London


It’s cold, isn’t it? It’s definitely colder than last year and it certainly feels like a proper winter so far. Winter always brings hotpot to mind and recently I tried a version new to me. I’d heard of dry hotpot but I only got my first taste of it a few weeks ago when a friend organised a dinner at Jinli, a restaurant in Chinatown just a little off the usual tourist path. This is a Sichuan restaurant that used to be China City and when I got there, I saw that every table had a large dish in the centre from which diners were picking out delectable little morsels. This was Sichuan dry hotpot.

Of course, we got our own dry hotpot too, with my friend arranging for the various ingredients from a long list provided to him. This is what appeared! You can see the cans of soft drink around its edges for scale.

Tonight's massive Sichuan dry hotpot! 🌶🌶🌶

It was a veritable mountain of a typically Sichuan spiced stir fried hodge podge! There were dried chilies and Sichuan peppercorns for the usual ma la flavour and various other spices that I couldn’t really put my finger on. My friend had ordered thin slices of pork belly, luncheon meat (Spam), fish balls, lotus root, Chinese cabbage, choy sum, tofu skin, and sweet potato noodles. We had a bucket of rice for our table too, necessary for all that concentrated spicy flavour!

My understanding is that this style of hotpot is a newer style of dish in China and is currently very popular. I’ve heard that Jin Li isn’t the only place that serves it in London so do keep your eyes peeled if you’d like to try it. For the five of us, this giant hotpot, two starters of and excellent mouth-watering chicken and fried green peppers, rice and soft drinks came to about £24 each.

Jinli
4 Leicester Street
London WC2H 7BL

You’ll already have heard loads about Padella, I’m sure, but here’s my two cents (pence)! The hype is indeed valid for Padella next to Borough Market – their pasta dishes are fantastic. On a not-so-recent day off a month or two ago, I met my brother there and between the two of us, we split three pastas (most everyone else seemed to be splitting a starter and then having a pasta each).

Their famous pici cacio & pepe (£6.50) lived up to expectations! The thick, chewy pici were coated with the unctuous mixture of cheese and pepper – fabulous.

Pici cacio & pepe

Likewise, there’s quite a following for their pappardelle with 8-hour Dexter beef shin ragu (£8.50). I’m a sucker for a good ragu and this was excellent.

Pappardelle with 8-hour Dexter beef shin ragu

Taglierini with Dorset crab, chilli and lemon (£12) was wonderfully fresh and the only thing that could have improved it would have been to be having it al fresco by the sea. I loved the different pasta shapes and the way they’ve been thrust into the spotlights here – I definitely don’t recall seeing pici anywhere else, for example.

Taglierini with Dorset crab, chilli and lemon

Even for a weekday lunch, we had to queue but the restaurant is bigger than I expected so it was only a 10 minute wait for the two of us that day. I’m not sure what it’s like on a weekend. Oh, and the menu does change from time to time!

Padella
6 Southwark Street
London SE1 1TQ

I’m not entirely sure why we’d not yet been to Karnavar on South End, Croydon’s restaurant street. It’s a more upmarket Indian restaurant and I think we were going to save it for a special occasion. Well, that is, until I discovered they have a spectacular deal for Sunday brunch – five courses for £25, or £40 if you want a champagne brunch, for a massive Indian style roast brunch. The menu is an Indian twist on the Sunday roast lunch but also features classics from their usual a la carte menu, making it a good first visit. We went one recent Sunday when we felt yes, brunch and yes, Indian food, and loved it.

Here we go. Five courses.

Chef Cooking Station and Starter Table

Course 1: Chef Live Cooking Station.
The station was placed at one end of the starter table (photo above). From here, you could place an order (or lots of orders) for freshly made dosas, oothapams, Indian omelettes, or Indian scrambled eggs. We shared a plain dosa (made small, just the right size for a buffet) and a beautifully made Indian omelette. We only realised after our meal that the chef manning this station was the chef-owner – he was just the friendliest!

Indian Omelette

Course 2: The Starter Table.
On the table by the window, there was a good spread of various dishes from which to help yourself. My particular highlights were the Roasted Dokla with Home Cured Sardines and Potato Salad, the fantastic Karnavar Special Golden and Candy Beetroot Chaat with Goji Berry and Moong Bean Sprout, and the Dahi Wada (Black Gram Dumplings with Yogurt, Mustard and Cumin). Take your time over them… it’s a leisurely brunch and you’re welcome to graze for as long as you like.

Starters

Course 3: Intermediate.
This course was brought to your table by a waiter wielding a massive frying pan full of Tulsi Seekh Kebab and Chicken Tikka. Both were very spicy and flavourful and I probably could have put away a lot more if I hadn’t been worrying about what and how much was coming next.

Seekh Kebab and Chicken Tikka

There was also a separate pan full of Salmon Pakora with Sweet Curry, Capers and Gherkin Sauce. This I loved, definitely putting away a few more than necessary – that sauce was like a fantastic Indian tartar sauce.

Salmon Pakora

Course 4: Mains.
Then it was time for mains. Each diner gets to choose one of the mains from the list but they can have as much of that protein as desired. My Roasted Pork Belly Coorg/Kerala style served with Mappas Sauce was fine but Blai’s Sea Bass Polichathu, Kerala Coastal style served with Mappas Sauce was finer. I think I had been hoping that the pork belly was spiced itself but most of the Indian flavour was from the onion sauce served alongside. Blai’s fish was exactly as I’d hoped for, all dusted with spice.

Roasted Pork Belly Coorg/Kerala style served with Mappas Sauce

Sea Bass Polichathu

It’s not a roast dinner though without all the sides! Garlic and fennel seed spiced roast potatoes were tender and delicious. Vegetables were an addictive Cauliflower thoran (addictive), an excellent Chef’s seasonal vegetables, which that day was Broccoli do pyaza, and my typical Indian meal must-have, Panchmel dal (think tarka dal). Carbs were a Saffron pulao rice and Butter naan (very buttery!). Like the mains, you could get more of the sides you desired. You can imagine how stuffed we were by the end of this course!

Sides

Sides and Naan

Dessert was a tasting plate of (from left to right) Rasamalai (Indian Milk Cheese Dumplings with Pistachio), raspberry sorbet, and Kinnathapan Malabar (Rice and Coconut Pudding with Lemon Sorbet). I do believe this is the only course you cannot repeat but the little sweet bites were the perfect size after we’d stuffed ourselves from the previous four courses. Actually, no, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want another of the amazing rasamalai, some of the best I’d ever had.

Dessert Platter

Bookings are essential for Sunday brunch (it’s very popular) and can be made via their website. What I noticed was that the food was highly spiced and flavourful but not chilli-hot, making it perfect for families, and there were a lot of families that Sunday. Needless to say, go hungry! Oh, and if you’re a vegetarian or dining with vegetarian, there are vegetarian options for the more meaty courses (vegetarian but not vegan).

Karnavar
62 South End
Croydon
London CR0 1DP

It was my birthday last month and I was particularly disorganised this year. Three days prior, I still hadn’t figured out how I would celebrate this now slightly depressing occasion. Noodles had to feature somewhere (symbolising long life in the Chinese culture) but didn’t necessarily have to be at dinner; I could scarf down a bowlful at lunchtime. Barbecue? Did I want meat? Comfort food? What was exciting in London? Somehow after a lot of googling and a lot of perusing lists, we fixed on A. Wong, the upscale Chinese restaurant in Victoria. The main thing was that it had space that evening. Noodles sorted then.

As I’d booked so close to the date at this clearly very popular and lauded restaurant, it was an early dinner for the two of us. And we sat in the dark basement – when I do return, I hope I get a table upstairs where it’s light and airy. Apologies then for the very dark photos.

Chilli oils, two of them, arrived at the table, both distinct but it was difficult to exactly figure out what was in them due to the lack of light. I think there was dried tofu in one and beans in the other?

Chilli Oils

We started with the fanciest prawn cracker I’d ever seen: the A. WONG Prawn cracker (£2.50), topped with various pickles and sauces and some fried ‘seaweed’ too.

A. WONG Prawn cracker

Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables (£3.50) was a little cup of lovely delicate soft tofu all spicy and moreish.

Chengdu street tofu, soy chilli, peanuts, preserved vegetables

63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo (£5.95) was served with a smouldering cinnamon stick for some atmosphere… only ours wasn’t really smouldering and Blai grabbed it without realising that it was supposed to be a burning stick, almost causing me to scream. Yeah, more light was definitely needed. Apart from that, the egg was all melty and lovely on the crunchy filo nest.

63 degree ‘tea egg’ with shredded filo

I had heard that there was an element of theatre with the food here and it was most apparent with the Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad (£12). This didn’t exactly work down in the basement as we couldn’t make out what exactly was in the bowl. Pulled lamb, sesame seeds, what’s that chopped stuff? Is that salad? We piled everything onto the provided buns and tucked in. Tasty but not particularly special.

Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad

Xian city ‘lamb burger’ with sesame, coriander and chilli and Xinjiang pomegranate salad

I really enjoyed a dish of Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole (£8) which came topped with a thin sheet of fried tofu skin. The flavours were strong and novel and went well with …

Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole

Yunnan wild mushrooms, truffles and red date casserole

… a generously filled bowl of excellent Egg fried rice (£3). All the food up to this point had been very flavourful and we never needed to turn to the chilli oils on the table. However with the remains of the fried rice, the chilli oils proved to be fabulous.

Egg fried rice

The noodles! I had expected more noodles on the menu but there only appeared to be Singapore fried noodles and those that we ordered: Hong Kong tossed noodles with sea urchin butter and shrimp roe (£12). These very rich and buttery worms were served with a broth, like dry HK noodles typically are, and we were told to dip the noodles in the broth before slurping them. They also made a big show of sprinkling the shrimp roe on the noodles. Always one to break the rules, I ate the noodles and then drank the broth, HK style.

Hong Kong tossed noodles with sea urchin butter and shrimp roe

Dessert time! It was my birthday and there was no way this course was going to be missed! We went for the Taste of A. WONG desserts (£22), which was all of the available desserts (at a small discount). Now this is where I felt the restaurant really excelled.

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots came as two parts – a plate of the meringue shaped like a mandarin orange, filled with an ice cream and the granite and puree served separately in a tea cup. The waitress opened up a red packet and poured its contents onto our plate – lotus root crisps.

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots

Poached meringue, lychee granite, mango puree, orange sorbet and lotus roots

The Tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate and caramel came as a chocolate sphere and this time our waitress poured on hot caramel from on high and yeah, sorry, the photo was taken after this. It all looks like a splodge. Oh, but it was a gloriously fantastic splodge of caramel goo and chocolate and banana puree and lots of crumble. Utterly fantastic.

Tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate and caramel

I liked the order in which they brought out the desserts. Coconut, white chocolate, strawberries, yoghurt and mochi was a refreshing plate of ices and textures.

Coconut, white chocolate, strawberries, yoghurt and mochi

Overall, the food was excellent though I didn’t need the extra steps/theatre involved with some of the courses. That said, I’m keen to return to try their dim sum. Upstairs on the ground floor. With light.

A. Wong
70 Wilton Road
Victoria, London
SW1V 1DE

I brought a friend to Smoking Goat on Denmark Street last month to finally try their food (it’s all about Thai-style barbecue here) and see what the fuss was all about. It did live up to expectations!

From the specials board, we chose a Grilled Pork Skirt with Nahm Prik Som (£13). This arrived first and I loved the hot and sour flavours throughout.

Grilled Pork Skirt with Nahm Prik Som

Fish Sauce Wings (£7) were, I believe, their version of the Pok Pok (hailing from Portland, Oregon) ones. These battered wings had been dragged through a sticky, umami-laden sauce and while they were good, I thought perhaps grilling the wings would have worked better.

Fish Sauce Wings

The Whole Cornish Mackerel with Nahm Prik Pao (£15) on their regular menu was recommended to us and it did live up to expectations. The oily fish is always excellent when grilled and the savoury nahm prik pao (like a chilli jam) worked well with the strongly flavoured fish.

Whole Cornish Mackerel with Nahm Prik Pao

For our veggies and to sop up all the wonderful juices and sauces, we shared an order of Som Tam Bangkok with sticky rice (£6.50). The salad was excellent and refreshing and they offered us plenty of sticky rice in little bags as the meal went on.

Som Tam Bangkok

Sticky Rice

For nonalcoholic drinks, I’d stick to their proffered pandan infused water; the flavoured waters we ordered off the menu weren’t particular interesting or worth the £3 or so. Overall, though, the food was indeed very good.

Smoking Goat

7 Denmark Street
London WC2H 8LZ

We were looking for some dinner in Soho and I had narrowed down a list of nearby restaurants to a few. From that list, Blai chose Bukowski Grill, which specialises in American grilled stuff, all cooked over charcoal on a Josper grill. It was our first time there and for some reason, in the five years that the original joint’s been open, it hadn’t really hit my radar. I’ve only just found out now that this Soho branch, their largest restaurant, only opened earlier this year.

I think it was the burgers on the menu that put me off initially – there seem to be a million burger restaurants in London and most are quite good. Bukowski Grill, thankfully, has other things on their menu as well and it was these that caught out eyes. We started with a nibble of Tasso pig cheek with pickled peach relish (£3.50). For the price, it was a generous little dish of pig cheek prepared as a hot spiced ham. In a weird way, it reminded me a little of a spicy char siu!

Dinner at Bukowski Grill in Soho. Excellent stuff!

We felt we needed to order the highlighted 72 hour beef rib with tobacco onions (£12.25) – and we had no idea what to expect. It was certainly not this beautiful beast. This massive beef rib was fantastic, all smoky and tender, and equally magnificent were the tobacco onions, which turned out to be fried onion strings. Gnawing on the rib felt a little like being in the Flintstones.

Dinner at Bukowski Grill in Soho. Excellent stuff!

A fried chicken thigh milk buttermilk waffle with green chilli maple syrup (£8.50), with a fried egg (£1.50) in our case, was also excellent. Can’t go wrong with chicken and waffles and the spicy syrup made this version quite unique.

Dinner at Bukowski Grill in Soho. Excellent stuff!

We had some chips on the side as well but… no photo of that. They were chips. They were good.

A little sweet thing was exactly what we needed now. A salted caramel soft serve ice cream with peanut butter brittle (£3.25) was near perfect. I liked the salty caramel ice cream but the peanut butter brittle needed to be in smaller, more manageable pieces (and the best peanut brittle I’ve had has been the stuff from this shop in North Vancouver, BC, Canada).

Dinner at Bukowski Grill in Soho. Excellent stuff!

I think what surprised me were the very reasonable prices for everything and all the dishes flying past us did look great – the milkshakes and, yes, even the burgers. It’s a fun little spot, with plenty of seating, and lots of Bukowski‘s NSFW poetry on the bathroom doors. I’m keen to visit earlier in the day too to try their brunch menu.

Bukowski Grill
10-11 D’Arblay Street
London  W1f 8DT

There are branches in Brixton and Shoreditch too.

What with all the flying out of Gatwick’s South Terminal in the last few months, I’ve had the chance to try Bruno Loubet’s Grain Store Cafe a few times already. I still haven’t tried the original restaurant at King’s Cross but I know there’s an emphasis on vegetables, without being a fully vegetarian restaurant. Healthy without being boring.

Our flight to Milan earlier this year was a morning one and we took the chance to eat off their breakfast menu. Bruno’s Power Breakfast was a small platter of eggs benedict, truffles, broccolini, grilled vegetable ratatouille with dukkah and avocado on toast. I loved the emphasis on greenery for breakfast and that avocado toast was excellent stuff. The only letdown was the hollandaise made without butter….without butter, it’s not hollandaise, sorry.

Bruno's Power Breakfast

Baghdad Eggs were fried eggs and spiced butter on salt-baked celeriac waffles. I don’t think I could detect the celeriac in the waffle batter but the combination was fresh and fantastic.

Baghdad Eggs

My flight to Stockholm was after work on a Friday, meaning that dinner was going to be a long way off. A selection of small dishes seemed like the perfect nibble – Thai minced chicken (this looked like larb in lettuce cups and was served with watermelon), a Greek-style dish of artichokes/tomatoes/cauliflower/mushrooms, and grilled aubergine with tonnato sauce. Everything was fine and just tasty enough. OK, nothing was spectacular but y’know, very good and very creative for an airport.

Small Dishes - Thai-style chicken, artichokes and tomatoes, aubergines.

Sweet potato fries were also ordered and were perfect. Extracting them from their plant pot was like playing a gustatory version of pick-up sticks though.

Sweet Potato Fries

Then the flight to Bordeaux (you would have thought I’d deliberately flown out of Gatwick South Terminal this year…) had me looking for a snack. I spotted the avocado toast on another table and ordered that…but with a side of bacon. The hipster snack was perfect – the avocado fresh and well seasoned. I didn’t need nor want the sliced onions on the side – onion breath is always a faux pas on an airplane.

Avocado Toast

The bacon was overcooked though and had turned into bacon jerky, just a bit too chewy for my liking. I’d skip that next time and uh…maybe get more sweet potato fries.

Bacon

Other dishes that looked good (as they whizzed past me) include their burgers, their salads, and their fish and chips. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s mostly healthy. I think it’s a great addition to Gatwick and possibly the best place to eat in Gatwick South. The only thing that would make it better is more reliable free wifi but hey, that’s just me.

Grain Store Café and Bar

Gatwick Airport
South Terminal

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