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Archive for April, 2008

Sake No Hana interior from Jan Moir

Because I’m a fan of Alan Yau’s restaurants, particularly Hakkasan (yes, I know he sold off control of Hakkasan and Yauatcha recently, but to me, they’ll always be his restos), I’ve been meaning to get to Sake No Hana since it opened a few months ago. Part of the reason I held off, though, is because professional reviews have shared an underlying message of “I am going to say nice-ish things about the food without having to say I really didn’t enjoy the place.” Or maybe that’s just me, projecting. [It seems I've just given away the ending to the otherwise-high-suspense, gripping medium known as the restaurant review.]

On the other hand, my friend Jane enjoyed her experience there a few weeks ago, as did my friend Shamini, and another food blogger who ate there twice in a month. So. I went this weekend for dinner.

Grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce at Sake No Hana

Jon and I didn’t get to sit at one of the fab-looking tatami-mat tables because there aren’t any that seat two. We ended up way in the back of the dining room, by the kitchen and the escalator that takes you out of the resto. In case it wasn’t bad enough that we were in Siberia missing out on tatami mat fun, I overheard both the couple to my left and the one to my right ask their servers why the restaurant didn’t serve house fried rice. Weird. I wonder: do people go to Japanese restaurants looking for fried rice? [Jon, ever the cultural translator, explained that "house fried rice" is what non-Chinese people call fried rice without soy sauce. Fascinating.]

Anyhow, it seems the menu has been updated since all the first reviews of Sake No Hana came out. It’s still organized by cooking technique (grilled, fried, braised, etc.), but in English, not Japanese. So in that way, I thought the menu was pretty easy to navigate. Slightly frustrating, though, was how unpredictable portion sizes were and how one of our servers’ guidance was so off:

Jon and I had thought the braised pork ribs sounded delish, but our server told us it was intended to serve four people and suggested we try the grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce (photo above), instead. We hesitated – because we sure love braised pork – but she won us over by adding “the crab is really delicious.”

Well, the enormous crab claws were still smoking when they arrived, and the ponzu sauce was poured on at the table, causing much sizzle, steam and general drama. It’s just too bad the crab meat was kind of tough and the ponzu brought about only a slightly sour taste on the crab. £28 badly spent.

And how extra disappointing that it seemed the servers were pushing the king crab all night! (We bumped into acquaintances on our way out who mentioned their server’s very strong rec of the dish).

tempura prawns and courgette blossoms at Sake No Hana

Our prawn tempura and courgette blossom tempura were super oily and a tad soggy, which surprised me because I’d expected the virtuoso grease-free frying at Hakkasan to just find its way to Sake No Hana.

The fatty tuna nigiri we ordered was OK (disappointingly not melt-in-your-mouth); our braised aubergine was interesting, but threw me off because it was served cold and whole. I didn’t enjoy the cold, slimy feel of it, much as I liked the aubergine’s smoky, salty-sweet flavor. Miso sea bass was good, but ever since the rise of Nobu miso cod, when have you ever seen that dish go wrong? At £18 for a smaller-than-appetizer portion, I don’t think I’d get it again at SNH.

So what did I like about Sake No Hana?

I liked the high ceilings, the sleek, black escalators. The carafes of tap water in ergonomic and stylish crystal pitchers. Servers were all polite and generally helpful. Sakes by the carafe were fun to try and pair with food. A lot of the carafes cost £15-£20 and yielded three or four sake glasses. Plain old sesame udon noodles and agedashi tofu were simple but delicious and beautiful. (I’m glad we threw these last two dishes in, and we ordered them only after we’d eaten everything else and realized we were still hungry).

Our tab for two carafes of sake and all the food I just described (the grilled crab, tempuras, nigiri, braised aubergine, miso sea bass, agedashi tofu and udon noodles) came to £125.

I might go back with a party of four or six to sit in the resto’s snazzy room on a tatami mat, but otherwise, there are a lot of other places I’d go (especially for Japanese food and at these prices) before I revisit Sake No Hana.

Sake No Hana, 23 St James’s St, SW1A 1HA, 020 7925 8988.  Closest tube:  Green Park

Photo at top courtesy of Jan Moir Are You Ready to Order.

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Smart for Four rental car in Tuscany, Italy

In October last year, Jon and I traveled in Tuscany with our friends, Kate and Ray. We thought that trip was becoming another happy, but distant, memory, and then this week (note: six months after our trip), Kate received a couple of charges on her credit card from the rental car company we used in Florence: 92 euros for a traffic violation and 50 euros for an “administrative fee.”

And apparently we had not one, but two, traffic violations while driving in and out of Florence (just to pick up and drop off the car, bookending our trip driving around in Tuscany). So our total fees came to 284 euros. $451. Impressive. (more…)

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exterior of New Tayyabs restaurant

In February 2005, when Jon and I visited London for the first time (as tourists), a reliable London source insisted we try New Tayyabs for great, cheap, “Indian” food. Over three years later, we’re still hooked. (And we now know it’s Punjabi food).

Though Whitechapel is kind of a schlep, Tayyabs’s food is reliably fresh and tasty; tap water is forthcoming; and service is efficient. Jon and I love bringing out-of-towners to New Tayyabs because it’s so much better than anything we’ve ever found on Brick Lane, so whenever we get a request for “Indian food in London,” Tayyabs is where we head. That’s what happened this past weekend, anyway.

While New Tayyabs isn’t as cheap as Lahore Kebab House around the corner (which I also like a lot), its sleek interior is a major step up from the decor of most other restos in the neighborhood.

seekh kebab and lamb tikka at New Tayyabs

I’m not offering any original advice when I say that you’ve got to start your meal at New Tayyabs with a big selection of grilled goodies from the tandoor, but you know, this piece of advice is a rare example of how it pays to follow the crowd. The seekh kebabs are spicy and juicy (and 80p per kebab!), and the lamb chops are oh-la-la smoky and hot from the delectable garam masala spice rub. After polishing off the lamb chops, you’ll no doubt be licking spicy goodness off your fingers. Who says the American south has a monopoly on amazing barbecue?

Other starters I’ve had include the paneer tikka (creamy and firm and def worth ordering for vegetarians) and the samosas (fine, but nothing compared to the grilled dishes).

Karahi king prawns special at New Tayyabs

In addition to offering a regular menu, New Tayyabs likes to mix things up with daily specials, and the Saturday special, karahi king prawns (photo above), is worth the relatively-pricey £12. The prawns are huge and juicy, not overcooked, and served in a refreshing, spicy sauce.

From New Tayyabs’s regular menu, I always order a “meat and spinach,” and specifically, I like to choose lamb as my meat (making it saag gosht, I guess). The lamb is always tender, and I can’t get enough of it when it’s covered in spicy spinach puree. The tarka dhal (£4.50 for a large bowl) is another of my faves, partly because I love the big, yellow lentils used in Tayyabs’s version. They’re so perfectly round and tasty that I think they’re split peas, actually.

The various naans are always hot and fluffy, though if I had to change one thing about them, it’d be to go easier on that dollop of ghee that goes on right before serving.

It’s pretty hard to go wrong at New Tayyabs (though I don’t enjoy the chicken dishes as much as those made from other meats – the chicken usually tastes a bit dry to me). Most main courses are about £5 for a small bowl and £10 for a big one.

New Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, E1 1JU, (0)207 247 9543; closest tube station: Whitechapel

New Tayyab on Urbanspoon

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Angeles szechuan restaurant interior, Kilburn, London

I’ve walked by Angeles dozens of times when visiting friends in Kilburn. Angeles’s dingy-looking all-you-can-eat buffet has always depressed me. But it turns out the buffet is only half of Angeles, and the *other* half of the restaurant serves good, cheap, spicy Szechuan. Lucky that my friend Jane tipped me off about Angeles’s better half, and now I’ve been there twice in the past month and look forward to more trips there.

dry fried beans at Angeles Szechuan

The resto’s Szechuan dry fried beans are a winner – spicy with bright chilies and salty with fermented veggies. A huge bowl of crunchy goodness for £6.50. Dan dan noodles were also very good. Al dente noodles and a little gai lan for crunch and color. Simple and delicious . . . and £3.50 a bowl.

hot pot ingredients at Angeles szechuan

Angeles also offers all-you-can-eat hotpot for £20 per person (the entire table has to order the hot pot). Huge, fresh prawns, fish balls, fish fillets, pak choi, crab sticks, enoki mushrooms, pork slices, beef, lamb – all good quality and in never-ending quantities. The one time I’ve had the hot pot, the restaurant divided our pot of boiling broth into “spicy” and “regular,” and next time, I’ll get just the “regular” because it’s spicy enough for me. The “spicy” broth set my mouth on fire for hours afterward.

mapo tofu at Angeles szechuan, Kilburn

My one disappointment at Angeles so far has been the mapo tofu. I was looking forward to the dish’s spicy-salty-meaty tofu slinkiness, but instead the sauce was just salty. Very little spice. Mostly oily. It arrived at my table about two seconds after I ordered it, which makes me think that it came from the all-you-can-eat buffet next door. At £7.50, the mapo tofu is one to avoid.

Service and decor are good enough.  Angeles is all about the good-value food.

Angeles Restaurant, 405 Kilburn High Road, NW6 7QE, 0207 625 2663.  60-second walk from Kilburn tube station.

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toasted rice salad at Lao Lane Xang 2, Paris

Finding a good restaurant open on Sunday night in Paris is tough (certainly as a visitor, anyway). Finding a good restaurant open on Easter Sunday night – well, that’s the sort of epic challenge I enjoy. Cue Lao Lane Xang 2, a Laotian/Thai/Vietnamese resto in Paris’s Chinatown. It’s open on Sundays and came highly recommended by John Talbott and David Lebovitz.

Lao Lane Xang stands out from the dozens of other mostly Vietnamese restaurants in the neighborhood because its decor is relatively upscale, and it’s big, taking up two floors of a wide space. (more…)

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doorway to the Hidden Kitchen, Paris

Saturday night is prime real estate in terms of eating out, so it’s no surprise that Jon and put a lot of effort into deciding where to go in Paris that night. Afaria and Spring, which get good buzz and sound very appealing, were both closed for Easter. C’est dommage!

We made a dinner reservation at Ze Kitchen Galerie, which – despite its super-hokey name – just got its first Michelin star and had good reviews everywhere: Le Fooding, Le Figaroscope, eGullet’s John Talbott, Gridskipper, other bloggers.

But though I looked forward to the Asian-accented food at Ze Kitchen, on Friday night, we traded one Kitchen for another. A miracle had happened – Jon and I learned we’d “gotten off the waitlist” to eat at the Hidden Kitchen.

Qu’est-ce que c’est? (more…)

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