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.

Discovering Filipino Cuisine with the London Foodie

I recently had the pleasure of spending a rather gluttonous day discovering the essence of Filipino cuisine at a Cooking Club held by Luiz Hara. The concept of the cooking club is simple – Luiz selects a particular type of cuisine or foodie theme, and a bunch of blog readers descend on his beautiful home in north london to cook their selected dish, talk, eat, drink, talk, eat, drink and so on…till some hours later when we leave with a belly full of food and wine and a head full of inspiration.

Each event is co-hosted by an expert in the cuisine, in our case, Tina P, a native Filipino with a wealth of experience in Filipino culture and food. Tina prepared an extensive menu, which was emailed to us beforehand so we could each select a dish to serve on the day. Luiz does make clear that the event is indeed a cooking ‘club’, and not a ‘course’. Whilst an expert is there to offer a helping hand, you are ultimately responsible for preparing the finished dish and so some degree of culinary competence helps!

Kinilaw na Tuna – Vinegar-cured Tuna
Pork Barbecue – Grilled Skewered Pork
Lumpiang Shanghai – Fried Spring Rolls with pineapple sweet and sour sauce
Pancit Molo – Pork Dumpling Soup
Adobong Kangkong – Braised Water Spinach
Lechon Kawali – Deep Fried Pork Belly
Guinataang Sugpo – Prawns in Coconut Milk and Vinegar
Kare Kare – Ox Tail Stewed in Peanut Sauce
Chicken Adobo – Stewed Chicken in Vinegar and Soy Sauce
Turron – Crisp Banana Rolls
Leche Flan – Milk Custard
(and heaps of wine!)

I confess to knowing very little about Filipino food.  As I scanned the menu none of the dishes sounded familiar to me by name. Not wanting to be flustered by cooking on the day, I (rather naively) opted for the Oxtail Kare Kare dish which needed to be cooked in advance.  I had never even heard of the dish before and was a little nervous not knowing what to aim for in terms of taste and texture.  Several days later I discovered that Kare Kare is often the centrepiece at family feasts and special occasions, such as weddings and baptisms.  Gulp…no pressure then!

Alas, I needn’t have worried, as all the dishes turned out just great.  The menu took us through a journey of Filipino food, strongly influenced by flavours and techniques brought over by the Chinese, Malaysians and Spanish (to name but a few). Ingredients such as coconut and vinegar featured heavily on the menu, with all dishes having a more subtle flavour in comparison to the intensity and heat that often comes with neighbouring Vietnamese or Thai food.

I was glad to be one of the first to arrive as I was given the opportunity to get my fill of Luiz’ ridiculously adorable litter of Shih Tzu puppies. If my pockets had been a little larger they would have come home with me!

Once all the guests arrived, Luiz and Tina kicked off proceedings with a little introduction and explanation of the chosen menu.  We then tucked into the appetiser courses, with Tiffany’s Kinilaw na Tuna first up.

‘Kinilaw’ means to cook, or cure in vinegar. I later learnt that this method came about from the need to preserve fish or meat. The raw tuna was marinated in vinegar, coconut milk, shallots, ginger and chilli and served with crunchy slithers of red pepper and spring onion.

BBQ Pork Skewers next up, a mixture or pork belly and shoulder marinated overnight in garlic, sugar, soy, ginger, chilli and Sprite (you heard me, Sprite), skewered and then grilled till charred and yummy.

The last of the appetisers was Lumpiang Shanghai – no prizes for guessing the origins of this dish! Crispy rolls filled with pork, glass noodles and shiitake mushrooms (amongst other things), served with a sweet and sour pineapple dipping sauce.

We then migrated to the gorgeous dining room (major house envy) for the remainder of the day. Inbetween the appetisers, a few of us helped out May (of Malaysian by May) in preparing the wonton dumplings for the Pancit Molo soup – a mixture of pork, onion, garlic, soy, ginger and carrots. Always a fan of a good dumpling!

Luiz then brought forth the triple cooked, Yes, TRIPLE COOKED pork belly. I don’t need to garnish the description any more, you KNOW it tasted good.

With our appetites sufficiently wetted, the main courses ensued. Adobong Kangkong – braised spinach with red onion, soy, vinegar and sugar, was served alongside Guinataang Sugpo – prawns with coconut, ginger, garlic, vinegar and chilli. I adore spinach and have never cooked it with vinegar before, but was surprised at how tasty it was.

Cue drum roll…time for Oxtail Kare Kare. Thankfully Mae (Pepe’s Kitchen) helped me out with serving the finished dish which was served with steamed rice and the all important Bagoong, a paste made from fermented shrimp and salt. The paste really lends a savoury kick to the stew, which by contrast is subtle in flavour. The oxtail is slow cooked with onions, celery and peppercorns, before the addition of ground toasted rice, peanut butter, lime, garlic, onion, baby aubergine, long beans and pak choi.

The last main of the day was Chicken Adobo, thigh meat stewed with coconut, vinegar, soy, chilli, garlic and bay leaves, prepared by Frederico (looking very proud below!).

Adobo is widely regarded as the national Filipino dish, with the word Adobo deriving from marinade or sauce in Spanish. A very fitting way to complete a savoury Filipino banquet!

And finally onto the desserts – we had some very morish Turon, or Crisp Banana Rolls…

And beautiful Leche Flans, with a sugar syrup surface so perfect I could see my own reflection…

I had an amazing time at the Cooking Club. Got to learn heaps about Filipino food, met a really interesting bunch of people and played with puppies to my heart’s content. Not to mention eating a whole lotta food and slurping a whole lotta wine. I forgot to add, unlike a Supper Club, the event is free. You pay your way by bringing a bottle and buying the ingredients needed for your selected dish. Luiz was a most gracious and welcoming host, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday. My eyes will be peeled for future cooking club events for sure.

U-don think it’s easy to make Udon?

My latest cookery course endeavour was a fresh noodle making class with Reiko Hashimoto, possibly the first of its kind in London, for I’ve yet to come across anything remotely similar.  I’ve been to Reiko’s Gourmet course and left with nothing but praise for the standard of expertise in Japanese cuisine that Reiko offers, relaxed and informal surroundings and above all, damn tasty food that you CAN recreate at home (whilst wowing your friends as they marvel at your culinary skills!).

My assumption has always been that it’s pretty tough to make noodles and I was so surprised to see how so few ingredients and a little hard graft result in fresh noodles ready for the pot in less than 20 minuntes (or a little longer for feebles like me with wimpy arms).

We made Udon noodles – equal quantities of strong white flour and plain flour, and Reiko explained how to make Soba noodles – a combination of buckwheat flour and plain flour.  Nothing else needed, just a little cold water to bring the mixture together.  The soba noodles were made before the class began to allow for resting.

This is a very hands-on class, and no doubt the messiest one for Reiko’s kitchen, although aprons were thoughtfully provided for all of us. Everyone has their own Udon mix to knead and after about 15 minutes of taking out the days aggressions on the dough, it is miraculously transformed into a springy ball ready for rolling and cutting.

The noodles are hand cut, which all adds to the ‘feel-good’ factor when making something very tactile like this, and you get a much better idea of how thin the dough should be rolled and cut than if it were to be pressed through a machine.

We also rolled and cut the Soba, which were more tricky to work with as the dough was drier and less elastic, and the strands should be cut much thinner than for Udon.

Some of the noodles came out fat, some thin…and some with a rogue hair in them (whoops!).  For me, this was all part of the enjoyment and I’m sure we all left learning from our mishaps.

At the beginning of the class, Reiko started by preparing a traditional Dashi stock with Kombu and Bonito flakes and we revisit the pot at several stages throughout the class. Of course when you’re in a rush it’s ok to use instant dashi stock, but you really can taste the difference if the stock is made from scratch.

We went through a variety of accompaniments for the noodles – Soy & Honey Glazed Smoked Mackeral or Saba and Deep Fried Tofu or Kitsune for the udon, and a sweet soy based Zaru dressing for the Soba noodles which are traditionally eaten cold with a little wasabi and chopped spring onion. We also had some sliced Japanese fish cake to serve with the udon. Needless to say, this then led to the inevitable slurping of the noodles, with a refreshing glass of wine or beer.  I dare say we deserved it for all that kneading!

The Udon and amazing dashi stock were especially good – when freshly made they have a certain spring to them that you don’t get with dried or frozen udon. This is something I will definitely try at home, I really was amazed at how simple they were to make, with no specialist equipment or ingredients needed.

All in the evening costs £65 and it’s one of a kind. Reiko’s classes always attract a nice mix of attendees from all kinds of backgrounds, and the ice is broken quickly with such a hands on class where everyone rolls up their sleeves and mucks in. Another triumph from Reiko which I wholeheartedly recommend!

French and Grace (and a bit of Jay Rayner)

The tables were turning in more ways than one when I popped in to get my fill of Jay Rayner at French and Grace (Brixton Village) this Easter. This all came about from a challenge given to Jay by the editor of The Observer Magazine – the challenge was to make as much profit as possible from a mere £100. What with being a food critique and fan of Brixton Village himself, the natural conclusion of course was to devise, cook and serve a cheap but tasty Special to the ogling public (that includes me). Was this kind or crazy for the girls at French and Grace to accept?!?

Jay’s dish du jour was announced a few days before to “a bunch of people on Twitter who are so desperate for a distraction from their jobs that they will read anything” (again, that includes me) – Slow cooked Pork Belly with White Beans – sounds good to me.

Donned in chef whites and a Marco Pierre White-esque bandaner, Jay didn’t look 100% himself in the cosy kitchen, and understandably so for the service was a busy one and the punters were keen to converse. The kitchen is on full display and we were sat close enough to hear the chopping of knife on board and fat sizzling away in the pan.  I’m no stranger to the sensation after working in a french chalet with an open plan kitchen for 6 months, trying to juggle 6 pans, chit chat and children tugging at my apron strings. Alas, nothing that Rosie and Ellie (the founders of French and Grace) don’t have to contend with on a daily basis!

And so the food arrives. I went for the Pork Belly Special and my man chose the Uber Wrap, a Middle Eastern inspired dish with Lamb Merguez (spiced lamb sausage), Halloumi, Hummus and Salad in a flatbread.

The Pork Belly I have to say was really well cooked – gloriously tender meat, no knife needed here, with just the right amount of juicy fat. It was nicely caramelised so full of flavour, and the jus which was flavoured with thyme, oozed into the beans and brought the whole dish together.  Every bean on that plate was squashed to mop up the meaty pork sauce! A simple, no frills dish that was well executed.

I had a mouthful of the the mans Uber Wrap which was equally tasty.  The combination of lamb and halloumi is always a crowd pleaser and I thought the Merguez had a decent amount of spice.  The typical menu at French and Grace has a strong Middle Eastern theme with Mezze platters, Flatbread Wraps and other specials that change frequently.  I’m keen to return and sample more.

Big thanks to the team at French and Grace for a lovely lunch – I hope you enjoyed your post service drink!  Well deserved indeed.

Street Kitchen

I’ve walked passed Streetkitchen many a time and now I’m kicking myself for not stopping by a little bit sooner. Nestled in amongst towering offices just off Broadgate Circle, the gleaming van stands valiant and proud.  Almost heckling at the Gaucho just a stones throw away across the square.

A joint collaboration between Mark Jankel and Jun Tanaka (formerly of Pearl) and launched in 2010, their aim is to serve simple and healthy bistro style dishes to people on the go.  All their ingredients are 100% UK sourced, with environmental sustainability in mind. Their menu changes frequently to show case seasonal British produce at its best, with meat, fish and vegetarian options to suit all appetites.

I chose the Mackeral dish at £7.50 – every element of the dish tasted good.  It was all well cooked, and very well seasoned. The mackeral fillets were pan fried with a slight crispy skin and moist flesh.  The crushed potatoes were buttery, the sprouting broccoli was still al dente and the roasted beetroot finished with a light vinegar dressing cut through the richness of the mackerel and buttery potatoes perfectly.

All served with a friendly smile, I’ll definitely be back for more.  At £7.50 it’s not the cheapest lunch to-go, but I’d rather spend an extra quid and get something seasonal, sustainable and cooked with passion, than eat from the many nondescript chain establishments that dominate the local area.

A new addition to the Airstream menu that I’ve been tucking into recently…(£6.50) soft poached eggs with roasted field mushrooms, buttery crushed potatoes, pickled red onions, Old Winchester Cheese, Roasted Tomato Pesto and Rosemary Breadcrumbs…..one word….YUM.   Makes a dull day at the office so much better.   I just wish they were open for breakfast!

Really appreciating Streetkitchens attention to detail with the dressings and ‘sprinkles’ on each of their dishes.  The roasted tomato pesto and rosemary breadcrumbs went fantastically well with the poached eggs and mushroom combo, and the pickled red onions added enough acidity to cut through the richness of the yolk and potatoes.

Perhaps the ‘Holy Grail’ choice for many at Streetkitchen is the Crispy chicken option (£7.50), with those signature potatoes, pickled red onions, bacon, chunky croutons, lettuce and Old Winchy Mayo.  Good to see chicken with the skin on for a change.  Yes it’s indulgent, but the extra calories are worth it as the chicken is cooked to crisp but moist perfection.