Tuesday 30 March 2010

The Lanesborough: A posh afternoon tea in London

Now and then, I'm quite partial to a nice scone with lashings of jam and cream. As a child, my parents would bribe my sister and I to partake in long drives up to the Dandenongs in Australia to look at ceramics and seemingly endless paintings of bush scenes, with promises of a big Devonshire tea along the way. It always did the trick. The scones were the size of a Gregg Wallace’s head, and never came with the dreaded sultanas (not that I'm suggesting GW's head does). I still measure up all scones since to the high standards they have imprinted on my memory.

Many years ago, I had a lovely afternoon tea at The Savoy for my birthday (although I have no idea what it's like now), and 2 years ago I enjoyed the Fashionista afternoon tea at The Berkeley with some girlfriends (with colourful cakes shaped like handbags and shoes, how could it not be superb?). The afternoon tea at Claridges - complete with art deco finery, live tickling of the ivories on the grand piano, a constantly refreshed serve of sandwiches/cakes/scones and at least 1 major celebrity sighting - still remains hard to beat. Refuel at The Soho Hotel also offers a fun, more casual version. Not that I do this all the time...

However, on Sunday, I was off for a very la-di-dah ladies’ afternoon to try out The Lanesborough for tea with some lovely food bloggers, Mathilde's Cuisine, Food for Think and Gourmet Chick. I merely nibbled at breakfast and skipped lunch in preparation. I was eyeing off the furniture by the time of our 4pm sitting.

The Lanesborough won the UK Tea Council's Award of Excellence 2009 and Best Afternoon Tea in London 2008. It also lays claim to England's first tea sommelier, Karl Kessab, to guide you through your tea selection - although I didn't clap eyes on him on Sunday.

The ritzy main dining room is set off by large round chandeliers, high glass ceilings and big spacious tables, for the pleasure of young and old alike in all their Sunday finery. In contrast to my recent visits to some of London's steakhouses, the crowd is largely women. Dressing up is, of course, half the fun. Soft piano tunes tinkle over the speakers, although the music is not live (despite sounding like it – we were upturning the cushions looking for the piano at one stage).

I am not a huge tea connoisseur, and the only teas I like are certain green teas or Earl Grey. I opted for the Earl Grey, while my companions were more exotic in their selections. The teas came served in individual shiny silver pots, although I was a little disappointed in the flavour and aroma of my tea – it tasted more like English Breakfast tea to me, missing those lovely fragrant bergamot flavours which usually hit me immediately with Earl Grey. The other teas were lovely. My only other word of caution with the tea – go easy if you’re not used to drinking copious cupfuls after 4pm. I had quite a few re-fills, and as a result was still wide eyed into the wee hours of Sunday night (#traps for beginners).

An amuse bouche of a light parfait with berries and chocolate kicked off proceedings. A lovely sign of things to come.

Our 3 tiered bounty of sandwiches, cakes, friands, scones and tea cakes then arrived, accompanied by a plate of heavenly Stilton and caramelised red onion tarts. The sandwiches were more hit and miss – the selection included cucumber (of course); chicken and sundried tomato paste; smoked salmon; and egg filled brioche rolls. The flavours were nice enough (no amazing stand outs) but there were some questions over the freshness of the bread, which was quite dry in places.

The scones were gorgeous – quite dense, and served with delicious strawberry jam, clotted cream and lemon curd. With a mere flick of the wrist, we ordered a second round. The fruity tea cakes were also quite nice.

The next tier of happiness contained some lovely friands - chocolate, carrot cake and lemon varieties. The chocolate was particularly good, although it was so decadent and rich that I could only manage a sliver (we had diplomatically sectioned everything up into quarters for sharing).

And then, at the top, the penthouse. Intricate and colourful cakey/moussey creations set off our tiered stand wonderfully, like a lady’s feathery racing day hat. Very Alice in Wonderland. I really liked all of these, and a Mont Blanc style sweet with meringue and chestnut cream (the one that looks like its wearing wholemeal spaghetti) was scrumptious.

Service was formal, but helpful. Sittings can be booked at 4pm, 4.30pm or 5pm, but maximise the luxury with a 4pm sitting since service ends at 6pm regardless. (No-one wants to be booted out mid friand). We had the pleasure of the standard afternoon tea for £35 per person, although there are more expensive options if you wish to add champagne.

Frocking up for The Lanesborough’s afternoon tea, on the fringes of Hyde Park, is a delightful way to spend a leisurely afternoon. I did think I may never eat again, although of course that all changed as the sun set and I found myself gorging again – separate stomachs for sweet 'n savoury and all that....

The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge SW1X 7TA (Ph: +44 (0)20 7259 5599)

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Sunday 28 March 2010

Koba: A Korean BBQ in London

I have now tried walking into Koba so many times, only to find it full, that I had almost given up on it altogether. I'm still not used to having to plan so far ahead in this city. Get with the programme, GD.

Fortunately for me, A Rather Unusual Chinaman, is a man with a plan, and secured us a booking at this fabulous little Korean BBQ restaurant, tucked away near Charlotte Street.

The setting is clean and minimalist, detracting nothing from the food. The delicious, BBQ aromas wafting over from nearby tables had me drooling even before we ordered. Not even the fact that ARUC was drinking cocktails from a curly pink straw could distract us from the main event as plate after plate of scrumptious fare came our way.

Naturally, we started with some obligatory Goona Mandoo (pan fried dumplings - £5.50) - lovely.

Being indecisive about which meats to order for the BBQ, we decided on the Koba Modeum Gooi - a "grand assortment" of meats, prawns and vegetables (£23.90).  Our waiter started off the cooking at the hot plate in front of us, although I think we took over as we got into the swing of things. The sirloin was smoky, tender and absolutely lip-smacking.

Just as good as the BBQ was the Yookwei Dolsot Bibimbap - steamed rice with raw beef and vegetables in a Korean hot stone pot (£9.20). All this was mixed in together at the table. Loved it.

Finally, we had desserts - green tea ice-cream (always a favourite with me) and some weird cakey thing with green stuff in between. I can't remember for the life of me what it was, and it was fine although not really my thing.

So, Koba has a new fan. I've tried a few Korean BBQ places around the West End now, but Koba is a new favourite. If you want to read more, here are some others who agree with me: A Rather Unusual Chinaman; Catty; Meemalee.

Koba, 11 Rathbone Street, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1NA
Koba on Urbanspoon

Thursday 25 March 2010

Yalla Yalla, Beirut Street Food

I distinctly recall fretting on Yalla Yalla's behalf when it first opened. In those early days following the birth of a new arrival -  empty chairs, unknown heritage, staff grateful to take my order for a takeaway orange juice - sometimes you just don't know which way it will go. But I thought the room was sweet, they had big, happy yellow signage, the husband and wife team running the place seemed nice, and they had dared to open a few doors down from a sex shop on one side and some kind of Christian gathering place on the other. I live in similar circumstances, so I was gunning for them from the outset.

It seems Yalla Yalla did not need my mental good vibrations.

Within weeks, the place was buzzing with crowds trying out their Lebanese grilled meats, salads and house favourites, like sauteed chicken liver with garlic and pomegranate molasses. My first visit, in the early days (and during my pre-blogger existence), involved a quick solo bite of zesty tabboule with flat bread and a good, garlickey hummos, finished off with a strong Lebanese coffee. I really liked it, and enjoyed the ambience of the tucked away little hideaway where Lebanese cakes and savoury pastries were brimming from the counter. But the memory is sketchy. For reviewing purposes, this will not do at all.

I tried to return a couple of times, but it was always too busy for my last minute nature whimsies. I've since learned the secret - at least if there's only 2 of you, just rock up, wait 10 minutes, and you'll get a seat. We were in.

For some reason, I had to drag TPG there, kicking and screaming. He sometimes gets these ideas in his mind that he's not going to like a place (which, naturally, provides me with a mental guarantee that he will like the place) and refuses like a stubborn mule to budge until bribery, blackmail or desperation take hold. I recently employed all 3 at once, and we arrived safely at Yalla Yalla.

After the standard Yalla Yalla freebie starters of pickles and marinated olives (all rather nice), we shared a decent fatayer spinach (pasty filled with spinach, spring onions, sumac and pine nuts) and the fattoush - a salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, spring onion, mint, radish and parsley tossed with crispy pita bread with sumac, red wine, vinegar and olive oil. It was pleasant enough, although I found myself wishing we'd had the fresh and zesty tabboule I remembered from last time. I blame TPG.

Things stepped up a notch with our mains. I got stuck into a lahem meshouse - charcoal grilled marinated lamb skewers, grilled tomato, sumac onion salad and vermicelli rice.  Oddly, there was also a chicken skewer present. I wondered if it had fallen off someone else's plate but, looking over my shoulder, decided to keep quiet as it was perfectly cooked and delicious. Tasty, tender and smokey, the lamb was also good (I have read other reviews indicating it can be dry at times, but no sign of that on my plate). And is it odd to say I enjoyed the rice at least as much as anything else? (Yep, carb addict).

TPG enjoyed his lovely chicken shawarma - grilled, thin slices of chicken, grilled tomato, pickles, sumac onion salad and vermicilli rice.

Coupled with our Lebanese beers, we were both completely eating beyond the comfort zone and had no room for the backlava or other tasty looking desserts. I'm determined to head back with my book for a strong coffee and pastries one afternoon.

"Yalla" means "hurry up" in Arabic (just ask me - I'm fluent) and, true to the name, we were in and out the door within just over an hour (it could have been much quicker had we required). We were also less than £15 per head lighter including drinks/service. I was prepared for Yalla Yalla to have been over hyped by now (there were hordes waiting for a seat outside when we left, and midweek lunchtimes are also jam packed) but I was pleasantly surprised. It's an unpretentious, decent little place. I'm not desperate to run back at every possible opportunity, but I'll return at some stage to get a bit more adventurous with the menu, and that moussakaa might just have my name on it.

Best of all, TPG was eating his words. He possibly liked Yalla Yalla even more than I did. Case closed.

Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food, 1 Greens Court, Soho, London W1F
Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

Monday 22 March 2010

Pho, fow and feu - Fitzrovia

The last time I visited South East Asia, I left with a salty mane of plaited hair, a battered back pack and a tan which blended beautifully into my dirt brown bathers (quite a feat considering my natural moon tan). I did not leave with the entrepreneurial inclination to set up my own mini chain of London restaurants replicating my favourite highlights of the local cuisine. Most likely, I was too busy trying to untangle my hair before the cameras came out - complete nightmare.

However, that is exactly what husband and wife team, Stephen and Juliette Wall have done. Having travelled around South East Asia and fallen in love the pho soups (pronounced "feu"), they ditched their office jobs 5 years ago and set up Pho (pronounced "fow", in a kind of oh-for-Goddsakes-I-give-up concession to the locals).

The first Pho restaurant opened on St John Street in Clerkenwell in 2005 and since then they have multiplied like cheeky gizmos into branches in Great Titchfield Street and Westfield Shopping Centre. In May, the new Brighton branch is due to open, and a new site in Soho has just been purchased.

Coming from Australia, a country abound in fresh, flavourful, colourful Vietnamese fare, TPG and I have found it quite an ordeal to find decent Vietnamese food in London outside of Kingsland Road. Fresh and zesty, Vietnamese food should be packed with the full range of spicy, sour, bitter, salty and sweet flavours. To date, Cay Tre is a favourite.

However, it was on our maiden voyage to Westfield last year that we first discovered Pho, and were pleasantly surprised to find such a gorgeous bowl of noodle soup in a shopping centre food court. Since then, our experiences at the Great Titchfield Street restaurant have been more mixed as we found the flavours sometimes lacked the punch of our first experience depending on our order. Therefore, I happily accepted an invitation to visit Pho with some other bloggers last week, to learn more about the business first hand.

It's too easy to accuse a chain restaurant, and particularly a Vietnamese chain being run by non-Vietnamese people, of being bland and inauthentic. The husband and wife team at Pho have employed a full team of Vietnamese cooks, have done their utmost to remain true to the fresh Vietnamese flavours of their travels and have kept to simple menu focussed mainly on what they do best - the pho.

A pho is a serious business, afteall, and is not to be treated lightly. Taking on the status of a revered national dish in Vietnam, it's basically a noodle soup containing chicken, beef, pork, tofu or prawns, eaten at all times of day in its natural habitat - often on a plastic chair at the side of a street cart. The pho stocks at Pho are prepared from scratch on site, and take up to 12 hours to prepare, simmering away alluringly in large vats in the kitchen.

We started with a lesson demonstrating how to make our own goi cuon tom (fresh rice paper rolls filled with prawns, salad  and herbs). Some call them "summer rolls" but, to the Aussie girl in me, a Summer Roll will always involve chocolate, peanuts, coconut and nougat (highly recommended, by the way).

Platters of fried spring rolls followed, filled with pork (a favourite) or veggies, as well as nem nuong (pork and lemongrass meatballs - I somehow missed these) and ginormous bursting platters of goi du du (papaya salads alternatively containing chicken or prawns). Papaya salad or a Vietnamese chicken salad is always an essential when I visit any Vietnamese restaurant, and Pho's versions were lovely, refreshing and tasty, although I prefer slightly more of a chilli hit (I'm sure you could ask for it).

Having spied the sensational looking beef stock brewing away in the kitchen, my bowl of the pho bo dac biet did not disappoint (noodle soup with steak, brisket and meatballs - the beefy trifecta - why limit yourself to 1 style of beef?). As always, it was served with a side of herbs, lime and chilli to be added to taste. The flavours were subtle but lovely, and as always, I find pho to leave me feeling healthy and replenished. Serving sizes are satisfyingly generous - particularly given they fall within a £6.95 - £7.95 price range.

Hot and spicy soups and noodle dishes are also on offer, but save room for the banana fritter with honey and ginger ice-cream - oh my. I'm sure there was a bit of "I'll have what she's having" going on as I enthusiastically enjoyed mine.

I rate Pho as a terrific option for a healthy, tasty and fulfilling meal, particularly if you love Vietnamese food as much as I do, and particularly if you find yourself on the other side of town to the strip of Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road. It's definitely the best option I've found around the West End for Vietnamese food. And having met the passionate duo behind the business, Pho now has a face - and I like it even more than I did before.

* I was a guest of Pho, attending a blogger event, and so my meal and drinks were free of charge on my last visit - although this review is also based on my experiences at several previous visits where I attended incognito as a paying customer.

Pho on Urbanspoon 

Thursday 18 March 2010

La Cucina Caldesi: Italian Cooking School (Marylebone, London)

I have serious kitchen envy. I want the Caldesi kitchen.

My kitchen at home is only just big enough for TPG and I to work, crab like, as co joined twins. Our bin blocks the passage between stove and sink. We have enough storage to stock up on a whole 2 days worth of ingredients - so long as we're eating cheese on toast on day 2 (sometimes minus the toast). Our freezer is the size of a small box of matches. Handy.

Also, as my crunchy "caramel chicken" debacle pointedly illustrated (you don't want to know), my cooking skills could do with some serious polishing.

So the invitation to join Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi for an Italian cooking class at La Cucina Caldesi was gratefully accepted. Finally a chance to spread my cooking wings. To unleash my inner chef. To shine like the sun and soar like an eagle... Ahem. I was a bit excited.

La Cucina Caldesi is a family business, positioned next to the Caffe Caldesi where I have happily dined on Tuscan fare and celebrated with friends in nights out gone by. La Cucina runs a variety of cooking courses of different durations focusing on foods from various Italian regions, and with a range of chefs or foodie experts leading the charge.

On this occassion, the dynamic Caldesi duo would be showing me, and a bunch of other food bloggers, the ropes.

We started the evening with some prosecco and nibbles, before the cooking business began. We were each allocated a small chicken, before Giancarlo guided us through the deboning process - a first for me. They were stuffed with garlic, chilli, and rosemary then roasted and served with pancetta, roasted potatoes and onions - pollo al mattone (chicken under a brick). Gorgeous aromas of roasty bits filled the room. Yes, it was better than my caramel chicken.

Meanwhile, Katie showed us how to mould neat little parcels of gnocchi gnudi (a mix of spinach and ricotta, no pasta), later tossed with melted butter and sage and served as our starter.

We watched the Caldesis in action as they prepared a hot and very chocolatey chocolate and brandy dessert, served drinkable from a tea cup (although it solidifies to a mousse if left overnight). Cosy and warm, this was simply divine, and something I will eagerly replicate at home, perhaps even with a hint of chilli as suggested by Katie. The family had discovered this little gem on earlier travels - their son had the pluck to ask for the recipe from the original chef.

I enjoyed getting my apron dirty, however after cooking comes the feasting - where my talents really come to the fore. Everything was lovely. The Caldesis, as generous hosts, also supplied wines, and sparkling entertainment.

The Caldesi classes generally range from £25 - £170, although I sampled this one on the house. There are 7 week courses with Stefano Borella for £525. Obviously, like me, you won't be transformed overnight into a Michelin class chef by a 3 hour class, but my brief foray was enough to indicate that these classes will provide inspiration, at least as much as skills, for your Italian cooking inclinations.

Katie Caldesi has recently published an Italian cook book, The Italian Cookery Course, filled with recipes she has collected and adapted from over 3 years of research all over Italy and its varied gastronomic regions (Yes, I note jealously, this is called "research" in the world of K Caldesi). This thing is one comprehensive collection - over 400 recipes and 40 master classes are caught between its covers. It's thick and choc-a-block with a large variety of recipes and gorgeous pictures to have any Italianophile drooling. I did not have the opportunity to browse through it in great detail, but I loved the photos and the obvious breadth and depth captured - I'll be seeking it out for closer inspection.

I really liked Katie's style, and her non fussy approach to cooking good, hearty Italian food. And I want her kitchen.

La Cucina Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, Marylebone, London W1U 2QF.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Mooli's: Soho, London

I have made my thoughts on the burrito clear. Bah, humbug. I have, despondently, hung up my sombrero. But the time has come to cast my greedy eye over the latest London street food craze - the "mooli" of Mooli's.

A mooli was a giant Japanese radish. Now, on the streets of Soho at least, it is an Indian roti wrap housing a range of meats or vegetables with Indian spices, salad and chutneys. Mooli's sells 6 different types of moolis (the wrap type, not the radish type) - chicken, asparagus, paneer, beef, pork and now goat. I slowly but surely got myself on the case.

I was the first in the door one mid week lunchtime (lunch before 12pm, anyone?), and was greeted by the genuine happy and helpful friendliness for which Mooli's is already developing quite the reputation. The man, who I later found out to be Sam, guided me through a few moments of scatty indecision (beef or pork, beef or pork?) by suggesting I kick off my Mooli experience with the beef variety. Done.

While the beef mooli is normally £3.95, I upsized to the mooli madness meal (my term, in case of doubt) for £5 - mooli, lassi and a bag of roasted poppadoms with a tub of spicy tomato sauce.

The roti is doughey and warm, while the Keralan beef is braised with a subtle hit of southern Indian (Malabar) spices and coconut, and topped with green salad and a cucumber raita (seasoned yoghurt sauce). The beef is lovely - tasty and tender. Although the spices are demure and some might prefer them spiced up somewhat, they add a definite flavour. The meat is, however, a tad scanty and I almost had to go back for a second.

The Goan pork mooli is, apparently, a spicier option and I certainly enjoyed my beef mooli enough to be looking forward to a return visit to try this one out.

The roasted poppadoms were fine - neither here nor there for me - but the lassi was excellent - big on mango fruitiness, tangy, thick and creamy, just as a lassi should be.

I returned again this week to take away a goat mooli, which I ate sitting in the Springtime sunshine at Soho Square, dodging randomly falling bird poo and stray drug addicts in the process. The goat mooli was much bigger and meatier than its little beef brother. At £5, it costs a bit more, but dealt a swift knock out blow to any hunger pangs.

Big chunks of tender goat meat (again, braised over several hours) were at times overflowing among the mix of roast vegetables and tasty spices. There may have been one too many chunks of potato and bits of chopped red onion, but all in all the goat mooli is a fine addition to your eating-on-the-hoof options in Soho. It's a full Indian meal, cooked nicely, wrapped up in a warm roti blanket. I like it.

The Mooli's fit out is bright and basic - it's more a fast food joint than anything else, but food is made fresh and, it seems, with pride. If it comes down to a burrito or a mooli, make mine a mooli. Over and out.

Mooli's, 50 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4
Mooli's on Urbanspoon

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