Posts Tagged ‘London’

Yauatcha, London

novembre 26, 2009
DSCN1476

La salle

My first evening back in London after a long four month absence was to be spent at Yauatcha. I had been there once last year, but did not find it as good as Hakkasan for example. However, as it was a Friday night, a good number of other places were absolutely packed, so we decided to give it another shot.

La table

At 20.45h the place was full, but the incredibly beautiful receptionists (they surely have a much more impressive title, but I did not ask) were as smiling and helpful as they are over in Hakkasan. Service throughout the night was impressively good for such a busy place, they even knew what the dishes were made of and how they were cooked. This is similar to Hakkasan then (there were to be a few more similarities to appear throughout the meal).

We ordered pretty much everything on the menu that sounded somewhat interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I do not know much about Chinese cooking, so all I can comment on is the way it tasted, and if it did appeal to me, as a mere ignorant Westerner. We had a variety of different dim sums and started of with some steamed parcels filled with pork and prawns. These are identical to those served in Hakkasan, and were good. No ingredient was over- or under-cooked and it was well seasoned. Good.

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First

Another trio arrived, filled with mushrooms, if my memory serves me correctly. Same remark as for the first one, good.

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second

The next one was a step up. The rice flour based, rather fluffy coating encased a braised duck ragout, which was made with Hoisin sauce and had great punch. This really was a tasty little thing, and I found the texture to be very interesting and pleasant. Very good. (again something you also have on Hakkasan’s menu)

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third

Next up was a pretty poor steamed lotus wrap. This was a little taste-less and dull. Apart from that it was slightly crunchy, and acceptable. Mediocre.

fourth

The next set was very good again, oozing with a steaming, tasty mix, made out of chicken, but I do not remember the details. Good,

DSCN1481

fift

Another highlight was about to come. The venison puff is a house signature dish, and understandably so. The first time I had it, I hated it: Fatty pastry, venison that was dry (inside puff pastry, which is so buttery that even a piece of cardboard should be moist after being cooked in it) and devoid of taste. This time on the contrary, it was great. The pastry was not too greasy, felt light, and was crunchy. The filling had great flavour and was most successful. Very good.

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sixth

Moving to deep-fried goodies. Chicken and beans filled these little gems. Crunchy outsides and tasty, hot filling are always a winner, and in this case it was a fine match. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

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seventh

The crispy duck roll was very good. A mix of shredded duck and cucumber is served with Hoisin sauce and is most tasty. This was, again perfectly fine in terms of execution and quality. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

eighth

The following shrimp creation was less great. The coating was crispy, but the filling lacked any identifiable taste and punch. Mediocre.

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ninth

But, there were a few winners to come: The first was the pumpkin and duck fritter. This is really great stuff, as the crispy coating encases a pumpkin puree and some scrumptious braised duck meat. A match made in heaven, and absolutely great. Excellent. (also on Hakkasan’s menu)

tenth

To finish off the savoury part of the meal, we had the classic Shanghai dumplings, which were fine, but didn’t really match the previous dish in terms of flavour or textural interest. Good. (also on Hakkasan’s menu).

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final

The desserts here are usually very good for Chinese restaurants. The pastry chef (who is French) worked with Pierre Herme and combines French technique with Asian flavours. He likes to use sesame, litchi, Yuzu, and a whole range of other products common in Asia, or least not often used in French pastry.

The first dessert was a chocolate tart with a cocoa sorbet and a poached slice of abricot. This was very well made and easily deserves that 1*, if not a little more. It was by no means worse than desserts in French restaurants of that standard, as it was not too sweet, very-well executed and based on very fine chocolate. Very good.

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Dessert I

The last dessert was very good too. A combination of chocolate, caramel and salted peanuts, this was a fine little thing. It was certainly worth the very reasonable price of £4.5. Excellent.

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Dessert II

All in all, this was a meal that easily justified the 1*. Flavours were in most cases spot on, products good, technique constant and service very good. Prices are surprisingly low (one can eat for around £25, excluding drinks). However, the problem is the frighteningly expensive wine list. That list is more expensive than, say The Greenhouse or Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester or even The Square, which all are amongst the city’s elite in terms of wine and food. However, a meal here is entertaining, good fun and not bad at all, which is probably all the restaurant wants to strive for.

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La salle

Publicités

Eating in London on a budget, London (of course!)

juin 17, 2009

 

London has a reputation of being one of the most expensive cities in the world. That certainly is true for a number of things. Everything is that much more expensive than elsewhere, but the difference between good and mediocre (read bad) food isn’t striking. In fact, a meal in one of the chain eateries like Masala Zone, Pizza Express or others of the type will not be cheaper than one at Arbutus for instance. Here are a few places that will provide you with a decent meal, without breaking the bank. I will update it and add new addresses whenever I find anything noteworthy.

Arbutus:

In this restaurant, which sports a Michelin star, one can enjoy a very reasonable lunch/pre-theatre menu that costs no more than £16. Last time I went, I had some very good porchetta with Pecorino and apple puree. The rolled suckling pig was thinly sliced and placed on warm apple puree. It came topped with rocket and Pecorino slices, turning it into a very appealing starter. This dish was still on the menu a few weeks ago, and is there nearly all of the time.  As main, I had a black mullet fillet with gnocchi and pumpkin puree. Nothing, one can’t cook at home or hasn’t eaten elsewhere, but certainly as good as £16 can get you anywhere.  Dessert is often a piece of cheese or an ile flottante with vanilla custard. This classically French dessert is well executed and on the same level as the other dishes. All in all, the restaurant has good bread, effective service, competitive prices and pretty good food. A winning combination.

 

Princi:

 

This is a favourite of mine, a quick cup of coffee, some Pizza al taglio, a dessert or very good bread will cost you hardly more than at any supermarket and are much more rewarding. The cannoli for instance, are fantastic. At 80p a piece, they aren’t over-priced and will delight anyone who grabs a few. Another grea thing there is a bread studded with olives and tomatoes, this has a lovely crust and doesn’t need any butter, cheese or other condiment to be eaten with. The fashionable, mostly Italian crowd, makes it yet more authentic (the original is in Milano). It is quite surprising, that one can have a filling meal in such stylish decor for less than £10. 

 

Franco Manca:

Speaking of Italy, this is certainly one of the best price/quality ratios anywhere in the world. A meal here (provided you’re not as greedy as I am) will not cost you more than £5. I like this place so much, that I make the way to Brixton every other week. Just for your information, avoid Saturdays, as it gets horribly busy. Also, don’t bother coming later than 4pm, as they close  at that time and finally, don’t expect much luxury around your plate. A few pics can be found here .

 

Barrafina:

 

 

la cocina

la cocina

 

 Frith street is an interesting one. Ronnie Scott’s is down there, Arbutus and Barrafina are too. All in all, you can spend a very entertaining evening on this street. A meal at Barrafina will certainly not be quite as cheap, as those I mentioned above, but it will most certainly be good fun and some decent food is likely to be involved too. I recently had some delectable ham croquettes (£3), which were perfectly crispy, filled with creamy potato puree and ham. Another winner was a pig’s trotter (£6.95), filled with shrimp, squid and oyster mushrooms. This was deep-fried, and served with a tomato/almond sauce. The coating wasn’t as perfect as the one on the croquettes, but it was a most tasty dish. Some chips ( pommes frites for anyone not from the UK) served with some garlic salt and tomato sauce (£3.50) were on the better side too: crispy, tasty and served with a lovely sauce on the side. Pair this kind of food with some Cava or Sherry and you’re in for a pleasant night. Only thing, that is hardly Spanish is the closing time of 23h (last orders). 

 

la cocina, 2

la cocina, 2

Hakkasan, London

juin 6, 2009

 

la maison

la maison

 

 

Hakkasan is a bit of an odd place. It must be one of the very few restaurants that attracts both a very fashionable crowd and some, who go for the food. This taken aside, Alan Yau’s flagship restaurant is quite a unique creature. The first thing that you might find odd, is the location. The restaurant lies at the end of a dodgy little street close to Tottenham Court Road. This street certainly doesn’t invite you to hang out after your dinner and enjoy the summer night. There is even a little sign saying: « Please leave Hakkasan quietly ».  Second, the restaurant has a bouncer. Now, the guy never created any problem for me, but I do find this strange. It might tell you something about the previous points I mentioned, or about the whole concept of it. Thirdly, if you come here on a beautiful sunny day, like I did at my last visit, you will be transported to quite another place. Upon descending into the cool, dark, blue/black space that is the restaurant, you somehow feel like being in a movie, set in Hong Kong or Shanghai during the 20’s.

la salle-1

la salle-1

 

The hostesses are stunningly beautiful (which they are at Yauatcha too) and great you with a charming smile. Funny thing, I was there about a dozen of times now (in a few months) and you always get treated like everyone else. This must be the most impersonal restaurant I know. But, here, it fits in with the rest of the atmosphere, which is somewhat close to a night club.

la salle-2

la salle-2

Once you are being shown through to your table, or the bar if you’re early, you can have a beer. But think about it, as the beer here is the most expensive I have come across (£9.50). Not that there’s something wrong with that, but you can have a glass of the very pleasing Louis Roederer Brut Premier for a few pounds more, which I do find more pleasing. The cocktails are also worth trying, if that is your thing.

The design is very much to my liking. The place has its charm, which the photos might show.  The only problems, which it shares with so many other London restaurants are the incredible loudness and the absence of light. When I stepped in, on this beautiful sunny day, I had trouble not missing the steps, as it was so dark. If you don’t like someone’s face, take him/her here, you won’t see him/her, nor hear much of what they say. It might be romantic, but a little more light couldn’t hurt.

 

la table

la table

Now, to the food. Just for your information, if you want to spend big money, you can do it here better than in any other restaurant: They have a couple of dishes that will set you back far more than £200. I for once don’t fancy that kind of stuff (in a place such as this), so I went for the dim sum menu today (only at lunch), seeing that I practically know the whole carte by now. Prices on this are refreshingly student-friendly, which is always a pleasure.

