Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pig Ears in San Francisco?

Offally Delicious, at Cav Wine Bar Last Night

Last night I went to Cav Wine Bar in San Francisco and ordered a pig ear and mushroom salad. I'd never had pig ears before. They look exactly like you'd expect pig ears to look and were intertwined with the fungi and the salad leaves and served with a leek terrine. Absolutely delicious. When is somebody going to invent Pig Ear Crisps [US Chips]? I think I could eat them by the bagful.

I have been to CAV four times but I haven't written a review of them. In a nutshell, I am rather fond of their menu and the departure of chef Christine Mullen last week does not appear to have affected the kitchen which according to a source I read has been taken over by Michael Lamina who was previously Mullen's sous chef.

2004 | My Favourite Hallowe'en Post

© 2007 Sam Breach
Pig Ears in San Francisco?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scott Howard - San Francisco - Jackson Street

A Favourite Discovery of 2007

picture photograph image Scott Howard Carrot Soup Recipe 2007 copyright of sam breach
After initially being compelled to dine there against my will by some pals who hijacked my birthday plans this past June, a date which is now marked in my diary as a blissful blur of pork belly, beef cheeks, scallops and Brachetto, Scott Howard has fast become one of my favourite restaurants in San Francisco. I love the acute sense of transition I feel as I escape the busy sidewalks of lower North Beach, slipping past the heavy drapes at its doorway and crossing the threshold between outside and in. My eyes quickly adjust to the dark wood decor, the warmth of which is reflected by the always-genial welcome at the host stand. There is no ostentation in Scott Howard's design, save, perhaps, the unbelievably enormous arrangement of flowers that make a vivid impression in the middle of the room. The overall effect is timeless: Modern yet classy. In six visits, I haven't been sat at the same table twice and I still can't decide whether I prefer to eat centre-stage on the bustling, lowered main floor, or at one of the quieter two tops over-looking the street. There is one solitary booth with a rather awkward disposition in that it has its back turned against the action and not much of a view. Nevertheless, I think it is my favourite seat and if you prefer to focus on sharing plates and enjoying conversation, instead of bustle and people-watching, you will probably like the intimacy and relative quietness this particular table offers too. At peak hours, Scott Howard's noise levels can become lively, but the ceiling is smartly designed to bounce the acoustics around and lessen the blow. Although you could never quite describe it as hushed, it is bearable.

At the height of the Summer, just after our second visit, where my appreciation of Scott Howard's food reached dizzying heights during a plate-cleaning extravaganza that included succulent duck rillettes piled high on little toasts, crispy veal sweetbreads moistened by a smoky maderia jus and set on the smoothest of potato purées, a perfectly cooked piece of venison and fought-hard-for dibs on a side dish of their irresistible, sloppy, goaty, orzo mac'n'cheese, I thought I'd reached a new high. Easy, I thought, I'll use my self-imposed reviewing standards as an excuse to make a third visit, confirm that Scott Howard is the new dining nirvana, write a glowing appraisal, done and dusted, as simple as that.

Hang fire. Not so simple as I first thought. The third visit, at the beginning of August, threw me through a hoop. Everything had changed. No more appetizers and main courses. No more side dishes, No more portions of orzo mac'n'cheese. Previous menu replaced by small, "multi-course tasting selections".

I am actually one of those people, despised by many, who actually prefers small plates, but Scott Howard's food had been so wonderful until that point, I'd been sending even my large entree plates back to the kitchen, cleaner than when they'd left the dishwasher. Not one drip of sauce, not one speck of oil, not any crumb of bread, in fact a complete lack of evidence that was itself the clue to my high level of satisfaction with every dish that had been put before me.

I took a deep breath and determined that although things were looking bleak in terms of my blog's content, I'd just have to invest in another three visits before I could write a fair account of the menu. Try as I might, with Scott Howard involved, I couldn't muster any feelings of hardship at the thought of the task, especially when smaller plates would mean more plates and more plates would mean additional new things to try. I accepted my new fate with gusto.

And gusto also happens to be the precise word to describe my attitude to Scott Howard's excellent bread basket which hits the table fresh from the oven, the treasures inside wrapped in a heavy linen to keep them toasty. If you are lucky, and according to my calculations luck is only on my side about 66.66% of the time, a batch of piping hot, little cheese biscuits will be tucked amongst the breads. If you cave in and taste one, preferably after splitting and spreading it with a cool pat of butter, you will covet these morsels for ever more, so much so that you might suffer anxiety attacks if you ever arrive to find that they have run out for the night. It happens, but by nature, life seems to balance itself out. On the flip side, the staff once surprised me with a take-out box packed full of them, when I'd simply enquired if I might be able to take home the couple of leftovers in our basket. If you are ever bowled over by a similar gesture, please be smart and don't then leave them in a taxi.

Lest you completely fill yourself up on those delicious complimentary baked goods, I'll suggest you move on to the Ahi Tuna Tartare and before you yawn and turn away, tired of this most ubiquitous of raw menu items, know that the Scott Howard version is nothing short of startling. Tiny hand-cut cubes of the ruby red fish top a circular bed of creamy avocado surrounded by petite piles of finely crumbed chorizo, espelette and piperade which you are expected to fold into the tuna yourself just like you would do with a traditional tartare. What is less expected is the faceless presence of vanilla bean oil which, like a gentle, sweet kiss, adds an unexpected but subtle nuance to every mouthful. So seduced were we, the first time we tried it, we had to order a second, immediately. The popularity of Scott Howard's Tartare is so assured you might have to be an early bird to catch it. On our last two visits they had already run out. If this happens your server will try and persuade you to choose the Japanese Hamachi instead, imploring that it is equally as fine. Don't fall for the ruse - the two thick, buttery slices of yellowtail, served with pickled cucumbers and beech mushrooms, fennel pollen and citrus ponzu are overwhelmed by the harsh acidity of the vinegar used in its preparation. A much better choice, if your nerves can handle sea urchin, would be to go with the tender scallop sashimi, dressed with splashes of yuzu and almond and then draped with a glistening and gorgeous selection of the freshest uni which imparts creaminess, nuttiness and essence of the ocean into every bite. Oysters are another mainstay of the raw menu where, in contrast to the other smaller, more delicate crudos, strong flavours, like ginger, chili and especially onion are delivered with a brute force that is satisfying if you are in the mood to kick off your evening with something feistier and more generous.

Soups are next up and Scott Howard's Carrot Broth, a stalwart on an otherwise oft changing menu, is apparently so beloved by its customers, that the recipe for it is handed out with every bill along with the instructions "try this at home". You really do have to adore carrots (I don't) to love this soup, because even though it contains a significant amount of cream, the intensity of carrot is at its fore. At the end of the summer an exquisite cold corn soup on the menu was at once creamy and refreshing and had us smacking our lips with delight. More recently, reflecting the change in seasons, a salty-sweet, creamy, tomato soup drizzled with olive oil brought warmth to the menu. It is perhaps less stunning, but its familiarity signals comfort, something that the onset of Autumn requires.

Salads at Scott Howard are not necessarily inspired, but can offer confidently executed versions of classic combinations, be that Mozzarella with heirloom tomatoes or greens with Parmesan, sherry vinegar and black mission figs. From time to time a superstar salad will drop by to liven up the selection, like a wonderful bowl of grainy mustard-dressed frisee leaves intertwined with juicy slivers of viscid Duck Confit, matsutake mushrooms and bacon, all sitting under the shade of a medium-rare poached egg. Never ever pass up on something you think you would like to try at Scott Howard, imagining you'll save it until next time, because the next time you visit it might no longer be there.

The consolation for missing things that previously thrilled you is the constant promise of fresh experience and the chance to discover new favourites each time you stop by. In August a beautifully fanned, small but juicy breast of duck lying atop a bed of sweet pea puree dotted with maitake mushrooms made me go mmmm. The same month exquisitely fashioned squash blossoms had been stuffed with goat cheese and then set sail on a light, smoky tomato and saffron sauce that had been given an artful touch of tapenade where the tiniest little cubes of olive had each been hand positioned to look like miniature pebbles set on the edge of a pond. Their perfectly-executed crispy poussin is a tender little bird with succulent meat and lively flavors in both its jus and the goat cheese polenta cake it is paired with. Scott Howard's chefs have a deft hand with Foie Gras, either sprinkling large grains of salt on thick, creamy, cool, torchon-style slabs of the liver for an intensely savoury experience or at the sweeter end of the spectrum, serving it freshly seared on toasted brioche with licorice greens and a huckleberry Meyer lemon gastrique. The latter preparation, where the lobe had been cooked just enough to impart a golden crust on the the liver without diminishing any of the fat-oozing, tender, custard-like offal at its centre, caused barely muffled groans of pleasure to escape from everyone who let it pass their lips.

That some of Scott Howard's dishes are so utterly fantastic, means that there will be others that can't quite deliver the same levels of ecstasy. The sometimes stunning sweetbreads are at their best when they are served with a crispier coating that contrasts with the cushiony cloud of potato on which they lie. But when the glands are cooked in softer style, the juxtaposition between elements is less marked and the dish loses its edge. On one visit a tomato jam and pickled cucumber had taken the place of potato next to the sweetbreads which sounded intriguing, but taste wise was all over the shop and with no clear direction. Scott Howard's cooked scallops would be improved by an introduction to the Maillard effect since in a plain dish where they were paired with scallops corn and mushrooms, I found them to be insipid and pale. Monkfish with roasted tomatoes and cockle broth was a simple, clean-looking dish and the fish was perfectly tender but the end result was similarly unperky due to the watery broth. On my very first visit I enjoyed a pork belly, and I would probably still be ordering it to this day if, on the second tasting, it hadn't been a disaster - presented as a lump of wobbly white fat with no meat and not enough cooking time to make the fat anywhere near palatable. Thankfully the wait staff, who are mostly smart, savvy and extremely professional, noticed the problem and took the item off the bill without any fuss.

Scott Howard's linguine pasta with Saffron, the dish which sparked off a lively discussion about salt and pepper availability in restaurants, is the menu's token failure. They just don't seem to be able to get right. With the namesake spice barely discernible, the pasta dishes, whose ingredients vary on each visit, was initially recommended to me as a must have because "heirloom tomatoes won't be in season much longer". I usually find Scott Howard's seasoning levels to be spot on so I was disappointed to find the pasta was totally bland and that the tomatoes had been turned in to a flavourless mush. In the second attempt, with a chanterelle and leek stew, the vegetables were similarly lackluster but this time they were, at least salted. Third time, not lucky, presented us with an oversalted chanterelle, mint and olive combination that resulted in the least desirable of an already bad bunch of unpalatable noodles.

