Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Ramen Sasuke, Soho


In London, we're lucky that we can get virtually any cuisine under the sun, and with varying degrees of authenticity. Ramen is one of the new trends that I welcome with open arms; sure, I've never been to Japan, but I know what I love and that's a noodle soup. Bone Daddies is probably the furthest from Japan one might get - I seem to remember cheese being a feature on a specials ramen some time ago -  though this is no bad thing. Their premise is based on the traditional ramen, but they pimp it to maximum effect. Though I know many fans of it, I can't take the tonkotsu broth; it's too much for poor little me, too rich for my delicate self. Instead, I usually opt for their kimchi seafood offering, or the spicy tantanmen if I'm feeling really hungry. 

Shoryu Ramen, from the Japan Centre, is closer to its homeland; they've expanded to three sites pretty rapidly and they have a vast range of ramen available. Carnaby Street's yuzu tonkotsu is pleasantly citrus in flavour, but ultimately, over-whelmingly salty. 

Of the lot, Tonkotsu's noodles are king. Bouncy, springy and chewy, they're only let down by slightly unimaginative toppings, and on my last visit, chashu pork that was far chewier than it should have been. But those springy noodles! Every noodle-lover's dream.


My latest discovery is Ramen Sasuke; hidden down a Soho street, it feels even more Japanese than Shoryu does. As you enter the staff greet you in Japanese. Wooden benches and tables are pared back in detail, no fancies or fripperies. The menu is limited to a few ramens, some katsu curry options and on the back page, the lunch deal offers your ramen of choice, a slightly smaller-than-usual side dish for a £1.50 charge, and a free bowl of rice should you want it. It reminded me of Ippudo, where alongside your ramen you get rice with a topping for an additional $3. 

With my order of spicy miso ramen, I was given a surabachi - a traditional Japanese pestle and mortar - in which to grind the toasted sesame seeds to garnish my noodles with. It was a nice touch; some were ground to a fine powder, others I left whole for a little texture contrast. 




The spicy miso ramen came in a deep bowl, piled incredibly high. Beansprouts, marinated bamboo shoots, spring onion and sweetcorn come as standard along with a slice of incredibly tender pork. For an extra £1, I added the option of a sheet of nori and half a marinated egg, nitamago. The soup was sweet with miso, rich and flavoursome - I thought it could have been a little spicier, but easily solved by the chilli oil on the table. 


Crucially, the soup wasn't too rich and it didn't become a struggle, as I've experienced with other overly piggy broths. The noodles were in abundance; thick, yellow and appropriately springy. I didn't manage to finish them, much to my own astonishment. My friend's shoyu ramen (opening picture) was more demure, a clear broth sitting lightly on the stomach.



My side of gyoza, reduced down to 3 dumplings for the £1.50 charge, were good value. Crisp bottoms and delicate pastry up top, the filling could have done with more seasoning. 



My friend's chicken karaage was a great example of it. The batter was crisp, bubbled and light, encasing juicy chicken. The mayonnaise it was served with proved superfluous, though I enjoyed the wedge of lemon squeezed over it. 

I really loved Ramen Sasuke; it's a calm, peaceful place and on our visit was populated by only a couple of Japanese men in suits, slurping quietly away. They don't have the flamboyance of Bone Daddies, nor the variety of menu of Shoryu, but what they do have is a really good quality bowl of noodles, for a great price; all that with a drink set me back £15. 

Ramen Sasuke

32 Great Windmill Street
London W1D 7LR

Closed Mondays, no reservations

Sasuke on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Chiltern Firehouse, Marylebone


Somewhat uncharacteristically for me, this post only contains one photo, but happily it was a photo of the best thing we ate at The Chiltern Firehouse. Have you heard of it? It's AndrĂ© Balaz's new place; he of Chateau Marmont, The Standard, The Mercer, all heavy hitters State-side. It's his first venture outside of the US, and it's an instant hit. It's the new hangout for stars like Rita Ora, Kate Moss and Cara Delevigne and it is very difficult to get a table. When I emailed to ask when I could have a dinner reservation I was told 'weekdays, 5pm'. That is not dinner time. It is also an hour before I'm contractually supposed to finish work. I am told they are now in 'reservation lockdown' until September. 

