Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Masterchef Popup Restaurant, London

Many of us probably have a restaurant where we know the chef well enough at least to exchange greetings and comment on the food.  But how about going to a smart restaurant in central London for the first time and feeling that you know so much about the chefs and their lives that they feel like part of your family.  Such is the power of television.  Masterchef exposes every facet of the contestants character as they prepare dishes, under pressure, for close scrutiny not only by the judges, Greg Wallace (@greggawallace ) and John Torode (@johntorode1), but also by viewers, many of whom will voice their opinion via social media.  So, arriving at the Blue Fin Building in London for lunch last Sunday at the Masterchef Restaurant, everyone must have felt that they already knew the chefs. This was enhanced by their presence in the dining room where they enthusiastically shared views and ideas with the diners. One big happy family !

The Masterchef Restaurant is a 'popup' which brings together champions and finalists from the past 10 years to create bespoke menus for a five week period.  We booked for lunch on the first Sunday ( 7th Sept) and our chefs were the 2014 winner Ping Coombes ( @wanpingcoombes ) and finalists Jack Lucas ( @jacklucas1) and Luke Owen ( @master chef_luke ).  The popup is located on the South Bank in the Blue Fin Building, so called because it is covered in 2,000 blue aluminium fins, each with a metallic finish that changes the building’s appearance from different positions. 

On arrival we were directed to the 11th floor roof terrace to enjoy a glass of champagne and to take in the stunning view of the Thames and London skyline which includes iconic buildings such as St. Pauls, The Shard and The Gherkin. The restaurant on the 10th floor was very contemporary with clean lines and lots of glass which allowed us to enjoy the views throughout the meal. The menu comprised 3 courses with a choice of two items per course each of which was attributed to the chef.  We opted for one of each so we could taste them all and we were not disappointed. Not all were seafood of course but they are each worth a mention. 

For starters, I had the Shellfish Arancini with prawn cocktail garnish which was the only dish designed by Luke. The crusted ball of risotto rice was packed with flavour and garnished with prawns and cocktail sauce.  I admit I had slight worries by the thought of the seventies-style sauce but Luke had given it a spicy lift with chilli which worked perfectly.  He explained to me later that the intensity of flavour in the rice resulted from the shellfish stock which he had prepared from prawn shells, celery, sherry and wine. The other starter was the Pork Sandwich designed by Ping. This was braised pork belly in a bao with crackling and sesame salad. The light steamed bun combined perfectly with the succulent meat and oriental sauce.  

For main the Prawn Laksa was also one of Ping's creations. Laksa is a popular spicy noodle soup which is combination of Chinese and Malay cuisine. The aromatic, spicy broth was prepared with lemongrass, galangal (a root from the ginger family), coconut and shrimps.  This was served with soft noodles, tiger prawns and garnish. A perfect combination and with Ping's 'special spices' the dish was light, flavoursome and satisfying. 

The main course designed by Jack was Cannon of Lamb with a breaded shoulder croquette, pea and mint puree, mashed potatoes, anchovy vinaigrette and redcurrant sauce.  The melt-in-your-mouth lamb was flavoursome and cooked to perfection with smooth creamy mash and intense pea puree…..delicious…... and that is from a seafood fanatic !

Ping's Pudding was Coconut and Pandan Panna Cotta  with chargrilled pineapple, compressed mango, lime and lemongrass granite. Great depth of flavour here from the fruit together with delicate panna cotta reminded us of Ping's skill in creating successful combinations with all types of food.

 Jack's pudding was Indulgent Chocolate Tart with orange yoghurt ice-cream, candied orange and popping candy crumb with an indulgent addition of edible gold leaf. All presented on the almost obligatory 'buttery biscuit base'. 

All in all this was a great event with good service and excellent food.  The atmosphere was convivial with no rush or panic (at least not at front of house) and we could take our time to enjoy it all.  All three chefs took the time to engage with the diners in a very relaxed and friendly way despite the fact that they had just prepared lunch for 150  having already prepared brunch earlier and had dinner to come.  So 'hats off' to the chefs but also to the organisers and support staff who created a very pleasant experience which in no way felt contrived. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Galleria Restaurant in Rome

On a recent 5-day visit to Rome we sampled the cuisine of a range of restaurants. The best by far was Galleria which is situated in a small but stylish shopping gallery on Via dei Sabini.

Galleria Restaurant in Rome
Its elegant interior with clean lines has a contemporary feel even though the restaurant has been in operation for over 6 years.  When we had lunch here, the restaurant was fairly busy with well dressed business people and savvy tourists.  At dinner the restaurant was quieter, not least because the shopping gallery was closed and the only access was from a side-street.  I am sure that outside the holiday period the restaurant is full of local people who are 'in-the-know' and return time and time again for the high quality food and service.

Great service from the pleasant staff and extra attention from the owner, Guido Anastasio Pugliese, enhanced the dining experience.  Guido took the time to come over and explain in detail some of the excellent wine choices and to offer samples of a delicious olive oil from L'Aquila in Abruzzo.

