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London Now: Restaurants to Watch

26 Nov

candles-aboveOn a recent trip to London with trends guru Michael Whiteman, I had the luxury of drinking the world’s best martini – made with Cotswolds Gin. The distillery, located 1-1/2 hours outside London (in charming Shipston-on-Stour) is an alluring introduction to the idyllic landscape, known for lush patches of lavender and gentle hills. Ask proprietor Daniel Szor to give you a tour. Eat at the nearby gastropub, “The Kingham Plough” (20 minutes from the distillery), and then head on to bustling London, a world-eats destination, and stay a few days. Giving thanks, here, to MW (husband) for succinctly mapping the brilliance of three of London’s best new dining spots.

Without a great city street map you’d be pressed to find Beast, but every London cabbie knows the location. Beast comes from the creators of the sizzling Burger & Lobster chain but this time the menu focuses on humongous king crabs and great steaks from several countries. You pass massive tanks holding angry, prehistoric-looking crabs and lobsters with claws almost the size of your shoe before entering a bustling underground room full of wooden communal tables with candelabra. There’s a festive roar, mostly from men spending more than your last paycheck. A short assortment of starters (shrimp tempura with Cajun mayonnaise and avocado is sold by the piece but everyone seems to order a platter) leads you to “The Beasts”, all sold by the gram.

Next to us, four petit women from Paris shared some starters and a king crab beast that arrived on a silver platter; they then collapsed into a caloric stupor and gasped “fini.” Three of us, on the other hand, hoovered up a miraculously sweet crab and then carved into a great slab of corn-finished double sirloin from Nebraska grilled over charcoal. We’re partial to grass-fed Basque Holstein, but they were out that night and our other choices were beef from Scotland, Australia and Finland.

Our meal was rounded out by thrice-fired potato wedges and a green salad topped with juicy smoked tomatoes, which were infinitely better than expected. Do not request bread to sop up the salad juices or meat drippings because there is none.

The knowing wine list is full of big bruisers and first growths and, as befits a steakhouse, Beast is rightfully expensive. Don’t be surprised if this celebratory restaurant migrates to New York or Dubai where there already are busy outposts of Burger & Lobster.

Beast

3 Chapel Pl, Marylebone

+44 20 7495 1816

beastrestaurant.co.uk

Portland is the ideal neighborhood restaurant: smallish, warmly lit, gastronomically ambitious, acoustically sensible and fairly priced. For this reason, most people take taxis to this restaurant in the Fitzrovia neighborhood. Portland is one of three admirable London places run by Will Lander (the others being Quality Chop House and nearby Clipstone). The menu appears concise but then you’re struck with the “I want everything” dilemma. A recently bestowed Michelin star is so well deserved.

A smooth chicken liver parfait is offset by crisp chicken skin, candied walnuts and pickled grapes, and Devonshire crab is rolled with lovage into a thin slice of kohlrabi — both exercises of texture as well as taste. Evidently not one for gastronomical grandstanding, chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, who previously worked at Belgium’s famed In De Wulf, transforms complexities of ingredients into watercolors of flavors, as in foie gras with endive, clementine and raisins soaked in Alsace muscat — bitter flavors balanced by sweet. Roasted heritage carrots get the same attention with brown butter, aged nutty comté and toasted buckwheat. Cornish cod with green cauliflower, sorrel and smoked cream, and hay-baked guinea fowl with chestnuts and mushrooms were sublime and comforting on a rainy London evening.

Our waitress, fresh from Gramercy Tavern in New York, provided flawless service and there was nothing she didn’t know about the food.

The wine list is an endless work-in-progress since it changes almost every week, and is full of thrilling things you’ve never heard of — which is no surprise since Lander’s mother is the estimable wine writer Jancis Robinson (his father is food writer and critic Nicholas Lander).

Portland

113 Great Portland St.

+44 20 7436 3261

portlandrestaurant.co.uk

StreetXO is a rollicking transplant to London of a tapas bar in Madrid. That statement is akin to saying that Audi is an automobile. StreetXO is an underground, wackadoodle fusion restaurant where Michelin-starred chef David Muñoz layers Asian flavors onto traditional Spanish tapas, with occasional detours to Mexico. The resulting food erupts with umami and spices. A croquette that in Spain would be bound with a simple béchamel here is filled with sheep milk, XO sauce, lapsang souchong and kimchi, then topped with a slice of toro. If you fancy crunchy pig’s ear dumplings and pickles spattered, Jackson Pollack stye, with strawberry hoisin sauce, this place is for you.

