Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

Quite unintentionally iconoclastic in its timing, I am publishing a list of some of the best things I ingested during 2010, now that it’s already 2011. I know, I know…forever behind the times. (The ‘unintentionally’ part – if you happen to care – is because I was stuck in Florida due to the storms in the Northeast of the US and didn’t have access to my laptop with all of my photos and notes).

I have decided against posting favorite meals in favor of the most enjoyable dishes of food and glasses (or bottles) of wine, which gives the added benefit of highlighting some excellent establishments and vintners about which, for some reason or other – call it laziness or busyness – I have yet to post a fuller review.

I have made no distinction between the type of place in which the food was served and have included a few oddballs for the fun of it. I thought maybe it might be easier to digest (pardon the pun) by dividing the list into different parts of the day. I didn’t necessarily have all of the dishes at the specified time of the day (though I mostly did), but assigned them to the mealtime that people would be most likely to consume them.

But without further adieu, Maestro, drum-roll please…

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

Well, to come clean, I didn’t actually order this, it was Mrs. LF’s dish. But she swore at the time that “this is the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had” – no small praise indeed. I tasted it and had to concur – it was pretty darn good, as many things are at The Heathman. Not particularly exciting, but very, very good. I think even Monica, Michel Roux’s sous-chef would have been happy with the perfect hollandaise sauce. :)

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

Exceedingly light and perfectly crispy, these were the surprise hit of our recent pilgrimage to one of the bastions of my childhood memories. Their famous apple pancake (which is about the size of a small horse) was still largely as I remember it, but I think my taste buds have moved on a bit since I was 10 years old – it’s pictured below so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

Childhood Memories (But No Award): Apple Pancake at The Original Pancake House

It is delicious, but just a little too sweet for me nowadays. It is still a unique and memorable dish, though.

Best Non-traditional Brunch Dish:
wd~50, NYC

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese at wd~50

Out of all of the immensely whimsical and delicious dishes on wd~50’s tasting menu when I visited with Brother LF, this was quite possibly my favorite, in no small part due to the presentation. I mean, it does look like an ‘everything’ bagel, right?…but it’s ice cream, not bread! It tasted like one of the quintessential New York breakfasts of nova, cream cheese and bagel, but in a very grown up and refined way. It was a painstakingly and lovingly created reinterpretation of a piece of Americana – in a word: wonderful. I savored each dainty bite that I took. If I would have had Heston’s Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream from The Fat Duck in 2010, this may have beat out wd~50.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

My favorite place for my daily coffee (when I am near one, that is). I also like Joe the Art of Coffee too, and frequent the one in Grand Central Terminal when I commute into NYC…though the West Village one is much more cozy and you can sit down.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

Father LF swore by it, and I swore it couldn’t be good, but in the end elderly wisdom one out. The foam was perfect and the espresso excellent.

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

Sorry, no photo for this one, but Mrs. LF swore it was the best mocha she ever had, and from my wee taste, I thought the balance between sweet and bitter was pretty amazing. I love this London coffee-house too – definitely one of my favorites, and the lunch fare is good too.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

I’ve tasted a lot of brownies in my time, but this blows them all out of the water. It is at once indulgent and addictive, and it became an expensive yet highly worthwhile habit of mine (at Mrs. LF’s begging, of course) to buy copious amounts of these rich brownies whenever we (she) had a hankering for them in the few months after we discovered them and before we were leaving London behind  us. If you are in London, or if you visit, try one at Paul’s charming shop in Camden Passage in Islington. If you like brownies, there is a very comprehensive review of some of the better ones on offer in the London area on @mathildecusine‘s blog here.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

I had read about these oddball cream puff shops somewhere or other and before realizing that they had a location in London (which closed a few months ago), I found one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They do what it says on the tin, so to speak – effortlessly light puff pastry gives way to a lovely cream filling – they are also very addictive, so be careful.

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

This cubano sandwich consisted of pork belly, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Let me just say this: it was not only my best sandwich of 2010, it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Mrs. LF concurred. Now, maybe I don’t know all that much about sandwiches, but I know what I know. If you ever go to Portland, go to Bunk and try this if it’s on the menu (which changes daily).

