I said a couple of years ago that 2012 was the year of ramen. That was prompted by the opening of four fabulous ramenya in London, each one selling a vastly more exciting (and generally, more authentic) offering than the Wagamama-style facsimile that was prevalent at the time. Since then, the enthusiasm for real ramen has continued to grow unabated – some of the four brands I mentioned in 2012 have launched new outlets; we’ve also seen the opening of United Ramen (which I tried last year during their pop-up phase and went to more recently when they launched their permanent location in Islington) and Ramen Sasuke (which I’m visiting soon). Old hand Ramen Seto (formerly of Oriental City) has moved into a new home near Camden Lock. The famous Ippudo chain is opening in London very soon too.

My latest ramen splurping was at another new kid on the block, Kanada-Ya, which opened without fanfare on the 2nd of this month, directly across the street from Ippudo’s soon-to-open shop. Located on St Giles High Street, steps away from Tottenham Court Road tube station (and the hub of several bus routes), Kanada-Ya brings to London a successful Japanese ramenya founded in Kyushu by Kanada Kazuhiro just 5 years ago. The London store is their third store, with their second being in Hong Kong – a very international expansion from the start!

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With the protocol-chain hailing from Yukuhashi in Fukuoka Prefecture, it is no surprise that Kanada-Ya offers tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, in the Hakata or Fukuoka style.

Indeed, the menu is very short and simple with just three variations on ramen – all featuring the same base broth, so no options for vegetarians – plus a short list of extras and an even shorter list of onigiri (stuffed rice balls).

I’m surprised not to see gyoza as in Japan, the little dumplings were offered by all the ramenya we visited, but mollified when a member of staff confirms that their Japanese branch does indeed sell gyoza and they hope to do so here too, going forward. The challenge for the gyoza is that, like their ramen broth and noodles (more of which in a moment), they make not only the gyoza filling but the wrappers too by hand and want to make sure they can do justice to their own standards before adding to the menu here in London.

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Pete orders the Moyashi Ramen (£11) which features Kanada-Ya’s 18 hour pork broth, chashu pork belly, wood ear fungus, nori, spring onion and blanched beansprouts. And noodles, of course!

The pork broth is really rather good. Regularly skimmed as it cooks, it’s rich in flavour but light in texture. Tonkotsu is a difficult style to get right; I find some lighter broths too insipid but others with richer flavour so oily as to leave an unpleasant oil slick on your lips. Kanada-Ya achieves a great balance.

The noodles are absolutely excellent! Kanada-Ya make them on site using a specialist machine imported from Japan, that uses a special flour enriched with protein and alkaline salts. They offer the noodles cooked soft, regular, hard or extra hard; both of us find regular to be spot on. I reckon the texture of these noodles is the best I’ve tried in London ramenya so far.

Best of all are the Hanjuku eggs (which you need to order as an extra item). These blow any other ramen eggs I’ve tried out of the tonkotsu! They’re truly magnificent!

Chasu pork belly looks like it might be dry but actually proves to be soft and tasty, though not the best I’ve had.

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I order the Chashu Men (£12.50), which comes with a much larger portion of pork but collar instead of belly. It’s still soft and tastes good but I miss the fat. What I’d really like is the option of this much pork but belly rather than collar. Other than that, the only difference from the Moyashi is no blanched beansprouts.

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Curious about another of the extras, we order a portion of Black Garlic Sauce for £1. It has a lovely charred roast garlic flavour; rather than mix it into our broths, we dip occasional bites of food into it.

That includes the salmon onigiri we order. It’s odd to see these rice balls on the menu, as I’ve not encountered them in ramenya before, though of course they’re a popular snack across Japan. Perhaps they’re an easier option to produce while gyoza are not available? Our sake salmon-filled ones (£3 for 1, £4 or 2) are decent but the salmon inside is a little dull. The ume pickled plum (£2.50 for 1, £3.50 for 2) ones might be worth a try.

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On the drinks front, there are soft drinks only including the regular soft drinks and water, plus hot and cold tea, calpis and Japanese lemonade.

At the moment, they don’t list any desserts but offered us a taste of the ice cream mochi they hope to add to the menu soon. To my delight, these are Little Moons ice cream mochi, a brand I first encountered last year courtesy of United Ramen and they are very tasty indeed. We try the yuzu ice cream mochi (served with popping candy) and the matcha ones. Both excellent.

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With just 24 covers at traditional counter seating, Kanada-Ya is set to be a popular choice for the growing hoard of London’s noodle-splurping ramen lovers.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kanada-Ya.

 

I recently started a new job in Victoria, an area jam-packed with mediocre chain restaurants and coffee shops. When I asked food friends for recommendations, Uni was a name that popped up more than once, with its salmon tacos singled out for particular praise. Taco shells filled with salmon tartare isn’t a dish I’ve ever come across before, so of course, I was intrigued.

It turns out that although Uni takes its name from the Japanese for sea urchin, it’s not a straight Japanese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as offering Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Japanese food is enormously popular in parts of South America; indeed Brazil is home to the largest population of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan and Peru the second largest. My only reference for the term Nikkei was the Tokyo stock index but I’ve now learned that it’s also a term for American Japanese.

In the main part, the menu is more Japanese than Peruvian, which is not a big surprise when you learn that head chef Rolando Ongcoy once worked at Nobu. The advantage of Ongcoy’s fusion background is an openness to innovate, resulting in some welcome twists on Japanese classics.

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Images courtesy of Uni restaurant

Located on a quiet residential street steps away from Victoria station, Uni is a strange place. The front door opens onto a mid-floor landing part way up a terrifyingly transparent staircase; up leads to white leather stools around a marble counter which comes across like an over-monied art student’s wet dream – I can’t say I’m a fan; downstairs is thankfully much more understated, with soft brown fabrics and no lurid art. There are a lot of covers squeezed into a very tiny space – our corner table was tucked beneath the staircase itself, though I’ll admit it didn’t feel particularly claustrophobic.

The downside downstairs is the tight size of the tables – with small personal plates, water and a drink each on the table, it was a struggle to find space for one dish let alone two or three.

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The drinks list has more of a Peruvian influence with Pisco Sours available, as well as a coconut-based Chilli Mojito. As someone who genuinely adores Midori (melon liqueur) I couldn’t resist the Midoroska (£9.50) which was a simple but delicious and refreshing combination of vodka, midori, sugar & lime. Pete had a Sapporo beer (£4.50).

As well as the cocktails list (alcoholic and non-) there is a small range of sake (including a sweeter sparkling option) and red, white, rosé and sparkling wine. For beer drinkers, there are just two – Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. The whisky list reveals a big missed opportunity – not a single Japanese whisky is listed!

As we read the rest of the menu, we had some edamame (£4) with sea salt flakes to start.

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Of course, we ordered the salmon tacos (£6) as one of our selection of starters. Described as salmon tartare, cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, I understood on first bite why these garnered such praise from fellow visitors – the crunch of the delicate taco shell is an excellent textural balance to the soft fish inside. I don’t think I’d had masago (caplin fish roe) before but, as part of a mixed mouthful, I didn’t detect a difference from ikura (salmon roe).

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Although I knew the Japanese words of a number of individual seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, arame and hijiki I wasn’t familiar with kaiso, which is the word for seaweed.

I don’t know which types this kaiso seaweed salad with goma dressing (£6) contained but, once again, the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I love Japanese sesame dressings and could eat this salad every day.

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Peruvian tiraditos are somewhat like (seafood) carpaccio, ceviche and sashimi but not the same as any of them. I’d say the cut of the fish is a little thicker than carpaccio, a little thinner than sashimi and the spicy dressing is not the same as that used to cure ceviche (for which the fish is more commonly chopped rather than sliced too).

We chose the yellowtail tiraditos (£15.50) and found the small plate of fish superbly fresh and beautifully dressed (with kizami wasabi, yuzu & fresh mint). But at over £2.50 per slice of fish, it was steeply priced.

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I really enjoyed the tempura rock shrimp (£15) that our waiter Nachos encouraged us to try, particularly dipped into the creamy spicy sauce. Again, pricy but a decent portion and very sweet, tasty shrimp.

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I’m more of a fan of sashimi (3 pieces per order) than sushi (2 pieces per order) but I like that all the toppings are available either way.

We decided on an order of ibodai (butterfish £6) and toro (fatty tuna £9.50), as these are always part of my sashimi tray when I buy freshly cut sashimi to eat at home from my local Atari-ya shop. Again, the superb quality of fish was impressive.

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The highlight of the meal for me was uni in the shell (£9); I’ve never encountered such fresh, sweet uni in London! The beautiful presentation was just icing on the cake (or should I say ice in the bowl?) against the smooth, creamy treat of the sea urchin roe.

If you’re a fan of uni, you should visit for this one dish, let alone the rest.

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Unagi (eel) is another Japanese classic I love, not least for the traditional sticky sweet sauce it’s commonly glazed with. The unagi maki (£6) with nori and cucumber was excellent.

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Although friends raved about Uni’s wagyu steak, the wagyu tataki (£23) was the most disappointing dish of the meal for me. Served with ponzu, truffle oil & crispy garlic, I felt that the citrus notes in the ponzu sauce completely overpowered the flavours of the beef as well as the truffle oil, which I was unable to detect. Texture-wise, the beef wasn’t remotely as marbled as the (low and medium) grade wagyu I had in Japan; that beef was so rich with fat that it melted on the tongue just like fatty tuna. The garlic crisps were delightful but overall, I wouldn’t recommend this dish.

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For dessert, we shared the mochi moriawase (£6), an attractively presented plate of 4 different mochi – black sesame, yuzu, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate. All were delicious, and we couldn’t agree on a favourite.

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I finished with a pot of genmaicha (£3.50), served in beautiful tea pot and cup.

This was a wonderful meal, no doubt about it. We enjoyed nearly everything and really loved several of the dishes.

Certainly Uni is a little pricy, but the uncompromisingly excellent quality ingredients go a fair way to justifying that. We were greedy – not to mention keen to sample all the sections of the menu – and you certainly don’t need to order quite as much as we did, but if you do, the food above comes to £53 per person, with drinks and service on top of that. Take out just a couple of items, such as the traditos and the edamame and it’s already down to £43 a head (food bill) and still a generous feast.

Work is always busy but I’m keen to slip out one lunch time and try Uni’s bento box offering and of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist a return visit for that uni soon!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Uni restaurant.

Square Meal

 

A Friendly Argument

I wasn’t expecting an invitation to The House of Ho. I got into a friendly argument with Bobby Chinn you see…

I was a guest in the audience for a panel discussion about the Future of London’s Dining Scene hosted by Land Securities, a property development company behind the new Nova complex in Victoria. Nicholas Lander (former restaurateur and FT restaurant correspondent) chaired the discussion, with input from Henry Dimbleby (founder of Leon), Kate Spicer (journalist), Martin Morales (restaurateur, founder of Ceviche) and Bobby Chinn (restaurateur, founder of The House of Ho).

In reality, there was very little discussion on the future of the dining scene. Instead, the chatting was mainly centred on where we are today, how we got here and what is popular right now. The rise of social media and blogging was inevitably raised, during which Bobby Chinn took issue with a blogger who’d posted a review of his restaurant after visiting on the first day. He was also frustrated by that blogger’s willingness to pass comment on the authenticity of his Vietnamese food without ever having stepped foot in Vietnam.

As input from the audience was encouraged, I stood up and asked a question. Was the visit during a soft launch, with reduced prices to mitigate potential teething issues or was the restaurant charging full prices on the date of the visit? On the first full price day, he replied. Whilst I agree that it’s a little surprising to pass judgement on a new restaurant so early on, I pointed out that bloggers are not professional food critics, rather we are, in the main part, enthusiastic consumers with a voice. As such, if a restaurant is charging customers full price for its food, it should accept being judged on that basis.

We had a bit of friendly but passionate back and forth on the topic (with Bobby suggesting that bloggers might like to sink their own money into opening a new restaurant to appreciate how it feels) before Nick moved the discussion forward.

I should add too that Bobby clarified that bloggers have been pretty good for his business on the whole and he’s appreciated their coverage, which has mainly been positive.

After the panel session was over, I made my way over to introduce myself properly to Bobby and to say that, whilst I don’t tend to review restaurants quite that early on, mostly because I rarely rush to visit when places are so new, I stood by my statement that full prices means being fully open to criticism. Also, I felt that he had conflated two distinct issues – the right or wrongs of posting a review in the early days and the rights and wrongs of commenting on authenticity of a cuisine without the experience or knowledge to do so intelligently. I wondered if his frustration at the second aspect was colouring his feedback on the first.

In any case, I thanked him for engaging in debate so openly and exchanged business cards.

To my delight, as I was getting ready to leave at the end of the evening, Ranjit Mathrani (one of the owners of Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone restaurants) approached me, shook my hand and told me he was in complete agreement with me, that I had spoken well and he too felt that as soon as a restaurant is charging full price, it should expect to be judged.

A week later, an unexpected invitation arrived from The House of Ho’s marketing manager, inviting me to come in and visit. After such an intense and engaging first meeting with owner Bobby, I couldn’t say no!

Bobby Chinn

So, who is Bobby Chinn? Well, as I discovered, he’s a larger than life character with a story to match. In his recently published cookbook, Bobby Chinn’s Vietnamese Food, he describes himself as an “ethnic mutt” – half Chinese-half Egyptian – who grew up in New Zealand, England and America. I suggest you read the book to follow the story in full but in a nutshell: in the mid 1990s Chinn’s father identified Vietnamese cuisine as one that would soon explode in popularity around the world. So Bobby moved to Vietnam, having recently discovered a love and skill for cooking, ended up establishing restaurants in Saigon then Hanoi, and became a genuine authority on authentic Vietnamese cooking in the process. At the same time, he launched his television career with a show about Asian food for Discovery Network Travel and Living.

In December last year, he opened his first UK restaurant, The House of Ho, bringing his brand of Vietnamese cooking to London. Whilst some of the menu is a faithful rendition of traditional dishes, the rest is Bobby’s modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, bringing modern and international ingredients and techniques into play. His book gives more background on the food he loves to cook, full of stories of street food vendors he persuaded to share their secrets, and the thought processes behind dishes he developed himself.

The House of Ho

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In fact, the menu is a little confusing. Dishes are divided between sections for Light & Raw, Hot & Grilled, Ho’s Dishes, Sides and Dessert. Pricing suggests that the first two sections might be starters, with Ho’s Dishes being larger, but we’re advised that the whole menu is about small sharing plates and are recommended to order 5 to 7 dishes between two, with no real guidance on balancing between the sections.

A Saigon beer (£4.50) and a refreshing Rosy Lemonade (rose petal, kumquat, lemongrass syrup and lemonade £4.50) kick off the meal and soon, our dishes begin to arrive.

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First to come out (in that “dishes will arrive when they’re ready” style of service that make life easier for the kitchen but less predictable for punters) is the BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw (£6 from Hot & Grilled). The ribs are classic American Barbecue and the meat just the right texture – falling away from bone easily but not so soft it’s like baby food. Nice but not very Asian. That requirement is covered by the Asian slaw, which I really enjoy – light, crunchy and refreshing, though quite mild in overall flavour.

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Stuffed Tofu with a Mushroom Medley, Cellophane Noodles in Tomato Sauce (£5 from Hot & Grilled) is a pretty dish. Crisp-skinned soft tofu with a slightly bland filling of teeny tiny mushrooms and noodles, served on a puddle of rich classic European tomato sauce that would be the pride of any Italian mama. I ask Bobby about the dish later; he tells me that the original Vietnamese dish is a more rustic affair with a tomato sauce mixed into mushrooms, noodles and tofu. Knowing little about what is available in Vietnam, I wonder if the sauce is an influence of the French colonial period?

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Another prettily presented dish arrives, the Spicy Salmon Tartare, Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama with Asian Vinaigrette (£7, Light & Raw). This is excellent, with punchy flavours and some great textures. I’d never have thought of pistachios with salmon but love the combination. Those rice crackers are a thing of beauty and perfect to scoop up the mixed tartare.

