Friday, 30 August 2013

Moscow, Russia

Everyone, I mean everyone, asked why Moscow. It's one of the very few places of interest that neither of us have visited yet. While I would have been equally happy with Ireland or Scotland, I'm always up for a bit of culture.

When I asked people what and where I should eat in Moscow, general responses were "eating out is expensive"; "they only eat potatoes"; "cooking is crude". I had my doubts - afterall Moscow was once a glamourous city too, surely the multimillion oligarchs wouldn't put up with poor food.

We spent the first few hours in the city... sleeping, and that includes the 35-min train journey from the airport to the centre. It was a complete blackout. Deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet in the metro and their random colour codes took the last drop of energy in us.

Then we strolled over to the Red Square and GUM. The shopping mall reminded me of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore or Venetian in Macau - big, grand and slightly soulless. The Red Square was the perfect place for people-watching: Gypsies, tourists, incredibly attractive and tall ladies practising their catwalks, even the 'President' at work.

I can see why some people thought eating out in Moscow was expensive; the price range is huge despite very similar menus. Overall restaurants in New Arbat area is quite reasonable and I thought the two restaurants below did a good job on introducing some local dishes. 

A cafe / restaurant near the Pushkin area serving casual Georgian fare. Mister was completely unaware of my secret eat-list until I lured him into this side-street. Maybe my random wanderings were not so random afterall.
An iconic Georgian bread apparently. The dough was light and airy with a crispy shell; perhaps a layer of cheese under runny yolk to give it the chewy, stretchy mouth feel. This was delicious.

Cheese board
I couldn't remember which is which, but I have to say Georgian cheeses are awful. One tasted like an acidic dry scourer, another wasn't dissimilar to a smoked eraser.

Khinkali - Dumplings with potato and cheese
No meal would be complete for Mister without some form of dumplings - whatever shape or size. These were the size of a baby fist and the knot at the top, called a belly button, was not supposed to be eaten.

Aubergine rolls with walnut puree

We finished with grainy, syrupy watermelons. And one of the best things about Khachapuri - they serve lambrusco!

Restaurant Kitezh
This cosy restaurant was tucked away on Petrovka Street, walking distance to Hotel Peter 1. We chose to sit indoor and the decor was very rustic and hunter-cottage-like, with their staff in traditional Russian attire.

Herrings with potatoes
The lightly pickled herrings were delicious.

Pancake with salmon caviar
Ikura ikura.I love salmon roe and these thin buttery pancakes were perfect with these savoury gems.

Beef Straganoff & Venison in Hunter Style
The meat dishes were very well done. Straganoff was creamy and structured flavours, unlike the gravy-sodden versions I was once served. The venison was tender and succulent, with well-seasoned potato cubes and a sack of mushrooms in middle. Delish.

I have genuinely lost count of the number of Pelmeni and Vareniki and whatever variety of dumplings that Mister had. They all taste the same, and Chinese do it so much better.

By choosing carefully, I don't think eating out was expensive at all. We were averaging £50 for 2 with 2 courses and drink (not wine). Considering our average bill in London equivalent is £90 for 2, I thought Moscow was pretty good.

We spent a day in Sergiev Posad. I think the adventure was in finding the suburban train station, then somehow buying the right tickets, and finding the right platform without knowing what Sergeiv Posad looks like in Russian / Cyrillic script.

The monastery was under heavy renovation, which meant I didn't get to appreciate its grandeur. And I cleverly wore shorts and a string top, so I didn't get to see the interiors either. Al least I was in fits of laughter when we went to Russkiy Dvorik, a very Russian restaurant on the main road. Don't get me wrong, the place was beautifully adorned, our waitress was absolutely stunning in her Russian doll outfit and we were seated in chairs that made me feel very royalty-like. It was just incredibly over-the-top and with Russian country music in the background, the experience was somewhat surreal.

The food was excellent. We had veal pancakes, some lamb and pork Pirozhki (baked bun with fillings), traditional Russian cabbage rolls and a 'Julienne'. My favourite was the cabbage rolls; the meat inside was so juicy they must have packed a whole in it.
Moscow is massive. Everything in the city was supersized. An average road in the city centre had 6-lanes and the majority of crossings were subways. And the walks to the subway were pretty long. And despite the scale of most things, I love how Mister had to duck a few times in the subway - just the little details.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

HKK - (Almost) Fine Dining Chinese

A few months back I dined at Bo London, and I still left thinking fine-dining Chinese is debatable. So despite having had HKK sitting on my eat-list for months, I was waiting for the right time and the right occasion to give it a go. The opportunity presented itself – it was my last weekday lunch in the area (for now anyway).

