Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Great Steak Robbery


Over the last few years London has seen a mushrooming of the gourmet steak house and I suppose it was only a matter of time until they bloomed across the capital encroaching every corner of restaurant market. I am here to give you, dear reader, my shocking views on establishments which charge over and above the odds for a slice of prime beef. I have been silent in the past but now I think it time to speak up for the consumer! This is the great steak robbery...

In June 2012 I went with a couple of friends to the Hawksmoor which had (then) recently opened near Guildhall for a boozy supper and to try some of their much-hyped cuisine. It proudly proclaimed itself as a steak restaurant and as such offered a myriad of the stuff on the menu. We had ordered some cocktails and were looking through the menu. I had chosen my starter (bone marrow to be exact - not cheap) when my heart gave a start. Looking down at the main course a shudder went down my spine as I saw the price brackets next to the steaks on offer, ranging from £20.00 - £33.00!

On seeing this I was once more reminded of the atrocious prices placed on steak by establishments, like an exorbitant discretionary tip on an already large bill. Since, I have tried my hardest from then on not to order it in a restaurant if I can help it for both my palate and the ease of my wallet! There are much - or should be - better and more imaginative dishes on restaurant menus to inspire the palate that give a far better indication of the chef's talents. 

Before I am lambasted as anti-steakhouses or Hawksmoor. Let me make clear that it would be very unfair to single out that establishment for practicing such a trade as most restaurants do; I have no complaints about the excellent quality of the steak and they would, i am sure, be able justify the price against this against their guidelines and price points. You also are paying for the cooking, the service, the ambience and your seat so fair game to them - they’ve got to pay the overheads too. 

I suppose, in my own small way, I cannot understand why people would pay such a thwacking great sum - bearing in mind sides are rarely complementary - for something that could be purchased from the butcher for half the price, as good quality and can even be cooked to a tee by the most incapable amateur. 

Turning closer to home, for a moment as I like to bring a few local issues into the discussion, there are many excellent/good restaurants and gastropubs in my area that sell steaks on their menu but put them at a price range far and above anything else. Perhaps it is this level of exclusivity that attracts people to the dish, for I see so many people order it nowadays - it is a shame because they are missing out on experiencing the chef’s skills, cooking with more complex flavours, in addition to saving themselves a few pennies...

But perhaps I am the one who is out of date, steaks seem to be in and paying top dollar the de rigeur. 

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Cordon du Chap: Incanto, San Francisco


550 Church St  
San Francisco
CA 94131
United States

Score: *****

On a recent trip  to San Francisco I was lucky enough to go for one of the best meals that I have ever eaten where everything from the food to the general ambience of the restaurant worked and made for a thoroughly exciting experience. It made me wonder why we do not have the same sort of thing in the UK where even some of the best restaurants have one flaw which brings it down to slightly less than perfect. 

Incanto is an Italian restaurant in the Noe Valley district of the Bay City (about 15 minutes by car from the Financial District) which I was recommended by a stalwart tweeter Derek Hardy (@degs123) just before I left the wet and windy shores of the UK. 

Lone diners are becoming scarcer and scarcer these day which is something of a shame and there are many restaurants that look on such singular people with slight apprehension (is he a critic?). In this case I did not have my critic hat one but when the food turned out to be so good I felt that i could not resist from sharing my experience with my blog followers - for the record I try to make it a rule not to write about bad eating experiences, it’s too easy to be nasty, much hard to be kind but sincere. 

I was warmly welcomed with my reservation for one and was sat between a few lively tables which made me feel welcome, none of the terrible habit that some places have of consigning you to the peripheries by the kitchen door, the entrance or the loo. Immediately a waiter came over with the menus and an offer of their complementary house filter water (still or sparkling), I chose the latter and set to looking at the menu when he had left. 

