Monday, February 24, 2014
I love innovative, trendy restaurants that break the mold. Especially when those restaurants take the best of the UK and incorporate it into chic, Americana. Oxford Exchange in Tampa is such a restaurant. I've been to Oxford Exchange several times on various trips to the U.S. and I have never found it boring.
However, when I finally decided to sit down to a meal there for the purposes of this post, I had to take note of everything Oxford Exchange stands for and weigh it up against the merits of value and convenience versus chic and trendy.
Oxford Exchange is tucked away in a shady section of West Kennedy Blvd in Tampa, Florida. The building was built in 1891 and used to house the old Plant Hotel. The building has been many things over the last 123 years, including an arcade of shops, an insurance company and a photo studio. The interior was inspired by many UK institutions, including: The Wolseley Hotel in London, The Dining Halls at Oxford University and The Garrick Club. There has clearly been a lot of thought put into this place and even more money!
However, as great as it seems at first glance, Oxford Exchange has several shortcomings; namely the food. Overpriced and disenchanted are words that spring to mind when I recount the meal I had. You would think that the owners, having spent so much time and money designing the building, would have taken a little more time on the menu. I found it to be bland and uninspiring, with clear technical faults.
Case in point: my Pork Belly and Blue Burger with Fried Egg, Bibb Lettuce, Tomato, Smoked Paprika Aioli on Toasted Oxford Exchange Pretzel Bread. Burger Buns should be made of one thing; BRIOCHE! Anything else is sacrilege and should be stamped out. The lower half of the bun was dense, weighing at least as much or more as the Burger Meat. The Pork Belly was tough and flavorless. Pork Belly, without the Crackling is just bad Bacon and has no purpose. If you're going to use Pork Belly, include the fat as that's where the flavor is.
This was, without question, the worst $14 Burger I have ever had.
My wife's Club Salad was slightly better, but didn't warrant the $14 price tag. I can't comment on the Eggs Benedict, but I was told that it was tasty, however, a little on the small side.
The best time I've ever had at Oxford Exchange was sitting in their deep, soft, leather sofas, drinking their pricey coffee and people watching. Although, their teas are pretty exceptional too.
If you're going to Oxford Exchange and want the best experience, I urge you to skip the meal and just relax in one of their many comfy seating areas… and just watch the young, trendy, hipsters scoot by on their way to the dining room, perhaps oblivious of the caliber of food that kitchen is capable of producing if the rest of it wasn't so amazing.
Great idea, beautiful scenery, nearly flawless. Too bad about the food. I can't help but feel that if it was less trendy and brilliant inside, they would have to produce better food, or risk losing clientele.
To see my professional food photography photos visit: Taylor Young Photography
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Every once in a while I visit a restaurant that makes even me, a gastronomic snob, feel humbled. Le Grande Table Marocaine is such a restaurant. Set within the grounds of the Royal Mansour hotel in Marrakech, Le Table Grande Marocaine is simply unequaled. I tell a lie, The Louis XV in Monoco probably holds that title. However, Le Grande Table Marocaine must fall within the top 5 restaurants in the world for pure opulence.
After sitting in the hotel courtyard for the better part of an entire afternoon, we were escorted to the restaurant, which rests within the grounds of the hotel, but is entirely separate from the hotel itself. A short, but breathtaking few seconds later we were shown our table. My wife and I have been to some very special, extremely posh restaurants in our lives but this takes the prize. Built by the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, Le Grande Table Marocaine is a visual tapestry of lavishness. Needless to say, we were both speechless for the first 10 minutes, while we took it all in: the sheer number of staff serving us, we counted 8 individuals, all with white gloves, the marble, the ornate tables and chairs, the plates with gold decoration and the giant windows illuminated by beautiful round gold and glass chandeliers. We sat in awe while we peaked at the menu, terrified of the prices. Well, I was anyway, as is customary at the world's best restaurants, the women are given menus with no prices.
As I sat there praying my wife didn't order anything with a price tag greater than 3 figures I suddenly realized that I was in Marrakech, one of the poorest places I have ever been. Where men whip and slap mules and donkeys through the narrow, filthy streets and beggars pretend to help you find your way and then hassle you for money. A place where the square is filled with tricksters and charlatans, pretending to lull Cobras and Rattlesnakes with melodic music. I would find out later that those snakes are de-fanged, or their venom glands are stripped from their bodies and no threat to man. That they die fairly quickly as they have no way of consuming their food.
This realization made it hard to continue with my dining experience. However, this epidemic is felt the world over. Dine at Le Gavroche in London and I guarantee that in less than a mile you'll see things that turn your stomach. The fact that it was on show, in such a visible way, somehow made it more real to me. And all of a sudden eating food in a restaurant built by the King, with a Princely price tag didn't really make any sense to me. But I was there and I would enjoy it and repent later. After all, they served brain, a cut we hardly eat anymore, and one I had been wanting to try for years.
But first, we were served Moroccan breads with butter, followed by a beautiful Amuse Bouche. To start, my wife had a Pigeon Pastilla, which was absolutely divine. Slow cooked Pigeon meat placed inside a Flaky, Sugary Filo Pastry. My starter was less prosaic, Lamb's Head, where the various cuts of meat on the head are delicately displaced then rolled and cooked. Although a lovely dish to try as the various meat textures kept my tastebuds guessing, it isn't a dish I would have for a Sunday Roast.
