Food: Their way

A trio of favourite restaurant dishes; Signature dishes should sit quietly on the menu, happy to know that they are trusted old retainers Photograph by Jean Cazals
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It is a rare restaurant that cooks a plate of food so good that you order a second helping. A dish of fried squid and spaghetti with garlic, parsley and chillies served to me at Alastair Little Lancaster Road was that special. The restaurant had been open only about two nights, and was bustling with excitement. The whole meal was pretty terrific, in fact. This particular dish, cooked by Al's chef, Toby Gush, takes its place among those few restaurant dishes eaten in beloved eating places over and over again. I hope the squid makes regular appearances at the restaurant, and doesn't end up in rep.

This experience prompted me to ponder: which are those Elysian dishes? As a chef I know that at Bibendum, the classically done, no-messing-about, escargots, steak au poivre and caramel ice-cream are what many people come to the restaurant specifically to eat. I like that. The steak is something I would never tire of cooking, and I hope that if - God forbid - it ever came off the menu, guests might wave their napkins in the air and fuss a bit.

It is the buffing and honing of a dish that makes it great. Along the way you find out its temperament: how much you can refine it, yet not overwork it, and how to show it in its best light without making it too much of a star. Signature dishes should just sit quietly on the menu, happy to know that they are trusted old retainers, slightly pleased with themselves but not at all wishing to upstage a bright young seasonal whimsy.

I give below Alastair Little's squid dish, along with two other restaurant dishes that give me the utmost pleasure and a reassurance that all is well with the world. These dishes are my own interpretation; having cooked (and eaten) them often, I take responsibility for their authenticity.

Al and Toby's squid, serves 2

200g/7oz spaghetti (use Di Cecco or Cipriani brand; home-made is too soft, and will break up)

3 tbsp olive oil

350g/12oz squid, uncleaned weight (ask your fishmonger to clean and gut them)

3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

sea salt

12 tsp (or more) dried chilli flakes

lemon juice to serve

1 heaped tbsp flat-leafed parsley, chopped

In a large pan of salted boiling water, cook the spaghetti for 6-7 minutes, until just cooked but still firm. Drain in a colander and refresh well under cold running water. Slice the squid bodies in half lengthways, and then into thin strips. If the tentacles are big, cut them in half.

Put a large, non-stick frying pan on to heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Heat till smoking, then throw in the squid. Stir-fry briskly for about 2 minutes and tip on to a plate. Lower the heat, add another 2 tablespoons of oil and heat gently this time. Fry the garlic until pale golden and then add the chillies and spaghetti. Reintroduce the squid, turn up the heat, and stir-fry vigorously until the spaghetti takes on a little colour and becomes deliciously crisp in parts. Season well, squeeze over the lemon juice and throw in the parsley. Serve.

Croustade d'oeufs de cailles Maintenon, serves 4

This ethereal speciality, in which pastry boats set forth with a cargo of soft-boiled quails' eggs cloaked in hollandaise sauce, has been on the menu at the Connaught Hotel in London for many years. I am told that quails' eggs have often bitten the dust as they were being painstakingly peeled. The joy is the fact that the eggs have runny yolks. These spurting yolks have ruined many a tie - which, of course, you must remember to wear when visiting this most illustrious of dining rooms.

You will need eight individual metal pastry tins in the shape of tiny boats, with sharp, pointy ends.

for the pastry

225g/8oz plain flour, sifted

175g/6oz butter, frozen in a block

pinch of salt

6-7 tbsp ice-cold water and juice of half a lemon

for the mushroom duxelles

55g/2oz butter

4 large shallots, peeled and chopped

350g/12oz flat mushrooms, chopped, stalks and all

salt and pepper

2 tbsp port or Madeira

150ml/5fl oz dry white wine

squeeze lemon juice

1 flat tbsp fresh tarragon, chopped

16 (or more) fresh quails' eggs

for the hollandaise sauce

3 large egg yolks

225g/8oz unsalted butter, melted, left to settle in the pan and kept warm

juice of half a lemon

salt and white pepper

1 tsp snipped chives to serve

First make the pastry. This faultless and quick recipe comes from Delia Smith's Cookery Course.

Put the flour into a large bowl and add salt. Holding the butter with its paper, grate it in, dipping it into the flour occasionally so that it doesn't become too sticky. Then, gently turn the flour and butter around with a knife until all the flecks of butter are coated with flour and the mixture resembles lumpy breadcrumbs.

Now, a tablespoon or two at a time, incorporate the lemon-water until the mixture gently comes together as a mass and leaves the bowl clean. Roll in a little extra flour and slip into a plastic bag. Refrigerate for an hour.

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Roll the pastry as thin as you dare, butter the tins lightly and line with the pastry (cut into rough diamond shapes, slightly larger than the tins). Prick with a fork and bake for 20 minutes, or until crisp and light golden. Turn off the oven, leave in the tins for 5 minutes, then turn on to a plate and keep warm in the switched-off oven.

To make the duxelles, fry the shallots in the butter until golden, then add the mushrooms. Season and stew until fairly dry, and any juices from the mushrooms have been driven off. Add the Madeira and wine and simmer until the alcohols have reduced to almost nothing. Add the lemon juice and tarragon and briefly work in a food processor until the mixture becomes a coarse puree; it should not be smooth. Tip into a bowl, cover with a plate and keep warm over a pan of simmering water.

Boil the quails' eggs in vinegared water for 3 minutes and then immediately arrest the cooking by running under the cold tap for at least 3 minutes. Very carefully shell the eggs and place in cold water. Put a small pan of water on the stove for warming the eggs later.

To make the hollandaise, whisk the egg yolks with a splash of water until thick. Remove any scum from the surface of the butter and add it to the eggs in a thin stream, whisking constantly, until similar in consistency to mayonnaise. Add the lemon juice. Season.

Whew! It may seem longwinded, but once all the constituents have been prepared, it is simply an assembly. Warm the eggs through in the pan of hot water, fill the pastry boats with a spoonful of the duxelles, smoothing the surface, pop two eggs on each and spoon over the hollandaise. Sprinkle with chives and serve.

Baccala mantecato

This is from Riva restaurant in Barnes, west London - a true neighbourhood restaurant a mile from Hammersmith Bridge. This silky-smooth mass of salt cod and fruity olive oil is the best I have ever tasted.

450g/1lb dried salt cod, soaked in several changes of cold water for 24 hours

3 cloves garlic, crushed to a paste with a little salt

150-200ml/5-7oz fruity olive oil, heated to just warm

juice of 1 small lemon

1 tbsp flat-leafed parsley, chopped

black pepper

Cover the cod with cold water in a pan and simmer ever so gently for about 10 minutes. Drain, carefully remove any bones and skin, flake the flesh and put into the bowl of a food processor with the garlic and a couple of tablespoons of the cooking water (if you think the mixture looks too oily while processing, add more water). Pulverise for a few seconds, but do not overwork. With the motor running, start to add the oil in a thin stream, stopping from time to time to scrape down the sides with a spatula. When the baccala looks glossy and homogeneous, it is ready (if you have oil left over, don't worry; it can be used in something else). Add the lemon juice, parsley and pepper and mix in. Serve warm with grilled polenta, as is the way at Riva, or slices of grilled country bread brushed with olive oil