Danish oyster boot camp (look away now if you don’t like oysters)

As you might have noticed from my rather oyster-centric Twitter feed, last week I spent a few days in Denmark snuffling out oysters. The trip coincided with Denmark’s Oyster Week – an event aimed at raising awareness about the country’s oyster production.

We traveled to the Wadden Sea Centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Centre) in Ribe, South West Jutland which, aside from being a haven for many species of migratory birds, is populated by thousands upon thousands of Pacific oysters, which we waded 6km (in the fetching waders, above) to pluck from their beds. Unfortunately I made the foolish decision to leave my waterproof in Brixton, which meant I got thoroughly soaked by the pelting rain – but it was kind of worth it when we tasted the oysters fresh from the sea, and Kasper, our tour leader cracked a bottle of Moet.

It was a good job we worked up an appetite, because that night we were treated to an absolute feast by English chef Paul Cunningham, who’s now cooking at Henne Kirkeby Kro in the wild West of the country – quite a contrast from his former kitchen at The Paul in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. Paul won a Michelin-star for his food at The Paul, and I’m sure it won’t be long until the stars come shining down on him here – where he’s using the extensive kitchen garden for the freshest ingredients, and making use of his rural ingredients for the best supplies. It was great to see the big man (he’s hard to miss, at over six foot) so happy and relaxed in his new environment, as towards the end of his time at Tivoli things were pretty fraught.

Paul is a maestro of flavour. He’s not afraid to put bold tastes together on the plate (a native oyster cooked on a Green Egg with Marmite, butter and toasted rye bread is one such example), but he rarely misfires, and manages to always get the balance just right. His love of good food is tangible when you eat his dishes – they are original, distinctive and memorable, a bit like the chef himself.

Check out this fantastic video of Henne Kirkeby Kro by First XI:

The next day it was on to Glyngore – a historic fishing harbour where we met the wonderful oyster producer Sven, who fishes for the most delicious native oysters and blue-lipped mussels from the Limfjord, which is renowned for its special, mineral rich waters. After being shown around the production site, where oysters for restaurants including Noma are graded and packed, he cooked us a wonderful oyster-based tasting menu.

Then is was time to don those waders again and search out some of our own natives in the Limfjord. Sadly, my waders leaked and I managed to get totally soaked, which I think may have inhibited my oyster catching abilities (or at least that’s my excuse), but some of us found some. Others netted some spider crabs, which apparently tasted good, but looked too much like actual arachnids for my liking…

You can read about the trip, producers and food in more detail in my forthcoming article for FOUR magazine.

Photos by Kasper Fogh

Dining around at MGM Grand

‘Dining around’. It’s a bit like sleeping around really: not a a lot of honour in it, makes the participant feel somewhat guilty after the event, but is deliciously fun at the time. A different course at a different restaurant – I’d never ‘dined around’ before Las Vegas. But if there is one place on earth you’re likely to get gastronomically promiscuous, this is it.  All those hotels – most within walking distance, each revealing a myriad of foodie haunts.

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The chefs at Shibuya

But our brief encounters all started (and ended) in the MGM Grand hotel. It’s home to a lot of restaurants – including Joel Robuchon’s three Michelin starred one, though we didn’t venture there (no doubt it already gets enough coverage, and there are other places in the Grand that deserve shouting about). We kicked off with palate-teasing morsels of sashimi at swish Japanese restaurant Shibuya.

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Yellowtail sashimi with wasabi greens

In between mouthfulls of the yellowtail sashimi with wasabi greens, soft shell crab tempura and tuna sashimi with truffled soy and rocket, we were treated to a throrough education in, and tasting of sake by the restaurant’s sake sommelier. Shibuya has an extensive sake list of over 70 varieties, and the sommelier talked us through three of his favourites (Nanbu Bijin; Mizbasho and Wakatake) –  insisting that the hot sake we’re accustomed to from local Japanese restaurants is a slur on the nuance and delicacy of the rice-derived alcohol. We were tasting ginjo sakes – the drink’s equivalent to AOC wines.

