Gymkhana

Restaurants are incredibly subjective – one persons gastronomic delight is anothers culinary car crash. Michelin is the gold standard, the World’s 50 Best is highly respected and the Good Food Guide is normally reliable. The latest to be updated is Restaurant magazine’s ‘Top 100 UK Restaurants’, I happily scanned through, agreeing with many of the choices until I got right to the top – Gymkhana?! An upmarket Indian which is the cheaper off-spring of Trishna? Aware that it would be inundated with desperate foodies (like myself) I quickly snagged a lunchtime reservation and went to see what the fuss is all about.

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A quick stroll from Green Park tube, it’s as central as central gets. The smart exterior gives way to a lovely, thoughtfully designed interior. It’s supposed to evoke the victorian sporting clubs of India and it does a remarkably good job. There’s taxidermy on the walls, framed shooting manuals and Punch prints – infinitely better than the usual Indian chintz. The menu is extensive and there are several set options available – in the interests of having as many of their greatest hits as possible we went with their six course taster, a snip at £55.

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While we waited for our starters some gorgeous poppadums arrived in three miniature varieties. The mango chutney was lovely and I particularly liked the thick chilli sauce. It set the scene for the whole meal – this is Indian, but done with a style, flair and precision that you’ve never seen before.

Potato Chat, Chickpeas, Tamarind, Sev

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The first proper course was very nice – a whole blend of textures, deftly spiced and served with a cooling yoghurt. Simple ingredients but cooked in three or four different ways – a very promising start.

Lasooni Wild Tiger Prawns, Red Pepper Chutney

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I normally avoid seafood at Indian restaurants on principle – it’s almost universally a disaster. Thankfully these are the exceptions that prove my rule, truly enormous prawns, perfecly cooked and with a heavenly sauce – silky smooth and with a delicate heat.

Gilafi Quail Seekh Kebab, Pickled Green Chilli Chutney
Kasoori Chicken Tikka, Sprouting Moong Kachumber

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Gymkhana have a whole section of their menu dedicated to game and this was our first taste. Banish all thoughts of the dry, non-descript  kebabs found in your local tandoori. This was rich, tender and very juicy. The flavour of the bird blending effortlessly with spice and nicely hot chutney.

The chicken was equally good, very moist and with a nice char. The kachumber relish added some clever crunch and sharpness.

Kid Goat Methi Keema, Salli, Pao

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Minced goat with buns – this deceptively simple take on a popular streetfood was heavenly – especially with the addition of creamy gelatinous brains. Feed your inner zombie!

Suckling Pig Vindaloo
Malabar Jheenga Curry
served with Dal Maharani, Wild Mustard Baby Potatoes – Bread Basket and Basmati Rice

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Finally we arrive at the main course! The vindaloo is nothing like the macho spice off you might expect, it harks back to the original dish with it’s strong Portuguese influence and sharp vinegary tang. The pork was wonderfully tender and sweet. The Jheenga curry is another southern delicacy, stuffed full of prawns and expertly spiced. The sides were equally good – a lovely dal, beautiful little potatoes and some really good naans and parathas.

Banana and Pecan Kheer
Saffron Pistachio Kulfi Falooda

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The only slightly bum note of the meal were the desserts – it’s not an Indian strongpoint and both left me slightly underwhelmed. The saffron ice cream and jelly was nice, but there was a little too much cardamom and the like to really make it work for me. The Kheer is a kind of cold rice-pudding, nice in a way, but more a breakfast item than a proper pudding. Some simple fruit sorbets would have been a much nicer way to finish! After a coffee two little chocolate starwberry crunches finished the meal – a nice touch.

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The desserts aside – it’s a real masterclass. It’s authentic, traditional Indian food expertly cooked with great ingredients. There’s so much passion, precision and enthusiasm in every plate that you can’t help smile. I’m not sure if it’s the best restaurant in the UK, but it’s a really wonderful experience and one that ends up being uniquely English. Magnificent – just head somewhere else for pudding!

