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Nov 9 '11

Gin and more gin

When a bar has 17 gins on its menu, then you know it’s serious about mother’s ruin, as it used to be called. In fact, the bar in The Rib Room at Jumeirah Carlton Tower also has 18 vodkas and copious whiskies/whiskeys, including 12 Speysides alone - so perhaps it’s just a serious bar. 

Thinking I was invited for lunch, I had not anticipated being led to the bar to try not only one of the 17 gins but a choice of bitters that makes Agostura look positively reactionary.

The idea of grapefruit or vanilla bitters seems strange but since my long lunch at the Rib Room, I have learned that The Bitter Truth has launched a pack for Christmas cocktail creatives with 20ml bottles of orange, aromatic, celery, Jerry Thomas and creole bitters.

But back to the Jumeirah. The barman there is a gin genius and recommended a Brockmans gin with Martini, Tanqueray and grapefruit, and Bloom, which is floral, with vanilla bitters. He made me a martini with Brockmans, grapefruit bitters, and a fortified wine with notes of tarragon, which was wonderful and unusual.

The Arch Bar at the InterContinental London Park Lane also does gin on a large scale and divides the list into London Dry, English Dry, The Netherlands (genever), United States, Scotland and France, as well as recommending cocktails.

The Hendrick’s cocktail with rose petal, strawberry, cucumber, lime and sparkling lemon was predictably floral and soft-scented - possibly a drink for a romantic evening. And it was here that I learned that gin goes well with Asian cuisine because the aromatic botanicals complement the spices.

As one who long ago stopped drinking cocktails and deserted gin for whisky, I am surprised and delighted to discover I still enjoy gin. And it was fascinating to discover that there is so much more to it than just juniper and spirit. It is all about botanicals - think Bulgarian coriander and oranges (Brockmans); juniper, chamomile, pomelo, honeysuckle (Bloom); basil, lavender, kieffer lime (Berkeley Square); or rose petal and cucumber (Hendrick’s). A feast for the mind and the palate.

For expertise, both these bars will cut the mustard but they are very different. For a warm, intimate place and with a promise of something faintly wicked, go to the Rib Room; for potential party atmosphere in a larger space, the Arch Bar is the place to go.

1 note

Oct 18 '11

Chocs away!

I attended Chocolate Unwrapped on Saturday for the first time for two years - oh how it has improved! It showed potential in year one in the ballroom of The May Fair Hotel but enjoying the splendid surrounds of Vinopolis, it has really blossomed. There were chocolatiers, growers, chefs and an action-packed theatre, all strutting their stuff.

I arrived in time to enjoy a demonstration given by David Demaison, cacao cuisine development chef for Hotel Chocolat. The Cacao Marinated Sea Bream on Creamed Leek with a Cacao Port Sauce had caught my imagination before I arrived and although M. Demaison demonstrated his art with great charm and expertise, timings got the better of him, so there was a number of short cuts - but it was apparent that cocoa nibs featured large.

However, we were given a recipe card and I plan to treat an unsuspecting friend to this recipe soon; so much so that I found my way to the Rabot Estate stand at the fair, to discuss the ins and outs of cocoa nibs. For the uninitiated, cocoa nibs are the crunchy bits of cocoa you get once the cocoa beans have been roasted and cracked. They are then ground up into the chocolate liquor from which chocolate is made. I bought a 50g bag and hoped it would be enough to cover the marinade, wine sauce and creamed leeks of said recipe. More about Rabot Estate tomorrow.

I learned a lot at Unwrapped. The first Peruvian chocolate I tasted was a present from adored niece No.2, Amanda, who gave me a bar for Christmas two years ago. It was astonishingly fruity, so I was amazed to discover that Peruvian chocolate has many incarnations, including a dark, dry, mocha taste. I suppose I should not be surprised: why shouldn’t cocoa beans be as influenced by terroir as vines?

Auberge du Chocolat’s Peruvian and Madagascan 68% claimed to combine the fruity notes of the Madagascan chocolate with the dry notes of the Peruvian. I admit it didn’t do much for me but the description of Madagascan chocolate as fruity came back to haunt me all the way through the show - quite outstanding.

Other bars worth mentioning - bars of chocolate, that is - were Melt’s Wild Bar, made from Bolivian beans, which was rich, fruity and smooth - yum; and Melt’s sea salt and milk chocolate truffle, with a subtle wafer crunch, was also very splendid.

