Friday, 16 March 2012

Serge Becker: La Bodega Negra - Hitting the Right Notes for London's Coolest Mexican

Serge Becker, the big cheese behind New York's The Box nightclub, La Esquina taco speakeasy and Miss Lily's Jamaican has just landed on London's distant shores to bring us the cafe, taqueria and restaurant La Bodega Negra.

He is variously described as a "night life impresario", a "cultural engineer" and a man with such magnetism that his mere presence can assure an attractive clientele. With all of this hype, it sounds like he could be the Messiah for all things Mexican. Can his just opened Soho gaff lead us to the promised land?

Whilst the restaurant has not yet opened, the bar/cafe/taqueria shows all of the hallmarks of the Messiah's touch: think a cross between a retro student diner and your favourite  hole in the wall bar. Very new world, very urban cool, very much the place where the cool kids of the West End will hang out.

From a culinary perspective, we have new takes on old favourites. Starters consist of the likes of red snapper ceviche with tomato (£9), chorizo and coriander lettuce cups (£9) or grilled corn with crema mexicana (£3.50).  Standing out from the crowd however if the wonderfully rich and limey guacamole with sesame tostados (£5) - this is pure guacamole heaven that almost (but not quite) surpassed Ms P's perfect take on the Mexican favourite. If those don't call your name, try the three tacos selection (£6): six choices, some of which are the seared steak with salsa picante, chorizo and potato or cochinita pibil pork with salsa verde. I tried the cochinita - a wonderfully rich slowed cooked pulled pork that was meltingly tender and enlivened by a tangy salsa verde that was on the right side of taste bud wham.

Mains consisted of the likes of huevos rancheros with frijoles negros  with added bacon or char grilled steak (£7.50 - £14), whole grilled sea bream with al mojo de ajo (£16) or the skirt steak with salsa rachera (£13.50). I opted for the chilaquiles with slow braised shredded beef and ancho chilli (£10.50) - to the uncool (like myself) this is a fussed-up nachos with part toasted corn chips slathered in a rich tomato sauce and covered in a mount of meat. The shredded beef was flavoursome with hints of corriander and certainly better than anything I have seen topped on nachos before. However, overall the dish lacked the kick of flavour I expect from Mexican - it seemed to be missing zing or the whack of spice.

In the drinks department and for those that love tequila, it will be shots all round (£3.80-£27.10) with an extended list that is likely to induce dancing on the colourful bar. Cocktails are imaginative (£7.50), with the hibiscus frozen margarita waiting for me for next time.

Serge's La Bodega Negra didn't take me to the promised land, but in time it might - it is early days. Let his magnetism entice you through the door of this new Soho haunt, have a tequila or ten and enjoy some new takes on Mexican favourites.

La Bodega Negra on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Cotidie: Michelin-starred Italian Chef Bruno Barbieri opens in London

Sleek slate tones (picture by Mark Whitfield)
Bruno Barbieri's culinary trend setting and innovation has been recognised by Michelin in his native Italy. In a country where cooking is a religion, Bruno is one of the gods. Excitement levels increased in the 'hood when we learnt that Bruno would be preaching his gospel of traditional Italian dishes recreated for a modern setting in Marylebone, central London. Ms P and I ensured that we were some of the first punters through the door this week, during the soft-launch period.
(Picture by Mark Whitfield)
Cotidie's interior (which has been recycled from that used by the previous occupant, Cafe Luc) is subtly fashionable, with a blend of slate tones, amber lighting and sleek table settings. This is minimalism at its best, giving the right levels of comfort and calm with the focus rightly being on the culinary adventure.

The menu is a deconstructionist ride through the Italian kitchen, taking the best dishes and ingredients from across the country and moulding them into something new.

Our entrees, reflected Bruno's creative mindset and the best dishes that Italy has to offer. Ms P  and one of our companions Marcus, chose the  'Zuppa Imperiale', a Bolognese-style bread soup with a capon broth and mortadella quenelle (£13). Both felt that it was satisfying on some levels, but was much too highly salted . My Pietmontese beef tartare with taleggio cheese and pistachio fondue was beautifully presented but once again the seasoning was unbalanced. The beef appeared to have been mixed with some form of cured meat (or had been overly salted) and this impacted the ability to enjoy the flavours of the fondue. Fifi, another companion chose the smoked aubergine tartare with garlic, mint, pressed olives and burrata sauce (£11). It was enjoyable, but could have had more depth. If I return, my bet for entree would be the 'fregola' pasta cooked in seawater with a shellfish and seawater stew (£18). Sounds like an adventure.

Smoked aubergine tartare with garlic, mint, pressed olives and burrata sauce (£11)
'Zuppa Imperiale', a Bolognese-style bread soup with a capon broth and mortadella quenelle (£13)

Pietmontese beef tartare with taleggio cheese and pistachio fondue (£13)

Our main courses were once again a trip along the Italian Peninsula. Fifi's 'Cacciatore' style ragu in a crispy parcel of pasta on a bechamel sauce (£18) was extremely flavoursome with the tastes of pigeon, duck and chicken coming through in the sauce. Once again, the kitchen excelled itself in the presentation stakes. Food and art on a plate. Both Marcus and I chose the roasted rack of lamb with artichokes and carbonara sauce (£27). This combined a generous serving of prosciutto wrapped lamb with a rich carbonara. The artichoke was perfectly roasted and was the right counterpoint to the richness of the lamb and sauce. The only downside once again to a very pleasant dish being too liberal seasoning. Ms P chose the quadruccio pasta (a short flat square pasta) in a mussel and saffron broth with parsley pesto (£16). It was as expected, but not a revelation. Perhaps if there is a next time we would try the pan seared sea bass with stewed wild chicory and 'pancotto' with aromatic herbs (£32).
'Cacciatore' style ragu in a crispy parcel of pasta on a bechamel sauce (£18)
Quadruccio pasta in a mussel and saffron broth with parsley pesto (£16)

 Roasted rack of lamb with artichokes and carbonara sauce (£27)
We couldn't stretch to dessert, but if we had I would grabbed the rum baba with honey cream and candied ginger (£7.50) or the fried caramel beignets with orange zest and custard (£10). We did try the coffee and tea (my decaf espresso was one of the best I've ever had). The complimentary sweet treats were a nice surprise - we especially liked the tuiles.
Cotidie and Bruno Barbieri's London adventure has only just begun. It has components of a winning venture: interesting takes on traditional dishes, pleasant staff and a great fit out. Its dishes are priced on the upper end of the London restaurant spectrum and therefore need in the coming weeks to be sure bets. It downsides for us were the unbalanced seasoning that impacted overall flavour (and had us calling for the water jug). Over time, Cotidie will smooth out these teething problems. I am sure that we will be back.

Cotidie opens Monday 5th March.

Cotidie on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Hix: Best New Restaurant & Best Place to Drink 2010-11

OK, so I am not a slave to fashion, be it the couture kind (Ms P will assure you of that) or the food/restaurant kind. The urban cool might have been hanging there for ages, but it has taken me while to catch-on to the wonder of Hix Bar and Restaurant - winner of the Timeout 2010 Best New Restaurant and The Observer 2011 Best Place to Drink.

Located in the heart of Soho, Hix offers a contemporary space as well as the best of British tradition in both food and drinks. The basement bar is a modern speakeasy that has plumbed the depths of British cocktail history to recreate the best concoctions from bygone eras. The pressed metal-ceilings,  large zinc-topped bar, jumble of modern and antique furniture and buzzing environment make it a magnet for those with something to celebrate. Cocktails are quirky and creative.
The Hanky Panky - get me another one

Awesome wood pigeon 
The main ground floor restaurant is sophisticated with a contemporary edge. For entree, Ms P couldn't go past the six Brownsea oysters with Sillfield Farm sausages (£15.50), which were deliciously fresh and offered the tang of the sea - the sausages were also a hit. I however was torn between the marinated Manx Queenies with cucumber and wild chervil (£14.50) and the Northhallerton wood pigeon with black pudding and crispy shallots (£9.95). The wood pigeon won out - and I can assure you it was a winner - perfectly cooked pigeon (the right degree of pink) coupled with crispy shallots and the richness of the black pudding (there could however have been more black pudding). Awesome.
Ms P's oysters were delish

The most flavoursome hanger steak
The main menu was a carnivores' delight: jam-packed with a plethora of British fish and an array of well-aged steaks. The silver mullet with Morecambe Bay shrimps and sea kale (£19.95) was calling my name - it was deliciously tender and the shrimp really upped the ante. The sea kale was limited however, and more of it really could have pushed the flavour boundaries. Ms P's hanger steak with baked bone marrow (£19.95), was just the way these things should be - deep, rich and perfectly satisfying. It proved that hanger steak packs a big flavour punch. (If I was doing it all over again, I would also consider the pan-fried pollack with Brae mussels and sea radish (£21.50)).

The silver mullet was a wonder
Deserts at Hix proved that the British really know a thing or two about the sweeter side of life. Who could pass-up blood orange marmalade steamed sponge pudding (£7.50) or a rhubarb fumble (£7.00). For me, my heart was set on the bakewell pudding with almond ice cream (£7.50): think toasted almonds, caramel and rich custard. Ms P assured me that the credit-crunch ice cream with hot chocolate sauce (£1.90) was a match made in heaven. What could be better than vanilla ice cream covered in rich chocolate sauce and shards of homemade honeycomb.
Almond, caramel and custard:mmm

It might have taken me a while to discover Hix, but I assure you I will be back. The place has a buzz that is engaging and the quality of the fresh produce shines. Extremely good British cuisine.

Hix on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ristorante Sora Lella: wonderful Roman food

Looking towards Sora Lella & Isola Tiberina
Nothing beats the London winter blues than dreaming of a holiday in the sun. Forgo the seaside pleasures of Sharm el Sheikh or Lanzarote and head to the ultimate European city for art, architecture, culture, pleasure and culinary delights (and good weather): get yourself to Rome.

I love this city for its crumbling mass of history and the enormous array of restaurants (and gelaterias). On a recent visit, whilst London shivered, Rome shone. It wasn't only the sun that quickened the step, it was chancing upon the wonderful Michelin-stared Sorra Lella, located on the tranquial island, Isola Tiberina in the historic centre of Rome.

Continuously owned by the same family for over 50 years, Sora Lella dedicates itself to the art of classic Roman cooking in traditional surrounds. This is not a restaurant for those looking for nouvelle cuisine, deconstructed foams or style over substantive. What you will find is engaging staff, well spaced tables, a calm atmosphere and lots of dark wood.
Crisp and light croquettes
I must admit that I made one grave mistake in ordering, I decided to forgo the pleasures offered by the antipasti course. Fellow diners (all of whom were local Italians - a good sign) raved about the traditional small veal meatballs in fragrant tomato sauce and the artisan prosciutto with fresh buffalo mozzarella. The gods were smiling however, as the waiters took pity and provided me with complimentary potato, mozzarella & prosciutto croquettes. (They provided complimentary bits to anyone who didn't go the whole hog and order antipasti). The croquettes were light, crisp and very delicious.

Awesome tonnarelli

The pasta course (between €12-14), delivered all of the traditional Roman delights that a happy man could want. I loved the sounds of the homemade ravioli stuffed with spinach & fresh ricotta in a pecorino, pepper and fresh Roman mint sauce and the jumbo rigatoni with fish ragu with tomato & fresh basil. However, I couldn't go past the homemade tonnarelli pasta with sausage, guanciale (Roman cured bacon), eggs and walnuts. The tonnarelli was perfectly cooked and the sauce (to me, like a souped-up carbonara) gave off a creamy, nutty texture with rich, salty pork highlights.
The best baby lamb
Don't just visit Sora Lella for the pasta however, as the main course menu is full of the sweet/sour tastes of the region. Roman cuisine delves into the underbelly of the culinary world - literally, as it focusses on the wonderous things that can be done with offal. I wish I had tried the Roman-style veal tripe with tomato and mint sauce (€16) or the mixed lamb offal (liver, heart, spleen) with sage and rosemary (€18).  Nothing however, could stop me from consuming the braised baby lamb with a white wine, vinegar, garlic & rosemary sauce (€20). This was, I can assure you, one of the best lamb dishes I have ever consumed, with the meat meltingly tender and sauce salty, rich and damn delicious. I wish I could have it again and again.

Just something light
Roman food is not known for its lightness, and after three generous portions of deliciousness, I was sure that I really couldn't stretch to dessert. At another visit, I am sure that I would partake in the ricotta cake with sour cherry jam or the ricotta and dark chocolate parfait with amaretto. Once again, the gods of Sora Lella smiled upon me, providing me complimentary vanilla gelato (rich and creamy) with homemade almond biscotti. Simple, but awesomely flavoursome.

Don't go to Sora Lella if you want mod, moody and cool. This is extremely good, traditional Roman food in the calmest and most convivial of settings. The prices might be higher than those on the mainland (ie off the island, over the road in Rome), but it is certainly well worth the short trip.

Ristorante Sora Lella
via Ponte 4 capo, 16
00186 Roma
T: +3906686101

If your Roman dreams turn into a wonderful reality, you can't go beyond Trevi BnB Roma. I found it by chance, but it has all of the hallmarks of a fantastic pitstop: large historic rooms, plush beds, high ceilings, luxurious bathrooms and in-room sofas for lounging. To cap it all off, it is a hop, skip and jump from the Trevi Foundtain. The breakfast is pretty damn good as well. My superior double was only €120 a night.

Trevi BnB Roma
via del Lavatore, 83
00187 Roma, Italy
Tel: +390669380944

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Andrew Edmunds - Romantic London restaurant - huddle-up and get close

Snowfall in London calls for romance and Andrew Edmunds, a Soho-based institution hits the high notes for intimate bohemian charm with the right degree of buzz.  Occupying two floors of a small Georgian townhouse, the effusive service and character-filled interior are combined with an inexpensive, limited European-based food menu and an extensive and reasonably price winelist to create a go-to place for when you want a simple supper with the one you love.

Go for the terteloni!

Can you smell the heady aroma of the truffle oil?

I am a sucker for a good carpaccio and therefore couldn't go past the marinated Black Angus beef with wild mushrooms, shaved pecorino & truffle oil (£9.00). On  a freezing night, this hit all the right notes: warmed mushrooms combined with the heady aroma of truffle and delicate tasting beef. Our warm aubergine, puy lentil, pinenut & pomegranate molasses salad (£4.75) was full of earthy goodness and had the right balance of sweet and sour.

A well balanced puy.

The main menu was matched perfectly to the snow falling outside: think hearty classics such as Gloucester Old Spot pork & chorizo stew with peppers & chickpeas (£15.00) or hind of venison steak with mash & braised shallots (£18.50). Whilst these dishes might be calling your name if you visit, we settled on fishier themes. The whole lemon sole with parsley & lemon butter (£18.00) was delicious and perfectly seasoned. Our seared tuna steak with roast daikon, sesame & soy spinach with sweet chilli sauce (£15.00), was the most generous serving of tuna we have ever seen this side of the international dateline. The only let-down was the sweet chilli sauce - something a little more adventurous and homemade would have been better. A big call-out goes to the special of the day: monkfish & lobster torteloni with brown crab & rocket sauce (£20). Our generous serving of homemade pasta perfectly combined our love of carbs and seafood.

The delicate and perfectly seasoned sole.

That is one hunk of perfectly cooked tuna.

Whilst there were many pudding options, we couldn't go past the warmly recommended sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream (apparently it is the second best in London). Whilst generous in size, I didn't feel it had the punch offered by former sticky toffees we have jumped head-long into, and therefore not worth a gold medal. Good, but not great.
Snow = sticky toffee

Andrew Edmunds isn't for you if you want trendy or cutting edge. Go when you want a place with an intimate atmosphere and inexpensive dishes, friendly and attentive service.  Take someone you love (I did).

Andrew Edmunds on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Duke of Cumberland Arms: Pub of the Year 2012 with more gongs to follow

Lovebird 1 emerges from one of the quaintest pubs in the land
Ms P and I have been running hither and thither of late: new jobs, weddings, christenings, extended trips from London to Australia to Singapore to Miami and back again. The months have flown by.

We've returned, ready to enjoy the wonder of London and the cosiness of the deep midwinter. What better welcome back to the UK, than a day trip to the countryside coupled with a lunch at an ancient pub awarded countless gongs, followed by an extended walk through the forest.

The Duke of Cumberland Arms, has sat looking out at the Leith Hills, in the tiny hamlet of Henley (near Fernhrust, outside Haslemere, 45 minutes from London) since the 15th century and combines the best of modern British food with a cosy interior of roaring fires, flagstone floors, thick walls and local ales. After our journey, I understand why it was awarded the Good Food Guide Pub of the Year 2012 and the Seafood Pub of the Year 2011.

The Dukes extensive gardens: great spots for alfresco dining. We will be back in the Spring
The best outdoor smoking room in Britain
The daytime menu is less extensive, but just as hearty as what is on offer at night with the added benefit of filled baguettes for those less peckish. Ms P and I were joined by The Lovebirds: Lovebird 1 being a London lass and Lovebird 2 being a local. We were more than happy with our shared starters of the silkiest smoked goose with truffled celeriac and rocket (£7.95) as well as the most fantastically fresh and tasty half dozen oysters with red wine and shallot vinaigrette (£10.50). Both were generous servings that were woofed down with gusto, with the only caveat being that the celeriac lacked flavour and didn't give off any hints of truffle.
The goosey goodness of smoked goose with celeriac 
Wonderfully fresh oysters
Whilst the main menu was heavily slanted towards seafood (think pea, prawn and crayfish risotto  (£16.95) or pan-seared scallop salad with crispy bacon and Parmesan (£18.50)), we opted for the meaty goodness on offer. My slow-braised ox cheek with horseradish mash, buttered kale and red wine jus (£16.95) had an amazing depth of flavour and the horseradish mash was a pleasant surprise. A fantastic stick-to-your-ribs winter dish. Ms P and Lovebird 1 opted for the Sussex rabbit ragu with chestnuts and  handmade pappardelle (£15.95). Whilst the pappardelle was perfectly executed, the ragu was overly sweet (presumably from the pairing with the chestnuts) and didn't hit the spot. However, Lovebird 2's wonderfully meaty hunter pie with cheddar mash topping and vegetables (£14.95) came up trumps.
The Hunter Pie that hit the spot
The pappardelle with rabbit and chestnut ragu
The meaty goodness of the slow-braised ox cheek
The best of British cheeses
The Duke proved to be an absolute winner when it came to puddings (and all were very reasonably priced at £6.95). Ahh the joy of fantastic puddings by a fire, in a wee country pub. Ms P was adamant that her fire roasted pineapple soaked in rum with coconut ice cream was one of the best puddings she had ever eaten. Lovebird 1's chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream was an absolute winner. It was the battle of the spoons as I tried to muscle-in on the chocolaty goodness. Lovebird 2 was monosyllabic for some time when presented with his great slab of sticky toffee pudding: the rich caramelly goodness had got the better of his tongue. My cheeseboard (£8.25) offering an array of the best British cheeses and was a huge hit (after the battle of the spoons I was more than willing to share).
Love at first sight for Ms P: roasted pineapple pudding soaked in rum with coconut ice cream
The sticky toffee pudding that stopped a grown man in his tracks
This chocolate fondant almost led to fisticuffs: it was Lovebird 1's and it should have been all mine
With the afternoon light not yet fading, we journeyed just up the road for a brisk walk through the surrounding forest and returned for drinks around the warmth of the open fire in The Duke's outdoor smoking room. What could be better than an ale in front of an open fire in the nicest outdoor smoking room in the land.

The Duke fulfilled all of our rural pub wants and desires: it was less than a hour from London but in a hamlet that time seemed to have forgotten (ask a local about mobile reception or internet access), it offered great food at reasonable prices with friendly attentive service  and a fantastically comfortable historic setting.

Duke of Cumberland Arms on Urbanspoon

The Duke of Cumberland Arms
near Midhurst
West Sussex GU27 3HQ
T:     +44(0)1428652289

Duke of Cumberland Arms on Urbanspoon