Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Bird in Hand - West Kensington, Thursday 11th July, 2013

Neigbourhood restaurants are a difficult thing to judge. Everyone thinks whatever's just around the corner from their place is the best you'll find and local bias can understandably be strong. Where I live, there's not a whole lot in the immediate area but then London is such a wonderfully accessible place that you're never far from somewhere interesting to eat.

Some summers ago (that's right, we're officially over two years behind now people), a work conference in London prompted three colleagues and I to invite the wife to join us for a bite to eat after a long day of discussion, round-the-table opinions and productive working groups. We'd been given a recommendation for a place that was within walking distance of their hotel and of my home which piqued my interest. The Bird In Hand used to be a pub which is now something resembling a pub, only focusing more on food. Instead of an emphasis on boozing, the main selling points are now modern food and good wine.

The menu read quite interestingly, essentially an Italian restaurant with some more British influences throughout. There was a whole section for pizza which is always fairly encouraging: if you're going to make proper pizza, it should be a feature of the menu, not an afterthought. The variation on show was just about right, with enough choice to make the menu appealing but not so much to suggest ambition outweighing ability.

Starters were two dishes the wife and I couldn't resist: mozzarella for me and seafood for her. Burrata (the soft, middle and best part of the mozzarella) is something I am always interested in, especially if it has been properly prepared and served. In this case, the dish was accompanied with slow-roasted tomatoes and pureéd basil (left). The cheese was just about right, though not as smooth as I've had elsewhere. I liked the idea of the tomatoes which had an enhanced flavour through the cooking with the skin removed to make for easier eating. A good start for sure.

The wife was instantly drawn to the braised octopus, which sounded like a classic Italian café standard, but when described on the menu, it seemed like more of an upmarket proposition (right). This was served with cherry tomatoes, gnocchi, chilli and a lemon gel. In a way, this dish was a microcosm of the idea behind the restaurant: a classic with a modern twist. Phrases like this often make me feel uneasy since it can be a cliché suggesting something is about to be pretentiously ruined. In this case, the dish and the idea was a triumph. The wife got through it with the sort of gusto and relish one would hope to see anywhere in Italy when presented with a plate of octopus and gnocchi. Equally comforting and delicious, this was impressive.

The theme of seafood continued into main courses, with the wife choosing the risotto of brown shrimp, courgette and a deep-friend courgette flower filled with prawn mousse (left). The key to this bowl of food was freshness. The wife enjoyed it very much and it was certainly a pleasant enough dish for me. However, I enjoy my risottos very creamy and rich, where this was more a case of supporting the seafood and the very enjoyable flower centrepiece. It was good, just not a spectacular dish for me.

I decided to put the pizza menu to the test (of course, the fact that it's great sharing food also helps when eating with friends) and the 'Salsiccia', with Tuscan sausage, porcini mushrooms, truffle paste and truffle oil was something I was interested in (and the wife positively insistent that we try it). It was a pretty glorious thing when brought to the table (right). Any pizza touting these kinds of ingredients ought to be suitably grand and this did not disappoint. It was thin, crisp, luxurious and rich which meant we were all very pleased.

Despite the meal to this point having been a success, we decided for some greed-forsaken reason to order three desserts. There were plenty of people at the table so I think the rationale was that we would be sharing them out. In the event, everyone tried bits and pieces but we did leave some unfinished. One of the main reasons for this was the salt caramel panna cotta, which in the event was so outrageously salty and abrasive that we couldn't get through it (left). Sometimes, caramel has the unfortunate effect of being a little too harsh on the palate and this was one such occasion.

Far more enjoyable was the strawberry and creme fraiche tart with elderflower sorbet (right). This was an excellent, summery, light pastry dessert. The cream in the tart was set well and the sorbet added a fragrant and refreshing note. The pick of the desserts for sure. We also went for the vanilla macaroon with a white chocolate mousse and raspberries (left). This was somewhere in the middle, with the sheer size of it possibly the most impressive thing about this dessert. It was sweet and enjoyable, but perhaps not at the standard we were hoping for.

This was a pleasant and unexpected meal. Which, when dining with colleagues after a long day of work talk, is about as good as one might reasonably expect. Tucked away somewhere near Brook Green is a rather enjoyable and interesting restaurant. Well I say restaurant, but I'm not entirely sure how to define it. The Bird In Hand looks like a pub. It sounds like a pub. But it doesn't taste like one.

The Bird In Hand

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Big 30th: 28th June - 4th July, 2013

Some time ago, the wife turned 30 and I organised a series of meals out along with food-themed treats across a weekend. Coupled with an engagement, I felt I had successfully co-ordinated an enjoyable celebration. I'm a really bad gift-giver and celebration organiser at the best of times usually. I don't know what it is about other people's birthdays that brings the curmudgeon in me out. Maybe it's having to buy things for people who aren't me.

On the flipside, I'm not much of a birthday kind of guy when it's my own either. I'm usually happy with a decent meal and some sort of immature larking about which reminds me of being a teenager. I hadn't planned much for my 30th but the wife had been busy and as such, around a week before the big day, a run of surprises began which lasted almost a week. I hadn't been prepared for it but it was some adventure.

Friday 28th June: Aspley's, A Heinz Beck Restaurant, Knightsbridge

If she wanted to start things off with a bang, the wife could hardly have picked a better place to get things started. Last year she'd brought me here for a Valentine's Day surprise and we'd had a great time. It's somewhere we've enjoyed for as long as we've been coming here, and I've rarely heard a bad thing about it from others also.

