Friday, 29 March 2013

Zoilo - Argentinian Sophistication

 I was tasked to find an easy-going restaurant with decent food (by my standard), casual setting and good drinks (by Denice's standard) to hangout for a good few hours on the Friday evening near Bond Street. Anything came to mind? I thought about 28-50 but it's hardly a cocktail hotspot. Then I remembered being informed of Zoilo back in Nov, the second creation of Diego Jacquet.

The vibe was incredible in Zoilo; there was a trendy buzz in the air with the media business bunch in their smart shirt and jeans, and the bar staff churning out one cocktail after another without losing their cool. We chose to sit at the bar on ground floor. There were also open kitchen bar seats and some tables in the basement. The menu is more or less tapas style.

Queso de chancho - braised pig head & quince
I remember having something similar at Bread Street Kitchen. These were beautifully done; shreds of  tender meat intertwined with small lumps of squidgy cartilage, encased in a crispy shell with minimum grease. Seasoning was spot on, but the sweet dip helped gelling it all together. Great nibble with drinks.

Prawns "al ajo", pork belly & chorizo
This looks like a mini Argentinian surf 'n' turf. The prawns were probably killed by garlic overdose before grilling, and these were beautiful for garlic lovers like myself. The slab of pork belly was just right, a strip of fat sandwiched between succulent lean pork; the texture was a mix of crunchy and bouncy, and it soaked up the heat from the chorizo oil. Nice.

Grilled Octopus, potato salad & tuna mayo
Not the prettiest dish, and I have already written about my view on grilled lemons. I stand by it.

That aside, the sausage-looking squid was delicious, full of bounce and oozing with chargrill smokiness. I just wish there was more of it; he freaking useless lemon took up most of the space on the dish! The potato salad and tuna mayo was dressed with a refreshing citrusy sauce, with a subtle kick from the paprika. The recipe felt quite exotic, but there wasn't much connection between the squid and salad - not sure if the two went together.

"Asado" Flank steak, celeriac & bone marrow
There were 3 cuts of beef from the menu, and I was obviously drawn to the bone marrow.

Argentinian steak is known for its intense flavours, and this lean flank steak was packed with it. Just gently seared on the outside to seal the concentrated beef juice. It was stunning; endless release of bovine flavours, further exaggerated by the thick, rich bone marrow sauce. Ah the sauce was divine, infused with beefy buttery fragrance. I could have devoured another one.

Potato & artichoke gratin
I thought it was a tad overseasoned, especially with the melted cheese on top. But the artichoke gave some chomp to the grainy potato slices, taking its weight off.

Milk cake & Greek yoghurt sorbet
The milk cake was dense and extremely moist, sweetened with condense milk but the mild acidity from the yoghurt-flavoured sorbet reined in the sweetness to prevent an overkill. There was complexity in this seemingly simple ensemble but everything was in perfect harmony.

Dulce de leche creme brulee & banana split ice cream
We were so skeptical about the banana split ice cream, but it was exactly like a banana split deconstructed into ice cream form - not just banana flavoured, each spoonful held the essence of the banana mixed Napoleon plus a touch of whipped cream - It was ingenious. Creme brulee was great too, eggy, smooth and a crispy sugar shell, just how it should be.

Zoilo was a pleasant surprise. I was so ignorant to think Argentinian was just old-fashioned steak. There was sophistication in Diego's recipes; it felt as though the kitchen has gone all out with their ingredients, mixing and matching to create unlikely combinations and surprises. I'd definitely come back for more, might even check out Casa Malevo to see what else Chef's got.

9 Duke Street
Tel: 0207 486 9699

Zoilo on Urbanspoon
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Saturday, 23 March 2013

Barrafina - The Tapas Bar

Barrafina is one of my usual hang-outs, especially when my office was in Soho a couple of years back, I used to "afternoon snack" here. Despite the surge of tapas bars and restaurants offering 'small plates', Barrafina is still standing strong as one of my all-time favourites.

We decided to wait in the line for dinner on a Sunday, mainly because none of us were particularly hungry. It was a gentle 45-min wait at 6:30 and the constant stream of gorgeous smelling food quickly got our appetite running...

Tuna Tartar
Cynthia's usual choice. Small cubes of deep-red tuna lightly marinated with sesame oil that disintegrated in mouth, enriched by the avocado fragrance. Delicious.

Cuttlefish with ink sauce
Cuttlefish was full of bounce, just cooked through. There was something hidden inside the curvature of the cuttlefish, a small, warm lob of jelly-like sac that exploded into squid juice. No idea what it was but damn it was good. Just as you think you've tried it all with squid / cuttlefish tapas...

Jamon and Spinach Tortilla
With tortilla like this, oozing with runny, custardy egg, I can't help but regret all the stodgy, cooked-through tortillas I had in the past. This was perfect, grainy shavings of potatoes with just-wilting spinach, naturally seasoned by cubes of jamon, wrapped in a thin shell of egg.

This was roast loin of pork on a bed of thick, creamy bechamel with strips of crispy root veg. Roast loin has never been my kind of meat, just too skinny. I prefer fat and grease. The hunk of meat was slightly dry in the middle, but the rich sauce and jus made up for it. Having been spoilt with medium cooked Iberica pork, this classic didn't quite it to my list of favourites.

Rump of Lamb
I wish they would bring back the lamb cutlets, those were simply stunning - a thin layer of fat on bone, grilled to crispy edge, cooked to medium rare and accompanied by a subtle minty dressing. This rump of lamb wasn't bad, but no where as good as the cutlets. The scarlet meat was tender and succulent, but the meaty flavours were subdued and a weak on the distinctive lamb tang because of the leanness of the meat. It was still pretty good, just not as awesome as the others.

Originally we wanted two portions of razor clams, but they sold out way too quickly. And we saw a fat mackerel landed next door - we wanted one too. 

Our mackerel must have been the Kate Moss of the ocean, there was very little fat on it.  That said it was grilled perfectly, the fish retained the little oils it had and the flesh was soft and juicy. Given the choice, I'd like a much plumper fish, but this was good enough.

On a separate note, any idea on how to photograph a whole fish without it looking as though it's been hit by radioactive rays?

Barrafina gets it. There is nothing overly complex about the food, unlike Tendido Cero that experiments with ingredients, yet they don't strip it back as much as Jose, where it's pretty much grill and season. The recipes have a twist to it, a unique touch that injects finesse to otherwise ordinary dishes. And they do it so nonchalantly, so effortlessly. Gotta say it blows Brindisa, Iberica and the Salt Yard Group out of the water...

54 Frith Street
No booking - Walk-in only

Barrafina on Urbanspoon
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Friday, 15 March 2013

Upstairs at the Ten Bells Ringing

So the Young Turks have split and Issac McHale carries on in the 'Upstairs space' at the Ten Bells, hence the name. This quickly became an open secret in East London, and general feedback has been positive. 

Ten Bells is one of the Jack-the-Ripper pubs and is forever packed with people; even on a rainy Thursday evening the pub was flooded with the hip crowd. The upstairs is much cosier, warmly lit with candles, deliberately and neatly shabby to hold onto its nostalgic touch. Sitting by the fireplace, looking out to Spitalfields, it sucked us right back to the 19th Century. 

Buttermilk Chicken & Pine Salt
Everyone said nice things about this snack, and I could easily see why. The chicken pieces were deep-fried in a thin, seasoned batter, immensely succulent and tender, perfect with the pre-dinner drinks. It became too salty by the time I had my third piece though.

Fried Squid, Roveja Peas Polenta & Winter Tomatoes

Hidden under the pretty arrangement of salad were deep fried squid tentacles, with a batter that stuck very well and not too greasy. The polenta was almost like a smooth pea mash, but not too earthy in flavours. Simple and pleasant.

Veal Tongue, Pickled Red Meat Radishes, Bread & Bone Marrow Sauce

I was half expecting thin slices of tongue but was pleasantly surprised by a thick cut of meat (again, hidden under the carefully arranged leaves) slow cooked to shredding point. That's one of the best things about tongue; because it's such a strong muscle it doesn't lose its structure after slow-cooking, there was still some bounce in the melt-in-mouth pieces. 

And the bone marrow sauce was its perfect match, rich but not greasy, powerful but not overpowering. I loved it.

Lamb Saddle, Purple Sprouting Broccoli & Green Olive Puree
Despite the dim lights, it was pretty obvious the lamb was very rare, with thick strips of fat lining the bones. 

It was way too rare for my liking, especially when there is so much fat, which became an unappetising, opaque block on my plate as the dish cools. The one small medallion of lean muscle attached was tender, but didn't carry much lamb flavours - it was simply too raw. I normally have my lamb medium or medium rare, this was border-lining uncooked.

The rest of the dish was very salty; the olive puree being the worst offender. I found myself washing each forkful with gulps of water. It was particularly disappointing as I had been looking forward to a hearty meat dish for weeks...

Roast Haunch of Venison, Red Cabbage, Spatzle & Pickled Currants
Sorry about the photo, think I'm still getting used to my camera. 

Personally I prefer much bloodier venison, but this wasn't bad, just somewhat loses the gamey flavours. The jus could have been more concentrated with flavours; the quality of meat wasn't particularly impressive. I have had better.

Chestnut Mont Blanc
Michal can't say no to chestnut; me neither. Chestnut puree wasn't overly sweetened and the whipped cream was light and airy. It rounded off a relatively heavy meal perfectly.

I might have missed something at the Ten Bells - not sure why everyone else likes it so much. The veal tongue starter was great, the bread was brilliant, but other than that, the mains were a bit sloppy, execution careless, especially with the excessive seasoning, undercooking the lamb and overdoing the venison... I have yet to come up with something brilliant in the Liverpool Street area for British food, but I doubt I'll make my way back here. 

Upstairs at the Ten Bells
84 Commercial Street
E1 6LY
Tel: 07530 492986

Upstairs at the Ten Bells on Urbanspoon

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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Singapore Indulgence

Singapore is probably seen more as a transport hub for flight stopovers or Asia financial centre than a tourist hotspot. That said with casinos popping up and the addition of a Universal Studio in Sentosa, the government has been working on changing its ‘sterile’ reputation. My original plan was Vietnam for a few days during my 2-week stay in Hong Kong, turns out Vietnam would take up more than 1 week on its own, so we opted for an easy trip to Singapore instead.

The 3-hour plus flight wouldn’t be worthwhile without staying at Marina Bay Sands. Its renowned Skypark that spans across the three buildings houses the largest outdoor infinity pool in the world. While access to the 57th floor Skypark can be purchased for c.£15 to enjoy the impressive view over the city, only hotel guests are allowed in the pool area. For £260 a night (room only), I thought it was worth the money.

The casino / shopping complex connected to the hotel was equally impressive, with shops that range from 7-11 to Cartier; eateries from foodcourt to Marcus Puck’s. Plenty of outdoor space too in the city of gardens: the promenade area offered leisurely walks along the river to take in views of the iconic skyline and more; Marina Bay Garden on the other side of the hotel to more UFO-looking constructions.
With such a good mix of cultures in Singapore, hawker centres are ideal for sampling a bit of everything. These semi-enclosed food centres and shopping mall foodcourts dominate the dining scene in Singapore. Though I have been told I need to venture as far from the city centre as possible to find authentic food, I just couldn’t be bothered, especially when it was raining almost everyday.
The first one we went to was Smith Street in Chinatown. Not as big as I expected and I was more intrigued by all the surrounding stalls selling delicacies for Chinese New Year.
£3 for 6 satay skewers. Yea these were alright, though nothing worth writing home about. The leaf-wrapped parcels were odd, they were brittle and not dissimilar to rice that were a few days old, pressed and reshaped.
Laksa weren’t bad, lots of coconut milk and plenty of heat, interestingly mixed with tiny oyster morsels... but it only had one type of noodle in it. The best was no doubt wok-fried foods, fried rice was piping hot with lots of seasoning and flavours.
The second one we went to was Lau Pa Sat near Raffles Place, a stone throw from the financial district.

This is probably the most touristy one and so there were inevitably touts pulling us towards grilled rays and chilli crab. I am prone to seafood allergies so rays are out; my folks don’t eat crab. Most dishes were below-par except for the oyster omelette, which was easily the best oyster omelette; crispy edges, packed with little oysters and runny eggs in the middle.

Despite my love for street-side eating, I wasn’t too impressed by the hawker centres in Singapore. Perhaps it was because food wasn’t freshly prepared – everything was precooked and they just mix the ingredients together in a wok upon order. And perhaps all dishes were quite heavy with grease and chillies. So for contrast, we paid a visit to Iggy’s, the World’s Best restaurant in Asia.

Snack shops around the city were great. Mr Bean, found in major MRT stations, served delicious soya milk pudding and round pancakes. Local stores selling traditional delicacies like deep fried dough were much better than HK. Our winter is Singapore's rainy days, so we spent a few hours around boat quay, where the ex-pats cluster for their happy hour.

We took breakfast like the locals, kaya toasts and kopi or milk tea with condensed milk. I LOVE kaya, a sweet spread made with egg yolk and sugar. Dad thought bread was generally more fluffy. Toasts are served with water-boiled eggs for breakfast, which were like poached eggs – brilliant stuff. Ya Kun is a reliable local chain, but even food court stuff was very decent.

Like proper tourists we bought a batch of “bbq meat” (Bakkwa) from Bee Cheng Hiang, even though they are also found in HK. The grilled pork belly is so much better than the traditional sheets of pork loin, they costs double, but the streaky belly tastes 10 times better.

I liked Singapore, it’s not as sterile as people make it out to be. But a bit like Taipei, I wasn’t mad about the food. Individually, I like Malay food, Indian grub, Indo cuisine and Chinese dishes, just not the versions offered in Singapore. Marina Bay Sands, however, is definitely worth coming back for.