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Celia, very concerned about the clouds rolling in at Jamie Oliver's Feastival this weekend

I’ve been supremely distracted these last two weeks.  I’m now a parent.  Celia is two weeks old, and all I can say is that while labour is pretty rough and breastfeeding even rougher, I’m a fan of this parent gig so far.

Celia came into the world via emergency C section.  Thumbs down to the midwives who didn’t identify that Celia was a breech baby until after I’d labored for what felt like forever.  Thumbs up to the surgical team at UCH for being great communicators and total pros.

Feeling restless and with Jon on his last day of paternity leave, we spent this afternoon at Jamie Oliver’s “Feastival,”  a three-day music-slash-food festival this weekend on Clapham Common.  While I’m no music connoisseur and therefore generally characterise the bands performing this afternoon as fun for a sunny day out, I was pleasantly surprised that the food stands were as good as they were.  The restaurants represented are pretty legit from a food lover’s point of view, and the mains sold are all priced at £5.  It was good value once you forgot about the sunk cost of admission to the festival (£35 at the door, but do some googling and you’ll find a few half-price deals on-line).

porchetta muffuletta sandwich from Fifteen

popcorn shrimp from Redhook

chicken satay and roti from Awana

roast lamb and minted yoghurt sandwich from Providores

I enjoyed the food we sampled and am happy to report that La Fromagerie has its own large-ish tent selling freshly-fried donuts and chocolate chip cookies for £1 a piece, and enormous brownies for £2.50 (all of which I’ll vouch for because, umm, I ate one of each).

"cocktail bar" at the Feastival on Clapham Common

Peter Gordon (The Providores) does a cooking demo

In the “cocktail bar” area, we snagged seats on comfy outdoor sofas and enjoyed Pimms (a somewhat-pricey £7.50 a glass) in the sunshine, and then we checked out the Providores‘ Peter Gordon doing a cooking demonstration (winner tip of the day:  cook couscous in cold or tepid water so that it doesn’t get claggy).

Overall, a relaxed and tasty experience for a sunny weekend.  If you’re at loose ends tomorrow or Sunday, give the Feastival a try.  All proceeds go to charity, so even if you find the admission price a bit high, just remember the money goes to these good causes.

As for me, I’m going to take a break from this blog.  I’ll be back in three weeks (on Monday, 25 July), hopefully with an idea of what to do with this restaurant and travel blog now that I’ve got un bebe.  Suggestions welcomed!

Jamie Oliver’s “Feastival,” on Clapham Common from Friday, 1 July through Sunday, 3 July.  Admission is £35 per adult, and food and drinks are additional (but generally reasonably priced) once you’re admitted.

Half-price tickets were available earlier in the week via LittleBird, TimeOut, Lastminute.com, and Groupon, though I’m not sure which of these offers are still available.  Closest Tube station:  Clapham Common.  Look for the tents when you exit the station – it’s less than a ten-minute walk.

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dim sum platter (£12.50)

Hakkasan is well known for its sleek Christian Liaigre-designed interior and its sky-high prices.  The place has done well enough that there’s now a Mayfair location, as well as outposts around the world.  And with Alan Yau no longer the man in charge, you can’t help wondering if the food and service are still any good.

I have a slightly different image of Hakkasan, though, as a place that serves up very good Chinese food using quality ingredients at reasonable prices.  Hakkasan’s menu is huge and diverse in price and style, and the cost of your meal can very enormously depending on what you order.

Several times a year, Jon and I drop by for what can only be called a casual dinner.  The only thing that keeps us from going more often is the effort it takes to dress up a bit (though jeans and a black T seem to go over just fine on a Sunday or work week night).

Last Sunday night, for example, we were too lazy to cook and wanted to bring my visiting-from-the-US mom someplace good.  And she has a weakness for Chinese food.  So off we went to Hakkasan.

Normally, we don’t bother with starters, but we broke our own rule last Sunday and got the dim sum platter, which was overly steamed.  The rice flour wrappers on all four types of dim sum were gloopy and smooshy, and the reddish-colored one didn’t even taste good.  I think it might have been a tomato wrapper filled with tomato gel.  At least the scallop filling of the shu mai was good.

silver cod in champagne sauce (£35)

We did much better ordering mains, as always.  The one pricey dish I get sucked into at Hakkasan is the restaurant’s signature “silver cod in champagne sauce.”  I know it’s the equivalent of ordering Nobu’s miso cod, but it really is pretty tasty.  Silken shards of cod in a citrus-perfumed champagne sauce.  I look forward to it every time.

tofu, aubergine and mushroom claypot (£12.50)

Silver cod aside, in general, I love the humble claypot dishes at Hakkasan.  Maybe you’re paying a couple quid more than you would at a divey Chinatown place, but at Hakkasan, you get top-notch ingredients and a skilled, consistent hand at the stove.  The tofu and aubergine claypot is a star, with both main ingredients cooked to silky-smooth perfection, and the umami-rich mushrooms boosting an already powerful flavor mix.  Eaten with plain white rice, it’s the best.

twice-cooked Duke of Berkshire pork belly (£15.50)

Twice-cooked pork belly is now available seemingly everywhere, thanks to the growing popularity of Szechuan cuisine, but Hakkasan’s is spiced and flavored just right every time.  There’s just enough kick from the citrus-scented, tongue-numbing Szechuan pepper corns to cut the fattiness of the pork belly, and the medium-firm tofu and cabbage add great texture.  This one is another favorite of mine with white rice.

sauteed morning glory (£10)

Hakkasan always seems to be out of the sauteed snow pea shoots (yet it’s always on the menu), and I always end up with sauteed morning glory as a substitute.  Crunchy, slightly sweet, doing its wonderful vegetable thing.  You can’t have a Chinese meal without greens, yes?

With three bowls of rice at £2.50 a pop and just lots of tap water, our dinner for three people totaled a perfectly-reasonable £105 with service charge.  If we’d avoided the £35 silver cod, I’d say £70 for three people would have qualified as a particularly reasonable cost for a filling and delish dinner.  Point is, you can go to Hakkasan for more than the scene and pricey cocktails.  You can go for the food!  So try to ignore that raucous party of Russian oligarchs nearby and just enjoy the cooking.  There are some real gems on the menu.

Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD; 0207 927 7000; closest Tube station:  Tottenham Court Road.
Hakkasan Hanway Place on Urbanspoon

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Pitt Cue Co. BBQ stall under the Hungerford Footbridge

With the weather so nice yesterday (Friday) and these three recent blog posts (by Hollow Legs, Food Stories and Tehbus) in mind, I checked out the Pitt Cue Co. BBQ stall at just after 8 pm.

Unluckily, at that hour, they’d run out of pretty much everything edible except for three orders of BBQ ribs, which we snapped up pronto.  Not going to lie, though:  I’d schlepped down there with a strong craving for pulled pork, which I’d read was amazing in texture and marinade, and I’d even stopped off at a bakery for my own buns as an accompaniment (i.e., I love pulled pork sandwiches).

But OK, I don’t want to lose *all* touch with reality, lol.   There are worse things one could “settle for” than smoky BBQ ribs, so we paid our 21 quid (£7 a serving) and found a patch of grass near the London Eye to enjoy the Thames view and our smoked goodies.

BBQ ribs served with a few pickles and slaw (£7)

Oddly, our ribs had an amazing texture, a good ratio of fat and meat, and pretty much zero seasoning.  How is that possible?  Based on the texture, the ribs had obviously been cooked for a long time.  But I tasted no spice, little salt and definitely no tang or sweetness.  Maybe we were supposed to get a separate dipping sauce?

The wonderfully tangy pickles at the bottom of the cardboard take-away box added some much-needed flavor, and I was hoping the slaw might help out, too.  But here’s what the slaw looked like:

overly-rough slaw

Whoever was on chop-up-the-cabbage duty totally slacked off.  I don’t mind the odd big piece of cabbage, but the majority of our slaw was comprised of huge chunks of red cabbage, and I didn’t taste much dressing (whether vinegar or mayo based).  A pretty pointless accompaniment to the ribs.

I almost forgot to mention the hunk of greasy grilled bread that comes in the box.  The bread is soaked in fatty pig juices, which is nice, but it’s *so* soaked in juices that it’s soggy, which is not so nice.

So maybe you have to show up earlier in the day to get the good stuff.  Or maybe this is just another summer food stand that we shouldn’t take too seriously.  But it seems that Pitt Cue Co. aims to be something better than “just another food stand,” in which case, there’s room for improvement, at least on the consistency front.

(If you try out Pitt Cue and they’ve run out of food, I’d recommend walking a bit east to the Dishoom pop-up restaurant next to Royal Festival Hall).

Pitt Cue Co. BBQ, under the Hungerford Bridge near Royal Festival Hall from 1pm to about 10pm (but the later you show up in the day, the more likely they’ve run out of food), 7 days a week; closest Tube stations:  Embankment or Waterloo.

