Category Archives: Londinium

There ain’t no (Beer) party like a Beer Mansion

Music Cellar...

In recent years, I’ve gotten more and more into Craft beers – As part of my 40 Project, I tried to drink local beers from places whilst on my travels (I actually went to a local Birmingham brewery but didn’t manage to take any photos so am not counting it). I was briefly into Real Ales whilst at University, but I was never really someone whom liked lagers when out drinking with friends. My memories of it was mainly of my Dad treating himself to a pint of lager or bitter from the pub opposite the Takeaway and when trying a mouthful myself, complaining about how bitter it was. By no means would I consider myself to be an expert, but yunno, I think I have a fairly decent palette, I know what kind of tastes and flavours I do and don’t like and it’s been (and continues to be) a real voyage of discovery as I continue to not only learn about, but discover new, tasty beers from the ever growing list of breweries out there. I do have some favourite breweries, ones that have consistently good beers across their portfolio – Anchor Brewery, Founders, Magic Rock and Brooklyn Brewery.

Summer Ale

Admittedly, I have a bit of a soft spot for Brooklyn as they’re probably THE brewery that really got me interested into craft beer. Whilst I was busy avoiding Brooklyn Lager through fear of bringing back unpleasant childhood memories of drinking lager (by virtue of containing the word “lager”), it was at the brilliant Grillstock that I got to drink the very delicious Brooklyn Summer Ale for the very first time – It was light, crisp with a slight fruity note – words I would normally use to describe wine, not beer and yunno, it was absolutely perfect for drinking on a long, warm summer night. It was also from that weekend at Grillstock that I got to try other beers like the East India Pale Ale which was delicious, but a whopping 6.9% – Which I didn’t realise at the time when I bought a case for some friends who were competing in the King of the Grill contest, oops!. From there, I tried other beers in the Brooklyn range and very quickly, Brooklyn Brown Ale established itself as a firm favourite of mines (along with Summer Ale both of which are 2 of my favourite beers and regular go-to beers). It was from here that I learned about the BQE range of beers and fortunately for me, the (also very brilliant) Stirchley Wines tend to stock beers from the BQE range and again, I’m generally impressed with what Brooklyn produce. I should also point out that I have since tried Brooklyn lager and (as expected from a brewery that takes taste and flavour seriously, rather than mass-producing something bland), it’s actually really nice and nothing like anything my Dad used to drink.

American Ale

Through the joys of social media, I learned that Brooklyn Brewery were bringing their Mash to London – A series of different types of events over a few days – And whilst I don’t live in London, I was keen to see if there was anything I could make it to (without taking any leave from work as I may need to save them for other fun things this year…) and my eyes are drawn to the Beer Mansion. I really wanted to go to the feast – A collaboration with Smoking Goat but given it was midweek, it would have meant a bit of a dash to and after (not that I could buy tickets anyway, it was more of a raffle).  Quick message to my craft beer brother, Moon, and I’m booking tickets for the Beer Mansion along with accommodation.

Untitled

The Beer Mansion was described as “an immersive beer experience” and if I’m completely honest, my first thoughts after reading that were that it was a load of pretentious marketing twaddle so upon arriving to the entrance to MC Motors in the back streets of Stoke Newington, I didn’t really know what to expect – But I went in with an open mind…

Untitled

So we arrived at the back of what seemed like a former car mechanic’s yard and there were ship containers a-plenty, all stack on top of each other. Quick scan to make sure we had actually bought tickets and literally before we could step into the entrance/shipping container, the bouncer (shades, black suit and all) sternly instructed us to “grab a beer” and pointed at 2 large black plastic bins filled with iced water and cans of various Brooklyn beers. Naturally, we weren’t going to argue with the scary bouncer and I headed straight for a can of my beloved Summer Ale whilst Moon went for the American Ale. Right by the entrance, we’re approached by someone whom obviously works there (walkie-talkie, dressed in Brooklyn Brewery clothing…) and asked if we’d just arrived (yes) and whether we’d been told about the Beer Mansion. Claiming (quite rightly) ignorance,He proceeded to tell us that “This is a beer festival – with 50+ beers in different settings for you to appreciate” and his best advice to us was “to not stay in one space for too long.” Well, that would be our interest piqued. Moving to one end of the courtyard, there were plenty of people lining up for food (provided by Voodoo Ray Pizza), playing Cornhole or like us, just chatting and drinking the (free) beer and making the most of the sun coming out to play. We’d only just got there and were already loving it..

Untitled Untitled

As the night went on, we took the advice of the aforementioned guy and started to explore the complex – There were indeed lots of different areas with different themed bars at each spot, all with beers for you to try. In the courtyard by the entrance, they were offering Brooklyn Bel Air Sour – Which I *loved*. I’m really into my sours atm, and this one was an absolute cracker! Going downstairs to what was ostensibly a basement, there was a DJ on one side and an (empty) stage at the other with another bar nearby – This time with another 4 different varieties to try. Everywhere you went, there was a bar with yet more beer to try, soon it became clear what the advice meant – You really wanted to continue exploring the complex and trying different beers in different settings. Hell, there was even a photo booth – Who doesn’t love a photo booth (especially after a few drinks?). There was so much to see and do, including a slight element of danger added to the proceedings in the form of concrete stairs steeper than those found at the Colosseum in Rome with a bit of loose rope pretending to be a banister.  I mean, even the security bod had to keep saying to people (in his stern voice) to take care which presumably, he had to after too many ppl were staggering up (and down) them.  I was a bit overwhelmed by it all, but the main feeling was one of disbelief that everything (including danger and comedy elements) were included in the £10 for the ticket?!

Untitled

One of my favourite bars within the Beer Mansion was where Head of Culinary Programme Chef for Brooklyn Brewery Andrew Gerson essentially plated a dish in our palms and paired it with one of the beers. The dish was some lightly cured salmon with micro herbs, roasted seeds and nuts, some sauce and it was very nice indeed. More to the point, it did pair exceptionally well with the beer and was for me, a perfect example of drinking beer differently. I stood a little in awe, watching wave after wave of people crowd round and follow instructions given diligently and seeing the reactions on all their faces after eating the dish. If I wasn’t already having a brilliant time, this last experience completely cemented it for me.

