Wassup, Momofuku? More Messing Around with David Chang’s Cookbook

So it has been an eventful few weeks around Stately Prick Manor and with the Three Little Pricks here for the better part of a month there has not been a lot of time for eating out, much less writing about it. Plenty of time for cooking, though, especially with the Prick consulting from home these days, so why not whip out the Momofuku cookbook and try out a couple of things with the boys on a school night?

First up, a little cured hamachi, or kingfish, with a horseradish and edamame puree. Without issuing a spoiler warning, it came out pretty damn good. And If this site were better at writing cloying click-baitey headlines, this post would probably be titled something like “The one picture of fish you need to see now” or “This blogger served hamachi  to his family. You’ll never believe the response he got.”

But this ain’t no Upworthy, so here we are. And here’s the dish:

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“Kingfish? Cured? I didn’t even know he was sick!”

Looks alright, eh? Also, surprisingly simple: A hunk of sashimi-grade kingfish gets wrapped up with a cure of Szechuan pepper and coriander (ground coarsely) as well as a couple of tablespoons each of sea salt and sugar for two or three hours. Any longer, it’ll turn into an Asian gravlax, which may or may not be pleasant, but is certainly not what we are after here. If curing early, simply rinse off the cure and re-wrap: you want a bit of the flavour from the rub and some firmness to the flesh, nothing more.

The fish is served with a puree of edamame – about 100gs worth blanched and refreshed in ice (reserve a few for garnish; get a sack from the freezer of any Asian market), thrown in the blender with a bit of water (start with about 75mls worth and add more only if you really need it), a teaspoon of light soy sauce, a half-teaspoon of sugar and sea salt, and a good whack of horseradish. Due to a fresh horseradish shortage – there is such a thing, and it’s dire, according to the Pricks’ new best friends at Gourmet Life – we had to use prepared stuff from a jar.

And we lived.

The key with the puree is to really blend the holy hell out of it: Put it on high and leave it there. Walk the dog. Go for a smoke.  You want this thing smoother than Barry White on a good day. Because otherwise the thing will be all clumpy, and your highbrow spoon-drag will come out looking like a less-pleasant sort of smear. (“Wow, very cheffy, Dad!”, said young Nick With a Fork, angling for a raise in his allowance.) Slice the fish carefully with the sharpest knife in the drawer, plate up, add a bit of furikake, or Japanese rice seasoning, and you’re away.  

In any case, the dish was a big hit around the table, receiving a firm “make again” rating and five – or would that be ten? – thumbs up. 

What else was there? Well, there were some short ribs, cooked for 48 hours or so at 60C in the sous-vide, again, as per Chang’s directions, with some soy sauce, mirin, apple juice, sesame oil, sugar, and water in the bag (and yes, the Prick managed to seal this all up with only a poxy little vacuum sealer to hand):

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Sacked out

Chang serves his with a dashi-braised daikon, but previous experiments in the Stately Prick Manor test kitchens have never proven satisfactory. Instead, wasabi-infused potatoes, and a blanched and grilled spring onion:

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Not the greatest photo, but hey, the Prick’s no Martha Stewart

Good, but still needs tweaking. The sauce could use some work, and there probably should have been a little pickle of something like carrot to cut through the richness on the plate.

Next time.

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Now Screening: Daily Life and the Fantastic Mrs Fox

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Rachel Browne, writing in Fairfax’s Lady Pages, takes issue with Mem Fox’s (quite right) criticism of parents who use their iPhones or iPads as babysitters and child-minders, seeing such attitudes as part of a capitalist, conservative conspiracy:

It’s worth noting that Fox’s observations come as she prepares for a national tour to promote her new book, Baby Bedtime, and she wouldn’t be the first author to court controversy when there is a new release to flog…

It seems to me that Fox has bought into a conservative agenda which shames good parents for making “bad” choices such as letting their kids spend time on the smartphone or placing them in childcare.

