When we first moved to Maida Vale some years ago, Monsieur and I missed having a sushi bar within easy reach of chez nous. To eat Japanese at the weekend, we’d have to travel. Not as far as Tokyo, of course, but across a postcode or two. Sometimes, that’s not what you need at the end of a long week, when the footstool beckons and the only exercise you feel like doing is punching numbers into the phone and asking someone else to do the cooking, so you can just about imagine our delight when a small Japanese eatery called Maguro opened within easy walking distance of home. It didn’t take us long to get down there to test their foreign fare.
The first couple of times we visited Maguro, it was to dine in the restaurant. The wood-panelled interior is so small that it must have been modelled on Japanese spaces – with only room enough for 20 or so covers. Having said that, over time we’ve noticed that during hours of service, Maguro rarely has room for more than a couple of walk-ins, if that. The staff battle for room to serve and clear and even enter the kitchen, which is miniature, and the conveniences hide away in authentic fashion behind a long Japanese curtain at the back of the long dining room. In spite of such restrictions on the possibility of some active cat-swinging, Maguro successfully produces faultless cuisine without interruption. This is proof that size really does not matter.
Unfortunately for lazybones us, Maguro doesn’t deliver (yet) so we dutifully call our order through in advance before setting off to collect our food. Monsieur and I toss a coin for the pleasure of stretching our legs, but invariably we are more motivated than usual to move ourselves, inspired by the pleasure potential of the meal ahead.
Here’s a sample of what we had for our eat-in Friday night ‘date’ last week:
Agedashi tofu. If I tell you that I could visit Maguro for their agedashi tofu alone, you might begin to understand just how good the Maguro version is. The tofu is always piping hot in a delicious gelatinous tempura sauce. I usually don’t do gelatinous unless it’s in a pudding, so take it from me: it’s gotta be good if I like it here.
From left to right: pork gyoza (they also come in prawn, chicken or vegetable. My favourite is the prawn but they’re all very good). Shumai - steamed dumplings filled with a blend of snow crab, salad onions and something called ‘tobiko’ – flying fish roe. Served warm, each shumai provides a perfect mouthful of the subtlest seafood sensation. Last, but not least, tori niku BBQ: barbecue chicken with onion and capsicum - ideal with plain rice. They don’t skimp on the sauce here - there’s always plenty to coat the tender bite-size strips of chicken. The after-burn is just hot enough to be interesting without necessitating a long squirt from the nearest fire extinguisher.
Maguro Tataki: a seared salmon sashimi with ponzu sauce. Each piece of sashimi rests on a bed of finely-grated white radish. A truly refreshing combination of taste and texture.
Maguro yukke – sashimi grade tuna, chopped and tossed in a sesame soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions and pine nuts. Stab at the raw quail’s egg to release the yolk and mix through before eating. A cool, fresh, tangy taste of Asia.
Kani kara age – soft shell crab. Maguro dips the crab pieces in tempura batter and lightly fries them – served with the sort of light horseradish sauce that should be bottled and sold in its own right.
Last, but not least, Maguro’s black cod. This version easily matches Nobu’s signature version. It flakes into morsels with the barest suggestion of a chopstick’s touch, not to mention that the miso paste marinade is one of the best I’ve ever tasted.
Over time, Monsieur and I have tried a fair number of items on Maguro’s menu, including teriyaki salmon, the sashimi platter, salmon tartare which has a proper heat to it – most unusual, and the tuna tartare. Even the house salad is worthy of praise. It’s a great destination for anyone watching their weight and offers plenty of choice for vegetarian friends. The myriad menu options cater for all depths of pocket, from shallow to bottomless. The lunchtime Bento boxes are great value, and the set dinners are competitive, but if you want to push the boat out and order the likes of Kobe beef sashimi or foie gras and hotate (seared scallop) it’s definitely possible to rack up quite a bill here.
Drinks are as you’d expect – Japanese beer (Asahi), a selection of warm and cold sakes, plum wine and green tea, along with a small but carefully-chosen wine list and all the regular soft drinks (orange juice, diet soda, mineral water etc).
Sadly, Monsieur and I will be leaving W9 later on this year. We’re ready for a change of scene but we’d feel even better about our future postcode if we knew that Maguro was moving with us. As that’s unlikely, we’ll just have to trek back to the old ‘hood once in a while to ensure that standards aren’t slipping, but for now we’re determined to make the most of our current proximity to this gem of a restaurant, with the project of working our way through as much of the extensive menu before we move. In fact, on writing this, I’ve decided where we’ll have our last supper before the removal van arrives and this is one decision I won’t have to check with Monsieur. As long as the black cod’s still on Maguro’s menu, you can count him in.
Maguro - 5 Lanark Place, London W9 1BT, tel 020 7289 4353
Once inside I found a lively L-shaped room filled with the happy buzz of people whose appetites were soon to be sated. The decor is Manhattan loft-style, with exposed terracotta brick walls, cosy booths, an open kitchen with bright stainless steel surfaces and when I walked in the kitchen counter was already covered with plates of Iberico ham in different guises. I’d starved myself all day so that I’d have capacity for everything on the menu, so you won’t be surprised to hear that one glance at the ham caused some (discreet) dribbling into the flute of delightfully dry cava that had been offered at the door.
In his welcome address Simon Majumdar, one of the Dos Hermanos behind the event, explained that there had been one thousand applications for tickets for tonight and we were the fortunate fifty to receive them. That was certainly interesting to hear – only five per cent of applicants would share the Dine With Dos Hermanos experience at Pizarro tonight and I was one of them (HOORAY!). I took my seat at a table with three lovely strangers, ready to begin the serious task of eating Mr Pizzaro’s fare.
First to arrive at our table was a plate of croquetas –perfect orbs of gold and so very creamy that they disappeared in a flash, causing me to dub them ‘flash croquetas’. I adore croquetas and these were at the top of their league – no gristle or tough old chunks to distract from the smooth, cheesy potato, just the right consistency with a smoky ham flavour wafting through the middle.
Next to appear was a spread of Jamon Iberico in three different forms, my favourite of which was the chorizo. Sliced paper-thin each mouthful brought more strange noises of contentment. My husband, a die-hard sausage-lover, would have hogged (pardon the pun) the plate for himself, had he been there, so I’m quite selfishly relieved he wasn’t. The accompanying bread was also good – bouncy, yeasty sour-dough, but the quality of the ham before us was such that it fully warranted being eaten on its own.
I went slightly bonkers with delight over the carpaccio of cod with fennel and orange. As the self-dubbed Queen of Carpaccio this combination was right up my street. The fish was fresh with the versatility to add the smack of ocean to the aniseedy fennel and zing of citrus. The only problem with Neptunian carpaccios such as this is that I’m always left wishing for more, still, there’s a way to get around that: I’ll just have to order double quantities next time.
We were next presented with the head of hake – this was understandably ugly yet delicious, with forks about the room excitedly excavating cheeks and precious fleshy bits from all parts of the fish head. Softened red pimentons were scattered liberally about the dish and these were a revelation in themselves – packed full of flavour but with an unexpected velvety texture on the tongue.
By now the guests were all heads-down, merrily eating and critiquing each plate. Meanwhile, the staff didn’t stop. Plates were cleared and new ones presented in a very efficient operation, especially considering that this was soft-opening week so everyone was working hard to get it right before inviting the public to come in and chow down. Such seamless professionalism was impressive, a testament to organisation skill. Not one of the wait-staff looked harassed, just focussed. What’s really amazing is how friendly they all were – no mean feat given the pressure they must have been under.
A side of tiny florets of cauliflower was a pleasant surprise. Cold, crudité-like, with the unexpected tang of vinegar, the cauliflower was simple, refreshing and palate-cleansing before the shift towards the heavier tastes of the evening: duck livers and Iberico pork cheeks.
The duck livers were served with red onion – or were they shallots? Small, red skinned, onion family… the liver was heady, stronger than chicken liver, yet smooth and gamey. The Iberico pork cheeks then arrived – morsels of porcine paradise. They practically dissolved in the mouth requiring next to no mastication – therein lies the beauty of slow-braising.
Then we were onto the cheese course – I regret I didn’t get the names of the cheeses, but being a fromage fan I was easily pleased here as there was a good representation of types – a couple hard and manchego-like with rind, one I’m sure was made from sheep’s milk… some black grapes and fruit chutney were the accompaniment.
And lastly, some cake – my single mouthful of this was enough as desserts are not really my thing, besides which I was thoroughly enjoying the PX Fernando de Castilla sherry, which eclipsed anything else I might have tasted at the time.
Throughout the evening, José Pizarro’s partners in wine from Cillar de Silos had kept us informed about and topped up with various glasses of Spanish goodness. We’d started the evening with a beautifully dry cava, which I wouldn’t hesitate to serve to friends as an aperitif, and then moved onto a rare and special fino from Gonzalo Bayass. The Duero wine-growing region was well represented by the Rosado de Silos and Illar de Silos Crianza from the Silos cellars, and lastly we had the delicious sherry to round off the evening. By the time I left for home I was one very happy bunny.
And so to the verdict on Dine with Dos Hermanos: well worth the effort. The evening was superb, the food and drink quality, the conversation excellent – especially as it mostly revolved around the common interest of the Fortunate Fifty: food. The icing on the tarta is that Simon Majumdar is, in my opinion, a really good egg with the right sort of priorities – family and food. As for José Pizarro, well, he kindly gave me some advice on how to make my tortillitas de camarones better, and that was a bonus to the evening that was most gratefully received.
Pizarro is definitely worth visiting if you’re heading down Bermondsey way. Don’t try to book – there’s a no-reservations policy, but as a back-up, if things are busy, you could always pop along the street to José, the slightly more senior tapas bar in the Pizarro stable, which opened to great acclaim last year. Definitely go to Pizarro if you’re fond of all things Iberico ham, be sure to try the croquetas, and if you’re in the mood for bubbles, why not give the cava a whirl? From what I hear Pizarro has had the odd teething problem since the DWDH evening, but that’s to be expected of any new establishment. Put simply, I’ll be returning soon with my chorizo-chomping husband in tow; he’s even fussier about food than I am, so if that’s not an EPIC seal of approval, I don’t know what is.
Pizarro, 194 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ
If you’re Vietnamese and you don’t like Pho, there’s definitely something wrong with your genetic make up. Pronounced ‘FUH’, pho is Vietnam’s national dish and the thought of that single syllable makes my stomach grumble with longing.
Pho’s concept is simple: make a fully-balanced meal fit into a single bowl. The main components are rice noodles, broth and some sort of protein - beef or chicken or seafood, sometimes tripe or meatballs or a combination of different meats and broth. The protein goes into the bowl raw and cooks when the boiling hot broth that has been simmering for some hours is poured over it. The broth varies in strength and flavour depending on the region of Vietnam, often containing spices and herbs like cinnamon and ginger, coriander seed and clove. Once served, the consumer can then season it to their own personal taste with condiments like chilli, spring onions and fresh herbs.
When Monsieur and I were preparing for our trip to Vietnam, pho seemed to pop up everywhere. It was mentioned in all the guides, in online reviews, in restaurant recommendations, and if you look up ‘pho’ on You Tube, you’ll find the likes of Anthony Bourdain trying it out in Ho Chi Minh City and amateur pho chefs demonstrating step-by-step instructions on how to make pho at home. Once in Vietnam, Monsieur and I and enjoyed authentic pho on several occasions, marvelling at the regional subtleties and the many ways in which the simple concept of a meal in a bowl may be interpreted.
