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Archive for January, 2011

interior of Hiba Lebanese restaurant

For reasons not worth going into here, last week, I ate Lebanese food three nights in a row.  Yalla Yalla on Thursday.  Hiba on both Friday and Saturday.  Both places enjoy positive TimeOut reviews, with Yalla Yalla enjoying some extra buzz after the recent opening of its Oxford Circus branch.

Still, I left Yalla Yalla thinking it was a nice option to have when shopping on Oxford Street, but otherwise, I wasn’t super impressed.  The service was a bit pushy (my friend and I ordered seven mezze to share and the server still asked us “are you *just* having mezze?  no main courses?”), and the food, while attractively presented, ranged from not-good (e.g., squeaky, over-salty halloumi) to good-but-not-memorable (e.g., fattoush).

24 hours later, I’m at Hiba Restaurant, an oasis on an otherwise forlorn stretch of Borough High Street.  Where Yalla Yalla was spare and Wagamama-cafeteria-dining like, Hiba aims for chic, nighttime atmosphere.  It’s warm and inviting, and I was glad we’d made a booking, because the restaurant was packed on both Friday and Saturday nights.  Minor hiccup when a server told us we’d have to wait a few minutes for a table “because you were 14 minutes late for your booking.”  I swear we were less than 5 minutes late for our booking, but in any case, I could have done with less accusation, generally.

best grilled halloumi, ever (£5.50) at Hiba

Star attraction at Hiba:  Halloumi.  There were many tasty, memorable dishes at Hiba (e.g., crispy, fragrant falafel, refreshing grilled aubergine with tomato, onion, parsley and mint (bazenjan al-rahib)), but for me, the halloumi stole the show.  I ordered it both nights I was at Hiba, and it was superb on both nights.  Yielding, almost-juicy tofu-like texture.  No squeakiness.  Mild, creamy almost-mozzarella flavor with a hit of smokiness from the grill.

salty grilled halloumi topped with even saltier olives at Yalla Yalla

Contrast with Yalla Yalla’s version, which looked pretty.  But the halloumi was a bit squeaky and grilled to dryness.  Worse still, the halloumi’s saltiness was further compounded by the salty olive topping.  My friend and I, lovers of halloumi, couldn’t finish it.

fattoush (£4.95), kibbeh (£5.50) and labneh (£4.75) at Hiba

chicken wings at Hiba were saved by the garlic labneh (£5.50)

Order anything at Hiba that comes with labneh, a thick cheesy-tangy yoghurt.  The chicken wings at Hiba, for example, were a bit scrawny, but they were saved by the garlicky labneh served on the side.  Hiba’s kibbeh, which was better/more moist than Yalla Yalla’s version, still benefited from the rich labneh we’d ordered.  Labneh can transform any dish for the better, it seems.

slight advantage to Yalla Yalla's fattoush, which was beautiful and well dressed

I will say that Yalla Yalla does a better job of plating than Hiba does.  Everything at Yalla Yalla was visually prettier, especially the fattoush.  Salads usually taste better when they look pretty, I think.

Yalla Yalla's sfihe, pastry filled with minced lamb, onion, tomato and pomegranate molasses

But it takes more than good looks to win me over.  Take, for example, Yalla Yalla’s sfihe, whose menu description sounded perfect.  But in reality, the “pastry” was really just a stodgy, thick bread filled with very little lamb/onion mince.  The pomegranate molasses had such a strong flavor that more savoury mince filling was desperately needed to balance things out.

Yalla Yalla's baklava (not pretty and about £5)

Hiba's baklava - lovely to look at and lovely to eat. And free!

Ending was no competition.  Pale, stolid-looking baklava at Yalla Yalla for about £5 versus delicious, flaky baklava for free at Hiba.  Advantage Hiba, obviously.

Prices at both restaurants were similar, with most mezze costing less than £5 and most mains at £12.  None of my three meals cost more than £25, including service and wine.  If you’re looking for a relaxing, tasty night out with friends or a date, Hiba fits the bill perfectly.

Hiba, 134-138 Borough High Street, SE1 1LB; 0207 357 9633; closest Tube station:  3 minutes’ walk from Borough

Yalla Yalla, 12 Winsley Street, W1W 8HQ; 0207 637 4748; closest Tube station:  5 minutes’ walk from Oxford Circus

Hiba on Urbanspoon
Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

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The original Hawksmoor steakhouse location near Spitalfields Market

Back in August 2010, I joined omnivorous food bloggers, the Critical Couple, for lunch at the original Hawksmoor steakhouse near Spitalfields Market.  The Critical Couple were not the first food lovers to have sung the praises of the Hawksmoor, and given how close by my office sits, it seemed silly that I hadn’t yet been there.  Unfortunately, as the Critical Couple noted at the time in their blog post, the steaks we ordered (a bone-in prime rib for an eye-watering £61 and bone-in sirloin for £29) were disappointing, as was the Hawksmoor’s signature burger (served only at lunch).  The two steaks looked beautiful but tasted a bit tough and lacked char.  Definitely not what you’d expect at those prices.  And the atmosphere at lunch?  A bit too spare and utilitarian.  I wasn’t sure I’d ever return.  (To the Hawksmoor’s credit, the restaurant contacted the Critical Couple after they blogged their review and offered them a free lunch to redeem itself, which it sounds like the Hawksmoor accomplished).

Hawksmoor burger with chips (£15)

bone-in prime rib (950g for £61 @ £6.50/100g)

bone-in sirloin (600g for £29)

Fast forward four months, and Jon tells me he’s craving steak for dinner.  Unfortunately, I’ve been temporarily swearing off rare meat.  And to go to a place like the Hawksmoor and order a well-done steak is synonymous with flushing money down the toilet, yes?  A cow will have died in vain, that’s for sure.  So Jon asks the Hawksmoor if they’re willing to serve their lunch-only hamburger at dinner to accommodate me, and you know, they were totally lovely about it.

When we showed up for dinner, the room felt completely different from lunchtime.  With the lights dimmed and candles burning, the room is warm and inviting.  The place is full but not loud, and Jon and I ordered the grilled bone marrow (£6), which arrived silken and smoky with char.  The bone marrow’s accompaniment of sweet grilled shallots complemented the acrid char.  More toast (also tasting beautifully of char) was no problem when we asked for it, and although we could easily have shared this starter four ways, I’m glad it was just the two of us.  I liked this bone marrow even more than I like St. John’s version, which I think is saying a lot.  For starters, because the bone is cut lengthwise, Hawksmoor’s version is easier to eat, but mostly, I loved the mix of acrid and sweet flavors.

My cheeseburger was served well-done, and before you raise a hue and cry that I would do such a thing, I will say that if all well-done burgers tasted this tender and flavorful all the time, then I might be willing to order it that way more often.  And oh what char!  The mayo, cheese, pickles melt into the burger patty, and it’s deliciously messy.  So much better than the prim and proper medium-rare burger I recall from my last visit to the Hawksmoor.  Jon’s medium-rare rib-eye (£26) was very tasty, so he tells me.

Service at dinner was friendly and attentive.  Tap water refills were fast and furious. Overall, I had a really nice experience at the Hawksmoor this time around.

No question that eating at the Hawksmoor is pricey, with our simple dinner costing us £90 for bone marrow, a burger, a rib-eye steak, two glasses of wine and coffee.  What a difference welcoming service, glowing decor and beautifully-blended toppings on a burger can make.   I’m still wary of returning to Hawksmoor for lunch because I felt so burned the first time around, but when I’m back to eating rare meat, I’ll look forward to dinner there again.

Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, E1 6BJ; 0207 247 7392; closest Tube station:  Shoreditch High Street or Liverpool Street Station.
Hawksmoor on Urbanspoon

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Antepliler Turkish restaurant in Islington

There’s no shortage of Turkish restaurants on Islington’s Upper Street. It’s just too bad that most of them serve as mere pit stops for the crowds who come to my ‘hood on weekends to get pissed.  Imagine my excitement when I saw this glowing November 2010 review in TimeOut for Antepliler.  It’s always a good thing when a mid-range, delicious restaurant opens in your neighborhood, yes?

