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Wednesday 31 August 2011

London Restaurant Reviews – Koffmann’s at The Berkeley

Pierre Koffmann opened his first restaurant, La Tante Claire, in 1977 on Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, gaining his 3rd Michelin star six years later in 1984. I was a child then, on a diet of popcorn, ice cream and pork scratchings. Writing this now while reminiscing about my recent dinner at Koffmann’s, I can't help but reflect on his breadth of gastronomic experience and accolades while I was still in short trousers.

In 1998, during my college days, Pierre Koffmann sold his restaurant premises to his former employee Gordon Ramsay, and moved La Tante Claire to The Berkeley, where he remained until it closed in 2003. Like most of my peers, I had no money and was pulling pints to get through university, so La Tante Claire or any kind of fine-dining restaurant was a distant dream.

Fast forward to 2009, and by then in gainful employment, I had the opportunity to experience Pierre Koffmann's cooking at his pop-up restaurant on the roof of Selfridges (reviewed here). This was my first glimpse of Pierre Koffmann's Gascon cuisine - a chef who can make something as rustic as pigs trotters taste delectable, he opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of French cooking at its best.

His latest, much awaited venture, Koffmann's, opened in 2010 also at The Berkeley. I was intrigued to visit it recently when meeting friends for dinner, and was pleasantly surprised to find a space that is rather casual and unstuffy, but elegant. I liked the warmth of the rooms, the carpeted floor, the simple but tasteful fresh-cut flowers and the French cookbooks dotted around the book shelves.

The beauty of being a table of four was that we could try out different dishes. The menu lists some of Pierre Koffmann's most popular dishes including pig trotters stuffed with sweetbreads and morel mushrooms, duck à l'orange and pistachio soufflé. There are also some enticing plat du jours (daily specials), but like the décor, overall the menu is unfussy, comforting and reassuringly simple.

I started with "Snails, Bone Marrow and Wild Mushrooms" @ £12. Having thoroughly enjoyed it two years ago at Pierre Koffmann's pop-up, I could not resist and ordered it again. And again it was wonderful - meaty snails and girolle mushrooms in an intensely concentrated reduction filled a large marrow bone. Accompanying the snails was a delicious garlic and parsley foam, the marrow cleverly sitting on paper-thin toast on a bed of truffle-infused creamy mash.

Claire opted for "Hand Dived Scallops, Ink Sauce, & Cauliflower Puree" @ £16. This was another magnificent dish - the scallops were meltingly tender and sweet, with an intense flavour of the sea imparted by the glossy black ink sauce.

Simon's "Squid Bolognese-Style" @ £10 was a fun dish, with strands of squid perfectly shaped as pasta and topped with a rich and flavoursome ragout sauce.

For the main course, I had one of the plat du jours "Tournedos Rossini" @ £37, a French classic and a rather extravagant dish of fillet mignon, topped with a slice of whole foie gras garnished with slices of black truffle. The fillet was unctuous, as was the buttery liver. The demi-glace sauce was lip-smackingly good, bringing all these components perfectly together.

Other main dishes ordered at the table were "Angus Scottish Sirloin Steak with Shallot Sauce and Bone Marrow" @ £28, "Roasted Duck Breast with Orange Sauce" @ £26 (of which I had a mouthful that tasted divine), and "Roasted Monkfish with Shellfish Paella" @ £24.

Following the mains, we had a selection of La Fromagerie cheeses @ £15 including a deliciously pungent and creamy Pont l' Evêque, a Comté, and several other fine unpasteurised French farmhouse cheeses.

The "Pistachio Soufflé with Pistachio Ice Cream" @ £14 was as delicious and iconic as I remember from my previous experience (reviewed here). I loved the intense pistachio flavour in both the warm soufflé and the ice cream - a familiar, unifying taste in contrasting textures and temperatures.

The two other desserts were "Black Cherries with Yoghurt Sorbet" @ £9 and "Lemon Tart with Lemon Sorbet" @ £9. These were both good but the black cherries had the edge in my opinion. I enjoyed the combination of fruit and sorbet - light and refreshing.

The "Crème Brulée" @ £8 was an additional dessert for all to share. It was magnificently creamy - richly infused with vanilla, it had just the right amount of bitterness from the caramelised sugar top.

The open plan kitchen offered me glimpses of Pierre Koffmann and his team working away on a surprisingly busy Monday evening; he was very welcoming when I popped over to talk to him in the kitchen.

