Monday, 31 October 2016

Hoppers - Sri Lankan Charm in London Style

We tried for Hoppers on 2 consecutive Fridays. On both occasions we arrived a little after 6pm and the queue was already 3-hrs long. Seeing it's open all day on Saturdays, the game plan was to get there before 5pm, ahead of the dinner crowd and hope for a table around 6pm. Got our names down at 5:30 and got seated at 7pm - even better.

We were a bit giddy. Partly because we finally managed to snag a table here without a 3-hr wait, but mostly because we felt so in control - we understood the menu. The items didn't seem alien to us, because we had seen most of them during our time in Sri Lanka. I liked that feeling. So when our server recommended us the Ceylonese spit chicken, we looked at each other with a knowing look, a mutual understanding that a split chicken was not what we queued for, because there were no spit chicken in Sri Lanka. Instead we went for string hoppers and kothu, hopefully the more authentic items as opposed to the 'inspired' recipes.

The Masala buttermilk was certainly an acquired taste. It reminded us of the spiced yoghurt drink we had on the posh train to Agra from New Delhi. His Sambol Garita cocktail was certainly strong, if not exotic.

Bonemarrow Varuval, Roti
We didn't rule out all the London-centric items on the menu though. The bone marrow was lick-the-plate-clean kind of delicious. The melty morsels of bone marrow were deeply immersed in a delectable concoction of fragrant masala powder and spices. Even the slightly pasty roti could be forgiven.

String Hoppers, Kiri Hodi, Pol Sambol
The string hoppers turned out to be slightly different to what we had anticipated. Instead of a soup-like coconut curry like the one we had for breakfast, Hoppers' version had a much thicker consistency that resembled a dip, served with sambal. Though the string hoppers were nice and fluffy, we preferred the more watery variety to drown our hoppers in, or perhaps we just needed more coconut curry dip, much more dip.

Lamb Kothu Roti
The kothu was excellent; the only thing missing was the racket it makes in the kitchen. The large chunks of lamb were tender and thoroughly marinated with spices, mixed on grill with shreds of chewy roti, onions and eggs. Just like what we had on holiday, but minus the MSG - even better! We decided we’d most likely end up ordering this kothu each and every time we came back, definitely more likely than the spit chicken. And yes at that point we had already decided this place was worth waiting in the queue again. 

He thought there was almost a 1:1 ratio of lamb and roti... I think he was just very good at picking out the meats.

Fish Kari & Egg Hoppers
The egg hopper was massive! At least 50% bigger than what we've seen. We debated if it was to cater for European appetites, justify the £4.5 price tag or they just don't have the right utensils (the terrible cynic in me). Most importantly it was thin and crispy around the edge, with a soft and airy centre that held a perfect runny egg. The fish Kari was a bit meh; whilst it was not unejoyable, it wasn't particularly exciting either - just lacked depth and powerful flavours.

We loved Hoppers - short and appealing menu with unique offerings, supported by a strong kitchen team that's not shy on showcasing the robust flavours in Sri Lankan cuisine. Dishes are slightly tweaked to cater for the London crowd without compromising authenticity. It was worth the 90min wait and we’d stick to the same game plan next time. No restaurant is worth a 3-hr wait.

49 Frith Street

No Reservations

Hoppers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

You may also like: Smoking GoatLa Bodega NegraTrishna *

Monday, 24 October 2016

Padella - Salt on Wound

Since opening six months ago, Padella had attracted a permanent queue. I never made it to Trullo so was very keen to get a taste of their renowned pasta in this chic pasta bar.

The queue wasn’t impossible when I arrived 6:40pm on Friday, perhaps 15 tables ahead of me. About an hour later, we were led to their downstairs dining room, which looked much more comfortable than the cramped counter seats on ground floor. Surprisingly there were always a couple of tables left empty throughout our meal.

Padella sourdough bread & Puglian olive oil
I’m quite sure everyone orders bread; after waiting in line for over an hour, such orders are driven by basic needs. I thought the bread was a bit stale and the crust was border-lining aged leather, but I suppose the general London crowd has accepted any sourdough is better-than-average bread.

Burrata with Puglian olive oil
He isn’t a huge fan of burrata; I love it. The globule of creamy cheese was delicious… While I’m dubious as to whether the kitchen could take credit for the gorgeous cheese, I’m certain they almost ruined it with the pool of oil, Puglian or not. I'd like to quote Gordon Ramsay: ‘You used so much oil the U.S. is trying to invade the plate…

Tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley
It looked so appealing and photogenic - glowing pasta laced with vibrant colours of spicy salume paste topped with generous parmesan shavings, dancing on the radiant dish. It was just so… deceiving. Disappointingly so.

