior creates nooks for dirt to hide and make it more cumbersome than tapered root vegetables to prepare.  But it is not its misshapen appearance that strikes fear into many a person’s heart.  It is the knowledge that when consumed Jerusalem artichokes are renowned for inducing the most putrid and noisy bouts of flatulence.

This loathsome reputation seems a little unjust.  They are reputed to taste like globe artichokes but are actually a relative of the sunflower family hailing from North America rather than the Middle East. Jerusalem artichokes are very versatile vegetables.  They make excellent, velvety soups (I recently tried Paul A Young’s Jerusalem Artichoke Veloute which contains white chocolate and found it very moreish indeed). They can also carry stronger flavours such as cumin or coriander and go equally well with delicate seafood such as scallops. 

The reason they have such an explosive reaction when consumed is because the tubers contain an indigestible oligosaccharide called inulin which feeds on bacteria in our gut and results in the production of gas.  Harold McGee states that they become more digestible if you cook the Jerusalem artichokes for 12 – 24 hours at a low temperature (e.g. 93°C/200°F ) causing the flesh to become “sweet and translucently brown, like vegetable aspic.”  On the Radio 4 programme, The Kitchen Cabinet, chef Angela Malik recently said she tosses Jerusalem artichokes in lovage seeds and this seems to reduce their tendency to cause wind.  I can’t say I’ve tried either of these remedies so I have no idea whether they work!

Their flavour alone is reward enough for the extra effort you need to apply when preparing Jerusalem artichokes. The recipe below combines the nutty tubers with earthy mushrooms in a creamy gratin which shies away from being cloying.  I can’t promise that it won’t lead to any loud trumpeting on the part of the diner but it is delicious none the less.  It’s probably best not to serve it for Sunday lunch if you have the Vicar coming over for tea later that afternoon just in case!

Artichoke and Mushroom GratinArtichoke and mushroom gratin

Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a main

 Ingredients

  •  150ml whole milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 1 sprig fresh rosemary (about 10cm long)
  • 10g dried porcini mushrooms
  • 500gJerusalemartichokes, scrubbed and peeled
  • Juice of ½ lemon
  • 1 tbsp rapeseed or sunflower oil
  • 250g chestnut mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 150ml crème fraiche
  • 2 further sprigs rosemary (about 10cm long), leaves removed from stem and finely chopped
  • 15g butter for greasing
  • 25g Gruyere, grated
  • Seasoning – nutmeg, salt, pepper and squeeze of lemon juice.

 Method

 Creating the porcini infusion

  1. Place the milk, bay leaf, garlic, rosemary and dried mushrooms in a small sauce pan.  Slowly bring to boiling point then turn off the heat and leave to infuse for at least 30 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, scrub and peel the artichokes.  Slice into disks around 5mm thick.  Immediately place into a bowl of water containing the juice of half a lemon to avoid discolouration.Frying the mushrooms
  3. Heat the oil in a frying pan. Fry the mushrooms until all the liquid which exudes from them has evaporated.  Season well with nutmeg, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice.  Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC (slightly less for a fan oven or 350ºF / Gas Mark 4).
  4. Strain the porcini and milk reserving the liquid.  Remove the garlic and the herbs.  Return the porcini to the infused milk then add the crème fraiche.  Blitz the mixture using a hand blender then add the chopped rosemary and fried mushrooms.  Season according to taste.Assembling the gratin
  5. Butter a shallow gratin dish (the one I used was approximately 18 x 23 cm).  Arrange some slices of artichoke in a single layer in the dish.  Pour a little of the porcini and mushroom cream over the artichokes then repeat the process again until you have used up all of the artichokes and sauce.  This is quite a rustic dish so don’t worry about the layers being neat and tidy.  Sprinkle with grated Gruyere.
  6. Bake for 1 – 1½ hours until the artichokes are tender and the top is golden and bubbling (if it looks like it is getting too brown then cover the dish with foil).  Serve as a vegetarian main with a steamed green vegetable or as a side dish with roasted meats.
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A Bellyful of Comfort

 The ingredients for pork belly in mead

As I prepare for another bitingly cold weekend I can’t help craving comfort food.  You know, the sort of food that makes you feel warm inside by merely thinking about it.  Often this involves carbohydrates like silken mashed potato or a steaming suet pudding.  Today, however, my thoughts are drifting towards pork belly.

