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Aquavit

Aquavit

Not long before we moved to London, my then boyfriend and I visited for a week’s holiday.  We stayed in one of those old fashioned hotels in Paddington, delighted by how cheap it was, not realising that the area was a notorious red light district.  I was so in love with London then.  It was unlike anywhere I’d ever been before; a place fat with possibility.  We visited a pub not far from Hyde Park and I was thrilled by how buzzy it was, how it felt like an integral part of a neighbourhood that I wanted to be a part of too.  That pub has long since closed, like so many others, a victim of spiralling rents and the relentless development that now blights London.  Too many of the new developments around town are so devoid of character that today’s London feels a million miles away from the London I was once so excited by.  One such place is St James’s Market, between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street; a rather soulless space, slowly filling with chic but pricey eateries.  It’s the sort of place I generally walk straight past with a sad shake of my head.  However, a combination of pay day, curiousity and a love of Scandi cuisine tempted me within its sterile climes to visit Aquavit.

Aquavit is a sleek Scandinavian restaurant with branches in New York and Tokyo.  The New York restaurant has 2 Michelin stars so that piece of knowledge, combined with the top end prices, meant I was expecting something special.  I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first.  The service was not great.  It certainly wasn’t Michelin star service.  After I was shown to my table, I was left alone.  No-one offered me a drinks menu, no-one offered me water, no-one even acknowledged my presence in the restaurant.  I eventually had to grab a passing waiter to request a drinks menu.  Now, here’s the funny part.  I always make notes when I review somewhere and I had jotted down some observations on the service.  These were then spotted by a senior waiter and suddenly…..I was a rock star!  Did I want to move to a better table?  Could they bring me anything else?  Etc, etc.  So while the service did improve, I’m not sure it came from a genuine place.

The food at Aquavit, however, was another story altogether.  The menu contained lots of really intriguing possibilities and reminded me why I love Scandinavian cuisine.  It’s food that celebrates nature, food that feels earthy and primal.  I started with venison tartare, which came with blueberries, lingonberries and juniper.  The juniper element was actually in the form of little blobs of mayonnaise dotted across the dish.  Not only was this a nice creative touch, it tasted superb.  The venison itself melted in the mouth and, surprisingly, didn’t taste too gamey.  The sharp, sweet berries that were scattered throughout popped in the mouth, while the addition of crispy sourdough scraps provided some welcome crunch.  The dish reminded me of the vast, dark forests of Scandinavia.  It was natural and quintessentially Nordic.

I took a trip to the chilly northern coast for my main course, choosing the cod, shrimps, cucumber and dill.  The generous slab of cod was absolutely perfectly cooked and fell apart into vast white flakes at the mere brush of my fork.  The cod was accompanied by a cucumber, shrimp and dill “salad” and a large green dollop of, what I think was, wasabi mayonnaise.  All the flavours used here are known to work together, so it’s pretty much a given that this dish would taste good if executed well.  Which it did and it was.  The cod was velvety soft, and I loved the zing and freshness provided by the other ingredients.  The shrimps did get a little bit lost among everything else, which was a shame.  However, the far greater sin in my opinion was the presence of a foam (*shudder*).  I really thought that sort of thing had gone out of fashion.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, it just looks like someone has spat on your dinner.  Of course, it didn’t really add anything and only made the whole dish much wetter than it needed to be, leaving a fairly unpleasant texture.

There are some sexy side dishes to be found at Aquavit and I was very excited to spot Jansson’s temptation on the menu.  This is the Scandinavian take on a potato dauphinoise, made with potatoes, onions, cream and pickled sprats, topped with breadcrumbs.  I first encountered this at the home of my Finnish friends and have been in love with it ever since.  It’s not the healthiest dish in the world but it’s definitely one of the tastiest.

I decided to try something completely new for dessert – rosehip soup.  The concept of soup for dessert is a little strange but, nonetheless, it worked.  I was presented with a bowl containing a scoop of almond ice cream, daintily perched on a slim disc of almond cake.  The waiter then poured the soup into the bowl, around the ice cream.   The flavours of both the soup and the ice cream were very unusual, but not unpleasant.  The soup was served lukewarm, and had a hint of fruitiness without being too sweet.  The whole dish was comforting and surprisingly moreish, even after the ridiculous amount of food I had already eaten.

I still walk past St James’s Market with a sad shake of my head and I still have a heavy heart about the rising tide of development.  However, I’m grateful for the fact that at least the space hasn’t been filled with the usual smattering of chains.  Despite the shaky service, Aquavit impressed me.  If you’re looking for food that’s a bit different, that feels authentic and that’s made with ingredients of the highest quality, then Aquavit is the place to be.   If anything can save London from becoming just one more identikit British town, it’s our vibrant food scene.  Aquavit is a great addition to this.

Aquavit, St James’s Market, 1 Carlton Street, SW1Y 4QQ
£62 per person including wine

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

Cafe Murano

Cafe Murano

Tuna carpaccio at Cafe Murano

Mondays suck.  There is very little doubt about this.  Dragging yourself out of bed at an unreasonably early time, squishing onto the sweaty tube, dealing with emails before you’ve had a cup of coffee.  No thank you.  However, there are one or two things that can improve a Monday.  Leaving work at lunchtime always helps.  A visit from your mum and lunch at a top restaurant, like Cafe Murano, pretty much guarantees a better start to the week.

