Sunday, October 26, 2014

Kurobuta Marble Arch

Kurobuta has been getting a lot of press lately - well, at least enough that my in-laws sweetly clipped a review in a newspaper about it and suggested me & my husband might like to go! It was a great review from Matthew Norman who was a fan of all but what he considered slightly over-excited service. Being an American I am more than at home engaging in chirpy banter with be-flaired waitstaff, and I knew that a professional British restaurant critic's perception of chipper would be no match for my lifetime of Applebee's dining back home. You want to talk about how cheesy your pizzas are? I can hang. You want to pretend to be interested in my day before I arrived here? Sure thing, I got all night.

Anyway, we love Japanese food, particularly menu items other than sushi, so after looking at the choices & checking out a couple more randomly selected reviews, we went on our anniversary!

The menu is described by many as 'Japanese tapas' - or as I like to call it, Japanese sharing plates. Either way, it's your classic set-up where you order about 3 dishes between yourselves and share. There was also a very nice cocktail & sake menu.

 I ordered the sake caipirinha with citrus fruits & sake, unsurprisingly, and we shared some very good quality sake solo. Hey, it was our anniversary. I was also very interested by a matcha latte cocktail - but I just didn't have the room in me to get it after all of our food, and I know from experience that creamy cocktails & food do not work in tandem for me. I'll have to try it next time though - matcha lattes are one of my favorite drinks, and it sounded lovely.

Our first course was Yellowtail Sashimi, which was served with a lovely & punchy yuzu soy sauce, and in the center there was something which had the texture of thinly sliced onion, and a herbal, onion-y taste. It reminded me of the more subtle flavor of a spring onion, but had the texture of something a lot more dense but thinly sliced. Look, I'm no vegetable expert, but I did like it. The sashimi was high quality, fatty & delicately flavorsome as it should be. It was nicely highlighted by the citrussy sauce.

Our next bit of food was one I really fought to get - baby shrimp tempura with spicy mayo. I really like tempura, how the batter is a bit crispier and a lot lighter than any other variety of batter, and I'm a fan of shrimp. Now, what the hell a baby shrimp is, I don't know - these did just seem to be regular English-size prawns to me. That's just poor nutrition - not being a baby, right? Either way, they were as tasty & light as the best tempura I've had elsewhere, and the mayo-based sauce went well enough, but did sort of overwhelm the taste of the shrimp & batter. I'd probably say it could stand to be a bit less creamy & heavy on the mayo - more of a light sauce. That's just me looking for something to criticize. Again it was served with a mysterious, perhaps julienned vegetable matter that had a oddly porous & dry texture, and little taste. This was nice with the spicy mayo, though!

We also had another fried item at the same time, which came with two dips, one very similar to the baby shrimp tempura. The spicy mayo went nicely with these though, and the other dip was a pungent & sour/sweet sauce that was even better with something salty and crispy. The tempura actually went better with this accompanying dip than the spicy mayo!

 The soba-ko sweet potato fries are lovely and one of the better deals on the menu, with a big portion for 2 just costing £4, If you like your fries crispy & not at all 'doughy' or fluffy potato-filled, these are perfect. Seasoned nicely with a bit of salt & something slightly tangy, they were very nice without dips, too. As far as the soba-ko goes, well, soba is noodles, and ko apparently means child...So not 100 percent sure, but I'd almost guess that maybe some soba batter is included in the fry? I'd love to know, as they're very tasty with an extra-crispy coating. Highly recommended!

This was the only true disappointment of the night, and when you've ordered this many courses and small plates it stands to reason they won't all be winners for every person. The 'junk food Japan' section of course caught our eye, and there is plenty more on there I'd still like to try like the sashimi pizza & miso grilled hot wings, but the thing I was most excited for from this part of the menu was the Wagyu beef sliders. With the promise of steamed buns (I've been chattering on about putting a cheeseburger inside a steamed bun since my review of Flesh & Buns) with traditional burger ingredients and the use of highly coveted Wagyu beef, I was terribly into it.

While yes, that was presumably a pillow-y soft steamed bun at some point, it had been grilled or otherwise manipulated into something that was actually pretty similar to a traditional burger bun. Not revelatory in texture as I hoped, but I figured the taste was going to make up for the slight disappointment in not seeing my dream softy-cloud burger come into existence. Unfortunately, it while the beef did have a strong beef flavor & a sweeter taste that did indeed seem 'special', I think it was completely masked by the onions & pickles.

