Sunday 18 July 2010

Paramount, Soho - Modern food with panoramic views of London

There's always that fear that the better the view, the worse the food. Would the fear be founded at Paramount?

Paramount has 360 degree views of London, from the 32nd floor of the Centre Point tower. You can see the bridges line up along the Thames, past the London Eye, the Gherkin and unwary Londoners sunbaking on their rooftops. It's fair to say it has a good view.

The food itself has to be put in context. Paramount was a private members club, which has recently been opened to the public. The dining room is slick and modern, designed by Tom Dixon (I don't know much - ok, anything - about him, but judging from his website, he seems to like these suction cap style things on the ceiling):

There's a sleek bar area, where you can just go for a drink, which leads on to the restaurant - both are frequented mostly by 30-something men in suits drinking from big wine glasses and 30-something women dressed up in the latest Karen Millen gear, preferably with a bit of sparkle. It still feels like it's mostly filled with its members at the moment. It's smart, even if it does feel just a teensy bit soulless. This feels more like a place run by a faceless "management" than somewhere the heart and soul of its creators is in every corner and on every plate - but the crowd are not here nuzzling up to their cocktails for that. They're here for the view and the scene, with a bit of fancy pants food on the side.

I joined my dining companions in the private Red Room, and watched the sky line change as the sun set and the city lights took over for the night shift. Not a bad way to spend an evening.

Head chef Colin Layfield has created a menu which reads like one temptation after another. It's seriously hard to choose based on the print alone. But then everything is executed with ultra modern presentation, which is either your thing or it's an irritation - black slates, rectangular plates, cylindrical shaped food etc. The style certainly matches the architecture.

After a gorgeous amuse bouche (cappuccino of asparagus veloute), my double baked Roquefort souffle (£9.50) had a rich and lovely flavour, if ever so slightly too dry.

My wild sea bass with potato gnocchi, samphire and caviar cream (£23.50) was a luxurious combination which I mostly loved - the fish and firm little gnocchi were cooked perfectly but the fish was overseasoned, particularly given not much was needed in combination with the salty caviar.

For dessert, my walnut tart (£9.50) was "quite nice" and came with a lovely Pink Lady apple strudel, sweet ginger custard and a really powerful cider sorbet (which I didn't like).

It's fussily presented, ambitious food and it's generally pretty good, but doesn't always hit the mark. However, you won't be able to complain that you make one just like it at home.

Service was lovely and unpretentious (although I was attending an event for my meal and found the front of house area near the bar slightly more cool and aloof when I visited anonymously with friends the following week).

Paramount is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner - or just for drinks at the bar to lap up the spectacular view. There's a decent looking bar food menu, and wine by the glass starts at £6.25 while cocktails are a whopping £11. There's also a narrow bar (more like a carpeted corridor really) wrapped around edges of the 33rd floor which will be an oyster and champagne bar ... again with the view.

Although Paramount is apparently open to the public, when I rang to put my name on the list for our drinks in the bar this week, the phone was answered by a rather toffy, unwelcoming man who, when he could not find my name in their system (I don't always get around as "Greedy Diva"), explained that only those who have been before with a member or have some kind of link in can get in for drinks. What the..? Just call first and maybe you'll work it out.

Paramount, Centre Point, 103 New Oxford St, Soho, WC1A 1DD (Tel: 020 7420 2900)

I dined in the Red Room as a guest of Paramount with other food bloggers. 

For other places to eat with a great bird's eye view over London, see my earlier review of Galvin at Windows here.

Paramount on Urbanspoon

Friday 9 July 2010

Chilli Cool, Kings Cross / Bloomsbury

To say Chilli Cool is a no-frills restaurant is something of an understatement. But then, the aftermath of eating Sichuanese food over a white table cloth would just be humiliating.  This is a place to load up a big table with friends, feast messily on plates of spicy, chilli laden food and wash it all down happily with a beer or three. And watch out for the oil slicked floors.

First things first. The crispy pig's intestine. This dish has won the adoration of many a trusted food blogger and I wanted to love it too. It wasn't to be. Fried slivers of intestine, mixed with bright peppers, silken spring onion and gleaming lashings of chilli was a pretty picture of Sichuan goodness - but like an angelic looking child smiling sweetly on a sunny day, before breaking out into a full blooded, high pitched, screaming tanty, its looks belied the real truth, people. Slice by slice, it tasted precisely how one can only imagine a big old sweaty pig's arse would taste - after a long day at the trough. And it's a taste that not only lingers, but starts off more like a faint smell of arse, and then just when you think it's gone, it slowly creeps up on you and blows up in all its full arsey glory about 10 seconds after swallowing. A faecal creeper. Just not my thing. While I'm sure this dish is all about texture, these specimens were stiff giving way to a slightly disappointing softness, rather than living up to the crisp and chewy morsels I was expecting. However, others rave about this dish and I'm generally not a huge fan of offal so perhaps it's just me.

Nevertheless, our other selections made up for this initial disappointment and assured us of the potential within Chilli Cool's repertoire.

Dry fried green beans with pork mince and chillis were salty, tender and wrinkled like an old woman after a long bath. Not all that spicy (until I overdosed on 1 too many of the accompanying fried chillies) but lovely flavours and thoroughly enjoyable in all its simplicity.

Our whole sweet and sour sea bass delivered in black and glistening finery. Crispy flesh gave way to the moist meat of the fish which has been baked and smothered in a sticky, sweet soy based sauce topped with finely shredded strands of spring onion and fresh chilli. We were not expecting this dish to be all that spicy, and it wasn't, but a lovely, fresh option to balance out some of your meatier dishes at Chilli Cool.

Chilli Cool is good enough to go back again, next time with a table full of hungry accomplices which is the best way to sample a variety of dishes at places like this. But it's not up there at this stage with some of my favourite cheap eats, like Cay Tre (Vietnamese in Shoreditch). Nevertheless, I was impressed by the look of other plates making their way to surrounding tables, and any luke warm feelings may be more down to my menu selections than the competence of the restaurant. I remain confident there are plenty of gems still to be sampled (like the sea fragrant aubergine and the impressive looking spicy hot pots).

Expensive restaurants probably only get one chance to blow you way. However, this is a place that students go to feast. At just under £20 per head with a beer each, rice and service, it's not going to break the bank to go back and experiment with our selections at Chilli Cool again.

Chilli Cool, 15 Leigh St, Bloomsbury, London WC1H 9EW (Ph: 0207 383 313)

Chilli Cool on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 6 July 2010

Summer picnic by Fernandez & Leluu at the Henley Royal Regatta

Anyone who's into supper clubs in London knows about Fernandez & Leluu. Simon and Uyen host a supper club at their home (mystery location) on a regular basis, and have obtained quite some acclaim for it. They even played host to the Grand Daddy of Supper Clubs, Jim Haynes, a few months back.

So when I received an invitation mentioning (1) free flowing Laurent Perrier champagne, (2) at a picnic (sponsored by Ryvita), (3) scheduled for a sunny day at the Henley Regatta, with (4) the great Fernandez & Leluu in charge of the food, I dove straight into my wardrobe to fossick for the nearest below-the-knee frock. (Truthfully, they had me at "champagne".) I emerged some time later, covered in dust but triumphant. Finding comfortable, yet suitably glamorous, shoes with heels which would not poke stiletto sized  holes all over the royal lawns of Henley was quite another matter.

Anyhoo, to the food.

I'm just loving this season of sunshine, picnics and BBQs. Fernandez & Leluu excelled themselves with a picnic that had random passers-by stopping to take snaps. It certainly put the surrounding picnics (comprising a few packets of crisps and a tub of hummus) to shame. Northern Rock oysters were freshly shucked and served with lemon and Tabasco to taste - although so rich and creamy were they, that I sucked them up in all their naked, voluptuous glory.

Gigantic Wild Madagascan Tiger Prawns boiled on a neighbouring stove top were also a show stopper, as were lavish chunks of fresh Yellow Fin line caught tuna sashimi (with spring onion in a light, sweet Japanese soy sauce) accompanied by bulging plates of samphire. Seafood was sourced from Fin and Flounder, an independent fish monger on Broadway Market. Cheeses, pates, rillettes and hams (largely sourced from Broadway Market) were loaded up on a never ending supply of Ryvita snacks and fresh breads, and served F&L's potato salad (enough to feed a large army). A hefty platter of red and yellow cherry tomatoes with mozzarella and basil was another refreshing summer plate. If you like the look of the snazzy blue and white plates, they were kindly supplied by Cornishware for the event.

In between helpings, we feasted on colourful bowls of cherries, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, grapes and flat peaches.

I'm a big fan of anything I can lather in butter and Vegemite, and usually this is where my relationship with Ryvita snacks begins and ends. But their new range of crispbreads were on show for us since our picnic was located at the Ryvita stand - we sampled several flavours including a sweet Fruit Crunch variety (which matched well with cheese) and my favourite, the Sweet Onion which went marvelously with some excellent smoked salmon (by Donald Russell) and cream cheese.

Simon had poached some pears in champagne (magnificent with cheese) while Uyen had burned the midnight oil perfecting a gorgeous, layered Cointreau and berry trifle served in glasses at the end of the day. Violet's Curd (of the Hatcham Supper Club) also made some lemon curd cupcakes which I wanted to try all day, but somehow had my snout so far down my champagne flute that I missed them at the end - all reports are that they were fantastic.

A superb day all-round.

Oh, there was some exciting rowing going on too. Apparently.

Fernandez & Leluu were interviewed about supper clubs on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, and you can see the dates for their next supper club event here.

I attended this event as a guest of Ryvita, Wild Card and Fernandez & Leluu along with fellow bloggers, The London Foodie, Meemalee's Kitchen, Tamarind and Thyme, Feast on Scraps and the Hatcham Supperclub.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Rules, and other places to take your parents

So, back in May when we still thought 23 degrees was "hot", Mama and Papa Diva came to visit me in London. Having moved to the other side of the world, forcing them to fly wedged in a plane for 24 hours all the way from Australia to visit me now and then, the least I could do was show them around some decent restaurants. I couldn't have them accidentally wandering into Bella Italia.  In my excitement, I also baked them a lemon drizzle cake. But that's another story.

In between cups of tea at home and polite samplings of my attempts to proximate Mama Diva's cooking prowess, we made day trips to Oxford and Brighton (where our random food findings left a bit to be desired, but the change of scenery was very nice). However, London was where I really hit my straps.

Breakfast at The Wolseley was a hit (and certainly better than semi-burnt toast at my place overlooking Prowlers). Pre-theatre dinner at The Ivy was as terrific as always and "Holding the Man" at Trafalgar Studios is hilarious (and tear fest inducing - which is also quite embarrassing when you're in one of the front rows and still sobbing mercilessly in the faces of the cast as they take their bows) - although possibly not one to see with your parents unless they're as cool as mine and you all get a bit intoxicated first.

We toddled up the road to Dean Street Townhouse one night, and although I prefer the noisier, clattering part around the bar, Mama and Papa Diva seemed to appreciate the quieter room on the side where we were seated in big, comfy chairs and more spacious, decadent surrounds. Perhaps a nice relief from the poky and noisy "character" of Chez Greedy.

But I think the most parent-impressing place on our agenda was Rules. We saved it for our last night on the town together, and it was all fairly fabulous.

Established in 1798 by Thomas Rules, Rules claims to be London's oldest restaurant. I haven't verified this, but it looks like they might be right. There's lots of old people not smiling in photos cluttered along the walls and beady eyeballs staring down from stuffed birds crammed in every cranny. It's probably not the best place for staunch vegetarians. Furnishings are rich, plush, dark and comfortable. Despite the clutter, it feels special and luxurious.

Rules specialises in ultra traditional British food - there's lots of gamey stuff and potted things, with rich, wintery puddings to finish you off. It's all totally old school.

My venison loin with pear, roast chicory and spiced ruby plums was decadently rich and super-gamey (£26.95). Every bite was a luxury. Mama and Papa Diva both enjoyed the rather large grilled sirloin steaks with chips, bearnaise, roasted tomato and mushroom (£22.50).

We're still talking about the puddings to whoever will listen - sensational. Little Sister Diva back in Melbourne has since blocked us from her Facebook account. I had some kind of strawberry tart in a shortbread pastry while Mama Diva had a delicate strawberry souffle, both of which were absolutely divine. Papa Diva had ice-cream, which was never going to compete, but the choice had to be expected from a man who would choose a Ginger Snap biscuit over a Chocolate Royal. (All around £7.50)

Despite fearing it might be stuffy and overpriced (based on a peering through the windows on past occasions), service was close to perfect - attentive, helpful, friendly, not overly fussy. Sure, it's a bit pricey, but for me it's a special occasion place (like oh, it's Wednesday) and worth every penny. The bar upstairs also looks rather tempting and I hear they make a good cocktail.

Rules has 3 new fans. Traditional, straightforward food, cooked well in charismatic surrounds. You won't find anywhere like it anywhere else.

Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2E 7LB (Tel: 0207 836 5314)

Rules on Urbanspoon

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