Thursday, 28 April 2011

Pearl Liang: A Pearl in Paddington

Bloggers whose opinions I trust have been recommending Pearl Liang for some years now, but its Paddington location has put me off. It's not that Paddington is all that hard to get to but it just feels so out of the way to me; it's probably a mental block…

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But it popped into my mind again when searching for a nice restaurant within walking distance of Clifton Nurseries. My sister and I had originally planned to take mum to Chelsea Physic Gardens for Mothering Sunday, but when we had to reschedule to the day before, I discovered the gardens are not open on a Saturday. Cue some panicked Googling for some alternate garden-based attractions we could explore. In the end, we settled upon Little Venice and Clifton Nurseries.

Mum is pescetarian, so Pearl Liang fit the bill very well, offering plenty of seafood and vegetarian options.

Pete joined us, and we ordered a selection of dim sum and main dishes to share between the four of us.

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King's Crabmeat With Egg White Dumplings (£3.20) were fragile but absolutely delicious, generously filled with flavoursome crab meat.

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Spinach Vegetable Dumplings (£2.70) tasted wonderfully vegetal, fresh and minerally. With bright yellow kernels of sweetcorn alongside the spinach, they were beautiful to look at too.

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I didn't know siu long bao are also known as Shanghai dumplings but I asked a waitress and, despite my no-doubt awful pronunciation, she quickly pointed out Shanghai Dumplings With Pork (£2.80) on the menu. The wrappers were much thicker than those I've now had a few times at Leong's Legend, but the broth and meat inside were really tasty, and the thicker skin made them less fragile, so less chance of losing the soup!

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I think these were Prawn & Chive Dumplings (£2.80). Like everything else, fresh and tasty.

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I love Paper Wrap Sesame Prawn Rolls (£3) and order them wherever and whenever I have dim sum. These were absolutely wonderful – light and crispy, without being at all greasy, and with really great freshness of flavours in the filling. Really, really good!

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The Shredded Taro Crispy Prawn Rolls (£2.80) had some different flavours to the ubiquitous spring rolls I've had elsewhere (though I can't say I order them often as I'm not usually a fan). These ones I rather liked though, something within gave a fabulous hit of umami flavour.

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Last in the dim sum orders was Cheung Fun With Fried Dough (£3.00), another staple order of mine. The flavours were great, but I found the cheung fun wrapper a little too thick. I love the glutinous texture of cheung fun but find that thinner versions allow it to balance better against the contents. Just a personal preference.

As always, I ordered far too many dim sum items given what was still to come, but we continued gamely on…

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My sister put in a request for Seafood Lettuce Wrap (£8.80) and I'm so glad she did. The seafood filling came served in an omelette lace (that's the only way I can describe it) and was just fantastic. The ingredients were the familiar mix but somehow fresher and with more flavour, and generous amounts of prawn and scallop. I know I'll return to Pearl Liang again and I suspect this dish will be ordered on every single visit!

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We dithered between a fish dish and some tofu. The sea bass seemed incredibly expensive, with turbot even more so (at over £40) so we plumped for tofu, especially as we already had the seafood lettuce wrap. The Braised Crispy Bean Curd in Brown Sauce (£8.80) was my joint favourite dish of the day, it really was fabulous. Each morsel of tofu was silky soft within and yet fried to a perfect crispiness outside. The sticky brown sauce bound everything together and gave a great savoury flavour. This dish really was far better than my words can convey.

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We did consider ordering the infamous lobster noodles (market price on the day) but decided instead on the far more reasonably priced Assorted Vegetable Fried Crispy Noodle (£6.80). Decent and tasty.

We also ordered a dish of Gai Lan (£8) in garlic, which was very good.

Drinks wise, we stuck to tea – I went for ti kwan yin and the others for jasmine.

Stuffed to bursting point, we were surprised by how low our bill was; £60-70 between four of us, service included. For the quality and volume of food we enjoyed, I think that's very good value indeed.

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Monday, 25 April 2011

Pete Drinks: Sambrook’s Brewery Tour-At-Home

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Today, I get to continue my mission to sample all the beer brewed in London, this time with Sambrook’s Brewery. Based in Battersea, they’ve been brewing since 2008 in both draft and bottled form and, as we shall see, they certainly know a thing or two about great beer!

