Rootmaster can be found somewhere near Brick Lane, and serves a small but interesting lunch menu (I’m told dinner is fancier and a little better) in pleasingly kooky surroundings. They’ve managed to overcome the risk of being a style-over-substance type of venture, too, and despite a slightly alarming ambient hipster density. If I were to offer an actually useful criticism, I’d point out that on an August afternoon, putting your diners in a metal box directly above the kitchen smacks slightly of having not quite thought things through. It wasn’t a big deal, and we could have sat outside.
Saturday was spiffy, if confusing. The highlight was undoubtably the Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart production of Waiting for Godot. Not far behind, however, was lunch at Saf.
There are a couple of warning signs on the menu. There were dishes annotated if they were heated over 48˚c, and a cocktail section entitled “Non-alcoholic elixirs”. That did make me a bit twitchy. But on the whole it’s free of the kind of tree-frotting, hemp-clad, wont-you-try-my-tofu-and-unicorn-farts-detox-chakra-quiche bullshit I was afraid of. Yes, I had a good meal at a vegan restaurant.
A workmanlike onion soup (far too much cheese on the croutons) and a thoroughly enjoyable hunk of rare, seared, lamb in a rosemary jus all weighed in for little more than that bloody burger place, and made me far and away happier. This is a good thing. The French bistro feel was a little caricature, and the tables much too closely packed, but the ambience managed to work. It’s your standard Moules Frites and checked tablecloth joint, reminiscent of – though cheaper, more Francophile, and rather less good than – Cambridge’s lovely Backstreet Bistro. Oh, and the Backsteet’s floor plan doesn’t make sitting down into a sliding block puzzle. Seriously Sacre Coeur guys, you were rammed on a dreary weekday – lose four or five covers and let the customers breathe. Mostly though, it got me thinking about potatoes.
There’s something slightly cheeky about serving aggressively plain sauté potatoes on the side of more or less anything at a bistro. It’s taking the simplicity shtick and running with it, but it does teeter on the brink of taking it too far, of seeming tawdry/cheap. But what do you do when you’ve ruled out chips, and insisted upon a sauce? You turn – I would like to propose – to Nigella Lawson, who cannot be the first person to thing of this delicious chip-sauté compromise, but had the decency to put it in print where I could find it. And, indeed, think “Buggeration – why didn’t I think of that.”
Like the best of her recipes, it understands simplicity but gawps blankly at moderation. You take a load of potatoes – the long, thin, new or Anya type ideally – wrap them in a cloth, and beat the hell out of them with a rolling pin. This ought to produce fractured, funkily knobbly, but not obliterated potato chunks which can then be fried from raw, very, very, hot in a great deal of olive oil. Beautiful. I like to toss in a little chopped garlic and some chilli powder right at the end, just before taking them off the heat. I particularly like to do this, then cover them in salt and grated cheese, fashioning thereby a “light” lunch which would make even Ms Lawson look on askance.
It’s been a season for simple excess, in fact. I’ve taken to making big, syrupy tartes Tatin, and they’re a joy. The original idea – though as with the pseudo-chips it had probably been done without fanfare or kafuffle in countless homes for years – is said to hail from Lamotte-Beuvron, and the Hotel Tatin. It’s a rescued fuck-up in essence: heavily caramelised apples with a pastry layer slapped on top, all baked in heavy skillet, and upside-down. Stéphanie Tatin, the story goes, botched some apple pie filling, and her kick-yourself-it’s-so-simple blag took her into food history. Cute. The question which excised me however was: could this be blagged in turn without a serious, heavy, oven-safe frying pan of the kind I so dearly covet yet can so ill afford. Turns out – yes. You just have not to be particularly shy about the smell of burning caramel.
You can liberally butter a springform tin (we’ll come to why a springform) and top that off with the sugar, then the apples, and bake it all, fairly hot, to fill in for the stovetop section. Now, if you keep an eye on it, and sit it in an oven tray while it cooks, you can have it all passably caramelised within twenty or so minutes. Caramel will ooze out, hence the tray, but most springforms have enough of a lip to retain just about enough.
Yank it out of the oven, and cool quickly enough to get a pastry layer on there pretty darned snappy, stick it back for another twenty to thirty, and hurrah. After a little cooling you can turn it out by releasing the sides of the tin, placing a plate on top, and just flipping it, as you would with the frying pan version. The same ease can be achieved with far less loss of delicious sugary goo in a very shallow cake tin; or any old tin, side-height irrelevant, a plate with narrower cross-section, and a world-beating blend of luck and dexterity. Like the skillet, and indeed the low-sided large cake tin, this is not something I possess. But I wish joy and sparkly Tatin success to those who do. Bastards.
A few days ago, by my computer, I found a hastily-scrawled note. Nothing unusual there. It was a reminder that I intended to depart briefly from tradition, and offer up a restaurant review. Fair enough. I don’t do it very often, I’m going to do it now and then, and I’d probably have forgotten – I’m full of plagues at the moment. Except that this was not what it actually said. What it said was:
and thereby hangs a tale.
The Gourmet Burger Kitchen, (located in this particular case on Regent St, Cambridge) is a shithole. Were it called The Shithole, it would still be over-selling itself. Now, it’s a chain, and a concept chain, so you steel yourself a little. But really. Absolutely fucking dire.