Wednesday, 20 July 2011

One New Change Champagne Bar, St Pauls

It shows the regard in which we hold Champagne in that we so often use it to describe an aspirational lifestyle. By which, we normally mean hobnobbing with celebs at openings or private members club, dining at the finest restaurants, and travelling first class.

It's amazing that what is essentially a bottle of alcohol has so many positive connotations attached to it. I mean, when did you ever hear anyone talk about a Pinot Noir lifestyle, or Sauvignon Blanc? The only other good appropriation of alcohol to describe someone that I can think of is lager lout. And that is hardly complimentary.

But Champagne has pulled off the unique trick of becoming more accessible, yet remaining exclusive. And a key factor in this has been the emergence of Champagne bars as a venue in their own right. A relative newcomer to this game is The Champagne Bar in One New Change – the posh new shopping mall next to St Paul’s.

The Champagne bar is brought to us by Searcys; the group that has the sister bar in Paddington Station and are also behind 40/30 in the Gherkin. Occupying a corner inside the first floor of the mall, The Champagne Bar is elegant and vibrant. The bar itself sits at the centre, adorned with champagne glasses (what else?) and encircled by cream leather high stools. Dark brown wooden floor tiles are offset by light brown furnishings, which are broken up by exposed dark brickwork. Soft mood lighting completes the affect, which is almost romantic, although the Northerner thought it felt more like a hotel bar.

The staff are incredibly charming and knowledgeable, which is just as well given the extensive drinks menu. Eschewing the cocktail variations of the fizzy stuff, we took their advice and sampled a few champagnes by the glass. Given that we prefer the dry stuff, our charming host recommended the Brut – Lanson Black Label to be exact, which was a delicious drop – dry and biscuit-like. We then went on to the Vintage stuff. The Lanson Gold Label Vintage 1999 is 49% Chardonnay and 51% Pinot Noir, and was quite stunning. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call our palates sophisticated, even we were able to detect the honeyed finish. Delicious.

The Northerner then tried another Vintage Lanson Gold Label Brut 1999, while I gave the Bruno Paillard Brut Premiere Cuvee NV a whirl. Both of which were very good, but paled in comparison to the stunning Gold Label Vintage we’d tried earlier.

To eat we had a few of the nibbles – chorizo, caprese, almonds, French sausages - which were lovely, if not a little small in plate size. We also shared the roast duck with mash, which was melt-in-your-mouth perfect, and compensated for the sizing issues of the platters.

As expected, the Champagne Bar isn’t cheap, but with drinks by the glass ranging from £8.50 to £13.50, it’s hardly extortionate. But perhaps I’ve worked in the City for too long.

The place where the Champagne Bar doesn’t quite work is in its location. A lovely little bar is made to feel not quite so special when you are sitting across from the likes of the North Face, Eat and Banana Republic. This is by no means denigrating those aforementioned shops, but it reminds you that you are in a shopping mall, which is not an experience that works for everyone. It might have been better if it were on the ground floor next to Jamie Oliver's new place, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to think that.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, and that the Champagne Bar is playing its part in making Champagne accessible for everyone. But maybe that’s where that other descriptor - of champagne socialist - came from.

Courtyard at 51, 51 Buckingham Gate

"Blame it on the rain," sang the much derided (but for my money, grossly under-rated) Milli Vanilli. And that’s what was going through the mind of this bar reviewer as I braved monsoon conditions en route to St James' Park to attend the preview of 51 Buckingham Gate’s Summer Courtyard of Music.

The evening definitely had promise. Marketed as The Summer Music Season, the hotel have booked a series of dinner events at which the likes of The London Quartet, and Soprano Bella will perform a selection of opera, and West End classic and contemporary musical theatre.

This is all scheduled to take place in the courtyard to the rear of the hotel, which with its cobbled paving, purple and green shrubbery, mood lighting and Victorian fountain, makes you feel like you have snuck into some posh Lord of the Manor’s back garden. So far, so very Downtown Abbey.

