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Archive for December, 2007

Haozhan restaurant interior, Chinatown, London

In honor of Christmas, I’m posting about our recent lunch at Haozhan Restaurant in Chinatown. After all, nothing says Christmas in the New York area (where I grew up) quite like Chinese food and a movie.

Normally, Jon and I drop by Chinatown to pick up groceries and get some dim sum, but we’ve never had success in that area looking for Chinese food other than dim sum. It is, after all, tourist central.

But despite its location on Gerrard Street, Haozhan has real restaurant cred – not just from reviews like this one by Jay Rayner in the Guardian, but also because the head chef, Chee Loong Cheong, used to cook at Hakkasan, one of my favorite restos.

softshell crab at Haozhan restaurant, London

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Hibiscus Restaurant interior, Mayfair, London

I had a delicious and fun lunch at Hibiscus Restaurant last week, and it stands out among the blur of meals I’ve had lately. If you follow any bit of London dining news, you’ll know that Hibiscus earned two Michelin stars in its Ludlow, Shropshire location before shutting down and moving to London a few months ago. Time Out gave the new London location a rave review, but the Telegraph wasn’t keen on it. (And obviously diners the world over were waiting for me to weigh in on this debate).

Things I liked about Hibiscus even before eating there: (1) it’s owned and run by a husband-wife team (because isn’t it nice that a luxe restaurant isn’t part of a celebrity-chef empire?); (2) it’s located super-close to the Oxford Circus tube station (because when I bust out the fancy shoes for a fancy meal, I appreciate not having a long walk from mass transit); and (3) it’s not resting on laurels (the move from Shropshire being something like trying to swim with the big fishes).

The restaurant’s decor is all warm woods and sleek slate. Bobo chic. The service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive, and I appreciated that Claire Bosi, co-owner and wife of the chef, was gracious when I had to ask a million questions to understand how the menus worked: £25 for a two-course lunch; £35 for a three-course; £55 for a fancier three-course a la carte; and £65 for the tasting menu. Surprisingly, there was no requirement for the entire table to get the tasting menu, so my party of four was able to mix it up. I went for the tasting menu (surprise, surprise).

Because I didn’t take any notes during my lunch, my descriptions below are my best guess about what the ingredients were.

Truffle Ice Cream and Cauliflower veloute, Hibiscus Restaurant, London

I think my first dish (photo above) was a mushroom ice cream on an island of something beetrooty, all in a sea of nutty cauliflower veloute. Cold-and-warm, crunchy-and-creamy, earthy-and-sweet. Very intellectual. I cook just ambitiously enough to appreciate how tough this thing was to pull off, but it’s not something I’d crave.

Crab-Avocado with honey and sesame oil, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The crab-avocado filling with honey and sesame oil was one of my favorites. Juicy and sweet, the crab mixed well with the creamy avocado, and the hint of sesame and sweetness from the honey sauce added kick. Refreshing.

foie gras ice cream with brioche emulsion, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Another ice cream, this time of foie gras, served in a “brioche emulsion” and sprinkled with trendy pomegranate seeds (how sad is it that fruits can now be trendy?). The foie gras ice cream was pretty good, actually. It’s certainly fatty enough to be in an ice cream, and I enjoyed how extra-smooth it tasted in that form. As the foie melted into the brioche emulsion, it became a nice, meaty soup, and the juicy pomegranate seeds added crunch as well as colorful prettiness.

slow-cooked salmon, Hibiscus restaurant, London

I’m usually non-plussed to see salmon on a menu, mostly because I think it’s best served simple, and I can cook simple at home. But the slow-cooked salmon at Hibiscus was luscious. Too silken to have been seared, and too flavorful to have been poached, I was super impressed. Sous-vide (aka plastic bag cooking) at work, perhaps?

roast partridge, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The roasted partridge was tender and juicy, and I loved whatever the green mash was. I particularly liked the partridge because only the breast fillet was served. (Because partridge has so many small bones, there’s no way I could have made my way through a whole partridge with dignity intact).

Kaffir lime pie, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Ending the meal with a kaffir lime pie and mango salsa was nice, because again, the kaffir lime filling had been chilled (maybe it was another ice cream?), so it acted as a palate cleanser.

There were a few amuses served during the meal, and the chef came out afterwards to greet every table, which was nice of him to do. I enjoyed the wine as well as my company, so it was as close to a perfect meal as it gets, I think. I’m looking forward to going back.
Hibiscus on Urbanspoon

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Wild Honey interior from the Telegraph

Because we had such a positive experience at Arbutus last week, Jon and I decided that we would try out Wild Honey, which is Arbutus’s sister restaurant. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care that Wild Honey opened to rave reviews a few months ago and was designated Time Out London‘s Best New Restaurant of the Year.

