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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In praise of the tomato skin

So tell us chefs the world over, what has this little insignificant thing done wrong to merit the almost universal ban?
Unless it's really thick, here are three reasons why eaters should unite and call for it to triumph in all dishes:
1) it is truly flavoursome;
2) it adds nice texture (in a main course with other sweet flavours (e.g. ricotta) it makes it less like a dessert);
3) it is good for you: lycopene (a powerful antioxidant) is all in there, and have you heard about fibres and fast transit times?
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Saturday, January 27, 2007

LMNT

The day: 14th January 2007, Lunchtime.
The place: 316, Queenbridge Road, London E8 3NH (020-7249 6727)
The venue: LMNT
The food: gastropub
The drinks: Limited range of wines, but almost all of them are available by the glass. Good draft beer.


This is a most amazing little place in Hackney, quite difficult to get to by public transport (bus only). The exterior is unremarkable (to justify the fact we forgot to take a picture of it). But when you cross the door you enter a dream-like world, a world of alcoves, recesses, masks and giant amphors, styles varying from fake Egyptian to fake Roman. Not to mention the pretty X-rated but humorous decorations in the toilets. Here is one satisfied customer in the dining room, for example

And here another view of the interior:

We went on a Sunday lunchtime at 2pm and the place was almost empty: by 4pm it was heaving with happy families who obviously had had a late start. But let’s begin from the beginning.

There is a small selection of starters and main courses at very reasonable prices, even more reasonable at lunchtime: £2.45 for starters (no, we are not kidding), £6.95 for mains and £2.45 for desserts, which increase by £1, £2 and £1 in the evenings, respectively. Side dishes come at £2.35 lunchtime and £3.35 dinner.

We started with the Salmon Gravadlax and the Duck Confit. While waiting for our order, complimentary hummus with granary bread arrives:

The hummus makes clear that the chef likes garlic. We do so too, so no problem here. The hummus was not just tahini and chickpeas, probably quite a bit of cream or yogurt added, but hey, its’ free!

The starters arrive:

The salmon was really nice: chunky but melt-in-the mouth, on white pancakes (so not really blinis which need buckwheat flour) and a dill yogurt. The whole went together rather well. As for the duck, while by no means a chef masterpiece, Man liked the minimalist presentation, the geometry lesson feel of the dish, and the play between duck and sweet potato (namely the disks you see under the confit). Woman instead was not at all impressed: the sweet potatoes were just sitting on their own, the confit was stringy and too much on the dry side. The accompanying plum sauce tasted a bit artificial (plum taste hardly recognisable, Man thought it was raspberries): here Man and Woman agree.

As mains, we had the Pan roast pheasant breast and the Sunday roast (we chose beef over the other alternatives, turkey and lamb), slightly more expensive at £7.95, but it includes Yorkshire pudding and veggies.

The roast was OK. A little too much swimming in an uninspiring and bland gravy, but the vegetables (especially the green beans) were well sourced and cooked to the right consistency. The Yorkshire pudding had too little emptiness in it (!), but tastewise was very respectable.

The pheasant in Man’s palate was nicely crisp and flavoursome, just a touch dry. This one was accompanied by a potent reduction, just a pity the cauliflower tasted like polenta. Man remarked that the polenta tasted funny. Since Woman reads the menu more attentively, she knew what she was eating, and had plenty of time to worry about the fat content of her diet (it felt like they had been creamed, the cauliflower taste never again to be retrieved)…

We finished with a shared Dark chocolate tart with passion fruit coulis.

This definitely tasted of chocolate! Man also liked the tanginess of the passion fruit coulis, which unfortunately he believed to be kiwi with lime Woman refuses to comment.

We washed it all down with two pints of excellent Czech Budwar on tap (£3.50 each).

The final bill came to an eye-popping £32.175 for two. We had a good and pleasant time at LMNT. This is a place which has always been marked by good, cheerful and efficient service. Despite our flippant earlier remarks, we ate rather well here. There is clearly a kitchen staff with some aspirations within a very tight budget constraint, and sometimes these aspirations are realised. Ok, sometimes they are not, but if one just eats joyously and without fussing about the details, s/he will be happy here. And the more so when s/he sees the bill. Incredible value for money in this category: just think the rubbish you could spend this sum on in many Central London establishments. Another favourable comparison is with Denbies, which serves dishes in a sense reminiscent of the gastro pub style, but that are no match for price and atmosphere. Well done LMNT!

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Latium

The day: 10th January 2007, Dinner (and many other times…).
The place: 21, Berners Street, London W1T 3LP (020-73239123)
The venue: Latium
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Extensive list, Italian based, wide price range starting from well below £20 up to the hundreds, also by the glass

Let us come clean: this is our favourite restaurant in the UK. Since we came here the first time about a year ago we have never been disappointed once (and we come every week when we are in London), neither by the kitchen nor by the service. This is where we come to relax and be pampered after a hard day at work. So relaxed that - when we do not brave the weather to ride our scooter we risk missing the last train home!

The name is meant to remind us of the provenance of Chef patron Maurizio Morelli, from Latina (a city in the Lazio region). The cuisine reflects inspiration from plenty of other Italian regions (as in most Italian establishments in London) but there are some rare dishes and ingredients that you hardly find anywhere outside Rome and surroundings. Examples are ‘carciofi alla giudia’ (artichokes fried in a special way that even in Rome you only find in the ‘Jewish ghetto’ area – it’s really called that way) and puntarelle.

The outside is very discrete, and stands opposite the Philip Stark’s designed Sanderson hotel, so you won’t miss it.

The new menu was not yet available at the time of our visit, but we were given a sneak preview, so here it is:

It is nicely straight: 24.50 for two courses or 28.50 for three, and no supplement for anything, be it beef fillet or scallops (unlike almost everywhere else)!

Plus, they have just launched a shorter lunch set menu, unbeatable for this quality at 15.50 for two courses and 19.50 for three.

For the first week it offered dishes like Chickpeas soup with rosemary, Stracci di pasta with aubergines, tomato and ricotta and roast fillet of pork with Borlotti beans and black cabbage (desserts and cheeses from the main menu).

The dining room is L shaped with well spaced tables, many of them round (which we prefer), and the decor is modern-sober. In the evenings there is a more intimate lighting, as opposed to the bright lunchtime setting. Since it was busy as usual we did not want to bother the other diners taking pictures of the interior – you’ll have to check it out yourselves

A few minutes after being seated, you are brought an enticing tray of canap├ęs, a refined mini-take on the traditional rosticceria fare: mini-arancini (deep fried rice balls), mini calzone (bread dough stuffed with mozzarella and Parma ham) and mini pizzetta rustica, imagine a cross between puff pastry and bread dough, splashed with tomato sauce, rolled, cut up and cooked – and of course gorgeous olives:

We ordered squid ink rigatoncini with cod, cauliflower and saffron, and the unmissable signature dish, the 4 fish ravioli. While we waited, the bread arrived: cartamusica, spinach and pecorino bread, walnut and raisins bread, sun dried tomato rolls and olive rolls. This is a very respectable bread basket! It would come with extra virgin olive oil for dipping, but we skip it to pretend we are reducing our calories intake.

But not only bread: before the primi, a welcome from the kitchen, off menu: a beautiful salmon tartare topped with diced oranges, rocket, lemon peel, extra virgin olive oil and basil. This dish summarises well Morelli’s style. Colour and composition are obviously very important, but taste does not play second fiddle. An elegant and simple dish, but also very satisfying and ‘consistent’ in the mouth. The taste of the salmon was strong enough to bear the sweet from the orange, in turn balanced by the bitter of the lemon peel and the rocket.

Now the primi. All pasta on offer is fresh, with no exception. In particular, our rigatoncini. Here again look at the colour (beyond the inadequacy of our pictures, if you can). They come in an aromatic guazzetto (generally made with oil, water and herbs: see e.g. the second picture here), and for us the most satisfying aspect of this dish is the play with the different textures of the pasta, vegetable and fish. The portion is substantial, which does not harm

The ravioli are sublime. They come in the following order: squid ink raviolo filled with monkfish with a hint of courgettees; spinach raviolo filled with brill and a hint of carrots; saffron raviolo filled with salmon and a hint of spring onions; and finally tomato raviolo filled with tuna and a hint of peppers. All dressed with butter (not as yellow as in the picture), diced tomatoes and seabass roe. The thin black dashes you see on the plate are also squid ink. This could seem a dish with too much going on: in fact, it is beautifully coherent, with a progression of intensity of flavours, and combinations of pasta, fish and herbs that match each other delightfully.

Filled pasta in general is a chef’s specialty. Indeed there is a whole “a passion fro ravioli” menu that could make up the whole meal

For secondi we chose monkfish on a bed of savoy cabbage with girolles, pumpkin puree and red wine reduction; and the special of the day, grilled squid with artichokes, spinach and shaved bottarga.