There is something soothing about pork belly.  I don’t know whether it’s the layer of fat under the crunchy crackling or just the sound of it (belly sounds infinitely more comforting than shoulder or loin).  It was recently reported that pork in general is becoming more popular in theUK because it is currently cheaper than both lamb and beef.  Although pork belly has become a fashionable item on many restaurant menus, it remains an economical cut which responds well to slow cooking.

The recipe below for Slow Cooked Pork Belly with Mead is one of my favourite ways to enjoy this cut of meat.  For this recipe, I try to get a cut from the thicker end of the belly as this is less fatty. Mead is a honey based alcoholic drink which is more like wine than beer.  It has ancient origins and was drunk at festivals and weddings.  The word honeymoon is thought to have come about through the association of drinking mead during wedding celebrations which could go on for an entire month. Nowadays, it can be quite elusive but you may find it at an independent wine or beer merchants, farm shop or food fair.  Failing that you can buy it online here or here as an example.

I have provided an alternative to mead just in case you are unable to find some.  The combination of dry white wine and honey produces a similar result.  Either way the sauce that accompanies the pork belly is not overly sweet.  The beauty of this recipe is that much of it can be prepared in advance (and even frozen), so it is a good dish to serve when you have friends or family to dinner.  As it goes, it is particularly good with mashed potato although it is equally good with a celeriac or cauliflower puree.

Slow Cooked Pork Belly with Mead

Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 1kg piece of boned pork belly from the thick end, skin on and scored*
  • 250ml mead OR 200ml dry white wine and 50g honey mixed together**
  • 200ml chicken stock
  • 1 onion, peeled and quartered
  • 1 fat or 2 smaller cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed
  • 1 carrot, peeled and quartered
  • 1 celery stick, quartered
  • A sprig each of parsley, thyme and sage
  • Salt and pepper to season
  • 15g butter
  • 15g (about 1 tbsp) plain flour
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil

 Method

 

  1. Pre-heat the oven to 150ºC / 140ºC Fan / 300ºF / Gas Mark 2.
  2. Place the vegetables, herbs and pork bones (if available – see note below) in a large, lidded flameproof casserole or a roasting tin you can cover with foil. 
  3. Lay the pork belly skin side up on top of the vegetables then add the mead (or wine and honey).  Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Slowly bring the mixture to the boil the cover and place in the pre-heated oven for two hours.Mead stock
  5. Remove the meat from the casserole then strain the liquid through a fine sieve reserving it for later use.  Discard the vegetables, herbs and bones.  Place the reserved stock in the fridge until required.
  6. Place the pork belly on a plate skin side up and cover with greaseproof paper and another plate.  Weigh this down with some tins.  Refrigerate overnight. (At this point the meat and stock could be frozen).
  7. When you are ready to serve the pork belly pre-heat the oven to 220ºC / 200ºC Fan / 425ºF / Gas Mark 7.
  8. Remove the stock from the fridge and skim any solidified fat from the top of the liquid.  Melt the butter in a small pan then add the flour.  Cook over a gentle heat for a minute or two until lightly golden.  Remove from the heat and gradually add the cooking liqueur then gently bring to the boil, stirring continuously, until thickened.  Check the seasoning and adjust accordingly. This can bubble away gently while you cook the pork belly.
  9. Pour the vegetable oil into a roasting tray and place into the hot oven to heat up (about 5 minutes).
  10. Cut the pork belly into four portions.  Depending on how fussy you want to be you could trim any odd angles or uneven bits from them pork belly so that you can achieve more symmetrical pieces. It’s entirely up to you!
  11. Pork belly with celeriac mashRemove the roasting tin from the oven and place the pieces of pork belly skin side down in the hot oil.  Roast for 15 – 20 minutes until the skin is starting to crisp.  Turn the pieces of pork belly over and continue to roast for a further 5 minutes.  Serve immediately with the mead gravy and your choice of vegetables.

