Monday, July 12, 2010

My love affair with lemons – The Easiest Lemon Meringue Pie

A few years ago, when I was a younger, thinner whippersnapper at uni, my good friend Duncan used to make the most amazing dinners for me. To be fair, I made a few for him in return, but Duncan stood out as the only one in my friend crowd who was really, really into cooking.

While I was cooking on the two electric hobs in the uni halls kitchen and my tiny (illegal) portable oven, he was serenely whipping up gorgeous confections in the gargantuan kitchen he had the good luck to stumble across in his house share for the year. Memorable as many of these dishes were, there’s one in particular that still brings a rumble to my tummy and a smile to my lips. Lemon meringue pie.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’ll normally forgo the sweet stuff in favour of stuffing in the savoury but this version of this pie is one of my favourite dishes. Served straight out the oven and smelling of citrus, pastry and meringue – ¾ of it disappeared immediately after the Sunday roast on the day I baked it, the rest remaining for a rather indulgent midweek treat.

Quick and easy lemon meringue pie

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius
For the shortcrust pastry (adapted from Leith’s Cookery Bible)
170g plain flour
A pinch of salt
85g butter
2 tsp sugar
Very cold water to mix
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Rub in the fats until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Add 1-2 tablespoons water to the mixture and mix to a firm dough. You may need to add a bit more to make it workable but the crumblier the dough, the lighter the pastry.
Wrap in clingfilm, chill for ½ hour. Roll out and line tart tin, bake blind for 15 mins.
For the filling
250g sweetened condensed milk
80g caster sugar
3 medium lemons
3 eggs

Grate the zest of the lemons. Squeeze the juice into a separate bowl.
Seperate the eggs. Take the egg yolks, lemon zest and juice and beat together. Slowly add the condensed milk and beat until thickened. Add to the partially-baked pastry shell.

In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until light and airy, add the caster sugar one spoon at a time until the mixture forms stiff peaks and has a glossy sheen. Spoon onto the top of the pie filling and place into the oven. Cook for 25 minutes until cooked through and the meringue is firm to tap on the top.

The Anthologist - A Bookmark in the Anthology of an Avid Eater

Well, it's been a rather busy week of eating in a few of London's newest restaurants, in which one of the highlights was undoubtedly The Anthologist, on the outskirts of The City on Gresham Street.

I hadn't heard about the restaurant cum bar until last week, but it appeared that lots of others had because it was packed to the rafters, impressive, even for a Thursday night.

Because of the location, there were the expected city types hanging around - lawyers, bankers et al - a friendly crowd refreshingly lacking any of that 'Oi you stepped on my toe' rabble you'd find in my Brixton local (joking ahem).

Especially pleasant becuase the standard of clientele was not too displeasing in the looks department either, making me very glad that I'd decided not to go with the hoboesque hole-y jeans and wifebeater remaining in the clean non-taken-to-Glasto pile of clothes in the wardrobe in the morning.

Menu-wise, it was quite a random assortment of international flavours - one glance took in dishes from Thailand, Italy and, of course, some good old British standards. For mains I ordered the steak and chips.

There's always some kind of residual guilt thing going on when I know I'm going to write something up for the blog and I order something a bit dull like steak and chips. But as soon as I tucked into the plate of meat they served up I sent a silent thank you to the rebel in me. It was amazing.

For something so simple, so many restaurants get steak and chips so wrong - the meat's too tough, it's overdone, it's dry, it's flavourless, it's all fat and no lean - just a few from the catalogue, and that's only the steak. But this was excellent. The steak was blue, just as requested, almost overwhelmingly juicy and bursting with flavour. The chips were crunchy and chippy. Fluffy and yummy. Nuff said.

The truffled chips were equally good!

The dessert list was like a roll call of all your favourite little friends coming out to play; Eton Mess, Chocolate Brownie, Creme Brulee - nothing too adventurous but all well executed and testament to the fresh ingredients. As we're slap bang in the middle of strawberry season, it seemed like a crime to shy away from the Eton Mess, so much so that we both had it. Another unregretted decision.

And then, when the wine/cocktails had been drunk and the food had been eaten, it was time to leave. I can't speak for Farzana but I was fairly preoccupied carefully hiding the food baby that had magically appeared - sidling out of the restaurant sideways might have made me look a bit weird but better than looking a bit pregnant (a suspicion that was only reinforced by the fact that someone offered me their seat on the tube on the way home... though he was cute and it turned out he was just young, Australian and polite, or at least so he claimed later).

Viajante - A Traveller's Tale

Not so long ago, East London was the endz, a veritable ghetto haven of Del Boys and wheeler dealers. If it starred in a rap video, it would have been a tough-as-nails-tattooed-to-the-hilt badass who flashed his gold teeth and flat cap with pride. Though noone would go so far as to say that the whole area has been gentrified, the fact remains that it has changed a lot.

Cue The Town Hall Hotel. Designer interiors and an impressive facade, along with a restaurant from one of London's most exciting young chefs Nuno Mendes (who was dutifully working in the kitchen on the Saturday we visited).

The chef himself

Viajante is the Portuguese word for traveller, a hint of the food you'll find on the table. Though I loathe the word fusion, I fail to grasp another that summarises what Mendes is doing here so well.

