Archive for February, 2011

Viajante, London

February 26, 2011

Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF

My last restaurant meal on my most recent trip back to London was Viajante, a place that had been making a name for itself in the culinary back water of East London. Only open 8 months or so, it has already won a michelin star, since my visit. Of course the two events weren’t related.

I arrived for lunch (the luxury of being a tourist) meeting a very good friend who had flown over for Jersey. It was going to be a good day together and so we kicked proceedings off with a decent bloody mary.

After a bit of banter we made our way into the restaurant – a modern room with the most open of kitchens – no heat lamps, only benches between the chefs and diners. It gaves the restaurant a sense of solid professionalism with 3 chefs quietly preparing away. We had a birdseye view of the kitchen from our comfy booth. It’s worth noting that one of the most distinctive parts of Viajante is the the reducing of barriers between the protagonists. The chefs themselves throughout the meal served our dishes, taking the time to explain ingredients and the inspiration behind the plate. It serves to really involve the diner in the meal.

There is no menu to speak off, just the option of three or six surprise courses. (upwards of twelve for dinner). We naturally chose the six course lunch.

The Amuse kicks things off: Thai Explosion 2

A chicken thigh and egg mousse sandwiched between chicken skin tuile. It was a good way to start with soft, but sparky asian flavours, coupled with a bit of bite from the tuile.

Then the bread arrived:

Very memorable – warm baguettes with butter with chicken skin, pancetta and chicken skin. Or you could choose from butter with black pudding. It’s butter taken to another level and almost a meal in itself, hence why it’s served as its own course. Bread given the respect it deserves. I like it.

Our first course was Scallops, butternut squash and carrot, mustard and watercross

Lightly poached in a squash consomme it was a refreshing start to the meal. The scallop, carrot and squash all giving off a fair amount of sweetness, but it was reigned in by the frozen mustard and slight bitterness of the leaves. The luke warm temperature served to make it very easy on the palate and it came together as a good balanced dish and an ideal starter.

Raising the game, was the next dish: Lobster, potato, confit egg yolk and saffron

From the lightness of the scallop to the rich indulgence of egg yolk  & pasta. Silky smooth, the pasta hid the sous vide egg yolk, which when prodded unloaded it’s goodness. It wasn’t totally clear if the perfect accompaniement to this was meant to be the potato or lobster. I would have taken one or the other, but they were both very well cooked and the sort of rich dish I enjoy.

The next dish: braised salmon skin, confit salmon in enoki dashi with aubergine purée

This was a left field dish – a japanese theme had arrived. I am always partial to Japanese and this was a very well executed plate – salmon skin, sous vide (or lightly confited?) salmon, caviar with aubergine puree in a dashi broth. It came together beautifully. I could have eaten this again and again.

The japanese dish, dovetailed into a tuna on toast, garlic kale and st.Jorge

This was the only disappointing dish of the lunch. The tuna was seemingly air-dried and therefore lacking in rareness or softness as expected. It also clashed with the pungent St.Jorge cheese that overpowered the rest of the dish. The elements were all fine, but were a little disparate.

The main course was a doozy: Duck, beetroot and pistachio

Duck breast served with varieties of beetroot was a perfect combination, not just in flavour, but in colour. It was a joy to eat and the pistachio (which seems a very current ingredient) was a fine addition. The duck rich and beetroot sweet. It was simple in conception, but rewarding in execution. Much enjoyed.

Moving on to dessert was a kind of interim dish – Sea buckthorn and burnt meringue

It wasn’t inconsequential enough to be called a palate cleanser. The buckthorn tasted orangey, served as a granita with the meringue providing a bit of relief from the tartness. Not something to rave about. More a pleasant curiosity.

The dessert itself was grilled pear, walnuts and szechuan creme

A relatively pedestrian dish, elevated through cool plating and the added oomph of szechuan providing some novel heat. It made it more interesting that it had the right to be and ended the meal on a pleasant zingy high, aided by the two bottles of wine we’d drunk.

We closed out the lunch with a decent espresso, vanilla cream and a cep truffle.

All in all it was a particularly fine meal, deserving of a star and its reputation. What makes it a memorable place is the casual confidence that it radiates with a kitchen that is pushing the boundaries a bit, without being too pretentious, although for some it is a very fine line. It could be argued that the service does overstep the mark, with a little too much hipster cool for my liking. Yet the menu is constantly changing and because of this restlessness and the evident ambitions it will be good to return.


Koffmann’s, London

February 14, 2011

Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London. SW1X 7RL

Back to London after our brief European trip. We were determined to spend our last few days (before heading back to Sydney) as leisurely as possible and so decided to be a proper tourist by booking into the Cadogan Hotel (I can recommend) in Knightsbridge, only a short walk from Kings Road (a happy wife). Having lived in London for 10 years or so, it felt a little strange to be staying in this area, but it did mean more restaurants were in easier striking distance.

