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Friday, March 30, 2012

One O One (London): fine seafood

(Visited mid-March 2012)

Well, we finally closed our eyes and ignored all the almost irresistible competition in the vicinities of this restaurant, that we had ignored for so long, and managed to cross the One-O-One entrance for dinner.

Smart room, with those curvy walls that give an eighties feel. We like it.

And the beginning is promising. The bread is very well made (no mean compliment from us...) and comes in several qualities, the seaweed flavoured butter  is a big success, and the amuse, a fennel vichissoise with salmon confit is fresh and delightful and speaks to us with those olive oil drops.

We tried the signature Wild Norwegian Red King Crab, both visually theatrical and and delicious on the palate in both of the versions we chose. Woman went for the cold version, simply accompanied by a mayonnaise sauce (good). 

In truth, this was the best way to appreciate the marvelous flavour of the enormous legs of this beast. It was fun to eat, too, even if not very conducive to conversation.

Man opted for the more elaborate version with sweet chilli and ginger sauce. 

It was a very classy sauce with a pleasant, far from overpowering kick.

These are not cheap items but they would have been worth the full price (£27 apiece) that we didn't pay (courtesy of the usual toptable offer).

Then the seabass (also from the Barents Sea like the crab, according to the waiter) in salt crust, the preparation of it a piece of theatre seen one thousand times but, like cricket, endlessly fascinating (or have we by any chance said this already?). 

Compared to the similarly prepared fish we had had a few days earlier in Seville, we must say this London one was much better cooked: absolutely precise cooking in fact, the flesh delicately moist (however, the flavour of these Northern basses of course never matching that of their best Mediterranean cousins). Well presented too, accompanied as it was by various mollusks in a razor-clam shell, a slim cylinder of potato puree, and an airy shellfish champagne butter sauce with a sea lettuce mash, the protagonist of this dish really had the space to shine, and at the same time the chef had the opportunity to show his finesse. A very very well-judged creation. Again not cheap (£60 for the entire fish), but also very much worth it.

We skipped desserts, we skipped wine (the next day a rustic mega eat and drink at Briciole was on the cards...), and even resisted the petit fours (well, ok, let's say we did not finish them all) but we had the chance to verify that they belong to the ever expanding 'cannot make espresso' club of fine dining restaurants.

Service is sweet once you manage to get their attention, which is not always easy with a rather full room. The cost was less than £100 overall with a 40% Toptable offer, no wine, no desserts, a 1 Litre (much appreciated) water bottle, and a tea and coffee. A price and a treatment that put a smile on your face.

In sum, this was a very accomplished seafood meal, a venue to try again. We feel that the a la carte menu offers the most sumptuous and enjoyable dishes (at the nearby table a Dover sole also looked very enticing), but we also want to try the lunchtime smaller dish sequence, which appears to be good value (a report by stalwart egullet contributor David Goodfellow, with far better pictures to boot, is here), even if you may end up leaving a little perplexed, like David. And then again for dinner, possibly many times. If only Koffman's wasn't so close :smile: 


Sunday, March 25, 2012

Egana Ortiza (Seville): finest seafood

 (Visited early March 2012)

When you enter the spacious, well appointed conservatory style room past the (luxury) tapas bar area, you may get the impression it's going to be an expensive evening. And when you realise that they have failed to write down your booking and consequently are not ready at the agreed time, you may expect it's not only going to be expensive, but also frustrating.

After this unpromising start, matters rapidly get worse. Even though we are seated at an enormous table, the stiff, sullen personnel starts immediately grating on Man's nerves, much to Woman's worry, and when 'in exchange' for a 2.70 euro cover charge (per person) he is offered a single type of totally ordinary bread and, even more criminal, scandalous bog supermarket quality olives (in Seville! in Seville!), he's already fuming. 

Thinking about leaving but then just wearily resigned to the worst.


 Just while he is moaning about the absence of an amuse bouche, these arrive.

Oooh, it's chistorra, typical of Basque countries (the Chef here is Basque), a pork sausage fiercely aromatised with paprika and garlic. Well it's not fine dining, but swithcing into trattoria mode, it's damn good.

