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Archive for January, 2010

salad at Relais de Venise

I’d heard from two different steak-loving friends that Le Relais de Venise was worth a visit, but with so many places to eat in London, and the fact that Le Relais is a bit of a chain (starting in Paris, it now has two locations in London and one in New York), I never got around to eating there.   Last Saturday, though, I was meeting a friend who craved steak, and as Hawksmoor was closed for refurbishment and Goodman was disappointing when I ate there, I figured it was time to try out Le Relais.  The New York Times‘s Sam Sifton, after all, had taken the time to give the New York location a full review, so the place had to be more than an imported tourist trap.

steak frites, the star attraction at Relais de Venise

Having not read up on Le Relais’s Marylebone location before getting there, I failed to realize that (1) the queues are enormous (thanks to the restaurant’s no-booking policy); and (2) the place operates much like a fast-food joint.  Don’t be fooled by the vaguely-Gallic interior and think you’re there to linger over your meal.  So we queued outside in the cold for about an hour, and once inside, the only choice we made was from the eight-bottle wine list.

The minute we sat down, salads arrived which were tangy and spicy from a classic mustard-and-lemon-juice vinaigrette.  Pretty good but would’ve been better if a few walnuts hadn’t tasted stale.

Then the raison d’etre arrived:  steaks served ultra-thin and served French style (i.e., table side).  The meat wasn’t bad, but honestly, it was hard to tell because of “the sauce.”  Apparently much has been written about this sauce, which is unbelievably rich and as meaty as the steak itself.  The sauce’s green-going-on-gray colour is entirely unappetizing, and it’s clearly comprised of at least 50% butter (the other half is probably offal of some sort), so your doctor’s not going to be pleased.  But it’s pretty delish.

You get two servings of steak and as many servings of frites as you like.  The portions of steak are rather paltry, but I suppose I’m a big eater.  If you’re a frites lover, this is the place for you.  Le Relais should re-market itself as a frites-and-super-sauce restaurant.

profiteroles that looked better than they tasted

profiteroles that looked better than they tasted

£19 included the salad and steak frites.  For a little extra, you could order desserts and cheese.  The cheeses were pretty wimpy, which was disappointing for a French resto.  And the profiteroles looked a lot better than they tasted.  The pastry was flavorless and stale, but luckily chocolate sauce and ice cream saved the day (as ever).

With two bottles of wine, a cheese course and dessert, our tab came to £41 a person.  We were in and out in under an hour, and as we left at around 9:30, we saw that the queue outside was as long as ever.

Overall, the steak frites are pretty good, but don’t go to Le Relais if you’re looking for a giant slab of meat or if you want to linger at a table.   In fact, the place seemed perfectly designed for families.

Relais de Venise, 120 Marylebone Lane, W1U 2QG; 0207 486 0878; closest tube stations: Bond Street or Baker Street

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

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Tamworth suckling pig, radishes and honey emulsion at Launceston Place

When I tell friends and acquaintances that I blog about restaurants, they often ask what my favorite restaurant is. And while I often end up saying something like “it depends” because it’s the truth, I also understand why that response is deeply unsatisfying.

Although I have no single “best” London restaurant to share, below is a list of my fave restaurants and individual dishes of 2009.  (Click on the boldface restaurant names to read my original posts).

  • Barrafina. Each time I eat at Barrafina, I swear that it’s the *last time* I’m queuing to snag one of their coveted seats at the bar, but Barrafina’s fresh and tasty seafood served in convivial surroundings sucks me in time and again.  Based on my dinners there in 2009, Barrafina’s still going strong.
  • Launceston Place. I ate here relatively recently (in November 2009), so of course my dinner there remains fresh in my mind.  But even if I hadn’t been there since last January, Tristan Welch’s creative, delicious food served in a chic, comfortable dining room would still stand out.  I can’t wait to revisit!
  • Leong’s Legends. I eat dim sum at the original Chinatown location about once a month, and it’s part of the place’s charm that they still don’t recognize me as a regular diner.  Although I agree with World Foodie Guide that Pearl Liang has the edge in service and decor, in terms of quality of dim sum, I think the two restos are neck-and-neck. What gives Leong’s the slim advantage over Pearl Liang is its location in Chinatown — Soho is just so much easier for me to reach than Paddington.
  • Murano. Delicious and elegant. I’m still not a fan of all those mirrored walls (it’s so worst-of-Vegas-in-the-80s), but I love the haute Italian food here, along with the generosity and quality of the amuses.  I’ve been to Murano twice and look forward to going again.

beef dolsot bibimbap at Young Bean

Lifting a good idea from Londonelicious, below are my fave individual dishes at London restaurants in 2009:

  • Galvin La Chapelle served me a superb bone-in rib eye. I loved everything from the accompanying bone marrow and black truffle macaroni and cheese to the the over-the-top tableside presentation.  I haven’t eaten anything else at La Chapelle, but based on how consistently good Galvin Bistro de Luxe is, I’m hoping Galvin La Chapelle will turn out to be just as good.
  • L’Anima‘s heavenly fritto misto pulled me in twice in a month.  For £14.25, you’re served a massive plate of fresh seafood, battered and fried in the lightest, crispiest, grease-free way possible.  It’s like taking a trip to Venice, but 5,000% cheaper.
  • Young Bean‘s dolsot bibimbap is an addiction.  I love the sizzle of the rice and raw egg when they hit the clay pot, and if I could eat this thing every day, I would.

foie gras ice cream with brioche emulsion at Hibiscus restaurant

London restaurants that I haven’t visited in the past year, but which I will definitely return to in 2010:

  • Hibiscus.  I was last there in December 2007 (!), and I keep hearing good things about it.  Read Tamarind & Thyme’s recent post on her lunch here.
  • The Ledbury. Time flew by, and I didn’t notice until today that I was last there in October 2008. Hollow Legs’s post on her excellent meal there last week also informed me that the Ledbury finally has its second Michelin star. So I’d better get in before the prices go up.

London restaurants I’d like to try in 2010 for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, but tell me if you think I shouldn’t bother with any of these:

Here’s to more eating and eating and eating in 2010!  And I’ll post later this week on my favorite meals while traveling outside the UK.

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Iberica Food & Culture, 195 Great Portland Street

For my first meal back in London, I wanted something warm and lively.  Something the opposite of Boston’s cold Puritannical image.   Tapas sounded ideal, but the prospect of queuing in the cold to eat at my beloved Barrafina was highly unappealing. So Jon and I decided to try Iberica Food & Culture, which opened in October 2008 but seems to have gotten a lot of generally-positive blogger coverage over the last few months (see these posts by Londoneater, Tehbus, and Londonelicious for example).

The food fell into two buckets, really.  “Pretty Good” and “Kind of Disappointing.”  There was nothing spectacular and nothing horrible.

Here’s the “Pretty Good”:

sweet pigs trotters with Mahon cheese and Iberico ham (£7.00)

Sweet pigs trotters with a sharp Mahon cheese and Iberico ham, all served on a crisp pastry.  I enjoyed all the textures and flavors (salty, citrusy, meaty) but what held the dish back was the somewhat gluey texture of the trotter.  I’d hoped for something more melt-in-your-mouth.  But overall a tasty dish.

black rice with cuttlefish, prawns and alioli (£9.85)

Black rice with cuttlefish prawns is one of my fave dishes to order in Spanish restaurants.  First, there’s the color – squid ink makes everything seem special.  Then there’s the intense seafood flavor soaked into the risotto rice.  Iberica’s version had a texture that struck the right balance between al dente and creamy, but what would’ve made a great dish would have been more cuttlefish and fewer prawns.  An entirely arbitrary preference, I know.

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli (£6.85)

Fried artichokes with pear alioli have been much written about at Iberico.  And yes, they’re good (unlike my blurry photo).  Crisp with a hint of sourness that artichoke lovers crave.  For me, the appeal was mostly in the accompanying slightly-sweet, garlicky alioli.

And rounding out the “Pretty Good” list was our trio of cheeses (Mahon, Manchego, Ibores) for £4.95.  It was a generous portion and well priced for the quality.  Maybe we could have a little more quince paste next time, though.

The “Kind of Disappointing” dishes:

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives (£9.00)

Marinated tuna loin with mustard, apples and chives tasted mealy.  Why serve raw fish if it’s not going to be fresh and refreshing?

Iberica's Version: Broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes (£7.50)

And “broken egg with Iberico ham and fried potatoes” sounded so promising!  Breakfast at dinner.  Who doesn’t love that?  Admittedly, part of our high expectations stemmed from our memory of the wondrous “carpaccio huevos fritos” that we’d had at Barcelona’s Bar Mut last May. Setting aside the camera/lighting issues I had at Iberica, just compare the above photograph of Iberica’s dish with the photo of Bar Mut’s version below. Iberica offered us limp fries with a smattering of yolk. Bar Mut, in contrast, gave us crispy shoestring potatoes in an ocean of egg yolk. You understand my disappointment in Iberica’s version, then.

Bar Mut's version: carpaccio huevos fritos

Iberica’s list of Spanish wines was long, but I was again a little disappointed that there were only two choices from the Ribera del Duero.  Too much Rioja on the list.

The service was efficient, but not especially friendly or helpful (e.g., we had to guess what cheeses we were eating and it was difficult flagging down a server for sherry to go with our cheese).

Without hesitation, though, I’d recommend Iberica for the atmosphere, which was warm and lively.   It was exactly what I was looking for on a Saturday night.  I had a lot of fun, and the food was good enough.  The kitchen’s no threat to Barrafina’s, but then again, it’s nice to be able to make a reservation in advance and sit at a table.

Dinner for two with wine and sherry came to £115.
Iberica on Urbanspoon

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lobster roll at Neptune Oyster, photo by Skillet Doux

Finally. I arrived back in London this weekend. It’s been four weeks since I saw my beloved flat, and the rainy London weather is a welcome change from the freezing days and nights in Boston, where I spent last week. I ate out a lot.

From best experience to worst, here’s the roundup:

Neptune Oyster. Boston is full of little oyster bars, which tend to be a size just large enough to accommodate a bar and maybe four or five tables. The buzz and intimacy are the Boston equivalent of a cozy bistro. I’d wanted to eat at B&G Oysters, which is owned by chef Barbara Lynch, whose New American place, No. 9 Park, I really enjoyed last December. But B&G was fully booked, so Neptune Oyster’s no-reservations policy was my best hope for a quality clam chowder and lobster roll. The place was full on a cold Tuesday night, which could’ve been disastrous as there’s no place to stand while you wait for a table to clear, but my friends and I snagged the last available table. Dishes weren’t cheap — clam chowdah was $11, and a lobster roll was $25 — but both were great examples of their kind and well worth the price tag. The only miss that evening was a Special of the Day, a lobster “stroganoff” for $38. Which goes to show you that when you’re at an oyster bar, stick with the classics.  (Read this post at Skillet Doux – whose photo I used above – for a full rundown on what made the lobster roll so genius).

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Second-favorite resto meal in Boston last week was at Myers & Chang, which was a bigger but toned-down-in-flavor version of David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar in New York. The atmosphere is young and trendy, and most plates are small, so you’re meant to order two or three per person. About a third of the menu offerings were just well-executed versions of straight-up Chinese (for example, the dan dan noodles ($8) were of the classic Americanized variety – more akin to cold peanut noodles than to the fiery goodness we know in London). The majority of menu items were more creative – like the fried chicken and waffles ($21), a dish that in its classic form makes you think “only in America.” The Myers & Chang version included not only a fragrant, crispy fried chicken but also waffles infused with ginger. It was clever but still delish. Braised short-rib tacos ($8 for two) and pork belly buns ($9 for three) rounded out my favorites of the evening, with the sweet potato fritters ($9) getting the lowest score for my not being able to see or taste the advertised Chinese sausage. It’s a fun place to go with a group.

Myers & Chang on Urbanspoon

L’Espalier is apparently the formal French Place-to-Be these days in Boston. With every year that I live in London, I grow increasingly tough on French restaurants in America. L’Espalier was no exception. Generic luxury green-and-beige color scheme? Check. Lots of suited-up servers? Location in a big luxury chain hotel? Check check. Jon and I were there to catch up with old friends, so it was OK that there were no fireworks from the food. Ultimately, I was most envious of a nearby table that had ordered an outrageously-large foie gras sauce-topped burger. Our prix fixe menu items were ho-hum, and unbelievably, our server didn’t offer us the wine list. We had to ask for it. C’etait bizarre.

L'Espalier on Urbanspoon

Needing a dim sum fix, I dragged my parents to China Pearl, which got rave reviews on Yelp and Urbanspoon. The place is huge and dingy, but it was certainly busy on a Sunday afternoon (which was the typical day and time to have dim sum when I was growing up). There were lots of carts going around, but oddly the only dish I thought was stellar was the shin-ju-kun, pork and bamboo wrapped in a tofu skin. All the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) tasted mealy, assuming you could even find the prawns buried under all that rice wrapper, and the loh boh gau (turnip cake) was heavy and gluey. Sigh. What a disappointment. On the (minor) plus side, the resto offers validated parking at the garage around the corner on Beach Street. It’s America, after all. You have to take the car.

China Pearl on Urbanspoon

Brasserie Jo is located in the hotel where I stayed and around the corner from where I was working. It was therefore inevitable I’d eat there at least once. Let’s just say that my hanger steak tasted bitterly of char, and the frites were served lukewarm. The amber lighting and small-tiled floors are gorgeous, but otherwise, this brasserie was a bummer.

Brasserie Jo at the Colonnade Hotel on Urbanspoon

And the absolute bottom of the barrel for food was the Legal Sea Foods inside the Prudential Center mall. OK, yes, this is what I got for eating in a mall. But it’s Sunday night and I’ve just checked into my hotel. It’s cold and dark outside, and I’m craving clam chowder (which happened a lot while in Boston – go figure). So I figured the Legal Sea Foods would be fine. But it wasn’t. The chowder was all cream and starch, and the menu items were all a lot more expensive than I had expected (i.e., $25 and up for mains). Too much for a chain restaurant in a mall. When did LSF get so pricey? At least they had free refills of soda and lots of ice (ahh, America!).

Legal Sea Foods on Urbanspoon

In addition to the above, I ate a few good lunches at the burrito cart inside Back Bay station (skip the pork, though; it’s tough and horrible), enjoyed the waffle fries at the Brownstone, loved the thin-crust and tangy sauce at Upper Crust Pizzeria, and failed to see what the fuss was about re: the “healthy” burgers served at B. Good.

It’s nice to be back in London. And back to my regularly-scheduled London restaurant posts.

Neptune Oyster, 3 Salem St, Boston, MA 02113; +1 (617) 742-3474; closest T station: Haymarket

Myers & Chang, 1145 Washington St, Boston, MA 02118; +1 (617) 542-5200; closest T station: Back Bay (15 minute walk)

L’Espalier, 774 Boylston St, Boston, MA 02199, +1 (617) 262-3023; closest T station: Prudential or Copley

China Pearl, 9 Tyler Street, Boston, MA 02111, +1 (617) 426-4338; closest T station: Chinatown

Brasserie Jo, 120 Huntington Ave (part of the Colonnade Hotel); Boston, MA 02116; +1 (617) 425-3240; closest T station: Prudential

Legal Sea Foods, 800 Boylston Street (inside the Prudential Center mall), Boston, MA 02199; +1 617 266-6800; closest T station: Prudential

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quality time somewhere in Palm Beach County

Happy (belated) New Year! Unbelievably, I’m on week 3 of 4 in the U.S. I feel I’ve taken every plane, train and automobile on the East Coast by now, and I’ll be spending this week in Boston before returning to London, where I hear there’s lots of snow.

Because there’s definitely no shortage of cold and snow in Boston, I’m looking back very fondly on my week of sunshine in south Florida, where Jon and I mooched off stayed with Jon’s parents for New Year’s.

Much as I appreciate warmth and sunshine in the dead of winter, Palm Beach County’s dining scene seems to leave much to be desired. For years, our restaurant experiences have tended to be expensive and mediocre, so we try to eat at home as much as we can. But sometimes you just gotta leave your gated golf community, so below are the best and worst of what we ate this December 2009, for the next time you find yourself in Palm Beach/West Palm Beach. At least you’ll know what to avoid (and if you have recs, please leave a comment below – this was our fourth year in the area and we still can’t find a consistently-yummy resto to love).

fish tacos at Grand Lux Cafe at Sawgrass Mills

It speaks volumes that the best of our south Florida restaurant meals was at a Vegas-like chain in Sawgrass Mills (the world’s most overwhelming outlet mall). Grand Lux Cafe is owned by the Cheesecake Factory people, which tells you what to expect: enormous portions and ridiculously-lengthy diner-style menu. Still, if you keep your order simple (salads, mostly) and stick to appetizer or “lunch menu” items, the plates won’t be too big, and the ingredients will taste fresh. I greatly enjoyed my Southwest salad, which was packed with black beans, avocados, Monterey Jack and smoky bits of chicken, and Jon and I loved our fish tacos, which were hot from the fryer and accompanied by a zippy salsa. There are some scary-looking items on the menu, of course, but use your best judgment. Most lunch items were $15 or less, and the place is close to the upscale outlets of the Colonnade.

Grand Lux Cafe on Urbanspoon

good enough crab cake sandwich at Charley's Crab in Palm Beach, FL

Two more (small) chains tie for the title of “OK-but-not-great” dining in the area: Charley’s Crab in Palm Beach and Matteo’s Ristorante in Jupiter.

Charley’s Crab‘s primary selling points are its location overlooking the water in Palm Beach and its free valet parking. But the food is uneven. The “lobster spring rolls” highly recommended by our server had the thick, tough skin that could only have come out of a box, but the coconut shrimp was miraculously not overcooked and deliciously crispy, and my crab cake sandwich really hit the spot. Our lunch would’ve been a 100% positive experience had the starters not cost $15 and the mains upwards of $20. I know it’s Palm Beach, but I expect much fresher food at these prices.

Charley's Crab on Urbanspoon

Matteo’s Ristorante sits in a strip mall a stone’s throw from Juno Beach, and it’s typical of “family style” Italian restaurants: enormous plates of chicken- and veal-based dishes designed for sharing. Everything on the menu seemed to cost $25, but because each dish feeds about ten thousand people, a meal there can be relatively inexpensive if you don’t over-order. The fried calamari, chicken parm and planet-sized meatballs were hits. The chicken paillard, chopped salad and the spaghetti that accompanied the meatballs were extremely eh. Still, a fun place to go with your family or a large group of friends.
Matteo's Ristorante on Urbanspoon

The worst meal this December was at Spoto’s Oyster Bar, which has served us well in years past, so I’m not sure what happened this time around. Again in a strip mall, but an upscale one. And again serving seafood, but with a nod to a mishmash of global cuisines (so American). Fried oysters were under-cooked, though Thai mussels were served in a moreish, light, coconut curry sauce. The prawns in my angel-hair pasta were severely overcooked, and everything was drowning in butter. At $20+ for pasta, you expect a lot better. And our server seemed incapable of remembering our drinks order.

Spoto's Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

And that’s the sad story of my dining out in Palm Beach County this December. Next year, I’ll stick with Cuban food: Padrino’s Cuban gets my vote based on my meal there last December, and thanks to a friend’s rec, Havana Cuban is now also on my list.

I’ll be back in London next week, and with my luggage full of Ziploc, tortillas, Goya products and Skippy, I can’t wait to get home and back to business as usual.

Grand Lux Cafe, 1780 Sawgrass Mills Circle, Sunrise, FL 33323; +1 (954) 838-9711

Charley’s Crab, 456 South Ocean Blvd, Palm Beach, FL 33480; +1 (561) 659-1500

Matteo’s Ristorante, 4300 S US Highway 1, Jupiter, FL; +1 (561) 627-8515‎

Spoto’s Oyster Bar, 4560 PGA Boulevard, Palm Beach Gardens, FL 33418; +1 (561) 776-9448

Padrino’s Cuban, Mission Bay Plaza, 20455 State Rd. 7, Suite AA-1, Boca Raton, FL 33498, +1 (561) 451-1070

Havana Cuban, 6801 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach, FL 33405; +1 (561) 547-9799

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