Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dim Sum obsession at Opium

Opium, Chinatown – Enter with caution, highly addictive dim sum…

Finding the door way to this fabulously dark dim sum parlour is only half the battle – the other is getting past the burly bouncer on the door who will make you wait a couple of minutes while he checks his clipboard and radio’s upstairs on his fancy earpiece.  Thankfully, that all just adds to the drama and this place is definitely worth the wait.

Watch the stairs, they are dark…  But two flights up, you’ll enter the decadent den where there’s an awesome cocktail list on offer and even finer dim sum.

Perch yourself at the Apothecary bar where you’ll be amazed at the way Pat the barman invents drinks exactly to your taste at the bar, or mixes up some of the listed concoctions.  It’s worth ordering the Danxia Rose – kinda like one of the shows you’d expect to see in the movie ‘The Illusionist’.  It’s a ‘refreshing and floral merge of chivas regal 12 year old, campari, honey, schisandra tincture and hibiscus tea garnished with almond and orange blossom water’.  In other words, it’s so strong, it’ll knock your socks off and have you forgetting why you’re actually here, but served over dry ice in a cauldron with a metal straw, it’s absolutely worth ordering! As well as their amazingly innovative cocktail menu, there’s also a list of trusty favourites for the less adventurous, where you’ll find the classics - totally delicious Cosmo’s, Margherita’s and Espresso Martinis.

Once you’ve indulged in a cocktail or 7, there’s a great selection of dim sum on offer – our favourite was by far the Char Siu Bau (or Cantonese barbecue pork bun to you and I) – make sure you order enough of these as they're so deliciously more-ish.  Close seconds included the mushroom and truffle dumpling, the pork and prawn, and the crab and samphire, although to be honest, everything was ate was most definitely up to scratch.

Be sure to check out the private room down the hallway before you go which has the most amazing mood lighting and room enough for a good group of you, if you’re holding a special do.  And if you feel inspired to learn all about the art of cocktail making, then chat to the infectiously bubbly and charismatic cocktail extraordinaire and restaurant manager Esther Medina Cuesta, who will tell you all about the Cocktail Academy upstairs which is available for bookings of 5-12 people.

Opium is a gorgeous little find, chic, hidden and with an air of exclusivity, if you’re a dim sum fan, then this place will definitely be up your alley…  Remember - just look for the guy with the clipboard….and if you can make him smile, then the cocktails are on us!


Luna Rossa - Notting Hill

A big slice of authentic Italy in Notting Hill at Luna Rossa

I’ve always found it difficult to find a ‘real’ taste of Italy in London.  There’s some very nice Italian food to be had, but when you’re after rustic furnishings, exposed brick walls, Italian staff and gorgeous food, then Luna Rossa is the place.

As part of the Made in Italy group, I’ll admit I was slightly sceptical as to how true to Italy a chain of restaurants could be, but I was pleasantly surprised and totally blown away by this cute, cosy, lively eaterie on the very cool Kensington Park Road.

You’ll find this charming trattoria in the middle of all of Notting Hill’s action on Kensington Park Road, with open front doors so the tables spill out onto the street (and they even have heaters for the winter months)  From the front, you can see right through the restaurant to the open kitchen which comes complete with a huge grill and wood burning stove.  The bar lines one side of the restaurant with a dividing wall between the bar and the tables, and the brick wall arches add that rustic feel, with plant pots on the walls and calming hues of terracotta, wood floors and green tiling.

My dinner guest was a little late (work related, although I think really he was just doing his hair…) which gave me the perfect opportunity to chat with one of the lovely waitresses – Alice.  She told me all about her big move to London from Milan and how the staff at Luna Rossa have been so good in welcoming her to the team.  And this camaraderie amongst them  is evident throughout our whole meal as the waiters, waitresses, chefs, bar staff and manager laugh and joke, chattering in Italian, helping each other out and also waiting on tables very efficiently.  We had Luca waiting on our table and nothing seemed to be too much trouble.  He was super knowledgeable on the food and made some great recommendations – especially the lobster lasagne (we’ll get to that in a bit!)

The bar staff are also hugely talented when it comes to mixing up new and inventive cocktails, so I was invited to try one which had been made especially for me – vodka, strawberry puree, apple and cranberry juice…  the balance of flavours was amazing!  If you’re a fan of a particular spirit, then it’s

definitely worth asking them to whip you up something innovative while you get stuck into the menu.

And boy did we get stuck in!  After 4 week of low carbs and gym workouts, I decided tonight was the perfect opportunity to indulge.  In fact I ended up eating so much that I walked all the home, cursing myself for being so greedy!  The truth is, that everything we ate was so good, that I just couldn’t stop myself!

Right, it’s probably time we got onto the food, starting with a big basket of freshly baked garlic bread – the smell of which was just divine, and accompanied by big juicy green and black olives…

Cold starters followed – cous cous, chick pea, bean and onion salad and pasta with pinenuts.  Then we sampled beef carpaccio with parmesan, calamari, octopus and aubergine parmigiana.  We both thought the calamari was exquisite so that’s definitely one to try.  Lightly battered, fresh and not in the slightest bit chewy.  The parmagiana was also reallllllly good - just the right amount of tomato, cheese and aubergine.  Of course these starters tasted all the better with a delicious glass of freezing cold Sicilian wine – we went for the Inzolia.

For our mains, we decided on the lobster lasagne, which at £16.50 is a little pricier than the other dishes on their otherwise super reasonable menu - but then it is lobster… and you get lots of it!  We also went for the home made sausages with red onion, topped with scarmorza and drenched in a chianti sauce (£12.00), just because it sounded different and something I hadn’t tried before.  The sausage was served with new potatoes and had an unusual , although delicious taste, but the lobster lasagne is by far the one to go far if you’re not eating steaming bowls of fresh pasta or metre long sharer pizzas.  There was a good amount of lobster which tasted great amongst the béchamel sauce and the pasta layers and it came with plenty of cheese on the top.  (Next time I visit, I’ll be having one of these all to myself!)

The very varied menu at Luna Rossa (which is tweaked every few weeks to allow for different dishes to be added), also includes a great selection of cheeses (£3.50-£6) and charcuterie (any 3 of which are £12), but I went straight in for dessert, having already decided at the beginning of the meal that I wanted to try their chocolate soufflé with nutella which comes with vanilla ice cream on the side.  I realised I’d made the right choice as soon as I’d dived in and the nutella sauce all came oozing out of the middle.  Simple divine.

Amazingly, we found room for one more cocktail, before we headed for a  peak downstairs where a pleasant surprise awaited us…  You’d never know it was there, but there’s a fabulous food conveyor belt (think Yo Sushi!) where you can sit around 20 guests and sample simple tapas plates of mozzarella, pates on bread, salads and loads more.  There’s also jam jars of red wine on the belt too – a quirky and cool idea!  It seemed the perfect place to bring a load of friends for a lighter bite before a night out (mental note for next weekend made!)

As we left, I asked my friend Rudi what he thought of Luna Rossa… And being a South African whose not yet had the chance to visit Italy, he said it was exactly the kind of restaurant he’d expect to eat in when he eventually made the trip - authentic, rustic, great food and lovely friendly staff.  You know, I can’t think of a better  compliment….

Luna Rossa

190-192 Kensington Park Road

Notting Hill

W11 2ES

Tel: 0207 229 0482

Maricel, Majorca - What a feast!

‘Best Breakfast in the World!’ at the Maricel – Palma, Majorca

As if you needed another reason to visit the beautiful city of Palma in Majorca, here’s another…

Located just a short drive from the fabulous capital, is the luxurious 5 star boutique hotel  - The Maricel offers ‘the best breakfast in the world’ -  given the accolade by the critics at the second Madrid Fusion Gastronomic Summit.

As a sun worshipper, I jumped at the chance to experience this culinary feast combining two of my very favourite things – sitting in the sun looking out to sea, while gorging on what can only be described as the biggest meal I have ever managed to eat… all of…!

My friend Steve and I deliberately ate light the night before (this is not a breakfast you want to fork out for if you’re feeling slightly full at all…)  Arriving around 10am, (you can book between 9am and 11am), we thought we’d arrive early-ish, meaning we’d have longer to leisurely while away the hours – after all, we had a huge set of courses to get through!

Breakfast is served on the terrace to the back of the hotel, which provides stunning views out to sea and down to the beautiful pool and sun lounging area – it really is an extremely pleasant and tranquil setting in which to enjoy  a truly indulgent banquet.  And banquet is no understatement…

Our first course was a selection of fresh fruit juices, followed by pineapple and melon fruit shots – all mouth-wateringly delicious, along with a chocolate yoghurt, mango coulis and banana, strawberry and vanilla yoghurt and sweet rice pudding.  At this point, I began to feel ever so slightly full…

Thankfully, there’s plenty of time between courses to allow your food to digest and also to enjoy the views… which is just as well as the next course was even bigger!  Out came a platter laiden with toast (cut soldier style) and an array of different jams and preserves.  The mushroom butter was our favourite by far, but the cheese with olive tapenade was a close second, while the strawberry mousse and courgette confiture were a little too experimental for our tastebuds.

The savoury course followed – definitely the best and one we made sure we took our time eating!  This included a three cheese sandwich, Majorcan pie with Iberian ham and the piece de resistance –  walnut bread topped with the most delightful foie gras and chocolate.  Absolute heaven. 

It was around this point, we realised we still had two courses left to go - including the main course!  Surprisingly we were offered a cold glass of red rioja to go with this one, which warmed up nicely in the (now) midday sun.  Served with a slow poached egg, pumpkin crème and wild mushrooms, this was my least favourite course – which I partly put down to being too full.  The desert plate however, was where I found my second wind (probably because I have such a sweet tooth! )  A selection of fruit teas served along with a white chocolate and juniper milk, dark chocolate with baileys and a cappuccino were accompanied by some fabulous cakes, pastries and biscuits – apricot sponge, shortbread and brownie.

