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Making dinner special with Mercer's

I think we have both been feeling a bit down of late over being so confined to a small geographical area, and so we decided to have a Mercer's Cooks for You meal. On Wednesday we booked it and on Friday David went and picked it up from the lovely Ute and Stephen at their beautiful restaurant in Eltham. David said there were quite a few people queuing to pick up their meals too, so it has obviously been enough of a success as a venture to keep them going. Enough to keep on all their kitchen staff anyway.

The Cloudy Bay wine, by the way that you see next to the bag of goodies came from our cellar. Well you have to get out something special don't you? Although I have to say that it was marginally disappointing and, dare I say, not as good as some of the cheap sauvignon blancs that we generally have - South Island and Stoneleigh being the latest. My first ever taste of Cloudy Bay way, way back in the 90s, maybe even the 80s just blew me away, but this particular bottle was not nearly the same. David's bargain cabernet shiraz from the Clare Valley was rather better though. I think the name of the vineyard was Jeanneret.

I think Stephen and Ute Mercer were amongst the first of the fine diners to think of the concept of a meal partially cooked for you to finish off at home. It's a real trend now with almost all of the fine diners doing something along those lines. And yes there are lots of little plastic pots, so you could say they are not environmentally sound, but I could either take them back, or, as I shall, just wash them and reuse them myself. They are great for freezing stock and leftovers, or as doggy bags for my son when we are allowed to have him in our home again.

Stephen does a little video in which he shows you how to finish off the cooking and then how to plate it all up to look beautiful so you actually learn a few things along the way. You can see David's iPad next to me in some of the pictures reminding me what to do.

It's a special meal and really, if I'm honest the major part of the specialness is in the fact that I dressed up, and got out the best china and our two Riedel wine glasses. Not quite the right ones I will admit - we only have Pinot glasses, but still, they are special. Flowers for the table - gathered from around the garden. For a garden that could not really be called a proper garden it is amazing what you can find - even weeds can look good. Proper table mats, linen napkins but not the best cutlery because David has grown to loathe it. It has pointed ends you see and they fall through the holes in the cutlery basket in the dishwasher, so they are a real no no for him.

So there I am at the top of the page with the appetiser - their beautiful home-made bread roll - warmed in the oven - with sesame butter, some olives, goat's cheese rolled around a grape and studded with chopped pistachios and little cubes of clear tomato jelly. So I got out a special little serving dish and put the roll and butter with some sea salt flakes on a wooden board and we were off.

Entrée - I don't think I did a really good job of presenting this, partly because I stupidly handled the beetroot before putting out the buffalo mozzarella, so it was bleeding beetroot. And I really could have done a much better job with the smoked trout I now see. And no this wasn't just bought stuff put on a plate - there was a concentrated kind of beetroot purée on the base and a dressing that was drizzled over the lot from a little plastic sort of syringe. And yes that was just thrown away - well recycled. Anyway it did taste good.

Then came the main event as it were - Free range chicken breast with black garlic farce and mushroom risotto. This time I had to do a little bit of cooking. The chicken came in a plastic bag, having been precooked sous-vide. "A plastic bag!" said David in horror but I'm pretty sure this is standard practice and I'm sure there are standards that have to be kept to. Anyway I had to sit this in boiling water for 20 minutes to reheat, then fry it off to make it brown - and as you can see I rather overdid the brown - I'm going to blame my frying pan here. I think it's time to throw it out. It's lost it's non-stickiness. The risotto was simpler - you just had to reheat it in a saucepan with a little bit of water, add the provided spinach leaves and it was done.

Then it was just a matter of slicing the chicken and arranging it prettily on top of the risotto before dribbling the reheated mushroom broth around. I suppose it is a bit beige - maybe I should have sprinkled some parsley on top, but it really tasted good. I have been intrigued by the notion of black garlic for some time, so was looking forward to tasting it - and you know what - not a lot different from ordinary garlic - but the risotto was pretty special and the chicken beautifully tender and - well - tasting of chicken.

We then decided to go the whole hog and added in a cheese course from our own supplies, and I handed over this major chore to David. Maybe it was just an excuse to sample the red wine, because we didn't really need it. The portions provided by Mercer's are generous.

By now, in true restaurant manner we had been eating at a leisurely pace with the odd intellectual argument along the way, and it was approaching nine o'clock, so we decided to have dessert next door in the lounge by the fire. Dessert was Stephen's version of strawberries and cream. A strawberry purée with a creamy topping, then topped with marinated strawberries, broken meringue and shortbread crumbs and a dollop of strawberry sorbet. Yum. We should have had a dessert wine and perhaps a coffee but we didn't.

I think I let Stephen down with my plating skills. They have never been my forte. But it was nevertheless a special meal. I may have sounded a bit critical here and there, but honestly the food was above my standard, and it was so, so nice to dress up, get out all the best wine and glasses and stuff and take our time. An occasion rather than just getting food into oneself. Not as good by any means as dining at their restaurant, but good enough to make an ordinary Friday night special.

So if you have a similar option near you I encourage you to try it. It keeps those businesses going, so that ultimately you will be able to really treat yourself and go out for dinner. Otherwise you may find there is nowhere to go.


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