Posts Tagged 'Restaurants'

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

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

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

Bang Café, Dublin

IMPORTANT: Sadly, Bang Cafe is no more, according to this article. An incredible loss to Dublin’s restaurant scene. I have some very fond memories of dining here.

It’s true what the newspapers are saying about restaurants; there is really is some great value to be had in Dublin these days. I’ve long been a fan of Bang Café and often recommend it to people. Even in the days when the “Celtic Tiger” was roaring and the phrase “early bird” was never to be uttered, I always felt that Bang was extremely good value. The menu always offered a great selection of dishes to suit every pocket. Head chef Lorcan Cribben’s dishes were always creative and superbly executed.

The restaurant is currently offering a value menu for both lunch and dinner which offers plenty of variety. I took lunch there recently and was so impressed by the chef’s “Slow roast shoulder of lamb” that I vowed to return as soon as possible for a meal with The Wife.

Gravlax with Beetroot Purée

I started with a “Gravlax of Salmon with beetroot puree, orange salad, citrus dressing“. Such a great combination of clean and light flavours, I loved the balance between the citrus flavours and the sweet beetroot.

Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb

Slow Braised Shoulder of Lamb with colcannon, organic carrots rosemary jus” was incredible comfort food with some stylish restaurant presentation. I’m a huge fan of slow-cooked lamb and this meat was perfectly cooked, braised to almost melting tenderness. The rich, buttery colcannon made a great accompaniment.

Coffee Creme Brulée

I must admit I’m a little precious about crème brulée. What is it with chefs putting things like stewed rhubarb into creme brulee? The point of crème brulée is that it’s rich and silky. Adding fruit ruins the consistency. Add flavourings like coffee or liquer is a different matter, however. I finished off with “Coffee Crème Brulée with apricot and pistachio biscuit“. It was pretty damn good, the coffee flavour was not too strong. I did think the sugar topping was caramelised a little too much, but overall it was a winner.

I’m very pleased to see what is probably my favourite restaurant in Dublin roll with the punches of this recession by offering even more value to diners. It never disappoints.

Verdict: 8/10

Bang Café [website]
Merrion Row, Dublin 2
Tel: 01-6760898

Byron Proper Hamburgers, London

Byron Burger

Every city seems to be awash with “up-market” burger joints these days, but I find myself unable to get excited about them. I really do think a burger is only a burger and that despite the restaurant’s claims, all of these places offer a pretty similar experience. Giles Coren, restaurant critic at The Times, in his funny reviews of Bryon and Maze Grill, writes about what he calls “burger twats”. (He’s an insufferable knob, I know, but check out the reviews anyway).

Byron’s key differentiator seems to be their focus on quality and provenance. They use only well-aged cuts of Aberdeen Angus beef and are proud of the fact their buns are made by a “4th generation family baker in the East End”.The Wife and I ordered a couple of cheeseburgers with a side of chips and onion rings. It’s true, the quality of the ingredients definitely shines through. The menu offerings are simple and unadorned, which I very much approve of. I’m not sure we need all the flim-flammery you get at the likes of Jo’burger. The burgers, ordered medium, arrived distinctly rare, but we didn’t mind. They were tasty and extremely juicy. The Wife had a little trouble with the soggy buns (ooh-er, matron…), but I had no such trouble as my burger didn’t last that long. I also liked the pickled gherkin served on the side.

Fries & Onion Rings

The fries were excellent, very rustic and already well-seasoned by chef. The onion rings were unusual, the batter seemingly flavoured by some sort of dried herbs, but I disagree with Giles Coren – I quite enjoyed them. One thing I can’t understand, and this is common across all gourmet burger joints, is why the huge price difference in a cheeseburger and the unadorned version? £1 for a slice of cheese? Come off it, guys…

The service was very good, efficient and friendly, which you really need in a place like this. One thing though, the restaurant floor was littered and grubby, which doesn’t make a great impression as you walk through the door. Bit of attention needed here. Overall though, a good “cheap eat” option if you’re in London. We visited the Gloucester Road outpost but you’ll find several branches in London.