Our friends Phu and Aaron had told us they prefer Arbutus because they prefer (buzzing) Soho over (genteel) Mayfair, and I couldn’t agree more that it’s only the neighborhood of each that makes them distinct from each other. There was overlap in the dishes offered on both restaurants’ menus; the prices were similar at both; and the wine lists are identical.

The decor at Wild Honey was all wood-paneled formality, and the crowd looked a lot older than the one at Arbutus. But these differences aren’t necessarily bad things, much as I might personally dislike wood paneling (it’s so – clubby). In fact, I much preferred our meal at Wild Honey to the one at Arbutus, partly because we had unbeatable company with us at Wild Honey, and partly because we had fantastic service the night we went.

Duck egg appetizer at Wild Honey restaurant

I love egg yolks. I love pancetta. What this means is that when a menu offers a dish called “fried duck egg with warm pancetta and lentil salad,” I’m all over it. Served in an impossibly-gorgeous stainless steel frying pan (“impossible” because my stainless steel pans haven’t looked that shiny since I brought them home from the store), the dish is a dreamy, high-end breakfast. A slice of hot, crunchy toast was exactly what I needed to sop up the intense creamines of the ginormous duck egg yolk. The pancetta did its meaty saltiness thing, and I ate the lentils just because they were there.

Is this dish simple? Yes. Is it well-executed and delicious? Definitely. And that about sums up the kind of cooking that made Wild Honey (and Arbutus) worth visiting.

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Arbutus Restaurant exterior

I know winter has arrived in London when the rain stops being daily and sporadic and starts being daily and never-ending. Last Friday night, we had one such winter rain, which of course wreaked havoc on all forms of transportation. Knowing we were running late, Jon and I called ahead to Arbutus to let them know, and the restaurant told us not to worry.

So imagine our surprise when we entered the warm glow and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant and learned they’d given our table away! When we explained that we’d called to say we were late and were told it was OK, the maitre d’ accusingly asked whom we’d spoken to, at which point, his female colleague quietly piped in that she had, in fact, taken our call.

Happily, after that rocky start, things improved dramatically. We cooled our heels at the bar for 20 minutes, and that was fine because the best thing about Arbutus is how it makes almost every wine available by the carafe. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to start our evening with a carafe of a fragrant, refreshing 2004 Frederic Mochel pinot gris. I mean, it was so good that I actually remembered the name and vintage – all fruit and lightness without being sugary.

The restaurant’s decor has gotten a lot of flak in otherwise-glowing reviews, but I don’t see why. I thought the amber lighting was flattering, warm and welcoming, and I kind of liked the textured modern art on the walls.

Overall, Arbutus’s strengths are its high-quality food and excellent wine list by the carafe. The service is eh (e.g., our server described various cheeses in the cheese course by their colors and had no idea which ones were goat’s cheese vs cow’s cheese), but the prices are super reasonable for the quality of food.

Braised pig’s head, Arbutus

Jon’s starter of braised pig’s head with potato puree and caramelized onions is Arbutus’s most written-about dish. Probably because it sounds a lot more exotic than it is (photo above). In fact, the slice of pig’s head tastes largely like any other lusciously-fatty, braised pork dish, except that it has a rich, creamy meatiness that reminded me of eating liver. Plus, it was kind of stinky. I can see its appeal, but I wouldn’t order it again. There are so many other parts of the pig I prefer! (more…)

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Frederic Blondeel mint tea and macaroon, St. Catherine, Brussels

Before we left for Brussels, a couple of our friends in London warned us that the city would be boring “because of all the EU bureaucrats.” But speaking as someone who spent a lot of time in Washington, DC and loved parts of it, I’m always glad to stick up for seat-of-government cities that are overshadowed by more glamorous neighbors.

Pierre Marcolini window display, Grand Sablon, Brussels

Brussels lived up to its positive stereotype as the home of chocolates and frites. I loved the melt-in-your-mouth goodies at Pierre Marcolini. We went to the flagship on the Place du Grand Sablon, and although the shop was mobbed, it meant high inventory turnover, which meant fresh chocolates. I have a weakness for chocolate-covered almonds (dragees), and the almonds here are honey-roasted first, I think, so that after biting through the luscious bittersweet chocolate ganache and cocoa powder, you hit the supremely-crunchy-and-sweet roasted almond. Brilliance in a Box for 9.50 euros. (more…)

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