Friday, February 25, 2011

Elegant slumming: Karakosh @ Dubai

How can you claim to know the country, if you've never tried what normal people normally eat there? Gliding through international hotel restaurants and sushi bars is for tourists, not travellers. Besides the concerns of "authenticity", this saves you lots of dosh.

And more often than not the grub is highly agreeable, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, where people are picky about what they eat.

With those considerations in mind, we did not think twice before popping over to one of Dubai's numerous Indian workers' cafes, Karakosh. No pretence, no menu, no alcohol, no English spoken. It smelled good and that determined our choice.

The choice turned out to be simple: fish (20 Dirham) or chicken (15 Dirham),

In a nutshell:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Tokyo Café@Amsterdam: it only gets better

Some do learn after all. Or, perhaps, bloggerism can indeed be an agent of social change. Amsterdam's Tokyo Café has paid the heed to my last post about them, where I complained about the ir "contemporary urban" service standard and a lack of sushi variety.

This time we were greeted by what must be the most courteous waiters north of the Maas River. I don't know what the owners did, maybe, sent them to a re-education camp in China, but they would not be out of place in Japan Airlines' business class waiting lounge.

Gone is the frantic pace of 2-hour pigging-out sessions that used to give me stomachaches. Now you can leisurely relish your dinner within an ample 3 hours and actually enjoy your green tea icecream instead of pushing down the cold dessert down the throat while being shooed out by annoyed staff.

We plumped for the new luxury menu, which for just 5 more euros offers some new entries:
  • okay-ish toro: coming from farmed salmon, it lacks the flavour and texture of the fattiest part of blue tuna's belly, which is actually toro proper,

  • utterly delectable spider rolls (soft-shell crab rolls) - well done!

  • very, very decent sashimi, expertly cut and correctly presented with grated daikon and even shiso leaves,

  • flambéed scallop sushi, an interesting and gastronomically satisfying Nouvelle Cuisine entry;

  • flambéed salmon sushi: quite a flop, in fact, a piece of medium-rare salmon steak on a rice ball, boooooring;

  • fiery chili prawns, albeit well cooked and inventively dished, are definitely the odd one out on a sushi menu,

  • a rather anticlimactic agedashi-tofu, with the batter peeling off and rolling up into a sticky ball, bland dashi and missing daikon-oroshi,

  • deep-fried scallops with miso sauce - highly commendable tastewise but the presentation was not as good as on the menu picture, hence points off!
The rest of the classic sushi - ika, ikura, saba, and the ilk - are even better than before. They have always been quite good anyway, but there is a slight but quite perceptible improvement, the variety and generouity of the neta (the fish part of sushi), correctly cooked rice. Kudos to the chefs!

A very Dutch nickel-and-diming touch: once you've run out of your wee ball of wasabi, you are charged another euro for another, garnted very generous helping.

A tip to upgrade this sushi menu from very good to stellar: start offering chawan-mushi, the steamed seafood omelette bowl, instead of the chilli squid. Its gentle flavour perfectly complements the subtleness of sushi, hence its position as one of the traditional staples served in Japanese sushi-ya in Japan. It is easy to cook, the ingredients are not expensive and it will make Tokyo Café stand head above the shoulders against all competition in Western Europe.

Overall, Tokyo Café has become an even more enjoyable experience, great improvements on all fronts. I don't even mind the price hike, you do get value for your hard-earned moolah!

All You Can Eat Dinner
Daily from 17:30 till 23:00 (last order 22:00)
Basic Menu €21,80 p.p.
Dinner Menu €25,80 p.p.

View Larger Map

Caspian Iranian Restaurant @Dubai: great Persian buffet for just 33 Dirhams

I normally steer clear of Justify Fullall-you-can-eat buffets. How can you ever feed someone for 6 quid and still make profit? You surely need to cut corners, the quality of food falling the likeliest victim.

Besides, an over-30 metabolism does not require enormous amounts of food for sustenance. Au contraire, your body revolts when you try to stuff too much in it, giving you a very unpleasant kind of hangover from overeating. Leave the table 90% full, is my mantra now.