Verdict: 7/10

Byron on Urbanspoon

The Market Bar, Dublin

The recession must be over. On walking through the door of a certain city-centre restaurant (whose name no-one can seem to pronounce…) the missus and I were patiently informed by a waiter that they did not open for another five minutes. O-kayy. There was no “would you like to order a drink while you wait?“; no “sure, come on in anyway“. It didn’t piss me off or anything, I was just surprised. Funnily enough, we weren’t really in the mood to stand outside the door for five minutes, so we went elsewhere. All I can say is that business here must be positively booming…

So we opted for the nearby Market Bar. It’s on Fade Street, just off George’s Street. It fancies itself as a tapas bar, but in truth there’s only a smattering of tapas-like dishes on the menu. It’s a strange place, like it can’t make up it’s mind whether it’s a bar or a restaurant.  There is some limited seating at the bar, but if you want to sit at a table you must wait to be seated. It’s not a great place for a drink because the waiting staff are usually all over you to order food. Despite this, I like it a great deal. On reflection, I’ve been here three times in the last month and each time I visited I’ve been delighted at the great value it offers.

On my last visit to the Market Bar, I was accompanied by The Editor. Many of the dishes on the menu are available in small and large versions. Greedy-guts that we are, we ordered large versions of  far too many dishes: A dish of meatballs accompanied by fried potatoes, skewers of chicken and chorizo and that old favourite, patatas bravas. We also munched on a basket of bread and a dish of  marinated olives. The olives, which came complete with stones, were truly some of the best I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant (nothing soggier or sadder than stoned olives in a restaurant. Salamanca, please take note…).

Two hours later, after much eating, drinking and nattering we were presented with a bill for €40. Wow. I know a lot of people that don’t like the Market Bar; granted, the place is a bit cavernous and noisy. But the food is excellent and it offers some great value.

Verdict: 7/10

The Market Bar [website]
Fade Street, Dublin 2

The Ledbury, London

By all accounts, The Ledbury is on the up. After reading several reviews about the Notting Hill restaurant, I figured I’d bag a table for lunch before head chef Brett Graham is awarded his second Michelin star and the prices inevitably shoot up. Such is the way of things in the world of fine dining.

The Ledbury is a ‘sister’ restaurant of “The Square” in Mayfair. Brett Graham worked at the two star restaurant for three years before spreading his wings and establishing The Ledbury with, I believe, the backing of his former boss. It was awarded a coveted Michelin star in 2008.

The Ledbury

I thought the set lunch menu was very limited and was tempted by almost nothing on it. In contrast, the “à la carte” menu looked absolutely stunning and I would have happily ordered a tasting portion of every dish! However, one dish off the set lunch did take my fancy: “Celeriac baked in ash”. I’d seen this dish before on various food blogs and I was so intrigued that I had to try it. So, we did a “mix and match” from the “à la carte” and the set menu.

Foie Gras Parfait

I had to chuckle at the amuse bouche. Not “foie gras parfait” again? What is happening in London? Every kitchen is serving the same amuse bouche! Are restaurants buying this stuff in from Waitrose, or something? The Ledbury serves it’s parfait on “Feuilles de brick”, a thin and crispy pastry which has it’s origins in Northern Africa. Finished with some poppy seeds and watercress, it was excellent; rich, savoury but extremely light.

Cheese & Bacon Brioche

I always pay particular attention to restaurant bread and love to see what good kitchens are capable of producing. This is often to my detriment; in my effort to sample each of the breads on offer, I frequently stuff myself and leave no room for the meal I’ve just ordered. I declined the sourdough on offer and opted for the “Bacon & Onion Brioche” which was served still steaming hot. I can’t remember eating a better piece of granary in a restaurant. The photo doesn’t really do it justice – soft, hot, sweet, buttery, smoky. If the bread was this good, what delights were in store?

Cerleric in Salt Crust

Celeriac Baked in Ash with Hazelnuts, Wood Sorrel and a Kromeski of Wild Boar

Celeriac Baked in Ash with Hazelnuts, Wood Sorrel and a Kromeski of Wild Boar – this starter (from the set menu) involves a little bit of dining room theatre. The celeriac is coated in ash, baked in a salt crust, then delivered to the table. The waiter introduces the dish and cracks open the crust, revealing the blackened celeriac within. A dinky little touch which delivers some fantastic aromas at the table. The waiter then took the celeriac back to the kitchen for plating. Take a look at the photo, have you ever seen a more attractive dish? Well, this baby tasted even better than it looked. It was absolutely marvellous. The dish was full of  distinct flavours. Every item on the place offered a different texture: soft celeriac, crunchy hazelnuts, chewy pork. It was, as the expression goes, a party in your mouth. I’d have happily eaten another one of these for my main course. No, really…

Raviolo of Wood Pigeon and Wild Mushrooms with a Velouté of Toasted Bread

Raviolo of Wood Pigeon and Wild Mushrooms with a Velouté of Toasted Bread – In this instance, I don’t think the photo does the dish justice. I’m just not a fan of “velouté” or “foams”. Personally, I think it looks rather unpleasant and ruins the appearance of dishes. But they’re a popular cheffy affectation and I guess they’re here to stay. The Wife was delighted with this dish, having never eaten pigeon before. The raviolo was soft with deep, earthy flavours from the wild mushrooms and the sprinkling of dried mushroom powder.

Assiette of Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Purée and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso and Garlic

Assiette of Hebridean Lamb with Green Tomato Juice, Spinach Purée and an Aubergine Glazed with Miso and Garlic – if memory serves me right, the assiette consisted of pieces of loin, shoulder and liver. It was an explosion of colours on the plate, so many components to taste separately and then together. The green tomato juice was a particularly good addition, it’s zinginess cutting through the rich meat. The miso-coated aubergine delivered a satisfying hit of umami. Small criticism here, the dish needs some kind of starch, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

Roast Baby Monkfish with Pea Purée and Hand Rolled Macaroni Stuffed with Bacon and Marjoram

Roast Baby Monkfish with Pea Purée and Hand Rolled Macaroni Stuffed with Bacon and Marjoram – another picture on a plate. I’ve never seen monkfish served like this before. Herself, being a big monkfish fan was in heaven. The dish was accompanies by a kilner jar of peas, bacon and braised lettuce. Buttery and perfectly seasoned, this was the king of side dishes. I would have been extremely jealous, if not for my wonderful lamb.

Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus and Warm Vanilla Churros

Pressed Gariguette Strawberries with Hibiscus and Warm Vanilla Churros – I felt so satisfied and impressed by what I had seen coming out of the kitchen that for a moment, I contemplated not ordering any dessert. How can they improve on this? But, at the same time I didn’t want this meal to end. I was very tempted by the “Passionfruit Soufflé with Sauternes Ice Cream” that some other diners had ordered, but went instead for a lighter option. The strawberries arrived in the form of a jellied-terrine and served with a delicious hibiscus flavoured sauce. The accompanying warm churros were something else, I’d have happily eaten them on their own. We finished up with some great petit fours, served on a plate of cocoa nibs. We asked our friendly waitress if the nibs were edible. She said they were, but don’t taste nice. She also recounted a story where she discovered that a not-so-nice customer had stirred the cocoa nibs into her coffee, believing them to be sugar. Tee-hee.


Petit Fours

I’ll finish up by saying that this meal was one of the best I’ve ever had. Every dish positively sparkled with ideas and flavours. It is all too rare to sit down to a meal which tastes as good as it looks on the plate. Like all of the best dishes I’ve eaten, every element on the plate was there for a reason – flavour, texture, colour. Every dish just worked. I must also mention the excellent service which was friendly and relaxed throughout the meal. Give The Ledbury a visit next time you’re in London.

