Friday 19 December 2014

The Lockhart

I've wanted to go to The Lockhart for absolutely ages.  I just don’t know why I didn't go before now.  I was not disappointed.

The Lockhart's entry on Google suggests that it serves 'south western' cuisine.  I'm not so sure.  This is proper Deep South stuff, the home cooked comfort food of the lands below the Mason Dixon line – all American food, without being just another BBQ joint.  This is the stuff you read about in books but never try, the gastronomy of the South you usually only get to sample if you head there yourself.

We started with some bar snacks – in particular, a bowl of crispy pig skin with pickled watermelon rind.

It was the rind that I was most excited by, if I'm brutally honest.  I heard about it somewhere else and was astonished to read it – surely, surely, this can’t really be a thing, right?  Well, it turns out it is – and bloody brilliant it is too.

I insisted on washing down the snacks with a Mezcal sour, which was decent.

 Later on we got some mint juleps that were equally good, if perhaps bordering in the sweet.  One of the friends I was dining with is a professional wine merchant and was after a bottle of the red stuff.  A treat from Washington arrived that I rather liked, if my other two companions (more attuned to old world drops, perhaps) we less eager.

For starters I had the gumbo.

Now gumbo really is one of those dishes you hear about without ever really knowing what it is.  Basically, it's a sort of soup / stew full of seafood and thickened with a burned roux and okra.  Splash a bit of Tabasco in there and there you have a fine comfort dish for an autumn's night.

Friend 1, Matthew started with one of the daily specials, a smoked pheasant salad.

Friend 2, Greg, had the devilled crab.  Nice enough, but I gather a bit over devilled, which sadly had the effect of losing a lot of the delicate crab flavour.

Onto the mains.  Matthew opted for that most classic Southern dish, shrimp and grits.

"Brave", says I when it was ordered.  "That's twice you've told me eating grits is brave," says Matthew. "Is there something I should know?"  Why is eating grits brave?  Simple: most of the time they're fucking disgusting.  Now, I am sure I'm going to get into a lot of trouble for saying that – and rightly so, I suspect – but a lot of the time to a, shall we say unsophisticated, English palate, they are less than pleasant.  Not on this occaision, however.  On this occasion they were fantastic.  My only criticism is that there did seem to be rather a lot of them.

Greg went for the southern fried chicken, which he claims is his favourite dish (the savage).  This came with a coleslaw that was apparently fantastic – and I can imagine it would be, I can hardly think of anything better to go with fried chicken.  It also came with a bowl of spaghetti squash that I was told was totally unnecessary, and unexciting.

I, however, in my humble opinion won at food ordering.  Because I had the slow cooked, smokey Jacob's ladder beef ribs.

OK, so I said this wasn't a BBQ joint and here I have a picture of an enormous BBQ smoked joint.

Well, I actually said that it wasn't just another BBQ joint – it's still got some BBQ joint, OK?  And why wouldn’t it?  BBQ, done the slow, smoky way, is an essential component of the US South eating experience.  And, what's more, this was done brilliantly.  Like, actually, brilliantly.  These ribs were cured with a coffee and BBQ rub, before being smoked for hours and hours and accompanied with a BBQ reduction.  The meat was so soft, so juicy, so flavoursome... I run out of words.  First rate.

It came with a rather sad looking cucumber and tomato salad that was unfortunately a little lazily done but essential given the fatty richness of the meat.

We also kept our mains company with a couple of sides, including a bowl of collard greens – spring greens cooked with vinegar and bacon.

But the highlight was the corn bread, which comes to your table straight out of the oven, in its piping hot little cast iron dish, bubbling away like crazy.  I have never had proper cornbread like this before.  This was just jaw-droppingly good.

Sadly, by the time we'd got through that lot we were absolutely stuffed so there was no room for pud.  Oh well, next time.

 - GrubsterBoy -

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Cranberry Sauce

This is a recipe handed down from GrubsterMummy who makes a batch of spiced cranberries every year around Christmas time.  They're so good, that BigGrubsterSister takes a jar back to Australia whenever she visits the UK.  However, having helped the production process last year and made my own batch this year, I have to wonder why – because they’re the easiest thing in the world to make.  They also have the advantage of lasting for ages – easily a year, we find, often using the previous year's batch each time around (provided you seal your jars properly).  However, that said, it's best when it's fresh, so I recommend making it now for this year.

Strictly speaking this isn’t a cranberry sauce and more a cranberry condiment.  But it's way better, and has the advantage of going equally well with goose as it does with turkey, on account of it being not so sweet.  It's actually quite a sharp sauce – despite the sugar, the sharpness of the cranberries and the tang of the vinegar both cut through.  But that's what makes it so good.


10g whole allspice
2 cinnamon sticks, broken up roughly
20g peeled and diced fresh root ginger
600g cranberries
350ml cider vinegar
450g demerara sugar (which I believe is Turbinado in the US)

You will also need some jars to keep the finished product in, a muslin / cheesecloth about 20cm x 20cm and a 10cm length of kitchen string.

The first thing to do is make up your spice bag, so that you can infuse the spices without getting them caught up in the cranberries.  I do this by placing the muslin over a very small bowl, filling the cavity created with the spices, then picking up all four corners of the cloth and tying the string around the neck.

Next, place the bag in the middle of a medium saucepan and tip the cranberries around it, so that the top of the bag protrudes from a sea of little berries.  Pour all of the vinegar over the berries and turn place the pan over a high heat.  You'll notice that the vinegar doesn’t immerse the berries – that's normal.

Keep the heat on high until the vinegar starts to boil – you should see this as a couple of bubbles appear and you hear the occasional berry pop.  Once boiling, turn the heat down to a simmer and leave it simmering for 25 minutes.

It's probably a good idea to get your over up to temperature now, to sterilise the jars: turn the heat to 120ºC. Also, take this time to wash the jars in hot and slightly soapy water.

At the end of this time you'll see that most of the berries have popped and there's a lot more juice in the pan.  This is good.

Now add the sugar – all of it – and stir it in.  Bring the mixture back up to a simmer and cook for a further 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Get the jars in now as well – they need 20 minutes in the oven.  Once they're done, get them out and arrange on a chopping board (so that they don’t ruin your work surface).  Be very careful handling them – as they're glass they'll retain their heat for ages.

Once the 25 minutes is up, your cranberry mix should be nice and mushy and all of the sugar dissolved.

First, remove the bag of spices using tongs.  Give it a good squeeze on its way out to release any juices in there and scrape off any sauce with a spoon.

Using oven gloves and a ladle, transfer the mixture to your jars.  If you're using Kilner-type jars, then wait until the glass is just cool enough to get the rubber seals on and close the lids.  You may see a bit of condensation, but this should pass when they're fully cooled.

Et voila.  Spiced cranberries, ready for the Christmas table.

- GrubsterBoy -

PS: The recipe is actually adapted from Good Housekeeping's 1973 edition of The Cookery Year.  It's a fantastic book, actually, containing a base recipe for almost any dish you want to attempt – a sort of British Silver Spoon.  If you can get your head round conversions from Imperial to Metric, you're fine.  And it's chocablock with wonderfully retro pictures and dishes.  

Friday 12 December 2014

Food Porn #11: Political Pastries

Being in Barcelona, as we were, in the midst of the highly controversial Catalonian independence referendum, there was plenty of marketing, hype and merchandise going around - for both sides of the argument.  But one attempt to cash in on the will-they-won't-they vote caught my eye in particular.  The bakery next door to our hotel had a line in little pastries that were like a halfway house between yum yum donuts (in taste) and gingerbread men (in shape).  For the day of the intended referendum (which never officially came off in the end) the little doughy dudes were done up in Catalan colours and given issue flags yo wave - Yes, No and ?.  Well played.

Thursday 4 December 2014

7 Portes, Barcelona, Spain

7 Portes is one of those restaurants that's managed to basically scoop everyone else in the locale.  You ask friends where to go in Barcelona for a bit of grub, 7 Portes is likely to come up.  You pick up a guide book and flip to 'best restaurants' and you'll see 7 Portes somewhere on that page.  Restaurants like this aren’t always going to be the best – in fact, they can often be the worst – no, it's about having tapped into something bigger, some pulse of the city that means that its patrons feel like they've actually been to that city and lived the experience.  Like Café de la Monde in New Orleans, or Katz's Deli in New York or the Savoy Grill in London – if you visit you just have to go, even if it's not going to be the best meal you get in that city (except, at least in Katz's case, it's gonna come pretty darn close).

