Fancy Schmancy

Fifteen – Old Street

To say my experience at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen was horrific wouldn’t be fair. However, to say the thought of returning turns my stomach wouldn’t be far off the truth. The thing is, it’s an ok restaurant based on a wonderful concept (the restaurant also runs as a charity that gives young, unemployed people the chance to be trained as chefs), but is so fantastically exorbitantly-priced for the food you’re served, you get the feeling the only person who’s really getting any benefit out of it is Jamie Oliver.

A starter of buffalo mozzarella and peaches was probably the highlight of the meal. Well-sourced cheese and nicely balanced against the sweetness of the peaches. Still, at over £11, I was surprised it didn’t come plated in gold.

The main, a Fisherman’s Stew containing about one or two pieces of mackerel, pollock, squid (respectively) and topped with 2 teeny tiny mussels, one clam and an angry-looking prawn staring at me with a face that said ‘No, I can’t believe it either’, cost a mind-boggling £28. Twenty-eight pounds. To add insult to injury, the seafood was completely overcooked and absolutely drowning in a tomato stew that I wouldn’t be surprised if had come out of a jar.

Dessert – a strawberry balsamic panna cotta – was ok, not particularly memorable other than the fact that it has a nice consistency, but was maybe too heavy on the balsamic flavouring.

A few positives though…

  1. It was cheerfully busy on a Tuesday night, but not so much so that you couldn’t hear your dining companions. I imagine it would be a good setting for a work dinner that you’re not paying for (which is actually what I was there for).
  2. Service was faultless. I really liked our server – he was calm, knowledgeable and just really nice.
  3. The decor was lovely. However, I suspect that’s another reason why it’s so expensive

Will I be going back? Not unless someone’s paying. And even then, I’d feel a bit guilty for not pointing them in a different direction.

Fifteen Trattoria on Urbanspoon

The Hind’s Head – Bray

The Hind’s Head in Bray was an afternoon of seconds for me. The second time I’ve dined at a Blumenthal restaurant, the second time I’ve actually seen Heston in the flesh (the first being a sherry tasting at Shoreditch House many, many moons ago) and one of the few times I’ve ordered seconds of something at the table.

Walking in, I felt immediately in good hands. The place is warm, woody and welcoming – very much a mix of that old pub style with unencumbered luxury. Somehow the fine china, white linen and Tudor-style ceilings so low even a 5’3″ gal like myself had to duck for, work together.

The menu is your classic, poshed-up English dishes. Not tons to choose from, but something for every palette. For those who think British food is still all limp vegetables and boiled meats, I bring your attention to the below…

I decided to start with a couple nibbles in place of a full starter. The Scotch Egg (£3.50) in all its glory was marvellous. A very nice crispy exterior sprinkled with fresh sea salt flakes, opened up to a gooey (but not too gooey) quail’s egg hugged with minced pork so fresh and tender, you’d think it was picked off the farm that morning. Hell, it probably was.

After enquiring as to what the devil it was, I chose the Devils on Horseback (£1.80) as my second little nibble:

Bacon-wrapped, pitted dates. Nothing particularly earth-shattering, but I’ve always been partial to the bacon/fruit flavour combo.

Finally, on to mains. We must be really boring, because out of a table of 8 people, 7 of us ordered the Veal Chop, Cabbage, Onions, Sauce ‘Reform’ (£29.50). The odd duck out was a vegetarian. Poor girl – she missed out on this:

Considering it was taken on an iPhone 3GS, this is a photo I’m particularly proud of. It’s bright, colourful and almost looks like a transparent background. Luckily, the dish tasted as good as it looks.

But as good as the veal was, it was shadowed by something infinitely simpler: Chips. Delicious, delicious triple cooked chips. Piping hot, crispy on the outside, salty, not greasy Heston chips. I couldn’t get enough of them, so I ordered seconds for the table.

It may not be as flashy as its flashy molecular gastronomic neighbour, The Fat Duck, but it is good, proper British food with incredible service in an idyllic village setting. Anyone could complain a bit about value for money when talking about Heston Blumenthal, but you don’t book a table unless you’re planning on spending about £100 a head – simple as that. With those expectations, The Hind’s Head was a fantastic experience.

Now, I just to save up my pennies and complete the trifecta.

Hinds Head on Urbanspoon

Viajante (Second Visit) – Bethnal Green

I do tend to go on quite a bit about Viajante. I went once last year for the 3-course lunch, and it ranked no.2 in my best restaurants in London list behind Launceston Place. This time, I went back for dinner. A full six plate extravaganza, which  – with all the amuses and a special bonus dish sent over to our table by the restaurant’s lovely comms guy, Richard – ended up being about 13. It’s a lot to take in, and you don’t need to know my every thought, so I’ll be succinct. The pictures say a lot more about the complexity of what we ate, so I’ll let the visuals do the talking.

Part 1 – The amuse bouche and bread and butter:
Crab doughnuts, Thai Explosion II and Duck Ham

Mackerel with lemon and Wood Sorbet

Fresh Cheese with Peas and Flowers

Bread with Chicken Skin Butter and Black Pudding Butter

I’m still in love with the Thai Explosion II and it’s delicious crispy chicken skin, but what really took it for me was the Black Pudding butter. It certainly wouldn’t win any healthy eating awards, but my god, it was worth it.

Part 2 – The starters:

Squid with Ink, Pickled Radishes and Sea Lettuce

White, Green and Wild Asparagus with Milk Skin

Leek Heart with Lobster and Leek Consumme

By far, my favourite was the lobster. Shocking, I know. There was something about the charred leek and richness of the lobster that worked well together. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the asparagus, mainly because of the cold asparagus jelly it was served over. It was a difficult texture to take in.

Part 3 – The Mains:

Cod and Potatoes with Egg Yolk and Saffron

Iberico Pork with Cereals, Hot Potato Gel and Clams

The cod was fantastic (especially with the perfectly formed egg yolk in the middle), but the pork wins hands down for best dish of the night. I only wished it was bigger. The meat was so tender, I could cut it with a spoon.

Side note: The pork was so good, in fact, I’ve nominated it for a food competition that So Feminine is running to find the best dishes in the UK. I was asked a couple weeks ago if I wanted to submit something, and honestly, I couldn’t think of anything more deserving. If you want to check out the other nominations, check them out at So Feminine on their food page. Hopefully, Viajante’s pork will be showcased up there soon.

Part 4 – The Desserts:

Frozen Maple with Shiso and Green Apple

White Chocolate with Grapefruit and Lemon

Pickled and Raw Cucumbers with Milk Sorbet

Having a tasting menu means the server will always ask if you have any allergies. This is the first time I haven’t said cucumber, and what happens? A cucumber dessert. *le sigh* While the smell did turn my stomach, I was assured by my friend that it was actually quite tasty. Out of the three, though, it was all about the white chocolate, bitter grapefruit contrast. Refreshingly different.

We finished off with Viajante’s classic petite fours including two chocolate truffles and the luscious Vanilla Cream:

All in all with two cocktails and three small glasses of wine each, it was a budget-breaking £220 for two (aka more than I’ve spent on dinner pretty much ever).  It was lovely from beginning to end, and it’s no wonder the restaurant earned its first Michelin star last year. However, next time, I will probably stick to the slightly more manageable lunch or go to The Corner Room (the newest Viajante venture I can’t wait to try)

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Pearl – Holborn

I love posh girl dates. There is nothing better than throwing two sheets to the wind, spending some money and having a bit of gossip. The other thing I love is when TopTable deals don’t turn out to be absolute shit. So you can imagine my delight when I went to the near-perfect Pearl, a Japanese/French fusion restaurant just near Holborn tube, on a ‘3-course and a cocktail’ deal for £43 deal with one of my good friends, Kat.

First off, Pearl is gorgeous. It borders on being a teensy bit too snobby for its own good, but the little touches (pearls on the chandeliers, mainly – I know, cheesy, but whatever) made me forget that. The service, also, from the time we walk in the door was absolutely flawless.

On the random Wednesday we went, the restaurant nor the bar was particularly busy, which made me think this is probably why they have the TopTable deal on. It also worried me a bit because as often is the case with money off deals, the servers treat you like a second-class citizen. Not so with Pearl. I think they were happy to see people.

Our amuse bouche came straightaway. Three little delicacies: some sort of minced salmon paste with a glaze over top, chicken liver parfait with a goat cheese filled cherry tomato and a mushroom risotto ball:

All excellent, including the risotto ball, considering I’m not the biggest fan of mushrooms.

The next course was a bit of a surprise, an extra little treat before our starters – Goat Cheese Truffle with Artichoke Soup and Parmesan:

A lovely combination, and just enough to whet the appetite.

For my actual starter, I had the Beef and Oysters:

The plates were exactly the same as Launceston Place, so already I had fond memories. The beef was a braised beef cheek with watercress tortellini, crispy oysters and parsnips. The combination of textures served it well. The tortellini, in particular, was fantastic. It tasted of/probably was squid ink. You could certainly do worse.

Kat went with the Mackerel Fondant:

The presentation on this was a bit more like a flower wreath than food, admittedly, and I’ll say it certainly wasn’t my favourite of the night (most likely due to the dill. I hate dill), but the candied beetroot garnish was quite tasty.

For mains, we both went with the Sole with Artichoke Gnocchi and Chicken Wings:

The sole was a bit of an odd one, because I absolutely LOVED everything on the dish….except the sole. The artichoke gnocchi was brilliant, only superseded by the most tender and delicate roasted artichokes I’ve ever tasted – and the ‘chicken wings’? Let’s just say, they weren’t the kind you get at Fridays (thank God). But the sole? It was like a salt lick. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt here, though. With everything else being perfect, something must have gone wrong in the kitchen with the fish. Shame.

