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Archive for August, 2010

Homa Restaurant

Jon and I really wanted to like Homa.  We showed up on the Friday night after this super-positive (4/5 stars) TimeOut review was published on-line, and we were happy to see the place – which spreads itself over two large floors – full.  The dining rooms are spacious and have a clean-lined Scandinavian look going on, and the menu offers crowd-pleasing Italian-Spanish-“Meditteranean” dishes at reasonable prices (i.e., with most starters less than £7 and mains less than £13).

So what went wrong?

As best I can tell, nobody warned the kitchen that there’d be hordes of people showing up after seeing that glowing TimeOut review.  I’m ragging on the kitchen bc there were scores of waiters hovering by the kitchen pass, waiting for food to come out.  So I don’t think there was a shortage of servers that night to explain my marathon wait for food.

8:30 pm – we sit down.

8:45 pm – we put in our order.

10 pm – we let our server know that this is the last time we’ll be put off with some vague promise that our food is on its way.

10:15 pm – our server shows up with a “free” cauliflower soup.  It tastes scorched, but we wouldn’t have cared as much if someone had brought us this freebie, say, an hour earlier.  Comped stuff should have been fast and furious long before this point.

10:20 pm – amusingly, this is when our starters arrive.  It’s worth noting that we hadn’t ordered anything complex (though even if we had, waiting almost two hours would still be unreasonable).  Basically, we were glad someone in the kitchen was able to find 5 seconds to ladle out a bowl of sweet corn soup for Jon and assemble mozzarella and tomato for my salad caprese.

"free" cauliflower soup

sweet corn soup with scraps of girolle

tomato mozzarella salad

Sadly, we were too hungry to notice much about our starters other than that mine tasted very cold (fresh from the fridge, I reckon).  I’m amazed I even have photos of the food, actually.  I probably had to stab Jon’s hand with my fork to shoo him away.

At this point, we thought we’d cut our losses, cancel the rest of our order, and see if Datte Foco up the street was still open.  Another couple sitting near us clearly had the same idea – we enviously watched them head for the door after not having been served anything for the last hour.

Laughably, the moment our server came to collect our starter plates (i.e., when we planned to ask for our bill), the mains arrived.  No pizza al taglio for us.

plaice with samphire brown shrimp potato puree olives

Jon’s plaice definitely had too much going on.  And as a lover of all things buttery, I thought I’d never say this:  too much butter.

linguini mussels

Re: my linguine.  The good news was that it was perfectly al dente.  Otherwise, it looked and tasted like a so-so self-cooked weeknight dinner.  A bit soupy.  No clear flavors.

At the end of our dinner, our server offered us free coffee and apologized several times for the wait.  I liked the impulse (of offering us something for free), but the prospect of waiting for more “stuff” scared us.  Why not comp us our wine?  or just something we already ordered and had to wait for?  Why comp us something that requires us to stay longer?

Because our server’s heart was in the right place, and because the evening’s disaster seemed to lie with an overwhelmed kitchen, we still left a full tip.  But our dinner was 60 quid and three hours of life that I will never get back.

Based on the resto’s decor and well-intentioned service, I reckon Homa is a nice place to drop by for a coffee or pastry in the morning.  But otherwise, either Homa should limit the number of diners to a size its kitchen can handle or else it should bulk up its kitchen staff.  Either way, it’s embarrassing how unprepared they were to take advantage of a great TimeOut review.

Homa.  71-73 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 0AS; 020 7254 2072.  Tube?  Not so much.  Lots of buses run from the Islington Green, near Angel.
Homa on Urbanspoon

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fried goodies: suppli (£2), bocconcini (£2.50), artichoke a la Giudia (£5), and in the background, a fried courgette flower (£4)

When I was at Bocca di Lupo a year ago, I had a lot of fun, but the service and food were a mixed bag.  I left thinking that while I wouldn’t object to going again, I also wasn’t dying to revisit.

However, not having been to Bocca di Lupo and being a lover of all things Italian, Jon has long wanted to go, and with the recent buzz around good-quality, low-to-mid-priced Italians  opening in London, the time seemed right to revisit BdL.  Which is how we found ourselves there for dinner last week.

First impressions were great.  Still the warm, exciting atmosphere that I recall from my last visit, and the flattering lighting never hurts, either.  The bar seats were packed with diners who appeared to be having a good time, and the few tables at the back of the room were also full.  Not too shabby for a Tuesday evening.

Jon and I started with assorted fried goodies, which you order by the piece.  Fried artichoke (carciofi alla giudia) was especially good, with a nutty crunch to the exterior, and a moist, buttery heart.  Fried courgette flower included a powerful kick of anchovy, which I love, and both snacks brought back memories of Rome, a definite bonus.  Suppli and fried bocconcini were fine, but the bland comforts of fried cheese inevitably paled in comparison to the flavorsome artichoke and courgette flower.

nettle and ricotta ravioli in a pansotti walnut sauce (£6)

orecchiette with tomato and spicy salami (£7)

Our pasta courses were both very good, though I slightly preferred the spicy sweetness of the orecchiette to the creamy nuttiness of the nettle-and-ricotta ravioli.  The walnut sauce on the ravioli was a bit too heavy given that pasta was just a “course” for us (i.e., there was still a meat course to follow).

foie gras sausage and fregola (£9)

Foie gras Italian sausage was a revelation.  Usually, I’m skeptical of any dish where foie gras is an ingredient – it usually turns out to be a waste of foie gras.  But here, the foie’s creamy, rich meatiness was matched perfectly with the crumbly, fennel-scented pork of the sausage.  Without the foie gras, the sausage would have been pretty lean and dry, in fact.  The coarse, slightly-nutty fregola absorbed and blended with the sausage’s intense flavor.  This is a dish I’ll be craving as the days get darker and colder.

We skipped dessert in order to walk across the street to BdL’s gelateria, Gelupo, which is a worth a visit in its own right

With a couple of sides priced at £5 and a £40 bottle of wine, our dinner for two totaled £98, which I thought was great value given the quality of our food.  If you skipped the wine, all this food for £30 a person would be almost a steal, really.  In fact, Bocca di Lupo is what nearby and much-loved Polpo could be if Polpo took reservations.  And had good lighting.  And a happenin’ bar.

I’m already looking forward to going back.  This time, it won’t take me a year.

Bocca di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, W1D 7BB; 0207 734 2223; closest Tube station: Piccadilly Circus.

Gelupo gelateria, 7 Archer Street, W1D 7AU (i.e., across the street from Bocca di Lupo); 0207 287 5555.  Open until 1 am on weekends!  And at the back of the gelateria, there’s a small grocery where you can buy foie gras sausage to cook at home.  What’s not to love?
Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

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page views by month

What with this blog turning four and all, I wanted to thank all you wonderful readers who make food blogging so totally addictive and worth the time, calories and cash.

Last July my blog had 19,042 page views, and I ended this July with 23,017, so there’s heartening growth still happening.  My best month in terms of reader volume was May this year, with 28,840 page views.

Also, no blog birthday would be complete without a shout out to the following five non-google sites/blogs for sending me so much traffic these last 12 months:

Gourmet Chick:  Check here for a great mix of recipes, travel tips and restaurant reviews.  Gourmet Chick’s high-frequency posts manage to be entertaining and well written despite the speed at which she must write them.  Hers is the blog I wish I wrote if I could devote more time to blogging.

Londonelicious:  Krista may have moved back to Chicago, but I have a feeling that her blog will live on.  For pithy reviews on *any* restaurant in London (and I mean any), only Londonelicious will do.

Urbanspoon:  If you haven’t used Urbanspoon yet, you should.  The reason I (and so many other bloggers) love it is because it aggregates content by bloggers, professional critics, and Urbanspoon users, giving each group equal prominence, and allowing you to slice and dice data in useful and interesting ways:  reviews by blogger, by restaurant, by neighborhood . . . I look forward to the day when Urbanspoon expands to non-anglophone cities.

Eat Like a Girl:  If the blogger world has a grand dame, Niamh is probably it.  Read Eat Like a Girl if you are a lover of pork or want to be in-the-know on the latest food news.

Hollow Legs:  Blogs are much loved for having a point of view, and what I love about Hollow Legs is that she doesn’t suffer fools gladly.  As a random aside, I think she ought to share the secret to avoiding obesity given her diet of what appears to be 5,000 calories a day.

And so concludes the self-love fest in honor of my four years of blogging.  Your regularly-scheduled restaurant review to follow shortly, and again, many thanks for reading and leaving comments!

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Americans are sometimes accused of not valuing tradition or caring for the past. Well, this is one American who loves traditions and wallowing in the past, even if the traditions are so recently created they could hardly be so called.

Jon and I arrived in the UK on 21 August 2005 carrying lots of excess luggage and more money than common sense (we actually hailed a black cab from Heathrow to central London, lol).

