Category Archives: Bistro

The Petite Coree. Time to unblur the lines

Love. Passion. Compassion. Do you remember when these words started infiltrating job descriptions? It is no longer enough to be excellent. We must be empathetic, endearing, and enjoy the hours we spend in the office. Isn’t it ironic that we are expected to give our 200% at work, in the same breath that we are lectured on work/life balance?

If you love what you do, then it won’t feel like work.” I hear it all the time. I say it all the time. Doesn’t feel like balance to me. Fact is, for most of us who don’t work for ourselves, no matter how much we love what we do to make money, it still is work.

Did I just spend 10 days straight working more than nine hours a day? Yes.

Could I have done an excellent job in fewer hours? No.

Did I love every minute of it? Yes.

Do I love the exhaustion I feel right now? No.

All I could think of at the end of day 10 was that I did not have the energy to cook myself a meal, I did not want to go home to an empty flat, and for a very long minute, I questioned why I spent the last few days the way I did. I may not have anyone to speak to when I get home, but for the first time in my London life I have a local “where everybody knows my name”. Where my extra chilli sauce arrives even before I realise I want it.

The Petite Corée and I are unlikely friends. I was wary of a restaurant with an Asian chef and a French name. I can’t speak for them, but can only imagine what they must have thought of an Indian customer telling the Korean chef his kimchee wasn’t Korean enough. I’m glad we both moved past first impressions because tonight, there was no place more welcoming than my neighbourhood bistro.

This restaurant serves popular European dishes with a Korean twist. I have now eaten my way through their entire menu (several times over) and haven’t had a single bad meal.

No visit is complete without an order of Mandu (steamed pork & glass noodle dumpling, rocket, balsamic), £6. This dish is as Asian as they come, with the rocket and balsamic hesitant European sidekicks to the dumplings, the delicious stars of the dish.

Mandu IITheir version of arancini swaps the traditional filling for kimchee flavoured rice with mozzarella and served with gochujang dressing, £5.5.

Kimchi Rice, panéed kimchi rice, mozzarella, gochujang dressingAnother favourite is the Italian cheese appetizer with honey and a spicy Korean sauce, £5. I’ve had this with mozzarella, burrata, and most recently with pecorino cream cheese – all luscious, moreish and so very clever!

downloadFresh on the menu is a Smoked Sword Fish, £6, with fish chunks that come wrapped in gem lettuce, drenched in a zingy wasabi & lime dressing and shiso. Then there is a butter roasted “Kimchee”, £5. One could spend the entire meal just on their appetizers, as I often do.

Smoked Sword Fish, wasabi & lime dressing, shisoOn the rare occasion I order a main it is always the pork belly in Korean “BBQ jus” (£13.5). Chefy terms aside, this is one of the best preparations of pork I have ever had the joy of tasting. If I was one to make lists this would be on my London top 10 without any hesitation.

The modest bistro is run by Chef Jae and his lovely wife Yeon. Jae trained in the hallowed kitchens of Nobu and Hélène Darroze before choosing exhaustion for himself rather than someone else. Chef Jae chose to blur his lines between work and life; but each time I dine here too exhausted to cook for myself, I know its time to unblur mine.

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If you live in London, get yourself down to The Petite Corée for Jae and Yeon’s heartwarming food and service. For added incentive they have BYO Tuesdays and Wednesdays!

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Filed under Bistro, Italian, Korean, London

The White Owl. An addendum

I have so far never posted an addendum to a blog post. I have honestly never needed to. A recent revisit to The White Owl however was so underwhelming (for my guests) and embarrassing (for me) that I feel the need to share my second experience of their special menu.

We ordered six dishes, sent back three and barely touched what was left on our table. Given that it took them 45 minutes to bring out the appetisers we didn’t have the time (nor the energy) to request the kitchen to read up Nikhil’s recipes and fix the dishes. These were the low points of our meal:

Raw & Ripe Mango Salad – the version we got yesterday was bland, the dressing completely diluted with barely a hint of the soya and chilli. The salad was swamped with so much tasteless papaya that we had to hunt for the raw mango. I sent my half-eaten dish back. A few minutes later the chef was kind enough to send another – this had less papaya and a spruced up dressing. Much, much better – but still a far cry from what I tried at the tasting.

Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad – the leaves were soggy and warm; the shrimp were neither cold nor hot and my guests did not enjoy the temperature nor texture of this dish in their mouth. This dressing too was diluted with no distinctive flavour of anything.

Sweet Bell Pepper Roulade – I had rated this as a real stand out dish in my first blog post. What arrived instead was a gloopy mess (see the before and after photos below). The pesto was bitter with none of the creaminess of the nuts I tasted the first time. The peppers were soggy, as was the barley. The barley filling which was such a hit at the tasting didn’t have any of the original bite.

IMG_7621               photo 1 (2)

 

 

 

 

Plum-glazed Chicken – the menu describes this to be accompanied with a “sauce”, however what arrived was a watery curry with the same uncooked and tart flavours that one gets from ready sauce pastes. We couldn’t taste any of the sweetness of the plums and the chicken was so rubbery we couldn’t chew it at all. The accompanying rice was meant to have a lemongrass flavour. If it was there it was so hidden that none of our palates could find it. This dish was sent back.

Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth – again, this dish was not a patch on the version served at the tasting. I remember the broth being light, fragrant and bursting with umami. What we got was an over-salted curry with no trace of saffron. The clams were not cleaned properly – we could barely chew it for the pieces of shell that kept coming in our mouth.

photo 2 Brioche Mac & Cheese – I cannot begin to express my disappointment with this dish. The menu describes it with “grana padano, gruyere, aged-cheddar, pickled cucumber & fresh jalapenos”. I was expecting a moreish, gooey mound of pasta in its cheesy sauce, piled onto a brioche. What arrived was an ugly mess of over cooked pasta with a bland cheese sauce dumped on top of it. The cheese had already started to congeal by the time the dish arrived at my table. This dish needs a lot more love – and some salt. The brioche was a disappointment as well – dry and stodgy. This dish was also sent back.

I am not a restaurant chef, and some may argue that I don’t have the experience to make comments on flavours. The chef argued that she cooked the exact same recipes that I had loved barely a week ago. I don’t want to argue – but the fact is that what the chef sent out yesterday was a far cry from the tasting that was organised for us.

We explained all this to the chef who was kind enough to waive the food bill. We didn’t have the heart to try our luck with dessert.

I can only conclude that the kitchen has not stayed true to Nikhil’s recipes, and that’s a damn shame because Nikhil’s flavours are hard to beat.

-p

My first impressions of this menu are here.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

The White Owl. A friendly lunch

After seventeen years of jobs, I took back a year of my life – to sit still, to go places; to stop working, and to start working at living; to meet new people and reconnect with old friends. A year to put me first.

I travelled, made peace with change, accepted that I will never make peace with Bombay’s traffic, and a series of such-a-small-worlds later, found myself adopted by a most fun loving group of friends – a chef, a PR machine, a wine maker and photographer, a rockstar comedienne, a brand genius, a fair trade enabler… The fact that each one of us plans life around food also sort of guarantees that this is more than just a passing flirtation.

Nikhil Merchant is a food writer, flavour master, and all round sweetheart. It was love at first food-chat for Nikhil and me, and over the past few months he has become my go to guy for all flavour dilemmas. Nikhil’s cooking is instinctive, his food combinations imaginative and cocktails sublime. Under his foodie brand Nonchalant Gourmand, Nikhil recently collaborated with a Bombay bistro – The White Owl – to create a menu of his favourite flavours of the season. I was invited to his first chefs table where we previewed his culinary collaboration with the bistro’s chef Kshama Prabhu.

WallAs a recent vegetarian I have to admit that eating non-Indian food in Bombay’s restaurants has been uninspiring and often unpalatable. Unimaginative chefs either flood the menu with iterations of potatoes, or force paneer and tofu to play substitute to their original choice of non-vegetarian protein. Nikhil and Kshama’s menu is encouragingly different, with over 50% of the menu letting a vegetarian food take centre stage.

