Thursday, 27 December 2012

Apsley's: A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, London

The morning began with grumblings from Mr N, about our heading for lunch to a restaurant with a dress code. By noon he was appreciative that I’d insisted on proper shoes, as this was certainly the classiest dining experience of the year.

The Lanesborough Hotel in Knightsbridge (allegedly the most expensive in London), is a huge imposing building (formerly St George’s Hospital) opposite Hyde Park. Smartly dressed porters ushered us in from the rain, and suddenly we found ourselves in an oasis of festive calm. The manic two-days-before-Christmas fervour was soon forgotten as we relaxed in the luxurious bar with a beautiful open fire. We smartened up and marvelled at the art-deco bathrooms, and stashed all our wet-weather gear in the cloakrooms, and anticipated an exciting meal.

Michelin starred Apsley’s, is the first Heinz Beck restaurant outside of Italy, and the restaurant itself was bathed in light despite the dark and drizzly weather. Elaborately shiny plates with mosaic motifs decorated the tables as the extremely courteous staff seated us (and much to our delight, bought us a stand just for P’s handbag to be placed on!)

We were here on a reduced price lunch offer, but you would never have guessed it from the exceptional level of service we received. But the deal was well worth it. We began with a glass of sparkly Franciacorta, and then we had a moment of Food Geek joy as the Olive Oil was formally introduced to us. Formalities over, we soaked it up with the perfectly baked focaccia and olive bread.

After an amuse bouche it was time for starters proper. The lunch menu was small but perfectly formed, and we’d each chosen a different option. My zingy pumpkin and ginger soup was poured at the table into a dish of crispy taleggio ravioli, maintaining the different textures of crispy and soupy, and tasting amazing, D’s Octopus salad with couscous and P’s lamb starter were equally well presented and quickly devoured.
Keeping in the festive spirit, myself and P had opted for the Norfolk Bronze Turkey, being sure that it would be distinctly different to anything we’d eat on Christmas day. We were not wrong. Served with mustard seed, celery, apple and beetroot (and some surprisingly tasty Brussels sprout outer leaves), this was tangy and satisfying. D’s halibut main course looked like classy fish fingers coated in paprika, with three brightly coloured accompaniments of which the aubergine was proclaimed to be the best.

Dessert looked fantastic and tasted even better. Cocoa sable was brittle dark chocolate biscuit with the most intensely fruity strawberry ice-cream I’ve ever tasted, combined with a subtle hint of liquorice. P’s muesli crumble with yoghurt with yoghurt foam and blueberry sorbet looked like it should be breakfast, but P loved it.

Very well fed, we decided to take our tea in the cosy bar. A tray of intensely chocolatey petit fours, with heavy silverware and pretty crockery enjoyed on comfy sofas by the fireplace, made it feel like a special occasion, which is absolutely was in every sense. An affordable pre-Christmas treat this was a real gem of an experience!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Tapas Y Mas, Rechtstraat 83, Maastricht, The Netherlands

Gosh, I love Maastricht! It’s my first time visiting this historic and compact Dutch city on the border with Belgium, and I’m really enjoying the feel of the place, with its pretty shops, restaurants and relative proximity of everywhere (it feels like a real luxury to be able to walk to and from the office)! We had the benefit of L’s local knowledge as we headed out to dinner. We tried to visit the local Indonesian restaurant, but alas, it was packed on a Wednesday night, so we opted instead for the nearby Tapas Y Mas.
It was a welcome escape from the wind and rain, with the warmth and cosy décor adding to the atmosphere. We took the opportunity to enjoy the delicious house white wine in an unconventional decanter.

The menu is extensive, and everything looked appealing to our hungry eyes.
We decided to sample one option from each section of the menu, and ended up with a diverse and delicious range. It started with the simple: bread with garlic mayonnaise and incredibly tasty mixed olives.

Then we moved to the vegetarian dishes, with the sweet and crispy fried eggplant with cheese and honey, and the roasted tomatoes with goats cheese.

As we tucked in the dishes got even more exciting with a rich and deeply flavoured lamb stew, a substantial tortilla with smoked salmon and shrimps in olive oil and garlic.

Outside of Spain I’ve often found tapas to be disappointing, but there was no compromise on all the flavours we tasted. Each dish was much enjoyed, we were very pleasantly surprised by how much food we had for really excellent value. Would very strongly recommend for an authentic and super-tasty tapas experience!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Mo-zam-bik, Brooklyn, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

It was tricky as a solo business traveller to South Africa, to really sample authentic cuisine. Luckily for me though, one of my hospitable local colleagues took me to one of her favourite restaurants, Mo-zam-bik in Brooklyn.

