Chicago Ribshack

Ahh the Ribshack! Aptly described to me recently as “trashy, but not”. With the lack of Chicago-style pizzas and hotdogs available in London, periodic visits to the Chicago Ribshack to satiate my boyfriend’s desire for food from home have become the norm. Saturday turned out to be one of those days when the cravings struck.

Based in Knightsbridge, it has a surprisingly down to earth and relaxed atmosphere. Music is 80s and 90s classics and there’s always a movie from the same era being screened. At this most recent visit we caught the tail end of Turner and Hooch, all of Big and the beginning of The Lost Boys. As I said, classics!

We didn’t have a reservation and were advised upon arrival that would have an hour-and-a-half wait. We headed upstairs to the bar area for cocktails and some salt and pepper chicken wings in the interim. It was the first time we’d eaten from the bar menu. The wings were crispy, but not greasy and served with a creamy dip and celery sticks. I was left reflecting on my buffalo wings experience at Meat Liquor (see blog post dated 1st February 2012) and suspect that the Chicago Ribshack could be trusted to do a better job. In the end, we only waited about half an hour before being seated. Great in terms of shorter waiting time, but if we’d known we wouldn’t have had a snack to tied us over.

Sadly, we have been so often that we have our order down pat and no longer need to look at the menu. Two full racks of babyback ribs with fries and “the other bits” to share. The latter are a recent addition to the meal, but who can say no to crispy, spicy chinks of fried potato? The ribs are served with barbecue sauce, coleslaw and corn. Ignore the corn, they always overcook it. I also highly recommend the onion loaf, however it is huge and is best shared amongst at least four people. There are other options on the menu but when the ribs are this good, you know you’ll only be disappointed if you try anything else.

Halloumi, roasted vegetables and saffron couscous

I’ve been experimenting with halloumi, vegetables, and couscous on and off for a couple of years. I knew I had the right mix of basic ingredients, but couldn’t get the spicing right. Sitting at my desk having just finished work I had an epiphany…saffron! Heading home I was eager to put my idea to the test straight away. I’m so happy with the result that I think it’s worth sharing.

Ingredients
2 red peppers
1 aubergine
1 courgette
1 red onion
Olive oil or cookie spray
1 clove garlic, crushed
125g chestnut mushrooms
250g halloumi
300ml vegetable stock
2 pinches saffron
250g couscous
125g pomodoro tomatoes
105ml jar baby capers, drained and rinsed
1 bunch of parsley
1 bunch of coriander
Black pepper

Method
1. Pre-heat oven to 200 degrees celsius.

2. Blacken the red peppers. This can be done by either roasting them in the oven for about 30 minutes or, if you have a gas hob, charring them against a naked flame. I prefer the latter method. When fully blackened, place in a plastic bag to cool.

3. Thinly slice the courgette and aubergine. Lightly grease a flat tray and place the sliced vegetables on top. It’s absolutely fine to stack them on top of each other. Place in the oven and leave to roast until soft. This should take about 15 to 20 minutes, from memory.

4. Dice the red onion reasonably finely. Heat olive oil in a pan and add the onion. I tend to substitute cooking spray for olive oil. When you love food as much as I do, it’s best to save the calories wherever possible. Fry over a medium heat. While this is cooking, dice the mushrooms. When the onions start to soften add the crushed garlic then the mushrooms. Continue to cook until the mushrooms have softened.

5. Dice the halloumi into about 1cm cubes. Quickly fry in a hot pan with a little olive oil or cooking spray over a high heat, stirring carefully so that all sides are seared. Don’t worry if a lot of liquid comes out initially. Just drain it and keep frying.

6. Add saffron to stock and heat until it just boils. It’s entirely ok to use hot water and one stock cube. Put the couscous in a bowl, pour over the stock, cover, and let it do its thing.

7. Meanwhile, remove the blackened skin from the red peppers and chop into chunks, along with the courgette and aubergine. Half the tomatoes and roughly chop the herbs.