Perhaps the issue is not so much whether smartphones, tablets, childcare and other things that occasionally liberate parents from parenting are tearing the fabric of society apart. Perhaps the real issue is a culture which seems hyper-critical of any parent who doesn’t live up to the unrealistic expectations of people like Fox.

Well, reasonable people can disagree, though it is hard to see what is so “conservative” about reading books with one’s offspring. Politics aside, it is pretty depressing to see whole families sitting at restaurants staring into their screens, not conversing or interacting or doing much more than grunting when the food comes, but that’s another issue.

The tagline for the smartphone-loving Browne’s piece is interesting, however:

Nominate your Woman of the Year and win an iPhone 5 for your trouble.

What was that about courting controversy to move product again? I’m half-tempted to nominate Fox.

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Spaghetti al Moro: Like Sophia Loren on a Plate

Friends, I know we’ve had to have a few chats here in the past. Like the time we covered off on martinis. And Surry Hills. And … well, you get the idea.

But if you can indulge a Prick, can we have a bit of a discussion about pasta?

Now while there is almost nothing more obnoxious than someone coming back from a few weeks in Europe all full of cultural cringe and knowing superiority and wisdom about how great our country would be if we had more Continental attitude, less Continental packet mix, bear with me.

Because the fact is that most of us – the Prick included – have been doing pasta wrong. For years.

We put too much sauce on it.

We overcook it.

And did I mention we over-sauce the stuff?

For while, frankly, food was a bit more of a challenge in Italy than it should have been – the beaten track over there is far and wide and hard to get off – we had some cracking meals, and the pastas were often nothing short of  revelatory.

Whether the very modernist sea urchin spaghetti at the wonderful Romeo in Rome’s Prati district or that humble lunch of an eight Euro pici with wild boar ragu in Orvieto or a particular tagliatelle buried in white truffle shavings enjoyed in Montalcino, the greatest pastas we had both proved the aphorisms above, and were a far cry from that normally on offer back home.

But perhaps the greatest pasta we had in Italy was a number done at Ristorante al Moro, down a back street near the Trevi Fountain. The place is old school and to get there in the evening one has to brave hordes of tourists and touts and hawkers for whom selling novelty splat-pigs and laser pointers while keeping a weather eye out for the caribinieri remains a life several orders of magnitude better than whatever kept them busy where they came from. Non-locals and non-regulars get stuck in the back room with the Anglophones and couples out discreetly with people they might not ought to be out with who asked to be hidden out of view, but nevermind: If you go, you’ll simply resolve to become a big-time Italian-speaking pezzonovante and one day be seated in the big room.

For while the Roman food scene is not big on innovation (save for the aforementioned Romeo and probably a few other joints) it can be hard to find a place that does the traditional brilliantly. Al Moro hits the mark, from its hand-written wine list and Olivetti-typed menus to the ancient front-of-house crew who look like what would have happened had Fellini ever done a mash-up of Big Night and Cocoon.

And then there’s the pasta – specifically, the house specialty, Spaghetti al Moro.

The simplest of dishes, just pasta, eggs, pork, cheese, and crucially, chili, it is carbonara, but it is at the same time definitively not: Indeed, when we reported to Marta, our incomparable hostess at the incomparable Residenza Scipioni – when in Rome, stay there – we’d had a “version” of carbonara, she looked at us with an incomprehending mild horror. “No, no, it’s not possible. This is not carbonara.”

They really do take their food traditions seriously in Rome.

Mrs Prick and I did some back of the envelope calculations and worked out that with a good number of the, say, a hundred seats between three rooms ordering the dish over two seatings (minimum) a night for Christ knows how many decades the restaurant must have turned out between half a million and a million plates of the stuff over the years. As an illustration of tacit knowledge and proof of the old 10,000 hour rule, it is hard to go past.

Yet one can also, with a bit of practice, recreate the dish in home. We will never turn out as many covers as Al Moro at Stately Prick Manor by way of practice but it is possible to come respectably close to the original. Nor is it particularly complicated; tonight young Nick With a Fork did about 80 per cent of the work on it and did a damn creditable job too, so much so that before too long it’ll be his signature dish around the share house.

