Thursday, 31 January 2013

Brasserie Zedel - A touch of Paris in London

This place earned raving reviews the moment it hits the scene, mostly because it offers great value for money: above average standard in a specular setting bang in the middle of theatre land all for a more than reasonable price. I suspect it is also because it has been months since a new 'proper' restaurant was worth the attention. You know, we have been overwhelmed by hot dogs, burgers and ramen, when was the last time we talked about a regular menu?

The venue was impressive. Through the theatre doors, I was also transported back a few decades at the cafe, with the tiled floors and a neon sign pointing me downstairs for the restaurant. The sous-sol was colossal and felt nothing like a basement. Despite the chatter and clatters, there was still an air of elegance with the marble pillars and brass rails. I was choosing between the dish of the day, panache de poissons, and the onglet steak while munching on, frankly, stale baguettes. The Maitre d' said the onglet steak really does it for her. Okay then.

Soupe a l'Oignon
The cheese-topped toasts came on the side of the soup, but I prefer them soaked and softened, thickening the soup even more.

Let's not go OTT; It was a good soup, exactly how an onion soup should be, savoury, concentrated and warming. Everyone has a slightly different definition of an authentic onion soup, I can only say I liked this one but I have had better.

Onglet Grille, Confit d'Echalote
grilled hanger steak with shallots and a red wine sauce
My last hanger steak was at 28-50, where our focus was more on the 7 wines we worked through and that was 4 months ago. Though a greasy, fatty rib-eye lover, I do sometimes forgo the soft melty mouthfeel for the sumptuous beefy flavours in leaner cuts.

And the waft of meaty fragrance hit me before the dish arrived. This long strip of meat, scored, still rare in the middle, was mouth-watering; juicy, bursting with bovine goodness and crazily tender, just a damn good piece of meat. The sauce was rich, quite heavily sweetened but worked its magic with the beautifully seasoned onglet. It's exactly what one would expect to be served in any old brasserie in the heart of Paris.

Now whether any old brasserie in the heart of Paris serves the best food is another topic for discussion. I certainly found my rarer jewels off the beaten path, but I'm not talking about an unforgettable dining experience here, it's classic, simple French fare that is ever so comforting. Like a good katsu curry for the Japs, a good beef ho-fun for the HK-ers, a good pho for the Viets, that touch of locality and authenticity that reminds you of a certain place. And yea, Zedel took me back to Paris.

I thought Zedel was ace. The food alone probably wasn't top class, it's onion soup and onglet & fries, how mind-blowing could it be? But put together the grand decor, fancy vibe and insane value for money, Zedel was pretty unbeatable. My onion soup went for £3.95, EAT demands £4.95 for its super large bowl and that's a sandwich shop for crying out loud. I found a little Paris in London.

20 Sherwood Street
Tel: 0207 734 4888

Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Shiori - Grand Return

I loved Sushi of Shiori. The once discrete sushi bar has relocated from the modest 9-seater in Euston to a slightly more spacious dining room in Bayswater. The husband-wife team replaced the takeaway counter setup with a more contemporary, minimalistic dining room of dark wood and warm lights, without losing its touch of intimacy. The new name is simply The Shiori.

A couple of months back, I found out at Sushi Tetsu that chef Takeshi was actually trained for kaiseki cuisine as opposed to sushi chef. So I was excited to see what chef will come up with now that he has a proper kitchen to flex his muscles. There are 3 menu options, £65 Hana for 8 courses; £160 Kokoro for 12 courses; £106 Hana with sake pairing. (Their website is suggesting otherwise, but I'm quite sure this was printed on the menu when I visited). I went for the Hana set.

Black beans with gold leaf
Hitomi said this was traditionally the dish eaten on the first day of the new year. The beans were unexpectedly sweet, and it was similar sweetness to red beans, delicate and subtle. It's a pretty start to the meal.

Herring roe  with Kagome Konbu
These were slices of compressed roe sandwiching shreds of seaweed. In terms of texture, it was like cartilage, sightly crunchy and brittle. But it was also like fishy popping candy, packed into discs. They released clean, delicate savouriness that was amplified with dried fish shavings. 