8. Fluff the couscous, adding about a teaspoon of olive oil to help loosen things up. Add all other ingredients to the bowl, including a healthy dose of freshly ground black pepper, mix thoroughly and serve.

I was really glad that I resisted the urge to add lemon juice because the saffron was sufficient to bind the flavours. The only change I might make next time is to add some chickpeas or toasted pine nuts, just to bring a little more contrast in texture.

Ciabatta

I love bread, and since discovering the joy of making fresh bread this pleasure has increased exponentially. Last weekend I decided to make roasted red pepper, chorizo, and garlic toasts. I decided to use ciabatta instead of sourdough. I very much want to try my hand at making sourdough, however it needs a lot of love and attention and life is getting in the way. Ciabatta still takes a little more planning than other breads because it requires a starter dough. However, this can be done the night before and so is more manageable then the seven day commitment sourdough necessitates.

The recipe I used was from The Bread Bible, a cookbook I have been using since I started experimenting in baking bread. The ciabatta started well. My starter rose overnight to the required state. However, I encountered some problems in the second stage when making the dough. The recipes related that the dough should be quite wet, in fact too wet to knead. Despite using the specified quantities of water and milk, my dough was clearly kneadable. This left me with several problems. Clearly I needed to add more liquid, but I wasn’t sure whether this should be more milk or water, or a combination of both. Also having never made ciabatta before I was uncertain of the consistency of dough I was supposed to aim for. In the end I guessed, adding enough milk and water to moisten it to the point of being wet, but still elastic.

Initially, it looked as if I’d improvised well, with the dough rising so much at the second resting that it actually escaped out of the bowl. Difficulties arose when I tried to get the mixture onto the baking tray and shape it appropriately. The mixture was slightly too moist which meant the dough spread rather than maintaining it’s shape. Unfortunately my struggles to overcome this meant that I over-handled the dough and lost a lot of the aeration.

I pressed on and baked the “loaves” of bread. The end product was better than I expected. They were a little flat, but the flavour and consistency of the bread was quite good. The crust was nice and hard and when sliced the bread had the characteristic honeycombed appearance.

Overall it was a good first attempt, but it left me with the feeling that I needed to invest in a more professional bread book. Or maybe that’s just me making excuses to buy more cookbooks.

Meek and Wild

Heading home this evening we noticed that a new fishmonger, Meek and Wild was having a bit of a launch party. We lingered around the front window blatantly snooping and were soon invited inside. Free alcohol is always a good way to get people into a new store. Great produce is the way to make sure people return as customers. Meek and Wild had both.

We were treated to an array of seafood and seafood products. Fresh oysters were shucked in front of us and served with a red wine vinegar and shallot dressing or a cucumber pickle made by one of the staff. The cucumber pickle was really interesting, and surprisingly good. It complimented the oyster while emphasising the cucumber as a flavour in its own right. Apparently the recipe was created by one of the staff members. I unfortunately missed out on the cold smoked salmon, but the hot smoked salmon was delicious. Very gentle, subtle flavourings. The smoked mackerel was really good and there was a mackerel pate available that was to die for. I will genuinely be heading back there tomorrow to buy some. I also really enjoyed the taramasalata, which usually I find a little wrong. This one had a gentle seafood flavour that almost had a sweetness to it.

I was very excited to see that they had sourced Arbroath smokies. Having read and heard so much about the unique flavour of this smoked haddock and seen how difficult it is to obtain in London, I was excited to indulge my palate in this new flavour. My conclusion is that it is definitely a positive development that these are now so readily available. Another interesting product was the smoked sprats. I was encouraged to eat them whole. That’s head, tail and everything in between. They had a surprisingly subtle flavour (as opposed to “fishy” fish like mackerel) and eating the bones created a pleasant contrast in texture with the meat. I’ve no idea how to cook with them (tapas maybe) but this might be something I need to investigate.

