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Friday 28 August 2015

2 for 1 Cocktails at Clerkenwell & Social

Name: Clerkenwell & Social

Where: 2-5 St John's Square, London, EC1M 4DE, www.clerkenwellandsocial.com

Cost: All cocktails are £8.95, and weekdays from 5pm to 8pm, they are 2 for 1. On Saturdays until 9pm, it is 2 for 1 all day, on both cocktails and pizza. White wines start at £16.95 for a Finca Valero Macabeo, D.O. Carinena from Spain. Red wines start at £17.95 for a Carignan-Grenache blend from France. Perrie-Jouet Grand Brut Champagne is well priced at £55. Meantime London Pale Ale is on tap at £4.90 per pint. 

Pizzas cost from £8 for a Margherita to £12 for a spicy Nduja. There are daily specials, as well as a variety of bar snacks, and sharing boards of cheese (£12) or cured meats (£14).   

About: Clerkenwell & Social was opened in June 2015 by the Marylebone Leisure Group (the team behind The Marylebone and The Princess of Wales and Barsmith Primrose Hill) the bar is next to the ancient St John's Castle in Clerkenwell. 

Set over two floors, Clerkenwell & Social has the feel of a quirky pub, with vintage books suspended from the ceiling, also forming the covers for the cocktail menu.

It specialises in house-infused cocktails and pizza, and has a large outdoor terrace. The bar makes its own infusions for example coffee rum, passion fruit vodka, wild berry gin, mustard vodka.

What We Ate: We really wanted to like the food at Clerkenwell & Social, but unfortunately it was a total let-down. We ordered a couple of bar snacks and pizze, and were surprised to find everything brought to the table at the same time. This meant we had a mad rush to eat everything before it all went cold.  The arancini with mushrooms and truffle oil (£4.50) was completely non-descript, and was served with what seemed to be shop-bought pesto.

Worse still were the calamari (£6) - these were dry and tough, served with a tartare sauce that tasted straight out of a jar.

For the pizze, we chose the Portobello (£10.50) and the Nduja (£12). The Portobello pizza was described as having a topping of Portobello mushrooms, Dolce Latte cheese, pine nuts and truffle oil. At first glance, the pizza looked passable if a bit colourless, but on the palate, the dough was very dry and brittle, it lacked flavour and any texture. As for the topping, it also seemed to have Mozzarella rather than the creamy, blue Dolce Latte cheese as described.

The Nduja pizza (£12) was marginally better but the dough was still very dry and chewy. It had tomatoes, mozzarella, spicy Nduja sausage and pancetta (bacon).

What We Drank: We had a couple of cocktails to start, these were well made and strong. "Breaking Good" had Pisco infused with chili, lime juice, tarragon syrup, homemade bitters and egg white. "Love is a Smoke" featured a blend of Merlot, Aperol and Campari and Bourbon, infused with smoked apple-wood chips.

With our pizza, we had a couple of pints of lovely Meantime London Pale Ale (£4.90).    

Likes: The cocktails were strong, well-made, and very well priced at £8.95. Even better during happy hour weekdays between 5-8pm, or all day Saturdays until 9pm when all cocktails are 2 for 1. The range of beers is good. 

Dislikes: The food was a real let-down. 

Verdict: A great local place for well-made, strong and reasonably-priced cocktails and craft beers. The Italian-inspired menu read well, but its delivery was a let-down and needs to be looked at by the restaurant management.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Spanish Food and Sherry Pairing Menu at Drakes Tabanco

Name: Drakes Tabanco

Where: 3 Windmill Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 2HY, www.drakestabanco.co.uk

Cost: We opted for the pairing menu of 5 dishes and 5 matching sherries, all from Fernando de Castilla, at £49.50 per person. From the a la carte menu, there is a range of bar snacks, ranging from small plates priced at £4.50 (for roasted courgettes with Romesco sauce, burnt butter yoghurt and almond), to £12 for rump steak with salsify fries and gravy. From the list of exclusively Spanish wines, the entry level wines at £21 each are a white Viura from Rioja, and a red Tempranillo.  

