Sunday, 27 November 2016

Blanchette Soho - The Big Frenchman

Tucked away on one of the quieter streets in Soho, Blanchette was buzzing inside with a full house. The tiled bar, brick wall, wooden cabinet and furniture gave a cosy rustic feel to the dining room, just like the classic bistros in the more local neighbourhoods of Paris. Our friendly server came to take our drinks order and explained the menu to us. We decided to pick 3 each from the menu to make sure we have some space left for dessert.

Comte (aged 26 months, cow’s milk, nutty flavour with a creamy texture)
Cheese is cheese

Crispy Frog Legs with Bois Boudran Sauce
Frog legs are not dissimilar to chicken, just more tender and succulent. The tangy cherry tomato based sauce mixed with tarragon kept the deep-fried snack light and appetising.

Lamb Croquettes with Piment d’Espelette Mayonnaise
Another item from the specials menu. The crispy shell enveloped a a small ball of slow-cooked shredded lamb that was soft and juicy, went well with the piquant peppery aioli to give it little fiery kick.

Mushroom Duxelles Tartes Fines with Poaches Egg and Fourme d’Ambert (left) Cornish Scallop with Rose Harissa, Coppa and Brioche Crumb (right)

This tart was full of surprises; a thin stretch of light and airy filo pastry with buttery fragrance, spread with a layer of caramelised onion, topped with plump, garlicky, succulent mushroom and crunchy roasted leeks, draped over with gooey melty pungent soft cheese, finished with a runny poached egg. It was all the perfect flavours in one mouthful. This was possibly my favourite of the evening.

The scallop was unremarkable. There was more breadcrumbs than scallop and all I could taste was butter-soaked, slightly burnt crumbs.

Steak Tartare with Pickled Girolles, Egg and Smoked Anchovy
Because I can’t say no to tartare. This was textbook tartare, the raw beef chopped just fine enough to be smooth but large enough to retain its bouncy chew, perfectly seasoned and dressed with a touch of pickles to lift its flavours. The poached egg was semi-cooked through to a soft gooey yolk, that was delicious with the pungent anchovy alone, slightly different to the conventional raw yolk but it worked for me.

Hake a la Grenobloise with cauliflower puree
The skin of the thick hake fillet was pan-fried to brittle crispiness, served on a bed of smooth cauliflower puree. A la Grenobloise refers to a browned butter sauce mixed with capers, parsley and lemon, with some croutons thrown in. Our server poured the sauce over the fish and it brought the dish to life. The rich buttery grease was lifted by the lemon and herb in the sauce, and was a natural match to the slithery fish that was perfectly undercooked. Perhaps there was a bit too much sauce, as it got very heavy when it drowned the puree, but delicious nonetheless.

Red Leg Partridge with toasted kale and white beans
The partridge was exquisitely roasted, the bird was tender but firm in texture. The kale wafers crumbled and made up for the lack of crispy partridge skin. It was the white beans that ruined it for me; I just don’t like beans. It’s me.

Braised Lamb Shoulder with Anchovy, Rosemary and Soubise Sauce
The rotund of lamb shoulder collapsed into soft shreds as we dug the knife in, absorbing the meat jus and soaking up more flavours. The mushy garlic clove with subtle hints of rosemary complimented the lamb perfectly, balanced with the natural sweetness from the onions in the sauce. I found it a tad too salty with the addition of anchovy, perhaps an unnecessary touch.

Creme Brûlée with Candied Ginger Sable Biscuit
Jer had her eyes on this specials dessert the moment we sat down. Can’t go wrong with a creme brûlée. 

Chocolate Fondant with Pistachio Ice Cream
Our dessert took a long time to arrive, our server explained it was because the first fondant didn’t turn out with a runny centre so they had to redo it. Fine. It was a good fondant with a molten lava of hot chocolate, cake was moist on the inside and slightly crumbly on the outside. It was perfect with the pistachio ice cream.

We had a fantastic evening at Blanchette. The food was delicious with great variety and perfect for sharing. Perhaps as the meal went on, the dishes were starting to feel heavy, especially after the hake with brown butter sauce. But then again, in classic French cuisine, chefs never shy away from generous blocks of butter, a healthy sprinkle of sugar and a casual dollop of cream. Sure things will be fine if we wash them down with enough red wine. Reminds me of the big chef in a Ratatouille-like kitchen. Great evening in a little slice of Paris – excellent choice Jer.

9 D’Arblay Street
Tel: +44 207 439 8100

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

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Sunday, 20 November 2016

Poland - Warsaw & Krakow

We arrived at Warsaw at 5:30am by the overnight bus from Vilnius, bang in the centre of town before the city wakes for the day. I think we were both very surprised by how Metropolitan the Polish capital turned out to be. Mind you, I had spent 3 weeks in small towns and villages, so the city buzz took a bit of time getting used to.

He looked up a list of cool-eats in Warsaw, including a few trendy breakfast spots. However most don’t open at 6am. So we began wandering around the sleepy city, made our way towards the general direction of our accommodation / breakfast café via Old Town. IT took us just under 3 hours, going through random parks and neighbourhoods, but we got there. Café SAM came recommended for their fresh bread and bagel. We had their traditional Polish breakfast set and Egg & Bacon Bagel with fresh orange juice. 

The bagel was out of this world; so much so that he declared he could have this everyday – toasted bagel smeared with a thick coat of cream cheese, layered with fresh salad leaves, juicy tomato, small pile of smoky bacon and topped with a fried egg with a crispy edge; the runny custardy egg yolk trickled onto the bacon, the bread mopping up all the savoury goodness… damn it was a good bagel. The traditional breakfast set was comparatively less exciting with a Viennese egg, cottage cheese, ham, cheese and pickles, served with homemade sourdough bread. Still very enjoyable and very substantial.

Our room wasn’t ready, so we dropped off our backpacks and made our way to the Warsaw Uprising Museum by tram. The tram system was somewhat flawed; ticket machines were only found on some trams and the occasional stops, and were we lucky enough to hop on a tram with a machine, they only took coins… so while we had every intention to pay, circumstances were a limiting factor. We only had enough change for 1 ticket, lucky it was only a short ride.

There were a confusing number of uprising events in Warsaw, the Warsaw Uprising Museum focuses on the 63 days that Polish Resistance army fought against the Nazi with very little weapon while the Soviet Army watched on the sidelines. The setup was quite interesting with information displayed in different ways, but the flow of the exhibition was quite disorganised. Perhaps we were tired, the presentation was starting to blend.

Milk Bars are local eateries that serve cheap Polish meals, not dissimilar to a canteen. Many restaurants were closed down post-war by the communist authorities, but these simple milk bars subsidised by the state remained to serve dairy-based meals to poorer working class. Nowadays they are just self-service eateries offering traditional Polish dishes at low prices. We picked Bar Prasowy because it’s relatively central and more importantly they have an English menu.

We placed our orders at the cashier, took our receipt to the kitchen counter and the staff began loading our tray with food with utmost efficiency. We wanted to try some pierogi but they ran out, so we had pork hock with pickled cucumber soup instead, finished with strawberry and cream pancakes. The hulk of pork knuckle wasn’t bad, plenty of meat and reasonably tender, perhaps a little bland and it could do with some gravy. The soup was an acquired taste, sour and salty, but it was the pancakes that had our eyebrows wiggling. The thin crepes were overstuffed with half a can of whipped cream, then drowned in a crazily sweet strawberry couli that was probably made from a jar of jam. It’s standard canteen food but we’re glad we’ve ticked the milk bar box.

Then it was time for a nap back in the apartment before our dinner reservation at Atelier Amaro - the first Michelin star restaurant in Poland. See full review here Atelier Amaro. We took a little detour to Chopin Monument too.

The following day we started with a couple of breakfast bagels at Bułkę przez Bibułkę. the egg and bacon bagel was good but not as epic as the one at SAM, and the Hummburak bagel with hummus, beets and eggs didn’t go down well with him.

We joined the free walking tour the the Old Town, where our guide explained how the entire city was more or less demolished during the war and tried brainwashing us to believing Warsaw is a better city than Krakow. That’s the thing, we had to go with what he said. It was overall quite a good tour, we got some good background on the uprising events and treatment of the Jewish in the ghettos.

We finished the tour at the Uprising Monument.

Although we knew most restaurants in the Old Town area were catered for tourists with questionable quality, we decided to have lunch at Zapiecek, a chain that serves traditional Polish dishes with waitresses in ridiculous outfits. He watched a pierogi blind-tasting video on Youtube that reported this chain does the best dumpling. We chose a selection from the list with sour cream topping, a potato pancake and some sour rye soup. Food was quite good, though Polish dumpling will never be as good as Chinese ones:) I thought the potato pancake and soup were delicious.

We wandered along the main strip of Old Town and Nowy Swiat. Apparently Lody Prawdziwe serves the best ice cream in town. That’s the thing - best ice cream in Poland may still just be 'alright' ice cream by Italian gelato standard. It was alright. 

Having spent enough time rubbing shoulders with tourists, we decided to cross the river to the East side of the city. The Soho Factory is an trendy industry park for creative businesses. Sadly most museums close on Tuesdays in the city, so we had to miss out on Museum of Neon Lights. Instead we just wandered around the park and checked out a few furniture shops.
 Bars are abundant in town centre; alcohol is cheap. At £1 a shot or half-pint or small glass of wine, we sampled their extensive offerings and nibbled on their bar snacks – steak tartare(!) , pierogi, spicy sausage, all for £2. That’s the thing, even at that price point, food was still pretty good. It’s like Weatherspoon in London, but cheaper and better.

The following morning we made our way across town to catch the 8am Polskibus to Krakow (c.£4 pp; 5 hours).

We were dropped off at the main bus terminal, just next to the train station. Seeing the apartment wasn’t ready for check in, we walked over to the Jewish Quarter. At first glance, this area is a bit run down, a bit  grotty, a bit messy. Upon a closer look, it was packed with trendy cafes and stylish bars, hidden behind unassuming doors. We went to their market near plac Nowy, a small square with food stalls selling the much-loved local zapiekanka, which is an open-face baguette topped with mushroom, cheese and ketchup. It was a very popular lunch spot with tourists and locals. We chose Endizor coz it had the longest queue; I had a spinach one and he went for chicken with crispy onion. It was tasty, the hot crusty bread was super soft inside, delicious with melted gooey cheese, not dissimilar to pizza. Mine was a bit plain and got quite boring half way through though, he made a better choice.

After checking in, we rested before joining the 4pm freewalking tour. Our tour guide was excellent, very engaging and entertaining with interesting facts about the city. She didn’t spend as time slating Warsaw as the guy in Warsaw did to Krakow. Probably because there were more interesting things to tell us about the old town area. We started at St. Florian’s Gate and learnt the significance of the McDonalds that symbolises the end of Communism for the Polish, made our way to the huge market square to watch the trumpet player perform his hourly duty above St. Mary’s, before taking a break in the university courtyard. Our guide Anya told us great stories of myths and urban legends.

Then we ventured south to where the Pope stayed during his visit, followed by the Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, where we finished the tour and watched sunset.

 For dinner we went on a little quest to find the Skwer Judah food truck park. Andrus serving maczanka (pulled pork sandwich) was stunning, Pan Kumpir was less exciting with their jacket potatoes, but satisfying nonetheless. For dessert, we had a Chimney Cake stuffed with orea ice cream, topped with whipped cream to push our calorie count way over the edge – it was amazing. 

The street food culture in Krakow was awesome. There was a Singer Bar near the market that had a Singer sewing machine and candle on every table. It was quite a cool little bar with locals dancing away… until my hair was caught by the candle…eek.

The following day we went to Auschwitz Concentration Camp museum. There were multiple buses that go to Oswiecim every hour; we took the big Lajkonik bus (14zl, 90mins). Entrance is only free before 10am or after 3pm, when visitors could enter and visit the Auschwitz site without a tour guide. After 10am, visitors must join a tour group (45zl). We got there around 9:30am and enjoyed browsing at our own pace.

The Auschwitz site looked so ordinary at first. It wasn’t until we crossed the barbed fence and started entering the buildings before its sombreness struck me. I honestly struggled with the experience. It was mostly psychological, but the smell inside the buildings, the mountain of hair, the pile of shoes and the thousands of photos that lined the walls – I felt sick.

There was a free shuttlebus that transported visitors to Birkenau camp, which was much bigger than Auschwitz. We walked along the railway tracks that brought in prisoners, endless rows of barracks, gas chambers and ponds where the ashes were dumped.

We returned to Krakow by the same bus, and had a late lunch at Charlotte’s, a French bakery-café. Meh. He decided he wanted to see the Schindler’s Factory and Mocak art museum. It closes at 7pm so we had about 90mins to do both. *The factory does not exist anymore – it’s only a museum called Schindler’s Factory nowadays* It was yet another war-related museum, as if the visit to the concentration camp wasn’t traumatic enough… I was WWII-ed out.

After a couple of drinks and nibbles, we looked for the hot dog truck that setup shop on the roadside with an open fire after 8pm. There was a short queue of leather-clad bikers, waiting for their crispy skin sausage… like a secret foodie cult… Apparently the owners have been grilling dogs at the same spot for 17 years.

On the final day we decided to get away from war-related sights and headed to Wieliczka Salt Mine. We started the day with breakfast at the cool Jajownia for some scrambled eggs.

It was a short 30min bus ride on local bus, just opposite the Galleria shopping mall. This was by far the most expensive attraction with a steep 89zl entrance fee that comes with a mandatory guide. The tour started with a 378 steps descend to 64m below ground and was lead through a series of ridiculous sculptures. It was really quite disappointing until we reached the cathedral – which was the largest underground church in the world.

After the 90-min tour, we were given the option to see the museum underground with another guide, or head out. We went around the various facilities of the salt mine, including a 4D cinema and a dining hall, before joining a 5-people tour of the museum. So glad we did, this was so much better than the first one. 

We couldn’t grasp the size and scale of the mine until we saw this diagram, the red showing the few kilometres that our tours covered. Oh, it was really quite cold down under, around 16 degrees when it was 28 above, make sure you bring a coat.

After grabbing a hearty kebab, we made our way back to Krakow. We had some time to spare so we quickly checked out the modern Galleria shopping mall, before jumping on the train to the airport (8zl, 20mins).

Despite the heaviness of the war exhibitions, the two Polish cities were pack with fun and variety of things to do. There was a good mix of old and new, and food was astonishingly delicious - there’s way more on offer than the traditional pierogi and  potato cakes. I’d love to come back some day to see smaller scenic cities and appreciate modern Poland.

How I’d missed Europe. So happy to be coming home with you.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Hunan - Much Ado About Nothing

Hunan is one of the those places that fellow foodies say it’s a hidden gem, yet we don’t hear much about it. We just knew that it had no menu. The man decided his birthday dinner with the family was about time to unveil the secret of this shh-I-don’t-want-to-tell-people Chinese restaurant in Sloane Square.

Despite its name, Hunan is owned by a Taiwanese chef. The cuisine is a combination of Cantonese and Taiwanese and chef send tapas-sized dishes to the table until his guests are full. With proper Chinese efficiency, we were presented with a wine list and tap water just as we sat down. After we confirmed there's nothing we don't eat, we were promptly brought our first course.

The chicken broth with steamed minced served in a bamboo cup really hit the spot; it was piping hot, packed with meaty essence and moist pork. Next came a lettuce parcel with minced chicken and vegetable, pretty standard fare, and chive and turnip potskticker. The potstickers were pan-fried to give it a crispy shell, but came short on the filling, could have jammed in much more chive and juice to make it less doughy. 

XiaoLongBao was served in a small pool of chicken broth infused with black vinegar. At this point, my expectations for Hunan had re-baselined to Westernised Chinese cuisine. The quintessence of XLB is the art of wrapping soup in a soft delicate parcel that bursts and fill our mouths with savoury delight. Having the sac sitting in some sauce is just XLB failure; like someone with poor chopstick skills had poked through the thin dumpling skin and caused leakage. I couldn't tell if there was broth inside, the effect was lost in the construction; If the broth is outside, it's called wonton! Not to mention I don't usually add vinegar...

The next two dishes were pig ears and crispy garlic and chilli beans. The beans were very moreish, deep-fried and mixed with generous amount of garlic and pepper salt. The group did well to sample the gelatinous pigs ears, though the springy texture and the brittle rind of soft bone was not to everyone's taste, especially served cold.

We continued to be bombarded with torrents of dishes. Next came a range of dumplings; the beancurd ones reminded me of a type of dim sum with crunchy veg and water chestnut wrapped in a thin sheet of beancurd, soaked in a thick gravy glaze. It was nice. The prawn parcels skilfully wrapped a small bunch of chopped vegetable, bouncy and crunchy. The quail egg siu mai was nothing like a siu mai, it had too much overcooked sticky rice that made it horribly mushy.

Then we were moving into the main course territories. The squid with roasted aubergine was one of the worst of the evening; the two ingredients could have been two completely different dishes. Though the squid was just-cooked to retain its tenderness with some chew, when paired with the mushy aubergine, the two clashed terribly both in texture and flavour. The celery and lamb slices failed to spark any chemistry too, despite the manager explaining it was some special Welsh lamb. The scallops certainly looked better than they tasted. The seemingly intact scallop was assembled by thinner slices, so although silky and slithery, it lacked the creamy meatiness I anticipated. It also had a hint of acidity in the aftertaste that might have came from the soy sauce.

The hirata buns were quite good, a wedge of soft juicy pork belly sandwiched in a moist and fluffy steamed bun. 

The warm octopus salad was quite good with sliced tentacles, chopped onions and scallions with a light soy dressing and a citrus tone. The sichuan spicy beef in the back was unremarkable, the heat from a handful of chopped chillies was one-dimensional with little structure, like any other chilli beef dish one’d get in Chinatown. The breast of lamb, however, was excellent; finally something we found impressive. The melt-in-mouth lamb was coated in a delicately thin batter, topped with a sweet chilli glaze, we nodded approval as the distinctive fragrance from dissolving lamb fat seeped through our tastebuds. The taro croquette was average, a bit bland and unexciting.

I recall there were frog’s legs in one of the dishes, but frankly 20 dishes in, I was starting to lose track of which is which. It didn’t help when most serving staff only mumble a couple of words about each dish before dashing off; the maitre’d had to run around to re-introduce half-finished courses. On a couple of occasions, what the maotre’d said was completely different to the server. So this glowing orange dish could have been frog’s legs or chicken - one or the other. The egg roll was generally unpopular as it consisted of preserved duck egg which gave off a pungent salty punch. I thought the fish fillet was excellent, finished with a slightly sweet fermented bean sauce.

We finished off with the classic crispy duck pancake. No surprises here; shreds of deep-fried duck leg with a dollop for hoisin sauce and cucumber, wrapped in thin pancakes. I prefer peking duck.

Dessert was simply banana fritters served with vanilla ice cream. It was more of an after thought, as we brought our own cake for the birthday boy.

Think we ended on 23 courses; a couple of dishes were very good, most were passable and a few borderlining offensive.

Hunan was somewhat overrated. The ‘tasting menu’, wine-pairing option and posh location gave the impressive that Hunan was an up-market and elegant establishment, yet the slightly chaotic ambience and lukewarm service suggest otherwise. It wasn’t fine-dining, like Hakkasan, HKK or Min Jiang, as there was nothing extraordinary about the ingredients or recipes. It was just the usual dishes from a regular Chinese restaurant served in smaller portions. After a while the flavours and sauces repeat themselves. We jokingly said chef had probably prepared everything in small packets and the kitchen just pop them in the microwave every few minutes for service.

Was it awful? No. Just wouldn't recommend it for anyone that knows their Chinese food.

51 Pimlico Road

Tel:  020 7730 5712

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

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