So how is it done? Put a big pot of salty water on the boil. Then, your mise: In a big bowl, whisk together six or eight egg yolks and a good handful of pecorino cheese. Cut some guanciale, pancetta, or – personal favourite – some really good, smoky gourmet bacon into lardons and put to the side. Heat up a wide, high-sided saucepan and chuck in a bit of olive oil.

Throw the pork into the pan, and a packet of pasta – good dried spaghetti, one made with bronze dies to hold the sauce (Garofalo is our house brand) – into the water. Keep the pork moving, and get it a bit brown. Throw in a cup of white wine and, crucially, a couple of pinches of dried chili flakes and cook for a couple of minutes.

Get ready to drain the pasta, making sure it is really al dente, not just a little, but almost to the point where it feels like it will be undercooked. This is key: It will continue to cook, and pasta most Australians and Americans consider to al dente is in fact a sloppy, flaccid mess compared to how the Italians do it.

Hold some of the water aside before draining: Like Lebowski’s carpet this really pulls the dish together, and the biggest discernible difference between this version and the restaurant’s is that a home pot of water won’t have boiled a ton of pasta over the course of the night and thus won’t have quite as much of the starches that add body to the sauce.

Throw the drained pasta into the sauté pan and toss well. Add a bit of the water, and throw the whole affair into the bowl, tossing, adding water to loosen, and a good whack of black pepper. Plate up, remembering that this is a deceptively filling dish and that our New World idea that pasta should be a never-ending bowl of abbondanza is a nonsense anyway.

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The finished product should be silky, elegant, Roman, just a bit spicy. Think Sophia Loren on a plate, and you’ve got the right idea.

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In Defense of Heston Blumenthal (Not That He Really Needs It)

So if the Prick’s entirely unscientific survey of one restaurant review and a few social media discussions are any guide, it is now becoming a bit of a thing to hang shit on Heston Blumenthal.

This is perfectly natural: A high-concept molecular chef with a constellation of Michelin stars is a big juicy target even before he lends his name to a line of Waitrose Christmas puddings so robustly engineered that they can survive the sea voyage to Australia, to say nothing of three further pre-Christmas months on the shelf at the supermarket up the road from Stately Prick Manor. And let’s not even get started on his $200 cookbooks which contain not a single recipe that could be made in any home kitchen short of Nathan Myhrvold’s (Heston at Home is a useful little volume, however).

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Makin’ Dinner

But surprisingly the backlash is not against Blumenthal’s more crassly commercial enterprises – and the Prick would indeed be sympatico to any voice that said, “mate, leave that nonsense to Jamie and Gordon” – but rather his 2011-vintage London diner, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The criticisms take a couple of tacks: One suggests that the restaurant, with its conceit of reviving and updating centuries-old British dishes, is nothing but a charmless cog in the engine of high-end gastrotourism: “This restaurant is a question in search of an answer; it is nearly, in psychological terms, a yacht”, sneers Tanya Gold in the most recent Spectator (an otherwise venerable magazine whose pages the Prick has chipped into on a number of occasions).

“The customers [are] an unceasing parade of youthful Scrooge McDucks, looking for meaning in their wallets.”

Now Tanya is (surprise, surprise) something of a socialist who neither smokes nor drinks and who believes the revolution should begin at Oxford, so it is no wonder that she Dinner might not be up her street.

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The Prick does his best “youthful Scrooge McDuck” impersonation

However the other argument, which the Prick has seen a few times around the place, is a more purist one. It is suggested that Blumenthal, as talented as he is, routinely violates the idea that food should taste like what it is and that his various trompe-l’oeil techniques detract from what is on the plate. There is more weight to this charge, especially when it comes to dishes like “meat fruit” (more about which later).

But ultimately it misses the point of what Blumenthal and Dinner head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts are trying to do.