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I like The ‘Shaking Beef’, Grass-Fed, 21 Day-Aged Fillet (£14, Ho’s Dishes) better than Pete. We both appreciate the excellent quality of the meat, and how very tender it is. Pete finds the flavours a little too understated, but I love the freshness and tastes of the mixed micro herbs, which add a lot to the dish. Even with the quality of the beef, it’s a little pricy for the portion, given that it includes no vegetables or rice.

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I absolutely love the Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage. Egg (£11, Ho’s Dishes) though, goodness me, there’s hardly any cabbage at all – more of a garnish – and two egg halves would make it a better sharing dish. But the fatty pork belly is cooked to perfection and the rich caramelised sauce is very good indeed.

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The portion of Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce (£12, Ho’s Dishes) is disappointingly small for the price tag, though the tastes and textures are lovely. It’s not cloyingly sweet, indeed the key flavour is that of the lemongrass, with the welcome addition of the spring onions.

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A side of Morning Glory (£4, Sides) is simply, tasty and adds some much needed greenery. A jasmine rice (£2.50) is good to mop up juices.

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I often find chocolate desserts in Asian restaurants (of various nationalities) far too sweet so the Molten Marou Chocolate Cake (£6.50, Dessert)  is a pleasant surprise. Excellent quality dark chocolate is used to flavour a small cake, cooked just right to give a gooey centre.

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I love my little Lemon-Scented Creme Brulee (£5.50, Dessert). Pete thinks it’s too small, especially as the price point is that of a full size dessert, but the creamy richness and flavour means I’m not too disappointed though he’s right that I could happily have eaten a little more!

Not in the mood for drinking, we don’t pay much attention to the wine menu, but I do enjoy a shot of Misty Mountain, Junmai Usu-nigori Sake, (£6.50 for 50ml) with dessert. When I dither over my sake choice, the waitress kindly suggests bringing me a taster of the two I’m choosing between, which is a nice touch.

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Overall, we enjoy the meal. With such a short menu, I’d like to see more space given over to classic Vietnamese dishes, though I enjoyed Bobby’s interpretations well enough. Ingredients are of good quality, presentation is appealing and I’m always a fan of sharing a higher number of small plates rather than a couple of full size ones.

And I must comment on the beautiful crockery which contributed much to the visual presentation of the dishes – Bobby has an almost Japanese sensibility in the choice of beautiful individual dishes to showcase his food.

Pricing is a bit high, even taking into account the heart-of-Soho location – the BBQ ribs are good value, and the tartare and tofu fair, but the shaking beef and lemongrass monkfish are pricy. With our very limited drinks order, our bill would be around a ton (were we not dining as guests).

Service hasn’t been as consistent as I’d hoped. The tasters of sake were much appreciated. But it has been hard to attract attention even before the restaurant was full and it has sometimes been lacking in focus; at one point, our waitress turned away from us as I was mid-sentence, in reaction to a discussion between the customers and waitress at the table behind us, continued to observe their conversation for the next several minutes, and then wandered off in reaction to it, leaving us with our mouths open and no chance to complete our request. The friendliness is here, but not the attention.

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I did enjoy our window table, looking out on the hustle and bustle of Soho; it’s not every day you see two fundraising teletubbies wandering past as you dine!

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of The House of Ho.
The House of Ho on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

Back in the late 1990s, a friend took me to Matsuri St James. It was a fair bit pricier than the restaurants we more commonly visited, but he’d heard good things about the food and was keen to try. Most of the clientele were Japanese and virtually all of them were men, probably a factor of its location within walking distance of the Japanese Embassy, the authenticity of its cuisine and the suitability of the teppanyaki experience for corporate dining, when Suits with expense accounts entertain groups of Important People.

We enjoyed it immensely. The food was excellent and the teppanyaki spectacle both entertaining but understated. I dropped a business card into a box and was delighted to win a meal for two, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy another fine meal there a few weeks later.

Somehow, after that, I never made it back. It wasn’t wholly a factor of price – even then, in junior roles with junior salaries to match, Pete and I regularly splashed out for special occasions. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it. I think it just fell off my radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Always more restaurants to discover.

And that’s the problem Matsuri continues to face; well known within the London Japanese community and particular the Japanese business and diplomatic sector, it hasn’t really caught the attention of a wider clientele.

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After enjoying some drinks in the upstairs waiting area, we took our seats at the horseshoe teppanyaki tables for a welcome from the restaurant’s President, Yoshinori Hatta. He gave us a brief introduction to the restaurant, during which we learned that it was launched in 1993 as a joint venture between JR Central and Kikkoman soy sauce company; indeed Mr Hatta was originally an engineer with the railway company – now that’s a career change and a half! He introduced the rest of the team including restaurant manager Cristoforo Santini, sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo and new head chef Ryosuke Kishi and told us they had recently launched a sushi bar within the restaurant.

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Assorted Sushi – Head chef Kishi-san making sushi for our starter plate. The selection was a little staid, but the quality of the fish was excellent.

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Prawn and Vegetable Tempura – Prawn, sweet potato triangle, shishito pepper, baby sweet corn in a delightfully crisp and light batter.

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Alaskan Black Cod Marinated in Ginger – Our teppanyaki chef Marvin made us smile when he referred to the beautiful cloche as a Japanese microwave! The silky cod was richly flavoured by the soy and ginger marinade. This dish was a favourite for many of our group.

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Txogitxu Galician Beef T-Bone Steak – From a Japanese breed of cattle (prized for wagyu) raised in Spain, this steak had a high fat content that made it rich and melting. Though not a match for true wagyu, it was very good indeed. I particularly liked that our chef cut and served the wobbly fat as well.

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For those who didn’t eat fish, an alternate course of Foie Gras, Smoked Duck and Mushroom was provided and they kindly let the rest of us have a taste. I didn’t detect any smokiness but the richness of the foie gras, moist duck and umami mushrooms was an excellent combination. Also pictured, is the gorgeous Virgule knife that I desperately covet and the fresh white and green asparagus, served with both the duck dish and the steak.

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Garlic Butter Egg Fried Rice – Though it was impressive watching this be fried, it lacked the depth of flavour I expected.

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Fire-Ball Ice-Cream – Dessert was the exact same one served when I first visited, almost two decades ago. There’s something rather charming about sticking to such a signature dish, and of course, it’s fun to see ice cream being cooked and flambéed on the teppanyaki grill. Decent, but would have been far more delicious had the restaurant sourced properly ripened and sweet pineapple.

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One of the key aspects of the teppanyaki dining experience is your teppanyaki chef, who explains the dishes as he’s cooking and adds to the experience by answering questions and injecting occasional humour. Marvin, who manned our grill, made us smile many times so I was irritated when a member of the management team gruffly admonished him to smile more, as though he were a performing monkey. It was, for me, the only sour note of the evening.

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Dishes were matched with sake and wine. With the exception of dessert wine, I’m not a wine drinker, so asked for a sparkling sake. This sweet bubbling option is enormously refreshing, with a floral peachy flavour that I particularly love. My dining companions made appreciative noises about the white and red wines served. I really loved the sweet umeshu (plum wine) served with dessert, Umenoyado Aragoshi.

 

Of course, all this comes at quite a cost. Our menu was specially put together to showcase the restaurant’s signature dishes but I asked Cristoforo to cost it up for me and he came back with a price per head for a group of 6 of £63, comparable to their cheapest set menu, The Matsuri, at £65 per head. However, be aware that The Matsuri Set provides only one main course against our two of black cod and steak, and there is a supplement to upgrade to garlic fried rice in place of steamed. More generous is the Aoi Set, which features both a seafood (lobster) and steak main dish, at £100 per person or the Okagura Set at £145. You can also order à la carte, and comfortably enjoy a nice selection for around the same price as the Matsuri Set. Plus drinks, of course.

Once upon a time, the quality and authenticity of the Matsuri St James offering was more than enough to justify the prices. Today, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has soared and there are more and more and more authentic Japanese restaurants for Londoners to choose from. What’s more, the Japanese concept of restaurants that specialise in a particular type of cooking or ingredient has reached us too and we can visit restaurants offering yakitori, ramen, udon noodles, okonomyaki and even kaiseki ryori. Older Japanese restaurants have stepped up their game by offering more adventurous Japanese menus. Newer ones are often enthusiastically geeky about their chosen area of focus. While Matsuri continues to do what it does and do it very well, it’s competing in a much wider field and many of those in the race are more affordable. That said, it still excels at fine dining for groups of 6-8 and sharing a teppanyaki table with a group of friends remains a great way to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Matsuri St James. First two images reproduced with kind permission.

