La Maison du Chocolat at Le Balcon

Last week was Chocolate Week and, as part of the celebrations, French chocolatier La Maison du Chocolat launched an exclusive gastronomic experience at The Balcon. Housed in Sofitel Hotel St James, Le Balcon is a French brasserie in the centre of historical London, just a few minutes walk from St James’s Park and Buckingham Palace.

I was kindly invited to taste and review the luxury three-course menu and, I must say, it was the highlight of my week!

Now, I love hotels. Even more, I love 5-star hotels. I love Art Deco architecture. I love chocolate. And I love getting out of my office on a Thursday and spend two hours in a nice restaurant eating a gourmet meal with a friend! It was just the perfect opportunity for me.

I was expecting original combinations of ingredients and delicious food, which I found, but I was surprised to discover that the dishes were also filling and satisfying, like proper ‘comfort food’. I’m glad to read that Judith of Mostly About Chocolate felt the same about the menu being filling and good value for money.

The location was of course stunning: bright, elegant, spacious, crowded enough not to make you feel lonely, but not too much to get noisy. A formal setting, yet one where you immediately feel at ease.

The service was impeccable and a special thank you goes to the restaurant manager who recommended us two wonderful wines to accompany our courses: a Sauvignon Blanc Pouilly-Fumé Villebois Loire 2011 and a Chenin Blanc Coteaux du Layon ‘Les 4 Villages’ 2007.

The menu was created by the Executive Chef of Le Balcon, Vincent Ménager, and developed together with la Maison du Chocolat, who provided the chocolate used for the three dishes.

We started off with Seared Sea Scallops with Quinoa, Roasted Cocoa Nibs, Rocket Salad, Cocoa Dressing, Sweet Orange Tuile.

Second course was Roasted Rabbit Saddle with Black Olive and Rosemary, Butternut Squash Purée, Black Trumpets, Girolles Mushroom and Chocolate Mole Sauce.

For dessert, we had Molten Chocolate and Ginger Cake with Coconut and Saffron Cream.

As a final treat, we tasted some chocolate truffles by La Maison du Chocolat.

La Maison du Chocolat menu is available at The Balcon for lunch and dinner, from 9th to 23rd October at £35 per head (drinks not included).

I really loved the menu and I find the price a fair one, considering the quality/quantity of food, location and service. You still have time to try it, don’t miss the chance!

Disclaimer: I was a guest at the restaurant to review the menu. All views are my own.

Tuscan Cookery with Tuscany Now

Last month I attended my first ever cooking class, a Tuscan Cookery workshop for food bloggers organised by Tuscany Now and hosted at the Open Kitchen in Hoxton.

Chef Anna Bini was our teacher for the evening.

Anna has got 60 years of experience in Tuscan cuisine, she manages three restaurants in Paris (Casa Bini) and runs cooking classes in both France and Italy. She is charismatic, strong, smart, funny and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her. She reminded me so much of my grandmother: the way she talks to anyone despite not speaking English, sharing her knowledge and experience. I also have a soft spot for Tuscan accent, so it was lovely to hear her speak! :)

We started the evening with a Tuscan aperitivo of red and white wine, cured ham and salami, pecorino cheese and taralli crackers.

After the aperitivo, we moved upstairs to the kitchen. I loved the space, as we were each assigned to an individual space with all the ingredients and tools ready to start cooking.

Here we met Anna, who demonstrated us how to prepare a traditional and rustic Tuscan dish: Courgette Flan with Chicken Liver Pâté.

There were a few “oohs” from the audience of bloggers during the demo: at the sight of precious (and impossible to find in UK) courgette flowers being diced, we all let out a small cry! I was also surprised by the quantities of butter used in both the courgette flan and the chicken livers. Finally, I was dubious about using stock instead of salt, as I find it hard to judge the right amount to use and would risk over-seasoning. I guess that is not an issue when you have 60 years of cooking experience! ;)

This courgette flan is a great recipe idea for a dinner party: perfect as a side dish to both meat and fish. I also enjoyed the chicken livers: I wouldn’t have ordered this in a restaurant, but I was surprised by how tender and tasty they were.

