Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Mango Tree

I get peckish at about 11am and on a day where there is a dining outing on the cards I generally have a look at the restaurant's website to give myself a taste of what's to come. A mid morning foray onto Mango Tree's website was very telling. I made straight for the menu before exploring the rest of the site. As I may have mentioned (ad nauseum) before, I cannot stand the practice of putting a menu on a website but not including any prices. Its not helpful and it doesn't make you seem any more exclusive, just annoying (or suspected of being overpriced). 

So, in my already irked state I ventured onto some of the more unusual pages of the site. Mango Tree seems to place a lot of emphasis on its celebrity links, a whole section of the website being dedicated to photos of the smiling owners with various 'slebs. Some of them are of the more legitimate nature (I'm thinking Will Smith and Jay Z here) some of them less so - Michael Barrymore, "model and actress" Emma Noble and various lesser characters on Eastenders springing to mind.  Once at the restaurant this panoply of A-Z list is wallpapered on the walls down the stairs to the loos. 

There are certain restaurants in London that so often populate the webpages of discount sites like Toptable that I wonder whether anyone other than gullible tourists ever pay full price. Culprits such as Cafe des Amis and Boulevard Brasserie in Covent Garden spring immediately to mind. 

Mango Tree falls into this category too. This impression of heavy discounting being a permanent business model is reinforced by the fact that their menu has whole sections caveated by the statement  "not available on promotional deals". Although on the higher side for a Thai restaurant, dishes on the standard menu aren't spectacularly expensive; around £5-£7 for a starter or £9-£15 for a main course. But once you know something is routinely discounted why pay full whack?  More expensive are the dishes conceived by "our renowned chef Ian Pengelley". I'm assuming that he's just cashed in by putting his name to some dishes since, as he's chef at Gilgamesh he can't be cooking them.  These can go up to £45 a dish and, depending on the deal you've booked on will either not be discounted at all or by 25% instead of 50.

A "Fruit Kick" non alcoholic cocktail

Mango Tree does have a decent bar and a very good cocktail list. A whole page is devoted to virgin cocktails should you be so inclined. Personally I don't see the point but we had a pregnant person in the group and they seemed impressed with the offerings. After day 2 back from holiday and suffering from post holiday blues, I needed a stiff drink. A Thai Martini hit the spot. Consisting of vodka, lychee liqueur, lemongrass, lychee and chilli, it had enough zing to wake up my palate without blowing my head off.  I could have merrily sat and worked my way through the cocktail list knocking back drinks accompanied by spicy salted nuts but dinner called. 

Moving through to our table you enter the main dining room. Laid out as one narrowish very long room, the majority of tables are lined up quite close together canteen style with larger tables at the side. Other people have described Mango Tree as very high end or classy. I think this is pushing it to be honest. The floor is industrial concrete and the layout is not high end but conversely there are plenty of moody lighting and fresh flowers. This leads to quite a nice relaxed feeling in reality but the wind tunnel and concrete effect result in a noise level that is anything but quiet. If you went in jeans you wouldn't feel out of place but equally if someone suggested it for a date you wouldn't feel shortchanged. You might, however, feel a little odd on a date if you were to turn up on "Mr & Ms Ladyboy Safari" night in September which is heavily advertised both in the restaurant and online. It is, indeed, an annual beauty pageant both for ladyboys and also for men (dressed as men) and has in the past been attended and compered by such luminaries as Cindy from East Enders.

Staff are extremely helpful and attentive (although minus a bonus point for the initial "Still or sparkling" question- another pet hate, that upselling assumption that you will, of course, want mineral water). The wine list isn't stupid and is longer than many Asian restaurants. Some sensible thought has also gone into wine matching as Thai friendly fragrant whites such as gewurz and riesling are on offer. We payed £32 for a bottle of NZ Sauvignon blanc which was fine for what it was and not crazy overpriced. 

We started out with a satay selection, some prawns in blankets (or whatever their Thai name is) and some chicken wings. All the meats were extremely succulent and well seared with delicious dipping sauces. The satay sauce was beautifully balanced between nut and spice without the overly greasy feeling you sometimes get from satay. Chicken wings were properly crispy on the outside without being battered and gently seasoned. This was ideal for me but perhaps less so for a heat-fiend who might order them on the basis of their "spicy" menu billing. 

Mains included chicken pad thai with an egg net (see photo it explains everything) which Im told was a pretty good pad thai. The egg is nothing more than a fancy trimming but it does look rather good and it is hard to make a pad thai exciting. 

The prawn panang red curry was a thing of beauty, the sauce rich and creamy. Giant king prawns nestled amongst holy basil leaves and hard little thai snow aubergines that pop in your mouth releasing their distinctive flavour. Thai curries can be a little hit and miss spice wise. I have had some that blew my head off and cleared out the sinuses for weeks to come and others that are little better than coconut soup. This one struck a happy medium and really did reflect the subtle layers of flavour for which Thai food is renowned. The bitter notes and deep savoury umami of the nam pla fish sauce to the warmth of red chillies and the sweet thickness of the coconut. I would go back again just for this dish.

prawn panang curry

We asked for a recommendation and Talay Pad Cha was suggested. This is essentially spicy wok-fried mixed seafood selection of king prawns, scallops, mussels, fish and squid with fresh chilli, garlic, thai herbs, peppercorns and kachai root. We were warned that it is on the spicy side however S originates from Jamaica and is therefore used to a good dose of heat in her food. I am told that it was indeed delicious but also incredibly spicy.

Talay Pad Cha

I have no idea what the desserts are like. I was stuffed to the gills by the end of the main course and even had to leave one last king prawn behind in my curry. Epic fail. 

I went to Mango tree expecting to hate it with my pen poised to write a cathartic drubbing but came away pleasantly surprised. The food was really quite good for Thai in London and as authentic as you are likely to find. In summary only go you're getting one of their 50% off offers and make sure you drink lots of cocktails.

Mango Tree
46 Grosvenor Place, London. SW1X 7EQ
0207 8231888

Mango Tree on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Friday, 5 July 2013

Afternoon Tea at Sketch

From the outside Sketch could be just another one of Mayfair's private member's clubs. You know the sort; well kept white painted, stucco fronted Georgian townhouses, guarded by the obligatory bowler hat adorned doorman. Take the first step through the door, though, and you find yourself in a fairytale house, each room more different and stranger than the last. 

In fact, the whole building is all rather crazy fabulous and reminiscent of a set from Alice in Wonderland or Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. A hopscotch chalked on the floor leads you inside from the front door (of course I couldn't resist it, such a child!) to the main desk with a neon art installation inciting you to "jouez" behind it. That kind of sums the whole place up, its all about play.

Sketch's website advertises the afternoon tea as being served in "The Glade" which is effectively one of the bars adjacent to the main restaurant. The walls are painted as a forest and a giant chandelier of branches hangs overhead. LED projectors on the back wall beam little red lights onto the walls refracted by moving mirrors. Whilst its all very pretty, it might have been less disconcerting if the moving lights were white like little zippy fireflies rather than the wandering bright red lights which made you feel every so often as though a rogue sniper had locked his laser target on your dining companion's head. 

Priced at £36 this comes in on a par with various other afternoon teas in London. This possibly didn't feel as good value as some other venues as no refills were offered whereas places like the Ritz and the Berkeley are constantly plate refilling. This is more a psychological issue than a real one though as we did leave feeling full to bursting. A large coupe of Pommery champagne can be added for an extra £12, slightly steep maybe but it makes it more of an occasion

The tea is served in a rather natty stack of plates and cups stuck together to make a three tiered tray. You are advised to begin with the warm pesto and mozzarella croque monsieur wrapped delicately in paper and tied with a yellow ribbon (although the inclusion of a staple to keep the paper attached to the sandwich was perhaps an odd decision from a health and safety perspective). Glorified cheese toastie it may have been but it was also properly delicious. 

Other savouries included a slightly limpid and soggy cucumber and ricotta sandwich topped with asparagus - being the only disappointing thing we ate all afternoon despite being quite pretty. A richly flavoured egg sandwich was topped with caviar and a half quail egg truly taking the humble egg sarnie to new levels.

One of the highlights of the whole tea was the smoked salmon flatbread sandwich which had a fabulous citrus zing to it and may well have been the best smoked salmon sandwich that I have ever eaten.

Scones were springy and buttery and peppered with raisins. Served warm and tucked away in  a napkin cradle, they were the epitome of a classic British afternoon tea. Coated with excellent clotted cream including the obligatory yellowy crust and beautiful smooth, sloppy strawberry jam and orange marmalade. I'm definitely a cream first then jam girl. It really is amazing quite how heated a "discussion" can become about which way round to do it! Who on earth in their right mind would ever put the jam on first? Honestly! There was supposed to be a scone photo but I got over keen and jumped in teeth first before remembering I was supposed to be taking a picture.

The pastries were by far and away the highlight of the experience though- and so they should be coming from a Pierre Gagnaire managed kitchen in all honesty. Pistachio macaroons were a rich green with pistachio ganache filling. Nothing new you might suppose but they held the surprise of a sweet cherry hidden deep inside the filling whilst dainty, pink raspberry meringues were stuck together with a runny but tangy raspberry coulis. Coffee eclairs were firm of choux pastry but squidgy of middle, stuffed with a delicate coffee custard. The Opera cake was a complete success; praline, cream and chocolate sponge topped off with a perfect mirror smooth slick of chocolate ganache on the top.  Red berry tartlets consisted of a crumbly, buttery soft pastry filled with a wobbly creme anglaise and topped off with sugar dusted berries. 

Topping the triple-tiered tower of treats was a trifle. Not just any old trifle but one described as "cheesecake in a glass". A sweet but tangy rhubarb compote was tempered by a creamy layer before a jelly and crumble completed the topping. All your nursery favourites in one little shot glass. 

The "parlour" room serves all day food and drink and serves larger cakes on their own so even if you're not up for the full ritual of an afternoon tea it makes an excellent pitstop for a quick cake or cocktail during a hard day's shopping on Regent Street or Bond Street. 

The tea selection is very good, a full selection from over 15 teas, including all the golden oldie black teas (earl grey, English breakfast, Assam etc), a couple of Oolongs, white tea through to several green teas, the list culminating in the heavy matcha green tea. I went for the flowering osmanthus green tea, mainly because it looks so pretty as the flower opens. 

Its impossible to write anything about Sketch without mentioning the toilets, they are without a shadow of a doubt the craziest toilets I've ever seen. Up a bright white spiral staircase to a stark white garden of eggs with a huge rainbow curved glass roof above. Each toilet is a pod within a separate egg. When Sketch first opened there were all sorts of rumours about the pods being used for various nefarious purposes, some just about legal, some not so much and I can well imagine it.

Were there any negatives other than the "no refills"? Hmmm maybe the service which swung from super attentive to sporadic and was on occasion a tiny bit patronising ("You've managed to finish all that food? Oh well done you!"). Looking around though the average clientele does seem to still be very "fashiony/PR/mediaaah" so its entirely possible that most people don't finish the tea. Oooops. 

So how did it measure up on the afternoon tea scale? Visually the Berkeley really would take some beating but purely on a taste basis Sketch was a winner for the combination of flavours and avoidance of over cloying sweetness. That said The Berkeley, although a bit less trendy, felt like more of a treat so I'd probably go back there before Sketch. One thing that is worth remembering though is that afternoon tea is served until 6pm so it does make a more novel alternative to pre theatre dining in the West End.

9 Conduit Street, London. W1S 2XG
+44 (0) 207 659 4500

Square Meal  Sketch - The Glade on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 July 2013

Meson Don Felipe

I hadn't meant to go to Meson Don Felipe on a rainy Saturday lunchtime, my intention had been to go to a cheese and wine festival on the Southbank but on arrival I found Lebanese shwarma, the ubiquitous burger, ice cream and various other foodstuffs but not so much in the way of either cheese or wine sadly. Add intermittent drizzle to the mix and it was game over for the wine festival. Cue a wander down The Cut with P and we found our way to Meson Don Felipe (MDF).

The restaurant was reputedly founded in 1897 and has been offering tapas since before any of the rest of London had ever even heard the term 'tapas' let alone bastardised it to fit various other types of cuisine.

I have been several times before over the years and always had a great  evening both in terms of atmosphere and food. Decor is probably as close to a traditional Barcelona tapas bar as you are ever going to find in London. There is nothing trendy or themed about this place, it is Spanish through and through with no pretensions. Art on the walls and ceramic tiles surrounding the room are unmistakably Spanish.  Rustic wooden furniture and bar and a ladder to a small platform mounted by an amp which is often home to an elderly guitarist playing traditional Spanish music. There is nothing swanky about it, its just honest genuine good food in relaxed surroundings. Great first date location, nothing OTT.  

The menu contains all the old typical tapas favourites; tortilla, garlic prawns, croquetas, patatas bravas, sardines with good the good quality basics; iberico and serrano ham and manchego. 

This place is, frankly, what La Tasca is aiming to be except they can't make new surroundings look and old and you certainly can't recreate a one off as a chain, it loses something in translation.  

All that said, I'm sad to say that on this occasion it wasn't great. Nothing to do with the food that was as good as usual. We took a seat at the bar and set about ordering. There was one other pair at a table on the other side of the room and bar that, the whole place was deserted. Two couples came in tried to get a table but were put off by gruff staff and wandered back out. A more persistent group of four came in from the rain at 3.30pm and asked for a table in the near desolate restaurant. They were extremely reluctantly offered one but "only if you can promise to be gone by 7pm". How much tapas would four people have to eat to manage to stay there for nearly three and a half hours? I understand the need to ensure tables are ready and available for fixed bookings but it was a bit ridiculous.  Couple this with the overwhelming aroma of bleach that the staff were using to the clean the bar and it wasn't the most welcoming atomsphere. In all honesty, it was rather clear that all 8 patrons were an irritant. If you don't want custom between lunch and dinner then don't stay open. I do think that this was very much to do with the time of day though and would still recommend an evening visit.

The wine list is, of course, unmistakably Spanish, rioja and other tempranillo based wines understandably dominate. We had a bottle of rioja around the £23 mark and it hit the spot on a rainy day, the warmth of the Spanish sun shining through the fruit with gentle oak and a little tobacco providing interest and complexity.  MDF apparently own a Valencian vineyard so I'd be keen to try that next time.

I am a croqueta addict, I love the things, ideally with ham or prawn. The ones at Meson Don Felipe are chicken but still tasty and properly squidgy in the middle with a crisp, breadcrumby batter on the outside. A squeeze of lemon and I'm in Catalan heaven.

Escalivada can be chosen either hot or cold. It being all grim and non summery outside we went hot. Soft slivers of smoky roast peppers cuddle up to aubergine and tomato in a shiny coating of olive oil. 

Spanish tortilla was a good flavour and golden served piping hot providing the perfect foil to salty rich ham. Baked chorizo is just heavenly, nothing fancy just really rather good.

Would I go back? Yes, but only at night.

Meson Don Felipe
53, The Cut, London
020 7928 3237

Meson Don Felipe on Urbanspoon Square Meal
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