Sunday, April 13, 2008

Suchitra's Tunbridge Wells

71 Calverley Road,
Tunbridge Wells, TN1 2UY Map

During a conversation at the gym my wife was recommended a "Thai restaurant, just a bit further along from Mooli." Suchitra's seemed to fit the bill, so we paid a visit on Sunday evening.

The restaurant is nice and airy and the tables are a nice distance apart. It stretches a fair way back and has a sort of "garden area" with a large gold Buddha staring in through the window at you. It also appears to have a wine bar in the basement.

To start, I chose Tofu Tod, which was deep fried beancurd served with a chilli sauce. It was a fairly nice, but fairly standard Thai starter. My wife had Chicken Yum, which was chicken mixed with various Thai spices and salad. She said it was the best that she'd had since leaving Australia, seven years ago!

My main course was Fried Aubergine with Basil in a Yellow Bean Sauce. It was very nice, the aubergine had a nice texture and it was quite spicy but you could still taste the sweetness of the sauce. To accompany this, I had beansprouts with spring onions and mushrooms and fried rice with mint and chilli. Both were very nice, the beansprouts especially. My wife had Pad Coriander Chicken, which consisted of chicken, coriander and chilli, which she enjoyed.

The portions were generous, which meant that we were both too full for dessert. The service was friendly and efficient and the prices weren't bad either, with main course dishes being around £6-£7. We were both quite impressed and plan to go back sometime to try out some of the other dishes on the menu.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cafe Spice Namaste, London

16 Prescot Street,
London E1 8AZ Map

Cyrus Todiwala is a regular on the various Saturday morning cookery programs and is the Executive Chef of the Cafe Spice Namaste restaurant in Aldgate. I've been wanting to go there for quite a while and the opportunity finally came up earlier this week.

The restaurant is about a five minute walk from Aldgate tube and seems to be an old school building or similar. We were seated in one of the corners and, although the room is fairly large, the atmosphere is still fairly intimate.

While we were waiting for our starters, we tucked into poppadoms with a selection of pickles. A couple of the pickles were really tasty. One of them I can only describe as a spicy Branston pickle, the other was quite fruity and tangy.

I started with a vegetarian selection of appetisers. These included a stuffed potato cake and Cyrus's famous Beetroot and Coconut Samosa. They were all really tasty, but I would certainly recommend the samosa.

For main course I had Paneer Shashlik Raiwalla. This is a dish very similar to ones I've had at other restaurants and is a combination of cheese, peppers, onions and tomatoes cooked on a skewer. One of the problems with this kind of dish, I've found, is because paneer cheese is fundamentally bland, when you have large chunks of it, the flavouring of it has to be good, otherwise the dish gets very boring. The spicing and flavouring of the cheese was absolutely spot on, and I could've eaten it all night.

To accompany it I had a dish from the specials menu that consisted of various pulses and nuts that was okay, and a dish with spiced pumpkin and aubergine that was much nicer.

My fellow diner had a barramundi dish that he said was better than the one he had at the Cinnamon Club.

The dessert menu arrived and it had a dish called Zafrani Creme Brulee, so I had no choice in the matter.

A short while later, a creme brulee turned up at our table. This was the first time I have ever had a creme brulee delivered that was on fire! It was quite spectacular as the blue flame licked its way across the dish. It tasted great too. The custard was of a nice consistency and it had a delicate cardamom flavour. It ranked 8.5.

The meal was very enjoyable and the service was very friendly and timely. There was always a waiter around when you needed one, but they weren't overly obtrusive during the meal, which was really good.

From my side of things, it was a little disappointing that there was only a single veggie main on the menu (wonderful though it was) although there were a host of veggie side dishes. Despite that minor niggle, I plan to go back sometime, hopefully in the not too distant future.

Friday, April 04, 2008

The French Laundry, Yountville, USA

6640 Washington Street, Yountville, USA

The French Laundry was voted the World's Best Restaurant in 2004. Since then, it has remained in the top four and is best restaurant in America. I got the cookbook for Christmas and, although I've not made anything from it as yet, the recipes look wonderful.

So, when we booked our holiday in California I just had to try and get a reservation. If I could get it for my wife and I's wedding anniversary, then it would be just perfect.

The French Laundry only take reservations two months in advance, so for a couple of days in a row I was on the phone trying to get a table. Eventually I managed to book one for lunch on the day of our anniversary.

From then until the day we went I was excited and hoping that it would live up to all my expectations.

So, did it? You bet. And some...

We were seated just in front of the fireplace and our waiter wished us Happy Anniversary and introduced himself. We were then given the menus and the waiter explained them. The French Laundry has two nine course menus, The Chef’s Tasting and A Taste of Vegetables. Each menu changes daily, depending on the ingredients available which means that no two meals you have here will ever be the same. They also have a policy of only using an ingredient once in each menu, so that each course is a new experience.

My wife chose the Chef’s Tasting menu and I chose the Taste of Vegetables. Because of the ever changing menus, the French Laundry does not offer a set of wines matched to each course, instead the sommelier will talk you through the wine list recommending bottles that will match your selection. This was quite a difficult job as, for us, he had to find a wine that would match two different menus. But he did very well indeed. I can’t remember the wine selection, but he suggested that we started with champagne, have a half bottle of white between us for the first couple of courses, a red for the middle few and finish with a dessert wine.

Very shortly two small “ice cream” cones were delivered to the table. These were an amuse bouche, we were told of a salmon sorbet for my wife and a sundried tomato sorbet with fennel crème fraiche for myself. The flavours were great, it looked superb and it was an excellent start to the meal.

Then came the first course “proper”.

I had Tokyo Turnips, which consisted of baby turnips, perilla shoots (a kind of mint) and a pine nut puree. The turnips were sweet and crunchy and the pine nut puree was great.

My wife had Cauliflower Panna Cotta which came with caviar. She hadn't had caviar before and said that it tasted like a roast dinner.

Next up were a couple of salads. Mine was a Salad of English Cucumber which, as well as the cucumber, had charred scallions, avocado and was dressed with yogurt. Again (and you're going to to get fed up with me saying this) all of the ingredients were incredibly fresh and very well presented. The Chef's menu had a Salad of Big Island Hearts of Peach Palm which was accompanied with radishes, coriander shoots, a coconut "gelee" and a date coulis.

Next, I had Asperges Vertes en Feuille de Bric This consisted of asparagus (which has just come into season in California) the stalks of which were coated in a wonderfully light batter, pearl onions, lambs lettuce, Castelmagno cheese and a black truffle coulis. I will never be able to eat asparagus again without thinking of this dish - it was amazing.

My wife had Nicoise Olive-Crusted Fillet of Atlantic Halibut, which she enjoyed.

Next up was something that I thought just didn't sound right, Hand-Rolled Potato Gnocchi. It sounds okay so far, but it came with peas and a "Madras Curry Emulsion." Italy and India? Surely it couldn't work? It did. The curry flavour of the emulsion was very delicate (certainly not a "Madras" as we know it) and didn't interfere with the wonderful fresh crisp flavour of the peas, and the whole thing really worked well.

From the Chef's Menu, my wife had Sweet Butter-Poached Maine Lobster "Mitts". These were accompanied by peas, white asparagus, mint, red chilli and passion fruit emulsion. The pink of the lobster, the green of the peas and the yellow emulsion meant it was a real feast for the eyes as well as the palette.

None of the portions were huge, but I never felt that they were that small either. After every course I was eager to see what the next delight would be. Every course was beautifully presented and both mine and my wife's were delivered together. The timing between courses was fairly short, but we never felt rushed.

Next on the menu was a "Fricassee" of Baby Artichokes. This consisted of tiny globe artichokes and baby carrots with a mustard vinaigrette. Again, it was the fresh taste of the vegetables that was most evident, perfectly accented by the vinaigrette.

The All Day Braised Kurobuta Pork Belly that my wife had was accompanied by a really smooth mashed potato, greens and maple syrup.

Next for me was a dish I was really looking forward to. Crispy Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom. My previous experience of Hen-of-the-Woods was during the mushroom foray I did, where we discovered it at the foot of an oak tree.

The mushroom was really tasty and, as the description said, quite crispy which was quite an odd sensation for a mushroom.

My wife had Elysian Fields Farm Lamb Ribeye. She loves lamb and really enjoyed it.

And so, onto the cheese course.

I had Timanoix cheese with butternut squash, toasted pecans and maple syrup. My wife had Shropshire Blue with grapes, endive, watercress and green peppercorn "aigre doux". Both were lovely, but if I had to choose, then the Shropshire Blue would win. It was gloriously creamy with a lovely "sourness" that blue cheeses have.

Next up were a couple of sorbets. The Taste of Vegetables menu had a Sour Cherry Sorbet with Sesame Nougat and the Chef's menu has Diane St. Claire Buttermilk Sherbet with Field Rhubarb.

By now, it was time for dessert and we were realising that we were getting to the end of the meal.

Just before the dessert was delivered, a couple of small pre-desserts were delivered. My wife had a creme brulee and I had a sort of creamy set custard. The creme-brulee was nice (7.5) but had it been made with the custard that I had it would have topped the chart.

My dessert was Crepe Soufflee. This was essentially small banana pancakes and was served with Guinness ice cream. It was lovely and the ice cream, although a bit odd on its own complemented the bananas very well.

My wife's dessert was Granny Smith Apple "Bavarois" with Dijon mustard ice cream. As with the crepes, the ice cream on its own was very strange, but went very well with the apple. Once again, the presentation was wonderful.

Following the dessert were some petit fours and coffee. We were presented with an Easter Egg, some shortbreads, a French Laundry clothes peg that had been clipped to the napkin when we arrived and a copy of the menus.

To my delight, we were also invited to visit the kitchen.

It was interesting to see the chefs at work. There was none of the frantic action or cursing that we all have come to expect from being exposed to so many "Gordon Ramsay" reality TV programs, it was all very quiet and controlled.

So, that was it. The end of possibly the best meal I have ever had. It was certainly a fantastic way to celebrate our wedding anniversary. The setting of the restaurant is wonderful and the service is perfect. As a bonus, on that particular day, Yountville was having a wine festival, so after the meal we made our way there and were able to sample some more of the region's wines.

The French Laundry was a wonderful experience. I would love to go back if I ever get the chance. It's not cheap, but nowhere of this calibre is. The nine course menu is $240 and on top of that you have to add drinks. Luckily, service is included in the price, however we were so impressed that we left a bit more, a don't begrudge a penny (or cent) of it.

Greens, San Francisco, USA

Building A, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco

Greens is on the northern coast of San Francisco and looks out over the marina. If you are lucky to get a seat near the window, you can get a great view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

It is a completely vegetarian restaurant with an ever changing seasonal menu.

We arrived early and had plenty of time to peruse the menu while we waited for the staff to finish setting the restaurant. Then we were shown to a table by the window - yay!

We started with a Mediterranean platter to share. It was really nice, with artichokes, hummus, quinoa and a gorgeous tomato chutney, the recipe of which is in the Everyday Greens cookbook, which was a good enough reason for me to buy a copy.

For mains my wife had a red curry and I had a vegetable filo dish. The red curry was nice, with a nice Thai-style flavour. The filo dish was good too with a nice selection of fresh vegetables, beautifully cooked.

For dessert I had an apple tarte tatin which was very tasty, although it would've been nicer if there had been a little more of it. My wife had a selection of sorbets that she wasn't that impressed with, describing them as "dry".

Despite that, we both had a really nice evening. The service was good, and the restaurant itself is comfortable, really airy and the view is great. If you're in San Francisco, it's definitely worth a visit.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

California Dining

Well, not just California as we stopped off in New York for a few days before flying onto San Francisco. During our couple of weeks in the US we ate at some really nice places, some of which I'll mention below.

The House of Vegetarian - 68 Mott St, New York, USA
As the name suggests, this is a vegetarian restaurant in New York's Chinatown. The menu here reminded me of the Pink Giraffe in Oxford as it was mostly mock meat and fish. However, we decided to try their vegetable dishes rather than go for the veggie duck, fish, chicken etc. We had a few dishes, the best of which was braised broccoli in brown sauce. All the food was nice, but the broccoli stood out. Also, the portions were huge. A word of note - they only take cash, probably the only place that we went to in the US that did.

Katy's Place - Mission Street between 5th and 6th, Carmel USA
Katy's is well known for breakfast in Carmel and it's easy to see why. The menu is enormous and there are fifteen different versions of Eggs Benedict! So, obviously I had to try the veggie version. It was lovely. And huge. Three eggs, three muffins, mushrooms and home fries. Yumm!

Robin's Restaurant - 4095 Burton Drive, Cambria, USA
We visited Robin's last time we were here and I'm pleased to say it is still as good. I started with spring rolls and then had a tempeh laksa. Both were nice, but the tempeh wasn't needed in the laksa, it would've worked much better I think with shitake or oyster mushrooms.

For dessert I had a lemon creme brulee, which was really nice - a good 8.5 on the scale. It was good to see that Robin's was as good as we remembered.

CATAL 1580 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim, USA
It was a nice surprise to find a restaurant as good as this in Disneyland. It was quite popular, but we didn't have to wait too long after putting our name down until we were called. The waiting staff were very knowledgeable of the menu and the service was great. The food was pretty good too.

I started with artichokes (I had a bit of an artichoke frenzy while I was in the US...) and my wife had scallops, both very tasty and well presented. For mains, I had a wild mushroom risotto, which was very tasty and had several different kinds of mushrooms and some truffle as a bonus!

Dessert consisted of a trio of small desserts which included an unpotted creme brulee (6) and a panna cotta. It was all very nice and the whole experience made a very nice end to our holiday.

Back to Boxwood

As promised in my December blog entry, I returned to the Boxwood Cafe to try out their Vegetarian Taste of Boxwood menu, and very good it was too. It is a six course menu (or seven if you opt for the cheese course) and can be matched with wines if you want it.

The first course was Jerusalem artichoke soup with roasted shallots. It was served in an espresso cup and was gorgeous. My Mum used to make a really sloppy concoction of artichokes and milk which I never liked, so it was really a revelation to have such a tasty dish.

Next up was Poached Burford brown egg, creamed potato and cep sauce. Again, this was great. The egg was perfectly cooked and the potato was really creamy and smooth. The cep sauce was divine and really complemented the egg.

After that was Baby beetroot, barrel aged feta, blood orange, pear and pine nut salad. The beetroot was sweet and the whole salad was really fresh and tasty.

I've not had white asparagus before, but my wife who works in Germany a lot of the time tells me that they say over there that it is much better than green asparagus. I was eager to test out the claim with the next course Grilled white asparagus, fontina cheese and barigoule vegetables.

To be honest, it was not that special. The asparagus was certainly not as tasty as the green asparagus, and it was only the cheese that gave the dish any real flavour. Also, I find it odd that all the top chefs harp on about seasonal cooking and here we have asparagus served up in March.

The next course was Risotto of roasted violet artichoke and herbs. Ahh, back to the good stuff. Perfectly cooked rice with gentle artichoke flavours. Wonderful.

Finally, for dessert there was Valrhona hot chocolate fondue, marshmallows, biscotti and fruit kebabs. Hold on! I hear you cry. Marshmallows on a vegetarian menu? Surely they have gelatine in them? I quizzed the waiter about this and he admitted that they did, indeed, contain gelatine. Tut, tut. Is this Ramsay's little joke? Still, no matter, I had the dessert without the marshmallows and it was lovely. The chocolate was gorgeous and wonderfully silky. The fruit (bananas, raspberries and blueberries) was wonderfully fresh and tasty.

We had wines matched to each course and these were really nice, especially the sparkling red Bouvet-Ladubay that we had with the dessert -it was really different. The service, as you would expect, was superb and really friendly. It was a great evening, and I'd quite happily go back sometime.