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Alan Smeaton

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Everything posted by Alan Smeaton

  1. Why does everyone want to be a critic these days, and why do they think that the rest of the world is interested in their opinions? Much as I read restaurant reviews in the press, I take them with a pinch of salt except where the verdict is consistently good or bad. At the end of the day, it's a plate of food you are eating, it's not meant to be a major contribution towards the cultural well -being of society. Anyone designating themselves "The Critical Couple" is setting themselves up to having the proverbial taken out of them. As for food photos, please don't get me started. They don't tell me anything about how the food will taste and therefore contribute little towards a review. A photo of the dining room, tables and chairs would be more useful. I read a great quote from Shaun Hill the other day: "...all I do is what I’ve done for 40 years. I just cook what seems like it might be nice to eat. It’s not high art or science...it’s just a bit of fun". That's just about the most sensible comment I've read about food and restaurants in a long time. I do wish others didn't treat it as though it was some kind of religion.
  2. Just back from Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth-on-Tees, where Kenny Atkinson has relocated, and couldn't recommend a hotel more strongly. Absolutely beautiful setting, huge rooms - ours had space for two three seater sofas and a dining table as well as a king size bed. Enormous bathroom with separate walk-in shower and a telly screen above the bath. Staff had that balance of professionalism and friendliness that can be difficult to achieve. It's based around an 18 hole golf course and luxury spa, neither of which intrude on those not interested in them. Some brief dining notes based on memory and copies of the menu – Anne would not have been amused if I’d been taking notes at the table! Friday Pre-starter: A small teacup containing pea soup with pieces of pork cheek and some wild garlic shoots on top. Lovely, light but with intense flavour. Starters: Scallops with cannelloni of carrot and Whitby crab, golden raisins and crab jelly. I picked up some fennel notes as well. Very good cooking, the scallops were the star, everything else just adding a note here and there. Line caught mackerel with gooseberry textures. One of Atkinson’s dishes on The Great British Menu. The mackerel was rolled in a thin slice of bread, bringing an interesting element to the dish. The gooseberries added a terrific acidity to cut through the oily, sweet mackerel. Probably the dish of the weekend. Mains: Line caught grey mullet, jersey royals, Scarborough lobster & asparagus, broad beans and morels. Not a fish often seen on menus, this was delicate and soft, but not dominated by the veg. Not sure the lobster brought much to the dish, but well-balanced all the same. Risotto of fresh peas, spring onions and mint, slow roasted tomatoes, parmesan crackling and pea shoots. This could convert me to vegetarianism. I love risotto and this was lovely, very rich but moreish, and the parmesan crisp was lovely. Desserts; Vanilla pannacotta with rhubarb and raspberries, lemon and elderflower. Not something I’d order but Anne was very happy with it. Dark chocolate pave, gingerbread ice cram and cherry textures. Nice enough without being memorable. Saturday Pre-starter: Another teacup with white onion soup, smoked haddock and wild garlic. Creamy, rich, bags of flavour. Starters: Scallops again with the carrots being replaced by apple and fennel. Weirdly, this time I couldn’t pick up any fennel flavours. Still a good dish though. Yorkshire Duck – 3 hour poached duck egg, white asparagus and ratte potatoes, broad beans, morels and truffled mayonnaise. This was amazing, the duck egg yolk being rich and viscous in texture. The truffle flavour didn’t dominate the dish and the whole thing was a very clever idea. Mains: Poached and pan roasted roe deer, cauliflower and beetroot, braised shoulder tattie pot and sage. From the GBM. The tattie pot was sticky and packed with flavour, the roe deer not as gamey as venison can sometimes be. Very good. Roast loin, confit shoulder and sautéed sweetbreads of lamb, peas and mint, young leeks and cherry tomatoes. Again, first class execution, lamb was full of flavour, but could have done with some potatoes in my opinion. Desserts: Strawberry jelly crumble, strawberry sorbet and elderflower custard foam. Again from the GBM. Anne enjoyed it, but not my cup of tea. I thought it a little dull. Warm dark chocolate fondant, red wine poached cherries and cherry ripple ice cream. Wonderful fondant, perfectly cooked and everything else just went well with it. One thing to bear in mind is the portion size, which is very modest. I’m not a big eater, but this did strike me. The mains were about half the size of what you would get at, say, Terry Laybourne's Café 21 in Newcastle. I think some diners might be rather surprised at this. Overall, wonderful food, comparable to one star Michelin cooking at a London restaurant. Service was highly professional but not stiff in any way. Prices: £45 for the alc. The GBM menu is available at a pricey £70. Six courses, although one comprises a glass of champagne and the cheese option attracts a £10 supplement. Oddly, the supplement doesn’t apply to cheese on the alc.
  3. Simon I recommend googling "surpluswine" and you may discover something of a tale about York Place and fine wine sales to the public that apparently didn't materialise. The story was covered by You and Yours on R4 and also hit the local press as well as the forum on winepages.
