Thursday, 27 October 2011

Polpo - A Possibility

Following my love affair with Spuntino, I thought it’s only fair that the sister restaurants get the same attention. With a full house plus a 30-min queue at 3pm on a Saturday, I sort of knew Polpo was going to be good.

The intentionally grungy dining room bore much resemblance to the series: scratched tiles, yellowy dim lights, and rustic wooden tables. As one would expect, the menu was printed on paper tablemats in that typewriter font and drinks list on a A5 clip board.

MGM (Elderflower, ginger beer, lemon) & Mock Sgroppino (San Bitter Dry, lemon sorbet)

Spinach, Parmesan & soft egg Pizzetta
The Polpo franchise does wonders with eggs. The thin mini pizza was soft with a crispy edge, loaded with spinach and cheese. The absolute jewel on the crown is obviously the lustrous viscous yolk… A simple pizza stunningly made. Mister said this beats the truffle egg toast; I disagreed. Strongly.

Mackerel Tartare with Horseradish & Carta di Musica
My opinion is biased, I knew even as I was ordering it. I still have Sketch’s version of mackerel tartare engraved and etched in my tastebud memories that no other interpretation can replace. Downright unfair, yes. I was hoping for tremendous fishiness paired with powerful bisque (though it says Horseradish on the menu) but this turned out to be much milder, toned down with crunchy cucumber cubes and onions. I don’t know, I just wasn’t mad about the combination.

Cuttlefish & Ink Risotto, gremolata
The inky calamari was great at Spuntino; this was even better. It was better in the way that al-dente rice is always better than chickpeas. Flavours were intense; cuttlefish pieces were plentiful and full of bounce; the bright orange oil added a subtle distinctive fragrance.

Pork Cotoletta with braised baby gems
This was exactly like the Austrian Schnitzel, except for its name; thin escalope of breaded pork deep fried. Can’t say I was overwhelmed by this classic recipe, nonetheless it was a jolly good slice of juicy, tender pork.

I thought the food had less wow-factor, perhaps it had to do with my expectations. I assumed at least one dish would make me close my eyes, grin and go ‘hmmm’. That said, I didn’t cringe at anything either. Just not overly excited about it, and wasn’t rushing to write this piece. So… no, I don’t think Polpo is as good as Spuntino, then again, Spuntino is a little hard to beat.

41 Beak Street
London 
W1F 9SB
Tel: 0207 734 4479

Polpo on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 20 October 2011

L'Autre Pied - The Wrong Foot

October has been cruel. Summer left, market crashed, work’s been crazy and people are stressed. When Lastminute offered a 5-course tasting menu at L’Autre Pied for £24.50pp, I thought there was kindness in the world afterall.

Following the sophisticated meal at Pied a Terre, I had fairly high hopes for L’Autre Pied. On a side street of the trendy Marylebone High Street, the small dining room boasted a casual ambience; we were seated next to the glowing cyan walls with hand-painted floral patterns, right beside the narrow doorway to the private dining section where the craggy slide door grunted throughout my meal. I didnt appreciate the oddly designed tables either, it had a rubbery/sticky mat integrated onto the surface, and it looked particularly bad where the paint on the edges were fading.

Pumpkin Mousse with Walnut shavings
Flavours were subtle, just faint suggestions of pumpkin in the dense mousse. The roasted aroma brought by the pine nuts kept the dish slightly more interesting, but the thin slices of walnuts tasted plastic.

I drew my mind back to the similar amuse bouche at Joel Robouchon, where delicate bacon foam lifted the sweetness of the rich pumpkin mousse. Nothing like it here.

Pan-fried Mackerel, anchovies, pine nuts
Easily the best dish of the evening. Mackerel is a strong fish and it comfortably took on the anchovies with (possibly) fermented black beans. The skin was fried to wafer crispiness while retaining the moisture.

And hello pine nuts, we meet again. Just as roasted and identical as they were in the previous dish.

Sea Bream, spring onion, potato mash
While the fillet was crispy on the skin, the flesh was parched and cooked to death. Flavours were good, plenty of spring onions with a hint of ginger and a few garlic drops, but nothing new. I guess this is what made the experience so disappointing; there was nothing I couldnt have made at home to an equal standard.

And frankly for a fixed 3-course meal, offering 2 fish courses both pan-fried and served with the same blobs of lemon mayo really says a lot of about the creativity of the kitchen, not to mention how reluctant they are to serve this menu.

