Archive for April, 2009

Wild Honey, London

Wild Honey

I’d been looking forward to visiting Wild Honey for quite a while. In fact, it was the first restaurant I booked as part of this year’s culinary tour of London. I want to say it was terrific. The problem is that for a Michelin star restaurant experience, it was just okay.

In 2007 I had a fantastic meal at Arbutus, which is Wild Honey’s sister restaurant in Soho, also owned and run by Anthony Demetre and Will Smith (no, not that Will Smith). Since then, I’ve heartily recommended the place to anyone who’d listen. Wild Honey offers a similar approach to dining as it’s sibling. Indeed, a handful of dishes are to be found on both restaurant’s menus. Both establishments specialise in bistro food – lots of slow-cooking, cheaper cuts of  meat, informal service, pour your own wine, no tablecloths. You get the idea.

While the food was mostly excellent, I feel the service here could do with some attention. I’m not a fan of stuffy or formal service but I felt the service was not quite as professional as it should have been. We waited some considerable time for a waiter to bring us a menu or wine list. The waiter who eventually took my drinks order did not have a great command of English; he brought the wrong drinks, then it took me a full two minutes to explain the order to the waiter again. A little frustrating.

The Wife’s gripe with Wild Honey is the proximity of the tables; we were practically sharing a table with the people next to us. That’s fine if you’re eating at Wagamama, but at this price level, I’m not willing to eat “canteen-style“.

Warm smoked eel, beetroot tart, horseradish

I started off with a “Warm smoked eel, beetroot tart, horseradish” which for me was the best dish of the meal. The warm eel was moist and very well flavoured, with  the crisp and sweet beetroot tart a great accompaniment. The pungent horseradish cream and lightly-spiced cauliflower provided another set of textures and flavours but didn’t dominate either the eel or the beetroot tart. I thought this dish was a fantastic starter – well-balanced flavours and striking presentation. I tasted The Wife’s “Ravioli of English veal with butternut squash“, which we agreed was pretty tasty and well cooked.

Ravioli of English veal with butternut squash

For mains, I had the plat du jourRoast organic pork with new season morels“. I do feel the waiting staff need to be a bit more knowledgeable about the menu. I had asked the waiter which cut of pork the dish contained but he didn’t know. “Loin?“, I suggested helpfully. He asked a nearby colleague who confirmed it was indeed loin. The dish turned out to be not only loin but a piece of belly also. The pork was perfectly cooked. The loin portion was juicy and ever so slightly rare. The belly cut was meltingly tender and strongly flavoured. The dish was accompanied by some well-flavoured polenta and the chef was not skimping with the morels either. A very good dish.

Roast organic pork with new seasons morels

Line caught cod, cockles, chorizo, chickpeas and parsley

The Wife’sLine caught cod, cockles, chorizo, chickpeas and parsley” was pretty good; huge flakes of moist cod with the chorizo lending a piquant note to the chickpeas. She seemed happy enough with it. Our desserts, a “Classic custard tart” and “Vanilla cheesecake with Gariguette strawberries” were both decent but nothing to write home about.

Classic custard tart

Vanilla cheesecake with Gariguette strawberries

I like the ethos behind Wild Honey’s food but we didn’t feel pampered or even well looked after here. The owners appear to be applying the same “rustic” approach to the service as they apply to the food. For the money (about £130), I think we could have done a little better on a Sunday evening in London. Maybe Jason Atherton’s crew spoiled us too much the day before.

Verdict: 6/10

Wild Honey
12 St. George Street, London W1s 2FB
http://www.wildhoneyrestaurant.co.uk/

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Mint Sauce

Mint

As far as I’m concerned, spring lamb is at it’s peak right now in terms of tenderness and flavour. I don’t like to mess with a tried and trusted formula; it’s got to be mint sauce with my lamb. Here’s a good recipe to accompany your gigot.

Ingredients

  • a good handful of mint leaves
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp English mustard
  • salt & pepper

Chop the mint leaves finely and mix with the rest of the ingredients in a small bowl. Taste and add more seasoning if you like. That’s it.

Beef & Bean Chili

Most of the credit for this “Beef & Bean Chili” recipe goes to the wife. I’ve added some nice ‘extras’ such as the oregano and chipotle, but it’s essentially her recipe. Go all out, serve with rice, sour cream, salsa, chips, wraps and a few beers. It’s really, really, really good.