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Best Burger (Two-Way Tie):
Shake Shack, NYC
Café of Love, Mt. Kisco, New York

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

Now I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, but I don’t eat them all that often…or at least I didn’t until I moved back to the New York area. In any case, I tend to like the more fast-food style burgers, and I prefer my patties smashed, thank you very much. Out of the ones I had this year, my favorite had to be Shake Shack, despite how unoriginal this may be and how many moans I may get from the New York and/or East Coast burgerati. But hey, it was just really good. In fact, I couldn’t fault it in any way. Oh, and by the way, my malted peanut butter shake was off the hook too, using the parlance of our times.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Grass-fed Beef Burger with Brie, Apple Butter & Smoked Bacon at Café of Love

Having said all that, every now and again, I get the hankering for one of the constantly-evolving offerings within the ‘gourmet’ burger category at more hoity-toity restaurants. In the not-so hoity-toity but horrendously named restaurant called Café of Love near where I live in Mt. Kisco, New York, they had a burger that I just had to try based on the description. Well, it tasted even better than it sounded on this occasion. The beef itself was excellent and had been perfectly charred on the outside and was nice and pink in the middle. The combination of creamy cheese, apple butter and smoked bacon was genius and the brioche bun was the perfect vessel for this mini heart-attack sandwich. It came with its own flowerpot on the side, which contained really good thin-cut frites that were perfectly salted. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but this was probably the best burger I had in 2010. Now, maybe they can work on their name?!

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

In this category, I would like to make an honorable mention for Five Guys. I had two burgers of theirs before the end of the year and thought they were excellent. Although you can’t specify how you would like it cooked, it comes medium, which seems to work for their burgers. They are very, very good burgers from what I could tell from the two Manhattan outposts I visited. And their fries actually taste like potatoes – no, I mean that. It took me a second to get used to them, because they were clearly from very fresh Midwestern potatoes and prepared with fresh oil: delicious. Just be careful, all you can get there are burgers, hot dogs and fries. Seriously.

This year I hope to try the Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, The Breslin‘s lamb burger, and also visit Corner Bistro…all in NYC.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

Okay, so I didn’t eat too many hot dogs, but I was resolutely shocked when these turned out to be so good. A New York institution, and in my humble opinion deservedly so, these are exceptionally good hot dogs…

Recession Special is Still On!

…especially with the ‘Recession Special’ that’s currently on – you can save $1! :)

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

After having my first-ever cornmeal-crusted pizza from Otto in London (see review here), I was eager to try the pizzas at their alleged source of inspiration in Portland, Oregon – Oregon being my home state. We actually ordered the pizza to pick-up, although there is a nice little dining room at the restaurant too. We had two varieties, but my favorite by miles was the ‘Sausage Classico’, which was made up of mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage and tomato sauce. These are actually more like pies than pizzas, but the crust is really unique given the cornmeal content. It is light, golden and crispy, and makes for the perfect base to the hearty toppings. I am now getting a taste for this stuff – when will NYC get a similar joint?

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

When Russell Norman opened up Polpo in London’s Soho a while back, I was a fan from my first visit. The restaurant’s first offspring, though not originally planned to be by its parent, is the tiny and charming box of a dining room called Polpetto…or as I affectionately call it, Mini-P. Anyway, it was the venue for my last fun lunch in London – and my dining companion @BigSpud wrote about it (sort of) here. We mostly had cicchetti and my favorite of the bunch was this stunning meatball, in all its unadorned glory. Deep, rich duck and punchy porcinis mushroom with a robust sauce made this stand out as much in my mind as it did against its little stark white plate.

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille at Gauthier Soho

Okay, so it’s a French restaurant, but it’s risotto, so hey.

As I said in my preview of Alexis Gauthier’s new restaurant: “Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception as his new Soho townhouse. The petite mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.”

Honorable mention must go to an excellent seafood risotto I had at Fifteen Trattoria. You can read more about that here and there is a photo below.

Honorable Mention: Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare’ with Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine at Fifteen Trattoria

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

This dish wasn’t mine, but I got a few bites anyway. Besides its rather arresting beauty on the plate, it also tasted d*mn good. The richness of the lamb was cut through by the tangy goats cheese and the toasted pistachios added not only a note of sweetness and a pinch of saltiness, but also a chewy texture which rounded out the dish. The watercress provided a fresh and peppery contrast. It was original – to my mind – and superb.

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

Despite some odd sightings of fresh produce by @DouglasBlyde (see here), Terroirs is a haunt of mine, simply because they have consistently delivered me good and unfussy food that is well executed, plus they have a fantastic array of natural wines, many of which have proven to be very good. Anyway, on my last London meal of 2010 with my good Welsh friend, we ordered the steak tartare. The waiter said to order it spicy, so we complied. Thank god we did. It was one of the best versions of this bistrot classic I’ve had. We were both mesmerized. If it’s on the menu, order it.

