Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for July, 2009

Chambord (photo from Facts About France)

Chambord (photo from Facts About France)

I’m sitting across the street from Chateau de Chaumont in the Loire Valley, happy to finally have Internet access for the first time in almost a week. I’d intended to try my hand at daily “sort of live” blogging, but of course I underestimated the rural-ness of central France.

Jon and I are cycling our way through the Loire Valley at a modest rate of about 30 km a day. The last time I came to this area was in 1999 (as a no-frills backpacker). Now, while we’re not traveling in the lap of luxury – choosing to cycle independently has its challenges – we’ve been *extremely* lucky so far. Sunny, breezy weather; no equipment problems; incredibly well-marked trails and scenic roads (courtesy of the brilliant Loire a Velo and Chateaux a Velo programmes), and a flawless luggage transport service arranged through Detours de Loire (for about 160 euros, our bags are moved from Point A to Point B five times this week).

In the evenings, we’ve been eating at as many Michelin-rated places as is possible when you’re constrained by velo (cycling at night is not ideal). My impression so far is that Michelin is a bit over-generous when it comes to rating places in central France, but prices have been reasonable and the food has generally been good.

Although the Loire is the heart of foie gras country, I think I’ve actually hit my limit after eating foie gras four nights in a row. Tonight I’m going to try to pass, but we’ll see.

In any event, tomorrow we cycle from Chaumont to Amboise via Chenonceau (aka the super-cool castle that’s actually built to straddle the Cher river). I have a few restaurants booked already, but of course if you’ve got a fave in those towns, leave a comment below. A bientot!

If you’re interested in the Loire Valley, you might also enjoy reading:

Read Full Post »

french toast pudding at Magdalen

french toast pudding at Magdalen

Magdalen opened in early 2007 to rave reviews across the board. Reading those reviews, I learned that the chef, James Faulks, had worked at the Fat Duck, and his wife, Emma, was pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental. And in light of how uniformly gushing the pro reviews were, I couldn’t believe the place had never before shown up on my radar. A friend of mine lives on nearby Bermondsey Street and hadn’t been. You’d think there’d be more excitement about the place, especially if you lived nearby, no? [Now that I'm blogging about it, I see that Around Britain with a Paunch had a good meal there in September 08 but that things ended on a bad note with the service charge.]

In any event, three weeks ago, Jon and I turned up for our 9 pm reservation, and we were pleased to see the intimate, dimly-lit dining room was packed. Our table wasn’t ready yet, so we cheerfully had aperos at the bar. The bartender was both friendly and generous: my glass of champagne was filled all the way to the top. It set a nice tone for the evening.

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

The menu offerings were what you’d expect at an ambitious gastropub, except that Magdalen’s starters were priced at the high end (£8-10). That said, the quality of our starters was very high. Jon’s generous portion of potted crab was very good – creamy, sweet essence of crab. As happens most times I order potted anything/rillettes, though, I wished for more toast.

squid and chickpea starter at Magdalen

cuttlefish and chickpea starter at Magdalen

While my braised cuttlefish was not much to look at, it was a delight to eat. There was definitely some pork in there lending a rich, meaty note to the creamy garbanzo beans and squid ink. A bit of Spain in London.

pigeon

pigeon in mushroom cream sauce

I can never resist pigeon because when it’s cooked right, it’s pretty much duck-meets-steak (i.e., super!). Magdalen’s was spot-on tender and juicy. The pigeon was a bit tough to cut without a steak knife, so I really should have asked for one instead of resorting to my fingers. (Jon said he didn’t mind, but then again, we’re married so he’s stuck now).

rabbit and black pudding

rabbit and black pudding

Jon’s rabbit with white beans and black pudding wasn’t the obvious choice for a hot June evening. But it was as you’d expect: hearty and meaty. On a cold winter’s night, I’m sure I’ll be craving this dish.

Our mains were £16-18 each and sides (of which we ordered two) were £4-5 each.

After so much tasty, hearty food, I would normally have skipped dessert. But feeling decadent, I tried the French toast and ice cream, which was well worth the ten thousand gazillion calories’ worth of butter and cream in there. £6.50 was never better spent.

Overall, the cooking and service at Magdalen were wonderful, and I loved the availability of wines by the carafe (we ordered one of red for £15 that went well with our meal). Our tab for two, including service, was £120.

The thing is: £60 a person is lot of money for what seemed to me like gastropub fare. We ate a lot of food, and it was top-notch cooking, to be sure, but nothing on the menu seemed destination-dining-worthy. Perhaps Magdalen has toned down the ambition of its menu since it opened in 2007 in order to become more of a neighborhood place. But if that’s the case, then it’d be worth lowering prices as well.

Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, SE1 2TU; 0207 403 1342; closest tube station: London Bridge

Magdalen on Urbanspoon

Read Full Post »

Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

These days, Chinatown seems to be divided between two major players – the Bar Shu people and the Leong’s Legend people. Both restaurants have been building on the success of their initial ventures and expanding in the neighborhood. Presumably there’s a rivalry in there somewhere, and if so, I side with the Leong’s contingent (having felt that Bar Shu’s food was very mediocre and expensive and that in contrast, LL’s serves reliably-good dim sum at very good prices).

In light of my LL fan status, it should be no surprise that a few weeks ago, despite several highly-negative reviews (see e.g., Jay Rayner’s Guardian review here and Charmaine Mok’s TimeOut review here), I had dinner at Keelung, the latest offering by the Leong’s gang.

I’ve been to Taipei six or seven times, and several of those visits were two- or three-months long. While there are certain dishes I remember eating a lot of (and loving) in Taiwan — for example, pan-fried baozi at the Shilin nightmarket, oyster omelets, xiao long bao, beef noodle soup, and a fajita-type thing called ren bien — if you asked me what characterizes Taiwanese food, I’d have no good answer. I’ve always thought of Taiwan as the culinary melting pot for Chinese food. The place to get great versions of food that originated in the varied regions of mainland China.

Which is all to say that I didn’t go to Keelung expecting to eat some definitive list of Taiwanese classics, notwithstanding Keelung’s description of itself as a “Taiwanese restaurant.”

Jon and I started with one of our LL favorites, the crab xiao long bao. They were fine, but not as great as I’ve had them at LL’s on weekend dim sum outings. Perhaps they’d been sitting around too long before being steamed. (That said, I feel obliged to note here that Jay Rayner’s dismissing xiao long bao, generally, on the basis of having to eat them in one go is silly. Any xiao long bao lover knows that the trick is to use your chopsticks to lever the dumplings into your soup spoon and take small bites, letting the steam out while collecting the soup in your spoon).

chili prawns at Keelung

chili garlic prawns at Keelung

But things picked up with the seafood dishes we ordered. I liked that Keelung was generous with the chilies, generally, and the chili garlic prawns we tried were wonderfully tender-yet-firm and packed with flavor. It was a simple dish using large, sweet-tasting prawns. Perfect with plain white rice.

crispy pomfret at Keelung

crispy pomfret at Keelung

From the many-fish-served-many-ways matrix, we chose a pomfret and asked for it to be served crispy. And it was good stuff. Lots of firm white meat on the pomfret, lightly-battered skin, and lots of chili and scallions to lighten up the soy-sugar-based sauce. No gloppiness in sight.

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

The pork belly served in a steamed bun was a monster and really should have come sliced thin to avoid the meat tasting relatively dry. Sliced thin, I’m convinced the fat-t0-meet ratio would taste better, even if the actual ratio stayed the same. Maybe next time I’ll slice it thin myself, because the dish did offer well-flavored pork belly, which can’t find a better partner than the plain steamed man tou accompanying it.

choi sum

choi sum

Our biggest disappointment of the evening was a side of choi sum we ordered in a misguided attempt to be healthy. The choi sum was sadly flavorless despite the chilies and preserved veg it was served with. Then again, it’s a steamed vegetable. How exciting could it have gotten, really?

