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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Baiwei: Affordable and Tasty Sichuanese Food in Chinatown


Name: Baiwei

Where: 8 Little Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JJ

Cost: Starters/appetizers from £4.90, mains from £6.50, average spend per person £20 or less excl. drinks

About: Baiwei (100 Flavours in Mandarin), is the latest venture by successful restaurateur Shao Wei, who introduced us to Barshu, Bashan (reviewed here) and Baozi Inn in Soho, with food consultancy by writer and Chinese food specialist Fuschia Dunlop.


Baiwei is the most casual and also the most affordable addition to the group. Situated in a tiny townhouse on Little Newport Street between Leicester Square and Charing Cross Road, the restaurant stretches across a number of tiny rooms and floors. Most of the rooms fit no more than two tables, and the walls are dotted with hand-painted images from the Mao era. It specialises in comfort food from Sichuan and northern China.


Service is efficient, fast and helpful – our waitress was very enthusiastic to explanation all our queries (there were many!) on the various dishes on the menu. I rarely come across a menu which intrigues me as much as to make me want to try most of its dishes – Baiwei’s was certainly one.


What We Ate: One of Baiwei’s signature dishes, the catfish with sizzling chilli oil (£8.90), actually made from fresh cod on our visit, was served in a huge earthenware pot in chillied oil and beans sprouts, the cod was succulent and delectably flavoured with cooling, lip numbing Sichuanese pink peppercorns. A delicious and umami-laden dish.


Smacked cucumbers with garlic and fresh coriander (£4.90) is a favourite of mine and a must for any Sichuanese meals – Baiwei’s did not disappoint, it was a refreshing, cooling accompaniment to the other hotter, spicier dishes.


The twice-cooked belly pork with black bean and chilli (8.90) stir-fried with peppers and leek was also flavoursome and tender.


Another Sichuanese favourite is the fish fragrant pork slivers (£8.90) with picked chilli, ginger, garlic and spring onion. This was very good, with mildly hot and refreshing sourness and acidity from the fish fragrant sauce.


The spicy stewed beef with tofu knots was both intriguing and well flavoured (£12.90) – the stewing broth had an intense richness with flavours of star anis, cinnamon and Sichuanese peppers, while the brisket beef was meltingly tender and gelatinous, a real joy.


However the tofu knots had a chewy and unfortunate stale flavour about them – this is something I sometimes encounter in Chinese dishes with deep-fried tofu as factories will sometimes re-use oil which should have been discarded for deep-frying. This stale flavour can be partially avoided by rinsing the tofu in running boiling water before cooking, something I always do when cooking deep-fried tofu.


The Northern Chinese dish of spicy sizzling lamb with cumin (£14.90) is such as staple and one I nearly always order. Baiwei's take was good despite being served with green peppers rather than green chillies as described on their menu (none the worse for that though in my opinion).


To accompany this protein-chilli laden feast, we had our token vegetable dish - dry fried green beans with minced pork and preserved mustard greens (£8.90), which was a perfect example of its kind and I thoroughly enjoyed it.


What We Drank: We enjoyed brown rice tea at £2 per person. The restaurant has a limited drinks menu with soft drinks and juices at £2.50 per glass, bottled water at £2.50, and one beer Tsing Tao for £3.50 a bottle.

Likes: The menu is large and well-illustrated, with a good range of Sichuanese, Hunanese and Northern Chinese dishes, with abundant dried and fresh chillies, Sichuan pepper, garlic and gelatinous cuts of meat.  Service is friendly and informative. 

Dislikes: Drinks menu is a tad limited – a glass of Coke for £2.50 is a little steep too. Tap water should be offered free of charge.

Verdict: A good & very affordable addition to the growing number of Sichuanese restaurants in Chinatown, introducing Londoners to regional Chinese dishes beyond the more familiar Cantonese staples. Recommended.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Italy - A Long & Very Wet Weekend in Rome


What can I say about Rome? It's a big place, the capital and largest city of Italy and of the Lazio region, host to the Vatican, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and famed capital of the Roman Empire. It has exerted a huge influence over the world in its roughly 3,000 years of existence, and its history and culture is evident wherever you walk in the city.


I've visited Rome once or twice before, but Dr G and I made a decision this year to visit some of Europe's great cities for a series of long-weekends, and this was one such trip. In many ways, a long weekend is not enough for such a fascinating city, but we reckoned better a weekend than not visiting it at all, after working out that it had been nearly 20 years since either of us had set foot in the place. Just two hours on a budget airline from London, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.


