26 February, 2009
the poshest restaurant ever
I've been working so hard on my book! Really. Increasingly more of every day is spent doing things to try to produce really good writing to pack, someday, between two covers and have as a real book. Some of these tasks are a bit tedious, like making a huge batch of pesto when I didn't really want any, in order to be able to say with all conviction how much my alleged recipe would produce! I can't really say it will feed four as a pasta sauce for a starter if I haven't a clue how many it will feed since I use it only as a salad garnish. But as you can see, even just assembling the ingredients on the kitchen counter is pretty much creating a still life, and it was actually fun to measure and taste for consistency, and come up with a real-live recipe for pesto that does what it says on the tin: feeds four as a starter. So here you go.
(serves four as sauce for starter with pasta)
4 cups loosely packed whole fresh basil leaves
¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
juice ½ lemon
3 tbsps pine nuts
3 tbsps grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
pinch sea salt to taste
Place all ingredients in food processor and blend till smooth, taking care to scrape the pesto away from the sides of the processor to incorporate all bits.
This pesto is equally good as a dressing for tomato salad with mozzarella, or drizzled over a white fish like cod, sea bream, sea bass or lemon sole. Try adding a spoonful to any vinaigrette. It is lovely treated like a salsa verde and served alongside grilled pork, beef or lamb. Stir some into mashed potatoes for the side dish of your life.
I certainly don't want to give the impression that my other recipes are faked by any means, but every once in awhile I say airily that a dish will serve four, when all I can really say is that three of us hungry family members downed it all with seconds, so I imagine it will serve four! I should really be a bit more accurate. I want you to trust me after all!
The idea of thinking about how many a given dish will feed is so beyond the ken of the chef at whose restaurant I ate on Monday that it makes me laugh to think we both "cook." I was taken, by a friend from my Devon food writing course, to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.
There are two kinds of people in the world, I think (I know I often say this). There are people who absolutely swoon at food that has been taken apart, rearranged, pressed, triangulated, stacked and foamed. And then there are people who, when presented with food like this, want to stab the sommelier with a steak knife and run for the nearest fryup. I am, unusually for me, somewhere in between. As a person who truly loves to cook, and who recognizes herself for what she is: a pretty dependable, sometimes innovative cook who can be counted on to feed family and friends, I truly admire finesse and delicacy of touch. I myself can never make a plate of food look beautiful. My plates look at best... approachable. So I do like to eat restaurant food that's beautifully presented, that represents techniques I could never pull off myself.
Before I describe the food, I must say also that while I know it is my own insecurity, constantly hovering waitstaff that outnumber the people at my table (two) make me nervous. Granted, I was with a food critic and perhaps the waitstaff were that much more attentive. But. There was a champagne waiter, a water waiter, a bread waiter, a take-your-order waiter, a cheese waiter and a dessert waiter. Different people! My companion Roger asked sotto voce, "Do you have ANY idea what accent that was?" when one of them sidled away bearing aloft whatever his offering had been. A sort of Intimidating Waiter Esperanto, hushed and polite to the point that I couldn't understand any of what he said and resorted to looking at what he held to imagine what was being asked of me. And, another first for me: I have never had my napkin replaced halfway through a meal. I don't mean, replaced newly-folded on my chair if I went to the ladies' room. I mean replaced with a fresh napkin, just before the cheese course. Why? I haven't a clue. I really wasn't that messy. AND the napkins were handled with silver tongs. I am not making this up.
I should make the point right now that I had a lovely time. For one thing, my companion is a man of enormous sophistication, a world-traveller beyond any I have ever known (he's writing a travel guide to Finland while planning his year in Nepal but first would have to spend the day after we were together in Morocco, just for example). Roger is soft-spoken, diffident, hesitant to put himself forward; his conversation is punctuated by long pauses while he gazes somewhere just beyond me, seeing Lord only knows what, in his mind's eye. He needs a lot of time to react to everything: to seeing each other after months of not, to digest a story I tell about Avery's school, to decide what he thinks about the main course, to react to my questions about his PhD. He is one of the least hurried people I have ever met, and every word is considered. I guess, when I think about it, he is truly genuine, and unconcocted.
And we both laughed at the same things over lunch. Tiny, tiny triangles of some crunchy things surrounding a layer of foie gras made us laugh a bit because... what on earth were they? They lay on an exclamation point of quince jelly, that was discernable in the waiter's hushed monologue. "What else did he say this was?" I hiss, and Roger smiles patiently. "No idea." And since they were little amuse-bouches, a little heady offering by the chef, there was no menu to fall back on. At this point it came back to me that Marcus Wareing was trained by and inspired by Gordon Ramsay, another chef in whose establishment I must have the menu beside me at all times. Anything could be anything! A tiny glass dish of hummous with absolutely NO texture of chickpea: it must have been passed through the finest of sieves to achieve such a velvety feel. And underneath the tiny spoonful of hummous was a layer of perfectly seasoned roasted puree of garlic. Sublime.
Then another thing we did not order and so had to ask again exactly what it was: a tall, narrow glass of hot sweetcorn veloute, topped with a blob of tarragon foam. Now, it is well documented here that I am no fan of foam. The phenomenon appeared at about the same time as boys' trousers hanging below the waistband of their underwear, and while I can see they arise out of different motivations, the two trends are equally unpalatable to me and can both disappear any time they like. This tarragon foam was, though, more of a mousse than a foam and as such, and so lovely in anise-ish flavor, was acceptable. "Drink it like you would a cappuccino," our unnamed-starter waiter purred, and thus instructed, we did. Delightful and mysterious. As far from my own sweetcorn soup as could be, and yet containing the same ingredient.
For the starter we each had a dish of nearly (only nearly) laughable character: an enormous white shallow bowl appeared at each of our places studded with several small spoonsful of tomato-lobster compote, and three tiny gnocchi made of ricotta and truffle. We looked down at this most Lilliputian of offerings and nearly began to snicker, when two waiters appeared with little silver tureens and poured ambrosial langoustine bisque over all. And that, my friends, is heaven in a soup bowl.
For my main I had sea bass (the most delicately cooked imaginable; I even ate the skin and I never do that), on a bed of surprisingly forgettable broccoli florets, but accompanied by a perfect potato puree, served in a tiny copper saucepan at my place. Roger indulged in pork belly and was underwhelmed. "The pork belly we made on our cooking day in Devon was better," he said, and I was obliged to feel his forehead. He seemed fever-free, so I tasted a bit and I could not agree: this dish was buttery soft, with a perfect piece of crackling on top. Simply superb. I decided he was investing the Devon pork with memories of friendship, not a bad quality in a companion.
Then the cheese board! Honestly, there was a fromagier, or whatever the cheese equivalent of a wine expert might be called. A darling man whose sole job at Marcus Wareing is to wheel out a ginormous trolley bearing perhaps 40 cheeses, and to describe them each lovingly, as one would boast about a baby's first checkup. There were goats, triple cremes, blues, cheddars. We chose one of each and they were served in perfectly proportioned, delicately arranged slices, as the spokes of a wheel, on a shared plate. A silver dish of every cracker known to man was placed before us, with a darling little sliding lid that swung away to reveal its treasures. Really my most favorite piece of kit from the lunch, that cracker dish.
Heavenly. I could not stop for dessert because I had to leave this shangri-la (escaping a different scary waiter at every step) to pick up Avery at school. A truffle waiter (I forgot about that one until now!) came by with an enormous tiered utensil containing at least six different varieties of filled chocolates. Peanut butter and jelly! "Madame will have peanut butter and jelly," Roger said sweetly, then ate it himself, thank goodness. And may I say: there is something jolly about having finished a meal and simply standing up and leaving. "Our society has really got somewhere when it pays people to go eat fancy food and tell other people what it's like," Roger said, but I was only glad that society also pays for someone to go along and chat.
We parted at the luxurious corner of Wilton Place and Knightsbridge, so posh that you (well, I) immediately feel underdressed (of course I wore all black, hoping to disappear). It was a lovely afternoon on many levels: wonderful company (he kissed me into a taxi and was immediately claimed by his Blackberry and whatever romantic assignation came next: Cairo? the Suez Canal?), a chance to be in an atmosphere of ostentatious luxury that almost never comes my way, and to eat food that is so beyond my level of capability that it's like taking a first-year sculpture student to the Uffizi and saying, "So, how does that make you feel?"
I try to analyze exactly how the afternoon made me feel. Silly privileged, to eat such food (two Michelin stars!) and not even know how much it cost (no prices on my menu). A little silly to care, to be honest, about such poncy food. But also quite in awe of refined achievement on that scale no matter the subject matter. Enjoying the fruits of labor from someone at the top of THE game is a treat. But... I must tell you I was longing for a piece of poached salmon and a pile of mash by dinnertime.