Archive for June, 2010

Bistro Bruno Loubet dining room

Last week, I met Gourmet Chick and Londonelicious for dinner at Bistrot Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell.  I’d been there once before, back in March, soon after the bistro had opened in the Zetter hotel, and that time, the food had been very good.  Clerkenwell is perfectly located between work and home for me, so I was glad to pay it a return visit when the three of us were debating where to eat.  (The beauty of dining out with other food bloggers is that choosing the venue is half the fun).

bread served in a flowerpot - a super charming touch

Things got off to a bumpy start when the day of our reservation arrived.  The bistrot called to confirm, and in classic passive-aggressive fashion, they asked if it’d be “OK” that they’d need the table back after two hours.  I asked if I really had a choice and added that it would have been nice to know this policy in advance (for example, when I was making the booking originally).  The restaurant’s response was that it was hard for them to know in advance that they’d need the table back at a certain time, which is kind of crap.  How do other restaurants – who don’t limit the amount of time you can have the table – estimate turnover times?

Anyway, to make a long story short, at the two-hour mark, we were asked to pay our bill or  move to the hotel bar.  I was supremely non-plussed and felt like I was getting booted out.  The first time I ate at Bruno Loubet, I enjoyed a leisurely and delicious meal with family friends, and this second time around, I left feeling kind of cranky, which is too bad, because our server that evening was attentive and helpful and generally everything you want in a server, really.

revised Lyonnaise salad (£7)

On to the food – like Gourmet Chick, I chose the revised Lyonnaise salad for a starter, and although I remember loving it the first time I ate at Bruno Loubet (poached egg and bacon on greens – what’s not to love?), this time around, I thought the greens-to-toppings ratio could’ve been a lot higher.  The generous amounts of crispy, salty bacon overwhelmed the frisee, and the egg was overcooked and not runny.   Sad.

Guinea fowl boudin blanc with leek fondue and chervil sauce (£7)

Guinea fowl boudin blanc (white sausage) was both impossibly light and heavy.  The texture was memorably fluffy, but halfway through, the salt got to me, and I had trouble finishing the boudin.  Good thing my dining companions wanted to try some, because otherwise, I would’ve been embarrassed that I hadn’t finished a meal comprised of a mere two starters.

lamb shoulder confit (£16)

Confit lamb shoulder was served in an unappetizing ball shape.  And disappointingly, the lamb was dry and underseasoned, so I’m 100% in agreement with Gourmet Chick there.

wood pigeon breast, cauliflower, almond, quinoa and giblet sauce (£15.50)

Gourmet Chick’s pan-fried breast of wood pigeon was a winner, though the presentation was pretty hideous.  Pigeon is too often served tough, but at Bruno Loubet, it was juicy, rare and had the richness that only offal can provide.  If I weren’t so annoyed about the service, I’d say I’d return to BBL just to order this dish for myself next time.

Things being what they are, though, it’d take a lot to get me to return to Bistrot Bruno Loubet.  Bar Boulud, where I’ve also been twice, delivers better service than BBL does; prices are similar, and Bar Boulud’s chop chop salad with lobster is still calling out to me.  So, as handy as Clerkenwell is for me, Knightsbridge will be my destination the next time I’m looking for a casual bistro meal.

With a £30 bottle of wine and glasses of dessert wine, we paid £50 a person for dinner at BBL.

Bistrot Bruno Loubet, Zetter Hotel, 86-88 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5RJ; 0207 324 4455; closest Tube station: Farringdon
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Palmers Restaurant, near Victoria Park

Several months ago, we saw this positive review in TimeOut about Palmers Restaurant, a place serving creative gourmet food not far from Victoria Park in East London. We thought it sounded interesting, but considering how hard it is to convince our W postcode friends to come over to N1, we didn’t dare try to convince them to schlepp to E2, so Palmers languished in the back of our memories. Until last weekend, that is. Jon and I were in Victoria Park to see a performance of the horsey hijinks in “Sorry!” so Palmers became the perfect post-performance dinner venue.

ricotta, nutmeg and egg yolk ravioli with asparagus and truffle oil (£5.95)

Palmers is a father-son effort, with Dad running front of the house and Son behind the stove. Although it was a Saturday evening, Palmers was rather empty, which might’ve been awkward, but Dad’s friendliness made us feel comfortable and welcome.

We opened our menus and were shocked at how reasonable the prices were – sophisticated-sounding starters for £6, and similarly-interesting mains for £13.

My starter of egg-yolk raviolo immediately brought to mind the black truffle version that I swooned over at Hibiscus. Although the version at Palmers was lukewarm and not quite oozing egg yolk, I appreciated the effort, and perfectly-blanched asparagus accompanied by slivers of parmesan and egg is always a winning combination. For £5.95, the dish was great value, even if it didn’t quite hit the home run that Hibsicus’s version did. The tasting menu at Hibiscus is £80, after all. It *has* to be perfect at such prices.

bouillabaise with parmesan crostini (£5.50)

Jon’s bouillabaise was rich and satisfying, with a strong seafood broth, fresh, sweet sea goodies, and crispy, cheesy crostini. A nice option for a chilly summer evening.

gray mullet with clams, samphire, potato gnocchi, chervil veloute (£12.95)

My main course of gray mullet was enormous. Two large fillets of beautifully-pan-fried mullet was too much for one person to eat. Jon and I could have easily shared it, but what am I saying? Who complains about generosity? If I had to find fault, I’d say that there were so many ingredients in this dish that it was in danger of seeming like a bunch of trendy items haphazardly thrown together. The veloute and crispy samphire were perfect accompaniments to the mullet, but the clams and gnocchi seemed out of place.

turbot with Jersey royals, pancetta and peas (£14.95)

Jon’s turbot was, again, a generous portion, especially for £14.95. And again, beautifully seared with a crisp, buttery skin and firm, sweet flesh.

Despite feeling full after our enormous main courses, we couldn’t resist our host’s enthusiasm for the cheese course. Surprise, surprise – the cheese plate was enormous. Why didn’t we bring friends?

cheese course (£7)

If you want to support an ambitious, family-owned restaurant serving good food at reasonable prices, schlepp east to Palmers, pronto. From what I saw last Saturday night, it could use the support, and it’s really too bad Palmers isn’t in my neighborhood, because if it were, it’d be my favorite in no time. Is it a destination restaurant? Not quite. But next time there’s a sunny day, check out Victoria Park and be sure to end your day with dinner at Palmers.

With a £30 bottle of wine, our dinner totaled £80 for two people, and a minicab to/from Angel cost £12 each way.

Palmers Restaurant, 238 Roman Road, E2 0RY, 0208 980 5590; closest Tube station: Bethnal Green.
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General Tso's chicken from Hunan Cottage in Fairfield, NJ

Over the spring Bank Holiday, Jon and I made a last-minute trip to New Jersey and New York for a family obligation. While these trips back to the New York area are always too short and too busy, we still managed to hit up some hometown favorites. For those of you who end up in north Jersey or are rushing around the tri-State area via Penn Station, here are some of my most-loved places to eat:

scallion pancake at Hunan Cottage

Crispy duck with mantou at Hunan Cottage

For Chinese, I love going to the Hunan Cottage in Fairfield, NJ. Although it was a relatively-long, 30-minute drive from our home, Hunan Cottage was the place we went to celebrate and/or treat ourselves when I was growing up. The exterior is hideous (like many highway-side businesses in the Jerz), and the interior isn’t much better. But the food’s freshness and tastiness are the star attraction. I know this next sentence sounds ridiculous because I’m describing a dish that is the chicken tikka masala of American Chinese food, but if you’ve never had General Tso’s chicken and want to have a positive first experience, you should try Hunan Cottage’s version. Theirs is made with chicken that’s always crisp and flavored with a well-balanced spicy-sweet-tangy sauce. Scallion pancake and crispy duck served with fluffy, hot mantou round out the items I miss most from Hunan Cottage.

Despite its name, Hunan Cottage serves dishes from lots of other regions of China (as almost all Chinese places have to do to survive in the ‘burbs), so you’ll have to set aside your desire for regional specificity here: xiao long bao fillings are juicy and dense with flavor; sauteed snow pea leaves are melt-in-your-mouth; and crispy fish is served whole and to a chorus of oohs and ahhs. Definitely a place I love to visit when I’m back in the Jerz. Most dishes cost less than $15, but a few of the specials-of-the-day cost $25.

Hunan Cottage, 14 Route 46 East, Fairfield, NJ 07004; (973) 808-8328.

Hunan Cottage on Urbanspoon

Everything bagel from Bagels 4 U

For breakfast, nothing beats a quick drive to Bagels 4 U (there are multiple locations in North Jersey, but we usually end up at the locations in Livingston or Short Hills (their original shop). I know the name is hardly confidence inspiring (4? U? Really?), but the bagels are crisp and shiny on the outside, chewy on the inside, and with a hint of the sweet yeastiness that smells like warm comfort. The key, as in any bagel place, is to order whatever’s the freshest from the oven, and while Bagels 4 U seems to have crossed over to the Dark Side and now offers “specialty flavors” (raspberry? grrr), the classics are all represented and going strong. Ceteris paribus, a sesame for me, please.

Bagels are about $11 for a dozen, and slightly more per bagel if you don’t go for the dozen.

Bagels 4 U, 69 E Northfield Rd, Livingston, NJ 07039; 973-761-0556

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large pizza margherita ($17) and small white pizza ($15) at Patsy's

Jon and I had exactly 1.5 hours free from family “stuff” and wanted to see some friends in Manhattan. We’d taken a train from NJ into Penn Station and had to catch another train out to Long Island (ahh, the Tri-State area), so where to meet that would be relaxing, tasty and quick? Patsy’s, of course. Is it the best pizza in New York? I’m not going anywhere near that. But it’s pretty darn good. Thin crust, fresh mozzarella, good sauce. The crust edges were a bit too thick, but after almost five years of living in London, I’d say Patsy’s pies tasted like manna.

Large pies start at $17 and small ones at $15. Toppings are $2.50 each, and there’s lots of salads and pastas available, too, in case you’re crazy and don’t want pizza.

Patsy’s, multiple locations in Manhattan, but the Chelsea one is convenient for those rushing around Penn Station. 318 W. 23d Street (between 8th and 9th Avenue), New York 1011; 646-867-7400. Closest subway stop: 23d street on the C, E, but just a 10-minute walk from Penn Station.
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Bar Boulud at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge

Lately, it feels like American expats have been drawn to Bar Boulud like moths to a flame. Despite my short-lived attempts to resist the PR and marketing hype surrounding Daniel Boulud‘s first foray into London, different American dining companions have insisted we eat at BB on at least three separate occasions. I declined one and gave in to the other two, which means that just over a week ago, I ate at Bar Boulud on Wednesday and Saturday evenings.

Surprisingly, the two experiences varied significantly. I had a much more pleasant time on Wednesday evening with three girlfriends, partly because our table was comfortable and set a good distance away from other diners, whereas on Saturday night, the place was a zoo, and Jon and I were seated elbow-to-elbow with other two-person tables. We felt like we were part of a conveyor belt, which I know a lot of restaurants are, but it shouldn’t be obvious to you as the diner. However, the food was *much* better when I ate at Bar Boulud on Saturday evening, which suggests that the menu items can be hit-or-miss.

So, first tip : try to get a table that’s separate from the banquettes full of couples. Maybe this means dining at BB only when you have at least a party of three.

pâté grand-mère (£6.50) and tourte de canard (£11)

Second tip: Avoid the “degustation de charcuterie,” and order the charcuterie a la carte. At first, the tasting platter sounded like a great deal: three pates/terrines and a cured meat for £14. But when our platter arrived, I enjoyed only the cheapest and humblest of the three pâtés: pâté grand-mère, with its flavoursome blend of chicken liver, pork and cognac. The other items on the platter, including a ham, tasted dry and dull. Suddenly £14 wasn’t a good deal anymore.

So when I returned to Bar Boulud a few nights later, I headed for the a la carte charcuterie options: another pâté grand-mère, and an elaborate-looking tourte de canard with its pastry crust and layers of duck, foie gras, and figs. The complementary flavors and textures in such a handy pastry package brought to mind sunny picnics in the Loire Valley. Good times.

"chop chop salad" (£6) with half lobster for a £15 supplement

Surprise super star dish at Bar Boulud: the ridiculously-named “chop chop salad,” with its crisp romaine lettuce, zippy ginger-soy vinaigrette, cashews, sesame crisps, avocados and lobster. And not dull, stringy, frozen-a-million-times lobster. For your £15 supplement, this half lobster’s worth of meat is firm, sweet and everything you’d want in a lobster served cold. I loved this salad. I’d almost forgotten how good salads can be. God bless America for these crazy salad concoctions – when they work, they really work. This is the best salad I’ve had in London, which isn’t say much. But I’m looking forward to returning to BB just to eat this salad.

dbgb yankee burger (£12)

On both Wednesday and Saturday nights, my dining companions went for the various burgers on offer. I have no idea why Daniel Boulud has developed a reputation for his burgers (though I suspect it started when he had the cheek to charge $32 for a burger at DB Bistro Moderne in New York). In any case, all reports were the burger was fine, though a bit small, and the fries were fries.

Based on my experience with the indifferently-flavored hanger steak on the menu for £18, though, I’m tempted to say skip the meat mains and go for the charcuterie and salads.

dreamy madeleines (£4)

The souffle I ordered on Wednesday evening wasn’t bad, but what stole the show on both nights I ate at Bar Boulud were the fresh-from-the-oven madeleines. Light as air and lemony-good. You felt almost virtuous eating these, and they were a steal for £4. Cheaper even than the justly-famous ones at St. John Restaurant.

Prices at Bar Boulud are reasonable for such a sophisticated operation located across the street from Harvey Nicks, with neither of my meals costing more than £50 a person with starters, mains, cheese course, desserts and wine. You could leave feeling full after just a starter and main, and it’d set you back about £25, I reckon. I should try to follow my own advice when ordering next time, eh?

Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge; SW1X 7LA; 0207 201 3899; closest tube station: Knighstbridge
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Viajante's open kitchen

I thought that by waiting a couple of months to eat at Viajante that my blog post wouldn’t seem horribly redundant, but it turns out I’m not the only blogger who waited until the opening hype died down. During the last two weeks, Gourmet Traveller and London Eater have also sampled chef Nuno Mendes‘s goodies, so I encourage you to click on those links above for stunning photos and a detailed rundown of the food.

In light of both those recent and excellent posts, I’ll keep mine light on the food descriptions and instead leave you with captioned photos and a few general thoughts.

As is the case at superb restaurants like L’Astrance (Paris), there’s no menu at Viajante. The only choices you make are: (a) the number of courses and (b) wines. (A brief aside while we’re on the topic of beverages — Viajante immediately got on my good side for charging a modest flat rate for unlimited sparkling and still water. London restaurants, I hope you all follow suit!)

Having made our choice (the 9-course tasting menu for £75), off we went.

warm baguettes, whipped butter with bits of chicken skin and pancetta

We were served a parade of amuses, which we enjoyed, but what Jon and I still think about are Viajante’s warm baguettes. For a minute, I thought I was eating at Jean-Georges, where Mendes trained — that’s how good this bread was. The caramel-sweet butter and crunchy chicken skin were worthy accompaniments.

squid tartare, pickled radishes, samphire and squid ink granita

" spring garden" of cauliflower crumbs, pea shoots and other goodies

razor clam, smoked yogurt, rosemary dashi

roasted and pickled beetroot with whipped goat's cheese

roasted celeriac, tapioca and Sao Jorge cheese

yeast-encrusted skate wing

The skate wing was a stellar course, so I feel compelled to say a bit more here. The yeast crust was crispy and sweet, acting as the best breadcrumbs in the world, really. Jon and I appreciated Mendes’s insistence that we try the course with a yeasty champagne, which he said was the inspiration for the dish. In fact, he felt so strongly about the pairing that two glasses were poured for us, gratis. And, as you’d expect when a dish is built around a wine, the pairing was a treat.

aged sirloin with chunky miso, ramson onions and fennel

carrot mousse, meringue, buttermilk and cinnamon-sugary crumbles

Overall, here’s what I liked about Viajante:

  • Watching the precision and intensity in the kitchen. Nothing makes you appreciate the visual gorgeousness of your course like the sight of four cooks putting a dish together with tweezers.
  • The number of times Nuno Mendes himself arrives at your table to finish the dish, explain what it is, and suggest how to eat it. It’s personal, it’s helpful, and you get the feeling Mendes is a nice guy, which is, you know . . . nice.
  • The food’s creativity and mix of textures and flavors. For sure, this is high-end cooking with moments of genius (yeast-crusted skate wing, I’m talking to you).
  • The restaurant’s informality and cool vibe. It’s Bethnal Green, after all.

Here’s what I’d change about Viajante:

  • Superficial as it sounds, I would’ve liked to have seen a few more high-end ingredients among the nine courses (and multiple amuses). I know that the passion and precision it takes to create all those courses is significant, and I also know that at high-end restaurants, you’re paying for much more than costly ingredients. That said, I can’t help feeling that £75 was a bit high for a few scraps of razor clam and a slice of sirloin, with lots of celeriac, beetroot and tapioca thrown in.

As Jon and I were leaving during what appeared to be the height of a Friday evening dinner service, Mendes made a point of saying thank you and goodbye. I’ll admit I was super charmed. When was the last time that happened to you at a temple of haute cuisine? I really like this idea of haute cuisine-level food served with neighborhood-joint warmth, so I’d go back, but next time, I’ll stick with the 6-course £60 menu and see if the value calculation swings more in my favor.

6/9/12 course tasting menu for £60/£75/£85 with wine pairings for £30/£45/£60.

Viajante, Patriot Square, E2 9NF; 0207 871 0461; closest tube station: Bethnal Green
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I had plans to spend this last bank holiday in Paris, doing the usual eating and shopping, but instead Jon and I got a dreaded call last Thursday to fly home for a family funeral.  Let me tell you:  nothing makes you value what you have more than a run-in with mortality.

While back in New York going through the mourning rituals, I saw a notice about Chefs Unite, a fundraiser raffle for Children with Leukaemia, and not only did the cause strike me as worthy, but also the prizes sound fantabulous. So here’s my chance to do a little good, and I think we can be winners all around on this one.

Go to the Chefs Unite website, and for £10, you get a raffle ticket for one of nine celeb chef prizes, including a one-to-one cooking lesson with Marcus Wareing followed by lunch at his eponymous restaurant, a morning with Heston Blumenthal in the Fat Duck experimental kitchen, dinner with Marco Pierre White, a trip to Paris for four with dinner cooked at Ken Hom‘s pied a terre, dinner for four at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons . . . are you getting the gist?  For the full list of prizes, click here.

So buy a few tickets and get your friends to do the same.  For US and UK readers, Father’s Day is coming up soon, so include raffle tickets in that father’s day card!  And in addition to generating good karma, you might meet a celeb chef or two.

The raffle runs until 12 noon BST on Wednesday, 7 July 2010.

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