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Soft shell crab tempura

Never much of a sake drinker in the past, I was astounded by the complexities of the drink – the fact that, like wine, it is affected by terroir (the water quality of where the rice grows can affect the taste) and its mind-boggling production process. Here’s my bungled attempt at a summary of its creation: specially grown sake rice is milled down to different grades (or seimaibuai) to get to the starch in the middle, which is then converted into alcohol using an enzyme/funghi called koji. There is also yeast, sugar, and lots of water involved, and generally speaking, the more the rice is milled, or the higher the seimaibuai, the better, cleaner and more fragrant the sake.

Swilling the three different sakes around my mouth, I developed an appreciation I hadn’t previously thought possible for the drink – with some of them revealing themselves to hold notes of green grass, citrus and dryness, while others were fruitier and somehow almost remnant of very good sherry.

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Tequila!

Our next stop was refined Mexican restaurant Diego, where tequila was to be our poison, accompanying some lip-smacking south American fare. Diego has one of the largest collections of tequila in north America, and we sampled three alongside some spicy potato soup with chilli. The first was a Casa Noble Crystal from a boutique producer, which had had little-to no barrel ageing and a double distillation – the clear drink was powerful and lit up on the palate with a serious kick. Next was Herradura Reposado, which is the oldest rested Reposado in existence, and has taken on some oakiness, spice and colour from the barrel. But my favourite was the distinctly caramel Gran Centenario Anejo, which had hints of vanilla and was an extremely warming tipple.

There’s nothing quite like that ‘tequila burn’ to perk you up, and our party was becoming increasingly more animated as we listened to MGM’s alcohol director tell us about the artistic production of the spirit and how is made with the agave plant – which is not, despite popular misconception, a cactus – using traditional methods.

An oyster - just before it got "Scotched"

And then, our bellies and cockles warmed by the enlivening offer at Diego, we waddled our way to CraftSteak – where oysters, kobe beef and a Scotch tasting lay in wait. Kicking off with oysters to start with, we were advised to pour our Higland Park 18 Year Scotch onto the oyster – the theory being that the alcohol, which is aged in open warehouses on the edge of the Scottish coast, and aerated by the sea breeze, would compliment it. Normally I’m a shallot vinegar or au naturale kind of girl, but I like to think I’ll try anything once, so I sloshed a bit of the Scotch onto my little mollusc and slurped it down. Kapow! What a hit of cool sea, salt, and warming Scotch all at once! It was very lovely indeed, the meaty, minerally oyster blending well with the subtle sweetness and warmth of the drink.

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Amazing kobe beef with braised Brussel sprouts

Now, I know that the above picture isn’t probably the most appetising piece of food photography you’ve ever seen – but please believe me when I say this kobe beef was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. Marbled to perfection and melting in the mouth, it’s buttery texture was a sheer delight, and deliciously offset by the nutty, salty Brussel sprouts that came with it – braised lovingly in veal jus and served with bits of bacon. Cries of “I don’t usually like sprouts but these are amazing” circulated, as they always do when people try properly cooked sprouts. Our waiter also served up some golden potato puree that he described as “about 50% potato, 50% cream and butter”.

After also sampling a Johnnie Walker Green Label 15 year Scotch, which was a smooth single malt – we moved on to our final Scotch, the Ardbeg Uigeadail, non-chill filtered. Ouch. This was the blue cheese of Scotch! A very pungent number that our guide remarked had “peart reek” – an aroma derived from the natural fuel peat that grows near the drink’s production.

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A smorgasbord of desserts in the desert...

After that final Scotch a few of us were a bit worse for wear. But we soldiered on – selflessly dragging our gouty carcusses to Fiamma trattoria and bar for dessert. Or make that five. Here, amid vanilla bean panacotta with figs, goat cheese and chocolate cake, little sweet doughballs and molten chocolate sauces, we sampled three Bourbons and a Bourbon cherry cocktail.

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Woodford Reserve Master's Collection

Among those that we sampled was the George T Stagg Uncut and Unfiltered Bourbon. This was not for the faint hearted – an incredibly high proof Bourbon, it was the strongest drink I think I’ve ever tasted – and actually prompted a squeal. “This will get the rust off your bumper” – our miraculously erudite guide succinctly put it.