 To kick things off, I had the pork and prawn shumai. Four little rolls of pastry filled with a well made mix of shredded pork meat and prawns came steaming hot in their little wooden steamer. This was a very nice start, especially if eaten with some soy sauce, as the filling wasn’t as salty as it could have been. Pleasant start.

pork/prawn shumai

pork/prawn shumai

Up next was, what was the dish of the day for me: A crispy smoked duck and pumpkin puff. Boy, this was good. Excellent is the least I can say actually. Look at the stunning beauty of these little things. The crispy coat hid a delicious layer of pumpkin puree and slightly smoked, braised duck meat constituted the centre. I always liked the food here, but this was just stunning for such a restaurant. The duck was nearly creamy and the smoke barely noticeable. The pumpkin provided a cushion for the whole thing and the fried batter was nearly greaseless and fantastically crunchy. If eaten with some chili oil, it was like heaven on earth. A touch more smokiness would have made this outstanding. Fantastic.

smoked duck

smoked duck

Next up was a thing I had on each of my previous visits here and at Yauatcha. It is something like the house signature dish, the scallop shumai. Some halved scallops sandwich crabmeat, are topped with Tobiko caviar and wrapped in pasta. Now, being a Chinese dim sum restaurant of relatively large size, you might expect the cooking not to be that precise, but here the opposite was true. The scallops were cooked perfectly. Very evenly cooked, juicy, plump and sweet. Beautiful quality of scallops and crab made this a lovely mouthful (if a very big one). The “caviar” provided some textural contrast, which gave the whole dish another dimension. Another excellent dish.

scallop

scallop

After a little break, I ordered another round of food. First up came the Fried Satay beef and bean curd roll. This was, yet again very pleasing. The beef was wrapped in some kind of thinly cut pastry ( a bit like kataifi pastry, but of different consistency) and then deep-fried. Inside it was some kind of slightly sweet bean curd.  The whole construction sat atop a pool of Satay sauce and tasted, you might expect it, very well. I didn’t remember the food to be that good from my last visits. This was as good as dim sum gets, at least in Europe, seeing that I can’t speak for China or any far-eastern country. If not, make me better ones and I’m happily trying them. Very good.

beef

beef

The following ones were something I had had before: The classic Shanghai dumplings. Some steamed, then pan fried pasta parcels were filled with delicious pork and other things. I could have used a little more seasoning, but once dipped into the very good soy sauce, it was certainly worth eating. Maybe these were less great than the rest, but certainly still good.

 

Shanghai

Shanghai

The following little dumplings were back to were I wanted them to be, in terms of pleasure. They were fantastic. Oh yes, it were the Char chui buns. Filled with scrumptiously good braised pork, they were made out of an interesting dough. The dough was made out of rice flour and had a consistency, which I could only describe as being close to that of a marshmallow or some uncooked meringue. It worked marvelously with the relatively rich, subtly sweet pork. To get such stuff at £3.95 does make it even more appealing. Excellent.

pork

pork

But wait, what might have been the other highlight of the meal was about to land on my table. A pan fried mui choi bun was a second divine dish. The green pastry was stuffed with lovely pork (again, but again, it was prepared in a different way) and then fried to reveal a perfectly crisp bottom. This was probably the perfect textural interplay. It was simply stunning and definitely the dish of the day along the smoked duck and pumpkin puff. Excellent.

another porky treat

another porky treat

The food being that good, I had to order a bit more, again. So I went for the Vietnamese Spring roll. It was as good a spring roll as I ever had had in my life. Seriously, perfectly seasoned filling, delightfully crisp and nearly greaseless rice pastry accompanied by a pleasing little sauce. What more is there to ask for? Very good.

Spring roll

Spring roll

But something much better was approaching my table after a little break (they had to cook and then fry the rice, which took a couple of minutes). The sticky rice roll was another fantastic composition. The deep fried rice was wrapped around a number of things including shitake mushrooms, young onions, chicken and nuts. It was, yet again, delicious. I just really like this deep fried stuff, if it is as well made as it is here. Excellent.

sticky rice roll

sticky rice roll

And finally, another signature dish was about to arrive: The crispy duck roll. They wrap some chunky pieces of duck meat in rice pastry and deep fry it. The whole thing is then served with a nice hoisin sauce and is very, very good. Can’t say much more about this kind of food. It certainly isn’t as complicated or work-intensive as that you might find in a French starred restaurant, but it certainly is as good as deep fried duck rolls can be. Excellent.

duck roll

duck roll

You’ve read it, dear readers, the meal here was much better than I had remembered it. The products certainly weren’t as good as in some 2 or 3* restaurants, but for a Chinese restaurant of that size, they certainly were of decent quality. I didn’t like the fact, that the food arrived much faster than in a European restaurant (all in all, we were there for about 1.30hr). Obviously, I can’t compare it to Chinese restaurants in China, but my sources tell me, that this is nearly as good as the best Chinese places. It might even be, that some of the dishes here are “westernised”, I don’t care, as long as they are good. And good, they are. 

The beautiful ladies served the food today with even more of a smile than usually, which certainly doesn’t hurt and knew a hell of a lot about it too. That did surprise me somehow, as I only expected them to be there to make the male clientele more willing to spend.

Another feature I like about it is the extensive wine list. This really is quite interesting for a Chinese restaurant as they have all of the big names from all over the world, but also feature some more unknown producers, all at healthy prices (unfortunately). I don’t quite see why you have to have trendy Voss water, but I guess part of the clientele does enjoy it and possibly even demand it.

 

All in all, a meal here can be quite a good surprise and much less expensive than at the other London * restaurants.

la salle-3

la salle-3

Sketch-Lecture Room & Library, London

mars 13, 2009

Ever since I came to London last October, Sketch’s Parlour has been one of the places I really enjoy spending time in. Their patisserie is easily the best in London, the service always impeccable and the atmosphere relaxed. Also, this house, which once belonged to Christian Dior, features some of the most amazing design in Europe, as far as I can tell. The whole concept of it, being a Sketch, in constant evolution is one, that makes new twists appear here and there regularly. 

