Saturday, June 26, 2010


Make way! Make way! Hungry Female has found a Malaysian restaurant to try and she will be as brutally judgemental as your mother-in-law's tongue on a bad day. Malaysians far away from home crave their home delights with much fervour and passion, so when someone says such-and-such restaurant does say, a great Nasi Lemak, it's a miserably cruel anti-climax if it's not true. Therefore my scepticism is out of real hope that this won't be a total washout. Sedap is the Malay word for "tasty", so this little joint based between Old Street and Moorgate better deliver the goods.

I order my all time favourite and benchmark for trying Malaysian food, Char Kuey Teow. For those not familiar, flat rice noodles are fried with ingredients including onions, garlic, shrimp paste or belacan, chinese chives, dark and light soy sauce. Egg is often added to this, and the combination of charred egg with all of the above gives it a salty, burnt and edgy euphoria that only fried noodles cooked in the right way can achieve. Sometimes cockles are added, giving a slightly bitter and complementary element.

Sedap's version of Penang Char Kuey Teow passed the test. Not euphoric, but rather good. Enough to get a respectable 7 out of 10. I was pleased that the waitress asked if I wanted it extra spicy, which I did, and that the prawns that came with were juicy and luscious like prawns should be. What would bring it up to a 10 would be more charred-ness, oomph from more belacan and as random as it sounds, more abandon in the presentation. Char Kuey Teow is not meant to look pretty (the prawns were arranged carefully on top, as if to show their generosity in giving me exactly four prawns), it's meant to be dolloped on a plate with proud intent and boom boom pow.

Best friend M's chicken rice again passed the minimum standards (rice cooked in chicken stock, tender poached chicken pieces) but what really killed it for me was the amount of chilli sauce that accompanied it. Practically a teaspoon full, if you're a chilli fan like me, you'd need to brazenly ask for more (and more) to finish the meal.

Teh tarik, I absolutely adore this spiced tea which is brewed with cinnamon, cardamom, star anise and cloves, then frothed up with condensed milk, creating a thick and comforting beverage that suits a variety of Malaysian dishes so well. My only niggle was a suspicious honey aroma from Sedap's version, that's not part of the usual mix?!

A mixed review for Sedap: the dishes are good, but in that they just seem to "make it", and for some reason I get the impression that's probably the best they can do. Maybe it's the overly measured-ness for food that is in essence without finesse. As a Malaysian would say, "Boleh Tahan-lah"*. I wouldn't rush back, but would bear it in mind if I was in the area. At £10 a head, it won't break the bank and I'll hush the mother-in-law in me for now. 

*"It's alright"!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fish Tasting & Demonstration @ Tom Aikens

I have the best friends. THE bestest friends EVAH. My magnificent bunch bought me one of the best presents for my birthday this year, and I can't express enough what an enjoyable and interesting experience it was.

I was gifted a fish tasting menu at Tom Aikens' flagship restaurant in South Kensington, cooked and demonstrated by the Bad Boy of the London restaurant scene himself. Remember the incident, where he accused a customer of stealing a spoon from the premises after she'd spent an arm and a leg over dinner? I half expected an airport scanner when I rocked up.

However, our Tom was as geezer-like and non-plussed as you like. Not appearing to have celebrity airs and keen to get on with the day's demonstration, he got to it when all attendees were present. Five of us descended into the kitchen beneath, where we instantly got told what the dishes of the day were going to be. No fancy welcome or marketing spiel about how he was the greatest. Hot oil was on pans, and he was determined to do what he does best, cook like a demon.

The whole premise of the day was to show four fish dishes that were achievable, practical and impressive to serve. What was also useful was that all the ingredients were fairly easy to acquire.

Scallops on Pork Belly with a Balsamic Reduction: this dish required Tom to have prepared quite a bit the day before, but not much on the day itself. A whole piece of belly had been boiled and flavoured in a broth previously, and laid in the fridge between two trays in order to flatten it. It is then cut into even pieces and pan-fried with hand-dived scallops. Meanwhile, there was chicken stock bubbling in the background (Tom had a ready-made one too). Shallots, butter, bay-leaves and thyme are sweated down in a pan, where the stock is added to to conjure up a jus. Some aged balsamic vinegar is added to the jus, which gives it a mean, sticky edge.

The pork was surprisingly moist, and even had a crust to it from the pan-frying. The jus was rich, sweet, and despite the amount of butter used (these Michelin boys love their butter, eh?) wasn't at all greasy or sickening.

Turbot in a Pea Broth with Pea Shoots: Summer on a plate. Shallots and peas were sauteed in a pan, fish stock added (again this was quickly demonstrated out of principal with a ready-made on stand-by), to be whizzed in a blender to get a pea "broth". It was placed back on the heat, fresh peas and broad beans added. The turbot poached on the broth, and before serving, some chervil went in the pan. You don't often hear of chervil, but it's a great addition to fish and almost chive-like.

An extremely achievable dish by "normal" kitchen standards. The turbot still had spring and bounce whilst being meaty, it almost had a "grain" like meat when cut open. I loved the liveliness, bright colour and flavours of the green against the white fish.

Baby Artichoke Hearts and Dover Sole: an awesome flavour combination which was new to me. Tom prepared the baby artichokes, explaining the process whilst scraping away the tough green outer leaves to reveal the prized chokes. Pan-fried, seasoned with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Dover Sole was added to the same pan, stock again used to create a little sauce. Artichokes added a roasted, black pepperry flavour to  the more chewy sole. I am convinced that a drizzle of stock is the way forward in adding depth and punch to cooking!

Roasted John Dory with Squid, Red Peppers, Courgette and Capers: we were treated to a fish-filleting demo here. Out Tom came with a big momma of a John Dory (they have scarily huge mouths when pulled out!), and proceeded to fillet it and de-skin. These were then seasoned and placed in the oven to roast. On the hob, squid rings were flash-fried, set aside and the diced vegetables friend one after the other. Everything was then tossed in the same pan and re-fried to bring the flavours together. The secret in this was no over-cooking. Minimal dressing and a sprinkle of coriander leaf.

The slightly serious and down-to-earth character before us was in contrast to the Iron Chef reputation and the gangsta stories on the street. Given his stature in the London scene (the youngest UK chef to earn two Michelin stars), the demo showed the basics of great cooking: preparation, patience and willingness to source good produce. I felt invigorated and inspired to try all the recipes we received, and came away feeling I'd also got a little insight in some tricks used in the professional kitchen. Dear friends, I truly enjoyed this birthday gift, can I dare to dream what happens next year?!

Yes, Chef!

Tom Aikens on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Lanson Champagne Tasting @ Bluebird Wine Cellar

Whilst the World is still fixated on sweaty men chasing that "roundest" Adidas Jabulani, it's also the season for two of London's oldest sporting traditions. Namely, Ascot and Wimbledon. Sounds like Champagne O'Clock to me. Pink bubbles are synonymous with these two events; mainly for seasonality and secondly, the obvious feminine appeal. Interestingly, this week I learnt that Pink Champagne's popularity amongst women has alot to do with when it actually appeared on the market. Following the Second World War, and the feminist movement, women started working more, and earning more. Whilst the seductive colour attributed to the initial novelty, it was the women's earning power that led and sustained higher sales of the pretty stuff. These days it's not only attractive, but an elegant partner to many fruit based desserts.

Bluebird's wine cellar on Chelsea's King's Road does an excellent job in organising wine tastings, in particular for Champagne. Lanson was the house of choice this time, and we were treated to four styles, with Chocolate Dipped Strawberries and Strawberry Tartlets to match.

First up: Lanson's most popular, the Black Label. The perfect aperitif, it's rounded, refreshing and you feel you could drink quite a few of these before looking like Diego Maradona on crack.

Second: Lanson's Pink Label or Rose Champagne. The Lanson representative pointed out the drink's distinctive salmon hue, compared to the more common pink. This results from less sugar being used during the making, that also contributes to the raspberry and red berry notes on the nose and palate. Strawberries and pink champagne is such a timeless partnership.