This time though, we were going for a la carte. She insisted I basically order whatever I want. I briefly toyed with the idea of going for the £350 caviar to start, if only to see her reaction but thought better of it. Upmarket Italian food on a four course a la carte was such a wonderful way to begin the weekend. As ever at Heinz Beck, it always starts with the bread. It's one of the few places where I don't feel compelled to ask for butter, such is the crisp quality of the striga and the breadsticks (left).

Our pre-starter was a mille-feuille of ricotta, pea & carrot foam (right). It was extraordinarily light and a great introduction to the meal. The flavours were both palette-cleansing and distinctive, which told me we were in for a treat.

We both started with seafood. Some scallops were delicately prepared (they were hardly cooked) and served with fresh asparagus, tomato and dressed very simply with herbs (left). Normally I like scallops to be fried with some caramelisation and character, but there was something in the soft meatiness of these wonderful shellfish which I really enjoyed. The freshness of the accompaniments were a well-judged, summery delight which made for a surprising and enjoyable starter.

We also went for lobster since seafood was the theme of the early evening (right). This was the Heinz Beck interpretation of lobster salad, with the lobster meat gently prepared and butter-knife soft. It was high-quality lobster, meaning it retained a lovely fleshy bite but was properly complimented with some imaginative sides. The shoestring potatoes added some saltiness and a pleasant crunch whilst the confit tomatoes were a perfect match for the salad and the balsamic dressing.

Since four courses was the order of the evening, once seafood was done we turned our attention to pasta. The wife was in the mood for more seafood and chose a course of "Artisan Maccheroncini" with smoked aubergine and langoustine (left). The rather confusingly-named pasta is essentially elongated macaroni which I found undercooked in the event. It was too chewy which left the rest of the dish fairly redundant. The sauce was a thick and rich tomato, the aubergine underneath added some smoky colour and the langoustine was as expected but when you don't like the pasta in a pasta dish, it's just not enough. That said, the wife did enjoy it so I can only tell you what I thought...

My dish on the other hand was the delight I had expected it to be because I'd had it there before: the glorious, sumptuous faggotelli carbonara (right). A slightly bigger portion than the set menu course I'd once had, this was the same rich, smooth, satisfying dish of comfortable flavours and perfect execution wrapped in an upmarket package. It remains one of my favourite pasta dishes.

Next up was meat. I tend to struggle with some Italian meat dishes since I've often found them a touch dry or underwhelming. I admire how rustic and honest an Italian meat dish can be (after all, I once wrote about how much I loved one I ate in a café in Tuscany) but elevating them to a Michelin-starred level is no joke. In our case, the first was a great affirmation of how something simple and Italian can be brought to a higher level: a fillet of beef (left). This was a Casterbridge fillet, perfectly - and surprisingly evenly - cooked medium rare with a great char on the crust. The balsamic reduction added a beautiful sharpness and touch of sweetness to the dish whilst the parmesan crisps added enough flavour to justify their presence as a bit of theatre.

The wife's main course was a more ambitious idea of venison cooked in yoghurt (right). This sounded slightly strange on paper but the idea was (I assumed) to marinate and soothe the meat with the yoghurt, but it wasn't something I'd seen before, much less tried. The meat was a consistently tender perfection, with the natural gaminess prominent but tempered with the earthier accompaniments of shredded purple potatoes and crispy & braised salsify. The small cereal pearls encasing the venison added a pleasant crunch on the outside of the meat, avoiding that most unfortunate situation where you have an evenly-cooked piece of meat with no bite or variation.

Desserts turned out to be an adventure in opulence. Things were started with an exquisite-looking pre-dessert for the two of us to share (left). This was a delicate but rich mixture of blueberry sorbet, muesli and white chocolate mousse. The muesli was a coating for the mousse, adding texture and fun to remind us exactly why we still bother with frills such as pre-desserts.

We shared a 'chocolate & vanilla sphere' which contained a raspberry centre for our first dessert proper (right). There's something magical about a simple flavour profile in a well-executed combination such as this. A perfectly-formed chocolate exterior shell housing sweet vanilla cream and a raspberry bubble of flavour in the centre was a delight. The tempered chocolate 'leaves' and the edible flowers only added to the spectacle. This was delicious in that it reminded me how essential it is to tap into childhood sweet-toothed delight when forming a dessert.

Given the occasion, the venue and the way the meal had gone so far, the chocolate soufflé seemed like a natural choice (left). The wife in particular can never resist a soufflé and this one, with more raspberry (sauce and fresh fruit) and vanilla (ice cream on the side) was a super way to see things off. It was rich, exceptionally risen and everything a proper, smart upmarket dessert should be. What we lacked in adventure by ordering two desserts with similar flavour combinations, we made up for in gluttonous enjoyment.

One final surprise turned up in the form of yet more pudding, with the wife having arranged a nicely understated birthday surprise for me (right). Some delicious red fruit sorbet with chocolate soil and just about the most elegant "happy birthday" you will ever see on a plate was another triumph. Whilst I never want to make a fuss about my ageing. this is the sort of quiet satisfactory sweet touch I enjoy.

