Sunday Roast at Trinity

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I’ve been slightly annoying (or maybe just seeming weird to) Rachael by repeatedly remarking that ‘that’s been cooked sous vide‘. Boy, can you make a great roast by cooking the beef sous vide! Additional confirmation comes in the form of an assurance that the beef has been cooking ‘overnight’, and therefore will come rare, or medium rare, as the chef provides it.

“[T]here are other elements to a good Sunday Roast”

But there are other elements to a good Sunday Roast. A perfect yorkshire pudding – yes, that huge mushroom above is an enormous, delicious baked batter – is definitely necessary in my book. All the better when there’s an additional jug of gravy to pour into it. A perfect (sous vide) carrot is a delicious, though slightly embarrassingly singular, vegetable. It is slightly made up for with a carrot purée. Spinach increases the five a day quotient, in a way that the single leaf of onion (though delicious) does not.

But this Sunday Roast is all about being a cut above. The bone is presented with rosemary literally aflame in the marrow, which is oozing and naughty and fatty and slimy and gorgeous.Every part of the dish is spot-on, and a cut-above, and whilst this isn’t going to replace your regular Sunday lunch affair, it is certainly the sort of ‘aspirational’ benchmark that you’re not going to achieve at home, but is good to have in the back of your mind.

I haven’t properly addressed the beef. Perfectly rare and tender. The offer of a grating of horseradish atop the cut was gratefully encouraged by all. A crust was caramelised and lightly crunchy but miles away from tough.

Add a spectacular couple of starters, and you get a meal that was only marginally let down with relatively mediocre desserts. I’m glad I’m moving away from this place, as I could have gained an expensive habit!

Anjou Quail at Texture

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Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff. Let’s be honest, in striving to create new flavours, and to boldly surprise diners, the new chefs can end up making food that’s totally preposterous. Exploded this and compressed that, such-and-such foam and dehydrated thingumy often go too far. Texture isn’t like that.

“Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff”

Modern Scandinavian cooking is on offer. But the idea isn’t to push ingredients beyond breaking point, but to show you what those ingredients really mean. So the quail is served pink and moist and oh-so tender, with a matchbox of breast and two lollipops (though I love that Americans call them ‘popsicles’) of leg. Sitting on a bed of sweetcorn, with corn jus and some spicy popped corn, this is actually a remarkably simple dish. Simple, but supremely delicious.

Quail can, obviously, taste quite gamey. And presumably it’s exactly this flavour that hanging and ageing meats is intended to develop. But this is so, so subtle, with a meaty, poultry taste that is gently aromatic, sweetly herby and almost salty-sour.

Would I try this again? Yes. And with staff that went so far beyond helpfulness after a confusion regarding the booking, I’d happily recommend the place!

Meat Fruit at Dinner

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Dinner, or, to give it its full name – ‘Dinner by Heston’ – is Mr Blumenthal’s historical-themed restaurant. Though it isn’t exactly clear what involvement Heston actually has: Ashley Palmer-Watts, who worked previously at the Fat Duck and seems to be the head chef is much mentioned on the website which only says that he ‘developed the dishes with Heston’. So more Dinner by Palmer-Watts. I guess this is like ‘presented by Guillermo del Toro’ in terms of foreign horror fantasy films…

“So far, so vague”

So where exactly is history involved? Well, the menu gives every dish a year date, for one thing. Plus, on the back a reference to a contemporary cookbook. It plays a game with diners, with some dishes mysteriously named “Meat Fruit” or “Tipsy Cake” clearly intending to intrigue. Others spell out their constituent parts, but I’m more convinced by the historical heritage of those dishes which have a name, rather than just a list of ingredients. This is what I decide to ask when the waiter inquires if we have any questions: what exactly are these dates and cookery books? What’s their connection? The answer: the dishes are ‘inspired by’ those recipes, and updated with modern ingredients and techniques. So far, so vague.

