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Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone

March 11, 2015

Trying to go for dinner anywhere in the vicinity of Soho on a Friday night can make you start to feel a bit American Psycho. Name dropping restaurants like a crazed Wall Street fat cat, wondering where Patrick Bateman would eat and coming to the sad conclusion that if he were actually here, he would spit on your ragged clothing and leave you on the sidewalk clutching the roll of Oreos you happened to have in your bag. So no, we didn’t even bother trying to have dinner in Soho. Instead we went wandering up to unassuming Marylebone and got into a beaming queue where people were actually smiling. We were seated within 15 minutes. I had to pinch myself, the memory of being turned away from a Carluccio’s one Friday night still fresh in my memory.

And we had a GREAT meal. Le Relais de Venise is a Parisian restaurant (with 3 London locations and one in New York) with a unique French dining experience – there is just one dish. Green salad with walnuts dressed with mustard vinaigrette followed by steak frites, served with a secret sauce. There are no vegetarian options (SOZ) and no you can’t have the potato spiralized and then made into a wig instead. Just eat the fries. But don’t ask for ketchup (oops). And the best part? Just when I was wistfully eating my last “frite” the waitress came back with the rest of my steak (WTF) and another helping of fries served from a large silver platter – just like that scene from 101 Dalmations! I was genuinely taken aback. The French really know how to enjoy themselves. Zut Alors!


Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone
120 Marylebone Lane
London
W1U 2QG
www.relaisdevenise.com

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

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Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge pub, Islington

March 1, 2015

I had serious high hopes for this meal. They had asked us to order our lunch in advance as there was a group of 8-10 – this takes the joy out of perving on the menu but I get it. I chose the organic roast chicken and gleefully used the drumstick emoticon without abandon the rest of the week. We showed up and were told that the roast menu was only available on Sunday. Which is fine. But why take our order? And WHO took our order? Is this like some kind of Hogwarts parallel universe and Draco Malfoy is enjoying my organic roast chicken lunch in a dank corridor somewhere, gleefully laughing like a maniac? All I know is there was no chicken served up in here.

Staring at the chalkboard menu, I really struggled to find something that sounded appealing. The pub itself is tucked away down a side street behind Angel station in Islington and has recently teamed up with the famed Riverford farm. It is perfectly delightful – all wooden tables and lots of natural light. And they are fully committed to being 100% organic – even down to the vodka in the Bloody Mary. But still, the menu. Winter Vegetable and Fennel Crumble as a main. Really? I settled on Pan-Fried cod steak with pearl barley and kale risotto. The other options were Venison Chop with Swede Gratin and Cavalo Nero or Spicy Lamb Chickpea Stew to share for £28.

The cod itself was incredibly bland and cut in a strange way – there were a million bones. And no flavour whatsoever. The pearl barley was delicious – but the kale risotto turned out to be just steamed kale leaves? Confused.

The creamy leek side dish was heavenly. I ended up just dumping it on the fish hoping for flavour osmosis.

Now this drink really perked me up. On weekends they have Veg Cocktails – this is the Gold’N Purple: beetroot, amaretto, orange and lemon zest. So sweet and delicious. Perfect for lightweight drinkers! I hate saccharine sweet drinks like that dreadful Haribo cider (Kopperberg and the like) and overly sweet cocktails that aren’t Pina Colada. This lured me into the false illusion that I was drinking a cold-pressed juice.

Dessert made up for the cod – hazelnut chocolate brownie with creme fraiche and apple crumble with cream. I felt confused after the meal. Aspects of it were highly enjoyable but the mains were super pricey and bland. Would go back for the beetroot cocktail and a side of creamy leeks if I was in the hood. I’m sure they would be thrilled to see me.


Riverford at The Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peters Street
Islington, London N1 8JT
http://dukeorganic.co.uk/

Duke of Cambridge on Urbanspoon

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Pho House, Highbury Corner Islington

February 19, 2015

Any restaurant within walking distance from my couch already has a leg up on the competition. Couch to restaurant journey is about 20 minutes at a glacial pace and wearing the stiff, patent Doc Martens I just bought to relive my youth. So I was already predisposed to look favourably upon Pho House. Recently opened right next to Highbury & Islington station, helpfully adjacent to the soul-destroying light of a Tesco sign and conveniently located next to a bank machine, the only way this restaurant could be more convenient for me is if there was some kind of shuttle bus that stopped outside my door. Damn I’m lazy. So we popped in one night with high hopes. Could this restaurant save me some overground journeys to my Dalston Kingsland fave Tay Do?

