Dinner by Heston @ Mandarin Oriental Hotel

There has been a lot of hype over ‘Dinner’ since it opened in early 2011, Heston Blumenthal’s latest endeavour in collaboration with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Shooting straight to number 9 as a new entry to the league tables of The Worlds 50 Best Restaurants and praised by the most discerning of food critiques, I was chuffed to bits when my friend made a lucky last minute reservation as a treat for my birthday.

A world away from the alchemy that The Fat Duck brings, Dinner is a much more modest affair. Its ‘USP’ is a menu inspired by British gastronomy of times gone by, elevated to the present era through contemporary cooking techniques. As you browse the menu, the approximate date of each dish is noted, and a brief blurb on the reverse reveals the inspiration behind each one. Little cards were placed on the table with random facts, however these read more like an excerpt from an encyclopaedia and were a bit lost on me…

Located in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and backing onto Hyde Park, the ambience is what you would expect of a high end hotel in prime location London. Decor was subdued, dark wood dining furniture and low hung, slightly medieval looking chandeliers with candle-like lights. The visual stimuli really came from the glass chamber of chefs located to one side of the dining room, and we were delighted to bag a top spot with tranquil views of Hyde Park to one side and the hustle and bustle of the kitchen to the other. We weren’t lucky enough to have Heston on site on the day, but had plenty of opportunity to catch Head Chef Ashley Palmer-Watt as he commanded the service of his rather calm brigadier of chefs.

Suitably seated and pondering which of the lovely cocktails we were about to order, we were greeted by the sommelier who persuaded us to go for the “very, very, very good” champagne instead of the cocktail. The champagne was nice, but on reflection felt as though he was a little pushy in his recommendation, and can only assume he did this as pouring two glasses of champagne is much easier than making two different cocktails. The wine menu was extensive, but expensive! The cheapest bottle of red was about £35 and £40 for white.

So for the starters. Tempted as we were to go for the now legendary Meat Fruit (chicken liver parfait cleverly disguised as a glossy tangerine), we wanted to sample some of the other dishes on offer. My friend chose the Hay Smoked Mackerel c.1730 (with Lemon Salad, Gentlemen’s Relish & Olive Oil) at £14.50. Pretty as a picture, I didn’t try any but was assured that it was light, well balanced and tasted good.

I opted for the Roast Scallops c.1820 (with Cucumber Ketchup and Borage) at £16.50. The scallops were juicy and well cooked, as you’d expect from a Michelin Star restaurant. The cucumber relish was tasty, slightly sweet and acidic. I particularly liked the cooked cucumber chunks, something I’ve never tried before. Overall it was really accomplished, but I think it could’ve done with another variation in texture as everything on the plate was soft and wet.

For main course, my friend chose the Black Foot Pork Chop (with Hispi Cabbage, Lardo, Ham Hock and Robert Sauce) at £30.  So called ‘black foot’ aka ‘pata negra’ from the Iberico Hams typical of the Basque country. The chop was generous is size and the mouthful I tried was juicy and flavoursome. A quick search on Wiki reveals that Robert sauce is one of the oldest compound sauces on record, a version of which is cited in Le Cuisinier Francois (1620) by one of Henry IV cooks. Lucky Henry, the sauce was very good indeed.

I chose the Veal Sweetbreads with Morels and Asparagus (featured image).  This was one of the specials for the day and I didn’t manage to catch the date of origin. Very happy with my choice, the sweetbreads were lightly crumbed and perfectly cooked.

In contrast to the starters and desserts, the mains seemed far less complex.  More along the lines of ‘meat and two veg’ (although by the sounds of the feast that Henry IV had on his Coronation in 1399 it’s no small wonder!). Not that good food needs to be complicated, but after comparing the pictures of the mains with the other courses, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were from different restaurants.

The first dessert was Brown Bread Ice Cream c.1830 (with Salted Butter Caramel & Malted Yeast Syrup) at £9.50. Creamy, sweet, salty and malty with a bit of crunch and refreshing cubes of melon to cut through the richness.

A must for the chocoholics, we also ordered the Chocolate Bar c.1730 (with Passion Fruit Jam & Ginger Ice Cream) at £9.50. The chocolate bar with a layer of very sweet passion fruit jam was insanely rich, a little too rich for me. I loved the ginger ice cream but don’t think it quite stood up to the intensity of the bitter sweet chocolate.

To finish the meal, we were given complimentary Chocolate Ganache.  A nice touch, but had we known this was coming we’d have gone for something other than the Chocolate Bar for dessert. Definitely a case of chocolate overload!

The final verdict? I think those reviewers that have marked Dinner down for a lack of “WOW’ factor and theatrics have missed the point. If you go with expectations of iPods in shells and dry ice you’ll be sorely disappointed.  If you go with expectations of “What you see is what you get” then you should be pleased.  Each dish was a fine example of what it claimed to be – cooked using modern techniques and delivered in a no fuss or frills way.  More typically “British”, you could say.

Pricewise – there’s definitely others out their serving food of a similar standard at a fraction of the price.  The excessively expensive wine menu is also a deterrent. A three course meal for two with wine will leave you little change from £200.

The service was meticulous but pushy at times, I don’t have a problem with my glass being topped up every 5 minutes but I do take note of the sommelier pushing the champagne aperitif.

Would I go again? Hmmm…the jury is out on this one.  The problem is I can almost taste the other dishes already – precisely because what you see is what you get, no hidden tricks or surprises. Might just wait for some of the hype to die down and for a few more of the dishes on the menu to change before I venture back. We were very lucky with the last minute reservation and location of the table, I would book far in advance for this as the experience wouldn’t have been the same in some of the tucked away spots with restricted views.

Carluccios @ Spitalfields

Antonio would not be pleased. 

Quick 2 course lunch at Carluccios and it was very disappointing indeed. I’ve been to Carluccios a handful of times before and from memory have always thought it to be averagely decent.  Not the kind of place to set your rockets alight but you’d eat what was on the plate without too much of a grumble.

Well today the standards seem to have dropped substantially. First course of Crostini al Funghi from the Specials menu at £5ish.  When it arrived it looked appetising enough – a mixture of sautéed mushrooms with heaps of red chili and a little parsley, served on a slice of toast and a splatter of rocket on the side. Eating was a little tougher, the crostini was brittle and shattered upon cutting.  The really underseasoned mushrooms tasted more of oil than anything else.  And the chili seemed ‘fake’ – from the amount of red on the plate I expected it to blow my head off but I didn’t detect even the faintest of kicks.

My friend had Calamari.  A rather large and unwieldy portion – the battered rings clung together to form a mass. For the first time in a long time, I declined on even trying.

Now for the mains, I opted for Spaghetti Vongole with clams, garlic, herbs and chili. I was given a knife and fork which was annoying. Any restaurant claiming to serve ‘authentic Italian food’ should not be giving a knife and fork to eat spaghetti with.  More fake chili, enough red colour on the plate to indicate I’d soon be reaching for the milk, but alas no heat or kick to be found.  Bring on the chili oil – drizzle drizzle – still no heat.  After eating a few mouthfulls I then discovered a rod of pasta on my plate – a clump of 20 or so strands of spaghetti clung together at one end.  Very unappetising.

My friend had the seafood Linguine, which also had large clumps of inedible hard pasta stuck together.

Not sure if its the overall standards that have dropped or the Spitalfields branch in particular that is letting the side down. We paid £17 each for 2 courses and tap water – a high price for a meal bearing little resemblance to authentic italian food. Shant be rushing back here in a hurry.

Honest Burgers

Ode to a cheeseburger what a wonderful thing
With pickles, onions tomatoes and cheese 
I’m easy to please
With its buns and seeds it has no needs
Except to fill you up even if you get stuck
And yell oh shucks! 
With its cousin the French fry
It tells no lies
With ketchup in your right 
and the last fry in your left
Its just the burger on your plate
It truly is impossible to hate 

(by Matt Karger)

Poems…..about Burgers…..Really???

I stand corrected, because sometimes it’s justified.  One of the ultimate american indulgences. There’s been a resurgence in the humble burger of late, with a number of establishments offering their take on the ‘Ultimate’ burger. Special attention has been paid to every individual element – from the Bun to the Cheese to the Patty and other accompaniments abound.

Burger Turf Wars have begun.  From the various comments/reviews I have read there seems to be a significant amount of debate on what constitutes the Ultimate Burger, with most of these burger joints being slammed on one point or another.  Rare vs. Medium, American Cheese vs. British, Relish vs. no Relish, Toasted Bun vs. Steamed Bun, Knife vs. Knife & Fork (you can’t please everyone).

So I arrive at Honest Burgers, “A London Restaurant inspired by great British produce”, located in the vibrant Brixton Village on a mid-week night to get my fill. The place is popular, we arrive a little later than planned and break into a frown when we see there are no free tables and there’s a 45 minute wait to be seated (I wouldn’t normally mind but we had somewhere to be). The smile quickly returns when we are told they do takeaway – “2 Specials Please!  And 2 Samuel Smith’s To Go”.

10 minutes later, our burgers arrive and we pull up a couple of chairs at the end of the indoor market.  Chomping away in our own private abyss, with the echo of the band drifting through.  We have nothing to whinge about.

The current special is a Beef Patty with Bone Marrow, a rasher of Smoked Bacon, Red Leicester Cheese, Parsley, White Onion and House Pickled Cucumber, served with House Fries flavoured with Rosemary.

Honest Burgers have received criticism on numerous points (the bun is too dry, I don’t like relish, the burger is too small, I prefer American cheese, my Patty was rare not medium rare, my patty was over-cooked not rare). Perhaps I have too much spare time on my hands but I feel the need to be Honest about these Burgers.   I happen to like British Red Leicester Cheese, and I like my meat rare, and I like relish, and I like Rosemary for that matter.  And I’m not one to fret about why I’ve been given a knife instead of a knife and fork.  It’s a Burger – pick it up with both hands and devour is my philosophy.  Is this the Ultimate American Burger? No.  Is this the Ultimate British Burger? Perhaps.

I enjoyed it.  I really enjoyed it. Biting into the burger was engulfing and unctuous.  I couldn’t especially distinguish the Bone Marrow from the rest of the flavours (I believe it is spread onto the Bun) but am sure it added to the overall umami savouriness of each bite. My Bun didn’t give way and I especially enjoyed the pickled cucumber, left in whole strips and giving a welcome sweetness and acidity to each bite. The Fries were well cooked, with the addition of Rosemary being a nice attention to detail.  Although I agree with many comments that they were a touch over seasoned. For those who say their burgers are too small – it’s not a Wide Boy but a Phat Patty, and for me was a perfectly satisfying amount.

The (take-away) service was friendly and I can only commend their 10 minute turnaround for take-away when they had a full house.  Not the cheapest haunt in Brixton Village – it came close to £30 for 2 Specials and 2 beers to takeout.  But I’ve sampled many of the restaurants in the Village and don’t think this is over priced given the sourcing of their ingredients, home pickling and attention to detail that many other joints don’t offer.

Honest Burgers, I stand by you and I am glad your are on my doorstep.  Till next time.