Thursday, 24 November 2011

Riding House Cafe riding the Waves

The overall consensus from the bloggersphere on Riding House Café has been ‘ingenious décor, marginally above average mains and miniscule small plates’. This doesn’t transpire huge enthusiasm and confidence. Nonetheless, since we booked a massage session in the neighbourhood, I guess I could do with some comfy sofas and funky lamps.

It’s not a hotel, it’s not a club, but it has a doorman/bouncer. Okay. The bloggers are right, the décor is splendid, and we got to admire it for a good 15mins when the receptionist admitted the restaurant had lost my reservation. I wasn’t too bothered, it was almost a full house, I’m sure they’d squeeze us in. We got the vibrant orange sofa section with the rat lamps. And I insist it’s a rat with a furry tail.

I was looking for the roast pork cubes on the menu, the one with its photo featured on the website. Not on the menu anymore?

Salt Cod Fritter, Red Pepper Aioli
I have seen the small plates in £3-£4 range; they do look rather pathetic served in soy dishes. The £5 looks more the part, maybe. Three little croquettes jam packed with salt cod flakes were leaning on the dry side on their own, but got much better with a generous dollop of capsicum cream. While flavours were spot on, it was a rather dull small plate. Perhaps infuse the aioli into the fritter to put an unexpected spin to it, adds to the bursting effect?

Steak Tartare, toast
I am not a regular steak tartare fan; I honestly don’t know how a jaw-dropping tartare should taste. That said, this has made me want to become a regular rare beef tartare eater. The meat was roughly chopped and mixed with some crunchy shallots, fresh parsley and capers, seasoned perfectly with a just-adequate squeeze of lemon. Just slimy enough for that silken texture and just roughly enough for a bouncy but not tough mouthful. I loved it.

Crumbed Lamb Breast, Gribiche
This was delicious; stingy, but delicious. The small tile of lamb was strong, almost gamey kind of strong, crispy coat with juicy meat that flaked away as I bit into it. The Gribiche tasted more like tartare sauce, I think it was missing the egg. But that’s missing the point, the meat was beautiful.

Rack of Pork, lentils, smoked sausage, horseradish
Now we’re talking - A good hunk of pig.  The pork, though succulent, was rather bland; flavours were lacking despite constant dunking into the gravy, which incidentally was quite watery and mild. It was probably too lean. I thought the smoked sausage was better, not too salty, packed with meatiness. Not a fan of lentils, but I have to say these weren’t half bad with the horseradish cream.

Balmoral Venison turnip choucroute, red currants
I’ve got into the bad habit of ordering venison whenever I see it on the menu; think the meat has a lot of character. Unlike the pork, these were well-seasoned and flavoursome. Probably just ever so slightly overcooked in the butt, but still tender. I don’t think the fried strings were turnip, but whatever they were, they gave a good kick to a dish.

Chocolate Fondant, coconut ice cream
The fondant was leaking chocolate sauce before we cut into it, and while half of it was piping hot, there were bits were lukewarm… any ideas? Instead of a bouncy spongy chocolate case, it was dense, you know, the type you’d get when you put too much flour in your cake? Ice cream was alright, I wouldn’t expect it to be homemade though.

Bill came to just under £100 with an easy bottle of rose, nothing out of line. I tend to agree with the general opinion; décor is cool, small plates are miniature, maybe I’d say the food is more than marginally above par. Though not perfect, I felt much thought has gone into the food, perhaps not as much as the interior design, but it’s still commendable. With all the Christmas shopping to come, I’ll definitely check in for an afternoon snack.

43-51 Great Titchfield Street
Tel: 0207 927 0840

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon
You may also like: PolpoTendido CeroZucca

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Thai Thai Heartless

Thai Thai stands out like a red palace on Old Street, spanning two shops with full length windows and the typical Thai ornaments of Buddha and carved wooden statues. The interior was less insistent on the theme, however; ceiling decorated with stained glass, large Turkish chandelier and a big red candle on a silver holder on each table, just like the ones used in chapels. Perhaps in very dim lights, the décor would somehow blend and merge, but under natural lights, it looked like the owner had lots of impulsive purchases from the Portobello Market.

Tom Yum Gai
Isn’t this soup supposed to be super spicy with a healthy squeeze of limey sting and lemongrass charm? This bowl of chicken broth with lame frozen chicken (breast) pieces and shite load of floating mushroom is, dare I say, crap.

Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab with Garlic & Pepper
Most soft shell crabs are served in a heavy seasoned batter; this looks much lighter with more crab meat and less coat. Sadly it was a bland starter. There were a few crumbs of deep fried garlic sitting on the crab, but really it needed a lot more to cover the whole thing.

Grilled River Prawns in a mild curry paste
The river prawns were perfectly grilled, bouncy and slightly charred on the edge and extremely meaty. Okay river prawns are not sweet and rather flavourless, but the curry paste made up for the flavours, which was fragrant with coconut milk and only slightly spicy. This went so well with the coconut rice. May I suggest serving 4 prawns of similar sizes though? There were two king prawns and two kid-size ones under the garnish.

Red Curry with Duck
Since I dont eat chicken breast, I tend to steer away from green curry chicken. And red curry duck rarely disappoints with a bit of pineapple. This tasted wrong. It didnt taste bad, just wrong, as in it didnt taste like a red curry. I still cant put a finger on what went wrong; I think its because the curry was somewhat salty and clashed with the sweet fruits, or they put too little curry paste in the sauce, or too much duck? Oh I dont know, it was just downright strange.

They dont even have mango sticky-rice on the dessert menu The tables, with small squares carved out so I could stare at my shoes if I wanted to, are extremely unappetising when I can see wax, dirt and dust stuck in the wells. Get rid of the crap, or the tables altogether.

I am still struggling to find good Thai in East London. And after this meal I am wondering if I will ever find a good Thai restaurant here.

110 Old Street
Tel: 0207 490 5230

You may also like: Song QueNakhon Thai, Hawksmoor

Thai Thai East on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 November 2011

Amsterdam - Sin City

Amsterdam is often portrayed as the City of Sin. When I told Big Boss I’m spending a couple of days in Amsterdam, his immediate reaction was: ‘Why? It’s just a massive toilet hole.’ Well, I can’t concur.

Mister stopped by this city during his 120-hour expedition from Tallin when the Icelandic volcano choked, and I visited 14 years ago on a Europe tour with my folks. Back then the Euro currency was still an ambiguous idea (should have stayed that way). I do remember Mum ended up with a diamond ring that she never wore, however.

Weather wasn’t great on the first day, dark thick clouds barely holding in the rain. Despite the minor confusion with the train system from Schipol to Amsterdam Centraal, we survived. I suppose it’s a no-brainer for everyone else on a normal day, but we’ve been up since 3am and slightly flustered by moving the clock back an hour, then catching our flight..... I'm sure you're interested.

I guess Amsterdam’s best known cuisine is called weed, then probably mushrooms and then perhaps pancakes may be the next in line. 'Pancakes!' in the Canal Ring area had a crowd despite its tiny shopspace, so we'd figured it had to be good. Having said that, I was a little skeptical as I never enjoyed My Old Dutch in London and savoury crepes are hardly new. It wasn't too long a wait as it was 4pm by the time we had meandered around Old City and took our time at the hotel. 


Smoked Salmon, Pine nuts, Guacamole and Crème Fraiche
Right, so this came pretty big, and loaded with heaps of smoked salmon too. I was relieved to see a thin sheet of pancake, unlike the blanket of flour at My Old Dutch. It was delicious; crème fraiche was, strangely enough, lighter than the usual sour cream, probably neutralised and blended the flavours better. The warm iconic Poffertjes with ice cream was absolutely scrumptious.

Then God started spitting on us again; it was time for some beauty sleep. Yes, at 5 in the afternoon.

After some fresh air in the Coffeehouse and a wander in the Red Light District, it was late dinner time. In half a day we managed to sample almost every edible/inhaler-able item that represents Amsterdam. The Old City is dominated by Asian restaurants and Argentinean Steakhouses. According to Wikitravel the steakhouses fast food joints are major tourist traps, so we dodged; apparently the Chinese and Indonesian restaurants are pretty close to authentic though. It was New King on Zeedjijk that we chose, partly because there was a Hong Kong Foodie Mag article stuck on the window. 

We weren't disappointed. The roast pork beats what London has to offer by miles; the layers of lean meat and ready-to-melt lard were distinctive, all topped with perfectly roasted, crunchy skin. Other roast meats benchmarked, and this heap of food sells for less than 14 Euros.

Next Day we took Bus 91 from Amsterdam Centraal to Zaanse Schans for some real fresh air. 
Picturesque village with paintings-like scenery worthy of a day trip. The 'open air museum' is only 45mins from Amsterdam by bus. Train is also an option, but it's a good 20-min walk from the Koog-Zaandijk station. Not much to eat though.

There are also tiny little shops that sell chips with different sauces; how can one say no to freshly fried chips. We tried Chipsy King with cheese sauce and Manneken Pis with peanut/satay sauce. Just by looking at the number of people munching away in front of Manneken Pis, the winner is obvious.

It’s so simple and the sauce is cold and the colour doesn’t look right but it’s so Dam good! I mean, what are the chances of freshly fried chips with loads of sauce being not good? Huh? 

There was also this ancient ice cream shop called V.D.Linde on Damrak selling soft whipped ice cream that goes for less than a Euro. It was like going back 20 years and tasting the bare goodness and richness in cream. Strangely delightful.

Dutch cheese has also earned its reputation. Shops are generous with their tasting samples and while we were scratching our heads over dinner, Cafe Bern,  known for a secret family recipe cheese fondue, came up. My stomach was totally juiced up for seared steak in Dutch cheese, only to be told in the full house that there won't be a table until 10, on a weekday. Grrrr...instead we had Indonesian.

The 13-dish Tasting menu at the Indonesian Aneka Rasa was impressive; lemongrass salad was godsend, chicken satay was properly grilled and succulent, smothered with satay sauce, veal was soluble and even the odd stewed egg was a pleasant surprise. There were only 2 waiters serving a full house of 30 tables; patience is a must.

Our last day in Amsterdam was the usual lazy day. After breakfast at Kwekkeboom, an artisan bakery, we took it easy on the outskirts of the canal ring, soaking up the sunshine by the canal, sipping tea and smoking dope.

Amsterdam is a great city, I loved it. Not a bad meal for 3 days, people speak English, girls (at least in the RLD) are hot, illegal is not a word and freedom speaks for itself. The place is hip, bursting with life yet tranquil, bad-ass yet peaceful, dirty but beautiful.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Tendido Cero - The Beautiful Spanish Sister

Half a year ago we went to Cambio de Tercio, we liked what the kitchen was capable of delivering but not necessarily that tasting menu. So 6 months later, after a hard day work (on a Saturday!), Mister treated me to some fine tapas at the sister restaurant to wind down.

Just across the road from CdT, Tendido Cero shares the same flamboyant buzz and vibrant décor with bright yellow walls and fine paintings that depict elegant moves of toreros. Menu is simply split between cold and hot tapas; it was a good mix of traditional items, like croquetas and tortilla, with innovative recipes, but the more elaborate options like deconstructed omelette and millefeuille of foie gras were strictly kept to the posher CdT restaurant.

Baby eels, cooked in olive oil, garlic and chilli
Just to clarify, the noodle-like things are indeed baby eels, and boy they are mind-blowingly delicious; quite possibly the best things I have ever eaten. The baby eels were beautifully flavoured with garlic and well-greased with olive oil, but what made me swoon was the unique texture of these babies; silky and slippery on the outside with a touch of bounce, yet mildly crunchy and ultra springy in mouth. All too perfect when lightly mingled with what tasted like toasted Béchamel sauce… Whoa! Epic dish.

Aubergine chips with homemade rosemary honey
I think Pumpkin had an easy win over Aubergine. Zucca Fritti was too much stronger. I think aubergine was probably too mushy to make good chips; rosemary was too faint and got drowned by the honey, then it became a little too sweet and a little too soggy. It was a nice change though, just wouldn’t make it a frequent option.

Arzua cheese, sweet tomato marmalade
Mister misread the menu description as sweet potato marmalade, now that would have been interesting. This reminded me of Santa Maria back in Barcelona, but they used Camembert cheese over blueberry marmalade on toast, and it was a clean success. The was pretty ordinary by comparison; Arzua cheese is not particular stringy nor pungent, without such weight from the cheese, the tomato marmalade turned out too sweet and got a little sickening towards the second piece.

It was better used of a tomato than cooking it for 8 hours at CdT though.

Piquillo peppers stuffed with ox-tail
And here we hit another climax. It’s no regular braised oxtail; each morsel was attached with the translucent wobbly half-melted tendons that casually cling onto oxtail meats. The textures of the rich, chunky pepper sauce blended with the liquefying tendons as if they were meant for each other.

There is so much love in these parcels it’s unreal.

Galiccan octopus, potatoes, sweet paprika
Must say I was half hoping for the same version at Cambio, and was inevitably slightly disappointed when I saw potato chunks instead of the veloute-like potato puree. Flavours were spot on nonetheless, with tender and succulent pieces of octopus, just not as much fireworks as the oxtail.

Lamb casserole, roasted almonds and white wine
A very substantial dish and we were really very full already. Not overly complicated, just chunks of slow-cooked lamb braised to supreme tenderness; pieces with more fat were inevitably more dissolving but leaner lumps weren’t gristly either. White wine and almonds were more fruity than the usual stew, but the minor hitch is garlic, which were marginally burnt and gave off a faint hint of bitterness towards the end.

The Group is slowly taking up the entire Old Brompton Road, Capote Y Toros for ham and cheese, Cambio de Tercio for more complex courses, and Tendido Cero for a strictly tapas menu, hence the waiters constant dashing across the road to fetch wines and whatnots. I love the concept and the apparent specialism of each joint; standard of cooking is consistently high, a touch of modernisation to keep things interesting even for conventional recipes. Plus friendly staff, bubbly ambience, and a thick wine list, I cant fault this place.

I think Tendido Cero has just topped my chart for favourite Tapas in London.

174 Old Brompton Road
Tel: 0207 373 2359

Tendido Cero on Urbanspoon

You may also like: ZuccaPolpoCambio de Tercio

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Superb Supper at Zucca

When they say it’s near London Bridge, they mean remotely near. It was a good 15-min walk.

We booked 3 weeks in advance but still only managed to secure a table at 6:30, the early dinner slot. Décor was minimalistic and white dominated, brightened up with vivid orange tumblers and small purple flowers. Tastefully clean. As we studied the menu and waited for the others to arrive, wafts of gorgeous smelling food were floating from the open kitchen. To refrain from drooling onto the menu, we were offered some zucca fritti to munch on while we waited.

Bread Platter & Tortilla
Bread, especially the foccacia, earned several approving nods from our pastry chef, Miss Betty. Mixed reviews for the tortilla though (me vs others), partly because I’d like more seasoning, mainly because I don’t like cold eggs. But I'm generally easy on freebies.

Zucca Fritti
This was simply beautiful. Ripen pumpkin strips were naturally sweet and tender, enveloped in the lightest, crispiest and greaseless batter, then minimally sprinkled with salt.  It was so effortlessly good, as if any other ways of cooking pumpkin were silly. We went for seconds.

Venison, beetroot & balsamic
Seeing there were only two slices, I didn’t really taste it properly. Mister said the meat was soft in texture and packed with flavours; pairing with beetroot was a safe bet and balsamic went unnoticed.

Smoked Eel Bruschetta
This sounded like a viable combination, except something didn’t click. While the cubes of eel were super smoky, full of bounce and juice, the bruschetta was a little too harsh in texture. Perhaps the splash of olive oil didn’t infiltrate through to soften the bread; otherwise it would have been great.

Carpaccio of Sea Bass
The raw slices of fish were palm-size and generously drizzled with olive oil to moisten the gentle fish. Though the bits of pepper did well to liven things up, the truffle oil version I had back in Sakaegawa was just too strong to be overtaken.

White polenta & Brown Crab
This turned out surprisingly well. Polenta was creamy in texture but feather-light on stomach; it helped to draw out the richness and distinctive sweetness of the crab roe. The combination was smooth, runny and totally satisfying. I ended up scooping every bit of the dish with the leftover bruschetta.

We started on a high.

Pappardelle with Hare Ragu & Sorrel
Then things dampened with the pasta. No doubt about the actual pasta itself, al-dente and eggy. What I didn’t fall in love with was the sauce, or the lack of. Pieces of hare were half-shredded and hidden under the pile of pappardelle like half-chewed meat; it was desiccated as if the poor animal was hung on the tree for a good few years before it hit the pan. The dish was separated and felt pretty dead. 

Orecchiette, slow cooked broccoli & salted ricotta
(At first I thought Cynthia took a bad picture, then I remembered it really didn't look good)

First impression wasn’t great; dry pasta with bits of dark green and scanty sprinkle of cheese. It tasted exactly as it looked; dry and dull. I wasn’t sure where the flavours were meant to be coming from, withered greens or salted cheese? Maybe it was supposed to follow the lightness of the menu? Then again, I shouldn’t have held my breath over broccoli and cheese pasta.

Roast Halibut, yellow beans, watercress & Almonds
Halibut being one of my favourites, doesn’t do as well roasted because it loses its silky texture as water evaporates from the fish. I think this was just slightly overcooked in the way that I prefer mine slightly undercooked. The almond puree atop worked well though, like an elegant version of satay.

Veal Chop with Spinach & lemon
And we have a winner - this chunk of meat was the saving grace for the mains at Zucca. The veal was just so soft and springy it felt like cutting into a sponge, where the meat juice slowly trickled from the meat and soaked up by the bed of spinach. I don’t remember having a more succulent chop anywhere else.

Pistachio Cake, Almond Tart with Figs & Pannacotta
There wasn’t a dessert menu for us to mull over, instead the waitress recited a long list of items at 265mph in her Italian accent. Err… I think we went for whatever words we could catch, which were inevitable the ones with most syllables.

The generous slice of pistachio cake went down well, especially with a bit of moisture from the cream served on the side. I only wish they wouldn’t glaze the top with the lemon syrup that neutralised the pistachio aroma. This is why I preferred the almond tart (despite having to pick out the figs); the crust was buttery and crumbly. The wobbly pannacotta earned the same sighs of pleasure as we lost ourselves in its ultimate creaminess.

We pretty much covered 70% of the menu; minus the pasta dishes, it was a fabulous meal for the five of us. Lots of wow factors for the antipasti, small plates with big thoughts. As the trend has it, Zucca is not a typical Italian restaurant; heavy cream was kept to the minimum and little emphasis on the traditional recipes. Judging from the waiting crowd at the entrance, the enthusiasm for Zucca is wide spread.

184 Bermondsey Street
Tel: 0207 378 6809

Zucca on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Ristorante Semplice, Bocca di Lupo, Polpo