The monkfish dish is a striking palette of earthy colour which maintains the promise on the palate. It is a rich, almost decadent, velvety combination. The squid was as fresh as they come, supremely tender. The mint from the artichokes “alla romana” lent to the dish a nice refreshing character, finished off by the bottarga.

Finally, the desserts: baba’ with hazelnut cream and pineapple lime parfait.

It is obvious from the parfait how the passion for ravioli continues well into dessert territory… the outside of each parcel is a very thin layer of pineapple, filled with lime ice cream. The dominant note is a pleasant acidity, which takes on a sweetish overtone from the balsamic vinegar. This can work a bit like a sorbet, but much more interesting. The baba’ is a well executed classic (it is difficult to do, but you can try it at home, if somebody can translate this for you)– here is a luscious version with whipped cream and hazelnut sauce.

We told you that we come often, so we cannot pass in silence on one of our favourite desserts (which we skipped this time), look:

Imagine, ricotta mousse with candied artichokes, is this not the simplicity of genius?

Finally, petit fours, made up of a selection of different flavoured chocolate truffles, cantuccini, baci di dama and mini macaroons:

Good and in generous quantity!

We washed this down with a bottle of red Curtefranca la Montina 2004, at £22.50 and a 0.75litre bottle of water at £3. An additional glass of Vermentino di Gallura Arkena 2004 came on credit The total bill including 12.5% discretionary service came to £92.81.

Can you tell how good we felt? As you can see, this time Man and Woman agreed on everything, no mean feat.

The front staff is amiable and efficient; it is a true asset of Latium. Sadly, the ‘legendary’ manager Giovanni Baldino has just left, taking with him some very capable waiting staff, to open a new establishment (more on that story later…). However we are confident that the stalwart assistant manager Alex and the new staff will keep up the good work.

And what about the kitchen? What strikes us is that Maurizio Morelli, for his delicate hand and soft touch, succeeds in retaining ‘full body’ and strong structure in his creations. If he had not been a chef, he would clearly have been a painter: good for us he is a chef! His is a food of colour, emotion and creativity.

Can somebody please explain why he has not got a Michelin star yet?


Signed: Maurizio Morelli Fan Club


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Friday, January 19, 2007

Giardinetto

THIS RESTAURANT IS NOW CLOSED (NOVEMBER 2008).
(We are not surprised
: our review concluded: All in all, we found ourselves wondering how long this place will last, at least in this format, on the savagely competitive and ever-changing London scene.').

The day: 4th January 2007, Lunchtime
The place: 39, Albermarle Street, London W1S 4TE (020-7493 7091)
The venue: Giardinetto
The food: Fine Italian Dining
The drinks: Extensive list, Italian based, rather on the expensive side, also by the glass equally expensive

Giardinetto is a relatively new kid on the block in Mayfair. The experienced chef Maurizio Villona is from the region of Liguria, the same provenance as Man. Would it evoke childhood memories? Let’s check it out.

The outside is very unassuming

We went through double doors like a jeweller’s. Let’s hope the products do not cost as much…Note that the outside menu does not match the one inside. Anyway here it is:

The interior is quite nice, a clean uncluttered look, ‘Habitat’ style. The division in two dining rooms of about six tables each creates an intimate atmosphere, with well spaced tables. We were sat in the front one.

The sophisticated atmosphere was somewhat let down by a prominent white ironing stain bang in the centre of our tablecloth.

The second glitch was the rather tatty and unclean menu, with pages coming apart: this indeed brought back memories of trattorie in Genova docks (at a time they were not chic!). Third glitch, the bread; there was no bread basket, unforgivable in an Italian restaurant! The bread was indeed served from a basket held tight by the waiter (containing focaccia, oil roll, white bread and olive bread, which was brown), and we had to keep asking for more – but we are not ashamed Here is what we manage to hoard:

Man found the focaccia unremarkable, so no childhood memories stirred here. We move on to order. To meet our target bill (without some control one would overshoot by a mile here) we took a 4 course set menu (lunch only) at £25.50, and one a la carte 3 course meal. The antipasti were a Monkfish carpaccio with citrus fruit (from the set menu) and Laguna baby cuttle fish with cicerchia polenta (£11.50)

What a nice presentation, for both dishes! Indeed, as we hope you’ll be able to see from the pictures, the presentation was elegant for all dishes. The baby squids looked like they had been either very lightly grilled or just gently roasted. In any case they were wonderful, tender and flavoursome. The ‘cicerchia polenta’ (a kind of chickpea puree) on which they were sitting was a fine combination. Less successful was the monkfish carpaccio. The carpaccio itself was a delight, sliced very thinly, silky and fresh. This is quite an achievement: monkfish is not typically used for carpaccio because of its ‘nervous’ texture. A nice touch, a light sprinkle of cinnamon which is not obvious and worked well. What we found did not work as well as they looked were the 5 skinned wedges of citrus fruit (orange, pink and yellow grapefruit), topped with a pate’ of taggiasche olives: far too strong, they overpowered the fish.

Both primi were very successful. We had Lenzuoline (i.e. lasagne) al pesto (£12.50) and Hare ragout pappardelle (from the set menu).

The ragout was very reduced (like a real ragu’ bolognese) and intense, excellent. The pappardelle were definitely undercooked (they were too thick to Woman’s taste, and not sufficiently elastic. According to Man the thickness was just right for this type of strong sauce, and the problem was just that they were underdone).

The lasagnette were super. Now this was childhood memory! A thick, richly scented pesto infusing perfectly executed lasagne. The presentation once again was a treat: the mini basket made of cheese (was it pecorino or grana or parmigiano? We can’t tell, when you melt the cheese to make it the moisture evaporates concentrating the salt in the cheese) on top contained a handful of pine nuts, a clove of garlic and basil: so the basic ingredients of pesto were there destructured staring at us invitingly. The only pity was that the basil was inedible.

Let’s proceed to the secondi. Grilled swordfish with mint courgettes (from the set menu) and Steamed sea-bass with basil mayonnaise with potato cake with taggiasche olives, tomato and basil (£22).

The swordfish was OK and correctly cooked (no dryness) but relatively bland and also a bit anonymous in the presentation. The best part were the minted courgettes, finely diced and cooked just right. This is a standard side accompaniment which was properly executed.

The seabass. itself was a nice piece of fish. The skin had been removed and then placed back, and it was covered by very fine strips of deep-fried leek (we think). The skin did not come crispy as we would have preferred. Woman thought the fish was too much covered in oil. The dominant flavour in the potato cake was that of the small tomatoes, really intense. Woman wasn’t won over by the potatoes, to put it bluntly just bland starch. On the contrary Man thought that this enhanced the flavour of the ‘cake’ content. We agreed however that this was an elegantly assembled dish.

Finally we shared the dessert, a Cassata from the set menu.

First of all, let us make it clear that it was not real cassata. The real thing is a case of sponge filled with very sweet ricotta and covered with candied fruit and sugar paste (to get an idea, check out here). This was vanilla ice-cream with raisins, sitting in a ‘pool’ of thin custard and topped with chopped pistachio nuts and ‘meringued’ pine-nuts. Woman found it OK though the ice-ice cream could have been smoother. Man thought it was a nice and nice-looking dessert, though nothing to scream about.

Complimentary petit four followed, chunky and traditional: a ricotta filled ‘sfogliatella riccia’ (very good), crema filled cannolo (slightly dry), a take on chocolate millefeuille and a version of ‘baci di dama’.

To drink we had two 150ml glasses of wine: a Riesling (Apogeo Ca’ dei Frati 2004, £9) and a Bianco di Custoza (Santa Sofia 2003, £5.50 – combination of Garganega, Trebbianello and Cortese grapes) and water, 0.75 litre Panna (£3.00).

The final bill came to £100.13 inclusive of added 12.5% discretionary service charge: bang on our target!

Potentially Giardinetto could be a really nice place. The basics are all there: the dining rooms are comfortable, the chef is obviously very talented, and the service is attentive. However, there is a general sense of coldness, both in the cuisine and in the atmosphere, and some disregard for details (remember the tatty menu and tablecloth). The dishes look beautiful but some of the earthiness that you would expect in Italian cooking is not always there (only the seppioline and both primi were ‘stirring’ dishes). And the service: while really we cannot blame any individual staff member (the manager even remembered exactly what Man had had on a previous solitary and unphotographed visit!), overall came across as a bit formal, somewhat more French than Italian. There was a general lack of joy. The prices are too high, we think, but what really annoyed us was the wine list. We accept that UK restaurants have to apply margins of several hundred percents to make a living. But a balanced wine list in this type of restaurants must contain several options in the £20ish a bottle range. And by the glass: reds were all above £10 for 150ml glasses. And that missing bread basket….All in all, we found ourselves wondering how long this place will last, at least in this format, on the savagely competitive and ever-changing London scene.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A Trip to Surrey: Denbies

The day: 22nd December 2006
The place: Denbies wine estate,
London Road, Dorking, Surrey, RH5 6AA (01306 876616)
The venue: Gallery restaurant
The food: Gastropubbish
The drinks: Own wines only

As an ‘aperitif’ to our next Italian restaurant review, we want to tell you of a trip we made to Surrey last month, on the third day of the Great Heathrow Fog Chaos. Among other casualties, the plane Woman was supposed to board was also cancelled. We had to celebrate a couple of extra days together…so we went for English wine (note for Italian readers: yes, yes, such a thing exists, and sometimes, we are told, it can be pretty good, too). Denbies are the largest vineyard in the UK, with nine wines and one sparkling to their name at the time of writing (and we understand more are on the way).

As they also have two restaurants (one self-service) on their vineyard, we decided to pay it a visit (this is a food blog after all, we are wine appreciators but not experts, though we are trying to improve ourselves by reading the wine doctor).

The fog wasn’t missing from the Denbies estate, either:

The reception centre looks a bit like an out of town supermarket building, mmmh, not very promising:

The Gallery restaurant sits on the third floor, presumably with nice views over the vines – if only we could see them! The tiny tables (why? There is so much room!) are well spaced and allow about 50 guests in the bright dining room. No tablecloth at lunchtime, but they are on offer in the few evenings the place is open for dinner. In general the setting is pretty basic but not unpleasant, with much natural light.

The menu is short and to be honest not too inspiring (‘Beef tomato and sunblush tomato bruschetta?’ Wait a minute, we wanted to skip the Italian this time!).

Deleting all the uninviting ones, we were left with the crab cakes and the beef satay.

The presentation of the crabcakes, as for all the other dishes, leaves much to be desired…The undressed salads, with the sad looking thin cucumber slices, reminded us of the olden days of British cuisine . However Man thought the taste was fine: the cakes were moist and soft, though the chilly sauce was somewhat overpowering. Woman’s view was that there must have been prawns mixed in, whose taste was covering the crab’s.

We agreed that the beef was good and tender. The peanut sauce was fine, but the dish was again too far on the hot side.

For mains we had the plaice and the lamb.

The plaice: better not to look at it (let us just say it evoked weird associations!), but the quality of the basic ingredients was good; the plaice’s texture suggested it was fresh. Again the crab stuffing had a somewhat uncrablike flavour: surprising to say the least, but the dish came off rather nicely anyway, with the lemon butter providing an adequate contrast to the main flavour. Indeed, the best dish according to Man.

The lamb shank was instead Woman’s favourite: very tender meat, but the red wine reduction had not been prepared with the due time and care (too much starch added). Still, it added a welcome acidity to the lamb and the root vegs, not to mention the supersize-me portion of mash.

Finally, desserts, which were both off menu. The passion fruit bavaroise was sitting on a thin bed of sponge and had a nice consistency, firm but “spongy” and a satisfying tangy taste to complement the cream. For once there was even some attempt at presentation!

The same can’t be said for the horribly looking apple and Christmas pudding pancakes with calvados sauce. This may sound as an overly combined dish, in fact it worked surprisingly well, once more defying low expectations (could this be their strategy?).

We had four 175ml glasses of wine, to have a go at the local production (the only thing you’ll find on the list). Incredibly for a restaurant on the vineyard, it was not properly served. Come on guys, the glasses are way overfilled, how can one swirl the wine around before tasting it?

We tried Yew Tree Pinot noir 2003, Redland Pinot Noir 2004, Ortega 2004 and Bacchus 2004. Man found the perfume of the Bacchus quite impressive, too strongly lemony for Woman. The Ortega had nice melony notes. We might have been prepared to buy a couple of bottles of Yew Tree, which was velvety in the mouth, balanced and nicely sapid, had it not been for the fact that at £14 in the shop many more alluring choices spring to mind other than Denbies wine…However there is very little mark-up in the restaurant (£18 for the same bottle), thus making it overall a good deal.

Our final bill came to £68, including a large bottle of water. Service was not included (don’t worry, we left a tip). All in all, this is simple but honest fare, very plainly presented in generous portions. It would fit a smoky gastro-pub better than a restaurant (though, as we shall tell you in a future entry, there is better value for money in London for this category of food). The two young waitresses were charming, but the whole operation lacks a ‘heavier’ front room manager, who might for example advice on the wines, put up some show (they have a unique selling point after all), and so on.

Since one can have a nice stroll around the extensive vines, we might come back on the next flight cancellation for more wines by the glass and a bite in the self-service conservatory restaurant downstairs: there is really no need to go upstairs.

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