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!

Sea Urchin Sushi at Nizuni

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This is our second visit to Nizuni.

“I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin”

The first time round, when it came to ordering, the waitress said, totally matter-of-fact, “Sorry, we don’t have uni”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, disastrous import of the words that came so easily to her. We just went on ordering, too far committed to get up and leave… then ate our meal and headed to Manchurian Legends for their skewers!

So I’ve been calling, every couple of weeks, to ask if they have any sea urchin yet. Every time they’ve said no, or there’s another delivery next week, or there’s a supply problem and we don’t know when we’ll have some in. At no point did they say “Oh, it’s the urchin obsessive again”!

On Monday, though, everything changed. I phoned up and she said “Yes, we do have that”. As if she had no idea of the terrible, wondrous import of the words that came so easily to her. I immediately phoned Rachael, who couldn’t adjust her plans, so we braved it and called again the next day. They went above and beyond: having the fabled foodstuff two days in a row!

So we’re here again, with a round wooden platter holding two of these unexpectedly difficult to come across morsels. And yes, expectations are raised.

Biting in, I’m surprised. I guess I’d expected something tough and chewy, at the cuttlefish end of the sushi spectrum. Instead it is gooey, mushy, and almost gritty. It tastes characteristically like roe, with that fishy, smoky, not quite there yet flavour. So, of course, I feel a bit slow off the mark when I discover that, sure enough, you only eat the roe – or, more precisely, the gonads (bite on that!) – of sea urchins. The rest is generally considered inedible.

I prefer cuttlefish sushi to roe (if I’m honest), but this has a uniqueness of aroma and sparks my interest in its colour and solid-liquid texture.

Worth the wait? Well, if I tell the truth, I’m not convinced it was as fresh as the clear difficulty of getting hold of it might imply. I can imagine a cleaner, less fishy taste, and one that feels richer and more indulgent. Had expectations not been raised, I might have been more pleasantly impressed. Unfortunately, they had been.

Fish Pickle at Rasa

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Generally we think of pickling as a way of preserving fresh foods, and creating flavourful accompaniments to potentially otherwise dull mainstays. Usually this would be something cheap and plentiful, so its interesting to see a pickle making use of an expensive protein as is main ingredient. I’d assume this is down to Rasa’s previous incarnation as Rasa Sumadra, a specialist outlet of this high-class Indian franchise with fish taking centre stage. We had to order the pickle specially, since it doesn’t feature on the standard Rasa menu.

“We had to order the pickle specially”

So how is it? At first, you’d be forgiven for not realising that it’s actually fish. The flavour is there, but well masked by the strong vinegary, spicy, sugary additions. In fact, it’s in the texture, with the soft, chewy bite that makes you realise the centimetre cubes are chunks of preserved ex-swimmers. And this is where the fish shines, since it is a great addition to the texture of pickle, creating something substantial, meaty and dense without creating something unrecognisable. It’s definitely not fish curry (and it would be a horribly sour and sweet one if it were). Distinctly pickle, but also rightly something with a bit more right to strut its stuff on the chutney plate.

No, I wouldn’t make a trip out just for this. And given you’d have to phone ahead to get it, it would take planning to come by. Maybe I’ll try to make my own. It has certainly made me rethink the humble pickle.

All Balls at Cinnamon Soho

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It’s pretty unavoidable to point out. As ‘tapas concepts’ go, spherical-foods is a little… odd, even if the food futurologist we saw a couple of years ago at the V&A did predict that the future was balls. C.f. cake pops.

“As ‘tapas concepts’ go, spherical-foods is a little… odd”

The truth is that being round isn’t the only thing that connects these five morsels on offer at Cinnamon Soho. In fact, in common with most Indian-starter treats (at least as represented in British curry houses), they are all deep-fried, and either battered, crumbed, or basically batter themselves.

The least traditional is their take on the scotch egg, with a (quail’s?) egg surrounded by a spiced mincemeat and breadcrumbs. The crabcake is subtle, and if I’m honest, overpowered not just by the other flavours on the plate, but the excellent chutneys individually selected to match each bite. At the other end of the spectrum, the beef example was rather like a beef-flavoured bouncy ball, and whilst it shouted its essential taste, its texture didn’t do much justice.

My favourite was probably the potato fritter, which reminded me of Passover latkes – gentle enough to match their pickle well, and without arguing with the other balls in an attempt to justify its presence on the platter. The final ball, a vegetably-cheesy affair was both the most authentically, challengingly Indian and, I felt, the least successful. Ingredients known for abundance and cheapness don’t naturally scream ‘small dish’ to me, and what might well have made a charming vegetable side ended up an inconsequential and forgettable mouthful that I suspect was just making up numbers.

Overall it feels like full marks for concept and effort, but the end result just isn’t that stellar.

 

Laksa at Providores

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Rachael is very clear, almost to the point of obsession, about the notion that laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves. I can see her point. Or at least, if her contention is correct that if the soup is named after the leaves, then it seems pretty likely that she’s correct: canonical laksa must surely have the leaves.

The Providores laksa doesn’t contain laksa leaves.

Laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves”

What the bowl does pack is a warming, comforting punch. With the creamy texture of its coconut milk base, a gentle heat from sliced red chilli and an accurate mix of South-East Asian spices, the dish does offer some complexity. A single, solitary fish ball is tasty enough, if mean in its lonesomeness, sitting atop nutty soba noodles.

The trouble is, this noodle soup is yours in return for the better part of ten pounds, and whilst that’s a ‘cheap eat’ by London standards, steaming oriental bowlfuls are plentiful in any list of cheap eats, and there are better to be had. You might expect more from the proprietor of Kopapa, especially at this price. This doesn’t challenge or sparkle with its blend of flavours. It doesn’t make you savour every last drop.

For one thing, I’m sure there are cheap-eat laksas that feature, you know, laksa leaves!

Mussels with Nduja at Elliot’s Café

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There are a few dishes on the Chowdown Showdown list that we are worried about. This was one of those – because Time Out warned that everything in Elliot’s is seasonal, so this could not be on the menu when you visit. Helpfully, they point out that everything at the ‘café’ is delicious, rather missing the point of the challenge they set when compiling a list of 100 top dishes! But luckily, Rachael spotted it on the menu and we rushed there the next day.

“A range of Mediterranean influences, from fresh Italian to complex, African-influenced Spanish”

I must admit I’ve not come across Nduja before. I can’t say I’ve a great deal of experience with it now, because this spicy, spreadable sausage had melted away completely into the soupy sauce in this dish, leaving the mussels bathed in a spot-on hot, tomato broth. I felt envious, because Rachael had a substantially larger portion than I did – I think they were trying to emphasise that all their dishes are for sharing by dividing two portions unevenly between two bowls!

The dish is balanced just right – and while the moules did take their usual place as more protein and texture than a taste explosion themselves, they take on a velvety, warming flavour and aroma that hints at a range of Mediterranean influences, from fresh Italian to complex, African-influenced Spanish. There’s a hint of citrus cutting through the oniony and herby vegetable bulk.

We each asked for extra bread, which is definitely needed for mopping!

18/100 top dishes according to Time Out

Soondooboo Chiagae at Koba

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Korean food is still a bit of a mystery to me. I think it remains a mystery to many people who are totally at home guzzling miso soba or steamed dim sum. It’s not at all that I don’t like it – a good bibimbap is easily up there with the perfect, reliable comfort foods, with the added joy of scrambling it together yourself and the need for a special bowl. So the opportunity to be challenged to try a different dish that I would probably never think to order really appealed.

“We’d have to come back for barbecue”

As soon as we got inside the restaurant, I knew I’d have to return. Everyone else was eagerly devouring centre-of-the-table barbecue that seemed to be the place’s signature offering. We’d have to come back for this.

This was a spicy, tomato, seafood stew, with a tangy Eastern flavour, served with plain white rice. Bites of squid, octopus and mussels swim with a variety of tasty vegetables.

Our fellow diners ordered – you guessed it – bibimbap, and I’m glad they did, since it had just that mix of tastes, textures, colours and heat that pushes the dish into the pantheon of superb national staples. Which isn’t to say that our seafood soup-slash-hotpot wasn’t superb, but it didn’t seem the most exciting thing on the menu.

I’d have hoped that each different type of seafood would have a distinct flavour, above the spicy, tomato-y broth, but apart from their textures there was little to distinguish each forkful. The overall result was delicious, but not as varied as I was looking forward to.

I’ll be back, probably, but for barbecue. And maybe bibimbap.

82/100 best Time Out dishes

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

Squid and mackerel burger at Arbutus

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Let’s get the first thing out of the way immediately: this burger is a ‘burger’. It doesn’t have a bun. It doesn’t have salad garnish. And there isn’t any ketchup in sight!

“Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours”

What was surprisingly on-message, though, was quite how meaty the burger was. This could easily have ended up a squashed fish-ball, or a sloppy, fishy mush, or, worst of all (given the main constituent parts) a rock-hard bullet of seafood. Instead, it was genuine burger-consistency, and had a flavour that would satisfy a carnivore.

The main affair (though, it should be noted, this dish is actually a starter) is accompanied by razor clam, chopped and sautéed with shallots, plus fabric-thin strips of squid. Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours, and complexity was added by the unusual pairing of coriander in the ‘burger-meat’ and a generous sprinkling of dill across the dish. These herbs shouldn’t match, and yet they do, and even brought the whole dish together.

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Okay, so we’re under strict orders to judge just the dish, and not the whole meal, but it would be mean to fail to mention that the rest of the dinner was also spectacular. Cod fillet, crisp chicken wings (boneless), pink grapefruit, ginger and honey preserve was as delicious as it sounds, with every element perfectly matched. The silky, subtle cod bouncing off the sparkling ‘marmalade’ and complemented by the crispness of the chicken. Rachael had Grilled piece of beef, heritage carrots, cavolo nero, gratin dauphinois, which sounds like a fairly straightforward offer, but every part was oozing flavour, distinct, and stood up as part of a whole.

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“For sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty”

I was a bit jealous of her Vanilla and rosewater scented cheesecake, roast Provençal figs, which was a riot of different (and individually perfect) tastes, whereas my Chocolate ‘aero’ bar, pear, salted caramel suffered from having the only let-down of the meal: I felt the dark, aerated chocolate was on the side of being bland and bitter without that punch you get from a solid block of 80% cocoa chocolate. I even ventured that an actual Aero, sliced in half, might have been a bit more joyous. But the pear, wrapped round a fluffy salted caramel foam was spectacular.

I couldn’t eat this well every day. There was so much going on, so much sophistication that, when compared with the pared-down, use-the-best-ingredients-and-cook-one-thing-perfectly culinary culture rightly in vogue in London, it made me realise that sometimes twenty ingredients really does add up to something better than five. But there was so much competition for my taste buds that I couldn’t do it all the time. It wasn’t relaxing, and I felt like the next day I’d want a hearty soup where every spoonful was deliciously, comfortingly the same.

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Forget the last three paragraphs: we’re rating the ‘burger’, and, for sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty.

19/100 best dishes in London.

Sea Bass Ceviche at Ceviche

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Our first big disappointment of the Time Out Top 100 list – not because of the food in the restaurant but because Time Out failed to give a sufficiently specific name to easily identify the relevant dish. Why they couldn’t use the name in the menu was beyond us, but the inclusion of a mention of red onion allowed us to identify the Don Ceviche as our target.

“A taste subtle, spicy, sour and umami all at once”

The size of the chunks was essential. Rather than a transient, thin texture, this ceviche offered real bite. Eating it was a similar tangible experience as pickled herring, but with a taste subtle, spicy, sour and umami all at once.

Sweet, crisp fried carrot thins were matched with citrus, starchy centimetre cubed carrot chunks – were these steamed or ceviche themselves? I couldn’t tell. Add to this the sharpness of thin strips of red onion and you get a dish with great, complementary flavours, textures and mouth-feel. Oh, and it was delicious.

25/100 best dishes in London.