30 August 2011

du Vin Value Meal

Hotel du Vin Bistro offers good value with its £35 Food for thought deal for two

Exhausted from a weekend of entertaining and cooking for guests, the Henley Henley Hotel du Vin's offer of £35 for 2 courses, including a bottle of wine and coffee for two people seemed like a great option for dinner.

Henley on Thames now has numerous cafe's, bars and restaurants most of which offer some kind of deal during the week. Pizza Express, Zizzi, Cafe Rouge, Brasserie Gerard, all the chains are working hard to build and retain custom. Hotel du Vin is no different in many ways, however it does provide a much nicer ambience and sophisticated atmosphere in its Henley Bistro, while the food in the limited Food For Thought menu is mainly a cut above the average.

In a surprisingly full dining room for a Bank Holiday Monday evening, service was still attentive, though slightly unctious from the sommelier, despite our choice of the 'deal' option. This restricted menu with four starters, mains and puddings still has a nice range including Vichssoise and Moule Marineres as starters and Onglet Steak and Risotto amongst the mains.

My Chicken Liver Salad had soft, tender livers with a light balsamic sauce while the Smoked Mackrel Tian and Potato Salad was very rich, packing a proper fishy punch. A main of Grilled Hake with Curly Kale was overcooked and lacked any sauce, making it dry and bland, though the application of lemon juice helped. It's vapid smear of something brown and sauce like on the plate wasnt enough. A good, simple butter and lemon sauce and properly cooked fish would have improved the dish out of all proportion. On the other hand Sausage and Mash boasted two fat herb filled pork bangers with creamy mash and a rich gravy that barely touched the sides.

The House Merlot was perfectly palatable and despite some confusion over a side dish of Green Beans that were replaced, unasked for by Brocolli (any one who knows me would know that I would never ask for Brocolli) and an espresso that apparently isn't the coffee they mean when they say coffee included, it all represents great value for money, especially in comparison to Pizza Express, Zizzi and the others, where the wine can be both poor and expensive, even in the meal deals.

New Riverfront Cafe
The old Henley Tea Rooms, on the riverside in Henley has been taken over and transformed into The Chocolate Theatre Cafe. A picture window into the kitchen is supposed to provide a view onto the chocolate making process while pale green decor, a few comfortable sofas and chairs plus a plethora of cafe tables, make it a comfortable and friendly room. More expensive for coffee and a pastry than Cafe Nero with coffee not as rich and well presented as Hot Gossip in Friday St. nevertheless it is a welcoming place to be. I'll pop in again for lunch one day and report back.

15 August 2011

Wilderness Festival

Music, Food & Swimming

Charlbury is a pretty little village just outside Woodstock in Oxfordshire, it happens to be home to the vast estate of Cornbury Park where over the weekend the first Wilderness Festival took place.

What is known I believe as a “boutique” festival, i.e. it’s fairly small and not overrun with pissed teenagers, Wilderness had a compelling mix of music, food, discussion, workshops and a lake to swim in! Highlights on the main stage were Gogol Bordello’s gypsy punk, Mercury Rev’s complete run through of Deserter’s Song, the beauty of Laura Marling’s voice and the low-fi sweetness of the Low Anthem.
But it was the unexpected that sticks most in the memory: French 3 piece We Were Evergreen on a tiny outside stage under an Oak tree playing pop/folk tunes to the delight of everyone seated on the grass around them; coming across a crooning reggae singer at 2a.m. on an even tinier stage outside, on the hill above the lake making the small crowd smile and dance; a choir singing Beatles tunes, a honky tonk piano amongst hay bales in the middle of the site; an hilarious cricket match complete with Test Match Special spoof commentary.
Lucky enough to be friends with the couple who live in the gatehouse we camped outside their house with 12 other friends, enjoying bacon sarnies each morning, washed down with Rum & Coke. With access to the grounds of the estate, Russell our host was kind enough to provide a taxi service practically to the main stage. In fact at one point Mandy and I became terribly confused when we found ourselves backstage, able to join in with Gogol Bordello if we’d wished!

