Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ottolenghi, a bit stale. Fig, understated perfection.

I should always remember that when a place has expanded from one brilliant restaurant to many, then to many with cookbooks and products out everywhere, that they are not likely to have food that inspires me.  Truly, they can still bring generally good food to the public and serve it up in interesting ways.  They can have a lovely environment in which to enjoy that food and they can also satisfy the appetites and palates of countless others who are not me.  A year after he won the James Beard Award for Best Restaurant, we had a mediocre dinner at Mario Batali's Babbo, but had to wait for ages to get a table... I guess perhaps I'm just one of those "No one goes there anymore, it's too crowded" people.

I've heard so many great things about Ottolenghi since we relocated to London over a year ago.  I planned my visit on a day when I would be able to savor my meal alone, tasting every morsel, but not influenced by good conversation nor would I be distracted by it... but instead of being lost in the sublime and clever flavor combinations I expected from a brand so convincingly obsessed with food and "loud" ingredients.  Their blog reads well and is absolutely studded with links to other people and places committed to food. But.

The interior design is impressive but not imposing, guiding you past their "deli" which seems to be more sweet than savoury.  Good for dashing in and grabbing something quick for tea or dessert after dinner.  Very nicely displayed, well made pastries, cakes, cookies and a mountain of meringue.

I found the staff to be very accommodating, giving me a nice seat in the middle of the gorgeous communal table in the middle of the Islington branch.  They were quick to bring me my menu and then to take my order.  But I wouldn't give them proper marks for delivering the food so quickly that it appears to have been plopped onto the plate by a cafeteria matron.  I ordered using the style they recommended on the lunch menu- one entrée and and three sides.  I also had them bring me a nice glass of rosé as it was the perfect weather for it.  Oddly, the rosé took a very long time to arrive as did the water I requested (a pet peeve that it is so difficult to get water in most restaurants and yet salt and pepper are plopped down on the table without any compunction).
I ordered the Lamb Koftas which I found bland and served far too cold.  The side of yogurt sauce was pleasant but nothing extraordinary.  For salads I chose a chargrilled broccoli which was adequate in its preparation, but perhaps not sourced so well, having so much white and not very tender stems, both of which I find important in the look of the dish.  Onto the Grilled Peach Salad (which I ordered out of curiosity considering the early time of year for fresh peaches... I am still curious) with a nice combination of greens, candies pecans and blue veined cheese.  Sadly, they pushed the palate too far by adding rosewater.  This with the underripe peaches, some of which had not been grilled well, made it a not very satisfying salad.  Finally, I had the Aubergine Roasted with Tahini, which was perfection.
I imagine I will return to try them out again or to dine with a friend.  Perhaps I should try another branch.  I have heard raves about their fish preparations.  And I never took advantage of their gimmicky toasters (they bring you slices of bread, you test them a la minute.  Gimmicky, I know, but the Dualit toasters are pretty and hot toast is indeed a nice thing.  Fred 62 in Los Angeles has been at this for over a decade).

A restaurant that has been around for several years has just, happily, come into my view.  Fig happened my way on a search for an address in Islington and friendly google maps pinpointed it off in the distance.  How could I not be attracted to the word "fig" loitering off in a somewhat residential corner?  After browsing their website, I set a reservation and was there, fork in hand within a few days.  We decided to see what the chef could do and had the tasting menu with wine pairings.  I was thoroughly impressed with all of it.  The waitress was informative, excited about the food and eager to see us happy with what we had.  The room was filled with all kinds, locals, first dates, a mum and her two tweenie sons (who obviously have amazing palates as they were trying to guess what they ate and how it was prepared!) and us.  They have a small dining room but it feels uncluttered and simply decorated with beautiful worn woods and small bits of art, graphic studies and some palm sized sculptures carefully placed here and there.  The food felt much the same- carefully selected ingredients, thoughtfully handled and arranged on the plate with aesthetics in mind just as much as taste.  And none of this felt fussy.

