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Archive for November, 2009

kaiseki-style starters ("zors d'oeuvres") (6 for 20 euros)

Hype. We’ve all fallen for it. Last weekend, having read a few blurbs in favor of William Ledeuil’s recently-opened “casual” venture, Kitchen Galerie Bis (see here in French, here and here in English, for example), I thought we’d give it a go, despite the fact that the earliest available table was at 10:15 pm. (On the flip side, I figured if the only table available was at 10:15 pm, then at least I knew for sure it was a much-in-demand place).

We arrived on time, and yes, the place was packed. And KGB really looked the part of an art gallery with its high-ceilinged, spare white room and walls hung with paintings.

The food is Asian-accented (unlike at Thoumieux, we knew this part going in). The first courses are named something hokey –instead of hors d’oeuvres, you get “zors d’oeuvres” in a nod to Ledeuil’s flagship “Ze Kitchen Galerie“– but they were the best part of our meal. Zors d’oeuvres can be ordered in sets of 3, 4 or 6, so Jon and I split six, and what arrived at our table was a kaiseki-looking treat of small dishes. See photo above. Clockwise from top left:

  • Foie gras cubes in a duck consomme
  • Prawn avocado with beets and citrus-zesty reduction
  • Seared tuna with radish and a sugary-salty miso condiment
  • Pork won ton with coconut milk and ginger Thai-style frothy-brothy deal
  • Deep fried lamb kofte with sweet chilli dipping sauce
  • Carrot-turmeric soup froth with grilled mushrooms

The prawn, tuna, lamb and carrot soup were stand-outs for the mix of textures and flavors. Great examples of French food with an Asian accent. From the zors d’oeuvres (it pains me to keep writing that), I can see why Ledeuil has die-hard fans.

scallops with a hint of lemongrass and coconut milk

The rest of the meal was fine, but not super exciting. Our two mains (scallops for me, sea bream for Jon) looked more interesting than they tasted. I figured if the dishes are going to be “just” well-prepared but unsurprising, then I’d rather be eating in a warm, comfortable old bistro than in a see-and-be seen contemporary art space.

sea bream

Our server was professional but perfunctory. He must’ve been slammed that night because he was awful about getting us our carafe d’eau, which is usually never a problem in Paris.

Main courses mostly fell in the 20-25 euro range, so with a cheap and cheerful bottle of wine (from Gascony, I think), our total for starters and two mains was 95 euros.

I’d go back if I wanted to impress super-trendy friends or if I stopped in only for a few zors d’oeuvres.

KGB, 25 rue des Grand Augustins, 6th, +33 (0)1-46-33-00-85. Metro: Odeon.

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interior of Thoumieux in the 7th arrondissement, now owned by the Costes brothers

interior of Thoumieux brasserie in the 7th arrondissement

I was back in Paris last weekend, and of course had to eat.

Thoumieux is one of these places that’s been around for a hundred years and is too close to a tourist attraction (Les Invalides) to  interest me normally. But about a year ago, the Costes brothers and a pedigreed chef, Jean-Francois Piege, took over, and last week, Francois Simon wrote that Thoumieux’s soul was “back,” which was “sans doute one of the best pieces of news of the season.” So how could I resist?

 

Thoumieux bread and butter and sardine pate

We knew we were in for a treat based on the quality of the freebie bread (crusty and crackly), butter (so rich it’s better than cheese) and sardine pate.

 

frisee salad with a poached egg and royale of smoked lardons (10 euros)

Years and years ago, I had the best frisee, lardons and poached egg salad of my life at Au Moulin a Vent (Chez Henri) in the 5th. I’ve tried to recreate that classic salad’s creamy porky glory at home to no avail. But the updated version at Thoumieux finally surpasses my memory of even that long-ago salad. Instead of lardons, there was a rich lardon-infused cream waiting to be scooped up from the bottom of my bowl, along with bites of crispy croutons for texture. The acidic tang of vinaigrette balanced all the creaminess of warm egg yolk and meaty deliciousness.  I’d go back to Thoumieux just for this salad.

 

wild calamari salad prepared in a carbonara style (10 euros)

Jon’s “calamar sauvage prepare a la carbonara” was served as slivers of fresh calamari “spaghetti,” which was playful and delish. There’s no more comforting a combo than warm egg yolk and hot, crispy lardons.

Basically, if I’d ordered my frisee salad along with this calamari salad, I’d have had the perfect lunch at Thoumieux.