Heinz Beck at The Lanesborough may not be in operation anymore and it's a crying shame. I'd eaten at this place several times and not once had I been disappointed. Anywhere that can elevate humble Italian food to these heights whilst maintaining excellent poise and service is absolutely a gem by me. I've not been to the new place at the Lanesborough but it has to go some to equal the magnificence of what preceded it.

The Lanesborough Hotel

Saturday 29th June - Medlar, Chelsea

The first visit we had taken to Medlar was a resounding triumph. An affordable luxury riding the crest of a wave that had sent it near the top of everyone's list, it was a refreshingly modern restaurant treating diners with respect and care. Following a rather surprising stop for a massage (I wondered if that was more a gift for her than me), I was very excited to be going back for dinner rather than lunch.

We were lucky to get a table, especially on a Saturday. I am sure we must have been the lucky beneficiaries of a cancellation - they're so casual they don't take card details for bookings - and at around 9pm we sat down to eat. The menu was a predictably appetising take on what people want to eat at modern London restaurants on hot summer evenings; a combination of light, easy and unpretentious ingredients.

The wife started out with some cod cheeks served with borlotti beans, runner beans, courgettes, gremolata and morteau sausage (left). Whilst the fish was well-prepared and generally pleasant, the rest of the dish wasn't particularly cohesive, with what should have been a pleasing medley of supporting vegetables and garnishes falling slightly short. It was an idea that was sadly not quite realised.

Fortunately, I had no such trouble with my starter of tagliatelle, girolles, broad beans, pecorino and summer truffle (right). This was a more complete starter, possibly by virtue of having one or two less ingredients on the plate. The pasta was thin and fine, the truffle rich yet understated. The beans, cheese and a light cream sauce brought the whole thing together, with each mouthful punctuated with the well-balanced flavour of the mushrooms. It was a delightful way to start a summer meal.

Moving on to main courses, we were very much in the mood for meat and some roast poussin was right on the mark (left). It was a classic combination of breast and slightly more caramelised leg meat, with a well-judged, smooth cauliflower purée. This also came with girolles, suggesting Medlar had taken a recent delivery, but when the quality of their accompaniments were such as these, everything worked perfectly.

The other main course we chose had us both practically fighting for it as soon as we read the menu: a rack of lamb (right). Cooked a perfect pink, served with confit shoulder for texture and a little tongue just to show off, sitting atop petit pois a la Française with Jersey royal potatoes, it was exactly the way it should have been. Whilst some of the presentation up to this point had been a little over-sauced and at times confusing (see the cod starter), this was an expertly-plated piece of meat with exactly the dressing it deserved.

We had hurtled through this meal pretty unceremoniously and with a fair helping of bread to start with also. I wasn't feeling overly in the mood for desserts (as if I'd ever resist) but I did need to go for something a little lighter. As it happened, the lemon curd ice cream with blackcurrant compote and meringues sounded perfect (left). Of course the wife had insisted they add some more birthday paraphernalia but the pudding itself was just what I needed: a simple bowl of comforting, ever-so-British summer dessert.

The wife was feeling more adventurous and opted for the crème chiboust with strawberries, strawberry sorbet and honeycomb (right). I might not have been in the mood for a full-on dessert but I was not resisting the urge to help out here. The cream pudding (made from the same basic recipe as cream layers in a mille-feuille) was light, sweet and satisfying, with the strawberries adding their natural refreshing acidity, a pleasant temperature variation within the sorbet and sweetness and crunch from the honeycomb. A nice touch was some candied citrus peel on top to add another layer to what was a surprisingly engaging dessert. It was a super end to proceedings.

After a helping of predictably excellent, rich chocolate truffles to see us on our way, we were done. It was an unexpected and enjoyable evening, despite a slightly mis-fired starter and a troupe of motorcyclists seemingly determined to ruin everyone's evening by noisily racing up and down the Kings Road for much of the evening.

There is a relaxed charm to Medlar. It is clearly not perfect but that almost makes it better. It is not intimidating, pretentious or overly geared towards special occasions. And this was a cheap meal - the standard set price of £42 for three courses still applied. When you combine such value with this location, it's nothing to sniff at. Another birthday meal leaving me happy.


Sunday 30th June - Burger & Lobster, Soho

The Sunday was a scorcher. The wife had very thoughtfully organised a day in the park with some friends which left us sunburnt and full of picnic food. I thought this was the day done but she had also planned to take me to a branch of the (then) fairly new comfort food chain Burger & Lobster. I'd heard enough about it from reviews, websites and various associates to know that this was one of the very popular places in town. Whilst I wasn't super hungry, I was excited to be trying somewhere new and interesting.

The Mayfair branch (which we were closest to) was closed, so we headed to the heaving Soho joint. As with just about every new easy eatery in London these days, booking was impossible but we got ourselves a table fairly quickly. The menu (if it can be called such at Burger & Lobster) was a simplistic delight of having either burger or lobster. A fancy burger, a half lobster or a lobster roll; all served with salad and chips for £21.

We decided in the best interests of sharing and indulging that the burger and the roll were the way to go. The burger was a pleasant, juicy, filling affair (left). Served a pleasing medium-rare with the right amount of dressing and tomato inside, it was an enjoyably fulfilling dish. The salad was about right, a mixture of leaves, onions and balsamic dressing with a little powdery parmesan for extra flavour. The chips were thin and appealing but in the event, way too salty. We all know salt adds flavour and of course the place was just trying to get us to order more drinks but this was certainly overkill.

