Month: March 2010

La Menara – Fitzrovia

A few weeks ago, my friend Mihnea was in London from Bucharest for a day, so I suggested we get a lunch around my office. Having all but checked off every quick lunch spot on Charlotte Street, I set my eyes further afield: Cleveland Street – home to a few cute little places I haven’t tried yet, including La Menara a tiny Moroccan and Middle Eastern restaurant.

As we walk into La Menara, we’re greeted by the very jovial owner, and are offered our pick of the seats. The place is decked out in Moroccan-y decor – lots of gold and red and mix-matched chairs. It’s very homely (but in the British sense). Their lunch special menu offers some staple Middle Eastern dishes (Tagine, meatballs, falafel, etc.) each for £5.95. I pick one of two things that don’t have cucumber listed on the ingredients: the Lamb Shawarma with chips:
La Menara

Should have known though. When it came, there was cucumber in the salad. I apologised and asked if I could be made another one since I can’t have cucumber (Yes, I’ve become one of those people. Sorry, but it’s just easier to say you ‘can’t’ have something rather than, “my throat closes up and I dry heave at the thought of XYZ”). He seemed alright with that, and quickly returned to the kitchen. One minute later, my sandwich appeared miraculously without cucumbers. I knew that he’d just taken the salad off, and put a cuke-free one on in its place, but I didn’t say anything.

Sure enough, I take a bite, and I could still taste the remnants of those evil bits of pungent green monsters. I tried to eat around it the best I could, but the pita was soggy, the lamb overdone and the garlic sauce very meh. The chips were way too salty, so I didn’t even really enjoy those either.

::le sigh:: Not such a fan of the food. All all. The owner was really really really nice though. I might go there again and try something else just because of him.

La Menara on Urbanspoon

Pho – Oxford Circus

In London, the place to go for Vietnamese is Kingsland Road and, sadly, since I do not live nor work anywhere near it, I’ve not had great experiences with Vietnamese food.  It’s a bit similar to my quest for quest for yummy convenient Mexican food in London, which was solved when I went to Wahaca. Pho strives to do the same thing: bridge the gap between authentic ethnic street food and the modern British palette.

(Words to the wise: while pho, the dish  is pronounced ‘fuh’, the restaurant is pronounced ‘foe’)

I, along with a bunch of food bloggers and Qypers (Scott Can CookLex Eat, Essex EatingHollow Legs, Bribed with FoodKavey Eats, Domestic Sluttery, Epicurriene, Eat Love Noodles, Greedy Diva, London Insider, The London Foodie and Travels with My Fork, Mr Noodles – to name a few), was invited by Libby from Ravenous and Mathilde from Mathilde’s Cuisine to an evening at Pho’s Oxford Circus location to sample bits of the menu and get to know the owners Jules and Stephen.

Jules and Stephen gave us a bit of an introduction to the restaurant and their background, and then the food started coming – and it didn’t stop until we all had a serious serious food baby.

First up we tried (and got a chance to make Goi Cuon Tom (fresh summer rolls with prawns and fresh herbs):

I love the perfect balance of mint and coriander with fresh prawns and a sweet chili sauce. It’s a wonderful, fresh starter and perfect to cleanse the palette for more naughty things like the delicious Cha Gio (fried pork spring rolls):

Gorgeously crispy on the outside, but not greasy. I loved these. Could have eaten about 10 (but luckily stopped at 5)

Another starter was the Nem Nuong (grilled pork and lemongrass meatballs)

I won’t say I was over the moon about them – they were a bit salty from what I remember.

And finally the healthy option – Goi Ga (salad with peppers, mixed herbs and a chilli and ginger dressing)

This was my least favourite of the night. There just wasn’t enough cohesion between the ingredients. All I could taste when I took a bite was either all pepper or all coriander.  I had about one bite before I returned to the huge plate of fried spring rolls still on the table.

After the selection of starters, the servers came around and asked what we’d like for our mains – even encouraging us to get two ‘mini’ portions of things so we could try more. Suddenly my not being able to decide between Pho (their speciality) or Bun Cha (what I’d been craving) was solved.

The Pho Tai Bo Vien (pho with steak and meatballs) arrived, filled to the brim:

The broth was fabulous – a very aromatic blend of clove and star anise. Our side of the table must of looked rather peculiar with our noses hovering over the bowl for a few minutes before tucking in.  The meatballs, steak and noodles were equally delicious.

Next up, the Bun Cha Gio Tom (rice noodle bowl with juicy tiger prawns):

I love Bun Cha – and this ‘mini’ portion was the perfect size. It was full of prawns and the fantastic spring rolls. My only complaint is that it was absolutely loaded with lettuce.  It doesn’t look like it in the picture, but after mixing everything up and putting in the sweet and sour, I reckon I was left with about 60/40 lettuce vs other better things.

And for dessert, Chuoi Chien (banana fritters with honey and ginger ice cream):

I’ve never been one for banana-based desserts, and I was a little disappointed to see that apart from ice cream and sorbet, banana fritters were the only thing on the dessert menu. However, these were the best damn banana fritters I’ve ever had.  Piping hot, crispy outside, creamy inside.  Wowza.  The honey and ginger ice cream was a perfect complement too.  (You do have the choice of coconut as well, which I thought had a fairly good chance of tasting like suntan lotion when paired with banana).

So will Pho stack up against the hardcore authentic Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Street? I’m leaning towards ‘no’, but that’s not really the point. It’s good, cheap and convenient. I’d go again.

The Salt Yard – Fitzrovia

I love getting surprise visitors.  Earlier this month, I got an e-mail from an old Pacific Rim restaurant colleague who was going to be in London for a couple days chaperoning a group of students in the hospitality programme at my old University, wanting to know if I was around for a drink.  I suggested meeting the The Salt Yard for some wine and tapas.

After the initial catch-up chat, we opt for some food. We each chose two dishes. Stupidly, I forgot my camera, and had to make do with  low-light and an iPhone, hence the crap quality photos.  Apologies.

First up, the Jamon Croquetas with Manchego:

The Salt Yard

Really nice! The manchego filling was creamy, but it could have had a bit more oomph.

Chris really wanted to get the Cornish Mackerel Tartare with Apple, Celeriac and Coriander Shoots:

The Salt Yard

Here’s another offender in the ‘let’s not put cucumber on the menu description, but stick it in the dish anyway’ list.  I had one bite before the throat started to contract. I’m sure it was lovely, but it wasn’t for me. Not their fault entirely, of course – just my stupid aversion to cucumber.

My second choice was the Saffron Arancini with Mussels, Crab, Squid and a Chilli Aioli:

The Salt Yard

These were amazing!  Delicious saffron risotto balls with seafood.  It was like having fried paella morsels.  I could have had 3 more orders.

Chris chose what was listed on the menu as: Patatas Fritas with Romesco and Aioli. Really, we should have known that meant ‘chips’. I’m a bit ashamed that I didn’t.

The Salt Yard

These were just alright.  The romesco sauce was nice (and the reason Chris wanted to go with this dish), especially when mixed with the aioli, but still – they were just chips. I’m such an idiot – can’t believe we were swayed by menu descriptions in another language. Sheesh.

A couple wins, a couple losses.  There’s a lot on the menu I didn’t try that looked good, so I’ll definitely go back.  Thus, the beauty of tapas.

But please – Restaurants of London – I beg you: When you put cucumber in your dishes, please list it on the menu!

Salt Yard on Urbanspoon

Vineria – St Johns Wood

Despite it technically being a very manageable walking distance from my flat, I’ve never eaten in St Johns Wood before. There’s something about crossing the border into NW8 that doesn’t sit right with me. Maida Vale is nice and all, and you do walk by your share of mansions around Warwick Avenue, but St Johns Wood? It’s a whole different world.  A world of Kate Moss and Paul McCartney and god knows who else with oodles of money. I’ve just always felt a bit out of place there. But you know, since I’ve wrapped up Maida Vale, I figured it was time to branch out north.

Vineria is a small Northern-style Italian restaurant just off Abbey Road. It’s smartly decorated  – lots of white with clean lines and interesting chairs.

The boy was going to be a bit late due to the stupid Jubilee line being down, but the staff weren’t bothered about it at all. They brought me some bread and suggested a glass of wine. Everyone was very pleasant.  They had a promotion going on that if you ordered a starter and main, you’d get 50% off the food bill. Starters were around the £9 and mains were anywhere from £14 to £35.

When Leif arrived, we were presented with an amuse bouche of parmesan with balsamic syrup:

Vineria

Nothing much to say about this one. The cheese wasn’t the best.

To start, the Seared Lamb with Parsnip and Raspberry Vinegar Reduction:

Vineria

I really liked this. The lamb was perfectly cooked and was offset by the very nice, only lightly sweet raspberry vin.

Now I never get pasta for my meal (too carby – makes me sleepy) , but for some reason I had a craving. Going off of my yummy squid ink gnocchi at Sketch, I went with the Cuttlefish Ink Ravioli stuffed with salmon and served with a fresh clam sauce:

Vineria

I was a bit so-so on this. It was a bit tepid, and didn’t really have the kind of kick I expected. The salmon filling was dry and the clams completely overcooked. I cleaned my plate, but felt pretty disappointed with the whole thing.

Leif went with Risotto with Gorgonzola cheese and radicchio.  We both gasped when the plate was brought to the table:

Vineria

Have you seen anything look more unappetizing? Didn’t taste great either. No one wants to eat something that looks like it’s been regurgitated. Huge, huge thumbs down.

After our meh mains, we decided to skip dessert.  It’s a shame, the meal started out very promising. Coming in at around £48 for two of us with wine, food, discount and service, it was reasonably priced, but if you ever go, stay clear of the pasta.

Vineria on Urbanspoon

Sketch, Gallery – Mayfair

Occasionally Sketch runs £50-off voucher deals through their Facebook page. The first time I took advantage was at the uber-posh Lecture Room and Library.  The entire experience was surreal. The meal was fantastic, but I found that you really pay for the experience of it all. The weird pod toilets, the ‘tour’, the service – it’s all pretty impressive.  Going back, I sort of knew what to expect, and maybe that’s why it didn’t seem as great the second time around – even with my trusty £50 voucher.

This time I ate at the Gallery, Sketch’s first-floor ‘bistro’, also known as the-cheap-bit-for-customers-who-want-to-say-they’ve-dined-at-Sketch-but-don’t-want-to-fork-over-a-few-hundred-pounds.

Walking in to the building, you’re stopped by a surly looking doorman in a top hat demanding to know what it is you’re doing there.  (Ok, that’s a slight exaggeration, but I can’t say he made me feel very welcome.)

My friend Dom and I sit down and wait about 10 minutes before someone comes over to the table.  We’re in no rush, but I do notice that they’re not very busy at all.  Our server arrives to take our orders.  We weren’t quite ready for food yet, so I try to order a glass of wine, but am promptly told that the sommelier will be over shortly, and instead would we like to order starters? Again, not ready, so we order with some bread first.

Sketch Gallery

The bread is fresh and warm – a nice variety of kinds too. And it’s served in a Lego box. Sketch is clever like that.

After still no sign of the sommelier to order wine, we go for our starters.  I have Parsnip Velouté and Dom goes for the ‘Chantilly Lace‘.  Luckily the sommelier arrives quickly after the order, and my confidence is restored. That is, until my soup arrives:

Sketch Gallery

The Parsnip Velouté is a soup of parsnip, sake, Japanese pumpkin, chestnut cream. It tastes like lukewarm vegetable water with a side of plasticised jelly. I hate it.

Dom’s Chantilly Lace is a fancy name for Lobster Bisque with basmati rice and horseradish cream:

Sketch Gallery

As what usually happens to me, I like the other person’s starter better than mine. The bisque is warm and comforting. Not too buttery – it’s rich enough to make you know you’re being naughty, but not overly so that you can feel your arteries clogging. The horseradish is a nice touch.

Dom tried my soup, and actually liked it – even traded dishes with me, bless him.

For my main I went with Norwegian Cod:

Slow-roasted cod, onions with Grappa and fresh thyme, potato gnocchi with squid ink, tomatoes with sea water and lemon olive oil.

There was a lot to this dish, and not all of it went together.  The fish was cooked fine, but it lacked dimension . The gnocchi was delicious, but the tomatoes were far too tart, and the lemon just put everything over the top. It tasted like the kind of thing that someone would make on MasterChef only to have Gregg Wallace say ‘You have talent, but you just don’t know when to stop adding ingredients!’  And seriously – what is with the one piece of gnocchi sitting on the rim of the plate?! Why?!

Dom went for the Black Pudding:

Sketch Gallery

The menu reads: Braised pork cheek, apple and pear marmalade with cinnamon, mesclun salad with Ossau Iraty cheese, French salami, bacon and lardo di Colonnata.

I’d love to tell you more about it, but Dom scarfed it up so quickly, I didn’t get a bite. He said it was amazing, so you’ll have to take his word on it.

The bill for bread, water, two starters, two mains and two glasses of wine was a little over £100, but as I said we used our £50 voucher. Still not sure it was even worth it.

It’s official though: I’ve taken the entire gastro-tour of Sketch. I’m glad I did – and if you’ve never gone, you should at least see the space – but I probably won’t be returning any time soon.

Sketch Gallery on Urbanspoon

Idlewild – Maida Vale

Idlewild is right around the corner from my flat, and one of the last places in Maida Vale that I’ve been meaning to gastronomically tackle. Finally, without even planning to, I found myself there for a Sunday roast.

Really, I had just wanted a nice American breakfast, which I planned on getting from Plan 9 down the street from me, but they were full, and I didn’t feel like waiting. Idlewild popped into my head.

It’s was about 12:30, and they were empty. Even though they said they were booked fully later on, they ‘supposed we could have a table (if we were quick)’. Fine. Whatever. We sit down. The restaurant itself is in a huge old converted house. It’s all very purple-y and black, but because there are huge windows and it’s sunny out, it actually feels quite cheery.  It’s sleek, but it doesn’t look too expensive – like one of the more posh Ikea displays.

We’re given a prix fixe menu – £15 for two courses, £18 for three. Even though I wasn’t starving, I went for three. I still had the idea of breakfast in my head, and one of the starters was Smoked Salmon with Horseradish Toast and Beetroot Salsa. I figured it was close enough, and then I could justify getting a main and dessert.

Idlewild restaurant

This was most excellent – and an absolutely stonking portion of salmon. Like, four times as much as I thought I would get and probably worth about £8 in supermarket prices alone. The toast was fresh and warm and the beetroot salsa was gorgeous.

For my main, I went with the Lamb Roast:

Idlewild restaurant

Succulent lamb with roast potatoes, leeks, carrots, Yorkshire pudding and mint sauce.  The lamb was a little bit fatty for my taste, but it was cooked a perfect medium-rare. The potatoes, veg and Yorkshire pudding were all pretty standard, but I have to give it up for the mint sauce. It was about the most inoffensive one I’ve ever come across.

For dessert, I went with the Chocolate Cake and Cream:

Idlewild restaurant

Not a winner here, unfortunately. The cake was gooey, not having been cooked all the way through. The chocolate was pretty bland, at that. Only redeeming feature would have been the cream, which had some subtle vanilla bean accents running through it.

What I should have gone for was the Pear and Apple Crumble:

Idlewild restaurant

I had one bite of my dining partner’s dessert and had to spend the rest of the time sitting there green-eyed while he happily devoured the whole thing – leaving me with my sad gooey excuse for a cake.  Seriously, it was the loveliest little crumble I’ve tasted in a while. A perfect balance of soft warm fruit and little crispies, surrounded by some of the cream sauce that I liked from my dessert.  Perfect.

I wasn’t too keen on the attitude when we got there, but I could have just been grumpy.  In any case, the food turned me around.  I’d really like to return at some point for dinner.  Now that I’ve gotten through the bulk of my Maida Vale restaurants, I think I can start planning on return visits.

Idlewild on Urbanspoon

Hi Sushi Izakaya – Covent Garden

I love the ballet. I go to pretty much every ballet that’s on at the Royal Opera House – way up in the cheap seats, mind you, but I still go. Because the performances usually start at 7:30, and I’m done with work about 6:30, I have just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat. I usually end up going for something super cheap – takeaway or M&S, but on my way to see As One/Rushes/Infra (the last triple bill performance of the Winter series), I decided to treat myself.

I had a craving for sushi, and found Hi Sushi Izakaya just around the corner from the Royal Opera House.

As a single diner, I was immediately shuffled to the counter. It was fine, but I always prefer to be given the choice. I order a glass of Gewurztraminer and the Spicy Fried Tofu to start.
Hi Sushi Izakaya

While I was hugely impresed by the portion for just over £3, the tofu breading lacked anything ressembling spiciness. It was bland and a bit overdone. No dipping sauce either!

I ordered two rolls for dinner:Prawn, avocado, tempura with eel sauce and a hamachi spring onion with sweet chili

Hi Sushi Izakaya

Hi Sushi Izakaya

Both were actually very nice. At around £5 each, the portion was more than adequate, and the rolls were fresh. The prawn roll was a little skint on the eel sauce, but when I asked for more, they happily brought me a side, which I promptly used as a dipping sauce for my over-fried tofu. Bonus!

My only complaint (apart from the tofu) is the waterfall. I’m guessing a waterfall that goes into a mini koi pond is supposed give the restaurant more of a Japanese-relaxing-‘spa’ touch, but the thing was so bloody loud, it felt like I was eating next to someone drawing a bath. They could really tone that down a touch.

Otherwise, good. Recommended. Just avoid the tofu.

Hi Sushi Izakaya on Urbanspoon