But sadly, the Wimbledon effect took hold in that rain delayed play. Or rather transferred us from the romantic setting of the garden to one of the formal event rooms inside the hotel.

We were welcomed by the signature '51' cocktail aperitif - Tanqueray gin shaken with grapefruit juice, and topped by what is clearly the most fashionable juice right now, in the form of St Germain elderflower liqueur. Refreshing, crisp, and packing a good alcohol punch. The three-course dinner started with a Greek salad - and for the carnivores amongst us a gin braised lamb shank in an olive passata - with char-grilled Mediterranean vegetables and a truffled herb mash as a main. It wasn’t the best lamb shank I’ve ever had in terms of flavour, however the gin braising worked a treat, and the truffled herb mash was good comfort food for the winter-like conditions. The highlight was the iced honeycomb parfait with mandarin compote, topped by confectionary bumble bees. A nice mix of sweetness and citrus sharpness.

The entertainment was West End-style fun with the London Quartet showing off their musical dexterity, and the Soprano Bella, her vocal skills. However, the highlight for this barfly was a 15-year old lad who apparently had come from Britain’s Got Talent. His renditions of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin-style classics got the crowd tapping their shoes and singing along. So much so that they brought him back on for an encore.

So what the rain had threatened to ruin was rescued by a young man singing old classics. Not so much "Blame it on the Rain" as "Blame it on the Boogie". As you can see, there’s a good reason that I’m not a music critic.

The Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, Moorgate

There's something to be said for tapping into the start of a trend. For example, the gastropub revolution in the UK that began in the mid-nineties with the now legendary Eagle on Farringdon Road.

The Northerner and I were fortunate enough to be there (or there about) when those pioneering pubsters decided that stringy roasts and overcooked veg was not what punters were looking for. Cue French brasserie-style cooking taking a grip on the UK's pubs, and nearly every home in the country being familiar with exotic offerings such as fishcakes, Thai curries, and moule frites by the end of the nineties. The flipside of this revolution was the spawning of the gastro chains - All Bar One, Slug and Lettuce, et al. But I'll leave that particular gripe for another day.

Two of the finest proponents of what was a once derided, but now celebrated, culinary art form are Tom and Ed Martin, the brains behind the superb offerings of the Gun in Docklands, the Botanist on Sloane Square and my personal favourite, the White Swan, in Fetter Lane.

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Their latest offering is the Chiswell Street Dining Rooms in Moorgate. Housed in the original home of the Whitbread Brewery, the team have done a great job of turning what was a fairly rundown space into something quite special.

The green exterior makes it look like any other City pub. Entering from the bar side and you can see the transformation, from the leather-topped (and vibrantly busy) bar area, through to the vast dining room. Hues of green and brown dominate the interior from the polished fitted wooden floors through to the modern yellow-green leather chairs. The original windows have been restored to give them, in the words of the Northerner, a school building finish, albeit with a restaurant twist.

On the night we visited, the punters were very City, with a mix of well-heeled Europeans who were probably staying at the connected hotel. The waiting staff were charm personified and very good looking to boot. I know it shouldn’t make a difference, but it does.

The Northerner started with potted ham hock, parsley and baby gherkins which was rich but light, perfectly seasoned and filling. I went for the Lincolnshire smoked eel, with celeriac remoulade, Charlotte potatoes and beetroot. The eel was simply fabulous and the sweetness of the beetroot complemented it perfectly. For mains, the Northerner had the grilled Cornish sole with dill butter and tender stem broccoli which was moist and melt-in-your-mouth in texture. I went for the stuffed Middlewhite pork loin, accompanied by Clonakilty black and white pudding and a roasted Braeburn apple. The combination of these flavours worked perfectly. The pork loin was well seasoned and delicately cooked. The herb infused white pudding and blood rich black pudding were delicious. We shared a blueberry cheesecake and yoghurt for dessert which was marshmallow light and rich berry in flavour.