There’s a long, brightly lit open kitchen “counter” where a gaggle of chefs— dressed puzzlingly in strait jackets — prepare these over-the-top inventions and serve you directly, each dish accompanied by an explanatory recitation. This is where you want to sit since the remaining space is night-clubby black, dark red and rather gloomy, but probably appropriate for date nights.

We particularly enjoyed a show-stopper of octopus, tomatillo and green apple mole (a faux guacamole) with “fake Chinese wok noodles” that turned out to be an amazing umami-laden tangle of enoki mushrooms. Muñoz’s steamed club sandwich is a pillow-soft bao with suckling pig, ricotta, quail egg and chili cream. And so it goes — tandoori chicken wings with pickled onion, trout roe and bonito flakes; Iberian pork belly with mussels in escabeche and sriracha; paella with sea urchin, chicken, bergamot and yellow aji — a carnival of animals and seafood.

StreetXO had opened only a few days before we dropped in and London’s trendoids already were clamoring for reservations.

StreetXO

15 Old Burlington St, Mayfair

+44 20 3096 7555

The Culinary Gardener

11 Jun
IMG_7096

A saute of celtuce, saltwort and young garlic. (Photo credit: Shayna DePersia)

For years I have been citing a directive of my own making – that one should eat, when possible, from one’s own zip code. More poetry than practical, I came up with this notion way before the farm-to-table movement, way before “local” became a destination, way before “sustainable” became a slogan. I wrote about the pleasures of eating from my window box in my first cookbook Little Meals, in 1993. Back then I pulled a few zucchini from my Park Slope backyard garden, culled a pint or two of little tomatoes, and had enough basil to keep me well supplied with freshly made pesto most of the summer. Some friends nearby grew figs and grapes in their yards, which we occasionally swapped.

Just last week, in a small organic farm in Asheville, North Carolina, I had the giddy pleasure of digging for my own lunch and then preparing the “materie prime” (prime ingredients, as the Italians would say) an hour later in the home kitchen of Evan Chender. Evan is a young soil farmer by way of Vassar College who developed his formidable skill and passion at chef Dan Barber’s world-famous Stone Barns, a sustainable farm and Michelin-starred restaurant on the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico, New York. At the age of twenty-six, Evan and his new bride, Claire (also a Vassar grad, a surfer and foodist) moved to Asheville as the town itself emerged from a sleepy enclave to a vibrant community of artists, brewers, and buskers with a burgeoning restaurant scene, daily farmer’s markets, and bespoke food.

Evan first worked as a cook in nearby Weaverville and then decided, with the help of Asheville’s great climate and sustainability vibe, to begin his own organic farm. Only 8,000 square feet, it supplies Asheville’s top restaurants (The Bull and the Beggar, most notably) with topnotch ingredients – many of which I never heard of, let alone eaten. May I extol the virtues of his saltwort, celtuce, Kailan (Chinese broccoli), menegi scallions, borage leaves, and wild vetch tendril? These, my friends, are the ingredients of the future (and some cultures’ past). If you want to partake, call Evan. He tends to every square inch of the soil, scours the world’s seed markets via the internet, and seduces the town’s voracious chefs into taking everything he grows, no matter how unusual. He is a well-tuned, one-man band. He plants every seed by hand, knows when to water, when to rotate, when to turn, turn, turn. He has already had enough seasons under his belt to make a living and live his dream. Coming this season? Aleppo pepper, fenugreek shoots, purple shiso, vegetable mallow, flageolet shell beans, and yes, tetragonia, a kind of spinach indigenous to Australia and New Zealand. In the fall you can expect to see a crop of yokatta na, shunkyo radish, oca and mashua. This is the language of poets.

And so was our zip code lunch. Freshly-dug potatoes were gently broken apart when tender and tossed in a homemade mayonnaise with freshly picked radishes, fennel fronds, and nasturtium flowers. There was a beautiful, radically fresh salad of just-picked gem lettuce, variegated lusia radicchio, powerful arugula, and fragrant bits of coriander flower, gilded with an emulsion of spicy mustard, local maple syrup, Greek olive oil, and homemade vinegar that Evan secrets in his top cupboard. Shavings of an excellent parmesan tied it all together. The most exciting dish of all contained nuggets of celtuce (hard to describe but with a slight cucumber taste, firm flesh, crisp and briny, waterchestnutty), sauteed with strands of saltwort (I am a huge fan of this sea-like veg), slivers of young garlic and finished with purple shiso. We drank a bottle of Reuilly, a crisp, aromatic white wine with subtle minerality from the Loire. The experience was nothing short of a thrill.

And how do I know Evan? He was a culinary savant at the age of fifteen who cooked lunch for me and later helped me with a cookbook I wrote for teens called Eat Fresh Food (reviewed in the science section of the New York Times in 2009). Who knew he would take it so seriously.

