French

Bam-bou – Fitzrovia

In our very busy city-dweller lives, it is rare that 6 people can come together to enjoy a nice meal and drinks without weeks of planning and diary-checking. Spontaneity almost always breeds a successful night out – and the surprise of being able to get three couples together for an out-of-the blue triple date still warms my heart even months later.

Because of the spontaneity of the evening, we didn’t do much planning on where to go to eat. Bam-bou is very central, just north of Oxford Street in Fitzrovia. Walking by it as often as I do (my office isn’t too far), I’ve always remarked at how busy it always seems to be. It’s not super-cheap and doesn’t have a lot of the buzz so many of the restaurants – whether deserving or undeserving – in London have these days, but with the crowds even on random weekdays were a good sign.

The food is Vietnamese-French, which I consider to be less Asian-fusion (such a dirty word!) in the restaurant sense and more of a nod to a not-so-pleasant piece of history, since France ruled Vietnam as a colony until 1954.

But that’s not so much to the point. On to the food.

By far the best starter we had was the duck roll. Coming out of the kitchen  like little mini-burgers, the duck patty was almost flakey in texture, complemented perfectly with a fragrant plummy hoisin. Unfortunately we weren’t particularly impressed with the bland veggie summer rolls or the slightly too greasy calamari (though the spicy aioli served with the latter had a lot of pluck. I like that in a dipping sauce).

Mains across the table were made up of a combination of curries, pork skewers over vermicelli mostly reminiscent of bun cha and a lovely spiced duck with a salted plum sauce, which – despite having a similar description to our duck starter – couldn’t have been more different in preparation.

All of them were quite lovely too. The duck, though somewhat of a small portion for £15.50 (not including any sides or rice) was a bit steep, but expertly cooked. Loved it. The curry sauce was almost  intoxicating, and the pork beautifully tender.

Most of the time, restaurants with a melting pot approach to Asian food are a dime a dozen and rarely anything to shout about, but Bam-bou breaks the mould.

Bam-Bou on Urbanspoon

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Bistro du Vin – Clerkenwell

Bistro du Vin is the firs standalone restaurant from the people behind Hotel du Vin, and wow, is it pretty. Located at the much-lauded and sadly closed Eastside Inn (rest in peace) on St John Street, they really outdid themselves. It’s sleek, still has that lovely open kitchen and has just enough French influence without being too ‘Cafe Rouge‘. I was invited to come try it out after hearing quite a bit of fuss over its opening.

We got there a bit early and decided to sit at the bar for a quick drink – the Marmalade Martini (£10). It was the perfect aperitif, crisp light and just enough to dazzle the taste buds. It was also served with bar snacks, which generally scores big points in my book.

Sitting down, we took a look at the expansive menu. For the vibe of the place, I’d call it competitively priced. Most starters were around the £7-£10 range, while most mains were around £15 (steaks and lobster obviously quite a bit more). After going back and forth, I decided on the Cornish crab, toasted sourdough (£9.50) for a starter.

Our server told us it was the most popular on the menu, which I’m guessing is more because it’s crab, rather than because it’s a showstopper. It was alright (a bit too cold and bland, it needed quite a bit of lemon to jazz it up), but I wouldn’t repeat the order. The Crispy lambs sweetbreads with sauce charcuterie (£8.75) were a much nicer choice.

Besides being much more pleasing to the eye, these were quite moreish, but then again they were fried, so really, what’s not to love?

Things changed for me when I got my main course, the Scallops and prawns with sauce vierge (£22) with a ‘mixed salad’ and new potatoes on the side for the table (both £3.50), because for all of the nicely priced parts of the menu and the lovely interior, it’s clear that Bistro du Vin need to make a profit. This is the only reason I can see to charge an outrageous £3.50 for a bowl of lettuce (no other ingredients and oddly washed in salt water) and call it a side salad. Even more infuriating was charging a ludicrous £22 for the main, which consisted of exactly three small prawns and three average-sized scallops:

That’s it.

Doing the math(s), it works out to a whopping £3.66 per shrimp and scallop. Outrageous highway robbery. Full stop. To add insult to injury, the prawns were overcooked and the scallops inconsistently cooked. And have I mentioned how difficult it is to cut through something when it’s sitting on a perforated concave shell?! I don’t know what they were thinking. Disappointment incarnate.

Thank god the Saucisson à la lyonnaise, ratte potatoes and Dijon (£15.50) was better.

A much more generous portion, lovely little potatoes and sausage that almost had the distinct flavouring of chorizo. It was a man’s meal, and this pleased DQ (I’m playing around with an alias for the boyfriend. Bear with me) greatly.

Desserts are where Bistro du Vin really shined. We ordered the Chocolate Pave and Strawberry Sundae (both £5.50).

The chocolate was rich, but the portion size helped it be not over the top. Bonus points for the sprinkling of pistachios on top. The sundae reminded me of back home, but Brits would probably call it more of a Knickerbocker Glory as it was dotted with meringues throughout.

I didn’t see what the final bill would be (I was a guest of Bistro du Vin), but we estimated it out at around £120 with water and wine. The wine, by the way, was excellent. They have this clever little top up card that allows you to try some really fantastic wines by the glass that in normal restaurants would only be served by the bottle.

I’ll admit it was a mixed bag. A bit on the pricey side for just a normal meal out, but good for a slightly more special occasion. If you order smart, and stay away from the ludicrous scallops, you should be fine.

Bistro du Vin 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

Malmaison Brasserie – Leeds

I don’t get to travel within the UK too often unless it’s with work. Most of my friends have always lived in London, so until recently when my friend Dom quit his job and moved up to Leeds to go back to school and become a teacher, I was sad – but also a little excited I could go visit. Six months later, I finally made it ‘oop norf’, as they say.

Before I went though, the lovely Diana Massey had got in touch with me about the Brasserie at The Malmaison Hotel. Although I generally don’t do invite to review restaurants without being anonymous, I said yes. A new city, no clue where to eat, and a friend who went from PR wages to being a student at 27 – if there’s anyone who deserves a nice meal out on the house, it’s him.

The hotel itself is beautiful – rich plum colours and twisted wrought iron sculptures and light fixtures – it does very much ring of Paris in the 30s. Just beautiful. A bit early, we settled in the bar for a quick drink before being whisked off to our table, which was set off from the main dining room, a big comfy half-moon Mafia-style booth that gave a nice view of the rest of the room.

We were served some bread and a nice tapenade to start. The maître d was serving us, which at first I was a little put off by (I don’t like special treatment), but as the room filled up, he looked after the whole section. Perhaps they were short-staffed, or perhaps he is just the kind of manager that really gets stuck into it – either way, we were all looked after well.

The menu is mostly French with some British inspiration. The most important thing about it though is that everything, and I mean everything, is local. They make quite a big deal of this on the menu, which made me think it might not be that common in Leeds. Even my starter, the Pigeon with Spiced Vegetables and Bread and Bay Sauce (£7.50), I was warned twice that it was killed locally and so I should be careful of little bits of shot in the meat. How rustic. Luckily, I didn’t get any. I think pieces of leftover metal in my bird might have been a bit much.

The mild creamy bread sauce with well cooked vegetables (including some fairly tart beetroot) was a hit, but the pigeon itself was a little tough. It was the right colour – it didn’t *look* overdone – but it was really missing the tenderness that bird really needs. Of course, my last brush with pigeon was at Heston’s Dinner, so I admit I have been a bit spoiled.

Dom went with the Whisky Smoked Pork Belly and Tiger Prawns (£7.50):

I loved the streaky (American) bacon garnish on this. Salty crispy goodness. The prawns were fine and the slightly sweet sauce worked well with the dish over all, but the pork belly itself – again – just a tad overdone.

For my main, I had the Whole Plaice with Spinach and Brown Shrimp Butter (£13.95):

A stonkin’ huge portion well worth the 14 quid. The fish was delicate, flaky and the butter sauce was nice. I had this was a side of New Potatoes, which were also quite good. If I could complain about anything, it would be the skin was lacking in crispness, which while not a necessity, is always a nice perk when having this type of fish.

Dom had the Stout Braised Heather Fed Mutton with Sage Mash and Herb Dumplings (£15.95):

I’ll admit I’m not much of a mutton fan, but I found this too, to be a bit dry. The herb dumplings were nice and added a bit of much-needed moisture, but they weren’t quite large enough to do the trick.

Desserts were Warm Rice Pudding with Ginger and Rhubarb (£5.95) and Apple and Hazelnut Crumble (£5.95):

Both a good idea in theory, but they both fell short. The flavours in my rice pudding were lovely, slightly sweet, slightly tart, slightly spicy, but the rice was underdone. The crumble’s apple was perfect, but the actual crumbs were dry and tasted a bit too similar to cardboard, if you ask me.

The Malmaison Brasserie has some really great things going for it (service, style, price), but they need to step up on the not-so-little details (over/under cooked food, consistency) if they want to make it to the next level. It was a nice evening out, but next time I’m up in Leeds, I may be wondering what other restaurants are around…

Om Nom London was a guest of the Malmaison Brasserie

Beach Blanket Babylon – Shoreditch

Beach Blanket Babylon looks like someone took a beach hut, decked it in black chandeliers and velvet, and decided that it somehow warranted charging £11 for a drink. It’s the sort of place that tries really hard to be good, but when you strip out all the glitz, it’s still just a shack with a nice view.

I started with the calamari, which was served in a bamboo basket with a Japanese soup spoon full of aioli. The calamari was cooked nicely, but was largely devoid of any flavour in the batter, instead relying on the fairly rich dipping sauce to give it a bit of oomph.

We also had the liver pate, served with bread and a leafy salad.

The pate, looking more like bland paste, wasn’t very nice at all.  The presentation was horrible, and the ‘bread’ was nothing more than white bread with the crusts cut off. The sort of bread you can get in any random corner shop.  I was not a fan.

Luck turned with my main, a lovely seabass served over fennel and oranges.

The skin was crispy while the fish oh-so-tender. The fennel and orange gave it a nice summer freshness that meant I did not feel overstuffed after eating it.  I couldn’t have had any more or any less.

The fish and chips, however, were, like the calamari tasteless and overly greasy. The chips/fries were so overdone you couldn’t even tell they used to be potatoes.  The mushy peas (also served in a soup spoon) went largely untouched, due to the worst combination of no taste up front and a weird aftertaste.

I should have listened to others on this one.  The whole bill came to around £90 including 1 glass of wine, 1 beer and service (luckily I had a voucher or else I’d be hopping mad). I’d say it would be a good atmosphere to go have drinks at, but really, no amount of nice decor would make it worth it.

Beach Blanket Babylon on Urbanspoon

Paris Roundup

Just a bit a foodie photo fun from my last trip to Paris.  Unlike last time I went, I didn’t go overboard with fancy expensive restaurants, instead just stumbling into places when hungry.

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any undiscovered gems that way, but I can’t say I had anything horrible, and we saved a lot of money!

Duck Magret from le Moulin de la Galette (18eme):

Escalopes de Veau from Bistrot Victoire – (2eme):

Also from Bistrot Victoire:

And how could you go to France without l’escargot?

I ate other places, but sadly none of them were fantastic enough to warrant proper posts. I also currently have about 9 drafts in my folder of London restaurants I’ve yet to write about. A girl can only do so much!

Le Bouchon Breton – Spitalfields

My friend Jaz and I were in order to have a girly gossiping lunch. It was the Saturday before Valentine’s day, and I hadn’t thought to check out the Toptable deals, which meant that most places were either booked or not doing any offers. Le Bouchon Breton up top at Spitalfields Market was the only one who had an offer on (50% off food). So that’s where we went.

I got there early, and ordered a glass of wine. We were eating about 3pm, but the place was still relatively busy. Lots of couples, a few families. Everyone looked a bit unhappy though. Jaz showed up, and we were given some fresh bread.

Le bouchon breton

We ordered a bottle of the wine that I was drinking. When our server came back with another glass, and I mentioned we wanted a bottle, he just put the glass down anyway, and said ‘Oh, well, take this anyway!’ Very cool of him.

Looking at the menu, I had no idea what to get. It started occurring to me that maybe French food wasn’t really what I wanted, and that maybe I shouldn’t have been so obsessed with getting half off my meal when really all I was craving was a burger and chips. I compromised by getting a Rib-eye with ‘les frites’.

Le bouchon breton

I asked for the meat rare to medium rare, and the server repeated back to me ‘Medium well?’ (he was French). I said ‘No, rare, please!’ Sure enough, when it arrived, the steak was cooked all the way through.

Le bouchon breton

The fries were good, though. I also ordered a side of peppercorn sauce which gave flavour to what otherwise was a complete waste of beef.

Jaz’s lamb was nice though. Much prettier. It came with a side of beans that were atrociously bland though.

Le bouchon breton

All in all, with the Toptable discount and the free glass of wine, we ended up spending less than £20 each – a steal. Should mention that the service was really really good too. However, like with most ‘Offer’ meals, I’d have a hard time imagining being happy paying full price for the same thing – especially when I just wasn’t impressed with my food at all.

C’est la vie.

Le Bouchon Breton on Urbanspoon