Overall I was impressed by the products I sampled at Meek and Wild and will certainly be returning as a customer. I feel some seafood recipe experimentation coming on!

Double chocolate chip cookies with marshmallow

I friend of mine gave me a copy of the Cox Cookies and Cake recipe book. I’ve never been to the store, but the recipes are certainly an exercise in indulgence. Having already prepared two types of cupcakes from this cookbook, I decided to give the biscuits a try. Double chocolate chip cookies with marshmallow sounded too decadent to resist.

The recipe was simple to follow, a basic biscuit recipe with overdoses of chocolate, butter, sugar, and more chocolate. The recipe calls for the cookies to be flattened with a wet metal spoon, however I found I lost a lot of mixture this way and determined that spreading the dough onto the tray was a more effective approach. I must admit to accidentally adding too much water when heating the marshmallow, which led it to become syrupy rather than maintaining its fluffy form.

Still, overall I wasn’t ecstatic about the resulting biscuits. The recommended cooking temperature just wasn’t right. Ensuring the biscuits were fully cooked in the middle meant baking the edges to the cusp of being overdone. This despite sticking to the specified cooking time. To be fair, the oven I was using is broken, but in a manner that should lead to general loss of temperature, not inconsistent cooking.

Furthermore, I didn’t feel that the marshmallow topping worked. It sounded great in principle, but the reality was a sickly sweetness that just didn’t blend with the richness of the chocolate chip biscuit. I have difficulty believing this would have been any different had I added the correct amount of water.

Still, everyone who tried them gave positive feedback to varying degrees. Some really enjoyed them, while others agreed that the marshmallow detracted from the delight of the biscuit itself. So the conclusion is that with Cox Cookies and Cake consisting of so many other fabulous recipes crying out to be attempted, I’m not certain this one will get a second airing.

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Eating in Amsterdam

Long weekend in Amsterdam. A very much needed break. Leading up to it everyone around me talked of how beautiful it is. Nobody talked about how great the food is. Having already been to Amsterdam several times, I didn’t have great hopes or expectations. Fortunately there were moments where I was pleasantly surprised.

Day one brunch (well borderline lunch) actually wasn’t bad. We’d gone wandering in search of a pancake house my boyfriend has apparently consistently managed to stumble upon ever time he’s been here. Instead we stumbled on Dwaze Zaken, Boer’n Breakfast. There was a good range if options. Nothing fancy, just good solid choices. We were there long enough to see the lunch menu as well, which looked to have a great range of sandwiches. I actually wished I’d waited a little longer and ordered from this menu.

My boyfriend chose the farmers omelette and I opted for the French breakfast. I’m not really an egg eater, so eating out for breakfast tends to be tricky. When our meal was served I was left wishing I ate eggs. The omelette was filled with big chunks of ham, lots of sliced mushrooms and of course cheese, and it was served on a thick wedge of fresh, crusty artesian style bread with a small but refreshing looking side salad. My French breakfast consisted of artesian bread, nut bread, a croissant, cheese, butter and blackberry marmalade. Now I am of the opinion that it is impossible to obtain a proper croissant outside of france and this breakfast did nothing to change my position on this subject (having said this, I’m dying to try and make these myself). However, the nut bread was divine! There was a mix of pistachios, walnuts and sultanas, with a hint of cinnamon. Definitely one of the culinary highlights of the trip.

Having eaten breakfast so late we skipped lunch, but shared a hot dog snack from one of the little vans that can be found dotted around the streets. I mention this more because it was an interesting experience, not because of the quality of the food per se. Having said that, it was a good hot dog. There were a range of condiments available on the exterior of the stall. We started with sauces and despite dating a Chicagoan, I was allowed to add ketchup alongside the mustard. Apparently it’s ok as long as your not in Chicago. We moved on to the relishes and found that it was so cold that all of them were frozen! I knew that coming to Amsterdam in winter was a little odd but this showed me just what a ridiculous situation we were in.

