Reminiscent of an invitation to dine within the inner temple of the kitchen in the Oitavos Hotel in Cascais, I have to thank Chef Sebastian Fratye for such an experience.
It may not be overly exaggerated to view the experience of dining at the Chef’s Table as akin to that of a classical concert – sizzling pans, knives on cutting boards and bubbling pots weaving their melodies to produce a culinary crescendo – with the listener enjoying the benefit of ‘tasting the music’ afterwards.
Extending the metaphor, an overture of black eyed bean salad with dried tuna and a sprinkling of red pepper and red onion swerved as a prelude to greater things to come, the salty tuna complementing the earthy, full-bodied beans.
A second starter of sweetbreads and crawfish in a tarragon and Muscatel sauce was a fine example of how almost anything can be combined if knowledge and skill is aplenty.
Then came the soft, mellow tones of scallop, lightly kissed on a hot pan flavored with butter, garlic, coriander, mustard and lemon confit – a well-performed adagio.
And the climactic finale – 40-day matured Portuguese Black Angus steak accompanied by an aromatic Douro red wine from Vila Regia, which Nuno Antunes, the F&B manager, said emerged from the vineyards the Champalimaud family own in northern Portugal. The encore: a dark chocolate dessert that literary opened its petals before us as pastry chef Joaquim de Sousa delicately dripped his sweet, creamy sauce over it.
If you did not believe in magic before, watch this. And if you did, you see how right you are.
I believe the initial idea of the afternoon tea was to feed the hunger and satisfy the thirst of those who were too passionate to converse, to stop the flow of ideas….
…writing and how a forgotten red scarf on a chair can tell a story…
… time passing and how sometimes the memories of smell and taste overwhelm those of faces…
… should a scone have a crusty top or be more like a brioche?
… art nouveau and how some places are like a magnet for our romantic fantasies…
… chocolate and love and how the simple thought of the separating them is hard to imagine…
Perspective is many times what makes a place heaven or hell, phylosophically speaking. From a traveler’s point of view, it’s important to take time to simply absorb the surroundings. And meal times or coffee breaks provide for such explorations.
I believe that entire history books are contained in the simpliest of deserts – from its origin, to the various nations that adopted it and to the sociological and economical pressures that cause ingredients to be replaced and others to be added, according to new fashions of the times.
Anyways, here are some of the ‘books’ I have studied during my trip to Sicily where I also learnt the importance of expressing your delight for a good meal: scarpeta (using a piece of bread to soak up that last bit of delicious sauce in your plate).
Since my first experience, about ten years ago, of an eight-course tasting menu at the Tasting Room restaurant in Franschhoek, South Africa – a much more interesting area to visit by the way, than its rival Stellenbosch – I believe this is the way food should be presented if the intention is to show the skills behind the creations on the plate.
A restaurant is a place where I expect a culinary experience, even a sensatory journey – I have my own kitchen or the market if I am simply looking for food.
No better way to encourage one to pay attention to the multitude of tastes, colors and flavors than knowing that you only have two or three mouthfuls of a serving that took hours in preparation and the work of a whole team of people.
In contrast, with a full plate in front, we tend to move our attention to conversation, checking our phones, or anything else – by the simple fact that there is more, we tend to take it for granted. Whereas when a nibble or two is all we have, we start looking for the different ingredients by waking up the taste buds, we are stretching time by being in that moment, paying attention to what we feel when flavors stir things inside.
We are actually adding years to our lives, not only because we learn to be picky about what we eat, but also because we get to discover that we actually might love foods we never thought we would – when the combinations are right.
I confess, I cannot think of many blends I would not try if set in front of me by a chef, and I have become impatient and unforgiving with the lazy approach of some establishments – grill the fish and call it ‘a classic.’
So over the course of two days in Belfast, I explored the city’s renewed energy of encouraging creativity on the culinary scene and I was more than impressed with the Ox restaurant and the Malt Room. I hope the city gives them enough credit for putting it on the gourmet international map. Here are some highlights.
‘Truffled egg yolk, cauliflower, crispy chicken skin – cauliflower becomes center stage as it the ingredient that lifts up the palate while the egg yolk and the truffles make a strong statement (OX)
If you thought squid is not your thing, think twice as the presentation and the tenderness is remarkable and the presence of chorizo flavor and the romanesco textures gives this dish a more complex dimension – Squid, chorizo, romanesco, squid ink, oyster (OX)
If it’s chocolate, it must be dark chocolate. And I savored the desert with even more pleasure as the flavor of the ice cream brought me back to my childhood when I always loved the remaining crust on the bottom of the pot where milk had been boiled – Valrhona chocolate 70%, banana, burnt milk ice-cream (OX)
A rainbow of colors and Provençale flavors in a dish of Mackerel (undeservingly underestimated fish), stuffed with olives and served with red caviar. Ok, you have to like fish and love olives…but how can one wouldn’t? (Malt Room)
Finally an interesting and healthy meat dish in Belfast – kid goat, locally sourced, slow-cooked, tender and moist, with a crusty pie pouring out a volcano of goat cheese and goat meat. Even if you had never read Coehlo’s Alchemist, images of herds of goats still come to mind, or more likely the evenings around the fire. (Malt Room)
Maybe it’s because I could live on pistachio nuts but I can say the desert is memorable at the Malt Room: Roast pear, pistachio, buttermilk and Nougatine parfait. Parfait!
In my humble opinion, a restaurant without a tasting menu is not serious about food as a form of art or as a means to offer a memorable experience – less is more.
As the proof is in the pudding, try it for yourself and prove me wrong….or right.
Growing up in Transylvania, one of the local delicacies was a dish called ‘blankets,’ made with polenta and cheese, as well as cream and bacon.
Moving away from home and discovering oats (which is not a common ingredient in Transylvanian food), I thought about mixing the cultures and came up with a savory breakfast or lunch dish, ‘porridge with blue cheese and honey-glazed roasted walnuts.’
Have a try at this simple recipe and let me know what you think.
1 cup of porridge
2 cups of milk (goats milk or almond milk are nice alternatives)
100 gr blue cheese
a pinch Cayenne pepper
half a cup walnuts, roasted and then dipped in honey
Mix porridge and milk and let soak for half an hour before cooking. Then crumble in the blue cheese and cook on a medium heat, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon until it thickens – about 5 minutes if you like it thicker or less if you like it thinner.
Pour it in bowl and sprinkle extra pieces of blue cheese if you are fond of it or just the honey-glazed walnuts.
To roast the walnuts, just place them in a dry tray in the oven at 180 degrees for about 15 minutes.
“Pofta buna!” or Enjoy!
Recipe was published by the Guardian newspaper on Saturday March 8 – delightful Women’s Day gift – Readers’ recipe swap: salty-sweet