The traditional theme was immediately obvious from outside, with the hut style building (‘baraca’), busy already in the early evening. This continued inside with rustic touches such as paper on the tables, glass soft-drink bottles for candle holders and condiments, and most excitingly, instead of bread on the tables, there were warm ‘monkey nuts’ wrapped in paper cones on the tables. The atmosphere was relaxed (the restaurant aims to transport you to the beaches of Mozambik), and the service as it was everywhere in South Africa, was amazingly friendly. Our servers – Elizabeth and Beauty, could not have been more hospitable.

I ordered a Grape Fanta, and perused the wide ranging menu which offers seafood, steak and chicken, and also some moments of comedy: the no- chilli option was referred to as a ‘girls sauce’. There was also ‘chicken for Girls’ which had no bones and was ‘easy to eat’ – one of my sisters in particular would approve! Comedy aside, there was so much to choose from, I needed advice, and was recommended the Zambeziana ‘baby’ roast chicken with coconut milk, chilli and lime with spinach and rice.

This was no baby chicken. A huge plate arrived soon after, and I was thankful that we’d skipped starters. The chicken was delicious – the sauce zingy and the coconut milk comforting. The chilli sauce was up to my standards! Hotter than you’d find in the UK and with a good flavour.

I polished off as much as I could of the huge dish, but sadly then could not even contemplate dessert. I hope I get an opportunity to go back to sample more of the delicious cuisine!

Friday, 28 September 2012

Turkish Delight, Chorlton cum Hardy, Manchester

I love places where the exterior hides a gem of a place. From the outside, Turkish Delight is a kebab shop. It looks entirely ordinary. Yet walk past enough, and you’ll notice that this place always has a queue of punters, clearly in on the secret. Venture through the door and you’ll be transported into a different world and a very special Turkish Restaurant.

We had our hosts to thank for suggesting a visit, and I for one, couldn’t resist after hearing the name! Our expansive late lunch meant we savoured the deeply satisfying red Turkish wine (Buzbag), skipped starters, and went straight for main courses.

The huge menu satisfied both the carnivores and myself the temporary vegetarian. The way the dishes were presented completely confounded the idea that we were in a glorified kebab shop. D’s slow cooked knuckle of lamb looked good, but I was delighted by my vegetarian mousakka. It was not in the least bit greasy, and there was no heavy layer of white sauce, as so often found in greek counterparts. The potato was delicately sliced and cooked in the herby tomato sauce, which combined comfortingly with the melt-in-the-mouth aubergines. The home-made chilli tomato salsa, added extra spark to proceedings along with the finely chopped salad with red onion. There was plenty in the way of carbs with fragrant rice and complimentary chips.

Everything was perfect. I just wish we had all been hungrier so we could have tried more variety!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Katsouris Deli and Café, 113 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 2BQ

The intense sunshine rendered Manchester completely unrecognisable. Tired and hungry after an active morning exploring the shiny MediaCity and The Lowry, and then enjoying a drink in the courtyard of Mr Thomas’ Chophouse, our stomachs were rumbling and we were in need of sustenance. Quickly.

I was still in the midst of my temporary vegetarianism, and beginning to get a bit fed up at the limitations this was imposing. We tried a high street sandwich chain, but the shelves were disappointingly empty given that it was far past lunchtime.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lee had a plan. With his trademark quick pace he decisively led us to Katsouris, which was a feast for the senses. The busy café had delicious looking food everywhere! Everything smelt so good and immediately we were overwhelmed with choice. There were carvery options, a huge salad bar, extensive boards detailing exotic sandwiches and behind the counter were a whole selection of sweet treats and cheeses. It was amazing!

Unsurprisingly this deli is a Manchester institution. It is close to Lee’s heart, having originated from the World famous Bury Market. The building looked grand on Manchester’s busy Deansgate, but the interior was functional. Normally huge queues snake around the large room, but here our lateness proved a real advantage as the queues were small and tables were not too hard to find.

It was the perfect place to take a grumpy reluctant vegetarian. Whilst the others went for hot meaty sandwiches (heeding the warnings that “a half is not small” and therefore spending only a couple of quid each), I splashed out on a Vegetarian Meze Platter for a princely £4.95.

I was rewarded with the largest plate of food that I have seen in a very long time. All my favourites were on there: grilled halloumi, Greek salad, spicy couscous, spicy pepperdews (my absolute favourite), stuffed vine leaves, hummus, tzatziki, mediterranean vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and olives. Vegetarian heaven! I couldn’t believe my luck, and hoped that I’d have space for it all, when suddenly there was the extra bonus of warm ciabatta added to my already heaving plate.

Needless to say, every item was full of flavour and tasted authentically fantastic. The value for money was astounding and the variety made me feel joyful.

I now wish I lived in Manchester. Katsouris absolutely made my day.

The Commonwealth Kitchen, 25 Northumberland Avenue, London, WC2N 5AP

It was a moment to savour – I had finally discovered an exceptional restaurant in the most touristy part of London! Minutes from Trafalgar Square, The Commonwealth Kitchen is the holy trinity of special, affordable and fantastically located. Part of the Commonwealth Club, K had the pleasure of having visited previously due to her Foreign Office connections. If you weren’t in the know, you’d walk right by, (perhaps reflected in the fact that we were the only guests in the restaurant on a Tuesday night). However, the restaurant is open to non-members, and a long running special offer on this website, or the alternative of a bargainous set menu, makes it incredibly good value.

The restaurant is modern and sleek, but retains character with its artwork and eye-catching features, including a huge clock elevated over the dining room. We may have been the only diners in a large space, but it didn’t matter – the nicely designed circular booth counteracted the vastness of the room, and the friendliness of the staff ensured the atmosphere was relaxed.

We chose from the a la carte (which changes monthly), although the set price menu would also have been absolutely fine. Even though the menu was short, it offered many exciting options, even for me, the temporary (and somewhat reluctant) vegetarian.

We’d barely received our excellent glasses of Chardonnay, and Slovenian Quercus Pinot Bianco, when we were treated to complementary nibbles of parmesan palmiers, and a tasty hand-made crisps. This nice touch was followed by another, when we chose from a selection of beautifully presented bread. Far more exciting than your usual selection, I had a chilli option, and K some pain de campagne (country bread). The excitement didn’t end there; as we were then presented with an amuse bouche of a cherry tomato stuffed with mozzarella, which was simple but special.

Finally, we got onto mains proper. My chilled cucumber and mint soup was good for the warm evening, and presented like a drink! The richness of Westcombe cheddar scones (which were three cute little squares of sesame seed topped cheesy goodness) were a scrumptious contrast to the cool minty flavour.

K’s Soya barbeque Rhug estate pork belly, with pickled Norfolk radish, green tea and apple puree, was prettily presented with bite sized pieces of pork, topped with delicate slivers of radish.

We’d both opted for vegetarian main courses. K’s bubble and squeak, with glazed shallot, caramelised English chicory and butternut squash, had a brilliantly home-cooked flavour, but my main course won the prize for the best presentation!

This is NOT dessert

Looking like a sweet cheesecake with a raspberry coulis, my tastebuds were confounded by the deeply savory St Tola goats cheese cake, with beetroot, toasted pine nut hollandaise and swiss chard. Truly, this had top marks for presentation, and was a huge portion size, especially considering the richness of the creamy cheese, which was tempered by the beetroot.

Utterly stuffed, we didn’t have room for a dessert, but our curiosity got the better of us. We’d both been eyeing up the suitably summery strawberries gratin, blondie, champagne sabayon and balsamic ice cream, and finally decided that sharing one between us wouldn’t hurt (we convinced ourselves that portions would be small).

We were of course wrong, as a very generous portion of dessert (which looked like a main course), arrived. It was just too tasty to be concerned about being full. The sweetness of a blondie (a sugar version of a brownie of course), a foamy sabayon and coolness of the ice-cream was utterly divine with the strawberry pieces. It was a fantastic dessert – far more exciting than options found on most menus.

All in all, this really was one of the best meals I’d had in a long time. Being vegetarian hadn’t been an issue at all, and the entire experience was lovely from start to end. The staff were exemplary and all the food had been exciting and extremely tasty. I will certainly be coming here again!

Monday, 10 September 2012

Guest Blog Post from Lee: Electrik, Chorlton, Manchester, M21 0AE

Many thanks to Lee for this guest blog post...
Yesterday I found myself in the right place mentally for a certain experience. I was not hungover, yet my insides betrayed a certain post-alcohol delicateness. I was in that right place where it's too late for breakfast but not yet time for dinner.*

And I found myself in the right place physically, for there are only 4 institutions where you can sample this wonder of culinary engineering.

I found myself in Electrik in Chorlton, a convenient stumble from my flat. It's Danish inspired cafe by day and bar by night, with a free jukebox that only has good music on it. It's the kind of place that has worked very hard to look very low key; lots of bare wood and smatterings of bold orange.

And on its food menu, in the light bites section, is the Manchester Egg. The Manchester Egg has its own website on which it describes itself as "a hearty commodity worthy of a gentleman". It's a pickled egg wrapped in Bury Black Pudding and premium sausage meat with a golden crumb. It's a Scotch Egg, but better. It will make you look upon Scotch Eggs in sorrow for their blandness; lacking in the warmth and gentle spiciness of the Mancunian version.

I'm biased of course. I live in Manchester and I hail from Bury. Bury only has two things to be proud of: firstly it was the birthplace of Prime Minister, Corn Law Repealer and founder of the police force Sir Robert Peel and second, of course, the Bury Black Pudding. The Peel family soon moved away from the mills and soot that brought their fortune - the pudding at least stayed put and two companies fight it out on Bury Market with a third elbowing in on the trade.

Pictures of this wonder are here:

Needless to say it did the trick and set me up for the day. I sat in Electrik for a while longer and enjoyed a mint and chilli tea from Mr Scruff's range. Good times!

*a.k.a. lunch