I was a little turned off Scott Howard's dessert menu when I was told on my first visit that they use artificially flavoured chips to make their butterscotch pudding. I have had the Brioche French toast a couple of times which, with its star anise and caramelised banana, is an exotic but filling treat. I have noticed that waiters generally pick this dessert as the one that they try and tempt customers with - so it must be popular - and it is always on the menu. Myself, I prefer to end the meal, instead, with a glass of Brachetto, although I wish they weren't so stingy with the pour.

Service has mostly been excellent at Scott Howard. On one visit, when they were thirty minutes late showing us to our table, we were all given complimentary glasses of J Cuvée 20 as an apology for the wait. I am guessing that Scott Howard probably track customers via Opentable because when we made two visits in as many days, the first thing they did was offer us a free round of drinks at the bar which I read as a thank you for our regular custom. One huge brownie point goes to the waiters who always ask if a drink is finished before removing the glass, but one brownie point is lost because they keep the wine and water bottles away from the table, not giving customers the chance to make their own pours which we would prefer. On the last visit, when our waitress was absent and our glasses lacking, I retrieved our bottle of wine from its hideaway on the table behind us and passed it to a friend to do the honours. The waitress spotted us and without warning, came up behind him, grabbed the bottle from his hand as he was midst-fillup and took over his action, spilling red wine on both his food and white shirt. The waitress in question doesn't do justice to the reputation of the other, excellent, servers, all of whom I think would have handled the situation differently. Since this happened I have decided to make it clear whenever I dine out, that I prefer to be in control of my own wine pours and I plan to test out some assertiveness, on my next visit to delicious Scott Howard.

Six visits were made to Scott Howard between June and October 2007 before this review was written.

Some Great Things About Scott Howard
The chef loves mushrooms and so do I. They are all over the menu and I am not complaining.
They show an appreciation of regulars.
Bargain - From 5.30-6.30 and 9.30pm - 10pm they offer a bargain prix fixe menu offering 3 courses for just $32 per person.
If you book a 9.30pm table on Opentable you get a bonus 10,000 1,000 points

Some Not So Great Things About Scott Howard
Wine bottles not left on the table
Up sale of water, also not left on the table, over-zealous refills by bussers
No salt and pepper readily available.
Menu-muddle - they let me order no less than two items (same main ingredient but different preparations) from an out of date menu causing two wrong dishes to end up on the table in front of me. They apologised and comped us a couple of drinks.
Incorrect information given by the person manning the phones. (She told us that menus would not change in the current month, when in fact they change constantly, causing us to cancel a booking because we didn't want to eat the exact same thing as she led us to believe we would do.)

Scott Howard

500 Jackson St. (at Montgomery St.)

San Francisco , CA 94133

(415) 956-7040

Local Resources
Scott Howard Website
Scott Howard Dinner Menu
Scott Howard reviews on BlogSoop
Scott Howard by See Us Eat
Scott Howard by Tablehopper
Scott Howard by Foodhoe's Foraging
Scott Howard by Tomato Soup
Scott Howard by One Day I'll be a better person
Scott Howard by Is it Edible?
Scott Howard by Cooking with the Single Guy
Scott Howard by Sibilous
Scott Howard by Pengrin Eats
Scott Howard by Cooking With Amy
Scott Howard by Wine Edge
Scott Howard by Paul Reidinger
Scott Howard by Michael Bauer
Scott Howard by Patricia Unterman
Scott Howard on Savory San Francisco
Scott Howard on Yelp
Scott Howard's Carrot Soup Recipe

2005 | Travel Plans
2004 | My First Ever Food Bloggers Meet-up

© 2007 Sam Breach
Scott Howard - San Francisco - Jackson Street

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Schiacciata con l'uva & Chestnut Flour at the San Francisco Ferry Building

This Weekend's Highlights...

picture photograph image Schiacciata con l'uva Etruscan Grape-filled Bread from Acme bread in San Francisco 2007 copyright of sam breach

This is the ACME bread version of a traditional flatbread made in Tuscany during the wine grape harvest. According to ACME, who I think must have taken their information from this website, it is such a classic it can be seen pictured on the frescoes in Etruscan tombs and the name is derived from the schiacciare which means 'flattened' or 'crushed'.

Acme's rendition of this seasonal offering made a very special and unique lunch for me today. I loved the dough which was crisp on the outside but billowy and soft within, it was chewy and crunchy all at the same time. Big fat juicy green and purple grapes were joined on the surface by soft caramelised onion, toasted walnuts and a dusting of Turbinado sugar. I can't begin to tell you how unexpectedly delicious it was and how perfectly all the components complimented each other. It tasted so good, it put me off my bombolini.

The bad news? This harvest special is only available for three days and the last day is tomorrow, Sunday 28th October. What's more - they are only offering it at lunchtimes - what can I say? Perhaps you need to take a trip to the Ferry building, at lunchtime tomorrow.

Whilst you are in the Ferry Building, head to Boriana's anyway, because they have just taken 50% off the price of their chestnut flour due to a sell-by-date at the end of October. Very convenient if you are planning to make a chestnut cake tomorrow - it's just $3.25 for a 500g bag at the time of writing.

Local Resources
Ferry Building
San Francisco, CA 94111

2006 | Making Little Tiny Chocolate Mignardise
2005 | Something Fishy
2004 | Carneros Creek 2001 Pinot Noir

© 2007 Sam Breach
Schiacciata con l'uva & Chestnut Flour at the San Francisco Ferry Building

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Salt & Pepper - What's your Opinion?

Should restaurants put it on the table or not?

picture photograph image  salt and pepper 2007 copyright of sam breach

What do you think of restaurants where the Chefs resist allowing diners the chance to season their own food by not offering salt or pepper, at the table? I have a favourite restaurant where you have to ask if you need seasoning and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable that on rare occasions I should have to speak out because I think their food needs more salt. Uncomfortable at having to ask for it. Uncomfortable at having to wait for it. Uncomfortable as my food starts to get cold whilst I am waiting. Uncomfortable about sending a signal to the kitchen, when I could have subtly righted the problem myself, had the condiments been available for me to do so. Uncomfortable that they might think I am one of those people who gratuitously adds salt and pepper to my food without giving it a second thought. Uncomfortable that they might not get that I am actually not one of those people. Uncomfortable that the restaurant will restrict their customers from seasoning a dish to their own taste, but will allow a busboy , wielding a grinder almost as tall as himself, to randomly crack pepper all over a dish instead (perhaps this is the customer's punishment?)

I can empathise with the chefs' way of thinking on this subject , in theory. I appreciate that they want their creations to be eaten exactly the way that was intended. But realistically, not everyone has the same taste buds and unfortunately sometimes the kitchen simply makes a mistake and doesn't add enough salt to one of their dishes. And then the onus is on the customer to get the problem sorted out. If salt and pepper is on the table already, customers can overcome this problem with a minimum of fuss. Without it, they have to ask.

Well, it could be worse. Having to ask for salt is a slightly less embarrassing than having to send the dish back to the kitchen because it is too salty. I'll be grateful for small mercies.

In the meantime - I'd love for you to chime in with your opinion, especially if you're a Chef. Speak up from the other side of the fence, please. I think I can understand the other point of view, after all I do live with someone who likes to put mustard on just about anything I cook...

PS - Please spare a thought for everyone in Southern California today. I am keeping my fingers crossed, especially for my good friend Alice, who I met through our mutual love of food and blogging. My thoughts are with you, Alice.

2006 | Marmite Danger
2005 | Ugly Souffle
2004 | Even Uglier duckling

© 2007 Sam Breach
Salt & Pepper - What's your Opinion?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Orange Oranges

picture photograph image orange orangey oranges 2007 copyright of sam breach

Local Resources
Valencia Oranges from Will's Avocados

2005 | A pair of sheep called Becks & Posh
2004 | Lighthouse, Diner San Rafael

© 2007 Sam Breach
Orange Oranges

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Aubergine Soup with Soft, Squidgy Buffalo Mozzarella & Gremolata

You Can Call it Eggplant Soup, if you must...

picture photograph image how to make recipe for image eggplant aubergine mozzarella gremolata soup 2007 copyright of sam breach

...but really, aubergine is one of my favourite words, especially when pronounced by a Frenchman, so I am sticking to it like honey. Aubergine is also one of my favourite colours. When I never get married, I'll be wearing an aubergine dress, mark my words.

Cook an aubergine, however, and it turns to sludge. Grey, brown, shitty-looking sludge. Pauvre aubergine: Its soup is more ugly than the ugliest soup you could ever imagine. But that doesn't mean you can't try and disguise it by veiling it with virginal white slices of tender mozzarella and throwing it a little "hope it'll be a winner at the dinner table" in the way of some gremolata confetti.

I pretty much stole this soup from Matthew Drennan's Simply Sensational Soup, but his version was as bland and dreary as the soup's tepid colour. I hope he doesn't mind me complaining. I'm British, so it's not easy for me to make a fuss. All it needed was some lemon juice and a decent amount of salt and it perked right up. Simple, yes. Sensational? I am not sure I would go quite that far, but the Frenchman, never overly generous with his praises, is a surprisingly vocal fan of it. We've made it more than once in the last two weeks.

My Sorta Recipe:

Serves 4-ish

Huge Aubergine weighing >= 1.0 lbs and <= 1.5 lbs, roughly cubed, skin on
1 large shallot, finely diced
1 clove garlic minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups chicken stock (or alternative if you are a vegetarian)
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1/3 cup cream
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon salt
8 oz soft, squidgy, fresh buffalo mozzarella
1 portion gremolata recipe(1 clove garlic, zest 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon parsley)

-Put oil in a heavy pan over a low heat
-Add shallot and garlic and sautée slowly until soft and translucent
-Add aubergine cubes and continue to cook on low heat, about 45 minutes, stirring regularly, until all the pieces are soft and tender
-Add salt and chicken stock, turn heat to medium for 5 minutes, using the liquid to dislodge any little pieces of onion, garlic and aubergine stuck to the pan sides back into the mix
-Cool down a little before transferring to a mean-arsed blender where you should whip it's aubergine-arse for at least 3 minutes until it's as smooth as you can be bothered to wait for
-Return to the pan and stir in cream, chopped parsley and the juice of a lemon. Taste and adjust any of the above ingredients to your own personal preference
-Heat slowly over low heat until piping hot. Be careful - this soup will bubble and splutter and shoot eggplant splats all over your neat, tidy kitchen
-Finely cut an 8oz blob of premium mozzarella into thin slices
-Spoon the soup into four bowls, cover each surface with mozzarella and then sprinkle with gremolata and top off with freshly cracked black pepper.

You know what? Eff the aubergine. Whatever! Next time you make some soup, any old soup, just smother it with mozzarella and gremolata and it'll probably taste better.

*UPDATE* 9/21/2008
Made a great version of this soup with: 2 aubergines (about 28 ounces), 2 shallots, 2 garlic, 2 cups chicken broth, 2 cups water, juice one lemon and 1 tsp salt + 2 Tbsp chopped parsley. Didn't add the cream this time and I loved it still. (Mozzarella & gremolata still made an appearance on the surface, though!)

Local Resources
I bought all the ingredients from local farmers who I can't be arsed to mention individually by name today, like I usually do.

2006 | Look it up yourself, I can't be arsed.
2005 | Look it up yourself, I can't be arsed.
2004 | Look it up yourself, I can't be arsed.

© 2007 Sam Breach
Aubergine Soup with Soft, Squidgy Buffalo Mozzarella & Gremolata

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How to Make Gremolata?

A Passage to Perkiness

picture photograph image how to make recipe for gremolata or gremolada 2007 copyright of sam breach

It's not Rocket Science, it doesn't have to be. It's a simple classic.

My Preferred Gremolata Ratio:
1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley
1 lemon's zest
1 small garlic clove, very finely minced

Mix all the ingredients together and then add, without cooking, to brighten soups, stews, braised meats, pastas, fish and seafood. Since in California local lemons are available all year round, gremolata will be a great way to add a little sunshine to the plate as we head toward Winter.

According to my unexacting research on the interweb, Gremolata, meaning ground or chopped, first made its mark on the world as the Italian-born accompaniment to Milanese Osso Bucco. However when fact-checking in the Silver Spoon, the Italian household cookery bible, their gremolata recipe doesn't actually contain any garlic.

Find out what slightly unusual soup I have been pairing my pungent garlicky version of Gremolata with recently, later in the week. In the meantime - see how other bloggers have been using both traditional and creative versions of gremolata in the following selection of tasty sounding recipes:

Striped Bass with Orange Gremolata
Chipotle Braised Short Ribs, Turnip Puree, Cilantro Gremolata
Poached tilapia with gremolata on spinach with almonds and dried apricots
Roast Globe Zucchini with Fresh Beans Gremolata
Anne adds Rosemary to her Gremolata
Green Beans with Caramelized Shallots and Gremolata
Italian Beef and Gremolata Sandwich
Pasta Gremolata with Sundried Tomatoes and Garlic Breadcrumbs
Spaghetti with Hot Chile, Carmelized Onion & Gremolata
Sugar Snap Peas with Lemon-Mint Gremolata
Cannellini Bean Soup with Fontina Gremolata
Braised Veal with Gremolata
Cilantro Gremolata
Artichoke, osso bucco with toasted pine nut gremolata…and farro risotto
Halibut with Orange Gremolata
Mixed Herb Gremolata
Gremolata Chicken
Mushrooms Stuffed With Hazelnut Gremolata
Osso Buco, as promised
Scrambled eggs with left over gremolata

2005 | Olive - 743 Larkin St - San Francisco - CA
2004 | Pate a Choux "Potatoes"

© 2007 Sam Breach
How to Make Gremolata?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sheena Bishop 1966 - 2007

Goodbye to you, my trusted friend,
We've known each other since we were nine or ten


Of all the hundreds of people I have met in my life, there are few whose initial impression on me was as acute as Sheena's. Thirty something years ago, at the beginning of a new school term the shrill bell rang, as it did every morning, to beckon us to line up outside our classroom. We filed in one, by one expecting the class room to be empty, but this time it wasn't. Already sitting at one of the desks, her blonde hair catching the sun streaming through the window, was a stranger, a girl I would soon find out was Sheena.

Sheena was sitting quietly colouring in a picture of a heron that came as part of her children's membership package of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a charity that takes action for wild birds and the environment. She handed me a leaflet about it. In the mid seventies, the young Sheena was the first environmental activist I had ever met.

Our friendship got off to a little bit of a shaky start when the pairings were set for our country dancing class. Benedict Schiller was the hot ticket and I was rooting for him to be chosen as my own dance partner. The teacher, in her wisdom, decided she would match us up alphabetically. She started calling out the girls' names from the top of the alphabet and the boys names from the bottom. With a name like Bishop being so close to Breach it was inevitable for the stars to align so that Sheena beat me by one position to Ben's hand on the dance floor. I confess, now, I was silently seething. I couldn't help thinking evil thoughts to myself "If that stupid new girl hadn't joined the class, then I would have been next in the alphabet and I would have been dancing with Ben."

In the end though, being next to each other in the alphabet is probably what brought us together. We were sat next to each other at the school lunch table. School lunches in Britain in the seventies are not something that you would remember fondly. It was pre-cafeteria system and pupils were forbidden to bring in packed lunches. Basically you had no choice. You would sit at a round table where a large metal tray bearing eight portions of horrific gunk would be plonked down in the centre and you would be expected to eat your share. Even at that early age, such was her love of animals, Sheena was verging on vegetarianism, despite there being no room for such radical behaviour in the school dining system at that time. Whilst suffering through those ghastly lunchtimes was instilled into me as the only possible outcome, Sheena was more creative. Every day she would smuggle in some food, wrapped in tin foil - always a brown sugar sandwich made from heavy, doorstep-sized slices of wholemeal bread and a baby packet of salted peanuts. Hidden on her lap, underneath the table, she would persuade one of the greedier boys to eat her portion of school prescribed sustenance and nibble on her sandwich instead, kindly sharing a few of her peanuts with me. Lucky for her, the idea of sugar in a sandwich grossed me out otherwise I am sure I would have persuaded her to share her entire lunch.

From the little I have told you so far, you have probably already realised that Sheena was something of a unique and special person who was perhaps a little out of the ordinary in our neighbourhood where unquestioningly conforming to the accepted middle class way of life was the done thing. Everyone behaved the same way. We went to ballet classes, we joined the girl guides, we went to Sunday School, we were all well behaved, we watched Blue Peter on television twice a week. We were almost living a real-life version of The Truman show. Lest my mother is reading, and she will be, please do not assume I am complaining, to the contrary I loved my childhood and all of the wonderful opportunities I was given. I was blessed, and even more so for meeting Sheena who gave me the first hint of what life was like outside of my bubble.

Sheena came to Bristol from the Isle of Wight. That in itself was an exotic enough fact to attract me to her. It was almost as if she had moved from abroad. Practically unheard of in our neigbourhood, Sheena's family didn't have a television and her father, an English teacher, even published play called "Bug Eyed Loonies" about the perils of letting your children watch TV. They didn't have a car either. Apart from the chic little French girl with the fluffiest white bomber jacket who served mini Vache qui Rit cheeses at her birthday parties instead of jelly and ice cream, Sheena and her family were simply the most intriguing people I'd met by the time I was aged ten.

From ten through teens we hung out a lot. Here are some favourite memories from the hundreds of good ones available...

- Dressing like twins, aged 10 - we would both ear the tiniest little denim shorts, wear our hair in long bunches tied with red ribbons and pretend we were sisters.

- When left alone at Sheena's house with the parents safely out of the way, we invaded the kitchen to experiment with molecular gastronomy, decades before it was even invented. We carefully dissected Custard Creams, removed the filling, mixed it with pepper, Colman's English mustard powder and other weird stuff we found in the pantry and then used the resulting mixture to re-sandwich the biscuits together. And eat them, of course.

- We had a communal sewing session together where we made identical matching grey checked pinafore dresses and then later wore them at the same time and didn't care what anyone thought.

- At parties we'd pretend we were sisters and boys who didn't know us would think we were telling the truth.

- We both shared a love of marzipan. Instead of stopping at the sweet shop on the way home from school we would stop at the local Co-Op and buy a block of marzipan to share on the way up the hill.

- Our music tastes were quite different in some ways but we both absolutely loved "Safety Dance" by Men without Hats. We'd put flowers in our hair and dance barefoot to it at the local nightclub.

- We'd walk our dogs, Tamsie and Daffy at Coombe Dingle. When we ventured of the beaten track and got stuck on a precarious fallen tree trunk, our dogs saved our lives. At least, that's how we used to like to tell the story.

- Sheena introduced me to Maraschino Cherries, long before we were allowed to try them in cocktails. Every time I pluck one out of fancy drink, to this day, I always think of Sheena.

- We had to dissect locusts for A-Level Biology. We were both uncomfortable doing this and hence decided that if we had to kill the insect, we should respect it by utilising its whole being. Head-to-Tail dissection if you like. We'd pull out their wings and make them into earrings. A girl in the year above told us we were sick but I'm inclined to think we actually did the best we could under the circumstances.

- We drove to Devon in my little green car and we picked up those hitch hikers on the way, even though we didn't really have any space for them.

- Just after I'd passed my driving test we snuck out of school and took it on the motorway to see what it felt like to drive at 70 miles per hour, even though I had been told expressly not to do any such thing.

Sheena's illness descended upon her quickly with devastating effect. In August I grieved when I was told she only had a few days to live. Hopes came and went, became undashed and then dashed all over again. I thought I would never see her again. But she hung on for a while. As soon as I arrived in Bristol, three weeks ago, my dad drove me to Wales to see Sheena for what would be our last ever time together. As soon as I saw her, the years melted away and I felt just as close to her as anyone can feel. She confided in me, I sensed her hurt at the same time as I felt the glowing warmth of her frail body, acutely aware of the precipice on which she was standing. I held her, I squeezed her, I kissed her, I told her I loved her, I wiped the tears away, both hers and mine.

It might sound tacky, but I don't care what you think. 'Our song', (us being Vicky, Rachael, Karen, Sheena and me) was Seasons in the Sun. As recently as 12 years ago you might have found the five of us in a group hug on a dance floor, crying our eyes out together, not because we thought we were going to die anytime soon, but because we were mourning the loss of our wonderful teenage years together. Listen to Nirvana's version which reflects my mood right now a little more accurately than the cheery original...

Together we climbed hills or trees.
Learned of love and ABC's,
skinned our hearts and skinned our knees.

Sheena, whose funeral takes place in a few hours, leaves behind her husband, two sons, a sister, parents and many friends. She will be sorely missed by all of us.

A tribute to Sheena from my mum
A tribute to Sheena from my sister

© 2007 Sam Breach
Sheena Bishop 1966 - 2007

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fifteen - Cornwall - Watergate Bay

A project by Jamie Oliver

picture photograph image jamie oliver's fifteen in cornwall 2007 copyright of sam breach
I have always found Jamie Oliver to be charming and adorable. When I met him a couple of Summers ago, his first words to me were "Awright, sweet pea, ow yer doin'?" and I think I almost swooned. Susceptibility to cheekiness in a man is one of my weaknesses and Jamie is a master of cheek. Although his career had already taken off by the time I left Britain in 2001, his star was still on the rise and at that point he was known for little more than being the Naked Chef, a cheeky young chap with an upbeat, popular tv cooking show.

I have kept half an an eye on Jamie Oliver's career ever since and I have been rooting for him as he has ventured away from the kitchen and into the community where he has been putting the power of his success and fame to use for a greater good. After one too many lunchtimes spent trying not to gag on gristly meat or lumpy banana custard I could certainly empathize with Oliver's attempts to improve the quality of meals in British schools. And although I missed the accompanying TV shows, I was encouraged to hear about the work he was doing with his Fifteen project, helping disadvantaged young people to get hands on experience in a working restaurant kitchen.

Recently we booked a last minute 2 day getaway to North Cornwall, the wild landscape of all my happy childhood holiday memories. We managed to get a room (albeit one that had not been remodelled), at The Hotel in Watergate Bay, for an absolute steal, and when I learned that Fifteen Cornwall was only a minute's walk away I jumped on a reservation for dinner.

Fifteen takes the upper floor of a building nestled on the periphery of Watergate Bay's stunning sands. At the far end of the beach side car park the dark grey of a slate monolith, branded with a neon pink fifteen, beacons you towards a wave of worn wooden panels that drift you further towards the entrance, down the steps and to the front door.

Inside the restaurant it's pretty, loft-like and open-plan with distant views into the kitchen. The pitched roof is held up with white pillars swarming with pink butterfiles and dozens of warm lights drop down from the centre of the ceiling like bulbous teardrops on strings. For those sat next to the window, as we were, harsher white LED lighting takes over from the softer golden globes and with all the reflection bounced back at you in the panoramic bank of windows, when it is dark don't actually expect to see anything at all of the sea outside.

The menu is set at £50 per person. For this you will get five courses, or six if you count the bread and "the biggest green olives from Puglia" you are given when you sit down to peruse the menu. If you would like a wine pairing (of course, we did), it will set you back a further £40 a head.

First up were two each of four little porcelain soup spoons, one bearing a mouthful of Scottish girolles, aged pecorino and that world-weary accompaniment, the truffle oil and the second a honey roasted fig that had been dabbed with a little Vulscombe goats cheese and anointed with 12 year old balsamic. Whilst these tiny tastes were pleasant, they did nothing to really whet my appetite.

The next course, a self-described "Fantastic salad" of mozarella di bufala, prosciutto San Daniele and "Newlina's funky leaves" (salty and perfectly dressed) was hindered by the addition of a large char-grilled and decidely yellow-looking "Italian white peach" whose overbearing sweetness knocked out the salty appeal of the other ingredients. I pushed my peach to one side, concentrated on the savoury elements and felt my satisfaction level rise as I did so. At this point I am wondering about the trainee chefs whose skill set so far seems to amount to little more than the assembly of ingredients.

Thankfully they got cooking during the next course where we were given a choice of a standard vegetarian Ricotta gnocchi with tomato and pesto which Fred ordered and the Cornish Seaside risotto which was my preference. The menu claimed that my dish contained monkfish, tuna, cod, sole and cockles (just the one). The seafood didn't really have its chance to shine because of the pungent presence of whole fennel seeds in the pangritata, a crispy breadcrumb topping. Swimming with the fishes, underneath the crunchy surface, was a thin, spicy tomato sauce studded with a meagre number of separated grains that were more like orzo than rice. Despite all of that, it pains me to say that this was the most interesting dish of the evening.

When the main courses arrived and I dipped my fork into the 'Crispy line caught john dory fillet, crushed charlotte potatoes, Rob's tenderstem broccoli and salsa rossa cruda' and took my first mouthful, I suddenly became acutely aware of the tedium of eating a meal at Fifteen Cornwall. Everything on my plate was bland and uninspired. The line that caught the fish must itself have been crispy, because the skin of the fish, soggy, unappetizing and as grey as the slate lining the rugged cliffs nearby, certainly was not deserving of a description suggesting any kind of crunch. The salsa tomatoes sitting on top of my little aquatic friend were tired and lackluster whilst the potato mush he was sitting on - don't even get me started on that pile of absolute boredom. I could make better crushed potatoes with my eyes shut from the spoils of a fridge that hasn't been shopped for in almost five weeks. Fred didn't fare much better with his lamb, which although in itself was a tasty piece of slow roasted shoulder, wasn't helped any by its rustic presentation and the undercooked vegetables accompanying it. Have you ever tried eating a raw, save for the chargrilled outer leaf, whole leek? No. Not possible is it?

If a la carte had been an option, we would have left the restaurant, probably, but instead we soldiered on to dessert since we'd already paid for it. Fred didn't want anything further except a coffee, so I ordered the two sweet options just to try. You can't get much more pedestrian sweet choices than a chocolate thing or a lemon tart thing, but that was all they had. So I removed the creme fraiche from the chocolate torte and replaced it with the glob of Cornish clotted cream that was meant to partner the lemon tart. I toyed with nibbling on the advertised stars of the show, but mainly just ate the clotted cream. There is never anything wrong with clotted cream. Like the rest of the meal, the problem with dessert was that it was median, middling and any manner of other m-words meaning mediocre. This restaurant has no soul.

I am so glad Fred ordered coffee, because they served it with some vanilla fudge which, of course, I took possession of immediately. It was fantastic. The best fudge I have ever eaten in Cornwall (and, yes, I do have a rather long history of experience in that department). As we paid the horrendously huge bill which I believe might have contained a 4 and a couple of zeros if it were ever to be translated into the American $language, I remarked to our server how much I loved that fudge. "It's the best thing I ate all night" I blurted out, somewhat enthusiastically given that by adulating it, I was also relegating the status of everything else we had eaten to less interesting than candy. Minutes later I happily listened to him telling the Chef who made it how much I loved it and hence they gave me a couple more pieces that I wrapped up and took home for breakfast a midnight snack.

Fifteen is well meaning. Everyone we met was lovely. When I asked to purchase a bottle of sparkling water to take home with me, they kindly gave it to me for free. Our waitress was a sweetheart, familiar and friendly. The place felt comfortable.

But Jamie, I hate to have to say this to you, Fifteen simply isn't good enough. You are asking your customers to drop fifty quid for a meal, and those customers are more than just charitable souls, they deserve some tasty tucker. Apart from that fudge, nothing your students served was utterly delicious when ideally every mouthful should have made us swoon. Almost everything we ate tasted like it had been made by a less than proficient home cook doing a not very good job of following of your recipe books. It all seemed so amateurish. Jamie, I love the idea of Fifteen - but what is the point if you aren't showing these youngsters how to create food that is capable of tasting truly fantastic. They need to know how it feels to shudder with joy as nirvana passes their lips. And your supporters deserve that too.

This review was a first impression and I'd like to think it was a one-off bad night, but I'm not sure I am buying that theory.

Local Resources
Fifteen Cornwall

2006 | Last year Amanda Berne left the Chronicle, and last week she left the State. Yes, my favorite cooking partner as deserted me for NYC :(
2005 | Vegan recipe collection

© 2007 Sam Breach
Fifteen - Cornwall - Watergate Bay

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Ivy - London - Covent Garden

A dinner fifteen or so years in the making

picture photograph image the ivy bill is presented covent garden london 2007 copyright of sam breach

Despite being weary when we arrived in London directly from San Francisco a couple of Sundays ago, we checked immediately into our hotel before heading straight out to the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall to catch up with a couple of old friends and meet their baby daughter who had been no more than a tiny bump when they'd stayed with us in San Francisco a year earlier. After enjoying an hour or two of their company over a couple of large and refreshing Pimms studded with fresh fruits and mint leaves and topped up with sparkling lemonade, we decided that although at 7pm, it was uncommonly early for us to even think about dinner, if we didn't dine soon, we would probably fall fast asleep.

Before they headed home we asked our Londoner friends for some suggestions. Within walking distance of the Savoy, I was tempted to give its Grill a try, not only because of my unfailing love for Chef Marcus Wareing's recipes but because of The Grill's bargain Sunday set menu deal. My London friends swiftly put us in our place. "You'll never get into the Savoy without a jacket and a tie."


"I know where we should go", I suddenly squealed, getting all excited at the thought of my impending suggestion. "The Ivy". My London friend laughed again. "You will never get into the Ivy at his short notice - they are booked for months in advance.

Hmmph. Not fair.

I have to put The Ivy, which is tucked down a small, less-travelled street on the edge of Covent Garden, into some kind of perspective. For years I used to walk past it on my way to and from work in Soho. I was mildly obsessed with the notion of the Ivy. The paparazzi were often camped outside waiting to snatch a shot of this or that film star, pop icon, actor or other celebrity. It was the place where the rich, the famous and the theatrical dined, a fact which had led me to believe, that for me, it was out of reach.

From the outside, the Ivy is discreet. You would hardly know it was there. Simple, but beautiful leaded stain glass windows give nothing of what is inside away, a heavy door reveals no secrets, and the presence of a very proper, topped and tailed doorman might go someway to unnerve mere mortals looking for a bite to eat.

Because the Ivy's facade keeps its secrets so well, there is much day dreaming a girl walking past every day can do. In her mind's eye she draws pictures of the decor, the fine clientèle and beautiful food. Everything at The Ivy must be fabulous. It's what she encouraged herself to believe.

"That's it" I said to Fred, ignoring my friends' advice - "I have wanted to go to the Ivy for over fifteen years, and now is the time". And so the two of us set off across Hungerford Bridge for the 15 or so minute walk towards the enigmatic Ivy.

As we neared our destination and the gentlemanly doorman came into distant view, I began to feel a little bit nervous. What if they say no? I was thinking, what if we aren't dressed correctly? What if they laugh at our request? I took a large gulp of bravado and announced to the gentleman in the Top Hat: "We haven't made a reservation but we were wondering if you might be able to accomodate a walk-in table for two?"

"That might well be possible", he replied "please, come in and ask at the host stand", said he, opening the door wide to let us enter. Gliding over the threshold was easy, then, but still I braced myself to ask the same question of the Maître d'. "Certainly he replied, adding "as long as you don't mind vacating your table by 9.15pm". "No problem", Fred and I chorused in unison, after all it was only 7.30pm and we knew that due to our jet lag we were fading fast. We were in.

And that is where my own story ends. If you, too, want to know what its like inside The Ivy, then you will simply have to find out for yourself. And don't let anyone allow you to believe you might not be worthy of knocking on The Ivy's door.

Stephen Fry in his recent 'Blessay' on Fame remarked about the advantages his own fame brings him: "I can get a table at the Ivy restaurant and tickets for premieres and parties.." But Stephen - didn't you know - any Tom, Dick, Harry or Sam can just walk into The Ivy and be seated for dinner? I think I might have just proven it so...

PS - Thanks to everyone who expressed concern over my visa situation whence I was recently stuck in the UK. I am happy to report that my passport and visa were suddenly and unexpectedly returned to me 10 days earlier than I believed possible and I was able to fly back to California this past weekend. I have a few British posts in the backlog, though, including reports on Jamie Oliver's Fifteen - Cornwall, Bristol's Bordeaux Quay which to my surprise I found featured in the current issue of Gourmet on my return to the US, plus an unexpected and quite spectacular meal that blew all the big names out of the water.

2005 | Bloody Sausage
2004 | Maille Veloute

© 2007 Sam Breach
The Ivy - London - Covent Garden