Left to right: Black Label, Rose, Gold Label

Third: Gold Label. This was a 1999 Vintage, which compared to the Black, had a bigger punch. It had characteristics which I love in white wines: nutty, biscuity, full bodied. We were told to look for a fine mousse; if a vintage has bubbles which feel even and of pin-head size on your tongue, that's a sign of quality.

Fourth: Extra Age or Demi Sec. It was a first for me in trying this style, which is meant to be slightly sweeter and better when pairing with desserts. Gentler than the Rose, and not as powerful following the vintage. Not to my personal taste, but of course I didn't turn down a top-up.

Our host Enguerrand Baijot (try saying that first name!), was super charming and sensationally French. As expected, a flair and pride for describing the product and process, as well as patiently answering questions. For £10 a head, which you can redeem against your purchases on the night, this is one of the best value for money tastings you can do in London. Bluebird houses many a household and speciality name, it's always an adventure to visit its Aladdin's Cave of tipples. Click here to see a list of their tastings. A Sante!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Spicy Basil

Haven't there been some surprises and possibly shocks as the World Cup teams take their first group matches. The ball that got away in England v USA, the poor Ozzie socceroos getting a beating against Germany, a pathetic own goal by Denmark. Though refreshingly some ground-breaking victories for two Asian teams, South Korea and Japan.

And speaking of Asia, one place that doesn't produce a shock is cheap and cheerful Spicy Basil on Kilburn High Street. Our local Thai, all ingredients are fresh and stir-fried with great fervour in view of the punters. You get that intoxicating allure of Thai smells upon walking in; lemongrass, chilli, Thai basil, garlic and fish sauce. High-pitched waitresses sit you down promptly and the menu is easy to get through. It's mainly Green, Red, Yellow Thai curries, Spicy stir-fries, and the evergreen Pad Thai. Just decide on Chicken, Pork, Beef, Prawns or Vegetarian. The room is smoky, crowded, filled with cheesy decor and the token plastic flower on each table. I love it.

Spicy Chicken: basically a stir fry including chicken, red peppers, basil, onion, garlic, pepper and a black sauce I just couldn't crack. I'm guessing a mixture of oyster, fish sauce and stock. There was an underlying barbequed sweetness that was so addictive.

Beef Pad Thai: just as you can expect. Nutty, sweet, tangy and lightly spicy. I love those bouncy noodles that leave a red oily mark on your plate as you slurp them down.

Just a quick entry this time, I'm finding it an exciting challenge to both cover restaurants and watch football games, sometimes simultaneously! Spicy Basil is one of my personal local favourites given it's price, reliability and endearing Thai custom. For 2 main courses and a drink each, a total bill of £11.60 is a clear win! Takeaways and deliveries too.

Soy milk is not just for vegetarians! 

Spicy Basil on Urbanspoon

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Donna Margherita

Woot woot! Have you caught World Cup fever?

I feel rather sorry for the England team at the moment, after the poor slippery-handed goalkeeper conceded THAT goal.  Still early days though, and apparently the winning team in '66 also drew in their debut match. Come on England!

Whilst down in Clapham for England's first match, we decided to honour Fabio Cappello in a visit to Donna Margherita, an authentic Napoletan pizzeria which received a 5 star rating from Time Out. Having been to Naples in April, I felt empowered by my experience and more qualified to pass judgement. Me, opinionated? Nooooo.

About fifteen minutes walk from Clapham Junction station, it's not on the main strip where most restaurants are in the area. Rustic and welcoming, there are some slightly cheesy touches, such as a food display covered in pizza bases that make you chuckle. Waiters are smiley, welcoming and attentive. The menu is typically Italian, starting with Antipasti, Pasta, Meat, Fish leading into the pizzas.

Pizza Gay: Yes you heard it right. There's also a Pizza Lesbica. Not entirely sure why, is it to promote PC-ness? Diversity? It's a diverse pizza alright. It's actually one pizza with 2 "flavours". One half was almost a plain margherita with anchovies, the other was scattered with rocket, cherry tomatoes, parma ham and giant parmesan shavings. Lush and fragrant from the basil leaves dotted around, these signature Italian tastes are always comforting.

Pizza Prosciutto e Funghi: Ham and Mushrooms to you and me. I was confused on this one, isn't prosciutto thin slivers of ham? We got a kinda english ham here, but maybe that's what it was meant to be. I would have preferred for both bases to be more cracker-like and smoky.

Handmade Seafood Pasta: now this was the business. Nothing really beats seafood juices from prawns, mussels, squid and clams mixing into garlic and tomatoes. This pasta was reminiscent of Puglia, heavier and irregular but nicely al dente. Excellent flavours and possibly one of the better pastas I've tried in London.

Whilst the pasta dish was very enjoyable, I felt slightly underwhelmed by the pizzas and the hype it had been given. Our meal was a bit like the England team, the raw ingredients, the spirit, the flashes of inspiration. It just needs the extra umph to drive those goals firmly and precisely home. But because we see that innate potential we're not wiping it off the list just yet. 2 bottles of wine, 2 pizzas, 1 pasta and a salad was a very doable £25 per head.

Donna Margherita on Urbanspoon

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Giant Robot

Have I told you there is a little tapas trend going on here in London? Not just the regular stuff though, tapas that has morphed past just little plates of fried potatoes, integrates and introduces different cuisines and reflects how Londoners have changed in their approach to food. It's now much more acceptable to share food, and welcome in the communal fun. Unlike the days when everyone used to order their own and be dying inside with food envy or begrudge someone else for asking if they could try the dish you raved on about. London has embraced family style sharing with pizazz!

London is also unafraid of fusing the previously unfused, re-wrapping in hip packaging. Giant Robot in media-loving hangout Clerkenwell is one such example of this new gastro iteration. Enter the former location of Match bar, it has New York kitch-y retro semi-diner decor. They hadn't put up a cocktail menu when we visited, so offered to make-up any cocktail on request. I think this is a nice touch bars are beginning to do more of.

Notice the funky space-age ceiling!

At first glance it's Italian food served tapas style (sound familiar?). Then upon closer inspection, it's American Italian food served tapas style. Ooohhh, the Hungry Female gets excited with these little discoveries. The hint was in the meatballs and the Baked Alaska dessert. Baked Alaska! I believe these were very respectable in the Eighties. 

The menu resembles one you'd get in a diner. There are Small and Big versions of certain dishes in case you want to behave or super-size it.

First up, a selection of Crostini: basically various roasted vegetables arranged rustically over crostini bread. They were like little kisses from the mediterranean. Some had bits of rocket (or arugula if you were from Nu Yawk) for a peppery kick.

Walnut, Roquefort and Chicory Salad: Yummy, classic and with the perfect vinegary tang. These wonderful ingredients must come from Smithfield's market.

King Prawns: I struggled to get my head around this dish. No complaints what-so-ever with the taste - they were meaty, juicy, garlicky and finger licking fabulous. But at £14.90 a plate they are effectively a fiver each! The thrifty Asian in me perked up it's head as I dipped the prawn back in it's juices and finished it off. Nice, but extravagant.

Butternut Squash Tortellini with Broccoli, Artichoke and Parmesan Shavings: All those words hit my marketing buttons on the head. One of my favourite dishes, I'm a complete sucker for dumpling shaped objects. The butternut squash filling had nuttiness and a hint of nutmeg, and was so aromatic amongst the vegetables.

Giant sausage, served with pancetta, lentils and green pesto: an awesome dish. The sausage was rather German in it's density and powerful, heavy meatiness. I was reminded very much of Mark Hix's Wild Boar Bacon in the uber pancetta beneath. Another favourite dish.

A selection of Beef, Pork and Chicken meatballs: these were really fun, and came with a choice of sauces. We chose spicy tomato for the Beef and Pork and Cream, Parmesan and Truffle Oil for the Chicken. This was tomato sauce you could dip anything into and the meatballs were the proper homemade ones. I wasn't entirely convinced by the white sauce though, I didn't get my usually heady hit of truffle?!

