Friday, 21 June 2013

Franco Manca, Chiswick

Sometimes it felt like I was the only person on earth yet to try one of the fabled, slow-rising sourdough pizzas from Brixton’s Franco Manca. While the internet melted with praise, like buffalo mozzarella in their wood fired ovens, trying to get to down to Brixton Market during their limited opening hours proved the sticking point. Needless to say, with all the other distractions on the London eating scene, it never quite happened.

Since their opening days the Brixton branch now boasts late night opening at weekends and the chain has grown to add three further branches, in Westfield, Northcote Road and Chiswick High Street (where you can even book a table). After a hot and tiring Bank Holiday walking around Kew Gardens (read falling asleep on the lawn after a picnic…) a points failure at Edgware Road made us reconsider our route home and jump off the Tube at Turnham Green. Just in time for an early evening pizza and well deserved bottle of (organic) vino.

The pizzas at Franco are in the traditional Neapolitan style, and while the pizza eaters of Southern Italy aren't renowned for their experimentation, here you can still get a few options beyond the classic marinara and margaritas. As tempted as I was by the dry cured Brindisa chorizo or the simple Napoletana, with the holy trinity of capers, olives and anchovies, we decided to divvy up  the veggie special and a Gloucester Old Spot ham, ricotta and wild mushroom pie.

To start we quickly speared our way through a bowl of plump green Bella de Cerignola olives, followed by a burnished and bubbling dish of melanza parmigana. The slippery, sweet aubergines and milky, stretchy cheese were finished off perfectly with a touch of their homemade tomato sauce.

I love Neapolitan pizza; it isn't as crisp as its Roman brethren, but there’s something about the charcoal spotted, chewy dough, laden with milky pools of stretchy cheese and piquant tomato that I never seem to tire of. Topping here are on the sparse side (good) and well thought out, meaning the flash fired base has little time to get gloopy and soggy.

Our two pizzas proved the perfect balance. The Old Spot ham and mushroom was, almost, a pizza bianca (without tomato), with just the merest hint of the red fruit The whole thing was pepped up nicely by the house chilli oil which possessed a decent kick (as did the marvellous garlicky version, which proved perfect for mopping up with the leftover crusts).

The veggie special was another stunner; organic mozzarella and tomato topped with the bitter edged wild broccoli, smoky scamorza cheese and studded with little black Kalamata olives. As a committed carnivore, even I have to concede no meat could improve this pie.

As you can see the cornicione - or pizza crust for those who are are little less carb obsessed - was perfectly charred and smoky, while the high temperatures of the 'tuff' brick wood fired oven meant the base was still soft and springy, with a lovely chewy and complex sourdough flavour.

On possibly the first occasion since I've known her the Ewing missed the offer of pudding. No bad thing as a mixture of sun, wine and bread was beginning to finally catch up with me. Luckily she did hear when them asking if we wanted coffee, and two Monmouth espressos rounded things off nicely, giving us the extra buzz to finish our long journey homeward.

Good pizza remains one of my ultimate comfort foods, and Franco Manca offers simple, great value - most pies weigh in at the £6/7 mark, with wine starting at £13 a bottle - grub that proved well worth the  wait.

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 June 2013

The Beech House, Beaconsfield

Many moons ago I went to school in old Beaconsfield. While it goes without saying that my friends and I were always impeccably behaved, later, when we got into the sixth form, I must confess most lunch times would be spent at the White Horse. Double maths was soon replaced by drinking pints of Fosters or Strongbow, playing pool and swabbing out latest illicit piercings with Listerine and Savlon.

Later, we progressed across the road to the Old Hare (RIP) the Saracen’s Head, the Greyhound or the Swan; in fact it’s a wonder there was any time to fit in the small matter of our A Levels.  But while the old town had its pick of hostelries – ranging from spit and sawdust to opulent and OTT, the new town remained unloved wasteland for drinkers.

All has now changed with the opening of the Beech House, an Oakmans Inn (a small chain stretching across Oxon/Herts and now Bucks) on the old site of Fourbouys the newsagent a regular haunt for penny sweets and the Beano as a child, and now the venue for a late lunch with the lovely Ewing.

To accompany my food I enjoyed a glass of Biferno Rosso Riserva, or the 'Mighty Biferno', as written about by the Telegraph's Victoria Moore. While I have regularly displayed my lack of grape knowledge here, this had me agreeing with the wise words of  confirmed oenophile, Ben Franklin; 'wine is constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy'.

