Following on from our trip to Washington we went to ‘visit awhile’ in South Carolina with our friends Tony and Betsy in Columbia, South Carolina. Betsy and I had such a great time together swapping recipes and cooking tips. I am fascinated by Southern Cooking and the ingredients and came back with a huge stash from the local Piggly Wiggly.
On a day trip to the beautiful Charleston, South Carolina we were directed to one restaurant above all others as an example of the best of Southern Dining. Magnolias. Before our reservation we went to a super cook shop across the street from the restaurant and I bought the recipe book of the restaurant called ‘Magnolias – Uptown, Down South.’ which later, the waiter happily got one of the cooks to sign. The restaurant is bright and open with large windows and clean lines. We were seated promptly and offered menus. I really wanted to try Fried Green Tomatoes which were huge and came breaded in cornmeal and lightly fried with a cream tomato sauce and salad. They were really delicious though this dish seemed rather substantial for a starter. Other starters around the table were plump and meaty scallops and the signature shrimp and grits.
I’m not sure about grits. I had them for breakfast that morning and even with loads of whipped butter found them to be bland and watery.
For main course I had the classic buttermilk fried chicken breast served with cracked pepper biscuits, mashed potatoes, collard greens, cream style corn, served with grilled roma tomatoes and sausage herb gravy. It was fabulous. Chicken was almost steamed within its crisp breaded coating and the mashed potatoes and collard greens completed the ultimate in comfort food. I wanted to curl up and have a nap halfway through and was surprised that I finished it but I just couldnt resist devouring it. Wonderful!
For pudding I had the Red Velvet cake which was a rich delicious gateau that was oddly dyed red with food colouring. Fine but not particularly exciting. Service was efficient though rather cold. Perhaps we worried if the English know how to tip in America.
We stayed recently in Washington as part of a wider tour to include South Carolina and New York. Stayed at the Sofitel which is a brand of hotel I very much like. Trendy, comfortable and with attention to detail. Great room, huge beds. Hmm perhaps this stuff should be saved for Tripadvisor.
First night we ate at the W hotel a little further down towards the National Mall. W is another great sub-brand of Westin with a more nightclubby edge. It was obviously a quiet night and we bypassed the velvet ropes and were whisked straight up the the roof top restaurant with an incredible view of the White House and Washington Memorial. Service was friendly and after a couple of outrageously potent Martinis we both plunged for a Bavette steak which is sometimes a little tough but seemed pretty tender to me, similar to sirloin. Plenty of crisp fries, sauteed spinach and good Bearnaise made this a perfectly acceptable entrance to Washington dining and sadly one of the best we experienced.
Checked out the Tripadvisor number one and it was Michael Minas Bourbon Steak which is in Georgetown to the west of downtown Washington on a rather quaint colonial street. I love the Four Seasons and try and stay at least once a year for a treat. Washingtons Four Seasons isnt particularly interesting looking but as soon as you enter the lobby you immediately experience the softly spoken luxury that makes the brand so desirable.
For starter I had a lobster corn dogs which were light, delicious and a lot of fun. It came with a whole grain mustard dipping sauce which was rather sweet and lacked heat to match the richness of the corndogs. For my main course I thought it had to be steak and was advised by the waiter against my instinct to have the skirt steak which needs very careful cooking otherwise it is like boot leather. It wasn’t bad but was a little too tough for me. However the flavour was extremely good as were the accompaniments off copper coloured beets, whipped potatoes and spinach which were served rather maddeningly in tiny bowls so had to be emptied out before eating.
The worst meal I had in Washington was definitely at a nouveau italian restaurant called Portenza. Everything looked so right with the huge bakery behind glass which you could watch while you are eating and the mixed buzzy crowd but from the starter of sauteed brussel sprouts (I know I should have known better) which were undercooked and burnt at the same time, things continued downhill. My main course of Orichiette with sausage and broccoli was bitter and watery. This was replaced with pasta with buffalo ragu which I thought couldn’t be messed up but it was the addition of barbeque sauce into the ragu which made it just vile.
The owner was obviously becoming frustrated with the failed attempts to impress us and came over for a chat and agreed the food wasn’t that great. He asked what he could do to improve things and I asked rather facetiously for the address of a decent italian restaurant and to his credit without a beat gave us the details of one!
On to the Museum of the Native American on the National Mall and following advice from fellow travellers we were told perhaps unfairly to skip the exhibition and go straight to the restaurant ‘Mitisitam’ on the edge of the ground floor auditorium. Set out like a cafeteria it is split into different areas corresponding to the tribe and its cuisine. Sadly the most popular tribe judging by the queues were the south west american indians as their food was pretty close to Mexican food. Thats where we chose and tried the ubiquitous ‘Fry Bread’ which was like a puffed up tortilla, fried at the edges. On top of this was lukewarm chilli and it was served with native american fries which were really just chips with chilli salt on them. Not impressive!
The best meal by far was at Sei which is a trendy japanese restaurant in downtown Washington. Dimly lit with clean lines and space age formica tables this restaurant would impress even if the food wasn’t great, but it is! Friendly and knowledgable staff guide you through the slightly confusing menu to help you assemble a meal. We had Japanese guacamole which was similar to the mexican type but with wasabi and cleverly comes with fried wanton chips rather than tortillas. We had the brilliant kobe beef roll and an amazingly
clever fish and chips roll which had flounder in the centre and salt and vinegar potato straws on the top. We also had sea bass sliders, three little fish burgers in tiny buns. Really clever and fun. Would definately go back here and explore more of the menu.
Another interesting eat were great oysters at Old Ebbit Grill which is the oldest tavern in Washington.
Washington is culinarily odd as it seems to be catering for big power eating for senators where everything seems to have to have a twist and more often than not this subtracts rather than adds.
Vacation time and since I promised myself business class travel after nearly crippling myself on what must have been the worst seats on a BMI plane coming back from Las Vegas a few years ago I plumped for my old favourite Virgin Atlantic. If you travel at the right time it actually isnt that extortionate and you can class it as part of the holiday. The holiday starts at the Clubhouse in Heathrow which takes the traditional business class lounge to a new level. In between a complimentary jacuzzi, haircut and massage you can eat in the Clubhouse restaurant and eat what ever you want from the menu as often as you like. No wonder people have been known to get to the airport 8 hours before their flight is scheduled to leave.
We went for the breakfast as it was a morning flight and a freshly prepared bacon, sausage and poached egg was brought out with plenty of freshly squeezed juice and good coffee. After that I lounged on a oversized day bed and drank a couple of bloody marys before being called to the flight.
Of course this starts a cycle of booze, from pre-take off champagne, to hand mixed cocktails, including drinks at the sit up bar at the back of the cabin. Food on Virgin Atlantic is great in Economy but not a huge upgrade normally as you move forward through the plane. the chair cum bed has a huge pull over table which is dressed with fresh linen and set with proper cutlery and cute aeroplane shaped salt and pepper pots.
After lovely warm breads we were given choices of wine and then into the starter of Smoked Halibut and marinated prawn with radish and shiso cress was delicate and moreish. A main of Fennel and mushroom risotto with chicken and saffron oil really tasted freshly prepared and was in a word delicious. Following that was cheese and biscuits and more booze followed by more after dinner drinks.
The seat was then converted to a bed and I was slowly rocked into a post prandial nap before being woken for our landing into Washingto Dulles.
I have to say that the food has definitely gone up a notch at Virgin, with competition in the sky as fierce as it is this isnt surprising but it certainly keeps Virgin as my number one choice across the Atlantic from now on.
Quick weekend in Paris on an unseasonably warm weekend in October. Early Eurostar mean breakfast in the first class lounge (Thank you American Express!) and lunch near the hotel while they were preparing the room. We were at the Best Western L’Etoile on Blvd Haussman near the Arc de Triomphe.
We went to a pretty modern restaurant on the Blvd called Restaurant Eugene. Full of chandeliers and flock wallpaper it offers French bistro cuisine with a modern edge. We had a selection of tartares of fish to start with which were zingy and bouncingly fresh. They were served with a light remoulade which complimented it beautifully. For mains we had a steak tartare which is my default position in a french restaurant. The tartare was delicious, came with perfectly cooked fries and interestingly was slightly grilled on either side. Like the best of both worlds, burger and tartare.
For dessert we had the largest profiteroles I have ever eaten. Light, crisp and delicious.
166, bd Haussmann, Paris, France. Tel: 01 42 89 00 13.
Next day we headed out to the Grande Arch at La Defense, the sort of Canary Wharf of Paris. It was another beautiful day but sadly the Arch seemed to be permanently closed so we sought consolation at a nearby bistro.
I started with Foie Fras which came with a caramelised nut bread with the texture of cake and was absolutely delicious, the best thing I have eaten in Paris by far.
Main was steak frites which was superb and for dessert Tarte Feulletee with Pomme and Poire. Absolutely excellent. All served with a perfectly chilled Sancerre.
Restaurant Le Paname, Le Parvis de La Défense 92800 Puteaux France
More Sushi for ya this time at Hare and Tortoise, the oddly named mini chain of pan asian restaurants in London. The one we went to is near Blackfriars on New Bridge Street which is presumably swarming with business folk by day and was pretty full when we visited in the evening. We were given a rather grim table in the corner on a raised platform but any port in a storm.
Service was brisk and efficient, we started with two plum wine spritzers and some edamame beans.
For mains we ordered a sushi platter and an amazing unagi roll which had a huge slice of unagi draped across the top. Pretty decadent and for 6 pieces at £7.70 pretty good value.
Not keen on the dessert menu we headed across to Refettorio across the road at the Crowne Plaza and shared a great Crema Catalana and plate of cheese with two glasses of Sangiovese.
Hare and Tortoise
90 New Bridge Street, London EC4V 6JJ.Tel: 020 7651 0266
Canteen is such a beautiful idea on paper that it should work. Traditional british grub, sensibly sourced and prepared should fill a gap that’s been missing for a long time from the restaurant scene. I’ve visited Canteen about 6 times now so they must be doing something right but the last two visits have proved to be the combined last straw and I shan’t return unless I am dragged.
I mentioned previously in a posting about how I loathed food with rules and Canteen are an offender especially with how they police their breakfast / lunch changeover in a similar way that McDonalds do. The thing is that Canteen is not awful and with some changes it could be made quite serviceable. What galls is that they seem to have disdain for their customer shown in their awful service and giddy pricing of their food.
We started with very a kilner jar of super crispy scratchings which was incredibly generous in size and ran the risk of filling us up before our mains came.
We ordered the roast of the day and the order was taken. Our wine arrived and was fine. 10 minutes later we were told that the roast has sold out. I like the fact that they do sell out of things as it shows that the food is freshly prepared but surely they could have told us earlier. We all switched to the chicken pie which came with mash and spring greens. When it came, to be honest it was fine but this is simple food so it should be perfect. The pastry was a little soggy and the mash a bit tasteless and underseasoned.
For dessert we had the warm treacle tart with clotted cream which was unctuous and delicious.
Hmm, its the service rather than the food that leaves the bad taste in your mouth. We were served by an eastern european waitress who was rather cold and seemed to see us as an irritation rather than a customer. There was no apology about the lateness of food, no check back that the food was ok and it took an age to get the bill.
For the first time I witheld the service charge and said that I would tip by cash which I did, but somewhat below the service charge amount. I think I’m going to start doing this as it ensures that tips aren’t taken for granted and I can adjust them accordingly.
I think I’ve had enough of Canteen now. They seem smug and take their customers for granted. The food is ok but if it has to be served so grudgingly what is the point?
Another sushi day. I worry that my sushi habit is quickly becoming an addiction. I don’t seem to let a week go by without having a plate of sushi, or dim sum to that matter. Lets face it, I’m just plain addicted to food. Sushi is one of the few foods that I don’t attempt to cook at home. It just seems such a faff and there are plenty of opportunities now to grab some good sushi even outside of London.
I still love the Japan Centre though, it recently moved from a rather pokey mini department store of all things nipponese to a food only store on lower regent street. It is full of every japanese ingredient you may want including sushi grade fish, finished sushi, dim sum and complete chinese lunch boxes such as pork tonkatsu. Next door is the bright and modern Toku restaurant which we visited on opening day. Presumably they didnt get their alcohol licence sorted out in time as we were prompted to buy beers next door at the store and bring them in to drink which was fine.
We started with a subtly flavoured miso soup with nice big chunks of smoked tofu. We then had a wonderfully fresh plate of sashimi of salmon, tuna and yellowtail served prettily on a bowl of crushed ice. We also had a super generous plate of sushi, fish was firm and fresh and rice not over chilled. The usual suspects were there including lovely salmon eggs and eel. To accompany this we had a portion of ebi tempura which was wonderfully light and greaseless and interestingly was served with the usual dipping sauce and curry powder to sprinkle on.
This is really good sushi and I will definitely be back. It was rather empty on opening day but I’m sure that this will pick up.
Talk about bad timing. We decided to cycle from Clerkenwell to Whitechapel to sample the famous Tayyabs lamb chops. This was during Ramadan and we got there just after fasting broke and a sea of hungry Muslims headed for the green neon of Tayyabs. We were shown inside by someone I assumed worked for the restaurant and we joined the end of a huge queue that snaked around the restaurant. I had to admit that the plates of food being brought out looked spectacular but the fact that the queue so constricted the dinners elbow movements, we decided that it really wouldnt be worth it so we left disappointed.
However our man that showed us in seemed to know what to do with overflow diners and told us about a similar restaurant that had opened on the Whitechapel Road. He gave us directions and we headed there but I was a bit suspicious of his motives thinking that he probably got a kick back from the restaurant and mentioned to Rich that we should perhaps go to Lahore Kebab House, but unknown to me our man was walking behind us and literally insisted on delivering us to the restaurant. When we got there things looked up. It was full of locals enjoying breaking their fasts and we were shown to the most spectacularly wobbly table I have ever sat at.
This was soon fixed by efficient waiters and we started with a mango lassi (no alcohol allowed) which was served in the steel cups that they were prepared in, they were creamily delicious. Feeling like the only outsiders we compounded this by ordering poppadoms (I know!) and mixed grill. The poppadoms were fried and horribly greasy. The pickle tray majored on raw onion and was not particularly impressive but I’m guessing that they rarely served it to locals. The mixed grill however was spectacular. Probably not as good as Tayyabs but extremely enjoyable. It consisted of lamb chops, lamb kofte, chicken tikka and wings marinated in a spicy yoghurt sauce and grilled to a good char.
For main course we had chicken sag and keema. Both dishes appeared worryingly quickly and were disappointing. My keema was very salty and Rich’s chicken tasted pretty generic and didnt have a fresh zing.
Throughout staff were pleasant and we were made to feel very welcome. It was pretty cheap and the waiter looked suprised to be tipped. I wonder if that happened often. I probably wouldn’t go back as only the mixed grill was good and I’m sure Tayyabs do it better.
108 A Whitechapel Road, London, E1 1JE
When I first moved to Clerkenwell, one of the draws was its proximity to Islington and its numerous eateries. In truth I rarely head there to eat preferring to try out some of the fine restaurants nearby. The Clerkenwell set are notoriously cool and fickle so new bars are extremely busy for the first few weeks and Giant Robot was no exception.
We cycled down from the flat (Thanks Boris!) and parked up right nearby. It was pretty busy as expected on a Friday night but we had a hold on the next table and had our cocktails down in the bar area. The cocktail waiters are extremely diligent and made two great Mojitos and one lethal Dirty Martini. The room is achingly trendy with a 50’s diner feel and huge lit menu boards like the title boards outside of a cinema.
The menu is eclectic to say the least. Meatballs, sliders, salami, cheese. Kind of like food that you would grab from the fridge before you sit down for you favourite movie. Which is not a criticism at all especially when the food is done this well. We settled on the crostini starters and large meatballs and spaghetti for main. The crostini each had complicated toppings which I can’t recall probably because they were instantly forgettable and rather poor value. The meatballs and pasta were excellent though. Hand rolled meaty meatballs, perfectly cooked pasta in a spicy rich tomato sauce. Kind of like the sort of after work supper that a friend who knows how to cook would serve you. Again, this is a good thing! No room for pud so did wobbly cycle back to flat.
Will definitely return, especially as local residents get a discount card loaded with £20 instant credit to spend in the bar!
A late train down to a torrential London meant shortly after meeting Simon at Holborn station we had to literally run to the nearest eatery. I used an app for my iPhone called Vouchercloud which listed the usual suspects such as Strada and Pizza Express but interestingly threw up ‘My Old Dutch’ pancake restaurant which was a short sprint away. Are the Dutch really famous for their pancakes?
We were welcomed warmly and after depositing brollies we were shown to our table in a surprisingly full room. On our way to the table I was amazed by the mind boggling size of the plates and the huge pancakes that were balanced on top.
The menu is decidedly odd. Split into Sweet and Savoury the idea presumably is to have one of each but the portion size would mean skipping lunch to attempt this. I went for the mexican which was stuffed with a pretty tasty home made chilli con carne and sides of tortilla chips, guacamole and sour cream. Simon had the My Old Dutch which is bacon, chicken, ham, corn cheese etc etc. Rich had the seafood special which looked pretty gross and had tuna, prawns and olives on a tomato sauce base. He also asked for capers and anchovies which I presume he regretted as I watched him scrape them off and leave them in a neat pile on the corner of the plate. Basically the pancake is turned into the base of the pizza and toppings are generously applied. Simon finished with a waffle with ice cream and hot fudge sauce which we watched him eat partly jealously, partly disgusted with him and we got the bill. They doubled up my 10% voucher to 20 so all in all it was a very reasonable deal.
131-132 High Holborn
Tel: 020 7242 5200
Nearest Tube: Holborn Station – Piccadilly Line & Central Line