Where’s the service…?

I recently paid a visit to a local newly reopened garden centre that has undergone a major capital expenditure and boasts a new restaurant called “Kitchen”.

Now call me old fashioned but to me a restaurant is one where one expects a level of service and there now seems to me a real movement in these type of places to make the experience totally devoid of all service.

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We the customer are herded into slow moving dithering lines bombarded with choice and herded like sheep to a till where there is a lack of social interaction with the customer as they are tasked to fleece you of your money as quickly as they can.

The amount of money they have spent here to make the place look stunning and it has given it a real sense of theatre but the one thing lacking was for me a real basic. Service.

I absolutely abhor the self service concept these and many like minded places adopt and their argument is they are cheaper to run as staffing levels are less. Well as a customer I can tell you they are totally wrong.

From the moment we arrived they had staff plentiful all looking as though they were busy but the whole concept was flawed as they did little to direct the customer as to how to order their food. A small queue to pay at a till ensued and the hot food ordered duly got cold – another pet hate.

They were not that busy and I could imagine it would be carnage when they are.

The local butcher that has a major concession within the food hall showcased his sausages on the menu and whilst they might look good they were pretty average and tasteless. Items in the food hall that tempted my wife could not be purchased and eaten in the restaurant… where’s the logic in that?

My wife in a wheelchair had no way of independently gathering her desired purchase and payment as there was no where to place her tray – obviously no thought had been given to this sector and for that matter for a single parent with young children as well would similarly struggle to collect their food and make payment.

An open plan kitchen revealed a plethora of staff and management seemed to be visible and hands on but for me it all lacked a soul or character. It looks fabulous but failed to deliver a memorable experience. If it had been mine a smaller menu and full table service approach would have made this place something to be proud of and very memorable.

It can be done, they should look at a place not that far from them called the The Twig and Spoon. It very nearly went the same route but a last minute ownership decision to provide full table service meant they have created something far more pleasurable and commendable than yet another self serve nondescript cafe.

Who ever makes these decisions might think on paper they look good but operationally they need to think the process through as to what sort of customer service do they truly offer.

They have totally missed an opportunity to provide a unique and I am sure very profitable eating establishment…maybe one day they will learn or perhaps there will be customer revolution and the masses will rise up and boycott them… then again!

“Carne Argentina Unica” or CAU to you and me…

Well it was with some excitement I had a booking in the newly opened restaurant CAU in central Tunbridge Wells. I had known the property for quite a few years and had been instrumental in possibly it’s first incarnation as an eatery when it was a travel agents & restaurant as “Travel 101″ before then becoming a Burger King. Then hence a variety of eating and drinking establishments.

I think now as CAU there has obviously been some “Blue Sky” thinking and the makeover of the premises has undergone is major – Blue Sky with clouds murals on the walls and modern cloud shaped lamps over the bar counter along with some pretty funky contemporary decor and lighting. Black tables with black and white leather swivel chairs all add to the funky and modernistic decor.

The open plan kitchen provides a sense of theatre but at times a bit of a “blue fug” as opposed to “Blue Sky” appeared as the grilling caused the room to smoke up!

So how was my visit… well having booked a table (very easy and efficient on line with Top Table) we arrived possibly about ten minutes late to find our allotted table was by the entrance door. Not particularly conducive or welcomed – they however changed it quickly to a table in the centre of the room with a good view of the kitchen.

Down to the menu and our choices… Our waiter explained the concept of the Argentinean inspired food with small tapas style starters and then a range of steak dishes as mains. (there are other dishes such as Chicken and Fish for the non carnivores)   We remarked the weight sizes for the steaks seemed huge – the Lomito cut at a whopping 440g and the Asado de Chorizo at 500g and inquired were they designed to be for two people? He remarked normally one person would order and consume! Tunbridge Wells obviously has gargantuan appetites!

We kicked off with a selection of small plates to share… The Belly of Pork Tempura, Empanadas – we chose the spicy ground beef & onion and the Spanish Chorizo & Cream Cheese. Then finally Anticuchos Skewer of Marinated Chicken with Guacamole. Presentation was simple and stylish the tempura was a generous portion of five hunks of tender pork in a crisp batter. The BBQ style CAUchup with it was much needed as we both felt the pork lacked something in terms of flavour. The Empanadas were well made and we preferred the beef one as it packed more of a flavour punch and whilst the chicken skewer was also well executed it was just a touch under seasoned.

