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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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Friday 29 April 2011

***Win One of Two Pairs of Tickets to Real Food Festival ***

Good Food Would Choose Bordeaux
is an advertising campaign launched by the Bordeaux Wine Council in 2010. Specifically developed for the UK market the campaign aims to demonstrate the relationship between Bordeaux wines and food, be it Haute Cuisine, or a simple home cooked meal.

Bordeaux Wines will be at the Real Food Festival in London's Earls Court between the 5th and 8th May 2011, and will be linked with a number of food events at the Festival. These include talks on food and wine matching after each demonstration at the Chef Demo Theatre, as well as sponsorship of a pop-up restaurant at the VIP Marquee.

To assist in this worthy campaign, The London Foodie was offered two pairs of tickets for the Real Food Festival to give away for readers by Bordeaux Wines.

The winners of this competition are entrants number 7 and 20, Lina and Madelene. The PR Agency for Bordeaux Wines will contact you to arrange delivery of your tickets (one pair each).
For a chance to win a pair of tickets for Friday, Saturday or Sunday (6th - 8th May), all you need to do is leave a comment with your NAME and E-MAIL address in this post (luizharaAThotmailDOTcom) with your choice of date. The winners will be randomly selected  on the 3rd May at midday and his/her name will be published here.

Thursday 21 April 2011

London's Best Independent Cafés - Empório São Paulo


Every now and again, I come across a gem of place which makes me wonder where on earth I have been in the last year or so. Empório São Paulo has been open since 2009 in New King's Road, Parson's Green, but I only recently happened to find it.

The owner, Carminha de Castro, spent most of her life working in marketing, but decided to take the plunge and open her own business - an upmarket Brazilian empório (delicatessen) and café. Years of experience in her field has clearly taught her a few tricks in presentation and customer service - her shop has an impressive range of top quality produce from Brazil and other countries which is beautifully displayed, and while I was there, I saw that she had a friendly word with all the customers who walked in.

Her shop reminds me of some of the more elegant outlets in the upmarket Jardins or Moema districts of São Paulo. Decorated mainly in black, white and red, the store has fine produce from Europe, Asia and Brazil. Brazilian guaraná drinks were side by side with fine French cheeses and Champagne. Artisan breads, Italian coffee and Swiss chocolate were also stocked alongside Brazilian products.

For Sunday lunch, we started with some excellent Pão de Queijo (small, light cheese breads served fresh from the oven). These can be purchased frozen from the shop (£3.50 for a bag of 10), where she has a special Pão de Queijo freezer! For those who haven't tried them, they are the number one street snack in Brazil, which I sometimes make at home (recipe to follow soon). They can be fiddly to make, so having them frozen and freshly baked at home is the next best thing.

Next, we had Feijoada (£6.50 per person). This is Brazil's national dish - a rich black bean stew made with various cuts of cured pork, including smoked bacon, chorizo, smoked ribs among others. It is served with white rice, finely sliced and fried spring greens, farofa (Brazilian fried cassava flour), and orange slices.

I am a feijoada fanatic, and not easily satisfied. However, Empório São Paulo's version was, I thought, good - the beans were well textured and tasted delicious in a rich, meaty broth. While the original version can be heavy and include various less palatable cuts of pork which were available to the slaves who invented the dish (for example, ears, snouts and trotters), Carminha wisely eschews these in favour of fine cuts of cured pork she selects herself.

Later, we had a fine cup of latte coffee. Empório São Paulo is the sole importer in London of fine Italian beans from Anhélo which are also sold in the shop. Carminha told me that the delicious chocolate brownies that accompanied the coffees were homemade, freshly baked and delivered daily to the shop by a local supplier.

Empório São Paulo has three eating areas (one outside and two inside). The basement has a children's play area stocked with books and toys, but it is multi-purpose and has hosted business meetings and parties. Carminha told me that they plan to develop this site for live Brazilian music evenings in the summer.

Scanning Empório São Paulo's menu, I was interested to find some other Brazilian favourites which I look forward to trying on my next visit. Bauru is a Brazilian ham, cheese and tomato toasted sandwich (£2.90 eat-in) that goes well with the Brahma beer also on the menu at £3 a bottle. Coxinhas are delicious Brazilian deep-fried snacks made of shredded chicken in a potato pastry and breadcrumb case. I really love coxinhas, and they are on sale in the shop at £1 each.

If you would like to try some Brazilian delicacies in an elegant and friendly environment, I would recommend a trip to check this place out. I will be returning, so might bump into you!

Empório São Paulo on Urbanspoon

Monday 18 April 2011

London Restaurant Reviews - Grand Imperial London

Located at the Thistle Grosvenor Hotel by Victoria Station, the Grand Imperial London opened its doors earlier this year after a £2m refurbishment. The rooms have massively high ceilings, marble columns, and have been very tastefully decorated.

White table cloths and bone china adorn every table in sight. Head Chef, Leung Chi Keung, has worked in various Asian restaurants over his long career including the popular Crystal Jade in Shanghai. The restaurant specialises in Cantonese cuisine with a strong emphasis on seafood.

The menu is extensive, but has some rather basic, uninformative translations like "Steamed Chicken" @ £30 or "Canadian Lobster fried with Crispy Noodles" @ £72. At these price levels I would expect more interesting and complete descriptions.

Dr G and I started with a "Dim Sum Platter" @ £12 - there was no information about what this platter might be, but it was a small selection of eight dumplings including shumai, prawn and chive, and others. These were very run of the mill dim sum dumplings, they tasted good, but we both felt they were also a little unexciting.

Or next dish the "Jelly Fish and Barbecued Combination Platter" @ £21 was a real step up. The fine slices of barbecued char siu pork and duck were delicious, sitting on a bed of finely sliced, crunchy jelly fish, onions and carrots that tasted both spicy, sweet and sour.

The "Szechuan Hot & Sour Soup with Lobster" @ £8 was all it said on the tin - it was hot and sour with so little restraint that the delicate lobster in my opinion was completely wasted in the soup.

A much better option was the "Double Boiled Chicken Soup with Wolfberries" @ £6 - this was very light and delicate but with an great intensity of flavour like an excellent homemade stock. I would go as far as to say that this was the best dish of the evening, and one I would happily order again at this restaurant.

Next up, the "Pan-Fried Stuffed Scallops with Minced Shrimps in Foie Gras" @ £24 were delicious - I love the combination of seafood and meat, and this dish was no exception. The scallops were plump and went well with the sweet of the foie gras.

I also enjoyed the "Pan-Fried Beef Roll with Enoki Mushroom" @ £5 (per person). This is similar to a Japanese dish I often cook at home, and so I was curious to try it. Grand Imperial's version was very fine, the meat was tender but in my opinion the enoki mushrooms were too delicate for this dish. I would have used a meatier type like shiitake or oyster mushrooms.

One of the best dishes was the "Sauteed Beef Cube with Black Pepper Sauce" @ £20 - recommended to us by the restaurant manager. I was struck by how tender the meat was, and considering it had only been fried, it showed what excellent quality meat the restaurant must be using.

I adore tofu, and our meal would not have been complete without it - the "Stewed Bean Curd with Seafood in Casserole" @ £18 was a rich and deliciously warming dish that nicely accompanied the "Wok Fried Rice Hokkien Style with Duck and Prawn" @ £12 we also ordered. I loved the myriad flavours and textures in both dishes, particularly the combination of duck and prawn in the Hokkien style rice.

For dessert, Dr G opted for a "Deep-fried Ice Cream" @ £6 which was particularly good. I nearly always find ice cream a slightly boring dessert but this was a completely different ball game. I enjoyed the crisp fried batter with the ice cream, making an otherwise simple dessert into something special.

"Grand Imperial Green Tea Pudding" @ £5 was also delicious and akin to matcha crème Brulée. It was unctuous and not too sweet, with a tinge of a bitter aftertaste from the matcha which was quite pleasing.

The wine list is well thought out with some excellent choices but few options below the £30 mark. The wines are classified by their style: "crisp, aromatic and savoury" for the whites and "smooth, spicy and full-bodied" for the reds, rather than by country. I thought this was useful particularly for diners, like myself, who struggle to match wines to this type of cuisine.

To accompany our meal, we had a 2009 bottle of Italian Soave Classico "Suavia" @ £34 which was excellent.  A white wine from the Veneto region in Italy, Soave is made predominantly from Garganega and Trebbiano di Soave grapes. Chardonnay, and other varieties can sometimes be blended to add complexity. Soave wines have a rather negative image in the UK as most "Soaves" are made by co-operatives in Veneto for the cheap, everyday-wine market purchased in the large supermarkets. These are crisp, with fresh acidity but mainly fruit-neutral wines. 

In my opinion, the Soave to go for is generally a "Soave Classico Superiore" originating from the ancient restricted wine areas of Soave or Monteforte d'Alpone towns. These wines have been matured for at least 8 months in oak barrel and have more complexity, refreshing acidity and pronounced fruit character than other Soaves.

Cost: The London Foodie was a guest of Grand Imperial London. I estimate that the 3 course meal in this restaurant would cost around £35 per person excl. wine.

Likes: the food was mostly very flavoursome with some excellent dishes like the "Double Boiled Chicken Soup with Wolfberries" and the  "Sauteed Beef Cube with Black Pepper Sauce". Service was very attentive and helpful. Beautifully decorated.

Dislikes: on my visit, the restaurant had only recently opened and I felt it lacked a lively atmosphere.

Verdict: delicious Cantonese food in beautiful surroundings with a good wine list and price tags to match. Very convenient location by Victoria Station, and an excellent alternative to similar quality restaurants in Bayswater or Chinatown. Recommended.

Grand Imperial on Urbanspoon

Friday 15 April 2011

London Restaurant Reviews - Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's


Where Lobster Tastes of Salmon...

Many of you will know that I am not one to moan when restaurants I visit don't live up to expectations - in such instances I prefer to make better use of my time and concentrate on the more positive stuff. Some restaurants however deserve the bad publicity they get, and Gordon Ramsay at Claridges is in my opinion one such place.

Dr G and I visited Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's a few weeks ago, and we were both utterly underwhelmed by the experience. I wasn't expecting it to be a cheap meal out, but I was certainly hoping it would have been an experience worthy of the £280 we paid.

There can't be a finer location than Claridge's on London's Brook Street. The hotel, restaurant and bar are sumptuous and very elegantly decorated. Nestled within this splendour, Gordon Ramsay's restaurant offers an à la carte, but we decided to go for their "Menu Prestige" - a tasting menu of 6 courses @ £80 per person. Ordering different starters and mains meant we had more dishes and flavours to try out.

We started off with an amuse bouche of "Butternut Squash Soup" with truffled oil. In all fairness, this was quite a decent soup, with the delicious sweetness from the squash complemented by the heady truffle aromas.

Unfortunately, the meal got progressively worse after this. For starters, I went for "Seared Loin and Cured Haunch of Muntjac Venison, Blackberries, Hazelnuts and Foie Gras" while Dr G opted for "Loch Duart salmon two ways" (smoked and marinated) served with beetroot salad and horseradish ice cream.

Both dishes looked uninspiring and tasted equally lacklustre (bar the horseradish ice cream which was the best thing on the plate).

The "Thai spiced lobster ravioli" served with tarragon velouté and green beans tasted interestingly of salmon! I asked the waiter whether this was a salmon or lobster raviolo, and was told that there was salmon in the recipe. I would say that it was made mainly of salmon - I could neither see nor taste much lobster. How disappointing, especially when the menu made no mention of salmon!

My main course was "Salt-baked Herdwick lamb loin and shepherd's pie" served with braised red cabbage and Jerusalem artichokes. The meat was very tender, but not as warm as it should have been, and the tiny, ungenerous quantity of meat on my plate made me feel even hungrier! The Shepherd's Pie was delicious, and in my opinion the highlight of my meal that evening.

Dr G's choice of "Steamed Anglesey bass with langoustine" served in an Oscietra caviar sauce, cucumber and apple, was competently cooked but no better than that.

The ridiculously minute "Lemon pannacotta" with blackcurrant and hibiscus sorbet was served next.

The "French and British Cheeses" selection (£8 supplement) was impressive with a range of delicious, soft and hard cheeses - this was in my opinion one of the best courses of the menu.

The last course of the Prestige Menu was a "Cold Valrhona Chocolate and Gianduja Fondant" with mandarin sorbet. The combination of bitter chocolate and mandarin was good but I struggle to find anything else to say about this simple dessert.

The sommelier, a Japanese man, was knowledgeable and patient with us as we played about with the wine menu - an iPad! It was very entertaining, allowing us to search by grape, country and price while providing some useful information on all wines listed.

Most wines were from good producers and vintages with prices tags to match. We ordered two of the most affordable bottles including a 2009 Valminor Albarino, Rias Baixas @ £38. It normally retails at around £11 a bottle, so the three-fold mark up by GR did not seem outrageous. This was an excellent example of Albariños from Rias Baixas - a good concentration of fruit, mainly peaches and with honey and citrus notes, but with good balancing acidity.

Our second bottle was a 2007 Terrasses Ventoux by Chateau Pesquie from the Rhone Valley @ £39. A blend of Grenache and Syrah, aged for 5 years, it had straightforward red berry fruit characteristics and medium body. It wasn't an outstanding wine but was an easy drink choice.

The restaurant was quite busy with couples celebrating birthdays or other events. The service was reserved but attentive.

Cost: Prestige Menu priced at £80 per person. Our bill came to £280 for two.

Likes: sumptuous setting, the iPad-wine list was fun and very informative, respectable cheese board.

Dislikes: the food was a real let-down - having "salmon" for "lobster" ravioli said a lot about this place - mediocre food in a restaurant that appears to rely excessively on the star status of the owner, if our experience was anything to go by. Expensive wine list with few if any affordable options.

Verdict: few restaurants have made me feel as ripped off as Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's - very mediocre food at ridiculously high prices.  I do not expect to return, and I do not recommend it.  

Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's on Urbanspoon
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