Whitebait to share were plentiful, piping hot and lightly dusted in flour to let the tiny fish shine through. I would have preferred my dips in pots, rather than artfully smeared across the plate, especially as I was sharing with the Ewing who has the knack of stealing in and scooping up the last blob of chilli sauce before you can stop her.

My beef ribs, cooked in cola with a bourbon gravy, salad and fries came as a mini rack, rather than the giant, Jacob's ladder type bone I was expecting. Despite looking rather grizzled in the photo these were very good; soft and sweet, a little fatty (a good thing) and a decent amount of meat. I would have liked some more of the advertised whiskey-spiked gravy, though.

Chips were first class. Not sure if they were frozen, but these skin on, crispy, salty sticks were the finest fried potatoes I have had for a while. Sadly the Ewing felt the same and quickly polished off all of hers, too.

The Ewing's Aubrey Allen cheeseburger accompanying the majestic fries, was less of success. The menu specifies 'cooked medium for full flavour and succulence, unless requested otherwise', but we asked our waitress if it could be served as rare as possible. This turned out to be a uniform grey throughout, a shame as the meat was pretty good, as were the bun and Croxton Manor Cheddar melted on top.

The tomato relish alongside was interesting, tasting a bit like a herby, very sweet pasta sauce. Although neither of us were quite sure if we liked it or not (it seemed to work best in the burger), it proved almost impossible to stop dunking things in it.

Deserts were a duo of magnificent, retro sundaes to share. A banoffee with vanilla ice cream, banana puree, shortbread and toffee sauce, and a chocolate raspberry with amaretto soaked brownie, raspberry sorbet and flaked almonds.  Proper, good fun puds.

As well as looking good these also tasted the part, with their bright layers of fruit, cake and cream. A spoon war soon ensured between us in the race to the bottom of both glasses (no prizes for guessing I was comprehensively beaten). Definitely a choice for the dairy fan though, with the pillowy, rich creamy layers becoming a bit too much towards the end, even for the Ewing.

The staff were very well versed on our visit, with many of the team here coming from other Oakman Inns, and there seems to be a real pride and enthusiasm from everyone, which, having worked in Beaconsfield myself (they can be a tough crowd), is good to see. And while it's easy to become blasé towards the latest trends for exposed brickwork and bright tiles, they have done a great job with the interior. The skylight at the back is a particular success, flooding the restaurant area with light while keeping the bar area at the front suitably dark and moody.

While there might not be anything revelatory about the Beech Tree, it's location, atmosphere and all day menu means it cleverly offers something for all. The food is solid, with enough choice to see you through a few return visits, and the price are fair. Add free WiFi, a library of books to keep the little ones happy, and homemade cakes and coffee in the bar area, and the Beech Tree is on its way to ticking all the boxes.

The Beech House on Urbanspoon

Monday, 10 June 2013

Double Corn Dogs with Caraway Ketchup

After becoming slightly obsessed with my cheap ice cream maker the next, slightly pointless but fun, piece of kitchen equipment I coveted to clog up yet more work surface space was a deep fat fryer.

I found one being advertised cheaply online in that post-Christmas lull, and so when everyone else was stocking up on low fat ready meals, cutting out booze and going jogging I was decanting three litres of finest vegetable oil in to my new brushed metal toy, while trying not to spoil its shiny glow with greasy finger marks.

Having grown up in a fat fryer free house, getting a job in a kitchen at the age of 17 meant spending most Tuesday nights at work sticking anything I could find in the industrial vat of boiling oil used for cooking fish, chips and other frozen potato based products. Whole eggs, Danish pastries, baked beans, sausages not much escaped a dunking and (most) of it was still pretty edible.

Now, fifteen years on, I realised frying was still just as fun. Soon most our dinners were prepared via a dunk in oil; tonkotsu pork steaks with shredded white cabbage, crispy chicken and crunchy hash browns. While everyone else was losing weight on their post-xmas detoxes, the Ewing and I were increasing outwards at a steady rate.

Thankfully the prospect having your dinner coated in a slightly greasy sheen, coupled with all the filtering and cleaning and burnt fingers, meant my enthusiasm soon waned and the fryer is now (mostly) sat collecting dust. That said it’s still a rather useful, and fun addition to our kitchen. A hot, crisp schnitzel is truly a thing of beauty, and homemade chips are an indulgence worth a long walk for.

My greatest fried achievement thus far has been these corn dog/hushpuppy hybrids which have become one of the Ewing’s very favourite things. And, despite ordering them elsewhere on several occasions, she has had to admit (under some duress, I might add) that mine are still the nicest she’s tasted.

After originally making the batter to make corn dogs – batter coated frankfurters impaled on sticks, usually eaten at funfairs or boardwalks in America- I’m not sure if I don’t prefer it fried as balls of dough, sans sausage, These hushpuppy fritters can be pimped with small nuggets of cut up frank, if you want, but I find that the sweet, corn-spiked dough is pretty perfect as it is. A bowl full of these, piping hot from the fryer, makes a very nice nibble with a cold beer or two.

I’ve spiked the ketchup dip with a few toasted caraway seeds; the anise note complements the smoked pork, and some yellow ballpark mustard to help cut a swathe through the rich batter. Spicy barbecue sauce also makes a very good match. If you leave out the corn, hushpuppy fritters served with butter and honey makes a perfect treat for the sweet-toothed.

Double Corn Dogs with Caraway Ketchup

vegetable oil, for deep frying
150g/5oz cornmeal or polenta
150g tinned sweetcorn
125g/4oz plain flour
50g/2oz sugar
3 tsp baking powder
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg
225ml milk
10 thin frankfurter sausages (cut each frank into three if you want mini dogs)
wooden skewers, soaked

2 tbsp ketchup
1 tbsp American yellow mustard
1 tsp caraway seeds, lightly toasted

Heat the vegetable oil in a deep-fat fryer to 160C
Mix together all of the dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, beat the egg and milk together, add sweetcorn and gradually stir the mixture into to the dry ingredients.
Whisk together lightly to make a batter.
Put a skewer through each frankfurter sausage and dip it into the batter until well coated.
Place the frankfurters into the deep-fat fryer, two or three at a time, and cook until the outsides are golden-brown. Drain on a plate lined with kitchen paper.
If you have any extra batter, place small spoonfuls carefully into the oil and cook as above.

To serve, mix the mustard and ketchup and 3/4 of the caraway seeds together in a bowl, garnish with the remaining caraway seeds and serve with the corn dogs.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Fraiche, Wirral

There are not too many things that keep me up late on a humdrum midwinter weeknight any more. And yet there I was, burning the midnight oil, poised with laptop and credit card in hand, trying to grab a table at Marc Wilkinson’s bijou, and extremely popular restaurant, Fraiche.

With a mere fifteen covers a night from Wednesday to Saturday, and a Sunday lunch service, reservations (even with a £25 per head deposit) are snapped up almost instantly when the books are opened at the beginning of each month. Fortunately my compromised night’s sleep was not in vain and we soon had our booking for the Ewing’s birthday, a mere three and a half months later.

The danger of customers waiting long to enjoy a meal there is not lost on the chef, with the extra pressure from such expectation pushing him to experiment with yet more flavour pairings and new techniques in the kitchen. With many of his fruit and veg grown to order on the Wirral, butter imported from France and olive oil from Italy, and a kitchen crammed full of Willy Wonka-esque gadgets, expectations and excitement were running high.

Wilkinson, still holder of Merseyside’s only Michelin star, is known as something of an obsessive perfectionist in the kitchen. Each day he orders all the food and wine for the restaurant, and plans all the menus; and each night he toils alone behind the scenes to produce multiple courses of his classic French food with a modern twist. A recent Valentine’s feast took three days to prepare for just one evening and admits that his bedtime reading is less Delia and Gordon and more Ramon Morato and Paco Torreblanca.

Our dinner started rather modestly with a dish of spiced pecans and a glass of manzanilla sherry. I had read the atmosphere could be muted, or even awkward, but during our visit the background music (the new Laura Mvula album, and, slightly less welcome, Michael Buble among the easy listening offerings) was pitched at just the right level to drown out our inane chatter for the benefit of the surrounding tables, while still keeping things cosy and intimate. With only five tables in the place, and only three filled on our visit, the joint's never going to be jumping, but there is a genuine warmth and homeliness in the room.

Each evening's menu is set for all diners, with the only choice being between 'salt' and 'sweet' to finish the meal. Salt included a visit from the 'cheese chariot' and another little savoury course, while sweet was a selection of three desserts. Hearing the word chocolate was enough to persuade The Ewing to chose the sweet option, I erred at first, but - knowing that she wouldn't share - decided to join her, lest either of us got pudding envy.

While I wasn't at all disappointed with our choice, seeing the magnificent cheeses - one of the finest selections I've seen - being wheeled past to the adjoining table did make me feel a little pang of dairy envy.

