Lobsterfest at Belgo Centraal, Covent Garden (Photoblog)

Sunday, 30 May 2010 | |

Note: I was invited to sample Belgo's Lobsterfest by Sally Bishop of Relish PR, so therefore did not pay for any of the food or drink consumed.

Each year for the past decade or so, Belgo (who label themselves 'The World's greatest Belgian restaurants') have been running Lobsterfest. It's a month-long affair which celebrates all things lobster - with a Belgian twist, naturally. I've been a fan of the Belgo chain for a few years now, trying out their lobster dishes in past Lobsterfests and also being a regular consumer of their excellent express lunch: £7.95 for moules frites and a glass of Belgian beer? Not bad at all. The Lobsterfest event I was invited to gave me and a few others a chance to see Muir Picken, the executive chef at Belgo demonstrate some of the dishes that would be on the menu.

The preparation area. The lobsters had been cooked before our arrival, just to save time and under the assumption we know what a pot of boiling water looks like.

The cooked lobsters, complete with rubber bands holding their pincers together. Pictured on the left is some béchamel sauce, chopped peanuts, a Thai red curry sauce and some chopped leeks.

After taking off the claws off the cooked lobster, Muir demonstrates how to cut Sebastian in half, allowing you to scoop out the meat whilst keeping the shell in tact, for later presentation.

The Thai red curry lobster dish. Surprisingly, the curry topping didn't detract from the lobster at all, and instead the spicy sauce complemented the sweet lobster meat. A bit of a bargain at £8.95, if you ask me; you get a few good bites of lobster for your money.

Lobster salad (£17.95). A whole lobster, chopped up and served with spring onions, green beans and carrots, then topped with a light port and lemon dressing. An unbelievable salad dish (and you'd expect so, from the price, I suppose). It's well worth it though, arriving in a main course sized portion. The dressing is a light and summery accompaniment to the lobster meat, working together and allowing the lobster to shine.

The whole lobster (£17.95) preparation. Straighten the lobster's tail, knife through the head and all the way down, turn him and then cut in half. Simple. Perhaps, but I made a bit of a mess of mine to be honest. Luckily Muir saved it, and applied some garlic and Pernod butter on top before grilling.

This preparation also comes as part of a 'surf and turf' (6oz ribeye steak) - half a lobster with steak is £17.95, whilst a whole lobster comes in at £24.95 if you fancy a bit of red meat on the side. Who doesn't?

The ever-reliable twice-cooked frites. Crunchy on the outside, pillowy potato inside - consistently great fries at Belgo, especially when dipped into some of their mayonnaise.

Of course, you may read this and consider that I didn't pay for any of the food, but in perfect honesty I can say that I'll be back soon for some more lobster and those delicious frites, as well as their great selection of beers.

See also: Londonist post on Lobsterfest

An Appearance on Radio 4's The Food Programme

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Click here to go to the Food Programme's website and listen to the show.

A couple of weeks ago I was emailed by Richard Johnson asking if I would like to record a quick interview for Radio 4, on the same night as The Meatwagon's appearance at The Florence. Unaware of what the premise was, I agreed. It turned out that the subject was the much-debated "bloggers versus critics" - does the rise of bloggers mean that the influence and pull of 'traditional critics' has now diminished? Well, that's up to you to decide, but listen to the show for some of my thoughts.

The Florence, Herne Hill

Friday, 21 May 2010 | |

Note: I didn't pay for this meal. I was a guest of the affable @thepubgeek.

I'll be honest: I had no idea where the hell Herne Hill was until Yianni and his Meatwagon rocked up in the garden of The Florence. Ten minutes from Victoria; fifteen minutes from Farringdon; not quite the arse-end of nowhere I thought it would be, and in fact quite a nice area with one big selling point - the aforementioned pub. The sort of pub that a lot of the people I went with for the first time agreed would be ideal as their 'local'. Despite inviting Yianni to turn on his cast-iron flat-top griddle (and allowing him a regular spot, Meatwagon fans) the Florence also employs a kitchen crew who cook up pub staples. As well as items 'in bread' - sandwiches, to you and me - they serve 'smalls' which are suitable for sharing, 'mains' which slightly larger plates and 'afters', oddly placed near the top of the menu - the belief that they will log into your memory as you're scrolling down plays a part, here. Another confession to make here: I have no idea what is on the menu apart from the things I tried. I came back to try two things in particular. The fried chicken - made to the Thomas Keller recipe - and the burger, recently tweaked after a staff visit to the Meatwagon.

