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Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The day: 5 December 2009, Lunch.

The place: Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA

The venue: Apsleys-A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough

The food: Modern Italian

The drinks: Luxury list but also by the glass and more easy-going options.

(Added January 2010: Apsleys has been awarded its first Michelin star)

One day after the very impressive Hibiscus, we set off again from our humble base in gritty East London towards the bright lights of Central London. We honestly weren’t expecting this Heinz Beck venue, for all the chef’s fame and his 3* at ‘home’ in Rome, to top our lunch at Hibiscus.

Little did we know we were in for a truly stellar lunch, in an elegant, comfortable, spacious, light-filled, no-expenses-spared, room.

An unpromising start with the waiter frantically trying to read the label, unable to tell us clearly where the two olive oils on offer come from (Imola, Florence…uhm). But from then on it will be a steep and endless rise to the sky.

The bread is – of course- home-made, coming in several varieties, including cereal and olives. Very tasty, and well made, touching both the bodily and the ethereal. The latter, a most refined version of Sardinian pane ‘carasau’, much thinner than the standard one, probably obtained by brushing a ‘batter’ on the baking sheet (very similar to what we had another very fine restaurant). This bread deserves a photo.

The amuse bouche takes us by storm.

A ‘pannacotta’ with olive tapenade and tomato concasse’, veal terrine with mustard seeds and candied Kumquat. Soft flavours, temperatures and textures, yet vibrant and fresh. The cheesy pannacotta plays well indeed with the two flavours. Great. (we wonder: where does he get tomatoes in December?).

Mellowed down by the food and the relentlessly charming waiter, we are all salivating expectations. He tempts us with a white truffle put under our nose (mercifully he does not say ‘from Alba’) but, even though inebriated by the noble smell, that lingers on well after he has taken the precious treasure away, we opt not to go bankrupt.

The primi establish beyond doubt that pasta can be pure fine dining. There were the celebrated ‘fagottelli carbonara’ (more on this story later).

And there was an unbelievable rabbit reduction in

Ravioli of rabbit and pistachio

That reduction, so intense but not heavy; the ravioli, well filled and simply wonderful, among the best we’ve ever eaten. Just wanting to be picky, the pistachio plays, surprisingly, a bit second fiddle here – we were expecting some crunchy textures and a more definite appearance in the form of flavour.

Will a lamb have been slaughtered and a pigeon shot for a good cause?

Yes, yes, yes!

Lamb crepinette

The movingly tender, moist, flavoursome lamb is enclosed in a crepe (egg and cheese) and spinach leaves. The warm provola cheese layered over aubergines adds power and a subtly bitter note, and the finely finely chopped peppers with the courgettes green are sweetly delicious. A stunning, boldly flavoured, beautiful looking dish rooted in tradition and taken much higher. (we wonder: where does he get the pepper and aubergines in December?).

Pigeon Royal

Once again, this pigeon’s cooking deserves the adjective ‘perfect’ (the breast poached and the leg slow-roasted). Very far reaching flavours all round, multidimensional, with an unadvertised rhubarb compote sublimely acidic and an added foie gras a seductive smooth, rich match for the gamey, earthy meat. And the succulent pearl onions, and the mustard seed sauce. What balance. What power.

We share one dessert. We’re glad about this decision as the specimen turns out to be a giant one:

Ricotta cannoli, cassata and Sharon fruit sorbet

Sicily reigns in this dish, the ricotta from stratosphere and encapsulated in the classiest of crispy cannoli, the pistachios now screaming flavour and texture, and we actually wanted to scream (of pleasure) after tasting an added glass of almond milk. The sorbet is not sweet which, in a dessert with plenty of sugar, makes for the right balance.

The petit four accompanying our (excellent) coffees spans an impressive range in terms of flavours, textures and recapitulate several regional Italian traditions: gianduiotto, pistachio and almond meringue with berry compote, ricciarelli, raspberry sugar, brownie. Simply excellent.

The service

Friendly, polite, attentive, unintrusive. We just wonder, miserable picky sods that we are, why in a restaurant of this class and obvious ambitions, they do not iron the tablecloths.

The low

What low?

The high

Fagottelli carbonara

We could not believe it. We could not believe that this famous signature dish was as good as it was. This is genious. The carbonara eggs springing in your mouth when you bite into the entire fagottello picked up rigorously with your spoon, the absolute balance, the perfect seasoning, the rustic, often heavy tradition brought to unprecedented heights and delicacy, the vivid colours (that courgette green again): this dish has it all. It moved us and it will remain in our tasting memories. (we wonder: where does he get courgettes in December?).

The Price

There’s a 3 course lunch menu at £45 including a starter version of the fagottelli. We went a la carte with two starters, two mains, a shared dessert, water, coffees and just a glass of wine and paid £145 (including the usual 12.5% discretionary service charge). A fuller a la carte meal with a basic wine will set you back around £200 for two, which, in truth, is fair for such cuisine (we must remark the generous portions, too). Tasting menus at £65 and £85.


Heinz Beck is a genius and this London enterprise of his does not fail to communicate it through executive chef Massimiliano Blasone and the rest of the team. This cuisine attains the clearest and most potent flavours and is never heavy, never unbalanced, never showy or egotistic. We are glad that London has such a true superstar, heavy calibre Italian cuisine restaurant.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sauc (Barcelona)

In our recent Barcelona stay we had two starred experiences, one in Alkimia which you have seen, and the other at Sauc. We were in very pleasant company at the latter, engrossed in conversation. Our abilities for divided attention are limited, so this time just a half-review, basically some thoughts for food from memory and brief notes. It means we'll need to go back...

The restaurant strikes us as less formal than Alkimia, both in accueil and in decor, a stark but warm refuge tucked away in a narrow street in the Eixample.

Near the beginning of the meal, this

Poached egg, onion soup and cheese

was refined, delicate, tasty.

And the sweet iodine crustacean married the earthy beans divinely in this

White beans (mugetes) of Santa Pau & Langoustines

Very nicely moist, too.

If this was good, we moved to magic with

Corvina, Tenderwheat, Foam of Sea Urchin

Childhood reminiscences of sea-urchins picked and eaten raw...a fish still redolent of the sea, what an intelligent dish, combining
so ideally , once again, countryside and sea in the best Spanish tradition.

After an apt fresh, intensely 'basily' melon granite, this rich and inventive

Mucovado cake, coffee mascarpone and red sweet potato

concludes a splendid meal and a marvellous evening. It's nice eating well with friends.

This experience beat Alkimia in class and consistency. Yes: we will be back.

PS: this tasting menu, which included also several other nibbles, cost €52 per person.


Thursday, December 10, 2009


The day: 5 December 2009, Lunch.
The place: 29 Maddox Street, London W1S 2PA

The venue: Hibiscus

The food: Modern French

The drinks: Optional glass of wine with Saturday lunch, and a list you might expect in a 2* French restaurant.

We stroll down Maddox Street, stop staring at a closing down sale for golfing item (might need them soon, if we do not want to be social outcasts in the golfing reservation we have now moved to), and the owner chats us up, and tells us that it has never been this bad for business. Well, ought we not to support local business? The Golfman tries to dissuade us from the object of our desire: ‘too expensive’, he claims, while trying to talk us into a beginners set of clubs, a real bargain at £125 – well, the set lunch at Hibiscus still sounds more attractive, thank you very much.

An oak panelled room which feels fresh and informal in spite of a large chandelier. Chef Bosi in the kitchen, with his two stars. All looks set for a promising Mayfair experience, during a London weekend which featured a double culinary bill for us (the other one at Heinz Beck branch at Apsleys – more on this story later). And a very fine experience it was.

The bread is home-made, warm and good – puzzling that it only comes in one variety, though.

The amuse bouche…
where are we, at Dolada (thankfully not). But the amuse bouche in an egg shell is all the rage now, as we recently sampled there a similar idea. Here at Hibiscus it is a very interesting amuse of complex flavour. We ask two different waiters but we manage not to fully understand either. One says that there are 17 Moroccan spices, the other 20. One says it’s a walnut veloute’, we are dubious because we cannot recognise the walnut (are they mushrooms? or is it all confused by the 27.5 spices?). The only spice we clearly distinguish is cinnamon (we hope it was there). At any rate, it was impressive, pleasantly unctuous, light, complex and balanced (but no acidity).


Raviolo of Scottish scallops and Brixham brown crab, fricassee of Puy lentils, cep veloute’ and coconut milk

was, beside having a very long name, a very accomplished dish, the seafood springing flavour out of a fine, light, well-cooked raviolo. Delicious the contrast with the acidically tangy lentils. If ceps were there, though, they were entirely overpowered.

And a

Warm Royale of toasted rice and walnuts
was pure elegance, the toasted notes so intense that they struck your nose even while the dish was being brought to you, the contrast between smoothness and crunchiness in this simple looking dish a minor masterstroke.

Our mains were in different registers.


Roast Shropshire partridge with smoked beurre blanc

was in a sense more ethereal despite a general assertiveness, the meat cooked very precisely and melting in your mouth. The broccoli (we think) ‘mousse’ with a on top toasted bread with on top a meaty taste (the lot of which was there, we think, in place of an advertised caramelised Savoy cabbage) a solid, gracious complement. What a pleasant dish, and look at the care for the vibrantly coloured garnishes.

We touched overall more ferine, earthier notes with the pheasant and foie gras pithivier (puff pastry encasing), which we shall nominate the dish of day (read on).

Also two very different desserts.

Iced chestnut parfait, Sharon fruit sorbet

A great classic combination, and a very satisfying dessert: the parfait was topped with a thin sugary crust, though in spite of this the dish was somewhat lacking in sweetness – fine for Man, less so for Woman – which was most evident in the sorbet and the fruit puree. We put this down to the variety of the Sharon fruit and on it not being quite ripe enough (we mean this). Thin slices of raw chestnut added an interesting contrast in texture and clean flavours.

As for the

Dark chocolate tart and white fig ice cream

again, the fruit was muted – the icecream had the perfect consistency, but alas wanting in flavour (why use figs in December?). The pastry in the chocholate tart was the wrong side of firm, but the chocolate filling was truly seductive, intense and rich.

At the end of the meal, some impressive petit-fours appear, together with coffee.

Now, we always have problem with espresso in French restaurant, but this is actually fairly good. Yet, ‘fairly good’ is not enough as an answer… the charming Italian waiter aims at perfection, and insists on bringing us another one to prove he can do better. The second one – well, actually it is the third one, as what we suspect was the second one meets the disapproving eyebrow of the Manager. So, the third one is creamier and attains perfection. The now caffeine-soaked Man looks happy indeed.

The service
Extremely friendly, formal but approachable. A smiling, efficient and smooth Manager in full control, we were taken good care of by an Italian waiter, a sweetie, and he gained brownie points with Man at the moment of coffee…Maybe they could speak slightly louder ad more clearly when describing the dishes.

The low
Nothing in particular, details here and there. The not quite ripe Sharon fruit, some lack of ‘sculpted’ flavours, some defects in the table cloth (e.g. a velcro strip bulging out). All stuff it would be too ludicrous of us to count against Hibiscus except if it has ambitions to perfection.

The high

Warm Pithivier of pheasant and foie gras, roasted root vegetables

In principle a more rustic dish than the others, the presentation is truly haute cuisine, those brown tones in the sauce ‘pool’ a veritable painting. The classily made puff pastry, suitably imbibed, encloses a livery, earthily flavoursome filling which is elevated by the deep, deep reaching sauce. We were struck by the judicious use of foie gras; and, for a change, in this dish the salad was apt and not a pointless addition.

The Price
The three course Saturday set lunch with a glass of wine, coffee and petit fours comes at a very attractive £48 per head. Tasting menu for 6 or 9 courses at £75 and beyond.

Chef Bosi produces superbly accomplished cuisine of real finesse all round. Multilayered flavours and complex combinations hang together beautifully. We are not surprised his restaurant holds two stars. In our modest opinion, what the place is missing to reach the absolute top is an absolute precision and definition in flavours that we found missing, compared to other restaurants (e.g., Jasmine or Apsleyes). Having said this, Hibiscus is obviously an obligatory stop for any gourmet in London, a place where you will have a wonderful and relaxed dining experience.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Enjoy your food, slowly

We thought we were moving to a provincial culinary desert – sure, expected great ingredients, but feared that out in the ravishingly beautiful Scottish countryside tourist pressure would leave no room for other than traditional dishes. And yet and yet… in the very heart of Scotland, enter Perth, the first cittaslow supporter town in the United Kingdom!

Meaning: citta’ means city in Italian, and Italy is where Carlo Petrini founded the slowfood movement, as a bastion against the invasion of fast food chains. With a snail as its symbol, the movement has grown further into promoting local ingredients and traditions, setting up a University of Gastronomic Science, and growing into an international movement, with slowfood organizations springing up in France, Japan, the US among others, and finally the UK. Alongside the movement, the Cittaslow network of cities and towns has developed across the world, promoting the slow food movement values, among which:

‘Everyone who works in, lives in or visits the town, and particularly young people, are encouraged to develop an awareness and understanding of quality of life and excellence in food, drink, conviviality and the value of their local traditions, products and production methods.’

We have already found our favourite restaurant in Perth, 63 Tay Street. You’ll heare more from us on the topic…but for now just a couple of dishes:

- Jerusalem artichoke veloute, west coast scallops and truffle:

- Loin and shoulder of Lamb from Jim Farley's farm, pure of turnips, salt roast beetroot and hazelnut hollandaise:


Tuesday, December 1, 2009


The day: 10 November 2009, Dinner.
The place: Industria 79, Barcelona
The venue: Alkimia

Closest Airport: Barcelona (BA, Easyjet), Girona (Ryanair)
The food: Modern Spanish

The drinks: Strong on Spanish with some very strong international

This is the first of two starred experiences in a chilly and beautiful November Barcelona. Semiformal, young and English speaking service greets you at the entrance of the stark, modern, elegant room. Behind the stoves, chef Jordi Vilà.

We order a €35 Priorat and the wine waitress asks us whether we have noticed the section at the end of the wine list, which contains the ‘top wines’. Let’s have a look. Mmhh, prices ranging from a handful of hundred euro bills to teens of hundreds. Does she really think we can suddenly change our mind? Yes, she does. Man jokingly orders a €1,700 Pommerol and then has to frantically stop the obliging sommelier who in all seriousness was going for the bottle.

Of the two available menus, both tasting, we are forced to choose the shorter because of the lack of capacity in our stomachs. Unfortunately this is also the one designated ‘traditional’, but with chef Jordi Vilà it is always going to be a very modern traditional.

We begin with the famous and many-times pictured amuse bouche of Alkimia: tomato water with breadcrumbs, the glass covered by a thin slice of fuet (a Catalan sausage).

We want to compete in the category 'worst picture' (there weren't the conditions to use a flash), but please do not be put off: it is a high note of pure concentrated flavours and fun cooking, setting high expectations indeed.

Yet, our dinner will be ups and downs (even if ups and downs always remaining at a very, very accomplished level of cooking).

There is a vein of true genius in this cuisine, with a sense of adventure that we really appreciate and admire. A veloute’ of Jerusalem artichokes with root vegetables was amusingly presented (the tips of the roots which one would normally throw away emerging from the liquid) and wonderful, as were the cauliflowers in two ways (pickled and pureed) accompanying our monkfish fish.

It is a cuisine that can split opinions: Man thought a sorbet of lychees wonderfully complex, with a resinous jelly adding a further dimension; whereas Woman found the jelly ‘medicinal’.

But we agreed that, to our subjective taste, there were sometimes hiccups and also, we have to say, some occasional heavy-handedness and seasoning excess, a certain lack of balance, of precision, and of attention to details. We found several chicken bones, large and small, in the gorgeous chicken cannelloni (more on them below). The sauce of a wonderful and nicely cooked suckling veal was really too concentrated.

There were different cookings of our two pieces of monkfish (one almost raw, the other better done), and similarly for the otherwise beautiful crayfish on our rice.

A nice selection of Petit four concludes our dinner

The service
The service is correct but a bit cold, robotic and brusque from one member staff. The dishes are not described nicely but instead quickly and as if in a hurry, the cutlery almost thrown on the table (are we sooo unpleasant? Sigh). No apologies for the bones in the chicken, the menus are not explained - indeed, only later we overhear a conversation with another table from which we understand we could have gone for a shorter version of the innovative menu: surely something you should be told to begin with! The manager however, as well as the wine waitress, are helpful and courteous.

The low: the dessert
To our taste this was a mess of clashing flavours. Essentially a millefuille filled with coffee, sealed with caramel, and sitting on a lemon cream, plus a vanilla ice-cream. Picture this: you try and cut through the generally aethereal puff pastry, only now you cannot, as the caramel encasing makes it gummy. But you brave on, and the millefeuille still smirking at you, bend but does not break, till the pressure squeezes out the coffee cream, that shoots straight into the lemon sauce... well, we later discovered elsewhere (more on this story later...) that lemon and coffee can work together: but this definitely is not it, the lemon and coffee flavours were fighting, the ice-cream wasn’t sweet enough, and the caramel reduced the millefeuille to a gluey texture.

The high: Chicken cannelloni
It takes guts to serve chicken cannelloni in a fine dining restaurant, but the gamble pays off. So, despite the aforementioned bones, we nominate this the dish of the evening. With such intense and yet delicate flavours in both the hand-cut mince and in the side, soberly presented, chicken reduction with vinegar (we think), this dish also exudes a minimalist elegance that makes it an example of how a rustic combination can achieve fine dining heights. The perfect balance of that reduction also shows that this innovative chef could equally well cook classical dishes. Pity that our picture does not make justice to this beautiful dish!

The price
Now, where is that bill? Anyhow, the traditional menu we went for was priced at €58 (while the more adventurous Alkimia menu has a €74 price tag) and the wine, and considering how the pound has dived, we were confortably over our (upgraded) £110 rule, but not by far.

This is a restaurant to try if you are in Barcelona. The cuisine will surprise, amuse and please. But don’t expect consistency and be prepared for some disappointments.


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