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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 31 May 2012

My SweDish Blind Date!

With Jonas Dahlbom, from Luleå, Swedish Lapland

It was with a mixture of intrigue and excitement that I accepted a SweDish Blind Date dinner at my home earlier this month organised by the nice people from Visit Sweden. But before you get the wrong idea - Dr G and four other guests were also present!

If you think of Sweden as the land of meatballs and Gravadlax (as I used to), think again. Sweden is rapidly becoming a major holiday destination, particularly because of its exciting culinary scene with its focus on nature, seasonality and local produce. Swedish Lapland's midnight sun and long winters have inspired a local cuisine that is distinct from the rest of Sweden and, indeed, the world.  The hunter-gatherer tradition is at the core of the northern Swedish culture, tracing back to the customs of the indigenous Sami people (who inhabited Lapland for many centuries across what we now know as Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia).

One of Sweden's leading culinary lights is Jonas Dahlbom, who won the country's national 'Chef of the Year' title in 1996, working in some of the top restaurants in Gothenburg. Some years ago, he moved north to Swedish Lapland, to set up his own restaurant 'Dahlbom på Torget'. There, he creates menus from ingredients found uniquely in this part of Sweden, like cloudberries, Kalix bleak roe and reindeer.

Jonas and his team arrived to wow us with a magnificent dinner showcasing some of the finest produce that Luleå in Swedish Lapland has to offer. He had meticulously prepared the dishes at the Swedish Embassy in London, so not long after he arrived we were ready to kick off.

We started with a canapé of "Kalix bleak roe with creamed Västerbotten cheese, chive gelée and tunnbröd (Swedish Lapland flatbread)". Kalix bleak is a fish from the salmon family, whose roe is harvested from the Bothnian Bay archipelago of the Baltic Sea.  I was intrigued to learn that it is often served at royal dinners, and is routinely served at the Nobel prize banquets as 'Caviar of Kalix'. It made a lovely appetiser on flatbread, with piped cheese and chive accompaniments.

The canapé was followed by "Cured char with whipped burnt butter, toasted 'kavring' dark rye bread, cucumber, thyme and allspice". Char is an arctic fish, with a similar colour and texture to salmon, but with smaller fillets.  Although prolonged salt-curing of fish was traditionally used to preserve it for an extended period, today it is more often cured briefly to add an interesting flavour and to firm up the texture.  Jonas' version was pan-fried, served with rye bread toasted crumbs, deliciously sweet pickled cucumbers, and a nutty whipped burnt butter which went perfectly with this type of dish. I also loved Jonas' presentation with the toasted rye bread crumbs and micro-herbs giving it a delicate and sophisticated appearance.

For main course, Jonas served us "Smoked reindeer heart with beetroot, smoked mushroom and herb infused oil, onions and dill". I can't say I've ever eaten any part of a reindeer before, let alone the heart.  I was intrigued by this dish and very pleasantly surprised; it reminded me an Italian Bresaola but with a denser texture. Reindeer heart, a traditional part of the Sami diet, was delicious, firm and meaty and well accompanied by the paper-thin slices of beetroot, onions and dill.

As a cheese course, we had "Extra mature Himmelsraften (unpasteurised cows milk cheese) with creamed bitter almonds, cloudberries and roasted almonds". Himmelsraften is a washed hard cheese from Jämtland, somewhat reminiscent of the lovely Comte.  It was served with cloudberries - amber coloured fruit similar to raspberries in flavour.  Able to survive temperatures as low as -40°C, they are native to Nordic countries and Russia, and were an unusual but pleasing partner to the cheese. 

For dessert, Jonas' "Frozen chocolate with warm crowberries and sea buckthorn petit fours, sea buckthorn meringue and caramel nut brittle" was the pièce-de-resistance of this lovely meal. This was a very fine dessert, again combining a number of Arctic ingredients including crowberries, from a small evergreen shrub resistant to subarctic climates, and part of the traditional Sami diet. Sea buckthorn is a shrub resistant to salty conditions in both air and soil, so can grow near the sea.  Its berries are difficult to harvest because thorns are hidden among the clusters, and they taste bitter and acidic unless cooked, but the plucky Sami people are clearly very persistent, and manage to make some delicious dishes using this unlikely berry.  It made a very fine conclusion to the meal.  

Jonas brought a selection of Swedish beers, and a powerful 38% alcohol distilled spirit made from White Birch sap, known as Sav Snaps, which we downed in one at Jonas' recommendation, chilled to -20°C.  Bracing stuff.     

My guests and I thoroughly enjoyed this exploration of the flavours and ingredients of Swedish Lapland with a very accomplished chef to guide us. It certainly opened my eyes to some of the interesting cooking techniques and unusual ingredients native to this part of the world. I am very much hoping to follow up with a visit to Sweden, and Luleå in particular, as soon as I get the chance. 

Many thanks to VisitLuleå, VisitSweden, the Swedish Embassy in London, and Jonas Dahlbom and his team for a special and very educational evening.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

London Restaurant Reviews - The Gilbert Scott

Marcus Wareing's Modern British Cuisine at the Renaissance Hotel, Kings Cross

There are few things that have excited me more about the chronically neglected King's Cross area in the last 20 years than hearing about the renovation of King's Cross station, with the spectacularly restored St Pancras Renaissance Hotel that sits above the mainland and Eurostar platforms.  

Designed by architect Gilbert Scott in 1866, the hotel is considered to be one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Britain today. Originally the Midland Grand Hotel, it officially opened  in 1873 at a cost of almost £500 million in today's currency. Just as at its launch, today after extensive renovation, the hotel oozes luxury.  The Victorian decor is lavish with extensive decoration in gold leaf, original Victorian tile flooring, ornate stencilling and flamboyant wallpapers.

I can't think of anywhere that recalls more evocatively the time when train travel was an elegant experience.  For any visitor from Europe, it is hard to think of a better arrival point in the capital.    

Recently I had the opportunity to visit The Gilbert Scott Restaurant.  We kicked off the evening at its sumptuous bar, located at the entrance of the restaurant, with a couple of cocktails.  Dr G went for the Voiron Spring Punch @ £10.50, a refreshingly herbaceous pick-me-up made of Pisco, Yellow Chartreuse, lavender and soda.  I opted for the Yupanqui @ £11, reminiscent of a Negroni, but made from Bourbon, Campari, cherries and orange, making for an admirably astringent, palate-cleansing start to the evening. 

At the restaurant, the menu is, famously, English in character and the dishes that we chose reflect that.  For starters, we had Dorset crab, pomelo, fennel, chilli and coriander @ £9.50.  A quenelle of dressed crab with a crisp salad of fennel strips made for a simple but well-constructed dish. We took the sommelier's suggestions, and went for a glass of Domaine de l'Aumonier, a chenin blanc from Touraine.  This was very good, with intense flavours of stone fruits like peach and quince, and crisp acidity to match the zingy salad.

We also had Duke of Berkshire pork belly, Yorkshire rhubarb @ £8.50.  I must say I had been hoping for pork belly with crunchy crackling, and this dish had none, but the little drops of intense rhubarb puree were a pleasingly tart contrast to the unctuously soft pork. With it, we had a glass of Chateau Ste Michelle & Dr Loosen, Eroica 2010 Riesling.  The Riesling (from Washington State, USA) had sufficient fruit and mineral character to stand up to the fatty pork.

For the main course, we opted to share the Lake District rib of beef for two, bone marrow, red wine sauce @ £58, served medium rare.  The meat was well flavoured, although it was more medium than the medium rare we requested, and served with some whole ribs and discs of bone marrow.  Frankly at £58 for a rib of beef, I expected the earth to move and it didn't, although the red wine sauce was intensely flavourful.

We chose traditional English accompaniments including George's Chips with Sarson's mayonnaise @ £4, baked beans, smoked bacon, tomato @ £3, and cauliflower pudding, baked with nutmeg and cream @ £4.  All well made and seasoned. 

Again, we took the sommelier's recommendations, having a glass each of 2007 Cape Mentelle, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Margaret River, Australia, and Chateau Musar's second wine, Hochar 2005 from Lebanon. I have always loved Chateau Musar, and this Hochar was no exception with a complex nose of black fruits, dried figs and spice,  and well integrated tannins coming from the cinsault, cabernet and grenache blend. The Cape Mentelle was also pleasing, with the Bordeaux blend giving rise to blackcurrant and cherry characters and well integrated oak.      

For dessert, we had the Mrs Beeton's snow egg, rhubarb, custard, almonds @ £7, with a glass of 2007 La Magendia de Lapeyre, Jurançon.  The snow egg is an English version of îles flottante, with Everton toffee, peanuts and burnt honey custard.  This was good, with a nice crunch from the crushed toffee and nuts, although the layer of custard was only millimetres thick and almost impossible to spoon up.  The wine, made from 100% Petit Manseng, was a good partner, with exotic fruit flavours of pineapple and passion fruit. 

We also had  Banana sticky toffee pudding, spiced rum ice cream @ £8.  This went very well with a glass of 2005 Castelnau de Suduiraut, Sauternes, a semillon-sauvignon blend with concentrated aromas of marmalade and dates, and an admirably long finish.  

The sommelier, very kindly, agreed to show us around the kitchen and in particular the chef's table. This is nicely situated, and could make for a very interesting celebratory meal location for up to ten diners.

Dr G and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at The Gilbert Scott and we look forward to returning one day. However, at this price range, I feel that this restaurant faces tough competition from a number of Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Cost: Around £50 per person for a three-course meal, not including cocktails or wines.  

Likes: The bar and restaurant are imposing and impressive in design, the location is excellent for those travelling by train or Eurostar.  The cocktails are innovative and well-priced.  The food is well made, the menu compact but varied, and the sommelier is happy to put together a wine-flight that is appropriate to the food choices.

Dislikes: my rib of beef was overcooked and at £58, I didn't feel it was great value for money. 

Verdict: A good restaurant option for those using St Pancras station, in a stunning venue you are unlikely to forget.  Fine English cooking, with a commendable wine list.  Recommended.

The Gilbert Scott on Urbanspoon

Saturday 12 May 2012

Matching Japanese Food and Wine

Below is a piece I wrote on matching Japanese food and wine for the Real Wine Fair taking place in London on 20-22nd May 2012.

I am often asked in my Japanese supper clubs which wines diners should bring to match the food I serve.  Traditionally, and to a large extent to this day, food in Japan is served with sake or beer.  In recent years however, wine (along with other typically Western products such as cheese and butter) has gained a substantial share of the market especially among the younger generation.

When I lived in Tokyo, I drank my fair share of sake, with or without food, and really enjoyed it.  Old habits die hard though, and I found it difficult to manage without wine.  I was able to enjoy every local dish I cooked with a glass of wine, confirming my belief that almost any Japanese food can be matched with a quality wine.

One of the rules of thumb when matching food and wine is to match locally produced wine and food.  What to do though, when some of the primary flavours of the cuisine come from soy sauce, fermented soya beans and air dried fish with no locally produced wine to match?  It can be tricky.  Partnering Japanese food and western wines requires some careful thought because of the differences in flavour combination between Europe and Japan. A little understanding of Japanese cuisine goes a long way here.

To continue reading this article, visit the Real Wine Fair link HERE.    

Wednesday 9 May 2012

London Restaurant Reviews - Portal (Portuguese Fine Dining in Clerkenwell)

I have always had a soft spot for Portuguese cuisine, it brings back memories of some of the wonderful food I grew up eating in Brazil - Bolinho de Bacalhau, Pasteis de Nata, and Pork and Clams Alentejano to name a few. Porto is also one of my favourite cities in the world for many reasons including its fine seafood and wine, and I have been going there regularly for a few summers now (more here).

Portugal is also one of the very few countries in the world that have maintained and cultivated their native grapes for wine production, developing some fantastic wines of great finesse. These days when the range of grape varietals cultivated across the world is increasingly narrow, it is wonderful to see  some exciting and relatively unknown indigenous grapes being used to make the distinctive wines of Portugal.

So when I heard that Porto-born chef Jeronimo Abreu, who trained at the prestigious Ecole Superieur de Cuisine Francaise Ferrandi in Paris, had taken over the kitchen as Portal's new head chef, I decided to pay them a visit.

Opened in 2005, Portal is an elegant Clerkenwell restaurant serving a selection of Iberian tapas and traditional Portuguese dishes with a contemporary twist and an unrivalled range of Portuguese wines and Port (reputedly, the most extensive Portuguese wine cellar in London). Portal has a bar area at its entrance where guests can just pop in and enjoy a glass of Port, Portuguese beer or wine with a plate of tapas of their choice. The tall bamboo trees against the exposed brickwork encased in glass, the careful lighting and the beautiful but understated decor give this restaurant an air of discreet refinement which is pleasing and very Portuguese. 

On our visit, Dr G and I started at the bar sharing a plate of 50g Pata Negra (DOP Senorio Montanera) @ £17 served with various pickles and accompanied by a glass of chilled Terras do Demos Rose @ £9.50 (by Coop.A.Do.Tavoro). This was a delightful and refreshing wine made from the Touriga Nacional varietal, one of Portugal's finest grapes also used in the blend for Port wine.

We then moved on to the restaurant area, where we enjoyed a starter of crab and mussels spicy soup with coriander @ £8 and another of sautéed scallops served on tomato and olive brioche @ £14 which were both delightful.

The "Feijoada de Bacalhau" with asparagus, spinach and coriander @ £30 (for 2 people) was next. I love the Brazilian "feijoada" which is made from different cuts of pork and sausages but the Portuguese salted cod version was a first for me. The beans were soft and perfectly cooked as was the asparagus which still retained a nice bite. The bacalhau fillets were surprisingly good with the combination of beans, asparagus and other greens making for a hearty stew. 

For main Dr G had a plate of "Braised Bisaro (a Portuguese pig which is part-boar) with Green Asparagus and Chorizo Açorda" (bed of mixed bread, vegetables and chorizo) @ £22. The meat was meltingly tender having been marinated and cooked over many hours, and was very pleasing.

I very much enjoyed Dr G's braised bisaro, but whenever I go to Portuguese restaurants I tend to order what I feel the Portuguese excel at - bacalhau (salted cod). And so I ordered a plate of "Roasted Bacalhau with Black Eyed Peas Migas and Sautéed Turnip Greens" @ £20. It did not disappoint. The bacalhau was perfectly cooked, with a good firm texture, and just the right degree of saltiness.  It was sympathetically partnered with rich olive oil flavours of the migas, and the turnip greens. It is a dish I order frequently whenever I am in Portugal, where the migas are more commonly made with corn bread.  However, I thoroughly enjoyed Jeronimo's version with black eyed peas migas. 

One of the wonderful aspects of this restaurant is the opportunity to sample an array of fine Portuguese cheeses with a variety of Port and Madeira wines.  By this stage in the evening, we were rather full and skipped the cheeses, but were lucky enough to sample a wide range of their fortified wines ranging from bone dry to unctuously sweet - an experience I would heartily recommend to diners in view of the rarity of this experience and the sophistication of the wines.

For dessert, we opted for the Pasteis de Nata with cinnamon ice-cream @ £8, Figs Fondant with Figs Carpaccio @ £10 and, in a moment of gluttonous madness, the Coconut Crème Brulée with Apple and Strawberry Mille Feuille @ £7.  Pasteis de Nata are a quintessential Portuguese snack, and the version on offer at Portal is my opinion one of the best in London.  They were magnificent - rich, sweet burnt custard in a flaky pastry case, accompanied by a creamily intense cinnamon ice-cream. 

The coconut crème brulée was also wonderful, and endearingly eccentric in its upside-down presentation, nicely teamed with a glass of Madeira Barbeito "10 year old Sercial". The star of the show however was the figs fondant, gorgeously showcasing the excellent attributes of this much neglected fruit, and well worth the extra 10 minute wait. It was perfectly matched with a glass of Madeira Barbeito "Malvasia Reserva" @ £9.50.

Overall, I was very impressed with Portal, and I had better food here than I have found in Portugal.  Service was attentive without being intrusive, and the surroundings are discretely elegant.  The wine list is outstandingly good.  

Cost: A three course dinner costs around £40 per person, excluding drinks.  

Likes:  Refined surroundings, excellent service, wonderful food and probably the best and most extensive Portuguese cellar in London.

Dislikes: The only three-course set menu available for lunch and dinner at £40 per person is (in my opinion) a little steep, and it would be good to have more affordable food and wine options particularly at lunch or for the set dinner.

Verdict: Excellent Iberian cooking by new Porto chef Jeronimo Abreu in this well-established fine dining Portuguese restaurant in the heart of Clerkenwell.  One of the best and most extensive cellars of Portuguese wines, Ports and Madeiras in the UK, and the place to learn about the best that Portugal has to offer in food, wine and hospitality. Highly recommended.

Monday 7 May 2012


The inaugural Real Wine Fair is a wine tasting event, celebrating those in the wine trade who work organically or biodynamically in the vineyards and winery. Over 170 growers and winemakers will be presenting over 600 wines, made as naturally as possible. Visitors to The Real Wine Fair can meet and talk to the winegrowers, whilst having the opportunity to taste a diverse range of honest, terroir-driven wines.

And here is your opportunity to win a pair of tickets to this fabulous event.


To enter this competition, simply leave a comment in this post stating your NAME and E-MAIL address as MrBloggs(at)gmail(dot)com by midday on Friday 11th May 2012. The lucky winner will be randomly selected using random.org and his/her name will be announced via Twitter (follow @thelondonfoodie) soon after midday on the 11th May 2012.

If you do not use Twitter, I will also be publishing the winner's name here in the evening of the 13th May 2012.

Good luck!

The winner of this competition, randomly selected by random.org, was Samantha Whitlam, entrant number 11. Well done Samantha, and many thanks for entering the competition.
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