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

If you live in London and haven’t been to the Hidden Tea Room, do yourself a favor and book it. Aside from having the best and freshest baked goods you are likely to get at an afternoon tea in London, it is also a lovely underground restaurant experience. There is a rectangular table with jovial strangers who obviously share at least one interest with you (food…or tea, I guess); or if you are particularly delicate in nature, you can go with your friends. In any case, Lady Gray’s scones and cupcakes are excellent and Mrs. LF and I popped our underground restaurant cherry here – so it will always hold a fond memory for us. Oh yeah, and there is an excellent assortment of fresh, diverse and exotic teas.

Other excellent afternoon teas we had in 2010 were had at The Wolseley (somewhat surprisingly), Browns Hotel and Bob Bob Ricard.

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

The kick-off to my first meal at George Mendes’ Aldea was as beautiful as it was flavorful. I savoured that rich bisque for as long as I could and soaked up even more of the sea with my oyster. It was an extraordinary beginning to a very good meal. You can see and read more photos of our meal here. I was also happy to see that the team picked up its first Michelin star this year.

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

Pretty much everything we had at The Sportsman was excellent, but this was the bite that stood out in my memory as the best of 2010. Full stop.

As I said in my review earlier in the year: “This was basically spring arriving on a plate. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible.” It received a very rare 10 out of 10, and deservedly so.

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

After this enjoyable meal with the London Food Detective, I remarked: “I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful.”

Most Creative Use of a Bean in Supporting Role:
Viajante, London

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

This was one of the more interesting presentations of a plate (or in fact, slate) of food this year. In my review of the meal, I wrote:

“A roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs. It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen.”

Best Dish Incorporating Goose Eggs & Soldiers (of Toast):
Launceston Place, London

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

Firstly, apologies for the especially poor photo, but this was taken with my old, archaic and generally not so useful camera. Right at the beginning of 2010, this was nonetheless one of the best dishes I had for sure. My thoughts at the time, which haven’t changed, were: “It was cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque).” This was a 10 out of 10 all the way.

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes at Matbaren

I loved my meal at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren and this was the stand-out dish for me of the evening.

As I wrote in my post about the meal: “…for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste!”

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coullis at Morgan M.

You may recall me saying something along the lines of…“This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no? Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot. The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate.”

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

Another memorable London meal took place at Sushi of Shiori, a sushi restaurant that accumulated a scale of press disproportionate to its own modest size (it seats about 12 at most). I dined with @LondonEater (see his reviews here and here), and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company – my mini-review and photos are here. Aside from having the pre-ordered omakase, we ordered an extra course of truffled scallops. I remember exclaiming that this was an actual explosion of flavor in the mouth (so many times, people just use that term half-heartedly). I don’t know what the chef does to his secret paste, but the tiny amount dotting surface of the raw scallops really does explode in your mouth and somehow complements the sweetness of the scallops perfectly. I loved this, and it is quite affordable at about £2 a pop.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

Cold Fried Chicken, Buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar at wd~50

Okay, so nearly everything I had on the wd~50 tasting menu was pleasurably challenging for my senses – both visually and in terms of taste, texture and temperature – but this dish stood out in particular. This dish brought back so many memories of good fried chicken. It was served slightly cool and was absolutely delicious. My favorite part of it was the heat – those little dollops of orange sauce packed some serious power, and this enlivened the whole dish. Playing off against this was the creaminess of the buttermilk-ricotta cloud, which helped manage the spiciness. But the touch of genius here was the caviar, which added an extra element of saltiness on top of the chicken, cream and Tabasco. It was superb.

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

I don’t think anyone would be able to question Chef Humm’s ability to cook a whole bird. The even browning of the skin, its crispiness and the juiciness of the duck were outstanding. The lavender glaze gave it an intriguing and subtle flavor, with peaches and other hidden joys dancing around on my palate. While not quite as exceptional as the Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus I had at l’Arpège last year – which is to date the best duck dish I’ve ever tasted – this was still pretty fantastic. It was an interesting and not unwelcomed contrast to some of the more modern elements during my first meal at the excellent Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

But of course there is no photo due to the restaurant’s no-snapping policy – sorry, but don’t snap at me. The following description will be in my forthcoming review of ko, where I dined with @catty.

Shaved Foie Gras, Lychees, Pine Nut Brittle, Riesling Gélee

This was certainly one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet-yet-tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they ware placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and, to me, it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavor of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat.