So, I gave up and moved on with my life, and a few weeks later I was invited to a work lunch there. Set behind a gate, a lovely umbrella'd garden was verdant and inviting, despite the dripping rain. Inside, the six of us were seated at a round table near the back, slightly raised, enabling us to observe the action. Previously a fire station, our table was punctuated with a fireman's pole running down the centre. Lightbulbs hang from black cords, casting a soft yellow light across the crowded dining room. Towards the back, an open kitchen is the place to sit by to observe the action that's always interested me more than star-spotting: the chefs at work. Nuno Mendes, formerly of Viajante, heads up the kitchen here; I know well his calibre, having been to Viajante and his first restaurant, Bacchus, way back in the mists of time. 

All the reports you may have read about the serving staff are true. Model-esque in looks, some looking impossibly young for their roles. But we were assigned a waiter who had clearly lost his humour that day. The oft-talked about - perhaps signature? - dish of crab doughnuts were sold out, even by lunchtime, and we joked and pleaded with him to ask the kitchen to rustle us some up. Our pleas fell on deaf, stony ears. We get it. They've run out. But the merest mention of them in jest was met with a glowering grimace. 

We ordered all the starters available to us to share, and of these the steak tartare with 'Firehouse hot sauce', to apply yourself, was smoky and sweet, lacking in chilli heat but adding a fruitiness otherwise. Burrata with tomatoes was as you might expect, though enlivened with a parmesan crisp. Green and white asparagus, sourced from France, was draped with a cured ham and overshadowed by a nutty, mayonnaise-like sauce. Star of the show, though was cured sea trout in yellow mole (top picture) - traditionally a Mexican sauce made from guajillo chillis and tomatillos - which was garnished with roe and cucumber, a faint flavour of coriander coming through. The fish was firm and meaty, tart and spicy, tiny cubes of pineapple lifting the flavour of the seafood. Two lots of bread, charged at £4 per portion, arrived although we didn't order it. When mentioned, another waiter told us to have it anyway as a gift. It appeared later on the bill. 

My main course of char-grilled Iberico pork with raw and roasted turnips arrived on a cast iron plate, nestled within a wooden board. It was a mess of turnips halves, turnip slivers and green sauce, and I had to do some digging to find the meat. The thin slivers of pork, though tender and cooked to pink, were so over-whelmingly smoky it tasted like I was eating bacon. It seemed a shame to treat the usually flavoursome Iberico breed in such a way. For £26, and an additional £5 for necessary sides of either fries, green beans or lettuce hearts, it seemed a little steep. 

Things recovered at dessert stage. My frozen apple panna cotta was not a panna cotta, but rather a torched golf ball of meringue, with ice cream within. It sat on a sponge base, surrounded by apple jelly and a very fine granita of vividly dark green apple and basil. Refreshing and light, it swiped the lingering and slightly acrid taste of smoke from my mouth. 

So I left The Chiltern Firehouse, having had a lovely time with the people I was with but pretty certain I won't be returning. I wouldn't be able to get a table, for a start. Other than that, sure, it's a beautiful room. It's glitzy, glamorous and lit well, to show you off in their best light. But the inventiveness and prettiness of dishes that I had associated with Mendes (see, for example, roasted broad beans in their pod, or textures of beetroot with crab) weren't there; instead, safer dishes like steak with onion rings that you can get better elsewhere. You might spot a celebrity or two (I didn't) but unless the food is up to scratch, it's not my bag. Haphazard and, at times, actually quite rude service cemented this feeling. 

Chiltern Firehouse

1 Chiltern Street 
Marylebone
London W1U 7PA
020 7073 7676

Chiltern Firehouse on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Stir-Fried Pork with Black Fungus & Celery



Black fungus comes in two forms at the Chinese supermarket; sold dried, either in large pieces, or shredded finely. Cloud ear fungus are more delicate in flavour, whereas wood ear fungus are larger and thicker. Both need to be soaked in hot water for about 15 minutes to rehydrate them, and they almost double in size once done so. When used in large pieces, they're a little jelly-like in texture, but with an unmistakable crunch. 

This recipe was inspired by a dish served by my favourite Chinese restaurant, Silk Road. They cook slices of pork together with cabbage and black fungus, strongly tinged with the flavour of vinegar, in a cornstarch-thickened sauce. I played around with the vegetable combinations, settling on celery as it is robust enough to stand up to the high heat of the wok, while still retaining texture. The pork is seared until bronzed and caramelised and the marinade keeps it tender. I opted for a drier dressing rather than a sauce, to keep the components bright and perky. 

Stir-Fried Pork with Black Fungus & Celery

Serves 2 with a vegetable side dish

150gr pork loin, sliced thinly
2 stalks of celery, peeled with a vegetable peeler and sliced diagonally
3 pieces of black fungus, soaked in hot water for 15 minutes and chopped roughly
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, skin scraped off and minced 
1 tsp dark soy sauce
2 tbsp light soy sauce 
2 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tsp cornflour
A pinch of sugar
A pinch of white pepper
50m water
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 stalk of spring onion, whites and greens separated - greens julienned and whites chopped roughly

In a bowl, mix together the rice wine, cornflour, 1 tbsp of light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, white pepper and the pork. Mix together well and set to one side to marinade while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. 

Heat 1 tbsp of the oil in the wok on a high heat until it is smoking. Add the pork and spread around the wok so that the slices get well seared on one side, then turn over and do the same. Remove to a plate - they don't need to be cooked through, as they'll be cooked again. 

Wipe the wok clean and heat the remaining tbsp of oil on a high heat. When it starts smoking, turn down to a medium heat. Add the ginger, garlic and whites of the spring onion and stir-fry briskly for a minute. Turn the heat up high and add the celery and black fungus. Stir fry for 30 seconds, then add a splash of water and stir fry until it is dry. Add another splash of water to repeat. Then, add the pork back in with the remaining tbsp light soy, 50ml water, the pinch of sugar and finally the black vinegar. Stir fry until glossy, about 30 seconds, then remove to a bowl and garnish with the julienned spring onion greens.

Monday, 30 June 2014

The Palomar, Soho


Way back in the mists of time, my friends and I stumbled across The End, a now-defunct club that put on an absolute banger of a night. Mr. C played there regularly, along with part-owner Layo & Bushwacka!. Unfortunately that night happened to be on a Sunday - but, no matter, we're young! We can go to work on 3 hours sleep! I actually slept at work a couple of times to avoid wasting time on the journey home and back, quietly emanating boozy fumes. Those were hazy days and I've long since avoided the Sunday night rave, but when I heard of The Palomar, a new restaurant part-owned by none other than the Layo of the pair, the memories came flooding back.

The Palomar, imported from Jerusalem and headed up by an executive chef who has his name to five restaurants there already, serves food from modern-day Israel. At least, that's what they say; I don't have any experience of Israeli food, so much of it is a mystery to me. On the Wednesday night we visited, the bar lined with stools was packed. Chefs worked away busily but smiling, music played and there was no sense of a reverent hush. Front of house took our number to call us back when there were seats available; a far more civilised attitude to a world without reservations, and once we'd clambered up onto our seats at the bar, the fun began. The reservable back dining room, which seats around 35, seemed like the grown-ups corner.

Because that's what The Palomar is. It's really fun. The chefs behind the counter talk to you, tease you, guide you towards their favourite dishes. There's banter, there's a little flirting. Every so often a shot of lemon-flavoured liquor appears, ice cold, with one for the originator. Cocktails are plentiful.


Mini polenta, 'Jerusalem style', arrived in a Kilner jar. The mushroom-dotted polenta was liquid and creamy, irresistibly perfumed with truffle oil and we scrabbled at the jar in earnest. Moroccan oysters came splashed with a spicy oil, quelling some of the natural brininess of the oyster, though perking it up with lemon zest.




A spring salad, crunchy, vibrant and tart offsets a dish of richly braised, soft octopus with chickpeas which was incredibly comforting. We looked with lustful eyes at our neighbour's raw salmon and green apple salad; a minute or two later, a taster portion was set down before us with a wink. This was further up my street; silky fish, the intensity of the salmon flavour mellowed with sweetness and tartness of the apple, a spike of chilli from the round of jalapeno perched on top. 


