Archive for August, 2008

The Modern Pantry (photo by Kake Pugh)

The Modern Pantry (photo by Kake Pugh)

Last week, a friend sent me this Evening Standard review about the Modern Pantry, which just opened in Clerkenwell. I liked the review’s invocation of Fergus Henderson (if you’re a fan of pig, you know what I’m talking about); the fact that the chef-owner, Anna Hansen, is a woman; and the restaurant’s location about a mile from my flat.

A few days after we made our booking for this Saturday, TimeOut added to the buzz with this review, saying that “(for) vibe and novelty factor, this is most exciting place to eat in Clerkenwell right now.”

So off we went last night with two friends. Right now, only the ground-floor cafe is open, and it’s a simple, cheerful space lined with windows. It’s dominated by a super-long table, which you share with other diners, but the places are set far enough apart that the effect is convivial rather than cramped.

The menu (which I suspect will become the restaurant menu once that floor opens) is divided into four sections: snacks, starters, mains and desserts, with starters being slightly larger and a quid or two pricier than the snacks.

I couldn’t resist ordering the chorizo, date and feta fritters, and you know, all the other reviews are spot on: they’re hot and crispy and appealing in that fried-food way, but I didn’t taste chorizo, date or feta. In fact, all I tasted was the oniony dip that accompanied the fritters.

My dining companions enjoyed the octopus cooked in its own juices, and true, it was tender with no hint of rubberiness, but there’s only one way I enjoy octopus, and that’s sizzling right off a plancha. So I wasn’t as wowed by the room-temperature serving with arugula. I felt similarly about the eggplant with miso, expecting it to be hot and intensely smoky-sweet, and feeling a little disappointed that it was served room temperature with a very (very) light hint of miso.

There was at least a 45-minute gap between our starters and mains, but when our mains finally came out, they were worth the wait. [Or maybe it’s inevitable we’d find the mains so delish after feeling so hungry and downing wine with little in our stomachs?]

My friend’s beetroot, fennel and leek gratin, served with a tahini dressing, was the surprise treat of the evening. Beets are something I usually just tolerate, but in this dish, the color and crunch were wonderful; the fennel added a flavor kick; and the tahini’s nutty creaminess blended all the flavors.

Jon’s hanger steak (onglet) was rare and melt-in-your-mouth juicy; my Middlewhite pork belly could have been a lot warmer, but its crackling was all crisp, fatty, piggy yumminess, as were the puy lentils on the side.

The wine list offered lots for around £20, though the restaurant had run out of two choices we wanted. Starters and snacks were £3-£5; mains were £15-20. Our four appetizers, four mains, three desserts and three bottles of wine set us back about £50 a person. If we’d taken it easier on the wine, I guess a more ‘normal’ bill for starter, main and dessert would come to about £35 a person.

Overall, I loved the energy in the room (it’s a great place to meet friends), and the food, particularly the mains, had enough high notes that I’d go back. But I’ll wait a few weeks to let the service and the menu get into a groove.

The Modern Pantry, 47-48 St. John’s Square, 0207 250 0833; closest tube: Farringdon.
Modern Pantry on Urbanspoon

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The "orangina" at Julius Meinl Cafe in Vienna

The "orangina" at the Julius Meinl Cafe in Vienna

Jon and I just returned to London this evening after a weekend in Vienna.  The weather was warm and sunny, and Vienna’s pretty cobblestoned streets were uncrowded (likely because all the Viennese are spending their August in Greece, Turkey and Spain, just like their German neighbors).

In any event, while in Wien, I whiled away many hours in cafes, and I thought I’d share an odd experience I had at the Julius Meinl Cafe:

I ordered an Orangina without looking at the cafe menu, and the waitress came back with the beverage pictured above at the top of this post.  It turned out to be hot coffee, spiked with orange liqueur, and topped with a *lot* of whipped cream.  (And all for the bargain price of 7.50 euros – how nice).

At another time of year (oh, I don’t know – say, December?), the Cafe’s version of an orangina would be hugely appealing.  But on a warm summer afternoon, I was hoping for a bottle of the “real” (and more famous?) Orangina, like so:

Everyone's favorite carbonated citrus beverage (photo from kevingsung.wordpress.com)

Everyone's favorite carbonated citrus beverage (from Kevinsung.wordpress.com)

So, Vienna visitors be warned:  for citrus refreshment, you’ll probably have to ask for Orangina by some other name.   Not sure what that would be, exactly.