Ingredients

For the flan

* 8 courgettes with their flower
* 300g béchamel sauce
* 50g unsalted butter
* 50g grated parmesan cheese
* 2 eggs
* Nutmeg
* Breadcrumbs
* 2 spoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
* 2 cloves garlic
* 1 bunch of fresh parsley or mint
* 1 stock cube

For the pâté

* 500g chicken livers
* 20g unsalted butter
* 2 spoons olive oil
* 1 beef stock cube
* 1 finely chopped onion
* 1/2 glass white wine
* 2 anchovy fillets
* Juice of 1/2 squeezed lemon

Preparation

Wash the courgettes and dice them, cut the pistils off the flowers and shred them into small pieces. In a pan put 1/2 glass of water, the butter, stock cube, diced courgettes and flowers, garlic and shredded parsley/mint.

Cover the pan and cook on a high flame for 5 minutes. Take the lid off and keep stirring so that the liquid evaporates.

Once the courgettes are cooked, chop the mixture finely and mix with the béchamel, add a pinch of nutmeg, 2 eggs and mix carefully.

Add the grated parmesan at the end. Grease an oven mould (preferably use one with a hole in the middle) and dust with breadcrumbs, pour the courgette mix in and bake in the oven at 220 °C for approximately 30 minutes until it is golden.

Wash the chicken livers thoroughly and cut them into small pieces. Put them in a pan with the butter, olive oil, stock cube and onion. Sautée on medium flame for approximately 15 minutes with the lid on. Take off the lid and turn the gas to maximum and keep turning and sautéing them.

When they are nicely done add a tiny amount of wine and keep turning them; add more wine this way 2 or 3 times until it is finished. Add the anchovies and the lemon juice at the end.

Tip: Don’t add the lemon during the cooking and don’t stir the livers too hard, as this will make them mash. I might have been “told off” by Anna at this point, as I eventually burnt the meat! :P

When the flan is ready and has cooled down a little, flip it over on a plate and serve it with the pâté in the centre.

As part of the Tuscan Cookery Challenge, we were asked to recreate this dish at home, adding our own twist to the recipe. My re-interpretation of the Tuscan dish was: Courgette Baskets with Fried Mozzarella Balls.

I liked Anna’s flan, but I felt that the courgette taste was too strong (troppo saporito!) and there was something missing to balance it. I decided to add pastry to create a crunchy texture and transform the vegetable flan into a mini-cake.

Using the same recipe, I made a courgette mixture to fill little baskets of filo pastry. I used filo, instead of puff or shortcrust pastry, as I wanted a soft shell case that held the courgettes together, without covering their flavour. I also replaced the béchamel sauce with single cream, to keep the mixture light.

As my fiancé is vegetarian, I replaced the chicken liver pâté with Fried Mozzarella Balls (this vegetarian idea was proposed by Anna during the cookery class, though I missed her demo so I used my own recipe here).

Courgette Filo Baskets

I followed Anna’s recipe, reducing the dose to one big courgette (unfortunately I couldn’t find the flowers) and adjusted the other ingredients accordingly. I used very little butter and olive oil, and stewed the courgette in little water with 1/4 stock cube.

I cut six squares of filo pastry and laid them onto the cases of a muffin baking tray. I brushed the pastry baskets with milk and poured the courgette mixture inside them. Cooking time in the oven at 180 °C was about 20-25 minutes.

Fried Mozzarella Balls

For two people, I used one mozzarella (150gr) cut into eight pieces. In three bowls, prepare: salted flour, 1 beaten egg, breadcrumbs with chopped parsley. Coat the mozzarella in the flour, then dip in the egg and finally coat it with breadcrumbs. Fry it hot olive oil for 3 minutes and leave to dry on a plate covered with kitchen paper.

I prepared and cooked the mozzarella balls while the courgette baskets were in the oven, so overall it took me less than one hour to prepare this meal. Reducing the quantities of butter/oil and removing the béchamel made the dish lighter and healthier, while replacing the chicken with mozzarella made it suitable to vegetarians.

The event was sponsored by Tuscany Now, a company specialised in the rental of luxury holiday villas in Tuscany. They also organise personal cookery classes at the villas, with chefs such as Anna Bini, to create a true Tuscan experience.

Special thanks to Propellernet for inviting me to this event.

Roast Sunday with Ben Spalding – Day 2

Two weeks ago I blogged about Roast Sunday, the pop-up restaurant with chef Ben Spalding. After seeing my photos on Mondomulia, the event organizer Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish) invited me to attend the next lunch as official photographer!

As you can imagine, I was very excited about taking photographs at such a cool event and being “behind the scenes” for the whole day, doing what I enjoy the most: photographing! Well, that and eating good food as well!

Highlights of the 2nd Roast Sunday were: the sun on Maltby Street, tender Belly of Land Race Pig (cooked overnight), giant Yorkshire puddings, custard and later gravy chugging contests, hot Jam Roly Poly with ice-cream.

I was there for the first and second sitting (12pm and 2pm) and snapped more than 700 pictures! After several days of editing in Lightroom, I prepared a selection of about 200 best shots. 42 of these have made it to the Young & Foodish Facebook page and you can view them here.

I have prepared an even smaller selection of my favourite photos – hope you’ll like them and all those hours of looking at roasts and puddings will have been worthwhile!

The 3rd and last Roast Sunday is this Sunday 10th of June and will be hosted at Redhook restaurant in Farringdon. The menu will include Kentish Ranger Chicken and Banoffee Pie, and the 2pm and 4pm sittings also include wine pairing (highly recommended!)

For more info and tickets, click here.

The Cornish Grill – at Redhook

Ever dreamed of eating a Sunday roast of fresh Cornish meat cooked in a stunning location by London’s top chefs? That’s what the Cornish Grill Sunday Roast at Redhook is about!

The Cornish Grill is a pop-up restaurant founded by Matthew Chatfield, a native Cornish from a family of farmers, who supplies fresh meat and fish daily to Michelin restaurants in London. The first pop-up grill events were started last summer as a way to make the Cornish produce accessible to more people and they were hosted at the Manor Arms pub in Clapham. Online reviews say it was a very informal but delicious affair!

It has since “upgraded” to the elegant Redhook restaurant in Farringdon and it showcases rotating guest chefs from the Michelin starred restaurants that Matt is a supplier for. With a 5-course menu changing every time, fresh quality ingredients and the best chefs, it’s not hard to see why Cornish Grill is a huge success!



I attended the Sunday roast on 26th of February, which was prepared by chef Carl Clarke of The English Laundrette and seafood pop-up Rock Lobsta. At arrival we were greeted with a glass of Ruby Red Royale (an aperitif of vodka, grapefruit juice and elderflower) and unlimited access to the Grey Goose Bloody Mary buffet.

I booked tickets with a friend for a late seating at 14:00; worried I might not be able to eat everything, I skipped breakfast and arrived hungry. The restaurant was busy and many people were standing at the bar waiting for their table. I was happy to wait at the bar, drinking Bloody Mary, taking pictures and chatting to a few Twitter friends. Only around 14:45 we sat down at our table, not knowing that the wait for the food was going to be much longer…

We nibbled on a basket of Sunday Pub Snacks, which was filled with Billy Franks extra-special jerky, from 40 day dry-aged Cornish Galloway beef, Smoked Treacle Bread, Cornish salt, whipped butter.

After a long time, we received the starter: Smoked Looe Scallops with fresh curds, broad bean shoots, crispy onions, lime and lavender vinegar. Alas, I don’t eat shell-fish and, although I made an exception and tasted the scallops out of pure curiosity, I left most of my portion to my friend. By then, I was properly starving and chasing the poor waitress for our roast!

The main course arrived around 16:00 and I almost literally threw myself onto the plate, stopping myself only a few seconds to take the photos! It consisted of Wild Fallow Deer with rosehip jam, rape and ramsons, shin and raspberry stout pudding; Yorkshire Pudding Roasters in Pitt Cue pork fat and roots with East London honey.

Everything was absolutely delicious, from the tender venison meat to the incredibly tasty potatoes and the sweet roasted carrots and parnsips.


For the dessert, like everything else on the menu, Carl used ingredients from Cornwall. The Sea Buckthorn Posset, a creamy pudding of jelly, sorbet and chocolate crumbs, is made with sea-buckthorn berries that grow on the Cornish coasts.


Overall it was a great meal and I really loved the location and the convivial atmosphere, unfortunately the delays did kill my enthusiasm slightly as by the time I received the roast I was so hungry that I gulped it down rather than savoured it! Previous events of the Cornish Grill have not been so busy, I was told, so I am sure the long wait at our event was only a hiccup that will be resolved next time.

The next Cornish Grill will be on Sunday 1st April. For more information, follow @Redhooklondon and @Cornishgrill on Twitter.

Read an informative presentation of Carl Clarke’s Roast dinner on Noshable.


Read more about Carl Clarke at Redhook on Edible Experiences