Friday 10 February 2012

The Galloping Gourmet

I originally wrote this back in 2007 after a wonderful prize experience from the Evening Standard. How I miss their Gourmet Challenge competition which vanished when the paper became a free one a while ago. This was the second occasion I had been involved in the final - the previous time had a different format, and was also at one of Giorgio Locatelli's restaurants, but all the finalists had to guess the ingredients in a series of dishes and the person with the most correct (not me) won a holiday to Italy. On the second occasion, the evening out was itself the prize, and one of those wonderful "money can't buy" experiences that our amazing hobby sometimes throws our way.

I am a great fan of the annual Evening Standard Gourmet Challenge quiz – being both a foodie and a comper it combines two of my favourite hobbies – and this year’s quiz was a tough challenge (I have learned that the setters had gone to great lengths to make the answers ungoogleable) so I was delighted to get a LWE telling me that I was one of this year’s 10 winners, who would be taking part in a “Gourmet Gallop”.

The prize was dinner in four of London’s top restaurants – all on the same evening!  The ten winners (partners and guests were not allowed, which meant we all mingled much better than we would have done as couples) met up with our hosts from the Standard at Sketch, alleged to be the most expensive restaurant in Britain. More like a living gallery of modern art than a restaurant, we enjoyed a guided tour of the surreal labyrinth of rooms and staircases – even the loos were works of art – while slurping Pommery champagne and sampling canap├ęs as surreal as the surroundings. A strawberry and black pepper vodka martini is unusual enough – even if it doesn’t have a langoustine floating in it!

When the champagne bottles had been drunk dry, we piled into cars waiting to take us to Scotts, a very traditional British seafood restaurant. Here we had a choice of baked spider crab (my choice – and utterly delicious) or a dozen oysters, three each of four species. The oyster lovers in the party thought they were in heaven!

Back in the cars again, this time to The Greenhouse – a very stylish restaurant tucked away in a quiet Mayfair mews. Here we were treated to a choice of sea bass  or veal – I opted for the veal and enjoyed an exquisitely tender piece of delicious meat served with asparagus and girolles.

Already feeling full, we were driven on to Locanda Locatelli for dessert. Giorgio Locatelli was waiting to greet us, and it felt just as if he was welcoming us into his home. Dessert was served at a long, family style table and I’m sure we were authentically noisy as the wine that had been so generously poured with each course began to take effect.

The first part of our dessert was a rice spoon filled with tiramisu. Next came a small dish full of fresh berries topped with a Catalan Cream, then a plate with a tiny, elegant chocolate doughnut and an equally tiny scoop of coffee ice cream. Then coffee and dessert wines were served and we sat back, replete – or so we thought! Moments later, Giorgio appeared with a huge platter of Sicilian pastries,  and before we had finished helping ourselves, he was back with a whole cassata. But the best was yet to come – two enormous platters heaped high with scoops of ice cream of every flavour imaginable. Simple, stunningly presented and of course the most Italian dessert imaginable. Somehow we all found room for at least one helping.

The whole evening had been well planned, smoothly executed and a joy to participate in. At each restaurant we were warmly welcomed and made to feel extra special, and the food and drink were both generous and delicious.

And as we left Locanda Locatelli there was one more surprise for us – each of the restaurants had made up a goodie bag for every winner, as had the Evening Standard, so we had five smart carrier bags to take away, containing goodies such as signed recipe books, sweets, biscuits, cheeses, olive oil and, rather bizarrely, an eye mask. I fear that may have been intended to put over one’s eyes when standing on the scales next morning!

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