Amongst this weekend of highlights was the wonderful idea of having a feast each day, provided by a first rate restaurant. Friday was Thomas Hunt, Saturday, Moro and Sunday, Michelin Star Skye Gyngell of Petersham Nurseries. Mass catering, for 300 odd people (that’s odd in both senses, it is a festival after all) can be difficult as I’ve mentioned before, but when you have a reputation for excellence it really does get put on the line. Petersham Nurseries however don’t need to worry. This was one of the most enjoyable and memorable meals, with unexpected twists, just like the rest of the festival, in interesting company and all with the sound of the Guillemots playing in the background.
Sharing plates while sitting on hay bales, Parma ham on melon with feta and rose syrup not only looked beautiful, with rose petals scattered on the dish, but tasted of a Mediterranean summer. A very good Buffalo Mozzarella with finely sliced courgette and dried chilli cleansed and pleased in equal measure. Then while discussing the best places to live in London whole grilled sea bass with aioli arrived, looking impressive, to be followed by chunks of sirloin with horseradish and chimmichurri sauces. The steak was perfect, the fish delightful. In fact all the dishes were delightful, especially in the context of the occasion.

Nice too at a festival to have a good bottle of wine, a Spanish Verdeho, and to throw in a surprise at the end with some salty pecorino drizzled with honey.
Wilderness is a lovely festival, great bands, quirky stages, plenty to do and an excellent banquet.  Great food and music seem to go together it would be great to see more of this initiative at other small festivals.

Join the Caravan

Small plates of pleasure in London’s Exmouth Market

Working in Farringdon over 20 years ago I used to pay the occasional visit to Exmouth Market, especially when a greasy spoon was called for. This was in the days before The Eagle, around the corner, created the gastro pub, when the Quality Chop House on Farringdon Road was in sad decline and the best thing in the market was a fabulous little off-license selling very old single malts and Polish Bison Grass vodka. Since those drab days Exmouth Market, alongside its neighbours in Clerkenwell, Smithfield and Farringdon have been transformed. Twee furniture boutiques, shops that sell hand crafted greetings cards and of course restaurants now dominate the street.

Sam & Sam Clark’s Moro is largely responsible for the Exmouth dining transformation, towing other entrepreneurial restaurateurs in its wake. One of the latest is Caravan. Describing itself as a cafe, bar and coffee roastery, the premises sit on the corner of Exmouth Market and Farringdon Rd, and on a warm summer’s evening, make a superb early dining location prior to a trip to Sadler’s Wells a few minutes away. Tables spill onto the street, large bi-fold doors expose a clean efficient but warm dining room with cheerful, friendly and heavily tattooed staff (as is the modern way). Sitting outside amongst the trendy bustle of the street with a menu combining dishes and flavours from around the world our party of five chose a selection of small plates.

Amongst the excellent were Aubergine and Onion Bhaji, Tomato Jam and Yoghurt; soft, warm, slightly spicy. Delightfully salted, very tiny Sichuan Pepper Baby Squid had me elbowing my friends out of the way to mop up the last few. Serrano Ham came with smoked almonds, ginger wine figs, and the richest spicy La Bandiera olive oil, the whole dish melting with sweet, salty combinations. Those dishes that were still well executed yet not particularly memorable were the enticing sounding Deep-Fried Duck Egg, Capers, Olives and Anchovy Toast, a good rich egg but the olives and toast didn’t add much. A gypsy bun filled with Hoisin Lamb was pleasant as was the grilled tomatillo, feta, chilli, kikones and cumin. (Kikones by the way are salted corn kernels).

What made us all smile, apart from the sweet Camden Town Brewery beer and a lovely Pinot Blanc was the melt in the mouth Braised Beef Cheek with rich Espresso Mole sauce, Rosemary, Polenta and Plantain; the incredibly affable service, beautiful big bright green olives and quite remarkably lovely Cornbread.
Caravan 11-13 Exmouth Market, London EC1R 4QD
Tel: 0208 78338115

Dancing Fela lacks the Afrobeat

 Fela has been much praised and garlanded with awards and I can see why. Lively, colourful, a mixture of music, dance and politics, Fela tells the story of Fela Kuti, Nigerian  Afrobeat pioneer, polygamist and thorn in the side of the ruling regime. There is an awful lot of fantastic dancing. There is not enough of the music. Snatches of songs played by a superb band, tease the audience prior to dancing erupting once more. Frankly its a bit exhausting. I know its Sadlers Wells but songs like Zombie deserve to be heard in full, especially when leading man Adesola Osakalumi is so compelling as Fela.