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bacon-onion roll at the Ledbury (aka my beloved)

Considering how often I recommend the Ledbury to friends (and how often they report back that they’ve had a marvelous time there), I don’t know how I let over *two years* go by since I last ate there.  It’s sad, really.

Two weeks ago, Jon and I met four close friends for Sunday lunch there.  We were joking about how far we’d all traveled to get to Notting Hill (coming from Islington, Hoxton and Shad Thames).  But you know, the Ledbury is well worth the schlepp.

I’d never been to the Ledbury’s Sunday lunch before, which is a shame because at £40 a person for three courses and several amuses, it’s great value.

The downside for food lovers when ordering a la carte, though, is that a lot of bargaining and bickering breaks out over who orders what.  This is where the Ledbury’s stellar service made its first appearance of the day:  our server noticed several of us wanted to try the Saint-Nectaire truffled toast with buffalo milk curd and onion broth, so with grace and style, she stepped into our conversation and offered that course as an amuse for the table.  This gesture freed us up to try out the other starters.  We both laughed at ourselves for having drawn her attention and loved that she solved our “dilemma” of who would order which starter.

my Sunday lunch starter: courgettes, crab and frozen parmesan

The weather being warm and sunny, and having eaten about five of the Ledbury’s outrageously-delicious bacon-and-onion rolls, I ordered the courgettes, crab and frozen parmesan starter.  The dish was, indeed, super refreshing, though the frozen parmesan wasn’t as interesting a texture or flavor as I’d thought it’d be.  My bad for ordering what amounted to the “chicken option” on the menu.

my friend's Sunday lunch starter: turbot roe, fried turbot and stunningly-good radish

My friend J’s starter of turbot in multiple forms and served with assorted root veg deserves mention for being both visually attractive and surprisingly delicious.  Who would’ve thought radish could steal the show?

a starter the Ledbury threw in as an amuse: Saint-Nectaire (cheese) and truffled toast

Fresh curd of Hampshire buffalo milk with wild mushrooms, and a broth of grilled onions

The major highlight among the starters, though (perhaps of the entire meal) was the truffled, cheesy (Saint-Nectaire) toast served as an amused to our table.  You dip the truffled toast (wonderfully nutty, floral and earthy on its own) into the curd and it’s like the ultimate comfort experience, bringing to mind egg-and-soldiers.  What an outstanding dish.  Next time you eat at the Ledbury, make sure to have this course.

crisp pressed suckling pig with white carrot, Pedro Ximénez and toasted grains

My main course of suckling pig was lovely, though as I get older, I have to say I become less excited about main courses.  It always has to be a sizable portion of protein, so is it just me, or do you feel like the creativity of most kitchens shines in the starter courses?

Jon opts for the (generous) cheese course (£7 supplement)

Dessert time.  Jon goes for the groaning, tempting cheese cart.  He’s a greedy one, but the Ledbury doesn’t hesitate to plate his sizable selection.

wild and Gariguette strawberries, meringue, ewe's milk yoghurt and beignets

Me?  I’m stuffed by the time we get to dessert, but I’m thinking beignets are calling my name.  (Donuts fresh out of the fryer!)  Turns out the beignets of my strawberry, meringue and yoghurt dessert are the least interesting.  I thought I was in for a competent tarting up of Eton mess, but actually, my dessert was mind-blowingly intense and refreshing.  The tangy, creamy ewe’s milk yoghurt was a great foil for the sweet, fragrant strawberries.  Crunchy meringue bits for texture.

Rave reviews around the table for desserts, especially the Ledbury’s creative pairings of creme brulee flavors and ice creams.

caramelised banana galette with salted caramel, passion fruit and peanut oil parfait

Our server noticed that we failed to try one of the desserts on the menu, so once again brought it out as an amuse for our table.  It’s the banana galette with salted caramel, passion fruit and peanut parfait.  A great mix of textures and flavors, but most of all, we love the gesture.  Although we were here for a 3-course Sunday lunch menu, we feel like we’ve gotten a tasting menu.

Our spirits high and our tummies full, we all rolled out of the Ledbury four hours later wondering why we hadn’t been back sooner.  With all the trimmings (aperitifs, wines and coffees), our meal came to £75 a person.  If you’ve eaten out reasonably often in London, you know that there are too many places charging a lot more money for a much lesser experience, so on that basis, I’d call the Sunday lunch at the Ledbury a great value.  Go!

The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, W11 2AQ, 0207 792 9090; Closest tubes: Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove. £40 Sunday lunch menu.  Best deal in town.

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

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Bea's of Bloomsbury at One New Change near St. Paul's Cathedral

Last weekend, my lovely friends and family in London threw me a baby shower.  Baby showers aren’t big here, but from the name, you’ve probably guessed that the occasion revolves around “showering” the mom-to-be with gifts.  Essentially, this means the shower was tons of fun for me and required tons of goodwill and patience on the part of friends and family who attended.

My friends couldn’t have chosen a better venue for the shower:  afternoon tea at the newish Bea’s of Bloomsbury location at One New Change.  Unlike neighboring restaurant, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa, which is large and loud and mediocre, Bea’s is quiet, relaxing and maintains the same high standards that you’ll find at the original Bea’s of Bloomsbury location.

meringues, 'mallows, brownies, blondies, scones . . . oh my!

The decor at Bea’s at New Change is sleek and chic, and what I most appreciated was how everything tasted as good as it looked.  The cheeky serving tiers at our tea held buttery, crumbly scones, rich brownies and chewy meringues.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the blondies, which tasted unpleasantly under-baked, but happily that was the only clunker at our tea.

cupcakes and savouries

Most cupcakes in London bakeries rely on frosting to cover up the fact that the underlying cake is dried out.  Happily, this isn’t the case at Bea’s, whose cupcakes were moist and came in interesting, delicious flavors like passion fruit and Bailey’s.  Savoury baguette sandwiches were also fresh and delicious.  We shared platters piled high with vegetarian and meat-lover’s sandwiches and washed it all down with individual pots of Jing tea.

the end of the affair (fantabulous wellies and flowers courtesy of friends)

It was a great afternoon tea, and when you compare the generous spread at Bea’s with that of London hotels charging 2-3 times the price, you’ll see why I was so impressed with Bea’s version.  Considering how tourist-friendly Bea’s location is, they could probably get away with serving mediocre food, but I’m glad they don’t.

Afternoon tea at Bea’s is £15 per person and £22.50 with a glass of Moet.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury One New Change, 83 Watling Street (aka the side of the One New Change mall that’s closest to the Thames/Millennium Bridge), EC4M 9BX; 0207 242 8330; closest Tube station:  St. Paul’s
Bea's of Bloomsbury on Urbanspoon

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Zucca restaurant

Zucca opened on Bermondsey Street back in March 2010, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve unsuccessfully tried once every month or two to get a table there.  If you think Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner is a hot ticket these days, Zucca is still going strong 14 months later. Last week, I finally gave up on snagging a weekend table and took a Tuesday evening spot.

So what’s Zucca’s appeal?  Oh, I don’t know.  Chic decor; good service; simple, fresh Italian cooking and low prices?  A dime a dozen in London, right?  Sure.

zucca fritti (£3.95)

There were plenty of tempting-sounding starters on the menu.  Jon and I ordered three to share, and while all of them were good, if I had to prioritize, I’d put the zucca fritti (fried pumpkin) at the bottom of the list.  Sure, they’re a house specialty, but diminishing returns kicked in after just one or two of these.  Perhaps better to order them if you’re with a bigger group.

grilled asparagus, egg, parmesan (£4.75)

Grilled asparagus, egg and parmesan was as described on the tin.  Each component was fresh and well-prepared (the egg and asparagus, that is), but the flavors never came together.  Maybe it needed a sauce?

mozzarella lentils garlic shoots (£4.25)

Loved the creamy fresh mozzarella complemented by the earthy, meaty lentils.  The garlic shoots lacked bite, but I’m biased towards scare-away-your-date strong garlic flavors, I must confess.  The mozzarella and lentils could have easily taken on stronger garlic taste, though.

casarecce with bolognese (£7)

Highlights of our dinner were definitely the pastas and the main we shared.  Rustic casarecce pasta retained a chewy al dente texture, and the pork ragu was stunningly good with a great balance of acidity, sweetness, salt and meatiness.

taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs (£7)

The taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs was lifted from ordinariness by a slight citrus flavor.  If I had to complain, I’d ask that the kitchen go a little lighter on the olive oil next time.

grilled veal chop (£14.75)

And the veal chop is as good as everyone says it is.  Tender, juicy, charred.  Unbelievably good value for £14.75.  I contrast Zucca’s version with the similarly-excellent one I ate at Paris’s L’Agrume a couple of months ago, which cost 32 euros.

affogato (£4.25)

I couldn’t resist ending dinner with affogato, which was a generous serving but how sad that there were bits of ice/freezer burn in the scoops of vanilla.

The room is large and comfortable, and while the furniture isn’t quite as luxurious as that of L’Anima, the all-white contemporary look of the two restaurants is similar.  And Zucca is about 1/3 the price of L’Anima.  With a couple of glasses of prosecco and wine, our total for two came to £65.

If you can afford to be choosy about tables (i.e., you’re not like me and just incredibly grateful to have finally landed a reservation), avoid the one or two right in front of the kitchen pass.  The servers hover there waiting to ferry dishes to customers, and you’ll end up feeling like there are four pairs of eyes watching your every move (which I assume you agree is a minus, but if you consider it a plus, then by all means request it).

Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 31Q; 0207 378 6809; closest Tube station:  London Bridge (it’s still a 15-minute walk from the Tube station, though).
Zucca on Urbanspoon

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Over the last three weeks, I’ve been eating out at a lot of cheap Asian places, and while none of them have been so stellar that I felt like blogging about them, there have been a couple of stand-out dishes worth mentioning.  So with the caveat that the following restaurants don’t constitute destinations on the basis of all their menu offerings, if you happen to be craving a good example of a particular dish, they are worth a visit.

pad thai with prawns (£6.95)

First up:    Charuwan Thai in Tufnell Park/Archway, which benefits from a rave review in TimeOut.  It’s hard to find good Thai food in London.  I’m not sure why.  Usually, I end up at Busaba Eathai or Rosa’s, which aren’t perfect, but are cheap, serve a spicy-sweet green curry and are conveniently located near my home and office.

Charuwan Thai is a bit of a schlepp to reach, but it’s a nice-looking place with super friendly and attentive service.  While the two curries we ordered (a green curry and chu chee pla — crispy fried fish topped with red curry in coconut milk) were overly-sweet and not very spicy, Jon and I really enjoyed Charuwan Thai’s pad thai.  The rice sticks had great texture (not oily or clumpy the way it too often is served in restaurants), and the sweet, sour and salty flavors of the sauce were perfectly balanced.  Prices were cheap with most mains costing less than £9.

Charuwan Thai, 110 Junction Road, N19 5LB; 0207 263 1410; cloest tube stations:  Archway or Tufnell Park (Northern Line)
Charuwan on Urbanspoon

Assa is one of the several Korean restaurants lined up around Centre Point.  The atmosphere is cheap and cheerful.  Highlights were the starters (banchan), particularly the pickled radish and sesame spinach (skip the flavorless bean sprouts).  Although Assa’s beef dolsot bibimbap was bland and the pajeon was greasy, limp and filled with flavorless seafood, the kimchi hotpot was excellent.  Spicy, filling and warming the way great hot pots should be.  (Koba, by the way, remains my fave place in London to eat crispy pajeon).

Assa, 53 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LH ; 020 7240 8256; closest tube station:  Tottenham Court Road
Assa on Urbanspoon

Peking Duck at Zen China (£26 for a half and £42 for a whole)

Zen China, near the London Eye and Aquarium, is the last place I’d try out, except that once again blogger Mr. Noodles shared a valuable tip that the restaurant serves excellent Peking Duck.  The restaurant is spacious and comfortable and has great views of Big Ben.  Fellow diners were a mix of camera-toting tourists and groups of Chinese.  And in case there was any doubt Mr. Noodles would lead you astray:  the Peking Duck really is outstanding.  Crispy skin, succulent meat, freshly-made pancakes and carefully-julienned cukes and scallions.  Each element is excellent and together make a sum greater than the whole.  The duck is served tableside, so when you order it, don’t let the waiter disappear with 1/3 of the duck left on the bone.  Our waiter claimed he’d be using the rest of the duck to create another dish for us, but the additional dish was a meagre portion of diced duck meat in lettuce wraps.  Bland and skimpy.  The Peking duck was the priciest item on the menu, but worth every penny.

Zen China, County Hall, Riverside Building, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7PB, 0207 261 1196; closest tube station:  Westminster
Zen China on Urbanspoon

Garlic chili fish

Last but not least, there’s Golden Day Hunan restaurant in Chinatown.  Jay Rayner gave it a glowing review in this April 2010 review and in the same month, TimeOut’s Guy Dimond also had flattering things to say.  Our group of four ordered several of the dishes highly recommend in both reviews, like the dry pot chicken, and we were underwhelmed by its lack of spice and flavor.  What was wonderful, though, was one of the chef’s specials, a garlic-and-chili fish.  The fish’s flesh was tender and silken, and the garlic-and-chili topping was the sort of thing you’d gladly eat with plain white rice.

Golden Day, 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 5EP; 0207 484 2381; closest tube station:  Leicester Square

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