Thursday, 24 January 2013

Belgo Centraal at Covent Garden

Finding a place for 12 hungry students to meet for dinner isn't always easy, but with pretty roomy premises on Covent Garden (Ok, it's 12, 000 square feet. It's huge.) and a Beat the Clock deal from 5 to 6.30 pm, Belgo Centraal made for a pretty inspired choice. It's not all that far from the Belgo along Kingsway, which I've gone past every single time I return home from school, yet never entered, so I spent the first half of dinner fending off exclaimed shouts of "What do you mean you've never been to Belgo before?!".

The entrance with its illuminated walkway and rather industrial interior looked quite good, but the rest of the restaurant was just as dimly lit. The acoustics of the basement also seem to increase the overall volume of the chatter, so it's good for large boisterous groups but less so for everyone else. 

It took a while before we could get anyone's attention, but eventually our orders were taken by a rather kind waiter who charged even the stragglers the same rate as those of us who'd arrived on time. Most of us got the mussels, but it's a pretty small serving so some people ended up ordering extras. Only traditionelle (Classic white wine, garlic and onion but done with celery here) was being offered today, which was a shame because I wanted to try the provencale (Tomato, herbs and garlic). 

The mussels were plump and fresh though not as flavourful as I'd hoped they would be. The sauce was on the bland side and suffered from a rather sad dearth of garlic. Additionally quite a bit of my portion was just empty shell, but I suppose you get what you pay for.  (Or I was just really, really unlucky) A bunch of people got the roast chicken, which was a bit on the dry side. The pasta serving was pretty massive though and rather decent. 

I'm kind of regretting my decision not to get a beer right now. I had a glass of wine which was decent enough, but after looking at their website I'm beating myself up over not asking the other side of the table to pass the beer booklet, or doing prior research. There's a whole menu dedicated to the various options on offer, from trappist to your usual pilsner lagers, and even a puzzling but faintly intriguing coconut beer. While most of the beers on offer are common throughout all the outlets, there are a number only available in some locations, so check their online beer selector. It's pretty comprehensive and can help you find your 'perfect beer'. The selection looks pretty terrific. Even if I never go back for the food the Kingsway branch has bar seating for evening drinks. 

50 Earlham Street London WC2H 9LJ

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Gold Mine

Brought B here since he's visiting all the way from Edinburgh. He's heard all about it from a bunch of us - we're nothing if not giant loudhailers once we find a place we like. 

Gold Mine is an institution for most Singaporean students here, as well as SIA crew in transit. For those of us not studying in the wilderness of West London, it's a pilgrimage that must be undertaken, every time a friend comes into town demanding halfway decent Chinese food, or when the cravings for roast duck hit. Clientele here is overwhelmingly Singaporean or Hong Konger, which says volumes for the place. Reviews in Time Out and other local outlets have largely overlooked it in favour of splashier establishments, and as a loyal patron I'm torn between indignation on its part and being somewhat grateful it isn't more crowded than it already is. 

The roast duck here isn't for the faint of heart or the hater of fat, because the thick, translucent layer of duck fat is what makes the duck here so sinfully good. Drenched in the accompanying sauce, it's the perfect accompaniment to a steaming bowl of rice. In all the time I've visited, quality has slipped only once when a duck I took away was undercooked, but a quick zapping in the microwave took care of the problem. 

It's usually just duck and rice for me here, but an extra indulgence would be the Japanese tofu in minced meat. Mildly spicy, it's served piping hot in a claypot, and the sauce is a wonderful counterpoint to the duck, accentuating the sweetness of the meat.

Gold Mine, 102 Queensway, London W2 3RR 

Friday, 18 January 2013

Kitchen W8

A search for the best set lunches in London led me to Kitchen W8, which was awarded a Michelin star in 2011, not bad for a place that set up to become a beloved neighbourhood institution. Then again, considering that it's located in the well-heeled Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, perhaps I shouldn't be all that surprised. While further accolades haven't been forthcoming, most food guides do list it as one of the best places to get a quality lunch in London. At £19.50 for three well-portioned courses, it did extremely well. 

(Edit 30/01/2013: It's been announced that Kitchen W8 has been awarded a Michelin Star in the 2013 Michelin Guide)

The restaurant itself feels sophisticated but not in an overbearing fashion. The dining room is segmented into a number of sections, creating a cosy and semi-private feel, and the noise level never rose above a comfortable chatter even though the dining room was well-occupied on my visit. While the walls are a rather dark beige, the interior is saved from blandness by a smattering of mirrors and rather interesting pieces of art. In addition, service was excellent throughout, knowledgeable, friendly and prompt even when the crowd spilled in. 

My first course was a velouté of smoked bacon, grilled chicken wings, hazelnut and truffle. The hint of truffle was lost in the dish, but it was a rich experience all the same. The velouté itself was deeply umami, with buttery notes that I enjoyed. The bacon bits were a fun touch, and the toasted hazelnuts added an interesting crunch and a hint of bitterness that brought out the surprising sweetness of dish. But the revelation of the course was the chicken wing, almost melting on the tongue save for the last crunch from the skin. It was grilled to perfection and de-boned, so I could savour the blissful union of delicate meat and fat without the messiness usually involved.

My main course was a fillet of sea bream, with roasted slivers of onion, pumpkin gnocchi, curly kale and mushroom pureé. I've never enjoyed gnocchi, not since an unfortunate experience in Italy where I was served a massive plate full of starchy, heavy, floury blobs of dough in an unappetizing sauce, so I was hesitant with these as I always am. But the pumpkin flavour really shone through, and the pieces of gnocchi were squishy soft. On their own they were still a bit too starchy for my personal liking, but they went so well with the pureé that I finished all of them anyway. 
The pureé had the misfortune of being the same colour as the walls of the restaurant, but taste-wise it fared much better, being smooth and aromatic. The kale hadn't lost its flavour in the cooking, while the onion was very lovingly caramelized, and went well with the sea bream. The fish itself was free from pesky bones, and very juicy. The skin held enough fat to be indulgent without overwhelming the flesh, and seemed wonderfully light until I finished the whole thing and it suddenly hit me how full I was. 

For dessert was rhubarb fool, which made me think of summer more than anything. This was a bit heavier than I was expecting, creamy and frothy though it was, a somewhat more substantial version for winter perhaps? Also, no unsightly masses of boiled rhubarb here, only a deliriously pink jelly holding its sour tang, neatly policing the worst of the cloying excesses of the vanilla cream. The rhubarb cookies I could have done without, dry and brittle as they were, but ignoring them, it was a good end to a most satisfying meal. 

Kitchen W8, 11-13 Abingdon Road, London W8 6AH