Eating out | Spring at Somerset House

17 October 2014

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I don’t usually rush to a new restaurant the moment it opens. I have only a limited interest in the latest new hotspot. But, coincidentally, a few weeks ago at dinner with friends, we spoke about Skye Gyngell; about her cookbooks, about her previous restaurant, Petersham Nurseries, which I didn’t have the opportunity to visit while she was the chef. As the conversation migrated to her upcoming venture, in Somerset House, opening a few weeks hence, we were all excited to go.

I had not been to Somerset House since we moved to London last year, which means the last time I was there was to visit the Courtauld Gallery during a solo visit to London in my teens. That moment is my favorite memory of the trip, so stepping through the majestic building again rang of the past in a lovely, personal way. It was a good idea to meet before dinner for a glass of wine outside in the courtyard to savor the setting.

I own two of Skye Gyngell’s cookbooks and often leaf through them. I am invariably transported, intrigued and tempted, though I have only made very few of the dishes. Perhaps I am disconcerted by the idiosyncratic ingredients — one foot firmly settled in Italy while the other perambulates confidently through Asia — which make it hard for me to imagine the finished dish, to know where I am going. This should be thrilling; perhaps I play it a little safe in my own cooking. When I eat out, however, being surprised is exactly what I crave.

My first impression was to be disappointed by the familiarity of the menu. I was hoping for the spirited flavor combinations I have so long admired — and shyed away from — in the books. And so?

The starter was one of the best things I have eaten recently. I am still unsure how the combination of ‘Puntarelle and goat’s curd with mint and black olive dressing’ worked so well, but it was fresh, balanced and addictive in the most convincing way. I could happily have had just that all evening. Next, Slow cooked pork shoulder with girolles, daterrini, and polenta was predictable and a little disappointing, with nothing to elevate the flavors, no special zing. We shared desserts and I happily relinquished any claim to either the warm chocolate cake (you know me) or even Buttermilk pannacotta with damsons and wood sorrel, for yet another lunge at the Hazelnut and pear tart with creme fraiche and espresso — heaven.

The winter garden (pictured above), for smaller parties, holds most of the magic of the place. The main dining room is tall, light, feminine, and ultimately a bit bland. It reminded me vaguely of ABC Kitchen in New York, but lacking the lightness and playfulness which give that restaurant its irresistible charm. I don’t love the space.

Which brings me to the ultimate question: all things considered, am I impatient to go back? Unfortunately I must admit, despite some stunning dishes and, that evening, great company and a lovely night, not very. I realize it’s early days and one shouldn’t judge a restaurant on just one meal. But the place is a little too grand, the food not quite surprising enough — they seem out of sync. I imagine this meal in the lovely rickety setting of Petersham and can’t help but wish I hadn’t missed that. Luckily, I have the cookbooks, which I am now emboldened to try!

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Spring
Somerset House, Lancaster Place
London WC2R 1LA

Tel: +44 (0)20 3011 0115
Online reservations

Sunday reading | 12.10.2014

12 October 2014

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I leave you today with this one, very lovely piece by Tamar Adler. Because, sometimes, just one is plenty.

Happy Sunday!

Damson and Victoria plum jam with lemon and ginger

4 October 2014

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Because, since I discovered how conveniently jam can be coaxed to fit into a schedule not wholly devoted to making jam, I am unstoppable. And plums are irresistible, come fall.

For this jam I used two varieties common in England: sweet, plump Victorias and austere Damsons. The Damson’s astringency smoothed by the honeyed Victorias, together they dance in perfect plum harmony, with a zing.

Damson plums are a bit finicky to pit, until you realize that using a cherry pitter — which I do own but, until now, used only very rarely, since I don’t usually pit the cherries for my clafoutis — a cherry pitter works a charm. And as a bonus I was happy to discover a second use for that woefully underutilized kitchen gadget.

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900 g Damson plums (to yield 700g once pitted)

800 g Victoria plums (to yield 700g once pitted)

1 kg sugar

Juice and rind from 1 lemon

1-inch piece of fresh ginger

Wash and pit the plums. Put them in a bowl with the sugar and lemon juice and leave to marinate for a few hours or overnight.

When ready to cook the jam, transfer to a heavy bottomed saucepan. Add a ribbon of lemon rind and the ginger, peeled and cut into coin-size pieces.

Bring the fruit to a boil and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. After about 20 minutes, check regularly whether the jam begins to jell. A good way to do this is to scoop a spoonful of jam into a small bowl or ramekin, place it in the refrigerator so it cools quickly, and check whether it solidifies.