But I still like the idea of creating your own platter of this and that, and that one over yonder too please. Not all dishes come out equally nice from the same kitchen, so with a buffet you get a nice sneak preview of what the chef has to offer, and then you can gorge on whatever took your fancy the most. A kind of gastronomical direct democracy.

What I love about Persian food that you can always rely on it when you want to give your taste buds a nice trip.The flavours of pomegranate syrup, dried limes, tarragon, walnuts and cinnamon make it distinctly different from its Middle Eastern or subcontinental neighbours. You may not always be able to tell Turkish dinner from Syrian, but with Persian food you can smell the difference with your eyes closed.

On Fridays and Mondays 33 Dirham a pop will buy an an all-you-can-eat Iranian buffet at Caspian Iranian restaurant on Rolla Road, Dubai. I don't know of anything comparable in London, so we simply had to make best use of this opportunity. It turned out just perfect: the classic Iranian mix of crunchy sabzi, scrumptious dips, succulent grilled meats and aromatic stews. The dessert section was a tad on the less impressive side, but the powerful tea served in glasses was included in the price, so we don't complain.

Don't forget to tip, foreign labour in Dubai are paid a pittance!

Pro's: Friendly service, very fresh food, cheap.
Con's: Air-conditioning feels more like refrigeration.
In a nutshell: Great place to scratch your Persian itch.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Je vous remerci pour notre pain quotidienne: springbok steaks & cresson veloute

The mind boggles just thinking about how far our food travels. For a few pieces of meat to come from South Africa to London and then end up on a dinner table in Amsterdam, we must be forever grateful for being able to enjoy such luxury.

Knowing that Floyd would hardly have juniper berries in his cupboard, I brought those from London too. They are the best to make sauce for probably any kind of game meat.

The cresson veloute is my homage to the wonderful family of French soups so rarelyy cooked outside La Belle France (from my experience an

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Billingsgate Market: London's freshest

To say that I am crap in the morning is to say nothing. All too oft, it takes about two hours for a huge mug of coffee, a handful of Chinese herbal pills, a round of Kundalini breathing exercises, an invigorating contrast shower and upbeat music throughout the commute to yank me out of lethargy into some semblance of functioning humanity.

It sure takes a promise of something really special to get me up at 3AM and drag my vehemently uncooperative body across dark and cold London. This time it was the perspective of a sightseeing session that worked the miracle. My group mate Tom used to work for an Italian restaurant and Billingsgate Market is where they used to buy fresh pesci spada and gambas and he promised us a tour. Nice.

Being the wholesale fish and seafood market of the capital of the country that has only recently started shedding its ichthyophobia, Billingsgate is sure not Tokyo's Tsukiji Market. A lot of the produce that will later be featured on the menus as "fresh catch of the day" is in fact hauled in refrigerator trucks. Well, how else then would you ship anything fresh from the tropical expanses of the Indian Ocean to a cloudy island in the North Sea?

At any rate, the choice is incomparably larger than the pathetic hike and pollock of my childhood's fish shops. The high turnover makes sure that the gifts of the sea are affordable to the gluttonous masses in the Big Smoke.

Speaking of prices, they are not that much lower than at my Brixton Market fishmongers, so a couple of quid difference is definitely not worth the tribulations of an hour-and-half night bus trip.

A lot can be said by the food cooked in the market. Grilled seafood in Barcelona's La Boqueria Market was superlative. The only ocean-derived item we found in Billingsgate Market's café was this grilled scallop bagel with bacon and cheese. It tasted just the way it looked.

Ottomanic fiasco: Bazar @ Amsterdam

aaw, I should have known the moment I entered the place: the dim lights, the exotic crockery, the "world cuisines" menu, and a sure giveaway: packed to the rafters with under-35 Dutch yuppies. The daily dining out lifestyle is making quick in-roads into the Dutch psyche, particularly catching on among the above mentioned demographics. A dinner out does not need a special excuse any more, it is just a matter of convenience as well as enjoyment.

But what is there to be enjoyed remains to be agreed upon. In
Amsterdam it seems to be candles and cosy interiors over the food served every time. The dim lighting masques the content of the plates and the designer furniture makes the restaurant a sort of extension of your living room perfect for pursuing the Dutch national ideal of gezelligheid (conviviality in a warm,cosy and preferably dimly lit milieu).

Bazar on Albert Cuypstraat got it all covered: there is just enough light to read the menu, the plates and cutlery are exuberantly picturesque and candles are sticking out of all imaginable places.

Although it claims to be a wereldeethuis - a restaurant of world cuisines, the food is mostly Turkish, on the level of your average dinner in Turkey - never bad enough to be sent back to the kitchen, but always making you long for the moment when you finally got it over with your dinner. Like I wrote earlier, I have had much better Turkish food outside Turkey than in the country itself.

These icecream-like balls are Irfan’s starter (€10.50):

  • zaalouk, -the best of the bunch, a kind of cold Moroccan ratatouille;
  • humuz - aka hommous, flat as a used condom;
  • haydari, aka suzme - plain strained yoghurt without a whiff of herbs;
  • sarma - aka dolma, stuffed grape leaves, as forgettable as they always are;
  • peynir ezme - a spicy-ish feta-cheese spread that acquires its pungent taste and lively light orange colour from the biber salçası pepper paste - served in one big blob, it just was too rich to have allure;
  • sigara böregi - filo pastry stuffed with cheese, a good solid B;
  • pide - very underwhelming, considered that the only people that could possible beat Turks to making bread are the French. You can get better in any Turkish bakery in Amsterdam any day, and aren't reataurants supposed to be better and more special than our daily home-made meals?
The attractively served on a huge colourful bowl Bizar Bazar (€29) was a meat platter consisting of a mixed grill kebab, that had apparently never been in the vicinity of either charcoal nor grill, most likely just hot plates:
  • very chewy pieces of mutton disguised as lamb, ingenuously spiced up with salt;
  • pieces of dry and bland chicken breast,
  • pieces of even dryer and blander turkey breast,
  • pieces of rather passable spicy chicken sausage
  • interspersed with pieces of onions, bell peppers and aubergines
as well as
  • lamb stew with almonds (and SALT!) à la Persienne - way too conspicuously cooked well in advance;
  • fried chicken, tasting suspiciously like frozen "spicy chicken wings" from your local discount supermarket (I once did go through that traumatic experience!)
  • two long and raw green bell peppers;
  • a mound of rather nice rice;
  • a bowl of semi-retired tabbouleh, chopped parsley with bulgur and tomato bits;
  • a bowl of bizarrely tough pickles, think slices of wood,softened by immersing in vinegar;
  • and a handful of soft and anaemic French fries.
Big beers were in fact half-pints, the service - friendly, yet very unhurried. We were relieved when the dinner was over and we could go home. Wouldn't any comment be superfluous?

Pro's: Beautiful plates and wall tiles.
Con's: Utterly bland uninspiring food. Snail-speed service.
In a nutshell: Bleh. You won't see us again.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Juniper sauce: on top of the game

There is nothing like the resiny bouquet of juniper sauce to complement the rich flavour of game. When served on top of reindeer steaks, it reminds me of my childhood in Arctic Russia where we had both reindeer and juniper, but no one was sophisticated enough to combine the two in one dish.

That does not stop me from enjoying this lovely combination now. It sounds fancy but in fact is very easy to whip up.

Once you've fried your game steaks or what you have (I use clarified butter for that), leave the juices on the pan, add a tablespoonful of juniper berries, a liberal dash of freshly ground black pepper and half a glass of red wine. Reduce it on low fire until trickly. Serve your game meat with the sauce on top and two sides: one starchy (e.g. baked potatoes) and one crunchy (e.g., steamed haricot beans). A green salad with a simple Italian dressing can be good but this time I served a veloute with grilled parmigiano bread.