I am pleased to report that yes, even though there are some definite weaknesses that could easily be improved on, this place has a lot going for it. The bowl of pho had a really nice, well-balanced broth that wasn’t too salty or bland. The beef was slightly overdone but it didn’t detract from the comforting warmth of the dish. Pho always reminds me of home and is my ultimate comfort food. The serving wasn’t as big as I’m used to but it was substantial enough for a normal person who doesn’t treat every meal like it’s a feeding frenzy.

The fried salt and pepper squid was decent – this seems like such an easy dish but I’m surprised that a lot of places can’t get this right. Squid is actually a difficult thing to cook, it’s not easy to strike that balance between soft and chewy. I felt like this needed more salt and pepper. And maybe a few more pieces of squid?

Again the prawn summer rolls were decent but needed more flavoursome herbs – and I like it when they serve it with hoisin peanut sauce, not just with some fish sauce like they did here.

This was weirdly called Tom Yum Chicken Soup. Very strange sour broth that did not taste anything like Tom Yum. The broth was too clear to have all that stuff floating in it. Also don’t get why a random Thai dish is on the menu – you don’t need to appeal to the whole damn posse – just chill and do your own thing. Be Vietnamese!

Mmm I need more Vietnamese iced coffee in my life. I need more condensed milk in my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories include secretly cracking open cans of condensed milk and just spooning it into my mouth. Heavenly. Pho House is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood – we are really lacking Vietnamese restaurants in Islington. The staff are lovely and attentive (and actually Vietnamese!) and I hope they do really well. I walked by a week later and it was packed full of people. They DO need to sort out their fried squid and serving sizes but all in good time.


Pho House
39 Holloway Road
London N7 8JP
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Romeo’s Gluten-Free Bakery, Islington

February 15, 2015

When I noticed the sign in the window last summer proclaiming that a gluten-free bakery shall rise on Upper Street, I let myself get a little bit excited. It seemed like MONTHS before there were any signs of life at Romeo’s Gluten-Free Bakery. And rise from the ashes it did. But it was worth the wait for gluten-free bread that actually tastes good! I’m truly amazed. The texture of gluten-free bread is usually rock hard or overly chewy, never an in-between. And never that lovely springy spongy soft breaded goodness that makes you want to use the loaf as an edible pillow. Went for a quick lunch on a rainy Saturday and had the avocado sandwich with an almond milk latte. Almond milk! I am no fan of regular milk and tolerate soy but I’ve found it almost impossible to find any decent coffee places in the area that offer almond milk as an alternative.

The service was a tad slow so they brought over a complimentary gluten-free brownie that we obviously devoured. I love when people make little gestures like that – it shows they actually care about their customers. They sell fresh loaves everyday but I imagine they go quickly. I’ve had the carrot cake here as well and it tastes like proper cake. I mean, can you get more ‘Islington’ than a gluten-free bakery? Am patiently waiting for the dog bakery to open. Not because I have a dog but because I look forward to the day when I can walk by and scream “HAH!”.


Romeo's Gluten-Free Bakery
167 Upper Street
Islington
London N1 1US

Romeo's Gluten Free Bakery on Urbanspoon

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Autograf, Polish in Harringey

February 6, 2015

When it’s half raining, half snowing you don’t want to go to far from home. Which is why I ended up meeting some friends for dinner at Autograf. A well reviewed Polish restaurant very close to the Turnpike Lane tube station. It’s very cosy inside and has a diner feel. With booths, neon sign outside, twin televisions playing non stop 80s music videos. In total there are only be about 20 seats. It doesn’t feel like some marketing idea of a Polish restaurant. But it does have a definite Eastern European vibe.

The food is great. If you are looking for traditionally prepared Polish staples. This is the place. The portions are absolutely huge though. Not one out of four of us could finish an appetiser and even half of our main. So order carefully, or don’t. And just take home enough for lunch the next day. Which is what I did with my crumbed cutlet.

Pierogi with meat.

Pierogi with potato, cottage cheese, and onion. I think next time I go I’m just going to eat these buttery pierogi and drink beer. Three plates of these amongst four would probably have done us.

Red borscht with meat ravioli. Good sour borscht. The dumplings are filled with very finely minced meat.

The breaded pork chop with potatoes and browned cabbage (a side of hot sauerkraut not shown) was really tasty. Very tender meat. Huge portion. Was delicious cold the next day.

Roasted pork ribs. Quite sweet. Didn’t quite hit the mark.

Potato pancake with cottage ghoulash and white and red cabbage.