Our main course choices were the same with the Tapa de Cuadril – a top rump steak cut into thin steaks just flash grilled. We chose triple cooked chunky chips and a house special of “Causlaw” plus a small side salad to share as the additions. There was also some assorted sauces to choose from as well but with an additional charge. In fact the whole menu might seem initially quite good value but it is all the add-ons that could quite easily bump up the cost per person.

The steak we consumed was OK, not outstanding or that memorable. The seasoning was a little light and whilst the steak was cut thin it was for me very slightly overcooked and some pieces were even tough to eat. Triple cooked chips were OK – again not memorable – the highlight for me was the Causlaw that was made from finely shredded red cabbage.

Overall I have to say it was not a meal that excited us in every way, service was friendly and attentive, check backs were regular and possibly too many requests as to everything all OK. The room is noisy with loud music when quiet and when full of diners the conversation noise drowns out the music.

I however will be going back as it would be unfair to judge totally from this sole visit and when you compare it to their competitor down the road from them in the form of “Côte” this place will be a welcome addition to the town and fulfils a need.

The Argentinean theme is interesting and different but I am not sure whether importing the “Ice Creams” from this said country will go down well with the “food miles conscious” residents of Tunbridge Wells when they have a local supplier of quality ice creams on their door step that could make to their specification.

I will certainly go back “en famille” next time, but for me the jury is still out a bit and whilst I have read good reviews from others I will reserve my final judgement.

It is welcoming to see something else open in the town and I am sure it will flourish especially when you see how busy it was on the night we were there.

www.caurestaurants.com

Rhyme nor reason…

Well it was a Friday lunchtime and a sunny day. I had a rendezvous with an old college mate at his new pad and quick show round. This was duly done and we then decided to shoot off somewhere for a pint and bite to eat.

We decided to head down the road to The Poet. The pub is a grade II listed building in the village of Matfield (blessed with several vibrant pubs) and they state the Pub is so called because one Siegfried Sassoon a war poet was born nearby.

The pub was once the village bakery and was previously known as the Standing Cross and also used to boast possibly the best chef in Kent (it used to make me smile but did little to tempt me in!) It opened in it’s current format about 18 months ago.

Now the mate is also in the hospitality business in the big smoke and is like myself always one happy to try a new place. I had heard mixed reviews on the place but thought lets give it a go.

The bar snacks ranged from a Burger with House Chips (however the hand scripted blackboard menu made them look more like topical “horse chips”) at what we thought was a bit pricey £14.50 to a deli board at under a tenner, Ham Hock Croquettes to a bowl of smoked sausages.

We decided to share the Deli Board, Sausages and Croquettes and then about twenty minutes later (they were busy) our snacks duly arrived.

The deli board was a wooden board consisting of a smooth chicken liver parfait and some toasted brioche, some slices of Coppa ham and then a little paper parcel of baked Camembert. On another board a couple of moist but crispy Panko crumbed ham hock croquettes were delivered along with a bowl of some smoky little sausages. The sausages were a Toulouse and a spicy little Chorizo varieties that were perfect with the Old Dairy Top beer they serve on draught.

A couple of bread rolls appeared alongside and all in all this was some pretty good sophisticated pub grub that was perfect for our Friday lunchtime catch up.

It left me feeling I wanted to return and sample the main menu and overall with some unobtrusive and friendly service this is a place was now well and truly on my radar and worthy of a return visit!

Another return visit for a bar snack and pint with the self same friend got me thinking why had I not been back for dinner so with Mrs HC we decided on a child free night to take the plunge and head out for dinner.

Booking could not have been simpler. They use an online booking system I presume for some of their tables (Top Table) and so online I went to secure my table… two minutes later confirmation email came through. Sorted.

The night arrived and off we set, Mrs HC was unaware where we were headed and so there was a good air of excitement and expectation.

The bar was busy with a party of drinkers in full swing but we were quickly guided to our table to the rear and it was much quieter and relaxed as we perused our menus.

The a la carte menu offers a simple 5/5/5 choice of dishes – we were tempted by most but Mrs HC plumped for the chicken liver parfait, one of her favourites, whilst I chose a crispy egg, something I am led to believe is a signature dish.

The parfait was a generous slab, slightly greying with a quenelle of insipid onion relish and some vibrant pickled vegetables. It was well constructed but did woefully lack seasoning as Mrs HC kept reminding me…  Overall it was OK but did not sing out as spectacular, or live up to it’s price tag.

My choice was a poached egg that had been crumb coated and fried to crisp the exterior served on a bed of pea shoots, broad beans and then a pea veloute was served poured by the waitress. Now if the egg was crispy I cannot say as she duly flooded the egg with the veloute so making it all soggy and the egg was more hard boiled than soft poached. Again a lack of seasoning meant it was OK but nothing more. Looked good, with vibrant colours but for the price of £6 did lack something!

