Hyper Japan 2012

Even before we set foot inside the Earl’s Court exhibition hall, groups of harajuku girls tottering along the roadside suggested Hyper Japan was more than a collection of leaflets, posters and special offers on flights to Japan. With luminous wigs and steampunk accessories, they were but one brand of enthusiast of all-things-Japanese we saw. Cosplay fans, in full “pikachu”-costume, outlandish anime costumes and even a few ninjas wandered the stalls alongside those who just came to see what all the fuss was about.

Hyper Japan 2012Although sushi was plentiful, Hyper Japan is a rare opportunity to sample some of Japan’s lesser-know specialities (at least here in Europe). In particular we enjoyed the Takoyaki (octopus balls) which nostalgically reminded us of our first taste at an all night local festival near Matsuyama in Japan where piles of local men carried enormous floats through the town. Takoyaki are much less of an acquired taste than they sound and come drizzled with sauce that together are a fine example of the different pallets of flavours that Japanese cuisine uses. The hash-brownp/pancake hybrid called okonomiyaki were also excellent, taking us back to the bustling Tokyo cafe where we cooked our own pancakes on the hot plate that formed our dining table.

Hyper Japan 2012

We spent some time watching the martial arts display which, uniquely in our experience, didn’t seem awkward for all concerned. The teacher’s enthusiasm was infectious. Nearby, the art on exhibition was also an opportunity to see prints of the Japanese masters.

Sake Experience 2

Also to be recommended is the extensive sake experience. The queue shuffled, then staggered, it’s way past exhibitors from ten sake breweries from across Japan, each with at least one sample at the ready. Sweet, smooth, savoury, fruity, sharp sakes passed our lips, and at each table the attendants were ready with each one’s story. As we moved from brewery to brewery, more of the story and complexity of sake was revealed. Like many Europeans, we have drunk sake very occasionally at large intervals. It was only when we tried so many one after the other that it became clear how diverse sake is. Climate, nearby mountain springs, region, filtering process, variety of rice and whether it was brewed traditional or in a modern style

all have an effect on the taste that even we, complete sake beginners, could recognise. The differences were distinct, and we both came away with some firm favourites. We were drawn to the floral, bright taste and long finish of Dassai 23 – from Asahi Shuzo brewery, as well as the sweeter aged sake Golden Amber from Hayashihonten brewery. Certainly, an opportunity to experience so many sakes in one day is rare indeed and, with plenty of even the oldest breweries preparing offerings for the growing Western market, it is an excellent opportunity to get ahead of the trend.

Sake Experience 1

Perhaps the strength of hyper japan was how it succeeded in catering for two camps. Those who live and breath Japanese culture seemed satisfied with the depth on display: rare anime books, for example, and authentic crafts could be obtained and the food on the whole wasn’t the westernised versions that perhaps the rest of us are more used to. But for the casually interested like us who, although having been to Japan, were mostly there to spend an interesting Sunday afternoon there was plenty to see. We never felt as though we were missing some key or some revelation before we could enjoy the exhibition. It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding something to hold their interest, for every aspect of Japanese culture was represented, from food to film to homeware to art and fashion. And if even the stalls and shows aren’t enough, simply wandering around absorbing the bright colours of the kimonos, the rattle of the games machines and the smell of the food was a fine way to spend an afternoon.

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Bollywood Bitesized

Bitesize Bollywood

I hadn’t seen a Bollywood film all the way through before – sure Slum Dog Millionaire, and snippets of vast song and dance routines, but not real Bollywood, not classic cult-following style Bollywood. So this pop-up film night, with an aim to introduce the genre to the masses in an accessible way, was aimed at me.

The film chosen was Deewaar – the film Slumdog was based on, but told from the ‘bad’ brothers perspective, with all the thrills and spills one could want. The warehouse space became an extension of the film, with a slum-style make-over. But this was a luxurious slum indeed – with a stream-lined silver caravan selling fresh lychee cocktails from beneath its awning, a hula flower adorned truck for coffee and classic Bollywood posters hung on every wall.

Bitesize BollywoodSo we settled in our seats with our paper wrapped Jhalmuri – a bengali street food (this particular variation was conjured up by the talented family and friends catering the event). A fresh vegetarian mix of chick peas, cucumber and green chills, authentically eye-wateringly spicy, paired well with the elegant cooling lychee martinis from across the slum.

They really had gone the whole hog – between the four parts of the film we had live fighting action sequences, multiple dance troupe performances and a beginner’s lesson in Bollywood dancing which had everyone up and joining in.

Bitesize BollywoodThe huge amount of effort and attention to detail, mixed with a relaxed atmosphere (partly due to friends and family all pitching in on favours and good will) made for a wholly entertaining evening. On leaving, we were even given individual sweet coconut favours, hand wrapped in paper and ribbon to keep us occupied on the bus ride home. Can’t wait for the next Bitesize event.

http://www.bollywoodbitesized.com/

Bitesize Bollywood

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MADD: Desserts and Drinks in Soho

Rupert Street is in the heart of the capital’s nightlife capital, Soho. As such, MADD is in a prime position to tap into those patrolling the bars and clubs of the West End every night of the week. Serving up mango smoothies, desserts and fruit salads since February, MADD has now gained a license and is turning nocturnal as well.

Playing to the its strengths, the cocktails on offer are mango-based and unique. We enjoyed our mango daquiris and mango mojitos, and by the standards of central London they were very reasonably priced. Plus, the virtue of vitamin C in hangover prevention is at no extra charge.

For those feeling peckish at the end of a night out, a dessert of mousse, panna cotta, berries or fondant would make a refreshing alternative to a kebab. In particular, the mango and coconut sticky rice combination was delicious.

The decor is clean and bright, all geometric curves of bright colours and whites.While the lights could bear dimming for an evening crowd, MADD brings to Soho a breathing space away from the tumult of a Friday or Saturday night. Whether taking a break between clubs or winding down at the end, we say worth a visit.

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Magdalen

As we were welcomed to Magdalen on a windy Wednesday evening near London Bridge, I was put in mind of a family-run restaurant in the best sense. Elegant and contemporary in its decor, crisp white tablecloths were prominent against deep maroon walls and wooden floorboards, creating a warmth that is often absent from restaurants of this calibre.

This extended to the staff, who were professional but genuine and genial throughout. Feeling at home, we sampled the intriguing aperitifs whilst perusing the menu. The light damson fizz was revitalising, and it would be difficult to choose between it and the pleasantly syrupy black apple aperitif which I would have enjoyed by the pint, if possible!

The menu itself felt refined and purposeful, showcasing a distinctive selection of dishes. Daily printed menus allow for fresh and seasonal plates, with quality ingredients used in appealing and unusual combinations.

We opted for cured Hereford beef and the special, which was a combination of quail and snail. The beef was simply garnished with watercress and a British hard cheese that really enhanced the carpaccio. The quail was mouth-watering to look at, crisp well-seasoned skin combined with moist meat in perfect harmony. Snails too have never tasted so good, for once not hidden under an landslide of garlic (it was provided but not enforced) and presented on toasted sourdough.

The quality of the main ingredients in both starters were respectfully allowed to shine through, and presententation of the dishes was considered and attractive. These agreeable trends continued in our mains. I opted for the braised black pig cheek with sausage, crackling, white beans and cabbage, a hearty combination that could be dubbed ‘The many faces of pork’. Tender and succulent, I am now convinced the cheek is the best part of a pig, and the crunch of the crackling was a satisfying contrast while avoiding being tooth-breakingly impenetrable. While the gravy could have been a little richer, this was an excellent dish.

The baked brill, too, showcased a variety of textures. Plump flesh beneath a crisp skin was paired with the crunch of grilled lettuce and soft beans in a sauce of traditional parsley and lemon. The eater’s experience in terms of texture, not just flavour, in each dish felt thoroughly considered, and showed the refined skill of its chefs. 

We moved onto dessert, but not before sampling the curious-sounding ‘salted caramels’. An interesting addition to the structure of the meal, these acted like a dessert side dish. The small bowl of delicious chocolate salty balls that explode in your mouth quickly disappeared, and neither of us were particularly willing to share the last one. They were yet another nice touch, and along with the aperitifs constitute a reason to visit by themselves.

As for the desserts, we were once again impressed. We always have high expectations of ice cream in such restaurants, demanding something that justifies its inclusion on the menu. Our expectations were easily met by the creamy and fresh raspberry ripple ice cream, garnished with crumble topping. The second dessert was a lesson in how profiteroles should be made. Just as I feel strongly yorkshire puddings should be soft, I now feel strongly profiteroles should be crunchy as these were. Neither sickly nor doughy, they were brilliantly presented and cut in half with more excellent vanilla ice cream. A different and pleasing take on the classic dish.

The food, presentation, decor and service combined to make a very enjoyable evening indeed. At every stage we were keenly aware of the effort and genuine care taken over every aspect. Along with excellent ingredients, an interesting menu and a great wine list, we are happy to give Magdalen high marks.


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La Brasserie

La BrasserieIn the heart of trendy South Ken, set amidst high fashion boutiques and other luxury consumer experiences, La Brasserie exudes an unpretentious air of authenticity. Having first opened it’s doors nearly forty years ago,with the addition of Pierre’s bar a new string has been added to the established eatery’s bow.

The new bar itself is undeniably attractive. We noticed a wall of wine stretched above it as we entered the classically decorated bistro-style restaurant and perched ourselves at the counter. A neat row of red leather bar stools, white marble and chrome fitted in seamlessly with the traditional style of La Brasserie. We had been transported to a brasserie in the heart of Paris.

Pierre's BarFrom an extensive cocktail menu that also contained a selection of mouth-watering bar food, we chose a White Lady (delightful) and a Negroni (strong, and which hit the spot) from the attentive barlady.

A nice touch was that the drinks came with a small wasabi nut selection. Our second round of cocktails included a raspberry Bellini and a tiramasu Martini – both beautiful.

Cocktails

We moved from the bar to order some food, joining the other casual eaters and drinkers sitting at red and white checked tables. The tables spilled out onto the street through the concertina doors, and the night air and passersby only added to the feeling of authenticity. True to the aim of Pierre’s bar, the amalgamation of bar and restaurant was attracting a wide variety of clientele. Sat next to us were a toddler with his father and a group of male professionals having after work drinks, and nearby were a pair of female friends having a quiet catch up over a meal. Formal dining toward the rear also blended diners and casual drinkers. As expected, the staff were well turned out, and provided speedy, professional service with warmth. In the ever-important details, La Brasserie excelled: the atmospheric lighting and french art prints had all been carefully considered.

Onion Soup

To start, the yearning for french onion soup I was left with after my last experience in Carcasonne this Spring was well and truly satisfied. This was perhaps the best dish we ordered, although our opinion may be slightly skewed by our onion soup obsession. Our second starter, the camembert soufflé was perfectly light and the pairing with a chilled celery and apple puree worked well, if perhaps the juxtaposition of temperatures was distracting.

For mains, an asparagus and haloumi salad pleased the salad lover in me: good textures, variety and flavour combinations. The addition of courgette and sun dried tomatoes, lashings of leaves and a pesto dressing made for a well-balanced dish.  The boeuf bourguignon trumped the salad, however, with wonderfully tender meat in its rich wine sauce. Complimented by buttery mash, it had us making – in retrospect – embarrassing whimpers of delight.

Dessert

Finally, having enjoyed good-sized portions, at this point a sensible fellow might have moved straight to coffee and a digestiv. But we were here in Paris! We felt Parisian, and therefore deserved the full works. So we made room for dessert, and were thoroughly rewarded. A classic creme brulee with a twist of ginger slipped down quickly, and was accompanied by the zing of a slice of lemon tart, complemented with black-current sauce. Our already delighted palettes were spoiled.

Overall, the excellent quality of food, wines, cocktails and dining experience definitely justified the prices at La Brasserie. And for those who wish to sample a slice of Paris in London over a cocktail or two, Pierre’s bar is well worth a visit.

Review


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Live and Let Thai – @Siam, Thai, London

@Siam interiorIt’s easy to be lazy if you own a restaurant around Frith Street in Soho. If you run an ever popular all-you-can-eat buffet for the lunch meeters, and cram as many tables in as you can to accommodate the starving souls who wander London’s most famous nightspot, you’re in business. Inoffensive food is a bonus. But when passing through @Siam’s unassuming entrance, it becomes clear that this relatively new addition to Soho’s eateries seeks to be far more than run-of-the-mill. Carefully selected Asian-style lighting features, flashes of deep purple against dark wood and the odd Buddha create a subtle backdrop to the vibrant food. Contemporary and comfortable, it manages to be atmospheric without being generic. Thorough consideration to user experience – cushioned seats, funky cutlery – gives the place a friendly air. The background pop music did jar somewhat, but could easily be rectified with some chilled out music more in-keeping with the general tone.

The staff who showed us to our table by the window were friendly and notably genuine for a mid-budget restaurant in the center of London. Despite a full house of packed out with tables in every nook and cranny, we never felt like ‘meat in the room’.

AppetisersThe menu is varied, with curries, pad thai, noodles, soups, salads and appetisers, but also feels streamlined. We began with a colourful beef salad, which was well flavoured, and tempura with a crisp and

light batter. The quality of the ingredients shone through in both of these dishes, but it was the soup that was by far and away the best starter. We imagined years spent reducing down ingredients to produce a single bowl of broth that was both rich and complexly flavoured.

It’s also worth mentioning the impressive presentation of the dishes throughout. Every dish was vibrant and carefully constructed, but remained inviting rather than intimidating. When the main courses arrived, it was the beautifully arranged Pad Thai that drew our eyes.

A Thai signature dish but so often too greasy, this didn’t disappoint and the crushed peanuts on the side added an extra layer of flavour. Another staple of Thai cuisine in the west is the Thai curry, and I was a little sceptical at first about the duck and lychee curry. However, the mixture of ingredients showed off an intelligent use of flavours – another recurrent theme throughout all the dishes. Our third main course was a wild-card: softshell crab. We were fascinated by the soft texture, and a restrained use of spices allowed the quality of the meat to come through.

Coconut Ice-creamThe interesting thing about Thai food is, similar to other East Asian cuisines, you’re expected to order more dishes than there are guests. Accordingly, we found that three starters and three mains with rice was just the right amount for two. Duly moving onto the deserts, we were happy to find them light and, shock horror, authentic to the cuisine of the restaurant. Tea flavoured ice creams always look great on the menu, but they often taste watery at best and like vanilla with food colouring at worst. This was a palate refresher whilst still powerfully flavoured, and not trying to hide behind with over sweetening. The coconut ice-cream also avoided being overpowering and complimented the warmed waterchestnut dumplings nicely.

When adapted for a western audience, it’s very easy for Thai food to slip down the cracks between more established Asian cuisines. But at the end of the meal we came away with a well rounded impression of what makes Thai food unique. Great value for money, and in the middle of Soho, @Siam delivered over and above what was expected through its variety and quality of dishes, and in the overall dining experience.

@Siam
Frith Street, Soho, London, http://www.atsiam.co.uk/

@Siam Review

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