Sunday, 13 October 2013

ABaC Restaurant

The first thing I booked after booking my tickets to Barcelona was a table at AbaC. Topping most lists as THE place to eat (aside from Tickets), it has 2 Michelin stars and a very young head chef who won his first star at the tender age of 25. I remember the food I was cooking at 25, instant Japanese noodles with a fried egg was my go-to dish, that and melted cheese on toast (I didn't discover my passion for cooking until I was 27). So how does someone gain Michelin stars in their twenties? They cook with passion and creative flair, their menus are adventurous and daring and they put on an impressive spectacle, delivering on taste as well as presentation.

Truth be told, I didn't have high expectations when I arrived at ABaC. In the two days in Barcelona, I'd visited popular restaurants like Tapas 24 and Dos Pallilos and were left a bit dissapointed by both. It wasn't that it wasn't good, but I expected more from restaurants opened by ex El Bulli chefs. ABaC was on an entirely different level and restored some faith in the Barcelona scene. Chef Jordi Cruz knows how to keep a diner interested, by serving up a dishes that tickle the taste buds with their varying temperatures, textures, flavours and smells. It's a meal that excites all the senses. 

Frozen gazpacho and strawberries with dressing: Gazpacho tastes so much better when it's in ice cream form
Peach and Lime Nitro Lollipop: a subtly flavored palate cleanser at the beginning of the meal
Mediterranean mussel curry with fakir lime: we were pleasantly surprised by the exotic flavours and the liquid bubbles that deliver bursts of flavour. 
Shellfish Bloody Mary snow and cured meats
Liquid Parmesan gnocchi with summer truffle with raw and roasted mushrooms, cep water infusion with lemongrass. Loved this, these delicate liquid gnocchi bursted in your mouth and the addition of the lemongrass created a slightly asian dimension to the taste.
Foie Gras with figs, fig tree leaves ice cream and balsamic vinegar: Instead of the usual foie gras terrines or pan seared foie gras, here it is served as a cream atop a crisp bread, making it much lighter. 
Smoked steak tartar, beef with dressing, cooked egg yolk, veil of mustard and pepper bread brittle. The dish came with the glass dome with the trapped smoke
Not the best tartare we've tasted, but not bad
Palamos prawn, Iberian pork tail and cutlet, coral consomme and curry bread: The prawns came separately on a slab of pink himalayan salt then were cooked slightly before being added to the dish. The ball in the middle delivered on both taste and texture-- stuffed with meat with a sticky dough exterior. The prawn was ridiculously good and I found myself sucking on its head, lest I missed any of its juices. 
Casarecce Pasta with sea cucumbers, squid's water, "Comte" cheese and lemon basil: I've rarely encountered sea cucumbers in western cuisine but it worked beautifully here with the cheese.
Fried Mediterranean red mullet with onions, lemongrass aioli and confit tomatoes
"menuda" veal: again, texture and form plays center role in this dish. There are 4 different bits of veal cooked differently in this dish, one of which was a veal consomme that isn't pictured here. The veal was tender, but I thought it was a bit heavy at this point of the meal. 

Begonia's Pink Panther: This was the first of three amazing deserts. Strawberry, white chocolate and orange zest, so light I could have had another portion. 
On a bed of smoked bread brittle, roast biscuit, banana, coffee, vanilla and bourbon: Perhaps one of the most elaborate deserts I've ever been served, it delivered on every front-- presentation, taste, texture, smell. At this stage, my boyfriend and I agreed that ABaC had served up the best deserts we've had this year. 

This house made yogurt was incredible, its sweetness counterbalanced by the sour, it had little bits of biscuit in it. 
ABaC lipstick: raspberry ice lolli
Petit fours: even these were extraordinary. The white packets at the bottom were coconut flavoured with bits of crunch inside and that's a caramel-ly nut brittle above it. The chocolate truffles looked most average but delivered a burst of alcohol when bitten into. 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Bo London

