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Tuesday 29 March 2016

Shuang Shuang – Chinese Hot Pot Meets Sushi Conveyor Belt

Name: Shuang Shuang

Where: 64 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, W1D 6LU, http://www.shuangshuang.co.uk/

Cost: Our bill came to £55 for 2 including service, without alcoholic drinks. Appetisers cost from £2 to £3.50. The main event, of course, is the hot pot - the broth base costs £7 or £8.50, and the ingredients placed on coloured plates denoting their price cost from £1 to £9.90 for the Japanese marbled beef. There is a set menu including a broth, dipping sauce, noodles and any of 3 items from the green plates on the conveyor belt for £9.30. 

About: Hot pot restaurants are hardly a novelty in London, with places like Chilli Cool in King’s Cross and Little Lamb on Shaftsbury Avenue. Opened in December 2015, Shuang Shuang however is a welcome addition to this restaurant genre. They offer hot pot, but not as we know it.

Here diners are able to pick their own ingredients, and as many as of these as they want, via a sushi-style conveyor belt. I have been to a number of hot pot restaurants where whole sets of ingredients are offered and paid for.

The problem with this is that the best ingredients go quickly, while some unloved and unrecognizable vegetables are left over. But this is not the case at Shuang Shuang – you only add and pay for what you want to eat.

Besides, diners can choose from a range of five different broths (mala with Sichuan peppercorns, chicken, lamb, seafood or vegetarian), which are brought to a gentle boil at the counter. Then a selection of fish, meat and vegetable items are chosen from the conveyor belt, with variable prices indicated by the colour of the plate.

The recommended cooking time is indicated on the clear plastic lid. After dunking them in the broth for a few minutes, it's a simple matter of putting them into your chosen dipping sauce and popping them into the mouth.

The restaurant is largely white, with a modern stylish feel to it, with young and helpful staff, and a hi-tech setting where diners control their own broth cooking station.

What We Ate: We sampled all four starters. Pea tofu (£2) as the name suggests is made from peas rather than the usual soya beans, and was served with sesame oil and spring onions. I enjoyed this, particularly the interesting granular texture, very different from the Japanese tofu I usually cook with.

Jasmine tea egg and nest (£3.50) was a preserved egg with a creamy, intensely scented yolk. 

The pig's ears with Xingiang spice (£3) were excellent - deep fried until crispy and with a rich, smoky chilli flavour.

Scallop and prawn fritters with mala oil (£3) were also very good, with an invigorating smack of chilli.

Our hot pot was divided into two sections, so we were able to choose two different broths. For one, we chose the mala broth (£8.50) – salty and fiery, made with dried chilies, Sichuan peppercorns, mixed herbs and fermented beans. I found this a little unbalanced, and I could taste the Sichuanese peppercorns with their heat and numbing qualities, but not much else.

The black bird broth was gentler, made from black chicken, jujube red fruits and Chinese wolfberries. Once they came to a boil, we chose from the range of more than 40 ingredients on the conveyor belt.

These included prawns, chicken, minced pork and prawn, scallop, and tofu balls, as well as greens and noodles. Vegetable options included chrysanthemum leaves, watercress, pak choi, pea shoots and choi sum.

I enjoyed my hotpot at Shuang Shuang – the broths we chose were intensely flavoured, and the ingredients were fresh and varied. In addition, the service was excellent and our waiter explained with great detail and enthusiasm how to choose, cook and eat a Chinese hotpot.

What We Drank: There are three white and three red wine options, starting at £27 for a French Viognier and £28 for a South African Shiraz. We had a glass of oolong tea at £1.50 each. Water is provided free of charge, which is commendable. 

Likes: I loved the crispy pigs ears, the black bird broth and the great range of ingredients to choose from. 

Dislikes: Shuang Shuang is not a restaurant that invites diners to linger by the conveyor belt, and seating there is not convenient for those in groups larger than 3. There is however seating for larger groups on the first floor. 

Verdict: If you have never tried a Chinese hot pot restaurant, Shuang Shuang is the most approachable of its kind in London. You won’t need to know much about the cuisine or its ingredients as the staff will happily guide you through. It is delicious, fun and good value. Recommended.  