The lobster roll, however, was a different proposition altogether (right). This was a light, satisfying, refined, comforting sandwich. The lobster was soft, meaty and its flavour shone through the perfectly-weighted mayonnaise and the fresh chives diced on top. Every bite energised you enough to want another one - we were practically fighting over who got to have more of it.

Burger & Lobster is a fun, easy place to go to eat. Their gimmick is a sound one, the quality is there or thereabouts and it is a nice place to spend some time during an evening, whether you're going to while away a couple of hours or for some sophisticated food on the go. The burger is good, the chips and salad I can take or leave, but the lobster roll is just wonderful.

Burger & Lobster

Wednesday July 3rd - Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester

This was the big one. And it wasn't even on the big one or planned as such. The wife had decided that the run of meals and surprises had not quite done the job at this point, so on a whim decided to see if a midweek table was available at one of London's two three Michelin-Starred venues. As luck would have it, they could seat us and, dressed to the nines, we embarked upon one of the least expected top-end meals either of us have eaten.

As with the Heinz Beck meal which started this lengthy celebration, the wife was in a generous and extravagant mood and suggested we go for four courses and damn the expense (she was paying after all.) Reading the menu was an exercise in high-end French standards; something which tends to fill me with a little dread these days. Truffles, lobster, foie gras, langoustines... all the classics which suggest you're about to enjoy something special. Or tired. Or trite.

One thing that no upmarket, multi-starred French eatery should be short on is pre- and post- courses throughout a meal. Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester is no exception. We started with a pile of gougeres, flavoured with salt, pepper and paprika (left). These were light, delicate, evenly-tasting of the seasoning and the cheese. Moving a little more up the scale, we then had a fairly extravagant sauteed squid dish with white asparagus and a quenelle of citrus cream (right). This was certainly generous for a course which wasn't even on the menu but didn't quite hit the spot for me. The wife really enjoyed it, and the squid was cooked very well to be fair. The seafood sauce was quite pleasant but the whole thing was a little wet and flat for me.

Something about the menu annoyed me. They emphasised the main event within each dish by capitalising it on the page. I felt like they were either shouting at me or patronising me. This might sound like a minor complaint, but when the place has three stars and is generally as fancy as anything, you're almost looking for a reason to nit-pick. I chose the "DUCK FOIE GRAS" for my starter, which had been roasted with cherries (left). The menu had it with almonds too but I went without. The foie gras itself was not bad; pleasantly seared for a creamy, rich, sweet finish, yet the cherries overdid the whole thing. They were clearly there to cut through the rich oily paté with some acidity but it was too much. A combination of crushed and soft whole cherries unfortunately riddled the dish with a fruity burst which clouded the whole plate.

The wife chose a starter of "LOBSTER" (last time I promise) which had been cooked with lobster sauce, truffled quenelle of chicken and fresh pasta (right). There was a £10 supplement on this but I wasn't surprised, given the venue and the main feature of the dish. The plate was spectacular, the food was incredible. The wife was in raptures from the first mouthful and I have to agree this was something special. Of course, any cynic can argue that when you take a handful of outstanding ingredients you should be able to put together an outstanding dish, but so much of the difficulty in something like this is in balancing such bold flavours. This was expertly done, with firm, boisterous lobster countered by the delicate pasta, the light and fragrant lobster sauce and the punchy chicken quenelles. A hint of truffle for richness and decadence, a touch of mushroom to ground the whole thing and we were suddenly very convinced that high-end French standards were worth the shouty menu.

Given the outrageous success of the wife's starter, I couldn't wait for my fish course. Lobster with fondant potatoes and girolle mushrooms sounded too good to be a problem of any sort. It looked sensational (left). The problem was that it just short of the starter we'd already had. It was still well-cooked and properly conceived, but it missed the mark on execution. The lobster was not as succulent, the ingredients didn't sing together as they might've, the sauce was not all there and I was disappointed that this was merely a good dish as opposed to a stellar one.

The wife's fish course didn't excite me that much. It was fillet of halibut, served with shellfish and celeriac with a simple mariniere sauce (right). I am not usually a fan of white fish since I find the taste can quite often be bland and a little uninspiring. In this case, all the elements on the dish combined to make a pleasant and surprising plateful. The fish was very tender and the sauce was rich enough to give it a punch of flavour to help elevate the whole thing. I wasn't that impressed with how it looked but as a tasting experience it was a hit.

Meat courses were next and I jumped at what I assumed was going to be the star of the evening. A veal loin with peas a la française was a tantalising thought. Veal when cooked well can be a delight and few sides appeal to me the way French peas do. Rich, creamy sauce with bacon and fresh peas is a thing of beauty. The dish didn't turn out quite as I had expected though (left). The peas were a strange deconstruction of the humble dish I enjoy so much, with onion, green shoots and leaves and a hunk of bacon on top. The problem with messing with a classic like this is when it goes wrong, it really crashes. And this went wrong in my book. The meat was okay, but was not on the same level as parts of the meal had been so far. This was the first thing we'd eaten where I had been fairly disappointed.

The wife, on the other hand, had hit the jackpot for the third dish running. I shouldn't have been surprised since she went for a beef fillet Rossini (right). This was every bit the rich, tender, succulent dish it should have been, with a delicious medium-rare fillet steak the star. The sauce was rich and throaty, the crunchy lettuce on the side a perfect foil for the strong beef. The foie gras was perfectly measured with the rest of the plate, sitting atop a bread crouton. Dishes like this don't need much meddling with, and this had been judged to near-perfection. Again, I was left ruing my decision not to go for something I'd usually be inclined to try. Certainly worth the £10 supplement.

Before dessert, there were some more mid-service surprises. We were presented with some chocolate ganache truffles and macarons (left). The chocolates were smooth and deliciously bittersweet. The macarons were an exciting mixture of orange, raspberry, chocolate and cherry. All perfectly made, light, crunchy, flavoursome and moreish. These were great pre-desserts aside from the fact that we wanted to keep eating them and pass on actual dessert.

Of course, proper dessert was never in doubt and the wife went for the summer berries with mascarpone (right). I get the sense this was the restaurant phoning it in slightly. There wasn't a huge amount of complexity or outstanding technique in this. That said, the balance of acidic, sweet fruit, meringue crunch and soothing, mild cheese in the cream was up to scratch. There's nothing really wrong with combining classics like these at any level. Despite the slightly haphazard appearance, it was well enjoyed.

I opted for the sane choice to finish: a soufflé (left). Flavoured with apricot and served with rosemary ice cream and apricot jam, I was fairly convinced this was going to leave me nothing but satisfied. It was a very well-made soufflé, at a perfect temperature and served elegantly. The flavour itself was excellent and I would have enjoyed it more had it not been for the cold dagger of rosemary sharpness cutting through everything. Sometimes less is more and I wish they had kept things simple by using a more neutral flavour for the side to what was otherwise a fine dessert.

We indulged in a couple of post-desserts which were delicious but entirely unnecessary at this point. Just as I thought there could be no more in store, the wife had a birthday cake brought out (right). This was a very sweet touch and one that I was not expecting at all since the booking had been made at short notice. We were far too full to eat any cake at the time but we got through it over the ensuing days and it was a gorgeous, lighter-than-light sponge with proper icing and a real treat.

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is a fine example of real top-end dining. The service was perfectly judged, the room stunning, the ambience a relaxing purr. The problem in a couple of instances was the menu. Dishes that should have hit the spot and didn't are never a good thing, but they are nearly unforgivable at this level. Whilst one should never expect perfection, one should gain as near as possible at a restaurant like this.

It was a lovely evening, a genuine surprise and an experience I won't forget. Even when places aren't perfect, as long as there's enough to enjoy it usually means the evening was worth it. It's certainly not cheap but I'm sure I could be tempted back again one day.

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester

Palm Court at The Langham - West End, Thursday July 4th

After the majesty and occasion of The Dorchester, I couldn't help but feel the rest of the week was going to be relaxing aside from a pre-planned dinner with the family. Of course, with a day off work on the big day, the wife had big plans and afternoon tea was taken. We'd actually been here before, though not for any particular occasion and certainly not for a formal afternoon tea. In this case, it was a proper side table in the main tea room, and a full afternoon tea to get through.

A posh, west end afternoon tea is always somewhat lost on me since I've never been much of a tea drinker. As far as I'm concerned, you need decent sandwiches, good cakes, cracking scones and hang the hot beverages. The problem with afternoon tea for any hotel trying to push an upmarket afternoon out is that there's little room for manoeuvre and even less room to hide. If you try to jazz things up too much, you invariably end up looking foolish. If you try to stick to the classics, any small mistake is irreparably heightened. Basically, you have to do what The Dorchester does.

Palm Court had chosen the safe route, which is generally the right way to go and we were both fairly pleased with the menu on offer. The sandwiches to start were about as classic as one could get with afternoon tea: salmon, egg, beef, chicken, prawns. In fact, they did miss a trick by omitting the traditional cucumber and cream cheese, but the choice was impressive.

We tried one of each, each. Naturally. The array was visually quite pleasing, with enough safe breaks from uniformity to keep things interesting (left). As is often the case, the roast beef was a winner, with tarragon mustard and cress adding some lightness and spice to the rich meat. The egg mayonnaise was also a pleasant classic, served in a soft white roll. The salmon with creme fraiche and caraway, served in an almost bitter chocolate-like bread was not doing it for me, with no real merit in the serving or the ingredients. So far, so standard.

Where scones are concerned, I am forever torn between eating proper-sized workman's café scones with flora and cheap jam and the miniature masterpieces with clotted cream you get in hotels. I think the compromise is somewhere in between, though that usually means one has to go to Cornwall for a scone served with the precise size and correct sides. In lieu of several hours driving, when one is in the west end, one eats dainty, two-bite scones with impeccable sides. Or at least that's the plan.

These were decent scones, though not much more than that (right). Dusted with icing sugar for a nice party look, they were warm and served with plenty of room temperature clotted cream (the only way) and rich strawberry jam. We devoured these without much pause aside the wife adding her standard inadvisable amount of clotted cream to each mouthful. These were certainly nothing to sniff at.

The cakes (I can never really call a cake course "pastry" considering scones have just been taken) followed, which were another round of standards with a twist (left). These were good basic ideas which had, in general, been taken too far from the original to be easily identifiable. The banana cake, for example, turned out to be two small round sponges. Not necessarily bad, but definitely lacking the same kind of satisfying sweet stickiness a classic banana cake brings. Equally, the two pastry coffins containing a decent enough ganache were not exactly what I'd call "chocolate tart".