It rained for most of the two days we were in Rome, so we spent most of the weekend indoors, eating. What a chore!


Where to Stay 


The Palazzo Manfredi is a magnificent building dating back to the 17th century, and completely rebuilt as the hunting lodge of a noble family in the 18th century. It overlooks the Coliseum only 50 metres or so away.


Intimate and Elegant Reception Area at Palazzo Manfredi
Converted into a luxury hotel in 2002 by Count Goffredo Manfredi, it is today accredited by Relais & Chateaux. It is an intimate 5 star hotel with 15 spacious rooms, which tastefully integrated luxurious contemporary design with the ancient and venerable Palazzo.

The View of Our Suite at Palazzo Manfredi

We had a large ground floor suite, with shuttered windows overlooking the Coliseum. Generously proportioned with a large double bedroom and a king size bed, a reception room and two bathrooms decked out in Philippe Starck appliances, it was supremely elegant.

Our Suite at Palazzo Manfredi

Adjoining Room of Our Suite at Palazzo Manfredi
It had the usual conveniences including WiFi, air conditioning, a minibar and safe, and it was very nice to have a complimentary bottle of Prosecco on ice when we arrived. I'm a sucker for Nespresso machines, and it was really great to be able to have a smooth, rich caffeine fix whenever I needed it in our room.

Welcome Prosecco on Arrival at Palazzo Manfredi

Breakfast is taken in the rooftop Aroma restaurant, with spectacular views over the Coliseum and city.  With a generous buffet, and a variety of a la carte options, this was a wonderful spot to plan the days sight-seeing.


Palazzo Manfredi is great for visiting the Coliseum and other sites of the ancient city of Rome nearby, and for its wonderful Aroma restaurant (see Where to Eat section below) but the modern side of the city is a little way north, and we decided to spend our second night near the Villa Borghese on Via Veneto.


Regina Baglioni Hotel

Regina Baglioni is a 19th century, 5-star hotel member of the Leading Hotels of the World Group. Situated on the Via Veneto, it is just a short walk to the magnificent Villa Borghese with its fabulous art works, the Spanish Steps, and the fashion street Via Condotti.  With 126 rooms, it is on a substantially larger scale than the Palazzo Manfredi, and has a spa and gym befitting its size.


We stayed in one of the junior suites. Decorated in Art Deco style, it was luxuriously appointed, with a stunning marble bathroom, a king-sized bed, as well as cable TV and WiFi.


The public rooms of the hotel are huge and opulent, including the beautiful oval Caffè Baglioni with its marble and granite floors, chandeliers, paintings and plush upholstered chairs for taking afternoon tea.


It looked like the kind of place in which Woody Allen might set one of his movies.


We had breakfast in the dining room next to the Caffe Baglioni. This was a very good continental breakfast with a fine buffet, including some lovely local produce such as mozzarella di bufalo and a range of prosciutto, salami and cheeses.


The Regina Baglioni Hotel is a very comfortable and convenient place to stay in Rome, and a good option within strolling distance of the main sites of the Via del Corso.

Where to Eat

Massimo Riccioli Restaurant & Bistrot at the Hotel Majestic Roma

Just a hundred metres or so from the Regina Baglioni Hotel is the Hotel Majestic Roma, built in 1889 in neoclassical style. Its restaurant, an utterly opulent, mirrored and chandeliered first-floor room, was taken over by celebrity Sicilian chef Massimo Riccioli in October 2013.


Riccioli (who used to be in charge of Massimo Restaurant & Oyster Bar in London's Corinthia Hotel) is celebrated for his seafood dishes, but in this restaurant he has extended his range to include Roman meat dishes with aplomb. However, we were very tempted by his fish dishes, which made up the majority of our spread for meal.


We had a fantastic lunch at Massimo Riccioli’s, starting with a platter of lightly battered and crispy baccala (salted cod) accompanied by courgette flowers, almonds and a variety of crustacea.


The salad of grilled octopus with “Salmoriglio” sauce and tabbouleh (£15) was delicious – salmoriglio sauce is a Sicilian sauce made from lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, parsley and oregano which goes really well with roasted meats and fish as in this dish.


We also had a gorgeous selection of raw fish and prawns (£23), served with different sauces, caviar and berries. Akin to a sashimi or Peruvian “tiradito”, the fish was ultra-fresh, and delicately seasoned.


The tuna tartare was also excellent served with an agretto of strawberries and capers (£13), an unusual but refreshing combination of flavours.


I love to cook trofie pasta in the Ligurian style with green beans, potatoes and pesto, but Massimo's trofie pasta carbonara of courgettes (£13) was an interesting perspective on an established classic.


Our final pasta dish was a simple but delicious tagliolini with mussels, prawns and clams, tomatoes and fresh herbs (£15). This was a stunning dish both in presentation and flavour.


For main course, we had the amberjack fillet baked with grape and caponatina of aubergine, pepper and courgette (£16.50), and a meat course of oxtail and cheek beef meatballs with broccoli (£14), the only non-fish and also the least interesting dish of our meal.


We had little room for dessert, but with coffee had a very generous selection of excellent petit fours.


Lunch at Massimo Riccioli Bistrot can cost as little as €30 (£25) for 2 courses on the set menu. This was one of the finest lunches I have enjoyed in recent months particularly for the fish antipasti & primi piatti, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone for its freshest fish and seafood and stunningly glamorous setting.


Aroma Restaurant

Aroma Restaurant is a Palazzo Manfredi's rooftop restaurant, with spectacular views over the Coliseum. Chef Guiseppe Di Iorio and sommelier Alessio Dominici have put together a tasting menu (€125/£105 per person or €195/£163 with matching wines) reputedly featuring some of the best, seasonal produce of the Lazio region, and we could not wait to try it.


The evening started well with a delectable dish of raw sea bass, salmon and ricciola fish served on a crunchy wafer and a chilled margarita mousse – this was a sensational dish with many layers of flavour and texture, and well paired with a very refreshing glass of Prosecco.

Next was a veal terrine with artichoke and black olive powder - well made and subtly flavoured, it was served with a glass of Livia Felluga 2012. An Italian pinot grigio unlike any I have tasted before in the UK, this was rich, concentrated and with ripe greengage fruit on the palate akin to a good Alsatian Pinot Gris.


To follow, we had the homemade fettuccelli pasta "a modo mio" (my way), with calamari and courgette. Al dente, and well seasoned, the pasta was delicious. To accompany it, the Sommelier served a glass of chilled Renata Pizzulin Friuli Malvasia Istriana Melaris. Made from the malvasia grape, this had fresh melon and grapefruit notes that worked very well with the calamari.


Equally good was the panzerotti pasta filled with fresh herbs, French butter and Parmesan cheese, accompanied by a fine Pistillo wine, made from 100% pecorino grapes. This was quite an austere wine on its own, but with pasta, layers of complexity, minerality and a rich sweetness emerged.

We then had red mullet and shrimps with crunchy artichokes, fresh spinach oil and lemon. This seemed to me to show Italian cooking at its best - fantastic ingredients cooked simply and we loved it. This was paired with a glass of Nussbaumer, 100% Gewürztraminer from Alto Adige  (South Tyrol), which had a good weight of tropical fruit and sweetness to match the rich fish and seafood.


The meat course was lamb cutlets with pistachio, goose liver and lavender sauce, tempura carrot and asparagus. The lamb was tender and flavoursome, and served with a richly concentrated jus. I really enjoyed this, with a glass of Chianti Rampolla 2011. Made from 70% Sangiovese, blended with merlot and cabernet sauvignon, it had a lovely rich red cherry fruit on the palate, but good tannins and length to balance the fruit.


Dessert was a scrumptious milk chocolate and coconut surprise with pineapple ice cream, accompanied by a glass of Passito Martingano. Made from late harvest, partially dried moscato grapes, this was a wonderful dessert wine with flavours of raisins, damsons and dried fig.


It was good to see that Aroma Restaurant offers much more than outstanding views of the Coliseum. The cooking is on a par with the stunning setting.  The restaurant is popular with both tourists and locals on romantic dates. I recommend it highly for a special occasion - it is a treat.


Pizzarium

One place any foodie in Rome must visit is Bonci's.  Celebrity pizza chef Gabriele Bonci (described in Vogue as "the Michelangelo of pizza") has a tiny shop close to the Vatican, which sells rectangular pizza slices by weight.


Bonci is famous because of the special sourdough and the finest ingredients he uses for his pizze. For the dough, he collects yeasts from all over Italy using the various ancient and unique yeast cultures. The signature dish is pizza con le patate - hand-crushed Abruzzo potatoes with a dash of vanilla, but other scrumptious pizze include spicy coppa with blood orange, and tripe with tomato.


The shop is minute, accommodating no more than about 10 people standing, but you can choose a variety of slices, which are then warmed in the oven to eat there and then with a selection of beers (we opted for a delicious local Italian "My Antonia") and wines by the glass, or on the bench outside. I don't think I've ever eaten a better pizza, and the quality of the ingredients is unrivalled. The arancini were also superb.


Bonci is quoted as saying "pizza is traditionally seen as food for poor people and so pizza makers would use cheaper industrial dough, and cut corners on quality. I refuse to do that". Despite high quality ingredients, slices are sold at around £2 a slice. It’s a bit of a trek outside the centre of Rome, but definitely worth a visit. Very highly recommended.


Grom

I love Grom ice cream, having first sampled it in their Venice branch (read review here) and also while living in Tokyo. We couldn't resist popping into the Grom at Piazza Navona. Their range of ice cream is excellent. With seasonal flavours that change throughout the year like ricotta and fig, marrons glacé and zabaione and raisin on our last visit, it's hard to go wrong.


Grom only uses 100% natural ingredients from Italy (pistachios from Bronte in Sicily, nougat from Asti, fruit from their own farm Mura Mura) – the ice cream flavours were intense but fresh with a wonderful creamy texture that below my mind away. I cannot recommend Grom highly enough. For a full list of branches, see here.  But please, when is the London branch opening?


Brunello Restaurant

The Brunello Restaurant is situated within the Regina Baglioni Hotel where we spent one of our nights.  It’s a popular spot for dinner, and we had a very good meal there.


For antipasti, we had a delectable dish of squid filled with brandade (whipped salt cod, potatoes and Genzano bread) on a light chicken and porcini mushroom velouté (£21) and the “bocconcini” of lobster bites sautéed with wild rice, onions, peppers and roasted tomatoes (£21).


Next came tonnarelli pasta with rabbit ragout, Pienza Pecorino cheese flakes and flavoured with truffle oil (£18) and “Garofalo” spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli pepper with clams and mussels (£18) – both excellently made and delicious.


The main courses were veal and suckling pig. The veal cheek was cooked at low temperature with vanilla oil and frosted pears, served on daikon cream (£23). I often cook daikon for my Japanese supper clubs, and it was a pleasure to come across this novel but very refined Italian take.


The suckling pig was flavoured with herbs and Sarawak pepper with spring onion jam and crispy celery (£20). To accompany our meat courses, we had a glass of very fine Rosso de Montalcino 2011, by Castello Banfi.


The Regina Tiramisu (£10) was a surprisingly light take on a classic Italian dessert, most of us grew up with in the 90s and I was glad to revisit it.


What to Do

There are so many things to do in Rome, it's hard to know where to start. This is by no means a comprehensive list and  moreover as it rained nearly non-stop while we were there, we spent most of the weekend indoors, eating.


A good place to get your bearings is the Via del Corso - Rome's main thoroughfare.


From there, you can meander down towards the Pizza Venezi, visiting on the way the Trevi Fountain, the Galleria Doria Pamphili with its wonderful paintings by Bernini, Caravaggio and Titian (in one of Rome's finest Rococo palaces) the incomparable Pantheon, the Campo de Fiori (flower market) and the Piazza Navona.


Other sites not to miss are the Roman ruins around and including the Coliseum near Palazzo Manfredi, St Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, and the Galleria Borghese near the Regina Hotel Baglinio.


If you are in Rome on a Sunday, the flea market at Piazza Augusto Imperatore is worth a look.


The Campo de Fiori Market is a great place to sample and purchase some of the region’s finest fresh ingredients in a stunning ancient market square.


Travel Essentials

Palazzo Manfredi
Via Labicana, 125-00184
Rome
info@hotelpalazzomanfredi.it

Rooms are available from around £300 per night. The junior suite featured costs around £760 per night. 

Regina Hotel Baglinio
Via Veneto, 72-00187
Rome
reservations.reginaroma@baglionihotels.com

The Leading Hotels of the World (00800 2888 8882 (toll free)) offers stays at Regina Hotel Baglioni, Rome from £221 per room per night based on two people sharing including buffet breakfast and VAT. The junior suite featured costs around £500 per night.
www.LHW.com/reginabaglioni

Aroma Restaurant
Palazzo Manfredi
Bookings are made via the hotel's website or by phone.
The tasting dinner costs £100 per person, or £160 with matching wines.

Massimo Riccioli Restaurant/Bistrot
Hotel Majestic Roma
Via Veneto, 50-00187
Rome
hotelmajestic@hotelmajestic.com

Bonci's Pizzarium
43 Via della Meloria
Rome, 00136, Italy

Gelateria Grom
Via agonale 3
Angolo Piazza Navona - 00186
Rome

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