Tuesday 28 February 2012

Fraiche – Valentine’s Day

Regular readers of my blog will know that I love Marc Wilkinson’s Fraiche in Oxton (not Birkenhead) on the Wirral. You may even know that I love my wife, jokingly referred to recently as ‘The Hungry Mare’ (which I promised I wouldn’t mention here).

Of course, in private I tell her that I love her every day but, commercial baloney as it may be, Valentine’s Day is the one day of the year when it’s ‘acceptable’ to make a public show of such affections.

As someone who, usually down to laziness, eats out a lot throughout the year, Valentine’s Day is a time when I traditionally make an extra special effort to plan and cook a romantic meal at home – one year, I remember making Hakkasan’s salmon and seabass in Champagne sauce that went down a treat.

A typical restaurant at Valentines seems to think that a Rosé prosecco cocktail on arrival, a couple of red balloons and some table confetti is reason enough to charge a premium. Occasionally they may also go to the trouble of planning a menu that is likely to include tomatoes because someone has told the chef that they are also called love apples.

For this reason, my wife and I usually avoid restaurants each year on the 14th February. This year, however, my eagle-eyed wife spotted a tweet by @marcatfraice saying that a rare cancellation had became available at Fraiche. For us, along with dining under the stars on the cliff tops in Jamaica and on a tropical beach in Bali, Fraiche is undoubtedly one of the most romantic of place we have eaten.

The sense of calm, harmony, luxury and indulgence that permeates Fraiche’s dining room; along with the feeling of enjoying being somewhere so special together, has thus far been unmatched by any other restaurant experience. Knowing the amount of time, imagination and passion that Marc always puts into his menus, I had every confidence that his Valentine’s Menu would be nothing less than exemplary.

Alongside the usual spiced pecan appetiser was we were excited to see a heart shaped tin containing ‘Couple’s Trivia’ – great idea, but we did almost fall out when I didn’t know my wife’s eye colour… all I know, is they are beautiful; the colour is immaterial. Save! (Guys, another top tip: If your partner catches you checking out someone else, just say, “I picked you because you are the most beautiful girl in the world; I’m just looking to make sure that’s still the case)

We were then presented with an envelope and a gift box. The envelope contained a Valentine’s card with the evening’s menu and a greeting from Marc and the team wishing us a wonderful evening. The menu was imaginatively created to chart the course of a relationship.

The gift box contained the first of the evening’s enticements, presented as ‘Temptation’; an alluring salted berry chocolate - rich and silky smooth with zingy fruit notes.

Leading us further into temptation (but in no way delivering us from evil), when we saw James carry the familiar wooden boxes set with pebbles, we assumed we were about to receive a familiar oyster leaf. We were, but instead of being paired with a champagne or sea buckthorn ‘dew’ as on previous occasions, this time, served on beautiful mother of pearl spoons were treated to some heavenly Ebène Caviar (from www.finefrenchcaviar.co.uk).

Of course a dish like this does not show off Marc’s skills as a chef but it does highlight his commitment in wanting to provide guests with a truly memorable experience by sharing the best ingredients available.

By the time the squid ink crisps and poppy seed biscuits arrived, the temptation was complete. We were ensnared and ready to pucker up for ‘The Kiss’

It was Mae West who inspired Salvador Dalí’s famous ‘Lips Sofa’, she once said, ‘A man's kiss is his signature’ and Marc’s Dalíesque creation smacks of being a future signature dish. Michelin starred food often looks too good to eat, but rarely do you want to kiss it.

The cherry red lips were presented as ‘Virgin Mary lips’ but we were given the option via an atomiser of vodka to make them into ‘Bloody Mary lips’. Mae West also said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” - in homage to her, so did we!

Opposites Attract’ was constructed from four main flavours: potato, coffee, almond and Montgomery Cheddar. I know what you are thinking, ‘That sounds so wrong!’ or ‘Soooo wrong!!!’ if you are down wid’ da kidz; but note the title… it actually worked - pure alchemy!

Breads, consisting of cheese, five nut, mixed seed and as always, my favourite, granary and treacle.