Main course dishes next was a Smoked Haddock, Spinach, Samphire, Poached Egg and Hollandaise. Now Mrs HC is stickler for wanting her plate of food to be served hot. It was rather tepid so back it went. Fresh plates when delivered a short while later were good , good plump fish, generous mound of mashed potato, spinach and samphire. A good soft!!! poached egg and well made hollandaise. A classic combination.

The other main course was Roasted Duck with carrot, spinach and a confit duck roll and orange. The duck was perfectly cooked and very tender, a carrot puree and some baby carrots and wilted spinach were good, no discernable orange flavour and the confit duck roll was confit duck wrapped in a filo style  pastry and crispy fried. Overall was a good dish but again it lacked something in terms of seasoning and flavour. The baby carrots were the best flavour of all!

To complete the meal we shared a Peanut Parfait, with as the menu stated, textures of Blackberries. A pretty concoction was presented a creamy parfait with a peanut brittle crumb a few scattered blackberries, blackberry coulis and well made sorbet of said same fruit was good.

As we headed home Mrs HC and I reflected on what had been an enjoyable night out but a meal that alas had not really lived up to expectations. The Blackboard bar snack menu I have to say seemed far more appealing and interesting so the title of Rhyme nor reason sort of sums it all up! It makes no sense that they offer two very different styles of menu and not really deliver on the one they seem to feel is their main offering. We will go back but only for a bar snack!

Going Underground again… well almost

It was a lovely balmy summers evening when I was driving up Wrotham Hill with the car loaded up with goodies for a return dinner at Winterdale Shaw.

Robin & Carla Betts the hard working and passionate artisan cheese makers were to host a couple of days of a cheese workshop for the “West Country Cheese makers”. This was a milestone for this little select group as I am led to believe this is the first time they will have ever held such a workshop away from the West Country.

Following on from our September 2011 event Robin was keen to provide something a bit different for these cheese gurus so he asked me to cook and serve a similar dinner to what we did back then. It was to be a relaxed affair and I am glad to say it was to be held above ground in a marquee to the side of the barn (erected for a public event a few days later) so the steep cellar steps were not an issue this time and the little kitchen we were to work from had a bit more kit as well.

So the menu we served was pretty similar to the previous one so we could showcase their cheeses. Firstly some nibbles of chilled gazpacho soup shots and deep fried cauliflower cheese beignets were the nibbles and then they all sat down to the first course of double cooked cheese soufflé topped with smoked haddock and some salad leaves. They also rather enthusiastically devoured a loaf of Moodleys Beer Bread which I have to say unsurprisingly garners rave comments every time I serve it!

Robin & Carla were also keen to showcase their nearby neighbours Free Range Pork (Roundwood Orchard Pigs) so a gorgeous four plus kilo joint of rolled Pork Shoulder was slowly roasted for some 5-6 hours and the skin crisped to perfection. Served with a gravy laced with dried apricots it provided a nice citrus kick to the richness of the tender meat and well between 7 hungry souls got just about completely devoured in one fell swoop! A gratin dauphinoise and medley of vegetables accompanied this.

Finally I served up the dessert that on Carla’s request was not the junket we served originally as she felt it was an acquired taste! So some soft squidgy home-made meringues were sandwiched with whipped cream with added lemon curd and then some “Mill Farm” strawberries. This again was polished off with gusto, these cheese gurus can certainly eat!

By this time gone eleven pm I was pooped and needed my beauty sleep as I had an early start the next morning with a breakfast meeting I left them to their final course of cheeses with my porridge oat biscuits. I was mortified I could not stay and sample some of the goodies on offer. There was one rogue but magnificent cheese on offer a rather runny Brie de Meaux that a rogue Frenchman had bought along ( I did not quite establish how he was part of this select group)

It was a fascinating evening as I listened into their conversations on the tribulations and trials of cheese making. The story of West Country floods and how one of them managed to write off his Land Rover Discovery by thinking they could cross a flooded road was hilarious and I believe made BBC news headlines much to his disgust.

The passion they all have for their chosen craft was evident in bucket loads and you should just click the links below for their assorted web sites to get a flavour of how serious they all are to produce a product we can all enjoy and savour. Robin & Carla can also be proud of their achievements of being part of this select group with some incredible history and I know it was also a bit of a double celebration as they had just managed to secure the long awaited planning permission to convert the upper portion of their barn to be living accommodation for them and their young children.

The Cheese Makers Workshop at Winterdal Shaw July 2013

Winterdale Shaw (the hosts|)

Westcombe Dairy

Keens Cheddar

Montgomery Cheddar

Hafod Welsh Organic Cheddar

Honey & Co…a review…

It has been a while since I had seen a long-standing client @ufoodie but we had spoken on numerous occasions and this meet up was a sort of catch up and payback time. Well it was to be a very enjoyable payback and good to catch up and hear all the latest gossips from her’s and my businesses.

We are also plotting to bring a unique mass cooking experience to a venue near you where we perhaps do the ultimate “pop up” dinner where you will hopefully also cook your own! Will keep you all posted as to how plans for this progress but in the meantime @ufoodie had chosen the venue (well as she was paying) and a great venue choice it was too.

Located at what one could describe as the wrong end of Warren Street just off Tottenham Court Road this little, and I mean little establishment is causing a bit of a stir in foodie circles.

A shoe box of a room with cramped tables was pretty empty when we arrived but it was soon very packed, very noisy with a group congregated outside waiting for a vacant table and regular new arrivals being turned away. Such is the popularity of this place booking a slot is advisable, in fact very necessary.

So what’s all the fuss about – well the food is very much the star, as is the friendly and informal service so overall a great mix.

As we perused the menu the limited choice was so enticing it was making choices so difficult so we plumped for the Mezze platter and as an extra “Roasted Octopus” with chilli, coriander and meshwiya sauce as our starters.

Both dishes were stunning – a generous platter of little dishes that included Labaneh (strained Yoghurt) topped with Zaatar (a middle eastern herb mix). Carrots coated in harissa and fennel seeds, gorgeous creamy hummus and a light delicate heritage radish and paprika salt salad. “Boikos” were little feta cheese like scones and then some plump Kalamata olives completed the platter. The octopus on recommendation of the cheerful waitress was equally stunning. Beautifully tender octopus was coated in a sauce made of tomatoes and peppers and then little slivers of grilled lemon and chilli and coriander gave it an interesting kick with a good balance of flavours. Outstanding and accomplished cooking  was very evident here.

Our main course choices  were a “Chicken Pastia” fundamentally a middle eastern inspired pasty! Slow cooked melt in the mouth chicken cooked with dates, almonds and some subtle spicing – just a hint of cinnamon that was then encased by crispy filo pastry. This was a beautifully simple piece of cooking and again a very well executed dish that pleased on all fronts.

A light green leaf salad with slices of orange worked perfectly against the richness of the meat. Our other main course choice was “Lamb Shawarma,” yoghurt marinated lamb served on a charred pitta bread, a mango chutney (amba) and some fresh salad (shredded cabbage and pomegranate seeds) Again a lovely fresh and vibrant dish.

To round our lunch off we then had a couple of desserts. Claudia Roden’s inspired whole orange flourless cake with a dark hot chocolate sauce. The star dish though was a cold cheese cake, a mix of creamy cheese (we were told it was feta!!!) was nestling atop a bed of crispy Kadaif pastry (crispy vermicelli) and then some nuts and drizzle of Greek pine and fir honey completed what was a stunningly simple but effective dessert.

The service we experienced was informative, friendly and attentive, overall it was a jolly good lunch… the only downside was the room was cramped and noisy once it filled up with guests – so making a quiet lunch harder. The likes of “Tripadvisor” and other review sites sing the praises of the cooking but do criticise cramped room as well as the prices as being a shade high… what price though for quality?

We both enjoyed it but I’m sure it is very easy to rack up a higher bill as everything was just so tempting. On reflection I have to say it was well worth that extra walk to the wrong end of Warren Street!

Benvinguts Girona…


Having driven down to our French home for our half term break we felt this trip would not be complete without a quick trip across the border to Girona in Spain. The main reason for our visit was to rendezvous with “super chocolatier” Damian Allsop and his partner Anna. They until about eight weeks ago were based just outside Tunbridge Wells. Then after much heart searching and deliberation took the decision to up root their business to Anna’s home area of Girona in northern Spain

Damian equally familiar with the region as he had previously worked at the now infamous highly rated Cellar Can Roca (Just awarded the best restaurant in the world) So after loading up the removal lorry and then the disposal of some two tonnes of assorted stuff at the North Farm tip in Tunbridge Wells a group of us had met up in the town for a quick coffee and farewell. It was with some sadness but a new chapter was about to begin for this pair and I can now report they really have landed well and truly on their feet with this move.

The long drive south over a total of three days was according to Damian not the finest gastronomic experience – I fully understand his frustration with French Gastronomy – a little hit and miss these days. Anyway once ensconced back in the Catalunya region they set about trying to find a location to set up their production unit. Some abortive attempts led finally to something of a gem.

Their unit in Kent was quite large and had been set up for the past seven years. This Spanish unit could not be more perfect. They are renting space form an outside catering company based on an industrial estate in the area of Banyoles. (This is where they held the Olympic rowing for the Barcelona Olympics!) Located somewhat befittingly behind the local Haribo Factory they have an air conditioned and sectioned area of a modern purpose built kitchen plus their own frozen and chilled storage.

Why Spain I hear you all ask well as Damian explained the rent they paid back in the UK was 5 times more plus then charges for the transportation of the finished product was twice what they are now paying from Spain. They still have to work out how their “On Line” shop is to work but their UK distributor for trade orders seems to be well settled and we saw the next palette load of chocolates being finished off ready for dispatch.

What is equally important is they are now trying to establish a work life balance that will ensure the survival and expansion of their business. The struggle for them over the last couple of years had taken its toll on the business and the decision to up root and change location was one they did not take lightly but now seem to be all set to develop the business in new and exciting ways.

I know the region reasonably well having owned a property across the border in France for the last 15 years and it is an inspiring part of the world with not only a wonderful focus on foods and products but a heritage that is something we can be envious of. Festivals abound for foods such as Cherries, Apricots, Onions and restaurants of note seem to flourish in the region.

Whilst we visited the area we joined Damian and Anna for a lunch at one such place. Anna’s sister and husband operate a now well established restaurant in the old quarter of Girona. Mimolet located on Carrer Pou Rodó, núm. 12, it is just a short walk from one of the more quirky tourist attractions in the town. The “Lion of Girona” has an infamous history that the rite of touching or kissing the rear will guarantee a happy return to the city.

Well following what was a very enjoyable lunch with top notch local produce from crispy bread toasts infused with garlic and tomato and a selection of local cured meats including a rather scrummy local Botifarra sausage of black and white varieties.

We settled into some rather well executed dishes… my starter sounded in the English translation all rather comical “Warm Cream of Gourd, Ginger, Blinis with Spawns of Herring and a “creaking” of Botifarra” – what came was a very pretty and delicate arrangement of a dry soup plate with the then addition of a light soup of squash – the spawns of herring was a pile of vibrant orange herring roe and the creaking of Botifarra was cubes of that black and white sausage scattered across the dish. It was a lovely balance of flavours and textures

The main courses we chose ranged from a Cannelloni of Roasted Chicken with a rich truffle sauce to a truly magnificent and unctuous Honeyed Veal of Girona with a slice of fresh Foie Gras and a red wine sauce. The “Veal of Girona” was a slow cooked beef cheek that just fell apart and garnished with baby glazed onions and a generous slice of foie gras the addition of some strands of fresh wild asparagus illustrated so perfectly the marriage of local produce and again balanced flavours and textures.

To complete the meal a little hot chocolate fondant with a homemade ice cream was simply divine and along with coffee and a selection of Damian’s water ganache chocolates the kissing of that lions bottom for us was not a requisite to ensure we make a return visit.

It was so good to see Damian & Anna so animated about the future and I am sure the move whilst a bold one will be a resounding success as there is so much scope to expand the business in so many exciting ways… we will be back and look forward to repaying their hospitality and also make sure you do explore the town for some of its other hidden gems like the amazing ice cream parlour “Rocambolesc Gelateria” inspired by Roald Dahl and operated by the Roca brothers and then the Rambla in the old quarter and the terrace of Independence Square all cry out for our return visits! We still have to kiss the lions bottom if nothing else.

Damian Allsop Chocolates – c/o El Ginjoler Catering, Poligon Industrial Pont – Xetmar, E-14 Cornella del Terri 17844 Spain

The next generation…

I have now for the past couple of years been asked by my daughters school to teach a Masterclass to year 10 Food Tech students. To try and give them a bit of realism and give them some tips and ideas on food preparation in a professional kitchen.

So this last week I duly arrived at Maidstone Girls Grammar School to prepare and teach a class of 20 students the intricacies of boning a chicken, making a new potato and spinach terrine and then finally having been given the “water” chocolate mousse recipe by Damian Allsop I felt it was of sufficient interest to also get them making this.

It was a packed day as I started off by showing them how to joint a chicken and stuffing its French trimmed breast ready for roasting and serving with a wild mushroom ragout.  The making of the terrine (a quiche without the pastry basically) and then presenting two finished plates to illustrate some presentation ideas.