Service was attentive; the decor was surprisingly nice for Chinatown. And unlike other reviewers, I didn’t mind the classic rock soundtrack or memorabilia on the walls. In a way, it’s nice to visit a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t feel obliged to play pentatonic everything in the background.

Tab for two people, including a few beers, totaled £45. It wasn’t the best Chinese food of my life, but it was far from the worst. So I’ll definitely be returning to Keelung to try its other seafood dishes. Keelung seems an ideal place to go for reasonably-priced, good Chinese food served in a comfortable, feel-free-to-linger space.

Keelung, 6 Lisle St, WC2H 7BG, 020 7734 8128; closest Tube station: Leicester Square.
Keelung on Urbanspoon

Read Full Post »

L'Anima Italian restauarant

L'Anima Italian restaurant

When I leave the office on Fridays, I’m always excited about the possibilities of the upcoming weekend. And the best way to start the weekend, in my opinion, is to have drinks and dinner with Jon.

Last Friday was Jon’s turn to plan our weekly “date night.” We met at a bar after work, and Jon announced we were going to L’Anima, which I’d heard of, but had no idea where it was located. Imagine my surprise to find it was near Liverpool Street station, about five minutes’ walk from my office. So it was like going back to work, pretty much, which was a bummer. I tried not to hold L’Anima’s location against it, but really, who wants to leave work on Friday and then end up eating dinner a stone’s throw away? Plus, while L’Anima’s sleek, all-white interior is lovely to look at, the views of the EDF office across the way (whose decor would be charitably described as utilitarian) didn’t bring to mind carefree glamour.

fritto misto at L'Anima

fritto misto at L'Anima

Luckily, Jon knows me well, and I was able to forget the whole location-near-my-office thing once our starters arrived. You see, part of the reason we were at L’Anima was so I could order the fritto misto. A year ago, we were in Venice and I was scarfing down as much fritto misto as humanly possible, and since then, I have craved that type of high-quality, fried seafood bounty. L’Anima’s version really does live up to the hype. There was a good variety of seafood in there (whole prawns, softshell crab, calamari, fish) and everything was crispy, grease-free and perfectly salted. Definitely worth the £14.25.

pappardelle with duck and pistachio ragu

pappardelle with duck ragu and toasted pistachios

Our pasta courses were slightly less appealing. Jon’s pappardelle with a duck ragu and pistachios (£11) was too intense. I hardly tasted anything except salt, which was a shame considering the luscious texture of the pappardelle.

chili and crab tagliolini - with tons of dill

taglierini with garlic, chilli and crab (and tons of dill)

And whenever I see a pasta with garlic, chilli and crab, I can’t resist ordering it. L’Anima’s version was served, inexplicably, with a ton of dill mixed in. It was overpowering. And it doesn’t help that I really dislike dill. So despite the generosity of crab meat and the wonderful al dente taglierini in this dish, it was hard for me to finish it. For £17.50, I expected a lot better. (Which means I’ll stick with the version served at Olivo in Belgravia, then. It’s so good there that occasionally I forgo their creamy-fishy spaghetti bottarga to have the linguine al granchio, which seems like a bargain now at £14.50).

grilled sea bream at L'Anima

grilled sea bream at L'Anima

Jon’s grilled sea bream (£16) tasted like summertime, with a smoky charred skin and a silky, firm flesh. Simple and good.

three-cheese plate

three-cheese plate

Although we were stuffed, the three-cheese plate for £10 seemed too good a deal to pass up. The generosity of pecorino, taleggio and gorgonzola were a nice way to end our meal.

Overall, I’d go back to L’Anima (especially for that fritto misto), but next time, I’ll skip the pastas. With a £30 bottle of an easy-drinking soave, our bill totaled £115 for two.

