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Monthly Archives: November 2012

Heston’s Fantastical Food / Dinner By Heston

This last week I have swum in both the deep and the shallow end of Heston Blumenthal’s pool. Lucky me, it was my birthday, and someone was kind enough to take me to Dinner by Heston, his restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge, London. I also saw two and a half episodes of Heston’s Fantastical Food, his new ‘vehicle’ for Channel 4. It seemed like a good idea to talk about them together.

The restaurant itself is as modish and moneyed as you’d expect from a five star hotel sitting literally in the shadow of One Hyde Park, the most expensive property development in the UK. You enter through a bar filled with the sort of Prada-bedecked people I’d personally emigrate to avoid, but the restaurant itself, warm and beautifully lit, is bray-free. Dark wood and blown glass. We don’t get to overlook the fabled kitchen like some tables, but I’d take our spot again with its night view of the park. The concept behind Dinner by Heston is taking archaic British dishes, each one lovingly cookbook-dated on the menu, and celebrating and updating the ideas with pernickity attention to detail. As Matthew Fort said in a rave review in the Guardian, “Dinner reclaims and reinvents our own cooking heritage, reinvigorating the tired and ordinary orthodoxies of traditional British cooking.”

Unfortunately, the tired and ordinary orthodoxies of TV don’t come in for the same treatment. The high-concept elevator pitch behind H.F.F. is this: “Heston makes giant food.” That’s it. It’s window-dressed with his usual tropes of nostalgia, childhood flavours, and magical imagination, plus a parade of Roald Dalhl-ian silliness. But none of these quite support the premise or justify the means. “I’m going to expensively make an enormous thing, enlisting local people and food technologists up and down the land, and entertain the people doing so.” The giant fry up, the giant ice cream, the giant pot of tea. The ‘why’ is never really gotten to. And that’s the problem. There is no reason for this programme to exist. There is no good reason for the scale of the stunts – the glib explanations given aren’t even remotely convincing. The justifications – basically, that it will fire the imaginations of children – aren’t really borne out by the footage.

Back to Dinner. We skip the signature ‘meat fruit‘, a classic bit of Blumenthal legerdemain, and I go for Roast Marrowbone (c.1720) with snails, parsley, anchovy, mace & pickled vegetables, while my companion has the Rice & Flesh (c.1390) with saffron, calf tail and a red wine reduction. The marrow and snails are a little oily and samey for me but the Rice & Flesh is extraordinary; like a British risotto rippling with meaty unctuousness. Not remotely French, let alone Italian. We move on to the mains, and both decide to go for the Battalia Pye (c.1660), a barrel hoop crust filled with sweetbreads, lamb tongue, devilled kidneys and little pigeon legs, plus a little boat of the richest, densest lamb gravy ever devised by man. This is a potent celebration of meaty English flavours. You feel greedier with every mouthful. This is a pie, that most utterly Anglo-Saxon container. A pie filled with offal – which could similarly describe the sort of four-for-a-pound jobs you can get from Iceland – and yet it screams with flavour and texture and technique. It’s gloriously nostalgic and robust, and yet refined to perfection. It’s entirely Heston.

When Heston gets his lab coat on, special things happen. Like Ferran Adria, he seems happier experimenting, tasting, thinking, perfecting. Unlike Adria, whose distinctly Catalan take on molecular gastronomy is flighty and theatrical with nods to the avant-garde, our boy constantly returns to his well-worn themes of nostalgia, the tastes of childhood, and synesthesia. The bits on H.F.F. where he gets in the ‘lab’ and relates his ideas and technique are easily the best sequences; he looks relaxed and entirely in his element. This being Channel 4 TV, these scenes are pared down to the bare fucking minimum, in favour of pedestrian vox pop wandering and bonhomie with the cast of characters required, a job he isn’t really that suited for – it strikes me that this might work better as a two-hander with someone else to knock about with the public. The tone is uneven as well – when he gets wacky with the sketchpad and starts to look like a clunky fusion of Harry Hill and Joe 90, you wonder if the man who created a restaurant once voted best in the world isn’t going through some kind of midlife crisis. Do you really need to be loved this badly?

