Thursday, 28 June 2012

Taste of London 2012

Taste of London gets the most famous chefs in London together to show off their culinary skills; the tapas-size dishes are sold at tapas prices, so hungry Londoners can sample more restaurants in one go.

I didn't go last year; the list of participating restaurants weren't appealing. This year, however, was much better with the addition of new restaurants that opened in 2011. With a plan in hand, I set out to find what's missing on my Eat List.

The Hinds Head - Braised ox cheeks with smoked mash and oxtail sauce
Braised ox cheeks were everywhere! I know, I know, braised meats are easy to manage in a limited kitchen, and these cheap cuts are ideal for food festivals. But it was a shame because Le Gavroche and Pollen Street Social were also serving braised ox cheeks and in the end it was Heston that won my crowns.

The Hinds Head was cheating though; strictly speaking it's in Bray, which isn't really a Taste of London... but if he wasn't going to bring Dinner by Heston out to Regents Park, then I guess we'd make do with the less fussed about gastropub.

It was a well-cooked dish; the cartilage wedged between the leaner shreds of meat was dissolving, and every bit of the cheeks soaked up the sauce. The oxtail sauce was beautifully rich in bovine flavours, slightly glutinous, with the faintest undertone of red wine. It was good, but not enough to prompt a booking.

Corner Room - Iberico pork with shell fish bread pudding and carrots
Nuno Mendes was juggling between explaining his version of Acorda de bacalhau (the cod porridge I had at Corner Room), taking photos with his fans and taking orders from a curious crowd. All with a modest smile.

I had to pull myself from the temptation of the cod porridge and went for his Icon dish instead. And damn this was so good it redefines the definition of good. The pork was cooked like steaks, just quickly seared on the outside to lock the juices in; the mini invisible sacs of pork juice packed between the tender muscles bursted with every chew, unlocking the distinctive aroma of Iberico pork. The flavours were bold and powerful.

The bread pudding wasn't overshadowed by the brilliant meat; softened by absorbing the shellfish bisque, but gently burnt for some crunch... I want need more!

The Savoy Grill Chargrilled dry-aged Lake District farmer's sirloin, Cafe de Paris
This was impossible to resist; the stall was sending out waves of gorgeous smelling smoke. Excuse the photo, the sirloin was actually sitting atop a bed of creamy mash, not pitta bread.

I don't like sirloin but I fell in love with this little dish. The ruby beef was oozing with concentrated steak essence, with a gentle kick from the slightly citrusy sauce. It was a super sexy piece of meat. Easily a tie with the Iberico pork from Corner Room. 

Coq d'Argent - Slow-roast lamb with summer ratatouille and pomme Parisienne
Then we came to the worst dish of the evening. It looks like the leftovers from a lamb stock, and it tasted exactly like it. Story was the Icon dish from Launceston Place takes 8 minutes to prepare, and so we fell into this trap.

Nothing much to add really; bland, tasteless, bland, bland tasteless...

Launceston Place Salmon scotch egg with caviar
Given how much I enjoyed my lunch at Launceston Place, I held high hopes for this, which was why I splashed a whole stack of 20 crowns (£10) on this scotch egg.

I could see the skills in this dish, and a runny yolk always gets me excited. That said I wasn't bowled over by it. The salmon was bouncy but dense; it resembled the deep-fried prawn cakes in Thai restaurants. It didn't taste like salmon, and any hint of the fish was killed by the lemon juice in the dill & creme fraiche. The lump of caviar went down unnoticed too. Should have spent the crowns on something else...

There were a lot more dishes I wanted to try: Gauthier's crunchy rocher of foie gras with port reduction and toasted nuts; Club Gascon's baby squid with golden tapioca and bisque; Opera Tavern's Iberico pork and foie gras burger with truffle pecorino... but I could only eat so much, and the ingredients were getting repetitive.

Still a great event though, I also spent lots of time in Lindt's stand, trying their wasabi-flavoured dark chocolate (odd) and freshly made white chocolate pralines with caramelised almonds. Not to mention endless sampling of wines, truffle-products, whiskeys, olive oils, artisan breads, international delicacies...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Capote y Toros - Round 3

I had been procrastinating this post, not because the meal wasn’t wonderful, just that evening was so insulting I had been trying to erase it from my memory. But that’s not really fair to the tapas I was fed here.

So Capote y Toros, the third of the Cambio de Tercio series. And it just gets better, and smaller. Less than 10 tables and a few seats at the bar, we were snuggled between some Spanish ex-pats against the backdrop of live Spanish folk music.

Believe it or not, I've never had sherry. Isn't it more perceived as a drink for folks in their late-50s? Nonetheless I do as I was recommended - we ditched our selected few favourite Spanish reds and trusted the highly recommended pairing of sherries and jamon. We had a glass of Isabela and Iberia cream each...
And I definitely don’t like sherry. The scent reminded me of Chinese medicinal alcohol, ones that ‘therapists’ apply externally to massage off bruises and muscle pains. I absolutely adore that smell, memories of my Grandpa flooded back... but not for drinking! The first drop met my lips was dry and pungent, whiskey-type pungent, then it was overcame by a sudden gush of strong syrup, which came and went to leave a long trail of brandy fragrance. Just not my kind of thing.

Paletilla Iberico Ham (front leg)
Thought we'd be adventurous and try something other than the usual 5J Pata Negra ham, acorn fed Iberico. And boy I should have stayed on familiar grounds.

These were much leaner and so tougher in texture; they also lack the distinctive nuttiness that comes from the streak of lard. The delicate flavours were shadowed by its saltiness, but a sip of sherry does all kinds of wonders to the flavours; it toned down the heady salt and amplified the subtle meaty flavours, adding sophistication and roundness.

Carpaccio of Duck Liver, Pedro Ximenez Reduction
This was ingenious; it’s a savoury ice cream. The thin slices literally melted the second they hit the tongue, then wait for it... within seconds the essence and ultimate richness of duck liver diffuse and spread around all senses, so much so each exhaled breath was accentuated with the thick aroma. The reduction of PX brought the sweet element to lighten the finish; making this a deconstructed version of the classic foie gras with plum port sauce. 

Salmon Tartar with alioli of Padron Peppers
Diced salmon mixed with spring onions was rich with oils, bouncy and crunchy in texture, but relatively mild in flavours considering salmon is supposed to be a strong fish. The little balls of ikura on the side made up for the flavours with powerful pops of fishy oils, my all-time favourite. Without the salmon caviar, however, this was somewhat forgettable.

Roasted Codfish in Sobrasada Chorizo crust courgettes carpaccio

This was well-cooked, the fish collapsed and crumbled into small flakes with minimum pressing from the spoon, but something wasn't quite right about it. The cod was soft to the point of mushiness; it had lost its smoothness and simply reduced to mushy and almost grainy textures. It wasn't disastrous, just not the roast fish I was expecting. The sauce was beautiful, sharp with an undertone was natural tomato sweetness, perfect for the summer.

Loin of Venison, baked pear, PX Sauce

Undoubtedly the weakest of the evening. First of all it was visually boring, four thin strips of brown meat bathing in meat jus. And then they were overcooked too, to the point they resembled liver or overcooked duck breast, coarse and chewy.

Iberico Pork Cheeks cooked "al oloroso dulce" potato cream

Slow-cooked cheeks are great, they have the meaty flavours locked inside leaner muscles, as well as the wobbly, glutinous cartilage that gives the liquifying tenderness. These were exactly how cheeks should be done, just to the point before the muscles disintegrate into shreds.

And the potato cream was aptly named, slightly thicker than soup, but too runny to be mash, delish.

As usual for the Cambio de Tercio Group, there was little doubt about the quality of food and innovations in recipes. And with creativity comes risk, so not everything was suited for everyone’s taste. For me, I have to come back, purely because I don’t know where to find another duck liver carpaccio. But on my next visit, I’ll learn to stick to the Spanish reds, the usual 5J bellota jamon and skip the venison. And if, just if, they could slip the baby eels from Tendido Cero across the road...

157 Old Brompton Old
Tel: 0207 373 0567

Capote Y Toros on Urbanspoon
You may also like: JoseCevicheIberica, CW

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Yashin - Sushi Gems

Last week was tough; physical pain, lack of sleep, emotional torture, overwhelming sense of insecurity, over-spending, PowerShot died, Tsonga losing to Djokovic... in short, my fuse jumped. I'm starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel, however, and to cheer myself on, it's Yashin time.

