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Reviews of London's Restaurants, Supper Clubs and Hotels, Wine Tastings, Travel Writing, and Home to the Japanese and French Supper Clubs in Islington

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Friday, 7 April 2017

Les 110 de Taillevent - Fine French Cooking with 110 Wines by the Glass

Name: Les 110 de Taillevent

Where: 16 Cavendish Square, London W1G 9DD, http://www.les-110-taillevent-london.com/

Cost: Average cost for a 3-course meal is around £40 per person (not including drinks or service). There is a set menu of 2 courses for £20 or 3 courses for £25, available both at lunch and at dinner. Each dish on the menu is colour-coded to match with suggested wines available by the glass at price points from £8, £14, £20 or above £20. From the à la carte menu, starters cost from £8 to £14, main courses from £8 to £35, and desserts from £7 to £11. 

About: Les 110 de Taillevent London is a classic French brasserie which brings the cooking championed by other restaurants in the group, the most well-known of which is the two-Michelin starred Le Taillevent, along with Les Caves de Taillevent and the similarly named Les 110 de Taillevent in Paris.

But what makes Les 110 de Taillevent unique is its wine offering - no fewer than 110 wines by the glass or half glass. The menu has been designed to facilitate ease of choice, with four different wine suggestions in four different price categories listed for each dish.

Les 110 de Taillevent, situated in a listed building on Cavendish Square, is a beautifully designed restaurant, with an elegant colour palate of sage green, cream leather and polished wood. It is an stylish place to enjoy some fine French cooking and wines after a day’s shopping on Oxford Street (it faces the back of John Lewis). 

What We Ate and Drank: Our dinner started with a deceptively simple dish of truffled scrambled eggs. Heady with the aroma of fresh truffle, the dish had complex vegetal farmyard notes and was, I think, the finest scrambled eggs I have ever eaten. We got off to a very good start.

We were helped to make our choices by the logically presented food and wine pairings, and by the guidance of Head Sommelier Christophe Lecoufle. We kicked off with a welcome glass of Champagne Laurent Perrier Brut NV.

With the scrambled egg, we had a Chardonnay, from IGP Cotes du Lot, 'Montaigne' 2014, Domaine Belmont (£14 per 125ml glass), which had a lovely fresh, smoky, elegant quality, with green apple and mineral on the finish. 

Next came John Dory mousseline, glazed in lobster bisque under a salamander, served with romaine salad and Espelette pepper. This was nothing short of sublime.

The Cornish Point Pinot Noir 2014, from Felton Road, New Zealand, came with the John Dory. Partnering white fish with red wine is perhaps unusual, but the red was delicate enough not to overwhelm the fish and its delectable lobster bisque. An Alsatian Reisling or Pinot Gris might have been a more traditional dish choice, but I really enjoyed the Pinot Noir.

The truffled veal rump (£35) was for me the highlight of the evening. Stuffed with truffle and with extra slices of fresh truffle on top, it was served with a classic béchamel sauce, artichoke puree, and stuffed, deep-fried baby artichoke, this was a delectable dish of great refinement. 

With the veal, we had a glass of Pomerol 2009, Fugue de Nenin (£19). The second wine of Chateau Nenin, this Cabernet Franc/Merlot blend had intense blackberry fruit, a nose of blackcurrant, cherries, cedar and vanilla, with complex fruit flavours, plenty of tannins and a long, complex finish. 

For dessert, we had the calamansi lemon, with passion fruit, meringue, shortbread, tequila and lime sorbet, sprinkled with passionfruit flowers. Beautifully presented  and intensely tart and refreshing, this featured the lovely Filipino calamansi fruit - one of my favourites, and thought to be a hybrid of the mandarin orange and kumquat. This was a delicious, complex dessert, and a tribute to the skill of the patissiere.

The chocolate dome was also excellent - truffled chocolate mascarpone cream made with Valrona chocolate was paired with a sorbet of chocolate, salted caramel sauce and fresh truffle. It was stunning to the eye, while on the palate the sorbet was intensely rich and concentrated, with a contrast in texture from a chocolate tuille brittle. 

To accompany our desserts, we had a Loire Valley Coteaux de L'Aubance, Les Trois Schistes, 2014, from Domain de Montgilet (£6 for 70ml). With acidity, minerality and sweetness in equal measure, this was a deliciously complex dessert wine.

Likes: The truffled scrambled egg, the truffled veal rump and the desserts were spectacularly good. The menu partnering each dish with matched wines by the glass to suit a range of budgets is both innovative and well considered.

Dislikes: the name, I can't pronounce it!

Verdict: With fine French cooking and a vast selection of wines by the glass at 4 different price points, Les 110 de Taillevent is my top restaurant recommendation this month! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Darbaar in The City - The Thrill of the Grill Menu Reviewed

Name: Darbaar 

Where: 1 Snowden Street, Broadgate West, London, EC2A 2DQ, http://www.darbaarrestaurants.com/

Cost: Average cost for a 3 course meal is around £35 per person (not including drinks or service). Light bites cost from £5 to £8.50, main courses range from £8 to £28. There are set menus at £40, £55 and £65.  

About: Opened in November 2015, and run by Chef Abdul Yaseen from Jaipur, formerly Head Chef of the Cinnamon Club and Cinnamon Kitchen, the restaurant is set in a modern commercial building behind Liverpool Street station. Darbaar aims to offer a menu inspired by the banquets of the Indian Royal Court, with signature dishes like hunter-style guineafowl, and spiced kid goat biriyani. 

The restaurant has a sleek design with grey slate flooring, bare wood tables and chairs, a large open-plan kitchen along the length of the dining room, and eye-catching golden lamps. 

But despite the lavish decor and the chef's pedigree, Darbaar's tricky location does not make it a restaurant diners would simply stumble upon. On the mid-week evening we dined there, the place was less than half full apart from two large and rowdy tables of City folk having an office night out. 

What We Ate: We opted for the "Thrill of the Grill' set menu, with 6 courses at £65 per person. The appetiser was a famous street snack from northern India - Tawa Hari Tikki Chat - a deep-fried green pea and apricot cake (£7), served on a chickpea curry bed with tamarind and yoghurt, pomegranate seeds and micro-coriander. It was crunchy and had a lovely zingyness from the tamarind and yoghurt. 

The first starter was a large royal Madagascar prawn with griddled king scallop and a fried wild mushroom, coconut cream, tomato salsa.  With a delicious charred flavour from the tandoori grill, and top quality seafood - this was a great dish. 

Next was Murgh Malai - a kebab of chicken in a yoghurt marinade, served with Punjabi lamb chops and coriander curry, served in a dinky copper and steel serving dish. The chicken was excellent - succulent and well flavoured, and the lamb was tender, richly flavoured and gently spiced. 

The middle course was Tawa Macchli -  sea bream in banana leaf, served with a tomato and coconut chutney, yoghurt and rice. I wanted to love this dish, but for me, the fish was overcooked, and the marinade (coriander root, coconut and curry leaves) under seasoned. The yoghurt rice was at room temperature and had a very odd texture in my opinion. 

Better though was the main course - Raan-e-Mussalam, a double-roasted leg of lamb, with potatoes. Slow braised, then roasted for a crispy skin, the lamb was served on the bone. The meat was superbly soft and well flavoured with tomato and Indian spices - coriander seeds, cumin, curry leaf as well as onions and malt vinegar. This was the highlight of our dinner.

The accompanying side dishes were a naan bread basket, a creamy daal of black lentils in tomato sauce, and cumin saag (potatoes in spinach purée, chickpea flower, garlic and whole mustard grains).

Dessert was Shahi Kulfi (Indian ice cream) with pistacchio and saffron, served with an array of lightly crushed fruits of the forest. Flavoured with cardamon, the kulfi was well made, and prettily presented with ripe fruit and a scattering of pistacchio.  

What We Drank: We shared a bottle of Alsatian Riesling from Arthur Metz 2015 (£40). With aromas of orange, mandarin and mineral, this was good but seemed a little steeply priced given its quality level. 

Likes: The Murgh Malai (chicken and lamb kebab) and the Raan-e-Mussalam double-roasted leg of lamb were superb. 

Dislikes: The Tawa Macchli sea bream in banana leaf needed a bit more development from my perspective. Tucked away behind Liverpool Street Station, Darbaar is a little tricky to find. It is a large restaurant, and when it is not full there is a knock-on effect on the atmosphere.  

Verdict: If you work in the City of London, and fancy some good quality Indian cooking, Darbaar ticks most boxes. Recommended.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Eneko at One Aldwych - Modern Basque Cooking at Excellent VFM!

Name: Eneko at One Aldwych

Where: One Aldwych, London, WC2B 4BZ, http://www.eneko.london/

Cost: Average cost for a three-course meal is £35 per person (not including drinks or service). From the a la carte menu, starters cost from £9 to £14, main courses from £14 to £18. The desserts are all priced at £7.

About: The Basque Country is one of my favourite foodie destinations having visited it on a number of occasions for their incredible Pintxos and 3-Michelin star fine dining which I featured here and here. I had one of the best meals of my life in San Sebastian at Martin Berasategui’s which I reviewed here

Thus I was excited to hear that the Basque, 3-Michelin starred Chef Eneko Atxa from Arzumendi Restaurant, just outside Bilbao, was opening a sister restaurant in London, namely Eneko at One Aldwych, just like other Basque chefs before him, Julio and Elena Arzak of Ametsa with Arzak Instruction at the Halkin, featured here

Located in Covent Garden at the lovely One Aldwych Hotel, the restaurant comprises of a mezzanine bar with a grand copper staircase descending into a vast underground dining area adorned in pale stone, wood and steel girders. 

Elegant, high red leather banquettes enclose triangular, cherrywood tables. A lot of thought and money has gone into the design by architects Casson Mann, a firm specialist in museums and gallery installations. The final product is a beautiful and grand restaurant with plenty of open space.

What We Ate: We started with ‘Memories of the Bay of Biscay’ (£15) – served with a dramatic hot water and seaweed infusion mixed with dry ice to give dramatic presentation and a real scent of the sea, this contained three different items. 

The highlight, the oyster with green plankton emulsion and apple blossom leaves was salty and tart tasting right out of the sea, the crab tartare with armoricaine sauce (made from onions, tomato, white wine, brandy, and cayenne pepper), and a gorgeous wild prawn tartare with spring onion and black olives herring eggs.

The second starter was the ‘Txerri Boda Pork Festival’ (£13) – this was again an assemble of three different items - chorizo on steamed and soft milk bun, glazed sweetbread and suckling pig brioche, basil and mushroom emulsions. Served in a wooden box with a pig's snout for a handle, this was as delicious to look at as it was to eat.

The ‘Traditional Talo’ (£10) was next. This was a stunningly presented crispy corn talo (a traditional Basque equivalent to the Mexican tortilla) topped with heritage tomatoes, fresh herbs, tomato emulsion, olive oil pearls, and black olive powder. We enjoyed the many different elements in this dish and the layers of texture provided by the tortilla and raw ingredients, this was a highlight of our dinner.

Cod Bizkaina (£14) was an interesting stew of cod tripe in traditional spicy bizkaina (Basque sauce aka vizcaina) sauce, with deep-fried cod bites (also cod tripe). With a seductively gelatinous texture, this was well-flavoured and seasoned dish. The bizkaina sauce had tomatoes, onions and peppers which were reduced for 4 days before any chilli being added. 

The main course of oxtail (£15), served on a large unglazed, bone-shaped ceramic serving dish, featured slow-cooked oxtail meat (off the bone), in a highly reduced, rich brown chickpea sauce, with a heady mushroom emulsion.

To accompany, the Piperrak (£7), was a lovely dish of green Gernika peppers, which look very much like Padron peppers. Mash potato (£4), served with a scattering of chopped chives, was good and creamy but a touch too salty.

The dessert menu is small but includes the lovely torrija (which we could not resist), made from Basque vanilla sponge, with a delectably crunchy caramelised topping, served with orange zest, cinnamon and caramel crumble ice cream.

We also shared the strawberry sorbet and rose marshmallow, with fresh strawberry, strawberry foam, rose petal julienne, and crystalised rose petal. This had fresh, floral flavours and was rich without being cloying. 

What We Drank: The wine list is all Spanish, including four wines made from Basque grape varietals in the chef's family winery - Gorka Izagirre which has been making wine since 2005. The entry level white is a Herencia Altes Garnatxa (Garnacha) Bianca 2015 from Terra Alta, Spain (£28).  The entry level red is a Borsao Seleccion Tinto, from Campo de Borja from Aragon, Spain (£28).

From the chef's vineyard, we had the white 42 by Eneko Atxa 2014 (£55), made from Bizkaiko Txakolina grapes. Fresh, apple, pear and citrus, good acidity and mineral. 

The red wine was a Parada de Atauta 2014 (£55) from Ribera del Duero, Castile and Leon. A youthful wine with a tinge of purple, it had a powerful aroma and flavour of black cherry, cedar and had plenty of tannin.

Likes: Excellent value for money. Fresh and original cooking. The staff were friendly, highly knowledgeable and willing to find out more.

Dislikes: None. 

Verdict: The modern Basque food at Eneko at One Aldwych is innovative and varied, and the cooking well accomplished as well as being excellent value for money. Highly Recommended.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Sakagura - A Taste of Japanese Washoku Cooking in London

Name: Sakagura London

Where: 8 Heddon Street, London, W1B 4BS, https://www.sakaguralondon.com/

Cost: The menu is divided into 10 sections including appetisers, sushi, sashimi, robatayaki (grill), kushiyaki (skewers), agemono (deep-fried), rice and soup, kamameshi (flavoured rice), soba noodles and dessert. Prices vary from £3 for a miso soup to £39 for a sashimi moriawase, with an average spend of around £75 per person for 3-4 dishes each to share (drinks and service not included). 

About: Sakagura is the first joint venture among various businesses including the Japan Centre Group (the largest Japanese food retailer in the UK), Gekkeikan Sake Brewers (one of the oldest sake brewers in Japan and holders of a Japanese Royal Warrant for sake), and the Japanese plum wine brand Choya.

With such impressive backing and a Washoku (Japanese cooking) menu created by Shoryu Ramen Executive Chef Kanji Furukawa, Sakagura is one of the most exciting new restaurant openings in London recently.

Set in swanky Heddon Street behind Regent Street, no expenses were spared to create a gorgeous restaurant over two floors with an impressive long bar, Sakagura aims to serve authentic Japanese cooking known as Washoku, recently listed by UNESCO as an intangible cultural heritage. 

The Washoku cooking philosophy aims to provide a balanced meal, not only in terms of nutritional value but also considering other aspects such as flavour, cooking methods, colour and presentation. 

One outcome of this method is that the sheer variety helps achieve satiety without excess while stimulating all the senses. There is an emphasis on seasonality using the freshest ingredients and a minimalist but beautiful presentation. 

Sakagura aims to work with some of the best premium and exclusive sake producers in Japan. There are over 200 sake labels available, many only offered in the UK at Sakagura. The tasting menu and sake flights we tried at Sakagura gave us the opportunity to taste a whole range of dishes from the main menu, along with a comprehensive sake pairing. There is no better way to find out what Sakagura is all about!

What We Ate: From the appetiser menu, we chose the sashimi moraiwase (£39) - a chef's selection of assorted sashimi fish with freshly grated wasabi. This included slices of yellowtail, sea bass, sea bream, raw scallop on its shell, salmon and tuna, served on a bed of ice with micro herbs, edible flowers, and a willow 'fence' supporting the construction of the platter. Gorgeously presented, the fish was of good quality and as fresh as one could get, with the addition of fresh wasabi giving a touch of luxe to the platter.

The aburi shime saba bo sushi (£15) is one of Sakagura’s signature dishes from its sushi menu – a sushi roll topped with marinated mackerel fillets seared under flame (aburi). The presentation was again stunning, with silvery, chargrilled mackerel fillets wrapped around aromatic shiso leaf over sushi rice.  The mackerel had been marinated in rice vinegar and salt, adding a firmer texture and a layer of welcome acidity to the fatty fish.

From the robata grill, we chose the lobster (£32), blackened and served with ‘Moshio’ brown sea salt and lime. The lobster was perfectly cooked, the flesh light and fragrant and with a delicate charred flavour.

Moshio salt (shio means salt in Japanese) is an artisan Japanese sea salt, made from a mixture of sea salt and seaweed ash. It has a unique beige/brown colour with round and rich flavour due to the presence of minerals and other ingredients including calcium, potassium, magnesium, iodine and umami. Moshio salt is highly regarded in Japan and is the salt of choice for many top restaurants for dishes like tempura, sushi, sashimi or grilled seafood and meat.

The wagyu beef aburi steak (£35), from Kyushu, was served with Welsh arajio sun-dried sea salt (arajio is the Japanese word for coarse sea salt) and fresh wasabi. Very lightly grilled, the wagyu meat was unctuous, richly marbled and wonderful in both creamy mouth-feel and flavour. 

From the kamameshi section of the menu (flavoured rices), the hot rice dishes followed, served in traditional stainless steel individual cooking pots: the red seabream and salmon roe rice (£15), and the Goosnargh chicken and fragrant burdock (£14). 

I grew up eating gobo, or the Japanese burdock, in a variety of dishes in our Japanese-Nikkei home in Brazil. Gobo is one of my favourite ingredients and I have always loved its taste, it saddens me though that gobo has fallen out of fashion in the West. I loved the combination of earthy burdock and chicken in this rice dish.

Better still though was the seabream and salmon roe rice - salty, savoury, with iodine and mineral aromas, it was a winner of a dish.

For dessert, we had the raindrop cake - a delicate clear agar umeshu (plum) jelly with cherry blossom and gold flake.  Light and gorgeously presented, it brought me a smile to my face to be reminded of the Japanese affection for jelly desserts (the style of puddings I grew up eating in the 1970s and 80s).

We also shared a matcha fondant gateau (£8), served warm with cream.

What We Drank: Owned by one of the oldest Japanese sake brewers, it is not surprising to see a wide range of sakes on offer, including aged and late-harvest options. 

There are several sake flights available, priced from £9 to £17 per person, including some unusual options like unpasteurized cloudy sake, sparkling sake and yuzu sake.  

For aperitifs, we selected a John sparkling sake (£17.10 per glass), a Prosecco-style dry sake with citrus fruit and melon notes. It won the International Wine Challenge sparkling sake category in 2016.

The Tenzan sparkling, Nigori (£9.40 per glass) was an opalescent unpasteurised sake, subject to secondary fermentation in bottle like Champagne. It won the International Wine Challenge for sparkling sake in 2014, and had a creamy texture with green apple and pineapple notes. 

With the appetisers, we had a carafe of Gekkeikan Tarusake (£5.60 per glass or £16 for a 300ml carafe), from Kyoto prefecture. Matured in Japanese cedar casks, it had hints of seaweed, spice and wood.

With the lobster, we had a warm sake - Taga 'akinouta', Junmai from Taga, Shiga. This is made using akinouta rice, and served warm had a mellow sweetness and notes of roasted chestnuts.

With the rice dishes, we had a glass of 10 year old sake - the Koshoku Souzen (£13 per glass).

The matcha fondant was served with a glass of Choya Extra Years (£8.60 per glass) plum wine. With notes of marzipan and sour plum, this balanced luscious sweet fruit with bracing acidity. 

The raindrop cake with plum wine was served with a glass of Nakata Yuzu Umeshu wine (£7.20) on the rocks.  With zippy acidity from the yuzu, this made a stunning combination with the umeshu (sour plum) jelly. 

Likes: I loved the flavoured rices, the sashimi platter and wagyu beef. The mackerel sushi was also outstanding. Friendly and well informed service.

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: The Washoku cooking at Sakagura London is second to none - beautifully presented, it uses some of the best ingredients available and it is surprisingly well priced. There are some great sake flights on offer. Highly recommended.

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