Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Delfino's Pizzeria & Restaurant - London

As even the most casual reader of this blog knows, both of us love London. Over the last 10 odd years, we have spent a lot of time here. For both of us it’s a city that gives us culture, mental stimulation, loads of walking, great food and an immediate sense of peace. We are often asked what we do there for so long every year and our honest answer is ‘we live there’. We go for walks, we cook in our apartment, we go for an occasional play or music show or exhibition that catches our eye, we watch TV, we work on our computers, we go to the supermarket and the farmers market and, as we do in Mumbai, we go out to eat. Doesn’t seem like much but believe me, the time flies by.

Over the years, we have developed or fallen into some sort of routine for our time in London. Every Saturday morning, we watch Saturday Kitchen, a fabulous TV show hosted by James Martin showcasing the best chefs in Britain; every Sunday morning we go to the farmers Market at Marylebone where I often treat myself to half a dozen fresh oysters; if we don’t have an early dinner reservation we go for a walk around Hyde Park every evening and so on. One of the other routines we have fallen into is a first meal in London at the lovely Delfino Pizzeria at Mayfair and our last supper as it were is normally Fish and Chips at Golden Hind in Marylebone.

Delfino Pizzeria is a charming busy family owned restaurant Pizzeria on Mount Street right next to Berkeley Square. Sharing the ground floor of the lovely Victorian building is the more formal Fino Restaurant and Bar which is owned and run by the same family that runs Delfino.

The Pizzeria has an unassuming charm, bright yellow table cloths, friendly chatty staff and considering its location in Mayfair the prices are very competitive. A pizza here will not cost you more than a pizza at any Pizza Express in London. Besides pizzas, there is a good wine list, excellent starters and a fair choice of meat and pasta dishes and seasonal specials.

Part of the charm at Delfino is getting a table in the front room and watching the pizzaiolos toss and spin the pizzas before placing them in the large wood fired oven.

Having eaten at Delfino more than half a dozen times, we have eaten our way through a fair part of the menu. The fried Zucchini and Calamari starter served with tartare sauce is particularly good as is the Burratina (extra creamy mozzarella on a bed of turnip tops and marinated red onion, balsamic reduction dressing), the Polpettine di Agnello: (Spiced lamb meat balls with cracked wheat, pine nuts & cinnamon, served with mint and Greek yoghurt) as well as the Insalata Rizzoli (Tomato, buffalo mozzarella & the speciality Rizzoli anchovies from Parma). Washed down with either their house red wine or a very decently priced bottle of pink prosecco, any of these starters go down an absolute treat.

Polpettine di Agnello

Fried Calamari & Zucinni

But, however good the starters may be, it is the pizzas here that are the absolute stars. Unlike other places, the pizzas at Delfino are well-cooked without being charred and use the right quantities of each ingredient, evenly spread throughout. The base itself isn't too thin or thick and is so tasty that you will happily eat the crust too!  Over the years and over several visits we have eaten the Margherita, the Quattro Formaggi (Mozzarella, Brie, Parmesan and Gorgonzola. No Tomato), the Fiorentina (Tomato, Mozzarella, Spinach, Italian Prosciutto Cotto Ham, Fresh Farm Egg), the Tricolore (A three-stripe pizza in the colours of the Italian Flag: Tomato, Mozzarella and Spicy Salame – Mozzarella and Ricotta – Roquette and Parma Ham) and a few excellent Calzones. I am happy to say, we have never had a disappointing pizza.

Tirolese: Tomato, Mozzarella, a little Gorgonzola, Speck (Tyrolean ham speciality) and Roquette

Diavolo: Tomato, Mozzarella, Fresh Sausage, Spicy Salame, Gorgonzola

This time we were in London during Black Truffle season and to our delight, the special pizza for the day was Spalla Cotta Tartufata (Tomato, Mozzarella, Scarmoza, Spalla Cotta – a specialty cooked ham – and a generous drizzle of Black Truffle Oil. We worked our way through the Fried Zucchini and Calamari and a bottle of the house red while we waited for our pizza. The aroma hits you as soon as the pizza hits the table and each bite is an absolute joy. Just one word – sublime. Perfectly seasoned, wonderfully balanced and an absolute winner.

Spalla Cotta Tartufata

The next time you are in London, do go to Delfino. It is really special.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Chiltern Firehouse - London

When the Doctor Businesswomen - our friend from London, fellow enthusiastic gourmand and bon vivant - went with us to Amritsar, she said that the next time we were in London we should have a meal at Chiltern Firehouse.

Chiltern Firehouse Hotel and Restaurant, in our old stomping grounds Marylebone, opened in March 2014 to a fabulous response. The Chiltern Firehouse was an actual fire station which has been converted. The place is owned by an American hotelier Andre Balazs who has a string of hotels in the US. This was his first outpost in the UK.

The restaurant is large, the Hotel Bar is sort of attached to the restaurant and the open courtyard had tables and fairy lights and candles. All look extremely pretty. Of course it was too cold to sit out in the open courtyard.

The Executive Chef at Chiltern Firehouse is the much respected Nuno Mendes (a disciple of Wolfgang Puck) having also worked at the legendary El Bulli. Nuno Mendes was the former Head Chef at Viajante where he had a Michelin Star. Now he is in charge of the stoves at Chiltern Firehouse. He describes his style as 'Iberian, though somewhat Asian with some South American and Latin American influence'

Chiltern Firehouse is a darling of the celebrities. David Beckham, Nigella Lawson, David and Samantha Cameron, Bono, Naomi Campbell, Lindsay Lohan and God knows who else. The waiters have uniforms designed by J Crew. The Waitresses have Emilia Wickstead jumpsuits [whoever Emilia may be]. The staff all look smashing, and unusually, a majority of them are English, not English speaking but, English. There is a cool open kitchen where you can watch all the action. The kitchen has a counter running on its outside where you can sit and have your meal. The whole restaurant is very glamorous. Very impressive and with a great buzz.

We had a table at 7 pm and were warned that we would have to surrender the table at 9 pm. By 7.03 we were all seated. Doctor Businesswoman brought along her partner - whom I shall affectionately call `The Experience’ – so, it was 4 of us. A bottle of champagne was ordered to get things going. There were a lot of Aperitifs on offer but we stuck to the Champagne. To nibble with our Champagne a portion of Crab Doughnuts were ordered. These were absolutely delightful and are a signature dish here. You get a Golf ball sized Brioche ball sliced in half and filled with delicious Crab Mayonnaise. The Doughnuts are dusted with Crab Coral. Crab Coral is crab roe. Really nice.

Crab Doughnuts

For starters Doctor Businesswoman and The Experience shared half dozen oysters. HRH the Queen of Kutch had Venison Carpaccio with Smoked Yoghurt, Walnuts & Horseradish. She pronounced this as delicious. Unfortunately, there is no photograph. She said that the dish had brilliant textures with the creamy Yogurt and the crunch of the Walnuts. I ordered what has become a Chiltern Firehouse favourite which is Grilled Octopus Aubergine, Pickled Daikon & Mushrooms. The plate is as pretty as a picture. To eat, it was stunning. Rather unusually, to me, the dish was not Middle Eastern in flavour but was Japanese, Oriental and full of Umami flavours. Aubergine is used a lot in Japanese food as is Daikon. The Aubergine was beautifully pureed and flavoured with Soy or Miso or both. The Octopus, such an Iberian ingredient was wonderfully charred, smoky and incredibly tender. Fantastic dish.

Grilled Octopus Aubergine, Pickled Daikon & Mushrooms

For mains Doctor Businesswoman and the Experience ordered Welsh Lamb, Aubergine, Yoghurt, Black Sesame & Chicory served pink. Once again on one level such a classic pairing of ingredients and on another level so beautifully adapted to a sort of Oriental flavour.

Welsh Lamb, Aubergine, Yoghurt, Black Sesame & Chicory 

HRH the Queen of Kutch asked for Slow Cooked Cod with raw & roasted Carrots and Brown Butter. This was also served pink, which is unusual at first blush, but then you ask yourself what is Sushi? Pairing Fish with Brown Butter is again a classic combination. Please have a look at the photograph. This is quite a dish and with some fairly unusual cooking techniques.

 Slow Cooked Cod with raw & roasted Carrots and Brown Butter

I, as readers will by now know, am partial to Pork. On offer was Iberico Pork Shoulder chargrilled served with Courgette & Chard Miso and a Yeast crisp. I have no idea what a Yeast Crisp is nor how it is made. You can see it in the photograph; it looks like a shard of glass. The Pork was also served rare. The Pork was beautifully charred on the outside and pink and soft on the inside, totally lean. We simply do not eat raw pork in India as it can be dangerous. But in Europe pigs are fed appropriately, vaccinated and tested. So eating pink pork is safe. The dish lacked a bit of salt but that was easily remedied. Wonderful.

Iberico Pork Shoulder chargrilled served with Courgette & Chard Miso and a Yeast crisp

3 desserts were ordered to share. The best by a country mile was Ice Cream with Honeycomb, Honey and a Honey Jelly. Brilliant. The Beetroot with Ice Cream as less successful. I thought the Beetroot could have been sweeter. The last of the trio was a Dark Chocolate Delice which was nice.

The evening was far from being over. 9.00 pm had long gone and we were still at our table. So, The Experience suggested that we move to the bar and have a bottle of Champagne. So we retreated to the room everyone wants to get into. This is located behind the sommelier's passage which now houses the wine and which was once where the firemen stored their ladders and stabled their horses, is the Ladder Shed. Now it is a sumptuous bar resembling a slice of another retro Miami Palm Beach style as we have seen through several Hollywood films. Officially it's only possible to step inside here (once you've announced yourself and signed the black leather guest book) if you're a hotel resident or their friend. However, once we signed into the big leather book we went in. The evening continued and so did the drinking, sparkling conversation and much merriment. One bottle led to another and we finally staggered out at close to 12.30 in the morning.

If you read my post on the Colony Grill Room you will recall my theory that the cost of the interiors of the restaurant had to be recovered from the food. Unfortunately at the Colony Grill Room the food was quite poor, thus giving this theory some substance. At the Chiltern Firehouse, though as much would have been spent on the interiors, the food was excellent and did not leave you feeling short changed in any way.

It was a most wonderful evening. The food was top notch and the restaurant was a real looker, the company was great, conversation was eclectic. What more do you want?

Unhesitatingly recommended.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Aachen & Cologne - The food.

Aachen and Cologne are some 50 kilometres apart. So as far as food is concerned there is not much of a difference between the food in both places. Except of course, the local beer Kolsch, which is peculiar to Cologne.

As a general rule, when we travel in Europe we do not eat at Michelin starred restaurants, preferring instead to eat typically local food at local restaurants. We do a lot of research into finding out appropriate restaurants and take in inputs from the hotel Concierge. We invariably visit the restaurant before a booking a made or before we eat there and have a look at the menu and get an idea of what we are in for. I do not know why restaurants in India do not display their menus either on the door or online. The small change we note is that sites like Zomato have started doing this and put up menus that they get from the restaurants. A good move.

Starting from the morning, breakfast was always just a cup of coffee. Never anything more. Lunch was always a delight. Germany has some of the best bread and the best sandwiches. Once or twice it was a grilled Bratwurst or a Curry Wurst with a piece of bread. We were perfectly happy. At times it was a fish sandwich or a mixed fried fish at the very good fast food chain called Nordsee. This chain specializes in all manner of fish food, sandwiches, large Tacos filled with fish, fried fish with potato salad and so on. We do like this chain and the food they serve.

As far as dinner was concerned it was our main meal. However, regrettably, we found, as far as we were concerned, the food in Aachen and Cologne underwhelming, sub-par and of mediocre quality. Again, generally speaking, the food - in the same kind of restaurants researched in the same way - in Italy, France, Belgium and Spain to be far better.

This was sad.

The food we had in Bauhaus’s was on the whole better value for money. A Brauhaus is supposed to be a restaurant that cooks its own food and has predominantly beer served. The Brauhaus may brew its own beer or may sell beer linked to a particular brewer. Not that the food was exceptional or better, but you paid far less for what you got as compared to a restaurant. A full meal for the two of us in a Bauhaus with lots of beer, a starter each and a main course each would be about Euro 55-60. In a restaurant with just a glass of beer and a bottle of wine the same food would cost 100 – 110 Euro [wine being about 25 -30 Euro]. Mind you the food would be the same, meaning the dishes would be the same.  You could argue that the quality of meat, produce and the fact that you get some service in a restaurant may justify the inflated price, but on the whole we did not think so. Mind you all the food was good, and by Indian standards, beats the Indigo Deli’s, Sassy Spoons and Bassilicos hand down. But this was not gourmet food, it did not wow us like the food in other European countries. Was this to do with German food as a whole being somewhat unsophisticated and unrefined, is it to do with the fact that we chose wrong, I do not know.

If you look at the photos the food looks good, in fact it looks very good. However, when eating you realised the shortcomings. Often it was careless, lazy and short cut cooking. The Schnitzel, which is really a local dish,  is something any restaurant can make. You need an escalope of Veal or Pork or even Chicken, apply standard breading [flour, egg and bread crumbs - in that order] and fry the thing. Often these were pre-fried, heated in a microwave or a hot sauce poured on top. Sauces were made with shop bought stock cubes and not made from genuine veal stock, which is what you would expect. So the sauces turned out tasting like Maggi or Knorr stock cubes, thickened with flour. Not pleasant. 

All the restaurants we went to had several common dishes on the menus. Potato Soup with Bacon and Croutons as well as Beef Bullion was on all menus. Fried Camembert was common. Wiener Schnitzels with Mushroom sauce, or plain, or with a Madagascar sauce [A piquant sauce with green pepper] were all over. Pork Knuckle either boiled or roasted with crackling was all over. Beef Roulade, Beef Sauerbraten which is Beef marinated in Vinegar and then stewed and served with an Apple Sauce was common. Blood Sausage or Black Pudding was almost always on the menu. Bauhaus’s also had the obligatory sausage. Vegetables were always potato either mashed or boiled or roast, the roast potato being totally delicious. Cabbage was everywhere in many forms. Brussels Sprouts were in season so were also plentiful. Potato Pancakes served with a variety of both sweet or savoury toppings are hugely popular and were on all menus. Cheese, Pike, Perch and Herrings were always on menus. The result was that after 6 meals you had eaten thru the menu.

Of all the meals we ate the one at Restaurant Elisenbrunnen in Aachen was by far the best. Good food, good wine, decent service and a modern clean swish restaurant. The other restaurants we went to are listed. Mind you these all came highly recommended. No, they were not tourist traps [whatever that term may mean] as we found that they had a substantial local/German clientele.

In Aachen:

The Golden Unicorn
Archener Brauhaus
Restaurant Elisenbrunnen

In Cologne

Brauhaus Gaffel Am Dom
Weinhaus Brungs
Restaurant Em Krützche

As far as desserts are concerned, in restaurants these were really poor and old fashioned. Vanilla Ice Cream with Cherries and Chocolate sauce, Crème Brulee, Cinnamon Ice Cream and Prunes and Apple Strudel were all pervasive. However the Café’s and Patisseries had superb desserts on offer thru the day. These were really top class, but restaurants for some reason missed the boat.

Across Germany the beer was excellent, served with care and served cold. The wines in this part of Germany are not well known or famous, so, most wines were either French or Italian. Nothing by way of local sprits either.

Could it be that Cologne is a culinary black hole? I think that is so.

At The Golden Unicorn

Starters - A plate of Cheese and Meatballs [Very similar to Dutch Bitterballs]

Farmers Plate - Black Pudding, Pork Loin and Grilled Sausage

Schnitzel with Mushroom Sauce

At Archener Brauhaus

A really delicious Goulash Soup

Starter - Fried Camembert with Lingonberry Jam

Grilled Pork Knuckle  `Schweinshaxe' with Red Cabbage and Roast Potato

Goulash with Noodles. Totally different from the soup.

Restaurant Elisenbrunnen

Beef Consomme 

Potato Soup with Bacon and Croutons

Black Pudding and Roast Potato

Meatloaf with Fried Egg

Dessert - Tiramisu with Printen

In Cologne

Brauhaus Gaffel Am Dom

A famous Cologne speciality - Heaven and Hell Black Pudding and Bread. But this Black Pudding is in a sausage form and served cold

A Pretzel with the Kolsch

Roast Suckling Pig


A delicious Nordsee sandwich with a fillet of Fried Fish. Miles better than a MacDonalds Fillet of Fish Burger

Nordsee again. Mixed Fried Fish

Weinhaus Brungs

A Flammkuchen. A sort of German Pizza 

30 hour cooked Ox with Red Wine Sauce

Veal with Noodles

Green Salad

Cinnamon Ice Cream and Prunes

At Restaurant Em Krutzche

No that is not edible. It is a table decoration

Potato Pancake with Shrimps and Salmon

Apple Sauce

Sauerbraten with Spatzle

Roast Suckling Pig

Vanila Ice Cream a Choux Bun and some Cherry