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A few days ago, Jon and I hit our “three years in London” anniversary. I love it here, and one of the things I love is how easy it is to travel. So more for my own memory keeping than for anyone’s entertainment, here are our travel highlights over the past twelve months:

August 2007: Jon and I completed our “summer of the UK” series (during what must have been one of the coldest, wettest summers in UK history) with a trip to Bath so I could be a Jane Austen geek, and we also took a picture-perfect trip to south Wales. If you haven’t visited the Brecon Beacons or the Gower, you should get going on that.

September 2007: We were off to San Francisco and Napa Valley for a weekend for our friend Maura’s wedding. I ate twice my body weight in tacos and loved my meal at Redd, a place that I’m sure is too overshadowed by its neighbor in Yountville, the French Laundry.

October 2007: Florence, Siena and the Chianti region beckoned, and with our friends Kate and Ray, we toodled around brunello and chianti country and ate a sub-par Michelin-starred meal at Il Canto. I admit, I was disappointed with Florence dining this time around. Must be some combo of my getting outrageously picky and my not having done good pre-trip reconnaissance.

November 2007: Jon and I took advantage of the new St. Pancras Eurostar station and headed to Brussels. The city’s cafe culture and chocolates were hugely appealing, as was our simple, delish meal at Les Brassins.

December 2007: Back to the motherland for quality family time and sushi. Boston was cold; Palm Beach was hot. Everything was large, cheap and convenient. Ah, I do miss it sometimes.

January 2008: Unlike everyone else in the world, we missed the memo saying Athens is cold in January and went there anyway. I loved our trip to Athens: few tourists meant more souvlaki, sesame-covered nuts, and taverna food for me. If there were any sour notes, it’d have to be the opaque menu pricing at Varoulko.

February 2008: We actually stayed in London the entire month. Obviously because the weather is so wonderful here in February.

March 2008: Easter came early and we hightailed it over to Paris. I could travel far and wide for the rest of my days, and I’ll still never tire of Paris. I have routines now: bakeries and chocolate shops to hit; Vietnamese food cravings to fill. We had delish food across the board, from the neo-bistro Cinq Mars to the traditional bistro, Le Comptoir. And we tried out something new – an “underground” restaurant, the Hidden Kitchen.

April 2008: We stayed in London again, mostly to prepare ourselves for May Madness . . . .

May 2008: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Russia’s a big country, so there’s a lot to love and hate about it. Jon and I were so lucky to have our friends Helen and Nick guide us in Moscow (Jon was particularly glad not to go to the Sanduny Baths alone), and we ate a few good meals in Russia. Fascinating, but ultimately not worth the money, were Cafe Pushkin and Molokhovets Dream. For anyone earning pounds sterling and living in London, Moscow wasn’t unaffordable, but the value-for-money ratio was pretty bad.

A week after returning from Russia, we spent a spa-filled long weekend in Budapest with our friends Russell and Johanna. Having OD’d on blini and smoked fish in Russia, I was wary of eating in Budapest, but I shouldn’t have been worried. Budapest was the perfect quick getaway before we dragged ourselves onto another flight three days later for our tenth college reunion. How American are we, right?

June 2008: A quick weekend in Venice that exceeded my expectations, food-wise. Sure, it’s a tourist magnet, but you can still find good places to eat. Lunching in Corte Sconta‘s back garden was dreamy; and eating buttery pastas and fritto misto until my cholesterol levels can’t take it anymore is my idea of a great vacation. (The only huge downside of our Venice trip is EasyJet’s losing our luggage. If anyone has advice on how to get EasyJet to move its ass and reimburse us, I’m all ears. Given all the paperwork we’ve filled out already, you’d think that two months later, this issue would be closed by now!)

July 2008: Jon’s relatives in Israel showed us the true meaning of hospitality for ten days. Despite being non-religious, I was moved by the beauty and holiness of Jerusalem, and perhaps most important for this blog, the hummus and falafel in Israel were enough to convince me that I could be a vegetarian. If you ever thought all hummuses are equal, think again. (The prestigious Best Hummus I Had Award goes to the version served at Hummus Said in Akko, and my fave falafel was at Falafel Musa in Netanya, mostly because of their innovative addition of a hard-boiled egg).

And here we are in August 2008. It’s a bank holiday weekend (aka random long weekend), and Jon and I are off to Vienna. Wiener schnitzel and sachertorte recs warmly welomed, and here’s to generous European vacation time!

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Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

If I were a fan of bumper stickers (and if I had a car – and a valid driver’s license), I’d get one that reads: “I brake for xiao long bao.”

Two weeks ago, Tasty Treats in her alter ego form, TimeOut London restaurant reviewer, highlighted Leong’s Legend in Chinatown as a place that served not only Taiwanese food, but also xiao long bao (a Shanghai specialty). So, it was inevitable that I’d try it out asap. And I liked Leong’s so much the first time, I went back again a few days later with friends in order to maximize sampling of dishes.

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

First, let’s talk about the fragrant, soupy crab xiao long bao. The skin’s good – thin and almost translucent, but still firm enough to hold all that soup in while you tweezer the dumpling into your soup spoon. The filling is also good – as good as it gets in London, anyway (still a little bit too light and fluffy, like all xiao long bao I’ve tried in London). Lots of hot, delicious soup. Key. And you get eight for £6. A steal. Cheaper even than at Pearl Liang.

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Now, even though I’ve been to Taiwan six or seven times, I couldn’t tell you what makes Taiwanese food distinct from other types of Chinese food. But one thing that’s hugely popular in Taiwan is beef noodle soup (nio ro mien). And the version at Leong’s Legend is pretty tasty. You get a massive bowl of fragrant, slightly-spicy beef broth and tons of fatty, tender beef for £4.50. Much better than the over-tendoned small portions sold at Cha Cha Moon. I’m almost looking forward to the dark, rainy days of winter, just so I can run over to Leong’s and warm myself up with their nio ro mien.

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

The impressive-looking whole chili crab for £11 deserves a shout out for being quite possibly the best deal in London. Salty, garlicky and spicy on the outside, moist and sweet on the inside, the crab is served in the shell, but it’s already cracked so you don’t need to fuss to get at the crab meat.

Dry-fried beans at Leongs Legend

Dry-fried beans at Leong's Legend

Many of the dishes at Leong’s are meat and seafood, with just a few veg options.  So perhaps not so ideal for vegetarians unless they eat seafood.  Dry-fried beans have proven the best of the veg. The garlic shoots on the menu were tough and fibrous, so I’d avoid those.  And I’m going to go against the tide and say I didn’t enjoy the oyster omelet (owa jiang). Too wet and liquidy for me.

Service has been speedy both times I visited, so that kind of makes up for the no-reservations, queue-up-at-the-door policy.

The food and prices are great, whether you get dim sum at lunch or “regular” dishes at any time of day. I’m sure I’ll be visiting more often going forward.

Leong’s Legend, 4 Macclesfield St, W1D 6AX; 020 7287 0288; closest tube: Leicester Square.
Leong’s Legends on Urbanspoon

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It was lovely (brilliant, even) of Helen over at World Foodie Guide to send me the Brilliante Weblog award. She and I share not only the same taste in wordpress blog templates, but also we share the “restaurant reviews in London and abroad” beat. And let me add, you cannot beat Helen for expertise on Asian (or as the Brits say, “Oriental”) cuisines, so be sure to check out her posts.

Now, the Brilliante Weblog Premio Award, in addition to being a nice way to give blog peeps some recognition, also doubles as a meme. My criteria for passing it along are that (1) your blog hasn’t already gotten one; and (2) your posts have been making me laugh. So I hereby award the BWPA to (basically my friends):

Dave and Virg’s Adventures in Pittsburgh (because Dave is one of my closest friends from high school, and nobody else could have convinced me to read about Pittsburgh and be entertained);

Desperately Seeking Root Beer (because my friends Andy and Maggie sniff out the weirdest, funniest things about living in London); and

MKS (because nobody makes living and traveling in Yemen sound like more fun and games than Moira, my friend’s sister).

Keep on keepin’ on, my friends.

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image from cityrag.blogs.com

Relative to the (admittedly tad-crazy-and-overboard) Olympic coverage in the US, the UK media coverage of the Olympics is pretty sedate. But it’s still highly entertaining. I laughed out loud reading this Guardian article describing the types of food Michael Phelps eats every day to get his 12,000 calories:

“… a large bowl of porridge; three doorstep-sized sandwiches of white bread, butter, fried egg, fried onion, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise; a five-egg omelette tastefully garnished with parsley; three slices of French toast liberally sprinkled with sugar; three pancakes topped with chocolate chips; and two large cups of coffee. That’s breakfast. Yummy.

Next to it is lunch, which consists of 1lb (that’s a very large bowl) of pasta with tomato sauce; two large ham-and-cheese sandwiches with more lettuce, tomato and don’t forget the mayo; plus four bottles of a proprietary high-energy sports drink that always makes me burp.

For dinner, it’s another pound of pasta, a large cheese-and-tomato pizza, and another four bottles of the same proprietary high-energy sports drink that always makes me burp.”

I don’t know about the rest of you food lovers out there, but I think it’d pretty fun to eat 12,000 calories a day and look 1/10 as buff as the Golden Boy. It would probably be less fun to swim ten miles a day, though.

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Salad of spring vegetables with wild shoots, warm quail egg and truffle at the Ledbury

Salad of spring vegetables with wild shoots, warm quail egg and truffle

A friend was telling me about his recent dinner at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant, and our conversation reminded me that my dinner there in June 2004 remains the best restaurant meal of my life. Everything came together that night – my dining companions, the food, the wine, the mood in the resto, and the warm, friendly, confident service.

It’s been ages since I’ve encountered service at expensive restos that’s that super-attentive, knowledgeable and still welcoming. The few Michelin-starred places I’ve tried since moving to Europe have come with service that, while attentive and discreet, subscribes to a distant, chilly, almost master-servant school of thought. I suppose it might be very American to want service that cracks the formality a bit and creates the illusion that servers are happy to have you as their guest.

Well, last night, Jon and I ate at the Ledbury in Notting Hill, and we *loved* the service. Everyone at the front of the house was professional and warm – very human. The food, while very very good, tasted even better explained by servers who understood what they were serving and who seemed happy and proud to help you, the diner, enjoy what you were eating. Tap water was no problem; a sub for a course on the tasting menu, also no problem. Everything was no problem. I loved that.

Our friends, Jill and Emmet, had been singing the Ledbury’s praises for months, so I’m embarrassed it took us so long to get over there.

The Ledbury has a Michelin star, so no surprise that our tasting menu (£60 per person without wine pairings; £98 per person with – and the wine pairings were great, by the way) was studded with three or four amuses bouches. They were all simple but tasty and generally came in custard form.

My favorite bits of our eight-course meal were the foie gras (god, I love that molten center – it’s like marbled meat melting in your mouth), the luscious turbot, the intense vegetable flavors and soft-boiled quail egg in the “salad” starter (see photo at top), and the salsify-and-ham beignet served with our suckling pig.

For those of you curious for details about the type of food served at the Ledbury, below are my eh quality photos (taken on a phone camera because I lost my point-and-shoot a few weeks ago):

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee at the Ledbury

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee


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Vigata Ristorante in Islington

Vigata Ristorante in Islington

Except for when I schlep down to Olivo and its sibling Oliveto in Belgravia, I’ve been disappointed when I eat at Italian restaurants in London. Compared to New York, London doesn’t have a huge number of Italian restos, so when I want to go Italian, I feel like I have few choices between a chain like Carluccio’s or a high-end place like Locanda Locatelli. During our (almost) three years In London, Jon and I have missed having a reasonably-priced, local neighborhood Italian resto to take the pressure off a weeknight when we’re too tired to cook.

Imagine our excitement when we saw that the always-empty Shahnaz Tandoor was finally shutting down and that an Italian resto, Vigata, would be opening in its place.

Vigata opened for business on 17 July. Jon and I have already eaten there twice. The menu prices have changed about a dozen times already. It’s fair to say that Vigata is still working out the kinks, but here’s what I think is promising about Vigata: (more…)

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