Steve’s Leaves – dinner at the Soho Hotel

On Monday night I was invited to attend a dinner for the launch of Steve’s Leaves at the Soho Hotel. By way of introduction, Steve was the man who introduced the public to the idea of eating young spinach raw in the 1980s. At the time, people thought he was mad, but now it’s a concept that everyone is familiar with. Since then, he has continued experimenting with different baby leaf ideas.

When you talk to Steve, you know he’s completely passionate about leaves. Not only is he a farmer, he is also a leaf doctor. You see, Steve has an impressive PhD in watercress (yes, a PhD in watercress) and today his range includes four different leaf products (baby watercress, super hot rocket, wild red rocket, and a mixture of pea shoots, baby spinach and baby chard). The leaves are farmed using sustainable and environmentally friendly techniques which improves biodiversity. Steve’s Leaves is the only farm to hold the Conservation Grade/Nature Friendly Farming status.

We were able to sample the complete Steve’s Leaves range as part of a delicious 6 course meal.

The first dish was shoots and leaves tossed with toasted almonds, sesame seeds, avocado and a chipotle dressing. The dressing was a recipe of the lovely Thomasina Miers, a former Masterchef winner. She was also present at the dinner.

Shoots and leaves with a chipotle dressing

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Westminster Kingways College – Cookery school

Bread

A sample of my bread

Some of you might remember my blog posts about my NVQ Level 1 cookery classes at Westminster College from before the summer. I did go back to Cookery School after my big summer trip ended in September. In fact, I even started NVQ Level 2 at Westminster – a course which I am about one third of the way through. The only thing I didn’t do was keep up with my blog posts, something that I feel a wee bit bad about because there were occasionally some amusing tales to tell.

So I have decided to end the year, and the decade, by capturing some of the more memorable dishes and moments from the past few months of college. I always did enjoy sharing my cookery school stories with you, so it will be nice to end the year with a little note on one other cherished aspect of my foodie life.

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Hix Soho

My first impression of the recently opened Hix Soho, the latest offering from celebrity chef Mark Hix on Brewer St, was that it didn’t have a door. If you’ve been to the restaurant you’ll probably understand what I mean. But it obviously does as there were people inside – I could see them – but how they got in was a bit of a mystery to me. Inquiries made of the smokers standing outside the restaurant revealed that the door was in fact the colossal piece of wood (very tall and very wide) with no door handle anchored near the Hix sign. But no amount of pushing would budge it. “You need to push harder” the smokers advised. Obviously all those body pump classes at the gym hadn’t helped. I duly pushed harder and finally the behemoth gave. Clearly, you need some muscles to eat at Hix Soho.

But once I got in, I discovered to my delight that the place looked absolutely fab. Glamorous mirrors with an art deco touch line the length of the elegant bar which stands along one side of the room. The restaurant is finished in black and white, the tables are made from a warm walnut, and the lighting is fantastic. It’s soft, cozy and sexy, all at the same time. Only the various bits of ‘art’ hanging from the ceilings seem a bit odd. I couldn’t work out what they are meant to represent, although I am sure they are very expensive. This place dazzled and no doubt it’s been designed to cater to the well-heeled clientele.

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Atari-ya Sushi Bar

Mixed selection of sushi and sashimi at Atariya

Mixed selection of sushi and sashimi at Atariya

Atariya is a little hole-in-the-way Japanese sushi place nestled amongst a string of restaurants along James Street, just north of the shopping pulse of Oxford Street. Actually, it’s part of a chain, although I’ve only been to the one on James Street. The great draw card of Atariya is that the sushi is resoundingly fresh. Just ask Jason Atherton, chef of one star Michelin restaurant Maze and his adjoining Maze Grill. I did, when I bumped into him at Atariya last year and got chatting to him. Apparently he’s a bit of a regular for the simple reason that the sushi is so fresh. And Atariya, being a stone’s throw away from his restaurants on Grosvenor Square, means it is all quite accessible when he’s taking a break.

I too have visited Atariya many times. It’s where I go when I’m in need of a sushi fix, and I’ve never been disappointed with its freshness, although the most stringent and rigorous of sushi connoisseurs might challenge the slight inconsistencies in the sizing of the sashimi pieces which occasionally seem to change from time to time. But this is a minor detail. It’s the freshness of the seafood that counts the most, and this is pretty assured. Furthermore, the vinegary sushi rice is authentic, with that required level of stickiness and sweetness.

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BBC Two – Put Your Menu Where Your Mouth Is

Roast beef cooked by Chef One

Roast beef cooked by Chef One

Reef TV are currently filming a new series of celebrity chef cook-off programmes for BBC Two. The working title of the show is ‘Put Your Menu Where Your Mouth Is’. Two celebrity chefs square off and compete by preparing and cooking for a restaurant of paying customers. Each chef offers up a starter, main and dessert, and diners choose from the alternative choices. Each dish is priced by the chef and the one who makes the most money at the end of the evening wins, with all the profits going to charity.

I went to one such filming last night. It was held at The Mercer Restaurant on Threadneedle Street rather than at the BBC studios. The atmosphere was incredibly buzzy, heightened by the television crew milling around and aiming the camera at our faces. This was TV! Excitedly, one of my friends was interviewed, twice, so she might get to appear on television. The chefs were not revealed until just before dessert so there was also a sense of anticipation as to who they might be.

