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Saturday, 20 August 2011

Simon Hulstone, the elephant, Torquay

Torquay, as everyone knows, is only famous for Fawlty towers, Agatha Christie and saga coach tours. Visit there however, and it is easy to see how it received the nickname ' the English Riviera'. An incredibly picturesque town in parts, the climate is definitely more like its continental namesake than most other seaside resorts in the UK.
Trying to add his name to the admittedly short list of famous residents of Torquay is Simon Hulstone of the elephant restaurant. Originally from Stoke, and at one time a resident of Coventry, Simon and his lovely wife Katy have chosen Torquay as the place to raise their young family (two daughters Tansy,5 and Cicely,4 are to be joined soon by another sister)
Although my photos don't really show it, Torquay was bathed in sunshine for most of the day I visited Simon in May.
I have known Simon for a long time- I wont say how long, but when we met I fitted in 32" trousers and Simon had long hair- and following a meal at Dinner by Heston we had enjoyed previously, I was invited to visit the elephant and sample the food Michelin have rewarded with a coveted star since 2006. This would be the first time eating Simon's food for me, and I was looking forward to it, having seen his dish at Kaiwecare which in my opinion was one of the best of the night.

Arriving in the restaurant, it is an inviting place, with several pictures of an elephant in various surroundings ( I presume around Torquay), as well as little elephant statues (one of which @satbains1 recently pinched and took photos of in some of the restaurants he visited on his latest culinary tour!) and images of the beast etched into tables. With a nod to the towns seaside resort fame, there are figures of crabs, seagulls and beach huts on the tables, giving each one an identity. (on my table was a pink beach hut with a seagull).
The real star of the show, as it should be in a restaurant of this standing, is the food. After a few nibbles- olives, and some fine bread with olive oil, butter or pork rillettes with crackling- we moved on to the opening course- Simon's famous 'beetroot, elderflower, vulscombe goats cheese and tansy'. This was the kaiwecare dish which stole the show, and it was a stunner. Each component was perfectly assembled, had clean flavour and was perfectly seasoned. The elderflower curd gave a hint of sweetness and the saltiness of the goats cheese added to the depth of flavour which can sometimes be tricky to balance with the potent beetroot. As good an opening course as I can remember, and a real indication of what lay ahead.

Moving on, I was next treated to 'Devon crab, cucumber, watermelon,fritter, ketchup, lovage'. Another highly visual dish, succulent white crab was assembled atop a piece of compressed watermelon and wrapped in a cucumber jelly with batons of radish. a cucumber ketchup decorated the plate and added umami to the experience. the fritters of brown crab meat were tasty in a mild way that is hard to achieve with brown crab, which can overpower the tamer white sometimes. The tartare sauce which the fritters rested on was the only unnecessary element of the dish for my liking, but even that was done perfectly.

After the crab came 'ham hock tortellini, toffee pea, salted pecans and shoots', a sweetened pea soup, with a deliciously moist ham tortellini sat in it. pea shoots garnished and added another fresh pea taste to the dish, and the salt pecans was a great touch, again balancing the experience.

Back to seafood for the next course-'bay scallop, cabbage, lemon confit, risotto'. a single but enormous scallop was the centrepiece, and it was exactly how I like my scallops- just caramelised on the outside, and still translucent inside. The beautiful mollusc was nestled on a lush, rich risotto and creamed savoy cabbage which was so finely shredded it must have cooked in moments, which would explain the fresh taste and perfect texture. The lemon confit giving just a hint of sharpness to help cut the creamy risotto, and the light lemon foam was the ideal 'sauce' for such a delicate dish.

Following Simon's brave effort in Lyon in the Bocuse d'or this January, I'm sure many of us are familiar with his fish dish for that competition, a variation of which was my next course- 'halibut, parsnip, lardo, verjus, spring onions, golden sultanas, flowers'. Obviously the dish for Bocuse was a lot more complex, but the similarities are there. I was fortunate to be one of the tasters at one of Simon's run through's before Lyon, and this was every bit as tasty. the un-named sweetbread beignet gave an earthy kick to the dish, and the verjus and the sultanas were a sweet-acidic marriage made in Devon... Seriously though, a lovely dish, and one which I am sure many will have watched being cooked on Saturday kitchen back in January!

getting fuller by the mouthful at this stage, I was glad of the slight pause in proceedings when Simon came out of the kitchen to have a bit of a chat. Despite having only spoken to him on a few occasions since working together all that time ago, chefs always stay the same and Simon is exactly as I remembered him- confident, borderline gobby and very giving. He has a great team working for him, and he is full of praise for them and how they helped him get through the periods where he struggled to get around the kitchen after his recent accident, where his beloved Lambretta had a blow-out and he fractured his leg and wrists. Must be a great boss too, as he has had his team together for a while now.

the break over, we continued with 'duck, celeriac, pak choi, spiced honey, pain d'epices'. The succulent duck breast had everything- depth of flavour, sweetness, crisp fat and a moist flesh. You have to gauge any chef by how well he does the simple things, and cooking duck is easy to get wrong, yet many chefs do just that. In this dish, Simon again shows respect for the ingredient and only does anything to them which improves, no technique for technique's sake here. The garnishes were all superbly executed and worked incredibly well on the plate, and even on the side dish of crispy duck tongue salad.

