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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 29 June 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Canteen

Fish and Chips @ Canteen, Baker Street

Fish and Chips have got to be one of the main reasons why I love this country so much. A fresh, chunky piece of cod deep fried in a light, crisp batter, served with hand cut chips and smothered in plenty of salt and vinegar gets my vote every time.

Interestingly, our national dish was introduced in the UK by Portuguese Jews, with the first ever chippy being opened in 1860 by a Jewish immigrant called Joseph Malin in the East End of London. The Portuguese love of all things deep fried also resulted in the introduction of tempura to Japan.

I admit I had an unfounded prejudice against Canteen – I am not sure if it was because of the sleek Wagamama-like decor, or the fact that it is now a mini-chain of four restaurants across London. But when I was invited by Jenny of Sauce Communications to an evening of “Fish and Chips” at the Baker Street branch, I decided to give it a try.

The event was hosted by Canteen’s co-founder and head chef Cass Titcombe, the author of “Great British Food”. Cass shared some of his top tips on how to prepare “Fish and Chips”, including his own batter recipe, how he fries the fish, advice on the type of potatoes to use and how to prepare chips.

All the fish used at Canteen is purchased from responsible and ethical South Coast day boats, and hence fish availability varies daily. “Fish and Chips” is priced between £10.50 and £13.50 depending on the catch of the day; these are normally cod, haddock or plaice.

We had cod and pollack deep fried in batter and also a fillet of plaice prepared in breadcrumbs. The batter was light, crisp and not greasy, and both fish were chunky and fresh tasting. Interestingly, the plaice in breadcrumbs was the most popular choice across the table.

Maris Piper is Cass’ potato of choice and his chips are double fried before being served. The chips did not disappoint – they were crisp on the outside but deliciously fluffy inside, and I could have eaten twice as many as there were on my plate.

To accompany our main courses, we were served traditional mushy peas @ £3.50. Cass added bicarbonate of soda to the marrowfat peas which were soaked for 12 hours thus helping them to retain their beautiful green colour. The tartare sauce was freshly made on the premises, tasted excellent and was a real step up from its jar equivalent.

Perusing the food menu, I was impressed to see that Canteen is an “All Day Dining” restaurant, serving breakfast through lunch, tea and dinner. In addition to “Fish and Chips”, the menu includes other British classics like “Devilled kidneys on toast” @ 7.25, “Steak and Chips” @ £16.75 (28-day aged, free range 250g rib-eye steak) and “Eton Mess” @ £5.50 among other old time favourites.

The drinks menu is well thought out and reasonably priced with wine bottles starting from £12.50. There are 5 wine options below the £20 mark in each of the white and red categories. In keeping with the British theme, three types of Meantime beers (one of my favourite London brewers) are sold on draught and are priced between £3.70 and £3.95 per pint.

Cost: this was a complimentary meal but I have quoted prices of all dishes I had. I estimate that a 3-course meal would cost in the region of £25 excluding drinks i.e. pint of prawns @ £7 + fish and chips @ £12.50 + Eton mess @ £5.50.

Likes: no-fuss British cooking, fresh, good quality ingredients, reasonably priced food & wine menus and Meantime beers on draught.

Dislikes: in my personal opinion, the decor is somewhat bland and impersonal.

Verdict – Good quality, comforting British dishes at reasonable prices in four London locations. Canteen is helping to make British cooking an appealing eating out option for locals and visitors alike. Recommended.

Canteen Baker Street  on Urbanspoon

Saturday 26 June 2010

Tea Appreciation Master Class @ Teanamu

There have been very few occasions when I felt that I had stumbled upon something truly special – Teanamu’s Tea Appreciation Master Class run by the delightful Pei Wang was certainly one of these rare moments.

The few hours I spent at his beautiful home in Notting Hill were an introduction to a fascinating world I admit knowing little about. I felt humbled by the experience but at the same time, very eager to learn more.

Pei has a gracious and calm serenity about him and is also confident and knowledgeable in his area of expertise. Pei explained many interesting facts and anecdotes about his expeditions to China to find the best possible teas, the effects of oxidation on the tea leaves, and also about the ten artisan teas he was about to brew.

The plant from which tea is made is called “Camellia sinensis”, a native of mainland Southern China and Southeast Asia. Fresh leaves contain about 4% caffeine, but luckily (and unlike coffee), the leaves also contain another chemical called “theophylline” which helps us to appreciate the benefits of caffeine by relaxing the muscles while counterbalancing its unpleasant side effects.

So if all Chinese teas come from one single plant, why are there so many different types of tea? From green to white, yellow, oolong and black teas, the difference between them is solely dependent on the levels of oxidation of the leaves. Green teas are un-oxidised, while white teas are very slightly oxidised, with black teas being fully oxidised.

Pei also explained that the quality of the water used will play a key factor in the taste, appearance and aroma of tea – hard water (high levels of calcium), acidic or alkaline waters (PH below/above 7.0) and water containing excessive amounts of chlorine will alter the natural properties of the brewed tea. Pei strongly recommends filtered or pure bottled water.

Another interesting fact was the importance of water temperature in brewing – the higher the water temperature, the more bitter and astringent the tea taste becomes because amino acids, the flavour element dissolves at 60 ˚C (140 ˚F). Tannin, causing astringency, dissolves at 80 ˚C (176 ˚F).

The more delicate types of tea, the un-oxidised and very lightly oxidised green, white and yellow teas, are brewed at low temperatures in porcelain tea pots. The more heavily oxidised teas, black and red varieties, are normally brewed at higher temperatures and served from clay pots which help to retain the heat.

All these delightful snippets of “tea facts” were given to us between tastings of the ten artisan teas that Pei served us which showcased the spectrum of un-oxidised to fully oxidised teas on offer. All teas can be purchased from Pei’s website, and are priced around £4.50 to £5.50 for 30-40gr.

Of note was the very lightly oxidised “Silver Needle”, the most expensive white tea variety and also the most prized as only top buds are used to produce the tea. It tasted delicate and slightly sweet.

The “Silk Oolong” was also a big hit for me – a partially oxidised tea, it had a slightly darker colour and tasted deliciously creamy like buttered popcorn and caramel.

We tried the “Big Snow Mountain Pu Erh 2010 vintage” tea, harvested from 2,000 year old tea trees, this fermented, post-oxidised tea was outstanding. Like a fine Burgundy, Pu Erh tea is aged in a controlled environment for months or even years which helps it to darken in colour and as it slowly matures, it acquires a more intense flavour.

The fully oxidised black tea “Lychee Black” was also sensational – I never thought that a natural tea plant could taste so fruity and sweet. It had a heady scent of tropical fruits and a delicate vanilla hint to the flavour.

Pei suggests this tea to be drunk with dessert, and indeed the “Lychee Black” was the perfect accompaniment to the delightful yuzu macaroons and green tea madeleines that Pei baked for our tasting on that same morning.

I was truly impressed by his macaroons, they were perfect – and the use of “yuzu”, an expensive and very hard to find Japanese lime variety, showed a great sophistication of palate and cooking skills. Pei also provides tea cookery classes at £60 for which I am very tempted to enrol.

The green tea madeleines were also fantastic – wonderfully light and fluffy, they had a delicious hint of vanilla and a lovely nuttiness from the topping of black sesame seeds.

Pei’s tea appreciation class is priced at £35, and lasts for about 3 hours. He also runs a similar class at Bea’s of Bloomsbury on selected Wednesday evenings, and other workshops like “Tea and Meditation” at Holland Park and at Teanamu.

Pei will be hosting a Summer Open House at Teanamu on 3rd July from 12-4pm, when you can experience a free demonstration of traditional tea brewing and sample some of this Spring's fresh green and Pu Erh teas.

After many pots of delicious teas, quite a few macaroons, and one of the most interesting mornings I have had for a very long time, I reluctantly had to leave for another appointment. I left feeling completely blissful having partaken in Pei’s delightful master class.

Teanamu @ The Coach House, 14a St Luke’s Road, London, W11 1DP.

Thursday 24 June 2010

How would you like to take part in Rachel Allen’s new TV show?

Rachel Allen's Dinner Parties

Cactus TV is looking for people who love to cook and enjoy hosting dinner parties for friends. In each episode, there will be one host who will be holding a dinner party for between 5 and 8 friends, and he/she will get one-to-one tuition from Irish chef Rachel Allen.

Rachel will show the host how to make a great starter and main course for the dinner party and then the host will be filmed replicating these dishes ready for the dinner party. An stylist will be sent to the host's home to jazz it up a bit for the party. Then later that evening, Rachel will make the dessert and get it delivered to your house. And it's as simple as that...

If you are interested in taking part in this new show, please contact Ali Dunworth on ali.dunworth@cactus.co.uk or by phone on 0207 0914737 (http://www.cactustv.co.uk/)

Monday 21 June 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Platform


From Gate to Plate – A New Dining Concept at Platform

Restaurateur Tony McKinlay and farmer friend Barnaby Butterfield have joined forces to create Platform, a newly opened restaurant in London Bridge that promises to bring us the concept of “gate to plate” dining.

This partnership between farmer and restaurateur is novel and has potential benefits. In addition to cutting out wholesalers and hopefully passing on these savings to diners, it also guarantees that the consistent quality of their meat is maintained. Barnaby’s animals are free-range reared, butchered in-house and supplied exclusively to Platform.

The concept also minimizes waste as whole carcasses are made available to the head chef, Jake Tutill, giving him a greater choice over the cuts he can use and helping him to create a more varied and unusual menu.

The restaurant is located beneath an old railway arch on Tooley Street, below platform number one of London Bridge Station. Once a lap dancing club, it occupies two floors with the bar taking over the entire ground floor while the upper floor houses the dining area.

The restaurant is spacious and light with large glass windows, exposed brick walls, and an oversized mirror ball hanging from the arch above. It has a casual and non-fussy feel about it which I found reassuring.

Accompanying me on the evening was Denise, The Wine Sleuth who partnered the wines with the dishes we tried.

We started with “Potted shrimps, with lemon and toast” @ £6.50. The potted shrimps were deliciously buttery with intense flavours of mace and nutmeg, and a dash of heat from the paprika. I thoroughly enjoyed this dish and felt that at @ £6.50 it was very good value.

The “Asparagus and hollandaise sauce” @ £8 was the better of the two starters. The asparagus tasted fresh and was perfectly cooked.

The hollandaise sauce had been freshly made, and was rich but well balanced with tartness from the lemon juice. I rarely get excited about asparagus but this seasonal, English crop was sensational.

For main course, I had “Goose skirt steak, mushroom, tomato and bearnaise sauce” @ £14. I am a big fan of skirt or onglet beef steak, but had never tried it from goose. Skirt is the animal’s diaphragm, a working muscle and therefore with a tendency for toughness if not properly cooked.

The meat had been quickly seared and served rare; it had a dense and rich flavour which was well balanced by the slight sweetness and aniseed flavours of the tarragon in the bearnaise sauce. To accompany the steak I also ordered a portion of hand cut chips @ £3.50 which were delicious, crisp on the outside while fluffy inside.

The star of the evening was, undoubtedly, the “Devonshire Ruby Red Jacobs Ladder beef” @ £15. An old fashioned cut that is hard to come by (there are only two in the whole animal), it is a row of five or six ribs cut off the top to the fore ribs.

As with most meats cooked on the bone, the Jacob’s Ladder was utterly delicious – the meat was sweet, falling off the bone and the portion was enough to feed 3-4 people. I came to Denise’s rescue but we both struggled to get through the whole piece. I now understand why this cut is sometimes called the “oven buster” as it apparently swells as it cooks.

To finish off, we shared a couple of desserts “Bakewell tart with clotted cream” @ £5.50 and “Chocolate fondant, pistachio ice cream” @ £5.50. These were equally delicious, although after the Jacob’s ladder, I was starting to throw the towel in.

Our waitress Carolyn, whom we had met on Platform’s opening night, was a delightful hostess. She remembered us from the hundreds of people that were there on that busy launch; she was very friendly and knowledgeable about the menu and made our experience at Platform very pleasant.

I felt the wine list was well thought out, showcasing a range of different grapes from both new and old worlds starting from £17.75. For a full description of the wines tasted on the evening, check The Wine Sleuth site.

The food menu changes daily depending on available produce and has about six options each of starters, mains and pudding. Two-course and three-course menus are available for £18 and £22 respectively which I believe to be excellent value.

Cost: this was a complimentary meal but I have quoted prices of all dishes we tried. I estimate that a 3-course meal will cost in the region of £25 (excluding drinks).

Likes: unusual and flavoursome cuts of meat, good value and well thought out menu, expert cooking, good location, and very charming service.

Dislikes: the entrance and ground floor areas give the impression of a crowded City boozer like hundreds of other nearby establishments.

Verdict: Non-fussy, good quality food, beautifully cooked and at very affordable prices in Central London. An ideal place for an unusual but delicious cut of meat, fresh and organic produce and very charming service. Highly recommended.

Platform on Urbanspoon

Thursday 17 June 2010

London Restaurant Reviews – Awana, Satay House and Tukdin Flavours of Malaysia

I am enjoying the 2010 Malaysian Kitchen Campaign a great deal. The opportunity to find out more about one of the most fascinating but relatively undiscovered Asian cuisines (and eat a lot of it in the process), right here in London, is an opportunity not to be missed.

I was lucky enough to have been involved in this campaign for the launch of the Malaysian Dining Card at Kiasu (reviewed here), and more recently as part of a “Malaysian restaurant tour” which included Awana, Satay House and Tukdin.

The event was organised to showcase what these restaurants will be offering at the Malaysian Section of this year’s Taste of London Festival.


Our first stop was at the fine-dining restaurant “Awana” on well-heeled Sloane Avenue in Chelsea where we were warmly welcomed by Hailong Wang, the restaurant manager. The restaurant is very elegant - furnished with teak wood and batik silks, it feels chic and rather reminiscent of those large colonial homes still found in parts of Malaysia.

Having read some mixed reviews by fellow food bloggers, I had a few reservations about Awana and was half-expecting the food to be a let-down. We started with a demonstration of “roti canai” preparation at the restaurant’s Satay Bar, before sampling a selection of starters.

(Picture courtesy of Tehbus)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the food was pretty much in keeping with the restaurant’s fine surroundings. The “Beef Curry Murtabak” was excellent as was the “Kueh pai tee” (top hats), and the “Sajian Laut Salad” (tiger prawn and crab meat with pomelo and sour mango salad). The satay skewers were also very flavoursome and the meat had been cooked perfectly.

These dishes tasted fresh and sophisticated and highlighted the chef’s culinary finesse. This was a very positive (and promising) introduction to Awana and what it has to offer. I look forward to returning there one day soon for a full dinner and a more detailed review.

Awana on Urbanspoon

Satay House

We were then whisked away to our next stop, “Satay House” in Paddington. The restaurant is small and casual with a modern feel about it.

(Picture courtesy of Tehbus)

Our first round of main courses was served at this delightful restaurant, and in my opinion, one of the most successful dishes was the “Udang Galah Goreng” (king prawns fried in turmeric, chillies, lime leaves and coconut milk). The prawns were meaty but still soft and their richness was offset by the lime’s citric flavours and the delicate coconut milk.

The “Rendang Daging” (slow cooked beef in spices, herbs and coconut milk) was also noteworthy. I enjoyed the rich flavours of cinnamon, cloves and star anise infused in the very tender meat.

I love aubergines and so quite enjoyed “Terong Goreng Berlada” (aubergines stir-fried with ground chillies and shrimps) despite feeling that it was a little overspiced.

Less successful dishes were the “Satay” (chicken and lamb skewers served with a peanut sauce) and the “Kway Teow Goreng” (stir-fried flat rice noodles with seafood, egg and vegetables).

The former was slightly on the tough side whereas the noodles lacked the delicious combination of flavours that I have experienced from this dish elsewhere.

Satay House on Urbanspoon

Tukdin Flavours of Malaysia

Our final destination was at “Tukdin”, a charming little restaurant on Craven Road, Bayswater. The restaurant felt very Malay (as opposed to Hokkien-Chinese or Indian); the clientele appeared to be native, and wonderful smells of spices, coconut milk and grilled fish were wafting through the air as I came in.

It was nice to see entire Malay families eating together, and I could sense a delightful camaraderie among most customers who were probably regulars and clearly knew each other. Malaysia has three main ethnic groups – the Malays, Chinese and Indians. Since the Malays are predominantly Muslim, there was no alcohol or pork on the menu, and all the meat served was halal.

(Picture courtesy of Tehbus)

To kick off proceedings we had “Satay Goreng” (chicken served with peanut sauce) served off the skewer. The meat was sweet and had a delicious char-grilled flavour, and in my opinion, was the best “Satay” of the evening.

“Mee Goreng Mamak” (vegetarian fried noodles) was served next. The soft yellow noodles had a lovely richness, and a slight sweetness from the “kicap manis” (Malaysian sweet soy sauce). The noodles were stir-fried with chunky pieces of firm tofu and rice cakes and topped with ground peanuts and spring onions.

One of the best dishes was the “Ikan Rasa Khas” (sweet and sour sea bass). The fish had been cut up in chunky fillets, deep fried and topped with a delicious sweet and sour sauce made from tamarind and chillies.

I also enjoyed the “Daging Salai Masak Lemak Cili Api” (grilled beef in coconut sauce with lemongrass, turmeric and chilli). The combination of the creamy, sweet coconut milk with the tart lemongrass went particularly well with the grilled beef.

To accompany these main dishes, we had coconut and corn rice and Tukdin’s special mixed vegetables pickle called “Acar rampai”.

The “Kupang Berlada” (mussels in chilli sauce with lime leaves) was also excellent. I could taste a rich mix of flavours including pineapple, coconut milk and lime and with a touch of heat from the chillies. This was again a very good dish.

I enjoyed all three restaurants but felt that Tukdin was particularly special - the food was fantastic and great value, and I cannot wait to return. I would also like to revisit Awana for a more considered opinion. I strongly recommend trying some of these restaurants’ dishes available at Taste of Malaysia if you are planning a visit to Taste of London Festival this year (17 -20 June) in Regent’s Park.

tukdin flavours of Malaysia on Urbanspoon
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