Gymkhana on Urbanspoon

 

Honest Burgers, Tooting

Plenty of people (including myself) have been touting Tooting as South London’s next gem. What was once an unbroken chain of dodgy asian restaurants and betting shops is being revitalised as a foodie hotspot: Chicken Shop, Meza, Chez Vous, The Little Bar, Kennedy’s – there’s a lot to love. The latest (and very welcome) addition is Honest Burgers. I’ve visited their Brixton outfit before – how does Tooting compare?

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The interior is what you’d expect from a upmarket fast food mecca – exposed brickwork, bare wood and vintage stools. It’s got cow horns on the wall and a hipster bike. There’s a definite buzz to the place, friendly servers whisking food around the packed tables and a string of bemused locals peering through the windows.

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The menu is wonderfully simple, a handful of options with the right sides and an excellent craft beer selection. They win bonus points for serving the very local ‘Wolfie Smith’ from “By The Horns” – you can chuck a rock at the brewery.

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With food this simple there’s no room to hide - and it is very good. The bun has the resilience and firm crust of a brioche roll without the overpowering richness. The patty itself is quite finely ground, but cooked to a nice medium. It’s not as juicy as the likes of Patty and Bun or MEATMarket, but considerably tastier than the likes of Byron or ShakeShack. It’s rich and meaty without being overpowering. In terms of extras – I opted for the Tour de France special (with aged comte, alsace bacon, red onion relish, sauce gribiche and a side of bearnaise). Each ingredient was well thought out, carefully cooked and the whole made a mighty impressive burger.

Almost as important as the burger are the chips – here they’re nicely rustic rosemary fries. Well salted and with a good hint of herb, they don’t really need condiments. Crisp without being unpleasantly crunchy – they’re a great chip. Scrabbling around the parchment paper for the scraps at the end is half the fun.

And that’s it! There’s no desserts menu – it’s as simple and honest an experience as the name suggests. It’s one of the best burgers in London, the staff are wonderful and the decor is lovely – this one’s a keeper. Now all Tooting needs is a quality pizza joint – can we tempt Pizza Pilgrims south!?

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Apollo Banana Leaf

When people ask me where to go for an Indian, my normal response is anywhere that isn’t on Brick Lane. Tooting has some fantastic options and I’ve been happily eating my way round them (Lahore Karahi, Dosa and Chutney and Maseledar all deserve a visit) over the last year. When I spotted barbecue god Neil Rankin mentioning the Sri Lankan delights of Apollo Banana Leaf on twitter I was intrigued. A bit of digging turned up glowing reviews, including from Chris Pople at ‘Cheese and Biscuits’. My interest suitably piqued I popped down the road and stumbled across one of the best meals of the year so far.

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Apollo Banana Leaf is just south of Tooting Broadway, near St. Georges Hospital. It’s not much to look at from the outside and the inside follows suit. You’re not here for the interior design – you’re here for the food. Our meal started with some delicious mutton rolls – crisp, fragrant and freshly fried. Alongside were some gorgeous green banana bhajis served with the kind of tomato-chilli sauce that dreams are made of – searingly hot while still maintaining a semblance of balance.

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Next up came some lovely sweet coconut rice, wonderfully spiced devilled mutton and some incredible fried prawns. So often seafood in Asian restaurants is fried and boiled to the point where it could be used to re-sole shoes – not here, tender and crunchy perfection. For me the real star was a ‘shock’ vegetarian dish: the aubergine masala – a delicate, mild curry sauce, packed full of texture and with a wonderful depth of flavour.

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On the surface it looks (and costs) the same as any other ‘Indian’ restaurant in South London. But the comparisons stop there – it serves magnificent Sri Lankan food with a precision and balance that I’ve not found anywhere else. It’s BYOB so you can grab something tasty from the cellar and eat yourself into a happy coma for under £15 a head. An absolute gem.

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Taste of London

A London summer can be a fleeting thing – a couple of weekends of gorgeous sunshine before the leaves turn and the familiar cold drizzle returns. What better way to spend one of these precious sunny days than in Regents Park with Britain’s finest chefs? Taste of London, now in its 11th year, brings together over forty top restaurants for a celebration of anything and everything to do with food. Alongside the main stalls there are plenty of bars, shops and smaller producers all touting their wares. After paying for entry to this culinary eden there are plenty of free samples – but to actually get your hands on the restaurant grub requires ‘crowns’, the festival currency. Each is worth a pound, but since you can’t turn them back into sterling, it’s worth planning your meal choices carefully. Over two days I sampled a decent amount of the food on offer.

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Five Star Haute Dog – Action Against Hunger
A charity collaboration between James Knappet (Bubbledogs), Brett Graham (The Ledbury), Anna Hansen (The Modern Pantry), Mark Hix and Tom Parker-Bowles – this is no ordinary hot dog. Top quality British pork sausage in a brioche style bun with smokey tomato and tamarind relish, piccalilli, scrumpy cider sauce and pork crackling. All to raise money for the marvellous Action Against Hunger – properly tasty.

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Xacutti de Cordeiro com arroz de alho – Assado
This is a searingly hot lamb curry from Goa, made with over twenty ingredients. It was rich, elegantly spiced and very tasty. I also liked that they included a decent portion of rice.

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Amadei White Chocolate Panna Cotta, Wild Strawberries, Champagne and Basil – Barbecoa
I adore the desserts at Barbecoa, their calvados panna cotta has become a dinner party staple for me. This was a wonderfully rich panna cotta with a lovely champagne foam. So good that it got eaten before a photo could be taken….

Po’ Boy “Tunisienne” – Bar Boulud
Crispy soft shell crab on a roll, served with cucumber-mint salad, fresh lime and harissa mayonnaise. If that combination doesn’t excite you then I don’t know what will. The crab was red-hot, fresh from the fire on a fantastic roll and garnished with a lovely crisp salad. It had fantastic contrast: hot-cold, spicy-mild, and crunchy-soft. One of the best dishes I ate.

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Crispy Barbecued Foie Gras – Club Gascon
On Sunday afternoon – much like at the Chelsea Flower Show – the top dishes of the festival are given rosettes, this was judged the best in the festival. A very generous slab of foie gras, crisped and cooked to perfection, served in a thin crunchy roti. It was wonderfully rich and decadent.

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Fried Chicken Necks – Duck & Waffle
One of the chef favourites – this is exactly what it says. Chicken necks, gently fried and doused in a lovely chilli rub. They’re quite difficult to eat (given the hordes of tiny bones) but the meat is richly flavoured and the spicing fantastic.

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Smoked Chilli Braised Ox Cheek served with Cheesy Polenta and Fried Pickles – Duck and Waffle
Fall apart beef in a rich, savoury sauce on a pile of cheese – what’s not to like? The polenta was a revelation – incredibly smooth and with a real cheesy hit.

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Roasted Pork Belly Mustard Miso and Pickled Green Apple – Flesh and Buns
I love char siu bao and this is very much a tribute to the great David Chang’s. Fluffy steamed clamshell style buns filled with tender pork and lovely dressings.

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Grilled Sea bass, coriander miso and Kimchi – Flesh and Buns
I’ve never considered serving a fish bun like this but it was absolutely gorgeous. The kimchi was really restrained, which suited the fish.

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Churrasco de chorizo – Gaucho
Spiral cut steak, marinated for 48 hours in garlic, parsley, aji molido and olive oil, served with humita stuffed baby red peppers. Gaucho have a good reputation, but I wasn’t impressed by this steak. The marinade was almost non-existent and there wasn’t the kind of outside char I’d expect from a steakhouse. I got to sample a bite of the Barbecoa steak and it was much better. The maize filled pepper was just okay as the filling was far too sweet.

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Joue et poitrine de pork braise sauce au whisky Balvenie et polenta – Le Gavroche
Very similar to the offering at duck and waffle – slow cooked cheeks with heavenly polenta. The whisky went really well with the rich pork, definitely a combination I’m stealing. Michel Roux Jr was on the stand all weekend which was a really nice touch, like a lot of the chefs he was happy to chat to fans and pose for photos.

Szechwan Salt and Pepper Squid – Maze
One of the better portion sizes, a mound of hot fresh squid, nicely crisped and well-seasoned.

Iberico Pork and Foie Gras Burger with Manchego Cheese – Salt Yard
I’ve been desperate to go to Salt Yard for a while and after this burger I’m very keen. Rich, moist and beautifully put together. The pickled chillies were just delicious, cutting through the sweetness of the meats.

