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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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Thursday, 27 December 2012

Recipe: "Ankimo" - Sous-Vide Monkfish Liver with Grated Radish & Ponzu Dressing


Since finishing Cordon Bleu last autumn, I have been able to apply some of the French cooking techniques I learnt there to a number of different Japanese dishes at my supper club. Of all my recent experiments, the one I am happiest about is Ankimo - Japanese monkfish liver.



In Japan, monkfish liver, sometimes referred to as the Japanese foie gras, is very much a delicacy - it is usually cooked in a mixture of water and sake for about 10-15 minutes, rolled in a sushi mat to shape it and served with grated white radish (mooli) and ponzu dressing. It is soft, unctuous and very lightly fishy with a delightfully creamy texture. I love Ankimo and had it often when I was living in Tokyo.

Returning to the UK and after much research, I found that Fin & Flounder in London's trendy Broadway Market could supply me with monkfish liver. I had already eaten and purchased Fin & Flounder's fish on some occasions so I knew I was in good hands. Richard, the proprietor, was very helpful and despite having stopped selling monkfish liver at his shop a while back, he was happy to source and sell it to me whenever I placed an order. I cannot recommend Fin & Flounder highly enough - the level of service and the range and quality of fish Richard supplies are second to none.




Fish Counter at Fin & Flounder
So having found the monkfish liver, I was now ready to recreate this dish in London using my newly acquired Sous-Vide Supreme. Sous-Vide, pronounced "soo veed", is the French term for "under vacuum" and refers to a method of cooking in vacuum-sealed plastic pouches at low temperatures for long periods of time. I have written extensively about this cooking method in an earlier post including a recipe for Tamago Onsen - sous-vide duck eggs, served with silken tofu and ponzu dressing which you can read here.



We touched on sous-vide cooking at Cordon Bleu, but it wasn't until I acquired a Sous-Vide Supreme water bath that I managed to practice sous-vide(ing) at home. This piece of kit couldn't be simpler to use and it is reasonably priced at around £450 in John Lewis for the water bath and vacuum sealer. 

I found that sous-vide cooking gives the liver a creamier texture and greater concentration of flavour than simply boiling it in water. So, I can definitely say that the sous-vide technique produced better results for this dish than the more traditional or conventional cooking methods. The other practical advantage for using the sous-vide technique for this recipe is that the liver can be cooked and stored away well before serving as it is protected by the vacuum pouch.

I served Sous-Vide Monkfish Liver at my Japanese Supper Club as one of the starters during the summer of 2012 and had great feedback. This is a rather unusual but very rich and delicious dish and you don't need to go all the way to Japan to try it.

Sous-Vide Monkfish Liver with Grated Radish & Ponzu Dressing

Ingredients:

1kg monkfish liver
50ml sake
2 tbsp sea salt
1 medium-sized white radish (mooli)

Ponzu Dressing:
1 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp mirin
4 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp caster sugar
1 tsp dashi powder
(Alternatively, ready-made ponzu dressing can be purchased from any Japanese food shop)

Optional:
Shichimi - Japanese Seven Spices
Black sesame seeds - for decoration
Radish or baby cress - for decoration

Equipment Required:
Sous-vide Supreme water bath
Sous-vide Vacuum Sealer
Vacuum pouches
Cling film

Method:

1. Remove the outer veins from the monkfish liver, rinse under running water, drain. Place the liver in a container, mix the sake and sea salt, cover and marinate overnight in the fridge.

2. Fill the Sous-Vide Supreme with water, set it to 65C. It will take about 10-15mins for the Sous-Vide Supreme to reach this temperature.

3. In the meantime, prepare the ballotines - remove the liver from sake and salt marinade, and pat it dry. Place two 60cm sheets of cling film one on top of the other over a clean work surface, pressing them down so that all air between the sheets is eliminated. Place the liver over the cling film (closer to you), and roll it tight (away from you) to make a cylindrical shape. Tie one end of the cling film cylinder, squeeze out any air from it through the other side, and roll it again to tighten it before tying the other end. The ballotine should be about one and half inches thick. Depending on the size of the livers, you should be able to make one or two ballotines.









4. Place the monkfish ballotines into a medium sized vacuum pouch. Using the Sous-Vide Supreme vacuum sealer (following the manufacturer's intructions), seal the pouch.



5. Place the sealed vacuum pouch in the Sous-Vide Supreme water bath when the temperature has reached 65C. Ensure that the pouch is completely submerged, sous-vide the monkfish liver for 3 hours and 15 minutes.



6. Prepare the ponzu dressing - mix all ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate until needed.

7. In a large bowl, add some ice cubes and water. Once the cooking time is up, remove the vacuumed pouch from the Sous-Vide Supreme water bath and refresh it in the iced water to bring the temperature of the liver down rapidly. Refrigerate it until needed, the monkfish is served at room temperature (remember to take them out of the fridge at least one hour before serving).

8. Just before serving, peel and grate the white radish, squeezing out the excess water. Set aside.

9. Remove the liver ballotines from the vacuum pouch, very carefully remove the cling film layers from the liver, and pat it dry. Cut in 1.5 cm thick slices.



10. To serve, place one slice of monkfish liver in a small bowl or plate, top it with grated radish, one or two teaspoons of ponzu dressing, and a sprinkle of shichimi pepper, black sesame seeds and baby cress if using. Serve.



