Monday, 15 September 2014

Opso - A Modern Hellenist

It’s a miserable Sunday morning; it’s been pouring for hours and I have been woken up way too early by the arrhythmic drumming of raindrops. Grrr. At least I had brunch to look forward to.

It’s not really clear what Opso does. The décor suggests it’s a café with a larger communal table in the middle surrounded by smaller ones dotted around it; the menu suggests something more ambitious with a mixture of small plates, brunch dishes and meaty dishes. Our French server explained the dishes were inspired by Greek cuisine and modern touches.

We started with a couple of pink smoothies (strawberry & greek yoghurt) while I was trying to make sense of the menu.

Pancakes with cream cheese, strawberry ham and blueberries
I don’t usually have pancakes for brunch, but this was quite pleasant – fluffy and buttery, not too sweet or heavy with the cream cheese. The frozen blueberries, however, were odd. Odd in the sense that the frozen fruits were brittle and icy, and it clashed with the softness of the pancake. The fruity sweetness was also destroyed by the freezing, so it was like having citrusy crushed ice on top. I wasn’t a fan.

Cod Tempura served with ‘skodalia’ spread, roast beetroots and shaved walnut
Mister said skodalia is supposed to be a very strong, pungent garlic sauce - the kitchen here has definitely toned the garlic down to what resembles a garlic aioli. The cod fillet was fleshy, succulent and slithery, wrapped in a thin, greaseless batter. The subtly sweet beetroot cubes added another dimension to the dish and worked surprisingly well with the creamy sauce. Good dish.

Snails n’ Chips 
I’m an avid lover for snails; I have to order it when it’s on the menu, despite Mister’s disapproving frown. That said he did show me the most gourmet way to suck the snail morsel out of the shell by cracking a hole at the swirly bit at the top. How come the French never showed me this?

The snails were absolutely delicious, squidgy and bouncy with an earthy tone, laden with a meaty, savoury sauce and bits of bacon. The only criticism is the amount of oil in the dish that drenched the potato cubes to a scary sogginess, could have been more light-handed.

I enjoyed Opso. The dishes had interesting combination of ingredients; some worked better than the others but full marks for trying. I still couldn’t put a finger on what kind of restaurant Opso aims to be, perhaps Greek dishes with a British twist, or modern European dishes with a Greek touch? It didn't matter - I would come back for a late morning / afternoon snack if I happen to be in the neighbourhood. 

10 Paddington Street
Tel: 0207 487 5088
Opso on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 8 September 2014

Hutong at the Shard

Needless to say only an ultra stylish venue is good enough for my brother’s graduation dinner; he wouldn’t settle for anything less.

We arrived around 6:30pm for an early seating so we get both day and night views of the city. The floor was divided into private dining rooms, a bar area and the main dining room with a bonsai-style tree in the middle. Despite the natural light Papa Chan kept asking if they were going to switch the lights on – fair enough it was a groggy day. Turns out they dim the lights even further as night falls.

Thinly cut pork belly with cucumber slices marinated in chilli and garlic sauce
The cooled belly slices were crunchy and greaseless, its cleanness amplified by the crisp cool cucumber. The essence of the dish is the chilli and garlic sauce on the side; extremely garlicky and pungent at first, then the heat and spiciness slowly creeps in to take over but disappears before it becomes a tastebud-numbing overkill. It was perfectly measured.

Dim Sum Platter: Rose Champagne dumpling, scallop and pumpkin dumpling, crystal crab meat dumpling & mushroom and vegetables dumpling (2 each)
These sound much more exciting on paper. Pretty regular stuff - the prawns were full of bounce and crunch; scallops were sweet and tender; crab was the best of the lot with the soft shredded meat. The shells, however, were too sticky and moist – could have been better. Red Farm in New York would have blown these out of the water. Easy.

Roasted Peking Duck served in 2 stages

Chef skilfully carved the thin, crispy skin from the whole roasted duck at the table, with just a modest layer of duck fat attached to the skin to give it the nutty fragrance. There were also a few meaty slices to beef up the pancakes, which were brilliant.

The remainder of the duck was diced and stir-fried with some onions and peppers, served with lettuce leaves. Quite a simple dish but very well done with just enough crunch and gamey flavours.

Aromatic beef rib braised in lotus leaf
This was a massive dish, not the prettiest I know, but the rib initially arrived wrapped in lotus leaves. Then our server effortlessly tore the meat off the bone at the table, with the sauce served on the side.

The meat was exceptionally tender, but it was lacking the beefy flavours we usually get from slow-cook cuts.  Not sure where the juices leaked to, or the lotus leaves aroma… The sauce resembled a thin peppercorn and mushroom sauce and clung nicely onto the meat. Good effort.

Golden jade tofu pan-fried tofu with leek and coriander sauce
It’s possibly the sloppiest dish of the evening – one could tell from the blasé bunch of coriander garnish. The pan-fried tofu soaked up the viscous sauce, which was oozing out of the puffy shell as I bit into it. The tofu itself was okay, not the silky, fragile Japanese ones, but better than the cheap, firm, porous blocks. It was alright.

Seafood fried rice with dried salty fish and ginger
This was excellent. Not only were the basics (rice, moisture, grease, ratios etc.) spot-on, the salty fish gave it the authenticity stamp; its distinctive pungent aroma brought back great childhood memories. It’s probably marmite material, as westerners may find salty fish a tad offensive on the nose.

Hutong Dan Dan Noodle with minced pork and peanut sauce in chilli soup
Similarly I was very impressed by the dan dan noodle (aka Tantanmen for those who have been following the ramen trend). The thick broth was a concentration of peanut and sesame essence, with an undertone of chilli heat that gradually builds up. Noodles were silky and al-dente – great slurp. At £10 a pop (priced per person portion), it’s extortionate by any standard. That said I thought it was well worth a try.

Pan-fried Red bean Paste Pancake & Mango Pancake Roll
The desserts were weak, not to mention miniscule. The pancake itself was thin, unfortunately the red bean paste layer was even thinner, as if the kitchen had ran out of paste and made do with whatever they could scrap from the side of the tin. But it was not as pathetic as the mango pancake roll. I wasn’t expecting the HK-style cream-filled pancakes packed with generous cubes of sweet, juicy Pilipino mangoes, but this was taking the piss - a bland sheet with four tiny dices of tasteless Australian mangoes hidden in the folds, by tiny I mean 0.5cm x 0.5cm x 0.5cm. I know because the roll fell apart instantly to reveal the (lack of) filling. At £6.50 surely your fat margin could afford you to do better.

I did mention it to our server; she apologised and said would reflect it to the manager. That was that.

Most would agree that we were paying for the view and location. The food was good, not mind-blowing, and sorely overpriced as expected. Similar to my opinion on most fine-dining Chinese restaurants, there is something forced about ‘posh-ifying’ Chinese cuisine. Hutong has done it better than most; at least the traditional dishes were done well.

Out of the Hutong, Oblix and Aqua, I would say Hutong is best value for money & quality for dining at the Shard. Aqua is great for a drink but my lunch there was mediocre and quite small; Oblix is ridiculously priced with limited tables with a good view. Oh and the toilets at Hutong were breath-taking.

Level 33
The Shard
31 St. Thomas Street
Tel: 0203 011 1257
Hutong on Urbanspoon

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