Several months back we dined at Fat Duck for lunch.  A memorable and mind blowing experience but one I won't revisit often in my life- I don't need to eat like this every day.  At this meal at the lovely Fig, I recognized elements of Fat Duck, especially in their preparation of mackerel- they had interpreted this plated seaside visit very well, but in their own voice and not in Mr. Blumenthal's.  Their foam was tasty and the "sand" genius.  The fish was amazing but did not require the attention (no headsets with sounds of gulls and waves in your ears, just conversation) and worship given at FD.

The rest of the meal was filled with happy moments and gorgeous wine pairings (the best I've had yet in London, very informed and open to suggestion or redirection should we have chosen).  I missed the pressed rhubarb dessert but plan to return soon and try.  As we chatted with the waitress at the end of our meal about our experience, she asked us what we would give them on a scale of 1 to 10.  I said a solid 9.  Of course, how can you give anyone else a 10 though after you've been Fat Ducked?

A quick mention of the lovely drink we had in the neighborhood before dining at Fig.  Just kitty corner from the restaurant on Roman Way, we found an interesting tapas bar and popped in for a Mojito fitting the unusually summery weather.  It was prepared individually and carefully, muddling the sugar and leaves, adding rum and freshly crushed ice (employing one of those great windup ice crushing gadgets straight out of your dad's 1960's tiki bar).

I would also, finally like to mention Modern Pantry a new discovery for me in Clerkenwell.  Keep your eyes peeled for posts about here and and numerous excellent meals at St John...

Friday, May 28, 2010

Cookery Classes in Hampstead!

I'm very excited to announce that Runaway Kitchen is offering cooking classes! 

The first class will be June 15th, 2010 and we'll be focusing on Fish Cookery, exploring techniques, complimentary ingredients and discussing sourcing.  The class begins at 10:00am and will end around 2 or 3 pm and will be at my home in Hampstead. 

Here's what we'll be up to:
We'll begin with a quick introduction, then go downstairs to meet my fishmonger, Glenn Fuller, who drives out from the Port of Grismby with fresh fish every week. 

We will select our fish and then go back upstairs and roast it, cure it, fry and grill it.  There will be a lunch break towards the end of class when we'll be rewarded with our lovely cooking and a fine glass of wine to compliment.

The class size is limited to 5, so please do email me back to save your place. I plan to run this class with regularity, so if the first fills up fast I'll email a new date out soon!

Looking forward!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Green Lemon Olive Oil

Well, I've done it.  I've managed to savour my last drops of Green Lemon Oil from O&Co (RIP London store which closed its doors this year in February).  I only used it for the best recipes and when the can started to get very very light, some would say empty, I turned it on its side to let the drops gather better and then onto its top for the final pool of green lemon magic.

My discovery of this sumptuous oil came late.  On a visit with my parents my mom was thrilled to find the oil on the very very picked over, last days, while shops last shelves.  She told me how she uses the oil, tossing it with a medley of pre-cooked canned beans and a wee bit of salt.  Perhaps a squeeze of juice from their abundant Meyer Lemon tree out back (Southern California is quite generous with its citrus).  Since then my variations on her recipe have gone all the way to clay baked gigantes with greek oregano.

And I branched out, too.  I bought some lovely little wild sea bass filets from my fishmonger and diced my way to ceviche heaven, adding just a bit of lime juice and some shallot and coriander leaf. I tried it again with mackerel, sublime.  I oven dried tomatoes and served them on slices of bread drizzled lightly with the nectar.  I imagine that had I been able to hold out until peach season the oil would have lent its delicious bitter and warm flavor to the stone fruit, maybe with a touch of avocado, some fresh feta and heirloom tomato.

I suppose I could find the O & Co genius oil somewhere else, maybe online, maybe in Paris.  I will look.  But until then I will wax sentimental and leave the tin on the shelf as a reminder.