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Archive for September, 2008

paella at St. Alban's restaurant (near Piccadilly Circus)

paella at St. Alban restaurant

I rarely take advantage of lunch menus at normally-expensive restaurants, because if I motivate to try out a pricey restaurant, I want to have the “full” multi-hours-long, appetizer-to-coffee experience. I figure you can’t really judge a place on a special lunch menu.

Of course, you should never say never, and twice now, I’ve enjoyed the £15.50 weekend lunch at St. Alban, a Mediterranean-inspired place near Piccadilly Circus. Despite the fact that St. Alban’s owners used to own J. Sheekey (seriously one of the worst values in London), I initially dropped by because TimeOut loved it and it’s steps away from where a certain designer has sample sales every few months. So first I shop, and then I go to St. Alban. It’s all very Ladies Who Lunch (except, of course, for the tiny detail that I have a full-time job. And I’m shopping at a sale).

St. Alban’s lunch menu is limited and hasn’t changed much over the past three months, and because I’ve there eaten both times with largeish groups, I’ve managed to try all of the options.

The bread basket, which could so easily be a crappy throwaway, is lovely. Grissini is crispy and tastes like olive oil, and it’s overshadowed only by the fruity, aromatic olive oil that accompanies the springy, moist country bread slices.

Portions at St. Alban are pretty huge, which is weird, because the restaurant’s aggressively high-design, Jetson-style interior would suggest small portions. Soups and the broad-beans-and-chorizo starters were disappointing during both my visits. Bland. It’s hard for chorizo to be bland, but somehow St. Alban manages to do it.

buffalo mozzarella salad at St. Alban's

buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad at St. Alban

The salads have been the best of the lunch appetizer options. The buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad isn’t the most creative offering in the world, but you’re served a whole ball of fluffy, creamy, tangy cheese, and the greens are lightly dressed with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Simple and good.

roast pork belly at St. Alban's restaurant

roast pork belly at St. Alban

Main courses are definitely the highlight from the lunch menu. This is where the hugeness of portions rears its ugly head. Paella is served with whole king prawns, massive mussels, calamari, smoky chorizo, and surprisingly, chicken. The seafood ingredients are sweet and not-overcooked, and the risotto is creamy and not gloppy.

My other fave of the lunch menu mains is the pork belly. I love the delicate layer of crackling and the fat-marbled pinkness of the meat. Because the two thick slices of pork belly are too much for even the piggiest eater (comme moi), I’ve scarfed down one slice and then asked to have the other to go. The other day when I made the “to go” request, our server gave me a couple of eyerolls, which was too bad. Up until then, she’d been the model of friendly helpfulness, regularly refilling our glasses with tap water. As New Yorker in London noted a few months ago, getting leftovers “to go” elicits these sorts of reactions in London restos. Shame.

Overall, St. Alban’s weekend lunch menu is a steal at £15.50 for two courses. Options are simple and well-executed, and the dining room is empty enough on weekends that you can linger. The service is generally attentive and helpful, and my only advice is to work up a big appetite before you go.

St. Alban, 4-12 Regent Street, SW1Y 4PE; 0207 499 8558. Closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
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Hereford Road restaurant

Hereford Road restaurant

Regular readers among you have probably noticed I am a Thomas Keller fan. I love his cooking, his OCD perfectionism, and his taste. Years ago, when he lured Mark Furstenberg away from the BreadLine, the DC bakery, I was sad that my lunches at the BreadLine would never be the same, but I also knew that Furstenberg was going to a better place (baker heaven?). And I liked knowing that Thomas Keller appreciated Mark Fursternberg as much as we BreadLine fans did.

Well, a few months ago, the Guardian did this small piece listing Thomas Keller’s favorite restaurants in London and NY. He said about Hereford Road: “[i]t’s entirely free of pretension, has a nice energy and very knowledgable servers.”

