My 2011 meals of the year

I’ve been writing this post for a couple of weeks, better post it before it’s 2012!

Hannah, my co-eater lady* and I have enjoyed many cracking meals this year and it was quite good fun arguing about ranking them. And literally about three people have asked me recently – “Nick, what were your best meals of 2011?”. So I hope you don’t mind this rather self-indulgent post …

And also, I suspect 2012 won’t be much like 2011 eating wise, as our lives are set to be turned upside down at the end of February with a new arrival …

Before we get into the list proper:

A few places which might have seemed shoe-ins for this list didn’t end up featuring. Perhaps most notably El Celler de Can Roca. Given its ranking of “2nd best restaurant in the world” our expectations were consequently sky high. But the experience left us a bit cold, mainly down to the sterile and unrelaxing “international dining” experience on offer, which didn’t tally with the experimental “emotional cuisine” which was always interesting but only rarely pushed any emotional buttons for us.

Another place which had bloggers and eGulleters in a tizzy this year was Hedone, the project of ex-blogger turned professional chef Mikael Jonsson. Whilst a few dishes were genuinely amazing (the slow-cooked egg with girolles being the stand-out) the meal didn’t live up to expectations, with a few dud courses and some inconsistent cooking.

The award for absolute turkey of a meal this year goes to Kenny Atkinson at Rockliffe Hall which served up generally banal food in an excruciatingly awkward setting. A serious disappointment.

On with the list!

10) Turner’s (Harborne, Birmingham, UK)

We ate here several times during the year and I regret it wasn’t more – it’s on our local high street for god’s sake. Turners remains my tip for best restaurant in Birmingham if anyone asks. The meal we enjoyed most was the full-on tasting experience, written up by Lap here.

9) Roganic / MEATliquor, London, UK

A bit cheeky to lump these two together but a truly excellent day of eating saw us take the tasting menu at Roganic and follow it up hours later with cheeseburgers, deep-fried pickles and chilli cheese fries as well as copious lageritas at MEATliquor. A very memorable double-act.

8 ) The Black Country Museum, Dudley, UK

I was genuinely sad to hear that the best chippie in Birmingham – the Great British Eatery had closed down this year. The guys were genuinely passionate about their project, but got caught out with a bad location and a bad egg business partner. But I’m pretty sure they’ll be back with something soon. However GBE was only the second best place for fish and chips in the West Midlands – first place honours belong to the Black Country Living Museum. This also happens to be the best museum, probably anywhere in the world. An open wrap of fish and chips, a pickled egg and lashings of vinegar, eaten on a cold day around a coal braizer, followed by a pint in the Bottle and Glass Inn is one of the UK’s great food experiences. We’ve been countless times since we moved to Birmingham. If you haven’t been, go now!

7) Cochon Butcher, New Orleans, LA

I had to pick somewhere in New Orleans, an awesome place for eating (and drinking, and dancing). In the end I couldn’t decide between Cochon Butcher and a couple of other places, all introduced to me by the very generous Rebecca Penton. The Joint served up some outrageous BBQ ribs in a downhome setting, and Elizabeth’s served one of the most heart-stopping starters of all day – maple praline bacon. In the end I went for Cochon Butcher for their outrageously rich boudin sausage, stuffed with liver, spice and rice … followed by duck sliders.

6) The Cajun Cook-off

Inspired by the food in New Orleans we got the Popstrami gang back together for a Cajun cook-off on a glorious summer’s day. Everyone brought their A-game that day including Tom’s boudin balls, Lap’s BBQ ribs and andouille, Yen’s wop salad and dirty rice. And I have to say my wagyu brisket turned out better than I could have imagined. Hannah’s apple pie with smoked ice cream was a brilliant way to finish this awesome eating fest. Oh, and some picklebacks.

