Lord have (Gra)mercy!

20 Dec

The Tavern came near the top of most guides of best restaurants in New York City. It is well known for “farm to table” sustainable eating. I looked forward to eating there but worried about how it would fare, coming the day after my visit to Daniel.  Malcolm, my dinner companion, and I arrived just after our allotted time of 9:30 and were greeted by pleasant but not very warm reception staff. We were asked to wait in the cold reception area as the table was being prepared.

We looked at the menus on offer and both chose the tasting menu as we weren’t enthused by the dishes on the a la carte menu.  Tasting menus can be a bit of a minefield as they often include as many as seven intricate courses. By the end of the meal, you can be a bit jaded by the taste of yet more heirloom something, shavings of something else and foamed another thing, and just uncomfortably full.

Having said that, the food on offer through Gramercy’s tasting menu was mainly superb, with each of the savoury courses being better than the one before, lifting you on a crescendo of excitement almost to the end of the meal.

Unfortunately, this was brought to a discordant end with the most disastrous of desserts.

The good

The food was definitely the high point of our meal as it should be. The menu and courses were well designed and executed. The liberal use of seasonal vegetables was complementary and interesting.

We started with an amuse bouche, which was a buckwheat puff with pimento cheese.  At this time of year, squash is in season and appears in some form on most menus.  It made an appearance in our second dish of king crab with apple, yuzu and squash.

The third dish was vegetable chowder, a creamy celery flavoured soup, with scallops and caviar.

Scallops with Vegetable Chowder

Scallops with Vegetable Chowder

Next up was halibut with roasted cauliflower and capers.

Halibut

Halibut

The recent trend of roasted cauliflower dishes is very welcome.  Cauliflower is not my favourite vegetable but roasting brings out its nutty, caramel notes, which was in excellent contrast to the capers and a lovely accompaniment to the fish.

The final seafood course was squid ink tagliatelle, lobster and bell peppers.

This was a marvellous dish. The tagliatelle was home-made, delicious and appropriately al dente. The pepper broth was complex and rich with an Iberian influence that worked beautifully with the sweetness of the lobster.

The final course and the only meat course was roasted duck breast, mushroom, brussels sprouts, pancetta and hazelnuts.

As good as the lobster was, this took it up another level. The duck breast was tender and tasty, with the skin nicely crisped.

The pancetta added richness and the hazelnuts crunchy contrast. It really is a victory of a tasting menu to keep you interested to the end.

Duck breast

Duck breast

The bad

At top end restaurants, where the food is consistently amazing, it is often the little things that determine how you rank the restaurant.

From the bread that wasn’t warm, on one of the coldest days of the autumn, to the waiters, struggling with the mixed language menus, who were completely unintelligible, the Gramercy failed somewhat.

Initially, I found the headwaiter veered between being unctuous and downright creepy. Like an overly controlling husband, he chose our wines for us. He did let us taste before choosing but being offered an option would have given less of an impression that the wine was pre-selected for everyone having the tasting menu.

However, as the meal went on, he seemed to relax. The wine he chose was good, although not as good as at Daniel the previous evening. He was attentive and handled questions (and complaints) efficiently. I do feel though that senior waiters should know how tagliatelle is pronounced, not Taglia Tell, William’s Italian cousin.

The downright disastrous

The dessert, and final course, was pear pannacotta, pear puree and tapioca. This was served in a glass and was topped by coffee granita rendering it visually unimpressive.

Wet yoghurt

Wet yoghurt

The pannacotta tasted like wet yoghurt and wasn’t well set, which may be why it was served in a glass.

The watery bland granita on the top of the dessert amplified the impression of the dessert’s wetness.

I can understand the use of a granita for variety and texture. I think placing it on top of what is meant to be a creamy dessert might not be the best idea. The dessert could have been deconstructed with the granite on the side perhaps, giving that textural variety without the impression of a melted mess.  It just wasn’t in the same class as the rest of the meal.

I really can’t remember whether I finished the dessert or not but can see no reason why I would have.

Overall, I think I enjoyed dinner at Gramercy.  The food really was very good.  However, somehow this was almost overshadowed by bad acoustics, average to incomprehensible service and an awful dessert.

