In Praise of the Classics

In the world of restaurants, trend over technique can lead to all manner of kitchen disasters.

An over-zealous hand with the micro-herbs or a flourish of foam too far can make a mockery of a menu.

Dishes which should be simple end up overdone, dressed-up and disappointing, all in the name of kitchen creativity.

We’ve watched the ‘more is less’ approach on Masterchef: The Professionals in early rounds.

Keen chefs with an over-enthusiastic hand who elicit a withering glance from Monica Galetti as they try and cram every new ingredient, technique and flavour on to the plate.

See her silent plea for calm and clarity on the plate. Technique is everything; skill and precision the building block of the best cooking technique.

Classic French techniques loom large in every good kitchen and such lessons in attention to detail take centre stage in the kitchens of Matt Powell, pictured left.

He is the Chef Director for the Hotel du Vin group, where classic French bistro food is prepared with a subtle modern twist.

The hotel group was taken over last year by Frasers Hospitality UK, part of the Singapore-based Frasers Centrepoint group.

It will see investment in the hotels’ kitchens and breathe new life into the bistros in the distinctive buildings that make up the Hotel du Vin group, including the former shipping company HQ in Ouseburn, Newcastle, York’s Grade II listed mansion house and Harrogate’s fine Georgian townhouse. Not to mention Edinburgh’s characterful hotel – a former mental asylum.

The menus in the hotel’s bistros will be pared down to true classics cooked to the highest standards of French bistro cuisine, insists Matt:

“Our aim is to make sure that the chefs live and breathe the cuisine, so if you are having eggs benedict, it is going to be the best one in town, with superb hollandaise sauce, the best eggs and finest Ayrshire bacon.

“We are all about classic bistro food. What has happened is that plenty of places offer the same dishes but with no technique to back them up.

“There are dishes that are trendy but there aren’t the building blocks beneath the chefs to make the food rise to the heights it should be.

“It is all about the quality and using fine ingredients for the end product to be perfect. If you want a Louis Vuitton handbag you pay premium because it is well made from the finest materials. Good food should be the same”, he maintains.

There’s no denying the link between food and fashionability. So the revival of dishes some may remember as retro will be both a joy and surprise.

The ‘at table’ theatre of a flambe trolley, set to deliver dramatic delights such as steak Diane, coquilles St Jacques or of course, crepes Suzette, is already proving a hit at the Birmingham Bistro du Vin and before long will be gracing the bistro at Newcastle.

And what of the re-invention of the Black Forest gateaux?

“The trolley can’t be a one-trick pony”, laughs Matt.

“I can see it being used to deliver the classic French gateaux and or even afternoon tea with real flourish and drama”, he adds.

The Hotel du Vin chefs’ team recently headed off to the Brasserie Zedel in London, a grand Parisian brasserie transported to the heart of London.

As traditional as it gets, you find daily specials such as Poulet au Curry la Cassoulet de Toulouse, Boudin Noir aux Pommes and Quenelle de Poisson et Riz.

“It was a way of gathering the chefs together in an environment particular to their food where they could see and sense what we aim to achieve in our bistros.

“We showed the history of the food they are cooking and the surroundings in which it would be served an eaten; grand places with flourish and style and dishes that stand the test of time.”

With this in mind, Matt has asked his young team to create their own signature dishes for the bistros.

The idea being to give the chef some creativity on a menu that is also consistent for a diner who one day might be staying in Hotel Du Vin, Cheltenham and the next in Edinburgh.

“We want out chefs to put their heart and soul into their menus and be able to have some creativity in their own kitchen as well as following
our classic HDV dishes.

“We seasonally change our dishes, but there are some things we can never change – if the lemon sole was not on the menu there would be uproar.”

We want out chefs to put their heart and soul into their menus and be able to have some creativity in their own kitchen as well as following our classic HDV dishes

Likewise, chicken liver parfait and escargots a la Bourguignonne – juicy snails in garlic and herb butter.

There are twists on the classics and always the attention to detail in terms of well-sourced meat and fish.

“Cassoulet is a good wintry dish,” he says.

“You have the haricot beans, the confit duck leg, belly pork, sausage and herby breadcrumbs.

“We decided to give it some flourish at the table; you’re presented with a small pot of breadcrumbs with truffle salt and a diner is asked if they would like them on the piping hot cassoulet.

“When they are sprinkled on there is a ‘pouf’ of intense aroma and we like that little bit of mouth-watering drama at the table.

“Same with the beef Bourguignon which is a rich daube of beef, using short rib on the bone for deep flavour and with great pancetta and portobello mushrooms.”

The seasonal menu also includes rich, robust dishes such as Gloucester Old Spot pork belly, Lapin au Cidre – braised rabbit in a rich cider sauce – and the classic 28 days, dry aged on the bone steaks and our Plats du Jour selection. 

“We are going to be adding twists and contemporary touches but at its heart our menu is all about consistent classics,” adds Matt.

Food Life

At 24, Phil Hase is a young man at the Head Chef helm at Newcastle Bistro du Vin.

He worked at HDV in Cambridge, his home town, then Edinburgh before coming to Newcastle to head up his own team.

“I went to a private school where I ate three good formal meals a day. I could see chefs cooking and I would sit and watch them. I think something sunk in!”

Although he went out to eat often with this parents, Phil admits to being one of those boys who wouldn’t touch a pepper or mushroom until well into his teens.

“I went through a phase of just eating plain pasta with cheese”, he laughs.

But conversely, he learned to love a plate of oysters from a very young age – perfect training for his French bistro livelihood.

“I love the techniques of the kitchen and I’m very excited about getting to grips with some dishes of my own for our menu to make it more individual to Newcastle.”

We asked Phil to tell us about his own food life…

A childhood food memory
When I was 14 I went to Boston with my Dad and had oysters for the first time. We had a platter of different ones and I’ve loved them ever since.

The last meal you ate
I was at Longhorns in Newcastle for a meat board – loads of messy ribs and chicken!

Restaurant you return to time and again
Irvins in North Shields. Graham Cuthell was launch head chef at HDV in Newcastle. I love his food and the fact that he is so close to the fish market.

Memorable meal
I went to Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, had a tour of the kitchen, got the birthday plate – the lot!

Inspirational chef
It has to be Ramsay.

Favourite drink
A bloody Mary at Malmaison.

Favourite ingredient
Wild mushrooms. Such a variety of things you can do with them.

Favourite meal
Beef Wellington.

Last meal
Oysters and champagne, then beef Wellington with good fat roast potatoes, paired with the best wine our sommelier could find. Dessert would be a pear and almond tart with clotted cream.

Phil will be serving up a special menu for Newcastle Restaurant Week in January. Expect to see some hake on there!