Monday, January 25, 2010

Where's my Pork and Duck? - Tai Ka Lok

Tai Ka Lok

As some of you who follow this blog know, I really like roast duck and crispy pork with rice. A simple dish of cooked meats, sometimes a few leaves of greenery, a little bit of gravy all heaped on mounds of warm, gently steamed rice. If I were ever to find myself on death row (unless my life takes a very big detour, this isn't going to happen) this would rate highly amongst my last requests.

Walking towards my latest target, it dawned on me that there are a lot of places selling this dish in Chinatown. In fact, almost every restaurant I walked past sold this dish in one way or another, so I thought I better set some loose ground rules. Well, one really, that the wares must be on full display in the window. It would still mean a lot of places to try, but I don't really mind. I am well up for the gluttony...I mean challenge.

Anyway, today's target was Tai Ka Lok. Helen from World Foodie Guide had recently visited with parents and had indicated that it may well be worth a shot, so what the hell, time to tick another one off the rather long list. Located next to the Kowloon bakery, it's pretty much like 90% of the restaurants that you find in Chinatown, slightly grimy, a little rundown with well worn menus containing tippexed prices. As a (crap) Chinaman, I often get addressed in Chinese which results in blank stares from my direction. I think most Chinese waiters cannot fathom that I know no Chinese and continue to talk at me, in the vain hope that some genetic switch will trigger and I will suddenly be able to converse freely with them. No different here, although they cottoned onto this fact pretty quickly with my consistent grunts of "Hurr?"

Tai Ka Lok

Anyway, the food. This was actually pretty damn good. The duck had a nice crisp skin to it with a thin layer of fat, not quite the flabby example presented to me at Hungs. Flavour wise, bang on the money although it was let down with a poor gravy, no greenery and too many bony pieces. Pork had a great crunch and was everything I would hope for. They even brought me a bowl of broth with stewed bones and some veg in it, nicely lubricating the dish.

I definitely will take another look at Tai Ka Lok. The duck and pork rice was excellent, although whether it's the winner, well, that remains to be seen. It's certainly up there.

Tai Ka Lok - 18 Gerrard Street, London W1D 6JH

Tai Ka Lok on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 22, 2010

Visiting the Burbs, Sunday Lunch at Le Cassoulet, Croydon

I have a tonne of posts that I have been meaning to write up. You know how it goes, good intentions, but then something gets in the way (in my case, probably something food related). Some of these I can let go. They probably weren't that interesting and would probably have consisted of me going "Well, it tasted OK. It looked alright, service was fair to middling, ambiance was mediocre etcetera...." Rinse and repeat.

Well some places definitely do deserve a write up and I am going to do my damnedest to get through some of my backlog. Le Cassoulet is a perfect example of my laziness. All the way back in September (yep, that's right, September), I escaped the confines of central London and boarded a train bound for South Croydon.


Part of the Malcolm John chain of restaurants, I have already written up a very disappointing meal at nearby Fish and Grill here, but thankfully Le Cassoulet was infinitely better. Serving very traditional French cuisine, I was stunned by the sheer amount of choice on the set menu. Seven different starters, no less than eight mains and a respectable six choices for dessert, three courses for a very affordable £19.50.

Creamiest mash ever
Rabbit and Mushroom Pie

Most dishes went down very well. I remember my extremely decadent main of rabbit pie fondly, with an even more luxurious mash accompanying it. I swear it was 50% potato and the rest was made up of cream and butter. James Martin would have been proud. However, the highlight had to be the Chateaubriand. Shared between two with a £6 a head additional supplement, my dining companions were presented with a platter of tender pink meat, bone marrow and Bearnaise. Offered a taste, I couldn't resist and the moment I started chewing on that perfectly prepared meat, I knew I would be enduring food envy throughout the rest of my meal. My rabbit and mushroom pie may have been good, but this was amazing, and I don't say that lightly. No pics from me, but please check out Kang from Londoneater's post here, says it all really.