 

Room

Room

 

 

Having found out that Pierre Gagnaire, who supervises the kitchen, was in town, all good sense was lost and I just simply had to go. It was the first time I had a meal at one of Gagnaire’s restaurants and I must say, that his cooking is most interesting.

The experience is an outer-worldly one. The whole space is just like no other restaurant in that it is surreal, crazy, warm and so over the top, that you just enjoy it.

The meal started with a selection of canapes: Truffle croquettes, cumin crackers with Tuna cream, blood-orange juice, colombo meringue and Japanese vodka jelly. Of these the croquettes, Tuna cream and colombo meringue were amazing. The blood-orange juice and vodka jelly were more or less tasteless, or not strong enough. A very pleasant way to start a meal.

 

canapes

canapes

After this came four little starters. The first one being Chicory and Roquefort Veloute with Torrefied Nuts/ Braised Turnip in Cider/ Duck Breast/ Strasbourg Sausage. What could look like a random association was in fact a very well constructed plate. The slight bitterness of the Chicory is countered by the slight sweetness of the Turnips and the richness of the veloute. The textural component of Gagnaire’s kitchen becomes clear as well: The meltingly tender duck, the creamy veloute, smooth Roquefort encased in the torrefied, crunchy nuts makes this a feast for all of the senses.

 

Veloute

Veloute

The second part of this tasting was Kimichi Stew of Tofu, Bok Choy and Nashi Pear/ Ginger & Sesame Seeds/ Langoustine Broth. This dish continued on the same idea as the last one, as every texture from creamy (Tofu), crunchy (Bok Choy), smooth (Broth) to al dente (Pear) was covered. Tastewise this was another masterpiece with the strong veloute playing the role of the soloist. The Tofu deserves to be mentioned as it was easily the best I came across for quite a while. Very good again.

 

Broth

Broth

A third little plate containing a Sauerkraut Custard/ Shiitake Mushrooms and Chervil/ Marinated Sweet and Sour Shimeji Mushrooms with Coriander arrived and created a happy fusion of the Germanic Sauerkraut and the other Asian elements. This was, once more, a very good dish. Only problem: The custard was too cold, to develop it’s full power. Very good again.

 

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

The last part was Red Cabbage, Beetroot and Redcurrant Jelly/ White Beetroot, Red Radish and Chive Salad. I must say that I’m no big friend of jellied elements, especially if they constitute the majority of a dish. Here I can’t say that  I hated the dish, but it wasn’t the most amazing one of the dinner. The flavours were again very present and perfectly balanced.

 

Jelly

Jelly

After this came Roast Breast of Pigeon and Pigeon Mousseline with Sarawak Pepper / 

Radicchio Salad and Medjool Date Leaves / Winter Vegetable Curry . Here again, the dish was delivered in a few individual plates. The main one containing a few strips of perfectly cooked, pigeon breast, a very strong pigeon mousseline and a jus, that was just amazing. This was the essence of the Pigeon’s taste, strong, slightly gamey and intensive. Very good.

 

 

Pigeon

Pigeon

 

Aside the main dish was brought a very fragrant curry of different zucchini types. Very pleasant, if not necessarily close to the other dish.

 

curry

curry

After the intensive gamey pigeon, a refreshing Nashi Pear ice cream provided a very welcome refreshment.

 

 

Pear with Pigeon

Pear with Pigeon

 

Roast Scallops / Sea Urchin Velouté with Puy Lentils / Scallop Carpaccio and Crunchy Red Radish / Organic Salmon Roe. Now, those who read some of the other articles I wrote will have remarked that I can’t understand the British habit of cutting nice big scallops into thousands of little pieces before serving them. Seeing that both chefs (Gagnaire and Pascal Sanchez) are French, they know that a big scallop is best cooked whole. In this case, the perfectly cooked scallop was accompanied by some earthy lentils and a sea urchin sauce. The latter could have been slightly more reduced or thicker. Apart from that, this was another very fine dish.

 

Scallop

Scallop

 

The second part of the dish was a carpaccio covered with some sweet and sour radish. The sauce was similar to Passard’s lobster sauce on his famous homard a l’aigre-doux. Top quality scallop with the crunch of the radishes and the distinct texture of the salmon roe. Perfect.

 

 

Scallop carpaccio

Scallop carpaccio

 

 

 

The main course was another more simple course: Slow Cooked Chicken Breast/ Parmesan and Grappa Sauce/ Onion Fondue/ Agria Potato and Rocket Mousseline. I usually am no big fan of relatively bland chicken, but here it was quite another story. The chicken was nearly as tasty as a Bresse chicken, with a slightly more tender flesh. This was a perfectly cooked piece of poultry. It’s accompaniments were very good too, but in combination it was on the salty side. Still it was one of those dishes that showed Gagnaire’s spontaneous character. When he described his kitchen as one that is full of emotion but where one might say that it needs a pinch of salt or so, he gave the best description of it. I would say that despite this being over-salted, the dish still transmitted this little emotion (I can’t believe I’d ever write such a thing). The potato mousseline was perfect. Much lighter than other purees, the rocket giving it some colour and freshness.

 

Chicken

Chicken

 

rocket mousseline

rocket mousseline

After these few courses and a huge amount of bread (perfect) with the lovely Bordier butter I was starting to feel the limit of my belly’s capacity coming closer. The Grand Dessert, served in 5 different preparations, as opposed to the 9 he serves in Paris, made me forget all of this. The first three citrus-fruit desserts were among the finest you can imagine. Despite their minuscule portions, they had the perfect balance between the sourness, sweetness and slight bitterness of the different varieties used. These were simply perfect.

 

Citrus fruit

Citrus fruit

The following blackcurrant variation was equally amazing. Various different structures of these berries formed another slightly acidic, refreshing dessert. Excellent.

 

cassis

cassis

The last part was a very intensive chocolate cake. Whilst having great depth of flavour, it could have done with an airy mousse instead of the overpoweringly thick layer of ganache and the not so airy top cremeux. This was the less successful of all, but still good.

 

 

Chocolate

Chocolate

 

 

After such a feast one needs a good coffee and some petit-fours to finish it off in the appropriate way. Here both coffee, and petit-fours, were perfect. The little nod to the UK’s culinary heritage was a reworked After Eight, which was much more enjoyable than the original.  Amongst the others the meringue stood out. All in all a very enjoyable ending to a great meal.

 

 

Petit-fours

Petit-fours

 

Despite the fact that I had heard mixed reviews of both Sketch and Rue Balzac, I was very happy with this meal. It was simply a most inspiring, interesting, if not perfect meal. I, who usually likes the perfection that reigns at other French haute cuisine restaurants, really enjoyed the emotional, spontaneous side of the cooking here. I love this concept of having little a part dishes to complement the main ingredients. This way you discover such a wide range of tastes, textures, ideas and pairings that wouldn’t be possible any other way. What more can you say? Service was very good, showing just the right amount of attention, the meal was great and the whole experience is just so different from other London restaurants (who tend to be slightly boring). Both Gagnaire and Mazouz were lovely people, who confirmed the spirit behind the house: the open-mindedness, the wish to let their guests experience new sensations and the simple rigour and passion that made them into the great restaurateurs they are.

I only want to go back as soon as possible, which seeing their very reasonable prices should not be a problem at all. First, will come a few restaurants in Europe.

Vanilla, London

mars 11, 2009

Some meals are just weird. 

You can have amazing food in the simplest decor (like at La Merenda), amazing food in a very opulent decor (Louis XV and so on) or you can be surprised by the food served in some odd lounge/restaurant in London.  The latter happened to me today. When Hilary Armstrong asked me if I’d want to join her to go for lunch here, she warned me that it could be very bad. In fact, if you read the reviews Vanilla received after opening, they are not very positive. 

However, they changed chef and now you have a head chef with a most impressive CV: Sous-chef at the Square, having done a tour of Europe at Auberge de l’ill, Arzak, Akelare and Mugaritz, where I had an  amazing meal last August. This alone is reason enough to go and give it try.

When one enters the room, the (very) white lounge hits you first. It is rather futuristic and not as bad as some critics have described it. The room of the restaurant is another story. It just doesn’t look like a place where you’d want to eat this kind of modern cuisine. It looks more like a night club’s restaurant area, where you might go for some out-dated fusion food. The fact, that  only two tables were taken, doesn’t make you feel more at home in this environment. But enough said about the decor, you should get it by now: It’s not as comforting as your usual (better) restaurant.

Let’s come to the food. Amuse was a broccoli milk and a Gougere. Both were decent, without blowing me away. To serve one single gougere does seem a little stingy I guess, but well.

A starter was a scallop, which luckily enough wasn’t sliced into thousand pieces, with a prawn raviolo and a sweet basil veloute. All in all it was a very good starter, for a menu that costs only 14£ (2 courses). Good scallop, although the little beast could have done with a few seconds longer in the pan, well made raviolo and a fragrant emulsion. I didn’t expect such ambitious, and more importantly tasty food here. Hilary’s starter was a little less interesting, but also well made ( a version of maccaroni and cheese).

For main I had pluma of Iberico pork. Now this won’t be the last thing Izu Ani (the chef) has picked up in Spain, but we’ll get on to that later. Iberico is about the best pork you can possibly get. The pigs have the freedom of running around in the Huelva and feast on nuts and other delicacies for a few months every year, which gives their meat a colour similar to beef and an impressive, nutty flavour. Here the pluma was grilled and served with a braised piece and a preparation of trotter. This certainly was a most tasty dish, especially as all the accompaniments went very well with the perfectly cooked pluma. Very good. I wonder why you don’t get something like this more often in London: A great product, well cooked and accompanied by simple, tasty vegetables.

After a pre-dessert of some berry sorbet with a little emulsion and an amazing doughnut we got on to the desserts. A few words about this doughnut though: It was so good, that I asked for a few more; twice or three times, I don’t remember. In total I had about 12 of them and I do not regret it! Amazing, you won’t find any better ones that easily.

The dessert seemed like a little deja-vu: French toast with milk ice cream. Now Andoni Luiz Aduriz serves exactly the same dish. Here however the dish was nearly as good as at Mugaritz, which is as good a compliment as you can have. Seriously, this was a perfectly executed French toast, with a nice crunchy, caramelised top and a moist « body ». The milk ice cream, wasn’t quite as tasty as the one Anodoni serves, but very enjoyable still.

After a few more doughnuts and some mediocre petit-fours we left the restaurant at around 16.30h and were puzzled.

This was quite astonishing, especially if you go expecting some dodgy, pretentious cooking but get very well executed dishes, that certainly didn’t lack flavour or ideas in the composition of the dishes. 

The negative points however are first and foremost the decor. It is just so bad, that even I, who doesn’t really care about it as long as the food is decent, do have trouble enjoying it. It is just not the kind of place you would recommend easily. Not because of the cooking, because for the prices they charge, that is as good as it gets, but simply because the decor is a bit strange. The other point is that a few dishes seem to be taken of the Mugaritz menu and served in the same way here (French toast, clay-baked potatoes). Now in this case I don’t really mind, as it is done so very well, but it is a bit odd eating that stuff here.

Having exchanged a few words with Izu, I found that he is a most potent chef, maybe the only one, who can drive London towards a more avant-garde cuisine. Service too, was very good.

For those who go, you will certainly be quite surprised by what you get. I at least was.

The Square, London

février 18, 2009

The Square, a restaurant run by Philip Howard and Nigel Platts-Martin, has one of the most accurate descriptions for it’s own cooking: Howard claims to serve refined comfort food. You can hardly blame him for being pretentious. The restaurant itself lies opposite the local Brioni shop a stone’s throw away from Bond Street in the heart of Mayfair, just to give you an idea of the people you might find there. Apart from the beautiful Russian expressionist plates and the elegantly dressed tables, the room isn’t the most striking in terms of design and doesn’t do the cooking justice. For those interested in more background info, you’ll find the best resume  on my friend’s site, who along with Andy Hayler  joined me for this little escapade. 

Service throughout the meal was faultless: attentive, friendly, always present when needed and very knowledgeable. 

Bread is baked at the restaurant, which is a rare luxury in London, which even Ramsay is not able to offer. Of the three offered types the raisin and hazelnut was the best, brown the least interesting. Butter was from Brittany and very decent.

To start the meal Howard served us one of his signature dishes: Saute of Scottish Langoustine Tails with Parmesan Gnocchi and a Potato and Truffle Butter. Now, despite Britain being an island, most restaurants still don’t manage to source and serve decent langoustines. Here however, the story is very different. I challenge anyone to get me better and fresher langoustines. These were of marvelous quality and were cooked as good as  humanly possible. On par with the greatest restaurants in Europe. The Parmesan gnoccho (it was one), truffle emulsion and mushroom puree complemented the langoustine in a very harmonious way, turning  it into a most delicate  and greatly enjoyable dish. Here the (very) refined comfort food Leitmotiv is spot on. If there is one dish that I’ve had in London which came close to blowing me away it must have been this one. Outstanding!

Langoustine

Next up was a Red Mullet Escabeche, Red Mullet Soup. A soup made out of red mullet, somewhat reminding me of a light bouillabaisse encapsulated the essence of the mullet’s flavour. The escabeche (a marinated piece of fish, originally from Latin America) showcased, yet again the pristine quality of the ingredients Howard uses. In France rouget is rightfully known as the Becasse de la mer, as it is a richly falvoured but extremely delicate fish. The fact that it was served in an escabeche here, let the clean flavour stand out and resulted in a most pleasant texture. 

Rouget

The third course was a Ballotine of Chicken, thinly sliced with Jerusalem Artichokes, Charlotte Potatoes and Mushrooms. This was the only weak dish I tasted during this meal. Whilst all elements were well prepared from a technical point of view, the overly strong flavour of an acidified cream dominated the dish and did not let the chicken stand out. Also, the ballotine was sliced very thinly, maybe too thin.

Chicken salad

Poached Irish Rock Oysters with a Coriander Mousseline, Pomegranate Dressing and a Light Curry Cream got the meal back on the level we encountered at the start. Beautiful, meaty oysters sat in a subtly seasoned curry cream with some pomegranate seeds providing a textural counterpoint. The curry was a very interesting pairing with the oyster, that created a very rich taste-spectrum, ranging from the iodic, salty oyster, the rich coriander mousseline, to the sweet pomegranate and the refreshing slightly spicy curry cream. Again, this dish featured great products, perfect execution and no unnecessary complication. Excellent.

Oysters

Main course was a Roast Duck Breast with Spinach, Tarte fine with Endive and Blood Orange Sauce. This was the third dish from the lunch menu (35£) and was just as good as the sweetbreads or turbot from the a la carte (75£). Tender, nicely cooked (I like it a little more bloody) duck, amazing spinach, a very good duck jus, the slightly sweet endive tarte fine created a very complete dish. The blood orange puree (which features also on a foie gras dish) didn’t really add much to the whole dish, but might be a hint to canard a l’orange and did in no way disturb. One can hardly do anything but simply enjoy the food, which, here again is just as good as it gets in England. 

Duck

Cheese was decent, a relatively big selection, which did not really impress. The only one that stood out was a Blue Monday, which they source from Paxton and Whitfield. 

As time kept flying by, we eventually got on to the sweet part of our meal. The first dessert we tried was a rice pudding with rhubarb. a generous portion of heavily vanilla-ed rice pudding, which was topped with some rhubarb jelly, poached rhubarb and some sort of crumble. All in all very decent, a bit in the style of the riz au lait Thierry Breton serves at Chez Michel in Paris. This was another case where refined comfort food offered a very accurate description.  

rhubarb

The second dessert featured various banana preparations. A banana beignet, mousse with some praline feullantine based crumble, cylinder filled with vanilla parfait or ice cream and marinated crushed banana. This was much better than the previous dessert, mainly because it featured every possible texture: Creamy, cold parfait encased in the crunchy cylinder, the hot, crunchy and rich beignet and the refreshing mousse. Very good dessert where one can hardly criticise anything.

