For 7 months this year, I was working a contract in central Watford. Since I last worked for the same client a couple of years ago, their business has expanded quite a bit and staff are now split across three different buildings along the same road; meaning I was no longer 30 seconds away from the staff canteen in the original office building. This proved to be a good thing, as it forced me out of the office every day (and the canteen was never very good in any case).

But although the office is right by the shopping centre, Watford isn’t blessed with many decent, quick and affordable lunch options. The addition of a branch of Pret a Manger helps – I went through a a phase of rotating between their meatball wrap and bang bang chicken baguette for weeks on end. But there’s little else that appealed and it didn’t take long for me to bore of their offerings.

A few weeks in, a colleague mentioned a “great sushi place” inside the Watford Market and insisted I should go. Aware of my interest in food and relatively recent obsession with Japan, he was confident I’d like it. I put it off for a few more weeks; my memories of Watford Market were anything but positive and I couldn’t imagine finding great food within its walls. But when I finally checked it out, I was immediately hooked and visited at least twice a week every week for the rest of my contract! (Keep in mind it’s only open 3 weekdays per week…)

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Watford Market has changed over the last year or two; one end has been cleared out and space assigned to a mini-food court with three stalls – the Japanese plus an Indian and a Caribbean (which are looked over by a butcher, two fishmongers and a Turkish sweets and olives shop). The Japanese place has high stool-chairs at the counter and handful of regular tables just opposite; during the months I visited, this little business became more and more popular, and soon we made sure to head over at noon to be in with a hope of getting a seat. They are only open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday lunch times and if you can’t get a seat, they do takeaway too from a small fridge next to the till area – the sushi selections are far tastier, more generous and much less expensive than supermarket or sandwich chain offerings.

The sign above the kitchen reads Sushi No Mai (“Sushi Dance”), which is expanded to Sushi-no-Mai Japanese Grandpa’s Sushi Takeaway Shop on their business cards.

Grandpa, in this case, is Chef N Shimo and a framed document proudly declares his recognition by Sanchokai, the Japan Sushi Association. I believe he used to be a chef at Harrods before launching his his own business here in Watford. Throughout service, he quietly mans the sushi counter, occasionally querying an order or nodding greetings to a customer. His daughter (I think) cooks and plates tempura and teriyaki orders behind him. Two or three additional staff look after customer orders, payments and service.

Not only is the food delicious, it’s also extremely good value.

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Tempura don (£5) includes two or three prawns (depending on size), two or three pieces of fish (white fish and salmon), a slice of sweet potato, a fan of aubergine, slices of sweet pepper and a seasonal green vegetable such as courgette, green beans or asparagus. A generous dressed side salad is also included.

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Pork teriyaki don (£5) comes with salad and a boiled egg and plenty of sauce. The pork is tender, fatty and full of flavour. Salmon teriyaki don is similarly good.

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A sushi and sashimi platter called Scent of Scotland (£4.80) includes four pieces of salmon nigiri sushi and four of salmon sashimi. I’ve added a sweet omelette nigiri (£1) to my order, above. The fish is super fresh.

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The Edomae Set (£5.80) is one of the best value dishes on the menu, containing several pieces of nigiri sushi (including eel, salmon, tuna, prawn and seabream) as well as four large rolls labelled as Watford sushi which include both tuna and salmon as well as a selection of crunchy vegetables. Again, a generous salad is included.

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Chirashi Sushi is a couple of pounds more expensive but includes scallop sashimi and sweet omelette as well as the other types of fish already mentioned.

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Sometimes, if feeling extra hungry, I’d add a tuna roll to my order, for less than £2 this is another bargain and, like the rest of the sushi, comes with wasabi and pickled ginger. Soy sauce is already on every table.

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The only dish I don’t rate very highly is the ramen (£5), which I shied away from anyway, given my propensity to spill food all over myself and the need to go back to work looking half-way respectable! But when I did order it, it didn’t blow me away, perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the recent openings of great ramen restaurant in central London.

Green tea and soft drinks are £1 each.

 

Please note, a few of the prices have gone up (very marginally) since my last visit.

Sushi-No-Mai, Watford Market, Charter Place.

 

I had been looking forward to dinner with friends at Kirazu for weeks.

This tiny Soho restaurant describes itself as “Japanese Tapas” – a cross-cuisine shorthand (for the small dish menu) that is guaranteed to drive my friend Mr Noodles to near apoplexy. Reviews since its launch in April seemed positive and one of our group had been before, for the ramen, and deemed it good. The handful of dishes shown on their blog looked appealing.

But although much of the food was decent, the overall experience was hugely disappointing.

Our booking for seven was allocated a space suitable for five. When we pointed this out and suggested we’d need the two neighbouring places too, the staff were very put out and insistent that this was not possible, though they could clearly see that we could not physically squeeze any more people onto our given benches. All the more surprising, given that the restaurant was not fully occupied during the entirety of our visit; neither the two extra seats we requested (and ultimately used) nor the two next to them were taken.

I’m usually pretty sympathetic to staff for whom English isn’t a first language, as long as we can communicate eventually. When they are from the country of the cuisine being served, the language issues are balanced out by their helpful familiarity with the ingredients and dishes. But at Kirazu, language barriers made the process inordinately difficult. Even asking how many dishes we might need for our group size was challenging, and I gave up after a few attempts to explain the question in different ways. Asking for information about the actual dishes was impossible. And, despite there being more than enough waiting staff for the tiny number of customers, it was far harder than it should have been to catch their attention, perhaps because each interaction with customers was an ordeal for them too.

With just one chef, service was very slow. It took a long, long time for our food to come out, and when our two late-arrivals ordered a handful more dishes, some never turned up at all, despite chasing.

But most frustrating of all were the portions. While the use of the word “tapas” does give an indication, Kirazu made the diminutive size of its dishes an art form.

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Take a look at the picture of Sautéed Lotus Roots (£2.50) from their website (on the left), alongside mine (on the right), showing the portion we were actually served. The friend who’d been to Kirazu before commented that the serving had been twice as large on his previous visit.

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Agedashi Tofu4.50) was similarly minuscule; those cubes are small! It was a decent example of the dish but by no means among the best I’ve had in London.

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Chicken Karaage (£4.50) was hot, juicy and gone in a flash.

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Grilled Conger Eel & Cucumber (£4.50) was, once again, tiny; what was there was decent.

A Seaweed Salad with Sesame Dressing (not pictured) (£4) was OK, but uninspiring. The dressing was mediocre.

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Mini Rice Bowl, topped with seared roasted pork (£6) actually made us giggle – you know the kind of giggle that’s covering up utter disbelief? At the bottom of a normal-sized bowl was an inch of rice (come on, how cheap is rice, for goodness sake?), a trickle of sauce and 4 miserly bites of pork. And the pork wasn’t even very good; I found it dry and a little bland.

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One of the best dishes we ordered was Takoyaki3.50). These batter balls with octopus inside were served freshly made, meltingly soft and piping hot such that the heat caused the generous sprinkling of bonito flakes on top to swirl and wave like living organisms. Beautiful and delicious.

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The worst dish in our selection for me was the Grilled Aubergine with Sweet Miso Sauce4.50), usually one of my favourites. A small piece of aubergine with tough skin spread with a thin layer of rather bitter miso in place of the usual sweet-savoury miso marinade that marries so well with smoky aubergine flesh. It hadn’t been grilled long enough after the miso was added either, so the miso was dull and lifeless rather than charred and bubbling.

Having ordered tea to drink, I asked for more hot water in my cafetiere once I’d emptied it. Not only is refilling tea standard practice in Japanese restaurants, the second brew is often even better than the first. I was very haughtily informed that they don’t do this, and the waitress turned away before I could respond.

We ordered the dishes I’ve described as a first round, intending to order more as the evening went. But as the dishes slowly came to the table, and we realised how tiny they were, not to mention the lack of welcome in the service, we decided to draw a line under our visit and head elsewhere for something more filling, tasty and better value. Even then, our frustration wasn’t over. Again and again and again and again we asked for the bill. When we finally received it, we were not impressed to see it hadn’t been itemised, so no way to check whether it had been collated correctly.

We paid, we left.

I won’t be back.

Kirazu on Urbanspoon
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I am in the minority; I never warmed to Hakkasan, underwhelmed by all three of the holy trinity of food, service and setting. Sitting in nightclub-like gloom, eating overpriced food served by poorly trained staff just doesn’t appeal and I’ve been at a loss to understand either the Michelin star or the multitude of fans. As for Wagamama, I credit it with popularising Japanese-inspired ramen more widely across the UK, and have certainly grabbed a quick meal there on occasion, but it’s not a restaurant I seek out. "Acceptable" is the best I can say of it, though at least it’s far cheaper than Hakkasan.

So Naamyaa, also from Alan Yau, was not a restaurant I made any particular effort to visit when it launched last year. (Yauatcha remains on my list, I have always assumed I’d like it but simply never managed to visit. Busaba Eathai I hear is decent, offering authentic Thai in sleek surrounds at high prices).

Indeed, I only came to visit Naamyaa at all after a seriously misguided visit to GBK. (I know, I know, I’ve said often enough that any restaurant that needs to put ‘gourmet’, ‘fine’ or ‘ultimate’ in its name clearly isn’t; in my defence a brewery we really like wanted to celebrate making it onto the GBK drinks menu and asked us to come along). Ten minutes was all we could endure of the appallingly awful "burgers", the too-close tables and the chest-vibrating music rendered into unrecognisable thumpy white noise by too many hard surfaces and a poor quality sound system. Social media came to the rescue when we asked for recommendations within the immediate area. Naamyaa was suggested three times within the first several responses!

Naamyaa is described as a "Bangkok Cafe", (in which Thai dishes are routinely served alongside food from neighbouring countries and a few from the West) and its menu, like that of Busaba Eathai, is a collaboration between restaurateur Alan Yau and chef David Thompson. Indeed, it’s owned by the same business and positioned as a sister brand to Busaba Eathai.

Naamyaa’s look and feel is much lighter and more informal than Busaba Eathai’s, which in turn is not as dingy as Hakkasan. For me, that’s definitely a good thing.

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Stepping inside was an immediate balm after our nails-on-a-chalkboard reaction to GBK.  A colourful, luxurious interior which beautifully balanced traditional Asian design motifs with modern (but not minimalist) interior design was warm and inviting, vibrant yet relaxing. Instantly soothed, we were welcomed in and offered a choice of where to sit – in the main area or in the small, intimate space by the window. We chose a comfortable low corner sofa and coffee table flooded with light from the floor to ceiling windows.

The menu sections were a little confusing, we found. Dishes in one mains section came only with rice and those in the other section only with noodles, which felt a little prescriptive. And we didn’t spot the much-written-about Western dishes such as burgers or eggs on toast – I’ve since noticed they seem to be restricted to the breakfast and brunch menu.