There were two things that annoyed me about the dessert plate. Firstly, the 'Victoria sponge' was nothing like the sort of light, mild cake with sweet jam and fine icing within and more of a leftover sponge cylinder with buttercream icing and decorative sweets. Secondly, the menu had billed 'strawberry meringue' and hibiscus & blackcurrant jelly', which turned out to be one dessert. Playfully presented as a lollipop-slash-macaroon on the plate, it was not as fun as the former and not as refined as the latter. Not bad necessarily but not memorable for the right reasons either.

Afternoon tea at The Langham was not one for the ages or anything to threaten some of the better afternoon teas one can get in London. At times decent, at times poor, most of all rather uninspiring, the menu certainly needs a re-think. The room itself is a well-lit, pleasant place to be but the afternoon tea is not matching the locale and the atmosphere.

Palm Court at The Langham

La Trompette - Chiswick, Thursday July 4th

No birthday is complete without a family meal as far as I'm concerned. Every year we tend to use birthday as a good reason to get everyone together. I certainly see less of my immediate family than my siblings, so birthdays tend to be a decent excuse. We picked La Trompette, not only as somewhere I'd enjoyed previously, but somewhere not too central or overly expensive. One thing I've always admired about this place is the fact that Michelin-starred dining remains competitively priced.

The problem with trying to review a meal with six around the table is that it's damned difficult to try everything. The good news is that everyone had a lovely evening. There were some hitches, notably the fact that my sister-in-law was drenched in champagne when one of our waitresses spilled a glass on her. My father also found the sommelier a little overbearing when trying to order wine. This is foreign territory to me, but when someone knows what they're talking about, it's best to let them decide what to have instead of trying to be prescriptive.

I decided to get started with the summer vegetable salad, possibly to try and compensate for the day's earlier afternoon tea (right). It was not the prettiest plate I've seen but it was tasty. Chilled fresh peas with a pea bavarois combined a pleasant softness and temperature variation. Fresh asparagus is never a bad thing in summer, with carrots (not so summery), a perfectly crisp pheasant egg and grated ewe's cheese topping things. It was a well-balanced effort which I enjoyed a lot and was certainly perfect for a warm summer's evening. It wasn't quite at the level of a salad I'd enjoyed at Launceston Place previously - their dish reminded me a little of this - but very worthy in the event.

The wife started with veal tartare, which was served with asparagus, artichokes, potatoes and tuna cream (left). Whilst I was slightly taken aback by the initial description (I later discovered this to be a classic Italian combination), the actual plate as a whole was enjoyable. The veal was as tender as anything and sat wonderfully well with the asparagus and artichokes in particular. These were grilled to add a little smokiness to the plate, with the fried potatoes bringing a delightful crunch. It was excellent eating.

My main course leapt off the page at me despite it appearing as somewhat out of season. A guinea fowl dish with girolles would usually be right at home in autumn but I'm a sucker for any sort of classically-presented game and I was pleased with my choice (right). The breast was moist and expertly-cooked, combining predictably well with the braised leeks and mushrooms. The raviolo of braised leg was very nice but slightly too thick for me. As a dish it was another winner, with safe but well-executed combinations making the whole thing work.

The wife went for some fish for her main course, with the dish of choice being another that required little deliberation. A fillet of roast seabass atop farfalle pasta with lemon thyme and chicken roasting juices with mushrooms is the sort of thing that needs no second invitation (left). This was a delicious, meaty piece of fish which was superbly supported by the quality of its sides. The fresh pasta added a slightly lighter yet grounding touch to the plate, combining wonderfully with the rich chicken gravy and mushrooms to create a plate that made you want to take another bite with each mouthful. A seriously memorable dish and one that, yet again, made complete sense.

When eating in restaurants, I usually try to insist the table eats as many varied dishes as possible to keep things interesting and to get a good idea of what the restaurant is about. In this case, five of the six of us had the same dessert and I wasn't about to complain with the consistency. When one sees a banana soufflé with honeycomb ice cream on a menu, it just has to be ordered (right). This was a spectacular dessert which we all loved. A couple at the table felt it was a bit over-sweet which I can appreciate, but it didn't stop the wife and I finishing their leftovers. It was rich, light, comforting and had a wonderfully natural taste. I love banana but it can often taste a little artificial when incorporated into desserts and confectionery. This was a special dessert and one we all remember fondly.

This was a special evening at the end of a very special few days. We all enjoyed ourselves despite the champagne shower (not a euphemism) and the slightly patchy service. This is food that is properly thought-out, unpretentiously served and generally very delicious. La Trompette expanded their restaurant into the holdings next door a few years back and it seems like a sound move. Always busy, never over-crowded and managing to straddle that fine line between neighbourhood favourite and special occasion venue, this is somewhere that should run and run.

La Trompette

If birthdays are spent doing what one enjoys, then a birthday full of eating was certainly the ticket for me. It was a fun week, taking in mainly enjoyable meals. I think the highlight was most probably Heinz Beck, despite it being first out of the gate. This was a series of meals leaning towards upmarket food, but the down-to-earth Medlar menu on a Saturday night was refreshingly simple and pleasant, whilst Burger & Lobster could have been a triumph but for some heavy-handedness with the salt.

Whilst I don't think the wife's birthday was ever likely to be topped (he said proudly), this was a lovely few days of memorable food with loved ones. A fulfilled life shouldn't need much more than that. Plus, it was six Michelin Stars in six days which is a pleasant feat to look back on.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Top 100 UK Restaurants 2015 - London

The National Restaurant Awards were held at the end of June and as one of the few remaining standards here, below is a summary of the London portion of the list. London has always had a fairly transient restaurant scene but the 23 new entries make for some fairly surprising reading. The highest of these is a bit of a bolter, with the Hart brothers' new Barrafina venture in Covent Garden taking the crown less than a year after opening. Last year's new entry number one, Gymkhana, moves down to fourth place overall.

The Ledbury maintains its excellent record amongst the country's elite, with notable climbs also for The Dairy, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Restaurant Story and 40 Maltby Street. Conversely, significant falls occur elsewhere for Dinner by Heston BlumenthalLe GavrocheQuo Vadis, Chiltern Firehouse, Marcus and most notably, Pollen Street Social and St John.

As well as the big new entry at number one, the rest of the list sees other significant fresh venues as well as re-entries. Lyle's in Shoreditch proves the latest trend of down-scaled, simplified British food still remains, with local neighbour The Typing Room further down the list for the first time. Mayfair is all of a sudden an exciting place to eat again, with Kitty Fisher's, Fera and Scott's all present. The Middle East is also well-represented this year, with the Kings Cross branch of Dishoom, Honey & Co and The Palomar adding a little variation to the list.

Once again, over half the best places to eat remain in London; if you believe this list. Even though the overall number is a little lower than last year, the fact that we have such variety, excitement and change in London is only ever a good thing. Restaurants have to adapt and keep customers interested and, as ever, there are a huge array of places to eat, enjoy and celebrate.

4 Gymkhana (1)
6 Lyle's - New Entry
9 The Dairy (24)
12 Hedone (7)
15 The Palomar - New Entry
16 Kitty Fisher's - New Entry
17 Fera at Claridge's - New Entry
21 Dishoom King's Cross - New Entry
23 A Wong - New Entry
26 Zucca - New Entry
33 The Square (10)
35 Pizarro - New Entry
39 Hibiscus (25)
40 Honey & Co - New Entry
43 Grain Store (28)
44 Le Gavroche (21)
48 Wild Honey - New Entry
49 Scott's - New Entry
50 Sushi Tetsu (41)
58 Pitt Cue (70)
59 Quo Vadis (35)
60 Lardo - New Entry
64 Yauatcha - New Entry
70 Duck & Waffle - New Entry
71 The Typing Room - New Entry
74 Brawn - New Entry
76 Koffmann's (64)
78 Marcus (49)
82 Murano - New Entry
83 Otto's - New Entry
85 Hakkasan Mayfair - New Entry
89 MEATLiquor (80)
95 Little Social - New Entry
97 Antidote - New Entry
100 St John (34)

Monday, 13 April 2015

Soho Food Feast - Saturday 8th June, 2013

Soho is still probably the most exciting place to eat out in the country. Well, in London maybe. I can certainly say that nowhere else in the capital presents quite the condensed array of varied and exciting options available than the neighbourly west end. Once a year the Soho Food Feast rolls into the area, as a community support programme for the Soho Parish Primary School.

A friend had a spare ticket so I obliged and we spent the afternoon wandering between stalls, paying not much more than a few pounds for fare you'd usually find at Soho venues, repackaged for a festival atmosphere. In some cases, the restaurants were not from Soho but were London institutions keen on supporting a good cause. A half-cut Sean Bean opened the event (I don't think he knew much about this other than being asked to do so shortly before stepping up) and we got stuck in.

The first thing we tried were a couple of oysters from the Wright Brothers, who have a franchise of their chain in Soho (left). These were your standard oyster fare for London: some shallot vinegar with lemon juice and were rather pleasant. Fresh, smooth, properly sea-salty and - as is my usual - one was just enough. When it comes to oysters, I can never eat more than maybe two or three but I always find that, if of sufficient quality, just one can set a meal up beautifully. In terms of this afternoon, it was a nice way to get started.

The next was an interesting-sounding dish from 10 Greek Street, a place I had yet to visit. This was a medley of salad themed around crab (right.) That's the honest description I would give it, because theirs - 'crab with chilli, asparagus, broad beans and mint' sounded a bit more lively than this was. Not the sort of dish I might usually order, my friend was keen and I'd heard enough good things about the restaurant to want to try it. In the event, it was too much greenery, not enough payoff. The idea was sound but the execution wasn't great.

The Union was next up. A place I was entirely unfamiliar with but very tempted by their dish on offer: a salt cod fritter with ailoi (left). This was certainly the first dish of the day where I was excited to get stuck in. It made sense, it looked great and happily it tasted great too. The salt cod was a combination of mild and flavoursome, combined expertly with the soft potato and sharpness of mayonnaise and lemon. For comfort food on a sunny Saturday, this kind of thing was just right.

The Dean Street Townhouse is a place I've often walked past and thought about how much I'd like to see what's inside. It revels in an alluring combination of bustling, chic, grandiose neighbourliness. That might be something of an incongruous description but that's what Soho does to people. In the case of the Food Feast, they'd gone for a home-styled comfortable classic in mince and potato (right). I'm not sure if they were going for a genuine appeal to the sort of traditional fare they offer at the Townhouse, or if they were trying to be overly kitsch and knowing with a simplistic treat. It wasn't bad but the potato could've been either crispier or creamier, dropping in the middle for a slightly confused finish to a dish which confused me.

I'd not heard of the Pitstop Café before. They had a stall at the event and were serving dumplings (left). These were prawn-filled, gyoza dumplings which had a pleasant enough mix of crispy and gelatinous outer layers and moist prawns inside. Finding out more about the Café itself, these became more impressive having eaten them. An exercise in the most appealing, modern take on Asian food which doesn't happen enough in this country, these were a smart representation of what one should be looking for when one goes towards a food truck.

The scent of grilled beef wafted across the parish churchyard and I was happy to embrace the call of burgers. Meatwagon, the founding venture of MeatLiquor had set up a stall on the day and their slider burger with cheese was impossible to resist (right). These were exceptional, happily reminiscent of my first visit to MeatLiquor, rather than the second. Medium-rare cook with proper seasoning and deliciously plastic cheese, these were worth the queue and a real treat.

Next up; some spicy chicken and sweet potato fries from Cabana, a Brazilian barbecue joint with locations across the capital. The chicken was far too hot for me but I ate most of the sweet potato fries. Brazilian barbecue rarely appeals to me. Much of the food is cold by the time it reaches the table and often your seat in the restaurant dictates what you'll be eating depending on how servers are moving. That said, Cabana may be worth a visit some time down the line...

Apart from Sean Bean, there was another celebrity in the churchyard, with St John's Fergus Henderson pottering about - usually to periodically grab another Pisco sour. The great restaurant group had a stall, serving a dish which was reassuringly rustic and uncomplicated: ox heart bun with watercress and horseradish (right). The combination was predictably excellent and celebrated a pleasant cheap cut of meat with simple side accompaniments. I took too big a bite at one point and got that inimitable feeling of too much mustard destroying one's nose. I did enjoy it and there's something nice about seeing Fergus Henderson in a chef's jacket in person.

Upmarket food retailer Natoora had a stall at the event, and I could not resist the temptation of mozzarella and cherry tomatoes with a little olive oil (left). It was inexpensive and a refreshing dish for a summer day. However, since it had been cut earlier in the day, there was a slight dryness to the outside of the cheese. Having said that, as an advertisement for decent produce from a proper food shop, it worked well.

One place I had heard plenty about before the event was Peruvian canteen Ceviche and we didn't hesitate to sample their signature raw seabass (right). Ceviche as a dish is something I'm never sure about but it's more trepidation around something I've had little exposure to in the past. The dish was enjoyable, a light and fresh-flavoured marinade coating the soft fish. Citrus notes cut through with the addition of onion and sweet potato adding some substance to the dish. If nothing else, I certainly need to try this place out at some point.

Another of London's prominent restaurateurs in Mark Hix was represented with something called a Fish Dog (left). As it turns out, this is simply a case of a snack food being lifted to something fashionable and marketable at various outdoor events. Basically a take on a fish finger sandwich, this was special. Perfectly deep fried fish with mushy peas and tartare sauce in a bun, it was comfort festival food at its best. Plus I was able to adapt an Arrested Development reference and spent the rest of the day referring to them as "F-Hounds".

Naturally, Polpo was present with a casual summer bruschetta (right). This was served with soft cheese, asparagus, peas, broad beans & mint. It was a surprisingly pleasant combination which worked quite well as a finish to the savoury portion of the day. Freshness was the most important part of the dish, as tends to be the case when something as raw and open as this is concerned.

Amongst running into some friends, listening in on St. John co-founder Trevor Gulliver delivering a wine tasting and an unfortunate incident involving a youngster throwing up beer on my shirt, we found our way to desserts. This opened with a black forest pot from The Ivy (left). A festival adaptation of an old classic from a restaurant renowned for their interpretation of classics, this was not bad at all. Some chocolate popping candy as a topping was a nice touch, and the fruit wasn't overly acidic or alcoholic.

There wasn't much I wanted to try in the way of pudding, but 10 Greek Street were back in the mix with an enticing-sounding salted chocolate and caramel tart with crème fraiche (right). It was delightful. Whilst I've never been as enthralled with salted caramel as many seem to be these days, chocolate with salt is something I adore. In this case, the Soho kitchen had got it just right. Dark chocolate with salt contrasted perfectly with the sweetness of the caramel and the pastry was perfect.

We had a few tokens leftover so I headed to the venerable Gelupo cart to see what essentially £2 could buy me. In the event, it was one scoop of ice cream which I thought was a bit rich. I opted for their more simple milk fior de latte (left). It was as delicate, natural and light as ever. A proper, sensible way to sign off a day of eating.

It was a really fun afternoon about the Soho parish churchyard. More reasonable than something like Taste of London, albeit without the top names and demonstrations, it's certainly recommended. Since it's the only big food event I've done in recent times, I feel something akin to a 'menu of the day' would be suitable. As such...

Starter: Polpo - Summer bruschetta. Proper ingredients and edible with just a couple of bites. This is the sort of thing I'd eat inside or out with the days getting longer

Main Course: The Union - Salt cod fritter. Excellent balance of pleasurable, comfortable food and properly dressed to boot

Dessert: 10 Greek Street - Salted chocolate caramel tart. An excellently-made tart with deliciously complimentary touches. I could've eaten several slices

The Soho Food Feast