Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Santorini α: Settling Into Paradise

Earlier this year, as summer gave way to autumn, we escaped the big smoke for what must surely be one of the most beautiful islands on earth: Santorini.

Each of us had a myriad of reasons for needing to be away from London, and honestly, this little slice of heaven on earth is an ideal cure for those with heavy hearts and souls. After much deliberation, we chose Amber Light Villas as our base. A short drive from Imerovigli, it's on the non-caldera side of the island, and while this means it doesn't get the stunning sunsets you might associate with Santorini, it's blissfully quiet and devoid of the tourists who are actually allowed to traipse through the hotels on the caldera side. With wonderfully attentive staff, delicious breakfasts, a huge and mostly deserted pool and fantastic spa, I can unreservedly say that this is a perfect, luxurious choice for guests seeking rest and recuperation. 

Our suite was airy and tranquil, with our own little private pool and gazebo to eat (the excellent room service food) under. On the first night we were gifted a complimentary bottle of wine; cakes, honeyed almonds and baklava followed on the nightly turning down service. 

I spent many a contented hour lounging by the pool reading (J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World for my first few days, a terrifying fantasy of a swampy, submerged London), listening to music and being transfixed by miniature battles between lizards and their insect prey.

Arriving after dark on our first night, we ventured out to the nearby town of Fira to feast on mashed fava beans, cheesy shrimp saganaki and endless seafood at Argo. In the dark, it was impossible to tell just how beautiful the caldera was (though that's a story for my next post!)

The next day, after a morning of relaxing, we headed to Pyrgos, in the middle of the island. First on the agenda was a stroll around the monastery of Prophet Elias, perched on top of a mountain. You can't get much more remote than that. And remoteness from all things social media, Wi-Fi and other people is an ideal way to reconnect with one's spirituality...

Next we descended into the village below, where I promptly bought a sunhat to protect myself from the sunlight, which was strong even in September. Also bought: one big bag of pistachios, endemic to the area and thus cheap - and addictive. Thirsty from our time up at the monastery, we followed signs to a 'Franco's Café' through the town, passing through winding alleys, climbing up painted steps...

...making one friend...

...then another (I felt very sorry for this piteous-looking gentleman.)

Finally we got to Franco's, and boy, was it worth the walk. Ella Fitzgerald crooned softly from the speakers, the juice was cold and fresh, the biggest basil plant I've ever seen sat in the window, and...

...this monster was on the menu! So yummy, and the Santorini tomatoes were as fresh as you'd expect, positively bursting with flavour.

As the sun crept towards the horizon, we made our way to a restaurant the hotel had booked for us: Selene. Little did we know that it was one of the best restaurants in the Cyclades. There isn't a Michelin Star system in Santorini, but if there was, this place would surely have one. And we rolled up all dusty and red in the face from our walk, wearing Birkenstocks, shorts and t-shirts. Not exactly prepared for the elegant, sophisticated meal that was about to go down. Well, that's what I get for not doing my research...

But all my cares over suitable attire went out of the window when I saw my first Santorini sunset.

I felt there was a delicacy to all of Selene's dishes, evident in their conception, cooking and presentation. This is something that many restaurants in Santorini aspire to but don't quite hit the mark (something I can vouch for, as you will see in my upcoming posts!) Selene, however, is the real deal. My starter - scallops with crab, chickpeas, zucchini, ginger and cocoa butter - was truly delicious. 

Pappardelle with cuttlefish, broccoli cream, tomato confit and anthotiro cheese.

My first taste of Santorini wine.

'Piglet' - with potato foam, chips, a wine reduction, pitta bread, baked onion, garlic butter and a tomato marmalade. 

'Sea bass' - perched on a sea urchin risotto, with compressed fennel and a truffle cream with vinsanto.

'Rabbit stifado' - rabbit three ways. I loved the presentation of this dish, with blobs of red sweet pepper ketchup, peach compote, onion dolmas and rosemary oil. Just beautiful.

And finally, dessert. Always the highlight of a meal for me, and particularly so here. The 'Lemon' was playful and clever - two halves of a lemon, one filled with lemon buttercream, mizithra cheese mousse and Italian meringue, and the other with a brilliantly chilly sorbet with mojito and green apple flavours. Exactly what you need on a warm summer's evening. 

B's choice reflected her ordering style over the years - always something fruity, and usually sorbet) - whereas mine was totally me - creamy and chocolatey. The 'Loukoumas', a deep-fried dough ball packed with molten chocolate and salted caramel, resting in a bath of spiced crème anglaise and black cherry, could not have been more up my street if it tried.