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We start with Wandle, a 4.2% golden ale (3.8% on draft) named after one of the many tributaries to the Thames. There are some pretty big bubbles lurking (you can see them all clinging to the side of the glass, above) and the head is very open, and short lived too. It has an impressively malty nose for such a light coloured beer, and there’s some fairly light, fruity hop notes too. On tasting, there’s more of those gentle malt flavours, with a subtle but distinct undercurrent of hops right the way through and a distinct sweetness there too. Despite a slight exuberance of bubbles, it has a pleasant enough mouthfeel, and goes down very easily. It’s a nice session beer, if a little on the gassy side.

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Next up is Junction, at 4.5%. This is a darker golden beer, with finer bubbles and a more lingering head. It’s another beer with a tempting malty nose, with a woody hoppiness present too. It’s a better balanced beer than Wandle, the sweetness is – not less pronounced, it’s almost stickily sweet, but it’s somehow not so “in your face” - and works better with the bitterness of the hops towards the end. The finer bubbles lead to a finer, more satisfying body, and there’s a some dark fruit flavours there too. Again, goes down very easily and quickly (and it’s more than half gone before I’ve even finished this paragraph).

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Lastly, Powerhouse Porter is a dark, rich looking 5% porter; deep, deep brown with an open, fairly short lived head. Not big on the nose, but in the mouth there’s a rich, sweet dark malt – almost that black treacle bitterness, sweet but without being sticky. There’s some other sweet notes – the best I can do is milk chocolate toffee – after the burst of bubbles in your mouth fade and before the lingering bitterness clears away the sweetness. It’s a nice, medium body – lighter than you might expect from the colour. It’s delicious; not hugely complex but just very, very nice.

Overall, I’m a big fan of Sambrook’s. My tasting notes for all three bottles say basically the same thing – delicious, easy drinking, where’s my beer gone? They’re a worthy addition to my list of London breweries whose bottles I want to be keeping in permanent stock!

They’re a brewery that I’ve managed to find several times on tap (primarily Wandle) and that’s the best way to sample their beers. If you don’t get lucky and find them in your local, I got this collection from one of my usual online beer suppliers, Ales By Mail.

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Thursday, 21 April 2011

Jesse Dunford Wood: Nutter Genius at The Mall Tavern

Jesse Dunford Wood is a nutter genius.

Nutter, meant in the most affectionate way – charming, daft, surprising, friendly, eccentric, lovely…

Genius, as in an exceptionally fine cooking talent.

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Jesse posing in front of a 1952 photo of his grandfather Tom Stacey, author, publisher, chef at The Savoy and Notting Hill local.

Currently the lead chef at The Mall Tavern in Notting Hill, Dunford Wood has an illustrious CV.

He started his training in Scotland's The Witchery and then the Atrium before learning high-end French cooking at Michael Caines' Gidleigh Park in Devon. From there he went to Australia, working in top Sydney restaurants; He cooked French-Japanese fusion with chef Nori Sugie at VII and French at Mark Best's Marque. Back in London, Dunford Wood worked at Le Gavroche with chef Michel Roux Jr, and then as sous chef at Rowley Leigh's Kensington Place. Itchy feet must have struck again because he was then off to America, working at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and then a couple of successful NY restaurants. Back in London once again, he teamed up with Oliver Peyton, and was the executive chef at The National Dining Rooms in The National Gallery.

And now he is head chef at his own place – somewhere far more laid back and casual than most of the places where he's learned his trade. But don't let that fool you, The Mall Tavern is pretty special.

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photo from pub website

It's a lovely old pub that's been stylishly modernised without losing all its traditional character. This shouldn't be too surprising given that Dunford Wood's two partners are the Perritt Brothers, who also own The Regent in Kensal Green and The Stag in Hampstead. The Perritts have a reputation for taking on and refurbishing pubs that have seen better days and bringing in top quality food and drink menus.

The Mall Tavern is warm, welcoming and, when we arrive on a Thursday evening, it's absolutely packed and buzzing with conversation.

There are ten of us friends meeting for dinner tonight and the fact that we're about to have one of the best meals I've had in some time is all down to the lovely MiMi (of Meemalee's Kitchen) who cleverly booked us the Kitchen Table and a fixed price feast menu.

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rules of the kitchen!

Dunford Wood disarms me immediately by telling me he recognises me – he saw me give my little rant on stage at Mixed Grill (though I don't dare ask what he thought of it).

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He ushers us in with warm welcomes and we quickly take our places at the long, sturdy table at one end of the kitchen.

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image by CCs adventures in space (flickr creative commons license)

Full of energy, Dunford Wood hops about ensuring we're all settled in, takes drinks orders and also places a strange fruit or vegetable in front of us, challenging us to identify it. We're quite flummoxed for ages but suddenly, the shape of that funny knob at the top makes me think again and I wonder if it's a cashew fruit? I've never seen these, though Dunford Wood later tells us his mum just brought it back for him from India, where they grow plentifully. I shall seek them out next time I visit. I do recall watching something on TV about them many, many years ago. I have a feeling the nut is poisonous until it's been processed.

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MiMi cuts the cashew fruit into pieces for us to try. But it must be under ripe. Never before has something made my mouth feel so incredibly furry! The taste is actually quite pleasant, though I bet it's far nicer when fully ripe. But, that furry feeling is just horrid!

Onto the proper food…

Dunford Wood's menu focuses on British food with lots of comforting classics – many of which are sadly seldom seem on menus anymore.

Instead of us making individual choices, Dunford Wood brings out lots of different dishes for us to share. With ten of us, he brings two of each dish and more dishes just keep coming and coming and coming and coming. And as quickly as we finish them, they are refilled and come again!

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Our starters include still warm soda bread and butter, gala pork pie with mushroom ketchup, fried brie and cranberry sauce, home smoked salmon, mushroom and chestnut pate with marinated shimeji mushrooms, whipped goats cheese with squash and pepitas (squash seeds), rabbit terrine with caper mayonnaise, pork crackling and bramley apple sauce, chicken liver pate with pickled red onion parsley and half pint glasses of sweet "fartichoke" crisps (Dunford Wood's pun, not mine!)

By the time the onslaught of starters dies down, we are pretty full. But of course, the mains are still to come.

Again, the serving style is perfect for a relaxed groups of good friends – Dunford Wood serves two each of 6 different mains, randomly placing one dish in front of each of us and a few more in the centre of the table, with instructions to pass them all around. (This is not the dining experience for germ-paranoia folks!)

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Chicken Kiev is one of The Mall Tavern's signature dishes and certainly one Dunford Wood has become known for. Served on a potato rosti and with lashings of garlic butter inside, the chicken is moist with a crunchy coating. Glorious!

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Cow Pie, filled with gloriously tender and richly flavoured beef and punctured with a marrow bone chimney, is a very fine pie indeed. This is one of the favourite dishes.

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A fine looking pithivier is introduced as a posh pigeon pasty! Moist pigeon meat, light pastry, all very tasty.

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I can't remember now what this fish dish is, though I'm fairly sure it's seabass. It 's light, fresh, delicious and deserves a stronger memory but the other dishes are so good, it's up against stiff competition!

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I don't dislike vegetarian food but I'm seldom tempted away from the meat to order a vegetable main when dining out. This dish of red-wine poached eggs with chestnuts, cipollini onions and mushrooms on smoked mashed potatoes is truly mind-blowing for me – it is rich, savoury, unctuous and deeply satisfying. I could eat the whole plate on my own, though I reluctantly share.

Mat sulks that I'm keener on Dunford Wood's smoky mash than his, but I think he quickly forgives me!

It's not often that I'd travel across London for a veggie dish, but I would for this one!

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The enormous pork chops have been brined and then breaded. Definitely meaty man food, according to our resident cave man!

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We are also invited to try an experimental Uncle Sam's Hot dog, which is a meaty fine sossidge! It needs a pile of caramelised onions, some mustard and lots of ketchup!

Believe it or not, after all that food, there are desserts too!

As with the starters, Dunford Wood serves these family-style, for sharing.

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Dunford Wood has a bit of a thing for arctic rolls. His versions are fabulous, especially the raspberry though the malted whisky and chocolate, chocolate orange and classic ones are excellent too. We also have Neapolitan ice cream, rhubarb jelly, clementine cheesecake, hot apple turnover with quince ice cream and a rich, moist rhubarb and almond bakewell cake.

I can hardly move. Not that this stops me trying absolutely everything!

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Coffee comes with Dave the cook's salted caramel "rolos".

I have one of those Batchelors cup-a-soup mugs too, by the way!

Finally, our epic feast is over. We are sated.

And – I'm sure you'll find this as unbelievable as I did – this fantastic meal, this amazing experience, costs us just £35 a head for the meal plus drinks. Our final bill comes to £50 a head including a tip!

In terms of food, ambience, service, experience… this has been one of the most enjoyable meals I can remember.

Go! Soon!

The Mall Tavern
71-73 Palace Gardens Terrace
London W8 4RU

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