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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Chocolate truffles.

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Odette’s restaurant.

 

Do you drink a variety of teas? Black, green, white? Oolong? {whispers} Herbal or fruit? {stops whispering}

How do you make yours?

Do you boil the kettle, pour boiling water over the tea bag or leaves and stir impatiently to make the tea brew faster?

Do you brew directly in the mug?

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I use loose leaf tea in a mug.

I don’t really miss a teapot as I rarely drink more than a mug of tea at a time (and never the same tea as Pete chooses to drink). Tea leaves go into a fine mesh strainer that can easily be lowered into my mug. I reuse the same leaves for at least another brew, often two or three, depending on the tea.

But I am guilty of using boiling water straight from the kettle.

And, as any fule kno, many teas are not at their best when brewed in boiling water.

Black tea (and herbal or fruit infusions, which I snootily don’t consider to be tea) are better suited to brewing at 100°C.

But oolong, green and white teas benefit from lower temperatures.

Flavour-providing amino acids and natural sugars dissolve into water at relatively low temperatures, releasing sweetness as well as a range of rich and complex flavours. Higher water temperatures extract more tannins resulting in bitterness that can easily overwhelm the key flavours of these types of teas.

Good quality tea should be treated with respect.

I really ought to know better, having benefited from the wonderful expertise of many a top tea master over the years. I have tasted exquisite teas from China to Japan, Taiwan to Korea, India to East Africa and enjoyed them at their optimum. And yet the best I’ve managed when making tea at home is to leave the kettle for a few minutes after boiling, to allow the temperature of the water to drop a little. Of course, I never have any idea of just how much it’s dropped.

It’s criminal really, given that I happily spend money on excellent tea. My current favourite is still Momo Cha Fine Teas’ High Mountain Oolong, but I’m also enjoying a delicious genmai-cha from The East India Company and an elderly but surprisingly well preserved oolong from Teanamu (my fault: I found it, forgotten, at the bottom of a box of tea).

For over a year, I’ve loosely been investigating smart kettles – the kind that allow you to heat the water to a number of different temperatures. A friend of mine has one and I’ve been coveting my own but I never get farther than an idle internet browse. I’ve not even made a shortlist, let alone picked a winner and placed an order.

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Lucky day, then, when Sage by Heston Blumenthal asked me if I’d be interested in trying their Tea Maker, a specialist kettle with tea making function built in. The Tea Maker has a number of pre-sets and the option to use customised settings too. You can use it simply as a kettle, heating the water to your desired temperature. It also offers a brewing function: place tea leaves into the basket provided and the Tea Maker will lower the leaves into the heating water for a specific amount of time, dependent again on the type of tea. Lastly, the Tea Maker can keep the tea (or water) warm for up to an hour.

I probably won’t use the brewing function very often, as it’s recommended for a larger volume of water than I’d want to brew at a time. But the adjustable brewing temperature is an easy way for me to enjoy my favourite teas at their very best.

 

You can find more information about the Sage by Heston Blumenthal Tea Maker here, including a video of Heston explaining how it works. To hear Heston talk in more detail about tea, see this #TalkTeaWithHeston Youtube video.

Kavey Eats received a sample Tea Maker from Sage by Heston Blumenthal. All opinions expressed are my own.

 

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

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

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

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

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Exterior, Google Street View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Square Meal

 

We usually use our Magimix food processor for slicing and grating but it has a large footprint, and takes up valuable space on our worktop… And as it’s pretty heavy, it’s not hugely practical to put it away and get it back out each time we need it. Even though it’s a great appliance, I’m starting to resent the space it takes up more and more, and thinking about alternatives.

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Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go; Sensiohome Slica

When I first saw these much smaller food slicers, I thought one of them might be a good option. They are a fair bit smaller than our food processor, so could be left out all the time, but they’re also light enough that it should be easy to grab them from the cupboard as and when needed. Of course, the functionality is reduced – we use our food processor to puree, blend and mix wet batters – but we have a very good blender that can do those tasks just as easily.

I was offered the opportunity to review two models by well known brands. We did some side-by-side testing to put both models through their paces.

As you can see, the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go has a smaller footprint, which is great for households with limited space. The Sensiohome Slica is a little larger, but exactly the same height.

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The Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go comes with three attachments – slicing, shredding and grating.
The Sensiohome Slica comes with five attachments – fine slicing, coarse slicing, fine shredding, coarse shredding and grating.

