Saturday, 15 March 2014

River Cafe - overpriced and not worth the hype

The+River+Cafe+London+review

Address: Thames Wharf, Rainville Rd
London W6 9HA
Phone: 020 7386 4200
Nearest Tube station:
Hammersmith

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £40pp
Service charge: 12.5%
Taste: ***
Service: ***
Ambience: ****
"You better put this up before you ship out," TT insisted. Fans of River Cafe, look away now.

My quest for the best value gourmet set lunch sent me half way across town to River Cafe. River Cafe is well known for its Italian cuisine as well as the number of top chefs it has trained but I have been put off trying the restaurant as it is out of the way and its prices are ridiculously high. An antipasti could cost £17 with the ala carte menu. However my interest in the restaurant was revived when it was featured in Giles Coren's list of top restaurants and on finding out that it is doing a special winter set lunch on weekdays (2 courses for £28, a promotion which ran till 21 March), I called the restaurant and reserved a table.

River+Cafe+books+London

We went on a crisp January morning. The restaurant was a long trek from the Tube station and we had quite a brisk walk along the river before finally spitting the restaurant. Even then we had to ask around before finally locating the entrance to the restaurant. The restaurant had a bright modern interior with a stark white oven as its centrepiece. An interesting touch was the projection of a giant clockface on the wall. A giant timepiece without taking up any space, that was a very clever idea indeed.


What struck me upon entering the restaurant was how busy the restaurant was even though it was a Friday afternoon. We were greeted and shown to our table promptly. There were many service staff milling around but somehow it proved to be difficult to get their attention at times. Service was efficient once you managed to get their attention though at times I felt it could do with a little more charm.

River+Cafe+London+review+bruschetta+con+granchio

River+Cafe+review+calamari+ferri

For starters, I had bruschetta con granchio (fresh Devon crab bruschetta with spinach & wild rocket, lemon and aioli) while my friend had the calamari ferri (chargrilled squid with chilli). There was the slightest hint of spice in the crab bruschetta which made it it interesting but the calamari ferri was clearly the better of the two. The squid was succulent and tender, something which I have always found difficult to achieve in the kitchen when grilling squid.

River+Cafe+London+review+fritti+misto

I opted for fritti misto (deep fried mullet and vegetables) for my main. I was rather surprised to find what appeared to be random fish parts thrown together haphazardly on a plate presented to me. The batter did not work for me. It tasted grainy and that left a peculiar aftertaste. The fish itself was very fresh and it was a pity that the batter did not do it justice.

River+Cafe+London+review+branzino+ai+ferri

My friend had the branzino ai ferri (chargrilled wild sea bass fillets with spinach). That should have been a winner but it wasn't as the skin was so charred at parts that it was really bitter.

My verdict on River Cafe: overpriced and not worth the hype, certainly not worth the trek across town. My mission on a good value gourmet set lunch has been disappointing so far. Does it really exist?



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Thursday, 23 January 2014

Kimchee to Go (Strand) - Korean fast food on the rise

Kimchee+to+go+Strand+London+review+chicken+udon

Address: 388 Strand, London, WC2R 0LT
Phone: 020 7240 4515
Nearest Tube station:
Covent Garden, Temple,
Charing Cross, Embankment

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £10pp
Service charge: Extra charge for sitting in
Taste: ***
Service: N/A
Ambience: ***
I was running late for The Duck House play at Vaudeville Theatre along Strand and had to grab a quick bite. Enough of the boring E.A.T., Pret or even Itsu. You can only have so many sandwiches and sushi. I was getting desperate until I chanced upon Kimchee to Go.

These days, anything that resembles food can be placed in a box. Put it on display and watch it fly off the shelves. To give it some credit, Kimchee to Go does put in some effort in its decor: a Korean drum, vase and plate lie beside its payment counter, not to mention classy looking wooden finishings.

I very much wanted to try its hot noodles but the sole kitchen staff was clearly having trouble keeping up with the demand. I went for a prepacked chicken tuigim udon instead. A slab of chicken laid on top of a generous serving of udon. It was labelled as "deep fried", I can assure you it was not. I'm almost certain that piece of chicken was reformed from god knows how many chicken parts. But hey, with a very reasonable price of £5.95, I can't really quibble with that, can I?

Other than noodle soup and udon, Kimchee to Go serves other hot food like doshirap (the equivalent of the Japanese bento sets and dupbap (a neat all in one meal) as well. Cold dishes to go include bibimbap (rice mixed with seven different seasoned vegetables and either beef, chicken or tofu) and kimbap (or the Korean sushi). I was rather tempted by its yang yeum chicken (£2.95). These honey glazed bite size fried chicken comes in a handy box, perfect for a light snack.

At the time of writing, the only other branch is at New Oxford Street. I say Kimchee to Go should set up a branch at Canary Wharf. I'm sure it would give the likes of Itsu a run for its money.


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Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Old Tree Daiwan Bee (Chinatown) - no frills Taiwanese street food

Old+Tree+Daiwan+Bee+London+Chinatown+review+stewed+pork+rice

Address: 26 Rupert Street,
London W1D 6DH
Phone: N/A
Nearest Tube station:
Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £10pp (light nibbles)
Service charge: 10%
Taste: ***
Service: **
Ambience: *
I remember a time when we do not spend the entire weekend rushing from one kids' activity to another. A time when her nap times were still predictable and when she could easily placated with a simple cuddle. That was when we actually travelled across London to Golders Green simply because someone mentioned that there was a decent Chinese restaurant Hu Nan Xiang Cai Guan or the unlikely translation of Local Friends Chinese restaurant.

Thankfully, the kid slept through the meal (those were the good times) and we managed to squeeze in some dessert at Old Tree Bakery, which was much further down the road. We didn't get a chance to sample their street fare though we were rather impressed with its selection of confectionery.

Fast forward a couple of years and it so happened that I was out and about on a Monday evening at Chinatown looking to grab a quick bite. I consulted my half a million Twitter followers (half of whom are social escorts businesses with a good proportion of the remaining having avatars that look like social escorts - how they found me remains a mystery). Sorry, I have digressed.

@JunkfoodJo replied almost immediately - found out from her that C&R has finally completed its renovation. It looks very much like a cleaned up version of Rasa Sayang in case you are wondering. @yangstax recommended Old Tree Daiwan Bee, which has set up shop just opposite C&R. "Pork over rice and oyster omelette are safe picks" his second tweet read. Brilliant - eating alone is bad enough, having to agonise over the menu is worse.



Unlike Old Tree Bakery at Golders Green, the branch just off Chinatown's peripheral at Rupert Street does not have the luxury of space. Furniture consists of a few long wooden tables and flimsy chairs. If not for the display case filled with beautifully decorated cakes, which looked almost out of place, Old Tree would be mistaken for yet another hole-in-the-wall eatery.

Looks can be deceiving as they say. If you could just look beyond its plain concrete walls and uncomfortable setting, you can perhaps see where Old Tree's allure lies. A quick scan through its menu showed up popular Taiwanese street food - amongst them the likes of stewed ducks' tongues, pigs' ears, intestines, trotters and deep fried chicken cutlet. Almost straight out from Taipei's Shi Lin Market.

Old+Tree+Daiwan+Bee+London+Chinatown+review+oyster+omelette

I have always found the Taiwanese oyster omelette a curiosity as the ones served in the hawker centres back home are comparatively drier and less starchy. Old Tree's oyster omelette (£6.80) had a thick starchy gravy with a hint of sweetness over the top. What set it apart from the one that I had at Shi Lin was layer of spinach that formed the base of this starchy omelette, which is an odd combination to say the least. The oysters' oceanic taste was also lost under the starchy gravy's weight. It's a bit like marmite - either you like it or hate it.

The stewed belly pork rice (£4.50) fared a tad better. Two slices of pork belly with diced pork fats and mushroom laid over a small serving of steamed rice. It sure tasted better than it looked and what did the trick was the spiced thin gravy (think star anise, cinnamon sticks, peppercorns, soy sauce etc.), no doubt ladled from the same pot where the pork belly was stewed and softened over a period of time.

Two HongKongers sat down beside me took a look at what I had ordered and went for the same without even looking at the menu. The aroma from the stew was just irresistible.

No decent Taiwanese eatery can go without having bubble tea (the current craze in Chinatown right now) on its menu. Old Tree Daiwan Bee serves an assortment of bubble tea (£3.60) , as well as red bean, green bean and taro milk tea. While Old Tree isn't exactly for those who would like an introduction to Taiwanese cuisine (Leong's Legend Continues would be a safer bet). However, if you are looking for a quick reasonably priced Taiwanese snack, Old Tree is definitely a good place to start.


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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Paesan (Exmouth Market) - cooking for the poor strikes a chord

Paesan+Exmouth+Market+review

Address: 2 Exmouth Market,
London EC1R 4PX
Phone: 020 7837 7139
Nearest Tube station:
Farringdon

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £10pp (light nibbles)
Service charge: 12.5%
Taste: ***
Service: ****
Ambience: ***
We have a curious Saturday routine, which lands us up in Farringdon. A quick stop at Quality Chop Butchery where we would get our weekly meat staple and then stroll round the corner to Exmouth Market for an afternoon tea.

Exmouth Market on a Saturday afternoon is almost unrecognisable: no market stalls catering to weekday lunchtime crowds, the alfresco dining areas outside many restaurants lie empty (other than Caravan's of course). After going up and down Exmouth Market, which took little more than five minutes, we decided to hop into Paesan. "Open for coffee, tea and nibbles" said a sign outside - perfect.

"Are you here for lunch?" a staff asked. He was visibly relieved when we said no. "Step in this way then," he beckoned grandiosely. Paesan was totally empty except for a table which occupants were mopping up the remnants of lunch. We practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Paesan+Exmouth+Market+review+parma+ham

Light bites include the likes olives, garlic bread and other antipasti that didn't require the kitchen to fire up its stove. I went for prosciutto di parma (£5), something light with a hint of indulgence. The parma ham slices were almost creamy. The bruschetta was lightly toasted, nothing of the biscuity hard sort. Paesan purported to be serving "cucina povera" - or cooking for the poor, essentially peasant food, if you will. Presentation is clearly not its forte but with a healthy serving of salad greens, it is a steal at a fiver.

I saw this interesting metallic teapot contraption left uncleared on the next table. "That's our Moka coffee, that's how we Italians brew our coffee," the waiter explained. Oh, one of that please was my swift reply.

Paesan+Exmouth+Market+review+Moka+Coffee

It reminds me of the traditional Vietnamese drip coffee though the similarity stops there. The Moka pot passed hot pressurised water through ground coffee, which extracts the flavour more thoroughly than drip brewing. I'm normally not one who takes his coffee with milk or sugar. That just muddles up the taste. The Moka coffee (£2) was right up there on the acidity scale; even coffee purists would find that hard to swallow. Mayhaps some condensed milk would do the trick.

Nevertheless, tea ended on a nice note with light music played in the background and the late noon sunrays filtering through the windows. Paesan is delightful to spend a quiet weekend afternoon in. Undisputedly so.


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Saturday, 11 January 2014

Gordan Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen - St Paul's Cathedral pitstop

Bread+Street+Kitchen+London+Gordan+Ramsay+One+New+Change

Address: One New Change, 10 Bread St,
London EC4M 9AB
Phone: 020 3030 4050
Nearest Tube station:
St Paul's, Mansion House

Ratings (out of 5 *)
Price: below £40pp
Service charge: 12.5%
Taste: ****
Service: ***
Ambience: ****
TT swang by Gordan Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen at One New Change for her last meal of 2013.

Happy New Year! I hope everyone had a blast over the festive season. I certainly did and overindulged on epic portions of turkey, roast potatoes and sprouts. I know it is now the time to detox maybe go on the 5:2 diet but with the gales threatening to blow the roof off my head, my thoughts could not help turning to the utterly delicious roast pork belly I had at Bread Street Kitchen just before Christmas.

I am not fond of the architectural monstrosity that is One New Change which in my view diminishes the splendour that is St Paul's Cathedral but I have to admit that its arrival helps to herald a new dawn for the dining scene in that area. Before it opened there were only High Street restaurants such as Strada in the area and each time I brought friends to visit St Paul's Cathedral I had to have the same old things all over again. One New Change shook things up a little with Bread Street Kitchen and Barbeoca.


Bread Street Kitchen is a smart restaurant exuding a faint old world charm clearly designed to attract those in suits. It clearly worked as the restaurant was full of them, dining out on fat corporate accounts in the run up to Christmas. I had to make do with a table in the bar area which was also filling up pretty quickly.

Bread Street Kitchen's menu is pretty extensive and has something for everyone. There is nothing very exciting about the menu just safe reliable dishes which is not surprising given its target audience. I opted for the slow roasted pork belly with spiced apple sauce. £16 for two slivers of a cheap cut of meat does sound exorbitant but I must say they were worth every penny. The crackling was a beautiful gold and yielded a satisfying crunch. The tender and succulent meat which lay beneath had just the right amount of fleshy wobble. The apple sauce cuts through the salty meatiness and offers a welcome contrast. I was impressed for I had been on a quest to achieve the perfect roast belly and based on the recipes I have come across this would have taken an inordinate amount of time and effort to get right.

If you are in the area do yourself a favour and give Bread Street Kitchen a try. I can't think of a better way to round up a day of sightseeing at St Paul's Cathedral.


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