It was almost like the overwhelming saltiness had planted a landmine of unpleasantness on my tongue, and before I had a chance to figure out what was wrong, the piquant nduja came along to trigger spicy explosions – it was an alternating barrage of throat-clenching saltiness and mind-numbing heat. What mascarpone?

Problem with 100g pasta dishes is that by the time both of us had had a taste – we didn’t feel like it was appropriate to send back half a plate of eaten food.

Pappadelle with 8-hour beef shin ragu
Our server told us this was their most popular dish, seeing it was brought over from Trullo, I could understand the confidence.

Sadly we couldn’t decide if this was worse than the nduja tagliatelle above, not that we thought it was possible. This was just pure one-dimensional plain salty. Either the chef was trying to preserve the dead cow in the ragu, or wanted to punish us from eating the tired and flat meat, but there was definitely more salt in this beef mixture than beef.

When our server came to clear up, we pointed out that both pasta dishes were very salty. He raised his eyebrows, muttered some acknowledgement with a shrug and a faint smile. I’m not sure how to interpret it.

Pici Cacio e Pepe
Determined to make every effort to like Padella, we decided to give it a final push and ordered what every online review raved about.

Our server explained to us that pici is a type of pasta made without egg, just with water and flour so it resembles thick noodles. They looked awfully similar to long white worms on the plate when they arrived. But presentation turned out to be the least of its issues. It’s the crazy over-seasoning again, so much so that my stomach lurched when the troop of Saline Forces attacked my taste buds.

We had to send it back; we were both tired of washing down sodium-laden pasta with sub-quality wine and the best part of the meal – free water. The manager explained that perhaps the coarse grains of sea salt was unevenly spread as the chefs only sprinkled it with their fingers, and the aged parmesan shavings may have tipped it over the edge. Apparently chef agreed that it was a bit salty. I reject such explanation – especially when the problem was consistent for all 3 dishes – either the chefs had poor technique or there is no quality check. But instead of pushing my point, I let it go with a smile. Afterall they have a full house of diners, a never-ending queue and a world-wide web of supporters – what would I be trying to prove? So I just thanked him for not charging us for the plate of pasta we sent back.

I think we had tried enough. Despite desperately trying to be impressed by Padella, nothing worked this evening. I have no doubt the kitchen is great at making fresh pasta - after we scraped off the offensive ragu from the pappadelle and pushed away the salty slime from the pici, the pasta itself was delightfully fresh and springy in texture. It’s the cooking part they failed.

As we glided our way out, I couldn’t help by wonder why I didn’t fall in love with this sexy and slick pasta joint like everyone else did. Am I being an over-critical catty bitch with hyper-responsive salt sensors? Possibly. Are people too forgiving towards this talk-of-the-town spot in London Bridge that is *only* charging £6-10 for a pasta main? Also a possibility.

6 Southwark Street

No Reservations

Padella Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Sunday, 16 October 2016

The Barbary - Baby Palomar

On a Wednesday evening, I was tasked with choosing a dinner spot for 3 people on that Friday, somewhere good and reliable, preferably a talk-of-town. Ha. Yea. Because all the good trendy places have empty tables waiting for us to waltz in on Friday nights. Queen Mother likes to try new things but not a fan of steak, and the man doesn’t leave the office till 6pm – looks like I’ll just have to queue early for one of the ‘no reservation’ hotspots. I went for The Barbary over Hoppers – it’s newer.

I arrived at 5:50pm to join the queue and was seated around 6:30pm. We were lucky to be seated on the side that faces into the kitchen, so we could watch the grill in action and chat with Chef. Chef explained various items on the menu and said they only have one last portion of goat stew left – yes please! The dishes are designed for sharing, so we picked a couple of dishes from each section of the menu as well as from the specials.

Naan e Bababri & Baba Ghanoush
The roasted aubergine and tahini puree can’t go wrong, earthy and nutty flavours in a velvet-smooth paste, smeared on crispy, garlicky, chargrilled naan bread. The seasoning could have been better distributed, which is probably why the Queen Mother found it a tad salty; perhaps chef was a bit heavy-handed. Still delicious.