We’re here to eat the Meat Fruit, which, from external research sounds like a magical dish featuring pâté with a mandarin jelly glaze, formed into the shape of a mandarin and with a (sadly inedible) stalk on top. When it arrives, the dish actually surpasses my expectations, with a perfect little clementine-alike on a board with toasted sourdough. The pâté is perfectly creamy and light, with only a hint of over-richness that you can happily expect. It has a depth of flavour the complete opposite of the frequently pungent, smack-you-in-the-face offaly flavour that you often get with liver terrines and which I frankly hate. The mandarin is like a coating of chutney, biting through the oaky taste of the meat and giving a tart balance to it. It doesn’t have a greasy consistency at all, but is clear and translucent, and so thin a layer we can’t quite understand how – or believe they did – cover the filling so perfectly.

They even bring a second round of toast for us to finish off the fruit. I’m in heaven.

Kedgeree at The Wolseley

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If you haven’t eaten at The Wolseley – do so! Based in what was once a car showroom (think Rolls Royce not Vauxhall), and if nothing else the setting is utterly splendid. Perfect for a romantic evening, so long as you like a buzzy, busy atmosphere. And the food won’t totally break the bank. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t expensive – it is – but there are a variety of more affordable options on the menu. Kedgeree, at £12.00 is one of these more affordable options.

“It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be”

Eschewing the obvious breakfast appointment for the dish, Rachael and I headed to The Wolseley in the evening (having taken our permission from the Time Out instructions that the dish makes as nice an end as it does a start to the day). I take things one step further with a starter of Eggs Benedict. This turns out to be a bit of a error, though not because of the dish itself. A perfectly toasted muffin holds an exquisite poached egg, and the most sumptuous, giggle-makingly delicious hollandaise I’ve even tasted. The reason it was a bit of a mistake is that said exquisite egg rather pre-empted the exquisite egg perched on top of the kedgeree! My mistake.

The kedgeree itself is more lightly curried that I would generally expect. It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be. Rachael compliments the way that every grain of basmati remains separate, and it’s true: it hasn’t taken on any risotto or congee consistency, but remains a dish of many individual grains. I think this may be because the stock is a little watery, at least to my taste. Flakes of smoked fish are small, but make themselves known, and this certainly helps to bring the whole dish together: rather than delivering a bowl of weakly-flavoured rice with chunks of protein.

That said, the egg, once cut and allowed to ooze gloopily across the pile, takes things to another level, and what looks like a small plate does manage to satisfy. I insist to Rachael that the egg must be cooked sous vide (don’t all big top restaurants employ the technique for eggs?) – but this may be more down to my obsession that the truth. Without it, I think this dish would have been a pleasant, but rather ordinary one – lucky it was there!

English Breakfast at Pollen Street Social

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I’ll soon put up a review of my whole experience of the tasting menu at Pollen Street Social. The quick version is that it was an amazing culinary experience that introduced me to – or, more precisely, reintroduced me to – a host of flavours and dishes. But that’s for another time. The Chowdown Showdown Londontown reason for being here was the third dish on the tasting menu: the English Breakfast.

“This is as much a game or a magic trick as it is aiming for verisimilitude”

It seems to be part of the ethic of Pollen Street Social that the more simply a dish is labelled, the more complex and unexpected the food itself will be when it appears. With the English Breakfast you’re presented first with a (very cute) egg cup, with nothing in it. Rachael and I joked that this could be The Emperor’s New English Breakfast, and that we should start spooning air into our mouths and remarking on how delicious this truly modernist, truly minimalist, truly deconstructed item is. Next, they bring a tray with straw, and what look like soft-boiled eggs (opened by Little-Endians), with a sprinkling of red on top. But not all was as it seems…

Nestled inside the eggshell were a number of layers, each nodding at an element of a full English. At the bottom was a sour-sweet tomato purée, fresh and aromatic. Then comes a layer of finely chopped earthy mushrooms. Rich, creamy scrambled eggs is next, then a frothy, airy potato foam. Sprinkled on top are tiny crispy shards of bacon.

