Monday, 22 May 2017

Mirador de Ulia, San Sebastian

To make the most of our weekend trip in San Sebastián, we booked lunch at the 1-star Mirador de Ulia. It would be way too indulgent to have two 3-star meals back-to-back, and Mugaritz was booked out.

We decided to work up an appetite by walking up to the hillside restaurant; including the wandering around town, it was a good 1.5hr walk. We felt slightly underdressed when we were shown to the table by the window in the conservatory. Thankfully other diners were more casual than smart too, except for a group of Asian ladies that wore bridesmaid-style dresses.

We were offered a lemon and brandy welcome drink, which was so refreshing after walking in the heat. We took a long time deciding between the tasting menu and a la carte. The oyster with champagne was only available on the tasting, and it had the lobster and tuna belly that I wanted, but I couldn't care for the asparagus and duck; I really wanted to try the cod cheeks too. Ended up a la carte with a bottle of vintage cava.

The amuse bouche selection was very intriguing; we started with the soft mini bun stuffed with chopped chorizo served with the mushroom velouté, then the pressed chicken wing and crispy ball with explosive runny purée. The puffed chicken feet cracker lined with a layer of pâté was one of my favourites, as was the slightly sweet olive with a smear of anchovy.

Norway lobster laced in fresh herbs emulsion, Iberian nuances and yuzu pearls
The lobster pile was muscular and succulent with its sweet oceanic juice, perfectly cooked to retain a marginally creamy centre enveloped by bouncy lobster meat. The delicate fragrance from yuzu pearls highlighted the natural essence in the lobster, simply seasoned with gentle herb foam. It was immensely satisfying.

Kokotxas - hake kokotxas, black garlic, bread soufflé, txakolí pearls
I love cod cheeks, it's the softest part of the fish, contrasted with some toasted fish skin brittles. The txakolí (local fizzy wine) jelly was served at the table and I can't tell you what it tasted like. Making it into a jelly took out all the gas and so it was just cubes of jelly with a mild alcoholic aftertaste. The fish morsels were lightly torched to leave the skin crispy with slight charring, topped with a puffed cracker filled with creamed-garlic. Although the cheeks were very enjoyable, I felt this dish was lacking some sauce.

Merluza - hake with kokotxas
Its hard to be impressed by a hake fillet after the one we had in Akelare the night before. Though perfectly cooked and deliciously silky, it just didn't have that je-sais-quoi. Very good, not extraordinary.

Ventresca de Atún - Tuna Belly with mojo of their own skin
I was so excited to see this on the menu, and it certainly didn't disappoint. The slithers of tuna belly were flash-seared on the outside so that the centre was still raw but the glorious fish oils were melting. The tuna belly was at its optimal state. Unlike the clean-tasting o-toro sashimi, the searing brings out the fishy flavours, which was quickly washed away as the slice of fish melted in mouth, releasing its mind-blowing fish oils. The dried cherry tomatoes scattered on the plate are worth mentioning; the sugars concentrated in a tiny pocket with a chewy texture. No doubt one of the best dishes on this trip.

Pichón guidado y a la brasa - pigeon stewed with their own interior and pumpkin
The pigeon has been spread over the plate, in an artistic way. The meat carried powerful flavours, as well as the mild metallic tone from the game meat, it had an earthy tinge from the gizzard jus, nicely balanced by the sweet pumpkin wedges. My favourite was the whipped liver parfait on the light airy crisp; there were all kinds of textures on the plate. Delicious.

Basil sorbet with snow

Chocolates en Texturas - textures of chocolate and raspberry ice cream
Popping candy is the best!

Esferas - crispy spheres, cream acidulated with raspberry and vanilla ice cream
We preferred this one, the crispy shells were buttery, bursted with delicious cream in mouth.

We thought we would probably be unfair to Mirador de Ulia having had our 3-star dinner at Akelare the night before; inevitably the bar was set a tad higher than usual. That said we thoroughly enjoyed our lunch at Mirador de Ulia. The food was meticulously prepared and showcased a vast range of techniques. Each dish was designed to bring out the flavours of the ingredients, showing off the quality of the produce. Undoubted one star quality. And of course, the panoramic view over the beach and the city was quite extraordinary. 

Mirador de Ulia
Ulia Pasealekua 193 
20013 Donostia 
Tel: +34 943 27 27 07

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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Akelare Pedro Subijana, San Sebastian ***

As we found out our new house has yet again been delayed, we decided a weekend trip to San Sebastian was necessary to cheer ourselves up.

Out of the star restaurants in the region, Arzak is best known, perhaps because it features on both the worlds best list and on the Michelin guide. Unfortunately we only decided on this trip end of March, so most of the places were booked out for Saturday dinner, except for Akelare. So Akelare it is.

The restaurant is little out of the main town centre, about 20mins on Bus 16 of 15mins by taxi. The grand entrance was elegant and modern, I think they are developing a hotel on site. Upon entering the dining room, we were greeted with a panoramic view of the sunset over the sea. Stunning. The dining room was quite classic with polished wooden panels and plenty of natural light. The ambience grew more intimate and cosy as night fell.

There were 3 tasting menus, Aranori, Bekarki, and Akelare's Classic. The first two were more experimental while the classics feature the all-time favourites from the establishment. We were given the option to pick from any of the three for the meat main course.

We felt at least one of us was obliged to pick the classics menu, which sounded like it featured all the signature dishes. Looking around us, I think at least 70% of the dining thought the same. But the other two menus simply looked much more exciting...  we took a punt and went for Aranori and Bekarki. This is going to be a long post.

We started with an array of amuse bouche: 'bloody mary'; 'diabolic butter' that was a sheet of cheese-infused butter served with colourful bruschetta and potato snacks; black pudding cookies. The best was no doubt the 'olives'; the green one was filled with chorizo and liver cream, and the flavours were unforgettable as it was smeared on tongue. The black one was filled with anchovy cream, powerful and punchy. 

Prawns and Green Beans cooked in 'Oruro' Flame and sea roes 
I have to say he picked the better tasting menu of the three. His first course was cooked in front of us; the maitre'd carefully placed the prawn into the pot and set the wine spirit on fire while holding the hid slightly above the burning flame:

The results were incredible, pink translucent prawns that were just-cooked, bouncy, crunchy and immensely succulent, oozing smoky fragrance from the open flame, served on a bed of popping roe. The most mind-blowing part though, was sucking the head of the prawn - flavoursome and creamy, bursting with shellfish goodness - fricking delicious.

The Leaves under the Rain
My first course was not as light as it seems, among the various leaves, the two big ones at the bottom were actually cold foie gras! So cleverly disguised. Beautifully dressed with the aromatic-infused dews.

Chickpeas and Violet Potato, not Conventional at all
The vegetarian course was a mixture of chickpeas and potato purée, velvety smooth and accompanied with a deep savoury jus.

Green Broth Infusion, Scampi and Smoked Monkfish

Presentation was stunning; it arrived with a little infusion bag made of obulato, holding monkfish crisp, prawn powder and herbs, the server then poured a clear broth that melted the bag, unleashing all the flavours. The thin slices of smoked monkfish lining the plate were delicate and the smokiness worked well with the clean oceanic broth; the scampi was sweet, meaty and full of bounce. Gorgeous.

Souffléd kokotxa, white Garlic Pil-Pil 
Things went up a gear. The fish cheeks were puffed to an airy crisp with seaweed tempura, smeared with A layer of garlic purée. Like a breath of salty sea.

Very thin and light Beef Tartar, new potato soufflé and Aromatic Herb Bread
The bed of molecular beef tartar was like ice cream - so fine and so soft the tartar flavours smeared across my tongue; most interesting texture. The accompaniments were mostly brittle breads and the ultra thin potato crisp, which I'm not mad about. If I may, perhaps I would find it even more enjoyable with some form of yolk to moisten the crackers on the side.

Hake in Seaweed steam. Plankton and Oyster Leaf
He said this was the most delicious thing he has eaten. The small bloc of fish was infused with seaweed fragrance, served on a bed of beautiful plankton pearls, which tastes like.. the sea; it's elegant and subtle that leaves a long finish on the taste buds, like concentrated sashimi. The fillet was intricately steamed to ultimate silkiness, and melted on tongue to release the lasting trail of oceanic goodness. Truly divine.

Sea bass "umami"
By contrast my sea bass was less exciting. The umami broth was fairly flat, and the texture of the fish was slightly firmer and leaner. Despite the small cube of shiso-mixed sashimi mince served on the side, this was simply up against serious competition next to his hake course.

Squid as a Risotto, Butter Flower
Another bomb. The rose-shaped butter arrived on the side and we were instructed to tip it into the black pool of squid risotto, which was playful and springy. The flavours were stunning; savoury butter and the squid ink were magical together, bringing to life the tiny diced squid. It was tantalising.

"Desalted" Cod Box with Shavings
The cod arrived in a wooden box, and our server explained the fish had been crystallised. I'm guessing the process makes it softer by forming oil crystals? Not sure. The gelatinous jus was very interesting; it was tomato water, not dissimilar to diluted ketchup, except it was the natural sweetness from tomato essence and much more refined. The edible shavings were dried thin pasta, adding some crunch to the mix.

Grilled Iberic "Presa" with Pepper Seeds and Garlic in three different versions
Roasted 5J pork, served slightly pink in the middle, and lacquered with red pepper juice. The capsicum sweetness and mild piquant kick worked well with the meat. The highlight was actually the three types of garlic, especially the one that was coated with charcoal dust; it was mushy but super concentrated, like it had packed a whole bulb of garlic in that little clove. The kitchen must have done something ingenious.

Roasted Suckling Pig, "Bone" and Iberian Emulsion
To get a crispy and juicy texture, the baby pig is cooked in Iberian broth and finished in the oven. The 'bone' was made with a sugar coat with porky essence in the middle. And we were told to start with the baby pig, then a bite of the bone. Exemplary suckling pig with a little twist.

Melting Cupcake
The cake was made with yoghurt foam, filled with coffee and chestnut as well as some grapefruit. Didn't work for us, plasticky cake and grapefruit coffee was as odd as it sounds. We decided the pre-dessert is also a bit too whacky.

Gin & Tonic on a Plate
Mine was no better. An authentic gin & tonic in jelly form is no more tasty than the drink. The combination was sour from the juniper sauce and bitter from the alcohol. Meh.

A Different Apple Tarte
The was amazing. The Akelare-branded wrapper was edible and tasted like apple; we unveiled the crazily buttery and crumbly pastry hidden with fluffy apple cream. It was so much better than the traditional ones.

"Xaxu" and Coconut Iced Mousse
Tolosa traditional little cake with the permission of Gorrotxategui pastry chef. The ball was made of egg and almond with a runny custardy centre, and the coconut icebergs on the sides were like eating coconut air. Something different. A good different. 

Whoa. It was past mid-night by the time we got the bill and requested a taxi. The pace of dinner was surprising swift; each course followed within a few minutes of each other. Perhaps we were particularly slow eaters, but it didn't feel like we had to wait around much. Not to the point that we were rushed though, we quite liked it. 

The dining experience was truly exceptional and sophisticated. The courses were designed to maximise our senses; just as we thought we knew what squid tasted like, chef showed us a new dimension to it. 

A colleague of his had both Arzak and Akelare in one trip, said Arzak was even better. That might be true, but we don't know which menu he had. This is precisely why we didn't want to cram Arzak or Mugaritz for Sunday lunch; putting one right next to another is likely to mar at least one of them. So we can say now, we loved Akelare; and we are looking forward to Arzak in a few months time.

Padre Orkolaga, 
56 Igeldo
20008 San Sebastian
Tel: +34 943 311209

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Monday, 8 May 2017

Farang - Thai Street Food

There were a couple of Thai restaurants on my list. Though Som Saa looked more interesting, Farang was more accessible in terms of securing a table. That was before we looked up on google map and realised it was pretty much in the middle of nowhere - took 2 train changes and a bus journey to an Italian restaurant that had small Farang posters plastered on the windows.

Granted it's a 6-month pop up, so the dining room still looked very much like an Italian restaurant, and a pretty old one too. The menu was small but interesting, as was the cocktail list. I started with a deliciously fruity cocktail while he went for the special, which was quite strong and gingery. The server, as expected, said everything on the menu was 'amazing', even went as far as saying she only worked there once a month. for the food. The one dish she highlighted was the 'Nham Prik Ong' and she described it as a bolognese with a rich tomato sauce - no thanks.

Prawn and pomegranate Miang Bites
These small parcels were feisty. The morsels of bouncy prawn cubes were masked by a small concoction of herbs, maybe dried shrimps, chopped nuts, crispy shallots and pomegranate, topped with chillies and a squeeze of lime. The flavours exploded in mouth as the heat from the chillies fired at the tastebuds, and powerful punches from other ingredients unravelled from the fresh fragrance leaf, finished with a touch of slight sweetness from a quarter of gooseberry. It was delicious, tongue-burningly hot, but delicious. The only criticism would be the nuts being too hard.

Grilled Cornish Mackerel with Nham Jim Jaew
This reminded me of the mackerel dish at Kiln, but I think I marginally preferred this one. This was equally spicy, the fish was thoroughly infused  with the heat from birds eye chillies, as was the salad on the side; the seeds were so interweaved with the shreds of vegetables, each mouthful was like a fireball.