I also immensely enjoyed one of our two foie gras dishes at wd~50, but I couldn’t give Chef Dufresne another award, so he gets an honorable mention. There is, however, a half-decent photo below and a full description here. (And yes, I know it’s not frozen in the process, but hey…).

Honorable Mention: Aerated Foie, Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum, Brioche at wd~50

Best Desserts (Three-Way Tie):
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma, London
Fifteen Trattoria, London
Eastside Inn, London

Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry at The Loft Project

This was the most memorable dessert for me of the year. Although not particularly complicated in conception, the fresh combination of flavors was nonetheless dazzling.

Here’s what I said in my review of the amazing evening: “A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intensity of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.”

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

Not too long ago I had a simple dessert that the kitchen knocked out of the park, as we say in America. It was the best pannacotta I can remember having and got the fabled 10 out of 10.

In case you didn’t read it, and care to, here’s what I said: “The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.”

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

Unfortunately, I never got to properly review the ‘bistrot’ side of Bjorn Van der Horst’s Eastside Inn before it sadly closed towards the end of 2010. However, I vividly remember the intensity of chocolate that was perfectly paired with a memorable tonka bean ice cream. As always with Bjorn’s food, it was also stunning to look at.

Weirdest Dessert:
(Note: that doesn’t mean it was bad!)
Il Baretto, London

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries at Il Baretto

When I had some time to digest the experience (and the dessert), I reflected: “It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert.”

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

If you follow this blog, you will know my hands-down favorite martini is at Dukes Bar in London (see here and here), when it is served by the ever-affable and supremely knowledgeable Alessandro Palazzi.

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

Not only do Leonid and Richard have the now ‘soooo 2010’ Champagne buttons at the booth-seating-only tables at this fabulously individual creation, which could have only resulted from the marriage of Russian and English (business) partners, they also have the lowest mark-ups I’ve come across of some really excellent fine wine. This means you can (better) afford to indulge yourself in a special bottle or glass of wine when going out on the town. And the food is generally very good across the board too. For a peek at their current wine list, click here.

FYI, @gourmetraveller also has an excellent BYO guide for London restaurants here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

This list is from across the board…glasses and bottles I remember that I particularly enjoyed and/or found memorable. I have probably missed some out, but I hope not. They are listed chronologically and then alphabetically within each vintage.

Sparkling

  • 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc
  • 2004 Duval-Leroy Champagne Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut
  • NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne, Brut Réserve
  • NV Henriot, Brut Souverain
  • NV Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noir
  • NV Thiénot, Brut
  • NV Vincent Laroppe, Cuvée Alfred Laropp

White

  • 1992 Haut-Brion Blanc
  • 2001 & 2009 Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2004 Lafon Meursault
  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Sec, Le Mont
  • 2005 Les Plantiers de Haut-Brion
  • 2006 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc
  • 2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix
  • 2006 McHenry Hohnen, 3 Amigos
  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 d’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab
  • 2007 Domaine Gauby Blanc
  • 2007 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2007 Felton Road Chardonnay, Block 2
  • 2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc, Les Sétilles
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano
  • 2008 Benmarl Riesling
  • 2008 Beringer Chardonnay, Private Reserve
  • 2008 Domaine William Fevre Chablis, Champs Royaux
  • 2008 Trimbach Riesling, Reserve
  • 2009 Adair Cayuga White
  • 2009 Arietta “On the White Keys” (Semillon)

Red

  • 1964 Haut-Brion
  • 1985 Haut-Brion
  • 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Bahans Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly
  • 1998 Château Pichon-Longuevile Baron
  • 1998 Château Lafite-Rothschild
  • 1998 Poliziano Le Stanze
  • 2000 Château Vieux Chevrol
  • 2001 Château Musar
  • 2001 Château Palmer
  • 2001 Château Pavie
  • 2001 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion
  • 2005 Montes Carménère, Purple Angel
  • 2006 Domaine La Tourmente, Syrah, Chamoson
  • 2006 Herdade do Arrepiado Velho, Arrepiado
  • 2006 Neyen Syrah, Limited Edition
  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs
  • 2007 The Sum, Seventy Five Wine Company, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Domaine Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Sierra du Sud
  • 2008 Monty Waldin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2008 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tavola

Sweet

  • 1999 Château Coutet
  • 2003 Château Rieussec
  • 2006 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Gold Reserve
  • 2006 Leduc-Piedimonte, Ice Cider
  • 2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata

In the coming year, I am aiming to develop a better understand of grower-producer Champagnes (i.e. ones that are terroir driven by the people who grow the grapes), deepen my cursory knowledge of some major European wine countries – namely Italy, Spain and Germany – and, of course, get a better handle on the domestic North American wine scene…as well as becoming more familiar with countries such as Chile and Argentina in South America.

#   #   #

So that is the end to a wonderful year of food, wine and friendship shared over the two. Here’s hoping 2011 will be even more exciting and enjoyable. I look forward to sharing with you what I can from the shores of America – or wherever else I may be lucky enough to travel – with an exciting review coming up very soon.

Thanks for putting up with me, and a very Happy New Year.

All the best for 2011!

Eastside Inn – Bjorn is Back & This Time It’s Personal

Eastside Inn
40 St John Street
London EC1M 4AY
Reservations: Bistro +44 (0)20 7490 9240 / Gastro +44 (0)20 7490 9230
Website
Map

We ate in the ‘Gastro’ side of the restaurant, where you have the choice of the ‘Menu Classic’ at £45/person (3 courses) or the ‘Menu Discovery’ at £65/person (a 7-course tasting men), plus an optional cheese plate at £15/person, which includes three wine pairings (one for each cheese)

A very generous & personal gastronomic journey, with good service and plenty of promise

A very generous & personal gastronomic journey, with good service and plenty of promise

Disclaimer

I think it is only right to place a disclaimer at the beginning of this review. You see, Bjorn van der Horst is one of my favorite London-based chefs. I loved his food when he was heading up the kitchen at The Greenhouse, and La Noisette, his Michelin-starred restaurant that fell under the umbrella of the Ramsay Empire, was one of my most-loved London restaurants. However, after only about 18 months it met the same ill fate that so many restaurants at 164 Sloane Street had faced before it: La Noisette was Gordon Ramsay Holding’s second failed attempt on this site and, before that, Ian Pengelley (now of Gilgamesh fame) and private members club Monte’s (which involved both Alain Ducasse and Jamie Oliver at different points) both failed to survive there as well.

But it is often out of difficult situations that the best things are born, so you can imagine my excitement when rumors began circulating that Bjorn was going to start up his own restaurant in central London as the next step in his culinary career. As per my previous post, I had been waiting for his new venture, Eastside Inn (maybe an homage to New York?), to open for ages, and it finally did open its doors about five weeks ago. So, was my exuberance well founded?

Eastside Story

Bjorn has launched Eastside Inn in partnership with his wife Justine. They have decided to split the restaurant into two distinct sides, which are connected by a large open kitchen which services both sides of the restaurant. In fact, there are actually two separate entrances to the building, one for the ‘Bistro’ and one for the ‘Gastro’.

The Bistro side is more casual, with a number seats at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, some tables against a long and burgundy-colored banquette, and a few other scattered tables. It serves mostly French classics such as charcuterie, cassoulet and a plat du jour, and is the less expensive of the two areas. Hors D’oeuvres range from £3-6, Entrées from £7-12, Main Courses from £12.50-18, and Desserts are £5-7.

We ate in the Gastro side of the restaurant, which is a small, modern and contemporary room. Here, there are 24 covers by my count (plus a private dining room), and you have the choice of the Menu Classic, where you choose your own 3-course meal for £45 (alternatively, you can ask for it to be a surprise and let the kitchen dictate on the dishes for you), and the Menu Discovery, which is a predetermined 7-course tasting menu for £65. Each menu includes three amuse bouches, and you can also opt for the cheese plate for an additional £15, which is inclusive of three wines which the sommelier has paired with each of the cheeses.

The Opening Acts

We arrived a little late as, unfortunately, Mrs. LF’s wallet had been stolen on the tube ride over to the City :(. We eventually tracked down the place, chose the right door (literally), and entered. We were escorted to our table in the relatively long, narrow triangular shaped Gastro dining room and were surprised to see that we were the only people there at 8pm. The room did feel slightly awkward, but I didn’t personally mind it too much. There are some paintings toward the back of the room, but none in the front, which makes the walls in the front seem a little barren. The dark wooden legs of the orangey-red leather chairs seemed like they had already been chipped a little, which was odd, considering the restaurant only just opened. The significant problem, however, is that the floor-to-ceiling window facing the street is covered by a thin see-through white veil. Mrs. LF therefore had a view of the not-so-attractive St John street by night. She correctly commented that in a fine dining room like this, you want to feel like you are completely removed from the outside world, like you are in a little, cosy cocoon where you can focus on your company and the food. And the odd window and curtain don’t quite give you that cosseted feeling.

We were greeted by one of our waiters (we had a few throughout the night), who was very pleasant, and we also had a consultation with the sommelier once we had decided we would be going for the tasting menu. Thierry, the sommelier, was very personable and helpful, and we eventually arrived at a small-production, biodynamic, unfiltered Sancerre from 45 year-old vines (Sebastien Riffault’s “Akménimé” 2007 at £55 a bottle) as most of the dishes seemed like they would go well with white wine. More on that later.

As we waited for our bouches to be amused, we were very surprised to have Bjorn himself come over to our table, introduce himself and have a quick chat with us. Later on, his wife Justine also made an appearance, and was very charming. Both visits were much appreciated and you can tell that both they and their staff are very excited and passionate about this new venture, curious to see what their customers think, and eager to please. The restaurant (at least the Gastro side) did slowly begin to fill up as the evening went on, and was probably half full by 9pm, and stayed that way.

The Pièce(s) de Résistance

After having the chef at our table for a minute (not quite a chef’s table, but close), it was onto the food.  And there was a lot of it to be had! First were the three amuse bouches, which are meant to ‘awaken your palate’, according to the menu.

  • ‘Toulouse’ was half-cooked foie gras on thin slices of crispy bread. It was simple, delicious and quite large for an amuse bouche. The foie gras had a noticeably sour tinge to it, which was different from others we’ve had, but didn’t detract from our enjoyment. 8/10.
  • ‘Paris’ was a cube of fromage de tete (i.e. the stuff inside the head of a young cow), which was combined with slices of tiny cornichon, capers, and a sprinkle of caviar. It had a very rich flavor and the veal sauce that the tete was engulfed in was out of this world. 8/10.
  • ‘New York’ was a piece of hamachi with a citrus and soy dressing, sesame seeds miniscule radishes and a tiny bit of jalapeño. The flavour combinations were precise and right on, and it was a fresh hit to the senses that certainly did awaken the palate. More Hawaii than New York for me, though :). 8/10.

You may wonder why these cities were chosen for the amuse bouches. I am guessing it is because the Swiss born van der Horst, who has a Dutch father and a Franco-Spanish mother, grew up partly in France and also lived in New York – but who knows.

Now that our mouths were fully awake and at attention, we were ready for the procession to begin.

