Sunday, 28 February 2016

Japan - Kobe & Arima, Osaka

 Yep, Japan again...and Osaka too... 

Having had Hida beef on our last trip, our target this time round was the renowned Kobe beef.

Kobe is only 30mins from Osaka by train using Hankyu railways; train runs every 10mins for 320 yen. Most restaurants serve Kobe beef in teppenyaki style. Seeing it was Mama and Papa Chan’s first Kobe beef experience, I decided to go with the crowd to Steakland in order to calibrate their benchmark. It also gave them the vote of confidence when they saw the massive queue on the main street outside the restaurant at 12noon. A quick tip here, Steakland on the main strip attracts the longest queue; turn into the alley approx. 20m from their main store, there is another Steakland “Kobe branch” that is nested on 6th floor in the building. This one has a larger Japanese clientele and the wait is much shorter. 

The dining room was perfumed with top quality beef sizzling in its own melting fat, waves of buttery bovine bliss filled the air. We went with the 3 best-graded sets: Special Kobe Steak (200g); Special Kobe Loin Steak (200g) and Special Kobe Tenderloin Steak (160g) - in ascending prices. It is worth noting the lower priced sets are not actually Kobe beef, and the non-Special Kobe beef sets are not of the top quality A5 range. It is well worth forking out for the Special Kobe beef, as this quality is not exported out of Japan. 

After warming up with the salad, soup, grilled mushrooms and courgettes, our chefs showed us our 3 steaks before he sets them on the grill.

Watching the hunk of ultra marbled steaks hissing away on the grill was sweet torture. The chef kindly split the three steaks among us.

To be fair, all three cuts were mind-blowingly delicious. Papa Chan’s expression says it all really - the pure shock and disbelief that meat could simply dissolve away to leave a bomb of beefy richness was earth-shattering.

The cheapest cut (could be rump), though soft and tender, had a touch more grain to the muscle that translates to a slightly rougher mouthfeel even when the fat began melting away. That said there were more beefiness to it - it carried more meaty flavours to blend with the buttery aroma from the marbling.

The loin cut, like the rump above, held some structure to encourage chewing, but the muscles were finer and smoother, leaving a more velvety finish as the small pockets of fat were released.

The finest cut of three was in a different zone; the marbling was so rich that the meat almost liquified. The muscles laced around the fat for a faint hint of pink hue on the slab of meat, and upon grilling, it was the softest meat I had ever tasted. It was like a cube of steak-flavoured butter on tongue. It could get heavy though, especially if one had the whole portion. Personally my favourite was the loin, I enjoyed the structure to the meat and the flavours from the leaner muscles. That said, the tenderloin was quite unforgettable.

We took the bus to Arima Onsen to wash off our grease-laden guilt. The JR buses leave once or twice every hour from Kobe- Sannomiya bus terminal 4, takes 30mins (770 yen / 1440 rtn); local buses leave every hour at the same terminal, takes 50mins (700 yen). TaikoNoyu (太閤の湯) is only a short uphill walk from the bus stop. It offers 12 different baths, outdoor and indoor, for male and female guests separately - 2400 yen per adult / 2600 yen on weekends.

One other must-eats in Kobe was cheese tarts from Sweet Oven; these little tarts have invaded Hong Kong a few months back and people were queuing for up to 3 hours just to get their hands on them. Well, I guess the craze has long died down in Japan and the Kobe branch only held a constant stream of 4 or 5 people in the queue. They were fantastic, buttery cookie tart base with a thick, wobbly cream cheese filling with a lemony fragrance, lightly toasted on top for firmness. Addictive.

The following day we returned to Osaka from Kobe and did the usual. This melon bread with matcha ice cream was trending; warm sweet fluffy bread with a crumbly shell paired with smooth green tea ice cream. Win.

Previously Mama Chan and I have avoided Kani Douraku because we felt it’s too touristy; I’d rather save the snow crab experience for Hokkaido. Having seen the crabs offered here, which is quite small, we didn’t think it was worth the effort. But Papa Chan wanted to try - the last time he was in Japan, I was 6 years old. I felt obliged to indulge him. 

You know what? I was right. The snow crab feast was very underwhelming. Not even mediocre; it was borderlining awful. Granted everything was very pretty and served in kaiseki style, the quality of food was pretty poor. 