So I’ve been there twice in the past two months. And no lie, the restaurant is a simple, sleek space with “a nice energy and very knowledgable servers.” None of the mains cost more than £14, and the wine list is comprised of well-priced, tasty bottles, many of which are available by the carafe (cheers, by the way, to Arbutus and Wild Honey for getting that trend going).

crab toast at Hereford Road

crab toast at Hereford Road

The thing is, the food was a mixed bag both times I went. I’d say appetizers were generally more interesting and tasty than the mains, but you have to love offal to get excited about the menu. My crab toast, for example, was comprised of the creamy innards of crab, not the sweet white meaty bits you more normally get. I liked it at first, for its rich seafoodiness, but I kept wondering exactly which bits I was eating, and my imagination ruined the taste. I love liver, but can I love the intestines, heart and the who-knows-what of a crab?

Jon reported the fatty richness of his deep-fried calf’s brain was appealing, but much as I love deep-fried food, I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm. I have my limits when it comes to offal, I guess.

Main courses were, both times I went, much less creative than the appetizers, and not in a “safe but tasty” way, but more in a “eh” way.

Lamb dishes both times I’ve visited were good, but nothing special, and one time, my friend’s pigeon was incredibly tough, so he left it pretty untouched on his plate. As sad as the pigeon tasted, however, I loved that our server noticed his uneaten pigeon and offered another main course or a dessert on the house. When we declined both options, she just took the charge off our bill (we didn’t even have to ask), which was an act of graciousness I’ve yet to see anywhere in the UK.

plum ice cream at Hereford Road

plum ice cream at Hereford Road

Sides of new potatoes and cabbage, by the way, are excellent, as you’d expect when you combine farm-fresh ingredients with thick, sweet butter. Simple desserts like our plum ice cream are unusual and taste like a lot of care went into them. But are potatoes, cabbage and ice cream good reasons for me to schlepp from Angel to Notting Hill? Not really.

So I’d guess that the people who leave Hereford Road the happiest are offal lovers. And you know, after reading Michael Ruhlman’s Soul of a Chef (which details Thomas Keller’s genius perfectionism), I understand now that Thomas Keller is an offal man. Which in turn explains his love for Hereford Road. Me, I guess I’m not as big an offal fan as I thought I was.

Most appetizers cost £7, and most mains were £13. With a few carafes of wine, both times, my tab came to about £35 a person. The restaurant is a cozy, buzzy spot where offal lovers leave happy, but otherwise, it’s a nice neighborhood place and not a destination.

Hereford Road, 3 Hereford Road, W2 4AB, 0207 727 1144; closest tube stations: Bayswater and Notting Hill Gate
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Straight Wharf Fish Store, Nantucket island

Straight Wharf Fish Store, Nantucket island

I was on Nantucket island for less than 48 hours to attend the wedding of two good friends. Their hospitality was such that Jon and I ate only one meal “on our own,” and for that, we headed straight to the Straight Wharf Fish Store.

This Serious Eats blurb about the place called it “Nantucket’s Best-Kept Lunch Secret” and then included a photo of a magnificent-looking soft-shell crab sandwich. Surely they would serve a good lobster roll.

Straight Wharf Fish Store interior

Straight Wharf Fish Store interior

Straight Wharf Fish Store is definitely first and foremost a fish store. Lots of tanks of doomed crustaceans and fish; clean, no-nonsense white tile decor. I wondered at first whether they actually sold prepared food, but then I caught a whiff of rich, creamy clam chowder and knew this was the right place.

Lobster roll at Straight Wharf Fish Store

Lobster roll at Straight Wharf Fish Store

The bad news is that the Straight Wharf’s lobster rolls cost $18 each and are served with some pretty awful potato chips. The good news is that your buttered, toasted roll comes stuffed with 1/2 a pound of chunky lobster meat, touched up slightly with tangy mayo and crunchy celery. It didn’t look like much, but it was sweet summer decadence on a roll.

We devoured our sandwiches sitting on creaky picnic tables by the water. And I thought about how the lobster roll could only have come from America: they represent an almost-embarrassing abundance. What other country would treat fresh lobster meat like canned tuna?

The clam chowder ($6.50 a pint) was no slouch, either. It lacked big chunks of clam, but it made for an unbeatable companion while I stood in the rain, waiting for our ferry back to Hyannis.

Straight Wharf Fish Store, 4 Harbor Square, Nantucket, MA 02544; 508-228-1095. (When you get off the Hy-Line Ferry, just walk down the pier and you’ll see Straight Wharf on your right. If you hit Cap’n Tobey’s Chowder House, you’ve gone too far).

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Map of Nantucket Island (from Cape Cod Travel Guide)

Map of Nantucket Island (from Cape Cod Travel Guide)

I usually resist the urge to blog in real-time when I travel, mostly to make sure I don’t miss the fun of traveling by obsessively recording it all.  But right now I am 15 miles off the coast of Cape Cod on a ferry to Nantucket for the weekend, and I can’t believe I have wi-fi.  I’m looking out the window of the ferry, and I see only ocean in all directions. 

On the one hand, I understand the appeal of disappearing to a corner of the earth where nobody can reach you.  On the other, I suppose it’s obvious – given my love of blogging - that I’m the type who enjoys full-time connectivity. 

Anyway, here’s to eating my weight in lobster rolls this weekend.

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steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

steamed whole sea bass with ginger at Huong Viet

Despite Huong Viet’s relative inaccessibility by tube (it’s a 15-minute bus ride from the closest station), Jon and I used to eat there once a month. The “hanoi” beef pho, the prawn banh xeo (Vietnamese pancake), and the whole steamed sea bass at low low prices made the 40-minute bus-and-walk journey from our flat worthwhile. 

Jon and I weren’t the only ones who loved Huong Viet - Hardens, TimeOut, and the Good Food Guide tripped over themselves singing HV’s praises. 

BUT, the thing with Huong Viet that Jon and I always worked hard to overlook was the service. It’s not that the servers are nasty, but they’re just totally harried. In a country where I think restaurants are often under-staffed, Huong Viet took server inattentiveness to new heights: there just were never enough servers for the *crowds* that fill the dining room. A meal at Huong Viet always seemed to turn into the night’s main activity because it was impossible to get in and out in under two hours. (Weird for a restaurant that you’d assume works on a turn-those-tables-fast profitability model).

A few months ago, Jon and I stopped going when, after waiting ages for some white rice, we were informed that the restaurant had run out of white rice for the evening. How does that happen, really? And why could nobody make more?

Well, as proof of how delish and cheap the food at Huong Viet is, last Friday, Jon and I couldn’t resist the memory of the resto’s fragrant, hot pho and their crispy banh xeo. We braved the monsoon, caught the No. 30 bus to Dalston, and walked the fifteen minutes down to Englefield Road, dreaming of good stuff.

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

prawn banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancake)

I remembered the prawn banh xeo (£6.50) bursting with massive, juicy prawns. How sad that after our months-long hiatus, Jon and I returned to HV only to find our beloved crispy pancake filled with half-cooked yellow onions, a few crunchy bean sprouts and some shriveled-up, microscopic bits of overcooked prawns. The yellowing, limp slices of iceburg lettuce on the side (can you see it in the upper-right-hand corner of the prawn banh xeo photo above?) further depressed.

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

pork and prawn cha gio (spring rolls) at Huong Viet

Thinking maybe we should go to an old, reliable standby, Jon and I ordered pork and prawn cha gio (£4). These were at least tasty, though horribly disfigured (i.e., burned and misshapen). Maybe I can’t even credit them with being tasty . . . a spicy-sweet-tangy nuoc cham has a way of hiding all manner of sins.

Thank god the hanoi pho with beef (£5.60 for a large) still came through for us.  I’d be sad if nothing at all were as I remembered at Huong Viet.  The steamed whole sea bass for £8.50 was still fragrant with ginger and scallions.  And the corkage charge is still a reasonable £1.50 per person, so HV is still the place to be for an inexpensive, boozy meal out with friends. 

Overall, though, it may be months before I make the journey over there again.  Well-priced sea bass and pho aren’t big enough pulls to overcome the travel time from my flat and the indifference of servers.   Not when I have Viet Garden two minutes from my flat and the joys of more-easily reached Kingsland Road to eat.

Huong Viet, An-Viet House, 12-13 Englefield Road, N1 4LS, 0207 249 0877; closest tube stations: none, really.  Huong Viet is about a 15-minute bus ride from either Highbury & Islington or Old Street stations.

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murtabak ayam (chicken-filled roti) at Awana Mayalsian restaurant

murtabak ayam (chicken-filled roti) at Awana Mayalsian restaurant

A month ago, Jon and I checked out the Malaysia festival near City Hall with our friends Andy and Maggie. Generally, I’m never excited about the food sold at outdoor festivals. Regardless of what culture or event the festival celebrates, food stalls usually end up selling a mass of undifferentiated spring rolls, fried rice and sausages. You’d think I would just stop going to these things, but hope springs eternal, and this time, I was on a quest for roti canai (aka oily flatbread deliciousness served with curry dipping sauce).

Cue Awana, which had a stall at the festival serving crispy-yet-chewy roti, hot off the pan and served with an insides-warming yellow dal. It was tasty enough that this weekend, Jon and I went with two friends to eat at the restaurant itself.

We briefly considered eating early because Awana has a deal on London Eating that takes 50% off your food bill if you’re done with your table by 8 pm. But (a) I’m never hungry before 8; (b) it was Saturday night; and (c) we had other things going on earlier that day, so we resisted the temptation.

It’s too bad we skipped the deal, because while the food at Awana is pretty good, it’s just too much money for Malaysian basics like beef rendang (a coconut-milk-based quasi curry) or nasi goreng (fried rice). Most Awana main courses are £15-20; starters £5-8; and basics like white rice come at £4.50 per small bowl.

My favorite parts of the meal were the least expensive and roti-based. The chicken-and-spice-stuffed roti (murtabak ayam) pictured at top was delish. If Malaysia ever had to face off against Mexico in a stuffed flatbread competition, the murtabak‘s sweet-salty-spicy goodness would surely triumph over the quesadilla. The pickled onions on the side added a cool, tangy crunch.

Roti canai with yellow dal

Roti canai with yellow dal

Roti canai was no disappointment at £5.50 a portion, though the tiny bowl of dal was sad. Are yellow split peas just so expensive?

Beef rendang at Awana

Beef rendang at Awana

Beef rendang was the main courses I most looked forward to, but it wasn’t worth the £14. A little too sweet and liquidy. The coconut milk is supposed to cook out, but in Awana’s version, the beef, while tender and spicy, was still swimming in the stuff.

Fried pomfret was beautifully crispy and non-greasy, but it needed a sauce or salt; veggie chao kuew teow was inoffensive and forgettable. Red snapper curry was the best of the mains, with nice, big chunks of firm white fishiness and a spicy-sweet curry sauce.

The service was generally helpful, and the room was huge and sleek in a wannabe-hip way. We got seated in a corner that seemed reserved for tourists carrying London guidebooks, and the rest of the room was comprised of hen and stag dos. I saw more than one round of flaming shots go round. A weird vibe for a restaurant aiming for a high-end rep.

Our total for four appetizers, four mains, a forgettable dessert, and £65 of drinks came to £50 per person. I’d go back if I could get half-price food, but otherwise, I’ll keep looking elsewhere for Malaysian food.

Awana, 85 Sloane Avenue, SW3 3DX, 0207 584 8880; closest tube stations: South Kensington or Sloane Square

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