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The cherry Bourbon cocktail

We may have been the wrong side of sober by this point, but I feel that we learned a huge amount about the drink – which takes much of its colour and flavour from the newly-charred American white oak barrels it’s aged in, and by law can only have demineralised water added to it during its production. We also sampled some delicious food along the way, and got a feel for some vastly different cuisines all in the course of the same meal. I guess in some respects, it was sort of like a very posh, very sophisticated version of the heterogeneous buffets that Las Vegas was once famed for…

Blooming Brilliant: meeting April Bloomfield

And, like a hungry child to a mother’s teet, I managed to sniff out what I’m pretty sure is one of the hottest restaurants in New York – The John Dory. I’d heard a lot about its chef April Bloomfield before the trip, perhaps because she’s British, and is one in that rare breed of female and Michelin starred chefs.

The open kitchen at the John Dory
The open kitchen at the John Dory

Bloomfield won a star for her first opening The Spotted Pig, perhaps New York’s first successful gastropub, where she endeared New Yorkers with her relaxed environment and well executed, British-inspired fare. Since opening her second restaurant The John Dory in Manhattan’s Meatpacking district, she’s been lavished with praise – including a five star review from our very own AA Gill, who described the food at the fish restaurant as “cod-fisted, fishy-fingered food, made with panache and a big mouth”. So of course, I was dying to meet the woman herself, and that’s exactly what I did.

“It’s exciting opening a new restaurant,” she says from her perch at the dining bar at the John Dory (the counters are perspex filled with glinting fake fish). “You get to do things differently, improve on your first one and it’s nice because I had so many people who were coming up though the ranks at the Spotted Pig. It was great to be able to transfer them into another project and see them grow and blossom into bigger and better things.” There’s a definite American twang to her voice – she harks from Birmingham but you wouldn’t know it – it’s the neutral voice of someone who left their hometown long ago.

April Bloomfield at the John Dory, holding a John Dory
April Bloomfield at the John Dory, holding a John Dory

So I’m intrigued to know how she came to find herself opening a restaurant in this wonderful city. She tells me about working at the River Café in London with Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers for quite a long time, and feeling ready for “a different experience”. “I knew that I couldn’t go any further at the River Café – I was already their sous chef, I was already writing menus and doing all the ordering and I felt like I couldn’t go any further up the ladder.” So when she heard via a friend that Jamie Oliver was recruiting a chef to open a restaurant on behalf of New York band manager-turned-restaurateur Ken Friedman (who, it tells us here, used to manage the Smiths), she put her name forward.

“He [Friedman] phoned me and asked if I wanted to come to New York, and I was very blasé about the whole thing,” she laughs. “ I was like, “well, you know, yeah” – and two weeks later I was on a plane to New York for a whirlwind weekend of cooking, drinking and meeting Mario Batali. I got the thumbs up from Mario and they offered me the job and I took it, and I’m glad I took it.” And so am I. Without seeming to trivialise things, the starter ‘oyster pan roast’ which I eat that evening during my meal at the restaurant turns out to be the best thing I ate in New York, and possibly one of the best things I’ve ever eaten in my life. And you know how I feel about oysters.

The DELICIOUS oyster pan roast
The DELICIOUS oyster pan roast

It doesn’t come cheap mind. An oyster pan roast starter will set you back $19 – but believe me it’s worth every cent. Excuse me while I rhapsodise: The miraculous concoction (pictured above) comes in a little bowl, the thin, pale broth looking unassuming with a dash of olive oil and pinch of cayenne pepper floating on top. But the first slurp packs a punch so rich in flavour, so headily delicious that you’ll be gulping the dregs straight from the bowl before you know it.

The broth’s flavour comes from cream, shallots, white wine and lemon and is incredibly intense – the soft, lilac grey oysters minerally and bursting with freshness. It comes with a little crostini spread with sea urchin butter – an ingenious salty substance that brings the straight-from-the-sea element that’s lost with the cooked oysters back into the dish. It’s incredible. I’m going to have to leave it there, even though I have much more to say (and more quotes from Bloomfield) – otherwise this will be a tome rather than blogpost. Bloomfield was delightful – she’s opening another restaurant in NYC called the Breslin shortly – I just wish she’d open one in old Blighty.