I started with Purple Yam Batons, fried crisp and wrapped around a stick of sugarcane.

See what I mean? When is the last time you saw either yam or sugarcane as the star of a restaurant dish? The appetiser is let down by an overly eggy herb aioli, and I would have preferred a fresh, non-creamy dip to balance the buttery, sweet yams. Next on my plate is a French classic – Oeufs en Meurette. The eggs are perfectly poached, and served with moreish slices of garlic toast. I did not like the red wine they chose but was in the minority on this one.

As we soldiered through the menu I realised that my moans about the starters would be my only grouse that afternoon.

The salad of Raw and Ripe Mangoes is my absolute favourite mango dish of the season. Fresh Alphonso and slivers of green mangoes were dressed in a zesty combination of soy, red chillies and peanuts. The salad alone is reason enough to revisit the awkwardly located White Owl.

IMG_7619The main course veggie choices were Blue Cheese Quiche and Bell Pepper Roulade. My choice (of the quiche) was a no brainer; blue is my favourite cheese, and besides who wants to eat a roulade? How wrong was I!

IMG_7620The quiche was perfect – a herby, blue cheese topping lovingly baked on a flaky pastry. But the revelation of the meal was the roulade, served with a generous dollop of an inventive arugula pesto. The sweet bell peppers, unrolled a filling of cheesy barley, and crunchy greens. Never again will I judge a book by its old fashioned cover.

IMG_7621The non-vegetarians on our table were most impressed with the Shrimp & Water Chestnut Salad and Baby Clam, Sugar Snap Peas & Grilled Chorizo in Saffron Broth.

Not for one moment did I wish I were eating meat, nor did I feel that the chefs had made grudging allowances for veggies on their menu. I want to come back for the Green Apple Galette, Brioche Mac and Cheese, and Pumpkin Gnochhi Casserole.

I don’t have a sweet tooth but the table was was mighty impressed with the offering. The Fig, Chocolate & Kaffir Lime Mille-Feuille is a perfect display of Nikhil’s love for playing with flavours and Kshama’s pastry skills. The Kaffir Lime cream is rich and lends a heady scent to the dessert; but I wonder if it would have worked better with a different fruit? One that was lighter than the dense combination of fig and cream. I preferred the Alphonso Crepes – totally scrummy.

photo 1Nikhil’s menu launches at The White Owl from June 2nd for two months.

I hope this is the beginning of many such adventures in India where we will see menus that let the ingredients shine; restaurants that don’t give in to gimmicks; and chefs that find the courage to cook with their heart. Here’s hoping I meet more chefs like Nikhil and Kshama, chefs that put food first.

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Disclosure: The meal was a preview and I was a guest of the restaurant. Neither their generosity nor my friendship with Nikhil has compromised my opinion on their food in any way.

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Filed under Bistro, Bombay, Dessert, India, Mango, Mediterranean, Small Plates, Vegetarian

Planet of the Grapes

The first wine dinner I ever went to was at Bombay’s Indigo restaurant. Chef Rahul Akerkar’s food was sublime, but what I mostly took away from that experience was: “snob fest”. There is only one word that describes the ponciness that surrounds most wine events in India – contrived (and poncy, I suppose). My lovely friend Rajeev Samant and Sula are doing a lot to change that but…

Now in London, I’ve experienced less ceremony around wine. It’s easy and accessible and one is allowed lecture-free dislike of something they have tasted. One of the first fun wine events was when my friends Matt & Erica invited me to their annual blind tasting party. As the only Indian guest I offered to bring an Indian wine. And so began my search for Sula in London. I looked far and wide and many unhelpful wine stores later experienced the relief (and subsequent joy) of meeting Matt and Marc at Planet of the Grapes.

Our relationship began five years ago and they have remained my most generous educators in all things wine… reminding me to always, always have fun above everything else. And to not always choose a wine by its price.

I recently visited their Bow Lane bar for an Etienne Guigal tasting, and Stef the Chef had food to match. For all the vintages of wine I have ever drunk, I cannot speak to you in “wine notes”. I cannot speak of barrels, oak, nose, nor ear. And so, what I have here is the scene each sip evoked:

On Arrival : Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2011 (canapés)
Utter dread. I was the only person who had come to this shindig on my own. This usually isn’t a problem, except on this occasion it turned out that every one of the 20+ diners knew each other. There is only so much bag-adjusting, floor-staring, pretend-phone-talking one can do. Consequently I hated the bready canapés and the wine.

First Course: St. Joseph, Blanc, 2009 (filo wrapped Pollock, courgette, piquillo peppers)
I was seated with a smaller group of strangers to deal with. Fortunately they turned out to be fun and funny. With the first sip of this wine I felt myself relax into this meal. It tasted of honey, and summer afternoons on a hammock. The starter was a burst of flavours at first bite. Wow – those juicy peppers!

Second Course: Crozes-Hermitage Rouge, 2007 (potted Welsh-black oxtail)
The oxtail is among the most flavoursome cuts of beef (and inexpensive too). Stef’s potted oxtail was nearly half a day in the making and caused major oohing and aahing at my table. I wasn’t a fan and the wine reminded me of eating mud as a child (not the fun memories but the after effects of having been found out). Both the food and the wine left me wishing for a second starter. I did love the tarragon and fennel salad it came with, but the next course could not come soon enough.

Third Course: Côte-Rôtie Brune et Blonde, 2005 (char-grilled onglet steak, potato gratin, braised Swiss chard)
NOW we’re talking! Stef originally wanted this course to be some kind of game. Unfortunately it was too early in the year for that and so he prepared a classic onglet steak as, in his words, “a savage feast”. This cut of beef sits quite close to the liver and kidneys, and so has a musky offal tang to it. Drinking the wine was like flirting at the Candlelight Club. Or in Paris. This entire course was rich, flavourful, and very sexy.

Cheese Course: Chateau D’Ampuis, Côte-Rôtie, 2001
I was in heaven. No… better. I was kissing my favourite boyfriend in front of a fireplace in Le Portetta in Courchevel. I couldn’t tell you what cheese was served, and frankly, I didn’t care. The absolute joy that came in this glass was all consuming.

2012-09-18 21.26.14Back on Earth, the gentleman from Guigal guided the entire evening with anecdotes and tasting notes. While I didn’t quite enjoy that part of the evening I realised soon enough that I didn’t have to. Even though the Planet of the Grapes has an extremely serious selection of wines, it also has a wonderful sense of humour about itself. Enough to put even the reluctant novice at ease.

As the evening wound itself down I found myself not wanting to leave this crowd. Funny how that happened. I guess all it took was for me to allow myself to have some fun. To choose not to feel intimidated. To trust that my good friends at Planet of the Grapes would have never asked me to something they didn’t think I would enjoy.

I didn’t really want the biscotti from the tasting menu, and so I charmed two other Planetarians, Beans and Fabio, into bringing me dessert instead. I ended the evening with Stef’s handmade peach sorbet and white chocolate ice cream. I ended the evening feeling like a five-year old girl doing jumping jacks in her pyjamas.

Joy.
-p
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Filed under Bistro, Foodie adventures, London, Wine, Wine Bar

Cafe Zoe. Bombay changing?

There are some things I just don’t get. I don’t get the Indian man’s obsession with adjusting his balls in public. I don’t get the RJs on Bombay radio. And I just don’t get restaurants that hide average food and poor service behind free Wi-Fi and cool interiors.

The last time I was in Bombay, the city was going gaga over celebrity spotting at Hakkasan, and Table remained non-five star restaurant of choice. This time round there was a new name I ran into everywhere. Cafe Zoe. Bombay waxed eloquent about how cool it is. How NYC the vibe is. How much they loved hanging out there. A “really lovely girl”, some expat, and the former chef of one of Bombay’s hottest restaurants have come together and the city was in love with a new restaurant all over again.

