Monday 29 October 2007

The Mango Tree

My brief was relatively simple: a restaurant a short walk from Victoria station. I don't know the area at all so I asked around and got some slightly depressing suggestions - ASK or Pizza Express right over the road from the station. I have nothing against ASK or Pizza Express, I just wanted something a little, well, better.

Finally my work foody friend came to the rescue with the suggestion of The Mango Tree. She has a friend who married a Thai girl and that is where they celebrated their marriage. I got there a bit early, so settled in with the menu and the best gosh darn prawn crackers I have ever tried. And some fizzy water, because I have a cold and thought too much booze was a bad idea. The decor is interesting - it's your standard big light room with wood panelled feature walls etc, but they seem to have gone gung-ho for Halloween and the lovely strelitzia and lily flower arrangements were draped with cobwebs, there were axes and spiders on all the walls and a row of jack o'lanterns twinkled with tealights in the window.

I'd already been horrified by the prices and made a partial recovery by the time my friends arrived. I think putting all of the expensive wines at the front is a novel way to go - I suspect many people order the first half-way reasonable one they clock, rather than combing through to the back for the house wines. Fortunately they were happy to let me order for the table, because I had already spotted several things I wanted to eat, and I wasn't much bothered by their tastes.

We started with Thai fishcakes. They had the pleasing bouncy texture I like, but I felt they were a little bland, or there was something missing in the flavouring. Could have been because of my cold though. A starter from the specials menu I thought was more successful - a chicken liver salad. The dressing was vibrant, the livers were flavoursome, it was a very good dish.

For mains, we shared a red duck curry - which was delicious and allowed me to show off a bit explaining that the little round green things are in fact a type of aubergine. The belly pork with Chinese broccoli and oyster sauce could have been more succulent, but was very well-flavoured, and the seafood with black bean sauce was just wonderful. So many big, fat scallops and prawns! Complemented but not padded out by fish and calamari. The glutinous rice was much stickier than I have had it before - plain steamed would have been a better choice.

We braved pudding. Some very interesting icecream flavours, but my friends both had a layered banana and coconut pudding, and I had lemongrass infused custard. Independent verification agreed with me that my custard had not the slightest hint of lemongrass flavour, but the vanilla in it was nice and the texture was lovely.

Fortunately when I completed the online booking form I ticked the "yes please" special offers box, which gave a 50% discount on the food bill. A very good thing, as with the discount (and a few bottles of fizzy water, 2 glasses of wine and a couple of coffees, service included) the bill cleared 70 quid. Definitely worth going back - but only on a mealdeal!

Saturday 27 October 2007

New discovery!

I'm not a huge chocolate fan. I like it OK, but I don't eat it very often - maybe a couple of times a month - and I very seldom crave it. I think chocolate has very little place in a dessert course, because it is too rich and heavy after almost anything. The best place for chocolate is as a little treat at teatime. Maybe a piece of chocolate tart. Maybe a chocolate roulade filled with mascarpone and berries. Maybe a square of millionaire shortbread. Maybe just a chocolate digestive.

But I have to say, I made an impulsive purchase at the supermarket yesterday, and I think I have embarked on a whole new life-stage of chocolate binging. Marks and Spencer organic fairtrade milk chocolate with nutmeg, cinnamon and coriander. Heaven! Like a chocolatey chai. It set me to fantasising about using it to make chocolate mousse, and hot chocolate, and infusing those flavours in dark chocolate to make truffles for Christmas. I fear it is a limited edition line, so I will have to stock up before they take it away from me!

Monday 22 October 2007

The Gate

We're house hunting at the moment. Not fun "We've saved for our dream home and we can do up the bathroom" house hunting but "They are selling our rental with 22 months to run on the lease" house hunting. Very tedious, as rental prices seem to have doubled in the last 14 months. Anyway, tonight after work we shot out to drive past a house that looks very promising. It's in a village a few miles away from here and seems very remote, although it is only 2 stations down the line.

So, it was 7.30 and I was hungry and getting whingey, so we stopped at The Gate; a pub we've been meaning to go to for ages. I had a margarita pizza; it is one of my tests. We used to go to a pizza place in Sydney called Napoli in Bocca, which made the most divine margarita (they called it something else, but it was tomato, mozzarella and basil) which has become my benchmark for pizza. This margarita was a journeyman's effort. Perfectly serviceable, and without doubt the best pizza I have had in England, but still not what I mean when I say pizza. I want a thin, perfectly cooked but still pliable, base, with wood-ash clinging to it. I want a smear of the most flavoursome tomato sauce. I want fior de latte mozzarella oozing milk as much as it melts. I want basil giving up its own essential oils to the mozzarella. I want a last minute anointing with peppery olice oil.

