29 July 2014

Review: The French, Manchester

I HAD AN unwelcome feeling in my head that this was going to be one of those meals you build up to the high heavens, only to see it tumble down to earth with a big fat bump that makes you regret making the booking in the first place.  However, this is Simon Rogan’s joint, and it was my cynicism that I was soon to be the regretting.

The French is found nestled on the ground floor of The Midland Hotel in Manchester, and has essentially been charged with bringing a Michelin star back to the area – its first since the now Edinburgh-based chef, Paul Kitchin, vacated his former restaurant in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, back in 2008.

Sarah and I watched the BBC Restaurant Wars documentary with much interest.  Two British heavyweights in the form of Rogan (with head chef Adam Reid running the kitchen on a day-to-day basis) and Aiden Byrne (we visited Manchester House later), both have totally different styles, but share immense reputations and the same starry-eyed ambition.

The dining room at The French looked even more exquisite than it did on TV, in fact, almost like something from a fairy tale tinged with Rogan’s trademark Scandanavian furniture bringing a modern edge to this old lady.  You couldn't not admire the two globe chandeliers and the generous space given to each table.  It took me a while to convince myself a white linen tablecloth wouldn't have gone amiss, but I liked that in the end... this is the 21st century after all. 

The first thing I picked up on is the informal nature of the service, despite the grand setting suggesting a stuffier affair.  Waiting staff, lead by former L’Enclume maître d (Rogan’s two starred flagship eatery) Kamila Plonska, were chatty and attentive, giving the impression they fully believed in the quality of the experience and the L’Enclume philosophy.

We started with a complimentary glass of English sparkling wine, which was sublime and a real statement of British intent; a classy touch indeed. Opting for the six course taster menu (£59), our first course of celeriac with apple, rye, eel and lovage seemed to come in two parts, although I’m not sure that was intentional.  An oyster shell with a celeriac sort of cream placed to look like an oyster was perfectly seasoned, then came a delightful rye cracker with meaty chunks of smoked eel and a moussey substance that was in total harmony with the nutty cracker and smoky fish.

We selected a ridiculously good value Emiliana Riesling from Chile (£22) with the help of Kamila, which seamlessly took the baton on from that delicious English sparkling.  It's definitely a wine we’ll track down and buy.

Second plate was a proper delight:  Maran yolk with peas, beans, anise hyssop and broth of turnips. Maran is a breed of chicken hailing from the west of France, although I expect a British twist from Rogan somewhere.  It was sumptuous and just one of a millefeuille of flavours in this excellent dish.  The turnip broth was silky and earthy, the beans brought texture and freshness, and then came the yolky goodness topped off with an inspired note of aniseed.  Wow.

The next dish, Ox in coal oil with pumpkin seeds, kohlrabi and sunflower seed shoots, was probably the most anticipated and frequently talked about, although not always in a favourable sense.  But, it smashed it for me.  The meat was chunkier than a normal tartare, but this was anything but a normal tartare.  The Ox was rich, with the kohlabi bringing acidity and the seeds necessary crunch, the coal oil then comes into play and suddenly it erupted to taste like a barbeque dish.  Delightful.

At this point we had to pace ourselves as we had already devoured three little rolls each: one white, one brioche and, my favourite, a Manchester ale.  All so light I could have sent them across the room with one puff.  The slick service was also worth noting too, not just because of the professionalism of it, but because two of our young waiters were only 18 years of age.  Both were very clued up about not just this menu, but L’Enclume as well.  One of the pair (sorry lads, your names escape me) told me how he got the job after a successful work experience stint while studying hospitality at college and how he was proud to have gained a position at somewhere like The French.  Good on you kid.

That course would be hard to top I thought, but then again there was chicken skin in the next course. Accompanying that was caramelised cabbage with mussels, pickled mushrooms and arrow grass. The chicken skin was out of this world, but the mussels were even better.  I’ve never had mussels that tender as in all of my life; they literally melted on your tongue. The pickled mushrooms and cabbage worked in tandem to make sure this course was superbly balanced.  The dish also came paired with a little glass of sweet, fresh white wine, another class touch, which was exceptional, especially with the mussels.

