Sunday, 28 April 2013

Social Eating House - An Epic Trilogy

Slightly further from Pollen Street, Jason Atherton has humorously invaded the phonetically confusing Poland Street in soho for his third establishment. This 3 storey restaurant comprises of a bar on the top floor, main dining room on ground floor and a chef's table / counter in the basement. 

We arrived early so we went upstairs to the bar for a couple of cocktails. The bar had a low-ceiling, meaning very loud echos; sofas were a little too straight-backed but there were plenty of tables. My Kingergarten Cup was sweet and skittle-flavoured and James's Japanese Slipper was pleasantly green-tea-type bitter.

The dining room was casual, almost a shabby chic kind of feel to it with the wooden floor and table.

Cornish mackerel tartare, horseradish cream
This was one of the 4 jars to share, and the intention was to have some munchies while one mulls over the menu, almost like bar snacks. Adequately fishy with gentle acidity - perfect to get the stomach juices running.

Duck 'smoked ham, egg and chips'
This was incredible. The chips were eaten like 'soldiers' by dipping into the yolk, and the surprise came when we broke into the egg to find its crumbly case infused with truffle oil. The wafer thin smoked duck breast was insanely delicious. the generous rind of fat melted away on tongue, releasing its nuttiness; the lean breast meat was ultra smokey with concentrated flavours. This seemingly simple ensemble was packed with different textures that slowly unravelled; strong truffle fragrance and smokey aroma worked beautifully together. Loved it.

Smoked black angus tartare, radishes, horseradish, mustard leaf
A new take on the classic dish, almost a deconstructed version of tartare. Needless to say it was super fresh. The beef was roughly chopped to retain its bounce, with no trace of tendon to give it the most delicate textures. The gentle acidity from pickled radish was complementary rather than intrusive, together with blobs of creamy mustard and pungent leaves, it was a zingy and zesty tartare.

Lamb neck fillet, sheep's ricotta potato, monk's beard, garlic and parsley
The lamb neck was tender and packed with lamb juice; perhaps a little mundane on the leaner parts, but smear it with the ricotta mash the entire hunk of meat sprung to life. The mash stole the show. The consistency of the mash was close to a thick bechamel sauce with a healthy dose of crispy garlic shavings. It could have been the garlic, the tanginess of the cheese or the overall creamy richness, whatever it was it was addictively tasty. 

Flamed cote de porc, beetroot, white polenta, spring onion, savory
I thought the pork chop at Little Social was beautifully done so I went with pork again here. Another inch-thick chop but this time the rind of lard was much thinner and hence a lighter touch to the dish in general. The sweet beetroot added a gentle crunch to the perfectly cooked pork, and the sweetness brought out the piggy flavours of the meat. I think I preferred the one at LS, purely because I like fatty meats. This was still one delicious chop.

Szechuan and sea salt baked pineapple, lime and coconut
We shared a this salt and pepper dessert. It sounded strange when I first read it, then come to think of it, didn't by grandma used to submerge fresh pineapples in salty water to stop it from oxidising? And some used to soak watermelon in salt to make it sweeter (?!)  This was interesting, I can't say it was easy on the taste buds and it did take a couple of spoonfuls to get used to the mixture of sweetness from the ice cream, fruity citrusness from the pineapple sheets, heat from the peppers, all bundled together with savoury salt. But I liked it, refreshing and adventurously different.

There is one criticism though: timing. I felt somewhat rushed throughout my meal. Within 30 seconds of being seated and introduced to the day's specials, we were asked if we wanted to order any 'jars to share' while we choose from the menu. I had to take a quick read of the options and went for the mackerel tartare. Another minute later we were asked if we wanted to order wine. Erm... I do but I would like to make that decision after I know what I'd be ordering first... then the bread came and my glass of wine came and they asked again if James decided what wine he wanted... It must have been a good 10mins of constant interruptions before I got to read the menu.

The mackerel tartare jar arrived 2 minutes before our starters, so much for a nibble while we make up our minds. A bit more time between our courses would have been good, I wouldn't have felt so rushed. Not exactly deal breakers but I felt strong enough to comment on it.

I'd say the Social Eating House goes somewhere between Pollen Street Social and Little Social. It offers a tad more than Little S and not as refined as PSS. I thoroughly enjoyed my evening here, from my sweet cocktail to my semi-savoury pineapple dessert. As expected, food was meticulously prepared and, especially the starters had an element of wow and twist without being pretentious. 

I am already planning my next visit; I saw the mushroom on toast being served in a plastic bag and that seemingly out of place mac and cheese also got my attention, but surely I should also give their steaks a go....

58 Poland Street
Tel: 0207 993 3251

Monday, 22 April 2013

Needoo vs Tayyabs

All true Londoners who eat out know about Tayyabs - fact. Grilled lamb chops at Tayyabs are freaking awesome - fact. So when I was told there's a place called Needoo that does it better, I almost laughed at the naivety. Well, turns out Needoo is all over Chowhound and I have completely missed out on the trend.

It was only fair I gave Needoo a go. Afterall I could always just pop over to Tayyabs if it goes wrong since they're only 50m from each other. The restaurant setup is more or less the same, colourful paper mats with their name plastered across it, jug of water and the salad, even the wobbly wooden table... all very familiar, except we were seated under an odd blue light in the middle of the dining room, so I probably looked blue and ill throughout dinner.

For the purpose of good comparison, we ordered more or less the same things I'd usually go for at Tayyabs. 

MIxed Grill
The usual for two: 4x lamb chops, 4x lamb seekh and 4x chicken breast cubes.

On my first bite of the chop, I thought the rumours were right: these are better - an equally impressive rub of spice with the subtle lamb tang that came with the fat, and the meat was more tender too. By the time I got the end of my first chop, though, I wasn't so sure anymore. I think the marinade was probably slightly too heavy handed and it got a little too salty I had to reach for my water. Come to think of it, the cut could be thicker with more meat too... The platter here was generally hotter, with a stronger dose of spice.

Daighi Slow Cooked Dry Meat
The sauce, or more like paste, was built up starting with a masala paste, followed by layers of cardamom, coriander seeds, herbs of fenugreek and rounded off with chilli powder and mace powder (by the way this all came from Jai - I'd have to be possessed to come up with ingredients I had never heard of). The marinated meat was then cooked in paste and stock, until the gravy reduces to an almost dry paste, hence the name of the dish.

I think the dry meat curry here beats Tayyabs. There were more layers of flavours - it started off with sweetness, then the heat began to seep through as the green chillies hits the taste buds. There was more sauce for the naan to mop up and the lamb cubes were almost shredded to soak up more flavours and marinade.  This was brilliant.

Palak Chicken
This was hotter than I expected, I thought dishes with spinach would be somewhat milder. Silly me. Again the meats were succulent, flavourful and super well-cooked; the curry was deep and intense with a sharp kick from herbs.

Garlic & Chilli Naan
Personally I prefer the naan here, purely because there was more ghee and hence nuttier and more fragrant.

Because I couldn't remember what Tayyabs was like, I paid a visit the following Sunday. And it pretty much confirmed our verdict about Needoo. Tayyabs still has an edge over grilled meats, the rub was less salty but more flavourful, spices were more balanced and controlled with the heat. That said Needoo does the grilling better as the chicken cubes were more bearable. 

Dry Meat here wasn't as good as Needoo, the lamb cubes were fine if there was a lining of fat, otherwise some were a little too dry for my liking. And I definitely prefer the sweetness of the dry meat curry at Needoo.

Instead of Palak chicken, we had Karahi Keema at Tayyabs (because having an almost identical meal two sundays in a row is depressing). The tomato based paste with reined in heat was perfect.

Was Needoo better? Yes and no. Tayyabs is still firmly the king of lamb chops and there is no real competitor in sight, yet. Everything else Needoo has won me over, especially the curries. I don't know jack about authenticity when it comes to Punjabi cuisine, I could be completely wrong - it could have been a one-off at Needoo, my great mood during the evening or my awesome company that meal - but I'd pick Needoo over Tayyabs. There, I've said it.

Needoo Grill
87 New Road
E1 1HH
Tel: 0207 247 0648

Needoo Grill on Urbanspoon

83-89 Fieldgate Street
E1 1JU
Tel: 0207 247 9543

Tayyabs on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Lahore Kebab House, Dishoom

Friday, 19 April 2013

Nothing Special at Balthazar Boulangerie

The morning after dinner at Balthazar, I decided to check out its boulangerie after picking up my phone from the Genius at Apple. 

Croissant @£2
These were okay. The exterior was ultra crispy and flaky, inside moist and slightly dense for substance. But it didn't have the subtle sweetness from Ble Sucre in Paris, nor the knock-out butter fragrance of Joel Robuchon. I think it's on par with any ordinary bakery in Paris, nothing spectacular.

Madeleine - Chocolate or Lemon @75p each
These were very disappointing. I was hoping for a moist, buttery bite with a slightly crusty  shell and a crispy edge... instead these were leaning on the stale side and the butter was missing. The lemon ones weren't very lemony; chocolate ones slightly better with large chunks of chocolates but these were pretty poor madeleines. I'd still recommend St. John Bread & Wine near Spitalfields for some seriously addictive Madeleines.

Palmier @75p
These palmiers were much smaller than the usual ones from Paul. Love them, French bakeries rarely get them wrong, even the ones from M&S bakery are great, and great value too!

Onion Soup @£3.95
There were 2 soups of the day, celeriac with truffle oil and the good old French onion soup. I thought about the onion soup the night before at Balthazar Brasserie, but went for the steak tartare instead. So I bought a take-away from the bakery.

A good soup. I am not a huge fan of the acidity as I prefer natural sweetness from onions, I guess the acidity came from the garlic. But the flavours were strong, thickened as the croutons soaked up the soup with dissolved onions. 

Can't say I was too impressed overall...

4-6 Russell Street

Balthazar Boulangerie on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Paris BakeryPrinciSketch - The Parlour

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Balthazar - An American French

Keith McNally's Balthazar opened its doors in Covent Garden 2 months ago, and booking a table at the more usual dining hours haven't been easy. Thankfully they do hold a number of tables for lucky walk-in diners. So Ana checked on Flat Iron while I worked on Balthazar. 

My heart sank when I saw the crowd around the bar and the small cluster around reception. Since the Maitre'd gave me such a warm grin, I decided to put on my best smile and told him I was being hopeful for a table for 2. "I like hopefuls so I'll seat you right away. It's a small table as long as you don't mind." I like this place already.

The setting at Balthazar is not too indifferent to Zedel - brass rails, blood red leather sofa, marble tables and glowing light boxes in dark wooden pillars. That said there is a touch of elegance and class here compared to the hustle and bustle at Zedel. While I sipped on my glass of Morgon waiting for Ana, Dermot O'leary just casually breezed by and I idiotically had my eyes transfixed on him. He smiled and hey-ed and my evening got even better.

As expected the menu was classic French fare. I knew what I wanted a month ago; Ana struggled as none of the recommendations from our cute waitress appealed to her... in the end she settled for a couple of safe options.

Steak Tartare
I had been dreaming of a good steak tartare, so the only decision I had to make was whether I wanted this as a starter or main. 

The steak was very finely chopped, came prepared and mixed. The seasoning was spot on, slightly acidic but didn't drown the raw meatiness. Normally I'd prefer roughly chopped tartare with a good chew and bounce and maybe some crunch from the onions, but this was buttery smooth that was almost a soluble indulgence. Can't complain.

Escargots with garlic butter
I love snails, and there is no way pairing them with garlic butter could possibly go wrong. Somehow, just somehow, Balthazar didn't get it right. They didn't season it. At All. They looked and smelt beautiful, but the flavours were lacking.

It wasn't just us with retarded taste buds, looks like the Observer also thinks the "escargots were in need of a good dose of heart-stopping salt."

To be fair, when we pointed this out to our waitress, she raised it with the manager whom appeared very anxious and offered us an alternative. Well, we ate it already and it really wasn't that big a deal, so suggested moving onto mains. Anyhow the staff were concerned and offered to remove that off our bill, which was a nice gesture.

Lobster and black Truffle Risotto with cauliflower cream and black truffle butter
This was the bomb. Remember how I said the cauliflower risotto reminded me of cauliflower cheese at Little Social last week? Nothing like that here. The cauliflower cream took a back seat, just an undertone was subdued bitterness to rein in the truffle fragrance. Risotto was perfectly cooked with a generous dose of sweet, juicy lobster meat. The dish was creamy but not heavy, just balanced and absolutely delicious.

Moules frites
It's a tough one. The dish ticked the boxes of plump, creamy mussels and white wine aroma, but I can't say they were any better than the ones we get elsewhere (say Belgo). It was still good, just not extraordinary. Then I guess, could moules frites ever be extraordinary?

We passed dessert - nothing really shouted and Ana wanted to go to Scoop for some extra dark choc ice cream. I didn't mind, and personally I felt £7 for a creme brulee was sorely overpriced, especially when the average Michelin star restaurant is asking for £8 for some seriously complex creations. 

