Thursday, 27 June 2013

Afternoon 'Pret a Portea' at the Berkeley

In over a decade of living in London, I realise that I have not really given the Great British institution of the afternoon tea a good enough hearing. The problem is that I don't drink tea and have a well known aversion to all things cucumber thereby eliminating cucumber sandwiches with crusts or otherwise. Should that matter though? The ritual of Afternoon tea is really very little to do with the tea isn't it?

A few years ago I had a rather lovely champagne fuelled outing to the Ritz where none of the other guests were filling in the song request cards for the pianist so endless, magically self-refilling platters of sandwiches and cakes were consumed to a soundtrack of our own personal piano karaoke. Can afternoon tea get any better?

So, to The Berkeley. H had very kindly given me an afternoon tea voucher for my birthday last year which, of course, I had left until the very last moment to book before it expired. One thing that is for sure about afternoon teas, they get more booked up than dinner at almost all of the most popular London restaurants. The Goring has recently been voted top afternoon tea in London and there is no chance of a weekend seat before the autumn, Claridges are quoting October. Having spent the weekend spring cleaning my flat destroying my manicure whilst knee deep in mops, cloths and a lifetime supply of Flash All-purpose cleaning liquid, I needed a bit of glamour so off to the Berkeley for a Sunday evening tea.

The "Pret a Portea" was introduced back in 2004 as quite a clever spin on the traditional British afternoon tea.   Biscuits and cakes are inspired by haute couture designers and their collections and, as such, the treats on offer change from season to season.

Located sensibly close to Harvey Nichols and all sorts of other lovely shops, it makes an excellent place for a pit stop to refuel. The event (and it really does feel like an 'event') began with a plate of sandwiches; tomato bread (albeit with the dreaded cucumber), curry bread with prawn and olive (slightly odd as the prawns seemed to have been pureed), poppy seed bread with pastrami and the same with smoked salmon and a little wholewheat roll with egg mayonnaise.  All the breads are made in house and were worthwhile additions to the cakes. 

Sandwiches are accompanied by a plate of canapes (in this case a tuna tartare with quails egg, goats cheese on a cheesy buscuit, smoked duck vol au vent, turkey layered with chestnut puree and some of sort of beetroot spicy curried lamb confection which was probably the tastiest). 

Whilst the savouries are all very delicate and nice, the real draw here is the cakes. You are talked through a little brochure showing the designer garments on which the cakes have been modelled. I understand that the pastry chefs even go so far as attending some of the fashion shows to see their inspiration on the catwalk and various glossy magazines advise on seasonal trends (no doubt leading to this year's neon placeholders, menus and doggy handbags).  Confectionery reinterpretations are imaginative and not always the obvious. Whilst some pieces are direct iced biscuit versions of original designs (such as the maple and ginger Fendi yellow shoe and the chocolate Marc Jacobs red blazer), others are more avant garde. 

 Original Yves St Laurent Cabas bag
A green handbag was made of coloured moulding chocolate and was a dainty little replica of the Yves Saint Laurent "Cabas Chyc" bag.

The cakes that I found most interesting were the ones that didn't try to be exact replicas of their inspiration but were a riff on the original theme. The rose macaroon had been styled in homage to a Giambattista Valli dress and had a very subtle rose flavour (nothing worse than eating a cake that tastes like soap).

A nougatine and 'berriolette' mousse (no me neither....think it might be an invented word for mixed berries as found no references on Google other than the Berkeley- happy to be corrected though!) was topped with a chocolate printed with a geometric pattern taken from a Prada garment thereby drawing inspiration from the fabric rather than the item of clothing. 

Gianduja cream sponge has an excellent flavour and the sponge is decorated in the bright pink polka dot design of a Manolo Blahnik stiletto. 
Real Fendi boot thing. 
Biscuit Fendi boot

If you aren't particularly girly or into fashion then I think there are maybe better places to take your afternoon tea as some of the cakes do fall into the 'style over substance' category, when you are using that much fondant or moulding chocolate to replicate real garments and accessories it is always bound to happen.

Despite having been stuffed to the gills with as many mini handbags or shoes as you manage, each diner is given a doggy bag which is in the shape of a handbag (of course it is, why am I even surprised?!) There were plenty of slightly red faced men leaving the dining room unsure of the most macho way to carry a small neon cardboard handbag filled with little cakes- bet they ate them all when they got home though!

Pret a Portea at The Berkeley Hotel
Caramel Room
Wilton Place, London, SW1X 7RL
(0207) 1078866

Square Meal Caramel Room on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Chinese Wine: 2009 Changyu Golden Valley Ice Wine, Gold Diamond Label, Liaoning

So Chinese wine. Those two words in combination are not something that would usually get the pulse of your average oenophile racing. Admittedly when I think of China I don't automatically bring to mind a great drink producing nation.  My last experience of local Chinese alcohol was on a trip to Beijing involving near lethal shots of jaw-shudderingly awful "baiju" sorghum spirit ultimately leading to an incident involving a pole dancing pole in a bar in Sanlitun and a skull-splitting hangover the following day. Call me small minded but memories like these don't engender warmth and excitement about other Chinese drinks.

That said, China does have some pedigree when it comes to wine production.  Archaeologists believe that grape wine has been drunk and also made in China for over 4000 years.  What was made was generally for domestic consumption with over 90% of locally produced wine remaining in China. There is no geological reason why China can't produce great wine. Partly due to the sheer size of the country, so many climates are covered within its borders. The diversity of it's landscape and soils provide further opportunities for variation. 

Berry Bros have received a lot of publicity over the last couple of months or so due to their decision to introduce four Chinese wines to their regular stock list. What drew more attention still was the fact that, of the four wines, three are ice wines, perhaps surprising considering around 80% of wine produced in China is red.  Plenty of cynics have suggested that this move is to curry favour with an increasing number of their Chinese clientele thereby indirectly questioning whether these wines are really that good or if there is an ulterior motive for stocking them. Either that or they are on to the next big thing and kudos to them for being brave enough to take the step. 

Due to my ongoing love affair with sweet wine, I'm always going to be intrigued by a new dessert wine so set out in quest of a bottle. Oddly enough despite the publicity back in March, Berry's didn't actually have any of the 4 wines in stock. All are being sold "en primeur" despite the fact they are bottled and ready to go. but despite originally quoting June arrival Berry's still don't have stock apparently. They are also only selling in half cases of 6 bottles which is interesting. Personally I would be minded to try all of them if they were on sale by the bottle, if only for the novelty, but I'm not prepared to risk a punt on 6 bottles each of unknown stuff not due for another few months. Sort it out BBR!

Luckily there are others in the UK that do have stock albeit not at a retail level. Berkmann Cellars have some in stock now and have supplied to Medlar in Chelsea which is where I have tasted a glass and subsequently a whole bottle of the 2009 Changyu Golden Valley Ice Wine, Gold Diamond Label, from Liaoning.

Liaoning is a province right up in the north of China bordering onto North Korea. Nestled between the Nulu'erhu mountains towards the Mongolian border in the West and Changbai Shan and Qianshan mountain ranges to the East, the winelands are in a flat valley irrigated by the Liao river which flows through the province. The region is considered to have a monsoon climate with significant rains during the summer and dry weather for much of the rest of the year but, critically for ice wine, temperatures of down to -7c in the winter. 

The "gold diamond label" (they're not one for underselling their wines, are they?!) is made from the third press of the grapes and is therefore the lightest and consequently least costly option. Served in a tall, narrow, hand blown bottle it looks different right from the off.

Made of from Vidal (a blend of Ugni blanc and Rayon d'Or), the style is not incomparable with a light Canadian Ice Wine however, both the novelty of the wine and the more attractive price point make this a goer in my eyes. 

Colour-wise it is almost the colour of apricot skins, mainly a light orange with slight pinky shades. Deliciously fragrant on the nose (expect tropical fruits), it follows through and delivers on the palate too. Balanced by a good acidity to temper the sweet, slightly viscous texture. Whilst bearing the expected honeyed citrus there is also an unusual but pleasant underlying light smoky tone which I hadn't expected.

An excellent match for fruit desserts but equally delightful sipped on its own and would be lots of fun to subject  people to in a blind tasting were you so cruelly minded!

Listed at Berry's now for £79.38 for 6 half bottles in bond en primeur.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Shoryu, Regent Street

Plenty of people have been raving about Shoryu for some time now, so much so that I had expected arriving to Pitt Cue or Flat Iron style queues down the street. But no. The gas guzzling patio heater thingy was burning purely to warm the night sky rather than any hungry, patient punters. We walked in to a slightly feeble out of sync mumbling of "irashimase" and had the pick of the tables as the place was half empty.  

Maybe the slightly ghostly atomsphere was because I went to the Regent Street branch shortly after the Denman Street pop up opened. Granted it was a Monday night and on the plus side the majority of those frequenting the filled tables were Japanese which is always a good sign. Maybe I just got lucky. Overall, however, I can't help thinking that I've missed the initial wave of enthusiasm and that, as the queues of excited London foodies have dissipated, so has Shoryu's attention to detail.

Soft Shell Crab Tempura
Shoryu might claim to be Japanese run (by Japan Centre over the road) and to have flown in a chef especially but there was no hint of it the night that we visited. All those wearing chefs whites were distinctly pale and mousy of European extraction as were all but one of the waiting staff. Without meaning to be overly personal, there are some people who are not suited to wearing tight fitting stretchy oriental patterned shirts (I count myself amongst them) - I considered a photo but it would have been cruel. They look good on those for whom they were designed but get over a certain height/weight and its not good. Those same people should also probably not be forced to endure wearing a lilac purple "Daniel-san" Karate kid head band. 

Hugh of Twelvepointfivepercent talked about a warm welcome and the beating of a drum, as did Marina O'Loughlin,  however on our arrival (and throughout the visit) the drum was just a silent, large and cumbersome ornament blocking up the main counter (albeit the only token towards a Japanese theme other than the fancy dress staff).  Shoryu, perhaps rather than theming your poor staff, you might focus on making the look and feel of your actual restaurant slightly less like any high street chain coffee shop and more like the "authentic" ramen joint you pride yourself on being- I'm not talking about making it a ghastly "themed" restaurant but at the moment its rather odd (right down to the flavoured coffee syrups on display - what's that about?!). The accompanying soundtrack of "smooth jazz" music only helps to add to the sentiment that at any moment you might hear the whoosh of an Italian coffee machine and someone calling "skinny soy latte and the code for the free wifi please". It feels wrong.

We ordered cocktails, opting for a Mountain Berry Martini and a Lemongrass and Ginger martini.  The mountain berry was off apparently so was swapped for a wasabi martini but apparently they couldn't do this one either (how is this even possible? Wasabi is an every day item in the larder of any Japanese restaurant surely?!) So five minutes later two lemongrass and ginger martinis emerged. They were dire. I get that we don't expect an inexpensive ramen joint to be master cocktail mixers but if you can't do them properly then don't do them at all.  Chunks of ice were floating around in the martini, no martini should ever have chunks of ice. There were also slightly weird browny black and hairy blobs floating on the surface which the lady in the black suit with  a supervisor badge (with power comes permission not to wear the silly outfit clearly...) claimed was ginger but I'm 99.9% confident that it wasn't. Ginger is not black for starters and, whilst fibrous, is not hairy. So they both went back. L - rather bravely in my opinion- agreed to a replacement whilst I went for draft Kirin which is seemed altogether more reliable than the preceding cocktail disaster.  The replacement was ok. Just ok though. When they say 'martini' by the way, they literally mean "Martini" as in slightly 80's connotation vermouth drink. They told us that the lemongrass had been omitted this time, oh and no shochu either (so just a ginger martini then...) and the raw ginger replaced by Belvoir ginger cordial. Ultimately a lemongrass and ginger martini supposedly made with shochu and fresh ingredients morphed into posh British ginger cordial mixed with Martini and water.

Ordering food was almost as painful. I am sure that the handheld electronic ordering machine and system is designed to make the system as accurate and efficient as possible but it didn't work. Not only did we have to repeat our order multiple times for it to get typed into the little black box but two sets of other people's food were wrongly brought to our table and I later got the wrong dessert. Perhaps good ol' pen and paper might be better?

From the "Starters" list we tried gyoza which had a decent flavour and a little kick oozing oil into the dipping sauce. Soft shell crab was not bad, the tempura coating quite light but a little on the greasy side.

Onto the main event. The redeeming feature is the ramen. The basic ramen package involves kiruage mushrooms, bean sprouts, spring onion, sesame, ginger, nori and mayu garlic oil as well as the unforgettable nitamago egg; soft in the yolk and rich as can be (although I'm always left wanting the other half as you only get half an egg).

The char siu pork is lovely, tender rolled roast pork but is categorically not "bbq" as the menu claims, not a whiff of barbecue colour or flavour in sight. The meat is nice and succulent though and good as roast pork goes. The broth, however, is an absolute delight. Deep and rich in flavour and creamy in texture, there are no watery bland noodles served in the name of ramen here. This is down to the heaps of pork bones that are stewed for a loooong, long time in preparation whilst meticulously skimming off the surface to leave behind an opaque but smooth soup.

As long as you aren't planning on speaking to anyone for the following 24 hours, the Dracula Tonkotsu Ramen is an excellent choice. In addition to the basic package you get added mayu oil, balsamic vinegar and garlic chips leading to a darker soup. It claims on the menu to be spicy but I didn't find it overly so. This would be my choice if I were to return.  There are over 15 further permutations above and beyond those we tried and many do sound pretty good. Menu highlights for me include the Yuzu tonkotsu and the Hokkaido curry ramen.

Desserts are bought in from Japan Centre over the road so don't be expecting anything that London hasn't seen before on that front. I always forget when I go to Japanese restaurants in the UK that the Japanese aren't massive on desserts on home turf let alone abroad (memorably after a spectacular seven course savoury meal in one michelin star Tokyo sushi house, dessert was a single strawberry).

The yuzu sponge roll was sort of like an arctic roll but with a large quantity of some kind of slightly citrus flavoured butter instead of ice cream. Very greasy and just a tiny bit bland.  It wasn't awful but I wouldn't order it again.

Matcha ice cream has a delicate matcha flavour and a pretty colour but doesn't rival other matcha ice creams that I've tried (and even not the Haagen Dazs Matcha)

Would I go back? Ask me after I've tried other ramen trendies Bone Daddies and Tonkotsu! If I were in the area and very hungry then I would definitely stop by for a bowl of ramen but I wouldn't travel for it. I also regret not having tried the hirata buns so they might be worth a revisit. So long as you stick to just a ramen and a cold beer and are immune to service issues then its excellent value for money and a good example of a decent ramen. If you want a great dining experience then avoid.

9 Regent Street, London.
No telephone & no reservations.

 Shoryu Ramen on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Hawksmoor, Air Street

On my first visit to Air Street it took me a while to realise that I was in the same venue that previously housed former ill-fated inhabitant Cocoon. Glossy sci-fiesque plastic furniture in whites and lurid oranges and reds have been replaced by a glorious art deco interior, a dark wood parquet floor, gleaming brass bar and half moon stained glass windows. 

Reclaimed school bench tables, replete with polished-over compass carved graffiti and aged, spotted mirrors add to the feeling that Air Street has been there, well, simply forever! Despite being prime time West End, this could be a very difficult location from an aesthetic perspective; a very long thing room with low ceilings that might easily feel oppressive, especially with all that wood panelling but its all been done exceptionally well.
picture borrowed from Hawksmoor website!

Clever and sophisticated interior design job aside, a lot has changed from the sometimes strange asian fusion offerings from Cocoon. Hawksmoor are, of course, synonymous with excellent steak, however Air Street sees their first real foray into adding fish to the menu following input from Dartmouth based seafood guru, Mitch Tonks.  Although scallops, dover sole and monkfish all sound delicious, I am here for the beef. 

I've been to Air Street a couple of times now with different groups of friends and never written about it. It was when a recent Sunday a lunch at Barbecoa in St Paul's was aborted before it had even begun (boiling hot inside and horrifically loud dance music for a Sunday lunchtime or a table outside in the shopping centre- at those prices no thanks!)  and my immediate instinct was to call Air Street and retreat to something reliable, that I knew I should write it up.

On a Sunday a roast beef lunch is on offer for £19. Not the cheapest roast on the market but excellent value in my book. Rather than the traditional thin slices of beef, an inch thick chunk of beef is served. The meat is initially seared over charcoal before going into the oven to roast in order to try and replicate the old fashioned spit roasting of meat of yore. The plate is dominated by a giant Yorkshire pudding, crunchy on the outer with a soft doughy pillow as well as a roast garlic bulb releasing oozing, nutty garlic squish, roast shallot, carrots and greens. Horseradish sauce is a sinus-cleansing, zinger of a sauce but it is the sauce that really makes this plate sing. Onion and bone marrow gravy is a thick, sticky powerful concoction; sweet in part but deeply, deeply savoury coating your tongue with such a texture and flavour that makes you know that sauce took hours of reduction before it reached your table. 

Why is it that despite believing yourself to be utterly full you can aways find just a little bit of space left for something sweet? Its almost as if you have two appetites or two stomachs, one for sweet and one for savoury. The trick is to just say no when the dessert menu approaches but I can never take my own best advice and instead always say that I will just take "a little look" then before you know it, dessert has been ordered.

A pretty, individual, round apple pie comes with the offer of pouring cream, clotted cream, ice cream or custard. I don't think my father has ever had so many options and was briefly awed into uncharacteristic silence. 

The salted caramel chocolate cup is essentially a giant salted Rolo. Rich beyond belief, it nearly had me floored but I couldn't leave any of the wonderful salted caramel topping beyond so I soldiered on.

photo also borrowed from Hawksmoor...
Lemon and mint sorbet was refreshing with an excellent tart vs sweet balance and would have been a much more sensible dessert to go for than my chocolate caramel whopper. 

The wine list is just as good as the other Hawksmoors. A 1999 Urbino Crianza Rioja is a little bit of a luxury at around £48 but utterly delicious and well rounded sliding down altogether too easily for a Sunday afternoon. A more reasonably priced Montepulciano at £22 is a perfectly good accompaniment to a a Sunday roast; fruity and quite light but with the oomph to stand up to the beef. The cocktail list is broad and interesting and I will definitely be going back to Air Street just for drinks.

I think that Air Street has the potential to become my favourite of the Hawksmoor family. In part this is down to the location but also the decor, I can imagine that with a summer of Gatsby mania approaching, I might not be the only one....

Hawksmoor Air Street
5a Air St  London W1J 0AD
020 7406 3980

  Hawksmoor Air Street on Urbanspoon   Square Meal
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