Month: December 2010

My Favourite Restaurants of 2010

Ah – end of the year! Time to reflect, yes?

I’m so very lucky to have had some amazing meals this year, both in London and abroad, and I think it’s about time they get the credit they deserve.  So as I sit here cuddling with my cat, back home in Michigan, I’ve looked through all my restaurant review posts this year (somewhere in the region of 70, if you can believe it) and collected a Top 10 of the most memorable dining experiences of 2010. In order:

  1. Launceston Place, Gloucester Road – Flawless from beginning to end. I didn’t want it to be over. The beetroot risotto starter with marrow is something I still dream about today.
  2. Aamanns, Copenhagen – When you can’t get into Noma, try Aamanns. Service and food were wonderful, especially the clever little hallowed out fried potato skins that came with my braised pork. Also top points to the fantastic Pear dessert with salted caramel. Amazing!
  3. Viet Grill, Shoreditch – My favourite of the Vietnamese Restaurant Mile in Shoreditch. I still can’t figure out how they keep the spring rolls in the Bún Nem so crispy.
  4. Viajante, Bethnal Green – Nuno Mendes’ newest restaurant opened this year to critical acclaim, and I can see why. Their three-course £25 lunch tasting menu is an excellent deal, and the food is absolutely delicious.
  5. Tagine, Balham – The only restaurant I’ll travel to Zone 3 South of the River for.
  6. Bejoy Tandoori, Bounds Green – The gem of Norf London – an unassuming mostly take-away curry place that takes my breath away every time, if not just because you can eat like a king for a tenner.
  7. l’Anima, Shoreditch – Pork belly, pork belly pork belly. That is all.
  8. Mosob, Maida Vale – The most genial proprietor I’ve ever met, Ben runs ones of the most welcoming and wonderful places in London. The Eritrean (NOT Ethiopian) cuisine is excellent and you feel all happy and warm after leaving.
  9. India Roundup, Bangalore and Mumbai – More for the experience of proper street food, I loved my time in India. As crazy and loud and overwhelming as it was, it’s something I’ll never ever forget.
  10. Fino, Fitzrovia – Still the best tapas in London. Pork belly, squid and the fluffy cheesy croquetas will always be favourites.

2011 will be sure to impress as well. January brings at least one birthday meal for me (haven’t decided where I want to go yet) and in February, I’m looking forward to my reservation at Heston’s new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, Dinner. But to wrap up 2010 once and for all, I leave you with my favourite foodie picture I’ve taken this year: the pork belly at l’Anima:

Phoenix Palace – Baker Street

I’ve read quite a few posts on ‘the best dim sum in London’ as of late, mostly from Mr Noodles, who is a far better judge of Cantonese quality than I could ever be. So when I read his review of Phoenix Palace, and it pretty much matched up with my opinions of the Baker Street mainstay, I felt proud!

The first I had heard of Phoenix Palace, however, was from a couple of my oldest and dearest friends in London. Despite their living in nearly an hour away Bow, they try to make it out to the Palace as much as they can. They also told me that they love it so much that if I didn’t like it, I was not allowed to write a review, so I guess you can see by the nature of you reading this that I did indeed enjoy our meal.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon, four of us settled in with dim sum menus and an appetite the size of The Shard – and for all the food we ordered, we needed it. In fact, we ordered so much food, I couldn’t even begin to write about all of it. Instead I will give you the highlights.

Steamed Wasabi Prawn Buns (£3.80) were nose-sniffiingly fun:

The Prawn Cheung Fun (£4.40) was silky and perfectly cooked. I  enjoyed it more than the Minced Chicken (£3.60) filling, which actually had more shiitake mushrooms in it than chicken.

The Mini Onion Pancakes (£2.80) were surprising. While we expected (and in my case, wanted) more an actual pancake, these pastry-based morsels were actually quite nice.

Only disappointment was the Mini Ribs in Black Bean Sauce (£2.80) though this is probably our fault as not being experts in Cantonese cuisine.  The black bean sauce was too brothy, and the ribs were designed more to suck on than to actually eat. It’s not what we were looking for.

The Beef Ball Dumplings (£2.80) were tender and full of spring onions – a very complementary flavour.

For a bit of health, we ordered a side of Pak Choy (£11.80), which was excellent, but a total rip-off at nearly £12.  Seriously – £12 for vegetables. Ridiculous.

And for something a bit more substantial and not at all healthy – the Crispy Beef with Chili (£9.80) which even while delivered lukewarm was excellent. Nice presentation too.

In addition to all of this (and trust me, we got more than one of each dish), we also had Spring Rolls, Minced Pork Dumplings,  Gyoza and some very excellent Char Sui Buns, which all lived up to expectations.

And while I’m by no means a dim sum aficionado, I know good when I eat it, and Phoenix Palace is good. Plus, for four of us eating our weight and having a few beers, we paid about £16 a head with service. An excellent deal.

And if you go, don’t be put off by the tacky decor and the crazy ‘Celebs who have eaten here’ mural – it’s all part of the charm.

Phoenix Palace on Urbanspoon

Viajante – Bethnal Green

Restaurants like Viajante don’t come around everyday. Meaning ‘traveller’ in Portuguese (and pronounced Vee-ya-jahn-tay, not Vee-ya-han-tay as I originally thought), chef Nuno Mendes’ latest restaurant is an absolute dream. If you read any London food blogs, you’ve probably already heard a lot of praise for Viajante. It felt like everyone in the city ate there within days of opening.  The buzz was tantamount to a Metallica gig.  So fast forward half a year, and I finally make it there  for the three-course £25 lunch and £15 wine pairings with the lovely Jaz. We took the day off just for posh lunch – pretending it’s just the sort of thing we would just normally do on a cold November Wednesday.

After being seated, we were served the Thai Explosion II as our amuse:

Exactly what it says on the tin, this little morsel did sort of explode in your mouth. The ‘explosion’ consisted of chicken and a quail egg mousse which was sandwiched between a coconut tuile and crispy chicken skin. All together, a really nice contrast of textures and flavours.

Bread and butter came next, but was unlike anything I’ve had before. Just saying ‘bread and butter’ doesn’t do it justice. The butter was almost tan and dusted with potato powder and bits of crispy pancetta and chicken skin. Vegetarians beware, this was a meat-lovers’ butter.

The starter was Charred Leeks, Hazlenuts and Milk Skin with Lobster:

Another perfect execution of texture and contrasting flavours, the poached lobster was rich, but not in that seafood restaurant buttery sort of way. It was delicate and light. The dish was served over a cream sauce that reminded me of squid ink, just more subtle.

Next up was the Duck with Mushroom Caramel, Blackberries and Girelles:

I must admit, I was a little nervous when this came out as it was so heavily reliant on mushrooms, and I’m not the hugest fan of fungi, but I needn’t have worried – it was marvelous. The duck was cooked to perfection, rare/medium rare with the sort of crispy skin that take ages to master.  The girelles were mild and the mushroom caramel sauce was divine.

We were then served our pre-dessert and palette cleanser, Sea Buckthorn and Burnt Meringue:

Sea Buckthorn berries are normally quite tart, but mixed with a lot of sugar and frozen – not so much. If I had to pinpoint it, I’d say it’s probably closest to a tangerine sorbet. But what really made this was the burnt meringue. Fluffy marshmallow gooey goodness with just the slightest caramelised crunch. A taste of both the sorbet and the meringue together made this dish pretty much the best orange creamsicle I’ve ever had.

In fact, I liked it better than the actual dessert – Frozen Maple, Toasted Oats and Apple with Panna Cotta Ice Cream:

It was the only dish of the day that fell a bit flat for me. The apples were just a bit too tart and the oats just a bit too bland. They chose a green-apple accented wine to go along with it that I found too overwhelming. The panna cotta ice cream, however, was excellent.

The lunch concluded with some tea and petit fours, which included Creme Catalane and white chocolate truffles that were, in a trite and overused phrase, ‘to die for’.

The meal, with the exception of my dessert, was flawless. I loved the open kitchen plan, the service, the china – everything. All in all, we paid about £50 a head with the 3-course meal (which is really 6 if you count the extras), wine, water (just £1 for all the sparkling or still you can drink!), tea, etc. It’s still not the cheapest in the world, but for a special occasion lunch in the most unlikely of places in East London, it’s perfect. One of the best meals of the year.

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Benito’s Hat – Covent Garden

I have a love/hate relationship with Benito’s Hat. I love their marketing and their vibe, I hate their salsa. I love their staff (now – didn’t have a great experience the first time), I hate their guacamole. I love their tacos, I hate their tortilla chips. You get the picture.

The last time I went, it was to the Benito’s Hat Goodge Street branch for a messy burrito with some work colleagues. You may remember, I didn’t rave about it – but all the people who work there are quite nice, and I’ve been in contact with the owner Ben since that experience who’s asked me a few times to come back.

The opportunity arose after I was invited to try their new line of tacos and burritos*, Lamb Barbacoa. On Monday, I ventured down to Benito’s newest location in Covent Garden to give it a try.

Barbacoa, I learned, generally refers to either goat meat, beef or lamb slow-cooked in a hole dug in the ground and lined with Maguey leaves. Wood is burned down to a pile of coals which are then poured into the hole, with a limestone slab placed on top. Once the stone is flaming hot, the meat – which is covered in water and salt and wrapped in avocado leaves – is placed on the stones. This is then covered in more Maguey leaves and woven matting to seal the oven. All this is then covered in soil and the meat is cooked for about four hours.

I went with the Barbacoa tacos. The lamb was lovely – very rich and tender just as promised. I hope they consider doing a goat version soon, as I imagine that would be just as good, if not better (Though they might have to be prepared for accusations of copying Mooli’s,but whatever). However, as alluded to above, my issue with Benito’s Hat lies with the condiments. They’re just not punchy enough. The pico de gallo and guacamole are in sore need of some lime juice. The hot sauce, while quite spicy, comes out one-dimensional. And the tortilla chips? In dire need of salt. It put a damper on what would otherwise be a fantastic dish.

That said, I really like this new Covent Garden location. It’s much more pleasant to sit down and enjoy a meal – more like a restaurant than the overly fast-paced atmosphere of its Fitzrovia sibling. I’d like to go again, and I would definitely order the Barbacoa again (though it’s only available till the end of February), but perhaps along with something else. I could be wrong, but I just can’t help but think that Benito’s is catering too much to a palette that’s afraid of what makes Mexican food so delicious.

*I was a guest of Benito’s Hat, which I bent my restaurant review policy for as I have been a paying guest in the past. The total meal value was around £7.

Benito's Hat on Urbanspoon

More Than a Meal

An off topic post, but one that I think is really important…

Christmas  is a really stressful time for most people. Work is busy and every night seems to be a different event. Top that with trying to figure out what to buy people and the guilt of how realising how you didn’t do all that charity work you promised yourself you would do in January.  Well, there’s one initiative out there I was sent a bit of information on that is the answer!

Centrepoint, a charity that works with young homeless people, has launched their ‘More than a Gift’ campaign. It’s a great cause. Basically, instead of buying a Christmas present for the person who has everything, you can buy a present for a young homeless young person on behalf of one of your loved ones. A bit about the campaign:

These gifts have been carefully selected to bring hope to those at the end of their tether together with the real possibility of a brighter future and the chance of a normal life.

Simply choose a gift. We’ll send your friends and family a beautiful card, or e-cards, personalised with your message and detailing your gift. Or, if you prefer, we’ll send the cards to you to give in person. Alternatively, buy a gift voucher and let the person you are giving the gift to decide how to spend it.

There are a few gift options to choose from, but one I think we can all get behind is the ‘More Than a Meal’ gift, where £7  buys a young person on the streets the meal of a lifetime.  It’s a meal that tastes of ‘hope, comfort, relief, safety, warmth, friendship and the possibility of a better future. No other food in the world tastes this good.’

You can get involved at their website: Centrepoint Gifts

Launceston Place – Gloucester Road

It’s embarrassing to have gone to a restaurant like Launceston Place and think you’ve lost your photographic evidence. I dined here in August with the boy as we said goodbye to one of my best friends who was moving to Leeds. Fast forward a few weeks, a couple holidays, a business trip and all of the sudden I realised that not only had I not written about the wonderful experience, I had no clue where my pictures were. Luckily, they’ve been found and the review – while not at all timely with a summer menu – still holds true: Launceston Place was one of my favourite meals of the year.

As we sat in the gorgeous steel blue/grey dining room, we were presented with a bowl of Launceston-branded crisps. It was a cute idea, but I wasn’t bowled over on taste. I’ve noticed a lot of restaurants trying to posh-up the potato chip, but I’m not convinced. There’s only so much you can do with a finely-sliced fried piece of potato. Still, very pretty:
Launceston Place

We all went for the three-course tasting menu, priced at an incredible bargain of £22.

I began with the Beef, Beetroot and Wild Garlic Risotto:

I love being surprised when presented with dish. This wasn’t at all what I was expecting it to look like, and it was so much more than the menu description lends itself to. The beef, thinly sliced and tender, wasn’t even the star of the show. No, it was the luscious risotto, vibrant in colour and rich in taste, topped with two slices of jellied salty bone marrow – the yang to the sweet yin of the beetroot. This starter was the epitome of balance in cuisine.

Also at the table was the Duck Egg on Toast with Somerset Truffle, which I failed to get a picture of. I did, however, manage to snag a bite. It was heavenly.  I’m not the biggest fan of mushrooms, but the rich nuttiness over a perfectly poached egg and crisp bread was wonderful.

For my main, the Denham Castle Lamb, Pommes Puree and Herb Consomme:

Such a beautiful dish, don’t you think? The pretty potatoes, the rich consomme and tender (yet crispy!) lamb made for an excellent main.  It wasn’t made of particularly groundbreaking ingredients, but that’s not the point. It was a huge portion and all-around tasty.

The boys both had the Pork Crubeens, Onions, Capers and Mustard:

Crubeens, a traditional Irish dish made of boiled pig’s feet were served as a patties. I wasn’t sure what to expect of them. I’d never had trotters before, and while I will try almost anything once, I wasn’t sure about this one.  I imagined them to be rather tough. Luckily I was wrong. The crubeens were salty, moreish and happily boneless. Beautifully presented, as well.

And for dessert – The Apple Tart and Homemade Clotted Cream:

This dish is made for two, and as it comes out of the kitchen in a GIANT pie pan, you can see why. It truly is massive. I ate every bit. For once, the boy who always gets cheese for dessert was truly jealous.  The apples were so thick and sweet and tender. It was the kind of dessert that makes you squeak with glee every time you take a bite. Worth the £22 for lunch, right there.

I said it before, but this is one of the best meals of the year. I loved every minute of it. Service was wonderful, price for food was a bargain and everything was delicious. With drinks, water and service it ended up being about £40 a head, which for the caliber meal we had, I’d say was worth double.

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon