Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Duck soup

New restaurants open in London all the time. You would need a hell of a lot of time and money to try them all. Some things however, stand out from the crowd. A restaurant headed up by Julian Biggs and other team members from Hix's Oyster and Chop House? This was something I had to see.

There began my surprisingly easy quest to eat at Duck Soup in Soho. Twitter had told tales of long queues and significant waiting times but we strolled in for dinner at 7pm on a Tuesday night and were immediately seated at a place in the bar. So that was nice and easy.

Now I don't mind eating dinner at the bar, some people might, but then if they do, I suspect that Duck Soup isn't the kind of place they would enjoy at all. The atmosphere is, on the whole, very laid back. Vinyl records spin in the corner, belting out an eclectic mix of tunes apparently chosen by both the staff and the customers. Laid back is fine, but it should also go hand in hand with comfortable, and there was a significant failing on that front.

The bar wasn't deep enough for you to sit straight ahead without bruising your knees, so unless you have incredibly short legs, you are pretty much forced to adopt that legs to the side, torso to the front eating position. Not comfortable.

Even less comfortable when halfway through the meal, more people were squeezed onto said bar and I spent the remainder of my meal being jolted in the kidney vicinity by my new neighbour's elbow. Don't get me wrong - he wasn't doing it out of spite but there simply wasn't enough room for him to eat without said rather annoying kidney jabbing action.

Gripe over, the food was stellar. The menu changes daily, and it was nice to see a handwritten menu - small things really do make an impression. We started with smoked crab roe on toast (can't get enough of the little things it would seem) and followed it up with veal shin (me) and gurnard with scallops and clams (Jon).

The veal was melt in your mouth tender with a depth of flavour that is rarely encountered in that meat. The gurnard was firm and fleshy albeit bony, and came with a generous portion of scallops and clams.

Both dishes had us dipping into each other's plates and generally thinking that all is well with a world where you get to eat such things for dinner. The creme caramel was a little on the eggy side, and could have done with a stronger caramel to counterbalance that but was still a good finish to what had been a mostly enjoyable dinner.

Monday, November 7, 2011

To catch a crab

Growing up, I was very much a child of the city - I loved the Science Museum, the sandpit in St James Park and Hamleys, not necessarily in that order. I'm not saying we never left London - we did - there were summer trips to Brighton and Cornwall, walks in the countryside etc etc but there was one thing missing. Crabbing.
The lazy but pleasant pastime of settling down with a bag of bacon tied to the end of a line and spending the day catching as many little shore crabs as possible before setting them free.
So, a few weekends ago Jon and I decided to head down to the Suffolk Coast and put things right. We were going to go crabbing but with one essential development. The little critters were going to come home with us for our supper.
Walberswick is one of the best beaches in the UK, and a lovely day trip but more than that, it's a crabbing hotspot.
A mere hop, skip and a fairly long drive away from Sussex, Walberswick is the home of the national crabbing championships and therefore a very good place to go crabbing. Before we knew it, we were settled down, waiting for the first pull on the line.
We didn't have to wait long - there was barely time for the anticipation to build before we had both successfully caught our first little crabs with our smelly bacon. After that, the day flew by in a haze of competitive crabbing. I am reluctant to admit that Jon caught the biggest crabs but what mine lacked in size they made up in number.
Our lunch stop was The Anchor, which was absolutely lovely. Oysters, halibut with salsa verde and fish and chips - all perfectly cooked and washed down with some white wine in the sunshine. Perfect.
Post luncheon we decided to explore and try out some alternative spots, but like Goldilocks and the three bears, none of them were quite right so we returned to our original place, caught a few more then set off home.
Because shore crabs are quite small, they're not really suitable for dishes that require a lot of crab meat - we settled on a bisque as the best option for our catch of the day. This one was taken from Rick Stein Seafood. The end result was a punchy and intense bisque - and a worthy end for our crabby friends.
Shore Crab Bisque
900g/2lb shore crabs or other shellfish
50g/2oz butter
50g/2oz onion,chopped
50g/2oz carrot, chopped
50g/2oz celery, chopped
1 fresh or dried bay leaf
2 tbsp cognac
4 tomatoes
1 tsp tomato purée
85ml/3fl oz dry white wine
1 good-sized sprig of fresh tarragon
1.75l/3pt fish stock
50ml/2fl oz double cream
a pinch of cayenne pepper
juice of ¼ lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pan of well-salted water to the boil, drop in the crabs then bring them back to the boil and cook for 2 minutes. Strain and let the crabs cool a little, then chop with a large knife.

Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan and add the chopped onion, carrot, celery and the bay leaf. Cook without browning. Stir once or twice then add the crab. Stir, then add the cognac. Allow to boil off then add the tomatoes, tomato purée, wine, tarragon and stock. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the tough claw shells from the soup before liquidizing in a liquidizer or food processor in two or three batches. Process in short bursts until the shell is broken into small pieces about the size of your finger nail. Avoid producing puréed shell, the aim is to extract all possible flavour from any meat left sticking to the shell, particularly in the body section, rather than to extract flavour from the shell itself. Strain the soup through a conical strainer pushing as much liquid through as you can with the back of a ladle to extract all the juices.
Then, pass the soup through a fine strainer before returning to the heat. Bring to the boil, add the cream then season with cayenne pepper, lemon juice, salt and black pepper. Reduce the volume by simmering if you think the flavour needs concentrating.