My wife & I had originally intended to revisit Racine on Brompton Road. It’s were we got engaged. But being closed for the new year we had to look elsewhere for our brasserie fix. We didn’t have to go far with Koffmann’s new venture nearby. Having generated significant and positive mentions it was an easy decision to make.

Situated in the Berkeley Hotel, the smart decor was a given, with the opportunity to make a grand entrance of sorts down a wide sets of stairs into the basement. It’s far more elegant than I’ve made it sound. It being only the 4th of January it was a quiet lunchtime, but the place has a relaxed and refined feel that elevates it above more traditional brasseries.

Service was engaging from waiters with a wink in their eye and an eagerness to please (ooher). We decided on the lunch set menu (a relative bargain) and settled in for a pleasant lunch. An immediate high note was set with bread:

A selection of warm freshly baked bread – baguette, sourdough, rosemary infused and a wrapped onion offering. They were all lovely, accompanied with salty french butter. This and a glass of wine, we were already in a happy place.

We then had a surprise amuse – pork rillettes  on toast with pear.

In my mind this beats the normal cauliflower veloute by a mile. It was a good taste. It wasn’t to my wife’s liking, which is understandable. I was only too happy to help her out.

The pork theme continued with my starter – pigs trotter salad with piccalilli and fried onions.

Koffmann is known for his skill with pigs trotters. It was a must order and it did not disappoint. The salad was fresh with the piccalilli providing some good grunt to the soft fattiness of the trotter, sliced finely. The onion served to provide textural contrast. It was a very well conceived and balanced dish. Very enjoyable.

My wife chose the pea soup:

Nothing really to remark, nothing to complain about either. It was a might portion though, which we could not get through.

And so on to the mains:

It still being Xmas, my wife had the roast turkey with mushroom sauce.

None of the usual dryness associated with turkey. It was moist, mellow and enhanced by the earthiness of the mushrooms. Complimentary sides also materialises – excellent crunchy carrots and decent cauliflower with a hint of cumin. The frites were exemplary. Clearly this place has got anything based on Carbs pretty sorted.

A surprising dish to see on a set menu… I opted for the rabbit stuffed with lobster served with sauce americaine and pasta.

Again a very significant portion – the rabbit was excellent, stuffed with a cannon of lobster a combination of the white and red meat. The lobster based sauced served to make this quite a rich and intense dish, with a the noodles providing ample fodder. It was a good dish, but maybe too many things on one plate worked against it a little.

Being pretty full we decided to share a dessert – Baked Alaska

An old school classic, I was expecting a portion of one, not the whole enchilada. Being a good 6 inches in diameter I was defeated before I even put a spoon in. The meringue and pistachios were probably the best part with the vanilla ice cream being replaced by coffee ice cream. Coffee as an ice cream often polarises people, so not too sure who decided it was a good idea. We were sitting next to a table of ‘old boys’ celebrating a friend’s 80th birthday and one of them rightly commented to me – “don’t you hate it when they bugger around with the ice cream.” Indeed. So not the perfect dessert, but none too shabby either.

So we had a fine meal on the whole. No disappointments. A very pleasant environment with staff who did their job well and lots of little surprises from the bread, amuse, the sides that served to create a sense of charm that left me in a good mood for the rest of the day. It’s worthy of its profile and hopefully some recognition.

Asador Bedua, Zumaia

February 8, 2011

Barrio Bedua, 20750 Zumaia, Spain

It’s important to get a bit of balance in your life and no-one in their right mind should want to eat in michelin starred restaurants all the time. We’d been to Arzak (a slight disappointment), the pinxtos bars (great fun) and wanted to experience another variety of Basque cooking. It was time to check out an Asador – a traditional grill restaurant.

I’d heard about Asador Bedua a 20 minute drive from San Sebastian and booked it for lunch on new years eve – something to kick off the frivolities.

It was a pain to find. The GPS had no idea where it was and the French instructions didn’t offer much help aside from turn when you see a derelict building. We were on the verge of major disagreement in the car when we spied an almost hidden track to the left of said clue and found ourselves in front of a huge building – a converted boat shed.

It’s the sort of simple place for locals, that you know you’re going to have a good time.

Arriving for 2pm, there was only one other table occupied and we settled in. There was a clear language barrier to overcome, but they were patient with us as we negotiated the menu – a mixture of shared local plates & grilled seafood & steak, sold by the kilo.

First up of course a decent bottle of Rioja and then the ‘appetisers’ arrived – iberico ham, foie gras (with orange ‘marmalade’), tuna salad….

… and huge stalks of white asparagus

This is a way to start a meal – no fussing around, just big welcoming plates of food to share and enrich our conversation. The bread, deep and crusty and it was a case of deciding whether to drape it with the silky acorn rich ham or liberally smear it with the liver (there was a lot to get through). These are good decisions to have, fuelled by abundance and greed. Both were prime examples of their kind.

The tuna salad provided a much need touch of green with well dressed leaves and green asparagus. The tuna was tinned Ortiz, which I hadn’t come across for a while – none of this oily or overpowering brine. Just good clean tuna.

The highlight was the tree-trunk like white asparagus served with a large bowl of home-made mayonnaise. Dainty asparagus normally brings out the inner toff as you savour one of the more sophisticated vegetables, but these where mighty and need to be wrestled with and unceremoniously dunked in the sauce. Gorgeous.

An interim dish before the main event – sauteed artichokes with bacon and clams

Bringing the sea to the land, this was a good combination of the sweet, succulent and the salty. Not sure artichoke hearts are to everyone’s liking, but they were perfectly fine, if only lacking a bit in said clams.

It stirred us the for main course & another bottle of wine – the house speciality – steak on the bone.

The picture doesn’t really do this justice….a kilo and half of steak cooked to perfection. Really heavy char (but not burnt), the fat, the crispiest of yellows with the meat rare with the richest of purples, served with a sprinkling of salt and chips on the side. It’s one of the most memorable steaks I’ve eaten and in taste I’ve not had better. So rich with a real depth that is often missing in steaks. Great provenance, well hung and treated with a firm and fair hand.

We were clearly carried away (the second bottle of wine perhaps) and talked ourselves into ordering another kilo of this fine dish. Not sure why we ended up putting ourselves through this beautiful torture. In the end just two of us ended up trying to consume 2 kilos of steak. We didn’t make it.

However after a lengthy rest we were able to turn our attention to dessert (our wives needed their fix).

There were vanilla biscuits, a lemon milk shake (!) and a fine berry cheesecake. All were good classic country food. We were beginning to get a little hazy on the details by now..

It was at this point where Nathan & I decided on an Armagnac, much to the delight of a table of locals who were having as good a time as we were.

In the UK and Australia we’re used to consistent bar measures – 30ml measures. The free pour here literally took our breath away… giving us about half a pint each, which assaulted the senses in the most evil of ways. After the steak we clearly had another challenge on our hands. With much encouragement from the locals we did persevere. Our sense of machismo was restored.

By the time we had drowned ourselves in brandy the the restaurant was empty….. We had been left to our own devices. No staff clock-watching or hovering near by. “Just call for the bill when ready”… The spanish/basque understand….

It was the most memorable of meals.  Four and a half hours of terrific, big, ballsy plates of food with the company of fine friends. The cuisine could hardly be faulted. Yup, we racked up a fair bill, but it was money well spent and I’d come back time and time again, if only my body could cope.

Arzak, San Sebastian

February 3, 2011

Avda. Alcalde Jose Elosegui, 273, 20015 Donostia / San Sebastian

A break back to the UK and we really wanted to get away for a few days and decent food was on our mind. Friends of ours suggested San Sebastian and it made perfect sense. Not only could we visit this fine Basque city, but experience several renowned restaurants. Arzak was a must.

We were seated in the upstairs smoking section, which proved not to be an issue. Service was prompt and enthusiastic relying on people who looked to be chosen more for their charm and personality rather than their looks. It was refreshing to see. Some of us had dietary requirements and the restaurant did an excellent job of devising a dedicated menu for each of us. It enabled us to each have our own tasting menu.

The amuses were numerous and intriguing. First of all where

corn veloute, black pudding and figs (foreground) & alubia bean soup with apple matchsticks

These were good intense flavours, almost peasant like. The little tastes were deep and piquant. It boded well.

Next up, scorpionfish wrapped in threads of pastry (on the stand) & crispy rice cakes with a mushroom mouse

Again these were pleasant tastes. The pastry wrapping the fish provided good texture with the fish itself tasting scampi-like, though that may well be down to the presentation. The rice cakes were a little anonymous. Rice cakes are never anything to get excited about and the mousse was a little subtle.

Our last amuse was serrano ham and tomato, wrapped in flower petals, and infused – through the plate it rested upon – with a mint vapor.

This was the highlight of our amuses, probably due to the theatre, with the ham and tomato a classic combination of sweetness and the salty. We looked forward to our first course:

Us boys opted for cromlech filled with foie gras & caramlised onion with powdered coffee and green tea:

These most delicate of stones were upended and eaten by hand. The mouse inside was creamy, rich and sweet. It was a very indulgent few bites and bliss for foie obsessives (like myself). The coffee and tea lifted the flavour. They were excellent.

