Tuesday, 9 September 2014

How on earth do French women not get fat?

One of my favourite things about writing books is that I can think of things I'd really like to do in real life and then make my characters do them - and I get to go along for the ride.  For example, in my third novel, The Dish (just being finished now, out in spring 2015, hurrah!) - the heroine, food critic Laura Parker, takes herself off to Paris for a month to research the perfect croissant.  So off I went for research - only for 12 hours sadly... And I can now report, unequivocally that there are some very fine baked goods in Paris...  but some of the very best can be found at Du Pain et Des Ideeés.
It's in the rather lovely, super-hipster Canal St Martin area

a fifteen minute walk from Gare Du Nord, tucked off a side street from the main canal.  Inside it is fairy-tale pretty...

But let's be honest - it's really never about the decor, is it?
It's about a simple croissant...
Elevated to a thing of beauty - golden, paper thin, super crispy flaky exterior, lush, ultra-buttery, multi-layered insides...
and then a chocolate pistachio swirl, warm from the oven...
Bad photo, I know - but try to imagine melting chocolate, soft, light, buttery pastry and creamy, mild, pistachios swirled throughout, being held warm in your hand, then rammed, gracefully into your mouth...
The bakery does other, fabulous flavoured swirls - praline, rum and raisin, lemon and nougat...  Also a host of other extraordinary treats - rosewater croissants, chocolate bread, amazing regular bread, etc....

Now Paris is obviously about more than just croissants.  It is also about les sandwiches...so one of the other things on my hit list for Laura was finding a place where she might go to for lunch - somewhere not necessarily obvious, but brilliant nonetheless...

Le Marais is probably my favourite area of the city - it's less snobby than other parts, has exceptional falafel, and is home to a vibrant gay and Jewish community.  It also has a lively food market, Le Marcheé des Enfants Rouges, which is home to many delicious smelling lunchtime treats - but most importantly - this man:

His name is Alain, he's on facebook and stuff...

He basically makes sandwiches and crepes, but, like, he is a Master.  I've put a character inspired by him in The Dish and called him Le Bowski - because basically this gentleman is a dude of the highest order.
He takes rather a long time to make the food

but this is because the man does not cut corners

He is a craftsman

very generous with his fillings (loads and loads of avocado and cheese).

And he's also a performer...
and an artist...

and also a dancer though I didn't get a photo of him dancing

but anyway, the point is, the end result is totally worth the wait (be warned: 56 minutes for a sandwich, but like I say -  WORTH IT!)


So yes, waiting for that sandwich and watching Alain at work was possibly the happiest 56 minute wait for a cheese sarnie that I've ever had.

What else did I do on my day trip... Ah yes, found the only Parisian woman with cellulite...
She does not look dissimilar to me, apart from the bird poop on her head.  She lives in this beautiful park.
Wherein also lives this statue, who seems to be saying: Oui, naturellement Paris is superior to all other cities, and that is why j'habite ici, innit:

But, like, he has got a point because this is a city where if you want stuffed pasta, you can go and browse these stuffed pastas - 14 types, including Tortelloni stuffed with Ossobucco, or with four Provencal vegetables...

Or if you fancy a strawberry tart, you can choose one of these beauties...
Or if you just want some asparagus with a buttery Mousseline sauce (Hollandaise + cream...)
and some decent bread
and some sort of auberginey deliciousness

and some wine, because really you haven't had enough treats for one day - then no one will judge you or think you're greedy.  Anyway, like I said, it was all in the name of research.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Hartnett Holder Hubba Hubba...

I'm a huge Angela Hartnett fan and have been meaning to check out Hartnett Holder for an age but I can barely be arsed to go round the corner for a pint of milk in this weather, let alone voyage to Hampshire for lunch.  However book three features a road trip to the New Forest so I figured what better excuse than research....

Seriously, a spectacular lunch and the best £20 I've spent in 2014.  (Is it 2014?  Good grief, I just had to Google what year it is.  Being a full time writer makes you go a little doolally at times.)

Anyway, the arancini alone were worth the trip.  I always have a lot of love for these golden balls, but the white onion and rosemary ones were exceptional.
Then a starter of smoked salmon with caperberries and lime creme fraiche
And a salad of beef with rocket, parmesan and a stunning lemon oil vinaigrette
Then a perfect squid pasta with celery
Hake with red peppers
and a show-stopping black cabbage, garlic, cream and caper side dish with chilli, that I could have eaten ten times over - gutsy and spicy and creamy and entirely more-ish.
Killer puddings of rhubarb, cream custard and hazelnut crunch
and chocolate parfait with pistachio ice cream
Petit fours...
£19.50 before service, and that includes coffee!

