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Sunday, 28 September 2014

Dear Simon Rogan...

It's not very often that I shell out my hard earned shrapnel for fine dining, so when I do, it's done in the hope that it will be worth every sturdy penny. I always judge the experience and food by equal measure, anywhere I go, but when you fall into the best of the best restaurant category, when you open a restaurant in one of London's most established and aristocratic 5* luxury hotels, and when you have such a prestigious chef at the helm, the judging criteria becomes wholly more than just a price tag or menu. Simon Rogan, welcome to your London base: Fera at Claridges.

With two Michelin stars at L'Enclume in the Lake District and originally from Southampton (incidentally also my home town, which achieves nothing else but to make me feel a little bit more fuzzy about the organic food loving forager!), Rogan has already earned Fera its first Michelin star in the same year it opened and will proudly appear on the 2015 Michelin Guide, so I'm super pleased to have gotten through the doors before pandemonium hits over his latest attempt to sensationalise local, organic, natural and/or wild produce.

If you can't bear to miss out on a privileged dining experiences like this, but if like me, you're not an investment banker, hedge fund manager, luxury property developer, overachieving consultant, adored celebrity, the Prime Minister himself or royalty (not forgetting those pesky independently wealthy types!), lunch is often the most cost effective way to enjoy fine dining. Set menus will almost certainly give you a delightful sample of an otherwise knock-you-socks-off al a carte selection, and Fera at Claridges is no different. 3-courses will cost you a mere £35 all seven days of the week, so I urge you to lace up your shoes and leave intimidation at the door...the staff are welcoming, polite, extremely proficient and impeccably invisible in the manner often only seen in places of exquisite service.

Given a complimentary glass of Champagne upon seating, everything was delivered with timely precision! The water was immediate, the bread was warm, with notes of sweet but bitter black treacle; the butter was rich and the unexpected amuse bouche was inventive, fresh, clean and light. The starter of Buttervilla tomatoes would have been lifted by some more texture for my palette, but their delicious sweetness was complimented sublimely by both lightly pickled cucumber and salty marrow, and the garlic custard really brought everything together while the marigold made the plate look like culinary art. The main course of Goosnargh duck was rich, tender and prepared superbly, with a vibrant sweetcorn puree and sweet caramelised cabbage. Dessert is not really my thing I would traditionally be happier with a cheese board, but this again looked stunning and tasted balanced, fresh and inspired.

At just over £80 between two people, I am over the moon about the affordability of this venture, the food was delicious, service flawless and open kitchen delightfully calm to watch. The ambience was refined and calm, though not hushed or staged. The décor was elegant and simple enough to reflect the organics of the natural life I think Rogan wishes to breathe into Claridges' new addition. Fera means 'wild' in Latin and while not outwardly so to the eye, both the food and design are reflected by earthy tones and captivating wilderness, most definitely allowing it to stand out from the traditional art deco opulence of the remainder of the hotel.

If only I was one of those aforementioned independently wealthy types, then maybe I could justify an evening tasting menu, complete with complimenting wines. I can't just yet, but if you can, book a table and let me know how it went!

Squaremeal Blogger of the Week - Restaurant Guide Square Meal
Fera At Claridge's on Urbanspoon
Amuse Bouche
Starter: Buttervilla tomatoes, marigold, bone marrow and garlic custard
Main Course: Goosnargh duck, caramelised cabbage, sweetcorn, yellow beans and hyssop

Dessert: Marinated raspberries, buttermilk, verbena and frozen yoghurt
Lunch menu £35 per person

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Dim Sum Den!

Discounting the swathes of taramasalata on butter-drenched toast, or every inch of the worlds cheese on a sweet Digestive biscuit and the suchlike, one of my all time favourite snack foods would have to be dim sum and if I could make them at home, I would positively be in trouble. Much like the addictive canapé, dim sum incessantly serve to deceive you with their miniature allure - I can devour 3 mini pork buns before lids on the dim sum baskets have even been lifted, and before I know it, I've inhaled more than the average 2-course meal! It's only my minuscule sense of social decorum that prevents me from blatantly scoffing everyone else's portion too I'm afraid. Anyways, if you muddle all of that bite-sized joy with a bulging cocktail menu in Chinatown, you will get to Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour.

Located on Gerrard Street, behind an unassuming open door (given away by the mildly conspicuous doorman lurking outside of it), you will find 3 floors of darkened sanctuary. Climbing up the stairs, smothered in incense smoke, spirits are decanted into old apothecary bottles and cocktails are served with associated twists in The Apothecary (a far brighter dining environment that the remainder of the venue), while the Den is a perfect private dining room, tucked away around a corner and on a split level and more dimly lit, making it feel like you're in an old school smoking lounge. The Tea Parlour on Level 3 rejoices in a sumptuous selection of tea atop of the staple cocktails and dim sum on offer; it's romantic lighting and comfy chairs, coupled with cosy corners and relaxed buzz, this is my favourite spot! Note that there is no formal dining table in this place, rather only small tea-tray type centre pieces - perfectly adequate for what you need because this is a parlour afterall, not a restaurant per see (did you not read the sign?!).

Wishing I could order at least two of everything from the menu, I again succumbed to social etiquette by ordering only one Dim Sum Platter (£16), but with the extra single baskets of Cantonese Barbeque Pork Buns (£6), Pork & Prawn Dumplings (£6.50), and King Prawn Dumplings (£7), perhaps this is still a lot between 3 girls! Now, this is not the cheapest venture I've had into dim sum, but for the mildly secretive location, the scented ambient décor and inventive concept, I'll hold my tongue and prepare the plastic! That said though, not unlike any other establishment of its kind, you could definitely eat here without breaking the bank if you stay sober and opt for one of the many wonderful teas. If however, you eat while guzzling cocktails (like me), be prepared to have your bank manager on speed dial as you flex said plastic! With cocktails ranging from £10.50 to £18, you should probably sip instead of swim, but despite the prices, each glass is a lovingly prepared and well invented concoction, some admittedly more theatrical and flamboyant than others, but all undoubtedly tasty.

My only minor point about this place is that while the staff were super friendly and never slow to produce, they could've checked in on us a touch more regularly. Noone wants to be bothered every 5 minutes, but my glass was empty more than once without anyone thinking to ask me if I wanted a top up and while I'm not sure I wanted my purse to be pillaged further, I certainly didn't want to go dry (I'm British afterall!). Aside from this tiny gripe, I loved it the first time and continue to love it!

Squaremeal Blogger of the Week - Restaurant Guide Square Meal Opium Cocktail & Dim Sum Parlour on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 September 2014

When fusion goes wrong...

Once again, I find myself with my burger buddy (a de facto label I'm sure she wouldn't much appreciate) as I follow this weeks craving for a succulent patty, today with a bit of a twist. Pitched up on New Row in Covent Garden, you will find Pacata, which offers an East meets West fusion menu, highly recommended by many a trusted London eatery guide and brought to us by the Boon Rawd Brewery (or as many of you will be more familiar, the beer giant Singha!). It is here where Thai meets Japanese and Indian, with an original and innovative conceptual menu that has been created by Yasuji Morizumi, the first Michelin starred ramen chef. Sounds awesome so far, right!

As with most places I get excited about eating at, I can't help myself but to dive into the online menu before making an appearance, and this time, having recently established that Korean food is infact wonderful (later blog to come about that!), I neglect the other weird and wonderful concoctions in favour of the Korean Burger, which would hopefully be juicy, well seasoned and pink, cooked with a special recipe and twisted with a signature Korean chilli sauce - all this served with sweet potato fries for a very acceptable price of £10.50. What more could one ask for?!

The interior is inviting too, shabby and extremely cosy, with window seats for the discerning people watcher and small booths for the cosy casual date, as well as larger high top tables for the groups. I quickly realise that I've walked past this place a million times before and I am pleased that this is my destination tonight, especially since the last couple of walk-by assessments were now coupled with fabulous reviews and and intriguing menu! Unfortunately though, I'm left wondering whether I've been reading the correct reviews, somewhat disappointed by the thought that maybe my oh so enthusiastic taste buds have tricked me somehow...maybe it was an off day, perhaps I was wrong, sometimes the equation doesn't compute. Baffled I am.

I can reconcile the lack of diners with an early Monday evening, though with a 4-year scoffing-in-London track record, I know better than to think that any day in the heart of the West End could be a quiet dining day (a restaurant without people in the West End is like heaven without wine I'm afraid, sorry). I can also forgive the slow-to-greet and slower-to-serve service in a busy dining hotspot, if infact, said hotspot was rammed (it was not), and I can certainly get over a small menu because you only need one dish to win over your gut / heart (they should be the same thing!). I'm sorry to say though, there's too much to forgive here to make it worth it. There was not nearly enough satay sauce on my Chicken Satay (though for only £4, I won't go overboard with my disappointment!), and my Korean Burger was pasty, a little insipid, and certainly not juicy or succulent; if it weren't for the beautiful presentation, the over-seasoned yet strangely tasteless creation was not too dissimilar to that bought at 2am from a kebab van, with a dollop of value chilli sauce on the side. The Beef Yakiniku (also £10.50) tasted nicer, but with the right combination of ginger, garlic and spring onion, I'm almost certain I could have made this dish at home and the Jasmine rice was bland, albeit well cooked and slightly sticky.

I want to be wrong about this one because it's foundations are sturdy and it's built on a winning formula, with great prices, backed by superstars and in a prime location, but it didn't work for me. The ambient décor didn't match the atmosphere, the food didn't live up to the menu, and the service while friendly, was awkward and uninformative. I care not to go on...

Pacata on Urbanspoon Square Meal
Pacata street view
Beef Yakiniku - £10.50
Premium stir-fry beef served with a choice of naan bread or Jasmine rice
Korean Burger - £10.50
Hand crafted beef patty, topped with our favourite Korean chilli sauce, choice of fries or sweet potato fries

Chicken Satay - £4
Pacata wine list

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Tapas courtesy of Copita

I'm quite a fan of Spanish tapas, but must admit, I do need to be in the mood for food that comes leaden with a lifetime of dining memories (and by that, I mean something I've eaten too much of over the years!). Whether it be calamari and octopus on one of the Costa's when I was a child (in-between camping in the Lakes, the odd bus holiday was all the rage in my family since my Dad drove a very nice one on the continent and sometimes had the back seats going free...for free!), or Spanish omelette and baked chorizo at home with my Mum, we always ate well, with other cultures and customs in mind. I routinely sat on my mates' floors with empanadas, Serrano ham and pitted fresh olives during my early twenties (amidst box-sets of Sex In The City and Prison Break of course!), then in my late twenties and early thirties, I've gorged on copious amounts of patatas bravas, croquettes, tomato bread and Manchego cheese boards both at home and abroad.

I am a massive fan of Brindisa (mainly because I'm addicted to the Bomba served in their Soho eatery), so on the rare occasion I need Spanish tapas in my life, I usually head down to Broadwick Street to satisfy the craving! On Friday, I ventured to Copita on D'Arblay Street instead, where we got crazy lucky with a table outside at 19:30 without a wait - it was extremely busy though, and I heard the wait thereafter was up to an hour. Moral of the story therefore, as with so many places these days, get there at a good time, take a risk and/or be prepared to stand around with a pint (or copita!) while you wait.

The menu is so perfectly non-pretentious and easy, and despite my love of patatas bravas, I was actually pleased to see some really alternative small plates on offer - all the staff were Spanish too, which always seems like a good thing! The monkfish, caramelised onions and parsley was amazingly tender and only £5.95 for four small, yet perfectly formed succulent chunks; similarly, the venison steak with crushed potatoes was well cooked and really tasty (£8.10), and the chorizo de bellota was of exceptional quality, melt in the mouth almost. I'm afraid that the tiger prawns with chilli and garlic butter were a little fishy for my liking, but the sauce was diptastic, so I shan't complain! Prices are really good and anywhere between 4 - 6 dishes between two people would be both delicious and not bank-breaking.

My only gripe here also doubles up as a small source of confusion though. Copita literally means small glass or shot, so are they basically suggesting a tot with each plate?! If so, this is not possible with drinks being served the way they are here - my gin was brought to me in a giant goblet-sized wine glass and it gleefully lasted the duration of the meal (almost!). The gin was indeed, epic and I opted for the GinMare & Basil, which was delicious, but at a staggering £11.90 for 50ml measure, a copita it was not and cheap was most definitely not...

Overall, I want to go back for the blue cheese & potato croquettes and I definitely want to sample more of that gin despite the price tag.

Copita on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Cheese board - £11.00

Tiger prawns with chilli and garlic butter - £6.95