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Angela Hartnett’s Murano Restaurant

Polenta with parmesan and poached farm eggs

Polenta with parmesan and poached farm eggs

A girl has to eat, and when a girl has to eat, a girl has to eat well. A fellow girlie friend happened to have the day off from work, and so I had to think of somewhere nice for our girlie lunch. I cranked through the inner recesses of the restaurant database in my brain. Hmm, perhaps something a little bit upmarket. Yes, a Michelin-starred restaurant would be a nice touch. After all good food is what one would expect a girl to eat. Mayfair came to mind, perhaps somewhere near the Elemis spa in case we feel like a bit of pampering afterwards. Aah, what about Angela Hartnett’s recently crowned one-star Michelin restaurant Murano I thought? One-star Michelin, Mayfair, and with Angela Hartnett, one of the most successful female chefs in the country at the helm, it seemed only just to support her restaurant as a nod to girl power.

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Pearl Restaurant

Note: Pearl Restaurant has now closed.

Amuse-bouche

Amuse-bouche

I like pearls. But there was a time when I thought, given a choice, I would have chosen diamonds over pearls any day, diamonds being that much shinier. Like how Marilyn Monroe use to wax lyrical about Harry Winston in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, I would nod in silent agreement and say bring them on.

Hand-strung pearls along the bar

Hand-strung pearls along the bar

But as I’ve gotten older, (for arguments sake, let’s say past my early 20s) my take on pearls has mellowed. Pearls are classy, and I must confess I wouldn’t mind some of those now in my jewellery box. They would be the perfect accessory to chic work suit, just the touch to make you feel like you’ll ace that job interview no matter what. Or they could dress up a classic evening gown, with enough glamour to light up any venue, from ballrooms of Britannia Hotels to cruise ships and fine restaurants. Diamonds could be reserved for the most dazzling occasions! Not that I have either diamonds or pearls mind, it’s just that they would both be nice to have. Sigh. A girl has to dream…

Anyway, my pre-ramble was brought on in part by the occasion of my dinner at Pearl Restaurant the other night. I adore Pearl Restaurant. I’ve been there on a couple of occasions, even managing to high-tail it once to the private dining room. My experiences at Pearl in the past have always been thoroughly enjoyable: great food, accomplished service, good company. And befitting a gem of a restaurant, it’s all shiny and sparkling.

Over a million hand-strung pearls dangle along the length of the bar which you must strut past in order to arrive at your table. They shimmer and emit soft flashes of shine in an all too seductive, ‘come hither’ kind of way. The bar is elegance personified: classically beautiful, classy and chic with warm walnut panelling, comfortable leather armchair seating and touches of marble throughout. Walking along this bejewelled path, one can’t help but feel that it would have been rather appropriate to be slinking down in a sexy little black Armani number with killer Manolo Blahniks and some gorgeous little pearls to boot.

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Heston’s touch of gold at the BBC Good Food Show

One of the billed highlights of the BBC Good Food Show, held at London’s Olympia from the 14th to the 16th of November, was ‘The Cookery Experience’ where a line-up of celebrity chiefs had been called in to present. There were some big names, including Nigella Lawson; James Martin, host of Saturday Kitchen; and John Torode, of Smith’s of Smithsfields and a judge on Masterchef.

Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck was also part of the line-up, and I couldn’t help but go along to hear what radical alchemistic culinary tit-bits this esteemed chef would offer to a live audience. Whilst I suspect his approach to food isn’t for everyone, by combining the science lab with a kitchen, you can’t help but acknowledge that he’s revolutionised cooking and that he pushes both the boundaries of technique and the limits of sensory perceptions.

At the BBC Good Food Show, Heston featured excerpts from his 2007 Christmas Special broadcast last December on BBC2, Heston’s Perfect Christmas Dinner. In the programme, he had invited six celebrity guests to dine in a car park which he had filled with frosted Christmas trees, and also presumably with lots of outdoor heating. For that dinner, he was inspired to draw on some of the traditional symbols of Christmas: gold, frankincense and myrrh, which he incorporated as part of his starter. In search of frankincense, he travelled to the lost city of Ubar in Oman which historians speculate is possibly the earliest shipping outpost of frankincense in the world.

From the bark of a frankincense tree, he extracted its sap, and for his starter he used the extract to create frankincense tea. The tea was then poured over an edible gold-plated bullion, filled with veal stock at its core. When the hot tea came into contact with the bullion, the latter dissolved to create a richly flavoured broth which was then consumed using a spoon crafted from the bark of a myrhh tree.

Back to the BBC Good Food Show, and each guest present was given an envelope containing a transparent sliver of gelatine set with the sap of frankincense from the same tree in Ubar that he had used to create his Christmas dish.

The flavour was quite complex, and tasted slightly bitter and quite peppery, with an aftertaste that stayed with me for well over an hour. Also in the envelope was a small wafer, the same as the one which had been included in the Christmas crackers that he presented to his guests on the programme, and which “tasted like the smell of a baby.” Made from milk powder, vanilla, pistachio and a touch of cream, it tasted like, well, the smell of a baby.

The presentation also covered some of the other dishes that he cooked during his Christmas Special. He also talked about one of his most recent creations, his Fat Duck dish – the “Sound of the Sea”. This is a seafood dish, and each diner is to wear a set of iPod headphones which play the sounds of the sea as they eat this dish. The effect is to enhance the taste by tapping into your audio senses. Towards the end of this segment he also revealed that this was perhaps one of the dishes that he was most proud of having created in his career.

During question time at the end, one person in the audience asked if there was anything he couldn’t cook, which he initially responded to by playfully pretending to walk off stage. His verbal response was that even if you don’t achieve success with your first attempt at a recipe, repeated attempts will ultimately achieve for you the results you desire. For a man who taught himself to cook, and then went on to earn three Michelin stars for The Fat Duck, it’s easy to believe that this is truly his ethos.

Web: http://www.bbcgoodfoodshow.com/


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