Review: The Shed

London,
30 July 2013

To say the past fortnight has been bad is an understatement. My stress level had boiled over, and it’s led me to a few nights of careless drinking. Of course, that just causes more problems… I realised I needed a break, and decided to get the hell out of gotham and head back to London, where I can relax and figure a few things out.

After getting a good night sleep, I headed out and had a care-free lunch up the road at The Shed. Despite it being wet and raining, it was good to be walking around in London. Nice and cool, thank goodness. The Shed is a cute little place just near Notting Hill, decorated in a faux-rustic style. I do have to admit tho it is cute, the seats are not the most comfortable.

I relaxed with a glass of Grüner Veltliner and ordered off the small-plates format menu, which was divided by “slow cooking” and “fast cooking” sections. I opted for three plates today, and the feasting began with the paprika cuttlefish.

Shed-cuttlefish

Looks interesting, and the pieces are true to the paprika and nice and spicy. However, it was a bit mushy, like it was not fried well — or sat around too long after the frying. There was perhaps a little too much going on here, and it really detracted from the cuttlefish. At the same time the grilled courgettes arrived.

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Nice, with a lemony base. However, it seemed to have been grilled earlier and it was again rather soggy. And some of the pieces were not grilled through. I’m a little concerned at this point…

The dishes are plated beautifully and the ideas are interesting, but so far the execution has been a little weak. Almost like the main items are cooked early in the morning and left to sog. The last dish was the “lamb chips” — which was the dish all the reviews discussed.

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Well, this was interesting. The lamb, braised and pulled, are breaded and fried into “chips” — or really, sticks. Nothing too fancy, it’s similar to what many have done with suckling pig. The harissa was a nice touch.

After a coffee I headed out into the misty London day, satisfied with a good lunch. Not great, but good. I think the execution was a little weak at points, and I wish the main ingredients — which are so well promoted as being sourced locally — are more prominent without so much happening on each plate. Pleasant enough, but I doubt enough for me to return.

Ah, good to be back in London…

The Shed
122 Palace Gardens Terrace
London, England

Review: Sakagura

17 July 2013

NYC has been mired in its usual summer heat-and-humidity misery… In addition, the week had started quite poorly for me. In other words, I am in a mid-summer funk. I have been questioning why I came back to NYC, and if it is worth staying. So I decided that in the evening I was going to blow off some steam at a place I’ve always wanted to try, a place I’ve walked past so many times but just never went in: Sakagura.

Sakagura, across the street from the mecca of Sushi Yasuda, is known as one of the best sake bar in NYC. However, as I am not a big fan of sake (and its hangover), for me the draw was the very interesting (and underrated) food. I was hungry so was going to go through many of the plates tonight.

A little hard to find, as you need to go into the office building and crawl into its basement, Sakagura is actually a nice space deep in the well of Midtown Manhattan, cool and isolated. No mobile signal means real relaxation. The dark bar is popular with the Japanese community, and I immediately relaxed inside.

Not being an expert with sake, the staff was quite good at recommending me various sakes through the night. I did several different ones through the night, and was nice to see it served traditionally in the masu:

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But my focus was on food, so I began ordering and they started coming.

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The first dish that arrived was the cold seared beef. Excellent washu seared perfectly, topped with marinated daikon. Very tasty start, a generous serving also. More sake, more food!

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The second to arrive was the ika shiokara, the cured raw squid in a squid liver marinade. Now this little cup was really unique and challenging, only for those who really enjoy liver. I do, and its saltiness really helped the sake consumption process. A very unique dish in NYC, fabulous.

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The third dish was the buta kakuni, a simple braised chunk of pork. This wonderful dish, popular in many parts of Asia, balances salty and sweet, and lean and fat in the pork. Again, condusive to drinking more sake! Very intelligently-crafted menu for a sake bar!

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The final dish was the chikuzen ni, an assortment of root vegetables cooked with chicken in broth. I needed some veg, and this was an excellent selection of harder-to-find Japanese-favoured roots, including lotus and daikon. What a great dish to end the night.

I had a bit more sake before I decided to go and headed out. But after wandering outside in the horrible humidity and noticing it was still early, after a little while I wandered back down to Sakagura again and decided on round two…

More sake arrived and I decided why the hell not, so ordered more food…

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The first of round two to arrive were the ebi shinjo, fried shrimp balls covered with almonds. Again, a great drinking snack, tasty softness inside but coated with a nice crunchiness.

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The next dish was an interesting one, the tamagoyaki — egg custard wrapped around grilled eel. It sounded so good but it was lacking in eel. If it was done with more eel this would have been spectacular.

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Following that, needing a slight respite, was the agedashi tofu. I hate ginger, but this was covered in it… But the tofu itself was okay, maybe a little soggy. Maybe it’s the many masu of sake I’ve already had clouding my mind…

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Finally, the very last dish, the tori tsukune, the chicken balls in teriyaki sauce. A nice end to a hell of a feast. Enjoyed even more sake. Before I took my leave I thanked the staff for taking care of me.

Honestly, I had been thinking of leaving NYC since I got back from my Canada trip. I was jaded and sick of NYC in so many ways despite only being back for a few months. The food scene is so static it’s annoying, for instance. But it’s a place like Sakagura that makes me think twice about leaving, as it is such an awesome place I can come back to often.

I wandered into the still very hot night and went looking for more alcohol…I need to blow off even more steam… At least I had the wonderful meal(s) tonight to keep me going as I drown my disappointments in the humid night.

Sakagura
211 East 43rd Street
New York, NY

Review: Oda House

3 July 2013

Back in NYC…so you think I’m a tough kid? Nope…still recovering from the excellent trip to Montréal, especially the fabulous food there. Too much good stuff, the reckless abandon…

As I left Canada during Canada Day weekend, I land back in NYC just as 4th of July week was approaching. Everything is slow this week, as the holiday rests on a Thursday (and US markets closed early Wednesday also) and many left NYC by Tuesday night. I, however, stayed in town and wanted to try out a new Georgian restaurant in Manhattan that a friend on Twitter had told me about.

So I decided to meet another friend of mine there later that Wednesday evening. I went early for some wine (I totally LOVE Georgian wine), as he was still busy finishing up at his office. The ease that I caught a cab in the pouring rain told me lots of people had left town…

Got to Oda House in the Lower East Side, a rather unpretentious and relaxing place. I took up a spot at the bar and the friendly atmosphere immediately took me. I know I’m gonna like this. I love Georgian food, but not when it’s in a crap place — like my Montréal experience with Le Georgia. But this place I can see myself frequenting.

I enjoyed a few glasses of saperavi (საფერავი), a nice red, whilst chatting with some very nice people at the bar. We talked Georgia, from politics to cuisine…and the time just flew by. My friend had arrived and we adjourned to a table.

We caught up with our own conversations over a bottle of saperavi and ordered several dishes. The restaurant was decently busy, which is good — and mostly non-Georgians. That’s always a good sign on viability, and I really hope this place does well in the longer run.

Though we ordered courses, all the stuff came out in one go — no biggie. It worked well all together in any case. My starter was the tolma (ტოლმა)…

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Now every country in the old wine-loving world from the Caucasus to the Peloponnesus has their version of this dish, using the grape leaf to its advantage. This version was stuffed with meat, very tasty snacks.

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The main course was the chakapuli (ჩაქაფული), a stewed lamb dish. Excellent flavours, favouring the tarragon certainly. With a side of bread and wine, this is a great dish to mop up with the bread.

My friend was pretty tired after flying back into NYC this afternoon, so we just had more wine and called it a night. But the simple but solid food here, plus the convivial atmosphere and friendly people, will make me come back here often. I’d love to try out more of the menu, especially as the kitchen gets into a groove. A very welcome addition to Manhattan dining.

Oda House
76 Avenue B
New York, NY

Review: Hôtel Herman

Montréal
28 June 2013

This trip to Canada has been extremely fun, but also exhausting. I rested a lot, as I needed to, but the heavy eating and drinking has me needing to hit the gym and get back to rhythm soon. But I have one final evening, and I wanted it to be a good night. Honestly, I wanted to have fun but limit the drinking, because I hate drinking too much the night before I fly…never pleasant to be extremely hungover at the airport or on a flight (albeit a short one).

I had booked a slot at Hôtel Herman a few weeks earlier, as the new-ish restaurant nearly out in Outremont has been heavily recommended to me. I looked at the menu and was intrigued, which made me book far in advance as to not miss this place on a Friday night.

I took the Métro to Laurier and just then — a perfect NYC Friday thing from years past — the mobile signal is nowhere to be found. Shit. I have no idea which direction to go on Laurier. I asked someone and the direction turned out to be the wrong way… So by the time I got to Hôtel Herman I was sweaty and wanting a drink…

The restaurant is really cute, with an open kitchen and a narrow U-shaped bar/counter in the centre. I had a good location at the bottom corner of the U and relaxed on the stool. I was honestly needing a quick cocktail, and was a little miffed how long that whole process took. So that didn’t start good at all.  The house cocktail list was pretty boring, and then I realised this is a wine-centric place. The martini was so-so, but I decided to make this a wine-centric evening.

I finally relaxed and I think the staff did too, as the service at this point turned around 180 degrees — and was extremely good from this stage. Maybe I caught them too early when I walked in at 6pm. But I ordered and also asked for the sommelier to find a good pairing for each course. She did a fantastic job and the pours were extremely generous. This is the kind of restaurant I like.

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The first to arrive were the oysters, three pairs of different east-coasters. All of them were excellent, fresh and briny in their own unique ways. I was not the type to use the condiments when the oysters are so nice and fresh, but did eat the lemons after. This is starting well. I was enjoying myself very much now, chatting with staff and others, waiting for my next course, the smoked sturgeon.

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This dish looked fantastic, and with a generous serving of morels as well. I love both sturgeon and morels very much, so this was a dreamy dish for me. The long strip of fish was very nice, lightly smoked. I asked and they indeed do the smoking in-house. The wine pairing was also excellent. I do apologise as it’s been over a week since this evening and I didn’t take proper notes on the wine pairings. But trust me they are excellent.

I was more than happy at this point. I like the food, the environment, the energy here. I was glad I was given the recommendation for this place by some people well in the know in town. I was in extreme anticipation for my next course, the seared horse steak.

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This dish was cooked very well, with the meat seared medium-rare. Horse is a lean and tender and tasty meat, and it’s too bad (aside from pre-packed mislabelled supermarket rubbish) it’s not available in many places around North America and Europe. A generous portion, paired with a hearty red, made this one of the best dishes I’ve had to eat all trip. So good I even taunted well-known lover of horsemeat, Philadelphia’s super-chef Marc Vetri, with a semi-drunk tweet… This was a fun, fun night…

I have to say all the courses were excellent, and set up perfectly one after the other. Good pace, excellent wine service, good energy. I was talked into a dessert and it was a very impressive chocolate terrine…

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Though I generally don’t have a sweet-tooth for a big dessert course, this really was excellent. Rarely do I rave about a dessert, but this was utterly fantastic. It was extremely rich in chocolate, which is something I love. For me, desserts need to be very chocolaty (not sweet, but rich) or very tangy via interesting fruits. This was the former, and as I said utterly fantastic. But it also made me quite sad as it brought me some rather wonderful-but-sad memories. First, I remember how much my ex loved chocolate-based desserts, and this is something she’d die over. Second, because of the richness of the chocolate it reminded me of the chocolate financier my late, lamented Elettaria had on its menu…

I left Hôtel Herman in a fantastic mood. The food was amazing, the service was excellent, the place was just awesome. It’s the type of place I would go to often if I lived in town. I really wish there were more places in NYC like this, one that focused on the cooking rather than the chef’s brand of over-chef’ing. Let the ingredients do the talking, the chef is there as a talented guide. Hôtel Herman fits that bill. Heavily recommended!

Oh, and the evening was not coming to a close here, though it did not go the way I thought it would. I will elaborate soon, but it began with me walking down Saint-Laurent all the way back to Centre-ville…

Hôtel Herman
5171 Boulevard Saint-Laurent
Montréal, Québec

Review: Stash Café

Montréal,
28 June 2013

If there is one place that I have visited on each trip to Montréal it is Stash Café in the old town, a historic Polish café that has been there for over 30 years. Every time I’m there, since the first time I walked in over a decade ago, I feel relaxed, with excellent food and hospitality that makes me miss Warsaw.

On a rainy Friday I decided to take the trek into Vieux Montréal and enjoy my favourite café in town. It was just midday but already very busy. I took one of the last tables available and relaxed, especially when the Żywiec got in my hand.

I’m not sure if the staff remembered me, but after awhile we switched into Polish instead, as my French is just rubbish and I miss speaking Polish. Had not used it since last time in Warsaw a few months ago. I really wish I had more chance to speak Polish as once I start using it again, it feels natural after some practice and it flows much better.

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My starter arrived soon, the flaki — tripe soup. My favourite of all Polish dishes, excellent for a hangover (although surprisingly I don’t have one this morning). The flaki done here is probably my favourite anywhere in the world, with a hearty and tasty broth. Most importantly, the tripe is sliced perfectly — not too thick to spend too much time chewing, not too thin to make it dissolve into the soup. Excellent, excellent.

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I was talked into having the gołąbki for lunch by the staff, as they say it’s a good hearty dish for a rainy cold day. I agreed. I usually order this dish in Ukrainian restaurants (known as голубці), and I make it at home once in awhile. It always reminds me of an old colleague of mine in DC that made good ones, a brawler of a lobbyist named Eugene Iwanciw… These are excellent, very hearty.

I skipped the desserts and had two nice orders of my favourite vodka, Wyborowa. Conversed with some of the staff a bit about how — and why — I learned Polish. It was odd to recall those days 20+ years ago on why, but I know I am so glad I did. My lifelong love for Poland and Polonia (and Polish women of course) stemmed from those days, and I reminisced in unexpected happiness.

I walked out in the rain with a big smile, as I do every time I leave Stash Café. No better place to do lunch in Montréal, no better.

Stash Café
200 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest
Montréal, Québec

Review: Le Georgia

Montréal
27 June 2013

I had survived the amazing feast from Joe Beef the night before, and woke up with only a mild (a miracle) hangover. I wanted to maximise my eating opportunity in Montréal as I am only here once a year, so needed to do something for lunch. I’m surprised I had space in my stomach…

I’ve always had a soft spot for Georgian cuisine…no, not Paula Deen and Jimmy Carter Georgia, but Sakartvelo. The wines of Georgia are amongst the most interesting in the world, still utterly underrated for their uniqueness. So I decided to head to Le Georgia.

I caught the Métro to the ironically-named “Snowdon” station, as all the news of the morning had been focused on the Edward Snowden mess. I walked a little, noticing the increase in humidity, and found the restaurant. I was seated in the rather empty place during normal lunch hours…why is it empty on a Thursday? I figured it out pretty soon…

Though it was a Georgian restaurant, with menu and decor to fit, one very post-Soviet relic remained… A large-screen TV in the back of the restaurant (I faced the window just to make sure I avoid it as much as possible) was showing — and blaring — a Russian chat show at high volume. How utterly annoying…

If having techno music at a nice restaurant is symptomatic of 1990s Central/East Europe restaurants, the sad presence of Russian TV is even worse. Last time I remember this was at Armenia (Армения) in Varna, Bulgaria…you can draw a comparison. I walked out last time, this time was very tempting…

I ordered my food and to my rather intense disappointment, I was forced to order a “house” wine — a Spanish plonk. They only sold Georgian wines by the bottle. After last night no way I’m doing that at lunch. But that is utterly ridiculous and I realised this was not a serious Georgian restaurant at all.

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My first course came quickly, the most stereotypical Georgian dish of all, khachapuri (ხაჭაპური). Though there are many ways to make this simple bread dish, mine was about as boring of a version as it gets. Flavourless cheese over bread. I can’t even discern if the cheese used was right and not some odd substitute… Bad start…

By now my head was pounding from the bad wine, bland food, and the yelling on TV. Oh, did I mention this talk show was the Russian version of The Jeremy Kyle Show? The host was yelling, the audience was yelling, the guests were yelling. And the one server was oblivious…

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My main course was another typical Georgian dish, khinkalli (ხინკალი) — large meat dumplings. These were done pretty well, though the stereotypical kudi was very tender so I ate them too. Not bad, but this is a hard dish to screw up. Tasty and spicy broth was a nice touch.

I avoided any dessert or anything and I was complaining about the TV at this point, and the server just shrugged and did nothing. I was livid. I left before my head exploded and walked back to the Métro shaking my head.

Problem with Georgian restaurants is either you do it nice and have abroad appeal, like Colchis in London’s Notting Hill. Or else you end up ghettoed in the Russian neighbourhoods like it’s happened in NYC (near Brighton Beach) and appeal to only the tracksuit-wearing folks. What Le Georgia done is neither — it appealed to no one, despite the convenient location and strong possibilities.

Oh, how I miss a place like Colchis now… And also now looking so forward to checking out Oda House in Manhattan’s Lower East Side — to see which it is.

Le Georgia
5112 Boulevard Décarie
Montréal, Québec

Review: Joe Beef

Montréal,
26 June 2013

I made my way to Montréal from Toronto and the change was dramatic…from horrible heat and humidity to breezy and comfortable (well, more comfortable). I had planned nothing for the first day, arriving in mid-afternoon. Today is being devoted to the return to one of my favourite restaurants in the world, Joe Beef.

To many in the food world, Joe Beef is an institution, a pure labour of love for food and drink and happiness. It’s like the Disneyland for foodies, the happiest place on the planet with amazing food and drink. Chefs from around the world descend on Montréal and make sure they experience Joe Beef. I had not eaten all day and was ready for a challenge…

For me being back in Montréal is both joyous and depressing. I love this town for all it offers, especially for the food and people. But I also dread being back here, being the town my ex-gf is from. There was no way not to think of her when I am here…and it really, really did not help when I saw a carbon copy of her in the Métro on an adjacent train…it may actually have been her. That threw me into a tizzy, a complete tizzy…

I got there upon opening and was seated at the shellfish bar on the other side of the restaurant, much like last year. Most of the staff remained the same, and they remembered me from my visit last year. It’s also like the Cheers of the food world, you just feel like home even before you sit down. How I needed that now after that utterly unneeded moment on the train… The pain I felt sitting last year here was erased, at least for a short while whilst enjoying the feast and company…I really need this now, again…

Enjoying a cocktail, I looked at the day’s menu. Though my “food French” isn’t bad, they nicely translated it all for me with detail:

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I had a totally empty stomach since Shōtō in Toronto the night before, so was ready to feast. I started with two starters as I switched to wine.

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First were some fresh razor clams. I love these things in every possible way, so this was a very nice treat to start. It was then that chef Dave McMillan came out to say hello. It was good to see the gentle bear again, and although he was busy finishing up the winebar they are opening the next week, he was in good form. I joked to him to “try to kill me” and he gave me an evil smile as he headed back…uh oh…

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I had ordered the lobster sausage already and it arrived just as Dave headed back to find a way to “kill” me… Now this was dreamy…pork and lobster in a heavenly pairing within nature’s casing. The baby turnips are a very nice addition, as well as the loose lobster chunks. Now this is awesome…

At this point, with more wine, I left my fate to the kitchen… By now I’ve mentioned this to people on Twitter and have been warned that I’m about to get what I asked for! The first to arrive was the terrine with truffles.

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I seem to be the only person in the food world that doesn’t like truffles (despite loving mushrooms of all sorts so much), so for me the parts I loved on this dish was the wild garlic from the garden in back. The terrine itself was delicious, with a rich fried egg shielding it from my eager appetite. So far a spot-on evening.

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The next dish was the stuffed squash. I do apologise if the photos are getting darker, as the sunlight from outside was fading. A rich and fantastic dish based around the simple yellow squash, albeit stuffed full of excellent seafood. Very nice.

I must mention that the person sitting next to me is from Kentucky, came to Joe Beef almost by accident thinking it a steakhouse. He heard about it from his pastor (?!) and was blown away…and had a seafood dinner! Now that’s a great story to tell!

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The next dish was one of my favourites, the tongue. Fantastic slices over a larger braised portion, with in-season watercress from the garden. I love tongue, and this dish brought out the best of the tongue. Mmm… Now compare this from the “pig head” dish from Shōtō last night and it’s the best representation of over-chef’ing compared to this clean and solid dish.

At this point I was slowing down a little, but still rallying. Along with copious amounts of drink and banter with fellow diners and crew, this was turning into an epic evening. But remembering what I told Dave, I was ready for more.

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They now brought me out my “main” — the rabbit. Now this was a very, very meaty rabbit. Most of the time you get a rabbit that’s mostly bone, but this one had a lot of meat. I thought it was a bird when it first came out… Wow. I wish I had better, unedited pictures of this beast. Tender and flavourful, excellent. I do admit I was eating somewhat slowly at this stage…

Wow…I asked for wee break at this point and was granted. Kept on the drink and chat and it was a great evening. I was out of my funk from earlier, thank goodness. I think at this point actually Dave’s plans for me had concluded, and at my breaking point too! It was late, the bar was boistrous and happy, and so was I. I stayed and drank on.

Believe it or not, I may have eaten even more at this point on and off…a little too tipsy to note all of it! The only evidence I have photo-wise are oysters (too dark to post). I came in the minute they opened, I headed out when they were closing down for the night… Now this was an epic night. And to make it even more crazy, I took one of their infamous “Double-Down” — foie gras sandwich to go with me “as dessert” for when I got back to my hotel…

Wow…this was a hell of a feast. I’ve rarely eaten this much and this well in one sitting, and I’ve rarely enjoyed myself so much. The joy of Joe Beef is the mutual love of food and drink, and plenty of good people. The cooking is based on fresh ingredients, where Dave and crew brings the very best out of these ingredients. No over-chef’ing here, not needed. Nature is the best chef. This is why the chefs that constantly over-chef come here to Joe Beef to eat.

A fantastic evening, draining, one that will require days and days in the gym to balance. But once in awhile, you are treated to such an evening, and you really do enjoy it. It gave me the peace I wanted for a few hours before heading solo into the night again.

Joe Beef
2491 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest
Montréal, Québec