5) Sea Urchins for Breakfast

Eating spanking fresh seafood isn’t usually a West Midlands experience. An early trip to the Birmingham Wholesale market was rewarded by the rare treat of some spanking-fresh sea urchins which were opened gingerly by Lap and spooned onto some sourdough toast for a breakfast of champions. A market experience on par with Tsukiji. The Birmingham wholesale markets are currently under threat – this would be a real loss to the City. Write to your MP.

4) L’enclume, Cartmel, UK

Just a lovely experience start to finish.

3) Ferran Adria’s Tickets, Barcelona, Spain

For sheer theatricality I don’t think you could do better than Tickets. We enjoyed this all tremendously, particularly the miniairbags and the “sparking” rabbit ribs. I’m sorry to say you have virtually no chance of ever getting a reservation.

2) Maeemo, Oslo, Norway

Oslo was a food paradox. The locals seem to live off cheap hot-dogs and pizza by the slice from the ubiquitous Deli De Luca. They splurge sweet pink toothpaste on Ryvita for breakfast. You don’t see change from £20 if you order a couple of coffees and a cake. But at the high end of dining, they had some very good restaurants. We loved our meal at the excellent Hanami. But one place is head and shoulders above the rest in Oslo, and that place is Maeemo. Clearly inspired by NOMA, I suspect you’ll hear about this place more in 2012. I’ve been rather remiss in not blogging this meal (yet) but Nordic Nibbler did it much better than I could, including decent pictures. As we were both having the same menu at the same time, just pretend I wrote it. The oyster dish was simply legendary.

1) Restaurant Nathan Outlaw, Rock, UK

Another meal I shamefully didn’t blog about, but lives long in the memory. The short tasting menu was an absolute masterclass in fish cooking, benefiting from subtle applications of curing and smoking (my favourite things as you may know by now). The service was wonderful, from the proferred reading glasses (available in several prescriptions) to the inspired wine pairings. Not the fanciest of experiences but just genuinely enjoyable from start to finish. Even the death defying drive through thick fog with rather sketchy direction finding to get back to our B&B didn’t manage to dampen the spirits.

Hannah’s top 5 (for feminine balance):

5) Nathan Outlaw
4) Hanami, Oslo
3) Maeemo
2) L’enclume
1) Tickets

Honorable mentions: Galvin la Chapelle, Carters of Moseley, Pepe Viera, Ebi sushi, Hand and Flowers, Michael Wignall at the Latymer.

Happy 2012 to all readers of the blog!

* not Jill

Fun with Ottolenghi: Chocolate fudge cake and other less successful dishes …

A vegetarian friend was to come to dinner, which coincided with Paulo lending me his copy of the first Ottolenghi cookbook. Well you can see where this is going. I’ve previously had mixed results cooking Ottolenghi recipes. I enjoyed his chermoula aubergine with bulghar and yoghurt, which I think I improved by giving the aubergine a little bit of a smoke in the Bradley. I also liked his recipe for the chicken sofrito, a classic Sephardic dish. However I do find his recipes a little fiddly, and rather demanding of the designated washer-upper (Hannah) usually requiring plenty of bowls, dishes and pans. There are plenty of separate steps for each recipe and it can be quite hectic trying to cook a bunch of them simultaneously for the first time. I’d contrast this with Moro which achieves at least as delicious results, but which doesn’t manage to make you quite as sweaty and stressy in the process.

So I picked out a few interesting looking recipes, hoping to expand my repertoire of vegetable dishes. My starting point was a loaf of lovely sourdough, and basing a meal around some good bread really feels right, the sort of thing the Spanish (or French, or Italians) might do without thinking, helped no doubt by the panaderia open all hours just around the corner (we have a Spar, it’s not the same).