I started this blog on the one-year anniversary of our arrival in the UK, and since then, I’ve loved doing a 12-month “look back” every year, so here’s my 2009-2010 roundup in food and travel:

August 2009: We made a trip to Southern California and ate a lot of great Vietnamese food, Korean food, Cal-Mex, and burgers (Hodad onion rings, I miss you).

September 2009: We hung around London the entire month and discovered the joys of inexpensive South Indian food at Shilpa, a real gem in Hammersmith. Despite the seemingly-endless Tube ride from Angel, I’ve been back there several times for the prawn moilee and kerala paratha.

October 2009: We paid another visit to Provence (our third to that region – how unoriginal!), exploring the markets in l’Isle sur la Sorgue, getting some sun and sea in the pretty port town of Cassis, enjoying a splashy meal at Pierre Reboul in Aix, and revisiting some old favorites in Nice. And the restaurant adventures in London continued, with the highlight that month being my first dolsot bibimbap lunch at Young Bean. Young Bean’s raw beef version is so delicious and filling that I’ve had it at least twice a month, every month, since that first visit.

November 2009: Never tiring of France, we spent a weekend in Paris (our fourth visit there in 2009 alone). We rather enjoyed the beautiful people scene at Le Thoumieux, but were a little less enthralled by the also-hip-and-happening Kitchen Galerie Bis. Favorite London meal that month: Launceston Place, which I’ve recently revisited and remain thrilled by.

December 2009: We indulged in our love of all things Christmas at the Nuremberg Christmas market and guzzled the gluhwein in Munich. Jon and I then headed to the US for Christmas and ate huge portions of generally-mediocre food in Palm Beach County, Florida. Back in London, I somehow managed to have a so-so dinner at Chilli Cool, finding their food way under-spiced and uninteresting.  (If you’re familiar with the expressions of love heaped upon Chilli Cool by other bloggers, you’ll see why I’m confounded). The real travesty of the month, though, was schlepping to Shepherd’s Bush to follow Matthew Norman’s glowing recommendation of Thai resto Esarn Kheaw, where I had a depressing meal.

January 2010: I started the new year with a week in Boston, where I ate a delightfully unseasonal — but immensely delicious — lobster roll at Neptune Oyster. And like every other self-respecting food blogger, I generated my “Favorite London Restaurants” list for 2009, and a corresponding list for places outside the UK. I’m happy to see that even today, I’d still agree with most of the restos listed.

February 2010: At the end of the month, Jon and I popped over to Venice for some fritto misto at the Vechio Fritolin on our way to ski in Cortina. It turned out that there’s great eating to be done on the slopes of the Dolomites, so for the food-centric skiiers among you, get thee to Cortina d’Ampezzo. Baita Pie’ Tofana, in particular, is calling me back. Favorite meal in London that month was a tie between the high-end at Hibiscus and the been-back-a-dozen-times comforts of Empress of Sichuan.

March 2010: Craving sunshine and fried boquerones, I spent 24 hours in Malaga, Spain and managed to catch the start of Semana Santa, which was a bonus. Back in London, the dinner of the month was at the often-overlooked Greenhouse in Mayfair. Interestingly, I had a good dinner that month at the Dean Street Townhouse, which I’ve since revisited twice to my ever-increasing dismay. Is it just me, or has the food there gone downhill pretty quickly?

April 2010: Ahhh, Egypt, how you crushed my self-image as an experienced and savvy traveler. The Egyptian ruins of Cairo and Luxor were amazing. The food alright, with the highlight being the grill at El Refay in Cairo. But on the whole, our week in Egypt left me ambivalent about independent travel there.  In terms of dining in London, I had my first lunch at Pizza East and it’s earned a regular slot on the workday lunch rotation ever since. Good prices, good food, and fast service.

May 2010: May in Europe is great. You’ve got lots of Bank Holidays and the weather starts to be reliably sunny. So. Off to Rome with my parents, where we enjoyed four days of casual, excellent meals of pasta and pizza. Dal Paino and Il Forno Campo de’ Fiori are not to be missed. Closer to home, we finally visited Canterbury and Whitstable, which were a bit of a snore, so we should’ve planned the day around a meal at the Sportsman instead. Maybe next time. Best meals in London that month: The Square on the high end, and Byron Burgers on the low.

June 2010: Early in the month, Jon and I had to drop everything and get back to the New York area for a family emergency, but every cloud has a silver lining, and we loved seeing family and friends while chowing on some great bagels, pizza and excellent General Tso’s chicken. Bar Boulud and Viajante made their splashy openings, but I’d say the bloom is off the rose at Bar Boulud since they took the chop chop salad off its menu. Boo.

July 2010: A weekend visit to Calais to see Jon’s cousins yielded a culinary surprise: quite possibly the best meal of 2010, in fact. La Grenouillere in Montreuil, France, managed to be fun without being gimmicky, and the lobster and flash-grilled steak courses were out-of-this-world. On a more modest scale, the arrival in our neighborhood of low-priced Italian, Trullo, was warmly welcomed, and ready-for-franchise Dishoom convinced me they’re on to a winning formula.  How do I invest?

So that’s it. Five years in London. I can now look forward to taking the “Life in the UK Test” and paying the £1,393 application fee for indefinite leave to remain.  This way, London will never be rid of me!

For more nostalgia fun:

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These sorts of trashy videos are my guilty pleasure. I share this one for your Friday enjoyment. Full credit (blame?) to my friend Jane for sending this to me.

The best line in the accompanying commentary is hands down: “Dude, they don’t serve nuggets during breakfast. They only serve breakfast.”

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Cowley Manor, viewed from the garden

Because Jon has spent most of this summer training for his Channel swim (which he and his team completed in 12h 45 mins while also raising £13,000+ for charity – well done, no?), we haven’t taken any holiday yet this summer.

Channel swim over, he and I spent last weekend in the Cotswolds, where we treated ourselves to a stay at Cowley Manor. Longtime followers of this blog (hi, Mom and Dad!) will remember that last spring, Jon and I visited Barnsley House, which is a nearby competitor of Cowley Manor’s.  So the title of this post could really be “Face Off: Cowley Manor vs. Barnsley House,” except that I’m not that dramatic.

In case you find yourself in the enviable position of deciding which luxury spa hotel to choose for your next trip to the Cotswolds, here are my thoughts on the two, with the caveat that it’s been over a year since I was at Barnsley House:

"good" room at the Cowley Manor

Jon and I chose a “good room” for £250/night, which is the cheapest category of rooms at Cowley Manor.  In other words, presumably the rooms get only nicer from here.

Our room was large and comfortable, but I was disappointed that the decor wasn’t half as modern chic as that of the rest of the house.  The overall effect was still very Dark Wood Paneling, and the bright, stunning bathroom we had at Barnsley House beat that of our Cowley room by a mile.  We had a lovely view of the Cowley Manor grounds, though.

snow pea leaves, asparagus and poached egg

roast duck breast and rosti

Dinner at Cowley Manor Restaurant was disappointing.  First, all our dishes were under-seasoned (though happily the restaurant leaves sea salt on every table, so you can DIY season).  Second, the poached egg in my starter was cooked for so long that the egg yolk was chalky rather than my beloved runny.  Third and least appealingly, roast duck breast was chewy and flavorless, perhaps as a result of its long acquaintance with a heat lamp.

We did, however, love our side order of chips, so next time we’ll probably stick to eating in the casual bar area of the manor.  Or we’ll walk the half mile to the nearby pub, the Green Dragon.

The restaurant dining room was attractive and had views of the garden, and gracious, attentive service.  But with our two starters, two mains and modest bottle of wine costing £100, I expected much better.

smoked salmon eggs benedict (brekkie included in room rates)

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and Cowley Manor’s spread was generous and good quality.  The fruit salad was packed with exotic fruits that tasted as good as they looked, and the croissants were ultra-flaky and buttery.  Hot dishes could be custom ordered, and I couldn’t resist the siren call of eggs benedict with smoked salmon instead of ham.  The egg yolks turned out soft boiled rather than runny, but the zippy hollandaise redeemed everything.    Overall, a better breakfast than at Barnsley House, which charged extra for hot dishes despite room rates being higher than those at Cowley.

picnic hamper (£45)

For £45, the kitchen will prepare a wicker picnic hamper for two and set up lunch anywhere on the manor’s gorgeous grounds.  Doing this was a lot of fun, and there was enough food for four in our hamper, so next time we’ll bring friends.  What the above photo fails to capture are the cheeses, lemon drizzle cake and berries that were also part of our hamper.

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And here’s where Cowley Manor really shines and surpasses Barnsley House:  the spa.  Cowley, being a bigger place than Barnsley House, has a beautiful, large spa discreetly tucked away behind the main building.  There’s an indoor and outdoor pool, and even at busy times of day (i.e., a weekend afternoon), the atmosphere is relaxing.

outdoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

Jon and I treated ourselves to lengthy and excellent spa treatments and then whiled away a few hours poolside.  The spa staff, like everyone else we encountered at Cowley Manor, were friendly and attentive.

Overall, Barnsley House’s food, privacy and guest rooms were more appealing than those of Cowley Manor, but Cowley Manor’s spa facilities, first-rate staff and impressive-and-beautiful gardens leave me wanting to return to Cowley Manor before I’d go back to Barnsley House.

Which means this is the first time I’m choosing a getaway spot based on criteria other than food.  If CM’s restaurant improved a bit, the place would be perfect.

A “good room” (the least expensive category) at Cowley Manor was £250/night, which includes breakfast.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon). Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £28 – £35 each way.

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TenShi in Islington

I’ve lived in Angel Islington for close to five years now, and I love this ‘hood.  The many food-shopping options and shopping options, generally, make me happy.  As does running along the Regent’s Canal and being able to walk to work.

What holds Islington back from Best Neighborhood Ever status, I think, is its high percentage of mediocre restaurants.  So whenever I hear about a new place in the ‘hood with good reviews, I show up with high hopes, and honestly, I’m usually disappointed.  The latest example of this cycle of disappointment:  TenShi sushi, which opened earlier this year and has gotten recommended a number of times by TimeOut for being good value.

prawn tempura roll

I didn’t order anything very unusual, and yet it was all sub-par.  The prawns in my prawn tempura roll were flavourless, and instead of including crunchy cucumber slices with just the right dab of sweet mayo and wasabi, the rolls were flavored only with soy sauce. In fact, everything at TenShi that I tried tasted of soy sauce:  agedashi tofu, udon noodle soup.

yaki soba

Yaki soba, again, tasted mostly of soy sauce with a dollop of grease mixed in.   Whoever worked the kitchen that night was a lover of soy sauce, for sure, and I kept thinking of that scene in the Joy Luck Club where the clueless dinner guest destroys his food by dousing it in soy sauce.

Service was attentive and fast, and the prices were low (four mains and two shared starters totaled £60).  But if I’m craving sushi and want to stay in the ‘hood, I’ll  stick with Sa Sa Sushi (which is closed on Sunday evenings – hence why I was at TenShi on a Sunday evening).  So without further ado . . . .
Tenshi on Urbanspoon

Sa Sa Sushi

I’ve meant to do a blog post about Sa Sa Sushi for ages.  It’s one of those places where I eat very often and take for granted, and I feel very protective towards the kind and welcoming people who work there, so I suppose a part of me didn’t want to subject them to potentially-unfriendly scrutiny.  But you know, after eating the fish here at least three times a month for a couple of years, I owe them a shout out, no?

assorted nigiri and rolls at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon and I don’t vary our orders much here.  It’s our prerogative to avoid exploring the menu when it’s just a quick bite out in the neighborhood.   Which is all to say, I vouch for the rolls and the nigiri and have no opinion either way on Sa Sa Sushi’s other dishes.   Prawn tempura roll, of course, is one of my favorites, as are the crunchy-and-spicy [insert any fish here] rolls.  I like, for example, that when you order a spicy tuna roll, you don’t end up with a mayonnaise-chili-mash of last-week’s tuna.  Instead, the roll includes a hefty piece of identifiably-fresh tuna that is delicately spiced with chili.

udon noodle soup at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon’s an udon noodle lover, so he gets this a lot.  I’ve had a taste of his a few times, and it’s good, but when I show up at Sa Sa, I’m there for the fish.

Service at Sa Sa can be slow, but most times the slow-ness is due to the care with which the sushi chefs are making each roll and piece of nigiri (I’ve watched them while sitting at the sushi counter up front).

The restaurant’s decor is bright and inoffensive, if a bit charmless, and prices are reasonable (£4-6 a roll), so the tab usually comes to £20 a person if you’re sticking only with the sushi options (which you should).

I’m not claiming the place is a destination restaurant, but I confidently assert that Sa Sa is one of the best places to eat in Islington and miles better than what I’ve tried at TenShi.

Sa Sa Sushi, 422 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 020 7837 1155; closest tube station:  Angel (exit the station and make a left, away from Upper Street and towards City Road).
Sa Sa Sushi on Urbanspoon

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