The journey home

brooklyncab-1024x576

As we stepped out of the Gramercy, we hailed a yellow cab.  The driver had the dubious honour of topping our indistinct waiter.  Not only was he incomprehensible, he also did not appear to know where he was going.  Unfortunately I fell asleep, to wake up in desolate, unpopulated surroundings that didn’t even look like New York.  I’ve obviously watched too many episodes of CSI as I became convinced that we were taken somewhere off the beaten track for God knows what reason.  My demands to be let out quickly turned to “I’m calling the police” as I realized that I had no idea where we were.  I think the cab driver managed to feel even more panicked than I did.  He had mis-heard and instead of taking us to 125th Street, he was heading to 25th Street.  When Malcolm realized that we were going the wrong way, he reiterated one hundred and twenty fifth street.  The cab driver in a futile act of bravado then decided that 125th street did not exist.  At this point, I ratcheted the crazy up to new heights.  “It’s a big street in Harlem!  You’ve written off a huge portion of African American history”.  We finally got there, with the cab driver hysterical and close to tears.  I think he was amazed when Malcolm, by now dying of embarrassment, handed him the same fare that we’d paid on the way down.  I’m not sure he’ll be heading back to Harlem in a hurry. Either that or he’ll install GPS….

New York! These streets will make you feel brand new! Big lights will inspire you!

29 Nov

New York Soundtrack

Empire State of mind – Jay-Z and Alicia Keys:

The A train

So I arrived in New York one early afternoon mid-week and took the A train to Harlem. Apparently it’s the quickest way.

I’ve planned a whistlestop tour of some of New York’s finest restaurants, bars, markets and street food. I’ve arranged to stay in Harlem, using AirBnB. At £67 per night, this is reasonably good value in New York. I was a little nervous though as it felt a bit like going back to being a student and having a flat share.

420

I’ve picked a bad week. New York is freezing. Buffalo is under 5 feet of snow. Having hopped out of the subway at West 125th street and after several cold consultations of the map, I arrived at a slightly “bruk down” looking building. Surely that’s not it? It’s not quite the Harlem brownstone that I had envisioned.  I climb the 3 flights of stairs with a feeling of mild trepidation.

Thankfully, the flat is nicer than it first seemed. I met our host, settled in and began to get ready for dinner.

Just as I was bracing myself to catch a cab in the cold, I was arrested by a mellow scent familiar from life in Brixton. Hello? Of course I couldn’t resist asking my Guyanese host if that was what I thought it was. He confirmed that it was and showed me the number “420” on the blackboard in the lounge. I guess not all things about student life were bad.

"420"

“420”

Daniel

I felt very lucky to book a table at Daniel Boulud’s Daniel at 60 East 65th street.

Daniel

Daniel

Unfortunately jet lag kicked in and I forgot my camera so ended up taking pictures with a phone.  I apologise for the fuzziness in advance.

Dress code blues

Something that I have found surprising about New York so far, is that the high end restaurants seem to all stipulate business casual wear. This is in contrast to London, where you can turn up in jeans and sneakers (as I have done on several occasions) if you so desire. This had my dinner companion scrabbling through his luggage to try to find suitable attire. He just about managed but I did wonder if we’d be turned away on arrival.  Far from it.

We received a very warm welcome although he was definitely the least well dressed of the men dining that night.

The Food

The food on offer included a price-fixe menu for $125 (one starter, main and dessert from a wide selection); a 7-course tasting menu or a la carte.  As the range of choices was excellent and having almost died having tasting menus in Australia, I went for the price-fixe.

I chose lobster to start, pork for the main. My dinner companion chose scallops and cod.

The lobster came in three ways: butter poached; rolled with Hawaiian hearts of palm, wrapped in blanched romaine lettuce; and in a small light curried lobster samosa.

The scallops were seed crusted with Aleppo seeds and came with a birch reduction and flavourful celery mousseline.

The pork included chops and belly with delicate shards of crackling. Treviso ragout cut through the fattiness of the belly and the harissa jus gave the chops a zingy edge. The pork chops were so surprisingly tender, they could probably be cut with a spoon.

Pork

Pork

The Atlantic Cod was slow baked, in order to cook without drying. It was coated in yoghurt and grilled. It was served with spinach and a lemon balm and liquorice “foamed” emulsion.

