Friday, June 6, 2008

Restaurant Review: Part 2

A few days ago I commented on the Daily Telegraph’s list of top 50 restaurants in the world.

With homes in Auckland, New Zealand, Grasmere, St. Tropez and New York, I eat out a fair bit and have a number of restaurants that have become favorites.

For the most part, these are not necessarily the more famous spots, but are places where you can get really good food - interesting or comforting. They serve great wine, the people are friendly and welcoming, and there is a casual, family-like ambience. I’m talking about neighborhood places that deliver quality and consistency. So if you are round and about in my parts of the world, and you’re looking for a place for good food that feels like home, here are some thoughts:

1. I have to start with The Fat Duck, which manages to deliver all of the above and yet is still rated second in the world. For me it’s number one and an experience not to be missed. Bray is a lovely village complete with local pub (also owned by Heston Blumenthal), a beautiful church and a classic English village cricket field. If you are there for a couple of days, The Waterside Inn is just down the road!

2. L’enclume. Go now, because next year I’m sure that L’enclume will be discovered and make the top 50 world list. It’s in a tiny village in Cartmel, Cumbria about 40 minutes from my place in Grasmere. The chef is Simon Rogan, who came up north in 2002 and serves a surrealistic menu focusing on rehydration, dehydration, memories of Venus and surrealist nitro slammers. He picked up one Michelin star for the first time this year. L'enclume is a cutting edge restaurant the same way as The Fat Duck, El Bulli and Pierre Gagnaire, but it has more of a sense of humor with many surreal avant-garde, tongue ‘n cheek dishes served in what used to be a former blacksmith shop (which is where the name comes from). No tablecloths here. Just hard, sharp textures. 70% of visitors come from out of town and it is well worth making a special journey.

3. Thalassa on Franklin Street is a Greek restaurant in the typical open fish market style. The fish is flown in overnight from all over the world and sits there in a huge ice counter waiting for you to touch, choose and eat. The Horiatiki (Greek Salad) doesn’t get any fresher, and a lot of the food is made by the family who have been in the business for years. The bar is funky, the beer is cold, the space is open, warm and inviting, and Sayed and the front of house team are first class. This is a great place for a summer lunch or a dinner in winter.

4. Escopazzo. I’ve been going to Escopazzo in Miami ever since it opened 15 years ago. Giancarla is one of the most progressive Italian chefs in the US and has taken her food on a journey from classic village Italian to organic innovation. The staff are well trained, the wine list is excellent with a great selection of Brunello and Barolos and the tasting menu of whatever-is-fresh-that-evening can’t be beaten. There is a hidden back room with a fountain and a beautiful bustling busy front room. Ok, Escopazzo is not in the most salubrious part of South Beach (on Washington Street, next to a sex shop), but once you are inside you feel as if you are in your granny’s Italian home.

5. Even more eclectic is the Jumble Room in Grasmere. Andy and Chrissy run this mad house which is somewhat akin to eating with Alice in Wonderland. The two rooms are full of books, paintings, church pews, odd chairs and noise. Andy does the front of house and Chrissy does all the work. (Andy even drives me back home after dinner in his Range Rover). Everyone who stays at my place in Grasmere has dinner at the Jumble Room and inevitably is adopted by Andy.

6. Tamarind is my favorite Indian place in London. It is in Shepherd Market, 100 yards from the Metropolitan where I stay. It has a beautiful dining room and the food is modern, innovative Indian - light and fun and very, very tasty. I’m told when Tom Cruise was filming in London he ordered in from the Tamarind every night - but don’t hold that against it.

7. Cercle Rouge on West Broadway is a typical French Bistro that serves great snails, pate, liver and steaks. It also has Burlesque in the winter and a great private room where we host USA Rugby Board Meetings (all of which tend to end at 2:00am in a very blurry haze of great Bordeaux). The chef, Pierre Landet, is an ex rugby prop and can cook French country food just the way it should be. Great pommes frites.

8. The Spotted Pig, run by English ex pat April Bloomfield, is still the best gourmet pub experience in New York. They don’t take bookings but you can always get in if you are patient. There’s a busy little bar and a nice couple of seats outside to wait and watch the world go by. Sits slap bang in the ever bustling Meatpacking District and is the best food of its kind in the city that never sleeps.

9. My house in St. Tropez when my mother-in-law Rita is in residence. The combination of St. Tropez sunshine, a sunny day by the pool, French ingredients and Rita’s flair makes it an unforgettable opportunity. If you can ever wrangle an invite, first check that she’s there and take it up. If I were you, I’d ask for the kidneys in mustard.

10. And finally, anywhere Simon Gault is cooking. Simon and I have been partners in crime (in cooking!) for a long time now. He runs a bunch of restaurants in New Zealand and has provided delicious banquets and catering for up to 150 people at my place in Auckland. Nothing phases Simon, who brings in his team and sets up in the garage, our kitchen being too small for his expert needs. So in comes a mobile kitchen and out comes world class cooking with unbelievable imagination and flair, and from a garage! Let me know how many chefs in the world can, or would still do that, when they are rich and famous. Simon is the very best.