On arrival we were greeted with a complimentary glass of Prosecco before proceeding to the Chef's Amuse Bouche of Roman Sweet Pepper.

Raw fresh fish and Shellfish
For starters we shared the Grande Crudo di Pesce e Crostacei which comprised a range of raw fish and shellfish including Amberjack Carpaccio (from Sicily), Scampi (Adriatic), Red Prawns (Sicily), Salmon (Scotland) and a large Rock Oyster (France).  All beautifully fresh and garnished with redcurrants, blackberry and a homemade Tomato Sorbet, it was a delight on the eye and 100% pleasure on the palate !  

Farfalle with Prawns
Red Prawns on a stick

To follow we had Farfalle pasta with grilled red prawns, pea puree and Tuna Borttaga (salted roe).  Also, grilled Red Prawns on a skewer with sliced radish and a balsamic and orange reduction.  Both dishes were superb.

The cuisine is elegant and refined but not in any way pretentious. All the food is prepared with care using the finest fresh ingredients.  

Eating at the Gallery has a sense of style and occasion, which is reflected in the tremendous quality of the food and service.  All of this comes at a very affordable price and it will definitely be on the top of our restaurant list next time we are in Rome.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Bilbao Berria - London

Pintxos on the bar at Bilbao Berria
Just opened in Lower Regent Street, Bilbao Berria is a Basque influenced restaurant which offers an extensive menu of Spanish cuisine and wines. We chanced upon this bar/restaurant on Saturday evening just 2 days after its official opening and were intrigued by the sight of a veritable forest of sticks, each attached to a tasty snack. These were the traditional Pintxos which accompany the wines. We were enticed inside (it didn't take much) by the friendly encouragement of Alex who kindly gave us a potted history and a tour of the restaurant. We then stayed to enjoy a couple of superb Spanish wines and a range of the delicious Pintxos.

Bibao Berria London
The interior is impressive. Dominated by rich colours and lighting it has an upmarket Spanish atmosphere. The widespread use of copper tube, flattened and twisted into complex shapes on the ceiling gives a feeling that you are sitting inside a modern sculpture. Other natural materials including wood and stone add to the natural, arty feel. Bilbao Berria is located on two floors. At street level is the stylish bar with Pintxos and Spanish wines. On the lower ground floor, a more formal dining area offers a range of classic and modern Basque and Spanish dishes. The chef is the Australian, Ash Mair, winner of U.K. Masterchef Professional in 2011. He has had an interest in Basque cuisine for many years. 

Cod and Tuna Pintxos
Anchovies with Tomato
It was all too tempting to resist so we settled at a table in the bar and were greeted by our waitress Andrea who explained that all of the Pintxos were priced at £1.85 each and to grab a plate and help ourselves. She then enquired of our wine-type preference and recommended a couple, one of which we tasted first. We opted for the Pequenos Santos, a Galician wine made from Albarino grapes, which Andrea described as dry and slightly salty. A good description and very palatable. We collected about 5 Pintxos each and enjoyed the variety of flavours on offer. The range is extensive and it would be all to easy to just keep grazing but we managed some self-discipline until Andrea brought over grilled Chorizo on bread which was amazing. To follow, we tried a couple of desserts, a mini creme caramel and a chocolate brownie, complemented perfectly with a sweet Riojan wine called Seduccion, made from Muscat (50%) and Vivra (50%) grapes.

All-in-all a terrific experience combining tasty foods, beautiful wines and friendly service. Already successful in Bilbao and Barcelona, this latest London outpost is destined to succeed. So go and enjoy Bilbao Berria, we certainly will again!Square Meal

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Brittens Restaurant in Guildford, Surrey

Britten's logoDaniel Britten reached the quarter-final of BBC Masterchef in 2008 and now operates Brittens restaurant in the Tunsgate area of Guildford, Surrey.  Offering Modern British cuisine Daniel aims to bring 'foodie' dishes with an emphasis on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients. Since opening last November it is attracting a lot of attention and very positive reviews.
I had lunch there last Thursday and found the food to be high quality, the service friendly and the pricing good value.  Surprisingly there were only a few customers on this particular Thursday lunchtime but maybe that is a sign of the times.
Pan Fried Scallops with Morcilla
The lunch menu comprised Small Plates (£7 each), Large Plates (£13 each ) and Sweet Shop (£5 each) all with plenty of choice and thankfully no supplements on any of the dishes. So diners can mix and match depending on mood and appetite.  I opted for one small and one large plate which essentially amounts to a two-course lunch for £20.  Perfectly reasonable considering the careful preparation and quality of the food.

My Small Plate starter was Pan-fried Scallops with Morcilla and Apple.  The king scallops were cooked to perfection with pieces of morcilla (Spanish black pudding) and pureed apple.  A classic dish expertly prepared. My Large Plate main course was Pan-fried Sea Bream, Crushed New Potatoes, Brown Shrimp Butter and Parsley Sauce. Beautifully presented and a great combination of flavours this dish worked perfectly.  The brown shrimp butter melted over the top of the crispy skin ( how did he do that ?)  bream fillet was flavoursome and enhanced by the fresh green parsley sauce.  Accompanied by the freshest steamed curly kale this was a delightful meal.  
All-in-all I enjoyed this two course meal with a carafe of Sauvignon Blanc and an espresso afterwards for around £30 per person which for the quality was incredibly good value.  The simple surroundings were elegant and relaxing and the service was good.  This is a 'London quality' restaurant in Guildford - long may it continue.

Brittens Restaurant, 1c Sydenham Road, Guildford GU1 3RT, 01483 302888

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Slow Cooked Octopus at Andrew Edmunds

I have only written the title and already must own up to a mistruth.  I wasn't actually eating at Andrew Edmunds but was meeting a colleague for lunch in The Academy Club above the restaurant.  The food however, comes from the same kitchen so it's a fair assumption that the restaurant version is the same.

I chose the Slow Cooked Octopus with Tomatoes, Choritzo, Capers and Olives, starter size, as a light lunch with a plate of French bread to soak up the delicious juices.  I have cooked and eaten octopus many times and the secret of success for this flavoursome dish is the method of tenderising the meat. When I owned The Good Fish Shop, one of my customers who is Spanish, telephoned his mum (in Spain) for advice on tenderising octopus.  I was expecting a lot of bashing, stretching and sun-drying to be offered but no, her simple reply was 'freeze it for 24 hours'.  Andrew offered the same recommendation with one important addition 'thaw it out very slowly' i.e. 24 hours in the 'fridge.  The result was superb - generous portions of octopus (I'm sure the slow cooking helped too) in a rich hearty sauce with juicy pieces of chorizo and aromatic dark olives. I look forward to visiting Andrew Edmunds (the restaurant) for a full meal in the near future.

Square Meal

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Axis, One Aldwych, New Years Eve 2013

Axis, the flagship restaurant at One Aldwych in London, is run by Executive Chef Dominic Teague (previously of l'Escargot and Sandy Lane Hotel Barbados) so I was quite excited at the prospect of experiencing his special NYE menu. 

NYE 2013 menu at Axis, London
Lobster Bisque
Canap├ęs of crispy cod fritters, hand made cheese straws and mini-quiches were presented on arrival at our table. A glass of fizz would have been a nice touch but all drinks were excluded for the £85 per head price. We opted for a nice bottle of Sancerre at £48 which carried us through the meal.

First course for me was the Crab Bisque which was beautifully crafted to combine the delicate flavour of fresh crab with Montgomery Cheddar, crunchy croutons and Saffron Aioli. 

Lobster Cocktail
Next choice was Scottish Lobster Cocktail - claw meat with finely shredded leaves in a light citrus dressing and a touch of coriander. Very fresh lobster from the cool waters of Scotland,  perfectly cooked as this was, is moist and flavoursome and makes for a perfect intermediate dish. 

The main course of Pan Fried Wild Turbot Fillet was a change from the original menu of Halibut and a positive one in my book. Don't get me wrong, I like Halibut and I am sure that a chef like Dominic would have done it proud, but Turbot is 'the king of fish' and my particular favourite. Apparently the change was made due to our extreme weather conditions over the festive period which decimated the Halibut catch.  What a substitute ! (This must be how Man City boss, Manuel Pellegrini feels when he has to take Dzecko off and replace him with Aguero).  Presented on a bed of spinach with salsify, onions and a red wine jus ( Turbot is meaty enough to take this ) it was superb. 

Rounded off with a selection of 8 small desserts this was a delightful experience. 

Service and food quality were all top-notch thank you, One Aldwych and Axis.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Portofino - A New Restaurant in Lagos, Portugal

Portofino is a stylish restaurant which opened in November 2013 at the upper level of the Marina de Lagos and is attracting a lot of positive attention. Established and operated by Paul and Gorrete it is easy to see why. They are experienced restaurateurs who have run several successful eateries in the UK and they have applied their skills here too. The decor and lighting is stylish and relaxing with a pleasant view of the marina from this elevated location. 

Portofino was recommended by my good friend Carlos Ramos who is the proprietor of O Cantinho Algarvio, a favourite restaurant of mine. Carlos really knows about food so I guessed we were in for a treat on his recommendation. I was right. We were warmly welcomed and shown to our table next to the window. Mood lighting and contemporary furniture gave the space an almost London feel which is quite rare in Lagos.

I opted for the Fennel Crusted Calamari on a bed of Rocket to start. Tender squid rings with a nice dry batter and a beautiful aniseed finish from the Fennel. Main course was pan-fried Monkfish with Onions, Bacon, White Wine and Lemon Cream Sauce on Mashed Potato. Beautifully  presented, this dish had great flavour and texture. 

I should say at this point that Portofino is not a seafood restaurant.  It is essentially Italian  cuisine expertly crafted from high quality ingredients. We tried the meatballs with spaghetti which was probably the best I have ever tasted outside Italy. There is also a good selection of Italian classic wines and some good Portuguese ones too. We opted for the 1/2 litre carafes each of house red and white both of which were outstanding and great value at €8:95 each.
Three of us ate starters and mains with two half litre carafes for a total of €70, which in my opinion was a bargain. Go there !