Review: Fera – Simon Rogan’s London base

Claridges found themselves in a somewhat tricky situation a few years back. The quintessentially English aristocratic hotel had lost its single Michelin star whilst Gordon Ramsay was at the helm (along with his multitude of other restaurants around the world). At renewal in 2013, Gordon was declined the contract and this left a perfect space to bring in new blood. Surprisingly that was filled by Simon Rogan. Admittedly Rogan has no London base after his popup Roganic had closed as planned after 2 years. And he has impeccable previous with the much lauded L’Enclume. Still, an unusual pairing in my mind, could a destination restaurant in a small Cumbrian village work as well in the heart of swanky Mayfair.

The food was met with much praise at launch, however a lot was said about the prices too. Nobody expected it to be cheap, but it certainly felt slightly over the odds even compared to its glamorous established neighbours. It seems to me they have been tweaking the menus and pricing, I’ve variously seen the weekday set lunch priced at anywhere between £55 and £30. By the time I finally went however, it was at the very reasonable £30, which for 3 courses of Rogan food in Mayfair seems damn cheap to me.

Ethereal amuse Smoked egg yolk starter

The first surprise was even at that price the little extras weren’t neglected, an ethereal blue cheese foam and berry gel cracker was presented as an amuse, made even more Rogan-esque with a topping of petals. Strong flavours paired with the lightness of aerogel, clever stuff. My starter was smoked egg yolk, kohlrabi, Isle of Mull cheese and cavalo nero. Artfully plated, it was a very light starter but just about enough for a 3 course lunch. The egg was lightly smoked and soft, pairing well with the generous rich truffle, cheese sauce and ribbons of kohlrabi. I expected actual cheese but presume it was in the sauce instead. My dining partner’s beetroot and cheese starter was equally well received, again very light but plenty of flavour. We’d had a good chat to the sommelier, I will remark that the wine selection by the glass is good and just about broad enough to cover most options, but it is also seriously priced. I opted for an “Aged Under Flor” Savagnin sherry at £11.50 for 100ml. Perhaps a more unusual choice but the sweetness cut through the yolk, cheese and truffle perfectly. Also noticeable were the beautiful Mark Thomas (previously of Zalto) glasses, handblown and unbelievably light.

Plaice, lobster and potato

As is quite typical of my previous Rogan experiences, the mains were slightly less exotic, not necessarily a bad thing. A decent portion of plaice, paired with potatoes, broccoli and a lovely green sauce. The surprise addition was lobster, with two meaty chunks, a bonus on a set menu for sure. If I was nitpicking, the seasoning was borderline heavy-handed and the fish ever so slightly overcooked, very minor points though. Otherwise a good classic paring of fish, veg and potato. An amazing Cotes De Jura chardonnay (£21 for 175ml!) paired well with the fish, as it bloody should for that price.

Chocolate cream Even petit-fours!Desserts brought us back to more unusual ingredients. A chocolate cream was married with apple marigold and some type of crumbs for crunch. Rich chocolate was kept light with the partnership, it worked very well. The black saison ice cream with fennel was more disappointing, the advertised flavours not working their way through to prominence and it had more of a berry dominated taste. Not unpleasant but it felt unbalanced. And we even had petit-fours, a pumpkin bourbon chocolate alongside a meringue / marshmallow bite. A light Gaillic dessert wine went very well with both.

A very well measured lunch, we left perfectly sated with plenty of memorable dishes. Value wise I thought the food was very well priced, although with wine the £30 is the least of it. The bill came to a slightly more realistic £86 a head with 3 glasses of wine. Still worth it although not exactly a bargain, I will be interested to re-visit for dinner soon.

Review: Le Gavroche, Mayfair

Approaching a review of Le Gavroche is an intimidating prospect, this is the classic London fine dining restaurant. The first ever UK restaurant to be awarded 1, then 2, then 3 Michelin stars (now 2). Set up by culinary giants the Roux brothers and currently helmed by Michel Roux Jr (‘im off recent Masterchef). Expectations can’t be set much higher than that. It is about as far away from another trendy new Dalston opening as you can get, both in concept and its Mayfair location. The exterior is subtle, you could easily walk past, and we were greeted in a small reception area and taken to our table. We were lucky enough to be dining in the library, their version of the chef’s table and 8 of us sat down excitedly.

First impressions, the main dining area is quite dark and cluttered. Decorative items lace the room, it had a late Victorian / Edwardian member’s club feel combined with a dash of French quirkiness. Certainly different, I couldn’t compare it to anywhere else. Too stuffy for my taste, despite the obvious quality in everything. The “library” was better, a large table sparcely laid (because of the menu format) was cleaner. The room had a glass sliding door (which because useful to spare the other diners from animated conversations) and a TV screen showing the kitchen. Books scattered the walls, and a large notebook in particular was placed open on the table. After a bit of debate, we realised it was the menu for tonight, each dish sketched out. A nice touch, and it allowed you to browse back through previous nights there.

Asian beef Tarragon rabbit waffle Stuffed peppersBread bag Salted butter

As a group of 8, we had a couple of dietry requirements including no nuts and no (or very low at least) gluten. I think they did a very good job of designing the menu around these. 3 canapes were brought out. Asian beef skewers were excellent, simply a lump of chargrilled beef with flavours of Chinese five spice and soy, it reminded me of an (excellent) takeaway beef. Tarragon waffle with rabbit was a good concept but the base was too dry (perhaps a different mix than usual for the gluten content) and it needed a more herby kick. A red pepper roulade was cheese with a delicate wrapper of Piquillo pepper. Excellent bread in a cloth bag and some salted (and unsalted butter) finished off the pre-dinner snacks.

Sam front and centre of the fish carving Plated The conceptRye in an appropriate can Mullet Mullet concept

The first course proper was ceremoniously brought to the table to be carved, a big piece of char, cured with maple. The fish was delicately flaking with a balanced smoky sweet flavour. Served with crisp thin rye bread in an appropriately Canadian themed tin and some simple pickles to cut through. It was matched with a beautiful light chilled off-dry Alsace Riesling. A second fish course was red mullet with tomatoes. The tomato were expertly prepared into a delicious light duo of sauces. The fish itself was cooked perfectly and had a very strong flavour (too much for some), that’s the nature of mullet though. It was topped with deep fried scales for crunch, I liked the novel concept but they didn’t taste of much and still had a slight chew.

Rare pigeon Pigeon conceptPorky Pork conceptCheesy Nutty Cheesy concept

Onto some meat, pigeon with spelt risotto. I love pigeon and this was expertly cooked to rare. Well seasoned and on top of a spelt risotto which was soft and unctuous. A good dish well prepared, the standout part for me though was the exceptional wine, a Louis Jadot Volnay 2006. Light and elegant, it paired well with the pigeon and was spectacular. Our next meaty portion involved pork, rack and belly paired with a bean ragu. Soft salty pork and excellent cracking paired well with the light fresh bean and vegetable mix. An English cheese selection was brought, I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed we didn’t get to pick from the amazing looking trolley though (stored by the toilets weirdly). A Davidstow cheddar seemed a very bizarre choice to me (isn’t that just slightly posher supermarket cheese) but it was aged for 5 years and admittedly interesting. Strong, sweet and with some crunch, I did like it. An exceptionally soft camembert style goat’s cheese was salty and funky, plus a generous slice of Barkham blue. All served with a nutty fruity bread and a traditional sweet medlar jelly. Simple delicate petit-fours topped off the night, a rich chocolate tartelette and choux buns with lemon cream. Well executed again, very predictable though.

Sweet Chocolatey ChouxA fantastic night overall, the custom designed menu and interaction with the chefs made it a wonderful experience, plus all the staff looked after us supremely. The food was of course all very well executed. But, unfortunately there also comes the thornier issue of price and novelty. The food was certainly classic, but to me at times felt too simple for its 2 Michelin stars, a little dated. I understand the style is designed to be French classical, I wished there was a little bit more flair though. Perhaps that’s more down to their usual customer’s expectations than the kitchen though? And price, we were very kindly treated to the food (a birthday treat for one of our party) but I believe it’s around £135 a head. Plus service and wine it creeps up quite quickly to the £250 – £300 mark. Which is a lot for simple food combined with no particularly lavish produce on the menu, no foie gras or lobster or turbot etc. I’m very happy I got to experience the restaurant and in particular the chef’s library, but for that money I won’t return. A very enjoyable one-off helped by the amazing staff and kitchen, but try and make sure you’re not footing the bill.

 

Review: Picture, Great Portland Street

A sign, yesterday.

Value can be very subjective, particularly when people and passionate pursuits like food are involved. Central London prices only exemplify the divide, amazing restaurants tend to come with prices to match. Even if they are at the top of their game with stunning produce and execution, the bill can still be a painful experience for what is at the end of the day, one meal. So how refreshing to find a 6 course tasting menu in Fitzrovia for the very appealing price of £35. Certainly intriguing, a group of us took a trip there for a birthday celebration to find out, as recommended and accompanied by the fine-palated and always entertaining Niamh from Eat Like a Girl .

An appetising menu

I was the first to arrive and the front of house gave a friendly reception. The space feels airy with generously spaced tables and lots of natural light. On-trend with a stripped back look, some of the unfinished wall surfaces were a touch far for me personally but otherwise all good. A long bar dominates the front of the room, a pleasant place to sit with a glass of fino (I was torn between that and the interesting gin and tonic selection). As the group arrived, we were sat at the nicely dressed table and presented with the menu for the night. All sounding very good to me, quite classic flavour combinations but overall a very balanced and exciting menu.

Teeny tiny velvety soup Perfectly cooked broccoliThe first course was more of an amuse bouche. A shot glass of red pepper soup. Velvety smooth and refreshing (served chilled). It had a hint of spicing, particularly cumin and perhaps some other Middle Eastern flavours. It was served alongside some small rolls with a pleasant chew and butter. Broccoli, often overlooked as a central ingredient but when cooked right it can be very satisfying. And this certainly was, roasted to add flavour with just enough bite but no crunch to it. Served with a rich deep aubergine, a yogurt dressing and chickpeas. Clever spicing and ingredients combined into a great course, everyone around the table loved it.

Flaking soft cod Beautiful beefI somehow neglected to photograph the lamb, a melting piece of slow cooked shoulder with firm fresh artichokes and a salty tomato and olive side. Classic and delicious. Next was cod, an interesting place to serve the fish between the two meat courses but it broke up the meal well and stopped meat overload. A hefty chunk of cod, just cooked to flaking point but still very soft and juicy. Beans, potatoes and olives added substance and flavour to accompany the fish without overwhelming. Having seen the expertise with proteins so far, I was looking forward to the final savoury course, the beef. And it didn’t disappoint, unctuous fully flavoured beef cooked medium rare and a light jus. It was a light dish, maybe a small portion of carb and extra carrot would have completed it. Or maybe I was just being greedy.

Panna cotta

 

A final dessert of vanilla panna cotta with strawberries and gingerbread. Classic flavours although the gingerbread is on the more unusual side. The panna cotta had a very good texture, it was light with the right amount of set. It wasn’t overly sweet and almost had a yogurty sour taste, not unpleasant but I would have preferred more sugar and vanilla. The gingerbread was very thin and crisp but could have had a bit more punch. A nice light end to the meal still.

Quite a feast for the £35, every dish was thoroughly enjoyed. The wine list was well chosen and priced too, an Alsace Riesling and Rioja Crianza delivered lots for their price (£35 and £28 respectively). All-in with service was £65 a head, that included a decent glug of wine and drinks too. I’m already planning my next visit, it’s the perfect place for groups with a fun atmosphere and everyone was very happy with their food.

 

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Review: Shoe Shop, Tufnell Park

A casual wander up Fortess road in Tufnell Park on a lazy Sunday, it was quite striking how many food and drinks place were opening up. Our intended destination was Bear + Wolf for a coffee, but we saw more delights such as the butcher Meat NW5, the new wet fishmongers (and not neglecting a cheeky stop at ice cream shop Ruby Violet). In amongst them all was Shoe Shop, not the odd one out of the list, this former shop has a casual cafe look and “aims to serve food and drink appropriate to the time of day”. All very good, and even better it is headed by Paul Merrony, formerly of my TCR favourite Giaconda Dining Room. I was sold, so we headed there for a late lunch.

A simple inviting decor, specials on the wall

The big front windows let plenty of light into the simple, elegant dining room. A short menu and specials board had a nice array of interesting sounding dishes, belying the slightly cafe feel. The service was also noticeably excellent. It struck similarities with Giaconda straight away in the food and decor department, no bad thing.

Soft tongue and parsley salad

Smothered steakCrisp chips

My dish of tongue, lentil and parsley salad may not immediately sound appetising to all, but I’m always interested to see what a kitchen can do with the trickier cuts of meat. I was not disappointed. The tongue was beautifully soft, flavoursome and tender. A sharp dressing cut through this fatty cut, with earthiness and body from the lentils. The copious parsley added freshness and some crisp croutons were there for crunch. Everything I could want from the dish. Although it looked slightly small there was a generous amount of meat and plenty for lunch. The wife opted for her guilty pleasure staple, steak and chips. Classically French in style, a thin seared rib-eye steak came literally smothered in a tangy onion and peppercorn sauce. Simple, tasty and every morsel finished. Chips were glassy crunchy, fluffy and salty. Perfect.

I drank two glasses of (125ml) rose, obscenely good value at £3.50. This was explained by the generously tiny £8 mark-up on bottles between drink-in and take-out prices, an inviting prospect for evening meals. The total bill was about £40, great value for the high level of cooking. Simple dishes maybe, but nothing wrong with that for a satisfying meal.

Review: Mayfields, Hackney

This one has been on my list for a little while. Mayfields is a smart little restaurant located in a quiet mainly residential street in Hackney. I nearly lost faith we were walking the right way from Hackney Central station until I saw the glimmer of the “M” logo on their sign. It’s a small, neat space containing a selection of 2 and 4 person tables, with an openish kitchen behind a big wall. Imagine a smart cafe with some simple elegant design tweaks.

Daily menu

Menus were brought over, neatly laid out and printed with today’s date. From looking at the website, it does look like they change the dishes quite significantly from day to day working with the available produce and seasons. Good to see someone with the confidence to do it properly, rather than just changing the odd dish now and again. The savoury courses are mixed together, although priced according to size, which encourages sharing / mixing it up. I had a glass of Lambrusco since I had been craving one all summer, the Italian sparkling red proving refreshing and dry with a slight bretty funk.

Bread and oil

Beetroot, horseradish and cream

After ordering, some delicious chewy sourdough was brought over, together with oil to dip it in. We started with some smoked eel, beetroot and horseradish. Very attractive plating, the rich salty smoked eel paired beautifully with soft beetroot and a slightly sweet light cream. All good, and then the horseradish added punch and fire, they obviously have a good source of this nose-clearing root. A great dish, simple ingredients but all perfect.

John Dory, carrot, cucumber and lavender

 

Chicken, anchovy, borlotti and sugar snapMains were more of a mixed bag. My John Dory arrived next, served with carrots, cucumber and lavender. I was more curious than anything to see how white fish and lavender matched up. Unfortunately not brilliantly, the lavender was quite pungent, reminiscent of soap and overpowering. The carrots were well cooked, unfortunately they were very salty and paired with the heavily salted fish made for an over seasoned dish. Which is a shame, since the fish was also well cooked, and pairing it with the cucumber, carrot, fish and a tiny bit of the lavender I could see the potential in it. Tweaks in execution would have made it much better. I still finished it. The chicken, borlotti, anchovy and sugar snap dish had better seasoning for sure. A juicy poached chicken breast was served with perfectly textured beans and an anchovy sauce, a bit like a bagna cauda. The grapefruit, sugar snap peas and coriander added freshness, making it a light dish. Possibly one ingredient too far, I’m not sure if it was the grapefruit or if the coriander was sitting a bit oddly as herb of choice in my mind. Still a good dish. We paired the mains with a glass of French Viognier, at around £4 a glass it was simple but well chosen and a bargain at that price in London.

Goat's cheeseInstead of dessert, I opted for some cheese and was glad for it. A hunk of rich, creamy soft goat’s cheese arrived, paired with some giant flat crackers akin to a homemade digestive. Very rich though, this was probably enough for 2. The total bill was £60 including service for 4 courses and a glass of wine each. The plating and standard of food belies that price, it was very enjoyable and despite a flawed main course, I can see the aims and skill of the kitchen. I’ll definitely come back shortly for a longer boozier meal and sample some more of the dishes.

 

 
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Review: Michael Nadra Primrose Hill

It was a balmy night in London and we fancied some local food. Primrose Hill is just a hop, skip and a jump away and I’d heard murmurings about Michael Nadra, a restaurant almost completely hidden from view next to the canal. Sure enough, just past Melrose and Morgan, was a little path that led down to the smart looking restaurant. This is Michael Nadra’s second eponymous restaurant, the other being in Chiswick. And the man himself (I think?) greeted us and checked we were being looked after, so he presumably does split his attentions between both restaurants admirably.

It was a Friday night and the restaurant was quietly buzzy, not full but with enough people to give some atmosphere. It has a large heated garden (cocktail garden) that you can eat in during good weather, although we were inside. Large windows let plenty of light in, and the decor in general is smart bistro style. Leather banquettes with smart crockery / cutlery and linen but nothing overly fancy. It’s £30 for 2 courses and £36 for 3 courses. Not outrageous for the area I suppose, but not cheap either for a “local” restaurant so I was expecting good things. There are quite a few supplements as well (e.g. the fillet steak, in fact 5 dishes in total have supplements). The wine list is extensive, with just about enough by the glass / carafe although a few more (especially on the shorter red section) would have helped.

Tasty chewy rolls Soup Artful fish

Bread was brought over, four slightly small looking rolls that defied their looks and were delicious. Softer than expected with a good chew and the most fantastic salted French butter. I started with an interesting combination of seared tuna, squid, green beans and gnocchi. The tuna was properly seared with a bright red interior, and the mix of squid tubes and tentacles was admirably soft with a bit of char from a hot grilling. The gnocchi was OK if a bit heavy and lacking the herb flavour promised. Green beans were al-dente and the tapenade on the side was salty and moreish. All good components, it wasn’t a cohesive dish for me though but tasty individual morsels. And it was topped with a lot of basil. A tiny bit odd. I think some chile would have added kick and brought it together. Good execution at least but maybe a few changes needed to the concept. I had a very nice glass of Chablis (£8) with it, soft and drinkable. The wife went for the asparagus, broccoli and spinach veloute. A large bowl of soup topped with microgreens was brought over. Unfortunately very under-seasoned, she requested salt (none was at the table) and that lifted it significantly. A good bowl of soup after that, very light with good greens flavour and the addition of toasted almonds added depth and body. But quite expensive as part of a £30 two course menu.

Pink lamb Plenty of chicken

Mains. I had lamb rump, sautéed sweetbreads and braised neck with ratatouille. The rump was delicious, very soft for a tricky cut to cook. And the neck was braised beautifully, soft and unctuous. Similarly the sweetbread was excellent with a nice crust and soft middle, I wish there had been another one. It was combined with a decent ratatouille and green beans. Paired with a wonderful Italian Pinot Nero, light and delicious with the lamb. The wife had chicken with borlotti & edamame beans, baby artichokes and tomatoes. A big plate of food came, with a variety of confit chicken cuts (breast, thigh and wings I believe). It was sitting atop a base of beans, with artichokes and tomatoes. The chicken was beautifully soft and flavoursome (after some more seasoning from us), and the other components matched well and were well cooked. But as a dish, too unrefined at this price point I’d say. And big.

Oozing fondant

We shared a dessert to finish. The classic chocolate fondant paired with the slightly trendier salted caramel ice cream. The fondant was absolutely excellent, very soft and flowing in the middle with deep flavour. The ice cream was good, flecked with salty caramel bits. Although somewhat melted. Paired with a sweet riesling which was delicious (if not the best combination with the chocolate, to be fair as mentioned by the waiter).

So, all-in, £105 for 5 courses and 3 glasses of wine. I was very pleased with the meal actually, the friendly knowledgable service (our waiter was excellent) and “locals” atmosphere helped perhaps, since the food wasn’t perfect. But, having said all that, it was an enjoyable meal with good cooking and ingredients. But, perhaps a touch more bite and refinement in the dishes would elevate it to the next level.

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Kensington Wine Rooms

Notting Hill Gate has always seemed a bit dreary to me, somewhere to travel through rather than to. But having been to a show and ravenous for some sustenance, we searched out something quick and delicious. Having rejected a few dodgier looking restaurants, we wandered towards Kensington and found the wine rooms. Very smart looking, it was full of plenty of suited “businessman” and dressed up women seeking some high glass vino. They also had a decent looking food menu so we popped in to give it a go.

Iberico pork

I had the Iberico pork, served with greens, carrots and romesco. It came with a tinge of pink (the waiter had said medium rare) although actually I would have even had it a bit less. But it did have a fantastic smokey flavour, they must have some sort of grill. Carrots and greens were solid, but the standout part was the Romesco sauce. Smokey, nutty and rich, it was really delicious with the pork and brought it all together. Rather than browsing the very extensive menus, we went for the recommended pairings. Mine was a Le Soula Blanc, it was too sharp at first but rounded off nicely into a good match for the dish.

Rare tunaAnna opted for tuna, which came perfectly rare alongside potatoes, beans and salsa verde. Simple and classic, but nothing to fault about it. It was matched with a very interesting natural wine, cloudy orange in colour and initially tasting more of cider than wine. But again it opened up nicely and also proved a good match.

The food is simple but effective here, and along with the amazing wine selection makes a good choice for dinner. It was around £60 all in for two mains and two large glasses of wine, not particularly cheap I suppose but worth it for the wine experience.

 

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The Beagle, Hoxton

A mere matter of metres from the shiny Hoxton overground station (that strange Orange squiggle on the TFL maps), you’ll find the Beagle standing proudly. Housed in a couple of grand railway arches, they have been buffed and polished until they gleam. Certainly the smartest arch conversion I’ve seen, the brickwork in particular is immaculate. In the right hand arch, a drinking area with a long bar stocking reasonable cocktails (mine was somewhat tart) and a very good selection of bottled and draught London beers. I’ve been in for drinks a few times to soak up the convivial atmosphere.

Octopus

Tonight I was more concerned with the left-hand arch though, the restaurant area. The menu was tantalising, particularly having failed to secure a last minute table in the past. The restaurant area is smartly turned out, but not stuffy and very inviting for a long boozy dinner. I can never resist octopus so that was my starter choice, it was served with pesto and a tomato salad. The octopus was well cooked, very tender as you would hope. Tomatoes were soft and juicy, and plenty of herbs in the pesto. My only quibble was there was a touch too much acidity, some vinegar in the dressing I think. But otherwise a good start. I opted for a glass of a Rousanne which paired well.

Sweetbreads, bacon and peas

Another menu favourite of mine, sweetbreads. And even better, served as a main course with peas, bacon and shoots. Nothing not to like about this, with crisp and moist sweetbreads, salty bacon and rich jus. The peas and shoots cut through adding freshness. A perfect Spring / Summer meaty dish.

Some of the remaining steak!Glassy fluffy chips

My dining compatriots saved themselves for one of the sharing rib-eye cuts, served with chips, watercress and a horseradish sauce. What came was a glorious piece of meat, sliced on a board. Cooked perfectly medium-rare as requested and well seasoned and rested, we could have been in any of London’s best steak restaurants (i.e. Goodman’s). The meat had the unmistakeable grass-fed funk of quality meat, simple but top notch. And the chips deserve special mention, glass-like exterior and a fluffy interior. To go with that we ordered the acclaimed Lebanese Chateau Musar, for £32 it really is amazing value and once opened up it got better and better.

Lemon pudding and biscuit Panna cotta with rhubarbWe couldn’t resist dessert after enjoying all that so much. The other 2 both ordered a lemon dessert (posset perhaps) served with a shortbread biscuit. Sharp, lemony and creamy, all good. Somehow the very chatty waitress thought it was my birthday (it wasn’t!) and despite protestations, I got a lovely candle and rendition of Happy Birthday from half the restaurant. Quite surreal but hilarious still. It was planted in my rhubarb alongside a well made panna cotta. Plenty of vanilla and a smooth wobbly texture. I had to try the rhubarb eau de vie alongside it of course, very much along the lines of grappa (aka rocket fuel).

All in, about £55 a head including a pre-dinner drink each. Good value. The menu is enticing with nothing too glamorous / outrageous but lots of comforting tasty dishes, and the execution was rock solid. I’ll definitely be back.

 

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Experience: Sake Tasting at Hake No Sana (plus lunch)

James on the first of the morning at 10.30am

Sake, a drink I love and have ordered on numerous occasions. But one that is quite impenetrable to learn about. I would never order a bottle of “wine”, yet when picking from a Sake menu, I do exactly that, maybe using price as a guide and nothing else. Sake No Hana recognised this as a common problem and have created a short tasting course for consumers, based roughly on a shorter version of the training they give their staff. I went with the able-palated James since our wives had colluded and bought us each a voucher for Xmas.

It all started bright and early at 10.15am, we wandered into the posh Sake No Hana restaurant and were greeted with green tea whilst waiting for everyone. Christine Parkinson (wine buyer at the Hakkasan restaurant group) and Anthony Rose (wine journalist) introduced themselves and explained they were going to give the course together.

Glasses at the ready Anthony admiring the sake

Some very nicely designed printed guides were handed out and Anthony started with a technical guide to the brewing process and overview of the different grades of Sake. At the same time we had 3 different tastes of increasing “quality” (mainly based on the level of polishing the rice has undergone, i.e. how much of the outside has been ground away). They were all excellent, it was surprising how much more “rustic” (pungent perhaps) the earlier Sakes seemed again after trying the more elegant bottles. Side-by-side comparison is absolutely the best tool for judging, especially with a drink you’re not that familiar with. The more highly polished rice Sake was notably more elegant with a crisp clean finish and purer flavour.

A short break later and Christine talked about the history and tradition of Sake, and some surprising facts about early brewing processes that make you thankful for the industrial age. We sampled several more Sakes during this, particularly more modern styles like the milky white very coarsely filtered bottle and a low-alcohol sparkling version (more like a sweet cider / wine to me than a traditional Sake).

Lunch next, upstairs at the restaurant. A nice bonus since I haven’t eaten at Sake No Hana before and we got to try Sake in its natural environment. To add to the learning, we tried 2 different Sakes, both of which where served hot and cold. One was a high end Daiginjo, the most refined grade of sake. The other was a Kimoto sake, where the yeast is produced using a laborious physical process. Personally I preferred them both cold (maybe I’m more used to cold sake) but could see the benefits of warming, particularly to bring out more complexity (but found the alcohol much more pronounced and overpowering in that case).

Red miso with yam croquettes Careful prep Chicken, mushroom and tofu Sushi rolls

Lunch, I’ll give a brief review. We were seated at the sushi bar, watching the intricate knife work of the preparation is always a treat. I started with the red miso and yam croquette. A good flavoursome large bowl of miso with yam croquettes, I found the croquettes a touch bland and dense to be honest but it was an interesting change from the usual tofu, some spring onion would have boosted the soup. Next was a chicken pot with tender juicy thigh meat, a great variety of mushrooms and a sweet rich sauce. Excellent use of the mushrooms. A sushi course followed with various salmon rolls. No complaints there with fresh fish and fillings, plus some had a crunchy exterior I really liked. They were quite large though, a tad more than a mouthful. The ginger was really excellent, a surprising thing to note but beautifully balanced salty sweet pickle.

Matcha dessert with kumquat A surprise last drink, plum sakeA final treat, a beautifully plated dessert was brought over, matcha cake with kumquat and kumquat sorbet. Very delicious, but even better it was paired with an Umeshu (plum flavoured sake). This was sharper than expected, a refreshing end to a great meal. Overall the course was pitched perfectly, with a generous selection of tastings, good amount of learning and some delicious food. Highly recommended.

 

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Review: The Truscott Arms, Maida Vale

I knew the Truscott arms in its previous guise, Idlewild. A fairly decent bar with some good food, it has been revamped and reverted to its previous name, The Truscott Arms. The long weekend was a perfect excuse to catch up with friends in the area and sample the place again.

Scallop and chicken win The most glamorous beetroot dish

We all ordered from the excellent value set lunch menu, £18 for 2 courses and £22 for 3. It was a short menu, 3 options for each course, but everything sounded appetising. Starters for me didn’t require too much thinking, scallops and chicken wings, what’s not to like. The scallop came in thick slices, cooked with a bit of colour and very tender. Alongside those were two meaty bits of chicken wing and some roasted pearl barley. A well measured portion for a lunch starter, and some super meaty umami-rich jus brought it all together into a brilliant starter. The wife opted for candied beetroot and ricotta. Elegantly presented, with a variety of beetroots (including some beetroot jelly) and a quenelle of homemade ricotta. Anna enjoyed it, I found it well cooked but overly sweet and pushing somewhere towards a dessert for my palate.

Special mention to the drinks at this point, the beer selection was very good with London Fields and Camden Town on tap (I opted for the always superlative Shoreditch Triangle IPA). They also have an extensive wine list with plenty of interesting choices by the glass. My glass of Lebanese red (chateau Ksara rather than the more usually seen Mussar) to go with my main was absolutely excellent and a bargain at £9 for 250ml.

Delicious short rib A cracking plate of fish

Short rib of beef was the natural option for me next. A very hearty plate of unctuous soft meat accompanied by a slice of pomme Anna and spinach. The meat was flavoursome and perfectly cooked. The pomme Anna had a crisp edge and was soft in the middle, with a side of morels and morel sauce adding the final touch for a great dish. Very hard to fault, it was rich, comforting and decadent making full use of this cheap flavoursome cut. Anna and Sam shared a big plate of lemon sole with potatoes, asparagus and a mussel veloute. It was presented on a sharing platter, very generously portioned again with soft well-cooked fish.

Sticky banana dessert

Desserts, I was going to resist but given it was only £4 and seeing the quality of the good, I couldn’t resist. Sticky toffee pudding with banana was a great twist on a classic. A light sweet sponge and sauce was paired with fresh banana, banana ice cream and topped with a quenelle of cream. The fresh banana stopped it being too cloying and the banana ice-cream had great depth of flavour. For £22, this was an absolutely cracking meal, and paired with the great drinks was a very enjoyable lunch. I will definitely be back.

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