Sunday, 15 April 2012

The Drapers Arms 'Suppliers Safari'

One of the very first things I noticed on my first visit to The Drapers Arms almost two years ago was the wonderful simplicity with which the menu was written. Then, as still - annoyingly - now, there was something of a fashion in some quarters for exhaustively detailing the provenance of absolutely everything, making menus tiring to read when they should be succinct, appealing summaries of what’s to come. 

Only the most tiresome foodie trainspotter really cares which specific farmer reared their beef, and only the finest-tuned gourmet palate can tell the difference between a 21 and 28-day aged steak. But The Drapers Arms, a place which since that first visit I have grown exceptionally fond of, attracts a very particular kind of customer, the kind of educated eater who, while not needing to be spoon-fed endless information about what’s on their plate nonetheless respects good husbandry enough to want to know something about the suppliers behind their scoff. 

With this in mind landlord Nick, head chef James and I set off one sunny Thursday evening on the first ‘Suppliers Safari’ - to see for ourselves where the produce Drapers customers trust to be the best quality comes from and report back on what we found.

After a very comfortable night spent at The Crown Inn at Stoke by Nayland on the Essex-Suffolk border - its restaurant, like The Drapers Arms, is well worth a visit and Nick's written up our delicious dinner on their blog - we headed off in Bridget, Nick’s vintage Peugeot convertible for Coggeshall, home of The Rare Breed Meat Company which supplies The Drapers’ meat and poultry.

Founded and run by father-and-son team Howard and George Blackwell, Rare Breed isn’t, as I’d first thought, a farm (although they do breed no-doubt superlative turkeys and geese) but a hub for a small co-operative of local farmers - all based within about five miles and all known to the Blackwells personally - from whom they source beef, pork, lamb, chickens and seasonal game. Slaughtered at a local abattoir, it’s then brought to the Blackwells’ ultra-modern, ultra-hygienic butchering facility where it’s cut to order, packed and despatched to customers which include some of the country’s best restaurants.

It’s one thing to take a supplier’s word for it that the livestock they sell is reared in the best possible conditions, quite another to see it with your own eyes, so we piled into George’s 4x4 and drove to one of the farms they buy from. Sheep and their lambs occupied a couple of undulating fields, a stream running along the bottom edge from which the flocks drink the purest spring water. Cows, still in ample barns until the grass in the fields is long enough for them to graze on, fed contentedly on straw and silage while the bull strolled proprietorially round, eyeing us visitors suspiciously and protectively.

Some of the cows looked a little skinny, relative to their size; it’s because they feed at their own speed, so fatten more slowly, unlike intensively-reared animals which are fed a fattening diet from day one so that they can be in the abattoir and on supermarket shelves months earlier than these specimens.

Only the pigs - the ubiquitous Gloucester Old Spot variety - seemed less free than ‘free range’ might suggest. Bred on one farm before being brought to this one for rearing - fattening up, to put it bluntly - the pigs were in pens in an open-sided barn that, while admittedly a million miles away from the cramped stys in which intensively-farmed pigs are raised, didn’t seem quite as near-to-nature as for the other animals. This isn’t to say there was anything wrong with how they were being reared; we just didn’t find their conditions quite as reassuring as we had the cows' and sheep’s.

So far, so idyllic, but for me the most important part of the trip came when we returned to Rare Breed Co and were shown around the cold store where row upon row of carcasses, and shelf after shelf of cuts of meat, vividly reminded us that however well the animals might live, they are all born to die and for our consumption. Every single carcass that comes to Rare Breed Co is traceable back to the farm it came from, the flock or herd it was raised in, the bull, ram or boar that sired it. Every animal is treated as respectfully in death as it was in life, and that to me is the true value of this type of labour-intensive, expensive farming.

I was born and raised in the countryside; our garden backed on to cattle fields and one of my enduring memories of childhood is of feeding very contented-looking cows handfuls of lush, green grass. But while these animals were docile, they were not domestic, and I understood from an early age that the reason the cows weren’t in the fields year-round was because sooner or later they would be taken away, killed, and turned into meat.

Many diners today - mostly, it’s true, urbanites, but some country people too - are so used to romanticising provenance, with farmers’ names becoming like designer labels, that I sincerely believe they forget that what they’re eating was in fact once a living breathing animal. Some consumers seem to think that knowing where their food came from geographically, what it was fed on and how long it was hung for somehow exonerates them from feeling any actual complicity in its death. The reality is that, by choosing to eat - say - beef, you have killed that animal as surely as if you personally fired the bolt into its head in the abattoir.

And that’s fine, as long as you accept that with consumption comes responsibility. If we continue to demand cheap meat, in massive quantities, then there will always be a demand for intensive farming, animals raised in confinement, fed on growth hormones and artificial fattening agents before being slaughtered en masse and hacked, probably by machine, into uniform chops and steaks.

Places like the Rare Breed Meat Company make it possible for anyone to eat respectfully, humanely reared produce at, it must be said, a price not vastly higher than the mass-market alternative. Not just in places like The Drapers Arms, either, but also at home - Blackwell’s Farm Shop sells to the general public from the Coggeshall farm and online, as well as through dozens of stockists nationwide.

I was greatly honoured to be invited on this first Suppliers Safari and look forward with interest to seeing if the next trips - to The Drapers Arms’ fish, dairy and vegetable suppliers - are as enlightening and educational as this one.

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Friday, 6 April 2012

Puschka, Liverpool

If Cilla Black was a restaurant, she would be Puschka: brassy, bold, preposterously camp and as much a part of the fabric of Liverpool as The Beatles and the tracksuit. This wonderful little place was the location for my best pal Anders' birthday dinner during a recent visit to our lovely North-West dwelling friends Sarah and Ian, and I'm now as big a fan as I am of Miss Black.

Opened by local couple Greg and Doug - as hospitable a pair of chaps as you could ever hope to meet - on Rodney Street in Liverpool's old Georgian Quarter in 2001, behind Puschka's smart black frontage is a riot of a room incorporating fuschia pink walls, floral cushions, squishy banquettes and place settings bearing the image of a winged Oscar Wilde (look, I said it was 'preposterously camp' so don't act so surprised). Sarah and Ian had had to book weeks ahead for our Saturday night table; the place was packed and buzzing.

Puschka's menu is solidly British with some trendy, modern European touches. Provenance is taken seriously and great pride is taken in the use of local suppliers, who rather than being tediously name-checked in descriptions of individual dishes are afforded their own box on the menu itself - a nice touch I'd like to see other restaurants taking note of. The menu's concise, just six starters and  six mains, with a couple of daily specials for each course which were described with such enthusiasm by our incredibly lovely waitress that I feared if none of us ordered them she would take it personally.

Our hosts Sarah and Ian - aren't they gorgeous?
Fortunately that fear was unfounded as we ordered both from the specials and a la carte. In my and Sarah's case this meant for starters a fantastic dish of balsamic-drizzled, goat's cheese-stuffed figs wrapped in air-dried ham from the specials, while Anders enjoyed local mussels in a beautiful liquor of cream and cider with fat lardons, served with a cute little loaf of bread in its own tin.

Ian's starter induced the most plate envy. Puschka's signature dish - well you gotta have a gimmick - of confit duck 'shepherd's pie' was superbly rich, surpassed in the artery-clogging stakes only by the foie gras-topped bad boy at London's The Balcon, although there was perhaps rather too much of it for a starter. Puschka has so many doctors as neighbours on Rodney Street that it's known as 'the Harley Street of the north'; the calorie count in that dish must surround them with sorrow.

I ordered from the specials again for my main course, a table neighbour having repeatedly told me how 'A-may-zin'!' the sea bass with langoustines, sautéed potatoes, capers and shallot butter was. She was absolutely right, although there was so much going on on the plate that the flavour of the putative main ingredient - a beautiful piece of fish by all accounts - was a little lost. I was also taken aback that nowhere in the description of the dish did it mention the inclusion of two thick tranches of treacled pancetta; don't get me wrong, there's no dish in the world that can't be enhanced by the addition of pork, but if a pesky pescatarian say had ordered this, Puschka would rightly have had a complaint on their hands.

There were unexpected (but similarly, not-at-all-unwelcome) extras, this time some luscious plump scallops, in Ian's sea trout in lobster bisque, the lightest and most elegant of our main courses. Its polar opposite was Anders' huge sirloin of beef which he described as 'the biggest steak I've ever seen'. With potato rosti, caramelised veg and buttered kale included in the £22.50 price it could happily have fed two, though he and Sarah gamely managed one each.

Increasingly stuffed but so impressed by the quality of everything thus far that we figured it would be remiss of us to miss out on desserts, Sarah and I went for the special of white and dark chocolate panna cotta with dark chocolate sorbet and peanut butter crumb - yes reader, yes, it was every bit as bloody brilliant as it sounds - Ian for chocolate fondant with orange ice-cream and Anders for burnt English vanilla custard with lavender shortbread. If the latter was fine but unexciting - no bad thing for a pudding - Ian was three-for-three with the fondant which, more hot, gooey chocolate centre than sponge, contrasted wonderfully with the citrusy cool of the ice cream.

Puschka's gorgeous  gentlemen owners Doug & Greg
We drank a couple of bottles of a versatile 2009 Finca Antigua Garnacha from a list which, while ungreedily marked up, rather glaringly omits years - a confusing oversight in a restaurant where elsewhere there is such evident attention to detail. Brownie points were won back by the bringing to the table of large bottles of regularly-replenished tap water.

Our bill for three pretty-much faultless courses, wine and a couple of digestifs both alcoholic and non came to £190 before tip; service was so warm, attentive and friendly throughout - mainly from the one waitress but also from one lad who was so knowledgeable and passionate that we were amazed to find out it was his first night - that we very gladly whacked one on. 

Puschka's a lorra lorra fun, run with love and delivering food of a standard that would impress anywhere, not just in its home city. I'll admit to having doubted Liverpool's culinary credentials before this experience; to anyone similarly prejudiced I say step inside, love, and something tells me you'll be in for a very pleasant surprise, surprise.

Puschka, 16 Rodney Street, Liverpool, L1 2TE Tel: 0151 708 8698

Puschka on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Lawn Bistro, Wimbledon

Say 'Wimbledon' and the first thing that springs to most minds is usually either tennis or The Wombles, or to those of a more literary bent, Nigel Williams' brilliant trilogy of SW19-based novels

It's safe to say that one thing Wimbledon is not closely associated with is great restaurants; save for a couple of local gems - notably San Lorenzo Fuoriporta, an offshoot of Princess Di's favourite Knightsbridge Italian that during the tennis resembles a megastar players' canteen - the dining scene in SW19 is mostly limited to branches of some of the better chains and a couple of above-average pubs.

That could well be about to change, thanks to the arrival late last year of The Lawn Bistro in Wimbledon Village, where I enjoyed a splendid dinner with my local-resident pal Will recently. Here, the food is so accomplished, service so polished and the atmosphere - for the most part, but more on that later - so enjoyable that it will surely become as much a draw for visitors as the All England Lawn Tennis Club round the corner to which its name alludes.

The Lawn Bistro was opened in September 2011 by Akbar Ashurov - a man with such an unusually light online footprint that had I not seen him with my own eyes I might have doubted his existence - and Ollie Couillaud, formerly chef at (among others) Chiswick's high-end local favourite La Trompette. Couillaud was absent on the night we visited but a brigade ably led by his affable, rugged head chef Neil delivered a meal big on aces and with only very occasional faults.

In keeping with the comfortable modernity of the long, angled room, the daily-changing modern European menu is serious but accessible both in composition and price. At £27.50 for two courses or £32.50 for three - with hardly any of the supplements which I know I'm not alone in finding a huge irritant on supposedly set-price menus - it's not cheap but is very reasonable for the quality of the food that comes out of Couillaud's kitchen.

If our pre-starter of carrot and coriander soup with toasted seeds and hazelnut was immediately forgettable after the first mouthful, everything that followed more than made up for it. Our starter proper of ballotine of crab and leek was a beautiful, long neat cigar of sweet fresh filling, bathing in a luxurious champagne velouté in which a couple of oysters had been poached to just doneness. Not normally a fan of cooked oysters I found these lovely, retaining their briny flavour and plumpness but given an extra dimension by their warmth. Pickled ginger brought a fragrant, Eastern touch to the plate.

As a (much appreciated) little extra between courses, we were given a dish of venison carpaccio which as well as paper-thin slices of excellent meat brought together the earthiness of beetroot and celeriac remoulade with salty Parmesan and a slick of wonderful beef jus that took me by surprise with its intensity. Absent from the main menu, this is one of those dishes that if you see it, you should order it, as much for the thrill of that jus as for the brilliant rest.

Our main courses were perfect exemplars of what this restaurant is about: really smart but unfussy interpretations of classic bistro dishes. Plump, pink magret of duck, sitting on a subtle artichoke purée with some fondant potatoes and crisp curls of parsnip alongside and drizzled with a sticky port and orange sauce was at once wonderfully retro and totally now, given a lively kick by the inclusion of some boozy griottine cherries. Seared tuna - a pleasingly fat slab of fish - came with just-made caponata, butter bean hummus, olives and, for texture, a chick pea crisp. In isolation the flavours were all very low-key, but brought together on the fork the undertones made for a clever, complex mouthful.

After a livening palate cleanser of lemon sorbet in vodka - there's a combination I could get dangerously used to - we finished off with a seriously good pud of croustade of caramelised apples with hazelnut ice-cream. As well as enjoying the contrast of still slightly tart apple with the sweetness of the ice cream, I loved the witty presentation; the apple-filled, cone-shaped croustade came placed on top of a scoop of ice cream so that the whole resembled a dropped Cornetto, evoking childhood memories albeit without the tears.

Wine is taken very seriously. Diners pass through the wine room on the way to the loos and it's worth stopping to marvel at the glass-fronted cabinets' contents. We decided to order from the interesting selection available by the glass, discovering along the way a Slovenian sauvignon blanc - classically sauvignon on the nose but lighter and refreshingly more acidic on the palate - and a 2008 Austrian Blaufrankisch which, with its peppery black fruit, reminded me of a Gigondas. Good old Pedro Ximenez was perfect with the apple croustade, although so too was a wine we tried out of sheer curiosity, a sweet Helmut Lang Beerenauslese Chardonnay - I'd no idea that one of my favourite minimalist fashion designers produced dessert wines as good as his jeans.

Service, from smartly-uniformed (and terribly handsome) staff was excellent, perfectly-paced, courteous yet informal and with all the niceties of a smart restaurant without the silliness or stuffiness of fine dining. The atmosphere started off quiet but soon built to a comfortable lively buzz; alas as the restaurant filled, a table of five ladies d'une certaine age and a male pal, celebrating one of their birthdays, was seated next to us and even before their celebratory fizz started to kick in it quickly became apparent that their preferred means of communicating with each other was to screech and shout. Of course, restaurants can't know when taking a booking what a table's volume control is like, but perhaps seating a five next to a two is something best avoided.

That very minor gripe aside, everything that was within The Lawn Bistro's control I liked very much indeed. Our bill, for three courses, six glasses of wine, two stickies and 12.5% service came to £125 which felt reasonable; had we stuck to a bottle of wine from the lower end of the list - prices start at just£18 - we could have shaved about £30 off that.

The Lawn Bistro isn't just a welcome addition to Wimbledon, it's a fantastic new restaurant for all of London. It's certainly won me over, game, set and match.

The Lawn Bistro, 67 High Street, Wimbledon Village, London SW19 5EE Tel: 020 8947 8278

More Reviews:

 The Lawn Bistro on Urbanspoon

 Square Meal

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