Friday 28 June 2013

Café gourmande… le premier dessert dans le monde!

I spend quite a bit of time in France; sometimes for work and sometimes for pleasure, but always for food. Dessert is normally my least favourite course, I would always rather have something savoury than something sweet. However, our French cousins have absolutely nailed dessert with café gourmande. With what? For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, it is basically an espresso shot surrounded by anything between three and six mini-desserts.

On a trip to France last week I had three different versions of this dessert. One at my hotel (Pradotel in Crolles), one at a restaurant in Grenoble (Les Archers) and one in a Buffalo Grill on the way back to the airport. The first two were very nice, with a tasty and varied repertoire of little desserts. But here comes the shocking bit…

The café gourmande in Buffalo Grill was the best. WTF? Buffalo Grill is a ubiquitous roadside restaurant in France, an American-style steakhouse with (at best) an average reputation. It has also attracted a fair degree of controversy over BSE a while back, and more recently over employment of illegal immigrants. Traditionally it has been somewhere I have avoided, but out of convenience visited one last week. I had beef carpaccio, which was very nice; to follow I had the café gourmande. It consisted of five separate elements : crème brulee, some fresh fruit, a cream-filled choux bun with chocolate sauce, cheesecake and a chocolate brownie with crème Anglaise. All were great, and better than the other two I had. A pleasant surprise, especially given the price.

I can recommend re-appraising your roadside stops when travelling through France, was really impressed with my excellent lunch (and especially dessert) at Buffalo Grill. I’ve shocked myself, and I know that my regular French readers will disagree!

Lussmanns, St. Albans

A colleague of mine who lives in St. Albans has mentioned this restaurant many times so it came highly recommended; and an opportunity to entertain one of our overseas partners was the excuse for a visit a few weeks ago. Before going I clicked onto the website and a quote from Giles Coren was the first thing I saw…

“Everything a modern local restaurant should be so thank heavens for that.”

Giles is the restaurant critic in The Times and just about the coolest man in the world; high hopes then when walking through the door for dinner. High hopes that were entirely justified.

The starter was hunter’s bruschetta, which was recommended by my colleague as the starter to have at Lussmanns. This was Cotswold wild boar chorizo, wild rabbit and wild mushrooms, with garlic and parsley. Obscenely delicious and worthy of a SUPER-DISH, the chorizo and rabbit were beautiful together and I could have eaten it twice over.

Main course was a Brixham crab linguine, which was also very lovely and just spicy enough. A camera malfunction means no picture here. I must admit a certain amount of food envy when I saw the beautiful looking steak that my friend Schmitt had chosen… luckily she eats relatively little and I got to try some of my own (as in fact I did with the herring starter). 

Dessert was sticky toffee pudding, my favourite so I’m hard to please here. I was very pleased, it was supremely good and a second SUPER-DISH for this lovely meal.

There is a Lussmanns in Hertford, much closer to where I live so I will try and visit this location very soon, they are also opening a third restaurant in Harpenden in August. Seek out Lussmanns if you are in any of those locations, very highly recommended.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

La Maison, Castle Market Street, Dublin 2

I’ve eaten here once before and I was very impressed. For my second night in Dublin this week I decided to revisit, with four colleagues. I always find when I am introducing other people to a restaurant I have visited before that there is a weight of responsibility on my shoulders, I really hope that the venue delivers for a second time. La Maison is a quirky little French place tucked discreetly away off Grafton Street in Dublin city centre. I especially love the décor; lots of old French advertising posters, I spent most of my meal looking at a happy goose advertising foie gras.

I had for starter the same thing I had on my first visit, pate. At La Maison they elevate the simple pate so much that it gets its own tray, with a selection of three available. There is the ubiquitous chicken liver pate, a venison terrine and (what I would describe as) a rilette of duck and poultry. I naturally chose all three and all three were excellent. Served with plenty of bread, with an interesting balsamic chutney and with some pickled cornichons and cauliflower. My favourite was the chicken liver pate, every bit as strong as if you were to make it at home.

To follow I had pigeon. Traditionally, something that I have most often found disappointing to eat, but nowadays it is almost always excellent. Have all the chefs in the world got together and cracked the right way to cook an air-rat? Very tender, served on a bed of lentils which were swimming in a rich, juicy gravy. Also on the side were a couple of chicken livers. All in all, a great main course, if a little too rich (even for me). Regular readers will know that my favourite main course is steak tartare, somehow I had managed to miss this on the menu so actually ended up being a little annoyed with myself for not reading the menu thoroughly.

To end I had a plum tart with vanilla ice cream and a red berry jus. Just excellent, not something I would normally order but I am really pleased that I did.

There were also a couple of amuse bouches to note. The first was a sort of ragout on a fried potato, it was OK but it was what it was. The second was a lime sorbet with basil, this was excellent and the whole table enjoyed it.

Another great meal at La Maison, everybody thoroughly enjoyed their choices so I feel that I did a good job. I have written before about the difficulty of finding good food at a reasonable price in Dublin; this restaurant is the exception that proves the rule.

Anglers Rest, Strawberry Beds, Dublin 20

I’ve been in Dublin a few nights this week and on the first night we came dangerously close to eating in the hotel. Luckily an Irish colleague suggested a venue and this catastrophe was narrowly avoided. The Anglers Rest is a great old pub in an area of Dublin called Strawberry Beds, and the location is every bit as lovely as it sounds. The pub is run by Wrights, famous for Irish seafood, their signature restaurant in Howth has long been on my list of ‘places to eat at’, but so far have only managed a smoked salmon sandwich at their airport concession.

I shared starters with a mate, I had oysters and he had crab. The oysters were super-fresh and super-tasty, with a simple red wine vinegar and shallot accompaniment. Given that I was sharing I only got three oysters, I could easily have eaten a dozen. The crab was every bit as good and was served with some lovely bread (Irish bread is always great). This dual-starter was really showing off Irish seafood at its very best.

A sirloin steak (rare, obviously) for main course, drenched in tarragon butter and served with fried onions and mushrooms. If my starter was a great example of Irish seafood, this was great Irish beef, incredibly flavoursome with a fantastic texture. The chunky chips that were served with the steak were big and tasty and the peppercorn sauce complemented both perfectly. The only disappointment was the small serving of the peppercorn sauce, it just wasn’t enough for me; and only at the end of the meal did I realise that a colleague had left his. Gutted!

Dessert started with some bad news: “we don’t have any Eton Mess left sir”, which was a crushing blow. The antidote turned out to be an excellent bread and butter pudding with an equally excellent vanilla ice cream. A beautifully cooked individual portion with the perfect ratio of constituent parts (i.e. plenty of sultanas).

In summary, a fantastic find. I’m sure Dubliners reading this (I know there are a couple at least) will be very familiar with the Anglers Rest but until last night I wasn’t. It will from now on be an important part of my Dublin food repertoire! Recommended.