Happily, the service and decor at Antepliler lived up to expectations.  And the food was generally good, though based on my one meal there, I wouldn’t say Antepliler is a destination restaurant.  It’s more of a “great choice if you’re already in Islington” kind of place.

ripped-open puff of bread at Antepliler

Jon and I loved the breads, which arrived soon after we sat down.  Steaming hot and flavorsome, especially with the accompanying free chutneys and the cacik (£4.50), which was not free but when is strained cucumber with garlic and mint not a good plan?  

Patlican Soslu, a fried aubergine and tomato tapenade (£4.50)

Patlican Soslu, a fried aubergine with tomato tapenade, was too sugary.  Too bad as I love fried aubergine and was looking forward to this cold starter.

borek, fried cigars of feta cheese in a filo pastry (£4.20)

Borek were delicious.  Zippy feta cheese and crisp, greaseless filo pastry, all fried.   I’m afraid this dish isn’t going to keep away the crowds planning to get pissed on Upper Street, but its greatness as a bar snack cannot be ignored.

Ali Nazik, diced lamb on an eggplant puree (£10.50)

Listed under the category “Signiture Gaziantep Food” on the menu,  the diced lamb in Jon’s Ali Nazik was a bit dry.  We’d thought the lamb would be cooked as a large piece first and then diced, but it seems the lamb was diced and then cooked.  Hence the dryness.  The smoky eggplant puree helped give moisture to the dish, of course, but still, this is one of the restaurant’s signature dishes?

Simit Kebab, aka kofte (£10.50)

My Simit Kebab, kofte to you and me, was exactly what I like in a kofte.  The cracked wheat and abundant herbs in the minced lamb added a crunchy, earthy texture and flavor to the minced lamb.  The accompanying rice and salad were fine, but it was the generous portion of juicy kofte that was the star attraction.

With a beer each, our tab for two totaled £50.  Service was fast and friendly, and the interior was cheery and buzzing.  A very welcome addition to the neighborhood.

Antepliler Restaurant, 139 Upper St, N1 1QP, 0207 226 5441; closest Tube station:  Highbury & Islington (10-minute walk) or Angel (15-minute walk)

To read about other restaurants in Islington, click here.

Antepliler on Urbanspoon

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interior of Kopapa restaurant

Despite the fact that I have, for several years now, eaten Sunday brunch at the Providores about once a month (Turkish eggs changa with a side of chorizo, I love you), when Peter Gordon’s name comes up, I think immediately of Muzede Changa, a restaurant in Istanbul where Gordon is consulting chef.  I remember initially being skeptical that a London-based Kiwi chef serving as a consultant to an Istanbul restaurant could result in anything worthwhile, but the food was delicious, and the easy blend of Turkish and other cuisines left me a life-long fan of Peter Gordon’s.

Fellow resto bloggers Gourmet Chick and Greedy Diva proposed Gordon’s latest venture, Kopapa, as the meeting spot for our days-before-Christmas catch up, and I didn’t need any persuading.  Gourmet Chick’s writeup is here, and I’m pleased to report that Greedy Diva appears to be as big a procrastinator as I am and still hasn’t posted yet about our dinner there!  (For an anonymous pro opinion, see the review in this week’s TimeOut).

Overall, I liked Kopapa.  The service was friendly and attentive, and the dining room is casual and welcoming.  Most of the dishes we tried were good, with just a small minority of forgettable, “skip it” clunkers.  For sure, it’d be a great place to drop by for coffee and dessert, and it was a perfect spot for a friendly catch-up.

It took the three of us a while to scan the menu, partly because three food bloggers tend to talk a lot about what to order, and partly because the dish descriptions are so long.  Also, because most of the dishes are small, you end up having to make a lot more decisions than if you’d just gone with a starter-main-dessert structure.