Well I was impressed their teacher Mrs Meek was keen to give each girl a whole chicken to work with as this was no small cost. So as they all settled into first quickly making their own terrines and then boning their chickens there was a great deal of grimacing and  squeamish face pulling as they were made to handle the chickens. It is a sad state that we have become so anaesthetized by handling fresh unprepared foods so much. They did a remarkable job some obviously better than others but overall they all managed to produce a boned stuffed and rolled breast of chicken.

With the terrines now out of the oven and cooling down we then had chance to quickly knock up some Irish soda bread as well. There was not a spare 5 minutes to be had as I had set them a deadline of 12:30 to serve up the terrine and then the chicken so they could all sit down and eat together.

Well they just about did it… the classroom looked a bit like a bomb had hit it but overall it was a success and they all seemed to like the terrine and the “monster” sized chicken breasts also seemed to get devoured! The bread was a triumph apart from a couple of students who managed to forget that all important addition of bicarbonate of soda to act as the rising agent! I guess the reading of the recipe will be high on the agenda next time!

So fed and rested (a bit) the afternoon session kicked off with the chocolate dessert. We firstly had to blow up small water bomb balloons to act as the mould to make little chocolate cups that we could then use as a casing for the finished mousse. This required a large pot of chocolate melted and tempered ready for the balloons to be dipped and left to harden. I had warned them if the chocolate was too hot they had a tendency to explode! This they duly did on several occasions but overall we managed to get 20 plus balloons chilling!

The mousse was then started by melting chocolate over a saucepan of hot water (bain marie) and the egg whites were whipped to soft peak meringues with some added sugar and the chocolate was then emulsified with some water and agar agar mix. This all then combined ensured the mousse was light and the absence of cream means a much cleaner flavour. The girls all did an amazing job as it was all a bit unfamiliar and the cries of “I don’t like dark chocolate” were turned to “OMG this is a bit of alright” As I dished out some Damian Allsop water ganache chocolates to them all to sample and I showed them how to plate up the mousse and garnish. One girl presented a truly magnificent example that had a true “Faberge Look” about it and it even garnered praise from the man himself Damian Allsop via Twitter when he tweeted a few days later.

@emmamurphy_98: Well done to you too!! I wish i was there, but it looks like @MrHariCovert has it well under control ;-)

As the girls departed with their extra mousses for their family to taste at home and we tidied up and packed away I reflected they had done an amazing job in the time given. It was good to see them not only embrace a task they viewed with trepidation but also thoroughly enjoy foods and products they were unfamiliar with.

So next year will be a new challenge and we hope a new set of budding cooks will step up to the challenges we set them.

The recipes used can be found via the following links

Warm New Potato & Spinach Terrine with Chorizo Dressing

Irish Soda Bread

Chicken Breast with A Wild Mushroom Stuffing & Wild Mushroom Ragout

Damian Allsops “Water” Chocolate Mousse

EmWilco Supperclub… a review…

I have been wanting to try some of the competition in the way of other Kentish Supperclubs and I finally managed to get along to a relatively new one. I know of three other supper clubs in Kent now since I first opened my doors over three years ago. It is always hard to try and find a date when I am free and also a competitor supper club is doing an event.

Finally I found a spare Saturday night in early May (2013) when I had no commitments but there was a competitor supperclub hosting an event. My apologies to both Annies Supperclub and also The Fat Carrot I will get to one of your events one day!

So Mrs HC and myself set off to deepest Faversham a total fifty mile round trip to sample a supperclub that is run by Emma Wilcox in the Macknade Farm Shop on the A2 outside of the town centre. Emma has been operating them in this venue since about April 2012. I had been in twitter correspondence with Emma for some time as I am very keen to try and get all the Kent Supperclubs together at one event and see if we can all showcase together what we do as we are so varied. Annie’s in Bromley is Gluten Free,The Fat Carrot in East Peckham specialise in Vegetarian and EmWilco like me loves to showcase local produce.

So we duly arrived at the venue and whilst a few minutes early we awaited in our car and watched other attendees arriving. Then at just before 7pm a side door to the farm shop opened and we all tumbled out and were led through the vast farm shop aisles to the far end and what by day is the cafe and used for Emma’s dining area. We were welcomed with a glass of Spanish cava and then some plates of nibbles were handed round to guests.

The table we were all to be seated at was one long table seating the thirty guests booked in and some clambered for their places whilst others nervously held back. The nibbles proffered were thin slices of cured duck breast akin to Pata Negra ham and then slices of bread topped with a smoked cod and red pepper pate. We then chose our places and sat down and were promptly joined by a couple next to us. Conversations started to flow as we found they (John & Linda) had come along to meet new people having just moved to the area and when we told them what we did and they quizzed us further we realised we both knew someone in common… so it just goes to show how small the world is.

So as we all relaxed and got into the evening a big platter of homemade sourdough bread was placed at intervals along the table… they got quickly devoured and replenished as they were really good!

The first course up was a vibrant and wonderful fresh tasting nettle soup flavoured with wild garlic pesto and a poached quails egg. A well accomplished dish that set the tone well for the evening. My only critique was the egg was overcooked and more hard boiled and did little for the soup but otherwise it was a great start!

Next came a crab tart. Emma had waxed lyrically on her blog pre dinner about the origins and memories of this dish and we were all presented with a generous slice of soft unctuous full flavoured tart with a lovely depth of flavour. Simply garnished with watercress and pea shoots. A stunning dish that illustrated so perfectly Emma’s passion for quality ingredients that are simply handled.

Conversations flowed and it was interesting to observe the dynamics of the table. For me it was a shame that such a large table seemed to discourage mixing with fellow guests and as darkness fell and main lighting was toned down we were subjected to just candle lit tables adorned with bottles filled with fresh wild flowers and spring blossom.

Main course then arrived and this was a well thought through dish of roasted lamb cutlets beautifully rose pink with a puree of flageolet beans and some very tannic tasting greens and a roasted baby leek. A garnish of wild garlic flower heads offset the plate perfectly. It was well executed but for my palate just a touch lacking in salt and was also not as hot as I would have liked. I know from experience that trying to serve 30 people all at once from an unfamiliar kitchen is always a challenge. Emma did admirably well and we all tucked in and savoured the juicy lamb chops.

The main course cleared away meant it was time for dessert… Emma had chosen to make little chocolate mousse pots served with a lovely chewy sour cherry amaretti biscuit, one seemed hardly enough as they got devoured all rather too quickly.

So that was it… dessert devoured some guests started to leave and I thought this was a bit strange as surely coffee was on it’s way… well that was it – no coffee… my only gripe as with a 40 minute drive home a little cup of coffee would have been the ideal finish to what had been a good meal. I did not question Emma on this point but guess there is a reason why?

With Mrs HC on the drive home we pondered how our experience had been and we agreed it was a good one. Different to how we do ours but nonetheless and an enjoyable night out and some good food. A great introduction to a secret Supperclub if you have never been.

A day of two halves…

Well just over a week ago it was a cool spring day as I set off at a rather early hour of the morning for a breakfast networking event.

I am not a big fan of formal networking events as I feel they are all rather shallow and superficial and not really my scene. This one known as Breakfast Friends takes place once a month at a changing Kent venue for a breakfast along with a guest speaker.

One of the reasons I attended this meeting was because I had helped to introduce their guest speaker namely a professional food forager and local food celeb by the name of Fergus Drennan. I had suggested Fergus as he is in the middle of a fundraising campaign at the moment to help fund his desire to experiment for a whole year to support himself purely on foraged foods.

It seemed like an ideal opportunity to speak to a room full people that just might like the idea of supporting him with some sponsorship and to spread his message. It was also a bit of a new experience for him however his nerves really did not show as he in a very relaxed and informal way entertained the 50 plus attendees at the 7Hotel Diner at Halstead nr Sevenoaks.

There was a hushed silence as the room listened intently to his philosophy and take on foraged foods. It caused much mirth when he described “Road Kill” as “accidental meat” and he kept the gathering both entertained and enthralled and possibly could have gone on for longer than his allotted time of 10-15 minutes as he explained his plan to conduct this year long experiment.

Questions fired from the floor were answered with an assured manner and overall there seemed to be a real thirst for more knowledge from the gathering. He was slightly mobbed after the meeting broke up and one attendee went into a quiet huddle with him to discuss their favoured spots for morel mushroom gathering and others posed with him for their photos. It was an interesting format for a networking event and highly enjoyable.

It has whet my appetite for more and I am now in discussions with Fergus to perhaps have a fundraising dinner with some foraged foods (No Accidental Meat I promise) to highlight his project further.

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I then dashed back to Hari HQ to then spend the next couple of hours baking some of our Moodley’s Beer Bread to take up to Winterdale Shaw as they had their official launch for the dairy to now be totally “Carbon Neutral”!

Their award winning cheddar cheese is now totally “Green” Robin & Carla have been hard at work putting in systems to ensure the morning milk from their herd of Friesian cows is processed into their cheddar cheese using energy supplied by their recently installed solar powered heat pumps and then the cheese can now be delivered by their totally electric car also charged by self same power source making them totally carbon neutral a first for “Cheddar Cheese” producer!

They had also been visited by the local press featuring their achievements just the day before appearing on the local BBC news. Their “Electric Car” had also undergone a makeover with a bold shrink wrap advert for their dairy plus an endorsement from Electric Car enthusiast Robert Llewellyn, of “Red Dwarf” and and also “Scrapheap Challenge” fame was on hand as well.

As the invited guests were given a tour of the dairy and explanations of how the cheese is now made and a more formal ribbon cutting ceremony they then departed off to London in the electric car to deliver a cheese to Fortnum and Masons and then another to the Goring Hotel as they have just started to include it on their cheeseboard!

This had been a day of two halves but one that was certainly so memorable on many levels…

Little Social…. a review

It was with a great deal of excitement that I was to meet up with an old friend for lunch at Jason Atherton’s latest central London venture.“Little Social” especially as I had what I would class as my best meal of the year in 2012 at his Michelin starred eatery “Pollen Street Social.”

Well it was a bitingly cold (April) day as I sauntered up Regent Street past the “Hollister Store” with it’s giggling teens and scantily clad, blond haired and blue eyed doormen cheerily welcoming the shoppers. I arrived outside what was an unassuming front door to this new restaurant (it only opened in mid March) just across the road from Pollen Street Social to be warmly greeted by the Polish hostess with impeccable English ubiquitously we discussed the weather!

Seated in what can be best described as a narrow room with a French brasserie feel with red leather banquette booths, black and white photos and old facsimiles of French posters. My first request for a warming coffee was promptly dealt with as I awaited the arrival of my friend. The menu is in two parts – starting with a great value set price prix fixe menu with 2 or 3 courses and then an A la Carte menu of French inspired classics including some specials displayed on blackboards.

What was so appealing to me was how good the waiting staff were. They are like their counterparts across the road professional in their approach but also like the name indicates really social with their guests. They show skills in this area that in my mind should be studied by every budding member of front of house teams on how to do it properly!

My friend duly arrived and as we settled down and made our choices off the very reasonably priced prix fixe menu we were deep in conversation as the restaurant began to fill up. I went with what was termed “Country Pate” served with baby cornichons, salad and a great big stone jar with a stunning Pommery grain mustard. The friend chose the marinated salmon that was served with leaves of little gem lettuce and a garnish of cucumber and radish. It was a real picture on the plate and she cooed satisfyingly all through its consumption!

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Main course choices could have been Lincolnshire Sausages, Mash, Greens with an Onion Gravy or Dorade (Fish) but we both, as it was so chilling and cold out on the streets went for the comfort dish of Lamb Shank with a Haricot ragout and Basil Dressing.

As we tucked into this dish our conversation then was abruptly halted as all of sudden the fire alarm went off. Nobody moves,  nobody flinched all were too engrossed in enjoying their food. Staff rushed about, the ringing continued and my friend then let it be known she had been awoken that very morning by her own home fire alarm at the ungodly hour of 4:30am and had struggled to switch it off! Staff kept popping back to check we were all OK.

Some fifteen minutes later with ringing in our ears we were invited to decamp from our table across the road to PSS and to partake in our puddings there. Staff were so apologetic and could not have been better. We were settled into our new table in a busy restaurant, so we then partook of our dessert and coffee here.

My friend was relieved somewhat not to have that continued ringing in her ears as she wears aids in both and had had to remove them so then duly popped them back in and our conversation resumed.  This was something of a first for the friend of having two separate restaurant venues for a lunch whilst for me it was bit like being back on my inspection routine as we tucked into firstly a little pre dessert nibble brought to the table an apple espuma topped with a crumble crumb.

Dessert just for me was a Lemon & White Chocolate Ganache served with a carrot cake crumb and Basil Ash Meringue that was just the perfect light finish after the richness of the lamb shank.

Then with our coffees we were treated to a rather gorgeous selection of petit fours that ranged from little macaroons of delight to a selection of our local food hero Damian Allsop chocolates.

When it came to pay we had to settle one bill at PSS then walk across the road to settle the other bill in LS. My friend who settled the bills then texted me later “Does today mean you owe me not one but two lunches, I paid 2 bills after all!” – I did offer but I guess all that ringing noise in her ears must have addled her brain… !

I’m certainly not complaining and now trying to work out when I can go back and I would have to say it is well worth it with all the bells and whistles as well!

Little Social – 5 Pollen Street London – 020 7870 3730