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Monday, February 23, 2009


The day: 17th January 2009
The place: BA flight 8 Narita to Heathrow
The venue: Club World
The food: modern British with some fusion
The drinks: carefully chosen both French and New World, bottomless glass

Well, you know now we spent some very exciting times in Tokio. Of course, we had to get to and fro somehow, and this time we did it in style… Enter the Club Class of British Airways flight BA8 from Narita airport.

Admittedly, by the time you get to your seat you might already be thoroughly stuffed, or thoroughly drunk (or both!) after a visit to the reserved Departure lounge (the one in Narita airport not remotely as pampering as the new BA Lounges at Heathrow Terminal 5). But behave, and be assured that they will pamper you properly on the flight.

In a feat of amazing restraint we skip the free champagne (come on, how many people do you know who refuse free champagne?). So we begin with a starter of

- Peppered salmon and yazu dressing:

This is the first surprise: the salmon is plump, moist, tender, very flavoursome and perfectly seasoned… call us uncouth country bumpkins, but we were not expecting this kind of quality 30,000 miles above sea level. The accompanying cous cous is ok, as is the dressing, but to be fair these are rather unmemorable especially when compared to the fish.

Next, our mains of

- Bamboo shoots and kinome yaki with season vegetables;
- Chilled seafood salad with creamy lime dressing

We went for bamboo because we wanted something light. This is precisely what we got. This was overall a very delicate, balanced dish (maybe too delicate) but it was very welcome after our Japanese guzzling, and even the vegetables (some of which rather unseasonable, e.g. peppers) were grilled skilfully, the bamboo shoot notably offering chunky interest on the palate, and with the steamed rice possibly the best accomplished part of the dish.
The seafood salad was positively good. Fat prawns and scallops very fresh and chunky with just the right bite, in a well varied salad of tender greens. Definitely very pleasant.
To conclude, some fresh fruit and cheeses (our by then saint-like restraint continued and we skipped the Port), here a mature cheddar and a blue:

Nice, though served a bit too cold (hey, we are not complaining, given where we are).

Excellent chocolates to finish, and the usual tea, coffe and so on. All washed over with some unlimited Crozes Hermitage La Petite Ruche 2007, M. Chapoutier, preceded by some Pouilly-Fume' Les Pierres Blanches 2007, Domaine Masson-Blondelet, both of which were good.

The bill? Let's say this will set you back quite a bit more than our £100 rule...but it is well worth it. Especially if it is not you who picks up the tab!

Service was smiling, sufficiently cheerful to alleviate our ridiculous fear of flying, helpful and efficient throughout. Our impression is that BA really put a lot of effort and intelligence into the catering part of its operation (apparently unlike some of its rivals). Its menus and wine lists are designed with the help of top experts, such as Jancis Robinson for wines and Michel Roux and Vineet Bhatia for food, just to name some. Our food experience on the flight from London was, if anything, even better.

We are real idiots: we don't even get paid to say all this.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Impressions from Tokio

As you might have guessed from our previous post on il Calandrino we have been to Tokyo. It was a work trip, so apart from il Calandrino, we had no time for any ‘mission’ for the blog. But our hosts took us around to restaurants of all sorts, which left on us an indelible impression: it’s hard for any city in the world to beat Tokyo in terms of quality and variety of cuisine. Even our simple and spartan accommodation featured a breakfast room that was a quiet pleasure to enter... in...

...and look out from

In it, we found a breakfast that was also a pleasure to look at!

And changing every morning (save for the 'scottie')

There is a moving elegance and tidiness in the way the Japanese present their food and organise their living spaces, at all levels. And, while the lady who cooked this did not hold one of the many Michelin stars glowing in the city, the flavours were great, especially the chargrilled vegetables you see in the egg dishes.