Monday, 24 December 2012

London Supper Club Review - Scandi Supper Club with Signe Johansen


Words by Karen Yates

As everyone knows, all things Scandinavian are super cool right now, a fact (yes, fact) enhanced by the evening’s venue, the Scandinavian furniture showroom Republic of Fritz Hansen in Margaret Street, W1. Just as well there were plenty of beautiful things to look at because what must have seemed a great idea at a PR planning meeting – hosting a photo shoot and supperclub one after the other – meant that the second ran well over an hour late. Hairy trolls with long pointy hats and cruet sets that reminded me of my childhood (I’ve Swedish and Norwegian family) to the rescue, along with glasses of gløgg (mulled wine) to warm the cockles and thaw the heart. 

Signe kept her Scandi cool and offered round her superb canapés: cured salmon on just-baked rye pannekaker (little pancakes) with sour cream and pickled fennel (recipe below), plus sweet Norwegian prawns with wild dill pollen mayonnaise, lumpfish roe and pickled cucumber on sourdough crispbread. As Signe said, in Norway they eat prawns like sweets and these were certainly moreish.


Photo: Tara Fisher


Photo: Tara Fisher
Eventually, we all squeezed around an achingly trendy, retro-style table and the feast began. First Signe, who had specially created the menu using seafood from Norway, explained that this festive food is lettvint (easy), so we should just tuck in an enjoy. Which we did, with seriously good oven-baked organic sourdough bread courtesy of Bridget Hugo from Bread Bread in Brixton, who was named New Best Alchemist of the Oven at this year’s Young British Foodie Awards. 

First up were piping-hot, super-fresh battered cod cheeks with dill, anchovy and pickled cucumber salsa. These melt-in-the-mouth beauties vanished as soon as they appeared.


Photo: Tara Fisher

Next was halibut lightly cured with lemon and elderflower for a slightly sweet flavour, served with thinly sliced pickled cucumber.


Photo: Tara Fisher

The main course was succulent roast haddock with a bacon and rye crisp topping served with salt-baked celeriac plus a spelt and kale salad with pomegranate seeds. All healthy and delicious.


Photo: Tara Fisher
We finished with glasses of Linie aquavit, Signe’s pepperkaker (traditional ginger biscuits) and ekte geitost (sweet, salty, brown goat’s cheese; an acquired taste I happen to love).


Photo: Tara Fisher

Ah, fresh fish followed by pepperkaker and brunost, the taste of a Scandinavian Christmas. All good things come to those who wait… 

Here is a recipe from the evening, specially created by Signe Johansen for the Norwegian Seafood Council. First cure the salmon, then use it to make these fabulous canapés:

Cured Norwegian salmon with a shot of Linie aquavit, rye and sour cream pannekaker and pickled fennel

‘There are endless ways to cure Norwegian salmon. Gravlaks is a classic way to do so across Scandinavia, and I love a little whisky in the cure for a seasonal twist. Norwegian Linie Aquavit can be found at Amathus Drinks. The key to this dish is a very fresh fillet of Norwegian salmon. If in doubt, freeze the fish for 24 hours to kill any bacteria, then defrost. This recipe makes enough for 12 starters or 6-8 larger portions. You can double this for festive occasions – two Norwegian salmon fillets will feed 20-24 people and make a great party standby’

Ingredients:

1.5 kg Norwegian salmon fillet, de-boned and de-scaled, cut in half
2 tbsp pink peppercorns
2 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp juniper berries
1 tsp allspice berries
100g granulated sugar
75g sea salt
2 shots whisky

Method:

Dry the salmon, check for pinbones and then put both fillet pieces side by side, skin down. Crush the pink pepper, coriander, juniper and allspice berries with a pestle and mortar, then mix in a small bowl with the sugar, salt and whisky. Spread the spiced sugar and salt in a layer on top of a fillet. Sandwich both fillet halves together. Wrap very tightly in two layers of clingfilm and put in a small roasting tin to catch the brine that escapes from the fish as it cures. Refrigerate for a minimum of 48 hours and up to 5 days if you want a stronger cure.
When the salmon has had time to cure, simply take it out of the fridge, remove the clingfilm, wipe the fillet halves clean of the spiced salt with a paper towel, pat dry and put on a board, skin down. Slice on the diagonal from the tail towards the middle of the fillet and serve.

Rye and sour cream pannekaker

The wild fennel pollen, used as a garnish is available at Global Harvest (globalharvestlimited.co.uk)
Makes 30 small pancakes

Ingredients:

150g rye flour
100g wholemeal spelt flour
5g fresh yeast or ½ tsp dried yeast
300ml sour cream
50-100ml whole milk
2 medium eggs, beaten
50g butter, melted
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp sea salt

To finish:
75g fructose (fruit sugar) or 100g caster sugar 
150ml white wine vinegar
fennel bulb, thinly sliced or use a mandolin
wild fennel pollen, to garnish 
extra sour cream or crème fraiche, to garnish

Method:

First make the little rye pancakes: in a medium-size bowl mix the flours with the yeast, sour cream and 50ml milk (you may need more milk later as the rye and spelt flours will thicken the mixture over time). Cover and set aside for 1 hour or until the mixture starts to bubble and has doubled in size.  Meanwhile, put the sugar and the vinegar in a small saucepan along with 75ml water and bring to a simmer, allowing the sugar to dissolve. Remove from the heat, cool, add the thinly sliced fennel to this mixture and cover. Set aside to pickle while you finish the pancakes.

Add the beaten eggs, melted butter, baking powder and sea salt to the bowl with the flours, yeast and sour cream, then stir thoroughly. Prepare a skillet with a little oil over a medium heat. Start frying small pancakes for a minute or so before flipping each one over. They should look dry around the edges and bubble slightly in the skillet. If in doubt, test the batter with one small pancake – if the pancake is too liquid you can always add a little more spelt flour; if it’s too dense, simply dilute with a little water or milk.