Not being a massive fan of bread (yes, I know...) it's not usually something I'd order as an extra in restaurants. The chefs had other ideas and served it to us anyway, and I'm incredibly glad they did as it was one of the best dishes. A domed brioche ('Yemini pot bread') was tapped out of its receptacle from the oven onto a plate, served with a tahini dip and a tomato dip that tasted like the very essence of tomatoes, mellowed with a little cream. It was so good my friend finished off the pot and made them squirt us more. The next day we fantasised about a full glass of the stuff, spiked with vodka, to rid us of our headaches.


Our main, mussels in a spiced tomato stew, was jazzed up with a langoustine languishing on top. Warm, hearty and filling, it was the perfect size to share in the follow up to the small plates we'd devoured. Other dishes like pork belly tagine, neither kosher nor halal, shows perhaps a leaning towards pleasing the London market. 


Desserts aren't for the faint of heart or the small of stomach. Malabi was a rose-scented milk pudding. The flavour of rose was mercifully light, dotted through with crisp and chewy coconut meringue. Kataifi is the little nests of pastry filaments, baked (or fried?) until crunchy.



A puck of chocolate mousse was dense and rich and it defeated me. A gift from the kitchen came in the form of tahini ice cream and caramelised figs; while I loved the fruit, the tahini was too intense, too claggy for my liking. It stuck to the roof of my mouth like peanut butter.

I didn't love everything I ate at The Palomar (I'm looking at you, Mr Tahani Blob) but nevertheless, I came away thinking that was one of the best restaurant experiences I've had recently. It was everything you could want in hospitality; a warm welcome, a fun crowd, just the right level of interaction to be amusing but unobtrusive. They've got it bang on. I can't wait to go back. 

The Bill: £65 a head. We drank 5 cocktails each though...

The Palomar

34 Rupert Street
London W1D 6DN
0207 439 8777

The Palomar on Urbanspoon


Sunday, 22 June 2014

BBQ Korean Chicken Wings


It's been freaking ages since I posted a recipe, for various reasons that I won't go into right now, but it's barbecue season and that means mainly one thing. I mean, I love me a sausage and burgers are ok, but really; meat, marinaded well, charred and smoked is what excites me most about a barbecue. I love these Xinjiang lamb skewers, fiery and juicy, characterised by the tinge of charcoal. That Thai street side staple, Moo Ping, is also usually a hit; it's hard not to love caramelised sweet, sticky pork. With these chicken wings, I went with Korean flavours; sweet, spicy and sesame-spiked. Wet wipes are key. You will end up with sauce on your face. That is fine.


Korean BBQ Chicken Wings

Serves a few

1kg chicken wings
4 tbsp Gochujang (Korean chilli paste - find it at your local Oriental supermarket, or here)
1 tbsp coarse Korean chilli powder (don't half the amount for normal - Korean chilli powder is milder)
1 tsp dark soy
1 tbsp fish sauce
2 shallots, chopped roughly
8 garlic cloves, bashed and deskinned
1 inch piece of ginger, chopped roughly
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1 tbsp sesame oil
2 stalks of spring onions, greens only, sliced finely into rings

In a small blender, combine the gochujang, dark soy, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, ginger, sugar, vinegars, rice wine and sesame oil. Blend into a fine, smooth-ish paste. It's ok if it's not completely smooth. Use your hands and get those chicken wings covered in it. Marinade overnight, or at least for 3 hours.

Get your barbecue (or oven) lit and grill on each side for 7 - 10 minutes, watching that it doesn't catch and burn from the high sugar content in to gochujang and sugar, turning frequently. 

Pile onto a serving tray, sprinkle with spring onions and serve with a cooling cucumber salad and plenty of wet wipes. 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Artusi, Peckham


Well aren't we a lucky bunch of South Easters? Artusi is Peckham's latest opening; it was raved about by Jay Rayner as well as Time Out, which might so some way into explaining why their phone line was constantly engaged on the day I tried to book a table. My perseverance paid off though. The room is small but well lit, encouraged by floor-to-ceiling glass windows. On a Summer's evening, the sunshine streamed through, bathing everyone and everything in a soft golden glow. We relaxed into our Friday evening negronis, crusty bread slathered with butter to help us make our menu choices.


The menu is short, scribbled on a blackboard - five starters, two pastas, three mains. Terse descriptions are made of each dish - 'Onglet with potatoes and artichokes', for example - no fripperies or romance of language, which to me conveys Italian cooking so well. The art of sourcing good, flavoursome ingredients and cooking them with sympathy and care is what my experience of this cuisine is all about. Turns out we didn't have many hard decisions to make; the three of us were hungry enough to order basically the lot, save a couple of starters. Of these, the potato and octopus salad was shot through with herbal freshness, the olive oil grassy and aromatic. Tender octopus met soft, creamy potato. 


Lamb sweetbreads held much more excitement for me. It was accompanied by a sweet and sour peperonata; a tangle of red and yellow softly stewed peppers complementing the cloud-like fluffiness of the crisply fried sweetbreads. For £5, it was incredible value - a hearty portion, but the flavours were also well accomplished. 


I wasn't enormously keen on 'fish broth with toasted sourdough', but then it wasn't something I would normally choose - my friend fancied it. I prefer my fish soups with a bit more substance and texture, though this is not really a complaint, given the menu description. The toasted sourdough was rubbed with a not-inconsiderable amount of garlic, which pleased me.


Pastas were completely incredible. Home-made pappardelle with pancetta and peas came topped with a pile of grated Parmesan, which melted into the soft folds of the noodles. 


Ricotta ravioli with chard and pine nuts were made of thin, delicate pasta, the creaminess of the ricotta saucing each mouthful. By this point, we knew we were onto a good one. 


New season lamb with asparagus was exactly that. A perfectly cooked, thick slice of lamb was dressed in a light sauce. I felt like some sort of carbohydrate would have made this dish more complete, though our bread basket was happily replenished. 


No such issues with the onglet, potatoes and artichokes. The potatoes had been fried until they were crisp on one side, for that all important textural contrast. The artichokes too had been given the same treatment; coupled with the seared ruby-red onglet, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Simple but incredibly pleasing. 


I'm not entirely sure where I was going with the angle of this picture, but by the time we tucked into the skate wing with bagna cauda we'd had some wine, and apparently I tried to get arty. That went badly. But the skate itself was a thick slab, bronzed and crisp, tender meat pulling away from the cartilage bones. The bagna cauda, a sauce made from garlic and anchovies, was certainly punchy; steamed spring greens were essential in levelling the flavours out. It had a tendency to tow the line between well seasoned and salt overload, rectified by a little less sauce. 

Having had pretty much three courses by now, we could only share a dessert between the three of us. Peach sorbet with salted honey ice cream was the stuff of refreshing dreams. When we got the bill, we were surprised with the £48 / head we paid - we'd eaten a lot, drank really quite a lot and it seemed wonderfully low. I woke up in a panic the next morning that we'd under paid. I wish restaurants would just put the optional service charge on - my maths often suffers from wine - but having ferreted the receipt out of my handbag, we hadn't embarrassed ourselves on this occasion. It was just really great value. With an often changing menu and the happy compromise of bookings being taken for dinner, some tables reserved for walk-ins, I know I'll be back soon.

Artusi
161 Bellenden Road
Peckham, London
SE15 4DH


Tel: 0203 392 8200

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Hind's Head, Bray


Bray is a strange little place. About an hour's drive from London, it is currently home to Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck and Michel Roux's The Waterside Inn, 3 Michelin star heavy hitters. Heston owns a further two pubs in the village; The Crown and the Michelin starred Hind's Head. Phew. Imagine the amount of money and protruding bellies that go through this village. Who lives there? What if you fancied a supper of chips and curry sauce? 



I made a last minute booking at The Hind's Head to break up our journey home from a weekend away. The ease in which I was able to get a Sunday lunch booking was surprising, though made less so once we arrived and surveyed the vast number of covers, both downstairs and upstairs. All exposed wooden beams and drab maroon carpets, you would be forgiven for thinking you were at a Carvery off the A12. The giveaway were the staff, dressed smartly and bustling around the tables, and of course, the menu. 



This is no standard pub grub, no least because the roast sirloin of beef is twenty six of your hard-earned pounds. But before that, the starters. We shared three, and a scotch egg - a little oval puck, freshly fried and greaseless, a light meat encasing a perfectly runny egg. A smear of mustard was all it needed; it was a refreshing change from the more complex, heavily seasoned or spiced offerings you get at a lot of places these days. 



Soused Cornish mackerel with radish and grapefruit was the first nod towards the Michelin standard; a pretty plate with a near-perfect balance of flavours. The richness of the mackerel, lightly torched on the skin, held the bitterness of the pink grapefruit well. Toasted wafers of bread and thinly sliced radishes added crunch, and a tartare of the soused mackerel was the bed upon which it sat. It was full of the joys of Summer eating. 


Equally pretty was cured duck ham with asparagus and spring leaves, made delicious by a soft boiled quail's egg perched on truffled mayonnaise. Lightly charred artichokes nestled underneath the leaves, giving the dish some hearty structure. I don't recall there being any crispy bacon as advertised on the menu, but I'm not sure it needed it; the duck ham was sliced so thinly it was translucent, yet flavoursome enough to make its mark. 


Star of the show though was the 'hash of snails'. Light on description, what it turned out to be was a lot of snails all chopped up and piled on a piece of toasted bread. A green smear of what tasted like a wild garlic sauce buttered the bread, and a tangle of thinly shaved fennel completed the dish. This was so good - the crunchy toast, the squidgy sauce, the slightly chewy snails - especially with the addition of toasted pistachios, nutty and salty, punctuating each mouthful. 


Being that it was Sunday and we are British what what and such is tradition, we ordered both the roasts on offer. The pork, made with collar rather than the more traditional shoulder, belly or leg, was given a modernisation with a prawn-cracker-like puff of pork crackling. A cylinder of stuffing was herby and dense, the pork flavoursome and juicy. 


The roast beef was perfectly medium rare, two hefty slices lined with creamy fat. The potatoes were perfection themselves; crisp on the outside and creamy and fluffy within. Sauces were as far from the jar as you can get; horseradish was spicy and astringent, whipped into a smooth and stiff cream, and apple sauce was perfectly smooth, cloudy and almost jellied in texture. My Yorkshire pudding looked suspiciously like our favourite Aunt's, but it was crisp and bronzed, with the structure to hold my gravy. 



My only criticism, in fact, was that the vegetables were aggressively dressed in a herb butter. Spring greens, fine beans and carrots are a great accompaniment but coupled with the rich beef jus - it was so concentrated and clear, I steer away from calling it a gravy - I craved some simple vegetal relief. My friend's oxtail and kidney pudding proved that the rest of the menu warrants a return; rich suet pastry, steamed and glossy and stuffed full of tender shredded meat. I only had a taste but the glazed look of satisfaction on his face told all. 


From an extensive list of desserts, we ordered the Quaking pudding and the chocolate wine slush. Little fact sheets were given to us to explain the origins of the desserts, but once the quaking pudding was set before me I only had eyes for the wobble. A pannacotta, basically, set most delicately. It was flecked with vanilla, smooth and creamy, a predominantly egg flavour and served with a slice of caramelised banana. Lovely stuff. The wine slush was less remarkable and I left the rest of the table to it. 


So, all in all, a brilliant lunch, each component done as well as it could be. Those seeking Heston's weird and wacky molecular gastronomy may well be disappointed here, but flashes of it can be found on the drinks menu; we were treated to a taste of it by this Demerara Old Fashioned. A canister of dry ice billowed out a rum-scented mist so that it hovered within the glass. The liquid itself was dangerous; I couldn't taste a hint of booze, just a sweet maple fragrance. 

For such an enormous place with various nooks and crannies, one might easily be neglected but the staff were plentiful and pleasant, unobtrusive but helpful. It's not a cheap lunch - the three of us paid £56 per head with a couple of drinks each but the quality of the food and the skill of cooking and preparation was apparent. It could do with a bit of a spruce up inside, though.

The Hinds Head
High Street
Bray
SL6 2AB

Tel: 01628 626151