Thursday, 28 November 2013

Dayre I... Dayre you?

I had a hospital appointment three weeks ago and the doctor told me I need to manage my stress. This made me think of the million things people do to burn off stress from the free ways (ie running, sleeping, singing, taking loooong baths, etc) to the not-so-free ways (ie yoga/gym/studio classes, binge eating/drinking, therapists, etc). 

Me? I used to dance. A lot. But now I write. A lot. About whatever I think of, whenever I can, wherever I am. If you look in my bag you'd find scribbles on stickies, scrap paper, napkins and receipts. Some of those notes actually end up on this blog. (I'd like to think that my entries have matured (sort of) over the years since I feel there's a bit more restrain on what I choose to share in the blogosphere. In the early days of Blurty and LiveJournal, my entries were about the most random of stuff - think fragmented thoughts of a heart-on-sleeve person in bullet points! Gaaaah. I think this blog is a bit more coherent as my topics are mostly of food, tunes, cheesy stuff and things I like.)

Most of those notes, however, just end up in the bin which is a shame because when I read my scribbles I would backtrack to the time they were written and a correlated memory/feeling would pop beautifully in my head. I actually enjoy writing randomly and find it super therapeutic. Ideally, without having to fill my bag with rubbish (and cause more stress)! 

Thank God I discovered Dayre where I feel like I can be as random as possible. It's kinda like Instagram but it allows you to add more than one photo/video/quote/location/sticker on your daily feed so your readers can view all your uploads in one go on their feeds. Something about the app sort of alleviates the pressure of taking super artsy vintage-filtered photos and writing deep coherent thoughts because it's just... fun. I've been on it for a week or so now and it's helped managed stress in the Big Smoke as it helped me remember trivial things, simple joys, random warming gestures and, most importantly, how fun it is to write (especially when I'm writing for me).

Dare I dare you to Dayre too? =)

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Shanghai Blues: where dim sum got the blues

I was having one of those crazy post-holiday work weeks and needed a dose of my friend A. She knew I was missing Asia so she suggested we meet at Shanghai Blues. I hauled myself to Holborn daydreaming of delicious silken noodles, popiah and fresh, meat-packed pot stickers. I couldn't wait. 

I got there fairly early and realised that there's nothing as cheery as a big fat happy Buddha to cure your blues.

I was surprised at how big the place was and how nicely decorated it is. A far cry from Chinatown's traditional Chinese restaurants, SB looked every part of a city restaurant: slick, sexy, and modern.

I waited for A by the bar, as you do. I'm quite particular about my cocktails so I always order a dry martini to benchmark. I'd try other drinks if it's good enough but if not, I'd stick to wine or G&T. Their standard martini (£8.90) was good, so I decided to try something else. 

Nick the bartender suggested the honey dew melon martini (£8.90). It's suprisingly not as sweet as it looks and it's rather, uh, potent. They gave me some spicy squid crackers to munch on, too. 

A turned up and it was time to gobble up some dim sum. (After a few more cocktails, of course.)

First up: barbecue chicken in bamboo leaf (£5.80). There wasn't anything particularly special about the dish, to be honest. Although the barbecue marinade spelt subtletly the chicken fillets were juicy and succulent but other than that, I can't say much about it.

I love Chinese spareribs anything and I'm glad the spareribs with peppercorn and Shanghai herbs (£7.30) were quite tasty. The meat was fall-off-the-bone and evenly spiced and it wasn't so hard nor messy to eat.

The xiao long bao (£5.60) looked incredibly sad. Immediately I noticed the thickness of the wrapper and how shrivelled the dumplings looked. I'm one to forgive presentation so long as the taste is spectacular but unfortunately, SB's XLB is just not up to par. The broth was goners and the filling had too much five spice.

I'd say the same for the sgrilled pork dumplings (£5.80).

We ordered some Singapore noodles which I thought, at £8.50 per plate, was a joke. It was way too oily and the presentation seemed like it wasn't well-thought of. I couldn't taste the curry hint you usually get from SG noodles. My local Chinese takeaway does a better job at £5 per pop. Heck, I think even I do a better job at this!

The chicken and spinach wrap with spices (£4.80) was another disappointment. The chicken was underseasoned and it was all watered down and bland. 

I was about to give up until they served  the scallop dumplings in spinach juice pastry (£5.60). They looked pretty; the wrapper looked translucent and silky and thin enough...

...and the scallop filling was fresh, well seasoned and substantial! There was a lot to take in those small green parcels. I wish we ordered more of these instead of the other dim sum!

After our meal, A and I went back to the cosy bar and had more drinks. The place suddenly appealed again, as the cocktails and wine flowed graciously and we both went home swimming in inebriated states of awesome.

That said, I can't help but feel slightly cheated with the food. I guess you can say the dim sum selection was a bit unimpressive (or at least the ones we had) and slightly overpriced. Quite a shame because the ambience really looked like the restaurant would serve sexy Asian food. I've not tried their mains, which may possibly be the better choice for dinner, but truth be told I'd probably go back for the cocktails instead.

193-197 High Holborn, London WC1V 7BD ‎| 020 7404 1668
Ave spend pp: £45
Shanghai Blues on Urbanspoon

Monday, 18 November 2013

Brasserie Zédel: where you get what you pay for (in a really cool place)

There were three major reasons why I needed to try Brasserie Zedel. 

     - One, I love French food and this new kid in town has been gathering buzz. My curiosity was starving.
     - Two, Our wedding planners reminded me to create 'pegs' and my mood board has been bare since the engagement. I have quite a thing for art deco and the roaring twenties and reviews on the restaurant reminded me of The Great Gatsby (the book and Miuccia Prada's costume designs in the film). Must check for inspiration.
     - Three, my best friend from Bournemouth C flew in from Berlin and I forgot to make reservations. This basement restaurant seats over 200... surely we were meant to find a spot.

The restaurant is a basement brasserie project from the restaurateurs behind The Delaunay & The Wolesley.  The entrance looks like a vintage café leading to a hall adorned with old school French ads, posters, and photos of jazz and blues artists.

Here's one of my favourites...

Downstairs, you'd find a big foyer with entrances to The Crazy Coqs (a cabaret and jazz performance venue) and Bar Américain (a classic American cocktail bar). 

I couldn't help but feel super excited. it felt like we were in old school Paris and, as I was with mein kaffeekumpel, we couldn't help but feel rather like new generation flapper girls who are up for a night of debauchery (of course, we were well behaved). Just like the old days at BU

We headed straight to the restaurant and our jaws dropped. The place was massively glam. I kid you not, it's possibly the biggest restaurant I've seen in the city (that does not do buffet menus). 

We didn't have reservations but they accommodated us at the bar. We were greeted by really nice and friendly servers and a basket of complimentary bread.

The menu looked promising, with lots of French brasserie favourites at ridiculously low prices. There were a few entrées that were cheaper than their counterparts in food chains or priced similarly to sides in bigger restaurants. There were a few mains cheaper than a burger here or a cocktail there. Hmmm. Was there a catch? 

C wanted to go for the formule menu, a three-course meal priced at £19.75. I wanted to opt for something else, but I decided to go for the same. Our first course was the salad d'endives. You know I love cheese, so I thoroughly enjoyed the blobs of pungent roquefort which I thought was of good age. The candied walnuts balanced the bitterness of the chicory and the acidity of the cheese. Such a simple dish, but a good start to the meal.

Of course we had to take the requisite reunion shot...
Happy punters
C's main was a classic beef bourguignon which came with a side of fluffy mash. The beef is tender and the veg is cooked nicely. It's warming and hearty, and there's some kind of depth in flavour there. Plating-wise, it looked like something that came from your nan's kitchen but taste-wise, your nan's is probably better. 

I opted for the salmon fillet, which was quite substantial in size but about 40 seconds overcooked for my liking. It was a bit underseasoned, too. The artichoke puree nor the dressing didn't do much for me either. But it was cheap and filling and reminiscent of the first few times I tried to cook. Passable. But maybe I'll try something else next time.

We had some honeycomb and vanilla ice cream, plus a berry sorbet for dessert. It was nice to have ice cream by the bar until about five spoonfuls later and our sugar levels were on an all time hight. We needed some bitter coffee to counteract the sweetness but realised we weren't served ours yet.

We were waiting for quite a while.

A server apologised profusely and offered to give us two cafetieres of fresh brew for making us wait. We declined, although after I had a sip of my cup I kind of regretted it as the brew was bold and beautiful.

Those petit fours were quite a treat, too.

After dinner, we hung out some more upstairs, watching people down the foyer making their way to either of the entrances. I pondered about the experience and I kind of get the hype. The prices were cheap but the ambience makes you own a million pounds more. Personally, I wasn't impressed with the food I had (C liked his), but then again our choices were limited to a prix fixe menu (next time I'll go a la carte). Brasserie Zedel seems to be a decent all in one night out anyway. I have a feeling it's going to stick around. 

Ended the night with an awesome convo with C outside the restaurant about careers, future plans, Dirty Dancing and our old school antics. Some of you may know C through my previous blogs and my old Multiply page - so you probably know I have mad love for this boy. Such a shame he had to move back to Germany post uni but I'm so happy and proud he's doing well in Berlin... and I'm so chuffed we can just bounce off each other like the old days no matter how long we've been apart. <3

Brasserie Zédel
20 Sherwood St, London W1F  | 020 7734 4888
Ave spend pp £30
Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon

Friday, 8 November 2013

Lantana Café: where good things come to those who wait

A good brunch for me is something effectively more nutritious than elevenses or beans on toast. During my early years in the UK, I wouldn't eat in typical cafés because these so called greasy spoons would make me feel like I've eaten a truckload of stodge. It's all changed now. Thank you, antipodeans, for coming to London and taking brunch culture to the next level.

My friend A and I went to award-winning Melbourne-style café Lantana in Fitzrovia. It's a side street café with a sit-down area and a take-away shop next door. The cool, unpretentious dining space can only sit about 25-30 at a push (although they do have a chef's table downstairs) so punters are usually seen all queued out, watching diners sat outdoors wolfing down a brekky cocktail of toasts, eggs and fritters of sorts. We came at 10am on a Saturday and true enough there was already a queue snaking its way in. 40 minutes and several stories later we were taken to our table shared (closely) with two other diners. I was worried A & I wouldn't get to catch up properly because everything was so close to each other, but the atmosphere was so relaxed that it didn't feel invasive at all. A & I got to chat normally without fear of getting eavesdropped on.

We ordered three mains straight away. Dude, we waited almost an hour - of course we were going to make the most out of it!

Grilled haloumi on toast, rocket, tomatoes - sans poached egg

Brunch is never complete for me without cheese and toast so I got the grilled haloumi (£8.5). It's usually served with a poached egg but as I do not eat eggs, I went without. It was still satisfying and filling enough. Gorgeous, thick cuts of the cheese on perfectly toasted sourdough served with a well balanced home made herb pesto equals a very happy belly. Everything on the plate smelled, looked and tasted fresh. I don't usually like tomatoes but the ones I had were refreshing and sweet and it balanced out the saltiness of the cheese. I love this dish heaps!

Corn fritters + bacon. This is what fry-ups should be made of.

As we were in an Aussie-run cafe, we just had to have the corn fritters (£9.8). Lantana gives you two on a bed of rocket, topped with a generous serving of bacon rashers, creme fraiche and homemade chili jam (soooo good) and a roasted tomato on the side. A and I got a (big) fritter each. It was a good corn fritter indeed - filled with fresh corn and not dough, really crisp outside without the greasy aftertaste of things bathed in oil. And whoever supplies Lantana's hearty bacon, yuuum! Everything on this plate worked well together. Amazing.

Spanish style eggs

A got the Spanish-style baked eggs with chorizo sausage, mushrooms and fresh basil (£9.5). It came with toasted pita and a pot of creme fraiche. I didn't try it but it looked really nice and looking at A's face, it was the queen mum of all egg-based brunches.

It was a really good brunch and is easily one of the best and most resounding brunches I've had this year. We had quite a lot to eat and were absolutely full afterwards but we didn't have that uncomfortable feel of gluttony. Service was good, despite the hectic environment but the café really shines by its food and coffee (Monmouth!). I'd definitely go back again. And again. And again. I wish we didn't have to wait so long, but then again (and excuse the cliché) all great things are worth waiting for ;)

13-14 Charlotte Place, Fitzrovia, W1T 1SN | 020 7637 3347
Average spend £15pp for weekend brunch with drinks/coffee
Lantana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Cantina Laredo: where Mexican was a bit lacklustre

I'm staring out my window and it's drizzling. My stomach is shouting for a good dose of Tabasco-drizzled chimichangas, a bowl of corn soup and spicy chicken mole. Torturous, considering I still haven't found mind-blowing Mexican food in London. I've tried a few Mexican chains and restaurants here but they were all the same: a wee bit uninspired. The safest bet has been Wahaca, which I actually like if not for their 'no reservations' policy. Clearly, there's a gap in the market and someone seriously needs to mind it.

A colleague mentioned how much she enjoyed Cantina Laredo and said this is a nice place to take clients because it's a nice restaurant where "good Mexican meets fine dining". I got curious and excited.

I went with a friend for dinner service. The menu is pretty straight forward so other than margaritas, we knew what we wanted straight away. Both my date and I weren't too hungry so we skipped starters and went for mains. Mexican is usually filling anyway so we were sure to have a decent meal out of it. 

As a little extra, we had tortilla chips (£1) with some salsas dela casa (£1 each). I like me a good tortilla chip and I'm glad these were served warm. They were on the thin and crunchy side which is definitely a plus. They were so moreish, my date and I stopped and started a few times, trying to save our appetites for entrees.

The salsas dela casa were a bit bland, though. The roasted tomato salsa tasted nothing different from those you can buy in shops - I actually think some of the jarred supermarket ones fare better! The roasted tomatillo salsa wasn't served warm as stated on the menu and was a bit underwhelming. The server said this was meant to be spicy. Really?

My date and I both ordered enchiladas which they serve with 'a portion of rice' and salad. When I saw the server coming our way with massive plates I was scared I won't be able to finish the whole thing but when he laid our dishes on the table.... um... yeah. I couldn't help but blurt 'When they said 'a portion of rice' I think they forgot to say it's a portion for infants.' I'm not too keen on rice myself, but come on. We're all adults here.

The enchiladas themselves resembled stereotypical runway models: thin, long and pretty. Each plate glistened with respective sauces and garnish. I've seen uglier, messier, fatter enchiladas but they tasted pretty good. Let's see if these thin ones had substance too.

The enchiladas del mar (£12.95) looked very pretty in orange. The filling of roughly chopped prawns, scallops and fish tasted quite nice so it was a bit of a shame that there wasn't much of it. The sauce was a nice creamy concoction of chili de arbol, spices and cheese. I missed the heat on this one.

The mole poblano enchiladas (£10.95) got me really hungry when I read its description on the menu, especially the sauce: "16 ingredients including Ibarra chocolate and a variety of dried Mexican chilli". *salivates* The enchilada itself was okay. The sauce had good balance between bittersweet and savoury and had good consistency all around. But, like any good Mexican sauce, I expected heat and missed out.

As mentioned, I wasn't hungry when we started the meal but after having our enchiladas and stuffing ourselves silly with some tortilla chips I was left wanting more. For what they're charging per plate I could get two burritos from Chipotle or Benito's Hat and have a good belly after.

The saving grace, I'd say would be the cocktails. So yes, I'd go back but I doubt I'd go beyond the bar and the margaritas.

Seriously, London restaurateurs. Please mind this Mexican gap.

Cantina Laredo
10 Upper St Martins Lane, St. Martins Courtyard, Covent Garden, London WC2H | +44(0)20 7420 0630
Ave spend pp: £30
Cantina Laredo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Powder Keg Diplomacy: where things got meaty (and I got beef)

Vegetarians best look away.

A few friends and I went on a meaty mission south of the river and found ourselves in this Clapham gem called Powder Keg Diplomacy. Not to be fooled by normal gastropub exteriors, the place inside looked like something Charles Dickens conjured; decor resembled all things colonial/Victorian London and servers looked dapper in waistcoats, top hats and cravats. We were led to a picturesque conservatory further back and it spelled a little bit of romance and a little bit of fantasy. Our curiosity waved beyond the bar list - our appetites were definitely aroused.

The lamb (£19) offering was a combination of rump and shoulder, served with a fondant potato, some veggies and blackcurrant sauce. This dish was pretty good. They've managed to cook the lamb into a really nice pink (but not blue) and the sauce had a good balance of acidity and sweetness. This was quite a homey meal.

I'm not sure whether the pork belly was a permanent fixture on the menu or a special plat du jour. It was deliciously served with super creamy mash, black pudding, kale and a gorgeous jus. That crackling was such a hit and if they'd have an appetiser made of this I reckon I'd be dying of cholesterol by now.

I ordered the beef fillet (£26). Rare, please. On paper, it sounded like the way to go: 28-day air hung piece of steak served with thrice cooked chips, some leaves and your choice of sauce (peppercorn, Bordelaise or tarragon butter). It looked like a thing of beauty in its simplicity, except the char on the steak made me suspect it wasn't cooked rare.

True enough, it was medium. I sent it back.

And got it medium. Again. So I sent it back. Again.

A man in chef whites came back with my third plate of steak. He looked at me with such indignation and said that the fillet comes out 'medium rare' when you ask for it to be cooked 'rare'. I blinked at him, totally flummoxed, flabbergasted and floored by this meaty statement. In my head, I was karate-chopping and yop chagi-ing like a mad cavewoman screaming "Are you.......serious?! Are you really, really, really serious?" I've never heard any chef say this about fillet steak before. NEVER.

Clearly this guy and I had some beef over his beef (har har). I wanted to send this fillet back - again - so badly but upon seeing my buddies halfway through their meals and the sorry-looking server, I resigned. The third fillet was almost there but not quite: it was cooked 'medium rare' bordering on medium. Oh well.

The thing is, £30 for a plate of fillet may be a bargain compared elsewhere but when your stomach is yearning and churning for a good piece of meat, you'd very much like for it to be done perfectly. Having said all that, the steak was nicely cooked in its medium rare glamour. The seasoning was actually spot on and the meat tasted dreamy. The extra serving of thrice-cooked chips they gave us were quite sweet too.

And the ambience made up for it. Ish.

So overall, let's do this:

Would I get the steak again? Nope.

Would I visit again? Yes, definitely. The food actually sounds promising and the weekend brunch menu seems delightful. I've skimmed through the cocktails list as well and it looks good.

Would I take my friends? Indeed. Might need some back up, just in case! No, seriously. PKD seems like a decent place to take groups for drinks and bar chat. Or a birthday party. Or dinner before a night of debauchery.

Powder Keg Diplomacy
147 St John's Hill, London SW11 1TQ | +44(0)20 7450 6457
Ave. spend pp: £40
Powder Keg Diplomacy on Urbanspoon
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