All reader reviews by The London Foodie @ thelondonfoodie.co.uk
Having had the most fantastic meal at The Loft supper club which I reviewed in 2009 (here), I was eagerly awaiting the opening of Nuno Mendes’ new restaurant “Viajante” in Bethnal Green’s imposing Town Hall building.
I was pleased to find that they offer a £25 lunch set menu which I tweeted about. It didn’t take more than a few minutes until a tweet up was organised with Uyen & Simon of Fernandez and Leluu, Jones (Unwholey), Euwen (A rather unusual chinaman), and Joshua of Cooking the Books.
Set in the grand Town Hall building, the bar and restaurant areas are airy and light, boasting huge windows, parquet flooring, and some very elegant furnishings. I liked the clean, semi-minimalist feel of these rooms, with their light colours and the Scandinavian-styled furniture. It was also good to find a relatively intimate restaurant (a maximum of 40 covers at any one time) which overlooks an open plan kitchen so diners can watch the chefs in action.
We had a few cocktails at the bar before heading to the dining area (diners are only seated when the entire party is at the restaurant). We opted for the 3-couse set menu priced at £25. There are no descriptions of the dishes on the menu. Viajante also offers 6 courses @ £60, 9 courses @ £75 and 12 courses @ £85. Wine “flights” can also be purchased to match each course and these are priced @ £30, £45 and £60 respectively.
We kicked off proceedings with a dainty amuse bouche of paper thin toast topped with romesco sauce, tapenade, greens and gherkin slices in a beautiful checker-board pattern.
Our first starter was a glass of soya milk (similar to a panna cotta in texture), and tasted like good quality, creamy tofu I have eaten in Japan. This was topped with a delicious layer of jellied dashi flavoured with aubergines and a small sandwich of pureed aubergine in layers of filo pastry. I loved the combination of flavours of this dish, although some of my fellow diners disagreed, so I was lucky enough to finish off Uyen’s.
The second starter “Thai Explosion” was served next - shredded chicken in a lightly spiced, creamy sauce reminiscent of Thai green curry and sandwiched between two thin wafers. From Japan to Thailand, the flavours were again complex and tantalising – I love the Asian influences in Nuno’s cooking and am still to find a chef who can incorporate these in their repertoire as well as he does.
A platter of bread and butter was also served. The bread was obviously freshly baked on the premises and tasted good. I would struggle however to describe the “butter” – it was very light, similar to churned butter milk and flavoured with some unidentifiable ingredient. The purple coloured seasoning was also intriguing, and the overall taste of the butter was outstanding.
Three courses on, I feared that this was the end of our lunch. Luckily it wasn’t and we were soon served a fish course of sashimi squid, with squid ink granita, thin slivers of radish, samphire and other greens. In my opinion, this was the best dish of the day – the flavour combination of squid ink granita, squid, olive oil and samphire was heavenly, and everyone at the table loved it.
The presentation was again fantastic and I savoured every little bit of that dish.
Our next main dish was a meat course of tender pork and prawns with deep fried capers and green cabbage juice. The meat was deliciously yielding and combined well with the prawns. I was pleasantly surprised with the salty flavour and texture of the deep fried capers which really lifted the dish.
As a palate cleanser, we had a lemon and holy basil sorbet. The flavour of basil was intense and magnificently refreshing. I am not a huge fan of sorbets but I loved this and cannot wait to try and replicate it at home some time soon.
For dessert, we had a chocolate fondant with pureed raspberries, hazelnut ice cream and ginger crumble. The raspberry juice was nicely tart and contrasted well with the rich chocolate. The ice cream had an intense nutty flavour and was the perfect accompaniment to the fondant. The spicy ginger crumble added another layer of complexity to this delightful and very satisfying dessert.
As petit fours, we had chocolate truffles with a citric aspic. The truffles were filled with white chocolate with intriguingly earthy overtones. Nuno explained that the white chocolate mixture had mushroom as one of the ingredients.
The wine list is carefully thought out but also overpriced in my opinion. There are only two choices below £30 (a white Pinot Grigio for £22, and a red Syrah priced at £24). We ordered a bottle of Syrah @ £24 which had slight peppery tones and nice, soft tannins. It was a great choice by Simon, and one I will make sure to order on my next visit.
It was nice to see Nuno Mendes again as he cooked and oversaw his team at Viajante. He came to our table and chatted with us for a while, and was as charming and unassuming as I remembered him to be when I first met him at his supper club, The Loft.
Cost: £251.44 in total or £42 per person including drinks and service (£25 for the 3-course tasting menu, a cocktail per person and a shared bottle of wine).
Likes: creative cooking, sophisticated and complex flavours to titillate and intrigue the most jaded palate, elegant setting and decor, good value £25 tasting menu, excellent martinis. Filtered water readily available and free of charge.
Dislikes: having our booking changed 2 hours prior to our allocated slot was a little worrying, few affordable wine choices, a menu devoid of description of the dishes.
Verdict: The much awaited Viajante has finally opened and Nuno Mendes is showcasing what he does best – excellent, creative cooking, combining intriguing and complex flavours to utter perfection. A great value tasting menu to be had in elegant surroundings. I cannot wait to return for the blow-out 12 course menu. Very highly recommended.
Sunday, May 02, 2010
Food 9 | Service 9 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 8
Vietnam has one of the most sophisticated cuisines in the world and is one of the few countries I keep returning to particularly for its food.
Closer to home, I have been heading to Kingsland Road for my fix of Vietnamese food and have become Song Que’s indisputably “Number 1 Fan” in the last few years. I had resigned myself to its scary plastic lobsters and unfriendly service. If only I could taste its magnificent pho soup - all would be forgiven.
It is all about the food, and although I do not believe Asian cooking should necessarily be “cheap”, I certainly do not want to pay a premium for the sake of trendier decor. I have thus viewed the recent smartening up of some of the restaurants on Kingsland Road with a little caution.
It was with these thoughts in mind that Dr G and I went to the newly re-opened Viet Grill on Kingsland Road. Despite getting a complimentary meal offered by its PR machine, I feared I might dislike this restaurant.
It was a Friday evening at 8pm when we arrived and the restaurant was buzzing. Despite the long queue of customers, we were soon shown to our table. First impressions were good – front-of-house staff were friendly and polite, the restaurant had been painted with a beautiful design of banana leaves and decorated with some nice touches like wooden bird cages, a beautiful aquarium and some modern but discreet lighting.
Tables were positioned very close together and we soon struck up a conversation with a delightful couple “Olivia and Moosa” who were sitting next to us. They were regulars at Viet Grill and were very positive about the food despite being a bit weary of the high density of diners the restaurant catered for at any one time.
Our starters did not take long to come; these included “Mango Salad” (sun-dried squid, Viet mint, peanuts, mango) @ £7. I was delighted by this, and loved the flavour and unusual consistency of the sun-dried squid. It was a deliciously refreshing salad with some interesting flavours and started the evening on a good note.
The “Piggy Grilled Aubergine” (spring onions, minced pork in tangy sweet and sour sauce) @ £5.50 was the next starter and, in my opinion, was one of the best dishes of the evening. I love aubergines, and the addition of spring onions and pork to a rather delicate and well-balanced sweet and sour sauce made for a very good dish.
This was followed by the “Feudal Roasted Beef” @ £9, a Saigon speciality, this tasted as good and fresh as the ones I remember having in Ho Chi Min City.
A “Mixed House Platter” @ £7 per person was served next containing Mango Salad, Imperial Spring Rolls, Fresh Soft Rolls or Goi Cuon, Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaves & Chilli Salt and Peppered Squid. I always order goi cuon and beef in betel leaves whenever eating at Vietnamese restaurants, and Viet Grill’s did not disappoint. The Fresh Rolls had just the right amount of vermicelli, herbs and prawns, and were fresh and delicious.
This is one of the simplest dishes on any decent Vietnamese menu, and can be prepared well in advance. If prepared too early and not stored, it can smell and taste of the refrigerator. This was not a problem at Viet Grill. Fresh Rolls are also great to be made at home and served as canapes if you can master the softening and wrapping of rice paper sheets. I would recommend practicing it thoroughly before your guests arrive!
The first main dish was “Viet Quail Curry” (with aubergine, crunchy okra, coconut and spicy curry sauce) @ £8. This was unusually spicy for a Vietnamese dish but had some interesting flavours and textures coming through from the crunchy okra and quail meat. It was not an easy dish to share as the quail was served whole and on the bone.
The other main dish was “Slow Cooked Mekong Catfish” (poached in caramelised fish sauce, simmered in a clay pot and finished with cracked pepper and fresh chilli) @ £7.50. Viet Grill’s description which I quote above in brackets was very apt but it does not do justice to this fantastic dish – the sauce was deliciously sweet and salty and gave the dish a richness I had not yet tasted, complementing the fish perfectly. By far the best main of the evening and one I will make sure to order again.
I love having my food prejudices challenged in this way, and this time, I am pleased to admit that Viet Grill came up trumps. Most dishes on the menu were more sophisticated and authentically Vietnamese than other restaurants in the area with very friendly and helpful service.
Verdict – Delicious Vietnamese food served in beautiful surroundings by some very friendly staff. Viet Grill has certainly raised its game and I hope it will become a standard setter for other Vietnamese restaurants in the area. Highly recommended.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Food 8 | Service 6 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 7
I’ve been enjoying my culinary ventures into other regional Chinese cuisines (beyond Cantonese and Pekinese) since coming across Fuschia Dunlop’s fascinating work a couple of years ago.
More recently, Dr G and I were lucky to be accompanied by a connoisseur of such cuisines, Mr Noodles of Eat Noodles Love Noodles, as we visited the newly opened Empress of Sichuan in London’s Chinatown.
The decor is simple but tasteful, although I would not describe it as an elegant restaurant. It occupies the premises of the late Keelung and has maintained much of its predecessor’s furnishings and decor.
Ordering was carefully done by Mr Noodles apart from the fish dish which was chosen by Dr G. I felt that all dishes were outstanding with the exception of the Dan Dan noodles which were good, but unfortunately not on a par with the other dishes.
The “Beef slices in extremely spicy soup” @ £12.50 (also known as “Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce” – shui zhu niu rou) was, as expected, rich and deliciously hot. The meat had a light and silken texture - a superb example of a dish I have tasted many times before.
The “Fragrant chicken with dried chilli and pepper” @ £13 was also excellent and bursting with flavour and the aromas of chillies and Sichuan pepper.
I was slightly disappointed with the “Dan Dan noodles” @ £4.80. It was more like a noodle soup and it missed one of my favourite ingredients “Ya Cai” a type of Sichuanese preserved mustard green which imparts an extra layer of complexity to this dish.
The “Farmers Fish” (baked fish with spring onion, cumin and black bean) @ £21.50 was by far the most successful dish of the evening. The crust of spring onions, cumin and black bean in which the fish had been baked had some complex flavours – it was sweet, spicy and salty, and went incredibly well with the white fish.
To accompany our mains, we also had “Spicy green beans with minced pork and preserved vegetables” @ £8.50 and various portions of steamed rice @ £2.50 each. The spicy greens dish is a must for any visit to Sichuanese restaurants, and Empress of Sichuan’s did not disappoint.
The beans were dry-fried until tender and slightly wrinkled, and had a subtle sourness from the Shaoxing wine and soya sauce in which they were cooked.