So far so good… but to the next course we go: butter poached pollock with ox eye daisy spread, lobster, courgette and oxalis.  Little disappointed with this one, because the pollock was pretty bland and only just cooked, while the lobster was too rubbery for me.  The courgette flower was lovely but its bitter taste blitzed the flavour of the pollock in particular. Still, we ate it all. 

The penultimate course of Holker spring lamb, onion, blewits and sheep’s milk smelled amazing, and was a decent plate of grub.  I maybe would have liked another slice of the lamb, as one small slice seemed a little stingy, or perhaps I’m just being greedy as it was so delicious. I found the sweetbred component pleasing enough, but the batter could have been a tad crispier.  The onions provided a foil for the sweet lamb and sheep’s milk elements in what was a real master class in how to balance flavours and textures.

The dining room was full at this point, with a much younger clientele than I had imagined, but that’s encouraging to see as we came to dessert.  Cheshire rhubarb with chamomile, pineappleweed and gooseberry went down a treat: the pineapple came in meringue form and I enjoyed the sharpness of the gooseberries and rhubarb.  There was a little ginger bread crumble topping that just made the dish for me.  

As we polished off that sublime Riesling, our waiter brought as a post-dessert treat of Sarsaparilla, in the form of a little shot and a meringue with a parfait inside.  Outstanding little pudding and a fitting end to a super experience. 

This was a difficult to review because there was all sorts going on.  I’ve never eaten anywhere where the food had so many layers of flavour, all balanced with meticulous standards you’d expect from a Simon Rogan restaurant. The hospitality was first rate throughout and there was no hint of pretention to be found anywhere – credit to the team at this truly outstanding place.I have no doubts whatsoever that a star will shine brightly at this iconic hotel once again.  Different class. 

Email: infor@the-french.co.uk
Follow: @ThefrenchSR

Opening times: Lunch: Weds- Sat 12-13.30
                       Dinner: Tues-Sat, 18:30- 2100

16 July 2014

Review: A Room In Leith, Edinburgh

A Room In Leith moved across to the old Skippers Bistro building around a year ago. In fact, the last time I visited was on opening night. The paint was barely dry and staff were scrambling around in a semi-organised, chaotic fashion.  Serving ‘homely Scottish cooking’ I was particularly excited to dig into the array of Scottish seafood on offer.

Owners John and Peter are long established restaurateurs in Edinburgh. With pubs like Teuchters and Teuchters Landing on their roster, alongside the A Room In… concept, the pair proudly stock a famously extensive range of the finest beers and spirits available in the city. Located down on The Shore, the area itself offers a plethora of diverse dining spots; however, you only have to look at the recently closed Fatma’s to know competition is rife here.

To begin with, I ordered the Borders steak tartare with raw organic Dave Stoddart egg dressing (£8.50).  First impressions were positive as I admired the modern take on this French classic.  The beef was of obvious quality as I took my first mouthful, with the crunch of the croutons really making the dish.  All the components of a traditional tartare were there in some shape or form: sharp capers, the crunch and sweetness from the shallots, rich eggy goodness, diced gherkins, and the addition of the baby mint leaves that I particularly enjoyed.  Good start.

My girlfriend Sarah had been excited about the Loch Dunvegan langoustines with garlic butter (£12.50) since I showed her the menu last week, and thankfully, they did not disappoint.  Beautifully cooked, melt in the mouth morsels were met with a rich, garlicky butter in this simple, no nonsense starter that just lets the ingredient do the talking – the style of cooking I like.

The waitresses were very attentive and chirpy all evening and you could tell they were proud of their work when they received praise from a group of American tourists.

