Monday, 27 October 2014

Ippudo - The Great Expectation

The wait is finally over. Cynthia recommended Ippudo last Christmas when I was in New York, but there was too much to eat and too little time. So when we heard it was opening in London, I had it on my radar. Seeing Cynthia is on her Aussieland adventure, she missed out on the grand opening night. Luckily Will was ready with a ramen craving after his Kilimanjaro trek. 

The place was buzzing; chefs busy at work behind the steaming ramen bar, club music in the background and the cheerful, also startling, roar of "irasshaimaseby the waiting team every time their customers get seated. While everything felt slightly out of place, I took comfort in the number of Japanese supporters in the queue, maybe a bit of an authentication stamp. We were seated at the ramen bar downstairs.  The menu looked incredible, we wanted to order everything, well, I did. 

Tako Wasabi Raw baby octopus with freshly chopped wasabi
We started with a mini starter. The octopus was diced into tiny cubes mixed with fresh horseradish that brought a mild hint of wasabi. Personally I prefer the thrill of strong, pungent wasabi punches that attacks my olfactory senses, gets tears in my eyes and mini explosions at the back of my throat, in a good way. This was probably too mild, too safe, but still loved the playful sliminess and bounce.

Bakuretsu Tofu Stewed spicy tofu with minced chicken and crunchy ramen noodles, served in a sizzling pot
The broth in this pot was delicious, first was the miso sweetness before the heat from the spices crept in, bringing a surge of warmth throughout the body; the spiciness was tolerable, tantalising instead of tongue-numbing. A good mix of textures too - tofu was silky and fragile, tender dices of chicken meat, and a sprinkle crispy ramen, softened by soaking up the soup. It was a very comforting dish.

Hakata Tonpu-Yaki A savoury pancake with sliced pork belly and cabbage, prepared with Ippudo's signature pork broth, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and hanakatsuo served on a sizzling iron plate
This was an okonomiyaki on an iron plate, it didn't even need to be served on a sizzler, but hey. A good one nevertheless. There were large slices of pork wedged in the dough, which were a tad too lean and chewy for my liking, but with enough mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce, good crunch from the vegetable, this can't go wrong.

Shiromaru Hakata Classic Signature original tonkotsu pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped it pork loin chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, bean sprouts and spring onions
And this is what we came for.

I didn't realise the ramen didn't come with an onsen egg. I usually get upset when they only serve half a soft boiled marinated egg, to have none at all was bordering offensive. You need to order it as a side add-on. Huff.

The broth fell a bit short at my first slurp. It was thick and creamy without being groggy, which was good, however I thought the flavour was quite flat. It was rich and savoury but lacked depth, it didn't have layers that developed with the noodles. The noodles had some bite to it, could be more springy. Sadly chashu failed. The meat was grainy and dry, way too lean and thinly sliced. I have had better elsewhere.

Akamaru Modern A bolder translation of the original pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped with Ippudo's secret Umami Dama paste, pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms, spring onions and fragrant garlic oil
This version made slightly more impact on the first sip, perhaps it was the extra Umami Dama paste that gave the broth more complexity. I thought this was tastier at the beginning, but as Will pointed out, it became too salty around half way through the bowl. Like the classic version, the whole thing fell flat. 

The ramen at Ippudo didn't blow me away. Out of the key elements for the perfect bowl, I'm not sure if Ippudo ticked any of the boxes. It was mostly good but not great. That said I have been told New York and Japan have very different interpretations. Maybe this one was catering for the London appetite...? While I may not return for the ramen, I wouldn't object to coming back for the rest of the menu if others insist on trying, their hirata bun and black cod fish and chips do sound intriguing.

As for ramen, maybe Kanada-Ya across the road?

3 Central St. Giles Piazza
St Giles HIgh Street
Tel: 0207 240 4469

Ippudo London on Urbanspoon
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Monday, 20 October 2014

Four to Eight - Floating Mid-way

I’m often asked why my blog seems so light on Italian restaurant reviews. While I do enjoy the occasional pasta and traditional homecooking, I think Italian is relatively simple and it’s good as long as the ingredients are fresh, which is a luxury we don't have in this country.  Then there is this new breed of modern Italian cuisine, lighter pasta dishes and smaller plates to share. Four to Eight falls in this category.

It was their soft launch; they have only been running for a week on the evening Mister and I visited. We were seated on the ground floor, next to the bar in the middle of the dining room - simplistic, Scandinavian-style décor. Our server was full of smiles but was short of recommendations - apparently she tried and loved everything on the menu, and couldn’t’ highlight a favourite. That’s never a great sign, just means nothing stood out.  

Zucchini Carpaccio truffle honey dressing & pecorino cheese
By the time our dishes arrived the bread still didn’t make an appearance, so we just cancelled it.

Thinly sliced courgettes with a very light drizzle of dressing, topped with truffle shavings and crumbs of pecorino. It’s a simple combination, but the dish was tipped off balanced. The dressing was very faint and its honey sweetness was barely detectable, the good thing was the truffle fragrance was even more tamed so it wasn’t an overkill. But the courgettes weren’t sweet enough so all I could taste was the nutty pecorino. In my humble opinion, I would slice the courgettes even thinner to tone down the obtrusive crunch and bring out their flavours more.

Mister could not have been more disinterested.

Pigeon honey beets, grapes & Treviso
Pigeons were cooked to a good medium, tender and moist with a slight chew to bring out their gaminess. Again the dish was off balance with the overly sweet cubes of beets, there was an unpleasant artificial sweetness that brought out the acidity of the grapes. It was a good idea that needs fine-tuning.

Mister doesn’t like pigeon.

Head to Tail Cannelloni beetroot, onion & horseradish
Head to tail refers to the oxtail and ox tongue in the stuffing. It sounded like a great idea; super tender oxtail with some chew from ox tongue would have given excellent mouth feel. Unfortunately this fell short on delivery - the shreds of oxtail lacked juices to hold the meats together. The cannelloni may have been topped with sauce, but it was dried and cracked to leave a blanket of blandness…

Beef Brisket oregano, polenta & kale
This was a dense brick of dry mass. As I cut into the hulk of beef, my knife was battling with the tangling shreds that simply wouldn't break apart. We asked for more red wine jus to moisten up the meat, but the flavours had already leaked away with the meat juice and despite dousing it with sauce, the tasteless, sinewy beef was dreadful. I felt sorry for the cow.

Our server noticed we left the brick of beef untouched, and offered to take it back. She said she tasted it and agreed it wasn’t up to the normal standard. Fine. Perhaps the kitchen was under pressure in the first week, and so pre-prepared some dishes, this one was probably re-made one too many times.

Truffled Baby Chicken hock & crème pecorino fritters, celeriac puree
After sending back the brisket, we ordered the truffled chicken instead. 

Judging from the portion, it must have been a premature baby chicken. And you know what’s really odd? I couldn’t make out which part of the chicken we were served. It had a piece of bone attached to it, which suggests it was a thigh, yet the texture of the meat was quite dense and slightly grainy, like chicken breast - albeit a tolerable one. It kind of defied the purpose of cooking a baby chicken when they couldn’t retain the tenderness of the soft muscles. No hints of truffle either, more like the regular roast chicken seasoning. The ham hock croquette on the side, however, was quite enjoyable – a very odd accompaniment to chicken I thought.

The Full House mini selection of all desserts
This could be described as a plate of torture. I’m not sure which was worse, when I had to beg for this from Mister, or when I finally had to sample what’s on the plate.

In short, it was a plateful of sugar in different shapes and colouring. The so-call deconstructed tiramisu was the worst offender, sickening whipped cream with a chewy disc of coffee. The pink sorbet was of an unrecognisable flavour, but Mister’s expression was priceless. I would have happily substituted each of them with a Waitrose equivalent, at least they were edible and I would have been at a lower risk of diabetes. It’s rare to find a full plate of failure in such a beautiful arrangement.

Generally we were underwhelmed by Four to Eight. I think they got some things right, like the size and diversity of the menu. However the kitchen appeared to be struggling with such ambitious items. I’d still give the team some credit for trying, at least they have put some thoughts into their dishes to make things more interesting, just not everything worked well together and they still needed to work on the execution. Our server did the best she could; it wasn’t her fault that the kitchen didn’t deliver. She resorted to concluding that we were hard to please; I beg to differ. 

Four to Eight
1-5 Catherine Street
Tel: 0207 240 6664
Four To Eight on Urbanspoon

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