Thursday, 29 September 2011

Princi - Bread of Life

Mister wanted a Sunday Roast for lunch at Hawksmoor Seven Dials. Little did we know a reservation is a must, regardless how late in the afternoon. Lots of alternatives came up as I dragged my disappointed feet along the Long Acre, still dreamy about the wobbly melt-in-mouth bone marrow: I wasn’t geared up for The Ivy; Fusion Indian at Dishroom seemed too distant from roast beef; Hawksmoor Spitalfields is a million miles away; The Townhouse on Dean Street attracted some hype but…. Blah blah blah. Mister gave up.

Then we stopped at Princi and remember how we had always wanted to give it try; the full length window, wood log piles, never-ending showcase of breads and pastries and most importantly, the constant stream of patrons. Though semi self-service, the staff was ever so patient as I hovered back and forth multiple times along the counter, and Mister just marvelled at my greed.

Pizza con Prosciutto
The pizza base was ever so soft, and had you watched the dough getting kneaded like a feathery pillow, you could imagine how fluffy the bread was, like biting into stretchy air. Even when it cooled, the pizza didn’t harden teeth-cracking ceramics or turn into un-chewable cardboards, just moister bites. I’d happily gnaw on the plain pizza bread, the crispy-edged ham and thick layer of springy cheese just made it too much better than it needed to be. Perhaps not on par with Naples’ Da Michele, but it’s not too far behind.

Roasted Pork Belly with Baby Potatoes
There is also a smaller section at the back with hot comfort food, cannelloni, lasagne and the likes. The pork belly particularly appealed because our stomach was so juiced up for meat. And these roulades were bloody brilliant; heavily crammed with a fragrant herb paste and soaked with an even herbier jus. Okaythese came out from the counter and so weren’t piping hot, but the flavours made up for it. For the sake of my arteries I probably wont order this on my next visit, but this has given me confidence in Princis hot deli.

Strawberry Millefeuille
One of my all-time favourite desserts, and the way Patisserie Valerie does it is just right. This version at Princi has crumblier puff pastries and lots and lots of cream, I mean lots. While I am an avid lover of whipped cream, I think I prefer the custard filling at PV.

Custard Pastry Cornet & Mini Lime & Chocolate Madeleines
The Magdelines werent good, stale and tasteless. Lime tasted of handwash liquid and the chocolate ones like cheap chocolate drink powder. The cornet was better, crispy and flaky.

There was nothing Sunday Roast about this late lunch; doesnt stop it from being a great lunch. Food was plentiful and straight forwardly good, staff wore genuine smiles and absolutely fuss free. Its a busy place, people linger for seats while other squeeze between stools, yet the ambience was chill; friends catching up over good coffee and cakes, men waiting for their shopping wives, wanderers gazing at the window to absorb the Soho vibes, and of course, hungry couple eating too much food.

135 Wardour Street
Tel: 0207 478 888

Princi on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Spuntino, Bocca di Lupo, Cakes & Sweets

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Yauatcha - Fine Dim Sums

Originally Alan Yau’s brainchild, Yauatcha follows his money-printing formula; dim sums are around the £6 mark and the décor is slick with glowing blue tropical fish tanks and lacquered walls. Though my first visit a few years back was pleasant, I am not a regular because of the prices. They match some of the top-class 3-Michelin star joints in Hong Kong, which throw in lobster and caviar and what-nots in their extravagant dim sums.

For this visit I was attracted by the Taste of Yauatcha menu; £28.88 for 2 with 8 types of dim sum and choice of tea, offered only in the late weekday afternoons. The dim sums came in pairs as opposed to the usual 3 or 4, but include some of the finer items on the menu.

Har gau prawn dumpling
This was textbook har gau, like the ones found in better restaurants in Hong Kong. Well-greased, springy shell enveloping bouncy, sweet and extremely juicy prawns, perfectly seasoned and sized, just enough moisture to control its stickiness. This could be the best har gau I have eaten in this city.

Scallop Shui Mai
I rarely order shui mai, and I grew up with the more peasant-friendly pork version. The gleaming scallop was just cooked for that silken texture, but slight tasteless; I personally prefer a bit of mince pork with the prawn for more flavours. But this is still brilliant shui mai with well seasoned prawns.

Crystal Dumpling Wrap
There was something missing in this one; while the ripen pumpkin dice contrasted with the crunchy sweetcorn to bring some interesting textures, it was a bit dull; it probably needed more chicken cubes to neutralise the sweetness, or perhaps more juice?