One of my all time favourite starter dish. Silky steamed eggs with gingko nuts, prawns and a pleasant surprise of eel cubes, exquisitely seasoned.

Sashimi assorted
A smaller version of the sashimi platter at Euston, but still beautifully presented. The salmon doesn't look very fatty, but chef must have removed all the tendons because the thick cut of fish almost dissolved on tongue, as if the fish was minced before it was put back in shape, plastering the strong salmon flavours all over. 

The lean tuna sashimi was topped with yam, a viscous, glutinous, rather tasteless paste, and it had a lingering effect, drawing out the fishiness of the raw tuna. Torched seabass was a nice change from the usual shiso combination to a gentle smoky aroma. The sweet prawn was super creamy, I thought it was great with the shiso leaf on the side. 

Thankfully the small cube of minced o-toro is still here... absolute godsend.

Grilled snow crab with Kanimiso
This was possibly the highlight of the menu for the me. Instead of a chunk of one king size crab leg, this was a bundle of 4 legs, wrapped in tofu skin, gently grilled and topped with either crab roe or seasoned seaweed.

The slightly charred skin, succulent crab juice and bouncy muscles were in perfect harmony, beautifully balanced by the savoury roe. I think Hitomi said it was a glazed passionfruit, but I thought it was more like a fig; the sweetened potato wasn't dissimilar to a large chestnut, just giving it a some substance and a rounded finish. 

Cod & winter vegetable nabe
The pot dish would have been a great idea, had the pot really been hot. It was a sub-zero evening and I would have welcomed a pot of boiling broth with winter veg. Except the soup arrived warm, and despite everything being neatly arranged, it looked pretty dead. 

It all tasted okay, but I have had much better. The fish fillets were overcooked, enoki were undercooked, tofu cubes were silken and soft but lukewarm in the centre... It was underwhelming in short.

Nigiri sushi
First round: chu-toro, yellowtail, salmon and sea bass

Second round: shrimp, scallop and squid

Final round: Eel
I thought the eel was a bit of an anti-climax, considering my £40 omakase in the old Shiori finished with a seared wagyu beef sushi, this felt somewhat second class. 

There was no doubt about quality of fish and chef's accompaniments pairing, they were magnificent, overflowing with finesse. The chu-toro and scallop in particular were eye-rollingly delicious. But for me, something wasn't right about the sushi that evening. In my very humble opinion, I thought the sushi rice was overcooked. There, I said it, please do not stone me. Each piece of sushi felt somewhat mushy because the rice had lost its bounce, there was too much moisture and the grains lost their structure, hence a mushy, squashy mouthfeel. 

I asked Hitomi for her opinion, and she simply said she preferred soft rice and there are many types of rice, and Takeshi-san was just making it the way he'd wanted it. I think that's a fair comment. 

Green tea ice cream
Green tea was much better than the chestnut ice cream I had last time. 

I shouldn't, but I couldn't help comparing the ex-Shiori omakase with this Hana kaiseki menu. The number of courses were more or less the same, but now we get less sashimi and more sushi (of inexpensive fish), and the beautiful lotus leaf parcel of eel rice became exclusive to the heftier £160 set, instead we get a half-hearted broth pot.  I'm paying 60% more. I get it, the mark up includes a new location, with comfy chairs and classy, understated decor, possibly a larger range of extravagant ingredients... It's now an up-scale, albeit intimate, Jap restaurant, not that secret find we all knew about, but nobody talked about.

I desperately wanted to fall in love with Shiori all over again, but couldn't and didn't.

Come to think of it, I sort of ruined it for myself - I had too much expectation. I was thinking too much into the kaiseki dining experience, hoping for a tray of picturesque assembly of artistic-looking fare. So when I got pretty much the same as what I had last time, or arguably less, I was disappointed. Had this been my first encounter with Shiori, I would have come out grinning. Afterall the dishes were still work of art, each course a showcase of impeccable skills and Chef tells a darn good story on a plate. 

As for sake... Hitomi will sort you out. She knows her stuff.

The Shiori
45 Moscow Road
W2 4AH
Tel: 0207 221 9790

The Shiori on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 17 January 2013

Demonic Chef at Bo London

I had Bo Innovation in Hong Kong on my eat-list for Feb, but this list is getting worryingly long so I was hoping to slim it down by trying out Alvin Leung's London version of his 2-michelin star worthy creations. Dinner was looking steep, especially when I have Shiori lined up the following day, so we opted for the wallet-friendlier lunch.

Located between Savile Row and Regent Street, Bo London screams posh; I wouldn't expect anything less from the proud self-taught chef. Like other michelin-star chefs, Alvin Leung makes frequent appearances on HK tele, but the controversy-addicted attracted chef likes to go the extra mile and have his face enlarged and printed around the place... Thankfully his London restaurant is much lower key, with mellow honey lighting and dark green walls to strike an elegant tone.

For lunch we could choose 2 dim sums each and a main course. 

Black truffle XO har gau
I don't think I have seen a smaller har gau.

Despite the size, these were brilliant; thin springy case with sweet, bouncy prawns and slight crunch from diced chive. The XO sauce gave it a small twist, but didn't overpower the truffle and natural flavours from the prawns. That said I can't say XO sauce and black truffle went particularly well together, and It could do with a bit more prawn juice.

Black truffle taro croquette
The miniature theme continues, this is about 1/3 of a normal croquette. I have a soft spot for taro croquette, and these gold leaf topped versions did not disappoint. The flimsy case was perfectly fried to delicate brittleness, and it cracked open to release strong truffle aroma and a runny filling of taro cream. Despite the pronounced truffle fragrance, flavours were quite meek and the taro could do with a touch more seasoning. Otherwise perfect.

Foie gras potsticker
I'm not sure why, but the server said they ran out of potsticker and had to replace with wor tip (or dumplings or gyoza). But.. wor tip is potsticker. Well, from an HK-er perspective anyway. And if they were different, shouldn't the restaurant have the curtesy to check if I was okay with the change before shoving it on my table? Hmm...

Anyway. The foie gras was heated to an almost-liquid state, hidden in these perfectly pan-fried dumplings. The potstickers were flavoursome, especially with a small kick from the balsamic reduction, but given the shrunken size, the skin was too thick with the relatively meagre filling. It could do with porking up slightly to get the ratio back in balance.

Chilli crab fun gor
This was our favourite of the lot. It was packed with shredded crab meat, oozing with sweet seafood juice. The heat was suppressed, it only came right at the end as an aftertone, but just enough to give it a memorable punch. Unlike traditional fun gor, it didn't have water chestnuts and nuts for bite, but didn't need it with such delicious crab meat.

Scallop peas, crispy woba, jolo
Yea I know this doesn't look much, but it's our main course. 2 scallops. Those who watch Hell's Kitchen would know Gordon Ramsay serves more scallop and risotto as a flipping starter...

The two meaty scallops were cooked to perfection, gently charred on the edges with a succulent, creamy centre. The small chucks of crispy rice gave more substance and contrasting textures, but again slightly lacking in taste. Though beautiful, it wasn't a dish that I found particularly exciting or memorable, because the assembly is so familiar. That said I usually have it as a starter rather than a main.

Quail beggar style, lotus leaf, yellow lentil
There are various versions of the story behind beggar-style cooking. The one I know of was that a beggar found a chicken and had no condiments to cook it with, so he covered it with lotus leaves and slow-roasted it under the soil, infusing all the earthy-flavours into the meat.

The quail was tender, more cooked than the typical European rareness, but still gamey. With the jus, the subtle fragrance from the lotus leaf was faint, but the bird was absolutely delicious. We did originally wanted to opt for the suckling pig, but Billy interestingly advised against it, suggesting the execution has yet to be perfected. Anyhow we were happy to have chosen quail.

After we finished our mains and ordered our desserts, the "starch" arrived. This left us completely puzzled. Unless Chef is used to serving a savoury pre-dessert as a palate cleanser, why now? After we checked with the Maitre d', it turns out the fried rice is supposed to come with the mains, it just so happens the kitchen took a little longer than expected. Okay...

The rice was textbook-perfect; each grain greased, but not greasy, subtly fragranced with olive leaves and perhaps a bit of seaweed, good mix of veggie crunch and chewy bounce from rice. An essential dish faultlessly done.