Aromatic Curry of Coconut braised Beef Cheeks
This was absolutely delicious. The huge slab of beef cheek was braised to incredible softness, easily crushed into shreds with a spoon. The meat was interlaced with melting tendons, oozed bovine goodness. The curry had a deep richness that was enhanced by the coconut milk, bursting with spicy fragrance, clung well onto the hunky beef for a wholesome dish. The grainy potatoes, though greatly satisfying, was probably a tad too heavy, despite the bundle of pickled turnip wafers trying to lift the density. No doubt the highlight of the evening.

Jungle Curry of Monkfish and Salmon
We were warned of the jungle curry being the spiciest curry. I don't know what I was thinking. The fish fillets were served in a broth, and the thin layer of floating chilli oil looked relatively harmless, until the heat started to seep through my tongue, progressively setting my mouth on fire. And it lingered, the spiciness never vanished completely, it just perked up much faster with the next mouthful. Both types of fish were succulent and silky, and thoroughly infiltrated by chilli. It was good, but not something I would have again.

We were stuffed. Frankly the beef cheeks alone was filling enough. 

We didn't fall in love with Farang. It was different to the usual Thai fare in London, the kitchen didn't hold back on the chilliest and the style was much closer to Northern Thai / Laos cuisine. I prefer my Thai dinner with coconut cream and sticky rice though. It was really nice to try something different, it just wasn't for me. 

San Daniele Highbury
72 Highbury Park
Highbury East
N5 2XE
Tel: +44 207 226 1609

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Monday, 1 May 2017

Elystan Street - 2nd Anniversary

Phil Howard left The Square to open his own restaurant on Elystan Street. With the positive reviews and the understated elegance of the restaurant, it was the perfect setting to celebrate our second anniversary.

The spacious dining room was airy with plenty of natural light; the ambience became more intimate as night falls and lights were dimmed for a warm glow. The vibe was more chilled smart casual than romantic fine-dining.

We were umm-ing and arr-ing over the starters section. Probably because I had my mind set on the poached oyster dish on the website, but it's no longer on the menu. So nothing really jumped at me; on the contrary, some of the vegetarian dishes from the mains looked quite interesting. The kitchen kindly agreed to accommodate by serving a starter size of these dishes. Excellent.

Beaufort and Montgomery cheddar cheese soufflé with a truffle cream, dressed leaves, shallots and herbs
The soufflé was feather soft, airy and moist in the middle with a slightly crusted cap. A text book soufflé... that got a bit boring half way through, the cheese flavour got slightly dense and it was lacking depth and dimension. The tangy dressed salad on the side helped to lift the palate, but I felt the soufflé need a touch of sweetness to keep stimulating the tastebuds.

White asparagus with a soft poached duck egg, truffle emulsion, yeast and aged pecorino
White asparagus has a 2-week in-season period. Though I've always been perplexed by the fuss around white asparagus, it seemed sensible to pick the most seasonal item at a renowned restaurant before crossing it off my permanent 'try-list'. The translucent fine stalks of asparagus were soft on the outside but had a firm crisp bite in the centre, extremely succulent as if they were wrapped with an invisible layer of juice, then topped with a glowing orange custardy yolk, paired with faint perfume of truffle fragrance and nutty cheese shavings. 

Simplicity done well. Did it convert me to a white asparagus follower? Nope. 

Warm salad of guinea fowl with cauliflower, shaved mushrooms, liver crumble, celeriac and hazelnut

This was brilliant. The salad leaves had an understated sweetness, mixed with a hint of peppery punch, and there was much delicious goodies hidden in the heap of crunchy greens. Large chunks of guinea fowls were incredibly soft, oozed game juice with subtle flavours. The vegetables were sliced wafer thin, tender with a gentle bite; restrained sprinkle of liver morsels went beautifully with the earthy mushroom sheets, and all brought together by the drizzle of a light but creamy dressing. Simply the best salad I have ever tasted.

Aged ribeye of Dexter beef with a crisp potato galette, buttered morels, onion shells, red wine and truffle butter

On the contrary, his beefy main was rich and indulgent. The ribeye was served medium rare, concentrated with bovine goodness. There was the familiar beef jus that amplified the meatiness. Though absolutely delicious, it wasn't the most imaginative or memorable dish.

There was a lot of truffle on the menu, just a small component and it came in various shapes and forms. I can't say it was too noticeable.

Jersey Curd and Yorkshire rhubarb cheesecake with rhubarb sorbet

On the evening we visited, another celebrity chef, Jun Tanaka, was at the table behind us. Good to know another chef has also given his stamp of approval.

We had a wonderful evening at Elystan Street. There was nothing fancy or melodramatic about the food, just solid cooking with subdued elegance and finesse, with good attention to detail. It reminded me of Medlar, but even better.

Happy anniversary.

Elystan Street
43 Elystan Street
Tel: +44 207 628 5005

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