Wednesday, 16 February 2011

England (16th-19th centuries)

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
020 7235 2000

Being the King of England five hundred years ago must have been bloody brilliant. When the glugging of ale by the gallon demanded new lining for a bloating stomach, you could instruct your cook to make you one of those "rich men's tangerines" lifestyle magazines kept going on about, knowing you could pluck off those fake leaves, flick them into the air like confetti, and let every gluttonous bite take you to a bunga-bunga party where barely legal Tudor hotties lap-danced to a tasty tune in your multi-chinned royal cakehole. With hedonism like this on offer, it's no wonder Henry VIII was a fat fuck with five dead wives.

Thanks to famed molecule molester Heston Blumenthal, the good old days are back again, and the oligarchs, sheikhs and assorted grade-A anuses who splashed up to £140 million on One Hyde Park penthouses can now have meat fruit (£12.50), salamugundy (chicken oysters and bone marrow, £15) and other olden-daysey indulgences hand-delivered to their garish wank-parlours by hotel staff whose hourly wages wouldn't even buy them a bowl of fluffy tipsy cake (£10).

Oh, who am I kidding? As much as I'd love to be the first blogger to shit all over Heston Blumenthal's new history-themed restaurant, it wouldn't be very journalistic of me. This place is very good. Granted, it's about about as charismatic as its Knightsbridge location; the theatricality of The Fat Duck is nowhere to be seen. The open kitchen is impressive but while watching master craftsmen drizzle red wine jus onto plates with millimetrical precision is educational, Hot Wok on your local high street has the better pyrotechnics. And the smooth, efficient service and gimmick-free food - meat fruit excluded - ain't exactly Bray-style sweetbreads with headphones.

From the a la carte menu we ate meat fruit (hedonistic) and tipsy cake (fluffy) with spit-roast pineapple (fruit meat, almost), but we're not aristocracy so the rest of our meal came from the set lunch menu (£28 for three courses). I started with shredded pigs' ears, ably assisted by anchovy, onion and parsley in a stirring sauce. I then had the tenderest roast quail one could possibly ask for (and, Christ, the number of times I've asked...) with smoked parsnips and thyme, and I rounded Dinner off with the highlight of the feast, chocolate wine, which tasted exactly like wine made out of chocolate. As Heston stalked the kitchen, quietly inspecting the food being made in his name, we slowly, joyfully savoured wow-inducing Earl Grey ganaches.

It was very, very good. But it wasn't Fat Duck gosh-heck-fuck-wow-jeez-FUCK-oooooohhhhhh!!!! life-changing. But yes, it's very, very good.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 February 2011

India (Mumbai)

12 Upper St Martin's Lane
020 7420 9320

In November 1998, I forced down half a plate of hairy cow innards at the main bus station in Johur Bahru (I'd ordered beef) and promptly threw up. It wasn't a pleasant experience but I now see the silver lining. I became one of the few people to actually learn something on their gap year. I learnt the 200-yard rule.

1) Never eat within 200 yards of a major train or bus terminal.
2) Never eat within 200 yards of a major tourist attraction.
3) Never eat within 200 yards of Leicester Square.

The third clause was added in 2002 after an unsavoury incident featuring a cafe, two slices of bread, half a can of tuna, a squirt or two of mayonnaise, a slice of tomato and a piece of somebody else's nail. I'm not sure of the distance between Dishoom and Leicester Square but it's enough to arose suspicion that "London's first Bombay cafe", ranked 9th in Time Out's new Best Restaurants in London list, is not to be trusted. It quickly became clear that there was no need for concern.

According to our hosts, there are fewer than 30 Bombay cafes left in the Indian metropolis now known as Mumbai, down from almost 400 in the 1960s. There's an informative piece here about how the chaps behind Dishoom got inspired, did their research, and made sure they had the details right. It's not meant to be a faithful recreation of an Irani cafe. It's an homage, aimed subtly and sophisticatedly at both tourists and Londoners, and it's seriously good.

Dishoom gets nearly everything right. Apart from the waiter suggesting we order three or four plates each when half that amount was more than we could manage, we had no complaints. The chicken berry biryani, slow-cooked in the dum pukht style (a clay pot sealed with a dough lid) was soft and gooey and bursting with flavour, and the calamari deep-fried with chilli and lime was perfectly textured and zestily spiced. Our lamb tikka roomali roll was tasty enough, but a notch or two below those at the brilliant Mooli's. The chai, raita and nan were all solid, and the Thums Up, India's undistinguished answer to Coca-Cola (and owned by Coca-Cola) tasted awful, like something created by a SodaStream user being stingy with the syrup.

At £30 for two it's good value. I really want to try their bacon nan roll for breakfast, which I doubt appears on many menus in Bombay, while the pau bhaji (mashed spiced vegetables on buttered bread) and chilli cheese toast will have me heading back to Dishoom for seconds, measuring the distance from Leicester Square to see if my trusty old rule still applies.

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Thailand (Issan)

Esarn Kheaw
314 Uxbridge Road
020 8743 8930

The pleas of the photographer have fallen on deaf ears; my deaf, alarmingly red ears, which were captured for piss-poor posterity halfway through this meal, glowing like a red-hot poker, subtle as a fire alarm. No, picture taker, I'm not uploading your side-on portrait.

This is not a website where people come to laugh at me. It's where people come to laugh with me. But apart from a vintage PR mishap on the menu (Thames Water: 50p for a glass, £1 for a jug - oh you're so friendly, little local restaurant...), an amusing conversation with a Yemeni shopkeeper on the street (Me: "Good luck getting rid of your president!" Him: "You too!"), and a spotting of Adrian "I'm An Average Bloke You'd Find Down The Pub Drinking A Pint Of Beer" Chiles down the pub drinking a pint of beer, it wasn't an evening for laughs. It was an evening for serious - and thanks to Groupon*, seriously cheap - Thai food.

My ears turned red for the following reasons, listed in order of detectability: chilli, coriander, garlic, lime, onion and fish sauce. But mostly chilli. Daintily sprinkled over the northeast-style papaya salad, the red stuff menaced my mouth receptors like a whip to a masochist's backside. I purred.

Strictly adhering to a northeast-only diet, we ordered and adored the chicken marinaded in lemon and lime juice, onion, chilli, coriander and fish sauce. Purrrrr. And despite our calculations hinting at a mark-up of over 1,600%, we loved the son-in-law eggs, and not only for the silly name (something to do with your wife's mother threatening to use your genitals instead of eggs next time she cooks if you misbehave, so careful now, chaps). The deep-fried eggs came drizzled in a garlicky, lobe-glowingly sweet and sour sauce. Crispy sundried strips of beef and a pot of sticky rice rounded off the meal. Purrrfect.

Esarn Kheaw is a great little restaurant on a road full of Dovi possibilities. Nearby there's Mr Falafel (Palestine) and his eponymous stuffed snack, Red Sea (Yemen/Somalia/other failing states), Nepalese Tandoori (clue in name) and a bunch of Middle Eastern places including Dovi veteran Abu Zaad. I'm going back to Esarn Kheaw tomorrow - another Groupon** voucher to use up. I'll be the one with the red ears.

* Can I have £6 free credit for this plug?
** And the same again for this one please.

Esarn Kheaw on Urbanspoon