I think I liked Balthazar, but perhaps not entirely for the right reasons. The majority of the dishes we sampled were good, not outlandishly impressive, but good enough to leave an impression. That said the ambience, staff and Dermot O'leary made this dining experience quite a special one. I probably won't make a conscious effort to secure a booking for my next visit, and I wouldn't be too upset if I'm not granted a table. But given the location, I have a feeling I'd be back.

Just for info, Flat Iron offered us 9:45 when Ana asked at 7. This no reservation policy crap has got to stop...

4-6 Russell Street
Tel: 0203 301 1155

Monday, 8 April 2013

Big dishes at Little Social

The trend is obviously French brasserie in London. Since Zedel proved to be a big hit with its wallet-friendly classic French dishes, Balthazar from NY upped the game with a posher version and now it's Little Social, a younger, more casual sister of Pollen Street Social.

I loved PSS, so I was almost too excited to make a booking at LIttle Social. Wooden floors, a few sofa booths with brass rails with dim lights and plenty of small framed cartoons on the wall and blackboard with hand-written daily specials - it was in the middle ground of bistro and brasserie. But undoubtedly casual. The specials were mainly oysters and steaks of different cuts: bavette, sirloin or chateaubriand for 2. I was more interested in the a la carte...

Slow cooked egg, parmesan and squash soup, roasted mushrooms, croutons
It was a tough one. I was battling between the steak tartare on the specials or this, and our charming Portuguese waiter wasn't helping much by saying how great they both were. I went for this in the end, purely because I thought this could be an interesting variation of the great English Breakfast from Pollen Street Social next door.

And it did not disappoint - there was so much going on here. There were resemblance to the English Breakfast: the wobbly gooey egg, ultra crispy croutons and fragrant funghi. Having the the golden, naturally sweet squash soup as the base instead of tomato puree completely changed the flavours. Croutons  soaked up and partially softened by the sweet soup, with a hint of mushroom aroma, thickened by the custardy yolk, finished with a punch from parmesan. An absolute treat.

Cauliflower and crayfish risotto, roasted cauliflower
I never realised how dominating the flavours of cauliflower are. Despite the generous dose of crayfish, the dish very much resembled cauliflower cheese with risotto. A good cauliflower cheese nonetheless. Full marks on the varying layers of textures though, perfectly al dante chewy risotto, bouncy and tender chunks of crayfish, crunchy slices of roasted cauliflower stalk, all brought together by the smooth and creamy sauce.

Pork chop, butternut squash puree, pine nut and olive dressing, endive
I rarely choose pork chop at restaurants, except for Iberica pork executed by trusted Spanish kitchens. But if Jason Atherton is happy with it being on the menu, I'm happy to trust him.

And boy this inch-thick hunk of pig was phenomenal. The meat was oozing with meat juice, its rind of lard was grilled to a crispy edge with a slightly crunch, and most important it tasted like pork on its own. Without drowning the pork chop in thick sauce or glazing it with sticky sweet honey, the leaner muscles actually carried flavours of pork. (It may sound odd, but meat rarely tastes of meat nowadays.) The sweet butternut squash puree, the jus and endive all gave the dish more dimensions, but even without them, it was one gorgeous pork chop.

Roast Halibut 'BLT', mini Portobello mushroom
I felt the fish was slightly overcooked, given how I like mine slightly undercooked. It was still flaky and soft, but lacked the slithery silkiness I was hoping for in halibut. 

The block of bacon on top of the fillet was stunning, at least 2 thin layers of lard wedged between tender lean meat, the whole cube melted in mouth. The whole combination of braised lettuce, mushroom and chopped tomato was refreshing, if not slightly watery. The pork won - hands down.

Hot chocolate moelleaux, sea salt, and ginger ice cream
The hot chocolate fondant was ultra indulgent with the gooey centre, given a cute, unexpected twist by the sea salt. Personally I am fan of ginger, so the ice cream wasn't up my street, but the hot and the cold and sweet and the savoury all in one mouthful was brilliant.

Brown sugar tart, creme fraiche sorbet and black sesame
The brown sugar tart was more or less like a flan, not too sweet or too heavy. The crumbs mixed with black sesame and rice crispies gave off some gentle popping along with the sorbet. Everything was in perfect harmony, I was 120% full but still managed to lick the plate clean.

Little Social definitely lived up to the hype and expectation. With Jason Atherton's name to it, it couldn't possibly go wrong. It reminded me of the Corner Room by Nuno Mendes, a side project that offers casual dining after the Michelin star success from the main dining room. And they were equally brilliant. I need to go back, I'm hooked.

5 Pollen Street
Tel: 0207 870 3730