Next up, ‘Nature’ - the star of this dish was undoubtedly a wonderful quality Langoustine barbecued in one of the in-vogue Kamado style ‘Green Eggs’. Completing the dish buttermilk, ‘coal’ and tomato ‘powder’ encrusted avocado.

Entitled ‘The Fallout?’ the next dish featured pain d'épices coated Foie Gras with a vanilla infused apple soup, shards of apple and a white port jelly. I don’t know why it as called the fall out, maybe because opinions are divided over foie gras? In mine and my wife’s case, our opinion was united – we loved it!

More breads, consisting of organic oat, tomato, mushroom and, my pick of the bunch, black olive. Alongside the breads a sealed bag containing cocoa nibs and an onion with the information that all would be revealed later… most intriguing.

As James presented the ‘Purity’ he informed us that if we managed to correctly guess the ingredients then Marc had an extra course in store. Using a bit of knowledge about what white fish were in season, I correctly identified the brill and the accompanying fennel. For the delicious ‘jam’, expecting something unusual, I guessed at loganberries but I should’ve known that Marc is more creative than that – it was actually made from red grapes, flavoured with tamarind and rose water.

Harmony’ is defined on dictionary.com as a consistent, orderly, or pleasing arrangement of parts; congruity. The following two courses harmoniously showcased the guinea fowl in such a sensitive and exquisite way.

The first dish starred the guinea fowl breast, which having been sous vide for four hours was caressingly tender – complemented by a crisp made from the guinea fowl’s skin; an artichoke cream; shallot and a delectable shaving of truffle.

The second dish starred the guinea fowl thigh, with Girolles, a potato crisp and an adorable jus made from Cèpe and the remainder of the fowl. Whilst the texture of the breast was heavenly, the thigh dish was the most pleasing overall – as an ‘arrangement of parts’ the use of the same bird for two dishes was a wonderful and inventive demonstration of ‘harmony.’

The Fraiche Cheese Chariot is something to behold and the condiment selection, second to none. Every time we visit there always seems to be a quality artisan cheese that we have not tried before; this time the goat’s cheese Taupiniere (meaning mole hill) was one such example - stronger and more pungent than many goats’ cheeses but still very fresh tasting with a silky smooth finish and subtle acidity. The Chevre St Maure was wonderfully ripe and also exceptional.

Last time we visited, I commented that I would have liked to have seen more hard cheeses on the board and was pleased to taste a quality Comté and a full flavoured Montgomery's
 Extra Mature (18 Months) Cheddar. This time I selected three blue cheeses to compare; my preference in order being the Bleu d'Basque, Bleu d’Gex and then the Bleu d'Auvergne.

After the cheeses ‘Comfort’ ensued - the first sweet treat being an old Fraiche palate cleansing favourite of ours, Fizzy Grapes. Remember the onion? It was a clever reference to the ‘Valentine’ poem by Carol Ann Duffy.

Ready to go on a fork, the next tasty surprise was entitled ‘Apple Pie’ – an amazing full on burst of apple pie flavour in one ‘marshmallowy’ bite.

A refreshing yoghurt mousse and mint sorbet studded with fresh blueberries and golden rice crispies.

A welcome return for the Chocolate Cake with ‘Apricot Toothpaste’ – last time, in my excitement, I popped this in whole; this time I took my time and savoured the chocolaty flavour and blissful lightness of the sponge.

The main dessert of the evening was stunning; Chocolate soil, green tea meringue, milk crumb, Brazil nut brittle, chocolate mousse and apricot sorbet – a flawless and magnificent mix of flavours, techniques and texture.

Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know that I love Fraiche’s usual pre-dessert of lemongrass panna cotta with sour cherry. Just when I thought we’d missed out tonight, cupid struck up his bow and fired a quiver full of delicious petite madeleines with the sour cherry used as a dip – cherubic!

We finished the meal with a delicate Mount Fuji Sencha Green Tea and petit fours. A lovely end to the perfect Valentine’s Day meal conceived, created and served with love and passion by Marc and the team at Fraiche.

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Saturday 25 February 2012

L’Enclume - Feb, 2012

According to many sources (I Googled it) the most popular New Year’s Resolutions include such fun activities as: getting into shape; organising time better; eating healthier; becoming more environmentally conscious and learning a new skill.

