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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.

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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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beef tartare, pickled kohlrabi, black truffle sauce

Last Friday, I celebrated my friend L’s birthday in style with dinner at the Greenhouse, Michelin-starred in Mayfair. It wasn’t our first choice, but we’d struck out at the Ledbury and Marcus Wareing, and although I’d never before heard much about the Greenhouse, because of several strong recs in comments left on this blog, we gave it a go.

The restaurant is located off Hay’s Mews, which is a dark alley made none the cheerier by rain, and if it weren’t Mayfair, I’d have been reluctant to venture down it. Happily, once you turn onto the small garden path that leads you to the restaurant (which appears to be the basement floor of a block of flats), things become much more pleasant.

Having chosen the tasting menu (£80), L and I settled down to aperitifs and three amuses: (1) Sweet onion and watercress soup, which tasted only of watercress and so could’ve been sweeter and seasoned more; (2) crabmeat wrapped in jicama and topped with salmon roe, which was wonderfully refreshing and colorful; and (3) foie gas mousse wedged in between two lacy butter crisps dyed with squid ink (surf ‘n’ turf!), which was as fatty and rich as the crabmeat was light and refreshing.

Sometime during these preliminaries, we noticed that two portions of butter had been left on our table, but at no point were we offered bread.  We weren’t hungry so we didn’t say anything, but it seemed a big lapse not to have been offered bread, especially because the butters looked so tempting.

My first course of beef tartare (pictured at top) was a nice surprise – more a delicately-dressed beef carpaccio than the lump of mince I’d expected.  The black truffle sauce added a rich, earthy dimension to the light and zingy slices of beef.

mackerel, apple puree

A second course of mackerel was sliced and plated to look like sardines, which was visually entertaining.  The apple puree and crunchy nuts (?) under the mackerel added lightness and texture to the otherwise-meaty fish.

steamed brill, Thai curry, Kabocha pumpkin, crayfish and basil

From the description on the menu, I was sure this course, a steamed fish, would bore me to tears, but the intensity of the Thai curry balanced perfectly the delicate fillet of brill.  The curry sauce was fragrant but light – not thick or too sweet  despite the strong aroma of ginger and coconut.  This fish course is the best I’ve had in ages. 

pan-fried duck foie gras, rhubarb fondant, Chioggia beetroot

I loved the presentation of the foie gras course, mostly because at a quick glance, it looked like suckling pig.  But the filmy “skin” sitting atop the foie gras was an off-putting texture.  It brought to mind the scummy skin that forms on cheap instant chocolate pudding.  I did, however, like how the sweet beetroot complemented the foie – a nice change from all that quince and fig you usually get on the side.

roast pigeon, pomegranate, turnip puree, almond, giblet and pancetta jus

The pigeon didn’t look like much, but it was wonderfully tender and juicy, helped along by the almond, giblet and pancetta jus, no doubt.

snix: chocolate, salted caramel and peanuts

Dessert was a ‘snix,’ which seemed very American what with the combination of peanuts and chocolate.  The peanutty oatmeal biscuit layer of the dessert ‘sandwich’ was too dry and gritty even with the ice cream.  What it should’ve tasted like are the Do-Si-Do’s sold by the Girl Scouts of America.   Luckily the salted caramel ice cream was genius.

The Greenhouse’s wine list was supremely impressive, offering dozens of bottles even from unexpected places like Lebanon and India.  We loved browsing it, though ultimately we asked our sommelier to recommend a full-bodied white for our meal (and she came up with a good one that tasted almost meaty and fell well within our stated price range).

Overall, I had a wonderful time at the Greenhouse – much better than my dinner last month at two-starred Hibiscus.  Although I hated our table at the Greenhouse (right next to the doors to the kitchen and within view of the till), the pacing of our dinner at the Greenhouse was perfect (a little under four hours).  At Hibiscus, we shoveled down just as many courses in 2.5 hours, which wasn’t particularly relaxing.

I think the cooking at Hibiscus is more exciting than what I experienced at the Greenhouse (e.g., I’m still dreaming of that truffle-egg yolk-potato ravioli at Hibiscus), but the cooking at the Greenhouse was consistently well done (particular shout out to the sauces, which were all distinct and well matched to what was on the plate).  At these prices, though, it’s only partly about the food, and I loved taking my time at the Greenhouse.

With aperitifs, a £70 bottle of wine and bottled water, we paid £146  each.

The Greenhouse, 27a Hay’s Mews, W1J 5N; +44 (0)20 7499 3331; closest tube station: Green Park
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Hibiscus egg amuse

Two weeks ago, Jon and I revisited Hibiscus to celebrate my birthday.  (We were last there in December 2007, soon after Hibiscus arrived in London, and I was reminded of how long it had been since our last visit when I read Tamarind & Thyme’s rave review of her lunch there in December 2009.).