When we’d arrived we’d spotted a place called “Cau”, which looked to be a Gaucho rip-off. It was close to the hotel, and therefore required us to spend minimal time in the freezing cold getting there so we decided to give it a try. We went for out traditional Gaucho order: 300gm rib-eye cooked medium with triple cooked chunky chips and bernaise sauce. Even if certain expectations hadn’t been in my mind because of the intentional associations, I would gave been disappointed. The steak was well cooked and pleasant, but lack the robustness of flavour of a good Argentinian steak. The same could be said of the bernaise sauce. The chips were the real low point. Triple cooked to me means a really crispy exterior and light, fluffy interior. These weren’t. There was hardly any crunch to them at all. I suspect the third cooking happened when they were reheated having been cooked earlier that day.

I do actually have a basis for suggesting this. While eating our dessert – we shared a chocolate cake which was nice an moist without being excessively rich – I watched one of the chefs prepare the pancake desserts for another table. He pulled out a stack of what had to be at least 40 pre-made pancakes and reheated the quantity he needed at that point. he proceeded to fill them with dulce de leche…spooned directly from a store bought jar. He then surrounded them with the worst constructed quenelles of cream I have ever seen in a restaurant, then tried to do the same with the pre-fab dulce de leche, but just ended up dolloping it on the plate instead. There must have been an increasingly intense look of horror on my face because we left rather quickly after this.

Yes I sound like a complete snob and if this had happened in one of the other dodgy looking Argentinian grills that populate Amsterdam in abundance I wouldn’t have been at all disturbed. But seriously, if you’re going to rip off Gaucho at least try to hit the same standards!

Day two we ended up at B&B Lunchroom, a sandwich bar chain, for brunch. We’d popped into another for coffee the previous day and had liked the look of the menu. They take an individual smorgasbord approach to breakfast serving croissant and mini rolls with different plates of fillings. They looked incredibly appealing but after my croissant the day before I suspected this element would ruin the meal for me. Instead I had a smoked chicken, avocado, bacon and tomato sandwich with cheese. It was served in a delicious brown bread roll which made me once again yearn for the UK to get to grips with the concept of good bread. I suspect I’ll be experimenting in that field again in the near future.

Hot dog snack (with frozen condiments, naturally) saw us through to dinner again. We ended up eating in the restaurant because quite frankly it was just too cold to go exploring for somewhere to eat. There are several restaurants within the Hotel Krasnapolsky. We elected to eat at Restaurant Reflet. Despite my concerns about all the bad food I’d been eating we somehow agreed to try the 10 course tasting menu with accompanying wine. The meal was as follows:
• soufflé with black truffle, and pecorino
• smoked salmon salad with rocket, yellow beets and horseradish dressing
• potato soup with black truffles
• tuna tartare in a toasted sourdough bread basket topped with a fried quails egg with fried capers and anchovy sauce
• pan fried scallop on cauliflower purée with lobster foam
• pan fried sweetbread with roasted seasonal vegetables
• halibut on risotto
• cheese selection
• trio of coffee desserts
• trio of chocolate desserts

This is clearly a restaurant with Michelin star aspirations. But it’s not quite there yet. It was strange to be served a menu with no meat course, something I think definitely needs to be reconsidered. Certain aspects were under-seasoned. In particular the tuna tartare was bland and totally overwhelmed by the other flavours on the plate, although these were delicious, particularly the fried capers. And while I love black truffle, it didn’t quite work with the potato soup, although as separate elements both were incredibly enjoyable. Also, two trios of desserts was too much. However I really liked the sweetbread, particularly the way the vegetables had maintained their crunchiness, creating a lovely contrast in texture. The halibut and risotto were both well cooked with the rice maintaining just a touch of firmness. However the star of the show was the scallop. I would have married that dish! Beautifully presented, flavours harmonious and all elements combined in just the right amount. Stunning!

