|Twice as nice|
|Tuesday, 11 January 2011|
The word reflection has been prominent in surgical professional issues recently and it has impinged upon my consideration of places to eat. So I have reflected upon restaurants that I have visited and have a theme of ‘how things change’. As always, there is an international flavour to this.
It is fine to visit a restaurant and enjoy it and then make a return visit some time later but then it is disappointing if it is not like the first visit and even worse if it is not up to scratch. Perhaps that’s because the excitement of a new restaurant has worn off or, I think more likely, it is that although the brand may be the same, the staff may be different.
I have written about the importance of good service in restaurants in previous issues of Surgeons’ News, but if the chef changes and the menu is changed then you might be in for an unexpected surprise. It is like all the players changing in a football team but the name remaining the same and the team still trying to demand a loyal support from its fans – or does the concept of the surgical multidisciplinary team meeting come in here somewhere?
I had a surprise recently when I thought I had booked Edwinns of Shepperton for a party of four in the evening – the telephone number was the same that I have known for years and there was no hint by the manager who took the booking that the restaurant was different, but it was!
From having been a traditional and comfortable English contemporary restaurant it had transformed into the Shepperton Bar and Grill and had become much more of a spicy steak restaurant. Absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact, a really good evening was had by all and I would go there again and visit its neighbours in the rest of this small chain. This was a surprise and not a bad surprise.
Where I was disappointed was a return visit to Eden which I have mentioned in one of my recent articles, in Eze in the South of France; still the same high prices, wonderful atmosphere, fabulous views and a sort of fusion cuisine, but this time much more Japanese. Too much rice in the sushi and rather tough gigantic duck breasts which were not easy to incise or digest, nonetheless, a very good evening but not what I had expected.
There is another restaurant within the same hotel complex known as La Chevre d’Or. This has two Michelin Stars and really deserves them for a fabulous culinary feast which was light, healthy, well-sized and absolutely delicious. Their version of a Salad Niçoise is something I will not forget – a plate covered in an avocado mousse, flavoured with crab, surrounded by a tomato jelly. Within the mousse was inserted the classic elements of a Salad Niçoise including seared tuna, the appropriate vegetables, anchovy and chunks of wonderful crab (pictured overleaf) – an interesting and surprising variation on an otherwise classic theme.
The main courses of the new chef, lobster and indeed local fish, were also outstanding, so much so that I had to return for a second visit within a few days and I was not disappointed! La Chevre d’Or is to be strongly recommended but avoid accepting a glass of champagne from the waiter when you first sit down as this will be a glass from a vintage bottle of Dom Perignon or something even more outrageously expensive. However, it has to be said that the Amuse Bouche was real caviar and the quality of the whole meal, service and the outstanding view perched on a hilltop looking out to the Mediterranean towards St Jean Cap Ferrat was memorable.
For good French food of a standard price in the same village there is La Troubadour and I went there last year and again this year and the food has remained excellent value for money with really wholesome French food and I would certainly recommend fish all round here. Perhaps a little too much asparagus and foie gras? The only real problem was in terms of the service – a charming waiter but it was only one waiter on this occasion. At least last year there was the chef-owner’s wife bustling around as well so I felt slightly cheated.
Now another revisit has been the Royal Society of Medicine in London for dinner. I have had a number of formal evening dinners (banquets) there over the years and the situation regarding food has improved dramatically but of course you get what you pay for. It is either a standard daily menu which is satisfactory or something which is really very good for which you pay a little more. However, in the formal restaurant, you can get a very good quality evening meal and indeed lunch with friendly and informed service. This institution has really improved over the last year and I recommend it. Not quite so sure about the Salmon Tartare as there did seem to be rather a lot of very raw fish on my plate, but what was I expecting? Nonetheless, all moving in the right direction.
Another place which has bettered itself is the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down, in Northern Ireland. This is really a terrific spot for Sunday lunch where there is a buffet and carvery-style meal of immense proportions and outstanding quality. The seafood buffet as a starter is really excellent and then the meats which are served freshly for the main course, again, can be strongly recommended and the whole thing is set to glorious piano music with a wonderful view towards the mountains of Mourne and if you are in Northern Ireland this is a place you just have to visit. It is reasonably priced and takes well-behaved families as well – and a marshmallow and chocolate fountain is all part of the entertainment.
Talking of carveries, rather than picnic on an occasion this year at Glyndebourne, we decided to try out the Nether Wallop Restaurant. This has also upped its level of food and service (at a price of course) and I thought was well worth it as the cheaper of the various Wallop options but I wasn’t so impressed with the standard of mini-mass catering in the new Mildmay Bistro in the gardens.
