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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 November 2010

Win a Luxury Christmas Hamper from Forman & Field

As a foodie I've always dreamt of waking up to the sound of my doorbell as a luxury Christmas hamper was being delivered - how exciting it would be to open it and find a whole range of delicious goodies to munch through a long festive holiday. Well, this Saturday my dream became a reality, thanks to the good people of Forman & Field!

Launched in 2002, Forman & Field is a fine food mail order company specialising in fresh, traditional British produce from small, independent producers. It shares its premises in East London with the parent company, H. Forman & Son, the 100 year old family business supplying smoked salmon, caviar and other smoked and fresh fish to some of the leading hotels and restaurants in London.

I am not in the habit of reviewing food products so Forman & Field kindly agreed to send a 2nd hamper to give away to a reader to help me with this arduous task. If you win this hamper I would be grateful for brief feedback on the contents.

To enter this competition, all you need to do is leave a comment with your name and e-mail address (if I don't know it already) in this post. The lucky winner will be randomly selected on Friday, 10th December 2010 at midday and the his/her name will be published here.

The lucky winner was randomly selected by random.org and is:

Tilt of tiltproject.wordpress.com

Congratulations Tilt! I will e-mail Forman & Field with your details, they will contact you to arrange delivery. Merry Christmas, enjoy this great hamper and I look forward to your feedback!

This is a Sample Hamper for Christmas 2010 containing some of the fine products from a range of Forman & Field's hampers available for purchase. For a full list of their Christmas hampers, click here.

The hamper is full of delicious goodies we are still working our way through. Particularly good so far are the four "Dainty Cakes Selection" including luxury chocolate brownies, banana bread, lemon and pistachio cake and Bailey's bread and butter pudding.

I am not a huge mince pie fan but Forman & Field's "Mince Pies", made from buttery short-crust pastry encasing a delicious and not over-sweetened mincemeat are excellent. We also love the selection of "Neal's Yard Dairy Cheeses", "Mrs King's Pork Pie" (a delicious Melton Mowbray pork pie also available at Borough Market), and the "Hand Carved Alderton Ham" made by a small family producer in Nottinghamshire.

Other promising items that we are still to try include "Genuine Wild and London Cure Smoked Scottish Salmon" by H. Forman & Son, "Potted Lobster", "Forman & Field Lemon Curd", "Paul Wayne Gregory Pure Indulgence Chocolates" and "Forman & Field Christmas Pudding".

In addition to their hampers, I was impressed to see the range of fine foods that can be purchased from Forman & Field's catalogue like a whole suckling pig, black cod in miso, live oysters, caviar, and Beef Wellington. For more information on their products, visit their website here.

Good luck!

Sunday, 28 November 2010

London Supper Club Reviews - Stolen Supper Club

"Inspired by Others, Executed by Us"

I love the concept of Stolen - the above phrase taken from their website says it all. Partners Mia and Leandro started their new venture in 2010, recreating the dining experience of high class restaurants at prices affordable to all.

Stolen is a Monday Supper Club, and on the evening I visited the theme was "Hix Oyster & Chop House". I was impressed by their attention to detail - knowing Mark Hix personally, Mia and Leandro were able to borrow some of the restaurateur's napkins, source the steaks from Jack O'Shea Butchers (his meat supplier), and also Hix's house white wine "Tonnix" by Quinta de la Rosa from the Douro. All the dishes for the evening were recreated from recipes by Hix's own cookbook.

Well, isn't imitation the highest form of flattery after all?

The Location

Located in a cool house in the Notting Hill/Holland Park area, the venue (not the hosts' home) is stylish and spacious with a beautiful back garden ideal for pre-dinner drinks in summer. Guests sit in the dining area with an open plan kitchen while Leandro and his assistant busily prepare the dinner. This in my opinion really adds to the experience at Stolen.

Stolen is one of the more intimate supper clubs in London seating a maximum of 15 guests. The house is a short and pleasant 10 minute walk from Holland Park tube station.

The Food

For starters we were served a platter of "Oyster Mary", large Irish Oysters purchased that morning from Billingsgate Market and topped with a delicious Bloody Mary granita. I enjoyed the unusual combination of alcoholic tomato juice and seafood in this starter and thought the presentation was also very pretty.

Following the oysters, we had a massive "rib-eye steak from Jack O'Shea" butchers, perfectly cooked. It was medium rare and very juicy, and served with matchstick chips, chop house butter, béarnaise sauce and various types of mustard.

After the large steak, I was pleased that the dessert was a light and refreshing shot of "Sloe Gin Jelly" served with "Sorbet and Jersey Cream" which ended the meal perfectly.

The Drinks

Stolen is BYO and no corkage fee is charged. On arrival, we were served a glass of 07 Tonnix by Quinta de la Rosa (Portugal, Douro). This wine was created by the winery in collaboration with Mark Hix, Mitch Tonks, and Tracy Emin for the interesting label.

I really enjoyed this wine, it had heaps of fruit, high flavour intensity (from the Douro summer temperatures), and with a good level of acidity. I felt it a nice touch that Stolen had sourced this delicious wine as most supper clubs do not give much thought to the wines they serve.

The People

Mia Kulla, a half German half Japanese former model, quit the fashion industry to work in hospitality where she has earned her crust for the last 10 years. Leandro Santos, a fellow Brazilian, is a professional chef working at one of London's top restaurants.

Mia and Leandro were very friendly - they sat with us towards the end of the meal and mingled with all the guests. Mia was a very generous and attentive host, opening her own wine to ensure we all had something to drink even when the wine the guests had brought was finished.

Other Stuff

Stolen also provides catering services and has a stall on Thursdays at Maida Hill Market from noon to 5pm. For more information on future supper club evenings, visit their website here.

Cost: Donations vary depending on the weekly menu. On this occasion, the recommended minimum donation was £30 per person. This is excellent value as a similar meal at Hix would cost around £50 for food (£12 oysters, £30 steak, £7 dessert), £27.50 for a bottle of Tonnix wine, and 12.5% service charge i.e. around £150 for two.

Likes: the concept is novel and having a supper club operating on Mondays is also a great addition to the scene. The food was made from top quality ingredients and expertly prepared, the hosts were charming and very friendly.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Top restaurant-inspired menus/evenings at affordable prices cooked by professional chef Leandro Santos and girlfriend Mia Kulla. Stolen is a Monday supper club in leafy Holland Park, offering Londoners authentic restaurant quality food in more intimate and convivial surroundings . I love the concept. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Gessler at Daquise

Polish Fine Dining in Central London (Updated on 20th March 2011)
Co-written with Marta Karcz

An old-established Polish family of restaurateurs, the Gesslers own some of the top restaurants, delis and confectioners in Warsaw. They are highly regarded in their native country and their flagship restaurant "U Kucharzy" is the only one in Poland to have been awarded a Bib Gourmand for two years running by the Michelin Guide.

It was only in 2008 however that the Gesslers took over Cafe Daquise on Thurloe Place, South Kensington, giving the foodies in London the opportunity to see how they truly measure up. Since its opening in the 1940s, Cafe Daquise has been the place where the Polish community based in the UK would go for a reminder of their homeland and to dine on some of their favourite national dishes.

I have made quite a few Polish friends in London over the years but I have to admit knowing little about their cuisine. So when I was invited to review Gessler at Daquise, I called on some expert knowledge from Marta Karcz, a Polish food blogger (Muscovado Cafe) and friend I had met at a recent London Cooking Club dinner. Marta kindly agreed to dine with me at Gessler, educate me on her native cuisine and has also co-written this review.

Marta writes candidly about her first impressions of the restaurant - the early, nostalgic smells of her childhood - vinegar, beetroot, fried onions and bread, coming back to her as we entered the dining room. The simple, if somewhat austere decor, reminded her of similar home style restaurants with antique, dark wooden cabinets contrasting with the plain white tiles, soft lighting, and the starched white linen. At the entrance, a large wooden table laden with desserts, cakes and bread helped to give an invitingly informal feel to the restaurant and a glimpse of the delicious food that was still to come.

The menu has many of the classic Polish dishes, all sounding very delicious, making it hard for us to come to a decision. But soon after Marta's brief introduction to the more unusual dishes and our host’s (Rafal) suggestions, we chose the two starters, soups, and main courses of the evening. It was notable that most dishes were brought to the table in their cooking pans with some being finished there - adding a real sense of theatre.

We started with a mixed portion of "Pierogi" @ £10.  These are freshly made dumplings with fillings of meat or cheese, potato and onion. Traditionally served with melted butter, fried onions and sometimes sour cream, they tasted authentic and were delicious. Both fillings were well seasoned but the cheese filled one was our favourite. It tasted of lightly caramelised onions, butter, black-pepper and with a tangy, savoury quality from the "twaróg" (Polish curd cheese).

The "Tatar" @ £10.50 (or Steak Tartare) was next. The beef fillet was patiently minced and seasoned with a myriad of ingredients including capers, onions, gherkins and an egg yolk by a chef at a small table next to ours.

It was a fun thing to watch - the beef tasted fresh and the finished mixture if slightly under salted for my taste was also very good.

The "Zurek" Soup @ £7 (Sour Rye Soup). As tradition dictates, the soup was served with hard-boiled egg and chopped fried sausage and had a distinctive sour taste from the addition of soured rye flour. The combination of flavours (smoked sausage, sour rye flour and boiled eggs) was delicious and hearty.

The "Barszcz zabielany" @ £7 (Red Borstch)– was a creamy beetroot soup – served with a separate plate of generously buttered mashed potatoes studded with bacon and fresh dill. Rafal explained that the soup had been infused with orange and cloves and tasted sweetly aromatic.

He also explained that while eating "barszcz" we should take some of the potato mash on a spoon and plunge it into the soup so that we had a perfect mouthful of both. The mash was intentionally salty to contrast with the sweet beetroot soup.

For mains we shared "Kaczka Pieczona" @ £19 - roast duck with mashed potatoes, red cabbage, apricots, baked apples and cranberries and "Ges Pieczona" @ £24 - roast goose with stuffed buckwheat and served with red cabbage, raisins and fresh cranberries.

Once again, we witnessed a culinary performance – a couple of chefs came out of the kitchen with a table laden with pots and whole roasted birds, and gradually we saw our plates being filled with generous carvings of duck and goose, servings of mashed potatoes and cabbage, buckwheat, baked apples and the topped with the concentrated jus from the roasted meats and a luscious cranberry sauce.

Other dishes I was very interested in trying were "Krolik Duszony w Tymianku" @ £18 (saddle of rabbit stewed with thyme, served with egg noodles and carrots stewed with honey and ginger) or "Golonga z Dzika" @ £22 (knuckle of wild boar stewed in juniper and served with egg noodles and roast beetroot). There is also an evening three course tasting menu at £30 (starter, soup and main) or four courses including dessert for £34. The same tasting menu is also available at lunch time for £19.90. To view their full menu, click here.

By this stage we were replete, but succumbed to Rafal’s suggestion of pancakes with cheese filling for dessert. Unlike in Poland, where pancakes are served with a thin layer of jam or "twaróg" mixed with cream and sugar, pancakes at Gesslers were definitely a rather sophisticated affair. They were lovely and thin, filled with cheese, raisins and cinnamon and  served with a warm sauce of stewed cranberries.

As a digestif, Rafal brought us a glass of "Wiśniówka" @ £3.50 – cherry vodka – which was the perfect end to a magnificent meal.

Cost: The London Foodie and Marta Karcz were guests of Gessler at Daquise. The tasting menu is priced at £30 for three courses or £34 for four courses. I estimate that a three course meal from the a la carte menu will cost between £35 and £40 per person (excluding drinks).

Likes: I liked all the dishes we ordered, but particularly the soups, roasted birds and "pierogi". I also enjoyed having my food served hot from the cooking pot, and the attentive, unhurried service we had. It does seem a little pricey, but then the ingredients are top quality and the portions are very generous. Gessler has nearly all of its produce imported from Poland.

Dislikes: The wine list is a let-down given the quality of the food. There are many bottles below the £20 mark which is commendable but the lack of detailed information about the provenance of the wines is unfortunate in a restaurant of this quality.

Verdict: I was very impressed by my introduction to Gessler and Polish fine dining. Good, authentic food with delicious and unusually interesting flavours in a very charming setting. I cannot think of a better cuisine for this wintry London weather and look forward to returning soon. Very highly recommended.

Gessler at Daquise on Urbanspoon

...What Others Are Saying...

Jo Kruczynska on 20th March 2011: After reading your blog about Gessler at Daquise in South Ken, we took my Dad there for his birthday yesterday. It was such a lovely evening especially as the food is very traditionally Polish and brought back so many memories of my Polish Grannies cooking. They really looked after us and plied us with special flavoured vodka's. Thanks for the recommendation!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

London's Best Independent Cafés - Foxcroft & Ginger

I remember a time in London not so long ago when a request for a cup of coffee resulted in a solitary option of filtered, sometimes stewed, bitter coffee, or with any luck a milky capuccino. Then we had the advent of chain coffee houses like Costa and Starbucks. While quality was improved, what these places did was to give us endless choices. No longer was asking for a cup of coffee a simple task - words like "grande", "double macchiato", or "decaf-latte" had to be mastered, as well as high prices, and those dreadful large paper cups.

We have come a long way since then, and the latest development in this story is a wave of new, independent coffee houses in London that want to take things a step further. Foxcroft & Ginger is one such cafe, which I had meant to visit since it opened in January 2010.

It occupies a new residential development in Berwick Street, taking in the ground floor and basement, in the heart of the fruit and vegetable market. Owned by husband and wife Georgina and Quintin, this is the first cafe they have run themselves, having been employed in the restaurant business for a number of years.

I loved the trendy but laid back feel of the place, with exposed brickwork, white tiles, polished cement counter, old Unions Jack flags and large antiques scattered around. The basement sitting area is spacious, containing comfortable sofas and chairs, and looks like a place designed to allow people time and space to enjoy their coffee and food, and as a great meeting place.

The coffee is prepared from the excellent beans of Monmouth Coffee House and is served in quirkily mismatched vintage crockery. The food, which is predominantly British, is beautifully and invitingly laid out on the ground floor counter.

Georgina bakes cakes and pastries on the premises, including nowadays hard to find English varieties like Bath and Chelsea buns and Eccles cakes. They also serve a variety of delicious cold or toasted sandwiches and other brunch items like English Muffin with Black Pudding, Scramble Egg and Chives @ £3.50 or Chunky Bread with Mushrooms, Roasted Tomatoes, Pesto and Parmesan @ £3.50.

On very few occasions do I find myself struggling to make a choice from a menu - this was one such occasion. After much deliberation we opted for the "Ham & Cheese French Toast" - this was three layers of eggy bread, with a filling of hand-cut honey roasted ham, Béchamel and melted cheese, topped with a drizzle of the most heavenly mustard-flavoured honey. Superb!

Next we had a sandwich of crusty bread, filled with slowly braised chuck steak, cheddar cheese, Béchamel, tomato chutney, radicchio and rocket leaves. This was also excellent - Quintin told us he makes them in batches of just three at a time, so that the bread has no time to be made soggy by the contents.

We finished with banana bread - served warm, this was delicious, sweet, and with plenty of cinnamon, just how I like it.

To accompany our food, we had a couple of cups of coffee - black/filtered coffee and a capuccino (old habits die hard!). Both coffees were excellent - rich, with a great depth of flavour but also smooth.

We were interested to hear Georgina and Quintin's plans for the place. Currently, it is open 8am to 7pm seven days a week, but they have just been granted their alcohol licence, so they plan to stay open until 10 or 11pm, and perhaps until midnight at the weekends.

Their aim is to serve platters of cheese and salami in the evenings as well as some hot food options, along with boutique wines, and they may even host wine tastings. They have also just recruited two bakers, so that they can make their own bread and a broader range of pastries in house.

Cost: About £6-£7 for an excellent cup of coffee and a sandwich or cake.

Likes: British themed decor, cakes and food. Excellent Monmouth coffee at reasonable prices. Great location in the heart of Soho.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Foxcroft and Ginger is such a refreshing change from the international coffee chains we have grown familiar with. In addition to excellent coffee beautifully served, Georgina and Quintin also bake their own breads, cakes and buns as well as freshly made sandwiches and other brunch items in-house. I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Foxcroft and Ginger on Urbanspoon
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