The fine art auctioneers, Sotheby's, have opened a little lunchtime restaurant on the ground floor of their premises in New Bond Street, with a dinky little menu, three courses, three choices per course. It's called The Cafe.
The wines have been chosen by Sotheby's fine wine expert Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine, and include pounds 48 for a white Chassagne Montrachet 1990; pounds 53 for a red Chateau Talbot 1985; and pounds 65 for a Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame 1989 champagne. Phew, must be some sort of a chef to match wines of this class? Well, yes. We'll come to the chef; but The Cafe at Sotheby's isn't dedicated solely to the well-to-do. There are wines at attainable prices, too, like a Vin de Pays d'Oc at pounds 9.50.
The chef. In food writing circles there's been growing alarm at the increasing number of chefs prepared to take the very bread from their mouths. They not only write authoritative books but weekly columns too. There's Albert Roux in the London Evening Standard; Alistair Little in the Mail on Sunday; Rowley Leigh in The Guardian; Simon Hopkinson in the Independent and so on.
So it was in a spirit of retaliation that Guild of Food Writers committee members Henrietta Green and Philippa Davenport have been canvassing members with a plan to open a food-writers' restaurant. A tongue-in-cheek gesture maybe, but now look what's happened. The Cafe at Sotheby's is being directed by a food writer, a Guild committee member too, Hugo Arnold.
Hugo Arnold, 32, wrote a daily recipe for the Evening Standard for three years, and suddenly found himself with a new editor and an ex-job. He'd done stints with some of London's new wave chefs, including the seminal 192 Kensington Park Road, and Sotheby's approached him.
He decided it was a challenge not to be spurned, especially as he has some pretty positive ideas about modern British cooking. In fact he'd just published his first book, Simple Suppers (Headline pounds 10.99), which about sums up his style. We're talking chargrills and stir-fries, pasta, pesto and polenta. Modern British is also salsas and satays, rocket, basil and wilted leaves. And sun-dried tomatoes and tapenade, bruschetta and crostini (Modern British is Mediterranean? Quite).
At Sotheby's Cafe, Hugo works jointly with the young head chef, Caroline Crumby, and two assistants. It has been a chastening experience at the stove, he says; they run rings around him for speed and efficiency. "But I hope I've brought an overall view, seen more from the customers' perspective."
We're sitting in the small 30-seater dining room. It's half the length of a dining car on the Orient Express, an impression it evokes (confirmed by the presence of customers who look as if a pounds 65 bottle of champagne may be small beer after bidding for Persian rugs and old masters at the auction.)
But to the food. How are we food writers shaping up? Hugo, if you don't mind my saying so, your duck salad looks like scraps taken off the bone the morning after. And is that a squashed mango on top? Gosh, I'm sorry, I bet it's de-lic-ious. Too late. I fear I've mortally wounded him. Quickly I praise the chilled lovage soup, and he beams.
"The lovage soup was my idea. I thought vichyssoise was a bit cliched. So I suggested lovage as a flavour instead of leek. My head chef worked it up to a smooth creamy liquid (there is cream, but only a little). The texture comes from the potatoes." They have used smooth, waxy bintjes rather than the more common, floury potato.
Hugo is also rather proud of his sardine dish, another original. Sardine fillets, quite large and stiff as boards, are served overlapping on salad leaves. They taste dry and surprisingly sweet. Good heavens, they've been cooked in a parmesan crust. Is that right? Yes, he says with pride.
This sure is Modern British. He was born in 1962, he says, and he knows no other. "Our eating patterns have changed. We've largely rejected our heritage of stodge. We don't need masses of protein. If I'd come home from the wool factory, I'd be bloody angry if my wife hadn't put out three prime chops and and a mound of mashed potato."
What wool factory? His mother is writer Mavis Arnold, and his father is novelist, political writer and art historian Bruce Arnold. And Hugo studied economics at university. A metaphorical wool factory, he explains. "But I remember my mother saying, 'What shall we eat today?' Nowadays people pick up something from the chill cabinet of the supermarket on the way home."
There are social factors, too. He believes he's born to the first generation of men who can cook without it being thought odd or effeminate. A man cooking, a man entertaining, a man doing it in a relaxed way is the sub- text of his book. It's full of shortcuts - like blanching vegetables in advance so you only have to finish them off at the last minute. He sees no virtue in making things difficult.
Here are some of Hugo's suggestions for taking the pain out of entertaining, though he hasn't had much time for it since he took over at Sotheby's. But he has promised himself he'll get back to writing next month. For simplicity, he says, plan to shop for as few ingredients as possible, say fish or lamb, some salad or vegetables, and let a well-stocked store cupboard provide the rest. He favours bold flavours (hence the Mediterranean bias, olives, garlic, tomatoes, rosemary, thyme). Colour is important too, since a dish of reds, greens and blacks is much more tempting than a brown stew (the latter takes longer, anyway).
