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Tuesday 27 May 2014

JW Steakhouse Revisited (And It is Still a Treat)!

Where: The Grosvenor House Hotel, 86 Park Lane, London W1K 7TN

Cost: An average of £75 per person plus service. From the standard dinner menu, starters range from £8 to £27, main courses from £16 to £44 (for the Tomahawk rib eye steak), and desserts from £7 to £14 (for the fabulous cheesecake).

About: Having visited JW Steakhouse in October 2013 (reviewed here) and thoroughly enjoyed my meal there, I looked forward to returning a couple of weeks ago to try their new seasonal menu.

JW Steakhouse opened in 2010 at the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair's Park Lane, and is one of the few restaurants of its kind in London featuring grain-fed American USDA certified beef from Creekstone, as well as grass-fed Aberdeen Angus from Macken Brothers of Chiswick.

The menu, not surprisingly, is focussed on steak. The restaurant is situated on the ground floor of the hotel, which opened in 1929, and after extensive renovation was opened as a JW Marriott hotel in 2008.

Despite its fancy location on Park Lane, the restaurant has a rather casual and laid-back feel about it akin to an American Steakhouse. It is frequented by hotel guests and Londoners alike and on the night we were there, the place was full.

The restaurant has one of those super-duper Montague Legend Radiant Grills that sears meat at 650°C, giving a perfect and even seal and juicy steaks with fantastic flavour.

What We Ate: I rarely mention a restaurant’s bread basket in my restaurant reviews but I could not let the JW Steakhouse’s Parker House Rolls go unreported. These feather-light, buttery rolls with a crispy shell and crusted with sea-salt were utterly delicious. They date back to the 1870s when they were invented at the Parker House Hotel in Boston, where they are still being served.

Knowing that we would be having a very meaty dinner, we opted for the Seafood Platter for 2 (£28) to get things going. With a selection of rock oysters, jumbo shrimp and lump crab, this was a delicious and refreshing starter, accompanied by a delicately sweet Mary Rose sauce made from tomato chutney and mayonnaise.

For the main course, we decided to compare grain-fed American versus grass-fed British beef. We chose the American USDA Porterhouse Steak (£59 for 800g – a serving for 2) that came with a very well-made Béarnaise sauce. The steak was excellent, thick but tender, well-marbled and richly flavoured, the meat was cooked rare just as requested. This was a fantastic steak.

We ordered the British Rib-eye (£32 for 400g) with an optional topping of Oscar lump crab, asparagus and Béarnaise (£8 extra). This was again very good and beautifully cooked, but in my opinion, it lacked the richness and intense savoury qualities of its American cousin. We would have been completely happy with the British Rib-eye had we not just tried the USDA Porterhouse though.

The magnificent lobster mac ‘n cheese which we had at our last meal at JW Steakhouse (and probably one of the reasons for our return visit) was unfortunately not available on the night. Instead, we shared a Cheddar Mac 'n Cheese (£6). The texture was just right - neither watery, nor too dry, and with plenty of nutmeg.  The only pity was that, for my palate, the cheese used to make the sauce could have been a bit more robust.

We also had the Iceberg Wedge with Blue Cheese and Crispy Bacon (£9). This was delicious, with salty blue cheese & bacon contrasting so well with the refreshing lettuce.

With our steaks, chips were just too tempting to miss. So we ordered a portion of Fries with Truffled Salt (£5). These were excellent and crispy although the flavour of truffle was not totally obvious to me.

For dessert, there was no doubt in our minds but to go for the restaurant’s signature Cheesecake (£14). Described in their menu as “the best cheesecake this side of the pond”, this is indeed no exaggeration. This heavenly creation is a must-have I remembered from my previous visit. It is magnificently creamy and rich, but also light due to the use of soured cream that gives it a refreshing acidity. The cheesecake is for 2 people although it is far too much to eat in one sitting. The staff are well used to that and have specially designed carriers for diners to take the cheesecake home safely to enjoy for breakfast.

What We Drank: We shared a bottle of Paul Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage Les Jalets 2010 (£38).  This was a very good match for the beef, with powerful blackberry fruit flavours and plenty of tannin. Given that it is available from The Wine Society for £15, a mark-up of only just over 2 fold for a Park Lane hotel seemed very good value. The entry-level red wine is £34.

Likes: Excellent quality USDA and British beef, expertly cooked. The most delicious cheesecake I can remember. Great wine selection, with a very reasonable mark-up.

Dislikes: Having a TV constantly showing sporting fixtures was the only downer. Prices are on the steep side.