Jerusalem Bagel
The sesame flecked bagel was pillow-soft and fluffy, served with a small packet of Za’tar. I just used the bread to mop up all the sauce from each plate.

Cauliflower Jaffa Style
Next round came the deep-fried cauliflower florets, dusted with powerful herbs and spices, paired with zesty tomato pulp on a bed of creamy tahini. It was waves after waves of vibrant flavours.

Roasted Aubergine ‘Sharabik’
The aubergine was roasted to utter tenderness, reducing the succulent veg to mushy and smoky goodness, then dipped in a honey and date sauce. It was paired with tart raspberries and plenty of toasted almonds to lift the bitter tones, served with lush silky labneh (strained Greek yoghurt) that brought all the strong flavours together.

Octopus Mashawsha
The chunky octopus tentacle was flash-grilled for a slightly charred exterior, still soft but bouncy on the inside. The chickpeas were stewed with a concoction of rich spices, served on a bed of yoghurt-based sauce infused with a tangy mango pickle conserve, topped with mint leaves to bring out the Mediterranean flair and vivacity.

Swordfish Kusbara
We were tossing up between this or the hake chraimeh (spicy tomato sauce), and decided the latter has a high risk of resembling tinned fish. Swordfish is quite a ‘meaty’ fish, in the sense that its texture is quite dense, making it sinewy and rubbery even if it’s just marginally overcooked. The kitchen has done well to retain the succulence of the filet, though I still prefer my fish slightly uncooked. This was somewhat like a palate-cleanser; fish was simply seasoned with salt, matched with sauce vierge and yoghurt – clean and simple. The Queen Mother thought it was again slightly overseasoned, and only had a tiny portion.

Marrakech Goat Stew
I was slightly disappointed with this. If I’m brutally honest, it was like any other stew with small bits of braising meat and carrot in a regular stock gravy. It was missing the North African touches like paprika and piquant tomato in tangines, the distinctive flavours from slow-cooking goat meat was lost in the onion gravy, and it was overall quite a flat dish despite the dollop of pepper hummus-lookalike; the culprit was possibly the stew stock that drowned out the herbs and more delicate aromas. The small discs of puff pastries were great though, making this more like a deconstructed steak & ale pie.

Pata Negra Neck

Chef saved the best for the last - This simple dish of grilled pork neck was phenomenal. Pork neck muscles are tender but springy, slow cooking dissolves the fat interlaced between the muscle fibre, making the cut extra juicy. Chef kept it brilliantly simple by throwing it on the grill to give it a charred finish with a touch of Ras el hanout, and the meat just melted away in our mouths to release its savoury essence. It was my favourite of the evening.

A layer of pistachio and date filling sandwiched in a brown sugar cake - buttery and crumbly, and not overly sweet. Delicious.

I was quite excited to see this on the menu, knowing he really liked the knafeh in Jordan. The honey-soaked pastry cake had a stretchy cheesy layer topped with crispy baked noodles, crushed pistachio nuts and raspberries. We loved it, though the cheese wasn’t as creamy and stretchy as the ones we had in Jordan, and the noodle layer was a bit thicker. Chef said he used mozzarella and goat’s cheese as a replacement for the cheese that they’d use in traditional recipes, then mix with a lot of butter and sugar.

I wasn’t ecstatic about Palomar, probably because I missed the fun at the bar - Good thing they have extended the vibe at the Barbary. 

The Barbary is like Palomar but in Barrafina style. The business model is ingenious; they waiting crowd is committed and locked in as they sip on drinks around the dining room and sniff waffs of delicious food. The menu is succinct and most people would have decided on what to order while waiting. The kitchen churn out the small plates, deliver them to the hungry diners around the counter direct.  While there is no pressure from staff to hurry diners along, the ever-growing queue pressed against your back is a polite enough reminder to not sit around. It wouldn’t surprise me if each seat get turned around 5 times in one evening.

Anyway, I digressed. We enjoyed The Barbary, not only was the food enjoyable, the energetic buzz and fun ambience contributed to the positive experience. Most of the dishes we tried were delicious, bursting with powerful flavours with North African herbs and spices; perhaps a tad too nonchalant with the freehand seasoning, but overall I think the recipes worked.

Another great addition to Neal’s Yard!

6 Neal's Yard 

No Reservations

The Barbary Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Atelier Amaro, Warsaw

There were two 1- star restaurants in Warsaw. Since it felt somewhat overindulgent to try both on consecutive evenings, we went with Atelier Amaro, the first in Poland to receive Michelin recognition.

The restaurant was glowing in a warm hue at the edge of Lazienki Park, it boasted an intimate dining room with a fairly relaxed ambience. The Maître D greeted us with his practiced introduction and enthusiasm. With a slightly confused body clock, neither of us were particularly hungry. We went for the 6-moments menu, missing out on the tomato starter, saffron milk cap with truffle and blueberry dessert. Our sommelier brought us two wines to try, Hungarian and Italian. We were pleasantly surprised by the Hungarian red, light and flavourful with subtle peppery notes.

Three waves of amuse bouche:
Red currants with chili, chive ice cream with seaweed and herring and candy floss with edible flower
Black pudding infused with dark chocolate and onion essence

Smoked pork lard served on a crispy chip

The amuse bouche selection was of incredibly high standards; they were experimental with textures and temperatures, catering for all senses. I have fallen in love with herring since my days in Siberia, so the tiny cube of bouncy fish stood out for me, as did the black pudding sheet that melted in mouth, blended beautifully with the dark cocoa bitterness.

Cucumber / Dill / Eel

I could smell the smoky fragrance making its way to our table; the eel fillet was served separately to the leafy salad with cucumber ice shaving, a playful contrast between the cooling icy herbs and sizzling charcoaled eel. Though small, the fatty eel was bursting with fragrant fish oils, beautifully complimented by the herby leaves and its hint of smokiness from its charred edges. Loved it.

Sea Trout / Mirabelle / Horseradish
This was pretty much a trout tartare, dressed in a slightly citrusy Mirabelle plum juice, topped with a layer of mild horseradish cream. The raw cubes of fish were fresh with delicate, its rich oils alleviated by the refreshing dressing. Perhaps not the most creative course, but there was a good balance of flavours.

Goat’s Cheese / Rose / Raspberry
The photo doesn’t give much away except for the edible flower.

The small pile of crumbly goat’s cheese was doused under a sweet, tangy raspberry coulis. It’s a variation to the conventional combination of goat’s cheese and caramelized onion. The combination of rose essence and raspberry created an artificial taste that reminded me of cough medicine, and I think it accentuated the pungent taste of goat’s cheese as opposed to reining it in. We didn’t enjoy this much.

Turbot / Corn / Sunflower
Turbot is one of my favourite fish and it would have been a delicious course with this savoury nutty sauce. But I felt the pile of sweetcorn overwhelmed the understated sweetness of the fish, and destroyed the layers of flavours in the composite. My view is that sweetcorn is an unsophisticated ingredient; it has a distinctive crunchy sugary sweetness that can hardly be masked or get whipped into a finer component. In my humble opinion, it should probably be limited to minute quantities in more elegant recipes.

Roe Buck / Blackberry / Chanterelle
The venison fillet was served medium with a beautiful ruby centre; the meat was soft and juicy with gentle gamey goodness. There was a touch of autumn-ness to the composition with the girolle mushrooms that paired agreeably with the zesty blackberry sauce. 

Egg Plant / Halva / Elderflower
Egg Plant was an unlikely ingredient for dessert; we were pleasantly surprised. The flavours of halva, which was a creamed sesame paste, matched perfectly with the earthy egg plant to create this Mediterranean-esque sweet.

Despite a couple of misses, we still  enjoyed our evening at Atelier Amaro. Possibly because it was the first time in weeks since I had a meal in a decent restaurant (there’s only so much train and station food one could survive on). The amuse bouche probably set our expectations unrealistically high; though the courses that followed were energetic and vibrant, not all of them were as elegant or bold as the innovative tastebud teasers. Nonetheless it was great to experience Polish cuisine beyond the traditional pierogi and potato cakes.

It was a delightful start to our Poland trip

Ul. Agrykola 1
Tel: +48 22 628 57 47

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Irkutsk & Olkhon Island, Siberia

*If you read nothing else from this page, take this away: Bring CASH to Olkhon Island*

Irkutsk is a major town along the Trans-Siberian railway. I booked a hostel in the downtown area for easy access to the Olkhon-bound minibuses. Bus 480, 80, 90 and 3 all cross the bridge from railway station to downtown, 15 rubles one way. It was getting dark, so I just picked up dinner from the supermarket while I was stocking up. I think I got a bit carried away… the deli counter at the supermarket looked so appealing and prices were cheap. I bought salmon caviar (ikura), all kinds of fish and a few salads. The lightly cured fish was addictive - I went back and bought another box. It was a feast!

