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Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Cocktails. All the rage but lost in direction.

I mean, everyone loves a cocktail. We always have, right? We all have our favourites too. Styles that have evolved over the decades, but left a mixed print across our cocktail menus. Long-forgotten, are the style of cocktails that actually served a purpose, that we're designed for a certain time of day, mixed with varying degrees of minimal dilution, that actually improve our very biological condition. 

Well shit, that all sounds rather fucking complicated, I just want to get pissed. 

And that's where we are now, in the restaurant and professional cocktail arena. The modern translation of cocktail today reads: as many spirits as you can shove in a boston glass and flavour in the most sweet and fruity manner. The 'long island iced tea' types. "There's like 9 spirits in there mate!". That sits nicely on a menu alongside the other familiar names. Mojito. Cosmopolitan. Tequila Sunrise. Mai Tai. Caipirinha. Margarita. Then a bunch of totally bastardised classics. The word Martini, thrown about from menu to menu, evolving from its original aperitif format to some layered monstrosity containing at least 75% fruit purée. Does anyone even remember that a daiquiri does not traditionally contain strawberry? 

The above are all drinks to get pissed to. You would be disappointed if these items were not on the 'cocktail' menu at 'spoons, at your local harvester, or generic, high street boozer (West Street, Brighton, where the streets flow with shit cocktails and poor taste).

Having compiled & written several cocktails & menus for several restaurants over the past 5/6 years, I am beginning to see a change. Proper cocktails starting to appear on lists, rarely selling of course 5/6 years ago, when only the braver drinker ordered something off-scene, are rising up the list and off the back bar shelves. 

That immortal line at the bottom of all cocktail Menuhin restaurants - finally disappearing. "Classics available upon request". The classics are coming back, because the serve a tremendous culinary purpose. (I hate these words but...) THE HIPSTER FOODIES ARE TURNING THE TIDES. (Gastronaut remains my fondest term for these people). 

After doing extensive research earlier this year planning a rebranding of a holy esteemed Sussex bar, I found myself spending hours downloading PDF cocktail menus, looking up origins of drinks, and cluttering my bookmark bar to give the appearance of a total alcoholic. 

Leading the way for me, is Hawksmoors Cocktail menu. The most stunning book of cocktails through the ages, tweaked only slightly to enhance the experience and individualise the finished drink to them. On a much anticipated visit earlier this year, the eureka moment. When sat at their spitalfields restaurant, I was handed ONLY a cocktail menu. No sales pitch, no encouragement what so ever other than to say that I need read this menu. On doing so you discover the ultimate forgotten truth. That cocktails are there to enliven your appetite, awaken your belly and 'open your eyes'. I mean, you're just sold there and then. I would be mental not to take them up on this. 

As you read on, in an almost biblical/historical fashion, all those classics, previously confined to a one line fob-off at the foot of menus, are listed and brought bang up to date. Old-fashioned, Negroni (2 ways), Corpse Reviver, Breakfast Martini. Awesomeness all over the shop. 

And so they have lead, it seems, it transforming the cocktail trend.

Out are the tropical puréed fruits & juices. 

In are home-infusions (tobacco bourbon anyone?), house bottled bitters, and retro glassware. 

And what of the cocktail of the moment - Espresso Martini? 

An essential on any list, but please, at the end of my meal. (Waiters and Front of House Managers - do your research, suggest the right cocktail fort he right time of the meal and you will soon see that the whole experience has been lifted. 

We all love a cocktail, but now we can choose to have the right one, at the right time, made the right way, all over again. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

The Breakfast Club - Finally Stepping out of the 80's

It seems to have taken a lifetime. My entire lifetime in fact, to experience a breakfast or brunch menu that is truly unique, something to plan for, something to look forward to, again & again. 

I have always enjoyed brunch, for I do not have a huge early morning appetite. But the options available to me have always been so limited, replicated in varying degrees of quality all over the country, dependent on the venue. 

There is of course, THE FRY UP. As a young(er) man this was all I could ever have wanted, but as I grew older I craved something more exciting, and I became disillusioned with even the more 'posh', 'Bills-Style' Full English, for it was no better really than the greasy spoon alternative around the corner. 