Fried chicken (£6). You know that tired old quote about how 'pizza is a lot like sex'? Same applies for chicken, to be honest with you. Scrawny, battery-farmed chickens who are fed toenails and kicked about - pretty undesirable. Give them to my mate Colonel Sanders and you'll get some guiltily delicious chicken. Let's say you have two pounds in your pocket, a rumble in your stomach and a desire for multiple toilet visits the next day: go to Sam's Chicken. That isn't to say that you can't get good fried chicken though. You just have to use fresh chicken, have patience and follow the recipe of a 3* Michelin Chef. Inspired by the recipe from the fantastic volume Ad Hoc At Home, the team at the Florence put it straight on the menu. Crispy batter gives way to wonderfully tender chicken - juicy and perfectly cooked, spiced with paprika and seasoned well. A massive flick of the V at the poor old Colonel.

As would seem the trend these days, I was really here to try out the Florence's burger (£7.50). Two patties (about four ounces each, I would say), mature cheddar, lettuce, onions, sliced gherkins and a couple of sauces on the side. An impressive sight, but I immediately noted that it was too tall. Burgers that are too large to fit in your mouth aren't pleasant, and even with a bit of squishing the burger was still vertically-disproportionate. @tehbusSamantha and I decided to dissect our burgers, going for some of the beef with a knife and fork. The 21 day aged chuck had a good beefy flavour, and it was seasoned well, with appropriate levels of salt and pepper. Surprisingly the patties also housed a crust, belying the capacity of the cooking method (chargrilled); a bite past the caramelised exterior led to 'noodled' beef mince, a hint beyond medium. The other components of the burger were of a varying standard, but mostly good. Despite being a Kraft Singles fan, the mature cheddar was a welcome accompaniment, working well with the aged beef - the musky notes complementing each other. The bun, a sesame seeded brioche from Miller's Bakery, is the right side of squishy and holds together well. The rabbit food on the whole is decent, though the lettuce is rather flappy and ultimately too large for the burger. Some shredded iceberg lettuce would suit better, but it's not a major point of consideration.

Two sauces are provided on the side: a home-made Sriracha copy, and a Special Sauce knock-off. The Sriracha is the nice kind of spicy - it mellows out and tingles at the back of your throat, rather than landing an unexpected punch. It could do with some added vinegar or some sugar to give it another dimension, but it's a good effort, and the roasted pepper flavours are very nice indeed. The Special Sauce is also a great, playful attempt. Mustard, ketchup and mayonnaise mixed together is undeniably delicious, and it just works so well with a cheeseburger. I'm a big fan.

Standard autopsy shot. I think that's with only one patty.

French fries (£2.50). Good for frozen, unlike at Lucky 7. The aioli provided was nice, with a mellow garlicky taste.

With great ales on tap, a superb beer garden and an amazing pub dog - named Barksdale, after the character in The Wire - the Florence is a firm favourite of mine already, despite being on the other side of London. Add to this list regular appearances from the Meatwagon, and I suspect they will be seeing a lot more of me, for some of that superior fried chicken, too.

The Florence on Urbanspoon

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Tuesday, 18 May 2010 | |

The excitement of Daniel Boulud opening a London outpost of his successful New York City restaurant Bar Boulud (beware of the horrific music) was evident when it was announced sometime last year. Twitter, as is the snowball nature of the medium, went into a frenzy. I only had one question on my lips: would Daniel be bringing his DB Bistro Moderne Burger with him to London? Well, the answer to that is yes he will, but for now he offers up three burgers on the London menu (once again, navigate to the bottom left to turn off the offensive music). The Yankee burger is a grilled beef patty with iceberg lettuce, tomato, sweet onion and pickle served in a sesame bun; the Piggie crucially includes BBQ pulled pork; the Frenchie goes gourmet and includes confit pork belly as well as other things that aren't suitable for a hamburger.

Marcus and I decided to go for the £20 lunch prix fixe, to get a bit of scope from the menu. The prix fixe fortunately included the Yankee burger and I had to try the hamburgers which have garnered a lot of praise recently, in the midst of a sort-of 'hamburger renaissance' (or even a naissance) in London. As Daniel himself once said: "I would like to think I may have been at the forefront of the burger renaissance". I assumed I would be in safe hands.

The prix-fixe menu. It seems to have changed slightly since the first week or two of opening. Three options for each course, three courses for £20. Seems a good way to go at lunchtime.

Soupe de pois. Chilled pea soup, toasted croutons, carrots and peas as part of a 'spring fricasse', rosemary cream, mint garnish. A generous portion of refreshing soup to match the season.

Enough about soup, I was here for the Yankee burger. Usually £12 (add £1 for cheddar cheese; no Kraft available, unsurprisingly...) it falls under the same price range as Goodman and is slightly cheaper than the burger at the Hawksmoor. Let's lift another quote once uttered by Daniel Boulud, on what makes a great hamburger: '1. Great bun, well toasted. 2. Great, juicy meat, well seasoned and cooked just right. 3. Fresh garnishes; the lettuce and tomato should be top quality.' In order: the bun here is great. It's utterly superb. One of the most aerated burger buns I've ever had the pleasure of holding/biting in to - air pockets for miles, a good structure and a taste that doesn't detract from or overshadow the burger. A good burger bun should be like Daniel's fellow countryman, Claude Makelele; you don't notice what it's doing, but it does the job well and keeps everything moving. That it is baked in-house is no surprise to me. In fact, most things here are made in-house, except the ketchup which I am informed they are "working on."

The second element that Mr. Boulud claims is needed for a great burger is the quality of the meat. Good quality, of course, but it also has to be juicy, well seasoned, cooked 'just right'. I ordered mine rare. It came out medium/medium-well. Marcus ordered his medium. It came out well done. I tried the old 'squeeze test'. It failed. In fact, it was so cottony and dry, I envisaged a fly or some dust coming out, like I was in a cartoon. I suspect they are using meat which is slightly too lean, but I also suspect that attention wasn't paid to the cooking (chargrilled) of our burgers; they were close to burned on the outside - which provided a needed crunch, albeit an unpleasant one - and cooked too much in the middle. These weren't cooked 'just right', I'm afraid, and it was a struggle to finish the burger in all honesty, despite there being evidence of good, Aberdeen Angus meat (from Smithfield). On the final element, Daniel claims that the garnishes must be top quality. The lettuce here was crunchy and fresh, but the tomato was, as is commonly the case, flabby and watery.

Some may ask why we didn't send the burgers back. I'll say this: if a kitchen so well drilled can't get a burger right the first time it is sent out, then that's what I'll judge it on. If I sent it back and the replacement was perfect, the first attempt would still play on my mind.

Unlike the disappointing burger, the frites were outstanding. Thin, hot and crispy, they were some of the best fries I've ever eaten.

Gateau chocolat-framboise. Chocolate cake with raspberries: a bittersweet, high quality chocolate mousse; raspberry jam; Sacher biscuit; a scoop of raspberry sorbet. Unbelievable dessert. Haute cuisine seems to be all about taking a flavour and elevating it to levels beyond its capacity - using an ingredient at the peak of its life and concentrating the flavours into a package that is extraordinary to eat. The raspberries here were incredible, complementing the bittersweet chocolate mousse in an age-old marriage of tastes. The gateau was a success, falling on the right side of sweet, with the Sacher biscuit providing an enjoyable crunch at the base. The raspberry gelato, a somewhat refreshing aspect. It even had some fancy-schmancy gold leaf on it, just to show you they mean business.

Fresh baked madeleines (£4). Freshly baked and once again, exhibiting some true skill from the kitchen. Soft, light and a joyous accompaniment to an excellent espresso (£2.50). A high note to end on.

The bill. Around £64 for the both of us, great value for the food on offer, despite a disappointing burger. The starters and the desserts were fantastic, and by all accounts the burger is usually good, so I suppose we were perhaps unlucky with a slip in concentration from the kitchen. I'll be back to try out the fabled DB Bistro Moderne Burger soon.

Bar Boulud (Mandarin Oriental Hotel) on Urbanspoon