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Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Quayside,
60 Robertson Quay #01-11
https://www.facebook.com/SmittenCafe

Met up with Denise just before she jetted out of Singapore for coffee at Smitten. Had a latte specially pulled for me by the erstwhile barista (thanks!) and learnt what acidity means in the context of coffee (sourish aftertaste). It was a good time catching up.

Smitten is situated in the quiet Quayside complex next to the multicoloured Alkaff Bridge at Robertson Quay

The cafe occupies a small narrow space at the Quayside. The decor is simple, with bare concrete flooring, stripped ceiling and whitewashed brick walls. The cafe is jam-packed with knick-knacks commonly associated with the coffee business – assorted cups, french presses, filters, coffee bags for sale, and a pretty cool looking coffee roaster at the back. The aroma of freshly-brewed coffee pervades the premises, all the better to enjoy one’s cuppa in.

My coffee was in good hands.

The blend that day was on the sour end, with enough tartness to kick the mid-morning sleepiness out of me. Denise says it’s akin to what one will get at the London coffee houses. Kaffeine and Prufrock did have very similar-tasting brews. I enjoyed it, but generally I prefer my coffee on the nutty side.

Bratwurst Panini

Smitten also has a small selection of sandwiches to whet your appetite. The bratwurst panini could be smelled from a not-inconsiderable distance away and oozed cheese like lava. It’s rich so it’s best enjoyed when shared.

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14-16 Queensway
London W2 3RX

The word on the Chinese community grapevine in London was that Mandarin Kitchen’s head chef had departed to join Pearl Liang last year. The split was an acrimonious one, the whispers add. In spite of the setback, this stalwart of Bayswater has soldiered on admirably, and remains the best place in London for lobster noodles. The lobster is served with the Hong Kong variety of youmian noodles – thin, crunchy, and slighty springy – and wok-fried in ginger and soy sauce to produce a blessedly fragrant gravy, well balanced with a hint of ginger-zest.

Garnished with a generous turf of spring onion to complete the taste

A visit to Mandarin Kitchen for lobster noodles has become something of a pilgrimage for the Chinese diaspora visiting, working and studying in London. Don’t be put off by the restaurant’s external appearance. The low ceiling, dim lighting and squeezy dining floor isn’t going to win it a Michelin-star anytime soon. Go for the lobster noodles though, and you shan’t be disappointed.

As with most Chinese restaurants, service is brisk and generally smiley. Speaking Cantonese gets you additional brownie points (and occasional freebies) with the staff.

8 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NQ
United Kingdom
Nearest Tube Station: Oxford Circus

While we were in London last month, we visited Pollen Street Social to celebrate our anniversary. Pollen Street Social is owned by Jason Atherton, a pupil of El Bulli’s Ferran Adria and an ex-Ramsay protege. Pollen Street Social has been making the rounds since opening its doors in 2011. It was awarded its first Michelin star in the 2012 Michelin Guide and was also named London’s best new fine dining restaurant in the Time Out Eating & Drinking Awards 2011. Outside of the UK, Jason has also had a busy year, opening up Pollen, Esquina Tapas Bar and Keong Saik Snacks in Singapore.

We visited for lunch, and as first impressions go, it made a pretty good one. Despite its proximity to bustling busy Regents Street, Pollen Street exudes an unhurried, laid-back vibe quite uncommon to central London. The restaurant shares this oasis of urban serenity with several independent, franchise-eschewing cafes.

Like its esoteric neighbours, Pollen Street Social’s philosophy to food is an inclusive one. As with any Michelin-starred outlet, strict standards are observed, but the restaurant stays close to its social ethos by striving to keeping prices sensible. Jason Atherton’s new cookbook: Gourmet Food for a Fiver is an extension of this philosophy, and is chock-full of recipes for people living on a shoestring budget.

The restaurant interior is relatively large and was awash with natural lunch-time light. There was space enough for two bars:  a reception-cum-cocktail bar up front and its signature dessert bar at the back of the main dining area and overlooking the kitchen. Service was warm and attentive, and we liked how staff had room to show off their personalities. The sommelier noticed us toting cameras and asked if we wanted to take some shots in the kitchen, which was really nice of her!

Truffled hen’s egg, London cured salmon, smoked salmon & watercress soup

The dining experience at Pollen Street Social was an enjoyable one, but the food was a mixed bag. We had the set lunch (£24/2 courses, £27/3 courses) and the main of lamb from the ala-carte. The meal started with a truffled hen’s egg and cured salmon in a watercress soup, topped off with a dollop of creme fraiche. It wasn’t an attractive plate of food. Salmon-pink and water-cress green have never been the best companions in terms of colour. The dish tasted like the way it looked – an unappetising salty-creamy-slimy mulch that didn’t go anywhere.

18-hour braised Angus feather blade, baked celeriac, marrow crumbs

The Angus feather-blade tasted woefully normal. The 18 hours of braising gave the meat a good texture but the flavour in the beef was simply lacking. The dish also looked like it had been hurriedly put together, consisting of a formless piece of celeriac, and a glop of fast-separating jus that pooled around unceremoniously on the plate, and garnished with a sad-looking unidentified green object.

Rack of salt marsh lamb, braised shoulder, creamed spiced aubergine, savoury & black olive reduction

Our visit wasn’t a complete gastronomic disaster. In dramatic contrast to our tragically off-target set lunch was the salt marsh lamb rack ala-carte (£27.50), served with a subtly balanced black olive reduction and a gorgeous cumin paste, a reminder of Beijing’s ubiquitous lamb skewers (chuanr) that we once nursed as our artery-choking guilty pleasure. The black olive and cumin blended with the natural fattiness of the lamb chop to deliver savoury redemption upon our taste-buds.

Selection of sorbets & ice-creams

We then adjourned to the dessert bar for our final course. We were attended to by a trio of dessert chefs, working with manifest purpose but with wits enough to welcome and have a short chat with us. Pre-desserts included a scoop of passionfruit and blackberry sorbets (pictured above), and nitrogen-frozen strawberry panna cotta with matcha powder.

Nitrogen Frozen Strawberry panna cotta with matcha powder.

The panna cotta was was an interesting and not unpleasant marriage of sweet-and-sour-and-bitter, with the frozen strawberry and matcha playing games on our taste buds. So far, so promising.

Autumn Kent apples slow cooked in London stout beer caramel, stout sabayon, vanilla ice cream

The set lunch’s slow-cooked Kent apple in beer stout packed a good boozy punch, and the vanilla ice cream and sugared pastry crisps prevented the beer from becoming altogether overwhelming. The ala-carte mango dessert presents mango done three ways, in different textures and in a variety of chemical states: solid, liquid and gas via aeration. We found the freeze-dried mango powder quite fun to eat. The trick is to coat it around the yoghurt and the pudding, let the powder stick to the roof of your mouth and then lick the fast-melting remnants off for added kick. It’s like having fun fair candyfloss, just cooler and mango-flavoured.

Asian mango pudding, mango sorbet aerated yoghurt, freeze dried mango

Fastest fingers first

Now, we have to say that the food at Pollen Street Social was not the best we’ve had. The ala-carte was fine but the set lunch was a let down. However, the restaurant deserves notable mention from us for its down-to-earth service and general lack of pretentiousness. We enjoyed our time there and we’re sure you would too. But if you’re going for lunch, please consider getting the ala-carte instead.

Islington Branch (available for breakfast, lunch, dinner too)
287 Upper Street
London N1 2TZ
http://www.ottolenghi.co.uk/

Beautiful beautiful salads! 

It is really a wonder why we’ve not blogged about Ottolenghi before. We’ve been going to their Islington branch for our indulgent salad box treats for the longest time. Ottolenghi is a wildly popular chain of delis in London owned by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. This Israeli-Palestinian cooking duo have brought their Middle-Eastern culinary heritage to bear on the London food scene for several years now, serving up food so good they’ve made seasoned (and jaded) food reviewers write uncharacteristically gushy things about them.

Cheesecakes with a chocolate and macadamia nuts, one of our favourites

Don’t just take it from us. Make a trip down to one of Ottolenghi’s four branches (Notting Hill, Kensington, Islington and Belgravia) and see for yourself. The window displays are culinary works of art, with chocolate financiers, meringue tarts and cheesecakes arranged in beautiful battalions ready to wage bloody(-delicious) war on your taste buds.

Enticing salad displays (chillied brocollis in the foreground)

We nearly forgot to mention the salads, the best green and vegetable-looking things you’ll ever put into your mouth. As Ottolenghi’s website puts it, “Our favourite ingredients are of this ‘noisy’ type: lemon, pomegranate, garlic, chilli.” Be prepared for a veritable explosion of flavour on first bite.

Cous-cous, Ottolenghi style

The selection varies from season to season, but we’ve found that the rice-based salads, anything with squash and sweet potatoes in it, and the grilled aubergines with yoghurt dressing have been consistently good. Cous-cous has never featured highly on our carbohydrates-list, but those we had that day were deliciously blended with lemon and coriander. Some of our friends swear by the grilled brocolli with chilli, so that’s worth trying as well.

Angus Beef Fillet, lightly seared, with a mustard yoghurt dip.

Corn Fed Chicken – quite good, but beef is better

If you’re feeling nippy, get the angus beef fillet, lightly seared on the outside, and complemented perfectly with a light mustard-yoghurt dip. Two slices a person is more than plenty. It is sold by weight, so that will be about £3.50 each. Make it a three-course by choosing from Ottolenghi’s extensive selection of desserts. We love their cheesecakes and their signature passionfruit meringue tarts.

The last two times we were there, we took away lunch and went to the bench at St. Mary’s Church Garden. The weather was perfect and it turned out to be an unplanned but romantic picnic. 

(Pssst, takeaways are also alot cheaper than eating in  (£9.50/regular, £15.50/large). The large salad box is more than enough for two!)

More photographs of our trip, mostly taken in the south-western part of Iceland. The Golden Circle tourism route is an easy way to sample the Icelandic outdoors if a day is all you have. Landmannalaugar is a little further out from Reykjavik, but its multi-coloured mountains and scenic hiking trails are a wondrous sight to behold.

Many thanks to our guide Jon Frosti of Solstice Tours for being our guide, photographer and friend on this trip.

Iceland is a beautiful country, and we’d like to recommend anybody vacationing in Europe to make a detour here.

As with most tourists, we based ourselves in Reykjavik and made small day tours to nearby attractions by car. This entry will read a little bit like a food trail – we’ll focus on how to go about feeding yourselves without blowing too big a hole in your wallet .

There were sheep everywhere

Iceland is blessed with some of the best meat and fish produce in the world. The waters that surround this raw and beautiful island are rich in fish, and the interior of the country is essentially one big sheep farm. There were sheep everywhere we went. Reykjavik central is populated by a fair number of fine-dining restaurants where you can sample some of this wonderful local fare. Tripadvisor and the local tourist guidebook will have a catalogue of all the well-known names.

Seafood Grill
Skolavordustigur 14,
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
http://www.sjavargrillid.is/en/Welcome

Fish Company
Vesturgotu 2a
Grófartorg,
Reykjavik, Iceland
http://www.fiskfelagid.is/

Lobster and Monkfish at the Seafood Grill

We can tell you a little bit about the Seafood Grill and the Fish Company. Both restaurants are staffed with friendly waitresses who will mother you into blissful submission with warm bread, local skyr butter (Yum.) and tap water so fresh it puts Evian and San Pellegrino to crying, burbling shame. Food-wise, Icelandic fine-dining really tries its best, but our impression is that their methods are a little dated. All the dishes we ordered were smothered in one sort of seafood foam or the other. We also took issue with the Seafood Grill deep-frying one of their lobster medallions in a hard, salty batter. Mother Lim also found the salted cod to be way too salty. We thought it was a matter of personal intolerance at first, but afterwards even we were forced to concede that she was right. There was enough salt in the fish to preserve it for milennia. This was a pity. The Seafood Grill could have gotten more out of its ingredients by doing less.

Lamb at the Fish Company

The Fish Company was better. The lamb was served a smokey jus and complemented with a lovely beetroot ketchup. We thought the sweet-and-smokey mix quite pleasant, although Father Lim did grumble about a lack of mint jelly and tabasco sauce. Clearly he preferred his traditional lamb and mint pairing more. Su-Ching liked her plaice and scallops main a lot, and we had no complaints there.

Difficult to eat with gloves on

We recommend having one of your meals at one of Reykjavik’s fine-dining establishments, just to see what the dining scene is like. Starters are normally start from 1500 ISK (~15 SGD) and main courses are about 5000 ISK (~50 SGD). However, not all your meals in the country need to be fancy-schmansy lobster gobbling affairs. Fast food in Iceland is equally celebrated.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
Tryggvagotu 1,
Reykjavik 101, Iceland

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, roughly translated: Best Hot Dogs in Town!

Your first pit-stop in Iceland should be Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur along Tryggvagotu, Iceland’s world-famous hot dog stand. This humble purveyor of lamb hot dogs has the accolade of serving Bill Clinton when he was touring Iceland on behalf of UNICEF in 2004. Have your hot dog (250 ISK) with crispy fried onions, ketchup and a cup of coke. There aren’t many better ways to warm your stomach on a windy Reykjavik evening.

The Sea Baron
Geirsgata 8,
101 Reykjavik, Iceland

The interior of an archetypal seafood shack

Further down the road from the hotdog stand is Reykjavik’s Old Harbour, the home of yet another world-famous restaurant. Some 3-star Michelin restaurants may admittedly serve more complex lobster bisques, but the Sea Baron’s lobster soup (1250 ISK) offering stands out for its simplicity, honesty and generosity. The man behind the soup is a good-natured octogenarian ex-seaman. He may be found most days perched behind the counter of his restaurant. The broth is thin but full of that splendid, distinctive lobster flavour. Each soup cup also comes filled with substantial chunks of lobster meat.

Looking at this makes me hungryMonkfish Skewer (2200 ISK)The Salmon (2000 ISK) was fresh, but we liked the monkfish more

Also consider getting the monkfish skewers. Fresh monkfish has the same bouncy texture as lobster but goes for a third of the price. The monkfish at the Sea Baron is the freshest we’ve had. Ever. We honestly don’t think a stay in Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to this far-flung outpost.

The Burger Joint
Geirsgata 1  
101 Reykjavik, Iceland

If the lobster soup and skewers have not quite filled you up, the Burger Joint is your place of final resort. For 1250 ISK per burger value meal it is not the cheapest fast food around. But they do give you free refills on your coke, which is brilliant. The burger itself is very close to the soft-bunned American variant (think Shake Shack). The patty is moist and finely minced, although we do prefer our mince slightly coarser.

Noodle Station
Skolavordustigur 21a, 
Reykjavik, Iceland

If you tire of Scandinavian cooking altogether, the Noodle Station along Skolavordustigur represents great taste and value for money. It is located along the second busiest thoroughfare in Reykjavik and shouldn’t be too difficult to find. A bowl of ‘Thai-style’ kway teow noodles is 1000 ISK (SGD 10) for the chicken option, and 1200 ISK (SGD 12) for the stewed beef.

A saviour comes along to redeem our home-weary palate

The soup is a brown, sweet, thick broth. The beef must have been either topside or shin and the texture and taste compares really well with what one can get closer to home. Have it with a generous topping of ground peanuts, bean sprouts and chilli powder as well!

Right. So that concludes our brief guide to eating in Reykjavik. If we manage to save you a few dollars on your prospective trips to Iceland, then this guide has done its job. A word of advice though – whale meat has the texture of beef but tastes like fish. Eat at your own peril!

Other restaurants worth eating in Reykjavik (unreviewed): Kitchen Eldhus, for Nepalese and Indian food – for simple, not-too-expensive Indian cuisine along the Laugavegur shopping street. 

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