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Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Yashin Ocean House - Japanese Head to Tail Dining and Some of the Best Sushi in the Capital!

Where: 117-119 Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, London SW7 3RN, http://yashinocean.com

Cost: The dinner menu is small but well thought-out, with appetizers from £4 to £12, sashimi dishes from £8.50 to £32, hot mains from £11.80 to £29. The Omakase Sushi offerings (chef’s choice) are always worth exploring in Japanese restaurants, and at Yashin Ocean House, there are 3 selections of 4, 8 or 11 pieces of sushi (£13.50, £30 and £45 respectively) served with the roll of the day. The Express Lunch Menu is excellent value at £19.50 for 3 courses (appetizer, sushi and main courses) or £24.50 including dessert. An Express Dinner Menu is also available between 6 and 7pm for £24.50 for 4 courses.

About: Yashin Ocean House is situated in a beautifully restored Victorian stables in one of the plusher parts of South Ken. With a large central sushi station surrounded by a turquoise ceramic counter-top and a massive refrigerated cabinet with plate glass for displaying and drying out the fish for which they are known, the restaurant features a rather stunning and contemporary setting.

Opened as recently as 2013 as a sister restaurant to Yashin Sushi & Bar on High Street Kensington, Yashin Ocean House specializes on fish and seafood and the concept of “head to tail” dining which makes use of every aspect of the fish from roe and flesh, to skin and bones to create some of their signature dishes.

In Japan, nothing is wasted and the concept of “mottainai” (waste not!) is something that is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. It is socially unacceptable to be perceived as wasteful in Japanese society, “mottainai” is not only about physical waste, it also refers to thought patterns that give rise to wasteful behaviour.

Yashin Ocean House was founded by business partners Yasuhiro Mineno (ex-head chef at Ubon by Nobu) and Shinya Ikeda (former head chef at Yumi). The kitchen is headed by senior sous-chef Daniele Codini, a talented Italian chef who trained at some of the most prestigious kitchens around the world including L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Paris and The Fat Duck in the UK where he worked for the last 3 years before joining Yashin Ocean House.

Service was efficient and discreet - our waitress Paulina was impressively knowledgeable about every aspect of the menu, and gave some very good recommendations for drinks.

What We Ate: The amuse bouche on the evening we were there was sugi white fish with truffle infused soy sauce, sake and mirin, fig compote and pineapple mint, served with a glass of ginger infusion. For me, the myriad flavours in this amuse bouche did not quite come together as a whole – the fish tasted strongly of tinned tuna, and was unfortunately not a great start to our dinner.

Luckily, things picked up quickly from there with our choices of appetizers - Zuke Ikura (£11.80) was a stunningly presented little golden bowl of salmon caviar (ikura) seasoned with truffle soy, and delicately smoked, the caviar pearls were topped with a hefty serving of truffle. I had never tried the combination of ikura and truffle before but thoroughly enjoyed this rich appetizer. Perhaps some carbohydrate in the form of rice or some crunchy, julienned daikon might have further enhanced my appreciation of this dish.

The Miso Cappuccino (£3.50) was our 2nd appetizer. Charmingly served in an old English teacup and saucer, this was a delicate but well flavoured miso soup topped with deliciously thick soya milk foam. I loved this and must try and replicate it at home.

To follow, we had the dramatic Omakase Sashimi without Soy Sauce (£32 for 2 people). Beautifully presented on a glass bowl and a great deal of white smoke, this included a selection of 6 different fish, each with a respective accompanying sauce, jelly or other flavouring - yellowtail with homemade kizami wasabi, fatty tuna with truffled ponzu jelly, salmon with Tosazu jelly, wild sea bream with plum sauce and rice crackers, prawn with coriander sauce, and wild seabass with tomato salsa. These were some of the best sashimi I have had outside Japan, warranting a visit to Yashin Ocean House on its own right.

Next came the Cod Cheek with Chilli Amazu (£7.80). The cod had been sliced into bite sized pieces, lightly battered and deep fried, and served in a deliciously chillied sweet vinegar broth (amazu), with a scattering of crispy leeks. Similar to a nanban dressing, lightly sweet but with refreshing acidity and a hint of heat, the dressing cut through the meaty cod cheeks’ crispy batter, this was a delicious dish and one of my favourites of the evening.

The house special, Head to TAI-L (Tai translates as sea bream in Japanese - £26 for two people), featured a whole, dry aged and grilled sea bream, served complete with head and bones. The dish is designed to be eaten to the last morsel - head, bones and all.

The dry ageing made the flesh quite firm, and more intense in flavour, while the grilling of the skin, bones and head made every bit of the fish edible, although the bones were extremely crunchy.

The fish was served with a simple but magnificent dressing of Tosazu jelly and grated daikon radish (Tosazu translates as Tosa vinegar). Tosa is the ancient name for an area in Shikoku (one of Japan's main islands), a place where fishermen have long pulled in bonito (katsuo) - so the name suggests an infusion of primarily katsuobushi (dried shaved bonito) with other ingredients including konbu (seaweed used for making dashi stock), soy sauce, mirin and vinegar. The bonito adds a heady dose of smoke, flavour, and rich umami, which combined with the acidity of the rice vinegar, makes for a delicious and refreshing accompaniment to grilled fish. Yashin Ocean House’s Tosazu jelly brought a wonderful acidity, freshness and texture contrast to the grilled sea bream and we loved it.

Next up, and the last of our savoury courses, was the Omakase Sushi Eleven (£45). This comprised eleven pieces of sushi served with the roll of the day - salmon, cucumber and pickled ginger, with a wasabi dressing.

The sushi was outstandingly good – one of the most important elements of sushi for me is the rice – Yashin’s was well cooked and seasoned, light and with perfect texture. The fish was obviously fresh (a given in any decent Japanese restaurant), and the tiny dabs of relishes, spice or sauce on top of each sushi brought a new dimension and interest - each one unique, like a Faberge egg.

Some of the stand-outs were the Wagyu beef on crispy rice (great flavours and textures), summer truffle and miso foie gras; yellowtail with sun-dried tomato and parmesan (thanks Daniele!); salmon with tosazu jelly; fatty tuna with truffle oil, salt and pepper; razor clams with seaweed butter (a revelation!); grouper with spicy cod roe; wild seabass with dried miso flake; mackerel with grated ginger; shrimp with coriander sauce and rice crackers; and tuna with kizami wasabi.

Desserts were chosen from a refrigerated cabinet surrounding the sushi bar displaying an array of tantalizing choices.

The chocolate and vanilla mousse with candied hazelnuts coated in chocolate, edible flowers and gold leaf, served with vanilla ice cream was a deliciously rich dessert, expertly made and beautifully presented, this is a must to any chocolate lovers.

Our second dessert was a gorgeous and refreshing Yuzu mousse with white chocolate and shochu jelly served with sorbets of watermelon and sochu. We were impressed by both desserts – they were magnificent. I enjoyed the combination of light pastry, crunchy candied nuts, ice cream and jelly, myriad flavours and textures on a single plate – well judged and executed, they showed real skill and a highly sophisticated palate by the in-house Japanese pastry chef Seiko-san.

What We Drank: The restaurant specialises in sake, and has a range of sake cocktails, as well as a comprehensive list of sakes including sparkling sakes, and a flight of three shochu made from sweet potato, barley and shiso for £11.

The house Champagne is a Dosnon & Lepage for £64. There is an extensive wine list, particularly featuring European wines, with whites starting at £28 for a Picpoul de Pinet. Red wines start with an organic Clos du Tue-Boeuf, Cheverny Rouge Rouillon 2010 for £37.

We started with a 300ml bottle of Mio sparkling sake (£23) from Shochikubai Shirakabegura. This is only 5% alcohol, and off dry with fine bubbles and a delicate on the palate.

To accompany the sashimi, sushi and main course, we had the Chavy-Chouet, a Puligny Montrachet 'Les Enseigneres" 2012 (£80) - we had a 375ml carafe for £40.  With a heady nose of apple, citrus and tropical fruit, the palate was richly complex, with layer upon layer of flavour, fresh acidity and a long satisfying finish.  This was about as far from the high street Chardonnay as it is possible to imagine, and utterly magnificent.

We finished with a cocktail - Kagurasaka (£9.50). Yashin's version of a Manhattan, this had single malt Japanese whisky, with Junmai sake, Cointreau and shiso leaves.

Likes: Both the sashimi and sushi Omakase selections were excellent and stunningly presented. Some nicely and quirky presentational touches. A small but well considered Japanese menu. Comprehensive wine & sake lists. Excellent value Express Lunch and Dinner Menus for £24.50 (4 courses).

Dislikes: Some of the stools around the sushi counter are less than optimal if you would like to see the chefs in action, and these were unfortunately where we were seated, so apologies for the poor quality of images in this post.

Verdict: An elegant Japanese restaurant, Yashin Ocean House serves some of the most creative sushi & sashimi I have tried outside Japan, as well as excellent cooked options. With highly skilled cuisine and pastry teams, and superb wine and sake lists, Yashin Ocean House ticks all the boxes for me, and I cannot wait to return. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Seeking the Best Dim Sum in London - Royal China Baker Street

Words & Photography by Florentyna Leow and Luiz Hara

Where: 24-26 Baker St, Marylebone, London W1U 7AB, http://royalchina.rcguk.co.uk/rcg.html

About: The Royal China Group, founded in 1996, has 6 restaurants in and around London with branches in Queensway, the flagship restaurant (reviewed here), Harrow, Docklands, and Fulham. On Baker Street, there are two Royal China restaurants including the Royal China Club, the premier restaurant of the group and one of my favourite dim sum places in London (reviewed here).

Dim sum at the Royal China Club will cost on average 50% more than you would normally pay anywhere else, but the quality is outstanding and worth the price tag in my opinion. Its poorer sister, the Royal China Baker Street is only a block or so away, and on a recent weekday afternoon with a serious dimsum craving and a little less cash to spare we decided to pay it a visit – even at 3pm, we were impressed to see that it had a steady stream of customers.

Royal China Baker Street looks like a slightly luxe Chinese restaurant, or one that would have been a decade and a half ago - one doesn’t get much carpeting in restaurants these days. It’s clean and large, but the decor is a little faded, and the whole place is a little too dimly lit for my liking.

We ordered a mix of familiar favourites and special items, along with Iron Goddess tea (Tie Guan Yin) to wash it all down. Royal China has a wine list, but Chinese tea is a far more appropriate accompaniment to a dim sum lunch in my opinion. Be sure to prod your waiter/waitress for the various kinds of tea such as Tie Guan Yin and Bo Lei that they will most definitely have, as the menu doesn’t list anything beyond ‘jasmine’ or ‘Chinese’ tea.

What We Ate: Service is fairly fast and efficient. Our plates of dim sum arrived in quick succession - no sooner had we begun on one than a second, third, fourth arrived. Most were good, some utterly delicious and worth repeating. Nothing was below average. One of the highlights of the meal was the pork and radish dumplings (£3.50) - a partially translucent, glutinous skin encasing a pork, chestnut, carrot and coriander filling. It was a crisp-crunchy, delightful excursion in textures, one that the home cook would be hard-pressed to replicate.

Another favourite was the prawn and chive dumpling (£3.80) - fresh and sweet, it was perfect with a dab of chilli sauce. I would have happily ordered a portion just for myself.

The crab meat dumpling soup (£4.80) - which will take around 30 minutes to arrive, so plan accordingly - was also quite lovely, each dumpling stuffed to the brim with crab. Even more enjoyable than the dumpling was the soup it came bobbing in - a sweet and delicate double-boiled broth with the faintest hint of Chinese herbs.

My personal favourite was the deep fried garlic prawn beancurd skin rolls (£5.20). I would recommend this only if you enjoy eating garlic by the mouthful, which I do. It is exactly as its name suggests: sweet, juicy minced prawn and garlic in almost equal measure, wrapped in beancurd skins and deep fried. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Royal China doesn’t stint on the garlic, particularly on their specials menu. Boiled pork dumplings with chilli oil (£4.90) were also wonderfully garlicky, sweet and a little spicy, and doused in a vinegary sauce which reminded me of the Japanese Nanban style of cooking.

Any good dim sum place should serve up steamed turnip cake (£3.50), and Royal China’s version was a fine one – it had clean flavours and a smooth texture, with lovely crispy fried edges.

The glutinous rice in lotus leaves (£4.20), was a very pretty example, the lotus leaves infusing the surf n’ turf combination of dried shrimp and pork with a subtle earthiness.

If you’re craving a hearty, dry noodle dish, you could order the sliced beef Ho Fun with soya sauce (£8.50), it had decent wok hei (breath of the wok) and was delicious.

The other dishes were good, if not life-changing. Prawn cheong fun (£4.80), for instance, was quite tasty, even if the house-made skin was a little thick for my liking.

The crabmeat XO dumplings (£4.80) were delectable, but could have used more XO sauce for that extra kick.

Spare ribs in black bean sauce (£3.50) - another dim sum classic - were adequate, but not terribly memorable.

There’s usually not much in the way of dessert at Chinese restaurants, but their almond beancurd with fruit cocktail (£3.50) made for a smooth and refreshing end to a meat-heavy dim sum meal.

Royal China’s egg tarts (£3.60 for 4) were well made but compared poorly with the very same tarts served at a few doors down at the Royal China Club.

To celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival, we ordered custard mooncakes, these were baked in-house, were served warm and were rich and scrumptious.

Likes: the pork and radish dumplings, prawn and chive dumpling and crab meat dumpling soup are very good, but the deep fried garlic prawn beancurd skin rolls were exceptional. There are some excellent teas if you ask for them.

Dislikes: their selection of fine Chinese teas available should be readily available in English. Service was efficient but patchy and could have been friendlier at times.

Verdict: The Royal China Baker Street is a good place to enjoy freshly made dim sum in Marylebone, as well as being a more affordable option than the swanky Royal China Club further up the road. Recommended.

Furo-chan, my partner in crime for many London dinners, dim sum lunches and Japanese Super Clubs, you are missed! X

Friday, 12 September 2014

Meating in the City at Forge

Name: Forge

Where: 24 Cornhill, London, EC3V 3ND, http://www.forgedinlondon.com

Cost: Starters range from £5.50 to £8.50 while mains are priced from £11.50 for the Forge Burger or a ½ spit roast chicken to £50 for a 20-ounce (567g) tomahawk steak for two with all the trimmings.

About: After a £2 million refit of late Abacus Bar just metres away from the Bank of England, Forge opened in 2013 as a bar and restaurant specialising in flame-grilled meats.

With a zinc bar overlooking the grills, one of those intricate Victorian black and white tiled floors, long wooden tables, black painted ceiling with exposed pipes and cables, Forge has an eclectic style that looked better than it sounds. As most City’s bars and restaurants, Forge is closed on Saturdays and Sundays.

The menu is a meat lover’s treasure trove, with many items that grabbed my carnivorous attention including BBQ pulled pork with toasted walnut bread (£5.50), the cider belly of pork (£13) or the Coca-Cola glazed gammon served with a spit roast pineapple (£11.50), all to be tried on my next visit. All spit grilled meats are served with thick cut chips, apple and fennel coleslaw, chilli and coriander corn.

On the midweek evening we were there, The London Essentials band was performing, and they certainly knew how to work a room of City midweek diners and boozers into a frenzy, with a medley of hits from Michael Jackson, and Lulu to Dolly Parton.

There is a range of attractions throughout the week to tempt diners in. Mondays see a 2 for 1 offer on meats, on Tuesdays, cocktails are priced at £5 all night. Wednesday sees The London Essentials live band strutting its stuff, while on Fridays, DJs take centre stage to see in the weekend.

What We Ate: On the midweek night we ate there, we were lucky enough to meet Head Chef David Jordan and dine at the 6-seater Chef's Table for a ring-side view of his entire kitchen, including a blazing grill and spit roast.

We kicked off with the 7-hour, Coca Cola-braised Jacob's Ladder - a very tender and flavoursome beef short rib that was sweet and sticky from the Cola marinade, served with tangy mustard mayonnaise (£6).

We also had the tempura soft shell crab (£8.50) - this was crispy in a wafer-thin batter, and served in a tiny deep-frying basket on a fresh banana leaf, with confit new potatoes, and a little dipping bowl of soy and sesame sauce.

But the star of the show was undoubtedly the Tomahawk steak (£50 for 2). A richly flavoured Scottish beef supplied by Fairfax Meadow (David told us that only 16 of these steaks are supplied to the restaurant each week), this American-style cut was grilled, carved for us at the table, and cooked medium rare as requested.

Served with horseradish onion bhajis, a tomato fondue, watercress, confit red onion and thick cut chips, there was a wonderful beef jus to bring out the rich flavours of the meat. The Scotch beef was tender, thoroughly marbled with the softest of fat, and imbued with an unbelievable intensity of flavour from the rib against which it had been grilled.

For dessert, we had the signature strawberries and cream sundae (£6). With a generous serving of strawberries, vanilla panna cotta, vanilla bean ice cream, pistachio praline and cream, this was a tad disappointing as the cream tasted as if it had come straight from an aerosol. Better was a well made pineapple creme brûlée (£6) which was creamy and rich in vanilla seeds with a wonderfully crunchy burnt sugar topping.

What We Drank: There is a range of cocktails from £8.50, and unusually each has a number rather than a name. White wines start at £21 for a Vin de Pays d'Oc Marsanne-Viognier blaned. Entry level reds start with a Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for £18. If you are pushing the boat out, there are some very nice options like a Hermitage from Chapoutier for £100, and Champagnes like Pommery Brut and Moët et Chandon NV for £55 and £58 or Veuve Cliquot NV for £65.

We kicked off with a refreshing No. 61 cocktail, made from Aperol, Campari, Galliano, lemon juice and sugar syrup (£8.50).

To accompany the meat, we opted for a bottle of 2009 Barolo Enrico Serafino (£47.50). Ruby coloured and quite light in density, this had medium red berry fruit, and surprisingly youthful tannins, but satisfying length that stood up well to the meat.

Likes: There is top quality beef here, the menu is small but well executed. Cocktails and wines are well chosen, reasonably priced, and give a good range of options from affordable to modestly splurging. The venue is very convenient for London's myriad City workers, or indeed, only 20 metres from Bank station, for anyone else in London. If you have come in just for a drink, there is the popular option of a Forge burger for just £11.50, which is excellent value for the location.

Dislikes: It’s not really a criticism, but the fact is that Forge is predominantly a drinking spot in the City, with a restaurant tacked on the back. That means that the sounds of drinkers' revelling and music, live or otherwise, can be intrusive if a quiet or intimate meal is what you are after.

Verdict: A buzzing City bar and meat grill restaurant with a well thought-out and expertly delivered menu, I loved the Jacob's ladder and the soft-shell crab, but the Tomahawk steak was a thing of wonder. An excellent value option compared with other steakhouses in London. Recommended.

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