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Archive for May, 2010

foie gras mousse cornet at the Square Restaurant

Two weeks ago, Jon and I celebrated our (seventh!) wedding anniversary at the Square. Because it was a weeknight and we were likely to order the tasting menu, Jon made our booking at the ungodly-early hour of 6:30 pm.

If there’s anything that makes me feel old, it’s dining out before 8 pm, and sure enough, we were the first ones to arrive – as in, first in the whole restaurant. I was mildly anxious that we’d spend the entire evening stared at by an army of waiters, but we shared a laugh about it with the staff, and from there on, the rest of the evening was a treat. If there’s any single thing that marked the Square as the sibling of the Ledbury (whose service I love), it was the restaurant’s attentive, friendly service. Despite the corporate-beige scheme of the dining room and the sea of jackets and ties among diners, the Square feels welcoming thanks to the professionalism of the Square’s staff.

squid-ink crackers and taramasalata

Par for the course at a 2-Michelin-star resto, we started the evening with a series of amuses bouche. My faves were the foie gras mousse cornet and the squid ink crackers with taramasalata. When we ran out of squid ink crackers, we just dipped our oven-warm bread in the taramasalata’s salty-fishy goodness.

The tasting menu was a non-stop parade of beauty, textures and flavors. And the best part was the leisurely pace of our meal. For example, at Hibiscus, we stuffed down the tasting menu in just under two hours, and in contrast, at the Square, we savored our courses over four hours. Having all that time to enjoy your food makes a huge difference, and our time at the Square continues to confirm my belief that restaurants shouldn’t offer tasting menus to diners who show up after 8 pm unless they’re prepared to stay open until well after midnight.

Salad of spring vegetables with goat's curd crostini, Charolais, watercress and herbs (note the Scotch quail's egg - cute, no?)

saute of Scottish langoustine tail with parmesan gnocchi and an emulsion of potato and truffle

Cambridgeshire asparagus with hazelnut cream, pheasant eggs and cress

Roast seabass with Grelot onions, morels, white asparagus and parmesan

Herb-crusted loin of lamb with creamed potato, grilled asparagus and artichokes

The numerous photos above don’t capture all the food we sampled that evening, actually, and yet, seemingly in the blink of an eye, we were introduced to the Square’s cheese cart, which was a tour de force. Our server patiently and helpfully described all the choices to us and then served us a generous portion of six or seven of them.

Brillat-savarin cheesecake with passionfruit and lime

Rice pudding soufflé with Seville orange ripple and dark chocolate ice cream

I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but the Square’s dessert courses could convert me. The rice pudding soufflé was textbook-perfect – airy but rich, sugary with a hint of tart.

Mignardises: a rainbow of jellied fruits and salted-caramel truffles, which were wrapped “to go” so that the next day, I could savor them on an emptier stomach and reflect back on a lovely dinner.

The Square’s tasting menu is £100 a person, so it wasn’t a cheap evening. But we had a magical time. For a restaurant that must see its share of anniversary celebrations, the Square managed to make ours feel like the only one that mattered. Our dinner at the Square stands head and shoulders above our relatively-recent meals at the Greenhouse and Hibiscus, both worthy competition.

the perfect ending - fruit jelly lollipops

The Square, 6-10 Bruton Street, London W1J 6PU, 0207 495 6519; closest tube station: Green Park
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Byron burgers in Islington

There are lots of foods I miss from the US – New York-style pizza, bagels, General Tso’s chicken – but burgers don’t make the list of things I miss most. It’s not that burgers in London are so fantastic, but at least they show up here in a form that’s better than say, bagels, do, so I don’t feel as deprived. Take, for example, the star item on the menu at Byron Burgers, which now has seven locations in London, and on the basis of its not using a rock-hard bun, has firmly crushed Hache, where I formerly went for a reasonably-cheap, decent burger.

Despite walking daily through Camden Passage, it wasn’t until last week that I finally noticed Byron Burgers had opened in my neighborhood. Because I’m always looking for something quick and cheap before a film at Vue Cinema or Screen on the Green, or even when I’m splashing out on a show at the Almeida, I had high hopes that Byron would fit those purposes. And happily, it does.

cheeseburger with American cheese (£7.25)

I loved that I could order my cheeseburger with that miracle of industrial-food-production: the American slice. It’s born to melt. And the burger bun was softer than it appeared and easily sopped up all the meaty juices from my medium-rare beef patty. It was a fast-food burger made with good-quality ingredients. I was one happy camper.

fries, onion rings and macaroni cheese, each £2.75

Thumbs up, too, to the onion rings, which were slightly greasy, but crispy on the outside and tasting of firm, sweet onions on the inside. Sadly, our French fries weren’t crispy, and the macaroni and cheese was downright horrible, comprised of macaroni noodles with cheese melted on top. Where was the thick, rich bechamel-based cheese sauce? Or the gratineed topping?

chocolate milkshake (£3.75)

Instead of dessert, I ordered a chocolate milkshake, which was thick, bittersweet and ginormous. Just like home!

