Thursday, 25 August 2011

Cây Tre - Candlelight Viet

Cây Tre has finally expanded from East London to Soho, and upped its game too as a ‘French-Vietnamese cafe. It sets itself apart from the passé Viet noodle bars with a slick bar, black & white patterned tiles at the granite grey entrance, a dimly lit dining room and rows of candles. Frankly it looked like an altar in a funeral from where we sat, near the entrance.

We were granted a table after the manager tsk tsked us for not booking in advance at 7pm on Saturday. Immediately I felt uncomfortable; mainly because I was in for a casual feed-me-now dinner as opposed to a wine-dine-and-gaze occasion, and secondly a server had held the coldest, most unfriendly stare since I walked in. Was I the dinner?

Crispy Pork Spring Rolls
We ordered this out of habit; afterall it is a safe bet that rarely goes too wrong. It could do with more filling for a better ratio and more juices, the shell held a little too much oil... Second thought, if the kitchen hasnt nailed this kind of basics, it doesnt really deserve a place here.

Lang Son Spinning Roast Tamworth Pork Belly
Chef needs to practice his chopping skills, unless these were supposed to come in different widths. This dish looked very much like Chinese roasts.

This translated to stuffed pork belly with sweet curry leaves from Lang Son province in Northern Vietnam, honey & lemon roasted, and served with chilli oil and dried shrimps. Some bites were very pungent, with the distinctive taste from chervil (Chinese celery?) in the generous herb paste smeared on the side; some bites were bland because they didn’t have the lump of herb. Considering the sinewy leathery skin, dry meat and cold lard, not great.

The chilli oil, however, was extraordinary. Southeast Asia trademark, tongue-piercingly hot that loitered for the rest of the meal despite downing 2 cans of coke. The fishy dried shrimps, pushed to one side of the sauce, gave slightly more dimension to the meat but still not enough to liven it.

Pho Bo with Brisket & Tendon
The classic combo. Everything was spot on here: slices of soft, tender brisket; small chunks of buttery, melting tendon; slithering flat noodles bathing in clear broth, oozing with lemongrass and herby fragrance. Exactly how pho should be, and how it has been done almost everywhere else on Kingsland Road.

The entire dining experience was – perhaps a little harsh – artificial. If we remove the candles and switch the lights on, it is still sardine packed tables with plastic bottles of sauces on the tables. Cay Tre offers Vietnamese Afternoon Tea at £28 for 2; no scones or fingers sandwiches, but a selection of the starters and salads; the joke is tea is not included in the price. Personally I’d call it a starter platter; its all marketing bluff.

42-43 Dean Street
Tel: 0207 317 9118

Cay Tre Soho on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Song Que, Nakhon Thai, Koya

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Lifting the Pied à Terre off the Ground

Choosing a restaurant to take my parents is always challenging. Ideally the place should serve top-notch food in a top-class environment with unintimidating ambience and friendly yet professional services, preferably with a panoramic view of the world on some 256th floor, fine dining and all but charging no more than £20 per head. Yea right. While I haven’t found that idyllic place, Pied à Terre seem to tick some of the boxes.

The Michelin 2-star restaurant is, as the name suggests, relatively small; modest entrance and a narrow corridor that leads into a cosy dining room with tinted mirrors and white walls. We were shown to the large round table with a corner velvet sofa. Its a full house.

Gently pickled Scallop had a touch of Japanese amuse bouche to it; Foie Gras Panna Cotta had remarkable chemistry with the slim layer of grape jelly, Dad and I both thought we could detect hints of longan fruit; sesame toast with cream cheese was what it says on the tin.

Chilled pea and basil Velouté with White crab meat, Peach and Mozzarella Salad
Only Dad opted for the soup, and what a wise choice. The island of dressed salad was moist with succulent crab meat and juicy ripen peach cubes; its sweetness comfortably took on the silky soup. Perfect for the gentle summer heat.

Confit Chicken and Foie Gras Terrine with Smoked Celery, Pickled Girolle, Walnut and Cornichon Dressing
By contrast I regretted ordering this. This was still carefully thought out with pickled accompaniments to neutralise the denser meaty terrine, and slight bitterness of walnut to add layers to fragrance, but this is not my choice of combination. I definitely prefer softening the foie gras with chutney than punchy vinegars that shadowed everything.

Rabbit Wrapped in Parma Ham with Crushed Broad Bean, Roasted Shallots, Fondant Potato, Sauteed Mousserons and Lemon Thyme Foam
I used to say rabbit is not a staple meat because it’s awful. I would like to revise that statement to Rabbit is not a staple meat because very few people can do the job as well as the chefs do here.  I put my money on the meat being cooked sous vide, for its juices were sealed and the rabbit blocks were packed with flavours. Not dissimilar to chicken thighs, but better. The Parma ham added grease and small bits of dark meat contributed to variation in textures. It’s bold, strong and energetic.

Pan-Fried Sea Bream with Courgette and Basil Puree, Tomato Fondue, Lemon Oil and Herb Emulsion
It is difficult to expect fireworks with pan-fried fish, unless it carried unexpected flavours like the one in Arbutus. This fish course is so very familiar, like Seven Park Place and Artisan, perfect execution but little surprises. The sauces and purees perhaps came in a slightly different form, but bottomline, flavours and combination are identical. The spoiler here was the tomato fondue, which could do with a bit of sugar to tone down its citruses.

Coffee ice cream with roasted coco brittles. Straightforward stuff, clean and crisp, and my parents thought this was the dessert.

Chilled Rice Pudding, Alphonso Mango Compote, Pineapple Sorbet, Coconut Foam, Tasmanian Pepper Berry
Textures were clearly graded and defined from the thick rice pudding to smooth sorbet then to fluffy foam. Summery and exotic. May I suggest serving this on a black plate for maximum visual impact?

White Chocolate Cream Brulee, Confit Raspberry
For a dessert that demands £15, this had better be good. And boy it was. The crème brulee finger was just dense enough to hold its shape, but liquefied as soon as the spoonful touched the tongue into the most velvety, luscious mouthful and a trace of delicate sugar. I think it was lemon ice cream, because I remember it was something zesty but genuinely can’t be sure.

I think my family enjoyed it. Dad humoured everything tasted great, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint exactly what he was eating. I’m not sure if he was referring to the complexity of the recipes or my poor translations. But hey, why don’t you try translating ‘cornichon and ‘confit to Cantonese? Anyway, I certainly enjoyed it.There were much subtle balances in each dish, with an array of unlikely ingredients that complemented so well. Not to mention the immaculate cooking.

Head to head, Mum said she preferred Joel Robuchon because she thought the food was much less predictable and service was more personable.

34 Charlotte Street
Tel: 0207 636 1178

Pied à Terre on Urbanspoon

You may also like: PearlViajanteGalvin Luxe de Bistrot

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Gelupo is not my kind of Gelato

Gelupo belongs to the same family as Bocca di Lupo just across the street. A sense of familiarity gushed over me as I saw the metallic tins of gelati hidden in the counter, just like the ones in Bologna. Ice creams, sorbets and granitas aside, Gelupo also stocks a range of Italian produce, from home-made sauces to tanks of olive oils sold by volume. Its a delicatessen with a lot of extras.

The selection of flavours is impressive; it ranges from the more conservative hazelnut and pistachio to the combos of Ricotta, Coffee & Honey.

Pistachio & Chestnut

Hazelnut, Pistachio, Bonet (chocolate with coffee, egg yolks, run, caramel, amaretti biscuits, vanilla) & Ricotta, Coffee & Honey
This is extremely airy, almost like the ones from ice cream vans, so it melted away into mushy milkshakes in minutes. Personally I prefer something more compact and denser, but this could be ideal for some.

I couldnt finish a medium size tub, because a) Id have to drink it, and b) it was far too sweet. Even for me. I didnt like any of the flavours because after the 5th spoonful they became sugar shots. No roasty fragrance in pistachio, no bittersweetness in Bonet, and worst of the lot, no hint of chestnut in chestnut. And I’m sure the staff concurs, because he said I should taste a bit of avocado in the chestnut. Eeh? What have I missed? 

In case you are not aware, my favourite gelateria is Oddonos, I tend to benchmark all other ‘authentic and ‘finest Italian ice cream parlours against it. And Gelupo has nothing on Oddono’s.

7 Archer Street
Tel: 0207 287 5555

Gelupo on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Candy’s CaféHush, Chin Chin Lab

Thursday, 11 August 2011

No Wrong Oysters with The Wright Brothers

So the ancient adage says we should only eat oysters in the months spelt with an ‘R; I guess Orgust counts... Crawling out of bed at 4pm with a dinner booked for 7:30 doesnt leave me much choice for breakfast. It was either cured ham at Opera Tavern or Oysters at the Wright Brothers. I decided it was a raw seafood day.

We had the whole split-level restaurant to ourselves as it was empty at 5 except for a couple of tables in the outside patio. I was asked to choose my table, but the staff stopped me as I sat and said she wanted to check if it was reserved. Err okay. It wasnt. The restaurant must have gotten so used to emptiness that the staff forgot we were there; we were ignored/blanked until I rudely interrupted their joyous conversations behind the bar.

These Irish oysters from County Lough were heavenly. The crunchy skin released the silkiest, creamiest sac of minerals, so intense and powerful the flavours gushed all over my taste buds.

The Maldons from Essex were more delicate in flavour and its crispiness contrasted the velvety texture of the Irish ones. These rocky gems were sweeter with a milder mineral trail; if the Carlingfords were tsunamis, these were high waves with long overhanging crests. Less vigorous, but more refined.

Speciale de Claire
The French Speciales from Olèron were not so special. Very brisk, clean and subtle in taste, I couldnt quite find the nuttiness I was expecting. Perhaps not as flat as a harbour, but definitely gentle waves on a sandy beach.

Just as I was about to ask for a second round and maybe some razor clams and whelks, Mister gently whispered, ‘Our dinner reservation is in 20mins…’ I heard nice things about the kitchen at WB, but on this occasion I only had time for one section of its menu, and couldnt quite stomach the service.

That aside, the oysters were blissful and these were pleasant mid-afternoon snacks.

13 Kingly Street and G7/G8 Kingly Court
Tel: 0207 434 3611
Wright Brothers (Soho) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Souffle - Osso Buco - Tapioca

 Its been a while since my last Cookbook post Just havent been home much.

Neals Yard Goats Cheese Curd Sweet Potato Bakes
The original recipe from British Larder used marrow, but I could only get my hands on sweet potato, which was one of the alternatives suggested. And the cheese can also be substituted for ones not so keen on the pungent goats cheese.

Such an easy starter with minimal prep work!

Osso Buco
I bought 4 large pieces of osso buco for 2.
1) Dust the Osso Buco in flour and brown, remove from heat and rest.
2) Fry 2 garlic cloves, a small carrot, a celery stalks, 1 onion (all in cubes) in pressure cooker for 5 mins, season.
3) Add 1 tbsp of tomato paste, 1 sprig of rosemary, 1 bay leaf, 1 sprig of thyme, then 1 cup of white wine until it reduces by half.
4) Pour 1 cup of stock (however much it takes to cover ¾ of the meat) – cover and let the pressure cooker do its thing.

I thickened the sauce up to serve with sweet potato mash.

Mister thought it was like Oxtail, but better because it was meatier and of course the bone marrow. I think it would be even better if I had left it to absorb the juices overnight.

Golden Tapioca Pearl in Coconut Milk
1) Leave the pearls to soak in plenty of hot water for a few hours until they turn transparent, then rinse in cold water for the extra bounce.
2) Simmer butternut squash cubes with coconut milk, evaporated milk and water in 2:1:1 ratio with rock sugar.
3) There are 2 ways to do this. Either blend the butternut squash with the coconut milk for that glowing orange colour, or keep it simple with cubes of squashfor a lighter touch.
4) Mix the pearls into the milk and serve hot or cold.

Better still, for the classic version of this Chinese Dessert, is of course substitute the squash with taro:)