Beef & Bean Chili

Ingredients

  • 900g good-quality minced beef
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 sticks celery, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • 1 medium courgette, chopped
  • 2 tbsp ground cumin
  • 2 tbsp ground coriander
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1-2 tbsp dried chilli flakes (depending on your tolerance)
  • 1 tsp ground chipotle chilli pepper
  • 5 tbsp tomato ketchup (Chef is perfect for this)
  • 5g dark chocolate (85% cocoa solids)
  • 250ml beef stock
  • 5 tbsp concentrated tomato puree
  • 2 x 400g canned tomatoes
  • 2 x 400g cans kidney beans
  • 2 x 400g can black-eye beans

Method

  1. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large pot or casserole. Add the onions and fry until starting to colour. Add the garlic, minced beef and a little salt. Fry hard to get some colour on the meat.
  2. Add the vegetables, chilli flakes, cumin, coriander, chipotle and fry for a minute or two.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients, apart from the black-eye beans, bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Add the black-eye beans 5 minutes before the end, as the tend to break up more easily. Season with salt if necessary and some freshly ground black pepper.

Serves 6-8.

Notes

  • Tomato ketchup might seem like an unlikely addition to a good chilli, but it really does work. It’s the perfect mixture sweet, sour and spice and gives a great depth to the dish. My personal preference is for Chef over Heinz.
  • You could substitute a teaspoon of cocoa powder for the dark chocolate. Again, this gives the chilli a deep, rich taste.
  • I use kidney beans here out of habit more than anything, but you could use any robust bean: chickpeas, pinto beans etc.
  • The ground chipotle powder is optional here because it’s not that easy to come by. It gives a great smoky flavour. I’ve previously substituted this with about 200g of finely chopped chorizo, which is a great alternative.
  • This dish is excellent if it’s eaten the day after it’s cooked. It also freezes extremely well.
  • Sometime I like to make my “Devil’s Breath” version, adding a tablespoon of “Chipotle in Adobo”, along with 2 teaspoons of “Habanero Hot Sauce”. You can use any brand you wish, but I use the products from the Cool Chile Co.

Wahaca, London

Wahaca, Covent Garden

Wahaca. For those who didn’t do so well in Leaving Cert geography, it’s the phonetic spelling of Oaxaca. It’s also the name of a restaurant owned by Thomasina Miers, winner of BBC’s Masterchef competition in 2005. Wahaca’s concept is to take Mexican “market” food indoors.

In fairness, Mexican food does have a bad reputation (at least, outside of Mexico). I remember seeing a Billy Connolly routine where he offered the theory that every Mexican dish is the same, they’re just folded differently. Fold it this way, it’s a burrito! Fold it that way, it’s an enchilada! And I suppose he has a point, most Mexican restaurant food outside of Mexico tends to be the same spicy concoction of minced beef and kidney beans. Wahaca is a little different, offering Mexican “market” specialities. I think Ms Miers is always going to have to listen to whingers banging on about Wahaca’s lack of “authenticity”, but sod them. For my money, Wahaca is a very funky place and the food is a mile away from “kidney bean” joints I just mentioned.

Wahaca, Covent Garden

We arrived without a reservation on a Saturday evening, post-theatre. The waitress happily told us Wahaca don’t accept reservations anyway, and that we’d only have to wait about 10 minutes for a table. No argument from me, I had spotted the bar and instantly thought longingly of a spiky, salty margarita. We’d barely taken a sip out of our cocktails when the waitress informed us that our table was ready.

The large menu is designed for sharing. We contemplated ordering the “Wahaca Selection”, a sharing platter of tacos, taquitos and tostadas (nice alliteration there), but decided to go “á la carte”. We started off with a couple of beers and some tortilla chips served with a fiery, fresh tomato salsa. For something different, we also ordered pork scratchings & guacamole, which were tasty and curiously light in texture – not at all like a regular “scratching”.

Wahaca, Covent Garden

For the main event we ordered a broad selection of dishes from the menu. Highlights included the “Beef Salpicon Tostada” (fiery slivers of beef and fresh salad on a crispy tortilla) and the “Mexican chorizo & potato quesadilla” (think Mexican toasted sandwich). Also worthy of a mention are the “red” and “green” salsas that are placed on every table. The “red” variety is made from fresh, dried and smoked chillies while the fresher tasting “green” is made from tomatillos, chillies and coriander. The bottle of “Wahaca Habanero” hot sauce on every table should have a health warning on it: Lucifer himself preps it. Delicious, but it racks up quite a few points on the Scoville-ometer.

Wahaca, Covent Garden

For an informal, late-night meal I think Wahaca is an excellent choice; I will definitely return. The only low point of the meal was the “Lemon Margarita Sorbet” my wife ordered. To me, it tasted like what I imagine lemon toilet cleaner tastes like. Still, she seemed happy enough with it. No accounting for taste… 😉

Verdict: 7/10

Wahaca, Covent Garden

Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4HG
http://www.wahaca.co.uk

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Maze, London

The Lounge at Maze

I love the Maze concept: small “tapas-style” dishes served in a buzzy, informal atmosphere – but with an attention to detail that is all part and parcel of the Gordon Ramsay brand. It almost seems a little unfair that Ramsay’s name is above the door given that the menu seems to be very much the vision of head chef Jason Atherton. Atherton certainly has an accomplished CV, including stints at the likes of La Tante Claire, Harvey’s and El Bulli. He joined the Ramsay empire in 2002 as executive chef of Verre, Ramsay’s Dubai outpost. He and Ramsay then opened Maze in London’s Grosvenor Square in 2005, winning a Michelin star months later.

Although it’s now awfully fashionable to assign homely, familiar titles to posh, teased-out restaurant food, I love the sense of fun on Atherton’s menu.  One of Maze’s better known dishes from the tasting menu is “Assiette of Sandwiches“. A lot of people know this dish because Atherton cooked it as part of BBC’s “Great British Menu” series in 2008, winning the “Starter” section of the competition with the dish.  It’s a cheeky little number, consisting of a “Croque Monsieur” and a novel take on a “BLT”.

My dining companion (her indoors) and I sat down with some great breads and a glass of wine and were allowed to take our time over the menu. We rejected the set lunch in favour of the amazing tasting menu. The waiter nicely asked if we had visited Maze before (which we hadn’t) and explained the menu to us. The tasting menu is divided into two sections; the first section containing smaller, lighter dishes and the latter section containing larger and heavier dishes. He suggested that we both order two dishes from each section, which turned out to be spot on.

Here are the dishes. I’ll do my best to describe the dishes my wife kindly let me taste!

Assiette of sandwiches, 'BLT' and croque monsieur

Assiette of sandwiches, ‘BLT’ and croque monsieur – As I stated above, this dish was an absolute eye-popper. The “BLT” comprised a tomato jelly, a rich bacon and onion cream with tiny onion rings. The final flourish was the shockingly green lettuce velouté, poured by the waiter during service. Unfortunately it’s let down slightly by the flavour; I think the tomato jelly needs to deliver a bigger hit here. The “Croque Monsieur” element was pleasing but unremarkable.

Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche

Iron bark pumpkin latte with braised duck, black truffle syrup and cep brioche – another great piece of food theatre, assembled by the waiter at the table. The cup contains only foam, the waiter pouring the rich and perfectly flavoured pumpkin soup through the foam before finishing the dish with a drizzle of truffle syrup from a dropper bottle. This was an excellent dish, great looks and a sublime flavour. A definite highlight.


Braised octopus, oxtail vinaigrette, dehydrated black olive, fine herbs and confit lemon

Braised octopus, oxtail vinaigrette, dehydrated black olive, fine herbs and confit lemon – a great combination of flavours; tender pieces of octopus which are lent a deep savouriness by the oxtail vinaigrette. The lemon flavour is very distinct and lightens the dish, but I feel the olive flavour is lost here.

Roasted sea scallops with textures of apples, butterscotch and bacon

Roasted sea scallops with textures of apples, butterscotch and bacon – I didn’t sample this dish as I’m not into shellfish, but my wife described it as the best scallops she’d ever tasted. ‘Nuff said.


Roasted Anjou pigeon, 70% chocolate ganache, blueberries, red wine and celeriac

Roasted Anjou pigeon, 70% chocolate ganache, blueberries, red wine and celeriac – definitely another stand out dish for me. I’ve often seen game meats paired with chocolate but never tried it. It works perfectly here, the rich flavour of the pigeon coming through the bitter chocolate. The blueberries are a great addition, offering a sweet, fruity contrast to the chocolate. For me, one of the most well-conceived dishes of the day. Triumphant.

Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint

Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint – a tasty but very simple dish; good flavour from the fish, the pimento purée is quite fiery but does not overwhelm the hake. Pretty good.

Roasted hake in Parma ham, chorizo and pimento purée, squid paint

Cornish lamb and tongue, salt marsh mutton shepherd’s pie, spring cabbage and mint jelly – as you’d expect, the lamb here was perfectly cooked, the cutlet particularly melting in the mouth. A nice hit of mint delivered in the unusual form of a slice of jelly. The flavour of the accompanying “shepherd’s pie” (not pictured) was intensely savoury and well presented in a small cocotte.

Irish ox 'tongue 'n' cheek', caper raisin and ginger carrots, horseradish pomme purée

Irish ox ‘tongue ‘n’ cheek’, caper raisin and ginger carrots, horseradish pomme purée – another cheeky dish title and probably the most impressive dish I ordered. The cheek was particularly fine, perfectly flavoured and as soft as butter. The tongue unsurprisingly had a firmer texture but bags of flavour. I was intrigued with the idea of pairing these meats with such strong flavours as ginger and capers, but they were subtle and perfectly complimentary. 10/10, no question.

Peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich with salted nuts and cherry sorbet

Peanut butter and cherry jam sandwich with salted nuts and cherry sorbet – nothing like a jam sandwich of course, but a fitting end to a great meal. The salty nut topping made a nice contrast to the peanut and cherry cream.

Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, fig jam and fig roll

Madagascan vanilla rice pudding, fig jam and fig roll – how I wish I had ordered this! Definitely the better of the two desserts we ordered. This is the rice pudding of kings, rich and sumptuous with a big hit of vanilla. I wouldn’t normally eat a regular fig roll for love nor money, but Atherton’s witty interpretation of the classic biscuit was perfect!

The Kitchen at Maze

We finished our trip to Maze with a tour of the kitchen and were permitted not only to ask plenty of questions of our guide, but to take a few photos as well. A very nice touch for two inquisitive (and extremely full!) foodies.  Highly recommended.

Verdict: 10/10

Maze, 10-13 Grosvenor Square, London, W1K 6JP
http://www.gordonramsay.com/maze/

Maze on Urbanspoon

Quick Pasta

basil_1

I’ve been craving pasta lately. It must be from looking through the great pasta recipes on italian foodies recently. I’ve never thought of pasta as hangover food, but when I woke up just before noon today with “a bastard behind the eyes“, pasta was the only thing I contemplated making. Something rich and comforting…

This simple recipe relies very much on “store cupboard” ingredients. I fried some diced pancetta in a little oil until crispy. I then added a clove of garlic that was pounded with some sea salt using a mortar and pestle. (Pounding garlic with salt, rather than chopping it, makes a huge difference to food.) I added a small tub of double cream (about 200ml), a tablespoon of good pesto from a jar (for shame!) and a couple of handfuls of grated Parmesan cheese. I then added some hot pasta and a few grinds of black pepper.

I can think of few meals from my own repertoire that offer as great a reward for such little effort. Time spent? About 15 minutes from start to finish. The mind boggles as to why people buy this shit.

Bocca di Lupo, London

Bocca di Lupo could certainly never be described as a “red sauce joint“. My meal here at the weekend was some of the best Italian food I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve been to Italy. I holidayed there back in 2004, visiting Rome, Florence and the Amalfi Coast. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much luck with my restaurant choices. Sick of the same old pizza and pasta, my wife and I ventured ever further off the beaten track in search of quality, but we were rarely blown away. I know the good stuff is there, I just need to do a little more research next time.

Bocca di Lupo - Olives

A few weeks ago I started making a shortlist of restaurants to visit during my trip to London. I fancied the idea of starting the weekend off with some Italian and saw Bocca di Lupo mentioned on the excellent London Eater blog. The restaurant opened in November 2008 and specialises in “regional” Italian food, offering local specialities from Lombardy to Sicily. The restaurant has been attracting great reviews from national media and food bloggers. I was surprised to see a review crop up in Ireland’s Sunday Tribune, of all places.

"Mozarella & rocket salad" with "Shaved radish, celeriac & pecorino salad"

The menu is well structured. Most of the dishes are available as small and large portions, offering diners a way of sampling a wide range of dishes. We started with olives, some decent sourdough bread and a dish of fantastically fruity olive oil. The waiter explained the menu to us and recommended several dishes including the “Buffalo mozzarella & rocket salad” which he described as “fresh as a daisy” having been flown in from Italy that day. It was seriously good quality; the rocket and olive oil a perfect accompaniment. We also had the “Shaved radish, celeriac & pecorino salad” and “Fried salt cod & courgettes“. The dishes were so simple, full of clean and distinct flavours. At last, the Italian food I’d read so much about!

"Veal & pork agnolotti with a light meat sauce"

We were now hitting our stride and looking forward to some pasta. We opted for the “Veal & pork agnolotti with a light meat sauce” and “Spinach & ricotta malfatti with butter & sage“. The agnolotti (a type of ravioli) was a stunner, savoury and delicious. Malfatti are a type of dumpling, similar to gnocchi. The soft texture of the malfatti was perfect for soaking up the herby butter. Another triumph.

"Spinach & ricotta malfatti with butter & sage"

It was time to move onto the serious business of meat and fish. The “Poussin in a bread, raisin & pine nut salad” is one of the most expensive items on the menu. I had “panzanella” in mind when I ordered it, but it was quite different. The bread in this salad is roasted with lots of garlic and oil, making it quite filling. The dish was good, but the poussin was not as tender as I would have liked. Our “Baked red mullet with tomato, olives, capers & bruschetta” was very gutsy, the strong flavour of the snapper standing up well to the olives and capers.

"Red snapper", "Poussin in a bread, raisin & pine nut salad"

It was now almost time to admit defeat, we were truly stuffed. We shared a superb “Zabaione semi-freddo“, full with the flavour of Marsala and pistachio nuts. A great end to a great meal.

Verdict: 8/10

Bocca di Lupo
12 Archer St, London W1D 7BB
http://www.boccadilupo.com/

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