Whipped cream with peaches & pears
The pre-dessert was introduced to us as Coconut foam with Mango soup; except this wasn’t. On our final spoonful we worked out it was diced peach and pears out of the can, with a dollop of whip cream to cover how ugly it looks.

Coconut Foam and Mango soup
There our waitress repeated what she said 10 mins ago, without a hint of embarrassment.
The concept is similar to the exotic mango rice pudding I had back in Pied a Terre, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Here the same idea transpired into lazy, sloppy, out-of-carton mango juice with a few grains of pudding rice topped with whipped cream sprinkled with shreds of dried coconut. I guess the consolation was the almond brittle, which wasn’t all that brittle actually.

Service was… where to start? Well, pouring water by inverting the bottle 180 degrees is bound to cause a splash. While an odd accident is alright, doing this repeatedly throughout my meal just pissed me off. And there is a marked difference between swift and just-hurry-up-the-f*ck-up. All with a smile, nonetheless.

Truly underwhelming experience, I don’t recall disliking a Michelin star restaurant that much. I would have been happier had the recipes been simple but executed to perfection. And you cannot call this a 5-course tasting menu; it's a fixed 3-course with amuse bouche and pre-desserts. Otherwise Gauthier would often be serving a minimum of 6 courses, counting in the canapes; or Viajante would be serving a silly 16-course dinner including the series of teasers and petit fours. It’s a shame, the best thing about the meal was the caramelised onion brioche from the bread basket. And I guess it was good because that was the only item unspecific to the special offer tasting menu.

5-7 Blandford Street
London
W1U 3DB
Tel: 0207 486 9696

L'Autre Pied on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 13 October 2011

Sichuan Folks are Hot

Sichuan cuisine has gained soaring popularity in the last couple of years, and restaurants all conveniently have similar names, especially the Barshu and BaShan in Soho. Sichuan Folks (BarShu Folks in Chinese) is apparently a spin off from one of the former two, and handily located on the Spitalfields-end of Brick Lane.

The place is not as brushed up as the ones in China Town/Soho; adorned with red lanterns, Chinese writing and ink paintings printed on wallpaper, tables arranged in parallel rows, plus karaoke booths behind the dining room. A bit like My Old Place, but more cramped. Half the diners were having hotpot with a bubbling pot of glaring red soup. We went for a la carte.

Soft water in Sichuan province favours the growth of all kinds of chillies, which the ancient Chinese wisdom claims can improve our digestive systems, something that's brought about by the soft waters. Hence Sichuan is renowned for their fiery dishes. On the plus side, soft water is gentle on the skin, leaving Sichuan ladies with a natural radiant glow.

Special Flavoured Chicken
The sauce looked deceivingly spicy with the orange flare, but it only carried a mild fragrance of Chinese herbs that has a gentle numbing effect. It was indeed special with the aromatic, thick sesame paste that hung onto the shreds of chicken and cucumber hidden beneath.

Twice Cooked Pork
One of the more reputable dishes of Sichuan cuisine; wafer thin slices of pork belly in spicy bean paste. It is twice cooked because the pork belly is first stir-fried in medium heat to melt away excess lard, then returned to the wok after the veg and sauces start sizzling away. This method lessens the grease of pork belly, yet retains its bouncy texture and fatty flavours.

This may not look overly piquant, but it was. I think it was the chilli oil; it punched through pretty sharply to leave a modest scar.

Boiled tender beef slices in a spicy and lip-tingling sauce
Another signature Sichuan dish; strips of beef submerged in chilli oil and excessive chillies in the bowl. Some mistake the lip-tingling for the chillies numbing us senseless, but the spiciness and tingling actually comes separately from various strains of chillies and peppers.

The heat didn’t burn or pierce, but lurks around under our skin at a constant level, creeps and crawls all over until our entire body felt it. And Mister certainly felt it as he was surprised to find himself sweating in a rather cool evening. It didn’t hit me that badly, but my lips definitely passed out by the end of the meal, in a good way though.

Stir-fried water spinach
Compared to the other dishes, the veg was almost sweet.

Hot ‘n spicy hasn’t never really been my thing, but I dont mind the occasional thrill. One thing I do particularly like about Sichuan cuisine is the numbing sensation the peppers added, which bring a different dimension to the heat. Dishes here are promising; they all arrive looking exactly the same as the photos on the menu. Greasy? Yes - its kinda inevitable when chilli oil is one of the main ingredients. Intolerable? Nah.

32 Hanbury Street
London 
E1 6QR
Tel: 0207 247 4735
Sichuan Folk on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Medlar - The Local Medalist

Medlar opened in April; how I wish it had existed when I was living down the road. It’s quite a trip nowadays, but a very worthwhile one.

On the quiet end of Kings Road, the restaurant is simply adorned with strikes of shocking green. Tables are fairly cosily arranged at the front of the dining room, which conveyed a touch of modern rawness and with the intentionally tarnished mirrors and patchy grey walls. Larger tables were placed at the back with swish vibrant green sofas and faux framed windows. After a few exchanges about the non-existent English summer with the manager, we focussed on the one and only menu. Straight forward £38 for 3 courses (£25 at lunch) with about seven choices for each course.

Crab raviolo with samphire, brown shrimp, fondue of leeks and bisque sauce
Mister was quite taken aback by the mountain ravioli. It was jam packed with shredded crab meat that was unbelievably sweet, its juices oozed and merged with the luscious bisque sauce. It felt as though Chef had stuffed half of the ocean between the al-dente pasta sheets and poured the other half onto it. Splendid start.

Rare grilled salmon with sauce vierge, sea purslane, oyster beignet and herb mayonnaise
My first impression wasn’t great, slab of fish on too much salad bathing in watery oil, topped with ugly guacamole lookalike splodge and a flimsy oyster in batter, served on the most ordinary canteens-style plate. Judgemental? You bet. Yet I couldn’t be more wrong.

The salmon was mostly raw in shiny pink in the centre; it tasted like sashimi, creamy fatty sashimi, pushing richness to the fullest with the flavourful herb mayo. The sauce vierge here beats William Drabble’s by two miles; it was light with sweetness from tomatoes and fully enhanced with generous handfuls of herbs. The de-skinned syrupy cherry tomatoes and crunchy baby gems leaves were icing on the cake. Everything on the plate was absolutely gorgeous.

It was probably a main course portion, I was 80% full after the first course, yet I couldn’t help but mop up every bit of the dish, soaking up the virgin sauce with the homemade focaccia.

Roast grouse with game chips, bread sauce, pate and damsons (+£5 supplement)
The grouse come rare, as promised. The two hunks of breast were beautifully roasted; the meat boasted its distinctive rareness and bloodiness, so utterly powerful yet remained ever so tender. The blobs of plum sauce reined in the red bird and kept the dish balance. Game chips were just like any other chips, and the pate was comparatively unnoticeable. The bread sauce on the side looked ill with lumps of something, I detected cinnamon and didn’t touch it.

Under blade fillet with persillade snails, salad, triple cooked chips and béarnaise
The cut directly under the shoulder blade is a relatively cheap cut of beef, very lean but full of meaty flavours. Unlike the usual bristly chuck fillet, this wasn’t dissimilar to hanger steak, gently roasted to leave a pink centre, though I’d prefer it even bloodier. This was good, especially the snails and bovine jus, but far from perfect.

Vanilla custard pot with blackcurrant compote and langue de chat
It was very sweet for the manager to placed a little birthday candle for me. A simple dessert well done, silky dense custard more like crème brulee and some healthy acidity in the compote.

Cherry and frangipane croustade with griottines and milk ice cream
Mister’s choice was better than mine, as always. The warm triangular croustade with honeyed nuts and caramelised cherries was well worth the 20-min wait, like pancakes but with slightly crispy edge. Great finish.

Medlar reminded of Odette’s; same kind of modern British cuisine, comfortably smart and homely stylish. Food was spot on, especially the starters; typical dishes cooked the way Chef would like to interpret them. Many bloggers have commended Medlar to snatching a star this year. Of course it deserves recognition, but Im also a little worried it might change its breezy casualness; staff in jeans and leggings, server sneaking our dishes onto our table with a shy smile without the grand recitation of the menu, being slipped the petit fours twice. There’s a special vibe going on here and I wouldn’t want it to change. Its been one of the bigger surprises.

438 Kings Road
Chelsea
SW10 0LJ
Tel: 0207 349 1900

Medlar on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Odette's, Arbutus, Quo Vadis