Instead of the cromlech my wife opted for prawns baked in Lemon with Pachuli

Delightful presentation – with the prawns baked inside a lemon rolled in ash, served with their heads to suck on (a good eastern thing!). The accompanying sauce – Pachuli was perfectly pleasant, but didn’t add too much to the succulence of the prawns.

The next course, served to us all was lobster with potato, copaiba, micro herbs and tapioca balls

Poached pieces of lobster tail served with potato crisps and a pleasant salad with tapioca. Lobster is always a welcome ingredient, but it was relatively neutral when eaten with the potato and copaiba saucing. There was no big sense of flavour, though the salad was perfectly fine. Relatively disappointing really.

My wife’s next course was a forcemeat “wave” made of crab roe, crab heads, tomatoes, and peppers, served with crab meat on barley paper

Loved the presentation – a dish lit from within. I’m a sucker for crab and couldn’t wait to knick this from my wife. The white crab meat was fresh and sweet, but the forcemeat was a bit too strong for her liking. I was only too happy to help her out.

Us boys stuck with an Arzak classic: egg poached with olive oil, showered with a confetti of olive oil and tomato powders and a scatter of micro-herbs

This was seriously good – taking the simple egg and making it the star of brilliant dish in terms of savouriness and texture. It was almost heavenly and every spoonful was savoured. This last dish brought to close the second part of the meal and we moved onto the fish course:

monkfish with mussels and nori flavored “shells,” tempura “seaweed,” liqueur “starfish” and crunchy red pepper balls

The whimsical presentation could not be faulted. It was the seaside on a plate with dainty shells and stars. The monkfish (a favourite) was one of the finest examples I’ve encountered – meaty, yet cooked to the point. Yet it actually served to highlight the relative bland taste of the other ingredients. The fish was exceptional, the rest was just there for show and I loath style over substance. Memorable dish though.

It was at this point having felt a bit rushed with our meal that we asked for a delay in proceedings. We were told that the Spanish like to have a quick lunch which seems at odds of going to a 3 star restaurant, but anyway, the kitchen was only too happy to oblige and we decided to wait for 40mins till our next dish.

And so to the meat course. My wife opted for Veal with a chufas air (not sure what it was).

The veal was tender and well cooked in the sous vide style. Texturally it was like butter, but other than that it was so boring, just completely lacking in any chutzpah. It tasted just like shoe leather really and the highlight was the accompanying souffle potatoes. As for the saucing, they haven’t stayed in my mind long enough to comment on.

My main was venison:

Two small fillets (cannons) of venison which were well cooked and a delight to eat, but just a little anti-climatic as a piece-resistance of the savoury part of the meal. Just expected something a little more substantial and wow.

And then the onslaught of desserts begin, where we were presented with two dishes of each which we shared amongst us:

Soup and chocolate “in the vineyards.”

Chocolate spheres arranged in a pool of a berry soup, along with a scoop of green basil ice cream. It was again a dish about texture. the ice cream was lovely and the chocolate balls exploded in the mouth. I prefer my chocolate a little darker, but there was a good range of flavours and it was pleasant.

Continuing the ball theme  were more rounds of chocolate, firmer, darker and much more to my taste.  It was accompanied with a puddle of an oregano-infused creme anglaise.

Things got more fruity with an citrus curd cake.

Two slices of a lemon curd cake with a shallow bowl with a clear liquid which when introduced with honey (i think) produced lovely fractal designs. Very cute. I’m not sure how it was meant to be eaten with the tart, creamy cake, but both were enjoyed.

And so our final desert was more playful and curious with fruits, sugar and caramel.

A little space-age, it the sugary dessert was interspersed with pools of red wine and the caramel sweets was filled with surprisingly tart orange juice, producing an interesting sweet sensation. It was good, if a little weird, though the star was an accompanying pineapple ice cream.

And to close things out, a playful assortment of sweets straight from the workshop – white chocolate nuts,dark chocolate bolts, white bean truffles, cola lozenges, and mango legos. Some where a little polarising.

And so our 4 hour meal came to an end with a rather hefty cognac. We had enjoyed the time spent, but the meal itself was not really what we had hoped for. The legend of Arzak precedes it and expectations were high, but it just didn’t deliver. The combinations were confused, leading to muted flavours. Sauces new to us, just didn’t seem to add anything. It was also hard to understand what responses the dishes were designed to elicit. Clearly there were some standout plates – the cromlech, the egg, the monkfish (for looks), but as a whole the meal didn’t hang together and lurched a bit from brilliance to bland. It must be said that the wine was very reasonable, but the tasting menu was the most expensive I’d had and it simply didn’t demonstrate the necessary value. I loved the company, but the dishes will not live long in the memory.