About: Named after the sherry taverns (or Tabancos) of Jerez, Drakes Tabanco is probably unique in London in serving Spanish food with sherries en rama (from the barrel), as well as with a range of craft beers and an exclusively Spanish wine list.

Round the corner from Fitzrovia's Charlotte Street, and opposite the Charlotte Street Hotel, the restaurant is softly lit, with red leather banquettes, plain wooden tables, and festooned with jamon legs of for a traditional Spanish atmosphere.

Customers wanting just a drink and snacks are seated around the bar, and there are some tempting options like a cheese board of 4 Spanish cheeses and accompaniments for £12, a charcuterie board for £17.50, or a mixed board of cheese and charcuterie for £15. Diners, however, make their way to the restaurant on the lower ground floor.

What We Ate And Drank: We started with smoked Scottish scallop and blood orange jelly. Served with a mild chilli salsa, I enjoyed this dish – the scallop was firmer and with a light hint of smokiness that contrasted well with the sweet jelly and zingy salsa. It was paired with a fine, bone-dry Fino Classic -aged for 3 years.

Next came deep fried artichoke, served with an artichoke and soft-boiled egg mayo and dill. Crisp on the outside, velvety smooth inside, this lovely little croquet was accompanied by an Amontillado Viejo. A Fino-style wine, but aged for over 20 years, it was golden, richly textured but again bone-dry and with a salty tang, making it an excellent partner for the artichoke.

Two meat courses followed. The Iberico burger, served with sweet burnt yoghurt and rocket was deliciously redolent of unctuous, acorn-fed pork, served in a soft and flavoursome brioche bun. To my mind, the salsify chips were a tad oily, and varied in texture from crisp to soggy. The burger came with an Oloroso Viejo, aged for over 20 years. Rounder and fuller bodied than the Amontillado, this had enough weight and complexity of flavour to match the Iberico pork.

The second meat course was a seared haunch of venison. Served with a delicious garlicky potato mash, sweet apple compote and lemon, the venison was sadly somewhat tough and dry, and I thought quite a meagre portion for a main course. It was partnered with a deliciously complex Rare Old India limited release sherry. This is a pale cream sherry, blending Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez to make a rich fortified wine, with notes of raisins and vanilla and a long, complex and satisfying finish.

To finish our tasting menu, we were served a salted dark chocolate bar with crème fraiche and a coconut cream filling, and walnut crunch. I wasn’t convinced by this as a dessert – it was a very sweet and rich chocolate bar stuffed with an even sweeter filling. The accompanying sherry, however, was a superb Pedro Ximenez Extra Viejo, aged over 25 years.

Likes: The sherries from the barrel are of excellent quality, well presented, and varied. Staff are friendly and helpful. 

Dislikes: The menu is patchy, and did not on our visit celebrate the wonderful food produce of Spain in the way that we had hoped. The extremely low lighting makes the venue feel somewhat gloomy. 

Verdict: With some wonderful Spanish restaurants in London, Drakes Tabanco faces stiff competition. But for sampling a range of authentic sherries from the barrel Drakes Tabanco is a good spot in Central London. 

Friday 21 August 2015

L'Escargot and the Fentiman’s Cocktail Pop-up Bar - Les Amis du Chien!

Name: L'Escargot Restaurant & Fentimans' Cocktail Pop-up Bar

Where: 48 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 4EF, http://www.lescargot.co.uk/

Cost: Average cost is around £40 per person (not including drinks). The menu changes daily, but on the evening we were there, appetizers were from £7 to £14, fish dishes were £14 to £19, and meat main courses ranged from £14 to £28. Desserts cost £7 to £14. There is a good range of wines by the glass. Entry level wines included La Bastille 2013, an Ugni Blanc-Colombard blend for £21, and for the same price, La Bastille 2013 Carignan-Merlot blend. Laurent-Perrier Brut NV costs £58.  

About: L'Escargot has been a Soho institution for decades, serving traditional French fare in gorgeous dining rooms crammed with artwork. It has been under new ownership since 2013. I haven't been for ages, but the special opening of the normally members-only roof top bar (the Salon Noir) in August 2015 as the 'Living Botanical' cocktail bar featuring Fentimans adult soft drinks tempted me to make a return visit.

Tofu and Truffle on their night out at L'Escargot

Fentimans has teamed up with L'Escargot to launch a pop-up cocktail bar for the whole of August 2015. Fentimans drinks are brewed with botanicals for 7 days to make their mixers, and to reflect this the theme in the cocktail bar is a botanic garden and a range of summery long drinks.

Until the 31st August 2015, so hurry for a visit this summer!

All cocktails are priced at a very reasonable £7, or you can get an amazing four cocktails for £16 by signing up for a Time Out voucher before you arrive – you can purchase the drinks and print out the voucher from this link: 

Even better, the restaurant has a "les amis du chien" policy, possibly one of very few restaurants in London to welcome dogs, if you know others, please let me know! So I hurried along with Tofu and Truffle (duly washed and groomed for the occasion) to sample the cocktail bar and the restaurant's summer menu.

Tofu and Truffle waiting for their steak

The Fentimans Cocktail Pop-up bar is open until 1 am, Mondays to Saturdays, and offers a great opportunity to experience the members club without having to become a member of L'Escargot Club Privee. If you fancy joining anyway, the deal is that you arrange to meet the manager for a chat/coffee to discuss the membership - it is £365 to join for a year or £1 a day. The club includes a rooftop bar, and three additional dining rooms including a library, which can be also be booked as a private dining room.

What We Ate: From a quite short menu put together by chef de cuisine Oliver Lesnik, we opted for the steak tartare (£12). Served with a quail egg yolk, this had had hand chopped beef and was nicely seasoned, although I would have liked it slightly more tart (perhaps more gherkin).

The grilled native lobster with garlic butter (£18), had the delicious aroma of freshly grilled seafood, great texture and lovely garlic butter.

For our main course, we had the Chateaubriand (£58 for 2), with side dishes of courgette fries (£6) and dauphinoise potatoes (£6). The Chateaubriand was excellent, although for 2 people I thought it was slightly optimistic to serve this as a portion.

The Bernaise was delicious, with a powerful hit of tarragon. The red wine sauce was glossy, luxurious and richly flavoured. The courgette fries were very good, and I particularly enjoyed the saffron flavoured accompanying sauce. The potatoes were intensely unctuous and creamy.

We finished the evening with a delectable crème brûlée (£8) – well made and as good as you can find at any top French restaurants.

What We Drank: We kicked off with a couple of Fentimans cocktails in the rooftop bar. The “Little Treacle” features dark rum, lime, sugar, bitters, Fentimans dandelion and burdock. A very refreshing number, this had a good kick of alcohol while still having the traditional flavours of one of Dr G's favourite childhood drinks.

Tofu and Truffle enjoying the Fentimans Cocktail Pop-up Bar

The “Fearless Fun” had tequila, Cointreau and Fentimans ginger beer - a very good start to the evening, with the ginger really getting the digestive juices flowing.

The “Easy Breezy” was a blend of VJJ Hills gin, grapefruit and Fentimans 19.05 herbal tonic, with a refreshing hit of grapefruit acidity. 

“Curiosity” had Bourbon, orange zest and Fentimans curiosity cola reduction, and was rich and spicy.

To accompany the Chateaubriand, we shared a bottle of Julienas, Gerard Descombes 2013 (£40). A good example of a Beaujolais Villages wines, this was light in colour and aroma, on the palate this had a good weight of raspberry and redcurrant fruit and balancing tannins, sufficient to stand up to the Chateaubriand on a balmy summer's evening.

Likes: Its a huge treat to be able to take our dogs to dinner in a central London restaurant - this is totally normal in France, but in the UK I hope other restaurants will follow L’Escargot’s example. The August Fentimans cocktail bar is the place to head to this summer, and fantastic value for money. The Chateaubriand was perfect - flavoursome, excellent quality beef, beautifully cooked. The menu is not large, but everything we ate was delicious and very well made, in true brasserie style. 

Dislikes: where is the wonderful artwork?

Verdict: For a French restaurant in the heart of Soho, L'Escargot has some great things to offer - the Fentimans great cocktail bar with top quality cocktails for a remarkably reasonable price, a central and fashionable location, and your dog (if you are lucky to have one) will be welcome! Tofu and Truffle highly recommend!

Tuesday 18 August 2015

The Fabulous Ling Ling Menu at Hakkasan

Words and Photography by Caroline Ghera and Luiz Hara

Name: Ling Ling at Hakkasan

Where: 8 Hanway Place, London W1T 1HD, http://www.hakkasan.com

Cost: The Limited Edition Ling Ling Menu is available throughout the summer at £35 per person and includes a welcome Ling Ling Collins cocktail, 3 dishes, Jasmine rice and macarons. There is a choice of 3 menus that cater for different dietary requirements and can be ordered by the same table providing a great opportunity to savour an exciting range of dishes. The Ling Ling menu is also excellent value when compared to the a la carte menu where starters average £13.90 and equivalent main courses range from £19.90 to £39.90.

Hakkasan serves a comprehensive and imaginative selection of drinks. Most cocktails at the strikingly long bar average £12.50 while wines can be ordered by the glass, with 175ml ranging from £7.10 - £33.70 and 250ml from £10.20 - £19.60. Bottles of wine are £29 - £80 and above. 

About: Opened in 2001, Hakkasan quickly built its reputation as one of the top Cantonese fine dining destinations in London. Its innovative menu is accompanied by an award-winning interior decor, designed by Christian Liaigre, immersing diners into a darkly mysterious dining room enclosed by dark wood screens and surrounded by the subtle blue glow emanating from the cocktail bar on one side, wine cellar, and a translucent wall concealing the kitchen on the other. 

The restaurant was awarded a Michelin star in 2003 and has successfully maintained its achievement since then, going on to open other restaurants in locations across the globe, from San Francisco and New York, to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, as well as a second restaurant here in London, in Mayfair.

Without a doubt, this is one of my all-time favourite restaurants in London and one of very few I return to regularly (reviewed here and here).

What We Ate: On this latest visit, we tried the limited edition Ling Ling Summer menu which celebrates the group’s latest opening this summer, Ling Ling in Mykonos– a new concept where a list of innovative cocktails and an izakaya-inspired menu of smaller Cantonese dishes take diners on an evening of drinking, dining and dancing. In keeping with that idea, the London restaurant is offering a signature cocktail and 3 choices of menu, “Fish and Seafood”, “Meat and Seafood” or “Vegetarian”.

The Fish and Seafood Menu

We started with a trio dim-sum platter that showed some of the kitchen’s classics - the har gau was a perfect combination of the freshest rice pastry packed full with plump prawns. The Chinese chive dumpling was equally delectable with its open chive-coloured rice pastry, fresh prawns and garnished with a single goji berry, while the scallop shumai offered a tender scallop encased by an egg-based wonton ribbed cup, topped with tobiko caviar – the simple combination of textures and prime ingredients was spot on.

We were then presented with our next dish, a crispy aubergine and shiitake salad. Pramesh, who was helping us on the night, explained was a vegetarian version of their signature crispy duck salad. We loved this dish - crispy battered strips of aubergine and shiitake mushrooms served with a mix of lily bulb and four types of cress: affilla, sakura, rock chive and tahoon, topped with pine nuts, pomegranate seeds, a deliciously sweet vegetarian hoisin sauce. It was so enjoyable that it should definitely be incorporated into their a la carte menu!

Moving on to the main course, a finely textured grilled Chilean seabass with a honey glaze was served on a bamboo leaf and garnished with deep-fried battered strips of mushrooms. The sweet glaze gave the fish an attractive presentation that complemented the buttery fish. Steamed jasmine rice was served as an accompaniment to all three menus.

The Meat and Seafood Menu

Like the fish and seafood menu, the first starter of the Meat and Seafood option was the trio of dim sum described above. So let me skip straight to our second plate, the jasmine tea smoked organic pork ribs coated in a delectable barbecue sauce and garnished with an edible flower. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender and had a delicious smokey character from the Jasmine tea. It was absolutely moreish.

One of my favourite Hakkasan dishes followed – a magnificent curry of spicy prawns with lily bulb and almond – this was an utterly delicious plate of large butterfly prawns, fresh lily bulbs, spring onions and flaked almonds all immersed in a creamy sauce topped with curry leaves. The sauce oozed freshness, aromatics, spiciness, and a good amount of heat. Simply put, Eastern-Asian curries do not get any better than this!

The Vegetarian Menu

For me, the vegetarian menu was the greatest revelation of the evening and one I would thoroughly recommend ordering. The salt and pepper homemade pumpkin tofu had a crunchy peppery coating with a silky smooth centre flavoured with pumpkin, and was topped with savoury fluffy soybean flakes that were an extraordinarily successful vegetarian version of Chinese pork floss. The flakes melted on the tongue and were mixed with crispy finely sliced seaweed, chopped chillies and sesame seeds, imparting texture and heat to the dish.

The main course was equally intriguing. Stir-fry black pepper vegetarian chicken cubes made of yellow soy beans (tofu) had not only the appearance but also the texture of real chicken and were served with fresh sugar snap peas and red pepper. We loved this.

The main course was accompanied by steamed jasmine rice and stir-fried baby broccoli and preserved olives with crispy seaweed and pine nuts.

The meal came to an end with a stunning selection of macarons. The shells had a perfectly crumbly skin with a chewy centre and were generously filled. The crunchy sesame seed and milk chocolate macaron was superb, while the tangy yuzu macaron offered a sharper contrast to its chocolate centre. The rose and raspberry macaron was fragrant, delicate and accomplished.

What We Drank: As part of the Ling Ling menu, we started the evening with a Ling Ling Collins cocktail made of Beefeater gin, cranberry and grapefruit juices, Chartreuse Green liqueur and garnished with a Shiso leaf. This was a refreshing drink with contrasting fruit and herbal notes.

To accompany our main courses, we decided to order white wine by the glass. Hakkasan’s head sommelier, Tobias Brauweiler, whose previous experience includes working at the Ritz and the boutique wine shop Hedonism, has put together a comprehensive wine list which includes some unusual varieties. Luckily, the choice offered by glass spans a good spectrum so we were curious to try the 2014 Avesso “Cazas Novas”, Quinta de Guimaraes, 13% vinho verde, made from 100% avesso grapes from Portugal (£11.90 for 250ml). Dry with a round limey acidity, but without the spritz found in vinho verde, this wine also had lovely notes of apricot and peaches and a flavoursome weight that stood up to the fish.

Our second choice to match the spicy prawns was a 2013 Chablis 1er Cru “Les Fourneaux”, Alain Gautheron, 13% Burgundy, 100% Chardonnay grapes from France (£19.60 for 250ml). Dry with fruity hints of apple and citrus and a creamy roundedness, we also found this wine matched well with the spiciness of our dish.

Likes: We thoroughly enjoyed the spicy prawns, a dish so fresh and fragrant that its memory lingered for days. Equally memorable were the vegetarian versions of well-known dishes such as the crispy aubergine and shiitake salad, pumpkin tofu with vegetarian floss and stir-fry vegetarian chicken. They were a revelation and proof that vegetarian choices can be just as satisfying as their meaty counterparts.

Dislikes: None

Verdict: At £35 per person the Ling Ling summer menu offers excellent value and is a great opportunity to try old Hakkasan favourites and exciting new dishes created specially for this menu that will blow you away. Highly recommended.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Manhattan Grill Steakhouse, West India Quay

Name: Manhattan Grill West India Quay

Where: The ground floor of the Marriott Hotel, West India Quay, 22 Hertsmere Road, London E14 4ED, http://manhattangrill.co.uk/

Cost: Average spend is around £50 per person (not including drinks). There are 6 appetisers, priced from £6.50 to £15. Steaks are £24 to £34, with non-steak main courses costing £8 to £15, and side dishes at £4-8.   

About: The Manhattan Grill is a steakhouse in Canary Wharf, specializing in wet-aged USDA prime Black Angus from Creekstone Kansas, and dry-aged Scottish cuts from Inverurie – the birthplace of Aberdeen Angus steak.

Situated on the ground floor of the Marriot Hotel, right next door to the station, it overlooks the waterfront of West India Quay. The Manhattan Grill is an elegant restaurant, if a tad corporate in feel.

The dining room is long and spacious, with comfortable cream leather chairs, and an impressive open-plan kitchen.  There are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the quay, and if the weather is fine, there are outdoor tables too.

What We Ate: We started with the seared black pearl scallops (£15). With a delectable pea puree and bacon grilled until crisp, the scallops were meaty, of great quality and well cooked.

Equally good was the baked blue swimmer crab cake, presented with soft flakes of fresh crab and a dressed green salad, served with a tartar sauce (£12).

For the main course, we shared two of their signature steaks: the Creekstone Kansas USDA Black Angus Rib Eye (bone in) 16oz (£34) and the Scottish Aberdeen Angus T-bone 20oz steak which was a whopper (£32.50).

Creekstone Kansas USDA Black Angus Rib Eye (bone in) 16oz at £34

The steaks were both delicious, and cooked medium rare as requested. They were evenly marbled and well-flavoured, generously encrusted in salt. The steaks were served with a selection of sauces, including horseradish, chimichurri and béarnaise. I am not one to leave food on my plate, but I must admit that in the end, we were sadly defeated by the enormity of those steaks!

Scottish Aberdeen Angus T-bone, 20oz at £32.50

The restaurant claims to feature a Montague grill that heats up to 650°C, a grill oven that is similar in concept to a Josper grill. The steaks though deliciouls could have done with a little more caramelisation in my opinion so the benefits of a Montague grill are still to be seen.

Meat comes from Russell Hume in Chelsea, who supplies to most of the Marriot group, while the USDA steaks come from Freedom Foods.

To accompany our steaks, we chose the sides of mac'n cheese (£4) and chips (£4). The mac'n cheese was cheesy and creamy, a perfect example of a long-time favourite. The chips were deliciously chunky with a crispy outer layer while fluffy and very soft inside just as I like them.

The JW Steakhouse is another American-style steakhouse located at the JW Marriott Hotel on Park Lane, London (reviewed here). JW Steakhouse serves some of the best cheesecake I have ever tried (allegedly the best cheesecake on this side of the pond), so I was sad not to see it as a dessert option on the menu at Manhattan Grill. I had no space left at this stage of the meal, but I could have been tempted by that cheesecake!

What We Drank: We started with a couple of cocktails from the G & Tea bar next door (they are all priced at £10.50) - the Londinium 75 (with Hayman's sloe and dry, lime, champagne and passion fruit syrup), and the Red Spy (with Hayman's Royal Dock, Southern Comfort, peach and raspberry puree, lime juice), both well made and strong.

The restaurant has an Enomatic machine, and diners are invited to sample wines between their starters and steak, to decide which wine to pair with their meat choices.

For the rib eye, the restaurant's recommendation is a Chateau des Laurets 2011, from Puisseguin Saint-Emillion. The restaurant has a special relationship with the Rothschild family, and claims to have the largest variety of Rothschild wines in Canary Wharf.

We were offered 4 tasting samples of powerful wines, but opted for the Chateau des Laurets (£62) - a classic Bordeaux. This was excellent  - still youthful and slightly purple in colour, it had plenty of black berry fruit, well-integrated oak and firm but supple tannins. It was a pleasure to drink by itself, but better still with the steak.

Likes: The restaurant has a small menu, but what they serve (judging from our visit) was of great quality and expertly cooked. The sommelier-led wine tasting with the restaurant's Enomatic machine is a good option I have not seen in any other London restaurant. I enjoyed sitting by the open-plan kitchen and watching the chefs preparing the steaks. The mac'n cheese was creamy, with a crispy cheese top, and well made. The service was efficient, friendly and well-informed.

Dislikes: The restaurant has a slightly corporate, hotel-chain feel to it.  Annoyingly, there is no free car-parking available at the hotel or in the surrounding area even at night, although there is a multi-story car-park available over the road for a fee (£4.60 for 2 hours or £6.20 for up to 4 hours), but you can ask for a small discount at the hotel reception before you leave.  

Verdict: Manhattan Grill is a local American steakhouse serving top quality beef and well-made seafood dishes. The menu is focused, well executed and priced. It is a good option for lunch or dinner if you find yourself in London's Canary Wharf. Recommended.

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