Then, in my late teens, I discovered Eggs Benedict, which in tern lead to a discovery of Eggs Royale. This became what I looked for in a breakfast/brunch menu, and satisfied me greatly for some time. But occasionally the Hollandaise would be a bit lacking in acidity, essential in this dish, or worse still, was blatantly out of a packet. As it cropped up in more and more all day eateries, my chances of being lumbered with an over-poached egg increased. 

American breakfast variations became commonplace. Pancakes, with blueberries, maple, bacon, banana, etc, another wonderful option. Much smaller in portion than the monstrosities our transatlantic counterparts produce, this was more often than not just the right size, and just like eggs Benedict, the right blend of flavours & textures. Perfect for the time of day. 

Never truly saw the point of buying 'fancy' porridge out and about, but then I'm generally not a fan of porridge. That and other 'posh mueslis' with compotes & honeyed yoghurts have also been cropping up left right and centre since the turn of the millennium (and probably before). 

I suppose, not being a chef - by any stretch of the imagination - and it is precisely that, imagination, that has been missing for breakfast menus (that I have seen) for a long, long time. 



They haven't just come up with a couple of 'unusual' ingredients to tried and tested classics, they have truly put together a flawless menu of wonders that, for the first time in ages, I had a really hard time deliberating over. 

My good friend, and local resident, Martin, was the man who had recommended it to me and insisted we go. He had been the day before and still could to wait to go again. He even ordered the same thing he had the day before, it was that good. Just, just look! Look at this Brunch menu...

Coconut bread, lemon curd cream cheese, rhubarb 7.5 

Raclette and spinach French toast, bacon, watercress 9-

Smoked haddock and leek rarebit, poached eggs, rocket 8.5 

Parmesan grits, girolles, boar sausage 9- 

Corn & morcilla fritters, avocado, paprika crème fraiche 9- 

Salt beef bubble, poached eggs, spinach, hollandaise 9-

Jalapeno corn bread, fried eggs, black beans, guindilla pepper 8.5 

Baked eggs, tomato pepper ragout, Greek yoghurt, toast 7.5

- with chorizo sausage 9.5 

Poached eggs, aubergine puree, yoghurt, sumac, parsley, toast 8.5

- with soutsouki sausage 9- 

Caravan Fry: Eggs, field mushrooms, tomato compote, bacon 9-

- with sourdough or grain toast 

Imaginative, exciting, and unusual in the best sense of the word, certainly for a 'Bill's-esque' restaurant. And Bills is precisely the reference point, for it was there that I first started to appreciate a good brunch. 

The Salt-beef, while being trendy, was divine. A crispy-fried ball of Shredded meat & bubble & squeak, waiting to be mashed amorously together with perfect poached egg, HOMEMADE Hollandaise, and lightly wilted spinach. It was The Dark Knight to eggs Benedicts' Batman Begins - a sequel unlikely to ever be bettered. 

The place was booming, packed to the industrial rafters. The breakfast Martini could (should) have been better, but the coffee was perfect. The service wasn't ideal - art students who did things painfully slowly, and without much of a smile - but it mattered not one bit, the menu meant I would leave desperate to return. 

Sadly, Bills has since become a monstrous, nationwide machine, and any creativity they once oozed is long gone. 

Here in Brighton, I await the heir to their throne, and keep my fingers crossed that one day soon, something as inventive as Caravan comes to town. 

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Outdoor Dining, Street Food & British Weather

Ah, British Summertime. British Spirit. British determination. British decision making. British stupidity? Well I'm writing this in order to ascertain whether we, the all-consuming public are completely mental to even consider eating a meal, planning an event or entertaining friends, in the great outdoors. 

And yet, a great deal of our local, food-producing businesses absolutely rely on our continued determination to choose it, against the safer but arguably more sensible option, of eating indoors. 

All the usual thought processes occur in the decision making that takes place when food should be eaten. Who am I with? What is the occasion? How hungry am I? Will there be enough options to choose from? 
However, crucially, between the months of April & October, a fair old chunk per annum, a thought process overrides all aforementioned factors, rendering them almost insignificant. 
That all-important new factor is of course - What will the weather be doing? 