I don't take to travelling outside Zone 2 too happily, after all I'm just a city boy, but I would gladly do it again to go to Le Cassoulet. Outstanding value, I wouldn't go as far as calling it a "destination" restaurant, but the residents of South Croydon are very lucky.

Le Cassoulet (website) - 18 Selsdon Road, South Croydon CR2 6PA

Le Cassoulet on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 18, 2010

Revisiting Byron - The launch of the Big D

Big D - Byron @ The Intrepid Fox

I have always been an advocate of Byron, as readers of this blog will contest. Ever since my first visit, I have been back numerous times and the burgers just get better and better. Uncomplicated and delicious, they are currently my burger of choice in London.

Root Beer Float

As you can see from the post linked above, that was written in the infancy of this blog and a lot has changed since then. Not only have I discovered that there are more than one Byron (where there are in fact 5 within London and even 2 outside) but they also now have an A&W Root Beer float on the menu. Foaming heaven in a frosty glass.

The latest branch to open is located deep in Soho on the site of the old Intrepid Fox. I would love to go on about the history of the Intrepid Fox and how it holds many memories for me, but I was never a grungy or gothy kid in my youth, and would much rather hang around more lively and less sombre drinking establishments. All the same, the site has a rich vein of history and could do worse than housing somewhere that sells A-grade burgers.

For a large many of us, having a Byron in the heart of Soho is infinitely more accessible than the majority of their restaurants which are spread across various destinations in West and South West London. Even with this statement, I still hadn't managed to make my way there and it took the news of yet another development for me to make my way there.

What was this mysterious announcement, you ask? Come a little closer and I will whisper it in your ear.......Byron have a new burger. Good gossip spreads like wildfire and it was only a few days prior to my visit that I got wind of some developments. Some rumours here, other mentions there. There was more tension being built up than the Eastenders Christmas Special. Finally, I found out the news, my own personal "who murdered Archie" moment, the Big D was to be launched.

If this wasn't a good enough reason to get my arse down to Byron, I don't know what is. So what is the Big D you may ask? Well, its an 8 oz premium burger crafted from meat supplied by premium butchers, Jack O'Shea. A bigger patty (than the usual 6oz) made out of premium Jack O'Shea beef, sounds like my kind of burger.

Big D - Byron @ The Intrepid Fox

When it arrived in front of me, I lifted the bun and although the aroma was mesmeric, there were a few small niggles I need to get out of the way. Although packed with decent salad (which didn't poke me in the eye, major bonus), I like a bit more lubrication than just mayonnaise. Yes, there are a multitude of sauces to choose from but I like a good relish (sweetcorn or tomato), something to just lift the beef. This had none. And the pickle, an essential part of a delicious burger (there is something about that crunch and piquancy that elevates a good burger to nigh on godly) was delicious, but quartered and left on the side, waiting for manual inclusion. I know lots of people find pickles offensive, but it needs to be sliced and evenly distributed within the burger. I hate to admit this, but it's something I actually admire in a McDonalds cheeseburger.

Big D - Byron @ The Intrepid Fox

Niggles aside (I like the bun, just putting it out there), what you get is a very memorable burger. My burger arrived perfectly medium, pink and juicy, with a slight dribble when you bite in. The flavour is exactly what you would expect from a burger made with good, aged meat. It was packed with meaty goodness and tasted of very happy cow. Happy cow = happy punter. I was so hungry that my mouth was working hard to get my fill. After all, everybody wants a thrill. Sides of skinny fries and courgette fries were perfect accompaniments. I can contest, this was as close to a bur-gasm as I have ever got in London.

As you would expect, a slightly larger burger made from high quality meat is a going to cost a little more, but even at £9.95, it is still very affordable. I don't believe that every branch stocks them, so please check before you go, and be prepared to reserve them to avoid disappointment. I never did find out what the D stood for, but in my eyes, it will always stand for delicious. I don't think my love affair with Byron is quite over yet.

Byron @ The Intrepid Fox
(Website) - 97-99 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UD

Byron on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 15, 2010

Throwing down the gauntlet. The Giraffe Burger (invite)

I have had some decent burgers in my time. Lucky enough to have a cousin who lives in New York, I have fond memories of a burger I had at a bar called JG Melons, as well as the burgers I ate on my recent visit including Shake Shack and the BLT burger. London isn't doing too badly either, with Byron leading the way and other pretenders such as Hache trying to muscle in.

After a conversation on twitter with @catty regarding the mediocrity of the burger at Ed's diner, @giraffetweet threw down the gauntlet, claiming that the burgers at Giraffe (a growing chain of restaurants selling "world food") were "the thing that (burger) dreams are made of". Having staked her claim with such conviction, I couldn't turn down a chance to try this "Godly" burger. Invite accepted.

Giraffe, Victoria

I had arranged a man date to go and see Avatar with the Captain, so a trip to Giraffe before hand slotted nicely into our schedule. Having grown up with him, where all I remember him eating were burgers, I thought he would be as good a judge as anyone to see if these burgers really made the grade. After all, it was him who first introduced me to Byron.

Giraffe, Victoria

Starters ordered, there was a slight mix up when the chicken potstickers turned up instead of the chicken tikka sticks. Not really an issue as the potstickers were pretty tasty, as well as the hummus we ordered on the side. None of this really mattered though, we were here for the burger and the time was nearly upon us.

I'm going to break this down into what I see as the three main constituent parts of a burger, the bun, the fillings and the most important part of all, the patty. So here goes:

Giraffe, Victoria

Bun - Good. Not brioche, nor ciabatta but a simple toasted white roll. Good flavour, slightly sweet and most importantly, survived the break up test. Burgers are meant to be eaten with hands, and after considerable man handling, stayed in one piece until the burger had been polished off. Big tick.

Burger at Eagle Bar and Diner
NOT the Giraffe, merely a representation of a poor burger

Fillings - Never a fan when it comes to tonnes of veg in my burger. The burger I had at Eagle bar and diner (see above) annoyed the hell out of me as the lettuce kept poking me in the eye. However, I do like a bit of pickle and a good relish and this had both. In fact, the relish deserves a sentence on its own, sweet and tomatoey and I would happily take a jar of this home for consumption in my own abode.

Giraffe, Victoria

Patty - So here we go, the patty. Ordered medium, it arrived more on the side of medium well. So slightly over done but full credit to the patty. It was moist and very tasty. I should really have asked more info about the provenance of the meat, but as I discovered in the US, you don't always need to use the finest ingredients to make the best tasting burger. Big patty, big flavour and I was certainly pleasantly surprised.

So overall, I was very happy with the burger. It certainly didn't let me down in terms of quality or flavour, but at £9.25 (compared to just £6.25 at Byron), I would say that it was a tad on the pricy side (although it was accompanied by fries). It's certainly streets ahead of other burger pretenders such as gourmet burger, ultimate burger, hamburger plus and I would even hasten to add Hache to that list. However, although this was very good, I still believe Byron serves the best burger in London, for flavour and value.

I would happily come back here and have another. Even the Captain, a dedicated meat eater, was rather pleased. Gauntlet picked up and passed back to Ms @giraffetweet and point proven. You certainly are the proud owner of an excellent burger.

Giraffe (website) - Multiple sites but I ate at 120 Wilton Road, Victoria SW1V 1JZ

Giraffe on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 11, 2010

Plum Valley, Chinese Fine Dining?

Plum Valley, Chinatown

Many years ago, when I was a wee nipper studying for my degree, I chose to write my dissertation about how "Chinese" Chinatown really was. A controversial decision, but it was essentially a look at how the Chinese community had moved on from Chinatown and that Chinatown had now primarily become a commercial outlet as opposed to a hub for the Chinese community in London.

In between the long hours in the library and at my desk writing up my findings, I also had to put time in the field and found myself meandering around Chinatown, documenting the shops and restaurants. I spent hours peering at the hanging carcasses and during breaks, I would partake in a plate of roast meat and rice. Costing about £5, it was well within my student budget and scant reward for hours of legwork.

Plum Valley, Chinatown

Fast forward 10 years and I find myself standing outside Plum Valley, dark and sultry, proudly emblazoning "Chinese Fine Dining" wherever possible. My, how things have changed. Not only do I now have more than £5 to spend on dinner, but places like Plum Valley are becoming all too common on Gerrard street. Where once we would wander over to Loon Fung restaurant, now we have more choice for upper market dining such as Plum Valley and Haozhan down the road.

Plum Valley, Chinatown

So what exactly makes Plum Valley fine dining? Discussions prior to the meal suggested that it should primarily be based on the quality of the meal, the standard and consistency of the service, the ambiance and setting of the dining room and finally, the depth of the wine list. The food itself was actually far better than I expected. Starter of crispy duck salad was uninspiring but tasted as prescribed, with generous helpings of aromatic duck intermingled with salad leaves and hoisin.

Plum Valley, Chinatown
Plum Valley, Chinatown
Plum Valley, Chinatown
Plum Valley, Chinatown

Mains were much much better. The Mongolian Beef was probably the best dish. Sweet, sour and savoury, all my favourite S's together in synchronicity doused with a generous pinch of pepper. Lamb cutlets were cooked well and seafood hot pot was packed to the brim with the fruits of the sea. Tofu, firm and in a rich sauce, was generously accompanied by Chinese mushrooms and aubergine, a vegetarian dish good enough to appease a meat eater.

Plum Valley, Chinatown

Up to this point, the service was friendly and far superior to the usual abuse you get from some of the other restaurants in the neighbourhood. Then we ordered dessert. What was labelled as Willow Dew Cream was meant to be a sago based dessert (small balls of tapioca) flavoured with pomelo and mango, which I am assuming was the "modern" twist. What followed from this point onwards was slightly farcical although equally bewildering at the time.

A few mouthfuls into our sago based dessert, I realised that it was lacking a vital ingredient, sago (strange, I know). After alerting a waitress to this issue, she ran off smiling, never to be seen again. Was this some sort of joke? We alerted another waiter who this time ran off to check the menu. When he returned to confirm with us that our sago dessert did normally contain sago, he scuttled off to find out why, never to be seen again. If we kept going at this rate, the restaurant was going to run out of waiters. Finally, we signalled yet another waitress who informed us that there had been a miscommunication between kitchens (apparently they have more than one) , and that the fresh sago they normally make had gone "off". It had taken almost 30 minutes to establish that their sago dessert had no sago and the kitchen hadn't told them. She then became extremely defensive, took our desserts away and waltzed off.

As you can imagine, that little episode took a shine off what had been a fairly enjoyable experience up until then. What it did re-affirm is exactly what I thought all along, Chinese fine dining is a fraud. One little problem had led to a meltdown in the staff and even made one waitress revert to being plain rude. Peel away the fancy layers and focus on what really matters (the food, it is a restaurant after all) and what you find are dishes that you can find in most of the other restaurants dotted around Chinatown. I realise many will not agree, but I would be quite happy going back to my student days, and tucking into a plate of £5 roast meat and rice.

Plum Valley - 20 Gerrard Street, London W1D 6JQ

Plum Valley on Urbanspoon

Friday, January 8, 2010

Launceston Place, just a hair/hare out of place

Launceston Place, Kensington

Launceston Place is one of those places which seems to have been on "that list" forever. You know, the one of the places I had always wanted to go to but never got round to and probably never will. The first time I was meant to go here, my companions were ill, and even though it was tempting enough to go on my own, I restrained myself and waited for another opportunity. The second time, I was ill. When my sister had arranged a family meal only for the parents to pull out, I made damn sure that this was going to be third time lucky and substituted my parents for @foodbymark and @almacarina.

