Heavenly Pleasures

Beautiful dim sum selection at Hutong Shard. Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Beautiful dim sum selection at Hutong Shard. Photo credit: Paul Winch-Furness

Southwark Cathedral was originally built without a spire. Now one thousand years later, rising from the dank depths of the Thames far into the skies next door to the cathedral, is a modern spire, an oversized glass splinter pointing to heaven. The Shard: Western Europe’s tallest building and a place of worship for lovers of modern architecture and delicious food.

Number Two Son is studying engineering and likes eating dim sum more than anything in the world. I know nothing about engineering -cannot change a plug, loathe lego etc. To show support for his choice of subject, rather than to feign an implausible interest in mechanics and drawings of the insides of things, I decided to take him to an amazing feat of engineering, in which he could stuff himself with dumplings. We went to Hutong -a fabulous Chinese restaurant located on the 33rd floor of The Shard to try their special lunchtime dim sum menu. I felt this would be the best way to inspire him to work hard for his exams.

There is something comforting about being high in the air. I suppose looking down on a world in which we spend so much time scurrying about, quite literally gives us perspective. Visiting the great heights of The Shard is the best opportunity in London to peer down at the bustling streets of the city -but from the very top, it is actually pretty difficult to see anything. I recommend heading to the 33rd floor, parking yourself next to a window and belt-feeding delicious dumplings into yourself, whilst surveying the urban landscape.

The lunch menu featured an impressive variety of steamed, fried and baked delicacies. Dim sum can be awfully hit and miss: stodgy buns, slithery tacky rice paper, or overcooked deep-fried greasy horrors. It has to be perfect or it is hideous, which is a tough thing to pull off. And there needs to be variety: different fillings, different wrappings, different dipping sauces and cooking techniques – or dim sum can get dull.

Hutong’s dim sum menu is perfect. Old stalwarts like Xiao long bao (dumplings holding a shot of hot, pork soup) feature alongside more unusual offerings. Hutong is a Northern Chinese restaurant, and Northern Chinese cuisine is one of the few in the Middle Kingdom which makes use of lamb. We ordered some interesting sounding pan fried lamb and fennel seed dumplings, which Number Two Son fell on and devoured, declaring them delicious and with a strong and pure lamb flavour.

Like an expensive version of Pavlov’s dog, if I hear the word champagne, I start to salivate. The rose champagne and shrimp steamed dumplings were an absolute must for a champagne fiend like me. When they arrived, their tender rosy-pink-coloured exterior concealed a deliciously juicy steamed shrimp -heavenly! Some pretty Peking duck spring rolls containing shredded roast duck and a crunchy stick of cucumber were served with a plum dipping sauce -again a delicious nod to the richer and saltier flavours of Northern Chinese cuisine.

We sat in a corner overlooking Southwark Cathedral and Borough Market to our left, with a view across the river to that peculiar looking mobile phone-shaped building emerging to the North. The 33rd floor is an ideal vantage point to pick out landmarks, watch buses lumber across bridges and to see how the landscape of London will change, as new high buildings spring up across the city. The full length glass windows of Hutong and the layout of the restaurant give a perfect panorama of central London.

The décor is wonderful -red lanterns, bamboo ceilings, wine buckets made from Chinese antique washtubs. It is difficult to make such a supremely modern open glass space feel traditional, and yet it works. Look at your immediate surroundings, the furnishings and food and it feels like China. Look out of the enormous windows and it cannot be anywhere other than London. What is more -the position of the restaurant links in a bizarre way to the name of the restaurant: a ‘hutong’ is a busy narrow lane in old Beijing, packed with food stalls, bicycles and people hurrying to work. These winding London streets below, filled with office workers setting out to buy their lunches, create a neat Western parallel.

We had a fabulous lunch. We worshipped dumplings, drank pot upon pot of fragrant jasmine tea, and watched the city from above. It was huge fun.

Number Two Son got a first in his exams. I don’t know what they put in that dim sum -but I shall definitely be taking him back. Highly recommended.