Verdict: Top notch steaks, a fantastic wine selection and excellent service make JWS one of the best steakhouses in London. A perfect meal for me here would be their USDA Porterhouse steak, the lobster mac 'n cheese, followed by the signature cheesecake - all unmissable. Very highly recommended.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Laurent Perrier Champagne Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester

Words & Photography by Florentyna Leow and Luiz Hara

Name: Afternoon Tea at the Dorchester

Where: The Dorchester, Park Lane, Mayfair, London, W1K1QA

Cost: Afternoon tea is priced at £45 per person, £55 with a glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut NV Champagne or £59 with Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé Champagne.

About: Afternoon tea – the mere mention conjures up women in frilly dresses on a garden patio, tiers of little cakes and sandwiches, and the sound of tinkling teacups. Never mind that afternoon tea for most Brits is usually a mug of builder’s tea, and if you’re feeling posh, a rich tea biscuit. In any case, afternoon tea is one of those quintessentially English things that you have to experience. So I was delighted to have the privilege of experiencing the Laurent Perrier Champagne Afternoon Tea at The Dorchester. You can’t get much posher than that!

Thankfully, afternoon tea at The Promenade is far more relaxed than its opulent surroundings would suggest – no ties or suits required, and there were guests in jeans and polo shirts. The 2 ½ hour window is ample time for guests to enjoy a leisurely afternoon nibbling on endless rounds of finger sandwiches and buttery scones.

What We Ate:  The finger sandwiches, made with artisanal bread, were impeccably made. When the waitress arrived with a tray and asked us if we wanted seconds, we couldn’t say no to more chicken and mustard, smoked salmon, and tomato-mozzarella sandwiches. If we hadn’t had dinner waiting for us, thirds, even fourths, would definitely have been possible!

Next was the cream tea – warm, crumbly, buttery scones which we smeared with generous dollops of Cornish clotted cream and their homemade jams, including a very seasonal rhubarb and angelica jam.

We were also presented with a selection of adorable French pastries. In general, these were top-notch examples of patisserie, but two in particular stood out for me.

One was the vanilla panna cotta with a tangy rhubarb centre, which was incredibly light and fresh, almost cloud-like. The other was a passionfruit chocolate tartlet, unexpectedly tangy and delightfully mousse-like.

What We Drank: I tried two Laurent Perrier Champagnes. The Brut NV is delicate in style, with notes of apples, lemon and slight toast, a really elegant wine.  The Brut Rosé comes in a beautiful embossed bottle, and is one of the few rosé Champagnes still made by the traditional but (for the vigneron) hair-raising saignée method which involves leaving the skins of the red grapes in contact with the wine until it is precisely the right shade.  If it is left a few hours too long, the whole batch turns red and has to be discarded.  But the benefit is that the wine keeps a highly expressive bouquet. Made from 100% pinot noir, it has intense notes of red berry fruit and black cherries.

Besides the Champagne, they also offer a generous selection of teas. There’s a tea for everyone: single estate, house-blended, black, caffeine-free, Chinese and Japanese teas. We tried their house-blended Darjeeling and their Paris blend. Both were wonderfully fragrant and delicious.

Likes: I was very pleased with the selection of teas, and the variety of pastries on offer. Service was friendly and attentive. The Champagne was superb, particularly the rosé.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: This is one of those rare animals – a delicious afternoon tea in a beautifully posh yet relaxed setting, whose pleasure is optionally heightened with a glass of lovely Laurent-Perrier Champagne. Highly recommended.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Momo Memories...

Name: Momo

Where: 25, Heddon Street, London W1B 4BH, + 44 207 434 4040, http://momoresto.com/restaurant/london/momo/restaurant/

Cost: Dinner Set Menu £52 per person includes a Momo Special cocktail, a selection of 4 starters to share (meze), 1 main course and 1 dessert. From the à la carte menu, starters cost from £6 to £11 while mains vary from £17 for a vegetarian couscous to £24.50 for the fish of the day. Tagines are priced £18.50 for chicken, £21 for fish and £22.50 for lamb.

About: Opened in 1997 by Parisian-Algerian restaurateur Mourad Mazouz, Momo has, over its nearly 20 years on the London restaurant scene, become a bit of an institution for those looking for North African cuisine in the UK.

Momo was the first London restaurant to draw the attention of critics and diners alike to serious Moroccan cuisine. Today, it has sister restaurants in Paris, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Beirut.

My first taste of Moroccan cuisine was at Momo in 1999, and I remember falling in love with the cuisine there and then. I was struck by the combination of slow braised meats, dried fruits, preserved lemons, olives and myriad spices in the tagines, or over the lightest of couscous - two of my favourite foods today.

It was with some trepidation that I returned to Momo this month – would it live up to my fond memories? I should not have worried - our latest meal at Momo, 15 years after I first visited it, did not disappoint. Head-Chef Philippe Agnello is doing an excellent job, delivering North African food that is still unrivalled in London.

What We Ate: We started with a selection of 4 meze dishes all brought to our table at once. One of our favourites was the assortment of Briouats - small filo pastry parcels stuffed with cheese & mint, chicken and seafood that were crispy, flavoursome and very moreish.

The baby aubergines with labneh cheese, pesto, broad beans and lemon confit were good and beautifully presented, as were the seared scallops with aubergine chutney and yellow beetroot. Although well cooked and seasoned, I thought one scallop per person was a rather meager portion.

The pastilla of wood pigeon was delicious - chunks of sweet and spiced wood pigeon, were laced with almonds and cinnamon, wrapped in filo pastry and fried. Served with orange marmalade, Momo’s pastilla was a great example of one of Morocco’s national dishes.

And then we were onto the mains. One of Momo’s signature dishes, highly recommended by our waiter, was the “Couscous Momo”. This included a very tender and succulent lamb shank, charcoal grilled lamb skewers and merguez sausages. The selection of meats was generous and beautifully cooked but it was the accompanying couscous that transcended this dish to another level.

Possibly the best couscous I have ever tried, it was wonderfully fine and silken and being cooked in a couscousiere over steam (the proper way to do it), it was also airy and deliciously light. As tradition dictates, the couscous was served with a meltingly tender stew of vegetables cooked in a rich broth. This was a magnificent dish that warrants a return visit to Momo soon!

The chicken tagine, another classic of Moroccan cuisine, was also outstandingly good. Cumin-scented chunks of chicken breast were served in a clay tagine pot in a heady, saffron-flavoured broth with preserved lemons, olives, potatoes, onion compote and coriander.  I loved this dish and the wonderful combination of flavours, but would have loved it even more, had chicken thighs been used instead.

Dessert was a fine selection of Maghreb pastries including a rather clever pastry wrapped creme brûlée and a refreshing sorbet of mango served with Moroccan mint tea.

What We Drank: The wine list is extensive, featuring both new and old world bins. The entry level wines (vin de pays) are priced £21 (red) and £25 (white). We had the Momo Special cocktail which is included in the £52 tasting menu, made with Ketel One vodka, mint, lemon juice, sugar and soda water. It was refreshing and well-made, tasting rather like a Cuban Mojito. Cocktails are mostly £9, but some are £15 if champagne-based.

We shared a bottle of 2012 Castelmaure Corbieres 2012 (£31) from the Languedoc Roussillon region - a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault. This was a robust wine that went particularly well with the slow braised lamb shank and spiced chicken tagine.

Likes: friendly and efficient service, the best couscous I have ever tried, the chicken tagine with preserved lemons was also very good.

Dislikes: the outside terrace where guests drink and smoke does not make for a very enticing entrance, and together with the basement night club, the ambiance feels somewhat like a bar and club, which is a pity for a restaurant serving food of this caliber.

Verdict: 17 years on, Momo is still serving some of the best Moroccan food in London. Fantastic couscous and tagines, great cocktails and an extensive wine list. Recommended.

Friday 16 May 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Lake Titikaka

Having spent a couple of days acclimatising to the 2,300m altitude of Arequipa, we took the 7-hour bus trip up to Lake Titikaka, at the dizzying altitude of 3,800m. Titikaka is the highest navigable lake in the world, and covers more than 8,000 square kilometres.

Beyond that, it is a magical location, with clear skies at night revealing myriad stars and galaxies, and calm crystal clear waters reflecting the sky above during the day.

It is a tranquil place to visit and relax, and has a unique Andean culture to soak up, as well as a multitude of aquatic and other birds. Because of its elevation, many people suffer from mild altitude sickness for the first day or two, so it is best not to plan many activities in the first 24 hours.  While the lake is stunningly beautiful, it must be admitted that the main city on Lake Titicaca - Puno - is anything but. So rather than stay in one of the many hotels there, we opted to stay at the Titilaka Lodge, a 45 minute taxi ride away from Puno.

Where to Stay

The Titilaka Lodge is a luxury all-inclusive hotel with only 18 rooms, all of which have magnificent views of the lake. The Lodge was thoroughly refurbished in 2008, and subsequently accredited by Relais & Chateaux in 2013. Coming from the dusty and unattractive nearby town of Puno, through unpaved and unmarked country roads, on arrival the Lodge is both a very pleasing surprise, and an oasis of tranquility and beauty.

The public and guest rooms are tastefully decorated using a mix of local artefacts and state of the art contemporary design. It has striking colours and plenty of natural light, with stunning views of Lake Titikaka.

The experience of staying at Titilaka Lodge is rather like being invited to a country house. There is no TV in the rooms, and so after a day of excursions, guests tend to gather in the ground floor reception rooms.

To encourage this, complimentary afternoon tea and biscuits are also served, as well as a happy hour for drinks and cocktails in the early evening. This means that guests tend to meet and chat about their activities that day and plans for the next, which makes for a sociable experience not commonly found in top flight hotels.

Entirely by coincidence, it turned out that Tuanny and his wife Winnie, who both visited my supperclub in January 2014, were staying at the hotel at the same time as us. We had a great time chatting with them, hearing about their travels in South America, and their plans for when they return home to Sydney after 7 years in London at the end of this trip.

The lovely Winnie and Tuanny, a very nice surprise at Lake Titilaka Lodge

Our room had a stunning view of the lake, through windows as wide as the room itself. It was simply but elegantly furnished with white linen sheets against a backdrop of colourful Peruvian fabrics and tapestries.

The bathroom was also spacious with a large bathtub that overlooked the lake.  This was one of the most serene and naturally beautiful places I have ever stayed in.

Where to Eat

One of the attractions of Titilaka Lodge is its remote location, which makes it a great place to relax and switch off from the outside world. To facilitate this, all meals and drinks at the dinner table are included in the hotel’s rates.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining room, which has wall-to-wall glass on three sides, overlooking Lake Titikaka. It was light and airy with high ceilings, and was beautifully designed.

The kitchen is headed by local chef Maria Fé Garcia. Her cooking is well made and flavoursome, making use of local ingredients such as quinoa and trout from Lake Titikaka. We enjoyed a number of popular Peruvian dishes including Lomo Saltado (a Chifa or Chinese-Peruvian dish) and also her take on French soufflé using native quinoa.

Breakfast is generous, and includes a buffet serving fruit, yoghurts, hams and local cheeses, as well as breads made in house and served warm in beautiful clay pots.

Freshly cooked items include a selection of eggs cooked any style, such as Benedict and Florentine. We went for “huevos rancheros” – poached egg served with a lightly spiced tomato salsa, and the quinoa pancakes, which were both excellent.

What to Do

The main activities around Lake Titikaka are, besides relaxation, appreciating the landscape on foot, boat or bicycle, as well as the natural plant and birdlife, and the local archeological sites. It is a place to commune with nature.

Titilaka Lodge offers a wide variety of 2-hour excursions in the basic room rate. These include kayaking, sailing, rowing through the reeds to view aquatic birds nests, walking tours along the shores of the lake, cycling through the fields of Plateria, and observing the night sky (weather permitting).

In addition to this, there is a variety of half-day tours available at extra cost. Some of these are similar to the popular tours on offer from the many agents in Puno, but start directly from Titilaka Lodge and so avoid the crowds and extra journey time to Puno.  For example, tours are arranged to the floating Uros Islands, and to Taquile Island, and to the Chullpa Towers at Sillustani dating back as far as 1000BC.

We spent quite a bit of time just relaxing in the hotel, soaking up the peace and calm at Lake Titikaka's edge. However, we also took one of the hotel's half-day trips. This started with a visit to the bartering market in Acora, about 4km southwest of the hotel.

This was a great opportunity to see local farmers in their element, speaking neither Spanish nor even Quechua but Aymara, the local language.

On Sundays, there is a conventional food market where items are purchased, but also a smaller section where fresh and smoked fish, vegetables, clothing, alpaca wool and other items are bartered for other items rather than hard currency, in a manner practised by the Aymara people for centuries.

Our minivan then drove to the shore of the lake, and bicycles came from the back of the van for us to start a cycling tour of the region.

This was fascinating and beautiful, and we were lucky enough to see many birds along the route.  These included Andean coots, the Casanova woodpecker (aka Andean flicker), a pair of burrowing owls, American kestrels, Puna teals, and lots of common moorhens.

We stopped along the way for an excellent picnic provided by the hotel at the edge of the lake. It was a long day of intense cycling over dirt roads, but it was exhilarating.

I thoroughly enjoyed my stay at the Titilaka Lodge, and visiting the stunning scenery around the lake. Despite having come from Arequipa where the altitude was already high, we suffered from mild altitude sickness throughout our two days at the Lodge. We were told that it would have got better after 48 hours. I would recommend you take plenty of paracetamol and ibuprofen to help with the headaches. However, this was a small price to pay for the beauty of the region.

Another nearby town is Juliaca, where there is a small domestic airport flying to Cusco and Lima. It was from there that we made our next trip to Cusco.

Travel Essentials

Titilaka Lodge
Peninsula Titilaka

A double bedroom with full board including wine, cocktails, a free minibar, and any hotel activity lasting two hours or less, is advertised at £165 per person, per night (i.e. £330 per couple per night).

The 'comprehensive' package, including full board, all hotel activities, excursions and transfers, costs £284 per person per night, although this is reduced to £245 per person per night if a stay of three nights is booked.   

A taxi from Puno to the hotel costs around £15. A taxi from the hotel to Juliaca airport costs £35.

Cruz del Sur bus ticket from Arequipa to Puno costs £13 per person, and takes around 7 hours.

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