Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

According to my non-city dwelling Mum there can’t be a recession if a restaurant is packed on a Monday night. I see her point but don’t necessarily agree. To me there are two other possibilities. 1) said restaurant is very good and therefore merits being busy or 2) you are round the corner from the hedge fund Mecca that is Berkeley Square home to bankers who aren't traditionally stereotyped as poor.  Or it could be a combination of both. Let’s see…
Upon entering we were greeted by not one smiling member of staff, not two, or even three but FIVE people. Quite the welcoming committee.  Bar Boulud itself was loud, very loud indeed, mainly due to the quantity of people crammed into the bar area. If a quiet romantic dinner is your agenda either avoid or make sure you get a table in the back room I reckon. It’s also pretty male dominated but for some reason I’ve never found that to be a problem….
I had been wanting to try Bar Boulud for ages having devoured one of my top 5 meals of all time in Daniel in New York in late 2010 but for some reason just hadn't got round to it. Weird considering I had been so excited at the idea of Daniel Boulud's first London outpost but que sera. Decor wise, I loved the wine themed art; stained glass windows in the shape of wine glasses and literal wine stains on blotting paper and the layout of the restaurant stops it feeling too huge and impersonal for such a large number of covers.

Bar Boulud’s menu is constructed  in quite a hotch potch kind of way where sometimes the price seems to be the only way of determining if something is an entrée or a main course- although even this doesn’t necessarily follow. There is also a very wide selection of food on offer, do they specialise in sausages of which there are many options? or burgers? or seafood? or charcuterie? Its a minefield but who cares, its all good. Due to this we ended up ordering quite a lot of food. Most of it pig based.
As a kind of pre-starter or “Little Bite” as they call them, we ordered the Croustillants de Porc- essentially pork scratchings, ears and some roasted crispy pork belly. No pictures this time I’m afraid as my iphone battery had bitten the dust- its a shame as the charcuterie really deserved a picture. The pork scratchings had a five spice/star anise type dusting which was much tastier than I had expected it to be.

We followed this with a large mixed charcuterie platter consisting of "Pâté grand-mère"(a smooth pâté of chicken liver &  pork flavoured with cognac), "Pâté grand-père" (a more coarse pâté including foie gras, truffle juice and port)some jambon de Paris and some other sliced meaty bits and bobs and tiny little onions and cornichons. My dad deemed the ham to be the best he had ever tasted and the Pâté grand-pèreto be excellent which is no slight praise at all coming from a man who spends hours smoking and shooting things (not in that order) and making various pies and terrines.
I had the “Piggie Burger” as my main and never was a dish more accurately named.  Of course two previous courses of pig would be enough for a normal mortal but no, I couldn’t resist the charms of a burger offering a topping of bbq pulled pork.  The burger was excellent on its own, nice and pink inside and oozing greasy loveliness. The cheddar topped bun made a nice change to the recent rash of brioche burger buns (not that a brioche doesn't have a valid place in burgerdom). In all honesty I wasn't getting much flavour in the "green chilli mayonnaise" but this didn't bother me as personally the highlight ingredient was always going to be the pulled pork. Shiny and rich with tangy barbecue sauce, the pork melted in the mouth and would have slid straight off the burger if not secured with a wooden stake.
Despite being a wildly inappropriate side order to have with a burger, I just had to try the truffled mash which at £4.25 seemed like a pretty good deal. It tasted sublime. Nice and truffly and clearly the chef had been following the cardiac arrest inducing 50% potato  vs. 50% butter/cream rule judging by the way it slid from its mini pan in a neat dollop on my plate.

Having protested that I couldn’t possibly fit another mouthful in (and in all honesty probably shouldn’t have) I fell foul of the temptations of the Coupe Peppermint. What was described as a flourless sponge was heavier than the description suggests and essentially a very rich dense chocolate brownie. Don't take that as a moan however as it was deliciously moist and the dark chocolate hot sauce and mint choc icecream were beautiful. Although chocolate based, it was one of the more unusual chocolate desserts that I have eaten recently. It was also the first time in years that I have breached my (admittedly very weird and utterly unexplainable) rule of never mixing hot and cold foods together - call me a freak but normally I hate it.

I really, really wanted to try the madeleines and macarons but even I have some limits to gluttony unfortunately.

There was an excellent wine list at Bar Boulud but I'm afraid all I can remember is lashings and lashings of pig. It was nice wine though and went well with pig.......
Ultimately, if you cook me a meal that involves pig, foie gras, truffles and peppermint chocolate I’m going to be hard pushed not to be happy about it (unless you mix them all together in one dish, that would be just horrid). Would I go back? Yes. Especially as they do a prix fixe menu for £23 for 3 courses at lunch and early doors every day.
So in summary and back to my two options from the opening, was it so busy because its good or because of the bankers? A bit of both I guess but definitely more of the former, maybe those bankers just have good taste!

PS Did I mention that they serve pig?
Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Casa Brindisa, South Kensington

In my last post I suggested that I thought I needed to eat somewhere truly terrible just to avoid being so constantly and irritatingly sunny and positive. It doesn't suit me. Try as I might I'm more a glass half empty kinda gal (usually because I've drunk it). Although Casa Brindisa in South Ken was far from "truly terrible" it certainly had enough fatal flaws to sharpen my claws on and ensure that I don’t visit again. Probably ever.
Now don’t get me wrong, I really did want to like it and I tried very hard indeed. I love Brindisa. If ever I need decent paella rice, quince paste, chorizo or any other number of Spanish ingredients, their Borough shop would always be one of my first ports of call, however that doesn’t mean that they can automatically use those top notch ingredients to serve up a good meal as V and I found out to our detriment.
Croquetas are one of my favourite Spanish dishes and as such I tend to have high expectations. Although they won't be taking the Croqueta Cup for the best ones that I have ever tasted the ham and chicken ones were good and consequently the highlight of the meal. Nice and light with thin strands of chicken and ham flecked throughout the creamy interior and just being held together by the crispy outer shell. I would have those again.
Beetroot and Picos blue cheese salad with walnut vinagreta had all the markings from the menu description of being very tasty indeed. The individual ingredients were indeed rather yummy. That said the salad had not been very well combined, lacked enough interesting dressing and walnuts seemed added as a sort of "oh bugger they're on the menu so we'd better add them to the plate" afterthought. Not a bad side dish though.
Baked goats cheese was never going to win any beauty paegent prizes and was a bit too sickly due to the honey it had been soaked in after being deep fried. It was quite tasty in a creamy rich sort of way and as a part of a tapas selection but even with my propensity towards rich and sweet food I couldn't have managed a whole one. Perhaps adding something tangy to cut through the sweet cloying cheese may have improved it.

Tortilla: Imagine a balmy summer day, blue skies punctuated by fluffy little cotton wool clouds, sat on a blanket with a bottle of something chilled and fizzy. Wouldn't an accompanying slice of cold tortilla be rather tasty? Contrast that mental image with a window table in a restaurant on one of the coldest nights this winter with other piping hot food on the table, and a cold tortilla is just disappointing. (I did check and it was apparently supposed to be served “between hot and cold” – it wasn’t.) Flavour was added by the presence of caramelised onions in the potato and egg mix but the brown of the sweet onions also had a slightly unfortunate aesthetic effect rendering it not dissimilar to an eve’s pudding mix where the apples have been left out a little too long and oxidised brown. In all though, it was rather hard to detect any distinct flavours in the tortilla itself as someone had drenched the dish prior to serving in olive oil Jamie Oliver stylee. This bath of oil meant that not only did the dish look greasy, but all I could taste was a strong flavour of oil which was a shame.  I’m convinced that had the dish been fresh and warm without the oil innondation it would have been a really pleasant tortilla (although sadly not as good as the one at Tortilla Trophy winners Angels & Gypsies).
Vegetarian bomba. £2.50 giant croqueta of vegetable, breadcrumbed and fried. Nice enough to make it worth its £2.75 price tag.
King prawns with garlic and chilli  The prawns were juicy and succulent with a sweet flavoured flesh although perhaps this sweetness was enhanced by the overwhelming burnt flavour of the scraps of garlic and chilli in the oil that they were sat in. There was no spicy kick to these prawns at all. I'm sad to say that I've inherited a pretty rubbish chilli tolerance level from my father however even when I intrepidly chewed on the burnt, dried out husk of a chilli languishing in the oil, heat effect was minimal. Not even a warm, tingly murmur.
Iberico de Belota Chorizo came served in thin slices and was a very generous sized portion indeed, so much so that half of it needed to be taken home and will certainly not go to waste. Provenance of great ingredients is not in any doubt here. There is, however, disparity in the pricing of dishes; five indifferent prawns for £8.50 or enough chorizo for four for £5.25. Granted the prawns involve more preparation but that chorizo was fabulous! Rich and greasy with just the right bite of smokey paprika, I would have been happy paying the same for a good third less.
Service was quite random, one two occasions the same waitress bought differing trays of someone else’s food to our table and tried to serve it. On other occasions catching an eye became something of a game.
The service lowlight for me, however was when dessert arrived. A slice of almond cake was served sat on top of an ugly smear of orange coloured puree. Rather annoyingly, I’m allergic to a variety of fruits and veg (not great for someone who enjoys food as much as me!) and therefore have to be a bit careful about what I eat so we thought we’d better check it out. Dialogue follows:
Me: “hi, is there any fruit in that sauce please?
Waiter 1: “No, its caramel”
Me: So you’re absolutely sure there is no fruit in there”
W1: “Yes Im sure”
*V proceeds to taste said orange sludge and pulls face- apparently its fruity but bitter*
Me to Waiter 2: “Hello, your colleague said this was caramel but it seems to contain fruit. This is rather important as I carry an epipen and have an allergy to some fruit and veg that can cause anaphyalxia”
W2: “I’m pretty sure it’s a sweet potato sauce”
Me: “Well that would be a problem as I’m allergic to sweet potato”
W2: “I’ll check but sometimes its sweet potato and sometimes they change it….. *disappears then returns*…….Its orange so you’re fine”.
Yes, I understand that those with allergies need to disclose it and I also get that kitchens do change sauces etc but a) I specifically asked what was in the sauce and was told the wrong thing by two consecutive waiters and b) they seemed really unconcerned about the possible ramifications of having given me incorrect information twice until I really rammed it home by pointing out that ambulances taking customers away isn't particularly good for business and can be avoided by ensuring that waiting staff know what it is that they are bringing to the table.

Our other dessert of Turron Mousse with PX soaked raisins was pretty decent and not bad value at £5.50 but more raisins please!
On the wine front the cava that we ordered was nice (my favourite non-committal adjective again). A glass of Pedro Ximenez Verastegui with dessert, however, was unlike any other PX I have ever tasted. Not in a good way either. It lacked the blast of raisiny, syrupy Mmmmmm that I normally look forward to in a PX. My fault really as I should have noted the description of "light in colour" but disappointing nonetheless.

In summary, Casa Brindisa really does have excellent raw ingredients. Their hams are unsurpassable. That said, any idiot can buy really excellent ingredients and put them on a plate, it takes a bit of culinary skill and alchemy to then turn those ingredients into something special and this is where Casa Brindisa just couldn’t make the leap for me. The true measure of value of a restaurant is when the bill comes. I have been faced with restaurant bills for several hundred pounds and not flinched because the meal has been so utterly excellent that I would happily have signed away the rights to any future first born child without batting an eyelid whereas on this occasion all eyebrows were raised in unison at £90 for two as this really didn’t feel like good value at all. Until my visit the name Brindisa had been synonymous with really good Spanish food but the South Ken outpost has not only shaken, but uprooted this belief. They really need to sort their act out if they aren't to damage the brand for the other stores and eateries. on the other hand maybe the brand is to blame, had I eaten this meal at an unnamed tapas restaurant I would probably thought it ok and not gone out of my way to return but I expected more from Brindisa, hoisted by their own petard maybe? Rant over, promise.

PS If you have any suggestions for decent weeknight supper eateries near South Ken tube send them my way!
Casa Brindisa on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 February 2012

Kitchen W8, Kensington

Kitchen W8 is a bit of a schlep for me from SW17 and after nearly half an hour winding through the side roads of Earl’s Court I was definitely hoping that Kitchen W8 would live up to expectation with a growing grumbly tummy. If the smiling welcome and warm, friendly service of the staff was anything to go by then I would be in for a treat with the food.
The interior of the main room of W8 is exactly how I would like to have my living room if I had access to an interior designer. Pretty wallpaper and gorgeous silver accessories and lights. It feels more relaxed, homely and welcoming than the more starched austerity of chef Philip Howard’s other London restaurant, the two Michelin starred Mayfair based Square. Perhaps Rebecca Macarenhas' expertise with cosier neighbourhood haunts such as Sonnys in Barnes and Sams in Chiswick has combined with Howard's culinary genius to create a match made in heaven.
Kicking off with a glass of champagne (house bottle is Billecart-Salmon or Francois Diligent for rose) we were brought an amuse bouche of cod brandade balls. The first one was mainly light fluffy potato but the second had lots of flaky fishy flesh. A delicate lemony flavour really shone through and transformed what would have been a pretty uninspiring canape into something delicious. 
A dish of crispy hen’s egg, pata negra ham, truffled lyonnaise potatoes with a hazelnut powder was truly one of the most perfect starters that I have ever eaten. The egg was served halved with the yolk still gloriously runny with a crunchy, dark golden outside. The saltiness of the pata negra cut through the unctuous, rich yolk. The black truffle topped buttery potatoes were little bites of luxury that I was really cross I had offered to share with H. This was a dish that I immediately wanted to recreate at home but know that it won't be a fraction as good. Every mouthful was a sheer delight.
Our other shared starter was a foie gras parfait served with blood orange and rhubarb relish and sourdough toast. Sourdough bread is everywhere at the moment. From those Fabulous Baker Brothers to, seemingly, every restaurant in London it has become ubiquitous. I’m so over it and so are my teeth, too crispy and rough for me. Foie gras parfait is usually the entrée that I would always naturally gravitate towards and this one was nice. "Nice" is one of those words that can mean so many things though isn't it? "Nice" on this occasion means "so/so" tasted good but didn't blow my mind. The texture was extremely smooth and glossy but for me there was a slight bitter flavour to the parfait itself (and not just the jelly or chutney). This was a shame as it made the dish that I had thought would sparkle into one of the only mild disappointments of the evening.

The "near miss" dish that came close to being ordered was a ravioli of oxtail with caramelised onions which I would very much have liked to sample.
We accompanied the starters with a carafe of Anton Braun Gruner Veltliner and a glass of Sauternes respectively. Both were reasonably priced and the Veltliner in particular, a pleasant surprise.  
My main was a steak with smoked red wine butter and. What appears (particularly from the photo) to be nothing out of the ordinary, was a complete revelation. The pink speckled blobs on the steak looked a bit curious at first but tasted absolutely divine. Butter is infused with pellets of reduced red wine and frozen before being smoked over oak chips in W8’s kitchens. It was the most intense blast of smoky sweetness that I have ever tasted in a dish and now I have a sneaking suspicion that no sauce or butter on a steak can ever compare.
Chips were a huuuuge portion (less than a quarter are in the picture!)and served as French fries on the side. H likened them to "Burger King fries at their best" which is apparently a compliment so let's go with it.
In an extravagant mood we went all out on the red wine and ordered a 2004 Chateau Batailley grand cru Pauillac. There is a reason why wines such as this cost the extra arm and a leg but it is so worth it on occasion. Gloriously smooth and velvety and packing a big fat red berry punch, its a Bordeaux that all too easily slips down the throat. The problem with drinking this sort of thing is it leaves me wanting more and preferably as soon as possible. Bordeaux is an expensive habit to get into!
H ordered cod fillet with smoked gnocchi, razor clams and chorizo. Although the cod was beautifully executed, the runaway highlight was the smoked gnocchi. Little fluffy parcels of smokiness that melted on the tongue. Razor clams added taste and texture and the sauce was essentially chorizo based providing rich flavour.

Kitchen W8 offer a comparatively limited but excellent quality cheeseboard. I hadn't intended on an extra course but with a third of a bottle of Batailley left to polish off it seemed rude not to.  Epoisses, Comte, Cropwell Bishop Stilton and Reblochon were duly added to the calorie count.

Dessert of bitter dark chocolate mousse with salted caramel ice cream (that salted caramel yet again!)hit the spot. The black wafer thingies were a bit bitter but the ice cream was delightful, smooth and sweet with a salty bite.  The mousse was delicious but if being hyper critical I would say it wasn't particularly dark or bitter but cocoa heavy enough to sate my palate. Blobs of thyme jelly added a really interesting addition to the dish and lightened the heaviness slightly.
Yorkshire rhubarb jelly and vanilla custard was nice but would never be my first choice of dessert (when there's chocolate on offer - are you mad?!) but H enjoyed it and with the custard it did remind me of the rhubarb and custard boiled sweets in jars in the newsagents as a child.
I completely understand and agree with the importance of using seasonal produce however one of the risks of doing this can be that your menu appears a little repetitive. Rhubarb featured heavily and was an ingredient in a dish option for every course as did blood orange. NB if the ingredient in question is truffle then I have absolutely no problem with repeated use, breakfast lunch and dinner, suits me fine.
I found that the thing that made each of the dishes that I ordered truly sing was the unexpected ingredient that popped out at you, with the steak it was the smoked butter and in the chocolate mousse it was the thyme jelly both of which had an intensity of flavour that really surprised me.
Would I go again? Definitely. One of the best meals that I have had in a very long time. Does it deserve its Michelin star? Undoubtedly in my opinion. Service is excellent and attentive without being overbearing, any fiddly questions that I had about ingredients were either answered knowledgeably or answers sought from the kitchen. I really cannot wait to return
Ok, so that’s two borderline sycophantic posts in less than a fortnight, I’m going to have to go somewhere rubbish just to have something to sharpen my claws on at this rate….
Kitchen W8 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Angels & Gypsies, Camberwell

I had been looking forward to testing the tapas at Angels & Gypsies for quite some time having listened to local Camberwell dwellers G&S rave about it for ages. Camberwell isn’t necessarily an area known for its gastronomic delights so a Spanish tapas haven and some relaxed dining nestled amongst the fried chicken and kebab houses of Camberwell Church Street is a most welcome addition. Plus the simple fact anything that might involve chorizo excites me to a level that is not natural for a foodstuff. And getting to try lots of little dishes of different things.  And good Spanish red wine. And the list goes on…..
The restaurant itself is very laid back and the clientele when I visited on a Friday night were families or groups of friends rather than couples. The décor is rustic and warm and centres around a wood and ceramic tile horseshoe bar in contrast to the more contemporary chic of my other London tapas favourite Lola Roja.  A pleasant bubbling chatter of conversation filled the air without the need to bellow at your dining companions or have a diploma in lipreading. The waitress recommended around 10 dishes for a group of 4 which turned out to be pretty accurate.
Calamari Romana was crisp on the outside without having turned rubbery on the inside. I was initially dubious of the concept of orange aioli but you really did get a subtle flavour of orange working its way through to the palette which, whilst unusual, wasn't in any way displeasing.

The platter of Spanish meats included Ibérico jamón, chorizo, salchichón & lomo and was all of beautiful quality. The pickled vegetables served with it cut through the grease of the meat perfectly.
Chorizo sausage arrived as one big, fat, red sausage braised in Basque cider and served with slivers of juicy red peppers and, somewhat predictably, shone for me both literally and metaphorically.
55 day hung Longhorn beef steak was served sliced on black bean stew topped with a fried quails egg. At £9 a dish it isn’t the cheapest as it is essentially five small slices of steak however it is excellent quality meat cooked perfectly. The bean stew didn't rock my world but fleshed out the dish. A pleasant surprise was the horseradish aioli that came with the beef, not mayonnaise based as you would expect from an aioli, but just the right level of piquant heat from the horseradish.
Pork belly was very tasty with a good crackling on the top. Not the best nor the worst that Ive encountered but the plum jam served with it was a thing of beauty.
All A&G tortillas are made freshly to order so take a little longer than other dishes but this one was worth the wait. In many tapas bars the tortillas feel pre-made and reheated resulting  in tight layers of starchy potato bound by rubbery egginess however this specimen was a soft springy delight with an unctuous oozing centre.
The highlight of the meal for me was definitely one of the specials; prawn croquetas. The croqueta filling was very smooth  with a prominent seafood flavour and a spicy kick which was further enhanced by the accompanying habanero salsa.
The ham croquetas were also excellent with a nice crisp outer countered by a gooey inside although not as flavoursome as their prawn brethren.
Patatas pobres were a bit of a surprise, more I think due to my appalling grasp of the Spanish language than anything else! I hadn't realised that they would essentially be not quite crisp potato crisps and were rather greasy but one slightly less pleasing dish out of ten isn't bad.
Slow cooked aubergine and coriander stew was a welcome vegetable addition to an otherwise predominantly carnivorous order. Usually I view vegetable dishes as something of a necessary evil but found myself picking at the rich, soft aubergines more than I would have expected. A&G offer plenty of other really delicius sounding vegetable dishes so would be a good place to take a vegetarian if such a pain is inflicted upon you!
Whilst the dessert menu is quite limited in comparison with the ceaseless savoury tapas onslaught there should be something for everyone.  For example,  there are the churros. With thick chocolatey dipping sauce.  The squidgy, doughnutty sticks have a crispy, golden exterior rolled in cinnamon sugar and are essentially heaven on a plate (for anyone who has watched those lovely Fabulous Baker Boys recently, the churros were basically the chocolate sticky sticks). The chocolate sauce was made with good, dark chocolate and I'm ashamed to say resulted in me cleaning the coffee cup right out in probably not the most attractive fashion. It was just too good to leave a drop behind!
A very welcome surprise at the end of the meal was the hugely extensive rum menu serving a variety of unusual rums from round the globe. I am now an absolute convert to the joys of Pyrat. Not massively Spanish but lovely nonetheless.

I find it very hard to criticise Angels & Gypsies. It is never going to be a fine dining experience but that is not what they are trying to achieve. Service and ambience were both excellent and we all left pleasantly full without being stuffed and more than a little tipsy for our £50 a head.  I look forward to going back and that tortilla is going to be the first thing I order.

Angels and Gypsies on Urbanspoon
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