Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Brighton serves up two more enjoyable eateries

Beets with goat's cheese
If The Salt Room and Petit Pois were the runaway winners of the culinary side of last week’s working trip to Brighton, two more eateries also had things to recommend them.

Tuesday saw our team dinner, which often flounders on the food front – not least because such affairs are largely about the socialising.

This time, one of our number had booked for the Copper Clam on the seafront, another of the town’s new eateries.

Temporarily faced by hoardings as the refurbishment and redevelopment of the seafront continues, we were shown to a very nice upstairs room that had been set for our group.

Cod in a buttery, sweet sauce 
However, having spent all day in a darkened conference centre, being outside was absolutely key – not least in hot weather.

The staff dealt with this change from our booking with alacrity and good humour, and we sat down outside with our first drinks.

While imbibing a very pleasant rosé, we enjoyed whatever we’d pre-ordered on a very good deal.

In my case, it was a prawn cocktail to start, with serious prawns rather than the pink tiddlers sort you’d usually expect in this retro dish.

And no avocado in sight.

As only a slight aside, I used to like avocado – and I know how to de-stone one without giving myself an injury – but in recent years I’ve found them too sweet. Perhaps the decline in my liking has a direct relationship to how hip they have become?

Wine glass; chilled wine
Anyway, back to The Copper Clam.

Everyone had opted for sea bass to follow – and it is indicative of the quality of the kitchen, that over a dozen people could be served such a dish at the same time and without quality being compromised.

This was decent fish, well cooked – moist and tasty – and the right sort of portion for an evening where the socialising was the main thing (and hence the reason for no photos).

The staff are very friendly – and our waiter was particularly deft at spotting an empty win bottle that might need replacing.

Find out more at thecopperclam.com and on Twitter at ‪@TheCopperClam.

Sea bass and salad
Twenty four hours later, in need of a quieter experience, we decided to try the bistro at Hotel du Vin on Ship Street.

Revamped last autumn and pulling in appreciative noises, we got a table outside in the courtyard – a pleasantly peaceful environment that felt as though it were miles from the hubbub of the promenade that was, in fact, just a few metres away.

After enjoying a glass of Nyetimber – an interesting English fizz – it was time to see what the food was like.

First up for me was salt-baked beetroot with whipped goat’s cheese, sumac, Greek yogurt and Melba toast.

Looking beautiful, it had plenty going for it. The beet was warm and tender, while the other ingredients lent various degrees of sharpness to the dish.

The Other Half had ordered soft-boiled duck egg with asparagus soldiers, which came on a wooden block that had clearly been designed for just such a dish, with once large dimple to hold the egg and a smaller one for the salt.

It was apparently very tasty – and for once, the slightly fussy way of serving it worked.

Most of the time, simple plates are more than adequate – even if that goes against the current fad for presentation demanding all sorts of ‘quirky alternatives to plates, which add absolutely nothing to the food.

Amaretto over ice
Next up for me was butter-poached cod with lyonnaise potatoes, smoked salmon and a hispi cabbage sauce – enough sauce, indeed, that it was served in a bowl.

A very sweet, rich dish, the cod was moist and flaked beautifully.

The Other Half opted for more sea bass – this time, with a panzanella salad and nasturtium pesto.

I finished with a lime cheesecake with meringue and dice of elderflower jelly, while The Other Half settled for ice cream.

The service was very pleasant, although we had quite a wait for dessert. But the setting made that bearable – and even allowed for a touch of dinnertime macro still life photography.

This is good food, well presented and served in a very pleasant setting.

Altogether, another welcome addition to a growing list of decent eateries in this south coast town.

To find out more, visit Hotel du Vin and Bistro.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Petit Pois – a new Brighton culinary star is rising

Frogs' legs
If The Salt Room gave us a superb dinner last Sunday, our first meal in Brighton during this particular tour of duty had come 24 hours earlier at Al Fresco.

The menu at this Brighton legend has been modernised and lightened, which is all to the good, and while not without flaws – including, but not limited to, my bugbear of OTT portion sizes – they gained our custom essentially because of rudeness elsewhere.

