Livebait is a London wunderkind. It opened in 1996, received rave reviews and several awards, was bought for a handsome sum by Chez Gerard plc, then spawned an offspring in Covent Garden. Now, as night follows day, comes the cookbook. To review it I thought I needed a Londoner, because he or she was more likely to have access to the ingredients used at Livebait. The guinea-pig who volunteered was barrister Peter Brunning, age 52.
Peter's feelings about this book are as mixed as the egg yolk and sugar in a custard. While his initial impression was favourable, by the time the report came in he'd developed some serious doubts about the book. I think he understated the challenge it presents for any but the most skilled, experienced, leisured and well-monied cook.
Peter thought the book "well presented" but had trouble with some of the sections into which it's divided. "I couldn't understand the theme of 'Dishes from Left Field', and those in 'Family Meals' didn't seem much different from the supposedly more adventurous 'Grandstand Dishes'." As the family section includes a dish that combines fried tuna loin, roasted chicken wings (pan-fried before roasting, boned and shredded after), and a lentil stew, I can see what he means.
"The list of ingredients is followed by cooking instructions in short numbered paragraphs," Peter said. "They are clear, if over-succinct. Many of the recipes, not surprisingly, bear the hallmark of a restaurant kitchen: elaborate in terms of ingredients, which makes them time-consuming to set up, but not particularly difficult to do."
Peter continues: "Lime Polenta Fries combines polenta, red chillies, spring onions and limes. The recipe is concisely described, but its overall effect was of an unsuccessful attempt to give polenta a flavour (a doomed exercise, in my opinion). Dipping the chillies, onion and polenta product in flour and frying to produce chips was novel, but killed off any vestiges of flavour."
Peter gave lower marks still to French Bean Tarator - French beans with a sauce of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, paprika and walnuts. "The ingredients were fairly easily combined but the recipe gave no clue as to the consistency of the finished product, and provided no photograph. 'It makes a splendid starter,' we are told. Well, the finished product was so pungent that no one would serve it with a main course, and who wants to eat a plate of French beans for a starter?"
Happily, "more substantial items are more successful. The John Dory, Spinach and Potato Pie was excellent: easy to cook, light and very tasty. The dish [potatoes, peppers, leeks and fish in filo pastry] also lends itself to variations. Roast Monkfish Tail with Braised Red Cabbage is simple to prepare and easy for every day or for a dinner party. The accompanying cabbage is cooked in red wine and orange juice with various herbs - delicious and novel."
"The recipes seemed practical but many were not cheap. I calculated that the John Dory Pie cost pounds 20 in fish ingredients alone. But it's a pity that fish is often not really the centrepiece of many of the recipes, so the expensive ingredients are overridden by other flavours. In Meatballs and Whole Scallops, the spiced sausage-meat swamped the taste of the scallops. After much to-ing and fro-ing, a fairly extensive list of ingredients will yield only a 'starter' or 'light main course', which would be too elaborate for home entertaining."
But "the desserts seemed delicious and were less eclectic than the main courses. The Banana Tart with Lemon Granita was straightforward to cook and looked great on the plate. And the Strange Breads section produced some really tasty loaves."
"The photographs of the restaurant are in black and white and those of the dishes are in colour. I would have preferred more of the finished items and less of the kitchens. There were none of the actual cooking or preparation process, and some readers might have welcomed more tuition in this form."
VALUE FOR MONEY
"The merits of the book are that it covers a range of items, including sauces and stock. I found it useful for exper-imenting with modern fish recipes. But I think a more experienced fish cook would prefer something where the emphasis was more on fish as an ingredient and with a larger number of recipes (eg Leith's Fish Bible)." And a less experienced cook shouldn't go anywhere near the book.
MARKS: SIX OUT OF TEN
! If you'd like to be a Cooking the Books guinea pig, write to Richard Ehrlich at the IoS Review, 1 Canada Square, E14 5DLReuse content