Main courses were exceptional and very unique. My wife had Lamb cooked for 36 hours and I had Lamb Brain in a Tomato Sauce. Before it was brought out to me the head chef came out to us and said, "Hello, I am the head chef. Are you enjoying your evening?" We responded and he followed that by saying, "I'm just checking that you did indeed order the Lamb's Brain. We don't get many Europeans or Americans ordering that." I said I did indeed order it and he said, "Good! That's nice to see. It is very nice today!" And it was! The texture is somewhere between Foie Gras and Mousse, with a lovely earthy, irony taste. I really enjoyed it.
Our mains were served with a 7 Vegetable Couscous, that was only rivaled by the Couscous served at Le Foundouk.
Dessert was not possible for either of us after our rich meal so we ended the evening with Petite Fours and Moroccan Mint Tea.
The bill for just the two of us came to nearly 4 figures with wine and we left feeling puzzled. And I'm not sure we'd go again. No, correction, we would not go again. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I'm happy we did it, but it just isn't worth going to again. Not when there are so many other restaurants to eat at in Marrakech.
So, my advice is; if you truly want to experience opulence and extravagance, or have enough money in your budget, visit the Royal Mansour and stay for dinner at Le Grande Table Marocaine. However, there are plenty of other restaurants that will impress you without you having to take out a second mortgage to cover the meal.
To see my professional food photography visit my website: Taylor Young Photography
Saturday, December 21, 2013
I'll be the first one to admit it; I'm a food snob! I know I am. It sometimes causes issues between friends and family and can occasionally turn into lengthy arguments, or discussions as my wife likes to call them. So, when I visited both River Cottage HQ and the River Cottage Canteen recently I was shocked that, between the two restaurants, I preferred the Canteen.
As I get older and Michelin Stars matter less, only slightly less I'll admit, but less, and my realization that the price of a bottle of wine doesn't always equal quality, although most of the time it does, I find myself doing a bit of extra research into restaurants I choose to go to. Currently, we live in a world over-saturated with celebrity chefs, and I'm yearning for simple, delicious, reasonably priced food. It's abundant in France, one can dine on a 3 course set-menu with Foie Gras, Steak Frites and Cheeses for dessert (if you've ever read this blog you know I don't much care for sweet desserts) for less than the price of a main course in many of London's swanky Michelin restaurants.
Like everything else on the planet at the moment, the price is rising… fast! China and Russia are making billionaires like the BBC churns out period-dramas. With all this excess cash, those people are looking to spend it on western influences, especially Food and Wine. Burgundy prices are at an all-time record. Trucks carrying First Growth Bordeaux to be shipped need armed guards tailing them to stop any thieves, for the cost of some First Growth Bordeaux is souring! And, of course, celebrity chefs are being made at record pace and their restaurants are opening up in every city on Earth. I truly don't know when it will end, but I have to say, as exciting as it is, it is really boring me now. I long for the independent food truck, or the kid selling me deli sandwiches from a stall in a village market as much as I crave Michelin Starred Haute-Cuisine.
Ok, rant over. Back to River Cottage Canteen.
My wife and I dined at the Canteen for lunch before going to River Cottage HQ. I thought it would be a prelude of things to come that evening. However, having eaten in both of these restaurants I can tell you that I prefer the River Cottage Canteen. By quite a lot actually. The recipes seem to come straight out of Hugh's books (but modified slightly), which I use on a weekly basis. In fact, I am nearly through cooking every recipe from his Veg Everyday book and have cooked many meals from his Three Good Things. I find his recipes to be 80% brilliant and 20% filler. Which is incredible for a recipe book. There are 200 recipes in each book!
My Pulled Organic Lamb in a Focaccia Bun, served with Chips and thinly sliced Pickled Cucumber with a Salad was absolute heaven! It was one of the nicest things I have eaten in a long time. And so simple. The Lamb was as tender as it could be and as juicy as you'd want it to be. My wife's Onion Bhaji was pure brilliance. The best Onion Bhaji I have ever eaten! They were served with Yogurt and Tomato Chili Sauce. It was majestic. And of course, we washed it all down with a side of Chips, because one can never have too many Chips.
Comparing the River Cottage Canteen and River Cottage HQ is perhaps a little harsh. They aren't really comparable. If I was given another free meal at either of these I'd choose River Cottage HQ and I would go in the summer when it's warm and you can fully take in the farm atmosphere and truly see what Hugh is trying to achieve. If I had to pay I would choose the Canteen every single time. It follows the exact same ethos as River Cottage HQ but the difference is, it is incredibly reasonable. My Pulled Lamb sandwich was £12.50 and my wife's huge plate of Onion Bhaji was £6.50.
Getting out the door for less than £20.00 before drinks and tip while eating organic, farm raised food, in the canteen of one of the nation's best and brightest chefs… priceless.
If you don't fancy spending all your pocket change on River Cottage HQ but want to soak up some of the brilliance that is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, do yourself a favor and take a trip to Axminster and visit the River Cottage Canteen.
Please check out my professional food and restaurant photography: Taylor Young Photography