A little palate cleanser came in the form of a cucumber granita with pineapple and mint, a spritely combination of flavours made tableside with a thermos of dry ice by maitre d', James. Apart from the visual spectacle the thing I found most impressive was the finely diced fruit and veg in the bottom of the dish. Such tiny pieces, cut with such symmetrical precision, already demonstrating the single minded dedication to perfection from the kitchen.

Another pre starter of plump vividly orange mussels in a deep crustacean rich broth, peppered with cubes of citrusy yuzu jelly, soon followed. The little bowl, shaped like a fragile sea urchin shell, mirrored the dish's subtle delicacy.

Our 'starter' proper was a glorious Spanish omelette with quails egg and chorizo, although this was a country mile away from a backstreet barrio in Iberia. The deconstructed dish saw a creamy light custard, topped with little cheesey croutons, hiding a soft quails egg (deftly transferred to the Ewing's dish) and cubes of paprika-spiked sausage jelly in it's foamy, sweet onion infused depths.

Bread was served over two courses in a dizzying eight different varieties which, as I pointed out to the Ewing later, outnumbered the patrons in the restaurant on our visit. As I have confessed before, I am a confirmed bread-a-holic, and my picks of the bunch were a black olive loaf with a gentle metallic edge, a cloud-like little cheese roll and an earthy sweet granary and treacle number.

As much as the Ewing appreciated the bread, I think she saw it more as a vehicle for the cow's butter, scattered with Hawaiian pink salt, and the perfect disc of a pearly white goat's butter that were served alongside.

The next course, a dish of salt baked kohlrabi with wild garlic, feta jelly, potato, perigord truffle and watercress wafer, tasted like the start of summer and was the second showing of this unusual brassica I had encountered in as many days. The flavours on the plate mined both the earthiness of the tubers and the freshness of the allium and again cleverly proved that meat and fish do not always make the dish.

The wild turbot, possibly my favourite fish, with asparagus and dashi was light and fresh, with a lovely smokiness from charred wheat - something that put me in mind of unsweetened Sugar Puffs. The dish, while clean and delicate, was a little mild mannered for my tastes, and I really needed a spoon to scoop up the dregs of umami rich broth.

The main event was Black Faced Suffolk lamb with leeks and artichoke. Despite the encroaching fullness, this disappeared pretty quickly. The gently gamey meat had been cooked expertly two ways - low and slow and grilled pink - but my highlights were the charred leeks and sweet melting onion in a sticky pool of gravy.

The first of our three deserts was what has become a bit of a signature dish, lemongrass panna cotta with sour cherry and dehydrated grapes. This was a perfect balance of smooth, sharp and creamy, and all heady with sweet tropical perfume. The Ewing loved it  and while flavour of lemongrass usually makes me think of those little scented hand wipes you get with fried chicken, this time I had to agree with her.

This was followed with another Fraiche favourite, fizzy grapes that burst with a tongue-tingling effervescence in your mouth. The Ewing was also particularly enamoured with these, and I breezily assured her that I could knock up something similar when we got home - until it was explained that the effect was achieved by placing them in an air compressor, which, when they're released, causes them to burst and fizz. Looks like they're going to have to remain a memory until I get that compression unit, then.

The first pudding was a rhubarb soup, sorbet with sesame wafer. I can't think of many things I love as much as rhubarb, (me! - TE) and this was a perfect showcase of its tart and fragrant charms. The Ewing was particularly captivated by the freeze dried strawberries, which we were told were an element refined just that afternoon. (I would say perfected, but somehow I'm not sure Wilkinson would ever be satisfied enough to stop developing a dish.)

The final desert saw this sparkly little number arrive at our table; a white chocolate mousse with passion fruit curd, glittery coffee meringues, chocolate 'soil' and some obligatory popping candy for good measure. 

This, to me, was the essence of a good pud; lots of little beautiful and interesting things, balanced perfectly between sweet and sour. The only slightly awkward note came from the silver leaf 'spoon' provided to eat it with; the Ewing somehow managing to sprinkle more of her dish across the table than she managed to scoop into her mouth.

Never one to turn down yet more sugary treats, the Ewing was very excited at the prospect of petit fours and coffee to round off the meal. Unsurprisingly they didn't disappoint; pick of the bunch was a shot glass of earl grey scented tapioca with an apricot compote. We were also treated to popcorn lollipops, homemade marshmallows and a selection of salted Amedei, and lemon and raspberry filled chocolates.

Yes, the decor is rather beige and brown and a bit suburban, but it also feels personal (Wilkinson chose it) which is rather a good thing in this fast paced, oh so trendy, restaurant world. And while your socks might not be knocked of by the muted decor, the food certainly paints the town red. 

Fraiche on Urbanspoon