Having only just arrived and got organised, we’d thought to go and have fish and chips on the prom. Now The Regency may be another local legend, but that’s primarily because it’s not as bad as most excuses for fish and chips that are served on England’s south coast.

Stuffed vegetables
It simply cannot compare with what we ate in Scarborough in 2001 or even the German ode to “a great British tradition that we consumed with relish in Travemünde in 2014, yet it clearly suffers from a vast dose of arrogance.

On Saturday, it was rammed, so we asked the maître d’ if he had space.

Clearly channelling the rudest French waiter stereotype that he could muster, he enquired whether we had a reservation (who books for a chippy?) then scoffed and pointed us to a large queue outside a side door where “the naughty boys” had to wait.

Suffice it to say, he didn’t see a penny of our money during the week.

Ice cream and sorbet
But thankfully, we managed to wrench ourselves east of West Street, taking us beyond our usual patch and his rudeness.

On Monday night, on the back of a colleague’s recommendation, we booked for Petit Pois on Ship Street, a new French tapas eatery that had only been open for eight days.

We picked a selection of dishes between the two of us.

To a bowl of olives and a plate of bread and very nice butter, with tapenade and aîoli, we added salt cod fritters with a spicy sauce; frogs’ leg goujons with a garlic and parsley butter; chips and a béarnaise sauce; duck breast with celeriac dauphinoise, and little stuffed vegetables with a tomato sauce.

The frog was superb – delicate and so moist. If you haven’t eaten frog, the taste is as little like a sort of gamey chicken.

The salt cod fritters were also excellent – light and moist.

The courgettes, peppers and small onions, stuffed with a delicate mushroom and herb mixture, were superb.

The duck breast was lovely – properly pink with delightfully crisp skin – while the celeriac dauphinoise was quite simply divine.

The Other Half finished with a café gourmand; I opted for a combination of vanilla ice cream with blood orange sorbet.

Oh, this was very good indeed.

The cooking is excellent; the ingredients fresh and of high quality.

There is a nice wine list – no telephone directory, but some very good and interesting choices.

Service is friendly and knowledgeable; décor is simple, modern and clean, yet warm and very pleasant.

So much was this all the case that, on Thursday evening, wandering along the seafront in the duck, in search of food after a reception, we suddenly thought: ‘why eat something for the sake of it down here when we could nip up the steps and go back to Petit Pois if its open?’

We did – it was open and we enjoyed it every bit as much the second time around.

We partook once more of those very good salt cod fritters, also opting for excellent snails that were far more than an excuse to consume copious amounts of butter, garlic and parsley.

Then there was a halibut dish that came with potato duchesse, broccoli stems and a seaweed hollandaise.

A tarte fine of tomatoes, courgette, aubergine and rocket gave us a very pleasant side of vegetable and we welcomed more of the bread.

I finished with a trio of crèmes brulées – that’s right: three delightful mini brulées – and mini, mini madeleines, while The Other Half had a tarte tatin.

Petit Pois is very new, but goodness, it’s also very good and is, unsurprisingly, already picking up a very good buzz.

On the basis of this visit, it deserves to become another Brighton legend.

And finding a new – and not just to me – eatery of such quality in Brighton gives me renewed hope in the state of British food.

Petit Pois is also open for lunch, from noon until 3pm, with the lunchtime set menu costing £9.50 for two courses and £13.50 for three.

To find out more – and to salivate over the menus – visit petitpoisbrighton.co.uk. Its also on Facebook at www.facebook.com/PetitPoisBrighton/.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The Salt Room ticks all the boxes again

Raw scallop starter
Extraordinary weather on the south coast ensured that dusk on Sunday evening was a beautiful sight to behold, with sky hues that were redolent of the Mediterranean, evolving through a palette that ranged from apricot to lilac.

And in such a situation, what could be better than a really good meal, enjoyed al fresco?

This was my fourth visit to The Salt Room in Brighton in the space of just over 12 months and The Other Half’s second.

