Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Memorable Meals - Part 2

No doubt you've all been on tenterhooks awaiting my top two most memorable meals, so here goes! 

2. The Sportsman, Kent, England 2008

It was quite literally a toss of a coin between this meal and the number 1.

Faversham is and hour or so from London Victoria on the train, and a further 20 minutes by taxi takes you Seasalter on the Kent coast. It may seem like a lot of hassle for a pub lunch, but this is no ordinary pub.

The Sportsman, on the face of it, is a modest old boozer located right on the beach facing into the North Sea. It is surrounded by marsh where the lambs they serve graze happily. This is one of the key features of Stephen Harris's cooking. The ingredients he uses are literally on his doorstep and are some of the best you will find anywhere in the world.
The Sportsman, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent.
When compared to some of the more elaborate meals I've enjoyed, the cooking at The Sportsman may seem simple. The acid test for me though, is that six years later I still remember every bite of every dish as if I tasted it yesterday. 

Their tasting menu is available only on weekdays and as we were there on a Saturday, we chose off the á la carte. To start, I ate one of the best dishes I've ever tasted. Their spider crab risotto packs an incredibly intense shellfish flavour from the brown meat, offset by mild sweetness of fresh white meat. The balance of salt, savour, sweetness and the almost bitter intensity results in a flavour hit that is not easily forgotten.

Spider crab risotto at The Sportsman, Kent
The food here is very much produce driven and the abundance of seafood on their doorstep means the ingredient quality is spectacular. My main course of grilled slip sole with seaweed butter needed nothing else. Perfectly cooked fish less than three hours old with a sauce which enhanced it's subtle flavour. Seems simple, but I've never encountered anything like it before or since. 

Sole with seaweed butter at The Sportsman, Kent

Meat dishes and desserts proved to be at the same impeccable standard as the fish, and the atmosphere was so warm and welcoming that it was a wrench to head off for our train. 

They make their own butter, ham, chorizo, salt & cheese, among other things. These guys were creating menus from local, sustainable ingredients years before Noma made the concept fashionable. 

The Sportsman won a richly deserved Michelin star a few years ago. On the basis that two stars are awarded for food which is worth a special journey, I can't think of a more fitting candidate.

1. Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain 2009

There are few high end restaurants in the world that divide opinion quite like Mugaritz. It seems that people either love it or hate it. As you can probably guess, we loved it.

San Sebastian is one of my favourite places on the planet, and a great destination for a short break. Whether it's the superb pintxo bars of the old town or any one of the plethora or multi starred restaurants, it's a must visit for food and wine lovers.

Mugaritz is located outside the town of Errentia, about 20 minutes by taxi from the city. The quiet farmhouse type location gives little away about the cutting edge molecular gastronomy going on inside. 
The exterior of Mugaritz, Errentia, Spain.
Before dinner we had champagne and snacks in the garden and were immediately impressed by the staff. Although extremely professional, they were relaxed and seemed to really enjoy their work. After their signature "edible stones" with aioli, we were shown into the calm, yet impressive dining room.
"Edible stones" at Mugaritz
The dining room at Mugaritz
We chose one of their tasting menus with matching wines and settled in for what was to be a stellar experience from start to finish. The professional yet friendly service continued throughout and the staff made us feel like they sincerely wanted us to have a night to remember.

Chef Andoni Adriuz is a disciple of El Bulli and since he opened Mugaritz in 1998 has pushed the boundaries of modern cuisine. His techniques are widely used now but he has continued to evolve and is still at the forefront of his genre. 

What impressed us most about his cooking was that in addition to being visibly spectacular, the flavours were bold and delicious. This was no exercise in style over substance.

Every morsel we ate surprised and delighted us in equal measure,  but a couple of dishes stand out in my mind. A "surf and turf" of sorts using crayfish, pig tails and Iberico ham was a carnival of flavour & texture, and their signature chocolate dish was the best I've ever tasted. 

Pork & crayfish at Mugaritz
The signature "Chocolate Bubbles" dessert at Mugaritz
There was a playful side to some of the dishes with items on the plate turning out to be radically different than they appeared. This created an interaction between staff and guests and helped foster the relaxed and convivial atmosphere. 

On a tour of the kitchen I will never forget how calm and quiet it was, especially given the number of chefs. Mugaritz seems like a great place to work, and Andoni Adriuz seems like a genuinely nice man. In my opinion, this is one of the key factors which made our experience so unforgettable.

As I mentioned at the outset, the most memorable meals are usually the result of multiple factors falling into place, but at the core of every single one are the basics....great food & service. Trends may come and go, but these fundamentals will never go out of fashion.

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