(www.theculinarygardener.com)

Good Stock Farm: A Great New Cooking School

18 Oct

Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Here’s why my husband and I raced up to Good Stock Farm two weeks ago. Michael, who was the founding editor of Nation’s Restaurant News, had decades earlier met Sandy D’Amato, a multi-starred chef from Milwaukee. When we learned that Sandy and his wife sold his eponymous restaurant Sanford and moved to Hatfield, Massachusetts — to open a cooking school — we immediately packed an overnight bag!

En route, we passed farm stands selling butter + sugar corn, honor-system butternut squash, the season’s last few tomatoes, and fresh-picked flowers, all tres charming. But nothing prepared us for the lush expanse of land behind their house-cum-cooking school on sleepy Main Street, replete with an experimental garden, trellised vines, herbs and artichokes, and a blanket of grass that led down to the Connecticut River flowing with an equally sleepy calm. You could hear an apple drop.

The house, designed with pencil and paper by Sandy’s wife Angie, is built around an elegantly professional and capacious kitchen. Large marble work table, pizza oven, convection oven, industrial refrigerator and sinks, with no separation between the living/dining area — all merged into interior landscape that felt more like a SoHo loft than a rural dwelling. The weather was warm and, settled on their screened porch, we shared tales about famous chefs and their legendary foibles, about restaurant life in New York in the 1970s, about Sandy’s and Angie’s myriad reasons for leaving their revered restaurant but not actually retiring. With my first sip of Vouvray, to accompany one of Sandy’s fantastic homemade breadsticks, I uttered the word “Provence.” I could have just as well said “Paradise” or “Providence.” But Provence it was, for I recalled author Patricia Wells’ well-known cooking school and home there, known as Chanteduc, and declared Good Stock Farm its worthy counterpart. No passport needed.

Sandy has top-of-the-line credentials, decades of experience, and a newly acquired desire to share it all. A student, literally, of Le Repetoire de la Cuisine – Sandy went to the Culinary Institute of America, housed at the time in one cramped building in New Haven, CT — but he grew up “eating Italian.” One sensibility informed the other, coalescing into his uniquely own style. His food is stunningly contemporary and yet reminiscent of the culinary pedagogy one used to find at Lutece or La Grenouille or perhaps the more rarified Italian kitchen of San Domenico in Imola, Italy. I will never forget his sweet corn soup, served at room temperature, made that morning with a mysterious touch of mace (does anyone use mace anymore?). Nor a spot-on Italian plum tart with its toasty brown sugar-almond crust.

Sandy opened restaurant Sanford in 1989 to rave reviews – Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Esquire, Wine Spectator all called it among the country’s best – ran it with Angie until 2012, and sold it to his longtime chef de cuisine. Three signature dishes – Provencale fish soup, grilled marinated tuna with cumin wafers, and grilled pear and Roquefort tart (which he made for Julia Child’s 80th birthday party), remained on his menu from day one. When he teaches these beloved recipes at Good Stock Farm, we’ll be there!

Speaking of Julia, Bob Spitz, author of best-selling Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, says this about Sandy’s contribution to American gastronomy: “What sets Sandy apart is his full experience of having worked with the French masters. He is a serious chef who cares deeply about each dish he makes. While everyone seems to be talking about local and indigenous ingredients, Sandy is literally growing the recipes he’s teaching at his school.”

Good Stock Farm in Hatfield, Massachusetts. Photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki

Good Stock Farm is open all year long for demos, learning, eating and meeting new people. Hands-on classes, with a maximum of 8 students, include lunch or dinner spread over a generous time frame of 4-1/2 to 5 hours. Demonstration classes are 2-1/2 hours. October’s line-up includes a hands-on lunch called “A Nip in the Air” – roasted beet and garlic soup, juniper-braised shortribs, cranberry walnut tart; and a demo-dinner from Sicily featuring shrimp and green pea arancini, grilled escarole salad, beef spedini, and crispy dessert cassata.

Students either drive or fly to Bradley International Airport, only 50 minutes away, and stay at the Old Mill Inn, a charming B&B less than a mile down the road, or at the Hotel Northampton, five miles away. With five colleges nearby, including Smith and Mount Holyoke, the area sizzles with cultural activities, so you can indulge in a long weekend full of things to do.

Before a visit — or just on its own — you will enjoy Sandy’s wonderful new memoir, Good Stock, Life on a Low Simmer (Midway Books, 2013). Cook your way through the book and you will be schooled indeed. On its cover is a quote from Esquire: “D’Amato has proved not only that you can go home again but that you can continue a tradition of making people very happy through your talents.” Check out the schedule at www.goodstockfarm.com. For reservations call 413-247-6090.

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