Mrs Prick and I dropped in to Dinner – for dinner – on our recent greed-and-gluttony tour of London, and without spoiling the plot had one of the best and, crucially, most fun meals we have had in our years of eating out together.

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Salamagundy: Get your bone on…

And despite its awful name – “meat fruit” sounds like an invitation-only fetish party – the dish is an elegant, fun, delicious piece of work. Essentially foie gras parfait tricked up to look like a mandarin, it is a reminder that today’s modernist and post-modernist chefs weren’t the first cooks to make one thing look like another and could serve as the thesis statement of the restaurant.

It is also, if embiggened poultry livers are your thing (and if they aren’t, they should be), a hilariously, table-thumpingly delicious thing to eat. My only regret is that I did not have the presence of mind to pick it up and eat it as a piece of fruit.

Other dishes nod to the past but are more firmly anchored in the present and don’t overdo the history lessons. This isn’t an American Express Platinum field trip to Ye Olde Georgian Towne, it’s more an excuse to delve into the way-way back catalogues of British cookery and remaster old numbers by way of the immersion circulator. “Salamagundy” comes out with a combination punch of bone marrow and chicken and salsify and big, sharp, crisp flavours, tied together with a hint of mace if memory serves. “Powdered duck” is deceptively simple but the most tender breast of bird imaginable. Mrs Prick’s fish comes with an orbit of garnishes including little winkles which sing of the sea and make urchins look tame by comparison.

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Anyone for ice cream?

What naysayers, purist and neo-Puritan alike, miss is the joy of the place (and Lord knows this site enjoys taking the piss out of the popular). Too many Michelin joints sit along a spectrum which runs from the sacerdotal to the sepulchral, ritualistic temples where offerings of food are made to the supplicants rather than vice versa, each dish delivered with a hushed incantation (“sea anemone, foie gras, cucumber, wallaby”). Dinner is not such a place. It may seem a little naff and gimmicky but if you can sit through having your ice cream made tableside with liquid nitrogen and vapour pouring all over the place and not crack a six-year-old’s smile you are probably too jaded to live. It’s also ridiculously smooth, because quick churning at sub-freezing temperatures results in crystals about as hard to find as the Higgs-Boson.

And that’s the thing about Dinner. In the never-ending race for “innovation” Blumenthal has done the only smart thing, namely, gone back to the past. In doing so he’s delivered a genuinely fresh experience that resurrects old flavours without the ancient formalities, and we can even forgive him his forays into the mass market: A man’s got to earn a crust, right? People don’t talk to each other or wave from table to table like sailors on Sydney Harbour but – and maybe this was the wine talking, spectacular stuff available by the glass from in our case a lovely lady sommelier who really knew her stuff and put us onto a gorgeous Condrieu, among other things – on our visit there was even among the youthful Scrooge McDucks an unspoken communal vibe of, “Hey, how cool is this?”

Answer: Very cool indeed.

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Fin.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

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Messing Around with a Michel Roux Classic

And so where were we? Ah yes, Europe, where for any remaining followers of this site it quickly became clear that a late-night Continental schedule (how civilised it is eating at 10pm!) and full days of touring were not compatible with the Prick hacking out five hundred or a thousand words every morning like he were still in the newspaper game. But never fear, lots of stuff in the queue. In the meantime, howzabout a little shellfish pasta?

It would be easy – and predictable – for the Prick to bang on about how, having had a fortnight in Italy thus making him an expert on such things, pasta should really be just a small part of a big meal. But let’s resist that temptation in this case: This dish stands alone, a meal in itself.

The inspiration came, as so often happens, from one of our marathon watchings of Lifestyle Food, specifically an episode of the proper UK MasterChef when Michel Roux Jr teed up his Nouilles aux Fruits de Mer. That’s seafood pasta to you and me.

