From Sydney with love

Australia's most original chef is ready to take London - but is London ready for her? Sybil Kapoor finds out why Christine Manfield takes all the fuss - and the food - lying down
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

West Street is not the most prepossessing of London roads. Tucked behind the Char- ing Cross Road, it has a slightly unsavoury air, despite housing two theatres and the Ivy restaurant. Yet, it is here that Christine Manfield has chosen to live and work at her new restaurant East@West. A brave step, given that although she is a famous chef in her native Australia, she is 50 and practically unknown in Britain. Not only that, but her partner, Margie Harris will be commuting from Down Under. Why on earth would you want to swap the limpid blue skies of Sydney for the whiff of WC2? According to Manfield it's simple: "I love a challenge. Better to have a go, than die wondering." Being offered the chance to open a restaurant by Christopher Bodker (chief executive of a string of restaurants including Kensington Place), in a large and competitive city, was irresistible.

Others are delighted by her arrival. Rose Gray of the River Cafe explains: "Manfield is known throughout the food world for her cookbooks and her flamboyant, stylish cooking at Paramount, her Sydney restaurant. People are going to be very interested to see what she does here."

Flamboyant, might be an understatement. On first meeting, Manfield's spiky blonde hair and piercing eyes are slightly unnerving. She exudes highly charged energy, yet has a surprisingly gentle manner and a wry sense of humour. "I want to encourage diners to let themselves go a bit," she says. "Eating out should give you a sense of mystery, it's a journey, but not one where you should be scared."

That's Gordon Ramsay out then, but then Man- field is offering a different experience to the more formal expense-account restaurants. At East@West you will be able to lounge on silk-strewn divans all day and eat her divine puddings, such as chocolate Jaffa truffle tart with candied kumquat parfait. ("I had visions of Catherine Deneuve," she says, "in an opium den, languishing on a silk-strewn chaise-longue, toying with a piece of cake"). Or you will be able to hang out at the bar and nibble oyster shots with cucumber vodka, shiso and enoki; or construct beautiful meals from her intensely flavoured, Asian-influenced dishes in the chic dining-room upstairs.

Instead of the normal three courses, Manfield suggests that you choose about six dishes. Each is a small course in itself; the steamed sea bass, seared sea scallop, pea shoots and coconut curry sauce for example, or the "breasts, legs and pinks bits" which turn out to be tea-smoked duck breast, spiced duck neck sausage and foie gras. Manfield is fond of adding sexual innuendoes to her menus, but has decided to tone it down until the public and, I suspect, Bodker, have got used to her humour.

Like many of the best chefs, Manfield is self-taught. "I was a primary-school teacher, but I was obsessed with cooking and would hang out with * chefs," she recalls. "It seemed such a vibrant world, and I felt that since I had the advantage of having a bit of experience from being a bit older (she was 33), if I worked bloody hard with passion and focus, I might get somewhere." If "somewhere" is to become one of Australia's most influential chefs, she has succeeded. According to fellow antipodean David Thompson, Michelin-starred chef at Nahm in London, Manfield's cooking at the Paramount (which she closed two years ago) was the epitome of modern Australian cuisine with its sophisticated understanding of Asian food and stylish, cool service. It was he who suggested her name to Bodker. No doubt he wanted somewhere local to hang out and eat her delicious food.

Manfield's first task on arriving here a few weeks ago was to assemble a team of chefs, some of whom had worked with her in Sydney. Her head chef, Jess Muir, was included in the initial deal. Other would-be chefs found their interviews quite unusual. Manfield is less concerned with experience and more interested in attitude. Which cookbooks did they read, what did they cook at home and where did they eat out? "You can teach someone to cook, but you can't instil them with the right approach to food," Manfield says. Thus, her French pastry chef was somewhat startled when he presented her with his first rendition of her strawberry and pink grapefruit trifle. "Think tits!" instructed Manfield. "I didn't ask for a 40-year-old's bosom - think 16, pert and nice and soft." The next version was perfect.

Nor is Manfield of the Tom Aitkin school, where choice morsels are scattered over the plate like a complex gastronomical puzzle and where the taste of a dish may not be fully appreciated until every element has been eaten. Her food looks stunning, but hits your palate at first bite. The tastes and textures continue to develop as you eat, so that by the time you swallow, you can't wait to take another bite. "Food is very sexual," she states. "It can be used to tease, seduce or amuse, and once is never enough."

But don't be deceived into thinking that her cooking is simple. Each dish is layered with complex flavours. The spiced turmeric and lemongrass broth, for example, which is used as a sauce for somen noodles and topped with stir-fried okra and lotus root is so good it could be supped alone as a spicy sour soup. It is made from a vegetable stock which is added to a turmeric, lemongrass and galangal paste before being infused with fresh and dried turmeric, tamarind and kaffir lime zest and leaves. Not something one might rustle up at home.

East@West opens on Friday. It will undoubtedly cause a well-deserved stir, it may even change the way some British chefs cook. Manfield is committed to staying here for five years, and I hope that she will remain true to her words: "I can't compromise and I can't be conservative when it comes to cooking." *

East@West opens on Friday at 13 West Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7010 8600

Grilled lobster, physalis, coconut and mint salad with fried shallots

Serves 4

1 large shallot, sliced
2 x 450g/14oz cooked lobster tails, removed from shell
1 tablespoon chilli oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cucumber, finely sliced
2 shallots, finely sliced
2 spring onions, finely sliced
2 tablespoons mint leaves
2 tablespoons coriander leaves
1 tablespoon Thai (or Italian) basil leaves
2 tablespoons sliced coconut
4 fresh kaffir lime leaves, finely shredded or finely grated zest of 1 lime
12 physalis, husked and halved
2 teaspoons pickled ginger, shredded
2 small Thai red chillies, finely sliced or to taste
2 handfuls small rocket leaves

For the tamarind dressing

200ml/7fl oz tamarind liquid (see below)
50g/2fl oz palm sugar, shaved
150ml/5fl oz lime juice
25ml/1fl oz ginger juice (see below)
50ml/2fl oz fish sauce
25ml/1fl oz sesame oil

To make the tamarind liquid break up about 75g (3oz) tamarind and place in a pan with 250ml (8fl oz) water. Simmer for 15 minutes, strain and measure 200ml (7fl oz) into a small pan.

For the ginger juice, place two tablespoons fresh chopped ginger in a spice grinder with two tablespoons water. Process and sieve - you need 25ml (1fl oz).

Stir the sugar into the tamarind liquid, stir over a gentle heat until dissolved. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients.

Fry a sliced shallot in vegetable oil over a medium heat until it is golden, dry and slightly crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.

Preheat the grill to a medium-high heat. Cut the shelled lobster tails in half lengthways. Season with a little chilli oil and black pepper and place under the grill for one minute to warm through. Remove and cut into chunks.

In a bowl dress the remaining salad ingredients in the tamarind dressing in a bowl. Add the warm lobster to the salad and combine.

Arrange salad on plates, then sprinkle with fried shallot slices on top and serve immediately.

Honey and sesame stir-fried beef bar snack

Serves 4

4 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons light honey
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 Thai red chillies, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
500g/1lb beef tenderloin fillet, thinly sliced
2 teaspoons white sesame seeds, lightly toasted
1 bunch watercress, cut
1 bunch chives, cut into 5cm/2in lengths

Mix together the garlic, soy sauce, fish sauce, sesame oil, honey, pepper and chillies in a bowl with half the vegetable oil. Add the beef slices, mix well and allow to marinate for one hour.

Heat a large wok and add the remaining oil. Throw in half the beef and marinade and toss over a high flame so the beef sears and cooks quickly. Use chopsticks to keep beef strips separated.

Remove from wok and repeat process with remaining beef. *

Sprinkle the sesame seeds, watercress and chives over beef.

Chilli salt bean curd

Serves 4 as a bar snack

500g/1lb fresh bean curd
3 dried (mild) chillies, roasted and ground
1 teaspoon ground, roasted
Sichuan peppercorns
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
100g/3 oz rice flour
Vegetable oil for deep frying

In a bowl mix together the spices, salt and rice flour.

Cut the bean curd into eight squares and coat liberally with the chilli salt crust.

Heat the oil in a saucepan or deep fryer to 180C/350F/Gas 4.

Fry the bean curd cubes, a few at a time, until a golden crust forms.

Remove from oil with slotted spoon, drain on paper towel for a minute then serve on a bed of stir-fried spinach or bok choy.

Strawberry and pink grapefruit trifle with Campari jelly

Serves 4

1 pink grapefruit, cut into skinless segments and sliced across the width 4 strawberries, sliced
150ml/5fl oz strawberry sauce (see below)
4 pieces genoise sponge, cut into 1cm/1/2in thick rounds to fit the base of the dariole mould

For the Campari bavarois

100ml/3fl oz full cream milk
50ml/2fl oz Campari
50ml/2fl oz pink grapefruit juice, strained
4 large egg yolks
90g/3oz castor sugar
2g/1/4 oz gelatine leaves, softened in cold water
225ml/8fl oz cream, whipped

For the Campari jelly

120ml/4fl oz Campari
40ml/11/2fl oz pink grapefruit juice, strained
2g/1/4 oz gelatine leaves, softened in cold water

To make the jelly, heat the Campari to simmering point and add the grapefruit juice. Stir the softened gelatine into the Campari, pass through a sieve and pour into 150ml/5fl oz dariole moulds.

Set the moulds on a tray in the refrigerator to firm. This will take at least 45 minutes.

To make the bavarois, heat the milk and Campari in separate saucepans to simmering point.

Whisk the egg yolks and sugar in a bowl until creamy. Gently whisk in the hot milk, then the Campari and then the grapefruit juice.

Sit the bowl over a bain marie on moderate heat and whisk until it reaches custard consistency.

Stir the softened gelatine into the custard and whisk for a minute or two more over the heat until the gelatine dissolves. Pass the custard through a sieve into another bowl and sit over ice to cool quickly and continue to whisk occasionally until the custard begins to set. Fold the whipped cream into the custard.

To assemble the trifles, layer the strawberry slices on to the jelly layer of each mould, then spoon over the bavarois until the moulds are full. Allow the bavarois layer to set completely, about 30 minutes.

Lay the grapefruit slices over the bavarois ensuring they are evenly spaced with the wider edge touching the edge of the mould.

Lay the sponge carefully on top of the grapefruit and secure each mould with a piece of clingfilm twisting the ends together under the mould to secure. Allow to set in the fridge for at least one hour before turning out.

To make the strawberry sauce purée and strain 250g (8oz) strawberries with lemon juice and caster sugar to taste. Smear on each serving plate.

Fill a bowl with very hot water. Unwrap the trifles and hold the moulds, one at a time, in the hot water for 10 to 20 seconds to loosen. Turn the mould upside down and let each trifle slide out. Place each one carefully on to the centre of the strawberry sauce puddle on the plate.