  4. Larry Lunch at Le Gavroche in Mayfair is highly recommended. 2 star Michelin cooking at just under £50 a head, including a half bottle of wine per person, mineral water, coffee etc. Dinner is much more expensive but still worth it at about £90 per head for food. Corrigan's Mayfair is superb and more affordable, about £50 for three courses at dinner.
  5. Newcastle is pretty poor given its size and reputation for night life. Cafe 21 stands out like a beacon together with its sister restaurants Caffe Vivo and 21@Fenwicks. There's Jesmond Dene House and also a new owner of the Fisherman's Lodge. Even the McCoys had two attempts up here and gave up, the second one lasting less than a year. Agree that York is poor apart from J Baker's and Meltons.
  6. We had dinner at Corrigan's two days ago and I have to say it was excellent throughout. First impressions were of a well designed space with sympathetic lighting. Our table for two was not large but adequate enough and we sat at a corner banquette. We kicked off with Cornish Crab Jelly with melba toast and pea and mint risotto with cured ham. The jelly was a deep coloured, gelatinous sauce and the tower of crab had what I think was pickled white cabbage on top. Served cold, Anne found this very refreshing. My risotto was superb, with a deep pea flavour and and lovely texture. We had this with a carafe of 2007 Rotgipfler, Johanneshof, Thermenregion. Not a grape variety I have ever come across but it was accurately described by the sommelier as somewhere between a gruner v and a riesling. It went well with both dishes. Mains were the ox cheek, mushroom ravioli, garlic leaf and a special of suckling pig served as a ballotine with black pudding, apple sauce and crackling. We ordered mash and spring greens as sides. The ox cheek was very satisfying, dense sticky meat that melted in the mouth and the ravioli were delicious. Anne's pork was a success with proper cracking and a sweet sauce that worked well with everything. To go with this, I couldn't resist a Sean Thackrey Pleiades. It's amazing the combination of grapes that goes into this and yet it produces a very elegant wine - on the list at £68. For dessert we first shared a plate of British cheeses, all in excellent condition, with some butter biscuits covered in thyme, nuts and oats. We followed with a warm banana cake with rum soaked golden raisins. This came with some warm bananas in batter and what I think was blitzed bananas which were creamed and then chilled. An elegant pud that put a smile on our faces. Staff throughout were charming, professional but relaxed. The man himself was in and we were able to say hello as we entered. One minor gripe, a cover charge of £2 per person, which I only noticed when paying the bill. This isn't something I like to see. But, all in all, I would strongly recommend a visit. Food came out at just over £100, the end bill being much more painful with drinks!
  7. Has anyone eaten here recently? It has been recommended to me - we are down in London for a week in June and are planning some restaurant visits, although the only one booked to date is lunch at Le Gavroche.
  8. I'm afraid that you may struggle to find anything interesting. Plenty of reasonable pub grub, but not a lot else. The Treehouse is reckoned to be decent, but I've never been. Otherwise, it's a 50 mile trek down to Newcastle for serious eating.
  9. Does anyone have experience of the discount card operators such as the above? Although the list of participating restaurants for my part of the world is quite respectable, am I right to be suspicious? Are menus and reservations highly restricted? It is only after you join that you get a directory that shows what precise restrictions apply to individual establishments.
  10. I recall Jonathan Meades reviewing McDonald's a few years ago, one of the great pieces of restaurant writing. Giles Coren's review of Goodfellas in Belfast was pretty entertaining: "There is what appears to be a hen party in the next room comprising 12 women seated around a large square table, each of whom, on her own, weighs as much as a whole hen night of women from Fulham. (I guess these are battery hens). The men have big square heads and little pink faces, short spiky hair, stud earrings and big appetites. It’s like Westlife got old and fat overnight, which they sort of have if you saw them on Al Murray the other night."
  11. Pretty much all the places already listed would fit the bill, but I would agree that Cafe 21 hits the spot - Cafe 21 @Fenwicks would also be good for lunch. If in Durham, Bistro 21 is the place to go.
  12. I think price is a factor here, at least for me. If I am paying £50+ for three courses, I don't want to feel hurried or pressurised into having to finish and vacate, particularly if the time slot is a maximum of two hours. Obviously there are others who don't mind this arrangement and, from the restaurant's point of view, it's financially unrealistic to serve only one sitting, especially at busy times. I just think two hours is a little ungenerous, maybe two and a half or three would be better. If I'm eating at my local Italian cafe, this isn't an issue as, generally, I will be in and out within a couple of hours. Incidentally, are there any restaurants left that still do two formal sittings for dinner? I seem to recall this used to be a not uncommon practice at one time.
  13. We always eat late so this has never been an issue. Quite simply, I would never accept a reservation that had an exit time stipulated. I can understand the practice if the restaurant is offering an early evening menu at a reduced price.