Back at Dinner, we’re onto Pudding. I thought the mains were good, but these really seal it. I get brown bread ice cream (c.1830) with salted butter caramel, pear & malted yeast syrup. I’ve had many salted caramel things before, but nothing even close to this; the texture perfected, the crunch, the presentation, the slightly savoury tone balancing the utter malty sweetness. Just amazing. My companion has the taffety tart (c.1660) with apple, rose, fennel & vanilla ice cream, which works a parade of flavours effortlessly. We wait a little while for the ice cream trolley to work its way round the last few tables. This slightly incongruous flourish could have been invented by Heston’s agent. Basically, they make ice-cream in front of you using a rotund, waistcoated man, a hand-cranked, hand-made mixing machine, and liquid nitrogen throwing billowing clouds and drawing everyone’s attention; a seaside science show. There’s a touch of apple coulis in the cones, the nod to finer things. Then you roll your ice cream cone in your choice of toppings; I go for sugar-coated fennel seeds, which were delicious. The whole experience borders on kitsch – perfectly executed kitsch. For this closer, they charged us £8.50 each, but given the twenty minute post-dessert wait and the extra couple of glasses of wine we ordered because of that wait… Dinner was not cheap. But it was exceptional, and the finest expression of what the man is good at.

Back in TV land, a giant, unflavoured ice-cream weighing one tonne is prepared (twice) by experts and craned onto a waffle-coated steel structure. Then Heston and his lad-mag boys fire ‘flavour bombs’ at it with cannons and paintball guns. There is a ludicrous and lengthy preamble to all this where he attempts to make a giant cone out of the normal cone-stuff that will support the vast weight – when it is clear to the viewing public, as it must be to him, that such a thing is impossible and another solution must be found. He gloomily goes through with the TV convention anyway. One tonne of ice-cream in a public park, rapidly melting. There aren’t enough kids in the crowd to eat even a fraction of it. His imagination is rampant, but the vast expense and wastefulness of this programme, in the lingering tail of a recession, in a country where seven million tonnes of food are thrown away every year (to the point where the government has launched a campaign to reduce it) borders on the obscene.

Please. Heston. Stick with what you are excellent at. Refuse to compromise with the idiots who run the idiot box. Stay in the public eye. Stay on television, but show people about work and perfection and glorious English cookery. Don’t sell yourself short. You’ve done a great deal for food and food culture in this country. You don’t need to do rubbish like this too.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2012 in Channel 4, Dessert, Heston Blumenthal

 

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Diners, Donkeys and Diatribes

Restaurant openings by TV foodie types are often accompanied by the sharpening of knives over at The Papers but an imaginative review with all the right ingredients can sometimes be let down by the execution. The recent hammering given to Gregg’s newest venture by the Telegraph was probably deserved but the flavour was ruined by some noticeably laboured jokes.

Doing the rounds lately has been the New York Times’ furious kerb-stomping of the latest opening by the Food Network’s Guy Fieri. It’s a joy to read – a lengthy tasting menu of sustained disappointment, rage and disgust served up in bitchy bite-sized paragraphs

Diners, Drive-ins and Dives are Fieri’s domain and in his broadcasting job he tirelessly documents and demonstrates an American cuisine that’s grilled, smoked, deep fried and topped with melted cheese. His culinary empire includes the Tex Wasabi chain built especially for those who like the idea of sushi but wish it contained more brisket. This is a chef so Off. The. Hook. that he was Smash Mouth’s first choice when they needed a bro to cook some eggs.

All this makes him a fairly easy target for the refined critical palates of the NYT and there’s more than a hint of snobbery on display. The points are well-made though and, much as I love diners, burgers and BBQ, a 500-seater mega restaurant in Times Square strikes me more as a machine for raking in tourist dollars rather than an ideal place to experience the best in all-American cooking. If your restaurant can’t even get nachos right, what are you playing at?

 

plato is boring

So said Friedrich Nietzsche.  He also uttered the words: “A pair of powerful spectacles has sometimes sufficed to cure a person in love.”  This is certainly a more relevant comment for Masterchef Australia’s Alice, a delightfully kooky teacher looking to move into the culinary world.

In an America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) spin, the final ten are flown to a foreign land to forage for local ingredients, work a shift in a restaurant and cook for a legendary chef or two.  On a recent episode, their first task was to cook in the grounds of the beautiful Villa Aurelia (O RLY?) for non other than Massimo Bottura from the three Michellin starred Osteria Francescana.  Alice, quite frankly, lost it.  Not screaming, wobbly-legged nuts as greeted Jamie Oliver but our gal proper lip trembled her way through the introductions, teary eyed at meeting her food hero.  “There are heroes you meet and it’s a near religious experience.  To meet Massimo … it’s like meeting Nietzche!”  Bless.

Hipster glasses? Check. Ironic t-shirt? Check.