With starters devoured, mains were swiftly dispatched from the kitchen, with me opting for the grilled fillet of smoked Scrabster hake with Shetland king scallops, stir-fried samphire, chargrilled new potatoes with caper and cucumber salsa and a lemon mayo (£17).  The faint hint of smoke from the fish was masterful, and the execution equal to it. The combination of the salsa and samphire brought a salty, zingy, freshness that balanced perfectly with the smoky fish and brought texture to the plate.  Textbook cooking of the scallops would suggest a bit more caramelisation was required, but I like them cooked this way, and they were none the less delicious when mopped up with the lemon mayo. Great plate of food overall, although a bit of salt and pepper would have enhanced it further.

Our server next presented Sarah pan-friend monkfish medallions with Parma Ham and rosemary mash, confit shallots and garden pea veloute, priced at £18. Superb cooking of the fish yet again - the flavours were spot on.  The fresh, vibrant pea veloute was top drawer, but the dish cried out for a bit of crunch.

It always annoys me when you need to order a side to complete a dish and are charged three of four quid for a few measly pieces of whatever, so it was refreshing to see side orders for just £1.  We split the broccoli and sugar snaps option, both perfectly cooked and delicious, although perhaps not needed given the generosity of the portions.

Strawberry season is thankfully upon us, and A Room in Leith utilised the fruit in the form of iced Perthshire strawberry and ginger parfait with honeycomb and lime syrup (£5). I love the combo of strawberry (or raspberry) with ginger.  The warm, spice just works so well with the fresh fruit, and the cold parfait just cools it down, completing each mouthful.  The honeycomb was decent and gave both snap and sweetness, rounding off a great meal for me.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s dessert didn’t quite live up to mine.  She reports that the huge slab of banoffee pie (£5) was nice enough, but too creamy and the bananas were a little firm. However, the base was thin and tasty.

We left very impressed by A Room in Leith, I must say: The cooking was of an excellent standard throughout.  I also admire the way the menu proudly boasts the provenance of their ingredients, the subtext almost stating: “This is Scottish food given love and care – you’ll enjoy it”. A little more than homely Scottish fayre I’d suggest.

We drank a lovely Pinot Noir by Baron Philippe De Rothchild, 2012 (£19).

Open 7 days
Lunch: 12-2.30 (Mon-Fri)
           12-3.30 (Sat and Sun)
Dinner: 5.30-9.45

Web: www.aroomin.co.uk
Phone: 0131 225 2973

1a and 1c Dock Place,
Leith, Edinburgh,

a room in Leith and Teuchters Bar on Urbanspoon

10 July 2014

Recipe: Scottish heather honey parfait with summer berries and shortbread crumble

Scotland's climate means we produce some of the best soft fruit in the world. We also have some amazing apiaries currently experiencing a boom time due to the health benefits of heather honey; what better way to flaunt our produce than a wonderful summer pudding?

The berries are all grown in Fife, with the honey being produced in Dumphries and Galloway by John Mellis. The parfait is created by making a sabayon, but don't be afraid of the culinary jargon - it's reasonably straight forward. This dessert requires quite a bit of work, but is ideal for making in advance. I suddenly had the urge to make a sabayon-based dessert after catching up with Masterchef this week, and I'm sure Mr. Wallace would be a fan.


For the parfait:
150 mls Scottish heather honey
300 mls double cream
1 tbsp icing sugar
4 free-range egg yolks

For the crumble:

50g organic plain flour
60g unsalted butter
70g caster sugar
25g brown sugar

I used:
1 punnet of raspberries
1 punnet of blueberries
1 punnet of strawberries 
150g caster sugar
Good few dashes of lemon juice

Few mint leaves, julienned 


1) First make the parfait, as it needs to set.  For this, we make what is known in the culinary world as a sabayon - don't be afraid! Put the honey in a pot on a low heat to gently melt it.  Boil the kettle, and fill a medium-sized pot a quarter of the way up with boiling water.  

2) Next, take a glass bowl that fits securely on the pot. Place the eggs yolks in the bowl and continually whisk over the boiling water until the volume doubles in size and is almost a cream like consistency. You want to bring it to the ribbon stage - this is where the whisk leaves a trail behind it.  

3) Pour in the melted honey and fold through.  Now, using an electric mixer, whip the cream and icing sugar to stiff peaks. Gradually fold in the honey sabayon and then fill the desired mold with the mixture.  Place in the freezer.  This could be done days in advance.

4) For the crumble, mix all the ingredients together in a food processor, then squeeze into small lumps with your hands.  Wrap them in cling film and freeze for around 30 mins.  Get the oven on to around 150C at this point.

5) While waiting, removed the stalks from the strawberries and slice into quarters.  Place all the fruit in a bowl and mix through the sugar and lemon juice.  Leave in the fridge to macerate for around 45 mins.

6) Once frozen, blitz the crumble mix in a food processor.  Sprinkle the mix evenly on a baking mat to around the thickness of a 50p coin.  Bake for around 6 mins - you want a nice blonde colour, not golden. Allow to cool then then blitz to a rough crumb in a food processor. Again, this could be done a couple of days in advance, leaving little to do if entertaining.

7) Take half the berry mixture and blend in a food processor.  Pass through a fine sieve to ensure a smooth puree and set aside in the fridge.  This mix could also be churned into a cracking sorbet.  

8) Hard work done... time to plate.  Place a generous spoon of the crumble in the centre of the plate, turn out the parfait and place on top.  Dot around the berry coulis mix as shown and then mix some of it through the macerated berries.  Arrange the fruit around the parfait, and place the mint on top. Voila!

2 July 2014

Review: Bistro Moderne by Mark Greenaway, Edinburgh

IT IS FAIR to say that Mark Greenaway has a reputation for top-class desserts, innovative cooking and dishes that wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery.  The ever-busy chef’s latest venture, Bistro Moderne, offers “moderately priced, simple meals in a modest setting” so it would be interesting to see if this shift from his more accustomed fine-dining style could further enhance that reputation.

Opened on the site of the old Café Fish restaurant in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge area last year, Bistro Moderne vies for punters with a plethora of accomplished restaurants that rightly sees Stockbridge installed as a real gastronomic treat for anyone’s tastes. 

At one end, you have Michelin-starred Tom Kitchin and Dominic Jack’s gastropub, The Scran and Scallie, alongside newcomers Rollo and the reincarnated Raeburn Hotel.  While at the other end, there’s the immensely talented Paul Gunning’s Purslane, the well-established Stockbridge Restaurant just across the road, and old favourite Bell’s Diner all on Bistro Moderne’s doorstep. 

As temperatures soared and new graduates seemed to adorn every street in the city centre, Sarah and I toiled through the heat to sample Bistro Moderne’s offerings.  The dining room instantly had a much warmer feel and a more bustling atmosphere than when I visited under previous tenants, where it was a bit of an uninspiring space to say the least.

I was rather excited to sample the Parmesan ice cream component of the Aberdeen Angus beef carpaccio with anchovy crostini, rocket and watercress dressing (£9) dish. Sadly, my excitement was short lived as I tucked into my starter. I could see there was shavings of the cheese, but it wasn’t particularly cold, so  I promptly asked the waiter “wasn’t there ice cream with this?”  To my disappointment, he informed me the shavings were in fact the ice cream.  I can appreciate the novelty and imagination but really, if you’re going to put it on the menu as ice cream, give me a bloody dollop of the stuff. Perhaps influenced by a previous review from another critic led to this change; a shame Greenaway didn’t trust his convictions (if that is in fact the case).  The beef was lovely as well, but it did need seasoning – something the Parmesan should have added alongside the peppery greens.