L’Anima, 1 Snowden Street, EC2A 2DQ, 020 7422 7000; closest Tube station: Liverpool Street Station.
L'Anima on Urbanspoon

Read Full Post »

pork banh mi from Banhmi11, at the Ca Phe coffee stand in Broadway Market

pork banh mi from Banhmi11, at the Ca Phe coffee stand in Broadway Market

Banhmi11 is a stand in Broadway Market that sells one thing only:  banh miVery exciting.  In case you didn’t know, I’m a banh mi fan.  The obsession started years ago when I lived in Washington, DC.  There, the Song Que grilled pork banh mi was worth the hassle of driving out to suburban Virgina.  (And if you know what traffic is like around there, you know it’s quite a sandwich).

Since moving to London almost four years ago, I’ve searched in vain for banh mi.  Baffled by the sandwich’s absence from the otherwise-vibrant London dining scene, I’ve resorted to either making my own at home or making trips to Paris (OK, sure, there are other reasons I go to Paris, but devouring banh mi while there is always a priority).

Slowly, but surely, though, banh mi seems to be making an appearance in central London.  A few weeks ago, I found banh mi at Banzi in Surrey Quays after a helpful tip was left by Charmaine Mok on this Paris blog post.  Banzi’s version wasn’t bad, but Surrey Quays is kind of a pain for me to get to.  I’d almost rather go to Paris.

And then the ladies behind Banhmi11 left a comment on my Banzi blog post, telling me they’d set up a banh mi stand in Broadway Market.  That’s 2.5 miles from where I live . . . just a quick jog away along the lovely Regent’s Canal.  So I literally ran over to check it out.

Banhmi11 stand in Broadway Market

Banhmi11 stand in Broadway Market

Today was Banhmi11’s first day in action.  They’ve set up a small cart next to the Ca Phe Vietnamese coffee stall in the center of the market.   £2.50 gets you a pork-and-pork-liver-pate banh mi.

So here’s the good:  the pickled veg is fresh, crispy and tangy; the pork-liver-pate is so creamy and meaty that I actually left the pate in the sandwich instead of picking it out.  [In past banh mi I've had, the pate has been a flavorless, rubbery, Oscar-Mayeresque bologna-type thing that grosses me out.]

The bad is that the bread, while warm and toasted, was overwhelming.  There was so much bread that the tasty, fresh fillings seemed skimpy and the sandwich seemed dry.  If there was a zesty Vietnamese mayo in there, I couldn’t tell.  Jon and I ripped off and threw away at least a third of the baguette to re-jigger the proportions.  Even then, we felt like the fillings could have been more generous.

But here’s why I’m still telling you about Banhmi11:

(1) as a banh mi lover, I want to support entrepreneurs like Banhmi11; (2) I liked that the Banhmi11 women seemed to be asking all their customers for feedback; and (3) I liked that when I told them that there was way too much bread, they sounded like they were really listening.  I have a feeling they’re determined to make a great sandwich, so improvement is a foregone conclusion.

So I’m thinking that if the baguette gets smaller (and maybe even higher quality) and they load the sandwiches up with more pickled veg and meaty goodness, Banhmi11’s banh mi will be one I look forward to every weekend.

For anyone curious to try banh mi, the Broadway Market is itself worth a visit (my personal fave are the samosas at the Gujarati Rasoi stand), so no harm in dropping by Banhmi11 one Saturday, no?

Banhmi11, currently part of the Ca Phe Vientam stall in the middle of Broadway Market.  Closest tube station:  Bethnal Green.  But it’s still a major hike from the Tube, so I recommend the bus.  Lots of buses run to the adjacent London Fields.

Read Full Post »

mackerel tartare starter at Restaurant Itineraires (Paris, 5th)

mackerel tartare starter at Restaurant Itineraires (Paris, 5th)

Jon’s parents visited us in London last week, so we decided to take a quick 4th of July trip to Paris. Our 32 hours there didn’t allow for too many meals, but we did manage to revisit Itineraires for dinner and Le Comptoir for lunch.

Itineraires was just as (if not more) delicious and wonderful an experience as it was last November when we first ate there. Le Comptoir, however, was much less appealing than it was last March.