Abanico’s Costa Rica cru chocolate tasted almost medicinal, a Laphroaig of chocolate; Chocme’s 39% Ecuadorian chocolate with violet was appropriately floral; Jeff de bruges 35% milk chocolate truffle with roasted sesame seed really excelled and I shall definitely try to make that at home; and Dorset-based Chococo, whose blackberry jelly on a dark chocolate fresh cream ganache was scrumptious.

These are today’s reflections - more tomorrow.

52 notes Tags: auberge bean bean chocolate chocolates cocoa fruity hotel chocolat madagascar recipe rich unwrapped vinopolis

Sep 8 '11

In the club!

Ate at the Lansdowne off Berkeley Square last night with Charlotte and Sally and was very impressed. Food was delicious and service charming. I started with duck foie gras with a taste of rhubarb. It was excellent although the rhubarb eluded me; and Sally’s scallops also cut the mustard (figuratively speaking).

Sally and I both had wood pigeon, which was cooked rare and was also very good and Charlotte’s fillet steak was done to a T. I had a wonderful strawberry concoction for pudding, which put a happy seal on the meal. We drank Berry Bros & Rudd’s Good Ordinary Claret, which also went down a treat - a bit too much of a treat actually.

It’s also outstanding value at £25 for two courses, £27.50 for three; the downside is you need a member to get in. If you’re lucky, you have a friend like Charlotte, who is not only a member but who also treats you!

Jul 4 '11

Mint condition

Went to a charity event at the new Mint Hotel Tower of London in the City. It’s a great venue. Glass walls in the Fenchurch Lounge ensure lots of light and it has a fantastic acoustic. Julian Lloyd Webber played, as did Tianhong Yang, winner of the first Steinway scholarship to study at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.

Chief executive David Orr also gave me an impromptu guided tour of the roof garden, where guests at a private event were enjoying a barbecue. It was very splendid wandering around on a level with the pointy end of the Towering Innuendo - sorry, Gherkin - while breathing in the tempting aroma of barbecued meat and learning about Mint’s bee sanctuary on the roof and the flowers that are growing there.

In addition to all this excitement, we were also well fed and watered. There was a creditable variety of canapes and the ones that stood out included mini onion bhajis with mango chutney. These were crispy, delicious and went beautifully with the home-made chutney, which outstripped even my favourite Sharwoods. Wasabi-cured tuna loin was tasty and tender; tandoori chicken breast with yoghourt dip was moreish (though not Moorish); quail’s-egg Benedict was a great way of reducing an entire brunch to a mouthfull but highest marks for originality go to gin and sloe berry cured Loch Duart salmon with beetroot jelly. Another one to try to emulate at home, methinks.

Mint edition canapes also get my vote for not, every last one, resting on carbs. As anyone following this blog knows, it’s one of my beefs!

30 notes Tags: mint gherkin canapes chutney City Fenchurch Tower of London Lloyd Webber music acoustic bee barbecue

Jun 30 '11

Canapes week!

I’ve had a week of excellent canapes - and nothing to do with hospitality at Wimbledon either! I attended a party at The Dorchester, to see what they’re doing to the Ballroom - if the pictures are anything to go by, it is a wonderful renovation, reflecting the glamour of the 1930s with a renewed warmth. It will look great and I look forward to seeing it.

Meanwhile, being entertained Dorchester style was a great success. Canapes were the perfect combination of traditional - smoked salmon with creme fraiche & caviar, and modern - dressed crab, apple jelly, caviar & poiane crisp. The apple jelly was sweet, subtle and quite lovely. It also went well with the crab, even though both ingredients are sweet. Nonetheless, I think I might have put it with something a bit more attitudinal than crab, perhaps smoked trout or even smoked mackerel, though the latter might swamp it.

Foie gras terrine with carta di musica was foie gras sandwiched between light, crispy bookends and the contrasting textures were a delight - I have a huge weakness for foie gras and it was thoroughly indulged on Tuesday.

Hot canapes were also excellent. The aparagus with courgette and tomato confit was extraordinary - I’ve never seen such tiny, thin asparagus; and the tiger prawn with salt and pepper was award winning - empirical proof that less is more. I seem to have missed out on the seared scallops, cauliflower & crisp chicken skin but it sounds so delicious, I shall try it at home.