Service was fast and friendly, and pitchers of tap water were brought to our table and replaced without our asking. Good stuff.

With a refreshing American-style lemonade (£2.25), a double espresso (£2.00) and a large glass of California pinot noir (£7.40), plus tip, our total for two was £45. Pricey for a burger dinner, but not bad for a tasty dinner out. Plus, if I exercise just a little more willpower next time, I suspect I can get in and out for just over a tenner, which *would* be cheap.

You’re very welcome to the ‘hood, Byron.

Byron, 341 Upper Street, N1; 0207 704 7620; closest tube station: Angel
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Chocolate gelato at Tre Scalini, Pizza Navona, Rome (10 euros!)

Two weeks ago, Jon and I took my visiting-from-America parents to Rome for the first May bank holiday. We spent four sunny, warm days there, and because my parents aren’t keen on time-consuming, expensive meals, Rome was the perfect destination because of how wonderfully you can eat in its many pizzerias and osterias. Overall, everything we ate was very good, but some places were inevitably better than others, so below is my roundup:

Best of the bunch:

fried stuffed zucchini flowers (fiore di zucca) and risotto balls (suppli) at Dal Paino

pizza with onions, sausage and mushrooms at Dal Paino

Dal Paino. Located just around the corner from the much-hyped Da Baffetto pizzeria, Dal Paino was a tip from my friend, Emilia, who loves Italy as much as I love France (which is a lot). A little googling revealed that Dal Paino’s owners are related to Da Baffetto’s owners, and when you turn up at Dal Paino, the sign outside even says “recommended by Da Baffetto.” We ate here twice – once because of Emilia’s tip, and again because we tried to eat at Da Baffetto but were scared off by the mile-long queue. The pizzas at Dal Paino are thin crust with a nice char from the wood-fired oven, and the pastas are similarly simple and beautifully-prepared. The rigatoni carbonara and the onion (cipolla) pizza were two of my favorite dishes on the menu. And don’t even think about skipping Dal Paino’s suppli and superlative fiori di zucca fritti, which perfectly balanced anchovy saltiness, creamy ricotta, and vegetal sweetness. A filling meal here with shared starters, generous-portioned mains and modest drinks cost about 15 euros a person.

porcini mushroom pizza at Il Forno Campo de' Fiori

potato-and-rosemary pizza at Il Forno Campo de' Fiori

Forno Campo de’ Fiori. This place is in every guidebook and highly recommended by Tamarind & Thyme in her November 2009 Rome posts. All I can say is: it deserves its fame. Step up to the pizza counter and order slices of whatever’s coming out of the oven. It’s all good. Trust me – I tried it all. The porcini mushroom pizza and the rosemary-scented potato pizza are my favorites, though the garlicky-sweet melanzane (aubergine) is no slacker, either. We ate well here for about 5 euros a person for a ton of pizza. The Forno is split into two buildings, and the sandwiches and cookies sold across the alley from the pizza part are worth a try too, especially the almond-scented pignoli cookies. The hours seemed a bit haphazard here, but luckily we regularly passed through Campo de’ Fiori and caught the place while it was open.

Middle of the Pack.

cipolla (onion) pizza at La Montecarlo pizzeria (6 euros for the whole pizza!)

La Montecarlo. Again, recommended by Tamarind & Thyme. And again, a pizzeria not far from Da Baffeto. (I’ve started thinking of Da Baffetto, Dal Paino and La Montecarlo as “the Pizza Triangle”). La Montecarlo was a perfect lunch spot with tables spilling out into a shady stone alleyway just off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. The fried appetizers (suppli, fiori di zucca) were alright, but not half as good as the ones at Dal Paino. What was very good, though, were the thin-crust pizzas. The crust at La Montecarlo was slightly more brittle and crispy than at Dal Paino, which my father loved, though I preferred Dal Paino’s slightly-chewier dough. Extra points to La Montecarlo for the old italian ladies who sat at the table next to ours and ate us under the table by ordering huge pasta courses and individual pizzas. Lunch with a few shared fried goodies, a pizza each and sodas totaled 14 euros each.

Antico Forno La Stelletta. Two strengths: (a) its location in the heart of centro storico about a block away from San Luigi dei Francesi church (Caravaggio lovers, alert!) as well as from the apartment we rented in Rome, and (b) its open-7-days-a-week schedule. Additional strengths: its focaccia-based pizzas – chewy, olivey bread topped with, say, an bright-sweet tomato sauce or a garlicky-cheesy broccoli. Less endearing were its somewhat-dry cornetti and pastries.

Bringing up the Rear:

margherita and cipolla pizza by the slice (al taglio) at Pizzeria Leonina, sold @ 12 euros/kg

Pizzeria Leonina. I got this tip from Krista’s blog, and you know, the pizza wasn’t awful, but it just really paled in comparison with the other places listed above (especially Forno Campo de’ Fiori). The place serves pizza al taglio, which means you buy the pizza by the rectangular slice. It’s the Roman way. The cheese just seemed extra cheap and greasy here, and the pizza crust lacked the character and flavor that we had at other places. On the (significant) plus side, Pizzeria Leonina sits really close to the Colosseum and Forum, and after walking by several blocks of tourist-trap-looking spots in that area, I can see why Pizzeria Lenonina is such a winner by comparison. The pizza is indeed cheap, with most varieties sold for 12-13 euros per kilo and one kilo being more than enough to feed three hungry people. (100 grams is an etto, by the way).

spaghetti carbonara at Ristorante Maccheroni (10 euros)

Ristorante Maccheroni. I had a great time here when I last visited Rome in August 2006. And it’s around the corner from the apartment in Rome we rented this time. So one night, I dragged everyone here for a bit of nostalgia. The service was lovely and we enjoyed our table outdoors in the Piazza delle Coppelle, but the pastas we ordered lacked oomph (and seasoning, now that I think about it). My spaghetti carbonara was a particularly big disappointment. Lots of egg yolk, but where was the meaty saltiness of guanciale? Even after dousing it with salt, it remained a watery, yolky mess. In any event, Piazza delle Coppelle is a lovely little square for you 30-something yuppies (not me, of course), so perhaps drop by for aperitifs and move on when it’s dinnertime. 15 euros a person for shared starters and individual pastas.

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Forno Campo de Fiori, Campo de Fiori, 22, 06-688 06 6662

La Montecarlo, Vicolo Savelli, 13, 06 686 1877

Antico Forno La Stelletta, Via della Scrofa 33, 66 880-9909

Pizzeria Leonina, Via Leonina, 84, 06 482 7744

Ristorante Maccheroni, Pizza delle Coppelle, 44, 06 6830 7895

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Koya (udon noodle bar)

I love noodle soups. So when I saw this glowing review of Koya in last week’s TimeOut, I hopped to it. Thanks to the TimeOut effect, which I’d expected, there was a lengthy queue at Koya when I arrived at 7:30 last Friday evening. Luckily, Koya sits next door to Mooli’s, so while waiting, Jon and I snacked on a dry, sitting-around-too-long beef kati roll before wandering a little further down the street to try some Roman-style pizza al taglio at Adagio. Sadly, our slice of sausage pizza was also dried out and sitting-around-too-long.

kaiso salad (£4) and onsen tamago (£2) at Koya

After 40 minutes, we landed seats. It was clear the staff was overwhelmed by the crowds as some tables sat empty for a while before a server could clean up and seat new customers.

Jon and I were underwhelmed by the side dishes we tried: a seaweed salad (kaiso) was too sour for me to enjoy, and the onsen tamago wasn’t half as silky as I’d expected. It tasted like a regular poached egg served in room-temperature broth.

prawn tempura udon noodle soup (£9)

The udon noodle soup was (happily) quite outstanding, but for £9, I was expecting more than a single prawn tempura (which arrived soggy beyond belief). The noodles were a great, chewy-but-firm texture, and the broth was elegantly clear and packed with flavor. The couple with whom we shared a table had smartly ordered inexpensive noodle soups and then ordered a portion of prawn tempura for about £10, which meant their prawns arrived (1) separately from the soup and therefore not soggy; and (2) in a generous portion – there must have been four or five on their tempura plate.

So when the queues die down, I’ll go back to Koya and order my tempura separately from my udon noodle soup.

One last note: ginger tea (a whopping £3) is something I love making at home, and Koya’s version started out nice but it soon became clear that the restaurant had added a thickener (a gelatin?) to the tea, so as the tea cooled, it solidifed into a mucous-like beverage. Pretty gross. Stick with the “Japanese” tea for £2.20.

Our total for two bowls of noodles, two teas and two side dishes: £36.

Koya, 49 Frith Street, W1D 4SG, 020 7434 4463; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

Noodle Oodle (la mien/Chinese noodles)

After having eaten at Koya, I thought it was only fair to give a shout-out to Noodle Oodle, a no-frills Chinese noodle soup shop right next to Tottenham Court Road station. I’ve been going here for years and just never got around to blogging about it. The guy in the window making the la mien (hand-pulled noodles) tells you everything you need to know: stick with the la mien dishes.

Occasionally, my dining companions, despite my best efforts to stop them, order something off the starters menu (like any of the various dumplings). And it’s always a mistake. Always. Just get the noodle soup. At most, the garlic-stir-fried veg are a nice addition (gai lan is my fave).

gai lan

roast pork noodle soup (char siu la mien) £7

I usually get the roast pork (char siu) noodle soup, and occasionally with won tons (which have a delicate ginger flavor that I love). Roast duck is less consistent than the char siu and won ton soups, with the duck being kind of stringy sometimes, so order that one with caution.

The place can get noisy and is definitely not a place to linger, but the noodle soups are hot, fresh and great for the price. Where Koya is elegant and stylish, Noodle Oodle is efficient and functional, but for the price and lack of queues, Noodle Oodle’s la mien soup continues to get my vote.

I’ve never spent more than £12.50 a person for a side of veg, a beverage and a ginormous bowl of noodle soup. If for some reason you’re still hungry afterwards, it’s a quick walk down Oxford Street to the inimitable Beard Papa for a delish cream puff.

Noodle Oodle, 25 Oxford Street, W1D 2DW, 0207 287 5953; closest Tube station: Tottenham Court Road

Alternate location: 106 Queensway Road, W2 3RR.

Koya on Urbanspoon

Noodle Oodle on Urbanspoon

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Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant

 

A week ago, summer had finally arrived in London, as had my parents, in town for a week-long visit. So Jon and I thought we’d take a day trip to Canterbury with a lunch break at nearby Whitstable.

Things were off to a good start on the high-speed train from St. Pancras to Canterbury West, which ran on the Eurostar tracks for much of the journey, took just under an hour, and cost only £55 for four return tickets.

Canterbury was warm and sunny, and it was an easy 15-minute walk to the Cathedral, which turned out to be the only thing in town really worth seeing. The Tourist Information office across the street from the Cathedral entrance provided great maps to both Canterbury and Whitstable, as well as a list of the cycle shops (two) in town where we could rent bicycles. Both shops were sold out, so instead of cycling the 7 miles to Whitstable along the charmingly-named Crab & Winkle Way, we took a 30-minute, super-slow ride on the bus.

Unsurprisingly, the Michelin-starred Sportsman in Whitstable was fully booked for lunch that day, so instead we ended up at the lively Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company.

Pros: The Whitstable Oyster Fishery’s dining rooms are high-ceilinged, bright, and cheerfully rustic. There are views of the sea, and the seafood, generally, tasted fresh and was served in generous portions.

Cons: The service was extraordinarily slow. We waited 35 minutes for our starters to arrive, and another 45 minutes for our mains. And despite several repeat requests for tap water, water was not forthcoming. Apparently the easygoing pace of seaside living is not for me.

 

grilled king prawns (£9)

 

 

fried calamari (£8.50)

 

Starters of mussels mariniere (£9.50), grilled king prawns, and fried calamari were all very good. The prawns in particular reminded me of Barrafina‘s sweet-tasting giants and were well worth the £9 for two. The leftover melted garlic butter served with the prawns was my favorite for sopping up with bread, though my dad thought the mariniere sauce had the edge.

 

fish and chips (£16-ish)

 

Fish and chips were a mixed result: the cod was silky firm and gorgeously flaky, and the batter was light and golden. The mushy peas actually tasted like peas – sweet and smooth – but the chips were a stale-tasting letdown.

 

pan-fried skate (£17.50)

 

 

whole lobster (£24)

 

Jon’s skate was sadly thin and meagre, but he enjoyed what little meat there was. Being environment killers, my mom and I split the steamed lobster imported from Canada, which was served cold. The meat was a bit mealy and the accompanying minted potato salad tasted overwhelmingly of mint (not good), but that’s what I get for ordering something that comes from Canada.

With various beers and lemonades, our total for four was £112, which was fair for the overall quality of the seafood and the scenic environs, but a bit steep for the incredible slowness and unhelpfulness of the service.

After lunch, we took a quick walk around Whitstable harbour, which, sadly, is not attractive. Not only is the harbour crowded with industrial machines and boats, but also the nearby beaches are of the stony variety. So we quickly returned to Canterbury to pay our £8 each to see the famous cathedral and hopped back on the train to London.

Overall, a pleasant day trip out of London, but I wouldn’t return to the area without (a) reserving a table at the Sportsman and (b) reserving a bicycle to try out the Crab & Winkle Way.

Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant, Horsebridge Road, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AF; 01227 276 856.

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