Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Dinner by Heston

Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 
66 Knightsbridge, London

I'll open with two well known facts, everyone knows Heston (yes he has a made single name status like Madonna and Prince) and he is basically a kick ass creative chef so there is no need for a recap of his bio.

So dispensing with a redundant opening, travelling all the way to London, I did consider a trip to The Fat Duck, however, the location in Bray isn't that close and it seems that the press and popular folk in San Pelligrino think that Dinner by Heston is hipper and has more appeal than The Fat Duck which is serving more of a greatest hits than new creations these days.

With that aside, I actually found myself looking forward to the menu at Dinner by Heston as it features dishes that would have feasted upon at the various castles I visited during my trip over the past millenia. Visiting understated places like The Brighton Pavilion shows that the brits have always loved a good feast.

Sitting down in the comfortably modern dining room in the bowels of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, our table was welcomed by an Australian waitress who walked us through the menu, all very straight forward three courses of your choosing, nothing more than that. After pintxos and several degustation menu's it was quite pleasant to sit down to three courses of my own choosing.

The first course of Lobster & Cucumber Soup (c.1730) was a delightfully light and refreshing starter for a warm summer's evening. Featuring generous pieces of perfectly cooked lobster this was very enjoyable, what also impressed was the terrific weight in the cucumber soup, for a vegetable that is mainly water this had a tremendous viscosity

The following course of Powdered Duck Breast (c.1670) was very good, but not outstanding. The brined duck was perfectly cooked and tender, however the skin could have been a bit crispier. The unctuous sauce was so thick light could barely escape, but did pair well with the duck and the confit fennel. I didn't regret it, but wouldn't say it is a must have either.

So with this we get to the finale, and with that a choice had to be made, the famous Tipsy Cake (c.1810) or the Taffety Tart (c.1660) which I have marveled over time and time again with it's paper thin pastry. In the ended I opted for both as any rational person would.

The Taffety Tart came out and was as exceptional as I expected, absolutely mm perfect, every component was spot on, the ice cream, the layers of rose and apple, it had beauty and complexity.

The Tipsy Cake on the other hand is more brawn than beauty, presentation is somewhat rustic with the rich caramelised spit roast pineapple and brioche or "Tipsy Cake" served on a chopping board, it makes up for it's understated appearance with an onslaught of flavour. The brioche turns up the sweetness to 11 with a rich crust of sugar over the light brioche soaking in a boozy apple sauce. The counter to this is the spit roast pineapple which balances things out nicely and almost has a savoury finish to it. Despite the weight and sweetness it is very easy to finish and well worthy of signature dish status.

So with that, Dinner by Heston was over. A very enjoyable experience, it was fun, it was casual and most importantly it was delicious. Compared to some other restaurants I have been to lately, it was great to see the staff enjoyed themselves as much as the diners.

The question I ask myself now, if I were to travel to the other side of the planet again soon and only had a few days in London, would I return? Absolutely.

Historically epic feast
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 12, 2013


 Av del Alcalde José Elosegi, 
Donostia-San Sebastián, Spain

The planned pinnacle of my trip to Europe was to dine at Restaurant Arzak on my 40th birthday and enjoy a spectacular meal as I the one I enjoyed 6 years earlier that I heralded as the best meal ever until I dined at Martín Berasategui just a mere 2 days earlier.

The plans were on track, a lovely day on the San Sebastian beach, a few Cava's and a short taxi ride to the famous Restaurant Arzak. For some reason though, almost as soon as we were in something didn't feel right, the staff greeting us seemed distracted, they guided us through the sliding door to our table in the far corner of the restaurant and we were soon greeted by a very awkward floor manager for the English speaking tables.

We eventually got there with the manager and ordered, our sommelier came by and made some exceptional recomendations and despite speaking barely a word of English he would as it would turn out he would be a rare friendly face in what was to be a dinner to remember for mainly the wrong reasons.

The first course of appetizers arrived, they were ok, Anchovy strawberries were a bit strange and the others were nice, if somewhat unremarkable. In some respects there was an element of trying too hard with the chorizo with tonic served on the bottom of a crushed tonic can.

The first course of cromlech which is a crispy shell filled with a tasty onion and foie gras filling while a bit awkward to eat was quite nice. The fried shell of the cromlech was a bit oily to handle but the crunchy texture with the smooth filling was very nice.

Most of the next few courses were solid, but not overly spectacular, the well cooked lobster and monk fish dishes were well executed, but not displaying a huge amount of flair. The Ovo-lacto egg dish was disappointing, bland and presented like a dish that was a concept in search of flavour.

The final savoury course arrived, a well cooked piece of pigeon was served with a strong resinous sauce and citrus shavings. While it was nice, it was close to going over the line with the citrus dominating the dish. Sitting opposite, my wife stuggled with her main course of salisbury steak so I nobly offered to swap plates and try the wagyu salisbury steak. It became clear quite quickly why there was a struggle, it was bland, poorly cooked and confused.

The dish was a disaster, like the ovo lacto dish, it was a concept looking to become a restaurant dish. The presentation of the meat like as if it were an ice cream didn't make much sense and serving the meat as rare was wrong and the seasoning was non existent.

Then the most unusual thing happened, I gave feedback on the incoherent Salisbury steak, I commented it was undercooked, underseasoned and it was an insult to take something as special as a piece of wagyu and treat it like this. If this were a dish in a cooking show, I am sure the judges would slam the contestant for a complete lack of respect. This was communicated to the english speaking  floor manager and we were told off for not saying something sooner!

About 20 minutes later, Juan Arzak came out to try to explain the dish as we were being served our first dessert. There was no trying to understand my point of view, I was being bombarded by Juan, by the floor manger, we were surrounded by staff trying to serve us dessert oblivious to the conversation going on and in the middle of this I was thinking "What the hell is happening?". Here I am, in a 3 Michelin star restaurant being harassed by the floor manager, the chef, for giving some negative feedback.

From here the night just fell apart, The dessert we were served was like ashes in my mouth, I remember it was OK, but not spectacular. The rest of the conversation and outcome will stay between the table and floor staff of the evening. All I will say is that compared to the service we had a mere two nights earlier at Martín Berasategui it was a complete disgrace.

I left Arzak somewhat troubled. What just occurred? Was it a one off? Further reading and investigation, it would appear my experience was not a one off event in recent times and a very different experience to what I experienced 6 years earlier. Some people have been critical of Arzak for offering a cookie cutter service, I can't argue with that, others for the service, or lack thereof.

After some time to reflect we were either unfortunate to be there there on a night of a difficult service, or something is sorely amiss in Arzak. Bland food, dishes that were trying too hard to mimmick others like Heston and bad, bad service.

Ultimately, if there was one thing that seemed to be amiss, it was no one, and I mean no one at Arzak appeared to be enjoying themselves. The reception, the floor staff and certainly no one at my table, certainly not up to the standard of 3 Michelin stars or a top 10 restaurant in San Pellegrino and if this were to continue like this they will be neither any time soon.

Epic dissapointment.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Martín Berasategui

Loidi Kalea, 4, 20160 Lasarte-Oria,
Gipuzkoa, Spain

Stunning, simply stunning is the first impression when walking through the dining room of the three Michelin starred Martín Berasategui. Having had the pleasure of frequenting restaurants such as Vue de Monde at the top of the Rialto, Quay overlooking Sydney Harbour and plenty of other restaurants that strive for a memorable view, nothing compares to the sheer serenity to that of the terrace of Martín Berasategui's San Sebastian restaurant.

Overlooking the rolling hills of the Basque countryside Martín Berasategui features an outdoor terrace alongside the impressive dining room which on a warm Spanish evening offers a very impressive setting with no compromise to the three Michelin star experience.

I can't recall ever writing a review of a restaurant and spending two paragraphs gushing about the perfection of a restaurants dining setting, once our Champagne arrives I am already anticipating a great dining experience.

Our waiter walks us through the menu and despite what appears to be an overwhelming 12 courses in the great tasting menu there is really no option as to which way to go. An interesting detail to appear on the menu is the year in which a dish debuted. While some dishes go back to 1995, the majority have appeared this year or in the past few years which is a good sign that the kitchen isn't just resting on the "Greatest Hits".

So with that, the dining marathon kicks off. The first course arrives in a fashion that would be typical of the night, plates served to us in sync with a small perfectly plated well thought out dish. Mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie-gras, spring onions and green apple is not showing signs of a dish that is 18 years old and also shows that great combinations never go out of style.

From here the standard of food and the consistency of service does not skip a beat. Whether is turning an ingredient I am indifferent over like oyster in to a dish I would go back for again once paired with cucumber, kafir and coconut or the deceivingly delicious sauteed black garlic with beet ceviche which looks more like dessert than savoury course, every dish delivers.

Singling out a dish though for special praise though would be the red mullet with edible scales, for a menu that is devoid of gimmicks or cliches I thought his may be a bit gimmicky, but to my delight the edible scales add a delicious crunch and flavour to the red mullet. The scales are reminiscent of teppanyaki prawn legs but much more delicate. This rates among my favourite dishes of all time.

Desserts were as enjoyable as the savoury courses, the apple, lemon, celery, cucumber gin and mint is a perfect palate cleanser, almost like an edible mojito meets gin and tonic and the final course of mist of coffee and cacao a perfect finale to a magnificent dinner.

How do I sum up dinner at Martín Berasategui? As close to perfection as one can get, 12 faultless courses, magnificent setting, impeccable service and great wine matching from the sommelier. One final comment on the service, the staff seem to enjoy working in the restaurant as much as the diners enjoy dining there, this along with everything else makes this possibly the single best dining experience I have had the pleasure of enjoying.

An epic dining experience can only be given one rating - an epic win.

Prawn Star