2 Star

Tin Lung Heen, Hong King

Hong Kong is a city punctuated with sky scrapers. From the ground they pierce the horizon like needle points, each a place of work or home for people who don’t mind not having a garden. The highest of these concrete high points is the ICC tower, ninth tallest building in the world, to be found via a maze of ground level building sites that will one day be the new financial district. The top floors of the building belong to the very swish Ritz-Charlton hotel, itself home to this afternoons lunch at the two Michelin star Tin Lung Heen, which must be the highest starred restaurant on the planet. It’s trivial, of course, and the height should hardly matter, but there can be few places on the planet where the view is quite as spectacular.

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The restaurant is a pretty one; ornate and comfortable, elegant and demure. Tables are dressed in thick white linen, spaced well apart over the thick cream carpet. There are flourishes of red that cut through the glossy black walls, whilst the back wall is reserved for Chinese wines and sakes for those whose budget is non-existent. Indeed, this is a place to splurge; we had to search the wine list for a bottle under £75.00 and held our breath when the bill showed mineral water to be £11.50 per bottle. Those dining here come for Catonese food with the most precious of ingredients – they do not come expecting a bargain.

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We start with two dim sum: Excellent cuts of Iberico pork shoulder, barbequed to a dusty pink and glazed  with honey, are stunning – the meat dissolving on the tongue without any effort.  The other was a steamed dumpling with dried scallop, fish maw (dried bladder, if you really want to know), and shrimp.  It was the taste of the sea if the sea had curled up and died, all wrapped up in a soggy polythene casing.  This won’t be the first time that I say this, and I am sure this was exactly how it was supposed to be prepared, but it wasn’t for me.  The flavour was too stagnant, the texture too alien.  It was lost on me, and I’m quite happy for everyone to know that.

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My face said it all on the next course.  A murky soup with lumps of boiled pork shin so grey they could have passed for British summertime, with winter melon of no distinct taste and more of the dried scallop.  There was dried longon, a bit like lycee, which added the faintest of acidity.  It was not nice and none of us got close to finishing it.  Our waiter, the brilliant and affable Leo, tried his best by offering an alternative soup, but by now we just wanted to move on it from it all.

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We moved on to accurately cooked scallops, with souffled pastry pieces and a finely chopped salsa of green onion and ginger.  On the other side of the plate was Chinese kale, which tasted a lot like tenderstem broccoli, and pine nuts.  The precision of all the elements was two star cooking; the veg precisely prepared and cooked, the scallops with a gently caramelised crust.  It was just dull.  Nothing slapped you around the chops or gave you a hug. The morsels of duck that followed were so tender that canines nor molars were required to work, sat in a deeply flavoured black bean sauce to which we piled in rice full of interest with bits of goose, abalone and shrimps.  Lovely, yes, though hardly two star worthy.

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We finish on a dessert that would divide the table.  A set milk cream (panna cotta, if you so like), with a gelatinous peach compote and a fat slice of black truffle.  Whilst my dining companions hated the way that the truffle bullied its way through the dessert, perfuming the milk and overpowering the peach, I actually quite liked it and ended up with three lots to eat.  The honeyed bit of pastry on the side was a nice sweet note to end on, the over set grapefruit jelly less so.

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I’d read a bit about the dubious nature of Michelin in Hong Kong prior to my trip and this meal confirmed pretty much all I read as true.  Maybe I’m wrong, but nothing struck me as truly two star cooking.  Yes, its precise and yes they use luxury ingriedients, but many of those ingredients added nothing to the meal other than an increased cost.  Maybe it’s me and my uncultured western palate.  We indulged a little in the wine list and left with a hefty bill that quickly soared into the hundreds.  For that we had the loftiest of views in a lofty city and a distinctly average meal that left me feeling a little cold all over.

5/10

Le Gavroche, London

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I first ate at Le Gavroche almost three years to the day from this meal. It was at a time when this blog was a distant dream and we ate for pleasure only.  Oh, how I miss those days.  It still stands as my favourite ever meal; perhaps not the best food, but certainly the best overall experience.  There was, and still is, something uniquely special about walking underneath the famous signage, through the heavy doors, down the stairs and into that dimly lit basement dining room.  There is ceremony with every nudge of a chair and pouring of wine, and touch of class at every detail with custom made table sculptures, plates, and silverware.  We ate chicken with parmesan risotto, drank our body weight in wine and overindulged Michael Roux Jnr himself in person at our excessive praise of the soufflé suissesse – a long standing stalwart of the menu here so light it threatened to drift back up those stairs and off into the clouds.  I consider myself lucky enough to have eaten at Birmingham’s five Michelin starred restaurants on many occasions but our pursuit outside of my home town has never led us back to the same place.  Now, with Phil Howard departing from The Square there was only ever one option for a celebratory return meal:  Three months back we decide to hammer the phone lines at 9am and secure a table at Le Gavroche.