At the other end of the spectrum, three of us required a very quick meal before boarding a train at Marylebone in the heart of medical London, so headed into a well used blue looking pizza place called Getti, which is one of a small chain of restaurants and I would not go back to this chain again. The pizza crust was dry as a bone (but not burnt) with only a little filling and the service had a lot to be desired. The tables were squashed together and really didn’t help the atmosphere. I had the impression that this was going to be rather a special Italian restaurant following on from the other various chains around the High Street which I have sampled and briefly mentioned to you, but I am not quite so keen on this one.
In Dublin for exams and College functions, I have been to various restaurants but of course one of the most expensive and well known is the excellent L’Ecrivain. It is not so much the food that makes it special, but more how well the waiter and staff interact with you and your party that makes or breaks the evening, despite the terrific Irish good humour that pervades this very fine dining French-style restaurant. I will certainly go back and expect the highest quality French food at a high price, again with that Irish flavour in the foie gras but I suspect that you have to be a regular to get the best out of what is a very busy and difficult-to-book establishment. Nonetheless, it remains a treat.
Here is one restaurant that I have revisited every year for many years. Each time I continue to be very excited with anticipation. The brand has remained the same and the restaurant has remained very popular and should be booked around a month in advance. It is Union Square Café on Manhattan, New York City, between midtown and downtown.
It is an easy ride on the green or yellow subway to get there and the Union Square station brings you out in the Farmers’ Market. There is a terrific atmosphere here particularly at Halloween with all the giant orange pumpkins around in this rather multicultural university-type area.
Union Square Café is unprepossessing on the outside but there is a complete buzz inside and is absolutely typical New York. The atmosphere is informal but all are smart-casually dressed – staff and customers alike, the tables are beautifully laid with linen and the waiters and waitresses are all dressed impeccably with aprons and striped shirts and are polite, friendly, well informed and very bright. The menu is very American with a little inspired Italian touch. I am afraid that I always have the same starter, which is crispy calamari with an anchovy mayonnaise. The very best calamari in the world, and I can vouch for that having tested it everywhere in my travels. The little rings just bigger than polo mints, beautifully covered in a very light batter made with Graham Crackers, the calamari having previously been soaked in soda water to keep them juicy. The little pot of herby mayonnaise has a strong anchovy flavour which I very much enjoy but may not be everybody’s cup of tea and one plate of this crispy calamari can be shared between two. Main courses vary from delicious tuna and steak burgers through to marinated lamb chops with pastas and fish as well (no pizza of course!) and many daily specials and a weekly menu as well. The pasta with pancetta and sweet corn is an interesting variation on carbonara and their giga-grilled shrimp are profoundly fresh and tasty. I usually don’t reach desserts but they often bring something anyway and the banana crisp with hazel nut ice cream is to die for.
There is little on the changing menu that is not an immediate success and I have both their recipe books at home. A glass of house French champagne is very worthwhile and everything is good value in Union Square Café. It is a particularly good New York experience and is strongly recommended.
Union Square Café has a sister restaurant called Gramercy Tavern a few blocks away, which is a little more relaxed and serves things such as lamb shanks and extraordinarily huge meatballs which are amazing at lunchtime but in the evening there is a fine dining restaurant in a room beyond (with prices high in the sky).
I prefer lunch in New York rather than the formality in the evening and arriving in the dark at Union Square Café is not quite the same as arriving at lunchtime through the Farmers’ Market from the subway station, although you have to pass by the Blue Water Grill which is a huge, popular seafood emporium where jazz is played but the atmosphere and food has never appealed and I have not revisited despite its popularity.
Guests returning to restaurants are usually well rewarded by the food and service so I think it is always well worth letting them know when you make a booking that you are going back because you had a previously good experience. It is really important to try out a whole spectrum of new institutions but very comforting to find those stalwarts, many of which are deservedly so popular and with which you can become familiar and comfortable.
Before leaving New York, Deux Amis, near the UN, reminds me of Troubadour in Eze and its escargots, steak dishes and various chicken concoctions are good value in this neighbourhood restaurant. At the really top end of the New York spectrum is Le Bernardin near the Rockefeller Center. Tiny morsels of fine fish prepared in bizarre and innovative ways with surgical precision and a remarkable artistry reminiscent of the post-impressionists with similar over-the-top prices. I was entertaining a party of four and the surgical connection is that the large round table next door was occupied by an old friend, a prominent Australian general surgeon and his family celebrating a special birthday in New York – a complete coincidence. Upon reflection, I would revisit this restaurant again to admire its Michelin Accoutrements and unbelievably odd fishy offerings – if I could afford to do so!