This cosy sushi bar on High Street Ken oozes elegance; black rabbit lamps against white walls and shiny green tiles with neon lights that spells Yashin's belief "Without soy sauce". I guess the owner cringe the same way I do when he saw people drown everything in soy sauce. The style and elegance come with a hefty pricetag though, which is why I came for the more wallet-friendly lunch. All served with miso soup and house salad.

Six itamae working at the sushi counter. Six. All diligently plating up dish after dish of immaculate sushi gems. I tried, I really did try resisting the appetisers. But they looked so good...

Kaki Su fresh maldon wild oysters with spicy tosazu jelly
These had a remarkably clean taste to them. Each time the crisp sac lets out the heavy flavours of  creamy minerals, the jelly and sauce would leap in to neutralise the powerful gush and tame the zinc in. The droplets of chilli oil were mild and added a louder finishing touch to the slurp. Graceful.

Parrot fish with Spicy Yuzu
Parrot fish has a slightly tougher skin with firm flesh, but unlike the meek flavours of bream and bass, this was succulent with lots of sweetness locked in. The yuzu sauce was gentle, not spicy, more like a underlying heat that came afterwards. Again, balance.

Omakase Eight
If Shiori was presenting sushi fine art, Yashin definitely exhibits impressionism. 

The salmon with deep-fried sushi rice stood out; the crunchy case was slowly softened by the ponzu jelly, and the crisp was a nice change - maybe the rice crispies in sushi idea wasn't so odd. Seared toro with bonito flakes, as expected, dissolved in mouth with trails of fish oils. There's so much pleasure in having this in my mouth...
Needless to say, the sushi rice was prepared to meticulous perfection; each grain of rice with the most gentle hint of vinegar, shaped firmly with on-the-dot pressure, but maintaining the rounded textures that was almost gentle on tongue.

The others were tuna with mustard dressing, seared yellowtail with sundried tomato, sea bass with strawberry, trout with marinated carrots, grouper with chopped tomato. Each piece was brimming with finesse. Tuna roll with cucumber and rocket was inevitably less exciting, and I thought the salmon roll (with lunch set) was creamier.

Salmon Sushi Lunch - 5 pieces of salmon nigiri and spicy salmon roll
This set lunch is a budget version of the omakase; bonito, sundried tomato paste, mustard dressing, chopped garlic and ponzu jelly, just all on salmon. The beautiful streaks of fat aside, it was mesmerising how the fish melted onto the sushi rice; as if it was salmon sashimi was meshed into paste to mingle with each grain of rice, and melted into the most harmonious mouthful of oceanic bliss.

Each piece was distinctively different. My favourite was the sundried tomato paste, its subtle smokiness slowly pushed through from the salmon and slowly transpired onto the rice. Absolutely gorgeous.

I was hoping for some flamed seared ones too, but not this time.

The dedication and persistence at Yashin are incredible. The angle at which the itamae blow-torch the sushi differs for every kind of fish, and so does the slicing pattern and the depth of each score. And all these efforts were so evident, I could taste it. I could taste the perfect intricate balance, and how one tiny piece of accompaniment on the fish played a huge part in the balance. 

I've had sushi, plenty of it. Just nothing like this. Yashin takes sushi to a whole new level.

1A Argyll Road
W8 7DB
Tel: 0207 938 1536

You may also like: ShioriAtari-yaYoshino

Yashin Sushi Bar on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, 7 June 2012

Roganic - A Precise Perfectionist

Roganic is a 2-year pop-up restaurant; I think it's going into its second year now. The time limit is quite a clever idea, it kind of urged me to prioritise it on my eat list. I can almost see Simon Rogan opening something permanent in London with Ben Spalding heading the Kitchen straight after the lease finishes in Marylebone, yet I still placed Roganic above The Ledbury or Rhodes.

At 7:30 we were the second table to arrive at this cosy dining room. Perhaps owing to its temporary nature, there wasn't much decor, I felt a bit like sitting in a mini greenhouse at the back of the restaurant. But comfortable, made even more at ease by the John Travolta lookalike (I think it's the chin dimple...). Before hitting the menu, we were presented with some teasers.

Beetroot crisp with goat cheese cream

Smoked pork & eel
As the waitress lifted the lid, a whiff of smoke escaped from the pot and it smelt delicious, like fresh burning hay in the countryside. And that was only 20% of the smokiness, because the rest was locked in the little balls of juice.

By 8:30 it was a full house. There are 4 menu options: meat or no meat, 6 or 10 courses. We opted for 6 courses (£55) because £80 felt a bit too pricey for a weekday dinner. Oh the bread, baked in-house, was addictive, especially the mildly cheesy one with onion powder on top.

Carrot with ham fat, wild basil and pickled celery
The carrot mousse was foam closest to its solid form, and each spoonful transformed into smooth soup, with its subtle sweetness brought out by the crispy confetti of ham. Simply tasty.

Mushroom broth with buffalo curds, salsify and winter mint
The first thing that came to mind as 'John Travolta' poured the broth onto my plate was Shitake mushroom. It was almost like a mushroom stock, strong but probably a little flat and one-dimensional. It was bordering on boring half way through. Buffulo curd was more like steamed egg white, little flavour but silky smooth and it balanced out the concentrated flavours of the mushroom soup.

If I had to choose my least favourite course, this might have to be it.

Sea scallop, oyster, seaweed and watercress
We have had many high-quality, perfectly cooked scallops, but this was different. Still plump and meaty, the scallop wasn't as creamy as usual, but the flavours were much more powerful. If you have had those Japanese dried roasted scallop snacks, It tasted like a well re-hydrated version. Just wished it had more than one scallop on the plate.

The best bit was undoubtedly the oyster mayo that the scallop was resting on. The minerals were pronounced and intense, as if it had taken half a dozen of oyster to make that one splotch. I loved it.

Lemon sole with smoked marrow, roasted bone sauce and nasturtium
Frankly the fish was a bit of a side show, perhaps a bit drier than I'd like, maybe leaning on the overcooked side, but nothing mattered. Because the smoked marrow stole the dish. Unlike the usual oil-drenched bone marrow, this was much cleaner, like a glossy cube of smoky jelly, on the brink of liquid form. And the warmth my tongue turned it into runny bovine goodness, leaving a trail greasy fragrance. Godsend.

Herdwick lamb flank, sweetbread, chard and velvet caps
Just as I thought things couldn't get any better... this reminded me of the suckling pig dish i had at Le Dauphin, in fact they looked quite similar.

The lamb was to die for. It had the soft, baby textures of suckling pig, but thanks to the beautiful layer of fat under the crispy skin, it was packed with that distinctive weaning, milky lamb tang. It was the perfect combination of bold strong flavours with delicate tenderness. The two small lumps of sweetbread were surprisingly mild by comparison, and denser in touch, the contrast was enjoyable.

Rhubarb and measdowsweet, cream cake and sweet cicely
I like rhubarb in desserts, and this was no exception. This was so carefully constructed, the sorbet was more fragrant, less sweet; the tenderised rhubarb strips were more sweet, less texture, the baked custard was more smoothness, less aroma. Each component was lending something to the next to hold the piece together. 

I don't know if the dehydrated sponge cake was interesting or unnecessarily odd, just good to have something different I guess. 

Douglas Fir Milkshake with brioche doughnut
Thought we were done with six courses, but no, not yet. Just what I wanted too, something to keep this meal endless.

White Chocolate with cookie ice cream and biscuit
And yes, another little kiss good-bye. And this wasn't just a peck on the lips, this was more like I-don't-want-you-to-go-so-I-need-another-gaze-to-settle-my-craving kind of kiss.

Roganic was a perfectionist. There was so much detail in every dish. Every little accompaniment had a purpose, and was well-thought out to make sure it looked and felt part of the picture. And then every course fits in to build one complete and faultless experience. The fact service was also spot on is a bonus. Our waitress was chatty at the right times, and she knew the wines well, the French red did indeed taste of the farm. 

Just in case Simon Rogan doesn't set up a permanent space in London, I think a re-visit is a must, perhaps for the 10 courses...

19 Blandford Street
Tel: 0207486 380

You may also like: Corner RoomViajanteL'Autre Pied

Roganic on Urbanspoon

Square Meal