One piece of advice: if you want to avoid splattering your crisp clean shirt in red sauce like Man, avoid forking said sausage with too much energy.

Anyway, at least the pathetic sight of Man's shirt after the chistorra treatment had the unbelievable effect of extracting a smile from the mask of suffering that was the waitress, as well as the kind offer of a (magically effective) cleaning serviette.

Perhaps warming to this imbecile who can't even eat a chistorra in a civilised way, the frighteningly serious manager, maybe an out of work torero, advises very well on wine, and without a hint of upselling. So he recommends a bottle half the price of what we would have spontaneously chosen, with which we were very happy.

When he takes orders, we tell him that we are going to share everything. We always do this, but we very rarely get the kind offer that we get here, that the chef is going to plate half portions each.

So it is that our first half starters arrive the Langoustines

As you can see we had four animals each, meaning that a full starter portion of langoustines here includes eight. Eight! Now, we've got to say, when we think back to London, and in particular to the super-refined but miserably solitary langoustine at Alyn Williams, if we had to say where the real joy of eating seafood is, how long do you think we'd hesitate to answer? Obviously HE could not plate half a portion! Here, they were fabulously fresh, perfectly cooked and prepped, the seasoning also good but just this side of too salty, with a good variety of crispy and soft vegetables. And to finish the triumph, the olive oil is also of superior quality.

The second starter is Almejas a la sarten con gambas, gulas y refrito de ajo

The gigantic almejas, the interestingly 'squashed' prawns and the spaghetti of eel form a very, very fine match of once again superbly fragrant, fresh seafood. This is such a  joy, and we even forgive the bit of sand in one almeja in view of the classy, light version of the fried garlic in olive oil with just a hint of chili.

We could not resist the most expensive item on the menu, the Bogavante (lobster) at 42 euro.

The taste was very fine indeed, even superior to our local Scottish variety, the claw was just divine, but a pity for the overcooking of the rest which resulted in a slight rubberiness. The sauce had a nice, complex, lively flavour, but we found it a little heavy.

This Pulpo (octopus)

was a formidabe piece of beast, again striking for its quality, the big thick plump 'leg' , skin on and everything, bursting with flavour, helped by an almost moving tomato sauce with onions. The accompanying red onion was also a sweet delight. This is perhaps not what Michelin wants in exchange for its stars, there isn't enough 'finesse' here, notably in the cooking. This is food for real men and women, and we, Man and Woman, are enjoying it a lot: even if it is not the most meltingly tender octopus we've had, it's just plain good, and luckily we still have teeth we can use.

For the desserts, we learned afterwards that there is a dedicated chef, and it shows. There was real elegance of conception in both of our choices, a Brownie de nueces (walnuts) con crema de cacao y helado de especias (spicy icecream)

 and a Texturas de arroz  con leche, pan de especias con bano de cafe y sorbete de mandarinas (Rice pudding textures, with spice bread soaked in bread with mandarin sorbet):

both really, really classy deconstructions of the classics, even in spite of not gaining full marks for the presentation. The highlights for us were the walnut and the cloves playing with each other in the brownie and the icecream. But how not to admire the heights of complexity and flavour balance attained by the so humble arroz con leche?

So, we entered thoroughly pissed off, and before the bill we are now thoroughly happy, mellowed down by a great seafood dinner and good wine. 

Will we be happy also after the bill?

Let's look...yes, for this enormous quantity of seafood of such monumental quality, just over 180 euros for two is an amazing price. The chef may not be the most refined in the culinary firmament, but he is certainly a great professional who loves and cares about his raw material, and by and large treats it very well and expertly. Well done to him, and we would go back any time. Now, staff, can we have a little cheerful smile?


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Casa Robles (Sevilla)

(Visited early March 2012)

A historical Sevilla upmarket eatery, the luxuriant interior decorated to make you feel the weight of history,

sadly, it has now developed a bit of a reputation as a tourist trap (or so says the voice of democracy.)

Except of course if, like us, you go with a trusted local. Then perfect service, their best produce and most honest advice is guaranteed (seriously, we don't know if you really need a local, but can it harm?).

Our starters were fantastic delicacies from the sea:

These are 'ortiguillas', i.e. sea anemone or sea nettle. They come panfried, and if you haven't tried them yet, think of the texture of soft sweetbreads with the flavour of the sea. Lovely. Lovely lovely.

Next come our almejas

which are also simply delicious, in good olive oil, nothing to add except to remember, like every time we eat properly cooked mollusks, the unforgettably horrible mollusk experience at Hedone.

The ritual of the fish in sea crust, seen so many times, is nevertheless like cricket: repetitive but endlessy fascinating. 

and after:

To be honest, this red snapper did not quite deliver what it promised, being less succulent and less flavoursome than we had anticipated (cooked too long we guess). Still, we wouldn't run away from that fish if it was served in London. And even here it wasn't bad, let's not be churlish. And the accompanying veggies were greasy, yes, but oh so tasty.

The list of desserts is hard to resists, truly hard.We choose two cakes from the trolley that look at us desperately wanting to be eaten: a "Two Chocolates cubanita" (white and dark chocolate) and a berry cheesecake:

Now, this is definitely not the most refined version of the art of patisserie, but once we've registered this with our brains, moving on to stomach judgement, boy they are good!

It was a very pleasant seafood dinner, in pleasant company, with good wine, in a sweet environment in a sweet late Winter night in Southern Spain - you get the drift. It was just impossible not to like our night at Casa Robles. 

The cost? We don't know as our host footed the bill, but our guess is: make sure your credit card is well supported by your account! And don't forget to bring along your Andalucian mate.


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Royal China (Docklands, London)

 (Visited Saturday 25 February)

We entered Royal China Docklands (part of a historical mini chain in London with the mothership in Queensway) prepared for their renowned sullen service.

Well, it is true that they won't win any cheerful hospitality award, but apart from some linguistic difficulties with the 'lower ranked' members of staff (who however even regaled us with some smiles, unbelievable, and certainly not to be expected from the managers - they clearly have deep problems to solve, their time too precious for smiles), overall they were not positively rude, which was a gratefully received achievement. And certainly they were efficient.

And it was a beautiful day, the room is pleasant, with spacious and well spaced tables and fine views of the river. And if you go in the warm season even better if you can sit outside; that would be a bit of London Dolce Vita.

No great choice of teas. They insisted very forcefully that we have jasmin because 'we would find everything else (2 choices) too strong'.

Of course we avoided jasmin and opted for the other two choices.

We tried the dim sum on a weekend lunch (no reservations taken, arrive early enough if you don't want to wait).

The overall quality of the food was not stellar as at Yauatcha, but it was still well above that of your average Chinatown restaurant. Actually the steamed dim sum was sometimes really well executed and delicious, only the soups disappointed.

The soups were hot and sour vegetables, and Rainbow been curd. As we said, disappointing, watery and without depth,

The dim sum, showcasing some quite brilliant flavours and fine making of the dumpling, included prawn and chive, crab and spinach, vegetable. We also had pork buns, whose filling was reasonable but not in the right proportion to the dough and really nothing to write home about (again, a poor show compared to the Yauatcha version), and a vegetable cheung fung which was instead very good..

The properly Chinese desserts (i.e. not Westernised) were worth the slightly long wait: a nice steamed sweet lotus paste bun, and a truly lovely Black sesame paste dumpling in peanut crumbs.

The cost for this type of lunch is very reasonable, around the £50 mark for two, which makes this branch of Royal China, considering the food quality and the surroundings, one of the best value for money for Chinese food in London.


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Roost (Kintillo, near Perth): more ups than downs

 (Visited 4/2/2012)

Let's get the (only serious) negative out of the way first.

From the moment we ordered the Orecchiette pasta with broccoli, roasted fennel, chilli flakes, parmesan shavings we knew that it was for research purposes only, not for our enjoyment...

The waitress/maitre d'/co-owner probably knew it herself and asked us perplexed if we really wanted this dish. Yes we do, we replied stoically.

We shall be honest: from the point of view of an Italian, it was the stuff nightmares are made of: tragically overcooked orecchiette swimming in bucketloads of murderous cream. But we are open minded and understand that this is a recipe aimed at the local taste; and who are we to say that their tastes are wrong and ours are right? Anyway, research done, got the t-shirt, let's stay friends, cream + overcooking for you Scots and al dente + fresh olive oil + chilly + garlic for us :)

Apart from that, it was a nice lunch at this lovely little restaurant, with an old-modern, rustic-elegant feel,

husband behind the stoves doing Scottish cooking with an Italian influence after a stint at a Valvona and Crolla restaurant, wife charmingly in charge of the front room (one day we shall talk about V&C, by the way, and not to their pleasure). Dishes at lunch are simpler, while at dinner (which we want to try) there's more fireworks going on, or so we are told.

The two starters were simple but very accomplished and such a contrast with the similar fare we recently had at Morgan Arms in London.

The one above is Perthshire hare rillettes with pickled vegetables and crostini. The rillettes (similar to pate') had just the right texture, the seasoning was spot on, the salad fresh and delicious and full of little touches showing a light, clever hand. The one below is Potted freshwater crayfish with toasted home-made granary bread, and the commentss are just the same really, very pleasant, clear flavours, the tarragon in the tightly packed crayfish very well judged. The quality here nears that of Drover's Inn.

You've already seen one of our mains (the research orecchiette), the other came as a liberation:

It was a Perthshire venison casserole with thyme roasted potatoes, satisfyingly gamey, a touch dry but rescued by an abundant and very well made gastrique sauce.

We are definitely going for desserts:

A Nougatine semifreddo with poached pear, hot chocolate sauce

featured a well-cooked pear in good chocolate (in the little jug, not yet poured over the pear in the picture), and with an intense nougatine: it may be an obvious combination but when well executed as it was this time, always a winner. And although we are not too fond of parfait this was as good as parfaits go.

But a Rhubarb and custard crumble pie with caramel ice-cream

while certainly not disappointing in taste had a very tame rhubarb and the crumble was soft rather than crumbly. The ice cream was good but it showed great restraint with sugar levels: good for our diet we suppose.

The coffees can improve. Still, better than at the 1* Petrus...

In summary, there were enough good things in this lunch to make us want to return for dinner. This looks like one of those places where you cannot just choose at random and be happy: you have to pick the right dishes to build a great meal. And we as Italians have to tread particularly carefully given the Italian influence of this cuisine... Service was smiling, informative, super really, also by the helping waitress, and prices were kind: £90 for three courses plus coffee for two people, including a £38 critically much appreciated New World Pinot Noir at about 100% mark up (nice but very sweetly spiced, very ripe, we thought: but what do we know) [CORRECTION added 11/03/12: we meant 'about 100%' as a praise since we are used to the 200%-300% Edinburgh/London mark ups, but the restaurateur advises us that we have grossly overestimated].


Sunday, March 4, 2012

Alyn Williams at the Westbury (London):enigmatic

(Visited Feb 2012)

This place begins with a lie: it insists on describing itself as being located in Bond Street, while it isn't. Resign yourselves guys, you are not in Bond street, we are not in Bond street, you at least are near it and Conduit Street where you really are is prestigious enough in our book :)

Everything in the newly refurbished room oozes luxury. Windowless, square, hushed luxury, to be precise. Personally we are phased by neither windowlessness nor squaredness nor hushedness, but some might get that slightly claustrophobic feeling of being in one of those joyless temples of gastronomy whose sole function is to allow the adoration of the chef (now who used this phrase already?) rather than to please the customer.

Well, some nibbles of Fourme d'Ambert gougeres as well as the bread threaten to immediately enrol us among the worshippers: they are wonderful. The gougeres have an extraordinary texture, at the same time airy and substantial, with an intense cheesy flavour. 

And the bread is made really, really well (a potato sourdough, a Guinness and star anise one, and a crispy flatbread similar to 'cartamusica' perhaps in appearance, though in fact totally different).

With such a spectacular beginning perhaps we set our expectations too high.

Yes, a Langoustine/fennel custard skin/cider apple/chestnut/smoked eel starter was very fresh and aromatic, the sweet flavour of the large langoustines matched by the more robust eel. But we felt it was served far too cold, especially the already rather timid bisque. A waiter assured us in very decisive fashion that this is how Chef wants it. We are perplexed. 

Chef is, by the way, but you probably have guessed it already, Alyn Williams of Marcus Wareing restaurant fame, somebody with such an eminent pedigree that we hesitate to proffer our ignorant criticisms. Yet we are the customers and the supposedly ultimate goal of his existence: so we will persist.

A Veal sweetbread/artichokes/celery/sherry is lonely, but cooked to perfection, with an amazing texture, nicely supported by the sherry, a real feat of cooking unachievable by mere mortals. So why is the artichoke puree merely nice and a little tame? The circle of vegetables around the lonely sweetbread is pretty, and prissy.

 Grilled brill/squid ink/ricotta/cuttlefish/Puntarella/smoked lardo is finely cooked with a nice charcoal note, however (and we are beginning to notice there is always a however) the diced cuttlefish while pretty is unexpectededly a little rubbery, and its ink, salty (we guess, it was cooked by a different, less gifted hand than the god who produced the sweetbread). A nice, imperfect, good, unspectacular dish.

In the other main of Salisbury plain Venison/barley malt/acorn/choucroute/mandarin the sliced venison was excellent, with deep flavour and sous-vided to nice elastic tenderness. The microbits of mandarin seemed a little pointless in the grand scheme of things, but we don't doubt there was a deep cheffy reason for their presence, as well as for all the other ingredients small and large, among which we found the krauts, sorry, choucroute which sounds far more refined, very pleasant. 

A pre-dessert of Crème Catalan/pear granita/pine sugar does not work in our opinion, too much contrast between the two main components, and the pine fails to shine (ask this guy for how to extract flavour from pine, we still remember his aromatic and balsamic pannacottas after years!).

Turning to desserts, Banana/Lapsang tea/Coconut/saffron/condensed milk had a very delicate Lapsang flavour, we'd have expected it to be more assertive. It was a very good and beautiful dessert, and well crafted, yet lacking a killer punch.

The other dessert is a sumptuously vertical Walnut whip, with an icecream that isn't too convincing for us, while the 'mousse', let's say, of the main element and its base jump at you from the plate.

Truffles follow as petit fours. Now these delivered the (PX) killer punch!

The (overstaffed) service, which struck us as slightly stiff in the beginning, is in fact composed of good chums; they just have a French style, poor guys :). All very competent, except a young and clueless waitress who, when asked about the cooking of a venison, spent about ten seconds muttering 'the venison...the venison...let me think...' and then struck by a sudden inspiration came out with: 'I think it's finished sous vide'. Now that's an idea. She promised to ask somebody but she never did. It was clear that she didn't give a toss about the dishes and we think that for this reason she should not be allowed to go near the customers.

Three courses are (for now) £45, with the option of a fully vegetarian one, and there are tasting menus at £55. So, price-wise, Alyn Williams is a clear winner on most competition at this (high) level.

Yet there is some skimping on some ingredient amounts, we feel, which may partially detract from the fullness of the experience, and explain our strange feelings about our lunch. We ask ourselves: did we like everything? And the answer is yes. Not one poor dish (and by poor we mean Michelin-star standard poor). Was anything banal? You're joking. The level of technique and inventiveness here is high indeed.

And were we well-treated? Extremely.

But what was truly memorable? Honestly, only the nibbles, notably the gougeres and the petit fours, and the sweetbread. All the rest was clever, ingenious and very cleanly presented. The desserts especially, but everything really, showed exquisite technique. But for us most flavours were simply too polite. Even the temperatures were too timid. So, admirable, yes; memorable, no, at least for us and least on this occasion. Perhaps what we missed here was the directness and clarity we found for example at Petrus, a recently visited restaurant of similar class that also delivers highly accomplished cuisine. Anyway, we definitely feel we should return to try other appealing dishes by Alyn Williams (his menu is a pleasure to read), and also to get to the bottom of why such well-crafted creations failed to elicit screams of pleasure from us. Sometimes it happens that one only 'gets' it the second time, especially when the cooking is as subtle as this, and let's not exclude the very real possibility that we are a bit slow of understanding.

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