Although not everything was to my taste, (but with such an array of different flavours and textures, this is always going to be the case – also meaning of course that there will always be something to your taste…) it’s most definitely the most indulgent, decadent feast of a breakfast I’ve ever had the pleasure to devour!  Stunning views, a gorgeous setting and the summer sunshine added to the experience and at a very generous 42 euros per head, the Maricel breakfast has to be seen to be believed.  Just make sure you set aside a good few hours to eat leisurely and don’t plan on wearing your skimpiest bikini afterwards!  Oh and according to the Spanish, it is quite okay to drink wine with your desayuno.  I’ll go with that.

Browse the sample menu on the website, although this is subject to change, depending on the ingredients in season…)


Terence Conran's Albion Bankside

The All new Albion at Neo Bankside - As fresh as it gets…

Restaurant number 105 for Sir Terence Conran is the Albion at Neo Bankside, just a 5 minute walk from Blackfriars.  Thankfully nothing about this café, from the renowned designer and dining connoisseur, was stale – in fact very pleasantly quite the opposite!

We were lucky to visit the Albion during our heatwave of a summer, and as you’ll know if you’re a London local, there’s nothing better than the Southbank on a warm July evening.

Nestled in the Neo Bankside apartment complex is the newly opened café / restaurant – a stylish space with an outside terrace complete with plentiful heaters for when the weather turns.   We opted for a table inside so we could soak up some of the atmosphere and get a feel for the place.

We were greeted by the manager Peter, and taken to our table which was a cosy two seater by the huge glass windows next to the outdoor terrace.   From here, we had a great view of the open kitchen, buzzing with activity as the head chef Brian Partridge and his team got to work on our meal.

A tantalisingly placed hunk of fresh gammon on the kitchen counter along with countless baguettes and loaves of bread straight out of the oven, made us mouth-wateringly hungry as soon as we sat down and we savoured the smells as we perused the wine list and ordered a very reasonably priced bottle of Viognier.

The menu offers a selection of traditional British hearty fare, from fish and chips with mushy peas, to sausage and mash with onion gravy and steak and ale pie.  I decided to go for the carrot and cumin soup followed by the gammon (it just looked too good to pass up…), while my guest opted for mushrooms on toast, followed by chicken and ham pie.

With the ingredients coming fresh from some of the best (and local) food producers and retailers including Borough Market, what we really wanted to taste was exceptionally ‘fresh’ food… which is, exactly what we got.

A well presented juicy and succulent selection of wild and portobello mushrooms generously topped the ciabatta, prompting food envy from me, (which was thankfully only momentary), until my carrot and cumin soup appeared, bursting with flavour and bowl-scrapingly tasty.

Between courses, we marvelled at the freshness – even the ciabatta had come straight out of the oven and onto our plates.  The piece de resistance (that huge cut of gammon I’d seen in the kitchen on my way in), arrived soon after.  Generous cuts of delicious meat cooked to perfection and accompanied by colcannon potatoes and Devonshire scrumpy gravy which came with its own little pouring jug – so scrumpy that I polished off the lot!  My guest’s  chicken and ham pie didn’t disappoint either.  Big chunks of meat swimming in a thick (if very slightly bland gravy), but topped with a perfect golden pastry.  I tried just the tiniest bit and wanted to dive in for more, but I’d already spotted my favourite desert on the menu and was determined to fit some in!

Apple and blackberry crumble.  Ahh writing this now, I can taste the sweetness of those fresh apples and blackberries, and the crumble…. Well… possibly the best to date;  sweet, crunchy, crumbly – just as a crumble should be.  And loads of it! It’s not often you get a huge bowl which comes with crumble and fruit in equal measures, but this was perfect.  With a huge appetite normally, I was surprised to find I could only eat half!  That might have something to do with the amazingly smooth and perfectly warmed custard which accompanied it.  My guest went for the special which was poached pear in mulled wine, with homemade vanilla ice cream.  Not something I would ever choose myself, although as a self-professed none pudding person, I think he was pretty pleased with his selection!

So 10 out of 10 for the food, but what about the all important ambience?  Well, don’t let the fact that it’s a café put you off.  I felt like I was in a huge farmhouse kitchen; wood flooring, farmhouse style tables and of course, the open plan kitchen.  A really lovely atmosphere,  meaning you could come with your laptop and get some work done with their free wifi, or you’d feel equally at home grabbing a coffee with friends mid-afternoon or coming for a romantic evening meal.  You can make the Albion suit your every need, and I really liked that about this place.

To the back of the café, there’s also a ridiculously well stocked  farm-style shop selling organic milk, fresh chickens, cumberland sausages, black truffle butter and even dandelion and burdock!  There was also fresh bread, hamper baskets and sandwiches stuffed full of various fillings which looked delicious.  It’s worth mentioning too, that everything on the menu is available ‘to go’, so if you wanted to take some freshly baked food and sit by the river at lunchtime, then the Albion is a great choice.

Open from 8-11pm Monday to Friday and 9-11pm on Sundays, this would make the perfect stop off for a trip to the Tate Modern or some sight-seeing around St Pauls.  But then again, there’s really no excuse needed to pop in and experience truly delightfully fresh food at its best and at any time of the day or night.  It might be Conran’s 105threstaurant, but it definitely rates as one of my top 10 in our fabulous city.
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