Mabel’s Tavern – The SRP

Sunday Roast at Mabel's Tavern
Sunday Roast at Mabel’s Tavern

Mabel’s Tavern
9 Mabledon Pl
London WC1H 8AZ

This weekend was one of the coldest we’ve had in London, so it was nice to settle down in a warm pub with a real fire going! We had walked to King’s Cross from our mews, which isn’t far, and on the way stopped at the original clown’s gravesite.

The roast was pretty standard, but good. Same pub corporation as last weekend (Shepherd Neame), actually, and one I’m really beginning to like. In a country where the salt needs to be salted, today’s roast was perfectly seasoned!

Old Ivy House – The SRP

Old Ivy House
166 Goswell Rd
London EC1V 7DT

We’ve been walking past this place ever since we moved to London but kept forgetting about it. Should have come sooner! Although virtually all pubs in London are corporately owned (Old Ivy House is no different), it has a very authentic feel to it, not corporate or a chain-like pub (think Taylor-Walker, Fullers, or Nicholsons), but more independently-owned and personal.

The roast was pretty good, better than average, but sadly the traditional Yorkshire pudding was missing. In its place was some sort of little muffin/scone that was probably made from a batter similar to the traditional pudding. On the upside, though, was the price: Less than £9/pp, and for a very nicely done roast lunch, that’s a steal here in London.

Carte Blanche – 5 out of 5 stars

Read my disclaimer about restaurant reviews.

Salmon tartar, curried pumpkin soup, goose foie gras, duck liver mousse

Steamed mussels and plaice in a cream sauce

Venison fillet, croquettes, sauteed mushrooms and romanesco, root veg puree

Panna cotta, chocolate mousse, poached pears

Carte Blanche
Martelaarslaan 321, 9000 Gent, Belgium
+32 9 233 28 08

Date: Dinner on October 28, 2015

The Good: The food and company was fantastic.

The Bad: Nothing that anyone could have really done anything about: The weather was rainy, cold, windy. I was a bit soaked when we arrived for dinner.

My menu: Various starters; mussels and plaice; venison loin; panna cotta and and chocolate mousse.

The Story:
We met the owners Paul and Walter while on vacation in Sri Lanka. We struck up a conversation over High Tea at The Grand and instantly connected through our shared industry. We stayed in contact over the last year and when I realized we’d be in Belgium with family in October, I added Ghent to our list of stops.

We arrived on a Wednesday and the restaurant is normally closed on weeknights but Paul and Walter hosted us anyway. It was quite an experience to share a private dinner in a high-end European restaurant with the owners. The restaurant dining room is small, they can do about 28 covers in a seating, and the kitchen is even smaller, but the magic they work within this space is amazing. Everything is stylish, modern, elegant without being cold and aloof as you’d expect from ritzy norther European restaurants.

Paul is an extremely talented chef and Walter is a gracious host. Between the two of them, along with up to three more staff, they crank out some amazing service. I hope to one day go back and enjoy a regular dinner service, but our private evening with Paul and Walter was a once in a lifetime experience.

Church on Sunday

I’m not a religious person (I don’t even belong to the Church of Baseball) but I think I may have found my higher calling here in London. I now absolutely consider myself to be a parishioner of the Church of Sunday Roast. I was not raised in this tradition, I am a foreigner and an outsider, but as we’ve learned through history, no believer is more zealous than a convert!

As I’ve observed, these are the core tenets of this religion:

  • Roast meat
  • Two or three veg sides
  • Roasted potatoes
  • Yorkshire pudding
  • Gravy

Roast meat
The central component of the Roast is, obviously, the meat. Usually one of three options: Beef, pork, or chicken. Lamb is often available, or any game animal, but the Main Three are nearly omnipresent. There are caveats here, though, and some exceptions can be made. First and most obvious, we do welcome vegetarians into the fold with open arms (Sunday Roast is meant to be a community!) but there’s always just the tiniest bit of skepticism. Clearly they’re here only for the gravy. Secondly, while the meat may seem to be the center of the meal, the serving size of said meat is actually pretty small and reasonable. Rarely more than about 4 to 5 ounces per serving. And that’s ok, though, because that leaves plenty of space for the other members of the Sunday Roast pantheon.

Vegetable sides
The veg sides can be pretty much anything. I’ve had cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, peas, green beans, red cabbage, and many other veg. Generally it’s a little over-cooked for my professional tastes, just a bit too soft, but the one thing that kills me (heresy already from the new convert!) is that the British never seem to salt their vegetables. Just as everyone brings a certain amount of “baggage” to a new relationship, salt is firmly rooted in my professional and emotional suitcase. Put salt on the damn veg before you serve it. Seriously, WTF. Clearly we all know how salt works, because you’ve used it in the delicious gravy! Now just move your hand a little to the left and put that salt on the veg, too. Before serving it, if-you-please!

Roasted potatoes
As we move down the dogmatic list, we get closer to the non-negotiables, starting with the potatoes. They don’t have russets here, but do have smaller, baking potatoes with thinner skins that I’ve come to appreciate (acknowledge here that I grew up in Idaho, land of Simplot and potatoes…) and they make for a delicious starch side. Cooking techniques vary as do preferences, but you have to have potatoes on the plate in some fashion.

Yorkshire pudding
Next is the hallmark item, Yorkshire pudding. Without the Yorkie, it’s just a bunch of meat and veg on a plate. I once was talking with a professional colleague of mine about Yorkshire puddings. This is a chef who specializes in Middle-eastern cooking: spices, herbs, flavors, colors, everything that makes that particular cuisine distinctive. And so in that vein, I was brainstorming other versions of Yorkshire pudding. Nothing outlandish, maybe just some fresh thyme in the batter, or a little paprika, or something for a little punch. As the words were coming out of my mouth, my buddy cut me off mid-sentence and without a trace of irony or tolerance said “Don’t fuck with the Yorkshire pudding”. Apparently, I had stepped across some sort of line into that area where even converts can’t tread. I may have gotten the smack-down here, but I have to admit I’m still a little “Yorkie-curious” so see what options might exist for this puffed pastry.

Finally, the reason we all go through the effort of Sunday Roast: the gravy. If you skimp on the gravy, you will be excommunicated. Immediately. Full stop.

Church of Sunday Roast is also a lot like Judaisim in the sense that arguing over what’s the proper Roast is common, nay, to be expected. Discussion, arguments, challenges are what make Sunday Roast reach great heights. It’s the British equivalent of the Indian garam masala, or the Mexican guacamole, or the French ratatouille. Every family has their own “secret” version or preferences, and woe be to the outsider who deigns to tell them otherwise!

For me, an American transplant, Sunday Roast is a little slice of home. It’s so much like a mini-Thanksgiving meal but served every Sunday! And how can that be wrong? It’s the same time-intensive cooking techniques, lots of menu items to juggle, a single deadline for food service at an unreasonably early hour for such a production. Similarly to the US Thanksgiving meal, mediocre-to-poor cooking skills make up the foundation of everyone’s nostalgia about the Sunday Roast, too. I’ve had one home-cooked Sunday Roast while here which was fantastic (blew the lid off most of the professional Roasts I’ve had!), but I can understand how making a meal with this many moving parts would intimidate your average amateur cook, not to mention if you’re a parent of 2.5 children! Like at home in the US, Sunday Roast is often taken as an excuse to crack open a nice bottle of red wine at 11am. Nothing like a little liquid stabilizer to get you through the process.

I have yet to take on my own Sunday Roast at home myself, mostly for fear of missing some key component or aspect that is unknowable to outsiders. But I am looking forward to the day when I’m ready to test my adopted Britishness!

Finally loving work again

4000 meringues
4000 of my meringues getting plated up for dessert service in the Cotswolds

The last couple months I’ve been working for a catering company, MC*, south of London, near Wimbledon. I got connected with them through one of my agencies, CC*. The catering company has been around for a while, since the late 80’s, and it’s got that slightly out-of-date feeling in the air, as soon as you walk into the facility. I’m not exactly sure what that quality is, or what I’m picking up on, but it’s there.

The irony is that it’s currently my favorite place to work because of the staff, the quality of the work, the diversity of technique I’m getting to practice, and the clientele.

I report to a young pastry chef who’s got Michelin restaurant experience and has been with the catering company for about 3 years. He’s fairly modern in style but also has a lot of classic skills and is easy to work for. He trusts me (unlike my first work experience here in London!) and we discuss things like a team. I do follow his lead though; it’s his show after all.

My first day on the job I was asked to make 4000 little meringues for an event at the end of the week. Yes, that’s 4K meringues. I spent about 2/3 of the day whipping whites and piping and baking, until we ran out of egg whites for the day. But my production was only 1/3 of the total count needed! The head pastry chef was apparently happy with my work because I was asked for again by name, and since then, I’ve been giving MC* about half of all my availability.

The event I made meringues for was a funeral out in the Cotswolds, about 2.5 hours from London. I was sent on that job too, which was a 10am arrival at the catering company, a three hour drive to the event venue, a five hour service, and a 2.5 hour drive back. All on the clock. This was, without a doubt, the largest catering event I’ve ever been a part of. The size of the tent just for the “kitchen” was larger than any wedding tent I’ve seen back home. The tent for the guests was three times as large. There were so many staff that the client hired a separate company to cater for us, which included three whole spit-roasted pigs! It was fucking insane. To top it off, the guest count was supposed to be 800+, but only 250 guests showed up!

What I love about this job is that I get to do things that fill in the missing spots in my pastry education and training. Classic things like a chocolate mirror glaze one day, and then modernist cuisine such as raspberry “caviar” with agar the next day. Many of the things I’m asked to do for MC* I can do easily and I’m familiar with, other things I’ve only read about in text books. And the pacing of working for a catering company is extremely familiar and comfortable to me. Every day is different, and even though the recipes are the same, each client wants their own variation.

Most recently I helped prep for an event at St James Palace, the London residence of Prince Charles. It was an annual event for some middle eastern prince/sheik (Qatar, I think) and apparently Prince Philip (Elizabeth’s husband) and Princess Eugenia were in attendance. Earlier in the week, I had made raspberry macarons for this event, so I can now say with confidence that Prince Philip has eaten macarons that I made!

So yeah, I’m now much more professionally satisfied than I was a few months ago. I’m getting to work with some really great people, doing some really nice pastry work, and serving it to ultra high-end clientele. THIS is exactly what I was hoping for, working as a chef in London!