Suddenly, all caution is thrown to the wind. Your tried and tested regular eateries, discarded from consideration through lack of so much as a courtyard. The quality of food on offer, insignificant, so long as you can eat it in a garden, on a picnic bench, or within the confines of a town restaurant outside section, frequently fenced off with branded suggestions. All things that are normally so important to you are out of the window, because the temperature has just gone over 12 degrees. 

Logically - we as consumers are mad the let the weather be our guide. 
Logically - business owners are mad to let the weather be a defining factor in trade. 

Thankfully - we are British (or of similarly mental origin) and as consumers we do pursue outdoor delights and with that demand there is growing trade in outdoor/alfresco/street dining. 

My recent experiences have obviously shaped my thoughts on this matter. 

I started writing this on the train to London on Friday afternoon. It. Was. PISSING IT DOWN. but it was Friday afternoon and for me now as a Brightonian, that means only one thing - Street diner. Working in the trade, Fridays off are not a given, so I'll be damned if I'm going to let a little rain stop me going to to see what's on offer. 
L'eglise are in the guest spot this week - and I do try and go for something different every time. Twice I've thoroughly enjoyed the textbook smoked treats from the Little Blue Smokehouse, the irrepressible juiciness of a Trolls Pantry Burger, a few oysters from Yum Yum Ninja, and always, always, a substantially chocolatey fix from Honeycomb cakes. 

Normally, it's a slow wander from stall to stall, chatting to the always enthusiastic guys & gals behind the counter, followed by a perch on the grassy slope behind. 

This week had a much more business-like approach. To my surprise, there were still plenty of people there. To my frustration I had to queue in the rain. But now in my possession, a Hogget Lamb Baguette from L'eglise. 

Classic street presentation - a paper napkin. But now the dilemma of where to eat it. Ideal world, go and get a coffee and eat it in there, but that's frowned upon right? So no, I'll eat it here, as drip by drip, the paper napkin becomes more & more soggy - bite by bite I try and get it down me before the baguette becomes soggy. I stood under a tree. 

Was this delicious? Of course. Was I comfortable? Of course not. Will I do it again? You bet I will. 

Why? Because I could see the appreciation in the nice French guys face for braving the rain. Because of the knowing smile in my fellow Street Diners faces that said "yes, we do look ridiculous". Because this is British Summertime. 

Next up, and the reason for my trip to London - was to be an Usher at a great friends wedding. 

The food bit - a three-course, sit down meal, in a gated garden community, in a marquee, for 150 people.

The option - no option. Charcuterie starter for all. Shoulder of Lamb. Trio of desserts. (Everyone loves Lamb). 

The Catering Team (name to follow) - consisted of fully operational kitchen with ovens, ample prep space & absolutely loads of room to plate up. Not sure how many chefs, around 10 waiting staff. 

The result - in all honesty, the food was exquisite. Yes there was only one dish that actually required cooking on site. Yes it would be simple enough to churn out even to the numbers in our party. But my experience in the past of these things, have been comparable to good aeroplane food - nice enough, but you can tell its been kept warm for days. The main event here (Shoulder of Lamb, beautifully pink with crisp Greens, Bubble & Squeak, Jus & a wonderful little Fig Tatin) was perfectly executed and presented with uniform precision (although the last few that came out missed out on the fig for some reason?). 

So as far as the food goes, big thumbs up. 

But the service... Well we were sat for a good 3 hours. The charcuterie, on huge round plates, served to us individually, took an eternity. An hour later the Lamb starts arriving. A good 20 mins later, the last lamb was delivered. And so on. You get the idea. SLOW. 

Then you consider the trials the team face. The complete unknown is first to spring to mind. Now I for one relish the prospect of banquet service in a restaurant, directing the process alongside the chef and watching it all come together like clockwork, supported by my team of professional waiting staff. The Chefs, bang on time and prepared. IN OUR COMFORT ZONE. 

Would I enjoy doing it in a pop-up kitchen in a marquee with a team of art student 'waiters' backing me up? No I would not. 

So I acknowledge that their task is an impossible one. And I think the outdoor catering business has come a long way in recent years, with fierce wedding demand and completion, everyone's had to up their game. 

So from my point of view, any fault lies not with the caterers, but in the decision to take that option in he first place. 

Not for everyone, but for me an outdoor reception with a marquee goes hand in hand with a hog roast. A simple, come-and-grab-it-when-you-want-it approach. And grab more later if you're still hungry. Desserts? Well the whole nations gone cupcake-crazy. They look pretty. Done. Want something more formal? Then do it in a hotel. Do it in a restaurant. Do it somewhere where the thousands of pounds you're going to spend will actually be rewarded with a flawless service, and stunning food. 

As I say, this experience was actually wonderful, but slow, and masses of room for improvement! 

And so my final alfresco venture of the weekend - a Sunday brunch with another great friend at Caravan - Kings Cross. Capable on a normal (and by normal I mean, cold, wet & windy) day of seating 100 minimum indoors - this was no normal day. It was a Scorcher - and fantastic, there is potential for another 50-60 covers outside. 

12:20 - we joined the waiting list. 
13:00 - we sat. 
13:15 - we ordered DRINKS ONLY
13:30 - we ordered Brunch
14:00 - Food arrives. 
14:00 - Foods gone (because it was bloody amazing!)
Then spent the next 20 mins trying to get someone to bring us a bill. 

Now the experience here is so totally worth the wait(s) we had to endure, and the grumpy service from more art-students who clearly had never seen this many people in their lives. The food here is outrageously good and could not more strongly recommend it (Salt Beef Bubble, Spinach, Poached Egg & Hollandiase I mean COME ON!). But the weather in this case has ground this business almost to a halt. It is almost as though the owner had spent a fortune on exceedingly comfy outdoor furniture and lovely pots of herbs knowing full well that British weather would never actually see it used. 

I've been there myself, and the message to staff on those freakish weather days goes something like "Okay guys, this is going to be pretty fucking awful, but please keep smiling, please drink lots of water and just try and do everything really quickly". 

The place I currently have the honour of Assistant Managing has a small secluded outdoor area, but is not at the forefront of Joe Publics mind on these freak weather days, and as such, summer is many restaurants quiet season. 

Unfortunately to many, who have built business models around taking X amount of cash in the summer months, having invested in property with beer gardens, courtyards, or beach front cafes, the increasingly shit summers have hit them hard. 

So this is me endorsing the use of all these places! 

Embrace Street Food, even in the rain. 
Employ Event Caterers provided the food is worth the wait. 
Choose the place that would be packed on a sunny day but who's views may not be so stunning on a normal day. (But do so with caution - a lot of restaurants boy selling point is the view, and the food is thoughtless & without heart).

Eat outdoors. There's amazing food to be eaten outdoors. 
(And finally, it is hilarious sprinkling Parmesan, or cracking salt & pepper in the wind) 

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

BBQ, Smoke & Mirrors - So right and so wrong

Bar-B-Q Shack. 

The dangers of simply following a trend and sticking that item on your menu has never been more apparent.

While it is all to easy as a consumer to get excited about selecting an eatery on the basis that it serves that dish you recently discovered that works so well, it can often lead to bitter disappointment.

Take the following items, for instance...

Salted Caramel
Pulled Pork
Hot Smoked Salmon

All of them you have probably seen on several menus over the past twelve to eighteen months. All of them, if prepared authentically, are wonderful. All of them, however, have been bastardised to such a degree that while the essence & taste may be in tact, the soul (if you will) has been ripped from it.

My first salted caramel experience was in the form of a salted caramel rolo, in Hawksmoor, Spitalfields. It was wonderful. After a luxuriously greedy meat feast, when you certainly couldn't manage a pudding, these little fellas were just the ticket.

But since then, it has appeared left right and centre, most notably at coop in the form of a "cheesecake".

The most devastating though, the one that really grates on me, the the pulled pork explosion.

Brought to my attention via Guy Fieri on the food network. Diners, Drive ins & Dives across the states have been producing this dish as long as we've been battering cod. But they've been producing it with heart, passion, sweat and soul, literally.

From the amorous yet delicate blends that go into a pre-rub, to the temp and duration of its smoking - you just can't help but fall in love with the process.

And I appreciate not everybody is as romantically involved with food as others. I know that to many, as long as it tastes good, what's the bother? My concern is that is we're not careful, the over-saturation will end up destroying the original product. The genuine geniuses who put these on our plates with passion and enthusiasm, will not longer be able to afford to do it.

