Wednesday 25 May 2011

@Siam, Soho

It's hard to find decent Thai restaurants in London, let alone in Soho. So entry of @Siam on Frith Street can only be a good thing.

The food is generally very good, if not earth shattering. Zingy, fresh flavours and crunch make each plate a whole lot better than in your average London Thai restaurant, and at an affordable price. Service is friendly and unobtrusive, and splashes of exotic colour are scattered around the small and serene, if a little plain, surrounds.

The prawn and pomelo was tangy, sweet and scrumptious, and also generous in size for a starter - had it come on betel leaf rather than gem lettuce, it would have been fabulous. Larb gai was spicy and juicy, while the beef salad was fresh and satisfyingly sour. Only the mild green vegie curry with dry, uninspiring tofu was disappointing.

@Siam also has well priced set menus offering a good array of plates to try. This is definitely one to seek out for a central London Thai fix on a budget.

Our meal came to £45 for 2, including wine and service.

@Siam, 48 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4SF

@Siam on Urbanspoon

Monday 23 May 2011

Burgundy - Greedy Diva's Gluttonous Travels

When I told my French boss I was going to "Burgundy" over Easter, she stared at me blankly. Even worse (for both career and my French expertise) that when I adopted my best French accent to explain I meant "Bourgogne", she looked even more baffled. Then, I spelled it out - at which point she exclaimed "Oh, Bourgogne!". It sounded to me like exactly what I had just said, but apparently not. Fortunately, in Burgundy, if you know how to hold out your glass for more wine, you'll get along just famously, no matter how bad your French pronunciation.

TPG and I recently spent a week in Burgundy, including 2 luxurious nights at the Abbaye de le Bussiere (see earlier post). My memories of Burgundy will always be inextricably etched to the wine, the food and the beautiful green scenery. It's a stunning place to visit, and so easy - take the train from London via Paris to Dijon, hire a car, and you can mooch around the well sign posted winery trails with little or no planning, being guided by signs for towns you'll recognise from your favourite wine bottles - think "Meursault", "Ladoix" and "Beaune". It's a wine lover's paradise.

Burgundy is one of France's biggest and most famous wine producing regions. My favourite wines are Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs - which means you've hit the jackpot if you happen to share the same predilection and find yourself in Burgundy. The wine region includes not only the fabulous Cote-dO'r wines, but also those of Beaujolais, Chablis, Cote Chalonnaise and Macon.

Food wise, beef bourguignon, coq au vin (the famous Bresse chickens are locals here), steak (Charolais beef), foie gras and magnificent cheeses (such as the Epoisses made by local monks) feature heavily on the menus. This is not a place to diet. Burgundy is a place to indulge in multiple course meals for lunch and dinner, and it would be a mortal sin not to have the old cheese trolley rolled out on both occassions. You might be craving lettuce leaves after a few days, but you'll struggle to find a cafe or somewhere for a light salad outside of the main cities like Beaune or Dijon - and don't even think about eating lunch outside of the 12-2pm time slot in the tiny villages.

Steak tartare in Dijon

There are many fantastic options for wine tasting, including cellars and caves offering degustations scattered all over the villages and wine trails. We visited many. My absolute favourite was a tasting at Maison Louis Jadot in Beaune where we were lucky enough to meet up with The London Foodie and Dr G to be guided through a wonderful 3 hour tasting by passionate General Manager, Dominique Mounier. Dominique walked us through what can often seem like a complex classification system of burgundy wines, before we hit Louis Jadot's cellars to taste many magnificent wines - including some straight from the barrel (a first for me). Louis Jadot takes grapes from vineyards all around Burgundy and its wines range from the inexpensive and easy drinking to the complex and fabulous. In fact, if you want to learn about the wine region, the wine notes on Louis Jadot's website are a good place to start.

Tasting from the barrels at Louis Jadot

Another favourite was a wine tasting accompanied by food at La Table d'Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet. For 40 Euros, you will taste from 13 different red and white wines from around the region - including from St Aubin, Rully, Chassagne-Montrachet, Puligny-Montrachet, Meursalt, Volnay and Pommard. For a 10 Euro supplement (which is well worthwhile), you'll also be given some fantastic grand crus. Wines are "matched" (although I use the term loosely) to a basic, rustic meal. The food is not the highlight - the wine holds that mantle, but after some cheesey gruyeres (a staple in the region), we were given a tuna and vegetable terrine with smoked salmon, baked chicken in a tarragon sauce, a selection of local cheeses and chocolate mousse, all of which was perfectly nice (but not a patch on some of the gastronomic highlights you'll find in Beaune).

La Table d'Olivier Leflave

In Burgundy, you can find wonderful, fine dining or hearty, rustic fare. Lunch at Loiseau des Vignes, the Michelin star restaurant of Bernard Loiseau in Beaune, was a highlight. We sat by the window overlooking the elegant tables in the pretty garden as sun streamed in through the window. Service was unstuffy and friendly, the wine extraordinary (it's hard to go wrong) and the food was fabulous. For 30 Euros, our "market lunch" menu included cheesy gruyeres, salmon delicately poached and served in a creamy froth, followed by rich, juicy lamb braised with tomato and rosemary. Three local cheeses were then served before an insanely good dessert - chocolate mousse with meringue, chocolate sauce and little chocolate balls. It was one of the best desserts of all time.

Another high end favourites was Le Pre aux Clercs in Dijon. The 50 Euro set 4 course dinner menu at this fabulous Michelin Star restaurant is great value. The food is refined and delicious, service is excellent and the sommelier gave us terrific wine suggestions.

Terrine of asparagus and vegetables
Pike dumpling in crayfish soup

Saddle of stuffed rabbit, carrots, caramalised turnips, mashed potato

Fillet of sea bream with sauce of foie gras, oyster and egg

The gorgeous Fabrice Gillott chocolate shop is another one to look out for in Dijon. Think  sesame caramel chocolate bars, cassis macarons and hazelnut spreads. The range is exquisite - we sampled lots just for you (21, rue du Bourg, Dijon).

Even without the wonderful food and wine options, Burgundy is a beautiful place to visit. The fact that you can completely indulge your inner gourmand while you're there is a just the icing on the cake.


We travelled to Dijon (via Paris) on the Eurostar - and spent a day frolicking about Paris on the way home. Fares are approximately £180 return.  While in Burgundy, we stayed for part of our trip the beautiful Abbaye de la Bussiere which I reviewed earlier.

Friday 13 May 2011

Alimentari Cocorino, Marylebone

Chiltern Street is quaint little street near Marylebone High Street where people go for extra large sized shoes, bridal boutiques or whiskey specialists. So don't ask my why I stumbled across Ailmentari Cocorino.

Cocorino is cute and stylish in a Marylebone/Notting Hill kind of way. Its white walls are well stocked with high end Italian biscotti, sauces, salamis, hams and fresh pastas sourced from artisan suppliers in Italy. It's a "boutique Italian delicatessan and espresso room" - the coffee is good, and you can have them make you up a fresh foccaccia or nibble on some of the gorgeous little cannoli and Italian cakes or biscuits.

It's owned by Linda Yau, sister of Alan Yau (restauranteur behind Princi, Hakkasan etc). Apparently there's also a Cocorino Focaccia and Gelato bar around the corner. Very sweet. One to try if you're in the neighbourhood.

Cocorino, 18 Chiltern Street, Marylebone, London W1U 7QA (Tel: 020 7935 0860)

Ailmentari Cocorino on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Cay Tre, Soho

Mekong Catfish

Yes. Cay Tre, THE Cay Tre, has come to Soho.

You need to understand. Cay Tre is my favourite Vietnamese restaurant in London (the original is near Kingsland Road in Shoreditch). I live in Soho. Now Cay Tre is in Soho. I can officially start using my oven for storage.

Ok, so I was there on opening night, at the 50% soft opening. Service is still being polished (although they're sweet). But the food, oh the food. The food is superb.

Chicken Royale

A starter of Chef's Vinh Beef (skewered five spice rib beef, moist and succulent, charcoaled and served with soy dipping sauce) was perfection. PERFECTION,  I tell you. And it's opening night! Silky grilled octopus with lemongrass, coriander and chilli oil is slightly chewy (I'd give it a miss next time), but the Cha La Lot is gorgeous - spicy ground pork wrapped in wild betel leaves, served with roast peanuts and nuoc cham.

Cured beef and papaya salad

Thinly sliced sesame cured beef and papaya salad with Thai basil and mint is one of the favourites, and the asparagus in the asparagus and black mushroom salad is packed with seasonal flavour and maintaining just that right amount of firm bite.

Grilled octopus

Slow cooked mekong catfish is caramelised in fish sauce and almost as good as at the original Shoreditch branch, lacking only in the theatre of having it cooked at the table like it is at the original.

Roast baby chicken royale is crunchy and spicy on the outside and moist within - although it's a lean chicken, the honey, five spice and herby marinade give the meat some punch. Cognac Luc Luc Shaking beef is another hit - sliced rib eye beef is wok seared with whole garlic cloves (mmm...) and black pepper. It's lusciously rich but light at the same time.

Cognac Luc Luc Shaking Beef

The Dong Du Lamb Chop Curry served with vermicilli dumplings certainly has the anticipated flavour but is too fatty (yes, even for me). The okra and aubergine curry is a satisfyingly gooey mix of coconut and cardamom.

Okra and auberine curry

There's also rice, noodle and pho dishes which I will be back for, oh, probably 3 times a week. The menu has some surprises and is different to that at the original Shoreditch branch.

With 3 bottles of wine and a huge array of dishes between 5, our bill came to £40 per head (or £20 per head during the 50% off soft opening period). Starters cost between £4 - £9.50 and mains between £7 - £10, so obviously you could feast for a lot less without so much alcohol (ahem).

My only complaint? There's no dessert menu! (But Princi is around the corner).

Great value, fresh flavours, easy going service and all in Zone 1 - don't even try to wipe the smile from my face.

Cay Tre, 44 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 4 QD (Tel: 020 7317 9118)

The 50% off soft opening continues for Wednesday 11 and Thursday 12 May 2011.

Monday 9 May 2011

The Riding House Cafe, Fitzrovia

Chorizo hash cakes

I thought it might be love at first sight when I first walked into the dapper Riding House Cafe in Ftizrovia. But the love slowly waned, and now I think we might just be distant friends.

It's a great set up, with super potential. But it doesn't quite hit the mark - yet, anyway.

The Riding House cafe has recently come to Fitzrovia from the team behind Village East and The Garrison (a pub in Bermondsey which I love). It's an all day brasserie with a very funky, smart, yet comfy fit out - a restaurant area with big yellow light fittings and orange banquettes (which its own website accurately describes as Heinz Tomato Soup colour), a lovely long bar with high turquoise stools, bunches of lavendar are scattered along a big communal wooden table where groups of girlfriends meet for brunch time Bellinis, spacious round tables by the window and a loungey area for browsing through the papers over your coffee. So far so great.

The menu reads well too - breakfast includes buttermilk pancakes with berries, vanilla clotted cream and maple syrup, chilled grapefruit with ginger, sugar and mint (which is a staple of all our New York brunch favourites), or a peanut butter, banana, strawberry and apple juice smoothie. Lunch and dinner includes a lovely list of small plates (piperade, anchovy, basil; baby squid, chorizo, smoked paprika, chilli olives; slow roasted pork belly, cumin, salt; or lamb cutlets with smoked aubergine - from £3 to £5 each) and mains such as the Titchfield Burger with foie gras and fries (£13.90 or sweet potato and chickpea cake with halloumi and tomato jam (£12).

They only opened in April, so let me preface this post with a disclaimer on their behalf that they are still (obviously) settling in. But things were not running smoothly over Sunday brunch as we waited an age, as did surrounding tables, for some just alright fare to arrive. At least it did, which is more than I can say for my flat white (so, sadly I can't report back on the Caravan coffee). If there's one thing not to forget, it should be a patron's first coffee of the day (fortunately, I had already had one earlier and could see they were struggling so I didn't bother them with a reminder). I believe this was their first Sunday brunch opening, so it would be unfair not to put this down to some teething problems, but after 2 visits, I'm not overly inspired.

TPG's poached eggs on a very lightly, toasted-no-further-than-albino muffin, were fairly plain Jane - the eggs were oddly flavourless if poached to perfect gooeyness (£4). Same goes for those on my more exciting chorizo hash browns with spinach leaves, mushroom and 2 poached eggs (£8.50), which would otherwise have been good.

A Bloody Mary was a little light on the vodka and a little heavy on the Worcester, and the apple, beetroot, carrot and ginger juice (£4) was oddly super sweet as though there might have been some packaged rather than fresh apple juice in there.

The day before, I'd been for a light lunch with girlfriends. The small plates of bitter chicory, sweet pear, fine shavings of radish and lovely, creamy gorgonzola (tiny, but only £3) and cured sea trout with jalapeno and creme fraiche (£4) were gorgeous. You would need at least 3 or 4 small plates for a complete lunch if you're not having a main. The heritage tomato and pesto tart with buffalo mozzarella (£12.80) looked nice, but was the one thing I thought overpriced on an otherwise reasonably priced menu. Most of the girls went for the large chopped salad, with lettuce, avocado, palm heart, radish, Dijon mustard and grilled poussin (£13) which doesn't look special but was a taste hit with them all.

The front of house staff greeting you on entry are absolutely lovely, although service can be a little over attentive in areas where you don't need it - waiters filling up your water glass after each sip and explaining how a rather self explanatory menu works (it's pretty clear what small plates are - it's our first time in the restaurant, not our first day on earth). And while I'm very forgiving on hiccups to a newbie restaurant, and particularly one I walked in with such a soft spot for (even the tone of the website makes you want to love them), I can't help but think that some extra care and rapport developed between waiters and tables might help to hook people in to return just a little bit more.

At the moment, I'm putting this one down as one I thought I'd love, I'm disappointed not to, I hope they do well, but for now I'd rather grab my brunch from Kaffeine across the road. The earth didn't move.

The Riding House Cafe, 43-51 Great Titchfield St, London, W1W 7PQ (Tel: 020 7927 0840)

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday 7 May 2011

Abbaye de la Bussiere - Gluttonous Travels in Burgundy, France

The first glimpse of L'Abbaye de la Bussiere as you enter the driveway is breathtaking. All that is missing is a Gallic version of Mr Darcy emerging wet and white shirted from the lake.

A Paul Day sculpture you might recognise

The Abbaye is a stunning country hotel with Relais and Chateaux accreditation, set on 15 acres of beautiful parkland in the heart of Burgundy wine country. It was founded in 1131 by the third Abbot of Citeaux (cheese connoisseurs have already pricked up their ears), and later became a spiritual retreat before the Abbaye's acquisition by Clive and Tannith Cummings 4 years ago. It's serene, calm and luxurious. And for the gourmands, the Abbaye's restaurant has held a Michelin star since 2007.

Accepting an invitation to stay during our trip around Burgundy's wine and gastronomic circles was not one I had to ponder for long.

Our room

Fabulous bathrooms, complete with fluffy gowns, deep spa baths and Armani body products

It's obvious that every detail has been meticulously planned, from the relaxing deep baths with spa jets, to the charming antiques and Paul Day sculptures (including a replica of the kissing statue at St Pancras), right down to the cute fluffy toy dog that is placed on your pulled down bed at night. The beds are massive. Oh, and you receive scrumptiously jammy macarons with a bottle of kir and the local cremant on ice on arrival. Our room lacked some light since, in keeping the original style of the building, there's only one window across the long, spacious room but each room has a spectacular view of the grounds or lake.

View from our bedroom window

There are also beautiful rooms to relax and lounge around in - proving perfect for me to catch up on the royal wedding drama in every glossy mag. There is a computer with internet access but a lack of WiFi, in keeping with the chilled out nature of the setting (but bear it in mind if you can't relax without constant on-line contact with the world).

In the restaurant, we were thrilled by the skills of chef de cuisine, Emmanuel Hebrard who retained the Michelin star of his former head chef after the latter was poached by Pierre Gagnaire for the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. The Abbaye provides seriously good fine dining.

Chef Emmanuel at work

The restaurant is set in 2 charming rooms, in the Abbey's refrectory and the Garnier II room overlooking the park. The menu balances traditional Burgundy fare with Emmanuel's own unique flair. Emmanuel's lovely manner and skill is matched by that of sommelier extraordinaire, "Freddy", who wedded each dish to a perfectly matching mystery wine (testing the extensive practical research we had been indulging in over our previous days in the vineyards and cellars of Burgundy). We left ourselves completely in the hands of the chef and the sommelier and were not disappointed.

Think king prawns in curried batter, beef tataki in ponzu and dijon soup, asparagus, sabayon, grapefruit and caviar, brill with rhubarb puree and rice with salmon, sesame and lemon rind, wrapped in leek and with salad puree. The cheeky frogs legs were outstanding and the cheese trolley is heaven on wheels. After a sesame snap dessert, try a selection of marshmallows, Burgundy cake, chocolate and jellies.

Earlier in the day, we had enjoyed a relaxed lunch in the garden bistro with The London Foodie and Dr G who were coincidentally on their amazing, grand wine tour of France and Italy, overlapping with us in Burgundy for a day.

The bistro food is also smashing - my mullet with mussels and chervil was beautifully cooked, fresh and creamy. Luiz's garlicky escargots were gorgeous enough on their own, but the accompanying pearl barley risotto and goat cheese foam was sublime. TPG's haddock with smoked garlic cream from Arleux entree and main of brown trout with basmati rice and herbs were also hearty and excellent. The entrecote of the local, famed beef Charollais is also available on the lunch menu. I highly recommend this as a gorgeous spot to wallow in good food and sunshine.

Trout filleted at the table

Although we tried to save room for dinner, we couldn't resist having the cheese trolley rolled our way, where a fine selection of local cheeses are up for grabs.

Breakfast includes, with your view of the grounds, tangy fresh orange juice, a delicious basket of breads and pastries with lovely jams, gazpacho with cheeses and cured meats, and fruit poached in vanilla with mousse and other sweet bits - or you can pay extra for a cooked breakfast. The Abbaye also has 4 bikes, a Westfield 2 seater sports car, a World War 2 Willis jeep, or a classical 2CV all available for hire.

Yet despite all these perks, one of the highlights of the stay is the relaxed yet faultless service and the friendly nature of Clive (who lives on the grounds with his family) and his team. As grand and luxurious as the Abbaye is, it still holds the charm of a beloved family run business. Freddy will recommend and arrange tastings at local winemakers, such as the fantastic tasting at Maison Capitain-Gagnerot in Ladoix.

It is indeed a wonderful base to explore the gastronomic playground that is Burgundy.

Abbaye de La Bussiere, La Bussiere-sur-Ouche, 21360 Dijon, Cote d'Or, France, Tel: +33 (0) 3 80 49 02 29, 

Rooms at the Abbaye de La Bussiere start at €195 and there are 2 day Abbaye break packages including dinner in the Michelin star restaurant and a continental breakfast. The 6 course gastronomic menu in the restaurant will cost approx €95 Euros per person (including a glass of champagne), while lunch in the more informal bistro will set you back a mere €25 for 2 courses, €29 for 3 courses and €33 for 4 courses.

Greedy Diva was a guest of the Abbaye de la Bussiere.

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