Here’s the thing.  Cafe Murano isn’t actually a cafe.  It’s a rather sophisticated restaurant from Angela Hartnett, former chef-patron of The Connaught.  The “cafe” element comes from the fact that it’s a more laid-back version of Murano, a fine-dining restaurant in Mayfair.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a second class spin-off.  The quality of the food and service, as well as the sleek interior, ensures that you are in for a treat when you dine here.

Like most traditional Italian restaurants, Cafe Murano offers four courses.  We opted for just three which was sufficient for lunchtime.  I started with burrata, tomatoes and basil.  The burrata was creamy without being overly rich, and the tomatoes with basil gave a welcome flavour contrast.  Mum had the tuna carpaccio with orange, cucumber and samphire.  The exceptional quality of the ingredients used was evident in both of these simple dishes.  They were fresh, clean and incredibly tasty.

Rabbit risotto at Cafe Murano

We chose dishes from the primi menu for our main course.  I’d had my eye on one dish in particular ever since I made the reservation: the rabbit risotto.  Fortunately this did not let me down.  I usually like the idea of rabbit more than the reality, which often turns out to be dry, tasteless disappointment.  The rabbit at Cafe Murano was exceptionally tender, falling apart to touch, and arranged on top of a creamy, wine-rich risotto.  Mum chose the garganelli with squid, tomatoes and samphire.  Garganelli may sound a bit like a Star Trek alien but it’s actually flat, square pasta rolled into a tube.  The squid was so fresh and not even a tiny bit rubbery.  These were both extremely interesting dishes, a million miles away from the sort of thing you’d find on the menu of a more run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant.

Pistachio meringue with lemon curd and raspberries at Cafe Murano

Dessert also illustrated Cafe Murano’s use of excellent ingredients to create simple, yet delicious, food.  The meringue with pistachios and lemon curd was exactly what a meringue should be.  Crunchy with a hint of chewiness and generously heaped with lemon curd.  Pistachio nuts and raspberries provided some extra bite and a splash of colour.  I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it but *somehow* I managed to clear my plate.  Possibly something to do with how ridiculously yummy it was.

You don’t need the excuse of a Monday pick-me-up to visit Cafe Murano.  In fact, no excuse is needed at all.  Go on any day of the week, for any reason whatsoever.  You won’t regret it.  This is food that makes you feel better about everything.

Cafe Murano, 33 St James’s Street and 36 Tavistock Street (I visited the St James’s Street restaurant)
£84 for three courses, including wine, for two people

Café  Murano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Adam Handling at The Caxton

Adam Handling at The Caxton

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My best friend has found a new best friend.  And that new best friend isn’t even an actual person.  It’s the rather brilliant Bookatable, purveyor of shiny restaurant bargains.  There’s no way I can compete so, as the old saying goes, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Our first foray with Bookatable took us to Adam Handling at The Caxton.  As a huge fan of Masterchef, I was very excited to eat at the restaurant of one of my favourite former contestants.  Handling was a finalist in the 2013 series of Masterchef: The Professionals, and right from the outset he impressed with confident and competent cooking.  I adored him even more after watching him struggle with “conceptual cooking” in one of the later episodes, and still managing to nail it by coming up with a dish inspired by how angry he was about the whole task.  A favourite to win, with a feisty streak a mile wide, I think he was robbed of the title; but he doesn’t seem to have done too badly out of being a runner up.

Handling is based at Caxton restaurant within the St Ermin Hotel, an elegant venue near St James’ Park.  The interior is immaculately decorated, with a convivial, gentleman’s club atmosphere.  A large glass of red at the bar was accompanied by small plates of delicious bread, cheese and ham; the risk of spoiling our dinner was great!  Before we could fill our bellies too much, we headed into the dining room for our three course meal where more appetite-ruining temptation was placed in front of us in the form of warm sourdough bread with rich, salty chicken butter.  Wonderful.

As we were dining with Bookatable, we were offered a set menu instead of the a la carte but even with more limited choice, we struggled to decide between dishes as they all looked so delicious.  To start, I ordered the enigmatically titled “duck liver, pear & rosemary”.  This turned out to be an oozingly unguent duck liver pate served with slices of toasted brioche, and offset by a sharp, sweet pear puree.  If I had been served three courses of just this, I would have been a happy girl.  Unfortunately things only went downhill.

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My main course was gnocchi, pumpkin, almonds and burnt butter.  A winning combination.  However, for me, the mixture of burnt butter and pumpkin seeds was slightly too bitter on the palate.  It was a surprisingly strong tasting dish that sat a little too heavily in my stomach.  I enjoyed it….but I probably wouldn’t order it again.  After requesting a short break before the next course, which the staff happily accommodated, it was time for dessert.  I had ordered the orange & chocolate trifle; it had been highly recommended by our waiter so I was expecting great things.  What I wasn’t expecting, however, was to be served something so unpleasant that I wasn’t able to finish it.  It looked pretty enough; a jam jar filled with all manner of naughty, decadent ingredients.  However, it tasted like someone had soaked a bar of Dairy Milk in orange juice and squirted cream on the top, so jarring were the flavours.

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Three courses plus a glass of Prosecco for £35 at a restaurant of this bearing is a pretty good deal to be honest.  It was disappointing that the menu went from the sublime to the ridiculous, but the service was great and I would be interested to try some of the dishes from the a la carte menu on another occasion.  I still believe that Adam Handling should have won Masterchef and he is most definitely a chef to watch.  His future is as assured as he is.