Cod

Cod

Wine

I’ve never understood why you are sometimes offered a choice of wines before you’ve even had a look at the food. I resisted, chose my starter and main and asked if the sommelier could come across and give us a hand in finding a wine to match. I like to do this as it helps to engage. A good sommelier will know the wine list inside out, sometimes producing a choice that you wouldn’t have made but that may well work better.

This was such a case. We ended up with half a bottle of an Austrian Gruner Veltliner.

Gruner Veltliner

This had a full and floral bouquet but wasn’t quite so perfumed on the palate. The rounded, full flavor worked well with the food that we’d chosen: it stood up well to the pork and the butter poached lobster but didn’t blow away the cod. The wine was described as being fun by the sommelier and that was an accurate description. Before the starter had gone, we were already contemplating the second and third halves of the bottle.

The extras

Before the meal began, we had a selection of canapes and an amuse bouche. The canapés included 3 broccoli inspired tastes: broccoli soup with crème fraiche; smoked trout with a broccoli slice and broccoli quiche. I love broccoli and this was certainly enjoyable.

I wish I could remember the amuse bouche but it was so greedily inhaled I’d forgotten what it was by the time I stared sadly at the empty plate

The accompanying bread rolls were so tasty and flavourful, they could almost be considered a course on their own. The cheese rolls were full of umami that they almost tasted Marmite-y. The layered brioche rolls were sinfully buttery, only the fear of not finishing the rest of the food stopped me from eating about four.

Dessert

I strove for comforting simplicity, choosing a simple chocolate fondant with caramel ice cream. The second dessert was a work of art. It included a tempered chocolate tube with a layered “drawer” which could slide in and out. It was made of layers of cake, praline and mousse.

This dessert was technically excellent, cleverly conceived and just plain good fun.

Chocolate "drawer"

Chocolate “drawer”

Post dessert

After dessert, we were offered petit fours, despite not having coffee. I greedily galloped my way through these but my stomach drew the line at the Madeleines. Sensing my hesitation at jumping off the greedy cliff, the waiter proposed packing them up to go. I was delighted not to leave my little friends behind.

Madeleines

Madeleines

I wonder if everyone gets quite the same treatment at Daniel?

The food was delicious and varied with a lot of choice on offer.  The sommelier and waiter made the service feel not only exceptional but personal and special.  This makes it one of, if not the best restaurant experiences that I’ve ever had.

We’re off to an exceptional start in New York. Long may this continue!

Et tu, Brixton?

13 Nov

Brixton Village

Lowlight

I’ve been trying to avoid blogging about Brixton Village.  I have liked that spot in the old Granville arcade, ever since there was hardly much more than Federation Coffee and Etta’s…  Long before it became the next “new” thing in Brixton.

Anyway, I’ve been trying but now accept that I must fail.  I have to write about the nonsense of my recent Saturday experience there.

I haven’t been to Fish, Wings and Tings of late.

Not because the food is awful.  It isn’t, although it isn’t spectacular either.

Not because of the scintillating view of steaming Brixton market rubbish at the front either, although that is challenging.

DSC_0067

Brixton Village Saturday rubbish, next to Fish, Wings and Tings

It’s just that I’ve got fed up of the never-changing menu, (chicken or goat?  goat or chicken?), which has less variety than the Caribbean takeaway on Coldharbour Lane. However, against my better judgment, I took a Trinidadian friend who was visiting from Scotland.

It all started off smoothly – the saltfish accra (or codfish fritters, as it has been boringly described) was very tasty – but then it all went badly wrong.  The waitress got our orders wrong.  Both.  In and of itself, this was not a disaster.  It happens in all restaurants at one time or another.  Unfortunately the wrong food was brought to us twice, as if we could not possibly know what we ordered.  We politely sent it back both times, saying that we hadn’t ordered it.  The waitress then came out and aggressively demanded to know what we’d ordered.

As my friend put it: “Yuh know Brixton reach, when you’re given grief for your Trini accent, in a Caribbean restaurant, by a French waitress!”  I won’t be going back anytime soon.

Highlight

Fortunately, Brixton Village somehow still has the ability to charm you when you least expect it.  On Sunday we wandered down to The Agile Rabbit just as they were closing.  The chefs made us fresh thin and crispy pepperoni pizza while we waited and were then generous enough to share their staff food with us when we looked at it longingly.

The Agile Rabbit - Thin and Crispy Pizzas

The Agile Rabbit – Thin and Crispy Pizzas

I’ve worked in several large London restaurants and don’t remember having such simple staff food that was that nice – spinach and ricotta ravioli in butter, with an ephemeral tease of nutmeg.   Who says the best things in life aren’t free?

There are still some superb spots in and around Brixton Village – Federation Coffee continues to produce the best coffee south of the river, despite being overrun with yummy mummies – however, there are way too many glorified takeaways trying to charge restaurant prices for ordinary food and really poor, if not downright disrespectful service.  Brixton is one of the coolest spots south of the river.  We deserve better.

 

Environs – The Wine Parlour

One of the successes of Brixton Village has been the improvement of the gastronomic sites available nearby.  For example, the Spanish restaurant and deli, Brindisa, has opened its doors on Atlantic Road just near to Brixton Village.  For me, though, the highlight is the independent “Wine Parlour”, which is tucked away on the corner of Vining Street and the very busy Atlantic Road.  It’s a funky spot with good quality wines, displaying a range of styles at a range of prices.

DSC_0046

Inside the Wine Parlour

They have a good quality “Enomatic” wine preservation system. It stores the wines for up to 8 days and allows you to pour as little as 25 ml at a time. Basically, this means that small independent wine bars, such as this, can offer a wide range of fresh wines by the glass, without needing to increase the price to cover increased waste.

 

Enomatic Wine Preservation Syste

Enomatic Wine Preservation Syste

One or both of the proprietors is always there and I’ve always found the service good and their suggestions helpful.  Chix in particular, runs the store with a fun, friendly but firm hand –that means she is able to talk me down from my near tantrum-throwing to get an outdoor patio spot with exceptionally good grace and charm.  Add to that, it is an interesting location on a busy road, where you can watch the road rage outside in cool comfort.  Additionally, if you’ve had enough, you can step out to their little patio and relax in the summer sun.

Outdoor patio at night

Outdoor patio at night

I’ve never been a fan of Champagne et Fromage in the Village – something seems quite wrong about its self-conscious pretense in the grittiness of the market.  The Wine Parlour manages to avoid this, largely because of the laid back, easy attitude of the owners and staff.  It is definitely worth a visit.

 

Tour de York

3 Aug

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Yorkshire dales recently – well the “dale” of York in particular.

This is an unusual area in terms of food culture.

Jay Rayner, in his review of Le Langhe restaurant, (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/23/la-langhe-york-restaurant-review) described York as an area punching below its weight and that, for the most part, feels about right.

For an area that smells either of conching chocolate (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conching) or “fertiliser” (i.e. manure) being laid in the fields, the foodie offering is surprisingly limited.

In my next few posts, I will do a whistle stop tour of the food in York itself.  Following this, I will cover a few high-end restaurants in Yorkshire as a whole.

I have bribed, threatened and cajoled my colleagues to accompany me on this wild adventure, so keep an eye out for the extras.

Talking about “whistlestop” tours, it would be remiss if I didn’t say something about Le Grand Depart of the Tour de France, also known as the Tour de Farce since both Mark Cavendish and Chris Froome were laid low in the early stages.

This took place a few weekends ago.  The locals definitely joined in the spirit of the race: There were many painted yellow bikes hanging from buildings around York, 

 

Hanging yellow bicycle

Hanging yellow bicycle

 

and many, including my friend Richard and his family, came out on the Sunday dressed “a la Francais”.

 

Richard's family, French style

Richard’s family, French style

 

I stood out on a relatively cold (it is York!) summer’s morning to watch Froome et al “fly past” at what was for them, a snail’s place.

Despite the limited duration of my view (36 seconds if my camera timer is to be believed), I got some great photos and it was surprisingly exciting to see them go past.

 

Not quite flying....

Not quite flying….

 

DSC_0103DSC_0104

 

Almost more amazing though was the hundreds thousands of pounds worth of bikes, wheels and spare parts being carried by the support vehicles.  I guess this is nothing compared to the value of the cars destroyed during the F1 race at Silverstone later that day but….

There were tens of support vehicles loaded like this

There were tens of support vehicles loaded like this

Since watching the Tour that morning,

  • Froome found it difficult to remember which way is up;
  • Hamilton continues to pin the voodoo doll of Rosberg with limited success; and
  • Pele has applied for German citizenship

On to the food!

The opening of Carnival

21 Mar

Camboulay

A re-enactment of the Camboulay riots can be seen, along with the key carnival figures (described below) at the opening of carnival on Carnival Friday at Piccadilly on the east side of Port of Spain.

Before emancipation, when there was a fire on any sugar plantation, slaves from neighbouring plantations were drafted in to help extinguish the fires.

After emancipation, the congregation of the ex-slaves carrying burning sugar cane, drumming and stickfighting became a key way of celebrating emancipation.  Eventually, these processions shifted to carnival time and became an integral part of the carnival celebration.  The word camboulay was derived from the French for burning canes (cannes brulees).

Preparing to fight

Preparing to fight

The Camboulay Riots were riots by the descendants of freed slaves on the island of Trinidad against attempts by the British police to crack down on aspects of the celebration of Carnival. The riots occurred in February 1881 in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and spread to the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town in February 1884 causing loss of life.

As part of the ban on Camboulay, drumming was also prohibited, leading to the development of the tamboo bamboo as a replacement percussion instrument.

Tamboo Bamboo

Tamboo Bamboo

As part of the Carnival there were often clashes between groups of revellers carrying sticks and lighted torches. While the confrontations started in song duels between the chantwells, they often worsened to physical violence.  Although they were banned by the British authorities, it was only when Captain Arthur Baker became the head of Trinidad’s police force in the early 1880s that they determined to end the canboulay as a threat to public order.

Stick fighters in battle

Stick fighters in battle

In 1881, Trinidad’s police force clashed with revellers in Port of Spain who had banded together against the police. This caused resentment amongst the ordinary people of Trinidad who valued the festival despite the clashes.

Due to the feelings of the population, the then Governor Sir Sanford Freeling confined police to barracks in order to calm the situation.

The "Governor" allowing Canboulay

The “Governor” allowing Canboulay

The riots are still commemorated today and Camboulay music is an important part of the music of Trinidad and Tobago notably the use of steel pans which were the descendants of percussion instruments banned in the 1880s. The “chantwell” or chantuelle who was also an integral part of the celebrations was the forerunner of the calypsonian.

The Key Characters of Carnival

Pierrot Grenade

The Pierrot Grenade is a descendant of the Pierrot known for his elegant costume and fierce fighting prowess with a whip or bull pistle, and was followed by a band of female supporters who fought on his behalf against other Pierrot groups..

Pierrot Grenade was a finely dressed masquerader and deeply supreme scholar/ jester proud of his ability to spell any word in his own fashion and quoting Shakespearean characters as Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Othello at length. Pierrot Grenade, is a satire on the richer and more respectable Pierrot.

During the opening of carnival, it is the Pierrot Grenade who narrates the history of the riots.

DSC_0020

Dame Lorraine

Dame Lorraine

Dame Lorraine

The Dame Lorraine was a mas character played by the 18th and early 19th century French planters, who would dress up in elegant costumes of the French aristocracy and parade in groups at private homes/yards and Carnival Sunday night.

The liberated slaves recreated these costumes, complete with elaborate fans and hats in their own fashion, using materials that were readily available, such as assorted rags and imitative jewellery-type items..

The major Dame Lorraine performers through the years however, were descendants of the French planters and persons of some respectability, who hid behind masks, mainly of the fine wire mesh variety, and found their way into the downtown Old Yards, where they paraded and danced for all and sundry.

Jab Jab

The name of this mas is derived from the French patois for ‘Diable Diable” meaning a pretty devil mas resembling a mediaeval jester’s costume. The costume consists of a Kandal or satin knickers, and satin shirt which are divided into panels of alternating colours with points of cloth at the waist, from which bells hang. On the chest, there is a shaped cloth panel which is decorated with swansdown, rhinestones and mirrors. Stockings and alpargatas are worn on the feet, while the headdress consists of a hood with stuffed cloth horns. The Jab Jab has a thick whip of plaited hemp which he swings and cracks terrifyingly. These whips can reduce the costumes of other Jab Jabs to threads.  Big men noticeably flinched when the Jab Jabs crack their whips.  Yessss. I know which side of that whip I’d rather be on.

Jab-Jab

Jab-Jab

Jab Molassie

Jab, French patois for Devil, and Molassie, the French patois for Mélasse (Molasses), is one of several types of devil mas. The simple costume consists of short pants or pants cut off at the knee, with a wire tail, mask and horns and a pitchfork. The jab malassie would carry chains, and wear locks and keys around his waist, and carry a pitch fork. The whole body is smeared with grease or mud, red, green or blue paint. The jab molassie “wines” or gyrates to a rhythmic beat that is played on tins or pans by his imps. While some of his imps supply the music, others hold his chain, seemingly restraining him as he pulls against them in his wild dance.

Jab Molassie

Jab Molassie

Fire!

Fire!

 

Moko Jumbies

Moko Jumbie

Moko Jumbie

Moko Jumbies are also known as “Dancing Spirits”.  The name is believed to come from “Moko”, a West African God and “Jumbie”, a local term used to describe a spirit or ghost.  They are stilt walkers who roam the streets, often in packs, during carnival.  The good ones can get almost horizontal.  Did you ever wonder where they got those stilt walkers from during the Barcelona Olympics opening ceremony? Er…. Trinidad!

The Baby Doll

The baby doll masquerader portrays a gaily dressed doll, decked out in a frilled dress and bonnet. In her arms she carries a doll which symbolises an illegitimate baby. The masquerader stops male passers-by and accuses them of being the baby’s father.  It is amusing to see how flustered some guys get when asked….

Baby Doll

Baby Doll

The Jamette

La diametre – This is a character whose behavior is diametrically opposed to decent members of society.  She is a loose woman and often one who fights alongside and for the Pierrot.  One of the most dreaded insults you could get from a teacher at school, was that you were behaving like a “little Jamette”!

The Jamette

The Jamette

A brief history of carnival

19 Mar

Carnival originated as a pagan festival in ancient Egypt which was subsequently celebrated by the Greeks and then the Romans. The popular festival was adopted by the Roman Catholic Christian church in Europe as the festival of Carne Vale.

I always thought that the word Carnival was made up of two Latin words, carne, meaning flesh and vale, meaning farewell. However, the Wikipedia entry for Carnival suggests that this is a popular myth and that it may instead have come from “Carne Levare” or the removal of meat.  In any case, in the Catholic calendar carne vale, farewell to flesh, is a feast celebrated on the Sunday (Dimanche Gras), Monday and Tuesday (Mardi Gras), before Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and fasting.

The Carnival festival was introduced to the Caribbean by European colonizers from Spain and France.  In particular, Carnival was introduced to Trinidad around 1785, as the French settlers began to arrive. The tradition caught on quickly and lavish masquerade balls were held. The wealthy planters put on masks, wigs, and beautiful dresses and danced long into the night.

Obviously banned from the masked balls of the French, the African slaves would hold their own version of these carnivals in their backyards, using their own rituals and folklore, but also copying the behaviour of the European planters at their masked balls.

The Planters' Masquerade Ball

The use of masks had special meaning for the slaves, because for many African peoples, masking is widely used in their rituals for the dead.

On emancipation the freed African slaves transformed the festival into a celebration of the end of slavery.  African dance and music traditions transformed the early carnival celebrations, as African drum rhythms, large puppets, stick fighters, and stilt dancers began to make their appearances in the carnival festivities.

Th re-start

19 Mar

So, with trepidation, and after much time, I continue my blog with a section on Trinidad and Carnival.

This is such an important topic for any Trinidadian that it must be written with due care and attention.

This year (2014) I’ve been in Trinidad for just over 2 weeks.  This allows me a good “run-up” to carnival and a “cool down” afterward.  It is possible to do carnival in a week but this will mean missing the shows which are such a big part of the entertainment.

I have judiciously picked shows and bands to cover a good spread of what carnival has to offer, starting with UTT’s Sparrow Anthropology on Friday 21 through 3-Canal, pan-yards, Little Carib, the opening of carnival, J’ouvert, Minshall Mas right down to the Savannah and Ariapita Avenue house-hopping on Carnival Tuesday.

Before I get into the detail of the events though, I will start with an introduction to carnival