My most recent example of this stems from somewhere I nearly worked for. A new operation, I was afforded the opportunity to discuss 'menu direction' with the incoming head chef. I had a knowledge of the area, clientele etc, and therefore was asked for my input. On suggesting house-smoking joints of meat, like pulled pork.... "Pulled what?" Said the chef.

Anyway, I didn't work there in the end. But I popped in when it opened to read the menu. Alongside a very 90's menu of Thai curries, overpriced steaks and pastas, platters of smoked brisket & pulled pork. No wording on the process. No option for the sides. No selection of house sauces. No soul.

I write about this because I think people, consumers, diners, are more in tune with authenticity now. Like shopping for antiques, we can spot a dusty old gem through a pile of rubbish, over a cheap knock-off.  We just have to do a bit of research first!

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Dirty Sexy Burgers

Well this isn't a trend, per se, gourmet burger kitchens (and similar independents) have been popping up all over the shop for years now. But this hasn't stopped the increasing number of 'decent' burger bars & 'proper' burgers appearing on menus in pubs and bars up and down the country.

100% Local Sussex Beef. 6oz patty. 35 Day Aged. Floured Sour dough. The components are getting a more & more elaborate description. The consumer, gleefully willing to pay more & more for the privilege.

The question is (not least in light of THE HORSE SCANDAL), why are we suddenly so obsessed with detail? Sure, when ordering a fillet, it is expected that as part of the package we get to know exactly where that juicy cow came from. That chicken breast, corn-fed of course, resided happily in that farm we've never heard of from no further than 2.5 miles north of here.

The effect is a result of the cause, and the cause in this case is the social climate we live in. Those upper-middle classes who used to 'slum-it' with a guilty pleasure, now expect to do so in style. A Big Mac, or a 3-piece meal would still be unthinkable, but be damned if we're going to pay anymore for the pleasure.

Tied into this offering is the idea that you are in some way supporting your local community, sticking it to the man. It makes the whole experience almost holy & romantic, as we tear back the un-branded tin foil and ethically dispose of the brown paper bag.

So the search goes on. Every time I chow down on a marginally over-priced 'gourmet' burger, I am expecting it to be the greatest thing I have ever tasted, the answer to my prayers. But then another specialist emerges, whose beef is aged that bit longer, cooked over premium charcoal, surrounded by outrageously stinky cheeses, and with the option of a chip that the other place never quite got right.

The ultimate Burger experience may be upon us, my meat loving friends.

As good as it currently gets - Lucky Beach - Brighton

Saturday, 23 February 2013

An Introduction to The Dirty Chicken

As someone who has worked in restaurants, pubs, kitchens & bars most of his adult life to date, I feel I am ideally suited to comment on the industry in general.

If there are two things I like to do when indeed I am not conducting a successful service, it is eating out, and writing (not necessarily about eating out, until now). So while I enjoy working at the higher end of the market, with great chefs, serving inspiring food, pouring sensual wines and shaking elaborate cocktails, I have one major drawback... I work in hospitality. Therefore, as a father, I don't have the income to eat out all the often, especially not in places that are equally inspiring & ground breaking.

When I do have the opportunity, and the capital, I like to spend it on eating out with the woman of my dreams (someone who, I'm pleased to say shares my passion for great dining experiences). This isn't always an extravagant excursion. For every visit to Hawksmoor, there's two or three country pub lunches or safe branded conveniences.

Something that has come to my attention, particularly in these choking economic times, is that even at the higher end, the more refined venues are providing a more relaxed menu, with more comfortable items, with a more exciting atmosphere, with a wittier service. The lines are blurring. The tables are turning (hopefully literally in most restaurants). The mission, these days, far simpler. To put a smile on the face, arouse the buds, and fill the belly through perfection at all levels of hospitality. Any less is unacceptable & as I intend to point out, completely avoidable.

So why The Dirty Chicken? Well because as the classically carnivorous male that I am, some days I do want to eat out, some days I do want to spend a bit of money, but some days I want to spend that money on a box of fried chicken (preferably from an alternative/premium vendor, but not essential). Seasoned to perfection. Crispy, salty skin. Juicy, succulent flesh. Dirty fingers. Happy boy.