Despite the restaurant’s ever-growing fame, the menu at Itineraires is still 29 euros for two courses and 36 euros for three. The portions are still large enough that we didn’t make it to dessert; the food is still creative and delicious; and the service is still warm and friendly enough that we couldn’t help lingering for hours after we’d finished eating.

creme de lentilles soup at Restaurant Itineraires

creme de lentilles soup at Restaurant Itineraires

Given how sweltering the weather was in Paris last weekend, we were *very* happy that Itineraires offered a number of cold, refreshing starters: white asparagus soup and creme de lentilles were chilled and pretty much best in class. My mackerel tartare starter, while a bit over-colorful, was perfect for the summer weather – meaty but cool. And did you see? Itineraires got yet another star turn in the New York Times last weekend , courtesy of Mark Bittman. [Of course, in the same article, he was also super pleased with Le Gaigne, which I didn't think was in the same league as Itineraires. But you can't ignore Mickael Gaignon's pedigree, I suppose.]

In any event, be sure to try Itineraires if you haven’t already. It’s impossibly lovely, especially considering it’s located in tourist ground zero, about ten minutes’ walk from Notre Dame.

As for Le Comptoir - this was our third time there for lunch. Le Comptoir’s appeal lies in its super-handy location in the 6th, its movie-perfect old-fashioned bistro looks, and the tons and tons of hype it gets. But I think it’s suffering from its popularity. Service was brusque and needed lots of reminding; the greens in three of our salad starters looked and tasted bruised and tired; and I didn’t enjoy having to explain that they’d over-charged us 5 euros on an already-pricey lobster bisque (of which we’d ordered three). Overall, it was still a decent place for lunch in that part of town, but everything from the service to the food seemed sloppy. Even at a relatively-modest 25 euros per person for starter and main, it was too much money. Next time I’m in the 6th, I’ll try L’Epigramme instead.

Restaurant Itineraires, 5 rue de Pontoise, 5th, 01-46-33-60-11; closed Sundays and Mondays. Closest metro: Maubert-Mutualite (10).

Le Comptoir du Relais, 9, Carrefour de l’Odeon, +33 (0)1 44 27 07 97. Closest Metro: Odeon

Read Full Post »

cherries in ice water at Bocca di Lupo

cherries in ice water at Bocca di Lupo

Surely I’m the last one in the London food blog community to make it to Bocca di Lupo. But it’s not for lack of trying. I’d heard the place served mid-priced, high-quality Italian cooking. So *of course* I’d tried multiple times to get a booking. I was always negged, though. Clearly no mojo.

Finally, last Wednesday, my friends Shamini, Fabrizio dell Amore (seriously, that’s what he wants to be called) and I showed up without a booking and managed to snag seats at the Barrafina-like bar.

Even at 10 pm, the place was still packed, noisy and fun.

The service took a while to get going: we asked at least three times to have our order taken. But then things on the service front were all good from there. Everyone at Bocca di Lupo was responsive to feedback, and Shamini managed to charm a little back-and-forth with our server (you know the type of friend I’m talking about, don’t you?), so we ended the evening with at least three freebies thrown in. Nothing high-ticket, but gestures go a long way to making customers feel valued.

lamb prosciutto at Bocca di Lupo

lamb prosciutto at Bocca di Lupo

bocconcino at Bocca di Lupo

bocconcino at Bocca di Lupo

For starters, we had a lamb prosciutto, which, while a bit dry, was saved by the excellent accompanying pecorino. Fried mozzarella balls (bocconcini) were creamy and almost-sweet inside; lightly breaded and golden brown on the outside. Really, an outstanding example of its kind for £8, and the start of a trend: all fried foods that night at Bocca di Lupo were excellent.

