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Archive for February, 2011

Yashin sushi restaurant, High Street Kensington

Like many food lovers, I regularly crave high-quality sushi.  Sadly, though, I’m often disappointed by the hyped-up spots in London.  For example, in 2010, Sushi of Shiori sounded like the second coming.  But when I finally snagged a counter seat there, I was disappointed.  Never again will I allow my expectations to rise like that, I vowed.  I’ll stay content with my perfectly good, friendly, local sushi joint, Sa Sa.

But then Yashin appeared.  I saw this glowing review by London Eater, and this one by Tamarind & Thyme, and my vow didn’t stand a chance.  Blow torch sushi.  Have you heard of it?

Jon and I had an 8 pm booking last weekend, and sadly, although there were open seats upstairs at and near the sushi bar, we were told we could only sit downstairs.  Oh well.  The downstairs is wood-panelled, small and kind of quiet.  You’re close to the bathroom and coat check, though, in case those are pluses for you.

sake taster "Set C" (£8.20)

Sake tasters are available at reasonable prices.  My takeaway:  test tubes are weird to drink out of.

prawn tempura roll (£6.80_

Yes, I know I’m visiting a restaurant staffed by skilled itamae.  But I still want a prawn tempura roll.  Yashin takes pride in flavoring its rice and sushi so that you *don’t need or want to drown it in soy sauce*.  This first taste of what the kitchen could do lived up to that promise.  The prawns were sweet and still slightly warm, and the rolls were packed with peppery and citrus-yuzu flavor.  No need for mayo, much less soy sauce.

soft shell crab salad (£8.40)

I haven’t had a soft-shell crab this juicy  and fresh in *years*.  The crispy mizuna greens and accompanying rice wine vinaigrette were a perfect foil.

8-piece omasake (£30)

And then the main attraction – omakase.  Jon and I had foolishly eaten a late-day snack, so we played it safe with Yashin’s smallest omakase option:  the eight-piece.

Much has been written about Yashin’s omakase, so I’ll just note generally:

1.  The blow-torch thing is genius.  It adds a wonderful charred, smoky flavor to silken raw fish.  Let me emphasize: the fish does not get ruined/cooked.  It’s just flavored.

2.  The different seasonings pair well with the various fish.  Salmon with some ponzu-and-wasabi kick, for example.  Delicately-sweetened eel.  The guys doing the flavor pairings are spot on.

Overall, I loved our food.   Definitely worth the pricetag.  We paid £94 for two people, and that’s without drinking much.

Downsides:  the downstairs room is kind of depressing, and the service, while seemingly well-intentioned, was not the best.  We were in and out in under 40 minutes, partly because our sushi arrived quickly, and mostly because the second we took our last bite of sushi, a woman cleared our plates and then nobody asked us if we wanted anything else.  In fairness to Yashin, we really didn’t want anything else that night, but blowing almost £100 for a 40-minute meal just feels really weird.  As if you just stopped in for a quick bite to eat in the neighborhood, yes?

Yet clearly Yashin aspires to be more of a destination restaurant, so turning a table in less than an hour just seems wrong.  i know this is going to sound petty and slightly weird, but it would have been nice of Yashin had spaced the food out a little more and made us feel like we were welcome to linger over a coffee or tea.

So.  Fresh, creative, delish sushi.  Decent decor and buzz if you’re upstairs.  Polite-but-too-fast service.

I’ll be back for the food, and next time, maybe I’ll line up a movie or show after dinner.

Yashin Sushi, 1A Argyll Rd, W8 7DB; 0207 938 1536; closest Tube station:  High Street Kensington
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Antiques market near Place de la Republique. "I just happened to have these lying around in my house."

Often you hear that there’s nothing like Paris in the springtime.  But actually, I’d say there’s nothing like Paris for the winter sales, which generally run from early January to mid-February.  Wait for the first couple of weeks to pass by.  The crush will have died down in most stores, and many things will be on secondary markdown.  Although price tagging is haphazard at best and some of the fancier stores make you ask which items are on promotion, the bright-colored SOLDES signs everywhere is, to my mind, very festive.

As my opening paragraph suggests, Jon and I were in Paris for the first weekend in February to take advantage of a little sale shopping.  Of course, while there, we had to eat.  (Shoppers among you, if you’re at Le Bon Marche – and why wouldn’t you be? –  my fave place for a quick, cheap and tasty lunch break is at Cuisine de Bar, next to Poilane on Rue Cherche-Midi.  Tartines, hot open-faced sandwiches, is their specialty, and the Saint-Marcellin-and-ham one is stellar.)

And if I haven’t mentioned it before, in general, if you’re looking for a well-edited and up-to-date list of restaurants in Paris, you can’t beat the “Editors’ Pick” feature of Paris by Mouth, a collective effort by well-established food writers and bloggers in Paris.

mackerel in "bread soup" at Rino

rare duck breast at Rino

Our favorite meal this time round in Paris?  Dinner at Rino.  4 courses for 38 euros and 6 courses for 55 euros.  Go for the 6 courses.  You’ll get a nifty offal dish and a cheese course.

The dining room is super casual and lively.  Most diners seemed to be in their 30s and 40s and having a rollicking good time.  A great place to visit with friends.

The food was delicious and creative.  Our dinner started strong:  potato tortellini with a hint of lemon, served in salty smoked fish consomme, with hits of sweetness from onion and bites of octopus.  So many subtle flavors with each bite.  I definitely wasn’t expecting that sort of sophistication given the casual atmosphere.

Fillet of mackerel in a bread soup was firm and meaty, and I loved the addition of sweet cabbage and nutty brussel spourts with tiny breadcrumbs for texture.  Rabbit kidneys were a tad rubbery but visually fun to see them on a skewer with similarly-sized escargot.

Duck course was outrageously bloody but delicious.  Cheeses were well chosen, and our dessert was simple and refreshing:  a bergamot-scented semi freddo-covered fresh fruits, dried fruits and candied nuts.

Service was super attnetive (we must have gone through at least six carafes of tap water).  Bonus points for being within walking distance of the hotel we always stay at, the much-loved Grand Hotel Francais.

Rino, 46 Rue Trousseau, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 48 06 95 85; closest metro stop:  Ledru-Rollin (8).

profiteroles at Bistrot Paul Bert

It may be listed in every english-language guidebook and blogged about repeatedly, but I suspect that because of its location in the 11th arrondissement, Bistrot Paul Bert still feels like a local joint.  Jon and I turned up for Friday lunch without a reservation, and it was pas de probleme to find a table.

As is the case with most places in France, the 3-course prix fixe lunch menu (16.50 euros) was incredibly good value.  Bonus points at lunch for my learning a new word in French:  topinambour.  Jersualem artichoke.

Highlights of our lunch: the rich cream of topinambour soup, perfect for a winter’s day; the roast lamb, served with incredible char and juicy, pink meat; and a heaping huge serving of chocolately profiteroles and cheese.  Simple, classic, well-executed bistro food.

I tried to sneak a side order of their famous frites into our order, but our waiter replied: “je ne vous promets rien” (I promise you nothing), and of course frites never arrived.  Can’t win ‘em all.

Bistrot Paul Bert, 18 Rue Paul Bert, 75011 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 72 24 01; closest metro stop:  Rue des Boulets (9)

crab avocado (18 euros) at L'Agrume

veal chop (32 euros) at L'Agrume

It’s no exaggeration to say I’d been looking forward to eating at L’Agrume for at least the last 12 months.  Great pedigree; rave reviews.  For a sampling of the hype, read John Talbott’s January 2010 rave review, and of course this April 2010 blurb in the New York Times.

In any case, our dinner there was nice, but not what I was hoping for, which was something more like what we had at Rino – creative fare at good prices.

We weren’t keen on the prix fixe menu (reasonably priced at 35 euros), so we choose from the a la carte menu, which was much pricier, with starters hovering around 15 euros and mains generally in the low 30s.

L’Agrume was generous with luxury ingredients (Jon’s starter was packed with crab meat, and mine with lobster meat), but didn’t seem to do much with them.  And while I did, in fact, devour my veal chop (and Jon the same with his fillet of Dover sole), neither dish was prepared with any sort of twist.  I wish I’d read this Gourmet Traveller June 2010 post before going to L’Agrume, because she’s right on the money to say the food didn’t seem like anything you couldn’t cook at home.

Based on our visit, L’Agrume seems to be a strong choice if you want large portions of tasty, straightforward cooking in a casual setting.  The place was still packed at 10 pm on a Friday night, so the atmosphere is nice and buzzy.   We were especially happy with the wines-by-the-glass options.   But if you go, know that the a la carte gets pricey.

L’Agrume, 15 Rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel 75005 Paris, +33 (0)1 43 31 86 48; closest metro stops:  Saint-Marcel (5) or Les Gobelins (7)

worst loh boh gao (radish cake), ever, at Le Pacifique

Ahh, Sundays in Paris.  I’ve stopped bothering trying to book restaurants.  There are so few good ones open that day, and because most boulangeries and places in Chinatown stay open on Sunday, I find that planning on baked goods and banh mi is a something to look forward to.  On this particular trip, it was the weekend after Chinese New Year, so Jon and I headed to the Right Bank Chinatown around Belleville to rustle up some dim sum (“cuisine a la vapeur” en francais).