Friday 18 March 2016

Plum + Spilt Milk - British Classics by Mark Sargeant

Name: Plum + Spilt Milk

Where: Great Northern Hotel, Pancras Road, London N1C 4TB, http://plumandspiltmilk.com/

Cost: The average cost per person is in the region of £40 per person for a three-course meal not including drinks. The à la carte menu for dinner has starters ranging from £8 to £12.00, fish, meat or vegetarian mains from £9.50 to £32, puddings at £8.50, and a British cheese platter at £9.50. 

About: Opened in 2014, Plum + Spilt Milk is the restaurant on the first floor of the recently restored Great Northern Hotel in King’s Cross, with Chef Director Mark Sargeant, formerly head chef at Gordon Ramsay's Michelin-starred restaurant at Claridges.

Chef Sargeant also owns Rocksalt Restaurant and The Smokehouse upmarket fish and chippie in Folkestone.

The restaurant occupies a prime corner spot on the first floor of the Great Northern Hotel. With smart new solid wood parquet flooring, wood panelling, a high ceiling and banquettes of white leather and wood curving around the tables, the restaurant has a traditional British atmosphere, with tall windows overlooking travellers rushing through the restored Victorian facade at King's Cross Station.

Plum + Spilt Milk’s unusual name comes from the purple and cream liveries of the trains that used to run out of King's Cross Station, and today the restaurant markets itself as serving 'simple classics, beautifully cooked'.

What We Ate: The menu is short but well thought out, as is the wine list. For starters, we had roasted corn-fed chicken oysters (£9.50). I can't recall ever seeing chicken oysters on a menu - delicate and tender, they are my favourite part of the bird. Here, they were well-seasoned, flavoursome, and served with grilled leeks, shallots and capers.

Orkney scallops (£16 as a starter), on a bed of rich cauliflower purée, came with roasted cauliflower, samphire and sherry vinegar caramel. The scallops were sweet and tender, with crunchy cauliflower florets and a deliciously rich caramel.

For our main course, we spotted a Beef Wellington for two (£80) on the menu which we could not resist. The beef comes from Scotland’s North Highlands, and is 28-day aged.

The Wellington itself was very well made, with tender beef fillet having a great depth of flavour, and cooked medium-rare as requested. There was a tarragon-infused pancake (crêpe Cellestine) around the fillet, then a thin outer layer of puff pastry.

I thoroughly enjoyed the Wellington, my only minor regret being the lack of a duxelle of mushrooms between the beef and the pastry, which would have added an extra layer of flavour and texture.

The Beef Wellington was served with roast new potatoes and honey-roast baby parsnips with a hazelnut crumb, and buttered winter greens. The accompanying red wine jus was amazing - rich, velvety, glossy and packed with marrow flavour.

The desserts at Plum + Spilt Milk were excellent. The plum and spilt milk (£8.50) was a delicious concoction of baked brioche topped with caramelised plum, and a milk ice cream - magnificent.

The iced peanut and salted caramel mousse (£8.75) was also truly impressive. An upmarket version of Snickers (which I still think of as a Marathon bar), this had a smooth peanut parfait with just enough unctuous salted caramel to offset the sweetness. I felt a pang of sympathy for my peanut-allergic friends and family!

What We Drank: We shared a bottle of Avaton 2012 from Domain Gerovassiliou in Macedonia, Greece (£39). With a rich aroma of cherries and cedar, and gentle tannins, this was robust enough for the beef but not so powerful as to overwhelm the chicken oysters. In fact, it was one of those rare red wines that was a pleasure to drink on its own, but revealed unexpected depths of flavour and complexity in combination with the rare beef. Restaurants often focus on wines made from familiar French grapes, no matter which country in the world they come from, so I am always on the lookout for wines that buck that trend.  For me, this blend of three indigenous Greek varietals (Limnio, Mavrotragano and Mavroudi) was a winner, and at a very reasonable price for this quality.

Likes: The cooking was consistently good. I particularly enjoyed the Beef Wellington and the desserts. The wine list is varied and has some unusual and good value options. Good service.

Dislikes: Nothing to do with the food, but to my mind, the walls were crying out for some artwork. 

Verdict: For those who say there is no such thing as British cuisine, Plum + Spilt Milk is the answer. For excellent produce from the British Isles, cooked with love and skill, there are not many places I would prefer to eat. Recommended. 

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Thai Green Curry To Die For At Patara Berners Street

Name: Patara Berners Street

Where: 5A Berners Street, London, W1T 3LF, http://www.pataralondon.com/restaurant/berners-street/

Cost: Average spend per person is around £45 not including drinks. From the à la carte menu, starters are priced from £9.50 to £14.50, mains from £16.75 to £45. There are two set menus - Patara Pride is £45 per person with soup, and includes 5 starters, 4 mains plus accompanying rice and vegetable sides and dessert. The Patara Platinum is £65 per person for the same number of dishes but featuring some more luxurious items like Wagyu beef, king scallops and black cod. There is also a vegetarian set menu for £40 per person. 

About: Patara Berners Street is the latest London branch of the group, and opened in December 2015.

The Patara Group is known in London as a fine-dining Thai option with a reputation for top quality cooking, and Berners Street joins branches in Oxford Circus, Soho, Knightsbridge, South Kensington and Hampstead, as well as international branches in Bangkok, Beijing and Singapore.

The restaurant is situated just a few metres north of bustling Oxford Street, next to the Berners Tavern in the trendy London Edition Hotel.

It has an über-sleek look, clean and modern if a tad bland, with low level lighting, plain teak tables, green leather seating.

What We Ate: We wanted to choose our own dishes so opted for à la carte rather than the set menus. We started with the Chor Muang (£8) – these were beautifully presented, flower-shaped lilac dumplings filled with caramelised chicken and a peanut and coconut cream. Sweet, savoury and with a light but glutinous pastry casing, I enjoyed these.

Next were the chilli and sea salt calamari (£10.50) seasoned with fresh red chilli, black pepper, spring onion and garlic. As ubiquitous as this dish is in Chinese and southeast Asian restaurants, it is one I can't stop myself from ordering. Patara's version was highly seasoned, crispy and as moreish as it gets.

We then had fresh rolls with battered deep-fried soft shell crab and prawn (£10.25), filled with basil, carrot, mint and roasted peanut, and served with a chilli lime dressing. These were as refreshing as a Vietnamese summer roll, but I could hardly detect any soft shell crab in them, and so at this price point I thought they were not great vfm.

The salad of prawn and crispy beignet (£12.25) was tossed with cashews, mint, lemongrass and shallot, with a roasted chilli dressing. This had some great textures and tasted fresh and zingy, though the dressing was too sweet for my palate. I think of beignets as being balls of deep-fried dough, but what I saw in the salad were crispy little slivers.

Prawn tom yum soup (£9.50) was beautifully presented in a black cast-iron Japanese teapot, with an accompanying pestle and mortar and chilles, so that diners can adjust the heat of the soup to their own taste. The soup combined prawn, shimeji and oyster mushrooms, simmered in a broth of evaporated milk and fish sauce with galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime. This was refreshing, well flavoured and delicious.

And then on to the mains - the curry was a chicken Kieaw Wan (£16.75), made from free-range chicken, aubergine and bamboo shoot in a green curry paste made in-house. The most ubiquitous of Thai dishes, chicken green curry to many signifies Thai cooking at its most popular, and it is a dish I nearly always order. Patara’s had tender chicken in a richly creamy curry with heady Thai basil, green chilli and coconut milk. This was one of the highlights of the meal for me, and beautifully served in a copper pot.

The fish main was a whole lemon sole (£24), filleted and cut into thin slices, served battered and deep-fried over its bones, accompanied by a green mango salad with coconut, chilli, cashews and shallot. I really wanted to love this dish, but like the prawn salad it was a tad too sweet for my liking, and lacked the zinginess, freshness and overall balance I was hoping for.

The main meat dish was one Patara’s signature dishes, and one I have tried before and loved – the coconut braised beef (£16.75). This had meltingly tender slow-braised beef in a lime-coconut cream reduction, finished with mint, lemongrass and coriander; rich, creamy and delicious, and I was very happy to have revisited it at Patara Berners Street.

