Sunday, 24 November 2013

NOPI - The Golden Touch

I tried getting a table at Nopi when it first opened its doors, but then somehow it fell off my eat list... until I see Yotam Ottolenghi sampling all the Mediterranean goodies on TV again. 

The restaurant was beautiful. There was an air of elegance and class with the tasteful touches of brass and the long marble bar with a ceiling of shiny wine glasses; yet it doesn't lose its laid-back, easygoing feel, which is even more prominent in the basement with its large communal table, watching the chefs at work. We stuck to the ground floor - better for our girlie catch up.

Seeing it's it's officially winter and a very gloomy Sunday, we thought we'd start with some cocktails to cheer ourselves up. Denice went for the slightly sparkly Saffron Chase and I had the Pineapple & Sage Martini, made with roasted pineapple puree - delightful.

Burrata, Miyagawa, coriander seeds, white balsamic
Um, did I mention my addiction to burrata? I know I know, it's been an awful lot of these sacks of white creamy stuff I have been eating lately. 

The toasted coriander seeds were crispy and its nuttiness paired beautifully with the stretchy mozzarella, together with the plump juicy segments of mandarin that gave a it zesty zing. This burrata dish is very different to the version by Union Street Cafe; the recipe and combination of flavours were equally good, however I thought the actual burrata cheese itself was more luscious with a richer milkiness at USC. 

Roasted aubergine, feta pickled cucumber, pumpkin seeds
One of the signature items at Ottolenghi's eateries. The thick discs of aubergine were soft and succulent, with a generous sprinkle of pepperberry for a distinctive aroma, and pumpkin seeds for some bite. I wasn't a fan of the pickled cucumber, thought its acidity dominated the rest of the ingredients.

Courgette and manouri fritters, cardamom yoghurt
The cardamom is very pronounced in the fritters even without the yoghurt, but it was mild exotic spiciness, nothing too intrusive. The filling of thinly sliced courgette mixed with greek cheese was moist with gentle crunchiness from the veg. Despite being deep fried, it felt light and healthy.

Grilled quail, black pepper caramel, turnip tops, pickled daikon
The quail may look burnt, but it's the black pepper caramel; there was no unpleasant charcoal bitterness, just subtle sweetness that glazed the skin. The bird was young and tender, simply grilled and lightly seasoned to allow the flavour of the quail through.  

Sticky rice, brown coconut jam, caramelised banana
This was a slight variant of the Thai sticky rice dessert. The small cube was dense, sticky rice was faintly sweet, dusted with a thin layer of raw sugar; I added the peanut brittle and a drizzle of warm coconut milk with the warm banana, it was just right.

The food at Nopi was delicious; vibrant, fresh and bold. Familiar modern European dishes were given a remake with the addition of Middle Eastern / Asian ingredients and spices, injecting them with surprises and twists, as well as the Ottolenghi touch. I got chatting with a couple of the staff on my way out, apparently the savoury cheese cake is unmissable. Noted - I am coming back for more.

21-22 Warwick Street
Tel: 0207 494 9584

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The Right Spot on Union Street Cafe

Even though Gordon Ramsay was joking about David Beckham being his sous-chef at his newest London restaurant, a small part of me was still hoping to run into DB on the evening.

We were seated in the mezzanine area where a window allows a good peek into the kitchen. The dining room has an urban, arty feel to it with the bare walls and exposed ceilings. The tables are very well spaced with random modern art pieces here and there, as if they just half-converted a warehouse. Cool vibe.

Our server was incredibly charming, he knew the menu inside-out, back-to-front; patiently and passionately explained each item. Based on his recommendations, we went for 3 starters to share followed by a main each. All with some gorgeous lambrusco rosso.

Burrata d'Andria, zucca, orange & vino rosso
I had my eye this long before I made the reservation; those who know me well would know my addiction to this stretchy, luscious mozzarella.

The cheese was beautifully fresh and milky. I like a touch of honey on my burrata, and the sweetness came from this smooth pumpkin mash in this ensemble, adding more substance to support the meltingly rich cheese, together with the light drizzle of orange juice that kept the dish vibrant and zesty. Loved it - simply delicious. 

Ovoli crudi, parmigiano vacche rosse & lemon
Okay, so it's raw slices of mushroom with parmesan and a squeeze of lemon juice - my little brain could not quite work out how this could possibly be tasty on the plate.  And my taste buds must have missed something too. The crunchy fungi had very little flavours to them, perhaps the flaky parmesan just dominated because even the lemon citrus went unnoticed. The combination just didn't work for me; a little too dry, a little too raw and a little to basic - credit to our server for selling it so well nonetheless.

Tagliolini rabbit & caciocavallo
After brief, very brief considerations for Mr Tofu, the boys decided to order the one pasta dish with rabbit. Well... if only little Tofu would taste as good.

Tagliolini is the finest cut of flat pasta, which was cooked to perfect bounciness with a good chew. The rabbit meat was succulent and tender, slightly shredded to better match its mouthfeel to the thin tagliolini. Caciocavallo is smooth semi-hard cheese with a subtly sweet taste to it, the gentle touch made the pasta dish more dimensional without weighting it down.

Guazzetto di scorfano, clams, mussels & fregola
(I may have forgotten to snap a pic of my main...)
I thought about going for the ox cheeks, but I still think my ox cheek recipe is pretty damn awesome already. So instead I opted for this fish stew.

Definitely one of the better fish stews I have had; the broth was savoury and balanced. It was concentrated enough with all the shell fish goodness, but not to the point of overkill. The large cubes of white fish were slithery and soft, morsels in mussels and clams were plump and creamy, together with plenty of chewy fregola, it was a delicious stew.

Polpo, braised borlotti & Calabrian 'nduja
The chunky tubes of octopus was delightful, full of bounce and carefully seasoned to bring out its delicate flavours. The bed of softly cooked borlotti (a type of kidney beans) was creamy and gently sweet, mixed in with the slightly fiery 'nduja salami paste, which complimented the springy octopus very well. 

Guancia di bue, polenta, gorgonzola & muscat grapes
The ox cheeks were cooked to the point of disintegration, barely holding in shape. Although it was a very lean cut of meat, the textures werent' grainy as the muscles fell apart into shreds, holding more of the thick gravy in between. Still, I can't say it beats my recipe:)

The fried polenta stole the show for me, the crispy exterior and soft velvety centre was fantastic; interestingly it reminded me of McD's hash browns, but in a good way, I mean a very good way.

Zucchini fritte
We had some fried courgettes on the side. Perhaps the veg was sliced too thinly so it was a lot of batter and not much courgette. I think Granger & Co in Notting Hill does it better.

Given we started dinner at 10, it was way past midnight by the time we finished our mains, we passed on desserts. I will come back to check it out on my next visit though.

Think I have always been quite harsh with Chef Ramsay's establishments. It's definitely not personal, as I adore and am still addicted to Chef's TV shows. Perhaps it's just his newer restaurants that, in my humble opinion, are lacking in surprises and the modern touch. Union Street Cafe, on the other hand,  really delivered.

It's Italian, and Italian is all about top quality produce and fresh (and unheard of) ingredients, be it seemingly poisonous mushrooms, ridiculously looking cheese or unpronounceable pasta. And these are all on the menu. So simply and perfectly cooked to bring out the best of the ingredients - Chef Davide Degiovanni nailed it. 

47-51 Great Suffolk Street
Tel: 0207 592 7977

Union Street Cafe on Urbanspoon
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Saturday, 9 November 2013

Hoi-Polloi - The Many... Glitches

Taking over the Crowne Plaza spot on Shoreditch Highstreet, the very trendy Ace Hotel from New York blended in with the East London scene instantly. Since I haven't got round to hitting the much talked about Bistrotheque or Shrimpy's, so I was genuinely excited about checking out Hoi-Polloi to see what the fuss is about.

The ambience was great - gentle mellow lighting oozes the chillax vibe, with a touch of Scandinavian simplicity and spaciousness. Love the setting - Ana was very proud of her choice of restaurant too. We started with some average bread and a carafe of Bordeaux Superieur, something easy.

Thousand layer potatoes, anchovy cream
The way our server sold this to me, was that it was like deep fried mini dauphinoise potatoes. So I was expecting thin slices of grainy potatoes sandwiched with layers of cream and maybe a touch of stretchy cheese. Dauphinoise my foot. These were rectangular hash browns. At least the outer case was super duper crispy and the potato was ultra soft and fluffy. Anchovy cream could have been stronger to make this dish a tad more exciting though. 

Braised celeriac, celery, cobnuts
As soon as we were seated, Ana announced she was having the steak tartare, which was the main reason she chose the restaurant in the first place. Well, lo and behold - our server told us the steak tartare was removed from the menu on the day. I mean, really? I think it's personal.

This really distressed Ana, despite best efforts from our server... he recommended the delicious "leek & liver", to which Ana winced; the very moreish "puffy scratching", at which she frowned; finally the unique horseradish soup, and Ana was simply uninterested. Finally she settled for this braised celeriac dish, purely by the process of elimination.

And boy this was a poor dish. It looks like an accident, and certainly tasted like one. It's rabbits' food - raw strips of celery and cubes and unseasoned celeriac... like it's still being prepped.

And really they could have done a bit more. When asked how our starters were, we clearly pointed out it was a very disappointing dish, bland and awkward as if it was unwanted bits of leftover garnish piled together. Our server nodded and mumbled a "really? Sorry..." and scurried off. If you're not interested in the answer, don't ask.

Pressed lamb, jerusalem artichoke, radish, Madeira
I had very little confidence left after our starters. I haven't been too impressed so far. Luckily my main turned out well - almost like a cooked version of the much desired tartare. The lamb was slow-cooked to delicate tenderness with subtle bits of fat to give it more tang. I can't say it was the most exciting lamb dish, but it was a good ensemble.

Wild mushroom, artichoke, potato dumplings
Ana got drawn to the artichoke and decided to go vegetarian this evening. The fungi fragrance and flavours were very pronounced, though nothing particularly interesting worth writing home about. I thought the gnocchi were slightly overcooked to my liking, but Ana found it okay. Again, a bit dull.

Lemon curd, meringue, blackcurrant sorbet
Something was very odd about the meringue - it was chewy and stuck to the roof of my mouth. Apart from that, the plate delivered what it said in the description. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's safe to say that I didn't enjoy my meal as much as I anticipated. Maybe the steak tartare would have helped, but who knows? Just in general, the food wasn't exciting enough. It would have been okay if the menu was simple but the kitchen was delivering perfection, but that's not the case either. 

That said, I wouldn't rule it off just yet, it's still in its early days. Plus I still think it's a great place to sit around for a few drinks with some munchies. But the restaurant definitely needs to work on the recipes and tighten up on the execution. After all, a pretty face doesn't last forever.

100 Shoreditch Highstreet
E1 6JQ
Tel: 0208 880 6100

Hoi Polloi at The Ace Hotel on Urbanspoon
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Monday, 4 November 2013

Casa Malevo - Keep to Asado

I had to come up with an option B for Mister's birthday. Though there are various Argentinian restaurants around town, I needed one that looked the part but not too pretentious to the point of trying too hard.

Casa Malevo fits the bill; Mayfair location in the heart of Connaught village, prime imported steaks on the menu headed by a chef with El Bulli on his CV, all set in a warm, homely country-house ambience. Having been to the more casual sister restaurant, Zoilo, and loved the Asado flank steak, I thought this couldn't go wrong. We started off with a carafe of light and easy-drinking Finca la Linda.

Classic Empanadas - Hand cut beef, potatoes & olives 
Mister ordered one out of curiosity. These pastries were stuffed with plenty of beef in a piping hot thick, rich gravy. Personally I'm not a fan of pastry-based dishes, but MIster didn't fault it.

Grilled scallops with cauliflower, caramelised pork belly & chorizo 
Mister was tossing up between this and the chorizo - decided to keep it light with the scallops. 

Everything was done well - the scallops were plump and sweet with a creamy centre, the pork belly had an indulgent layer of gelatinous lard, brought together with a tangy bite from the chorizo jus. BUT. Things were lacking in surprise and flavours were quite subdued and so it was quite a forgettable dish.

Had the great morcilla been on the menu, I would have recommended that instead. 

Mollejas al verdeo - Grilled sweetbreads with onions & lemon 
I heard great things about this, so despite sweetbreads not being a usual choice, I gave it a go. And I'm so glad I did. 

The sweetbread was lightly grilled to give it a delicate, slightly crispy shell with gently charred edges. The texture was divine, wobbly and lusciously creamy and it just dissolved away in mouth. It was almost like bone marrow, but marginally firmer and much less greasy, none of the expected pungency from offal and glands. The crunch from diced onions and mild lemony acidity lifted the weight from the dish - beautiful creation. 

We were then recommended a delicious fuller-bodied Decero to go with our mains.

Asado - slow grilled flank steak & bone marrow sauce 
I remember the Asado dish back at Zoilo being absolutely brilliant. And this did not disappoint - somehow it was even better. The incredibly sexy ruby shade on the steak shouts perfect medium rare, as requested. All the juices and flavours were packed in the muscles, released with every chew. 

The bone marrow sauce was as good as it sounds, rich enough to max out the bovine goodness from the meat, but not too heavy to kill the meat. Absolutely gorgeous. 

Bife ancho - Rib eye 
Unfortunately my rib-eye was nowhere as good. The steak was sweating quite a bit when it arrived and juices were pouring out as I sank my knife into the meat. Hmm... I would say it was cooked to medium rather than medium rare. No I did not send it back because Mister's Asado was cooked to the kind of perfection that would invoke jealousy. I wasn't going to have him wait for my second attempt. Plus it wasn't miles off the mark. 

Therefore it was no surprise that my slab was steak wasn't terrific. I was expecting intense concentrated beefy flavours... sadly it was all fairly weak and somewhat diluted. The meat itself was no longer succulent as most of the juices had sweated onto the plate, though the fattier bites were still quite enjoyable. Having heard such wonderful things about Argentine steaks, I was quite disappointed, both with the slip in execution and quality of meat.   

Papas fritas "Provenzal" & Roasted flat mushrooms
The chips were sprinkled with garlic and parsley, perfectly crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The mushrooms were slightly under-seasoned and mildly watery, but overall okay.

We finished off with the creme brulee & banana split ice cream - it was as good as I remembered it to be at Zoilo.

I'm almost obliged to say Casa Malevo was great, seeing I did choose it for Mister's birthday. Truth is it was a bit of a gamble, going for the posher version of Zoilo. The good news is Mister enjoyed his steak and I loved my sweetbread starter, the not-so-good news is his mediocre starter and my steak failed. The team of staff made up for a fair bit what was lacking on the plates. Our wine recommendations were good, Roberto made sure we cleared our plates and our server was as charming as it gets. Overall I was pretty happy but I'm more likely to return to Zoilo than to Casa Malevo purely because I prefer a more modern menu. 

23 Connaught Street 
W2 2AY 
Tel: 0207 402 1988 

Casa Malevo on Urbanspoon
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