Monday, 27 October 2014

Ippudo - The Great Expectation

The wait is finally over. Cynthia recommended Ippudo last Christmas when I was in New York, but there was too much to eat and too little time. So when we heard it was opening in London, I had it on my radar. Seeing Cynthia is on her Aussieland adventure, she missed out on the grand opening night. Luckily Will was ready with a ramen craving after his Kilimanjaro trek. 

The place was buzzing; chefs busy at work behind the steaming ramen bar, club music in the background and the cheerful, also startling, roar of "irasshaimaseby the waiting team every time their customers get seated. While everything felt slightly out of place, I took comfort in the number of Japanese supporters in the queue, maybe a bit of an authentication stamp. We were seated at the ramen bar downstairs.  The menu looked incredible, we wanted to order everything, well, I did. 

Tako Wasabi Raw baby octopus with freshly chopped wasabi
We started with a mini starter. The octopus was diced into tiny cubes mixed with fresh horseradish that brought a mild hint of wasabi. Personally I prefer the thrill of strong, pungent wasabi punches that attacks my olfactory senses, gets tears in my eyes and mini explosions at the back of my throat, in a good way. This was probably too mild, too safe, but still loved the playful sliminess and bounce.

Bakuretsu Tofu Stewed spicy tofu with minced chicken and crunchy ramen noodles, served in a sizzling pot
The broth in this pot was delicious, first was the miso sweetness before the heat from the spices crept in, bringing a surge of warmth throughout the body; the spiciness was tolerable, tantalising instead of tongue-numbing. A good mix of textures too - tofu was silky and fragile, tender dices of chicken meat, and a sprinkle crispy ramen, softened by soaking up the soup. It was a very comforting dish.

Hakata Tonpu-Yaki A savoury pancake with sliced pork belly and cabbage, prepared with Ippudo's signature pork broth, topped with okonomiyaki sauce, Japanese mayonnaise and hanakatsuo served on a sizzling iron plate
This was an okonomiyaki on an iron plate, it didn't even need to be served on a sizzler, but hey. A good one nevertheless. There were large slices of pork wedged in the dough, which were a tad too lean and chewy for my liking, but with enough mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce, good crunch from the vegetable, this can't go wrong.

Shiromaru Hakata Classic Signature original tonkotsu pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped it pork loin chashu, sesame kikurage mushrooms, bean sprouts and spring onions
And this is what we came for.

I didn't realise the ramen didn't come with an onsen egg. I usually get upset when they only serve half a soft boiled marinated egg, to have none at all was bordering offensive. You need to order it as a side add-on. Huff.

The broth fell a bit short at my first slurp. It was thick and creamy without being groggy, which was good, however I thought the flavour was quite flat. It was rich and savoury but lacked depth, it didn't have layers that developed with the noodles. The noodles had some bite to it, could be more springy. Sadly chashu failed. The meat was grainy and dry, way too lean and thinly sliced. I have had better elsewhere.

Akamaru Modern A bolder translation of the original pork broth; homemade thin noodles topped with Ippudo's secret Umami Dama paste, pork belly chashu, bean sprouts, sesame kikurage mushrooms, spring onions and fragrant garlic oil
This version made slightly more impact on the first sip, perhaps it was the extra Umami Dama paste that gave the broth more complexity. I thought this was tastier at the beginning, but as Will pointed out, it became too salty around half way through the bowl. Like the classic version, the whole thing fell flat. 

The ramen at Ippudo didn't blow me away. Out of the key elements for the perfect bowl, I'm not sure if Ippudo ticked any of the boxes. It was mostly good but not great. That said I have been told New York and Japan have very different interpretations. Maybe this one was catering for the London appetite...? While I may not return for the ramen, I wouldn't object to coming back for the rest of the menu if others insist on trying, their hirata bun and black cod fish and chips do sound intriguing.

As for ramen, maybe Kanada-Ya across the road?

3 Central St. Giles Piazza
St Giles HIgh Street
Tel: 0207 240 4469

Ippudo London on Urbanspoon
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Monday, 20 October 2014

Four to Eight - Floating Mid-way

I’m often asked why my blog seems so light on Italian restaurant reviews. While I do enjoy the occasional pasta and traditional homecooking, I think Italian is relatively simple and it’s good as long as the ingredients are fresh, which is a luxury we don't have in this country.  Then there is this new breed of modern Italian cuisine, lighter pasta dishes and smaller plates to share. Four to Eight falls in this category.

It was their soft launch; they have only been running for a week on the evening Mister and I visited. We were seated on the ground floor, next to the bar in the middle of the dining room - simplistic, Scandinavian-style décor. Our server was full of smiles but was short of recommendations - apparently she tried and loved everything on the menu, and couldn’t’ highlight a favourite. That’s never a great sign, just means nothing stood out.  

Zucchini Carpaccio truffle honey dressing & pecorino cheese
By the time our dishes arrived the bread still didn’t make an appearance, so we just cancelled it.

Thinly sliced courgettes with a very light drizzle of dressing, topped with truffle shavings and crumbs of pecorino. It’s a simple combination, but the dish was tipped off balanced. The dressing was very faint and its honey sweetness was barely detectable, the good thing was the truffle fragrance was even more tamed so it wasn’t an overkill. But the courgettes weren’t sweet enough so all I could taste was the nutty pecorino. In my humble opinion, I would slice the courgettes even thinner to tone down the obtrusive crunch and bring out their flavours more.

Mister could not have been more disinterested.

Pigeon honey beets, grapes & Treviso
Pigeons were cooked to a good medium, tender and moist with a slight chew to bring out their gaminess. Again the dish was off balance with the overly sweet cubes of beets, there was an unpleasant artificial sweetness that brought out the acidity of the grapes. It was a good idea that needs fine-tuning.

Mister doesn’t like pigeon.

Head to Tail Cannelloni beetroot, onion & horseradish
Head to tail refers to the oxtail and ox tongue in the stuffing. It sounded like a great idea; super tender oxtail with some chew from ox tongue would have given excellent mouth feel. Unfortunately this fell short on delivery - the shreds of oxtail lacked juices to hold the meats together. The cannelloni may have been topped with sauce, but it was dried and cracked to leave a blanket of blandness…

Beef Brisket oregano, polenta & kale
This was a dense brick of dry mass. As I cut into the hulk of beef, my knife was battling with the tangling shreds that simply wouldn't break apart. We asked for more red wine jus to moisten up the meat, but the flavours had already leaked away with the meat juice and despite dousing it with sauce, the tasteless, sinewy beef was dreadful. I felt sorry for the cow.

Our server noticed we left the brick of beef untouched, and offered to take it back. She said she tasted it and agreed it wasn’t up to the normal standard. Fine. Perhaps the kitchen was under pressure in the first week, and so pre-prepared some dishes, this one was probably re-made one too many times.

Truffled Baby Chicken hock & crème pecorino fritters, celeriac puree
After sending back the brisket, we ordered the truffled chicken instead. 

Judging from the portion, it must have been a premature baby chicken. And you know what’s really odd? I couldn’t make out which part of the chicken we were served. It had a piece of bone attached to it, which suggests it was a thigh, yet the texture of the meat was quite dense and slightly grainy, like chicken breast - albeit a tolerable one. It kind of defied the purpose of cooking a baby chicken when they couldn’t retain the tenderness of the soft muscles. No hints of truffle either, more like the regular roast chicken seasoning. The ham hock croquette on the side, however, was quite enjoyable – a very odd accompaniment to chicken I thought.

The Full House mini selection of all desserts
This could be described as a plate of torture. I’m not sure which was worse, when I had to beg for this from Mister, or when I finally had to sample what’s on the plate.

In short, it was a plateful of sugar in different shapes and colouring. The so-call deconstructed tiramisu was the worst offender, sickening whipped cream with a chewy disc of coffee. The pink sorbet was of an unrecognisable flavour, but Mister’s expression was priceless. I would have happily substituted each of them with a Waitrose equivalent, at least they were edible and I would have been at a lower risk of diabetes. It’s rare to find a full plate of failure in such a beautiful arrangement.

Generally we were underwhelmed by Four to Eight. I think they got some things right, like the size and diversity of the menu. However the kitchen appeared to be struggling with such ambitious items. I’d still give the team some credit for trying, at least they have put some thoughts into their dishes to make things more interesting, just not everything worked well together and they still needed to work on the execution. Our server did the best she could; it wasn’t her fault that the kitchen didn’t deliver. She resorted to concluding that we were hard to please; I beg to differ. 

Four to Eight
1-5 Catherine Street
Tel: 0207 240 6664
Four To Eight on Urbanspoon

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Monday, 13 October 2014

Antidote - My New Addiction

I have only heard positive things about Antidote; despite my curiosity killing me, I was subconsciously saving it for Shan’s return from his adventures in South America.  Moreover Mister doesn’t drink, so it wouldn’t do justice to a wine-focused restaurant.

When I arrived at the restaurant on the side street of Carnaby Street, I vaguely remembered having been here before with Owen over a year ago, for more wine after a session at Vinoteca on a very hazy evening.  Ah well, Antidote have changed hands since and it is now commissioned by Mikael Jonsson of the Michelin-starred Hedone.  We were seated upstairs; very simple decor of wooden floor and small wobbly tables and matching wobbly chairs. Like most upstairs restaurants in the area, loud acoustic and limited ventilation - but good enough for a casual dinner.

People talk extensively about the bread here because it’s from Hedone. I haven’t been myself, but after reading LondonEater’s review on it, I’m not sure if I am prepared to venture that far for pretentiousness. I didn’t fall head over heels for the bread here; yeah it was good but not good enough to be a highlight.

Amuse bouche of buttermilk with pickled cucumber and sorbet

Suckling Pig, black pudding, & New season English Apple
The small disc of suckling pig, hidden beneath the slices of apple, was ridiculously tender. The leaner meat was enveloped by a melty rind of lard, which literally dissolved into a mouthful of nutty fragrance. The sucking pig muscles effortlessly disintegrated and mingled with the grease, blissfully indulgent and ludicrously delicious. The apple helped to clean up the weightiness from the rich oils, leaving my palate clean and wanting more.

Pan fried Cornish Mackerel, black radish & kaffir lime
Shan’s mackerel was also cooked with precision; the skin was wafer thin and brittle while fish retained every drop of succulence, slithery in texture and rich with fishy oils. For me, it didn’t have as much impact as the suckling pig, because I like mackerel so much that I’d like it be it steamed, fried, pickled, smoked, cured or raw. That said it was a beautifully prepared dish.

Roasted Scottish Grouse, smoked barley, sloe berry & kohlrabi
I love grouse – possibly my favourite meat when they are in season. And this, I declare, is the best grouse I have ever had.

I prefer my meats as rare as one dares, so much so that I think Mister is starting to doubt my humanity. The expression on his face and the way he winced as I devoured my plate of steak tartare in Paris was... interesting.  Basically if it can be eaten raw or is safe to be eaten undercooked, like fish and good red meat, I’d rather have it that way. Anyhow, I digress.

The bird arrived ruby red without the skin, the flesh gleaming with succulence and rareness. The muscles were beautifully tender and remarkably gamey in flavour; the metallic blood-y taste was surprisingly subdued as the powerful game came through. The smoky barley complimented the potent flavours well, all reined in by the jammy berry sauce. So perfect.

Herefordshire Ox Cheek, Catriona Potato & Mushroom Beignet
Shan originally wanted the roast partridge but they ran out, so settled for ox cheek instead. I was pleasantly surprised by the ox cheek. Not the typical ball of shredded soft, slow-cooked beef, but it almost resembled a steak, a very tender and delicate steak that had texture and structure to the meat, it encouraged a tiny bit of chewing and biting to release the meat juice it held. It still had plenty of bovine flavours in the muscle, not just relying on the jus it was served with. Despite my appreciation for slow-cooked meats, I think this was the most delicious ox cheek I have tasted. It says a lot about the skill level of the kitchen.

Peanut Sponge, 70% chocolate, Damson & Toasted Hay Ice Cream

I thought the food was exceptional at Antidote – no doubt one of my culinary highlights of the year. The kitchen showed off their masterly skills without trying too hard, just the winning combination of precise execution, balanced recipes, and quality ingredients. Stunning food, gorgeous wine and incredible company – Shan, welcome back.

12A Newburgh Street
Tel: 0207 287 8488

Antidote Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, 6 October 2014

Jackson + Rye – Skinny American

It’s one of those Saturdays; I have been up since 8am, made some breakfast and been lounging around until we decided to join the crowds of summer sale late afternoon. I hate shopping; to delay the stressful experience of being assaulted by prams and shopping bags, I suggested grabbing a bite to eat in Soho first. It’s been a while since I visited Spuntino, but then caught sight of the small wooden sign of Jackson + Rye. No queue at 3pm – I’m game.

I went for the classic Bloody Mary; his J+R Mixed of Pomegranate, orange, pink grapefruit was very refreshing with pleasant bitter-sweetness. We wanted to keep this meal light, so just got a few appetisers to share.

Jalapeno Cornbread with Sour Cream & Spring Onion
I may have lost the photo of the cornbread. It arrived in a small iron tray, with the sour cream on the side. Personally I think it’s the best cornbread I’ve tasted in London. Unlike Barnyard, it doesn’t have niblets of corn, but the sweetness is also less overpowering. This bread was moist and soft with the perfect density to give it enough spring without losing substance. The fragrant spring onion sour cream worked very well too.

Truffled Mac & Cheese with parmesan sauce, crispy topping
This was surprisingly light, nothing like the typical heavy dish drowned in white sauce with swollen macaroni, just super-thin pasta lightly dressed with a truffle-infused cheese sauce, topped with sprinkles of parmesan and tiny specks of the fungi. The truffle aroma was subdued, paired well with the nuttiness from parmesan and gave the dish a posh touch.

Chopped Raw Tuna Crème fraiche, salad, smoked paprika
The tuna tartare was diced into small cubes to give it lots of bounce and chew, simply seasoned to allow the clean flavours and freshness from the fish to come through. In my humble opinion, tartare dishes shouldn’t be paired with crostini, the harshness of the toast ruins then slithery soft textures, and more often than not, pierce the roof of my mouth. The crostini here takes hardness to a new level; my teeth struggled to break into them and I wasn’t prepared to risk it.

Shrimp & Grits Hot shrimp, chilli & garlic oil, spring onion
I have never (knowingly) had grits before, but been told it’s not dissimilar to polenta. And I really enjoyed it - mind you I really like porridge though, or congee, or anything with that kind of consistency. The prawns were simply flavoured with garlic and mild chilli kicks; and the crunchiness worked an interesting contrast with the smooth grits. I reckon it’s something I would like to have regularly.

Jackson + Rye was a lovely surprise. I remember looking at the menu when they first opened and didn’t get too excited – how wrong I was. While the menu reads the usual all-day diner fare, the kitchen certainly puts their spin on it to keep things current. There is something very New York about the place, it could be the vibe, the staff or the general lightness of the dish, whatever it is – me like. We saw a couple enjoying their cheese melt sandwich on our way out… I’m ordering that next time.

56 Wardour Street
Tel: 0207 437 8338
Jackson & Rye on Urbanspoon

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