What I like about Google is that if you search long enough (selectively overlooking anything that doesn’t fit with your exact way of thinking) you’ll eventually come across something to back up your own thoughts and opinions – with that in mind, some of the top resolutions are: take a trip, eat properly and enjoy life more!

By ‘properly’, I assume they mean at the world’s finest restaurants… so in an attempt to kill three birds with one stone, I have booked a trip to Paris (via Singapore) for this April.

In December, I started posting a ‘run down’ of my Hungry Hoss Top Ten. Conscious of the fact that I have not yet written about the ‘top three’ and hopeful that I may have to change the list post Paris – it’s about time that I cracked on and finished the blogs.

So, in at three: with five AA rosettes to its name – the UKs 2nd Best Restaurant according to the 2012 Good Food Guide, culinary alchemist Simon Rogan’s increasingly popular, most spectacular, exemplar of all things molecular – the stellar L’Enclume.

Having visited L’Enclume several times over the years, I have followed its development with interest - it started out as a French restaurant with a French name, meaning ‘The Anvil’ (aptly named for a restaurant housed in a space formerly occupied by a thirteenth century blacksmith); French people, front of house and many fine French ingredients on the menu, used to create food with a distinctive French flair.

As Simon and his team grew and experimented, they started to plough their own furrow (literally). Slowly the restaurant became more and more Anglicised. For a while, L’Enclume operated with dual nationality as they began to discover and use an increasing variety of the phenomenal produce found on their Cumbrian doorstep.

Over the years however, L’Enclume has almost entirely shrugged off its Gallic roots. The name remains, some of the French front of house staff remain but set in the charming picture box village of Cartmel, the restaurant is now ‘as English as apple pie’ or more fittingly, ‘as English as sticky toffee pudding.’

At L’Enclume, inventive cooking reigns - their philosophy of using Britain’s finest, most obscure, heritage and foraged ingredients results in food as unique as it is special. Much of the food served is grown and raised on their own farm, sourced from the local area or from artisan suppliers throughout the UK and Ireland.

You may have heard the Southampton born chef being referred to as a ‘mad professor’ but at times it seems unclear if Simon is ‘Dr. Frankenstein’ having grown the monstrous, gastronomous empire that now includes L’Enclume, Rogan and Co, Aulis, his Cumbrian Farm and London’s Roganic.

Or, meant with the greatest respect, that he is the ‘Roganstein monster’ created from the chefs he trained under in Jean-Christophe Novelli, John Burton-Race and Marco Pierre White; fused in his Aulis laboratory with the essence of Heston and Redzepi and enriched on his farm through some kind of organic osmosis with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall like qualities.

As a certified devote of Michelin, I’m not one to knock or judge what they do or say, but you will hear time and time again, that surely L’Enclume is worthy of more than one star? I have eaten at a number of two and three star places around the world and would, without hesitation, claim that Simon Rogan’s cuisine is beyond ‘excellent’ and ‘worth a detour’ that should qualify for two-starred status.

Stay at L'Enclume House (alongside Rogan & Co) in the village 

I could go on gushing, telling you about how wonderful the dining room is, with it’s white washed walls, beams and rustic charms; and about idyllic the setting of picturesque Cartmel; and how charming the rooms that they have dotted around the village are (we like to stay in ‘The Bradshaw), but before I completely strip my thesaurus of its superlatives, I better tell you something about the food.

My wife and I visited back in October, along with my parents who were over from Spain. We selected the £89 twelve-course ‘Menu 2’ (the other options being the eight coursed Menu 1 for £69 or Menu 3, featuring twelve vegetarian courses for £89).

After some delightful Duck Scratchings the first amuse bouche was a Stichleton Sablé with a silky, smooth Avocado Crème topped with Dried Raspberry.

Beetroot and Mozzarella, celery and dill – served in ceramic sacks, a wonderful concoction featuring a beetroot meringue and mouse, celery and dill gel, topped with iced mozzarella studded with delicate dill flowers.

Cod ‘yolks’ and garlic, crispy salt and vinegar – a smooth rich cod mouse with tantalising hints of turmeric and saffron.

Bread – featuring a spelt, unbleached wheat flour and phenomenally good pumpernickel rolls.

English truffle pudding in truffle broth, puffed barley and onions – perfection. Since rediscovering pearl barley last year

Raw scallop, sea herb and sorrel granita – Heartsease flowers with their sweet wintergreen flavour are a favourite of mine (and my chickens) but what amazes me with this dish is, despite the fact that I am used to eating scallop Sashimi in Japanese cuisine, here Simon, to coin an oft-used phrase from X-Factor type shows ‘made it his own’ – a splendid sample of Roganese cuisine.

Jerusalem artichokes, Ragstone, tarragon, malt – If the previous dish was merely a sample of Roganese cuisine, the artichoke dish could be considered an archetypal example - a crème made from a quality artisan cheese in the form of Neal’s Yard’s Ragstone synergising with fancy pants techniques used to make the tarragon oil, malt soil and crisp shards of Jerusalem artichoke skin.

Simon’s maverick cooking style is not always going to hit the spot with everyone - it’s interesting how peoples’ tastes and opinions differ, with the next ‘carrot’ course, my father pulled a face; my wife pulled a face, but for me it was the dish of the evening – the bonus being I got to eat three portions.

Carrots and milk skin, fried bread and pork scratchings – Lifted by the salty crunch of pork scratchings (nothing like Mr. Porky’s) and fried bread, a wonderfully sweet milk ‘skin’, harmonising perfectly with grapeseed oil and the carrotiest carrots I have ever tasted.

Royal Kidney cooked in chicken fat, crab and horseradish – a big fan of offal, my dad was especially looking forward to the next dish and was initially disappointed when I informed him that ‘Royal Kidneys’ were actually a type of waxy ‘heritage’ potato. With a nuttier flavour than their Jersey relatives and cooked to perfection is the rich chicken stock, he was soon won over.

Roasted monkfish in our spices, parsnip and watercress – another bold and dramatic looking dish with flavours to back it up. Subtly spiced monkfish, discs of parsnip, a vibrant watercress purée and delicious Girolles – heavenly.

Shorthorn short ribs cooked for 72 hours, smoked marrow and butternut – ribs sous vide for 72 are going to be nothing short of meltingly tender but for me, the sweet sherry flavour, thin sheets of squash and rich smoky marrow were the real stars of the dish.

Cheese course – as I said previously, I have visited L’Enclume several times over the last few years and the supplementary cheese chariot has always been a highlight. It’s here that I first tasted Époisses de Bourgogne, which became a favourite. Now, supplied by the exquisite “Cartmel Cheeses” that has opened in the village, the cheese selection features some of the finest cheeses from the UK and Ireland, in line with their principles of predominantly using British produce. My selection: Harbourne Blue, Berkswell, Keen’s Cheddar, Ragstone and the Irish Ardrahan and Milleens.

Chestnut, honey oats, anise hyssop, apple – a refreshing dish with the palate cleaning qualities of anise hyssop and beautifully compressed cubes of apple.

Coniston oatmeal stout ice cream, liqourice and sea buckthorn – having previously disliked stout ice cream and not being a fan of liqourice, I wasn’t looking forward to this dish. I even considered asking for it to be swapped with the ‘Blackberries and honey cake, opal plum ice’ or ‘Quince with buttermilk, iced and crispy damson, sweet brackens and rosehips’ that were listed on the eight course menu, but I also believe in giving things a second go and I’m glad I did - total synergy between the two flavours with the tartness of the sea buckthorn.

Sweet cheese with walnut, gooseberry, Douglas fir – another dish, simple in its presentation but constructed with carefully selected and treated ingredients to create wonderful textures and balance of flavours with creamy cheese, tart gooseberry with a fresh subtle lemony, fresh flavour which I assume came either from the cheese or Douglas fir.  

Raspberry meringue with white chocolate and an anise hyssop milkshake – another tasty surprise at the end of a memorable meal.

With each year at L’Enclume better than the last, 2012 has already seen the opening of their Aulis Research and Development kitchen for ‘a unique dining experience’ that I can’t wait to taste for myself.   

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