The interior of 7 Portes is definitely striking.  It's all oak beams and marble floors, reminding me of what we'd call the 'Grand Café', even if that that would make it Austrian.  Also, interestingly, around the walls are little plaques where famous people are supposed to have sat and taken their victuals.  The table to our left had house Truman Capote, and to our right Ernesto Ché Guevara.  Our table had played host to an obscure Spanish poet that I'd never heard of and now can't remember, which just goes to show that you kinda win some and lose some when it comes to which celeb had previously warmed your seat cushions.

We opened proceedings with a (mini) bottle of cava.  Cava, so bemoaned by the English snob, is big business in Catalonia on account of so much of it being produced from hereabouts.  7 Portes house drop was pretty decent, too.

GrubsterGirl kicked off with the salt cod balls, whilst I dived in with a bowl of clams.

GG's cod balls were pretty good, but sadly just too bland.  A sauce – perhaps a romesco – would have been a delightful accompaniment, even if just to give the fritters a little 'wet'.  Also, the portion size was epic.  Much more than any one person should try to eat for a starter.

My clams, on the other hand, were fab.  Being by the sea you get a good range of seafood, and 7 Portes is supposed to be one of Barca's finest purveyors of Catalan cuisine, so I chose accordingly.  The molluscs were cooked in cider and vinegar, accompanied by thick slices of roasted garlic.  They had a sweet, almost caramel-esque, richness to them that was wonderfully matched by the scent of the vinegar (fortunately, none of its sharpness came through) and the fruitiness of the cider.

For the main, I had salt cod – bacalao for the uninitiated – and a massively popular foodstuff in Spain – was fantastic.  It was cooked with garlic and smoked paprika in the traditional 'llauna' (hot plate) style, and came on a portion of spicy white bean.  Very nice.

Mrs G went on to order the millionaires' paella for her main.  This is basically just a normal paella, albeit with all of the shells and bones removed so you can just pile whole forkfuls of hot, steaming rice and meat and fish into your mouth.  Good times.

It was very good – although once again it was way way way too big – what you see there is the portion for one (I jest not).  It also had slightly too strong a base – the stock (presumably) that was used to make it was so rich and heavy that it ran the risk of (and all too often did) wholly masking the more delicately flavoured shellfish.

Puddings were a bit disappointing.  GrubsterGirl opted for vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate sauce, which is poured at your table.  They're actually very fond of this at 7 Portes, the old school style of having the waiter do much of the work at the table.

I had a similar affair, a block of vanilla ice cream covered in burnt caramel and scattered with a type of turron made from ground almonds.

Friday 28 November 2014

Igueldo, Barcelona, Spain

Fortunately, the problem of where to get dinner in Barcelona is (it is generally considered) not one of lack of resource.  On the contrary, I understand that it is far more difficult choosing which restaurant from the myriad options rather than there being none to choose from.  The second difficulty is booking a table.

That's pretty much how we ended up at Igueldo, a restaurant in the (sort of) centre of town peddling Basque cuisine. A review courtesy of Time Out and rankings amongst their best restaurants of Barcelona helped us pick it from the crowd, and our ability to score a table made our visit a certainty.

The restaurant itself is smart and appealing, in that white and brightly lit way that restaurants on the continent can be appealing.  Service was slow though – something that always makes me a bit cross, my mood not being improved one bit by the fact that (being Englishfolk, not Spaniards / Catalans) we chose to eat at 8.30pm and so were literally the first table to be seated.  Frankly, if you can't service a restaurant with only two people in it, how will you cope when it's stuffed to the gunwales.

We were approached with little amuse bouche of local sausage wrapped in toast and served with a honey and mustard sauce.  If this sounds a little bit like something your gran might serve at Christmas drinks, it's because it was.

For starters we both chose to have the crab meat and chickpeas.  This came as a kind of chickpea stew, floating in rich, unctuous brown meat / fish soup, with a scoop of mixed, spiced crab meat and a drizzle of saffron aioli to keep it company.  I thought this was absolutely top banana.  GrubsterGirl described it as "a bit peasanty" which was, in fairness, bang on – but really very, very good with it.

For mains we diverged.  Mrs Grubster went for fillet steak and foie gras, served with a port wine reduction and dauphinoise potatoes.

A treatise in richness - so much so that, tragically, half of the (enormous) portion of liver that came with the meat had to be abandoned.  But otherwise, nice.

I went for the duck breast – largely on the basis that I always order steak and am trying to get out of that habit – which came accompanied with a jus, steamed vegetables and sobresa.

Sobresa is a soft of soft chorizo, a sausage that is so soft it can be (quite literally and often is) spread on toast.  The combination of flavours was excellent – fatty, rich duck and smoky chorizo work remarkably well together, it turns out.  The vegetables were... fine, I guess.  I can’t get excited about sliced, steamed veg, I'm afraid, and I couldn’t help wondering if something more innovative could have been offered.  But the real problem with my dish was the meat.  It tasted fine, but it was as tough as boots.  Which is odd, for duck, and I can only assume is the product of not letting it rest properly.

For pudding, I had the cream cheese soufflé with raspberry ice cream and chocolate soil.  

The chocolate soil was extremely soil-ly (almost gritty) but otherwise the dish was superb.  The soufflé was nice and light, with a twang of the soft cheese, and the raspberry sorbet was the perfect accompaniment in acting as a foil to the rich pudding.

Mrs G went for the melon granita, which came with hints of coconut, pineapple and jasmine.  Very refreshing, just what you need after a big rich meal like ours.  Although frankly I could only really taste the melon in there.

On balance, I have slightly mixed feelings about Igueldo.  I can’t really figure it out: either it's a wonderful restaurant that sometimes misses the mark (badly), or it's an outfit that has some major, structural problems that are offset by the occasional spark of genius.  Because when it was good it was brilliant - the duck / chorizo pairing, the cheese soufflé.  But things were definitely off – the tough duck, the over rich beef, the very slow service... So when it was bad, it was a bit grim.

Verdict?  Difficult to say.  Would I go back?  Not in a hurry.  Could it have been amazing, on a different night or if we'd ordered different food?  Definitely.

 - GrubsterBoy - 

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Dry Martini, Barcelona, Spain

Dry Martini is a funny name for a cocktail bar, I reckon.  This is mostly because it's not really the name of a cocktail bar, it's the name of a drink.  And not just any old drink, quite possibly the most famous cocktail of all time.  If you're going to name yourself after the world's most renowned drink, you'd better be damn sure you know how to make a good one.

Fortunately, for Dry Martini, they do.  Oh, they do.

Dry Martini bills itself as a bit of a speakeasy joint.  Before that sends you running for the hills – and who wouldn’t, given just how many 'speakeasy' abomination bars there are out there, especially in the trendy zones, like Greenwich Village in NYC or Hoxton in London – I can safely say it's not like your average speakeasy.  Largely because, however much you want it to be like a speakeasy, it just isn’t.  Oh no, this is the Gentlemen's Club style of bar, and it pulls it off with aplomb.  Oak panelling covers every surface, the bar is shrouded in perfect white, starched linens, the floors are marble, the lighting is low, and every singly instrument used by the staff to mix, stir or shake your drink is solid silver.

By the way, you see that digital counter there?  That's a live counter of every dry martini they've ever served.  Wish I'd been there for number 1,000,000.

But faffing aside, we were here for one thing: a dry martini.

Mixed with Bombay Sapphire as standard (although you're welcome to ask for something different if you'd like) and the tiniest dash of French vermouth, it is then stirred – not shaken, which dilutes the drink something rotten – before being strained into glasses fresh out of the freezer.  Then there's a spritz of lemon peel (but not the peel itself) and a salty green olive gets popped in there.

Is it any good?  Yes.  It's bloody marvellous.

(This was martini number 1,044,562, by the way.)

There is no menu, which is a bit of a pain, but then I reckon – genuinely – that you could call out the name of any cocktail – certainly the name of any of the classics – and they'd know how to make it for you.  And I say that because, for our next round, we decided to test them. GrubsterGirl ordered up her soft-spot drink, a margarita, whilst I opted for a Vesper – a personal favourite of mine.  The Vesper was perfectly executed – especially with the inclusion of Cocci Americano, a slightly more herbal and bitter vermouth more reminiscent of the Kina Lillet Ian Fleming intended, rather than the modern Lillet Blanc.