Monday, December 28, 2009

Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley

Without doubt, Marcus Wareing serves up the best fine-dining experience in London. It is a constant source of amazement that he has yet to gain the third Michelin star that other - less accomplished, but more famous - restaurants have obtained despite their rather lacklustre offers. I've been lucky enough to eat at Marcus Wareing's Berkeley premises on several occasions, both before and after the much-publicized split with Gordon Ramsey, and have been a fan of his ever since first encountering his food at L'Oranger. My most recent trip, just before Christmas 2009, was nothing less than excellent, in every respect.

As always, the experience starts with being ushered into a deep sofa, being greeted with a champagne cocktail and a set of exquisite little canapés (fois gras and miniature duck spring rolls on this occasion). My partner and I opted for the tasting menu, consisting of seven courses, with amuse bouche to start and truffles and coffee to end. The surroundings in the restaurant are designed to focus on the food - no background noise except the hum of other other diner's conversation and lights subtly dimmed. The whole room feels like it probably consumed most of the UK's annual velvet production, with the result that you eat while slumped and cosseted - a most agreeable way to eat a glorious meal.

The menu opened with an amuse bouche of mushroom soup with a luscious truffle foam served in a shot glass. The light foam and rich soup made a deeply savoury mushroom cappuccino that acted as a perfect opener. This was quickly followed by the first course - fois gras in a sweet and spicy cookie-crumb coat, served with yoghurt and a blackberry coulis. Although slightly wary at first, this rather odd mix worked spectacularly well, with the tartness of the blackberry cutting through the richness of the fois gras and the yoghurt mellowing the whole flavour. Bizarrely, it was almost like eating fois gras muesli and would definitely not have been out of place in a brunch or breakfast menu. As someone who is not a natural fan of fois gras, I've always been impressed by Wareing's use of this ingredient and his establishment is the only place where I actively look forward to a fois gras course.

A small dish of brown crab and marinated mackerel followed, accompanied by slivers of chestnut, pear and chargrilled potato bread. For me, this was the only course that did not work well - although the combination of pear, potato bread and crab worked well, the chestnut added little and felt like it was forced into the dish. As for the mackerel, it was not marinated particularly well and it simply tasted like a piece of mackerel sashimi, which was out of place with the rest of the menu. The next course, roasted quail with a white onion fondue, soon banished thoughts of the limp mackerel. The quail was light and tasty - avoiding the greasiness that is often prevalent with small game birds.

As usual, the scallop course was excellent - with the smoke and spice of chorizo and the unctuousness of a vanilla sauce providing a kaleidoscope of flavours as a background to the sweetness of the perfectly caramelized scallop. Just a little more chorizo would have made this dish soar, but this is really a trivial criticism. Having had lamb on a previous visit, and not liking pigeon, I opted to go off menu for the Aberdeen Angus fillet as my main course. The meat was superb, cooked medium rare and served with a crisp rosti and incredibly potent jus. My partner opted for the pork belly, which he said was also fantastic, with ribbons of crunchy, caramelised fat.

A pre-dessert of tiny, pretty gateaux formed the backdrop to one of the restaurant's real star dishes (one I have had on every visit so far), a warm chocolate moelleux with banana jelly and banana ice cream. This is, without doubt, the most chocolate-rich dessert every invented by man - akin to eating pure cocoa powder dissolved in clotted cream. The banana helps cut through the richness of the chocolate, but I wonder if it is time for a change - maybe a dark fruit coulis (or even a citrus coulis) would be worth a try? The truffles, served in something akin to a Louis XV chandelier, were also excellent, as usual.

Every detail of the service was seamless, from the opening welcome to being shown out of the door. With no notice the kitchens even managed to present me with a small birthday cake, an elegant chocolate covered nougat with beautiful writing in chocolate on a glass stand. (Thanks to my partner spotting another client with one and asking for one for me!). Another thoroughly brilliant exposition of cooking at by far the best dining room in London. Someone has to give him that third star...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Palazzo Sasso

The tiny town of Ravello sits in the hills above Amalfi and has views that Gore Vidal described as 'the best in the world'. Although I wouldn't go this far (being more impressed by wild landscapes), the view is certainly ravishing - the craggy limestone coast snaking hazily into the distance with numerous picture postcard Italian towns and villages, each with their own miniature duomo, nestling in the valleys below. Palazzo Sasso has some of the finest views in Ravello, and the beautifully landscaped terraces at the back of the hotel provide a relaxing backdrop to gawp at the scene below while sipping a glass of decent local vino.