The cold cooked crab legs were chilled to harsh denseness and drained of all the crabmeat juices. Similarly the sashimi was served too cold which destroyed the delicate flavours in its rawness. The charcoal grilled crab legs were sorely overcooked that some of the meat was parched to a brittle sheet, while the 'crab gratin' was a pathetic macaroni cheese topped with shreds of crab meat. Tempura had a batter coat so thick that could keep the long-dead crab leg warm for days; incidentally a crabstick would have been less bland. 

That claypot rice was simply a waste of gas - the tasteless crab legs did nothing to the rice but got in the way, extracting the low quality meat from the shells would have been pointless consumption of energy. The burnt rice at the bottom was black and bitter, not the intended crispy rice crackers. Guess this is because our waitress couldn’t give a flying fuck.

I’m no snow crab expert, but I know what rubbish is when I see it. Anyway, I could go on even though hordes of people will continue to queue.

After binging on ramen and sushi for a few days, we changed things up and went to Eggs n Things for breakfast. It came from Hawaii, serving pancakes and omelettes. Though it was a long shot from exceptional Eggs Benedict, my Eggs n’slut was decent breakfast grub. The ‘slut' was a soft poached egg on a bed of mash, topped with hollandaise sauce - not bad. Considering good breakfast spots are hard to come by in the area, this place opens at 9am and hits the spot.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Zelman Meats - Chateaubriand with Love

I had been trying to fit Zelman Meats in my 2-week schedule, so I was secretly doing a fist pump when I could convince Olivia to meet nearer Central for our pre-dinner cocktails. I mean, Milk & Honey for drinks sounded much sexier than a pub near Tayyabs, right?

Zelman Meats was the latest opening from the Goodman guys. Apparently the no-fuss, wallet-friendly seafood by Rex & Mariano didn’t click with London, so they brought some quality beef in to balance the equation. Luckily they kept the Sicilian prawns on the menu, then added three types of beef: picanha, chateaubriand and short ribs. The decor has barely changed from its R&M days; the three of us were seated at the booth.

Our charming server, Michele, talked us through the short menu and made recommendations on portions. When I noticed the Sicilian raw prawns weren’t there, I physically winced. It was the main reason for coming to Zelman; my stomach spent the whole day getting juiced up for these small raw pockets of oceanic glory, only to be told that it’s not going to happen; so cruel... like that kid unwrapping twenty layers of an Xbox box. Michele saved the evening though, after he checked with the chef in the kitchen, Chef Will appeared and slipped a plate of raw prawn on our table. Turned out the prawns arrived on the day and they were defrosting, so they were going back on the menu the next day. You don’t ask you don’t get, right? :)

Raw Sicilian Red Prawns
And these were the raw shellfish gems I was mind-slavering over. They were as good as I remembered them to be; the joy comes from sucking the disproportionately large plump head that hides the sweet and briny seafood juice (some call it mustard) and roe. The small prawn body was slimy and soft with a slight crunch, it was also flavoursome but the essence lies in the head. I don’t think Olivia shared the enthusiasm; he got it though, I think...

Thank you Chef!

Sliced Picanha, Chateaubriand and Smoked Short ribs
Michele recommended that we went for 300g of picanha and chateaubriand and 2 pieces of short ribs. Sounds about right.

Chateaubriand is known to be the most tender part of the cow. At £9 per 100g, this is a steal. When I was first introduced to this cut years ago at a business lunch, it was going for £16 / 100g. Beautifully cooked to medium rare with a deep crimson centre, the steak was wonderfully soft and packed with sublime, intense bovine flavours.

Picanha, or top sirloin cap, has a generous strip of cow fat, which added the guilty pleasure of buttery grease. Understandably it was outshone by the posh tenderloin cut; the flavours were more diluted and texture was slightly coarser (sirloin was never my cut), but the meat itself was okay. 

The ribs were the weakest of the trio. Despite the slow-smoking of the ribs to tenderness and smoothering them in a secret barbecue sauce, the whole thing felt quite stale. The meat didn’t retain much juice and the sauce didn’t penetrate, a bit sloppy. Perhaps next to the more sophisticated chateaubriand, this was also dwarfed.

Roasted Cauliflower with hummus and pomegranate seeds & Triple Cook Chips
I quite liked the slightly bitter cauliflower mountain, its earthiness was accentuated by the hummus until the sweet acidity from the pomegranate cuts through. It was quite an interesting combination.

Will’s Nan’s Apple Pie with Vanilla Ice Cream
Good pie Will’s Nan! I don’t usually like apple pies yet I still ate more than I should have.

I loved it - what’s not to like? Great steaks, fine prawns, good wine and outstanding service, and it didn’t break the bank. It’s quite simply Rex & Mariano, but better. 

It was a Tuesday evening and the place was only at 30% capacity. This worries me, great restaurants by the Goodman group like Rex & Mariano and the original Smack Lobster didn’t last. For some obscure reason, they didn’t attract crowds despite excellent food, superior ingredients and exceptional value for money. And for crying out loud, this is the middle of Soho! I hope this one lasts… at least until I come home so I can taste those Sicilian prawns and feast on cheap chateaubriand again…

2 St. Anne’s Court
Tel: 0207 437 0566

Zelman Meats Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, 8 February 2016

Bob Bob Ricard - The Great Gatsby Evening

Bob Bob Richard is a date restaurant. 

It’s quite perplexing. I looked at the menu online and thought, wow, there is nothing appealing on the menu; yet I still really wanted to go. Perhaps it’s the “Press for Champagne” button, or the opulent Great Gatsby interior, or the dress code that vaguely denotes “elegant”… Whatever it was, I wanted to be part of that glamorous scene. And he indulged me, like he always does. 

The place was as enchanting and suave as anticipated; the plush booths with royal blue leather sofa and marble tables, separated by dark mahogany and brass rails. First things first - we pressed for champagne. A snazzy gent appeared like a champagne genie out of thin air to take our drinks order. He went for more conventional champagne, I chose a champagne cocktail with strawberries. 

Good thing neither of us were hungry after our long lunch at Paradise Garage, because staring at the menu, I was still struggling to pick something… anything! We both knew Russian dumplings were uninspiring, caviar was unnecessary, venison tartar we have had in the last two consecutive meals, half the stuff on the menu was so straight-forward and unimaginative I could probably do better in my kitchen. I guess we were ready to leave after we had pressed the Champagne button. Except we didn’t. 

Salmon Tartare Garnished with Cucumber, fennel and Horseradish
After much debate of whether I was allowed my third venison tartare in a row, we settled on this. 

It was’t seasoned like a tartare with soft acidity to prompt freshness, just roughly cut raw salmon shaped in a disc, topped with salmon roe and chopped shallot. The flavours come from the fat; it was relatively lean salmon and with minimal dressing, it didn’t really taste of much. The cucumber and fennel on the side, however, was drowned in pickle juice...

Beef Onglet 28 day aged scotch beef, served with onion puree, watercress and truffle puree and truffle gravy 
I like onglet, or hanger steak; it’s flavourful, lean and tender when done right. He seemed new to the cut though. The steak was sliced thinly across the grain to prevent it from the dire sinewy texture, then grilled over high heat to a crimson medium rare to retain its softness and juices. This was mostly fine except it arrived cooler than lukewarm. We sent it back.

The kitchen did little but placed it under the heater for a few minutes. Re-heating it would have overcooked the meat, but I’d much rather they re-fired a fresh steak. Afterall onglet isn’t exactly a pricey cut, is it? The onion puree, watercress puree AND truffle puree together with the gravy rendered the plate a mushy mess. The flavours were great, the powerful steak cut through its accompaniments, it just didn’t look very appealing in a slosh of purees. 

Lobster Macaroni & Cheese Made with fresh lobster, swiss cheese and parmesan
Don’t get too excited about the tail on top, it’s a dried up shell purely for decorative purposes, because even the kitchen knows it looks shit without it. Whether an empty lobster shell is any better - debatable. 

It was good though, a thick gooey cheese sauce with shellfish essence and chunks of lobster meat. One couldn't tell if it was fresh lobster when it was being doused in cheese sauce. The pasta was slightly overcooked, given my revised expectations of the kitchen’s capability, I almost took it as a given.

French Fries
Yea I wanted fries on the side; they didn’t have creamed spinach. I couldn’t help but snigger at the fries presented in a baby pink striped McDonald’s-style paper box with BBR logo on the front. For crying out loud, at £5.95, at least do better than a card box.

Dulce de Leche Creme Brûlée served with orange drizzle
I don’t usually like orange on my desserts, but creme brûlée was a good idea - it was okay, nothing memorable.

Despite the food being atrociously boring and scandalously overpriced, I really enjoyed my evening at Bob Bob Ricard... baffling, right? The Orient Express-inspired decor conjured the most romantic and luxurious ambience, so much so that I had long accepted that I wasn’t there for the food. I liked the champagne, the intimacy of a booth, the dim lights, the mood, the conversation...

He makes everything great; I felt a million dollars.

1 Upper James Street
Tel: 0203 145 1000