Chicken cutlet devolay style. Which is the Polish version of a chicken kiev?

If you are in the market for this kind of food. This is the place to come. A step above anything you’d find in the pubs in the area. And the whole meal was under £75 for four people including two rounds of drinks. And it includes lunch the next day.


Autograf
488 West Green Road
London
N15 3DA

Autograf on Urbanspoon

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Rasa Sayang, Chinatown

January 26, 2015

We’re at that age where we sometimes go to the theatre on a Saturday night. But not quite old enough to start believing that a pre-dinner menu in Leicester Square is a smashing idea. Maybe in 20 years time you’ll see my shadowy figure behind the glass of the Piccadilly Circus flagship of Angus Steak House. After literally having the door slammed in my face at Leong’s Legend next door and with only an hour to spare before we had to be in our seats, we slunk over to Rasa Sayang, a Malaysian Singaporean restaurant in Chinatown that was also at full capacity.

I live for ho fun (stir fried flat rice noodles) and this looked like the closest thing on the menu. All of their dishes have a helpful, full-colour photo next to an actual description. Very considerate. This was the char kuay teow (wok-fried flat noodles in superior dark sauce and fresh seafood). Yum. Nothing to write poetry about but tasty just the same.

Keeping in mind that we had an hour before we had to be in our seats, we ordered Singapore Chilli Crab (fresh crab wok-fried in signature spices and chilli, topped off with velvety beaten eggs). By the time it actually arrived we had 40 minutes to go. I nearly broke a tooth on that crab as the elderly couple at the next table looked on in utter horror. With 15 minutes to go I was shovelling the delicious sauce into my mouth and mainlining clumps of steamed rice like they were tic tacs. Mmm. No time to savour.

Now the wings were a little disappointing. The sauce was sickeningly sweet. At this point there were still about 4 wings left and I had precious little time to spare. So I went for it. But even my best efforts could not overcome the cloying sweetness of the sauce. During the entire play I could smell chicken wing sauce wafting around my general area. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.


Rasa Sayang
5 Macclesfield Street
London W1D 6AY
www.rasasayangfood.com

Rasa Sayang on Urbanspoon

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Hong Kong Street Snacking

January 12, 2015

Didn’t even eat here, but just had to take a photo because of the glorious Street Fighter II reference.

Hot Hong Kong egg tarts, crumbly pastry and hot hot (ow, ow) custard.

Woman making egg tarts, pouring hot custard into the pastry shells.

Ubiquitous fish balls. Supposedly 4 million of these are eaten each day in HK. They’re cheap, absolutely everywhere, springy, definitely fishy, and are usually boiled in a strong curry sauce.

Basic deep fried crab claw

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Tim Ho Wan Dim Sum, Hong Kong

January 11, 2015

I am not a morning person. But arriving in Hong Kong at 5am had its advantages. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel and prowling the streets like vagrants, we got in the queue for Tim Ho Wan (which means “to add good luck” in Cantonese) at 9:30am, Hong Kong’s Michelin Star dim sum. As you can see, there was already a pretty sizeable posse forming outside. Making polite conversation with each other until the 10am opening time was excruciating. JUST LET US IN.

About 10 minutes before opening time we were handed little order forms by a woman who looked upon the lot of us in serious disdain. Excitement was rising.

At 10am on the dot the doors were opened and since we had arrived so early we immediately got seated. Jostling with locals to find a table we were hustled into a window seat and our pink order slip taken. I’ve read some reviews that have mentioned the brusque manner of the staff but haven’t they ever eaten in a real Chinese restaurant? I didn’t find it that unusual. I mean if I want to be mollycoddled, I’ll go to Nandos.

One of their signature dishes, the Baked Buns with BBQ Pork came out first. This is how addictions are born. OMG. Perfectly flaky pastry crust that tasted incredibly light and airy. The pork was the classic char siu so was pretty sweet. By far my favourite dish.

Another signature dish, the Pan-Fried Turnip Cake was unlike every turnip cake I’ve ever eaten, which is a sizeable amount. The texture again was light, flaky and not at all stodgy – it melted in your mouth. Served with a chilli sauce.

Vermicelli Roll with Pig’s Liver was another famed specialty that H really enjoyed. I’m no fan of liver so just had one tiny bite. The consensus – not too “livery” and had a subtle porky flavour. I prefer the prawn version of this.

Steamed dumplings Chiu Chow style, which refers to the transparent dumpling skins named after a region around Shantou in Southeast China. Peanuts, vegetables, dried shrimp and some pork – so tasty.