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With Love from Rio – Sushisamba
Valrhona Macae ‘Pure Brazil’ dark chocolate ganache, coffee mousse, tonka bean ice cream – served with caramelized macadamia and lemon sorrel. This was easily the best dessert of the day – beautifully balanced chocolate and coffee with lots of lovely textures worked through it, beautifully presented and reasonably priced.

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Pudhina Chops – Tamarind of Mayfair
Welsh lamb cutlets, ginger, mint, crushed peppercorns and a summer salad. While the lamb was obviously good quality, it had been rather overcooked, not even a hint of pinkness inside. The spice mix was nice, but the salad felt like a bit of an afterthought.

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Thai Fish Cakes – The Begging Bowl
Freshly fried and fabulously fishy – these are some of the best fishcakes I’ve had.

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Banh Mi – The House of Ho
A traditional Vietnamese dish of warm French baguette, thinly sliced pork shoulder, pickled carrots and daikon, drizzled in a chilli and cilantro dressing. It was a lovely sandwich, but the chilli dressing brought it to life – hot, sharp and very moreish. I could have sat there all day mopping up the last remnants with the French bread.

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Dim Sum Platter – Yauatcha
This was a combination of their other three dishes – Scallop Shui Mai, Venison Puff and Wild Mushroom Dumpling. The scallop was beautifully presented and utterly delicious – fresh, well cooked and delicately spiced. I’ve never seen puff pastry used in dim sum but it really worked – the venison was wonderfully rich and tender. I was also impressed by the wild mushroom dumpling – rich and savoury without being too earthy.

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I ate some fantastic food – the po’ boy and sushisamba dessert particularly stand out – but for me, the highlight was seeing the chefs at work. I got to fulfil a lifelong ambition of hugging Tom Kerridge and see him do wonderful things with squab pigeon, turnip and orange. Ashley Palmer-Watts broke out the Big Green Egg and cooked some superb looking lamb while Gizzi Erskine introduced hordes of people to the wonder of Korean food. I certainly picked up plenty of ideas and will definitely be slow cooking some cheeks with cheesy polenta this autumn. I also saw several people cooking with watermelon – expect to see that popping up on menus everywhere soon.

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It’s a great chance to try out the food and some of the restaurants that you’ve been meaning to go to for ages. I definitely need to pay Sushisamba, Bar Boulud and Yauatcha a visit. Duck and Waffle probably deserve another look-in too…

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Taste of London is a wonderful day out – yes it is expensive, but good food so often is. The chance to try a huge range of dishes, chat to people who are incredibly passionate about food and drink an awful lot of cocktails in the sun can’t be missed. While I’d have liked some slightly cheaper prices and bigger portions – I definitely wasn’t hungry at the end! It’s very well organised and I loved that you could by Voss water everywhere for a pound a bottle. If the line-up is as good next year – I’ll definitely be heading down.

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Fitzbillies

There can be few more beautiful sights than Cambridge in the sun. It’s the stuff of postcards and paintings – lazy river and soaring spires. For me, one of the real landmarks is Fitzbillies – a Cambridge institution that has been churning out the finest baked goods for generations. Their chelsea buns are the stuff of legend – rich, gooey and loved around the world – you can have them shipped almost anywhere. When, in early 2011, they were threatened with closure – food writer Tim Hayward came to the rescue. He kept the iconic buns, but transformed the back of the cafe into an occasional restaurant.

The room itself is refreshingly light and simple – lovely pale wood and pastel tiles. Compared to the distressed brickwork and filament bulbs that seem to be infecting every restaurant in the capital, it’s a refreshing change. The menu is equally reassuring – tempting produce, simply cooked.

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To start I had an excellent grilled quail and aioli. Smokey, sweet and with just a hint of game it was delicious.

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Next up was beef tagliata – a lovely rump steak cooked to a perfect medium-rare and served on a bed of peppery rocket and hard italian cheese. It comes with a salsa verde and a pile of roast potatoes that would make any grandmother proud - crisp fluffy perfection.

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To finish I demolished an apple crumble tart with clotted cream. As you’d expect, from what is still essentially a bakery/cafe, the pastry was superb.