Service was attentive and very friendly. The manager came to speak to us towards the end of our meal and offered us some complimentary tea. She explained that the restaurant was offering a 20% discount in the month of January and most of February during weekdays, as well as giving us some background information on their Sichuanese chef and current management.
The total bill came to £81 (or £27 each), including service, 5 beers @ £3.50 each and 20% discount. Prices are about 50% higher than some of the budget Sichuanese restaurants in London.
Even though some may feel that this is a tad high for a midweek meal, in my opinion, Empress of Sichuan offers incredible value for the level of sophistication and the high standard of cooking.
Empress of Sichuan is definitely a cut above any other Sichuanese restaurants I have been to in London or abroad including Chilli Cool or Gourmet San, the latter being not exclusively Sichuanese. After years of avoiding Chinatown as a destination for authentic Chinese food, I am very pleased to have found a restaurant that stands out from the tourist haunts.
Verdict – Excellent Sichuanese cooking at mid-range prices in comfortable surroundings in the heart of Chinatown. I hope this, along with other recent openings in the area, may herald the revival of Chinatown as a centre of excellent Chinese cooking. Highly recommended.
Thursday, February 11, 2010
Food 9 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 7
Last year, at the Wine Show in Islington’s Business Design Centre, I got a little “carried away” and purchased a yearly subscription to Taste London for £40 (reduced from £70 @ the Show). The membership card gives you 50% off the food bill (or 2 for 1) in all participating restaurants.
The catch is that the majority of restaurants will not take the card on Fridays and Saturdays, and I suspect that some of the restaurants are only there because they are struggling to find custom (with all the risks that entails).
This year, I decided to try and recoup my initial investment by visiting the restaurants which I know are reputedly good like The Almeida, Gay Hussar and The Admiralty. So last week, Dr G and I returned to our local French restaurant, The Almeida.
I had dined at this restaurant before but had always gone for their pre/post theatre menus. I remember having the most delicious Cassoulet there and so I was craving for another helping.
On arrival, I was gutted to find that their legendary Cassoulet was no longer on the menu. The menu had been substantially trimmed (not a bad thing) and included 8 choices each for starters, main and desserts. The menus were priced @ £27.50 and £32.50 for 2 and 3 courses respectively.
To start, I ordered the “Terrine of duck foie gras, apple and walnuts with toasted fig bread”. I was impressed by the generous portion of duck foie gras served, and pleased with the quality – it was beautifully marbled and tasted buttery and totally divine.
Dr G decided to go for the “Trolley of Charcuterie” which included saucisson sec, rosette, coppa and Bayonne ham, chicken liver parfait and rillette maison (made of pork).
This was unfortunately disappointing – the cold meats tasted good but were nothing to write home about, the chicken liver parfait had a liquid consistency and did not taste particularly nice, and the pork rillete, although well seasoned, was a tad dry.
For main, I had the “Grilled aged British rib-eye, pommes Pont Neuf (chunky chips basically) & sauce Bearnaise”.
Considering the additional £3.50 charge for this option, I was surprised to find a rather small and thin steak on my plate. The meat however tasted very good and was perfectly cooked, rare as I had ordered. The Bearnaise sauce was also excellent but again, there wasn’t much of it.
The other main was the “Slow roast belly of suckling pig, confit root vegetables, creamed Savoy cabbage, and sauce aux epices (spicy sauce). This was also excellent, the meat was incredibly tender and the crackling was beautifully caramelised, crisp and very thin. The accompanying sauce was complex and mildly spicy with delicate flavours of saffron and curry.
Unfortunately, the waitress carelessly tilted the plate as she placed it on our table which didn’t help with the presentation of the dish. I felt that service was overall polite but impersonal, and inattentive at times.
For pudding, we shared a “Valrhona extra bitter chocolate soufflé, with salt caramel ice cream” and “Creme Brulee with warm Madeleine”.
The soufflé was a tad sweet for an extra bitter chocolate variety, but it was very light and tasted good accompanied by the salt caramel ice cream. In fact, I enjoyed the ice cream more than I did the soufflé itself.
The crème brulee was utterly delicious – it had a delicate vanilla flavour and perfect consistency (neither too hard nor too liquid).
We ordered one of the least expensive bottles of wine @ £21 which we felt was overpriced. After Taste London’s 50% reduction on the food, the total bill came to £61. Service is not added to the bill but left at customers’ discretion which is praiseworthy for a restaurant of this calibre.
As with any other D&D restaurant (former Conran), I feel prices are inflated and I would have been annoyed had I paid the full whack, around £100, for this meal. This might explain the countless newspaper offers, the more affordable pre/post theatre menus, and their Taste London participation.
Verdict – Good quality French food and wine at inflated prices. Polite but inattentive service. A good and affordable choice for pre or post theatre dining in Islington.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Food 7 | Service 6 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 6
After reading rave reviews by Time Out a couple of weeks ago, Dr G and I decided to visit this newly opened Turkish/Iraq restaurant on Commercial Street, E1. I normally go to Green Lanes, particularly “Antepliler” for my fix of Turkish food, but we were curious to try a local BYO place with some interesting Iraq dishes on their menu.
The entrance is not the most attractive part of this new restaurant, and I firstly wondered where we would be sitting as there is little sitting area at that level. The basement is where Ali, the owner’s son, brought us to, and we were pleased to find a warm and comfortable dining area there.
The décor is simple but elegant, with white, arched alcoves furnished with colourful cushions & hanging lanterns creating a relaxed and private ambience. I don’t normally like eating at lower ground (unless it is Hakkasan) but was pleasantly surprised to find such a well furnished and cosy spot.
Ali was very attentive, and took great care and time explaining the various dishes on the menu to us. Soon after placing our order, he brought us a basket with freshly stone-baked bread which was hot and delicious.
The first of the three mezze dishes that we ordered to arrive was “Mutabel” @ £3.50, an aubergine based dip with yoghurt, garlic and tahini. Despite the somewhat unappetising look of the dish, it tasted good and had a creamy and nutty finish from the tahini.
The second mezze was “Soudah” @ £4, a plate of fried chicken livers with onions, chopped peppers and coriander. I could also taste cinnamon and cayenne pepper in the spicy sauce although not much else. Despite loving chicken livers, I felt that this dish was a bit disappointing, good but not outstanding, and a tad dry.
The “Mosul Kibbeh” @ £3.50, a traditional dish of northern Iraq was an interesting choice. I had eaten kibbeh many times before but never in this way. Similar to a flattened stuffed croquette, a thin layer of cracked wheat had been filled with spiced meat, almonds and sultanas and fried.
I really wanted to enjoy this dish but I was slightly underwhelmed by it – I felt that the fried cracked wheat “envelope” was hard and that there was not enough filling to justify all the chewing.
For main, I went for “Char-grilled Lamb Chops” @ £9.50 - this is my favourite dish at Antepliler, so I ordered this to find how Zengi’s version would compare. Zengi’s chops were delicious, well-seasoned, and perfectly cooked but unfortunately there was not enough meat on them. At £9.50 I felt that the quantity of meat was a bit stingy, a problem that I never encountered at Antepliler.
Serving them on a large white plate (when there is not enough food to cover it) did not help either – the accompaniments, salad and rice, were passable - the salad did not look as vibrant and fresh as it could have done but it tasted fine.
“Dr G’s “Zengi Grill” @ £11.50 was a better choice. This consisted of pieces of lamb, kufta (or kofta) lamb shish kebab, and chicken tavouk (pieces). The meat was again well seasoned, very tender and perfectly cooked.
We were served two small sauces (one garlicky and creamy and another spicy tomato relish) which accompanied the meat well, really bringing out the lamb flavours. Ali also brought us some delicious pickles which had been made in the premises, and refilled our bread basket at no extra charge.
I noted in their menu a “Zengi Burger” @ £6.50 which unfortunately I was too full to try. According to the menu, it is made of grilled lamb burger, with sliced falafel and halloumi cheese topped with sweet pepper sauce and pickles in a stone baked sesame roll. It sounds very yummy, and I will most certainly come back for that.
Ali brought us our bill, and I noted that he accidentally overcharged us on the lamb chops but had forgotten to add the Mosul Kibbeh or the hot bread to the list of items. The total bill was therefore £32 for two excluding service.
I enjoyed my visit to Zengi and would like to return specially for their Turkish Burger and some of the other Iraq dishes I did not try this time. Ali was knowledgeable and passionate about his food which helped me to appreciate the menu and the food on offer.
Verdict - Despite the teething problems, in my opinion, Zengi offers good quality food at very reasonable prices. Being a BYO makes it an even more affordable option although portion sizes and quality of accompaniments should be looked at. Excellent service. Recommended.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Food 8 | Service 9 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 9
I had meant to come to Conran’s new eatery since Time Out awarded it 2009’s “Best Cheap Eats” in London but only made it with Dr G nearly a year later, for a late brunch last Saturday.
I was impressed by the understated elegance of the building and décor – as a former light industrial building, some of its interesting features were maintained (or sympathetically incorporated) like the refectory style cream tiles, the factory lights, and the large windows which let plenty of natural light into the Café.
I also loved their food shop and open plan kitchen – the large baskets of fresh bread, cleverly positioned at the entrance of the building, welcome you into the Café and help to draw in even the most reluctant of punters.
The menu is reassuringly simple with some British classics and “caff” style dishes that will appeal to anyone. Prices are not bad either with most dishes costing less than the £10 mark.
I was pleased to see Greenwich Meantime beers on their menu @ £3.75, one of my favourite brewers in the country. I was lucky to attend a private tasting by this fantastic, independent beer house a couple of years ago, and was completely stunned by the quality of their beers and the passion of the founder/speaker. I always order GM beers whenever I see them available, my favourites being London Porter, Union and the coffee beer.
Dr G and I ordered a couple of staple dishes – I went for the “Full Albion Breakfast” @ £9.75 while Dr G had “Kedgeree” @ £9.50.
I would have liked to continue the complimentary tone of my review and say that our food was as great as the décor, food shop, and beers, but unfortunately both dishes were rather disappointing.
My breakfast looked great but did not taste it – the saving grace was the streaky bacon which was delicious, and the perfectly cooked eggs. With the exception of the baked beans, which were in fact not properly baked, and were very hard and nearly inedible, everything else was just passable.
Dr G’s kedgeree was an interesting choice – I cook kedgeree at home sometimes (one of my favourite brunch dishes) but had never seen a version like Albion’s before. It was not a kedgeree, it was a risotto style dish made with basmati rice and cream. It had no discernable pieces of fish, be it smoked haddock or salmon - the fish had been I guess “pulverized” as there were no “flakes” to be seen.
It was basically a fishy rice dish with cream, and was seriously lacking in seasoning. After the beautiful décor, the lovely bread, the charming service, expectations were high - I was gutted.
As I waited for my food to arrive, I envisaged bringing some of my overseas friends and relatives who normally visit me in London for a taste of British cuisine - but judging by these two dishes, I would rather take them elsewhere.
Tom of TomEatsJenCooks recommends the The Modern Pantry when entertaining visitors from outside London for both a good brunch and the wow factor, but I still have to try this Clerkenwell place. I will report back as soon as I do.
The total bill was £30 for two, including 12.5% service. This is not bad (£15 = main + beer) although for once I will have to disagree with Time Out as I can think of quite a few places where my 15 quid would be better spent.