I could never go for dim sum and not order the classic Har Gau prawn dumplings. These were moreish as usual, and again I marvelled at the dumpling casing. How do they get it so light and perfectly cooked? Stodgy dumplings are the worst. Also, this way you can eat more of them.

Deep fried pork dumplings – again the best part of these was the perfectly cooked, crispy shell and of course the delicious minced pork filling.

Total bill came to only about £10! Tim Ho Wan was started by the former dim sum chef at Lung King Heen (a three-star Michelin restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel) who opened his own restaurant to offer people high-quality dim sum at affordable prices. We were out of there by 10:30am and there was a huge crowd forming outside to put their names down for the next available table, with one tiny Asian woman manning the booth and handing out numbers. Sometimes it pays to be an early riser. If only we lived in Hong Kong – it might be the only thing that could make me leave the house before noon on a Sunday.


Tim Ho Wan
Shop 72, G/F, Olympian City 2, 18 Hoi Ting Road, Tai Kok Tsui
Olympian City Mall
Hong Kong (Mong Kok)
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Clooneys, Auckland

January 7, 2015

Clooney opened in 2006 and I’ve been there once before for a meal but this time was a present from the family. We were going all in on their 7 course tasting menu with matching wines.

The dining area is really one big space. But it’s expertly divided up with banquettes and 20 foot tall black fringe curtains. Combined with the very dark lighting and individual spots shining on each table it gives a sense of privacy to each one. It’s industrial, dark, private, and intimate. Think 90’s vampire flick.

It’s a pleasant place to settle in for the long haul, and the tasting menu is an extended experience. 3+ hours of amazing food and wine would follow.

Flakey crackers with a delicate lemon curd.

First starter. A sashimi/ceviche hybrid. Raw kingfish with chamomile sorbet, freeze dried gooseberry, and grape. Sweet, tart, refreshing and crunchy. Matched with a glass of champagne.

Not on the official menu, but definitely one of the highlights of the meal. Bread and butter. The catch being that the butter tasted like caramel. Combined with the salty sourdough it transformed into salted caramel in your mouth.

Another delicate seafood dish. Scampi with an intense green pea juice, and pork crackling.

An amazing duck dish. Perfectly pink all the way through served with a ball of morcilla (Spanish blood sausage), and crisped cabbage. Great combination.

Final meat course, lamb, eggplant, date, olive, farro.

Jen’s not a big lamb fan. So the happily swapped her main course out for this fish dish. Which I was delicious but I can’t remember anything else about.

Onto the cheese, a 30 month aged comte with black garlic sauce and a sweet bread. A different take on cheese and relish.

1st proper dessert. Green tomato ice cream, verjus foam, sorrel, lychee, and pollen. Interesting dish. Very intense tart tomato flavour.

Some more traditional flavours, lavender mousse, with violet petals, freeze dried strawberry, and a pomegranate honeycomb

And a final piece of salty ganache to put us over the edge.

The wine matching with each course was fantastic. Especially a sparkling orange muscat which we had with the second dessert. I wish I had a bottle right now!


Clooney
33 Sale Street
Freemans Bay
Auckland, NZ

Clooney on Urbanspoon

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Oceanz Seafood, Auckland

December 22, 2014

Living in the UK for the last 6 years has turned me off Fish & Chips, the style here is just… a bit stodgy? The batter is usually very thick. Sometimes to the point where it is like a dough casing. In New Zealand it’s very different. Closer to tempura, and the fish is generally fresher and we frequently use New Zealand Snapper which is probably the greatest eating fish out there. You can keep your cod, or whatever it is that’s being served as cod now since there aren’t any left anyway.

New Zealand Snapper, aka Silver Sea Bream.

Oceanz Seafood is actually a seafood retailer. But they’ve always had restaurants and dining options attached to their locations. At one point (1999) they even had an upmarket seafood restaurant in the Auckland viaduct that I worked at briefly as a waiter. Or maybe that was their rival wholesaler Seamart?

Anyway, for sentimental reasons I wanted to get Fish & Chips in NZ at least once, and these guys have been voted the best in the region for 2014 and their close to my mother’s place so we paid them a visit for some snapper, chips, potato fritters, and a pineapple fritter.

I couldn’t fault anything. Each piece was fried to perfection. Light and crispy. Absolutely grease free. There was even some cinnamon sugar on the pineapple fritter which I don’t remember places bothering with before I left. A classic example of New Zealand style fish and chips.


Oceanz Seafood Silverdale
Next to Plant Barn
17 Hibiscus Coast Highway
Silverdale
Rodney
Auckland 0932