The original plan was to go to Stockholm, but that would have involved handing over our hard-earned dosh to Ryanair, something we had pledged never to do again… so that plan was never going to take off. Thankfully, with the help of Google and our trusty 36 Hours in Europe book, it didn’t take long to conjure up an alternative: Gothenburg. Sweden’s second city caught our attention because it was often lumbered with the tagline of being a little rough around the edges but undergoing a resurgence. We like the sound of places like this, they are usually a little more under the radar and less chaotic than the main tourist haunts.
After spending a long weekend in Gothenburg, I would whole-heartedly recommend it as city break destination for those who are content with strolling the pretty streets, browsing through the trendy shops, and wandering down the halls of their excellent museums. We did all that, but mainly so we could walk off all the food we were devouring. The city is covered by both the Michelin Guide and its specifically Nordic counterpart, the White Guide, so there is a lot of great food to be had at all times of the day. We dabbled in the Swedish ‘fika’ culturewith stops for tea and buns, while also enjoying a mix of traditional and modern Swedish cuisine – here are a few ideas for you if you ever find yourself in Gothenburg…
I looked over the menu not once, but twice, fervently studying each and every course listed. There are seven on the tasting menu and none of them have any mention of a fish amok. This, dear friends, startles me because it is quite unusual for a Cambodian restaurant to be without a version of the national dish, but then, Embassy is not your usual Cambodian restaurant. This is Cambodian-inspired fine dining, where chefs Pol and Sok have combined their love of local ingredients with their French culinary training. The double act are nicknamed the Kimsan Twins, though they aren’t really twins but coincidentally share a surname. I get it, it’s catchy, but after dining at their all-female restaurant, I think the food and service is memorable enough.
I’ve barely had time to admire the crisp white tablecloths and the very chic decor before the amuse bouche arrives. It’s a steamed baby tomato stuffed with buffalo; I like that it looks dainty and cute, but tastes a lot bigger and bolder. I take this as a sign of things to come and heartily look forward to the next course. The lotus stem salad comes tightly packed together and well dowsed in the sweet and sour dressing which I’m a fan of, even though it means the slow cooked pork belly which is also supposedly present, is nowhere to be tasted.
One of the first London life lessons I learnt was that one should plan ahead to avoid disappointment, which makes it even more hilarious that one of the last lessons I learnt was that even the best laid plans can be thrown into disarray. All it takes is one mistake, one mishap, or one big misunderstanding and the next thing you know, Oxford Circus tube station is closed and the restaurant you had your heart set on visiting for months decides to follow suit. And all because two drunkards got into an argy bargy, some noises were heard, and Chinese whispers ensued… but that’s another London life lesson right there.
So that was ‘goodbye big blow-out meal at Bonhams’ and ‘hello to plan B…’ which consisted of changing out of the glad rags, throwing a ‘why are people so silly’ tantrum, heading down to the cosy local bistro, and frantically scouring Opentable for a decent Saturday night reservation. I wasn’t hopeful but my luck was in and hey presto… hello to The Frog E1! Both of Adam Handling’s amphibian offerings have piqued my interest for some time now but they just kept being buried deeper and deeper in ‘the list’ so I thought Friday night’s woes might actually be Saturday night’s blessing in disguise.
As I hoisted myself into position at The Test Kitchen, a slight apprehension began to creep over me. What does one open themselves up to when they choose to dine in a restaurant where a ‘test’ is so crucial to the concept? Who is being tested here, the diners or the chefs, I wondered? A dear friend of mine thrives on ‘interesting’ dining experiences, so I imagine that he would be in his element, playing guinea pig to chef Adam Simmonds and his team. Whereas I, despite my fascination with ingredients, provenance, culinary wizardry, still dine by a much simpler litmus test – does it taste good and would I want to eat it again?
I would prefer dishes to have been tried and tested before they got to me, but then a certain someone rather pointedly reminded me that I also enjoy giving my two cents worth and this time the chefs actually welcome it. Touché. With no response, I pulled myself together and settled into my seat, which by the by, was not designed with petite people in mind, bracing myself for what was to come. The opening gambit, a small bowl of roasted pearl barley was an easy pass. Parsley gave the nutty barley a green glow and freshness, the garlic was faint yet warming, and all finished off perfectly with crispy shallot rings!
“Come for the experience, not the hype”. That’s what Gaggan suggests his guests do when they dine at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok. Seemingly sound advice, a reasonable request even, but my problem was that regardless of whether I came for one or the other, neither stacked up. The hype is unavoidable. Even if you don’t have a Netflix account and an unhealthy obsession with current food culture, the chances are you’ve still at least heard of the runaway hit Chef’s Table. For the viewers, it’s an insight into the lives and inner workings of some extraordinary culinary minds, and for the chefs themselves, I imagine it’s ticket to celebrity chef stardom and a guaranteed full house for the next few years.
If Chef’s Table lured me in, it was the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards who sealed the deal when they awarded Gaggan the top spot for the third year running. Upon reading that, I decided on a whim to make a booking; with only a couple of weeks until our Bangkok visit, I wasn’t holding out much hope but imagine my elation when they confirmed our table for two. So yeah, I fell for the hype; hook, line and inspirational-sob-story sinker, but after embarking on this twenty-something course journey at Gaggan, I was disappointed to say that I did not fall head over heels for the experience.
It takes a very calm and controlled chef to let restaurant guests into their kitchen because once these civilians pass the threshold, there’s absolutely no turning back. They’ll have their beady little eyes on the chefs’ every slice, dice, and swivel of the pan while simultaneously being a hazard to those very chefs trying to slice, dice, and swivel their way towards service. They’ll have no idea of the kitchen protocol, they’ll get in the way, and… in some cases, they might even bring the kitchen to a grinding halt with something spectacularly silly like slipping over and finding themselves smack bang on the kitchen floor. The hot-headed chefs panic, the cool chefs just sort it out and carry on.
I know; because I was that clumsy guest, and I can confirm that Phil Fanning was that cool, calm and collected chef. My embarrassing incident unfolded at Paris House, a three AA Rosette and frequently top-rated restaurant housed in the most striking building. This was the original Paris House built in 1878 as part of the Paris International Exhibition – the 9th Duke of Bedford happened to be so enamoured with it, he had it dismantled, shipped, and rebuilt on the Woburn Estate. The estate itself is equally stunning and both combined to give Paris House the most dramatic entrance of any restaurant I have ever been to… the scene was well and truly set for what would be an eventful masterclass and lunch at their Chef’s Table!
I think I was around twenty when I first heard of the Michelin Guide and decided that sometime in my future, somewhere along my travels, I would experience a Michelin star meal. Just once would do. At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, I had that first experience. What I didn’t know at the time was that there would be more to follow; lucky lady, eh? Many, including myself, would say that the Michelin guide is just that, a guide. It’s just another list of recommendations so definitely not the be all and end all of restaurants, but I do think it provides a fairly solid benchmark of quality. We’ve had one experience that we didn’t think was quite up to scratch, another couple which were so-so but overall, they’ve been worthy of the recognition.
Now, at the riper, older age of thirty, my current count of Michelin star meals is twenty-three – I’ve comfortably exceeded my goals by a smidge, don’t you think?! Our latest one was in celebration of my big 3-0; until I get the call up to be a Michelin inspector or have no cares in the world about my finances, these meals will still be reserved for special occasions only. I toasted to the end of my twenties and welcomed by thirties in beautiful Seville with some of my nearest and dearest friends, and we ended the day at the city’s only star adorned restaurant – Abantal.