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Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Nipa Thai - A Taste of Siam in London's Hyde Park

Words & Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: Nipa Thai

Where: Nipa Thai, Lancaster Hotel, Lancaster Terrace, London, W2 2TY,

Cost: From the a la carte menu, starters and soups are around £11-12, with salads and curries at £16-19. There are a number of special fish dishes - from scallops in a red chilli and coconut broth to crisp fried sea bass - though none costs more than £24. All desserts are £9. Nipa Thai also offers a number of set menus, from £35 per person for six shared dishes to £40 for eight, with a choice of Thai wine pairings at £20 per person.

About: Nipa Thai is one of a small number of Thai restaurants to have received the prestigious Thai Select award from the Thai government for the quality of its cooking. It also has 2 AA Rosettes, and is situated within the Thai-owned Lancaster Hotel with views over Hyde Park, making it popular with visiting Thai dignitaries. Head-chef Sanguan Parr brought her experience from the partner restaurant, Nipa, in Bangkok’s Landmark Hotel. 

What We Ate: To begin, we ordered the Ruam Mitr - a sharing selection comprising several starters, the highlight of which was the chicken satay in a sweet and velvety homemade sauce, complemented by Thai fish cakes which were fresh and zingy with lime and coriander.

The Kao Krieb Pak Moh was also good - steamed rice parcels containing chicken, shallot and plenty of peanut, glistening like multi-coloured oysters on the plate, and eaten inside a crunchy lettuce leaf.

Next came a soup course, of Tom Kha Kai and Kaeng Jued Tao Hoo, both well made. I particularly enjoyed the Tom Khai Kai, containing tender chicken in a succulent coconut broth, made refreshing by lime and lemongrass. It is easy to miss out a soup course when ordering Thai food, but these dishes are a reminder that this is a mistake.

They were followed by an array of main course dishes. Pla Rad Prig featured fried seabass with crispy skin and succulent white flesh, with coriander, onion and chilli.

The Yua Ma Muang Poo Nim, a salad of soft-shell crab and mango, was also hot, but not as successful. The crab had crunch, but was over-battered and lacked flavour, and the mango salad wasn’t substantial enough to sooth the heat.

The curry - Phad Kiew Warn Ta Law - was better. Mixed seafood (including some large fat scallops) was served in a green curry with Thai aubergine and basil.

These dishes were served with Sanguan’s Phad Thai, named after new head chef Sanguan Parr. Sweeter than usual and with plenty of lime, this was as good as anything I have eaten in Bangkok. I also enjoyed the aromatic Kao Kati - steamed rice with coconut milk and pandan leaves.

Desserts are rarely the most interesting aspect of Southeast Asian menus, and true to form, the desserts at Nipa Thai were in my opinion a bit of a let down. The banana pudding was bland, and served with the tiniest dash of caramel sauce.

The Piña Colada panacotta, whilst innovative, had the consistency of a mousse and lacked the richness of the “cooked cream” that gives panacotta its name.

What We Drank: The drinks menu features classic cocktails (£9), champagne cocktails (£12) and a range of European and Asian beers (all around £5.50 a pint). Most of the wines are below £40 a bottle, with a good number under £30. There’s also a selection of Thai wines - most of which are World Wine Award winners - for £29 a bottle, and available in 175ml or 250ml glasses. 

We opted for a bottle of the Thai Monsoon Valley Colombard, a World Wine Bronze Award-winning white. Although this grape originated in Southwest France, the wine shares the medium body and acidity of Sauvignon Blanc. It had notes of apple and grapefruit, making it a good partner to the spicy aromatic food. 

For dessert, we had a glass of another Thai Monsoon Valley wine, this time a Late Harvest Chenin Blanc, which was well made.

Likes: The restaurant’s setting is impressive, and there can be few better London dining rooms in which to eat Thai food. The Kao Krieb Pak Moh (chicken-filled rice dumplings) and Phad Kiew Warn Ta Law (seafood green curry) were exceptional. 

Dislikes: The desserts were unexciting, although the course was rescued by a very enjoyable Thai Chenin Blanc.

Verdict: Thai Cuisine is more diverse and complex than many restaurants do justice to. Nipa Thai’s soups and seafood dishes are well made, and the interior is eye-catching. With a number of good-value set menus, anyone looking to experience authentic Thai food should head to Nipa Thai. Recommended.

Friday, 27 March 2015

Moro - A Taste of Al-Andalus in Clerkenwell

Name: Moro

Where: 34/36 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE, http://www.moro.co.uk/

Cost: Starters range from £8.50 to £9.50, main courses from £16.50 to £22.00, and desserts from £6.50 to £9.00. Wines are largely from the Iberian peninsula, with whites from £19.50 for a Venas del Vero, Somontano, Spain, and reds from £22.00 for a Bobal - Tempranillo blend from Utiel-Requena, Spain. There is an extensive and well-priced sherry menu.

About: Moro is a Clerkenwell institution, opened by Sam and Sam Clark in 1997. With its little sister Morito next door (reviewed here), with a more casual tapas-style menu and no reservations taken, they have been the top choices in Clerkenwell for Iberian and North African food for years.

Moro has a laid-back feel about it, with wooden floors and bare tables, and an open kitchen with an old fashioned wood oven contrasting with gleaming stainless steel. The food is uncomplicated, relying on good ingredients prepared with minimal fuss.

I have been using Moro's cookbooks for years, they are among the few I have returned to over and over again - lately even more so since getting hold of their latest Morito cookbook, which has some wonderful recipes. I highly recommend their cookbooks -   you can find out more about them here.

What We Ate: With their comprehensive list of sherries, we could think of no better start than with some aperitifs and a glass of chilled sherry. We kicked off with some salted Marcona almonds, olives, some crusty bread and a couple of glasses of bone-dry  amontillado and an oloroso.

For starters, we shared the roasted quail ajillo (i.e. cooked in garlic), served in a fragrant jus of white wine and garlic, with shavings of black truffle (£9.50). The sweet quail meat had soaked up the garlic, butter and white wine, and made a great start to the dinner.

The other starter was a platter of chopped calves liver (£9.50), over fresh greens and herbs including chervil, and a smattering of toasted, lightly crushed hazelnuts. The dish had a wonderful combination of flavours and texture which I really enjoyed - creamy liver, crunchy nuts and refreshing green herbs.

The mains were quite substantial and wholesome. The wood-roasted Herefordshire pork (£19.50), was served with slow-cooked cabbage flavoured with chorizo pieces, and whole roasted chestnuts. The pork crackling was crisp, and the meat soft and flavoursome with hints of paprika, and a deliciously rich red wine jus.

Better still was the charcoal grilled lamb with Moroccan salads and chermoula (a sauce of coriander, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil) (£21.50). Served rare as ordered, the lamb was tender and the flavour lifted by the accompanying chermoula and salads. I loved the salads, and there were three - wafer-thin turnip with orange blossom and mint; celery with olives, tomatoes, cumin and ground ginger; and finally soft carrots, roasted with cinnamon and paprika. The flavours were fresh and aromatic, and were a great accompaniment to the lamb. I would love to have this dish again.

To finish, we had a delectable yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate (£7.00). One of Moro's classic desserts for many years, this was light and creamy with refreshing acidity from the yoghurt.

But perhaps Moro's most famous dessert is the Malaga raisin ice cream (£6.50). Served with a luscious Pedro Ximenez sherry, the ice cream infused with plummy raisin fruit and a prominent hit of alcohol, this was vanilla ice cream like no other.

What We Drank: After a couple of excellent sherries, we shared a bottle of Sino da Romaneira 2010 (£42), from Douro, Portugal. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cão, this had a surprisingly restrained nose, but on the palate, plenty of red fruit, structured tannins and a long finish. It was weighty and complex enough to be a good partner to the richness of the meats. 

Likes: A small but well thought out menu which changes daily, top-notch ingredients, serving some of my favourite flavours from the Iberian peninsula and North Africa. The place has a casual vibe, and was heaving on the Wednesday evening of our dinner. 

Dislikes: None

Verdict: Top ingredients, expert cooking with little fuss, reasonable prices - no wonder Moro has been a favourite for Iberian and North African food in London for years. And judging by my latest visit, it would not suprised me if it continued to be for years to come. I can't wait to return. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Gigi's - A Preview from The London Foodie Tipster!

Name: Gigi's

Where: 22 Woodstock Street, Mayfair, London W1C 2AR

Cost: Starters are priced from £8.50 to £15.00, with pasta dishes from £14.00 to £27.00, mains from £19.50 to £36, and side dishes at £4.50. Two or three course set lunch menus are £22 or £25 (Mon to Fri, 12 - 3pm). These change weekly, and include vegetarian options.  Cocktails range from £8.50 to £11.50.

About: Opened in September 2014, this Italian restaurant headed by the Neapolitan chef Ivan Simeoli, previously of Club Gascon and The Wallace, is tucked away at the end of a tiny enclave off Oxford Street that could easily be missed.

Gigi's is an elegant spot, on which it seems no money has been spared, with classic parquet floors, plush green velvet seating, chandeliers and a magnificent cocktail bar.

I could not fail to notice that on the evening we were there, all the waiting staff were Russian. On further investigation, it turns out that the restaurant is Russian owned, which might explain the staffing, and the huge sums that appear to have been spent on the decor. It also claims to have  served the world's most expensive cocktail at £9000 a pop.

What We Ate: It is rare in a restaurant for me to find that I want to order many items from the menu, but this was an issue at Gigi's, and choosing was difficult. After much deliberation, we decided to start our meal with the roasted octopus with borlotti beans and flamed onion broth (£11.50). I love the combination of seafood and beans, and here the octopus was excellent, with a deliciously char-grilled flavour and sweetness from the onions, and surprisingly was even more tender than the accompanying beans.

The vitello carpaccio tonnato (£13.50) is one of Italy's most popular regional specialties  from Turin. Gigi's take on this Italian classic, dotted with leaves of radicchio and sorrel, was superb, with finely cut rare veal, and a light and creamy fresh tuna mayonnaise. Having enjoyed this dish on a number of occasions in Italy, I can safely state that Gigi's was the best I have eaten to date.

The ravioli with Amalfi lemon and buffalo ricotta (£14.00), from the pasta section, had a heady citrus aroma, and a rich buttery sauce. A refined, beautifully presented dish, it transported me straight back to my last visit to Sorrento (reviewed here).

The pappardelle Zafferano with ossobuco and sage butter (£19.50), had freshly made, paper thin pasta, nearly as wide as lasagne. Served with veal and bone-marrow, this was rich, sweet and full of flavour. The chef had substituted the more traditional risotto with freshly made pasta, which worked a treat.

The salt marsh English lamb, with heritage carrots, sheep's milk and crunchy shallots (£24) was in my opinion the star of the meal. Tender and full of flavour, and with a magnificent, highly concentrated jus, it was exquisite both to the eye and the palate.

The White Park rib eye beef was served medium rare, with turnip tops and mustard (£36). Richly flavoured and well presented, this was also very good, although compared with the lamb, it did not fare so well in flavour or value for money.

For dessert, we opted for the Ivan Simeoli's interpretation of tiramisu (£7.50). A delectable deconstruction of an overfamiliar classic, this featured chocolate tuile, coffee meringue and a coffee parfait.

The liquorice sandwich with apple bubbles (£7.50) was very fine, with an intensely flavoured and aromatic apple foam, and a well made hazelnut parfait.

What We Drank: We kicked off with a Silver-tini cocktail - a refreshing concoction of lychees, gin, elderflower cordial, lime and pink champagne (£11.50). Equally good was the Rose Petal Martini, gin-based (Hendricks), but flavoured with rose and voilet liqueurs and lychee puree (£10.50).

With the main course, we had a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (£7.50 per glass), which was not a great match for the quality of the cooking.

Likes: The salt marsh English lamb was excellent, as was the vitello carpaccio tonnato, and both pasta dishes. Desserts were innovative and skillfully presented. Cocktails were strong and well made. The food menu is in the main well priced for the location.  

Dislikes: None

Verdict: There is some first rate cooking at Gigi's - Ivan Simeoli is a creative and talented chef using fantastic Italian produce to reinvent some of his country's classics. It's early days for Gigi's, and while it tries to find its feet on the London culinary scene, there is some serious cooking at surprisingly reasonable prices to be had. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Pachamama - Peruvian Inspired Cuisine, Made in England

Name: Pachamama

Where: 18 Thayer  Street, Lonson, W1U 3JY, http://pachamamalondon.com/

Cost: The menu is small but well thought-out, themed around small eats, and grouped into snacks, land, sea and soil. 'Land' dishes (meat and poultry) cost from £7 to £29, 'Sea' (fish and seafood) from £5 to £10. The 'soil' small eats are vegetable-based, with squash, plaintain, asparagus and quinoa featuring prominently, and priced from £7 to £8. All the fish and seafood is sourced from the British coast, and the meat is all from Yorkshire. Piscos and cocktails are priced at £8.50. Entry-level wines start at £23 for a Spanish Macabeo or an Australian Shiraz.

About: Pachamama, meaning 'Mother Earth' in Quechua language, is one of a cluster of Peruvian restaurants to open in London in the last couple of years, situated in Marylebone, just a stone's throw from The Wallace Collection. With a discrete ground floor door that is very easy to miss, the restaurant opens up in the basement to a surprisingly cavernous space, with a 10 -seater bar for cocktails and small eats, and around 70 covers.

Fairly packed on the midweek evening we attended, the restaurant is all distressed wood-panelling, tiled floors, and plain wooden tables. The menu is Peruvian themed, with some Japanese-influenced Nikkei dishes, a small wine menu, and cocktails on a Peruvian Pisco theme.

The young head-chef Adam Rawson, formerly of White Rabbits in Dalston, has ambitious plans for the restaurant, having hired a Peruvian sous-chef in February 2015. 

What We Ate: From the snack options, we had salt and aji squid (£4.50) and chicharones (deep fried pork belly) with sweet onions (£4.50).  The squid was tender and well flavoured, served with a powerful aji mayonaise.

The chicharones were superb, with tender, flavoursome pork in a crisp shell.

From the 'Sea' menu, we had the Cornish seabass with pumpkin, samphire, red onion, radish, coriander and leche de tigre (tiger's milk) (£9).  The tiger's milk was golden from aji amarillo, with a nice amount of chilli heat and not too much acidity or sweetness, which are often problematic features of leche de tigre outside of Peru.

The yellowfin tuna with soy and pickled potato ceviche (£9), was also excellent. Flavoured with hot rocoto chilli in the soy, wasabe and olive oil dressing, this had some good Peruvian Nikkei flavour combinations.

Next came the Cornish crab served with purple potato and green herbs (£10) in a richly infused saffron-dashi which was creamy and delicious, akin to a crab-bisque.

Scallops conchita (£5), was served in the shell, with beautifully seasoned quinoa and a zingy tomato and red onion salsa, this was a very refreshing dish.

From the 'Land' menu, we had the crispy lamb belly with green miso (£9). Lamb belly can be very fatty, and is great for braising then deep frying. The meat was succulent but crispy with the spicy green miso made from white miso, green jalapeno chillies, garlic and lime helping to cut through the fattiness.

We also had the beef cheek Lomo Saltado (£14). Lomo saltado is a Chinese-Peruvian dish, cooked by the 'Chifa' Chinese migrant labourers when they came to Peru in the early 20th century, and today is one of Peru’s national dishes. Pachamama's version featured some unusual ingredients like beef cheeks and parsnips not commonly seen in this dish. It had little resemblance to the dish we tried in Peru, and lacked the vibrancy of the other dishes we had on our visit.

From the 'Soil' menu, we tried the Peruvian asparagus with saffron yolk and peanut (£8). Although I could not taste much saffron, there was quite a kick of chilli heat, and the asparagus was well cooked with a delicious smoky flavour.

Better still was the fried aubergine with smoked yoghurt and pecan (£8) – with unctuously tender flesh within a crispy deep-fried exterior, the aubergine was delicious accompanied by the smoky, nutty yoghurt.

We shared a couple of desserts -  the suspiro de Limena (£6.50), served in a Champagne goblet, had a sweet lemony meringue, and a creamy base flavoured with tart passion fruit – great contrasting flavours and textures.

The torta de chocolate with toasted quinoa ice cream was also good, with a malted, nutty flavour to the ice cream, although the torta had the texture and flavour more akin to a mousse than a cake (£6.50).

What We Drank: We kicked off with a couple of cocktails - the Shining Path was a refreshing Champagne based drink, spiked with cinnamon and Abbott’s bitters. 

The Rosa del Inca was one of Pachamama’s many Pisco cocktails - infused with pink peppercorns and Volcano coffee beans, vermouth, Campari, orange bitters, this was delicious, with a bracing combination of bitter flavours and subtle coffee notes.

With our fish dishes, we had the house white, Matos Blanco from Spain (£7.50 for 250ml), which was non-descript, and completely outclassed by the food. Similarly, with the meat course, we had the house red, Matos Tinto Tempranillo from Spain (also £7.50 for 250ml) - again fruity but undistinguished, and a very poor partner for the food offered. 

Pachamama has a reputation for its cocktails, so as a digestif, we had a couple more (£8.50 each).  The Dulce de Chasca featured dulce de leche, rum, Pisco, vanilla syrup and chocolate bitters, and was an appropriately fruity yet potent end to the meal.

The Pichu Pichu had Volcano Peruvian coffee, Pisco, Kahlua, chocolate and vanilla bitters - a generous hit of potent coffee and chocolate flavours to complete an excellent dinner.

Likes: Particularly outstanding were the chicharones, the Nikkei yellowtail tuna, the scallops conchita, the fried aubergine and lamb belly. The cocktails were strong and well made.

Dislikes: The music is loud to the point of being almost night-club level, and if you lean against the walls, they shake. Although we really liked almost all the dishes, they were uniformly quite spicy, and this does not reflect our experience of food in Peru, where there was a variety of spicy, citrus and savoury dishes. The lomo saltado was the weakest link of our evening, tasting like an English beef stew - nothing wrong with that but not what we were looking for in a Peruvian restaurant serving one of its great national dishes. 

Verdict: There is some seriously good cooking at Pachamama. With a good Marylebone location and a well-priced menu, this is definitely a place to check out. Highly recommended.

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