Our first couple of days in Santorini were a dream - but then again, so were the next few days...and the next. I hope you don't mind that I've waited so many months to post about the trip! I didn't want these posts getting mixed up with my blogging about Sicily, and I thought that the pictures of this sun-drenched paradise might be welcome in the deep midwinter. And they are...but if you're anything like me, they'll also have induced a deep sense of longing and wanderlust. Next stop, the magical and much-Instagrammed town of Oia!

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Thursday, November 19, 2015

Zelman Meats

A mere few weeks after Beast, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of another scion of the Goodman family. Tucked away on St. Anne's Court, Zelman Meats represents the more carnivorous reincarnation of Rex & Mariano. Still in its opening month, it's already attracted a following among the foodie crowd - and for good reason.

The seating of four ravenous ladies around one table - Yee, Steph, Danni and myself - led to the somewhat fateful decision to order almost everything on the menu. Cue a table absolutely groaning with protein and well-crafted cocktails. Exactly what the doctor ordered for a school night. 

To start: Rex and Mariano's greatest hits, compiled into a medley of cracking starters: the famously sweet Sicilian gamberi rossi, cooked and raw oysters and a caprese salad topped with burrata.

Doing backstroke in olive oil and lemon juice, I could see why these were a hit in the days of R&M. 

Not all oysters are created equal. These baked critters, hot to the touch and topped with 'Holy F**k' sauce and crispy breadcrumbs, were particularly special. 

Next came the big guns. A litany of sides, and more meat than you could shake a stick at. 

A special shout out must go to the luxurious truffle chips, topped with generous shavings of black truffle. I was also a fan of the smooth mash and salad - the latter absolutely needed to combat the inevitable meat sweats.

But let's be honest. Meat like this is honestly worth sweating over. This heavenly short-rib is the sort of hunk you'd like to strike up a relationship with. Smoky and tender, the meat falls off the bone in a way that would bring a tear to the eye of any self-respecting carnivore.

Slow-roasted, barbecued picanha. This had the right colour but was resoundingly eclipsed by the mighty short-rib. I did hear diners on other tables murmuring appreciatively over these, so it could be that our table just got the runt of the litter - or perhaps we're just short rib gals.

Yup. Definitely short rib gals. Things got a little medieval at this stage of the evening. All we needed to complete the experience were hounds lying on the rushes at our feet, eagerly awaiting our bones and scraps...

...or dessert. Dessert works equally well. I believe the Zelman Meats menu changes up regularly where it comes to pud. The night we went we were treated to a homely apple pie with an indulgent dollop of cream and vanilla ice cream. Lipsmackingly good, and a perfectly American way to round off a meal of Desperate Dan proportions.

With a cool refurb, and, more importantly, a menu with great value, Zelman Meats is sure to be a strong contender on the Soho food scene. The Goodman restaurants know what they do best, and that's why their patrons return time and time again. What I particularly like is that for one night, Zelman's diners are citizens of the world. You step in from the bustle of a typical London passage, greeted by modern Mexican art, slide into French bistro-like banquette seats, and order food that is unfettered in terms of location. I started out on the coast of Sicily with gamberi rossi and burrata and ended up on a dusty cattle ranch in Texas, having just polished off a short rib and apple pie. And there was absolutely nothing strange about that. ZM, I'll be back for more.

Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to dine as a guest of Zelman Meats on this occasion. My opinions, as always, remain my own.

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Hélène Darroze at the Connaught

At Hélène Darroze's London restaurant I learned the true meaning of the verb to feast. Seven courses supplemented by outstanding add-ons including amuses, palate cleansers, petits fours and libations running the gamut from classic cocktails to the purest green tea. It's really a wonder that my stomach can still function properly. And that I didn't spontaneously combust.

The restaurant is housed in the Connaught Hotel in Mayfair, opened in the 19th century as the Prince of Saxe Coburg Hotel and renamed during World War I in an effort to diminish any Germanic connotations. The history of the place is palpable throughout the building - though beautifully restored and kept, it has an incredibly old-world atmosphere - all wooden panelling and well-spoken, courteous staff, extending even to the bathroom, where an attendant patiently turns the taps to the perfect temperature and discreetly passes you a hand towel when you've finished washing your hands. The restaurant itself finds a harmonious balance between tradition and modernity: two specially commissioned Damien Hirst stained-glass window-like butterfly pieces slot perfectly into panelled spaces (one above our heads, to my delight). 

Upon arrival we were presented with the menu, in the form of a solitaire board. Each sphere indicated a single key ingredient (discernible under cloches upon entering the restaurant, as above). My kind of game. I thought this was such an original, playful way to choose dishes, and that central to this was that wonderful element of surprise. After all, there was no way to know which ball represented a starter, main or dessert until the waiter arranged our choices on our boards.

We decided on the seven course menu - at £98 per head plus extra charges for ordering dishes like the caviar and Wagyu beef, Hélène Darroze is not the place to go on a budget. Naturellement. However, for celebrations - in our case a birthday and a significant promotion - it really is the perfect place.

Amuses arrived to tide us over as we continued to ponder our solitaire boards: cold meats, ham and cheese croquettes and a deliciously creamy shot of soup. 

We were offered endless rounds of bread to be spread lavishly with the most delicious chilli butter.

My final choices: coco bean, cep, calamari, sea bass, grouse, pineapple and chocolate.

'Caviar' with crab, radish and an avocado velouté, looked beautiful and struck a high note with my mother. 'How does she manage to get that level of flavour and sweetness into a cold dish?! I'm so impressed.' For her, this was the undoubted highlight of the meal. It's a good thing it was eaten on an empty stomach!

'Coco bean'. A silky smooth velouté with eel. Heartwarming with wonderfully refined flavours.

'Cep'. Delicious cuisses de grenouilles (frogs' legs - funnily the first time I'd ever tried them and I can now firmly say that these are not like chicken, with a smoother texture), salty persillade, walnuts, cep mushrooms and the cutest little tortellini with a perfect bite. Simply splendid, and overall my favourite dish.

'Calamari'. While this was unarguably an aesthetically stunning dish, it lacked excitement and flavour for me, perhaps because I was so taken with the first two dishes. Stuffed squid is always tricky for me too, as I've been lucky/unlucky enough to have tasted what I'd unequivocably call the best stuffed squid in the world (in a small harbourside restaurant in Fethiye). 

'Scallop' with Indian flavours - tandoori, coriander, carrot and citrus.

'Sea bass'. I'm always a fan of sea bass but it was the unique presentation that instantly won me over here - specifically the way in which the scales had been roasted so they stood up. I also loved the idea that the fish might have beached on an exotic island shore, made foamy by the crashing surf and accompanied by clams. 

A perfectly marbled block of Wagyu beef brought to the table before the meal commenced had induced two of our party to push the boat out and order a portion each. A bite of this left me as full and satisfied as if I'd enjoyed an entire steak. 

'Grouse'. A Scottish bird with the creamiest foie gras which went very well with several types of beetroot and plum.

In advance of the signature 'Savarin', a trolley bearing bottles of Armagnac from Hélène's family estate in south-west France trundled up to the table. Choose wisely, as your Baba Armagnac will be absolutely drenched in the brandy of your choice...

Doused liberally in the brandy, the baba naturally packed a punch - I had a mouthful and it took me a full minute to recover (#lightweight).

For B - blackberry meringue, presented in a glass that brought me back to my days at university, where my favourite formal desserts were possets, fools and syllabubs (still not quite sure what any of those really are...)

'Pineapple' - a cloud capturing the essence of a summer holiday. Malibu flavoured foam, fresh chunks of pineapple, crunchy biscuit, a perfectly smooth and sweet vanilla icecream beneath. Simple, but I loved it.

'Chocolate'. Essentially, the most elegant tiramisu that is ever likely to pass my lips. A wonderful marriage of architecture and food: a wonderfully bitter coffee ice cream packed into a chocolate roundel, supporting a geometrically perfect rectangle of sponge and coffee mousse walled in by tempered chocolate. 

And to finish, a palate-cleansing sorbet followed by gyokuro green tea, earl grey, jasmine silver needles white tea and that all-important espresso. All together now: it's the full stop at the end of the meal.

That full stop turned out to be more of an ellipsis...as petits fours and cannelés arrived for us to take home. We were groaningly, bursting-at-the-seams full by this point...but we weren't complaining.

Exactly what I expected of a double Michelin-starred restaurant: absolutely flawless service that goes way beyond what you'd expect of waiters - attentive, sparking up conversations, even taking a sweet Polaroid for us (sadly left behind). Oh, and gorgeously crafted, indulgent food. Of course. You can only really eat like this once a year, or once every few years...but I'd still return in a heartbeat.

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