Monday, 24 November 2014

The Palomar - To Be Determined

When The Palomar opened its doors in June, I was ironically on my way to Israel hoping to check out Machneyuda – except I failed as it was booked out months in advance (its sister restaurant across the road was an excellent alternative). Since then I have been distracted with other new openings I never got round to it. Then Mister gave me free reins for Saturday dinner – why not?

Something wasn’t right that evening. To start, he was early. I should have seen the warning sign flashing except I was distracted by the pink neon lights at the entrance of the restaurant.  What is it with pink neon lights anyway - no one else thinks its looks cheap and downright dodgy? Especially in a very limited space where men were standing way too close to each other... The waiting crowd couldn’t have moved out of the way even if they tried; there was only enough space for 1.5 person behind the bar seats. No wonder chefs had to do shots with the diners at the bar to keep them sidetracked.

The dining room was no bigger. There was no way the table in the corner next to us could get any service without my chair getting shoved / kicked. Someone mentioned the restaurant felt like it was converted from a newsagent. I couldn’t agree more. Mister had questions about the menu (when does he not), and bless our waitress did well to entertain but the oyster mystery remains. I had a fruity Sloe Collins cocktail  with sweet potato crisps with pesto and aioli, which were moreish but also scarily greasy.

Kubaneh Yemeni pot baked bread served with tahini & grated tomatoes
The bread made a theatrical entrance in a tin, from which our server tipped out this steaming small round loaf. It was scrumptious, buttery fragrant and feathery soft, similar to brioche, just not as rich or sweet. The velvet tomato and tahini dips were smooth and luscious, perfect with the airy bread.

Salmon Tartare with aubergine 2 ways, yoghurt, pine nuts & parsley
Small cubes of raw salmon sitting atop a thick disk of aubergine with smears of yoghurt on one side and what tasted like olive puree on the other. The aubergine was poached to podgy softness, which complimented the bouncy sashimi well. The familiar Middle Eastern flavours were balanced, made more current with the addition of tartare infused with a chilli oil based dressing.

I went with salmon tartare instead of the chopped beef filet, only because I thought Mister might be more likely to eat raw fish than beef. It made no difference - he barely touched it.

Seared Scallops with cured lemon beurre blanc, swiss chard easy over, Jerusalem artichoke & hazelnut tuille
The artichokes were looking very similar to the scallops. The scallops were plump and meaty, a tad overcooked for my liking as it had lost that semi-cooked creaminess and succulence but most people would find it just right. The brittle hazelnut tuille was a winning touch as the nutty fragrance drew out the shellfish flavours. Together with the gentle crunch from the artichoke and creamed swiss chard, it was a good dish.

Agnolotti and Veal Sweetbread with onion cream, crispy shallots and burnt egg yolk
Since I had the sweetbread dish at Casa Malevo, I have been ordering it from trusty restaurants. I think the one at Malevo still champs the scene, closely followed by Semilla in Paris.

The agnolotti and lumps of sweetbread were arranged around an egg yolk that was gently charred on top, with swirls of onion cream and crispy deep-fried shallots scattered around. I thought the dish was leaning on the dry side, even after Mister ripped open the runny yolk. The sweetbread had lost its indulgent melty texture and carried more of springy chew, which was okay but I prefer it when it’s rich and wobbly. The agnolotti had a dense filling and I think it would have benefited from more sauce. I like the concept of the dish; it brings a good combination of textures, just wish there was some veloute to gel everything together.

Pork Belly Tajine with Ras el Hanout, dried apricots & Israeli couscous
The spoon sank into the super tender slab of pork with ease; the meat retained its juices while the rind of fat melted in mouth. The flavours were not as pungent as the tagines I had in Morocco, but more refined and controlled especially with the apricots and dried fig. Israeli couscous was like pearl barley without the chew, or large tapioca pearl; very playful mouthfeel as they burst to release the aroma from Ras el Hanout spices.