Pre-dessert was a Couscous Mango Foam with ‘Walnut Crunch’:

Audible squeals of delight on this. I might venture to say it was even better than the actual desserts…similar to my Viajante review.

Speaking of, I had the Tiramisu with Amaretto Ice Cream:

Neither particularly French, nor Japanese, I was a little confused by the fact that this was even on the menu, but regardless, it was tasty. Presentation was fun, and the tuile the tiramisu was wrapped in was a sugary delight, despite being thinner than tissue paper. Exactly as it should be.

Kat went with this:

I’m so sorry I can’t actually remember what it was. Some sort of tapioca-ish thing with a bit of jelly on top. It was served with a ‘spiced’ ice cream, which I do remember was infused with cardamom and clove. The rest, apparently, not very memorable.

Apart from the lacklustre finish and salty sole, the meal was brilliant. Kat and I ordered a lovely bottle of viognier for £32, which made the final bill a bit more expensive (£65 per person with water and service), but you can do it much cheaper and still have a wonderful time. The TopTable deal is still on, so do yourself a favour, and go. Now.

Pearl on Urbanspoon

Dinner – Knightsbridge

Few restaurant openings have had the buzz that Dinner has had in the past year. Foodies have been collectively freaking out ever since it was announced that Heston, *the* Heston, would be opening up his first restaurant in 16 years right smack dab in the middle of London, and with good reason – it is pretty damn exciting.

But was it worth it?

In a word, yes. Though not the dining experience I would imagine his three Michelin star The Fat Duck to be, Dinner is excellent. I wouldn’t call it earth-shattering, but from beginning to end, there were a lot of ooh’s and ahh’s at our table.

I dined there with my pal, Gary, for what was I thought going to be a posh, but competitively priced 3-course lunch for £28. It turned out, however, that deal is only available Monday through Friday, which meant while we got to choose from the whole menu, we also had to pay quite a bit more than we thought. Starters were in the £10-£15 range, mains around the £30 mark and desserts about £8-10. Expensive, but fairly standard for a restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental hotel (home of high-class escorts and £19 martinis, it would also seem).

I decided to start out with a slightly more *cough* reasonably priced drink: The Condé Nast Traveller martini (£14):

Now I generally don’t write about my drinks, but this one was too tasty to pass up. Rhubarb puree, persimmon and a drizzle of cinnamon syrup with the smoothest vodka. You could easily drink this down in one gulp.

Starting out with food, I couldn’t pass up the Meat Fruit (£12.50) of ‘mandarin, chicken liver parfait and grilled bread’ that I’d heard so much about.

Looking suspiciously like an extra vibrant tangerine, I was almost giddy to cut into it. The skin, revealed to be more like a jelly, was supple, giving way to the most silky, richest parfait I’ve ever had. It was unique, fun and it lived up to the hype.

Gary went with the Broth of Lamb (£12.50):

This dish of lightly fired sweetbreads, celery, radish, turnip and a hen’s egg was amazingly aromatic. The array of textures and flavours were nearly over-powered by the rich broth, but they somehow managed to hold their own.

For my main, I went with our server’s suggestion of the Spiced Pigeon (£32), of which I really didn’t need much convincing:

Long-time readers will know that I have a soft spot for those ugly birds ever since I tried it at my first time at St John, and this was no exception. Served as four boneless strips alongside artichokes with an ale-based sauce, it just about melted in my mouth. The very definition of tender.

The other main was the Powdered Duck (£24):

I wish I caught what sauce the duck was served with. It was slightly sweeter than the pigeon’s ale sauce – and drizzled over the smoked fennel the duck was served upon, it was absolutely perfect. The duck, looking more like miniature legs of lamb was tender and nicely spiced.

On to desserts, and this is where Dinner really shined. I knew at first glance that I was going to go with the Brown Bread Ice Cream (£8.50) if not just because of the ‘salted butter caramel syrup’ it was served with.

Salted caramel is food of the gods. Period.

Also on the table was the Chocolate Bar (£8.50):

The rich dark chocolate was so shiny you could actually see your reflection, Gary commented on his second bite, ‘This is so good, it’s hard not to break into a smile when you eat it’. So, there you have it – a success.

The final surprise of the our posh lunch was the petite four, which wasn’t really a petite four at all. Described as an Earl Grey Vanilla Ganache and Caraway Seed Biscuit, it didn’t look like much, but heavens did it pack a punch. Just look how thick and creamy!

Had it not been completely inappropriate, I would have tried to lick the inside of the cup.

By this time, my stomach could take no more, and we asked for the bill. It hurt. A whopping £170 total for lunch. We split it down the middle, and tried not to wince as we punched in our respective pin numbers. Not the kind of thing I’d do all the time, but every once in a while, it’s worth it.

Service was perfect, and honestly there’s not a whole lot I can fault with the whole experience. The place is absolutely beautiful too. Even £85 lighter, I’m a happy camper.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal 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

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