 

slow cooked "Oteiza" pork belly with onion crackling and Puy lentils (19 euros)

But alas, the mains we tried were much less successful than our starters. There was a lot more “Asian” influence that just didn’t work out. My pork belly had a strong turmeric/curry flavor, and one of the two pieces of pork belly on my plate was 100% fat. Now, I love pork belly as much as the next girl, but even I draw the line at a block of pure pork fat. Especially for 19 euros.

 

fish of the day: scallops prepared Thai style with a rice cake (21 euros)

Jon’s scallops were a bit anemic-looking and -tasting and overwhelmed by the accompanying Thai-coconut sauce.

 

chocolate, apple and lemon tarts (8 euros a slice)

Overall, Thoumieux was a wonderful place to have lunch, because the salads were so outstanding; the servers so professional (I love when tap water is constantly refilled unobtrusively – and oh, did I mention?  the servers were extremely good looking); the room so congenial; and the atmosphere so buzzy (the room was packed with happy groups of families and friends by 1 pm).

Though I was eh on our mains, based on the excellence of our two starters, I’d give other items on the menu a try.  The place certainly does have soul, and based on our starters, it also has talent in the kitchen.  So order something other than the scallops and pork belly, and let me know how it goes.

Our tab for two starters, two mains and a half-bottle of wine totaled 82 euros.

Thoumieux, 79 Rue Saint-Dominique, 7th arrondissement, Paris; +33 (0)1.47.05.49.75; closest metro: La Tour Mauborg.  Icing on the cake:  Thoumieux is open 7 days a week (i.e., it’s a place to eat on Sunday!)

[For the French speakers among you, see also this 17 Nov 09 review in Le Figaro, and this 19 Nov 09 review in L’Express, both glowing with praise.]

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baked eggs with chorizo, mushrooms, spinach (£9.50)

Lantana Cafe is much loved by the pros and punters alike.   I, however, am not a fan.

Two Saturdays ago, wanting a centrally-located brunch-y place to meet a friend, Jon and I showed up at Lantana at around 1:30 pm.  The place was packed, which I’d expected, so we patiently queued for about 30 minutes.

Finally inside, the cafe was noisy and bustling, and we sat elbow-to-elbow with neighboring tables, which was convivial (though somewhat awkward for the type of catch-up conversation we wanted to have with our friend).

We placed our orders relatively quickly after sitting down, and then we waited.  And waited.  For over an hour.  In fact, we waited an hour and 15 minutes for the three plates we’d ordered.  That was silly.  I understand the place is crowded and busy.  But there were only three of us.  And the menu is limited to egg dishes and sandwiches.

On the plus side, the food – when it finally arrived – was good.  My baked eggs were cooked in a smoky, slightly-spicy chipotle-tasting sauce.  I miss chipotle.  I used to buy those peppers canned and add them to anything I could get my hands on.  I’ll have to remember to bring some back with me when I’m in the U.S. for the December holidays.

corn fritters with bacon, avocado and roast tomato salsa (£9)

My friend’s corn fritters with a side of bacon was also tasty, but then again, by the time our food arrived, we were ravenous.  So even a cardboard box would have tasted good.  The bacon and sausage he ordered, though – well, he had to fight us off for those.  I’m sure the meat products at Lantana Cafe would be delicious even if one had arrived with a full stomach.

omelet with ham spinach and cheddar (£8)

And Jon’s ham, spinach and cheddar omelet was a little dry, but I guess that’s why you get a tomato chutney on the side.

Our food hit our table at 3:15.  We devoured everything by 3:30 and were out the door by 3:45.  With teas and coffees, we paid £14 each.

Service was friendly but completely not helpful with speeding up our order (one server explained that it was my baked egg dish that was taking a long time.  Really?  An hour and 15 minutes?).

Lantana Cafe could learn a thing or two from any number of unheralded NJ diners – those places know how to push out a hot, delicious brunch.  In any event, our meal at LC wasn’t worth the wait.

Lantana Cafe, 13 Charlotte Place, W1T 1SN; 020 7637 3347; closest tube station: Goodge Street.