On the opposite side of the table, Sarah’s rather pretty looking ham hock ballontine with quails egg, smoked pineapple and pea shoots (£8) was a cracking dish.  The expertly executed egg burst onto the tasty ballontine, with the pineapple espuma bringing a fruity tang showing modern techniques in the right hands can enhance a dish.

My fellow gastronaut Gavin had informed me the Scottish hake with carrot, razor clams, chowder, broad beans and chorizo (£15) was “a real triumph” after visiting last week, so I went for that.  The hake was replaced with sea trout, which was fine by me, and I’m pleased to say was done justice.  Crunchy skin like this is always a winner in my books, and the meaty flesh was welcomingly moist.  The chorizo brought a kick of heat and harmonised with the sublime carrot puree and trout, but while I can overlook the broad beans actually being peas, I can’t ignore that the razor clams were a tad on the tough side.  

The chowder came in the form of a foam, which, in my opinion, needs to be an 11 out of 10 to beat even a semi-decent traditional chowder – this attempt offered nothing bar a visual element to the dish, and I actually forgot it was there until I re-read the menu.  The generous side orders of buttered Jersey Royals (£3.50) were suitably buttery and a real highlight, but unfortunately, the razor clams dampened what could have been a top-notch dish.

Sarah ordered caramelised duck breast with watermelon, celeriac, sausage roll, braised salsify and thyme jus (£18). The duck perhaps could have been a little pinker Sarah thought, and would have liked crispier skin.  I thought the duck was tender enough and reasonably tasty.  We both enjoyed the combination of the watermelon with the meat, while the accompanying pomme purée (£3.50) was one of the best I’ve tasted. The salsify still had sufficient bite and the sharpness it brought was a welcome inclusion to this dish.  However, the sauce was a bit wishy washy and lacked the sheen and sumptuousness I’d expect at this level. The dish also would have benefited from whack of seasoning.

It’s worth noting that the standard of service was excellent when we got it, but I felt the front of house team were maybe a body short here.  There was maybe 25-30 diners on this occasion, catered for by two hard-working souls who never stopped. Perhaps the volume of graduations taking place in the city caught them out, but the amount of dirty glasses that peppered the bar and outside decking would certainly suggested a need for reinforcements. As it happens, the team were a member short because reinforcements were required at Restaurant Mark Greenaway - these things happen. 

Often great expectation leads to disappointment, and because of Greenaway’s aforementioned reputation expectations were high – and rightly so.  Consider that expectation now raised, as this pudding knocked it out of the park for me. I can’t think of a better way to spend £7 than on the chocolate and mint mousse tart, dark and white chocolate with crème fraiche parfait on offer here.  I cracked through a well-tempered white chocolate disk and scooped up a mouthful of light, but rich mousse that offered a wonderful bitter, dark chocolate flavour before a warm hum of minty goodness, all encased in a beautifully crafted, buttery pastry case.  
The key to this pudding is that it wasn’t too sweet and that parfait just completed this accomplished dish. Sublime.

I had resisted the appeal of the jam jar of rice pudding, raspberry compote and raspberry sorbet (£7), but thankfully Sarah couldn’t.  This was another exceptional dessert.  The rice pudding still had texture and was creamy, without being overly creamy.  The sweet, sharp compote layered in between cut through the rice pudding and the soothing sorbet polished off this memorable pud. 

At nearly £40 per head on food alone, Bistro Moderne is at the higher-end of Stockbride price scales; perhaps you would expect a little more in terms of value for money given the quality of the neighbouring competition, but the lasting memories of those desserts mean it is certainly worth a visit.

15 North West Circus Place, Edinburgh EH3 6SX
Email: bookings@bistromoderne.co.uk
Phone: 0131 225 4431 

Bistro Moderne on UrbanspoonOpen 7 days a week
Breakfast: 8 - 11am (Fri and Sat)
Breakfast: 9 - 12.00pm (Sun)
Lunch: 12 - 2.30pm
Dinner: 5.30 - 10pm
Sunday lunch and dinner: 12.00 - 9pm