The Desire Slice & Go has specially provided slots on the back in which to store the two attachments that are not currently in use.
The Sensiohome Slica doesn’t have any such storage for the four attachments not in use.

We found the Desire Slice & Go attachments very simple to change – they are held in place with the red screw-on cap.
In contrast, the Sensiohome Slica attachments were a real struggle to change, particularly to remove after use.

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The feeding funnels are similar in size – the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go one is marginally smaller, requiring food to be cut into slightly smaller pieces before feeding through.

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We found that the Sensiohome Slica had more of a tendency to fling the extruded vegetables to the side, thus completely escaping the bowl we’d placed beneath it. A wider plate would help with this.
The Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go also did this, but to a much lesser extent.

By virtue of its additional attachments, the Sensiohome Slica allowed us to grate red cabbage, white cabbage and carrot more finely.
However, the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go attachments grated the vegetables sufficiently finely for our purposes.

Although the motors are both rated at 150 watts, the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go was significantly faster and more powerful, and the vegetables fed through without pressure, very quickly.
We found ourselves having to push vegetables down with the feeder insert and force them against and through the cutting blades.

After use, we found the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go much easier to disassemble and clean.
The Sensiohome proved tricky to disassemble and clean, partly because pieces of food became stuck between blade and tube during use.

Both models offer a continuous power and a pulse option. We used continuous power for our testing.

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We did a further experiment with a block of cheddar.

The Sensiohome Slica was completely unable to process the cheddar at all – the cheese gummed up the grater attachment and tube within seconds. We suspect this is because the attachment cutting edges aren’t sharp enough. We tried to push the cheese down against them using the tube feeder, but it didn’t help and we gave up and grated the cheese by hand.
The Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go handled the block of cheddar without any problems at all. I don’t know whether the blades are sharper, or whether Russell Hobbs have simply harnessed more power from the motor (both are 150 watts), but whatever the reason, the results were drastically different.

 

CONCLUSION

When it comes to pricing, both appliances are available for approximately the same price, if you shop around.

Amazon is currently offering the Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go for £29.88.
The Amazon price for the Sensiohome Slica is £44.53 however, you can find it for £25.89 at Argos or £24.99 on The A Range.

Clearly, Russell Hobbs Desire Slice & Go is ahead on virtually all counts – it has a smaller footprint, is faster and more effortless to use, the attachments are easier to insert and remove and it is easier to clean after use. It is also better able to handle dense or sticky ingredients such as cheese.
The Sensiohome Slica offers more granularity of grating or shredding size, and a very slightly wider feed tube but is difficult to assemble, disassemble and clean, lacks power in use and fails on key tests such as grating cheese.

 

Kavey Eats received product samples of both appliances, courtesy of Russell Hobbs and Sensiohome (MPL Group).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Warda restaurant.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Rabot 1745.

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Square Meal

 

I’ve been trying to nail Southern Fried Chicken for quite some time.

Some recipes call for the chicken to be brined before cooking. Others marinade the meat in buttermilk instead. Some recipes don’t feature brine or marinade at all. Some cooks coat the chicken with nothing but flour and spices; others use buttermilk or an egg-and-milk mix to help the flour and spices adhere to the chicken. And of course, I’ve come across countless online recipes claiming to have cracked the secret spice blend for a KFC copycat, if that’s what you’re after…

The key problem for us has been in ensuring the chicken is cooked all the way through without overcooking the crispy coating. Of course, setting the right oil temperature helps a lot with that, as does the size of chicken pieces. But it’s remained my main point of difficulty.

When we received our Sous Vide Supreme, we poached chicken in it as one of our first experiments in getting a feel for how it worked and where the strengths of the technique lie. (For the record, the chicken was moist and evenly cooked, but no more so than if we’d poached it in our slow cooker).

But that experiment made it occur to me that we could sous vide the chicken first, to ensure that it was cooked right the way through and then apply the coating and deep fry.

Bingo! No more worries about the chicken being cooked at the core…

Of course, if you don’t have a sous vide machine, you can seal the chicken into bags (or wrap in cling film) and poach at a low simmer until cooked all the way through.

The next question is one of flavourings. The previous times I’ve made Southern Fried Chicken, I’ve blended my own spice mix in which I’ve included dried oregano, dried sage, dried rosemary, garlic powder, paprika, chilli powder, ground black pepper and salt. Of those, I’d say the core ingredients are oregano, paprika, chilli powder and garlic powder.