Once you’ve fried all the pancakes, set them to one side and allow to cool completely before assembling the salmon slices on each piece, followed by a dollop of sour cream or crème fraiche, a curl of pickled fennel and a sprinkle of wild fennel pollen. Eat immediately with a shot of Linie aquavit to wash it all down.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Forty years of Burgundy’s best


Words & photos by Su-Lin Ong

The invitation was a starry one.  It was to be a night of tasting vintages spanning 40 years with the winemaker for Louis Jadot.  The real privilege was the fact that Jacques Lardière himself would be selecting these wines and talking through the tasting – one of his last before retiring at the end of 2012.  A grand stretch, 40 years.

Photo: Louis Jadot



So we gather in the gleaming white tasting room of the Antique Wine Company in Marylebone.  It is a model of understatement.  Whilst it is dark and dismal on the street, here you are in a spa-like cocoon away from the Oxford Street mayhem.  We are a group ready to thrill at connecting with the winemaker and watching his every reaction as he raises the glass to his lips – as if it’s always his first time. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime selection.  Tonight’s comprises top of the range Louis Jadot wines - six whites, six reds - which are not found as widely in the UK as their more mass styles.

M. Lardière senses the pitch of his audience perfectly.  Despite the diversity of expertise, we share a passion for wine which is so memorably strengthened by the sense of place, its creators and moments of enjoyment.  What bonds us is that we are all communicators in wine, and so watching an expert of his calibre lead such a seamless commentary is a joy.  Each wine gets its due attention, especially when he lays bare the reasons for those peculiarities of each in the vertical tasting.  There are no distractions of stats and pricing to influence our appreciation.  Facts and contemplation are moderated with some looser moments when M. Lardière lunges like the TV horse racing pundit John McCririck; hands and arms waving in some language which we as wine people absolutely get!



We taste 12 wines leisurely over 90 minutes and share the odd opinion across our table.  The winemaker’s philosophy is based on minimum intervention and letting the Burgundian terroir shape the wine.  So, immersing myself in this premise, I vow not to sway to naming my favourites, but rather to select for this short write-up just those wines which shake up my senses the most.

The Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru vineyards are amongst the oldest owned by Maison Jadot and are located in the north of the Côte de Beaune. The line-up shows the full capability of the Chardonnay grape in reaching a supreme concentration of richness. We taste from the 2008 to 1974, from young and fresh through to the 1988 with its petrol-like nose - that’s a good thing – reflecting a long fermentation and more acidity.  My second choice is the 1978.  Harvested late, it was a small crop.  I hazard a whisper about fresh soft cheese, a brie, and relish the finish of light crème caramel.



Now the reds.  There are 36 Premiers Crus Beaune vineyards, though no Grands Crus.  These are warm Pinot Noir wines with giant waves of flavour.  Some of our six tonight have an almost cherry liqueur finish, which says something about the length and strength.  I sense that the reds are stirring M. Lardière tonight.   He punches his fist and his words become intense with a scattering of savage shorthand language which only a master can use about such elegant wines: abominable, intestinal, fécondation!



Am I still limiting myself to selecting two wines?  Let’s make that three.  The Beaune 1er Cru Grèves 1996 reflects one of the greatest Burgundy vintages.  M. Lardière tells us this one should age majestically and how the cold north wind, la mère nourricière, has shaped it.  Its aroma is pure, elegant coffee.  But it is the Clos des Couchereaux 1979 which beguiles me, and Sam across the table and I utter simultaneously, “cooked mushroom!”  In honour of our host, I must mention the Boucherottes 1970.  This is the year when M. Lardière joined Maison Jadot as assistant oenologist.  The wine is noble in flavour with superb deep tannins.  He pauses, then adds, “This is the only one which is starting to be ready and drinkable” - a breathtaking lifetime’s work.  It’s almost a tease.  I sip it wistfully.

Oh yes, we enjoy supper too – if only as an excuse to pour full glasses of three more wines.  Boeuf Bourguignon, mushroom risotto and cheeses were the robust accompaniments needed.



So what will be keeping M. Lardière busy as from 1 January, I ask.  A spot of painting and wood turning at home, he tells me.  He will enjoy the house he had commissioned in 1978 which is just five minutes north east of Beaune; clearly a house built with the soul of the terroir.  

Somehow, I don’t think he’ll be able to keep away from the tasting room.

The wines:
Corton Charlemagne Grand Cru  2008,1999, 1993, 1988, 1978, 1974.
Beaune 1er Cru Clos des Ursules 2001, Grèves 1996,  Theurons 1995,  Clos des Ursules 1988, Clos des Couchereaux 1979, Boucherottes 1970.

Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru 2010
Moulin à Vent Clos de Grand Carquelin 2009 in magnum
Beaune 1er Cru Boucherottes 2000

www.louisjadot.com
www.antique-wine.com

Read about Luiz @TheLondonFoodie’s barrel tasting at Maison Jadot in Beaune
http://www.thelondonfoodie.co.uk/2011/08/london-foodie-goes-to-france-beaune.html

Su-Lin Ong (@sloLondon) enjoyed the London #4Decades tasting on behalf of The London Foodie as a guest of Louis Jadot, Antique Wine Co, R&R.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The Curious Club & Your Chance to Win a Brancott Estate Hamper


Words by Su-Lin Ong

Once before I’ve seen waiters and guests disappear mysteriously behind a wall panel at Gauthier.  This award winning restaurant just off the main Soho drag is a plush narrow townhouse with uneven winding stairs and a cluster of dining rooms.  

And so with the secret wall panel shut tight, and the raucous party in the next room silenced, we are in this tiny hidden dining room ready for our curious dinner party to begin.


Adrian Atkinson is hosting Brancott Estate’s first Curious Club dinner.  We have been gathered as guests because … erm, we must have some kind of reputation for being insatiable, overly question hungry, knowledge seeking gourmands.  Well, tonight we’re off the leash.

Adrian is a wine industry lifer. A geography degree led to studying the science of terroir, and onward to a buying role at Oddbins.  Now he is a regular commuter to New Zealand, to the beautiful Brancott Estate (until a few years ago, known as the Montana brand).  He strikes up my envy as he steals a moment to show me his phone photos of these wondrous vineyards rolling out beneath a luminous sky.  He then flicks to close-ups of tame falcons rescued within the Estate’s conservation area.  I get the scene.

Photos: Adrian Atkinson



Photos: Adrian Atkinson
It was the first to plant Sauvignon Blanc in Marlborough in 1973, in a region so far south that it was considered unlikely to thrive.  The curiosity paid off.  A sharp drop in night time temperatures coupled with high day time temperature creates high acidity and locks in the signature floral flavours of the Sauvignon Blanc.  

Apart from when a bunch of girlfriends and I often choose a Marlborough Sauv Blanc on an easy catch-up type of night, I have not really explored beyond this.  So, it is a revelation tonight when flutes of Sauvignon Blanc Brut NV greet us as our sparkling aperitif - fresh, grassy and passion fruit scented with a string of fine bubbles.  It is the official NZ wine for the Rugby World Cup, and I can see how it’s just the right kind of refreshing fizz for a celebratory moment.

We are enjoying an early Christmas dinner and the menu is rich and opulent, but I recognise the Alexis Gauthier flourish of lightness from his garden menu, previously at Roussillon.  Tonight’s is the perfect meal to show off the vibrancy of the Sauv Blancs.  The Sauvignon Gris which follows gives an easy transition with a fuller palate.  A second Sauv Blanc, a 2011, gives richer more concentrated flavours and texture as a result of short ageing in French oak.  We trial all three wines with a succulent lobster salad strewn with lemon and artichoke and spiked with mustard.  For me, this is the triumph of the night’s dishes.

Photo: Su-Lin Ong

A soft, low tannin Pinot Noir is then poured to accompany an aromatic truffle risotto.  This is where I’ve learned to overcome dinner party shyness of asking for more - just say you need an extra shave of that beguiling truffle to get a better action photo.  

Adrian manages to answer our barrage of questions with a non-stop flurry of facts.  We learn about the meticulous technique of planting East to West, for this thin-skinned Pinot Noir is hard to grow.  It also goes perfectly with our main of melting Highland venison.  I try a switch back to the 2011 Sauv Blanc and see how it complements the delicate pumpkin and pear accompanying the meat.

It’s Christmas pudding for dessert.  It may look like a school pud, but this one is super-light and I’m eyeing a second glass of that Brut NV.

Photo: Su-Lin Ong

Instead, a more tantalising offering arrives.  A luscious late harvest Sauv Blanc bursts with that same peachy aroma, but slides down more easily than the fizz.  Only 500 bottles are available in the UK, and they are unusually being released via orders on Facebook only.  As a Trophy winner in the 2012 Decanter World Wine Awards, it is set to be snapped up within a whisper.

Photo: Su-Lin Ong

This is a truly crafted dinner and the wines have bound together all these sumptuous flavours.  I have tripped through without that guilty over-fill of Christmas Day.  But just when I feel I am understanding it all, there is an odd surreal moment.  A plate with chocolate chilli popcorn is passed round.  I eat it staring at a picture on the wall of a soup tin with a bottle of Coke plunged in it.  Really?

Photo: Su-Lin Ong

We eventually emerge from behind the wall panel.  I can sense someone wonder as we pass on the landing, “What could possibly have left these guests smiling?” 

Curious they shall remain, but enlightened are we as new members of the Curious Club.

HOW TO ENTER THIS COMPETITION

To enter the competition to win a Brancott Estate Hamper containing a bottle of Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc Brut NV, two Riedel celebration glasses and all you need to make the perfect blini – premium smoked salmon, crème fraiche, lemon and chives on Wednesday, the 19th December 2012, simply leave a comment in this post stating your NAME and E-MAIL address as MrBloggs(at)gmail(dot)com by midday on Wednesday, the 19th December 2012.


The lucky winner will be randomly selected using random.org and his/her name will be announced via Twitter (follow @thelondonfoodie) at 8pm on that same day.

To increase your chances of winning (every tweet/retweet will count as an additional entry - up to 1 tweet per follower), follow and tweet me on @thelondonfoodie for @BrancottEstate competition by midday on Wednesday, the 19th December 2012.

If you do not use Twitter, I will also be publishing the winner's name here on Friday, the 21st December 2012.

The lucky winner of this competition, randomly selected by random.org, was entrant number 5 - Benvfood! Congrats Ben, and thank you for entering the competition.


The first Curious Club menu & wines

Canapés 
Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc Brut NV

Warm lobster salad, confit lemon, tomatoes & artichokes, 
with coral & grain mustard dressing
Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2011 and Letter Series 'B' Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Black winter truffle risotto
Letter Series Renwick Sauvignon Gris 2011 and Classic Pinot Noir 2011

Roast loin of Highland venison with celeriac & truffle purée, 
caramelized pumpkin & poached Williams pear
Letter Series 'T' Pinot Noir 2010

Christmas pudding
Letter Series 'B' Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc 2011

Brancott Estate wines are widely available, £10 to £16.  www.brancottestate.com

Gauthier Soho, 21 Romilly Street, London, W1D 5AF.   Tel: 020 7494 3111.  www.gauthiersoho.co.uk

Su-Lin Ong (@sloLondon) enjoyed the night on behalf of The London Foodie as a guest of Brancott Estate, Gauthier, and Weber Shandwick.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Krug Institute of Happiness with Nuno Mendes


Words by Karen Yates

On a cold, dark winter’s night, what a pleasure to be collected by car and driven to Highgate, to a stylish, glass-fronted building that by day overlooks the famous cemetery, to enjoy food cooked by the affable Nuno Mendes of Michelin-starred Viajante in Bethnal Green, matched by Krug champagnes in the company of Olivier Krug, whose great great great grandfather started the company in 1843.



The idea behind the pop-up Krug Institute of Happiness is that everything you taste, see, smell and hear brings you pleasure. So, after being welcomed with a glass of Krug Grande Cuvée and canapés including softest-ever cuttlefish with lardo, we sat down to a final canapé of black olive cake with yeast and crushed potatoes. Between courses, Nuno explained that each endorphin-releasing dish was intended to evoke comforting and joyous memories.



First was cured lobster, spring onion and consommé with spruce bark, enjoyed with a glass of Krug 1998, whose apple, pear and toast notes worked well with the lobster.

Image by Karen Yates

Next was halibut with seaweed sofrito and seafood rice broth, whose intense, Japanese flavours were matched by a bold and slightly citrussy Krug 2000. Safe to say my happiness levels were rising.

Image by Karen Yates

At this point, Olivier Krug joined our table as we tucked into aged pigeon buried under ‘fallen autumn leaves’, enjoyed with Krug Rosé, which has citrus notes, a slight cherry flavour and a fine, silky texture. According to Olivier, this rosé champagne is Madonna’s guilty pleasure. One of his people had told him she’d announced it in a tweet, and that it must be “worth an ’ashtag”. Well, if it’s good enough for her Madgesty…


At that point, there was a collective “aaaah!” and we looked outside to see the first snow of the season. A few cynics among us noticed it was falling in front of only one window, and was clearly designed purely for our happiness.


The final, deeply comforting dish was as delicate as a snowflake and melted in the mouth. It was named simply ‘milk’ and described as ‘a return to the beginning, happy memories of home’, and we were back to where we started with a glass of Krug Grande Cuvée. 

For those in need of further joy, plates of chocolate truffles appeared with the coffees.

Before this evening, guests were asked as series of questions, including what music makes you happy and what’s your favourite sweet. Throughout the evening, a pianist played people’s chosen songs – one excitable guest joined him at the piano and sang along – and in the car home I felt in my coat pocket and pulled out a bag of liquorice allsorts, tied with a big red ribbon. Little bespoke touches like these certainly upped the happiness factor. 

The next morning, by the way, I woke to the first snow of the year. Perhaps, after all, the institute really had worked its magic.

This pop-up experience was available only until 8 December 2012, but then happiness is always fleeting.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Afternoon Tea at Cannizaro House


Words and Photography by Felicity Spector

It was almost too pretty to eat. I say almost, because of course I fell on the three-tiered cake stand with rather indecent haste.

But the chefs at Cannizaro House, one of Mantis Collection's privately owned boutique hotels, have put a lot of effort into their new Christmas afternoon tea, which showcases the considerable talent of pastry chef Dharma Shrestha, and all his twenty one years of experience.



Before tea, though, we were given a brief tour of the boutique hotel, nestled on the edge of Wimbledon Common, with its own thirty four acres of parkland. In spring, there is a gorgeous display of rhododendrons and azaleas: a sunken Italian garden: now it's winter, the builders are at work constructing a new orangery, so guests can enjoy the gardens all year round.

The forty six rooms are all individually decorated and named after famous historical figures who've stayed there in the past: with green space all around, you'd hardly think you were on the edge of London. There's plenty of local artwork on display, too: all of it available to buy.
But back to the kitchen, which not only has a two AA rosette award, but has just been voted best fine dining restaurant in this year’s Time and Leisure awards.

The hotel had invited us for a sneak preview of the Christmas tea - although first, there was a bit of a cookery lesson.

Chef Dharma emerged into the lounge carrying a tray of just-baked speculoos gingerbread men and a range of coloured icings.

His deft hand with the piping bag made it look ridiculously easy, adding bow ties and buttons and smiley faces, followed by a beautiful display of calligraphy as he spelled out the words 'Merry Christmas' on the tray. My effort was rather less professional: my first gingerbread man sported more of a splodge than confectionery couture, and the second had a distinctly sinister expression.



Perhaps I would have better luck with the next task. A line of miniature Valrhona chocolate cakes was laid out, ready to be dipped in liquid chocolate, and then covered with a quenelle of spiced chocolate cremeaux and a sprinkle of bronze coloured popping candy.
After failing to produce anything like an exact replica of the chef's version, I like to think my chocolate dipping was generous rather than clumsy. My efforts at quenelle making, though, were frankly laughable.

I finally managed to spoon out a manageable dollop, which sat proudly on top of the cake for about eleven seconds before sliding inexorably onto the plate.

Luckily distraction was on hand: the full afternoon tea had arrived.

And what a spread: a stack of finger sandwiches, just to get going, including a rich egg mayonnaise on light rye bread and smoked salmon on granary.



Then it was onto the fruit scones, warm and soft, with the obligatory clotted cream and some rather good home-made strawberry jam.



The Christmas seasonal offering included the mini chocolate cakes we had dipped earlier, made with ground almonds and a splash of rum, and topped with delicate quenelles of cremeaux - all of it sourced from Valrhona.

Next there were mince pies, with a shortbread-like pastry and just the right amount of mincemeat inside, crowned with a swirl of brandy butter cream. They didn't last long.

I couldn't resist a thick triangle of eggnog cheesecake, smooth and luscious with a good layer of crunchy biscuit base - but the standout dessert was the chestnut and clementine shot, a beautifully light combination of mousse and panna cotta in a shot glass, which proved absolutely irresistible. I think I may have polished off all three of them.

As for the spiced gingerbread men, I took home my creations in a handy box, the better to preserve my rather unique decorating efforts. I might not win any prizes for sugar work, but judging from the rest of the festive treats we enjoyed at the afternoon tea, I am sure they will taste a lot better than they look.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

London Restaurant Review - Min Jiang at the Royal Garden Hotel


Exquisite Chinese cuisine with eye-popping views

Words and Photography by Simeen Kadi

The popularity of hotel restaurants have waxed and waned over the last half century and a decade ago most of us locals wouldn't be seen dead in a hotel restaurant (OK, Claridges, the Met and the American Bar at the Savoy are exceptions) for fear of being taken for a hapless tourist. Today, some of the capitals most starry hotels also house some of our most lauded eateries. I must say that I still feel a little uncomfortable walking into a London hotel for a meal. Somehow they seem to be outside national boundaries, occupying some rarified no man's land, like first class lounges at airports or very exclusive shopping malls – fraternised by the international uber-elite. So, it was with a little reservation that I visited Min Jiang, a rooftop restaurant in the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington.

The restaurant does have the overdressed look of a 5 star hotel with Chinese art and 'Mingness' embellishing the sleek neutral tones. But then there is the view. Looking East there is all of West and Central London laid out, right down to the Shard, twinkling in the clear night sky when I was there.

And then there is the food! But first, we tried some of their cocktails. The Golden Dragon
was a gently eastern mix of Vodka, Triple Sec, lime and mango juices while the more robust Chilli Caipirinha combined aged rum with lime and sugar with the oriental addition of chilli.

To go with the drinks we enjoyed a selection of dim sum which were exquisite – the finest dumpling casings stuffed to plumpness with delicate prawns, scallops, crab and water chestnuts. These were beautifully crafted dumplings and not your run-of-the-mill Chinatown product.

And then, as I go weak at the knees at the very prospect of Hong Kong soft shell crab, I did the right thing and gave into temptation – I was not disappointed. Bi Feng Tang with Garlic and Chilli, to give it its proper name, was crisp and zingy with crispy garlic and Sichuan pepper, one of those memorable experiences which stays with you.

Min Jiang's culinary heart is in southern China and features the cuisines of Sichuan province alongside Cantonese dishes. While the food is not unbearably spicy as some Sichuan dishes can be, there is an unmistakable intensity and flavour that comes from the use of Sichuan pepper and chilli. Dried Sichuan chillies featured in many of the dishes we tried and were aromatic and heady, rather than eye-wateringly painful on the palate. Named after the Min river which flows through the abundant Sichuan province, Min Jiang may have tempered their dishes slightly for Western palates but they still do this venerable cuisine proud.

The main event, however, was still to come. At Min Jiang the Beijing Duck is roasted in a wood-fired oven and is, by their own claim, legendary. Prepared by an army of chefs from Beijing, each duck takes 48 hours to craft as it is stuffed with apples and dried in order to ensure a crispy skin. The birds are an unique breed raised only by one elderly couple in the Irish county of Monaghan (they turn their feathers and down into pillows and jackets, in case you are interested).

The Beijing Duck ritual occupies no fewer than three chefs as whisper-thin pancakes are prepared alongside fine shreds of cucumber and leek. Here, we also get another trio of accompaniments of a delicate garlic paste and strips of lightly pickled carrots and radish alongside a rich Hoisin sauce. If you are so inclined, you can ask your waiter to roll your pancake for you as every waiter has undergone intensive training in how to deliver the perfect Beijing Duck pancake using nothing more than a pair of chopsticks. The staff here are very knowledgeable and even gave me a mini lesson in Chinese dining etiquette.

We watched our duck being expertly carved by a chef who began by stripping off the crispy fat from the neck which was served to us in little dishes along with some sugar. This is a long-held tradition in Beijing where figure-conscious women deluded themselves that dipping the fat in sugar made it taste less oleaginous and therefore less fattening – go figure. I loved the crispiness of the skin but am not fully convinced of the sugar dip.

If you order the Wood Fired Beijing Duck, you get the remainder of the meat served in other dishes to follow the pancake rolls. We opted for diced duck on lettuce leaves and fried rice with duck which were both great ways to use up the parts of the fowl which couldn't be carved into slices. We also enjoyed other main course dishes from the menu, a stand out of which was the black cod and the beef in pepper sauce. The Alaskan Black Cod was marinated in Sha Cha sauce – a commonly used Chinese stir-fry sauce made from garlic, onions, dried shrimps and soy sauce - and roasted to perfection. The rib eye of beef was succulent with a wallop of peppery flavour.

Details: Min Jiang is on the rooftop of Royal Garden Hotel on High Street Kensington http://www.minjiang.co.uk

Expect to pay around £50 per head with a glass of wine
The Wood Fired Beijing Duck is £58 for a whole duck and £32 for half

Monday, 26 November 2012

The London Foodie Goes to Malaysia - Penang


Penang is considered by many to be the most gastronomic destination in Malaysia. Street food is undoubtedly Penang's main attraction for KL urbanites and international visitors alike, and with Air Asia flights costing as little as £20 for a one way flight from KL, it should feature in any gourmet Malaysian itinerary.

A relatively large island, Penang was home to fewer than one hundred fishermen until it was settled and developed by the British in 1786. Its capital is Georgetown, a UNESCO world heritage site, which boasts the largest concentration of pre-war houses in all of southeast Asia. Most visitors stay either in Georgetown (see "What to Do" below), or on the northern beach at Batu Ferringhi where the resort hotels are.



Where to Stay

Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa

I stayed at the five-star Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa, located on Batu Ferringhi  Beach in the northwest of Penang, around 20 minutes drive from Georgetown.  Opened in 1973 as Malaysia's first deluxe hotel, it was closed for 21 months and given a £20m refit to re-open in 2006 as a  luxury resort, with a 30 acre landscaped garden overlooking the sea.  It is part of the Shangri-La hotel group, which owns hotels throughout Asia and the Middle East.



The decor of the hotel is luxurious, as befits its five star status, but in an elegant local style.  Its distinctive Minangkabau architecture is home to artefacts of Malaysian culture including traditional jewellery, batik-printing moulds, and coral sculptures.  The gardens are particularly impressive, the hotel having been built around some massive trees thought to be over 200 years old, between the building and the sea.  More recent planting has served to provide a great deal of privacy for guests and pool users, and has some unusual features including bamboo topiary.




The hotel has two different grades of accommodation - the original building, known as the Garden Wing, and since 2003, the Rasa Wing with some additional exclusive features. These include larger rooms, a separate private swimming pool for those aged over 16 with a free soft drink waiter service, and complimentary afternoon high-tea, pre-dinner cocktails and canapés. 


I stayed in a Rasa Wing  Premier room, which had an oversized balcony bathtub and private veranda, as well as a massive interior bathroom, wet room, living area and bedroom.






I loved the spacious and elegantly decorated room, but particularly enjoyed having a soak in the balcony bathtub during a fierce tropical storm. The view from the balcony was also stunning, overlooking the gardens, swimming pool and spa.




We had breakfast in two areas  - a la carte at the Ferringhi  Grill within the Rasa Wing, and in the Spice Market Cafe in the Garden Wing. Both were good, with the Ferringhi  rather quieter and more formal, the Spice Garden offering a wider variety and a more relaxed feel.




I had the feeling that whichever part of the hotel I had stayed at, I would have had a great time.  However, I felt that the upgrade to the Rasa Wing was well worth the extra if only for the fantastic Negronis and glasses of sparkling wine we had during the cocktail hour of 6 to 7pm, with accompanying Asian tapas.




On one of our evenings there, we had Roti Jala Rolled Cone, Ginger Chicken Rice Paper, Curry Potato Samosa, Salmon Fillet Terikaki and Russian Filled Potato. These all tasted freshly made and delicately flavoured.

Golden Sands Resort

Next door to the Rasa Sayang, and also owned by the Shangri-La group of hotels, is the Golden Sands Resort.  It has been a favourite family holiday destination in Malaysia for locals and visitors for many years. Surrounded by tropical gardens, it has one of the largest outdoor swimming pools in Batu Ferringhi.




View from my room at Golden Sands Resort
We spent two nights in this hotel, and stayed in a deluxe sea-facing room with a private balcony offering great views of the beach, pool and gardens.  Although not overly luxurious, I felt that the room was tastefully decorated and of a good standard for its class.  It also had a flat screen TV, DVD player, satellite TV, an iPod dock and free broadband internet access.



The hotel caters for young children with a Kids Club offering educational programmes for children aged 4 to 12.  There is also an indoor entertainment complex equipped with drop slides, multiple sections of modular play equipment, and a game zone.




These areas are supervised, freeing up the parents who can relax by the two lagoon-shaped pools, or enjoy some of the activities available at the hotel including paragliding and canoeing, golf, three tennis courts and cookery lessons.



I felt the breakfast was quite something at the Golden Sands, with a huge buffet of dishes including Nasi Lemak, Congee, Roti Canai, Dim Sum, as well as western favourites like fried bread with cinnamon and butter, and waffles with maple syrup, cooked English breakfast as well as a wide variety of juices, yoghurts and cereals.



The Garden Cafe is the hotel's all day dining option, serving local as well as international dishes, while Sigi's Bar and Grill on the Beach offers child friendly options such as burgers, fish and chips, wood-fired pizza, and other dishes to munch on by the pool or beach.



Where to Eat

Famous for its street food, Penang's hawker specialties are endless, and if this more casual style of eating is your thing, Penang is bound to tick all the boxes.



Some of Penang's specialties include Assam Laksa (a hot and sour fish soup), Hokkien Mee (prawns in chilli noodle soup) and Inche Kabin (chicken marinated in spices and then fried). Penang as well as Malacca are the culinary centres of Nyonya cuisine in Malaysia.



Whether staying at the Golden Sands or the Rasa Sayang, the hotels have two restaurants each, catering for different styles of eating and budgets.  Golden Sands has casual, family oriented dining options in the Garden Cafe (set price for a buffet style dinner) and Sigi's Bar and Grill (a la carte menu). Rasa Sayang has an upmarket buffet at the Spice Market, and a western fine-dining option at the Ferringhi Grill which is said to be one of the best restaurant in Penang.


Spice Market Cafe at Rasa Sayang Resort

While staying at the Rasa Sayang, one of our most memorable dinners was at the Spice Market Cafe.  Fixed-price buffets change daily, but on the night we were there, there was an excellent fish and seafood themed evening, with plenty of freshly shucked oysters on ice, crab, lobster and a sushi and sashimi counter.




Sushi Counter at Spice Market Cafe, Rasa Sayang Resort
The dishes were varied, including some Chinese, Malay, Nyonya and western favourites, like Wok Fried Garoupa Fillet with Macadamia Nut, Saffron Rice Salad with Seafood, and a whole station dedicated to a wide selection of desserts including Nyonya Kuih, cakes, waffles, chocolate fruit dips and a tempting variety of ripe tropical fruits.



On another night, after an overly boozy cocktail hour at Rasa Sayang (which ran to three), and several Negronis later, we stumbled across a collection of hawker stalls at the nearby Long Beach Food Court.  We made for the Chinese Cuisine stall, where I had one of the best (and cheapest) meals of my trip.




The Crispy Belacan Chicken at a mere 10 Malaysian Ringgit (£2.50) was richly flavoursome,  with a pronounced umami character from the belacan, as was the Kangkong Belacan at 8 Ringgit (£2), and the seafood rice also at 8 Ringgit.  It is definitely a place I would seek out if I should ever return to Batu Ferringhi.

During a visit to Georgetown, we were advised to avoid the touristic street food options at Gurney Road, and instead to try the hawker stalls at New Lane.




There we had an oyster omelette and char koay teow.  I thought the oysters were disturbingly gelatinous, and the char koay teow was far from memorable, but then they cost almost nothing and I guess you get what you pay for.




We had some hawker stall recommendations in Georgetown made by my friend May, of Malaysian by May, which unfortunately we didn't have time to pursue.  These are below:

The best Hokkien Mee - Penang specialty ( Prawn Mee Soup) is on Jalan Burma ( Burma Road) at Swee Kong Coffee Shop, directly opp the Pulau Tikus Police Station. Daily except Thursdays. From 6.00am to 8.30am.

The best Char Koay Teow is of course the Lady With the Red Beret on Lorong Selamat. Daily 11.30am to 5 ish.

The best Nonya Restaurant is Rumah Perut on Kelawei Road.  Otherwise try E.T Restaurant on Rangoon Road. It is a steamboat restaurant but for the locals who know, they serve home cooked Nyonya Food. i.e. Joo Hu Char, Gulai Assam Fish, Lor Bak, Assam Prawns. Also - Mama's on Abu Siti Lane. 

The best BBQ crabs are in a run down rustic seafood restaurant on the way down from the beach: The Sea Pearl Lagoon Cafe in Tanjong Tokong. Have the crabs, salt baked prawns, the oyster omelette from the stalls and the char kway teow.

Whatever else you may eat in Penang, one thing you should not miss is the Ice Kacang.  We had a lovely example of this at the Rasa Sayang hotel. This is a sweet and refreshing dessert made from shaved ice, vanilla ice cream, sweetened red bean, creamed sweet corn, palm fruit, strips of dried nutmeg as well as colourful jellies drenched in palm sugar syrup and rose syrup.



What to Do

Visit to Georgetown

Wherever you stay, a visit to Georgetown is essential, with many colonial buildings still in existence, as well as a thriving Chinatown with it original shophouses and mansions, Little India, and the elegant Eastern & Oriental Hotel.




Relaxing on Batu Ferringhi Beach

In Batu Ferringhi, there is the beach during the day, and shopping and eating in the evening.  There is a coastal road with numerous simple stalls along the way, as well as a few internet cafes, trinket stalls, tailors'  shops and street food hawkers, as well as some more formal (and relatively expensive) seafood restaurants. 

If you stay, like me, at the Rasa Sayang Hotel, there are two adult and one children's outdoor swimming pools, a tennis court and golf course, and a nearby water sports centre offers water-skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, windsurfing and deep-sea fishing.



There is a health club with a full range of gym equipment, a hydropool, sauna and steam room, as well as daily Tai Chi classes.  Children can make use of the Adventure Zone indoor supervised playground located between Rasa Sayang and the next door Golden Sands resort.


The Rasa Sayang Spa is large, with 11 private villas, offering Himalayan barley rubs, healing stone and traditional Malay massages.  The interiors are luxurious, with granite walls, timber flooring and silk furnishing. I unfortunately did not try any of the treatments at the spa during my stay so I cannot fully recommend them; although if the high standards everywhere else in the hotel are anything to go by, the treatments at the spa are also likely to be very good.



Travel Essentials

Direct flights from London to Kuala Lumpur are available with British Airways and Malaysian Airlines.  Middle Eastern airlines provide indirect flights at lower cost, with a 60-120 minute stopover.  For example Etihad (changing at Abu Dhabi), or Qatar Airlines (changing at Doha).

Penang can be reached most easily from Kuala Lumpur by flying with AirAsia (http://www.airasia.com) (approximately £80 return).

Package tours including flights from the UK and accommodation at Rasa Sayang Resort and Spa and Golden Sands Resort are available from Kuoni Travel (http://www.kuoni.co.uk), and Virgin Travel (http://www.virginholidays.co.uk).

Interesting sites about Malaysia:
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