Verdict – Another classic example of style over substance – great décor, efficient staff, gorgeous looking food shop but seriously mediocre food. A possible Shoreditch choice for tea, cakes, or Greenwich Meantime beer.
Saturday, January 16, 2010
Food 4 | Service 5 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 7
In my quest to find the “best” burger in London, Dr G and I went to The Diner on Essex Road, Islington. It was well after 10pm and only a day before New Year ’s Eve when we visited, but this newly opened American style diner was reasonably busy.
The decor recreates an American 1950s diner, with booths of red leatherette chairs and long formica tables.
The menu looked impressive with a long list of all day breakfast items, costing between £6 and £8.50, like blueberry or banana pancakes, huevos rancheros, and eggs Benedict among others.
Drink choices were also extensive – The Diner sells beer by the bottle or on draught with a pint of lager costing as little as £3.20. Milkshakes are priced at £4.20 while “hardshakes” (alcoholic milkshakes) cost £7.
I ordered a “Creamy Nut Hardshake” (hazelnut and pistachio ice-creams with Baileys) @ £7. This took a little while to arrive but was well worth the wait as it was indeed very creamy, nutty and surprisingly alcoholic.
Soon enough the rest of our order arrived. I went for the “Californian Burger” (Monterey Jack cheese and Guacamole) @ £6.20. All burgers are served with tomato, lettuce, red onions, gherkins and relish.
It looked well presented and the 7 oz patty was quite chunky. As I bit into the burger my heart sank – the bread was not only cold but it was hard and stale; the meat was completely tasteless and overcooked (I had ordered it medium) and the guacamole tasted straight out of a jar.
Dr G had ordered the “Philly Cheese Steak Sandwich” (Swiss cheese and grilled onions) @ £7. Again this was disappointing – stale and chewy bread, gristly meat making the sandwich virtually inedible.
To accompany our sandwiches, we also made the mistake of ordering a portion of Diner’s “Chilli Cheese Fries” (topped with cheese and hot chilli beef) @ £3.50. The fries were not only cold but were also hard, undercooked and greasy. I really cannot find anything positive to say about these fries and the greasy, synthetic orange cheese smothered over the most undistinguished chilli beef.
Verdict – one of the worst burgers I have ever eaten, stale bread, and under-cooked, greasy fries. Good “hardshakes” were the only redeeming feature. There are many better options for a burger in Islington and London. Stay away!
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Food 3 | Service 5 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 5
I have been to Stringray many times and have enjoyed my pizze there on most occasions – the few times I didn’t were when I was turned away as Stringray is nearly always full with locals and Columbia Road shoppers.
Every time I visit, the waiting staff seems to have changed. This is not a good sign, but despite this and the erratic service, Stringray’s pizze are good, and so I return.
Luckily, I was not turned away last Wednesday as my old friends Eduardo and Gary of Columbia Road’s Start Cafe invited me to join them for a pizza there.
The decor is quite simple but warm and welcoming – this is a cheap and cheerful pizzeria, with a lively atmosphere and no frills. It has a fireplace and a long-bar, and discreet lighting. This is great place to enjoy a nicely made pizza and beer on tap in a relaxed setting.
We ordered a bottle of “Italian Prosecco” @ £16.95, and “garlic bread with cheese” @ £4.50 whilst we mulled over our pizze choices. The garlic bread was fantastic – a “sauceless” and very thin pizza base had been covered with mozzarella cheese and chopped fresh garlic to make a simple but delicious starter.
Stringray’s menu is rather straight forward and well priced – in addition to about 9 “antipasti” choices, the menu comprises pizza and pasta options and three meat choices (fish, chicken and steak). Pizza prices vary from £4.95 to £6.95.
As always, we went for pizza, our choices were “Four Cheeses” @ £6.25, “American Hot” @ £6.25, and “Neptuno” @ £5.95.
I love their Four Cheeses pizza and order it regularly. This time was no exception – the pizza was as good as ever – cheesy and delicious with an ultra thin base. Stringray’s pizza has a completely different style than Pizza East or Rossopomodoro’s where the bases are thicker and have more of a bite to them (which I also love).
Gary’s “American Hot” was reasonably good although I felt that the pepperoni meat tasted slightly too processed for my liking.
Eduardo’s choice “Neptuno” was topped with tuna, olives, capers and onions. The tuna tasted like it had been taken straight out of a tin and contained no cheese which detracted from the overall experience.
Other pizze that I have sometimes are “Boscaiola” (tomato, mozzarella, mushroom, bacon and onions) @ £5.95, and “Quattro Stagione” (tomato, mozzarella, mushroom, capers & olives, anchovies and ham) @ £6.50, they are usually pretty good too.
Verdict – If you can get a table at this very popular East End Pizzeria, you will enjoy a competently made, thin crust pizza at very reasonable prices. Quality of ingredients can be variable and service erratic.
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Food 6 | Service 5 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 8
I recently went to Oregano, one of my local Italian Pizzerias in Islington. Oregano is a small and unpretentious pizzeria, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Upper Street on Alban’s Place, and is nearly always full with shoppers and locals.
Service can be erratic but friendly - waiters are young, notably inexperienced and very likely English language students.
The decor is undistinguished with metal, uncomfortable chairs and bright lighting reminiscent of a school refectory or student union bar.
On my latest visit, Dr G, Tea (my dearest Italian friend) and I were lucky to find a table available within a few minutes of getting there.
As I can’t be bothered making pizza at home I always order it at pizzerias. I love cooking and do it frequently at home but I also believe that certain foods rarely taste as good as those made in professional kitchens, like authentic Chinese food, dim sum and pizza.
Dr G ordered a “Pizza Four Seasons” @ £8.95 (tomato, mozzarella, ham, olives, mushrooms, salami and artichokes), and was pleased to find his pizza base paper thin, and topped with a generous portion of cheese and accompanying ingredients.
Tea, as a good Italian, ordered the simplest of the pizzas – “Pizza Emilia” @ £8.45 (tomato, mozzarella, parma ham and rocket). She was pleased with her choice although the toppings were not nearly as abundant, and the pizzaiolo (the pizza chef) substituted basil for rocket.
The “Pizza Amici” @ £8.95 (tomato, buffalo mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, parma ham and rocket) was also quite good. The base was indeed very thin, and I also felt that toppings were of an acceptable quality.
Since my visit to Pizza East last year, I started to enjoy a more substantial and chewy base, and the slight charring of the outside crust of my pizzas. I still enjoy having a thin base but this no longer holds such an attraction for me as it used to.
It is funny how some people get so obsessed about thin base pizzas, forgetting that the quality of toppings is just as important. There is nothing more vile in a pizza than tomato sauce which is not made on the premises (commercial tomato sauce tastes so terribly artificial), or worse, tinned tuna which smells just like cat food. Luckily, none of our pizzas suffered from these common faults.
The wine list was short and surprisingly expensive for what was on offer – house wines started @ £13.50 per bottle with the next choices on the list jumping up to £16.90 (white) and £17.90 (red). Considering that many people would not order the house wine, I felt that the next available choices were a tad expensive.
The pizzas were about £2-£3 dearer than main competitors (La Porchetta or Stringray) but slightly cheaper than Pizza East where you would be expected to pay around £10 to £12 for a pizza.
Verdict – Good quality pizza, generous toppings and a thin base make Oregano a good choice pizzeria in Islington. Not as cheap as major competitors in the area but still a worthwhile option, erratic but friendly service. Given the quality and ambience of both Oregano and Pizza East, I would recommend spending the extra £2 @ Pizza East.
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Food 6 | Service 5 | Atmosphere 5 | Value for money 6
I first learnt of Sichuanese Cuisine when reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s book “Sharks Fin and Sichuan Pepper”. Fuchsia is an engaging writer – it was great fun reading about her adventures as a Westerner living in Chengdu, and learning about Sichuan and its cuisine. I have bought both her cookery books which are also very good.
After reading a positive write up by Mr Noodles of Eat Noodles Love Noodles (this is his favourite Sichuanese restaurant in London), I decided to try Chilli Cool last week. Mr Noodles is a real authority on regional Chinese cooking, and his blog is an excellent source of information on the subject.
Dr G and I arrived and headed to the wrong entrance of Chilli Cool – there are two: one for the Sichuanese hot pot restaurant on the left hand side, and another for the a la carte menu on the right. We were directed to the correct entrance (a la carte), and were soon seated.
The staff’s level of English isn’t great, although I found them to be efficient and polite. The decor was simple and with no frills, and the lighting was strong and bright. One unnerving aspect of the restaurant is how greasy the floor was – I could hardly stand on one spot without sliding away. If you can put that to the back of your mind though, you are in for a culinary experience.
The menu is well laid out and contains many pictures of the dishes to assist ordering which I found very helpful. Following the recommendations of Mr Noodles, we ordered a selection of dishes from the menu.
We started the meal with the less hot “Sea Spicy Shredded Pork” @ £7.80. This was utterly delicious, with the slivers of pork, julienned bamboo shoots and black fungus making for a sensational combination of flavours.
The sauce was rich and very flavoursome (I believe this to be also translated as “Fish Fragrant Sauce”), and despite the name, it has no fish ingredients – it is sour, sweet and spicy and made from ginger, soy sauce, garlic, chinkiang vinegar among other ingredients.
We also ordered “Sliced Beef Sichuan Style Lavishly Topped with Chillies and Sichuan Pepper” @ £8.80 (Also known as “Boiled Beef Slices in a Fiery Sauce” – shui zhu niu rou). This was another rich and delicious dish, and one of the highlights of the evening.
The beef was coated in flour and then boiled in stock and soya sauce giving it a silken texture. The addition of finely julienned celery and spring onions to the rich sauce made it hearty.
It was fiery but bearably so. It was about zero degrees outside but I was pouring with sweat – a perfect dish for this type of weather.
To accompany the meat dishes, we ordered some plain steamed rice @ £1.50 a portion, and two of my favourite Sichuanese vegetable dishes – “Dry Fried Green Bean with Minced Pork” @ £6.80 and “Sea Spicy/Fish Fragrant Aubergines” @ £6.80.
The greens were dry fried until tender and slightly wrinkled, and tasted delicious with the minced pork, Shaoxing wine and soya sauce. This was a simple but very satisfying dish.
The aubergine dish was the better of the two though – the fish fragrant sauce was complex and bursting with flavour. I have made this dish many times at home but have never managed to come close to the richness and concentration of flavour of Chilli Cool’s version.
We also ordered their “Chengdu Dan Dan Noodles” @ £5.80. I have tried this dish at several restaurants but Chilli Cool’s was I think the most authentic. It was seriously spicy and delicious with a generous helping of “Ya Cai” a type of Sichuanese preserved mustard green, and a rich sauce made from an assortment of spices.
We thoroughly enjoyed our meal, and it cost only £44. We ordered enough to feed 4 or 5 people as the portions were rather generous.
Verdict – Authentic Sichuanese cuisine in Central London at very reasonable prices. A must for anyone who appreciates this type of cooking. Delicious fish fragrant aubergines, sliced beef and shredded pork and charming service. Highly recommended.
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Food 8 | Service 6 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 8
I thought there would be nothing else to add to the media frenzy surrounding “Polpo”, the new Italian darling and makers of cicheti or small-eats, or tapas or whatever-you-wanna-call-it in Soho. It’s been blogged and highly praised by just about every food blogger in London – but after my disappointing meal there last Saturday, I thought I would put pen to paper and dare to differ.