I have, before each of those meals, had just the tiniest amount of trepidation. British dining is, in my experience, so often a matter of pot luck.

Over the years, we’ve paid not inconsiderable sums for food that has, if not inedible, been little more than fuel. Given serial disappointments, one is familiar with an inkling of fear that perfection simply cannot continue.

Teriyaki salmon
But this is The Salt Room and now, having eaten 12 courses there, I can report that it remains utterly flawless and a simply wonderful place to eat.

This time, I started with raw scallop, finely chopped and combined with elderflower and radish, and topped with lumpfish roe.

It was beautifully served on a shell, which sat on top of crushed ice to keep the fish at the perfect temperature.

I’ll say it again of this eatery: a single bite is enough to tell you two things – that the fish here is seriously fresh and that the kitchen really knows how to handle seafood.

In the case of the scallop, delicate tastes and a delicate texture made for an exemplary dish.

The Other Half very much enjoyed his teriyaki salmon, with wasabi, cucumber and lime.

He noted, as we dined, that suggestion from some that an expensive meal should induce guilt.

But as touched on above, you can spend less and, for instance, have a vast plate of pasta placed in front of you and not be able to come close to finishing it because it’s an insanely over the-top portion.

On weekdays, I lunch sometimes at a café near work where, frankly, any pasta dish is close to being half a packet of the pasta in question.

It’s not particularly expensive, but I can never eat it all – even though I always ask for a smaller portion.

The OH posited the point that, on such occasions, you even find yourself eating more than you really feel comfortable with – simply from guilt and not wanting to have to face staff asking what the matter is.

So which is worse – an expensive meal of quality that you eat every last crumb of, with relish? Or something that is far cheaper but you eat largely because you need to eat and you leave loads because theres far too much to start with and its not particularly special anyway?

Cherry Arctic roll
Portion size is a wide-spread problem in the UK. Thankfully, it’s not the case at The Salt Room, where I can comfortably eat a three-course meal.

The plates from our starters could have been licked clean by the time they were removed.

Next up, The Other Half enjoyed – very much – cod and chorizo with BBQ onions, samphire and lemon.

For me, it was sea trout, with crayfish dumplings, asparagus, BBQ tomato and basil.

Again – an utter delight, with perfectly-cooked fish and lovely flavours. Textures were light, while presentation was also up to the very high standards.

And two more plates were completely cleaned before being removed.

Last up, The Other Half had mango and vanilla parfait with lime curd, lime snow, passion fruit and macerated mango.

I opted for a cherry and chocolate Arctic roll that was a confection of cherry ice cream, chocolate espuma and compressed cherries.

Do I have to tell you how much was left after we put down our spoons?

I didn’t think so.

The Salt Room is consistently producing excellent, seasonal food. The creations of head chef Dave Mothersill are inventive but never feel forced. Frankly, it was difficult to choose what to eat because there was so much to whet the appetite.

The service also remains superb: efficient, friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

My only question is when I’m back in town next!

To find out more and book, visit www.saltroom-restaurant.co.uk.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Uchida and Haitink prove a massive hit

Mitsuko Uchida – musical genius
There are too few days and too few hours and two few minutes, of course, but having said all that, I don’t go to enough concerts.

It was 2008 when we managed to catch one of Daniel Barenboim’s cycle of Beethoven sonata concerts at the Royal Festival Hall.

As the music began, everything else simply disappeared: imagine being at the centre of a leap to warp speed in an episode of Star Trek. There was just Barenboim, his piano and me.

It was the most personal experience that I have ever had – and light years away from listening to any recording, no matter how good. It took Beethoven away from the polite academics and restored to him the passion and the fire that saw him build the bridge that led from the Classical period to the Romantic one.

Last night, at London’s Barbican, the experience was not much different, as the London Symphony Orchestra, with Bernard Haitink in charge and Mitsuko Uchida at the keyboard, gave us old Ludwig’s piano concerto 3 in C minor.

Penned in 1800, it was first performed in 1803 with the composer as soloist. In three movements – conventional at the time – but when it was premiered, the composer had barely sketched in the final stages of the final movement and played them from memory.

Thus it was an ‘unfinished’ work.

Here, Uchida gave us a performance of exquisite playing: firm and yet light of touch; music to set the nerves tingling; perfect phrasing and a glorious sense of the ebb and flow of the piece. And alike absolutely heaving with emotion.

The second movement in particular was simply sublime.

And the orchestra, with which I have been less than enthralled on previous occasions – not least during during Valery Gergiev’s time, as he actively wrecked his own reputation as some sort of conducting ‘great’ – was on very fine form under the vastly more restrained but powerful baton of Haitink.

At 88, there are no wasted gestures from the maestro. If he has to take it slow moving between podium and back stage, it is without doubt clear that he retains the knowledge and musical understanding of decades.

That really is the best that I have heard from the LSO – and that was a band that, during the second half, need a bunch of its horn players top switch to Wager tubas.

Bernard Haitink – musical genius
Note: they’re not really part of the tuba family but they are fabulous in tone.

Acoustically, incoming director Simon Rattle has supported a new concert venue for the capital and the LSO, on the grounds of the acoustics, being not great.

For the Beethoven, in my opinion, they were superb. For the Bruckner – one could tell he has a point ; certainly when a full-blown Romantic sound is required.

It was a really fine performance. This is big music. We have eight French horns that become four – and then four Wagner tubas (which are mis-named), but which, irrespective of name, have a fabulous richness of tone.

Bruckner, dying as he was, dedicated this work to God. Yet it has a sense of raging against the fading light, before the sweet and calm resolution with which we are left (this too was unfinished).

Fabulous stuff, certainly, though one could be forgiven for having a sense that the composer enjoyed a certain post-Wagner sense of creating ‘noise’ rather than ‘music’.

Not that that is bad under the circumstances, but it does suggest a dying of the romantic light.

Still, we are left with only one conclusion – that in such a venue, Beethoven, played by one of the world’s greats, sounds better than a lesser work.

And if you ever needed an incentive to get to a concert – take it from this. Because the experience is beyond what most get to know.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Yende and Avetisyan shine in ROH's L’elisir d’amore

Pretty Yende and Liparit Avetisyan
It would not be difficult to imagine that The Other Half and I were jinxed in our relationship with the Royal Opera House. On our first visit in early 2015 was to see Der fliegende Holländer, but Bryn Terfl was ill. In which case, we had the chance to be introduced to Latvian bass-baritone Egils Silins, who had flown in from Hamburg to take the lead.

Just over a year later, it was Tannhäuser and Peter Seiffert unable to continue for the final act, giving heldentenor Neal Cooper the chance to step in with minutes to go and do an amazing job.

Yesterday’s first performance of a revival of Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore gave us the much-anticipated opportunity to see South African soprano Pretty Yende’s house debut, but it also brought the chance to see Liparit Avetisyan instead of Rolando Villazón, who had had to withdraw for medical reasons.

But this proved to be a massive bonus. The Armenian has mostly been seen in serious roles, but he took the chance in London to turn in a wonderfully funny performance as the naive Nemorino, who is besotted with beautiful landowner, Adina.

Written in 1832 – in 14 days, according to myth, but probably in more like six weeks – it’s a light piece with a surprisingly satisfying underlying discourse about what love really means.

Nemorino adores Adina. She has no time for him and appears more interested in the swaggering Sergeant Belcore.

When visiting quack Dulcamara brings his wares to the small, rural village, Nemorino leaps at the hope that the same magic elixir that made Isolde love Tristan will resolve his little matter of the heart.

Set in a rural Italy of the 1950s, with tractors, a scurrying dog, cycles and plenty of physical humour, it works well, sending up the crassness of advertising and the gullibility of those who buy the spurious claims of adverts.

The music is charming throughout – and in Nemorino’s late Una furtive lagrima, gives us one of Donizetti’s finest moments, delivered here quite superbly by Avetisyan in only his second appearance at the Royal Opera House.

Yende is a delight as Adina, the character's casual capriciousness halted in its tracks when things stop going the way she expects. She has a soprano that soars with ease to hit some beautiful high notes, and great charm and warmth on stage.

The leads made a wonderful pair and were leant strong support all round – particularly from Paolo Bordogna and Alex Esposito as Belcore and Dulcamara respectively.

The chorus – such an important part of this piece – is wonderful, although the appearance of chorus master William Spaulding for the curtains is odd, especially as he seems to be directing them to turn into stiff mannequins.

Fortunately, in the pit, Bertrand de Billy directs the orchestra with a light touch that perfectly suits such a delightful score.

As the applause suggested at the end, this was no missing-performers jinx: this was a night when the audience could say that it had seen not one, but two new stars shine brightly on the stage at Covent Garden.

L’elisir d’amore is in rep at the Royal Opera House until 22 June.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant – frustrating and fascinating

If ever a film was deserving of the description ‘mixed beast’ then Alien: Covenant is it.

Dissatisfying and satisfying in approximately similar amounts, it prompted me to consider ratings and what I’d give it, and I’d probably do three stars out of five.

On the cons side, it suffers from a number of things –- not least being the latest instalment in the Aliens franchise. Part one is an icon of the horror genre, with part two not far behind. Part three was dire, while the fourth instalment is as divisive as Marmite (I like it).

Then there was a long gap before Prometheus. Which was awful – a point not helped because it didn’t ‘feel’ as though it belonged to the same family as any of the films that had gone before.

In many ways, neither does this. It feels as though it belongs somewhere else – and that's not a bad thing.

It begins before Prometheus, with the perfect synthetic David being ‘awoken’ by his father/creator Peter Weyland, and then moves us fast forward a decade to the ship Covenant, which is on a long trip to set up a new colony, with 2,000-odd humans and a thousand embryos sleeping/stored until they arrive.

The crew too is asleep with only a synthetic, Walter, around to run routine operations with Mother, the ship’s computer, when a fluke of an accident sees the crew woken and the captain dead.

As they repair the ship, the crew comes across a human transmission – someone singing a John Denver song. When they discover that the signal is from a nearby planet that seems perfectly suited for human habitation, reluctant acting captain Oram overrides arguments that it’s all too good to be true, and sets them on course to investigate.

Down on the planet, Oram and a team find more than they bargained for  not least, David – ‘brother’ to Walter and last survivor of the Prometheus.

Frankly, the first chunk feels slow and is far from great – not helped by having a generally unmemorable crew. Compare that to the first film with it’s outstanding ensemble.

Katherine Waterson as Dany and Danny McBride as Tennessee are really the only two who make – are allowed to make – any impact.

Where the film starts coming into its own is when David and Walter meet – and it benefits hugely from two superb, intertwined performances by Michael Fassbender as both synthetics.

There are gory deaths aplenty as we are introduced to whole new flavours of aliens – someone has been playing god with genetics. And there are some very clever twists amid the horror – slipping on blood in an attempted escape is just one.

Some of the visuals are superb, but the script by John Logan and Dante Harper is flawed.

While there are enjoyable elements of philosophical questioning – the nature of gods/creators and the act of being creative; the question of artificial intelligence overtaking the human intelligence that creates it and more – having made a point of Oram having a religious faith, it then fails to explore this.

One is left only with the vague notion that perhaps Oram’s ignoring of reasoning in his desire to quickly find a paradise, is indicative of religious faith.

Perhaps much of this is director and producer Ridley Scott continuing to work through some of the same subjects that he has for years – see Blade Runner, for instance – with the added intensity of age.

The ending is genuinely creepy and the use of Entry of the Gods into Valhalla from Wagner’s Das Rheingold to bookend the film is actually very effective, not least because of the different ways it’s played: by solo piano initially and then in the full orchestral version – indicating a theme developed.

Flawed without doubt, it is a movie that nonetheless gets under the skin. But while the themes can be explored in other settings and contexts, please let’s make this a day for the Alien franchise.