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!

Viajante – Lofty Ambitions

Viajante
Patriot Square
London E2 9NF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • There are tasting menus of varying lengths (3, 6, 9 and 12 courses) and prices. We had the 3-course lunch for £25, which in reality comprised 9 different courses; the 12-course tasting menu is only available from 6.00-8.30pm
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Nuno Mendes’ new venture certainly warrants attention. Much like the “travelling” theme of the restaurant, it is clear that Viajante is embarking on a journey. Its kitchen has a fascinating pedigree and there are flashes of brilliance, both in the food itself and the design. I am eager to visit again once they have progressed further along their path to discover what it is they want to become. But for now, £25 for 3 courses with so many extras has to be one of the best fine dining values around!

Bringing it all together

True to form, I am pretty sure most London-based food bloggers have already reviewed Viajante, and if you are from London, you quite likely already know a bit about it. Nonetheless, I believe that some degree of context is always useful – but if you don’t need it, please skip ahead to the part about the meal.

Viajante is the newest venture of Nuno Mendes, an intriguing Portuguese chap who was formerly chef at London’s Bacchus and also runs a supper club called The Loft Project. Nuno also notably worked at El Bulli and has travelled the world working in various exciting kitchens. The Loft Project features notable chefs from all over the world who take up residence for a few nights to cook in an open kitchen to a table of 16 random paying guests (for reference, a review of the meal I had when Samuel Miller, Sous-Chef from noma, was cooking can be found here).

As I understand it, The Loft Project sort of proved as a testing ground for Viajante, while Nuno figured out what type of food and experience he wanted to offer diners. The restaurant itself took a long time to develop, and after a somewhat prolonged soft opening, it finally reached fruition.

Viajante, which is means ‘traveller’ and is therefore apt – also because the kitchen is made up of chefs who have done stints at major international restaurants – is located within the Town Hall Hotel in East London’s Bethnal Green.

There, now that wasn’t too painful , was it?

The travellers settle in

I dined there for lunch during my last week living in London (sob), and had the pleasure of sharing the meal with kindred foodie spirit (and actual person) @gourmetraveller. She, of course, had already dined here many aeons before our rendezvous. She said the food had been interesting and that it made for an engaging dining experience that was quite unique in London at the moment (see her review here), so she didn’t have a problem returning for another meal there. Either that or I’m irresistible.

In any case, I am pretty sure that she didn’t tag along just because the second part of her online identity shares the same meaning as the restaurant. Cue snare drums.

I had actually taken my first ever half-day off from work to have this lunch so that I wouldn’t have to rush back to the office, most likely too cheerful from inebriation that my colleagues would be highly suspicious given my otherwise rather cantankerous office disposition. I rode solo on the top deck of red London carriage and took in the rawness of the ever-effervescent East London landscape.

I see a street scene and I want to paint it red

It was a cold, wet and dreary afternoon, and I was all too happy to get inside the Town House Hotel’s front door a-sap.

A classic facade belies what's found inside

Upon stepping through the main entrance, there is a bar through the glass doors on the right, which interestingly is not housed within the dining room, while the restaurant proper lies through the glass doors to the left.

The hostess informed me that @gourmetraveller had already arrived and was in the bar. After some quick detective work (à la Jonathan Ames in Bored to Deathsans the horrible raincoat), I realized she was not there. It was just me plus Nuno and a couple of people who were obviously trying to pitch something to him over in the corner.

Some fishy information got me harpooned at the flash bar

A very friendly young barman gave me a drink list to peruse as I waited for the ghost of GT past to arrive. He said he could report no sightings of the said apparition, but I barely heard him as I was quite intrigued by the sound of some of the liberal libations on offer.

Breakfast Martini

Just as I was getting down and dirty (so to speak) with my Breakfast Martini, she appeared from the bowels of the building, where I presume she had been attending to her own bowels. Greetings were dispensed and a second drink menu was proffered for the good lady. Meanwhile, I was enjoying a slightly sweet concoction made from vodka (normally Chase Seville Orange Marmalade but they had run out so something else was substituted), Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, orange juice (or grapefruit if you prefer) and honey. It was certainly easy to drink.

A ‘Green Traveller’ for Gourmet Traveller

The tardy gourmand ordered the fascinating sounding (and looking) Green Traveller, seemingly not perturbed by the fact that she was taking this name similarity business to a whole new level. Her drink was made using fresh lemongrass, Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters – with Thai basil bubbles to make you feel comfortable that the drink was worth what you were paying for it. She didn’t seem to be complaining, and my one sip had me liking this one better than my own pretty decent cocktail.

Appetites and livers duly whetted, we headed over to the other side for the culinary shenanigans to begin.

Three becomes nine

Our table was booked quite late in the lunch service, and unfortunately the more extended tasting menu was not available at this time. We settled for the seemingly good value 3-course menu at £25. As there was no menu to choose from – the kitchen decides what they will serve you on the day – we took in the surroundings. We were seated in the back part of the dining room, which is semi-separated by a wall in the middle with wide passages on both sides.

A minimalistic yet warm space...

I was digging the calming blues and warm wood tones of the place, and liked the natural light that was afforded by the large windows – although it made it hard to take decent photos of the food, given my still pretty limited abilities as a photographer.

...replete with its own slightly incongruous green fireplace

The only thing that stuck out – and it really did seem out of place – was the old-fashioned green tiled fireplace nestled directly behind us.

I don’t know how much the light fixtures cost, but I liked them

Otherwise, it was a fairly sparse modern space, but I certainly didn’t find it cold or off-putting. It is the kind of room you can tell has been scrutinized in painstaking detail even though it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to it. Stilted? Maybe, but I was quite comfortable at our table, which was well-spaced apart from the other diners.

Just before our first plate of food arrived, the sommelier stopped by to ask us what we wanted to drink. There was apparently a pairing for the meal (also very reasonable at £15), which seemed to be the only option from what we could make out from his very rushed and awkward spiel. So, presented with no other real alternatives, we said ‘sure’. He did initially come across very odd for a restaurant that I would imagine places some importance on the pairings of the food and drinks. But before I had much time to think about it, he had disappeared.

Amuse Bouche 1: House Sashimi

The first dish was delivered on an interestingly textured circular plate, and we were told nothing about what was on it – this was part of the game, I suppose. Although the sashimi looked like a red fish of some sort, it was merely visual trickery as the deep red substance was in actual fact watermelon which had been slow-cooked and slightly charred. The melon had been topped with a variety of elements, including soy beans, sesame seeds and micro greens. It was a successful and refreshing start to the meal, and the textures worked well together to create some interest in the mouth. The only thing odd about it (besides the fact that ‘sashimi’ didn’t refer to fish) was that we were only brought one plate of it, and were meant to share it, which was slightly awkward given that we didn’t have little plates of our own. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 2: Roasted Broad Bean

Next, 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. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 3: Thai Explosion

The third of the amuses was an Eastern offering. We were instructed to each take one of these miniature parcels in our hand off of our server’s plate and immediately pop it in our mouth and eat it in one bite. I took a quick photo of it, and didn’t really get the chance to ask what it was inside it. I believe that the exterior shells were made up of crisp bread on one side and crispy chicken skin on the other. Inside it tasted of an ever-so-sweet green Thai curry, with a gentle heat that lingered at the back of the throat after it had been eaten. The little coriander leaf was artfully placed on top and the flavor complemented the ‘explosion’ well. It was subtle and elegant, but it wasn’t out-of-this-world. 6/10.

Amuse Bouche 4: Ficelles with Whipped Brown Butter

The feast of amuses continued, and was brought to a brilliant finale with two ficelles (thin baguettes) and two artfully presented scoops of whipped brown butter – one pairing for each diner.

The ficelles themselves were extremely well made, and were probably some of the best baguettes I’ve eaten the in UK. They were perfectly crunchy and had a lovely softness inside. The real master stroke here though was the whipped brown butter. It was extremely light, slightly rich (with notes of caramelization, likely due to the fact that I believe it had been whipped with brown sugar), and it was garnished with purple potato powder, pancetta crumbs and bits of crisp chicken skin. I could have easily continued eating wooden tray after wooden tray of this brilliant combination well into the afternoon. 9/10.

Course 1: Cornish Crab, Textures of Beetroot, Goats Cheese, Leek Ash, Sunflower Seeds

The first course of the meal proper was an artfully arranged plate of food, to say the least. Unfortunately, I felt this dish didn’t quite come together, despite its curb appeal.

The flavour of the crab itself was almost entirely buried beneath everything else, while the ‘textures’ of the beets really only seemed to be one texture presented in multiple hues (crimson and gold). Also, there was quite a high proportion of goats cheese lying beneath it all, which had a strong flavor that almost drowned out everything else when you took a bite of it. Finally, there were simply too many seeds, so the texture became too crunch too easily. There were also some onions floating about in the fray, which were nicely cooked. Overall, it was style over substance in this dish, which both @gourmetraveller and I felt just didn’t integrate well as a whole. 5/10.

2007 Tokaj Dry Furmint, Szepsy

Luckily, the dry Tokaj wine was a perfect match for the freshness of our first course. It displayed subtle melon on the nose, had a nice streak of minerality and decent structure but a pretty short finish.

Bread, blue and wine

I liked this photo, so couldn’t resist including it in the post.

Course 2: Halibut, Courgette, Sofrito, Egg Yolk

The second course was a particularly memorable dish, especially as I don’t care for halibut all that much. The fish itself was cooked absolutely perfectly, and aside from being artistically arranged, the courgettes actually added a nice subtle flavor that married well with the meaty fish. I wasn’t sure how well the deep red sofrito would mesh with the green and white components of the dish, but it did so admirably, maybe because it was quite mild in spice.

Egg yolk and sofrito detail

But the ace up Mendes’ sleeve was the egg yolk, which when pierced produced a perfectly runny bright orange glue which bound the whole dish together by acting as a sauce. The flavor of the little orange orb worked surprisingly seamlessly with the mild fishy flavor of the halibut. It was a fairly simple but genius concoction which I really didn’t expect to work, but which totally proved my instincts to be wrong in this instance. Really clever cooking. 8/10.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Life from Stone (Springfield Estate, South Africa)

I found the matching wine to be a rather typical ‘big’ new world Sauvignon, with lots of zing and grassy gooseberry and a touch of something else (maybe peppers). I have to say that while I have gone off this style of Sauvignon over the last few months, it went exceedingly well with the halibut dish, cutting through the fish and sofrito just enough to keep interest on both the food and the wine – it was truly complementary.

Daylight breaking through

So maybe I just like pictures of wine glasses on restaurant tables…here’s another one. 🙂

Palate Cleanser: Green Tea Granita with Sisho

Another dish, another plate and bowl. The pre-dessert was a beautifully-presented green tea granita with a bit of sisho (the Japanese name for the green leaf that is part of the mint family) perched on top in the center of semi-open egg shell receptacle. It was mild in flavor but worked well as a palate cleanser. Neither of us had too much to say about this one. 6/10.

Course 3: Pannacotta Ice Cream, Thai Basil Powder, Hazelnut Crumbs, Apple

I rushed into the dessert before I got a chance to snap a photo of it, so unfortunately this picture was taken when it was nearly half eaten…but hopefully you can get a sense of what it may have looked like (again, very pretty – surprise, surprise).

This was a delicate and light dessert which provided a soft closing to the meal. The ice cream itself was excellent, with a luscious texture, and it paired well with the milder-than-expected Thai basil powder. There were also discs of sliced green apples and some excellent toasted hazelnut crumbs. It was a very pleasant sweet, but not too sweet, end to the meal. 7.5/10.

Two dessert wine pairings

By this time, we had warmed to the sommelier a bit more, following the rather awkward initial exchange. I think he noticed we were quite interested in the wine pairings and therefore brought us a sampling of two wines to try with our dessert.

The first was a sweet German wine (2007 Ruster Ausbruch, Feiler-Artinger), which was made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Neuburger and Chardonnay grapes. I found it to be right on the edge of cloyingly sweet and, while nice to drink on its own as a dessert in its own right, it didn’t complement the subtle flavors of the dessert but rather overpowered them with strong notes of honey, caramel and biscuits.

The second wine was a simple Vin de Table Français (2007 Julien Courtois, Originel) which was quite dry and actually went pretty well with the dessert, though not perfectly. It was quite odd to drink on its own – not unpleasant, just strange. It was billed as a ‘natural’ wine and I believe he said it hadn’t been filtered or fined. The aroma was very muted to begin with, but both the smell and the taste seemed to develop dramatically in the glass after a short period of time. As I said, it was bone dry and fairly herbaceous, although there was some apple in there somewhere and possibly a touch of honey. It cut through the ice cream nicely and went well with the sweetness of the apple in the dessert. I suppose it was a welcome change from the ordinary as the wine definitely had a character of its own.