First impressions were excellent – the décor was charming, the front-of-house staff very friendly and the place nearly full and buzzing with a beautiful and trendy crowd at 5:45pm.
We started the evening by ordering a couple of their breads, “White Bean Bruschetta” @ £4 and “Wild Mushroom Piadina” @ £4.80, followed by a selection of “cicheti and crostini”. The white beans had been cooked in rosemary and were very aromatic and perfectly al dente, a good Italian version of beans on toast. The “Piadina” was similar to a crepe and was filled with fried wild mushrooms. Both breads were nicely prepared although the portions were ludicrously small. We ordered two portions of each, and struggled to share them among the five of us.
Our selection of “cicheti and crostini” included “arancini” @ £1.50, “anchovy & chick pea crostini” @ £1.10, “potato and parmesan croquette” @ £1.20 and “salt cod on grilled polenta” @ £2.10.
I love Italian “baccala” (salted cod), and cook it frequently at home – I have made a similar dish of flaked salted cod with parsley, garlic and olive oil over grilled polenta a few times at home. These intensely flavoured ingredients should balance beautifully with the blander polenta, and when well made this dish is truly heavenly. Polpo’s version however was very disappointing – the polenta was cold and soggy, and the salted cod completely tasteless. We ordered three pieces and we all agreed they were rather poor.
The “arancini” were tiny and very uninspiring, and so were the “anchovy & chick pea crostini” and “potato and parmesan croquettes”. I tried a bit of each, and struggle to find anything at all to say about them. Completely “passable” comes to mind.
The more “substantial” meat and fish dishes that we ordered included “Slow Roasted Duck” @ £6.10, “Calves Liver, Onion and Sage” @ £5.90, “Grilled Flank Steak with Mushroom” @ £6.90, and “Fritto Misto” @ £6.60. We also ordered a portion of “Pork Belly, Radicchio and Hazelnuts” @ £5.70 but it never turned up.
Two of these dishes were good – the calves liver was well cooked, although not as delicately flavoured and soft as it should have been, while the “fritto misto” (deep fried whitebait and seafood) was crisp and utterly delicious.
The flank steak was beautifully presented but in my opinion lacked seasoning, and the slow roasted duck was unexciting. It was served in a pool of tomato sauce and did not look terribly appetizing. All portions were very ungenerous.
To accompany the above we also ordered a portion of “Roast Potatoes and Rosemary” @ £3.70, “Grilled Polenta” @ £3 and “Fennel, Curly Endive and Almonds” @ £3.90. These were all well made and flavoursome, but again the portions were minute.
For pudding, we had a few “Affogato al caffe” @ £2.60 each (vanilla ice cream immersed in espresso coffee), “Flourless Orange & Almond Cake” @ £4.40, and “Honey & Walnut Semifreddo” @ £3.80. The affogato tasted just right - both the ice cream and the coffee were of high quality.
The orange and almond cake was light and delicious, and I enjoyed it immensely. I did not try the semifreddo but John seemed impressed with his choice.
The wine list was impressive and reasonably priced, with bottles of white and red starting at £15 through to £38. Polpo serves most of its whites and a few reds in 250ml and 500ml measures at no extra cost. A bottle of 750ml will cost £15 while 500ml & 250ml measures will cost £10 and £5 respectively. This is a nice thought, and the flat pricing structure should encourage wine drinkers to try different wine combinations to accompany their cicheti.
My dinner companions were old friends from a wine club I used to belong to in Dulwich (Dulwich Wine Society), and therefore our wine choices were good but rather pricey. We had a couple of bottles of Gavi (white) @ £30 each and two of Barbera (red) @ £21 each. The total bill came to £208, including service, or £42 per person. The general consensus was that it was a disappointing and expensive meal and some of us were still peckish at the end of it.
Verdict – A clear example of style over substance. Good deep fried fish, good desserts, excellent wine list but tiny, ridiculously tiny portions. Some of the dishes were seriously disappointing for a restaurant currently the subject of such hype. I am not planning a return visit.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Food 5 | Service 7 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 4
After an evening showing of “A Christmas Carol” at the IMAX Cinema (fantastic 3-D feature!), a bunch of friends and I decided to go to Byron’s newly opened branch in Soho’s Wardour St. It was after 10pm when we arrived, and we were lucky to find a couple of tables to accommodate our large group of ten.
We were soon greeted by a delightful Australian chap called Kristian (with a K!), who looked after us throughout the evening. He was one of the friendliest guys I have ever met - brimming with positive energy and enthusiasm (well past 10 in the evening!), Kristian was faultless and made our meal at Byron memorable.
My first impressions were excellent – in addition to the excellent service, I loved the industrial look of the place, the exposed bricks painted white, the open plan kitchen, the video playing against the white wall, and the understated elegance of the decor.
The simplicity of their menu was also rather reassuring. All hamburgers are cooked medium and are served with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickle and mayo only. Burger options are “Classic” 6oz hamburger @ £6.25, “Cheeseburger” (choice of Cheddar/Monterey Jack/Blue Cheese/Gruyere) @ £7.25, “Byron” (dry cured bacon, mature cheddar, Byron sauce) @ £8.50, Skinny (bun-free with salad only) @ £7, “Chicken” @ £8.25 or “Veggie” (grilled Portobello mushroom, roast red pepper, goat’s cheese, aioli, and baby spinach) @ £7.50. And that is it.
Dr G ordered the Cheeseburger with Gruyere while I went for the Byron burger, as most of my friends. Byron’s burger size is just about right – I love grabbing my burger with both hands, never really getting my head round using a knife and fork as in GBK (I love GBK too though). As I bit through my burger I found it to be perfectly cooked and deliciously charred, the meat was flavoursome, fresh and still pink in the middle, and the bun just right, showing some lovely griddle marks.
My feelings were echoed across the table, my fellow diners were ecstatic with their own choices, and having dragged them all the way from Waterloo, I was also very happy and relieved!
We also ordered various portions of French Fries @ £2.75, Proper Olives @ £2.75 (the greenest I have ever seen), Homemade Skin on Chips @ £3, and their sensational Courgette Fries @ £3, the best of them all and a “must” on any visits to Byron.
Wines are categorised into “Good, Better, Great and Best”, and prices range from £13.50 (Good) to £21 (Best). We ordered their “Good” white (a South African Chenin Blanc) @ £13.50 and also their “Best” red (a Californian Pinot Noir) @ £21. They were both excellent, and I would happily have them again.
Tap water was provided unprompted in beautiful French style carafes and was constantly topped up. This is rare in West End restaurants and is highly commendable.
Verdict – my newly favourite burger joint in London (sorry GBK!), serving no fuss but perfectly executed burgers, delicious courgette fries and chips at average prices. Excellent and personable service, beautiful decor and central location make Byron one of the best quality & value restaurants in Soho.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Food 9 | Service 10 | Atmosphere 9 | Value for money 8
I was one of the lucky 20 or so Qypers and food bloggers who were recently invited by Eamon from Qype to take part in an Indian Tapas and Wine Tasting Event at the new City branch of Bangalore Express.
We were welcomed by the gorgeous Jennifer Goss from Complete Media Group, and seated shortly after with the proprietor Charles Hill and Louise from Liberty Wines who together gave us the low-down on the evening’s 16 wines and accompanying tapas.
My first impressions were excellent – the décor was modern and sleek, and the staff friendly and very helpful. Charles’ partner, Yogesh Datta (the acclaimed chef of The Painted Heron in Chelsea) was also present and quietly greeted us.
I have attended wine tasting classes over the last twelve years and know a little about the different grapes and terroirs, and what to expect from each. I can pretty much match any Western dish to a decent bottle of wine, but partnering Indian food & wine is a whole different ballgame. I was impressed that Charles & Louise had taken up this challenge at Bangalore Express.
We started the evening with a selection of eight different bottles of white wine, with accompanying dishes. These had been carefully chosen to compliment the spicy Indian food on offer and included some very aromatic and rich grape varieties like a Gewurztraminer from Alsace and an Austrian Gruner Veltliner, two of my favourite bottles of the evening.
Our first dish was “Chilli paneer cheese on yoghurt cake with red onions”, followed by “Tiger prawns with mild korma” and “Duck, cashew nut and raisin roll”. These were all well flavoured and mildly spiced.
Other outstanding whites included a Rhone Valley Viognier, a 2007 Vermentino from Tuscany, and an Australian “Plantagenet” Riesling. These were all excellent choices – they were robust, complex and full of tropical fruit flavours, and stood up well to our food.
The “Salmon tandoori with dill” was served next – this was pleasant and beautifully charred. The “Chicken tikka masala” that followed was also flavoursome and nicely presented with deep fried curry leaves on top.
We also tasted two bottles of rose wine including a French Grenache-based blend followed by an Australian bottle of Merlot. To accompany these we had “Lamb meat balls in tempered mint yoghurt”. This was one of the best dishes of the evening despite looking rather odd (more like white chocolate truffles than lamb).
To accompany the meat courses that were to follow, we were then served six different red wines including a 2007 Boudeaux, another fantastic Austrian wine made of 100% St Laurent grapes (a grape I had never tasted before), an Argentinian Malbec, and three other Italian wines. These were all fine wines.
The “Caribbean curried goat” was another excellent dish, the meat was perfectly cooked and the sauce richly flavoured. The “Chicken tikka in baby corn sticks” and “Duck Roganjosh” were also good.
One of Bangalore’s novel ideas is the ability to mix and match your favourite meats and cooking styles from a matrix in their menu. All you need is to choose a type of fish or meat, a cooking style, vegetables and rice to accompany it. You might opt for a Duck Roganjosh or a Prawn Tikka, the variations are truly endless. A big plate of chosen curry and rice will set you back £9.50 (or £8.50 at the Waterloo Branch).
The final dishes were “Lamb tikka marinated in mint” and “Onion bhajis with spinach and fresh fenugreek leaves”. Both were beautifully cooked and distinct in flavour.
Bangalore Express’ menu is eclectic and will probably appeal to anyone who enjoys contemporary Indian cuisine. As well as some “classics” like dosas, tandoori dishes, thali and curries, the menu also offers dishes like “Indian Fish and Chilli Chips”, “Masala Burgers”, and their “Indian Style Calzone”, all @ £9.50.
An interesting innovation to encourage wine rather than lager drinking with Indian food is the introduction of wine “flights”. These are different selections of three x 125ml glasses of wine (equivalent to half a bottle) at £12 for white and rose “flights”, and £14 for reds “fligths”. With bottle prices ranging from £17 to £28, the “flights” have not been marked up, making them a very interesting option for wine lovers.
A big thank you to Eamon from Qype for allowing me to take part in this fantastic event, and to Charles and Yogesh for their great generosity and hospitality, and for showing us the way forward with contemporary Indian eating and drinking.
Verdict –Good Indian food at very reasonable prices. One of the best wine lists in town and serving “flights” of 3 x 125ml tasting glasses at no extra charge, a must for any wine lover. I cannot wait to return and try a couple of “flights” with a selection of Indian tapas.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Food 6 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 8
I can’t think of a restaurant that attracts such a range of different opinions as Leong’s Legend. I had meant to visit it for some time but had been put off by some damning reviews by fellow bloggers. My curiosity got the better of me, and so I headed to Chinatown’s Macclesfield Street with an inquisitive but open mind.