Watch out for more canape meanderings next week, when Walpole British Luxury and Mint Hotel - Tower of London get an enthusiastic airing.

10 notes Tags: canapes dorchester wimbledon winner hospitality foie apple hot cold trout proof

Jun 26 '11

Baking - chocolate brownies

I made Paul A Young’s bing cherry and coconut brownies last week for much anticipated visit of esteemed niece Rachel. In face, as I don’t like cherries or dessicated coconut, I left both those ingredients out. Also, although he recommends 275g of 70% dark chocolate, I prefer one-third 80% and two-thirds 70%. Either way, they’re a huge success and deliciously chocolatey and sticky. I’ve never considered myself to be a good baker but Paul may have converted me. His recipes are marvellous and the book is coffee-table eye candy (for those who like to look but not cook).

2 notes Tags: sticky chocolate Paul A Young cherries coconut candy sticky baker

Jun 15 '11

Creative canapes

It’s amazing how some hotels still serve predictable canapes on pastry, biscuits and other carbs - the last thing anyone needs at night. Depressingly, one large luxury property, which celebrated a silver anniversary this week, did exactly that.

By contrast, at post-conference drinks at St. Ermin’s Hotel in London SW1, chef Hus Vedat made a superbly creative collection of eats, including balls of risotto with squid ink, goat’s cheese and coriander on rye (the pumpernickel type), rare beef cooked in a coating of dried and chopped New Forest ceps (delicious) and all-in-one fish and chips in batter. The latter showed award-winning creativity and tasted good too. I accept that these are not all carb-free but they were very tasty, looked good and showed great imagination. Full marks to Hus.

I look forward to the opening of the hotel’s Caxton Grill next week. Not only will there be excellent food but the wine list will be interesting too, including two English wines and a Spanish one from Hus’s wine estate-in-law, so to speak (wife’s family). These are all at the more expensive end of the list (£38.50 upwards) but house wines start at a more walletable £19.00.

As much food as possible will be local, or at least British; and fish will come from day boats, which land their catch the same day, rather than trawlers, which stay out for days and keep fish on ice until they return. All very promising.

9 notes Tags: canapes St Ermin's ceps fish and chips carbs caxton grill

Jun 10 '11

Spanish olive oil

When my team and I did an olive oil tasting a while ago, our No.1 olive oil was the Castillo de Canena - which smells of “sun and pepper” (Jane) and “tomatoes and greenhouses” (Rachel and I), and tastes “fruity” and of “nettles” (Sophie). We were tasting the Picual olive version from the Riserva Familia range, which comes from 120-year-old trees. Picual olives are small and produce a green oil.

Now, the company has introduced to the UK its First Day of Harvest oil made from Arbequina olives from 17-year-old trees. The range was created to celebrate that emotional moment when the harvester starts to reap the benefit of a year of hard work. 

The oil is lighter, a golden green, has a much stronger taste than its elder sister and is vegetal with a slightly bitter, peppery after taste. The quality is undeniable but I admit I’m not a fan of peppery oils, so my vote definitely goes to the Grande Dame Picua. However, when mixed with sherry vinaigre, a smidgeon of sugar and Dijon mustard, the First Day Arbequina did make a splendid dressing.

And one more thing, the First Day of Harvest oils are in an elegant dark red glass bottle and each year is marked with a different label. For that reason alone, it would make a great present - you wouldn’t even need to wrap it!

As a footnote, curiously, the tasting notes suggest that the Picual is the peppery number, which only goes to show how subjective these things are. Italian oils tend to get a better showing in this country and better recognition - people know some of the brand names. These two Spanish contenders knock the socks off anything you’ll find on most supermarket shelves. There’s more from the Castillo de Canena stable, though not yet available in the UK. Meanwhile, seek out what there is (Waitrose stocks it, among others).

1 note Tags: olive oil pepper olives harvest green peppery dressing waitrose

May 30 '11

Breakfast - and a lot of it!

I have been treated to breakfast quite a lot recently, ranging from full cooked at  Premier Inn (PI) County Hall, to eggs Benedict wherever I can find it. A mere £7.95 buys you access to a groaning buffet - berries, fruit salad, yoghourt, cereals, porridge, plus eggs, bacon, sausages, tomatoes, baked beans… you name it, it’s there; and it’s well cooked and tastes good. 

Next came eggs Benedict at the newly renovated The Stafford (London). Presentation was excellent but I forgot to ask for the eggs to be soft poached, so they weren’t. Some 60% of the hotel’s guests are American and Americans probably think soft poached eggs are far too high risk.

However, the new look is superb - a classic example of how to improve a hotel without driving a coach and horses through its personality. The lobby has been combined with an adjacent room, to create a larger, lighter space; and the sitting area and restaurant are now one, to considerable effect. When I was there nearly two weeks ago, there was quite a buzz - in an understated, 5-star kind of a way. If you can’t get there for breakfast, breeze in for a cup of tea.

And last weekend, Sophie & I took advantage of lunch for two voucher and ventured along to Hotel Verta’s Patrisey restaurant at Battersea heliport. In brief, food was OK, service was willing but a bit Heath Robinson. I asked for a fino sherry but there wasn’t any, so I had a Bloody Mary instead. This proved to be expensive (£10) and underwhelming - not a happy combination. Sophie asked for Manzanilla sherry and was given a Dry Martini. We came to the conclusion that the waiter had no idea what Manzanilla was and martini was the nearest option that began with M. It was well made but that was hardly the point.

My egg (singular - a good idea for a first course) Benedict was made with Parma ham, which was a success, though the hollandaise wasn’t very tasty; and Sophie enjoyed her smoked salmon.

My roast beef to follow was good quality and tender but my request for rare got translated into medium, which was disappointing. Sophie’s chicken fared better. We both had pudding, though in my mind, this is just an excuse for sweet wine and we had a Sauternes and a Muscat de Rivesaltes, both of which were great. We had enjoyed a Chiroubles les Farges Domaine Cheysson 2008 with the rest of the meal - Patrisey’s wine buyer knows his/her stuff.

The brunch, covered by our voucher, is excellent value - £17.00 for two courses, £19.50 for three - but our bill for £90 (two cocktails, bottle of red, two glasses sweet wine, coffee, reasonable tip) seemed quite high - or perhaps that was just a timely reminder that the alcohol is always the most expensive part of the bill. House wine next time.

Premier Inn gets No.1 vote for good value (and good food) and The Stafford gets best surroudings by far. I’d go back to both at the drop of an oeuf.

5 notes Tags: verta, egg benedict wine stafford premier inn value breakfast

May 3 '11

The Fish Place

The name of this restaurant says it all and it has the advantage of having great views over the Thames, situated close to Battersea heliport. The location may prove to be a mixed blessing: there isn’t much competition around there, so locals should be delighted but it’s not that easy to find. It is, however, was definitely worth the trip. 

Book a table upstairs to get best benefit of the views. Service is attentive without being pressing and the menu is varied, includes some non-fish dishes and the whole is supplemented by dishes of the day. 

Sophie and I had the house red, Caliterra Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 from Chile, which was enjoyably quaffable, and while we were waiting for our order, bread and butter with sea salt granules arrived. Warm bread and salty butter was a temptation too far. 

Sophie started with scallops, chorizo and pureed pea. The textures were lovely and the scallops beautifully cooked but the chorizo was too spicy for the other delicate flavours, which was a pity. I had black squid ink linguine with crab. The pasta perfect texture, al dent, but there was not a lot of crab. 

Presentation at The Fish Place is good and my lemon sole with asparagus, brown shrimps, beurre blanc and herb mashed potato was no exception.

To be honest, I was hard-pressed to identify the herbs in the potato but that is a small gripe when the rest of it tasted so good. Sophie’s steamed rainbow trout with braised white asparagus, clams and crustacean reduction also hit the mark. 

Our puddings made a wonderful end to the meal, as did the accompanying sweet wines. What particularly impressed us was the amount of thought the waiter put into pairing the wines with the desserts. He chose a muscat to go with Sophie’s lavender pannacotta and a Australian semillon to accompany my rhubarb parfait. The pannacotta was light and floral, though not obviously lavender; and my rhubarb parfait was just that, parfait! 

Although the restaurant was a bit quiet at first (us and two others), by 9.30pm, there were enough people to create an atmosphere. Given good, well prepared food, great views and matching service, The Fish Place has a lot going for it. We’ll be back. 

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