Mackerel with Samphire: I'd been wanting to try Samphire for ages and finally have! They call it Poor Man's Asparagus which is an apt description, and coming from the sea-bed it's inherent saltiness pairs well with fish. Again served with loads of garlic, the samphire lent texture and crunch to the oily mackerel. The dish is usually Sardines, but apparently they couldn't get them that day.

Finocchiona with Rye Bread: With a name like Pinocchio's lost sister, it's one that sparks conversation. A salami style meat, served with pecorino and has a real pepper hit. Has a lovely oily glaze and goes so well with the nutty rye.

Baked Alaska: *drum roll please*! The show stealer, the grand finale, the winner of the food beauty parade! Everyone loves a bit of theatre at the dinner table. Legend has it that Delmonico's restaurant in New York's financial district was the birthplace of this flamboyant delight. Giant Robot's version is nicely updated with a fruity panetone base, and orange liqueur as perhaps a nod to its Italian inspiration. I love how much attention it gets as alcohol is poured over and it flames in bright blue. Delicious. It's light, a mixture of varying softnesses, and creates the perfect crusty case when the meringue on top has burnt off.

A real must try! It's great when places don't take themselves seriously and still put in every effort into food and service. Our waiters were extremely helpful and knowledgeable about the dishes, just chilled out happy people. There are several dishes which aren't bang for your buck, though on the whole it's not bad value for money. Given that we had 3 cocktails, 1 excellent bottle of Montepulciano, 11 dishes and lots of entertainment, I won't yet complain at £40 a head for 3 people. Hurray for global tapas!

Giant Robot on Urbanspoon

Monday, June 7, 2010


Donzoko has been around for yonks on Kingly Street, just off Carnaby Street, and it still does the trick. Service is efficient and sweet, and we stayed right up till closing time that evening without one dirty look.

A traditional Japanese menu without the modern specials, I managed to try some different dishes I wouldn't have otherwise ventured into if it hadn't been for some suggestion by Japanese-loving friend J.

Completely spoilt by my first taste of scallop sashimi at Pham Sushi, I was panting like a desperate puppy whilst scanning the menu at Donzoko. It arrived amongst the other lovely, delicate and slippery raw fish pieces, and was still as sweet as in my first memory.

Tuna Sashimi with Sticky Soya Beans: Little soya beans created cheesy "strings" as we lifted them away from the sashimi. Sweet and savoury in taste, their texture reminded me of the film that goes around seeds in okra. I know that can freak some people out but you have to live dangerously, right?

Grilled Aubergine with Miso Paste: The aubergine skin was slightly caramelised and tore apart perfectly from the mushy and smoky flesh.

Beef Teriyaki: Fantastic flavour but the danger with sizzling dishes is that they can over-sizzle! A little more rawness on the inside would have been better.

Unfiltered Sake: Remember that Sake Tasting at Tsuru? No unfiltered sake mentioned there, so we'd uncovered yet another find. Liquid in the bottles have 2 separate cloudy and clear layers, which are jiggled in front of you to mix and served at room temperature. Delicious, refreshing and suitably Ying to the hot food Yang.

Agedashi Dofu: superbly done. Each tofu piece was coated with feather light crunch, sat in a light salty sauce. I think it was chopped tomato underneath the seaweed that mixed into the broth.

Assorted Tempura: Nice variety of King Prawns, sweet potato, aubergine and turnip. Light batter, without being greasy. It properly comes with that little mound of grated turnip that dissolves into the accompanying sauce. 

My one find and recommendation is the sake alone! What a boozer. I would highly recommend all the I dishes that I tried, they were all well cooked and tasty, unlike some bland places that claim to be authentic. For about 8 dishes, 2 bottles of sakes, 2 bottles of beer, between 3, it came to about £38 each. Not the cheapest but quality stuff indeed. 

Donzoko on Urbanspoon