Friday, 30 January 2009

my first (and only?) gordon ramsay experience

deciding where to have my graduation dinner was a big (and painful) deal. wanting to treat myself and my proud family to some luxury and prove my foodie italian dad that english food has come a long way since fish and chips, i searched the net incessantly for weeks, reading reviews and dissecting menus in the attempt to find the “perfect place”. it was all in vain, after all, i always knew i really, really wanted to go to one of gordon ramsey’s restaurants. i was a bit ashamed to admit it, as i was obviously judging him based on his tv appearances rather than any real knowledge of his culinary abilities, but in the end i gave in to my hidden desires and booked a table at boxwood cafè, berkley hotel in knightsbridge.

i was not disappointed, and neither was my family. the boxwood cafè didn’t resemble a cafè at all, but rather the classy and sophisticated restaurant i was dreaming of. the service was impeccable, as one would expect, so the only little thing i could really complain about was the loud clientele, mainly suited businessmen letting their hair down after a long day of financial frustrations. but i didn’t let that spoil my perfect evening.
the bread basket, accompanied by delicate butter and a smooth taramasalata, stimulated our appetite as we carefully inspected the menu and chose among the few, but all so tempting, dishes on offer. my mum and i chose a bizarre appetiser combining foie gras, brioche, pear and apricots. an explosion of flavours that left us very satisfied, if a bit less eager to savour our equally tempting main courses. dad had a modern version of cheviche and grandma a managed to order an onion soup that looked as sophisticated as oyster and caviar.

for the main, i went for pan-fried sea bass on a bed of steamed leeks and clams. the flavours were so delicate and perfectly combined that i only noticed at the very last bite how full i was, while trying to squeeze in one of my mum’s delicious salt-and-pepper tiger prawns. everyone around the table was sincerely elated by the quality and originality of the food, so that we couldn’t really say “no” to the dessert menu. my pear and almond tart was to die for, especially thanks to the bayleaf custard accompanying it, but i couldn’t keep my eyes off my dad’s tarte tatin, apparently the best he had every tried.

my reserves in choosing a tv chef for one of the most important nights of my life were luckily shattered by the amazing quality of ramsay’s boxwood cafè. i’m sure london’s full of classy, fancy, slightly pretentious restaurants catering to wealthy businessmen and their guests, but at boxwood the highlight is, without any doubt, the amazing food. it is an absolute pleasure to find delicious british food and prove all those grumpy foreign critics wrong. i just wish i could afford gordon’s treats more than once in a lifetime.

african kitchen gallery

living right next to drummond street is a blessing. first of all, sizzling bombay is the perfect solution for those really lazy, tired nights in, offering seriously good food for ridiculous prices. raavi kebab is another favourite for pakistani classics, with gigantic portions of byriani and an okra dish that lures me back in the small and overheated restaurant way more often than strictly necessary.

but it’s not all about indian and pakistani food, as many would think. drummond street also happens to be the location of a tiny, somewhat bizarre african restaurant, which has been my favourite for a while now and has never, ever, disappointed me. the african kitchen gallery is so small that four customers are enough to make the place look packed and the windows steamy, which i actually quite like as i’ve always had the feeling of having dinner in a lively living room rather than another anonymous restaurant. the owners definitely help in making you feel at home, as they are always happy to exchange a few words and recommend a dish or two, on top of spoiling you with complimentary nibbles like the magically-seasoned carrots (i’m really not a big fan of carrots, but i could eat tons of theirs) and the yummy and refreshing coconut balls that come with tea and coffee.

the food can be somewhat of an experience for a first-timer, as the flavours are different from any other cuisine available in this city, including other african restaurants i’ve tried. the spicy rice can be seriously spicy and so are some of the meat and veggie dishes, but it’s all worth it. the tilapia fish is especially exotic, tasting like no other fish in its rich sweet gravy. being a ginger-addict i love the generous amounts of fresh ginger that add a strong and distinctive flavour to chicken and chickpeas. last night, being in the mood for something a bit lighter, i went for the african delight, a veggie option with sweet potatoes and other secret ingredients that some might not like but i absolutely loved thanks to the perfect combination of sweetness and tanginess. i was let down by the fresh mango juice, which is usually a winner but maybe only so when mangoes are actually in season.

a serious foodie would usually be put off by the absence of a proper kitchen in this establishment, as all dishes are scooped out of tupperwares and warmed up in the microwave. however, the taste of the many dishes i have tried in the african kitchen gallery during the last year is the best guarantee of the freshness and quality of their ingredients. this tiny restaurant is a true gem, combining excellent food with a friendly atmosphere and intriguing flavours. i will go back, again, and again.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

royal china baker street

a 9 to 5 work week doesn't lend itself easily to dim sum eating. generally speaking dim sum is an afternoon offering. royal china serves it between noon and five and i'm not entirely sure i want to be having dim sum at tea. so i decided to capitalize on a day off from work to indulge in some chinese dumpling eating. my dim sum afternoon was nearly threatened by a rather harassed and packed last day with my mum who was due to fly back to pakistan the following morning at a very ungodly hour. however my perseverance (more like immense disappointment) managed to rescue my dim sum plans. and luckily for me royal china served up such good dim sum that even mum was glad that i had pushed for it.

mum and i are both partial to steamed dim sum. i personally feel that there is greater delicacy and depth in steamed offerings... there is satisfaction in seeing a semi translucent pastry that gives only a hint as to what is inside the dumpling. the vegetarian dumplings were round with a twisted crown studded with a fresh pea. the prawn dumpling assumed a semi prawn shape, it's crescent edges softly crimped. the scallop dumplings were a fuller semi circle and bursting with flavour. the chicken and mushroom buns were fluffy and had an edge of sweetness that contrasted well with the strong salty flavour of the meat and mushroom filling. along with the bite sized dim sum i ordered the cheung fun – these are longish flat dim sum made from rice noodle sheets that come resting in soy sauce. the beef ones come stuffed with a combination of beef and water chestnuts that offset each other well. of course no chinese meal is ever complete without tea and a very meticulous waitress kept refilling ours.

to end our dim sum experience mum and i decided to try some of the sweet offerings. i've always associated fruit as the end of a chinese meal and was quite intrigued by the dessert dim sum. eventually we settled on an almond bean curd with fruit cocktail and steamed sweet egg custard buns. the almond bean curd came along looking rather unsophisticated but a bite of it proved that its flavours were sophisticated coming through in gentle waves. the texture is smooth and cool and both mum and i could instantly tell that the almond infusion was not artificial essence but a real extract. we both personally felt that the fruit cocktail was unnecessary as it overpowered the delicacy of the almond. what turned out to be the real treat though were the steamed sweet egg custard buns. they came as a trio resting in a bamboo steamer and were hot round white balls with a small sunshine dot to mark the top. when i cut across the centre revealed yolk yellow custard that was thick and dense and tasted rich with the steamed shell of the bun.
so now, when you have a dim sum craving in london, make your way down to royal china and indulge in some steamed deliciousness ending a sweet note.
p.s. whilst writing this entry i discovered that if dim sum were to be translated from cantonese into english it would render it as ‘delights of the heart’.

Monday, 26 January 2009

ramsay's the maze grill

lunch at the maze grill was a belated celebration of my post-graduate status. the day of the lunch turned out to be one of those rare london days when the sun shone in clarity and mum and i enjoyed the walk from bond street to grovsenor square. in a rather compact reception area mum and i both had our coats whisked away, promptly replaced with a little card to retrieve them later. we were then led through a set of glass doors and seated at a table a couple of steps lower from the chef's table. i was struck by the simplicity of the decor – it was refreshingly basic with some accents of colour. the ceiling had a decorative strip running through it to break the white.
mum and i were handed menus and a wine list and asked whether this was our first time here. a couple of seconds later our waiter reappeared with a thick wooden board. on it were cuts of red meat wrapped in white napkins sitting snugly one atop the other. the waiter then proceeded to walk us through the origin and cuts, pausing to explain the depth of the colour and that marbling in the meat is associated with the cows being beer fed. he then took the meat back to its cold closet leaving us to make our choices.
mum went for the three course lunch menu starting with a aged goats cheese and duck confit served on a bed of mixed greens. i began with a beef tartar with a quails egg served with olive oil drizzled toasted sour dough.  the salty dimension of the tartar owed itself to pickled cucumbers and capers and worked well together with the sourdough. mum goats cheese with duck confit was rich with strong flavours. our main courses followed swiftly. mum's medium rare steak came resting a top a thick wooden cutting board with aioli, béarnaise and frites in steel cups. alongside the steak was a bulb of garlic whose head had been sliced off. we spent considerable time working out how it had been cooked as it held its shape firmly but was quite cooked on the inside. resting at a slant on top was a bay leaf and a sprig of rosemary. our wine choices complimented our mains – my white bordeaux was crisp and served perfectly chilled.
my plaice revealed itself from within a round steal pot. the waiter who served it to me clasped it between a fork and a spoon and placed it in the centre of a white ceramic plate. he then spooned around it a spring green sauce with baby white cannellini beans, small whole shallots and a rare piece of veal to flavour the sauce. the fish flaked of the bone and combined delightfully with the sauce. i have to say the only think ramsay fails me on is the bread that accompanies the meal. it isn't bad, its just that it doesn't shine. but then not everything is perfect.
mum's dessert was a chocolate marquis with a crust of slightly crushed pistachio. once delivered the waiter then poured a warm vanilla coloured sauce from a silver jug to enclose the marquis. it had light flecks of vanilla pod.  i skipped dessert as i was really full but couldn't resist a bite. it was sublime – the chocolate was dark and rich, the vanilla cream a notch lighter but still smooth and creamy and the crunch of lightly salted pistachio made for a lovely dessert.
and since mum and i are both coffee addicts our end note of a full bodied filter coffee was the perfect choice. it was worth every bit.

Friday, 23 January 2009

mildreds soho

mildred’s in soho is inching closer to a two decade mark. it holds a bit of an iconic status in the league of veggie eateries. in true cosmopolitan style london has adapted to diversity in its offerings not just in terms of international cuisine but also in the more broken down categories of foodies from veggies to vegans to omnivores and health geeks. 

i and i had attempted to eat at mildred’s last year. we met around half seven and walked down to soho from green park with both of us feeling quite hungry. once at mildred’s we were told that we were unlikely to get a table for at least an hour and were more than welcome to wait [mildred’s doesn’t take reservations]. alongside a rather chaotic queue were a bunch of people already waiting, balancing an assortment of wine and juice glasses to while away time. i & i decided we would have to return as our hunger wasn’t willing to wait the time out. 

my mum’s visit to london turned out to be an opportune moment to return to mildred’s this time making sure that we arrived early. we were seated almost immediately upon arrival. because mildred’s is almost always busy please expect some hiccups in the service. on the whole though the staff are friendly and are more than willing to give you recommendations and talk you through the menu choices.

the menu is varied and almost all the options sounded very interesting. i am sure it is a total delight for veggies who have a whole menu to themselves rather than isolated incidences on regular menus whose characteristic is to have safe boring options like veggie lasagna or better still veggie burgers. i & i had already set our hearts on the orange and chickpea tagine with fennel cous cous, pickled lemon and apricot yoghurt and flat bread although i have to admit i was briefly tempted by the sunblushed tomato and buffalo mozzarella risotto cakes served with wilted spinach, green beans and grape mustard cream sauce. mum seemed to have a bit of a hard time choosing but eventually settled on the mixed mushroom, porcini and ale pie served with fries and mushy peas. the food arrived swiftly and tucking into it revealed strong and rich flavors. the filling in mum’s mushroom and ale pie was quite strong but balanced out with the soothing mellowness of mushy peas. her thick cut chips had a golden brown skin and were surprisingly un-greasy and yummy.

i & i really enjoyed out entrees. the chickpeas, the fennel cous cous and the pickled lemon and apricot yoghurt had very distinct flavors that complimented each other. the chickpeas were a curry-ish consistency with large black olives in it and the fennel in the cous cous gave it a an edge that transformed an otherwise soothing dish into one with a strong flavor. the pickled lemon and apricot was a welcome addition and the yoghurt that it came in was very rich and creamy. the testimony of the goodness of the food lies in the fact that all our plates were wiped clean.

although rather full we all decided to share some guilt [that is the female description of dessert]. the list of puddings included some rather very creative offerings and our choices were rather on the conservative side with an apple and gooseberry crumble with custard and a sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and cream. the crumble turned out to be very disappointing; the crumble topping was a very healthy rendition which not much crunch and barely any sweet and the fruit was a too tart. the custard tasted good but was a tad bit too runny… the sticky toffee pudding on the other hand was lovely. it was a very traditional one with no add ins, the sponge was soft and moist and the sauce that came with it was a perfect accompaniment.

i know i won’t be ordering the crumble but i’m sure to return for the entrees again – the veggie burgers looked quite delicious and so did the sweet potato fries.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

eating around soho

mum was in london for seven days. only a foodie will understand my frustration that seven days in london isn't enough when there are so many places to dine at and so many cafes's to drink coffee at. so aside from our usual suspects i made sure that i added some things to our gastronomic adventures that even i hadn't done before. thursday evening turned out to be a real melange with three up notes and one down.
there was coffee at the london review of books – it was very rushed because it was near closing time but i wasn't going to let go of a monmouth opportunity. and that too with elegant biscuits. 
there is a veggie in london blog post that is a work in progress that prompted a visit to beatroot and although i liked the food it was nothing much to write home about. somewhere in between mum had her first visit to princi [the first one sans food and the second one with cannocini all on the same night].
i took mum to fernandez and wells the wine bar on lexington street. i'd only been here once before and really wanted to return and this time try not just the wine but the bar menu too. so with our red wine came cuttlefish marinated in its own ink and olive oil and served with a crusty white bread. fernandez and wells isn't for the faint hearted. carcasses of cured meat hang in the window and give the place a pungent smell of cured meat. add to this the strong cheeses stacked neatly one on top of the other behind the counter. the bar itself is tiny and almost always packed like a can of sardines. but somehow the wooden walls and the smallness of the space contain the decibels and allow for a comfortable flow of conversation. after a comfortable couple of hours and mother and daughter catching up we both decided to brave the london cold. moments later, we found ourselves at the doorstep of princi in a bid to add a sweet note to the end of our night out.
mum had her heart set on the pear and almond crostata but i personally wanted her to try the cannoncini which i know to be really scrumptious. this however required a fair bit of coaxing and i discovered several bites into her dessert and a second order later that her reservations arose out of bad experiences with american executions of the said dessert. in true american style cannoncini had been appropriated and jazzed up to give birth to the american cannoncini. mum ended up liking it so much we had to go for seconds. along with this i ordered a hot chocolate which was meant to be a sample experience as a good hot chocolate is hard to find. i have to say princi's hot chocolate was like velvet with a strong sweet chocolate flavour [it is made with valrhona drinking chocolate]. the only thing i can fault it for is that it isn't very thick but other than that it tasted very good.