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Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Celebrating the Year of the Monkey at Hakkasan

Name: Hakkasan (Chinese New Year Menu)

Where: 8 Hanway Place, London, W1T 1HD, http://hakkasan.com

Cost: Hakkasan’s Chinese New Year menu consists of 4 courses, or 9 dishes, costs a lucky £88.88 per person, and includes a cocktail each.

About: Opened in 2001, Hakkasan has long been a favourite of mine for its exquisite dim sum and Chinese food and is one of the few places in London I return to often. Hakkasan is the jewel in the crown of its group, which also includes two other Michelin-starred restaurants – Yauatcha and HKK.

Celebrating the Year of the Monkey at Hakkasan

I visited Hakkasan recently to experience their Dim Sum Sunday Menu (see review here). I believe this is still one of the best and most reasonably priced lunch menus in London right now – for £58 per person, guests can enjoy a 4 course lunch, ½ bottle of Champagne (or a full bottle between 2 people) and 2 cocktails each.

Chinese New Year is a great time to visit Chinese restaurants of this calibre as many will have specially designed menus for the occasion. So I hurried along to Hakkasan Hanway Place to try their Year of the Monkey menu which is available from 22 January until 22 February 2016 only.

What We Ate: The CNY menu is divided into 4 courses – soup, dim sum, mains & accompaniments and dessert. 

Course 1 - Soup of double-boiled fresh ginseng and chicken with bamboo pith and wolfberry

The broth had an intense chicken flavour with fresh ginseng root, which with its earthy, burdock-like flavour, was for me the highlight of the dish. I also enjoyed the gossamer-like texture of the bamboo pith. 

Course 2 - Japanese Wagyu beef with pine nuts in a crispy golden cup and a selection of dim sum

With little pieces of Wagyu beef, stir-fried with tiny cubes of Chinese chives, peppers and onion served on crispy pastry cups, this had a delectable crunchiness, wok-breath and richly flavoured beef.

The dim sum arrived in a platter of four. The har gau were well presented and delicate, while the scallop shumai had a thick slice of plump scallop, with a scattering of tobiko eggs – the pastry was ethereally light and so fresh it melted in the mouth. The Chinese chive dumpling with prawn was also good, and the duck and yam bean dumpling had a great hit of cracked black pepper.

Course 3 - Selection of 4 main dishes plus 1 rice

The wok-fried lobster in a spicy truffle sauce had chunky nuggets of tender lobster that tasted deliciously buttery and were topped with slices of aromatic fresh black truffles, Chinese black fungus, choy sum and tiny pieces of crispy deep-fried pastry which added an extra layer of texture to the dish. This was without a doubt the highlight of our meal, and one of the best lobster dishes I have eaten recently.

The Pipa duck is a regular favourite at Hakkasan, with its lovely crispy caramel-like skin, a sweet little layer of fat, and richly flavoured, slightly gamey meat.

The grilled Chilean seabass was also terrific. With a honeyed, slightly charred exterior, and a buttery texture to the flesh, the fish came with a scattering of well-made tempura of shimeji mushrooms.

The vegetable dish was an intriguing stir-fry of Hericium mushroom, with a meaty texture and delicately earthy flavour, combined with lotus root, asparagus and lily bulb in black pepper.

The dried scallop and crabmeat fried rice was a luxurious accompaniment to the duck, fish, lobster and vegetable mains.

Course 4 – Dessert: The Golden Halo

A ring (halo) of soy caramel and peanut brittle, topped with banana delice ice cream, a sphere of chocolate mousse encased in a wafer-thin chocolate shell, and flakes of real edible gold leaf. This was a light but intricate dessert with intense flavours of banana, peanuts and caramel. A monkey’s delight!

What We Drank: The CNY menu features one '9 Hou' cocktail per person, included in the set price. Made from Eldorado 3 year old rum, Amontillado sherry, banana, guava, lime, agave syrup and walnut, this was complex, well balanced and refreshing. 

With our meal, we shared a bottle of Sylvaner 'Sylvacello' 2012, from Cave de Turkheim, Alsace (£29) chosen by the sommelier. Straightforward, this had fresh, grapefruit notes but lacked any complexity. 

Likes: the lobster dish was the highlight, the rice of dried scallops and crabmeat was also terrific.

Dislikes: none.

Verdict: With Wagyu beef, truffled lobster, Chilean seabass and the finest Peking duck, Chinese New Year menus don’t get much better than this. Don’t wait too long, this special Year of the Monkey menu by Hakkasan ends on 22nd February 2016. Highly recommended.

Friday, 5 February 2016

More Monkey Business at Yauatcha City!

Name: Yauatcha City (Chinese New Year Menu)

Where: Broadgate Circle, London, EC2M 2QS, http://www.yauatcha.com/city/

Cost: The special menu designed for Chinese New Year at Yauatcha includes 4 dim sum, 4 mains courses including a rice dish, and the dessert of 6 specially created macarons. Menu items can be ordered individually or the entire CNY menu at a cost of £113.20 for a two people meal, with a matching flight of 3 Monkey 47 gin-based cocktails at £28 per person. I have also shown the menu items priced individually. 

About: Opened in May 2015, Yauatcha City is the 2nd branch of this restaurant in London after its Michelin-starred sister in Soho, which has been serving top notch dim sum to Londoners for more than 10 years. Yauatcha is also renowned for its super-refined French patisserie with an Asian twist, and its selection of fine teas. It has long been among the best places in London to go for tea and cakes, as well as cocktails.

Yauatcha is more affordable and a little more casual than its big brother Hakkasan or the fine dining & Peking duck specialist restaurant HKK, so this is a place I return to regularly, whenever I crave top quality dim sum and Chinese food.

The service is exceptional at this branch and this is due to mostly one person - Lim, the restaurant supervisor. I was lucky enough to meet her on my first visit to Yauatcha City and then again on this occasion. It is rare to find staff who are this passionate and knowledgable about the food being served at their restaurant so it was a real joy to see her again and get a detailed explanation and her recommendations on the CNY menu items. I wrote about Lim in my previous review (read it here), and if you do get to visit Yauatcha City, I strongly recommend asking for her help.

This Chinese lunar year is the Year of the Monkey, and so cleverly Yauatcha has teamed up with Monkey 47 Schwarzwald Dry Gin to create a menu with three matching Monkey gin cocktails, and even gin-flavoured macarons.

What We Ate: The Year of the Monkey menu, starts with a traditional Yusheng (aka Yee Sang or Prosperity Toss) salad. Yusheng literally means raw fish (which in Cantonese sounds like 'abundance'), and it is a special Chinese New Year dish to wish for prosperity in the coming year.

Yauatcha's version combined sashimi scallop with radish, Japanese seaweed, grapefruit, pomegranate seeds, crisp-fried pumpkin strands and shimeji mushroom, pickled onions, plum sauce and shallot oil (£15.80). These we tossed with gusto at the table, while wishes ourselves to win the lottery or become millionaires in 2016, etc (although having never bought a lottery ticket in my life, I have my doubts about whether this will come true).

The selection of dim sum followed. The caviar siew long bao, also known as Shanghai dumpling (£6.80), was perfectly made, with a luscious glutinous casing surrounding a rich broth, made even more special by its topping of caviar.

The foie gras roast duck puff (£5.80) had a wonderfully buttery mille-feuille style pastry case to match the sweetness and luxury of its contents.

The caviar taro dumpling (£6.20), a vegetarian dish, was gorgeously presented, the 'caviar' cleverly made from seaweed gum flavoured with truffle, the casings naturally coloured with extracts of carrot and pandan leaves, filled with a mixture of flavours and textures of Asian vegetables.

Lastly, the black truffle edamame sesame ball was light, airy, and delicious (£6.50), the filling a clever mixture of edamame and truffles in place of the more familiar black sesame paste.

The soup course was a sea conch Chinese yam soup (£11.80). A very traditional menu item, this had a wonderfully fragrant broth with goji berries, and little pieces of tender chicken, longan, yam and delectable layers of diaphanous, sponge-like bamboo pith floating at the surface.

The Hakka fortune pot (£38.80) was undoubtedly the highlight of the meal - it had a variety of different meats, fish and seafood presented together in a clay pot. There were deep-fried battered prawns, meaty abalone, gourd slices filled with dried scallops, the most delectable roast Peking duck and beef, slices of steamed seabass, lotus root, Chinese leaves and mushrooms. It was one of most luxurious dishes I have ever tried on a Chinese menu, and a real feast of fine flavours and textures. Lim explained that the fortune pot is a traditional dish from the Hakka region of China, where layers of different dishes are put together in a large pot, with meat at the bottom and fish then seafood on top - this is to symbolise reunion and harmony, and is used to celebrate important family occasions.

The rice dish was dry oyster fried sticky rice (£11.80) - this was exceptionally good. The rice was not like stick rice from Northern Thailand or Laos, but rather the stickiness came from the cooking of the rice in plenty of chicken stock and the addition of dry prawns and oysters which imparted great umaminess to the final dish.

Because I loved the next dish so much on my last visit, I couldn't help myself from ordering a portion of Yauatcha's fried chilli squid (£11.50) rolled in oatmeal (Malaysian Nestum oatmeal Lim tells me) and curry leaf. This, in my opinion, is a must order when visiting this restaurant, and was just as delicious as I remembered.

For dessert, we had a selection of 6 macarons (£9.70 per 6). For the CNY menu, the macaron flavours reflect the ingredients that are used to make or drink gin, including gin and tonic (made from Monkey 47 gin, grapefruit pate de fruits and tonic buttercream), juniper berry (with juniper berry ganache), bitter orange almond (filled with almond buttercream, bitter orange pate de fruits), elderflower ginger (filled with elderflower and ginger buttercream), rose and rosehip (filled with rose buttercream and rosehip jam), and camomile (camomile buttercream).

I've made a lot of macarons in my time, including while I was at Le Cordon Bleu, and I know how hard they are to get right. Yauatcha is famous for their patisserie, and the macarons I had there were faultess - the shells crumbled on contact with the lips, and the centres were soft, velvety and aromatic. 

What We Drank: We started with a couple of cocktails at the bar. The Aged Negroni (£13) blended Tanquery No. Ten gin with Campari and Lillet Rouge sweet vermouth, all aged for one month on the premises in American oak. The Asian Daiquiri (£11.50) was a delectable blend of Diplomatico Reserva Rum, plum sake, lime, orange marmalade, vanilla and chilli sugar - refreshing with a lovely citrus notes.

Priced at £28 per person, the flight of three gin cocktails is designed to partner the Chinese New Year menu. It includes a saffron gin and tonic, the 'pomelo fortune' with grapefruit, cranberry and mandarin bitters, and with dessert a pink kumquat with sloe gin and ginger liqueur. 

The Saffron Gin and Tonic served with the salad was an inspiration - 1724 tonic was poured through a strainer with a pinch of saffron strands. The flavour from those, and the one or two strands that passed into the drink, were enough to impart a thrilling intensity of the aromatic herb without overpowering the drink, and just a slight tinge of watery gold to the colour.

The Pomelo Fortune accompanied the dim sum. With a tropical blossom fragrance from the pandan leaf and grapefruit peel at the glasses' edge, and gin mixed with velvet falernum liqueur, pomelo, grapefruit, cranberry and orange, and mandarin bitters, this was a heavenly, and complex drink.

With our macarons, we had the Pink Kumquat cocktail. Kumquat is one of my favourite fruits, and this cocktail was punchy, with refreshing citrus aromas. Monkey 47 sloe gin was blended with Diplomatico Reserva rum, Domaine de Cantone ginger liqueur, cranberries and rice syrup.

Likes: If you visit Yauatcha City, make sure to ask for Lim – her knowdedge is encyclopaedic, her enthusiasm and friendliness are contagious. For me, the stars of the evening were the Hakka fortune pot, the fried chilli squid, the dry oyster rice and the adorable macarons. The gin cocktails were spectacularly good and unusual, with truly Asian flavours, and the saffron gin and tonic is one I will experiment with at home. 

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: For one of the best Chinese New Year menus on offer in London right now, hurry along to Yauatcha City before the season ends on 21 February 2016. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Sushinoen - unpretentious and affordable Japanese home-style cooking and sushi

Name: Sushinoen

Where: 2 White Church Lane, London E1 7QR, http://www.sushinoen.com/

Cost: Average cost per person is in the region of £30 excluding drinks. Sushinoen offers a range of lunch options including bento box sets from £12.90 to £19.90, sushi bar set menus ranging from £10.90 to £19.90, and several hot dish set meals with rice, a side dish and miso soup partnering hot main courses such as pork katsu curry, or bulgogi for a very reasonable £9.00 to £11.90. It is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.

About: In London's East End, just off Whitechapel High Street and a stone's throw from Aldgate East station, this cosy, unpretentious Japanese eatery offers authentic Japanese home-cooking style dishes and freshly made sushi.

Two things struck me quite favourably about Sushinoen which reminded me of similar eateries in Japan – it has a very laid back, even a tad shabby, feel about it like an old-fashioned Japanese izakaya (Japanese pub/cafe) somewhere in Asakusa or in some other less salubrious areas of Tokyo. I love those places.

The other was their pricing – it is surprisingly reasonable. It is refreshing to see Sushinoen in London, and I just wished they existed 25 years ago when I arrived here as a student and totally broke, what a contrast from the madly expensive Japanese restaurants in Piccadilly of the time.

What We Ate: We ordered a selection of bread-and-butter Japanese home-cooked dishes as well as some of Sushinoen’s more modern sushi/sahimi offerings. This included the shiro maguro carpaccio, a dish of seared white tuna slices (also known as butterfish or Escolar) with a yuzu dressing (£12.90). This was beautifully presented with little slivers of cherry tomato, the fish was topped with yuzu kosho (a deliciously spicy condiment from Kyushu Island made from chillies, salt and the rind of the yuzu citrus fruit) and fresh wasabi. With a fine and buttery texture and flavour and a lovely kick of heat, this made for a very good start to our meal.

The Aldgate Platter (£27.90) consists of 6 pieces each of assorted sashimi and maki and 5 pieces of nigiri sushi, although I asked for mine to be slightly tweaked to substitute more sushi for the sashimi. The sushi rice was well made and seasoned (the most important aspect of sushi), topped with an assortment of fresh fish and seafood including scallop, sea bream, sea bass, tuna, fatty tuna, salmon and octopus, as well as maki rolls of tuna and California rolls. The platter was well presented and a real pleasure to eat.

We also ordered the Bravo Duo (8 pieces - £16.90) – a Dragon style California roll topped with blow-torched tuna slices, garlic oil, ‘tenkasu’ (the crunchy bits of tempura batter), and tobiko eggs (flying fish roe). This was delicious – crunchy, well seasoned, and lovely.

To follow we had a platter of mixed tempura of fried prawns and vegetables (£9.90) including aubergine, carrot and courgette. I serve tempura often in my Japanese and Nikkei supper club, and hardly ever order it in a restaurant – but I was glad I did at Sushinoen - the tempura batter was light and crisp, the vegetables and prawns fried until just right (retaining still some their bite), whoever is frying that tempura, knows what they are doing.

With the tempura we enjoyed a portion of Katsu Don – breaded pork cutlet served on a bed of rice topped with Japanese sweet omelet (£9.90). I loved this – so simple yet so comforting, home-style Japanese cooking that I grew up with but hardly come by in London.

For dessert, we shared a portion of Sushinoen’s tempura ice cream (£5.50) - a kind of Japanese baked Alaska topped with Anko (sweetened Japanese red bean paste). For me, this dessert didn’t quite work – the ice cream was not of great quality and if it was, the flavour was masked by the tempura batter that encased it.

What We Drank: Green tea (£2.20) and Sapporo beer (£4.35). 

Likes: the sushi was well made, the tempura was also crispy and expertly fried, and a scrumptious dish of butterfish carpaccio. Friendly, informal setting. 

Dislikes: the tempura ice cream was uninspiring.

Verdict: For unpretentious Japanese home-style cooking dishes and well made sushi that will not break the bank, Sushinoen is the real deal. Recommended.

Friday, 29 January 2016

The Exquisite Year of the Monkey Chinese New Year Menu at HKK

Name: HKK (Chinese New Year Menu)

Where: 1 Snowden Street, London, EC2A, http://hkklondon.com/

Cost: The Chinese New Year menu is available from 25th January until 20th February 2016. The food menu costs £88 per person with an option of £48 per person for drinks pairing.

About: One of my favourite Chinese restaurants in London, HKK is one of just a handful of restaurants I visit regularly whenever I crave top quality Chinese food.  

February is a great time of the year to visit such restaurants, as most will devise some exquisite menus to celebrate their most important calendar event of the year – the Chinese New Year. With that in mind, I hastened along to HKK for a sneaky peak at their 2016 Year of the Monkey menu and what is on offer until late February.

What We Ate and Drank: We kicked off with the Prosperity Platter which included a very refined version of the traditional prosperity salad. Typically served to start a family New Year meal, all the guests stand and toss the salad high in the air with their chopsticks while saying auspicious things to bring good luck, health and prosperity in the new year. HKK's version combined julienned pumpkin and daikon, crispy salmon skin, green and red seaweed, peanuts, pomegranate seeds and olive oil, all topped with some real gold leaf.

The second element of the platter was the 'fortune wrap' – this was a delectable dried Japanese oyster in Chinese leaf, with a scattering of black moss. The third and final item was a lovely little cube of Welsh organic pork belly, with a thin, crisp layer of fat, grilled and lightly spiced with sea salt, mustard and goji berry.

We opted for the drinks flight at £48 per person to partner each course. The Prosperity Platter was partnered with a glass of Japanese Mio sparkling sake. I love Mio sake and often serve this at my supper club - it made a deliciously refreshing, low-alcohol start to the meal, with delicate stone fruit and brioche on the nose, and an off-dry finish. 

The Tai Ji supreme seafood soup was served yin and yang-style, with one side consisting of crab roe and vegetarian shark fin, the other of egg white in broth, with winter bamboo, scampi and scallops served separately in a spoon. To eat, all three components are mixed together. This was warming, with delicate flavours of freshest seafood, and a refreshing crunchy texture from the winter bamboo.

To accompany, we had a glass of Clos la Cariziere Muscadet Sevre et Maines 2014. I'm not normally a huge fan of Muscadet, but this was a fine example, with a nose of green apple, lemon, and some luscious pineapple and tropical flavours on the finish. 

The Chinese believe that it brings good luck and happiness in the coming year to eat dumplings just after midnight - shaped like ancient Chinese gold or silver ingots, they are believed to bring prosperity. And who am I to argue, just give me the dumplings, please! HKK's dumpling trilogy included white (deep fried dumpling of chicken and abalone), orange (steamed dumpling was of scallop and Chinese chive) and green morsels (steamed dumpling of Dover sole with Imperial caviar).

Cleverly, the pastry cases were naturally coloured with gai lan juice (for the green dumpling) and carrot juice (for the orange). These were very well made, with finely textured cases and delicate, well flavoured fillings.   

We had a 'bitter fortune' cocktail with Tanquery Number 10 gin, Aperol, rhubarb liqueur and fresh grapefruit juice. Deliciously astringent, this was able to cut through the diverse flavours and textures of the dumplings.

Next up was HKK’s wonderful roasted cherry wood Peking duck - the signature dish of the restaurant. The duck is prepared over 2 days, with a complex, multi-stage process that ends with skin as crisp and thin as caramel, with the flesh still utterly succulent. Served with a delicious little salad of micro-herbs and fragrant pea shoots, this was as wonderful as I recall from an earlier visit. If you would like to try this amazing duck over a four-course lunch with a bottle of Champagne thrown in, the restaurant offers a special Peking Duck menu on Saturday lunch times only, reviewed here.

The duck was matched with a glass of Tsarine brut rose Champagne, that had refreshing strawberry and redcurrant notes.

My favourite course of the evening was HKK’s lobster noodles with an XO sauce, dried prawns and scallop, Parma ham, garlic and shallot. It was served with 'longevity noodles', symbolic of a long and healthy life. The lobster was magnificent - a generous serving, tender and with many layers of umami flavours from the dried seafood and XO sauce.

To accompany, we were served a glass of Chablis, Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils, 2012. Full bodied, and aged in French oak, this was a rich, creamy wine with gentle tropical fruit on the finish. It had more than enough depth of flavour and complexity to match the richly flavoured lobster. 

To finish the mains, we were served an outstanding dish of Welsh lamb with Sichuan mala sauce (spiked with toban jan, a fermented soybean chilli sauce) that came with rice and pumpkin cakes, shiso leaves, and romanesco broccoli.

With the lamb, we were served a glass of Ribeira del Duero from Dominio de Atuata, Spain, 2011. Made from Tempranillo grapes, this had intense mint, black cherry and vanilla notes, but was well structured with plenty of tannin to balance the rich sweetness of the fruit. 

For our pre-dessert, we had vanilla and mandarin 'Tangyuan dumplings', with osmanthus and orange infusion. The round dumplings, and the bowls in which they are served, are said to represent family unity. With a crisp white chocolate shell and mandarin glaze, surprisingly filled with vanilla ice cream, this was wonderfully refreshing, served with pomegranate, lime caviar, an orange and osmanthus infusion, micro-coriander and a glass of orange and osmanthus iced tea.

To accompany, we had a glass of Diplomatico Reserva 8 year old rum from Venezuela which had plenty of spice and vanilla and made for an unusual but interesting pairing.  

Dessert proper was a green apple parfait, with cardamom cake, crispy apple noodle, apple sorbet and puree. This was an inventive, chefy with a surprising mix of textures and apple flavours, not so sweet or heavy as to overwhelm our palate at the end of the meal.

We were served a glass of luscious Samos Grand Cru 2014, Muscat Petit Grain, from the Greek island of Samos with our apple dessert.

To round off, we were brought the 'Tray of Togetherness' - these were a selection of delectable petit four, including grapefruit jelly, lime marshmallow, pandan choux, almond financier, white chocolate and passion fruit truffle, red bean choux, smoked salted caramel and dark chocolate truffle and yuzu jelly. I am not sure we were meant to have them all, we were asked to choose the ones we wanted, and of course I had to try the lot! They were all exquisite, but the salted caramel in particular was the star of the show in my opinion.

Likes: All the dishes were cooked with great skill, and were gorgeously presented. For me, particular highlights were the Peking duck and the lobster dish, but there wasn't a weak dish on the menu.

Dislikes: None

Verdict: For a great way to see in the Year of Monkey in 2016, I can't think of many other places I would rather be than HKK. This special Chinese New Year menu runs only until 20th February 2016, so hurry along if you fancy a fix of brilliantly cooked celebratory lobster, cherry wood roasted Peking duck and a selection of fine wines and Champagne. Highly recommended.

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