Instead of hiding its mill ancestry, Café Zoe celebrates it. Even though slightly reminiscent of the look that The Bowling Co. created 13 years ago, Café Zoe’s design is definitely cool. The furniture is simple, there is a decent bar against one wall and sofas against another. What I liked a lot about this restaurant was the tons of natural light that streams in through the skylights. Oh, and the loo is pretty cool too.

I’m afraid that is all I really liked about Café Zoe.

As a single diner, I was seated at the bar. I usually prefer this, but their bar stools are not high enough and I spent my entire meal adjusting and readjusting myself to try and eat my meal comfortably. In between swatting flies that swarmed the bar. I started with a Fresh Black Grape Caipiroska (Rs. 450). Really well priced, but was sickly sweet and I couldn’t taste the alcohol. I waited twenty minutes for the first of my bar snacks to arrive – Roast Veg Arancini (Rs. 210) served with an unfortunate tomato sauce. I dare you to say it tastes of anything other than a tart gujju pizza sauce. The arancini on its own is nicely cheesy but under-salted; this is probably deliberate given the way the tomato sauce assaults your taste buds. Many minutes later my other snack, Pulled Pork Brioche (Rs. 285), arrives. I did away with the cucumber slice it came with, wiped away the excess mustard that killed all other flavours and then went on to semi-enjoy this dish.

The best dish I ordered was the Truffle Capellini (Rs. 550). Exactly what it says on the menu. No fuss and all flavour.

Just when I was getting ready to forgive the flies, poor flavours, haphazard service and multiple requests for the Wi-Fi code going unanswered, it all came crashing down with the dessert. First they misplaced my order, then the Panna Cotta (Rs. 150) arrives and tastes of smelly custard, and then the Americano (Rs. 75) arrives in a smelly cup.

Spend 10 minutes here and it is plain as day why people flock to Café Zoe. The pretty ones – film maker, ad guy turned hot actor turned activist turned actor, society food columnist, fashion store owner – feel like they have come to a members-only private club; and the wannabe pretty ones… well, they just wanna be part of this private club. Neither care about the average food, the abundant flies, or the appalling service. All they care about is the “vibe”.

I go to restaurants for one of two reasons: great food, great service. Ideally both, but definitely one. Everything else is gravy. Everyone I knew used to want this too. When did this change? Why have (supposedly) fewer options given way to an acceptance of mediocrity? Does the mediocrity stop at our resturants? When did Bombay go soft?

-p

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Bistro, Bombay, Cafe, Diner, India, Italian, Mediterranean

Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Butterflies, just in time for summer

This guy in my office would love everyone to believe he is a serial dater. Day after day he comes in with stories about X from Essex, Y the waitress and Z the hot one. I think he thinks we believe him. When this first started I had no reason not to believe him. I mean, I wouldn’t know how to make time to meet three different dates in the same week, let alone keep track of their lives, jokes and names. But then, that’s just me. This guy is bright, looks alright, can be charming when he chooses, knows a good restaurant, and… is a guy I guess. But as the weeks went on his stories about this supposed quest for love stopped ringing true. I guess what killed it for me was that he can never talk about the excitement jitters that usually precede the prospect of a new something-something.

You can fake a lot of stuff – you can’t fake the feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Everyone probably has their own version of butterflies. For me, I know I am excited about a date when I change outfits at least three times before I meet him. I know he likes me when he doesn’t notice that I have repeated myself – five times. I know I like him when I let him order for the two of us. I know the date is going well when my toes curl as the butterflies finally settle.

I had a toe curling experience recently. No, not on a date – but this came a very, very close second.

I strayed into London’s eclectic East end. Breakfast at the Albion Deli, haircut at Jones & Payne, and then for the highlight of my weekend: lunch at Bistrot Bruno Loubet. Finally!

I have been meaning to eat here since my boss couldn’t stop raving about it nearly 9 months ago. Things happen only when they are meant to, and this Saturday is exactly when this meal was meant to happen. I first visited the hotel that hosts this bistro a few days ago when the charming General Manager Jason Catifeoglou showed me around the Zetter Townhouse (which I have to come back to for many, many cocktails).

The restaurant was quiet. (Apparently, Saturdays are unpredictable.) If I wasn’t travelling on a happy cloud that day I may have reconsidered this option and walked over to the buzzing Modern Pantry next door. But it’s a lovely, bright room, and I got a table by the window that also looked into the kitchen – my favourite kind of table. This is what I ordered:

I started with the foie gras daily special (£9) – I broke my 3-year rule of no foie gras because I wanted to see what kind of magic this chef from the South of France could create. It was pitch perfect. Next came a second starter: beetroot ravioli, rocket salad, fried breadcrumbs and Parmesan (£7.50) – I hate beetroot, love ravioli; this dish is an absolute winner. I finally understand what the “sweetness of beetroot” means.

  

A quiet restaurant means that the chef has a few minutes to drink his apple juice at your table. It will come as no surprise that I have a soft spot for chefs – I would rather spend my day talking to a chef and how he created something than… than, well, anything else really. And Bruno Loubet is amongst the more disarming ones. His stories of regulars at the bistro, how recipes from his cookbooks have been blatantly plagiarised by several, how the new restaurant in Central London is coming along, and cycling to work everyday, made this meal even more memorable.

I then ordered another daily special for my main. My boss in New York never orders the specials. He doesn’t do it because he doesn’t think the chefs have enough time to perfect the recipe. I suppose that makes sense – but when I see a crab special (£18), I can’t not order it.

For my main I had a crab linguine with curry oil. This dish arrived looking like summer in a bowl, and biting this pasta off the fork may be one of the most sensuous things I have tasted in my life. This dish made my toes curl – every single bite made my toes curl.

That’s almost as good as being on a good date.

-p

p.s. Not even the disastrous buffalo milk pannacotta with watermelon and pineapple salad (£6) could ruin my memories of this meal.

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Perfect

They call Buenos Aires the ‘Paris of the South’. Just like Kerala is the ‘Venice of the East’. Why can’t Buenos Aires just be Buenos Aires? A few weeks ago I wrote about expectations. When something is called the Paris of the South – I expect Paris! Is it then uncool to admit that I didn’t think the city was all that? Probably. Reality did not live up to expectations; did I miss out? Definitely.

I’ve had several Tables for ONE during my visit to Argentina. I could have written from an asado, but steak didn’t inspire any words. I could have also written from the tango cafés of Caminito, but honestly, I did not want words to ruin that experience for me. But when I wander into the stunning Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau I feel the familiarity seep in. The terrace of Los Salones del Piano Nobile is crowded with strangers; the sun begs me to order a sparkling rosé; and I choose my first non-Argentine meal on my last day in the country.

Starbucks represents everything I hate (and grudgingly love) about globalisation. When I sit in a café in Palermo (the Soho of South America, I guess) I want a local brew with dulce de leche.  I do not want to order a vente Mocha with one shot, iced, caramel sauce on the top and bottom, no whip, light on the ice, and 7 pumps of peppermint syrup and have them know how to make it! That said, I also find great comfort in global brands when I find myself in dodgy neighbourhoods in foreign cities. If Starbucks is here then someone knows about this place. This is familiar. I am safe.

There are some things you can rely on no matter where you go.

  • Women will stop at their reflection. Even in the middle of a jungle in torrential rain.
  • A Latino will compliment a woman, no matter what size she comes in.
  • Tourist attractions will serve bad junk food.
  • A Park Hyatt knows how to poach an egg.

My appetiser of lettuce hearts and poached eggs with mustard vinaigrette (ARG $55) was inspirational. The butternut squash soup (ARG $46) that followed, even better. I sat on the terrace for many hours thinking about how perfect this day turned out. I was meant to join a tour but instead started with breakfast at a real, local café; spent the morning watching tango dancers weave their way around the streets of Caminito; and then wandered through plush Recoleta until I found myself on this terrace.

We wait so long for perfection. The perfect rainbow. The perfect man. The perfect city. How often have you missed out on something as you wait for perfection? Or someone?

-p

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Filed under Bistro, Buenos Aires, Outdoor dining, Restaurant