Saturday, September 06, 2008

Our trip to England and Scotland

C says:

Hello all, sorry for the long silence; we’re back from our 2-week holiday to the UK – specifically Edinburgh, Inverness and London. We had an absolutely fabulous time, thanks in no small part to the great food to be had. In Scotland, we dined mainly at bistros whereas in London, as befitting such a cosmopolitan city, we ended up having all sorts of ethnic foods. Again, as with our previous trips we won’t go into as much detail as we normally do; we’ll just give you the highs (and some lows) of our trip.


Taking advantage of Scotland’s access to a wealth of bountiful produce, we ate at local casual-chic bistros, similar I would say to Ember here, that took really good local produce and turned it into simple yet stunning dishes that showcased rather than overwhelmed the natural produce.

Props to my cousin L (of Eve boutique – click here to check it out!) for recommending the hole-in-the-wall Dubh Prais (pronounced doo-prash). This tiny little basement eatery seats no more than 25, and isn’t visible from street level. We had to wait about 15 minutes for a table, but it was well worth it. Serving traditional Scottish food, Dubh Prais blows all preconceptions of stodgy Scottish food, including haggis, right out the window.

The haggis I had here was pan fried and served with a creamy whisky sauce, and it was a far cry from the deep fried nightmare I tried ten years ago from a local chip shop. The haggis was admittedly quite rich, but tasted wonderfully moreish and had no nasty trace of its offal origins, and the venison fillet was wonderfully cooked for meat so lean. This place was way better than the much overrated Wee Windaes, which also serves Scottish food but had absolutely no heart or finesse to the cooking.

We stumbled upon another awesome Edinburgh restaurant, Iris, purely by chance by picking up a brochure at Edinburgh Castle. This place was slightly more upmarket than Dubh Prais, and the dishes were accordingly slightly more modern and innovative. A definitely picked the better choices here – his seared scallops with Iberico ham and supreme of chicken stuffed with langoustine were both excellent. Slightly less mind blowing but still good were my baked lamb loin starter and main of monkfish tail.

Fans of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares may remember this place as La Riviera – a fine dining restaurant where the French chef tried to serve overly-complicated French fare to simple Scots folk. It’s since been renamed Abstract, and the owner opened a casual brasserie next door called Contrast. Being the big TV fans that we are, and since fine dining ain’t our thing, we headed for Contrast, and had another unexpectedly good meal.

The menu had rather surprisingly Asian hints, like the tiger prawn tempura and crab meat spring roll with sesame oil that we ordered. While this wasn’t quite A’s cup of tea, his ensuing main course certainly was. Oven roasted scallops that were fat, juicy and perfectly cooked, this really was a far cry from the miserly portions you get whenever you order seared scallops here in Singapore. With Inverness being so close to the sea, I also decided to have seafood and had the seabass, which rather paled in comparison to the scallops.

The chocolate tart with caramelised banana and walnut ice cream was one of the better desserts we had in Scotland. Each item on its own was above average, but a combination of all three was perfect.


In sharp contrast, our meals really spanned the globe in London. One of our first meals there, and in A’s opinion one of the best of the entire trip, was at Kensington Creperie, where you can find a dizzying array of both savoury and sweet crepes that are unlike any crepes that are available here. The crepes are paper thin and crispy, and generously filled with the freshest ingredients – the cheese is even grated directly onto the crepe as it’s cooked, rather than pre-grated and stored in a Tupperware.

A’s smoked salmon and spinach crepe was, in his opinion, the perfect crepe/meal. His subsequent order a few days later of a chicken and mushroom one left him slightly disappointed. I initially ordered the Tartiflette, with bacon, potatoes, cheese and cream, but the second time my New York Special, with crispy bacon, cheese and soft egg, was better. The sweet crepes were hit and miss – the maple syrup and almond one was so-so, but the banana with dark Belgian chocolate was a winner.

Props to my friend and colleague G for recommending the tapas at Tendido Cero. This was one of my favourite meals of the trip, mainly because the flavours were simply unlike anything I’ve tried before.

