Thursday, December 9, 2010

Tapas and Beyond in Barcelona, Part 3: Llucanes

Saying that I'm a Spanish food expert would be a far cry, but let's say I know my padrons from my piquillos. Every visit to Spain has always included lots of traditional tapas, and never really into the more avant garde offerings until this trip. Shame on me considering this is La Liga El Bulli. 

Restaurant Llucanes is situated in the Barceloneta market, south of the city. Upstairs from the covered market area, you walk through what looks like the casual dining bit to a metal warehouse above. It feels too wide and tall given the number of tables it could actually accommodate, and doesn't have the most welcoming feel with all that space and steel.

The tasting menu is the obvious choice here as the a la carte is pretty extortionate. First comes a snack which consists of squid and parsnip crisps, rice noodles and truffle popcorn. I'm feelin' the truffle popcorn but the rest of this really is just a snack.

The chicken broth with tomatos and scallops is delicate, delicious and has a Chinese accent. Those tear-drop vessels are the perfect slurping device!

Cream cheese quinelles were laced with hazelnut and white truffle, and was very much like recreated Boursin after some thought...

Goats cheese, a medley of vegetables with mushroom sauce didn't really do much for me, the mushroom sauce was lovely but the ever so well cut layers of vegetables were non-de script and in fact like raw unseasoned veg!

Red Mullet was perfectly cooked and came with green apple, berries and quite large parsley leaves, giving it a very fresh and springy zest. I enjoyed the vinegary glaze smeared brazenly on the side which brought the dish together.

The next dish was such a spectacle to behold but unfortunately an anti-climax upon taste. What looked like a giant conchiglioni bathed in a clear brown broth was made out of potato and also contained a some parmentier. Encasing stewed spinach and topped with a gorgeous blob of meringue cloud, it was a technically very interesting but hardly exciting in flavours. I almost called out for some salt!

Chicken cannelloni with a goats cheese sauce, again wonderfully created but really lacked any oomph. I was surprised that the actual cannelloni was made out of chicken stock which is usually so tasty. 

Llucanes however, seem to do the fish dishes very well. A silky and soft sea bass flaked upon touch and had a sparky pea puree to compliment. They also love their little crackers and rice noodles for texture.

Last in the main courses was the smoked foie gras with a coffee foam. Super interesting, and one of those dishes that gave plenty of debate. Did I love the slightly springy texture or did I prefer classic, spreadable foie gras? I really couldn't make up my mind. Bags of yumminess in contrast to the previous courses.

For dessert, the Gin and Tonic foam. Don't they adore their foams in these Michelin Stars? The nod to the English cucumber were tiny cubes of icy tasting cucumber, and my tongue was left tingling from the convincing foam replica of this famous beverage.

Lastly, white chocolate ice cream, chocolate brownie and coffee sauce. Expertly presented with chocolate cigars and a chocolate nest as decor, it tasted more home-cooked than cutting edge. But hey, this was a good thing when it looked and tasted as pretty as it did. 

Llucanes was a strange beast. The whole experience was like admiring a very handsome man without feeling the least sexually attracted. All dishes were cooked with supreme technical skill and mind-boggling to think about their creation, but overall didn't ignite any fire in my belly. Ferran Adria's influence in the Spanish food of today is far and wide, and it's obvious Llucanes has taken a few pages out of his book. I'm wondering though if this is just a step too far and not showcasing the real talent of Spanish food? The tasting menu was 70 Euros per person.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tapas and Beyond in Barcelona, Part 2: Bar Mut

It's all in the detail with Barcelona. Magnificent and intricate design is on the floors, ceilings, crawling up lamposts and mosaiced onto park benches. At the risk of sounding like an ignoramous, little did I know this extended to tapas as well...

We arrived at Bar Mut in true late Spanish fashion for 10:30pm. Even then there were numerous "Reserved" signs scattered on tables. The marble bar with a bronze edge instantly calls for glamourous elbow leaning whilst sipping a glass of clara. Beads of light cast from the glittery disco ball above circle the room, creating the perfect Friday night ambience. 

Bar Mut is what I'd call contemporary tapas, you can be sure there is a twist and turn to every dish that arrives despite the humble names. Our octopus salad was probably one of the more "normal" dishes: gorgeously marinated, octopus still bouncy and tasting of the sea. Diced tomato and chives that lay on top mixed into the dressing to add freshness.

We were transported back to spring with the wood pigeon salad, that came with green leaves, mushrooms, pomegranate and walnuts. A thin sliver of apple sat on top the wood pigeon mound and was also accompanied by an apple puree. Though an incredibly impossible dish to share, this was wild, light and sweet all in one go.

Every dish that arrived was a little picture perfect moment. Our next tapa was fried potato "noodles", so crispy it's more like the crunchy bits of Bombay mix. A broken egg lay beneath the noodles, sauteed prawns and pine nuts. This was surely the modern version of patatas bravas con huevos (fried potatoes with eggs), which is a lot less satisfying when you don't have a soft fluffy potato inside to soak up the runny egg! It was more of a assembly of items than the sum of interesting parts.

And then a breathtaking dish came along. Layers of crispy potato noodles (again), stacked up and slotted in between a mushroom compote. All topped off with a perfectly positioned bright yellow egg yolk, with a mini sprig of thyme. The egg was so meticulously placed, it reminded me of a bald man's head crowned with an olive leaf wreath. It also felt like an absolute crime piercing the yolk! The combination of items was incredible: a rich yolk, crunchy noodles and earthy and soft mushrooms were simply divine. There was a sweet balsamic glaze that smoothed it all out nicely.

Onwards to a hearty Wild Boar stew. I'm not sure I would have guessed it was wild boar if I hadn't known, but still a warming and robust dish, dotted with pomegranates to lift those deep flavours.

The star of the show is undoubtedly the seared steak topped with foie gras. Every bit as decadent as it sounds, the beef fillets were juicy, yielding and blushed like a schoolgirl after her first kiss. The foie gras provided a layer of velvety unctuousness, with a hint of thyme. So naughty, and oh so very nice. 

Like I said, this city is covered in immense detail, and it's food is no exception. Beautiful to the eye and delightful to the palate, Bar Mut is a must visit in Barcelona if you want to experience this exciting and evolving tapas scene. There is a fantastic selection of wine as well, and the staff go out of their way to be accommodating and helpful. The damage was £35 between five, for all dishes, 2 bottles of wine and a dash of beer. Muy Bien!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Tapas and Beyond in Barcelona, Part 1

Hola Barcelona! Home of magnificent Gaudi wonders and one mega football team. Till this year I'd been the ONLY person I know who hadn't been to Barcelona, and now it was my second time in this dreamy, artistic city. After having done all the touristy must-dos, the agenda this time was mainly about, you guessed it, food!

Barcelona has so many artistic highs it's dizzying. From Gaudi's Park Guell, to the modern marina down in Barceloneta, the city is a live promenade of beauty and art. For this reason, one post will never do this city any justice, so in this episode I'm highlighting the classic but less popularised treasures we indulged in...

Patatas Bravas con Huevos: or for those who don't habla espanyol, Fried Potatoes with Eggs. Runny Eggs. Eggs that make a thick gravy and coat the much loved Spanish spud like a velvet cape. Eggs that are self saucing and the ultimate remedy to the stinkiest hangover (can you now guess how we first met?). True ecstasy is when a slightly salty burnt potato corner meets a golden smushy yolk with flecks of white.

Mushroom Beer: oh yes you heard that right. Drinking this dark brew, courtesy of La Cervesera Artesana, a microbrewery located near Diagonal metro, was like falling into a swimming pool of mushrooms. Creamy, earthy and deliciously tubertastic. Dusted with pepper, it possessed savoury strengths of both beer and funghi.

* Foto Morcilla de Burgos
Image from

Morcilla: Spain's contribution to the shady world of black pudding. If being addicted to blood is like this, call me a vampire. Morcilla crusts up when fried, and keeps moisture inside from the filling that consists of rice, onion and sometimes minced meat. For some reason it kept creeping up on tapas menus in Barca more than I recall, and I've been yearning for its primal darkness since.

And finally, Cava: the humble and often misunderstood sister of French champagne, Cava is not alone in the sparkling wine genre in being "second best". Aww. Perhaps a visit to the Penedes region just south of Barcelona may bring this understated bubbly into perspective for you. Freixenet, Jean Leon and Cordoniu have all called out to us on the discount shelves of Tesco and Sainsbury's, but Penedes is to Spain what Champagne is to France, and has it's own right in wine tradition and appreciation. We were treated to an intimate bodega called Market Green run single-handedly by Xavier Esteve, who patiently explained his own method of making cava and his desires in expanding his premises to include gastro tours and agri-tourism. His house cava was refreshing, dry and made me think pears and apples - perfect with some patatas! I predict we'll see more of this sparkle as the region continues to flourish and export its wares.

Next episode, contemporary tapas that would make Ferran Adria work for his jamon....

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Loong Kee

It's been ages since I dined on Kingsland Road in East London, which really should be called Little Vietnam, given the tight community of Vietnamese restaurants that line the road. In the last 2 years, small eateries offering authentic dishes have mushroomed in great concentration, at cheap prices and behind steamy windows. You'd have thought they were trying to recreate the South East Asian climate down there too!

For ages Song Que had been the Vietnamese to head to, the star that seemed to shine a little brighter than the others. Now there a few new kids on the block, Loong Kee being one in particular. How good were this kid's moves?

Beef wrapped in Betel Leaf, a spicy minced beef in a crunchy betel coating that can be wrapped again in iceberg lettuce and dipped in a sweet and tangy sauce. I'm normally a fan of the hot and cold effect that comes from the warm beef within cold lettuce, but sadly this fell rather blandly on the tongue instead of engaging me. The tangy sauce wasn't in the least bit tangy, it was more like coloured water.

The second starter was gravely disappointing. Steamed rolls are a Vietnamese speciality, that I would equate to Chinese cheong fun. Essentially Asian cannelloni, these delicate white flat noodles can be filled with anything really, from prawns to vegetables to minced meat and rolled. Our minced pork version was nothing like the silky memory I had, they were stodgy, miserably filled and stuck to each other like Chilean miners clinging on for dear life. They were also lacking a savoury ground nut oil that coats the outside and adds further smoothness and flavour.

Spicy sizzling mutton was quite enjoyable though, flash fried with cumin, onions and chillis, arriving on one of those hot plates that makes you smell all Vietnamese as well. Not having eaten mutton in a while, it has a real strong animaly flavour that my carnivorous nature loves.

But Loong Kee's secret dance move really is in the deep fried sea bass. Talk about the food equivalent of a disco inferno. A beautifully fried whole fish, mouth still gaping open and snaked around pieces of its flesh which have been cut out and cooked separately. It reminded me of the fierce expressions of a lion in a Chinese New Year Lion Dance! We can't get enough of the crispy salt and pepper batter with nuances of turmeric and unusual herby dill. Topped with spring onions and chillis, it was one loud and dancing dish.

Fifty fifty is how I would describe Loong Kee. The good was very good, but given the tough competition in their area, they can't really rely on a few select dishes to take them through. I'd come back solely for the fried fish, but the other dishes seemed to lack in salty and citrus zaps usually omnipresent in Vietnamese cooking. £15 a head for 4 dishes, including rice, and wine was BYO. 

Beware the roadworks outside, they take no prisoners!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

North Road

North Road is the Farringdon branch of sister restaurant The Fig, which I felt never received the acclaim it deserved. Not that I wanted anyone to know, I was rather happy to keep this rare gem to myself. Located in leafy Barnsbury, it is the bistro brainchild of Scandinavian chef Christoffer Hruskova, who cooks the best British ingredients with a Nordic accent. So upon hearing there were plans for a new beefed up branched towards the City, I was certain that it was more about getting bums on seats than concentrating on superb cooking.

Very unlike the cosy, rustic 20 seater set in a neighbourly house, North Road was as chic as a whitewashed runway at London Fashion Week. Bare bulbs hung from the ceiling in minimalist fashion and the atmosphere was near starchy. For two minutes I was almost scared. Had the kiddy gloves come off to reveal newly sharpened talons?

Having been offered 50% off the menu as a “friend” (these friends come easy, simply stick yourself on the mailing list!), the five course tasting menu was the obvious place to start.

Like all restaurants coveting a Michelin star, up first is the amuse bouche. Fried pork crackling twisted into pretzel shapes, served underneath fried fish skin was a welcome opener for me considering this is very Chinese, and us Chinese love our crackling. Next to the  skins was an egg “container” which required us to open the lid to reveal two boiled quails eggs, nestled amongst hay! The creamy yolks paired nicely with the contrasting crunchies.

Onto the first course of Scottish dived scallops, which was actually quite disappointing. Aside from a perfectly respectably seared scallop, there was little taste from the accompanying grated apple and apple jelly that sat on top. I’m also increasingly wary of dishes with flavoured “snow”. What exactly are these meant to do? The miniscule granules of hazelnut beside the scallop were just that, granules.

And then those talons emerged. Along came a coral lobster that was expertly cured, and cured in the way that the lobster still had a significant bite. A wreath of strong, almost medicinal herbs laid above and contrasted with the fishy morsel, with a creamy buttermilk dressing rounding the dish off.

Next was a lively dish of Kent vegetables which consisted of creamy Jerusalem artichoke puree, surrounding pink fir potatoes and generously topped with shavings of black truffle. I’m not sure this was the most exciting dish, it really showed competency in cooking vegetables well rather than going beyond the norm which I suspect this restaurant is trying to achieve.

However, the clear high octane star was the Norfolk Deer Loin, bathed in a blood red beetroot dressing. Having being flavoured with burnt hay, it was the bonfire night of my dreams. Deer loin was marvellously tender, with a haunting smoky smell infiltrating the entire dish. Unctuous and squidgy, smoked bone marrow punctuated the meat in all the right places.

For dessert, deconstructed bread and butter pudding. Slightly reinvented, the custard and little crackers which was the “bread” exuded sensuous spices such as cardamom, star anise and cinnamon. Great texture from the sugar shard that stood upright and had flecks of pretty spices.

Some teething problems were evident in the soft opening of North Road. We felt slightly forgotten as they took their time in the beginning to find us and ask for drinks, and as pretentious as this sounds, our white wine wasn’t placed in a cooler. This is one to watch though, the simply named menu belies the sophisticated cooking, and the global influenced flavours really worked. Viajante, you may be basking in London restaurant splendour now, but I would keep an eye on this close competition. The tasting menu was £55 for 5 courses per person.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Hungry Female on Channel 4's Ramsay's Best Restaurant!

You heard that right! Little me has has all of 0.035824 seconds of fame on British national TV, on Big Sweary Gordon's current series of Ramsay's Best Restaurant. For those of you that haven't been following it, Gordon has been up and down the UK judging restaurants by type of cuisine, i.e. Best Indian, Best French, Best Chinese etc., making them compete against each other, to finally get his UK's "Best Restaurant".

So for those of you who can put up with Gordon, you'd have remembered the last episode saw London Spanish restaurant Fino lose to lesser known Italian called Casa Mia hailing from Bristol. Where was I? Not one of those mouthy diners, but a silent customer with her man paying the bill at the end!

After having to keep schtum for at least 2 months before the episode was aired, I was finally able to shout from the rooftops about my experience of being a diner. I'm sure this little Q&A comes across as ridiculously self indulgent, but come on! This could be my one and only claim to fame!

How did I get on the programme? I got sent a link from a friend who knew someone, who knew someone in media. Sent off my details, promptly forgot about it, until someone from Channel 4 rang....

What's Gordon like in real life? Exactly the same as on TV. Big, brutal, full of nervous energy, pushy. And strangely sexy.

Did you get interviewed? Yes, but probably didn't have enough cleavage on show to make the cut.

Did I get to ride on that big black bus with the Best Restaurant logo on it? Afraid not, it was filmed in London so we had to be escorted on foot.

Was the food good? To be really frank, it was so unbelievably average. I can only imagine the Spanish restaurant must have done that much worse! 

All in all, it definitely makes it into Hungry Female's Top 10 Food Experiences for 2010. Being on set for such a well known show was in itself exciting and we met lots of other enthusiastic foodies. I'll be watching in great anticipation to who wins next week! 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Viajante: The Tasting Menu

I would put money on the fact that Viajante has been the most blogged about, most celebrated and most photographed restaurant this year. Is there anyone out there who hasn't raved on about this Bethnal Green shrine? For those that follow Marina O'Laughlin, food giant of London's The Metro paper, you will know this is the only full 5 star review she's done all year. The verdict? It's on the supernatural gastro-stratosphere.

So what can I add that hasn't already been said? I tell you what. I give you full-on, visually seductive and lavishly produced food porn that will extend the indulgent journey already being travelled by Viajante.

Having visited previously, it was one of those "Oh when are we going back?" occasions. Viajante is the Portugese word for "traveller", and one doesn't just travel through flavours, one is catapulted through smells, textures and new cooking concepts. Make way for the 9 course tasting menu....

I'm immediately drawn to the beautiful collages on the lamps and wall. It's a haze of colour, semi-Japanese, semi-Gustav Klimt. Chefs work swiftly but so silently over plate after plate of edible art.

Where would 21st century dining be without these palate teasers? Simply named Thai explosion II, it was the finest pork mince laced with lemongrass, coriander, chilli, sandwiched between two wafer thin layers of chicken crackling.

Bread and Butter: Would you really believe it was this simple a name? These exquisite quinelles were brown butter so whipped up they were like moussy clouds. Topped with more chicken crackling, this was my bread and butter.

Scallops, butternut squash and mustard snow, with a trickling of watercress broth: I'm never one to turn down scallop sashimi, and I loved the pungent mustard snow which lifted the seafood. Funnily, those butternut slivers are a trompe l'oeil: don't they make you think of pasta shapes?! They added a rather raw crunch to this springtime dish.

Charred leeks, hazelnuts and milk skin: Gorgeous textures from the nuts, and silky milk skin. For the Chinese folk in the crowd, this makes you think of bean curd skin, and perhaps that's what it was. I loved the charred leek taste and sprinkling of black ash which contrasted with the smoothness.

Braised salmon skin and fried aubergine: If one could succintly place all of Japanese cuisine on a plate, this would be it. Immediately you recognise the miso paste, and the smoky aubergine flavours. Dip into the broth beneath at it's pure agedashi in liquid form. The salmon sashimi is delicate, soft and perfectly punctuated with the skin, spring onion and giant caviar.

Lobster, potato, confit egg yolk and saffron: Now if there was the odd dish out for me, I sheepishly say this was it. The mini egg yolk, probably from a quail's egg, was rich, thick and creamy. Lobster was springy like how seafood is meant to be and bathed in a light fish broth. There was a saffron skin that layered the dish, and could have only been placed by accomplished, and stealthy fingers, but it was as if each component was a little songstress, and not a choir singing from the same sheet. Ah well, onto the next act!

Sea bass toast, garlic kale and S. Jorge: Was that a mis-focussed picture or was that a mis-focussed picture?! Apologies folks, but imagine a splendidly cooked fillet of sea bass, it was named a "toast" as the skin was quite simply that. No oily glaze, making me think this was done by blow-torch? It lay on top of a swoosh of dark green garlic kale puree, with a sliver of semi-hard, Portugese Sao Jorge cheese. What would the Italians say about the food-rule-defying fish-cheese pairing. I think they could make an exception.

Venison and raw mushrooms with smoked yoghurt: I call this "The Forest Floor". Undoubtedly the most beautifully plated dish of the night, I could have stared at this endlessly. My tummy could have welcomed it endlessly. Tender venison slices folded amongst blackberries, wild mushrooms with crumbs of roasted nuts in between was a natural pairing of foods. The smoked yoghurt oh-so-subtlely laced the dish.

Squab (a variety of pigeon), beetroot yoghurt and pistachio praline: My favourite. This was like a spring awakening, off the back of the previous autumnal dish. I could never have enough of gamey pigeon, dribbled with its salty jus, complimented with sharp beetroot and berries and rounded off with an intense pistachio cream. I was like Maria in the opening sequence of The Sound of Music!

Sea buckthorn and burnt meringue: What is buckthorn you ask? I'm told by a reliable web source it is a wintery, ferny plant that produces little berries which I can only guess is the flavour behind the sweet, orange coloured sorbet. The reptilian tail that snaked into it was either passion-fruit or lemon flavoured. The hit of sour and sweet and in contrasting temperatures was divine.

Frozen maple and toasted oats with green maple and sweet mayonnaise: This course screamed Canadian Winter. I couldn't quite tell the flavours apart but I got vanilla, nuts and of course a honeyed maple. Oats were a great gravel to the white snowy tips.

Chocolate with hazelnut and soil: I imagine this is what Fred Flintstone would order if he was a foodie and wanted a dessert. The cracker thin chocolate casing held a chocolate ganache, creating another layer of cocoa svelteness amidst the soil. Hazelnut foam was fluffy and helped lap up the tiny granules!

Petit Fours: Crema Catalana, Cep Truffle and Shortbread. And just when I thought the journey had ended, my personal highlight of the adventure arrived in the form of a cep truffle. Again, this amazingly light chocolate shell encased a ganache, this time infused with a wondrous mushroomy flavour from the cep. Crowned with a single grain of salt, this was the chocolate truffle of my life. Wow, what a statement! Not meaning to underplay the crema catalana and the shortbread, but these did quite literally pale in comparison!

Pack your bags and go on this experimental journey. Whether this is to your tastes, I guarantee you will feel enlivened and your taste buds forced to question and comprehend new flavours. The 9 course tasting menu is £75 a head without wine, and worthy of a very special occasion. Mine was sharing it with great friends in London.