|Book and restaurant reviews|
Two of my favourite activities are reading and eating. So here are a few of my book and restaurant reviews. The restaurants are some of the less trendy but authentic places I like in Lisbon and elsewhere. They are all good value - this does not always mean cheap but I avoid the pretentious or very high priced on principle. The books are just a serendipitous handful of my favourites, apart from all the great the classics, and not the latest "must reads".
Feel free to criticise or comment - I'd be delighted to correspond on something other than work! Some of these reviews were first published on the Ad Capita website.
I'm cheating here. A History of the World in 100 Objects is really a radio series, although I have the book and it is also well worth buying.
The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, had a brilliant and apparently eccentric idea: to tell the story of all human history through the aural description of 100 objects. I am a passionate, life long lover of "talk radio", more particularly BBC Radio 4, where these programmes were first broadcast, but also the BBC World Service and, sometimes, the US's National Public Radio. It is MacGregor's inspired eye and extraordinary ability to communicate profoundly but in simple and often moving language that makes this daft idea work and work to perfection.
For his choice of objects he had the rich but daunting offering of the whole of the British Museum's massive collection. Yet, his choices are always illuminating and often surprising and inspired. He is completely eclectic in geography, time, culture, medium and theme. It is necessarily a wholly personal and idiosyncratic choice but it works. Each daily 15 minute programme describes one object. He takes us on a chronological and thematic journey through the whole of human history from a 2 million year old stone chopping tool found in Tanzania to a 2010 credit card with embedded chip from an Islamic banking subsidiary of HSBC. He covers agriculture, industry, art, sex, cities, religion, death and leadership from Japan to Norfolk, from Australia to Mexico. In each programme MacGregor includes a short passage from an expert on the object in question but it his lilting, Glasgow-coloured voice that mesmerise us. He balances his obvious erudition and intellectual acuity with a gentle, down-to-earth and humble delight in the objects he so vividly describes to us.
By the end, much as we would love his journey to carry on into the future, we are left with the feeling that, yes, we do have a better idea of who and what humans are, a flavour of the vast wealth of our culture and invention over the millennia and, above all, a wonder at the depth and breadth of human imagination. This radio series is at least as important an historic and cultural achievement as Kenneth Clark's Civilisation or Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man.
You can and should buy and read the book but first download the full Radio 4 series (it's free) and delight in it as I did. You can find the downloads on the BBC site at: A History of the World
Mort is one of the first of the nearly forty Discworld novels and probably still my favourite. I am an unapologetically enthusiastic fan of Terry Pratchett. Classifying his books in the fantasy genre is completely misleading. The setting of his novels - a flat disc world sitting on top of four elephants standing on the back of a huge and ageless star turtle called the Great A'Tuin - is a complete red herring. It is merely an excuse for him to let rip his extraordinary imagination and give reign to his deep delight in the rich variety and insane beauty of the human spirit. In this world he is allowed to have raunchy witches, a police force with trolls, dwarfs and a werewolf in their ranks alongside the usual jobsworths and grumpy sargeants and a cantankerous bunch of academic wizards in a university whose librarian is an Orang Utan. His favourite location is the steaming cesspit that is the city of Ankh Morpork. This is a mediaeval world with a 21st century sensibility and humour. Despite the appearance of all kinds of supernatural beings, from wizards to Death himself (one of the most likeable characters of this book), this is really about human beings.
Pratchett manages to make even the nastiest of characters somehow loveable or at least intriguing, while never being mawkish or whimsical. His heroes, even the toughest ones, are flawed and somehow lost in the haphazard tragicomedy that is life. He is above all very funny. Only Wodehouse makes me laugh out loud as much as Pratchett.
Mort's eponymous hero is taken on as Death's apprentice so that Death can have a bit of a rest now and then. Death's house and estate are curiously alluring even if everything, including the garden, is black and his magnificent steed of a horse is called Binky. As Death slacks on the job and Mort breaks the rules by interfering in individual destinies - for the very best of reasons - life, death and time start to go horribly but hilariously awry.
Who says this is not literature? For me, there is in Pratchett's books as complete and honest an account of the human condition as in Dickens or Chekhov. And he is much, much funnier.
Sum of Our Days" by Isabel Allende
Allende’s candour about herself and her family is both shocking and delightful. Her relationship with her American husband and with her children and all the rest of her tribe is always totally over-the-top, passionate to the point of madness. Her self-criticism is comically transparent – she describes herself as the mother-in-law from hell and one can believe it, though it makes hell seem so attractive. Like her novels, every word transmits her unending joy, even, paradoxically, during paralysing depression, in being alive, in being a witness to the miracle of humanity, of individuality, of love. But above all, this book is extremely funny and there are moments which made me laugh till I wept.
Read this book if you need to feel good, really good, about the world and about people. Surely, right now, we all do.
There has been almost as much comment and media analysis of the credit crisis as there were panicked trades in the markets at its peak. Most comment has taken an aggressive or defensive position around the role of bankers. John Cassidy’s outstanding book is a dispassionate but engaging look at the historical, economic, sociological and academic context of the sub-prime crash and its terrible aftermath.
Cassidy does have a message, eloquently argued: the vast majority of economists, bankers and policy makers of the last three decades have been blindly irresponsible in their wholehearted espousal of the unfettered free market. Indeed, he refers to the ideologies of the Chicago school as “Utopian Economics”. His arguments are deep, broad and lucid. He shows, quite irrefutably, how the perfect market, enlightened self interest, full information and other such axioms of the Friedman revolution are disastrously simplistic. The evidence of huge areas of hidden information, beauty contest group psychology and the paradoxical force of game theory outcomes is undeniable. The underlying force of markets, “rational self interest” often or even usually works against the mathematics of supply, demand and perfect information. His analysis of the reality of how bubbles happen and how disturbing they are for traditional economic theories of the market is explosively enlightening.
How Markets Fail also looks at the agents behind the disaster of the last two years. Cassidy is especially unforgiving of the once God-like Alan Greenspan. The old Fed Chairman’s explanation for his arrogant irresponsibility in allowing – indeed encouraging – two major speculative bubbles (dot-com and sub-prime) to explode unchecked was a pathetic “The problem is...a critical pillar to market competition and free markets did break down...that shocked me. I still do not fully understand why it happened.”
Cassidy also looks at the bankers, in particular, the brilliant mathematical minds behind all their risk calculations and the lethal Value at Risk (VAR) model so widely touted as the unsinkable ship for navigating the icebergs of the market. I was shocked to find that these models and, indeed, the bedrock Black-Scholes option pricing formula, are based on long outdated analyses of how markets work, namely the random walk of share prices and a normal distribution curve for market pricing in general. In other words, all that sophisticated, grotesquely overpaid risk analysis edifice was built on an infantile assumption that all trades are independent of each other and traders never follow the herd.
Although there is a good deal of solid economic and financial analysis in this book, it is eminently readable, sometimes unputdownable. His description of how the sub-prime market came into existence, grew and exploded reads like a thriller.
If, like me, you were once enthralled by the mathematical, organic beauty of the free market, the self correcting forces that would always take us back to a satisfying and essentially good equilibrium, this book is essential reading. John Cassidy’s alternative prescription, a plea for “reality based economics” that takes into account how bankers, traders, business managers, house-owners and consumers act in the real, non-utopian world is powerfully defended and should make us take stock and rethink. After all, what has happened is, fundamentally, a massive intellectual failure, a collapse of an ideology of hubristic wishful thinking. We’ve had enough of all that Master of the Universe stuff: what we need is rational, modest, realistic wisdom. How Markets Fail gives us exactly that.
I adored Mariana the first time I read it 10 years ago and have never understood why it wasn't a best seller. I just re-read it and loved it just as much. It is a wonderful, wildly imaginative read, even though it centres on a true story. Here I reproduce (lazy, I know) a review I posted on Amazon a few years ago.
The story of a 17th century Portuguese nun hardly sounds like inspiring material for a gripping historical novel. Yet Katherine Vaz overpowers the reader with the richness and humour of her writing.
I defy anyone not to fall in love with Sister Mariana de Alcoforado, an aristocratic girl sent to the convent at Beja in Southern Portugal because her elder sister married first. Mariana is still famous in Portugal - as she was throughout Europe in the seventeenth century - for the beautiful, astonishingly frank love letters she sent the French officer who abandoned her after a brief but all-consuming affair. While the letters, in a new translation by Vaz, appear at the centre of the novel and the effects of the affair resonate throughout Mariana's life, the book and Mariana are much grander and more powerful than a simple love story. The book deftly sets the true story of a nun's passion into the richly imagined details of the rest of her life, all against the background of Portugal's desperate struggle to free itself from Spanish rule.
Vaz's imagination and the extraordinary mixture of believable reality and wild spirituality match the best of Isabel Allende. Like Allende she leads us tenderly but mercilessly from scenes of delicious humour - the resurrection of drunken plucked geese, to wrenching courage - the old nun who goes blind playing her beloved organ all night during a battle. Throughout, the character of Mariana is indomitable, grabbing at joy, pain and love with arms wide open, as she inspires and enriches the lives of all those who come into contact with her, including this reader.
I admit I picked up this book by chance. With five minutes to pick three books in a “3 for the price of 2” offer in a London bookshop, the word “Lisbon” in the title and Isabel Allende’s quote on the cover “A treat for the mind. One of the best books I have read in a long time” got me (read my review of The Sum of Our Days to see how much I adore Isabel Allende). Well, it was wonderful serendipity.
This is a splendid book from a Swiss writer I confess I did not know. Describing it as a thriller for the intellect sounds pretentious but is accurate. The story is curious: a profoundly staid, middle aged teacher of classics in Bern suddenly decides, for only the flimsiest of motives, to drop out of his measured life, with no preparation and no explanation to anyone, in order to follow the trail of a mysterious writer in Lisbon. Raimund Gregorius’s quest to discover the story of this fascinating man and how he came to write what Raimund feels are poetic and profound ideas about life and existence is the heart of the book. Like many such quests, the real story is as much the transformation of the searcher as the revelation of the truth he seeks.
Surprisingly, for a book supposedly about the mind, this is a page turner. The characters are so intriguing, the plot twists so fascinating, that it has the quality of all great novels: you can’t wait to re-immerse yourself in the writer’s world each time you pick up the book and feel bereft when you reach the last page.
My only criticism is the translation from the original German. As a translator myself, I have sympathy with the poorly paid and over-stressed literary translator but at the very least the publishers should have taken more care with proof-reading and editing the English version. There are odd shifts between European and American usage (either is fine but not both), occasional jarring literal translations and too many irritating typos. The translation is not crass but is heavily marred by editorial sloppiness. More importantly, this novel is very much about language and the communication of big ideas. I sometimes had the feeling that the poetry and brilliance of the German text were lost in translation. Having said all that, Mercier’s book is a delight, a work that will resonate in your imagination long after you have finished it even if, like me, you can’t read it in the original.
The most important word in the title is the last – “writing”. Dawkins’ defining criterion for selection is the quality of the writing. From the giants – Einstein, Crick and Leakey to name but three – to those merely sitting on their shoulders, every entry is a linguistic delight. I defy anyone, however uninterested in science, not to be moved by the passion, imagination and delight of the scientists here talking about what they love. There is something for everyone – cosmology to entomology, genetics to consciousness, the periodic table to the meaning of mathematics. As with everything he does, Dawkins, himself a giant of genetics, is always supremely confident and this is both good and bad. On the one hand there is a notable bias to subjects related to his own – genetics, evolution, biology. On the other hand, his comments on each entry are sometimes outrageous, often brilliant, always beautifully written and sometimes even better than the article they accompany. The only shame is that he modestly (not an epithet normally attached to him), refuses to include any of his own extraordinary work. This is a book for dipping into and savouring the odd tasty mouthful or, for avid science fans like me, devouring whole. Above all, this is a celebration of the glorious wonder of science, the breathtaking beauty that awes great scientists in the world they examine, whether it be massive black holes or invisible bacteria. No book-lovers’ collection should be without this book.
This is an important book. It is not a presidential or even a political memoir, as it was written in 1995, 14 years before Barack Obama became President of the United States. It is, rather, an enlightening and moving insight into the black liberal experience in America and, of course, into the deepest parts of the now President's political and emotional psyche. Obama, then newly appointed as the first African-American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, bares his innermost feelings about his ambitions, race, inheritance and family as he traces his story and, in particular, his deepest roots in Kenya.
As a white European liberal, I confess reading this book was a revelatory experience. It is the first time I have truly understood the relentless burden that being black in America (or Europe, for that matter) represents: burden as oppression and burden as expectation. Not only is his mind crystal clear - and his writing both direct and breathtakingly poetic - but he also has the analytical advantage of coming to understand his heritage and place in American society as an outsider to the average black and white American cultures. He grew up with his white mother and ever loyal grandparents but his yearning was always for a solid relationship with his absent Kenyan father, a feckless and embittered dreamer who never really faced up to his familial responsibilities.
Obama's unassuming honesty is in many ways the most moving aspect of the story. At no time does he fall into sentimentality, simplistic analysis or self-justification. His description of his youthful dabbling with drugs, casual sex and radical politics and the consequent struggle to develop self-discipline and determination is unostentatiously open and heartening. His longed-for trip to Kenya to meet his extended family in Africa neither extinguishes nor resolves his confusion about his heritage. Somehow, despite his wildly disjointed upbringing, he emerges from his search for identity as someone supremely at ease with himself, questioning his beliefs but not doubting who he is. In the end, he concludes that he is what he has created not what he has inherited. He is truly grown up - which cannot be said of either of his two immediate predecessors in the Oval Office.
Most of all, Dreams of My Father, written without political intent or marketing spin, shows us beyond doubt that the US Presidency is, at long last, in the hands of a good, deeply intelligent and cultured man, driven in a human and unsaintly way only by the wish to do good and achieve great things for his country and his people, of all races. History will record whether he succeeds and whether the Republican forces of ignorance and petty hatred beat him down.
Over the centuries, there has probably been more written about Homer than any writer other than Shakespeare. Yet Caroline Alexander manages to bring a fresh and invigorating perspective to a reading of The Iliad and, in particular to the character and dramatic place of its hero, Achilles. While not classics trained, I am moved by Homer's great works and their thrilling language and I found myself thinking about the themes and personalities of The Iliad in a new way. In particular, Alexander's focus is on Homer's radical portrayal of war. As she takes us through Homer's gripping story, covering a few weeks of the decade long campaign against the Trojans, she convinces us that rather than being the glorification and romanticisation of war transmitted to public schoolboys (yes, mostly boys) over many generations, The Iliad is really a stark and shockingly graphic diatribe about its stupidity and waste. She reminds us just how much Achilles was actually anti-establishment, how contemptuous he was of the hierarchy - his lord Agamemnon in particular - and how pointless and unjustified he thought the war. Readable as it is, her work is clearly deeply researched scholarship, not coffee table gloss. She reminds us that the stupidity of humans is only surpassed by the infantile irresponsibility of the Gods, in all their bloody playground bickering. My only quibble is that her attempt to make parallels with accounts of modern warfare feels forced and thinly supported, in contrast with the rest of her argument. I strongly recommend this book - if you love Homer, you can only gain from her clear insight; if you have never read The Iliad, this will make you want to go out and buy it.
The Solar dos Nunes is the real thing. This small but delightful restaurant in a residential corner of Alcântara, in the West of Lisbon, is Southern Portuguese gastronomy at its heartiest, most authentically rich and splendid best. The Alentejo - the large slice of Portugal which separates the capital and its Tagus river from the excesses of the Algarve tourist region - is where I would most like to live. From the hot, red-earthed olive and cork oak groves on the coastal plains of the Baixa Alentejo in the West to the string of glorious hill towns such as Évora and Vila Vicosa in the Alto Alentejo in the East, it is beautiful, inspiring and largely unspoilt. The region is famous for pork, game, fish soups, stews, cheeses, sausages and much more. The Alentejo is also justly proud of its its heady, tannined wines, whose modernisation in the 1980s marked the rebirth of the Portuguese wine industry.
The menu at the restaurant is no disappointment. Acorn-fed Pata Negra pigs provide succulent smoked ham for a starter along with fat olives and cholesterol overdosed cheeses. You can then follow with one of the house specials - the intense Sopa Rica de Peixes (Rich Fish Soup), stuffed partridge or hare jugged with white beans. If you can manage it, after this most refined gluttony, squeeze in the Sericá d'Elvas com Ameixas (rich egg pudding with plums) or the even richer Encharcada de Mourão (more sugar, more eggs, more wicked).
Here light lunch is as nonsensical as Coca-Cola in a winery. Be prepared to allow at least a couple of hours (three is more relaxed) and don't even think about committing the unspeakable crime of not accompanying this gastronomic splurge with one of the outstanding Alentejan wines in their excellent list.
For a restaurant that has won so many prizes, it is not expensive. For around EUR 45 a head you can eat really well and drink a decent wine. Another EUR 10 each or so will get you a great wine and en even more memorable meal.
It was the soup that gave me that "thunderbolt city" moment . I'm not a huge soup eater but my friend Carlos Vicente (visit his outstanding organic supermarket, Brio, nearby), chose the Sopa de Cação – shark soup, made from a local, small, coastal species of shark – and I chose fried rabbit (Coelho Frito). We decided to split the dishes. Great decision.
The soup is really a stew, with generous pieces of fish and bread - a typical Alentejan addition – swimming in the thick, aromatic liquid. This traditional dish is frequently either bland or overwhelmed with garlic. In the Magano's version, the rich, almost pungent, fish flavours are given the lead, with a sharp zing of fresh coriander and a deep undertone of garlic. The bread is not the usual dollop of disintegrating pulp at the bottom of the plate but is its own chewy, tasty surprise. Rarely have I so carefully scraped the plate for every last, delectable, drop of a soup.
Rabbit is difficult to fry properly. Timing is everything to avoid dried out or rubbery results. Here it was perfect, full of flavour – the hapless bunny had been soaked for some time in wine and herbs – juicy with, yet, a hint of crispness on the outside. Another well-scraped dish and an extra notch let out on my belt.
The menu is extensive, although with few surprises for the Alentejo, but the execution is just unbeatable. Starters or, rather, hors d’oeuvres, are excellent, with some interesting ideas, such as fried strawberry pieces, thrown in amongst the usual sausages and cheeses. Puddings are splendid, including a number of classic monastery recipes (“doces conventuais”) full of eggs and sugar, as well as other rich, mouth-watering and thoroughly wicked temptations. The wine list is broad and solid. The atmosphere is genuine, relaxed and, thank goodness, not too noisy.
O Magano is definitely going into my top ten. This is a perfect choice for a relaxed business lunch or an intimate dinner and the ideal introduction to the wonders of Alentejan cooking..
I like to freak out
my more conservative clients and
candidates at lunchtime by leading them into an upmarket women's
clothing store. Only after wending past the chic children's collection
do they spot the stairs going up to the LA Caffé* at the back. The
concept derives from the Armani café in the heart of a fashion store
and this copy by the successful Portuguese brand Lanidor is well
executed indeed. There are three outlets at present: I will concentrate
on the one near our Lisbon office, on Campo Grande (no. 3B) on the
corner with Avenida das Forças Armadas. The one on the Avenida de
Liberdade (no.129) is similar and there is another nearby - a tea room
this time - further up towards the Marquês de Pombal.
The decor is important, for this is, after all, about fashion - it is sharp, light and invigorating. There is no piped music (hurrah!) but if there were it would be the cooler end of jazz. The service is pleasant and efficient. The food is perfect for a quick lunch, for even the most important of clients, which will allow you to concentrate back in the office afterwards. The theme is Italian bistro, the choices are innovative without pretension and the portions are small but not frugal. Serious thought has gone into the menu, which ranges from sinless salads and the simplest of pastas – the spaghetti alla carbonara is perfect – to hearty risottos and various duck and pork dishes. Yet each dish has an original touch, a tasty nuance, that reminds you this is real food and none is heavy-handed or ostentatious.
The wine list is brief but sensible. The puddings are a must and involve only the mildest of dietary sins. The chocolate muffins in a chocolate sauce are more sensuously chocolatey than a Belgian boudoir; the mango carpaccio in a delicate baked custard is scrumptious.
You will come out of the restaurant only very slightly heavier and with your wallet only very slightly lighter. 30 euros will buy a good meal to delight your clients.
*PS The linguistic pedant in me can't resist a gripe. If a restaurant is meant to be Italian, why can't they do even the tiniest bit of homework and check that it is "café" in French but "caffè" (grave, not acute accent) in Italian. Caffé just makes me and, I daresay, Italians, wince. I am sad to note that LA "Caffé" is not alone in Lisbon in its slipshod pretensions. A case that especially annoyed me was a "Lisbonne Caffé" just on the other side of the street. This ghastly mess of a name managed to combine English word order with the French name of the city, Italian spelling of café and French accentuation - barbarians! It doesn't reflect well on me that I was hugely satisfied when the "caffé" closed down. Gripe over.
A Travessa has been my favourite restaurant in Lisbon since I first entered the original 6 table space in the Travessa das Inglesinhas (literally, "Little Englishwomen’s Alley") over 20 years ago. Its reputation and popularity have rightly grown and so, as result, has the space: it now spreads handsomely over a large part of the cloisters of an old convent further into the old Madragoa quarter. I am half Belgian and have lived in Portugal for most of my adult life, so the mixture of Belgian and Portuguese gastronomy in a delightful old setting is perfect.
Of course, it is the food that draws. The rich variety and succulence of the small starters and hors d’oeuvres, which appear on the table as you hum and haw over your main course or the splendid wine list, are almost a meal in themselves. The freshest and most original of breads with small dishes of heavenly gourmet olive oils from the Alentejo to dip them into, tiny mussels in the lightest of vinaigrettes, grilled peppers, small spicy sausages, pâté with onion jam ...it goes on. The main courses change each day but always include some Belgian favourites such as mussels, skate fried in black butter, steak tartare (actually the Belgians call it filet américain), boudin, as well as great – and super-fresh – Portuguese fish dishes such as grilled Dover sole and black grouper (cherne) in rice, or traditional meats such as black leg (Pata Negra) roast pork and grilled venison fillet with wild mushrooms. The wine list is comprehensive and thoughtful. The puddings are unpretentious and satisfyingly sinful.
If you're a real Belgophile book a table on a Saturday night for the famous Moules et Frites/Mosselen met friete - a huge pot of the freshest mussels cooked in white wine or cream with perfect chips (French fries) and a salad. I love it.
Like the best of Belgian cuisine, this is high gourmet without pretension; like the best of Portuguese it is fresh and honest. The surroundings are idyllic – by a huge roaring log fire in winter, under sunshades in the patio in summer. The service is outstanding. You’ll get a visit from the charming Vivienne, the Belgian owner and founder, and discreet advice from a knowledgeable wine waiter if you need it (I do).
It’s not a cheap restaurant but neither does it suffer from the extortion of the nouveau riche joints where the celebrities go. EUR 50 will get you an excellent meal, EUR 80 an unforgettable blow out. Go on, find something to celebrate with someone you love!
In this time of economic restraint, it’s good to find a restaurant where you get great food at a low price. This is our favourite, happily in walking distance from our Lisbon Office.
Good, honest quality defines this gem of a restaurant, tucked away behind the Avenida da República in central Lisbon. Don’t go for the decor or for a romantic or business tête-à-tête – the atmosphere is simple, crowded and, at the height of lunch, noisy. The food is outstanding and the prices astonishing. The fish is fresh from the boats and the meat chosen with tender loving care. Everything is cooked simply – no masterful sauces here – but to perfection. .
After all, why ruin a plump, juicy line-caught Dover sole (Linguado de Anzol) with anything other than a splash of olive oil and lemon and a few slices of garlic? What’s more it will only cost you 8 euros. The portions are generous and prices include vegetables. All the fish is good but we especially recommend not only the sole but also the sea bream (Douradinha – 6 euros) and the salt codfish baked in olive oil (Bacalhau a Lagareiro – 8 euros). The meat dishes are also excellent, in particular the succulent pork fillet from free-range, acorn-fed pigs, (Secretos do boloteiro grelhados à Eira Velha – 7 euros) and the roast kid (Cabrito assado no forno – 6 euros). Accompanying vegetables are cooked, like the fish and meat, just right – fresh and juicy with the perfect hint of resistance, a welcome smidgen past “al dente”. .
The wine list is just fine: good wines at an honest price. 5 to 10 euros a bottle will bring you some excellent selections. To finish off, don’t resist their home-made chocolate mousse (Mousse de chocolate caseira - 2 euros), which we reckon to be the best in Lisbon.
"Vegetarian restaurant" often makes my heart sink, not because I don't like vegetarian food - I do - but because it is so often bland, uninspired, stodgy and almost invariably poorly presented. Vanilla Black's vegetarian food is at the very opposite end of the gastronomic spectrum. When my daughter, Mariana, chose this restaurant in one of the duller parts of lawyer land near Chancery Lane as the place where I would take her out, away from her usual meagre student fare, I confess I was unenthusiastic. I changed my mind with the menu. By the time I had started eating, I was speechless with delight. My family all agree that speechlessness is a sadly rare state for me, only observed when I come out of a really great film (for at least two whole minutes) or, as in this case, confronted by world class cuisine.
For this is world class. The menu is hugely inventive: it would be pretentious were it not imaginatively, honestly and carefully thought out. Much of what passes for nouvelle cuisine is nouveau riche nonsense; Vanilla Black's is the real thing - the menu is the result of creative passion and, let's not be coy, love. It is not cheap but neither is it stupidly expensive. We each had three courses and a couple of glasses of good wine for less than £50 a head. That for me is a decent price to pay for a great treat - about the same as an average West End theatre ticket. I began with Brie ice cream and quince on baked gingerbread with toasted hazelnuts. Savoury ice creams are not new but they are often insipid or revolting - this one was perfectly balanced, allowing you to gently adapt your brain not to want sweetness. The delicate interplay of subtle cheesiness with mildly tart, sweet quince, spicy bread and crunchy hazelnut was perfect. That is why I could not speak - every mouthful was a sliver of heaven.
The main course of poached organic hen's egg with hickory smoked potato croquette and pineapple pickle was another adventure in balance and contrast of tastes and textures. The smokiness of the potato was enticingly pervasive, not overwhelming. The simple poached egg was perfectly cooked and melted into the rest of this tremendous dish. I am running out of superlatives here. My daughter's choice of baked celeriac, pied a mouton and whipped port with green peppercorn 'crackling' and mushroom duxelle profiteroles was more sophisticated and devilishly complex to cook (the port foam was exquisite) but also deeply satisfying - I pinched some from her plate just to be sure she was telling the truth. Finally, came my splendid pudding: raw and poached pineapple and passion fruit mayonnaise with coconut ice cream and crumble. Mariana says her pudding - pear and tea cake with smoked paprika and maple fudge and crumble ice cream - was better but I think they were both, well, scrumptious. I give up on the superlatives. If you have to sell your dog, rent out your granny, steal from the petty cash box, book a table at Vanilla Black. Even if you're not a vegetarian, because you'll forget there's no meat or fish. Come to think of it, if I could always eat food like this I would happily become a vegetarian myself. Oh, yes, the wine list is short but excellent and the decor is low key and pleasant, as is the service.
I'm salivating just thinking about the menu.
This is the second Carvan in London (the first is in Exmouth Market, Farringdon) and mighty cool it is too. With a New York converted loft feel, in the same building as Central St Martins College of Art and Design, this light and airy space buzzes with energy and efficiency.
The service is oustanding and the
international menu, though standardized, is enticing. A half
dozen fresh oysters - plump and perfect with a subtly spicey sauce,
followed by an excellent scallop ceviche, green tomato, lime and chilli
topped off with affogatto of vanilla ice cream, made an exquisite
light, quick and exciting lunch. A difficult combination to pull off.
If you live in the area, you're already
pretty cool, so make it your regular. If you don't, make the journey:
it's worth it.
I found out later that this is part of a small chain but who cares, the food is excellent and the prices, by London's horrible standards, are great. I love good Dim Sum but some of the big traditional Dim Sum places in Chinatown are so massive, dingy and unfriendly that I felt like a change without having to take out a mortgage to pay for a meal. Young Chen is the opposite of all these things - it is bright, pleasantly decorated and only has maybe 15 tables. The Dim Sum is innovative and extensive without being overwhelming. The service is friendly, fast and responsive and they are happy (and able) to explain.
This is not the grand, mind-blowing cuisine of the top of the London or Hong Kong market but it is honest, interesting and delicious.
Oh dear, I've picked another chain! Absolutely no apologies. These London Thai restaurants are truly exceptional. The decor is simple but discreet and calm. The service is perfect and the food is excellent - a limited menu of outstandingly cooked, authentic Thai food. Most of the dishes are light and delicately spiced - even the really hot ones. A lot of thought has gone into the balancing of quality cooking with a formula menu that is the same in all the restaurants. They have succeeded in pulling off this trick. You can eat a really delicious Thai meal for under £50. The choice of wines (for myself, I don't see the point of drinking wine with spicy food) looks adequate but not inspirational.
I was recently in Paris on my first visit to MGI's biggest member worldwide, the FCN group. Traditional, reserved, charming. So I wasn't expecting the gastronomic and comedic experience that was dinner at the bistrot à vins Mélac nearby in the 11ème where the Partners took me.
I should have guessed from the outside. The building is dominated by a massive vine growing all around the awnings (central Paris, remember). It apparently started life in a pot in the cellar and having got "slightly out of control" is now harvested for wine production - the grape picking has become an annual street event.
We were taken though the kitchens, past various kinds of crustaceans, meats, sausages, entrails and other more mysterious ingredients, to scrubbed bare wooden tables surrounded by floor to ceiling racks of dusty wine bottles. The patron, Jacques Mélac, already a second generation owner, burst into the room, massive moustache trembling as he cracked his jokes and told us with passionate delight about the sumptuous dishes we were going to eat and the sexual pleasure that his wines would give us.
The best thing about this splendid restaurant is that it is completely authentic: genuine country cooking from the Aveyron, in the deepest, most untamed heart of the South of France. Nouvelle Cuisine is to this restaurant what a dulcimer is to a rock 'n' roll band - they've heard of it but what's it got to do with food? The food is indeed wonderful, managing to combine hearty, sophisticated and creative in a way only the French can. I admit I cannot remember the menu, which for a restaurant review is pathetic, possible ridiculous, but it made me salivate like a dog in a butcher's - I could have eaten every dish. The wine list is excellent but we let the patron choose, including a taste of his very own wine (from the Aveyron and not from his central Paris "vineyard") called Les Très Filles after his daughters.
If you want to be reminded that genuine country food can still be found in Paris, with a marvellous atmosphere, good wine and unpretentious prices, this is the place to go. Next time, I'll note down the menu...
|Copyright © 2011 Clive Viegas Bennett|