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Reviews of London's Restaurants, Supper Clubs and Hotels, Wine Tastings, Travel Writing, and Home to the Japanese and French Supper Clubs in Islington

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Tuesday 30 March 2010

London Restaurant Reviews – Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room

Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room

I have heard some excellent reports on Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room (WGDR) lately, and when I learnt that it had joined TasteLondon, Dr G and I decided to pay it a visit.

The restaurant area is surprisingly small and intimate and sits a maximum of 40 diners. Light and airy, the long vertical mirrors on its walls help to create the illusion of a more spacious dining room.

I like the nearly minimalist, understated but elegant décor reminiscent of a 1950’s Scandinavian home, with its beautiful chairs, parquet flooring and light coloured wood throughout.

Head-Chef Maria Elia, daughter of a West London restaurateur, spent a summer working at El Bulli before her ten year stint at Delfina on London’s Southbank. She joined WGDR following the gallery’s multi-million refurbishment in 2009.

Renowned for her vegetarian credentials (she recently published a book called “The Modern Vegetarian”), Maria Elia is a creative chef who makes the most of seasonal and locally sourced ingredients, and her reassuringly short menu at WGDR, reflects these qualities.

On our visit, Dr G ordered the “Clementine and jupiter marinated quail, bitter leaf and char-grilled radicchio salad” @ £7.50 as a starter. This was an excellent choice – the meat was sweet and tender, with a deliciously citric hint from the clementines, contrasting well with the bitter leaf and radicchio salad.

My choice of “Pan-fried scallops, white bean puree, wild mushrooms” @ £8.25 was also good. The white bean puree and wild mushrooms were a nice addition, but despite being very fresh and meaty, the scallops were slightly over-salted.

I’d hoped my starter had been a one-off, but we soon overheard from the table next to ours about their “nice but a bit salty” scallops.

For main course, I had the “Pot roasted rabbit, confit rabbit baklava, swiss chard, lemon dressing, parsnip skordalia” @ £17.75. This was a beautifully presented dish with some interesting gamey flavours balanced by the zesty lemon dressing, but at nearly £18, we felt the portion was slightly ungenerous for such an economical meat.

Dr G’s “Pan-fried duck breast, creamed lentils, January kings, roasted quince” @ £18.75 was a lovely choice. The duck was cooked to perfection and combined well with the roasted quince. I wasn’t entirely convinced about the texture of creamed lentils, but the flavours were good and, unlike my rabbit, there was plenty of it.

As a side dish, we had “Truffled parsnips and winter leaves” @ £3.75. We were both impressed by the combination of caramelized parsnips and truffle oil - it was a delicious accompaniment to our main courses.

Dr G’s dessert “Rosemary and blood orange crème caramel, citrus salad” @ £5.75 was sensational. A light and delicious dessert with some complex flavours at play.

The “Hot chocolate pudding, cha tea mousse, chocolate dirt” @ £5.75 was also good and rich, with a molten chocolate core.

The wine list, although short, represented the old and new worlds well, with bottles ranging from £13.75 to £64 (most bottles were priced between £16.50 and £30). We ordered a bottle of “Marche Sangiovese 2008” @ £16.50 which was light, fruit driven with a nice balancing acidity, and did not break the bank.

Cost: the total bill was £98 including 12.5% service. We paid £64 after the 50% TasteLondon discount on the food was applied to the bill.

Likes: Elegant and intimate dining room, very friendly service, seasonal and locally sourced ingredients, and some impressive cooking. We were also impressed by how reasonably priced their large bottle of sparkling water was @ £1.

Dislikes: Over-salted scallops, slightly over-priced a la carte, although lunch set menus are excellent value @ £18 (2 courses) or £23 (3 courses) from Tuesday to Sunday.

Verdict: Creative cooking and some very interesting dishes made from local ingredients, served by friendly, efficient staff in an attractive setting. Chef Maria Elia is a good proponent of modern British cooking. Not bad value after the discount.