The charming Sommelier recommended a bottle of Shiraz from New Zealand’s Elephant Hill Estate in Hawkes Bay, which had the dryness of your big French wines, but the lightness that you usually associate with a Pinot Noir. Divine, in other words. We also started with a few cheeky champagne cocktails as you do, which were perfect aperitifs.

The Northerner and I can be a tough crowd when it comes to eating out, but we had to admit defeat on that front. There was nothing which we could criticise. Apparently it’s pulled more than 140 covers a day since it opened in early June. With the quality of food and service they deliver, you can see why. It’s good to know that some trends are here to stay.

Friday, 8 July 2011

The Chef's Table, Tetbury, Gloucestershire

For those of you who watch A Place in the Country (and the chances are that if you’re reading this, you probably do) will know that the Cotswolds rates highly as a destination for City types in search of a rural home. Commutable and chocolate box picturesque, this part of the country seems to encapsulate everything good about England, albeit in a very Richard Curtis way.

Yet it was a part of the world that neither the Northerner nor I had visited. To prove we’re nothing if not eager to try out new places, we followed ten sun-filled days swimming in the Adriatic Sea off Croatia with a weekend break in Tetbury in the heart of Gloucestershire. We were drawn to the town by the amazing art-meets-fashion ‘bed and breakfast’ that is Oak House Number 1. Owned by the charismatic and charming Gary and Nicola, you will struggle to find a more romantic place then this. And is was they who recommended, and kindly booked us into, The Chef's Table, which is run by the Michelin-star chef Michael Bedford and his wife, Sarah.

Housed in a former antiques shop (of which there are plenty, might I add), The Chef's Table combines a delicatessen/food shop/fishmongers at ground level with a bistro spread over two floors. We dined upstairs where you find an industrial-sized open kitchen where Michael and his chefs cook from a short blackboard menu.

Whetting our appetites with a cheeky glass of prosecco, and some freshly baked bread and olives, we went for the homemade prawn bhaji with a lightly spiced red lentil dhal and the Cornish lobster and pea risotto for starters. The Northerner’s bhaji was subtly spicy and worked well with the dhal. It was cooked to perfection without a trace of oiliness. My risotto saw the sweetness of the peas combining nicely with the rich flavour of lobster. It arguably lacked a little seasoning but that is being picky. For mains the Northerner went for the roasted wild halibut with broad beans, and the crab and parmesan gnocchi. The fish was moist and firm - while the gnocchi was delicious - the sharpness of the parmesan merging brilliantly with the succulent crabmeat. I went for the roasted Gressingham duck breast with confit leg, a tatin of butternut squash and a baked English onion. This turned out to be a feast-sized dish, with the confit leg and duck breast challenging my normally voracious appetite. Nevertheless it was a lovely dish for which the onion provided a sweetness that offset the game flavours of the duck. For dessert we went for the soufflĂ© which was light and subtle sweet and just what we needed to round off a big eating night. We drank a bottle of the Bagordi Rioja 2008 which was superb, so much in fact that we ordered an extra glass to round off the evening. (But perhaps that’s more a reflection on us.)

The Chef's Table also offers a cooking-as-theatre experience that comes about through the bar-style seating for some of the diners. However there are no Gordon Ramsay-style tantrums here, in fact it’s the opposite with it being so calm and quiet that you don’t quite believe it’s a working kitchen. The waiting staff are friendly and helpful, as you would expect in a place of this quality, and the prices are very fair with the mains mostly falling around the mid-teens mark.

However, it is a little quiet. I know might sound an odd thing to criticise it for, but the staff seem to speak in near whispered tones, and to my memory there was no background music. So while it is a lovely place to eat, and we most certainly enjoyed ourselves, it wasn't a place full of fun.

But then again, perhaps I’ve been in London too long where you get used to noise that borders on chaotic wherever you are. Maybe the Northerner and I need to sign up for that Place in the Country.