We started with some good cocktails. My Red Lotus with Glenmorangie and plum sake was absolutely delicious, deep and syrupy. The sweeter Floating Goddess and the grapefruit-based Bitter Fortune appeared to have gone down well, too – though Jo was very envious of my cocktail glass.

Emma and I went for the regular 4-course lunch; Ruk and Jo opted for the seafood version.

Crispy duck salad
Strips of duck were hidden under the mountain of salad leaves and balls of dragon fruit and honeydew melon. The duck was roasted to perfection with a delicate, brittle skin that retained its crisp after scooping up the dressing. Instead of pairing the duck with the conventional hoi sin sauce, it drew its sweetness from the fruits to keep the salad light. Great start.

Seafood: Minced lobster in Homemade black bean sauce

Truffle Poulet de Bresse soup
I couldn’t make up my mind about the soup. The broth carried the flavours of the traditional Chinese soup, one that takes a good 3-hr simmering. But then its consistency was more western like, fairly thick and viscous. I guess I was confused.

The truffle was very subtle in the soup, in a good way. It added a lingering aroma as opposed to overpowering the delicate flavours. The strips of chicken on the side, however, were uninteresting, partly because it was cold. I prefer my soup piping hot, had it not been lukewarm, I may have enjoyed it more.

Seafood: HKK Supreme seafood soup
I had a haunting suspicion that the seafood version was even better – with a lobster broth as base and strips of prawn and scallops on the side, it’s bound to be, right?

Jasmine tea smoked wagyu beef with egg rice
The wagyu beef was slightly disappointing. Firstly I couldn’t taste the jasmine tea because the beef was coated with a barbecue honey glaze, which masked the gentle tea smokiness. Then the beef was slow-cooked to force tenderness. This almost defies the quality of wagyu beef, because I couldn’t taste the fragrant bovine grease from its fat marbling, which had been drained from the muscles. The meaty flavours were also drowned by the sauce that was a tad too sweet. The meat still disintegrated into shreds with the softest touch from the knife, but it didn’t need to be wagyu – ox cheeks or oxtails would have had the exact same effect.

The egg rice was very bland, top marks for keeping it absolutely grease-free, but it needed seasoning. The water chestnuts nonchalantly sitting on the plate, turned out to be the highlights. The gooey glaze worked well when it was diluted by the crunch. That said I agree with Emma, they would have been less intrusive in smaller cubes.

Seafood: Monk Fish in Italian white truffle sauce with egg rice
Unlike Ruk, I’m not a fan of monk fish – prefer my fish flaky and soft. Jo left ALL her veg untouched. Enough said.

Salted cashew nut & milk parfait
The dessert was beautiful – a dense ball of nutty ice cream encased in a crushed cashew nuts. The milk parfait smoothed it all up, with a small kick from the salt and a bit of zing from the pomegranate.

Seafood: Coconut and lime panna cotta
I didn’t try this but Jo mentioned she might start adding lime in her panna cotta – they must be doing something right.

As far as fine-dining goes, I think HKK got it right – the super slick décor and lighting with peach-shaped lights dangling from the ceiling, the beautiful china and refreshing infusion of western finer ingredients in classic Chinese dishes. It didn’t quite tick all the boxes, though. The execution could have been more precise, recipes could have carried more finesse, and I suppose it was lacking in the sophistication I anticipated. Perhaps the dinner menu would have allowed chef and his team to show off his skills more.

I still enjoyed HKK, but mostly because I was in great company.

Broadgate West
88 Worship Street
Tel: 0203 535 1888

HKK on Urbanspoon
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Saturday, 17 August 2013

Pizza PIlgrim & Homeslice - Pizza Love

Behind the burger craze, there is an under current of pizza storm stirring up in London. Good pizzas are almost unheard of in this city - except for the obvious people's favourites like Franco Manca in Brixton and Pizza East in Shoreditch, both of which are better than the cardboards served by the chains, but nothing worth writing home about.

Then Pizza Pilgrim and Homeslice hit the scene and made pizza sexy all over again.

Homeslice has 8 different pizzas on the menu, all at 20 inches and 3 of which they sell by slice at £4 a pop. So... how big is a 20" pizza? Well, it's fucking massive. It's half a metre in diameter - like the width of your pillow, or those lorry tyres, or the depth of your desk... it's just colossal. 

The bad news is, the more exciting pizzas are only offered as a whole one. The good news is, you could go half-half. I recommend going as a group of 4 for best results.

Absolutely torn between the options - I could imagine the creamy, melty ricotta with mushroom; I was curious about the fishy mackerel pizza. But in the end, we all salivated at the thought of oxtail and bone marrow.

Oxtail & Horseradish Cream
The pizza was beautifully charred at edges to show off its brittle crispiness, with the edges kept evenly thin - just how I like it. Thin and doughy in the middle (probably not so crispy at the bottom though) topped with stretchy cheese and a smear of tomato sauce.  

The right side of the pizza was dotted with lumps of slow cooked oxtail that was so tender it barely held its shape; the horseradish cream was quite runny, together with some peppery basil, they gave a gentle kick to ease off the richness. What a pizza. 

Bone Marrow, Watercress & Spring Onion
The other side of the pizza took richness to a new level. I don't think I have even seen so much bone marrow on a dish, well, a menu item, you know what I mean. The combination of flavours and textures was phenomenal; the chewy dough, melty bone marrow, tangy watercress, crunchy spring onion and the tone from the bovine grease - boom!

I fell in love with Homeslice.

Pizza Pilgrim
Pizza Pilgrim is almost at the opposite spectrum of Napoli pizzas - sticking to the basics and simples but doing it perfectly. Those who had the pleasure of eating at Da Michele would appreciate the definition of the ultimate dough, and the dough here is very very close. Unlike Homeslice, variations at PP are very straightforward with more conventional toppings.

Portobello Mushroom & Truffle Oil
Despite Lucy L recommending the Salsiccia e Fraiarielli  (fennel sausage and wild broccoli), I went with Abdul's suggestion of a pizza bianco, which means I didn't get to taste the amazing plum tomato sauce here. Damn. 

The thick cuts of portobello mushroom were oozing with funghi succulence, but the absolute focus was definitely the thick layer of cheese against the thin, moist dough with a crispy base. Truffle oil was  very light touch, usually as a aftertaste without dominating my taste buds.  The only thing I would change is to reduce the width of the crust :) It really brought me back to Napoli though.

I can't compare Pizza Pilgrim and Homeslice against each other - they both offer fantastic pizzas, in a slightly different way. That said I thought Homeslice had a more comfortable space with a higher ceiling, larger wooden benches and tables to eat-in, but their prosecco on tap was lacking bubbles. Pizza Pilgrim offers less comfortable seating in the basement, but people with a smaller appetite wouldn't feel like they are missing out on parts of the menu. 

Either way, create places to eat with awesome staff and most importantly, stunning pizzas.

11-12 Dean Street
Tel: 07780 667258
Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon
13 Neal's Yard
Seven Dials
Tel: 0207 836 4604
Homeslice on Urbanspoon

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Sunday, 11 August 2013

High Five with Five Guys

I finally got round to paying Five Guys a visit. Following the disappointment at Shake Shack, I had very little expectation of the US giant. 

It was early evening on a Tuesday and there was a queue of 15 outside the joint. It moved relatively swiftly as I was already helping myself to the peanuts after 10minutes or so. The hot dogs have yet to make their way to London, so we stuck to the burger.

Bacon Cheese Burger with everything except pickles
I think this must be at least 30% bigger than the Shake Shack burger. Size matters - in most things.

Despite the boring sesame bun, the well-done cooked-through patty, the plastic-y processed cheese, I quite enjoyed it. It may have been the thick double patties plus the insane overloading of sauces and relishes, as well as the overall greasiness, the burger was oozing guilty satisfaction. 

That said, I thought the world of burgers has moved onto brioche buns a couple of years ago, and medium rare patties have much better textures. BUT I appreciate this is a fast food chain, and as far as fast food goes, it's an alright burger. At £8.75 though... I was hoping for something of much high quality.

Five Guys Style Fries
The fries, with potato skin on, were also very well made - fresh, crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside - much better than the frozen crinkle cut at Shake Shack.

The 100+ flavours soft drinks was also heaps of fun. I checked out the lime coke zero, strawberry coke  peach sprite and still tango. I think this machine was worth a visit on its own!

Needless to say, I thought Five Guys beats Shake Shack, hands down. Still it was far from amazing, but at least I had a load of fun snacking on peanuts and exploring different flavours of cokes. I might rank this next to the Dead Hippie at MeatLiquor / MeatMarket - very American, very greasy and very fast food.

On a completely irrelevant note, Mister had an angus beef burger with pan seared foie gras for £25 at Little Social a couple of evenings ago - it was blissfully sinful. 

1-3 Long Acre