Saturday, 25 January 2014

House of Ho - Ho Ho Ho

Bobby Chinn, host of World Cafe Asia and Saturday Kitchen, took over from Med Kitchen in Soho to open his House of Ho, where he serves up fun, informal and sexy Vietnamese food. 

Lee and I visited during its soft launch, when Bobby himself was in the house to greet his guests, sat down with a glass of wine to share some of his stories. The man was most charming. We were looked after by Warren; he explained that the cocktails were all designed and tailored for a Viet twist. So we kicked off with a Ho'rny Devil each, a gorgeous lemongrass concoction that was beautifully dusted with coconut, followed by a Rosy-Lycheek Martini, a tad too strong for my liking, and finally a Hanoi Martini, a sweet coffee martini with the faintest trace of liqueur.

Seafood Ceviche, Prawns, Sea bass, Scallops, Mangosteen, White Truffle OIl
Exquisitely presented with an open coconut. 

The diced seafood mixture retained their bouncy texture and succulence. I couldn't quite pick out the mangosteen in the mixture, but the tangy, citrusy sweetness in the dressing made the dish refreshing without drowning the delicate flavours of the seafood. The truffle oil was barely noticeable too, but that was probably a good thing. An appetising start.

BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw
The hot appetiser was less exciting - just a slab of regular ribs in BBQ sauce. Very average.

The 'Shaking Beef', Grass-Fed, 21 day-aged Fillet
This was magnificent, small, but magnificent. The 5 cubes of beef were covered in powder of char, giving an intense smoky and bitter taste when it first hits the senses. The bitterness quickly disappeared as the beef juice was released from the tender cubes of fillet, together with the peppery bite and the savoury watercress dressing. The beef was meticulously cooked to medium rare with a deep crimson centre; the knife sliced through it with little resistance.

I have never been to the Slanted Door in San Fran, but if this Shaking Beef is anything to go by, it's going on my Eat List.

Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce
Monkfish is usually too firm for my liking, but these were surprisingly soft and slithery, yet still sturdier than cod. The caramel glaze, however, was probably too sugary; the sweetness dominated the dish and overpowered the subtle lemongrass aroma. It could do with a bit more control and reining in to add more dimension.

Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage, Egg
This small block of pork belly was scrumptious; the interweaving layers of lard melted instantly in mouth to release its piggy goodness; the lean meats slowcooked to disintegrate into shreds with minimum pressure, holding and soaking up the dissolved grease. The scored pork skin was squidgy and springy, which was an interesting contrast to the tender muscles underneath. 

The smoked egg with its viscous yolk was delicious, and the braised cabbage absorbed the sweet glaze, completing this little pot of wholesomeness.

We had a side of Morning Glory, stir fried with crispy garlic. Interestingly our side order turned out to be the largest portion on the table - crunchy and well seasoned.

Molten Marou Chocolate Cake
The chocolate fondant was warm, gooey and indulgent - a great finish to our evening.

I really enjoyed House of Ho. Just like how Bobby put it, the dishes had a "Bobby twist" to them to make Vietnamese food that much sexier. Flavours were thoughtfully designed in the dishes to keep them modern and light; meats were particularly brilliant. The portions are small, though, which is great for sampling more from the menu, but it also means the bill stacks up quickly. 

55-59 Old Compton Street
London W1
Tel: 0207 287 0770

The House of Ho on Urbanspoon
You may also like: Cay Tre, Song QueOn the Bab

Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Glamorous Berners Tavern

Did you know the chandeliers at the Berners Tavern are the same as the ones at Grand Central Station? I only noticed when I was tidying my photos from NYC.

I wanted an evening out before we leave for New York for Christmas. When I sheepishly called up for a reservation in early Oct for Dec, thinking I was planning too far ahead, the lady on phone laughed and said most tables are gone. Fine, dinner at 10pm then.

We had a couple of drinks at the bar before our table was ready. I tried a super creamy Cereal Killer was like a thick chocolate shake, but a pretty strong kick, and a deliciously refreshing and fruity Absolutely Smashing. Mister's non-alcholic mocktails, Once upon a Thyme and Appley ever After were also very tasty.

