Brunch Extreme at the InterContinental Park Lane

At the beginning of brunch at the InterContinental London Park Lane yesterday, someone from the hotel asked me if I’d ever been there before.  A Park Lane hotel? No, not recently and not without a corporate event to attend. I imagine many London-dwellers are the same – generally when we want to go out to eat or drink, we don’t think of hotel restaurants or bars as a first option.  Those lovely Qype people folks arranged for a small group of people to go to the Cookbook Café and find out precise what they have to offer, and to see if we should reconsider.

One of the massive benefits of going to a venue with Qype, apart from the company, is that you get the best service imaginable, lots of attention and often special access – in our case, Paul Bates, the executive chef joined us for brunch and talked us through the menu.  The vast, bottomless bellini’d menu.  That’s right, folks. Choose from five different type of nectar then add Crémant de Bourgogne, swirled together in a champagne flute til the cows come home. Or til 4:00pm, I suppose, when the brunch finishes.

You start off with the Market Table – a buffet which starts with a bread selection and cold meats, and homemade piccalilli and chutney. Then it explodes into more lunch-like salads (vast bowls of chickpeas, greek salad), fruit salad.  There are pastries, juices and coffee of course too. Round to the other side of the table and it’s filled with local cheeses and sashimi.

::  Tuna Tataki ::

:: Lucious pepper salad ::

:: Seasonal preserves ::

While the group made a trip – or two – to the buffet, Paul chatted to all of us about the inspiration behind the menus and the cafe itself. As the name suggests, it’s inspired by cookery books and at first they used to faithfully reproduce dishes from the books that are on sale around the room. Nowadays they occasionally use some of the recipes for inspiration, especially when catering for events but create the menus themselves.  On sunny day like yesterday, it felt bright and airy in there – well, air-conditioned of course.  We were sitting up at the rear of the room, almost on a mezzanine level which would be great to book out for a big group. The diners were a mixture of a sloaney young crowd who looked to have been staying at the hotel, possibly for a wedding, couples, tables of ladies who appeared to be there specifically for the food and who were making numerous visits to the buffets. Can’t blame them.

:: Eggs Benedict ::

If you fancy something hot along with the Market Table, you can move on to the Full Breakfast option. Eggs any way, hash browns, bacon and sausages, potato cakes or a freshly baked waffle.  Go for the waffle. Also available on the À la Carte, we shared plates of these and the American-style pancakes.  The maltyness, the light crispy texture, and the plethora of toppings (chocolate sauce, maple syrup, that instrument of the devil that is clotted cream, fresh compote, waxy pistachios) made it my favourite part of the menu.  Ok, of that part of the menu.

Sticking with the more traditional brunch items, we also ordered the eggs benedict and most of tried the Corn and Scallion pancakes with wild rocket and scrambled eggs, both very good with sunshine yellow yolks spilling out of the eggs which are sourced from Berkshire. Reducing food miles is a concern for the hotel – as Paul reasonably pointed out, food that is procured locally costs less, is fresher and is seasonal.

On to the lunch dishes.  Yes, that’s right. We were only halfway through.

:: Pinkly perfect lamb and implausibly creamy mash ::

:: Gently spiced Monkfish ::

:: Courgette tart ::

I never would have guessed that I’d choose the vegetarian option as by far my favourite of these choices. Sweet roasted vegetables and buttery pastry. It even surpassed the lamb and duck-fat roasted potatoes for me.

To finish, we felt it obligatory to try the desserts trolley (that makes it sound insubstantial, or a chore – it wasn’t.)  Ok, I admit it, I saved space.  Here’s the plate I liberated (to share, honest).

:: Desserts selection ::

Clockwiseish from top left: Nutmeg creme brulee, hazelnut brownie, chocolate torte topped with praline and nuts, baked cheesecake, champagne mousse with raspberry jelly, Bakewell tart. I particularly loved the cheesecake, it was creamy without being claggy, and utterly moreish.

We finally, reluctantly left the table – though we’d dined for almost three hours, and moved off for a tour of the kitchens (photos on Flickr) exiting through Theo Randall’s restaurant. You can see some of the spirits in his backlit bar above – it’s somewhere I’d certainly like to come back and visit. It was named Italian Restaurant of the Year 2008 in the London Restaurant Awards and I’ll also be looking out for his book Pasta, coming from Ebury in June.  We visited the 7th floor club and then said our final goodbyes before dispersing gradually back into the sunshine for the rest of the afternoon.

Stars *****

Yes, it was a treat but our experience yesterday made me reconsider looking into what London’s top hotels have to offer. The brunch at the Cookbook Café offers bewildering amounts of choice, with literally something to suit everyone. Take a group, get everyone to plump for the £39 Bubbles and Brunch option and linger for a Bloody Mary or Bellini fuelled catch-up session.

Thanks to TikiChris, Qype and the lovely Esther, Charles and of course Paul at the InterContinental

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London Supper Clubs: Fernandez & Leluu and After Eight

Happily, it seems to me like Fernandez & Leluu has been around for ages – probably because we were lucky enough to first discover it back in November and have been back many times, including one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had. But they’re mere babes when you compare them to Jim Haynes, a seasoned supper club host with thirty-five years’ experience. I was thrilled when After Eight and Qype invited us to share an evening of dining, drinking and story-telling at one of our favourite east London (or anywhere) dining spots.

Not a typical supper club evening, in that it was buffet style rather than seated.  The After Eight mixologist in the corner was an excellent touch too, with four cocktails on offer.  No wonder I liked them all, as most were made with Tanqueray and I’m much better with that than vodka. The Bramble was tart, the Spring Collins was the choice of the night, the Rose Club one was surprisingly alcoholic (Niamh got the name of the liqueur which she thought would be perfect for bellinis, raspberry and rose I think) and the After Eight Alexander was creamy, minty, chocolatey, laced with cognac: I don’t usually like cream-based drinks but it was wonderful.  The barman was rather pleased with that because he wanted to keep the flavour of the chocolate itself, which he managed admirably.

Oh – the food? Prawns in a lime-citrus mayonnaise, a slab of dense terrine, springy fresh summer rolls, delicately fried spring rolls, crunchy chicken salad for starters.  Followed by perfectly cooked beef carpaccio, Uyen’s homemade foccaccia, mashed potato in potato skins, and marinated mushrooms that I would have sold my soul for.  Bread and Butter pudding – more like a crumbly little gingery scone – with Summer Fruits.  I bet you’d like to see a photo of that… um, yeah. It seems I mainly captured the guests.  So here’s some we ate earlier (ok, last year):

This time at Simon and Uyen’s it was as much about the company as the food, and listening to Jim explain how he’d initially opened his Parisien home to friends, then randoms, for over three decades (a house guest wanted to say thank you for his hospitality, and so volunteered to cook for a group of his friends: now it happens weekly, they accept 60 or more guests each Sunday depending on whether the garden space can be used and it’s a guest chef as often as Jim himself). We were all intent on inviting ourselves even before he (possibly maybe – not really) invited us all over to stay with him – yaaaay, I’m packing the bag and booking the Eurostar this evening!

He’s a natural raconteur with a genuine interest in people which helps to explain why he’s continued on with this for so long – and this is something he shares with Uyen and Simon.  Anyone who’s game enough to open their home to strangers on a monthly or even weekly basis not only has a passion for cooking but a great curiosity about life and fellow man.  Or is very, very brave. Either way I’m so glad, as supper clubs have provided some of my favourite meals over the past year.

What’s so exciting about underground restaurants, as much as the food, is being thrown together at a table with people you might never meet otherwise.  That could be risky, but to be fair we’ve only been to one supper club, elsewhere, with a ‘rogue diner’ who was rather painful, and demanding.  Though that can happen at anyone’s dinner party once the wine is flowing, or at any restaurant for that matter.  The pay-off is benefitting from fantastic hospitality – Uyen and Simon excel at this – with imaginative menus and the freshest ingredients.  We ate, drank and chattered until rather too late on a schoolnight Tuesday. Of course we finished as the After Eights were being passed around (a stalwart of childhood Christmas times.  As proven the other night, the correct way to eat them is to daintily nibble off a corner, and then post the rest of it into your mouth like a Lego man into a VHS player).  We stumbled home very happily (him: the cocktails, me: uncomfortable shoes).  Roll on the next night!

Thanks to Fernandez and Leluu, Qype, and Jo Seymour Taylor/After Eight