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I had a fantastic evening – the staff are helpful and suspiciously happy, the food is marvellous and on a Friday evening there was a healthy convivial buzz. I applaud the simplicity – there’s are no fancy sauces, powders, foams or gels. No ‘influences’ butting in and distracting from the elegance of the dish. It’s the very best kind of comfort food and left me smiling all the way home.

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San Francisco, CA

If I had to pick somewhere (outside London) to move tomorrow, it would be San Francisco. The weather is gorgeous, the bay is beautiful and their food and wine are world class. Given the quality of raw ingredients available, you actually have to try quite hard to eat a bad meal.

Off The Grid
Street food has transformed the way we experience food both for the vendors and consumers. Whereas traditionally it would have taken huge amounts of capital to launch a restaurant, now it’s relatively cheap to buy a cart and get cooking. Similarly, a full restaurant meal is an expensive way for diners to try new things and experience the latest trends – a cheap, quick food stand is a much more democratic meal. The only challenge is deciding what to have and Off The Grid make it that much more difficult.

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A joyous, weekly gathering of around thirty trucks, live DJs and views of the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s foodie paradise. Everything from confit duck to novelty candy floss is available – cheap, fast and fun. I shamelessly flocked to the most popular carts to see what San Francisco’s trucks had to offer.

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The Chairman serves wildly popular dumplings, people regularly queue for over forty minutes to sample their tender steamed pork buns or fun fusion sliders. It’s great food, small enough that you can eat more than one with cleverly balanced flavours – their pickles are heavenly.

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El Sur make empanadas – the South American pastry parcels I find vaguely reminiscent of a good cornish pasty. These were delicious, I chose the special – a slow-braised short-rib, with malbec and caramlised onion sauce.

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There were a huge range of dessert options – the Lonely Planet recommended “The Creme Brulee Cart”. A team of blow-torch wielding foodies re-inventing the classic french dessert for legions of adoring fans. I ordered their most popular special the, ahem, “s’moregasm”. Based on the traditional campfire treat it’s got the normal ingredients (molten marshmallows and graham crackers) nestled on top of a chocolate custard. It’s incredibly good – just don’t expect to be able to eat it without liberally coating your face, clothes and innocent passers-by.

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Off the Grid is the perfect way to spend an evening – just check out the view of the bridge from the park behind the trucks…

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In N Out
Most foodies have a guilty pleasure, but one that I don’t feel guilty about at all is In’n’Out. I’ve waxed lyrical about it before – it’s simple fries and burgers, freshly cooked by staff who are paid a living wage. Their not-so-secret menu lets you customise your burger in all sorts of exciting ways. It’s cheap, fun and makes me very, very happy.

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In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

 

Gary Danko
Rated as one of the best restaurants in the Bay Area, I was very lucky to snag a table at Gary Danko. It’s classic fine dining: dimly lit room, plush linens and polished staff. Their menu is cunningly arranged into four broad sections – starters, fish, meat and dessert and you can pick three, four or five courses at a flat rate. It’s great fun to plan your own tasting menu and surprisingly difficult to narrow it down.

My meal started with an excellent martini and a simple amuse bouche of curried carrot soup. It was light, sweet and a nice way to setup the rest of the meal.

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To start I had their Dungeness crab risotto – the rice perfectly cooked and the crab resting on a bed of other delicious seafood, dressed in basil oil. Risottos are rarely light, but this was like a delicate marine cloud. Fluffy, yet still having a little bite.

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My fish course was half a maine lobster on potato purée so delicate it’s practically a mousse, it really was stunning. The portion was generous and the flavours clean and refreshing, lovely stuff.

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For my main I chose bison, served with a juniper berry crust, black trumpet mushroom and wild nettle spatzle. It was covered in the kind of rich, meaty reduction that has me mopping the plate clean with bread. The bison was a revelation – tender and strongly flavoured, perfectly matched with the sauce and a large glass of Zinfandel. Big, bold flavours – beautifully put together.

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Keen to sample more American delights I ordered the Louisiana butter cake for dessert. It’s a rich, dense sponge, vaguely reminiscent of an English suet pudding, but with a crispy sticky crust. It came with caramelised apples, huckleberry compote and the kind of ice cream that speaks of witchcraft (or more likely a well tended Pacojet). Incredibly smooth with a lovely, aromatic vanilla flavour.

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Some restaurants might give you a couple of chocolates or mints on the way out, Gary Danko give you a pastry symphony. A plate of petit fours which give their dessert team a real chance to show off. Each miniature bite, from a sweet fruit jelly to a fluffy chocolate sponge was brilliant.

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I was stunned, it’s got to be one of the best meals of the last few years. I couldn’t fault it, from entering the restaurant to staggering happily out a few hours later it was just perfect. Wonderful atmosphere, great staff, stunning ingredients, precision cooking and real flair – it’s Californian cuisine at it’s best. When the free extras, quality of produce and standard of cooking are considered, it’s superb value for money. One Michelin star just isn’t enough.

Gary Danko on Urbanspoon

La Mer

Peruvian food is taking the world by storm, it’s fresh flavours and simplicity are instantly likeable. La Mar at the front of an impending wave of more affordable and family-friendly Peruvian restaurants.

I was quickly seated and offered fried plantain and dips while I looked through their menu. While sipping on a lovely Pisco Sour I opted for a reasonably priced chef’s menu showcasing ceviche, seafood stew and their sorbets.

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Ceviche – raw fish that is briefly “cooked” using an acid (like lemon juice) is the flag bearer of Peruvian cuisine. It’s heavenly – sharp, sweet, textured and refreshing. Both of these were lovely, but I much preferred the classic ceviche over the tuna tartare – the potato and avocado mask the fish too much.

The seafood stew was lovely – well cooked fish in a rich, almost Chinese sauce. Dessert were some lovely sorbets, light and refreshing. If you’ve never sampled Peruvian food, this is a great way to try a few dishes and see if you like it.

La Mar Cebicheria Peruana on Urbanspoon

Tartine

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San Francisco has a real affection for brunch, and on a lazy Sunday morning the queue around the block for the best coffee and pastries. Tartine, in the lovely Mission district churns out the kind of morning treats that make you reconsider lunch. Their sugary morning roll was just delicious.

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Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon

Bi-Rite Creamery

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Bi-Rite Market has been a San Francisco foodie icon for years, selling top quality produce and providing fabulous lunches. Over the road, their creamery serves up fantastic ice-cream with a range of home-made toppings. I went for their local chocolate and salted caramel flavours, drenched in hot fudge sauce. Magic.

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Bi-Rite Creamery on Urbanspoon

Four Barrels Coffee

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Starbucks are everywhere in America, but there’s a growing trend towards better coffee. Four Barrels are perfectly setup to meet this need, featuring freshly roasted coffee from some of the world’s top producers. They have an espresso bar producing all the standard drinks, as well as a special “slow coffee” section to show off their incredible products. Knowledgeable baristas will talk you through the different varieties available and expertly prepare them, all while giving you tips on where else to go in San Francisco for top eats. It’s everything a neighbourhood coffee shop should be.

 

La Taqueria

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Surely one of San Francisco’s greatest inventions is the burrito. La Taqueria makes one of the best, using freshly cooked meat, hand chopped and bundled with the kind of salsa, avocado and beans that make you weep with pleasure. It’s so much better than some of the limp, stale efforts you see in the UK. Great ingredients, freshly prepared – it really is superb.

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La Taqueria on Urbanspoon

Umami Burger

Upmarket burgers are ten-a-penny in London. This humble American invention has taken over the high street with Byron and GBK providing mass-market appeal while Patty and Bun, Honest Burger and MEATLiquor making bloggers swoon. The same trend is evident on the other side of the pond – I‘ve visited Umami Burger before but was keen to see if it had changed in the last two years.

The first thing that struck me was the menu – I liked the fact that they offered little tapas starters – it’s an unusual move for a ‘burger joint’, but it’s a really nice touch and something i’d like to see more of. There’s nothing complicated about throwing together a few little bites – but it really adds to the whole experience. The ‘devils on horseback’ were particularly good.20140602-201543-72943051.jpg

Like any good burger place (see In’n’out for details) they let you muck with your chips. I chose to cover mine in an avalanche of pulled beef short-ribs and cheese. It was utterly delicious – rich, gooey and decadent.

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I spent a long time agonising over which burger to choose – I eventually opted for the special Jose Andres burger. Created by the star chef of Bazaar it’s patty is made from pork and cured ham, served with pepper confit, caramelised onion, manchego cheese and aioli. Rich, savoury and incredibly moist, this is a top burger – lets hope they follow Five Guys and Shake Shack to this side of the Atlantic soon!

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Bouchon Bistro

Thomas Keller is one of my culinary idols. The French Laundry, deep in the heart of wine country, is a landmark on the world food scene and one of the best restaurants in America. Unfortunately it has a price-tag and waiting list to match but luckily, he’s got a couple of other restaurants in Yountville and I was thrilled to go to Bouchon Bistro.

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It’s a little piece of Paris – smartly dressed waiters weave between closely packed, linen clad tables. There’s brass and banquettes, acres of marble and the kind of menu that makes you hum the Marseillaise.

While we deliberated, some lovely bread turned up – shaped into an ear of wheat. Keller is equally famous for his bakeries (one of which is next door) and the bread is suitably brilliant.

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Sometimes, three courses aren’t enough. To kick things off we shared some lovely oysters – covering the spectrum from salty to sweet.

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Next up were some lovely Burgundian snails in rich garlic butter, covered with little puff pastry hats. These were beautifully cooked, even if I did find a tiny fragment of shell.

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For my main I had steak frites – a beautiful piece of beef, lovingly cooked, drenched in butter and served with fries dusted in enough truffle to make an accountant wince. In many dishes this would be overpowering – here it worked brilliantly.

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To finish the meal – a trio of excellent brownies and some great ice cream. Rich, chocolatey and utterly delicious. I adored the set chocolate foam – the world’s most sophisticated Aero!

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Bouchon Bistro is the perfect example of a restaurant doing something specific, incredibly well – it doesn’t try for modernist touches or strange ‘fusions’. It’s rustic French food, classically cooked and thoughtfully presented. It was a wonderful meal - the French Laundry will have to wait until next time!

Bouchon on Urbanspoon

 

Chicago, IL

Chicago is a stunning American city. On the shores of Lake Michigan it boasts an incredible art collection, amazing architecture and some superb food. Locals lay claim to three specific specialities – deep-dish pizza, chicago-style hotdogs and Italian beef sandwiches. I set out to try all three, as well as sampling some of their other culinary delights.

Giodarnos
In Chicago pizza is taken very, very seriously. This is not the wafer thin authentic crust of Neapolitan fame – Chicago “deep dish” pizzas are cooked in special pans which allow them to be as much as two inches thick. The crust is much closer to pastry in texture and the fillings nestle under a mound of molten cheese and sweet tomato sauce.

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The location of the best pizza is hotly debated, but the ever reliable Lonely Planet plumped for Giordanos. Fresh from the airport is seemed the perfect way to get to know the city. They make most of the pizzas fresh, which is great – provided you don’t mind the 40 minute wait. The end result is a heart attack on a plate. It’s certainly not haute cuisine but it is incredibly filling and you can’t help but smile as stringy molten cheese goes everywhere – it’s fast food at its fun and tactile best.

Giordano's Pizza on Urbanspoon

Al’s #1 Italian Beef
The Italian beef sandwich is a simple thing – roasted beef, with Italian herbs and peppers served in a white roll. Each element is obsessed over: the beef must be wafer thin, the herbs have to be just so and the bread needs to be firm enough. The key element is the traditional “dip” where the assembled sandwich is unceremoniously plunged into the gravy – turning the bread into a delicious, if unstable, platform.

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Just outside the loop, Al’s is one of the main contenders for the title of best beef sandwich and a healthy crowd of locals seem to agree. The sandwich itself has a reassuring weight. The beef is very tender and the copious amounts of gravy stop it drying out. It’s rich, savoury and very tender. The perfect mid-week lunch – if you don’t mind the almost inevitable collateral damage to your shirt. Getting messy is half the fun!

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Al's Beef on Urbanspoon
Portillo’s
A few things mark out a Chicago hot dog – namely the sesame seed bun, a wide variety of pickles and onions on top and the total absence of ketchup. I was pointed in the direction of Portillos and was met by a reassuring wall of hungry customers.

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The sausage itself is very traditional, finely minced beef in a snappy, natural caseing. To a British palette it can taste a little over-processed, but Portillos blend is custom made and is much better than the average kerb-side vendor. It’s a good hot-dog and I liked the extra toppings – would a little ketchup really be that horrendous?

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They’re also known for their chocolate cake – always eager to suffer for my art I picked up an enormous slab. It’s actually incredibly light, I comfortably demolished a huge piece after a sizeable lunch. They’ve done something clever with the batter, possibly folding in whipped egg whites. It’s really good!

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Portillo's Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

David Burke’s Primehouse
The railroads once transported most of America’s beef through Chicago. Consequently there’s a slew of steakhouses – after a fair amount of research online I chose David Burke’s Primehouse, primarily on the strength of their ageing process. They have a patent on the use of Himalayan rock salt in dry ageing steaks, which they do for up to 75 days.

 

Situated in the James hotel, the dining room is warm and inviting and the staff quickly had me ensconced at a leather clad table with an excellent cocktail. Instead of bread they provide “popovers” (Yorkshire puddings) – it’s a lighter, beefier, alternative.

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The menu is designed around the steak with some really fun touches. To start I had “surf and turf” dumplings. These came as four Chinese-style dumpling lollipops – little bits of short-rib and lobster with a simple sauce. It’s a really clever way of serving them and ensures you have enough room for the main event.

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On the waiters recommendation I went for the fifty-five day ribeye. The steak itself was sizeable and perfectly cooked, a thick crunchy crust giving way to a blushing pink middle. It had just a hint of the blue-cheese flavour you get with seriously old beef and the texture was excellent – the fat just melting in your mouth. They brush the steaks with hot, aged, suet to add extra beefiness. As with most American steaks – it did lack that rich, savoury note you get from the best British cattle. To any Americans who doubt it – take a trip to Hawksmoor in London and thank me later.

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Alongside the steak I had some good truffled fries – interestingly they’d grated asiago (an Italian hard cheese) over the top. The strong umami savouriness works really well with the beef – I’m definitely stealing that idea!

Dessert was just brilliant – mini doughnuts which you get to fill at the table. The waiter provided three small bottles of sauce – vanilla, caramel and apple/ginger. You simply spike the doughnut with the nozzle and squeeze. It’s great fun and would be perfect for a dinner party, another great concept I’m taking home.

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It was a lovely meal, but I can’t get away from the feeling that if you’re going to pay top dollar for steak, it really needs to be outstanding. British beef just has more flavour. That said – their starters and desserts were excellent and certainly more fun than a “traditional” steakhouse experience.

David Burke's Primehouse on Urbanspoon

The Palmer House
I don’t normally blog about my hotels, but the Palmer House deserves special mention as it gave the world a truly wonderful gift – the brownie. Developed for the Worlds Fair in 1896 it was meant to be more portable than a conventional cake, perfect for a lady’s lunchbox. The hotel still makes brownies to that same recipe, though they have tarted up the presentation a bit.

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Served with a stout gelato and a milk chocolate mousse it’s a lovely dessert. The brownie is surprisingly dense, definitely at the fudgey end of the spectrum but with a really good bitter chocolate kick. The recipe calls for a walnut and apricot jam topping, and very nice it is too. Milk is a classic accompaniment and serving it as a mousse adds lightness whereas the sharp, beery ice cream helps cut through the richness.

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Lou Mitchell’s
A Chicago icon situated near the original start of Route 66, Lou Mitchell’s is the quintessential American diner. Friendly staff serve bottomless coffees and enormous breakfasts while locals chat about last night’s sport. I had a very nice waffle with fruit and a side of bacon. It’s never going to win awards, but it’s cheap, filling and on a wet Chicago morning, the perfect way to start your day.

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Lou Mitchell's on Urbanspoon

Garrett Popcorn
It’s not uncommon to be innocently strolling around Chicago, admiring the architecture and be suddenly hit with the wonderful smell of hot caramel. Garrett popcorn shops are everywhere and wildly popular. They do a variety of flavours but the local favourite is a “Chicago mix” – half caramel and half cheese. I was initially sceptical but it does grow on you. A ‘small’ bag is simply enormous and kept me going on the long flight to the West Coast.

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