I’m half Chinese and I spent the first 14 years of my life in Hong Kong, so naturally, I’ve had my fair share of Chinese meals. It’s the one cuisine I have constant cravings for and thanks to the top notch Chinese restaurants in London, I’ve never had a problem with satiating my appetite. I have, however, developed a dependency on Hakkasan Mayfair for my chinese-food-needs and so the opening of Bo London opened up the possibility of a new restaurant to be added to my list of go-to restaurants. I’ve dined at Bo Innovation in Hong Kong (the mothership of Bo London) and loved it. Alvin Leung is the first chef I’ve encountered to create gastronomic Chinese food and the results were impressive. So how does the London one compare? Yes, there were some hit and misses and there wasn't anything groundbreaking, but the meal was good, surpassing my expectations after reading some slamming reviews online. That being said, it was definitely not value for money (290 pounds for two—that’s 14 courses without any wine but including service), which may explain why the restaurant was only half empty. Still, I feel Bo London deserves a chance and if the 128 pounds price tag is too hefty, go for the 80 pounds “Ode to Britain” menu or even the 27 pounds lunch menu that gives you 3 dimsum dishes and a main. The best part of the meal is, despite it sounding like a lot (14 courses), you don't end the meal feeling stuffed and uncomfortable, which is very rare for such lengthy tasting menus.

White Garden-- Spring onion, avocado and lime mousse with dehydrated Enoki
This isn't the first time a chef has tried to serve "dirt", Fatduck and Noma have both done it before and theirs were much better. Here, the lime was overpowering and it just tasted really off. Not a good start. 

Bed and Breakfast-- Quail Egg, crispy taro crust with caviar
This was ok. I like the idea of it but it needed more flavour

Cloud-- cured mackeral, compressed cucumber, black sesame, vinegar and mist of rose
Cute presentation but I didn't like the mackeral and vinegar, the whole thing was too slimy for my liking

Foie Gras-- Pan seared with crispy vermicelli and lettuce wrap
Best so far, this was truly delicious, loved the "Abby" sauce that was drizzled on

Three Tomatoes-- (from the left) tomato braised in chinese rice wine vinegar, cherry tomato baked in filo with olive tapenade and tomato marshmallow with green onion oil
The first two were average, the marshmallow was a miss. 

Scallop-- Sashimi, sugar snap peas, crispy rice and wine
This was executed well

Dim sum-- Chilli crab fun gor and spicy lamb soup dumpling
This was one of my favourites, great flavours and juicy. The Chilli crab fun gor (left) was especially good. The skin of the spicy lamb soup was slightly thick, but the soup in it was spot on.
Hawthorn-- palate cleanser of tea with chili, mandarin orange sorbet, lemon grass meringue

Loved the mystique! After pouring the test tube of tea into the bowl, a cloud of dried ice appeared for the duration of the course.  Apart from that, it tasted fresh and sweet.
Cod-- with samphire and crispy seaweed. A solid piece of cod which I always marvel at how restaurants can make such a boring piece of fish taste so good. 

Sweetbread-- Braised in oyster sauce, sweet and sour pearl onion and artichoke puree
This paid homage to the ubiquitous "sweet and sour" flavour favored by westerners when ordering take away chinese. 

Angus Beef-- slow roasted in a 10 aromatic veal bouillon, spicy potato and chive jiaozi
Great soup and tender beef, although I question it's late positioning on the menu, seeing that it's more of a soup than a main.

Bai Jiu-- Chinese wheat liquor and fever tree tonic foam, lime parfait and liquorice caramel
An interesting use of Bai Jiu which is normally really overpowering. Here it's smell is only subtle and worked well with the rest of the ingredients

Coconut-- Palm sugar creme brulee, sour morello cherry compote and coconut milk
This was the best desert and according to Oliver who is a creme brulee fan, one of the best creme brulees he's had.

Petit Dim Sum-- decent, especially the "spotted dick" buns

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

River Cafe

River Cafe is one of those institutions that's been on my "to try" list forever. I've heard it's a favorite amongst top chefs, Heston Blumenthal included, so naturally, I had high expectations. I chose to go during summer, hoping to be able to dine outdoors by the Thames, which is such a rarity. With the record breaking temperatures all July, the day we visit River Cafe, the clouds closed in and torrential rain poured down, but that didn't dampen my enthusiasm. Half way through my meal though, it was a plate of fish that made me realise River Cafe had passed its glory days and it was not what it used to be.

The restaurant is by the Thames near Hammersmith, a lone restaurant in a quiet residential area. The restaurant's decor is simple but it struck us how dated it looked-- the blue carpet was fuzzy, the plastic chairs that were once white were scratched and worn. An oversized fire oven dominated the open kitchen at the back and gave the otherwise plain restaurant a bit of character. What we did like was the fact that servers all wore their own clothes, but in coordinating shades of blues and greens, which was a welcome change to the stiffness of waitressing uniforms so often found in other restaurants.

In the days leading up to our visit, I checked the menu a few times and noticed that the menu regularly changed and thought that it must change so often to reflect the changing produce the kitchen receives. But after the meal, I felt that the ever-changing menu meant inconsistency in the quality of cooking. I remember someone once saying, you don’t cook something great by cooking lots of different dishes, you become good at it when you cook the same dish over and over again. So while a changing menu is great for regulars, it also meant food that was unlikely to impress first timers.

Bresola-- flavourless
Scallops- So So
Taglierini with summer girolles-- this was again average and a bit bland, but in comparison with the rest, it is already one of the better dishes
Risotto with Sausage and Beans: finally some flavour! The best of the starters. 

Everything from the bread, to the peach bellini, to our starters, main and desert were just ok, run-of-the-mill dishes expected from a neighbourhood restaurant, yet the prices charged were anything but. 18 pounds for starters, 36 pounds for main courses, these are Dinner by Heston prices. It wasn’t that the food was terrible (except for the fish) it was just so average. I would give the meal a 6 out of 10, not the kind of score I expected to give such a famed establishment. And if I think about the food we were served and the price we paid, it was a total rip off.

Lamb-- not bad, at least it was tender 
I always order Dover Sole when I see it on a menu because I love it so much and it’s something I don’t prepare myself at home. What was served was an atrocity and I felt that a great piece of fish had gone to waste. The fish sat swimming in a broth with a side of overcooked zucchini. It was tasteless, soggy and bland. 

Deserts were... you guessed it: average. Good, but nothing to get excited at. But at 9 pounds per slice, I expected more.

The upsides: 

The bellini was definitely made from fresh peaches, which is a plus, but the downside was that it was more foam than drink and I could barely detect the fizz of the prosecco.

The Ossobucco was definitely the best dish (no photo of this). The veal was really tender and the flavours were great.

In a nutshell:

Why would anyone go to River Cafe? My guess is, if you live nearby (walking distance) and you don't want to/know how to cook, then River Cafe is a decent, albeit extremely expensive, neighborhood restaurant. I've been repeatedly told how good it used to be and I mourn for the passing of another great restaurant. In my bid to see if my experience was an isolated case, I searched online for reviews. Here is one I resonate with and was written the day after my visit:

"Unfortunately our dinner at The River Cafe was in the same week I found out that my favourite restaurant in London had closed down, a restaurant that did not have a Michelin star for which I could never figure out the reason. So tonight I spent all night figuring out the reason why The River Cafe does have a star. The service was so-so. My wine was topped up once by the waiter. The ossobuco tasted like an old school dinner, the spinach was so salty I can't wait to get home to drink a gallon of water....and despite the fact that I didn't eat most of my food (something that NEVER happens), we were not once asked if we enjoyed our meal, our starter, our wine or our evening. I love food and I love eating out, I am not a snob, I respect the graft and hard work restaurateurs, chefs and waiters put in, but I it's been many many years since I left a restaurant feeling that it had been a complete waste of money. So, in summary, perfectly ok place, great history, ok-ish food, lovely wine, ok-ish waiting staff, but with a lasting sense of disappointment. I just don't remember the last time i left a restaurant feeling cross and cheated. Why have they got a Michelin star? " Amen. 

River Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, 29 July 2013


I remember a time when sushi wasn't popular (in Europe and USA obviously, it's always been popular in Hong Kong), when people would wrinkle their noses when they heard "raw fish" and gag when they smelt it. Then Nobu came along and everything changed. Nobu can probably take the credit for making sushi sexy; Raw fish became haute cuisine and the regular A-lists clients made sushi glamourous. Back in the day, everyone went to Nobu. Whether you were a sushi fan or someone keen to impress a date or celebrating a birthday, Nobu would probably be on your list. Sadly, after enjoying years of success, Nobu lost its way and is no longer a go-to sushi restaurant for true sushi lovers. What was once cutting edge (sushi with South American twists) was being imitated, and done better elsewhere. Now the restaurant offers more of a scene than good food, a destiny a lot of hyped up restaurants sadly face. Perhaps its the recognition that restaurants should be about food that prompted the founder of Dinings to leave Nobu. Whatever the reason, it would proof a fruitful decision as after 6 years in business, Dinings is still as busy as ever. 

I remember when I first visited Dinings, in the first months they opened, it was for a birthday dinner. We sat cramped in the tiny enclave downstairs, all wondering how this threadbare sushi restaurant will fare in its food. After tasting my first wagyu truffle sushi, I was hooked. The memory of the wave of "OoooohhhhMyyyyGOD"s that followed after we tasted the sushi still brings a smile to my face. We were wowed so completely that we ordered several of the sushi multiple times after, as if we would never eat such wonderful food ever again. I've since visited many times, but a little less in the past 2 years. So when I went back recently and found the sushi still amazing, I just had to write a review. 

What I love about Dinings, like Sushi Tetsu, is the fact that this is a sushi restaurant that focuses on sushi, NOT selling cocktails to bankers and brokers (Ahem Nobu Berkeley). It's a tiny restaurant, with a sushi bar upstairs and a handful of tables downstairs. It's modest interior evokes the zen of a temple. The food on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Creative and unique creations grace the pages of the menu of Dinings, you won't find a salmon avocado roll here. I also appreciate how their sushi menu is presented: the fish as a heading with the various different sushi styles listed below them. So if you're feeling like having Toro (fatty tuna), you look for the heading "Tuna" and you'll see a list of 6 sushi styles, of which 5 contain the word "toro". If you like Toro like I do, restrain yourself and don't be tempted to order all of it. There's so much to choose from in terms of fish and style, be daring and try something different. Look out for the specials menu as well, as they usually have amazing stuff on there that are in season and worth ordering. 

To start, we recommend the Tar Tar Chip. It's like a mini Taco, a homemade chip (that looks like a pringle) with a mound of seafood or meat nestled in them. 

Scottish native lobster with miso Americaine sauce
Sushi in Dinings are made of super fresh fish and we love the combos the chefs think up. One of best sushis I've ever had is their Wagyu Beef and Foie Gras sushi, Wagyu Beef and Truffle sushi. It may seem odd (to some, like my boyfriend), to have Foie Gras served in sushi, but it's very popular in Japan, besides, who says sushi has to be made with raw fish only?

Scallop Sushi
From left to right: o-toro (fattiest), chu-toro (medium fatty), Akami, "zuke" style sushi "tabekurabe"
Special of the day: Turbot sushi
One of my favourites: Wagyu beef with Foie Gras. The first time I had one of these, I ordered another one straight away. The beef is lightly seared; it's succulent, juicy and tender and the whole thing just melts in your mouth. 
I love soft shelled crab so I always order Spider Roll everywhere I go if it's on the menu. But only in Dinings does it come out looking like this-- fresh leaves and herbs stacked in abundance. 
Another special of the day: Ikura (salmon roe) with onsen tamago (poached egg japanese style)-- Love the bite to the ikura contrasted with the silky egg
Fresh water eel and pan-fried foie-gras roll with sweet soy sauce

Special open sushi roll "Capricciosa"-- A vegetable futomaki roll topped with over 6 different types of fish specially chosen by the chef
Char grilled creel-caught Scottish langoustine with yuzu-kosho and garlic. 
Black sesame pudding with sesame ice cream
Truffle Ice cream-- I was a bit skeptical before trying it, I thought it wouldn't taste like truffle or that the truffle flavour would be really underwhelming. Luckily, I was wrong! Being used to having truffle in savoury dishes, I was surprised how well it worked here. 
While there are many sushi restaurants in London, there aren't that many in the league of Dinings and Tetsu. Most of these restaurants are about the "scene", so they're overpriced and serve less than fresh fish. I was recently in Roka and while the grilled food was done well, the sushi was less than stellar (Zuma is better). The thing with sushi is, if the fish isn't fresh, it tastes off. While some may not care and just dunk the sushi in a pool of soya sauce, I think to pay the (hefty) price tag of sushi means you should get the freshest fish that's available. In my opinion, the sweetness of fresh fish is one of the greatest things to taste and if you don't know what that's like, seek it out and you'll never want to eat substandard sushi ever again. Dinings on Urbanspoon