Monday, October 1, 2012

Les Philosophes: It Just Doesn't Get Better Than This

Les Philosophes Paris Les Philosophes Paris-Steak Les Philosophes Paris-Foie Gras Les Philosophes Paris-Tarte Tatin
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Ahhhh... Paris!

No place on Earth evokes such emotion in me. It literally is, my favorite place on the planet. I have spent numerous evenings wandering its cobbled streets. I have eaten countless meals in this ancient, beautiful, expensive and slightly pompous place. And I keep coming back for more. When I was much poorer my wife, then girlfriend and I would drive from West Sussex to Paris and spend the night in our 1989 BMW 325i. We would park in one of the abundant underground parking garages, usually run by a company called Da Vinci. They are always clean and reasonably priced. Well, when you compare it to even the most modest Paris hotel room.

On this occasion, we were traveling as three. My uncle had flown over from the U.S. and was taking us to Paris for a quick weekend getaway for our 4th wedding anniversary. One evening, after a long day at the Louvre we took a chance and tried to get a table at Robert et Louise on Rue de Veille du Temple. A restaurant I highly recommend to everyone I talk to about Paris. Unfortunately, trying to get a table at such a restaurant on a Saturday night in Paris is harder than getting Lady Gaga tickets for half price in Madison Square Gardens. We were turned away, tails tucked between our legs, shoulders slumped, into the streets of Paris. Like Gavroche in Les Miserables, nobody wanted us.

But alas, all was not lost. Meandering along the small walkways we came upon our salvation; Les Philosophes. A small bulb went off inside my head and I realized if we could get a table a brilliant meal was before us. Although I had never been Les Philosophes is a restaurant often mentioned in travel guides and online for its amazing food and reasonable prices. It did not disappoint.

Seeing others having it all three of us ordered the Pave de Rumsteak au Poivre with Potatoes and Wild Mushrooms and for starters we split the Foie Gras and Tarte Tatin. It doesn't really get much better than this. Paired with a lovely Bordeaux, I truly couldn't ask for more.

This is what's so great about Paris. You can wander around as much as you like, stop off at a place that looks nice and that has a good crowd and chances are you're going to have a terrific meal. They just know how to do it right. No fuss, just honest food, prepared with style and love.

For anyone visiting Paris I highly recommend both Robert et Louise and Les Philosophes. Although, I do give the edge to Robert et Louise and very much hope to make it there on my next trip to Paris. And yes, I will call ahead.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh: The Oldest Pub in Scotland

Sheep Heid Inn Edinburgh 1360 Sheep Heid Inn Edinburgh Sheep Heid Inn Edinburgh Sheep Heid Inn Edinburgh Cheeses Sheep Heid Inn EdinburghSheep Heid Inn Edinburgh Burger Sheep Heid Inn Edinburgh
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Edinburgh is a cool place. Despite the rotten weather I really like it a lot. I have a strange affinity for it actually. I find the Scottish people a breath of fresh air. They tell it like it is and don't have many social facades. But up until recently I had never really experienced any of their food. The last time I was in Edinburgh was in 2001 and I was, gastronomically, a far cry from what I am now. Needless to say, I was excited to try some of their restaurants and local cuisine.

Doing a quick online search I found there was a pub that dated back to 1360 and being American and loving old things, I had to go.

The Sheep Heid Inn is not in the center of Edinburgh. Actually, it's quite far out, past Arthur's Seat in Holyrood Park. A £9 taxi ride later, we were dropped off at one of the cutest (yes, I said cutest) areas in Edinburgh, a small village called Duddingston. At first glance you may think you're in the wrong place. The Sheep Heid Inn is totally unassuming. And then you look up. "Established in 14th Century" the sign reads on the outside of the building. And you know you're someplace special.

Within a few minutes I realized that if this pub were closer it would be one of my locals. It has that fantastic balance of old and new. A look that any pub owner who has hired an expert to make their pub gastro understands. You can't have it looking too modern and lose the locals and you can't keep all the old crap around and lose the younger generation that don't appreciate it. The Sheep Heid Inn strikes a perfect balance.