Whitechapel Gallery Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Friday 26 March 2010

Seeking the Best Dim Sum in London - Hakkasan


I have a love-hate relationship with Hakkasan – there are so many things to admire about this place but also so much I dislike. Over the years, I have returned many times to Hakkasan, and on every visit I found that what I loved most about this place - the food - had been consistently good. My last visit was no exception.

Much has been said about French designer Christian Liaigre’s multi million pound interior, Hakkasan’s Michelin Star rating in 2003, and its listing in S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2008, so I will not go over old ground.

Despite the occasional snooty service, and the extortionate prices for their teas I keep going back. I love the décor, and unlike many, I do not feel that the restaurant lighting is excessively dark - I find it soothing and feel that it adds to the overall experience at Hakkasan.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I was able to book a table at 12:30pm for dim sum when I called on that same Saturday morning. Dr G and I headed to the familiar spot on Hanway Place, and were soon seated. We ordered a pot of “Orchid Pao Chung” tea @ £4.30 and a selection of eight dim sum dishes. These were:

“Scallop shumai with tobiko caviar” @ £5.20 – the scallops tasted fresh, and were within the finest skin I have encountered. The tobiko caviar added a sophisticated look and a pleasant saltiness/crunchiness to the delicate scallops.

“Braised beef brisket with cheung fun” @ £4.80 – this was also delicious although I was expecting to have beef brisket cheung fun not “with” cheung fun (my mistake!). The meat was braised to perfection in a deliciously sweet broth with hints of cinnamon and star anise. It was lovely to be able to finish off this delicious sauce with the added cheung fun.

“Crispy smoked duck and pumpkin puff” @ £4.80 – I loved both the presentation and flavours of this dish. The combination of pumpkin and duck was perfect and made for a good alternative to the more usual prawn & pork combo.

“Sticky rice in lotus leaf with wind dried pork and salted duck egg yolk” @ £4.50 –this was also a delicious dish with plenty of salted duck egg and pork filling in a thin case of sticky rice.

“Pan fried turnip cake with garlic and Chinese chive” @ 5.50 – the cake had a lovely texture, was crispy on the outside with a delicious flavor of fried chives and garlic. This was one of the highlights.

“Steamed corn-fed chicken bun with abalone and crabmeat” @ £4.50 – the combination of the different meats was surprisingly good within a light and delicious pastry.

“Steamed crabmeat siew long bun” @ £6.00 – Hakkasan’s take on xiao long bao or Shanghai dumplings was as expected excellent, with plenty of soup and a thin, delicate skin.

“Sweet black sesame ball” @ £3.30 – stunning presentation and a light, fragile outer casing containing a generous amount of rich, sweet and nutty black sesame paste. This was a fantastic dessert and one I will make sure to order on my next visit.

I apologize for the poor quality of the pictures. Hakkasan is renowned for not allowing any photography, and I was politely asked by management to stop taking pictures.

Cost: £52 for two, or £26 per person including 13% (!) service charge. This is nearly twice as much as I would normally pay in most dim sum eateries in London.

Likes: Excellent quality dishes beautifully presented, ultra fresh ingredients, stunningly designed restaurant.

Dislikes: Efficient but impersonal service, no refilling of tea pot, and no photography allowed.

Verdict: Hakkasan is one of those restaurants many would love to hate. I love it. I am still surprised by the amount of hostility this place attracts but in my opinion, despite the ridiculously high prices and the impersonal service, the food is fantastic and I will certainly be going back for more.

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 23 March 2010

London's Best Cookery Schools - Cucina Caldesi

Cucina Caldesi

Cookery classes are among my favourite things to do in London, and whenever I can, on holiday too. This is for three main reasons - in addition to having a great meal, I also get to learn new cooking ideas and recipes, and meet some interesting people. 

I regularly meet these friends for dinner or other social occasions like Emma, who accompanied me to “Passionate about Seafood” at the Billingsgate Seafood School or Regis, a fellow Brazilian, member of the London Cooking Club and like me a lover of Persian Cuisine.

Regis and I attended classes at Eat Drink Talk - another great cookery school run by the delightful Jennifer Klinec in Clerkenwell. Also interesting is Atsuko’s Kitchen, based at The Grocery on Kingsland Road, where I learnt some very authentic Japanese winter dishes. Atsuko’s cooking is influenced by Shojin Ryori, a style of Japanese vegetarian cuisine eaten by Shinto monks.

In Hoi An, Vietnam, I recently took a couple of classes at Red Bridge Cooking School, and last year, I was thrilled to spend a whole week at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Thailand. They were excellent experiences, very good value and an interesting angle to learn more about the culture and eating habits of these countries.

So when I was recently invited with a group of other food bloggers for a complementary class at Cucina Caldesi on well-heeled Marylebone Lane, I was thrilled. I had wanted to attend one of their classes but for one reason or another was never able to book into one.

Hosted by the owners and co-founders Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, we were warmly welcomed with a glass of chilled Prosecco and canapés made of endive leaves topped with dolcelatte cheese, honey and pine nuts which started the evening on a good note.

Katie and Giancarlo were entertaining hosts, charming and very interesting to watch. Their interaction was funny and engaging, teasing one another (and sometimes us) throughout the class, which made for a very enjoyable evening.

We were shown how to prepare an authentic 3 course Italian meal, and were encouraged to participate in the cooking of these dishes. We were all given a corn-fed poussin to debone that we were to use for our main course – this was a daunting task but I was surprised to find how well my bird turned out, all down to Giancarlo’s uncomplicated teaching.

For “primo”, Katie showed us how to prepare “Gnocchi nudi con burro, salvia e pinoli” (Spinach gnocchi with butter, sage and pine nuts).

I had made “gnocchi di ricotta” a few times before from one of my favourite Italian cookery books “Italian Food” by Elizabeth David, and was looking forward to trying Katie Caldesi’s take on this classic recipe. Unlike Elizabeth David, Katie adds green spinach to the gnocchi, also shaping them into “quenelles”, which helps maintain their form when cooking.

This was an interesting tip as more than one of my previous attempts resulted in some of the “gnocchi” disintegrating in the boiling water. I find that the dry texture of the ricotta used for these recipes is also important when making this dish.

I loved the flavour of Katie’s gnocchi nudi, they were bright green, fresh and the flavours combined beautifully into one perfect dumpling. I could not imagine eating these beauties with anything else but sage quickly fried in plenty of butter, with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. This was a fantastically simple and delicious dish.

For “secondo”, we had “Polletto al mattone” (Poussin under a brick). Once the birds were deboned, we stuffed them with rosemary, garlic and chillies and left them marinating for an hour or so before roasting. In my opinion, few things smell or taste better than good quality chicken being roasted, and Giancarlo’s “Polleto al mattone” was no exception. The meat was perfectly cooked, succulent, full of flavour and aromatic. It felt great cutting through a perfectly shaped but boneless chicken.

To accompany the poussins, we had a lovely combination of potatoes, onions and pancetta which had been diced and roasted.

As “dolce”, Giancarlo and Katie showed us how to prepare “Cioccolata in tazza” (Hot chocolate mousse in a cup). Served warm in a small tea cup, it had a rich chocolate flavour without being cloyingly sweet. The addition of brandy to the recipe was also an excellent idea, giving an elegant finish to the dessert.

Katie Caldesi has recently published The Italian Cookery Course book, a collection of over 400 recipes from various regions in Italy with some stunning photography which took her 3 years to complete. The book is beautifully laid out with some entertaining stories of her many trips around the country and the delightful people she met.

Verdict - Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi were excellent hosts, and most entertaining cooking instructors. I had a most enjoyable evening, and learnt a great deal I am sure I will be able to apply in future. On the basis of my experience I would wholeheartedly recommend Cucina Caldesi. For information on their courses, click here.
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