Posts Tagged With: Fresh ingredients

“Here it is!” Obikà brings some Neapolitanism to Canary Wharf

Copyright of Obikà. Sourced from Obikà website

Copyright of Obikà. Sourced from Obikà website

Cuisine: Italian

Address: Unit 1, West Wintergarden, 35 Bank Street, E14 5NW

Area: Canary Wharf

Nearest Station: Heron Quays/Canary Wharf

Tel.: 020 7719 1532

Website: http://obika.com/portal/GB/en/home/

Pricing: Cheap-Medium

Good For: Takeaway, Fresh ingredients, Leisurely lunching

“Obikà!” the cry did not go when we stepped into the restaurant. As a Neapolitan exclamation meaning “Here it is!” I was sort of hoping that mine and my friend’s arrival would warrant such an announcement.

I’d been to Obikà previously for takeaway lunches as their mozzarella bar offers up some good and hefty portions of focaccia, insalata caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad) and cannoli (Sicilian pastry tubes with sweet fillings) for quite decent prices, considering that we’re in the Canary Wharf Banker Land. Certainly, there were many days during our wonderfully scorching hot summer where all I felt like doing at lunch was sitting in a park somewhere, having some fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on springy and moist focaccia. Definitely beats getting your regular bog-standard sandwich from Pret or, God forbid, some pointless sushi from Wasabi. Probably healthier too.

I wish I had an office outdoors

I wish I had an office outdoors

But what was it like to go for a proper sit-down meal there? I was meeting my friend for our first catch-up lunch since my moving to Canary Wharf, and suggested with some caution that we may be able to get a table there. Turns out I make false promises – we didn’t get a table, but we did get placed atop some tall stools by the bar.

Obikà sits within an open space inside the West Wintergarden (any ideas on the name? Still trying to work out why the complex is called the Wintergarden), so it has a very corporate glass-and-steel feel to it; you could sit here with colleagues, possibly even clients and listen to a thousand-and-one conversations reverberating around you. It’s light and airy in summer, making it a bit of an uplifting and pleasant place to be dining.

We enjoyed the atmosphere as we swiftly made our choices; as feared, the lunchtime press did mean that our dishes and even our drinks were not as swift to arrive.

When it finally came, our starter of mozzarella di bufala affumicata went down a real treat: we treated ourselves to a lovely woody smokiness infused into such creamy mozzarella; it certainly got our appetites going. Accompanied by a simple basil garnish, it was a punchy start to the meal.

Our main courses soon followed (again, no shouts of “Obikà!” to announce any sort of arrival…), but we did have to wolf them down, being conscious of the impending end of our lunch hour. My friend’s parmigiana di melanzane (aubergine parmesan) looked quite enticing, even if the presentation did seem to emphasise the smallness, in my mind, of the portion. She tucked in heartily and with much enjoyment, so I didn’t quite have the will to steal a bit from her.

Mo' mozzarella please!

Mo’ mozzarella please!

As for my schiaffoni di Gragnano pasta with mozzarella di bufala and ‘La Motticella’ sauce, the flavours were good and warming, and the addition of torn mozzarella pieces really lifted the pasta with their bursts of creamy refreshment even if their numbers were not legion. It was a nice and simple dish – zing and juiciness from the tomatoes in the sauce, savouriness from the parmesan and creaminess from the mozzarella. However, what of the pasta there was on my plate was far too al dente and really needed a few more minutes’ cooking. Most likely they were trying to rush orders out to deal with the busy lunchtime trade – at least, that’s me giving them the benefit of the doubt. Which, considering that they seemed far too busy and rushed to even take our bill, seems to be quite likely.

Isn’t it funny how even if the service has been great throughout, if they tarry in doing the one thing you really need them to (you sort of, like, need to leave when you ask for the bill), it can potentially colour your opinion of the visit? Just a thought that’s struck me far too often in far too many places…

And so, at the end of that experience, what do I think of Obikà as a lunchtime option? I’m actively thinking of their focaccia now and planning my next lunch excursion there. A simple caprese on some soft and well-made bread for a decent price; how can you go wrong? As for a sit-down lunch? Only if you’re willing to spend a bit more, and you’ve got the time and patience – and maybe a very irregular lunch hour.

VERDICT – A good place for takeaway, an okay experience for a sit-down meal. If you work in Canary Wharf and want to mix things up a bit at lunch, I’d really recommend heading on over to Obikà to grab one of their focaccia sandwiches. Maybe don’t take it out to the park, as it’s not so warm any more. But if you are after a bit more of a formal dining experience, I’d imagine that Obikà would still deliver and meet your needs – you may just have to time it right and be prepared for a small meal.

Currently listening to: The Presidents of the United States of America – Peaches

Categories: Italian | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Working up an appetite: The Quality Chop House

Copyright of The Quality Chop House. Sourced from The Quality Chop House website

Copyright of The Quality Chop House. Sourced from The Quality Chop House website

Cuisine: British

Address: 92-94 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3EA

Area: Clerkenwell

Nearest Station: Farringdon

Tel.: 020 7278 1452

Website: http://thequalitychophouse.com/

Pricing: Medium-High

Good For: Fresh ingredients, Seasonal menu, Smart-casual dining, Friendly conversation, Wine selection

It was my birthday recently, don’tcha know (“Hooray, Happy Birthday Mark, we all looove you”), and you know what that means – fine dining courtesy of the parents, oh yeah.

First up was dinner with my father – being of good English stock, I thought that a good place to try out with him would be the Quality Chop House, a restaurant serving up good, honest, solid and hearty British cuisine (or so I’d been told) on the Farringdon Road.

Utilitarian spaces are soo hot right now

Utilitarian spaces are soo hot right now

It’s a fairly no-nonsense ethos that permeates what the Quality Chop House does – from the fact that it was, according to their website, borne out of Rowland Plumbe’s desire to make “utilitarian spaces for the masses that had a touch of glamour” (much of this working man’s café feel has been preserved, to the great benefit of the place), to the fact that in the Dining Room there is only one thing you can have – the set menu.

The set menu comprised of several sharing dishes that would be brought out one after the other, with the quantity tailored to the size of the dining group. As our lovely and obligingly informative waitress said, the whole point was to let patrons focus on the food (which changes day by day, dependent on what they can source from their suppliers), and leave all the messy decision-making to the kitchen.

Our set menu for the evening. Laconic, to say the least

Our set menu for the evening. Laconic, to say the least

Though there is an element of choice allowed: the Quality Chop House prides itself on having an extremely extensive and wide-ranging wine list. Whilst they do make pairing recommendations for the set menu, they were kind enough to let a philistine such as myself to choose our bottle for the evening – being a Bordeaux vinophile (a love gained from doing some volunteer work there some years back), we had a 2005 Chateau Bernadotte from the Haut-Médoc region. It was rather pleasing, delivering a smooth complexity that was not overpowering and was without a strong tannic edge.

Our drink selection for the evening

Our drink selection for the evening

And so, having made that choice, we were then ‘railroaded’ into our set menu:

Peas & lemon – this was a simple dish of fresh and crisp peas with real bite, served with two types of lemon sauce (one a cream and the other more syrupy) and sprinkled with flower petals. It was all about the peas, a vegetable which can be quite divisive I know… but it’s a great way to start the meal.

Quite evidently not just "Peas and Lemon"

Quite evidently not just “Peas & lemon”

Grilled squid, smoked spring onions – large, smoothly-textured and meaty hunks of squid cooked in a warm and earthy chipotle sauce, served with slightly-sweet fried and smoky spring onions. Does that sound good? Because it tasted amazing; each piece of squid was delectably more-ish and gave a real sense of satisfaction with each hefty bite.

Squid - how I enjoyed thee

Squid – how I enjoyed thee

Pressed lamb, pickled walnuts – essentially a lamb terrine. Unusual, I know, but quite a plucky concoction. The meat was soft and easy-going, and melted in your mouth. The pickled walnuts added something different, with the acidity going a little way to cutting through the richness of the terrine.

Lamb pressed into service

Lamb pressed into service

Duck hearts, girolles, chicken liver – initially this was a dish we were fearing, being none-too-keen on eating heart, but we were pleasantly-surprised. Served in a rich gravy, the duck hearts packed a really umami punch and were soft and savoury; the girolles added further to this taste sensation and also added a contrasting chewy texture; the chicken liver parfait was smooth and extremely flavourful, but was not rich and overpowering at all, making it a perfect accompaniment to the duck hearts and great for spreading on the hunks of bread we were served.

What a 'hearty' dish that will warm the cockles of your heart

What a ‘hearty’ dish that will warm the cockles of your heart

Middle White pork, beetroots, runner beans, boquerones – this comprised of two cuts of pork (one was shoulder, I’m sure) that were roasted until juicy and tender, with such superb crackling, topped off with boquerones for an extra savoury hit, with perfectly-cooked runner beans and beetroot. A very good combination indeed, one that relied on quality ingredients thrown together in a simple dish. Do you really need anything more?

Does what it says on the tin

Does what it says on the tin

Pink fir potatoes – not dry, not over-cooked; good starch to accompany the pork.

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts – what a classic and straightforward combination: chocolate, berries and nuts. Think Black Forest gâteau, think pralines; and then think of creamy and dense dark chocolate parfait, sprinkled with ground walnuts packing a smoky punch, surrounded by a very berry sauce and generous offerings of blackberries. Despite all that, it still seemed like a rather light way to end the meal. And afterwards, I was able to wash it down with a glass of 2005 Robert Weil ‘Kiedricher Gräfenberg’ Spätlese, a Riesling from the Rheingau that served as a decent palate cleanser.

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts. Loquaciousness is not a quality much-appreciated here

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts. Loquaciousness is not a quality much-appreciated here

Once done with the eating, the drinking, the post-prandial chit-chat and the settling of the bill, we were approached by one of, I presume, the managers. A rather charming and friendly lady, she said she’d heard that it was our first time here, asked how our evening was and even explained a bit about what they were trying to achieve with the Quality Chop House.

That was a nice and warm touch, capping off what had been a fine and welcoming performance by the staff all evening. There was even one point where our waitress conspiratorially leant in and enquired whether the ‘ambient noise levels’ were okay with us (in reference to the rather loud and excitable crowd sat behind me); although we said we were fine, we were pleasantly surprised by her kind enquiry.

We tumbled back onto Farringdon Road, appetites sated and our taste buds delighted. Thinking back on it, I’ve become a bit melancholic that the chances are I will never have that meal – those exact ingredients, that combination of dishes – ever again, as the Quality Chop House’s menu will change and change again. At least I will have the fond memories of a birthday dinner thoroughly enjoyed.

VERDICT – A good place. The Quality Chop House is a gem of a place – lovely historic atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff and some good quality food and wine. The set menu we had contained some superficially-simplistic dishes that turned out to be excellent; on that note, I would say that you should not be put off by the straightforward nature of the Quality Chop House, as it is one of its greatest strengths.

Currently listening to: Cancer Bats – Old Blood

Categories: British | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A shanty down by the shore: Seafood shackin’ at Bonnie Gull

Copyright of Bonnie Gull. Sourced from Bonnie Gull website

Copyright of Bonnie Gull. Sourced from Bonnie Gull website

Cuisine: British

Address: 21A Foley Street, W1W 6DS

Area: Fitzrovia

Nearest Station: Goodge Street

Tel.: 020 7436 0921

Website: http://www.bonniegull.com/

Pricing: High

Good For: Fresh seafood, Fresh ingredients, Seasonal menu, Place for romance, Smart-casual dining

“It’s okay to eat seafood, as fish don’t have feelings”, roughly goes the little saying scrawled along the top of one of the walls in Bonnie Gull. Surely a sentiment that some of our vegan friends may not share, but I’m not one to quibble with a restaurant that is all about the seafood; they must know what they’re on about, right?

Me and my friend (check out her blog, Stuff I Love to Do, it’s rather lovely) were quite excited about the prospect of some top-notch seafood and so had come with stomachs prepped after respective hard days of work. However, as the menu is extremely seasonal and dependent on the day’s catch, I was a bit hesitant about what would await us: whether the dishes would be tantalising (think scallops, crab, lobster, tuna, meaty fish etc.), or just frankly a bit beyond my limits (think jellyfish, razor clams, sea cucumber, abalone, dancing squid… *shudder*).

Scallops and stuff

Scallops and stuff

Imagine my excitement then when they had Isle of Man queenies as one of the starters. Accompanied by new potatoes, samphire, crunchy bits and other things that escape my non-photographic memory, it was a fairly straightforward dish that allowed the tenderness and juiciness of the scallops to speak for themselves, with their sweetness enhanced by the sea saltiness of the samphire. Samphire was just made to go with the bounties of the sea, despite some protestations from my friend (which she eventually overcame). It was a great start to the meal, and certainly built our appetite.

We were further excited to see both lobster and crab on the menu, but our enthusiasm was dampened when we were informed that the crab had been sold out (this appeared to be a lie, as a table that arrived after us managed to obtain some of the delectable crustacean… rightly or wrongly, we wished that table the illest of our feelings that night, boo hiss). And so, instead of constructing a purely shellfish evening for ourselves, we had to invite turbot to the table.

A rather fishy piece of culinary art

A rather fishy piece of culinary art

It ended up being a rather inspired choice. I had turbot in a herby crust was served with a stuffed deep-fried courgette flower, courgette tempura, samphire and cockles, and was set upon an artful display of pea purée. The turbot was cooked so that it was meltingly soft and still meaty; the herby crust that accompanied it added some contrasting texture and some delightful earthy flavours that made me feel that there was a bit of ‘surf and turf’ going on here – a theme perhaps reflected in the dual use of courgettes and samphire…? The pea purée went well with it all and was good mixed in with the cockles (which were rather grittier than ones I’ve had previously). Overall, a good meal.

Lobster and chips - as good a shot as I'll get (sorry I didn't stand on my chair to get the aerial view)

Lobster and chips – as good a shot as I’ll get (sorry I didn’t stand on my chair to get the aerial view)

As for my friend’s lobster – well, she is a Happy Lobster Girl, and she was pretty satisfied with what was placed in front of her, so I’ll trust her judgement. She did compare the portion size a bit unfavourably to Burger and Lobster, but I don’t believe the quality of the lobster nor the preparation were up for dispute.

Well-fed and well-watered, I found Bonnie Gull to be pretty good fun and a wonderful insight into some of the great seafood surrounding this little island of ours. Considering that I had a pathological (and unexplained) hatred of all things fishy and crustacean-like for most of my life (I really, really don’t know why), I think that’s a pretty big statement to come from my lips.

VERDICT – A good place. Whilst Bonnie Gull didn’t quite transport us to the British seaside (a cheap and cheerful chippie/cockle and whelk stall would probably do that for me more effectively than a high-priced concept restaurant), we got a fine taste of good, fresh, maritime produce in deepest driest London. Dishes that let the seafood speak for itself – not much more is needed.

Currently listening to: Twin Atlantic – Eight Days

Categories: British | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s time to get to know your neighbours: getting local at the Royal Albert

Cuisine: British

Address: 460 New Cross Road, SE14 6TJ

Area: New Cross

Nearest Station: New Cross

Tel.: 020 8692 3737

Website: http://www.royalalbertpub.com/

Pricing: Cheap-Medium

Good For: Friendly conversation, Beer selection, Fresh ingredients, Loitering over drinks

It was Star Wars Day recently, if you were unaware – “May the Fourth be with you” and all that – and for some people it was quite a big deal.

My brother told me that he found this awesome pub in our neighbourhood, and that they had been hosting a Star Wars party to celebrate the day.

“How come we’ve never been to The Royal Albert before??”

“Well, truth be told, I have been there a couple of times, and have told you about it before…”

“Oh, really?”

It’s funny how information, no matter how many times shared, is often passed over and only becomes important to you when it becomes relevant. I’ve been exploring around New Cross and Deptford a fair bit, but when I tell my friends and my brother about the places I’ve been to, I can see it doesn’t really register – they don’t have a particular need to come to New Cross and go to these places because, well, they probably have their own favourite locals and when they do come to New Cross they usually just hang out at ours.

The mean streets of New Cross, as seen from the Royal Albert's terrace out front

The mean streets of New Cross/Deptford, as seen from the Royal Albert’s terrace out front

But we had some friends over that day for a chilled (and chilly) barbecue; as the evening wore on we decided to mix things up a bit by heading on over to The Royal Albert for a nightcap (and a listen to their folk music evening).

It’s a very atmospheric pub with many what seem to be original Victorian fittings around, giving the place an eclectic and busy character. The mood lighting was just a bit dim, but we were still able to navigate our way safely through the comfy chairs to a table in the corner which had its own jungle surrounding it. By the looks of it, this was also the setting for Yoda’s Love Den the night of the Star Wars party; who knows what happened here then…

"Come into my den you will, mmmm"

“Come into my den you will, mmmm”

The folk music and other ambient sounds were not too loud, allowing for some good ol’ chattage to take place.

Anyway, the selection of beer that they have is pretty extensive and constantly rotating – it was a completely different line up to what I had had previously with other friends. So, this is definitely a place for ale experimentation, something of which I am a big fan of. Unfortunately, it being somewhat late in the evening, my memory of which pints I had is somewhat hazy…

I did get a chance to go again the very next day with my brother and some others, for our very first Royal Albert Monday night pub quiz. As far as quizzes go, it was a rather ‘eccentric’ one – with a paper airplane round, a drawing round, a first-up-with-the-answer round – and quite fun. The questions were a good mix of straightforward and challenging; it was just a shame that there was another team that was smashing those questions (grrr).

But now to food. In the run-up to the quiz, I was feeling just a bit peckish and so elected for something off their starters menu. The dish lucky enough to be chosen by my good self was a potato salad with spring lamb belly and mango salsa – something seasonal and something a bit different, no? And as luck would have it, I chose very well that day, for not only was it a very sizeable meal but it was also an extremely well-thought out and creative dish.

Spring lamb belly - spring is in the air!

Spring lamb belly – spring is in the air!

Crisp potato pieces paired up with tender and meltingly-soft lamb belly pieces were flavoured with a none-too-sweet mango sauce, which worked surprisingly well together; here was a good balance of flavours and textures that spoke well of the kitchen’s skill here. To further validate this opinion, our friend asked for her tuna steak to be just simply seared – and it was done as requested, leaving the steak pink on the inside.

Unsurprisingly, The Royal Albert is now my brother’s favourite pub in the area. I’m glad he’s finally come on board to the idea.

VERDICT – Highly recommended. The Royal Albert is a great local pub, but it also transcends that and could even be regarded as a destination pub in its own right. With real charm, great food and a dazzling selection of beers on offer, it really should get a bit more attention. It shouldn’t just have to wait for someone to walk by it in order for it to be noticed. Will you be heading to New Cross any time soon?

Currently listening to: Our Lady Peace – Middle of Yesterday

Categories: British, Pub | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A slice of Bangkok in London: Heat and spice at Naamyaa Café

Elephant-tastic

Welcome to the jungle

Cuisine: Thai

Address: 407 St John Street, EC1V 4AB

Area: Angel

Nearest Station: Angel

Tel.: 020 3122 0988

Website: http://www.naamyaa.com/

Pricing: Medium

Good For: Smart-casual dining, Spice, Filling meal, Fresh ingredients, Buzzing atmosphere, Warmth in your belly

“Did you come because of the magazine?”

The place had become rather busy not too long after we’d arrived at just after 6:30pm. After some impressive reviews in both the Evening Standard and Time Out, perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising. However, because of these glowing reviews as well as all the hype circulating around town, I was just a bit sceptical as to how good Naamyaa was actually going to be.

As a take on the sort of modern café you would find in Bangkok, it does stand out a bit in straying away from the standard dishes and in offering dishes more attuned to quotidian Thai tastes, but at the same time, I do question how many people are going to order the burgers and/or things like the salad Niçoise, as popular as they would be in Bangkok.

As my friends and I found, the dishes that we really wanted – namely the turnip cake starter and the tom yam goong hotpot for two – were the over-subscribed and hence missing options of the night. Our server promised not to break our hearts with further bad news, and she managed to keep her vow.

So, to snack, we had cashew nuts lightly fried with garlic, chilli and herbs, which was quite revelatory for all of us in terms of flavour combination. And of course, any dish with crunchy garlic and chilli bits has got to be good. It’s a definite must-have snack whilst browsing the rest of the menu.

Just be careful though – if you are not on the ball, they will take the bowl away even if the bottom is carpeted with the delicious crunchy bits. We successfully batted away our overly-eager waitress, but it did become a bit of a running joke that she was constantly eyeing up our empty plates. On the other hand, she has to be commended for her attentiveness.

As for the starters, we ordered the jasmine tea-smoked baby back pork ribs, the Thai baby calamari, and the chicken wings. The ribs were delectable – falling off the bone, tender, sweet and juicy, though my taste buds aren’t well-trained in picking out tea-smoked flavours. The calamari had what I would call a husky flavour, warmth imparted by the mix of spices coating each squiggly piece, all delivered without the customary crunchy batter (which I usually prefer, but in this instance I can forego). The chicken wings, I think though, were the best of the lot, having a real crisp skin overlaying soft and well-cooked meat.

We also ordered the green papaya salad to accompany our starters as our token healthiness for the night. Alas, I was not particularly wowed by it – I felt that it lacked real tartness and bite, and although we were offered and promised spice, it was a bit of a mild affair. Overall, it added little to the meal.

Isaan chicken - delectable grilled chicken

Isaan chicken – delectable grilled chicken

But not so for the main courses that we had. I tried some of Friend A’s beef laksa, and was pleased with its grainy coconut curry sauce; however, though both he and I enjoyed the flavours, I would suggest that if you’ve come to Naamyaa for Thai food, then laksa (being of Malaysian origin) shouldn’t really feature on your radar. The Isaan chicken, on the other hand, should. A bit more of a unknown dish from northeast Thailand (at least when compared to usual Thai restaurant fare), Naamyaa’s version was succulent and fully infused with charcoal flavours – I would have ordered this if Friend B had not gotten to it first (we were operating a policy of trying as many dishes as possible), and I always defer to ladies.

Curried stir-fried soft shell crab - not pulling any punches

Curried stir-fried soft shell crab – not pulling any punches

So, onto my dish – the curried stir-fried soft shell crab rice set. Ignoring the fact that the rice seemed a bit dry and hard (I’m not just saying this because I love my rice soft and sticky), this was a wonderful dish. The lumps of soft-shell crab were distinctly-flavoured, and the meat softly textured – it was a bonus that there was plenty of it mixed up in the thick and highly-spiced curry sauce, amidst the copious amount of chillies and fried spring onion pieces (I looove those). The heat was tempered by a generous side salad that included cucumber, and so I was able to clean everything out of my bowl. It’s fair to say I had a good time with the soft shell crab rice.

Black tapioca pearls in coconut cream, topped with pomegranate seeds and toasted sesame seeds. A bit of a (tasty) mouthful

Black tapioca pearls in coconut cream, topped with pomegranate seeds and toasted sesame seeds. A bit of a (tasty) mouthful

I similarly had a good time with dessert, too. After an impassioned recommendation from our waitress, I changed my original choice of pandan and coconut agar-agar and instead opted for the black tapioca pearls in coconut cream, and was well-rewarded with a very fetching dessert. The pearls were chewy bordering on the too-soft, but the coconut cream was lusciously smooth and superbly enhanced by the crunch of pomegranate seeds and the striking toasted sesame seeds that formed the topping. An imaginative and fun dessert, I felt that that it was far superior to Friend A’s balsamic strawberries with yoghurt ice cream and Friend B’s mascarpone ice cream with strawberries, both of which looked very much like each other once subjected to mixing.

We left that night, warm of belly and content of heart. Naamyaa’s performance that night, in our eyes, justified those glowing reviews and all that hype. Although we did miss out on our tom yam goong and our turnip cake, I guess it means that we’ll just have to return for a second visit… *sigh*

VERDICT – A good place. Naamyaa was a fun experience and we did enjoy our meals, but there’s just something nagging away at the back of mind about the place. Maybe the decorations make it look too slick, maybe it was the dry rice, maybe it was missing out on the turnip cake; I don’t quite know. Just don’t let that get in the way of you going along and giving it a good shot.

Currently listening to: A Day to Remember – The Downfall of us All

Categories: Thai | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment