Wednesday 27 March 2013

Great Queen Street

Our schedules called for a day of studying for E & me, so we met for our long overdue lunch at spot that was conveniently situated between our respective libraries. At 12.15 pm, the restaurant was buzzing and almost completely packed, but a quick scan by one of the waiters turned up a teensy table by the side that could just about sit two. 

We'd heard that Great Queen Street was a gastropub, but it's fairly obvious to anyone who's eaten there that the focus is almost entirely on the food. There's the same gastropub mentality of well-cooked local produce of the season, but drinks don't get the same level of focus. You can get a decent glass of wine to go with your meal at a decent price, but the guys behind the bar seemed much more involved in slicing up loaves of sourdough than pulling a pint in the time we were there. 

Speaking of the sourdough, it was warm when it reached our table, with a good crispy crust and fluffy, chewy interior. Good stuff. 

Because the both of us were interested in the same things on the menu, we decided to get those items to share, but it didn't feel quite enough. The waiters know the menu in and out even though it rotates daily and ours recommended the pork croquette. This was on the daily specials board at the far end of the restaurant and we'd missed it entirely, but it sounded interesting enough so we went for it. When it came we quickly divvied up the two pieces with a little mustard drizzled over, as well as the red sauerkraut. 

Very often, when you order a croquette the insides are mainly full of mashed potato and just a smidgen of whatever was advertised (I had a ham croquette once where I never did find the ham.), so imagine our delight when we cut the pork croquette open to find that it was chock full of pulled pork, with hardly a bit of potato in sight. The breaded exterior was crisp and evenly golden-brown all over, and the mustard relatively mild, giving only a hint of piquancy. The pork itself was juicy and full of body, the kind of thing you eat with great gusto. Though there wasn't much sauerkraut on the plate, what we did get added a nice tartness to the overall flavour. 

We ended up playing table tetris as more things arrived. The table was tiny, and with cutlery, bread, two individual plates, cups of water and wine and the bowls of salt and pepper, even after clearing the serving dish that the pork croquettes came on, there wasn't much space left after the washing bowl for the mussels came by. Things got shifted around and stacked to make more room, and there was a lot of "Oh crap, hold this while I move this around." and "Okay, let's clear this quickly before this other thing threatens to fall off the table."

There was no space for an extra plate to put the mussel shells, so we finished our croquettes before we moved on to the shellfish. The mussels were really plump and fresh, and so good with the diced onions that littered the plate. Also, there wasn't an empty shell in sight. It was a good thing we kept that last slice of sourdough, because we split it and used the bread to mop up all the good, garlicky sauce we couldn't get with our spoons.  

We split a plate of greens as well. Not the most generous portion around, but good, crisp vegetables with a simple oil-vinegar dressing. Also, if the plate had been any bigger we probably wouldn't have had any space to put it. As it was, with the empty shells taking up our plates by the time it reached us, we had to shovel the vegetables directly into our mouths. 

Once everything was cleared, there was still some space left for dessert, so we opted for the chocolate tart. The tart crust was nothing to shout about but the dark chocolate filling more than made up for it. 

32 Great Queen Street, London WC2B 5AA

Thursday 21 March 2013

Maison Bertaux

Smack in the heart of town, Maison Bertaux is London's oldest patisserie, established way back in 1871. It also claims to be the best, with both its sweet and savoury cakes and pastries made fresh on premises daily. While its space at the top of London's patisserie hierarchy is debatable, enough people flock by that the tables in the main shop are usually fully occupied, and they need to send people down into the basement room in their extension next door. 

I suppose the wonderful thing about Maison Bertaux that makes it such a long-standing institution is how delightfully French it seems. Not the snooty, unattainable sort of Frenchness you might associate with Pierre Hermé or Ladurée, but that certain je ne sais quois people think of when they picture Montmarte in the early evening. It may be a cliche, yet it captures the imagination anyway. 

The clutter that pervades the whole store, the independent art for sale that grace the walls, the ever-so-slightly rickety stairs, the careless pride with which the old man behind the counter gestures towards all the cakes and cries "Everything is good!" if you dare ask for recommendations. It's like something out of Amélie, the quirky and quaint cafe of  fantasy brought to life. When the sun beams in it feels even more otherworldly. Thankfully, when you get the bill and find that you have to hand over your firstborn in exchange for tea and a slice of cake, the shock usually reels you back to reality. (I do exaggerate, but it is rather more dear compared to other places.)

I went there with the girls for a nice afternoon tea, and we were shunted into the basement next door after we found there weren't any seats left in the upstairs room of the main shopfront. Orders are always taken at the counter, and Em and I had spent five whole minutes wringing our hands and staring at the rows of cakes until our eyes nearly glazed over before we managed to come to a decision. We went down to pick a table while our cakes were being plated and our tea prepared, and El and C joined us soon after. 

We took in the art as we waited, and our tea arrived by way of a waiter who was very precariously balancing everything while gingerly coming down the stairs. I'd opted for the coffee cream puff and a lapsang while Em had the berry cheesecake and a green tea. El and C decided to share the chocolate mousse and profiterole pie. All of us ended up sharing anyway, so we could sample bits of everything. 

The cheesecake was fluffy but almost gelatinous and jiggly, a texture El and I were partial to but Em didn't really appreciate. The pie base had gone slightly hard which was a shame, because the chocolate mousse was really fresh and creamy. My puff pastry wasn't terrific either, only coming apart after several repeated stabs, although the coffee cream inside was quite glorious. 

So, the cakes possibly weren't completely worth it, but it was still a pretty good afternoon out, especially if you like your places charming and different. 

28 Greek Street, London W1D 5DQ,

Sunday 17 March 2013


It could really only happen in London, the big city with a taste for wine, where there’s money – old and new – to burn. Yegevny Chichvarkin, the Russian mobile tycoon who a few years ago fled to London to escape possible political persecution, opened Hedonism Drinks just last year, a gleaming temple to fine wines and spirits in the heart of glitzy Mayfair. Sure the most valuable stuff is kept under lock and key in a special room, but there’s still row upon row of interesting fine wines on show enough to make an oenophile’s head spin.

Never mind that London is already up to its teeth in wine sellers, or that even within the same neighbourhood Hedonism faces internationally lauded competitors, some of which have centuries of pedigree. Chichvarkin’s latest venture bills itself as the best wine store there is, combining the brick and mortar with a concierge-style service. Beyond in-store offerings, they promise a high degree of success in helping customers get a hold of any wine they want, no matter how difficult. With the store not yet a year old, it’s a little early to make a call on whether Hedonism is top dog, but one thing is for sure: it remains a spectacular place for anyone with even half an interest in wine to visit.

When we walked into the store, it was completely free of customers save for an old man who was intently browsing the Champagne section. W and I made a leisurely circuit, being extra careful not to bump into anything while we checked out the prices of the bottles. A bottle was going for £8.90, but the one next to it had £2011 on its tag, so you can't say they haven't got range

W, hard at work deciding which she liked best
After a while, we descended down the £100 000 staircase to the temperature regulated basement, where a long row of enomatic machines awaited. A large portion of Hedonism's staff is made up of sommeliers poached by the company, and our wine guide for the day might have been one of them. Susan was wonderfully well-versed and enthusiastic, and took the time to talk us through the nearly forty wines and one sake that we could taste. With each tasting portion at 25 ml, before imbibing a single drop our heads were already swimming with possibilities of what we'd try. 

The enomatic machines work with a card, which you purchase credit for in any amount you wish. A couple who came by later put in the exact amount for the glass they wanted (£2.15) and no more. We put in £15 to be shared by the both of us, which we thought was the absolute height of decadence. Then two Polish guys came by and put £150 on their card. We left when a boy who didn't look older than 18 asked for his card to have £1500 on it. But before the evening crowd came in and made us look like the absolute misers we are, W and I had run of the place for a good half hour, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. 

All the Beatles' greatest hits were being played on a vinyl record that was piped throughout the store as we made our way through 9 different wines, with a water break  between the whites and the reds very thoughtfully provided by Susan, who also cleared our glasses ever so often so we didn't look like raging alcoholics. 

We started off very well with a 2008 Julien Labet Cotes du Jura En Billat Chardonnay, which tasted like baguettes, and moved on to the 2009 Bernard Gripa Saint-Peray Les Pins, which was really savoury with a pastry like finish. We then did a Pouilly-Fume comparison, and rounded off our whites with a young Spatlese, just to see its potential. After our water break, we moved on to the reds. The first was a really light and too-young Pinot Noir the colour of pomegranate juice, but things picked up with the 2004 Foradori Granato Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT. Then came the 2007 Castillo Perelada Samso, which was really juicy with a spicy kick at the end. We rounded everything off with a 2008 Reyneke Reserve that Susan warned us was a bit interesting, which turned out to be my favourite of the lot. It was surprisingly dry for the smell, but had an almost ridiculously buttery aftertaste. 

The children's play area. Apparently, parents have to beg their children to leave.

Even for those who don’t care a whit for the stuff, the store itself must still be experienced. Chichvarkin’s team has created a truly seductive space. It’s easy to forget that the store caters mainly to the 1% when the luxury of your surroundings doesn’t hit you in the face, choosing instead to manifest itself in thoughtful or even cheeky ways.  The chandelier of Riedel glasses lends an airy glow to the ground level, while visitors feeling the chill of the temperature controlled basement are offered cashmere throws. The tasting table has a print of artful smears from leftover glasses of with names of different vintages printed next to each, with a whimsical “Can’t remember, but was very good” taking pride of place in the centre.

Hedonism may be a paean to excess, but with such sincere delight in the enjoyment that you don't feel the worst of it. 

3-7 Davies Street London W1K 3LD

Monday 11 March 2013

Rubens at the Palace

Q and I stumbled upon, and found an offer for Champagne tea for two at the Rubens at the Palace in Victoria, for less than £40. Given that the last time I'd gone for tea it was a £35 disappointment, we figured that this was a pretty decent bet. 

Braving the rain, we made it there about fifteen minutes early, and after being relieved of our coats by the doorman, we were shown to the Cavalry Bar to wait as they readied the Palace Lounge. We ended up being seated by the window, directly facing the Royal Mews, which was apparently the best table in the lounge.

We shared a nice, squashy sofa that was very conducive for sinking straight into, and it set the stage for a lovely, relaxing afternoon as we caught up with each other. Right next to our sofa was this little fellow, standing by the door leading to the Leopard Champagne and Cocktail Bar. It was strangely hypnotic staring at his grinning face, so after a while we forced ourselves to stop. 

Our tea experience was started off with a refreshing lemon sorbet, served on top of a mini waffle cone. Since the Rubens is part of the Red Carnation group, all our crockery was decorated accordingly. It was a nice touch.

With the drizzle continuing throughout most of the afternoon there wasn't much by way of pomp and pageantry. This lone, empty horse drawn carriage was the highlight of our afternoon view. 

The voucher was for the Queen's Afternoon Tea (Usually £39.50 per person), and came with a glass of Guy Cadel Rose each. It took quite a long time before our tea arrived, but since we were in no rush to get anywhere, we didn't mind. I was quite surprised we even managed to make the reservation last night, because the lounge filled up fairly quickly and and was packed the whole afternoon. 

We were rather excited when our three-tiered tea tray was brought out. We hadn't had lunch so the both of us were starving. I'd been for and loved the Berkeley's Pret-a-Portea where you're given free-flow food, but the Rubens only provided an endless supply of tea so I was worried there wouldn't be enough to fill us both up. Happily, my worries were for naught.

There was a small selection of sandwiches. From left: Chicken and almond bridge roll, egg & cress, smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese, and ham and mustard. Beyond the roll, it was a very standard selection of sandwiches. Since Q wanted to come for tea because it seemed a 'very English thing to do', it seemed very representative and therefore appropriate. Everything tasted fresh and the bread managed to retain a soft fluffiness even though we scarfed the scones first, so we were fairly pleased with them. 

There was also the requisite selection of plain and fruit scones, with wee dollops of jam and clotted cream. 

The cakes on top very optimistically reflected spring, which doesn't seem to have arrived yet. In the end I was too stuffed to even think about eating my next cake, but Q ate hers and thought it was quite good. 

The tray consisted of a chocolate mousse swan (Duck? Goose) cake, the nest cake, lemon meringue tarts, chocolate egg pieces, a lime ganache chocolate cup and a mango marshmallow cone.

The lovely cake tray
The chocolate mousse and pieces were lovely but unfortunately the biscuit cake base of the swan was rather bland and dry. The mango marshmallow cone was amazing though, but it disappeared all too quickly. 

Obviously, we asked for more cream. Although it was nearly impossible to get anyone's attention since we were in a corner and effectively blocked by a tall potted plant, we got a nice, generous helping in the end. 

The scones were lovely, warm, soft things that still managed to be quite substantial. With two apiece sitting in our bellies there ended up being very little space for anything else. 

I ended up taking some of the cakes home for later, so they boxed our leftovers up nicely for us. 

Just when I thought I could eat no more, they brought out little plates of 'fried eggs', basically an orange marshmallow piece on whipped cream. It was dainty enough, but still we sat there and rested for a bit before picking our spoons up. 

Around this time, our second pots of tea arrived, so we washed all the excess sweetness down. It was a very pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

39 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0PS

Postcard Teas

In a land so devoted to the ritual of having tea, it's surprising that this seems to be the only place in London that takes it seriously enough to elevate it almost to the level of art. They bill themselves as the purveyor of London's finest teas, and you can believe it, since what they have to offer really is quite special. Postcard Teas is the sort of place you go to when you have time to spare to really soak in the atmosphere and savour what they have on offer. Located off Bond Street, it's a little oasis of calm especially when contrasted with the chaos of Oxford Street not three minutes away. 

When we poked our heads in on a Monday afternoon, the whole place seemed deserted. We wandered in to the back room to find one of the brewers experimenting with different water temperatures as he coaxed flavours out of a new batch of green tea. Abandoning his research to help us find our perfect cuppa, he asked us a few questions on what kind of tea we were searching for, as well as our preferred flavour profiles, before allowing us to take a whiff from a few of the bottles they had on display to help us choose from the dizzying array of over a hundred teas they have for sale.

Q was looking for a special Earl Grey to gift to a friend crazy over the stuff, while I was on a hunt for an exceptional Lapsang. Our guy made his recommendations, and we went for it. One tasting cup costs £2.50 on its own, but it comes free if you eventually buy the tea. 

While waiting for our cups to steep, we admired the beautifully displayed tea caddies on the many shelves housing them. The ones that had been handcrafted in Kyoto cost a small fortune, but looked so exquisite as they sat under the lights and gleamed. 

When our teas came out, we sat ourselves down at the long wooden table that spans across most of the shop floor. We each received a 'carafe' of tea, and a small sipping cup from which to enjoy. Both our teas smelled gorgeous, and the first mouthful of my Lapsang felt like a revelation. 

Tim D'Offay, the proprietor, is completely serious about tea provenance and responsible sourcing, so complete information about where your tea came from is readily available in store and online. This smoky, complex Lapsang came from the original Wuyi village where Lapsang Souchong was first made, in the UNESCO protected area of Tong Mu. Less than 50 kilos are made each year, using only fresh pine tree wood to hand smoke the tea leaves. Their website even has pictures of the area the plantation is located in, as well as some of the equipment used in the process of creating this amazing tea. 

Q was similarly blown away and thought the Earl Grey was the best iteration she'd ever tasted. She was initially tempted to buy the 50g tea postcard to stick in the in-house mailbox, but decided that the tin made for a better gift.

We sat there for a good 15 minutes just basking in the zen of the space, and had a chat about Kyoto with a gentleman who seemed like a regular and was headed there in a couple of weeks. It was relaxed and civilized, which to me is what tea is all about, and Postcard Teas just captures the essence of it so well. 

Postcard Tea, 9 Dering Street, London W1S 1AG

Sunday 10 March 2013

Burger and Lobster

Any time you go to Burger and Lobster, or at least their Soho branch, you're almost guaranteed to see or hear a Singaporean somewhere on the premises. With lobster costing the amount it does on our sunny isle, many of us feel that splashing out £20 for a whole specimen is a perfectly justified thing to do when we feel like a treat. As it stands, I've eaten more lobster in my time in London than I had in all my years back home. 

Generally being both food loving and generous, we've basically shared the news of decently priced lobster with everyone along our extended social network, even those who aren't actually in London. This tends to have the result of demands to be taken to Burger and Lobster by guests from outside the city. This visit was prompted by W, who had come all the way from Chicago and wanted to try the place all of us had been raving about. 

E first brought me to the Mayfair branch early on in second year, but the Soho one is nearer and feels more spacious, so that's the one I now haunt. They don't take bookings for small groups, and in the evenings that can mean a 2 hour wait if you're a table of two, so the best time to go is when they open at noon on Sundays. You have your pick of the tables and the full attention of the staff. Otherwise, the place is a madhouse. I once waited fifteen minutes for the bill. Went to the toilet, came back and it still hadn't materialized. 

Beyond lobsters, the burger and the lobster roll also cost £20 each. I've never tried either, but I'm told you're better served going to the other proper burger places that have mushroomed all over Central London in the past year. Just, go for the lobster. Trust me. 

Drinks-wise, all their outlets have their own extensive cocktail menus, as well as many other tipples. The Riesling Smash at the Mayfair branch is my favourite. Round at Soho, I'm more partial to their homemade lemonade. 

I much preferred their older iteration of the salad, with cherry tomatoes instead of onions, and when I visit now I keep forgetting to ask them to lay off the grated cheese. But to be fair, out of all the items on the platter, the salad is usually assigned the absolute lowest priority. Next on my scale are the chips, piping hot and crispy, but of less importance than the garlic butter sauce, which is the life blood of the entire meal. Over time, the garlic butter sauce has gone so far as to become an absolute necessity, because standards have slipped a bit from a year ago. The steamed lobster used to be much juicier and more tender, but it's now there's a marked tendency towards being rubbery and a tad dry. More's the pity. 

I have heard second and third hand accounts of a massive tank of lobsters that's kept in the basement, and of the industrial fridges packed with lobsters that are due for the table on any given day. I don't know how true any of those stories are, but on my first visit our waiter did say that the lobsters were flown in fresh from Canada, which was why they could do a steamed version that locked in all the goodness.

Maybe I've just been getting the bum lobsters. Ah well.

Burger and Lobster, 36 Dean Street, London W1D 4PS,

Saturday 9 March 2013

Benito's Hat Covent Garden

Swung by Covent Garden to pick up a burrito to go after class ended at 6pm. The queue was five people deep, but moved along fairly snappily thanks to the well-oiled "conveyor-belt" burrito assembly system employed here. The first person warms each tortilla on a grill, places it on a piece of foil, and passes it on to the next guy behind the counter. As beans, rice, your topping of choice then vegetables and sauces are added, you get to see your burrito begin to form. It's eventually expertly folded and wrapped, and served with a helping of warm tortilla chips whether to eat in or have it to go. 

Sometimes I think the complimentary tortilla chips are my favourite part of Benito's Hat - whenever I get a burrito to go, the ridiculously addictive chips always disappear five minutes after I leave and I'm left rooting through the bag morosely once they're gone. The burritos themselves probably won't generate epiphanies or trigger near-religious experiences, but they're pretty darn good all the same, eaten fresh or microwaved for breakfast the next day. 

El first introduced us to the joys of Benito's Hat late in first year - being a vegetarian burrito lover, she'd checked out all the possible joints in London before proclaiming this her favourite. I tried the pulled pork version my first time, and have stuck with it  since. It's a terrible place for a first date given the savagery of burrito eating and the accompanying mess of inevitable juice drippage, but if you're with friends who don't care if you have a freak accident where half your food tumbles out onto the plate, then you're good to go.

From multiple experiences at the store, service has always been impeccable. Normally, I only manage to polish off half my densely packed burrito in store and have to take the rest with me. The staff have always been ready to wrap my leftovers in another layer of foil and toss another handful of chips into the takeout bag. There was also one evening I faced a half hour wait for a new batch of pulled pork to be prepared, and was given a free serving of nachos with guacamole to munch on as I waited. 

Pulled pork burrito - refried beans, hold the cheese, extra tomato, medium salsa
19 New Row, London WC2N 4LA

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Mitsukoshi Restaurant

In the basement of Mitsukoshi Department Store just off Piccadilly Circus, is a rather quiet Japanese family restaurant hidden away from all the excitement going on at street level. The newly opened ramen bar was full up with a considerable queue buzzing outside, but the main restaurant itself was only half full, and things were moving along at a rather more sedate pace. 

Most of the restaurant's clientele are Japanese expats, so I was welcomed and seated entirely in Japanese, and had to quickly disabuse them of the notion by asking for a menu in English. It was almost like being back in Japan, so plus points for authenticity. The decor won't win any prizes, but like most family restaurants, provided an easy familiarity with its bland walls and black tables. 

The place feels like the Old Faithful of Japanese restaurants in London - ever reliable, without an special flourishes or major upheavals to a concept that has worked and will continue to work. The a la carte menu is simple and showcases a small but pretty well curated selection of perennial favourites. 

At £12, the weekly set lunch looked pretty good value for money, but Japanese curry was on rotation, something I'd never enjoyed, so I opted for the Light Lunch set (£14.50) instead. It was a sashimi and simmered item (Chicken karaage, a radish ball, tofu, lotus root, carrot and half a snow pea) set with a generous bowl of rice, miso soup and pickles.  Simple dishes that were well turned-out, with the steamed ball of radish being the day's pleasant surprise. While the portions seemed miserly at first glance, it made for a rather hearty meal.

The sashimi part consisted of delicate fillets of salmon, good and meaty slivers of tuna and some very fresh yellow tail that I particularly enjoyed. The simmered dish was comfort food atop the fluffy grains of rice, and the miso soup - so much more flavourful than the swill dished out at so many Japanese fast food joints - retained its heat till the end of the meal. All this was washed down with complimentary cups of piping hot houji-cha, roasted green tea commonly served during meals. 

The usual a la carte menu is rather pricey, but I'll probably keep an eye out for the lunch offers as they come.  

14-20 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4PH

Monday 4 March 2013

Westeros Wagon

The chance to try free Westerosi cuisine had DS & me scrambling to Tottenham Court Road to try and find the Westeros Wagon. It remained elusive for the first ten minutes, as we stood with other fans, peering round street corners and craning our necks hoping to spot it and checking Facebook and the Twitter-feeds for updates. When we finally realized it was on Chenies Street, we made a sprint for it, only to find a queue about 60 people long.

Most of the people were in the queue to meet Isaac Hempstead-Wright, who plays Bran Stark in the series, but DS and I were really only there for the free food. But like most of the lords and ladies of the series, they weren't all that successful in feeding the many hungry small-folk. 

The wagon, actually a rather spiffed out food truck, had been giving out sticks of wild boar cured sausage with mustard preserved fruits, and small bowls of spiced Medieval porridge in little wooden pots. By the time we arrived, the wagon was out of the sausages, and the porridge got cut off three people before us. 

As it so happened, the organizers stopped giving out food directly from the truck soon after we got there. Instead, we were told to wait around for people to come down the line with snacks for us. This basically involved a person in costume (A sell-sword, or a red priestess) coming down the line with a wicker basket, out of which you could take one piece of pumpkin bread to munch on while you waited to meet Bran Stark. 

As you can see, it was more a dollop than anything, and quite hard as well, since it probably had been cooked fairly early in the day and survived along transport to Central London. But it was surprisingly good still, with a rather intense nutty pumpkin flavour and topped with roasted pumpkin seeds. The website said it was supposed to come with root soup, but it seemed as though they'd run out of that too.

By the time the bread came around, we were five people away from the front of the line, so we stuck around long enough for photos and autographs. DS & I chatted with  Hempstead-Wright for a bit as we all smiled for the cameras, and found him to be polite and quite lovely.

Still though, pity about the lack of food.