Saturday, 19 July 2014

Arabica Bar & Kitchen - Only in Thought

So after 8 days of Israel and Jordan, it looks like I didn't get enough of hummus and chickpeas and decided to hit the newly opened Arabica Bar & Kitchen in Borough Market. Maybe it was my way of extending my holiday.  

Moutabel - Smoked aubergine, tahini, garlic, olive oil & lemon 
Tarama - whipped cod's roe, olive oil & lemon juice 
We ordered a couple of dips to nibble on while we were deciding on what else to order. Although I was pretty hummus-ed out, I did grow an addiction to this smokey aubergine and tahini mix. It was nowhere as good as what we had in Jordan, wasn't smoky enough, the aubergine flavours were too subtle and the sesame aroma didn't come through. Quite disappointed. The tamara dip was better; it was just like taramasalata.

Armenian-style Lahmacun - Flatbread with spiced lamb, tomato, onion, peppers and pine kernels 
It was the first thing Shan spotted on the menu. I think I had something similar in Turkey, like a mini pizza, except the ones we had in Turkey were twice the size and double the meat toppings. The flat bread could have been better with a lighter and crispier base, this was quite hard and dense. The spiced minced lamb was good though, plenty of meaty fragrance from the grease.

Lamb Kibbeh & Spinach Kibbeh - Bulgar wheat croquette stuffed with spiced lamb / spinach, onions, pine kernels and sumac.
The croquettes were really well made, the potato layer was just thick enough to give it substance without overloading it; both the lamb and spinach fillings were succulent with some good chew from the nuts and veg

Label Anglais chicken wings - marinated in Lebanese 7 spiced yoghurt, lemon and oregano 
I thought the chicken wings were the best of the lot, probably because I really like wings. The skin soaked up the marinade and the combination of spices was balanced, the meat was soft and tender but overcooked to fall off the bone. The yoghurt smear on the side helped to cool the spices and kept the dish light and refreshing. 

Beef & Bone Marrow Kofta (served rare) with roasted tomato, red onion and Turkish chilli
This was supposed to be a signature dish and turned out to be the biggest disappointment. First of all, it wasn't served rare; there was perhaps a trace of pinkness in the middle of the meat balls, but pretty sure the beef was cooked through. This dried out the meat, and the texture was grainy and rough on the mouth feel. Then we couldn't spot the bone marrow in the meat, there was no bovine fragrance, no buttery richness, just a ball of dry mince. The seasoning was also lacking, and we ended up dipping the meat balls into the yoghurt from the wings. Meh.

We didn't stay for dessert. Though Shan and I could really do with some knafeh, we weren't really impressed by any of the dishes we had today. I was very underwhelmed by Arabica Kitchen & Bar. Perhaps the cuisine tastes better when I was on holiday, perhaps the food has lost its authenticity here or the kitchen just wasn't strong enough. Moreover when I have been paying 2 pounds for some great quality hummus in the MIddle East, I find it somewhat hard to justify paying 4.5 for something half the quality and quantity. I might just stick to their baklava at the stall in the market.

3 Rochester Walk
Borough Market
Tel: 0203 011 5151

Arabica Bar and Kitchen on Urbanspoon You may also like: NOPIElliot's CafeJose

Monday, 7 July 2014

Feast with the Beast

I can't remember the last time I was this excited about writing a review. This beast is special.

From the guys behind Goodman and Burger & Lobster, came another specialised menu restaurant of steak and crab. The underground restaurant is hidden behind Oxford Street with no marked entrance. I only took a punt with the massive bronze bear in the hallway and was invited to take the lift down to the restaurant. I was greeted by a huge tank of swimming Norwegian king crabs, next to slabs of beautiful beef being dry-aged. 

As I was sipping on my Knickerbocker at the bar, Divy offered me a quick intro to see the custom made Texan grill; glaring coal in the middle of the grill rocking the temperature up to 6-700 degrees, searing the dictionary-thick steaks in no time. To quote Divy, it's a beast. 

The dining room is organised by 3 long benches with overhanging medieval style candelabras to create a Hogwarts / Oxbridge banquet ambiance. This works well for groups, and couples are mostly sat beside each other. Some say it's slightly awkward to have strangers sitting opposite them during a date; I don't mind it much as it allows another type of casual intimacy, and it also meant I didn't need to shout across the bench.