"Egg, Ham and Peas" Deep fried Clarence Court duck egg, mushy peas and crispy Cumbriam ham
I was really hoping this was similar to the duck smoked ham, egg and chips at Social Eating House; those slices of smoked duck were incredibly memorable.

Well, the beautifully deep fried egg with the well of custardy runny yolk was still wonderfully done. The cured ham, though deeply fragrant and brittle without losing its grease, was a step down from the smoked duck at SEH. The fluorescent mushy peas were whipped to a lighter body but tasted double the concentration; it tasted clean, like the earthy tone was stripped off the peas. I almost started to like peas.

Orkney scallop ceviche, avocado, radish, baby gem, jalapeno and lime ice
The lime ice contrasted with the jalapeno heat to release this hot and cold sensation on tongue, an ingeniously playful effect. The creamy raw slice of scallop was cool with dissolving lime sorbet, enriched by the buttery avocado, and finished with an undertone of jalapeno. It may have been a chaotic plate, but the everything was delicately balanced and controlled.

Chargrilled Dingley Dell pork chop, braised baby gem, fig chutney, Kent cob nut
I had pork the last couple of time I dined at an Atherton restaurant; thoroughly enjoy it on both occasions.

Mister's inch-thick chop was slightly dry; the cross-section lacked the glistening pork juice that I was expecting from succulent meat. So it was no surprise to find the leaner parts quite grainy and coarse, and there was only so much jus one could mop up. The parts attached to the generous rind of lard, however, were delicious; especially as the jelly of pork fat erupted with nutty aromas.

Roast Highland Venison, carrot, pickled red cabbage, potato fondant
The fillet of venison was cooked to perfection with the ruby red centre. The meat was moist, smooth and muscularly gamey - the cooking was precise and composed. 

And because I am picky and difficult, I thought the recipe lacked surprise. Unlike our starters, which were exciting and clever with an eclectic twist, this venison was comparatively boring. There was nothing unique about the dish, both in terms of flavour and the ensemble. Perhaps I have unfairly high expectations.

I have mixed feelings for Berners Tavern. I was determined to like it even before I made the booking, simply because it was one of Jason Atherton's restaurants. Then there was the long anticipation since October, the impressive dining room and the gorgeous cocktails while we waited at the bar. But, and I hate to admit it, the food just wasn't as extraordinary as Social Eating House. Now that's not to say the food wasn't great, it was still better than most restaurants, but I wasn't bowled over. I wasn't already planning my next visit. 

The odd thing is, my memory kept saying it was a fantastic evening. It's only when I went through dish by dish that I realised the the flaws. Perhaps it was the ambience, maybe it was Mister.

Berners Tavern
10 Berners Street
Tel: 0207 908 7979

Berners Tavern on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 January 2014

New York - Burger, Tacos, Pizza & Bars (2)

Yea I am still yapping on about New York, sorry. 

I have pulled together some highlights of the lighter eats we had. If I am honest, there are quite a few places in between bar hopping that I can no longer recall the names of... or their location... or the food they offer... but I'm so sure they were brilliant.

Burger: The Spotted Pig 
We were tossing up between Minetta Tavern's black label burger, Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridien or April Bloomfield's Spotted Pig. We went for the Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese & Shoestring Fries at The Spotted Pig in the end.

Epic. Enough said.

Tacos: Tacombi
Cynthia has always sang praises about Mexican food in the States. Mr V did say the West coast does it much better, but I'd like to give it a go anyway. So he pointed us to this inconspicuous white shop in Nolita, where a van pumps out good tacos.

Frijoles Criollos were toasted corn chips served with a chorizo dip. An incredibly moreish nibble with a smoother texture than the typical tortilla chips we get here.

The tacos were fantastic - the crispy fish taco also came with a slightly denser fillet of un-fried fish to throw some textures into the mix; taco especial (front) was pulled spicy pork topped with pineapple cubes, packed with meaty flavours and a strong kick, but the pork belly (back) was just too fucking good. The slow cooked pork was already oozing with meat juice, but it was the rinds of gelatinous pork skin that blew my mind. 

We also tried a breakfast taco of eggs with chorizo. I could eat this everyday; soft scrambled eggs mixed with chilli grease from chopped chorizo was gorgeous; the healthy wedge of avocado was refreshing and lifted the oils to leave a clean aftertaste.

Another tacos joint was La Esquina in SoHo. Again, it looked like some dodgy corner diner from the outside.  We only tried the stand-up / take-out section upstairs as the hidden restaurant downstairs was by reservation only. Veal tongue with salsa verde was particularly impressive, but I wouldn't say no to the chargrilled steak or pulled pork either.

Pizza: Lucali's
While most people were queuing for the famous "pizza under Brooklyn Bridge" (Grimaldi's), Mr V had a better recommendation. This cosy gem in Carroll Gardens, or what I ignorantly labelled the rural area, was a homely restaurant with a massive brick oven at the back of the dining room.

The menu couldn't be simpler: a large margarita pizza pie with your choice of toppings or calzone in 2 sizes. We went for everything on the pizza plus a small calzone with mozzarella cheese plus tomato sauce on the side, as recommended.

The paper-thin dough pizza with a brittle, charred bottom was blissful, topped with moderate sprinkles of pepperoni, onions, peppers, mushroom, olives etc, but the absolute key was the combination of fresh basil and slightly sweet tomato sauce. Stunning.

And it gets better. The calzone, overflowing with stretchy, luscious mozzarella and charred on the outside, still have me drooling over my keyboard. When dipped in the plum tomato sauce served on the side... its euphoric simplicity was downright awesome. 

Prime Rib Sandwich: Eataly
Eataly was a palace of Italian goodies, from wine and cheese to focaccia and gelati. Mr V recommended the prime rib sandwich from the rotisserie.

The ciabatta was crammed full with 100% black angus beef, seasoned with Eataly's porcini rub, and drizzled with Taggiascan extra virgin olive oil. And boy what a sandwich - basically we had to re-visit en route to the airport.

One of my favourite things, among numerous others, is the range of late night dining options in this alluring city. One too many cocktails later, the choices left my head spinning even more...

Mr V introduced us this prohibition bar / restaurant; it's an intimately sexy joint with c.10 tables at the back, most of which had a reserve sign. To put things into perspective, the steak tartare here was so good that we came here twice in 3 days. 

On both occasions I had the hand-cut steak tartare. It was a star-worthy tartare; undoubtedly ranks among some of the best I have had in Paris. The roughly chopped beef was buttery and silky smooth, flavours were intricately balanced to bring out the delicate tones of the raw beef. The only thing I would change is to swap the crostini for french fries; a couple of slices of crostini is fine, a plateful felt somewhat offensively excessive.

The Balkan Burger won the gents over and the piping hot paprika wedges were addictive. Bone marrow poppers (above) quickly disintegrated into a mouthful of bovine richness, all washed down with some delicious cocktails.

What an interesting cocktail bar - with no menu. We just described the kind of cocktails we like, et voila! Our vodka-based strawberry cocktail with a bit of fizz was delicious.

Mac n' Cheese and Fried brussels sprouts with jalapeno sour cream were pretty darn scrumptious too.

Smorgasburg - A Brooklyn Flea Food Market
We came here for the Ramen Burger. Do pardon my cluelessness but I had never heard of ramen burger until now. And Byron (no, not Byron Burger, but he surely should consider working for them as I'm confident he can sell burgers to vegans) sold to it to me, effortlessly. It was late and the shredded beef burger had sold out, so we settled for the original.

Originally the brain child of Keizo Shimamoto, it's exactly what it says on the tin, a burger with ramen instead of the bun. I must say I wasn't overly impressed. The compressed ramen 'bun' was dry and flavourless despite the soy sauce, which had sadly accumulated at the bottom of the wrapper due to its flimsiness; the beef patty lacked juice and bovine wholesomeness. The shredded beef version may have been better as there is more surface to cling onto the sauce. Either way, I am giving Ramen Burger the benefit of the doubt, putting this down to inconsistency due to limitations from the market environment.
We also tried the Mac 'n' Cheese from Milk Truck Grilled Cheese, which was disappointing compared to the the Mulberry Project above; the dumplings sampler (!) by Brooklyn Wok Shop - 2x Pastrami, duck confit and mushroom & chive.  I would love to visit this restaurant properly to check out the full menu; the pastrami dumpling with sauerkraut and wholegrain dijon was ingenious!

I also sniffed out some great munchies at the Chelsea Market; the bacon popcorn at Liddabit Sweets, giant lobsters and shellfish at the Lobster Place, legendary brownies by the Fat Witch...

The Spotted Pig on Urbanspoon Tacombi at Fonda Nolita on Urbanspoon La Esquina on Urbanspoon Lucali on Urbanspoon
Eataly on Urbanspoon Employees Only on Urbanspoon The Mulberry Project on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Momofuku, RedFarm, Nom Wah, New York (1)

New Yorks offers a mind-blowing range of Chinese cuisine, from traditional, old school dumpling stalls to modern Chinese cuisine with creative recipes. Thankfully Mr V, aka the New York restaurant wikipedia, was never short of great suggestions around the city. Since we were spoiled for options, our only problem was to pick from a 'shortlist' of 30. 

Mister loves dumplings. If we bear this fact in mind, it would explain a lot about how we choose from the menus. 

The Momofuku franchise needs little introduction. When Mr V talked about the hirata buns, we're in.

Kimchi deviled eggs chive, wasabi tobiko shows off its modern touch of fusion. The cooked yolk was whipped to a fluffy mousse with kimchi seasoning to penetrate the flavours into an otherwise dense mass. It was a refreshing start.

Honey crisp apple kimchi maple yoghurt, bacon, arugula - this was my favourite dish, it may be due to my recent re-addiction to kimchi. The sweet chucks of apple coated with sour and spicy kimchi seasoning, paired with the thick, creamy yoghurt and streaky bacon were beautifully balanced, it was a dish with all five flavours in perfect harmony; not to mention how the apple crunch, bacon crisp and yoghurt smoothness worked like magic.

Steamed pork buns pork belly, hoisin, cucumbers, scallions & BBQ buns were one of Momofuku's signature dishes. Despite the seemingly pale hunk of pork, there was plenty of hoisin sauce to gel the veg and melty meat together inside the pillow-soft buns. Easily beats Flesh & Buns in London, simply because there were more meat with more flavours and more crunch. Fried duck dumplings romanesco, sriracha mayo were a new experience for us. While I loved the strong gaminess of the lump of duck, and the brittle crispiness of the shell, I thought there could have been a bit of veg with the duck to relieve the density of the meat. Lamb ssam flatbread, cucumber kimchi, sesame - was a very pleasant surprise. It was so much more than a wrap, the shredded pieces of lamb held the sesame sauce well with subtle streaks of fat to retain the distinctive flavours. Together with the crisp-edged flatbread, clusters of sauce-soaked rice and pickled veg, it was a delicious ensemble.

 This restaurant near Christopher Street PATH station was so brilliant that we visited twice in 5 days. Honestly Mr V didn't have to do much to sell this, as soon as he mentioned it serves great dumplings, Mister wasn't going to pass. 

Some highlights include Blue point oysters with lemon-yuzu were excellent, served with a sweet stick of melon; the fresh morsel was crisp and clean with minerals that went well with the refreshing citrusy dressing.  Pork & Crab Soup Dumplings (Xiao Long Bao) were to die for. Even compared to the renowned Ding Tai Fung in Taiwan, I would still rate this with its most flavoursome soup in the sac.

Shu Mai Shooter, Scallop & Squid Dumplings with Carrot Ginger Bisque was very interesting despite not an avid lover of shu mai. I think it was the plump, bouncy scallop that made the difference, with subtle, fragrant heat from the ginger shot. The Pac-man shrimp dumplings also proved to be a highlight, with the addition of lobster, crab, mushroom and leeks in individual dumpling. More importantly the shells had the perfect springy chew, with the sweet, bouncy shrimps, seasoned beautifully. Winner.

There were other innovations that we thought had a modern twist to them, and worked well, such as Katz's Pastrami egg roll, which was a giant variation of a spring roll, generously packed with tender pastrami and crunchy veg; Pan-fried lamb dumplings were strong in the milky lamb tang, but I would have preferred a bit of crunch to go with the juicy meat; Spicy Crispy Beef sounded so simple, yet the kitchen achieved the perfect crisp on the batter that clung onto the honey glaze, without losing the meat's tenderness; oxtail spring rolls, steamed lobster dumplings, crispy duck and crab dumplings served with green curry... the list is endless.

Nom Wah Tea Parlour (China Town)
I was so impressed by the China Town in New York. It was exactly like Hong Kong 30+ years ago, cramped with dingy grocery stores, old-fashioned dim sum parlours and dimly lit electrical stores and tiny food stalls. Compared to the constantly renovating pretty restaurants in London China Town, this area is somewhat more authentic and heart-warming.

The list of dim sum is extensive in Nom Wah, and judging from the constant queue at the door at 3pm on a weekday, it must have a reputation to live up to. I believe nostalgic would describe the restaurant quite aptly.

The har gau and snow pea and shrimp dumplings were particularly well done, but I must admit the xiao lun bao were nowhere near what Red Farm offers, I mean these ones at Nom Wah were miles off. The glutinous rice with chinese sausage and chicken feet were very close to home. Though the other dim sums weren't as impressive, I'd say they were good enough as a fix, and more importantly it's insane value for money.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar on Urbanspoon RedFarm on Urbanspoon Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Urbanspoon

15 East, New York

I may have missed out on Per Se and Eleven Madison Park (due to my naivety to think it's okay to book a week in advance during the Xmas / NYE period), but I wasn't prepared to pass up exceptional Japanese cuisine.

With a bit of fiddling about, we were seated at the sushi bar where we could see the itamae at work. My original plan was to go omakase, sample the best of 15 East. However my original plan did not factor in hitting 3 bars and nibbles before the meal. So instead I picked out all my favourites from the menu, all with a carafe of Hakkaisan. 

I won't be describing each piece in detail, but the food was simply extraordinary; each and every piece left me in awe of the chef's precision and the sheer perfection to showcase their delicate flavours. The temperature and thickness of sashimi, firmness and consistency of the rice ball were all at optimum.

Sashimi & Tartare of Bluefin Tuna - akami sashimi, toro tartare, caviar sauce
The chefs kindly split the portion into 2 for Mister and myself to share. 

Speechlessly velvety.

Yellowtail Sashimi Four Ways - kanpachi, shimaaji, hamachi, buri
From left: amber jack, striped jack, yellowtail and wild yellowtail, all paired with slightly flavoured soy sauce to bring out the individual characteristic of each. 

My favourite was wild yellowtail, which despite being slightly leaner, carried over strong fishy taste that was complemented by the smoked soy sauce. 

Hamachi - Yellowtail

Aji - Horse mackerel & King Tasmania Salmon

Oh-toro - Fatty Tuna
It's Mister's first. I'm not sure if he's got over the experience yet. He marvelled at how the fish literally melted in his mouth, leaving the fish oils to seep through the rice ball and dispersed its indulgent aroma all over. Priceless.

Hotate - Live Scallop & Mirugai - Giant Clam

Namero - Aji tartar with shiso & Ikura 

Uni, Hokkaido Japan & Uni, Maine
Another first for Mister. This one got him shaking his head in disbelief and our sushi chef laughed, "First time eh?".

We were served the Japanese sea urchin first. Personally I preferred the one from Maine. It was creamier, sweeter and had a tad more minerality in the morsels; there was more complexity to it compared to the curt and crisp Japanese uni. Mister disagreed, but Chef was on my side with this one.

Rice Pudding Tempura a la mode - Dassai sake-kasu ice cream

A phenomenal dining experience. I'd highly recommend 15 East to anyone looking for the true art of sushi and sashimi. On my next visit, I have the Tasting Menu in mind.

15 East 15 Street
New York City
Tel: 212 - 647 - 0015

15 East on Urbanspoon