Desserts up next, and although simple looking, the 'cheesecake, passion fruit, honeycomb, citrus' was every bit as tasty as the rest of the meal, a lovely balance of sweet cheesecake, and acidic citrus and passion fruit, with the texture of the honeycomb just right for the creaminess.

My final course was 'treacle tart, marmalade, milk, clotted cream'. As Simon put it-'everyone likes different things with their treacle tart, so we give them the choice'. Again, technically spot-on, each component was good, from the silky smooth milk sorbet, the textured marmalade and the 'presumably' local clotted cream to the tart itself. pureed to remove the texture of the breadcrumbs, this had all the flavour I remember my Nan's treacle tart having with fondness.

All together, this was a very accomplished meal, and the food of a happy chef with a strong brigade behind him. Putting our connection to one side, knowing that the dishes I tasted were directly from the menu and not specials assembled to impress shows the talent here. Simon and the Elephant can only keep growing, as his reputation spreads and more people realise that there is more to Torquay than Basil Fawlty.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Lunch at 'The Pass' at South Lodge (Matt Gillan)

Sometimes lunch is an inconsequential meal- a grabbed sandwich, a nibble on the run, a few leftovers from the previous nights supper- Sometimes its a planned event, whether large scale or a small meeting over a brief meeting, and sometimes its an event, an event that involves a long journey and some fiddling around of schedule and re-planning of other events.
Such an event was what I experienced last Friday, at Matt Gillan's impressive open plan restaurant within South Lodge Hotel nr Horsham.
Lots of restaurants nowadays have the 'chef's table' where you can experience the heat, passion and occasionally swearing that the professional kitchen offers. Matt and South Lodge have gone one better, and created a twenty two seat restaurant where EVERY table is in the restaurant. Banquette seating faces the 'action', and the opposing chairs on the other side of the table face a bank of screens which flick between images being shown from three separate areas of the kitchen, and also swivel so the diner can inspect the action first hand between courses.
The design is modern, yet feels in keeping with the age of the original building (there are two recent additional annexes at the hotel) with the clever use of the old building exterior walls which are clearly visible and indeed separate section of the kitchen like centuries old office partitions.
Below the kitchen is a fantastic private room, with a wine theme and feel, accentuated by a first for me- a wine vending machine! bottles are connected into chilled sections, and a card is obtained from reception where you can buy credits and choose which of the perfectly maintained and chilled wines to try.
My original idea to eat at The Pass came about through a late night chat with Matt on twitter, where I realised the hotel and restaurant are very near my brother's home in Havant. A plan quickly hatched around the idea of killing two birds- nice meal and family visit- with one stone.
Having been busy with one thing and another, it took a while to organise the trip, so long in fact that by the time I finalised my plans it turned out my brother and his family were on holiday when I went. typical me.
Anyway, it was all made worthwhile the moment I stepped out onto the terrace at South Lodge- perfectly manicured lawns, great views and a real welcoming feeling from the staff-a genuine glow of people happy in their surroundings and positions. after ordering a quick aperitif I was greeted by the man himself, Matt Gillan. We had a brief chat- his restaurant already had diners in it so I didn't want to take up too much of his time, but he proved to be a charming as well as a talented chap.

After our chat, Matt invited me to try a bespoke tasting menu, featuring some new dishes the team had been trying to perfect recently. Having seen a few photos on twitter of the trial runs I was pleased with the honour of being the first person outside the kitchen to try these dishes. Once sat in the comfort of The Pass, I was presented with some canapés- cheese sablé, truffled goats cheese mousse, parsnip crisps and bread-sticks. these were all impeccable, and it was interesting to have three separate canapés which were all compatible and worked so well together.
My first course was an amusing amuse(!) of Caesar salad, or at least Matt's interpretation of it. this was not the tired version of an old classic, but a complete re-invention using the components in a different presentation- diced iceberg lettuce, pancetta and croutons lay in the bottom of the bowl, topped with a traditional Caesar dressing, then a surprisingly tasty lettuce foam, made using a nitrogen cream whipper, and topped with some parmesan crisps. a clever re think and a tasty start, which wasn't too overpowering. On a personal level, I would have valued having a single plump oily anchovy involved, but I didn't feel the dish suffered from the lack of it.

Next was another slight twist on a classic, a tomato and mozzarella salad. The twists came in the shape of cherry tomatoes in a couple of different guises- completely fresh and semi dried, some olive 'soil' which was scattered liberally over the salad, some delicate bocconcino (small mozzarella balls) were also decoratively placed around the plate, as were celery leaves and thin strips of celery, and some baby purple basil. the final garnish was a perfectly gauged celery sorbet. I say perfectly gauged, because it was just the right balance of sweet and savoury, and had just enough flavour of the vegetable without being overpowering.

The next dish was one which i had seen Matt tweeting about only a couple of days prior to my visit- quail breast and leg with pak choi, chicory and poached quail egg. the picture i had seen had not done it justice, and the flavours of the accompaniments were strong enough to make what can be a bland bird into a champion fowl. The leg had been almost completely de-boned, leaving a tiny but perfectly formed drumstick, and the breast was as close to just done as you can get-and I mean that as a compliment. The egg was beautifully smooth and creamy, and the red onion marmalade it was paired with was sharp and sweet in equal proportions, as it should be.

The next step on my culinary journey was another newbie, the playful crab, orzo and sweetcorn salad. the sweetcorn came in two forms, a coarse purée and smoked kernels. amongst the kernels were some pickled shimeji mushrooms and some diced lemon segments, both of which gave a nice acidic touch to the dish. the orzo and crab were compacted into two balls, rather like, as Matt put it, the beginnings of arancini, and topped with truffle 'glass', crisp clear sheets which had small dice of black truffle encased within. a great dish of two gentle flavours- the crab and mushrooms-mixed with and held together by the larger, more purposeful flavour of the truffle. great textures also helped make this a memorable part of the meal.

At this stage of my meal, I made a note in my little black book/iphone about the children's meals on the table next to me. one of the little girls had ordered melon, and the team in the kitchen had arranged her fruit to resemble a face, with features created from other fruits-grape eyes etc. a nice touch, which the family definitely appreciated, and I only mention to show the down to earth approach at 'The Pass'. No food snobbery, despite their many accolades. nice to see.

Anyway, as the melon 'face' was presented, my next course was being assembled by Matt and his junior sous chef Hanna. For what was essentially my main course, I had pork-fillet and belly, married with a black pudding cannelloni, garlic confit, broad beans and aubergine caviar. the pork was again cooked perfectly, and the thin strip of crackling carried a lot more flavour than such a sized piece should. all the individual garnishes worked well on their own, I am still undecided if they were complete matches for each other. Technically a good dish, perhaps overshadowed by the other courses, and although far from a failure, not my favourite.

My final savoury course was essentially a cheese course, a Barkham blue cheese bon-bon, with red onion marmalade, fig and apple jam, grapes, apple discs and parsley cress. lots of light fruity flavours to balance the creamy saltiness of the cheese. Obviously Matt didn't know this, but Barkham is one of my favourite blue cheeses, and the fig and apple combination is one which I favour with blues, so this dish was a real winner for me. again the presentation was stunning, but not purely aesthetic, showing the individual fruits off well and giving a lovely sense of the garden.

The first dessert was brought to my table by Matt himself, seeing as he was only four yards away when he finished it. As it was placed down, i was given the description "fennel and raspberry- that's all I'm saying" which gave me some detective work to do. It was obviously a brulee, and it had a distinct flavour of the aniseed vegetable about it. The crisp caramelised layer was wafer thin and very sweet. the raspberry came in the sorbet and a few dried pieces of the fruit. A thin slice of crisp candied fennel also adorned the top of the brulee crown giving height and an elegant sleek finish. the only part i failed to recognise was the tiny blobs of lemon curd dotted on the top, which gave a subtle sweet acidity to bring it all together. Matt said that was the first time the fennel brulee had left the kitchen, and he had been a bit nervous about it, but he had no need to be, it was a stunning dessert, and well crafted from a tricky vegetable to incorporate into sweets- I know, I've tried!.

Lastly, but by no means least came the rice parfait, a perfectly spherical ball of smooth rice parfait coated in what I guess was ground toasted rice, so fine it was powdery, yet still carrying a rice flavour. this was accompanied by a raspberry jelly, white chocolate ganache with chocolate popping candy and basil ice cream. again, I'm undecided whether these all worked together, but they certainly weren't horrible. a strawberry coulis/ jam also made an appearance, and it helped to marry the lot together. the visual appearance was a nice touch, all the components lay on a piece of toasted marzipan, which also gave a delicate almond flavour.

All that remained was to thank my hosts, Matt and the awesome Dominic, and to have a cheeky earl grey with some lovely petit fours, vanilla truffles and passion fruit pate de fruits.
all in all, a really good meal, with some amazing dishes and great touches all throughout. I can strongly recommend The Pass, and I shall definitely be returning- the next time I visit my brother!