 

Some people love chef’s tables. Others really aren’t fans.

Blurring the line between kitchen and diners, a chef’s table invites a small group of customers to dine in the heart of the kitchen, where they can watch what goes on behind the scenes as the chefs bustle about their business.

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Respected critic Marina O’Loughlin describes the “chef’s table phenomenon” as “rich Victorians peering at Bedlam inmates for sport” and a commenter on her article labels people who like them as tosserati. But she’s talking about an experience in which the diners sharing the table are strangers, and she is stuck with a plate-licker and silent photographers for the duration. It sounds more like going to the theatre, but getting to eat as part of the performance.

More common are tables to be booked by a single group, like the one at Odette’s restaurant in North London.

Owned and helmed by Bryn Williams, this Primrose Hill institution has been popular with locals since it opened in 1978. Williams took over in 2008 and has gained a loyal following for his confident modern cooking and high quality ingredients, many of which are sourced from his home region in Wales.

During a recent kitchen refurbishment, Williams completely rearranged the space and found himself with a generously sized un-used alcove that was crying out for a chef’s table. Its position means diners who book Odette’s Kitchen Table have the opportunity to observe the chefs at work as much or little as they like, but have enough separation from the core cooking area to catch up with their friends and have a sociable evening together.

My visit was the result of a PR invitation, but with just six of us at the table, all of whom knew each other already, it was more an evening with friends than a typical media event. Indeed, while we appreciated the chance to have a quick tour of the kitchen, the invitation to help cook and plate one or two of our dishes if we wanted to, and the ability to glance up and watch the small team of chefs at work, we mostly got on with chatting about everything and anything, from holidays to weddings to families to our student days. Of course, photos of the delicious food were taken, but what I most enjoyed about the evening was that we spent virtually no time dissecting the actual dishes – other than brief comments of appreciation, we focused more on eating, drinking, gabbing and laughing.

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The kitchen table, Williams instructing his chefs, Ed being told about the fish before having a go at cooking, a chef finishing dishes at the pass, pans, Chloe helping with dessert

Dining at The Kitchen Table means booking an expanded version of the tasting menu. The standard tasting menu, available in the restaurant, offers 6 dishes for £50 (or 7 for £55 if you add the cheese course). You can add wines for an additional £35. The Kitchen tasting menu is £80, which includes the cheese course, several snacks before the first course proper and coffee and petits fours at the end. With wine, it’s £125.

The small team of chefs each “own” different dishes and as each one is served, the chef responsible comes to the table to introduce it in a little more detail than is provided on the menu.

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Slices of Carmarthen Ham – one of the “snacks” before the named menu dishes.

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Truffle Arancini – second snack, heady with truffle and very soft and moist.

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Goats Cheese Choux Pastry – third snack, served hot and fresh.

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Marinated scallop, pear, mooli & Carmarthen ham – like petals at the bottom of the bowl, almost translucent paper-thin slices of mooli, on top of these a mayonnaise made of scallop roe, oil and chilli peppers, then a small pile of diced scallop and pear (served raw), in a ceviche dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and sugar and a garnish of sea purslane and Carmarthen ham. The combination of pear and scallop was surprisingly wonderful.

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New season asparagus, lardo, truffle & smoked rapeseed – blanched new season asparagus, a mayonnaise (made using Welsh smoked rapeseed oil, eggs, vinegar and Dijon mustard), a truffle dressing with shallots, mushroom, garlic, thyme, bay, madeira and truffle juice, finished with sherry vinegar and olive oil, on top a slice of lardo (cured pork backfat), micro herbs and truffle. This dish showed off top quality new season asparagus very nicely.

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Whole lemon sole Grenobloise, salsify, potted shrimp sauce – A fillet of lemon sole with a classic Grenobloise garnish featuring lemon, capers, parsley and croutons, modernised by the use of Lilliput capers, lemon segments, soda bread croutons, brown shrimps and sea purslane. Served with an emulsified sauce based on the butter and spices used to pot shrimp. Garnished with salsify. Perfectly cooked, with beautiful flavours.

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Welsh lamb, courgette & anchovies tarte fine, artichoke, tomato – rump of Welsh Elwy Valley lamb, medium rare. The description tells me it was served on a courgette, onions and anchovy tart but I neither remember seeing that on the plate, nor can I spot it in the photos, so I assume it was omitted. The baby artichoke was cooked Barigoule (in white wine, vinegar and lemon juice with herbs and spices) before being fried. There was also a spiced tomato chutney and virtually insignificant amounts of sauce.

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Perl wen and truffle – organic Perl Wen cheese with freshly grated truffle, served with bara brith (fruited brown bread) and savoury crackers with poppy and fennel seeds. Generous truffle with perfectly ripe cheese and excellent bread and crackers.

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Garrigette strawberries, cheesecake & elderflower – Strawberries lightly marinated in jus de fraise (strawberry syrup) and elderflower cordial, a thin tuile of feuille de brique pastry with honey, a quenelle of “cheesecake” (made with Philadelphia cheese, crème fraiche, cream, sugar and vanilla), elderflower and lemon granita and additional jus de fraise. Super sweet, but the very essence of fruit.

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Odette’s jaffa cake, orange cream & marmalade – layers of sponge with marmalade, dark chocolate mousse and orange jelly, chocolate soil, an orange burnt cream and a chocolate caramel tuile. A beautiful dessert, really well balanced, lovely textures, tasted fabulous and looked stunning.

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Chocolate truffles.

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Mini chocolate eclairs – generously filled with a soft creamy custard.

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Mini Madeleines  hot out of the oven. Delicious orange zest flavour.

 

As I’d hoped, the meal was excellent. It’s not uncommon with a tasting menu for there to be one or two dishes that aren’t as good, or simply not to my taste, as the rest but here I enjoyed every dish, from the first snack to the last petit four and everything in between. And for the courses we had, I thought £80 was great value.

Service, as in the restaurant proper, was warm and helpful without being obsequious or pushy.

Being in an alcove on the other side of the pass meant that we had great access to the kitchen but also had our own space. We were not pressured to watch the chefs in sycophantic fashion – rather their presence and our interaction with them was simply a small but fun extra facet of our meal. It was also a wonderfully peaceful kitchen with focused chefs calmly performing their jobs; no need for drama or stress or noise.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Odette’s restaurant.

 

When eating out with vegetarian or pescetarian friends, it can be tricky to find a restaurant where their dietary needs are properly catered for… not just with the obligatory one or two clichéd dishes but with lots of appealing choices that are every bit as inventive as they could wish for.

Luckily, my vegetarian friend Sejal had heard about a place that might fit the bill, and better still, its location in Temple Fortune was virtually equidistant between us.

Cafe Also is attached to neighbouring business, Joseph’s Bookstore owned by Michael Joseph. I like to imagine a conversation where Joseph first expressed an interest “to open a cafe, also…

The cafe-restaurant sits on the corner of the block, with floor-to-ceiling windows along both fronts and a large door at the corner. Bookshop and cafe are connected by glass-panelled double doors and visitors to one are invited to check out the other.

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Exterior, Google Street View

Inside, boxes of beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables front the counter area, though sadly they’re not for sale; rather, they’re part of the cook’s larder, on display to customers. Second hand books line the shelves, including quite a few cookery book titles, if you’re so inclined.

Although the cafe opened back in 2001, owner Michael Joseph met current head chef Ali Al-Sersy just a couple of years ago. Egyptian-born Al-Sersy trained at Le Gavroche under the Roux brothers, and worked for the Qatari royal family, before opening his own restaurant Mims, first in New Barnet and then in Chelsea. At Cafe Also, he shares his unusual menu with a loyal local clientele. He goes to market several times a week to source fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, which inspire his appealing menu.

