The exotic tastes of the Black Sea at Babel House Mayfair

Babel House Mayfair

London’s restaurant scene is quite extraordinary – there’s so much choice it’s a wonder I can ever decide where to eat. Sometimes it’s simply because of the need for something completely different – like today. Babel House describes itself as serving food that’s a modern take on the traditions of the Black Sea and its rich cultural heritage.

So here’s today’s geography lesson. The Black Sea is bordered by six countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey. It’s a popular summer tourist destination with its sunny weather and sandy beaches. Sounds like my kind of place. Oh and I do love that my geography is improving as a result of the food I’m eating.

The restaurant is named after modernist novelist Isaac Babel who was born in Odessa. Odessa is the third most populous city of the Ukraine. It’s a major tourist centre and sea port on the north-west shore of the Black Sea. And after a taster of Odessa-inspired dishes, I feel a visit there may well be in order. Here’s what we tucked into.

What’s on the menu

First up an exotic offering of the freshest of bread and herb and garlic butter – impossible to resist.

Babel House Mayfair: bread and butter

Delectable, exotic bread choices

There’s a range of cold and hot starters on offer including caviar (naturally), and traditional blinis and dumplings. I went for the beautifully fresh beef tartare, served with black truffle, mustard, capers and topped with a raw quails egg. I love a good beef tartare and this certainly was a good one with the indulgent addition of back truffle.

Babel House Mayfair: steak tartare

The luscious plate of steak tartare

The fried baby squid topped with spicy jalapeños and smoked paprika aioli. A delightful combination of sweet squid, spicy chilli and smoky paprika.

Babel House Mayfair: Squid

Crispy and sweet fried baby squid

There’s also a nice-sounding selection of soup, including both red and green borsch and spicy Georgian lamb, as well as grilled and smoked fish (smoked in-house).

And of course there are plenty of hearty traditional mains on offer. Delights like cabbage rolls stuffed with veal, beef Stroganoff, lamb tongues, and Odessan lamb stew. Being a pleasant summer day we decided to opt for salad selections rather.

Salads to dream about

And what a salad I had…the spectacular Salad Olivier. Also known simply as Russian salad, it’s a traditional dish originally invented by Lucia Olivier for the Heritage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. I’ve eaten it a bit – particularly in Spain (slightly bizarrely it’s big in Spain) and have even made my own version once. There are plenty of versions, with a wide range of ingredients to choose from, including different kinds of fish, potatoes, carrots, peas, eggs, pickles, to name a few, all combined with mayonnaise.

Babel House Mayfair’s luxurious take on this tastiest of salads has the addition of luscious salmon gravlax in the mix and is topped with juicy seared scallops and tobiko (fish roe). Undoubtedly my number one Salad Olivier ever and enough of a draw to take me back to Babel House Mayfair again…and soon.

Babel House Mayfair: Olivier salad

The totally indulgent salad Olivier topped with scallops

The simple smoked salmon salad was slathered in tasty mayonnaise, topped with more fish roe and served with leaves tossed in a truffle vinaigrette. Delicious simplicity.

Babel House Mayfair: salmon salad

Salmon salad with delicate mayo and truffle dressing

Today’s price point

And finally…

Today’s lunch at Babel House Mayfair came to a total of £58 for two people.

Wine starts from £37 a bottle.

Babel House is at 26-28 Bruton Place, Mayfair, London W1

Giant portions in the social whirl that is Hakkasan

This week our friends Christa and Candy are over from Cape Town (all nicely alliterative) so we treated ourselves to dinner at Hakkasan. The first one of this now global restaurant brand was in Hanway Place behind the back of Tottenham Court Road Station and it opened in 2001. I remember going to try this new style of contemporary Cantonese Chinese food with great excitement.

With its darkened staircase, intricate wooden screens and modern decor (not to mention the toilets which soon became a London legend) Hakkasan was certainly like no other Chinese restaurant I’d ever been to. Now there are multiple branches of the Hakkasan brand in India, the Middle East, USA and China and there’s a second one in London’s Mayfair which opened in 2010 and was awarded a Michelin Star in 2011 which it’s held on to since. This is where we’re heading for tonight.

It’s always an experience going out in Mayfair-land with its seas of designer outfits and handbags, sports cars galore and beautiful people out on the town. And a lot of them are in Hakkasan

You inhale that unique Hakkasan vibe which becomes mixed with a sense of excitement as you pore over the menu. I think it’s fair to say that we got all a bit over-excited and ordered what turned out to be a serious amount of food – sadly way more than we could consume. Lesson learned – the portion sizes are extremely generous – you don’t need to order nearly as much as you think.

My starter was the best soft shelled crab I’ve ever eaten. Piping hot, light and crispy with the beautiful sweet and tender crab meat completing a fabulous combo of flavours and textures. I’d go back just for this.

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One of my favourite delicacies cooked to perfection

And how’s this for a substantial helping of glossy dim sum – yes, this is one portion!? Fillings of prawn, crab, scallop and duck made for a tasty collection.

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Deliciously plump and juicy dim sum

Salt and pepper squid was crispy on the outside and softly sweet inside.

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A Hakkasan classic of salt and pepper squid

It’s fair to say those starters pretty much sated our appetites! They were seriously substantial and I’d advise sharing one between two (or more). And that’s before even seeing what we had in store for our mains.

The steak cooked in Merlot came in a crispy noodle net. It was wonderfully tender with great depth of flavour in its glossy sauce.

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Beef stir fry at its best

And then there was this tower of spicy prawns served with cashew nuts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many large prawns in a portion.

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A dish with prawns aplenty

The Sansei chicken clay pot came in a traditionally tasty sauce of sweet basil, chilli and spring onion.

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Chicken with sweet basil flavours and crispy veg

Our final choice was a plate of crispy duck, all pared down and laid out perfectly for easy consumption. Certainly a rich dish, but you’ve gotta love that crunch.

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Rich, satisfying and delightfully crispy

Okay that was a serious lot of food. Hakkasan makes for an expensive night out but we realised we could probably have ordered half and still left fully satisfied (and obviously with a smaller bill to pay). And something else to bear in mind is that Hakkasan is a slickly-oiled machine that operates full speed ahead. You’re given your two-hour dining slot and at times it feels like the staff are on bonuses to see how much under two hours they can get you out in.

All that food arriving so rapidly can make the experience a little intimidating – you feel a bit like you’re dining on fast forward. But it’s still a wonderful experience with truly delicious food. I just wish it had lasted a bit longer.

Hakkasan is at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, just off Berkley Square.

Square Meal

Tapas at El Pirata in Mayfair

Welcome to Mayfair, a rather exclusive part of London town. The area gets its name from the 15-day fair that James II established there in the 1680s, which was mainly for cattle trading. The gentrification of the area in the mid-18th century killed off the festival, which led to local architect and developer Edward Shepherd being commissioned to develop the site where the market had been held. He designed paved alleys, a duck pond and a two-storey market topped with a theatre. Shepherd’s Market was born.

Shepherd’s Market is made up of a number of small side streets with shops, restaurants and pubs. It’s right in the middle of the hubub of Piccadilly and Mayfair, yet something of an oasis of calm, despite the social activity. As you walk through the little alleyway off Curzon Street, the atmosphere seems to change. We started our evening at Ye Grapes, one of two pubs in the little square. Built in 1882, when Shepherd’s Market was notorious for prostitution, it’s now the height of respectability with business people and tourists sharing the small outside space on a warm summer evening.

On the way to our dinner destination, El Pirata, we passed another of the famous pubs in the area, The Shepherd’s Arms, festooned with hanging baskets and pots. I couldn’t resist stopping to take a picture. There’s no holding back on the flowers in London’s summertime.

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Wonderful London pubs to enjoy

El Pirata is a classic Spanish restaurant that’s turning 20 next month (September). It’s a charming, welcoming sort of place that you feel has discreetly fed plenty of famous people through those two decades. I read that Johnny Depp is a fan and so is Brian May. Well, if it’s good enough for them…

Eating alfresco. What a treat!

Eating alfresco. What a treat!

We managed to nab an outside table…gotta eat alfresco if the weather allows in London. The awning has made some rather interesting shadows on my photographs, I apologise for that, but I’m sure you can still get a great idea of the  delicious tapas we tucked into. And boy did we have a feast!

This dish was called huevos rotos, which translated as broken fried eggs with potatoes, Serrano ham and prawns. Seldom have I tasted such a perfect combination. Crispy potatoes, flavoursome runny egg, salty chorizo and sweet prawns. Yum, I could eat it every day.

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Bring on the broken eggs…my new favourite dish

I’ve always shied away from ordering anything with black squid ink. Don’t know why really, I’m an adventurous eater. Neil insisted we had to try this dish and I was amazed to find that it is totally, totally delicious. Calamares con arroz negro (or calamari with black rice), it’s lightly fishy with beautifully silky rice and small pieces of tender calamari. To think I nearly missed out on ever tasting it. Certainly has a tendency to make your mouth go rather black, which isn’t the most attractive of looks. But a quick trip to the bathroom soon sorts that out.

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Calamares con arroz negro

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Beautiful Iberican ham, a must with any Spanish meal

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Wonderfully delicate deep fried medallions of monkfish

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Pork belly to delight, sticky, crispy and melt-in-the-mouth

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Another classic – gambas al pil pil – plenty of garlic

Lamb chops are also a Spanish classic – and they sound way more exotic in Spanish, too – chutelitas de cordera. These were perfectly cooked and packed with flavour.

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Love a quality lamb chop

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I also love grilled wild asparagus

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Rich and tender beef cheeks

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Kidneys (rinones) in sherry wine

Yikes! Did we really eat all that? Actually, I’ll fess up…I haven’t even put all the pictures on. We really indulged! The food is fabulous and the extensive wine list offers a cornucopia of Spanish gems to complete a perfect Spanish night out in Mayfair. Bet Edward Shepherd couldn’t have predicted that!

Thanks to our friends Neil and Jakki for introducing us to their favourite Spanish in town. And thanks to Fernando for making us feel so welcome. We loved El Pirata.

Oh, and if you go back in September this year (2014) you can have a meal at 1994 prices. Think it has to be done.

El Pirata is at 5-6 Down Street, Mayfair.

Square Meal

Bellamy’s for the best whitebait in town

So today I’m back in stylish Mayfair with its amazing selection of upmarket shops and restaurants. It’s no coincidence that it’s the most expensive property on the Monopoly board, you can feel the wealth in the air. I love visiting the area, meandering around, taking in a bit of window shopping, stopping for coffee and breathing in the atmosphere. And then, inevitably, it’s time for lunch.

Bellamy’s has been part of London’s restaurant scene since 2004 and is is set on a secluded back street. For me it’s the epitome of a sophisticated restaurant – quietly elegant with professional, yet welcoming service and great, classic food. It’s an oasis with so much class yet not an ounce of stuffiness. Lunchtime means a large business clientele all enjoying great food in what I imagine is their regular meeting place.

The food is a take on classic French brasserie with a bit of a twist. And they have one special dish which simply has to be ordered. I love whitebait and have eaten it in many establishments. Bellamy’s version is amazing. A decent-sized portion, just the right amount of light batter, beautifully hot, crunchy and fishy. I’d vote it the best whitebait in London town.

Beautifully crisp, fishy whitebait

Beautifully crisp, fishy whitebait

One of the specials today was this amazing quail dish served with delicately flavoured sweetcorn fritters. Quails don’t get much plumper or flavoursome.

As quails go, I thought this was rather a large one!

As quails go, I thought this was rather a large one!

Another one of their classic dishes is the steak tartare which is served with pommes pont neuf, chunky chips with a deliciously soft centre. And the steak was perfectly spicy, tender and melt-in-the-mouth.

Spicy steak tartare with chunky chips

Spicy steak tartare with chunky chips

A great London establishment and the perfect excuse to spend some time savouring the elegance that is Mayfair. London rocks.

Bellamy’s is at 18-18a Bruton Street.

A lively night out at the legend that’s Nobu

So I’m continuing my journey around London seeking out exciting eating experiences. This week I’m in swish Mayfair at the legendary Nobu.

“You know how kids dream of being soccer players or actors? Well, my dream was to be a sushi chef.” From the minute he walked into his first sushi restaurant, aged 11, Nobu knew what he wanted to do with his life, this story has to be an inspiration to all of us.

Nobu Matsuhisa started as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Toyko. For three years he cleared and washed dishes, cleaned the restaurant and went to the fish market every morning with his boss. He carried the basketload of fish back to the restaurant and cleaned them – every day.

At 24 he was offered a job as a sushi chef in Lima, Peru, spent time in Buenos Aires and Alaska before settling in LA in the late 1970s. In 1987 he opened Matsuhisa in Beverley Hills which very quickly became an LA hotspot frequented by celebs. Here he met Robert De Niro who became a partner in his business and convinced him to open in Tribeca, NYC (De Niro’s neighbourhood) in 1994.

I met celebrity chef Ken Hom once who told me about eating at Nobu in New York (and he knows Nobu personally) and feeling a bit put out that everyone was staring at him. Until his dining companion pointed out that he was sitting next to Cameron Diaz and Justin Timberlake and no one had the least bit of interest in him! Let’s just say that Nobus around the world are  something of a celebrity magnet. Brad Pitt, Kate Moss and Tom Cruise are regular visitors to the London one and, famously, Boris Becker’s daughter was conceived on Nobu’s stairs one year after he was knocked out of Wimbledon (now that’s another great story!).

So there’s the history – now here’s my Nobu story. When Nobu  opened in London in February 1997 it was the most talked about event in London restaurantland for a long time. It was so far off my food radar and outside of my budget it was, in a different way to Nobu obviously, a dream to ever go there. My friend Christa honeymooned in London and went there shortly after it opened. Her memorable night there stayed with her and when she visited  recently she suggested we  go. Of course I jumped at the chance.

Mayfair on a Saturday night is not a phenomenon I experience frequently. Girls in £1,500 Herve Leger dresses (thanks to Candy the fashion expert among us) with Chanel bags and four-inch heels that they can’t walk in…we witnessed a dramatic trip down the step (yes, one step) with said dress (strapless) heading south. We didn’t spot any celebs but it was certainly buzzing with beautiful people ready for a big night out.

The menu takes some perusing, there’s so much to choose from. You can see the Peruvian influence with dishes like tacos and ceviche, there’s an enormous selection of sashimi and well, just a massive choice of everything. Our waitress told us that food came as it came (we couldn’t specify having the dishes in a particular order)  and everything would be put in the middle of the table to share. Felt a bit like we were being given orders by the Food Police and sorry for you if you didn’t want to share your dish! Anyway, it is a lovely way to eat and taste lots of dishes.

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Fresh salmon tacos with a spicy salsa

You could have pretty much tempura anything – we tried the shrimps, snow crab and zucchini (or courgettes as we call them in England).

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Snow crab tempura

The beef “toban” yaki was delightful. Beautifully tender with a silken, flavoursome sauce.

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Seriously superior beef skewers

This is shitake Kushiyaki, fabulous fresh wild mushrooms with amazing earthy flavours.

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Now this is a plate of fried mushrooms

Possibly my favourite dish of the night – amazing scallops. Love the plate, too.

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Scallops with pepper sauce

This is a version of Nobu’s signature black cod.

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The pork belly was beautiful. Crispy on the top, melt in the mouth underneath with a succulent, sweet sauce.

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Crisp pork belly with spicy miso

A night out at Nobu is certainly an invigorating experience. The packed, buzzy restaurant with its amazing cornucopia of dishes and plenty of great tastes to savour, the streets teeming with revellers, girls dressed in skimpy designer frocks (no matter what the weather) and a great energy and spirit in the air. Gotta love London town, it’s all happening here!

Nobu is at 19 Old Park Lane on the first floor of the Metropolitan Hotel.

Nobu has one Michelin star. In May of this year there were 26 Nobus worldwide. Nobu is certainly living his dream!