Sex on the Beach
By going for this controversial-looking dish, we donated towards a charity for AIDS. I guess that made the condom tastes sweeter...

There is no doubt about chef's originality and fearlessness with this edible used condom. I heard about his 'Sex' savoury dish in Hong Kong, which sounds even more exciting, but we only get this sweet version in London. 

Condom was made with raspberry jelly and condensed milk as the, erm, you know. If only it really tastes so sweet! We thought the best bit was the hidden lycee sorbet underneath the biscuit crumble. There was so much wow and surprises in this dessert, we loved it.

I am assuming Bo London is aiming for high-end fine-dining, with £7 for two pieces of kid-size har gau, cheapest tasting menu at £98 a pop, custom-made crockery, credit card reservation and £80 penalty for no show, it all shouts expensive. That said service wasn't quite up to the fine-dining standard, and I'm not sure if these are teething problems, or cultural differences.

After I checked into my reservation, both the receptionist and server were waiting for my coat, then the server took my coat downstairs and the receptionist turned to check another guest in, leaving me lost in the middle of the room. As I waited for Olivia, I couldn't help feeling flustered; staff were dashing around the relatively small dining room constantly, criss-crossing each other hurriedly, mustering instructions to each other, while there were only 3 occupied tables. It lacked the elegance and pace, the ability to set the ambience and mood to enjoy a dining experience.

The manager was great, very familiar with the menu, good with conversations and made some good recommendations. But he needs to slow it down, put more positive spin on the language and definitely train the greener staff on the dishes, so they don't just mutter the name of the item and run off.

It's been less than a month since Bo London opened its doors, and I guess some issues are understandable. It is, however, a shame when a potentially extraordinary meal gets charred by a collection of little things, which are all easily fixed.

Alvin Leung a Kitchen Demon? I haven't seen anything revolutionary yet. From this experience, the brand is somewhat exaggerated. I can see he created an exciting menu with some bold, innovative and expensive injections to the classics, but the outcome was far from mind-blowing, let alone 'living on the end of a bungee rope' (chef's words). Perhaps Leung is going too easy on London, maybe things need turning up a notch and fine-tuning. I have seen much more exotic items like "rice with preserved meat ice cream" on his HK menu before. Why not show us what you've got? We Londoners are well up for it.

It's still worth giving it a go, afterall the food was interesting. I guess to truly appreciate Alvin Leung's talents and see if he lives up to the 'Chinese Heston Blumenthal' title, I need to check out the well-oiled Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.

4 Mill Street
Tel: 0207 493 3886

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Patty & Bun bring out the Dirty Guns

Another burger place. I've lost track of the number of gourmet burger bars that have popped up around the city last year. I got as far as MeatMarket, then lost the curiosity and hunger for Honest Burger, Dirty Burger, Icelandic Tommi's or even LondonEater's much praised Admiral Codrington by Fred Smith. So what brought me to Patty and Bun? Selfridges. After a defeated battle with crazy post-Xmas shoppers, I needed cheering up.

No queue before half 12 today; I was one of the three diners in the little burger room. Joe bobbed around for small chats until the place was suddenly flooded with people at 1pm, and before I knew it there was a small queue outside. About 10mins wait for food after ordering and then everything came on a small tray.

'Smokey Robinson' Burger beef patty, cheese, tomato, lettuce, mounds of caramelised onions, bacon, ketchup, smokey P&B mayo, brioche
Whoa I got excited just unwrapping this fatty; greased up and shiny, dripping in juice, slopped with melted cheese, properly toasted brioche bun, inch-thick patty, with invisible 'bite me...' plastered all over it. And it was love at first bite. 

The patty was medium rare, firm in shape, loosely held with that scrumptious smooth texture; smoky, meaty and macho. The savoury melted cheese and thick-cut bacon with a slightly crispy rind were in perfect balance with the caramelise onions. The burger was a juice bomb, it left a pool of cheesy  puddle on the wrapper. Each bite came with an hmmmm, because there are no words, not even when the cheery waitress pops by to check on you. All I could manage was a series of nods and moans of ultimate satisfaction. It's okay, coz that's all everybody else could do with their greasy smirking lips and mouthful of devilish burger.

Anything this good should really have warning signs: highly addictive - devour at your own risk. 

'Winger Winger Chicken Dinner' smoked confit wings with BBQ sauce and spring onions
Confit wings? I see, the wings meat fell off the bone. Smoothered with BBQ sauce, sprinkled with spring onions, there are more to these wings than what meets the eye. They weren't deep fried, but there were crispy bits at the tips. Not sickly sweet, finger-suckingly moreish, and hey, check this, this meat actually tastes of chicken!

Chips with Rosemary Salt
Good chips with skin, not too much rosemary.

I suddenly remembered the day when I thought the Dead Hippie was gold. Shit I need to think again. Patty & Bun was in a different league. The patty was easily the best in town, so perfectly seasoned, blushingly pink and masculinely hunky. A fellow diner asked how P&B compared to my (other) favourite burger joint, Lucky Chip. Can't really compare the two, I'd say LC does more exotic and original combinations while P&B does the classics extraordinarily well. Anyhow Patty & Bun has topped my burger list in Central London.

54 James Street
Tel: 0207 487 3188

Patty and Bun on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 3 January 2013

Shoryu Champs the Ramen Scene

Thank god I came to Shoryu. The message is clear: Look no further - I found the best ramen in London.

Nested on the quieter end of Regent Street among many other Japanese eateries and JapCen, Shoryu was flooded with Japanese families on this saturday. I take the crowd of 'local foreigners' a good sign of authenticity. Its popularity also means a small queue and sharing tables during busy hours, and that is hardly uncommon for a ramen bar.

Hakata Tonkotsu
tonkotsu pork broth, bbq pork, nitamago, kikurage, red ginger, nori, seasoned bean sprouts, spring onion, sesame
I opted for the signatory tonkotsu, specially created by the Kyushu-born and raised chef. The bowl of ramen was almost double the size of one at Bone Daddies, steaming hot too with plenty of broth. And the meaty fragrance got my mouth watering.

This was easily the best tonkotsu; soup was creamy but not cloggy, velvety smooth and oozing with pork bone richness, bursting with flavours. The essence of broth lingered long after the noodles and it was simply delicious. The noodles were equally well-made, thin enough to hold soup but carried some chew for that perfect mouthfeel. 

One whole seasoned gooey-yolk egg with two slices of pork, which thankfully were not just lumps of lard, but substantial slices of tender muscles. If I had to pick out one thing I didn't like, perhaps there were a tad too much beansprouts? Does that even qualify as a negative?

Karata Tan Tan Tonkotsu
tonkotsu pork broth, pan-fried minced pork marinated with white miso, nitamago, kikurage, red ginger, nori, lemon, garlic chiu chow chilli oil, seasoned bean sprouts, spring onion, sesame
This was a spicy tonkotsu, and boy it was freaking hot as the soup was infused with the infamous chiu chow chilli oil. The heat somewhat toned down the powerful flavours of the creamy soup, but I guess the spices lifted the richness too. For me, it was too much; I ended up drinking too much water and hence had a stomach full of liquids.

I prefer slices of roast pork more than mince too; the mince tends to disappear into the soup! That said the pile of pork mince was generous, especially compared to Koya, and deliciously sweetened by miso paste.

Gyoza Dumplings
pan-fried pork & vegetable dumplings served with dipping sauce
I wanted soft shell crab tatsuta age, but it was a "coming soon" item. These were alright, much better than the pathetic flimsy 5-in-1 gyoza at Tonkotsu, but I prefer the Chinese ones with more stuffing of meat and veg plus a crispy shell at the bottom. These were still meagre by my standards.

Put all the tonkotsu ramen I have had in the past 3 months in London, Shoryu came top, hands down. The soup base had the texture and flavours of pork bone broth that had been cooking for hours, there was enough boiling hot soup in the bowl, the noodles were perfectly cooked, toppings were in the right ratio. What I had may not have the "trendy-factor", like cock scratchings, but the variations from the Hakata tonkotsu is extensive on the menu, I'll find out how the wasabi tonkotsu goes on my next visit!

Shoryu Ramen
9 Regent Street
No Bookings

Shoryu on Urbanspoon
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