Thursday, 30 June 2011

Arbutus - Easy going Michelin

It has been a stressful month to say the least; thankfully we could sweeten life up with Derren Brown’s Svengali show at Shaftsbury Theatre in a Friday evening. The cherry on top is the ultra wallet friendly pre-theatre menu at Arbutus, £18.95 for 3 courses – it’s a steal, Michelin or not.

Relatively low-key, Arbutus is stripped of ostentatious décor or grandeur; just cream walls with textured hangings and blackish brown leather sofa against the wall. We were seated behind wooden dividers and enjoyed some intimacy. Between the two of us, we decided to cover the entire pre-theatre menu.

English tomato Gazpacho
Gazpacho was never my kind of thing, probably because I had one that tasted exactly like salsa sauce at Savoir Faire a few years back. But this version was smooth with small blocks of cucumber and cool, icy cool. It wasn’t just the temperature, the soup left a breath of coldness, in the same way that a cube of icemelting on tongue would. Refreshing and palate-wakening.

Pork Porchetta, young leaf salad
This reminded me of the cold-roast middlewhite I had at Great Queen Street, without the stuffing. The thinly sliced pork and punchy horseradish salad was a great match, and the aroma of lard remained long after the plate was cleared.

Slow cooked Beef and Carrots
Stews easily find their way to value menus, because they are pre-cooked with cheap cuts of meat and fuss-free. This tasted exactly like it should; syrupy, meaty and while the fattier bits dissolved in mouth, the leaner chunks were sinewy and less desirable.

The potato dauphinoise served on the side outshone the main with a crusty cheese top and fluffy potatoes in a creamy sauce.

Silver Mullet, grilled fennel and artichoke
The seemingly boring dish has an unexpected twist to it; Mister and I both thought it tasted like Fu Kin Fried Rice. Baffling, but in a good way.

Floating Ice cream
I think it was vanilla ice cream floating on melted ice cream, drizzled with salted caramel and sprinkled with pistachio. So…I can’t say there was much drama going on here.

I love this cheese, it’s has the best of everything; a nutty edge, pungent centre and a creamy texture.

It was a shame that we had to rush through our meal, mainly my fault for not leaving office on time. But service was accommodating when I asked for all 3 courses plus bill to be delivered within 45mins. Despite the limited choice on the value menu and the speed we devoured it, we enjoyed Arbutus. The dishes are relatively straight-forward with a good subtle twist to it, just enough for me to remember the meal. Was it pitch perfect? No, but I didnt have time for it.

On a side note, Svengali by Derren Brown, yet another ingenious production by the brains that make seemingly random selection so controlled. Most entertaining throughout, packed with unbelievable predictions and mind-reading. For those who spend hours after his shows trying to crack his tricks – why bother?

63-64 Frith Street
Tel: 0207 734 4545
Arbutus on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Odette's, Texture, Seven Park Place

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Mary had a Little Lamb - I ate it

Hot Pot, or Steamboat as I have recently learnt, is as Chinese as it gets; family and friends crowd around a huge bubbling pot of soup, dipping raw meat into the boiling soup and eat straight from the pot. I love it.

According to Google, Little Lamb is an international brand that specialises in a range of Chinese food products and restaurants. I wouldn’t have guessed seeing it looks just like every other restaurant in China Town. The 5 of us qualified for a small room to ourselves, which I appreciated the privacy until I discovered the limited ventilation in the basement. So this is how a har gau feels in a giant steamer

There was an a la carte option, or a £23 per head that includes 5 dishes each plus one soup base. We werent sure if we could do 25 plates among us so we started with a la carte.

Ying-Yang pot
If I had it my way, aka the Hong Kong way, Id have satay on one side and coriander with preserved egg on the other. But its Mongolian style here, so the deep red was constituted of chillies, spicy herbs and chilli oil and the milky white soup was mild broth with Chinese medicinal herbs.

Despite the colour, the soup wasnt unbearably hot; it flared and burned after a while, but most of the time the heat just lingered behind the food, as long as I dodged the explosive herbs. I have seen Szechuan pots with more chillies that soup. The gentle broth was verging on the tasteless side, it could be the result of excessive chilli soup, which perhaps silently numbed my senses and caused irreversible damage to my taste buds. According to Mister, the mooli slices extracted theflavours from the medicinal herbs like a sponge I didnt notice.

The streaky beef wafer was ideal for hot pot. A quick plunge in the pot sees the meat faded to a scarlet pink, dunk in the raw egg and peanut sauce to wash some of the chilli oil off, and the meat slowly dissolves in mouth.

The beef itself is mediocre stuff, nothing like the slices with marbling fat or hand-cut fillet in Hong Kong. But its good enough to satisfy the dunk-dip-eat ritual.

I was hoping to see different types of lamb meat on the menu, but this was the only lamb item. Given the Mongolian theme, I was slightly disappointed. Despite the visible streaks of fat, it lacked the distinctive weaning tang.

Tiger prawns
Nah. Definitely a fail. Frozen prawns should remain unwashed until it was ready to be cooked; otherwise they become mushy, like these.

Squid balls with meat filling
Could have been fish balls, I cant remember. These were the size of ping pong balls and full of bounce, with a bit of juicy minced pork in the middle. It worked okay, but I would recommend a cheese filling with flying fish roe; the cheese melts into a runny centre mixed with small roes that pop with every chew isnt that so much better?

Squid – Dried Beancurd Sheets – Shitake Mushroom
The baby squids were still frozen on the plate, and they shrivelled to the size of a 5-pence coin (if that) after cooking, tasted of nothing and felt like chewing on a small of rubber. Bring me thick slices of real squid please.

The beacurd slices shouldnt be served so lifeless, damp and tasteless. What they should do, is soak the dried sheets till soft, then deep fry them again to utter crispiness. The crusty rolls soften the moment they hit the boiling broth, soaking up the essence of the soup – truly heavenly.

As with the mushroom people eat fresh shitake mushroom with hotpot, not the ones that had previously been dried. Its pure laziness really, even Sainsburys stock the fresh ones as one of their exotic ranges.

Fish fillet
Fish in hot pot is okay, they tend to flake away and disappear into the depth of the pot though. Eel slices hold better.

We also threw in lots of veg for a balanced diet, and rounded off with some vermicelli and Mongolian ho fun. Frankly none of the food was worth writing home about, but it was three and a half hours well-spent.

As you can tell, I am particularly fastidious about the fare, since the kitchen doesnt have to do any cooking, they can at least get the preparation right. Otherwise what am I paying for? I understand a lot of it has to do with availability of resources in the UK, which is why I opt to do hot-pot at home. Afterall Little Lamb has done little else than buying the stock from the supermarket next door, remove the packaging and transfer the contents onto a plate. The bill came to £32 each, and isnt this easy money? I can do better with a tomato king crab soup base, fresh seafood from Billingsgate and the same quality meat and double the quantity, drinks and condiments included, all for £10 per head.

Little Lamb
72 Shaftsbury Avenue
Tel: 0207 287 8078

Little Lamb on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Spuntino is Simply Soho

Spuntino opened in March; it is still talk of the town for the most obvious reason: it’s bloody perfect.

Soho is overpopulated with small-eats and cafes, yet Spuntino has found the unique niche as an all-day diner serving chic little plates in a deliberately rusty room. Brick walls, scratched tiles, bulbs hanging down from high ceilings and tarnished bits here and there, I can’t find a word to describe the place, it’s just Soho.

The bar sits less than 20 and we were placed bang in the middle after a brief 20-min wait at 3pm on a Saturday. We were offered still, sparkling or tap water as we studied the menu printed on the paper tablemat. The menu wasn’t short of inventive items, such as aubergine chips with fennel yoghurt and mackerel sliders, but also included some conventional dishes. We were served with a mug of chilli popcorn as we sipped on our drinks.

Freshly popped popcorn sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of chilli oil, and then shaken like a cocktail.

Egg & Soldiers
Everyone ordered this and everyone loved it. I am no different. The sesame crust crumbled on the lustrous surface as I broke into the egg, revealing the glowing gooey yolk. Crispy bread dunked in yolk is so simply gorgeous.

Truffle Egg Toast
A very thick slice of toast, crusty at the bottom with melted fortina cheese, topped with a well of runny egg yolk and a generous splurge of truffle oil. This was divine. The viscous yolk sealed the truffle perfume with the chunky bread and protracted its essence till I grinned. The textures complimented and blended perfectly.

I sometimes add a few drops of truffle oil onto my scrambled eggs for breakfast and thought I was a genius (just humour me)….

Beef & Bone Marrow Slider
It’s the bone marrow, I was going to try the mackerel slider instead, but I just couldn’t say no to bone marrow. It was a good slider in the way that patty was ultra thick, almost like a meatball, coated with melted cheese and was oozing juices. But I couldn’t find where the bone marrow was hidden. What happened to the buttery bovine goodness?

Calamari & Chickpeas
I thought this was a prime example of simple brilliance; good cooking and great ingredients. Springy calamari drizzled with its own ink, succulent and natural. I am not a fan of chickpeas, or lentils, or beans in general, but they made the dish more substantial and I am still trying to think of an alternative that doesn’t dilute the flavours.

This was about the right amount of food for a late lunch, despite the mountain pile of tangled shoestring fries winking at me. (Looks like hallucination is a side-effect of good food)

Despite the full house and a small queue of curious diners, the service was totally laid back, doing one thing at a time at their pace, explaining the menu, chatting with satisfied customers, even a couple of jokes every now and then. Spuntino completely raised the bar for small-eats and quirky eateries, combining fine ingredients and serving spot-on innovations at reasonable prices. It was a great place to burn a couple of hours in the afternoon.

Spuntino – doesn’t give anything away except for their opening times
61 Rupert Street, Soho
No telephone. No reservations.

Spuntino on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Terroirs, Cambio de Tercio, Candy’s Cafe