Staff were ready to step in with advice about the various dishes, though once I explained my preference for mild to medium chilli heat rather than very hot, we were firmly steered away from large swathes of the menu with dire warnings about the heat levels. The specials board was also explained, though it would have been great to have printed sheets slipped into the menus as we couldn’t see the board from where we sat and it was hard to remember the full list we’d been talked through.

I’m always happy to see an appealing range of soft drinks, as these are so often after thoughts to the wines, beer, spirits and alcoholic cocktails list. My Watermelon Bangkok (£3.80) was wonderfully refreshing in the heat. Pete was happy to see Asahi beer on draft (brewed on license in the UK by Shepherd Neame) but £5.90 a pint is a little steep.

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I remember having the Jasmine Tea Smoked Ribs (£8.50) at Hakkasan. I liked them there but couldn’t detect the smoking, making them pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary compared to much cheaper local neighbourhood chinese takeaways. These were much better with a mild but clear smokiness to the flavour, wonderfully soft and tender meat and a delicious sticky sauce coating.

From the specials board, Fried Eggs with Chilli Jam (£5) were incredible. The eggs cooked perfectly so that the yolk was a viscuous pool of golden liquid, the white was set but not rubbery, with a lovely crisp "skin" from being briefly deep fried. The chilli jam was a deeply savoury mush with a welcome fishy umami  note; so intense and so good I would order it on its own.

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Naamyaa Chicken (£9.50) came with (a tiny portion of) noodles and beansprouts, and half a plain boiled egg and dragonfruit slices that seemed more for show than an integral element of the dish. Oh-my-goodness was this hot! One of the dishes our waitress deemed less hot than most of the rest, this was not only way too hot for me, it was also too hot for Pete who has a much higher chilli tolerance. A shame as we both thought it was delicious, but had to admit defeat as our mouths couldn’t take any more burning.

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Braised Tofu, Aubergine and Shimeji (£9.40) was in the Rice Set section of the menu, which meant it came with a bowl of rice and a pot of broth soup. This was the second standout dish of the meal for me. Much like a Chinese black bean dish but with far more complexity of flavour to the thick sauce, I struggled to identify what ingredients added to the richness – fish sauce, shrimp paste, something else entirely? And I absolutely loved how tofu, aubergine and mushrooms all had a lovely silkiness in common and yet each had their own texture and taste.

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My Lemongrass Panna Cotta with Fruit (£6.50) was let down for me by the fruit which wasn’t as fresh or flavoursome as it should have been, featuring underripe strawberries and tinned peaches. Next time, I’ll skip dessert and focus on the starters and mains.

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We were surprised that two out of three filter coffees (£3) listed in the menu were not available (poor stock management) but what was available was a good coffee. It took an inordinately long time coming though.

We really enjoyed our evening at Naamyaa. Although we’d have to be careful with choosing dishes given the chilli heat, we’d definitely go again. A big thank you to those who suggested it!

Naamyaa Cafe on Urbanspoon
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A picture tells a thousand words, so here are a selection from a lunch we had back in May. We’d done a few hours at the allotment that morning and went back to continue our efforts once fortified by a delicious lunch at Pera Ocakbasi.

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We ordered starters of garlic mushrooms and a selection of mixed hot meze and shared a main of halep – pieces of minced lamb kebab and cubed bread in a tomato sauce. Olives, pickles and bread were served on arrival and the main came with a large side salad and an onion side dish. Nearly everything was superb, especially the mushrooms, fresh bread and kebab, with the only let down being the use of very stale oil to fry the bread pieces used in the halep.

 

Mac n cheese sushi style”?

Er… what the hell is that?

Well, for one thing, it’s a menu item guaranteed to cause sharp intake of breath amongst those convinced that classics must never be meddled with and that twists and fusions are an abomination… But I think life’s too short to be too narrow-minded and proscriptive about food so I was very intrigued by this dish and many others on the menu.

When a journalist and blogger friend tweeted that he was dining in Watford’s self-described “best restaurant”, I confess I stifled a giggle. I’m actually a big fan of Watford but in my (not exhaustive) experience, much of the culinary landscape consists of boring chains, ranging from the awful through to the mediocre and acceptable but seldom showcasing greatness. The independents aren’t a great deal better on the whole, though there are exceptions such as the gem that is Grandpa’s Sushi in Watford Market (review soon) and Taste of Lahore on the High Street.

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Details soon emerged and I was even more surprised to learn that my friend was talking about Rodell’s, just a minute’s walk from my previous office and maybe 2 or 3 from my current one. Not surprised because I’d been there myself or because I’d heard anything about it (good or bad) but because I didn’t even realise it was a restaurant!

It turns out that Rodell’s has had quite a varied history: Back in the 1960′s, two business partners named their new haberdashery shop by combining their family names, Rodriguez and Martell. José Rodriguez was current owner Mario Tavares’ uncle and the property passed to Mario via his mother who took over in the 1970s. She diversified Rodell’s into a general corner shop to sell groceries, cigarettes and confectionery. Her daughter, Mario’s sister, helped evolve the business again by introducing sandwiches and catering for local offices.

In 2004 it was Mario’s turn. After an exciting and successful career spanning both performance and production of music, TV, arts and digital animation, Mario wanted to focus instead on his love of great food and cooking, especially the many cuisines he’d picked up travelling the world for work and pleasure.

Mario converted Rodell’s into an organic deli, serving breakfast and lunch to the local area. His simple no-menu approach was ahead of its time — think how popular no-choice menus have become today, both in underground restaurants and commercial ones. With the lack of menus and signs in the window, and it being closed when I passed by early morning and at the end of the working day, I had no inkling that the shop was actually a hive of activity during the day!

However, as many business owners found, the recession started to bite and in 2009 Mario closed shop. It was not until 2011 that he re-launched, this time as a bar and restaurant, with the intention of creating a vibrant and friendly community hub.

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Downstairs, a bar sits to one side of the small room, exposed brick and wooden floors creating a warm inviting little space. Particularly popular are the two draft taps, not for beer but for Prosecco! Mario was one of the first in the UK to install these.

Staff are friendly and the three we chatted to during the evening clearly share our love for great food and drink.

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Upstairs are two dining rooms, also simply styled. Pale wooden tables and walls make the most of the light flooding in from huge windows. A mix of old and modern furnishings and knick knacks give a touch of homeliness. Mario’s favourite films are projected onto one wall – Hairspray and Pink Panther during our meal. Also playing is a music tape, quite unrelated to the films, which makes for some surreal moments.

Mario explains that he’s not a trained chef but has learned from many different sources and in many different places. His menu is essentially a very eclectic and constantly changing mix of sharing plates and he is not constrained by notions of what goes with what. Instead he makes what he likes to cook and eat, confident that others will too.

A born host, Mario tells us how he wants his customers to help him shape what Rodell’s is to them. In return, customers quickly become regulars; some from just around the corner and some from further afield.

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He’s one of those genuine happy people it’s impossible not to warm to immediately. His giggle actually is infectious, clichéd though that may sound.

A childhood in the Philippines meant he learned to love great food at a young age. Since then he’s lived and travelled all around the world and found more delicousness in each place.

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So, what about the food?

I can see how some might be alarmed by the way the menu meanders right around the world from dish to dish. Surely Malaysian should be served with Malaysian, Chinese with Chinese, Spanish with Spanish? Bah humbug to that suggestion – I relish the eccentric menu and am happy to trot the globe with my palate.

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Savoury bread and butter pudding (£4.50) is served with a small cup of thin soup. The soup is OK but the pudding is magnificent – imagine crispy light layered puff pastry top and bottom, around a melting savoury cheesy custard interior, with a little pesto slathered on top. Yeah!

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Dry spicy Cajun ribs (£8) are so big I wonder if they come from a dino-pig. The quality of the pork is evident as they are tender, tasty and with a beautiful thick layer of fat. The cajun spice rub has a kick!

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Fritto misto (£6) is the weakest dish, for me. I’m just not convinced that it works with such tiny pieces of seafood and I definitely don’t like mussels served this way, though I like them in other recipes. I’d also suggest serving it with aioli alongside, such as the one served with the chicken.

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Spanish pollo ajillo (£6) (garlic chicken) wings are served piping hot, superbly tender and juicy on the inside with a crisp exterior; perfect dipped in the aioli provided.

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Lemon prosecco risotto (£6) divides us. We both agree it has great flavour, but I find it far too dry and stodgy. Pete likes it but I much prefer a looser, more liquid risotto.

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Malay beef rending (£8) is fantastic! It has a superb balance of flavours, the meat is as soft as you could hope for and the heat is enough to make itself known but not so hot it masks the rest. My only comment would be that for £8 the portion is small given that no rice or bread comes alongside. A flaky roti canai would go down a treat and make it better value too.

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And finally I want to tell you about that mac n cheese sushi style (£8). Macaroni tubes are neatly (dare I say obsessively?) arranged and glued together by a cheese sauce, then breadcrumbed, fried and served in slices that resemble rolled sushi. To my surprise, the cheese sauce is liquidy soft and melting – I can’t imagine how the slices don’t disintegrate into a slop on the plate! I often hear people claiming that there is nothing new under the sun and that any real twist to a classic worth trying has been tried already. This dish proves them wrong because it’s bloody genius and even if I hadn’t fallen for any other dish I’d go back for this alone.

You can see we ordered seven dishes between us but five or six would have been plenty, as we started hungry but finished so full we could hardly roll ourselves back down the stairs.

As well as the prosecco there’s a nice range of fairly priced soft and alcoholic drinks. And Mario’s just converted some outside space into a little drinking and eating deck, perfect in the current heatwave.

What do you think, abomination or genius? Or do you need to try it for yourself to decide?

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Rodell’s.

 

This Easter I ran a competition to win a Bettys chocolate badger and was overwhelmed by the popularity of the giveaway! I loved reading the responses to my entry question of which woodland animal people wanted to see similarly immortalised in chocolate. Following the competition, I arranged with Kelly Young (Engagement Manager for Bettys) for Pete and I to pay them a visit on the way back from our holiday in Islay.

After overnighting with friends in beautiful Kirby Malham (and visiting their newly acquired farm shop in Airton) we made our way through beautiful countryside to Bettys attractive HQ near central Harrogate.

As I explained in that previous post, Bettys is a family business founded back in 1919 by a young Swiss man, Frederick Belmont. Today, the business is still run by his descendants and they have kept alive strong links to the country of his birth. Indeed current chairman Lesley Wild ensures that several Swiss-inspired recipes are offered on the menus in the Cafe Tea Rooms as well as a selection of Swiss wines. These sit comfortably side by side with the many local Yorkshire specialities that Bettys is also known for.

HQ is situated in a spacious, purpose-built estate in Plumpton Park with several Swiss-chalet inspired low-rise buildings. Even the parking areas impressed me, with pretty trees giving shade to most spaces and gardeners busily tending the green spaces when we arrived.

Signed in, we quickly donned our white coats and attractive hair nets (see below) before setting off on a genuinely fascinating tour of the bakery; it’s here that they make the baked goods sold in Bettys’ six Cafe Tea Rooms and online shop.

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To my surprise, virtually everything is made just like it would be in a home kitchen (but on a bigger scale). Aside from a couple of larger-than-usual stand mixers, cakes are iced and decorated, biscuit dough is rolled and cut, pastries are filled and assembled, bread is shaped into loaves, macarons are piped … by hand. Indeed, the two machines they use to cut shortbread biscuits into even flat circles and mille feuille pastry into perfect rectangles, are a rare contrast to the rest of the bakery’s old school methods.

Mostly we just watched, listening to Peter Hartley – one of the bakery managers – explain the various sections and methods used, but I was delighted to have a go at foil-wrapping a large chocolate coin wearing the special gloves used to achieve a smooth and lustrous finish.

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The bakery isn’t averse to modern technology where it’s useful and doesn’t compromise the product, such as their vast ovens with rotating racks inside, but I couldn’t help but fall for the modern-build old-design wood-fired oven in which they bake traditional breads.

After the bakery tour, we thought our agenda had us taking a quick peek around the Bettys Cookery School, located on the same site. With no courses scheduled on a Monday, we knew there wouldn’t be much going on.

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But to our surprise and delight, Kelly had secretly arranged for senior tutor Lisa Bennison to run a private class just for us, to give us a taster of the cookery school in action.

Lisa taught us two dishes during our class: Zuri-Geschnetzeltes and Spätzle (often written as spaetzle in languages without the umlaut). The first is thinly sliced veal in a sauce of mushrooms, cream, white and onions and the second is little egg noodles shaped by pushing a thick batter into boiling water through small holes – Bettys use a specialist pan. In this recipe, the freshly boiled spaetzle were fried in butter before serving.

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We loved Lisa’s enthusiastic, humorous but tip-packed teaching style and there were plenty of giggles to go round as Pete mixed batter, boiled and fried his spaetzle under Lisa’s watchful eye. The proof was in the tasting and the whole dish tasted very good indeed.

You can find the Bettys cookery school recipes for Zuri-Geschnetzeltes and Spätzle here.

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image courtesy of Bettys

After our wonderful class in the cookery school, Kelly had one more treat in store for us – lunch at the nearest Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms in central Harrogate. The interior is spacious and beautiful, full of gorgeous original features. There’s a cafe on the ground floor and the slightly more formal Montpellier downstairs.

Although many fellow diners were enjoying an early afternoon tea, we all chose from the delicious menu of savoury dishes, many with a strong Swiss influence.

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Pete’s Original Yorkshire Rarebit was made with mature Cheddar, Worcestershire sauce and Yorkshire ale. Swimming in cheese, it was a rich and heavy dish, but tasty.

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My Swiss Rosti was topped with chicken and cheese. It was a delicious combination of caramelised potatoes on the surface and soft, almost steamed potatoes in the centre.

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Kelly went for a beautifully summery pea and spinach ravioli which looked very attractive on the plate and certainly earned smiles of appreciation as she ate.

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Afterwards, we enjoyed desserts from the cake trolley. Beautiful!

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Last, a quick dash around the shop for me to buy some sweet treats to bring home and we finally made our way back to London, regretful that Bettys local ethos makes it unlikely that we’ll see a branch open near us anytime soon.

Coming next, a competition to win some Bettys deliciousness for yourself…

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Bettys bakery, cookery school and cafe tea room.

 

Bringing a taste of Barcelona’s La Boqueria  market and local cooking to London – that was the aim of Streets of Spain, a combined food market and cultural event held at London’s Southbank over the first May bank holiday weekend. Sponsored by Spanish wine producers Campo Viejo, the event saw a (fairly small) selection of traders from La Boqueria set up their stalls at one end of the far larger Real Food Market that extended from Royal Festival Hall to the London Eye.

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As part of the event, renowned Spanish chef Angel Pascual presented a special tasting menu in a three night popup restaurant.

Until 2011 when it closed its doors, Pascual was at the helm of the michelin-starred Lluçanès Restaurant which he and partner Rosa Morera originally opened in Osana, Catalonia in 1991 but relocated to Barcelona in 2006. Once there, they also opened a second restaurant, Els Fogons serving affordable traditional tapas.

Now they run a catering business that also provides consultancy, cooking classes and demonstrations.

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In a space that looks like it was converted from parking or warehouse space (and is now regularly used for similar popup events organised by the Southbank Centre), we discovered a small bar and a tiny temporary kitchen on a raised platform over-looking an expansive dining area.

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Each evening was organised into two sittings – we were part of the first. Despite the tiny kitchen and 40 diners per sitting, dishes came out at perfect intervals in a clearly choreographed performance between chefs and waiters. As the waiters delivered dishes to each table, they were followed around by colleagues who introduced and poured matching wines for each course.

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Horse mackerel and guacamole with a bloody Mary sauce

Before the menu proper, came an amuse. In a martini glass was a small slice of horse mackerel that had been lightly salted and dried. Served over an intense smooth guacamole, topped with sweet sharp tomato sauce, it was a cross between cocktail and canape. The mackerel was as soft as sashimi. The Campo Viejo Cava Rose served with it was a touch sweeter than the white Cava Brut we tried later, but still crisp.

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Sopa cremosa de comenillas con huevo de cordoniz cocido a baja temperatura

The first course listed on the menu was “seasonal wild mushrooms stuffed with traditional Spanish black pudding, served with quail egg in a cream of mushroom sauce” and served with the Cava Brut.

The morel mushroom was superbly flavoured, as was the rich cream of mushroom soup but neither of us could detect any hint of black pudding within the stuffing. The dryer cava cut through the richness well and gave Pete a faint impression of lemon sherbet.

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Mil hojas de verduras i setas de temporada

The next course was translated on the menu as “a variety of layered season vegetables accompanied with a potato parmentier sauce  and drizzled with a flavoursome vegetable reduction”. The matched wine was Campo Viejo Tempranillo 2011. I always bristle a little when menus describe a dish as tasty, flavoursome or delicious – it always seems a little too presumptious to me. Still…

Although it looked pretty on the plate, the layering, with crisp pastry-like potato on top, made it difficult to eat without it splatting out across the plate. That aside, it was delicious, and noteworthy for how intensely Pascual made each vegetable sing of itself. Courgette was intensely courgette, aubergine intensely aubergine, and the same went for carrot and mushrooms. I thought the rosemary a touch strong but it balanced with the white sauce and oil which both, contrary to the expectations given by the menu, tasted of very little.

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Arroz de barca especiado un punto picante com gambas de la Ionja de la Barceloneta

With the prawn head standing to attention, I watched the next course of “smoked risotto cooked with prawns fresh from the Barceloneta market – served a little spicy for added kick” being served to the tables around us.

Staff were a little slow to serve the Campo Viejo Reserva 2007 but perhaps that was because they took more time to explain the choice to match a red wine to the fish dish. Brand ambassador and head sommelier Alfredo Del Rio, when he spoke to us later, was keen to make much of how bold and rare a choice it was to pair fish with red, but really it’s not quite as unusual as he implied. Still, with such strong flavours, it made good sense.

The flavour of the risotto was far more successful than the texture, which we found intensely chalky, almost gritty and let the dish down for us. On the other hand, the rice carried a strong taste of the sea, which worked well against the very sweet and soft prawn. I yearned for more actual seafood; Pete’s dish had a full prawn, albeit a small one but mine must have broken during the cooking and what remained was the size of a newborn’s thumb.

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Texturas y temperaturas de ave cerdo y ternera con verduras del tiempo a la brasa

The meat course was “a selection of duck, pork and beef with grilled seasonal vegetables” served with Gran Reserva 2005 and was a very mixed course for me.

I loved the simplicity of the presentation, and on first glance the pork looked particularly good. Sadly, when I moved to eat it, I discovered that nearly the entire piece was bone and cartilage and there was just a thin sliver of meat and a soft and unpleasantly chewy skin. Luckily, the beef, incredibly tender and well flavoured, and the duck, like a slice of fall-apart sausage made from confit of duck, were super.

Better still were the vegetables (and fruit); it’s my abiding impression that this is where Pascual truly shines. A single slice of apple was at the same time yieldingly soft yet with the thinnest layer of crispness around its exterior. A slice of artichoke had great intensity of flavour but none of the unpleasant fibres that can sometimes lessen the pleasure. A small cube of potato was beautifully cooked and delicious.

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Bombon de chocolate, sonoro, explosive y tonificante

Described on the menu as “a rich chocolate ingot served with peppermint and an explosive surprise” this disappointed in part because of the damp squib when it came to the surprise element. The popping candy in both our chocolates was so meagre as to give only the merest hint of a snap; certainly a far cry from anything explosive as promised.

Served with the same Cava Rose as the amuse bouche, the best element on the plate was the peppermint foam which was thicker and a touch less ephemeral than the usual fine dining foams are wont to be. The orange jelly was ok too, perhaps blood orange or pink grapegruit. I didn’t feel any of the three elements worked together very well and found the dessert disappointing.

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During the meal, I visited the open kitchen to watch the chefs at work. Angel Pascual was joined by a respected chef from La Boqueria – I was told that she runs a casual restaurant within the market area, serving dishes based on produce sold at the family stall. I’m afraid, I didn’t make a note of her name.

We were also able to chat further to Alfredo Del Rio, who generously invited us to sample some additional Campo Viejo wines which had not been included in the menu. The first was Dominio, which he explained was the premium wine made by the brand, made from grapes grown on just 5 parcels out of the 800 parcels of land that make up the vineyard. Aged in only new French oak barrels for 11 months, it’s young but rich for its age. Pete described it as smooth yet gloriously, lip-puckeringly tannic with tart fresh black fruit. The second was Graciano, not sold in its own right but one of the blends that makes up about 5% of the Gran Reserva served with the meat course. It’s an indigenous varietal, not one that we’d heard of before, and had strong black and blue berry flavours, a dark colour and strong tannin.

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With coffee after the meal, the menu was priced at £65 a head, including the matching wines.

Although we didn’t love every aspect of each dish, we enjoyed the meal thoroughly, not least because of Pascual’s mastery of making vegetables sing and his tendency to let the flavours of the ingredients talk for themselves.

 

Kavey Eats were guests of Campo Viejo.

 

Though it was something of a Fulham Road institution for over 25 years, I never managed to make it to Thai restaurant Blue Elephant at its original London location. In January last year, they moved into a shiny new building at Imperial Wharf, a short distance away.

We finally made our maiden visit on a sunny Sunday in May, driving down from North West London and parking in the adjacent car park that is part of The Boulevard complex. There’s also an overground rail station just around the corner, with quick services from Clapham Junction.

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The space had already been interior designed as a Thai restaurant when the Blue Elephant team took it over, adding their own touches. It’s modelled on a traditional Thai house, with lots of dark wood panelling, beautiful artwork and statuary and fresh tropical flowers.

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image provided by Blue Elephant

Although pastiche like this can often be a turn off, I thought it well done in this case. Spread over three floors, it’s an expansive space, but divided into different areas and rooms, it doesn’t feel that way.

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The first Blue Elephant was opened in Brussels over 30 years ago by chef Khun Nooror Somany Steppe, a Thai living in Belgium with her husband Karl Steppe. The London branch opened a few years after that and now there are twelve in the chain, located across Europe and Asia. Most recently, Blue Elephant have launched cookery schools in some of their locations, with a London school said to be coming soon.

Even though I’d heard some good things about the food (and some less so), it was the high prices of the à la carte menu that put me off visiting for so long. Frustratingly, the website menu doesn’t show prices (and requires you to download a PDF to boot) but we’re talking starters around £11, mains around £30 and sides and desserts are similarly pricey. A multi-course Thai dinner for 2 could easily run to £150 or more even with only a modest drink order.

However, the Blue Elephant Sunday brunch buffet turns that on its head, offering an enormous feast for a fixed price of £30 per person.

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Tables groan with a huge array of starters, mains and desserts. Plenty of staff are on hand to explain dishes and help as needed. Most things are self-service with a manned noodle soup station, made to order and a roast lamb station, with meat carved from the joint on request.

When we visited, the buffet was spread out across the top floor with dining tables on the ground and lower floors. That does mean lots of clambering up and down the stairs with loaded dishes.

As my hip has been playing up lately, I have poor balance carrying things at the best of times and have mild vertigo when going down stairs as well, I resorted to using the lift provided for disabled access. It was slightly disconcerting as it made such loud beeps as it came to rest each time, but no one seemed too put out. If stairs are an issue for you too, ask for a table near the lift when booking.

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Everything Pete and I tried (and between us we tried a lot) was very good, though I found myself drawn most strongly to starters and desserts, many of which were absolutely excellent.

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The dessert table in particular had lots of things I’d never tried before. I was familiar with most of the fresh fruit, beautifully carved and cut. The only one missing for me was some fresh mango, which was certainly in season during our visit, to enjoy with the delicious sticky coconut rice.

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But I’d never come across one fruit on the table before! I did ask my waiter, who went away and came back with the (obviously incorrect) answer of rambutan, so I left its identity aside and broke into the prickly protective shell. The fruit is soft, tastes both sweet and sharp, and it’s quite distinct from any other fruit I know.

A quick web search reveals that this spiky treat is salak (salacca zalacca) aka snake fruit. The fruit of the salak palm tree, it’s native to Indonesia but now grown and enjoyed across East Asia and is a popular street snack in Thailand, where it’s often sold pre-peeled and eaten dipped in sugar and salt.

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We were also fascinated by some of the Thai sweets we’d not seen before, such as the strange but accurately described crispy jelly, with a crunchy shell and soft interior!

Although there were a good number of vegetarian options, I’d say the buffet is best value for omnivores and pescetarians who can benefit from a larger selection of the many dishes on offer.

I’ve read mixed reports on the à la carte offering, both in terms of price and food. But given the high quality of the dishes we tasted, I think Blue Elephant’s Sunday brunch buffet is an excellent way to enjoy their food at a fair price.

 

Blue Elephant on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Kavey Eats was a guest of Blue Elephant Group.

 

Diane Durston, in her beautiful book, Old Kyoto, describes her chance discovery of a small yuba shop a couple of blocks from Kyoto City Hall. On that first visit, she had never heard of yuba and thought she’d stumbled into a paper maker’s, as she watched the proprietor lift thin white sheets from rectangular vats of hot liquid and hang them to dry on wooden rods above.

On that and subsequent visits, the owner introduced her to what he was actually making. Soybeans are first soaked overnight and then ground before being boiled for several hours. The boiled mass is then pressed between heavy stones to extract the rich soy “milk”. This is heated in shallow wooden vats so that a skin forms on the surface. That skin, lifted off in sheets, is yuba.

Of course, many customers buy the yuba fresh but the sheets are also dried, to be reconstituted in hot stocks and soups. I’ve even had it dried and smoked, chopped small and scattered over a salad like bacon bits or cheese.

But in our five days in Kyoto, our plans didn’t take us anywhere near the shop Durston discovered, and with so much else to see, I decided reluctantly to set aside my wish to see yuba being made.

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On a sunny Kyoto day filled with one beautiful temple after another, we ambled slowly from Kennin-ji Temple and Yasui Konpira-gu Shrine to Yasaka-no-to Pagoda. As we turned into a narrow street, the pagoda looming skywards in the distance, I peered into an open shop front and my heart skipped a beat. Unlike Durston, but thanks to her book, I knew exactly what the shallow vats of steaming white liquid meant and we quickly stopped for an impromptu snack.

This little store had certainly modernised beyond the one Durston visited – the vats were made from strong white plastic held in a metal tray, heated with modern plumbing rather than open fires. But the process and product was clearly as she had described.

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Dried yuba was on sale in packets and a giant plastic ice cream cone made me wonder if they sold yuba ice cream. But it was the fresh tofu skin I was after. On a black laminated sheet, I pointed to the picture of a little dish of fresh yuba and took a seat on one of the wooden stools to watch as the shop keeper walked around the vats, checking on the thickness of the skins forming in each, and then quickly but carefully lifted a sheet into a small waiting dish.

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After adding a dash of soy sauce, she passed it to me with a shy but encouraging smile and I happily tucked in. Still warm, the skin had a soft, silky yet chewy texture and a rich, fresh creaminess – the flavour held a subtle gentle savouriness.

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I was tempted to order another portion immediately, but given that we were headed towards an amazake specialist near the pagoda, where we would enjoy more delicious snacks, I resisted.

Our visit lasted only a few minutes, but remains a strong and wonderful food memory from our first trip to Japan.

Mar 282013
 

It’s not unusual for me to receive invitations to dine at London restaurants with a view to reviewing them on Kavey Eats. A recent invitation contained an unusual twist – Arnaud Bignon, the chef and partner at a The Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair wanted a group of us to taste a selection of dishes and provide feedback to narrow down which five would make it onto April’s tasting menu.

I don’t know how much influence our feedback had in reality. There was certainly one dish we all discussed and fed back on (in a less than positive fashion), but certainly we weren’t grilled for our thoughts on most of the courses in any structured or coherent way. Still, it was a great opportunity to sample Arnaud’s Michelin-starred cooking and was a convivial evening.

There were 8 courses on the printed menus we were given, but first three amuse bouche were served.

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On the small spoons were liquid spheres representing a caesar salad. The flavours were great, though I’d have liked a little raw apple to give a crunch, and a touch more parmesan than the tiny morsel on top.

The mushroom meringues had the most incredible texture and flavour and were probably my single favourite course of the entire meal. They melted away so fast on the tongue but left behind an intensely earthy hit of fungi. It took all my restraint not to “accidentally” steal other peoples’!

The third mouthful was rather dull next to the other two. Prawns with a peanut coating were pleasant didn’t thrill.

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Cornish crab, mint jelly, cauliflower, granny smith apple, curry

The presentation of this dish was striking – and the bowl itself created crockery envy in some at the table. The crab was hidden underneath that green jelly layer and was tasty and fresh. The mint taste was a little too faint but certainly there. In the foam on top, the apple came through clearly. I couldn’t detect (on the palate) either the cauliflower or the curry.

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Foie gras, strawberry, hibiscus, tomato, ginger

I don’t think there was one person at the table who liked the various sweet red accompaniments to what was a very fine slice of foie gras. The strawberry liquid was far too sweet, cloying and overwhelming. The tomato actively clashed in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible until I tasted it. I adore foie gras and order it often, and have to confess that this was the worse foie gras dish I’ve ever tasted.

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Line-caught sea bass, yuzu, chlorophyll herbs, polenta

The seabass and yuzu sauce were superb. The fish was perfectly cooked, soft and tasty and the sauce provided a perfect creamy citrus lift. I didn’t really get the green polenta – the “chlorophyll” was clearly basil so I don’t know why it wasn’t just named so – the flavour was alright but it didn’t do much for me at all.

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John Dory, heirloom beetroot, vadouvan, onion seedling

Another really excellent piece of fish, cooked just as it should be. To my surprise, I loved fish with the sweet earthiness of the beetroot. I didn’t really follow what vadouvan was when our waiter briefly mentioned it but Wiki tells me it’s “a ready-to-use blend of spices that is a derivative of Indian curry blend with a French influence”. Unfortunately, the French tendency to tone down spices to the point of homeopathy seems to have occurred and the spice flavours didn’t come through at all.

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Yorkshire lamb, aubergine, sesame seeds, red spring onion, soya sauce

The lamb was delicious and tender and so full of flavour it was hogget- or mutton-like on the palate. The aubergine was soft and silky but not greasy. I liked all the flavours very much. The slick of sauce poured onto the plates at the table was so thin it ran immediately to one side of the plates, revealing the lay of the table and looking rather unsightly. I realise “jus” is still more trendy, but a little thickening into a proper sauce would have made far better visual impact, certainly.

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Pigeon, cevennes onion, rhubarb, almond

I know I wasn’t alone in being surprised to be served poultry after the red meat, though I do appreciate that pigeon is gamier and redder than many birds are. The pigeon breast was pleasant, as was the rhubarb an onion. The little leg on the bone was dreadful, wrapped as it was in a surprisingly thick and flacid skin. I liked the almond crunch. More thin and bitty juice though.

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Pineapple, pine nut, lavender, lemon

The pineapple and pine nut were hidden under a light foam and lemon sorbet (and the pretty but not-so-pleasant-in-the-mouth petals). It was all delicious and I liked the range of textures very much.

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Orange, saffron, date, filo pastry

This was a super finish. The orange sorbet was probably one of the best I’ve ever tasted; it made me sing Kia-Ora, too orangey for crows! I liked how it was served on a bed of crunchy meringue for textural contrast. The filo pastry with saffron cream was delicate and crunched satisfyingly as I pushed down with my spoon. And oh, the orange segments with tiny slivers of date and mint leaves delighted too. Everything on the plate worked separately and together, creating a complete and happiness-inducing dish!

 

There were wine matches too, but I can’t comment on them. I asked for dessert wine instead, and was given three different ones, all of which I enjoyed.

Of the restaurant itself, I particularly liked the secret-garden approach, hidden away in a quiet but very very expensive residential mews. Setting and service was traditional French formal, though hard to assess at this kind of special event.

The tasting menu is listed at £90, though obviously we were served more courses than are usually included.

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of The Greenhouse.

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