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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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Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Where to Eat Latin American Food in London - My Top Recommendations

Earlier in the year, I was asked to recommend my top South American restaurants in London for Vamos Guide, an offshoot of the Brazilian website Jungle Drums for which I occasionally write for.

While Latin America is celebrated for its hedonistic music & dance scenes, more recently its cuisines have been in the spotlight on the London restaurant scene. Over the 20 years I have lived in the capital, as The London Foodie, I have witnessed the emergence of a number of excellent Latin American eateries, some of which I share with you here. Londoners have acquired a seemingly insatiable appetite for Angentinian steak houses, Mexican burritos & Brazilian rodízios, & with the imminent launch of the much anticipated Ceviche, the future looks bright for Latin American gastronomy in the capital.


Favourite, stylish restaurant dishing up Latin American cuisine in Islington. Classic dishes with a modern take include deliciously authentic Peruvian Ceviche, Moqueca de Peixe (Brazilian fish stew) & Conejo en Salsa de Chocolate (Slow Cooked Rabbit in Chocolate Sauce). Very reasonably priced cocktail and wine lists, and great service.

Sabor on Urbanspoon

Buen Ayre

Authentic & very popular Argentinian restaurant on Broadway Market serving the best Parrillada in town - choose from four different selections of meats, provolone cheese and mushroom served at your table on a smoldering hot grill. Great Papas Fritas (chips), and respectable Argentinian wine list at wallet-friendly prices.

Buen Ayre on Urbanspoon

El Rincon Latino

Spanish-Colombian Tapas in Clapham, tiny space but big on service! Good range of Spanish dishes with some unusual Colombian choices like fried cassava served with Ají (chillies) and guacamole, and veal Empanadas (patties). Spanish brunch also served at weekends. Buzzing atmosphere attracting a vibrant local crowd.

El Rincon Latino on Urbanspoon

Empório São Paulo

Upmarket Brazilian Empório (delicatessen) & café in Parsons Green with an impressive range of top quality produce from Brazil & other countries - Brazilian Guaraná, Pão de Queijo (small, light cheese breads served hot from the oven), artisan Cachaças, & Feijoada, all served with a warm smile by owner Carminha.

Empório São Paulo on Urbanspoon


Mexican restaurant chain started by Masterchef winner Thomasina Miers. Colourful, casually fashionable décor. Pork Pibil tacos (slow cooked pork in special Yucatecan marinade) followed by Churros y Chococate were sensational on my last visit and warrant a return visit. Good selection of Mexican beers and tequilas.

Wahaca on Urbanspoon

Moo Grill

The home of the Lomito, Moo Grill is one of the City's most coveted lunch spots. The signature dish (Lomito) is their delicious Argentinian sandwich of beef, chicken or aubergine served with ham and cheese, salad and fried egg. The best beef Empanadas I have ever tried were cooked by Adri, the owner's mum.

Moo! Grill on Urbanspoon


Top notch beef from rib-eye to fillet or sirloin and now picanha are cooked to perfection at this upmarket Argentinian steak house. The Morcilla (Argentinian black pudding) is excellent too as is the Dulce de Leche cheesecake. Great cheese platters well matched with a chilled glass of Torrontes licoroso (sweet).

Gaucho Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The London Foodie Goes to Japan - Kyoto (Part 1)

On arrival, the ultra-modern JR station (train) complex is very impressive, but Kyoto can hardly be described as an immediately attractive  town. If you care to spend a few days in Kyoto though and discover some of its hidden beauty, you will undoubtedly fall in love with the ancient former capital of Japan.

Compared with Tokyo, Kyoto is relatively smaller and was spared much of the bombing in WWII - today, it has hundreds of thousand year old temples and shrines surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens, magnificent palaces and original wooden townhouses known as machiya. Many of these sites were built during Kyoto's millennium at the centre of Japanese power, tradition and religion for the country's emperors, shoguns and monks. I recommend planning your trip in great detail before visiting Kyoto as there is just so much to see and experience there.

This post is about my latest visit to Kyoto, and is by no means a comprehensive list of things to do or places to visit. For more information about this magnificent city, visit the WikiTravel page on Kyoto here.

Where to Stay in Kyoto

The sky is the limit when searching for accommodation in Kyoto, which does not come cheap even at the most modest establishments. Budget accommodation will cost you anything between £80 and £100, while mid-range hotels (3-stars) will set you back about £150 to £200 for a double room. The more luxurious ryokans (traditional Japanese Inns) can cost a few hundred pounds a night per person.

Kyoto is a major tourist city, and at peak season (cherry blossom days and weekends) accommodation can be difficult to find, and prices reflect this. Osaka is only a 30 minute train journey from Kyoto, and being less popular as a holiday destination, it can offer a wider range of hotels to suit every budget.

We were recommended to stay at the Hiiragi-Ya. This is a luxurious traditional Kyoto ryokan which is the crème de la crème as far as Kyoto accommodation goes. But with my investment banking job well behind me and rates starting at £250 per person per night, we decided to go elsewhere.

We stayed at the Yuhara Ryokan which was also recommended by another Japanese friend (from Tokyo) who normally stays there. This is a traditional Japanese inn set along the Takase River. It is a delightful place, simply but tastefully decorated and immaculately clean. The owners (mother and son) speak good English and were very friendly, giving us the  low-down on the neighbourhood and on things to do in Kyoto before we set off sightseeing.

Yuhara Ryokan on Takase River Walk

Our bedroom was a Japanese-style room, pretty, spacious and comfortable and with a lovely view over the Takase River. The walk along the river  takes you through the geisha district of Gion (a 20 minute, very pleasant walk), and also to the centre of Kyoto including Pontocho Street. It is also a 15 minute walk from Kyoto's JR Station. At just under 10,000 Yen for a double room (about £85) for two people, this is highly recommended for its price, great location and charming hosts.

Japanese Style Room at Yuhara Ryokan

Where to Eat in Kyoto

As much as I love Tokyo, in my opinion, the best Japanese food is to be found in Kyoto. My Tokyo friends will not be impressed when they read this, after all Tokyo has more 3-michelin stars than Paris itself, I hear some of them saying. But compared with the style of cooking elsewhere in Japan, Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is lighter and more delicate, stressing the natural flavour of ingredients over enhancement with heavy sauces and broths.

Pontocho Street

You will struggle to find a bad place to eat in Kyoto but it is always good to have some recommendations and book them in advance if you can. Also bear in mind that some restaurants will have a strict 9-9:30pm last order policy - this is because depending on the menu you choose, it might take a couple of hours to get through all the courses. There are many popular places serving a range of different dishes from the humble donburi to a full-blown kaiseki dinner (Japanese haute-cuisine) so choices are endless.

Giro Giro was highly recommended to us and happened to be a 3-minute walk from our ryokan on the Takase River. The 8-course menu devised by head chef Edakuni Eiichi features some kaiseki classics in his kuzushi-kappo, or “break the rules” casual cuisine. Price is a steal at only 3,600 yen or £30 per person. 

Giro Grio - View from Takase River Walk

There are two other branches, in Paris and Honolulu. I strongly recommend this restaurant and if you do get to book, ask for a seat by the counter where you can watch the chefs in action, highly entertaining.

Giro Giro - Chefs at Work

These are the fantastic dishes that we had at Giro Giro:

Platter of amuse bouche, including grilled namafu, pickled chestnut, sushi, and tamago

Cod sperm & seaweed tempura in a glutinous daikon & yuzu pink broth

Straw-smoked salmon and oyster sashimi

Yellow-tail grilled in white miso, with daikon & ginger, onion & yuzu and pickled apple

Tofu and shimeji mushroom tempura, topped with crab in a dashi and soy sauce broth

Red snapper with burdock, cooked in soya sauce and sugar

Tonjiro of pork and crab, sweet white miso soup with thinly sliced carrots & burdock, rice and Japanese pickles (clams & daikon)

Pumpkin with bitter tea sauce, chestnut ice cream, black sesame mochi filled with sweet red bean, yasahashi with cinnamon and filled with pickled apple and blue cheese

Dr G and I went back to Manzara-Tei where we had had a brilliant meal on our last visit in 2008. This is a lovely restaurant serving "casual" kaiseki style set meals at 4,500 Yen (£37.50 @ 120 yen/£) "Sekkou" for ten courses or "Gekkou" at 3,500 Yen (£29 @ 120 yen/£) for 8 courses on the busy Pontocho Street. 

The food again did not disappoint- we went for the ten-course dinner which included some local Kyoto specialities like fu (glutinous wheat gluten cakes) and yuba (soy-milk skimmings). If you like watching the busy chefs at work, ask for seats at the counter when booking (I did!).

These are the courses we enjoyed at Manzara-Tei:

Yuba scoop with yuzu ponzu

Asparagus with uncured ham, cherry tomatoes & smoked cheese

Sashimi (tuna, sea bream, yuba), with freshly grated wasabi

Grilled Sawara (Spanish Mackerel)

Wagyu beef with rock salt

Grilled Namafu (glutinous wheat cakes)

Slow-braised daikon in a thick dashi with pork belly - my favourite dish of the evening!

Tempura Assortment

Sushi and Akadashi (red miso soup)

Sweet soft tofu with red currant jam

What to Do in Kyoto


Thanks to its plain geography and grid-style streets, Kyoto is a great place to cycle and whenever I visit I hire a bicycle for the day. Yuhara Ryokan's owners recommended us a tiny cycling shop a couple of minutes walk from the ryokan where we hired a couple of bikes for 500 yen each for the entire day, that is £4.20!

Nishiki Market

From the bike shop we headed straight to Nishiki Market, Kyoto's main food hub in the centre of town. Nishiki Market is 390 meters long and runs from Teramachi Street to Takakura Street. There are around 130 shops and stalls, selling traditional Japanese food and ingredients. 

As customary in Japan, there are many shops specialising in one particular type of ingredient like tsukemono pickles, Japanese sweets (wagashi), dried food, tamagoyaki (egg omelets), sushi, fresh seafood and vegetables.

Salmon Eggs (Ikura)

Unlike department stores, almost everything at Nishiki is locally produced. Nishiki Market has a long history, the first store opening as early as 1311. It is a great place to spend a few hours learning about Japanese ingredients, sampling and buying. I returned to Nishiki Market everyday during my stay in Kyoto.

Smoked/Petrified Bonito Fish Ready for Shaving for Dashi Stock

Geisha Spotting at Gion

Kyoto is synonymous with geisha and maiko (the apprentice geisha), who live and work in the  neighbourhoods of Gion, Pontocho and Miyagawa-cho. Many girls are attracted to this glamorous world, but few make it through the arduous training required to become fully fledged geiko, as geisha are known in Kyoto dialect. The best time to see them is in the late afternoon as they head for rendezvous at the ochaya (tea-houses).

Dining with geisha is difficult to arrange, and expensive, but it is possible. Kyoto resident Peter MacIntosh of Kyoto Sights and Nights is able to arrange private engagements and VIP dinners.

There are hundreds of magnificent temples to visit in Kyoto and some of these will be featured in my second post.

Travel Essentials

For a printable PDF of Kyoto Walks by the Japan National Tourism Information (JNTO) - click here

For excellent accommodation for value and friendliness, Yuhara Ryokan is on Kiyamachi Dori, Shomen-agaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8126 , Japan. Email: ryokan.yuhara@cap.ocn.ne.jp (tel: +81 075 371 9583).

For information on where and what to eat in Kyoto, visit the Kyoto Foodie blog here.

For fantastic food at very reasonable prices head to Giro Giro Hitoshina, 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishikiyamachi-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, +81 75 343 7070, open 5.30pm-11pm daily, or visit their website here.

For Pontocho casual dining, Manzara Tei is on 1-198 Higashisawaragi-cho, Pontocho-dori Shijo agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto City 604-0906 (tel: +81-75-212-0028)

For information on places to visit in Kyoto, go to the fantastic site Kyoto Kyoto here.

For information on Nishiki Market and directions, visit the Nishiki Market website here.

For information on how to dine with a geisha (and much more about Kyoto) visit Kyoto Sights and Nights' website here, tel: +81 905 169 1654.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

London Restaurant Reviews - Tamarai (Pan-Asian Cooking in Covent Garden)


Few restaurants have challenged my prejudices as much as Tamarai. From the moment I walked through the door, I was ready to dislike it. The restaurant occupies the basement of a nightclub on Drury Lane, in London's West End. For a moment I wondered whether I had come to the right place, until I perceived some fellow diners through the dim lighting.

As soon as I entered, I also noted that service was impeccable - indeed, before we entered the restaurant, a waiter rushed out to warn us we were parked inadvertently in a residents bay, and gave us a voucher for a free bay in an underground parking lot nearby.

The menu, devised by head-chef Manish, is influenced by Japan, China, South-east Asia and the Indian sub-continent. To blend such an array of influences in a single menu is an ambitious task in which many fail. "Pan-Asian" cuisine can be a term of abuse (Jack of all trades, master of none) but I think otherwise - if sympathetically done, it can bring together the finest authentic dishes from different countries into a coherent whole.

Starters range from £6.50 to £16, while main courses start from £15 going up to £24. The wine list is comprehensive with a few New and Old World options priced around £20 and upwards. Cocktails are all priced at £9. While we perused the menu, Dr G and I ordered a couple of cocktails - "Tamajito" - a deliciously refreshing drink made from Japanese shiso leaf bruised over crushed ice with sugar, lemon juice, gin and a dash of absinthe, and "Punch Essential" with Pernod Anise aperitif, vanilla liqueur, passion fruit and grapefruit.

We decided to go for the Chef's Tasting Menu @ £52 per person with a tasting flight of 5 wines @ £17 per person to accompany the menu, including some great choices such as Knappstein Riesling from Clare Valley, Australia and a sweet Beaumes de Venise.

As the first dishes arrived, my initial doubts about the restaurant, Pan-Asian cooking and the varied menu were assuaged. Even the dodgy decor was forgiven. Dish after dish, Manish proved to be a truly accomplished chef - his food was delicious, well balanced and elegantly constructed. Much thought had obviously gone into each dish and I was astounded by the myriad flavours, textures and combinations of Asian ingredients that he demonstrated.

I cannot fault the food or service at Tamarai that evening, on the contrary, I can only praise it. These are the dishes that we had as part of the Chef's Tasting Menu, plus a couple of other small dishes I asked to try:

Smoked Salmon Thayar Satham (curd rice)

Corn-fed Chicken Spring Roll

Soft- shell Crab, Flame roast Coconut and Masala Mayo - I loved the combination of toasted coconut and soft shell crab in this dish.

Sweet Chilli Lotus Root - this was one of the simplest but also one of the most delicious dishes of the evening.

Beef Satay, Peanut Glaze and Wasabi Yoghurt - I really enjoyed the wasabi yoghurt with the beef satay, a well thought out combination of Asian flavours.

Caramelised Szechuan Pepper King Prawns - this was the most sensational dish of this meal, I would love to return to Tamarai to have this again (or even better - learn how to make it!).

Sweet Pomelo Salad - deliciously fresh and very well made, this was perfect with the Caramelised Szechuan Pepper King Prawns.

Black Tiger Prawns - chunky and delectable.

Thai Green Curry - the green curry tasted as authentic as all the ones I tried in Thailand, beautifully spiced and very warming.

Roasted Sesame and White Chocolate Semi Freddo - impeccable presentation of this dessert, which tasted refreshing yet  creamy.

Seasonal Fruit Satay - another beautifully presented dish that brought a smile to my face. I loved the sweet, perfectly ripened fruit served satay-style, smothered in a lovely passion fruit syrup and topped with small green shoot-leaves.

Cost: £52 per person for the Chef's Tasting Menu and £17 per person for the matching wines.

Likes: the entire menu was fantastic, particularly the Caramelised Szechuan Pepper King Prawns. Very comprehensive wine and cocktails list.

Dislikes: the nighclub decor is rather challenging for a restaurant experience.

Verdict: Chef Manish cooks the best Pan-Asian food I have ever tried. I enjoyed every course of his tasting menu, and the wine matches were also perfect. Very highly recommended.

Tamarai on Urbanspoon
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