I have mixed feelings for The Palomar. There is something contradictory about it but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Perhaps it was the jovial vibe that the chefs were desperately pushing at the bar (by tossing back shots of course) didn’t fit with the strict table turnaround time. We were offered to wait for a bar seat if we wanted to order dessert. Ha. Or was it the groggy decor in the dining room, which really was more like a dark corner with a few tables.  You know they have spent good money on the place, the marble, brass rails and the works – yet among the chaos and humidity, it felt sticky and trashy, perhaps classless. Something didn’t click.

But the food, when I think about it, was actually very good. The dishes had an unmistakable Middle Eastern flair, threw in some North African touches and modern twists to keep things interesting. Flavours were balanced and most combinations worked well to bring the west and the east together. The only thing that bothered me was that none of the food was particularly hot, most of them arrived warm-ish except for the bread. I promise it wasn't because I spent forever on the photos - I'm pretty quick with the snaps. Mister didn't like it and he's still baffled about the oysters, maybe that left me baffled too? 

34 Rupert Street
W1D 6DN 
Tel: 0207 439 8777

The Palomar on Urbanspoon

You may also like: Ottolenghi, NOPIArabica Bar & Kitchen

Monday, 17 November 2014

Blackfoot - Lost its Footing

Blackfoot and I haven't had it easy. I have made multiple bookings before but they never happened, and that one Sunday when I turned up to a very limited brunch menu didn't quite hit the spot for me. So the night before my favourite girl moves her life over to Switzerland, taking her one step closer to the States, we decided to pig out here.

It's a casual restaurant with a piggy menu, not to the extent like St John, where they could make a dish out of every bit of the pig, more just the typical ribs and belly. I already tried the whipped lardo on toast last time when I came for brunch, thought it was a tad too salty, so we launched straight into the mains.

Sticky and Aromatic
Braised with lemongrass, ginger and lime leaves, deep fried and stacked up with crispy garlic, chilli and spring onions
The flavours were spot on, it giving off plenty of lemongrass and garlicky fragrance. The ribs were coated with a sweet honey glaze, then came a brief wave of mild heat from the chillies, finally leaving a trace of meatiness. The meat was slightly dry from the deep-frying, I prefer my ribs juicier and tenderer, but this was still enjoyable. It kind of reminded us of Chinese deep-fried bbq ribs with honey glaze...

Love me Tender
A rack just the way Elvis would have wanted - Southern BBQ-style. Served with pecan coleslaw
This on the other hand achieved the fall-off-the-bone texture, but the flavours were far less sophisticated and structured. Just the regular barbecue sauce smothering a rack of ribs. One of the things I hate about bbq ribs is when the sauce has cooled and looks like a plasticky slab of goo. This kind of arrived like when it came lukewarm. I've had better.

The Long Smoke
Whole belly smoked in applewood chips. Sichuan pepper, black treacle and star anise crust, cooked low and slow for six hours. Carved up and served with pecan coleslaw and pickles
We thought it was going to be a hunk of pork belly glistening its own juice. Sadly not. This piece of pork belly didn’t arrive hot, probably lukewarm at best and it looked rather unappetising; the opaque layer of lard and with smidges of grey charcoal did a great job at reminding me how it plans to invade my arteries... Looking back, it wasn’t even worth the risk. The meat was bland, no trace of fragrance from the sichuan pepper or star anise, or hints of sweetness from the treacle, or even subtle smokiness, just meat cooked to death enveloped by a bitter ring of burntness. There wasn’t even a sauce / dip to drown the hopelessness. Fail.

Clam & Pork Stew
Pork shoulder slow-cooked with leeks-a-plenty, finished with palourdes and a smooth coriander sauce, then spooned over hunks of toasted ciabatta
This dish simply didn't work. We were expecting it to come in a pot with a thickish consistency as a comfort dish. Instead it was a watery broth with a few chunks of dense pork shoulder, empty clam shells stuffed with leeks and lots of bread. I was really disappointed with the meat, the cubes of pork were very lean and they turned into dry, sinewy blocks from excessive boiling. Another flimsy dish.

We had some fries and chilli pork crackling on the side. Not bad.

We didn’t go for dessert, but I’m throwing in what I had last time on a very quiet Sunday lunch, for info.
Whipped lardo on sourdough toast
Unlike Barnyard, the lard is whipped to a translucent, thick-ish consistency - it looked like kaya toast from Singapore. The sea salt sprinkle was a tad too heavy-handed but the rosemary worked for me. Didn’t fall in love with it, but glad I tried it.

Bacon Porridge with maple syrup
Don’t know if this is on their menu anymore. I really enjoyed it, I reckon it’s the winning combination of maple syrup and bacon.  The bits of fried lardon and bacon mingled well with the syrup-drenched sweet porridge. I have porridge every morning already, wouldn’t mind mixing it up with a bit of bacon every now and then.

Hash and Egg with Onion Gravy
I think this was good. It didn’t really leave much impression in my memory though, except the onion gravy, which I liked because reminded me of a French onion soup. And boy I am a sucker for that.

I had high hopes for Blackfoot. When a restaurant dedicates itself to one thing, they usually do it well. And Shan tested this place out and said great things about it. Changes in the kitchen? Team lost the steam? None of the dishes stood out in a positive way this evening, and when a place that specialises in pig haven’t nailed ribs and belly, there isn’t much else going for them. Given there are now good options at Exmouth Market, I don’t think the piggy is getting a second chance anytime soon.

Come to think of it, I have eaten a lot of bad meals recently - bring me something good!

46 Exmouth Market
Tel: 0207 837 4384

Blackfoot Pork Restaurant on Urbanspoon
You may also like: CaravanSmokehouseFoxlow

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Smack Lobster laid the Smackdown on Lobster Kitchen

*Scroll straight down to Smack Lobster if you haven't got the time for how not to run a lobster shack.*

Lobster Kitchen
Where do I start with this Lobster Kitchen... literally. Shan and I both struggled to find it; the only signage it had was an A4-size laminated poster stuck on the stairs. It was their opening week and naturally there was a crowd drawn to their soft launch offer.

The automatic door got us playing musical chairs. Despite pushing the queue to the bottom of the stairs in the biting cold, the automatic door was still having its spasms, swinging wide open every 2 seconds because the waitress forgot there is also a sensor from the inside, next to which she sat a group a of 3. Every time the door opened, it sent a gush of Arctic wind into the tiny restaurant, so everyone was desperate to nudge closer to the kitchen end, which was giving off waves of greasy warmth from the deep fryer and mini portable grilling machines. With the random painted wood block dotted around the place, the crowd huddling for warmth and awkward movement in the cramped space, we definitely felt like we were in the middle of the sea, getting smuggled across the ocean.

We shifted places 3 times and ended up in the middle of the large table after witnessing 3 guys almost twisting their knees trying to get out of the bench without judo kicking their neighbours. We opted for a lobster roll, lobster tails and a lobster mac and cheese. As the cashier repeated my order, I pointed out he'd missed the mac and cheese. He said it was on the system, not to worry. And of course it wasn't and we didn't get it. With the 20-min wait in the freezing shack, I wasn't going to place another order.

Lobster Roll - The Garlicky One               
Toasted brioche bun stuffed full with lobster claws and knuckles, finished off with chopped garlic sauteed in butter and fresh parsley
The roll wasn't warm enough; bread slightly stale and there wasn't enough dressing, which meant the whole thing was quite dry. It was very obvious the lobster was frozen stuff, no sweet shellfish juice or flavours coming from the meat, could have been shreds of seafood stick and that might have been more succulent.

For shredded frozen lobster meat stuffed in a half-toasted stale bun served on a paper boat with plastic cutlery in a shithole, they are demanding £15 (or £19 for a drink and a side). Why wouldn't I just thrown in another £5 for 2 sides at Burger and Lobster for the real deal?

Lobster Tails - Thermidor
Split lobster tails steamed in a white wine and celery stock
This was marginally better than the roll, perhaps it was because it had more surface area to smother the cheese sauce on. Definitely frozen tails too, as the muscle was dense and quite chewy, partly due to the overcooking. The good news is the meat wasn't unbreakable, still edible and the cheese topping was quite pleasant, but it didn't need to be on a lobster tail. At £17.50, I'd call the police and report robbery if we weren't getting 50% off. So instead I'm slating it all over the internet.

Without the 50% offer, the pricing is completely off the wall. 

Shan and I were pretty deflated at this point - cold, hungry and mugged. Then he spoke my favourite words of the month, "Shall we check out Smack Lobster?" The good stuff starts here.

As we made our way along Oxford Street with the Christmas lights, we felt the first snow of the year. I wasn't exaggerating when I said it was a cold night.

Smack Lobster is the newest project by the guys behind Burger & Lobster, Goodman and Beast. It was surprisingly quiet around 9:30pm, 4th night of their opening. The menu was plastered across the wall on a blackboard, and I would have order everything if I hadn't wasted space at Lobster Failure Kitchen - 4 types of lobster roll at £9 each (£7.50 to takeaway), lobster bisque or a chick lobster at £12. 

We placed our order at the cashier and they were ready in about 5mins. Then we followed the sign that mentioned alcohol and naked women  downstairs. Instantly I fell in love with the space. It was like a gallery opening event. Granted it was almost empty, and it may have a very different vibe when it's packed with crazy Christmas shoppers, but on this particular evening, it was sexy, sophisticated and stylish. Narrow hanging benches with high stools, a couple of slow-mo topless lobster mermaids projected on the walls, and an ultra cool bar. Not the most usual place to find a bath, but I'm getting used to it - this tubs is filled with ice cold beer. We had a couple of reds from the tank.

California: Lettuce, tomato, cucumber, avocado, avocado mayo with lime
I was choosing between this and the seven samurai, which was a lobster tempura roll. The staff recommended this one. 

Check out the claw and the real lobster meat. This is how a lobster roll should be done. And the brioche - oh the buttered grilled brioche - is out of this world. The combo worked well for me, creamy ripe avocado added extra smoothness and the L&T gave some refreshing crunch. I think, and it could be psychological, the roll at Burger and Lobster is packed with a higher density of lobster meat. But I can't be sure, and honestly, the lobster meat in this is plenty. 

Mexican: Smoked chipotle, mayo, peppers, corn
Shan's rolls had a bit of a kick to it from the peppers, but didn't kill the lobster sweetness. It had a good crunch from the sweetcorn, which Shan thought was slightly intrusive as it was canned sweetcorn and a tad too sugary for his liking. Personally I liked it because it neutralised the heat. All good.

I usually choose a whole grilled lobster over a lobster roll at B&L, purely because the roll gets demolished in 5 bites, then I'd be staring (perhaps drooling) as the rest of the table tears yet more lobster meat from the claws. Sometimes we share a roll as a starter, but it gets too much. Now all problems solved. I'm kind of excited about dragging Mister down here for his verdict, as he prefers the roll - can't wait to check out the lobster tempura and the chick lobster....

Smack Lobster is the best opening of the year. 

111 Great Russell Street
Tel: 0207 300 3324
Lobster Kitchen on Urbanspoon
26-28 Binney Street
Smack Lobster on Urbanspoon

*Credit to Shan for a great review title

Monday, 3 November 2014

Pachamama - Mother Earth Stood Still

Pachamama is the latest addition to the collection of Peruvian restaurants in London. There is obviously something hip about lime juice-marinated raw fish and quinoa salad, which I recently learnt is the new middle-class staple. I missed their soft launch but was kindly offered 30% off my food bill when I visit.

There was an in-house DJ in the subterranean dining room. He seemed oddly out of place (not to mention bored) – there was no fiesta vibe to the restaurant. The ambiance gradually picked up as the tables were being filled, though still not sure about the DJ. Shan started with a house pisco sour, aka Papa’s Pisco, which arrived as a full tumbler of whipped egg white. One of the reasons I don’t like pisco sour is the foamy texture that doesn’t taste of anything. It gradually settled and tasted alright, still not my first choice of cocktails. I preferred my fruitier Eau de Lima.

Our server was adorable - helplessly unhelpful, but incredibly cute and attractive; the kind of girl that gets away with everything because of that dolly smile. We wanted to try something from each section of menu and so started from the top. We asked her what chicharrones were, and the response was sweetly amusing; it was a broken combination of “not sure how to explain”, “it’s not meat but like meat”, “very small”, “quite sweet and very nice”, “it’s good!”. How could I resist; we had to order it just to find out what this mysterious dish was.

Chicharrones, sweet onions, mint
When the chicharrones did arrive, Shan’s Peruvian experience suddenly dawned on him that it was a play on Chicharron (how this escaped him at first I have no excuse for), which is deep-fried pork rind; chicharrones is the mini version and hence the tiny blocks of pork belly with a semi-transparent rind of crackling - I suppose our waitress’s explanation wasn’t totally inaccurate. Anyhow this little palate teaser was very enjoyable, especially the cracking, which was delicately brittle and airily crispy.  The deep-fried cubes of pork were inevitably a tad dry on the outside given how small they were, but all good with the sweet onion jus. I like how much work they have put into something so tiny.

Wild Cornish sea bass, samphire, radish, sweet potato, tiger’s milk
We went for the most traditional ceviche dish. They didn’t go overboard with the lime juice here, citrusy enough to be refreshing without damaging my tastebuds with acidity. I think there were also some plantain to beef up the dish along with the sweet potatoes. For me, the grainy and mushy textures don't work with the bouncy fish, perhaps something crunchy like apple or pear? Apparently you’d get much bigger portions and thicker slices of sea bass in Peru – ah, this is only Peruvian-inspire, remember? 

Quinoa, avocado, Granny Smith, tomato, coriander vinaigrette
Yea neither of us recognised the quinoa here, must be the middle-class variation. It was a good salad, plenty of crunch with a light, crisp dressing... just nothing worth writing home about.

For our second round of cocktails, Shan had the Mama’s Pisco, which was not dissimilar to the Eau de Lima; my Pinamama was much stronger and syrupy.

“Duck on Rice”
This was a signature dish at one of the posh restaurants in Lima.  The coriander-infused rice was fragrant and moist, topped with thick slices of roast duck with a generous layer of fat under the skin. The duck was cooked to medium-well, tender and succulent, with a drizzle of what reminded me of sweet soy sauce. There were also two cubes of dark meat laced with tendons on the side, which were much denser and coarser in texture, but held more intense flavours. Shan thought this version was okay, the rice was too damp as the one he had was more akin to fried rice. I quite enjoyed it.

28 day Aged Dexter ribeye (Lomo saltado)
This was disappointing. Had this not been a Peruvian-inspired restaurant, this would have passed as “stir-fry beef in oyster sauce” from any cheap Chinese takeaway shop, perhaps under the sizzler section if you were eating-in. The sliced rib-eye was overcooked to sinewy coarseness, lacked bovine flavours in the meat as all the juices escaped from the excessive cooking, then drowned in a viscous, sugary glaze. Could have done exactly the same with rump or chuck.  

Flamed octopus, purple potato, capers, crispy shallots
Again, overcooked. The octopus tentacles were left on the grill for too long, leaving them rubbery and chewy, lifelessly matt without a glimmering finish. The seafood sweetness has been extinguished, all I could taste was the smoky bitterness from the grill and the salty, pungent capers puree. I did like the purple potato mash though, I remember having diced purple potato at Lima and thought they were crunchy and undercooked. The puree here had a faint trace of sweetness, a bit like taro.

Chocolate fondant, brittle, salted peanut ice cream & Pumpkin cake, sunflower seeds, malt ice cream

Pachamama says they serve Peruvian-inspired cuisine – essentially it’s their get-out-of-jail card when it comes to authenticity – a bit of a cop out really considering the menu is made up of well-recognised Peruvian dishes. The food could have been better, and since they didn’t have to stick to traditional recipes, the kitchen could have used more imagination in their dishes so we get our money’s worth, seeing this entire meal would have cost under £10 in Peru. Out of the Peruvian restaurants I have been to, inspired or not, I would say Ceviche in Soho or Andina in Shoreditch is more intriguing with a more exciting menu, and definitely a more relaxed South American vibe. Then again, they don’t have a DJ that was set on drowning out conversations.

18 Thayer Street
Tel: 0207 935 9393

Pachamama on Urbanspoon
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