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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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Monday 29 April 2013

Young Chefs to Watch: Rising Star Aaron Ashmore

Words & Photography by Simeen Kadi

At 21 Aaron Ashmore has achieved more than most. He has worked in the kitchens of Angela Hartnett’s Murano, competed in Masterchef, The Professionals, making it to the tough semi-finals and, more recently, bagged himself a highly prized place in the kitchen of Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley. And all this has happened not simply through Aaron’s steely determination and commitment to hard graft – but because he is a very good cook.

While at the Berkeley his skill is put to good use in delivering Marcus Wareing’s culinary vision, I recently had the chance to experience Aaron’s cooking in a 7-course meal devised entirely by him. Helped by his friend Michal Majewski, another aspiring chef currently at the Ritz, Aaron showed 40 diners some deft culinary technique and flavour combinations. The evening was organised by Grub Club, a new dining venture on the London scene which aims to connect new, creative chefs with food lovers at pop-ups in interesting and unused venues around the capital.

Our first course was Smoked Egg, Cod Brandade and Hazelnuts with the egg yolk smoked just enough so as not to be too heavy when mixed into the brandade – the flavours matching beautifully. The hazelnuts were there to take away some of the richness.

Cured salmon came with a topping of ikura sprinkled with horseradish and a slick of grassy olive oil. The chicken was the best dish for me, the meat poached so it was moist and full of flavour. It came in a baked potato consommé which has to be my favourite way of enjoying a baked potato – all the earthy flavour with none of the stodgy carbs. The dish was helped along with generous shavings of truffle.

A crisply fried cube of spiced pulled pork worked very well with thin slices of fennel and a crackling hat.

The first dessert of pineapple, chilli and Prosecco was too heavy on the Prosecco cream with not enough chilli; a good enough pudding but not as exciting as it sounded on the menu. 
Then came a dish of marinated cubes of watermelon with a cucumber and lemon sorbet. Refreshing and clean flavours which belied the work put into achieving it.

Finally, we had a rich chocolate cream spiced with cardamom and served with a ginger and caramel tuile. The banana and peanuts were a good flavour addition but were slightly too blunt served in their natural state – but a lovely sweet all the same.

To match the meal, we enjoyed wines from Domaine Saint Hilaire, a wine estate and gorgeous Bed & Breakfast in the Languedoc owned by a British family. Son Daniel James was on hand to give us a light-hearted introduction to the wines.

Add to the mix some amazing card tricks from the magic genius Darius Ziatabari and we had all the makings of a great night out.

Find out more about Grub Club here
Follow Aaron Ashmore on @a_ashmore

Thursday 25 April 2013

Calçotada & Truffles, Wine Tastings and an Epic Dinner in Somontano

An area in the northern part of the province of Huesca in Spain, a few hours' drive from Barcelona, Somontano is a young and dynamic wine-producing region whose Denominación de Origen was established as recently as 1985. It has since then succeeded in earning a fine reputation for its boutique wineries and excellent wines.
Viñas del Vero is one of these producers, and I was lucky enough to be invited to visit their cellars earlier this year.

Taking its name from the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, Somontano (literally translated as "at the foot of the mountain") is an area of rolling hills and chalky soil, with cold, harsh winters and hot but short summers offering very good growing conditions for vines. The landscape in this part of Spain is breathtaking, dominated by the towering Pyrenees, the River Vero, and beautiful vineyards, olive groves and almond trees.

Part of the Gonzalez Byass Group (better known in the UK for their range of sherries like Tio Pepe), Viñas del Vero is Somontano's leading winery. The region's microclimate, with an average temperature of 11°C, and the diversity of soils like clay, chalk and limestone mean that a range of different grape varietals can be successfully planted and vinified there. I never associated Riesling or Gewürztraminer with any wine making region in Spain but was pleasantly surprised to see and try wines from these varietals in Somontano, produced by Viñas del Vero.

The Gewürztraminer was in fact quite a revelation, showing unmistakeable floral and citric notes typical of the grape, and good, refreshing acidity. A great wine to be enjoyed in summer which will go down a treat with any fish or seafood, but also most Asian and Oriental dishes.

A reputation for over-production, high yields and low quality table wines in the 1980s and 90s have unfortunately turned many people away from drinking Spanish wines. More recently, the country's most reputable wine makers have been turning this situation around by tackling some of these issues. Wines from areas like Priorat and Somontano can today rival some of the best in France or Italy. At Secastilla Valley, a delightful enclave of 7 villas and castles in Somontano, 100-year old garnacha vines are organically maintained and heavily pruned, the vines are stressed and their grapes carefully hand-picked to control yield and quality, producing some of Viñas del Vero's best, award-winning wines.

The Secastilla Valley is also where we went truffle hunting for the day, a great experience as the local expert and his trained dog managed to find us quite a few sizeable nuggets.

We then headed to the stunning Secastilla Vineyard where we had a selection of cheeses, cold hams, tomatoes and tortillas as well as barbecued lamb chops and sausages. The perfect spread to partner with Viñas del Vero's 2008 Secastilla label, made from those well-pruned 100-year old garnacha vines. This had intense, dark fruit tones, smooth tannins, and great length, all in all a very well structured wine.

Once a year, Viñas del Vero invite journalists, opinion leaders, and people from the wine industry from around Europe for their annual celebration entitled "Days of Wine and Truffles". It was a thrill to be among those invited to experience, in addition to truffle hunting, a magnificent 16-course truffle dinner prepared by Michelin starred chef Carmelo Bosque from Lillas Pastias Restaurant at Viñas del Vero's flagship winery Blecua.

The Blecua estate dates from the end of the 11th century, when it was used as a retreat by French Benedictine monks. Set in 14 hectares of vineyard, it was restored by Viñas del Vero to create a new winery for the sole purpose of making its top label wine: Blecua. Making Blecua involves a triple selection process - of the best seven vineyard sites, the best grapes (Garnacha, Tempranillo, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon), and the best barrels for the final blend. Unfiltered, the wine is aged for 20 months before being bottled. The production is thus limited and represents the best of Viñas del Vero winemaking. Unsurprisingly, Blecua retails at £62 in the UK.

The meal prepared by Carmelo Bosque was of epic proportions, and one of the most enjoyable I have had lately. Some of the highlights below.

Truffle macaron - I can still taste that truffled butter filling!

Truffled black olives with truffle shavings - spheriphication of black olive juice flavoured with truffles.

Lukewarm vegetable pot with truffle - dried, crumbled black olives and truffles as "earth", this was my favourite course of the dinner.

Jerusalem artichoke cream and caramelised salsify.

Potato skins with eel and onions.

Salad of "Gran Reserva" capon cooked in a glass bottle - local, free-range chicken, meltingly tender.

Oven baked "calçots" with crushed truffles and caramelised orange - calçots is a local variety of allium.

Rice "pasta" with truffle shavings and baked pancetta.

Fried black cod with civet and truffle - it was wonderful to try black cod in something other than a Japanese meal, the civet and truffle sauce was utterly delicious.

Gigot of beef with a buttered truffle purée.

Cheese with a black sesame syrup.

"Snow" truffle on a muscovado cream.

The meal was also an opportunity to taste Viñas del Vero's top label - the aforementioned Blecua. The 2005 vintage was released as late as October 2011, and is indeed a magnificent, full-bodied wine with deep cherry colour, well rounded tannins, sweet spices, liquorice and a fantastic length. A complex nose and well-structured wine, it is not surprising that it's been named as one of the four greatest wines of Spain.

It was a very slow start the following morning for everyone, but we made it in good time for a visit to Vilarnau Cava Winery before flying back home. Gonzalez Byass' Cava brand, Vilarnau is a state of the art winery, specialising in long-aged, small scale cavas. In addition to the three typical cava grapes, Parrellada, Xarello and Macabeo, the winery also blends Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trepat in its wines.

We were welcomed by the bubbly (no pun intended) Eva Plazas, the estate's head winemaker for a tour of the winery and full tasting. But before that, we tried a Catalan delicacy called "calçotada".

This is a dish made from char-grilled calçot, a local allium resembling something  between a spring onion and a leek, but milder in flavour and less bulbous. The grilling brought out the sweetness of the onion and imparted a delicious smokiness which went well with the romesco sauce they were dipped in. It can be rather messy (but fun) getting stuck into a "calçotada", but luckily we were all wearing bibs!

The Aftermath...

We had the Brut Rosado D.O. Cava with our calçotada, a blend of Trepat and Pinot Noir, aged We had the Brut Rosado D.O. Cava with our calçotada, a blend of Trepat and Pinot Noir, aged for 12 months in bottle. Richly coloured, it had strawberry on the nose, and red, fresh fruit on the palate. It was a refreshing, uncomplicated and easy going cava (Ocado £10.99).

Of the 5 Vilarnau cavas available in the UK, ranging in price from £10.99 to £19.50, Vilarnau 2009 Gran Reserva (£19.50) was undoubtedly in a league of its own. Made from Macabeo, Parellada, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it had a rich, golden colour and fine, persistent bubbles. Aged for 36 months in bottle before degorgement, it developed a long brioche aftertaste and ripe fruit, peach and apricot on the palate.

Bubbly Eva - Head Winemaker at Vilarnau

It was fascinating to discover that there is so much more to Gonzalez Byass than just the ubiquitous Tio Pepe, much as I love a bone-dry fino.  The well made wines by Viñas del Vero in Somantano were a revelation. Blecua was exceptionally good, as were also the more affordable wines from the portfolio, particularly from the Secastilla range.  As a region, Somontano is breathtaking, and I would urge anyone interested to visit the area, and book a visit to Viñas del Vero winery to try some of their range.  Visits and tastings can be arranged via this link.  If you are lucky, you might even get to try some calçotada, which I highly recommend.

Many thanks to Gonzalez Byass and R&R Drinks for inviting me to Somontano.

Monday 22 April 2013

Steak Adventures at at 1,300C°

Words by Su-Lin Ong

I have no idea how I left tonight’s dinner with a promised return to devour a giant 1kg Tomahawk steak.  But tonight’s four-hour steak adventure at The Palm London has got me all fired up about tackling my next beefy encounter.

Corn fed, 35-day aged USDA prime beef is a tiny quarter of one percent of the world’s beef.  This magnificently marbled meat is freighted from the US, and some of it lands in the hands of Tom Hixson & Co, a legend of Smithfield Market.  Tom is with us, bristling with butchery banter about the New York strip and boneless rib-eye which is soon to end up on my plate.  There’s no choice; it’s both or both.

This is beef with character, florid colours and rippling textures.  Tonight’s meat will surely have a richly rewarding ending.

The Palm London is part of a group of American restaurants which were founded in the ’20s by Italian immigrants who wanted to name their venture after their hometown of Palma.  A clerical error resulted from a misunderstanding of their accents and led to the name The Palm being registered for ever after.  

Imagine yourself in a classic American steak house, but this one is in the hushed enclave of Belgravia.  Here, the typical endless dark wood is livened up by black and white photos and caricatures stemming from traditions that artists paid their tab by painting a portrait.  The real surprise is a wall of breezy, colourful original Matisse prints.

Step into the kitchen and you are hit with a tremendous, blasting heat.  Blame the broiler.  Chef Spencer Westcott explains that it cooks steaks to perfection at 1300 degrees centigrade.  This is no workplace for anyone who gets hot under the collar.  His brigade look pretty chilled and calm; as cool as our sharply suited dinner hosts Mauricio and Saimir.  

Canapés of beef are followed by a bite of meltingly tender sliders – which we greedily ask for, despite knowing there is a lot more beef on its way.  Refreshed by a crisp Caesar salad, we tuck into the main event.  The aromas of our USDA prime New York strip and boneless rib-eye are buttery and caramelised, and the first bite reveals mature flavours and unbelievable tenderness.  Smoked garlic seasons the veg, but béarnaise, brandy & peppercorn, and chimichurri sauces edge the steaks into the realm of over indulgence – to me, these detract from the pure beef flavours.

The main tool of dinner is an item of lust.  It’s a heavyweight knife which sits balanced in the hand, and whose blade simply slides through the steak.   

Dinner closes with the sharp refreshing bite from new season rhubarb, and a delicate ginger ice to lighten up a mascarpone cheesecake with peanut praline.

The effervescent chat from Mauricio makes the evening race along.  I can’t imagine any dull dinner with Mauricio around.  

I’ve planned my next two eats here.  The Nova Scotia lobsters and cocktails will be a must – getting messy at the dining bar.  And there is my mission to tackle that 1kg Tomahawk steak, or a night of Napa Valley wine feasting.

Sometime soon I’ll try to snaffle one of those handsome knives.  Can’t call myself a steak eater without one.

Our wines:
Santa Celina Pinot Gris Argentina 2012
Hawks Crest Cabernet Sauvignon California 2007
Elysium California Black Muscat

Palm treats that will surprise you in this pricey Belgravia ’hood:
Mondays – Cocktails and bar menu bites are only £5 each.
A beat the clock bar menu – The earlier you come in the evening, the cheaper it is. £5 at 5pm, £6 at 6pm … for cocktails and bites.

The Palm London
1-3 Pont Street, London SW1X 9EJ
Tel. 020 7201 0710

Su-Lin Ong @slolondon dined on behalf of The London Foodie as a guest of The Palm London and FourteenTen.

The Palm on Urbanspoon

Monday 8 April 2013

The Perfect Staycation - A Weekend of Martinis, Movies and Good Food at One Aldwych

Working as I do most weekends at my supper club or cooking classes, whenever I have a free one, I try to make the most of it. So when I received the latest Fizz & Film program from One Aldwych at the end of last year, I had an idea - I booked myself in.

The Lounge Bar - View from Indigo Restaurant

Private bar & lounge areas for residents only
One Aldwych offers a Film & Fizz film & accommodation package priced from £330 for two people sharing an Aldwych room including the dinner & movie experience and breakfast the following morning.  This includes access to all the facilities of the hotel, including a groovy swimming pool with underwater music, the gym, and the Health Spa, where for an additional fee you can have a whole range of treatments, such as £70 for the blissful hour of body massage I enjoyed.

Over the years I have dined at both of One Aldwych's restaurants, Indigo and Axis, (reviewed here) and have met friends for cocktails on a number of occasions at the Lounge Bar, one of my favourite late-night bars in central London. So I was excited at the prospect of staying the night at the hotel.

Film & Fizz 

The Film & Fizz programme at One Aldwych is priced at £42.50 per person, and includes a movie in the hotel's private luxury cinema and a glass of Lallier Grand Reserve Champagne, followed by a three course dinner.  There is even free popcorn during the screening!

With most London cinemas charging around £14 for a seat (let alone drinks and popcorn), this is  great value considering the five-star location and the good food on offer.

I am a Salty Popcorn man...

Films are popular current releases, and are usually shown on two or three weekends per month, on Friday and Saturday evenings from 6.30pm. Forthcoming screenings include Argo, the Life of Pi and Flight, and you can find out about their full list of showings and book here.


The Film & Fizz deal includes a 3-course dinner at Axis, the hotel's main restaurant. On our visit, as it was the weekend before Christmas, the showing was on Sunday afternoon (we saw the wonderful Miracle on 34th Street), preceded by lunch at Indigo Restaurant.  

We started with Asian spiced crab cakes and eggs Benedict, followed by a 6oz 28-day aged rump steak with hand-cut fries, mushrooms and tomato (for a £4 supplement), and a butternut squash risotto with maple-glazed salsify and sage. 

Having had an enormous breakfast, we were too full to eat dessert after lunch, but there was a good variety available including chocolate, armagnac and prune marquise with salted caramel, or apple and blackberry crumble with custard, lemon tart with crème fraiche, or a fresh fruit salad.

The price also includes a glass of Fizz.  We went for a couple of stiff, very well made Grey Goose Martinis instead.

The Hotel

We had a surprisingly quiet room (given the busy central location) on the top floor of the hotel.  Well appointed, it even had mini-TV screens by the sinks.  Breakfast was good, and we went for the full English option. 

The Health Spa is renowned for its range of treatments. I was lucky enough to be given a voucher for an hour's facial as a birthday present a few years ago, and have been a fan ever since.  So when I booked myself in for the Film & Fizz package, I also ordered an hour's full body massage (£70) which was amazingly relaxing and another highlight of my stay. For a full list of One Aldwych's fabulous treatments, click here (highly recommended).

The hotel also has a very well-equipped gym, and a beautiful swimming pool featuring underwater music, steam and sauna rooms. The facilities were excellent, and membership is available to non-residents for a single annual payment of £1365, or a monthly payment of £125 which in my opinion is good value for facilities of this calibre.

The hotel is currently offering a weekend brunch of two or three courses for £21 or £24 respectively, with an offer of unlimited Prosecco for an additional £14 per person.  

One Aldwych is one of my favourite places in London, be it for films, food, meeting friends or relaxation. Considering it is in the touristic heart of London, it is nice to see that this classy hotel is a haven for true savvy Londoners, as well as visitors.

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