Next up, grave disappointment at 2-star restaurant, The Square

Verdict: 10/10

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

Barrafina, London

Wow, a real tapas “bar”. I always think that tapas “restaurants” have an odd feel about them. I always feel under pressure to order a stack of dishes at once and conform to the “starter/main course” way of doing things. So Barrafina is a breath of fresh air. Informal, an authentic Spanish feel, with a little bit of London style.

Cold Meat Platter

I first learned about Barrafina from reading London Eater, one of my favourite food blogs. The bar/restaurant is owned by Sam and Eddie Hart, two brothers who also own the Spanish fine-dining restaurant, Fino. I was warned by various food bloggers to be prepared for a long queue so 10 o’clock on a Saturday night was probably not the best time to visit. We admitted defeat and contented ourselves with a great burger instead. Happily, we were in the area the next day and made it our business to be first in the queue when the doors opened for lunch. Barrafina is pretty small, offering counter space to about 20 lucky diners. However, people are welcome to stand and wait with a glass of rioja at the counter along the wall.

Ham Croquetas

We ordered a couple of glasses of excellent Rioja (“Urbina”) and asked for some “Croquetas” and the “Cold meat platter“. The croquetas were the best I’ve tasted, due to the excellent quality of the smoky ham within. Our cold meat platter contained a small selection of jamon, lomo, salchichon and chorizo. At £11.50, it was not cheap, but you could taste the quality in every slice. The jamon was of the “Iberico” variety and Barrafina proudly displays it’s Jabugo provenance. Even better than the delicious (and wildly expensive) jamon I ate in Madrid last year. We also ordered “Toast with Al-i-oli“, which turned out to be just that: a thick slice of toasted bread served with a generous portion of pungent alioli.

Toast with Alioli

By now, The Wife and I realised how little conversation had passed between us since we sat down to eat. Sitting at the bar counter, we were captivated by all the activity in the open plan kitchen. The lightening-fast chefs cooked and dressed plates right in front us which provided great entertainment for two people so interested in food. I’ve stayed away from chef’s counters in the past (including the excellent Bocca di Lupo) but I now think I’m hooked. It’s a full-on foodie experience.

Grey Mullet

Another advantage to having the food prepared right in front of you is that you can make better selections from the menu. We couldn’t resist one of the daily fish specials, ordered by a chap seated next to us. “Fried grey mullet with spinach, raisins and pine nuts” was sprinkled with rock salt and dressed with good olive oil. So simple and utterly delicious. We were also hugely impressed with the “Chorizo, Potato with Watercress” dish. A chorizo sausage is split in half and baked in a hot oven then served simply with some watercress and a few waxy potatoes.

Chorizo with Potatoes and Watercress

Octopus with Capers

The Wife admitted defeat at this point, but I couldn’t resist ordering the “Octopus with Capers” dish I had seen so many of my fellow diners order. I couldn’t finish it, but it was very tasty and obviously very fresh. But then, anything served with capers gets my vote. There’s always room for dessert, so we shared an excellent “Crema Catalana” and waddled quietly out onto Frith Street.

Crema Catalana


My only criticism of Barrafina is the unexpected 12.5% service charge they slap on the bill. I don’t think there’s a need for it, you are eating at a bar after all…

I used to think of Soho as a bit lacking when it comes to good restaurants. Plenty of choice, but nothing you’d write home about. This theory of mine is now well and truly smashed. First, Bocca di Lupo and now Barrafina. Great stuff, I’ll definitely return.

Next review is Notting Hill’s “The Ledbury“. Stay tuned…

Verdict: 9/10

Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, London

I suppose this is the big one. The blow-out. Gordon Ramsay’s eponymous flagship restaurant (commonly known as “Royal Hospital Road”) is a “3 Michelin Star” restaurant – one of only three in the whole of Britain. Famously difficult to get a booking, prospective diners are required to request a table exactly two calendar months in advance. Credit card numbers are required and no-shows are subject to a charge of £200. Each. Clearly this place is at the top of London’s fine-dining tree.

I’ve been longing to visit “RHR” for a while now, not only because the menu contains many signature dishes of the great man himself, but because I was keen to discover why a restaurant is deemed “3 Star” when so many other chefs will only dream of obtaining the top accolade.

I’ve dined at Pétrus and Maze in the past. Both establishments, while belonging to the Ramsay empire, mostly owe their fantastic menus to their executive chefs – namely Marcus Wareing and Jason Atherton respectively. (Note, Wareing has since split from the Ramsay camp following an acrimonious public spat. But he hasn’t gone away, you know. The Berkeley hotel apparently decided that they would rather work with Marcus Wareing directly and gave Ramsay his cards. The restaurant is now called “Marcus Wareing at The Berkeley” which I’d highly recommend you visit.)

The restaurant is situated on a quiet residential street in Chelsea. Due to the fact that I had left it quite late in the day to ring for a reservation, the earliest I could get a table was 10pm. We cheekily walked through the door 15 minutes early but were greeted warmly and ushered immediately to our table. The first thing that struck me was the size of the room – it’s absolutely tiny. We counted 13 tables, not the smallest restaurant in the world, but I was still taken aback at how small the tables were and how close they were together. You could call it “cosy” if you were being charitable. I wasn’t blown away by the décor either. The whole design is a little cold and slightly austere.

Potato, Basil and Mozarella Wafer

Moments after we sat down, we had two glasses of champagne and some amuse bouche in front of us. The first amuse arrived in a retro toast rack –  a dinky potato ‘wafer’ filled with basil pesto and mozzarella. Tasty and very light. The second  amuse was a ‘cornet’ of tomato and avocado.

After perusing the three menus on offer, we opted for the tasting menu, known here as the “Menu Prestige”. It’s not for the faint-hearted – 7 courses, not counting the inevitable procession of show-off amuses, pre-starters and pre-desserts. We also asked the sommelier to bring us a selection of wines (by the glass) to accompany the dishes.

Some elements of the menu  were off limits for me because of my designer shellfish allergy. However, The Wife bravely stepped in and provided opinions on the parts of the menu I didn’t sample. Naturally, the Maître-D was quite charming and assured me that every care would be taken to keep the shelled critters away from my meal. He also assured me he would bring me something “very special” to replace the “Langoustine” starter. A nice touch, which I very much appreciated.

But enough yakking already, let’s get to the dishes…

Tomato Consommé

Tomato consommé – this dish was our “pre-starter”. The chilled soup was light and very intensely flavoured. Unfortunately, I had the vegetarian version without the langoustine and caviar, but I didn’t feel too cheated.

Foie Gras

Pressed foie gras with Madeira jelly, smoked duck, peach and almond crumble – it’s often said that foie gras is an “acquired taste”. Worryingly, I think I’ve acquired it. Animal welfare concerns aside, it’s true that foie gras can be a little daunting for the uninitiated. It’s just so incredibly, heart-stoppingly rich. This was a masterful dish, so many different flavours and textures – the rich foie was accompanied by micro-leaves, a crunchy crumble, soft fruit and the most wonderful brioche, all of which served to lighten the rich liver. So this is 3-star cooking – masterful. We accompanied the dish with a sweet and spicy Gewürztraminer “Cuvée des Seigneurs de Ribeaupierre“.

Ravioli of Lobster

Ravioli of lobster, langoustine and salmon with tomato chutney, vinaigrette – I’ve seen this dish described as Gordon Ramsay’s signature dish, but sadly I was unable to partake. Matters were not helped by The Wife gushing praise upon the dish with every mouthful. I think she may have even described the ravioli (a raviolo, surely?) as the best dish she’s ever eaten. Praise indeed.

Vitello Tonnato

Vitello tonnato with shaved fennel salad, pickled anchovies and caper berries – While The Wife enjoyed the lobster and langoustine I tucked into this Ramsay interpretation of an Italian classic, straight off the lunch menu. It was very good, typically Italian, full of clean and distinct flavours.

Fillet of Turbot

Fillet of turbot with braised baby gem lettuce, leeks and cep sauce – soft, translucent turbot which flaked beautifully. How do they do this? Sous-vide possibly? Loved the earthy sauce and vegetable accompaniments. Our fish starters were accompanied by a minerally Australian Riesling, “Egon Müller“.

Bresse Pigeon

Roasted pigeon from Bresse with grilled polenta, smoked pork belly and date sauce – happily, the tasting menu includes a choice of lamb or pigeon for the meat course. Being the blogging anorak that I am, I went for whatever option The Wife rejected. In this case, I scored the pigeon. No harm there, I adore pigeon, absolutely love it. (The pigeon dish I ate at Maze ranks as one of my all-time best restaurant dishes.) This bird was expertly cooked and matched perfectly by the sweet date sauce. I’d have happily eaten an entire dish of the smoked pork belly, the flavour was amazing and the texture as soft as butter. The sommelier paired my pigeon dish with a Sicilian “Rosso del Soprano” – to my palate, a fantastic combination.

Cornish Lamb

Canon of Cornish lamb with confit shoulder, ratatouille and thyme jus – lamb was always going to be a winner with these two diners, but this was superb. The meat was beautifully rare, with a quirky little surprise – the intensely flavoured ratatouille was served inside the roasted pepper.

Créme Brulée with Granny Smith Apple Shot

Crème brulée with Granny Smith Apple Shot – This dish arrived as a pre-dessert. I figured I should drink the zingy apple shot first, as a palate cleanser, then have the rich crème brulée.  Visually appealing and very satisfying.

Strawberry Soup

Strawberry, Champagne and elderflower soup with vanilla cream – this soup (a milkshake really) was served in a tall glass, to be consumed with a straw. I didn’t pick up much elderflower from the soup (maybe it was in the foam?) but it did deliver a delightful surprise – the addition of “space dust”. You remember that fizzy popping candy we used to enjoy as kids? I imagine every Michelin star kitchen in the world has a huge vat of this stuff in the larder!

Caramelised Tarte Tatin Service

Caramelised Tarte Tatin

Caramelised tarte Tatin of apples with vanilla ice cream – I was surprised to have been offered this dish as it is not officially on the “Menu Prestige”. It is however, on the “à la carte” menu. The Wife could not resist the urge to have such a classic dessert prepared in such a fine restaurant and ordered it before I knew what was happening. We were now truly starting to feel the effects of this feast, especially given the lateness of the hour. The presentation, as we had come to expect, was fantastic. The waiter presents the tart, decorated with sugar-dusted vanilla pods. He then swirled the most wonderful toffee sauce on each plate before carving the tart. It was incredibly, almost overwhelmingly rich. As delicious as it was, both the Wife and I failed to finish the dish. Time to admit defeat.

Bon bons #1

Bon bons – So full and tired were we that we declined coffee and asked for the bill. Undeterred, the waiter brought us out a selection on bon bons. The show-stopper was the white chocolates filled with strawberry ice-cream, presented in a steaming “cauldron” containing dry ice. Great theatre. We also nibbled on some tasty chocolate truffles and some Turkish delight, but our hearts were not in it at this stage. I can honestly stay, I’ve never been so well and truly stuffed in all my life.

Bon bons #2

A little aside…

I noted that some diners were quite obviously regulars. Strange to think that a restaurant like “Gordon Ramsay” is a local, neighbourhood restaurant to some people. But Chelsea is that kind of neighbourhood. My wife and I pondered that we had been looking forward to this meal for so long, and the fact that it was such a big (read expensive) treat. When you have the kind of money that GR is your local noshery, where do you go from there? Interesting…

Let’s not bother with figures, let’s just say the bill was pretty hefty. It’s certainly the most I’ve ever paid for a meal.  The food we were served was quite literally flawless in terms of taste and technical execution. The service was friendly, charming and effortlessly slick. But I do feel that for a lot of restaurant lovers, the whole experience will never live up to the price tag. There is a certain premium to be paid because of the sacred “third star”. Despite this, we had a wonderful meal and would recommend it to any fans of fine-dining, as long as money is no object.

Next up, tapas at Soho’s “Barrafina“. Olé!

Verdict: 9/10

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