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On my first visit, we asked for guidance, as the menu isn’t divided simply into starters, mains and desserts. First, the breakfast items are listed, followed by a section of dishes that we assume (from their price point) are starters or lighter meal options, and then main dishes; after these, a selection of mezze salads and lastly, sweet things. Some of our questions to staff about the small dishes suggested they may be too generous to enjoy as a starter, so we adjusted our order accordingly, with my friend choosing a plate from the mezze salad section to start her meal.

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To begin, I chose roasted beetroot with homemade fromage blanc, pomegranate and orange essence (£6). I was completely bowled over by the beautifully presented plate that arrived and just as impressed with the perfect balance of flavours and textures – I would not have thought to combine these four key ingredients but as soon as I tasted them together, it made perfect sense.

My friend’s torched aubergine & tomato with barbequed oil and coriander (£2.50) was very generous for the price, and equally delicious. The aubergine was silky, smoky and beautifully complimented by the flavoured oil and coriander.

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Her main dish of crisped adzuki beans with broccoli poached in celeriac and peach tea, & broccoli cornmeal (£12.50) was deemed both an unusual and delicious choice, quite unlike the usual cheese or tomato pasta dishes that are so commonly the vegetarian’s lot. The soft “loaf” was moist and full of flavour, a world-away from the dry nutloafs of old.

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My hake with coconut, like, ginger, Chinese leaves & fondant potatoes (£13.50) was, as we’d now come to expect, a beautifully presented dish. I particularly loved that it was not swimming in a thick, gloopy sauce but that a light, fragrant sauce had been sparingly applied. It gave flavour but allowed the ingredients to shine in their own right. I had worried that fondant potatoes might be an odd match for the Asian flavour influences in the dish, but actually, they worked very well.

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Both desserts, banana ice cream (£3.50) and pear and vanilla cake (£3.50), came decorated with what I know as pashmak (Persian candy floss).

My banana ice cream turned out to be an altogether more substantial dish than I’d imagined – a whole caramelised banana (served warm) and a serving of ice cream frozen into the same shape and served, whimsically, within a banana skin. Both were wonderful, though far larger a portion than I could manage.

The cake and ice cream were delicious too, simple and well made with pleasing texture and taste.

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I returned just a week later for lunch with my mum; she’s pescetarian and seldom gets so much choice when eating out.

The menu was broadly the same, with a few small changes.

Fresh bread, made in house, was super; I’d guess egg-enriched.

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Mum chose the vegetarian burger with cheese, smoked mushroom relish, tomato, mayo, leaves and chips (£8.50). She really liked both, the burger had a wonderful flavour. The only issue here was that it was so soft and sloppy that it almost immediately fell apart, making it difficult to eat a sandwich. She persevered with knife and fork. The chips were excellent.

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After being so impressed with my hake, I couldn’t resist ordering the grilled herbed wild black bream with broccoli sprouts and roasted new potatoes (£13.50) and it was every bit as tasty as I expected. I’m not sure why the potatoes were presented on sticks, since nothing else about the dish was finger-food format, but those quickly removed, it was another fine dish; fabulously fresh fish, perfectly cooked and paired with simply accompaniments and dressing.

This is the kind of fish dish I want to eat much, much more of.

Both visits impressed me greatly. I’d recommend Cafe Also as a superb choice, not only for pescetarians and vegetarians, but for omnivores like me who are looking for something a little different.

Temple Fortune may not be the first neighbourhood you think of for top dining in London, but Cafe Also is definitely worth the visit. Breakfast and lunch are served six days a week (except Monday) and dinner five days a week (Tuesday through to Saturday).

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I can’t claim to be an expert in Lebanese food; not even close. It’s not even a cuisine I’ve cooked much at home.

But I did spend a most wonderful holiday in Lebanon a few years ago, in which our entire focus was to enjoy the delights of the Lebanese table.

Under the wing of our expert guides, we toured the country from north to south, from cosmopolitan city to village farm, from coast to mountain to valley, seeking out the best examples of traditional cuisine. We watched a butcher-baker make lamb filled pastries by selecting, butchering and mincing the meat, adding the requisite spices, filling the mixture into pastry cases and baking them in the wood-fired oven at the back of the shop; we sat in a casual coastal restaurant perched precariously above the waves themselves, eating fresh seafood that we’d helped select from a fishmonger only moments before; we learned how to make spicy soujuk sausages from a local chef, part of an enormous feast we helped cook; we learned about za’atar from humble expert Abu Kassem and his wife Fatima; we watched one of three sisters deftly shape and fill dough to create a spiral pastry that we devoured as soon as it was baked; we tried the best apricot jam in the world with warm halloumi, fresh out of the cooking vat and hand-strained labneh rich enough for royalty; we reeked of garlic after insisting on extra toum in the chicken wraps from our favourite Beiruti source of fast food, and followed it with ice cream from the oldest ice cream store in town, still making delicious mastic-based recipes; we visited wineries and honey farms; we wandered through markets, wondering at ingredients both familiar and un-; we ate at tiny stalls, in cosy cafes and elegant restaurants; we puffed on hookahs in between feasting on mezze and grilled meats … in short, we tasted Lebanon and we loved it!

Since that trip, I can’t say I’ve faithfully trekked around all London’s Lebanese restaurants, but the few I’ve tried have been a mixed bag. The chicken wrap with toum at Yalla Yalla took me straight back to Beirut but lacklustre mezze at other establishments have been bland and without the vitality we enjoyed in Lebanon.

Recently, I found out about a Lebanese restaurant in my neck of the woods; Southgate is just a 12 minute drive from me – far quicker than heading into central London on the tube. Warda is just a few paces from Southgate tube station and there are also a number of bus routes that service the immediate area; we were able to park just outside the restaurant, free after 6.30 pm.

The team behind Warda is an illustrious one: Pierre Hobeika and (chef) Youssef Harb first met in Beirut many years ago, working for the same restaurant. When Pierre came to London, Youssef followed shortly afterwards and the two have worked together for most of their careers since. Both worked at renowned Mayfair restaurant Fakhreldine before it closed in 2012 and jointly owned and managed another restaurant together in the noughties. Last year, Pierre and Youssef opened Warda, alongside a third partner, Mo (Alex) Housaini.

Here, they share authentic Lebanese cuisine, prepared and cooked to order using high quality ingredients.

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A few moment after we sat down, a colourful plate of salad was brought out – crunchy crudités and sharp, vinegary pickled chillies provided a lovely way to whet the appetite.

I was delighted to find Jallab (£3.50) in the non-alcoholic drinks list. Made with date and grape syrup, crushed ice and pine nuts, this sweet drink is one I enjoyed many times on our holiday. I bought some ready-made jallab syrup home with me and noticed immediately that Warda’s version has far more complexity of flavour, with a hint of smokiness that is a lovely balance against the sweet.

Pete was happy to start with a bottle of Almaza beer (£3.50) and later, a glass of Lebanese red wine called Plaisir du Vin, from Chateau Heritage. Selected by Pierre it was full-bodied, in a classic French style, and a suitably robust match for the punchy flavours of the food. The wine list is wonderfully affordable, by the way, with bottles starting at just £17 and a strong showing for Lebanese offerings.

As is traditional, we decided to start with a feast of mezze. We chose à la carte, with additional suggestions from Pierre. Warda also offers a number of set menus which include 6, 8 or 12 mezze with main courses, baklava and tea or coffee.

Several of the mezze come in a small or larger portion size, or by the piece for pastries, parcels and croquettes.

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Baba ghanoush (£4.75/ £2.75) is delightfully smoky and rich and I love the texture, with strands of silky aubergine instead of a processed puree. This is a dish that can so easily be bland or oily; this one is neither.

I’m not usually a fan of okra yet I keep going back to the Bemieh bil zeit (£4.50/ £2.50), a rich stew of okra in a garlic, onion and tomato sauce.

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The innocuous sounding Al Rahib (£4.75/ £2.50), which translates to “the monk”, turns out to be one of my very favourites. It doesn’t look pretty but oh my, there’s something magical about the combination of grilled aubergine (smoky, like the baba ghanoush) with a salad of tomato, onion, parsley, mint and lemon. If I could eat this every day, I’d be happy.

Little Soujouk (£5.50) sausages and cherry tomatoes glisten with a coating of pomegranate molasses, the sharp-sweet syrup adding an extra note to the spiced meat. Pierre mentioned that they are superb dipped into the hoummos and he’s right, the combination is fabulous.

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Hoummos awarma (£5.75) – smooth rich hoummos topped with marinated lamb and pine nuts (and a drizzle of olive oil) – is another winner. The quality of the lamb is excellent and a bowl of this and pita bread would be a fine lunch on its own.

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The distinctive shape of Kibbé mekliyeh (£1.10 a piece) is so evocative, as is the perfectly spiced lamb mince, onion and pine nut mixture within these deep-fried bulgur parcels.

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Warak inab (£4.50 /£2.50) vine leaves filled with filled with parsley, mint, tomatoes, onions & rice provide a pleasingly citrussy counter note to the richness of the other mezze.

The first bite of Sfiha pastries (£5.50) is another transporting moment, taking me straight back to the butcher-baker near Baalbeck. Pastry and spiced lamb are both spot on.

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Lastly, we try Samke harra (£6.00) – sea bass in a spicy tomato sauce, this one much lighter and fresher than the more intense flavours of the bemieh bil zeit. For a light eater, a portion of this with one or two salads would make a perfect meal.

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Already full, we intend to follow the magnificent mezze with just one grilled meat main, but Pierre is keen to add one of the non-grill specialities, steering us towards Five-spice lamb and bukhari rice (£14). This slow-cooked lamb shank dish is a revelation; like my reaction to several of the mezze, I am actually giddy and giggling with delight. The spicing is so beautifully balanced and the sauce has just a hint of sourness that reminds me of Persian meat stews. The lamb is, once again, superb quality meat and I can’t help but fall back on that old cliché – meltingly soft. As if that isn’t enough, the wonderfully savoury bukhari rice is richly jewelled with plump sultanas, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and tiny slivers of bright carrot.

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The Mixed meat grill (£12.50) gives us one each of lamb kafta (minced lamb kebab), taouk (marinated chicken cubes), lahim meshue (cubes of lamb) and chicken kafta (minced chicken kebab), served with a portion of vermicelli rice, an onion and herb salad and pungent toum (garlic sauce). Bought to the table covered in flatbread, to keep the kebabs warm, this dish is as good as all the rest.

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We had no intention of having dessert, but bow to the inevitable when we see Pierre’s crestfallen expression. When he realises that the Awamet (£4.50) fried fritters with orange blossom syrup we chose are not available, Pierre instead serves us a taster of the various desserts available.

First, Tehlayi Jnoubieh (£5), a selection of halwa, fig jam and carob syrup served with bread for dipping. Lebanese halwa is quite unlike the Indian semolina (sooji ka) halwa that I’m familiar with, which is thick, slightly sloppy when warm and a little more set when cool; instead it’s dry and firm and reminds me somewhat of nougat, albeit with a crumblier texture. Tiny whole figs preserved in an intensely sweet jam are a little too sweet for me. I am unexpectedly taken with the carob molasses, something I haven’t tried before. I’ve since discovered that it’s a speciality of the mountain region near to Beirut, and was a traditional alternative to sugar. Apparently, it’s particularly tasty mixed with tahini, something I must now try!

Also on the wooden board of treats is a half portion of Osmalyieh (£4.50), light and crunchy vermicelli biscuits with wonderfully fresh crème de lait topped with different fruit jams – orange blossom, strawberry and peach. Even as full as we are, we devour these little delights.

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To try and wake up from our feast-induced torpor, we ask for Lebanese coffee (available with or without cardamom). Like Turkish coffee, it’s served shockingly strong, to be sipped cautiously from tiny cups. Usually, this coffee would be far too intense for me, but to my surprise, I enjoy it, though I only manage one cup.

At the end, assorted Baklawa (£4.50), beautiful morsels of honey, nuts and crunchy pastry.

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It’s not often that a meal can so successfully transport me to another place – most commonly I’m disappointed by lack of authenticity and left shaking my head, wondering if the food I so enjoyed on holiday seemed special only through the euphoria of the holiday itself. At Warda, I was reminded just how excellent the food of Lebanon really is and exactly why I loved it so much.

On the short drive home, I make plans with Pete to return with family and friends “and oh, so and so would adore it too, wouldn’t they?” So it won’t be long before we are back, giggling our way through the menu.

The location right next to Southgate tube station (on the Piccadilly line) makes it an easy trip for those in other parts of town. If you’re a fan of Lebanese, I recommend you make the journey!

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Warda restaurant.

 

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Several months ago in early December, Pete and I had a lovely lunch at Rabot 1745, Hotel Chocolat’s newly-opened restaurant in the heart of Borough Market. More recently, we returned for breakfast, before a shopping expedition around the market.

My initial worries about the gimmicky nature of a themed restaurant were quickly assuaged. As we flicked through the lunch and dinner menu, it became clear that Rabot 1745’s “cocoa-centric” menu makes use of a wide range of elements derived from pod and bean – subtle cocoa accents are added via crunchy cocoa nibs, the fruity flesh of the cocoa pod, infused oils and vinegars, and only occasionally, actual chocolate.

Located in the heart of Borough Market, Rabot 1745 brings to Londoners what sister restaurant Boucan has delivered to St Lucians since 2011. The restaurant name comes from a cocoa plantation named The Rabot Estate, situated on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia. First established in 1745, it was purchased by the founders of Hotel Chocolat eight years ago and has become a key part of the chain’s branding since. Although only a tiny volume of the chocolate they sell originates there, the Rabot 1745 name has been applied to their collection of rare, high quality chocolates from all around the world.

Downstairs are a Hotel Chocolat shop and a café, in which customers can order from a short menu of sweet and savoury items alongside their drink of choice – the range of hot chocolates is excellent.

Unusually, chocolate is made from bean to bar right here in the café – on site and on show. The norm is for cocoa farmers to have little involvement in the rest of the process, with most of the profits going to the big companies who buy cheap cocoa and transform it into a higher value end-product. So Rabot 1745′s farm to plate approach is particularly innovative and refreshing, especially when combined with the company’s Engaged Ethics programme to empower local cocoa farming communities.

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Upstairs, via stairs at the back of the cafe, is the restaurant, boasting a warm and elegant interior inspired by a traditional Saint Lucian plantation house. A day time visit will allow you to enjoy the sunlight flooding in through floor to ceiling windows overlooking Bedale street; or come in the evening for an altogether cosier ambience.

The menu, crafted by Executive Chef John Bentham, draws on culinary traditions from Britain and the Caribbean. This is most evident in the lunch and dinner offering – in December we enjoyed a scallop salad of perfectly seared plump Scottish scallops, colourful thinly sliced beetroot and watercress leaves in lightly curried cacao nib oil and a horseradish and white chocolate sauce; barley scotch eggs, a great vegetarian option, thanks to a non-sausage meat coating of nib-crusted pearl barley enveloping soft-cooked quail eggs, served with roasted root vegetables and a goat’s cheese dressing; an impressive 35-day aged galloway short horn rib-eye steak marinated in cacao, topped with slices of buttery marrow, accompanied by roast winter vegetables and a rich, glossy red wine and cacao gravy and roast saddle of rabbit rolled in smoked bacon, served with Armagnac-soaked prunes, roasted carrots, a white chocolate mash and another rich, glossy gravy. Desserts of Perigord walnut tart and rum baba served with cacao-infused cream didn’t disappoint.

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This time, we returned to try the breakfast menu, launched a couple of months ago.

The menu is fairly short, featuring a couple of fresh fruit and cereal options, a short list of hot dishes, a similarly brief list of bakery items and drinks. Helpfully, items that are Dairy Free, Gluten Free and Vegetarian are clearly labelled.

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We eschewed the invitation to start with a breakfast cocktail (£9 each), though the cacao bellini (featuring cacao pulp) and breakfast martini (with marmalade) might appeal if you want to push the boat out.

My smoothie power shot (£2.50) was the only disappointing element of the meal. Unpleasantly full of ice crystals, the tiny and surprisingly bland “smoothie” consisted of banana, oats and a dairy, almond or soy milk base. When it’s so easy to create smoothies that are both tasty and nutritious, there is no excuse for this offering, nor for the shot glass portion sold at a tall glass price.

A Monmouth Beans café latte (£2.50) and a hazelnut drinking chocolate (£3.50) were far more successful choices.

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Pete was very happy with his Crispy Dry-Cure Bacon, Scrambled Eggs, Roast Tomatoes, Grilled Mushrooms (£8). Served on toast, good quality ingredients were well cooked and satisfying.

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I could not resist ordering Lobster Slices, Lobster Hollandaise, Spinach, Poached Eggs (£12). For the price, I was delighted with the generous portion of sweet, succulent lobster meat at one end of my long slice of crunchy toast. Piled over spinach, perfectly poached eggs were napped with a rich Hollandaise; my only regret is that more sauce wasn’t provided, perhaps in a jug on the side.

Of course, there are many on-the-hoof breakfast options in Borough Market, from doughnuts, brownies and pastries to grilled cheese sandwiches, from fresh fruit smoothies to sausages in a hearty roll. But sometimes it’s good to relax on comfortable chairs at a nicely laid table, order delicious breakfast treats from a menu, and share a leisurely chat with your companion or read a good book or newspaper while you eat. For those occasions, Rabot 1745 fits the bill.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Rabot 1745.

Rabot 1745 on Urbanspoon
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Although I first read about A Wong on the (sadly now defunct) Eat Love Noodles blog back in spring 2013, it wasn’t until this year that I finally visited, in the company of Mr Noodles himself, as well as fellow blogger, the Insatiable Eater and his partner. It was the innovative dim sum that I was so keen to try, as it’s rare to see the dim sum classics so cleverly modernised.

We met at the restaurant one sunny Saturday lunch time at the beginning of March, buoyed by the earliness of spring sunshine and with empty bellies at the ready.

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One of the things I really appreciate about A Wong’s dim sum menu is that items are priced (and ordered) individually, making it easy to order the required number whether you’re dining alone or in a group. The usual multiples of three makes it difficult to order for parties of two or four, but here, we simply ordered 4 pieces of most of the dim sum on the menu. In addition, we ordered a couple of items from the snacks section and, later, some noodles and dessert.

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On the table, chilli oils and goji berries (respectively, too fiery and too sharp for me) but I think my friends enjoyed the chilli.

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First to arrive was the smoked duck and jellyfish and pork crackling salad (£4.95), a beautifully balanced blend of textures and tastes. This perfectly whetted our appetite for what was still to come, and didn’t last long at all!

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Pickled cucumber (£2) was less immediately exciting but I loved the freshness of cooling crisp cucumber against the heat of the chilli and the sesame dressing.

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I’ve never come across Shanxi province honeycomb noodles with coriander and chilli dip (£4.50) before; I was fascinated by the presentation, for which sheets of pasta had carefully been folded into tubes and arranged within the confines of a bamboo steamer. For me, the noodles themselves were a little dry and chewy, but the dipping sauce was a genuine highlight.

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Quail egg croquette puffs (£1.75 each) feature the familiar delicate wrapping of a taro croquette (one of my default orders for any dim sum meal). Here, the lacy coat surrounded a perfectly soft-boiled quail egg, providing another superb taste and texture combination. The ginger and spring onion dipping sauce was a winner too.

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Time for sui mai, another dim sum classic, this time updated with a crispy curl of crackling. The pork and prawn dumplings, pork crackling (£1.30 each) were pleasant enough, but for me, it was not feasible to eat the dumpling and crackling in a single mouthful. I’d prefer plain sui mai and a bowl of crackling as a side dish.

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Baked roasted pork buns with a sugared coating (£1.50 each) were a riff on pork puff pastries and crunchy-topped bolo bao (pineapple buns). They were OK, but the pork inside lacked depth of flavour; I’d rather have the regular barbecue puff pastry version or a steamed char sui bao.

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Crab, seafood and beancurd cannelloni, pickled cockles were £3.50 each but our waiter advised us to order two portions, as each one is served cut into two pieces. These looked pretty but I found them a little bland compared to many of the other dim sum.

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Har gau (shrimp dumplings) are another regular dim sum order for me. These clear shrimp dumplings, sweet chilli sauce, citrus foam (£1.30) arrived wearing bubble bath robes – pretty as a picture but the foam didn’t add much to the eating experience. Still, the "oooh" moment when the bubbles caught the sunlight was fun!

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Probably one of the most striking dishes, visually, was the scallop puff with XO sauce (£2). These vibrant orange blooms were super crunchy, and the XO sauce packed a punch, though I’m not sure I could detect much of the scallop flavour inside. Still, its silky texture was much in evidence. I enjoyed these!

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I didn’t know what to expect of foie gras sticky sesame dumplings (£2 each) so I was very happy to discover they were essentially small jin doy, a sweet pastry treat that I often buy from Chinese bakeries. The spherical shell is a sticky, chewy delight and there’s usually a pellet of sweet red bean paste inside; in this case, the red bean paste was replaced by a (sadly very tiny) piece of foie gras. I liked the aesthetic impact of using both black and white sesame seeds but the foie gras was too small to give much flavour against the glutinous rice wrapper.

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There were two variations of sui long bao on the menu – Shanghai steamed dumplings, ginger infused vinegar (£1.50 each) and Yunnan mushroom, pork and truffle dumplings (£1.75 each). All of us audibly sighed in appreciation at the heady aromas of truffle that wafted across the table as soon as the latter were delivered. With very careful lifting, I managed to retain the broth inside mine, though the wonderfully thin wrappers meant this was a challenge not all of us passed. The dumplings were utterly delicious, one of the best of the meal. The ginger vinegar dumplings were pleasant but I’m a overly sensitive to sharper flavours, so personally, I’d have preferred the vinegar relegated to a dipping sauce.

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This rather alienesque little number is the deep fried prawn ball with abalone and chilli vinaigrette (£1.75 each). These are deeply savoury, bouncy balls of protein that, once again, contrast nicely with the texture of the crunchy threads around them.

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By this stage, I was thoroughly stuffed, and had I been sensible, I would have stopped there. But I was far too easily persuaded by my eager companions, that we should continue on to some noodles and dessert. Well.. they didn’t have to twist my arm too hard!

Mr. Mak’s tossed noodles with oyster sauce and shrimp roe (£8) came with a pipette of sauce and a side dish of broth. While I enjoyed the shrimp roe flavours, I found the noodles a bit dry and the accompanying broth quite bland.

The noodles in the won ton noodle soup (£8) were better, but again, I found the dish a little lacking in depth of flavour. I would have liked more greens and wontons, both.

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Beijing yoghurt with chilli barbecued pineapple and sichuan pepper ice cream (£6.50) came with a certificate of authentication for the yoghurt, which is apparently a very highly respected brand in China. The yoghurt was OK, though I didn’t find it anything special to justify the hype (or import). But the barbecued pineapple was delicious; it paired superbly with the sichuan pepper ice cream, but what a shame the portion of ice cream was so tiny! Even if we hadn’t been sharing desserts, I’d have been disappointed in this tiny pellet.

(Incidentally, if you like the sound of sichuan pepper ice cream, here’s my own recipe for it, from last summer).

Our second dessert was tobacco smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel (£6.50). This was presented with pomp, the hot caramel sauce poured onto a chocolate sphere from great height, until its warmth melted through the chocolate shell to reveal the ice cream within, Bob Bob Ricard style. For me, the overall taste was far too sweet; cloyingly, tooth-achingly so. Having enjoyed tobacco chocolates from Artisan du Chocolat, I was also disappointed that the flavour and kick of tobacco didn’t come through more clearly. Still, it was eagerly eaten by my friends, so it’s a matter of personal taste.

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Stuffed to bursting, we finally requested the bill, noticing that the previously packed-to-the-rafters dining room was virtually empty by the time we finished our long and leisurely lunch. With service, the bill came to just under £32 per person. Dropping noodles and desserts from our order (which would still have left me comfortable satiated) would bring that down to £23.50 per person.

Finally, a great and reasonably-priced dining choice in the vicinity of Victoria station!

Although I’ve expressed minor reservations about some aspects of a few of the items we ordered, in the main part, I found the meal very enjoyable indeed. The dim sum was as innovative, exciting and delicious as I’d been promised and I’m keen to visit for more soon. Based on the two noodle dishes, I’m curious about how well the rest of the menu performs; if you’ve been for dinner, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

A. Wong on Urbanspoon
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After two trips to Japan in two years, I’ve fallen even more in love with Japanese food. Both holidays gave us plenty of opportunities to enjoy traditional washoku cuisine, particularly in the multi-course kaiseki ryori meals we enjoyed at a number of ryokans.

While sushi is increasingly popular in the UK, the many, many other dishes that make up this tasty cuisine have been less widely available. But in the last few years, particularly in London, Japanese food is growing its fan base and more and more Japanese restaurants are opening their doors. It’s not that we didn’t have Japanese restaurants before, but they certainly weren’t (and still aren’t) as ubiquitous as Indian, Chinese, Italian, Thai…

I’ve written previously about London’s ramen awakening; after Wagamama popularised a simplified version, authentic ramen is now coming into its own.

Sushi remains a lunch-time favourite, sold by supermarkets and sandwich chains across the country, but Chef Toru Takahashi of Sushi Tetsu is one of a new generation bringing the higher end experience to the UK. I’ve not yet been, but it’s very high on my wish list!

Even kaiseki ryori is now available in London – another place that I’m enormously keen to visit is The Shiori, where Chef Takashi Takagi recreates a Kyoto-style kaiseki experience for enthusiastic London diners.

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I learned about Chisou Japanese Restaurant during a chance encounter at a United Ramen pop-up I went to in January. A fellow diner told me about it, having recently taken up a job with them. Recently, he extended an invitation to visit and try their Japanese menu for myself. There are actually three restaurants in this mini-chain – the original Mayfair branch which opened in 2002, the Knightsbridge location I visited, which opened in 2010, and the newest one out in Chiswick, which opened in 2012.

Each restaurant has its own head chef – at Knightsbridge, Chef Ryota Tsuji is at the helm. The core menu is common to all three restaurants, but each head chef also offers a selection of their own specialities as well.

On the website, Chisou describe themselves as closer to an izakaya (casual Japanese bars that also serve food) than to a formal kaiseki restaurant, though I’d place the Knightsbridge restaurant somewhere between the two. It’s definitely more upmarket than most izakaya but not as rarefied as a traditional Kyoto kaiseki restaurant. The website is not great – clicking on Food (in the hope of seeing the menu) takes you to a long passage about private hire, which would be far better given its own section of the menu. Scroll down, down, down past all of that to eventually find the menu, laid out in sections you have to read one at a time. Use the sub-menu on the left to navigate between these. Frustratingly, prices are not listed – one of my pet hates; a complete website revamp would be a great investment!

Still, the menu has many appealing dishes including several that I haven’t much encountered in the UK.

I take friend and fellow Japanophile MiMi with me to review.

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We are warmly greeted by general manager (and sommelier) John who is a little disappointed that we’re not wine drinkers, and that we also turn down the offer of sake, but cheers up when we ask for umeshu (plum liqueur) instead. It’s lovely to be served our sweet Ozeki Kanjuku Umeshu (£6.50 glass) with a whole alcohol-pickled plum in each glass, which I greedily eat after finishing my drink.

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Chewy, slightly fishy strands of seaweed with sesame seeds are a tasty nibble, placed on the table soon after we arrive. Edamame beans (£4.50) are served simply, in salt.

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Horenso salad (£9.90), described as “ baby spinach topped with spicy prawns and sweet carrot, drizzled in yuzu vinaigrette” is artfully presented, though a little fussy. I’d like just a few more prawns, given the price tag, but the flavours are excellent. And the yuzu comes through loud and clear, which is good news since we both love it. When the dish arrives, we’ve forgotten the mention of sweet carrot on the menu, and wonder what the strange  orange fibres are made of – their flavour doesn’t clue us in to their carrot nature but they do add an interesting texture.

Hotate Carpaccio Yuzukosho Salt (£11.95) is described as wild-caught Alaskan scallop carpaccio served with yuzukosho and ponzu sauce. The scallops are delicious, served in thin sashimi slices. I can’t detect the yuzukosho (a salty spicy condiment made from yuzu citrus) very well but the dressing, rich in sesame, is refreshing.

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Yakitori (£4.90) is disappointing. It’s offered coated in chef’s “special sauce” or lightly salted, and we choose the latter but find the yakitori woefully under seasoned. The chicken meat has very little flavour and these are a bland, chewy let-down.

Tempura Moriawase (£13.90) is another dish that I think is over-priced for the portion. The quality of the ingredients is good and the tempura is excellent – a lovely light batter cooked to a perfect crisp and not at all oily – but a plate of three prawns, one small piece of fish and a small number vegetables is not enough for the price.

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Chawan Mushi (£7.50) is an absolute winner of a dish, one of the best of the night. Within the delicately flavoured savoury custard (that has just the right wobble and silken texture) are prawns, chicken and mushrooms. It immediately transports me back to the delicious chawan mushi I enjoyed in Japan and both MiMi and I agree we’d come back to Chisou for this dish in a heartbeat.

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The menu offers lots of choice on sashimi and sushi, but we decide to leave it in the hands of the chef, and order Sanpin Sashimi (£19.90). The chef selects three different types of fish from the catch of the day and three pieces of each are served. Knowing what I pay for excellent quality fresh sashimi at Atari-ya, the mark-up seems a touch high once again, but the quality of fish is decent.

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Eel; Salmon belly

After asking about two pork belly dishes, we choose one of them along with Unagi Kabayaki (£25.80) and Aburi Sake Toro (£7.20), plus a bowl of plain boiled rice (£3) and Konomono (assorted pickles) (£4.10). In the end, we are eventually told that neither pork belly dish is available, but we have plenty with our two fish choices, so don’t bother choosing a replacement.

The unagi (eel) is beautifully cooked, coated with a traditional sweet barbecue sauce; the flesh is almost jelly like and full of flavour.

Likewise, the aburi sake toro (seared salmon belly), served with a yuzu soy sauce, is delicious and suitably fatty, as the cut suggests. Visually, they look similar, but flavours are quite distinct.

The pickles are very good: four contrasting colours, tastes and textures.

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I don’t think either of us intend to have dessert but once we glance at the menu, we can’t resist the ice creams and sorbets; two scoops (£4.90).

My yuzu sorbet is the essence of yuzu, just as MiMi’s lychee sorbet is nothing but pure fruit flavour. Her green tea ice cream is decent (though not the best I’ve tasted). My soy and brown sugar ice cream is alright but the soy doesn’t come through at all, which is a shame – I had hoped for the classic flavour of soy and sugar combined, like the glaze on mitarashi dango. I am a little surprised at presentation of the ice creams – thus far in the meal, plates have been so carefully arranged but here the scoops are sloppily shaped and my bowl is actually quite messy.

Overall, our meal has been good, with some real highlights – the spinach and prawn salad, chawan mushi, pickles and unagi. Pricing is a little variable, with some dishes providing far better value than others. Including our two glasses of umeshu and a green tea, our bill would be approximately £70 a head – a lot even given the number of dishes we ordered. Judicious ordering would reduce that – swap out the sashimi and the unagi for three or four additional small dishes and you could bring that down by at least a tenner per person. That’s still at the top edge of what I’d pay. Then again, the restaurants is within a stone’s throw of Harrods and the multi-million-pound mansions of the very wealthy, so perhaps it is simply targeting its locale clientele.

Certainly there are many more dishes I’d like to try, including Buta Bara Kimuchi (£5.90) – belly pork stir fried with garlic and kimchi, Kani Karaage (£13.50) – deep fried soft shell crab with a ponzu dip, Kodako Nanban Age (£8.20) – deep fried and marinated baby octopus, Saikyo Yaki (£12.50) – grilled black cod in white miso, Wagyu Steak & Foie Gras Truffle Teriyaki (£24.50) – featuring 50 grams of Chilean wagyu rib eye, and Sake Chazuke (£4.90/£7.20) – plain rice served in a hot soup and sprinkled with flakes of salmon.

So yes, it’s expensive but the range of dishes and the quality of most of them means it’s worthy of consideration for a little taste of traditional Japanese washoku in London.

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Chisou Restaurant.

Chisou Japanese Restaurant Knightsbridge on Urbanspoon
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