From what I saw on the evening I was there, and judging by the quality and value of his menus - 2/3 course Prix Fixe lunch menus at £21 and £25.5 or Pre and Post Theatre menus for £24 and £28 -  you will not need to be minting it to afford a meal there. Who knows, if Koffmann's had been around when I was a student, my fine-dining debut might have been a decade or two earlier!

Cost: The London Foodie was a guest of Koffmann's. I estimate that a 3-course meal will cost around £45 per person (excluding drinks). I believe this to be very good value for cooking of this quality.

Likes: my starter of snails, bone marrow and wild mushrooms was excellent as were the scallops in black ink sauce and the Tournedos Rossini. I enjoyed the casual atmosphere, the open plan kitchen and the delicious desserts.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: At 63 years old, and with 3-Michelin stars to his name, Pierre Koffmann is at the height of his technical and creative skill, yet has little need to prove his culinary credentials to anyone. From this rare vantage point, at Koffmann's, he is aiming for a more informal, affordable and youthful restaurant, where he is cooking the food he treasures from his native Gascony. I loved it. Very highly recommended.

Koffmann's on Urbanspoon

Thursday 25 August 2011

London Restaurant Reviews - Northbank Restaurant

Just by the Millennium Bridge facing the Tate Modern and Shakespeare Globe Theatre, the Northbank Restaurant has some of the nicest views of the Thames of any restaurant on that side of the river. It is a casual bar and restaurant for those wanting an alternative to nearby City boozers or the impossibly busy bars and pubs of the Southbank.

The décor is casual with some beautiful lighting, quirky wallpaper, and table booths. There is a large outside area with many tables, an excellent place for a few drinks after work and for people watching. The bar area is busy but not unpleasantly so, and the platters of charcuterie and cheeses I saw people tucking into with their wines looked good.

Head chef Peter Woods had an impressive career before joining Northbank in 2007, working for the likes of Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffmann. His menu at Northbank is described as modern British with a Cornish influence, and looking at the various options I can vouch for his seasonal choice of ingredients and was pleased to see that many had their British provenance clearly stated.

To start, I opted for "Whole Dressed Dorset Crab with Celeriac Remoulade" @ £13.50. The crab was tiny, but tasted creamy and fresh and went well with the celeriac remoulade.

Dr G's "Dressed British Asparagus with Baked Ricotta and Wild Rocket Salad" @ £8.50, however, was disappointing. It lacked an adequately flavoursome dressing and the baked ricotta (of which there wasn't much) was an underwhelming choice of cheese.

For the main course, I went for the “Devon Red Rib Eye Steak with Chips, Confit Tomatoes and Béarnaise” @ £22. The meat was flavoursome and cooked medium rare as requested. The “confit” tomatoes were inoffensive enough but I would have expected them to be better seasoned (garlic, thyme, olive oil) and cooked a little longer (as only hours of oven drying can impart).

Dr G had “Sautéed Calves Liver with Puy Lentils, Smoked Bacon and Onion Sauce” @ £18. Despite ordering it rare, the calves’ liver was seriously overcooked and consequently hard and chewy. It was an unfortunate oversight in our opinion and a waste of some excellent quality meat. 

The puddings, on the other hand, were excellent. The “Rice Pudding with Strawberry Jam and Cornish Clotted Cream” @ £6.50 was perfectly cooked and deliciously creamy, and I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of it.

Our other choice of “Fresh Strawberries with Vanilla Cream and Crushed Almonds” @ £6.50 was beautifully presented and tasted vibrant and fresh.

To accompany our food, we had 4 glasses of different wines (two whites, two reds). The wine list is comprehensive with many New and Old World choices. It is also surprisingly expensive, with only one choice of red and white house wines at £16, with the next least expensive options priced at £23 and £24. One of the wines we tried was the “2008 Bourgogne-Aligoté by Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils” – this wine retails for about £6.30 but at the Northbank, you will pay £31 for a bottle. This 5 fold mark up is not unique to Northbank, but I feel it is excessive.

Cost: The London Foodie was a guest of the Northbank Restaurant. I estimate that a 3-course meal would cost around £35 per person (excl. drinks).

Likes: great river Thames views, good spot for outdoor drinking particularly if you work in the City, casual but trendy décor.

Dislikes: patchy cooking and expensive wine list.

Verdict: I enjoyed the restaurant location, the great views and friendly service at Northbank Restaurant but felt that the cooking was patchy and the wine list expensive. I would love to return one day and give it anoter go but with so many other dining options in London, the Northbank faces tough competition.

Northbank on Urbanspoon

Monday 22 August 2011

London Supper Club Review - ferdiesfoodlab

ferdiesfoodlab is the latest and among the most anticipated supper club launches in London recently, and I was fortunate to be there for their soft opening last weekend. 

A spin-off from the much loved, late lamented Fernandez & Leluu,  ferdiesfoodlab is the brainchild of Simon Fernandez, a British-Spaniard, a tremendously ambitious and accomplished cook and one of the pioneers of the Supper Club movement in London.

The Location

ferdiesfoodlab is set in Toynbee Hall, a Grade II listed Arts and Crafts building constructed over 125 years ago. The venue is rather grand and contains two large halls. The Lecture Hall, where ferdiesfoodlab takes place, is an elegant wood-panelled room, with parquet flooring, impressively large latticed windows, period art work and a grand piano.

Some may argue that the space might lack the intimacy or character of a host's living room, but I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the room and the sense of occasion that it imparted to the evening.

Toynbee Hall is situated on Commercial Road, close to the City and round the corner from Aldgate East Station. It is also close to Whitechapel Art Gallery and Brick Lane.

The Food

Having tried Simon's cooking many times before (reviewed here, here and here), I knew I was in for a treat. What I most enjoy about his cooking is his ambition and desire to experiment with different flavours and techniques. Simon is a bold and adventurous cook, and this is what, in my opinion, makes his food so exciting.

For this soft opening, Simon kicked off proceedings with a platter of Liquorice Cured Fillet Steak Cubes w/ Baby Peppers & Pimientos de Padron served with rosemary and garlic bread. The fillet was meltingly tender with a delicate hints of aniseed, beautifully accompanied by a homemade mayonnaise infused with Simon's tomato reduction. I didn't get to eat or see any Pimientos de Padron on the platter that was shared at our end of the table, but I guess it would have gone well with the other flavours in the dish.

To follow, we had Champagne Poached Pears served with cured ham on a bed of green leaves. This is one of Simon's most popular dishes, an interesting take on the classic Melon and Parma Ham, and one I have enjoyed at F&L on previous occasions. The pears are lightly griddled and tenderised through gentle poaching in a champagne syrup.

Another excellent and rather dramatic dish was the Barents Sea King Crab with Creamed Samphire. The huge claws were served on sharing platters with samphire and were surprisingly meaty, tasting both sweet and fresh. A real winner.

The pièce de resistance was still to come. A 5-Hour Slow Roast Shoulder of Lamb served with the most sensational roast potatoes came next. Fragrant, tender, succulent and simply delicious, this was by far the best dish of the evening. This could only have been improved had there been a double helping of roasties.

For dessert, we had a lovely sorbet with passion fruit, banana & white chocolate sauce, followed by petit fours of Seville Zebras and Black Olive and Salted Orange Chocolates. These were all expertly prepared.

The People

There were about 30 of us at this launch event, a mix of young and not so young (myself included) faces, of different nationalities and backgrounds. It was lovely to see some familiar faces there like Jones of I Couldn't Possibly Eat a Whole One, Claudia of White Room Supper Club and Nathan of Mr Drink n Eat.

Helping in the kitchen were also Jen of Cook School Cat who has just completed her one year chef's training at Leith's and Robbie of NoReservations, a Fifteen-trained chef who most recently worked as Claudia Schiffer's private chef, and who joined us at our end of the table.

The Drinks

There is no corkage charge, and we were served a complementary glass of Mondelli, an Italian semi-dry sparkling rose.

Other Stuff

The first official ferdiesfoodlab event will take place on Saturday, 27th August from 7:30pm, with further dates on 9th and 23rd September 2011.

To reserve a place contact: bookings@ferdiesfoodlab.co.uk.

Cost: minimum suggested donation of £40.

Likes: top quality ingredients expertly cooked and presented, grand venue, central location.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: There is a touch of brilliance about Simon's cooking which demonstrates an increased confidence and audacity beyond that which was evident at F&L. I see ferdiesfoodlab as a very exciting project and definitely one to watch. Highly recommended.
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