The three of us shared 7 small plates, 1 main, and 2 desserts, and that was just the right amount of food.

The five tasty dishes:

tuna tartare (£6.00)

“Sesame infused tuna tartare with soy and wasabi tapioca, crispy lotus root and shiso” – that’s the menu description, and it’s long, yes?  This was the sort of dish that characterized much of what we tried on the Kopapa menu.  Boring, safe tuna tartare well prepared with just enough “twist” to lift it out of boring land.  Here, we had firm chunks of raw tuna served in a refreshing and well-balanced dressing with nut, citrus and salty flavors.  I didn’t taste much heat from the wasabi, but the texture and prettiness of the lotus root was a nice touch.

duck breast with pickled pineapple and goats curd (£6.50)

“Indonesian marinated magret duck breast, goats curd, beetroot confit and pickled pineapple” – you have to admire Kopapa for bucking the current fashion of over-simplifying descriptions to the point of unhelpfulness (e.g., a restaurant’s labeling an elaborate salad as just “greens”).  But there really is such a thing as TMI.  Anyway, similar to the tuna tartare, the rare duck breast was good but boring on its own, however, it was livened up by the sweet-and-sour pickled pineapple and creamy-tangy goats curd.

coconut sticky pork ribs (£5.80)

“Coconut sticky pork ribs” were crowd-pleasingly sweet, sticky and fall-off-the-bone tender.

duck liver parfait (£5.60)

“Grilled duck liver parfait with tamarind raisin chutney and grilled flat bread” — loved that there was no shortage of flatbread to accompany the creamy liver parfait.  And the caramelized sugar crust was clever, complementing the liver with its texture and sweetness.

parmesan bone marrow toast (£5.20)

“Parmesan and bone marrow on toast with horseradish” – Gourmet Chick noted that this distinguished itself from the bone marrow at St. John, which I agree with, but strangely, was thinking at the time that the flavors brought to mind St. John’s welsh rarebit.  In any case, as you’d expect, this dish was rich and comforting, and I wish there’d been more horseradish.  I crave spicy kick, apparently.

And now for the three “skip it” dishes:

grilled aubergine

“Grilled aubergine with tamarind caramel, coriander, pickled ginger and za’atar” – I found this whole dish bland despite all the flavor-packed-sounding accompaniments.  Normally, I love anything aubergine.  But this dish was just mush with occasional and imbalanced flashes of sweetness and ginger.

butternut squash (£4.20)

“Five spice and cumin crumbed butternut with coconut cucumber raita” – Breaded and deep fried.  I thought it’d be right up my alley.  But again, oddly bland and still-too-firm butternut squash.  Maybe if the squash had been boiled longer before frying so that it was softer and sweeter?

pork belly (£15.80)

“Cripsy pork belly on almond skordalia and buttered kale with moromi miso & tarragon dressing” – It just tasted like pork belly.  Well-prepared pork belly with a good, shatter-with-a-fork crispy crackling.  But when you read the menu description, you expect something more spectacular than plain old pork belly.

Desserts – simple and delicious.  A good ending.

boiled-orange cake (£5.80)

“Boiled-orange and almond cake with passionfruit custard” – we wondered if it was the orange that was boiled, or the whole cake.  Gourmet Chick did some digging around and tells me it’s steamed.  I’ll go with that.  Incredibly moist and infused with citrus, complemented by the tartness of passionfruit.

“Double-chocolate and macadamia nut brownie with Golden Crunch ice cream” – sure, it was a lame-sounding choice, but sometimes you just want a brownie with ice cream.  And the ice cream with its honeyed crunch was outstanding.

Total spend:  £109, including service and a modest bottle of wine, meaning we paid £36 each for a generally-tasty, relaxed evening out.  I look forward to going back.

Kopapa Restaurant, 32 – 34 Monmouth Street, Seven Dials, Covent Garden, WC2H 9HA; closest tube stations:  Leicester Square or Covent Garden, though I hoofed it over from Tottenham Court Road, and the walk didn’t take much more than 10 minutes.
Kopapa on Urbanspoon

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