Thursday, 27 December 2012

Reykjavik, Iceland

I was chasing the Northern Lights at Kiruna two years ago and saw nothing, so I decided to chase again in Iceland. Little did I know I could be so distracted by everything else this country has to offer, the Northern Lights almost became secondary.

We arrived in mid-morning at a snowless airport and buses to Reykjavik were scheduled to leave 40mins after the each arrival. Knowing this country is a stronger believer of plastic money, I only changed £100 for the two of us as petty cash. Seriously, people use credit cards at hotdog stands here. After a 40-min coach ride - we were at downtown Reykjavik. 

As usual we took the first day easy to browse around. Temperature was much milder than I expected, around 1-2 degrees, and daylight was much longer than Kiruna with a sunrise around 10:30 and sets by 3pm. We strolled down the busiest road at the old town area, Laugavegur, where the shops clustered and then headed to Hallgrimskirkja, the rocket-shaped church that could be seen from just about anywhere in the city. Come to think of it, I think it looks like a spouting geyser...

600ISK (c.£3) got us access to the top of tower with a view that overlooks the entire city, with the stunning sun setting behind the snow-capped mountains. 

After a good swirl and glide on the frozen lake Tjornin, a stroll around the rather disappointing christmas market and a late afternoon nap, I was ready for dinner. I went for a platter of Icelandic delicacies to sample a bit of everything: dried fish, whale steak, grilled Icelandic lobster, fish stew, sweet rye bread and haggis.

Fru Laugberg, seemingly local as a shopkeeper recommended it to us, did a pretty piss poor job with the food. What didn't have sauce on it was bland and knackered, what was smoothered in thick sauce was ultra-salty. But the whale steak, was interesting. I have never eaten whale before; turns out it's red meat. Unlike the fatty Japanese whale sashimi, the steak here was pure lean muscles and carried a super powerful gamey, metallic bloody taste. Hated the mushroom gravy here, but the actual meat I quite liked.

Then we hit the Golden Circle tour the following day. The Salty Tour operator was brilliant, the English-speaking driver / guide spoke throughout the entire 9-hour journey, from the Icelandic language, geography, geology to the patronymic naming system.

We made various stops: the Hverageroi greenhouse village as the sun peeks above the horizon, Kerio volcano crater where Bjork once held a floating concert, the magnificent Gulfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. Temperature dropped dramatically once we were outside Reykjavik, and together with the gushing Arctic winds, we were plunged into -15 near Gulfoss.

The evening was spent waiting for the Northern Lights. We thought we had everything on our side, a clear sky, strong neutrino activity and super strong lights from the night before. And we waited... for 6 hours we waited, in the bitter cold and face numbing wind we stood. Some pale hints as teasers we were told, but nothing to get us excited. It wasn't until we were driving our way back past midnight that the lights decided to show up:)

We snooped around for more local delicacies in town. This hot dog stand in the tiny carpark serves up some legendary hot dogs - its doesn't look much, regular supermarket looking sausage with regular looking sauce - I went for an "everything" and whoa it was a good dog.  It's the brown sauce and crispy onions that made the difference. I had seconds.

Skyr is a yoghurt-like diary product, Iceland speciality. We popped in a funky looking cafe called Laundromat for some hot choco and blueberry Skyrcake.

Then we took bus no. 11 to Seltjarnarnes, the western-most part of the city to watch the sun sink. Ended the leisurely day with a pleasant surprise at Sjavargrillid.

Blue lagoon was magical. Weather could have been better, but weather had been glorious in the last few days, so I couldn't ask for more.

The trip was rounded off with a Christmas feast at the Perlan, also known as The Pearl, perched on a small hill that overlooks the entire city. It was one of the top 5 revolving restaurants in the world and it was serving up an extraordinary buffet of extravagant fare: caviar, whale carpaccio, various herring salads, flambee deer loin, grilled venison, roast pork smoked lamb... the selection was endless. Together with festive decorations, set in Harrods-like grandeur - what a finish to the most mind-blowing holiday.

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Sjavargrillid, Reykjavik Iceland

I didn't think I was going to eat well in Iceland. Yes fresh fish is plentiful, but Icelandic cuisine is hardly world-famous. That said Texture earned its Michelin star under the leadership of a Scandinavian chef and my meal there was one of the more memorable ones back in 2010. But my first meal of dried fish and whale steak were far from promising.

