05 May, 2008
two great restaurants
We've been taking a couple of breaks from the endless list of details that is The Moving Process (why are activities called "processes" always unpleasant: "recovery," "grieving," "healing"... no one really wants to do any of them). But between buying a new laundry basket, deciding where the litter boxes will go, giving away yet more clothing, toys and electronic items, and pretty much constant wrangling over which sofa we like, we've had a couple of amazing restaurant experiences that I want to tell you about.
Our good friends and neighbors Andrew and Laura have been trying to get us to go out to eat ever since we had them here for Thanksgiving in November, so I suppose it's slightly pathetic that it's taken until May to find an evening! But Wednesday saw us trooping together in the rain toward La Petite Maison here in Mayfair, in Brooks Mews behind Claridge's, and boy was it worth the wait. The place opened in July to much fanfare, but such is my experience of the big city that I have never even heard of it, and it's right around the corner from my house! I am such a stick in the mud. Thank goodness for friends, to get you out of the kitchen. The signature dish must be ordered UPON your arrival, as it takes upwards of an hour to cook and they don't start till you order it. French black leg chicken, whole, cooked with an enormous knob of... wait for it... foie gras, along with some crusty croutons of baguette in the roasting pan, soaking up the butter and chicken juices. Now, as divine as this was, and it was, I am going to be brave and say that I think my method of slow braising chicken in a tightly sealed container might be the better way to go, rather than roasting, as the chicken was slightly dry, although very flavoursome. The question would be: how to prepare the foie gras in that case, as I'm sure what made it so wonderful was its proximity to the juices that emanate from a roasting chicken, as opposed to the more liquidy environment of braising.
I plan to experiment at some point and I will report on the results. Maybe it's a matter of taking the lid off the braising casserole a half hour or so from the end and letting things sizzle, also maybe raising the cooking temp at the end? I don't know exactly, but I fear copious amounts of butter are involved. We had such a good time. It's rare for us to hang out with people who don't have small children (theirs are long grown and producing grandchildren by now), and let me tell you, it raises the conversation level some! Our friend Vincent is always moaning at his dinner parties. "Here I have a foremost expert on 19th century French art, several of the best architects in London, a former successful investment banker, a famous entrepreneur, and you're talking about... SCHOOL UNIFORMS!" True enough, we do. Or how high is too high for a fever, or what school our children aspire to attend. Boring!
So the four of us tucked into first our starters (divine tempura courgette flowers, and my personal favorite, thinly sliced raw scallops sprinkled with snipped chives, chili peppers and flaked almonds, drizzled with olive oil and lime juice), and we talked.. politics. They had been with John at an Obama fundraiser last week and so we had a very energetic (if somewhat depressing) discussion of the future of American politics. It was wonderful to stretch my brain, remember things I had read in the paper that had nothing to do with beetroot or pesto or the best books on explaining puberty to one's child. Honestly, my mind is about as flexible as a ruler these days. But we had a wonderful, wonderful time. I envision a reunion of this apartment building in our new kitchen, about five minutes after we move in. "Foie gras three ways?" John joked. Maybe!
Then today we repaired for lunch to the venerable J. Sheekeys just off Charing Cross Road, near St Martin in the Fields, which has undergone an enormously expensive renovation lately. We picked Avery up from Anna's where she had spent the night (with poor Becky slaving over the dirty clothes of Avery's brought back from Normandy and mysteriously stuck in Anna's luggage!). I must digress and say that this batch of dirty clothes emerging from Avery's bags is simply the most disgusting chore I have ever taken on. Worse than a child with stomach flu, because it goes on for days, not just 24 hours. The smell? I can't describe it: well, I'll try. There are notes of sewage, with an aftertaste of dog poo, and overtones of boxwood, or something other noxious plant. "What on earth did you DO, Avery?" I asked in some mystification. "We rolled in mud. Smelly, smelly mud." It is not for me to ask why.
But anyway, we arrived at J. Sheekeys and were greeted, seated and tended to by an endless parade of deferential, lovely men who treated Avery quite as another adult, which I love. We made the mistake we nearly always make of having Avery and me each order the same thing, when in the back of my mind I knew we should share. Sure enough, minor consternation when it was evident that she would eat... half of her fried haddock and chips, and so did I. But John knows what he's having for lunch tomorrow, anyway! The fish was incredibly fresh and the batter light and delectable, but I must take issue with the chips which were completely forgettable. Rather limp, not hot, not charming. But the first helping of so-called "mushy peas" that has ever tempted me to lift my fork and try some, and they were lovely! I don't love the flavr of peas, but I was happy to see that "mushy peas" means just that: no scary ingredients, not a bad pea to begin with, just lovely new sweet peas that have been... mushed up. Why this is a cherished English tradition I do not know, why they don't merely serve them whole? But it proves that traditions are good when they are good. We'll be back, and for something more adventurous than fish and chips. My starter was incredible: crab pate, with a slick of potting butter on top and a very nice kick of chillies in there somewhere. Lovely.
This has all been gorgeous, but it's basically a distraction from trying to furnish the house and yet leave some money for Avery to go to school. After much wrangling on both our sides, and visiting a (to me) endless array of antique shops and auction houses (John would not say it took very long, but then he loves furniture), we have chosen a wonderful 1940s French leather sofa with two not-quite-matching chairs! And to go underneath, yesterday we got a very impressive (but not expensive!) HUGE Persian antique rug, at Lots Road Auction House. And a sweet little red, blue and green really worn-out runner for the entry hall. When we picked them up today, the auctioneer assured John, about the big rug, "You got the bargain of the day, sir. There are only about 10 looms in the world that can produce a rug this size, you could easily have paid 10 times what you did." As John was gloating over his incredible perspicacity when it comes to rug bargains, the auctioneer continued, "And you also got the biggest ripoff of the day. That runner is crap."
Ah well. You can't win them all. So we struggled up the steps to the reception room with the rug and it fits... just barely! Literally an inch on either side to spare. But it just glows, with appreciation more than anything, at having been rescued from the auction house where it suffered in silence being trodden on, picked at, furniture dragged over it. Poor thing. Now it resides in solitary glory in our house, ready to spend its life being scratched at by cats, probably.
We still are in desperate need of a wardrobe for Avery, and not quite so desperate need for a rug for her. I think tomorrow we'll go pick up a set of bean bag chairs for her.
Avery's form teacher called me up in distress this morning, saying she had completely forgotten to get parent chaperones for tomorrow's field trip and could I help? Naturally, so I'm leaving John to supervise the bookshelf people as they measure at the new house to make sure (just make sure! we're nearly sure) the unit from here will fit the kitchen wall. Becky and her family had a pizza lunch with us yesterday, sitting on the floor of the new kitchen, imagining where everything will go. And we met our new neighbor to the right, who is really really sweet. Good thing too, because I had to beg her for a pizza cutter! Might as well begin as we mean to go on. How nice it will be to have a proper neighborhood.
Right. Nothing much else to say except that Avery's on pins and needles for tomorrow's expected announcement of the parts in "Alice in Wonderland," the school play. Maybe Wednesday, though, with the field trip? I'll let you know...