march into merivale - behind the scenes

mainpictureAh… The Ivy! That multi-levelled concrete wonderland. For where else would you wander down an inconspicuous alley and up a flight of non-descript stairs to find a playground of beautiful people, complete with faux gardens, a showerhead (that apparently intermittently produces spurts of water) and deck chairs. Famous for lines that snake down the street at nearly-midnight on a Friday and eagle eyed door staff - ready to pounce upon a fashion faux pas.

It is also, as I have semi-recently discovered, a place for people of a culinary disposition. This little known fact was first brought to my attention by a colleague, who had dined at Uccello courtesy a family wedding reception. It was reiterated when my uncle, fresh off a plane from Malaysia, called to ask where this Ivy place was and would I please make a reservation at one of the restaurants because his friends said he had to try it. Had to. Chop chop.
I have, in past, gushed. Nay. Raved about the prosciutto and parmigiano reggiano entrée. The slow braised calamari. The chocolate fondant. (All Uccello, where Head Chef, and sometime recipient of a starry eyed gaze, Massimo Bianichi resides, having been stolen, nay, lured from Buon Ricardo).

chefs hiding out
chefs hide out in the main kitchen at the ivy

So when I, along with some others (being those of Chocolate Suze, Citrus & Candy, Eat Show & Tell, Grab Your Fork and Simon Food Favourites) received an email asking if we would like to come along to the Gala Dinner, just to check things out, my immediate reaction involved a couple of involuntary profanities and a spontaneous dance-round-the-office. Good profanities, in case you were wondering. And an inelegant dance, for clarification's sake.

makeshift shopping list
a makeshift shopping list

I have always been, and still am, amazingly in awe of people who cook for a living. Even more so of those who have invested their time, energy and dollars into opening an eatery - be it a café, a restaurant, or something entirely different. The long hours in the kitchen, the difficulties faced when sourcing fresh produce, the cramped spaces, the swearing. The sweat. Thelack of resources. The Ivy is not so. It is, compared to the kitchens I've seen, a whole new world entirely.

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the dry store

Take, for example, the dry store. Cans of oil, paper towels, rice, beans and a bucket of pink feathers. Another example? The space they are working in. "This is" we are told "the kitchen that the photo shoot was taken in." I look up, the words sinking in. "That kitchen shoot?" asks Karen. "Yes." "Oh." Giggles ensue. It is large, high ceilinged and airy. Stainless steel benchtops abound. The walk-in fridge is spacious (and a constant source of amusement for Suze, who wanders in, then out, then in again) and utensils are washed and dried in an entirely separate area, complete with separate staff.

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canapes, ready for plating

We are snapping away, a little shyly, a little shakily on my part from all the excitement when a voice says "Please, help yourselves to the canapes." It is Richard Johnson, looking up momentarily from his chat with Howard. I look at Suze. "I feel funny about eating in the kitchen" says she. "Where will we put the spoons?" say I. We are overheard and "A couple of platters for the food blog people!" is ordered, moments later (and much to our glee).

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quail saltimboca - quail breast and sage rolled up in proscuitto.
served on a stick with a spicy tomato relish

All the while, through the conversation, Richard is walking to and from a giant oven. He pulls out a tray and sets it on the workbench. Each stick is picked up deftly, both sides patted onto a clean napkin to remove excess grease, and then laid carefully on a plate. Which would be unremarkable if he hadn't been talking about Tottenham the whole time he was doing it.

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quail saltimboca being plated

Our serve of the quail saltimboca is being studiously photographed. I am studiously observing the glistening pig fat on the quail and thinking "Bird Bird Pig!" to myself. Last calls. "Can we eat yet?" says one. Nods all round. Then silence. Good silence. Spicy tomato and pig and bird party in my mouth silence. *Gulp*.

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spoon with tuna and scallop, flying fish roe & ponzu dressing

Our second platter contains two spoon contained varieties. This, the first, is beautifully gentle in flavour. Refreshing where the quail was strong.

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fresh fig with apple and lobster

The other is sweeter still, with the finely julienned apple and segmented fig framing the firm white flesh of the lobster nicely.

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Akira Urata & assistant, bearing bottles of miso dressing

Canape platters mostly finished, I smelt deep fryers doing their thing. I heard the sizzle. The shake, shake, shake and toss onto a plate. I turned to see Akira plating up. And then I grinned nervously and stood in a corner, taking photos of tiles on the wall. "Hey!" I looked up "Don't go stealing my jam recipe" said Richard Johnson with a grin. "If I do, I promise I won't tell anyone else about it" said I. And so no jam recipe for you. Not that you would have used it. It involved vast, commercial quantities of sugar. Well, maybe you would have...

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salt and pepper calamari in butter lettuce with lotus root chip and spicy miso dressing

There was a debate, as we food-blog-people attempted to describe the canapes via email, as to whether this canape involved calamari or lobster. We decided that it was, in fact, calamari, though the texture was anything but the sometimes-chewy morsels you'll find at your local fish-and-chippery. It was so tender that you could bite straight through it. No stringy bits, and certainly no funny faces and push-me-pull-you-ing.

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Nobiyuki Ura and 3x assistants plating up

While flashes went off (and while I snooped on the dry store), there was a small team of people working quietly at the end of a bench. A scoop of unidentified pink. Into the mold. Tap Tap. Repeat. Another, laying out pieces of lavosh. One, by one, by one. And then another, lifting up the perfect cylinders with a palette knife and placing them on a piece of lavosh. And finally, Nobuyiki Ura spooning tiny amounts of diced red and green tomatoes, almost minced, on the very top and garnishing with a single leaf.

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tuna tartare served with finely diced green & red tomatoes on a lavosh cracker

We stood, Helen and Suze and I, mesmerised by the detail. The perfection. The quiet slog, when he looked up at me. Grinned. And then, holding out the canape he was working on, said "For you." And then later, to Suze, "For you" and again for Helen. "What is it?" we asked. "Tuna tartare" was the reply. And then back to plating. We nibbled on the lavosh, round in circles, avoiding the jewel topped centre, and then, when we could nibble no more, popped the lot in our mouths with wide eyes and big, almost naughty, grins.

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canapes on the pass: get ready diners!

And on flew the evening. Canapes lay on the pass, to be collected by cool, calm, blue clad waiters. "What's that?" they are quizzed as they collect each dish. "Quail saltimboca" "Good." And just as quickly, they are back with emptied plates.

the bar at uccello
the bar at uccello

And with them go we, reluctantly, but excitedly. For there are more chefs to be met, more things to be tasted, and finally (finally!) a glimpse of that famed Ivy pool.

4 bites more:

Helen (AugustusGloop) said...

a well-captured account of our glee that evening :)

so how much are you charging for that jam recipe? lol

Belle said...

Love your words, makes me feel like I was there (even though I wasn't, dammit!)

Simon Food Favourites said...

it's great reliving the night through your blog.
s :-)

shez said...

Helen: *hinthint* look at Howard's page. i see scrawlings on a tile that look strangely familiar *hinthint*

Belle: oh thanks :)

Simon: and it was lovely meeting you too!

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