Crudita di mare was also the start of a trend: that seafood was generally so-so value. The raw scallop was sweet, but creamy in a not-so fresh way, and it was too much money at £9.50 a portion.

grilled pork chop at Bocca di Lupo

grilled pork chop at Bocca di Lupo

Shamini’s quail (£16) was outstanding – tasting like the juicy little poultry it should be. Fabrizio’s pork chop was over-cooked and under-cooked in various places, and generally bland. I wouldn’t recommend it, though he did complain to the chef, who then gave him Freebie 1 of the evening, which was delish: a beautifully-crisped and grease-free fried pastry filled with more creamy cheese and served with a fluffy ball of burrata (understandably the cheese du jour). The accompanying paper-thin slices of spicy salami were icing on the cake.

stuffed tomatoes and sardines

stuffed tomatoes and sardines

My main of baked sardines and tomatoes could’ve been served hotter and crispier. And sardines were a bit overwhelmed by the breadcrumbs, which was sad. Overall, the dish was OK, so £14 seemed a bit much.

Because the spring pea starter we ordered was taking ages to prepare, the chef comped us Freebie 2 of the evening: a dish of buttery, thin-sliced, grilled courgettes, which you really can’t go wrong with, seeing as how butter + thinly-sliced anything = tastiness.

When the spring peas arrived, they were worth the wait. Sweet and firm. Not a mealy, flavorless one to be found. Totally worth the £7.50. I know. I’ve shelled peas from the farmer’s market enough times to know how time consuming it is to get a good yield!

torta caprese at Bocca di Lupo

torta caprese at Bocca di Lupo

By the time we reached desserts, Bocca di Lupo had run out of donuts (SAD). But our server recommended the torta caprese, which was a good choice. It tasted like a lemon pound cake layered with an almond chocolate cake, and the genius was having the tart citrus complement the nutty sweetness. Cool.

Despite my skepticism, though, the dessert of the evening was Fabrizio’s choice: cherries in ice water (pictured at top). I mocked him for ordering fruit in a bowl of ice. But this generous serving of deep burgundy cherries was outstanding. Firm, deeply sweet cherries served icy cold. A great value for £6.50.

pig's bloog and chocolate pudding

pig's bloog and chocolate pudding

Shamini, continuing to use her magical charm powers, convinced our server to offer Freebie 3 of the evening: the pigs’ blood and chocolate pudding. We each took a scoop to try it out. And you know, I can’t say I’m a fan. The chocolate was extra creamy, but it had that mineral tang that signals blood is in there. No thanks. The dried orange peel and pine nuts that had gone soft in the fridge didn’t help. Glad we tried it, but nothing I’d order again.

With a carafe of inexpensive wine, we paid £38 per person for an enormous, fun and generally-tasty meal. I can’t say I got super excited about many of the dishes there, though the fried foods and the puddings were especially strong suits. For the service and atmosphere alone, I’d go back. Overall, Bocca di Lupo deserves its popularity.

Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB; 0207 734 2223; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

Read Full Post »

One day I’ll do a lot more with my quarterly roundups (like do quick blurbs on the three or four restaurants a week I’m visiting or revisiting, or at least highlighting the best and worst resto meals of the quarter), but for now, below are the bare bones Q2 stats that (I suppose) only another blog nerd like me will find interesting.

Between 1 April and 30 June 2009, my top five non-google-directed sources of traffic were:

  1. Lonely Planet (the site’s blogsherpa feature is pretty excellent for travelers and bloggers alike)
  2. Londonelicious (Krista needs no introduction, I presume)
  3. Gourmet Chick (whose blog just keeps getting more entertaining and stylish by the day)
  4. Hollow Legs (a London blog whose great name I wish I’d thought of first)
  5. World Foodie Guide (who was recently honored by the UK Guild of Food Writers)

In terms of traffic breakdown, here’s what the quarter looked like:

  • April 2009 – 17,902 page views
  • May 2009 – 19,061 page views
  • June 2009 – 19,072 page views

Respectable digits, but I’m definitely not growing readership in that much-desired hockey stick shape. As you can see from my obscure URL, I’m no born marketer and am definitely a bit of a Luddite. But I love food; I love traveling to eat new food; and I love writing.

So.  Many thanks to the wonderful sites and bloggers who send me traffic, and my deepest gratitude to everyone who’s reading my stuff!

Read Full Post »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers