Monday, 13 February 2012

Sat Bains

Some blogposts are easy to write.  Give me a better than expected meal or an exceptionally bad meal and you'll find that I've got something to share; an opinion to voice and, with that, an urge to get it 'out there' pretty sharpish.

The hard ones are the mediocre ones.  If I'm bored eating the food, I'm gonna be bored writing about it and I'm pretty sure that you guys won't bother reading it.  Worse than that is the place with an ethos I like, the place I'm really rooting for, but fails to step up to the plate.  I still want to big it up, encourage others to try it, but my top priority is to write honest reviews.  If a restaurant can't hack it, then, as harsh as it sounds, it should stop taking the mick out of its customers, shut down and move on (preferably after paying all its suppliers and creditors).

But what makes a blogpost really difficult, impossible to start and a ball ache to complete is amazing food.  See, when the food is stupendously good I don't know where to start and I procrastinate to the end. 

It all becomes such a daunting task.  The food is likely to be complex which means I need to remember the flavours and textures correctly.  It's also gonna be pretty clever, which means that I too would quite like to sound clever...

This is precisely the case with Sat Bains.  The fact that I showed off about eating here on Twitter has only added to the pressure as now I have people asking where this post is.  Even in the post itself I have managed to procrastinate from starting the review by explaining how I procrastinate from starting a review. 

So.... deep breath.... here goes.....

I'd heard of Sat Bains a few years ago.  I don't know how I stumbled across it, but I had it in my head that I wanted to go.  Over the years this thought also entered Gav's head and on hearing that Sat Bains has been awarded his second Michelin Star (and that the restaurant is listed as 3rd in the country by The Good Food Guide), wheels were set in motion and a booking was made (with the perfect excuse of me having a birthday to celebrate).

Now.  We'd never eaten at a Michelin Star restaurant before, the closest we got was Glass in Rome (the year before it received its first Star), so a trip to Sat Bains was all very exciting for us.  I read a few reviews on Trip Advisor (the majority of which declare the restaurant as excellent) and a few other blogs, just to get a feel of what I was letting myself in for.  From this I learnt that A) that Great British Menu egg was on the menu for £15 a pop, B) that Sat Bains seems like a genuinely nice guy and C) that Nanna Vestergaard, Sat Bains' development chef, has THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD.

The restaurant itself is in the not so glamorous city of Nottingham (and in a not so glamorous part of Nottingham at that).  Just off the ring road and surrounded by electricity pylons this surely is not the place for a two starred foodie Mecca.  Well.... it is.

Of course, when visiting places of such ranking, I wonder whether there is going to be any snobbish attitude.  Here, I needn't have wasted any time pondering this point.  On making our way to the reception we were welcomed by a very friendly lady.  She showed us to our room after offering to help with our bag; an offer we declined (she is smaller than me and half the size of Gav).

The room was beautiful.  There was a grand four poster bed and matching furniture, all made of solid dark wood.  The bathroom was also impressive with a slipper bath and molton brown toiletries.  It all felt pretty special, especially when the bottle of champagne (part of the package) arrived only minutes after we settled into the room.

We headed over to the restaurant at about 7.30 to start proceedings in the bar with a bottle of beer (for Gav) and a sauvignon blanc (for me).  We were shown a copy of our menu (the 7 course taster menu) which had a little birthday message across the top, thanks to Gav who'd made the birthday message request.  There was the option to try that Great British Menu egg, and it was suggested that we could share if we like (a nice touch and an early suggestion of the relaxed and informal atmosphere to the place).  As adults we learnt to share a long time ago, but neither of us were prepared to share the most expensive egg either of us had ever had the opportunity of eating, so we ordered one each.

Amuse Bouche – NG7 2SA
Once seated in the restaurant our first course was an amuse bouche.  NG7 2SA is the restaurant's postcode and the provenance of the foraged ingredients of this first dish.  Horseradish panna cotta was creamy and lightly flavoured with the strong mustard flavours.  It arrived in a solid glass jar garnished with local leaves and a deep green nettle veloute to the side. 

For an amuse bouche this had some substance to it and considering the ingredients were foraged from the back yard (amongst all those pylons) it was an interesting experiment in local food. 

We weren't served wine with the amuse bouche, which was a good thing, as we still had our drinks from the bar and just before our first course the sommelier introduced himself and asked whether we would like a glass of wine with our Duck Egg.  Again, it was suggested that we could share a glass if we preferred, but again, we thought ‘oh hell to it’ and had a glass each anyway.

The GBM Duck Egg
Cooked sous-vide at 62 degrees for about an hour and a half, this egg is beautiful!  And although the egg white was still slightly translucent, it was cooked through.  The yolk spilled out into the dish as expected (is it even possible to overcook an egg at 62 degrees?) and it was delicious with the peas and ham.  The pea and mint sorbet was refreshing and cut through the richness of the duck egg helping to keep the dish balanced. 

Ok, so at £15 a pop, this is easily the most expensive egg I’ve ever eaten, but it was also the best egg I’ve ever eaten and I’d order it again.  That said, the recipe has been published and given my recent investment in a cooking thermometer I may try this one at home.

Wine was ‘2009 ‘Cool moon’, Les Enfants Sauvages, Roussillon, France’ and the sommelier explained that it was a natural wine; one that is made with as little interference as possible.  It was very clean tasting and good with the delicate, yet rich egg.

Pigs Head, pressed, smoked haddock & pickled vegetables
Slices of crumbly pig head meat was hidden beneath the colourful selection of pickled cauliflower, carrot, radish and beetroot.  The meat itself was pretty tasty (it’s something I’ve had a few times before so I have no issues eating this meat) and good with the pickles. 

The sommelier had paired the dish with ‘2009 Viognier, Bogle Vineyards, Clarksburg, California, USA’ which instantly disappointed me.  There are very few wines that I dislike, but Viognier is one of those few.  I don’t really know why I dislike it; I tried it once a few years ago and haven’t bothered with it since.  Surprisingly it worked stupidly well with the dish, so much so that I quite happily quaffed my wine, although I did push it to one side once the food had gone.

However it wasn’t the immaculate wine matching that made this dish for me; it was the smoked haddock croquettes.  Oh my God.  They were very lightly fried, deliciously creamy, literally melted in the mouth and I did not have enough!  Admittedly my palate couldn’t understand how they contributed to the overall theme of the dish (smoked haddock of pig head?), but I didn’t care; they didn’t offend each other and tasted great separately.

Organic Salmon, oyster, miso & sea vegetables
Thanks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall I now understand that Organic farmed salmon is more ethical than both wild and intensely reared salmon so it was good to see it being used here.  Cooked sous vide, it had the texture of exceptionally tender sashimi, a texture that only comes from slow and low cooking.  The miso broth was tasty as were the tiny little pickled mushrooms which were floating around in there. 

For me the highlight of the dish were the tiny little pieces of oyster.  They appeared slightly seared, or maybe the warm broth had started to cook them a little, but they were as fresh tasting as any oyster I had tried and I loved how each one exploded with the taste of the sea in my mouth. 

With this came ‘2010 Gavi di Gavi, La Minaia, Nicola Bergaglio, Piemonte, Italy’ which was nice enough.  As I quite like gavi di gavi (i.e. I don’t love or hate it) I don’t have a huge amount to say about it and you’ve probably already guessed that I’m no wine connoisseur so I’m not likely to come out with anything particularly intelligent.

Pearl barley, oxtail, smoked bone marrow
Oh!  Just thinking about this dish is making me drool a little.  Of course everything had been great so far, but we all know that I ain’t happy until I’ve got some meat on my plate.  Admittedly there wasn’t a great deal of meat here, but the stock was full of the juices so the whole dish tasted meaty.

Pearl barley was well cooked with a bit of bite to it, and there were thin strips parsnip in there along with crispy shallots (I think).  The highlight of this dish, for me, was the smoked bone marrow.  Bone marrow is always gonna get my vote, but this stuff was smoked!  It was amazing; filling my mouth with smoky meat flavours on every mouthful.  It was the best dish I’d had in years and I ravished the plate. 

The only downer for me with this dish was the wine.  ‘2009 Jones Blanc, Domaine Jones, Languedoc, France’ was lovely, but was blanc.  Hmph.  I’d have preferred a red.

Braised mutton, shallot ‘textures’ & thyme
After the oxtail and bone marrow, I was pleased to find that the next dish also focussed on red meat.  Mutton was beautifully tender having been braised until it fell apart at the touch of the fork.  This pleased the taste buds greatly, as did the rather unusual, almost Chinese crispy beef style, deep fried minced mutton which topped the dish. 

Textures of shallots meant that the vegetable arrived on the plate in a variety of ways; sliced, caramelised and powdered.  Meat and onions… a bit of mash would have topped it off!  I remember enjoying this even more than the oxtail dish and that was probably because there were chunks of meat to enjoy.  The ‘2007 Gevrey-Chambertin, Vieilles Vignes, Vincent Girardin, Burgandy, France’, being a red wine, also added the enjoyment of the dish and I was glad to have my meat and red wine fix.

The Crossover
This was soured buttermilk with tarragon and rocket granita.  I didn’t enjoy it and the waitress didn’t seem to enjoy spotting the fact that I didn’t enjoy eating it.  I, however, wasn’t that bothered.  It was purely a crossover and as I was really pleased with how meal was going I wasn’t actually bothered that I didn’t like this tiny little course.  It just didn't do anything for me.  I'm not a fan of tarragon and although I like rocket, I don't like it with soured buttermilk.

Chocolate, peanut & yoghurt
However, as a chocolate lover I really did enjoy our first dessert.  There was a cylinder of rich dark and dense chocolate, which was delicious in its own right, but when mixed with whipped sour yoghurt (which wasn’t to my liking on its own) both the flavour and texture were lifted slightly.  Sprinkles of peanuts were a further welcomed change in texture.

To drink we had the beautiful 'N.V. Muscat, Stanton and Killeen, Rutherglen, Victoria, Australia'.  This is a deliciously rich wine; perfect with a chocolate dish. 

Treacle Sponge, apple & parsnip
Forget the stodgy school dinner treacle sponge, this was on a whole other level.  It was light and airy, with a natural sponge like texture and although it tasted of treacle, the sickly sweet flavours were drastically toned down.  The caramelised parsnip and chunks of apple also helped to ensure that this was the lightest treacle sponge I have ever had.

The sommelier served us a sparkling sake with this course; 'N.V. La Chamte Sparkling Sake, Hideyoshi, Akita, Japan'.  This was truly amazing stuff.  I enjoy sake straight up anyway but the added fizz toned down the strong alcohol taste and it was easily quaffable. 

To sum up...
Wowsers!  What a meal!  The food was stunning, the wines were perfectly matched with the food (despite my craving for a bit more red) and, unusually, the service was just as good.  Of course the waiters were attentive and knowledgeable, that should go without saying, but these guys were genuinely nice too!  From the suggestion that we share the duck egg, to the sommelier who hoped that we enjoyed the wine he had chosen for us (rather than suggesting that if we didn't like the combination then we would the ones in the wrong), everyone put us at complete ease and worked hard to ensure that we had a perfectly relaxing and enjoyable meal.

The whole dining room had a nice relaxed atmosphere to it.  Yes, it was formal with white tablecloths and smartly dressed waiting staff, but there was no cutlery etiquette (we were given a stack of cutlery to choose from so we could choose whether we wanted to use a spoon or a fork with each dish) diners chatted, took photos and made notes as they ate.  Eating at Sat Bains is about just that, eating, not stuffy formalities.

We were served a selection of freshly baked breads; including crumpets.  These along with Lincolnshire Poacher butter (which is almost cheese like in texture), coffee and orange juice would have been a more than ample breakfast, but of course we weren't going to restrain were we?!

I opted for the baked chorizo and eggs and it was an excellent choice.  Chorizo was sliced into thick chunks and there was a fair bit of it too.  Two perfectly cooked eggs had been baked with the meat and its oil and it was gorgeous (if a little rich – as if I was ever gonna go with the fruit and yoghurt option).

Gav went for the full English which, I am told, consisted of a good sausage, crispy bacon, a thick slice of black pudding and a poached egg.

The tour
On finishing dinner the night before, we had been promised a tour around the kitchen in the morning.  I was glad to find that this promise hadn't been forgotten and on finishing our breakfast we went to meet Sat Bains in his, smaller than some domestic kitchens, kitchen.  Unfortunately I hadn't thought of anything profound to ask him and we just gushed about how good our stay had been.  He came across as a really genuine guy and meeting him explained why there was such a focus on friendly service and relaxed dining. 

We also got a brief tour of the development kitchen and met Nanna Vestergaard who has the best job in the world.  Locked up in her own kitchen she has all the gadgets and ingredients any of us could ever dream of and gets paid to play around with food and try out new combinations for the menu.  She and the pastry chef (who actually prefers savoury food to sweets) explained how the treacle sponge was created.  They take a spoonful of a normal treacle sponge mix, pump it full of nitrous oxide and then blast it in the microwave for 20 seconds.  I don't know about you, but I won't be trying that one at home!


So, there you go!  I can’t say one bad thing about our meal.  The food, wine and service had all been excellent and I urge you all to give it a go one day.

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