Thursday 26 March 2015

Canard à la Presse at Otto's, in London

I'm always on the lookout for classic French cuisine, which seems a bit out of fashion in London these days, more's the pity, so when I heard about Otto's from Bridie Hall, I checked it out online and was thrilled to find that they served, among other things, Canard à la Presse.

The dish originated in Rouen in the early 19th century, and was made famous by the legendary Tour d'Argent in Paris. A duck is roasted rare and carved, and served in different ways, but the key feature is a specially constructed press which is used to squeeze all the juices out of the carcase, which are then used in the sauce. I'd heard about it before, and had always wanted to try it. Now was my chance. It's a luxury dish for a special occasion, but my birthday was coming up, which was a good pretext.

Otto's is a small restaurant on Gray's Inn Road, not very conspicuous from the outside. The interior is narrow, with tables reasonably close together on the ground floor as well as in the basement. It's furnished eclectically, with reproductions of classical greek friezes, large black-and-white portraits of actresses from the 50s and 60s, and a wide variety of silverware, and objets d'art, some of it quite old.

We were shown to a table in a corner, close to the entrance to the kitchen, and warned that there might be a wait of 45 minutes. We shown the menu in case we wanted a starter. They looked very tempting, but after some consideration we declined. A wise choice as it turned out

The duck was produced. It was very large. Otto uses Challons ducks from France, a breed regulated under the French Appellation Controllée system. Each duck is numbered; ours was No 2009. The duck was taken away for preparation.

After a while the owner Otto came up to the table and started preparing the sauce on a 1910 Christofle trolley, explaining each step as he went along.

We chatted to him while he was at the table. I wondered where he had learnt the technique. It turns out that he had worked in Paris at the Tour d'Argent in the 1970s, as well as at Maxim's and at the Plaza Athenee. Shortly after that time, Maxim's was taken over by Pierre Cardin. I remember they  had a brief period of global expansion and even had a branch in Singapore in the 1980s, but in the end the expansion didn't quite work out. Otto reckoned that Maxim's had a part in the downfall of the Shah of Iran, when they provided the catering for the Feast in the Desert, a lavish celebration of the 2500th anniversary of the Persian Empire which cost at least $17 million, and which not go down well with his subjects.

The liver is used in the preparation of the sauce, then strained, taken away, and after some preparation in the kitchen, brought back on brioche toast, accompanied by a cup of Muscat de Beaumes de venise.

The roasted duck was brought to the table, the breast carved into thin slices, the legs taken back to the kitchen.

Then came the pressing. The carcase was put into the press, which is a bit like a printing press with a bell-shaped contained that accommodates the duck. I was invited to participate in the operation. The screw is turned, and all the juices are squeezed out. These are collected and used to make the sauce. The press was made specially for this purpose in the early 1900s. Like the serving trolley, it was made by Christofle (are you beginning to see a pattern here?)

When the sauce is ready, the slices of breast are served with it. It's incredibly rich tasting, and delicious. They are accompanied by french beans and souffle potatoes, the later being like ultra-light air-filled fries.

The legs are served as a second course, accompanied by a frisée salad, crouton, bacon lardons and pieces of crisp duck skin.

There was no room for dessert. In fact, being a little out of practice, I decided to forgo my usual post-prandial coffee, and to have a mint tea instead. This, by the way, is scientifically proven to be effective in this situation. Mint is used by doctors for a number of gastrointestinal applications which I will not go into here.

It was great to find a restaurant serving classic French cuisine. It's nice that it's furnished to the owner's taste, with bits and pieces he has added to it, rather than being designed within inch of its life.  Otto is something of a collector, and he is keen on silver. Apart from the serving trolley and duck press, there are other items including a couple of giant samovars. As we were chatting, he brought to our table a glass duck from the Tour d'Argent, made in the 1950s.

The meal we had was a wonderfully theatrical experience, and every bit of it was delicious. I'd have it again, but not before trying some of the other things on the menu. The standard menu looks fantastic, and as special dishes, they also do Lobster à la Presse, with a special silver lobster press (Christofle, of course), and Poulet Demi-Deuil: chicken with fresh truffles under the skin. There is an extensive wine list, by the way, on which I am not qualified to comment, but it looked pretty impressive to me, and we enjoyed the bottle we ordered.

It was a tremendously enjoyable evening. I'm sure I would have had a good time had I tried the pressed duck at the Tour d'Argent in Paris, but I've got a feeling that Otto's might be more to my taste.  There are also rumours that things at the Tour are not as they used to be: pre-prepared sauces for their Canard à la Presse, and that sort of thing.

There were so many other dishes on the menu which I want to try, and I'm definitely coming back for more.

182 Gray's Inn Road
London  WC1X 8EW

Thursday 19 March 2015

The racing kolek of the Riau Islands (and formerly of Singapore)

Growing up in Singapore, I was aware of racing koleks, but I don't think I ever saw them, except in photographs. They captured my imagination, and later I tried to find out more.

The kolek is a type of open undecked boat found in the Riau archipelago, Singapore and Johore. These places were once part of the Old Johor Sultanate, but during the colonial period they were divided between the British (Singapore and Malaya) and the Dutch (he Dutch East Indies, later Indonesia).

Alexander Hamilton's "A Map of the Dominions of Johore and of the Island of Sumatra with the Adjacent Islands" (1727). Illustrating mainland Johore, eastern Sumatra, Singapore and Riau Archipelago as a single political entity, the map was made a century prior to the partition of 1824

Warm weather, warm water and light winds in this region allowed the development of the racing kolek, a long, lean, low sailing canoe with enormous sails, tippy and easily flooded, steered by a paddle, and kept upright by crew members hanging out over the sides, with their feet on the gunwale, holding on to ropes attached to the mast. The boats were sailed throughout 

In Singapore, they were raced by the Malay community from the 1800s to the 1970s. The men who sailed the boats mostly lived in coastal kampongs (villages). When the kampongs were cleared for redevelopment, the inhabitants were resettled in high rise apartments, and the sport died out.

45-foot Racing Kolek, Singapore

from Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, by H. Warrington Smythe. London 1906.

Lines of a Singapore racing kolek, published in the Yachtsman
from Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia, by H. Warrington Smythe. London 1906.

New Year Regatta, Singapore c 1905, from a postcard. National Archives of Singapore

In one respect the kolek was well ahead of its time. The method of keeping the boat upright by holding on to a rope attached to the mast, and hanging out over the side with feet on the gunwale only made it's appearance in England in the 1930s when Beecher Moore adopted a similar system for his boat Vagabond. (It's not clear if he worked it out for himself or got the idea from somewhere else). The first proper trapeze appeared in 1938, in Falmouth.

The good news is that kolek racing is alive and well in neighbouring Indonesia.

As I said, I've never seen them in action myself, but Sam Fadlil has written a lively description in his blog, and you can watch a video of a recent kolek race here.

Although Singapore is one of the world's greatest seaports, there is little interest in her maritime heritage. A small Maritime Museum on Sentosa was shut down some years ago, it's collection of boats left to languish in a warehouse. In its place, the so-called "Maritime Experiential Museum", a travesty of a of shopping mall cum theme park with educational pretensions, which I visited last year. It was a dispiriting and depressing experience. However, things seem to be looking up. The Singapore National Heriage Board has set up a Maritime Heritage Fund, and there is a new Maritime Heritage Centre.

Perhaps it's time for a revival of kolek racing, not just in Singapore, but in the neighbouring Malaysian state of Johor as well, where this sport was once practiced.

The big kolek races in Indonesia are held around 17 August, their National Day. The National Day of Singapore is on 9 August, that of Malaysia on 31 August. A great time for a kolek racing circuit between the three fraternal nations. I wish I could claim credit for this idea, but it was mooted 10 years ago. See the caption at the bottom of the last picture in this article.

Thursday 12 March 2015

Quotations from an exhibition

There's a great exhibition at MAK in Vienna about the Austrian architects Josef Hoffman and Adolf Loos, who represented two conflicting strands of early Austrian modernism. Hoffmann was a founding member of the Vienna Secession movement, which included artists like Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser. Together with Moser, he set up the Wiener Werkstätte, which produced beautiful, finely-crafted objects. Loos represented a different strand of modernism in which utilitarian objects and architecture were seen as providing the background for individual lifestyles and self expression.

There are lots of beautiful objects and pictures, as you might expect, but I though I would just post some photos I took of the quotations which were displayed on the walls. They are over a century old, but I was struck by how relevant they are to modern life today.

Ways to Modernism. Josef Hoffmann, Adolf Loos, and their impact
MAK, Stubenring 5, 1010 Vienna
Until 19 April 2015

Thursday 5 March 2015

Überstürzter Neumann and Einspänner

I'm in Vienna at the moment, attending the European Congress of Radiology. Have a look at the picture below.
It's an Überstürzter Neumann. An espresso, served in a little pot, is accompanied by a cup of whipped cream, into which the coffee is poured at your table. Vienna is yet another place with a distinct coffee culture, so much so that it is in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. This began after the siege of Vienna, when the departing Turks left sacks of coffee  behind. In the coffee houses here, your cup of coffee comes on a little steel tray, accompanied by a glass of water with the spoon laid across the top. You can stay for as long as you like without ordering anything else. It's all very civilised.

The basic coffee is espresso, not quite as strong as in Italy, and you can have it black, or with foamed milk in various proportions of milk to coffee. Then there are all sorts of other variations, like the ones involving whipped cream, and various concoctions with alcoholic spirits and cream (rather like Irish coffee). The names of the drinks are all German, which adds a touch of exoticism for those from English speaking countries, where everything seems to be in Italian, or some Anglo-Italian pidgin hybrid (e.g. Venti Caramel Moccachino).

There are also coffee drinks which I've read about but not seen on any menu so far like the kaisermelange: an egg yolk beaten with honey to which coffee is then added. I'd hoped to try one this trip, but so far have not managed to find it.

I wrote this in the Café Engländer, which I came across by chance on my way to a museum. It's not to be found in any of the lists of famous cafes, but there are favourable reviews online, and it was packed when I arrived. It's simply but elegantly furnished in an approximately mid-century modern style. Despite it's name, there's nothing English about it. Unlike many of the better-known establishments, the menu is entirely in German, with no English translation, and not all the waiters speak English. The coffee list is short, but I was here for dinner.

I've just had an excellent meal of beef prepared in a decidedly un-English manner. For starters, their beef tartare, with a warm soft boiled rather than raw egg. It was delicious. I know some people who like raw beef but are put off by raw egg white, and this would be great for them.

The main was tafelspitz, the classic Viennese dish of boiled beef, served with apple sauce, horseradish and a creamy chive sauce, accompanied by rösti potatoes. Also delicious, and one of the best versions I've tried.

I was quite full at the end, and was inclined to have an espresso (Kleiner Schwarzer) but I wanted a picture of an Einspänner for the blog, so that's what I had.

I've been wondering, did the Kaiser Franz Josef drink Einspänners, and did he get whipped cream all over his moustache?

Franz Joseph in hunter's costume, by Edmund Mahlknecht (1820-1903) • Public domain

Café Engländer
Postgasse 2, 1010 Wien, Austria
+43 1 9668665

List of well known Viennese coffee drinks

List of well known Viennese coffee houses

More on coffee in Vienna