Food and beer pairing (with Andrew Gerson) Food and beer pairing (with Andrew Gerson) Talking through the food... topping.. Hands at the ready..

I left the Beer Mansion completely in awe at what I experienced – So much thought and planning had gone into it and it was a very slick operation, but it didn’t lose its core ideal in that it was something to not only allow you try different (Brooklyn) Beers, but also try them in different settings which may (or may not) enhance the experience. Truly, I had never experienced anything like it but that’s not to say that it was a bad thing. I admit, I do like Brooklyn Brewery beers – They’re very drinkable! – And by the end of it, I admit that I was taken in by the marketing spiel, but the Beer Mansion was just something else and very special. They have set the bar  impossibly high for others when it comes to Beer Festivals and I tell you what, if Brooklyn Brewery bring the circus that is the Brooklyn Brewery Mash round to the UK again, I will be clearing my diary to make as many events as possible, wherever it may be.

Signage Bounty from the night

More photos can be found at my Flickr album

Advertisements

Reaching even greater dizzying heights – A return to Hedone

Poached Cornish rock oysters, Granny Smith, shallots

For my Birthday, I obviously wanted to go somewhere pretty special to eat and with that came all sorts of questions – Do I stay in Birmingham or should I venture out further afield, possibly abroad? Do I try somewhere new or do I return to somewhere I’ve previously loved? I did initially think of staying in Birmingham but decided against it because well, I live here so can go to the good restaurants whenever I want (or at least it would be much easier for me to do so). I can’t really afford to go anywhere abroad so it was a matter of where else in the Country I wanted to go to. For a moment, I considered le Champignon Sauvage; the first 2* place I’d ever eaten and somewhere I went to in the beginning of my foray into finer dining establishments so I have a bit of a soft spot for them out of pure nostalgia. However, the cooking there is very robust and in them early days whilst my palette was still developing, was at times a bit *too* rich for me, but I reckon I could cope with it now. But was it enough for my Birthday meal? Not quite was that answer.. Besides, I want to go back to LCS with specific people to make it special again and by the time we thought about it, couldn’t get a table. I really needed somewhere I could get to easily by train for a day trip so that ruled out L’Enclume and other places up North so I looked at the train router and thought about the Hand and Flowers; I’ve been meaning to go there for a while with a friend but when I called them, they didn’t have any tables free for then next 6 months(!!). So there was only 1 place left – Londinium.

Nibbles

I go to Londiunium quite a bit really – Partly to visit friends and I used to go for work, but mainly because there are a lot of places I want to try in London. That said, there hasn’t really been anywhere new that has opened up in the past 18 months or so which has got me really excited and thinking that I *must* rush there (Well, apart from Sushi Tetsu last year). I mean, I remember being desperate to get a table at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and Pollen Street Social pretty much as soon as they opened, but I’ve not had that feeling about a lot of places which have opened in London for a while now. That’s not really a bad thing though, as it means that whilst everyone is rushing around trying to get a table at the latest establishment opening its doors for the first time, I’m finding it easier to get a reservation at somewhere which has had the time to iron out the kinks associated with new openings and have found their groove (so to speak). However, there has only been 1 new restaurant opening in the past couple of years where I actively seek to go back to time and time again – Hedone.

P4204551

There’s no secret that I absolutely love Hedone given how completely blown away I was from the very first meal I ate there (and subsequently wrote about here) and am subsequently absolutely itching to go back as soon as possible pretty much all the time. Since that first visit, I’ve been back a few times and I’ll be honest, there has been an occasion when I’ve felt slightly underwhelmed and thought that Mikael showed off his mortal side. Whilst chatting to Mikael on a visit last Summer, he told us that he was (finally) a lot happier with how the kitchen was operating and subsequently much happier with the dishes being served – And you could tell that from subsequent visits; The near culinary god-like status was reinstated and every dish coming from the kitchen was absolutely stellar. Subsequently, there’s been no looking back; Hedone has been awarded its first Michelin star – Just over 12 months after first opening and as Mikael himself documented in his Gastroville blog, getting the Michelin star was a source of great pride to him and he finally a lot happier with the way the kitchen and restaurant is being run. From that slight dip where all the dishes were probably 7 or 8’s out of 10, every single dish that was being served now was worthy of at least a 9 out of 10 and that old familiar feeling of wanting to go back as soon as possible returned. And well, that turned out to be my Birthday;

Detail: "Fish and Chips"

The 4 of us arrived absolutely famished because as we deliberately ate a light breakfast given we knew that there were going to be a lot of courses eaten but I don’t think we were prepared for just how hungry we all were by the time we got there. Jokingly, we thought of asking them to have bread waiting for us on the table for our arrival, so when we all sat down eventually (after I had a bit of a brain meltdown in being asked to make a decision when hungry as to whether to sit at one of the new tables or the banquette) and ordered aperitifs, our server was about to serve us bread and butter before remembering that we had ordered aperitifs and quickly retracted from serving us bread – So close! The pêche royale was so delicious and strong, it went straight to my head and I soon forgot about being famished.

Actually, I really need to dedicate some words to the bread here; I mean, I’ve been making a lot of sourdough bread myself (thanks to a starter from Loaf) and yunno, I don’t think it’s too bad. The luxury of being able to have sourdough toast – Which could well be one of the greatest breakfast items ever – every morning is a real treat. The bread at Hedone has always been pretty good but I remember Mikael saying (again) how he’s much happier with the bread now and it’s almost at a point where he’s willing to bake it for other restaurants. All I can say is that if Mikael thinks that the bread could be better, it will be classified as borderline illegal from being so good. I mean, the bread as it is now at Hedone is stunning: The crust is a thing of beauty and the bread itself, whilst resisting the urge to talk about crumb structure, is almost sweet and malty – with the signature sour tang. Seriously, I used to think I made good sourdough and sorry guys, the sourdough from Loaf is delicious – But the bread at Hedone is leagues above. What’s more, they keep offering you some until you decline (after which, they quickly clear away your side slate/rock thingy) and whilst I’ve always liked the bread at Hedone, I can see why Mikael is much happier with this recipe and as we (half) joked, our mission to get Mikael to offer us a loaf of their sourdough to take home..

Exceptional crust! Sourdough Sourdough Sourdough

I could give a course-by-course detail, but I would run out of superlatives; Every single dish that came out to us (and we deliberately asked not to be told what we were getting to keep the element of surprise with Carte Blanche) was stunning and became a new favourite – until the next dish came out. Even now, the four of us struggle to decide upon the top 3 dishes of the day – From the Broken duck’s egg, green asparagus, green peas, fresh morels, red bell pepper where, as P commented, even the peas were delicious to the sublime Langoustine tail and claw, lobster bouillon and roe with a langoustine tail so thick, it looked almost like a really thick centipede, but was cooked to perfection and the bouillon so packed full of flavour. And that liquid parmesan ravioli – None of us had any idea how they made the liquid parmesan, but it was utterly delicious and I’m glad that the chefs at Hedone do know how to make liquid parmesan and cook it for us (grateful) paying guests.

Detail: Broken duck's egg, green asparagus, green peas, fresh morels, red bell pepper Detail: Langoustine tail and claw, lobster bouillon and roe Detail: Liquid Parmesan ravioli, Roscoff onion consomme, mild horseradish Roast squab pigeon, offal sauce, beetroots five ways

But that’s not to say that every dish as a whole was a complete success; Whilst I loved the liquid parmesan and the mild horseradish foam it was served with, I found the ravioli pasta *just* a smidgen too thick – And we are talking millimetres here. Perhaps it needed to be to contain the liquid parmesan – And I must also stress that I was the only person in our party who thought that the pasta was too thick, but personally speaking, I would have given the dish a 10 out of 10 had the pasta been a teeny bit thinner, rather than the 9 out of 10. Yes, I am being that particular! For the suckling pork dish we were offered, the suckling pig itself was sheer perfection with crispy skin and the meat so tender and moist underneath. It immediately made me think of Chinese New Year (which is no bad thing) and I almost yearned for some jellyfish or some hoisin sauce. However, the endive and aubergine with miso and walnut served with it made it less of a successful dish as a whole; the aubergine wasn’t quite cooked enough and the glaze on both the aubergine and endive was incredibly salty – overpoweringly so and they didn’t really enhance the pork in any way. But you could overlook such misgivings purely because that piggy was so damned tasty..

Roast suckling pig, miso and walnut glazed endive and aubergine Detail: Roast suckling pig, miso and walnut glazed endive and aubergine

However, these are genuinely minor gripes and in no way affected all of us having a brilliant time – Any kind of lunch that lasts 4 hours where each dish is at least 9 out of 10 is pretty damn good in anyone’s book, I’d say. Hell, I’m even eulogising about the bread served in this place!. I know that I’ve been a big fan of Hedone since the very beginning, but I can honestly say that Hedone now is not only very different to when they first opened, but they’re an awful lot better now. It’s very clichéd, but in a society where we are in danger of forgetting how things should taste (remember P commenting on how even the peas were good?), what Hedone does is remind it’s diners just how good ingredients treated simply can be. I mean, what can be more simple than getting asparagus that (quelle horreur) actually tastes of asparagus and not some of the bland, tasteless crap you can get from Supermarkets these days?. They don’t make a big song and dance about it (that’s left to bloggers such as myself and reviewers), but I do think that Hedone is genuinely one of the most exciting restaurants in London, possibly the whole Country. It certainly is brilliant value (especially for lunch) where you can go 2 course set lunch for £28.50, 3 courses for £35.00, but why would you when you can get have a 7 course tasting menu for £55.00? Sure, Hedone may not be a very fashionable restaurant nor may it be trendy enough to be a place to be seen. But Hedone is absolutely a place to eat (strange that, for a restaurant eh?) and I was already plotting when I can return to Hedone before we finished our meal. I am seriously excited to find out what culinary tricks Mikael and his brigade will do to fantastically great ingredients every time I visit – which is why I maintain that Hedone is one of the most exciting new restaurants to open up in the last few years and also why I keep going back. It is also why you should eat there, too.

Finished plate

You can view the full set of photos from my visit on my Flickr page

Koya, London

Entrance

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone for me to say that I’m somewhat of a noodle-freak; I simply love noodles in all forms that they come in, particularly Asian, but that’s mainly because of my roots. There’s been a lot of love and hoo-har for ramen in recent months with several ramen places opening in Londinium and local favourite MinMin looking to make their own ramen soon. But whilst I like ramen, I don’t think it’s the tastiest noodle that our Japanese friends have given us. I mean, I much prefer something like soba noodles (especially in a cold soba noodle salad) but I’ve always had a bit of a special love for udon noodles. I mean, I love their thick chewiness and even with the packaged stuff you can buy from Asian supermarkets, I actually quite like the sour tang they have at the end. I can remember the first time we ordered udon noodles in a Chinese restaurant and apart from the fact that I was trying something new (with what I thought was a bit of a funky name), I loved how chewy they were. In recent years, I started making my own udon noodles and whilst I can modestly say that I thought they were OK, there was always a little something that I thought was missing – But having not tasted them in Japan, I had no real point of reference, apart from the packets of udon noodles. That was, until Koya opened.

Udon noodles for HIya-Atsu

Koya was a bit of a revelation to me the first time I went because it was the first time I recognised that this is how udon noodles should taste, what texture they should be, etc. And from all the blurb that was written about Koya around the time that it first opened its doors, it was very authentic – Some even suggested it was as good as what you could get in Japan. But they also offered dishes other than udon noodles and as you would expect with Japanese cuisine, every dish that came out was as pretty as a picture. But whilst dishes like their tempura was crisp and light like it should be, the udon noodles here were king. Well, they should be considering that the flour is especially imported from Japan and they soften the local Thames water to make them.

The menu at Koya is pretty straightforward: You first need to decide if you want hot or cold noodles, if you choose hot noodles then you will get it in a hot broth, if you choose cold noodles, you then need to decide if you want it with a hot broth or a cold sauce to either dip in or pour over your noodles. The idea is that you would choose hot noodles and hot broth on cold days and the cold noodles option on warmer days. From there, it’s whatever protein takes your fancy. There are rice dishes (donburi) available too, but let’s face it, why would you go to Koya to eat rice? Then there are the small plates and specials; I have a particular soft spot for the onsen tamago which a perfectly soft poached quail’s egg in a light broth. It’s a little 2-bite bowl of deliciousness which I can’t help but every pretty much every time I go. I’m also a bit partial to the seaweed salad and especially like the green salad on warm summer days and the tempura here is pretty good.

Onsen Tamago Small Plate Detail: Kaiso Salad Vegetable tempura Vegetable tempura

If you follow Koya on Twitter, they usually tweet what the day’s specials are to further tempt you; my most recent visit saw us ordering the oysters and Jerusalem artichoke in broth from the small plates (Again, a delicately balanced broth with a couple of lightly poached oysters and chunks of Jerusalem artichoke which added a real earthiness to the whole dish) and ordering the special atsu atsu – char shu lamb with dandelion udon. It intrigued me in that char shu is (like char siu in Chinese cookery) is usually roasted pork (the Japanese tend to just flavour it with soy and honey and not add any food colouring like the Chinese do and slow roast it), so it intrigued me to see lamb being used and wondered how it was going to be served. What arrived was some thinly sliced char shu lamb with some dandelion leaves and other light toppings (crushed ginger and sesame seeds) on top of the udon in a light broth. And well, the lamb may have been thinly sliced but it was packed full of flavour and perfectly pink.

Small Plate: Oysters and Jerusalem Artichoke in broth Small Plate Detail: Oysters and Jerusalem Artichoke in broth Special Atsu-Atsu Special Atsu-Atsu

The broth for my Kamo (duck) hiya atsu had a bit too much of a sheen from too much fat floating on the surface (which made it awkward to photograph) and although the slices of duck in the broth were really thick, each slice had been coated in some floury coating which made it all a bit slimy. Still, I ate the lot. As for YKL’s kinoko hiya atsu, it was nice but the brother was served warm and the udon noodles were so chilled that it unfortunately lowered the temperature a bit too much and she was in a rush to eat her dish because the broth had actually gone cold.

Kamo Hiya-Atsu Kamo Hiya-Atsu Kinoko Hiya-Atsu detail: Kinoko Hiya-Atsu

So there have been occasional misses whenever I’ve gone, but whenever I’ve taken my friends there, they’ve absolutely loved it. However, the one thing which has consistently been good at Koya is the udon noodles; They truly are a thing of wonder with the perfect chew and spring to them, and there isn’t that sour tang at the end. The noodles are soft, with a bit of a bite to them and are so long that when you actually enjoy slurping them. Whilst there may have been issues with the broth at times, when you get the right combination of noodle to broth, it really is a thing of beauty and a joy to eat.

And therein lies my problem with Koya; Whilst the noodles are fantastic – easily the best out there (OK, Koya is the only place out there offering fresh udon noodles), but whilst the prices may be considered cheap for Central London (they won the Cheap Eats category in the Observer Food Awards in 2011 and was a runner-up in 2012), most of the dishes are priced £10+ when I could go to Noodle Oodle on Oxford St and get a roast duck with fresh hand pulled noodles in broth for £7.50. Plus, whilst the food at Koya is good, I don’t walk out of Koya thinking that it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten or that I got great value for money. I mean, ordinarily I wouldn’t bother going back to anywhere if I thought they were overpriced or that I didn’t think it was particularly good value. Yet every few months or so, I find myself going back to Koya time and time again. I think that for all of Koya’s flaws, I am blinded by my love for their udon noodles, so much so that I’m willing to overlook any other factors which may leave me feeling disappointed. I don’t mean to say that Koya isn’t worth going to – it absolutely is – But if it wasn’t for the fact that their noodles are so goddamn tasty, I probably wouldn’t keep going back. And that is the key; I may not think that the food at Koya in general is perfection every time, but I certainly think that the noodles alone are – And *that’s* why I keep going back.

Kamo Hiya-Atsu

Sushi Tetsu, London

Untitled

There’s been a bit of a buzz on the ol’ Interweb and Twitter about a new sushi bar opening in Clerkenwell, London. Sushi Tetsu was opened by former Nobu chef, Toru Takahashi and his wife in a tiny place in Jerusalem Passage in Clerkenwell, London. It’s only been open a month, but has already won over most food critics and various foodies in the blogosphere with their authenticity and what’s been described as “the closest thing you’ll get to being in Tokyo”. It’s already established cult status within the foodie world and well, I’m willing to travel for good food..

It was actually a bit of a palaver trying to get there as I initially booked to go with TSW and she was only free on a Monday, and I thought that whilst it was a bit unusual that a sushi place was open on a Monday but booked anyway. Then I read that they get their fish fresh every day from Billingsgate Market so I felt better about going – Until Nick and Lap told me that Billingsgate isn’t open on Mondays, so I began to wonder how fresh the fish was going to be. I mean, as Lap teased, thawed Mekong Delta catfish could be a possibility so with haste, we re-arranged the booking. As luck would have it, I had to go to Londinium for a few work meetings; *KER-CHING!*. A dinner reservation (without TSW who was away for her work) was hastily booked.

Sushi Tetsu is located in a quiet alleyway behind the Modern Pantry and the Zetter (with the Bistrot Bruno Loubet) in Clerkenwell. The inside is quite small too – A counter with 7 seats and 1 other table (which can seat up to 4). So, not many seats but it suits Takahashi-san as it’s a 1 man operation with Harumi doing the drinks and greeting guests as they arrive, but Takahashi-san does all the preparation (and cleaning afterwards) and he gives you his full attention during your meal there. Given it was quite early (I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to eat at a leisurely pace before getting a train home), it was just myself and another young Japanese couple dining there. Sat down in prime position at the counter, I chatted to Takahashi-san and explained that rather than me bumbling about the menu, I’d like to go for Omakase (chef’s choice) of both Sashimi and Sushi, to which he recommended a set of 5 different types of fish for sashimi and 8 + 1 roll for the sushi. I was completely at his mercy but was completely happy for him to choose for me and with a warm towel brought to me by Harumi, I sat back and let the feasting commence;

The sashimi platter offered included turbot, pickled sardine, scallop, sea bass, spot prawn and midi-toro. As you would expect from such a high-quality restaurant, every single component was fresh and delicious. It took all my self-control to not inhale the plate in one go but the biggest surprise was the sea bass. Long has the sea bass suffered in my culinary world because it was pretty much the only fish the Mothership ate in her later years to the point where even in other sushi places where they offer sea bass, I’ve never really enjoyed it. But the sea bass here, it was a reasonably thick slice but it was sweet and as with all good raw fish, it tasted of the sea and not fishy. I actually stopped myself mid-conversation with the young couple who were there and exclaimed: “OMHMYGODTHATISDELICIOUS!”, much to the amusement of everyone there. Seriously, could not fault a single item on the whole dish and if what followed was anywhere near as good as the sashimi platter, I was in for a fantastic night. So with a single bamboo leaf laid out in front of my with a pile of sushi ginger at one end, Takahashi-san started on the sushi;

Master at work (Scallop) Sashimi It's all coming together... Finished plate - Sashimi

Kicking off the sushi was the turbot; a single nigiri was placed on the bamboo leaf and in I went. What I hadn’t noticed as I was mesmerised by watching Takahashi-san working was that he had put tiny, fine marks into the fish so that it would absorb the delicate soy seasoning he applied to each piece better (and also helps to break down the fish when you eat it). This happened throughout the rest of the meal and even though you have the option for more soy sauce to dip in your sushi, there really is no need as each piece is perfectly seasoned by Takahashi-san. Oh, and the fish was really sensational – sweet and tender – but almost with a slight crunch when you bite into it, I did feel a bit like I had inhaled the nigiri and wondered if I should take my time to savour each bite, otherwise it was going to be a very short visit!

Untitled Nigiri - Turbot

I needn’t have worried because next on offer was Ebi – Shrimp. Now, these are often given a bad rep by Supermarket sushi packs because they only offer cooked fish (longer shelf life, you see), and what you do get is overcooked, bland and texturally is closer to cardboard than to any living organism at all, let alone marine life. But here, the shrimp has already been boiled but not yet peeled – Essential in retaining some of the moisture. The prawn was so big that it seemed to envelope the rice rather than be perched on top. The inside of the butterflied-open prawn was given a quick scorch by a blow torch which not only helped elevate this prawn nigiri above others in terms of temperature, but the slight char it left on the flesh added another dimension to the whole flavour of the prawn – Utterly delicious.

Blowtorching the inside of the prawn Ebi Nigiri

Given how fantastic the Ebi nigiri was, it was interesting to see how tuna nigiri should be done (again, as compared to what you may get from the chilled cabinets of supermarkets). The fish was soft and almost bouncy in texture as you chewed. The rice was warm, soft with a slight hint of vinegar and perfectly seasoned where it was almost creamy when you chewed it. That, combined with the bouncy texture of the fish was a great marriage, especially in the yellowtail and the razor clam which had a satisfying crunch when you bit into it. In fact, the same could be applied to all the sushi which was served to me that night – Astoundingly fresh and high quality fish, each piece prepared with great care and attention you would expect from a sushi chef, perfectly seasoned and draped upon some rice which is not only perfectly seasoned and served at the right temperature so that it’s almost creamy, hand-crafted to perfection, yet rice and fish work together yet against each other. As with all good dining experiences, I was reduced to making guttural noises in appreciation.

Nigiri - Yellowtail Nigiri - razor clam

I tried to take my time and not wolf down as every piece of sushi as soon as Takahashi-san placed it on the bamboo leaf – especially when you see the care and attention he puts into making each piece (not to mention how he perfectly judges the pace of everything too, so you’re never too rushed, nor are you waiting to excessive periods of time in between offerings) – But every single piece was just so delicious, I could see why people are already raving about this place. It helped that the couple whom were also there were lovely and we got to having a decent chat – Even though I asked a near impossible question to answer when I asked “what makes a good sushi bar?” (The answer to which is that it’s completely subjective, some like to eat in complete silence whereas others may like more banter between guests and/or the chef, so there isn’t a definitive answer as such).

Nigiri - Salmon Nigiri - Tuna Nigiri - Yellowtail Salmon roe

And then came the o-toro. Oh GOD! The o-toro! I had known how this is the prized (and most expensive) part of the tuna because it’s the part of the belly which is seriously marbled with fat – And the Japanese know that fat=flavour. I have had midi-toro and chu-toro plenty of times, but I couldn’t actually remember if I had tried o-toro or not in the UK. Takahashi-san brought out a slab of o-toro, impossibly marbled with fat so that it was more fat than meat and carefully sliced a piece out and fashioned it on top of some of the delicious rice. Then, to my surprise, Takahashi-san also charred the o-toro slightly and placed it onto the bamboo mat in front of me. So how was it? Well, it was another Serious Foodie Moment for me; the o-toro was rich and creamy with a slight smokiness from being blow-torched, it practically melted in my mouth before I had to chew the soft grains of rice. I could easily see why o-toro is so revered in Japan and it had me practically begging for another piece!

Preparing the o-toro Ready to be blow-torched Blowtorching Nigiri - O-Toro

To round things off, the one maki roll was offered. I saw Takahashi-san making the roll with speed and precision but I wasn’t too sure what the main ingredient was (other than the cucumber). When presented, I was told that it was scallop skirt with cucumber and shiso leaf. Well! Who’d have thought that Scallop skirt would be so delicious? The satisfying crunch from the scallop skirt combined with the cool, refreshing cucumber, lightly toasted sesame seeds and minty shiso leaf was an absolute revelation and if you like something different, you should absolutely try this.

P7192063 Ready to roll Rolling rolling rolling.. Maki - Scallop skirt (mantle), cucumber and shiso leaf

Then came the killer question from Takahashi-san: “Would you like more?” Mindful of the time as I had a train to catch, but at the same time not really wanting this experience to end, I asked Takahashi-san if he had any eel. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for grilled eel and as a consequence, always try to order it whenever I can. However, I was also keen to try the sea urchin given the quality of the fish and asked if I should go for the eel or the sea urchin; to which the reply was to have the eel this time because the quality was much better and also “Jay Rayner’s favourite”. Well, who am I to disagree with Takahashi-san given the quality of food thus far, and also with Jay Rayner (who would publish his review on Sushi Tetsu a few weeks later). And how I was glad I did here – grilled eel with a thin layer of fat between the crisp skin and meaty flesh with the sweet soy sauce perched upon that killer soft, seasoned rice. I had to pause and savour the moment because it was so damned good.

nigiri - unagi

And that’s the thing about Sushi Tetsu: I am (reliably) informed that it’s authentic and as close to something you’d experience in Japan, but a lot of people then state the obvious and say that will never be “truly authentic” or as good as Tokyo because the fish is mainly sourced from Billingsgate – And Billingsgate is no Tsukiji. Well of course it bloody isn’t! And if you’re going to make impossible comparisons, it will never be great. Rather, why can’t we celebrate what we have here; A brilliant new place with exceptionally high quality sashimi and sushi composed of ingredients and resources that are available to the chef. Of course it’s not going to be the same as if you were eating somewhere in Japan, but it’s pretty damn close and makes the most of what is available to us here in the UK. I brought up how I was a bit worried about eating there on a Monday lunch time and Takahashi-san told me (in no uncertain terms) that the fish he got on Monday may not be from Billingsgate, but he had resources which meant that he could still get high quality fish. After going to Sushi Tetsu, I completely trust Takahashi-san and am confident that he would not serve any fish that he thought to be substandard (like how he told me not to go for the sea urchin earlier in my meal). In a very Asian way, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to write about Sushi Tetsu because I am aware that I would only be adding to the hyperbole and deserved praise – Which in turn would mean that it would be even harder to get a table. But, all good things should be shared and if you can bag a reservation (at the time of typing this post, they were fully booked for lunch for 2 weeks and for Fri + Sat dinner for the next 6 weeks), then you absolutely should go.

One final thing though; when you are served the tamago at the end of the meal – Just remember that nothing sweet or hot is served at Sushi Tetsu. It’s a small detail but helped cement in my mind how brilliant this place is. I can’t comment on the authenticity and really don’t care how it compares to somewhere in Japan, all I know is that Sushi Tetsu is one of the best places out there for Sushi and Sashimi.

Tamago

You can view my full set of pictures on Flickr

Ribstock

DSC_4664

On a cold, grey and rainy Saturday in Soho, the air was full of the smell of BBQ smoke as all the competitors for Ribstock were cooking away. Seriously, the smell of smoke was detectable from Chinatown and every person who walked past St Anne’s Churchyard wanted to know what was going on.. Ribstock started off as an idea by Street Food hero The Ribman to get a load of people together and compete to cook their ribs for people to blind taste and judge. After a collaboration between J Downey of Tweat Up (who have previously organised fantastic events like when Pitt Cue were about to close to the UK’s first ever Chilli Stand Off) and Peter Butler, plans were drawn up for Ribstock. Given the success of previous Tweat Up events, combined with the Ribman’s popularity (and vocal announcements over Twitter to his many followers) and well, the fact that everyone loves ribs, tickets sold out in such a fast time (600 tickets sold in under 5 minutes) that it took the organisers by surprise but I’m sure it also made them very happy to know that people were hungry for ribs out there. I was extremely lucky and managed to snap up a pair of tickets so it then became a countdown to Ribstock and what promised to be Rib Heaven.

CSC_4857

The event was 10 top chefs and restaurants would cook their ribs which would be tasted and judged not only by those lucky enough to get a ticket, but also by a panel of judges under Kansas City Barbecue Society Rules. They managed to get some heavyweight participants – Including Ben Spalding formerly of Roganic, Barbecoa and UK Barbecue champion Andy Annat. But that wasn’t it, there was also going to be a Hot Sauce challenge where people got to blind taste some hot sauces and vote on their favourite. Competitors for the hot sauce competition included Tom Parker-Bowles (famously a chilli fanatic), Chef Jocky (from the Fat Duck) and the Ribman’s signature Holy Fuck sauce.

DSC_4672

DSC_4674 Hot Sauce #3

The day itself was brilliant and it was interesting to see just how different the ribs were from the 10 competitors; some were restaurant-like (the Salt Yard) to something for the BBQ purists (the effort from UK BBQ Champion Andy Annat). I was there in part because I’ve long admired Tweat_Up and all their gatherings and when you offer ribs, hot sauce and killer cocktails – What could possibly go wrong? But I was also there to see what the BBQ ribs were like as a precursor to Grillstock at the end of June, and one very important lesson I learned from Ribstock – You need to pace yourself because YKL and I could only manage 8 of the 10 offerings (Who’d have thunk there was such a thing as too much ribs?). As as it turns out, the 2 we didn’t try finished in the Top 3 – woops! That said, my personal favourite (from a BBQ purist side) would be Andy Annat’s offering – Nice(ish) smoke ring and bark on the rib itself, smoke flavour permeating the meat – which was tender enough but retaining a bit of a bite. However, the offering from Lucky Chip wins for the most tender rib – But it was almost as if the meat had been sous-vided for too long beforehand so it was almost *too* soft and which there was a really decent char on the outside as it was finished on the grill, there wasn’t any smokey flavour to it. Still, it was bloody delicious..

DSC_4697 DSC_4719 DSC_4725 DSC_4733 DSC_4750 DSC_4760

Oh, and the winner for best ribs were Redhook, whilst the hot sauce competition was won by Tom Parker Bowles (who sadly wasn’t there on the day to collect the award himself)

CSC_4873 CSC_4874 CSC_4875 CSC_4876 DSC_4839 CSC_4878

I should also point out how incredibly well organised the whole event was – From the printed cards which not only were your voting cards, but also used for your 3 free drinks (which were exceptional, from Milk and Honey) and also tripled (quadrupled?) up for you to write some tasting notes for each competitor as your card was stamped by them as you got your ribs from them. Even each marquee for the competitors were well laid out and I dread to think about the level of health and safety checks the organisers would have needed to satisfy in putting together such an event – So a HUGE thanks to all involved in not only organising and setting up the event and site, but also in the (undoubtedly) massive clean up operation afterwards. Everybody I spoke to had a great time and if it weren’t enough that everyone was brought together in a Churchyard in Soho by a love for ribs, hot sauce and alcohol, their spirits nowhere near dampened by the inclement weather, they all left hoping that they will be able to make it to the next event organised by Tweat Up et al.

CSC_4881

You can view all my photos from the day at my Flickr page

What are YOU up to this weekend?

If you’re not up to anything, then you should be going to the UK’s first Chilli Stand Off. The brainchild of Tweat_up who last organised the very successful party when Pitt Cue Co. closed, the 7 competitors (varying from Henry Dimbleby from Leon restaurants to Chef Jocky (who currently works at a little place called The Fat Duck in Bray), are all cooking their chillies to be judged not only by those attending, but also by a panel of judges. Despite no success in trying to get Anthony Bourdain to be one of the judges, they have so far secured the services of Richard Johnson (new champion of the British street food scene) and Daniel Young (former restaurant critic and organiser of Burger Mondays and other nights at his website).

For £25, the ticket entitles you to try each of the chillies – Which you can vote for your favourite by tasting blind plus 3 free drinks. The bar is being run by bartenders from Milk & Honey and Danger of Death, not to mention how there will be (free) rum featuring the new rum from Bacardi (Bacardi Oakheart). After that, drinks should be at a low-low price anyway.

But that’s not all; There is also support from some of the best street food vendors currently doing the rounds, including The Rib Man, Yum Bun and Luardos.

All this for £25? Why haven’t you booked a ticket yet? You can do so here and find out more details about the event here. Sadly, I can’t get the time off work but if you can, and can get a ticket, then you absolutely should go.

Koffmann’s, London

Place setting

Pierre Koffmann is a culinary hero of mines. I don’t have many regrets in my life (as Beth Orton once sung: “What’s the use in regrets? they’re just things we haven’t done yet”), but one of my greatest culinary regrets was that I never got a chance to eat at La Tante Claire when I was given the opportunity to in a former life working as a chef before La Tante Claire closed forever and Koffmann retired. Even when he opened a pop-up restaurant in Selfridges as part of London Restaurant Week, I didn’t get to go as I fell ill a few days before I was due to go. Seriously, I began to think that I would never get to try *that* stuffed pig’s trotter dish..

That said, throughout his period of retirement, there were always rumblings that Koffmann was keen to return to the kitchen and possibly return back to London, but they were always nothing more than rumours. However, there seemed to be a bit more substance to the rumours after the popup at Selfridges – It would appear that the popup was the final push that was needed to resolve to actually find a site in London. It was always the case that it wouldn’t be another La Tante Claire, but rather a restaurant which would serve French bistro-style food that Koffmann was accustomed to eating whilst growing up in Gascony, with perhaps a few signature dishes from LTC. I tried not to get too excited, but once it was announced that he had found a site and was going to open at The Berkeley hotel, I knew I had to get a table. Perhaps I would finally get to try his cooking after all. As soon as bookings opened, I got a table for 5 of us (myself with some sisters and G, my niece) and I also got us tickets for a Proms concert in the evening so the whole day was planned out; nice leisurely lunch at Koffmann’s followed by an evening of high cultural pleasure at the BBC Proms.

Except, it didn’t turn out that way at all; At late notice, we had another family gathering in the evening back in Birmingham – And we had to be back 6.30pm. Again, I began to wonder if I would I would ever get to try the great man’s cooking. However, we all resolved that we could still do Koffmann’s and then head back to Birmingham for the small family banquet (if banquets can ever be small). The result was that whilst the food was good and I finally got to try signature dishes like the stuffed pig’s trotter, the pistachio soufflé and the Oeufs à la Niège, the overall experience was tainted by the fact that we all knew that it couldn’t be quite as leisurely a lunch as we all wanted because we needed to leave by 4pm.

That said, Q enjoyed it enough and as part of her Crimbo pressie, we decided to treat her to lunch at Koffmann’s. Yes that’s right, I said Crimbo pressie but hey – We’re busy people so it took a few months to finally get a date where we were all free, but we got there and a table for 2 was duly booked for lunch. So, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, we headed to Londinium:

As we’d been before, we felt much more at ease, and we didn’t feel obliged to have a drink before being shown to our table. It was nice to see a few other tables so there was still love for Koffmann, even if some diners were guests in the hotel and saw Koffmann’s as a nondescript restaurant in the hotel. Looking at the menu, we both opted to go for the set lunch (an amazing bargain at 2 courses for £21.50 and 3 courses for £25.50), since I couldn’t have any of the desserts (cheese wasn’t offered on the set lunch) and I wasn’t allowed to have 2 starters and 1 main as a 3 course lunch (well, I had to ask..), I opted for a starter from the ALC menu for as an extra. I couldn’t justify going for the pig’s trotter an extra course because that dish alone was more expensive than the 3 course set lunch. If there were more of us dining, I would have gone for it. Alas, it will have to wait until the next time I go.

As a little amuse, we were offered a roasted butternut squash velouté with a cute little cheese twist/straw thingy which was nice, but in all honesty, I’ve had so many variations of butternut squash veloutés and lovely as they have been, this wasn’t anything better or worse than what I’ve had elsewhere.

amuse

For starters, Q ordered the Pressed pork and celeriac remoulade (Pressé de porc, rémoulade de celeri) and I went for the wild salmon tartare. I’m pretty sure that I had something very similar to Q’s dish last time we were here and it was still very good: earthy terrine full of porcine goodness lifted by the lightness of the remoulade. As for my wild salmon tartare; seasoned to perfection and I’m very pleased to say that this wild salmon was not killed in vain as it was utterly delicious

Starter: Pressé de porc, rémoulade de celeri Starter detail: Pressé de porc, rémoulade de celeri Starter: Tartare de saumon sauvage Starter detail: Tartare de saumon sauvage

A few words now about the bread; last time we were here, the bread wasn’t baked on premises and it wasn’t anything special (IIRC). This visit though, the bread is now baked on site and how much better it is; A cute linen basket was brought out to us with a garlic brioche, olive bread and a plain white roll, underneath was a sun-dried tomato roll too. Q took the garlic brioche and the white roll and immediately started eulogising about the garlic brioche in particular. For my 2 bread rolls, they were indeed crisp on the outside and light and pillowy on the inside. If anything, the bases were a bit *too* crisp (OK, they were burnt) but the lightness of the inside of the bread and flavour-wise, they were top notch. Q actually went on about the bread so much that we had to ask for another basket of bread (*ahem*) just so I could try the garlic brioche for myself and she was absolutely right; rolled so that it’s almost like a croissant, with (again) a crisp exterior and a soft, pillowy interior studded with jewels of roasted garlic and chopped sage, it was an absolute joy to eat. Fortunately, the garlic rolls weren’t overdone like the olive and sun-dried tomato rolls, but seriously, I think Q and I could (and would) have eaten a whole tray of these garlic rolls just by themselves.. OK, perhaps with some wine.

Bread detail: olive bread detail: roasted garlic brioche bread detail: roasted garlic brioche bread: sundried tomato

Next came our extra starter of snails, bone marrow and wild mushrooms. Knowing that I had ordered it as an extra starter, out came 2 plates for both Q and myself. Q immediately said that she didn’t order an extra starter but the waiter told us that the kitchen had kindly portioned it out across 2 plates so we wouldn’t have to divvy it up by ourselves. A nice touch from them and an example of the great service we received; service last time wasn’t bad per se, but it was a lot friendlier this time. We later learned that this was a new service team and this was only their third week together, so there were still a few issues here and there, but I have great hopes for the service team there. As for the extra starter, the mushrooms were over-seasoned, which was an absolute shame as the rest of the dish was delicious. Then again, bone marrow is one of my favourite things in the world to eat and the jus it came with was absolutely divine, so good that I took advantage of the extra bread basket we got just so I could mop up all the juices and not let a single drop go to waste. Oh, and the bone it was served in was a proper hollowed out bone – None of this synthetic bone nonsense like you get at Dinner.

Starter: Escargots et Os à la moelle, Champignons de bois Starter detail: Escargots et Os à la moelle, Champignons de bois

Mains-wise, Q opted for the roasted plaice with beetroot salad which she thought was amazing: the fish skin was crisp and the flesh was cooked just right so that it’s just about lifting from the bone. It was seasoned perfectly and the warm (roasted) beetroot was a great accompaniment, there was also a nice textural crunch added by some crushed pistachio nuts.

Mains: Plie rôti, salade de batteraves tiède Mains detail: Plie rôti, salade de batteraves tiède

I opted for the veal kidneys in mustard sauce, partly because I still think of devilled kidneys from St John Hotel, but mainly because it was the only dish that really caught my fancy. The kidneys were perfectly cooked – still pink in the centre – and it was nestled with the mustard sauce within a circle of pommes purée. Truth be known, it was a very rich and heavy dish and I began to struggle a bit to finish it (Q was very happy to help me out in that respect). However, all mains come with some frites and cauliflower gratin which lightened everything and was absolutely delicious when combined together. As I mentioned earlier, Q was more than happy to eat the pommes purée and they went nicely with her fish, but these frites we got were positively the best frites I’ve ever eaten; crisp on the outside, light and fluffy potato on the inside and seasoned perfectly, served in a newspaper cone from the pages of Le Monde, no less. Even though I had potato in my mains, I couldn’t stop eating the frites, it just felt wrong to let them go to waste. Thank goodness for the extras we were given, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to finish my mains. Oh, with my mains was a potato crisp (very nice) and what I thought was a crispy onion ring so I popped thing whole into my mouth, only to discover that it was a round of crackling – And what tasty crackling it was. At the same time I was very pleasantly surprised and loved it, then felt guilty and slightly ashamed at shoving the whole thing into my gob so Q didn’t get a chance to try it too..

Mains detail: Rognon de veau à la moutarde Mains detail: Rognon de veau à la moutarde Mains detail: Rognon de veau à la moutarde Mains detail: Rognon de veau à la moutarde
Sides: frites

I skipped dessert, but Q went for the Chocolate Cake with Coffee Cream which certainly looked and smelled very nice, and judging by the fact she went silent for about 4 minutes whilst trying not to inhale the whole thing in one go, I’d say she enjoyed it.

dessert: gateau aux chocolats, sauce café dessert detail: gateau aux chocolats, sauce café

Overall, a very nice meal; I think the fact that we got to enjoy ourselves as we weren’t rushed like last time helped a lot and we got to appreciate the food and surroundings a lot more. Was the food better than last time? I’d hazard to say that it was marginally better – Apart from the over-seasoned mushrooms in the extra starter. Them baking their own breads now could push it to be considered better than last year. However, last year I got to try the pistachio soufflé which is forever embedded as a great culinary memory for me and I didn’t have any desserts this time round. But overall, the standard of food here is still exceedingly high. I’ve already mentioned how bargainous the set lunch prices are, but even the ALC prices I think are quite reasonable – Especially when you consider how you have a bona fide culinary legend in the kitchen cooking for you. I only hope it’s not another year before I go back.

You can view the full set of photos at my Flickr page.