What I got was nice, thin and reasonably flavoursome, but without amazing ingredients and genius of production. And honestly, I didn't expect it. My husband had skate and salad, which he enjoyed. All in all, it was reasonable food made memorable by the worst menu spelling mistake I have seen in years. The roast cod on the specials menu was served with grilled aborigines.

Thursday 11 October 2007

Partridge in a Pear Tree

Ever since I was a little girl, my mother's Marks and Spencer cookbook has been an object of fascination for me. Not at all the sort of food we ate in Australia regularly, but the pictures of boning and stuffing a turkey, and filleting a sole kept me mesmerised.

One of the recipes was for Partridge in a Pear Tree - partridges casseroled with red wine and pears. As soon as I moved to England I asked my mum to send me that recipe, in the hope that partridge would come my way. And today they did.

We are very lucky that we have a proper butcher just up the road. He stocks lovely beef, really proper pork pies and award winning pickles and jellies. And he sells game. Apparently he uses a dealer just up in Chorleywood, so really close to us, and it is all locally shot. So I seized my opportunity to finally try the mystical Partridge in a Pear Tree.

And it was very nice really. Sweeter than I would have liked, I think if I do it again I will dispense with the spoon of jelly (was supposed to be redcurrant, I had apple & chilli in the fridge) although it did make for a delicious, glossy sauce. I also ditched the thickening with a beurre manie and just reduced the sauce while the meat rested. I also think serving it with carrot and swede mash was a mistake, too much sweetness. Celeriac would have been better. Still, for a first go at cooking and eating partridge, it was pretty darn good.

Tuesday 9 October 2007

Great Queen St

I know nothing about the Masons. I once worked at a banqueting hall where we had to serve the Masons their trifle at the same time as everything else so that we couldn't eavesdrop on their secrets, but that is as close as I have come. Still, I am favourably disposed towards them because the Freemason's Hall on Great Queen St is a very useful landmark when you are meeting people for dinner at 32 Great Queen St.

I am also favourably disposed towards 32 Great Queen St because on my previous visit I had the best potted shrimps of my life. But even that is a negative in a place where they do a daily menu and there is no chance at all that the potted shrimps will be on the menu again.

As it happens, my luck was in and the potted shrimps were on the menu! So I didn't even have to think twice about the crab on toast or the middlewhite terrine. And again they were wonderful. The perfect amount (a small duralex glassful), the perfect quantity of mace and seasonings and just the perfect temperature that the clarified butter melted instantly on contact with the warm, thick toast.

Fortunately my friend eats proper food, so it didn't take much persuading to get her to share the venison pie for two. A delicious, large oval dishful, with a slightly strange, very thin, crisp but unusually tough pastry, draped over a goodly chunk of marrowbone instead of a pie funnel. Since the waitress was kind enough to wrap the marrowbone in foil, I suspect my friend's dog is even now enjoying a little treat.

I was a bit reluctant to look at the dessert menu. A pie that large and rich really needs nothing to follow, but my reluctance was overcome in a nanosecond by muscat caramel custard. What a brilliant idea, what magnificent execution! The most superbly velvety vanillabean custard, smothered in a lovely, bitter, dark caramel heady with boozy muscat. Heaven. Pity it won't be on the menu the next time!

Mushroom Soup

There is a new outpost of the Carluccio empire round the corner from where I work. It is restaurant/deli/takeaway all in a pretty blue and white package but I confess that I hate the layout of the takeaway section. Paninis, cakes and pastries lie on open benches at EXACTLY the right height for small children to paw, and although there are tongs and things as if for self-service, every time I have approached the tongs one of the staff members has bustled up, relieved me of them and served me. So I find it a little confusing to know whether I am supposed to help myself or if moving towards the tongs is just a signal to the staff that I am ready to order. But I keep going back because the food is good.

Today I was about to have the red pepper soup that was on the hot food counter, when the very helpful member of staff mentioned that I could have one of the soups from the restaurant instead. At the mention of mushroom and pancetta I was sold. And a good choice it was too! A broth, filled with lots of different flavours and textures of mushrooms, lovely salty, soft cubes of pancetta and cubes of potato just crumbling into fuzz to thicken the broth. And instead of bread - which may have been the healthy option - I had a handful of little gorgonzola and walnut biscuits instead. A lovely lunch on a rainy day.


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