Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Benares, London

Passionfruit Cocktail

Benares seems to divide food bloggers. I’ve seen the odd grumble from the blogosphere – people complaining that they can get the same standard of food at their local curry house. Well, if you go to a restaurant like this and order a lamb rogan josh (as one blogger did), you don’t have much grounds for complaint. What were you expecting? Chunks of foie gras in your “ruby”? It’s a strange food blogger who goes to a restaurant and orders the dullest dishes on the menu. Thankfully, dull dishes are few and far between on the menu at Benares. I’m pretty sure that the small section on the menu entitled “Benares Classics” (which include Biryani and Rogan Josh) is there to appease the “vindaloo brigade”. (Not that there’s anything wrong with the “vindaloo brigade” – I am a card-carrying member…)

Atul Kochhar, the first Indian chef to be awarded a Michelin star, serves creative Indian food, presented in a refined European style. The menu includes delicacies such as “Soft-shell crab with apple-crab millefeuille” and “Grilled pigeon with pickled mango and beetroot-vanilla chutney”. Fantastic. What struck me about the dishes I tasted at Benares was the subtlety of the spicing. Every dish was fragrant and subtly spiced, but there was none of the pungency one would normally associate with Indian food. It would be a shame to overwhelm such delicate flavours with too much chilli. I couldn’t help thinking back to BBC’s Great British Menu competition where the chefs heaped praise upon Kochhars mastery of spicing.

I was absolutely intrigued by the vast array of cocktails on offer here. The choices are pretty unique, many of which contain exotic flavourings. I opted to kick things off with a “Silver Spice” – a mix of fresh red chilli, tequila, Vya Sweet, pink grapefruit, fresh lime and agave syrup. The menu describes this cocktail thus: “Eating Indian tonight? Then this is your perfect pre-dinner drink”. It was drinkable, but it seemed off-balance to me. Heavy-handed use of the chilli completely killed every other flavour in the glass. A “Passion fruit Chutney Martini” was much better – a combination of vodka, passion fruit chutney, lime juice, egg white and fresh passion fruit. Superb.

I was pleased to see the customary poppadoms and dips arrive at the table. Some traditions should never be dispensed with! The selection of dips, however, were not your run-of-the-mill curry house selections. They comprised apple, gooseberry and tomato & onion seed. All were excellent, particularly the sharp gooseberry which was the more pungent of the three.

Tandoor Roasted Rabbit in a Spicy Crust, Marinated with Hot Plum Chutney

Tandoor Roasted Rabbit in a Spicy Crust, Marinated with Hot Plum Chutney – the stand out course of the meal for me was this tandoori rabbit. Chunks of bunny, marinated in yoghurt and spices were roasted until charred on the outside, but incredibly moist within. This may have been my first experience of eating food cooked in a proper tandoor. The flock wallpaper restaurants I’m familiar with must use a gas-powered tandoor which does not give you the same smoky flavours that the charcoal version does. But I’m just guessing here…

Potato Cakes with Ginger, Crisp Pastry and Wheat Puff

Potato Cakes with Ginger, Crisp Pastry and Wheat Puff – a simple dish, but served in a “fine-dining” style. A vegetable samosa with tamarind chutney, potato cake with chickpea curry, wheat puff was served with a shot glass of tamarind water. I didn’t get an option to sample much of this (thanks missus!), but what I did taste was excellent.

Grilled Fallow Deer Fillet with Yellow Pumpkin Kedgeree and Pear Chutney

Grilled Fallow Deer Fillet with Yellow Pumpkin Kedgeree and Pear Chutney – cooked perfectly rare, my venison was accompanied by a soft and lightly-spiced kedgeree. Kedgeree is a throwback to the days of the British raj, often served at breakfast. It is traditionally made with rice, lentils and smoked haddock. I was pleased to discover that the gamey flavour of the venison shone through the rich pear chutney. Another triumph.

Tandoor Grilled Monkfish Tail with Sweet & Sour Green Neelgiri Korma Sauce

Tandoor Grilled Monkfish Tail with Sweet & Sour Green Neelgiri Korma Sauce – Like my rabbit starter, The Wife’s monkfish was roasted in the tandoor, taking on that lightly charred crust and complex smoky flavour. The green sauce was tangy and had plenty of heat coming from fresh green chillies. This was outstanding.

Dal Makhani

Purely in the interests of research, we also ordered some sides. Anticipating some delicious sauces and gravies, we ordered a roti, which is a slightly thicker version of chapati bread, also made with wholemeal “atta” flour. The standout dish, indeed the stand out dish of meal, was the not-so-snappily-titled “Black or Yellow Lentil Preparation”. Our waiter recommended the black variety which turned out to be a “dal mahkani” – lentils with butter. The waiter explained the cooking process to us – whole urid lentils are stewed overnight in the tandoor along with garlic, ginger, tomatoes, chilli, cream, butter and some gentle spices. The fragrant dal also took on a faintly smoky flavour from the tandoor oven. The result was earthy, rich and quite easily the most delicious thing on our table. I would have gladly buried my face in it. Atul, you should bottle this stuff. I know I’d buy it. We also sampled an excellent baked pulao rice, but nothing out of the ordinary there. (Expect a recipe for dal makhani on this blog soon!!)

I’ve never understood the tricky task of pairing wine with Indian food. For me, a cold beer is the best match for spicy dishes. However, with such lightness of touch in the kitchen, I discovered that a good sommelier can recommend excellent wines to accompany Indian dishes. An Argentinian Chardonnay “Catena Alte” made a nice sharp accompaniment to my rabbit dish but an Australian Merlot “Craneford” was an even better accompaniment to my venison. A perfect balance of flavours.

Valrhona 56% Le Noir Cardamom Fondant with Guava Granité

Valrhona 56% Le Noir Cardamom Fondant with Guava Granité – Anything that contains Valrhona, I want in. I was expecting the fondant to be very delicately perfumed with the warm cardamom, but the flavour was pleasingly assertive. Unsurprisingly, the fondant was cooked perfectly, with an almost liquid centre. Magic.

Trio of "Kulfis"

Trio of “Kulfis” – The Wife was a little full at this stage and opted for the somewhat lighter option of kulfi – a cardamom-scented ice cream. The varieties on offer here were pistachio, mango and coconut. I tasted all three, surprise surprise – they were all delightful. The Wife, who rightfully declares herself to be something of an expert when it comes to ice-cream, declared the mango to be the best. I can’t argue with that…

Very satisfied at this stage, we noticed that a few tables over, a small party of “suits” were getting increasingly drunk and vocal so we decided to take our masala tea and petit fours in the lounge bar.

To sum up, the food was fantastic, something a little bit different for fans of fine dining. Unfortunately, for a restaurant of this calibre, we felt that the standard of service was just average. It took far too long to place an order for pre-dinner drinks. So much so, that by the time the drinks had arrived we had been sitting in the bar area for nearly twenty minutes. So we asked for the cocktails to be brought directly to the dinner table. The head waiter also made a boo-boo in description of one of our dishes but this was hastily taken care of.

I do have one other criticism of Benares, however.  In this price bracket, I had expected all manner of amuse bouches and pre-desserts, none of which materialised. The procession of small, “show-off” dishes is all part of eating in a “starred” establishment and makes the hefty price tag a little more bearable. A black mark there, in my opinion.

Incidentally, at one point during the meal, after tipping a subtle wink to The Wife, I asked the Maître D’ if “Atul himself was cooking tonight?”. He replied in the negative.

Humph. They never are, are they…? 😉

Verdict: 8/10.

Masala Tea

Benares on Urbanspoon

IN-N-OUT Burger, San Francisco

The Burger

I’d read about IN-N-OUT Burger on various food forums and was determined to visit a branch during my trip stateside. The marketing blurb is to be believed. This place was set up in 1948 and the stores, staff uniforms and (most importantly) the food hasn’t changed since then. This place is a step above “retro” – it was always like this. Smartly dressed and polite staff, proper french fries and very tasty burgers. The boss, a strawberry shake conisseur, gave hers a definite thumbs-up. In my opinion, the acceptable face of fast food in America.

Finally, I’ve often wondered what root beer tastes like. Maybe I watched too much “Happy Days” in my youth. Well I finally got to sample it. Jesus. If this stuff was in a medicine bottle you’d chuck it down the sink…

Find out more about IN-N-OUT Burger’s history here.

Cool uniforms

The Root Beer

Boudin, San Francisco – Photos

Eating sourdough at the source – an “Italian Classic” at the excellent Boudin bakery chain, San Francisco.

Boudin #1

Boudin #2

Boudin #3

Napa Valley #1 – Photos


Tasting at Mumm, Napa.


Mumm, Napa



Fog rolling in from the bay, cooling the grapes.


Dawn balloon ride over the vineyards.


Napa Valley #2 – Photos


Viader Winery – Gates


View from Viaders’s tasting tables




Tasting at Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa – Photos

Robert Mondavi #1

Robert Mondavi #2

Robert Mondavi #3

Robert Mondavi #4

Robert Mondavi #5

Robert Mondavi #6

Robert Mondavi #7

Robert Mondavi #8

Pizzeria Uno, Chicago

Pizzeria Uno

Up until now, my only experience of Chicago-style pizza was the type available in freezer cabinets. I think Pizza Hut do a deep pan pizza also, but again, it’s a miles away from the real thing. According to a lot Chicago foodies and bloggers, the place to go for pizza is the modestly named Pizzeria Uno. “Unos” is now a nationwide chain, but we visited the original restaurant in downtown Chicago.

We “waited on line”, as they say and were surprised to be told that the pies take an hour to cook, but we could make our order and come back in an hour. Judging by the queue forming behind us, it looked like it the wait would be worth it. We opted to wait at the bar and sampled quite a few glasses of the excellent local brew, Goose Island Honker’s Ale.

Finally, our pie arrived. The crust was like nothing I’ve ever see before in a pizza. The base was more like shortcrust than the chewy pizza crust I was familiar with. The deep dish was chock full of ham and roasted veggies which had an amazing flavour, due in no small part to the huge amounts of fresh tomato. This gave the pizza some real zip. There’s a great atmosphere here and the staff are very friendly. If you can’t get in, they have a sister restaurant only a block away called, appropriately, “Pizzeria Due”.


Bar - Pizzeria Uno

Pizzeria Uno on Urbanspoon

L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Las Vegas


After the disappointment of London’s 2 Michelin star restaurant “The Square“, we were now firmly back on track with our recent visit to the Las Vegas outpost of  “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon”. Frenchman Robuchon is a restaurant legend and a pioneer of nouvelle cuisine. His clutch of restaurants hold a total of no less than 18 Michelin stars. He once temporarily deafened his then protégé Gordon Ramsay by throwing a langoustine at his ear. I like him already…

L’Atelier (meaning “workshop”) is based on serving “tasting plates”, similar to Gordon Ramsay’s Maze. The L’Atelier chain has been rolled out across the globe, at nine locations including Paris, London, New York and Tokyo. The dining room is sleek and stylish, with a prominent Japanese influence, allegedly from Robuchon’s time spent consulting in Japan.

From the Robuchon website:

The concept? A kitchen opened on a circular bar with 36 seats that allows clients to follow the service, to watch the succession of dishes, and to compose their own meal according to their appetite, as the menu offers all the great classics to taste in small, tapas-style portions.

Mediterranean vegetables layered with buffalo mozzarella

Mediterranean vegetables layered with buffalo mozzarella – this dish was served as an amuse bouche, but it’s a scaled down version of one of the dishes on the tasting menu. I think this is a nice touch – presumably the kitchen serves each diner a different amuse bouche, depending on what you’ve ordered. This dish was simple, but it had bags of flavour, especially the intensely flavoured basil pesto.

Iberico de Bellota ham with toasted tomato bread

Iberico de Bellota ham with toasted tomato bread – the first starter, ordered by The Wife. “Bellota” is the champagne of Iberico hams, made from pigs that have grazed extensively on acorns. The finely sliced ham, served on waxed paper, was incredibly sweet and fragrant. The bruschetta was very simple, but made with fantastically sweet tomatoes. A quality dish.

White onion tart with smoked bacon and asparagus

White onion tart with smoked bacon and asparagus – once again, we have a very simple dish, but it was packed with flavours and immaculately presented. Sweet and smoky bacon on perfectly crisp pastry.

Maine lobster in a ring of macaroni and a light cream broth

Maine lobster in a ring of macaroni and a light cream broth – why is it that any dish that comprises of lobster looks amazing? This dish was proclaimed by The Wife to be “incredible” and indeed, it looked so. A fort of macaroni contained soft lobster meat and was surrounded by a rich and flavourful bisque. The boss awarded top marks for this one.

Foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs

Foie gras ravioli in a warm chicken broth with herbs – this dish was extraordinary. The foie gras liquifies inside the ravioli, so when you chew you get a explosion of warm, intensely rich liquid – a most peculiar sensation. The broth was excellent, very intensely flavoured. This dish was accompanied by a bowl of cream dusted with sumac pepper. I tried a blob of the cream in the broth, but I preferred it without as the broth lost some of it’s intensity.

Steamed seabass fillet with spicy confit peppers

Steamed seabass fillet with spicy confit peppers – The Wife sat this course out while greedy-guts indulged. Excellent flavours as expected, but nothing remarkable.

Foie gras stuffed free-range quail with truffled-mashed potatoes

Foie gras stuffed free-range quail with truffled-mashed potatoes – this extravagant dish represents everything I love about “fine dining”. The quail had buttery and crispy skin and was perfectly moist within. The boned breast portion was packed with melting foie gras which oozed out perfectly. The accompaniments were perfect, a rich game jus and a quenelle of the famous Robuchon mash, flecked with black truffle shavings. Absolutely outstanding, one of the best dishes I’ve ever tasted.

Veal cheek with primeur vegetables

Veal cheek with primeur vegetables – I was feeling rather smug with my decadent quail dish, but The Wife’s veal cheek was better again. The meat was braised to perfection and soft as butter. It was accompanied by yet another glorious reduction and some perfectly “al-dente” baby vegetables.

Chocolate sensation, crémeux Araguani, Oreo cookie crumbs

Chocolate sensation, crémeux Araguani, Oreo cookie crumbs – what a eyeful! The “sensation” consisted of nuggets of Oreo suspended in a rich Valrhona chocolate mousse. The gold disc was actually made of chocolate and decorated with droplets of sharp fruit sauce. A good dish – the boss, a bit of a chocaholic, was very impressed.

Traditional tarts

Traditional tarts – this selection of tarts was one of the prettiest dishes I’ve ever been served in a restaurant. Unfortunately, I can’t remember all of the varieties but they included a “chocolate” (liberal use of the Valrhona again here, methinks), “apple and cinnamon”, “lemon” and the signature “Snickers” tart – a delectable mix of chocolate and peanuts. It was hard not to be impressed with the effort that had evidently been put into making this dish. A super ending to a super meal.

It’s difficult for me not to draw comparisons between L’Atelier and Maze as their concepts are rather similar and I’m a huge fan of the Mayfair restaurant. I do prefer Maze where the dishes are positively fizzing with ideas and the presentation is much more elaborate. But the emphasis at L’Atelier is on simplicity – quality ingredients and classic French techniques.

I must give a special mention to the service at L’Atelier which was informal, but reassuringly slick. Our young waiter displayed an impressive knowledge of the vast menu, offering great suggestions when asked. I’d go so far as saying that it was probably the best service I’ve ever received in a restaurant. Thoroughly impressed and bellies satisfied, we ventured out into the casino to lose some (more) money… 🙂

L'atelier #2

Verdict: 9/10

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (MGM Grand) on Urbanspoon

Breakfast in America – Photos

Bacon, Scrambled Egg and Hash Brown

Monterey – Bacon, Eggs & Hash Brown


Monterey – Pancakes

Breakfast at The Venetian, Las Vegas

Las Vegas – Hotel Room Service

More Pancakes, with some healthy fruit this time!

Chicago – the healthiest breakfast we ate all week – pancakes with some healthy fruit!

Poor Man's Skillet

Chicago – Poor Man’s Skillet at the Tempo Café. (Shouldn’t that be called “Fat Man’s Skillet? :))

Bacon, Toast & Granola

Napa – Bacon, Toast & Granola

Denver Omelette

San Francisco – Denver Omelette with the ever-present hash brown.

The Square, London

Amuse Bouche

I wanted to like “The Square”, I really did. Holder of no less than two Michelin stars and the darling of British food bloggers, I had some pretty high expectations. Head chef Philip Howard certainly has an impressive CV, doing stints in some of the best kitchens in London – Chez Bruce, Bibendum and Marco Pierre White’s Harvey’s. As you’d expect of a 2-star kitchen in London, the food is classically French.

Thinking about it, we got off to a pretty bad start. I’m a big fan of a pre-dinner aperitif; it’s great for whetting the appetite. As you might know (I didn’t), Mayfair is not exactly over-burdened with watering holes, so after tramping the streets in vain for 15 minutes, we arrived early at the restaurant. After we received a warm welcome, I spotted a bar and asked if we could have a drink before looking at menus. No problem, they said. We were seated in the waiting area with a couple of glasses of champagne and were immediately brought menus. Not really what I had in mind. This wouldn’t have been so bad, but the staff started to look distinctly uncomfortable. In short, three staff members stood about five feet away from our table, staring at us. After a few minutes of feeling distinctly uncomfortable, we asked for our drinks to be brought to the table. It seems the well-stocked bar is only for show. Pity.

A waiter brought the customary amuse bouche (Sweet Corn Bavarois with Duck Jelly Consommé) to the table along with bread and a vast basket of crackers and other titbits: black rice crackers, pork scratchings, anchovy bread sticks, squid rings in a light batter. My first quibble – I asked the waiter if this selection included any shellfish, as I’m allergic. He politely replied in the negative and went about his business. Trusting my well-sharpened smellers, I confirmed with another waiter who had a better grasp of English. I learned that our basket included an item made from prawns. The second waiter apologised and replaced the basket, minus the offending prawn appetiser. I can understand that this oversight was caused by a simple language barrier, but it was inexcusable for me to be served shellfish in a 2-star restaurant, after clearly informing the waiter of my allergy. Not good enough.

The breads were excellent, as were most of the crackers/bread sticks. The only disappointment were the squid rings, which by the time we had got to them, had turned soggy and a little greasy. Not a great choice for a basket intended for leisurely grazing while reading a menu.

 Aubergine Caviar with a Courgette Flower Stuffed with a Mousseline of Chicken & Goat's Cheese

Aubergine Caviar with a Courgette Flower Stuffed with a Mousseline of Chicken & Goat’s Cheese – After a somewhat strange start, I was looking forward to the first course. The waiter had explained how when slow-roasted, the aubergine takes on a texture and appearance similar to caviar. Well, I couldn’t see this at all. The dish tasted overwhelmingly of the goat’s cheese, masking all of the other components. This sloppy looking dish, devoid of any interesting textures, held no interest for me whatsoever. To be perfectly honest, I was glad when the waiter took my unfinished dish away. Thankfully, it’s not often I’ve been served a dish that scores negatively on every level – flavour, texture and appearance. I certainly didn’t expect this from a 2-star kitchen. By now, alarm bells were starting to ring.

Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam

Lasagne of Dorset Crab with a Cappuccino of Shellfish and Champagne Foam – Foam? Cappuccino? At first glance, this dish appears to have all the right elements, the title coming straight out of “Michelin Star Dishes 101”. Personally, I thought the dish appeared rather dull and unappetising. The Wife proclaimed it to be tasty, if unspectacular. That is until, she had picked three pieces of shell out of the crab meat. We made three attempts to complain discretely to our waiter, the same waiter that brought me the prawn appetiser, but he couldn’t understand what we were saying. We gave up, called over the head waiter/waitress and the remnants of the dish were removed from our table. I should note that we were still charged for this dish (£75 for 3 courses), but our two glasses of champagne were scratched from the bill. While I appreciated the gesture, I still don’t feel it was enough. Here’s the crucial point: this obvious lack of attention to detail is simply unacceptable at this level. Someone in this kitchen needs to get their eye back on the ball…

 Breast of Goosnargh Duck with Tarte Fine of Peach and Red Onion Confit

Breast of Goosnargh Duck with Tarte Fine of Peach and Red Onion Confit – This meal was proving to be an unmitigated disaster until finally, we were back on track. My duck dish was excellent – perfectly cooked meat with a rich and sticky sauce giving a good balance of sweet and tart flavours. My only criticism of this dish is the lack of starch on the plate. It’s purely a matter of taste but always think dishes without a starch element feel unbalanced. Chef Howard obviously feels different, and that’s fine…

Slow Cooked Halibut with Beetroot Pureé, a Warm Potato Salad, Grilled Spring Onions and a Smoked Eel Cream

Slow Cooked Halibut with Beetroot Pureé, a Warm Potato Salad, Grilled Spring Onions and a Smoked Eel Cream – again, this dish was excellent. The fish was perfectly cooked, translucent in the middle. Special mention must go to the richly flavoured eel cream.

Peach Melba Soufflé

Peach Melba Soufflé – like all good soufflés, this example was as light as a feather. The waiter used a spoon to puncture the soufflé and poured in a zingy raspberry sauce along with a quenelle of peach-flavoured ice-cream. Absolutely delectable, without a doubt one of the finest desserts I’ve ever eaten.

Brillat-Savarin and Red Currant Cheesecake with Blackcurrant Sorbet and White Currant Purée

Brillat-Savarin And Red Currant Cheesecake with blackcurrant sorbet and white currant purée – after the spectacular soufflé, it was had to be impressed with this admittedly excellent cheesecake. The Brillat Savarin cheese gave the dessert a sharp bite, complemented perfectly by the sauce. The dish was also accompanied by a fantastic blackcurrant sorbet.

Petit Fours

One more unpleasant point. After we had finished our starters, we noticed how empty the restaurant was (Sunday evening in August). The dining room is quite large and had only a handful of tables occupied. I felt that this made for a somewhat more intrusive service than we would have normally experienced; almost as if the staff were making an extra effort to look busy. We also thought the service was rather hurried also. We also had to endure bleeping mobile phones and mumbled phone conversations, courtesy of two denim-clad (but extremely well-heeled) gentlemen for most of our meal. Despite the restaurant being at about 5% occupancy, the waiting staff placed these guys directly opposite our table! We asked at the end of the meal what was the restaurant’s policy on mobile phone use, nodding at the nearby gentlemen. The waitress apologised and informed us that the gentlemen in question were asked to refrain from using their phones, but hadn’t done so. I’d helpfully suggest that The Square should be a little stricter about this. This only serves to alienate other customers.

Look, I’ve read the reviews.  I’ve read the blog posts. I’ve eaten one of the best meals of my life at The Square’s sister restaurant, The Ledbury. This place is supposed to be top-notch. Unfortunately, we seem to have caught The Square on a very bad night. I presume the head chef had taken the night off. Well, I was incredibly disappointed. The food was pretty hit-and-miss. The service lack-lustre. The ambience non-existent. Was this worth £75 per head, excluding wine and service charge? Pfft…

Verdict: 4/10

Square on Urbanspoon