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Saturday, 29 November 2014

Chinese Rules! Cheaply does it...

We all love a good Chinese dinner, but with the plethora of all-you-can-eat buffets popping up everywhere, who can blame you for feeling somewhat bamboozled and spoilt for choice, and not in a good way? Especially when you’re in Chinatown – London’s very own microcosm of oriental eateries, dim sum parlours and tea houses?! 

You can get Michelin star standard Chinese food and top quality fusion menus about town, but if you search heard enough and down the right alleyways, you may also find the best chow mein you've ever eaten.  The latter may lack finesse and the finest ingredients, but frankly the flavour is all that matters when all you want is a vat of Szechuan King Prawn or wheelbarrow of Sesame Prawn Toast?! Like a humble British pie or roast dinner, a cracking Chinese meal is something that, for me, needs to be plentiful, flavourful and entirely fuss free! Dim sum however, is a niche and should be none of those things; it’s a mouthwatering talent (if you get it right), a precision art and a carefully considered delicate thing. Find a good dim sum chef and you’ll never look back. Imperial China may not give you the latter, but it definitely serves up the former and I’ll tell you why I liked it thusly…

Greeted by a miniature fish pond beneath an unexpectedly delightful bridge and a pergola, laden with hanging lanterns, red dragons and twinkle lights, I can’t help but to fall in love already...and I haven't even entered yet! I find myself wishing that instead of being a restaurant tucked away in this yard, there would be a tranquil blossoming garden with a midget playing a banjo on an oversized swing (yes, this is a surreal image, but then so is this entirely welcoming scene!). With a thriving karaoke scene inside, perhaps this vision isn't too far fetched afterall though!

Located in the middle of an urban jungle, Imperial China is tucked down the lesser trodden Lisle Street, in-between the audaciously bedazzled Chinatown highstreet and the ghoulish Leicester Square. Lest I digress, I could easily now dive face first into a debate about tourist vs. real eating in London - I shall resist the urge to rant, but please indulge me one things: Leicester Square may be the epicentre of activity and you may even spot the odd celebrity-infused movie premiere from time to time, but by no means is it an accurate barometer from which to gauge London life…you must search beyond the bright lights and big brand [mediocre] eateries because in scouring the side streets, cobbled alleyways and basements, you will find locals basking in the enchanting wonderland that lies behind the touristic façade. Why gorge on a TGI Fridays, ASK, Bella Pasta and the suchlike when you can find one-off specials around every corner that you’d never get at home?!

Getting back to the point then. Once you’re over the mystifying first impressions, you walk into a rather standard Chinese restaurant; all very welcoming and comfortable, but nothing too earth-shattering. Service is efficient, clean, polite and precise, though all a bit transactional and impersonal. The beer is crisp, cold and satisfying, and the Jasmine tea is soothing, but it's not the largest selection of either I've ever seen. Conversely, while the dim sum may not be worthy of China Tang, the platter was only £8.50 for 8 pieces and I could not have been more happy with it (so much so, I went back three times within 2 weeks to indulge!). The Beef Ho Fun was a perfect plate of starch with a generous portion of meat, and the crispy Shredded Beef hit the spot, leaving me wanting more...and more...and more! I could go on, but that would be immensely dull of me. 

Overall, it was good and nice and tasty and oh so filling, but it was not breath-taking and special or exceptional and refined. It was just very good and very nice, nothing more and nothing less. It’s also cheap as chips, so why not get involved?! I urge you to try it, even if for no other reason than to imagine that banjo playing midget singing Living on a Prayer in one of the karaoke suites!

 Square Meal Imperial China on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Inspiring Geneva

A very brief stint in Geneva recently took me on a magical mystery tour of this hopelessly inspiring city, armed with a million questions to answer about its history and current international prowess. I spent 2 days positively gleaning as much as I could about all things Swiss, from the chocolate, fondue and wine (who knew they made wine?!), to its infamous reputation as the worldwide centre for diplomacy, knowledge and money! OK, so it was only 144 questions, but that’s still enough to feel the burn of the challenge…and I'm competitive.

Amidst a long list of highlights, I did manage to eat and I shall definitely tell you about that, but I would never forgive myself for not giving you a very brief summary of what this city has to offer. It’s certainly not the most beautiful I've ever seen, but beneath the complex mixture of ancient beauty from yesteryear and outright ugly architecture from around the 1960's, and you will find a treasure trove of delights. I visited Cite du Temps because we've all surely owned a Swatch watch at some point (haven’t we?!); I listened to the bellowing organs inside the Cathedral St Pierre, and strolled past the Palais Wilson, which is the current HQ of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights (ooo la la!). I wandered around the Museum International de la Reforme to give myself a little more context to this so-aptly named City of Peace, then I ambled around the Brunswick Monument and along the lakeside, over to the United Nations (double ooo la la!)! Yes, this is a lot of walking. The highlight of the trip for me though, aside from the 144 questions of course, was exploring CERN (triple OOO LA LAAAAA!) - it's a magical hub of scientific innovation and pioneering research, respected on a global scale. I give thanks to all the poor boffins who gracefully answered my layman questions about quarks and leptons, and who were super attentive to my probing into the social and ethical implications of such ground-breaking, controversial and/or often highly politicised knowledge

Lest we forget though, I supposedly write about food and what better place to start than with the influence that the French have over everything in Geneva – the city borders France from almost every angle and infact, many of its workers and visitors still live there (undoubtedly saving themselves a pretty penny in the process I assume!). It should come as no surprise then, that the food is rich, classic and brimming with culinary precision and I'm sorry that I am compelled to only share my Swiss clichés with you today…stop reading now if you’re not interested in chocolate or vats of cheese!

I’ll share my sweet story first because I experienced it first and because randomly, I realise as soon as I walk through the door, that I've eaten this brand of cocoa just recently in London! Philippe Pascoet is a tiny chocolatier in the old suburb of Carouge (a rather civilised and chic canton at that), that thoughtfully combines herbs, fruit purées and spices to create glorious bites of fine dark chocolate encased ganache. A whopping price tag to us Londoners though, I'm afraid, and only stocked in the finest of the fine food halls in London. I would highly recommend for the discerning chocoholic, but for me (don’t tell anyone!), I'm not the biggest fan and I would just as happily tuck into a Quality Street fruit cream or After Eight as I would one of these bites of molten gold. I can certainly appreciate the sheer quality of produce though, and I learned stacks about making chocolate (10 questions down!).

Now, saving the best to last, please allow me to drag you into my fantasy fondue land! I admit that it is always a lot of fun to battle with a tea light and all this melted cheese, garlic and alcohol at home, but I'm frankly not nearly as interested unless I can chow down with a bunch of cow bells, blackened wood beams and swathes of gingham (throw an accordion into the background and some après ski, and a happy lady you would make!). Hotel & Restaurant Edelweiss offers you just this and what a delight it was! I imagine it to be a rather surreal hotel, but as a restaurant it had a fabulous vibe, an über traditional interior, and a fabulous mezzanine dining area skirting the tops of a larger dining hall; most importantly though, there was meat, pickles, cheeeeeese and oodles of bread on the menu. Roll me over, I'm done…even if it didn't earn me any points on that damn quiz!  

Square Meal

Restaurant Edelwiess

Geek graffiti
Bringing it home!

Most beautiful bit of art I've seen in a gallery in  long while...

Scallops flambéed with vodka

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Pop up puddings

I've been meaning to write about this place for weeks now, especially since my first visit was way back when I was out with my very dear defacto-appointed burger compadre! To be clear, I don’t particularly have a sweet tooth, I can’t profess to be an aficionado on desserts, and if I were to choose, I would probably always err on the side of a cheese board or Amaretto Sours for dessert, but when you discover that a pop up has umm, well, popped up(!), with the sole purpose of providing its diners with sweet wines, bubbles and stylish puddings, one cannot rightly say no. Pudding Bar in Soho is a genius idea and one that I've not yet seen anywhere else…

Located on Greek Street, this is a perfect solution for so many an occasion, but I found myself there, craving a sweet bite after going crazy in a meat-sweat inducing burger joint that’s famed for its burgers (obviously), not necessarily its dessert (unless a root beer float counts!). For all those who fancy skipping dinner though, you can sink knee deep into a world of sweet here, any time until midnight, 7 days a week (23:00 on Sundays). Even better still, if you can’t make your mind up or if like me, you’re gluttonous tendencies encourage you to eat everything on the menu, you can get a tasting plate for two people (£28). The menu is constantly changing, so multiple visits are not just acceptable, but positively desirable, if for no other reason to keep on top of that quest for optimum tooth rot and a well-rounded pot belly!

Individual desserts are priced between £6 - £8 per plate and everything I saw looked fantastic for such a reasonable price, all generously portioned too. You need not worry about style-over-substance here either – the favours are great, the execution is precise without being fussy, and the concepts cleverly combine traditional (sometimes perfectly retro) with a homely but modern twist. You will see classics like Banoffee, Baked Alaska, Panna Cotta and Cheesecake all riding high on the menu, but each one is thoughtfully lifted to bring sheer joy! Sweet wines range from £5 - £7 per 70ml serving, but you can get 125ml or a bottle if you so desire; why not try the Flight of Dessert Wine though, for only £16, so you can try three of the four varieties on the menu. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know much about dessert wines, so a tasty selection is a nice way to explore my favourite flavours. If sweet isn’t your thing, you can still get cheese (oh blessed cheese!), a nice selection of regular wines and sparkling nectar as well as a couple of beers (lager or IPA, both £4.50) and plenty of soft drinks to wash down the sugary goodness.

The décor is exactly what you’d expect from a pop up of the moment; it’s rustic, basic (though probably very well considered!), and ambient – untreated floorboards, shabby furniture and of course, the token use of jam jars for everything from the drinking vessels to flower pots! I have absolutely no issue with the cliché though, because this style is right up my strasse and exactly the kind of environment I enjoy the most, even it has been contrived that way! Give me shabby, retro, vintage or antique any day (hell, just muddle it all together), and I would be very happy indeed…it’s popular for a reason folks!

Be careful not to miss out because this is only a pop up and it’s already been around since July! I think it has license until Christmas, but we might get lucky with an extension if we all jump on the wagon.

Pudding Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Starck Fusion at Asia de Cuba

So, I guess you could say that this was my first proper venture into quality fusion food a few years back and as such, it has stuck with me, leaving me in a state of wanton craving on more than one occasion. I should get it out there sooner rather than later though, as much for your benefit as for mine you see (in an attempt to curb the useless ranting), the Miso Cured Black Cod has penetrated my subconscious and has positively turned me into a dribbling fool! Thank you Asia de Cuba for tantalising my taste buds and allowing me to leer over your treasure chest of a rum bar...

I promise not to rant as forewarned, but with a £33 price tag on the Miso Cured Black Cod, I do rather wish that this I-can't-afford-you restaurant would start dishing out free food on Mondays or something...I mean, noone goes out on a Monday, do they (let's ignore that we're in London eh)?! You need not get too charitable about it either and you definitely don't need to start handing out all of your glorious food to the masses in and around Covent Garden. Just enough for me. Just the Miso Cured Black Cod. Just once a week. And just one portion. That's all I want. Pretty please!

Before you get sick of me and before my musings do genuinely turn into a rant, I really should tell you a little about this place! Located within a trendy 5* luxury design hotel, St Martins Lane screams Philippe Starck and welcomes you with a surreal yet pleasurable assault on the senses! Part of ultra trendy Morgans Hotel GroupJeffrey Chodorow brought his Asian vs. Cuban fusion food from New York to London in the late 1990's and it still seems to be going strong over 20 years later; whether this be because of or in spite of the rarely changing menu I do not know, but please don't ever trash the Miso Cured Black Cod (sorry, couldn't help myself!). It's light wood floors, pseudo-industrial lighting and white washed walls are all very stark and modern, and yet still this restaurant is delightfully warm, inviting and ambient. It's busy even on a Monday (but don't tell anyone, else I might not get my free weekly Miso Cured Black Cod - sorry, again!), and it's home to some of the friendliest staff I've encountered in ages! You can either dive straight in for what you need or want most from the al a carte selection, or you can go for one of the tasting menus, which is as I always say, the best way to enjoy a feasting style dining experience; every dish here is designed to be shared and enjoyed by all at the table (be warned though, so you may not want to share and some simply aren't big enough to share!).

My most recent visit here was my first al a carte experience and it was delightful, but only because I the menu is more familiar these days, thus I know what I want. The Braised Oxtail and Kimchee Steamed Dumplings (£14.50) were possibly not the best texture I've ever had, but they tasted light and flavoursome (for my palette, if a dumpling isn't Cantonese, steamed and sticky, I'm not interested, but that says more about my odd taste than anything); the Honey Rum Glazed Pork Belly (£21) and pan Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops (£16.50) were also lovely, though again not necessarily the best I've ever had. I need not discuss the marvel of the main course, but just in case you've got the memory of an ant, the Miso Cured Black Cod was EPIC! A sublime ending then came with the Mini Mexican Doughnuts, which almost blew me away as much as the cod (I said, almost!). I'm going to Mexico in November and if I don't come back 2 stone heavier off the back of their doughnuts alone, it will be a miracle...

All in all, through the highs and lows, I want this place for the sum of it's parts and that's more than good enough for me. For the first time this year, my photography let me down, so don't let the pictures put you off - if you have the money and can afford the treat, this is definitely worth a try! Now, how can I reach the kitchen to persuade them to feed me Miso Cured Black Cod and Mini Mexican doughnuts every Monday?!

Miso Cured Black Cod, edamame 'fufu' and grilled shishito peppers (£33)
Braised Oxtail and Kimchee Steamed Dumplings with spiced calabaza threads and mango ponzu (£14.50)
Honey-Rum Glazed Pork Belly with plantain maduros, Shanghai bok choi and enoki mushrooms (£21)
Pan Seared Jumbo Sea Scallops with sweet-sou plantain and habanero corn crema (£16.50)
Mini Mexican Doughnuts: sweet brioche rolled in cinnamon sugar and filled with butterscotch sauce

St Martins Lane Lobby
Rum bar!

Asia de Cuba on Urbanspoon
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