The hotel ( has a Moorish look to it - high arched windows, geometric designs and numerous atria and open courtyards. Cars are banned from the centre of Ravello so the transfer drops you a few paces down the street: the first impression that you get walking down the narrow, stone-lined alleys is one of comfortable genteel decay. Numerous grand buildings and villas surround you, with just enough shabbiness that one might call it genuine character. This is definitely a good thing as Ravello feels comfortable with itself - and ruins of older villas dot the town, mixed with newer, though still ramshackle buildings - there is no aspic preserved part and it feels lived in, rather than spruced-up for the hell of it. The hotel looks rather unpretentious externally, but once through the door you fall headlong into a very discreet and commodious luxury.

Check-in was flawless, the staff helpful and friendly and we were quickly whisked to our room and a complimentary bottle of the local fizz. Rooms are decent-sized and ours had a small balcony that we could sit on with the full spread of the Amalfi Coast below us. The enormous bed came with not only a pillow menu (which seems to be becoming increasing popular in similar establishments), but also with a sheet menu, which included satin and silk. Rooms had wooden floors and were simply decorated, which gave them a real feeling of space and coolness, making them a good retreat when the the weather became too hot or muggy. Housekeeping was also seamless - incredibly discreet and efficient - we never once had to wait while our room was made - and room service was prompt and courteous at all times. Public areas of the hotel were tastefully decorated with subdued works of art and the ground floor was perfumed by pomegranate oils, which gave the whole place a rather indulgent air. The sound of running water from small fountains and waterfalls accompanied the view when sitting in the open air restaurant or on one of the terraces (there were several of these, one boasting an heated open pool).

One reason we chose Palazzo Sasso was that it's restaurant, Rossellini's, boast two Michelin stars and service claimed by Condé Nest to be among the best in the world. However, we found the restaurant to be a bit of a disappointment. In some cases food was similar in standard to that we have had elsewhere - my crab ravioli was competent and the turbot in black bread was interesting (though stu's tuna serving was tiny, if good) - but nothing particularly special and certainly not as exciting as anything we have had in other two star venues. Service was generally competent, if somewhat bland (particularly the maitre 'd, who seemed to have had a charisma by-pass), until near the end of the meal, when it went askew (it took over 30 mins to get our bill). The restaurant also doubles as the breakfast room and this mixing of functions didn't really work as the light airy look you want at breakfast doesn't really work at dinner time - the bright lighting, hard floors and pumped muzak (similar to that in your average shopping centre elevator) really destroyed any attempt at an atmosphere. As a result, we only ate there once and explored other places in Ravello when it came to dinner time.

Ravello itself is charming - perhaps the perfect idea of a small Italian hill town. The duomo is imposing if unusually plain, and dominates the central square from which radiates a small warren of narrow steep lanes. The town is very small and possesses only a couple of local restaurants, which do a roaring trade as a consequence. The town prides itself on its classical music festival (which we'd just missed), but does regular concerts throughout the year in the Villa Rufolo (famous for its gardens, which we didn't visit). We did manage a night time concert (a piano recital, tickets arranged for us very efficiently by the hotel), which was entertaining if not of the highest standard (I know this is snobbish, but living in London spoils you in terms of top-flight international performances). Aside from sitting in the town square with a cappuccino, we also tried two local restaurants. Cumpa Cosimo, a great family owned and run trattoria, presided over by a formidable and exceptionally entertaining matriarch, provided terrific charcuterie and pasta. On the opposite side of the piazza was Vittoria, where we had excellent pizzas and possibly one of the best meals I've had in Italy, a beef fillet flavoured with sharp blackberries and garlic (a surprisingly good mix).

We also spent some time out of Ravello - Amalfi is an exceptionally pretty town and well worth wandering around for a few hours. Pompeii is spectacular and the walk up Vesuvius allowed me to notch up my first visit to a famous volcano (plumes of sulphurous steam included). Unfortunately, without a car, it's quite difficult to get from Ravello to Pompeii (even though it's not too far: public transport takes around 3 hours each way), which means you have to rely on a tour (which we did), meaning limited time, or on a private car (hiring taxis was outrageously expensive, and made London black cabs look like they offer a subsidised social service). I'd suggest if in this part of the world and Pompeii is high on your list either visit it from Naples before heading to the coast or stay somewhere on the coast where public transport to Pompeii is easier (e.g. Sorrento).

Palazzo Sasso can certainly be proud of itself and earns everyone of its five stars - a beautiful venue with excellent standards. Sadly, Rossellini's did not live up to expectations, but even here a little more invention with the food and, in particular, a boost to the service and ambiance could really allow the restaurant to fly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Welcome to the blog

In this blog I plan to review those hotels, restaurants and other establishments that I've been fortunate enough to visit as part of my travel around the world. Most of my journeys are work-related, but I'm also fortunate enough to have vacationed in a number of interesting and exotic places. My intention is to give a guide to those things I've enjoyed and cautionary tales about those things I haven't. I don't intend to act as a travel agent so I won't be providing reams of background information on each establishment or details of rates/how to book etc, though an up-to-date URL will be given where available. I hope it's of some help to you in finding nice places to eat and stay while you bustle around the globe.