There are two types of minibuses to Olkhon Island from Irkutsk: public ones that leave from the Central Market bus station (500 rubles one way) or private ones that do pick-ups from your accommodation (800-900 rubles one way). All of them leave before midday. The journey takes around 5-6 hours; first 4 hours on the road, followed by a 15-min ferry and finally 45-min drive on the island to Khuzhir on much more bumpy sandtracks. I arrived at my guesthouse just after 4pm, plenty of time to check out Shaman Rock by the lake.

Nikita is by far the most popular hostel in the village, so much so that it’s more of a landmark and much more useful than the official tourist information desk. That said it’s usually booked out months in advance, but I heard they can refer you to somewhere nearby if you just turn up. The staff speak good English, which is hard to come by here. 

While waiting for sunset at Shaman Rock on Olkhon Island, I got chatting with this South Korean guy called Chansu (Chance). He was crazy enough to buy a bike from Shanghai and cycled his way to Irkutsk via Beijing. Didn’t take him long, only 45 days. His target was to reach Lisbon by Christmas and definitely get out of Russia before winters hits properly. Hopefully see him around November in London. 

The following day I signed up for a day trip to the north side of the island. To be fair, all visitors would have signed up for it. The alternative options were a day trip down south or a boat tour on the lake, but the north was most popular - 1000 rubles for the day including lunch.

Weather wasn’t great in the morning, but there was something eerily beautiful about the mist hanging on the mountains on the other side of the lake.

We made 2 stops along the coast before entering the National Park area, everyone had to pay 90 rubles and they guards do not give change. The word ‘bumpy’ doesn’t even begin to describe the ride… stick to a light breakfast.

The clouds were starting to thin when we arrived at Sagaan-Khushun Cape, aka Three Brother Rock. The myth was that a man with supernatural powers granted his 3 sons with flying abilities as eagles under the condition that they were not allowed to feed on dead animals. But the 3 brothers couldn’t find live animals after flying around, and ate a dead horse. Their fathers got angry and turned them into rocks.

Further north we arrived at Khoboy Cape, where the rock was in the shape of a fang. The skies were blue and the reflection on the still water was perfection. We had an hour to stroll around as our driver prepared our picnic lunch.

Lunch was fish soup with potato and rice, served with bread and tomato salad. Our driver did a great job cooking with an open fire. Perhaps I was hungry, but it was really tasty, and it was very atmospheric eating by the woods, overlooking the lake.

After lunch we made a stop at the 'love rock'. The rock is in the shape of a heart, some may say it’s the shape of women’s breasts and people pray for children on the rock; the left side for a baby-girl, right for baby-boy.

Our last stop before heading back to Khuzhir village was a valley where we could take a dip in Lake Baikal. The water was safe to drink and it was refreshingly cool. I wasn’t brave enough to enter the cold water though… The simple settlement was for people working in the station that monitors seismic activity in the area.

There were a few local tourists among our group. They showed us the massive mushrooms in the woods, and led us to mushroom-picking as a side expedition. They were huge and smelt great.

As I mentioned above, there are no ATMs or banks on the island. As of September 2016, the Post Office and the pharmacy along the main road (Baykalskaya ul.) are the only 2 places that run a mini-bank service for 150 rubles handling fee, you’ll need your passport and they will fill in a load of forms. Still my card got declined. Both close at 5pm and the PO is closed on Wednesdays. There is also a trailer truck in the Internet Cafe yard that apparently do cash withdrawal with a 10% commission, machine was broken when I visited. As with most guesthouses here, mine only took cash and I was 2000 rubles short after paying for the day tour. Having ran around the village begging for cash from all the shops that accept cards for merchandise only - I was running out of ideas.

Then I heard someone calling me from across the road - my saviour. I met this gentlemen when we were waiting for the ferry on the previous day, he was on his annual trip with his group of friends. I think he recognised my shocking pink trainers from afar. He found it amusing that I was distressed over 2000 rubles (£20), and offered to lend. Knowing he has another few days on the island and lives in Australia, paying him back won’t be easy. All I could offer was HK dollar notes! These are useless to him and it wasn’t even a fair trade of rates, but he gracefully accepted. I even got to meet the rest of the crew over white wine and beer. I’m so grateful for his kindness, there are no words. 

The drive back to Irkutsk was uneventful. I spent the afternoon exploring bits of the town after sending my postcard.

Next Stop: Vilnius via Moscow