We took a recommendation from Clothilde Dusoulier’s “Edible Adventures in Paris” and sought out “Le Pacifique.” And you know what?  It sucked.  Possibly the worst dim sum meal I’ve ever eaten in my life, and you know I’ve eaten a lot of dim sum.

I’ll let the above photo of stodgy, *deep fried* and radish-and-pork-less loh boh gao represent what our dim sum meal was like.  And each steamer still cost 4.50-5 euros, which I’d hesitate to pay even at a Michelin-starred place like Yauatcha or Hakkasan, much less at a greasy-looking spot surrounded by French people ordering nems. Avoid like the plague.  If this is the best Paris has to offer by way of dim sum, then I weep for Parisians.  For your Asian fix in Paris, stick with the Vietnamese food.

On the plus side, we bumped into Chinese New Year dragon dancers on our way down the street to pick up banh mi at the reliably-delicious Dong Tom/Panda Belleville banh mi takeaway shop.

Dragon dancers for Chinese New Year in Belleville

Le Pacifique, 35 Rue Belleville, 75019 Paris, +33 (0)1 42 49 66 80; closest metro stop:  Belleville (11).

Dong Tam (Panda Belleville) banh mi, 16, rue Louis Bonnet, 11th; closest metro:  Belleville (11).

(the seeingly ubiquitous) Henry Moore at the Rodin Museum

Not food related, but just a brief note that Jon and I have started to make trips to Paris to coincide with the First Sunday of the month.  Free museums.   Whereas I wouldn’t pay another 12-15 euros to visit a museum for the third, fourth, fifth time . . . for free, I don’t mind popping in and out to see a few faves and move on.  I love it.

This time around, the weather was sunny, so we revisited the Rodin Museum, which has lovely sculpture gardens, of course, and is a manageable size.  There’s a Henry Moore exhibit going on as well, so in case you haven’t had your fill of those, you can get two big-name sculptors for the price of one if you head now to the Rodin Museum.

Musee Rodin, 79 Rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris; +33 (0)1 44 18 61 10; closest metro stop:  Varenne (13).

Grand Hotel Francais

Where to stay in Paris:

Everyone has their favorite place to stay in Paris, I know, but I can’t say enough good things about the boutique hotel, Le Grand Hotel Francais.  We’ve been staying here on every trip to Paris since reading positive TripAdvisor reviews about it in 2008 (maybe since 2007, even?).  The rooms are great value for Paris – clean, modern, comfortable.  The hotel owner, Zyad, is incredibly hard working and friendly, and despite the hotel’s recent recognition by TripAdvisor as one of the top 25 hotels in France, Zyad is still at that front desk, working 90 hours a week to make customers feel welcome and cared for.

At this point, I look forward to seeing Zyad every time we’re in Paris, and so in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll share that sometimes, like this time, Zyad upgrades us to higher-floor, larger rooms when they’re available.  But he did that for us the second time we stayed there, long before we were what you’d call “regulars.”  And even when rooms are full and we end up in a ground floor room, I think paying 110-135 euros a night (depending on the time of year) is still good value.

I’m also a huge booster for the 11th arrondissement, in general, especially if you’re a food lover and want to explore a pretty but non-tourist-fied neighborhood in Paris.

Grand Hotel Francais, 223, boulevard Voltaire, 11th; +33 1 43 71 27 57; closest metro: rue des Boulets (9) or Nation (1, 2, 6, 9, RER A)

To read a sampling of other Paris posts I’ve written over the last couple of years:

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Morito

Moro is a great restaurant, but if you want to eat just tapas, you have to sit at the bar.  Cue Morito, a small tapas-only sibling next door.  Almost half of Morito is comprised of bar seating (thumbs up for the under-counter bag hooks), and the other half is made up of table seating.  It’s casual and buzzy and often crowded.

Still, on a recent Monday evening, I was able to snag a table for three, though it was wedged awkwardly in the corner near a waiter’s station.

Morito is a lot of fun.  The tapas are small and most are priced under £4 per plate.  The service was friendly, and most dishes I tried were excellent.  The perfect place to have a drink and catch up with a friend.  (I wouldn’t go with a bigger group – you’ll never get a table).

quail's egg and jamon £4

Winners:

Pepper potato and onion tortilla:  The classic dish, and a good measure of the rest of the tapas to come, I think.  Morito’s had a good firm texture, creamy with potato, sweet from the peppers and onions, and finishing with  a little chili kick.  (£3.50)

Quail’s egg and jamon – Eggs and ham.  It’s salty; it’s creamy.  What’s not to love?  Its prettiness is icing on the cake.  (£4)

spiced labneh with aubergine £4

Spiced labneh with aubergine – tangy, rich labneh perfectly complemented the slightly-sweet-and-smoky aubergine.  (£4)

Puntillitas (aka baby squid) – the perfect bar snack.  Seasoned, breaded and fried.  (£6.50)

Good, but not great:

Red prawns and alioli – Shell-on prawns were sweet but kind of lacking in meat.  And I would love if they’d been more garlicky.  (£6.50)

Salt cod croquetas – I like more creamy bechamel in my croquetas.  Also, bacalao is not my fave.  (£4)

Crispy aubergine with miel de cana – These were way too sugary.  Miel de cana has the strong flavor of molasses.  (£3.50)

Patatas mojo (aka salt crusted potatoes with green chilli and coriander sauce) – Despite the delicious-sounding menu description, these were a bit bland.  (£3.50)

There was an impressively large number of dishes to choose from, and generally, all were pretty good.

With cheap and cheerful tumblers of wine, each of us paid £20.  And because I still had room for dessert, I treated myself to an affogato down the block at Caravan, which is great on atmosphere, coffee and desserts.  (Dinner there, however, was underwhelming, in case you were wondering).

There’s lots of other dishes I wish I’d tried at Morito, including the mussel and chorizo empanadilla, the lamb chops with cumin and paprika, and the spiced lamb with aubergine, yoghurt and pine nuts.

So I’ll be back.  But only with one friend.

Morito, 32 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL; closest tube stations:  Angel or Farringdon, but it’s a healthy 10-15 minute walk, so try to catch a bus like the 38.
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Dumplings Legend

Happy Year of the Rabbit!  (Of course, I keep thinking that Rabbits get a bum deal for having *just* missed being a Dragon – which everyone knows is much cooler).

By coincidence, LondonEater also blogged today about Dumplings Legend, the latest Chinatown offering from the Leong’s Legend people.  And I completely agree with him that DL is aiming to be the Din Tai Fung of London.  Having recently visited the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, I can say that  Dumplings Legend certainly looks the part, from the white-chef-hatted cooks assembling the xiao long bao in the window down to the xiao long bao-headed cartoon character.

I’d gone to Dumplings Legend hoping it was a dumpling house.  The sort of place that specializes in all that is beautiful in the world of filled dough, from baozi to jiao zi to xiao long bao.  Instead, it’s a place that serves several types of xiao long bao and then offers a long menu of totally random and generic “Chinese” dishes.

pork and crab xiao long bao at Dumplings Legend (£6.50)

It sounds like LondonEater had dim sum at DL, whereas I was there recently for dinner.  That said, we both ordered the star attraction at Dumplings Legend:  the xiao long bao.

The XLB we ordered were visually unattractive, but at least they were super soupy.  They were no better than what you’d get at Leong’s, though, so considering the rest of our experience at Dumplings Legend, I’d return to Leong’s.  (Note that even at Leong’s the quality of XLB has gone downhill over the years.  Click here to see how gorgeous the XLB used to be there, way back in August 2008.  It as if the more XLB are offered in London, the worse their quality becomes.  That makes no sense, until you figure most of the XLB seem to be offered by restaurants that share the same ownership as Leong’s.  A mere facade of competition).

steamed crab and sticky rice (£16.50)

In any even, while the XLB tasted alright, I wouldn’t stray too far from the dumpling offerings at DL.  The space is large and sits on Gerrard Street, so I reckon it’s a commercial necessity to appeal to the many diners who are randomly picking a place to eat in Chinatown.  Which means it’s not surprising the rest of the food is pretty mediocre.  The menu blurb at Dumplings Legend talks up the seafood offerings, so we gave the steamed crab a go.  And while the crab was large, the meat was a bit tough and not very sweet.  And the sticky rice pretty dry, failing to absorb any delicious crab flavors.

sweet and sour spare ribs (£7.50)

I had hoped that sweet-and-sour spare ribs might be the real deal, but instead it was just cloying orange sauce poured over tough bits of fried spare ribs.  Classic Gerrard Street fare.

Service, while rushed, was fine up until the end of our meal, when the waitress dumped vinegar and soy sauce all over my shirt while clearing our table.  She tried to wipe at it (always dab, people!  dab!), and when I asked her to just give me napkins so I could dab myself, she disappeared and was replaced seconds later by another server who just handed us the bill.  You could only laugh, really.  We paid the bill, and while Jon was using the gents’ upstairs, another server swooped in to change the table cloths while I was still sitting there.  It’s not like there was a queue of people waiting to sit down, either.

So, for food and service, thumbs down.  For xiao long bao, Dumplings Legend was fine, but for the same quality of XLB, just go around the corner to Leong’s Legend.  They offer better food, generally, and the service is better.

Dumplings Legend, 15-16 Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE; 0207 494 1200; Nearest Tube station:  Leicester Square.

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