We ate many unusual things in Tokyo, from scones with beans or green tea to varieties of sushi we’d never seen. We are pretty open minded. But when, in this elegant traditional place with tatami in separate rooms,

our hosts told us that the speciality was raw chicken, we must confess we had a moment of hesitation…But of course we are both too polite and too curious to say no. In the end, we were ‘saved’ by the announcement from the cuisine that, in view of such important guests (ehm), the speciality grilled chicken normally served only for dinner would be brought to us:

We don’t know about raw, but this grilled version was fantastic.

We checked every morning: Mount Fuji was still there:

Definitely Tokyo is not just for Michelin star lovers. We had much simple but high quality street food in places like this

or this

We had sobas that we won't forget. Both cold

and hot

in this marvellous local little joint

By the way, while in the 'elegant' traditional place above you are not really forced to squat on the tatami, since there is space to fit your legs under the table (a comfort that apparently many Japanese appreciate, too!), in our cosy little joint if you wanted tatami, there was no escape form squatting

(we decadent bastards however grabbed a table with chairs).

One thing we had never tried in Western Japanese venues is shabu-shabu. You start from thinly sliced, deliciously fat, pork

(with plenty of vegetables

The broth is made hot at your table

and in go the pork and veggies

Pure gluttony. But don't think it's over when you are done with the pork and veggies. The broth is now full of all that enticing fat, and any doctor, beside food lover, would surely recommend that you collect all that flavour with you rice. In it goes for the group...

and then everybody has his own bowl

This is fun, communal eating.

Of course we had tons of unbelievable sushi and sashimi, which we won't show, but we were intrigued by the venues where you had the items in a box or tray, each venue offering its own variety of accompaniments, such as colourful cured pork or duck, tofu, miso and more

If one word should sum up our impression that is tidiness: of flavours, of views, of character...and...even of toilets - did you know that Japan is at the forefront of toilet technology? We have seen things that you humans cannot even imagine, toilets that look like computers and do all sorts of more or less desirable things to some precious parts of your body: just press those buttons for some fun:


Monday, February 9, 2009

il Calandrino Tokio

The day: 13th January 2009, Lunch.
The place: Shin Maranouchi Bulding, Tokyo
The venue: Il Calandrino
The food: Italian
The drinks: All Italian list, good range of prices and choices, some comparatively good valued ones, but remember we are in Tokyo!


Le Calandre is one of the three-starred pinnacles of Italian cuisine, run by Massimiliano Alajmo at the stoves and brother Raffaele in the room. But there are no flights from London to Rubano (the village in provincial North-East Italy where the restaurant is located). So we pop down to Tokyo, which is well connected with London, to sample instead Le Calandre’s junior brother, Il Calandrino. At the helm, Chef Silvio Giavedoni, who used to work in the Rubano kitchen.
We find it in one of two twin Maranouchi towers in the heart of Tokyo, which between them contain dozens of great restaurants, for all budgets, from snacks to luxury, of every conceivable cuisine in the world. That Tokyo has more Michelin stars than Paris begins to look less surprising when you explore the amazing interior of the towers.
Il Calandrino is neither snack nor luxury, with its pleasant, roomy lacquered wooden floor interior. The tables are comfortable, clothed, with leather chairs and upholstered benches in alcoves. It’s elegant, it’s urban faux rustic, it’s sleek, oozing style. We like it.

The menu presents you with several options. Among the set menus, we tried on a subsequent visit a 10,000 Yen four course menu, which was phenomenal, regaling you with spectacular oysters, with equally spactacular Wagyu beef
(we'll see that cream again, try to guess what it is...) and with a delicious lobster pasta

The bread arrives.
It is a little deficient in variety, but the quality is acceptable, considering the logistical difficulties of making this all-important Italian staple in Tokyo. And on the other hand, that other fundamental ingredient, olive oil, is in a quite stratospheric league (imported, of course, from Italy).
On this occasion (lunch) we settle for ‘Il piccolo menu’, four courses for 5,000 Yen, offering, as you will see, some choices. Several dishes are described by the waiting staff in faltering English at the table and are not on the menu, so the titles are our our own free creation...
It begins with:
- Tre cicchetti (let’s translate as ‘Three Amuse bouche’)

OK, what have we got here... First there’s a sort of cauliflower béchamel with mushrooms, which is the least impressive of the three pieces. The mushrooms are a little watery and hard, and the ensemble is delicate to the point of being rather anonymous. On the other hand, the breaded Japanese eel (unagi) on greens and red orange juice offers very pleasant, clear, and very well matched flavours. And equally good is the puree’ with marinated beef. The puree’ accomplishes the feat of being at the same time decadently liquid and very intense, a perfect combination with the luscious, flavoursome beef.
We continue with:
- Fusilli with pecorino cheese cream, fried onions and veal.
This dish rewards you with textural variety, the perfectly cooked and high quality pasta, the crunchy onions, the soft cheese, the expressive veal (its delicate spicy punch coming from the juniper). Maybe a little additional moisture would have been welcome.
At this point a man enters the restaurant with a box of fresh oysters, and the Chef takes the opportunity to whip up and make us try this
- Spaghettini with a light oyster mayonnaise and caviar
Well, this is wonderful. The spaghettini themselves are that kind of pasta that is so good and so well cooked as to be great even just with a touch of olive oil. But here there’s much more…that ethereal, fresh oyster whiff that first strikes you on the nose when the plate arrives and is carried over to the whole dish by the mayonnaise, just enough rich to create body, but as light as promised. And the caviar…what can one say, this is perfect. This is by the way the style of ‘higher’ dish you get in the more expensive menus we tried on our other visit, or a la carte.
But today we are happy with our humbler Piccolo menu, so let’s continue with our mains:
- Rombo (turbot) with verbena on potatoes and small vegetables.
- Pork cheek in wine reduction (we believe) and chestnut and ginger puree.
Now you see what the cream in the Wagyu beef photo above is. What could have been a heavy, fat dish is instead surprisingly light, the tangy ginger working very well with the flatter impact of the chestnuts and in fact suffusing the whole ensemble. This gives it freshness, lightness, despite the hearty backbone of the intense reduction and, of course, of the cheek itself. Most satisfying.
The rombo is cooked sous vide, superbly so, moist, very perfumed, a touch of lemon, with a base of tanginess that truly makes this dish fly. Once again, movingly good flavours with great lightness of hand and disarming simplicity, a trademark characteristic of Alajmo's cusine.
We definitely look forward to our desserts:
- Orange granita and chocolate mousse
- Hazelnut icecream, chocolate, coffee quenelle
These two desserts, although designed for individual consumption, are in fact perfect together for those of us lucky enough to be able to share. In both, flavours are very concentrated. The granita sits on the bottom, and you traverse the pleasure of two mousses, one of white chocolate and the other, warm, of dark chocolate. Really a superb journey through airy textures, flavours and temperatures. The other dessert is if anything even more remarkable, its firmer texture encapsulating flavours that integrate obscenely well.
The two menus cost, as it said on the tin, 10,000 Yen, plus 800 Yen for mineral water. No wine (lunch and work… in our dinner visit we looked at the –all Italian- wine list and we found some comparatively good valued ones, but remember we are in expensive Tokyo!). This menu is very good value for money.
The service had that inimitable Japanese politeness, even though, in such an international venue, we would have expected some ability to communicate in English (we bet this feature will improve). In our second visit, on the other hand, the very able front room manager/sommelier, also Japanese, expressed himself in a pleasantly Tuscan accented Italian! (he advised us very aptly on the wine: thanks).
You can eat really well at Il Calandrino, ranging from simpler dishes with rustic elements to more elaborate ones and noble materials, but always retaining a fundamental simplicity that is tremendously effective in a cuisine with such flavours. Chef Giavedoni, although of course he must follow in part the menu of the ‘mother-house’, brings many personal touches, the search for local ingredients and the resulting adaptations. He cooks meticulously, with absolute dedication and passion, performing splendidly his ambassadorial role for Italian cuisine. We are so happy to have tried this venue.

And after lunch, you can pop down to the basement of the tower for some shopping in the gastronomy Tokyo outlet of the Alajmo empire. Cheeses? Jams and preserves? Help yourselves!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Il Giardino

The day: 2nd January 2009, Dinner.

The place: 119, Sydney Street, London SW3 6NR (020-7352 2718)

The venue: Il Giardino

The food: Refined Italian Trattoria

The drinks: Short Italian based list, wide price range starting from below £20

A really cold night in an empty London is the best time to brave the non-existent traffic and cross the city, heading to a recent Italian opening in Chelsea. At least this was the argument Woman used to persuade Man, hell-bent on trying Bocca di Lupo again (yes, you’ve guessed it, our fave was closed), to try this new joint. It is next door to Chelsea’s farmer’s market on a quiet residential street. The name means ‘garden’, and indeed they do have an outside garden which must be truly handsome in summer… but not with tonight’s subzero temperatures. The inside is stark whites, creams and black, with proper tablecloths and well spaced tables

We are totally alone: lucky we booked, or they might have closed for the night ;-)

Our young host is nice and kind, but there is an air akin to what we experienced at Trenta, with questions shouted down the stairs to the chef. OK, we’ll live with the trattoria style, Woman tries to cheer Man’s uncompromising I-told-you-so-mood. This is not helped by either the water (appearing in a half litre form, o dear!) nor the menu.

Indeed things were looking on the up when inspection of the carte revealed a short but interesting array of simple and varied dishes, and Man had already settled on the ‘Duck sauce home made potato gnocchi’ (£9 or £11, presumably depending on size) and ‘Home made cappellacci pasta with pumpkin, butter and sage’ (£11). But then disaster strikes, our gentle young host tells us that there has been a fault with their fridge, no fresh pasta is available. Man is looking darker and darker… Uhm, ever optimist Woman inquires about the provenance of the fish in the ‘Marinated swordfish and tuna with olive oil and thyme’, and, after a quick shout down the stairs, we are reassured that yes, the fish comes from the Mediterranean sea, and anyhow ‘all our products come from Italy, including pasta, either De Cecco or Barilla, you know…’: oops, a quick glance to Man, and De Cecco and Barilla all in one breath has yet again dampened his spirit.

Just at the right time, canapes arrive, in the form of a marinara (anchovies, capers, oregano, tomato but no cheese) and margherita pizza slices and some nice fat olives.

The pizza base was slightly soggy, but the whole was tasty, and worked out nice while waiting for our starters.

First comes the bread:

Herb focaccia and ‘Ferrarese’ like bread, that is with a white, compact yet fluffy crumb, good.

And then our starters. We finally had settled for:

- Marinated swordfish and tuna with olive oil and thyme (£8)

- Black ink risotto with grilled cuttlefish (£11)

Well, very generous portions here, which will prove a leitmotif of the evening. The fish carpaccio was really very good: the swordfish, and above all the tuna, were a concentrate of hints from the sea in the guise of the lightest of slices, and the dressing of fine olive oil, capers, thyme and pepper was very well judged, complementing rather than smothering the two main protagonists. Honestly, this delight of a dish wins hands down with the timid tuna carpaccio at the far more revered 1 Lombard street! And it looked good, too: and so Man is beginning to look happy again…

And the risotto was also very good: perfectly cooked, nicely al dente and at the same time rightly creamy, flavoursome, topped by a very fresh cuttlefish which had been grilled to perfect consistency: quite a joy to eat, Man looking all smiles now, so much so that Woman can slip in ‘and there are tablecloths here’, at which Man points out to a tear in the tablecloth, so Woman quickly changes topic…

Yet we are both in an expectant mood for our mains. We resist the temptation of the Pan fried calf liver with onions (£13.50) and Lobster and prawns guazzetto (the most expensive item on the menu at £16), and instead opt for:

- Grilled baby squids with fresh chilli peppers (£11)

- Ossobuco alla Milanese (£14.50)

The squids: a very generous portion (must have been nine of them) of flawlessly grilled squids, with the fresh chili peppers providing a nice hit while still playing second fiddle, enhancing the fragrant squids. Man, now almost ecstatic (Man: naah), is reminiscing of Da Barbara. Good olive oil as before, only far too much of it, creating a veritable pool in which the rocket had all the room to splash around, oh this is not classy… But then again this is witness to the generosity of the kitchen (good oil is expensive).

This theme continues in the ossobuco dish: we were surprised by the amount of tomato (here is the way WE make it...), but it did work fine in the end on the nice, tasty, tender piece of veal sitting on a large cushion of properly cooked saffron risotto, with loads of saffron stems, also intensely pleasing on the palate. One slip here, too, excess of fats in the condiment, but after all this is a rather rustic dish.

The fight over the marrow in the ‘buco’ over, of course we still have enough room left for desserts, which we are assured are all home made (actually, this is what we expected, but we told you already our sweet waiter appears still a bit naïve). These go from the £4 of the ‘affogato al caffe’ (i.e. vanilla ice cream doused in coffee) to the £12 of the sweet selection – and the coffee with petit fours is a very reasonable £2.75.

Our choice:

- Dolce all’amaretto (£5.5)

- Delizia al cioccolato (£5.5)

The amaretto dessert was made up of an amaretto pannacotta and an amaretto parfait. Two problems here: true, ‘amaro’ means bitter in Italian, and amaretti biscuits are prepared with some bitter almonds, to give them their interesting tang. But here the bitter note is truly overpowering, the bitter aftertaste definitely too much. And, the pannacotta suffers from that too common ailment, the excess of thickening, which drops to the bottom and leaves the ‘fluffy’ bits on top (before it is unmoulded, that is), as you can see from the picture (remember the pannacotta here?). Pity.

Quite a different story with the chocolate cake. Described as a combination of chocolate ice cream, chocolate pannacotta and chocolate soufflé; the latter item turns out instead to be a chocolate flan, and a very good one too, intensely chocolaty, with an interesting texture given by what must have been biscuits or similar crumbled into the chocolate mixture before cooking (a bit reminiscent of 'bunet', see for example the one here). Definitely the best item of the trio. Having said that, the chocolate icecream, resting on a (very bitter!) amaretto biscuit, was also adequately assertive in flavour, as was the pannacotta, verging on the ‘too solid’ like the amaretto one, but this time safely on the ‘good side’ of firmness. A very good assortment, with balanced and deep aromas.

With the half litre bottle of water acceptably priced at £2, and a bottle of easy drinking Aglianico at £23, our total bill including 12.5% service charge came to £90.56, which excludes a complimentary glass of Limoncello obtaining by charming the charming waiters. Not super cheap, but balance this with super generous portions, excellent ingredients, well appointed interiors (and yes, tablecloths!), presumably high rent in Chelsea, and it starts looking very reasonable. (In the end, a couple more tables trickled in, and we truly hope they managed to more than cover their costs on the night.)

The odd swearword exchanged between the waiter and the maitre d' or the shout to the chef Marco Solaro down (or up?) in the kitchen aside, service was charming and warm, from both the waiter and the attentive Maitre d'. You won’t find here the impeccable service that blesses other places where you can eat for around £100 (but those rarities are champions in value for money which puts them off any scale).

So, once you concede that in London even trattorias have to be expensive, this is definitely one new place to recommend, where a competent chef stays well within his comfort zone and prepares, simply and properly, ingredients of high quality. This IS good Italian cuisine (of the trattoria style). Sure, you will not find here the long and varied menu, nor maybe the study of details that Bocca di Lupo has on offer, but the style and quality (and quantity) that you find here surpasses easily that of the celebrated and more expensive Osteria dell’Arancio down the road, not to mention some award-winning celebrities who offer not much more than this at twice the price. And in Summer the outside garden must be truly inviting. In short, it is a bit too inconvenient for us Eastenders, but if you tread these grounds, make time for a visit.


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