A testament to the brilliance of this dish is that, despite occupying only the space allowed by an eggshell, every layer was substantial enough to taste, feel, enjoy and identify. Granted, together they weren’t exactly like an English breakfast (and I’m not convinced I know what the potato was representing – please leave your suggestions below!), but this is as much a game or a magic trick as it is aiming for verisimilitude. Every part of it – from look to taste to dramatic presentation and set-up – made this dish, and it was a real joy to consume.

I’ll confess now: this wasn’t my favourite course of the tasting menu. That’s definitely not to take away from it, since the bar was set very high. You’ll have to stay tuned for my review of the other dishes to find out why not!

Duck Egg Tart at Medlar

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I can say this straight away and unequivocally: the meal I ate last week at Medlar was one of the best I’ve ever eaten. Every course was spot-on, with surprising, delicious and delighting combinations of elements that in every case amounted to more than the sum of their parts.

“There was a time when French was the undisputed king of cuisines”

The duck egg at the centre of the plate was fried perfectly. In fact, I hesitate to declare that, because there wasn’t the slightest hint of oil, so I’m not entirely convinced that it was fried, rather than cooked via some dark magic with all the flavour but none of the grease. Perhaps is was baked onto the tart, but if that’s so I’ve no idea how they managed to get a perfect shape and texture. Some other magic, perhaps? The yolk ran fluidly, but was still hot and silky.

The most obviously ‘does that really need to be there’ element was the turnip purée. And the answer is a clear ‘yes’. Rather than being that boring root vegetable that ends up hanging around at the bottom of the remains of an organic veg box, this creamy, subtle, lovely white addition adds an earthiness without competing.

A red wine jus is sweet and sour, with a tanniny-tang that cuts through any possibility of the egg being cloying. It would work perfectly inside the tart, and I’m amused by the thought that you could reconstruct this dish into a pie.

There’s meatiness provided by the lardons (can’t go wrong, but these add just the right crispy saltiness), and the duck heart. I can be a little squeamish when it comes to nose-to-tail cooking, but I’ve recently been converted to heart, which seems to be just a delicate, steak-flavoured ‘cut’, especially when served sliced thinly and rare. In this case it is red and surprisingly unbloody. It has a distinct duck flavour without the fattiness that can make duck too rich.

“Some other magic, perhaps?”

You’ll have to excuse me if I go off-piste and mention my other courses. A spectacular aged white pork steak for a main, matched with a Geman (veal?) sausage and wild mushrooms, again every element pulled more than its own weight and left me wanting to weep. My chocolate pavé found it hard to match up to the heady highs of the accompanying malt ice-cream (incroyable!) and barley brittle (exactly what it sounds like, but it really worked!).

There was a time when French was the undisputed king of cuisines, but I generally head for Italian, tapas, Japanese or oriental myself. But I can honestly say that Medlar may have shown me precisely what the French are on about, and why they’re just so proud about their cooking. Revelatory!

Baked Alaska at The Lawn Bistro

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So I’ve a confession: I’ve never eaten baked Alaska!

That does mean that I’ve long known the ‘trick’ to the dish, which slightly diminishes the surprise of its cold-on-the-inside baked-on-the-outside magic. But The Lawn Bistro adds an additional flourish: pouring over liquor and flambéing the meringue at the table. This resulted in some impressive flames, heat, and a deliciously tart caramelised exterior.

“The Lawn Bistro adds an additional flourish”

We’ve rather painted ourselves into a corner with one of our principal rules of Chowdown Showdown Londontown – namely that ‘size matters’, so we each have to have one of the particular dish. Largely the problem with this has been that it means you end up with two large bowls of lacklustre cabbage (sorry Rasa and your Thoran!), but this can also be a problem when we come across sharing platters, and are forced to down the lot. This time, however, we nudged the rules in our favour. Having asked the waitress whether the dish (on the menu as for two) would serve three (since Alex had joined us in this outing), we opted to have a single portion. This was definitely the right decision: how they could expect two to manage this I don’t know!

