Friday, December 30, 2011

Oxo Tower Restaurant

Situated on London's South Bank rising over the River Thames, the Oxo Tower Restaurant is a luxe dining destination where modern British and Mediterranean cuisine are met with sparkling vistas of the city. The swank 8th floor bar and dining room illuminated in blue and red hues is polished in white linens and ultra modern leather chairs. The contrast of warm lighting blanketing from the shuttered ceilings onto an art deco influenced space is striking, matched by the stunning panorama out the gaping angular floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall windows. Most notably St. Pauls Cathedral stands out in the distance and the River Thames reflections twinkle in the foreground.
Tricia had dined here back in 2008 and had a feeling another fantastic experience was store if we returned. She didn't steer us wrong! We were greeted warmly by maitre'd as we stepped in off the elevators, she took our coats and umbrellas and showed us a seat at the bar area.
Instantly charmed by the bold elegance and potted poinsettias, I snapped a few photos and shortly after we were shown our table.The cocktails we had just ordered swiftly followed in our footsteps. True to form, the Aperol based sparkling libation caught my eye. Combining my favorite orange bitters with another orange liqueur called Mandarine Napoleon along with crushed peach, passion fruit and a charge of Prosecco the Riveria (£13.50) appeased but at a lofty price point.
Tricia chose the Black Libertine (£9.95) made with crushed fresh blackberry, Drambuie Liquor and lime juice. Forgoing an appetizer since our late lunch (almost an early dinner) of fish and chips kept our appetites at bay, we jumped right into the mains. Apparently, where fish is concerned, I couldn't get enough this trip. (All the photos had a crazy blue tint, I thought the b&w was easier on the eyes in some instances.)
This gorgeous plate of food would be the Cornish Stone Sea Bass, with black risotto, baby squid, sea purslane and lemon oil (£27.50). The presentation instantly wowed, striking an aesthetically pleasing balance that was exciting without overwhelming. Every element was perfectly in its place and the dusting of salts and sea purslane across the white canvas were a thoughtful touch.
Taste wise, the dish far exceeded my expectations, beginning but certainly not ending with the expertly seared piece of Cornish sea bass. The generally mild fish benefited from a simple preparation, where delicately crisp and toasty skin gives way to buttery, lemony, melt-in-your mouth flesh. The other components only further enhanced my adoration. Squeaky clean squid tentacles mingled with strips of nicely sauteed haricot verts over a compact and generous portion of jet-black risotto. I typically come across squid ink in pasta form, but I relished its heightened flavors as it absorbed the tender rice. Building from the briny seafood essence, there's an understated richness, a subtle murky deep sea flavor with a complex mouthfeel that fulfills a high honor of complimenting that beautiful fish.
Tricia ordered the Roast and braised wild duck with goats curd and cinnamon dumpling and coriander caramel (£25.50). Benefiting from a flawless preparation and a unique flavor profile, I really enjoyed the couple bites I had. The coriander caramel seemed risky but somehow worked with the roast bird.
Our interactions with the waitstaff at Oxo Tower were interestingly enough, all over the map. Our first server at the bar was highly engaging and genuine, his bright personable nature was followed up by one-note table service; which was mostly courteous and timely. Towards the end, one server became all too fussy and his presence felt slightly imposing. (Hovering, awkward conversations, unsolicited advice.) And was that just a poor attempt at an upsell or is he genuinely concerned that we only ordered one small dessert to share? (Giving him the benefit of the doubt...) Once we were presented the tiny dessert of Hazelnut parfait with poached pears and lemon verbena (£8) his gesture made a little more sense. Despite the fact that I thought it could have been double the size, it was absolutely lovely. The parfait was ultra creamy, complimented by a crumbly lemon verbena cookie, soft delicately poached pears, a crunchy caramel nougat and plated alongside cute little meringue teardrops. Above all, the menu showcases a wide variety of beautifully prepared dishes, executed precisely and in harmony with exciting ingredients. Detractors claim you pay for the view, can you blame them? Even if you likely are (hello $20 cocktail) the food rises to the occasion. If you're looking to splurge or celebrate a special evening in London, allow Oxo Tower Restaurant to entice you.
Oxo Tower Restaurant, Bar and Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Classic London

The well known and quintessential sights of the city likely need no explanation. From Big Ben and Parliament to Buckingham Palace and Queen Victoria Memorial; we came, we saw, we photographed. We also has a blast drinking Pimm's Cup, European beers and mulled wine. And cliche as it may be, I was still excited to devour the classic British meal of fish-n-chips and mushy peas. The White Hart, a cozy pub in Liverpool Square satisfied the craving, although I have a feeling you could wander into almost any pub in the city and they would do the same.
The fillet of hake was ale battered and deep fried to crispy, flaky perfection and served with a side of mushy peas that were a lot more appetizing than the name seems to imply. A cup of tartar sauce was also on hand for dipping. Additionally, our first mugs of mulled wine did not disappoint. They were warm and soothing with sugar and spice infusions of cinnamon, clove and nutmeg.
The royal sights and regal buildings are matched with an energetic spirit and unique embrace. On the whole, classic elegance is balanced with staple comforts. It's a European city distinctly different than any I've ever traveled and it absolutely holds a special place.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Supper @ St. John Hotel

When I was Christmas shopping the weekend before I jetted off to London, I came across a tiny paperback book in Anthropologie of all places titled The Traditional Shops and Restaurants of London: A Guide to Century Old Establishments and New Classics. Its charming vintage cover and beautifully composed photographs drew me in, so I forked over the $18.95. As I paged through it on my flight, it turns out the book is 80% shops and 20% restaurants, bars and cafes. It is well written and informative, author Eugina Bell waxes poetic about purveyors of specialty goods - from booksellers and coffee roasters, umbrella makers and hatters, to tobaccoists, butchers, tea merchants and more. Of the few restaurants, one named St. John located in the meatpacking district stood out in my mind for its nose-to-tail concept and this excerpt: A favorite -- marrow and parsley salad -- is always on the menu, a dish that Anthony Bourdain calls, rather bluntly, his "death row meal." Well then! When Tricia and I were soliciting advice the previous day from our helpful concierge, he offered to make us a reservation for Saturday night. As it turned out, they were completely booked. However, they also have a location at the St. John Hotel which had opened this past spring in Leicester Square. This worked to our advantage, as Leicester Square was within walking distance of our hotel, easily much closer than the original location. We arrived around 7:50 for our 8pm reservation to a perplexed duo of hosts. They had our reservation, but seemed genuinely taken aback by how "early" we were (did they just laugh at us?!) It was odd. Tricia and I exchanged glances, and at once their faces softened and they offered us seats at the bar upstairs. Fine by us! We settled into plush rust-colored leather couches among starch white walls and glossy blue floors and ordered some cocktails. (Exterior and above photo were borrowed from the website, linked above.) At the bar I ordered an expertly crafted Sazerac (£11) , it warmed the lingering chill right out of me. Tricia got a French Pearl (£9) which was served in a fun dainty glass. Soon enough, our table was ready and we were ushered down the narrow winding stairwell, still with that striking laminated blue floor underfoot. It added to the nautical cruise ship theme, subtly stated by porthole windows on every door. The small dining room did not have much of a theme at all. Lacking decor, it was simple and understated with rustic wood floors and chairs to match, in contrast with a gleaming stainless steel open kitchen. The bright space with tables set in uniform close proximity grew increasingly more crowded and noisy as the night wore on. St. John felt trendy because it didn't try too hard, and the full house only affirmed its popularity. We were greeted by a jovial waiter, waters were filled promptly and a basket of addicting sourdough bread with a pat of creamy butter was delivered. Then we got to studying the menu, which by the way, did not have the infamous Anthony Bourdain death row marrow and parsley salad. (Perhaps it only stands on the menu at the original location?) What the menu did have was Devilled Pig Skin (£3.50), and our curiosity combined with a compelling description by our waitress (in London, it is not uncommon to have two servers - we noticed this consistently at every restaurant) prompted our order. This was...interesting. Certain pieces were extremely salty and abrasively crispy, tasting like a bacon infused chip, while others were ridiculously tough and chewy. I would assume the chef intended for these to be the former, as the latter were highly unappetizing. That's not to say I was totally enamored with the crispy crunchy skins either. While they might sound like a bacon lovers dream, their saltiness was overwhelming. I tried quite a few pieces, debating over them each time. In the end, we both decided they were not all that pleasing to our palates. At least our curiosity was appeased and we patted ourselves on the back for being adventurous.
Next up, we shared a starter of Razor Clams, White Beans & Artichoke (£9.20). Each component was well executed, the dish as a whole came together with appeasing textures and bright flavors.The razor clams were prepared a la plancha, slightly browned and delectably chewy, the artichoke soft and tender and the white beans in abundance nicely rounded out the dish. Everything bathed in a warm pool of lemony olive oil infused with fresh green herbs, notably dill and parsley. We finished our cocktails and ordered a glass of each of the St John Rouge (£5). I learned after perusing the website that the company (empire?) does in fact make their own wine. We were given a decent pour, and while I can't remember the main points, I know I really enjoyed it. Juicy and full bodied, it paired well with the food. Two mains (in England they are not called entrees) really spoke to both of us, so we decided to share. Tricia started with the Brill, Salt Lemon & Hazelnut (£18.60). We had to question our waiter prior to ordering as to what brill actually was. I had a hunch it was a fish, but had never tasted it before. It is indeed a type of fish, specifically a flatfish native to waters of the North Atlantic through the Baltic and Mediterranean Seas. And as you might gather, it is commonly found in Great Britain. The flaky white fish benefited from a simple preparation in butter, herbs, salt and lemon. And we both agreed, the toasted hazelnuts, and I think there were some golden raisins as well piled on there, were a thoughtful and delicious addition to the plate. The major detriment lied in the fact that the brill was cooked on the bone. While this might have lent additional flavors, it proved to be a major hassle for us. No one wants to be picking bones out of their fish during a nice meal, never mind out of your mouth mid chew. And there were a lot of tiny bones within that hearty piece. The Pot Roast Short Rib, Celeriac & Pickled Walnut (£22.50) was the favored main by default. Guinness braised and fall of the bone tender, it was supremely hearty set in a bowl of smooth whipped celeraic which mingled with its delicious braising juices and thick melted butter to create something special. The pickled walnut was incredibly innovative, I have never had anything quite like them. With a pronounced acidity they added depth and contrast to the richness of the short rib. However, only three of them topped the substantial serving, and I wished there were more.Dessert was just plain awesome. Apple Sorbet and....wait for it....Russian Vodka (£7). Pour the shot over the sorbet and you get a potent and refreshing digestif and dessert in one. We were big fans.Our meal came to (£102.15) with the service charge of (£11.35) included. Converted to dollars, that is $80 each, which is no walk in the park. London is definitely an expensive city all around, on top of that the dollar to pound conversion is the absolute worst. Put it this way, that Sazerac alone cost me $17! Overall, we enjoyed our supper of modern British cuisine at St John Hotel, even though elements of certain dishes left a little something to be desired. It is evident the chefs possess sound kitchen techniques and a clear passion for nose to tail cooking. The portions are substantial and the food itself is rich and hearty. Come hungry.
St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon