Monday, 29 September 2014

La Bodega Negra - A Fake Mexican

La Bodega Negra managed to keep the heat on since its opening a couple of years ago. I had it on my radar, but the girls and I had dinner at the café when it first opened and we weren’t convinced; my trip to Casa Negra in Hoxton was no better. Perhaps the main restaurant is the real deal? My date did pretty well to pretend to be intimidated by the entrance and decided to stay well away from the sex shop neon signs until I escorted him in.

Our super cheerful server greeted us and suggested we start with some guacamole. I had a Watermelon Lush cocktail which was sweet and fruity. After our server came back to check on us 5 times, we ordered dishes from each section of the menu.

Tacos - Soft Shell Crab Chipotle Crema; Lamb Drunk Salsa
The lamb salsa tacos were quite good; a small pile of shredded pulled lamb that held the mild sauce well, wrapped in a thin, soft tortilla. The soft shell crab, however, was extremely salty. It wasn’t just an extra pinch of salt that didn’t spread properly. It was more like the chef suffered moments of Alzheimer’s and decided to season the poor crab multiple times.

Ceviche Rojo Squid, Octopus, Prawns & Salsa
I like raw food, and I usually like ceviche as long as it’s not too sour from the lime juice marinade. It's supposed to be a refreshing, summery dish; this ceviche was dressed with a thick salsa that tasted like tomato pasta sauce from a jar. The seafood itself was fine, diced to a decent size for good bounce and chew, but it could do with some crunch from chopped onions and similar veg; but the flat dressing was undoubtedly the biggest downfall. 

The hardened tortasditas chips were left untouched.

Tostaditas – Tuna Chipotle, Avocado and Jalapeno
In short, it was awful; it has I-don’t-give-a-shit written all over it. A hard disc of tortilla, topped with a slice of tuna sashimi, slice of semi-ripe avocado and a lump of chilli paste. Did anyone think this through? The hard disc of tortilla destroyed the smooth, silky textures of the raw fish; the pungent chilli paste killed the delicate fish oils and flavours; the entire ensemble was terrible.

Pork Belly Mezcal & Salsa Verde
We opted for the non-spicy version. The belly was alright, not too fatty and was slowed cooked to tenderness, soaked up the flavours from the mild salsa well. The pork crackling, however, was a hazard. It was unbreakable. I’m guessing the thick pig skin was pre-deep fried and left to cool before it was reheated with the beans and salsa, hence the texture of an oil-drenched cardboard. Oh and I don’t like beans.

It’s obvious La Bodega Negra didn’t win me over. While the ambience of the restaurant was playfully intimate and the cocktails delicious, the food was simply not up to scratch. One would expect a Mexican restaurant to get the basics right, yet the kitchen here can’t even control their seasoning, not to mention the sloppy cooking in general. Maybe I prefer the simple, dirty street Mexican food that is bursting with bold flavours and flare, and this gimmicky “semi-fine-dining” setting is simply not my scene.

9 Old Compton Street
Tel: 0207 758 4100

La Bodega Negra on Urbanspoon
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Monday, 22 September 2014

Searcy's at The Gherkin

Searcy’s at the Gherkin opened their top floor restaurant for non-members for a few weeks in summer (21 July – 4 Sept); just in time for my parents visit in the summer. We booked for brunch on a Sunday.

The security procedures for going up to the restaurant were overwhelming. We started with ID verification at the reception, followed by an X-ray security scan. Then we were escorted up the elevator to level 35(?) where we checked in our coats, then up another set of elevators to the restaurant, where we were finally released from close surveillance.

And boom! We were treated to a magnificent view of London. Though we have been to other high-rise restaurants in the city, like Duck & Waffle and The Shard, there is something about the Gherkin. It must be the multi-storey high ceiling and the 360 panoramic view that makes this so much more spectacular than the others.

Serrano ham, Eggs Benedict
Most of us went for eggs benedict. You can’t go wrong with this combination.

Waldorf salad, oxford blue and mayonnaise
Mingson wasn’t mad about the salad; think he found the cheese too strong, the icy pickled apple to acidic and the walnut too bitter too burnt. That said waldorf salad is not his usual choice because he doesn’t eat celery…

Salmon, new potato salad, mango, spinach
The salmon was lightly cured to retain its sashimi texture, bouncy and soft. The gentle curing brought out the fishy flavours from the salmon, which worked well with the fruity sweetness from the mango puree.

Truffle risotto
The truffle aroma was insanely strong, deeply infused with the creamy risotto. This was as good as the Gauthier Soho risotto, if not better. The only thing with truffle risotto, however, is that regardless of how well it’s made, the flavours get slightly numbing half way through because the truffle essence is so dominating. Once in a while is fine though.

Dark Chocolate Mousse, Marshmallows, Mint Hot Chocolate
Our server poured the mint hot chocolate sauce at the table. I don’t usually like mint chocolate, but because the dark chocolate was so rich, the mint worked really well to lift it. The scary fluorescent green marshmallow resembled a piece of polystyrene with highlighter spilled all over it, I didn’t touch them.

Strawberry & Cream
The lightest option from the menu, and we asked for the cream to be served on the side.

Lemon tart, raspberry sorbet
We had the pleasure of witnessing some dramatic weather conditions during our brunch. It started with clear blue skies, then a wave of thick clouds swept across the sky, bringing a massive storm and it started bucketing down. Back to blue skies before dessert.

Brunch at the Gherkin was an awesome experience. As mentioned, there is something spectacular about the view with the glass ceiling. It may not be the tallest, but perhaps the most extraordinary. The food was safe; reserved recipes that were well executed and beautifully presented. I can’t say it prompted me to apply for an annual membership straight away, but I am very glad I took Mama and Papa Chan here.

Level 39
The Gherkin
30 St Mary Axe
Tel: 0207 071 5052
Searcys, The Gherkin Bar on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 15 September 2014

Opso - A Modern Hellenist

It’s a miserable Sunday morning; it’s been pouring for hours and I have been woken up way too early by the arrhythmic drumming of raindrops. Grrr. At least I had brunch to look forward to.

It’s not really clear what Opso does. The décor suggests it’s a café with a larger communal table in the middle surrounded by smaller ones dotted around it; the menu suggests something more ambitious with a mixture of small plates, brunch dishes and meaty dishes. Our French server explained the dishes were inspired by Greek cuisine and modern touches.

We started with a couple of pink smoothies (strawberry & greek yoghurt) while I was trying to make sense of the menu.

Pancakes with cream cheese, strawberry ham and blueberries
I don’t usually have pancakes for brunch, but this was quite pleasant – fluffy and buttery, not too sweet or heavy with the cream cheese. The frozen blueberries, however, were odd. Odd in the sense that the frozen fruits were brittle and icy, and it clashed with the softness of the pancake. The fruity sweetness was also destroyed by the freezing, so it was like having citrusy crushed ice on top. I wasn’t a fan.

Cod Tempura served with ‘skodalia’ spread, roast beetroots and shaved walnut
Mister said skodalia is supposed to be a very strong, pungent garlic sauce - the kitchen here has definitely toned the garlic down to what resembles a garlic aioli. The cod fillet was fleshy, succulent and slithery, wrapped in a thin, greaseless batter. The subtly sweet beetroot cubes added another dimension to the dish and worked surprisingly well with the creamy sauce. Good dish.

Snails n’ Chips 
I’m an avid lover for snails; I have to order it when it’s on the menu, despite Mister’s disapproving frown. That said he did show me the most gourmet way to suck the snail morsel out of the shell by cracking a hole at the swirly bit at the top. How come the French never showed me this?

The snails were absolutely delicious, squidgy and bouncy with an earthy tone, laden with a meaty, savoury sauce and bits of bacon. The only criticism is the amount of oil in the dish that drenched the potato cubes to a scary sogginess, could have been more light-handed.

I enjoyed Opso. The dishes had interesting combination of ingredients; some worked better than the others but full marks for trying. I still couldn’t put a finger on what kind of restaurant Opso aims to be, perhaps Greek dishes with a British twist, or modern European dishes with a Greek touch? It didn't matter - I would come back for a late morning / afternoon snack if I happen to be in the neighbourhood. 

10 Paddington Street
Tel: 0207 487 5088
Opso on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 8 September 2014

Hutong at the Shard

Needless to say only an ultra stylish venue is good enough for my brother’s graduation dinner; he wouldn’t settle for anything less.

We arrived around 6:30pm for an early seating so we get both day and night views of the city. The floor was divided into private dining rooms, a bar area and the main dining room with a bonsai-style tree in the middle. Despite the natural light Papa Chan kept asking if they were going to switch the lights on – fair enough it was a groggy day. Turns out they dim the lights even further as night falls.

Thinly cut pork belly with cucumber slices marinated in chilli and garlic sauce
The cooled belly slices were crunchy and greaseless, its cleanness amplified by the crisp cool cucumber. The essence of the dish is the chilli and garlic sauce on the side; extremely garlicky and pungent at first, then the heat and spiciness slowly creeps in to take over but disappears before it becomes a tastebud-numbing overkill. It was perfectly measured.

Dim Sum Platter: Rose Champagne dumpling, scallop and pumpkin dumpling, crystal crab meat dumpling & mushroom and vegetables dumpling (2 each)
These sound much more exciting on paper. Pretty regular stuff - the prawns were full of bounce and crunch; scallops were sweet and tender; crab was the best of the lot with the soft shredded meat. The shells, however, were too sticky and moist – could have been better. Red Farm in New York would have blown these out of the water. Easy.

Roasted Peking Duck served in 2 stages

Chef skilfully carved the thin, crispy skin from the whole roasted duck at the table, with just a modest layer of duck fat attached to the skin to give it the nutty fragrance. There were also a few meaty slices to beef up the pancakes, which were brilliant.

The remainder of the duck was diced and stir-fried with some onions and peppers, served with lettuce leaves. Quite a simple dish but very well done with just enough crunch and gamey flavours.

Aromatic beef rib braised in lotus leaf
This was a massive dish, not the prettiest I know, but the rib initially arrived wrapped in lotus leaves. Then our server effortlessly tore the meat off the bone at the table, with the sauce served on the side.

The meat was exceptionally tender, but it was lacking the beefy flavours we usually get from slow-cook cuts.  Not sure where the juices leaked to, or the lotus leaves aroma… The sauce resembled a thin peppercorn and mushroom sauce and clung nicely onto the meat. Good effort.

Golden jade tofu pan-fried tofu with leek and coriander sauce
It’s possibly the sloppiest dish of the evening – one could tell from the blasé bunch of coriander garnish. The pan-fried tofu soaked up the viscous sauce, which was oozing out of the puffy shell as I bit into it. The tofu itself was okay, not the silky, fragile Japanese ones, but better than the cheap, firm, porous blocks. It was alright.

Seafood fried rice with dried salty fish and ginger
This was excellent. Not only were the basics (rice, moisture, grease, ratios etc.) spot-on, the salty fish gave it the authenticity stamp; its distinctive pungent aroma brought back great childhood memories. It’s probably marmite material, as westerners may find salty fish a tad offensive on the nose.

Hutong Dan Dan Noodle with minced pork and peanut sauce in chilli soup
Similarly I was very impressed by the dan dan noodle (aka Tantanmen for those who have been following the ramen trend). The thick broth was a concentration of peanut and sesame essence, with an undertone of chilli heat that gradually builds up. Noodles were silky and al-dente – great slurp. At £10 a pop (priced per person portion), it’s extortionate by any standard. That said I thought it was well worth a try.

Pan-fried Red bean Paste Pancake & Mango Pancake Roll
The desserts were weak, not to mention miniscule. The pancake itself was thin, unfortunately the red bean paste layer was even thinner, as if the kitchen had ran out of paste and made do with whatever they could scrap from the side of the tin. But it was not as pathetic as the mango pancake roll. I wasn’t expecting the HK-style cream-filled pancakes packed with generous cubes of sweet, juicy Pilipino mangoes, but this was taking the piss - a bland sheet with four tiny dices of tasteless Australian mangoes hidden in the folds, by tiny I mean 0.5cm x 0.5cm x 0.5cm. I know because the roll fell apart instantly to reveal the (lack of) filling. At £6.50 surely your fat margin could afford you to do better.

I did mention it to our server; she apologised and said would reflect it to the manager. That was that.

Most would agree that we were paying for the view and location. The food was good, not mind-blowing, and sorely overpriced as expected. Similar to my opinion on most fine-dining Chinese restaurants, there is something forced about ‘posh-ifying’ Chinese cuisine. Hutong has done it better than most; at least the traditional dishes were done well.

Out of the Hutong, Oblix and Aqua, I would say Hutong is best value for money & quality for dining at the Shard. Aqua is great for a drink but my lunch there was mediocre and quite small; Oblix is ridiculously priced with limited tables with a good view. Oh and the toilets at Hutong were breath-taking.

Level 33
The Shard
31 St. Thomas Street
Tel: 0203 011 1257
Hutong on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 1 September 2014

Pampering at Petrus

Petrus has been sitting on my list for a while, just haven’t found the excuse to make a booking. Then it was decided that we don’t need an excuse for an occasion, or an occasion to take me out for dinner. How spoilt I am.

We were introduced to the menu as the nibbles were brought to us. The steamed chicken oyster was subtly fragrant and tender, which was a nice contrast to the fragile rice cracker with a potent wasabi kick. 
Then the bread made an entrance from a sack, with freshly churned butter as well as olive oil. Next came the amuse bouche tomato tartar with aged comte as our sommelier decanted our wine. I almost forgot how much I like being fussed around.

Foie Gras Parfait with golden beetroot, port and voatsiperifery pepper
The parfait was wrapped in a beautiful deep purple coat, luscious velvety without being too dense; whipped to the perfect consistency to go with the warm brioche on the side. The foie gras flavours were powerful and intense, with touches of sweetness that complemented well. The not-a-typo-but-unpronounceable-pepper was ultra subtle, just a tinge on the nose to give it small twist.

Roasted hand dived scallops peas, lettuce, lardo di Colonnata, crème fraiche and lemon thyme
Seeing the scallops was on the tasting menu, I decided this over the rabbit loin.

This is a familiar dish; most French restaurants are serving something similar on their menu. As expected, the plump scallops were perfectly roasted to give a crispy edge and a creamy, semi-cooked centre, paired with crunchy peas minus the raw earthy tones. The toasted lardo was a touch of finesse for me, giving the subdued nuttiness without overloading the grease.

Herdwick mutton cooked over charcoal with vadouvan, smoked aubergine, mint and sheep’s yoghurt
The mutton loin was cooked to a beautiful medium, soft, bouncy and succulent with subdued gamey flavours. There was a Middle Eastern touch to the dish with the smoked aubergine and minty yoghurt, both worked really well with the meat.  It reminded me of the lamb dish I had at Typing Room, only this version was much more controlled, the sweetness was more reined in and the smokiness was less overpowering. It was a balanced ensemble.

Black Galloway ox cheek with alliums, smoked bone marrow and shallot sauce

Compared to the mutton, I thought the ox cheek was less impressive. The cheek was slow-cooked to a delicate tenderness, with the shreds of meat disintegrating into the smooth puree as Mister pressed his knife onto the ball of meat. The sauce was light but concentrated with bovine flavours, which the shredded cheek mopped up. It was still slightly leaning towards the dry side for me, I wish there was more melty, gelatinous cartilage that intertwines the lean muscles, or that the sauce infiltrated the mass more to moisten the cheeks. Perhaps my version is nowhere near as refined and elegant, I daresay it’s more rustic and comforting.


Chocolate sphere, milk ice cream and honeycomb
This arrived at the table as a perfect sphere and was sparkling with golden speckles. Then the server slowly poured warm chocolate sauce over the thin shell, which melted away to reveal the ball of ice cream and nuggets of honeycomb inside. It was extremely rich and indulgent, and guiltily satisfying.

Chilled melon salad with Lavender Ice Cream
I only wish I could say this had the same dramatic effect as the chocolate sphere. A much lighter dessert with an array of melons rounded off with honey dew puree; the lavender ice cream was a delightful touch that added much fragrance to the fruits.

I had a wonderful evening at Petrus. The team was attentive and professional without being cold; we were adequately looked after without feeling intruded. The cooking was meticulous and skilful, all dishes were executed with precision. There may not be any daring moves in the recipes, but everything was exuding finesse and sophistication. Petrus had good food, great wine and together with the fantastic company I had, I could not have been happier.

1 Kinnerton Street
Tel: 0207 592 1609

Petrus on Urbanspoon