Day 3 and we finally achieved our pancake breakfast! A quick search of the internet identified Pancakes! as the nominated number one pancake house in Amsterdam. It’s very small and there was a queue when we arrived. Fortunately we were only required to wait about 15 minutes to be seated. The menu has a diverse range of toppings/fillings. There’s also different styles of pancake, so whether you prefer that flat European pancake or voluminous American form, you’re going to be happy. It was a difficult decision, but in the end I opted for the smoked salmon with creme fraiche, guacamole and pine nuts. The goats cheese with spinach was another strong contender and when I saw this arrive on the neighbouring table I almost regretted my decision. Fortunately, my pancake looked equally appetising and tasted delicious. I was surprised that it was served flat like a pizza base rather than rolled around the filling. This might have been because in some cases the pancakes were cooked omelette-style, with some of the fillings cooked into the batter. As well as pine nuts there were other mixed seeds sprinkled on top. I was really pleased with the amount of topping. Lots of chunks of smoked salmon and big dollops of guacamole and creme fraiche. The meal ended on a strange note though. We were served a small glass of lemon schnapps with our bill. I completely appreciate that this was the Dutch version of the limoncello digestif, but at one o’clock in the afternoon this felt a little aggressive. Still, it was a great meal and I would definitely recommend Pancakes!, especially given that it was the only one I could find that opened before 12pm.

Joël Robuchon’s “L’Atelier”

I was fortunate enough to be taken to Joël Robuchon’s “L’Atelier” this weekend. It was my first time eating in a Michelin starred restaurant, so the word “excited” doesn’t even begin to describe how I was feeling. We had a 9:30pm booking, but arrived slightly early, having allowed extra time for the trip there because of the snow. Our table wasn’t ready, so we were shown upstairs to the bar for a pre-dinner cocktail. I’d love to be able to relate which cocktail I ordered, but there were so many moments of yumminess that night the name now escapes me. Fortunately, I was given a copy of the menu to take home with me, so remaining account of this meal should be a little more accurate.

In the end, we didn’t eat at a table, but at the counter. While a separate table would have been more intimate, I actually preferred our seating arrangements. It made it easier to look at the dishes other people ordered. Consequently, within 30 seconds of being seated we were salivating.

We had already decided to order the “menu decouverte”. My boyfriend takes the position that the better the food, the more you should rely on the experts to tell you what to eat, so tasting menus are the way to go. So far we haven’t been lead astray by this approach. Continuing this line of thought, we also indulged in the “discover france” matching wines. Now I know this post would be better with photos, but somehow pulling out a camera in a 2 star restaurant felt a little tacky. So apologies for the lack of food porn, but I will try to be sufficiently descriptive to convey the aesthetics experience to some degree.

Our meal started with an aperitif of Parmesan cappuccino with port and foie gras. It was served in what most resembled a shot glass. It was two tiered, as all cappuccinos should be, with a foundation layer of what was basically liquid foie gras which was topped with Parmesan foam. While the combination of flavour was fantastic, there was something quite odd about sipping liquidised flesh.

Next course was caviar on a bed of crab with lobster jelly. It was served in a small tin container, simultaneously giving the impression of just being given a tin of caviar while being reminiscent of a dish if potted crab. It was a beautifully balanced dish with an undertone of fennel permeating the crab. This dish had me resisting the urge to lick the plate. It was served with a 2009 Pouilly Fumé “La Demoiselle” Domaine Henri Bougeois. Unfortunately my knowledge of wines is appalling, so I don’t feel I can really comment on the quality of the wine or the matching of dish and beverage. but I’m including this just in case someone with greater understanding reads this.

Third course was a chicory and fuji apple salad topped with black truffle, and served with a 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Château La Nerthe. I was actually a bit excited about the wine because I’ve had Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds (or shall I be pretentious and say “Rouges”?) and always really enjoyed them. The dish itself was definitely the least successful of the menu. The chicory was beautifully prepared, retaining a satisfying crunchiness in every bite. However, while there was initially a subtle sweetness to the dish, each mouthful ended with a bitter aftertaste at the back of the throat, which detracted from the pleasure of the meal. To be fair, I’ve never had chicory before and recognise that this could be characteristic of the vegetable and I’m just not a “chicory person”. But for me there needed to be an additional sweet element to balance this flavour. Perhaps the fuji apple was supposed to do this, but for sone reason I couldn’t detect this flavour.

The next dish was stunning! It was a chestnut velouté with celeriac. Here the theatre of the restaurant really came to fore. We were initially presented with large white bowls with a small amount of celeriac and chestnuts in the bottom. Then from a sake carafe the waiter poured the velouté into the mix. There was a gorgeous savoury earthiness to the velouté. This contrasted perfectly with the tiny sweet morsels of celeriac and chestnuts. Just scrumptious! This was served with a 2007 Château Rahoul, Graves.

Onto the fourth course. Another highlight of the meal: seared foie gras with quince and clementine marmalade and topped with a thin strip of pastry. The the exterior of the foie gras was slightly crisp, so I still had to bite into it despite the silky melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness inside. It was visually and gastronomically perfect. This serving was so heavenly that for me the 2006 Gurwutztraminer “Cuvée Christine” Domaine Schlumberger was redundant. Of course, that didn’t stop me from drinking it.

The sixth course was sea bass flavoured with lemongrass served with fondue leeks and a 2009 Vins de Pays de l’Héault, Mas de Daunas-Gassac. I thought this really highlighted the skill required to devise a menu of this quality. The subtlety of the sea bass and the freshness of the lemongrass contrasted drastically with the richness of the foie gras and provided an opportunity for the taste buds to take a breather before the intense flavours of the next course. Yet at the same it was a beautiful dish in it’s own right with with the fish beautifully soft while maintaining a slightly crisp skin.

Onto the “main course”. The menu offers a choice between free range quail stuffed with foie gras with truffle mash, and ox cheek prepared “à la Royale” with celeriac emulsion. We took the obvious decision and chose to be served one of each and share. Consequently, while the menu offers a different accompanying wine for each option, we were both served the 2006 Goulee by Cos d’Estrounel. Given that we are both normally red-drinkers, we were particularly pleased with this offering. Fortunately my boyfriend eats far less than I do, and by this point he was struggling so I got to eat most of both meals. Glutonous? Yes, but this was not the night to be worrying about calories. Don’t ask me to choose between the two, they were both outstanding and utterly decadent in their own ways. Despite the truffle and foie gras the flavours of quail and potato managed to hold their own and stand out as the stars of the dish. The ox cheek was so tenderly cooked that eating it was more of an act of supporting its disintegration than chewing. It was served in a bowl topped the sweet celeriac emulsion – kind of like a shepherds pie really. Both meals were served with a side of the creamiest, butteriest, best ever mashed potatoes I have ever eaten in my life. They could have just served me a bowl of that and I would have left a happy woman.

There was an option to have a selection of cheeses at this point. however we were both feeling quite full at this stage so decided not to over indulge to this extent. So finally we reached dessert, which was a duo of desserts served with a 2008 Maury Domaine Mas Amiel. It was served in two parts, starting with a miniature panacotta which again was a refreshing cleansing dish between rich courses. Our final moment of indulgence can only be described as a glass bowl of quadruple chocolate gooey goodness. Two layers of chocolate…something, mostly milk chocolate but with a thinner bottom layer of dark chocolate. Mixed into it were tiny balls of chocolate and there was a chocolate ring stuck into the top. It was so rich and so intensely chocolatey it was almost too much for me, and in fact I think it would have ended the meal better had it been about half the size that it was.

Overall it was an AMAZING meal. It was two-and-a-half hours of hedonic indulgence. Bliss!