Baked Venison Puff (Left)
My prime choice would be roast pork puff but this was equally good. The flaky pastry was bursting with piping hot mild black pepper sauce and shreds of meat, lightly glazed on the surface. I had a similar version at Royal China last year, Yauatcha does it much better.

Chicken and Prawn Taro Croquette (Back)
The best thing about this afternoon set is that it includes pretty much all the regular items I’d usually order. Taro croquette is one of my favourites, and the filling here is spot-on with a thick layer of moist taro mash and plenty of sauce and meat for a fondant effect. What could be better is the shell; it could be more fragile and brittle so it’d dissolve as it crumbled.

Sweet potato Mushroom Mei Si Roll (Right)
Love the idea, hate the execution. The sweet potato was more like a raw carrot; bird nest was too thick and the inner layer was dense; not enough sauce to counterbalance the spiky coat, mushroom was unnoticed and not enough flavour. I’d half the coat and replace with sweet potato mash instead of a stick.

Prawn and Beancurd Cheung Fun
Best cheung fun I have had in London. Instead of the traditional deep fried dough, the beancurd sheet remains crispy for much longer and it has capacity to stuff prawns and juice meats in the middle. This was absolutely delightful.

Spicy pork Szechuan wonton
I didn’t like this because it had vinegar. Most restaurants serve them submerged in chilli oil with vinegar on the side, but here everything was mixed together and the heat was much diluted. That aside, the dumpling fat/lean proportion was just right with lots of meat juice. Mister liked it.

There are glitches that don’t seem to justify its fine-dining reputation and Michelin recognition, especially the disposable wooden chopsticks. Somehow wooden chopsticks are okay in sushi bars, but I tend to associate them with takeaways as opposed to upmarket cuisine. Oh and waiting staff baring their wobbly midriff is a no-no.

On the other hand, quality of food was excellent, perhaps even in the upper quartile by Hong Kong standard and no doubt superior to Royal China. I am tempted to come back for the a la carte dim sum menu, but I cant say I will become a regular patron; double prices but the food arent quite doubly good.

15-17 Broadwick Street
Tel: 0207 494 8888

Thursday, 15 September 2011

A Sketch of Afternoon Tea at The Parlour

The original plan was to treat my parents and brother to Tea at The Ritz for some truly British etiquette. I managed to overlook the ridicule of paying £40 per person for finger sandwiches, rescheduled the day to accommodate the rigid booking slots and even got to the 2-month advance reservation stage. What blew the deal was the jacket & tie thing for gents. Just fat chance my dad and bro flying their jackets over for an afternoon snack.

Instead we checked into The Parlour at Sketch, which I thought was equally quintessential and tastefully stylish. There is an air of deliberate randomness in the café; chequered vs floral cushioned stools sprawled across the floor, marbled coffee tables of various heights dotted here and there, lamps and ornaments at the most unlikely corners, odd skull every now and then… the kind of decorations Mad Hatter would adorn his home with. Yet it doesn’t lose its elegance with the Louis XV sofas, antique tables and the crimson velvet curtains. It sets an ambience that encouraged us to watch time pass.

Croque Monsieur – black bread, mozzarella and basil oil, tomato and courgette
They have given Monsieur a new look, haven’t they? The visually enticing black bread doesn’t taste markedly different to normal bread, though it was very moist, perhaps because it soaked up much of the basil oil. Honestly I don’t think this has anything to do with the French classic, in fact it was more like pizzabread with the springy cheese and all, but it was fricking delicious.

Sketch Éclair – pate a choux filled with pistachio cream and apricot compote with vanilla
I used to think the chocolate éclair from La Maison du Chocolat was the best; this may have just topped the chart. Pistachio cream was whipped to a feathery lightness that disappeared like a breath of roasted pistachio essence, which went beautifully with the not excessively sugary apricot compote.

Sketch Afternoon Tea
Smoked Salmon, Cucumber, Cooked ham and Dijon mustard, egg and mayonnaise sandwiches; 2 Fruit scones with seasonal jam and clotted cream & Sketch pastries
(Comparatively) Modestly priced at £27pp that includes mini pastry creations from the ingenious Pierre Gagnaire. We were gently reminded that the set cannot be shared as we ordered. Ummm… okay. Mum must have enjoyed it, she did scoff all the pastries without offering and reported how creamy/rich/explosive/indulgent they were, especially the raspberry semi macaron. 