Each course had roughly 6-7 choices (excluding specials) and there was a nice mixture of the traditional and experimental including dishes like: heirloom chicories, balsamic & pecorino Incanto; young kales, anchovy & Parmesan; spaghettini, Sardinian cured tuna heart, egg yolk & parsley and chocolate budino, red wine cherries & mascarpone. My appetite was wetted just reading it and the wine list, short but well considered, had a few delicious looking tipples on offer. 

The waiter came back promptly with the water and gave me an overview of the specials, but none beguiled me away from the menu. informing him that I was ready to order I proceeded with: Mosciame (cured tuna), citrus, Castelvetrano olives & fennel; Handkerchief pasta & rustic pork rag├╣ and Maple semifreddo, huckleberries & pecans. I accompanied this with a glass or two (as it would turn out) of crisp, chilled Soave. 

The tuna came promptly and was an experience which wouldn’t be to everyone’s palates, grapefruit and smoked fish is an acquired taste, but the fish had a delicious, slightly musky, flavour which became more pronouced between the moist inner portion and the drier outer. It paired well against the citrus tang of the grapefruit and the slight-aniseed of the shaved fennel - with the wine (Soave) it was a very well balanced plate of food and the right amount for a starter. 

Although there was a delicious looking sequence of main courses I opted to go for pasta (something I can never resist in an Italian restaurant) and plumped for the chef’s special (although I declined the offer of a fried duck egg on top!). The ‘blankets’ were cooked to perfection with just the right texture and were topped by a rich, deeply savoury sauce that didn’t swamp the pasta (as many US establishments are prone to do) this was topped off by a generous sprinkling of parsley which gave a clean, fresh dimension to the plate. It was there one moment and gone the next, you’ve never seen a man polish of a dish so quickly! 

I had intentionally gone for a small portion of the pasta as I wanted to leave some room for pudding (I just don’t have that infamous American appetite - and feel bad that I cannot finish the gargantuan mains usually offered up at establishments over there!) and I made the right decision. 

The Maple Semifreddo had the most beautiful texture and a lovely, light syrupy, distinctive taste and when next to the steeped huckleberries, candied pecans and biscuit crumb was thrown into another dimension - paired against the vin santo which had been recommended by the very amenable waiter it was stellar. I am not usually a pudding person but this was something else and, if I urge you to have one dish when you go make it this for it is everything a pudding should be. The portion was manageable and you felt sated after eating it neither wanting more or regretting the portion size. 

I rounded off the experience with a welcome cup of coffee and the check (to use an Americanism). The total came to $65.00 (£41.00) which for some might seem a little steep but for one of the hot-places in SF I thought it reasonable in consideration of what I had ordered, the immaculate service and the fantastic, friendly atmosphere. 

All I can now say is that if you are in San Francisco anytime soon, make sure you check out this place for some of the best food the city has to offer in a relaxed, convivial atmosphere. 

Sketches from a Cigar Smoker’s Album: Occidental (Pts I, II & III)



I

San Francisco is certainly not a smokers haven, stringent laws and restrictions make this city a perfect place for those who wish to abstain from stogies and cigarettes - bar the Haight Ashbury district where the smell of pot is rife through an air that echoes with the sound of drunks, homeless maniacs and jungle music. 

However, in a small corner of the financial district not far from my hotel, there lurked a corner of civilisation which thankfully had managed to bypass the strict dictats of the State of California. The Occidental Cigar Club is a unique establishment combining two of the greatest combinations known to man, hand-rolled cigars and hard liquor in excessive quantities. 

I was immediately made to feel welcome on that quiet Sunday lunchtime fragile as I was feeling from a wonderful wedding that I had attended on the previous evening. Yvette, who has to be one of the most generous and helpful proprietors/hosts I have ever met started me off with something mild (medium for the yanks, mild for the British) and I sheepishly ordered a pint of the local Scrimshaw Pilsner to sup as I worked out what I was going to do with the rest of my afternoon. 

Of course the bar’s atmosphere was intoxicating and every now and then someone new would come in and strike up conversation with yours truly - although it is more likely I was the one buttonholing them! and as the afternoon wore on one Scrimshaw turned into a Guinness and another which was chased by a smooth, sweet Diplomatico rum. 

One of the fellows who pitched up at the bar was something of a scotch drinker, and worked in the film industry and, following suit with lengthy tasting of all the best the bar had to offer, I only thought it right that I should try it myself, along with some fantastic Glenfarclas and more unpronounceable and expensive. Of course, but that time the very agreeable Arturo Fuente had run its course and I thought it would be churlish not to indulge in another of the establishments beautifully kept cigars. 

I then turned my attention to a Bolivar - their Dominican variety as it is The States - and continued my banter with my neighbour, who turned out to be in the film industry and had constructed the sets of a number of high profile films including Inception, Indecent Proposal, Misery and many more. Yvette charming as ever plied me with more delicious spirits and even a Phil Collins playlist - this had to be the best bar I had ever been to!

It was 17:30 before I received a call from a friend inviting me for supper and I realised that I had spent five hours in the place, if not more, so much for site-seeing.

II

I would be a liar if said that I didn’t go back to The Occidental, in fact I went there that very same evening, but on this occasion without the explicit intention to. Heading to supper in the tres chic Richmond area, which is choc-full of young, glamourous professionals one of my fellow guests pointed out that I smelt similar to the bottom of a very expensive ashtray and wondered where I had passed my time during the afternoon. Upon telling him he gesticulated wildly, clapping me on the back and exclaiming to the assembled company that, like a prophet of the tobacco trade, I was going to lead them all to this mythical bar - the only place you can legally smoke indoors in the city! 

Heading back to the back in tow with ten friends and companions I was greeted with open arms at The Occidental. I cannot say the night was any less than a boozy, smokey affair where more Scrimshaw Pilsner was sunk but equally a chaser or five of Diplomatico rum was quaffed by the assembled party. 

The highlight of the evening (bar the friends I had and made over the afternoon, who were still there) was a brief conversation that I had with a goateed fellow in a Russian trench coat, smoking a pipe and waxing lyrical on the mysteries in life via the magic of Nabakov. as he sucked on his pipe he informed me of the intricacies of being a short story author. It was to no avail...by that time I was the 'party man' and far beyond the nuances of controversial 20th Century literature. Like a creature of habit my next Bolivar arrived and the night blended into a myriad of scotch, smoke and seedy songs: you can have it (if you take my heart)

III

I had quite a morning in the foggy city - not that it was over-clouded on my trip - where the sky was blue and the chowder was gloopy. A filling and hearty stew was had on the waterfront as I watched the seagulls and ferries depart from the dock, out into the enigmatic pacific ocean... how pretentious... and certainly not a thing the Bloody Good Chap would do - or did he? the chowder was delicious in any case. 

It was the last day in the city and there was a sense of regret that I hadn’t really seen too much of the town in my brief stay. Pondering this point I almost walked past the Occidental - as much as I (and my friends) had patronised it two nights previous it could have been a stretch to head back in, especially when the bar smelt akin to Heston’s Lapsang smoked salmon - but back I went for a night of gargantuan proportions. 

You must know those evenings when you meet great people, the supposed ‘Dot.com’ millionaires and entrepreneurs that met on that fateful night (smoking a Bolivar & Aturo Fuente) by humouring my frivolous conversation and my arrogant comments regarding the merits of Cuban cigars, which I well knew none of them had smoked until a old buffer - all moustache and no gusto - said that he felt Cubanos were overrated. A point, but a poor one...

The afternoon slipped into the evening and my new friends and I were laying heavily into the rum and pilsner chasers as we chowed down of some serious cigars... sadly my impending flight beckoned and I had to take a sad leave of an establishment that been one of the most mutually beneficial experiences I have had on any holiday so far.

Next time, I will be discussing about the city’s amazing food scene for all my foodie followers who constantly accuse me of abandoning them!