The Prick version was somewhat abbreviated (hit the link above to see the original happen). Neither winkles nor razor clams could be had in Sydney this week. The dozen loose mussels picked up at the market managed to die, the lot of them, in the fridge over the course of the afternoon, the victim of some very efficient SMEG hit squad, apparently. Nevermind, we still had some gorgeous sashimi-grade scallops, langoustine (or scampi), and vongole.

Oh and the temptation to make fresh pasta gave way to practicality, and a packet of good stuff found in the fridge at the Blackwattle Deli. Here’s the end result:

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This is easier than it looks. Get some water going, and in another pan bring some wine and shallots up to heat. Steam open your shellfish species-by-species (assuming you’ve got a better mussel dealer than the Prick), pull them out, and put them aside. Gently poach the langoustine tail meat, then the scallops which you’ve cut in half, rolling them around a little in the liquid. This should be no more than 45 seconds, they’ll get warmed again.

Reduce the wine and add some nice fish stock (there are good commercial numbers out there if fish heads aren’t your thing). Throw in any non-presentation langoustine heads and give them a crunch. Reduce this again, not too much, and strain into a smaller pot, crunching the heads again to bring that wonderful flavour forth. Add some cream and a diced and seeded plum tomato or two and simmer down, but not too hard – it should be fishy and creamy but not too rich. Warm through the reserved seafood.

Set this aside and boil the pasta, quickly, and get it out of the water and into a pan. Loosen it with a bit of the cream, then plate up. Alternate different items as you do your presentation, and use a reserved head and tail to make the whole thing either deliciously cute, overweeningly twee, or appallingly barbaric, depending on your point of view. That roll thing with the pasta is easy; just twirl it around a carving fork and slide onto the plate. If you have some lobster oil around, a drizzle of that wouldn’t go astray either.

Mrs Prick thought it perfect and joined the Clean Plate Club:

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It was in fact pretty damn good (and it is rare for the Prick to praise his own work, though the presentation could have been more precise in the cold light of iPhone). If one were feeling like taking a risk, a bare hint of chili might not go astray. But given the sort of seafood and timing and attention this requires, the Prick recommends this for dining a deux – not to be attempted with a table full of guests at a party.

Wine? Well, white, obviously, and if one had a grand Bourgogne Blanc lying around it would not go astray, though this coped with a none-too-fancy but still fairly crisp Sancerre-style savvy quite well. How you choose to deal with dessert is up to you.

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Rice-a-Throni

Florentines really like to fling some rice at the happy couple. Granny cops it sweet around the 41 second mark.

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And we’re back…

…to discover our housesitters have left the house in better condition than before, right down to dealing with that science experiment in the fridge Mrs Prick and I had both chosen to ignore for about the past 18 months or so.

Lots of stuff on deck, we were having too much fun (and wine) in Europe to maintain the hectic blogging pace of the first few days.

 

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London and (Gastronomic) Liberty: It’s the Little Things

For Vincent Vega, it was the little things that made Europe different: Quarter Pounder with Cheese? No way. Royale with Cheese. As Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction hoodlum with a heart of gold reminds us, over on the Continent, “they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.”

To be honest, we Pricks aren’t completely clear on the concept either. But we do agree that it is those picayune details of daily life in Europe – and by this point in our tale we haven’t even made it out of London – that make us realize we’re not in Sydney any more.

A few nights in we find ourselves without a dinner reservation and wandering the streets of South Kensington. Turning a corner we pop into a local wine bar/wine store and realize that, sorry, in this one instance the Brits have it all over the Aussies.

Now just about every Sydney wine shop the Pricks have ever been in has let our terrier join us for a browse (they’re hardly going to be halal, after all). But this shop – called The Sampler –  actually clears off a shelf on the floor for the resident border collie to have a sleep. Solid.

They have eighty – EIGHTY! – wines on tasting with those clever card-activated wine-preservation machines, from cheap and cheerful Spanish jobbies to Chateau Talbot.

And they put out plates of wine and cheese and crackers, which means that people from the neighbourhood just come in and have a couple of wines and a chat and a snack and a sniff and maybe a purchase or two of an evening after work. The whole thing was a little exercise in Tocquevillian civil society, the informal institutions that keep us from going at it hammer and tongs.

Over a pour of Pernand-Verglesses we sat outside dreaming about opening something similar in Sydney until one of those little on-the-shoulder cartoon devils appeared (looking strangely like Clover Moore, as it happens)  to tell us all the reasons it would never be a goer back home.

First off, dogs, because God forbid a pooch be let within a nine iron of food for human consumption, and inevitably someone’s Frenchie would sniff someone else the wrong way and thus prompt a flurry of letters to the Herald about “selfish, selfish pet-owners” from angry grumps who still somehow don’t get why some prefer pets to people.

Then there’s the whole serve-yourself thing which, even though intermediated by those very cool (and likely very pricey) WineStation machines, would get the whole Baptists-and-bootleggers coalition of Big Hotels and Big Nanny in a righteous snit. A few 5-centilitre pours of pinot probably counts as binge drinking these days and without a whole lot of folk with RSA certificates and a Tongan large enough to have his own post code out the front you never know, a young person might try and sneak a cheeky malbec rather than go swallow a handful of pingers before a dance party in current societally-accepted fashion.

And then there’s food. Offering so much as a plate of water crackers by way of hospitality without getting the health inspectors in would probably lead to a stint in Long Bay for health code violations. A reckless endangerment charge, in whatever class “driving blindfolded through a playground” also sits,  would be tacked on to “send a message to society”. These guys at the shop were doing cheese and little sausages, which as every local bureaucracy knows is like serving shots of arsenic while juggling flaming bowling pins: It’s a wonder we poor Pricks lived to tell the tale.

Oh, did we mention the dog thing?

While we never darkened the doors of a London maccas to find out if they really do call it a Royale with Cheese over here (and yes, blogging about McDonald’s can be done and done well) we also popped into a local mini-chain of burger joints in need of a snack … and found that they actively encourage customers not only to go the double-patty route, but to have a slug of bourbon alongside their beer (don’t mind if we do!).

Dave Cameron may be a ninny who has only hastened the demise of ancient rights set in train by Tony Blair, but on some level the Pricks will never again be able to listen to a Brit talk about the local nanny state without bursting out into peals of laughter: As far as the food and drinks side of things goes, it’s the sweet land of liberty.

And this was even before we hit France.

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London Day Three: Roux at the Landau; Quo Vadis; What’s it All About, Alfie?

Just to be absolutely clear, we Pricks have nothing against wealthy late-middle-aged types hanging out in luxury hotels as they cruise comfortably into their emeritus years. Indeed we hope to be among their number one day, in a few decades time. But just as walking into an Asian or Indian restaurant and seeing it full of the owners’ countrymen is generally taken as a good sign, strolling into a high-end dining room where the crowd looks like extras from the Fourth of July Ball scene in Caddyshack before Rodney Dangerfield decides to throw some money around and “bust up this joint” just screams danger.

Thus it was the other night when we fronted up for dinner at Roux at the Landau, widely spruiked as the first time Albert and Michel Roux Jr have ever gotten together to do a father-son collaboration turning out old-school French cuisine. This site has long banged on about the need for chefs to preserve the classics for the same reasons teachers need to teach history: they are objectively good, and does anyone want to go through nouvelle cuisine or totalitarian fascism again? But as always the devil is in the details.

Mrs Prick teed off with a sort of prawn-and-avocado (!) number which certainly took us back in time – to the 1970s. The dish was more a high school sax player oodling his way through an out-of-time Kind of Blue more than the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields offering up a tight, bang-on Brandenburg Concerto. Meanwhile a ballotine of chicken was just a cold terrine. Sigh.

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On the bright side, there was a finger bowl. Solid.

Mrs Prick, as part of the trip’s edict to eat things we cannot get back home, went the sole meuniere for her main course, sadly overcooked and under-seasoned.

A grouse died for my sins, but despite a nice blackberry sauce, I still feel distinctly unredeemed.

There was an absolute king-hell cheese trolley, though, which saved the night:

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Blessed are the cheesemakers, etc…

Yes, we should have gone to Gavroche, but we couldn’t get in. One suspects Roux at the Landau is more of a “name” deal than anything else; the whole vibe was get ‘em in, get ‘em out, and save for one poor couple who’d clearly just booked either a wedding or a conference at the hotel and couldn’t shake the events co-ordinator who’d come to drop off a bouquet of flowers, there was no sense that anyone cared about engagement, or repeat business. Everyone in the room would soon be heading back to their home cities, and if they returned, it would be because they didn’t know any better anyway.

Those who do know better would be far better to drop into someplace like Quo Vadis in Soho, where we’d lunched earlier in the day off a recommendation from Darren at the Ledbury. Quo Vadis is all about simple, honest cooking and welcoming a couple of shopping-laden tourists as warmly as their fairly obvious coterie of regulars. (In other words the sort of place Sydney needs more of, but then again, we Australians don’t do lunch beyond our desks very well any more it seems).

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Rich, shellfishy goodness — like a boulliabaise without the mess

Everything is just a little whimsical at Quo Vadis but not in any overbearing or twee theme park sort of way. The menu looks to be a more or less daily affair, and not quite organized along the usual lines. The floor manager greets you resplendent in a three-piece, red-and-blue checked suit. Dishes can be as simple as a bowl of the best picked crab meat you have ever had paired with a dish of the best home-made mayonnaise you have ever had. Those crabs’ bodies can then go into the making of a rich shellfish soup with a bit of chili-laden rouille on the side or one can have a simple dish of, say, hake, gently treated with a parsley and anchovy sauce. Simple, happy-making, life-affirming stuff, especially washed down by a brisk half-bottle of Sancerre.

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For Christ’s hake, enough with the puns, Prick

While we are on the subject of stuff that makes one happy, the Prick would be remiss not to mention our other happy discovery of the day, the City of London Distillery, a combined working boutique distillery and a basement speakeasy with one of the biggest gin collections in the world. This is really where a picture is worth a thousand words so let us not go any farther than to say that if you have the opportunity turn up around 4 before things get busy and put yourself in the capable hands of Alfie, a young gentleman of the old school, and let him start pouring.

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Army-Navy cocktail, with army-man garnish

COMING UP: Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t half-bad.

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London Day Two: Pilgrimages (Historical, Ecclesiastical, Gastronomical)

In Bob Hughes’ Rome there’s a long and entertaining riff about the early and medieval Catholic Church’s obsession with relics: Saints’ heads, vials of blood, pieces of the “true” cross, and so on. It’s a good passage, breezy, erudite, and rescued at the last minute from becoming a mere set-piece poking fun at mackerel-snappers by the Jesuit-educated Hughes’ concluding point that “no moment in history is free from superstition”. Recall, he notes, the hysteria with which Sotheby’s bidders some years ago competed to snap up old golf clubs and drinks trays that once belonged to “America’s Holy Family”, the Kennedys.

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Standing in for Marshal Stalin, Mr Prick!

Wandering around London underlines the point, even if the history and heroes commemorated are a lot more worthwhile than that Hyannisport clan the Prick once memorably heard described as “the Milats with money”. The C. of E. may have been born of the Reformation (and the little matter of Henry’s need for a divorce) but its hometown is a living museum, a semi-secular reliquary of British history. Visit the Churchill War Rooms –an absolutely worthwhile way to spend a few hours and a blast for fans of the great man – and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a good shelf or two of books on Churchill already at Stately Prick Manor (and a good couple of more on the war in Europe to boot) but it’s still a thrill to visit the sunless warrens in which he walked and talked and prosecuted and with the help of Roosevelt, that old bastard Stalin, and several million allied troops won the war.

Likewise St Paul’s Cathedral, which besides being a stunning church in its own right (the thing was built in the 17th century, and having climbed the 500-plus steps to the top of the 85-metre-high dome, one can only wonder HOW!?) is where one can pay respects to countless secular saints of British history, from Nelson to the heroes of the Battle of Britain and beyond.

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And you may ask yourself, how did I get here? Up about 600 damn steps is how.

But from the sacred to the profane the big draw for the day was a visit to the Ledbury in Notting Hill: When we Pricks set our sights on London several months ago a table here was top priority and as reservations opened up for our week we banged our refresh buttons like a pair of coke-addled monkeys in an addiction experiment. When the only thing we could get was a table at the ridiculously middle-brow hour of 6:45pm on a Monday no less we happily set it in stone. The Ledbury is consistently ranked right up at the top of the London fine dining tree with two Michelin stars, a comfortable spot on the top-50 lists, and the fact that head chef Brett Graham got his start in Newcastle, NSW, of all places only added to the draw card.

With that sort of build-up disappointment can easily beckon. Not this time. Even the bread, gossamer-light bacon rolls, defied both gravity and expectations. A first look at the tasting menu almost has us go a la carte, which is ridiculous in retrospect. Too many veggie-heavy courses at the front end we worry, before getting over our carnivorous selves. Smart move: A sort of tomato salad comes with a crostillant of goats cheese and is an education. Anyone who thinks the difference between knowledge and wisdom is simply that “knowledge knows tomatoes are a fruit, wisdom knows not to put them in the fruit salad” should try this dish. That’s only the beginning of what you know about tomatoes. Seriously.

Green beans with peaches and shaved foie gras are next and work a treat, the foie not overpowering but rather melting into the dish and on the tongue in all sorts of sexy and silky ways that should not be pursued any further on a family site.

Other dishes follow: A little dish with garnishes is placed in front of each of us, truffle toasts appear on bed of pine needles, and a dipping broth of grilled onion consommé – all deep and rich and warm, it Is like eating a Bach cello suite – is poured. A large, really large diver scallop, then the tenderest pork jowl imaginable, served on a hot rock and so soft that this noble creature must never have chewed a thing but rather spent its life resting its jaw and drinking from a straw. Venison, too, just a hint of game, and set off by a meaty, tannic Napa merlot.

Desserts come in a number of formats: A light meringue affair as a “pre”, and a chocolate number which threatens to be heavy is just right. Chocolate. And a brown sugar tart that feels just a little like the Novocastrian chef’s subtle ode to the humble Aussie slice.

It is a firm and fast rule of this site that when it comes to blogs one should never trust any review that is entirely good (“OMG words can’t describe how yummy it was!” just makes the Prick think the author should get a thesaurus and go back to school) or all bad (“shit meal shit service life ruined”). But in this case, we’ll make an exception: Not a foot was placed wrong on the night, and front-of-house run by Darren McHugh (who, it turns out, worked once upon a time with the crew that would become the much-loved Lochiel House) shows off an elegant, seamless, yet casual formality that respects the “kind of a big deal” nature of the food while understanding that there’s just no point if there’s not some fun involved. If pressed for any criticism, perhaps the pinot blanc that opened the batting might have been a touch too assertive for the first course, but the Prick hates even to point that out, given that the delightful, generous, and knowledgeable sommelier was crestfallen when we clapped our hands in glee and recognition at a particular bottle of Giant Steps chardonnay: “Oh, but I try never to give our guests something they’ve had before!”

And that’s the thing that sets this sort of dining apart from anything else: It’s food, it’s performance, it’s engagement. This is sophisticated, top-of-its-game cooking and restaurateuring that does not confuse molecular frippery for modernity, puts nothing but the best on the plate and only then with a good reason in mind, and understands that despite the commercial basis of the transaction, the business ain’t called hospitality for nothing.

The Prick usually doesn’t do this sort of thing, but more gastro-pr0n after the jump:
The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

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