Hello there, it’s been a while. I have been away for two weeks in Reading for work training (aka Indoctrination Camp). Once I just about manage to start feeling at home somewhere I am shipped off to the other end of the country, the story of Expat Gourmet’s life. But hey, if work decides to put me up here, I’m not complaining! Doesn’t Malmaison mean ‘bad house’? I suppose that’s the idea, with the whole “secret Mal life” philosophy and those little double entendre messages on the key cards (‘Checked in the missus, checked out the mistress’ is a bit much). Anyway, only concerned with food Expat Gourmet is not one to judge, so with regards to the hotel two words will have to do: bloody amazing. Although please, Malmaison, invest in some good light bulbs. You know, you eat with your eyes, too and that’s no fun when you can’t see a thing due to the restaurant’s heavy ‘ambience’.
Where to begin. It was my mission for the fortnight to eat my way through the entire menu, and I very nearly succeeded. I understand that as hotel chains go Malmaison sits in the upper echelons. So it was a pleasant surprise to see that their food is locally sourced and, where possible, sustainable. They understand that this is something that can be used to their advantage when it comes to marketing (better than the ‘take home toiletries’ which people would rob anyway) so they are very vocal about their partnerships with local businesses. Nothing wrong with that, and I’ll pass these on too – especially the cheeses from Premier Cheese, they were really quite something else. Meat is supplied by Donald Russell and Vicars Game, seafood by New Wave Seafood and there are oils from Campbell Environmental Oils and pastries from Brown Sugar Bakery. If you live in Berkshire these are well worth checking out.
The welcome dinner on Sunday was probably the culinary highlight of the fortnight. I am used to not eating a huge amount – and now I had to make my way through a three course meal. Quite a challenge and I was flagging by the time I finished the main, but challenges are here to be overcome (see – I think indoctrination was successful!). My starter was amazing – chicken liver parfait with grape chutney and a selection of crusty bread and biscuits. The pâté had a really pleasant coarseness to it, separating it firmly from those sad creations that have been blitzed to a pasty oblivion. Being in a posh restaurant I only got a wee sliver of the pâté when I would have eaten the whole mould- it was that delicious, but there were two more courses to come and I had to plan ahead.
My main was lamb fillet cooked to perfection in all its brown and pink glory, served on a bed of crushed peas and broad beans. The 12 of us were given an array of sides to go with our mains: honey glazed carrots which were a bit “meh”, potatoes which I didn’t have and green beans with a hazelnut butter which literally changed my world. I love how one simple but powerful flavour can completely turn around the way something tastes – this is the way to cook vegetables.
And dessert. Readers may know that I haven’t got a massively sweet tooth and when I bake it is usually for someone else. I was pleased to see a cheese selection on the menu. I nearly wept with joy when the waitress placed in front of me an exquisite arrangement of beautiful little mouthfuls of smelly goodness laid out on a beautiful slate board. Being meticulous about reporting on what I eat, I asked her to find out from the chef what the cheeses were because I only recognised the basics. So here goes: Stilton, Fourme di Ambert (that’s a new one on me), Black Stick Blue, Bosworth Ash, Goldencross, Westcome Cheddar and Brie. I am now salivating.
It should come as no surprise that I craved something lighter on my second night after the previous night’s culinary orgy. And so I had Cornish Crab & Waldorf salad with a side of chips with tarragon aioli. Crab meat and apples definitely go. Now, the salad was delicious but a little bit shrug inducing when compared to the previous night’s offerings. That said, the tarragon aioli has only strengthened my belief in simple and powerful flavours. I will be trying this at home.
I was heading out for a climb on Tuesday night so this was the perfect opportunity to try the steak and load myself up with protein ahead of the exercise. I had the 35 day aged rump steak frites (naturally reared, grass fed and dry aged on the bone apparently) which was served on a gigantic oval plate – the meat taking up most of the space. I asked for a medium rare, unfortunately this wasn’t achieved on the whole massive area that was the steak, however it was fantastically light so I didn’t feel like there was a boulder in my stomach weighing me down when I was climbing later that night.
On Wednesday I decided to go all out and get a starter. I had a crispy crottin goats cheese with a selection of beetroot. Now everybody loves deep fried cheese, which is what this essentially was. I loved the marriage of flavours between the zingy goats cheese and sweet beetroot dressed with what I identified as balsamic reduction. Again, I was left with barely any space for my main, which was a confit leg of duck with a tomato souce, beans and chickpeas. This was a slightly strange way of serving/cooking duck confit, I am not used to it being cooked in a tomato sauce when it’s meant to be cooked in fat – but then again maybe it was only served this way. This kind of eating is right up my street – meat backed up with the humble flavours of pulses and lots of herbs. I also noted the crispiness of the duck skin – an amazing achievement considering it was braised in a sauce.
Thursday was the last night our company paid for us eating at the hotel restaurant. Sad sad times. Starter that night was free range chicken and artichoke terrine with girolles (plain old chanterelle) and silverskin onions. I had high hopes for the terrine so I was a bit disappointed when it turned out to be a bit of a letdown – too much jelly. However, chanterelle and artichoke is a good combo. This was followed by red mullet with crushed peas and tapenade. While the fish was absolutely to die for, I was less convinced by the pea and tapenade combination. Two good things served together don’t necessarily marry well. Good job I had the starter because the portion was minute.
And sadly that was it for the week. The following week we had to source our own food, but would get reimbursed for it. I wanted to carry on eating at the restaurant but also did not want to break up the gang so even ended up eating at Pizza Express one night! However I did go out for a Nepalese curry (!!) which was absolutely out of this world, and had a dinner date with the course trainer at the Malmaison restaurant on Tuesday – and this time I brought my camera with me. I had a pork fillet with chorizo, black pudding and cannellini beans and Shân ordered calves liver persillade (for the second time). I tried hers and it was fantastic – you don’t often see liver cooked perfectly. The liver was served with a balsamic and red wine reduction and we had a hard time fighting the temptation to lick the plate. My food was again right up my street, swine accompanied with more swine and some hippy beans. We also had a baby gem and blue cheese salad and grilled courgettes with Parmesan, a way of preparing roast veg which I’m sure the chef at Malmaison has somehow stolen from me (but I may have borrowed from Hugh F-W in the first place…). The only downside to the evening was my bottle of water. At £3.95 a pop that is a bit dear, but maybe I forgot where I was eating.
I feel like I should also mention breakfast as I did try everything on the menu over the two weeks. I ate a ginormous portion of kippers with parsley butter, another brilliant cheese and charcutterie platter, countless omelettes with smoked salmon, had full English on a couple of mornings and even tried waffles with bacon and maple syrup. But what really stood out and made my mornings was eggs Benedict with an oddly sour hollandaise (I tend to have mine milder), which I am now really fond of and will have to try and recreate at home. For a while I thought the only downside to them was a lack of spinach and this kept bugging me for a while. On the train home I realised I was thinking of eggs florentine… d’oh!
And that was it. I did not even particularly mind having to sit through the tedium of classes all day, knowing that the evenings in the restaurant redeem the experience. Would I stay at a Malmaison again? Yes, but probably with a gentleman friend, all the puns were lost on a single lady. I am thinking of whisking my parents off to the Liverpool Mal for a romantic weekend. Would I eat at the restaurant again? Hell to the yes.
That said, I could now do with some good old unpretentious home made grub.