Launceston Place, Kensington

Head Chef, Tristan Welch, is another one of those chefs who I discovered through watching the Great British Menu. Incorporating modern spin on British classics, I was drawn in by his style of cooking and Launceston Place was firmly on "the list". I arrived early and was welcomed enthusiastically, and when the rest of my rabble arrived, we were shown to our table in the compact dining room and brought over some devilled parsnip crisps to nibble as we perused the menu.

Launceston Place, Kensington

As we were lunching, we had to choose between the dinner (much wider choice and £45) or the lunch menu (limited to 3 choices for each course, £20). As tempting as the dinner menu was, the lunch menu had seemingly good choices and for a mere £20, is extremely good value. Choices ordered, we were brought an amuse of a hot and cold leek soup, with the contrasting heats of the liquids adding an interesting touch to a very tasty palate livener.

Launceston Place, Kensington

- Cep Risotto, Spenwood Cheese
Simply presented and packed with flavour. The flavour of the ceps permeated deep within the risotto, each bite was luxurious. This was liberally shared around, with the copper vessel deceivingly large, and every single mouthful came with a murmur of agreement, swiftly followed by a request for another bite. Other starters of lobster soup and scallops off the dinner menu also met with a seal of approval. Good start.

Launceston Place, Kensington

- Braised Wild hare, pistachio butter, chicory and pear salad
This is was very disappointing. Having never eaten hare before, but partial to a bit of Bugs, I was excited to try this and paired with pistachios, one of my favourite ingredients, this should have been an exciting new taste experience. Instead, what I got was an overwhelming taste of salt. The dish had been heavily overseasoned and although the few slices of pear help dilute the assault on my tastebuds, the dish was a write-off. To top it off, my sisters hare had a different type of hair in it, one of the human kind. The staff were quite gracious and handled it very professionally, offering to replace her main, and then allowing her to choose 2 desserts instead. They also proceded to comp her meal for this indiscretion, but it still left a bad taste in the mouth.

Launceston Place, Kensington

After a very Christmassy and refreshing palate cleanser of mulled wine mousse, pear sorbet and candied orange, we embarked upon our miscellaneous assortment of desserts.

Launceston Place, Kensington

Dessert - Apple tart, home made clotted cream
One of LP's signature dishes, the tart arrives in a massive copper bottomed pan and is individually dished out to each lucky recipient. Each slice has crisp pastry with a sweet, caramelised apple topping. Served with homemade clotted cream, this was seriously good...but not perfect. I would much rather have had an ice cream and found myself dunking my spoon into Mark's raspberry ripple ice cream. This accompanied a superlative rice pudding souffle, which was one of the best souffles I have tasted. Other desserts of poached pear and banana sticky toffee pudding were also accomplished, if not quite in the same league as the two afforementioned sweets.

On reflection, this meal was very good apart from two things. The main was a disaster. No matter how good the rest of the meal was, all I can think about how my hare was totally ruined by the over liberal use of salt. The added hair was also a black mark on LP but was handled very professionally by the staff.

Which brings me to my next black mark. Although on the whole, the service was exceptional, we were told by a member of staff (who wasn't serving us) that we had already been informed that we weren't allowed to take photos. Now, nothing annoys a food blogger more than being told that they aren't allowed to take photos of their food. And to top it off, I am pretty sure that isn't the policy of the restaurant, having had our waiter proudly pose with a decadent white alba truffle.

These little annoyances shouldn't detract from the fact that this is a very good restaurant. We had one awful dish but the rest of the food should not be overlooked. And that £20 set menu is insane value. Make sure it's on your list.

Launceston Place (Website) - 1a Launceston Place, London W8 5RL

Launceston Place on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 4, 2010

A day of madness and then calm at Dean Street Townhouse

Carnaby Street

It's that crazy time of the year again, January sales. I really have nothing I need to buy, but feel compelled to subject myself to the hell that is Oxford Street. After all, there are bargains to be had out there and I don't want to be left out. So, fuelled by a stellar brunch at Johanssons, I jumped on the 12 and made my way up into the heart of town.

Sales time is certainly an odd time of year. People get that evil glint in their eye, fuelled by finding the needle in a haystack, that amazing bargain buried deep within the labyrinth of shops. Me, I just wanted a new jacket. A few hours later, I emerged with an ill fitting jacket, pillowcases for the wrong size pillows and a stripy duvet cover (which surprisingly had nothing wrong with it). After hours of being elbowed and walking into stationary tourists, I got away from the chaos of the main streets and headed towards some coffee.

Fernandez and Wells, Beak Street

I wanted to try Milk Bar, which had come highly recommended, but burdened with my slightly rubbish purchases, I traipsed into Fernandez and Wells. And then traipsed straight back out again. You see, F&W has two branches right next to each other, one on Lexington street which sells food and wine, and the branch on Beak Street which is much more of a cafe, focused on selling coffee and cakes. Now located in the right branch, flat white and pasteis de nata ordered, I made myself comfortable in the cosy dining room and quietly supped my coffee. And a pretty decent coffee it was too. I can definitely see why people like the place so much and will be making my way back at some stage to get my hands on one of their famous sandwiches.

Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

Fuelled by coffee, I braved Selfridges and then headed for the main event of the evening, dinner with the Captain and his other half. The Dean Street Townhouse is just one of the raft of new additions to the Capital, but with firm recommendations from @circeplum and good reviews in the Independent and the Standard, the booking was made.

Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

The Dean Street Townhouse is part of the Soho House group, so I guess you know pretty much what to expect. It's cosy, the service is attentive and polite, and the furnishings are the kind that you really want to have in your own home. Food is staunchly British, a growing trend I fully expect to see more of throughout 2010. Whilst my dining partners stuck to firm favourites such as fish & chips and steak, I was intrigued by the mince and boiled potatoes. What could make mince so good, that it could be considered a meal in itself? In the end, I found out that the answer was nothing. It certainly was excellent mince, but good mince and potatoes is still just mince and potatoes.

Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

I got far more enjoyment nibbling on the remnant bone of the ribeye (by far the tastiest morsel of an otherwise insipid and one dimensional steak) and sequestering some of the deliciously minty marrow fat peas that came with the fish and chips. The fish itself was a bit of a let down, having over steamed itself within its prison of weak and ultimately soggy batter. Even a good tartare sauce could not redeem this.

Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

Running out of steam towards the end of the meal, we opted to share a few desserts, and whilst the rice pudding was of a good standard (accompanied by a good dollop of tart raspberry jam), it was the rhubarb fool that stole the show. Tender pieces of stewed rhubarb nestled amongst lashings of vanilla cream. The rhubarb was lightly stewed with a mild bite, and the slight remaining acidity cut nicely through the sweet cream. Full doesn't come into it when desserts are this good, all gone.

Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

I had a lovely evening, but I think that it had more to do with the company than the food. The restaurant itself is buzzing, which is always a good sign, but I cannot say that the food is more than average. The Captain and I go back many years, and meeting up means regaling stories of the good old days, days when we had no worries including mortgages, girlfriends/wives and dreaded job pressures. I guess it was apt that the first dinner of the new decade was with my oldest friend, it's just a shame we had to celebrate it with such an average meal.

Fernandez and Wells (Website) - 73 Beak Street, London W1F 9SR
Fernandez & Wells on Urbanspoon

The Dean Street Townhouse
(Website) - 69/71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE
Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon