Thursday, 31 July 2014

Kopapa Dinner: where I had a thought about service charge

Kopapa is great for weekend brunch. When you talk about lunch/dinner, it's not so bad either; it's trusty enough to recommend for relaxed client lunches and casual enough for substantial pre-game dinner with mates. Few weeks ago, some girl friends and I went here for a long overdue catch up. We've not seen each other for months so we decided to go somewhere we can have proper conversation and good food. It turned out to be a tense night.

When we were seated, we ordered a mixed platter of starters (£12.50) straight up while we browsed the menu because we were feeling peckish. 

SERVER 1: Is that all? *collecting the menus*
ME: No, we'd order some more. Can you leave the menus please?
SERVER 1: Sure *scoffs away*

Our platter came. Although the plating is questionable, it's pretty good. You get grilled chorizo, guindilla chillies, globe artichokes, cuts of Manchego, marinated olives, babaganoush & grilled flatbread. 

We ordered some small plates after that.

SERVER 1: *starts collecting the menus*
ME: Can we keep a menu at our table please? We might want to order a few more in a while.
SERVER 1: Why?
ME: Oh. Well, we might be hungrier than we thought.
SERVER 1: *leaves menu and sighs out loud* One plate each should be enough for four of you.

My friends and I looked at each other. That was strange attitude, but we shrugged it off and went on to catch up. Five minutes later, Server 1 comes back and asks if everything was okay. We said yes. Shortly after, whilst I was about to shove a forkul of food in my mouth, Server 2 swung by and asked if we were done. Ulh, obviously not.

One of my favourite things on the menu is the wasabi-cured salmon (£7.30). It comes with wakame and cucumber salad. It's fresh and delicious and quite apt for a hot summer evening.

We also had some calamari. It's not actually my favourite, but well... it's easy to order.

SERVER 1: Is that all you are ordering? *takes the menu without waiting for our answer*
ME: Can we have the Wagyu beef please?
SERVER 1: Okay, is that it?
ME: Well, we might order some more later.
SERVER 1: It might be useful to order everything now, we are busy
FRIEND 1: No. We'd like to order later.
SERVER 1: Suit yourself *rolls eyes and leaves*

My friends were quite shocked. It was a bit rude. Mid-conversation Server 2 asked us if we are okay. Yet again.

Thankfully, the beef was a palate party. The Aussie Wagyu itself was tender and melt-in-the-mouth. The smoked mash was creamy and well seasoned. The plump field & king oyster mushrooms added to that earthy, meaty flavour and the beetroot horseradish added a zing that tied everything together.

We were definitely enjoying our food and our conversation until Server 2 asked us if everything was okay. We said yes and ordered another dish. Few minutes later, Server 1 came by, reached over our table (we had to stop digging into the food), topped up our still-full glasses (missing out on the one empty glass she should've refilled), and walked off without a word. Few minutes later after that, Server 2 came back to grab a few of our small plates that still had food. My friend P had to stop her. She then asked if things were okay. All in around ten minutes. 

I'm not quite sure if it was us my annoyance, but when we dug into the Jamaican goat & plantain samosa my taste buds seemed to have lost it. The two small samosas (definitely not justifiable for £9) were oily and the goat was dry and overcooked. The raita was bland and I couldn't taste the plantain. On top of that, Server 2 came back again and asked if everything was okay.

We were really annoyed now. We were certainly no VIPs and we wondered if VIPs ever get this kind of smothering treatment. I decided to tweet Kopapa.

They've responded immediately, and here's what happened next (you have to read from the bottom).

So a lady called Frith came to apologise (explained that the servers we got were probably still under training) and suggested we stay and have the table for the rest of the night. Unfortunately, my friends were really turned off and just wanted to leave to have dessert elsewhere. We asked for the bill and Frith very kindly gave us the wine for free. Result, indeed, but in a rush to get out, we ended up paying the service charge.

I did have an afterthought though: majority of punters don't challenge the "optional" or "discretionary" 12.5% service charge for various reasons but when you get bad service and complain about it, shouldn't this be automatically taken off your bill? I've heard stories of people refusing to pay this only to be greeted by excuses and sighs and eye rolls from servers (who would sometimes call their managers who would give more excuses). But then so what?

People are paying so much for food (sometimes more than they should) these days and they expect good value for money as they think they are paying for a good time. If you work in the service industry, surely you'd understand that whilst a huge fraction of any customer's dining affair is about what they consume, another huge fraction of it relies so much on the service and the experience (your responsibility).

*rant over*

Despite the experience, I still like Kopapa - their menu is quite exciting so I know I'd be back (but more likely for weekend brunch).

32-34 Monmouth St, Seven Dials, Covent Garden, London WC2H | +44 (0)20 7240 6076
Ave spend pp: £45
Kopapa on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Ember Yard: where good food brings all the girls to the... uh, yard (and damn right, it's better)

Ember Yard is the fourth restaurant under the Salt Yard Group's umbrella of Spanish-Italian tapas joints. We used to frequent Salt Yard back in the day when our office was just a stone's throw away from Noho (and Soho), and now Opera Tavern since moving to Covent Garden. I've yet to visit Dehesa, though.

My friend G has a thing about most things Spanish (particularly Rafa Nadal), so I wasn't surprised she picked Ember Yard for her birthday dinner. I've known G since we were in fourth grade, which means our Gossip Girl-esque friendship has been "maturing" for about 20 years now (wow, WTF). 

We started off bar snacking with pork fat chips (£4.5). The hand-cut chips weren't oily and the sprinkling of pork scratching was a nice touch (just beware of the occasional super hard bits). It was served with a ketchup made of blended chorizo, tomatoes, and spices.

G loves her deep-fried battered squid so there was no escaping the chipirones (£4.5). Served with capers and a crispy sage leaf, a wedge of lemon and a pot of what I think is mild aioli, it's a smaller serve than Barrafina's but is less oily.

 I didn't get much squid flavour but it was still a decent bar snack; crispy, crunchy, salty and moreish.

On to the small sharing plates:
I'm not too huge on tomatoes which is why I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the heirloom tomato and kohlrabi salad (£5.5). Adorned with capers, chopped shallots and smoked almonds, this was yet another simple dish that's refreshingly smart.

The stuffed courgette flowers (£4.5/piece) did not disappoint. The delicate flavour of the vegetable marries well with the tangy, creamy goat cheese and the drizzled honey binds the whole thing together. A menage-a-trois gone right, I could easily eat three of these in one sitting.

Octopus (£9) is one of those things I always order if it appears on the menu. It's steamed then chargrilled (over sweet chestnut and plum charcoal this summer) at Ember Yard. It has a slight chew which makes me think it's not massaged, but it works and I like it very much. The mojo verde aioli heightens the smoky flavours but the sweet and sour peperonata balances it out.

I also ordered the chargrilled squid with pancetta, peas and chilli (£7). The squid was nicely cooked, its natural sweetness blending well with the pea puree. I couldn't eat the pancetta as it was Meatless Monday (such a shame because bacon and peas make such an awesome palate party). We had two of these and my friends said the dish works amazingly well as a whole.

We had two servings of parsnip-buttermilk chips with manchego (£6) because it was, plainly put, yum.

The hot smoked butternut squash (£6.5) was a bit dry but tasty. I like that it was kept simple, served with dollops of goat curd and grape "jam".

As mentioned, it was Meatless Monday so there were a few dishes I didn't get to try (but will come back for as they were meant to be awesome).
Chargrilled presa Iberico with whipped butter (£9)
This is, apparently, one of London's best dishes of 2013.

Beef bavette, cauliflower purée, chargrilled onions, and jamon vinaigrette (£8.5)
I tried the cauliflower purée and it was delicious! 

Oak smoked burger with tetilla and chorizo ketchup (£6.5)
This was more of a giant slider, than a burger.

We also ordered the roasted and chargrilled Iberico pork ribs with quince glaze and celeriac puree (£8) which smelled and looked stunning. I was kicking myself for not being able to try it.

I've never been a fan of Spanish desserts but there's always room for pudding!
The white chocolate mousse with pickled nectarines, honeycomb and mint (£6) was a creamy, fruity, sweet delight. I've never had pickled nectarines and was pleasantly surprised.

The staff put a candle on G's chocolate and turron brownie (£6.5) which was sweet. Served with cherries and rosemary cream, this would have been a winner except the brownie itself was very hard!

Service was fantastic! Our server was very knowledgeable about the gluten-free items on the menu and the wine (she even asked if we wanted to taste three types of wine first, before bringing our actual selection). Also, Once a booth area was cleared, someone else asked if we wanted to move there to be more comfy.

Overall, I like Ember Yard. The fact that they can put bold statements on a plate in two-three flavours is a statement on its own. It's quite the formulaic establishment: good vibes, great service, amazing food (possible contender for best tapas in town). Well done, Salt Yard Group. On to the next one!

Ember Yard
60 Berwick Street London W1F | +44(0)207 439 8057
Ave spend pp: £40 (with wine)
Ember Yard on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Bilbao Berria London: where the interiors are better than the tapas

Created by three Spanish friends in 1999, Bilbao Berria has expanded into London with the aim of showcasing Basque cuisine, eating particularly via pintxos (food served in skewers) and tapas (aka food served on plates). Tucked in the lower end of Regent Street, the chain's first international restaurant is fronted by Aussie celebrity masterchef Ash Mair

Heaps more polished than the Bilbao and the Barcelona restaurants, the London joint is STUNNING. It's very cosmo-industrial which I reckon would appeal to those who like a good social scene (thus questions the choice of location, close to tourist-laden spots and teenage clubland). 

The taverna upstairs is chic with booths surrounded by cage-like installations lit by clusters of mason jar lamps, exposed ceilings adorned with some wiring that looks artsy on its own. Here, the vibe is rather casual. You get to grab however many pintxos you like, with servers behind the bar to ask for questions.

Downstairs, you get a more "proper restaurant" feel. Save for the airconditioning (it felt a bit humid), it's better for gatherings and dates.

The ladies room has its own pampering area supplied with blowdriers, hair straighteners, vanity mirrors and that "make-me-look-pretty" lighting. Award.

Impressed by the ambience and the superficial notes on interiors, I was ready to try the food. We had a party of 14 so we had to get the set menu. Ate T, knowing I can be slightly picky with my food, gave me the option to go a la carte. Bless her cotton socks. 

There were some things I tried off the sharing set menu:
Pimientos de padron. Sautéed, mild green peppers sprinkled with Maldon salt. They were juicy and moreish. Better after we sprinkled a bit more salt.

Ensalada de tomate y palmito. I thought this was the Basque/Catalan version of a salata tricolore. Essentially a very simple dish of toms, basil and palm hearts dressed in olive oil. Simple, but refreshingly smart. 

Patatas bravas. These (supposedly) triple-cooked potatoes were a bit inconsistent with the crispy coating and fluffy interior factor. The paprika sauce was mild and didn't do much for me but that garlic sauce was a champ and (almost) saved this tapas bar staple. 

The set menu was served family-style and also included a Spanish cheese platter, bread, calamari and chicken in adobo spices. Price is £32 per person.

Now, here's what I ordered from the a la carte menu. I wanted to get a few gluten-free plates as I thought I could share it with our coeliac mate but it got a bit frustrating as the servers didn't know which ones were gluten-free (ie they told us which ones were, but then returned to say they weren't).
Boquerones (GF) This humble starter of anchovies marinated in pickled garlic sauce deserves some bragging rights for its bang on the money flavour.

Compared to Barrafina's two-ball "while you wait" serving, the croquetas de jamon were perfectly sized for me. The creamy gooey cheese didn't overpower the saltiness of the ham and there was enough of it to please the palate. I liked it a lot.

I love octopus so I ordered the pulpo. An honest man would say this is not a sharing plate of tapas but perhaps a starter for one. The octopus was cooked well, but the dusting of paprika left me missing out on flavour. The mash was extremely creamy, but was quite underwhelming too.

The carrilleras de buey (GF) was interesting. The beef cheeks braised in Pedro Ximenez were out-of-this-world tender and the parsnip mash was creamy like home. There was meant to be some Iberico pancetta but I couldn't find a single piece. It needed a bit of seasoning, too.

Service was confused:
  1. Nobody knew who the interior designer was, not even front of house.
  2. Servers didn't know which dishes are gluten-free despite the manager saying one of them is on a GF-diet. This was supposedly the lady who told us the pulpo wasn't GF after my coeliac buddy had a mouthful.
  3. Wine was poured but one or two people on our side of the table would always end up not having any - a server actually said "The glass isn't empty!" Oh, but it only had droplets.
  4. There was a mishap regarding our bill - we were accused of underpaying but it turned out the server forgot to print his copy. 

Thank God for these beauts (plus Ate T's other mates) who made the whole experience bearable, laughable, and enjoyable. I had quite a lovely time hanging out with the ladies (and some of their men). I hope the birthday girl did, too.

Overall, despite being wowed by the sophisticated sassy surroundings I was quite underwhelmed with the service and food downstairs. The tapas are incomparable to the standards of Salt Yard and Barrafina. I am, however, curious about the pintxos bar (it is after all what put them on the culinary map) so I wouldn't mind giving it a go at some point.

Oh, and if you find out who did the interiors, drop me a note. I'm really curious.

Bilbao Berria London
2 Regent Street, London SW1Y | +44 (0)20 7930 8408
Ave spend pp: £45 a la carte with wine. Set menus start from £32 (which the set menu people enjoyed). Pintxos at £1.85 each
Square Meal

Friday, 18 July 2014

Cafe St Honore Paris: where you can have post-Louvre munchies

Walking around the Louvre left us extremely peckish. We had reservations at Cafe Marly (right next to the pyramid) but we wanted a change of scenery so we moved towards Rue Saint-Honore. I had this idea of cocktails at Hotel Costes but the weather was moody so we ended up parking our butts at the nearest brasserie, Cafe St Honore, instead. 

Hello, charmed one.

We asked for a table streetside because people watching is much better that way. Wish we had more of these types in London - if only the weather cooperated!

The weather called for soupe a lóignon (8.9€). I thought the soup was pretty decent, particularly the grilled cheese top crust.

Plaid Boy ordered tartare a la Thailandaise (14€). The beef was seasoned with Thai-style ingredients: soy, onion, ginger, lime and mint. Sounds like a lot, but the flavour was actually quite subtle and I thought it was fairly refreshing on the palate considering it's raw beef you're eating.

I don't think we both expected the generosity of raw beef on the plate. It was seriously a massive serving which would have been a perfect sharing starter for three people. Or four. 

I wanted a (relatively) healthy meal after all the rich butter-based food we've consumed so I figured I'd get a salad. Resisted the screaming urge to order the salade Gourmande (a celebration of duck - breast, foie & gizzard) and went for the very vegetarian Cote Sud (14.9€) (artichokes, aubergine, asparagus, tomatoes, olives, roasted pepper, lettuce, olive oil).

I love that you get grand servings when you order a salad in most Parisian brasseries/cafes. This was good enough to share between two people as a side or as a very filling main. Everything on this plate sang to me, save for the roasted peppers which I've never been too keen on anyway. The olive oil was delicious, the artichokes were gorgeous, and the asparagus stalks were crisp. Simple yet substantial, very easy to recreate (if you have a decent grocer with amazing produce).

Service was a bit abrupt, but we can't complain much as we visited during peak hours. Being so close to the Louvre, they handle the influx of tourists pretty well, too. Overall, it's a decent enough pit stop after a long day at the museum. Lots of pretty people to watch, too.

Cafe St Honore
194 Rue Saint Honoré, 75001 Paris
Ave spend pp 30€