Posts Tagged ‘French in London’

la table lumiere at Alain Ducasse Restaurant

Last Wednesday evening, I finally gave in to the temptation of accepting a restaurant’s “invitation to review.”  I figured that if I accept only one freebie in my life, it might as well be a 3-Michelin-star one.

Four other bloggers (A Rather Unusual Chinaman, Cheese & Biscuits, Hollow Legs, Greedy Diva) and I were invited to eat or drink anything of our choice at Alain Ducasse, housed in the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane.

behind-the-scenes in the kitchen at Alain Ducasse

Greeted at the restaurant by Alain Ducasse’s internal PR person, we were definitely not anonymous diners.  So that’s the end of my guilt-ridden full disclosure.

I’ll start with the high and low points of the evening, followed by all the pictures of the food and the blow-by-blow for the hard-core food nerds (myself included):

High points:

  • The private “table lumiere,” which unlike other private tables, still benefits from the buzz of surrounding tables by cleverly using a wall of fiber optic strings to provide privacy without blocking out noise.  When the fiber optic lights are on, it’s all very shimmery and pretty in a blingtastic sort of way.  A nice contrast to the otherwise staid dining room.  (Of course, the curtain does lure you into a sense of complacency,  so it’s hard to remember that everyone around you can just as easily hear you as you can hear them).
  • The service.  As you’d expect at a 3-star resto when the service know you’re there to do a review, everyone (the restaurant director, Nicolas, the sommelier, Mathias, all the servers) was friendly, helpful and attentive in a discreet sort of way.  No detail was overlooked, and no glass went empty.  We got 3-star service, no ifs ands or buts.
  • The kid-in-a-candy store feeling of ordering anything we wanted from the menu.  The regular tasting menu is £115, and the seasonal one is £180.  Wanting to see what the kitchen offered at such a lofty price point, we chose the seasonal menu.
  • Desserts.   I lack a sweet tooth, but the five of us tried all six desserts currently offered by the restaurant, and they were uniformly wonderful, ranging from merely delicious to geniusly-creative.  Lime souffle with Sichuan peppercorn ice cream, I will remember you always.
  • The subversive high of not paying the bill at the end of our meal.

Low Points:

  • The feeling that most courses on our £180 tasting menu were a tick-box exercise in luxury.  I probably won’t remember any of them a week from now.  In contrast,  six years on, I still crave the oysters and pearls, smoked salmon cornet, and golden, magically-translucent crispy bone marrow of Per Se.
  • The lobster course.  Overcooked and overwhelmed by the cinnamon-red-wine sauce.  It makes me sad when lobsters die in vain, and even sadder when it dies at the hands of a kitchen that should know better.
  • The beef fillet course.  I’ll take partial responsibility for this one because I find filet mignon generally flavorless, so it wasn’t a surprise that I kept wishing the steak on my plate had more char and fat.  I should have asked for a substitution here, but at this level of cooking, if the restaurant’s going to offer the dish on its menu, shouldn’t it appeal to even filet mignon skeptics?

Would I go back on my own dime?

  • Not for the autumn tasting menu.  For £180, the autumn menu offered a stunning variety and quantity of luxury ingredients.  Caviar, foie gras (twice), lobster, filet mignon, truffles.  But other than the desserts, the food just felt dutiful.  Where were the moments of wonder?  Like the ones I remember at 3-starred Per Se, or at the relatively-humble 1-starred La Grenouillere?
  • Thinking about recent haute cuisine experiences in London, I recall the tasting menu at 2-starred The Square for £100.  No question that the Square’s menu lacked the OTT luxury ingredients of what we tried at Alain Ducasse, but the Square’s menu seemed to achieve the elusive “value for money” designation because for £80 more per person, I wanted more “wow,” not pricier ingredients.
  • In fairness to Alain Ducasse, I had a marvelous time at dinner that night, because undoubtedly the front-0f-the-house is more than half the battle in the 3-star world.  I can say for sure that when the service at Alain Ducasse wants to be charming and helpful, you’ll feel like you’re the most special person on earth.  But of course, because none of us were dining anonymously, I can’t tell you whether I would have felt this cared for if I’d been just a regular schmo with £400 per person to burn (because surely, with wine, champers, digestifs and service, that’s about what our bill would have totalled, at least).
  • I’d be curious to hear what people think of Alain Ducasse’s £115 “regular” tasting menu.  No question I would have been a lot more forgiving at that price point, and the amazing service and setting would have tipped the scales more in favor of “yes” when answering the above question.

Below is the full shebang on the food:

marinated scallop in a rich nage topped with "Kristal caviar"

Caviar.  Check.  It may be farmed (“Kristal” – such clever marketing, no?), but we all have to do our part to help that wild sturgeon population recover.  The important thing is that the caviar still tasted nutty, briney and creamy.  The scallop was irrelevant.

seared duck foie gras, potato gnocchi, ceps and fresh almonds

Nice textures, and the foie gras did its meaty melt-in-your-mouth job, but  instead of adding duck jus tableside,  something sweet or acidic to break up the one-note meatiness of this course would have been nice.

roasted Scottish lobster, apple and quince cooked in cinnamon and salted butter

Even if the lobster hadn’t been somewhat tough, I suspect the cinnamon-spiked apples and quince and red wine sauce would have overwhelmed the delicate sweetness we all know and love in fresh lobster.  I can’t resist contrasting this disappointing course with the still-translucent succulence of the lobster roll at Daniel Rose’s Spring, as well with the delightfully delicious roast lobster tail at La Grenouillere (likely the best haute cuisine experience of 2010, by the way).

turbot fillet cooked Florentine style and with shrimp, walnuts and Arbois wine

Very good.  I never get my home-cooked turbot to turn out this beautiful or delicious.  And look at those carved mushroom caps – charmant, no?  The shrimps could have been more thoroughly-deveined, though (see e.g., the shrimp in the upper-left-hand corner of this photo).  You expect better.


Filet mignon, seared foie gras ("tournedos Rossini") and super-cool lettuce

A slight play on a classic dish, the filet mignon “Rossini style” was memorable mostly because I wondered how I could recreate the charred-but-not-limp lettuce at home.  The other reason the lettuce was a highlight is because it was dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette that went perfectly with the foie gras on toast.  In case the other courses weren’t luxurious enough, this course doubled down with both filet mignon and foie (again).

truffled brie de Meaux

Cheese course time.  Sometimes you wonder if truffle is added just to make something more expensive.  Not here, though.  The floral-earthy scent of truffle melded right into the creamy brie and lifted the cheese out of boring land.

lime souffle, white cheese and Sichuan pepper sorbet - genius

Reading off the menu, you could say “souffle?  yawn.”  But you’d be wrong.  Not only was this souffle technically-perfect (light as air, yadda yadda) and intriguingly-flavored (sweet and tart, always a winner), but also the accompanying Sichuan pepper sorbet was genius.  The peppercorn’s citrus scent matched the souffle perfectly.

coco-caramel delight, lemon-vanilla sorbet

praline-chocolate biscuit, milk-salt flower ice cream

I love the taste and crunch of praline, especially when married with bittersweet chocolate.  What lifted this dessert beyond mere delicious status was the accompanying milk-salt flower ice cream, which, eaten alone, tasted horribly salty.  But when taken with the biscuit, the salt ice cream heightened the flavors of the praline and chocolate.

rose and raspberry pleasure

At any other restaurant, a highlight.  but here, merely very good and refreshing.

pear variation - coup de poires, sorbet mascarpone

Same comment as applied to the raspberry rose thingy.

rhum baba

The famous Alain Ducasse rhum baba.  You can tell it’s special because of the elaborate serving dish, no?  I’ve never liked rhum baba, which, at its worst, is just soggy stale cake.  So it’s no surprise that this one, while better than most, still tasted too much of rhum and too little of cream and cake.

And that’s it.  There were tons of delicious mignardises and gourmandises (I wish I’d taken more than a single salted caramel), digestifs to choose from, and the fresh-herb tea options were dramatically wheeled out on a cart for our choosing.

  • £55 for 2 courses (appetizer and fish or meat)
  • £75 for 3 courses (appetizer, fish or meat and dessert)
  • £95 for 4 courses (appetizer, fish and meat and dessert)
  • £115 for the tasting menu
  • £180 for the seasonal tasting menu

Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester Hotel, 53 Park Lane, W1A 2HJ; 0207     629 8866; closest tube station:  Hyde Park Corner or Green Park.
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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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Galvin La Chapelle interior

I love Galvin Bistro de Luxe in Marylebone for its convivial atmosphere, its professional service, and its bistro classics served at reasonable prices. So when Galvin La Chapelle recently opened just a few steps from my office, I disregarded this negative review and, last Friday, dragged my friend BK there for lunch.

This post should be taken with a bigger grain of salt than usual because I tried only one dish, but here are my impressions anyway:

  • Prices at Galvin La Chapelle are noticeably higher than they are at Galvin Bistro. Although the gorgeous, soaring-ceiling interior of La Chapelle sets it apart from the cozy, homey interior of Galvin Bistro, I recognized one or two dishes on La Chapelle’s menu from Galvin Bistro’s menu. For example, both places offer the Dorset crab lasagne, but La Chapelle’s version costs about 20% more (based on what I remember from my last visit to the Bistro two months ago).
  • The service at Galvin La Chapelle was gracious and friendly. I initially felt slightly out of place among the business-suited crowd eating leisurely lunches, but our server chatted us up and made us feel quite welcome.  BK and I had to get in and out at a reasonable hour, so we skipped starters and shared one dish: the roast cote de boeuf, truffle macaroni and Hermitage jus for £53.

roast cote de boeuf (£53 to be shared by two)

bone marrow

  • The beef was sliced and served tableside, perfectly medium-rare. It was all quite a to-do.  The slices of beef were juicy to begin with, drizzled with the intense jus, and served with gelatinously-fatty bone marrow and sweet, creamy roasted garlic. The watercress was there to make us feel less unhealthy, I suppose.

    black truffle macaroni and cheese

  • The accompanying truffle macaroni, which I’d expected to be a throwaway item, was all comfort and earthiness. I loved the combo of bite from the cheese and the smooth cream, and I could actually taste the black truffle.  So for once, the truffle wasn’t just for show.

Our lunch cost about £31 a person for just a main course and a drink, which made for a rather pricey lunch.   I can’t say the meal was good value, but I also don’t feel ripped off.  Our cote de boeuf was delicious and filling with the well-executed sides; the room is beautiful; and the service was fast and friendly.  I’ll keep La Chapelle in mind the next time I’m in need of an elegant meal out, but I suspect my next lunch is more likely to be at the cheaper Cafe de Luxe next door.

Galvin La Chapelle, 35 Spital Square, E1 6DY; 0207 299 0400; closest Tube station: Liverpool Street
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dining room at Galvin Bistro de Luxe

dining room at Galvin Bistro de Luxe

Normalement, I make up my own mind and hate being a follower. But when Thomas Keller says he likes a place, I’m not ashamed to follow in his footsteps. Plus, I’m a francophile. Throw in the title of French Restaurant of the Year, and really, why did it take me so long to visit Galvin Bistro de Luxe?

Jon and I met friends at Galvin Bistro de Luxe last weekend, and when we arrived, the place was packed. And not with just anyone. No, packed with French speakers! While not a must-have for a bistro in London, it was a nice sign.

crab "lasagna" at Galvin Bistro de Luxe

crab "lasagna" at Galvin Bistro de Luxe

Starters included some not-obviously French items like crab “lasagna.” It didn’t look the way you’d expect, but sure enough, there was firm, al dente pasta in there layered with a rich, seafood crab meat. Tasty.

entrecote with pommes anna

entrecote with pommes anna

Honestly, I was shocked by how big the portion sizes are. The plat du jour, an entrecote (aka rib eye) served medium rare (at £18.50, one of the pricier menu items), included a generous slice of buttery pommes anna, buttery string beans, buttery bearnaise, and some totally token watercress. Butter really does make it better, no?

cheese tray at Galvin Bistro

cheese tray at Galvin Bistro

Well, no self-respecting French Restaurant of the Year could fail to have a cheese tray full of interesting and delish cheeses, served with a dollop of generosity. I hogged a few slices of cheese from my friend’s cheese platter, and then moved onto my dessert: a blackberry souffle.

blackberry souffle at Galvin Bistro

blackberry souffle at Galvin Bistro

I’d seen a couple of these souffles flying around the room, and it looked too good to resist. When it arrived, it was hot and airy, but after digging inside, I found the souffle so undercooked as to still constitute batter. And it was a bit too sugary. How disappointing. I wanted so much to love thee, blackberry souffle.

pear tarte tatin at Galvin Bistro

pear tarte tatin at Galvin Bistro

Cue the beautifully-crisped, buttery-crusted, caramelized pear tarte tatin. It was the crowning glory to a butter-filled wonder of a meal.

Galvin Bistro de Luxe is where you go for a long, convivial dinner. The restaurant really was a slice of Paris on an otherwise-charmless Baker Street.

For starters, mains, desserts and wine for all, our tab was £60 a person, including service. Not cheap, but good value for attentive service, a buzzy room, and large portions of tasty bistro classics. (And a steal compared to a trip on the Eurostar).

Galvin Bistro de Luxe, 66 Baker Street, W1U 7DJ, 0207 933 4007; closest tube station: Baker Street
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Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Jon and I eat out often with friends, but we try to set aside Friday nights as “date night” to make sure we get some alone time. Continuing with my French kick, last week’s date night destination was Le Cassoulet in South Croydon, and we certainly had lots of bonding time getting there and back.

You’d think that having returned from Paris recently that we’d be French fooded out, but you’d be wrong. Now that darkness comes at 4 pm, a hearty cassoulet is just the thing to make me happy.

In Time Out‘s 2008 Eating and Drinking Awards, Le Cassoulet won the title of Best Local Restaurant, which, now that I’ve been there, seems to mean that the food, decor, service and prices are excellent, but it’s just such a schlepp to get there that it’s not a destination restaurant. It’s a 30-minute train ride from London Bridge station to South Croydon, and then a 5-minute walk to the restaurant, which doesn’t sound bad until you factor in having to look up train times, get to the train station, buy tickets, wait for the train, etc. [Yes, I’m a center-city brat who will never live in the ‘burbs if I can help it.]

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

We sat down on cushy banquette seats and eyed our neighbors’ dishes. Portions looked big, so we shared a starter – potted ham hock (£6). It didn’t have the creamy pate-style texture I was craving, but the deep-pink ham bits were salty and meaty, so I was happy. The dijon-dressed gherkins and radishes added color, texture and tang. The only thing missing was an extra slice of toast.

the signature dish at Le Cassoulet

signature dish at Le Cassoulet

The cassoulet was super star thanks to the white beans, which were creamy and fork-tender without having turned into mush. And of course they absorbed all the meaty juices from the generous duck confit shreds, garlicky sausage and rich pork-belly pieces. A vegetarian nightmare, but my dream come true on a winter’s night.

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

And what self-respecting bistro would fail to offer a steak frites? Le Cassoulet’s rib eye was rare and dripping with meat juice. Well-marbled and no gristly bits. I haven’t had a better steak in London. Certainly not for less for £18.

I had a great time at Le Cassoulet. The food was classic and comforting, and many wines were available by the glass or carafe. Service was attentive and friendly, and tap water was no problem. If Le Cassoulet were in central London, I’d be planning to eat there every day. But because it’s in South Croydon, I’ll probably go there only when seized by a powerful craving for top-notch cassoulet.  Of course if someone has ideas on what else to do in South Croydon, I’m all ears.

Most appetizers were £6-8, and mains were £15-18. Our tab with a carafe of wine and a forgettable side dish came to £70.

Le Cassoulet, 18 Selsdon Road, Croydon, Surrey, CR2 6PA; 020 8633 1818; closest rail station: South Croydon
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Le Cafe Anglais interior from www.londontown.com

Le Cafe Anglais interior (from http://www.londontown.com)

A few weekends ago, Jon and I had dinner at Le Cafe Anglais with our friends visiting from New York. I have to confess that the reason we went was pretty lame: I’d read a positive blurb about it in the New York Times. But you know, I rely on NYT articles when I travel outside of London, so why not use it for my current hometown? [Note that this instance isn’t nearly as bad as the time I discovered the Paul Young chocolate shop in my own neighborhood only after it turned up in the New York Times foraging section.]

Le Cafe Anglais wasn’t my first choice for dinner, but I was striking out at the other, smaller restos I called the day of, and I was super grateful Le Cafe Anglais had a table for four at 9:30 pm on a Saturday. When we arrived at the resto and saw how many tables filled the enormous dining room, I was no longer surprised that Le Cafe Anglais had room for us. You rarely see a space that large in London. That said, even at 10 pm, the place was still packed and lively.

As every review about Le Cafe Anglais will tell you, the resto is located next to the Whiteley’s shopping mall. Let’s just say it’s not a pretty sight. But once you’re in the Cafe’s airy, high-ceilinged dining room, it’s like you’ve walked into an old Cunard line dining salon. (And here’s the disclaimer that my knowledge of early-20th-century Cunard dining rooms comes straight out of perhaps-not-so-accurate films like Titanic).

Despite the upscale decor, Le Cafe Anglais feels very friendly and welcoming. It’s the perfect place for everyone from a party of one to a party of twenty, and the menu items are priced to be similarly flexible: you could nibble on a series of £3 hors d’oeuvres or you could feast on rack of lamb for £18. (more…)

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Hibiscus Restaurant interior, Mayfair, London

I had a delicious and fun lunch at Hibiscus Restaurant last week, and it stands out among the blur of meals I’ve had lately. If you follow any bit of London dining news, you’ll know that Hibiscus earned two Michelin stars in its Ludlow, Shropshire location before shutting down and moving to London a few months ago. Time Out gave the new London location a rave review, but the Telegraph wasn’t keen on it. (And obviously diners the world over were waiting for me to weigh in on this debate).

Things I liked about Hibiscus even before eating there: (1) it’s owned and run by a husband-wife team (because isn’t it nice that a luxe restaurant isn’t part of a celebrity-chef empire?); (2) it’s located super-close to the Oxford Circus tube station (because when I bust out the fancy shoes for a fancy meal, I appreciate not having a long walk from mass transit); and (3) it’s not resting on laurels (the move from Shropshire being something like trying to swim with the big fishes).

The restaurant’s decor is all warm woods and sleek slate. Bobo chic. The service was friendly, attentive and unobtrusive, and I appreciated that Claire Bosi, co-owner and wife of the chef, was gracious when I had to ask a million questions to understand how the menus worked: £25 for a two-course lunch; £35 for a three-course; £55 for a fancier three-course a la carte; and £65 for the tasting menu. Surprisingly, there was no requirement for the entire table to get the tasting menu, so my party of four was able to mix it up. I went for the tasting menu (surprise, surprise).

Because I didn’t take any notes during my lunch, my descriptions below are my best guess about what the ingredients were.

Truffle Ice Cream and Cauliflower veloute, Hibiscus Restaurant, London

I think my first dish (photo above) was a mushroom ice cream on an island of something beetrooty, all in a sea of nutty cauliflower veloute. Cold-and-warm, crunchy-and-creamy, earthy-and-sweet. Very intellectual. I cook just ambitiously enough to appreciate how tough this thing was to pull off, but it’s not something I’d crave.

Crab-Avocado with honey and sesame oil, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The crab-avocado filling with honey and sesame oil was one of my favorites. Juicy and sweet, the crab mixed well with the creamy avocado, and the hint of sesame and sweetness from the honey sauce added kick. Refreshing.

foie gras ice cream with brioche emulsion, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Another ice cream, this time of foie gras, served in a “brioche emulsion” and sprinkled with trendy pomegranate seeds (how sad is it that fruits can now be trendy?). The foie gras ice cream was pretty good, actually. It’s certainly fatty enough to be in an ice cream, and I enjoyed how extra-smooth it tasted in that form. As the foie melted into the brioche emulsion, it became a nice, meaty soup, and the juicy pomegranate seeds added crunch as well as colorful prettiness.

slow-cooked salmon, Hibiscus restaurant, London

I’m usually non-plussed to see salmon on a menu, mostly because I think it’s best served simple, and I can cook simple at home. But the slow-cooked salmon at Hibiscus was luscious. Too silken to have been seared, and too flavorful to have been poached, I was super impressed. Sous-vide (aka plastic bag cooking) at work, perhaps?

roast partridge, Hibiscus restaurant, London

The roasted partridge was tender and juicy, and I loved whatever the green mash was. I particularly liked the partridge because only the breast fillet was served. (Because partridge has so many small bones, there’s no way I could have made my way through a whole partridge with dignity intact).

Kaffir lime pie, Hibiscus restaurant, London

Ending the meal with a kaffir lime pie and mango salsa was nice, because again, the kaffir lime filling had been chilled (maybe it was another ice cream?), so it acted as a palate cleanser.

There were a few amuses served during the meal, and the chef came out afterwards to greet every table, which was nice of him to do. I enjoyed the wine as well as my company, so it was as close to a perfect meal as it gets, I think. I’m looking forward to going back.
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