Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Restaurant Review: Yahe Garden, North Finchley (N12), London

What was previously a rather mediocre chinese restaurant near our house has re-opened (having been closed for refurbishment for several weeks) with new name and new owners and staff. It’s now called the Yahe Gardens and it’s rather good.

We first went in for lunch 2-3 weeks ago, on a day when we were both working from home, and took advantage of their excellent weekday lunch deal. For just £5 you can choose from a selection of soups and a selection of main courses (all served with egg fried rice). Or for the same amount you can enjoy a mini spring roll (meat or vegetarian), a main course from the same selection and a soft drink too. Both choosing the second option, we enjoyed our little meat spring rolls, fresh, crunchy, bursting with flavour. Pete enjoyed his chicken with green peppers with a nicely robust black bean sauce. My crispy shredded chilli beef was amongst the best I’ve had. The service was warm and quick and the owner took the time to introduce himself and chat to us for a while. Last time we went in, he also came over to let me know that he was going to buy in some oolong tea for me, as I'd asked whether they had any on our first visit. I'd happily ordered jasmine instead.

Since then we’ve been back for lunch a couple more times enjoying a deeply savoury chicken noodle soup, a crab and sweetcorn soup that combined seafood sticks with real crab, a chinese chicken curry (Pete’s a fan) and a generous serving of plump Shanghai prawns with chinese cabbage, garlic and chilli.

Earlier this week we finally went for dinner, having been tempted by their package that allows you to order as many freshly-cooked dishes from the menu as you like until you are full for a very reasonable fixed price.

Combining that experience with our lunch time visits, I would rank Yahe Garden as above average for quality of food, excellent value, a nice range of dishes and good service.

The menu selection offers few surprises and it can’t match China Town for a few more unusual options but has a few dishes that most local neighbourhood Chinese restaurants seldom provide such as smoked shredded chicken, deep fried soft shell crab, noodle soup, baked mussels and ma po tofu.

We pigged out! We created our own mixed starters platter with spice smoked shredded chicken (which was salty, savoury and very moreish), deep fried tofu with chilli, salt and pepper (and delicious crunchy deep fried slices of garlic), satay chicken skewers (with a particularly tasty peanut sauce) and sesame prawn toasts.

The aromatic crispy duck might be a cliché but it’s a firm favourite and Yahe Garden’s provided moist meat, crispy skin and a rich and strong hoisin sauce.

We didn’t order mains until we’d finished the duck as we knew we might be full by then. We still found room for roast duck cantonese style, crispy shredded chilli beef and beef and onion fried rice. Again, the richness of flavours was present in all our choices.

We were too full to have dessert!

It’s a tricky time to open a new restaurant and we have our fingers crossed that these guys make it despite the economic climate. To that end, I’d like to encourage any fellow foodies located in or near London N12 to drop by and give this place a try. It’s not a “destination” restaurant by any means - just a local Chinese restaurant a cut above many of it’s brethren - but it deserves to be a success and I’d hate to see it close for lack of customers.


Wednesday, 25 March 2009

In the Audience for Market Kitchen

This morning I was part of the small studio audience for Market Kitchen. I don’t know how many of you know/ watch this show; it’s on every weekday on UKTV Food and I probably catch it once a week or so. Part of it’s filmed inside a studio and other segments are filmed outdoors at Borough Market.

I’d applied to be in the audience a few months ago and have been receiving email invitations for a while now, but finally received one for a date I could make (and a guest chef I was keen to see: Michael Caines).

My first surprise was that the studio is in Kentish Town whereas the show always gives me the impression that it's all located around the Borough Market area. Optomen, the producers, are squirrelled away in a quiet residential area about 10 minutes walk from the tube station.

We were invited to have a croissant and coffee soon after arrival and then sign the contract saying they can do whatever they like with the footage, before being taken up to the studio.

Matt Tebbitt was joined by Simon Rimmer as the guest presenter and Michael Caines and Maria Elia were guest chefs. Oh yes, and Rowland Rivron.

We were made very welcome not only by Scott, the audience researcher (who sorted the invites/ guest list and managed the audience positioning during the show) but also by the rest of the crew, the presenters and guest chefs and the two men manning the coffee station and serving coffee, fruit juice and the most lovely hot chocolate regularly during the show. (The South African one was really gorgeous, try and catch a glimpse of him on the show!)

Rowland Rivron was on to present a few DIY easter egg kits for kids. I'm really not a huge fan of his in terms of TV appearances, but he seemed a friendly enough chappy. As I was sat on the sofa at the back corner of the studio for that segment so couldn't see anything anyway! That said, when they wrapped that segment up, I did go up and have a peek and a little play with the car egg toys for a few moments!

They also had on these two posh guys that make up "architectural jelly mongers" Bompas and Parr. These two were posher than Harry and William and when one of them claimed that what they'd done was "so wild" I nearly snorted with laughter! Oh and, to celebrate Easter, they were dressed in white body suits with a yellow circle on the fronts - to look like eggs apparently. OK then. Still, they are very successful and rather in vogue at the moment, certainly I've come across news reports of jellies in the shape of landmark buildings commissioned for big sparkling events.

None of us in the audience could really see much of anything during this segment as it was filmed at a large table in the corner of the studio, on the opposite side the audience tables. The guests and presenters had their backs to us and the camera men and crew were between the them and us too. The strident duo presented various jellies made in shaped moulds and then some fruit jellies set inside real fruits. They'd taken oranges, made a small hole in the bottom, scooped out all the flesh from that hole and then poured jelly inside, in layers, first orange, then a white layer and then orange and so on. When they cut the oranges in half they were full of stripes of jelly. Looked rather faffy and pointless (and really couldn't catch more than glimpses) but I'd quite liked to have seen these up close and tasted them but they seemed to miss that out, though they did indicate earlier that they'd do an audience tasting for those.

To be honest, I was quite distracted during this entire segment as from where I sat, as I said, I couldn't see the jellies very well, but I could see a huge swathe of Simon Rimmer's bright pink underpants!!! (And yes, I did discuss this with him later!)

Michael Caines' segment was the best for me, not least because I think he's great but also because I was sat in a great position and could see what he was doing more clearly than I could see the action in other segments. It still wasn't ideal as one is sitting in regular chairs peering upwards at the action on a tall kitchen surface so I'm sure I'll get a better view when I watch it again when it's aired. But it's more about being there and watching the filming process than seeing the cooking process as clearly as one does on TV. Caines cooked a John Dory dish with aubergines, tomatoes and courgettes and I was one of those asked to record a little vox pop, possibly to be aired on the show. Of course, although everyone's chatting when they bring the camera over and it all seems manageable, as soon as the producers shouts for quiet during filming, the focus of the room switches to the subject of filming. I'm a trainer, and so I'm used to speaking to strangers in public, and yet I found it so embarassing that my cheeks were hot and my hands clammy! But my table mates said I did very well, so who knows, maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought and I won't cringe too badly when I see it! My comment mentioned growing all the vegetables in the recipe in my garden and that I hoped to make it with my own produce later in the year. At least, that's what I meant to say, who knows what garbled rubbish came out?

Simon Rimmer's segment was great too, he did a light steamed sponge inspired by Simnel Cake but much lighter and fresher. The chocolate and caramel sauce he made to serve with it was wickedly wonderful! He really is a professional presenter; a one take kind of guy, as opposed to Matt who tended to have to redo his segments quite a bit!

The presenters and guest chefs had a great rapport going at all times and all 4 seemed to enjoy themselves. With the exception of Maria, the gents were all pretty good at chatting to the audience between filming too, which made things more interesting for us.

Maria Elia first did a little interview with Simon about a traditional Easter greek-cypriot bread called Tsoureki before filming her recipe for a savoury baklava. The bread was rather nice, like a dense brioche, and I found it quite moreish, nibbling on it as they recorded her making the balkava. The baklava recipe name lists tomato, feta, almond and dates but the main ingredient was onion and far too few layers of filo for my tastes too. I really didn’t like it at all, so I was glad they didn’t ask me to film any comments about that one. I did enjoy the tzatziki served with it.

Anyway, I’m really glad I went on the show to see how things are done. I was surprised by how much faffing goes on though. Mind you, one of the other ladies in the audience had been on previously fairly recently and said there had been more cooking and less faffing on her first visit so maybe it depends on the guests and contents...

I’d like to go on again to see different guest chefs, so will keep an eye on the invitation emails over coming weeks/ months.

Oh, and you don’t have more than a few morsels of food during the show, so I went down to china town for some lovely dim sum for lunch afterwards!

PS "My" episode will air on the 9th April, if anyone does want to watch!


Sunday, 15 March 2009

Restaurant Review: Glasshouse Restaurant, Kew, Greater London

On Saturday Pete and I went to the Glasshouse Restaurant by Kew Gardens for lunch.

We'd been given a card at the end of our recent meal at La Trompette (which is owned by the same partnership as Glasshouse and Chez Bruce). As at La Trompette the 3 course menu is priced at £37.50 of an evening but is only £25 for Saturday lunch. The card was a voucher offering these menus for half price (until end March) and since the menu offered for Saturday lunch is the same as the evening ones, we figured that £12.50 for a such a meal was too good an offer to pass up. Especially since my sister (who'd also taken one of the cards when we dined at La Trompette together) had done the very same thing the previous Saturday and said the food was every bit as delicious as our experience at La Trompette!

We made the reservation late on Friday evening (having just got home from dinner with my family in Luton, which is when my sister let us know all about her meal at Glasshouse). The earliest they could offer was 2pm, which I took, but asked them to call me back if a reservation for an earlier table became available. I was pleasantly surprised when they did call on Saturday morning to offer us a noon slot instead.

So we arrived promptly at midday and were seated at a table by the window and given the menu and winelist. We were then ignored for the next 20 minutes, which was surprising, as the staff weren’t busy preparing the restaurant, but standing around at the reception. Just as I was about to call for someone's attention, they came and took our order. This was the only lapse in service; we were looked after attentively from that point forward.

So, after taking our orders, they offered a choice of wonderful home-made breads, some of them still warm. I was greedy and went for two slices, one of walnut and raisin and another of rosemary and sea salt. Also on offer were black olive bread and a poilane, which may have been wholemeal, not sure.

For starters Pete ordered warm salad of wood pigeon with balsamic vinegar and deep fried truffled egg and I went for the foie gras and chicken liver parfait with dressed lentils, walnut and raisin toast. Ever sweettoothed, and knowing the pate would be rich and smooth, I asked for a glass Pedro Ximenez to accompany it. The sommelier did pop over to check, as he felt it may be too sweet for my starter, especially with the lentil element, but I stuck to my guns and really enjoyed it. Pete ordered a glass of red wine which he nursed through both starter and main.

Not usually a fan of lentils, I was surprised at how much I loved the layer of firmly cooked green lentils mixed (I think) with thinly sliced young spring onions and lightly bound with a touch of olive oil. Beneath this was a generous helping of rich, smooth parfait which went well with the slight sweetness of the walnut and raisin toast.

Pete’s salad was probably the winner of the two starters though it was a close call. As well as the deeply gamey pieces of pigeon it included lardons, green beans and crispy frisée lettuce drizzled in balsamic and topped with the egg, oh the egg! Covered in panko-style breadcrumbs fried to a pale golden brown, when Pete cut into it the white was perfectly firm and the yolk beautifully runny and a deep, dark amber colour.

To follow I had the roast duck breast and pastilla of duck confit with parsnip purée, cranberries and almonds. When it came, it was also topped with long, wavy parnsip crisps so finely sliced they were almost translucent. The duck was cooked perfectly pink and was tender and full of flavour, amongst the very best I’ve tasted. The pastilla was formed into a long crunchy cigar and was more about the pastry than any filling – I preferred the pastilla in La Trompette’s duck dish. The parnsip puree made a lovely and soft bed for the rest of the dish was surrounded by a serving of thin sauce, neither a thick gravy nor a thin jus, somewhere in the middle. It gave an extra meaty flavour. The duck was served on top of spinach with cranberries and almonds scattered below and above it. I’d not been sure how these would work with the duck, whether they’d overwhelm the flavour or simply be superfluous but, as I should have expected given the deft touch of the chefs, they were an excellent addition, even for someone who doesn’t much like cranberries. The cranberries were sweet rather than sharp and the almonds gave the dish a nice crunch.

Pete chose the scotch beef cottage pie with purple sprouting broccoli, reasoning that if they’d put such a simple dish in amongst the other grander ones, it was bound to be well executed. It was. The filling combined beef, green beans, broadbeans, carrots and mushrooms in a strongly savoury and rich sauce which Pete said was particularly good because it packed in such depth of flavour without resorting to salt. It was topped with a plain potato mash and served with simple, unadorned broccoli.

Already stuffed, we were determined to have dessert anyway! Pete said his crème brulée was one of the best he’s had with a thick, crunchy burnt sugar topping covering a really unctuous cream generously flecked with real vanilla. I had the tiramisu with affogato. The tiramisu, in a small pot, was so alcoholic it actually made me do that funny little huffing noise Torode does on Masterchef when he’s expressing surprise about the amount of chilli or alcohol. Of course, this was no bad thing and, even stuffed as I was, I managed about two thirds of it. The ice-cream for the affogato was a sweet, creamy vanilla which slowly melted under the espresso. A good kick of caffeine to wake me up for a walk around Kew Gardens.

Having stuck to (chilled) tap water plus just the one glass of red wine and one of PX, our bill was an extremely reasonable £38 onto which 15% service was added. Under £44 for two for this kind of food is an unbelievable bargain. (It has a michelin star, same as sister-restaurant, La Trompette and, again, I can see why).

Location is just by the Kew Gardens tube station and about 3 or 4 minutes walk from the Victoria Gate entrance to Kew Gardens.

Glasshouse on Urbanspoon


Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Restaurant Review: Pho, Great Titchfield Street , London

Last Thursday evening I enjoyed dining at Pho, a Vietnamese restaurant in central London. My friend and I chose Pho because of a mutual interest in Vietnamese cuisine and their current offer, via Toptable, of 50% off the food bill. The pre-discount prices are very reasonable and the food and service excellent; I’ll certainly be going back, discount or not.

We arrived 20 minutes before our reservation. The restaurant was packed and buzzing, with a queue squeezed in to the small space inside the door. Most didn’t have reservations so were given a time estimate and asked for their mobile numbers so they could be called when a table was available. We gave our name to the staff, who said our table should be ready within a few minutes of our reservation time, and popped outside to wait. They do have a bar downstairs (as well as more tables) but advised it was busy and standing room only. I believe they don’t normally take reservations other than via Toptable.

We were seated within 10 minutes of our reservation time at a table for two in the small upstairs dining area. The tables are really closely packed, which isn’t ideal as one feels a bit squashed in. We were both tucked right up to the table and couldn’t’ move it out further from the wall without blocking the narrow path through the tables. The décor is modern, light and colourful.

My friend ordered jasmine flower tea served in a clear glass mug so that we could watch the tightly budded flower unfurl and sink to the bottom. Staff were not only happy to bring more hot water, they actively suggested it when they noticed the mug was empty. I first had a pineapple, apple and mint juice which was freshly made when ordered, followed by a homemade lemonade. Both were very refreshing.

Goi Cuon Tom: freshly made summer rolls with prawns
The summer rolls were very light and fresh, with the flavours of fresh herbs, especially mint, bringing all the other ingredients to life. One portion consisted of two rolls each cut into two portions and was served with a nuoc cham dipping sauce (which consists of chilli, garlic, sugar & fish sauce).

Cha Gio: homemade fried pork spring rolls
These rolls were deliciously savoury, with a very distinctive flavour that was so familiar and yet which I couldn't identify. The wrap was crunchy and the filling soft. One portion consisted of three rolls each cut into two portions and was served with a nuoc cham dipping sauce.

Pork and lemongrass balls
This was definitely my favourite of the starters, though I loved all three. The pork filling was a smooth paste of pork with wonderful zingy lemongrass kick, coated in fine breadcrumbs before being lightly fried to pale golden brown. The balls were served on small wooden skewers. One portion consisted of two skewers with three meatballs each, and sufficient crispy lettuce leaves to wrap each ball before dipping into the accompanying nuoc cham sauce.

The menu listed several pho dishes and encouraged the customer to create their own combination from the list, if preferred. All phos contained either vegetarian, chicken or beef stock, a portion of flat, white rice noodles and the chosen main ingredients, ranging from beef and meatballs to tiger prawns to tofu and vegetables. A side plate was also provided containing beansprouts, fresh coriander plus another large single leaf that we were advised tasted like strong coriander and a segment of lime to squeeze in too. The leaf was too tough for me, but I used all my beansprouts and coriander, and the wee Scotsman happily gave me additional coriander on request. What I particularly liked was the lack of chilli added to the phos. Instead chilli and fish sauces were provided on the table. Despite the bibs provided, I still managed to spill some of my pho down my front, though I'm going to blame the difficulties of eating noodle soup with chopsticks and the very shallow wooden ladels provided.

The honey and ginger ice-cream my friend has was much nicer than the banana fritters I opted for, which were made from bananas not yet ripe enough to provide much flavour.

We both had a coffee, served in a metal filter pot that dripped through into the small coffee cup below. I went for weasel coffee, more just to try something new than with any expectation of better taste, with condensed milk. As the coffee was quite strong, the wee Scotsman kindly gave me an extra portion of condensed milk in a dipping sauce dish. I really liked the flavour it added to the coffee, alongside the sweetness.

As we'd booked on the toptable 50% offer, the bill came to a ridiculously low £28.23 with the discount applied not only to the food, as expected, but also to the drinks. The service added to that was just £3.53! I was surprised that they calculated service on the discounted amount, as most restaurants offering 50% discounts through Toptable calculate service on the original total. I spoke to the wee Scotsman about it, and he explained that their computer system didn't give them any other option, so once I'd paid the discounted bill (and discounted service) on my credit card, I gave him an extra £4 explaining that I felt they deserved a tip based on the original bill value.

So, the total paid, including service charge and extra tip came to just £35.76!

I enjoyed the meal and would definitely go again and would like to try one of the non-soup noodle dishes next time.

I should point out that the menu is limited and may not suit vegetarians, though pescetarians should be fine. I don’t mind short menus as I like the idea of a restaurant focusing on doing a few dishes really well rather than many dishes to a more mediocre level!

Location, so near to Oxford Circus is very handy for meeting up with friends, or for those of you still brave enough to shop on Oxford Street.