Sjavargrillid was in the old city area on the corner of the street that leads to church. The young chef at the seafood grill house has put together an ambitious menu using the best ingredients the country has to offer. We opted for two different "feasts", which pretty much covered the a la carte.

Generally bread we have had in restaurants in Iceland were lighter than usual, and this was no exception, super soft and fluffy bread with mousse-like freshly churned butter. The butter was so good it reminded me of Viajante's.

Grilled Icelandic lobster & golden perch with mussel sauce
sunchoke, apple salad, small potato emulsion
Since Brother is not a fish-fan, he went for the full meat feast and this was his first course. And chef sent me an extra portion, on the house, before my soup. Thank you.

It was a beautiful dish. The 'lobster', langoustine by British definition, was charred on the outside to seal all the sweet juices and left a smokey trace on the flesh. The muscle was insanely juicy, ridiculously sweet and incredibly tender, yet full of bounce to show off its freshness. It even had a line of roe to give it its distinctive flavour. It was quite simply perfect.

Golden perch was also executed perfectly, slightly undercooked with a translucent centre. Full marks on texture.The onions and diced apple were sugary, and worked very well with the concentrated mussel sauce. This was top-notch.

Hallgrim's shellfish soup
Icelandic lobster, blue mussel, fennel, chilli
The soup was equally impressive. It had a golden glow with sprinkles of black ash and drizzles of olive oil. A skewer held another gorgeous langoustine hidden in the soup, together with a couple of blue mussels. Needless to say the mussels were massive, with plump morsels almost the size of green mussels!

The flavours were powerful, as if a bucket of shellfish were concentrated into this bowl, each spoonful was an overwhelming wave of fresh seafood. But it wasn't too heavy, the soup was frothed and whisked to give an airy lightness, lowering the density.

Even so, by the end of the soup, I was full. The portions were huge. 

Sjavargrill's Christmas platter
herring, smoked rack of lamb, salmon, apple, beetroot
This platter came next for Brother's feast. 

While the smoked salmon, herring and the apple salad were delicious, as expected, the smoked lamb was odd. Perhaps I wasn't prepared to eat the lamb so raw? The meat was diced and barely cured / smoked, while the mouthfeel was almost similar to tuna sashimi, the idea of it wasn't so appealing. But that's a culture thing.

Smoked lamb and breadcrumbs covered lamb
potato, sweet béchamel, yellow turnip, Icelandic flatbread
Thankfully this smoked lamb was much more cooked, with a pink, tender centre and a seared exterior to get the meaty essence flowing. Because it was a leaner cut, the milky lamb flavour wasn't strong, but the meat was cooked to a melt-in-mouth tenderness. 

The breaded hulk of lamb was an interesting contrast with a very crispy shell enveloping slightly fatter meat and some collagen even. The meat felt denser and also more succulent, packed with flavours. It was a very accomplished dish.

Bro didn't actually think he could eat this after the two large plates of food, but somehow, just somehow, he cleared it, all of it.

Grilled fish combo
Catch of the day from Jon the Fisherman (?!)
The plaice I had was stunning; it had the most brittle skin, yet retained its moist, silky flakes of flesh, which demanded skills for such a thin fillet. The earthiness of the fish was also toned down and replaced by a clean crispness. 

The perch was again masterfully executed. It was my second serving of golden perch, but that wasn't intentional, it just so happened I received an extra starter that was not on my fish feast menu. 

Warm chocolate cake
pear, toblerone, gingerbread, mandarin
It was hilarious when Bro discovered the white chocolate mousse was infused with cinnamon, because this gave him a legitimate reason for not eating it (neither of us like cinnamon). The chocolate cake was gooey, dense and very rich. We couldn't say no to it.

White chocolate mousse and macaroni
Dill, raspberry, rum, caramel
My dessert was made easier to stomach with the dill sorbet; it refreshed and cleansed my palate. Halfing the sugar would have made it even cleaner and alleviates the white chocolate mousse instead of adding weight to the overall composition. But still good.

Sjavargrillid was a pleasant surprise. The young chef was ambitious with his menu, careful with his execution and delivered to a high standard. The recipes were modern, with the kind of elegance we take for granted in London. There are, however, things that could have been done better. For example chef could experiment a wider range of ingredients; I think apple came up 3 times in a 4-course menu, and funnily enough, smaller portions wouldn't be a bad idea. Anyhow, best meal I had in Reykjavik.

Skolavordustig 14
101 Reykjavik
Tel: (+354) 571 1100

You may also like: Passage 53 (Paris), Kiruna (Sweden), Santa Maria (Barcelona)

Thursday, 13 December 2012

House of Wolf houses Cubs

House of Wolf took me to Islington. My very first visit and I was so impressed by the high street lined with ultra sexy-looking restaurants. I've made mental notes to check out a couple. HoW advertises itself as a multi-functional, multi-sensory experimental pleasure palace. I wasn't sure what to expect except for a special evening full of surprises. The Apothecary molecular cocktail bar definitely sounded promising, but I had to give it a miss as I was already running late for dinner.

Guest chef for November in the restaurant was Blanch & Shock, offering a tasting menu at £45 each and we opted for the matching wines by course for an extra £25. Our waitress told us all the wines were English and like all the ingredients in the menu, were all sourced from selected producers with limited supplies. Can't say I like English wines, but Mary Ann wants to give it a go, and so we all obliged.

Double Malt Bread with Hay Butter
Coriander seed water 

It doesn't matter what the piece of paper says, it was malt bread, butter and water. And tasted nothing more than malt bread, butter and water. Except it was better than usual butter.

Raw Atlantic Prawns and Trealy Farm Lardo with Mallow Oil, Salad Burnet and Hogweed Salt
Lillet Rose with prosecco 

It's a long name for two prawns under a sheet of lardo, I know. That said this dish was bold and modern. The simplistic combination of savoury cured meat fat and sweet raw prawn has brought the land and sea together.

The nuttiness from the lardo worked well with the subtlety of the prawns; both flavours were delicate, but the weight of the lardo helped to protract the sweetness. The four leaves of burnet has a crisp, cleaning effect, and everything on the dish had a small part to play. It was a promising start.

Prosecco was pleasant, it tasted very similar to Martini Asti, but pink; sweet, gentle sparkles and mellow on the palate. It's a girly drink that complemented the prawns and fizzed out the pork grease.

Wild Sea Bass, Pickled in Dill Vinegar with Sea Lettuce, Chervil Root, Celery Cress and Oxalic Leaves
Picpoul de Pinet 

When they leave such a massive space on the plate, I sometimes half-expect them to bring something else to fill it.

The three lumps of sea bass was exactly like ceviche, thicker, minus the citrus touch. The mass of leaves and cress was battling over each other with overwhelming bitterness and pungency, numbing my taste buds senseless. Not sure how the chevril root was contributing, it was like uncooked button mushroom, damply crunchy and tasteless.

As for the white wine, it could have been cold water. It was just loaded with minerality that was clashing fiercely with the salad, as if the fish was banging its head against a brick wall.

Wild Mallard Duck and Chestnuts, Hawthorn Jelly, Jerusalem Artichokes, Melilot and Scurvy Grass
Omrah Pinot Noir 

Luckily this dish was more exciting, not bigger, just more effort. Three strips of duck breast fillet was beautifully cooked to medium rareness, and some leg meat was chopped to mix with diced chestnuts.

The duck was powerful and gamey, and serving the meat on a burnt-through plank of wood gave the dish a special wintry touch with heart-warming smokiness. It was carefully assembled and absolutely gorgeous. I just wished there was more of it. All the bits and pieces didn't play much of a part, more for visual effects. The chopped duck had a bit of oriental touch to it, adding another dimension to a very compact ensemble.

The pinot noir was still leaning on the mellow side, I think I was supposed to taste autumnal flavours and complexities, the bloodiness drowned the delicacy. I think this light wine would have worked better with the ceviche above.

45 day-aged Beef from The Butchery, Salsify, Oyster Emulsion, Dandelions and Turnips in Yoghurt Whey
House Black 'n' Tan 

It's never great when they don't tell you which cut of beef you're getting. This was poor man's rib eye, chuck eye steak, the upper sections of the rib behind the neck. Despite a cheap cut, the kitchen has done a fab job of transforming it into a high-end dish. Steak was of a deep blood red with strong meaty flavours from the lean muscles, just a small lob of fat attached to keep the meat well juiced.

The oyster emulsion was also very well made, powerful minerals that worked with the the rawness of the beef.

Black 'n' Tan is a dark beer, not dissimilar to Guinness but much sweeter. I quite liked it with the steak, it brought a rustic feel to the course.

Apple from the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale with Quinces, Yoghurt Curd, Sourdough Brioche Eggy bread and Buttered Black Tea
Wolf Nog 

The de-constructed apple crumble was pleasant, though I can't say the I could taste the difference of the National Fruit Collection... 

The wolf nog, however, was quite special. It was like a thick Bailey's with a heavy punch of whiskey and milk froth that keeps the gut glowing with warmth.

It all seemed a little pretentious and perhaps trying too hard when the restaurant starts spelling out the source of every single ingredient of the dish. Having worked up such anticipation, it becomes silly when the outcome doesn't quite meet the expectation. I mean, even the best restaurants don't write "South Wales parsley leaf, hand-grind North East London black peppercorn and Waitrose essential rock salt flakes", right? To me it came across as self-doubt. If the dish was good enough and had enough of a wow-factor, then why fuss and gloss over the name of it?

And they have a note thanking the source who supplied their ingredients. Unless they got it for free, what's the rationale? I understand they only get a small quantity, but it's not like they were cooking national treasures or endangered species, it's apples and beef for crying out loud.

Perhaps my expectations were simply too high for Blanch & Shock. With the pair holding the pen for Secret Restaurant / Cinema and so much emphasis on experimental cooking, I was hoping for a much more adventurous and innovative menu. Even though a couple of courses had potential, and there was no doubt about the precision of the cooking, the menu was lacking a theme or a signatory style. It was trying to be creative, trying to add finesse, trying to be modern, and all ended up mid-way.

Aside from food, timing of courses served was also a small issue. I felt somewhat rushed. Mary Ann was still half way through her Picpoul de Pinet  when we were served dessert. Our plates were collected the moment I tucked my cutlery on the plate, and came next course in 3 minutes. Not quite wolf yet, more like Cubs,

House of Wolf

181 Upper Street
N1 1RQ 
Tel: 0207 288 1470

House of Wolf on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Bone Daddies - Rocky Ramen

I was on a ramen quest a couple of months back, and decided Tonkotsu had most to offer in town at the mo. Bone Daddies joined the Soho ramen pack last month and immediately became talk of town. I held off until I saw Mr Noodle's photo of the improved milky tonkotsu soup.

It was almost empty on a weekday early evening, just a couple of people on each long bench. Looks like they have turned down the music, just soft rock playing in the background as I was led to the stools by the window. Menu was a 1-sheeter on a clipboard; I wanted everything on that sheet.

I thought I have seen other people's tonkotsu with a dropper stuck on it? Mine didn't. Check out the egg, a whole, marinated, honey-yolk egg. The consistency of this porky broth was the thickest I had seen; it was Bailey's kind of creamy, clinging onto the noodles with each slurp. So full marks on texture.

There was something missing in the flavours though, it was lacking the richness of all the pork bone goodness I was expecting with buttery soup. I was waiting for the powerful rush of meaty essence to hit my tastebuds, but it never came, as if there was a layer of gelatine that was holding back the full impact. Perhaps the soup was made up with a larger proportion of lard to achieve the texture? Does Bone Daddies need more bones and collagen?

It was purely out of curiosity for cock scratchings that I have gone for T22, since soy-based ramen isn't my usual choice.

Cock scratchings were deep-fried chicken skin, just a small pile on top of the noodles, adding some edginess and crunch to the ramen. The chicken broth was packed with flavours. I think I tasted some bonito, or at least a bit of fish in it, and very slightly spicy too. I wish they would use the eggy noodles with this soup though, these white, thin, floury noodles weren't as good a match with soy-based broth.

Fried Chicken
Thin layer of perfectly seasoned batter with blobs of tender chicken. Can't go wrong . These would have been great in the bowl of T22. The shreds of skinless chicken in T22 are uninteresting at the moment, these would have perfected it.

For comparison's sake, I ate at Tonkotsu a couple of days after my Bone Daddies trip. And I have to admit I preferred Tonkotsu where the soup base was a concentration of all the piggy bones. That said, Denice was a slower eater and her noodles soaked up the entire bowl of soup, which was almost solidifying - most unappetising. Not to mention the dumplings and prawn katsu failing miserably by any standards; they looked like shit and tasted worse.

I can't say Bone Daddies champed the London ramen scene yet. I think I need to give it another go; even as I was doing this write-up, I'm doubting if it was at all possible that such milky, velvety soup could be lacking in flavours. And that tantanmen looks too good to miss.

30-31 Peter Street
Tel: 0207 287 8581

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

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