The food isn't bad either. Oh, it's not up there with the top pubs in the nation, but it can definitely hold it's own for what it is. Scottish cuisine, it is not though. I didn't find anything on the menu that said, "local", or looked to be an Edinburgh, or Scottish dish. Having said that, it was lunch time and looking at their menu online, their dinner menu looks much more inviting. My burger was pleasant, although nothing to write home about. For starters, it needed a brioche bun and larger, juicier piece of meat. Our cheese plate starters were very tasty, but lacked presentation. Very edible though. It was the same for the French Onion Soup, Goat's Cheese and Tomatoes and my uncle's Lamb pie. All were very edible, tasty dishes that went well with a nice local ale.

I was happy enough thinking that this was a drinker's pub and they weren't concentrating on the food. That is, until I read the chalkboard sign in the bar it said it was voted into the top 50 gastro-pubs in the UK by some publication or website and was hoping to reach new heights. Why? I'm not really sure. Don't get me wrong, I adored the pub on a whole. And it was made even more pleasurable by the students from all over the world who were having a round table meeting with some professors from Edinburgh University. The topic of conversation is a little hazy, but I do remember they were talking about creating an open source math program online. Or something else way beyond my pay grade.

The Sheep Heid Inn is a lovely little place that I would recommend to anyone looking for a great place to grab a pint. But there are better places to eat in Edinburgh. So if a great meal is what you're after skip The Sheep Heid and look elsewhere. However, if  you want to soak up some totally authentic Scottish atmosphere in the oldest pub in Scottland, hitch a £9 taxi and try it.

The Sheep Heid Inn on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Byron Burger Covent Garden: Hits The Mark. But a Little Too Late.

Byron Burger Covent Garden
Menu at Byron Burger Covent Garden
Chips at Byron Burger Covent Garden
Onion Rings at Byron Burger Covent Garden
Burgers at Byron Burger Covent Garden
Burgers at Byron Burger Covent Garden
Staff at Byron Burger Covent Garden
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As many of my readers will already know I have a certain calm obsession with burgers that borders on lunacy. I have literally driven hundreds of miles in my quest for the perfect burger. In England, this is not an easy chore. Couple that with my hatred of chain restaurants, save In-n-Out Burger in the U.S. and I don't find it easy to feed my addiction. That is, until now.

London has been going through a growth spurt. Not in economic terms, or even housing, but in two of my favorite foods, Mexican and burgers. And it couldn't of come too soon. After being in the UK for almost two years I have not had nearly enough of either of these foods. As a boy growing up in California my taste buds are supremely adapted to both burgers and Mexican. And just like a bodybuilder has something called muscle memory, where if he's taking time off and then gets back to the gym his muscles will remember what it's like to grow, and do so much easier than someone just getting into the sport, it is the same with my taste buds. I can spot perfectly cooked and prepared burgers and Mexican easier than almost any other food. And, before the naysayers and negative nellies tell me I have no taste and that burgers and Mexican are for morons, believe me, that's not the case, you simply have not had enough of either food. Done well, there's almost nothing better than a burger on a brioche bun, or a slow cooked pork burrito.

Feeling the craving wash over me one evening in London I decided to abandon my dislike for chain restaurants and give Byron Burger a try. And I'm happy to say that I can now add this flouroshing restaurant to my list of burger dealers in London. Bryon still does not come close to equaling the Holy Grail of burger chains, In-n-Out, but they do a very, very good job.

Both the classic cheeseburger and regular burger are exemplary examples of this, my favorite foods. The burger meat is juicy and flavorful. The buns are soft and not stodgy. The fries were delicious! However, I was a little disappointed in the onion rings. The first batch were cold and were sent back only to be replaced with oily, stringy ones that lacked crunch. I realize it's hard to make onion rings that have a perfectly hard, crunchy exterior and soft interior, while still preserving the texture of the onion itself. Most restaurant onion rings are made so that the onion itself almost always comes out when you bite it, leaving you with just the crunchy batter. And at Bryon it was the same.

The service also left something to be desired. It was sloooow! I mean, sloth slow. But it was made up to us when our server told us that the whole meal was comped due to the bad service and cold onion rings.

Byron stacks up very well against my favorite burger joint in the UK, Gourmet Burger Kitchen. This growing chain is the closest I have found to burger Nirvana. Byron is slightly cheaper and I like the interiors better. However, when it comes to taste GBK knocks it out of the park. Byron still has a lot to learn from GBK. Their burgers, fries and onion rings are perfect, classic examples of how to prepare all of these dishes. Marry that with their stellar rewards program and sheer volume of burgers on their menu and I'm afraid I just can't justify giving Byron a higher rating than GBK. In a pinch, and if there's no GBK around, try Byron, you won't be disappointed.

Byron on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Dojo Noodle Bar: Cambridge, Remembered.

Menu at Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge Noodles at Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge Noodles at Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge IMG_667Noodles at Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge6 Noodles at Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge Outside Dojo Noodle Bar Cambridge
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There are certain things you do in life because it reminds You of a different time and place. Eating at Dojo Noodle Bar in Cambridge is one of those things for me.

Having studied at Cambridge University in the summer of 2001 and eating at Dojo on several occasions, I knew this was one of the best places in town to get good, honest food, with college portions. So when two of my alumni chums visited my wife and I from the US Dojo was one of our first stops on our reminiscent journey of that month long summer semester.

Dojo is situated on Mill Lane, about 50 yards from The Mill, our other local haunt that has just undergone a major and quite frankly, way overdue refurbishment. The wait for a table at Dojo was how it always is, long. With reasonable prices and ginormous plates full of delicious food, Dojo is a haven for broke college kids looking to score a good meal.

On this day though, 11 years after the three of us had studied there, we weren't quite as broke as we used to be and our pockets were slightly weightier, making it possible to actually splurge a little and buy a drink. :) When our table was ready we looked over the large menu and ordered. Within minutes five plates of piping hot Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese noodle dishes were brought out to us.

And oh, it was so good. Just like I remembered. However, I can't say it's the best noodle dishes I've ever eaten. Quite the opposite actually. But for what it is, it seriously fits the bill.

When our plates were sufficiently licked clean and our bellies couldn't take anymore, we started the long journey around the streets of Cambridge to reminds ourselves of how much fun we had all those years ago. A lot has changed in Cambridge. The clothes are trendier and the young people there seem to be too smart for their own good. And I'm not just talking about book smart, I'm talking street smart. Everything is questioned and thought out in almost insane detail.

Cambridge remains one of my favorite places in Europe. And Dojo remains one of my all time favorite restaurants, for good, healthy, inexpensive food that is quite frankly, belt busting.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rui Paula DOP: Porto Just Keeps Getting Better

Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto-Menu8 Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto0 Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto Rui Paula Restaurant Porto
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After eating an incredible meal at O Paparico in Porto, my family and I were deeply looking forward to another fabulous dining experience. This time at Porto's only Michelin starred restaurant in The Yeatman hotel. Overlooking the city like an emperor, The Yeatman is a magical place just outside of the city center. Surrounded by port houses, The Yeatman is one of the most spectacular places I've ever been to.

However, we didn't get to enjoy its reputable restaurant because after 1.5 hours of waiting for a table, we had enough and decided to leave. It was an unfortunate experience. One that, according to the hotel manager, never happens. He apologized profusely and made us a reservation at Rui Paula's DOP. And I am oh so happy he did.

DOP is an entirely different dining experience to O Paparico. Not better, not worse, just different. Rui Paula has elevated seemingly simple dishes into gastronomic juggernauts. Take for instance, my Duck Magret with Foie Gras and Mushroom Risotto, which was perhaps, no scrap that, IS the best Mushroom Risotto I have ever eaten. I have nothing to equate it to as this dish simply has no equal. I would eat it five times a day if I could. Served with Freeze Dried Blueberries that contrasted very nicely with the deep, intense flavors in the Foie Gras, this is a dish that could stand up to anything served in London or New York.

I think it's fair to say that all of the diners felt the same way I did. Whether it was the Monkfish with Lime Risotto or the decadent starter of Foie Gras in a Port Sauce with Chicken Thigh Confit, Rui Paula has definitely created a restaurant that can cater to the most demanding foodie.

When our meal was ending we were treated to Mr. Paula himself coming around to each table and asking us how we enjoyed our food. It was close to midnight, but he still took the time to ensure each dining experience was the best he could offer. After complimenting him on my Mushroom Risotto he simply said, "Thank you very much. I'm going to go home now."

And it is this incredible sense of modesty and professionalism that has attracted me to the restaurants in Porto. And despite our mishap with The Yeatman, I'm sure the experience is the same there. Maybe I'll get to find out next time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

O Paparico, Porto: Defying Convention. Cooking For Real.

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Let's get one thing straight right at the beginning; I'm a foodie that is getting bored with the current culinary scene. Celebrity chefs, uber-modern, super-cool restaurants started by people who have more money than taste, ludicrous prices based on Michelin stars, pomp, posh maitre'ds and sommeliers, the list goes on and on. Eating out now has become a minefield. It's easy to have a bad meal, even with good research. And so it is with great pleasure that I review a restaurant that doesn't have any of the above.

O Paparico is a little out of the way. Tucked into a family neighborhood, it's easy to question your taxi driver on the address. As we did when we were dropped off for our first meal at this understated restaurant in Porto. Scooting up to the front door I read on the menu outside that we were indeed in the right place and waved the taxi driver away. But after fiddling with the door handle, which was locked I nearly called him back before noticing the antique door knocker. Knock, knock, knock. A friendly face answers and I say, "I think our reservation is for 8pm but can we come in and have a drink?" "Of course! Please, come in." Sergio, the owner says in a friendly voice that speaks nearly flawless English.

Sergio led us to the bar which resembles an old speakeasy. Replete with stained leather sofas, a chessboard and a flat screen TV showing movies from the 40s. Within minutes the four of us were already in love. Sergio offered us a drink and we sat there marveling at a restaurant that was clearly defying the current restaurant trend. As the diners began to pile in I was certain the level of service and Sergio's attention on us would wane. It was not so. Sergio and his team only paid us more attention, giving us a wonderful table, snuggly fitted into the center of the restaurant. Right in the middle of the action.

The table was already laid out with four starters, but we were swiftly told that we could switch up anything we wanted. I was really impressed and surprised that the decision making process was completely taken away from me. Instead of spending hours scrutinizing the menu, I was given my choices based on what was in season and local. I won't bother to go into each dish as I normally do because the menu changes all the time and you, dear reader, are not likely to eat what I ate. But, every dish was spectacular, especially the Veal Terrine with a Port Sauce.

When the starter plates were sufficiently licked clean they were quickly taken away, refills of Meandro (my favorite Douro wine) poured and our mains were presented. Up first was Bacalhau, which is Codfish cured in salt for 12 months and served with mountains of olive oil, new potatoes and onions. This dish won't be to everyone's tastes, as it is literally the saltiest thing I have ever eaten, but it was lovely and clearly wasn't too salty as it was completely devoured. And so it was with the remaining main courses, which are prepared for two. Each being completely taken apart and inhaled in record time.

This kind of intentional family-style eating is a breath of fresh air. Too often in todays modern restaurants we are being bombarded with sense overload inducing dishes, that are meant to tease and inspire every bodily reaction. And although I love what most chefs, especially Heston are doing with these dishes, it's nice to lift my head up and actually engage my fellow diners for once. Every dish in O Paparico is meant to be enjoyed by at least two people.

When we left O Paparico at close to midnight, every diner felt they had experienced something very special. But when we went back two days later and experienced the same high level of service, and dare I say it, even better food, we were certain that we had struck gastronomic gold. And for a price that made all of us do a double take. Reasonable doesn't even begin to describe it.

By our second evening at O Paparico we were seasoned pros. We had the same table as before and the same starters were laid down for us. We swapped out a couple to enjoy the full variety and instead of ordering two main courses, we ordered one and had two additional starters; the Prawn and Chorizo, which were both excellent. In fact, I have to admit that I have never tasted a Prawn as good in my entire life; not in Spain, not in France, not in England and not in Italy.

When our bellies were full and our drinks were running low we were invited into the kitchen to see how things are done at O Paparico. It's a cozy kitchen, but one with very accomplished staff. As Sergio put it, "It's all that we need." And although Sergio can chat all day about chefy techniques like Sous Vide, Spherification and other Molecular Gastronomy, that's not what he's about. And it's not what O Paparico is about. Instead, Sergio is wholly concerned with the dining experience and the quality of the food. Perhaps that's why the people in the Porto food and drink business choose to eat at O Paparico. When they are done making their fabulous wine and cooking in their own kitchens, they come to Sergio.

The restaurant scene could use more people like Sergio and more restaurants like O Paparico. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Porto. Portugal has not yet made it on the map as a tourist destination. Ask nearly anyone in England and the U.S. if they've been to Portugal and the answer is likely, no. However, Portugal is producing some of the best food and wine in the world and it's only a matter of time before the word gets out and instead of going to the tourist traps of Spain, France and Italy, people will save their pennies and come to Portugal. I place the wines of the Douro region above Rioja and although not quite as appealing as the top chateaus of Bordeaux, for the money I think they are the best in the world. Couple that with the breathtaking beauty of the Douro river and the hallowed port wine houses and the Porto area is one of the best places to visit on Earth.

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