It was a good call to ditch the Ritz for The Parlour. I was spared from the finger sandwiches, the setting was perhaps less classic British but more unusual and easy-going, and most importantly food was adventurously different. Bill came to just under £70 with 3 coffees and the above. May not be the best value deal in the city, but its only a fraction of what I was prepared to pay.

9 Conduit Street
Tel: 0207 659 4500

Sketch - the Parlour on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Hush, Gelupo, Wright Brothers

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Atari-ya Revisited - Sushi Fix

Since the disappointing dinner at Tosa a couple of months back, I hadnt craved for Japanese food. Mister recovered much quicker than I did and (asked me to) book for a sushi binge session.

Nothing much has changed at Atari-ya; still full-house, still walk-in diners resorted to its takeaway service, still super busy. This time, the menu has expanded and I stayed well clear from the deep-fried items.

Baby Squid in Guts Sauce
I cant imagine anyone being drawn to ‘guts sauce. We did, because Mister decoded it to be the fluorescent squid we had at Sakaegawa back in Hong Kong. And the man was right. It’s not a dish for everyone, slimy, fishy and heavily marinated in alcohol. I love it. Its flavours evolve gradually, first an overpowering saltiness, but then the alcohol slowly diffused into a trail of aromatic perfume, leaving a raw piece of squidgy squid with its natural sweet juice. Repeat, I love it.

O-Toro, Scallop, Vinegared Mackerel & Ikura Gunkan
Oh the O-Toro... the healthy, shiny, peachy tuna belly sashimi were divine. The piece slowly melted away to unleash the rich oils and I kept giggling. Scallops were served at the right temperature, i.e. not straight from the fridge and they removed the lemon! Yay! Plump, fleshy and succulent though not as sweet as Id hoped. The mackerel was slightly too lean and slightly too citrusy. Lucky we were only brought 1 portion despite asking for 2.

Summer Chef Special: Botan Prawn, Tuna, Seared Salmon, Turbot, Vinegared Mackerel

This wasnt what I ordered. I actually asked for Chefs Special of seared sushi selection, including seared O-Toro. Not too fussed though. The platter was beautifully presented; reminded me of Sushi of Shiori, obviously less refined and elegant but Chef here made a great effort.

Sushi were paired with yuzu jelly, ponzu jelly, shiso pesto, marinated flower and mild chilli paste. Each piece stood out from the traditional version as the accompaniments added more layers to the flavours. Not as sophisticated as Shiori, chef is still a few levels from the ex-Umu, but these were still good qualitystuff.

Avocado & Eel Roll
I had an urge for eel, and the prawn rolls werent supposed to be on the sushi platter I initially wanted. Benchmark stuff.

Grilled Yellowtail Jaw
Then I made the mistake of ordering hot food. Why?
Yellowtail jaws are never going to taste as good as Salmon collars. Fact. Dont think the kitchen has done anything wrong, the fish is simply not as oily and holds less flavours.

The service was appalling; clearly not enough people on the floor and I almost threw myself at the waiter to get his attention for my orders. I wasnt too frustrated, however, because he was ever so polite and apologetic, and gave his 100% in jotting down the order. We could see his thought process: listen to English orders, read English on the menu, translate to Japanese writing, translate writing back to English, and repeat the orders in English. Having said that, he still got a couple of orders wrong.

As long as I get my sushi fix, I have little to complain.

75 Fairfax Road
Tel: 0207 328 5338

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Sketch Lecture Room & Library - Picture & Pitch Perfect

Last month I only made it to The Parlour for afternoon tea; this time I was led up the stairs through the darkness to first floor. I could almost hear the trumpet salute as the maitre d’ opened the double door behind the heavy curtains, together with his perfectly timed ‘Welcome to Lecture Room & Library’. Majestic.

The spaciousness of the 2-storey high room was amplified by the domed glass ceiling. There were many subtle irregularities and deliberate mis-matches in the décor: odd elongated chandeliers made of stripy red cloth, hung by a thick rope; opposite tinted-mirror-lined walls that reflected into psuedo infinity; massive plain white square wall hanging, which with intense staring I saw the faintest sketch of a child’s face. Just little touches to modernise its grandeur.

After we were comfortably seated on the plush sofa chairs, the maître d’ brought a short marble stool for my handbag to rest beside me. On a bad day, I’d say pompous. But I was in a beautiful mood. We were introduced to a trolley of champagne and aperitif to choose from as our server promptly laid the selections of canapés, amuse bouche and butters on our table.

Crunchy vegetables with Cuttlefish and Sesame

Cumin Sticks & Dip

Seabream in Shiso Leaf/Magdalena Ball/Biscotti with Pepper skin/ Parmesan Cream in Wafers
Wow. Where to start. I think Japanese amuse bouche are in style at the moment, Pied a Terre served something very similar to this vegetable and cuttlefish mix; that familiar citrusy vinegary ponzu-like dressing. Great little appetite teaser.

The platter of nibblets was signs that promised a tantalizing meal ahead.  I think it was the sweet wafers dissolved into the cheesy cream that earned the most ‘hmmmm’ from me, and somehow, just somehow Mister thought the biscotti tasted like dog biscuit.

And the seaweed butter… If Viajante’s black pudding infused butter gets a 9/10, this would probably be a 7/10, and all other salt & unsalted options fall below 4/10.

Assortment of Four Starters
I was totally loving the torrents of food filling up our table. The colours, the arrangements, the plates and gigantic spoon, there was so much for me to ‘aww’ and ‘ahh’. We were advised to start with the soup.

Tomato and Strawberry Soup/Cucumber Sorbet

Strawberries do wonders when paired with the right ingredients; here they toned down that sharp, familiar tomato zing, boosted the colours and spilled their sugars, which were gently diluted by cool cucumber ice. The outcome is this clean, crisp and easy-going version of gazpacho.

Seabream Carpaccio/ Samphire/ Oil Emulsified with Passionfruit/ Cucumber & Radish
Nothing new about the common carpaccio? Not exactly. The passionfruit wasn’t overly pronounced, just a hint strong enough to stay around and sweep out the heady garlics and punchy radish.

Poached Quail Egg/ Watercress Puree/ Girolles & Brioche
Then we mounted to something stronger with the savoury veloute made with a heavier stock base. The beauty of the dish was the glowing runny quail yolk that surged into the green well. It held together all the beautiful, familiar flavours and condensed them into a few forkfuls.

Yea I was going to snap a pic with the liquid yolk, but the fork beat the camera to it.

Foie Gras/ Pickled Cherries/ Chocolate/ Pane Carasau
I gobbled this delicate piece in one go. The thin disc of dark chocolate melted onto the foie gras cream, slowly releasing its deep, intense aromas onto my taste buds with a bittersweet finish. There was a lot going on in this indulgent, rich bite, but so rightly balanced it didn’t drive into an overkill. The starters ended on a powerful note.

Warm Mackerel Tartare/ Shellfish Bisque/ Black Ink Gnocchi/ Sauteed Squids
Clusters of chopped mackerel, hidden under the leaves to avoid the downpour of the vibrant orange sauce, exploded like a fish bomb in mouth; so raw, so exaggerated and so similar to the vinegared mackerel sashimi, but better. The small black cobbles were misleadingly soft, akin to squid ink instilled marshmallow, helped to rein in the fishiness and alleviated the textures on the plate. Together with the bisque, each mouthful was packed with heavy punches of flavours. Godsend.

Roast Corn-fed Chicken/ Walnuts & Pecan Nuts/ Marinated Aubergines/ Crunchy Onions with Cider Vinegar/ Herb Bouillon
Whiffs of lemongrass and coconut, yet the dish hadn’t tipped off the balance to the oriental side. It’s chicken breast, but if it’s any consolation, it’s chicken breast with skin and possibly the most succulent pieces one could imagine, further juiced up by the aubergines. The sauce was fragrant, exotic and tropical; everything on the plate was harmonious. I loved it, but not as much as I loved the fish.

I seriously contemplated desserts, but I was way too stuffed to even share one. Mister, for his slowly but surely expanding waistline’s sake (trust, he’d say the same thing about me), suggested we save it for next time. We resorted to a couple of coffees to finish off.

Sketch is grandly peculiar and luxuriously eccentric; there is an odd conformity of quirkiness from its décor to food. The entire meal was carefully structured to bring out the best of each ingredient, each dish was a step up from the previous, and each bite was something new derived from composite flavours. It’s the most memorable meal I have had this year and I’m coming back to celebrate the next special occasion, however wallet-wrecking it may be.

Sketch - Lecture Room & Library
9 Conduit Street
Tel: 0207 659 4500

Sketch Lecture Room and Library on Urbanspoon
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