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Despite living and working in the easterly bits of central London, I visited two restaurants in Kensington over the last seven days: Kitchen W8 and Launceston Place. I thought the former was pleasant and worth visiting when already in the area, but in contrast, the latter is a worthy cross-town destination. If there’s justice in the world, Launceston Place should be awarded Michelin star in the next year. In addition to talent in the kitchen, it’s got great style and spirit. [An aside for fellow food nerds: be sure to read this fascinating interview with a Michelin Guide inspector.]

hot-cold leek soup amuse at Launceston Place restaurant

hot-cold leek soup amuse at Launceston Place

A few preliminaries. My friends and I made our Saturday booking about two months ago, not because the restaurant was that unattainable, but because we had such conflicting schedules. Then, I read on Gourmet Chick that Launceston Place’s sous chef, Steve Groves, had just won a TV cooking competition, and more importantly, Gourmet Chick had had a fabulous time despite a bizarre service hiccup at the start. All of this meant that by the time we were seated in one “wing” of the restaurant’s butterfly-shaped dining room, I had pretty high expectations.

Presumably because it was late (i.e, past 9 pm), we weren’t offered the tasting menu (£55), but with a party of four, we were still able to construct our own tasting menu by each ordering different dishes from the three-course (£45) menu. Once we added in all the amuses (like the wonderful hot-cold leek soup in graduated shades of green – just like a leek), we felt like we’d eaten the tasting menu anyway.

roasted scallops with aromatic herbs

Starters were a strong point of the evening. Jon’s roasted scallops were huge, juicy and sweet. Perfect. (However, being competitive, I’m mildly miffed that Gourmet Chick was served three of these, whereas Jon received two. Was the kitchen running low on scallops that night?)

potted foie gras, quince puree and dandelion greens

My starter of potted foie gras consisted of a generous portion of the most velvety foie gras pate, ever. The quince puree added a touch of sweet lightness, and I didn’t even mind the dark slate serving slab (it’s so 1990s, no?).

celery sorbet-julienned apple amuse with walnut cream and walnuts

A celery-sorbet palate cleanser performed its function, but the celery was flavorless (as you’d expect from a veg that’s 99% water), and the walnut cream could’ve been sweeter so that it was more than just an icy refresher.

Tamworth suckling pig, radishes and honey emulsion

As a main, I chose the suckling pig, whose bit of crackling-topped belly was superb, but amazingly, even better than the slice of belly were the tender loin medallions encased in unctuous, flavor-soaking pig fat. There were accompanying bits and bobs for color and crunch, but the piggy stole the show for me.

wild hare, nutmeg cream potatoes and spiced pears

Jon’s wild hare was cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth state. Despite the generous portion size, Jon practically licked his plate clean. However, while I appreciated the gamey meat’s tenderness, it was almost too mushy for me. I felt like I ought to be spreading the meat on toast.

spinach and homemade ricotta ravioli with sage butter and artichokes

Our friend J chose the vegetarian option of a spinach and ricotta ravioli. While it looked gorgeous, and while J loved her dish, from the bite I had, I thought the kitchen could’ve used a lighter hand with the herbs. My mouthful tasted overwhelmingly of parsley and dill. And I’d expected mountains of ricotta in these things, which was not the case.

lemon sorbet and raspberry coulis with a pepper tuile

There was a pre-dessert demonstrating more playfulness with temperatures and textures. I loved the way the peppery tuile shattered and added crunchy sweetness to the smooth, creamy cold-sorbet-warm-coulis combo. When even the amuses are a creative treat, you can’t help feeling that someone in the kitchen is paying attention to all the details.

dark chocolate, iced milk and crumble

Desserts were generally tasty but pedestrian, and I agree with Gourmet Chick’s assessment that they weren’t as special as the other courses. The “dark chocolate” dessert, for example, was exactly as advertised on the tin: rich, creamy chocolate – like a thick mousse.

toffee apple parfait

Visually, my apple parfait was appealing: a golden apple with echoes of childhood candy-like toffee apples. But the apple was enormous, and inside, it was just a creamy, heavy apple-walnut parfait, which got old really fast. Instead of finishing my giant ball of (effectively) ice cream, I ended up “helping” Jon devour his delicious selection of cheese.

Overall, the decor, food and service were excellent at Launceston Place. If I had to nitpick (of course I do), I’d complain that (1) we had to ask three times for our tap water glasses to be refilled; and (2) while the food is tremendous value at these prices, the “extras” add up incredibly fast. A glass of champagne here (£14 for non-vintage yeasty Roederer); a madeira there (£11 a glass); a couple bottles of wine; a cheese course supplement (£6-£10) . . . when our bill arrived, we were stunned for a moment. What happened to that £45 pp price tag? But of course, all the charges made sense and we quickly moved past our surprise and paid up. After all, the important thing is that all of us had enjoyed our food and our evening, and we can’t wait to go back.

Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, W8 5RL; 0207 937 6912; closest tube stations: Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington.

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Kitchen W8 hot dog

game hotdog with a mug of game consomme and bacon cream (£8)

Bloggers Dos Hermanos panned Kitchen W8. But this week, Bloomberg’s Richard Vines raved about it. With my friend BK, I gave the place a go this past Wednesday, curious to see with whom I’d agree most. And as is often the case, the reality was somewhere in the middle: I enjoyed my meal there and would be happy to go back, but I wouldn’t cross town just to eat there again.

BK, a lover of all things meaty, ordered the much-written-about game hotdog, which he let me try. Contrary to Dos Hermanos’s experience where the gamy flavor of the sausage was overshadowed by the sugary-tangy “ketchup,” in our version of the dish, there was just enough of said ketchup to complement the meaty flavors of the sausage without overwhelming it. Sipping the bacon cream and game consomme added a smooth saltiness to balance out the sugary-meatiness of the hot dog. I liked it.

foie gras mousse with raisin puree and fruitbread (£8.75)

foie gras mousse with raisin puree and fruitbread (£8.75)

My foie gras mousse was a little too much of a good thing. I started out loving this dish: a little sweetness from the raisin puree mixing with the salty-meatiness of the foie gras mousse. But the bowl was huge, and after running out of toasts, I couldn’t bring myself to eat anymore of what was, essentially, a bowl of heavy cream and fat. I would’ve liked this dish more if it had come in a smaller bowl with a greater proportion of foie gras mousse.

Kitchen W8 halibut beaufort crust

Halibut fillet with Beaufort crust (£18)

BK loved his halibut fillet – currently the most popular dish on the menu, according to the Bloomberg review. The fish was firm without being overcooked, and I loved the crispness, sharpness and stink of the Beaufort crust. Much-needed moisture came from a bed of sweet reduced onions and a few chanterelles. Definitely one of the better fish dishes I’ve had in a while, but I could take it or leave it. After all, I’m rarely wowed by fish unless I’m eating it by the sea and know it’s jumped straight out of the water onto my plate.

Kitchen W8 duck breast

roast duck breast with caramelized endive tart (£17)

My generous portion of roast duck breast was rare and tender, and the crispy caramelized endive tart was a good accompaniment. Like most of the other dishes we had that night, the duck was simply prepared and expertly cooked.

It’s true that none of the dishes caused fireworks, but I’m a fan of Kitchen W8’s ability to churn out crowd-pleasing dishes that are well executed. The portions are generous, the room is casual-elegant and welcoming, and the staff were friendly. Tap water was never a problem, and there are plenty of wines by the carafe and by the glass.

BK and I shared two side dishes (including a forgettable one of buttered potatoes), an enormous cheese course and a carafe of wine to go with our two starters and two mains. Our total with service was £90.

I’d go back. Kitchen W8 is a high-quality neighborhood place that’s versatile – equally good for dates, get-togethers with friends and business meals. For Christmas this year, I hope Santa Claus brings me something similar for Angel Islington.

Kitchen W8, 11-13 Abingdon Road, W8 6AH; 0207 937 0120; closest tube station: High Street Kensington

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interior of Dragon Castle Chinese restaurant in Elephant & Castle

interior of Dragon Castle Chinese restaurant in Elephant & Castle

A month ago, Jon and I went to see the highly-entertaining (popular, even) Pop Life exhibit at the Tate Modern, and afterwards, we somehow reasoned that because Elephant & Castle was so “close by,” we should try out Dragon Castle for dinner, which TimeOut loved.

So we hopped on the Northern Line at London Bridge and emerged two stops later at Elephant & Castle station, which sounds so wondrous on the map, but in fact is rather gritty. Navigating the hulking roundabout just outside the station makes Old Street roundabout look like a picturesque jaunt through the countryside.

In any event, stepping inside Dragon Castle restaurant, we found ourselves in a large old-school Chinese banquet hall — the type with the double happiness symbol in the back, where enormous wedding banquets can take place. The place was busy and noisy (not least because of several birthday parties taking place there. Be warned that the restaurant insists on periodically blasting a recorded version of “Happy Birthday” for such groups).

Dragon Castle roast duck

Cantonese roast duck (£11.80 for 1/2 portion)

Having just eaten at the Michelin-starred Kai earlier that week, I was especially astounded by how inexpensive all of Dragon Castle’s menu items were. Jon and I can never resist roast duck, and Dragon Castle’s was a mixed bag. The duck we ordered had a great texture but could’ve used more flavoring. A little more soy sauce and sugar would’ve been perfect.

salted fish, chicken and Japanese tofu clay pot

salted fish, braised chicken and Japanese tofu clay pot (£9.50)

Jon and I also have a weakness for clay pot dishes, which I suppose means we have a lot in common with elderly Chinese people. The “Japanese tofu” in the clay pot we ordered was so luscious and silky that it was more like a custard than any tofu I’ve had before. The salted fish and chicken were tender and enriched the sauce. As the weather grows colder and rainier, this is the dish I’m going to crave.

gai lan in garlic sauce

gai lan in garlic sauce (£8.50)

I loved the way the veg choices are presented at Dragon Castle. You picked a green and then picked how you wanted it prepared. We played it straight by ordering gai lan with a classic garlic sauce. An enormous portion and beautifully done. Cooked so it wasn’t raw but still retained crunch.

Our servers were all super nice and attentive. Tap water was refilled regularly without our noticing, which is a feat most restaurants in London can’t seem to accomplish. For the price and quality of the food, Dragon Castle was worth braving the grimness of Elephant & Castle (and the occasional blast of Happy Birthday). Now, if only they’d add General Tso’s chicken to the menu . . . .

Dragon Castle, 100 Walworth Street, SE17 1JL; 020 7277 3388; closest tube station: Elephant & Castle

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Nice Baie des anges

la Baie des Anges in Nice

This is the fourth and final post on our trip to Provence two weeks ago.

On our last trip to Nice in May 2007, we fell in love with socca, which is chickpea flour in its most evolved form (a crispy pancake), and we had a good dinner at the restaurant Keisuke Matsushima. So last weekend, when we found ourselves in Nice again, we decided that rather than try something new, we’d again seek out Chez Rene for socca, and then we’d drop by Restaurant Saison, the latest restaurant by Monsieur Matsushima.

Nice Renee Socca

Chez Rene Socca in Old Nice

For lunch, Jon and I wound our way through Old Nice, looking for familiar landmarks until we found Chez Rene Socca, which looks the same as it did two years ago. At Saturday lunchtime, there was a serious queue, but it moved forward quickly, so it wasn’t long before we pigged out on two crispy, hot portions of socca (2.50 euros a portion) and then a slice of sweet onion pissaladiere. We asked for our pissaladiere to be heated up, but (no surprise) the ten seconds in the oven didn’t do much to improve their cold, slightly-stale taste. It was like eating cold pan pizza: strangely addictive, but guilt inducing.

Nice Socca

une portion of socca at Chez Rene Socca

slices of pissaladiere from Chez Renee Socca

pissaladiere at Chez Rene Socca in Old Nice

For dinner, we tried out K. Matsushima’s latest venture, Restaurant Saison, which, unlike his eponymous Michelin-starred restaurant, serves Japanese classics – sushi, udon, tempura – with a “twist.” It was a good way to end our trip to France.

First, the service was excellent. The restaurant opened for dinner at 7 pm, and when we arrived, we asked the maitre d’ to get us in and out by 8 pm because we had a plane to catch. Smoothly and without making us feel rushed, they sped up our order and somehow our dinner felt evenly paced.

The highlight of our meal was the carpaccio de daurade royal, which was comprised of silky sea bream (the dorade), crunchy bits of garlic (happily devoid of bitterness), thinly-sliced and pickled onion dressed in sesame oil, and crunchy salad greens. It was a beautiful mix of textures and flavours.

Most of the menu items are priced at around 15 euros. To feel pleasantly full, we ordered four dishes. The restaurant decor is pretty low-key, so the prices seem a little incongruous to the surroundings, but on the basis of excellent service and fresh, good-quality sushi (or sushi-inspired dishes), Saison was worth the money.

Chez Rene Socca, 2 rue Miralhéti, 06000 Vieux Nice, France; +33 (0)4 93 92 05 73

Restaurant Saison, 17 rue Gubernatis, 06000 Nice, France; +33 (o)4 93 85 69 04; closed Sunday and Monday.

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