But this time I realised I had the perfect ready-made seasoning mix sitting in front of me – a tub of African Volcano Seasoning Rub (Medium). In case you can’t get hold of this, I’ve provided an alternative blend in the recipe below.

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Southern Fried Chicken | Making Use of Sous Vide

Serves 2-3

Ingredients
6 boneless chicken thighs
150-200 ml (about 1 cup) buttermilk
150-200 grams (about 1 cup) plain flour
2-3 tablespoons African Volcano Seasoning Rub (or see note, below)
Salt and pepper

Note: You can substitute African Volcano Seasoning Rub with 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon dried sage, 1 teaspoon chilli powder and 1 teaspoon garlic powder.

Method

  • Pre-heat your sous vide machine to 66 °C (151 °F).
  • Open out the chicken thighs and cut them into two or three pieces each.
  • Add one to two tablespoons of buttermilk to the chicken and coat all the pieces.
  • Spread the chicken out flat in a food-grade plastic pouch and seal with a vacuum sealer.
  • Cook for two hours in the sous vide machine.
    Note: If you don’t have a sous vide machine, seal the chicken and buttermilk into bags (or wrap in cling film) and poach in water at a low simmer until cooked all the way through.

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  • Before removing chicken from the water bath, prepare the plates of coating ready to dip and switch on your deep fat fryer to pre-heat to 170-175 °C.
  • Pour half a cup of buttermilk into a bowl. In another bowl, combine the flour, spice blend and salt and pepper. Have an empty plate ready for floured chicken pieces.
  • Remove the chicken from the water bath, open the pouch, discard the juices and remove chicken pieces onto a plate or dish.
    Note: you don’t want the chicken to cool down in the centre, as you won’t be deep frying it for as long as usual, so allow it to cool for just a couple of minutes before continuing with the recipe.
  • As soon as the chicken has cooled enough to handle, dip each piece into the buttermilk and then into the seasoned flour, ensuring that plenty of flour has adhered to all surfaces of the chicken.

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  • Repeat for the rest of the chicken, adding more buttermilk to the dipping bowl as and when required.
    Ideally, if there are two of you, one person can fry the first batch while the second person dips and flours the remaining chicken.

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  • Fry in small batches, depending on the size of your deep fat fryer.
  • Ours took 5 minutes for the coating to crisp and brown. Increase cooking time if necessary, to achieve the necessary colour and texture.
  • Drain on to a paper towel and serve hot.

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Although that’s shop-bought coleslaw in the photographs, this southern fried chicken is even better served with my smoky paprika coleslaw, which can be made beforehand. Do give it a try.

 

Kavey Eats received a SousVide Supreme and vacuum sealer in exchange for sharing my experiences using the equipment.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eel; Salmon belly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Chisou Restaurant.

Chisou Japanese Restaurant Knightsbridge on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

Recently I started thinking more about ready meals, about other people’s cooking and eating habits and about our own thoughts on ready meals. Usually we have ready meals or ready-made components about once a week. I started musing on whether we could do 7 days in a row eating only ready meals each evening.

I decided to restrict our choices to a single range within one supermarket – Sainsbury’s were kind enough to step up and I chose their Taste The Difference Bistro range to put to the test.

Most of the meals within the Bistro range are priced at £7 (and serve two people); the lasagne costs £6. Some of the meals have felt better value at that price point than others.

For the last several weeks, the Bistro main meals have been part of a £10 meal deal which allows you to choose one main, one Bistro dessert and a bottle of wine. If you fancy dessert, and drink wine, I’d say it’s a fair offer, since the desserts are usually £3.50 and the wines around £5 a bottle.  You’ll have to do the legwork though; in our local store the shelves where the meal deal is promoted never have any wine displayed and my husband has to head to the wine section and root out the wines included in the deal. We took advantage of the meal deal twice. Without the meal deal, these are a little pricy, in my opinion.

Also, be aware that not all branches will stock the full range of Bistro meals or desserts. We generally found only 3 of the meals readily available each time we visited, with another 2 very occasionally in stock. None of the others are sold by our branch and I turned to the team at Sainsbury’s to help me source the rest.

In the end, availability issues (both in terms of us having a fully clear week and the lack of stock in our local branch) meant we weren’t able to stick to my plan to eat the ready meals back to back in a single week. We also ended up trying eight rather than seven items from the range.

We ate these ready meals below spread over a few weeks.

Bistro Chicken with Cider Sauce (£7, 800 grams)

This was a great start. The chicken remained moist during cooking, the creamy cider sauce was tasty and the roasted baby potatoes had a good texture and taste. The onions on top veered towards burnt, but overall, flavours were excellent. I would possibly buy this again, though there are other ready meals I’d choose in preference.

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Bistro Wiltshire Ham Gratin (£7, 800 grams)

Ham, green beans, cheddar cheese, potatoes and breadcrumbs – what’s not to like? We found this delicious and would be happy to buy this again.

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Bistro Lasagne Al Forno With Slow Cooked Beef (£6, 710 grams)

The Bistro lasagne didn’t stack up at all well against premium lasagnes we’ve tried from other supermarkets. Although the ragu had a good flavour, it was lacking in moisture and it didn’t stand out well against the hard, chewy pasta. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I’d never have believed this was from a premium range and it’s definitely not worth £6.

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Bistro Catalan Chicken (£7, 800 grams)

For us, this was definitely the weakest in the range. The chicken meat didn’t remain moist but that was a minor detail. The “Catalan” sauce was really unpleasant, with a horrible flavour reminiscent of a really cheap bottle sauce. There were also a couple of larger pieces of potato that remained a little hard, because they had not cooked sufficiently in the time.

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Bistro Chicken with a Red Wine, Madeira & Mushroom Sauce (£7, 800 grams)

The cooking was split into two for this meal – part way through, a packet of sauce provided was poured over the chicken and the tray returned to the oven. Sadly, the sauce wasn’t great and didn’t live up to expectations on flavour. Onions and mushrooms didn’t benefit from being baked, with mushrooms turning out rubbery and dry and onions ending up a little burnt. The chicken breast wrapped in bacon was decent, but the so-so sauce was the dominant taste. By the time it was the turn of this dish, we were already bored of skin-on roasted new potatoes, though at least the small and size meant they did cook through properly.  I would not buy this again.

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Bistro Chicken with Brie, Bacon & Cream Sauce (£7, 800 grams)

Yep, you guessed it – more skin-on roasted new potatoes. Like the previous dish, the sauce was poured over the vegetables part way through the cooking time. The cheese and bacon kept the chicken reasonably moist. The sauce was tasty though I didn’t feel it went very well with the choice of vegetables, and the vegetables didn’t suit the cooking method very well. The potatoes were properly cooked through. This meal tasted reasonably good but didn’t strike us as a particularly coherent plate.

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Beef Bourguignon (£7, 800 grams)

When we picked this meal up we did start to wonder if the product development team were unaware of other ways to cook potatoes – peeled steamed potatoes would work better here, as would a good creamy mash. Skin-on roasted new potatoes, not so much! The flavours in the Bourguignon itself were good; if the stew were sold on its own, I’d consider buying it (though I’ve made my own previously), but as a complete meal with new potatoes, I wouldn’t buy it again.

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Bistro Creamy Ham Hock & Chicken Pie (£7, 600 grams)

I think this would more accurately be called a gratin rather than a pie, as there’s no pastry in sight. Again, presentation was pretty poor here – it’s clear Sainsbury’s aren’t going for the dinner party demographic! At first glance, there didn’t seem to be much ham or chicken, but as soon as we dug under the surface, there was plenty there. This was a very tasty meal and I’d happily eat this again.

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So the hit rate for great meals in the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Bistro range was quite a bit lower than I expected, especially as chance meant we started strongly with two good choices. We tried eight meals in the range.

There were only three that I’d be happy to have again – the chicken with cider sauce, the Wiltshire ham gratin and the creamy ham hock and chicken “pie”.

Two were good in parts – the choice of potatoes let down the beef bourguignon and the side vegetables did the same for the chicken with brie, bacon and cream Sauce.

The lasagne, Catalan chicken and chicken with red wine, madeira and mushroom sauce were disappointing.

 

Our main supermarket is Waitrose; as we live a couple of minute’s walk away we are able to shop every couple of days rather than do a large weekly shop. We have had a far better hit rate with the ready meals we’ve bought there over the last several years. I’d hoped that the Sainsbury’s meals would hold up well, given that the price point is the same, but it wasn’t the case.

I’m hoping to do similar reviews of other premium ready meal ranges from some of the other supermarkets in coming months. Please let me know if there are any you particularly recommend I try (or avoid)!

 

With thanks to Sainsbury’s for providing the above ready meals for review.

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