Thursday, June 28, 2007

Taste of London

Just returned from a gastronomic trip to Alsace. More on choucroute and other such joys later, but for now a few words on a tremendous event that takes place annually in London and which I was lucky enough to attend last Thursday. Taste of London is (according to the blurb) 'a stunning celebration of the best cuisine the city has to offer'. Dozens of foodie stalls line a large section of Regents Park, with producers touting their wares. Everything from tasty chutneys and spicy nibbles to flavoursome English cheeses and Isle of Wight garlic...

But the main attraction are the restaurant pavilions. Dozens of London's best restaurants are represented with top chefs cooking up their signature dishes for the punters to sample. All this comes at a price, of course. After a handsome entry fee, you then have to buy 'crowns' at 50p each in order to exchange for mini-portions of food cooked on the spot for you by world-famous chefs. Dishes cost from four to ten crowns and cover all corners of the world with restaurants as diverse as Boxwood Cafe, Fino, Tamarind, Le Gavroche and Nahm all making their presence felt.
On arrival we decided the best course of action was to get a drink and then make a battle plan. With 41 restaurants each offering 3 dishes, deciding was certainly a challenge. Some choices were easy (Wagyu Beef on hot rocks from Cocoon), others were more tricky (Signature Crisp Pork Belly from Fino or Scallop shumai from Yauatcha?). The evening resulted in many a treat for the taste-buds. First stop for me was Fino for the Pork Belly. The fact that Sam (or Eddie - not sure which is which) Hart actually carved this off with his own fair hands gave an added frisson of excitement as the meltingly tender meat and contrasting crisp skin hit my tongue. Divine - totally lived up to expectations!

Meanwhile, back at base-camp, friends were tucking into the first of three scallop based dishes - Griddled scallops with pea puree and mint vinaigrette from Kensington Place...

Next up was a spot of fish from Gavin at Windows. Seabream served with soupe au pistou was divine. Never mind the fish (which was cooked to perfection - a miracle when considering how many were being dished out), the soupe au pistou was the thing dreams are made of. Oh to re-create that soupe au pistou - all vegetabley, life-giving, comforting and wonderful. Here's to Galvin.

Whist we made short work of the fish (we decided sharing dishes was a cunning way to make the crowns go further), another friend sampled an intriguing dish of Papdi Channa Chaat - whole wheat crisps and spiced chickpeas with sweetened yoghurt, mint chutney, tamarind chutney and a sprinkling of blueberries a pomegranate. It was... interesting (and very pretty).

From the same stall (Tamarind), I tried the Malabar kingfish curry - a winning concoction incorporating onions, tomatoes and ground spices tempered with mustard, fenugreek and curry leaves. All served with steamed rice, haricot beans with lentils, red chillies and coconut. A superb mouthful.

After a breather (aka a wine re-fuel), I headed to Cocoon for one of the night's favourite dishes - the Wagyu beef. Served simply on hot rocks so you could cook it to your liking, it was unbelievably tender and hugely flavoursome. It was so good that when I was unable to offer any to my friends and when I ate the last mouthful, I was so upset that I even considered eating the rocks!

You'd think by now that we might have eaten enough. Oh no. You are under-estimating my stamina! Having brushed shoulders with Angela Hartnett and Aldo Zilli, I carried on. A tasty Tandoori guinea foul with peanuts and mango from the Cinnamon Club was fairly good, a very fiery lamb curry from Zaika was spot on too. Puddings were a little disappointing, unless you like panna cotta (which I don't). In most cases these were 'make in advance' creations that were slightly predictable (lemon tart, chocolate brownies, strawberry and champagne jellies etc). I was too late for the scrummy Boxwood Cafe chocolate fondue but luckily had a tiny taste from a friend...

It would have been nice to see a few more ambitious puddings in line with the ambitious savoury offerings, but maybe I'm just being picky!
At the end of the evening, feeling rather full but still buzzing from the party atmosphere we set off on a quick mine-sweep of any leftovers. With all the food cooked fresh to order, some kindly chefs took pity on our now crownless state and off-loaded some of their leftover wares. A true highlight came at the Theo Randall stand, where Theo himself whipped up a great scallop dish from scratch for my friends and hunted out a rather good chocolate pud for yours truly. He was so obliging, he even posed for a photo...

One Champagne jelly later and it was time to hit the road. A superb way to spend an evening - I was so impressed to find so many of the chefs on site, actually doing the cooking and talking with the dreaded GP (general public). And tremendous that they stick it out for a whole four days. A great opportunity to sample foods from restaurants you might not otherwise afford too. I, for one, shall be back with bells on next year.

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