At the end of September last year, I turned 40; a number imbued with all kinds of emotional baggage, with references to the hill of life and one’s position on it. But for me it was an excuse for a party and I had a really great day, surrounded by family and friends, new and old. I was overwhelmed by thoughtful, generous and perfectly-chosen gifts, but one in particular really took my breath away.

Here’s the clue my sister gave me:

chefduck

You’d think I’d have guessed immediately, wouldn’t you? A food obsessive like me, with a particular fascination for watching chefs on the telly and visiting restaurants. But to my embarrassment, I didn’t twig. My only excuse is that I was so flustered by the sudden surge of cake-toting guests arriving that I wasn’t really thinking straight!

But the next clue was a printed tasting menu, and it’s at that point I started screeching with excitement.

My sister shares my birthday. She’s three years younger than me… but about 10 years younger in looks and several years ahead when it comes to behaving like a grown up…

For my 40th (and her 37th) she would take us to The Fat Duck.

It took a while to secure a reservation, but eventually our January lunch date rolled around.

I realise there are a thousand reviews of The Fat Duck already on the internet, but it was one of the most amazing meals I’ve ever had so I’m still going to add one more review to the mix. And it’s going to be chock full of clichéd superlatives like incredible, fantastic, wonderful, magical! If you can’t bear gushing, click away now!

FatDuck-8917

Although the day started with a downpour, by the time we arrive in Bray, the sky is blue and the sun is shining. We park in the car park for the Hinds Head pub and pop in for a drink in the bar. I enjoyed a meal in the Hinds Head a few years ago and it’s a worthy destination in its own right, as the stream of diners arriving for lunch testifies.

FatDuck-8914 FatDuck-8919

As we leave, the bar man asks if we are having lunch at The Fat Duck. When we nod, he tells us that Heston is about today, filming for something or the other, so we might see him. We don’t. But kitchen and front of house teams are evidently trained to work like a well-oiled machine, whether or not the great man is present.

FatDuck-8922 FatDuck-8920

We walk into a restaurant with most tables already taken, and are soon seated amongst the smiling diners.

Unlike many Michelin-starred restaurants, the interior here is quite simply styled. White walls and table linen lend a feeling of space, much needed given the low beamed ceilings. Table decorations are minimal and there are a couple of colourful but unchallenging pieces of modern art on the walls. Tables are nicely spaced out and the overall vibe is very relaxed.

A bottle each of sparkling and still water are ordered, and the tasting menu for the day presented.

We are asked if there are any problematic ingredients. I explain that whilst I don’t have either an allergy or an intolerance, I find the flavour of aniseed very difficult, it makes me a bit nauseous. As one of the dishes is described as salmon poached in a liquorice gel, I say it would probably be a no-no for me, but as I’ve not given any advance notice, I am happy to simply skip it, if the liquorice is integral. To my delight, the waitress pops away for a moment before returning to our table and offering to replace the salmon dish with turbot. She also points out that another dish is garnished with shavings of fennel bulb, but that it can easily be left out if I prefer (yes, please) and that one of the desserts contains a little fennel, to which I reply that I’m OK with a hint of it, if it’s not a dominant flavour. Whilst I appreciate that this level of service is no doubt standard practice for a restaurant of this calibre, I am still impressed at how accommodating they are, given my failure to let them know my preferences ahead of our visit.

FatDuck-8927

With fourteen courses listed on the menu, we are both surprised when an amuse bouche is served. Described as aerated beetroot with horseradish cream, these bright red and white, feather-light spheres are a revelation of texture and taste; they have a honey-comb texture and the distinctive sweet sharp flavour of beetroot and are sandwiched together with a mild cream which gives just a nudge rather than the usual kick of horseradish. Best of all, the flavours linger and linger…

I wish Heston from Waitrose could replicate these for the mass market!

FatDuck-8929 FatDuck-8931
FatDuck-8934 FatDuck-8933

Next are the famous nitro poached aperitifs. Given a choice of vodka and lime sour, gin and tonic or Campari soda, I choose the Campari, which also contains blood orange, and my sister opts for the vodka and lime with green tea.

Whilst freezing in liquid nitrogen is not exactly old hat, it’s also no longer as unexpected and surprising as it must have been for early customers, but it’s still a fine piece of theatre and fun to watch. Our waitress squirts liquid onto a spoon, turns it for a few moments in the liquid nitrogen, dusts it with a puff of pink or green powder and puffs an accompanying perfume into the air as she instructs us to eat the ball in one mouthful.

It’s far too big for me to manage that, so I make a mess as I break into mine, and the liquid centre spills out, but I try and pop the rest into my mouth as fast as I can. It’s a very refreshing taste, a real cleanser of the palate before the meal to come, but so cold it makes my teeth ache a little more than is pleasant.

FatDuck-8936
FatDuck-8935 FatDuck-8939 FatDuck-8940

Having tasted Heston’s supermarket version of his mustard ice cream, I’m excited to try his Pommery grain mustard ice cream with red cabbage gazpacho. Like the Waitrose copycat, the ice cream perfectly balances the sharp kick of mustard with the sweetness of ice cream. Unlike the Waitrose one, it’s much smoother in texture; silk-like. The red cabbage soup is thin, with tiny pieces of cabbage. For me, it’s so strange to taste the very essence of this crunchy vegetable in a liquid format. The two elements marry well together, and I enjoy the dish far more than I expect.

FatDuck-8943
FatDuck-8942 FatDuck-8948 FatDuck-8946

The first thing brought to the table for our next course is a wooden box of oak moss with two plastic containers labelled Fat Duck Films. Shortly afterwards we’re presented with truffle toasts on a wooden board and a deep round bowl in which we can see a pink quenelle sat on pink cream.

We are told that the oak moss represents the mossy area at the base of oak trees; where truffles are most commonly found. Instructed to open our little boxes and place the thin sheets of film on our tongues, our waiter pours a kettle of liquid over the oak moss, our table is covered in white “smoke” and the aroma of an oak-wooded forest fills the air.

Heston is keen that customers understand how taste and aroma combine to create flavour, and this impressive display brings the message home a second time.

The white bowl protects a perfect little spoonful of rich chicken liver parfait. The layers beneath are crayfish cream, quail jelly and right at the bottom a jewel-green layer of pea puree. A tiny fig tuile is perched in the parfait. Tiny slices of radish and herb adorn the truffle toast. So many flavours, all of them shockingly intense, and yet somehow they all merge together so beautifully.

Just how does one make chicken liver parfait so smooth, quail jelly so very meaty, crayfish cream so rich, pea puree so fresh and sweet?

“Is that you humming?” asks my sister, as I savour each mouthful. I realise it is, and nod. “Stop it!” she tells me, but her smile says she’s loving it every bit as much.

FatDuck-8949 FatDuck-8950

As promised, the shaved fennel has been omitted from my snail porridge, and replaced with a garnish of pea shoots instead.

With or without the fennel, neither of us fall for this famous Heston dish.

The snails are certainly softer and less chewy than I’ve often experienced, but still with that familiar muddy taste. To my surprise, I don’t even notice the Iberico Bellota Ham, it doesn’t register against the porridge – a thin green sludge with soggy oats through it. It tastes of… green, and that’s as well as I can describe it. It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t thrill either and I can’t help but think that I’d have enjoyed a portion of the top quality ham on it’s own, far more.

FatDuck-8953

Like the snail porridge, the next dish – roast foie gras, barberry, braised konbu and crab biscuit – comes out completely assembled and ready to enjoy. Konbu seaweed is one of the two main ingredients of Japanese dashi stock and Heston uses it here to great effect; a paper-thin layer of jelly sits beneath the foie gras and more konbu is mixed with chives and sprinkled over the liver; it imparts a subtle mushroom or Marmite taste – that savouriness known as umami. The foie gras is perfect in every respect with a wonderful richness of texture and taste; a delicious buttery meaty fat that melts away on the tongue. Barberry is not something I am familiar with, but the tartness it brings is very welcome. Tiny leaves of sorrel also add their tiny sour note.

My sister raises her eyebrows when I try to remember what the thin crunchy crab biscuits brings to mind, and suddenly announce “roast chicken flavour crisps”. But it’s exactly what the translucent shards remind me of!

FatDuck-8959 FatDuck-8957
FatDuck-8964 FatDuck-8965FatDuck-8967 FatDuck-8963 FatDuck-8968 FatDuck-8973

As soon as the silver foil stamped bookmarks are placed in front of us, I start to smile, remembering the Victorian episode of Feasts in which Heston took inspiration from Alice in Wonderland to create a Mad Hatter’ s tea party.

‘Have you seen the Mock Turtle yet?’
‘No,’ said Alice. ‘I don’t even know what a Mock Turtle is.’
‘It’s the thing Mock Turtle soup is made from,’ said the Queen.

Bowls of strange things are placed in front of us and gold fob watches are presented in a glass case. We take one each and drop them into our tea cups, stirring to produce a beautiful amber-coloured stock decadently flecked with gold leaf from the wrapper.

The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it into his cup of tea…

Our waiter pours the rich broth into our bowls, and our mock turtle soups are ready.

There’s so much going on it’s hard to know where to start, but I begin with a spoonful of the meaty liquid, including one of the neatly cut strips of truffle. Mmmm! The wobbly yellow and white mock turtle egg, with the tiniest of mushrooms poking out of it, is made from turnip jelly, swede juice and saffron. I’d never have guessed, as it tastes of mushrooms to me – perhaps that’s the power of deliberate suggestion? Inside a white wrapping of lardo – cured fatback – is a densely pressed block of meat. The lardo is di Colonnata, reputed to be the very best. On top of the meat are impossibly neat cubes of white, green and black. I love the flavour the cucumber brings, and more earthy truffle, but have to ask the identity of the white turnip, which I can’t taste very clearly.

Whilst I like the tastes and textures and do enjoy the dish, I don’t think it pulls together like the oak moss extravaganza, nor are the individual elements quite so mind-blowingly perfect. It’s more about the fun of the story (you need to allow yourself to revert to childhood a little to enjoy this; if you’re too stiffly sophisticated you’ll fail to be charmed) and the strange appearance of the various parts than about a comprehensively balanced dish.

FatDuck-8974 FatDuck-8982
FatDuck-8975 FatDuck-8979 FatDuck-8983

Sound of the sea is another very well known Heston dish. A large shell is placed by each of us, and we pull out the protruding headphones and pop them into our ears. For the next several minutes we are left alone, listening to a recording of breaking waves, seagulls and the distant sounds of children playing.

Having deliberately avoided reading a single Fat Duck review since my sister first announced our visit (and blessed with the kind of appallingly bad memory which means I remember next to no details from reviews read previously) I start to wonder if this course is just a sound sensory experience, and doesn’t actually feature any food at all.

And then, finally, the dish arrives.

Served on a plate of glass suspended above a wooden tray of sand, the elements are presented like fish and seaweed on a sandy shore, with a line of foam left behind from the last breaking wave.

We eat with our headphones still in place, enjoying the dish with our eyes, ears, nose and taste buds.

There are three pieces of fish – mackerel, halibut and yellowtail kingfish – which have been lightly cured with citrus, bergamot and redbush. The seaweed varies in appearance and texture; the only familiar one is samphire; my favourite is the small red and yellow pellet-shaped seaweed that bursts salty liquid in the mouth. The briny foam is made from vegetable and seaweed stock and adds a taste of rock pool sea water. And oh my goodness, that sand, the most amazing element of the dish – a delicious crunchy powder made from tapioca and fried baby sardines, allowed to clump into small and large granules for a more convincing sandy texture.

I expected this dish to be style over substance, clever rather than enjoyable, but actually it is a delight to eat and yet another example of Heston’s determination to have us engage multiple senses at once.

Click here to find out more about the thought processes and research behind the dish. Click Start and then click on the sea shell.

FatDuck-8986

FatDuck-8988

For our next course, we are served two different plates.

My sister has the menu item salmon poached in a liquorice gel with artichokes, vanilla mayonnaise and golden trout roe. Echoing the colour of the fish roe are tiny pieces of pink grapefruit; this really is a stunningly beautiful plate. When it arrives, I can smell the liquorice quite strongly, and am glad I asked to switch. But when she breaks through the slightly crisp coating to the beautifully moist fish within, and tastes it, my sister assures me that it doesn’t taste much of liquorice! It’s not a flavour she’s a huge fan of either, so I’m persuaded to try a tiny bite, and agree – if anything, it tastes more like unsweetened cocoa than aniseedy liquorice. Unsurprisingly, I don’t love this, but sister judges it another beautifully balanced dish with lots of strong flavours that manage not to overpower the more gentle ones.

My turbot comes with artichokes, morel mushrooms and a verjuice sauce. It’s a far subtler dish altogether than the salmon, and if you were to try only a bite of each in turn, you’d judge mine bland. But actually, it’s not at all, and with each bite I find myself appreciating the gentle flavours and that marvellous sauce a little more.

FatDuck-8993 FatDuck-8994 FatDuck-8996

Size-wise, the saddle of venison with beetroot soubise and risotto of spelt and umbles is the most generous of all the courses, a fact that doesn’t fill us entirely with glee, given that we’re now pretty full from the previous nine courses and know we still have five more to come. But it’s so darn good that we smile and smack our lips all the way through it, once again.

The word melting is over-used when it comes to tender meat and yet, I can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe the texture of the venison, probably the softest I’ve ever had. And with the hint of game flavour that differentiates it from a bland beef fillet.

A powerful reduction serves as gravy, whacking the taste buds with an intense meaty punch.

Luckily, that’s offset by the use of beetroot in two forms. Like the aerated spheres right at the beginning of our meal, the beetroot sauce is the very essence of this root vegetable and a nice balance between sweet, tart and earthy. I’m told that, like a soubise (onion sauce), the beetroot sauce uses béchamel as a base. The pickled baby beetroot pieces (in two colours) provide something more solid to bite into.

Also on the plate are several tiny sprout leaves; inside the curved cup of some of them are little cubes of something sweet, mushy and with a really strong, sweet kick. They’re so distinctive a taste, but I struggle to place them; a member of staff comes to my rescue and identifies them as candied chestnuts. I’d never have guessed in a million years. And actually I’m in two minds about them – they make me stop and furrow my brows in an effort to work out what they could be, and that certainly makes me focus even more on my food, not that I wasn’t doing so already. But I’m not sure the strangely perfume-tasting sweetness goes well with the rest of the dish.

Served alongside the main plate is a little bowl of rich, wet risotto, sealed with a layer of mushroom and madeira jelly, studded with cubes of venison heart and flavoured with braised shoulder and chicken stock. Umble, by the way, comes from ‘umble pie, a pie filled with liver, heart and other offal.

On top is a square of breaded sweetbread and crunchy candied spelt that make me think of the honey monster.

The risotto is magnificent in its entirety and work brilliantly well with the venison and beetroot.

It’s also our last savoury dish and we mentally prepare for the onslaught of sweets.

FatDuck-8998

Hot and iced tea is served with firm instructions not to rotate the glass at all as we drink it. My sister picks up the sensation of hot on one side of her mouth and cold on the other, straight away. I gingerly pick up my cup, taking care with its orientation, but my first sip is all warm, as is my second. Only on the third sip does the distinct separation of temperatures kick in and then it’s perfect! And alarming!

The liquid is thick, like a liquid apple jelly before it’s set, and the flavour reminds me of Turkish apple tea too. But when I ask one of the staff, I’m told that it’s actually earl grey tea! “But, the hot one tastes a lot sweeter to me,” I say. Am I imagining that too, like my impression of apple? No, I’m right; she explains that they adjust the acidity in order to ensure that both the hot and cold versions have exactly the same viscosity, so they don’t run into each other.

Clever stuff, and really rather strange. I carefully turn my cup through 180 degrees and giggle when the hot and cold sensations in my mouth are neatly reversed. At the bottom of my cup is a small reservoir of cold tea, which explains why the first two sips were all hot – mine must have slipped a little when poured into the cup.

FatDuck-9002

FatDuck-9003

The Taffety Tart with caramelized apple, fennel, rose and candied lemon (which the menu reveals is from c. 1660) is just beautiful. As mine is served, a waitress explains that they’ve omitted the tiny fennel leaves and crushed fennel from the garnish beneath the sorbet, so all that remains is the fennel flavour within the tart itself. And yes, I can taste it in the cream that sandwiches those paper thin leaves of pastry, but it’s mellow enough that my brain can focus instead on the lovely caramelised apple, sat in two thick gelatinous layers towards the bottom of the tart. The rose and lemon flavours are just wonderful. I’m not a huge fan of blackcurrant sorbet so I give mine to the sister, who in turn passes across her unwanted rose petals. Result!

FatDuck-9006
FatDuck-9005 FatDuck-9008
FatDuck-9011 FatDuck-9013

If you watched Heston’s In Search of Perfection, you might remember his black forest gateau creation, fondly listed on the menu as The “BFG”. At first, I can do little more than admire it (and grab a few snaps). The menu also refers to the smell of the Black Forest and this is achieved with a puff of kirsch perfume.

The precision of the straight lines and squared corners, the even coating of chocolate and the shaping of that teardrop of kirsch ice cream are hugely impressive. Cutting into the cake, we marvel at the individual layers; a sweet crunchy base, aerated chocolate (like a posh Aero bar!), dense moist chocolate cake, sweet sour black cherries and chocolate ganache and white kirsch cream. On top is a beautiful kirsch-soaked cherry complete with a knotted stem. Next to the gateau is a smear of cherry, a veritable beach of grated chocolate and that kirsch ice cream which packs such a strong alcohol kick that we wonder about its impact on a driver’s blood alcohol levels!

Again, Heston’s attention to textures, tastes and aromas combines to lift what is already a huge favourite of mine to a whole new level.

FatDuck-9017
FatDuck-9020 FatDuck-9016 FatDuck-9021

By the time the whisk(e)y gums are served, attached to a map inside a wooden photo frame, we are really very full. As I’m not even a fan of whisky, I ask if there’s a way I might take the gums home for my husband, without the attendant frame, of course. Sadly, I’m told they’re too soft and will liquefy within an hour or so; when I pick one off the glass I appreciate just how soft and squidgy they are, adhering to the glass purely because of their wet sticky surface. They remind me of the sticky wall walker toys of my childhood; we used to throw them against the enormous windows at school and watch as they tumbled down the surface, limb by slimy limb. I resist throwing my whisk(e)y gums at any nearby windows and eat them, in the order indicated.

1 Speyside – Glenlivet
2 West Highlands – Oban
3 Orkney – Highland Park
4 Islay – Laphroaig
5 Tennessee USA – Jack Daniels

As expected, the flavours of the respective whiskies come through loud and clear; the dry pepperiness of the West Highlands, the smoky peat of Islay and the sweet caramel of Tennessee whiskey. I’m a bit confused by the order, as they don’t seem to be arranged by strength of flavour; I can’t discern any pattern.

I like this course but I don’t love it, and I wonder who might? As a non-whisky drinker, whilst the sweetness takes the edge off, the whisky flavour is still a bit overwhelming. But wouldn’t a real whisky lover find the sweetness a distraction from flavours they know and hold dear? Perhaps not. Since Pete isn’t here to contribute his opinion, I have no way of knowing…

FatDuck-9024
FatDuck-9025 FatDuck-9028 FatDuck-9026

At last, out comes a striped pink and white paper bag each. This course is called Like a kid in a sweet shop and is presented with its own menu card which we are encouraged to smell. It’s meant to evoke an old-fashioned sweet shop, but to me it smells like old-lady toilet freshener, or like stale marshmallows, if I’m being more generous. Still, it lists the four goodies inside, which we take out and admire before putting away again to enjoy later. After fourteen courses, we’re not alone in deferring the fifteenth!

At home, a few hours later, I investigate my little haul.

Firstly, a white envelope with what looks like a rubber seal. It breaks so easily as I pull open the envelope that I realise it’s chocolate and pop it into my mouth. Inside is a beautifully painted white chocolate playing card, filled with raspberry jam and crumbled biscuit. The menu card reminds us that the queen of hearts, she made some tarts… It’s wonderful!

The aerated chocolate with mandarin jelly is like a cross between a posh Aero bar and the orange jelly inside a Jaffa Cake. Very nice!

Apple pie caramel comes in a clear edible wrapper. Popping it into my mouth whole, I enjoy the tastes of both apple and caramel but it doesn’t put me in mind of apple pie. The edible wrapper reminds me of the White Rabbit sweets I used to enjoy as a child, which came in printed rice paper wrappers.

The only item in the bag which I don’t like is the strange coconut baccy, described as coconut infused with an aroma of Black Cavendish tobacco. Presented in a little pouch, just like real loose tobacco, it looks more like elastic bands and the texture isn’t far off either. Chewy stretchy strands of coconut with an unpleasant flavour; I’m not a fan at all. A shame, as I love the Artisan du Chocolate tobacco chocolate, which they originally developed for Heston, so I know that tobacco can work in a sweet.

At £180 per person, the experience we’ve just enjoyed is certainly expensive. But when we realise that this comes to just £12 per course, with still and sparkling water included, we both agree that it’s also good value. Each one of the courses reveals an incredible amount of work on many different elements brought together perfectly on the plate. Service is added at 12.5% but I would imagine that some of the £180 price tag must also cover the staff-intensive service, where dishes are finished or explained at the table and staff are constantly on hand to top up drinks and answer questions about the food.

Is it worth it? As my sister’s guest, that’s not for me to answer but I can tell you that it was certainly one of the most exciting dining experiences of my life, with some dishes that really did take my breath away.

It’s not a meal I will forget for a very long time to come.

The menu changes only slowly, so I wouldn’t rush back anytime soon, but should I notice in a year or few’s time, that most or many of the courses have changed, I’ll be back in a heart beat.

With enormous thanks to my beautiful and generous sister. x

The Fat Duck on Urbanspoon

 

A few years back, I read blog posts about Bacchus, a Hoxton restaurant offering exciting, unusual cooking from chef Nuno Mendes. He was using avant-garde techniques I’d come to associate with chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal – spherification, distillation, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide (water baths) and more. I was intrigued and I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

In 2009 I read many blog posts and tweets about Mendes’ Loft Project, an underground restaurant he established in his loft apartment, where he developed and served innovative dishes to an appreciative audience. It was the only underground restaurant I knew of that was commanding £100 a head for a meal yet leaving it’s diners utterly enchanted. I meant to go and meant to but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

In 2010 I read many blog posts and tweets about the launch of Mendes’ own restaurant, Viajante, and I salivated again over the descriptions and images of his unusual and appealing food. And I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.

Finally, 2011 rolled around and I was determined to rectify my appalling misbehaviour.

I booked a table for lunch on the first Friday of the year and Pete and I duly made our way down to Bethnal Green.

Viajante
image courtesy of Viajante

Housed in what was once Bethnal Green town hall but is now a hotel, Viajante is a light and airy space.

Viajante-5446

As one comes in to the spacious lobby, to the right is a separate bar room (and stairs down to the toilets) and to the left, the dining area. The restaurant has been designed by a talented but light hand; its quirky décor is a charming blend of retro-modern wooden furnishings with some beautifully coloured, textured woven wall hangings, against high white walls with period features and old parquet flooring.

Viajante-5452 Viajante-5464

We were pleased to be seated close to the open kitchen area, where we could watch the chefs in their surprisingly quiet, carefully choreographed and rehearsed routines. The dining room is split into two rooms, by the way, so tables in the farther room won’t be able to see the kitchen.

We opted for the 6 course tasting menu, priced at £50 a head.

We decided against the beverage pairings (which include wine and beer, so I believe). Mostly we stuck to still water which staff refilled regularly throughout the meal. To start, I fancied a cocktail but none on the cocktail menu appealed. Our waitress asked me what I liked and had the barman prepare something for me; whatever it was, I liked it. Pete started with a beer, before switching also to water.

Viajante-5447

Before our 6 menu courses, we were served the famous Thai explosion (Mark ll), a savoury mouthful of chicken mousse, quail’s egg, coconut and Thai spices, sandwiched between paper thin crisped chicken skin. I’d read about this (and it’s predecessor) in virtually every review and yet, nothing prepared me for the explosion of flavours and textures in my mouth – no, not even the name! If all fusion cooking were like this, I’d be a mouth-foaming disciple, screaming the message to every non-believer I met! What a start!

Viajante-5449 Viajante-5451

Next to arrive was a board of bread and butter. That simple title doesn’t do justice to the beautifully shaped individual loafs and the two quenelles of whipped butters served alongside. One,was whipped brown butter topped with crispy chicken skin, Iberico ham and a scattering of pretty purple potato powder. The other was whipped black pudding brown butter sprinkled with potato skins. Both were tasty – creamy and light – but my favourite was the black pudding one, which had more flavour.

Viajante-5455 Viajante-5456
Viajante-5457

Finally, we were served the first of our menu dishes – scallops with carrot, mustard and watercress. Throughout our meal, we were looked after by a number of different staff, all of whom took time to explain the elements of the dish they were serving. All shared an obvious pride in what they placed in front of us. And no wonder – this dish was a revelation. Thin slices of raw scallop were slippery silk in the mouth and naturally sweet, enhanced by the sugars within the beautifully presented raw and lightly pickled carrots. I have no idea what alchemy Mendes’ has invented to transform mustard into the frozen snow served on the dish, but the ice-cold feel contrasted with the fiery flavour in a most surprising and delightful way. The sauce poured over the top, that pulled the diverse elements together, was a carrot consommé with watercress oil, a herby delight.

Viajante-5458
Viajante-5459 Viajante-5461

Next to arrive, after we watch it being assembled in the kitchen, was lobster, potato, confit egg yolk and saffron. We both agreed fairly quickly that, whilst we loved the raw scallop, uncooked lobster is distinctly unpleasant in texture. The runny egg yolk was nice enough, though I’ve had many yolks with far more flavour – this one was a touch bland. Flavour came instead from the fish fumet (a concentrated fish stock). The pasta sheets added little, nor did the potato. Even the saffron just seemed to muddy the dish, rather than contribute. Interesting, certainly, but one we’d want to have again? No.

Viajante-5465 Viajante-5466

The next dish was definitely more my kind of thing than Pete’s. The braised salmon skin and fried aubergine puree was served over confit salmon and salmon roe with spring onion, purple shiso and enoki mushrooms (one of my favourite herbs) in an agedashi broth. I enjoyed the salty sweet balance of the salmon, broth, roe, spring onions and mushrooms but the aubergine purée didn’t capture the flavour of aubergine very much and I’d have much preferred the salmon skin crispy rather than flaccid and slimy.

Viajante-5468

Next to the table was seabass toast, garlic kale, Iberico ham and San Jorge. The crunchy, hammy toasted lid over the seabass was very satisfying and the fish cooked perfectly. The garlic and kale puree was richly vegetal and minerally. I liked the burst of juice and flavour from the shallot rings, and would have liked a few more to balance the last few mouthfuls of fish. The blanched radicchio leaf added little for me. The only thing I didn’t think worked was the cheese, which to me was really discordant with the fish. The San Jorge was a lovely, powerful cheese, so it almost overpowered the seabass, for me.

Viajante-5470

Our seventh dish to be served was duck with beetroot and pistachio. The duck was served pink, with a good layer of fat. I liked the beetroot served in an array of colours and textures – thin, crunchy, rolled sheets, cooked and served in solid pieces and puréed. For me, the crunch of the pistachio didn’t really enhance the rest, though I guess I didn’t mind it. Pete’s not a fan of nuts at all, so scraped his pistachios to one side.

Viajante-5475

Sea buckthorn is a trendy ingredient of late, though for all I know, Mendes’ has been championing it as long as anyone. I have encountered it a few times in the last year and am rather fond of it’s tart, citrusy, fruity flavour. So the sea buckthorn granite and burnt meringue pre-dessert was quite welcome. That said, I’d have liked a little more of the meringue than the little squiggle squirted up the side of the bowl!

Viajante-5476 Viajante-5477

I adore pears, especially Nashi. So I was surprised not to enjoy the dessert of grilled Williams pears and pickled Nashi pears, walnut dacquoise crumbs, crème fraiche and roasted pear ice cream. There was not enough sweet to balance the sour and the textures didn’t work for me either. This may just be the first pear dessert I’ve had that I didn’t like, let alone love. I left virtually all of mine, though Pete must have liked it more as he ate most of his.

Viajante-5478 Viajante-5480

Harmony was restored when the petits fours were served with the coffee. There were three offerings here – a cepe mushroom and white chocolate truffle, a clementine sponge and a Catalan cream. The mushroom truffle was another revelation – I would never in a million years have dreamt of combining the woody, earthiness of cepe with the rich, buttery sweetness of white chocolate (coated in a dusting of dark cocoa) – it was sensational! The clementine sponge was deeply moist and smacked both the nosebuds and tastebuds with intense, perfumed sweet citrus. The Catalan cream buzzed with orange and lemon flavours; an addictive little pot of custard. It took immense will power not to dash up to the kitchen service area a couple of metres away and steal the next set of petits fours, waiting to be taken to their table. Although I desperately wanted to ask for another truffle, for fear of making an arse of myself I didn’t.

A word about the coffee though, asking for an extra milky caffe latte resulted in one of the strongest I’ve ever been served. The coffee maker did check back and happily offered to make another weaker one but it was still so strong I couldn’t drink it.

Viajante-5467

And all of a sudden our meal was over and it was time to reflect upon it as we settled our bill and made the journey back to our distant corner of London.

Viajante is Portuguese for traveller and is a lovely way of referencing the global influences Mendes’ brings to his cooking. Whilst it’s not, in the main, what one would usually call fusion cooking, Mendes isn’t shy about making use of ingredients, ideas and flavours from different cuisines.

The unexpected flavours, textures, combinations and presentations were refreshing. The whole meal was exciting and provoking.

That scallop dish actually made me grin with delight – it was surprising, enchanting and delicious – everything I’d hoped for in my long anticipation of finally tasting Mendes’ cooking!

This meal was as much about that feeling of experiencing something new as enjoying the food, though that was part of it, of course.

The duck with beetroot and pistachio did showcase one downside of the Viajante approach – diners do not see a menu before the meal so, unless they remember to give a comprehensive list of their dislikes in advance, they may well be faced with something they really don’t want. Even the least fussy eater has a few ingredients they simply don’t like and yet one feels a bit guilty to state more than one or two unless one suffers a genuine allergy. I had failed to mention that Pete dislikes nuts. Next time, I shall not feel shy about asking in advance for our strongest dislikes to be avoided.

It seems our visit was opportunely timed; Michelin announced it’s latest guide results just a couple of weeks later, Viajante was duly awarded it’s first star. For a restaurant that’s been open less than a year, I think this is an impressive achievement, and indicative of the quality of food and service, as well as Mendes’ inventive approach.

I only hope it doesn’t make it too difficult to secure a reservation, since I’m sure we’ll want to return soon!

Viajante on Urbanspoon
 

A little skeptical about Michelin’s standards after our recent meal at Holbeck Ghyll I was nonetheless curious to visit Quilon, an Indian restaurant in the heart of Westminster that I’d heard very little about.

Familiar with a wide range of Northern Indian dishes (well, I would be, wouldn’t I? This is my mum’s website) I know very little about the cuisine of the South-western states of the Malabar Coast, from which chef Sriram Aylur takes inspiration.

Unlike many Michelin starred chefs, Aylur doesn’t seem to be interested in celebrity, so I do some googling to find out more. I learn that he gave up studying law to follow his real passion and his father’s footsteps. He started cooking in his father’s restaurant, working his way up to head chef at the Taj Gateway Hotel in Bangalore and launching the much-lauded Karavali restaurant. There he earned himself a reputation as one of the very top chefs in India. Just over 10 years ago, he was invited by the owner of the famous Bombay Brasserie, Mr RK Krishna Kumar, to move to London and open Quilon.

He has described his food as “authentic cooking but with a slight twist for the UK market”.

It’s time to find out more!

Quilon-3775 Quilon-3774

Lunch offers the promise of a taste of Goa, Karnataka and Kerala for just £23.00 for three courses plus tea or coffee. Better still, you can select from a whopping great choice of 6 starters, 7 seafood/meat main dishes or 7 vegetarian ones or 2 thalis, 10 sides and 5 desserts!

Quilon-3773

miniatures from the Elephant Parade 2010, raising funds to save the Asian elephant from extinction in the wild

Struggling to choose from the many temptations, the restaurant manager suggests, as we’ve been invited to review the restaurant, that we might prefer to taste a selection of the chef’s dishes in small portions. This seems a fantastic opportunity, so we mention a couple of dishes that have particularly caught our eye and leave the rest to chef.

Quilon-3739 Quilon-3750

Now the food is taken care of, what about the drinks?

I cannot resist the temptation of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice (£7), something my grandmother used to squeeze for her children when they were poorly, and which my mum has sometimes made for me – it’s a fiddly job; you can’t take the easy route of blending or the bitter seeds will affect the taste. I’ve never found a shop-bought pomegranate juice that tastes remotely right but this is it – freshly squeezed from the fruit.

Later I order a sweet lassi (£4) and am blown away even more. So many places seem to miss the essence of a lassi – the yoghurt itself. But chef Sriram Aylur has my undying respect for his lassi alone – it has the unmistakable rich tang of home-made yoghurt. It’s thick and creamy with just the right balance between sweet and tart. I’d like it to be served a little cooler, but otherwise, it’s absolutely fantastic and I can’t stop myself grinning and exclaiming about as I drink it!

Quilon-3731

Pete is very pleased to choose from Quilon’s special beer list. Sadly more than a little sticky from the previous guests’ fingers, the list is nonetheless quite an intriguing one, with some familiar names and a few he’s not encountered before.

Quilon-3737 Quilon-3760

He starts with a Kasteel Cru Rosé and moves on to a Pietra (both £4.50). We’ll be posting separate reviews of these beers soon but, in summary, the former has a subtle lager taste with champagne style tiny bubbles and a pink hue whereas the latter has a distinct flavour from the chestnuts it’s made with.

Quilon-3734 Quilon-3740 Quilon-3743

Tiny popadums are served to all diners, with coconut and tomato dips. We also supplement these with the table condiments; from left to right they are ginger and tamarind, red chilli and lime and garlic, mustard seeds and oil.

Quilon-3733 Quilon-3770

As we sit munching the little crisp breads, we take in our surroundings. I have to say, they’re a little disappointing. Although I rather like the somewhat kitsch murals of gentle Malabar backwater scenes – luscious rubber plants, monkeys grooming beneath the trees, boats sailing along the water. But neither they nor the wall-mounted bromeliads manage to negate the hotel restaurant feel of the space.

Quilon-3744 Quilon-3746 Quilon-3748

Still, it’s all about the food and it’s not long before we’re presented with a taster of three starters to catch our attention. From left to right are dakshini pepper chicken, seafood broth and crab cakes.

Although the dakshini pepper chicken (from the lunch menu or £9 à la carte) is described as ‘green pepper corn, yoghurt and chilli flavoured’ the dominant flavour for me is aromatic cardamom. The chicken is extremely moist and soft and the flavours are delightful. It’s served on some gentle curry sauce, which adds a nice kick.

The seafood broth (from the lunch menu or £9 à la carte) is my least favourite, though Pete’s more of a fan. In the bowl are plump prawns, a slice of scallop, some soft squid and a mussel. Our waiter pours the broth over them at the table. Whilst Pete likes the light spicing in the broth I find it too bland and slightly muddy tasting.

The crab cakes (£10 from the à la carte menu) are gorgeous. The menu describes them as ‘crab claw meat tossed with curry leaves, ginger and green chillies’. Certainly, the quality and sweetness of the crab meat, and it’s distinctive texture, come through clearly. So much crab meat is used that the cakes only just hold together! The sweetness is balanced by a mustard sauce beneath that brings a welcome sharpness.

Quilon-3749

After the starters, all diners are served an small glass of rasam – a warm tomato, lentil, coriander and tamarind soup that tastes a little like a hot, spicy bloody mary. It’s fresh and fiery but not too heavy – this is the kind of kick I’d have enjoyed in place of the seafood broth.

We’re slightly overwhelmed by the number of dishes that come out next, though we remind ourselves that the idea is to try – we don’t have to finish them all!

Quilon-3752

Guinea fowl masala (from the lunch menu or £17 à la carte) comes covered in what is described as a coriander, green chilli and tomato ‘rug’. I can’t detect any tomato but the paste reminds me of my mum’s green chutney, which I adore. The guinea fowl is surprisingly soft – it’s so often been tough when I’ve ordered it elsewhere. If you love coriander as much as I do, this is a dish you’ll enjoy, but it may be a little OTT on the herb for some.

Quilon-3755 Quilon-3761

The pistachio lamb (from the lunch menu or £17 à la carte) looks more impressive than it tastes. The green sauce is vibrant but lacks punch and I simply can’t detect the flavour of pistachio at all, despite the colour. There is a lot of sauce to meat but the three pieces of meat are extremely tender. This is a very mild dish.

Quilon-3753

Two type prawns are available on the lunch menu for a £6.50 supplement, or à la carte for £10/£20 for a small or regular portion. One bread-crumbed and deep fried, the other plain, the giant prawns are served on a ‘Manglorean masala’. Whilst the prawns taste great, I find them altogether too chewy – I prefer prawns to be softer and juicier. The tomatoey masala sauce beneath them is good though, especially with the paratha.

Quilon-3756

The cottage cheese and coloured peppers with lotus (from the lunch menu or £8 à la carte) is not like anything we’ve had before. The paneer is cut into small slivers and is firm like halloumi. I like that, though Pete expresses a preference for a softer, crumblier paneer texture. The small deep-fried kofte or balls of vegetable – presumably lotus – are fantastic. Pete rates them one of his favourite elements of the whole meal. Both cheese and kofte are lifted by the sweet crunch of peppers that have not been cooked to a mush and soft browned onions. The spicing is excellent.

Quilon-3751

The baked black cod might just be the most fantastic thing that’s passed through my lips this year! The cod is as soft as silk and juicy, so juicy! And the charred edges of spice and molasses are smoky heaven. Available à la carte for £12/£24 for a small or regular portion, it’s one of the few things we try that’s not included in the set lunch menu. It is, we’re told after enthusing about it, one of chef Sriram Aylur’s signature dishes. It’s a revelation; I’ve never had anything like it and have thought of it every single day since our visit!

Of course, black cod, you may be muttering to yourself, is a sub-Antarctic species and hardly forms a part of traditional Indian cuisine. Is this fusion? Chef Sriram Aylur’s describes it rather as the “progress of food“. Keen to remain grounded in his Indian roots, nonetheless he is happy to apply his own take on a traditional recipe, a take that makes use of ingredients available here in the UK.

Quilon-3757 Quilon-3759

From the long list of accompaniments we choose a Malabar paratha and lemon rice (both £3 à la carte). The paratha is flaky, soft and suitably ghee-laden – Pete says it reminds him of a flat, savoury croissant! The sour lemon rice (basmati with lime juice, curry leaves, split bengal gram and ghee) is not to either of our tastes.

I’m really not sure why we order desserts, other than the fact that we’re greedy and we’re curious. Curious, greedy bastards! And they’re part of that great value set lunch menu too.

Quilon-3763

Pete selects the manuka honey cakes served with pistachio ice cream and white chocolate mousse (£8). The cakes are sodden with sharp, tangy manuka honey. They are good. The white chocolate mousse, served in a dark chocolate cup, is declared rich and creamy. The pistachio tuile I eat, as Pete’s not a fan of nutty textures. It’s delightfully crisp and crunchy and the very essence of pistachio. Disappointingly, the pistachio ice-cream, like the sauce for the lamb, doesn’t taste of pistachio at all.

Quilon-3765 Quilon-3766

I go for hot rice kheer (£8), described as ‘creamy hot rice pudding served with rose ice cream’. I love rice pudding and am not fussy about style, having grown up enjoying both the stodgy rice puddings of school dinners and my mum’s lighter Indian kheers. But I really don’t like this version at all. The texture is gritty, like it’s full of broken rice and sand. The taste is bland. It’s not sweet enough, though as the waiter was about to drop my ball of rose ice cream into the kheer before I stopped him, I guess that would have added sweetness. The sharp, acidic pieces of fruit beneath and on top of the rice pudding clash with the cream, for me.

The rose ice cream, on the other hand, is delightful, and I’m pleased I saved it from the sandy bowl of rice sludge. It’s a very refreshing scoop of turkish delight flavoured cream.

Quilon-3769

Coffee (£4 or included in the lunch menu) comes prettily presented with sugar and a chocolate.

When I ask for mint tea (£4 or included in the lunch menu), made with real mint leaves please, I’m impressed to be immediately asked whether I’d prefer an infusion of the leaves or for them to mixed with black tea. I go for the former and am also rewarded with a little chocolate alongside.

Finally, our meal is over and we are replete. We’ve enjoyed a fantastic introduction to South-western Indian cuisine and have been very impressed indeed by much of what we’ve tried.

So much so that I’m determined to take my mum to visit soon – I know she’ll enjoy it.

Quilon-3777

Pete, through a modern art glass sculpture near St James Park tube station

Of course, our bill for such a feast would have been higher for the vast number of dishes we tried than if we’d stuck to the set lunch deal. But we were very impressed with the choices on the £23 menu and would happily choose from this on a future visit.

Many thanks to Quilon and SLO London for arranging our visit.

Quilon on Urbanspoon
 

Our most disappointing and overpriced meal this year was at Holbeck Ghyll in Cumbria, during a week in the Lakes.

HolbeckGhyll-3281

I can’t even begin to imagine how it merits a Michelin star, but can only guess that standards have dropped sharply since it was sold in January this year. I’ll be gobsmacked if it retains its star in 2011, based on our meal there at the end of July.

HolbeckGhyll-3282 HolbeckGhyll-3291

The setting is lovely, in a 19th century hunting lodge with fabulous views down to Lake Windermere. The lodge is now an upmarket hotel with onsite restaurant.

HolbeckGhyll-3284

We were shown into a sitting room on arrival, with wonderful views, and given the menu and canapés. They were alright, not as tasty as they were looked, but nothing glaringly wrong either.

HolbeckGhyll-3292

After making our meal choices, we were eventually shown into the dining room. It felt dreadfully dated (not in a gorgeous historic way) and the motel style carpet did not help to bring out the potential appeal of the wooden panelling.

Still, the menu sounded good and we looked forward to the meal.

HolbeckGhyll-3297 HolbeckGhyll-3298

Butter was beautifully presented on a slate, with sea salt crystals but the bread was so-so.

HolbeckGhyll-3300 HolbeckGhyll-3301

Next came an amuse bouche of foamy soup in a small coffee cup. I didn’t make a note of what vegetable it was but remember finding it pleasant, though a little plain. The green herb oil in it was pretty but I couldn’t make out the flavour of it.

HolbeckGhyll-3303

I chose the salad of warm Perigord quail with white grape and Sauternes dressing. This was a pleasant dish, nicely presented and with some decent, rich flavours. A good starter.

HolbeckGhyll-3302

Pete selected the rillette of rabbit with crostini and truffle cream vinaigrette. Presentation was the best thing about this dish – it looked very pretty. Taste-wise it was alright, though not as rich as expected. The texture of the filling within the cylinders was also much more mousse-like than rillettes as we’ve had them before.

HolbeckGhyll-3304

For my main I had the best end of Cumbrian lamb in herb crumb with girolles, shallot purée and rosemary juice. All I can tell you is that if this was the best of the poor lamb, I’d not want to taste it’s worst. It’s seriously hard work to lose the distinct sweet flavour of good lamb, especially well-reared British lamb from Cumbria. Whilst the meat was cooked properly pink and was fairly tender, the lack of flavour was a huge disappointment. The girolles were few and far between and gritty to boot. The vegetables were probably the best things on the plate.

HolbeckGhyll-3306

Pete, a fan of game, ordered the roast loin of Lakeland venison with herb spätzle. This was another disappointment. Again, whilst the texture of the meat was OK the all-important flavour was lacking. How had they managed to make venison taste of so little? Worst of all were the deformed and rubbery little pellets they passed off as spätzle – they bore no relation to the solid but moreish egg noodles we’ve enjoyed in Germany. Spätzle should not be rubbery! The sauce they were drowned in tasted good though!

Since the price of the meal was £56.50 for three courses, we figured we might as well order desserts, since we’d be paying for them anyway.

HolbeckGhyll-3310

I chose the chocolate soufflé, delice, tart and orange sorbet. Anyone who knows me knows how much I love chocolate. And a good dessert can make me forgive a lot in the dishes preceding.

But the collection of miniature offerings was so poor I left most of it. I love dark chocolate and can take it pretty bitter but the tart was so bitter it was, for me, inedible. The layered concoction in the glass was, on the other hand, sickly sweet and tasted like the cheap pudding mixes of yesteryear. The soufflé was OK, though only OK. I can’t even remember the circle of mousse at the top left. The best thing on the plate was the orange sorbet – ironic for a plate all about chocolate. I really can’t remember when I last had a more disappointing dessert and, gosh they had 5 little chances to impress me right there!

HolbeckGhyll-3309

Pete went for the crème brûlée with apple sorbet, poached apple and cider sauce. He loves crème brûlée and though he loves a good one, he’s fairly forgiving. But the texture of the crème was strangely spongey and we both only realised on eating it how unpleasant acidic apple and eggy creams can be together – in this incarnation at least. Another fail!

If the food wasn’t disappointing enough, one of the bugbears we had during the evening was the standard of service. Whilst no-one was rude or grumpy, the service was sloppy and casual and there seemed a distinct lack of training. Some plates were virtually thrown down in front of diners (not with any sulkiness attached, just lack of care and attention) leading to sauces slopping over the lips of the plates. Some staff didn’t seem to know who at a table had ordered which dish and had to ask (though this depended on who was serving the table).

There seemed to be only one member of staff who had any inkling about formal service standards and he seemed to be assigned to plate clearing duties, though we often saw him take the initiative to assist a diner with something else when he spotted that none of his colleagues had picked up on it.

This standard of service might be OK in a less formal, less expensive restaurant (after all, we got what we ordered, in the right order, and our water was replenished reasonably regularly) but for an establishment charging these prices, and trumpeting it’s Michelin star so proudly on its website, it wasn’t remotely good enough.

When one couple politely complained that they were too hot, as the radiator by their table was switched on (it was very warm and had been all day) they were told it wasn’t possible to turn it off. But no one offered to move them even though they hadn’t yet started their meal and there were several other suitable tables available and set, none of which were occupied by other diners during the evening. It was so warm that, even sat at the other side of the room from this radiator, I felt like I was having a hot flush and in the end, having also mentioned the heat to members of staff to be answered with a shrugged apology, I took matters into my own hands and opened the French doors behind us. As I started to do so, finally a member of staff offered to help me. There was an audible gasp of relief around the other few diners in the room as a cooling breeze wafted in.

There didn’t seem to be anyone managing the team nor keeping an eye on service and issues. The one person we initially thought might be the restaurant manager seemed to be the sommelier. To be frank, no-one seemed to really care whether we were enjoying our meal, whether we needed anything or whether anything was wrong.

With food as above and one (inexpensive) glass of wine each, the bill came to £125.55 without service. As I waited outside for Pete to retrieve the car from their lower car park, I confess to asking myself why I added service at all but I didn’t want to blame the staff for what struck me as a lack of proper management and training.

Thank goodness we didn’t opt for the £74/ head gourmet menu featuring many of the same dishes or I’d been even more upset.

I’m curious about whether our experience was atypical (I’d like to think so given the glowing reviews that abound on the web) or whether standards have slipped since new ownership took over.

If you’ve eaten at Holbeck Ghyll recently, do please let me know how you found it.

 

Waaaay back in May it was Pete’s birthday. He’s entered his 40th year (ok, technically it was only his 39th birthday) so a little celebration was in order.

Thanks to a tip off, I learned about the brewery tours at Fuller’s, over in Chiswick and secretly booked us into their morning tour. Looking for suitable lunch options in the vicinity I realised that La Trompette, where we’d previously enjoyed a rather fabulous meal, was just in the right place so I booked us a table. And I actually managed to keep both destinations and bookings a secret, too!

After the brewery tour, which ended with a tasting session of the brewery’s beers, including their various special bottled beers, we stopped to buy a few bottles in the brewery shop before walking across to La Trompette.

At just £19.50 for 2 courses, £23.50 for 3, lunch at this Michelin starred restaurant is a pretty good deal.

Trompette-2167

We were seated by the window, given menus and offered water – no snobbiness here about asking for iced tap, which was replenished regularly without having to ask.

The bread basket was proffered and, remembering the walnut raisin bread from before, I chose the same again. Pete went for for one of the other choices, I forget which, but agreed it was rather good. Such fantastic bread that, knowing a three course meal was to come, I could not help myself from asking for more… twice!

Both of us opted for the same starter – the foie gras and chicken liver parfait with fig chutney, cornichons and toasted brioche. A generous portion served in individual pots, the parfait was as rich in flavour and light in texture as we’d remembered from our previous visit and perfectly balanced by the sweet chutney and the sharp pickles. And I have a bit of a thing about brioche!

Trompette-2168

Pete enjoyed his slow cooked veal with risotto alla Milanese, celery and gremolata well enough. The veal was deeply meaty in taste and rendered spoonably soft by the slow cooking. The risotto was rich – too rich for me but then I find too much saffron slightly suffocating, like I’ve been kidnapped and had a musty old bag tied over my head. (No, I don’t have any asphyxiation fantasies!) “Good not great”, was the verdict.

Trompette-2169

My roast saddle of new season lamb, gratin dauphinoise, petit pois à la française also failed to reach greatness. The vegetables were the highlight – the dauphinoise was luscious without being overly creamy; the peas, which were mixed with cabbage and leeks, were the very essence of spring. Sadly, the lamb itself was seriously lacking in flavour and rather too flaccid – tender is all well and good but, when there’s a thick layer of fat, I expect that to be crispy, at least on the outer edge. Given how easy it is to source top quality meat in the UK, I was disappointed that the star ingredient of this dish just didn’t deliver.

Trompette-2170

It wasn’t until I read my review of our last visit that I realised Pete ordered almost exactly the same dessert again – the panna cotta with Yorkshire rhubarb compote and vanilla sugar beignets simply substituted doughnuts for biscotti. Lacking the rhubarb foam that had surprised and enchanted Pete and my sister last time, this was still a very tasty dessert judging from the noises and smiles of contentment. The hot doughnuts went down well though personally I’m not sure they made a great match with the panna cotta – Pete is a doughnut fiend and would happily eat freshly made doughnuts with anything!

Trompette-2171

My Valrhona chocolate marquise with vanilla ice-cream and glazed raspberries was delicious. The dense slab of chocolate was extremely rich indeed and the tart raspberries helped cut through it very well. For me, the ice-cream was rather so-so, lacking any intensity of flavour and not as creamy in texture as I expected either. The marquise sat on a thin layer of crunchy praline, which was delightful – a thicker layer or another running through the middle would have been very welcome.

Trompette-2172

Although he’d already been spoiled rotten by a most wonderful black forest birthday gateaux at Bob Bob Ricard just a couple of days earlier, I figured that there ought to be a candle on the day itself too, and one was delivered tucked into a scoop of ice-cream, just after the main desserts.

Trompette-2173 Trompette-2174

As a well-priced and tasty lunch, well located for our brewery tour, La Trompette delivered.

But I can’t help but thinking that our experience didn’t quite live up to the memories of our previous meal just 15 months earlier.

Service was still very good, though we didn’t feel quite as cosseted as before – perhaps that’s a function of our lunch time visit whereas our previous was for dinner. The food didn’t blow us away either. The pre-prepared starters and desserts outshone the mains by quite some distance, making me wonder if a less-experienced chef was in charge of the kitchen during the lunch service. I’d say that the average of all three courses was good rather than great.

Good food and great value, but not quite as obvious a recipient of that michelin star as I thought last time.

La Trompette on Urbanspoon
 

A friend suggested meeting for a quick and early dinner last Thursday evening, before she went on to a show (which I declined). Having been before, and knowing I hadn’t, she suggested we dine at Hakkasan. Several years behind the hype, I was still keen to sample the delights of one of few Asian restaurants in London to win (and keep) a Michelin star.

It seems waiting until Alan Yau sold up was not a wise decision. Whilst we had a pleasant meal, I was distinctly underwhelmed by the Hakkasan experience. Certainly, I didn’t find myself nodding in agreement and appreciation, as I have when dining at other establishments which have been similarly recognised and awarded by the famous guide.

For a start, I wasn’t blown away by the space itself. Cool and funky, modern and classy it might be, but it was so dark it was hard to see let alone appreciate details of the decor. I found myself wondering just what the intense shadows were hiding? For restaurants-cum-nightclubs or even bar-restaurants, this kind of dim lighting is probably perfect but for me, it made a high-end restaurant seem low-end and tacky. The tables in the dining area did have bright lights suspended above them but these spotlights had such a small area of focus that the dishes placed in the centre of the table, between us, were brightly lit whilst our own plates remained in shadow.

The welcome from the reception team was warm and efficient. As I arrived a few minutes early I was shown to the bar, where the welcome was distinctly cooler. But I’d heard good things about the cocktails and, after some time browsing the extensive cocktail list, I ordered myself a Lost Heaven – fresh nashi pear, Gran Centenario reposado tequila, coconut, peach, lime and guava juice. It was duly delivered (with no hint of a smile or conversation) and was as delicious as it sounds. My friend arrived a few moments later and ordered her own cocktail. She chose a Kokohana – fresh pineapple, basil leaves, coconut rum and lychee juice. It was plonked down in front of her without a word. The bar was manned by 3 male waiters, all of whom were similarly abrupt and short on words.

I was asked if I wanted to run a tab or pay for the bar drinks separately. I explained that, as we were short on time, we’d like to transfer to our dining table as soon as we could, and could they put the drinks onto the restaurant bill, please. I was surprised to be asked for my credit card – as the bar is, I believe, open only to diners, I’d expected them simply to transfer the drinks tab across to our dining one. Furthermore, I hadn’t realised, as I handed it over, that they were going to keep it rather than take an imprint. I don’t even know whether they have a bar card safe or whether cards are accessible to all restaurant staff. Certainly, given the prevalence of card fraud, I hope it’s the former. A short while later, a hostess came to lead us to our table. I asked for my credit card back and was told it would be brought to my table. It was eventually returned to me about 20 minutes later.

Our table waitress was certainly friendlier and more helpful than the bar staff, though the level of service didn’t begin to match the very professional service I’ve received in many high-end restaurants. Even though we were sharing dishes, she’d take one person’s plate away whilst the other was still eating. She’d move to take away the serving dishes before we’d finished with the contents, though we did manage to stop her doing that. When she asked if we’d like more drinks (having both finished our lovely cocktails), I answered first and we had to stop her moving away (presumably to fulfill my order) before my friend had the chance to respond too. On the other hand, she was responsive and accurate when we asked how many dishes from the”Small Eats” section of the menu she felt would provide a good meal for two (five) and she always had a smile for us when she came to the table. She was fairly attentive – we never struggled to get her attention. I’d summarise service as friendly and reasonably efficient but more suited to a casual restaurant chain than a high-flyer like Hakkasan.

So what did we order and how was it?

Dim sum platter – scallop shumai, har gau, Chinese chive dumpling, shimeji dumpling (£11.50)

Handily, there were two of each dumpling so we could both sample all of them. All were well-made from good quality ingredients. The scallop shumai, har gau and chive dumplings were fairly standard and very much what you’ll find in good quality dim sum establishments. The shimeji (mushroom) dumpling was new to me and I really liked the earthy, very umami flavours. It was an open dumpling and there was a thick, rich sauce over the rest of the (vegetarian) contents – very nice.

Jasmine tea smoked organic pork ribs (£11.50)

The ribs were tasty though I can’t say I could detect the jasmine tea smoked flavour. Perfectly pleasant but no better than their counterparts in many Chinese restaurants up and down the country, and certainly overpriced in comparison.

Roasted mango duck with lemon sauce (£11.00)

I enjoyed this dish, though the portion of six very small slices of duck separated by the same number of mango slices, was smaller than I’d have liked. The mango and lemon sauce was tasty, and had a better depth of flavour (and less cloying texture) than the overly sweet lemony syrups beloved of Chinese takeaways.

Stir-fry edamame with pickled vegetable, beancurd stick and salted duck egg (£8.80)

This dish was, without a doubt, the single stand-out dish of the meal. Fresh edamame beans were mixed with a smattering of pickled vegetables, slivers of crispy beancurd and a sprinkle of salty, savoury powder which we assumed must be the duck egg. The combination of textures and flavours worked fantastically well and both of us continued to make noises of appreciation through to the last mouthfuls.

Sesame prawn toast (£13.00)

£13.00 bought us 4 sesame prawn toasts served with more slivered beancurd sticks and a small pile of crispy seaweed. Instead of the usual flat triangles, Hakkasan embedded whole, tail-on prawns within a dome of prawn paste set onto a circle of toast (covered with sesame seeds and deep-fried as usual). The tail stuck out of the dome providing a nifty handle. So presentation was definitely unusual. Taste was a little disappointing; I’d rate this dish as average against a selection of prawn toasts from a range of Chinese restaurants and takeaways. The seaweed too was nothing special. The beancurd sticks provided an additional salty crunch but were somewhat superflous against the crunch of the toasts themselves.

For our second cocktails, I went for more of the same and remained lost in heaven. My friend tried a Jasmine Fon Fon which I think included fresh strawberry, passion fruit, pink grapefruit juice, rum, cinnamon and champagne. Not only beautiful to look at – ruby red, served in a globular glass and topped with a thick white foam – it also packed a punch flavourwise.

Although we were pleasantly full we decided to order one dessert to share.

Tapioca pearl pudding – with vanilla panna cotta, poached banana and passion fruit sorbet (£8.00)

The tapioca pudding itself was lovely. The glimmering little pearls sat in a thick sauce flecked with real vanilla. On top floated a ball of passionfruit sorbet, a single tiny slice of poached banana and several pieces of salted popcorn (not mentioned in the menu description). Initially we thought the vanilla sauce of the tapioca pudding must be what the menu was referring to as panna cotta, failing to spot anything more solid, but towards the end, at the bottom of the dish, we found a few scant fragments of what was probably the hidden cooked cream. The dish mostly worked but we both agreed that whilst the passionfruit sorbet was perfectly nice on it’s own, it clashed horribly with the sweet, creamy vanilla pudding. It seemed like an interloper in a set of components that otherwise gelled well. The poached banana slice was tasty – I’d have liked a little more of it, so it was more than a mere garnish. The salted popcorn was an unexpectedly successful surprise – it contrasted in taste and texture with the creamy vanilla without clashing, like the sorbet. A good way to finish, along with the final slurps of our cocktails.

I can’t share any photos of our dishes with you, as apparently photography is not permitted in the restaurant, as I was told on taking a snap of my cocktail, at the bar. One member of staff helpfully told me that the owner, Mr Yau, was quite insistent about this. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she knew that he’d sold the restaurant several months ago! Nor were staff permitted to give me a photocopy of the menu which would surely have been preferable to my having a notepad and pen out at the dining table in order to record the names and descriptions of the dishes we ordered! My friend, who’d been before, told me that the no photography rule didn’t apply only to the food – she and her husband were stopped from taking photos of themselves enjoying a special evening out.

Our bill came to a whopping £115 (including service, added automatically to the bill). I’d happily pay that price for a fantastic restaurant experience but Hakkasan failed to deliver that for me.

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon
 

On Saturday Pete and I went to the Glasshouse Restaurant by Kew Gardens for lunch.

We’d been given a card at the end of our recent meal at La Trompette (which is owned by the same partnership as Glasshouse and Chez Bruce). As at La Trompette the 3 course menu is priced at £37.50 of an evening but is only £25 for Saturday lunch. The card was a voucher offering these menus for half price (until end March) and since the menu offered for Saturday lunch is the same as the evening ones, we figured that £12.50 for a such a meal was too good an offer to pass up. Especially since my sister (who’d also taken one of the cards when we dined at La Trompette together) had done the very same thing the previous Saturday and said the food was every bit as delicious as our experience at La Trompette!

We made the reservation late on Friday evening (having just got home from dinner with my family in Luton, which is when my sister let us know all about her meal at Glasshouse). The earliest they could offer was 2pm, which I took, but asked them to call me back if a reservation for an earlier table became available. I was pleasantly surprised when they did call on Saturday morning to offer us a noon slot instead.

So we arrived promptly at midday and were seated at a table by the window and given the menu and winelist. We were then ignored for the next 20 minutes, which was surprising, as the staff weren’t busy preparing the restaurant, but standing around at the reception. Just as I was about to call for someone’s attention, they came and took our order. This was the only lapse in service; we were looked after attentively from that point forward.

So, after taking our orders, they offered a choice of wonderful home-made breads, some of them still warm. I was greedy and went for two slices, one of walnut and raisin and another of rosemary and sea salt. Also on offer were black olive bread and a poilane, which may have been wholemeal, not sure.

For starters Pete ordered warm salad of wood pigeon with balsamic vinegar and deep fried truffled egg and I went for the foie gras and chicken liver parfait with dressed lentils, walnut and raisin toast. Ever sweettoothed, and knowing the pate would be rich and smooth, I asked for a glass Pedro Ximenez to accompany it. The sommelier did pop over to check, as he felt it may be too sweet for my starter, especially with the lentil element, but I stuck to my guns and really enjoyed it. Pete ordered a glass of red wine which he nursed through both starter and main.

Not usually a fan of lentils, I was surprised at how much I loved the layer of firmly cooked green lentils mixed (I think) with thinly sliced young spring onions and lightly bound with a touch of olive oil. Beneath this was a generous helping of rich, smooth parfait which went well with the slight sweetness of the walnut and raisin toast.

Pete’s salad was probably the winner of the two starters though it was a close call. As well as the deeply gamey pieces of pigeon it included lardons, green beans and crispy frisée lettuce drizzled in balsamic and topped with the egg, oh the egg! Covered in panko-style breadcrumbs fried to a pale golden brown, when Pete cut into it the white was perfectly firm and the yolk beautifully runny and a deep, dark amber colour.

To follow I had the roast duck breast and pastilla of duck confit with parsnip purée, cranberries and almonds. When it came, it was also topped with long, wavy parnsip crisps so finely sliced they were almost translucent. The duck was cooked perfectly pink and was tender and full of flavour, amongst the very best I’ve tasted. The pastilla was formed into a long crunchy cigar and was more about the pastry than any filling – I preferred the pastilla in La Trompette’s duck dish. The parnsip puree made a lovely and soft bed for the rest of the dish was surrounded by a serving of thin sauce, neither a thick gravy nor a thin jus, somewhere in the middle. It gave an extra meaty flavour. The duck was served on top of spinach with cranberries and almonds scattered below and above it. I’d not been sure how these would work with the duck, whether they’d overwhelm the flavour or simply be superfluous but, as I should have expected given the deft touch of the chefs, they were an excellent addition, even for someone who doesn’t much like cranberries. The cranberries were sweet rather than sharp and the almonds gave the dish a nice crunch.

Pete chose the scotch beef cottage pie with purple sprouting broccoli, reasoning that if they’d put such a simple dish in amongst the other grander ones, it was bound to be well executed. It was. The filling combined beef, green beans, broadbeans, carrots and mushrooms in a strongly savoury and rich sauce which Pete said was particularly good because it packed in such depth of flavour without resorting to salt. It was topped with a plain potato mash and served with simple, unadorned broccoli.

Already stuffed, we were determined to have dessert anyway! Pete said his crème brulée was one of the best he’s had with a thick, crunchy burnt sugar topping covering a really unctuous cream generously flecked with real vanilla. I had the tiramisu with affogato. The tiramisu, in a small pot, was so alcoholic it actually made me do that funny little huffing noise Torode does on Masterchef when he’s expressing surprise about the amount of chilli or alcohol. Of course, this was no bad thing and, even stuffed as I was, I managed about two thirds of it. The ice-cream for the affogato was a sweet, creamy vanilla which slowly melted under the espresso. A good kick of caffeine to wake me up for a walk around Kew Gardens.

Having stuck to (chilled) tap water plus just the one glass of red wine and one of PX, our bill was an extremely reasonable £38 onto which 15% service was added. Under £44 for two for this kind of food is an unbelievable bargain. (It has a michelin star, same as sister-restaurant, La Trompette and, again, I can see why).

Location is just by the Kew Gardens tube station and about 3 or 4 minutes walk from the Victoria Gate entrance to Kew Gardens.

Glasshouse on Urbanspoon
 

After a Monday evening dinner at La Trompette I can definitely understand what all the fuss (and it’s Michelin star) is about. We had a marvellous dining experience!

Welcomed warmly and shown to our table we were quickly asked about apéritifs and water, offered advice on the wine menu from the sommelier and offered some rather splendid bread so good that I asked for more shortly afterwards. I went for the walnut and raisin bread, Pete for plain white and my sister for what I think was olive and tomato. I can only comment on mine which was moist, light and flavoursome with generous chunks of fruit and nut; I know I could eat that bread every day for weeks without tiring of it!

When we ordered, I mentioned that I had a dislike for endive and could they either replace it or omit it from my chosen main dish. This was handled with a very can-do attitude and I was impressed when another member of staff popped over a few minuts later to let me know that the chef was suggesting a bed of spinach with some caramelised shallots alongside and would that be a suitable alternative? (It was).

My sister and I both went for a starter of “Crisp fried cod croquette with mussels à la marinière”. The ‘croquette’ was a fish cake, beautifully made with light, firm white flesh within and crispy golden breadcrumbs without. It sat on a bed of unusually plump and sweet (shelled) mussels. The marinière sauce was thicker than in a traditional “moules marinière” which worked well as an accompaniment to both mussels and fishcake.

Pete opted for the “Foie gras and chicken liver parfait with toasted brioche”. The parfait, served in a small clay pot, was light (possibly whipped?) and yet unctuous and rich at the same time, with all the depth of flavour one would expect from foie gras. The thin gelatin layer on top was sweet and mild. Our waiter was very attentive and, when he noticed Pete had just a few bites of brioche remaining, offered to bring him another slice, though Pete decided he didn’t need it.

Pete and my sister both went for the “Roast rump of Scottish beef, shallot purée, pomme cocotte, baby onions, oxtail crouton” for their main. Full of flavour, the steak was also very tender. The oxtail on the crouton was pulled into strands, matted together with the stickiness of it’s own sauce and was a deeply savoury few morsels. The accompaniments all worked well with the meat.

I was pleased I chose the “Duck magret, crisp pastilla of confit leg and foie gras, glazed endive, spiced duck jus” instead, served, as previously mentioned, with spinach and caramelised shallots instead of the glazed endive. The slices of duck were just as tender as the beef steak and worked well with my substituted spinach. The pastilla was wonderful, with a crisp exterior of filo enclosing a smooth, highly-flavoured duck and foie gras paste. The spiced ‘jus’ was the star of the dish offering a sweet, rich intensity of flavour and yet never overwhelming the flavour of the duck itself.

I was, once again, the odd one out, choosing the “Pistachio parfait, cherry ice cream, pistachio and polenta cake” for dessert. Pete and my sister went straight for the “Vanilla panna cotta with poached rhubarb and biscotti”. I might have opted for the “Valrhona chocolate marquise, milk ice cream, macadamia praline, caramel, chicory crème” if not for that last element, deciding it was a request too far to ask for the chicory crème to be omitted, though I’m sure they’d have done so with good grace had I done so.

My pistachio parfait was light and delicate, presented between paper-thin sugar crisps. The vivid green pistachio and polenta cake was moist and delicious, with none of the graininess I feared that polenta might impart to it. On it’s own, it would be a perfect afternoon tea indulgence. The cherry ice cream was a touch too sharp for me, though I’m aware that my tolerance for sharper flavours is much lower than normal; I’ve never been able to enjoy a lemon sorbet without my jaws literally locking solid!

The panna cotta dessert came in more layers than expected with the rhubarb compote at the bottom, a generous layer of panna cotta above it and the whole topped by a pale pink rhubarb foam. The expressions on both faces as they simultaneously tasted the foam were magical, as both blurted out surprised delight at the intensity of flavour contained in a medium with absolutely no solidity to it at all, all the more of a surprise because the foam was not obviously so, looking more like a pink cream than the frothy bubbles associated with culinary foams.

Drinks wise, I went topsy turvy by enjoying a glass of Muscat dessert wine as an apéritif (and finishing it with my starter). My sister went for a glass of red and Pete stuck with bottled still water (I rather like that they print the price of bottled water on the main, single-page food menu).

After the meal, Pete and my sister both enjoyed a glass of tawny port whilst I savoured a glass of Pedro Ximinez. And what a glass of PX it was – richer, more unctuous and full of more complex flavours than other PXs I’ve enjoyed in the past.

By the time we finished our meal, we were certainly replete and in very good mood indeed.

For us, this wasn’t a special occasion so much as an indulgent treat, but certainly, I’d return to La Trompette again in a heartbeat for birthdays, anniversaries or any excuse I could find!

I thoroughly recommend it!

La Trompette on Urbanspoon
 

Yesterday was my birthday (and my sister’s too).

Lazy waking to kisses and cards from Pete and calls from sister. No plans for the morning, just catching up on some fun stuff such as helping my dad with the itinerary for the trip he and ma are making to Kenya next year (I do love planning trips), packing up and posting a photographic print sale, catching up on a little web surfing and starting to write up a review of the weekend trip to Cardiff. Oh and a lovely lunch at my local Italian, La Lotta, looked after by the lovely Bob and Eva.

In the afternoon I headed into Bloomsbury to meet a friend who shares my birthday. She’d read recommendations of an elegant cafe near her college where we enjoyed extremely good Valrhona hot chocolate and outrageously huge meringues.

Satiated, my friend headed off to class and I hopped on the tube to China Town where I enjoyed a relaxing massage in a China Town beauty salon. On this occasion I was treated by Emi, a slip of a girl from Japan who applied a little basic stretching and massage before hopping up onto my back with both feet. She used her full body weight (which was just heavy enough) to perform some very welcome stretching, pushing and manipulation before jumping back down and moving on to a regular oil-based deep-tissue massage of back, neck and shoulders. Oh, and feet too, that was good.

Feeling relaxed I splashed out on a black cab to Maze, one of the Gordon Ramsay stable of restaurants, run by head chef Jason Atherton. I sat in the bar with a mojito and my book until my sister arrived and we headed to our table. (For anyone left who doesn’t know, my sister is exactly 3 years and 5 minutes younger than me, yes, yes we do share the same birthday without being twins, how extraordinary! ;)

We opted for the Tasting Menu which was the reason (along with hearty recommendations from foodie friends) that I picked Maze: unlike most of the GR restaurants, the tasting menu isn’t a set list of about 7 courses but a menu of smaller dishes from which each guest is encouraged to pick 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 desserts. Price-wise, this comes to slightly less than the set tasting menus in the other restaurants and yet gives you a selection tailored to your own tastes!

The good thing is that sister and I have very similar tastes indeed so we picked 4 different starters, mains and desserts and shared all 12 dishes between us. The staff are clearly geared up for this judging by the way they present the dishes and crockery.

The food was absolutely amazing! We had:
Pressed marinated foie gras, Lincolnshire smoked eel, baked potato foam and dill
Cornish crab mayonnaise with avocado, sweet corn sorbet and Oscietra caviar
Roasted sea scallops, cauliflower puree, Muscatel vinegar dressing
Slow roasted prawns with butternut squash puree, rye croutons, crab bisque and vanilla oil
Roast rack of lamb, pea puree, marinated turnip and lamb navarin
Rare breed Sussex pork ‘Head to Toe’, apple puree and spiced lentils
Roasted squab, Peking leg, marinated turnip and date sauce
Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento puree and squid paint
Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, raspberry and lemon thyme jam, mascarpone and pecan ice cream
Pineapple carpaccio, coconut sorbet, seaweed croquette and Malibu lime jelly
Chocolate moelleux, pistachio sabayon with milk and honey ice cream
Coconut panna cotta with black olive caramel, white chocolate granite

There was no dish we didn’t think was fantastic, though neither of us liked the tiny, deep-fried bite of pig’s trotter that was a very small element of the rare breed Sussex pork dish.

Our favourites were:
All the starters were divine. My sister especially loved the foie gras, I really loved the scallops and the butternut squash puree that came with the prawns.
The mains were also all excellent but the pork and the squab/ peking leg were particularly delicious. Then again the lamb rack was so tender too, and the navarin stew so flavoursome!
Of the desserts the clear winner was the rice pudding, though again, all were good. My sister’s second choice was the panna cotta. Mine would be the pistachio sabayon that came with the moelleux (which was also very good).

By the end of the mains we were feeling satiated, by the end of the puddings, we were definitely feeling full.

And yet, when the bill came, we received some lollipop ice-creams, some “olives” in a slimline kilner-style jar and some chocolates and sweets on a tray. The ice-cream and the white sweets on the chocolate tray were the only two things I found actively unpleasant during the meal (I actually had to vigorously wash my mouth out straight away). I figured the “olives” couldn’t really be olives, even though they were, from the smell, clearly sitting in olive oil. They turned out to be marzipan, though I’d have preferred them without the strongly flavoured olive oil which I ended up draining and wiping off as much as possible.

Just when I thought they’d forgotten (or were simply unable to accommodate) my request (made on booking) for a brief tour of the kitchens the staff arrived with yet another dessert for each of us, a wonderful chocolate mousse cake, complete with gold foil, a burning candle and Happy Birthday piped onto each glass plate with chocolate! They said, if it wasn’t too late (about 11.30 pm), they’d be happy to show us into the kitchen once we’d finished.

We managed a few bites of the extra dessert (if I’d been somewhere less refined I’d probably have asked if I could take the rest home!), settled the bill and headed into the kitchen. Most of the areas had finished for the night and were clearing up, though a couple of departments were just plating up the last dishes to be sent out. We also saw the location of the chef’s table – I don’t think the position is very good in this kitchen as it seems to afford a view of the fish and meat counters only, though I’m sure it is still quite a show.

Our bill came to just under £180 including service and comprised £22 for our two bar drinks, £22 for my sister’s wine, £114.50 for the food and £20 for service (12.5%). Whilst it’s not the kind of money I’d drop for dinner on a regular basis I think it was very good value for the food and experience we had and I’d definitely like to visit again and would recommend it to others!

 

Last night I had the pleasure of being taken out by a friend to Zaika Restaurant in High Street Kensington (London).

Zaika is a modern and stylish restaurant offering Indian fusion cuisine –offering both reworked traditional classics and original dishes blending eastern and western flavours.

On opening in 1999 the restaurant garnered very positive reviews from many restaurant critics as well earning a number of impressive accolades including Best Indian Restaurant in the 2000 London Restaurant Awards, three AA rosettes and high praise from guides such as Time Out, Zagat and Good Food. Even more impressive in my eyes, with chef Vineet Bhatia at the helm the restaurant earned a coveted Michelin star – one of only two Indian restaurants in the UK to do so at that time.

Now that chef Sanjay Dwivedi, involved in Zaika since it’s opening, is in charge of the kitchen, the question on my lips was whether Zaika was still as good as those earlier awards and reviews suggested?

From the moment I walked in to the airy, high-ceilinged restaurant, full of wonderful architectural details, sumptuous and elegant décor and smiling staff I had high hopes of a special evening.

My friend and I started our evening in the bar and once I’d communicated my order to the barman (who had difficulties recognising the name of a cocktail listed on the menu he’d just given me) I was served a well-balanced raspberry mojito. After a while we asked to be taken to our table; a member of staff transferred our drinks whilst we settled in.

Having both looked at the menus on Zaika’s website in advance of our visit we swiftly ordered two Zaika Gourmand tasting menus; my friend adding on the suggested accompanying wines.

With nine courses they didn’t bother with any unexpected amuse-bouches and we kicked off with a rich, creamy and steaming shot of crab and coconut milk “shorba” served in a miniature lidded mug. Some small, black caviar was scattered on top of the lid and on top of that was a batter-coated ball pierced with a cocktail stick. This fairly bland pakora was presumably the crab dumpling mentioned in the menu. I had some trouble working out how best to eat the caviar and resorted to scraping it, unelegantly, off the lid with a finger! The soup was absolutely delicious but the flavours seemed much more Thai than Indian to me. Still, it was a great start with it’s unusual presentation and intriguing combination of flavours, textures and ingredients.

The second course was also a winner with both of us; the wild mushroom and truffle samosa was enclosed in an impeccably crisped filo casing; the filling was generously indulgent; accompaniments were a pear and celeriac mash scattered with slices of truffle and a sweet pear and clove chutney that cut through the mustiness of the truffle very nicely.

Scallops, cooked with a light touch and interestingly presented, are one of my favourite things to eat so the third course didn’t disappoint. Both were cooked beautifully – touches of caramel on the outside and meltingly tender inside. One was served on a bed of puree that was introduced as chilli mash (though I couldn’t detect the heat of the chilli) and squirted at the table with a bright yellow lime leaf “foam”. The squirter was very Heston Blumenthal and the foam was more of a sauce but the coconut and lime flavour certainly enhanced the sweetness of the scallop. Incidentally, the scallop had apparently been poached in “kokum” – an ingredient I’d never encountered or heard of; a little research shows me that it’s a spice mainly used in the western coastal regions of southern India, that it’s actually a dark purple fruit related to mangosteen, is usually picked when ripe, has it’s thick rind removed and dried and is used to impart a slightly sour taste, similar to tamarind. I can’t say I detected any sourness myself. The second scallop had sesame and onion seeds pressed into one side before being seared and was served on a bed of tiny couscous bound by black squid ink. On top of the scallop was a tiny dot of green chutney. The couscous was quite mild and a really interesting texture. On being served I’d wondered if the mixed seeds would overpower the scallop but was pleased to find they too enhanced it’s sweetness and the chutney provided a burst of fresh coriander which was very welcome. Definitely one of my two favourite courses of the meal.

Course number four was a tandoori sampler with a succulent slice of tandoori salmon, a single tandoori king prawn and a small salad. The king prawn was pleasant enough though a touch dry even with the zig zags of green chutney beneath it and I couldn’t detect the rosemary or ginger it had been marinated in. The mixed leaf and afalfa sprout salad was more popular with my friend but then I’m not a fan of sprouts. The salmon’s sweet, thick honey-mustard marinade made it the strongest item of the three and I really loved the puddle of cucumber and dill raita beneath it.

(Please excuse the poor quality of the photos; they were taken on my mobile phone!)

I’d been anticipating the fifth course ever since I saw it listed on the website and it didn’t let me down; pan-fried fresh foie gras dusted with spices and cooked so perfectly that it really did melt in the mouth; served with wild mushrooms over a moist little circle of naan bread covered in chopped green herbs and oil. I found the dollop of mango chutney to the side much too strong and syrupy to complement the foie gras; it seemed like a unecessary interloper on a plate that was perfectly composed without it. To my surprise the Indian spices really did fuse well with the flavour of the foie gras and this, with the exception of the cloying chutney, was my other joint-favourite dish of the meal.

Both my companion and I felt that the dishes went a little down-hill from this point though that doesn’t mean they were without any merit. We still enjoyed some wonderful flavours in the remaining four courses.

Next on the menu was the tandoori lobster, another dish I’d been looking forward to given my love of it’s main ingredient. But, as I should perhaps have expected, the strong Indian spices disguised the subtle flavour of this luscious crustacean. The lobster was served on a shaped bed of cauliflower and curry leaf rice with a healthy pool of thick, ochre sauce. Unfortunately the sauce contained one pungent flavour that I just couldn’t bear and scraping the sauce off the lobster didn’t help. The menu description mentioned sour spices and cocoa (the latter was dusted over the dish after it had been brought to the table, though I couldn’t detect it). Curious about the ingredient I was finding so offensive I asked our waitress what spice was used to impart the sour taste. She went to ask the chef and came back with a response of saffron, brandy and cardamom but none of these are particularly sour and I know I like all of them. My best guesses on the mystery flavour would be fenugreekor tamarind but I’m not sure at all. My friend didn’t have any aversion to this dish though she didn’t find it special either.

Our next dish seemed to be the main one as it came with (shared) rice and naan bread. Both of us were served individual dishes containing lamb, butter chicken and cumin spinach. I’m not sure whether the lamb was actually the nariyal ka gosht described on our menu, cooked in coconut milk, mustard seeds and curry leaves, or the rogan josh, listed in the regular menu, cooked in a rich onion & tomato sauce. Certainly the two flavours that stood out were tomato and ginger rather than coconut. Either way, it was tender, well-flavoured and enjoyable. The butter chicken was the most pedestrian dish of the entire meal for me and better left to the local curry house; certainly nothing innovative or distinctive about it. The spinach consisted of large wilted leaves rather than the more finely-chopped Indian standard and tasted more strongly of garlic than cumin. The naan bread was light and managed to be moist and crispy at the same time. The winning dish from this course for both of us was the rice which was mouthwatering. Certain that we could taste something dainty, perfumed and floral in amongst the saffron we asked our waitress to tell us more about it’s preparation. The chef sent a reply admitting only to milk, cardamom and saffron but both of us are determined to try a few drops of rose water or kewra essence (made from pandanus flowers) in our rice next time we cook up an Indian feast!

Overall neither of us felt this last dish really fit in with the earlier part of the menu with it’s more innovative, fusion flair. Certainly we didn’t need it in terms of hunger as we were very satisfied already and it seemed to pander overly to those expecting the standard curry house fare.

At this point we took a break and headed to the bar for a breather. The restaurant had filled up and was rather too warm and we appreciated the cooler air nearer to the door. On our return to the table we were served small glasses of “lychee granite” over which champagne was liberally poured. Pushing aside thoughts of marble worktops, I was surprised at how successful the lychee and champagne combination was and I found the chunky textured ice of the granité more interesting than a straightforward sorbet and just as refreshing.

The dessert finalé was a bit of a let down after the deft touch shown in so many of the courses that preceded it and I don’t think this was wholly down to our already feeling quite full. We were each served a plate with several sweets presented on it. The large pot of rose water and vanilla crème brulée was too sweet even for my exceedingly sweet tooth and I couldn’t make out the rose flavouring at all. A huge chocolate slab was billed as a “silk” with mentions of pistachios, pine kernels and cashew nuts but again, the chocolate was overly sweet and it reminded me of the cheaply-produced brownie I’d bought from a train station coffee shop that same morning. The chunk of pineapple marinated in saffron and blasted in the tandoori oven was served over a bed of “pineapple halva” which I liked very much – here at last was an innovative fusion of traditional semolina-based halva with a new pineapple twist. Most popular with both of us was the rose petal kulfi in which one could easily find whole, slightly crunchy petals smothered in the creamy pink ice-cream. A small pile of finely diced fresh mango and strawberry completed the dessert plate, most of which we left unfinished.

My friend’s comment on the 6 wines that were chosen to accompany this set menu was that whilst they were perfectly acceptable and reasonably priced for a restaurant of this calibre, none stood out either as exceptionally strong or poor choices for their partner dish. Servings of each were quite small which suited my friend but might disappoint someone expecting standard servings of the reds and whites. Champagne and dessert wine servings were more standard in size.

Most of the staff are friendly and helpful though our main waitress was difficult to understand (both due to her quiet speaking voice and strong accent) as well as quite reluctant to elaborate on what we were eating beyond the basic stock description given on the point of serving. A smile wouldn’t go amiss either. Our main waiter was both friendlier and more accommodating and also seemed more knowledgeable and we also had a friendly visit from General Manager, Luigi Gaudino.

Overall, we both enjoyed the meal very much and agreed that the first half of the menu was by far the most enjoyable, exciting, innovative and appealing. If we come again, and we’d both like to do so, we’ll probably ask in advance whether a menu based on the starters only can be arranged or perhaps order from the a la carte menu, though many of the gems we enjoyed are missing from it’s pages.

Zaika on Urbanspoon
© 2006 - 2014 Kavita Favelle Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha