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Archive for October 10th, 2006

Yesterday, our team went out to lunch because a company alum is rejoining the team as a temporary contractor to help cover for a guy who’s leaving the company. We decided to try out the restaurant at the Hilton that just opened in Canary Wharf in July 2006.

The hotel restaurant, Cinnamon, is all slate and dark woods — extremely sleek and pretty. You wouldn’t expect this kind of trendiness from a Hilton, though I guess with the Olympics coming in 2012, everyone in Canary Wharf is hoping to cash in. (Canary Wharf is east of central London, and the new Olympic complex is going up a little further east of Canary Wharf, which means if you’re at the Olympics, Canary Wharf is the closest thing that isn’t the middle of nowhere).

Service at the restaurant was awful, and the food even worse. The waiter had to repeat our orders at least three times before he got it right. And my baked goat cheese starter tasted like the cheese maker hadn’t quite gotten around to finishing making the cheese. It just tasted like what I imagine curds taste like – grainy and sour – drizzled with vinegar. Bleagh.

My main course of veal escalopes and pappardelle was drowning in a heavy cream sauce. If I had to look on the bright side, I’d say my pasta dish included large, fresh mushrooms that I could occasionally rescue from the cream sauce by moving it to higher ground at the edge of the pasta bowl. This is what you get for £21 a main course. Yikes. At least the bathrooms were snazzy. I hadn’t realized that Villeroy & Boch was now in the business of manufacturing sinks, but here was proof that this was, in fact, the case. Oh, and I learned that “Old Spots” are very special pigs. (The term was on the menu, and of course our waiter had no idea what Old Spots were and he couldn’t find out for us, either.) Pigs with a pedigree.

Dinner, needless to say, was far superior to lunch. Cathy and I met Jane and Bon at Huong Viet Restaurant, 12-14 Englefield Road, London, N1 4LS. Huong Viet is a real pain in the ass to reach, and it’s not in the nicest neighborhood, but once you walk through the grungy doorway, it’s an oasis of warmth, buzz and excellent Vietnamese food.

The fresh, cheap food is even better than what you get at the Four Sisters (Huong Que) in Seven Corners, Virginia. (To be fair, assuming you’re not flying to London anytime soon to eat at Huong Viet, the Four Sisters isn’t a bad second-choice. You just have to ignore the “Sniper Home Depot” across the highway).

At Huong Viet, where I eat at least once a month, I love the Vietnamese pancake with prawn. It’s this crispy, thin crepe that is filled with large, juicy prawns, crunchy, fresh bean sprouts, scallions and fish sauce for a mix of sweet and savoury flavor. You could eat this pancake forever, and it’s £5.50 for a huge portion. The dish gets brought out on a cheap-o plastic tray because it’s inevitable you’re going to make a mess eating it. The crepe has a lot of flavor and crunch because it’s pan fried, I think, but the crispiness isn’t very good at catching all the delicious filling inside. Hence the plastic tray to catch your mess.

The cha gio (spring rolls) are also hot, fresh and flavourful, but if it’s fried goodies you want, the prawn pancake is the way to go.The pho is my second-favorite dish at Huong Viet. The broth is refreshing but meaty-rich-tasting with just the right kick of chili. Noodles are always just past al dente (i.e, perfect for pho) and the beef is sliced thin and rare, which allows the hot broth to finish the cooking. Top with crunchy beansprouts and coriander and you have a core-warming meal-in-a-bowl.

Of course the four of us pigged out at Huong Viet, managing to order and eat two prawn pancakes, spring rolls, two large bowls of Hanoi pho, a whole steamed sea bass, and half a “shredded duck” dish (which is served peking duck style, with pancakes, scallions and hoisin sauce).

All this food and five lemonades for £15 a person. So you begin to see why I go there at least once a month.If you end up at Huong Viet (and you should), be aware that the service is sloooow. Nobody is rude or anything. It’s just that the place seems to have only two servers, and while they are doing their best, the room is large and two people just never cut it. Saying the servers look hunted is an understatement. But be patient, because the food’s worth the wait.~~~

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My Pie

This weekend, Jon and I did a lot of cooking and eating (surprise, surprise). We had, for example, almost a dozen small apples dropped off by the organic farmer delivery service, so I whipped out my trusty Joy of Cooking and baked the pie you see above using the “apple pie 2” receipe. It is fall, after all (though no trees here are turning color – sad).

I don’t normally bake because flour always seems to get everywhere when I do it, and the prospect of cleaning it all up is unappealing. But I was feeling relaxed on Sunday, so I tried it out. Because the pastry dough turned out pretty easy to handle, I got ambitious and gave the lattice crust a go. All in all, not a bad result. Flaky pastry, intense fruity filling. A pie, basically. Next time I’ll figure out how to crimp the edges so they’re prettier and then I’ll be happy.

It was, by the way, quite a hassle trying to find some shortening to mix into the pastry dough. The three store clerks I asked at Sainsbury’s had never heard of shortening, so I ended up using some vegetable margarine instead. The recipe was still mostly butter, but apparently the shortening helps you add structure to the crust because its melting temperature is higher than butter’s. Where’s Alton Brown when you need him to confirm?Fruits at the Market

Jon and I dropped by the weekly Islington Farmer’s Market on Sunday. Even though we now get more produce than we can handle in our weekly organic delivery service, it was too bright and sunny to ignore a trip to our local market, which is a 5-minute walk away, tucked behind the Islington Town Hall.

I love a lot of things about the market, not least of which is how speicalized the sellers are. There are stands selling just tomatoes, or just jars of honey, there’s the goat cheese guy, the organic eggs guy, the three bakers whose stands are next to one another but who distinguish themselves by bragging about their pastries or their country loaves . . . this sort of specialization is, I think, a mark of how quality these products are.

And look at the freshness of everything -the dusty “bloom” still on theArtisan Bakers at Market plums, for example. Hard to beat the produce at a farmer’s market.

Anyway, we’ve been eating out a lot lately. We started off our weekend with lunch at our local Yo! Sushi, which is one of the conveyor-belt sushi chains that’s popular in London (the other big chain being Itsu). There’s an outpost of Yo! on the 5th floor of Harvey Nichols, but we went to the humble location near Angel to satisfy my sudden craving for sushi.

The sushi is served on colored plates, which are coded to correspond with different prices. You sit at tables along the perimeter of a conveyor belt that carries the different sushi plates past your table, and then you serve yourself by taking appealing-looking plates off the conveyor belt. Plates are priced between £2 and £5 each, but the catch is that each plate comes with, say, two pieces of maki, so making a meal of it can really add up fast. At the end of your meal, the waitress counts up your various-colored plates and tots up your bill.

None of the sushi was great, but nothing was bad, either. What I mean is that at 2 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon, even though the conveyor belt is zipping around and the plates are being replaced constantly, it’s just 101 variations on salmon, which is too bad. I don’t know why there’d be so little variety during slow hours, but there you go. Our tab for two was £27, mostly because Jon wasn’t too hungry, so no complaints.

On Saturday night, Liz, Jon, Jon’s friend, Gokce, and I ate at The Marquess Tavern, 32 Canonbury St., N1 2TB, 020 7354 2975, which was recently reviewed by Time Out as one of the best gastropubs in London.I loved the high-ceilinged, spare interior of the dining room (click on the Time Out review above to see a photo), and it was a pretty walk along New River to get there from our neighborhood.

According to the review, the dining room used to be a morgue. Yikes. But I had no idea while I was there, so I’m glad I didn’t read the review carefully until after our dinner.

The food and atmosphere were a lot fancier than they were at the Charles Lamb last Thursday. I ordered steamed mussels with fennel as a starter, and they arrived hot and fresh, but the wine/butter sauce (oddly) lacked salt, which was easily fixed using the pinch bowls of salt everywhere. The large cuts of meat that the Marquess takes pride in were too big for our party of four. Liz and I wanted to share “rib foremeat,” but there was no piece small enough for two people there. Oh well – next time.

At £100 for wine, starters and mains for four people, it seems to be pretty good value for your money, especially if you bring a big enough group to share some of the big cuts of meat. We’ll go back.~~~

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