Our three course (along with 3 amuse bouches) menu took us on a culinary journey around the world, one that left us pleasantly full and feeling as if we had discovered something special. Particularly in stark contrast to Bar Boulud the day before.

Of the three amuse bouches, the Thai Explosion was my favourite – delicately Thai-spiced chicken sandwiched between two wafers and eaten in one go. A mouth-watering explosion of flavour that wouldn’t have gone amiss as a starter in itself if it was slightly larger.

The starter was a glutting of beetroot, small pieces of the vegetable cooked in different ways. Roasted, ribbons and jelly (filed away for future thought), with green apple, goats’ cheese, shredded crab and nuts. The dish was impressive, and an eye-opener for someone whose thoughts on beetroot range from finding it rather boring to a mild dislike.

I’m a sucker for a visual show, so it’s not without fond memories that I recall the lemon sole with asparagus, confit of egg yolk and tapioca. The yolk is presented on the plate, over which the tapioca is poured. Unlike many of these visual tricks, the final product was a taste of sheer brilliance and disappeared in a matter of minutes.

The lemon and Thai basil sorbet tasted like a jazzed up version of the lemon and mint thirst quenching drinks that are so popular in the Middle East. Whether you like it or not largely boils down to whether you like Thai Basil or not – I did and quite liked it, mumsy didn’t and it remained the only dish largely uneaten throughout the meal.

Dessert came in the form of an intensely chocolatey amalgamation, it’s a shame that the ‘ice’ quickly started melting into water and detracted from the rest of the flavours on the plate. Ambiguous as I am about chocolate, especially chocolate desserts, this was quite a winner.

In summary, despite some small misgivings along the way, Viajante stepped into the books as one of my favourite new-ish restaurants in the city so far. Bold, striking and innovative, it’s no wonder that Nuno Mendes is proving to be one of the darlings of the current social scene – I look forward to seeing bigger and even better things from him in the future.

Waiting rating: Stellar, especially as without it you wouldn’t know what you are eating!
Scoffing potential: Really rather good.
Wallet buddy: Lunch can be had three courses for 25 pounds – thumbs up. Expensive wine list. Thumbs down.
The crowd: A heart-warming dissection of London’s social milieu

Vıajante, Patriot Square,
E2 9NF
020 7871 0461

Bar Boulud: Lowering the Expectations of the Average Londoner

Once in a while you come across a new restaurant that is worth all the hype, that truly warrants the media fuss, press coverages and swarms of people desperate to try out the new place to be.

Most of the time, unfortunately, you don’t. Bar Boulud in the Mandarin Oriental, Hyde Park is one such destination.

Saying the restaurant is an exercise in disappointment is a bit excessive. A bit. I suppose it depends on how high your expectations are in the first place. If you are looking for a perfectly pleasant dinner, be reassured, you’ll get what you expect. No more, no less.

If you think all Michelin-starred chefs serve up turds of overrated and overpriced junk and approach with this mindset then guess what. You are in for a TREAT! The food at Bar Boulud really tastes far superior to a turd.

Raise your expectations higher than either of these two options and you’re setting yourself up for a disappointment. So I suppose that it was really my own fault that I found this restaurant to be so overwhelmingly lacklustre. Expectations were just too high and I take full responsibility.

Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. Some of the food was decidedly on the side of brilliance – the Boudin Blanc sausages came with a truffle sauce that didn’t really taste of truffles but was unarguably the highlight of the night. A plump little saucisson lying sexily on a mashed potato base and drizzled with the sauce.

The cheese board too was pretty stellar – the Stinking Bishop comes highly recommended. But I hope I am not the only one that sees the discrepancy between three (three!) Michelin stars in New York and a dinner where the sausage and the cheese are the stars of the show. Thought not.

A brief run through: charcuterie – ok, scallops – large but lacking in flavour, chicken – same story. Meh.

Service was friendly but unreliable – the sommelier only popped up halfway through the meal, even though we’d asked for wines to be matched to each course. For the first course, we were left to our own devices wine wise, not a tragedy but not quite up to standard. Otherwise, glasses were dropped, wine was spilt... teething stages I’m sure.

One of my biggest gripes was the sheer number of people they had packed into the space. It’s a large restaurant by anyone’s standard, so is it really necessary to pack the tables so closely together that punters feel like wiggling and jiggling like a sardine as the surroundings are so conducive to doing so?

It was a Friday night and it was heaving. I could literally hear the woman next to me inhale as she finished chewing and was far too close to another table’s plastic-surgery face fest than is ever comfortable whilst eating. Diners were squished together closer than the rails of Next on the first day of the sale.

In short, go to Bar Boulud if you want to eavesdrop on society’s ‘finest’, complete with a step by step runthrough of what they’ve just purchased in Harrods but don’t go forthe food. You’re setting yourself up for a fall and will be far better saving the pennies for Blumenthal’s restaurant in the same hotel later this year.

Waiting rating: Ditzy would be a compliment
Scoffing potential: Not as good as you'd want it to be with all the fanfare
Wallet buddy: Not particularly friendly, especially in light of the actual food
The crowd: London's wannabe hip crowd and those with more money than tastebuds

66 Knightsbridge
London SW1X 7LA
020 7 201 3899