At around 6:30pm, our group of 6 arrived at a very full and buzzing restaurant. We were soon greeted by the manager “Jade” who promised us a table if we returned in 30mins. He explained that bookings were not taken in the evenings, and that they operated on a first-come-first-served basis when seating their customers. We returned at the time agreed (by this time there was an enormous queue) and were soon shown to our table.
Our first impressions were good – the manager and staff were extremely polite and helpful (unlike in most reviews), the decor was elegant and the food looked delicious. Leong’s Legend’s interior is reminiscent of Hakkasan’s dark wood panelling and subtle lighting, but in a much more understated manner - it feels more like an old teahouse than a posh restaurant.
Some of the good write-ups, like that from World Foodie Guide, praised highly Leong’s Siu Loung Bao, its Braised Pork Belly and the Mini Kebab with Pork. We ordered these and other dishes and found, with only a few exceptions, that they were very good.
The “Legend’s Siu Loung Bao” (8pcs) @ £5 was indeed excellent. The skin was a tad too thick for my tate but the pork filling and delicious broth inside them more than made up for this. They were one of the best Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Dumplings) I have had for a long time.
Leong’s “Crab Meat Siu Loung Bao” (8pcs) @ £6 also did not disappoint, they were just as good as their pork equivalent. I would strongly recommend ordering either of these XLB dumplings.
The star of the evening however was “Leong’s Braised Pork Belly” @ £6. The sauce was sweet and intensely flavoured while the meat was tender, utterly soft and delicious.
Since we had two children with us, we also shared a “Half Crispy Aromatic Duck” @ £14. This was good with plenty of meat and pancakes for all of us.
The “Aromatic Chilli Lamb” @ £6.80 was an interesting dish. I would not normally have ordered lamb at a Chinese restaurant before being introduced to Sichuanese cuisine a few years earlier. This dish was a delicious example of Sichuanese food, and one I would like to try again.
Another star dish of the evening was the “Aubergine with Mashed Garlic and Tao Pan Sauce” @ £5. These were by far the best stir fried aubergines I have ever had. Similar to Gourmet San’s Aubergine with Fish Fragrant Sauce, they were packed with flavour and the sauce was not too liquid. A real winner.
The other two accompanying dishes that we had were “Fried Special Noodle with Shredded Pork, Chives, Carrots and Onions” @ £4.80 and the “Bamboo Rice” @ £3.80. These were passable, and portion sizes were on the small side.
The “Taiwan Mini Kebab with Pork” @ £2.60 was flavoursome – the pork belly was slightly on the fatty side but the flavours were good, and together with the steamed dough, couscous and herbs made up a delicious dish.
Having had oyster omelette in Singapore many times previously, I was a little disappointed with Leong’s version “Fried Oysters Wrapped with Egg” @ £6.60. It contained tong choy (morning glory) which was an interesting addition, but the amount of oysters was not overly generous and it was a little dry. It was a mediocre version in comparison to its Singaporean equivalent.
Leong’s wine list was well prices with their white or red house wine starting at £12.50. We had two bottles of the Cuvee Le Bosq Blanc de Blancs at £12.50 – it was very easy drinking and partnered the food well. The total bill was £111 or £18.50 per person including 2 bottles of wine, tea for 6 people, soft drinks and service.
Verdict – Very good Taiwanese/Sichuanese dishes at reasonable prices in Chinatown. I would happily return to Leong’s Legend, particularly for their superb Xiao Long Bao (Shanghai Dumplings), and Braised Pork Belly. Good service.
Sunday, December 06, 2009
Food 7 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 7
I was recently invited by Chris (Tikichris from Qype) to participate in Tsuru’s Sake Cocktails and Japanese Tapas Evening alongside other 9 Qypers and food bloggers. Situated on Canvey Street, in the new Bankside development behind Tate Modern, Tsuru is a sleek restaurant, with a trendy but unpretentious interior, serving one of the best Katsu Curries in Central London.
Assisted by Wakana, a delightful Japanese sommelier from Akashi-Tai Brewery, the proprietor, Emma Reynolds gave us the low-down on the evening’s four cocktails and accompanying dishes.
We started off with a glass of “Kappa Saketini” – a Japanese version of the classic dry martini which replaces the usual vodka and vermouth with Japanese Shochu and Sake. Served very chilled with a fine cucumber slice, this was a refreshing and elegant cocktail.
To accompany our Saketini, we were served a platter of their free range Chicken Yakitori. The chicken was succulent, sweetened by the subtle teriyaki sauce; it complemented our Saketini perfectly.
The “Tokiwa Honeytini” (Tokiwa Shochu with Drambuie and Honey) was served next. The combination of flavours was amazing and a little reminiscent of a Rusty Nail (whisky and Drambuie).
The “Agedashi Tofu” was good – the delicate batter soaked up the “dashi” stock well while remaining slightly crispy on the outside. I normally make this at home, and find it an excellent introductory dish to serve to friends who are still not madly keen on tofu.
The “Tempura Prawns” were also faultless. With a crisp and light batter, the tempura batter was not overly greasy. They had been cooked perfectly for the prawn meat was succulent and not rubbery as some overcooked tempura prawns can be.
Our next dish was the “Fried Gyoza Dumplings” – Tsuru makes its Gyoza dumplings from scratch, which is impressive. I normally cook these from frozen, buying them already made from Asian supermarkets. It takes about 5 minutes to prepare and they taste nearly as good as Tsuru’s.
Next on the list was “Nippon-Fashioned” – a delightful cocktail made of Japanese whisky from Nikka and clementine peel. I had never tried Japanese whisky before but was pleasantly surprised by the lightness and subtle flavours which partnered well with the clementine.
Tsuru’s “Chicken Katsu Curry” was sensational and I simply cannot praise it enough – I am a Katsu Curry Fanatic, and have it for lunch at least once or twice per week. I have tried every outlet in the City of London selling Katsu Curry but have been mostly disappointed until now. Tsuru makes its own curry sauce from scratch, a task that takes 24 hours to perfect, and very successful it is. The curry sauce was packed with flavour but was delicate and not overly flavoured or pungent with MSG and curry spices as so often seen with SB cubes.
“Tsuru’s Sushi Moriawase” platter had a good selection of different fish – these were very fresh, as raw fish used for sushi should be, and the rice was perfectly cooked. Tsuru uses yellow fin line-caught tuna for their sushi.
To wrap up the evening, we had what I felt was the best dish – “Chocolate Brownies topped with Green Tea Ice Cream”. Rich chocolate served with green tea ice cream is a heavenly combination and in my opinion is the best Japanese dessert for the Western palate.
My favourite cocktail of the evening was the “Ume Hot Toddy” made of hot umeshu plum sake and Tokiwa shochu, served with a slice of lemon studded with cloves. This was incredibly warming and delicious and I will now hope to try and replicate this at home – very seasonal, this is perfect for a good Xmas tipple or any other cold night.
Verdict – Uncomplicated, good quality Japanese food in Central London at reasonable prices. The cocktails are priced between £6 and £7, and are a MUST on any visit to Tsuru. Highly recommended, I will certainly return.
Monday, November 30, 2009
Food 8 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 8
The “ultimate” in what is now a well known trend in London’s restaurant scene, Pierre Koffman’s pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges is one of those foodie experiences that I simply could not miss. After reading an excellent review by fellow food blogger Kavey from Kavey Eats, I called Selfridges and was placed in their waiting list – a couple of days later and due to a very welcome cancellation, Dr G and I were finally booked in.
The marquee that was specially built looks good – not tent-like as I feared but sturdy and rather spacious. The décor is elegant and quirky, with those striking chandeliers made of large interspaced deer antlers also used in The Reindeer at The Truman Brewery (another pop-up restaurant set up by the Bistrotheque team for Xmas 06), and various bowler hats reminiscent of Rene Magritte.
Dr G and I made our choices, deciding to share all dishes. To start the evening we were served an amuse bouche of “Carrot and Orange Soup with Potato Foam” – the soup was full of flavour, and the potato foam made it rich without the heaviness of the more usual double cream.
Our first starter was the “Fricasse of Wild Mushrooms and Snails with Bone Marrow” – having just had some wonderful roasted bone marrow at Pizza East the week earlier, I was very keen to try this dish.
It was creatively presented as the marrow had been scrapped off the bone, made into two small white spheres and placed on thinly sliced toast. The marrow cavity was then filled up with wild mushrooms flavoured with an incredibly concentrated and delicious reduction.
I quite enjoyed this dish although I did not fall in love with it – I ate my share of the bone marrow and did not realise what it was until I had nearly swallowed it. I also felt that the snails tasted slightly odd without the usual garlicky sauce.
The second starter “Cocktail of Scottish Lobster with Avocado Guacamole and Lemon Jelly” was a complete contrast. Served in a martini glass, the flavour combination was spot on – the meaty chunks of lobster, apples, avocado, and lemon jelly tasted and looked sensational together – it was fresh and zingy but also creamy due to the avocados.
Pierre’s signature dish “Pig’s Trotter stuffed with Veal Sweetbreads and Morel Mushrooms” was absolutely fantastic – I have eaten pig’s trotters before in Brazilian Feijoada (Brazil’s national dish) but was never fond of them. It takes amazing skill to make what is one of the most unappealing cuts/pieces of pork into something so utterly delicious. The skin was melting in the mouth, the meat and veal sweetbreads were incredibly soft and well complemented by the morel mushrooms. The sauce was highly concentrated and sweet, tasting of caramel and Madeira wine.
The “Royale de Lievre with Red Cabbage” also did not disappoint – various cuts of roast hare with a fine sauce reduction and buttered tagliarini. It was an intensely rich dish, and by this point in the meal, we were feeling rather sated.
For dessert we shared the “Pistachio Souffle with Pistachio Ice Cream” and the “Chocolate Fondante with Vanilla Ice Cream”. It was worth having to wait the additional 20 minutes for the souffle – it was a dazzling display of culinary technique, being light and intensely flavoured with pistachio. The chocolate fondant was dark and luxurious, and well balanced with a delicate ice cream.
To drink, we had a bottle of red Vacqueyras 2005 @ £38. It was more than what I would normally have paid, but for cooking of this quality, it seemed appropriate. The wine (a more affordable alternative to the nearby Chateauneuf du Pape) accompanied the dishes very well with the exception of the lobster. This was followed by some dainty petit fours and coffee.
The service was very friendly - I was frantically typing all dish names on my Blackberry when one of the waiters offered to give us a couple of menus. She had them signed by Pierre Koffmann before giving them to us.
Verdict – Superb cooking, classic French dishes with a sophisticated twist. At £220 for two, including wine and service, I was pleased to have had this unique experience with a culinary legend. Although the portions were sensible, the concentration of flavour was so intense that it took some hours for my appetite to recover.
Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Food 8 | Service 9 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 6
A recent visit to Le Manoir de Raynaudes, in the South West of France, has re-ignited my love for French cuisine and all things French. I have since then signed up to French language classes and am devouring Julia Child’s memoirs “My Life in France”. The best part of this “francophonisation” process was finding Terroirs, a French bar and restaurant opened in Central London about a year ago.
Having been to Terroirs before, I normally try and sit at their zinc bar to watch the chefs at action and for a more relaxed dinner. The menu is short but offers an excellent spread of fish, shellfish, duck, cheese and charcuterie. This is a place to come with friends and share various dishes over a few bottles of excellent French wine.
In my last visit, I ordered a small selection of dishes together with one of my favourite bottles of wine, a 2007 bottle of Marcillac @ £18.85 (Dne du Cros, Philippe Teulier, Marcillac). Terroirs’ wine list is most impressive - it contains about 200 wines of which 20 wines can also be served by the glass. You will be assured to find a bottle to suit every budget and taste.
The menu is divided into 5 categories – Bar Snacks (Duck Scratchings @ £2.50 are fatty but very moreish, Bread & Butter @ £1.50, a “must”), Small Plates (for sharing like Steak Tartare @ £7 or a Whole Dorset Crab and Mayo @ £12), Cheese (Rocamadour @ £3.50 is divine), Charcuterie (Duck Rillettes @ £6 is one of my favourites), Plats du Jour (more substantial dishes like Brandade de Morue @ £12 or Slow Roasted Belly of Pork @ £13) and Desserts @ £5. My suggestion would be to order bread and butter, which are heavy and chewy, accompanied by a selection from any of these categories.
One of the dishes I order at every visit, is the “Snail, Bacon, Garlic and Parsley” @ £7. This is served on a slice of toasted bread with a delicious Pistou dressing (just like Pesto but without pine nuts or cheese but more garlicky). The combination of flavours is sensational, I just wished there was more on my plate!
Another favourite, “Duck Rillettes” @ £6, is rustic French cuisine at its best, and better avoided when on any diet. Originally made with pork, the meat is cubed or chopped, salted heavily and cooked slowly in fat until it is tender enough to be easily shredded. It is then cooled with enough of the fat to form a paste. They are normally used as spread on bread or toast and served at room temperature.
“Potted Brown Shrimps” @ £7, also served on toasted bread, was very good. Seasoned heavily with nutmeg and paprika as potted shellfish should be, the flavours partnered well with the Morecambe Bay shrimps.
The “Pan Fried Girolles Mushrooms with a Duck Egg” at £7 was also delicious. The mushrooms were meaty and full of flavour, and the runny duck egg was an interesting addition.
Other dishes that I had tried in previous visits and that I would also recommend are the Steak Tartare @ £7 (well seasoned and fresh), Pork and Pistachio Terrine @ £6 (quite rustic and a substantial portion), Selection of Charcuterie @ £10 (nice cuts but not good value), any of the cheeses @ £3.50 (they are all superb), and Duck Scratchings @ £2.50 (fatty but very good).
I have been impressed by Terroirs in all my visits. At £53.27 for two including an excellent bottle of wine, this is one of my favourite restaurants in London at the moment, and I simply cannot recommend it enough.
Verdict – Rustic, hearty and delicious French cuisine to share, and coupled with the best wine list in town. Great Service and reasonable prices make Terroirs one of the hottest tables in the Capital.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Food 9 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 8
Set in the trendy & expensive Wigmore Street, Comptoir Libanais is a gorgeous Café-Deli serving Lebanese, Syrian and other Levantine specialties. It was a runner-up in the Best Design Restaurant Category of Time Out’s Eating and Drinking Guide 2010 and reviewed previously as one of the best BYOB eateries in London.
Brightly coloured, and impeccably decorated, Comptoir Libanais has the warmest and friendliest staff I have encountered for quite some time. Following a lovely dinner and cookery demonstration by Kumiko Kurihara in nearby John Lewis, I was excited to try this little gem even if I was only to try their assortment of baklava and mint tea.
These were both excellent, particularly the mint tea which was very aromatic with delicate hints of rose petal. It had not been previously sweetened, as it is normally served and drunk, making it a perfect partner to my plate of nutty baklava.
I got a small tab le outside and soon got chatting to some of the customers popping out to smoke. The clientele is young, fashionable and interesting giving the place a real buzz.
I had a short but rather sweet time at Comptoir Libanais, and am now looking forward to returning & trying some of their delicious meze, and tagines (and bringing my own wine!).
Verdict – A real gem serving simple but beautiful Levantine food, cakes and tea. Impeccably decorated, and as a BYO eatery, it is also an affordable restaurant option for a full meal. I will return. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Food 7 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 8
Mandalay is a little institution in the London Food Scene – I remember going there 15 years ago and being rather intrigued at the time, so I felt another visit was overdue. Surrounded by the most traditional Levantine restaurants in the country, Mandalay is slightly at odds on the Edgware Road strip. Sadly, very little has changed in this restaurant’s decor and menu in the last 15 years; the food however, tasted as simple and good as I remembered it to be.
Burmese cuisine is a difficult one to pin down – it is primarily a fusion of Chinese and Indian flavours and also to a lesser degree of other South East Asian cuisines, particularly Thai. It is rich, complex and contains most of those familiar Asian ingredients such as coconut milk, coriander, tamarind, lemongrass, curry, and shrimp paste (belacan), among others.
We tried to order a selection of different dishes which we felt would give us a good overview of various cooking methods and flavours. We skipped the appetizers deciding to have an additional main course and accompanying vegetables instead. All dishes were served pretty much at once, by the very personable waiter and owner “Dwight”.
The Lamb in Tamarind @ £6.90 was tender, tangy and delicious. The sauce was rich and thick with hints of cinnamon and star anise – there was a lot going on in that sauce but the flavours integrated beautifully. I really enjoyed this dish with plain boiled rice @ £1.90 a portion.
The Chilli Chicken @ £5.90 was, as the name suggests, very hot to the point that it impaired the palate for any subsequent dishes. I love spicy food so was happy with the abundance of dry roasted chillies, and the heat that followed. This was a simple dish where the flavours of chicken and chillies were completely unadulterated by other spices. I would recommend this to those who like me, really enjoy hot foods.
I was intrigued by Mandalay’s Twice Cooked Fish Curry @ £6.90, and was informed by the owner Dwight that the fish was firstly fried and then baked in a rich tomato sauce. We were slightly underwhelmed by this dish at the time, but having tried it at home the following day, I was pleasantly surprised by the flavours of the tomato sauce and spices. It tasted much nicer than the previous evening, so this is possibly a good take-away option!
Aubergine with Potatoes @ £4.80 was one of the best dishes of the evening. The odd combination of these two vegetables, married with some exotic Asian flavours such as shrimp paste and soy sauce, was a real winner. I will certainly order this again.
The star of the evening however was Mandalay’s banana fritters with ice cream. The batter had been prepared with a combination of wheat and rice flours making it crispy and light, melting in the mouth with the hot banana and ice cream. Utterly scrumptious!
Mandalay’s beverage menu is quite limited and well priced: with house wines priced at £8.50 and other wines at £9.90, you are unlikely to break the bank at this eatery. We decided to go for Tsingtao beers at £2.20 per bottle, and felt that they partnered the food well.
We had a lovely chat with the owner Dwight who took great pride in his country’s heritage and cuisine and demonstrated a real passion to communicate that to all his customers. He explained the menu in detail, and made me promise to try one of his signature dishes namely Calabash (fritter appetizer) on my next visit. Our experience at Mandalay was greatly enhanced by Dwight’s care, knowledge and insights.
Verdict – Good, simple Burmese food at very reasonable prices. The location and decor are a little disappointing. Dwight’s love, knowledge and enthusiasm for his country and cuisine are an inspiration to those lucky enough to be served by him.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Food 7 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 4 | Value for money 7
Intrigued by all the hype surrounding Bocca di Lupo, I called up my dear Italian friend and foodie extraordinaire Tea (short for Teodora) for a meal at this very trendy establishment. Despite booking well in advance, we managed to get squeezed in for a 6pm sitting last Friday, and were reminded on arrival that our bit of counter should be vacated by 8pm, and no later.
Bocca di Lupo is simply and informally decorated, tucked in on Archer Street, W1, one of the seediest streets in Soho. It was a runner-up in the Best New Italian Restaurants category of Time Out’s 2010 Eating & Drinking Guide and had received rave reviews by fellow food bloggers World Foodie Guide and Londonelicious to name a few.
The menu is not overly long or complicated, and clearly describes the Italian regions from which each of the dishes originate. I also enjoyed the possibility of ordering various dishes to share as opposed to having my own main course.
We started the evening with “Buffalo Mozzarella Bocconcini” @ £2.50 each. As expected, these were very delicious and creamy.
This was followed by “Crescentini (fried bread) with Finocchiona, Speck & Squacquerone Cheese” @ £5.50 (small). This was ok, although neither of us could taste the fennel in the fried bread, and felt that the accompanying portions of speck and cheese were rather meagre.
The “Shaved Radish, Celeriac and Pecorino Salad with Pomegranates and Truffle Oil” £5.50 (small) was one of the highlights of the evening. The flavours and textures were diverse but came together nicely in the heavily scented truffle oil. I really enjoyed this dish and would certainly order it again.
We ordered two of their pasta dishes, “Tortellini with Cream and Nutmeg” @ £8.00 (small), and “Tagliatelle with Pigeon and Pork Ragu” @ £7.00 (small). They were both good although to my surprise, the vegetarian option was the better of the two. The simplicity of the tortellini was refreshing, with the flavours of cream, cheese and nutmeg completely unadulterated and delicious. The Pigeon and Pork Ragu was also good and rich.
The best dish of the evening was undoubtedly the “Sea Bream Baked in Salt” @ £16 (whole fish). The salty crust in which the fish was baked helped to season the flesh to perfection. It was reminiscent of Baccalá but without the chewiness and dense consistency of this salt-dried fish (cod). A true revelation.
To accompany the fish we ordered a portion of “Grilled Radicchio and Asiago Cheese” @ £6.50 (small). The radicchio had been seasoned with balsamic vinegar and tasted sweet and slightly charred with the melted Asiago cheese (reminiscent of parmesan). We did not think it was an outstanding dish.
For dessert, we ordered the “Rum Baba with Pineapple and Whipped Cream” @ £5.50 and the “Brioche “sandwich” of Hazelnut, Pistachio and Chestnut Gelati (ice cream)” @ £7.00. These were again fine, but rather unremarkable.
I do not know if our mixed experience at Bocca di Lupo was because of my unduly high expectations or possibly because of the impersonal but efficient service we received. The food was good but not outstanding. I would like to give Bocca di Lupo another try when some of the hype finally quietens down.
Verdict – Good Italian food at medium prices in Soho. Impersonal but efficient service. At £126.56 for four, Bocca di Lupo was relatively good value but hardly a bargain.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Food 8 | Service 6 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 6
Haché was Time Out’s highest scoring burger joint, and that is where I decided to start this arduous task. Over the following months I will visit other locations, particularly those missed out by Time Out but highly recommended by other bloggers.
So before returning to my old time GBK favourite in Soho’s Frith Street, I went to the Camden Town branch of Haché encouraged by rave reviews from fellow food bloggers LondonEater and An American in London. I lived in Camden Town for most of the 90s and love going back to this much loved neighbourhood.
Having read some critical reviews of Haché’s waiting service on London Eating, I was bracing myself as I walked in. To my surprise I was greeted by some very jolly staff who quickly showed us to our table. Haché is simply furnished, the careful lighting and crystal chandeliers suggesting a warmth and elegance which is a real step up from the usual GBK décor.
