Full of Eastern promise

Our new food and whisky series will look at restaurants and chefs who cook with whisky or serve it as an accompaniment to food. This issue, Christine Manfield (above) and East@West, London
When Glenfiddich approached top Australian chef Christine Manfield in Sydney some years back and asked her to match some of her recipes with its whisky, she was split between two very conflicting emotions.

“At first I instinctively thought of turning them down flat because I just didn’t work with brown spirits,” she says with a mischievous grin. “But another part of me can’t resist a challenge and I was intrigued by the idea.”

Thankfully for food and whisky lovers everywhere, curiosity won out and she agreed to see what she could come up with. She hasn’t looked back since, and so successful were her food and whisky pairings that they have become an integral part of her creations ever since.

The association between whisky and food is one component of a success story that has seen her rise to the status of internationally acclaimed restaurateur and the brains behind East@West, which opened last year in Soho, London.

Christine learnt her trade in Sydney, one of the most stimulating and dynamic restaurant scenes in the world, and after working in some of the best venues, she opened the Paramount Restaurant there in 1993 with partner Margie Harris.

It was there that she built her international reputation and perfected her style of modern Asian dishes. For her the Asian association is a natural one.

“Australia is an Asian country,” she says. “Asia is on our doorstep and we have access to the best products there. It’s easy for us to reach. And Australia has big Asian communities. The link makes total sense.”

Christine left Australia for three years of travelling the world, but settled in London last year. Her restaurant opened to massive critical acclaim and is a target destination for lovers of the very best in Asian cuisine.

Christine offers just four set menus, under the names Divine, Sublime, Wicked and Delicious. Each contains a series of small but sequential courses. Each comes with a recommended wine, whisky and sherry.

“I’m a bit of a bully,” she says. “I encourage people to choose a menu and trust me with it. Obviously if someone has a particular dislike of something or allergy then we would respect that, but the idea is that we lead our diners in to new tasting areas.

“I’ll say to people that they should try a whisky with their food and if they say they don’t drink whisky I’ll often encourage them to try it alongside the wine at no extra cost just to see. And very often people are amazed.”

The restaurant itself has a relaxed and casual air, and attracts a diverse selction of tourists, over work business people and casual diners. There is no dress code, and even early in the evening the atmosphere has more in common with a pub or bar than fine dining restaurant.

That’s deliberate, says Christine. The food, on the other hand, is state of the art.

Dishes include bluefish tuna sashimi with toasted sesame, shiso sprouts and ginger blossom; seared Charolais beef fillet with caper gooseberry, pickled green mango, pomelo salad and roasted rice; steamed cod fillet and chili salt prawn with hot and sour prawn broth, water chestnuts and bamboo; and coconut chili native lobster eggnet with beansprouts, pomelo and mint salad, chili jam and fried shallots.

And if you’re of the view that the whisky link is a tenuous one, then take a look at the restaurant’s ‘Glenfiddich Whisky Bar’ selection.

Here you can choose from the following:

12 year old Special Reserve

Salt and pepper squid
Chilli blackbean scallops

15 year old Solera Reserve

Bluefin tuna sashimi, ginger blossom and shiso
Palm sugar caramel cream, spiced pineapple

18 year old Ancient Reserve

Hoisin duck and cucumber pancakes
Coconut prawn fritters

21 year old Havana Reserve

Red braised pork hock, chilli caramel, XO sauce
Spiced tuna tartare, green tea noodles

Christine, who is to depart to Cambodia the day after our chat for more market research, says that she is convinced that the link between food and whisky will become greater as more people grow to appreciate less conventional flavours and taste combinations.

“Whisky works ideally with this sort of food,” she says. “The bold flavours of whisky complement Asian flavours, and more and more people are realising that.”