2008-2009 Clos Ouvert, Vino Puro

The sommelier let us try another ‘natural’ red wine after the dessert, which was interesting as it again evolved significantly the longer it spent in the glass. We couldn’t make our minds up as to whether we liked it or not, but certainly found it interesting. It developed some light raspberry flavor and I thought it had a touch of spice at the beginning that faded away after not too long (or maybe imagined it to begin with).

Petit Fours 1: Passion Fruit & Ginger Marshmallow and Cep Truffle

But hold your horses; our ‘3-course’ lunch was not yet over. After ordering some coffee (@gourmetraveller opted for tea) to finish the meal off once and for good, we were presented with an array of immaculate petit fours.

First, I tried the brown and orange duo which were presented on individual hollow ceramic cubes (each one is slightly different in color and design). The small orange box was a passion fruit and ginger marshmallow with a light crust, which was tasty. But more interesting was the dark chocolate and cep truffle, that had been topped off with a fleck of Maldon salt. I joked that they should make a ‘truffle’ truffle (i.e. truffle mushrooms in a chocolate truffle), but I guess that might be too obvious for the obviously clever kitchen. Anyway, the truffle worked well as you tasted the flavor of the cep, but not so much that it spoke louder than the chocolate itself. All in all, a delightful pair. 8/10.

Petit Fours 2: Crema Catalana

The other petit four was a fairly traditional Crema Catalana which had been infused with some citrus flavor. The texture was spot-on and the flavor was just superb – I just wish the glass had been half-full and not four-fifths empty! 🙂 8/10.

Single Macchiato

Aside from being one of the most striking coffee drinks I’ve been served in recent times, it was a perfect macchiato. I didn’t ask whose beans they used, but I think it may have been Square Mile. It was one of the best coffees I’ve been served in a restaurant. Or I was quite plastered by this time.

Artful surroundings

I couldn’t have been all that plastered, though, because I did find my way to the bathroom, ducking beneath a great vertical rectangular sign (or piece of artwork?) on my way down the stairs.

We were meant to continue the enjoyable afternoon by checking in on Ben Greeno, yet another former cook a noma, who at the time was preparing for dinner service at his now-closed Tudor Road supper club. Before heading out, however, Nuno came over to introduce himself – something I believe he was doing with all of the diners. I was struck by his shy modesty and his seemingly genuine intrigue in whatever we happened to be saying. He was exceedingly nice and polite and you could really tell why other chefs would be interested in collaborating with him. He made a distinct impression.

Refined, ambitious, almost there

As you can tell, I liked the space and design of the restaurant. In our conversation, Nuno had made a point of telling us that every dish was served on its own plate (or vessel) and he clearly believes that the serving medium is an essential component of each dish – indeed, he said that some of their culinary creations had actually taken direction from the shape and textures of the plate that had been selected. This could surely be seen as pretension taken to a new level, but coming from Nuno, it actually seemed to make sense, as did the conceit of the room, although it didn’t seem to be quite fully realized yet.

I had similar feelings about the food. All of it was tasty,  save for perhaps the crab dish which didn’t do much for me. Every dish – including the not insignificant extras – demanded attention, firstly because they had been presented so beautifully and secondly because (just like the Transformers) there was usually more than met the eye. The sheer diversity of the meal made it fun and engaging, and again reflected the name, and I suppose ethos, of the restaurant. While I don’t think any of the individual dishes will make my “Top Dishes of 2010” (watch this space), the overall experience was intriguing, and brimming with potential. And I don’t think you can find any other place in London serving such inventive food for a £25 meal in which you are given no less than nine individual courses (4 amuses, 3 courses, 1 pre-dessert and petit fours) – for that alone, it is an  amazing fine dining bargain.

My gut reaction is that Viajante is a place with a certain pedigree that is still in the process of defining itself, and is not in a particular hurry to get there. I, for one, am certainly interested to find out what it ends up becoming, because there is something very different about this place from any other restaurant I’ve visited in London as of late.

As my favorite poet put it, “Fare forward, travellers!

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: I didn’t actually see the wine list so can’t comment per se, but they do certainly have an interesting wine program, with a keen and increasing focus on natural wines.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Viajante once, and it was for lunch*

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Viajante

Morgan M. – You Can Go Your Own Way

Morgan M.
489 Liverpool Road
London N7 8NS
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • For dinner and Sunday lunch, the 3-course à la carte is £41, the seasonal 6-course tasting menu is £50 and the 6-course vegetarian menu is £45 – wine pairings with the tasting menus are £26.50 or £29.50, excluding dessert wine
  • During the week, a 2-course set lunch is £23.50 and the 3-course is £29.50, with the tasting menus priced at £45 (seasonal) and £39 (vegetarian)
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

I really enjoyed my first meal at Morgan M. The complexity and quality of the cooking was on par with many better-known London restaurants, but was much more affordable and a wholly more personal dining experience. It’s worth making the short trek up Liverpool Road to sample Chef Meunier’s food. Based on my meal, if the front-of-house experience can be smoothed out a bit, and if the kitchen can consistently turn out dishes as good as what we sampled, they certainly deserve consideration from the ever-elusive Michelin man.

Not just any given Sunday

So I’ve moved to the US. I’ve been here two months and I’m still posting from my backlog of London meals. Because of my penchant for being anal, I am trying to write about all of the memorable meals I had during my last few weeks in London…before posting about anything I’ve had so far in the US. Clinging to the past? Maybe. There are three UK meals left that I’d like to write about – all of which took place in my last week in the country.

But first, something else, although also from the UK. You see, I had the opportunity to swing by London en route to Sweden a few weeks ago. I only had one Sunday, so I was determined to make the most of it. It turned out pretty much all of the places I wanted to have lunch at were closed on Sundays, except for one little place which had always intrigued, yet continually eluded, me. It was the mysterious Morgan ‘M’. It’s not really that mysterious after all, as when you google ‘Morgan M’ the chef’s name, Morgan Meunier, comes up in the restaurant’s site’s metadata…but I digress.

It turned out Mr. Meunier’s gaff was open and, even better, they had a table for me. So I had my plan:

  • Lunch at Mr. M with Ms. P
  • A leisurely, and it turned out much-needed, walk to Paul A. Young’s shop in Camden Passage to pick up supplies for my better half (they make the best brownies either of us have ever tasted, amongst other wonderful and imaginative chocolate concoctions – visit if you haven’t)
  • A long stroll into town to have cocktails with some foodie friends at one of my favorite London haunts, Bob Bob Ricard
  • And finally, a short walk to dinner with the non-foodblogger, food tweeter @jezmd at the newly opened Les Deux Salons (it had only been open a week when we visited), which has quite a pedigree, and then fly out to Sweden the next day

But you probably want to read about my review of the restaurant. This is a food blog after all, not a review of my travel itinerary. So, without further adieu…

On the outskirts of Paradise

Opening to critical acclaim in 2003, French chef Morgan Meunier has been going strong at his small haute cuisine restaurant in the somewhat unlikely location at the top of Liverpool Road in North(ish) London.

Meunier was formerly head chef at the Admiralty, and prior to that cooked at the Michelin-starred Monsieur Max in Twickenham. He has been going strong since 2003 with mostly positive reviews, yet without much publicity, so I was definitely interested to see what this Frenchman had up his sleeve.

We cabbed it to the restaurant from (real) North London and arrived on time for our table.

Formerly a corner pub, now home to modern French restaurant Morgan M.

If I had not seen a picture of the restaurant’s facade beforehand, I could have easily confused its corner location for a pleasant local pub, which it in fact used to be prior to its conversion to the present fine dining restaurant.

Well spaced tables and tasteful decor define the charming little room

However, once you step inside, everything changes. Meunier has succeeded in producing a lovely setting within the somewhat awkward space. The colors are warm, soft and comforting; the tables well spaced; the mood refined yet not too stuffy. Apparently the artwork which adorns the walls (and is on the cover of the menu) is painted by the chef himself.

Our table for two lay at the end of the side that was sans windows

The restaurant was about half-full and we were given one of the larger tables for two near the back of the restaurant along the wood-panelled wall.

Our places were set, and our appetites whet(ted)

A pretty decorative place setting was there to greet us as we sat down, and I slowly began to notice the attention to detail throughout our environs. The green pattern on the plate matched the scarves of the waitresses, and similar green accents were present throughout…on the wall, on the chairs’ upholstery, on the menu, and so on. Although teetering on the edge of obsessiveness, it was all tastefully done.

But what to order...

Our menus were soon presented and we concerned ourselves with the not so easy task of deciding what to eat. ‘Not so easy’ because, firstly, the dishes all had very complicated descriptions – not a bad thing in itself as it all sounded delicious and there were certainly some interesting combinations – and secondly, we weren’t sure how much we wanted to eat.

Choices, choices, choices...

Therefore, we hand the quandary of à la carte or choosing one of the two set menus (seasonal and vegetarian). In the end, we decided we weren’t hungry enough to take on either of the tasting menus which sounded a bit too ambitious given the rest of the day’s plans.

Meritorious Mastication

As we sat chatting, eagerly awaiting our first dishes, we decided we really liked it in here – it had a nice air about it.

Initial offerings

After our orders had been placed, we were greeted with an inviting tray of homemade bread.

Baguette

My choice of baguette was perfectly nice, with crisp and flakey crust and was even better with the high-quality salted butter, which came on its own silver pedestal. A quick note about the bread: strangely enough, this was the only time we were offered bread throughout the entire meal, even though we ate our single pieces of doughy goodness very quickly after receiving them. This certainly wasn’t a bad thing for our waistlines, but I found it very odd, as with some other of the front-of-house experience (more on that later).

Amuse Bouche: Turnip Cream & Trompettes

The amuse bouche was simple yet delicious. It immediately displayed the kitchen’s ability to handle vegetables as the cream effectively drew out the rich taste of turnip on the palate. The trompette mushrooms nestled within were also clearly expressed as a complementary secondary flavor. There were deep flavors going on here and I was interested to see what was to come next. 7/10.

Starter 1: Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coulis

This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no?

Starter 1: Diver-Caught Scallops Detail – Seared to Perfection

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.

Starter 1: Cèpe Detail – The Best Things Often Come in Small Packages

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. 8/10.

My starter was paired with the Sauvignon suggested on the tasting menu (Paul Buisse, Sauvignon Touraine, Cuvée Prestige, 2008) and was very good. But what we found very odd was the awkwardness in communicating with our waitress in trying to select a few glasses of wine to go with our meal. As all of the dishes we had ordered were included in the Autumn tasting menu, and therefore had suggested wine pairings, she simply told us to order those wines. When we tried to politely ask why (and maybe try to get her to recommend an alternative), she couldn’t really express any reason and just pointed at the menu, saying that this is what they recommend. We found this to be a substantial shortcoming for a restaurant whose food certainly seemed to be sophisticated, and we were pretty frustrated with the whole experience in this regard.

Starter 2: Cream of Puy Lentils with a Parsley Coulis, Garlic Beignet

My dining partner enjoyed her starter, which was straight-forward and let the lentils speak for themselves, so to speak. I was graciously offered a spoonful and thought it was very good, though not particularly memorable – the beignet was a nice addition, though. I did enjoy the visual aspect, and likened it to a little island of golden sand replete with its own green forest, floating on top of autumn-colored seas.

Main Course 1: Seared Fillet of John Dory, Jerusalem Artichoke Soubise, Poêlée of Swiss Chard, Girolle Cappuccino

I also loved the presentation of my fillet of John Dory. The skin of the fish was nice and crisp, and the fish was well cooked, though ever so slightly too firm for my liking (and I am being finicky here…we’re talking maybe 10-15 seconds too long). What stood out again here was the deep flavors present in the vegetable components of the dish. The creamy Jerusalem artichoke was an excellent marriage with the slightly buttery fish, and there was an extra layer of luxury provided by the light foam of girolles that was poured on one side. Despite its visual impact on the plate, the taste of the chard did not overpower the fish and was a clever addition for the texture it lent the dish. The mushrooms on the side were also full of flavor and I thought the dish was well thought out and executed pretty precisely. 7/10.

The John Dory was paired with the suggested Sancerre (there seemed to be no other option! :)), which was okay as far as Sancerres go, but certainly not one to write home about.

Main Course 2: Oven-roasted Suffolk Red Leg Partridge, Sweet Potato Purée, Poêlée of Grapes and Savoy Cabbage, Liver Croûton, Bread Sauce

My dining companion much enjoyed her gamey main course. The meat was initially brought out a tad too pink for her liking (I am no game expert, but think it was probably fine except one particular spot which did seem too reddish to my untrained eyes), and it was sent back. It reappeared a few minutes later, as beautiful as it had been the first time around.

Main Course 2: The View from Behind

She really liked the dish, although felt that the portion size was very large, especially given the quantity of rich liver on the plate, which she loved but couldn’t finish. I had a few bites and thought it was a very tasty dish (I agreed it was very rich) that had been elegantly presented – it was a nice snapshot of the autumn season on the plate.

Pre-Dessert: Rice Pudding, Mango Sorbet & Orange Tuille

The pre-dessert was both beautiful and satisfying. It consisted of a central core of rice pudding that had been wrapped by a caramelized orange tuille, topped with mango sorbet, standing at attention in a pond of mango syrup. The tuille itself was good and, while not the best I’ve ever had, it performed its function of providing crunchiness. The rice pudding itself was a little too cold (maybe due to proximity to the sorbet?) and got slightly lost in the strong fruity flavors, but I must say that the combination worked well and it was a pretty delicious few bites that simultaneously stimulated and cleaned the palate. 7/10.

Dessert 1: Apple and Lime Soufflé & Coulis, Granny Smith Sorbet

As readers of this blog may recall, I am not the biggest fan of dessert soufflés, but I liked the refreshing sound of this one, and figured that since their seemed to be some serious precision going on in this French-led kitchen, I may as well give it a whirl.

I can happily say that I wasn’t disappointed; to the contrary, I loved my dessert. It was presented in textbook perfection, with good height, and was extremely light and fluffy. The waitress poked a hole in the top with her spoon and poured in some of the bright green coulis and we were off.

Dessert 1: Soufflé Detail

The soufflé itself was to my liking and not overly eggy or chewy (i.e. not the texture of scrambled eggs) – and as I said before, it was exceedingly light. The crisp and zingy flavors of apple and lime were an excellent match and I really enjoyed the overall effect, although I think they could have poured a little less of the liquid into the center as it was on the verge of overpowering the delicate soufflé.

The accompanying sorbet was Granny Smith herself frozen in a cryogenic state and was again nice and crisp, with the sorbet not being overly watery. The beautifully presented apple crisp was a nice touch, too. I thought this was a really accomplished traditional dessert, especially given that the cards were stacked against it given my personal biases. 9/10.

Dessert 2: Warm Red Wine & Fig Soup, Roasted Fig

My friend immensely enjoyed her dessert too, which she ordered without the accompanying Pain d’Epice ice cream due to dietary restrictions. I had a bite and agreed that it was wonderful. It was the kind of dessert I could imagine enjoying on a brisk night in a log cabin high up in the Alps (we can dream, right…), and the red wine soup displayed a perfect balance between sweetness, acidity and spice. I am sure it would have gone perfectly with the ice cream, and I was slightly disappointed not to be able try it – but hey, it wasn’t my dessert after all!

Déjà vu?

After we had finished desserts, our table was once again dressed with a decorative plate in-keeping with the design scheme – although this time it was petit

Petit Fours

…presumably because it was making way for the seven fours. 🙂 The narrow silver tray of dainty treats was both generous and tasty. I ended up ‘having’ to eat most of them as my companion was completely stuffed by this point – I know, poor old me.

Petit Fours: Chocolate Truffle and Financier Detail

The financiers were particularly good (perfectly cooked with the right consistency), as were the nougat and the dark chocolate truffle (with the chef’s signature on it, as with most things in the restaurant).

Petit Fours: Lemon Tartelette Detail

The real stand-out here, though, was certainly the miniature lemon tart. It was perfection in a single bite. I wish I could have had a full-sized one to take home with me! These were much better than your average petit four offerings. 8/10.

Single Espresso

I finished this excellent meal off with a very good single espresso. Or so I thought…

An ice cream cone for the road

It seemed the kitchen had other ideas, as we were given one final parting gift, a miniature ice cream cone! It was a nice touch 🙂

The omnipresent signature of the chef

The overall damage was fairly reasonable given the quality the food, totalling £150 for two à la carte menus, with a supplement for the scallops, three glasses of wine and service.

Dial M for Meticulous

I really enjoyed the food and ambience at Morgan M. His complicated yet clean modern dishes were generally a delight on the palate and stunning to look at. It is evident that this is a very personal restaurant where the chef is attempting to project his personality and vision throughout each element of the dining experience. I would imagine that the precise execution of the dishes is pretty consistent as Meunier himself is normally there cooking each day.

This M. is not as secretive as Ian Fleming’s...he came out and greeted each guest after their meal

He makes a point of greeting each table after they’ve finished their meal – it’s not just something he does for visiting critics or bloggers who identify themselves through their photographing of the food. While this can be a slightly awkward experience – for example, what if you have something not particularly nice to say? – it is a nice gesture and confirms that you are not eating in a ‘celebrity’ chef restaurant, but in a chef’s chef restaurant.

An easy comparison could be made with Alexis Gauthier, another somewhat iconoclastic Frenchman who held fort in the slightly odd location in Pimlico at Roussillon for many years. He too has an amazing ability to bring out the best from vegetables and gained quite a reputation for his careful and refined cooking, holding a Michelin star from 2000 while at Roussillon. He focuses on timely British produce and his menu changed with the seasons, and once he broke out on his own, he never went back to the establishment – almost eschewing the central London celebrity chef gang in favor of his own unique culinary expression. He has now moved in closer to town (Soho, see review here) but is still very much an independent spirit and operator. The parallels are obvious to see.

Whether or not Morgan M.’s location is strange or not is sort of beside the point, as his food is certainly worth seeking out. Possibly in part because of the location and the small size of the premises, he is able to offer very substantial a la carte and tasting menus at very reasonable prices (none are over £50) compared to other French fine dining affairs in the center of town.

The only thing that let us down was the awkward and uneven service provided by our waitresses. While they were warm and tried to be professional, we were not offered a refill of bread, the whole ordering of wine experience was very odd indeed, we waited for them on many occasions and not the other way around (especially when trying to get the bill), they almost gave my bag to another party who departed before us, and so on and so forth. I hope that this was merely a one-off, but who knows.

What I would say is that, if the front-of-house experience had been smoother and if the food was turned out consistently as good as what we sampled, the restaurant is certainly as deserving of a Michelin star. But that is another matter altogether, with many deserving London chefs still waiting for their fabled macaron to arrive.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the second subtitle, the restaurant resides across the street from ‘Paradise Park’ – no joke.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 7.5/10

Wine: I barely got a chance to peruse the wine list, but noted it was French-dominated and seemed to have some interesting and good value options.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Morgan M. once, and it was for lunch*

Morgan M on Urbanspoon

Matbaren – A Balanced Equation

Matbaren
Mathias Dahlgren
Grand Hôtel Stockholm
Södra Blasieholmshamnen 6
10327 Stockholm
Website
Map
Online Reservations (for Matbaren only, you must call for Matsalen)
Phone Reservations: +46 (0)8 679 3584

  • The menu at Matbaren changes every day and all dishes are served as ‘small plates’ (though some are not that small). The restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person, and prices range between SEK 135 – 315, or £12.50 – 30.00 (on average about SEK 250, or £23). There are 3-4 vegetarian options each day.
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

I had a superb meal and a wonderful time at Matbaren, Mathias Dahlgren’s more casual eatery in central Stockholm. It holds a Michelin star and deserves it. The intensity and balance of flavors in his food is memorable and the setting of Matbaren achieves a wonderful balance between the fun and the formal. The restaurant (which is only nominally a ‘bar’) is by no means cheap, but if you fancy a stimulating meal in a great setting, and don’t mind splurging a bit, look no further.

Entering the grand

I am fortunate enough to travel to Stockholm fairly often. I love the place no matter what the season. It always seems peaceful and content with itself. The air is crisp and you are surrounded by clear water in many of the main areas of the city. The people are straight forward and friendly in their own way.

My only frustration with these trips is that I am normally too consumed with work to be able to spend time exploring the more exciting culinary experiences that Stockholm has to offer, and it boasts many – from the simple to the more refined.

However, on my last trip in mid-October I was determined to at the very least pay homage to Sweden’s brightest star in the culinary world, that being Mathias Dahlgren. For those of you not familiar with the name, here’s a potted history. He was the proprietor of Bon Lloc from 1996-2005, which held a macaron in the Michelin guide. In 2007, he braved it on his own and opened up two restaurants in the Grand Hôtel Stockholm. One is a private dining salon called Matsalen which only has 38 covers and currently holds two of those Michelin macarons. The other, Matbaren, is nominally called a ‘bar’ (although it only accepts dining guests), but is no slouch, holding its own star from the man dressed in puffy white inner-tubes.

Chef Dahlgren’s flagship restaurant was recently voted #25 in the most recent, and now well-established, San Pellegrino’s The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, and is only the second Swedish restaurant to hold two Michelin stars. He also holds the distinction of having been the recipient of Kockarnas Kock (‘Chef of all Chefs’, or Swedish Chef of the Year) four separate times, and is the only Swedish chef to have won the Bocuse d’Or.

Given my time constraints, and the probable difficulty in scoring a reservation at the private dining room at short notice, I opted to go to Matbaren, which was facilitated with ease only a few days before through their online booking system. I was meant to go with a colleague, but on the night of our reservation, we ended up hanging out with some of his friends at a casual restaurant called B.A.R. (coincidentally just behind Mathias Dahlgren), which was pleasant enough but the food was pretty ‘meh’. Nevertheless, undeterred, I booked a table for the following night and decided that I would go solo if need be.

The approach

I made my way across Skeppsbron, and over the bridge on a quite a chilly Nordic night, with the illuminated facade of the Grand Hôtel beckoning.

The vibe

Upon entering the very attractive room, I immediately liked the atmosphere and vibe of the place. The bar (where you can have the full menu) was still completely full and there were a few tables of two left, so I took one next to the window, which afforded a nice view of the room. The décor was very Scandinavian, with bright red accents throughout and some wonderfully playful high-backed white spindled chairs in the corner. The room exuded that difficult to achieve balance between the casual and the formal, and had a good energy without verging toward the frenetic.

The open kitchen

The rather small kitchen is visible through a glass wall, and the chefs were operating in a quiet, controlled and precise manner throughout my meal.

The table

My waiter came over to explain how the menu worked. The menu at Matbaren changes each day and is printed on brown paper – oh-so current, no? – within your wooden tray. The food is arranged into four sections (‘From our Country’, ‘From Other Countries’, ‘From the Plant World’ and ‘From the Pastry’ – i.e. desserts), and there are 3-4 dishes in each group. All dishes are presented in the format of ‘small plates’ and the restaurant recommends 2-4 dishes per person. They also have a very good selection of local beers and an interesting selection of wines by the glass. Also within your tray is a brown bag with the current day’s date stamped on it, which contains some crisp Swedish crackers, and on the right they place a small helping of butter with a little wooden spatula.

A memorable quartet

I would like to say at the outset that the service – which was solely provided by my one waiter – was phenomenal. He answered all of my questions without fail (even some fairly obscure ones) and was friendly at the same time as being professional and efficient in what was quite a busy dining room for most of the evening.

Crisp bread

After we decided on what my first course and accompanying wine would be, I opened up that brown paper bag and tasted some of the crisp bread, which was good, but even better when smeared with a touch of the creamy butter.

Creamy butter

I was also offered some other bread, of which I selected a white sourdough, which was excellent. They don’t do their baking in-house but rather source their breads from one of the best bakeries in Stockholm, whose name of course now escapes me.

Plate 1: Pumpkin & Broccoli, Truffle, Watercress, Hazelnut, Parmesan

I decided to start off with the pumpkin and broccoli as it sounded like a light dish and was recommended by the waiter (I had also eyed it myself). The green elements masked a base of faintly orange pumpkin cream, apparently a native variety that was in season at the time. While appearing to be a very simple plate of food, I actually found it to be quite complex in flavor and definitely more than the sum of its parts.

The pumpkin cream itself was rich and sweet, but not too much so. This was enhanced by the surprisingly pungent and concentrated flavor of the truffles, which were from the nearby island of Gotland (a popular summer vacation destination for Stockholm residents in the middle of the Baltic Sea). The truffles were fabulous – again full of flavor, but just restrained enough not to dominate the plate. The simply steamed broccoli served as a neutralizer of sorts, while the chopped hazelnuts (or were they actually almonds?) added bits of sweetness and textural variation. The hint of parmesan also lent a little dose of acidity to the sweetness of the pumpkin and the richness of the truffles. This was a really accomplished and harmonic dish that showed off the produce of the region and the season. The broccoli was a tad too chewy for my liking but I think it was probably intentionally cooked this way. 8/10.

The waiter recommended pairing this dish with the 2009 Mâcon-Charnay from Domaine Cordier (Bourgogne, France). This white Burgundy was rich and intense, but also refreshing and would give many a good wine from the nearby Côte d’Or a run for their money. It was a match made in heaven with the vegetables.

Plate 2: Sashimi of Salma Salmon & Reindeer, Avocado, Ginger, Horseradish

First of all, sorry about the appalling lighting in the photo – I’m still trying to get to grips with my little Canon. This is apparently one of Mathias Dahlgren’s signature dishes at the bar. I liked it a lot, but wasn’t wholly enamoured. The presentation was beautiful, I have to say, and the conceit was certainly clever. It is sort of a de-constructed sushi/sashimi box lunch. You’ve got the salmon, which I didn’t think was particularly memorable (it tasted farmed, but I didn’t enquire); you’ve got the ginger, but it’s fresh and not pickled; you’ve got the horseradish, i.e. wasabi, but it isn’t green (though the avocado is); and then you’ve got beads of tapioca, which have been soaked in soy sauce, lying on top…so while it appears to be fish roe it’s actually the soy sauce into which you’d normally dip the sashimi or sushi.

There are, however, two rather intriguing additions: avocado and reindeer carpaccio. They both somehow worked, despite my culinary logic telling me they shouldn’t. The softness of the avocado didn’t bother me, and its mild creaminess actually worked well with the sharpness present in the dish. The reindeer itself was excellent and somehow didn’t stick out like a sore thumb either – it was rich but certainly not overpowering.

I liked this dish, and thought it was an interesting take on a sushi/sashimi box meal, but it’s not what lingered in my memory a few days after the meal. 7/10.

The suggested wine pairing was a young German Riesling named Jacobus (2009) from Peter Jakob Kühn in Rheingau. It was an intense and unique Riesling in a very dry style which complemented the dish very well. Its biodynamic roots (pardon the pun) definitely showed through well.

Plate 3: Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes

This was quite possibly my favorite dish of the evening – 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! 9/10.

Math for eggheads

The suggested liquid partner was a lovely Californian Pinot Noir, which I had read about but never had the opportunity to taste. It was the 2008 Garnet from Saintsbury (Carneros, CA) and I liked it on its own but didn’t think it integrated all that well with the egg and mushroom flavors. I think I personally would have tried for a white wine to drink with the dish – but these things are very subjective.

Dessert: Baked Wild Chocolate from Bolivia, Sour Cream, Toffee Ice Cream, Nuts

There’s not a whole lot to say about this chocolate dessert…but in a good way. My menu informed me that they have sold 28,967 of these since opening the restaurant in 2007, but the waiter said they’ve actually sold over 30,000. A decadent baked chocolate cake revealed a molten chocolate core, which melded nicely with the intense dollop of toffee residing on top. This was enhanced by a superb toffee ice cream and just the right amount of sour cream to cut through all that sweetness and gooeyness.

Aforementioned ‘gooeyness’

The addition of chopped nuts added the necessary crunch factor and it all worked together in harmony. It wasn’t the most original dessert I’ve ever had, but it was certainly excellent and very satisfying. 8/10.

2008 Vin doux Naturel Vendage, Domaine Pouderoux (Maury, France)

The sweet red wine that I drank with the dessert was my favorite out of the four wines I tasted that evening, and was also the best pairing. The light Grenache wine was sweet, but not cloyingly so, and retained a good streak of acidity to preserve its freshness. Red berry fruits – I noted raspberry most distinctly – abounded and I think I could have drank a whole bottle myself as dessert on its own…pure pleasure. It also went very nicely with the dark chocolate of the dessert. Chocolate and raspberries is a classic combination, I suppose.

Single macchiato

I finished off the meal with an espresso macchiato. Besides the coffee being very good itself, what I particularly liked was the fact that they brought out a silver pot of steamed milk (which had very fine foam), and after the waiter placed a dollop of foam on top. I was allowed to do with the milk as I pleased (I actually left it as it was served). Nice touch, though.

Petit fours

The bowl of petit fours that came with the coffee contained little round Madeleines that were delicately flavored with lemon and some dark chocolate with hefty chunks of hazelnut and a smattering of sea salt. Both were very tasty and I’m sort of ashamed to say that I ate the whole lot. Greedy me.

In the kitchen

Near the end of the meal I asked my ever-effervescent waiter if Mathias was in the kitchen today, to which he replied ‘yes’, and asked if I would like to meet him. He graciously took a minute to come and say hello and I was struck by his understated personality. After the meal, I asked the waiter if I could have the name of the olive oil that I had found so intriguing (it is from the arbequina olive and this particular version was from Spain). He explained that it is much less spicy than typical Italian oils and this is why they used it in particular dishes.

Mathias show me ‘THAT’ olive oil

He went to the kitchen to make sure he had the name right, and called me over to show me a bottle of the stuff. At that moment, Mathias came in from the back door in the kitchen and asked what was going on. He then took the bottle himself and showed it to me, and told me that when he spent time in Napa Valley he was able to find it there as well (I found some online afterward). He then asked me if I’ve ever had oranges, olive oil and salt before. When I said no, he sprung into action.

The chef’s kind offering

He told me that in some parts of Spain, it is a typical thing to eat for breakfast, but of course his version had an extra little element. He gave me a bowl of oranges, orange sorbet, the Spanish arbequina olive oil and sea salt and explained that it covered the “four corners” of taste, being sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The simple concoction certainly provided a nice explosion of flavors in the mouth. He said that he needed to get back to the dinner service and I thanked him again, hardly believing my luck at not only getting to meet him but also sample something straight from his hands. It was the perfect end to a highly enjoyable evening.

Equilibrium

A few things about my meal at Matbaren stood out for me.

Firstly, the flavors had been perfectly balanced in all four dishes I ordered. Everything had been thoroughly thought through and while all of the dishes were rich in flavor, there were no dud notes and every component was complementary. The intensity of the field mushrooms in the third dish I had particularly lingers in my mind. This highlights both the quality of the ingredients – many of which are locally sourced (there is a big emphasis on this) – and also the skill of the kitchen.

Secondly, the setting is exactly right for what the restaurant is purporting to be. It has a great ambience, lively and warm but not overly loud, and the staff is focused on making sure that their guests enjoy themselves while at the same time delivering the right degree of attentiveness.

This brings us to the issue of price. No matter how you slice it, Matbaren is not cheap. With the average price of a small plate above £20, things can add up quickly. That said, I would posit that an average bill at Matbaren is probably less than half the cost of the more exclusive Matsalen, which offers 5-courses and 8-courses for SEK 1500 (£140) and 1250 (£115) respectively (the corresponding wine pairings are SEK 1300 and 950). When all was told, my bill for four dishes and four wines at Matbaren ended up being just over SEK 1300 which is quite punchy even in by the fairly expensive standards of Stockholm.

That said, I was quite happy to pay on this occasion as I had a wonderful time – which is often a big ask when dining alone. I would highly recommend paying a visit to either restaurant if you find yourself in Stockholm and want to splurge on a meal.

From my brief introduction to Mathias Dahlgren’s food, I doubt you’ll be disappointed with it. Just like his illustration of the 63° egg on the restaurant’s menu, which is part humor and part science, I found Matbaren to be a perfectly balanced equation.

Oh, by the way, Matbaren keeps about 7-8 seats free (they are not bookable), so if you find yourself alone and want a good meal, there’s a good chance they’ll have a seat for you at the bar.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 9/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the wine list is concise but well put together and sufficiently diverse. The wines also facilitated some good and varied matching with the food. My only quibble was that they did seem to be quite highly marked up across the board.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Matbaren once, and it was for dinner*

Madsen – A Handy Scandi I’d Like To Fancy

Madsen
20 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3DL
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Brunch:  dishes from £5.75-12.75, plus there is a brunch platter for £18.50
  • Lunch: prices vary but generally £10-15pp for 2 courses; there are also set lunch menus for £14.50 (2 courses) or £18.50 (3 courses) and a smushi lunch platter for £9.50
  • Dinner: starters from £5.50-8.50, mains from £11.75-17.95, desserts from £5.50-895, plus there are also dinner set menus for £22.95 (2 courses) or £27.50 (3 courses) & various other seasonal menus
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos (which I am particularly fond of), please visit my Flickr sets: lunch & brunch

A small, cute, clean modern Scandinavian restaurant in South Kensington that I really wanted to love, but can’t quite find reason to. Well, the herring was pretty good and they serve a mean brunch platter. But a couple of lacklustre open sandwiches and four dry meatballs with no redeeming qualities don’t exactly have me chomping at the bit to return. In any case, it’s a pleasant place to hang out and, if you order well, you might just end up with some decent Nordic grub.

A quick smushi, not a sushi, for lunch for once

I had wanted to visit Madsen, a still *relatively* new Scandinavian restaurant in London, since it opened around the beginning of 2009. Being a long-time fan of food from the region, I was eager to get a taste of the food without having to travel there – although I do like visiting the Nordics, Sweden especially. Somehow I never made it during the opening hoopla, but I did follow them on twitter from very early on (so it felt like I had been there, at least) and mentally noted the mostly positive reviews from the blogger- and twitter-ati, as well as the traditional press.

The entrance - notice the very Scandinavian use of blankets for outdoor seating. Why don’t they have this in England more commonly?!

Anyhoot, it just so happened that we were out to get Baby LF’s French passport in South Kensington (where else would the French embassy in London be located?) before embarking on our transatlantic transplantation. It was nearing the end of what is generally considered ‘lunchtime’ and I remembered that Madsen was in the area, so we walked around the corner and espied a nearly vacant dining room, with one couple eating on the small terrace and the inside totally empty. Perfect, we had plenty of room for our little princess, and could relax and stretch out.

Simply red

The lunch menu made good for reading, and pretty soon we had whittled down the choices and made our selections.

The dining room is typically Nordic, employing clean lines, lots of white and wood, and dramatic utilization of splashes of primary colors. It is a simple dining room that is inviting in the daytime and (I imagine) sufficiently atmospheric in the evening.

Take a quick tour with me…first the right foot…

Right half of the dining room

…and now the left.

Left half of the dining room

A quick glance up….

Dangling illumination

…and now peer down at your table, and please be seated.

Looks nice, eh?

Given the restaurants roots, I have opted for Scandinavian minimalism in terms of commentary (sparser than usual, at least).

Onion Marinated Herring with Curry Salad & Rye Bread

The herring was excellent, as good as I’ve had in Sweden and Denmark, and I enjoyed this element the best out of all the components in the dish. The curried salad was also pleasant and not too cloyingly sweet. The rye bread was average at best and definitely not up to the standard that I’m used to in Nordic countries. The salad was fresh enough, but it was all about the herring.

Smushi Lunch Platter

Mrs. LF opted to go for the Smushi Lunch Platter, a trendy type of small open face sandwich gracing Denmark’s eateries as of late. It was certainly prettily presented.

Smushi Lunch Platter: Smoked Salmon with Cucumber on Sourdough Bread

This was Mrs. LF’s favorite of the three. It was good: not a knockout, but a satisfying classic nonetheless. That said, how hard is it to prepare a simple but tasty smoked salmon sandwich?

Smushi Lunch Platter: Tomato and New Potato with Mayo & Crispy Onion on Rye Bread

The other two smushis (can you say that?) were “take it or leave it” for both of us and not particularly rousing – a let-down for sure as they did look very appetizing. The veggie sandwich was probably our second favorite, saved in part by the crispy onions (these are nearly always good additions to plainer sandwiches, and hot dogs too, in my book).

Smushi Lunch Platter: Smoked Pork Loin Topped with Mayo & Tomato on Rye Bread

When I saw the words “smoked pork loin” I somehow didn’t envisage some thinly sliced cold-cut-ish looking meat. Also, the menu description wasn’t particularly accurate in this instance as those were definitely potatoes, and not tomatoes, on top (I know they rhyme, but c’mon…). Anyhow, this was below average and we found it boring and uninspired. We also found the platter to be pretty expensive for what it was at £9.50.

Frikadeller/Pork Meatballs with Cold Potato Salad

Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. I don’t know how to say it other than these meatballs just didn’t taste good. Maybe I was disappointed because, again, they had been presented attractively, or maybe it was the fact that there was no gravy or sauce to accompany them and bring a much-needed counterpoint to the overly porky flavour and dry texture, but it just wasn’t happening. I really didn’t enjoy my main course and, having tried a bite, Mrs. LF concurred – and she is, like, well forthright, innit.

Despite our hit-and-miss experience (with more misses than hits), we still had a fairly nice time at lunch – the waitress was sweet and we liked the look and feel of the little venue. We decided to give it a second try when we saw they had a brunch menu, as we were due to meet some friends who live in the area that coming weekend.

The second coming?

We arrived back at Madsen a few days later and were expecting to wait ages for our friends to turn up (one of them is notoriously horrible with time-keeping – she’s in fashion, darling), but to our surprise they were already at the table, waiting to get their hands on Baby LF’s ridiculously rotund thighs. 🙂

To use a MasterChef Torodian non sequitur…“and from baby fat to brunch”…

We were back, the menu was white & black

I decided that from the relatively concise brunch menu, I would opt for the Nordic Brunch Platter as I was particularly hungry.

Rodier Pere et Fils Champagne N.V.

But of course upon noticing a decent N.V. (no, not a boring Dutch corporation) they had by the glass, I opted for a flute of champagne to start off the proceedings, and of course to serve as a good role model for Baby LF. 🙂 It was a satisfying beginning, though it’s not one of my favorite N.V.’s it has to be said.

Nordic Brunch Platter (Starter): Natural Yogurt & Fresh Strawberries with Muesli

I had envisaged my massive horde of food to arrive as a one complete unit. But instead, it seemed to be dismembered and presented in parts. Fair enough, I suppose. The first component to arrive was the yogurt. It was natural and unsweetened, which I liked. It made for a very simple but nice start to my ‘platter’. That said, I could have just as easily made this at home.

Nordic Brunch Platter (Main)

~  Scrambled eggs with sautéed tomatoes, onion & bacon ~
~ Smoked salmon on rye bread with mixed leaves ~
~ Brie cheese with mixed berry compote & crisp bread ~

Ah, now here was the promised mound o’ food I was after.

Getting up close & personal with my brunch platter

It was a pretty huge platter, but it was all executed nicely. The eggs were well seasoned, creamy and fluffy; the salmon was fresh and excellent; and the brie cheese itself was of very high quality and lovely with the berry compote. The bacon was nice and crispy, though a tad too salty for me, and the tomatoes were just about sweet. I enjoyed my Viking platter of brunchy bits.

Nordic Brunch Platter (Dessert): Double Chocolate Chip Pancakes with Fresh Fruit & Cream

The chocolate chip pancakes, which served as a finale to my platter, were okay – they were cooked through properly and the chocolate chips were nice inside them. However, I felt the plate was too dry (and I don’t particularly like whipped cream with breakfast pancakes), and thought it would have benefitted from some kind of sauce to tie everything together. You know, like the Big Lebowski’s rug.

Large Herring Platter (Onion, Juniper & Madeira)

One of our friends ordered the large herring platter, which consisted of three types of marinated herring (onion, juniper berry and Madeira) and served with a garnish and rye bread. I didn’t have it on this occasion, but as noted earlier, my (onion marinated) herring at Madsen from our previous lunch was excellent, and my friend thought the same.

Smushi of Thinly Sliced Roast Beef with Remoulade

Said friend also ordered a smushi of roast beef. This was topped with crispy onions, pickled cucumber and fresh horseradish and was served on rye bread. I didn’t get to try it but it looked amazing, I have to say.

Curry Salad & Beetrots in Horseradish Cream

Our other friend is vegetarian (I did mention she’s in fashion, right?) and ordered the curry salad and beetroots in horseradish cream. I didn’t have the opportunity to taste this either, although I think I had a smaller version of the curry with my herring at lunch), but it certainly looked appetizing.

Double Chocolate Mousse Topped with Sweet Horseradish Cream

I did get a bite of the chocolate mousse and it was lighter than I had expected from the billing of “double chocolate” – also, none of us could really taste the horseradish in the cream. It was borderline passable but not memorable.

Æblekage (Stewed Apples in Layers with Amaretti Biscuit Crumble & Whipped Cream)

I also got one small bit of this and didn’t think much of it, unfortunately. It was quite watery and generally lacking any discernible flavor – the only thing I noticed was the slightest taste of apples (thank god, because it was made of them) and a touch of Amaretto.

Single Macchiato

Well, at least I had been happy with my own food this time around, and decided to finish the meal off with a single macchiato, as is often my want, which was perfectly fine.

I’m not mad about Madsen

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Madsen. On my two visits, I noted that it was casual yet subtly elegant; the plating of all of the dishes was clean and appealing; some of the food was fine and occasionally good, but it was also sometimes not worth eating (in a restaurant when you’re paying) IMHO; and the service was pleasant enough. I really want to like the place, but certainly can’t say I’m that enamored – and if I were a redheaded British comedian, no, I probably wouldn’t really be that bovvered.

On both occasions I wandered downstairs – passing the cute little private room on the way – and walked by the kitchen on the way to the bathroom. Both times it seemed deserted, with seemingly only one chef present. So maybe the culinary experience didn’t live up to my expectations because we ate at odd hours when the kitchen wasn’t well staffed (although it was packed upstairs at brunch), or maybe I didn’t order the signature dishes, if they have such things (but of course everything at a ‘good’ restaurant should at least be good).

Mrs. LF made a good point when she reflected that the food we have had at Madsen hasn’t really been ‘cooked’, per se, but rather the task of the chef has been to put together different ingredients. I am sure some dishes (maybe the ones at dinner time, when we have not been), involve more cooking skill, but the food we had was very simple, and as noted above a few times, it’s the kind of food you could make at home and is not necessarily worth going out to a restaurant to eat.

Will the third time be the charm?

For those of you who have been, what do you think – have I missed out on something special or have I gotten it mostly right? I’m befuddled.

Madsen on Urbanspoon

Il Baretto – The Little Bar That Could

Il Baretto
43 Blandford Street
London W1U 7HF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Dinner menu: starters & salads £4.50-14, pizzas £10-14, ‘primi’ £9-20, mains £18-30, sides £3.50-5.50, desserts £7-10
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Il Baretto aims to project a sleek and modern image, which it pulls off just fine in terms of aesthetics, but the food underlying its somewhat perplexing menu groupings is generally classic Italian fare. Overall, the dishes we had were fresh, well prepared and some were bursting with flavor (it’s all about the burrata), although none of it – save for a rather unusual dessert – was particularly adventurous. It is a nice place to go if you fancy a fancy Italian meal and don’t want any surprises, and the staff is generally very welcoming and professional – plus you may find it interesting for people watching. I liked it and appreciated the skill in the kitchen, but wasn’t bowled over.

The phantom floor

So that’s it, we’re officially residents of New York.

Given America’s love affair with all things Italian – especially the food – I thought I’d start off my Stateside blogging with a little review (‘little’ by my standards, I suppose) of a restaurant run by Italians and managed by a London-based restaurant mafia boss.

That would be Il Baretto on Blandford Street, just off Marylebone High Street and seconds away from a trio of restaurants beginning with ‘L’  (L’Autre Pied, La Fromagerie, Le Relais de Venise) and other interesting places such as Trishna and The Providores.

The location has, so far as I am aware, been an Italian restaurant for a number of years (I think it was called Giusto in its last incarnation). Arjun Waney is the man behind Il Baretto, who decided to add the restaurant to his growing portfolio of higher-end eateries in 2009 – he is also behind the likes of Zuma, Roka and La Petit Maison.

The little bar in blue and white

Il Baretto apparently means “the little bar” in Italian – at least according to Google Translator – and not a type of gun, as I had first envisaged, which screwed up my original choice of title for this post (I can hear your sighs of disappointment). And a little bar it is, on the face of it at least. The defiantly dainty but certainly swanky small ground floor room does have a little bar at the back, as well as a few close-to-the-floor tables and a row of stools along a small counter that face the window looking out to the street. Perfect for a glass of prosecco and a snack – maybe a pizza or some cicchetti – but not much more than that.

You will almost definitely be met by Italians when you check in at the little reception desk immediately past the door – so far as I could tell, there were only Italians in the front of house. And the ones at reception will probably be very tall and glamorous looking women.

While I had sampled some of their pizzas on a previous occasion in the upstairs room – it was my good friend the Phantom Medic’s birthday, and he really likes it there, you see – I had never been to the underground lair that lay below. As one of the aforementioned Italian models led us down the narrow staircase, I was surprised to find a rather large and pretty slick formal dining room in the subterranean space, replete with a semi-open kitchen. I was told by the Phantom that it tends to be quite a scene down there at night. And I can confirm that during our meal an A-list Hollywood star was indeed sitting in the corner near our table – so the good doctor doesn’t tell a fib.

As it happens, I had been invited to dine that evening by said doctor as a sort of send-off before moving to the US. It is one of his favorite haunts and he had wanted me to try it out for some time.

Confusing menu, simple food

After being greeted by a slew of Italian waiters – each one welcomed Dr. J as if he was their long-lost best friend and asked after him, his family, his cat – all par for the course when dining out with this guy – while I waited in the recesses, wondering when we could sit down and order some food! 🙂

Decision time in the little bar with a big dining room

I found the menu at Il Baretto to be slightly odd. There was one page of ‘Starters’, which included a fairly random assortment of dishes (many were not your typical ‘antipasti’) and a selection of salads; then there was a page with ‘Carpacci’ at the top and ‘Primi’ below (were the carpacci Starters or Primi, and what exactly was the difference?); then a page which I assumed to be main courses, which included the sub-headings of ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Robata Grill’ (hmm…rolling concepts out horizontally across the group, are we…Roka anyone?). Anyhow, I found it difficult to figure out how many of what type of dishes to order and so forth, but luckily there wasn’t really a problem as the Phantom knew the menu well and we devised a tasting regime of sorts for ourselves, with the help of the friendly and proficient waiter.

Once we had ordered, we briefly chatted with the sommelier to select a bottle of wine that might suit the rather fishy direction the meal had taken and ended up with a bit of a gem.

2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano

A special meal deserved a special wine, after all, and I was very happy to be drinking Terlan‘s 2007 Sauvignon ‘Quarz’. It is a wine from Italy’s Alto Adige region and is named after the quartz which runs through Cantina Terlano’s vineyard. It had a remarkable aroma, a striking acidity, a very long and sophisticated finish, and was a refreshing companion to the savory part of our meal. It retails at just under £35 a bottle and I believe it was marked up to about double that at the restaurant.

Burrata with Cherry Tomatoes

First up was one of Il Baretto’s burrata platters, on which you can have the plump orb of cheese and cream accompanied by Parma ham, grilled courgettes or cherry tomatoes. As you can tell from the photo, we chose the tomatoes. This was simply outstanding. The quality of the mozzarella was excellent and it was gloriously creamy inside. I thought it went really well with the simple pairing of sweet cherry tomatoes. It was probably the single best thing we ate that night. I would order it again without thinking twice. 9/10.

Tuna Carpaccio with Toasted Hazelnuts

The tuna carpaccio in the second dish of the preamble was itself very good, although it wasn’t completely raw – it seemed to have been quickly seared on the outside. This is a trend in many Italian restaurants as of late, where the term ‘carpaccio’ (which means raw meat or fish) has been elasticized to include seared and partially cooked items as well. The accompanying sauce was, to use that god-awful word, ‘interesting’ but not necessarily in a bad way…I just couldn’t quite decide whether it worked or not. The toasted hazelnuts were good (when do they ever taste bad?), but again, I wasn’t sure they were the best accompaniment for the fish. Like George Clooney, I was up in the air…about this dish at least. 6/10.

Rosemary Bread

The rosemary bread however was fantastic. I believe it was essentially a version of their pizza base sprinkled with a bit of very good olive oil and dressed with some sprigs of rosemary. It was the perfect vessel for scooping up the lush burrata and worked really well with the cheese and tomatoes (which worked just fine on their own too, but this added a nice extra dimension). 8/10.

By the way, the Phantom is a huge fan of their pizzas, and having sampled a few during his birthday shindig, I can attest that they aren’t bad at all – the thin-crust dough (basically the bread mentioned above) is a good one, very light and crispy.

Oven Baked Sea Scallops, Venetian Style

We were brought out an extra course on the house – I told you the good doctor is well known and liked here! They were perfectly seared and the ‘Venetian’ crumbs were the perfect partner for them. There was nothing too fussy about them, but they were delicious (I squeezed a tiny bit of lemon on top to give it a tiny dose of acidity, which I thought enhanced the taste a bit). 7/10.

Linguine with Lobster & Tomato Sauce

We shared two primi pasta dishes. The first was a bowl of pasta that I don’t think was on the menu, and was made up of linguine, lobster and a tomato-based sauce. The pasta itself was excellent and, if I were a betting man, I’d say it was homemade. The sweetness of the lobster came through well, possibly because the tomato sauce wasn’t overpowering. In fact, my only gripe with the dish was that the sauce was sort of lacklustre, but maybe this was on purpose so as not to drown out the star of the bowl (?). It was a good pasta dish but nothing that interesting. 6/10.

Linguine with Courgette & Shrimp

I preferred the second bowl of linguine, which was one of the specials that day. The main ingredients, besides the identical scrumptious pasta itself, were some large prawns and sliced courgette (do I have to say zucchini now that I’m back in the States, and also because it’s Italian food?). And while the sauce here was lighter still than the tomato base in the lobster pasta, I preferred it – it was vibrant and I think I surprised the Phantom by liking this more. It was very good but not quite up the level I would call excellent. 7/10.

Salt Baked Wild Sea Bass

Unfortunately due to the small size of our table – even though the bill revealed that we were seated at Table #1! – our waiter was not able to perform the usual table-side presentation and prepare the salt-baked wild sea bass that we were going to share in front of us. Nevertheless, it tasted the part. The fish itself was soft, firm, flaky and the remnants of the salt lived on mildly in the flesh. It wasn’t a knock-out, as a similar version I had from Francesco at L’Anima was (I actually made one there myself with his help one Saturday) but it was tasty and satisfied my seafood cravings that evening. 7/10.

Although we had ingested quite a bit of food by that point, it had all been pretty light so we still had room for dessert. We were intrigued to hear about the dessert of the day, and had to do a triple-take to ensure we had heard the waiter’s description correctly.

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries

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. 7/10.

Lemon Tart with Amaretto and Berry Sauce

Unfortunately, while the lemon tart looked like it might be a winner – and I am usually a sucker for any half-decent lemon tart – it was very average and was probably the most disappointing thing we ate during the evening. I was too sweet and didn’t have that bracing sour streak you need to balance this dessert well. I picked at it nonchalantly but was, in truth, more interested in my sticky wine. 5/10.

As a side note, I found the dessert pricing to be rather punchy at £7-10 each.

I’m never one to let a good Ryé pass by

Ah yes, how could I forget to mention the dessert wine? As you will know if you read this blog regularly (there must be some people who do, right?), I just love my sweet wines.

2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata (Sicilia)

So when I spied a Donnafugata Ben Ryé on the menu, I couldn’t resist it. I had tried it once before at Launceston Place a while back on the recommendation of @Gastro1 and remembered that I liked it quite a bit. I tend to agree with my tasting note from the original glass I had:

“It had huge peach on the nose and on the mid-palate, with dry nectarine on the finish, with very good acidity. It was a syrupy and quite oily (it coated the glass nicely when swirled) intense nectar. I thought it was almost like drinking an alcoholic peach nectar…amazing it comes from grapes!”

Wonderful stuff, but not for the faint-hearted.

It was time to cough up & head out

I sipped on my glass of the Ben Ryé as we leisurely came to the end of our pleasant dinner. I’m gonna miss this guy. But then again, he seems to sprout up everywhere – a doctor that’s a disease? – so I’m sure I’ll see him Stateside very soon.

Pedigree, my dear Watson

Overall, the food at Il Baretto was very competent and we had an enjoyable evening. The service was professional and efficient and the waiters definitely have distinct personalities (hey, they’re Italian). Although the menu seemed to be slightly discombobulated, most of the food on offer is pretty straight-forward Italian cuisine and the skill in the kitchen is evident as many of the dishes we ordered were simple ones on the face of it, but are also very easy to botch. The pedigree of Mr. Waney’s collection of kitchens, then, is there to be seen, even if the dining room itself is not as intriguing as some of the other rooms within his famiglia.

Things that stand out in my mind are the buratta, the rosemary flat bread, the quality of the pasta itself, and the skill in cooking the fish, plus the somewhat alarming though disarmingly delicious aubergine dessert. But there were a few question marks, such as the sauce on the tuna ‘carpaccio’ (which wasn’t raw) and also the completely lacklustre lemon tart. Nevertheless, if you stick with the more classic dishes, you are likely to eat well at Il Baretto, and it is a good place for people-watching too, at least when we were there.

While Il Baretto doesn’t quite make it into my current group of top Italian restaurants in London – which includes Ristorante SempliceRiver Café and L’Anima (the caveat being that I have yet to visit Locanda Locatelli or Zafferano as well as some other perennial London favorites) – the food seems sure-footed and they can charm you if they are so inclined.

Another enjoyable Italian restaurant in London – just don’t go expecting something new

Also, while on the subject, I recently revisited Bocca di Lupo, which I originally had lukewarm feelings about, and it impressed me much more this time around – it’s definitely worth a try, especially given the prices, which are not what I’d describe as cheap but are not expensive either.

PS – the title of the post references a classic US children’s story, and I used a reference to Sherlock Holmes in the last section title only because the restaurant is so close to Baker Street! 🙂

PPS – pardon the poor quality of the photos, it was a very dark dining room and until @catty and @londoneater recently showed me how to utilize some of the key features on my camera, I struggled getting decent shots in dim light, dim whit that I am.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: the mainly Italian wine list (there is a short French section) is a good size – not too many, and certainly not a tiny selection – and there are some classics on the list as well as a few more interesting prospects. The sommelier was very knowledgeable and helpful, and the wine we had was marked up about 2x from memory. The prices for their by-the-glass wines are all between £6-8.50 per 175ml serving, which is appreciated, and there are a number of wines at under £40/bottle mark, which is welcome given the pricing of the food seems to be a bit more ambitious. They also have a Fine & Rare section on the list which is purely made up of Italian wines and comprises some heavier weight names such as the “aias”, i.e. Sassacaia and Ornellaia.

*Note: I have been to Il Baretto twice, once for pizzas upstairs and once for formal dinner downstairs. In case there was any doubt, the Phantom and I paid for the meal, except for the extra dish of scallops which was sent out by the chef without us requesting it.*

Il Baretto on Urbanspoon

Laissez Fare is Moving

In case you hadn't heard, I'm moving to New York

Well, it’s been 10 years, one month and 10 days since I first moved to London. Given that I’ve lived here for the majority of my adult life, it’s come to feel like home more than anywhere else does. Most of our good friends live here too. So why the move?

Well, a lot of it is due to the recent arrival of Baby LF and the fact that neither my wife nor I actually have any family living here in London, or further afield in the UK. We looked at France, but due in part to my lack of French-speaking ability (I know, lame, right?), it turned out to be easier to move to the US, especially as this enabled me to keep my current job.

I will genuinely miss London. We’ve grown accustomed to our neighborhood and love it, plus the majority of our close friendships will continue to be anchored here for a long time…if not forever in some cases. And, of course, in recent years we’ve been exploring the increasingly exciting culinary delights that the city has to offer.

Although I never expected it to happen when I started this blog, I’ve met so many new people who share similar passions and interests, and many of them have turned into friends outside the often surreal world of social media – perhaps, then, that is the real wonder of this particular niche of technology? You can very quickly come into direct contact with a group of people who care about the same things you do and, through a bit of research and a little luck, many of these virtual contacts can end up enriching your real life as well.

In  any case, I wish I had been able to stay a little longer in London town as I feel like there are a lot of people I’ve only met once or twice who could have ended up being great friends over time – maybe some of us still will despite the fact that an ocean lies between us. But such is life, and in my book, conscious and concerted change is nearly always a good thing.

I plan to keep on blogging about food, write more about wine and add some more travel adventures to the site too (assuming of course that I actually have some), and many of these experiences will now be geographically centered in North America – though I hope through my job I’ll still be coming back to London and Europe pretty regularly.

Anyway, I’m going on a bit now – and if you’re still reading, you will not be surprised by this – so let me just say these final things:

  • Please do stay in touch – I certainly will, and will continue to monitor the goings on in the UK’s food and drink industry
  • Please do recommend people who I should be following and connecting with in New York – and more broadly in the US – as I would like to replicate the wonderful group of food and wine enthusiasts I’ve managed to meet in London on the other side of the Atlantic
  • Please don’t hesitate to contact me should you want any recommendations on New York, or other US, restaurants
  • Please don’t make fun of me if (for the Commonwealthers) I begin to sound too American, or (for the Americans) if I sound over Anglicized – I’ll try, as always, to maintain the delicate balance 🙂

So that’s about it. I do have five or six UK-based posts to complete, so I will be finishing those off once we are settled on the other side of the proverbial pond. Then, I have a few exciting New York posts already written (in my head) to share with you, and I hope a wealth more to come.

Thus, please bear with me for a few weeks in case the site remains stagnant – this will only be because the rest of my life is quite fluid.

All the best,

LF

Fifteen Trattoria – The Ingredients of Success

Fifteen
15 Westland Place
London N1 7LP
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • Lunch menu: Antipasti platters from £7.50-12.50, Primi from £9-15, Secondi from £18-22.50, Sides at £3.45, Dolci from £4-6
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal (there are a lot more photos there)

Our second meal at Fifteen was at the more casual Trattoria. We much enjoyed our leisurely weekend lunch and were again very impressed by the sourcing and quality of ingredients and the technical competence of the kitchen. While a few dishes didn’t whet our appetites as much as the other plates of food (some of which were stellar), we liked the laid-back vibe and I would thoroughly recommend Fifteen to anyone who lives in London and hasn’t yet been.

Four for part two

As readers of this blog may remember, Mrs. LF and I dined at Fifteen’s more formal restaurant (the downstairs ‘Dining Room’) shortly after entering the world of food blogging. Unfortunately, these were the days before I began taking photographs of our meals, so we don’t have any images to remember the meal by – but it remains an extremely memorable evening. This was largely down to the sourcing and quality of the ingredients, which was exemplary, and they were handled with the utmost care, with the kitchen bringing out the best of what the produce had to offer.

We have always wanted to return, and finally did a few weeks ago. This time we opted for the more casual ground floor Trattoria as we had Baby LF and my mother in tow.

Building up

It was a funny old day, as Jamie might say, with very English weather – meaning that it was hot then cold, rainy then dry, light then dark, and so on. I did manage to get a decent shot of the building that Fifteen inhabits.

If you have seen the TV series Jamie’s Kitchen, you will most likely recognize Fifteen’s facade. A huge financial risk at the time, luckily the venture – which pairs a commercial business with a good cause (more on that here) – seems to be thriving, with four branches now open in London, Cornwall, Amsterdam and Melbourne.

The bustling trattoria

We got a table adjacent to the bar at the back of the room and made ourselves and Baby LF comfortable. Our waiter had a quite a unique personality, but more on that later.

Getting prepared

We found it difficult to order as so much of it sounded tempting, and we weren’t sure whether to do the traditional Italian thing of having four courses (Antipasti, Primi, Secondi, Dolci) or not. My mother had just come from spending two months at The Italian Project (now completed, by the way) in Umbria, so we decided we might make like The Eagles and take it easy. Somehow the best intentions (i.e. jut ordering a few dishes) never seem to materialize into reality with my family…at least when it comes to food! 🙂

Eight was all we could manage

Although the appropriate aperitif to order would have been Prosecco, I wanted my mother to try out a glass of English sparkling wine as they had Nyetimber on the menu and they are one of the better producers.

Nyetimber, Classic Cuvée 2005

And this ‘classic’ English sparkling wine was a good way to start off the meal. It had tons of tiny bubbles and was quite crisp and refreshing with a medium body and a little richness to it. Mrs. LF, not a fan of English wines (hey, she’s from Northern France), said it tasted cheap to her, but I (mostly) begged to differ on this occasion.

Assortment of Breads

The white and brown breads were okay, but nothing special; however, the spongy soft focaccia had been lined with onions and was excellent. 7/10.

Cerro del Masso Olive Oil

The olive(r) oil, on the other hand, was fantastic, bursting with virgin freshness (no, not in that way) and a lovely gentle heat. We had a few refills. 9/10.

I would like to point out however that I think it is very cheeky to charge separately for the bread and oil (in this case £3.25), especially when the restaurant’s prices are high enough to absorb this cost. I know they bake them on the premises, but I still always feel insulted in the UK when they ask you to pay for bread, when this is never (or very rarely) the case on the continent.

Antipasti for Sharing: Mixed Salumi, Mozzarella & Verdura Mista

We decided to opt for the shared antipasti plate, and this was pretty good bang for the buck. The mozzarella in the center was one of the stars of the plate and was excellent both in texture and flavor; the green olives were also of the highest quality (and reminiscent of the ones served at Dukes Bar); the beetroot had been seasoned and cooked to perfection; the salami was one of the best I’ve had; and the bresaola (at least that’s what I think it was) was also fantastic. The marinated vegetables were also very good. 9/10.

My share of the antipasti

I decided to artfully arrange a selection on my little plate, as of course I had to take some more photos! 🙂

This platter was a great start to the meal, and a perfect insight into the food at Fifteen: nothing was overly complicated, but everything was executed very cleanly, allowing the produce to speak for itself.

Risotto 'Al Limone' with Roasted Amalfi Lemon, Goats Cheese, Basil & Chilli Pannagratato

The risotto ‘al limone’ certainly sounded like an interesting combination of flavors, so we couldn’t resist ordering it. It came very prettily presented, and it was interesting in taste too – well, in a way. First, your palate was assaulted by lemon, then there was no flavor at all in the middle (you were just left to chew on the perfectly cooked risotto, which did have a lovely bite), and it finished with a bit of muted goats cheese in the background. If you caught a bite with some of the crispy flakes, they were infused with a serious chilli kick, which also added a strong flavor. The thing about the dish was that each taste sounded a unique note, but none of them integrated with each other, and somehow the overpowering sensation was that it was a very bland dish, as there was definitely something missing in the middle. Possibly it needed a main ingredient, such as seafood or a vegetable to tie it all together. So in sum, it sounded great, looked beautiful and just tasted sort of odd. 6/10 (due the technically perfect cooking of the rice itself and sumptuous texture).

Mafalde 'Fatte in Casa' with a Rich Pork Ragù alla Napolitana , Flat Leaf Parsley & Fontodi 2009

The only other dish which didn’t meet with universal praise during our lunch was this ragù served with mafalde pasta (which my mother says is referred to as the ‘ugly’ pasta in Italy). I thought the pasta itself was excellent and must have been homemade, but the sauce was a little too bland; it didn’t have that richness and deepness that you expect from a good, slow-cooked ragù. The pork itself was pleasant in flavor, aided by just the right amount of fennel, but overall it was merely a good plate of pasta, not a great one. 6/10 (due to the quality and perfect texture of the pasta itself).

Risotto 'Ai Frutti di Mare' with Seafood, Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine

My seafood risotto, on the other hand, would have had a good case for being the dish of the afternoon. The rice was again perfectly cooked, just creamy enough and with great chewiness. The first thing that hit me was the flavors of the sea, which had been infused marvellously throughout. There was salmon (cooked to the perfect texture for this type of dish), a variety of shellfish, and the lovely infinitesimal spheres of golden grey mullet roe scattered everywhere – inside, outside and on the rim of the plate for decoration. At first, I thought they had used too heavy a hand with the white wine, but after the first bite, it all worked together in chorus, with the garlic in evidence as well. This was about as good as a seafood risotto as I’ve had in London. Stunning. 9/10.

The remains of the risotto

The only issue I had with this dish was that they had made the mistake of giving me the main course portion, not the starter portion. But I ended up eating it all anyway, of course.

Glass fifteen full, but still empty

My glass didn’t stay empty for very long after arriving. But I thought I’d wait to describe the wine we had with the Primi until after describing the food.

2008 Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc, ‘Aulente’, San Patrignano

The wine I had to accompany my seafood risotto was exactly what you’d expect to find in a 50/50 mix of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It had a very expressive and insidious nose, with citrus notes and some of that typical Sauvignon zing. On the palate it was quite dry and exhibited both the apple flavours of Chardonnay and the grassiness of a New Zealand Sauvignon, with the former grape contributing a nice body and roundness and the latter grape bringing balance through its acidity. It was a very good match for the risotto.

We were pretty much stuffed by this point, and couldn’t really endure all of the main courses we had originally ordered. We asked our waiter if we could cancel them, but it was too late for two of the three, so we ended up having those anyway.

Oh yes, I promised more on that waiter…he was very nonchalant throughout the whole meal and had no problem giving us his honest opinions and direct feedback on the dishes. For instance, when we told him what we thought of the lemon risotto, he replied with something like, “Yeah, I know. 9/10 customers love it, but I don’t think it works, it’s too weird.” Then he volunteered that he also didn’t like one of the other combinations of ingredients that was used in a dish they served in the previous month (I believe it was strawberries and balsamic, which is obviously a tried and tested dessert combo). We found him amusing and it was both interesting and refreshing to have a waiter who didn’t tow the corporate line but actually interacted with you on an individual basis.

Crown Prince Squash Parmigiana with Sage, Parmesan, Seasonal Leaves, Balsamic & Crème Fraiche

Even though we were only sharing two fairly light-sounding main courses, it still seemed like a big ask to finish them. Nevertheless we persevered, and thank God we did. This squash dish was delightful in its simplicity. The sweet orange squash square was complemented perfectly by the crème fraiche and the balsamic that had been drizzled on the salad leaves was heaven. Every taste worked together and nothing was awry on this wonderful (vegetarian) main course. 9/10.

Seared Yellow-fin Tuna with Panzanella (Tomatoes, Ciabatta, Volpaia Vinegar, Red Onion & Capers)

My main course of seared yellow-fin tuna was one of the better tuna dishes I’ve had. The fish itself was seared perfectly – take a look at the photo below – and again, simplicity was the order of the day. The panzanella was to die for, the tomatoes being exceedingly sweet, buoyed by the same balsamic, and then cut through by red onions and capers.

Seriously seared

It was such a fresh, vibrant and moreish plate of food, I just had to finish it all…yet again. 9/10.

Technically speaking, we didn’t have room for dessert, but in my family, THERE IS ALWAYS ROOM FOR DESSERT! Given the circumstances, we decided to share one between the three of us, and opted for one of the simpler sounding choices.

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto

Let me just say this up front. 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.

And that was the perfect end to a very long and very lovely lunch. 10/10.

The other side

It was so good, I decided to include two pictures. 🙂

Closing time

The room had pretty much emptied out by the time we finished, so I took one parting shot.

Waistlines & wallet weights are inversely proportional

After a small adjustment to the final bill (they charged us for the starter portion of seafood risotto we had ordered and not the main course portion we received), it worked out to about £120 for three people including service, which I think was reasonable for the quality of the food, although we only had two mains and one dessert. Put it this way, Fifteen (even the Trattoria) ain’t cheap.

I’d like to give fifteen a ten

We all really enjoyed our time at Fifteen’s London Trattoria. It has a fairly random and funky design, which works well with the vibe of the neighborhood and the fact that it is Jamie’s baby. In fact, on balance, I probably prefer the upstairs dining room to the downstairs one – unless you get one of the booths at the back downstairs which then makes you feel as if you’re eating inside a very expensive purse and is quite cool. Anyhow, the Trattoria has a good atmosphere and is a fun place to hang out for a leisurely lunch. One quibble was that the music was very loud when we arrived. This is one of my (and Mrs. LF’s) pet peeves, as music that is overly loud doesn’t allow people to engage in conversation easily, which to my mind is one of the main points of going out to eat with family and friends. That said, we told our waiter this at the outset of the meal and he happily adjusted the volume to be a tad softer, which made it much easier to hear what we were saying to each other.

I see the mantra of both dining rooms as being: “it’s the ingredients, silly.” And that’s the way it should be, with Italian food especially. At Fifteen, you just know that you are eating very good food that has been sourced very methodically and with bags of passion. The way these ingredients are cooked is also nearly always technically very good, although I’m not sure about all of the flavour combinations (but at least they give their kitchen trainees room to experiment). And sure, there may be the odd inconsistency (both in the food and the front of house) given the turnover of staff I imagine that they have due to the ambitions of the venture, but these certainly didn’t deter us from having memorable two meals there, the first being and exceptional, and the second being very good.

For whatever reason, so far as I can tell, the restaurant doesn’t seem to attract much attention in the food blogger world (maybe it’s not new enough any more?), but I would say it’s one of my favorite Italian restaurants in London, right up there with the likes of Ristorante Semplice, River Café, L’Anima and maybe Il Baretto (I am somehow yet to visit Locanda Locatelli as well as some of the newer entries). It’s certainly better than Bocca di Lupo in my book, but I’m visiting that restaurant again soon, so will report back.

If you haven’t been to Fifteen, I would recommend trying it out. Oh, and if you’re curious, it runs circles around Jamie’s other Italian offering based on my meals there at various branches around the country, though it is definitely more expensive.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: the Trattoria wine list comprises a relatively small selection of well-picked whites and reds (about 10 of each), of which about half are available by the carafe of glass. There are also a few sparkling, rosé and sweet wine options. The wines are mostly Italian and English, although there is the odd Spanish or French one thrown in. It’s nice that prices by the glass start at less than £5 and don’t exceed £9.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Fifteen London twice, once for dinner in the Dining Room, and once for lunch in the Trattoria.*

Fifteen Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Dishoom – Not Quite Va-Va-Voom

Dishoom
12 Upper St Martin’s Lane
London WC2H 9FB
Website
Map
Phone: +44 (0)20 7420 9320 (note: no reservations taken)

  • Breakfast from £3.20-8.50, small plates from £2-4.50, mains from £6.50-9.20, desserts from £2-5
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Dishoom purports to be London’s first authentic Bombay Café. There is certainly some potential in the food, though based on my visits, there seemed to be issues with consistency at this early stage. It is not the type of place that would ever totally blow my socks off, but it could develop into being a good middle-of-the-road Indian restaurant with a twist. Given the time & money they are spending on their image & branding, it certainly appears as if the idea is to roll these out across the town, and the country for that matter, but only time will tell. It is certainly a pleasant space & if the present issues can be resolved, it’s not a bad venue for a jovial meal if you’re in the area – but nothing more than that, in my book.

An interloping lunch

I found out that my friend @mathildecuisine was having lunch near my office. She happened to be dining at Dishoom, an Indian restaurant on the restaurant row that Upper St Martin’s Lane has suddenly become. It had just recently launched – hey, another day, another restaurant opening in London – and I figured it was a good excuse to try it. I only found out at the last minute that she was going to be joined by recently retired food blogger extraordinaire @foodieguide. I politely asked if I could crash their little party and become a lady who lunches too, in a matter of speaking of course, and was pleasantly surprised that the answer was ‘yes’ on such short notice.

I actually used to work within about 10 seconds of the restaurant, and was slightly perturbed to see that there are now a bunch of new places sprouting up in the immediate vicinity which weren’t there when I was. But I’m still only a short walk away, so it’s not the end of the world.

What time is it? Lunchtime, silly.

Dishoom looks attractive from outside and, given the fact that it has an all-window shell, you can easily see in to get a sense of the dining room as well. Once inside, it’s all black metal, dark wood, marble and brass. It is tastefully done, and it has a nice vibe once it is full with patrons.

The slick dining room

There has been a lot of comment amongst the twitterati about the Bollywood-style pictures and mish-mash of memorabilia (the accusation being that they’re of the cookie-cutter faux variety), but @kristainlondon (who is currently reinventing her virtual identity since having recently moved to Chicago) knows someone who knows the owners and apparently it is either mostly or all their own personal photos and artefacts. They must have one glamorous lady in the family, that’ all I can say. Whatever you might think about the authenticity of the decor, there is definitely attention to detail (check out the female loos – not that I did of course) throughout.

The menu

Anyway, I arrived to find my fair ladies already there, so we got down to the business of ordering pretty quickly.

A tough call

We ordered a few small plates and a few mains and, being food bloggers (or at least retired ones), we were naturally going to share and make sure we tasted everything.

Café Crisps

First up was a little snack to tide us over until the proper food arrived. They were advertised as being “handmade and tangy” on the menu, and while I assume the former is true, the latter descriptor was definitely apt. While I started out slow (a crisp here, a crisp there), they soon became rather addictive and I felt like I was eating more than my dining companions, which was especially rude given they are both such elegant ladies. An LF FP (faux pas) to say the least. Pardone moi!

Trio of Chutneys

The crisps came with a trio of chutneys but for some reason I opted not to sample them, so they just sat there looking pretty. Is it just me, or are other people often confused about which chutneys are supposed to go with which dishes? Oh right, so it’s just me then.

Trio of Lassis

We did however delve into our liquid trio of lassis: mango & fennel, rose & cardamom, and a salted plain one. I had the mango & fennel lassi, which was perfectly passable, though it wasn’t thick or creamy enough for me and could have had a bit more mango flavour running through it. I wasn’t blown away.

Dishoom Calamari

The menu informed us that the calamari would be served “with zesty lime and chilli.” There must have been quite a bit of sugar (or some other sweetening agent) in them as well, because it was rather sweet overall. I didn’t mind this so much as I have a natural disposition toward sweet things, but while the lime and chilli were there in the background, the flavors could have been a little better balanced. That said, they were perfectly crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, without the taint of rubberiness which so often blights poorly cared for calamari.

Spicy Lamb Chops

We had ordered two lamb dishes which sounded very appetizing from the menu descriptions. The first I tried was the spicy lamb chops, which were meant to be “rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies.” It certainly looked like they would be tasty. The problem here was that the chops themselves had been woefully overcooked, leaving them with a literally leathery toughness. Therefore, while they had been well marinated, the dish was not really worth eating.

Lamb Boti Kabab

Unfortunately, our silence on the lamb continued with the lamb boti kabab. These cubes of lamb had a reddish hue and smelled delicious (if that’s possible?) but were insanely dry and chewy, therefore leaving us devoid of pleasure from our second main course in a row. The menu said it was meant to be “juicy spiced mince lamb with cumin and lime.” Well, they were certainly not juicy, although they were spicy, and I suppose there was some cumin and lime in there somewhere, but all I can remember is the dryness of the lamb itself.

It should be noted that other people I know who had the lamb dishes at Dishoom in the opening weeks said that their meat had been better cooked and was not at all tough, so maybe this simply points to the inconsistencies of a new kitchen.

Dishoom Chicken Tikka

Luckily, a hero turned up to save the day, in the most unlikely of guises. Who would have thought “chicken tikka” at an Indian restaurant trying to stand out and be different would be the dish of the meal? Well, I can confidently say that, along with the calamari, it was one of the two best things we sampled. The meat itself was serenely succulent and the ginger and chilli (both green and red) flavours came through beautifully. It was zesty and meaty at the same time; an excellent dish.

Foodie Guide had ordered some of the house black dahl, and it never turned up. She reminded the waitress about it a bit later, whose response was, “Oh, do you still want that?”, to which she replied with a pretty perturbed “Yes!” It arrived shortly thereafter and it was different, that’s for sure. It had a very rich and sweet tomato flavor, which was not exactly what I was expecting given the normal yellow lentil dahl I’m accustomed to eating. I liked it though, even if it was a tad too sweet, sort of like the calamari. As we were engaged in conversation at that point, I forgot to take a picture of it – another LF FP.

The bill

For a mixed bag of a meal, luckily the damage to our wallets (and purses) wasn’t all that severe, with nothing tipping the £10 marker.

I would add “no overcooking of lamb” to the café rules

As we didn’t opt for dessert – they were “being good” you see – I headed back to Gino, a new-ish gelato place I had walked by on the way (well, it wasn’t really on the way, but who’s checking) to sample some of their frozen fare, and was pretty satisfied with that ending to the meal.

Dark chocolate & coffee gelato from Gino

Ah, but wait, the story doesn’t end there. There is a brief breakfast addendum.

Feeling hot-hot-hot

You see, Dishoom’s tweeter told me to come in and try their breakfast and chai. I promised to do so, and did. For sake of clarity, I paid and was both unannounced and anonymous. When I turned up, there was an army of people (they looked like consultants and/or PR people…and I should know) holding all kinds of meetings with the people I presumed to be the owners/managers. I slunk off to an empty booth – actually the whole place was empty and I think I was the only paying customer there for a good while.

I must say I found the breakfast menu to be slightly odd. I don’t know everything about Indian food and culture, but I do know a bit, and I would question how authentic a breakfast of porridge, cinnamon rolls or granola is for a “Bombay Café.” In any case, I went for the more Indian-sounding stuff.

House Chai

I duly ordered a cup of their house chai, and it arrived in a dainty glass. It was pretty good. It’s definitely not the best I’ve had, but it displayed a nice texture (I prefer it to be a tad creamier) and good spicing. I had to add a bit of sugar to get it to the level of sweetness that I prefer.

Bombay Omelette

The Bombay Omelette arrived in cling-wrap roll form, hunched over a marvellously grilled piece of toast, and accentuated by the crimson of some vine tomatoes which had also been grilled. The omelette was well cooked and hid a wealth of spices in its central core. D*mn that thing was spicy, but it was the kind of spice I kept wanting to eat more of, so that was a good thing. (Maybe it’s no coincidence that the dish’s acronym is BO?). The tomatoes were sweet and the bread was, well, bread, and I thought it could have used a touch of a sauce to alleviate what was a rather dry plate. Looking at the picture now, I guess I could have had the tomatoes and toast together, but I wasn’t that clever at the time. I did add a touch of ketchup to the omelette every now and then – I am American, after all – which I thought in this case actually worked.

So breakfast was pleasant and, given they have free Wi-Fi, you could presumably work from here for a good part of the day without too much trouble (or expense) – though I’m not sure how they’d take to that!

The only one?

Overall, I guess I sort of like Dishoom. It’s not the kind of place I’d travel across town for, but given it’s within about a five-minute walk of my work, it is the type of restaurant I’d frequent on occasion. They also have a downstairs, which wasn’t open during my meals. It seems quite cavernous and could alleviate the waiting that diners apparently often endure in the evening due to the no reservation policy.

It certainly appears as if Dishoom is taking its image, branding and corporate reputation very seriously and that his is a template that could be easily copy and pasted across the town, and the country for that matter. So maybe that’s the plan. My only reservation (pardon the pun) would be consistency, as with all chains of whatever size. Even if they can manage to sort out the consistency in their original restaurant, it is a whole new ball game once there are multiple sites.

*Note: I have dined at Dishoom twice, once for lunch and once for breakfast.*

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Gino Gelato on Urbanspoon

Otto – A Good Reason for Being Corny

Otto Pizza
6 Chepstow Road
London W2 5BH
Website
Map
Phone: +44 (0)20 7792 4088 (eat-in & takeaway, reservations now taken for lunch & dinner but only to fill 1/2 of the seats available)

  • Small Salads £2.50-3.50; Large Salads £4-6; Pizza Slices £3.50; Half Pizzas £10; Whole Pizzas £18
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Like pizza? Fancy something different? Give Otto a go. Their cornmeal-infused pizza bases are light, buttery and filling – plus their alternative toppings are fresh and well conceived. While I can’t see myself developing cravings for this unique brand of pizza, it certainly makes a great snack or casual meal if you’re in the area.

SFO -> LAX -> PDX -> LON

I was first alerted to Otto Pizza by gourmetraveller, who, upon posting her review, gave me a nudge to try it, given that its inspiration was drawn from my homeland and that it is was also located very close to my current home. (By the way, from what I can make out, she was also the first one to review the now frequently reviewed and gushed-over Sushi of Shiori, so make sure to follow her foodie adventures!). 🙂

Thus, it is strange that I happened upon Otto purely by chance and without forward planning. You see, I never actually looked up the address, so didn’t realize it was situated at the bottom of the road I always use to get to Westbourne Grove, whether via bus, car or foot. Yes, that would be Chepstow Road. We were out with Baby LF, were very hungry, and I noticed something new had opened up across the road from the bus stop we normally use to get home. When I saw the name of the place and the words “cornmeal crust pizza” inscribed on the sign, it all came rushing back to me and I insisted we try it out.

A bus(y) corner

At first it seemed like sort of an odd location to open up shop, but tons of buses stop literally at their doorstep, so I suppose they get a lot of footfall.

The Otto story starts in Portland, Oregon (PDX). Tom and Rich, the guys who set it up, visited a popular local pizza joint called Dove Vivi in Northeast Portland, and fell in love. Pourquoi, you ask? Well, Dove Vivi uses cormeal (aka cornflour, polenta, etc.) in their pizzas. They are not the first place to do this in the States, but the third. The first two are located in California – that would be Vicolo in San Francisco (SFO) and Zelo in Los Angeles (LAX). To make a long story short, basically some people who worked in the original place branched off and started up a spin-off, and then that happened again. I was told that this was all done in a friendly and amicable fashion.

A simple design

Otto is a very simply designed pizzeria, with a wood motif running through it. It felt informal, inviting and fun when we entered, even though it was mostly empty due to it being the middle of the afternoon.

A brown paper menu

The menu is similarly clear, abbreviated and brown, presented on a sheet of paper with a lovely texture.

In case you’re bored, a board of specials

In addition to the standard pizza varieties on the printed menus, they also offer a few special pizzas which change every few days, as well as a special wine or two which are not listed on the printed list of eight wines.

A complimentary jug of water

A nice touch was that they provide you with a big bottle of water for the table should you want it.

Getting Pie High

We decided to try a few slices of pizza and share a small salad of mixed greens.

A perfectly nice mixed green salad

The salad arrived first and the leaves were good and crispy and fresh. The vinaigrette was also nice and sharp without being overpowering.

Individual slices brought out in, and served from, the pan

Next, Tom snuck up behind us with a hot and heavy black pan that was full of vibrant looking pizza slices. This was a great way to serve them.

From what I could make out, the crusts at Otto are made from flour, cornmeal (and I think olive oil), though I can’t tell you the particular brands/suppliers or proportions of ingredients as I didn’t ask – and they probably wouldn’t have told me anyway!

The dough itself is actually very light while remaining quite filling. There is a distinct butteriness to it, and it almost seems as if you’re eating a pie, not a traditional pizza, as it is not at all doughy. It also helps to facilitate a denser set of toppings than you could get away with on a normal pizza dough base, as the cornmeal seems to make the dough more robust. For me, the crust was a pleasant sensation overall, and some of the topping combinations were really excellent.

The slices were quite large – making the £3.50 price tag not as hefty as it may appear on the face of it – so Mrs. LF and I decided to split each slice in half. Hence, the photos of the pizzas are of half-slices, not whole.

Sausage

Both of us agreed that the best of the bunch was the sliver of sausage. It was made with a base of sweet tomato sauce, then stacked with homemade fennel sausage, marinated green peppers, caramelized onions and topped off with some melted mozzarella. The sausage itself was very good and the delicacy of the fennel came through beautifully. All of the flavours and textures were working in harmony, so we were off to a good start.

Balsamic Red Onions & Sweetcorn

Next up was the one that had looked the best to me on the menu. Luckily, I wasn’t let down by the taste either. As advertised, it was composed of caramelized balsamic-roasted red onion slices, fresh sweetcorn, both regular and smoked mozzarella, and a sprinkling of chives on top. This was definitely my second-favorite slice and somewhere hidden within there was a lovely flavour of BBQ, which I enjoyed a lot. It wasn’t that horrible and sickly sweet Pizza Hut or Dominos BBQ flavour, but a more authentic version.

The crusty details

You can see what the crust looks like a bit better in the above image. It really is more like eating a light and buttery but filling pie crust than the bready pizza crust to which I am more accustomed. Its golden color looks purdy, too, no?

Courgette & Sundried Tomatoes

Next up was a slice from the specials board that Tom had kindly included free of change, because it is his favorite and he really wanted to get our thoughts on it. Besides the two main ingredients, there was also red onion on this slice and it was topped with some rough chopped salad leaves. I must say up front that I am not the biggest fan of courgettes, but I ate the whole slice quite happily and thought that the textures were spot-on and that the mixture of flavors worked well.

Goats Cheese & Sundried Tomatoes

Last up was the slice we had actually ordered from the specials board. It seemed like it would work well on paper, but neither of us were feeling the love. Somehow the slightly sharp cheese and sweet tomatoes seemed to push away from each other rather than creating more than the sum of the parts. I can’t quite explain why, but I didn’t care too much for this one.

Square Mile Espresso

Baby LF was happily sleeping through most of our corn-crusted meal, and we thought we shouldn’t push our luck, or our waistlines, further by staying for dessert. So I opted for a quick and competent Square Mile espresso, and we were on our way.

Otto Times Two

I really enjoyed tasting a new type of pizza and thought the crust was excellent for what it was, although I had no basis for comparison. The meats and produce used in the toppings were of high quality and were all very fresh. Tom and Rich are two young and friendly guys who clearly have a genuine passion for bringing these West Coast delights to the streets of London. They were eager to get our feedback and very keen to please, which is always a good sign, and I wish them luck with their pizza-related venture(s).

Personally speaking, while I definitely enjoyed the pies, I can’t see myself developing a specific craving for these pizzas. But it certainly makes for a great snack or casual meal if you’re in the area. In fact, I just realized that there are now two places that begin with ‘Otto’ that I will frequent for snacks when I am in the Westbourne Grove area, the other being my perennial favorite Ottolenghi. 🙂

If you’d like to sample these unique pizza slices, definitely sign up for the next Pizza Tuesday on August 24th being organized by Daniel of Young and Foodish (also on twitter) – it looks set to be a fun event.

As Daniel advises on his website, it is best to order these pizzas by the slice and eat them quickly, as they are best when hot and lose a bit of their appeal when left to sit for too long (maybe that didn’t do any favors for the goats cheese & sundried tomato slice, as it was the last one we ate).

*Note: I have dined at Otto Pizza once, and it was for a weekend lunch.*

Otto on Urbanspoon