Because a picture is worth one thousand words…
On Friday night, after months of anticipation, I finally had the chance to blow my budget at the renowned Dinner By Heston at the Mandarin Oriental in London. I was thrilled that my initial two and a half month old reservation for four turned into a 10 p.m. reservation for six because two more friends were able to join. After pre-drinks at Gordon’s Wine Bar (I recommend this bar–inside you can get food and enjoy a cavernous setting and there is a enormous outside space with additional bars, seemingly rare for London), a few of us headed to the Mandarin to sip on £20 cocktails (yes, that is over $30 and we limited it to one each). Apparently the hotel bar has a reputation for attracting high class escorts looking to pick up some business from London’s elite, and, as spectators, we were not disappointed by the show.
Nor were we disappointed by the dinner. Sadly for me, I seemed to have been suffering from lingering, mild food poisoning from the most horrendous fish and chips I’ve ever had (from a pub the night before) so while I did love what I ate, I was unable to relish it as I would have liked (i.e. gorge myself). Terrible timing. It was fun regardless.
Anyhow, if you don’t know, the theme of Dinner By Heston is British cuisine from centuries past. The menu itself provides the date and origin of each dish. I started my meal with “Rice & Flesh,” a creamy saffron risotto and oxtail that is cooked in a red wine sauce. The dish originated circa 1390 and was compiled in The Form of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II. The rice was cooked to perfection, the meat was flavorful and delicious, and the presentation was lovely.
Another starter I sampled (despite my general aversion to poultry), and a highlight on the menu that someone at your table must order, is Meat Fruit, a food illusion originating from sometime between the 13th and 15th centuries. Is it a mandarin?
Or is it chicken liver parfait?
Amazing, right? Food as art or meat as fruit. Strangely, this food was a form of late middle ages flirting. Men used to fill a bowl with Meat Fruit and actual mandarins and ask ladies to guess which was which. Sounds like fun.
For my main course, I made the uncharacteristic choice of Black Foot Pork Chop, the dish favored by our waiter. The dish originated circa 1820 and is served with Spelt & Robert sauce and is based on Carême’s (the first “celebrity” chef also known as the “King of Chefs, and the Chef of Kings”) residency in London. Yum.
I could go on about everyone else’s dinners, but I feel it is only appropriate to write about what I ate. Everyone was very pleased with his or her meal and we all highly recommend visiting DBH. Sadly, we were too full for dessert (well, I could have eaten it if I wasn’t poisoned from the night before; generally I can pack it in regardless). Fortunately, we were given complimentary chocolate pots with a small cookie. Dinner was expensive, needless to say, but not as bad as we anticipated given the price of the cocktails. Whether you can afford it comfortably or it is a splurge, go if you can.
In case you’re interested in a few fun facts, read these, which were presented to us as menu holders:
I am now in Kenya about to set off on a safari here and in Tanzania for the next ten days. To the extent I have internet, I will share any interesting cuisine, however, I might be more inclined to show you the live meat that we see rather than eat. Stay tuned.
Other than with respect to some of its very fine dining restaurants, London is not exactly known for the quality of its food. Today, however, I found a new diamond in the rough called Rochelle Canteen. The canteen is owned by the catering company Arnold & Henderson and is located in a converted bike shed on old school grounds in Shoreditch that have been turned into artists’ studios. Originally the space was used for catering preparation, but lured by the delicious aroma of the food, artists began stopping in for lunch, and, eventually, it was turned into a restaurant. The menu is seasonal and changes daily.
For lunch I had a watercress, beetroot, caper, and goat cheese salad and ceps (mushrooms currently in season) on toast. This was no doubt one of the best non-Italian meals I have had in a while. The food was so fresh and flavorful, I almost forgot I was in London. If you come here, I highly recommend Rochelle Canteen and you should make a booking if possible. It is only open for lunch and informally for breakfast.
Tomorrow I go to Dinner By Heston. I have reserved all of my annual Thanksgiving calories for this meal (I am choosing to ignore the less than average fish and chips I had tonight; they weren’t good enough to count). Expect an extensive report.
I am going to keep this short and simple. You can say a lot about French cuisine in general, but I will just stick to four primary observations: butter, butter, cream, pastry.
On Sunday morning, thanks to a tip, Akane and I had a reservation at La Bellevilloise, a trendy restaurant in Paris with a brunch buffet and live jazz. It wasn’t cheap at 29 euro, but it was definitely a fun start to the day (that basically put me out of service for the rest of the day). I partook in undoubtedly the most excessive eating I’ve done on this trip, and in some ways I am still recovering from it. There were savory dishes like sausages, cold cuts, cheese, salads, etc., but as many of you know that’s not really my style for brunch. Instead, I went with French toast, brioche, crepes, donuts, chocolate croissants, hot chocolate, plus some scrambled eggs for protein. Yes, all of that. And I went back three times.
On a separate note, Parisians were much nicer than I remembered. A special shout out to the four Gendarmerie Nationale officers (French military police) who all pulled out their iPhones to try to call Akane (with no success) when I was having a panic attack at the train station this morning when we were coming to London. Akane went through customs with my ticket and didn’t realize she couldn’t come back to get me. I had no phone and no idea what happened to her. Never mind that the officers probably approached me because I was panicking and my behavior looked erratic and initially they thought I was a security threat. Also the Eurostar employee who somehow, through an unbeknownst chain of custody, got my ticket and then managed to find me, deserves a special thanks. I am not sure how I missed the THREE announcements made over the loud speaker at Akane’s request directing me, LACEY LAKEN, where to go to get my ticket, but when you’ve been in non-English speaking countries for two and a half months, you tend not to pay attention to such things.
On the other hand, while people were generally nice, French waiters are terrible and mean. In particular, avoid these two:
Also, tarts are pretty good. So are Kir Royals (an apertivo of champagne and creme de cassis), especially when sipped with a view of the the Louvre sparkling in the night. Even bad waiters can’t ruin that.
Sorry, that wasn’t so short after all. I will post before then, but just to foreshadow, I’m going to have a major eating experience at one of London’s great restaurants — Dinner by Heston — on Friday. Expect to drool as you vicariously share a meal that is a throwback to English cuisine from centuries past. If you want to do some advance reading, you can get more information here.
Well, Italy, you’ve been swell, and I really mean it. I give an endless thank you to the wonderful Pedrocco family for hosting me over the past five weeks and teaching me about Italian culture, both in the kitchen and out. I cannot say anything that will do your warmth and kindness justice and I could not have been any more fortunate to have had the opportunity to live with you and get to know you.
For my last supper (I have yet to see the painting because it’s basically impossible to get a reservation; in other words, I’ll be back), we had a feast of seafood. No recipes necessary, but I’ll share some photos of the meal in progress. I must warn you, the preparation was a bit gory and Massi wasn’t sure I’d eat the dinner after seeing it. It involved decapitating sardines, dismembering calamari (yes, again, although last time it was squid), and killing strange shellfish called capelonghe, a speciality of the Venetian Lagoon. If you’re interested in making it, the calamari is stuffed with a blend of breadcrumbs, Parmesan, olive oil, and parsley and baked at about 200 degrees Celsius for around twenty minutes (you should be able to tell when it’s done).
The In Between
I will be back to Italy many more times. This is a country of huge cultural variety — the different regions could be different countries — and extraordinary geographical beauty. And regardless of where you are, Italians are fascinating people, full of life, and never allowing for a dull moment. In the past month or so I made it to Mestre (home), Venice, Bologna, Bolzano, Verona, Padova, Milan, and Naples (last time — eight years ago — I visited Rome, Venice, Florence, Sienna, and Milan). I look forward to visiting the south, including Sicily, but will not hesitate to return to any of the places I’ve had the opportunity to spend time in so far.
Finally, for the record, I have no doubt, even though I’m still pretty early on in my journey, that the best food of the world is made here. Italians know how to eat and I was lucky enough to be able share with them.
NYAWK-KEE. The Italian “gn” combination is difficult for many people to pronounce and I’ve noticed a widespread mispronunciation of gnocchi among Americans in particular (who often say “no-kee”). While it is a little time consuming, gnocchi might be easier to make than it is to say. Last night I had the long awaited gnocchi di zucca (i.e., pumpkin or winter squash), homemade nonetheless, which is an an alternative to traditional potato gnocchi and one that I prefer. It was so good that it almost eased my bad mood. Although not quite.
To make it, first peel the pumpkin and steam until it is soft (you can also steam it in the microwave).
In the meantime, flour the kitchen bench (or using a bowl would be fine), and when the pumpkin is ready, mash it onto the floured area. You can use a potato masher if that helps.
Next, add, flour, one egg, more flour, and some salt. You don’t need too much salt because the gnocchi is a little sweet, and, in the meantime, you should be boiling well salted water for later.
Massage additional flour into the pumpkin and egg mixture until it results in a sticky, dough-like texture. The batter should not be watery but you also shouldn’t over flour it. More or less, it should look like this, but, of course, the flour will be all mixed in.
Next, drop little balls of the gnocchi dough into boiling water. When they begin to float, it is an indication that they are cooked, however, you should sample one to make sure. You also may want to attempt to cook one gnocchi ball before dropping them all in the water to confirm that you’ve added enough flour. If you haven’t, the batter may fall apart in the water.
That’s it. Strain the gnocchi and serve. We made a simple gorgonzola sauce by adding some gorgonzola to a bit of milk and a splash of flour and mixing and simmering it for a couple minutes in a pan. You could also make what Italians call a white sauce–olive oil, butter, salt, pepper, and Parmesan.
In other news, the times they are a changin. It is a pretty interesting moment in Italian politics–the economist Super Mario Monti has replaced Bunga Bunga-ing Berlusconi as prime minister, sans election. Monti is expected to put together a cabinet of technocrats rather than politicians. Dare I say, there might be an arm of government without corruption? That remains to be seen, but I think people are cautiously optimistic and perhaps installing someone with true economic experience will aid in the rescue of Italy from its debt problems and ease the strain on the European economy. Unfortunately, that might not be ideal for my future job prospects, since I (used to) work on the floor where companies go to die, as someone once said to me as I stepped out of the lift. In my opinion, they come for life saving cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Anyhow, let’s see how it goes.
I leave Italy the day after tomorrow to meet Akane in Paris for the weekend. We have both agreed that 90% of the weekend will revolve around food, so there should be plenty to report on.
Yesterday, I finally crossed two classic Italian dishes off my must-eat-homemade-version-at-least-once list. Time is slipping away. This weekend I’m going to Naples, then coming home (i.e. Mestre) for four days, then away again for a few days, back home for one or two days, then I’m off. Leaving Italy until at least next summer, when I may make a return visit, although it will sadly be for a shorter period.
And now for the food…
Gnocchi with a tomato, capsicum, and onion sauce. I actually made that myself.
And for Dinner:
Some of this sausage
Cooked in a pot with pumpkin and onion
Resulting in this
Plus some rice
And of course some vegetable stock, added in batches and LOTS OF STIRRING
And finally some Parmesan cheese (more than in this photo)
Resulting in this
Pumpkin risotto (with some sausage, but easily without). I can take no credit for this meal, other than my small contribution to the rigorous stirring that is necessary to make risotto.
Someone told me that he gained five pounds just from reading this Blog. I am afraid consuming its content is going to do worse to me.