* If you are buying your pork belly from a butcher get him/her to bone it reserving the bones for the braising mixture and also to score the skin for you.  Don’t worry if you haven’t got any pork bones.  The stock will be just as delicious.  If you need to score the meat yourself just use a very sharp knife and cut diagonal lines across the skin ensuring that you don’t go all the way down to the flesh.

** It doesn’t matter whether you use set or runny honey here.

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Dinner in the Shadows

A review of Hotel du Vin in Brighton January 2012

Part of any eating experience is the atmosphere a restaurateur creates in their dining room.  The way the tables are dressed; the colour scheme of the walls; the music played and the lighting all contribute to the ambience and set the mood for your meal. So as Billy and I found ourselves scurrying down to The Lanes from Brighton station with the chilly air nipping at our heels like an excitable terrier, we were looking for a cosy restaurant which positively glowed with warmth.  Our mission was propelled by hunger intensified by the wintry weather and we had chosen Hotel du Vin as our haven from the cold.

Neon strip lighting may be appropriate for a fast food joint but for a restaurant of any standing a more subtle mode of lighting is called for.  In this respect Hotel du Vin is bang on the money.  The wall mounted faux candelabras are dimmed to the lowest setting and a solitary black candle adorns each table.  Black leather upholstery on the chairs and banquettes and mahogany coloured tables add to the clandestine appearance.  It would be an exaggeration to say we had to grope our way to our table.  However, I did suppress an urge to place my hand on Billy’s shoulder as we followed the hostess in single file to our table just in case I lost sight of him en route.

I have a problem with dark restaurants.  I can’t help drawing a comparison of these establishments with having sex in the pitch black with a new partner.  If you can’t bear that person to see you in your naked glory or vice versa surely you have to ask what are you or they are hiding?  And so in a shadowy restaurant I wonder exactly what it is the chef doesn’t want me to see.  Some may find the limited lighting intimate but for me it is highly irritating because I want to see and appreciate what I am about to eat.  That way you don’t get any nasty surprises.

Fortunately, there was sufficient light to read the menu inspired by classic French bistro food with the odd nod to Blighty in dishes like bacon chop with fried eggs.  The weather merited comfort food and the menu duly delivered it offering slow roasted pork belly and braised lamb shank to name just two of the cockle warming items available that evening.  The beouf bourguignon I ordered arrived as several sizeable chunks of meat which collapsed at the merest nudge of a knife into a rich winey sauce peppered with mushrooms, baby shallots and bacon.  It came with velvety mashed potato and buttered kale with a tang of iron which accentuated the richness of the casserole.

As you would expect from a restaurant with “vin” in its moniker there is an excellent selection of wines from around the world available at Hotel du Vin.  Billy was in his element as he meandered his way through the list getting temporarily lost somewhere between theBordeaux and Burgundy sections.  Luckily I had the bread basket to keep me company containing some lovely sour dough served with creamy, unsalted Beurre de Charentes. After probably not as much deliberation as he would have liked he settled on Paul Jaboulet Ainé 2009 from Côtes du Rhone which proved to be an excellent accompaniment for the beouf bourguignon and his burger. 

I would love to wax lyrical about the pinkness of the potted prawns I had for a starter but its hue was too delicate to be appreciated in the dim light.  Served with a lightly toasted rye bread it was however tasty with peppery undertones.  Even if the lights had been brighter it could never have competed in terms of colour with Billy’s beetroot risotto which he’d selected as a starter from the vegetarian options on the menu.  It arrived as a lurid magenta mass in a white dish embellished with crumbled goats cheese and walnut pieces.  Billy devoured it in all its glorious techni-colour pronouncing it perfectly cooked and wonderfully seasoned.

Billy opted out of dessert but I spied one of my favourites on the menu so couldn’t resist.  As crème brulée’s go, it wasn’t bad.  A thin film of slightly bitter crispy caramel covered a not too sweet soft custard which could have done with more vanilla for my tastes.  My suspicions about any nefarious activity on the part of the chef proved unfounded.  The food at Hotel du Vin is very good.  It’s just a shame the shadowy ambience doesn’t allow the food to really shine.

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