He recommends grilling as a speedy method of cooking. And organising yourself is important. Moving logically from one step to another can cut down time in the kitchen considerably. Get the potatoes baking in the oven while you get on with something else, he advises. Get someone chopping parsley while you make mayonnaise. The more you get going the quicker it will happen.
He plates up food in the kitchen to save on washing up. "When the guests have gone, we put the plates in the dishwasher and we're in bed within 20 minutes." And why not? "I'm not of the Masterchef school of entertaining," he says, with some passion. "It's all about twirling pieces of spun sugar, restaurant food. But there's no need to show off. Masterchef gives the impression that you should spend Friday afternoon shopping and the whole of Saturday preparing and cooking. So when your guests have finally gone, you slump into a chair, complaining that you're exhausted. And you think, I didn't get a chance to talk to my friends." Here are four recipes from Hugo's book:
I'm frequently asked about salting aubergines. For what it's worth I've tried both ways in the same recipe, with no discernible difference in results. Some people still swear by salting, arguing that it removes the bitterness, but the modern aubergine seems to have grown out of that nasty bitter phase.
450g/1lb small new potatoes, washed
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
bunch fresh coriander, leaves removed and stalks finely chopped
175ml/6fl oz yoghurt
salt and pepper
Prick the aubergines and potatoes and bake in a preheated oven 375F/190C/Gas 5 for 30 minutes, or until cooked (the aubergines take about 20 minutes, the potatoes 30 minutes or slightly longer). Liquidise the garlic, onion and three tablespoons of water. Drop the tomatoes into boiling water for 20 seconds, refresh under cold water and peel and deseed. Remove the flesh from the aubergines, taking care not to puncture the skins, and roughly chop along with the potatoes. I leave the skin on the potatoes, but you may wish to remove it. Heat three tablespoons of oil in the frying pan, tip in the onion and garlic mixture along with the ground cumin and fry gently for five minutes. Stir in the potatoes and aubergine and cook for five minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, coriander stalks and yoghurt and remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper and stuff the aubergine skins. Return to the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes, or until heated through and golden brown on top. Sprinkle with coriander leaves.
POT-ROASTED SALMON WITH CAPERS AND BLACK OLIVES
Capers tend to get something of a bashing in this country, being seen as nuggets of green sharpness with no inherent flavour to speak of. Don't blame the poor caper, though. Best vinegar means just that; nothing else will do. Search out one of the better brand names for your capers, or try the salted variety. The latter will need soaking, but will nevertheless have a wonderful sweet flavour.
4 salmon cutlets
salt and pepper
175g/6oz green beans
110g/4oz pitted black olives
2 tablespoons capers
175ml/6fl oz fish stock
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Dust the fish in flour and lightly brown in olive oil, using the casserole you will use for the roasting. Season and set aside. Peel and trim the carrots and cut lengthways into thin strips. Top and tail the beans and roughly chop the olives. Lightly colour the vegetables in the hot oil for 5 minutes. Add the olives and capers and toss in the oil. Pour over the stock and bring to the boil, then lower the heat and lay the fish on top. Cover and cook over a moderate heat for 8 minutes, basting the fish twice. Remove and keep warm. Continue cooking the vegetables with the lid off until tender. Serve with the fish on top and a sprinkling of parsley.
CRISPY DUCK SALAD WITH PICKLED GINGER AND WALNUTS
Ginger is one of the most accommodating spices, and has the power to cut the fattiness of this dish.
1 Aylesbury duck, jointed into 4 (2 breasts and 2 legs and thighs)
salt and pepper
3 thin slices of garlic
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
4 generous handfuls of salad leaves
oil for frying
4 dessertspoons walnut kernels
4 dessertspoons pickled ginger
Arrange the duck pieces on a piece of tin foil in the top of your steamer. Season generously with salt and pepper and steam for 30 minutes or until the duck is tender. (You can steam the pieces and finish the dish later). Mash the garlic with a seasoning of salt and pepper in a salad bowl. Avoid any bits; it needs to be a pulp. Whisk in five tablespoons of olive oil, followed by the balsamic vinegar. Toss the salad leaves in the dressing and arrange on four plates. Heat a little oil in a frying pan, and saute the duck pieces, skin-side down, until crisp. Turn, cook for a further minute and place on the salad leaves. Sprinkle over walnuts and ginger and serve.
Ice-cream is one of the simplest of desserts, and easily dressed up with biscuits made to this recipe.
Makes about 30
110g/4oz plain flour
110g/4oz ground almonds
pinch of salt
50g/2oz flaked almonds
1 egg, separated
few drops of extract of vanilla
Sieve the flour and mix with the ground almonds and a pinch of salt. Rub the butter in with your fingertips and add the sugar and almost all the flaked almonds. Beat in the egg yolk and vanilla extract and roll into a long tube. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for an hour. Preheat oven to 350F/180C/Gas 4. Cut 12cm/14in slices from the length of pastry and arrange on a baking tray, leaving room for the biscuits to expand. Paint each biscuit with the egg white and press a few remaining flaked almonds into the biscuits. Bake until golden, about 20 minutes. Remove to a wire tray and allow to cool. !