Meanwhile, sterilize the jars in boiling water for 5 minutes.

As soon as the jam is ready, remove it from the stove, take out the lemon rind and pieces of ginger, and transfer the hot jam into the jars. Seal tightly, and, as usual, store for a few weeks at least before opening.

A tian of rainbow chard, zucchini, tomatoes, mozarella

1 October 2014

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For a while I forgot about tian.

Despite childhood summers spent in the hills outside Aix-en-Provence, tians came into my life quite by happenstance in my early twenties, during a holiday with university friends. Someone made tian, and it was the best gratin I had ever tasted.

A tian is a shallow, ovenproof earthenware vessel from Provence, which has given its name to the gratin-style dishes cooked in them. That initial auspicious tian was probably not very traditional, with its dubious slices of very un-Provençal mozzarella. But in this case I am happy to forgo authenticity, because the mozzarella is what makes it so special.

It is the recipe I had been recreating since: vertically arranged slices of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, interlaced with mozzarella and Mediterranean herbs. Flavors meld into a heavenly mess akin to creamy gratinéed ratatouille.

For years I forgot about tians, but then the other day, finding these late-summer vegetables in my kitchen and, more crucially, a few balls of mozzarella, a tian propitiously came to mind. Dare I say that this adapted version is even better than the ‘original’?

Tian recipe
Regarding quantities: there should be a similar proportion of each vegetable and plenty of mazzarella, but the dish is unfussy and very adaptable. The important thing is that the vegetables squeeze snugly into the dish.

Rainbow chard

Zucchini

Tomatoes

Mozzarella (I prefer buffalo mozzarella which is extra creamy)

Garlic clove

Olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Fresh basil and/or thyme

Parmigiano

Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC).

Prepare the vegetables:

Wash the chard leaves, trim and discard only the end of the stems, then cut the leaves (with stems) into approximately 1/2 inch (1 cm) ribbons.

Wash, trim ends, (optionally partially peel), and slice the courgettes into disks approximately 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick.

Wash and slice the tomatoes, also into 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) disks.

Slice  or tear the mozzarella into pieces of a similar size.

Rub the ovenproof dish all over with the garlic clove to impart a subtle aroma. Drizzle a little olive oil all over the bottom of the dish.

Arrange the vegetables and mozzarella in a nice, regular, vertical pattern inside the dish. It’s a bit finicky with the chard but well worth it!

Wash and pick the herbs, chop the basil.

Season the tian with salt, pepper, and herbs, and sprinkle with plenty of freshly grated parmiggiano.

Pop into the oven for a good 35 to 45 minutes, until the dish is beautifully golden and bubbly. Mmmm.

The best (roasted) leeks

23 September 2014

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Leeks are in season again. After a long bountiful summer of tomatoes, zucchini, artichoke, beans and tomatoes, more tomatoes — fall vegetables are back at the markets and it’s the time to start roasting.

This is not only my favorite way to prepare leeks, it’s one of my favorite ways to prepare vegetables, period, and leeks are incredibly versatile and always a hit.

They are a stellar companion alongside simply grilled fish and lentils. Or together with braised carrots and a roast chicken. I make them with a good steak and very crispy roasted potatoes. The possibilities are endless.

Roasted leeks
This method is inspired by the wood-roasted vegetables from The River Cafe Cookbook Two (yellow). It is not exactly a recipe, and can be adapted to other vegetables and modified using different vinegars (apple cider, sherry) or perhaps lemon juice, and an array of herbs (rosemary, sage, marjoram, chillies…) depending on the mood. It is especially important to use very good quality ingredients.

Leeks

Balsamic vinegar

Red wine vinegar

Garlic cloves

Olive oil

Fresh thyme

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 375ºF (190ºC).

To clean the leeks, trim the roots at one end and darker leaves at the other, peel off the tough outer leaves, keeping only the tender green and white hearts, and thoroughly wash of any grit. Cut the stalks into 2-inch (5cm) pieces, then halve each of these lengthwise.

In a large bowl, create a dressing of sorts with the vinegars, crushed garlic, olive oil, and picked thyme leaves. As in a vinaigrette, the proportions should be approximately two thirds olive oil, one third vinegar(s). In this case I would do half balsamic/half red wine.

Toss the leeks in the dressing until well coated. Season generously with salt and pepper. Place the leeks in an oven-proof dish large enough to fit them in one layer. Slide the dish into the oven and roast for a good hour. Every 20 minutes approximately, gently toss the leeks. The leeks should be well caramelized and meltingly tender. Don’t hesitate to leave them in the oven a little longer than you think.


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