I’d had a horrible day at work and was tempted to cancel our 9 pm reservation.  But if you cancel at the last minute, you pay a hefty £75 per person fee, which is understandable, but painful when you’re so exhausted.

So I dragged myself there, and things got off to a bad start when Jon and I were wedged between two tables of men talking dealspeak.  Despite my best effort to tune them out, words like “clawback”  and “leverage” kept intruding, and I started to feel quite sorry for myself.

A delicious amuse of Moroccan-spiced-froth-in-an-eggshell came and went, as did hot puffs of cheese gougeres.  I hardly paid attention, because I couldn’t believe I’d been wedged in Dealmaker Hell.  The hazards of eating at a 2-Michelin-starred resto on a Thursday, perhaps.

So I did something I’ve never done before:  I asked to be moved.  Our servers didn’t ask why – they just moved us.   Our new table was an oasis of calm.  Much better.

scallop with a tart gelee

Jon and I had the tasting menu.  If I had to generalize, I’d say the courses at the start were more creative and “ooh ahhh” than the ones towards the end, but from start to finish, we had a delicious meal.  My initial feeling that I had been coerced by the high cancellation fee into eating an exhaustingly-long meal was quickly replaced by the joy that a well-run restaurant with a creative, talented chef brings.

Our scallop starter with a starchy puree and refreshingly tart gelee had us wondering in awe how anyone (i.e., the chef) can think to combine such startling flavors.  Because it was my birthday, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride, so if you’re looking for precise ingredient descriptions, stop reading now.

poached egg black truffle raviolo

One dish that still stands out, even two weeks later, was a raviolo stuffed with a poached egg, potato puree and studded with black truffle.  First, the technical wizardry . . . how do you get an egg yolk into a raviolo without the whole thing spilling out?  (My photo shows the yolk after I’d poked open my raviolo).  Second, the flavors – potato, egg yolk and black truffle – an understandably-classic combo.  The pungent black truffle’s flavors are absorbed into the yolk and potato puree.  Comforting flavors in an elegant package.  Brilliant.

black bream stuffed with cepes

foie gras

duck breast with black pudding and red cabbage puree

If pressed to identify a weak link, I’d single out the duck course, because the duck breast had a few tough-to-chew bits.  You know, the kind you chew for a while and then end up trying to gracefully spit out because it just won’t go down.  It was an odd problem to have a 2-starred place, which is the only reason I remember it.

apple celeriac chestnut parfait

Pre-dessert, an apple gelee, celeriac and chestnut parfait  was interesting but not anything I’d ever crave.  The chestnut layer was too starchy for the parfait to be refreshing.

parsnip tart with pear sauce and vanilla ice cream with smoked caramel

Desert was tasty and playful and ended our dinner on a high note:  a parsnip tart that looked just like a tarte au citron, but instead was wonderfully sweet and salty.   The smoked caramel-vanilla ice cream was a dreamy accompaniment.

The dinner tasting menu at Hibiscus is £90, so with a modest wine, coffee and service, our tab totaled about £280.  Definitely a special occasion-kind-of-place, and at these prices and after such an inauspicious start, it’s a wonder that Jon and I left the restaurant feeling happy and relaxed.  Thank God we’d moved tables with no fuss.  I was glad we’d revisited, and we’d be glad to go back.

Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, W1S 2PA; 0207 629 2999; closest tube station:  Oxford Circus
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Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Kai (Chinese) Restaurant in Mayfair

Last week, I had dinner with Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick. Our choice of venue was Kai, a Chinese restaurant that was awarded a Michelin star earlier this year, which raised both its profile as well as diners’ expectations. (For a more complete view on our dinner at Kai, you’ll want to read Londonelicious’s post and Gourmet Chick’s post. They both did a much finer job than I did of comparing and contrasting our views. Next time, I’ll know to step aside and let them do the writing)!

In deciding how to describe Kai, I’ve been thinking over whether it’s fair to demand inventiveness from a one-Michelin-starred restaurant. More specifically: was it enough that Kai cooked classic Chinese dishes very well? Am I holding a one-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant up to a higher standard than I would, say, a one-starred Modern British restaurant? Of course, in bellyaching like this, I’m assuming there’s consistency in the way Michelin rates restaurants, which is an iffy assumption (compare the ho-hum Arbutus to the never-lets-you-down Ledbury, for example).

Fair or not, I’ve decided that while the majority of Kai’s dishes were delicious, very few of them were worth the high price tag.

As one of our starters, we ordered the “nest of Imperial jewels” (£13), which was chicken pan-fried with mustard greens and served in lettuce leaves. Sadly, the chicken was bland and brought bad back memories of “chicken lettuce wraps” at PF Changs, the Cheesecake Factory of Chinese restaurants (where the chicken always came in perfect cubes, bringing to mind an industrial processor rather than a highly-skilled knife wielder).

wasabi prawns (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

wasabi prawns (£21) (photo courtesy of Gourmet Chick)

A favorite of all three of us, the wasabi prawns were a great mix of flavours and textures: crispy, sweet and spicy; crunchy and gooey. The spice from the wasabi was an inventive touch that left me thinking the £21 price tag was worth it. This dish was served at Taste of London, and after trying these prawns there, Londonelicious was understandably hooked on going to Kai (so I guess TofL does bring some business to restaurants).

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

half portion of crispy duck (£31)

In contrast, the half portion of crispy duck, while good, wasn’t £31 good. After all, it’s just duck confit shredded up and served with pancakes. For a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kai could’ve done something interesting with the wraps or the sauce, though in fairness, the crispy duck was listed in the section of the menu labeled “classic starters,” so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected anything more. Londonelicious shared the same view, though she did appreciate the homemade pancakes, and Gourmet Chick rightly noted that the tableside serving ritual was gracefully done.

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot

prawn-stuffed aubergine in a clay pot (£20)

Still, even with dishes outside of the “classics” section, Kai played it all straight. The prawn-stuffed aubergines and sauteed kai lan (£12) were tasty but no tastier than at, say, the mid-priced, attractive and high-quality Pearl Liang.

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

scallops and asparagus in XO sauce (£24)

And the scallops and asparagus in XO sauce was a bit sub-par for using not-especially sweet scallops. Both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick noted the extreme spiciness of the scallops, but they have must have each accidentally eaten a chili (or somehow I got all the pieces without chili), because I thought this dish was a bit bland.

roasted pork belly at Kai (£19) - my fave main course of the night

roasted pork belly with mint (£19) - my fave main course of the night

In addition to the wasabi prawns, the other star of the night was the pork belly with mint. It was both delicious and not a typical preparation. All three of us loved the crackly skin and the complementary flavors of the julienned apple and mint that accompanied the pork. Londonelicious found the portion a bit paltry, but given how fatty this dish was, I thought it was the right serving size.

almond jelly with fruits

almond jelly with fruits (£8)

Desserts, always the Achilles heel of Chinese restaurants high and low, included an almond jelly, which in Taiwan is served ice-cold at street markets for about a $1 ladle. Kai’s quivering room-temperature version, while visually pretty, wasn’t anything to be excited about. Londonelicious also rightly pointed out that it seemed a bit out of season now that it’s chilly outside.

mango cake (£9)

mango cake (£9)

Mango cake with coconut froth was much loved by both Londonelicious and Gourmet Chick, but I thought it tasted too little of mangoes and too much of a molasses-type sweetener. Just good, but not great.

Kai’s service was friendly and chatty, which I liked, and the women servers looked super stylish in their Shanghai-Tang-looking purple-and-green outfits. The décor was high-end circa 1980s lounge style, and for what it’s worth, there didn’t appear to be any Chinese diners there that night. (No doubt that if Kai had the sexy decor of, say, Hakkasan, it’d be much easier to overlook what Gourmet Chick called Kai’s lack of Wow Factor).

Our tab came to £95 a person, which was higher-than-normal because we started with £20 glasses of champers and ended with dessert wines, and lower-than-normal because we stuck with the less-expensive dishes on the menu and lucked out with a great value wine rec from the sommelier.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Kai, but I didn’t think our meal was a good value. I’m much more likely to first revisit, say, Hakkasan, before I go back to Kai, mostly because you can’t beat the Wow Factor at Hakkasan.

Kai, 65 South Audley Street, W1K 2QU; 0207 493 8988; closest tube stations: Green Park, Bond Street.
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San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

San Marzano tomatoes and burrata at Murano restaurant in Mayfair

Last December, I tried Murano’s £25 lunch menu, which was outstanding value. I knew I’d be back, but as a testament to how slow I am to put words into action, I didn’t return until just last week. In the meantime, Murano picked up a Michelin star in January this year, and I can see why. Dinner at Murano was delicious and high quality (a bit like eating at the Ledbury, but with more formal service).

Murano offers two menus at dinner: a three-course a la carte menu for £55, and an eight-course tasting menu for £75. Encouraged by the same lovely freebies that I remembered from my £25 lunch – the fragrant white-truffle arancini, the melt-in-your-mouth coppa – Jon and I chose the tasting menu, which, interestingly enough, offers two options for most of the courses.

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

grilled foie gras with sweet and sour tomatoes

Apparently I was lying when I claimed to be foie gras‘d out after a week in the Loire Valley:  the instant I saw grilled foie gras among the tasting menu options, it was a no-brainer. One of these days, I’ll try cooking foie gras at home, but for now, I remain in awe of how one grills it. It’s got to be like grilling butter, no? I mean, how do you keep it from melting on the grill? In any event, Murano’s grilled foie was silky, creamy-meaty, and beautifully complemented by the intensely-sweet tomatoes, which had a caramelized flavor despite not showing any signs of having been caramelized. Quite a mystery but delight of a dish.

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

swiss chard and Sairass ricotta tortelli

rocket and pecorino risotto

rocket and pecorino risotto

Generally, I’m rarely interested in pastas or risottos in high-end restaurants, but both dishes at Murano were intense and cheesy in a way that I could never duplicate at home (probably bc I’m not heavy-handed enough with the butter), and I loved them both. (Jon and I each ordered different ones and then did the old switcheroo so we each ended up eating a half portion).

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

pan-fried seabass with garden peas

I didn’t get too excited about the fish course, which was cooked just past raw and just shy of tough. In other words, it was cooked just right. But still, I find fish to be nothing special unless it’s sushi or I’m sitting by a large body of water while eating it.

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

herb salad with apples and cider vinaigrette

Herb salads. Indulge me in a pet peeve rant: I know it’s intended as a palate cleanser, but what was wrong with the good ol’ sorbet? When I eat an herb salad, I feel like I’m eating an ingredient, rather than a meal.

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

Gressingham duck breast, carrot puree and white asparagus

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

roasted Cornish lamb served with neck bolognese and grilled courgettes

Things were back on track with the meat courses. Duck was tender and sliced paper-thin. It really did melt in your mouth. Jon’s lamb was similarly luscious. There are moments when you’re sure you could never be a vegetarian, and this was one of them.

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

pistachio souffle served with warm chocolate sauce and macaron

Feeling quite full after tiers of fun-flavored, jewel-like ice creams were served, I didn’t think we’d make it through dessert. But never underestimate the power of a *perfectly*-baked pistachio souffle. Just digging into the pillowy top was a treat, and I was so impatient to dig in that it was hard to let our server first pour liquid chocolate into it. The interior was yielding and moist without being liquidy. Brilliant. And is there a more perfect flavor marriage than that of pistachio and chocolate? I think not. The macaron was a nice visual accompaniment, but tough and crunchy (and altogether forgettable).

Service at Murano was friendly and attentive. The dining room is small and discreetly luxe. Factor in the tasty, easy-t0-love food, and it’s no surprise Murano earned its first Michelin star so soon after opening. I won’t be surprised to see it earn a second.

Murano Restaurant, 22 Queen Stret, W1J 5PR; 0207 592 1222; closest tube station: Green Park

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Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

Maze restaurant interior (lifted from the Grosvenor Marriott site)

A month ago, Jon and I had dinner at Maze. Because it was Jon’s choice, I didn’t get a say in the matter, or else I’m pretty sure I would’ve nixed the suggestion (though hindsight is 20/20, I know).

First, although Maze has its own entrance off of Grosvenor Square (and wow, the US Embassy in London really *is* as ugly as everyone says it is), it’s also connected to a Marriott Hotel. And I have a major bias against restaurants located in chain hotels, especially mid-range hotels.

Second, upon stepping into the dining room, we couldn’t miss the glass case displaying owner Gordon Ramsay’s cookbooks. Classy.

Third, and most substantively, the service we had at Maze ruined our quiet evening out. “Indifferent” would be the charitable description of our server.

I don’t want or need fawning armies of servers. But at a 1-Michelin star restaurant, I want someone to hand me the menu, not put it on the table and shove it towards me. I want someone who graciously accepts that I don’t want bottled water, instead of making a show of taking away the “fancy” water glasses (presumably reserved for rarefied water that comes out of a glass bottle) and replacing them with other, different (presumably lesser) glasses filled with tap water. Or how about this – a server who aks me if I’m ready to order, instead of sidling up to my table, shifting all weight to one leg (classic teenager-slouch style) and asking me “you OK now?” The only thing missing from the tableau was some gum snapping.

I should’ve just walked out then. It’s a Wednesday night. I’m tired. I just want a quiet dinner with my husband. I don’t need to feel uncool and unwanted. And definitely not at these prices.

Looking back, I can see why service was sloppy at Maze. Jon and I were seated at a table surrounded by multiple groups of what appeared to be work colleagues (perhaps traveling together and staying at the Marriott hotel). If I were there having drinks and nibbles with coworkers, I’d probably care a lot less about servers pushing menus towards me and talking to me in casual-teen-lingo when taking my order

For the sake of argument, let’s assume I was in such a bad mood that it was inevitable I’d be annoyed with the service. Well, the food didn’t exactly improve things. I’m usually pretty tolerant of high prices and so-so service as long as the food delivers.

But at Maze, the high prices for small portions of occasionally-gimmicky food left me seriously (*very* seriously) wondering how this place has a Michelin star. Our experience at Maze was nowhere near the meals we’ve had at, for example, the Ledbury or Hibiscus (where, by the way, the servers are helpful and gracious without being overly-formal).

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant

assiette of sandwiches at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Maze’s chef, James Atherton, gets a lot of press for his “assiette of sandwiches,” for example, and the BLT in the martini glass would be charming if food-in-a-martini glass didn’t seem so distinctly trendy (circa 1990s), and if I thought drinking lettuce soup with bacon bits was worth £9. To be fair, there was a sliver of buttery ham-and-cheese sandwich (the croque monsieur), too.

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant

lamb chop at Maze Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ribose Reflections)

Above, you’ll find a photo of the lamb chop dish we ordered (photos courtesy of this blogger) to illustrate the plate sizes at Maze. It’s no exaggeration to say you’re supposed to order at least four plates per person to make a meal at Maze, so while the menu prices (£9-13 a plate) don’t look high, your bill tallies up quickly if you’re at Maze for anything other than a quick snack.

The food wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t memorable. When you factor in our disgruntled server (whose pouting would be more at home at a McDonald’s than at a Gordon Ramsay resto in Mayfair), you’re left wondering why anyone goes to Maze. I’d go back for drinks with coworkers if they were staying at the attached Marriott, or maybe I’d go again if I had to get my passport renewed at the nearby US Embassy. But outside of those two unlikely scenarios, no thanks.

Maze Restaurant, 10-13 Grosvenor Square, W1K 6JP, 0207 107 0000; closest tube station: Bond Street
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spider roll at Sake No Hana

spider roll at Sake No Hana

Last April, when Jon and I visited Sake No Hana, it was still basking in the glow of post-opening hype. Even if I hadn’t blogged about it, I’d remember that the food was good, but not good enough to justify those prices.

Two weeks ago, Jon saw on TopTable that Sake No Hana was having a 50% off promotion, and you know, at half off, we thought Sake No Hana was worth a re-visit.

Things got off to a bumpy start when Sake No Hana couldn’t find our booking. They found us a table, but then we were uncertain whether we’d still get the 50%-off deal. Jon, being That Guy, was prepared to walk if the resto didn’t give us the discount. So, we asked our server if we’d be getting the discount, and there was much consulting among the various people who visited our table afterwards to confirm that, in fact, we would like the discount.

In the end, we got the nod. Feeling slightly awkward about the whole thing (there had to have been a graceful way of claiming the discount, no?), we tried to put it behind us, and we ordered with gusto.

seaweed salad at Sake No Hana

seaweed salad at Sake No Hana

I’m normally a fan of seaweed salads at Japenese restos. I love the slight crunch of the seaweed, along with the nutty sweetness of rice vinegar and sesame oil. It’s also, usually, a pretty cheap dish.

Although I wondered why Sake No Hana’s version was priced at £12.50, I figured at half off, I’d give it a try.

Well, the salad was super colorful and chock full of mushrooms. But the dressing was too acidic and citrusy – everything just tasted sour. The mushrooms lacked flavor, which meant they were just glorified sponges, soaking up more of that over-citrused dressing. The salad didn’t even have varied textures to save it. Too bad. Even £6.25 was too much to pay.

Sesame aubergine at Sake No Hana

Sesame aubergine at Sake No Hana

Sesame aubergine (£5.50) was much hyped a year ago, so Jon and I tried it out. It wasn’t bad, but the sauce was too sweet and thick. I would’ve preferred if the aubergine’s natural sweetness had been allowed to shine, instead of its (almost) drowning in sauce.

Because I had a craving, I ordered the spider roll (pictured at the top of this post). £10.80 gets you an elaborate, pretty-looking roll, but I couldn’t taste the soft shell crab. When it comes to sushi, simple is best. I feel sad when good seafood is overwhelmed by fussiness.

Tosa tofu with bonito flakes at Sake No Hana

Tosa tofu with bonito flakes at Sake No Hana

Despite not being a vegetarian, I love tofu. Especially if it’s deep fried. So the tosa tofu, crusted in bonito flakes and deep fried was a must. Crispy and hot on the outside; creamy and soft on the inside. I liked it, and though it normally costs £7, for £3.50, it was a steal.

Pork ribs for two at Sake No Hana

Pork ribs for two at Sake No Hana

Last time we ate at Sake No Hana, we got talked out of the pork ribs and steered towards some un-tasty crab. Not a mistake we’d repeat this time! Even at the regular price of £22, you get a lot of pork for your money. The enormous pork ribs were served in a cast-iron pot, almost French style. Jon and I loved its homey fattiness. It’s really the last dish we’d expect at a Japanese restaurant, but the braising liquid was beautifully clear and light, as if it’d been strained clean. All that was left was a sweet-salty-sour goodness.

Last April, we paid £125 with wine. This time, with 50% off the food bill, we paid £71, including wine. Even with the discount, Sake No Hana was no bargain, but I’d say £71 was a fair price for the food, chic decor and attentive, efficient service.

For my sushi fix, though, I’ll stick with cheap-and-cheerful Tomoe.

Sake No Hana, 23 St James’s St, SW1A 1HA, 020 7925 8988. Closest tube station: Green Park

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prosciutto and salami at Murano

prosciutto and salami at Murano

and breads, of course

and breads, of course

After a hectic past few weeks, I’m finally away for the holidays. Yay! A foot of snow has just dumped down on the northeast US, and now that I’m no longer traveling, it’s lovely to see the blanket of white outside.

Just before I left London, I tried the £25 lunch menu at Angela Hartnett’s Murano, and it ticked all the boxes: great service, lovely linens/china, and flashes of creativity on the understandably-limited menu – all at a fantabulous price.

The restaurant is still offering a decadent white truffle tasting menu (a £65 supplement for every white truffle course you add to your meal), and our waiter carried over a box of the precious fungus so we could have a peek and sniff (those are free). It’s heady stuff, that white truffle. We got our little taste of the good life in the fresh-out-of-the fryer white truffle arancini that arrived while we browsed the menu options.

And as if the creamy-crispy arancini weren’t pre-starter enough, after we placed our order, a generous pile of salumi arrived. I’d love to know who Murano’s supplier is, because I could have eaten that prosciutto all day. For vegetarians, there was a smoked aubergine puree dip that was creamy, sweet and nutty – a delish topping for the fresh, varied breads in our bread basket, but no match for the beauties of cured meat.

grilled mackerel tart with confit lemon green olive vinaigrette

grilled mackerel tart with confit lemon green olive vinaigrette

My starter of grilled mackerel tart was meaty and moist without any of the stinky fishiness that ruins mackerel’s popularity. And the sharp sweetness of the tomato-red “tart crust” added flavor and taste contrast. I enjoyed my starter immensely.

roasted guinea fowl with braised thigh, crosnes and Savoy cabbage puree

roasted guinea fowl with braised thigh, crosnes and Savoy cabbage puree

Roasted guinea fowl was juicy, but nothing too memorable, especially compared to the guinea fowl I had at Petershan Nurseries. On the other hand, the cost of the guinea fowl alone at Petersham approximated that of our entire lunch menu at Murano . . . .

pan-fried stonebass, sauce basquaise, chorizo and butter beans

pan-fried stonebass, sauce basquaise, chorizo and butter beans

The stonebass was beautifully pan fried so that its skin turned into crackling while the white, flaky meat stayed moist, but the treats hidden in the sauce basquaise were the highlight. Chorizo makes everything good. Murano knows how to source, no question.

sorbets in a rainbow of colors and flavors

sorbets in a rainbow of colors and flavors

The palate-cleansers were so fun – we couldn’t help smiling at the colors and flavors. Rich and creamy banana; refreshing and light basil; tart black currant were my faves, but polishing off all of the sorbets was no problem.

chocolate brownie with bloord oranges

fudge brownie with blood oranges

Dessert options were pretty unimaginative. Then again, it may be no more than a dressed-up brownie, but it was still worth the calories.

fruit tuiles, chocolates and panettone

petit fours: fruit tuiles, chocolates and panettone

I loved the petit fours – chocolate truffles, fruit tuiles and fresh, warm hunks of panettone. I’m still thinking of that panettone – its eggy texture and sweet tartness of candied citrus, balanced with plump sweet raisins. Nothing like those monsters that come in pretty boxes at this time of year.

What a steal for £25. Considering how much I loved all the goodies that came in between our courses, I’m guessing I’d love a full-on meal at Murano. To do in 2009, then.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, W1J 5PR, 0207 592 1222; closest tube station: Green Park
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paella at St. Alban's restaurant (near Piccadilly Circus)

paella at St. Alban restaurant

I rarely take advantage of lunch menus at normally-expensive restaurants, because if I motivate to try out a pricey restaurant, I want to have the “full” multi-hours-long, appetizer-to-coffee experience. I figure you can’t really judge a place on a special lunch menu.

Of course, you should never say never, and twice now, I’ve enjoyed the £15.50 weekend lunch at St. Alban, a Mediterranean-inspired place near Piccadilly Circus. Despite the fact that St. Alban’s owners used to own J. Sheekey (seriously one of the worst values in London), I initially dropped by because TimeOut loved it and it’s steps away from where a certain designer has sample sales every few months. So first I shop, and then I go to St. Alban. It’s all very Ladies Who Lunch (except, of course, for the tiny detail that I have a full-time job. And I’m shopping at a sale).

St. Alban’s lunch menu is limited and hasn’t changed much over the past three months, and because I’ve there eaten both times with largeish groups, I’ve managed to try all of the options.

The bread basket, which could so easily be a crappy throwaway, is lovely. Grissini is crispy and tastes like olive oil, and it’s overshadowed only by the fruity, aromatic olive oil that accompanies the springy, moist country bread slices.

Portions at St. Alban are pretty huge, which is weird, because the restaurant’s aggressively high-design, Jetson-style interior would suggest small portions. Soups and the broad-beans-and-chorizo starters were disappointing during both my visits. Bland. It’s hard for chorizo to be bland, but somehow St. Alban manages to do it.

buffalo mozzarella salad at St. Alban's

buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad at St. Alban

The salads have been the best of the lunch appetizer options. The buffalo mozzarella and artichoke salad isn’t the most creative offering in the world, but you’re served a whole ball of fluffy, creamy, tangy cheese, and the greens are lightly dressed with a sweet balsamic vinaigrette. Simple and good.

roast pork belly at St. Alban's restaurant

roast pork belly at St. Alban

Main courses are definitely the highlight from the lunch menu. This is where the hugeness of portions rears its ugly head. Paella is served with whole king prawns, massive mussels, calamari, smoky chorizo, and surprisingly, chicken. The seafood ingredients are sweet and not-overcooked, and the risotto is creamy and not gloppy.

My other fave of the lunch menu mains is the pork belly. I love the delicate layer of crackling and the fat-marbled pinkness of the meat. Because the two thick slices of pork belly are too much for even the piggiest eater (comme moi), I’ve scarfed down one slice and then asked to have the other to go. The other day when I made the “to go” request, our server gave me a couple of eyerolls, which was too bad. Up until then, she’d been the model of friendly helpfulness, regularly refilling our glasses with tap water. As New Yorker in London noted a few months ago, getting leftovers “to go” elicits these sorts of reactions in London restos. Shame.

Overall, St. Alban’s weekend lunch menu is a steal at £15.50 for two courses. Options are simple and well-executed, and the dining room is empty enough on weekends that you can linger. The service is generally attentive and helpful, and my only advice is to work up a big appetite before you go.

St. Alban, 4-12 Regent Street, SW1Y 4PE; 0207 499 8558. Closest tube station: Piccadilly Circus
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Sake No Hana interior from Jan Moir

Because I’m a fan of Alan Yau’s restaurants, particularly Hakkasan (yes, I know he sold off control of Hakkasan and Yauatcha recently, but to me, they’ll always be his restos), I’ve been meaning to get to Sake No Hana since it opened a few months ago. Part of the reason I held off, though, is because professional reviews have shared an underlying message of “I am going to say nice-ish things about the food without having to say I really didn’t enjoy the place.” Or maybe that’s just me, projecting. [It seems I’ve just given away the ending to the otherwise-high-suspense, gripping medium known as the restaurant review.]

On the other hand, my friend Jane enjoyed her experience there a few weeks ago, as did my friend Shamini, and another food blogger who ate there twice in a month. So. I went this weekend for dinner.

Grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce at Sake No Hana

Jon and I didn’t get to sit at one of the fab-looking tatami-mat tables because there aren’t any that seat two. We ended up way in the back of the dining room, by the kitchen and the escalator that takes you out of the resto. In case it wasn’t bad enough that we were in Siberia missing out on tatami mat fun, I overheard both the couple to my left and the one to my right ask their servers why the restaurant didn’t serve house fried rice. Weird. I wonder: do people go to Japanese restaurants looking for fried rice? [Jon, ever the cultural translator, explained that “house fried rice” is what non-Chinese people call fried rice without soy sauce. Fascinating.]

Anyhow, it seems the menu has been updated since all the first reviews of Sake No Hana came out. It’s still organized by cooking technique (grilled, fried, braised, etc.), but in English, not Japanese. So in that way, I thought the menu was pretty easy to navigate. Slightly frustrating, though, was how unpredictable portion sizes were and how one of our servers’ guidance was so off:

Jon and I had thought the braised pork ribs sounded delish, but our server told us it was intended to serve four people and suggested we try the grilled blue king crab with ponzu sauce (photo above), instead. We hesitated – because we sure love braised pork – but she won us over by adding “the crab is really delicious.”

Well, the enormous crab claws were still smoking when they arrived, and the ponzu sauce was poured on at the table, causing much sizzle, steam and general drama. It’s just too bad the crab meat was kind of tough and the ponzu brought about only a slightly sour taste on the crab. £28 badly spent.

And how extra disappointing that it seemed the servers were pushing the king crab all night! (We bumped into acquaintances on our way out who mentioned their server’s very strong rec of the dish).

tempura prawns and courgette blossoms at Sake No Hana

Our prawn tempura and courgette blossom tempura were super oily and a tad soggy, which surprised me because I’d expected the virtuoso grease-free frying at Hakkasan to just find its way to Sake No Hana.

The fatty tuna nigiri we ordered was OK (disappointingly not melt-in-your-mouth); our braised aubergine was interesting, but threw me off because it was served cold and whole. I didn’t enjoy the cold, slimy feel of it, much as I liked the aubergine’s smoky, salty-sweet flavor. Miso sea bass was good, but ever since the rise of Nobu miso cod, when have you ever seen that dish go wrong? At £18 for a smaller-than-appetizer portion, I don’t think I’d get it again at SNH.

So what did I like about Sake No Hana?

I liked the high ceilings, the sleek, black escalators. The carafes of tap water in ergonomic and stylish crystal pitchers. Servers were all polite and generally helpful. Sakes by the carafe were fun to try and pair with food. A lot of the carafes cost £15-£20 and yielded three or four sake glasses. Plain old sesame udon noodles and agedashi tofu were simple but delicious and beautiful. (I’m glad we threw these last two dishes in, and we ordered them only after we’d eaten everything else and realized we were still hungry).

Our tab for two carafes of sake and all the food I just described (the grilled crab, tempuras, nigiri, braised aubergine, miso sea bass, agedashi tofu and udon noodles) came to £125.

I might go back with a party of four or six to sit in the resto’s snazzy room on a tatami mat, but otherwise, there are a lot of other places I’d go (especially for Japanese food and at these prices) before I revisit Sake No Hana.

Sake No Hana, 23 St James’s St, SW1A 1HA, 020 7925 8988.  Closest tube:  Green Park

Photo at top courtesy of Jan Moir Are You Ready to Order.

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Wild Honey interior from the Telegraph

Because we had such a positive experience at Arbutus last week, Jon and I decided that we would try out Wild Honey, which is Arbutus’s sister restaurant. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care that Wild Honey opened to rave reviews a few months ago and was designated Time Out London‘s Best New Restaurant of the Year.

Our friends Phu and Aaron had told us they prefer Arbutus because they prefer (buzzing) Soho over (genteel) Mayfair, and I couldn’t agree more that it’s only the neighborhood of each that makes them distinct from each other. There was overlap in the dishes offered on both restaurants’ menus; the prices were similar at both; and the wine lists are identical.

The decor at Wild Honey was all wood-paneled formality, and the crowd looked a lot older than the one at Arbutus. But these differences aren’t necessarily bad things, much as I might personally dislike wood paneling (it’s so – clubby). In fact, I much preferred our meal at Wild Honey to the one at Arbutus, partly because we had unbeatable company with us at Wild Honey, and partly because we had fantastic service the night we went.

Duck egg appetizer at Wild Honey restaurant

I love egg yolks. I love pancetta. What this means is that when a menu offers a dish called “fried duck egg with warm pancetta and lentil salad,” I’m all over it. Served in an impossibly-gorgeous stainless steel frying pan (“impossible” because my stainless steel pans haven’t looked that shiny since I brought them home from the store), the dish is a dreamy, high-end breakfast. A slice of hot, crunchy toast was exactly what I needed to sop up the intense creamines of the ginormous duck egg yolk. The pancetta did its meaty saltiness thing, and I ate the lentils just because they were there.

Is this dish simple? Yes. Is it well-executed and delicious? Definitely. And that about sums up the kind of cooking that made Wild Honey (and Arbutus) worth visiting.

(more…)

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