To return to the spectacle of the fire: this restaurant does aim to impress. I really struggled to choose starters and mains, switching repeatedly between options, every one of which had some stand-out parts among a long-list of ingredients. And, indeed, the food was delicious, if risking allowing the best part to be drowned out among a plethora of other contributions.

Sadly, the Alaska didn’t especially stand out for me. Whilst it was certainly a reward to sweet-toothed eaters who’d made it as far as dessert, it rather lacked depth. The ice cream was plain-old-vanilla and the meringues plain-old-egg-white and plain-old-sugar. I was left feeling they could have gone an extra mile, but settled for just sloping over the line. At least I’ve reached the having-eaten-baked-Alaska winning post.

Wagyu Beef Sushi with Truffle and Ponzu Jelly at Dinings

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There are many things that are spectacular about Dinings. And I’m not just talking about the price-tags attached to some of the dishes. This tiny joint offers really inventive contemporary fusion Japanese cuisine, with an emphasis on high-end ingredients: truffle and wagyu beef abound. Every dish is beautifully presented, and every piece of sushi is topped with some delightful, colour-contrasting flavour-addition that propels what would otherwise be ordinary (though spot-on) bites into something truly extraordinary.

“The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth”

The main problem I have, though, is that, what with the urge to pile on the flavours and focus on the rarest of constituent parts, everything slightly ends up tasting the same. When they matched wagyu beef sushi with truffle and ponzu jelly it tasted pretty similar to the seabass carpaccio… with truffle and ponzu jelly. Okay, okay, so it’s probably our fault for ordering a couple of variations on a theme, but in our favour a) this was selected for us (or maybe even pushed on us!) by the waitress and b) it was pretty unavoidable, since everything seemed to be matched with a small number of additions.

Unfortunately, that meant that when our wagyu beef sushi arrived, it had somewhat been pre-empted, and I might have got a stronger ‘wow’ impression if I hadn’t already tried the (yes, definitely) delicious truffle and jelly. The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth, and gave an ethereally smoky impression on the tongue. It’s as close as a direct vector for taste – bypassing thought or internal calculation – as you might come across.

The sushi was certainly better than Dinings ‘famous innovation’ of tar-tar chips – basically (single bite) potato-chip tacos filled with any of seven flavours. Rachael felt, and I agreed, that these would have been much better made with actual (mini-)taco-shells: the potato totally overpowered the flavour of the delicate ingredients, making for a severely underwhelming experiencing.

Overall, judging it on the wagyu beef sushi alone (yes, that is the Chowdown Showdown Londontown requirement!), I’d be super-impressed. I’ll never be able to know how much more blown away I’d have been if I hadn’t tasted the accompaniments beforehand. Sadly, the pretension – and, yes, the excessive cost – lets this place down. Which is a pity, since that beef was something truly special.

Wiener schnitzel at The Delauney

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The Delauney is fancy. Wood panelling, silver-rimmed plates, doormen and maître D’s create a dining experience that’s a cut above, and knows it. As soon as you walk into the place you notice two things: the history of feeding the top of society, and the cakes – rich, glorious-looking gateaux which sit, invitingly on a table in their own antechamber before the dining room.

“So big, in fact, that it needed oval plates so it fitted in a sensible place-setting”

We’re here to try the Wiener schnitzel, one of Time Out’s top 100 dishes, and at £19.50 for just the slab of meat, no sides included, we’re hoping it will be a cut above too. I must admit, I was slightly worried that this restaurant might be stuck in the century before last, with over-creamy, finickety, stale-French-inspired cooking. I was wrong, at least on the evidence of the relatively straightforward dish we ordered with sides of spinach and pickled cucumber salad.

First things first: the schnitzel was enormous. So big, in fact, that it needed oval plates so it fitted in a sensible place-setting. Oh, and so the slab of meat didn’t look too lonely on a round plate unaccompanied by anything but light juices and half a lemon. Of course, it wasn’t such a vast load of veal what with being hammered to a thin slice before being crumbed and fried to a perfect golden brown.

If I’m honest, this was perfect meat-heaven to my taste, with effortless succulence and a subtle, fresh, almost poultry flavour offset by the crunch of the crisped breadcrumbs and the sharp acidity of the lemon. Neither of the sides was much to write home about, but nor were they supposed to be vying for centre stage.

I should stress that there were substantially more economical options on the menu, particularly for those interested in more than a single course. I’ll have to come back – if only for a slice of those glorious cakes!

Nigiri Sushi at Yashin Sushi

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I love sushi. I can understand the squeamishness about eating raw fish, but I can’t understand how anybody who tries good sushi can fail to be converted by the taste.

“Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league”

I’ll happily eat mediocre sushi around London, but I was surprised when in New York a few years back at just how genuinely nasty the cheapest offering you can get there is, when New Yorkers are generally quite exacting when it comes to food. On the other hand, a visit to Nobu-Next-Door during the same trip showed me some of the best Japanese food that the States has to offer. I had hoped that it would be good, but not so good that I’d be left wanting to go back. I’m happy (just about) to spend that much on a meal once, but I try to avoid getting a taste for it. Unfortunately, of course, it really was that good, and left me with an understanding of just how great sushi can be (though without ruining the less exquisite usual standard for me).

Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league. (You’ll want to order one of the ‘omakase’ – again, Time Out lets us down by failing to tell us exactly what we’re supposed to be ordering!) We got eight pieces of chef-selected fish-of-the-day, neatly laid on cuboids of rice, plus their ‘roll-of-the-day’. Each fish was matched with a different topping, from wasabi foam to ponzu jelly to strawberry and basil. If that sounds vague, I’m afraid it’s because, in spite of the waiter’s careful explanation of every last detail, I was left not-much-the-wiser after a barrage of quick-fire information.

“Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce'”

I keep finding myself using this word in reviews, and not necessarily because I consider it the highest accolade, but the fish was meltingly soft, with flavours so subtle and lacking in ‘fishiness’ that it almost made sense pairing it with a sliver of strawberry. I say almost because, to be frank, I’m not convinced that the hint of strawberry (if it really was detectable) added a great deal.

That might sound like a major criticism, but the truth is that sushi and sashimi (rightly) should be all-about-the-fish, and this fish was so good I didn’t mind the lack of distraction. In fact, Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce’. Enigmatic in that they didn’t make any attempt to explain this dictum, which I presume is the same belief that you wouldn’t cover your Michelin-starred French dinner in a snowstorm of salt, so why drown sushi in soy? If that was the reason, it went unsaid.

Breaking one of our golden rules – that portion size counts and therefore Rachael and I should have the full dish each – between the three of us we decided to share this, plus a sashimi platter, ‘miso cappucino’, and some prawn tempura roll. All of these were spectacular. “Why did you do it?”, I hear you cry. Well, at £30 for eight pieces of nigiri and four pieces of maki, it was easily pushing the bounds of good sense.

We ended up ordering another omakase (and a wagyu-beef roll, the one disappointing dish of the night), so we got a fairly good selection each. We had considered ordering the £60 omakase, but, slightly strangely, this would have bought us just fifteen pieces of nigiri, and no roll, a strange ‘buying-in-bulk’ non-discount. And here we get to the heart of the matter, this, and the soy-sauce ban, and the over-detailed explanations that left me bewildered rather than enlightened all reeked of a pretentiousness that food of this quality doesn’t need. Both Rachael and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed by what should have been a spectacular dish, which is a real shame. Defeat plucked from the fish-filled jaws of victory!

56/100 of London’s best dishes