Thursday, 17 September 2009
69 Colebrook Row and Paul A. Young chocolates
A few days ago, Timeout London announced the results of their Eating & Drinking Awards 2009. Like most of these 'best of' awards it's a mixture of the bafflingly arbitrary and downright predictable - there are very few people I know who would argue that the brilliant Harwood Arms shouldn't have won Best New Gastropub this year, but Lola Rojo on Northcote Road for best Spanish Restaurant over any of the Brindisa joints? Last time I went to Lola Rojo I paid £10 for a very odd plate of potato soufflés and tomato foam which they laughably called 'patatas bravas'. It was like tapas re-imagined by someone who'd applied to work at El Bulli but was rejected for being too pointlessly experimental.
But it's the choice of Best Bar that, perhaps inevitably, causes the most controversy. The crucial difference in bars as opposed to restaurants is that you can get pretty much the complete experience just popping in for 15 minutes and ordering a martini, whereas you can't really say you've 'eaten at' a restaurant unless you've sat down to a three course meal over a few hours. So whichever criteria you consider to be the most important in a bar (décor, clientele or the way the barman twists his lemon peel), it's likely you have the budget to visit far more of them in the space of a year than you can mid to high-end restaurants. And more customers means more opinion. And more opinion means more controversy.
And there ends my disclaimer for the decision behind this year's Timeout Best Bar, because I really can't see what the judges saw in 69 Colebrook Row. It's perfectly good, of course - a tiny little neighbourhood bar, a well stocked drinks cabinet and staff who if not experts are at least fairly competent. But it was when I saw the barman timidly pouring out a shot of gin into a little metal measuring cup before dumping it in the shaker that I knew this could never be up there with the best of them. The drinks, too, were timid - a bland house martini using Martini Extra Dry and a cerignola olive instead of the far more tasty combination of Noilly Prat and a twist of lemon, and a champagne cocktail which omitted the usual angostura-soaked sugar cube and brandy for a subtle floral note. Maybe it's just that I'm not a Tony Conigliaro fan; I was similarly nonplussed with the praised heaped upon the Shochu Lounge beneath Roka on Charlotte Street - when everyone was talking about molecular mixology all I noticed was overfussy and overpriced fruit cocktails. Or maybe I'm just far more difficult to please these days. I blame Rules.
That said, at £7 a drink you don't have too much to complain about, and it was still a perfectly pleasant way to whet our whistles before an evening tasting the world's finest chocolate at Paul A. Young. An ebullient, endlessly entertaining man, Paul survived longer than most in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White's various restaurants before setting up his own artisan chocolaterie. Everything is handmade using literally the finest chocolate the world has to offer and last night was kind enough to invite a group of food bloggers to try some of his latest creations in his tiny shop on Camden Passage.
To go through every different type of chocolate we ate last night wouldn't make particularly interesting reading, but it was extraordinary how what are essentially the same three varieties of cocoa beans (Criollo, the most sought after and most expensive, Trinitario, widely used, and Foresero which makes up the bulk of the big manufacturer's output) can be combined in such a way to produce such remarkably different end products. My favourite was a 70% dark chocolate called Toscano Black from Italian producer Amedei - fruity foretastes combined with a rich butteryness at the back of the mouth; a very satisfying tasting experience. Paul also let us try some of his signature truffles and ganaches, including the award-winning (and heart-meltingly wonderful) salty caramel truffle, the shocking marmite-flavoured (yes, really) truffle and the even more experimental but nonetheless successful port and stilton. Hey, don't knock it 'till you've tried it. They are also the first people outside the US to stock Tcho artisan chocolate from San Francisco, who arrange their dark chocolate into flavour groups such as 'citrus' and 'earthy'.
We were shown around the tiny (albeit spotless and immaculately organised) kitchens where all the chocolates are hand made every morning, and Paul proudly showed off some of the amazing chocolate leaves he's made (using moulds crafted from actual leaves) for a special autumn window display. He also gave us a sneak preview of his next project - recreating a mayan ceremonial skull using tiny squares of alternating black and milk chocolate. It promises to be spectacular. Paul will also want me to mention his new book, Adventures with Chocolate, out on October 8th published by Kyle Cathie, which is the least I can do in return for such a fascinating and enjoyable evening. Many thanks to Paul and his crew for making it happen, and consider me your latest chocolateer.
69 Colebrook Row 7/10
Apologies for the lack of chocolate pictures - I was snapping away but if there's one thing the iPhone is singularly incapable of photographing it's small dark objects in a dark room. I will edit the post with proper pictures ASAP.