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Tuesday 31 January 2017

Fera at Claridge's and Postcard Teas - A Fine Dining & Tea Pairing Experience to Reckon With

Words & Photography by Greg Klerkx and Luiz Hara

Pity the fine diner who doesn’t imbibe. Wine, spirits and beer are like dance partners in a great meal: enhancing, enriching and just adding another dimension to the fine dining experience. Most replacement partners – fizzy water, a mocktail – can seem, so to speak, to have two left feet. Just not the same. 

If you’re a non-alcoholic diner (or a tippler up for a change), rejoice in the ever-imaginative Simon Rogan and the folks at Postcard Teas. For the past six months, Rogan’s signature restaurant, Fera at Claridge’s, has boldly gone where few restaurants have gone before: a ‘fine tea’ drinks menu paired with Rogan’s subtle and inventive Michelin-starred cuisine. 

Tea isn’t an obvious fine cuisine partner, not even in the East. The challenge is more pronounced with Western food, which the Postcard Teas website openly acknowledges: ‘A major issue for tea is that it is traditionally served hot. In the West, hot drinks are served only towards the end of a meal.’ There is cold brewing, of course, but what’s gained in aroma and subtlety is often lost in balance and body, particularly when paired with food. 

There is a third way, called ambient brewing. Brewed and served at temperatures between 10C and 20C, ambient brewing enables fine tea to keep its aromas as well as its structure. Postcard Teas and Fera vacuum store their teas after brewing and serve them in special glass flasks, which maintains a constant temperature and flavour integrity.

So, those are the technical challenges solved. But does fine tea, however it’s concocted, actually partner with fine cuisine?

Tea can be appreciated much like wine. Tannins, body, complexity, sweetness, umami: all present and accounted for. Chef Rogan and Postcard Teas founder Timothy D’Offay assembled a 5-course pairing, including two starters, two mains and a dessert with a couple of delectable canapés thrown in for good measure. Teas were served in wine glasses and varied in colour from pale straw to light copper; served in this way, the Postcard Teas had the translucent beauty of white and rose wine. 

We began with a gently carbonated Spring Darjeeling from Kalimpong, India (£10) with notes of elderflower and peach: light and summery, and a surprisingly lovely pairing with seaweed cracker, lemon sole and sea herbs. 

A High Mountain Oolong from Chi Lai, Taiwan (£14) followed. Somewhat fuller bodied and with more pronounced citrus notes, it offered a surprisingly firm counterbalance to the chickpea wafer, sweet cheese and elderflower. 

Another oolong (Oriental Beauty, Miaoli, Taiwan) served similar supporting duty matched with cured arctic char, Mylor prawn, bergamot and radish.

When our first meat dish arrived – cylindra beetroot, roe deer, black currant and hemp (gorgeous) – we were slightly surprised to be served a glass of wine (Tom Shobbrook, Barossa Valley, 2014.) Its peppery depth opened up wonders in the roe deer dish. It was a lovely combination, but still we wondered: had we arrived at the outer edge of the tea/fine cuisine envelope? 

Hardly. The most interesting tea of the evening arrived next, Undercover Gyokuro from Kagoshima, Japan (£18). The ‘undercover’ is because it’s shaded in the weeks before harvest, intensifying its sweetness and umami. This tea’s drying process makes the tea brittle, producing a tea that is pleasantly cloudy with residue. It was delicious, and it was hard to imagine a nicer match with the halibut cooked in pine, Kenton leeks, parsley and whey.

Perhaps the greatest tea test of the evening came with the belted Galloway beef, calcot onions, malted parsley root and black truffle – a rich, almost treacly main that fairly screamed for a big Bordeaux or chunky Rhone. 

What arrived instead was Nannuo Shan Shu Puerh (Yunnan, China). This was the only tea that came with a ‘vintage’, in this case 2006. All puerh teas are thus labelled, reflecting the length of time they are fermented, a process that deepens both flavour and texture. The tea’s earthy, licorice flavour not only stood up to the intensity of the beef dish, it actually brought out grace notes of sweetness and smokiness that a powerful red mighty have bowled over.

With perhaps intentional irony, we finished the evening with an alcohol-derived dessert – Stout ice cream, buckwheat and verjus – matched with Hijiri Black Sun from Aichi, Japan (£18). Roasted in Camden, the roasting gives the tea sweetness and surprising amount of depth yet retains its smoothness: one is reminded somewhat of a good matcha. Only the tea’s name is bittersweet: it was named on the day of David Bowie’s death, reflecting his final album, Blackstar.

All in all, Fera and Postcard Teas provided a subtle, surprising dining experience. As happy tipplers, we’re unlikely to go ‘full tea’ anytime soon, but our palates have definitely been opened to tea’s potential as a fine dining partner. It’s a dance we’ll look forward to again.

The 5-course tasting menu at Fera costs £85 per person. The four ambient brewed teas by Postcard Teas are served in 500ml bottles each (enough for 2 diners) and cost £60 for all 4 teas - Spring Darjeeling £10, Gyokuroesque £18, High Mountain Oolong £14 and Hijiri Black Sun £18.

For more information about Fera at Claridge's and Postcard Teas pairing menu, visit their website here.

To learn more about the fantastic range of teas by Postcard Teas, visit their website here.

Friday 27 January 2017

Hakkasan Mayfair’s Year of the Rooster CNY Menu – Big, Decadent and Outstanding Value!

Name: Hakkasan Mayfair's Chinese New Year (CNY)

Where: 17 Bruton Street, London W1J 6QB, 

Cost: The Chinese New Year Signature menu costs £108 per person and includes 11 dishes, or £88 for 9 dishes. 

About: Opened in November 2010, Hakkasan Mayfair on Bruton street is just a few metres from swish Berkeley Square. 

With one of the most discreet entrances I have encountered in any London restaurant (you would probably miss it if you were not looking for it), we were surprised to see how large and manically buzzy the restaurant was once we were through its front door. On a cold, mid-week, January evening, the place was heaving!

Hakkasan Mayfair spans over two floors for up to 220 guests - the lower ground floor has the familiar and intimate Hakkasan setting as in the original Hanway Place, made up of a number of rooms partitioned by intricate wooden screens, whilst the ground floor features a relaxed dining space with high chairs and tables and a coveted bar area.

Both floors feature a DJ beat of funky music and low-level lighting, while along its walls is surely one of the longest, swankiest cocktail bars in London.

Executive Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee oversees the kitchen, where dishes unique to Hakkasan Mayfair have been created, such as steamed New Zealand mini lobster, Black truffle roast duck, and Sliced blue abalone in Hakka sauce. Chef Tong is based at HKK, Hakkasan’s sister restaurant located in the heart of the City which I visited earlier this week – see my 2017 HKK CNY review here).

What We Ate: Hakkasan Mayfair’s 2017 CNY Signature Menu, available only until the 11th February, is divided into 3 small eats, 3 mains, 1 vegetable and 1 rice accompaniments, and 3 desserts.

We started with the first small eat - the traditional CNY prosperity salad – this version, aptly named ‘Fortune Tale’ came with two separate dressings (sesame oil and plum sauce), and a fresh and healthy combination of various raw crunchy ingredients including julienned carrot, cucumber, mango and onion, pomelo and pickled ginger. Rather than the traditional raw salmon, the salad contained roast chicken, crispy chicken skin and deep-fried sweet potato. I could also taste deep fried crispy pastry, coriander, jellyfish, mooli and black fungus. Yep, we certainly got our 5-a-day with this salad!

Typically served to start a family New Year meal, all the guests stand and toss the salad high in the air with their chopsticks while saying auspicious things to bring good luck, health and prosperity in the New Year.

Next was the double boiled fish maw and chicken soup – this had a superbly flavoured broth and little morsels of tender chicken, spongy and gelatinous-textured fish, lotus seeds, slices of fresh coconut flesh and goji berry. Delicate, yet intensely flavoured, this was the finest soup I have tasted at the Hakkasan group.

The last of our small-eats was the braised Chilean abalone with wind-dried oyster and gold leaf over bok choi. This was another winning dish – the abalone had great texture paired with an intense, rich umami flavour from the dried seafood. The sauce was also delectable – rich and velvety.

For mains, the menu started with stir-fried lobster in white pepper soup. Gorgeously presented on the lobster tail shell, with fried slivers of pastry, water chestnuts and edible flowers, the lobster had a delicious charred flavour while remaining soft and succulent. We also enjoyed the dish’s gentle heat from the smattering of red Sichuan peppercorns. 

But the highlight of our meal was the steamed turbot in supreme stock laced with saffron – this contained four greatly textured turbot fish fillets wrapped around enoki mushrooms and with heavenly accompaniments of sweet caramelised garlic and cloud ear mushroom.

Less successful though was the sautéed duck breast in spicy bean sauce - but then that turbot was a tough one to follow! For me, the duck had a rather unusual, soft and spongy texture I couldn’t put my finger on – I asked the waiter about this but could not get an explanation as the chef was too busy. I guess for that texture, the meat might have been coated in flour and lightly poached in water before being sautéed. The duck was served with julienned slices of red and green pepper, onion and lotus root. The sauce though nicely spiced was a tad too sweet for my palate.  Overall, I did not feel this dish was in keep with the rest of the CNY menu.

The stir-fry selection of mushrooms (enoki, oyster, shiitake and king) came on a bed of crunchy long stem broccoli, in a deliciously rich and creamy abalone sauce, topped with goji berries. 

To accompany, we had a bowl of salted-egg fried rice with spring onion. This was my first time trying salted-egg fried rice, and it was another revelation – full of flavour and so delicious, where had it been all my life?! Olivier, the assistant restaurant manager taking our order on the night, told me to go easy on the rice as the menu was rather substantial, but of course I totally failed.

Hakksan Mayfair CNY menu has 3 desserts. The first was the stunning "Golden Feather", a huge mock egg made up of white chocolate shell filled with white panna cotta for egg white, mandarin and ginger custard as yolk. The egg was served on an edible bed of dainty chocolate feathers and straw.

The deep-fried sesame balls came with deep fried seaweed and filled with golden yellow custard instead of the more usual black sesame paste.

Last but not least, dessert number 3 was a rice cake filled with steamed custard and red bean. Shaped like a gold fish, with edible gold at the head, this was a mochi-like dessert served warm and beautifully presented.

What We Drank: Hakkasan Mayfair offers an extensive list of Champagnes and wines, with the entry level white being a Verdejo "Dados" from Rueda, Spain at £34, while the red is a Rioja Graciano "Altos Ibericos" from Torres, Spain (£36). In keeping with its Mayfair location, it also offers an extensive range of top flight wines including a 1995 Petrus (£4,888). There is also a wide range of sakes, sherries and cocktails.   

The CNY menu cocktail (£13.50) was a long Waltzing Collins, with baijiu (Chinese spirit), sake, mandarin, lemon, grenadine, cucumber and sparkling wine. This was refreshingly tart with a great balance of sweetness and citrus acidity. 

With our meal, we shared a bottle of Santorini, Hatzidakis (£44) - a well-structured, intensely minerally wine, robust enough to stand up to all the dishes on the menu, including the duck. This was a great wine and surprisingly well priced.

As a special treat from Olivier, we were offered a couple of glasses of red wine he wanted us to try - a Laibach Claypot Merlot 2012 from Stellenbosch, South Africa (£62/bottle). Originally sourced by Alan Yau himself for the Hanway Place branch, it still only available at Hakkasan and not on the high street. This was a rich, concentrated, wine of black berry fruit, with gentle tannins and a long finish. 

I was also very pleased to hear from him that the Hakkasan Group send nearly all their staff on to the Wine & Spirit Education Trust courses to at least to level 2. This partially explains the good level of service and knowledge by the sommeliers and waiting staff at the group’s restaurants.

Likes: For me, the biggest highlight was the turbot, though the salted-egg rice, the chicken and fish maw soup, the abalone and dried oyster, and the lobster were also sensational. The £108 CNY menu is incredibly generous, and I had to be nearly rolled out of the restaurant by the end of our meal. If you are not a big eater, I suggest going for the £88 menu and having 9 dishes instead (as opposed to the full 11 dishes on the £108 menu). Oliver was right – I should have gone easy on that rice, but then it was too good to leave behind!

Dislikes: In my opinion the duck was not in keep with the refinement of the rest of the menu.

Verdict: Hakkasan Mayfair’s Year of the Rooster menu is available only until the 11th February, and I urge you to try it, that is, if you can still book a table! It is big, decadent and outstanding value. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Red is the Colour – The Year of the Rooster Chinese New Year Menu at Yauatcha City

Name: Yauatcha City 

Where: Broadgate Circle, London, EC2M 2QS, http://www.yauatcha.com/city/

Cost: From the Chinese New Year (CNY) red menu, there are two dim sum platters at £7.80 each; one lamb salad at £18, three main dish options priced from £7.80 to £29 and all red patisserie desserts cost a lucky £8.80. If you were to order all dishes from the red CNY menu, it would cost £70.60 per person including a £12.50 cocktail.

About: To celebrate 2017 Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rooster, Yauatcha is offering a special meal, themed around the traditional celebration of the colour red. 

In China, red is synonymous with the New Year, symbolic of good luck, prosperity and joy. The colour corresponds with fire, an element considered to provide warmth, enthusiasm and creativity.

Paying homage to this significant festive colour, Yauatcha’s pastry team has created a range of ten petits gateaux each decorated a vibrant shade of red, alongside a red cocktail using the Chinese spirit baijiu and a red dim sum platter, available from 16th January until 11th February.

In addition, other savoury dishes are infused with Sichuanese red chilli in keeping with this theme, making for a delicious and spicier dining experience at Yauatcha. 

Yauatcha is my favourite dim sum restaurant in London and their Supreme Saturday set menu at £49 per person including a pre-lunch and a post-lunch cocktail, half a bottle of wine per person, plus a four-course meal is arguably one of the best lunch deals in the capital right now. I highly recommend it, see my earlier review here.

What We Ate: The Year of the Rooster menu offers a selection of festive dishes including one each steamed and fried dim sum, three main course options and dessert. The menu is not set, so diners can choose whatever dishes they want to try from it while having other dishes from the regular menu. But we wanted to sample all the CNY dishes and had just enough room to try them all!

The steamed red dim sum came in the form of a delectable truffled crabmeat dumpling with prawn and asparagus, and topped with black tobiko caviar (£7.80). Freshly made, the casing was light and delicate while fillings of seafood and heady truffles made for a combination to be remembered.

The fried dim sum was fried Wagyu beef dumplings (£7.80) - with unctuous beef, black and white fungus, coriander and gong choi Chinese vegetable, the dumplings were delicious served with a delicate chicken stock. 

The word 'Málà' refers to the defining tastes of Sichuan: má, numbing Sichuan pepper, and là, spicy chili pepper, and sure enough the mala lamb salad with jelly fish (£18) had a wonderful kick of pepper heat. Chargrilled tender strips of lamb were served with jellyfish, pickled cucumber, red pepper, enoki mushrooms, red onion, finely sliced lotus root, and sweet potato crisps. This was delicious in its array of textures and one of my favourite dishes on the menu.

The steamed seabass with pickled red chilli and goji berries, was served on a bed of gai lan vegetables, known as Chinese broccoli or kale (£29). Again with bracing chilli heat and delicate flesh, the fish was utterly delicious, although to my mind as delicious at they were, three small fillets at this price level seemed a little steep.

Better still was the seafood braised rice in lotus leaf (£18) – this had a generous serving of plump fresh prawns, as well as dried shrimps and scallops which added depth and umami to the dish, asparagus, shiitake mushroom, eggs and carrot. The rice was braised in chicken supreme stock then steamed in lotus leaf, which made it absorb some of the lovely aromas from the leaf. This was a magnificent dish.

Best of all though was the lunar chicken (£18) served in clay pot – this had cured Chinese pork sausage, courgette, shiitake mushroom, chestnuts and rice cakes, laced with turmeric, Sichuan pepper and soy sauce. The rice cakes were a revelation – they added a wonderful texture to the dish and were a great companion to the chicken. I must try replicating this at home!

And now on to the desserts - from the red patisserie menu (all priced at £8.80), we had the stunningly presented chocolate pebble with creme fraiche ice cream. 

The coffee hazelnut macaron with chocolate panna cotta was deliciously gooey and nutty, served with coffee ice cream. In my opinion, few restaurants in London can do patisserie like Yauatcha – I tend to be more of a savoury kind of diner, but if there is a restaurant I always make room for dessert, it is here!

What We Drank: We started with the Red Cocktail (£12.50), a blend of the Chinese spirit Baijiu with pineapple, Bison Grass vodka, elderflower vermouth, and Suze apertif. Served with some dinky dried rose buds, this had a combination of sweet, astringent and red berry fruit flavours.

With our meal, we shared a bottle of Albarino 'Marinero', Terras Gauda 2015, from Rias Baixas, Spain (£45) which was fresh and with bracing minerality.

Likes: For me, highlights were the lamb salad, the lunar chicken pot and the seafood braised rice in lotus leaf. Also the wonderful patisserie desserts and the refreshing cocktail. These were special celebratory dishes, unlike any Chinese meal I have eaten before. Well conceived, novel and interesting, I would love to try them again.  

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: Yauatcha City’s is my favourite Year of the Rooster CNY menu in London right now. Generous, delicious and very reasonably priced, our meal was nothing short of magnificent. Very highly recommended.

Monday 23 January 2017

HKK London’s Year of the Rooster Menu Reviewed

Where: 88 Worship Street, London EC2A 2BE, http://hkklondon.com/

Cost: The Year of the Rooster menu is priced at £93.88 (a vegetarian menu is also available at the same price), with beverage pairing (cocktails and wine) at £58 and the Orchard Flight (non-alcoholic drinks including tea and fruit juices) at £28.  

About: The 28th January 2017 marks the Year of the Rooster, and to celebrate HKK is offering a Chinese New Year (CNY) 8-course tasting menu until 12 February 2017, and then lightly modified until the end of March.

Records suggest that the Chinese Imperial feasts in classical times often lasted for several days, and consisted of hundreds of dishes incorporating exotic and luxurious ingredients. HKK’s Chinese New Year banquet, created by Hakkasan and HKK’s Executive Head Chef Tong Chee Hwee, takes inspiration from this tradition, with modern interpretations of ancient dishes eaten by the royals. 

The menu features authentic Chinese ingredients such as sea cucumber, abalone and yu fungus as well as other fine ingredients like caviar, foie gras, lobster, fresh truffle and edible gold. The feast ends with a Century egg, a reinvention of the Chinese thousand year old egg; the HKK Century egg is a dessert flavoured with hazelnut, sesame and coffee, but more on that below.

One-Michelin starred HKK is one of London’s finest Chinese restaurants, and a personal favourite. Its ‘Duck & Champagne’ tasting menu (£49 per person) available on Saturday lunch times only featuring its glorious signature cherry-wood smoked duck in a 4-course tasting menu with a bottle of Louis Roederer Champagne thrown in per couple, is still one of the best deals in town. You can see my earlier review here.

What We Ate and Drank: HKK’s Year of the Rooster menu starts with a dish called ‘The Emperor's Bite of Spring’ - this was a golden rice pancake with king crab, white truffle, winter bamboo shoot, carrot and daikon, providing a range of textures and different flavours.

To accompany our first dish, we were served a glass of Amabuki – this was an elegant and light rose sake with subtle wild berry notes, made from blending white sake with red rice. The sake is made at the 300-year old Amabuki Brewery in Saga, in the southern island of Kyushu in Japan.

‘Monk Jump Over The Wall’ is a traditional Chinese soup, and HKK's creamy version had green abalone, scallop, ham and sea cucumber. The soup was delicate but highly flavoursome (give me seafood and pork in a dish any day!) with the Japanese yam, ginseng and goji berry adding contrasting textures in a many-layered dish.  

With it, our first wine was an Arbois Pupillin from Jura, a Chardonnay, from Domain De La Renardiere which showed great structure, minerality and steely green fruit flavours. 

Next was the ‘Touch of the Heart’  - a trio of dumplings: lobster and pickled Chinese leaves, king crab with XO sauce, and jade green dumpling of seabass and shrimp. Accompanying the dim sum trilogy, we had juice of honeydew melon, celery and ginger, served with a dinky glass jug of Peruvian Pisco. Creative as it was, to my mind it cried out for some ice despite the refreshing tartness.

The Imperial Cherry Wood Peking Duck is the signature dish of HKK, and a must-eat dish in my opinion. The process of preparing this dish takes 2 days - first the duck is salted with lemon grass, before being showered in hot water, lemon juice and vinegar. It is then dried for 24 hours to separate the skin from its fat before being roasted in cherry wood, carved and served at the table. 

This elaborate process gives a skin that is as crisp as caramel, and full of aromatic flavour. We were served two morsels of HKK Peking Duck as part of the CNY menu - the first morsel had a generous slab of foie gras, topped with just the crispy skin of the duck and a slice of kumquat. The second had a pancake with breast of duck, leek and cucumber, topped with spoonful of Imperial caviar. This was an utterly delicious, sophisticated dish, worth a visit to HKK in its own right!

To accompany our duck, we had a glass of Reisling 2010 Auslese, by Joh Jos Prum, Wehlener Sonnenhur, from Mosel, Germany. A deliciously rich, off-dry wine with green apple and petroleum notes, this was a classic example of its kind.

Moving on to the first main ‘Scallop Noodle’ had black yu fungus, lemongrass and royal chicken stock, Chinese broccoli and Japanese pumpkin. The scallops were admirably meaty and with a delectably charred flavour. 

With it, we were served a glass of Clos Mireille, a Provencal Rose blended from Syrah, Carignan and Grenache from Domaines Ott. This was a well made wine with delicate strawberry flavours, but a bone-dry nose. Following the semi-dry Reisling seemed a bit too much of a contrast for my palate.

The final savoury dish was ‘Eight Treasure Chicken’, featuring guinea fowl, ginko nut, mangalica ham, shiitake mushroom and a salted duck egg yolk, all wrapped up in a crispy tofu skin. Dinkily presented in a cellophane parcel, at the table a little jug of osmanthus wine was poured over dry ice to give a suitably dramatic appearance to the dish. 

The flavours in the dish were rich and concentrated, the result seeming greater than the sum of its parts, and with its partnering wine, this was for me the climax of the evening.

With the chicken, we had a glass of Morey Saint Denis, Aurelien Verdet, a 2009 Pinot Noir from Burgundy. It had a complex nose of red berry fruit, leather and cedar, rich fruit on the palate and with a long, savoury finish. 

The pre-dessert was a light and airy Kumquat and Carrot Cake served with vanilla cream, orange foam and poached kumquat.

With the pre-dessert, we had a glass of Moscato d'Asti 2015, from G D Vaira, Piemonte, Italy. A slightly spritzy wine, this was light, refreshing, and medium sweet, with muscat grape flavours.

The "Century Egg" was in fact a delectable sweet white sesame mousse, served with vanilla ice cream, caramelized hazelnut, sesame seeds and a coffee lady's finger, edible gold and a kataifi nest to resemble feathers. This was a great end to the meal - witty, creative, and a delight to the eye and the palate. 

With the final dessert, we had a glass of fine old Scotch whisky - a Glenmorangie Signet, made with chocolate burnt malt. The whisky is matured in white American oak, and then cask-aged for 20-70 years. It is 46% alcohol, so is served with a pipette of water to release the aromas.

Likes: Highlights for me were the Imperial cherry wood Peking duck, the Eight Treasure Chicken and the dessert of 'Century Egg". 

Dislikes: Some of the beverage pairings were not to my palate, although at best they were sensational. I would have preferred a wine flight to the mix of spirits, cocktails, wines and sake. 

Verdict: HKK London Chinese New Year Menu, the Year of the Rooster, is another triumph of flavours, colours and textures, and it is not to be missed. The menu is only available until 12th February 2017, so hurry! Highly recommended.

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