Exceptional quality ingredients, perfectly executed - a damn near flawless meal.  The memory of that cabbage dish, even now eight hours later, is keeping me in good cheer.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Cafe Murano - yep, pretty close to flawless

Thank you Twitter! Before you existed, in all your crazy, mixed blessing glory, I would never have known about the timings of soft launches.  But now I do! And now that I have quit my day job and spend my life procrastinating, it means I can sit, poised at the click of a mouse, trying to reserve tables at exciting new restaurants during soft launch when the food is half price.  Half the price = twice the food, hurrah!

I think this is day 1 for Cafe Murano, Angela Hartnett's new solo venture with head chef Samantha Williams.  It is also my sister's birthday (more or less) so we all went for lunch.  I love Angela Hartnett, and this new restaurant is a triumph - very beautiful ingredients, perfectly executed - not a single mis-step.

We ate a lot.  We always do:

Brilliant rosemary focaccia - stunning texture, served with my favourite Planeta olive oil.
Truffle arancini - crisp, light, golden outsides, melting insides:
Fabulous quality mozzarella with charred aubergine and basil
Then pasta - linguine with red mullet, garlic and chili, so simple and such clear flavours
and more pasta - gnocchi with wild mushrooms, parsley and garlic
and risotto Milanese, osso bucco
and then lamb
and monkfish
and chicken escalope....and tiramisu.  (Oh dear - internet has slowed down due to the rain, thanks again Virgin Media, for your consistently reliable service.)  Well I'll come back and post those photos later...

Suffice to say, the whole meal was phenomenally delicious.  When it reverts to full Mayfair prices this Wednesday, it will still be good value, because the food is of a fantastically high quality.  This is the sort of cooking I love - confident, non-show-offy, and with the eater's enjoyment in mind at all times.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

A tale of two taverns

Londoners are so lucky right now.  The quality of eating out options in this city has never been better - from toasted cheese sarnies in south London to posh food like my mate Marianne serves at her new 14 seater in West.

Two new and fantastic restaurants have opened up in the last month alone - one in the east and one bang in the centre.  Make that two 'Taverns' in fact - though both are such sophisticated offerings they're not what one would associate with any bawdy tavern of yore.

Merchants Tavern in beyond-fashionable Shoreditch is a joint venture between the wonderful Angela Hartnett, chef Neil Borthwick and the guys who run the chain Canteen.The room is beautiful, grown up, sexy and intimate, with a fabulous wine rack that I feel would work very well in my bedroom.
Highlights of our meal were these ridiculously tasty, crunchy deep fried oysters with ginger and chilli
Cauliflower croquettes
and this more than ample Paris Brest

Muchos healthy, I'm sure you'll agree.  Almost as healthy as my meal at Berners Tavern in the new Edition Hotel, just north of Oxford Street - and opposite possibly London's shittest shopping mall, The Plaza.

Still, the Edition Hotel is drop dead beautiful and the dining room is one of the loveliest spaces I've eaten in for a very long time - incredibly high ceilings, fantastically grand finishes, the walls crammed with paintings, a magnficent bar.  It has a genuinely glamorous feel to it - New York-ish without feeling like a try-hard copy of New York.
I had a burger - perfect proportions, terrific bun, great fries, excellent vinaigrette on the salad.
Some outstanding roast carrots with smoked garlic (see, that's 2 of my 5 a day, and I wasn't even counting the chips.)  And then 3 puddings.  (People never believe me when I say I don't have a particularly sweet tooth.  I really don't.  But I'm researching puddings for the latest novel: THIS IS WORK, I swear.)

Anyway, the first was a warm chocolate doughnut with an intense almond sorbet:
Second up was a Caramel apple and Calvados eclair with a lush cream filling and terrific salted caramel ice cream, topped with gold leaf (though I have to say, I find the whole eating gold thing a touch over-rated - emeralds have far more umami.)
And the killer of the lot - warm almond brioche, pear compote and ginger sorbet, served in a jar with a warm creme anglaise poured over the top.
All very, very very good indeed.