Hutong: Level 33 The Shard, 31 St. Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
Dim Sum set lunch, 5 savoury dims sum dishes at 28 pounds per person. Monday -Friday 12-2.45 p.m only. Reservations 020 3011 1257.

Connaught Collaboration

Agostino Perrone of The Connaught, Colin Field of Ritz Paris

Agostino Perrone of The Connaught, Colin Field of Ritz Paris

Last year I judged the Hong Kong final of the Diageo World Class cocktail championship. It sounds like an easy job, but tasting 140 cocktails in one afternoon is fairly gruelling work. Most of all, it makes you understand that making cocktails is gruelling work too – and that there is more to it than just long shakes, flair, a fancy pour and some flourishes.

Colin Field, in addition to being the man at the Ritz Paris’ Hemingway Bar, is a champion of the bartender profession. He has spent years lobbying in France to get the job proper recognition – by creating a professional bartender qualification. And he has finally succeeded. Bartenders are now included in the Meilleur Ouvrier and Meilleur Apprenti de France [Best Worker and Best Apprentice] exams – a degree-level qualification accredited by the Sorbonne. Successful candidates get to wear the coveted red, white and blue on their collar – a true honour. ‘It wasn’t easy’ says Field. ‘I went to various authorities and they were a little scathing: ‘You don’t need a degree to serve pastis’ said one person. ‘We aren’t going to give degrees to bistro workers’ said another. ‘There is a lot more to our job than that’, says Field.

Field is absolutely right. Bartenders are scientists, artists, psychotherapists, bouncers and showmen. They also serve pastis. But to do their job properly they need an excellent palate, imagination, sensitivity, a good eye and a detailed understanding of the history of each ingredient they use. Good bartenders  have a deep respect for the craft that goes into creating a fine spirit, before they take it, muddle, mix, shake and then produce something new and remarkable. They also like to develop new flavours of their own; infusing spirits with herbs, citrus and tea, creating syrups, discovering new ingredients -even scenting dry ice. There is a reasonable pressure on bartenders to keep innovating –but it seems to be driven as much by a collective enthusiasm coming from the people standing behind the bar, as a pressure from the customers in front.
Tonight I am at The Connaught in Mayfair. I have come to watch Field working with Connaught Director of Mixology, Agostino Perrone. Field has come to London for one week, to help create a specialized drinks menu which blends both bartenders’ respective mixology styles. I spot two cocktail trolleys manned by barmen standing at opposite ends of the room. One bears small dropper bottles filled with strange dark-coloured liquids. ‘This is my Martini trolley’ says the barman behind the small bottles. ‘And these are a range of special bitters – so you can influence your martini with these different flavours’. Grapefruit, cardamom and coriander are three that I spy. My husband orders a cardamom scented gin Martini. I am imagining a sort of alcoholic version of a Danish pastry. The barman is fairly generous with the cardamom bitters. They cling to the side of the Martini glass with a viscosity and then taint the clear gin and vermouth with gently moving brown swirls which rise slowly through the liquor. Three different dry vermouths are blended to get the broadest spectrum of flavor into the drink. The cardamom scent combines with the distinctive juniper of the gin. It is delicious.I head to the back of the room, where Perrone is charming a crowd in front of the other drinks trolley. He has a bottle of champagne handy, which for me is a very welcome sight. A large pile of bright red roses lies to his left. Perrone combines Cognac with violet liquor, sugar, bitters and Laurent Perrier in a champagne coupe. The surface of the drink is covered with layers of fresh rose petals. As I raise the glass to my mouth a rich floral scent wafts from the glass. As I sip it, the distinct fragrance of the violet liquor cuts through the strength of the cognac, and the flavor of the drink is lifted by the light bubbles of champagne. This is Fleurissimo. A beautiful, and very dangerous mix.
 All the drinks on this special menu are classics. There are no complicated delivery systems, no peculiar or wacky ingredients. The glassware is classic: rock, flute, coupe, martini. The liquor is classic: vodka, gin, cognac. But there are touches that make these drinks unique, The Pink Poire – one of Field and Perrone’s joint creations features fresh rhubarb juice, adding astringency and beauty to a vodka champagne mix, which is then tempered by a sweet, home-made almond syrup. Aside from the flamboyantly romantic rose petals of the Fleurissimo – the garnishes are subtle. A twist of lemon, or an olive for the Martini. A sliver of dried pear in the Pink Poire.
It is a fun evening, the venue is beautiful and the drinks fabulous. The barmen work with immense concentration yet chat freely, happily and knowledgeably with guests. Top bartenders are always true professionals . Thanks to Colin Field, they are now recognized for it. 

Dancing with the Devil

I have been lucky, through work, to meet some amazing chefs and to see some incredible dishes. I listen to chefs talk about why and how they cook. I have tasted food, designed with imagination, created with flair and cooked with love. Every chef I have interviewed has told me that when you eat a dish, you can taste the mood and personality of the person who created it.  I have a fairly average palate. I think I know what these chefs are talking about – but until today, I had never really understood it truly. I thought these chefs were just talking about their own sensitivity and that it was their obsession with food that allowed them to see things in cooking that normal people cannot. Now I understand.

Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation styles himself ‘Demon chef’. The ‘Demon’ part  of his title he has chosen because of its Greek roots from the word daimon . A daimon –as the ancient world understood it -is an ethereal being, who occupies the defined yet intangible realm between earth and heaven.  This is a strange, liminal community, where demons can both walk and fly; a world of spirits who live among us, but flit and disappear. These spirit beings can act as a conduit between the divine and mortal plane, and I always get the impression that  certainly in Ancient Greece, neither gods nor mortals really welcomed daimons –but both needed them. Sometimes daimons were nice spirits, sometimes they could be awful – but they would hang about, in places where people were vulnerable, louche and fragile, where they could cause mortals misery. A daimon has the power to make a mortal think about who they really are –which is always a horrible, confusing moment. We built crossroads, in ancient times,  in order to try to confuse daimons –but I always think that was such a mortal conceit. They don’t need maps. Daimons will find you, if they want to.

I interviewed Alvin two days before I ate his menu and he was honest about how he thinks people eat. -how he likes to push their boundaries and get them to experiment with new experiences. I was intimidated by the thought of the Demon Chef’s menu. I am cowardly about food. I like rustic, simple ingredients. I am not someone who will put just anything in their mouth and try it – I am a bit of a weakling. And yet I am fascinated by food and flavour and texture. It’s a limiting mixture.

I love food, but I have never got emotional about it. It doesn’t seem to fit with my nature. I’m stubborn,  I’m tough –I don’t cry at parties, I try not to cry at funerals. I look down on weeping, although I understand it is necessary –it’s emotional sweat, but I try never to be emotional. I work in an environment where I need to be sharp, to observe and watch and be a little outside everything, so I can be a lens for other people to see what I see. That’s writing, for me. Actually, that’s life for me. I guess I feel a bit special, stepping back all the time and showing the world to people. I don’t join in and that suits me perfectly.

The Demon Chef saw that, I think, as I stood on a freezing balcony in Wanchai, watching a photo shoot and talking to him about how he created the dishes we were photographing. He invited me to his chef’s table, to try his tasting menu, and that was a wonderful opportunity, but the thought of eating his menu scared the living daylights out of me. I had visions of chefs I have met, who are mean about vegetarians, who throw people out of their restaurants for asking for salt; Didactic and frightening maestros. Alvin did not seem like that as a person -but then I thought no one gets three Michelin stars without being fairly strong minded and fierce. I should have listened when he told me his favourite food is rice-just simple rice.! I actually didn’t believe him and wondered if he was being modest and humble about his tastes–to offset the glamorous food he prepares for his guests.

I was wrong.

Alvin’s menu was the most beautiful, subtle, honest and ridiculous line of dishes I have ever tasted. I expected everything to look a little crazy – but there were courses where the flavours were pure and the dish looked simple. There was no smoke, there were no test tubes, but there were always surprises. The extraordinary subtlety of the surprise was as surprising as the twist. You actually have to eat it – words fail me. Fourteen courses of heaven.