The Vietnamese say that Pho is their equivalent of chicken noodle soup. It’s an anti-viral cold-preventative, hangover cure and all-round comfort food. For all of these reasons and because Pho simply tastes good, Epic is a great, big pho fan.
Back in March of this year I was lucky enough to be invited to a food bloggers’ event at a restaurant specialising in pho, called, not surprisingly, Pho. There are now four restaurants in the Pho chain; we went to the one in Great Titchfield Street. There, in a bright basement, we were treated to welcome drinks, including wine or Hue beer, a popular Vietnamese brew. It was Hue all the way for me after that.
First up, we enjoyed learning to make our own summer rolls. I wasn’t exactly adept at this (mine resembled more of a lopsided sausage factory reject than a neat little roll), but I did enjoy eating the results.
And this is what the staff work so hard to produce – vat upon steaming vat of bubbling hot broth.
Back at our very long table, the crowd was like a Who’s Who of London food bloggers, which made for passionate conversation about who’s cooking/eating what, where to shop for the best ingredients and which chefs we rate or otherwise. There were collective aaahs of approval as we nibbled on our summer rolls and dipped into the share platters of Vietnamese salads. Outside it was dark, cold and rainy. Inside at Pho we could taste summer in the fresh papaya salad, delving for the fat prawns in its midst. This platter, called Goi Du Du in Vietnamese, is sprinkled with chopped peanuts and served with prawn crackers. Everything (apart from the prawns) crunched in a satisfying way: the batons of papaya, the strips of capsicum, the peanuts, the crackers. It was a welcome antidote to the misery of March weather.
At last, the moment came when we could taste the pho of our choice. On the menu was quite a list of pho varieties – served with steak or brisket, or both, with meatballs, chicken or prawns or a couple of vegetarian versions with tofu or mushrooms. I had Pho Tom – more fat tiger prawns served in chicken stock.
The bowls come with special ladle-like spoons and a selection of condiments with which to bespoke your pho: Vietnamese coriander (which looks like mint but tastes completely different), beansprouts, chilli and lime.
Here’s my bowl of glory, steaming away merrily.
The broth was piping hot, the prawns tender and plump with juice. Lots of happy slurping went on around the table that night and the general consensus was that Pho was modern, affordable, with the freshest of ingredients and therefore definitely had its place in London.
Following the spring rolls, salad, a bowl of Pho and a couple of Hues, I was overflowing with good things and had zero capacity for dessert, which was a shame because the Pho menu boasts banana fritters, pandan pancakes and fresh fruit sorbets with flavours like strawberry with fresh basil. I did, however, cave in to the offer of an iced Vietnamese coffee made with condensed milk. I know, I know, it sounds odd, but it’s like a Vietnamese frappuccino and they’re really quite addictive.
So with a round and happy belly I bade farewell to the warm Pho staff and foodie friends, toddling off in the rain in search of an elusive cab, smile on face, with a stomachful of Pho. Methinks that Pho isn’t just the Vietnamese cure-all comfort food, but Vietnamese prozac in a bowl, for it shifts my mood to happy every time.
For further details about the London branches of Pho, go to: www.phocafe.co.uk
It doesn’t seem to matter that Viet Grill is located a good twenty minute trek from the nearest tube station; last Friday evening saw it bursting at the seams and I’m quite certain it wasn’t Rent-a-Crowd. Monsieur and I were there to review this well-reputed bastion of Vietnamese cuisine in London and, in spite of having a reservation, for a split second I wondered whether we might have to wait to be seated; that’s how busy it was.
We rapidly realised that such fears were ill-founded as a waiter hailed a manager called Nam to look after us. We were soon sitting at a table blessed with elbow room, which looked to be the exception to the rule in this hive of Friday night activity.
Monsieur had already experienced Viet Grill, having dined here with a group of friends last December. I was the Viet Grill virgin in our party but this did not hold me back. As I checked out the recently-refurbished interior with feature fish tank embedded in one wall and a neon-lit shrine above the bar, Nam reappeared to ask whether we would like to choose our own dishes or would we trust him to order on our behalf. Before Monsieur could blink I had committed us both to Selection by Nam. Yes, Viet Grill’s staff knew I was there and why, but I was curious to see which dishes they thought would please us the most, especially as I’d spent the past couple of days devouring the menu on their website and fantasising about dishes like Saigon Ceviche Lobster and Crab Salad and Wicked Crispy Frog. I wondered, would such things feature as the staff favourites?
The first dish to appear was the Lotus Stem Salad. Described as comprising ‘shredded pork, shrimps, Vietnamese basil, peanuts and lime zest served with a sweet chilli dressing,’ this was a happy confusion of textures – the lotus adding a cool crunch, the pork contrasting in its softness and the overall effect reminiscent of summer by the beach. The Vietnamese basil, lime and chilli added Far Eastern flavour, altogether tangy and tart and hot against the tongue. Every single ingredient was served so fresh that there could have been a seaside farm in the kitchen. Thus far, Monsieur and I were impressed, but would our satisfaction survive the evening? Let’s find out.
(Lotus Stem Salad)
In addition to selecting the plates now appearing before us, Nam had also chosen our wine. I already knew that Viet Grill had enlisted the services of wine guru, Malcolm Gluck, to match wines to their dishes, and various reviewers before me have found this to be one of the unexpected bonuses of an evening at this Kingsland Road restaurant. Therefore, I was quietly confident that Nam would choose the right bottle for us, but when a Gewurztraminer appeared, my heart sank. Monsieur and I usually steer clear of this grape variety, as it tends to be too sweet and fruity for our taste. Choosing to trust Nam’s judgement, however, paid dividends. The Hunawihr Gewurztraminer Reserve d’Alsace (2007) matched particularly well with everything we ate that evening, especially as Vietnamese food tends to include a sweet element somewhere within. To its credit, our Gewurztraminer sang along with the food without being a diva. That is, its zesty flavour was complementary to the food without being overpowering. Thus far, it was a perfect match.
A plate of Beef Vinh arrived next, followed by Chicken Royale. I’m not the world’s biggest carnivore, but when Monsieur tried the Beef Vinh he described it as “so soft, it’s like eating cotton.” I couldn’t resist, so tried a piece of the beef that had arrived in kebab-style sans-skewer, slivered and rolled before being charcoal grilled and served in bite-size chunks. A dipping sauce next to it was later identified as fermented soy and although adding a dash of something extra, it wasn’t really needed because the beef was so tender and flavoursome, thanks to the addition of five spice, that it was stand-alone melt-in-mouth joy to our taste buds.
As for the Chicken Royale, Monsieur gobbled up his share with relish. He’d ordered this dish on his previous visit and thoroughly enjoyed it on both occasions. Slightly sweet, the chicken is free range (thank the Lord, because happy hens are tasty hens) marinated in cinnamon and fresh herbs before being roasted and dressed in a soy broth, giving it an almost honeyed flavour. Apart from adding to the taste, the marinade also gives the chicken a deep golden shine, so not only does it taste good, this chicken looks as royal as its name on its simple bed of house salad.
A word about the salad garnishes at Viet Grill – there’s no floppy lettuce here. Everything tasted as if it was just plucked from a homestead’s vege patch, rinsed in spring water and shaken dry before landing on the plate. Surely to get such a simple thing as garnish so very right shows that the people in the kitchen care about their produce and attention to detail. Whoever supplies Viet Grill with its ingredients is someone I’d dearly like to supply my fridge at home.
The next surprise to arrive was a whole oven-baked mackerel, eyes and fins and all. It had been marinated in lemongrass and wrapped in banana leaves, according to the menu. A waitress boned it deftly at the table, leaving us to dig in, which we did repeatedly. Mackerel is quite an oily fish, so often seen in the form of smoked fillets on supermarket shelves. This was a whole new take on mackerel for me. Mouths full, Monsieur and I hummed our happiness back and forth at each other across the table as we demolished the entire fish, leaving only head, tail and a few random bones behind. The lemongrass had imbued the flesh with a delicate, sweet perfume and the skin was so perfectly cooked that it lacked the usual slippery sensation that the skin of an oily fish so often has, and, without being cremated beyond edibility, the skin instead had a fine crispness to it meaning that we ate most of that, too.
Nam interrupted us part-way through our mackerel munch-fest to ask how we liked our meal. “The mackerel is delicious!” we enthused. “I know.” he agreed, “I take it home twice a week for dinner for me and my girlfriend.” If I lived closer to Viet Grill, I’d do exactly the same as Nam and take this fish home often. Not only is it good for you (mackerel is rich in Omega 3s), Viet Grill has a take-away menu so if you don’t want to dine in, you can have this dish at home for an unbelievable £8.00 (it costs £9.00 if you eat in; a fact that Monsieur and I cannot quite fathom because it’s such unbelievable value for such a sizeable and delicious fish).
Which brings me onto pricing. Considering the quality of what Monsieur and I were trying at Viet Grill, none of it would break the bank. And if you are still hardened against spending your hard-earned beans in these tough economic times, there’s a two-course Recession Set Meal for £9.50 per person. For soups, pho and One Dish Meals, if you dine before 3.00pm you can do so for £5.00 a plate (or large bowl) in these categories. The wine may set you back a few quid, but if you check out the retail prices on the internet, you’d be surprised that the restaurant mark-ups are so modest here.
Monsieur and I took it in turns to visit the restaurant conveniences in the basement, amazed to find another dining room below with even larger feature aquarium and yet more pho-slurping patrons. The loos were Ally MacBeal-style, that is, unisex, but the layout meant that this was not a problem if you prefer a bit of space between you and the opposite sex when you tinkle. The cubicles are spacious, with ledges for handbags which are great for people with O.C.D. about loo floors, all the fittings are brand new, and the colour scheme is a crisp white and olive green with dark wood accents. The only thing I’d mention is that the floor is slippery when wet, so take care, especially if you’re onto your second bottle of Gewurztraminer, as we were.
Now we just had to do our best with a Vietnamese dessert. Nam recommended tapioca cake, and sensing that The Blogger and her companion were close to maximum stomach capacity, brought just the one with two spoons. That was very considerate of him. The last time Monsieur and I ate tapioca was at the Cu Chi Tunnels in Vietnam. That day it was simply prepared, served with a peanut and sugar dip that became a magnet for all sorts of wasps and jungle insect life. The Viet Grill tapioca cake was bright green and gelatinous to the point of being a bit rubbery. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of nuts, it was perfectly pleasant, but lacked in the va-va-voom of the other dishes we’d tried. Having travelled through Vietnam, Monsieur and I know that Vietnamese sweets can often be a bit alien to Westerners, so we didn’t allow this minor blip to colour our views of the evening. For all we know, a Vietnamese connoisseur of tapioca pudding might deem this a fine example but for us it was akin to eating a sweetly perfumed eraser.
Unfortunately, the Vietnamese coffee was also a slight disappointment, tasting a little like a Westernised version of the usual coffee poured over ice with condensed milk. It was still sweet andchocolatey, which is what I so love about Vietnamese coffee, but for some reason the Viet Grill version made us think of Starbucks frappuccino, so next time we’ll probably end with the Iced Jasmine Tea, just for a change. Besides, I adore the subtlety of jasmine tea but have never tried it iced before. It sounds like a glassful of eastern exoticism. Alas, there’s only so much one stomach will take in a sitting.
On our way out we waited to thank Nam, who’d disappeared into his back-of-house domain. As a waiter helped me to track him down, he allowed me to poke my head into the kitchen. This was where our fine meal had been prepared and was a revelation. Brightly lit with work surfaces that could well be used to advertise kitchen cleaning products, the chef’s team was busy at work – chopping, steaming, plating, stirring and more. In spite of it being 10.30pm, they didn’t look anywhere close to slowing down. Back in the dining room, a few tables were now free but the space remained close to full.
Then, there was Nam, asking how we’d found our Viet Grill experience. We thanked him for a thoroughly enjoyable evening and asked him to pass on our thanks to the other staff who’d cared for us so efficiently throughout the evening. Then we sent our compliments to the chef/s, commending in particular the mackerel, which Monsieur and I then talked about all the way home.
Yes, Monsieur and I will gladly return to Viet Grill. We highly recommend the Lotus Salad, Chicken Royale, Vinh Beef and Oven-baked Mackerel. If you follow in our footsteps, just make sure you order those dishes and you’ll leave happy. As for me, next time I’d be tempted to try that Wicked Crispy Frog, mostly because the name alone makes me smile, but partly because I’ve never before eaten frog and would like to try it, just the once.
Even though I didn’t meet him, I must now extend my thanks to the owner of Viet Grill, Hieu Trung Bui, who offered me the chance to review his establishment. Thank you, Hieu. I have a feeling we’ll be back for more mackerel, soon, because just thinking about it makes me dribble onto my keyboard. With food of such quality, at such reasonable prices, you can Viet Grill me, any day.
Follow VietGrill on Twitter: @caytrevietgrill
Or visit their website for more information: http://www.vietnamesekitchen.co.uk/
I have a dear, small, Scandinavian friend who, like me, loves food. This friend has survived a life-altering, direction-changing year, culminating in a decision to leave London in favour of her Tokyo-based love, going via Denmark to enjoy some quality family time. Needless to say, she couldn’t possibly leave the country without first dining with me, not least because such a large part of our friendship exists thanks to passionate discussions about FOOD.
The Tokyo Boy had recommended for us a little tavern-style Japanese place on Goodge Street. I googled it and the first review I read scared me. A Japanese person had written it, slating the staff and taking no prisoners about their surly attitude to white patrons. No no no, we couldn’t risk it, could we? Not on our last dinner together for some time. Scandi-La was resolute, however. Tokyo Boy liked it and so would we. In the wake of her culinary courage, I followed her lead and we went to Yoisho.
On entering this modest little restaurant, it’s obvious that this place is run by Japanese, for Japanese, with Japanese businessmen dotted around the place sipping on sake with loosened ties. We sat at the counter overlooking the grill chef’s work and immediately ordered bottles of Asahi dry and some warm sake. We had two waitresses, both of whom were perfectly professional towards us (no gaijin phobia there) and one of whom bore a fantastic short haircut of some style and geometric precision. Behind the counter the grill chef worked tirelessly, smiling at us and nodding shyly from time to time. Scandi-La and I felt not one hint of hostility towards us, although our enthusiasm for Japanese food and a few words of Japanese definitely did not go astray.
On the counter stood a lucky cat with waving paw and a figurine of a beer-hugging fisherman replete with fish and rod. The decor was hardly inspired, but felt refreshingly authentic in its tattiness, as if we’d walked off an Osaka street instead of a street in a wet and crowded pre-Christmas London. As usual, we struggled to decide on our food but eventually settled on gyoza (dumplings), a mixed sashimi platter, another of tempura followed by eggplant with miso – one of my all-time favourite Japanese recipes. Added to this was a selection of chicken skewers – some kebab-style; others mulched into grillable balls.
The gyoza were exactly as they should be: light, soft and tasty with that hint of Japanese chive, but it was the sashimi that stole the first part of the Yoi-show. In a more favourable review of this eatery, someone had written that the sashimi was so fresh that there must be an ocean in the basement. This praise was not an exaggeration of the quality of the fish we were served. Scandi-La and I hummed with a united appreciation of the yellow-fin tuna, salmon and some sort of delicate white fish – all absolutely fresh and almost creamy as each morsel dissolved altogether too quickly against my palate, with barely the need to chew, but the star of the sashimi platter had to be the prawns. Previously to dining at Yoisho, I’d never eaten sashimi prawns. These were served vaguely blue, ready to pop out of the pink prawn shell, and my word, how they tasted as they slipped around my mouth! Suddenly I wished myself a pelican so I could eat such things all day.
The mixed tempura, a heap of gilded king prawns and vegetable pieces, was almost fluffy, so perfect was the golden batter. And when we moved onto the eggplant with miso, I was ascending to eggplant heaven. The eggplant flesh was steaming and soft and slushy beneath the generous layer of miso – which both sweetens and salts the hot fruit beneath. We dug our chopsticks into the flesh, careful to load them with both eggplant and sauce, humming with yet more gastronomic delight.
At some point in proceedings I ventured down the modest staircase to the ladies’ room, tucked away down a corridor in the basement. En route I discovered another dining room, filled with more Japanese people enjoying some post-work down-time. The ladies’ facilities were scruffy, as I’d expected, and there, in the corridor, was the sashimi ocean we’d been discussing earlier. Well, not really an ocean, just more of a large puddle. There was no sign of pipework or a leak in the immediate vicinity, so I wondered how it got there. Could it be a magic, sashimi-producing ocean? Could it be that a sake-swilling patron had leaked on the way to the loo? Perhaps someone had left their brolly there and it the water was its legacy. Whatever it was, it made me smile. Perhaps there really are secret basement oceans capable of producing dream sashimi.
The verdict? Scandi-La and I were more than satisfied that our last London dinner together had been such a success. As we paid up, the grill chef looked sad to see us go. I think he must have enjoyed all our happy hmmm-ing and humming, yet I have to be honest and say that neither diner particularly enjoyed the chicken, leaving most of the skewers intact. In short, if you’re hungry for sashimi in London, give Yoisho a go. Here’s how Yoisho scored against the Epicurometer:
Gyoza – 8/10 (extremely good but not remarkable)
Sashimi – 10/10 (absolutely magical from that ocean in the basement)
Tempura – 8/10 (extremely good but nothing unusual)
Eggplant with miso – 7/10 (very tasty and I hate to admit it but I once had better in Sydney)
Mixed chicken skewers – 4/10 (had the texture of cheap chicken meat. It’s not like Scandi-La or me to leave food on our plates in a Japanese establishment so this was poor going.)
Asahi dry – 10/10 (great to have the choice of dry and comes in large bottles so it keeps you going for a while)
Sake – tut tut, wicked girls! We chose a sake for serving cold and asked the waitress if it was possible to serve it warm. Yes it was and there was no fuss about it or trying to upgrade us to a superior sake for serving warm. I don’t know enough about sake to score it but safe to say that it was perfectly drinkable with that lovely warm rush that’s so precious when you’ve just been drenched by a London downpour, as I had.
Decor – don’t go here if you’re passionate about interiors, unless you want to see a well-seasoned Japanese tavern-style eatery. Upstairs is definitely better than down, and that’s saying something.
Eating at the counter – 10/10 for entertainment value, relative comfort and the fisherman figurine. I think he’d be happy to come home with me and live with Blue Monkey.
Staff – The waitresses get a score of 7/10 and the grill chef earns himself a 9/10 for being so friendly.
Likeliness to return to Yoisho? 10/10 as in extremely likely. If I weren’t watching my pennies before Christmas, I’d teleport myself there right now. Those sashimi prawns are what dreams are made of.
Yoisho – 33 Goodge Street London, W1T 2PS - 020 7323 0477
(Flags in Toulouse)
The events of recent weeks have been an uphill struggle, to put it mildly, so Monsieur and I were in dire need of a date to distract us. On a recent weekend, instead of brunching on my fine Eggs Benedict at home we went out. I’d been hearing good things about a place called Bloody French in Westbourne Grove so we thought we’d give it a whirl. Well, actually, I thought we’d give it a whirl. Monsieur was in favour of our local deli, Raoul’s, or nearby Café Rouge. In hindsight, his preferences were safer, but I argued that it was time to try somewhere new, so Bloody French it was.
The online reviews for Bloody French gave a very different picture from what we experienced. The positive posts were high in praise for everything from the food to the service; the negative complained of lackadaisical wait staff and booking mix ups. We were also cautioned that it got quite crowded at weekends, so we booked a table but on arriving no one bothered to ask if we’d reserved. A waitress with a rushed air about her, even though the restaurant wasn’t even half full, plonked us down next to the front door, and thus we benefitted from gushing cold air every time it opened, which, luckily for us was not too often.
The menus were written on small blackboards which stood on the table. There was a deal on – 2 courses and a hot drink for £16.90. Hot drink? Could they be more specific? When Monsieur later asked the waiter to clarify this, it was as you’d expect – coffee, tea or hot chocolate, but it just seemed strange to offer a free “hot drink” with a lunch menu. Breakfast – fine. Lunch – wrong. Given that the menu only had a couple of vaguely breakfasty options, and it was now past 1pm, this was definitely lunch.
The bread arrived and Monsieur, the resident bread connoisseur in our household, took one sniff and said “Ocado.” For those of you who don’t live in the UK, Ocado is the supermarket delivery service that we often use. Sometimes we buy long-life baguettes that we can keep in the cupboard as an emergency measure, flinging one into the oven on the odd occasion where we’ve run out of bread and can’t be bothered battling the ‘fine’ English weather to run out to the shop for more. This looked like an under-cooked emergency baguette to me. I took a slice, bit into it and had to agree with Monsieur. “You’re right,” I said, “it tastes just like Delice de France and it needs another 5 minutes in the oven.” In a place that purports to be French, with French wait staff and visible patronage from the local French community, this was a proper faux pas. The real French don’t do heat-up bread, at least not in public.
Surprisingly (if you believe the bad online reviews), we didn’t have to wait long for our food to arrive. Monsieur and I both ordered the feuilleté with chèvre and pesto to start. The pastry was spread with tasty dark pesto, more like a tapenade in flavour, and the chèvre was perfectly warm as opposed to sticky melting goo but the pastry itself was once more undercooked. By rights it should have been golden and crackling when it arrived, instead of which it both looked and tasted a bit pale and soggy. I started to wonder whether the feuilletés were also bought in from somewhere like Delice de France and then someone in the kitchen hadn’t read the directions on the side of the pack.
To give credit where it’s due, our waiter was an eager young Frenchman who presented and cleared our plates without delay. We were well looked after in that regard. However, my main course just about finished me off. I had chosen the Salade Landaise – a country salad of endive tossed with potatoes, slices of smoked duck breast and duck gizzards. This is one of my favourite French salad treats, but sadly not at Bloody French. The salad looked a few days old, with brown bits on leaves that should be white and zero crispiness left in it. It was limp, like wet tissue. The new potatoes, which should have had some texture to them, were wrinkled and mushy. They tasted like old kitchen leftovers, which are fine if they’re in your own kitchen, but not when you’re dining out. The redeeming feature of the salad was the duck breast – to me these morsels embody the south west of France. I even like the gizzards. Normally. But when I bit into my third or fourth gizzard, something went horribly wrong and for the first time ever I had to say I didn’t like the gizzard. In fact, that’s a mild way of putting it. I almost gagged my stomach contents into the middle of my still quite-full plate. That was the end of my interest in lunch. I make a far superior Salade Landaise at home so I won’t be coming to Bloody French for a repeat performance of this weak effort.
As I quietly choked on the foul-tasting gizzard Monsieur was tucking into the far more reliable steak frites and they were, quite simply, steak frites. You’d have to be the village idiot to get this meal wrong but for once, at a single glance, I could tell that Monsieur could also do better if he’d cooked this himself. Monsieur may not cook very much these days, not now that he’s ‘hired’ me, but he certainly knows how to make himself a good plate of steak frites.
On the beverage front, I had asked for a glass of rosé. It was a small glass (175ml) of regular pink plonk that certainly didn’t warrant the £5.00 we paid for it. The sparkling Badoit was as you’d expect, but rather pricey considering that it’s water, not wine, and Jesus isn’t likely to perform His miracles at Bloody French any time soon. The cappuccini were hot, as advertised, but I’m not going to dedicate any more time to a hot drink with nothing more exciting to its name than a frothy top. It tasted exactly as you’d expect – nothing more, nothing less. This could have been a Starbuck’s coffee i.e. nothing to write home about.
Speaking of frothy tops, the couple just next to us were the obvious product of a Big Night Out and a subsequent one night stand. He was tall, strawberry blond and very English, right down to his Oxford flop of hair, tweed jacket and tan brogues. She was blonde with big eyes and a fine pair of bazookas which were pushed into the public arena by a hypnotic lacy pink bra which was difficult to ignore as it peeked out from a leave-nothing-to-the-imagination white blouse. The food at Bloody French was awful but the entertainment of this pair partly made up for that.
“Are your eyelashes REALLY that long?” asked English. The girl giggled, batting said lashes up at the object of her interest in a way that screamed “I want to lick whipped cream off your torso!” And somehow, without ever mentioning the words ‘false’ or ‘fake’, she admitted that her eyelashes were enhanced as she pushed her upper arms into her sides, promoting her assets once again. “I really shouldn’t go out so much,” she purred, coyly. “Why not?” asked English, genuinely confused by this statement. “Oh because I’ve been out so many times recently and I get really tired.” If you’re male and, like English, you’re confused by this, let me explain what she’s really trying to say. By mentioning that she goes out a lot, she’s saying that she’s popular with a keen social life. She probably thinks he’ll find that attractive, so call this self-advertising, but for all we know, she’s a homebody with a knitting habit. She’s also trying to tell him that she’s ready to give up the long nights for something a bit quieter, presumably him, if he plays his cards right. Given the amount of hair flicking, giggling, bosom thrusting and eye-batting that was going on to my right, I’m pretty sure this girl thought she’d found a catch and she wasn’t about to let go in a hurry. Isn’t human nature fascinating? Lastly, had Darwin been with us, he would have used this couple as an example of natural selection. Physically, they were very well matched.
Apart from the table-side entertainment with heaving bosoms, however, we won’t be returning to Bloody French. Why? Because for us, eating at Bloody French was a Bloody Big Mistake. Point final.
LiKo (Little Korea Restaurant) 2-3 Lisle Street, London WC2H 7BG, Tel 020 7434 1601
In the darkest days of January, when we were still in the throes of post-Christmas empty pocket-dom, a pair of my colleagues and I conjured a carrot to dangle before our noses and lead us out of the gloom: we decided to put a date in the diary for a trip to LiKo, or Little Korea Restaurant, one of London Soho’s culinary gems with crunch-friendly prices.
The time eventually passed and the excitement among us was tangible. At long last we’d be eating the Korean-stroke-Japanese food I’d heard so much about. En route to the restaurant, it snowed, it sleeted and then it started to rain, so entering this initially uninspiring restaurant with dusty plastic sushi in its window and rows of oriental celebrity autographs in scribbled Korean or Japanese (who could tell which?) on one of its walls, was to be rescued from the forces of nature, at least for a couple of hours.
Following Little Miss Denmark, our designated leader for the evening as she knows LiKo well, Mr Positivity and I bypassed the ground floor in favour of the basement, a windowless room filled with non-descript furniture, an unmanned sushi bar at one end with stacks of bento boxes and aluminium take-away trays ready to be filled. Denmark and I were the only European faces in the room; everyone else was Korean or Japanese or Chinese. They obviously approved of this place and I was about to find out why.
We sipped on warm sake and icy Asahi beers as we chose our meal for the evening. Denmark grew up in Japan, so she knows her stuff in a place like this, as does Mr P, whose Chinese background and passion for oriental foods combined to make this an evening worth waiting for.
We started with a shared platter of sushi and several half-moon dumplings (or gyoza) filled with velvety pork and chives. They were delicious. I could probably have consumed three plates’ worth all by myself. Meanwhile, the sushi arrived on a rustic slab of wood with a small mound of ginger on one corner. The maki and California rolls were fresh and good and nothing spectacularly different from sushi elsewhere, but it was certainly an ideal selection for sharing. The conversation turned to ginger – do we like it? Don’t we? With sushi? In tea? To ease nausea? Until now, I never knew that ginger could incite so much passion in a trio of amateur foodies. Now we know.
Soon my attention was tempted away by the arrival of soft shell crab. Anyone who has read about my Malaysian adventures on this blog will already know about my obsession with soft shell crab. On a wet and freezing night in mid-winter London, to eat something so reminiscent of warm, seafood-friendly environments brought the sunniest of smiles to my face. “You can have the last bit,” offered Denmark. “Yes, absolutely,” seconded Mr P as he flashed his signature smile, so for once I didn’t argue and chomped on those last few crispy crab legs with one hundred per cent guilt-free relish.
Little Miss Denmark and Mr Positivity were now discussing the merits of deep-fried tofu. I’m not usually a tofu fan, but wherever I go I’m tempted to revisit such things just in case I got it wrong, or rather, just in case the chef got it wrong on my previous attempt. Boy, was this ever one of those times where that little rule worked beautifully. Denmark had ordered the deep-fried tofu that she’d been craving all week and when the little golden rectangles arrived, they were nice enough but not particularly thrilling. “Oh, no, that’s not what I meant,” she complained, “I thought we’d be getting the smoked tofu cubes in the plate of dipping sauce.” She was so disappointed that Mr P and I could only do the decent thing and insist that we ask for the exact tofu of her desire. This was an exercise in how two tofu dishes can be like chalk and cheese. The new arrival looked as golden-icious as the first, the cubes sitting in a light soy sauce with finely chopped salad onions floating about in it. On biting into them, they were just the right sort of hot, that is, not endangering the upper palate, and there was a delicate smokiness to each creamy bite. Oh yes, I am now a tofu fan; it just has to be this sort of tofu.
Whilst our tofu comparison exercise was gathering momentum, a waitress quietly moved a portable gas stove onto the end of the table. She placed a wok on top of it, already filled to the brim with seafood and vegetables and a lethal-looking red paste. Everything was arranged beautifully in layers and rows, with mussels in their shells fanned around the top. The gas was lit and after a while the sauce beneath began to bubble up around the contents. Mr P started to fill our bowls with ladles of broth and seafood, then adding soba noodles to the mix, just long enough to heat them through before dividing them amongst us. This was the Korean hot pot. More commonly eaten with beef, we’d chosen the equally enjoyable seafood version, although at this point I was finding that my ability to eat much more was fast diminishing. I slowed down, savouring each prawn and mussel and slice of sweet potato and mouthful of squid. In spite of the red paste that had earlier looked so likely to make you flap your hands and pant like a dog, once stirred into the broth it had merely provided a nicely warming zing, as opposed to searing the tongue.
Now contentedly full, I had to decline all else but a tiny spoonful of Mr P’s green tea ice cream. As it was, when we left amidst cheery farewells from the staff, we were satisfied but not stuffed to the point of immovable. Nor had our slowly recovering bank balances been badly dented by the feast. As promised by Denmark, this was affordable, fresh and tasty fare and three happy little foodies were we. At long last we had visited Little Korea and it was transporting, right down to the foreignness of the loos with their dank basement smell and strange-smelling fuchsia pump soap. The people, the food, the unpretentious decor and those dusty plastic pieces of sushi in the window – all made this culinary exercise feel more like a weekend away than an evening spent in London. My only regret? We forgot to try the kimchi so I guess we’ll have to go back and this time, smoked tofu will be top of my list.
When Monsieur and I returned to London after our holiday in Malaysia, it didn’t take long before we were craving Malaysian food, so off we went in search of good Malaysian eateries in London. Before too long, we found ourselves eating at Nyonya, a restaurant in Notting Hill.
Nyonya is a word used to describe Peranakan women, that is, women who are the offspring of Chinese and Malaysian parents. The Nyonya culture is prevalent in Melaka, with food rich in distinctive spices such as tamarind, so we were keen to try it out.
Nyonya sits at the busy junction of two roads, within easy walking distance of Notting Hill Gate tube. Patrons can see the traffic and passers-by from their seats behind the floor-to-ceiling windows and passers-by can gawp back at them, if they have time to be interested. The wipe-clean tables and simple stools inside are not conducive to leisurely meals, however. This is an enter-eat-pay-and-leave type of place, but as it doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, you can’t be offended by the brusque service. Nyonya is a restaurant which has absolutely zero atmosphere with a decor so incredibly practical that everything even FEELS a sterile white. So why do a pair of atmosphere-seekers like us keep going back?
The menu is one reason. From deep-fried dumplings to satay sticks of chicken with a delightful peanut sauce that has that ‘je ne sais quoi’ about it, or the coolness of the Kerabu prawns with a sweet chilli-imbued sauce. (‘Kerabu’ means ‘salad’ in Malay). The Hainanese chicken rice is a typical Nyonya dish, which arrives looking typically white and uninspiring, but transports us back to Malaysia in one taste. I usually go for a laksa or mee soup, using my chopsticks to fish for noodles and other ingredients in the steaming broth, whilst watching my neighbours consume their choices and making mental notes to order what they’re having on our next visit.
The freshness of the ingredients at Nyonya is a huge plus in its favour, as is the laid-back vibe (even if it is a bit bland). We also appreciate the speed with which the bill arrives once it’s asked for. We hate that moment where the table is cleared and you ask for the bill but suddenly the wait staff abandon you to twiddle your thumbs. It can be a case of the invisible patron the instant you stop ordering food. Well, there’s definitely no risk of that happening at Nyonya. Masses of warmth and engagement, no. Speed and efficiency, yes. So much so that we often combine a quick bite at Nyonya with a trip to the cinema because we know won’t be kept waiting.
Monsieur and I still haven’t tried the kuih-kuih, a traditional dessert made from a family recipe, but we’ll give it a whirl next time. For now, I remember the driver who took us to our hotel in Melaka. “what do you like to eat?” I asked him. His reply was a veritable menu of dishes made with pineapple. I know he’d approve of Nyonya. They use pineapple in at least two of their mains.
2A Kensington Park Road, Notting Hill, London, W11 3BU, T 020 7243 1800