Haché’s menu is extensive, varying from beef to vegetarian, or fish, lamb, venison and duck (www.Hachéburgers.com/files/menu.pdf) the burgers will cater for all. I ordered the Catalan Burger with chorizo sausage, fresh chilli and tomato jam, with some chunky chips to accompany it. Mr G, my foodie partner on that evening, had the Spanish Burger with roasted red pepper and goat’s cheese. He ordered his burger to be cooked rare, and I stupidly assumed that mine would be cooked medium which is the usual deal for any decent burger. I was disappointed however when I bit into my burger to find it nearly blue. It was an unfortunate oversight, but being a true lover of steak tartare and everything else French, I was determined to enjoy my experience at Haché. As the name suggests, the burger meat was coarsely minced and tasted fresh and delicious.
As I ate my burger I felt that the ratio of bread and other ingredients was slightly disproportionate, with too much bread for the amount of filling, and that my ciabatta roll was also a tad dry. I did not feel that there was enough meat juice, tomato jam or even the humble mayo to mop up or soften the bread. I am not sure whether ciabatta bread and burgers is a marriage made in heaven - the chewiness of this type of bread (which I love immersed in extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar) does not show its best qualities in the same way in a burger. I think a good quality bap would have worked better here.
The chunky chips were well made and I polished mine off happily. Mr G echoed my feelings regarding his own burger. We shared a bottle of Argentinean Malbec which at £12.95 was of good quality and reasonably priced.
Verdict – For burger connoisseurs, I found Haché slightly disappointing. Our burgers were dry and lacked filling for the amount of bread offered. I am not convinced that ciabatta is the best type of bread for a burger either. The service was good, and the wines were reasonably priced. I would certainly like to come back and try it again, but will not be rushing back.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Food 6 | Service 6 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 5
I was one of the 30 lucky Qypers, mostly food bloggers, who were invited to taste Wahaca’s new autumn menu at their Westfield branch.
We had a useful introduction by Tommi and Mark of the dishes that we would be tasting, and the three types of tequilas to accompany them. We started the evening with a lovely dish of “Smoked Herring Tostada” (£3.75) - shredded smoked herring in a Veracruzan sauce (made mainly of olive oil, capers, tomatoes, chillies and various herbs) on tortillas. I enjoyed this and felt that the fish and slightly tart sauce married well.
To follow, we had what I think was one of the best dishes of the evening – “Black Bean and Chicken Soup” (£6.75). Served with shredded chicken, diced avocado, feta cheese, cream, ancho chillies and totopo (a type of corn tortilla), these were topped by a creamy and rich soup of black beans. The contrasting combination of flavours and textures was a revelation despite the odd appearence, with the ancho chillies giving a spicy but sweet, almost chocolatey quality to the dish.
The “Huitlacoche Quesadillas” (£3.75) with corn, mushroom and cheese, were also good. Huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on the ears of corn, it has a very pungent earthy flavour reminiscent of mushroom and corn. I could easily have a few of those with some cold beer.
Their “Winter Fuerza Salad” (£6.90) was next, a combination of roasted butternut squash, spelt, diced orange, ancho chillies, feta, avocado, and other ingredients. This was a hearty salad, combining two of my favourite salad ingredients – butternut squash & feta. I will certainly try this again.
To accompany the salad, we also had “Pork Pibil” (£3.75), a traditional Mexican slow roasted pork dish from Yucatan Peninsula, marinated in a lime based sauce and slow roasted in banana leaves. This was one of the highlights of the evening, the meat was succulent, sweet and tender.
Wahaca’s “Vegetable Pipian” (£7.75) was our next course. Pipian is a traditional “mole” type sauce used to accompany poultry. It is popular in the North East region of Mexico, consisting mostly of ground nuts, garlic, onions, chillies, and chocolate. Wahaca’s vegetarian take was intriguing and bursting with flavours of fresh herbs and ground green pumpkin seeds. The addition of rice and mushrooms was a good alternative to the usual chicken. I loved the richness of this sauce soaked up by the fluffy rice and meaty mushrooms. This was a truly warming winter dish I look forward to trying again.
This was followed by “Baja-California Fish Tacos” (£7.75), crispy fried fish goujons with chipotle mayonnaise in a delicious tomato salsa served on large tacos. This was an easy going dish that anyone would struggle to fault but not particularly memorable in comparison to some of the other dishes.
The enchilada with “mole” (£8.75) was creamy and rich, and partnered well with the tender pieces of shredded chicken, rice and other ingredients. This was a meaty alternative to the earlier Vegetable Pipian; a sophisticated sauce with hints of chocolate, chillies, onions, and garlic.
Next on the list was the “Fish a la Veracruzana” (£9.95), a parcel of Pollock fillet slow cooked in a Veracruzan sauce (made mainly of olive oil, capers, tomatoes, chillies and various herbs) and served with coriander rice. The accompanying fresh salsa was a nice addition to the green rice and fish.
The last of our main courses was the “Vegetable Burrito” (£6), made of toasted flour tortillas filled with coriander rice, and served with corn chips and tomato salsa.
For dessert we had a platter of hot, crispy “Churros y Chocolate” (£3.40). I remember having similar ones in Madrid, although there the hot chocolate was much denser. I found Wahaca’s particularly good and preferred the less glutinous texture of the rich hot chocolate. This was the perfect ending to a wonderful Mexican meal.
We also tasted three of their finest tequilas – a Blanco, a Reposado and an Añejo (aged version). They had distinct characteristics and were smooth and partnered well with the evening’s dishes.
It was a great event for which I would like to thank the organiser Chris from Qype, and Tommi, Mark & Cecilia for their kindness and hospitality. It was also a great pleasure to meet people whose blogs I had been inspired by: Su-Lin of Tamarind & Thyme and Mel and Kelsie from Travels with my Fork.
Verdict – Inspiring Mexican Street Food to share at reasonable prices. The management have a genuine understanding and passion for Mexican food which is reflected in the delicious dishes on offer. Highly recommended.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Food 8 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 7
Having lived in Brazil for most of my teenage years, I was lucky enough to have experienced the many “Churrascaria” or “Rodizio” restaurants of the land. These are superb restaurants, real paradise to all meat lovers, and I strongly recommend them to anyone visiting Brazil. The flipside is that, in the UK, a steak house will need to be truly outstanding to impress me, and Buen Ayre has certainly ticked most boxes.
It was my third visit to Buen Ayre since moving to Islington last year, and I believe it was probably my best one. Their signature dish is any variation of their “Parrillada”, a selection of meats, cheese and mushroom served on a hot grill. The grill, similar to a portable barbecue, has smouldering hot charcoal underneath it keeping the meat hot throughout the meal at your table.
In my previous two visits we tried their “Parrillada Deluxe” containing some prime cuts like rib eye & sirloin in addition to sausages and other meats, and also their “Parrillada Mixta” which is a mixture of different cuts and sausages with melted provolone cheese and mushroom. They were both delicious, and at £23 and £21 per person respectively, they were also incredibly good value.
This time, we tried the “Parrillada Al Paso”, a selection of grilled meats, Argentine-style pork sausages, flank steak, black pudding and short ribs.
The meats were perfectly grilled with a delicious charred quality on the outside whilst pink and amazingly succulent inside. The meats were very tender and the selection of different cuts was very well thought out. Seasoning was minimal, possibly sea salt only, and therefore the meat flavours were unadulterated and intense. The beef and sausages were fresh, tender, and juicy, a real treat.
We also ordered a portion of chips (papas fritas) @ £4.50, and some grilled provolone cheese (provoleta) @ £4.00 to accompany the Parrillada. I would have normally resented paying £4.50 for a portion of chips. I do not know if they are double or triple cooked, roasted, fried, or both, or what type of potatoes they use, but they were outstanding and I highly recommend ordering them with your meal. They were worth every penny and should go down in food history as THE BEST chips I have EVER eaten.
Another revelation of the evening was their black pudding (morcilla) which in the two previous visits I did not have room left to try. I am not a great fan of black pudding but their morcilla was delicious, incredibly soft with hints of paprika and smokiness similar to a spicy chorizo.
Our waitress, Stefane, was very friendly and efficient. I asked her whether I could take some pictures of the main grill area and restaurant and she was very happy to accommodate me. Towards the end of the meal we had a lovely chat and I found out that like her husband, the resident Chef that evening, she was also a fellow Brazilian.
Their Argentinian wine list is comprehensive and well priced catering to all budgets. We had a bottle of Cuma (organic Malbec) which at £17.40 was spot on.
I had skipped lunch in anticipation of my dinner at Buen Ayre, but as before, I was flagging two thirds into my Parrillada. It is quite a funny, communal experience whenever I go to Buen Ayre– the exchange of looks and smiles of amazement from other fellow diners as their Parrilladas arrive, a feeling of shared camaraderie prevails which make Buen Ayre a very special place.
Verdict – Perfect meat, perfect chips & morcilla, charming service and great wine. At £66.83 for two, I would rate Buen Ayre as one of the best value Argentinian restaurants in London, and as good as the ones I tried in Brazil. I will most certainly be coming back. Highly recommended.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Food 8 | Service 8 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 6
Besides San Francisco and Shanghai, there is only one other place that I feel can rival London’s culinary diversity, and that is Singapore. I would gladly take a 12-hour flight to be able to eat there. The countless food courts, their wonderful Chilli Crab, the oyster omelettes that melt in your mouth, are just some of the many reasons why I keep going back. I love Singapore, and in my latest trip, I also discovered the most delicious Straits Chinese food.
I first came across the concept of Straits Heritage Cuisine a few years ago in Malacca, former capital of Malaysia. Straits Chinese food can refer to the cuisine that has evolved from the inter-racial marriages of descendants of late 15th and 16th century Chinese immigrants with natives of the region of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. Peranakan and Baba-Nyonya are also the commonly used terms in Malay to describe this marriage of cultures and food. Needless to say, that the food is superb, complex, and richly flavoured with regional spices and pastes.
Rasa Sayang is not entirely Nyonya. Their menu is predominantly Malaysian/Singaporean hawker street food, and contains some of these nations’ favourite dishes like Chilli Crab, Char Kuay Teow and Pan-fried Carrot Cake. I was glad however to see some of my favourite Nyonya dishes in the menu like “Ayam Sambal” (chicken stewed in rich coconut curry) and Stir Fried Sambal Cluster Beans.
It was with much anticipation that I arranged to visit Rasa Sayang with my delightful Malaysian friend Charmaine Chow and her partner. I have been lucky enough to have experienced Charmaine’s Malaysian cooking a number of times, and knew that I would be in very good hands when ordering.
Rasa Sayang is simply decorated, aiming at functionality as opposed to style or comfort. The restaurant is small and the lighting is searingly bright. This is not a place designed to be restful but more like a canteen or a shopping mall eatery with a high turnover of customers and pushy, unfriendly waitresses.
We started with Hainanese Chicken with rice (£6.90) which we both agreed was very tender and succulent. I love the simplicity of this dish and the fact that the flavours come mostly from the delicious broth the chicken is cooked in. The broth is also served with accompanying rice.
This was followed by the pan fried carrot cake (£6.50) which was superb. Despite the name, the dish has no carrots but is made of pieces of rice cake & shredded radish (Japanese Daikon). These are pan-fried and served with bean sprouts, onions and other condiments. This was delicious and one of the best dishes of the evening.
The Char Kuay Teow (£6.60) was just as I remember having in the food courts of Malaysia and Singapore. The noodles were beautifully charred and combined well with the rich, dark and sweet soy sauce giving an intense flavour I have never managed to replicate at home. The seafood was good but not as abundant as it might have been, and the rice noodles soft and slippery like a good cheung fung. This is street hawker food at its best.
The Nyonya “Ayam Sambal” (Chicken Stewed in Rich Coconut Curry @ £6.90) was again amazing. The curry base (rempah) was incredibly complex, with hints of ginger, red chillies, cumin, coriander and belachan (Indonesian shrimp paste). I love belachan - despite the strong fishy smell and flavour, it is definitely an ingredient with a lot of umami.
We also ordered a couple of vegetable dishes – the Stir Fried Sambal Cluster Beans and Sambal Ladyfingers priced at £6.50 and £5.80 respectively. They were both excellent, and Charmaine and I had no trouble polishing them off with the extra portions of rice we ordered. The ladyfingers were nicely cooked, still pleasantly firm and not viscous.
Charmaine was very impressed with the quality and authenticity of all dishes that we tried, and our dinner companions and I agreed with her heartily. Our meal, at £46.20 for four people, would have been perfect had it not been for the poor level of waiting service.
Verdict – Wonderful, authentic Straits Cuisine in modest surroundings, and at very reasonable prices. The unfriendliness of the staff needs to be addressed. A place to explore the still relatively undiscovered Straits Chinese and Peranakan Cuisines in London. I will certainly return.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Food 8 | Service 3 | Atmosphere 3 | Value for money 7
Lebanese Food is among my favourite cuisines, and I was counting the days to my dinner booking at Yalla Yalla. The combination of heady spices like cinnamon, sumac and coriander seeds, fresh herbs, pomegranate molasses and other exotic flavours make this cuisine a very sophisticated one.
There are large Lebanese and Syrian communities in Brazil and I was fortunate enough to have tried many of these countries’ main dishes. As in Beirut, sfiha and kibbe are part of the Brazilian street food culture and I had my fair share of these delightful snacks whilst living there.
Following rave reviews by Time Out and fellow food blogger World Foodie Guide, I decided to find out more. Off Brewer Street in Soho, Yalla Yalla is a small restaurant/cafe, beautifully designed in yellow, black and white. It is a warm, inviting and comfortable place, and very stylishly furnished.
It was a Friday evening at 21:15 when we arrived and we were quickly shown to our table. The place was heaving and the atmosphere was pleasantly boisterous. Their menu is reassuringly simple and short, and the accompanying wine list contains a few Lebanese options, one of these being my own favourite “Chateau Musar” at £18.75 which we promptly ordered.
Mr G, my dinner partner for the evening, and I decided to go for a selection of three meze dishes and then share a couple of mains. We started off with a plate of deep fried seafood (prawns, squid and whitebait) coated in a light crisp batter called “makalé samak”. The seafood was sitting on a bed of fried aubergines and tasted nicely of the sea. At £5.50, this was a satisfying little number.
Our second starter was by far the best of the evening – “kibbé nayyé”, a mixture of minced raw lamb with bulgur wheat, finely chopped onions, mint and coriander, priced at £4.50. We used to have this regularly at home, it being one of my dad’s favourites. Kibbe should be flattened out into a thin layer on your plate and seasoned with lime and olive oil for a few minutes prior to eating. The meat is cured like fish in “ceviche”, and should taste fresh and delicious. Very few dishes ever live up to childhood memories – but Yalla Yalla’s version was perfectly seasoned, the meat was fresh, and tasted as good as I remembered it as a child.
This was followed by another delectable starter of chicken livers cooked in pomegranate molasses called “Saeda Djej”. I was curious to try this, and found that the combination of flavours was outstanding. It was slightly sour from the pomegranate molasses but also sweet from the incredibly tender livers, a real winner at £3.50.
On my way home, I found a recipe for this dish in the “Syrian Foodie in London” blog. Kano is a real authority in Syrian cuisine and I would thoroughly recommend his blog to anyone wanting to learn more about the cuisines of that region.
The mains arrived as we were still nibbling our starters, which suited us well as we were sharing all dishes. The lamb casserole “Lahem Casserole” (£8), reminiscent of a North African tagine, was richly seasoned, the lamb was amazingly tender and went well with the spiced tomato base, swede, carrots, almonds, and accompanying rice.
We also ordered the special of the day – Grilled Baby Chicken (£9.95). It was a nice straight forward dish, with good, simple flavours but slightly overshadowed by all other sumptuous dishes that preceded it.
Verdict – Stylish surroundings with unpretentious and authentic Lebanese food at a reasonable price. Every detail at Yalla Yalla was very well thought out - from their water jug to their food & wine lists and beautiful decor, they deserve every accolade they receive.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Food 8 | Service 7 | Atmosphere 8 | Value for money 7
I love burgers. They are up there amongst my top three comfort foods. Recently I felt I should venture out in search of burger heaven. Following the footsteps of my London bible “Time Out”, I decided to go on my own personal quest to find the BEST burger in London, or at least have a pretty good go at it…
I have been one of GBK’s most loyal customers over the years since the opening of their first restaurant in Clapham’s Northcote Road. Hundreds of reviews have been written about this new London institution, and I am positive they are in no need of further publicity. However, I would like to include GBK in my list of burger joints I will be reviewing in the coming year, as I feel no list would be complete without it.
Some might argue that GBK’s burgers are not as outstanding as they used to be - I am not sure whether their fast expansion has had a detrimental effect on the quality of their burgers or whether it is just a novelty that is now wearing off. Either way, I personally feel that GBK has been consistently good over the years. I still go back there frequently, and I still love their burgers.
GBK has also been resourceful getting its punters through the door in more recent/difficult times. It teamed up with Voucher Codes and frequently offers generous discounts via this website. Offers vary from £5.95 for most burgers & chips to BOGOFs on burgers and main courses. All you need to do is to print these vouchers and bring them to the restaurant, highly recommended if you would like to save a few pounds.
Following our disappointing visit to Haché in the previous week, Mr G and I headed to the new GBK branch in the trendy Spitalfields Market. The place was buzzing; the décor and lighting are slightly more upmarket than other branches. Our allocated waitress was young and quite friendly, and at my request, accommodated us at a larger table as I needed one with good natural light for the pictures below.
I ordered my old time favourite “Avocado and Bacon”, while Mr G had a “Pesterella” with two chunky portions of chips. As usual, the burgers did not disappoint – my burger was delicious and perfectly cooked. The bacon had been beautifully charred and added a smokey flavour to the sandwich that married well with the meaty burger. I love the addition of avocado as it makes the sandwich creamy and rich and counterbalances the other flavours perfectly.
Mr G’s Pesterella was also good and well presented – I had tried this burger before but felt that the Pesto tasted as if it had come out of a jar. If you know Pesto, you will know that the jar variety is a very poor imitation of the real thing. The mozzarella was fresh and delicious but as expected, the Pesto was disappointing. Overall, however, the sandwich was good and Mr G munched through his quite happily.
The chunky chips were good, but not exceptional, as they were a tad dry. I think there is definitely room for improvement there. The table next to ours sent theirs back and they were quickly replaced by fresher ones. Our choice of Chilean Merlot wine was not available, so we ordered a bottle of the Argentinian Malbec (Norton) which was very good and only £4 dearer, at £16.75 it was still good value.
Verdict – GBK’s burgers have been consistently good over the years and have never ceased to impress me. Burgers are meaty and perfectly cooked, and the combination of flavours, which sometimes may seems odd, is well balanced and works well. Their wine choices are good and well priced. Still one of my favourite burger joints in the capital, which I would have no hesitation in recommending.
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Food 8 | Service 7 | Atmosphere 7 | Value for money 8
I have been coming to Kingsland Road for my fix of Vietnamese food for the last 15 years, and have witnessed a few places coming and then quickly vanishing from sight. Sông Quê Café is one of the old timers, and I am pleased that it has managed to hang on as one of the most popular restaurants on the Kingsland strip.
Time Out has been incredibly complimentary of Sông Quê Café over the years, and in its most recent Time Out Eating & Drinking Guide 2009, it awarded 5 stars to this Café, its maximum number.
Having spent a couple of weeks in Vietnam sampling the most scrumptious food made me realise how good Sông Quê Café is. A lot of the dishes I tried in Vietnam were not as successful as the ones I had eaten at Sông Quê, while I can still count the few that were actually better.
The décor isn’t great (the huge plastic lobsters on their walls are actually scary!), and service can be rather grumpy at times. The food, however, more than makes up for these.
My latest visit was no exception. As a group of four, we could share a variety of dishes from the menu. I find that their pho (beef soup with rice noodles), starters, salads and “buns” (vermicelli noodles with meats and salad) are by far their best dishes.
We started with Fresh Rice Paper Rolls with Prawns and Herbs, Prawn Paste with Sugar Cane, Grilled Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf, and Spicy Soft Shell Crab. I love the fresh rolls from Sông Quê, they are fresh and herby with just the right amount of rice vermicelli. This is one of the simplest dishes on any decent Vietnamese menu, and can be prepared well in advance. If prepared too early and not well stored, it can smell and taste of the refridgerator. This is not a problem I have experienced in Sông Quê. Fresh rolls are also great to be made at home and served as canapés if you can master the softening and wrapping of rice paper sheets. I would recommend practice well before your guests are due to arrive!
I had never ordered the Prawn Paste with Sugar Cane before, but it was highly recommended by the lovely Clare, full time foodie and Senior Dietitian at a prominent London Hospital, who was dining with us that evening. The prawn paste was very flavoursome with hints of garlic and coriander root, a real discovery which I will be ordering again.
The Grilled Beef Wrapped in Betel Leaf was also good. The charred and soft betel leaves were beautifully wrapped around the spiced minced beef, the flavours combining well together.
Sông Quê’s Soft Shell Crab is a real winner. I have tried to recreate this dish numerous times at home with varying degrees of success, but could never get anywhere near Sông Quê’s. Despite being deep fried, it is deliciously light; the batter is always incredibly thin and the chilli and garlic seasoning does not overwhelm the delicate flavour of the crab. However, at nearly £7, I find their Soft Shell Crab portion slightly ungenerous.
For mains, we had Traditional Crispy Pancake with Prawn and Chicken served with Salad and Herbs, Green Papaya Salad with Prawn and Pork, Stir Fried Beef with Lemongrass Bun and Spring Roll & Grilled Pork Bun.
The pancake was again very good with a coconut flavour to its crispy batter that makes me order it over and over again. This seems to be one of Vietnam’s staple street food dishes and I had it many times whilst there.
I was slightly disappointed with my Green Papaya Salad this time round. The combination of flavours (sour, sweet, salty) was as good as ever but the thinly sliced pork did not taste as fresh as it could have done.
Both “buns” were very good, but particularly the one with stir fried beef and lemon grass. I normally order the grilled pork & spring roll bun but was pleasantly surprised to taste the wok charred beef in lemongrass. The flavours were excellent and the lemongrass gave a real punch to the dish.
Another dish that we did not manage to order this time but that I would highly recommend is the Crispy Sea Bream in Fish Sauce with Mango. As the name suggests, the entire fish is deep fried making it crispy, the shredded green mango is also a great and exotic addition. It is delicious!
Verdict – Authentic and delicious Vietnamese food in the heart of London and as good as some of the best restaurants in Vietnam. Very affordable, our meal cost us £13 per person. Highly recommended.
Sunday, September 13, 2009
Food 8 | Service 5 | Atmosphere 6 | Value for money 8