Alice and Wade did very well with their squid ink gnocchi and artichoke (Massimo: “ah, you’re thinking in monochrome – I LOVE IT!”) but Andy and Kylie fared less well with the coratella (Massimo: “hmmm, it’s not touching my soul”).   Read the rest of this entry »

 
 

STICKING OUR FACES IN IT

Here up on the eighth floor at BdGTTt Towers we don’t just snark and drool at the telly box – no, just occasionally we get out and about into the ‘real’ world. So this Sunday past me, Fanny and guest Brenda Cheesecake went on a blog outing (blouting?) to the heaving Good Food Show at London. Although, given how tied in with the telly box it turned out to be, this was an entirely appropriate day trip.

The immense Victorian shed that is the Olympia Exhibition Centre was packed to the gunwhales with stalls, people, and tasty samples. Real wonderland stuff, the full flowering of the home-and-garden wing of the British Food Revolution. Everywhere we looked, the ‘artisanal’, the ‘bespoke’, and the ‘all-natural’ beckoned.  Whitley Neill gin, orangey and exotic. Vestal elderberry liqeur. Mr Todiwalas pickles (Christ, these were good). Clonakilty black pudding. 9bar honeyish, yummy energy bars. Diablo’s curious toastie waffle irons (bakelite!). Sipsmith’s gin and vodkas. RealAle.com. The Artisan Smokehouse and their smoked oils which I can’t wait to try with some roast potatoes. The Garlic Farm plaits, The Cornish Cheese Company and whoever was doing the funny little beetroot candies that tasted a bit like the post-dessert thing they give you at The Square   …all got a lot of interest or a sale out of me. Upstairs was ‘The Wine Show’, where I was particularly taken with an Argentinian Torrentes from Cupari Wines. SALE. There was a ‘VIP section’ with some more serious dinners which didn’t look very VIP, like every temporary ‘VIP’ section ever installed, anywhere. Pleasingly, pretty much everything bar a couple of the sponsors were mostly small, independent stalls – you were usually talking to to the people who made whatever you were gulleting. Big Food mostly kept its nose out.

But that was only the half of it. There was a (ta da!) MasterChef ‘pod’ where all our favourites banged a few pans and smiled for the audience. We caught a glimpse of Ash Mair (MC Professionals winner 2011) doing his stuff (isn’t he busy with his new restaurant?), and watched Shelina (MC winner 2012, lest you need reminding) bang together a red snapper dish with crab courgette flowers with the usual Mauritian seasonings and a couple of great tips about not letting fish curl. The ‘pod’ was MC’d by James Nathan (MC winner 2008), who asked Shelina how her post-MC career was going with just a hint… just the tiniest hint, of…. what’s that?…. hmmm… anyway, Shelina explained what she was doing with her hotly-awaited new cookbook and her cookery school as James explained that he’d been cutting fish for Rick Stein for the past couple of years. Such is the way of things.

Anyway, all that was just a warm up for the special event in the kitchen-equipped ‘Supertheatre’ out back. We take our assigned seats (this was an extra fiver) and even get a warm-up man. We missed Hollywood & Berry on Friday, but on Sunday we get Wallace & Torode’s Laughter Show. They dance on their entrance! They hug! They banter! They tell us they actually met fifteen years ago, but have been working together for only eight! John cooks fillet steaks with plenty of excellent tips (beef being, of course, his chosen specialised subject) while Greg bangs out some Turkish-ish biscuits with enough ‘sweethearts’, ‘darlin’s’ and ‘angels’ to pad an entire Eastenders story cycle. The visibly lighter Mr. Wallace informs us that he’s lost two stone, but doesn’t tell us why. Both of them seem to be actually enjoying themselves. First class family entertainment, anyway.

We wander out, and Fanny squeals at the sight of Michel Roux Jr. just walking about, like a normal person! Anyway, there’s more things to nibble on, and plenty more to see (we don’t even get round everything in several hours). A cynical person could survey this temple and see a lot of middle-class people gorging themselves on free Yakults and pickles like Daily Mail Roman emperors, being sold to, indifferent to the wider problems of British food. Theatre. Entertainment. Bread and circuses. There’s some truth to that. But there was also a sense of possibility and connection and inspiration that I hadn’t seen at similar things previously. A sense of joy, actually. Food in Britain. Everything you need.

Afterwards, we repaired to the nearby Cumberland Arms which managed to serve me the best pub roast I have ever eaten, and I’ve eaten a lot. Well done.

 

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