  14. For me, it would have to be Claridges. Ok, it isn't cheap, but it's worth it and the staff are the best going. We had room service a couple of times and it was excellent.
  15. Cafe 21 on Trinity Gardens is terrific, classy brasserie food and superb service. If you're going for dinner, even on a Monday, it is worth booking. I was talking to their Operational Director at a wine tasting and he told me they had 120 in for dinner on Monday - astonishing for Newcastle. Jesmond Dene House, also part of the Terry Laybourne "empire", is high end dining - very good, massive wine list, the only downside is that feeling of being in a hotel restaurant. Caffe Vivo, another of Laybourne's, serves great Italian food at modest prices. I also recommend Amer's Restaurant in The Jesmond Hotel - lovely little place and a superb chef who was head chef at The Fisherman's Lodge for years. All the above have their menus on their websites. Finally, for great Sardinian cooking, the friendliest staff in the world, and a modest bill, go to Pani's in High Bridge. You will definitely leave with a smile on your face. McCoys @ TheBaltic is closing this month - they are opening a new place in Moseley Street,Newcastle.
  16. The following thread on the uk wine-pages forum gives details of the current tasting menu: http://www.wine-pages.com/cgi-bin2/ultimat...3795;p=1#000000
  17. Faced with a choice of two restaurants, one where the owner works reguarly in the kitchen, and one where he/she has handed over control to an exec/head chef, which would you choose? With two equally good places, the logical answer should be it doesn't matter. However, I must confess to favouring restaurants where I know the owner is generally present. For example, if I'm in London for a special occasion, I will tend to choose somewhere like Le Gavroche. Am I the only one with this, perhaps, slightly irrational attitude?
  18. Alan Smeaton

    Wine glasses

    No contest. Riedel Vinum every time. Why don't you choose glasses that match the grape varieties you like? My red burgundy glasses get used a lot although the bordeaux/claret glass is a better all-rounder. For whites, the sauvignon glass is a decent choice.
  19. I'm in grumpy old man mood at the moment, so excuse me if I get something off my chest. Why do so many restaurants these days claim to offer their dinner menu at a fixed price and then proceed to populate it with supplements? Okay, maybe I can just about accept this where maybe one main course contains particularly expensive ingredients, but when half the choices carry an extra charge, it starts to border on chicanery. I assume the practice is becoming prevalent in order to persuade customers that they are getting a good deal with one defined price for two or three courses, but in reality the final bill comes to rather more than they expected. If you want to charge lots of supplements then you should really price the menu alc. As a regular diner I appreciate that the restaurant business is risky, with high levels of failure, but I do think that this type of behaviour is disappointing, to put it mildly.
  20. Le Gavroche for me. We were last there a few months ago and it was as good as ever. Food is more french classic than Petrus with a modern twist and the service is impeccable. I also like the room, even though it is a basement.
  21. Matthew, thanks for that. One of the things about living somewhere like Newcastle is that you automatically assume the only places open on a Sunday night are Chinese and Indian. Arbutus looks just the job.
  22. We're staying in London a week on Sunday, near Waterloo Station. Looking for reccos for restaurants that open on Sunday evenings. Mid-price, and hopefully with a good wine list. Happy to take a cab but don't want to travel huge distances as we have a long journey the next day. Any ideas?
  23. There is a very good paperback by Nicola Humble called "Culinary Pleasures". It is a history of British cookery books from Mrs Beeton through to now. There is an excellent chapter "Mock Duck And Making Do" that covers the 1939-1945 period and describes what food was available and some of the bizarre recipes devised to get around shortages.
  24. Cloudy Bay is without doubt the most over-rated wine on the planet and not even worth the £15 ← An example of very clever marketing. Once it had attracted some good reviews, at a time when NZ sauvignon blanc wasn't too well known over here, the myth grew up about the wine being in short supply with limited allocations to wine merchants. A total load of rubbish but it increased the hype. As you say, very overrated, although in any event I prefer sancerre to NZ sbs anyway, finding the latter to be a bit too "tropical fruit" for my taste.
  25. As a wine lover, this is truly the most annoying thing I find about eating out. Sadly, the vast majority of restaurants apply a flat multiplier, regardless of the purchase cost. As a result, the better the wine I drink, the more I am subsidising the food prices of those who knock back the house red. There are some enlightened places that apply a reduced margin or flat mark-up on better wines to encourage people to drink better. Sadly these are few and far between. My wine bill in a restaurant routinely exceeds the food bill, and I wouldn't mind if I didn't feel I was being ripped off. Don't believe the age old excuse of the holdng costs for the wine cellar. There aren't too many restaurants whose cellars are awash with verticals of Chateau Petrus. Most wines on most lists are available very quickly from the on-line supplier. Rant over, must go somewhere to lie down and get calm.
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