Posts Tagged ‘Modern British in London’

Despite living and working in the easterly bits of central London, I visited two restaurants in Kensington over the last seven days: Kitchen W8 and Launceston Place. I thought the former was pleasant and worth visiting when already in the area, but in contrast, the latter is a worthy cross-town destination. If there’s justice in the world, Launceston Place should be awarded Michelin star in the next year. In addition to talent in the kitchen, it’s got great style and spirit. [An aside for fellow food nerds: be sure to read this fascinating interview with a Michelin Guide inspector.]

hot-cold leek soup amuse at Launceston Place restaurant

hot-cold leek soup amuse at Launceston Place

A few preliminaries. My friends and I made our Saturday booking about two months ago, not because the restaurant was that unattainable, but because we had such conflicting schedules. Then, I read on Gourmet Chick that Launceston Place’s sous chef, Steve Groves, had just won a TV cooking competition, and more importantly, Gourmet Chick had had a fabulous time despite a bizarre service hiccup at the start. All of this meant that by the time we were seated in one “wing” of the restaurant’s butterfly-shaped dining room, I had pretty high expectations.

Presumably because it was late (i.e, past 9 pm), we weren’t offered the tasting menu (£55), but with a party of four, we were still able to construct our own tasting menu by each ordering different dishes from the three-course (£45) menu. Once we added in all the amuses (like the wonderful hot-cold leek soup in graduated shades of green – just like a leek), we felt like we’d eaten the tasting menu anyway.

roasted scallops with aromatic herbs

Starters were a strong point of the evening. Jon’s roasted scallops were huge, juicy and sweet. Perfect. (However, being competitive, I’m mildly miffed that Gourmet Chick was served three of these, whereas Jon received two. Was the kitchen running low on scallops that night?)

potted foie gras, quince puree and dandelion greens

My starter of potted foie gras consisted of a generous portion of the most velvety foie gras pate, ever. The quince puree added a touch of sweet lightness, and I didn’t even mind the dark slate serving slab (it’s so 1990s, no?).

celery sorbet-julienned apple amuse with walnut cream and walnuts

A celery-sorbet palate cleanser performed its function, but the celery was flavorless (as you’d expect from a veg that’s 99% water), and the walnut cream could’ve been sweeter so that it was more than just an icy refresher.

Tamworth suckling pig, radishes and honey emulsion

As a main, I chose the suckling pig, whose bit of crackling-topped belly was superb, but amazingly, even better than the slice of belly were the tender loin medallions encased in unctuous, flavor-soaking pig fat. There were accompanying bits and bobs for color and crunch, but the piggy stole the show for me.

wild hare, nutmeg cream potatoes and spiced pears

Jon’s wild hare was cooked to a melt-in-your-mouth state. Despite the generous portion size, Jon practically licked his plate clean. However, while I appreciated the gamey meat’s tenderness, it was almost too mushy for me. I felt like I ought to be spreading the meat on toast.

spinach and homemade ricotta ravioli with sage butter and artichokes

Our friend J chose the vegetarian option of a spinach and ricotta ravioli. While it looked gorgeous, and while J loved her dish, from the bite I had, I thought the kitchen could’ve used a lighter hand with the herbs. My mouthful tasted overwhelmingly of parsley and dill. And I’d expected mountains of ricotta in these things, which was not the case.

lemon sorbet and raspberry coulis with a pepper tuile

There was a pre-dessert demonstrating more playfulness with temperatures and textures. I loved the way the peppery tuile shattered and added crunchy sweetness to the smooth, creamy cold-sorbet-warm-coulis combo. When even the amuses are a creative treat, you can’t help feeling that someone in the kitchen is paying attention to all the details.

dark chocolate, iced milk and crumble

Desserts were generally tasty but pedestrian, and I agree with Gourmet Chick’s assessment that they weren’t as special as the other courses. The “dark chocolate” dessert, for example, was exactly as advertised on the tin: rich, creamy chocolate – like a thick mousse.

toffee apple parfait

Visually, my apple parfait was appealing: a golden apple with echoes of childhood candy-like toffee apples. But the apple was enormous, and inside, it was just a creamy, heavy apple-walnut parfait, which got old really fast. Instead of finishing my giant ball of (effectively) ice cream, I ended up “helping” Jon devour his delicious selection of cheese.

Overall, the decor, food and service were excellent at Launceston Place. If I had to nitpick (of course I do), I’d complain that (1) we had to ask three times for our tap water glasses to be refilled; and (2) while the food is tremendous value at these prices, the “extras” add up incredibly fast. A glass of champagne here (£14 for non-vintage yeasty Roederer); a madeira there (£11 a glass); a couple bottles of wine; a cheese course supplement (£6-£10) . . . when our bill arrived, we were stunned for a moment. What happened to that £45 pp price tag? But of course, all the charges made sense and we quickly moved past our surprise and paid up. After all, the important thing is that all of us had enjoyed our food and our evening, and we can’t wait to go back.

Launceston Place, 1a Launceston Place, W8 5RL; 0207 937 6912; closest tube stations: Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington.

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Kitchen W8 hot dog

game hotdog with a mug of game consomme and bacon cream (£8)

Bloggers Dos Hermanos panned Kitchen W8. But this week, Bloomberg’s Richard Vines raved about it. With my friend BK, I gave the place a go this past Wednesday, curious to see with whom I’d agree most. And as is often the case, the reality was somewhere in the middle: I enjoyed my meal there and would be happy to go back, but I wouldn’t cross town just to eat there again.

BK, a lover of all things meaty, ordered the much-written-about game hotdog, which he let me try. Contrary to Dos Hermanos’s experience where the gamy flavor of the sausage was overshadowed by the sugary-tangy “ketchup,” in our version of the dish, there was just enough of said ketchup to complement the meaty flavors of the sausage without overwhelming it. Sipping the bacon cream and game consomme added a smooth saltiness to balance out the sugary-meatiness of the hot dog. I liked it.

foie gras mousse with raisin puree and fruitbread (£8.75)

foie gras mousse with raisin puree and fruitbread (£8.75)

My foie gras mousse was a little too much of a good thing. I started out loving this dish: a little sweetness from the raisin puree mixing with the salty-meatiness of the foie gras mousse. But the bowl was huge, and after running out of toasts, I couldn’t bring myself to eat anymore of what was, essentially, a bowl of heavy cream and fat. I would’ve liked this dish more if it had come in a smaller bowl with a greater proportion of foie gras mousse.

Kitchen W8 halibut beaufort crust

Halibut fillet with Beaufort crust (£18)

BK loved his halibut fillet – currently the most popular dish on the menu, according to the Bloomberg review. The fish was firm without being overcooked, and I loved the crispness, sharpness and stink of the Beaufort crust. Much-needed moisture came from a bed of sweet reduced onions and a few chanterelles. Definitely one of the better fish dishes I’ve had in a while, but I could take it or leave it. After all, I’m rarely wowed by fish unless I’m eating it by the sea and know it’s jumped straight out of the water onto my plate.

Kitchen W8 duck breast

roast duck breast with caramelized endive tart (£17)

My generous portion of roast duck breast was rare and tender, and the crispy caramelized endive tart was a good accompaniment. Like most of the other dishes we had that night, the duck was simply prepared and expertly cooked.

It’s true that none of the dishes caused fireworks, but I’m a fan of Kitchen W8’s ability to churn out crowd-pleasing dishes that are well executed. The portions are generous, the room is casual-elegant and welcoming, and the staff were friendly. Tap water was never a problem, and there are plenty of wines by the carafe and by the glass.

BK and I shared two side dishes (including a forgettable one of buttered potatoes), an enormous cheese course and a carafe of wine to go with our two starters and two mains. Our total with service was £90.

I’d go back. Kitchen W8 is a high-quality neighborhood place that’s versatile – equally good for dates, get-togethers with friends and business meals. For Christmas this year, I hope Santa Claus brings me something similar for Angel Islington.

Kitchen W8, 11-13 Abingdon Road, W8 6AH; 0207 937 0120; closest tube station: High Street Kensington

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Blood cake, prunes and bacon at St. John Bread and Wine

Blood cake, prunes and bacon (£6.50)

An old friend who used to live in London and now lives in Hong Kong was back in town last week, and he wanted to eat pig products, English-style.  Obviously, that meant  St. John Restaurant.  Sadly, the Restaurant had no available tables on my friend’s only free evening, but its more casual sibling, St. John Bread and Wine, did, so off we went last Tuesday night.

Our chatty party of five felt right at home in the spare, high-ceilinged space, which buzzed with noise and good cheer.  Like the slightly-fancier St. John Restaurant, SJB&W turned out to be a fun place to meet friends (and it follows that it’s a not-so-fun place for a romantic night out).

There were about 20 small plates and three larger “mains” on the menu and blackboard.  Feeling hungry, we ordered eight small plates and two of the “mains.”  The menu, it turns out, is a masterpiece of understatement, because most dishes turned out to be much more wonderful than their one- or two-word descriptions would suggest.  For example, one of our party, perhaps feeling guilty about the meat-fest to come, ordered the menu item listed as “salad.”  It sounded like a throwaway item to me, but the salad turned out to be so crisp and beautifully-dressed that at the end of our meal, some of our group still mentioned it fondly.

whole crab and mayonnaise

whole crab and mayonnaise (£11)

My favorites of the evening were the whole crab and mayonnaise (pictured above) and the foie gras & duck liver toast (pictured below). In the first dish, the claw meat was sweet and firm, and the crab’s brown meat was decadently creamy and rich (the foie gras of the sea, anyone?).  As if the crab weren’t good enough on its own, the zippy mayonnaise was so tasty that when I ran out of crab, I just slathered it on slices of bread.

foie gras & duck liver toast

foie gras & duck liver toast (£6.70)

As St. John is the place to eat if you like offal, it was no surprise that the foie gras & duck liver on toast was excellent (though not sure what’s up with the redundant name . . . presumably the foie gras was of the goose liver variety?).  Hot, crisp bread smeared with a fragrant, rich liver.  Simple is great.

Speckled Face mutton  & carrots (for two)

Speckled Face mutton & carrots (£27 for two people)

The Speckled Face mutton was braised lamb meat at its fall-off-the-bone best, but at £27 for two, I wouldn’t have ordered it if I’d had exclusive control over the ordering at our table (a girl can dream . . . ).  I think my braises at home are just as good, really.  Same goes for SJB&W’s Cobb chicken & griolles (£13.90).

Bobby beans & duck egg

Bobby beans & duck egg (£5.90)

Two disappointments were the Bobby beans & duck egg (above) and the Stinking Bishop & Potatoes (below).  The beans were pretty dull and could have used a dressing with, say, more vinegar and anchovy for a kick that would complement the creamy egg yolks.

Stinking Bishop cheese & potatoes

Stinking Bishop cheese & potatoes (£12)

As for the Stinking Bishop – I wished the cheese had tasted as strong as it smelled.  But in fact, the beautifully-named cheese was too mild to be paired with the mild potatoes (however sweet and creamy those potatoes were).  The raw scallion didn’t rescue matters

Blood cake, prunes and bacon were a tasty-though-gelatinous accompaniment to the yummy breads, and the Lamb, Bread & Green sauce was a forgettable plate of meat-n-mint.

With £60 worth of wine and service, our tab came to £40 per person.  Having enjoyed the vibe, food and service at SJB&W, I will definitely be back, but the next time I go, I’m going to order a lot fewer dishes in order to save room for dessert.  I have, after all, heard nothing but rave reviews of the fresh-baked Madeleines . . . .

For another point of view on the place, click here for a Londonelicious review from a year ago, as well as Dos Hermanos’s recent SJB&W post (coincidentally, it appears we ate there on the same night).

St. John Bread and Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ; 0207 251 0848; closest tube station: Liverpool Street
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french toast pudding at Magdalen

french toast pudding at Magdalen

Magdalen opened in early 2007 to rave reviews across the board. Reading those reviews, I learned that the chef, James Faulks, had worked at the Fat Duck, and his wife, Emma, was pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental. And in light of how uniformly gushing the pro reviews were, I couldn’t believe the place had never before shown up on my radar. A friend of mine lives on nearby Bermondsey Street and hadn’t been. You’d think there’d be more excitement about the place, especially if you lived nearby, no? [Now that I’m blogging about it, I see that Around Britain with a Paunch had a good meal there in September 08 but that things ended on a bad note with the service charge.]

In any event, three weeks ago, Jon and I turned up for our 9 pm reservation, and we were pleased to see the intimate, dimly-lit dining room was packed. Our table wasn’t ready yet, so we cheerfully had aperos at the bar. The bartender was both friendly and generous: my glass of champagne was filled all the way to the top. It set a nice tone for the evening.

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

The menu offerings were what you’d expect at an ambitious gastropub, except that Magdalen’s starters were priced at the high end (£8-10). That said, the quality of our starters was very high. Jon’s generous portion of potted crab was very good – creamy, sweet essence of crab. As happens most times I order potted anything/rillettes, though, I wished for more toast.

squid and chickpea starter at Magdalen

cuttlefish and chickpea starter at Magdalen

While my braised cuttlefish was not much to look at, it was a delight to eat. There was definitely some pork in there lending a rich, meaty note to the creamy garbanzo beans and squid ink. A bit of Spain in London.


pigeon in mushroom cream sauce

I can never resist pigeon because when it’s cooked right, it’s pretty much duck-meets-steak (i.e., super!). Magdalen’s was spot-on tender and juicy. The pigeon was a bit tough to cut without a steak knife, so I really should have asked for one instead of resorting to my fingers. (Jon said he didn’t mind, but then again, we’re married so he’s stuck now).

rabbit and black pudding

rabbit and black pudding

Jon’s rabbit with white beans and black pudding wasn’t the obvious choice for a hot June evening. But it was as you’d expect: hearty and meaty. On a cold winter’s night, I’m sure I’ll be craving this dish.

Our mains were £16-18 each and sides (of which we ordered two) were £4-5 each.

After so much tasty, hearty food, I would normally have skipped dessert. But feeling decadent, I tried the French toast and ice cream, which was well worth the ten thousand gazillion calories’ worth of butter and cream in there. £6.50 was never better spent.

Overall, the cooking and service at Magdalen were wonderful, and I loved the availability of wines by the carafe (we ordered one of red for £15 that went well with our meal). Our tab for two, including service, was £120.

The thing is: £60 a person is lot of money for what seemed to me like gastropub fare. We ate a lot of food, and it was top-notch cooking, to be sure, but nothing on the menu seemed destination-dining-worthy. Perhaps Magdalen has toned down the ambition of its menu since it opened in 2007 in order to become more of a neighborhood place. But if that’s the case, then it’d be worth lowering prices as well.

Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, SE1 2TU; 0207 403 1342; closest tube station: London Bridge

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Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Soon after my friend made our reservations at Petersham Nurseries Cafe (you have to call about a month in advance), I saw that New Yorker in London had popped over and enjoyed it, which was encouraging, but I still had a few weeks to wait patiently.

Last weekend, our day finally arrived, and – what a perk – the day was crisp and sunny. I was in a good mood just walking through Richmond High Street, along the Thames and through the meadows. I thought “it just couldn’t be prettier than this,” but actually, I was wrong. The Petersham Nurseries is, in fact, even prettier than the walk it takes to get there. Eggbeater said it best when she called the place “a food stylist’s dream and a museum curator’s fantasy.” This is no Home Depot Garden Center. Petersham Nurseries is so achingly charming that the high prices in the cafe are easier to swallow if you figure you’re paying partly for the ambiance.

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

The menu changes almost daily, and there’s not a lot to choose from. Three sections: starters, mains and desserts. Only four options in each section, but what fab options they were!

I loved my starter – a salad with farinata, speck and pecorino. Farinata, I learned, is just another name for my beloved Riviera friend, socca – a crispy chickpea-flour pancake. Shards of farinata served hot with the salad added nice texture and warmth to the luscious fatty-salty speck, and creamy, dry pecorino. The only downside to my salad was its hefty pricetag: £11, but my salad was a steal compared to the *yawn* pumpkin ravioli my three dining companions ordered.

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

Mains were a highlight. Our server highly recommended the guinea fowl, which she said she’d just had for lunch, and she was spot on. The skin was beautifully crisped, the meat was firm, juicy and rich. The creamy, sweet balsamic mayo blended and balanced perfectly with the radicchio’s smoky bitterness. So simple, but fresh and well-executed. Worth the £21.

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

Jon’s monkfish curry had sounded out of place on the otherwise English-classics menu (so I was skeptical the kitchen would pull it off) but what came to the table was light and tasty. More Mediterranean than Thai. There was only the slightest hint of coconut in the sauce, and we learned the chef was on a chickpea kick, because the bhatura turned out to be more crispy chickpea flour.

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

My friend’s baked ricott was so simple and genius that I can’t wait to buy some good stuff from the cheese guy at next Sunday’s farmer’s market and try it myself. If you’d written off ricotta as bland, then I’d recommend trying the Petersham Nurseries version. It was so intense that it needed the greens and tapenade to tone down the salty-herby-creaminess.

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

And although we were stuffed after our starters and mains, we couldn’t help eyeing the desserts going to tables around us. My gorgonzola dolce was beautiful to look at it, and beautiful to taste. The sweet figs and the creamy, sharp gorgonzola should be married for life.

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

I didn’t eat the bread pudding or the mousse pictured below, but only because my friends gobbled them down faster than I could reach their plates to steal some. I will say, though, that I could smell the vanilla and cinnamon on the bread pudding, and no wonder – there were specks of vanilla pod in there. Quality goods.

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

Our meal, even without wine, was not cheap. Starters were £10-11; mains were £20-27; and desserts £7-8. We enjoyed a refreshing pitcher of mint-elderflower lemonade, and our tab came to £45 a person before service.

While I definitely see Andy Hayler’s point about the Cafe’s prices being high for a “garden centre cafe,” I think Petersham Nurseries is a unique place. Special enough that it’s not just a garden cafe. The high-quality ingredients in our lunch were carefully prepared and presented; the surroundings are cheerful and charming, and the service – while, as usual in London, understaffed – was helpful and friendly. I had a wonderful time and would love to bring back friends, especially those from out of town. Petersham Nurseries was, for me, quintessentially country English, so I’ll think of a trip there as something like going to the Tower of London – except a much better deal.

Petersham Nurseries Cafe, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey; 0208 605 3627; closest tube station: Richmond (and then it’s still a 20-minute walk to Petersham Nurseries, so bring your walking shoes. Apparently you can also take a bus from Richmond station.)
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passionfruit souffle with blueberry ice cream at the Ledbury restaurant

passionfruit souffle with blueberry ice cream at the Ledbury restaurant

Today is Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, and I’m fasting. No beverages or food for 24 hours. But at sundown today, it’s back to my piggish ways.

What better way to spend my last food-and-drink-free hours than to write about delicious delicious food? I *must* be delirious.

Jon and I returned to the Ledbury last weekend. We had such an all-around great meal there in August that it took restraint to wait even this long (six weeks) to revisit.

Perhaps inevitably, this time, I was slightly disappointed. To be fair to the Ledbury, high expectations are deadly. And I still think the Ledbury is a great restaurant. But the prices have gone up (the tasting menu is now £70 per person, not £60), and the ingredients used were noticeably budget-conscious. I assume the higher menu prices and seemingly-less-luxe ingredients can be blamed only on rising food costs, but I had hoped that restaurants would do only one or the other. Not both.

The service – such a high point last time – was still swift and accommodating: the sommelier remembered me from our last visit, and one of our servers allowed us to substitute the passionfruit souffle for the chocolate pave course on the tasting menu.

slice of foie gras terrine with mango

slice of foie gras terrine with mango

As for the food, it was all still tasty, but compared to our last tasting menu experience, it seemed skimpy and less creative. Rolls, for example. Something you can take for granted at any moderate-to-nice restaurant. Last time, we got an endless supply of them, and I had to force myself to stop eating all the bacony-cheese ones (they’re like gougeres, but better because there’s bacon). This time, we each got one roll at the start of the meal, and then another towards the end after we asked for more (and even then, our servers said they’d have to ask the kitchen to send more up).

As for the tasting menu, the slice of foie gras terrine was creamy and rich, and the diced mango and cabernet sauce added tang and sweetness, but I’d hoped for a thick slice of roast foie gras like what I remembered from our visit in August. Cold terrine just isn’t the same when you want hot, rich essence of meaty fatness.

roast cod with truffle

roast cod with truffle

Our cod is a better example of the skimpiness. Last time, we dined on moist, luscious, delicate-flavored turbot. This time, we got roast cod. It was likely as good as cod gets – firm but silky – but it’s hard for me to get excited about it. Where’s the special-occasion factor in cod?

partridge served with corn "three ways"

partridge served with corn

Our partridge with corn served three ways also seemed boring. The “corn on the cob” was crisp and sweet, but you know, it’s corn on the cob. And the corn pancake under the partridge was just tough. I guess it was there to soak up the chicken-tasting partridge juices. I admit I’m biased against partridge because I think it really does taste like chicken. And I’m a good enough home cook that chicken isn’t something I want to pay someone else to make for me. I’ll pick a lamb or suckling pig course any day above a partridge one.

Before I sound too “down” on eating at the Ledbury, I should point out the superstar passionfruit souffle. That souffle was so perfect that even if everything at the Ledbury sucked (which it most certainly does not), I’d still go back. The passionfruit (and lemon zest?) added a tanginess that matched the lightness of the souffle’s texture. As souffles are wont to be, it was hot, airy and so fresh that I thought if I didn’t eat it right away, the souffle might float away and disappear. The blueberry ice cream served tableside was an excellent contrasting accompaniment. Every bite of this dessert was sweet and sour, floral and fruity, hot and cold. I haven’t got a sweet tooth, but thanks to the Ledbury, I’ve learned I have a passionfruit souffle tooth.

Overall, I had a good meal this time ’round at the Ledbury. Prices were higher and value-for-money was proportionally lower than last time, but it’s still my favorite high-end restaurant in London. In these uncertain times, though, next time I’ll try the a la carte menu and cut back on the wines. Maybe I’ll go just for passionfruit souffle.

The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, W11 2AQ, 0207 792 9090; Closest tubes: Notting Hill Gate, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove. £70 tasting menu; £40 wine pairings.
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Hereford Road restaurant

Hereford Road restaurant

Regular readers among you have probably noticed I am a Thomas Keller fan. I love his cooking, his OCD perfectionism, and his taste. Years ago, when he lured Mark Furstenberg away from the BreadLine, the DC bakery, I was sad that my lunches at the BreadLine would never be the same, but I also knew that Furstenberg was going to a better place (baker heaven?). And I liked knowing that Thomas Keller appreciated Mark Fursternberg as much as we BreadLine fans did.

Well, a few months ago, the Guardian did this small piece listing Thomas Keller’s favorite restaurants in London and NY. He said about Hereford Road: “[i]t’s entirely free of pretension, has a nice energy and very knowledgable servers.”

So I’ve been there twice in the past two months. And no lie, the restaurant is a simple, sleek space with “a nice energy and very knowledgable servers.” None of the mains cost more than £14, and the wine list is comprised of well-priced, tasty bottles, many of which are available by the carafe (cheers, by the way, to Arbutus and Wild Honey for getting that trend going).

crab toast at Hereford Road

crab toast at Hereford Road

The thing is, the food was a mixed bag both times I went. I’d say appetizers were generally more interesting and tasty than the mains, but you have to love offal to get excited about the menu. My crab toast, for example, was comprised of the creamy innards of crab, not the sweet white meaty bits you more normally get. I liked it at first, for its rich seafoodiness, but I kept wondering exactly which bits I was eating, and my imagination ruined the taste. I love liver, but can I love the intestines, heart and the who-knows-what of a crab?

Jon reported the fatty richness of his deep-fried calf’s brain was appealing, but much as I love deep-fried food, I couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm. I have my limits when it comes to offal, I guess.

Main courses were, both times I went, much less creative than the appetizers, and not in a “safe but tasty” way, but more in a “eh” way.

Lamb dishes both times I’ve visited were good, but nothing special, and one time, my friend’s pigeon was incredibly tough, so he left it pretty untouched on his plate. As sad as the pigeon tasted, however, I loved that our server noticed his uneaten pigeon and offered another main course or a dessert on the house. When we declined both options, she just took the charge off our bill (we didn’t even have to ask), which was an act of graciousness I’ve yet to see anywhere in the UK.

plum ice cream at Hereford Road

plum ice cream at Hereford Road

Sides of new potatoes and cabbage, by the way, are excellent, as you’d expect when you combine farm-fresh ingredients with thick, sweet butter. Simple desserts like our plum ice cream are unusual and taste like a lot of care went into them. But are potatoes, cabbage and ice cream good reasons for me to schlepp from Angel to Notting Hill? Not really.

So I’d guess that the people who leave Hereford Road the happiest are offal lovers. And you know, after reading Michael Ruhlman’s Soul of a Chef (which details Thomas Keller’s genius perfectionism), I understand now that Thomas Keller is an offal man. Which in turn explains his love for Hereford Road. Me, I guess I’m not as big an offal fan as I thought I was.

Most appetizers cost £7, and most mains were £13. With a few carafes of wine, both times, my tab came to about £35 a person. The restaurant is a cozy, buzzy spot where offal lovers leave happy, but otherwise, it’s a nice neighborhood place and not a destination.

Hereford Road, 3 Hereford Road, W2 4AB, 0207 727 1144; closest tube stations: Bayswater and Notting Hill Gate
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The Modern Pantry (photo by Kake Pugh)

The Modern Pantry (photo by Kake Pugh)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee at the Ledbury

Grilled mackerel with mackerel tartare in cucumber gelee


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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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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.


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Arbutus Restaurant exterior

I know winter has arrived in London when the rain stops being daily and sporadic and starts being daily and never-ending. Last Friday night, we had one such winter rain, which of course wreaked havoc on all forms of transportation. Knowing we were running late, Jon and I called ahead to Arbutus to let them know, and the restaurant told us not to worry.

So imagine our surprise when we entered the warm glow and buzzy atmosphere of the restaurant and learned they’d given our table away! When we explained that we’d called to say we were late and were told it was OK, the maitre d’ accusingly asked whom we’d spoken to, at which point, his female colleague quietly piped in that she had, in fact, taken our call.

Happily, after that rocky start, things improved dramatically. We cooled our heels at the bar for 20 minutes, and that was fine because the best thing about Arbutus is how it makes almost every wine available by the carafe. It wasn’t exactly a hardship to start our evening with a carafe of a fragrant, refreshing 2004 Frederic Mochel pinot gris. I mean, it was so good that I actually remembered the name and vintage – all fruit and lightness without being sugary.

The restaurant’s decor has gotten a lot of flak in otherwise-glowing reviews, but I don’t see why. I thought the amber lighting was flattering, warm and welcoming, and I kind of liked the textured modern art on the walls.

Overall, Arbutus’s strengths are its high-quality food and excellent wine list by the carafe. The service is eh (e.g., our server described various cheeses in the cheese course by their colors and had no idea which ones were goat’s cheese vs cow’s cheese), but the prices are super reasonable for the quality of food.

Braised pig’s head, Arbutus

Jon’s starter of braised pig’s head with potato puree and caramelized onions is Arbutus’s most written-about dish. Probably because it sounds a lot more exotic than it is (photo above). In fact, the slice of pig’s head tastes largely like any other lusciously-fatty, braised pork dish, except that it has a rich, creamy meatiness that reminded me of eating liver. Plus, it was kind of stinky. I can see its appeal, but I wouldn’t order it again. There are so many other parts of the pig I prefer! (more…)

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Canteen Restaurant, Spitalfields Market, London

Canteen restaurant is this year’s Observer Food Monthly “Best Restaurant of the Year”, so Jon and I have been meaning for a while to see what all the hype’s about. Unfortunately, Canteen doesn’t take reservations until 6 pm on the day you want to visit, and I’d heard it’s always a wait to get a seat at one of the resto’s long, communal tables.

Well, it seems the trick to getting a table at a popular restaurant like Canteen is to eat there when everyone else in the country is watching, say, a Rugby World Cup final match between England and South Africa. And that’s how Jon and I found ourselves with a choice of seats at Canteen on a Saturday night.

Big pluses for Canteen based on our visit: convenient, fun location (in Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street station); low prices (few main courses above £10); lots of wines served by the carafe; multiple vegetarian options; casual, helpful service; and an all-day breakfast menu (for when you just have to have eggs benedict!).

Minuses of our meal there: uneven quality of food; a carafe of Meursault served lukewarm (gross!).

Overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses, but I did have high expectations thanks to that whole Observer Food Monthly thing.

potted duck and piccadili at Canteen restaurant

Potted duck (aka shredded duck cooked in duck fat till it’s spreadable) is one of my favorite dishes of all time, and I think I might have to live in the UK forever to ensure a regular and continous feed for my addiction. At Canteen, its consistency was thick but still spreadable, and it smelled rich and meaty. Imagine my surprise when I found that it tasted kind of bland, which is why the piccalilli was so key for adding some fruitiness to all the blandness. Overall, the Albion‘s potted duck remains tops, and Canteen’s felt like a waste of calories. (more…)

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