The first course was a pile of caviar, on a taro base with a quail’s egg. The sensation as it went into the mouth was cold, salty, warm, crunchy and then the egg left a smoky, creamy film around my mouth. The sulphorous quality of an egg yolk is peculiar but wonderful. Smoky was a theme. Further on in the evening juicy squares of red fish were served with a powder. This powder was made from long-aged dried mandarin peel – where the acidic citrus flavor of the fruit skin has withered away and left a dark, fragrant smokiness behind.  Later in the menu we had tender lobster served in a Sichuan pepper hollandaise, with kernels of charred corn. It was like eating a bonfire –charcoal, sulphur and that numbing sensation the peppercorns have on the bottom of the tongue, which lingered and lingered. It was served with a pinot noir from Germany that smelt of charcoal smoke. But all this fire and smoke was gentle. I felt like I was being led to the edge of a crater –where I could look down and inhale the lightest vapours from the fires of hell.  Just terrifying enough- but it still makes you consider leaping in.

Alvin was born in London, raised in Canada but is from a Chinese background. The wines we drank with our menu were all utterly beautiful, but seemed to come from from the ‘wrong’ place. A Moscato from Australia, a ‘Burgundy’ from Germany, a sparkling wine from just outside the Champagne region. Absolutely wonderful –but not exactly what you expected. Not the usual wine list of dependable, recognizable old trusted labels. And these wines were fierce –you needed to drink as you ate each dish. In traditional Chinese dining  you eat a sharp or spicy condiment to bring out the beauty of the ingredients in dishes – well here the wine did that job: it flattened spice, cancelled smoke. All the fires of hell were subdued. Just. And I would have hated it, if the smoke and sulphur and flames were entirely subdued.  And as I ate each course -I felt braver and more daring. I felt like I could have gone further, but I am glad that I was not forced to.

That exact restraint in the dishes was the key to their utter beauty. And as the menu progressed, I felt that the chef was revealing secrets about himself. There were traditional Chinese ingredients on the menu –these dried leathery black olives that were pungent and salty and ground into a perfect cream, a peeled tomato infused with a herbal Chinese vinegar (which I would happily drink neat –but was better concealed within the acidic sweetness of a perfectly explosive tomato). It was like eating Alvin’s story, and when someone is honest with you, and you (if you are like me) are guarded, private, wary, scared and defensive –it makes you look at yourself. I found myself thinking that I should open up.

The menu was a quietly wicked journey of seduction. There were distinctly saucy elements –delivered with a gently alarming stealth. The Molecular Xiao Long Bao was a small, pale dumpling with a stripe of red across the middle. A traditional Xiao long Bao is a dumpling which conceals a mouthful of hot soup. The chef told us that the finest Xiao Long Bao are the ones which contain the largest quantity of soup. This dumpling had a texture which was skin like –but a very specific  type of skin. Thin and rubbery. On impact with the teeth it released a body-temperature-gush of salty, mildly sweet liquid – almost too much to swallow in one go. I felt a rush of emotion. I was happy – ridiculously so, but I was confused and I felt vulnerable. As I swallowed the contents of the dumpling, my eyes pricked with tears.

We were given a strangely shaped stirrup cup full of Mao tai –strong Chinese wine, mixed with the sharp and smokey flabours of calamansi –a  tiny citrus fruit, like a lime and mandarin hybrid. The foamed egg white coated the inside of my mouth, leaving it with the slight tang of perfumed fruit.

My companion for the evening was worried. He thought that this experience had ruined us, that we would wake in the morning and our cornflakes would feel dull and the whole, vast world of gastronomy would become a dead, flat, earthly zone that we would find lacking. But I have given birth three times –and I now know that the human brain is a clever thing. It forgets. That’s the greatest gift we have. We forget the womb clawing misery of childbirth, and we will forget the humbling ecstasy of culinary rebirth. We’ll be fine.