  • Course 1: Almond Gazpacho with Smoked Paprika Prawns and Tomato Sorbet. This was a very refreshing, multi-layered dish. The shallow white bowls came out with the pinkish-red tomato sorbet in the middle, along with the smoky prawns. The cool beige almond soup was then poured by the waiter. The dish was very satisfying, and we seemed to discover another element to the dish in each bite, which kept it from being too much of the same. The gazpacho itself was delicately sweet, and melded very well with the smokiness of the prawns (which were excellent), with the tomato sorbet giving it a cold and balancing burst of sharpness. The paprika flavour came through in the right dose, and we also detected some soft chilli flavor, coriander and toasted almond flakes in different bites – which all went together brilliantly. 8/10.
  • Course 2: Raw Diver Scallops with Sea Urchin Vinaigrette. The scallops themselves were excellent, full of that sweet and round scallop flavor and seasoned minimally but well. I had refrained from sea urchin in the past, so was not sure to expect. The urchin itself was quite bitter and did complement the sweetness of the scallops but, to quote Austin Powers, I just wasn’t sure whether it was “my bag, baby”. The bright orange and green sauce that skirted around the edge of the plate, which seemed to comprise of orange, sesame and lime juice, was excellent, with the scallops too. Overall the dish was a definite winner, especially so if you really like the unusual taste of sea urchin. The scallops and urchins definitely released some salty flavors in our wine, which beforehand had seemed quite balanced between acidity, fruitiness and alcohol, which added an interesting dimension to the dish. By the way, another facet of the wine was the fact that it  had an unusually oily texture to it throughout the meal (when you swirled it around in the glass, an oily residue clung to the sides). I give the scallops 7/10.
  • Course 3: Watermelon Salad “Matthew Norman” with Courgette Flower, Feta and Tapenade. This was a very refreshing dish, as you would expect with watermelon. I thought it would be in danger of being too salty, what with the double whammy of feta and olive tapenade versus the lonely watermelon, but Bjorn and his team were too clever to fall into that trap. Neither the cheese nor the tapenade was overly salty and the flavors gelled well together, and were aided by a bit of fresh chervil as well. The most unusual, and possibly the best part of the dish, were little chunky slices of pickled watermelon – the firm bits from just under the skin were used and it added a nice twist to the dish. The courgette flower, which had been battered tempura-style, was fried perfectly and very more-ish. FYI – if you don’t know who Matthew Norman is, he is a Guardian food critic, and heavily criticised this dish at La Noisette, so Bjorn decided to name it after him eventually. You have to admire his cheek. 7/10.
  • Course 4: Poached Wild Turbot with Jersey Royales, Snails Confite and Beurre Rouge. This was pure class. The small piece of turbot was poached perfectly, retaining its firmness but flaking apart gently when you manoeuvred it with your fork. In fact, the fish was so fresh and well cooked, it would have been excellent served plainly on its own. But the beurre blanc (rich and succulent, as it should be) and the beurre rouge (which provide a bit of vinegar tanginess), with the addition of well executed seasonal potatoes and samphire elevated this dish to ‘gastro’ heaven. The snail, which was served whole, was very well done too and swam in those blissful sauces…and I don’t even like snails that much. A full 10/10.
  • Course 5: Roasted Pigeon with Gooseberries, Swiss Chard and Girolles. Don’t worry, there was some red meat, too. The bird was cooked exactly how I like it, a nice deep red. The accompaniments worked particularly well, and the jus was probably the best thing we had besides the turbot dish. Alongside the pigeon, there was a small silver plate which contained a single, circular, crispy piece of rye bread with a schmear of pigeon liver pâté which was bold and rich, and a nice little touch to complete the dish. The Sancerre, which had gone pretty well with the rest of the courses, actually seemed best suited to this dish, which was a pleasant and unexpected surprise.  9/10.
  • Course 6: “Ice Cube”. You know you’re in a fine dining restaurant when you get pre-desserts! The huge rectangular ice cubes were brought out on plates dressed with white napkins around them, and the top-side of each cube had a slightly depressed semi-circular area which had been carved away so that a little scoop of basil sorbet could be perched on top of it. The sorbet was very refreshing, and had a very strong sweet basil flavour – a good palate cleanser, which is the point of it, I suppose. 7/10.
  • Course 7: Cheese Plate. We decided to share one portion of the cheese plate, which consisted of some Stinking Bishop, a Comte-style cheese and a Stichelton. We also got two triangles of La Vache Qui Rit (Laughing Cow) cheese, which was apparently put on the cheese board as it reminds the chef of his childhood (there is also a poster of the Laughing cow in the Bistro side of the restaurant). The Stinking Bishop, which as the name infers is quite a pungent, rich, full-flavored and soft English cheese, was paired with a Rose Champagne, which provided for a very innovative and successful pairing. The Comte-like slice was my kind of cheese, hard, nutty and strong, and was combined with a Mas Amiel (a white wine from Maury, made from Grenache). The full body, texture and packed fruit flavor complemented the cheese nicely. The Stichelton, which is the same as Stilton but made with unpasteurized milk, was perfectly matched with a sweet white Jurancon wine from La Domaine de Souch. The cheese course was extremely generous, and I have never seen in done in this fashion, with each cheese being precisely matched with an accompanying wine. Bravo! 9/10.
  • Course 8: White Chocolate Wonder with Raspberry and Pistachio. The desserts at La Noisette had been one of the best parts about the meals there – always fun and exciting – and I am happy to say that this doesn’t seem to have changed with the moving of venues. Our ‘wonder’ spheres came out in all of their circular glory, dusted various colors of sugary spray paint, only to be dissolved by the hot raspberry sauce, revealing a creamy pistachio paste core. Now, I am not the biggest fan of pistachio in desserts (in fact, I was slightly underwhelmed at Le Manoir Aux Qat’Saisons with their pistachio soufflé earlier this year), but I have to say this was phenomenal. The combination of the milky white chocolate, the sharp sweetness of the raspberry sauce and the richness of the pistachio flavor really worked well together. This is one of the best desserts I’ve had recently – it still won’t touch The River Cafe’s Nemesis, but they are completely different after all, and I thoroughly enjoyed both the taste sensations and the theater this dessert. 9/10.