Our feast began with the a quarter-wheel of Parmesan, pickled artichokes and onions and olives, served on a silver tray. We weren't sure what to do with the balsamic vinegar and olive oil, though apparently the viscous, sweet vinegar is supposed to go really well with the powerful and nutty cheese. We went easy on the nibbles to save space for the steak and crab to come, and I was a tad conscious of having onion and cheesy breath. 

About half an hour later the first of the two mains arrived - The steaks are dry aged for 30-60 days, on our evening, this beautiful hunk of meat was dry aged for 6 weeks, plenty of time to pack the flavours in. Approx 700-800g of rib-on-bone per pair, I think they throw in some sirloin for the third leg. I love my rib-eyes. Our server recommended medium as opposed to my usual medium rare, because it allows more melting of the rich marbling on the Nebraskan steaks - okay. 

The two-inch thick cut came sliced to show off its ruby red centre, piping hot and no leakage on the skillet. And this could be the juiciest and most flavoursome rib-eye in the history of beef - exploding with fatty goodness and meaty succulence, it's the highest quality of steak one could only dream of and simply exquisite. The truffle sauce was also delicious though not necessary. All came with perfectly dressed leaves and smoked heritage tomatoes.

I didn't think it was possible, but things got even better with the arrival of the Norwegian king crab. The long legs of the crab were incredibly fleshy, just some gentle tearing of the cracked shell exposes the long sword of muscles, which were moist and firm, oozing the freshness and sweetness of the Arctic Sea. The taste of fresh crab is just unbeatable, so delicate, so clean and sweet; it quite effortlessly blows fresh lobster out of the water. It came with two sauces, creamy lemon butter and a lighter soy sauce with sweet chilies, and some excellent roast carrot, beans and celeriac. 

I wish I could rewind this dinner and put it on loop.

The feast finished with a choice of desserts: lemon mousse and deconstructed cheesecake. They were pretty unnecessary. If we could have it our way, we'd have the king crab as starters, beef and more king crab and then finish with a serving of king crab. Apparently that wasn't an option - what a shame.

At £75 per head without drinks, Beast is not an everyday diner. And yea okay it's pretty steep, but honestly I thought it was fair. For the quality of steak and crab they offer, it's definitely worth forking out for. Service was friendly and staff were passionate about the food they were serving, the mains were out-of-this-world and there a fun vibe about the place. Like I said, some may not like their concept and sitting arrangement, but for the more open-minded who enjoys something special, Beast is THE place.

3 Chapel Place
Tel: 0207 496 1816

Friday, 4 July 2014

Petra, Wadi Rum & Amman, Jordan

The short walk from the Israeli border was like a time tunnel that took us back by 20 years. The border control officials were friendly and welcoming as they issued our visas, but things were more worn out with a thick layer of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. There were plenty of taxis outside the terminal, a taxi tide to Aqaba city centre was 7JD. There was a board that listed standard prices for a range of destinations including Petra, Wadi Rum and Amman, which saves a lot of haggling. 

Despite being a Red Sea resort area, the conservative nature of the country did not budge. I thought it was okay to walk around in shorts and t-shirt - wrong. I was decidedly uncomfortable with the staring and constant hooting from every other car on the road. Not flattering, just downright scary. We had dinner at Ali Baba based on recommendations by fellow travellers, and it was absolutely brilliant, especially their signature fish pot! 

We left InterContinental for Wadi Rum by taxi the following morning,  25JD - approx 1hr drive. I do have this feeling that everyone knows everyone here. We were greeted by Salman at the Wadi Rum Visitor Centre, who took us in his truck and drove another 10mins into the Wadi Rum village, where he led us to his house, shared some tea and a light lunch before setting off our camel ride. 

A couple of years ago I went to the Sahara and fell in love with it. Wadi Rum is very different, it's a rocky desert so instead of an ever-changing landscape of sand dunes, the sparse land were adorned by gigantic, breath-taking rock structures. It also meant there were more shades to hide from the scorching sun, and some steep valleys to explore. It's impossible to capture the vastness of the landscape and its soothing serenity. 

We spent a starry night in the desert in the bedouin camps, which was so much more developed than I expected. The camps in Sahara were real camps, as in tents and blankets on the sand. These camps were more like tiny cottages with beds, solar power and even toilet facilities! While the basic facilities helps, it somewhat loses the authenticity of the experience. Personally I preferred the Sahara style, where we gathered around an open fire, shared massive tagines by dim candlelight and danced the night away to their customary instruments. 

We woke at 5 to catch the sun rise. After a simple breakfast, we were taken back to the village, and then taxi to Petra, 35-40JD - 1.5hrs. Before entering Wadi Musa, our driver stopped at the top of the valley to show us Petra from atop, and if we were to walk the full distance, we are looking at 18-20km a day. I'm game.  

We stayed at Petra Guest House, which was the closest one could get to the entrance of Petra. In fact, the hotel Cave Bar was actually one of the tombs. A large concentration of hotels were in Wadi Musa town centre, which was 2km away from the entrance. Personally I thought our location was ideal, good restaurants nearby and very close to the bus for Amman.  We went for a 2-day access, 55JD each (bring your passport to show you are staying in Jordan). Tourists who were not staying in Jordan would be charged a whooping 90JD for one day.
There were people offering donkeys, camels and horse carriages - we chose to walk - the full distance from entrance to the Monastery and beyond. While we followed the main path, there were various diversions from the Monastery with random arrows painted on rocks, I decided to follow them and was rewarded by gob-smacking views. 

Petra was as magnificent as people make it out to be, and more. So much so that we returned the following day to climb the Roman Steps to the High Place of Sacrifice and saw the ancient city from top. 

For the leg between Petra and Amman, we decided to take the bus. Taxi would have been 70JD; bus was 9.5JD each. There was only 1 coach a day that leaves for Amman from Petra, in the carpark behind the visitor centre, at 5pm. No one in the entire town were able to definitively tell us what time the bus leaves, some says 4, some says 5. Truth is, the bus comes in from Amman in the morning, and they have reserved seats to take these people back. Therefore only the spare seats, if any, would be available for extras. There were LOTS of people from the shops telling us that they have reserved seats for us blah blah blah - I just didn't know who to believe. So, the best thing to do, is to reserve your seat online, at least 24 hrs before hand. ( 

Amman is... confusing. It's a city that has sprawled across a mountain, with the majority of roads on steep hills. We stayed in the business district where roads were wide and junctions were intimidating. Yet 10-minutes away was the downtown area that pretty much looked like Miami in 1960s. Our first stop was Harshem in downtown, where the king and his family eats. I was pretty excited to be eating with the locals, always a fan of authentic street eats. There were, of course, no menus, so we just asked for a mix. It came with the most delicious hummus, some lentils, falafels and warm bread with sweet tea. All for 4JD! 

This little hut called Habbibah selling dessert is unbelievable. You queue outside the little booth to place your order, a small portion of the knafeh (pronounced nam) goes for JD 0.60. OMG - I had two in a day. There is another sweet shop called Habbibeh closer to the markets, and I bought some baklava to munch on - amazing. 

Despite the hustle and bustle of the markets, it's just unlikely that we'd end up buying much. So we climb to Rainbow Street, which was a completely different atmosphere, lined with cute cafes and bar for the young, trendy locals. We went to Books@Cafe, which was a two-storey house with a roof top terrace that overlooks the city. Had some watermelon & mint shisha to breathe like the locals. 

One more snack that we had was from Ameer directly opposite the mosque, called 'shut-a', which was a small wrap with a crushed falafel, a spread of chilli sauce and french fries. Sounds odd, tastes awesome. 

We had dinner at O'berg / Auberge, which was recommended by a local. They don't have traditional Jordanian dishes, but serve some good fish. 

It had been an awesome trip. It did end with one bad taxi driver; he snatched notes from us after claiming our notes were 'old and finished', then started yelling and tried to hit us. For safety we just got out of the cab, took a photo of the number plate and reported to the tourist police. In general I found Jordanians friendly and helpful, and you get bad people in any city.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Jerusalem, Dead Sea & Eilat - Israel

Our Israel and Jordan Trip began at Tel Aviv, where we picked up our car and immediately started making our way to Jerusalem. I would have loved to spend some time in Tel Aviv, everyone raves on about the dining and drinking scene at this party capital - but I have a feeling I can always come back. 

Our little KIA Picanto did well to get us up the hilly roads in Jerusalem - Mister may disagree. After checking into the hotel, we made our way to the Old City via the Damascus Gate, which leads us into the Muslim quarter. I must say it's the least pleasant quarter... 

We wandered around to the Jewish quarter and saw hundreds of Jews making their way to pray at the Wailing Wall at the beginning of Sabbath. Quite a sight. 

Given everything closes during Sabbath, we decided to bob like a cork at the Dead Sea today. Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek are the 2 popular public beaches, but we decided to hit Mineral Beach at an entrance fee of 60 ISN each. Just thought it'd be less crowded. In addition to a very well maintained beach, there was a sulphur hot pool, fresh water pool, mud spa and massage treatments with additional charge. 

The water was beautifully clear and most importantly, very warm. So we floated away for a couple of hours, smeared mud all over ourselves and worked up a gorgeous tan. 

Jerusalem wakes from Sabbath after sunset, which is pretty late in June. The bars and restaurants came back to life around 10pm, and Mahane Yehuda market was a very cool place to be, where trendy young locals were catching up over a few drinks and nibbles. We did well in getting a couple of seats at Machneyuda's sister restaurant (see separate review)

There are two routes from Jerusalem to Eilat, where we plan to cross the border over to Jordan. I heard Route 40 was a more scenic route with Mitspe Ramon and mountainous views. That would involve driving through Hebron. Our hotel strongly advised against it because of issues and unrest at the time. So we stuck to Route 90 along Dead Sea (again). Except this time we stopped briefly at Masada.

We did switch over to Route 12 nearer south, however, just to change things up and touched the Egyptian border. The view as we descend into Eilat was absolutely stunning. 

The crossing between Eilat and Aqaba was simple enough. It was a short 5min ride from Eilat city centre to the border, which was empty around 5pm! First we went to pay for the fee (ISN 209 for two ppl, ISN 107 for one), took the receipt and went through to passport control - done. We just walked across to the Jordanian border. 

Machneyuda's Little Sister: יודל'ה בר ליד השוק , Jeruslem

We were caught in Sabbath in Jerusalem, and to say the city sleeps during Sabbath is an understatement - the city shuts down, even public transport stops running. Our hotel told us things would start opening again around 7pm, so we drove back to Mahane Yehuda market, hoping to find recommended eats like Rachmo - all firmly closed. 

Around 9pm we saw a couple of bars and restaurants waking up, including the renowned Machneyuda. Despite knowing they have a crazy waiting list, I rocked up with a hopeful grin to ask if they have any availability. The answer was obviously no, but the lady did suggest we try their sister restaurant across the road, a cute open kitchen that doesn't even have a name. Got our names down for 9:45pm - when it opens. 

Good thing we had our names down too as a crowd started to gather and queues began to form. Before we knew it the place was buzzing and wines and cocktails started flowing. I chose a refreshing watermelon-based cocktail as we studied the menu: 

Beef Tataki, glass noodles and Sareache sauce, oh yeah
Mister particularly enjoyed the kicks from the hot sauce, which went well with the vermicelli lightly dressed in soy sauce. The thick cuts of beef was gently seared on the outside to leave a ruby, rare centre, packed with bovine richness. 

Arab spring fish tartar with spicy watermelon soup and whipped Brinza cheese
My tartar was equally impressive with cubes of diced fatty fish and crunchy vegetable dressed with the most tantalising watermelon juice that was nicely balanced by the whipped cheese cream. 

Livers, cauliflower cream, wine sauce
This could be the best liver dish I have ever tasted; the slab of liver was just cooked to avoid the dry, grainy textures, instead it was smooth, almost creamy with powerful flavours. The slight bitterness of the creamy cauliflower was the perfect match. 

Black label Risotto with mussels, Calamari heads, asparagus, artichoke, Saffron
The squid ink risotto was absolutely packed with seafood - bouncy squid, plump mussels, slithery fish fillets. It was a plateful of oceanic bliss. 

Do you know cheese cake? Better!

Cookie, chocolate and ice cream
Never could I imagine a bigger oreo cookie, sandwich with vanilla ice cream. Got a bit too much towards the end though. 

It was such a delightful find. The vibe was incredible, the food was modern and the service was most friendly. We were looked after by the sous-chef in charge of the appetiser station, she was simply charming - made great recommendations, cute chats, forced limoncello down our throats, and even held up a metallic board as a reflector as I snap away photos. The food was more modern European than Israeli, and definitely up there in terms of execution and creativity. Loved it.

יודל'ה בר ליד השוק (click on the first one under sister's) 
Beit Yakov 11 

Tel: +972 2-533-3442