Sunday, 28 July 2013

Grain Store - Breath of Freshness

Bistrot Bruno Loubet is one of my favourite restaurants in London - the seemingly uncomplicated recipes effortlessly bring unfamiliar flavours together, and somehow harmonise them.

So when Bruno Loubet opened his restaurant at the Granary Square at Kings Cross, I was eager to pay a visit. The reservation system is odd. The online system seems to block out the 6:30-9 period, I am guessing they want to encourage walk-ins because it was less than half full when we arrived at 7:30 on a Sat evening. 

The restaurant is massive - a bit of country house, shabby chic in the decor. We sat outside.

Summer truffle risotto
Hmm... This is on the day's special and I totally wanted this. But Mister beat me to it and he wouldn't budge. Grrr...

The risotto was topped with thin shreds of truffle and a drizzle of truffle oil, plus a tiny sprinkle of parmesan. It smelt wonderful. Arguably not the best grade truffle, but the aromas deeply infiltrated the risotto, mingled with each grain of bouncy rice and packed each forkful with punches of nutty fragrance. In my humble opinion, I think it beats Gauthier's.

I'm sure Mister said I could have half before the dish arrived - think I ended up with 2 spoonfuls.

Butternut squash ravioli, sage & mustard apricots, pumpkin seed oils
This was recommended by our server; it wasn't even on my short list.

But I'm glad I went with his suggestion. The raviolli were filled with butternut squash, which meant the dish was predominantly sweet, then it was brought to life by the savoury parmesan, tangy balsamic and peppery rocket leaves, all rounded off with some crunch from the toasted pumpkin seeds. They complimented perfectly with each other in the right balance. Great dish.

Buttermilk & caraway braised cauliflower, wood baked onions, devilled duck heart
I was expecting the heart muscle to be quite bouncy, but these were slow-cooked to a beautiful melt-in-mouth texture. If anything it was more akin to the tip of a chicken drumstick with skin on, braised to utmost tenderness. Gorgeous.

The cauliflower was also perfectly cooked, tender but not mushy - It soaked up the buttermilk sauce like a sponge. It was more than just a side dish.

Kimchi & potato dumpling, Irish seaweed, chili oil lobster broth
I knew I wasn't going to like this the moment I saw this landed. It looked totally uninteresting, especially to an Asian.

The lobster in broth was way too subtle, just a tiny hint of shellfish after the chilli oil subsided. The dumpling skin was too think, and overcooked; it was only stuffed with kimchi and even that was quite flat. I liked the crunch, but it needed some meat or whatever else to lift the flavours. It was an oriental dish, sadly a poor one for me.

Strawberry & balsamic jam, horseradish ice cream, nasturtium leaves
Horseradish ice cream had a gentle kick and it paired well with the fiery nasturtium leaves. It was fresh and summery with the chopped strawberries.

Grain Store did it for me. I liked the emphasis it places on veg, their variety, freshness, recipes and methods of cooking made GS different to just another Modern European restaurant. The flavours were refreshing and clean, simple but creative. 

It's always a good sign when you struggle with the menu because you're spoilt for options. There were so many other items that looked intriguing, it just so happened I picked a main that didn't click with me. The good bits were promising enough for prompt a return visit though.

Granary Square
1-3 Stable Street
Tel: 0207 324 4466

Grain Store on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, 21 July 2013

Shake Shack - A Shaky Burger House

After the a phase of burger craze in London, I simply couldn't keep chasing the next 'best burger in town', so I put a line under Patty n Bun, crowned it king and stopped there. Then our friends across the pond decided to join the party... and curiosity got the better of me.

Shake Shack, the New York-born chain, made a pretty bold move by snapping up the best spot in the Covent Garden Piazza, just opposite MeatMarket. The system is pretty simple: one queues at one side of the restaurant to place your order at the tills, then one is given a buzzer and goes to pick a spot in the multiple areas, then one collects the food when the buzzers buzzes. It was a total of 20min wait at 7:30 on a Sunday evening. Very efficient.

Shack Stack
Cheeseburger and a 'Shroom burger topped with lettuce, tomato and Shacksauce
The deep-fried mushroom totally dominated; the breaded shell was fresh and crispy, the fat mushroom was oozing with juice, which mingled with the generous melted cheese. Problem is, what about the patty? It went unnoticed. Firstly it wasn't rather thin, which meant it was cooked through and was leaning on the dry side. Secondly it didn't carry much flavour, let alone meaty goodness. The bun was uninteresting.

For someone who is used to being served the perfect medium, inch-thick, smoky patty with warm fluffy brioche bun, the Shake Shack burger simply doesn't cut it.

Shack-cago Dog
Authentic German all-beef hot dog dragged through the garden with Rick's Picks Shack relish, onion, cucumber, pickle, tomato, sport pepper, celery salt and mustard
Will decided to go with the hot dog, as he thinks a good dog is hard to come by. But I did say the best dog in town is the Big Apple Hot Dog truck.

The entire dog was stone cold. The sausage was particularly poor with a sinewy skin and excessive salt. There was an awful battle among the intrusive acidity from the pickles, bitterness from the pepper, pungent spiciness from the onions and the slimy relish. I hated it.

Cheesy fries
Topped with our blend of cheddar cheese sauce
I liked the cheese sauce, it reminded me of mac n cheese, though the crinkle cut chips could be better.

Shakes & Concretes - peanut butter & Union Shack
The union shack 'concrete' was anything but as it came melted. Even if it didn't come in its milkshake form, I'm not sure how this is supposed to work; either I queue again for my dessert or I just have to watch it melt away as I chew on my burger...? It talks of paul.a.young chocs and St. John brownie with the whole frozen custard thing in the description... really it's a lot less exciting than it sounds. And £4 for a cup of overly sweet slur, I felt robbed.

The peanut butter shake needs another couple spoonfuls of peanut butter. 

To be fair, judging from the way it operates, I recognise Shake Shack is more like a fast food joint than gourmet burgers. But if it's closer to McD or BK, they really shouldn't be charging this kind of prices. I am a bit bored of our American friends bringing their mediocre chains over here, and all they change is the dollar sign for British pound. We deserve better. 

For me, Shake Shack ranks below GBK and Byron, probably slightly above Burger King. Let's see where Five Guys land next.

23/47 and 24 Market Building
Covent Garden Market
The Piazza
Tel: 0203 598 1360

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Restaurant Story - A Dreamy Tale

Tom Seller was talk of the town when he opened his Fairy-tale themed restaurant on Tooley Street. The winner of Young British Chef award has some of the world's most renowned restaurants on his CV at the age of 26 - oh nothing major, just Thomas Keller's Per Se in NY and Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen, you know the one that ranked No.1 on the list of World's Best Restaurant. 

That said, I wasn't overly excited when I saw Story's website. Firstly menu wasn't giving much away, not enough to tickle my curiosity anyway; more importantly I thought the whole theme was a bit cliche, a bit amateurish and probably just trying a bit too hard. That said, I jumped on it when I was offered a last-minute lunch.

The location is rather unusual; bang in the middle of a road junction, right where the public loos used to be, was a standalone glasshouse with blooming roses across the front; much like an oasis in the urban jungle. There was an air of tranquility. Decor reminded me of Viajante with the kitchen on display and its Scandanavian simplicity. As I was sipping sparkling water and choosing between the 6- or 10-course menu, I was brought a torrent of nibbles: 

Crispy cod skin topped with creamed roe and summer herbs

Nasturtium flower filled with oyster purée

Radishes filled with seaweed butter

Peas with truffle puree

Eel mousse "Oreos" (Storyeos?)  

Rabbit "sandwiches" with pickles

There were an insane amount of things going on with these amuse bouche. The wafer thin skin was roasted to the a delicate fragility with subdued flavours from the roe cream; the flower was strong and peppery to suppress the metallic minerality from the oyster emulsion; the seaweed butter carried much umami, though I did not appreciate the crunch from the radish; Peas with truffle was my favourite with its nutty aroma. A very impressive start to show off the kitchen's creativity and skills.

I opted for the 6-course menu.

Bread and dripping
This was almost the signature of the restaurant. I have to say I was slightly put off by the introduction - pure beef fat with no addition shaped into a candle for dipping. This can't be good for arteries, but I have always thought there are dishes worth the risk. Unfortunately not this one.

Visually it's great, it even sets the mood for "story time", you know the dimly candle-lit wooden bungalow in the middle of the forest. There were, however, no flavours or fragrance to the dripping; when the fat grease cooled into white cloudy wax, I could't bring myself to smear the fat on my bread. I'd rather have freshly churned butter with the deliciously crusty warm bread. 

The small cup of diced veal and veg was supposed to be eaten with the bread, but it was quite awkward to pile on the bread and the dripping without the cubes scattering back on the plate. It just felt like a lot of effort over bread and butter.

Burnt onion, apple, gin and thyme
Onions have taken the culinary world by storm; all the young and stylish chefs are serving up wedges of onions from different species as a course. My palate is not refined enough to distinguish between the three types of onions on the plate, but the focus for me was the cocktail broth poured at the table.

The infusion was made up of a concoction of strong liqueurs and boy it was strong. I was first hit by the bitterness which rapidly diffuses as the alcohol went straight to my head, leaving me with a sense of euphoria and a pleasant savoury broth. Yea I was taken to fairy tale land. I enjoyed the effect of dish, though in my humble opinion, I would prefer to have very very light touch of honey glaze on the onions to balance out the overall bitterness from the burnt slice.

Heritage potato, asparagus and barley grass
Again, full marks on visual impact. The smooth, indulgent mash, with swirls of nutty rapeseed oil infused with charcoal. It's not the rich, buttery mash like Heston's or Robuchon's; this one is more rustic and countryside, and actually tasted like potatoes. Apparently someone described this as a comfort hug - I wouldn't disagree.

Pigeon, summer truffle and pine
There was smoky tone to dish to create the sense of a misty forest scenery. The flavours were delicately balanced between the oaky, woody forage and aromatic pine jus and mild truffle. It was a perfect balance. The pigeon was beautifully cooked to medium, tender and succulent. 

I'm so glad mushroom didn't make it to the ingredients list, it would have been too overpowering. This was perfection.

A refreshing pre-dessert; the lemon snow was particularly interesting.

Almond and dill
More snow, this time with dill. I have to say I am a fan of dill in desserts, think mint is too tried and tested, and of course sometimes toothpaste-like, so the distinctive fragrance from dill is a welcomed alternative.

Tom Seller's Story definitely belongs to the Viajante and Dabbous camp - experimental, daring and comtemporary. There was much attention to detail in each ensemble, but then there is also the risk that comes with creativity. I thought most of it paid off. As for the sense that Story was 'trying too hard'... I suppose it still stands, but when all the pretentious facade is backed up by food of this quality and calibre, he can do whatever he likes.

I have penciled in a return visit for 4 in September. There is no regular updates of the menu, it evolves with seasonal ingredients.That said I haven't seen significant changes in the last month, hopefully I'll be in for a new experience.

201 Tooley Street
Tel: 0207 183 2117

Restaurant Story on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Mad Hatter's Tea Party @Alice in the Wonderland

It's been a while since I had afternoon tea. I think I said it before, the idea of paying £40 for some sandwiches and scones still bewilders me. But I suppose there are occasions that warrants an afternoon tea.

When Denice suggested the Alice in the Wonderland themed Mad Hatter's Afternoon Tea on a beautiful British summer day, I was genuinely excited. We were lucky enough to be seated in the courtyard with a little round marble table, under the sun with a gentle summer breeze. Bliss.

Denice fell in love with the ballet-dancer music box and the quirky, arty crockery designs aptly chosen to fit the fairy tale theme. After our champagne, we were presented with small perfume bottles of novelties tea leaves to sniff before we pick one: Rhubarb & Custard, Chocolate & Mint, Apple Pie and Strawberry & Cream. They all smelt incredibly sweet and had strong resemblance to the desserts. 

Then we kicked off our fancy Wonderland hour...

Mad Hatter's Afternoon Tea

Smoked Cumbrian ham with wholegrain mustard on sundried tomato bread
Cucumber and chive cream cheese on spinach bread
Cold smoked salmon and lemon butter on dark rye bread
Egg mayonnaise with watercress and smoked sea salt on lemon bread
Pumpkin quiche

Carrot meringue served on a bed of pea shoots
'Strawberries and cream' homemade marshmallow mushrooms
'Tick Tock' traditional Victoria sponge
Melting mango cheesecake
Matcha Green Tea with White Chocolate Mousse served in chocolate Tea Cup
'Drink Me' Potion

Homemade savoury and sweet scones, served with herb butter and fruit preserves with clotted cream

Jelly Wonderland

The sandwiches were standard, but I was quite impressed by the range of sweet treats. The melting mango cheesecake was made with a thin sheet of white chocolate encasing airy, fluffy cream cheese with a running mango compote that came gushing as the spoon dug in. The green team mousse was fragrant with a surprising sprinkle of popping candy. Drink Me potion was an exotic, refreshing thick milkshake of passionfruit and mango.

It was a beautiful afternoon in a beautiful garden with a beautiful Mrs Fisher. 

Sanderson London
50 Berners Street
Tel: 0207 300 1400

Monday, 1 July 2013

Cantina Laredo - No Mexicano

Good Mexican restaurants are hard to come by in London. Unlike the Americans who do it ever so well, the Brits are somewhat too restrained and too controlled to let the flavours out. Yes I know La Bodega Negra was a hit, but really the food wasn't that impressive - unless the neon sex shop signs were the signature dishes.

Cantina Laredo in Covent Garden got Cynthia's attention because they came from the States and have fish tacos on the menu. It's something she fell in love with in New York but not a common menu item in London. This is a complete contrast to La Bodega; not dirty hot sexy grub, more like white-shirt-button-up and chef had too many squeezy-bottles of sauces kind of dishes.

Top Shelf Guacamole
Avocados, tomatoes, red onions, red coriander, jalapeno peppers and spices with a bowl of warm tortilla chips
This was made fresh at our table. The waitress brought over a large tray with small bowls of chopped ingredients and 2 halves of an avocado. And drum roll..... she mixed it all in front of us.

It needed a lot more seasoning and a lot more coriander to give it flavours. Texture was good though.

Tasting plate of citrus marinated tiger prawns, scallops, fresh fish, olives and capers & citrus marinated salmon with pico de gallo, roasted corn & chipotle chile served with corn tortilla shells
Let's get this straight, this is NOT ceviche. They could argue to death about a Tex-Mex variation, but there is nothing ceviche about this so-call ceviche.

First of all, there were more capers and diced veg than seafood. Had I wanted a cup of salsa, I would have ordered one. Secondly, nothing was raw. The lime juice had 'cooked' the 4 pieces of seafood to sour, rubbery morsels by marinated them in acidity for too long. The portion was a joke, 3 tsp of whatever mixture it is in a tortilla cup, which by the way, was tooth-breaking, despite the lime juice that settled at the bottom. It must have been baked and cooled repeatedly at least 3 times to achieve this kind of unbreakable solidity. 

Machaca Quesadillas
Toasted flour torillas filled with melted oaxaca cheese & machaca beef
There was no beef in these machaca beef quesadillas, none to the naked eye anyway. There were plenty of mushrooms and a healthy dose of melted cheese towards the centre of the wrap. On a slightly more positive note, the tortilla was nice and crispy.

Pescado Tacos
Fresh fish with marinated vegetables, fresco cheese and chipotle aioli in three soft corn tortillas.
I don't think 'disappointing' could even begin to describe how rubbish these were. 

The flakes of fish may have been fresh at some point the week before, but they could have used anything really because it was cooked to bonito-dryness then drowned in a watery dressing made with a limp nudge from the chilli. No idea what I had in my mouth, just didn't want to swallow it. The coriander lime rice was over-seasoned and hard to swallow; grilled courgettes lacked oil and arrived wrinkled and parched with no seasoning.

Enchiladas del Mar
Soft corn tortillas with a filling of tiger prawns, fresh fish and scallops topped with a chili de arbol cream sauce.
This was probably the most tolerable dish of the evening. mainly because it was swamped in a sauce that tasted like tomato & mozzarella cream sauce from a jar. The filling was a gooey mess with excessive amount of floury white sauce. There was no bounce from the seafood, just lumps after lumps of mush. Rather disgusting.

The 'creamed spinach' on the side had no cream, arrived cold with no seasoning.

Carnitas Tacos
Slow roasted pork with chipotle wine sauce and fresco cheese in three soft corn tortillas.
I was lucky enough to get a small slice of pork belly to grease this up slightly. No doubt the meat was slow cooked, and definitely overcooked too. The tacos were parched and tortillas was stale and sinewy on the edges, as if they have sat on the counter since the morning as unlucky souls go through the pile. For the most iconic Mexican dish, this was at the level below sub-standard.

What I hated most, above the trashy food, was the service. Our waitress came to our table 3 times to harass us about the Magarita offer (it was a whooping £1 cheaper with a double shot - you probably need it to numb your taste buds with that kind of food). When we were ready to order, she held a hand to my face to signal she'd come back for it. I don't mind waiting, but the hand gesture was infuriating. The sparkling water landed on our table and we had to help ourselves. She bellowed at us when we were in mid-conversation: ladies is the food good?! I answered not really and she walked off. 

Finally she had the audacity to ask us complete a 'vote of good service' for her when we paid. I couldn't make it any clearer I found her service unacceptable.

I suspected this to be a tourist trap, and sadly Cantina Laredo proved me right. Should have and would have gone to Wahaca. Manager said they were opening their second restaurant soon and whether I wanted to be informed. Yes please, so I can steer well clear from it.

10 Upper St Martin's Lane
St Martin's Courtyard
Tel: 0207 420 0630

Cantina Laredo on Urbanspoon
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