Wagamama – Westfield (an ode to Pork Dumpling Soup)

Food bloggers don’t normally write about chain restaurants unless there’s a *slightly* more sinister reason behind it (like Chris of Cheese & Biscuits’ amazingly hilarious encounter at the Aberdeen Steak House. Best post ever).

Most chain restaurants are either horrible, or just good ol’ reliable places to eat that don’t really warrant any sort of commentary. For me those reliable places are Nandos, Busaba and Wagamama. I eat at all three fairly regularly, but have never felt the need to say anything.

Until now.

Because last night at the Wagamama at Westfield, I tried the Pork Dumpling Soup, and I was blown away.

wagamama pork dumpling soup

For £9.10, you are treated to a bowl of tender sweet char sui pork dumplings, slices of spicy sausage, a hard-boiled egg, leeks, spinach and spring onion served brimming to the top in a lovely aromatic lemongrass and coriander broth. It was fantastic – and it’s probably the first single dish at a chain restaurant I’ve gone out of my way to praise.

Wagamama is almost always reliable (the Chicken Katsu Curry DQ had was just as good as it always is), but I do love how every once in a while, ‘reliable’ can still be amazing.

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

Nizuni – Fitzrovia (Charlotte Street)

I can’t actually remember what Nizuni on Charlotte Street used to be. I walk down Charlotte Street all the time, and for almost as long as I can remember, the space was in development. All of the sudden, Nizuni came out of nowhere.

Looking in, the place looks slick. Walking in, it’s a minimalist’s dream. Clean lines, beautiful neutral colour schemes, whoever did the interior decorating for Nizuni  is my hero.

We were a bit early for lunch (12:30), and thus were the nearly first to arrive in the restaurant.  We were greeted by, who I assume was, the manager. When we told him we’d never to the restaurant been before but were very excited to try, he had the kind of pride and excitement on his face that you only get if you put your heart and soul into a something. I liked that – it felt more personal.

We started with the Agadashi Tofu:

Some of the best I’ve ever had. Light, crisp and completely impenetrable to the gorgeous sweet soy sauce it was bathed in. Just as it should be.

For mains, I went down the maki route, while my colleague tried the Yaki Udon Noodles.

The Spicy Hamachi Roll was difficult to rate. The spicy sauce on top (most similar to Tabasco than anything) drowned out any taste of the fish. I got a slight amount of onion from the greenery inside, but that was it.

The Unagi and Avocado Roll was good quality, but as you can see, missing the sweet soy drizzle that – face it – makes and unagi avocado roll an unagi avocado roll.

Better luck was had with the noodles. Thick slippery udon with tender slices of beef and wok-tossed veggies. We both agreed it was a winner.

As an added treat, we split the Chestnut Cake with Green Tea Ice Cream:

Top marks for presentation, but I couldn’t help feeling the green tea/chestnut pairing was a bit off. Individually they were both fine, but together it was a bit mismatched.

Any restaurant less than a month in has growing pains, so I’m not really too fussed about the misses we had at lunch. With tea and service, it was £18 a head. Admittedly, it was a bit much for lunch, but completely reasonable for dinner.  With the uber-expensive Roka across the street being the only other Japanese sit-down restaurant option on Charlotte Street, Nizuni is a very welcome addition to the neighbourhood

Matsuri – St James

When I was a little one, my family and I used to go to the Benihana in Troy Michigan sometimes for Christmas (or was it Thanksgiving?). It was a special treat to see the stone-faced chefs showing off with their ginsu knives. I remember vividly being enthralled when he would chop off shrimp tails, catapult them up with the blade of what was nearly a hatchet and watch as they calmly landed in his chef’s coat pocket.

Matsuri is not that kind of place.

It’s teppanyaki, sure. You still sit around a table with six strangers (mostly tourists or visiting business people, it seems) while a very skilled Japanese chef cooks effortlessly in front of you. But the theatre? The whimsy? Not so much.

That doesn’t mean that they’re not big on service though. From the moment I walked in, I felt very welcome. The maitre’d smiled warmly, called me by name (I’m assuming we were the only reservation at that time), and showed to the bar where the boy had already had a glass of wine and a bowl of complementary wasabi peas and nuts waiting for me. Lovely start.

We were shown down to the restaurant in the basement, a dark sort of place where the geisha-like servers floated across the dining room. The decor was pretty outdated, but it sort of added to the charm.

We decided on the spring tasting menu for £35, plus one maki roll to get a taste of their sushi.

The ‘Hors d’oeuvre’ was a miso soup with flower-shaped daikon, spinach and tofu cubes.  It wasn’t an overpoweringly salty miso, so I like this.

Next we were served eel with grated cucumber, which I was told  – with my hand plugging my nose (cucumber, again) –  was very nice. I didn’t try it.

The salmon and avocado roll took a beautiful picture, but was nothing special:

The next dish was a bit of white fish I couldn’t quite put my finger on, wrapped in a banana leaf with rice, and a piece of prawn sushi.  I liked this alright, but again, it wasn’t anything you couldn’t get elsewhere.  The fish was good quality, but I always think putting a piece of prawn on rice is a bit of a cheap cop-out.

For the mains you had a choice.  I went with the seafood of Salmon, Prawn, Scallop & Squid with an upgraded egg-fried rice for an extra charge. I can’t remember what it was, but it was exorbitant – maybe £4?

The chef came out with some gorgeous looking fish and got to work.  Matsuri’s chefs make it look so easy.  Whiz, bang chop, fry, done. Food in front of you.

Unfortunately though, it didn’t live up to my hopes.  Everything was overcooked. Not to the point of being inedible, but part of me wishes they would have asked a temp on it.  The egg fried rice, however, was excellent.

We also had the Rib-eye Steak, which was far far superior to the seafood (even though it looks a bit sad in the picture)

Served gorgeously rare, the meat melted in your mouth. Juicy, flavourful with a touch of soy – this was very yum.

The dessert that came on the tasting menu – Rhubarb Sorbet – was also fantastic.

And for a £2.50 supplement, the Fireball ices cream.  Ka-pow!

I have to admit, the kid in me did enjoy the theatre in this.  Nothing like a giant fireball rising up in front of you.  The ice cream wasn’t what I was expecting. It was much more normal than I thought it would be, but still, it was good.  Served along some lovely dragon fruit, passion fruit and warm oozing pineapple, I was happy with it.

And then the bill came.

With the tasting menu, maki, two supplement charges, two glasses of wine and two itty bitty carafes of sake, the bill was £144.  Ouch.  It’s not like I didn’t know how much everything cost, and had I added it up in my head before, I don’t think I would have been as shocked… but over £70 a head?!  Let’s just say for that price, we should have seen some prawns landing in shirt pockets.

Matsuri on Urbanspoon

Saki – Bayswater

Someday, I’m going to come across a little hole-in-the-wall Japanese place that has amazing food for super cheap and no one knows about it. And every time I go to a little hole-in-the-wall Japanese place – like Saki in Bayswater – I think, ‘maybe today is the day!’

And then I end up sorely disappointed.

It’s not that Saki wasn’t good. It’s just so average, normal and unsurprising. I’ve been sitting on this blog post for ages because I’m just not really sure what to say about it.

When I walk in, it’s completely empty. I’m waiting for a friend and the owner shows me to a table and graciously takes my coat. I really like him. He’s very smiley, very approachable.  I wonder when was the last time they had a customer…

When my friend arrives, I’m starved, and so we just get some Chicken Gyoza:

saki bayswater

They’re a bit greasy and chewy, to be fair. And way too little dipping sauce.  I ate them because I was hungry, but I wouldn’t recommend them.

For my main, I went with Soba Noodles and Prawn Tempura:

Saki bayswater

Oddly enough, I wasn’t expecting a soup when I ordered this. It was under the noodle section and not the soup section (which did include noodle soups), so I was a bit confused.  It was ok though.  The broth was mild, the tempura was light and the noodles weren’t soggy. But again, nothing special.

Saki does the job it’s supposed to, I guess. If you have a random craving for Japanese and don’t want to overpay at the Yo! Sushi at Whiteleys across the street, I’d say go for it.  Otherwise, avoid.

Saki on Urbanspoon