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Posts Tagged ‘Soho restaurants’

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.
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Ba Shan restaurant interior

Like many readers of food blogs, I’m ruled by my stomach.  Like many Americans, I miss the American-Chinese classic known as “the General.”  Put the two characteristics together, and it makes sense why, when Mr. Noodles announced the appearance of General Tso’s chicken at Ba Shan (the former Szechuan restaurant now revamped as a Hunan place), I high-tailed it to Ba Shan immediately.  It hardly mattered that the last time I was at Ba Shan, it was just another inconsistent Szechuan restaurant.

pickled spicy cucumbers (£4.90)

The hard part was deciding what else to order besides the General.  This being a Hunan place, we figured it’d be wise to try the pickled goodies, and Ba Shan’s spicy cucumbers were highly addictive.  Crisp, refreshing, and with a chili kick alleviated by soy sauce and sesame oil.  We felt virtuous eating vegetables prior to the arrival of the General.

General Tsos chicken (£7.90)

Like most highly-anticipated things in life, Ba Shan’s General didn’t quite meet expectations.  For starters, the chicken pieces are too small, and the sauce wasn’t intensely sweet and salty enough.  This being a Hunan-inspired dish, I was expecting more chili spice.  And there really shouldn’t be any stir-fried vegetables in there (at most, you usually see big chunks of broccoli on the side).

Click here to see how the General is supposed to look and taste.

Still, even if the dish wasn’t quite General Tso’s chicken, it was tasty.  I mean, battered-and-fried chicken pieces dumped in a lightly-sweetened soy-based sauce.  Hard not to like it.

Pengs fried tofu (6.90)

And for the tofu lovers out there, Ba Shan’s version of Peng’s fried tofu was excellent.  Large, meaty slices of tofu slathered in chilis and sauce.  Perfect over plain white rice.

Overall, Ba Shan has improved a lot by becoming a Hunan restaurant, so I’ll be back to try some of the other dishes.

Alas, the search for the General continues . . . .

Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D 5AH; 0207 287 3266; closest Tube stations:  Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus.
Ba Shan 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.
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salmon sashimi bowl at Ten Ten Tei in Soho

salmon sashimi and roe don (bowl) at Ten Ten Tei in Soho

For a couple of weeks, Jon had been telling me we should go to Ten Ten Tei. He works near Covent Garden and apparently Ten Ten Tei has become a lunch fave of his. By way of background, I should explain that Jon isn’t the world’s biggest fan of sushi, mostly because he often feels hungry soon afterwards. But lingering post-meal hunger isn’t an issue at Ten Ten Tei, which offers a lot of food for the money.

prawn and veg tempura at Ten Ten Tei

Take, for example, my order of the “tempura set dinner,” which at £19 was easily one of the most expensive items on the menu. The prawn tempura was pretty tasty – sweet prawn; crispy, greaseless panko-crusted exterior. The veg tempura, a lot less impressive, with a somewhat-soggy flour batter-based crust. But check out all the food that accompanied my tempura:

tuna and salmon sashimi

tuna and salmon sashimi

A bowl of tuna and salmon sashimi, which tasted firm and fresh, and while not the silkiest, most flavorful sashimi I’ve ever had, it was better than what I get for lunch at Itsu by a mile.

agedashi tofu

agedashi tofu

Agedashi tofu. Another accompaniment to my tempura dinner. Crispy outside; creamy, soft inside. Satisfying stuff.

chicken teriyaki

chicken teriyaki

Chicken teriyaki. Also came with my tempura dinner. Moist, dark meat with a light, simple teriyaki sauce (no gloppy, over-sugary grossness in sight, thank goodness). Oh, and I can’t forget the miso soup. Also part of my set dinner.

Really, Jon could’ve shared just my dinner alone, but instead, Jon ordered himself two main courses: first, a salmon-sashimi-and-roe bowl for £10 (pictured at top). Simple, fresh and satsifying. I hadn’t eaten so much salmon roe since our trip to Russia last year, and I’d missed the way the roe bursts in your mouth with saltiness and creaminess. How great to have a bowl of the stuff.

And then Jon also ordered himself a prawn tempura udon soup, which was, of course, enormous. And at just £6, a meal itself.

Ten Ten Tei isn’t the best sushi of your life, but I think it ranks up there for the title of “best value sushi” of your life. Our tab for a ton of food and a few beers came to £20 a person. We could easily have left with an even more modest bill if we hadn’t over-ordered.

Everything we tried at Ten Ten Tei tasted fresh; the service was helpful; and holy cow, the portions were generous. If you find yourself in Soho looking for good-value sushi, this is the place for you.

Ten Ten Tei, 56 Brewer Street, W1R 3PJ; 020 7287 1738; closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
Ten Ten Tei on Urbanspoon

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Arbutus Restaurant exterior

I know winter has arrived in London when the rain stops being daily and sporadic and starts being daily and never-ending. Last Friday night, we had one such winter rain, which of course wreaked havoc on all forms of transportation. Knowing we were running late, Jon and I called ahead to Arbutus to let them know, and the restaurant told us not to worry.

So imagine our surprise when we entered the warm glow and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant and learned they’d given our table away! When we explained that we’d called to say we were late and were told it was OK, the maitre d’ accusingly asked whom we’d spoken to, at which point, his female colleague quietly piped in that she had, in fact, taken our call.

Happily, after that rocky start, things improved dramatically. We cooled our heels at the bar for 20 minutes, and that was fine because the best thing about Arbutus is how it makes almost every wine available by the carafe. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to start our evening with a carafe of a fragrant, refreshing 2004 Frederic Mochel pinot gris. I mean, it was so good that I actually remembered the name and vintage – all fruit and lightness without being sugary.

The restaurant’s decor has gotten a lot of flak in otherwise-glowing reviews, but I don’t see why. I thought the amber lighting was flattering, warm and welcoming, and I kind of liked the textured modern art on the walls.

Overall, Arbutus’s strengths are its high-quality food and excellent wine list by the carafe. The service is eh (e.g., our server described various cheeses in the cheese course by their colors and had no idea which ones were goat’s cheese vs cow’s cheese), but the prices are super reasonable for the quality of food.

Braised pig’s head, Arbutus

Jon’s starter of braised pig’s head with potato puree and caramelized onions is Arbutus’s most written-about dish. Probably because it sounds a lot more exotic than it is (photo above). In fact, the slice of pig’s head tastes largely like any other lusciously-fatty, braised pork dish, except that it has a rich, creamy meatiness that reminded me of eating liver. Plus, it was kind of stinky. I can see its appeal, but I wouldn’t order it again. There are so many other parts of the pig I prefer! (more…)

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