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It was, if I am entirely honest, not as memorable as our first visit.  Perhaps it was the table; this time in a busy area near the stairs as opposed to the dark green booth we had once nestled in to in the far corner.  Maybe it is much of the romanticism is lost once you have witnessed it in person already.  That is not to say it is still not one of the countries top tables; almost everything we ate punched with French classicism and Gaelic charm, personified by an almost entirely French waiting team, each oozing with the confidence only a top kitchen can install.  Nibbles of smoked duck and another of cheese and chive greet as us as we are sat, followed quickly by an amuse of deep fried burrata ravioli, all of which quickly disappear before a basket of bread is presented with a choice of butter.  Knowing what is next, we save the bread for the aforementioned Soufflé Suissesse, flavoured with cheese and cooked on double cream, which is every bit as naughty as it sounds.  The dish is filth in the best possible sense, imagined by a brain with zero regard for health care and the upmost respect for indulgence.  This version was as good as I remember and still makes my top three dishes of all time.

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A fat cut of veal shoulder follows, braised gently so that the knife is redundant.  The cooking of the meat is exact, even if the ragout of beans is light on seasoning and the accompanying  green beans the extreme side of al dente.  Our charming waiter asks if everything is okay to which I tell him that the portion is too big, only covering half of the truth as this singular dish individually ruins my otherwise perfect memory of the restaurant.  A chariot of cheese quickly restores memories, each one impeccably sourced and kept, with the comte and stinking bishop notably good.

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Dessert number one is a nougatine parfait almost as smooth as the service here, with melon in varying forms, which is nice but hardly memorably.  Better was the birthday cake for two; a chocolate mousse with a rich ganache exterior, not dissimilar to the famous Louis XV dessert at the Alain Ducasse restaurant in Monaco of the same name.  Its rich and velvety, and it has my name written on the plate.  Honestly, could it get any better.  There are petit fours including candied kumquats and truffles which are as good as you would expect.

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Being my birthday we gorge on the pink sparkling stuff, the white stuff, the red stuff, and the fortified red stuff, leaving a bill that I did not see (Thank You, Charlie), but was fairly considerable by any stretch.  Not that this matters of course as nobody goes to the effort of trying to get a reservation here, eventually donning the compulsory shirt and jacket, and comes here expecting it to be cheap.  What you pay for is an institution steeped in gastronomic history, where food sits around the two star level it is presently scored at, with service arguably a level above that.  Le Gavroche is an experience unlike anywhere else in London, which everyone should save up for and try once in their life.  Maybe not the perfection I recalled first time around, but still very very good indeed.  Go on, spoil yourself.

9/10

Le Gavroche Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Hibiscus, London

Hibiscus operates in a smart location just off Regents Street, its interior befitting a two starred restaurant in Mayfair.  Its all clean lines, neutral decor and plush seating.  Modern art dominates the walls as a army of waiting staff glide over the thickly carpeted floor.  Its all very Michelin.  Its not the kind of place you come to have a good time, unless your idea of a good time happens to be hushed conversation and overhearing a nearby table discuss hedge funds.  They make no excuses that here is a temple of gastronomy, pushing the boundaries of modernist haute cuisine in a city not known for its food innovation.028025

The modernist approach is in your face from the off.  Eggs arrive in a carton, the perfectly trimmed shell encasing a silky mushroom mousseline, a coconut froth and a dusting of curry powder.  It succeeds in providing interest in that I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not until the last mouthful.  I don’t.  A smoked chicken terrine is pitch perfect, the flavour pronounced and lifted by a little foie gras.  We forced the last of the meat and quince jelly on to sourdough from the Hedone bakery, which is about as good as a shopping trip for bread can get.029033031

Poached cod arrives under a cloud of foam, the fish surrendering to the merest of pressure from the fork. The fine dice of shallot, lemon and capers taking French home cooking to dizzying heights.  We fight over who can mop the last of the cooking liquor up with more of the bread.  No such arguments were needed with black pudding of Hare with a glossy jugged sauce.  It was blood with more blood and needed far more acidity than a roasted apple to cut through richness that bordered on sickly.  The accompanying pomme puree had been overworked to a gloop.  There should be a t-shirt and Hall of Fame for anyone that can finish this in one sitting.  036034

More game was had with partridge, with a slightly tough breast and wondrous confit leg which had me gnawing at the bone.  There was clever use of cauliflower roasted and also worked into a couscous like texture.  Genius was at work with the sauce, perked by curry and raisins, which lifted the dish firmly into two star territory in a unique and playful way.035

Desserts were a mixed bag.  I saw little enjoyment in their take on Tiramisu, with a grainy ice cream spoiling a pleasantly different combination of coffee and cardamom.  It made me wish I had joined the rest of the table in ordering the sticky date sponge which drew silences thanks to a fudge sauce with a pronounced smoked flavour.037038

The bill is kind for this level, with lunch for three, including half a bottle of wine each and a cocktail apiece, creeping in at seventy quid a head.  It allows a small glimpse into the world of Claude Bosi’s cooking, which provokes at all times and succeeds a little bit less.  The best of the cooking is up their with the best, with other dishes disjointed in comparison.  Maybe my palate is too primitive but food at Hibiscus is not somewhere I would come running back to when I’m next in the capital, however intriguing it may be.

7/10

Hibiscus Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

 

Le Champignon Sauvage, Cheltenham

I wanted to wait a while before writing this. To give it a week or so to allow the emotions to settle and the sheen of alcohol to disperse from the bloodstream. On too many occasions over the last year I have been guilty of bashing away at the keyboard the morning after and letting the previous evenings emotions take over. Scores become a product of the overall experience, rather than the meal itself, which, I hate to break to you, is the purpose of this blog. In truth, a very good meal late last year was probably bumped up to the score it got because straight afterwards we went up The Shard and got pissed on cocktails. Fast forward twenty-hours and I am still high from being high up, waxing lyrically about the day to one and all, with it now reflected over an exaggerated 500 words.  Not this time.  I need clarity: Time to digest, both metaphorically and physically, which is what I have done with last week’s two and a half hours at Le Champignon Sauvage. Now I can confidentially tell you that my initial reactions were correct: It was one of the greatest meals of my life.

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The legend of the kitchen here that may go some way to explaining the quality on the plates leaving the pass.  The man behind the stoves is David Everitt-Matthias; a cook’s cook by some stretch.  Whilst others are working their way through the BBC food roster, the chef here is yet to miss a service since they opened in 1987.  He has little care for the modern frivolities of the cooking world, choosing to focus on feeding the diner over his ego.  It is David’s wife, Helen, who presides with grace over a dining room which at best can be described as composed, or dull in other eyes.  Little does this matter for the fireworks are all reserved for the cooking.

From the start we knew we were in for a treat.  Brioche tuile, a bacon muffin of impossible lightness, a cube of something gelatinous coated with chorizo powder, all gone in seconds.  This is followed by a small ceramic pot with a set cabbage cream at the bottom, a bacon foam and some crunchy nuggets of black pudding.  It tastes like the very best of Irish home cooking condensed into a couple of mouthfuls.  The other half half has the same base, with shavings of cauliflower and hazelnut atop.  Miraculously it is the same earthy notes, minus the meat content.  Bread is presented, the star of which is the bacon and shallot brioche.  I ignore the rule about not filling up on carbs and go back to it three more times during the meal.

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We order fairly priced wines from the Loire and Gironde which come with the seal of approval from Helen and descend into our chairs a little further.  Starters appear, my partners a faultless combination of Jerusalem artichoke and truffle.  The choke, both water bathed and fried, offset against a truffle shaved, grated and reduced it a tar like substance that I would like to take home and slather on some toast.  A scattering of bitter leaves and dots of apple puree balance out the richness.  The one word note in my phone says it all.  Perfect.  It overshadowed my well-timed pigeon breast with baby carrots and spiced carrot puree, but then it would overshadow anything.

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Cheap cuts and brawn may not be to everyone’s taste, but to those who it is not, I’m sorry, we can’t be friends.  The wobbly bits of soft porcine meat and fat from the pigs head that lay at the base of my plate would be the starting point for one of the very best things that I have ever eaten.  Add to the mix bits of braised cheek and belly and what you have is a winner.  Croquettes that open up to be molten sweetcorn provide interest and sweetness which would be levelled out by tenderstem and pickled wild mushrooms.  Its intrinsic cooking of flawless work and ballerina like poise.  I find myself scraping the plate for last of the head meat with a crispy bit of pig skin.  If there has ever been a more masculine sentence written than that, I would like to go for a pint of beer with the man that wrote it.

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Whilst I was lost in a piggy haze, the veggie was working her way through a dish equally exceptional.  Translucent discs of turnip gently folded over a smoked onion puree, silky smooth and potent in flavour.  It shared the plate with more wild mushrooms, wilted lettuce and peas, both fresh and pureed.  As with the starter, the dish was set up so nothing detracted from the purity of the vegetable flavour.  It is cohesive and expertly judged.

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A pre-dessert of set mascarpone with chocolate sponge and coffee nods successfully towards a tiramisu without ever really touching the heights of the previous courses.  It’s a welcome break, though we are quickly back with a mille feuille of peaches and raspberries intertwined with a lemon verbena cream.  I am not usually a fan of shrubbery in my sweet course, though here the floral notes were restrained and in harmony with the fruit of stunning quality. The accompanying peach ice cream was a thing of beauty.  I’ve eaten my far share of mille feuille’s; this may be my favourite.

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We finish with petite fours that are a step too far for our bulging waistlines.  Amongst them are mini baba doused in rum and a chocolate dusted in liquorice that slips out of my fat fingers and on to the crisp white linen.  I take this as our cue to leave, even if the waitress greets the black smudge with the same cheeriness that has met us with every course this evening.  Le Champignon Sauvage is a lovely place where wonderful things happen on plates without any evident pretence.  My only issue is with my scoring.  The top score I am obviously going to give it puts it up with some very good places, but this is a special restaurant, worthy of top billing on its own.  The clarity of flavour.  The ambition to match the execution on every dish, flawless from start to finish.  I’ll repeat it once again:  One of the greatest meals of my life.

10/10

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The Hand and Flowers, Marlow

Two years ago The Hand and Flowers was cast into the national spotlight when a French tyre maker decided to endow it with the pressure of being the only two star pub in the world. I remember trawling across the internet reading up on it and coming across an article in The Daily Mail with a typically bashful comments section: “It’s not a pub, it’s a restaurant with a bar” some UKIP follower shouted, whilst a lady with a particular affliction to Princess Diana said something about them probably not selling pork scratching, which of course is the litmus test for any public house. It seemed tragic that the majority was more interested in the argument of whether or not it was a pub, rather than embrace the accolade that goes with cooking that is deemed worthy of “a detour”

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Two years on and the two stars is still going strong. The chef here, Tom Kerridge, is everywhere; you can’t flick on BBC without seeing his ever decreasing frame and wonderful range of checked shirts. He has become the nations favourite chef through cooking gutsy, flavoursome food that you know will taste good. All very well, but I’ve eaten in enough of these places to know that gutsy doesn’t translate well in the world of Michelin. How wrong I was.

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There is still finesse here, though it has to find its own place in amongst the big tastes, which is what Kerridge and his team do with ease. A starter of truffle demi en-croute may look sophisticated and sound posh, though really is all about the bold flavours. The whole truffle wrapped in sausage meat, itself encased in a hot water pastry that enhanced the meatiness of the pork. The jug of port sauce that came with it was a stunning thing, all glossy and deep, that highlighted at the core of Kerridge’s cooking is classic French cuisine. It wasn’t the easiest thing to eat elegantly, but Oh My, it was divine.

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It was BBC2’s Great British Menu that cast Tom into the public eye, so 2011’s winning main course of slow cooked duck was an easy choice. The breast, as tender as it was, was overshadowed the other elements of the animal; a shard of crispy skin, a smear of liver parfait and a sausage with a tang of offal. Served alongside this was another stunning sauce, savoy cabbage with confit duck and the best chips I have ever had the pleasure of eating. It was a fitting tribute to a animal that had died with the sole purpose of being eaten, with every part of bird used to its full effect. Another poultry main saw half a chicken served alongside autumnal squash glazed with maple and malt. The chicken moist from the brining process, had a subtle beer flavour at its core and extra earthiness from a dusting of truffle at the table. The Hand and Flowers do protein well, but then again, maybe it was expected. The chef does look like a man that enjoys a good slab of meat.

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Chicken

The vegetarian main wasn’t listed on the menu, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be a bit of an oversight here. Wrong again. It was tart, with a pastry akin to filo containing flecks of onion. Sitting prettily on top of this were various veg, all cooked accurately. A serious amount of work went into assuring The Veggie was pleased, if a little overly full.

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Desserts were truly top class. A perfectly risen blueberry souffle was given balance by an ice cream that tasted exactly as the childhood favourite, parma violets. I tried them both with a drizzle from the small jug of lemon verbena it came with and decided the dish didn’t need it. An apple tart had a bramley sorbet so good that we asked for the recipe and a chocolate and ale cake left us all speechless. It was of perfect balance – just sweet enough with a lingering savoury note from the ale. The salted caramel pool it was sat in and the muscovado ice cream it cradled adding moisture and further contrast.

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Apple Tart

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I could go on and on about the well priced wine list and the charming service, but I’ll save you the time. All that you need to know is that The Hand and Flowers is an establishment of exceptional quality. The nayslayers who say that it doesn’t have the cooking precision or the service of other two starred restaurants should really consider their argument. You cant compare here to The Square any more than you could compare Sat Bains to Helen Darroze or L’Enclume to La Gavroche. What they all have in common (okay, maybe not Darroze) is food that makes you sit up and take notice, and the food here certainly does that. I left thinking it was as a nine out of ten meal, though having brewed over it for a few days, I realise it was the most I’ve enjoyed myself since I sat down to twenty-odd courses in Cumbria a couple of years ago. It’s proper food, just how the chef intends it.

10/10

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