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Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Seeking the Best Dim Sum in London - Royal China Baker Street

Words & Photography by Florentyna Leow and Luiz Hara

Where: 24-26 Baker St, Marylebone, London W1U 7AB, http://royalchina.rcguk.co.uk/rcg.html

About: The Royal China Group, founded in 1996, has 6 restaurants in and around London with branches in Queensway, the flagship restaurant (reviewed here), Harrow, Docklands, and Fulham. On Baker Street, there are two Royal China restaurants including the Royal China Club, the premier restaurant of the group and one of my favourite dim sum places in London (reviewed here).

Dim sum at the Royal China Club will cost on average 50% more than you would normally pay anywhere else, but the quality is outstanding and worth the price tag in my opinion. Its poorer sister, the Royal China Baker Street is only a block or so away, and on a recent weekday afternoon with a serious dimsum craving and a little less cash to spare we decided to pay it a visit – even at 3pm, we were impressed to see that it had a steady stream of customers.

Royal China Baker Street looks like a slightly luxe Chinese restaurant, or one that would have been a decade and a half ago - one doesn’t get much carpeting in restaurants these days. It’s clean and large, but the decor is a little faded, and the whole place is a little too dimly lit for my liking.

We ordered a mix of familiar favourites and special items, along with Iron Goddess tea (Tie Guan Yin) to wash it all down. Royal China has a wine list, but Chinese tea is a far more appropriate accompaniment to a dim sum lunch in my opinion. Be sure to prod your waiter/waitress for the various kinds of tea such as Tie Guan Yin and Bo Lei that they will most definitely have, as the menu doesn’t list anything beyond ‘jasmine’ or ‘Chinese’ tea.

What We Ate: Service is fairly fast and efficient. Our plates of dim sum arrived in quick succession - no sooner had we begun on one than a second, third, fourth arrived. Most were good, some utterly delicious and worth repeating. Nothing was below average. One of the highlights of the meal was the pork and radish dumplings (£3.50) - a partially translucent, glutinous skin encasing a pork, chestnut, carrot and coriander filling. It was a crisp-crunchy, delightful excursion in textures, one that the home cook would be hard-pressed to replicate.

Another favourite was the prawn and chive dumpling (£3.80) - fresh and sweet, it was perfect with a dab of chilli sauce. I would have happily ordered a portion just for myself.

The crab meat dumpling soup (£4.80) - which will take around 30 minutes to arrive, so plan accordingly - was also quite lovely, each dumpling stuffed to the brim with crab. Even more enjoyable than the dumpling was the soup it came bobbing in - a sweet and delicate double-boiled broth with the faintest hint of Chinese herbs.

My personal favourite was the deep fried garlic prawn beancurd skin rolls (£5.20). I would recommend this only if you enjoy eating garlic by the mouthful, which I do. It is exactly as its name suggests: sweet, juicy minced prawn and garlic in almost equal measure, wrapped in beancurd skins and deep fried. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Royal China doesn’t stint on the garlic, particularly on their specials menu. Boiled pork dumplings with chilli oil (£4.90) were also wonderfully garlicky, sweet and a little spicy, and doused in a vinegary sauce which reminded me of the Japanese Nanban style of cooking.

Any good dim sum place should serve up steamed turnip cake (£3.50), and Royal China’s version was a fine one – it had clean flavours and a smooth texture, with lovely crispy fried edges.

The glutinous rice in lotus leaves (£4.20), was a very pretty example, the lotus leaves infusing the surf n’ turf combination of dried shrimp and pork with a subtle earthiness.

If you’re craving a hearty, dry noodle dish, you could order the sliced beef Ho Fun with soya sauce (£8.50), it had decent wok hei (breath of the wok) and was delicious.

The other dishes were good, if not life-changing. Prawn cheong fun (£4.80), for instance, was quite tasty, even if the house-made skin was a little thick for my liking.

The crabmeat XO dumplings (£4.80) were delectable, but could have used more XO sauce for that extra kick.

Spare ribs in black bean sauce (£3.50) - another dim sum classic - were adequate, but not terribly memorable.

There’s usually not much in the way of dessert at Chinese restaurants, but their almond beancurd with fruit cocktail (£3.50) made for a smooth and refreshing end to a meat-heavy dim sum meal.

Royal China’s egg tarts (£3.60 for 4) were well made but compared poorly with the very same tarts served at a few doors down at the Royal China Club.

To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, we ordered custard mooncakes, these were baked in-house, were served warm and were rich and scrumptious.

Likes: the pork and radish dumplings, prawn and chive dumpling and crab meat dumpling soup are very good, but the deep fried garlic prawn beancurd skin rolls were exceptional. There are some excellent teas if you ask for them.

Dislikes: their selection of fine Chinese teas available should be readily available in English. Service was efficient but patchy and could have been friendlier at times.

Verdict: The Royal China Baker Street is a good place to enjoy freshly made dim sum in Marylebone, as well as being a more affordable option than the swanky Royal China Club further up the road. Recommended.

Furo-chan, my partner in crime for many London dinners, dim sum lunches and Japanese Super Clubs, you are missed! X

Friday, 12 September 2014

Meating in the City at Forge

Name: Forge

Where: 24 Cornhill, London, EC3V 3ND, http://www.forgedinlondon.com

Cost: Starters range from £5.50 to £8.50 while mains are priced from £11.50 for the Forge Burger or a ½ spit roast chicken to £50 for a 20-ounce (567g) tomahawk steak for two with all the trimmings.

About: After a £2 million refit of late Abacus Bar just metres away from the Bank of England, Forge opened in 2013 as a bar and restaurant specialising in flame-grilled meats.

With a zinc bar overlooking the grills, one of those intricate Victorian black and white tiled floors, long wooden tables, black painted ceiling with exposed pipes and cables, Forge has an eclectic style that looked better than it sounds. As most City’s bars and restaurants, Forge is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

The menu is a meat lover’s treasure trove, with many items that grabbed my carnivorous attention including BBQ pulled pork with toasted walnut bread (£5.50), the cider belly of pork (£13) or the Coca-Cola glazed gammon served with a spit roast pineapple (£11.50), all to be tried on my next visit. All spit grilled meats are served with thick cut chips, apple and fennel coleslaw, chilli and coriander corn.

On the midweek evening we were there, The London Essentials band was performing, and they certainly knew how to work a room of City midweek diners and boozers into a frenzy, with a medley of hits from Michael Jackson, and Lulu to Dolly Parton.

There is a range of attractions throughout the week to tempt diners in. Mondays see a 2 for 1 offer on meats, on Tuesdays, cocktails are priced at £5 all night. Wednesday sees The London Essentials live band strutting its stuff, while on Fridays, DJs take centre stage to see in the weekend.

What We Ate: On the midweek night we ate there, we were lucky enough to meet Head Chef David Jordan and dine at the 6-seater Chef's Table for a ring-side view of his entire kitchen, including a blazing grill and spit roast.

We kicked off with the 7-hour, Coca Cola-braised Jacob's Ladder - a very tender and flavoursome beef short rib that was sweet and sticky from the Cola marinade, served with tangy mustard mayonnaise (£6).

We also had the tempura soft shell crab (£8.50) - this was crispy in a wafer-thin batter, and served in a tiny deep-frying basket on a fresh banana leaf, with confit new potatoes, and a little dipping bowl of soy and sesame sauce.

But the star of the show was undoubtedly the Tomahawk steak (£50 for 2). A richly flavoured Scottish beef supplied by Fairfax Meadow (David told us that only 16 of these steaks are supplied to the restaurant each week), this American-style cut was grilled, carved for us at the table, and cooked medium rare as requested.

Served with horseradish onion bhajis, a tomato fondue, watercress, confit red onion and thick cut chips, there was a wonderful beef jus to bring out the rich flavours of the meat. The Scotch beef was tender, thoroughly marbled with the softest of fat, and imbued with an unbelievable intensity of flavour from the rib against which it had been grilled.

For dessert, we had the signature strawberries and cream sundae (£6). With a generous serving of strawberries, vanilla panna cotta, vanilla bean ice cream, pistachio praline and cream, this was a tad disappointing as the cream tasted as if it had come straight from an aerosol. Better was a well made pineapple creme brûlée (£6) which was creamy and rich in vanilla seeds with a wonderfully crunchy burnt sugar topping.

What We Drank: There is a range of cocktails from £8.50, and unusually each has a number rather than a name. White wines start at £21 for a Vin de Pays d'Oc Marsanne-Viognier blaned. Entry level reds start with a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for £18. If you are pushing the boat out, there are some very nice options like a Hermitage from Chapoutier for £100, and Champagnes like Pommery Brut and Moët et Chandon NV for £55 and £58 or Veuve Cliquot NV for £65.

We kicked off with a refreshing No. 61 cocktail, made from Aperol, Campari, Galliano, lemon juice and sugar syrup (£8.50).

To accompany the meat, we opted for a bottle of 2009 Barolo Enrico Serafino (£47.50). Ruby coloured and quite light in density, this had medium red berry fruit, and surprisingly youthful tannins, but satisfying length that stood up well to the meat.

Likes: There is top quality beef here, the menu is small but well executed. Cocktails and wines are well chosen, reasonably priced, and give a good range of options from affordable to modestly splurging. The venue is very convenient for London's myriad City workers, or indeed, only 20 metres from Bank station, for anyone else in London. If you have come in just for a drink, there is the popular option of a Forge burger for just £11.50, which is excellent value for the location.

Dislikes: It’s not really a criticism, but the fact is that Forge is predominantly a drinking spot in the City, with a restaurant tacked on the back. That means that the sounds of drinkers' revelling and music, live or otherwise, can be intrusive if a quiet or intimate meal is what you are after.

Verdict: A buzzing City bar and meat grill restaurant with a well thought-out and expertly delivered menu, I loved the Jacob's ladder and the soft-shell crab, but the Tomahawk steak was a thing of wonder. An excellent value option compared with other steakhouses in London. Recommended.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon - Michelin Starred French Cuisine Gone Japanese!

Where: 13-15 West Street, London, WC2H 9NE

Cost: There are a number of menu options, including set menus of 2, 3 or 4 courses for £31, £36 and £41 respectively.  There are 2 tasting menus, with options of 5 or 8 courses, priced at £95 or £129, with optional accompanying wine flights. There is also an a la carte menu, and an extensive menu of small tasting dishes, priced from £15 to £22.

About: Joel Robuchon held three Michelin stars in Paris until his retirement in 1996. In 2003, he opened the first in a series of more informal restaurants called L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, including in Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Las Vegas. The concept of these restaurants was that diners would sit at a bar, inspired by Japanese sushi counters, round an open kitchen, and meals would be served on a first-come, first-served basis.

The London branch opened in 2006, a few doors down from The Ivy, is headed by chef Xavier Boyer and his team. On the ground floor is L'Atelier (one Michelin star), with its counter-serving concept. Here, modern French dishes are served in large or tapas-sized portions over the rosewood counter, with diners on red leather stools, sitting at what is in effect a giant chef's table.

The setting is strikingly dark, with black, grey and red being the predominant colours, and little or no natural light. The first floor restaurant (La Cuisine de Joel Robuchon) has more traditional tables, but still has an open-plan kitchen and wood-fired oven, and a menu that changes with the seasons.

On our visit, we had ring-side seats at the counter of L'Atelier. One of the nice things about the set up is that although we were alone for the first part of our evening, by the time it came to the main course and desserts, the counter seats were all occupied, and we spent the evening deep in conversation with diners either side of us. This is a very unusual experience in a Michelin starred restaurant in London, and made it feel more like a very top notch supperclub.

What We Ate:  The amuse bouche was a royal of sweetcorn, with popcorn, aged port reduction and parmesan foam - a lovely dish with a palate great combination of crunchy textures and umami flavours.

Next came a series of tapas-style dishes:

We kicked off with a yellowtail carpaccio with orange zest, lemon dressing, sesame seeds and Espelette pepper – the Basque pepper and orange zest worked a treat (heady scent and flavours) here with the meaty yellowtail.

Sea scallops cooked in the shell with lemongrass and seaweed butter (£18) came next – I very much enjoyed the flavour of nori seaweed in the butter, a great idea which I will try and replicate at home.

This was followed by gyoza of veal shank with red miso which was rich and delicious, girolle mushrooms and a flavoursome harissa sauce, with coriander, parmesan foam (£21).

We also ordered a lovely crab salad, served on a savoury sablet and topped with guacamole, cucumber mousse and fresh herbs (£19). This was also excellent, refreshing and light.

Next came a series of 'middle courses' - effectively small main courses:

The langoustine ravioli with Savoy cabbage and foie gras sauce (£26) was decadently delicious.

Next came the pan-fried foie gras with fresh almonds (£18) - served with a confit of rhubarb, rhubarb puree, and mango coulis, the tartness of the rhubarb was a fitting contrast to the fatty liver, although the fruit coulis reminded me of the Nouvelle Cuisine style of the 1990s - a little too sweet for my palate.

Better still were the veal sweetbreads cooked teppanyaki style (grilled on a hot plate), with Roman lettuce stuffed with deglazed onion, bacon and bayleaf emulsion (£22) – this was superb with sweetbreads being very soft and creamy.

One of my favourite courses was Joel Robuchon’s beef and foie gras sliders with lighly caramelised bell peppers and served in a delicious brioche bun and with French fries (£21).

The meat dishes were served with the signature Joel Robuchon mashed potatoes, a dish of legendary reputation, made with 50% butter, it was utterly sublime.

For dessert (all priced at £11), we had:

Le Chocolat Tendance, with chocolate mousse, dark chocolate sorbet and Oreo cookie crumble – decadently chocolatey, this was a rich dessert with contrasting textures.

La Sphere - Lemon bubble with lemon custard, yuzu marshmallow with lemon sugar and yoghurt ice cream – my favourite dessert, this was refreshing and with a great scent and flavour from the Japanese yuzu citrus fruit.

La Cerise, Black Forest mousse, Tahitian vanilla whipped cream and chocolate liqueur biscuit – beautifully presented and the fanciest (and nicest) Black Forest Gateaux I have ever seen.

What We Drank: We started the evening with a couple of glasses of the house Champagne, Veuve Cliquot NV (£17 each).

The restaurant has a wide selection of wines and sparkling wines by the glass, from £8 to £24. In bottles, white wines start at £29 for a Picpoul de Pinet, and reds at £39 for a Recantina from the Veneto. Prices escalate steeply from there, and there is a special selection of French iconic wines going as far as the vertiginous £2,900 bottle of Chateau Petrus 1996. The selection is mostly from France, Italy and Spain, with some options from the New World, including unusually a Tannat from Uruguay, and a white Chateau Musar from Lebanon.

We put ourselves in the hands of Sabrina, the sommelier on the evening of our visit.  Wines were mostly served in Riedel glasses.

With the yellow carpaccio, we had a glass of Domain de Menard Cuvee Marine, from Cotes de Gascogne (£29 per bottle). Made from colombard, sauvignon blanc and the Cognac grapes uni blanc and gros mansang, this was an aromatic, elegantly crisp wine, with an intense nose of tropical fruit and grapefruit, refreshing acidity and good length. Off dry, it stood up wonderfully to the orange zest in the carpaccio.

With the crab salad, we had a glass of Godello 2012, from Viña Godeval in Galicia (£44 per bottle). Made from one of my favourite grapes, albariño, this was well structured, with a good minerality and delicate lemon fruit.

To accompany the scallop, we had a glass of Macon Loche 2012 from Domaine Corder (£59 per bottle), a classically elegant Chardonnay from the Maconais.

With the gyoza, we had a Vorberg Riserva Cantina Terlan 2010 (£16 per glass) from the South Tyrol, Italy. An elegant wine made from Pinot Bianco, this was rich, well structured and with sufficient stone fruit on the palate to stand up to the veal shank.

To accompany the foie gras main course, we had a glass of Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh "Brumaire" 2009 (£64 per 50cl bottle). From the southwest of France, this was a wonderfully rich, sweet and satisfying wine, and a nod to the classic Sauternes/foie gras combination.

With the langoustine ravioli, we had a glass of Les Grenouilleres Montlouis Demi-Sec 2009 (£68 per bottle) from Domaine La Grange Tiphaine in the Loire. Made from 100% Chinon Blanc, this was a lovely off-dry wine, with aromas of apple, dried and citrus fruits.

Matching the sweetbreads, we had a glass of Cerasuolo di Vittoria Classico 2011 (£69 per bottle) from Sicily. Made from Nero d'Avola and Frappato grapes, this wine is aged in pot amphora buried underground. Light in colour, it had intense, richly savoury qualities of leather, tobacco as well as red berry fruit, and structured tannins. It was superb in its own right, and a great partner for the veal sweetbreads.

With the burger, we had a Ribera del Duero: Resalte Crianza Tinto 2009 (£78 per bottle). Made at Bodegas Resalte de Penafiel, this was made from 100% Tempranillo matured in American oak. It was savoury, intense and delicious.

Likes: The counter-top service allows diners to experience all the activity in the kitchen from close up. The food is excellent and I would be hard-pushed to fault it. There is a range of menus across a wide range of budgets, including some very good value pre- and post- theatre options. The wine list is thoughtfully constructed and innovative, with some really unusual wines mainly from Europe.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Stunning food, great service and a casual but elegant restaurant set-up, L’ Atelier de Joel Robuchon chef’s table is one of the most coveted in London, and deservedly so. I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner there and cannot wait to return. Highly recommended.

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