Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ikea cafeteria

I know someone who makes a special journey across East London to Ikea every month to spend £1 on Swedish coffee. He being a coffee enthusiast and self-styled barista, the coffee must be worth the trip. But is the food?

Why anyone would want to hang out in this Scandinavian shrine to the flat-pack, let alone make a special trip for the food, eludes me.

Unfortunately, we were stupid enough to a) choose a rare bright sunny day to head there, and b) arrive with empty stomachs. With heavy hearts, we joined the cafeteria queue. For a fleeting moment, a decent lunch looked hopeful: Rachel's organic yogurt, gravadlax, Belvoir drinks... But provenance and quality took a severe bashing when we reached the hot stuff. We both choose the ubiquitous Swedish meatballs and chips. The sniff of 1980's school canteen pervades each dish as it's passed over the counter. Not a good omen. And the salad bar: a sorrier sight than Pizza Hut's (glimpsed only through the window on the Strand, I promise).
What you see pictured above was an abomination, even though I hadn't expected much, just a taste of seasoned meat, and crisp hot chips. The lukewarm grey gravy swamped the plate, and was strangely reminiscent of canned cream of mushroom soup. From what it was reconstituted, I dread to think. The "meatballs" tasted of nothing, save an odd metallic tang. The chips were soggy and the worst I can remember ever eating.

After a few hesitant forkfuls, I was done. Jon, needless to say, was so hungry he ate the lot with barely a grimace. I'm not sure whether to admire his steel gut, or worry about the state of his tastebuds.

Needless to say, I've come to the conclusion that Ikea gives Scandinavian food a bad name. For a real taste of Scandinavia, acquire a copy of Trina Hahnemann's Scandinavian Cookbook (often cited as Denmark's Delia), or head to the deli at Scandinavian Kitchen.

Next time you find yourself at Ikea, get what you need, and get out, quick!

Friday, 12 February 2010

Yauatcha

Let me start by admitting that dim sum is something of which I know little, so this write-up is purely based on taste, atmosphere, and the nuggets of expertise channeled my way by two well-versed companions. My experience so far stretches to pre-pub/bar filling-station chains, Ping Pong (I do it a disservice, it's really quite decent), and Dim T.

We were booked in to see A Prophet at The Curzon in Soho, at the awkward time of 6:30pm on a Sunday night, so dinner had to be very early, or very late. Dim sum in China is traditionally eaten either in the morning or afternoon (not the evening), so that afternoon was the perfect opportunity to try out Yauatcha, Soho's Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant, founded by Alan Yau, the man behind Wagamama, Cha Cha Moon, and the first Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant, Hakkasan.

First impressions of the modern space are favourable (we are in the petite but expensively decked-out basement), until we meet our surly waiter, who could not have appeared less keen to serve us. Giles Coren of The Times said, in 2004, that staff were in a "dopey minimalist trance". Well, six years later, nothing much has changed. I'll bring Jon here next time - he despises dim sum, some deception or physical force might have to be deployed - so he can try his 'inappropriate' restaurant jokes out on them, and crack their dead-pan composure.

Nina picked the dishes, a variety of steamed, fried, and baked dim sum, all delicately prepared, and beautifully presented (see pics below). Perhaps this is due to my over-zealous dipping of chilli and soy, but I was left struggling to remember most of the fillings. Don't blame the booze - I was strictly tea-total. Dare I say it, the seasoning and spice was perhaps a touch repetitive? I hasten to add, however, that they were all full of flavour, and deeply satisfying.

Our bill came to £20 each, which is on the steep side for dim sum, bumped up by £4 bottles of water, and jasmine tea at £3.80 a pop, which is cheekily charged by the pot, not refilled. Yet £20 for a fill of Michelin-starred food in London ain't bad.

For someone who does know what they are talking about, seek out Helen Yuet Ling Pang's London dim sum recommendations on her blog (sadly she has since retired from blogging). She loves the place. Book in advance.

Next place on my dim sum journey of discovery: Pearl Liang or Jade Garden.
Chilli fried squid (£9.80)

Prawn and bean curd cheung fun (£6.50)

Vegetable dumpling (£3)


Steamed Char sui bun (£3.20): my favourite. Light and fluffy, they encased steaming, intensely savoury pork.


Jade dumpling (£5.50). I can't for the life of me remember the filling. Nina, Matt: enlighten me!

Baked venison puff (£4.50)

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Wahaca

A short one this time, and I won't disrupt the flow with any of my inept attempts at visual representation.

Wahaca, the Mexican restaurant chain working its way around London, has been around for 3 years, and boy it's popular. The lively queue at their original Covent Garden basement branch starts forming at around 6pm every night, as what appear to be local Londoners in their 20's and 30's add themselves to a waiting list for what can be up to an hour and a half. This was my 4th or 5th visit, so I thought it merited a mention.

Founded by Thomasina Miers, winner of Masterchef in 2005, this cheap and cheerful fast food joint offers her interpretation of Mexican street food, albeit standardized to make a profit and work on an industrial scale (much like Ping Pong and Leon do for Chinese and Southern Mediterranean cuisine).

The familiar tortilla dishes are plentiful: tacos, tostadas, quesadillas, enchilladas, and burritos. And the fillings and toppings are delicious, if a little repetitive: black beans, cheese, shredded pork, salsa, avocado, shredded beef... Everything is served at the same tepid temperature, so the occasional hit of fresh herb and chilli through the dense starchiness brings relief to what could come dangerously close to a bored palate.

But, with a final bill coming to £10 each, for 5 shared dishes including a shared plate of warm churros y chocolate to finish - and drinks - we had been fed generously with satisfying well-cooked grub, and left with little to complain about, cheered also that we were paying for produce that has been sourced locally and from sustainable sources (where possible). It's hardly rocket science to work out why people flood in, though I can't tell you how close it comes to authentic Mexican food, unless someone's offering a foodie research trip...

Monday, 1 February 2010

Age & Sons, Ramsgate

Beautiful, neglected Ramsgate (East Kent). Left-leaning rags have been banging on about this 'on the up' corner of our isles for years, but no-one's been listening. City folk venture as far south east as Whitstable, shuck the odd oyster, and turn back the way they came. Shame on them. Particularly now the journey time from the capital has been slashed to 1½ hours, thanks to the new high speed rail link from the impressively renovated St. Pancras station.

Age & Sons (the building was previously home to wine merchant 'Page & Sons', but when the Leigh family acquired it in 2007 the 'P' had fallen off the facade, and it was left that way) is situated in a small courtyard just behind the regal and handsome harbour. The family name should ring a bell: Toby Leigh, head chef and proprietor, is renowned chef Rowley Leigh's nephew. Toby has rung up quite a few of his own calls of duty in London's best kitchens over the years, Kensington Place and Anchor & Hope, and his accomplishments shine through.

We were booked in for Sunday lunch, and they decided over the phone to put us downstairs in the café, citing a rule that no children under the age of 8 can eat upstairs in the smart restaurant-proper. No skin off our nose, but when we arrived and found the upstairs empty, save for a family with 3 children, I did wonder whether it was just that they'd seen us coming...
Anyway, the place was empty. Yes, on a sunny Sunday lunchtime.

With the sun streaming through the window, and glasses of rich treacly Whitstable Oyster Bay Stout softening the January chill, we perused the simple A4 menu. Well composed and impressive was my first impression, particularly for a restaurant bent on serving seasonal local produce in the depths of winter. Onions, rhubarb, jerusalem artichoke, beetroot, apples, and kale all featured, not in their usual guises, but in inventive combinations: slow roast onion stuffed with sweetbreads, beetroot and cheese pie, herring milts with rhubarb. We had to try the milts. Apparently, milts is just another word for 'roe', but the waiter delighted in telling us it was 'fish sperm'.
It received a mixed reaction, mostly due to the unusual silky texture of the milt, but the braised cucumber - a new one for me - was a revelation. The rhubarb's acidity slightly overwhelmed the milt, but intensified the cucumber with its sharp kick.

The main dishes were universally well received. Sea bass with samphire (apparently it's in season year-round in Sandwich, Kent) persalane, curly kale, and Granville sauce was beautifully presented and Margaret ended the meal by booking a table for the following week, so it must have been good. I'm ashamed to say we rejected the adventurous Pig's face with roast vegetables in favour of classic Roast beef with all the trimmings.
Wonderful beef, perfectly cooked, and generously cut for £12.50.

A few glowing reviews in 2008 and 2009 were tainted by shoddy service, so they listened, and learnt. It was exemplary on our visit. With a 6-year-old, a pregnant me, and near-constant quizzing about milt, samphire, and earl grey tea ice cream, our lovely waiter managed to remain both serene and chirpy. He even presented a special dish of ice cream samples to Alex, in egg cups (a little chap with a sophisticated palate: his favourite was the earl grey).
The adult serving of Chestnut soufflé with chocolate sorbet was soft and subtle, to the point of tasting of too little. The Tarte tatin (devoured before I could point and shoot) was a success.
Why this relaxed café, restaurant, and bar isn't more popular mystifies me. Age & Sons has just been awarded Bib Gourmand status by the masters at Michelin, for “good food at moderate prices”, which I hope marks 2010 out as a year for further recognition, and most importantly - bums on seats.