The king prawn Pad Thai (£19.50) had a couple of whopping shellfish more like lobsters than prawns, and the taste was as good as it gets.

We had a couple of accompaniments including stir-fried morning glory, Thailand's number one green vegetable (£8.95). With chilli, ginger and mushroom sauce, this had a lovely texture and wok-breath.

The riceberry red Thai rice, roasted with sweet coconut water (£7.50), came served in a dinky young coconut shell, and had a lovely nutty flavour.

What We Drank: Patara Signature Cocktails, all with a Thai twist, range from £9.75 to £12. The entry level white wine is a South African Chenin Blanc (£22), with the red being a Shiraz/Cabernet blend from Berton Vineyards, Australia (£22).

We kicked off proceedings with a couple of Patara Signature cocktails. The Hendrick's Sour (£10), blended gin with lime juice and cucumber, garnished with fresh coriander. The Sake Popping Boba (£11.50) featured sake shaken with Jack Daniel's, St Germain elderflower liqueur, honey and jasmine tea. 

With the meal itself, we shared a bottle of Alsatian Pinot Blanc 2014, from Dopff (£26). With apple and melon flavours, this was a nicely rounded wine with enough richness to balance the spicy food. It was also surprisingly well priced.

Likes: A perfect meal for me here would include Pad Thai, chilli and sea salt calamari, coconut braised beef and morning glory. The restaurant is well located close to Soho and London’s theatreland. 

Dislikes: A couple of dishes were unbalanced - a tad too sweet, and lacking in freshness or acidity.

Verdict: Berners Street is a great addition to the Patara collection of fine-dining Thai restaurants in central London. The coconut braised beef and chicken green curry are to die for, and I would very happily return for them. Recommended.  

Friday 4 March 2016

Galvin HOP - Pub Grub with Knobs On!

Name: Galvin HOP

Where: 35 Spital Square, London, E1 6DY, https://www.galvinrestaurants.com/section/62/1/galvinhop

Cost: Starters cost from £6 to £10.50. Main courses range from £7 to £19, with desserts priced at £4 to £8. The average cost per person is around £30 excluding drinks.

About: Brothers Chris and Jeff Galvin, well known for Galvin La Chapelle next door as well as well 5 other Galvin restaurants across London and 2 in Edinburgh, launched Galvin HOP in January 2016.

With their background in successful Michelin-starred restaurants over many years, this venue represents a foray into the more casual though upmarket pub offering. The Galvin 'Pub Deluxe' (which descriptor they prefer to somewhat jaded label of 'gastropub'), is situated on the site of the former Galvin Cafe à Vin in Spitalfields Market, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station.  It is a traditional pub where you can stand or sit at the bar and enjoy a pint, but with the option of some seriously good food.

The pub has a stone-coloured floor, with cream and green wall tiles, and two environments - one a darker, traditional pub-style room, the other a conservatory with a flat plate-glass roof. There is also a heated, covered outdoor area to smoke or for City types to enjoy a Havana cigar from the thermidor. On the Sunday lunchtime we were there, the place was packed with a mix of families, tourists and Spitalfields Market shoppers.

Galvin HOP is an innovative partnership between the Galvin brothers, Pilsner Urquell, and Maille, the French mustard maker. Urquell comes from Plzen in the Czech Republic, where the company has been making beer since 1842, and the recipe has not changed since then. Galvan HOP has four huge copper tanks containing unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell over the bar, filled by weekly deliveries from the Czech Republic. 

Maille is a premium French mustard brand founded in 1747, and well known for its fine Dijon and wholegrain mustards made with Chablis Premier Cru vinegar. The menu at Galvin HOP offers classic pub dishes and a range of premium hot dogs. Uniquely, it has a professional hot-dog station by the entrance, so people can eat in or take away. The 'Luxe Dog' is a range of gourmet hot dogs served with Maille's seasonal mustard.

What We Ate: I was lucky to have a chat before lunch with the Sous-Chef Chris Barrett, who showed me around the spankingly new kitchen. He suggested a range of dishes he felt I should not miss. We started with an appetizer of tarte flambée (£8.50) - a lovely wafer-thin and crisp base, topped with crème fraiche and smoky Alsatian lardons baked in their state of the art wood oven.

Next came a mixed platter - Galvin gala pie (£7.50), Cumbrian sausage roll (£3) and steak tartare with toasted sourdough bread (£8). The gala pie had traditional water pastry made with hot water, flour and beef fat, with a filling of minced pork, kidney and liver, herbs and a hard-boiled Clarence Court egg, all topped with a jelly of Marmite and pork stock. It had a fine crust of crisp pastry, and a richly flavoured, not too offal-laden filling. If like me you have reservations about meat and kidney pies, this is definitely a dish to try at Galvin HOP – it will change your mind I’m sure.

The sausage rolls were light with deliciously buttery pastry and a flavoursome filling. It was a delight to see this pedestrian British snack given the Galvin treatment, generously brushed with Maille truffle mustard. 

For me, steak tartare is always a good way to judge a restaurant, in addition to being one of my favourite things to eat – highlighting freshness of ingredients, seasoning and presentation. Galvan HOP's version had hand-chopped fresh, good-quality beef, well-seasoned with herbs and caperberries and served with crisp toasted sourdough. I very much enjoyed it.    

There are three hot dog options on the menu, and we went for the Galvin Dog Deluxe with a portion of straw chips (£8.10). This had a Frankfurter sausage made from beef and pork, and a choucroute of white cabbage and carrot, topped with crispy shallots and Maille truffle mustard, all served in a soft bun made in-house from potato flour. I loved the choucroute, an unusual but delicious Alsatian addition to the hot dog, which added freshness and acidity. The bun, though delicious, was a tad too soft and did not hold it all together, so I resorted to knife and fork.

The Galvin HOP's fish pie deluxe (£17), served with a side of glazed carrots and peas, was filled with smoked haddock, prawns, scallop, and salmon, topped with mashed potato and Pecorino cheese. With a rich, creamy and cheesy sauce, this fish pie was delicious and as good as it gets.

But what about Galvin HOP’s Sunday Roast? On the day we visited, we tried the Brisket Beef Sunday Roast with all the trimmings, including Yorkshire pudding, cabbage, roast potatoes, parsnips and carrots (£16). Cured in salt, then slow roasted for 18 hours, this was a super-tender and well-flavoured piece of beef. The meat was thoroughly cooked, with no pinkness (as would be expected from cured beef), which I thought detracted from its appearance. 

For dessert, being rhubarb season, I ordered the Yorkshire rhubarb doughnut (£4) - this was light and fluffy, and I just wish I had had room for more.

What We Drank: The Galvin brothers and Pilsner Urquell are collaborating at Galvin HOP, and the latter’s unpasteurised draft beer features on the menu at £5.50 per pint. Bottled beers cost from £4 to £4.50, including St Peter's Old Style Porter and Lindemans Kriek cherry beer. Wines are available on tap by the glass, at £4.50 to £6.80. By the bottle, the entry level white is a Languedoc blend of Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Ugni Blanc (£18.50), with the red being a Tannat/Syrah blend from Gascogne (£23).

We started with a half pint of unpasteurised draught Pilsner Urquell (£4), which was a classic clean, refreshing beer. We then tried the Roosters Fort Smith American Pale Ale, from Knaresborough, UK (£4) - served from a can, it had a wonderful aroma of hops and a rich, complex flavour. The Adnams Broadside English Strong Ale (£4.50) was a rich, dark beer with chocolate and coffee notes.

Likes: The Gala pie, the steak tartare and the fish pie were stand-out dishes for me. The opportunity to drink fresh, unpasteurised Pilsner Urquell is a rare one, and there is a small but delicious range of craft beers. Super friendly service.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: The newly opened Galvin HOP is a great option for top quality pub grub, gourmet hot dogs, unpasteurised Pilsner and craft beers. Conveniently located whether for a quick City lunch or a more leisurely Sunday roast for weekend shoppers at nearby Spitalfield Market, it ticks all the boxes. Recommended.

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