banana

A Black Forest Souffle proved to be another very pleasing dessert, where the airy souffle was studded with cherries and some chocolate bits that gave it an interesting twist. However, whilst being airy and not too sweet, a stronger chocolate could have made it more intensive, taste-wise. The star of this dessert was a small roulade of black forest gateau, which was terrific (unfortunately the portion was very small).

souffle

Another dessert was the real star of the sweet part of the meal. Just as good as the langoustines. Not surprisingly this too is one of Howard’s signature dishes. Brillat-Savarin Cheesecake with Passionfruit, Mango and a Citrus Terrine. I can hardly say anything about this dish other than it being divine. The only cheesecake of that quality is Pierre Herme’s and that is as good a compliment as one can make. The lime ice cream coming with it was wonderfully refreshing, with some pieces of zest giving it a strong, clean flavour. The base of the cheesecake was just the way it should be, far from being soggy, it still had the crumbled pate sucree’s crunch and complemented perfectly with the mango puree. The only element that didn’t add to the dish was the spherical citrus-fruit ball and it’s base. Still I would say this was divine.

cheesecake

Another dessert with truffled cream, Earl Grey jelly and some canneles and financiers was a dish which none of us really liked. It certainly was very interesting, but on the other hand, it did not really give you any pleasure eating it seeing that it consisted only of a jelly a cream and some little cakes on the side, which did not have a relation to the dish. This just seemed a little odd, as all of the other dishes seemed very well thought-out. 

Petit-fours and coffee are perfect. The home-made nougat was simply to die for, creamy, rich.

petit

 

Overall, the Square must be one of the finest restaurants in England. Out of the 20 or so dishes we had, only very few weren’t at least very good. The only technical problem was a slightly over-salted sweetbread and, if you can call it a technical problem, a beautiful scallop which was (as everywhere in England) cut in half. WHY? Having a huge scallop sit in front of you is  a hell of an experience. Why do the Brits have to slice their scallops in half? 

Apart from those minor problems some dishes were easily on three star level: The langoustines, the cheesecake and possibly the scallop (had it not been cut in half!). These were dishes that provoked some emotions, something I haven’t had in a British restaurant before. With exception of the chicken, all others were very solid 2* and judged by the 3* Ramsay holds even 3*. Howard just has a much more original style that one can recognise instantly and seems very mature in that it doesn’t have  a mess on each plate (something all to many British chefs do). Here every element has it’s role in the dish, which must be the definition of a good kitchen. We spend some very pleasant hours at the Square, chatting, eating, drinking, enjoying life, forgetting about it’s troubles. I can hardly imagine another place on earth other than a restaurant or, where you sit down for nearly five hours and just completely let go of everything. Pierre Gagnaire once said that a meal is the only time of the day, when people sit down for a few hours and just enjoy themselves. The Square fits this description just perfectly.

Foliage, London

janvier 28, 2009

On a depressingly grey London day I came to the very impressive (in a good way) Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge. Foliage, the Hotel’s restaurant was designed by Adam Tihany and is now the realm of Chris Staines. Staines worked with Marco Pierre White and with Nico Ladenis before coming to Foliage in the early 2000’s. 

During the last few months one didn’t hear a lot from this restaurant and Food Snob and I decided to see what they had on offer. At 12h we enter the room, are the first to be there and directly greeted by the excellent manager, Arno Liebscher.  After having been seated, we decide to let the chef decide, as we wouldn’t have been able to decide on what to have anyway.

To accompany our champagne we were served some salmon with ponzu jelly. Very good quality salmon, cut from the heart of the fillet slipped into a sheet of Ponzu jelly. A most pleasant little bouchee, which lets you see the philosophy behind Staines’ cooking: Very good products, faultless technical execution, clear, often strong flavours and very clean presentation.

 

Salmon

Salmon

Bread is delivered by Poilane, butter by Jean Yves Bordier from Saint-Malo, who also counts Passard, Ducasse and countless others as his clients. Both were very good, except for a walnut bread, sliced extremely thinly and a mediocre baguette.

The amuse bouche consisted of a lentil ragout, with shredded Peking duck, a cream of potatoes and croutons. Here again you had very clean, strong flavours, precise seasoning and a nice interaction between the individual elements.

 

Lentil/Duck

Lentil/Duck

The first course of our menu was Scallops/Orzo / Squid ink / Thai Curry. Hand dived scallops, perfectly cooked, with lovely firm texture sat on some delicious orzo pasta, cooked in squid ink in which some small squid pieces swam. It was accompanied by some almonds, who didn’t necessarily add much to the dish and a Thai curry foam. This was one of the best dishes of the day, the only point that isn’t quite to my liking is the fact that the scallops are cut in half. I only find this in England and don’t see the point of it. An excellent, comforting dish, that is just very pleasant to eat.

 

Scallops

Scallops

At the same time Food Snob was served Haddock Raviolo / Leeks / Herring Roe / Lobster Sauce. Notice that this is one of the few restaurants that knows that a single raviolo is called raviolo and not ravioli. That alone deserves to be mentioned. The raviolo was filled with Haddock and egg yolk. It was crowned with some Avruga caviar and lobster sauce. All in all a very nice dish, were the only problem was the egg yolk, which was too present. Because of the richness of the Haddock, the egg yolk and the Caviar, a slightly acidic element could have been a nice addition. But on the other hand it was just a very indulgent dish, that made you forgot the depressing British weather.

 

Haddock

Haddock

 

The next set of starters began with Calves Head / Piccalilli / Watercress / Speck. Here calves cheeks were braised and pressed into a terrine, covered with Speck (a kind of bacon/ham from South Tirol) and accompanied by some quintessentially British Piccalilli and pickled vegetables. This was another dish bursting with very strong flavours. The slightly sour vegetables were a great counterpoint to the rich cheek. If this dish couldn’t live up the the (extremely) high standard of the scallop dish, it was still most enjoyable.

Calves Head

Calves Head

 

 The highlight of the meal was one of the dishes, none of us would have ordered. Gnocchi / Mushrooms / Sage and Onion / Butternut Squash offered gnocchi of exceptional quality: Unbelievably light, fluffy gnocchi, which were nearly on par with some I’ve had at the Louis XV a few years back. To accompany them some fried onions and sage gave a crunchy note, whilst shimeji mushrooms gave a deliciously earthy flavour. To complete, parmesan added some salty touch. This was a real stunner, especially as we never had expected such masterfully executed gnocchi. Also, every element had a distinct role. With the scallops, the second dish that would have felt at home in most 3 star restaurants. Outstanding!

 

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

 

 As fish course, we were served  Sole / Parsley / Brown Butter / Capers. Here lemon Sole was steamed, which resulted in a very soft, flaky texture. It was then covered with some buttered breadcrumbs, which gave it an amazing richness. The sole package lay on a disc of white balsamic jelly and spinach. Around it were served crispy (excellent) capers, a very good beurre noisette emulsion and confit potatoes with trompettes de la mort. Another very mature dish, which, again, proved to be excellent. The only thing that I personally don’t really like is when Sole is slightly soft, but that is a matter of personal taste.

 

Sole

Sole

 

The second fish dish was Lobster / Curry Sauce / Mango Chutney / Pilau Rice. Here, perfect lobster sat on pilau rice, covered with red onion crisps and curry sauce. Mango chutney and sauce gave the whole a lovely, fruity freshness. The magnificent lobster was the star of this dish, the rice didn’t impress us particularly, but then, we both don’t really like rice that much. As long as it isn’t a risotto or paella of some sort. What was very nice, was the interplay between the firm, powerful lobster, the curry sauce and the slightly sweet, refreshing   mango chutney.

Lobster

Lobster

 

For mains I  started with Pork Belly / Macaroni Cheese / Spiced Pumpkin / Black Pudding. Now this was another highlight. A (unfortunately) small piece of braised piglet, with a divine crunchy crust was served with black pudding, spiced pumpkin puree and an interesting play on macaroni and cheese. Certainly very different from Heston Blumenthal’s macaroni and cheese, which he serves with his pork dish, this version was cold, with a very good jus and some buffalo mozzarella. All in all this was another stunning dish. As I’m a big fan of crunchy things, this pork was just heaven on earth, or very close to it.

 

Pork

Pork

 

At the same time Food Snob had a most interesting dish, of which he generously let me try some bits. It was Lamb Neck / Olive Mash / Sweetbreads / Pepper. Here again, one saw the interest Staines has in offal or not so common products. It was one of those very satisfying dishes, which surely don’t attract everyone, but do reward those who know the good things in life. Braised lamb neck, sweetbreads were the main protagonists in this play, in which the sweet/sour peppers and olive mash gave a feeling that you are somewhere closer to the sun. (No photo for that, sorry)

As third main, we had Chicken / Mushroom Puree / Broccoli / Gewürztraminer, which was another great dish. In this case I really enjoyed the very full flavour of the (British!) chicken and the remarkable mushroom puree. The chicken was served in two preparations, once the breast and the rolled leg, both with rich flavour and amazingly tender. Another outstanding dish.

Chicken

Chicken

 

To begin with the sweet world, as Ferran calls it, we had a Hazelnut Daquoise / Chocolate Mousse / Blood Orange and Cardamom.

The idea behind this was a deconstructed trifle. An excellent orange and cardamom sorbet and the hazelnut emulsion were the elements that stood out. It was a nice dessert, but not on the same level as the savoury courses we had enjoyed so far. Maybe there was just too much going on on the plate.

Orange/Chocolate

Orange/Chocolate

 

Finally, to conclude our meal, Food Snob had asked for Rhubarb Souffle / Pannacotta / Ginger / Streusel. Now, coming from « Europe » as the British call it, I find it strange to have rhubarb in January. Food Snob however, told me that in England one has found a way to grow winter rhubarb. The souffle was lovely, with a thin layer of Streusel and some interesting bits of rhubarb (?) in it. The sorbet, also rhubarb, wasn’t that successful. All in all I did enjoy this dish, even though it still didn’t fascinate me.

 

Rhubarb

Rhubarb

 


As petit-fours we were given some of the best madeleines I have coma across. The chocolate and lemon, vanilla and honey ones were so delicious that we asked for a second round.

 

All in all, I went to Foliage without very high expectations, wrongly so as I remarked after this remarkable lunch. This meal was definitely one of the best I’ve had in London so far. On the same level as ADAD, Pied a Terre and Darroze, maybe even more interesting in some points.  Throughout the meal, the service was excellent, which certainly helps you appreciate the whole lunch. The only « weakness » would be the desserts, which didn’t seem to fit in with the clear, very well thought out savoury dishes. 

This is definitely a place to visit when in London, even if not as popular as some other places. One will certainly hear a lot of Staines in the future, as this was a most promising meal.