On our friend S’s recommendation, we ordered the premium Iberico ham, which is cut from the hind leg. As you can see, the ham was a deep red, and unlike parma ham, it wasn’t overly salty or sometimes chewy. It had a more mellow flavour, which I really liked but A, the parma ham fan, found it a little too bland.

The seafood tapas here are generally better than the meats. The pork fillet with blue cheese sauce was alright, but the octopus and squid ones were outstanding. The cross section slices of octopus tentacle were the most tender that I’ve ever had, bar none, and were simply tossed with a paprika vinaigrette. The squid with risotto in its own ink was rich and intense, and again I dare say the best squid ink dish I’ve ever tasted.

One very interesting dish we had was ‘false’ baby eels with olive oil and garlic. We saw that on the menu and were really puzzled. Turns out they use pasta to mimic both the appearance and taste of baby eels. I don’t know how they did it but this rocked as well, simply because it tasted so simple yet so good.

Since London arguably has the best Indian food outside India, we also went to Khan’s at Bayswater, where we had a pretty good meal. What really stood out were the lamb vindaloo, which I liked cos it was really spicy, and the butter chicken. This is the first butter chicken I’ve had where in addition to flavours from the creamy curry gravy, the chicken itself also had a wonderfully smoky, chargrilled flavour.

Our friends S and G brought us to Kura, a little Japanese restaurant serving authentic home-style cooking. Some of the highlights were an absolutely addictive dish of deep fried whitebait-like fish and prawns with slivers of fried garlic, eggplant baked with miso and a grilled saba, and for comfort food it doesn’t get much better than the udon served with slices of pork in a rich pork broth.

We had a few meals of Chinese food – one was at Royal China, where we had the old faithful roast duck and lobster noodles. While this place may not have the best roast duck in London (most people say that’s to be had at either Four Seasons or Gold Mine, where the Four Seasons chef moved to), it has a much less frenzied atmosphere. Plus it has the famous lobster noodle, which was indeed delicious, with the noodles soaking up all sorts of yummy lobster stock.

Our worst meal in London was the result of a misrepresentation. After catching a show at Leicester Square, we decided to have a late dinner in Chinatown. In the dark recesses of my memory from 10 years ago, I hazily remembered that Young Cheng, which has amazing soya sauce chicken, was on Lisle Street so navigating purely on instinct I found Lisle Street with Young Cheng still there. Unfortunately the food sucked, with my soya chicken rice slathered with an inexplicable sweet and sour sauce with bits of ginger. I was quite flummoxed at the vast disparity from the Young Cheng of old. It was only much later on, when I saw my receipt and the name card, that I realised that a new restaurant had taken over the premises – New Diamond – and simply couldn’t be bothered (or maybe it was intentional?) to change the sign. We then realised that the real Young Cheng has moved to Shaftesbury Avenue. Deceived!

I know it’s become rather unchic to proclaim oneself a fan of Jamie Oliver, because in the past five years or so he’s taken the world by storm, and with all his product endorsements we’re really in Jamie Oliver overload. But I can’t discount the fact that watching his old series Oliver’s Twist was one of the first things to get me interested in cooking. So, as a sort of homage, we made a trip to Fifteen London, and ate at the casual trattoria rather than the restaurant proper.

Service was rather slow, and the food wasn’t great but I have to give them credit for using good ingredients. Everything in the antipasti platter was delicious, and the linguine carbonara, instead of just tasting like egg and cream, had lovely flavours from the rendered pancetta. The mains were a bit heavy though, and I guess it didn’t help that I ordered the pan fried calves’ liver. Still, I’m glad we came, if only just to say “We’ve been there!” while watching anything to do with Fifteen…

Last but certainly not least, no essay on the food in London will be complete without a tribute to Borough Market. This place is a foodie’s paradise, and it’s quite amazing that a market like this exists, with all its wonderful fresh produce, in the heart of the city. There are so many things available at Borough Market that it’ll take days or even weeks to get through all of them – what I would give to live in London just for this alone.

One of the much lauded stalls here is Brindisa, which sells all sorts of Spanish charcuterie including chorizo sausage. They also have a stand selling their much-lauded chorizo bap – chorizo sausage, roasted red peppers and arugula in a bun. We had high hopes for this, because I’d read such good reviews and both my cousin L and my friend S also said it was a must-try, but while it made a very good sandwich, it didn’t really blow my mind.

I would even go so far as to say that I preferred the pork pie at Mrs King’s Melton Mowbray Pies. Unlike steak pies or chicken and mushroom pies that are covered in puff pastry and served hot, these pies are meant to be eaten cold/at room temperature because in between the tightly packed meat and the shortcrust pastry is a layer of aspic – gelatinous meat juices that may sound a bit ick, but trust me, this cholesterol-laden creation is well worth the indulgence. It tastes a bit like really good luncheon meat, and honestly how can that go wrong?

We’ve saved the best for last. Tucked away in a corner of Borough Market is The Parma Ham Company, selling unpasteurized buffalo mozzarella from the village of Capaccio in Naples, and parma ham. I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but the buffalo mozzarella here was extraordinary. It had a wonderful texture – creamy and oozy, and a delicately savoury flavour. This was perfectly paired with the vine-ripened mini cherry tomatoes that we got from another stall that burst with sweetness.

The place also does picnic lunches, and on our second visit A got one with cherry tomatoes, slices of mozzarella, arugula, rock melon and slices of parma ham. I wish I’d gotten one for myself – this was superb. This was a combination of the 5 ingredients that are perfect for one another.

Well, there you have it. Needless to say, we’re now on a diet…

PS: We’re not going to list them, but if anyone wants contact details of any of these places, do let us know.

A says:

Surprisingly, the meals we had in the UK weren’t hideously expensive (of course we can’t afford the Michelin-starred restaurants).

The scallops at Contrast in Inverness and buffalo mozzarella from Borough RAWKED but my best meal was definitely the smoked salmon crepe.

I’d recommend the Kensington Creperie, Tendido Cero, and at least 2 trips to Borough Market for any trip to London.

In Edinburgh, I’d recommend Iris, in Inverness, both Contrast and Mustard Seed – a place C didn’t mention but one of the town’s top restaurants (and it has an affordable lunch menu).

And in Scotland, I also discovered that Haggis is really not bad.

I wasn’t impressed with any of the Asian food we tried, but then, besides Japanese, I don’t like most Asian food. My one regret is that we only got to have fish & chips once.

PS: I managed to have Pret A Manger twice and it is sooooo much better there. Totally puts to shame the crappy franchises opened in Singapore or Hong Kong.


Anonymous said...

can you give an idea of how much you spent in the places you mentioned in London? im headed there in 2 weeks time

atetoomuch said...

How nice - I only just got back but I'm envious of you ;)

At Kensington Creperie, savoury crepes were generally between ₤5 and ₤7. Sweet ones were around ₤3 to ₤5.

Tendido Cero wasn't cheap, but mainly because we had 2 glasses of sangria, and the premium Iberico ham was ₤17. Our meal of 7 tapas (inc the ham) and 2 sangrias was ₤70.

Meal for 3 persons at Khan's was about ₤50.

Kura was ₤40 for 2 of us, Royal China was ₤55 and Young Cheng was ₤20.

2 starters and 2 main courses at Fifteen London cost ₤60.

Borough Market is very affordable. Picnic lunch was ₤5, pork pie was ₤4, and you can get 2 balls of mozzarella for ₤4. Chorizo bap was ₤3.50, I think.

Anonymous said...

Welcome home.
I've missed reading your entries.

Anonymous said...

Yum! I heart Kensington Creperie and always make it a point to visit the place when I'm in London. Do try the banana, dark choc + RUM the next time you go, it's the best combination! :D

Timothy said...

Dubh Prais is one of my favourite restaurants in Edinburgh, I have had some amazing food in that little basement eatery - the rest was astounding. It's the only place I've ever eaten haggis and the only place I still do.

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