Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Lost in Villandry

The name first came up at Taste of Christmas. I remember being torn between Iberica’s signature Milk-fed lamb shoulder and Villandry’s “Suffolk Texel lamb cutlet with haricot Blanc estuier, smoked Black Forest pancetta and mint”. Iberica won over with a longer queue. As I happened to look for a hassle-free venue for a girlie catch-up this evening, it was an opportunity to taste the iconic dish I narrowly missed.

Entering from the Bar entrance, we passed the food store into the main dining room, which really does look like a magnified dining room with an ultra high ceiling. Floral curtains divided the restaurant from the store; a few tables were more secluded on one side of the room that was decorated with a walled book shelf, like the study; the other side of the wall was embellished by rows of cutlery plastered on the wall. Spaciously homely.

The menu was worrying at first glance. Why does it remind me of Café Rouge? Even more worrying, where did the iconic lamb cutlet go? How iconic could it be, if it was advertised at Christmas, then removed from the menu a month later? I was sulking. First was Hoxton, now Villandry, where I stare at the menu and nothing captivates my attention.

French Charcuterie: French cooked ham, Bayonne Ham, Jesus de Lyon Salami, Saucisson Sec with Celeriac remoulade and Ciabatta Bread
It was a substantial starter even to share. All the cured meats were glittering with oil. The hams were excellent; cooked ham retained its natural moisture despite its intense meatiness, Bayonne ham resembled Serrano, slightly shallower in aroma but also leaner. I didn’t know I liked French hams. The salamis were on the rubbery side, both in taste and texture.

The pate shone through. It was rich, smooth and it lingers. Lee repels offal-related products, this means more for Wingz. The pickled cabbage(?) with French grain mustard takes the edge off the oiliness of the platter. Nice alternative to the usual olives and cherry tomatoes.

Line caught Cod, Artichoke Parcel, Potato Fondant
I didn’t note down the exact name of the dish, I blame it on the engaging company. I can’t even make a guess of the orange sauce because I don’t remember how it tasted. The fish was unfortunately overcooked, probably because of the thickness of the fillet, so the flesh was harsh on the tongue. The creamed spinach on the side, though, I enjoyed. It was more like a spinach version of macaroni cheese with a crusty cheese topping.

Truffle with Foie Gras Burger, with Truffle mayonnaise
Was I thinking about the Foie Gras burger by Joel Robuchon? Silly me. The meat patty was of a beautiful deep red in the middle and heavily charred outside. Sadly the meat was dry, stodgy, burnt-bitter. The foie gras was stunning, lightly burnt on the edge to harden the crust, the liquid centre oozed and mixed with the coarsely chopped beef. I just wish it tasted of something. Question is: I get the truffle mayonnaise part, but where did the truffle go? Not even a hint of truffle oil. Disappointing. It was a messy one, with too many ingredients piled together but little of everything else.

I was left puzzled at the end of the meal, as I had no idea why I chose this place. Perhaps I should have gone for Iberica again, afterall it is only 3 minutes away. Oh well, it was still a lovely evening, just little credit to Villandry.

170 Great Portland Street
Tel: 020 76313131

Villandry on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Semplice – Michelin Risotto

There must be something wrong with this Monday. Zucca was our initial choice for a laidback Monday wind-down. The stylish Italian eatery closes on Mondays. Fine. Gauthier Soho was a natural alternative, especially after I was teased by the black truffle risotto at Taste of Christmas. Only to be told that Gauthier opens every Monday except this one, because it is under refurbishment.

Cynthia came up with Ristorante Semplice, which maintained its Michelin One-Star this year. Like Texture, Semplice has a lower profile compared to the celeb chef franchises.  Still, Chef Marco Torri boasts a glamorous career history, trained under various 3-Michelin starred chefs around Europe.

Giovanni was welcoming as ever, as if he remembered me from the days of Locanda Locatelli. No candles this time, instead the room was warmly lit with amber-toned lights against chocolate walls. While studying the menu, spoilt for choices, the first wow arrived.

Canapés – Zucchini & Root Vegetables; Parmesan bites and Bread Crisps
This is artwork. The Parmesan bites were heavenly. I mean it. They were like drops of clouds, gently sprinkled with Parmsan on the brittle shell that resembled a meringue, faintly sugary, and dissolved instantly in mouth. It was literally a breath of Parmesan. The paper-thin vegetables and bread, dried not fried were also airy delicacies

When our first course arrived, Giovanni promptly removed the board of unfinished canapés. I thickened my skin and asked for it back. The dim light did little to hide my red face…but man, those were some serious canapés.
We were offered a selection from the breadbasket. I opted for tomato bread, which was warm and appetizing with a crusty shell. The server introduced us to the Italy imported extra virgin olive oil before pouring.

Risotto alla Milanese – Traditional Milanese risotto with saffron and bone marrow
Still hung on bone marrow from Hawksmoor last Friday, this risotto jumped at me. Talk about a golden glow. Rice soaked up the flavours, yet maintained a chewy solid core; cooked to perfection. A tad stingy on the bone marrow front, but it would be a much too weighty starter otherwise. I can see how the risotto here converted Giles Coren, as the website quoted.

Wild mushroom risotto with quail/partridge
This was on the day’s special. How I wish Chef too showered my dish with this amount of marrow. While the Italian rice was equally al-dente, I wasn’t thrilled by the creamy wild mushrooms. Perhaps it was a tired combination, it was a taste far too familiar, and not to mention the comparison made with the white truffle (charged by weight) risotto Cynthia had last time, which she was still drooling over.

Roasted milk-fed Piedmontese veal zucchini, shitake mushroom, tomato, sweet potato
What happened to the artwork? There is no doubt about the execution of the dish, thick slices of veal sealing its juices and cubes of shitake mushroom immersed in the sauce, which was not dissimilar to a diluted gravy, though fruitier and livelier. It wasn’t tremendously exciting in terms of flavour, but still straightforwardly good.

Pan-fried Cornish John Dory, swisschard sauce, sautéed and deep-fried swisschard
Since my first encounter of John Dory at Quo Vadis, I vowed not to order the fish. Semplice change my perception today. Unlike the dense block I experienced, this was so buttery silky that it effortlessly flaked into the swisschard sauce. No it is not a fatty fish, but yes it was delicious.

Before presenting the desserts menu, our waitress dragged over a cheese cupboard. And I do mean drag since there were no wheels on it and it made the kind of noise that drives you insane when heard on a Sunday morning. There were at least twenty odd cheeses in various shapes and colours. Cynthia is not a fan; I am, but politely declined when offered to taste since we weren’t drinking that evening. What good is Inzaghi without Del Piero?

 ‘Domori’ chocolate fondant served with grappa pannacotta, crispy spice bread and chocolate sorbet
This was ingeniously dubbed ‘chocolate with wingz’. The fondant was bittersweet with a rich viscous centre, the bits and pieces around it were comparatively mild to balance the substantial fondant. I was particularly charmed by the chocolate sorbet.

The bill came to £115 without wine, including service. It was precise cooking with top quality ingredients, though I would encourage more adventurous combinations, like the Parmesan bites. Giovanni has mastered the perfect balance between formality and personality, giving the usual buzz of an Italian restaurant. Do I prefer Semplice to L’anima? They are quite different. Semplice is more grounded and authentic I feel. L’anima placed more emphasis on the overall package. It was a warm evening at Semplice.

The Domori chocolate with sea salt on the right - great stuff

9/10 Blenheim Street
Tel: 0207 495 1509

You may also like: ViajanteTextureSeven Park Place

Ristorante Semplice on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The Texture is Divine

The Michelin one-star restaurant doesn’t seem to magnetise as much hype and glory as the celebrity chefs’ establishments. Maybe Chef Agnar needs to show his face more often than the odd Saturday Kitchen show. I didn’t hold high expectations when I made the reservation, not that I have anything against Icelandic talents, it’s just not a country that openly celebrates its culinary success.

The interior was contemporary and elegant, spacious with a high ceiling and mellow walls with hangings of splashes of colour. We settled comfortably into the sofa chairs for a leisurely lunch.

We were introduced to the menus, an extensive champagne and wine list by the sommelier; the orders were taken by another server; then the sommelier returned to help us on wine; warmed rye bread and creamed butter were served by yet another server; finally a third server came by to collect the decorative plates on our table. Although swift and professional, we were slightly taken back by the torrent of services.

Chef was in the house this afternoon, dancing around the restaurant, directing his crew.  Could that be why the team went slightly OTT?

Amuse Bouchee – Vegetable stock with celery, carrots and suede with crème fraiche, sprinkled with seaweed.
The cold soup looked simple at first glance. Little cubes of vegetables and a dollop crème fraiche appeared as I dug in. Okay let’s not over-exaggerate, it was cold soup, but a jolly good one. Fragrant celery with a hint of seaweed.

Organic Scottish Salmon, Graflax, Smoked, Horseradish
Quite a scenic dish too, no?

I rarely choose smoked salmon; not a dish that shows off the chef’s creativity and talents. Looks like the Icelandic chef has a different take on it. The fish was chunky but not dense. It falls away from the definitive lines of fat with the softest touch. It wasn’t salty; the smokiness was subdued, in fact it resembled sashimi. The distinctive clearness in the cucumber ice shavings brought out the subtle flavours of the salmon. While the crusty bread would have been a good contrast in texture, I found it slightly too harsh.

Suckling Pig, Belly, Cheek, Quince, Celeriac
I swooned with the first mouthful of the suckling pig; crispy skin and the thin layer of fat blended with the leaner meat underneath. The pork belly took the squashy texture further and melted in my mouth. Pork cheek was equally tender, even juicier. I couldn’t help but notice a hint of Asian flavours in the sauce. The crackling, however, was more like teeth-cracking.

Cornish Monkfish, Cauliflower Texture, Red Wine Jus
The Asian influence was even more pronounced in the pearl barley, which soaked up the red wine jus, and oozes more flavour with every chew. Though I am not a fan of monkfish, it was succulent and bouncy.

We would have stayed for dessert, but mister does have a flight to catch. I was, nonetheless intrigued by the combination of dill, cucumber and white chocolate mousse, and the cheese selection next door looked dangerously alluring. But there is always next time.

34 Portman Street
Tel: 020 7224 0028

Texture on Urbanspoon

Friday, 21 January 2011

Does Hawksmoor offer more?

I’m all for candlelight dinners. Can we get a larger candle, though? While a proper camera would allow better exposure to the photos, I am extremely self-conscious of doing so in restaurants. It attracts stares that suggest I have declared my love for culinary pornography, not to mention the distraction for fellow diners. So I stick to my trusty iphone to snapshot discreetly, compromising on quality. Do excuse the photos.

We have been singing praises about Goodman Steakhouse, and recommended it wholeheartedly to friends and family. We even dismissed Hawksmoor as an option when we crave for a good piece of cow. Until its grand opening in Seven Dials, maybe Hawksmoor is equally good, or even better?

Spitalfields is closer to home and work, so it was a natural preference on a Friday night. Ambience was lively and relaxed, businessmen crowded around the bar; staff wore jeans and checkered shirts; warehouse style decoration with brick walls and rustic wooden tables, which were small and closely packed. Cosy.

The sizes of special cuts were listed on the blackboards, crossed out as each was sold, these include chateaubriand, porterhouse and prime rib on bone. Porterhouse was almost sold out. It’s not my kind of steak anyway, I like fatty, juicy meat. We skipped starters and dived straight into 900g prime rib on bone to share (£6.50/100g), grilled bone marrow as an extra (£3), baked sweet potato and creamed spinach on the side (£4 each).

It was a long wait. Good. The steak needs resting.

The steak was massive (photo doesn’t do justice, they wouldn’t up the lights). I was salivating as the whiff of sizzling beef fat encircled our table. We asked for medium; it was cooked to perfection, lively crimson in the middle. The meat was oh-so-juicy. I was expecting more intense flavours though. It tasted somewhat watered-down if you know what I mean.

The peppercorn sauce was wrong disgusting; watery and tasteless with a few lifeless peppercorns floating around. Why bother?

Bone marrow was a total winner. It melted on my tongue as the oils diffused throughout my taste buds. Shivers.

Baked sweet potato was great. The skin fell off and it was almost a sweet potato mash, simply seasoned with sea salt. Creamed spinach is what it is. I don’t have much to add.

When presented with the dessert menu, I was stuffed to the brim. Yet I couldn’t resist the chocolate sundae that EVERYONE ordered. I saw at least 7 flew out from the kitchen. The lady next door asked for chocolate brownie with salted caramel ice cream. She joked about swapping when she saw my dessert. On hindsight, I should have accepted the offer.

It was layers of cream and chocolate mousse surrounding a rich, thick chocolate sauce covered chocolate cake/brownie (it was too dense to be cake, yet too crumbly to be brownie) and chocolate ice cream, all sitting on top of some crunchy chocolate crumbs. Chocolate items were overly sweet as opposed to bittersweet. It was too bloody much.

So, how did Hawksmoor compare to Goodman?
Well, I would come back, probably for a rib-eye to get a better idea. And of course the bone marrow (x3). I preferred the intense flavours of meat in Goodman, even though we have to opt for medium-rare to get the medium effect. While Hawksmoor is cosier, it was awfully noisy. And I do miss being presented with the special cuts prior to ordering to see the fat marbling on the steaks at Goodman. I think there were also more options on Goodman’s blackboard.

I think I am drifting towards a bias here.

I need a second visit to judge. While our first encounter was memorable, it wasn’t incredible. Right now, Goodman still gets my vote.


157 Commercial Street
E1 6BJ
Tel: 020 7247 7392

Monday, 10 January 2011

Koya – The Un-donned Udon Hype

The queue was disheartening. It was almost 10pm when we joined a queue of 12+ in the chilly January. This better be good.

When I was working in the neighbourhood last year, Koya never occurred to me as a lunch option. No reason, just wasn’t appealing enough. Now the extensive waiting has triggered my curiosity, what’s the charm in this hot broth udon?

30 minutes later we were seated at the back of the restaurant, bar tables in front of the kitchen. This felt very authentic Japanese noodle stall. I was looking forward to the onsen egg, even charged at £2.10 a shot, only to be told that they have sold out. What does one have to do to get a poached egg in Soho…

Braised Pork belly with Cider - £6.20
The small plate wasn’t that small. Three blocks of pork belly have soaked up the cider sauce as their colour suggest. It was sweet and not too heavy. While the fatty section was silky and soft, the lean meat was quite chewy.

Pork and Miso Hot Udon in Hot Broth.
This was my fault. I interpreted the menu wrongly. Hence I had different expectations. I was hoping for slices of Japanese char siu (not on the menu, where did I get the idea from?) in miso-base soup. Interestingly James was expecting the same thing, probably because Japanese char siu is typically served in Ramen restaurants, and described as pork. So when this mince pork lump appeared in the clear broth, I was upset.

After mixing the white miso into the soup, it obviously became miso soup, though sweeter than the usual, there was no wow factor. The udon was bouncy and al-dente, like how good udon should be.

Beef Cold Udon in Hot Broth.
I preferred the cold udon, it was even bouncier. And I preferred the clear broth with beef. Still, it did not justify the queue.

So what have I missed?
Perhaps I am not an udon lover, as I would choose ramen over udon any day, but there are easier places for a regular bowl of hot noodles without the wait.

49 Frith Street
(No Reservation Policy)

Koya on Urbanspoon