A few side notes:

  • This may be controversial (and intentionally so?), but there is no bread served with the tasting menu. We didn’t have a problem with this personally, but we did ask about the policy as we can imagine a lot of people having a serious issue with it (our only niggle is that we like to have it to mop up good sauces and all the stray bits of dishes that are left at the end). Apparently, Bjorn believes that you have so many different things to eat during the course of the meal, bread would only fill you up early on in the meal and your stomach space would be wasted. They do buy in bread, which is supposedly very high quality, from a French baker based outside of London (near Uxbridge if I remember correctly?). And I would like to stress that there was bread on offer with the cheese course, and it was good quality.
  • One of the only disadvantages of the tasting menu was the fact that we didn’t have the signature Foie Gras with Espresso Syrup and Amaretto Foam, which I had been craving since La Noisette closed, but I suppose I will have to go back and have it another time!

Conclusions

As we had hoped, we had a really good night at Eastside Inn. The service was excellent throughout.  It did seem like there were a lot of staff members considering the number of diners, but I guess this is the risk you run with a new venture. That said, everyone we interacted with was very friendly, charming, professional and knowledgeable. You definitely get the feeling that they are excited and proud to be a part of Eastside, and that they want it to succeed.

The food was of a very high quality across the board, and truly superb in a few instances (read: turbot, pigeon and wacky dessert creations). It is classic Bjorn van der Horst fine dining fare, and it goes from strength to strength, replete with challenging combinations and a real sense of personal flare in each dish. I hope that the menu changes often and reflects seasonal and local produce moving forward, as I think this will be important in drawing back repeat customers for the more fancy side of the restaurant. As noted above, we haven’t eaten in the bistro side, but we did walk over there after our meal to have a look at the menu, and some of the dishes looked very promising.

These days, it is quite rare to find a chef of Bjorn’s standard in London with his or her own place that has really made it their own, and Eastside Inn is dotted with quirky little personal touches throughout (like it or not) – from the Laughing Cow cheese, a little pot of homeade yogurt with red fruits and thyme covered in a cloth a la Bonne Maman served between two of the courses, to the very personal choice of artwork (Chris Gollon), to the whole way the place has been set up in two distinct restaurants. It is nice to see someone of this calibre who is focused on just one venture and wants it to succeed by making people happy by serving high-quality food with good service at reasonable prices.

When I think back on our evening, the one word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘generous’. And I think this is because it is a very personal project for Bjorn and his wife. They want to make you feel at home. You are offered not one, but three amuse bouches; you get not one but three glasses of wine with the cheese plate, which have been selected to complement each specific cheese; and there are little surprises throughout, such as the mysterious ‘Ice Cube’. Considering the prices charged and the quality of the food, it is very good value for a London restaurant that is surely a 1 or 2 star Michelin star contender.

While there are some minor things that will hopefully iron themselves out over time (for instance, the decor could use some tweaking), I think there is tremendous potential for Eastside Inn to establish itself as a serious stalwart on the London gastronomic scene.

PS – for those that are interested, they have a jazz trio every Thursday and Friday night from 10pm onward, and Bjorn also offers a series of cookery master classes, which sound practical and fun.

Rating

Ambience: 6.5/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8.5/10

Wine List: 7/10

Wine Selected:  7/10

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Eastside Inn once, although I dined at Bjorn’s former restaurant, La Noissette on a number of occasions.*

Eastside Inn on Urbanspoon

Eastside Inn

Bjorn van der Horst's newly opened Eastside Inn in London's Clerkenwell district

Bjorn van der Horst's newly opened Eastside Inn in London's Clerkenwell district

I have been waiting for this place to open for ages.  It was about 8 months delayed, but opened about 2 weeks ago.  Bjorn van der Horst is one of my favorite chefs in London, and my wife and I really loved the food and staff at his previous restaurant La Noisette (which was part of Gordon & Co.).  Bjorn, who was raised in the US by French and Swiss parents, has opened Eastside Inn in Clerkenwell in partnership with his wife.

The restaurant is split into two sections, with the Bistro side being dedicated to reasonably-priced French regional cusisine, and the Gastro side serving Bjorn’s signature modern French food with a twist.  I am pleased that they have kept their brilliant pastry chef, and their carefully selected wine list of around 200 from smaller producers also has a lot of promise.

A Gold Sphere with Popcorn Milk Sorbet

A Gold Sphere with Popcorn Milk Sorbet

You can view a video of Bjorn talking about his new (and fist solo) venture here.  Their website, which seems like it still needs some finishing touches, can be found here (the Master Classes, tought by Bjorn, look like they could be interesting, however no pricing or dates are mentioned yet).

I have booked a table in the Gastro section in late June, so look forward to updating you on how it goes.

Eastside Inn on Urbanspoon