So I chose butter bean puree with dukka as a starter. The butter bean puree was lovely and smooth, mainly because I passed it through a sieve to get rid of any tough bits of skin remaining. It tasted good, but with four cloves of quite pungent garlic it was too garlicky, and so this dish won’t help your love life. In fact I was forced to sleep on my left side that night to avoid choking my partner. I’d advise more like a single clove if you make this. The “dukka” is a nice idea, adding spice and crunch to the smooth paste, but it’s a bit of a hassle to go to for a single dish. Ottolenghi suggests you keep some in tupperware, but I know how that plan would end (Hannah chucking it out in about a year).

For main I tried the beetroot and saffron rice cake. This came out very pretty looking but a little dry, and there really wasn’t much flavour. It probably needs more salt and lemon zest, but frankly I wouldn’t bother making this again. I also tried the Jerusalem artichokes with manouri and basil oil, substituting manouri with halloumi as there are no Greek supermarkets in Birmingham which might stock this soft cheese. This dish didn’t really work, the drizzling of basil oil wasn’t sufficient to bring the dry and fried ingredients together into a proper salad. Now I read it back, I don’t really understand this recipe or my decision to cook it.

So, really only one qualified success out of three. Luckily Ottolenghi didn’t completely let me down as I cooked his chocolate fudge cake. I can’t be bothered to transcribe the recipe, but luckily it has been replicated on the Lemonpi blog. I can’t recommend this cake enough. It’s absolutely unapologetically rich, and it’s genius is that you have two layers, a more solid (flourless) cake-like base, topped with an undercooked layer which comes out like mousse. Your fork slides through the top layer and the bottom layer offers resistance. Served with some whipped cream it is absolutely superb. I’d like to vary this with some flavourings, Hannah thinks orange would work well. You could even do a Christmassy version with cassis and cranberries.

The Curlew, Bodiam, East Sussex

An early Christmas celebration saw us make the 3 hour journey from Birmingham to the Curlew on the outskirts of Bodiam, a part of the world most famous for the French getting all arsey with the British in 1066, so rather topical in these times of Euro summit meltdown. Another sign of the times was that the restaurant was all but empty for Saturday lunch, a massive surprise given the conviviality of the setting and the quality of the food we encountered. This is a great place to take the cold edge off a winter’s day. And the spirit of Christmas is definitely in the air at the Curlew – helped by a “mince pie Bellini”, an inspired aperitif which successfully paired prosecco with candied fruit and spices. Bread was lovely, served with thyme butter. The less adventurous diners in our party were very happy with their langoustine prawn cocktails (piquant sauce with tiny tender prawns and refreshing tiny chunks of melon, crunchy against the softness of the seafood) which came with a little tempura’d nugget of langoustine. I enjoyed my soft, squidgy veal tongue which was served with pickled beetroot. The Don had the cutest looking game pie, served with foie gras, nice goose ham and a beetroot chutney.

The head waitress was friendly although occasionally let the service show and we were mindful of being the last diners in for lunch. She steered us towards the duck dish which featured lovely soft confit, of duck leg, some pickled cabbage but unfortunately quite underpar chips, nicely crunchy on the outside but dry and powdery in the middle. Much better was the “leg of fallow deer” which came with a tart cranberry sauce, braised chicory and some of the cutest little Brussels sprouts you’ve ever seen. I really liked my pork cheeks which fell apart with a touch of the fork and came with some PX-sherry raisins and some very thinly sliced cauliflower. Partridge with cabbage was another solid dish. Presentation as you can see in the photos was very clean and inviting.

Jollities were temporarily put on hold when my mum began to feel a little unwell (not related to the food!) – but desserts were still enjoyable despite this setback. After lamenting that clafoutis is so often disappointing both in restaurants and during home experimentation the Don was delighted with the Curlew’s version, all soft and sweet with “tutti frutti” flavours served with brandy ice cream. Junket, a dessert of heated and set milk is not to everyone’s taste but I enjoyed mine which came with hot and sticky eccles cakes.

Some mince pie petit fours came with coffee and reinforced that those little bits of detail are what make the difference at this level, and also made it doubly surprising that the restaurant wasn’t packed out. Support this little gem.

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