 I love onions & pickles, but their inclusion here kinda brought the tone down a little too much for such a special variety of my opinion. I mean, you put pickles & onions on a sub-par burger and you bring it up a couple notches, but you put them on what should be a delicious burger and it just kinda taste like that 'improved' burger, ya know? They're strong flavors, and the beef was delicate and I wanted to appreciate it more, but I couldn't. While they weren't bad, this was the one menu item I felt let down by - and at £20 for the two of them, being slider sized, it really felt a bit like a rip. I'm willing to pay silly prices for things that taste good and are well thought out, but this sort of felt like the burger that gets non-adventurous partners to agree to come to the restaurant. What I'd do is get rid of all the burger trappings and maybe go for a 'Wagyu Hamburg Steak', something I just made up. In Japan they eat something called Hamburg Steak which is similar to American Salisbury Steak - it would be a true classing-up of Japanese junk food to serve a Wagyu version! With a bit of beef gravy & mashed potato, I think that would be a better way to serve this beef. Again, not bad food at all, but disappointing considering what I expected. To be fair, this is also my only experience with Wagyu beef. Perhaps that's about all it's meant to be?

Now, from a bit of a 'meh' to something that grabbed me by my lapels and screamed "GET ANOTHER ORDER OF ME, YA FREAK", these pork belly buns were unreal, tumbling in after the sliders. The sauce is an ambrosial 'spicy peanut soy', which is three of my favorite words. The pork belly was fatty fat fat, melting and sweetly succulent, and the buns themselves were the perfect soft & steamy clouds, opening like a gracious angel's hands to reveal meat & sauce. There's a bit of vegetable in there too, to add color & crunch to offset the otherwise incredibly soft portion. Seriously, that sauce was amazing - like a more savoury satay without any of the cloying creamy sweetness of those. Chopped peanuts, spicy soy & pork belly. One of the greats - and I love pork belly buns and judge them harshly. If you like steamed buns, these are a must-get. If you don't like steamed buns, eat one of these and then look me in the eye and tell me you still feel the same way.

Good place to end, huh? Well it didn't stop there. You may be thinking, 'CreamySteaks, close with a big finish - why didn't you put these at the end?' Because I'm nothing if not honest about the timing of my courses.

This was the beer-grilled beef fillet with wasabi salsa. The salsa was a nice addition, piquant against the light taste of a fillet. The beer grilling, well, I'm no beer expert but I suppose it did remind me of the taste of a barley-based soup! That must mean something. To be honest, I really enjoyed this one as did my husband, but I think since it came after the pork belly neither of us could really remember much about it. Whoops.

This was our dessert - it was very lovely but again, I have hard time recollecting exact details. It was a matcha mousse or marshmallow, I believe, with a spongy texture - some matcha cream dollops, some sort of I believe yuzu jelly, sesame crisp cookies that were very nice, and...two matcha sugar-coated doughnuts, that were filled with...matcha cream, I'm pretty sure. Again, very tasty, but I've forgotten most details so it isn't terribly fair to really 'review' it. Except for to say that I remember thinking it was a very nice way to finish off a heavy meal, as it was fairly light & gentle.

Over all, Kurobuta was a great place to spend our anniversary. The service was friendly & polite, and certainly didn't seem over-eager to me, which was what I was expecting given the review I had read before. Just friendly staff, not a lot of unrequited banter or suggestions. I would say don't come here if you want a quick meal before anything important, as it was a bit on the slow side, but this was good for us because we wanted to indulge and have a casual & laid back evening. I'd go back to try a few more things on the menu, and I'd definitely reorder the pork belly buns & the soba-ko fries.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Bubba Gump Shrimp, London

I've watched Forrest Gump so many times - well, let me be more specific - I've watched the first hour of Forrest Gump about 20 times in my life. Why, you ask? For some reason this was the video tape to put on if we finished a test early in my school days. Tangentially related to history, a heart-warming flick with an anti-bullying message, I guess it actually makes sense that they chose it...After the 10th viewing, however, I was ready to just put my head down on my desk & nap.

It's been years now since I last saw it, so I'm a bit rusty on my Gump. You could quickly re-learn here, however, because the entire restaurant is just full of Gump related ephemera...and it's playing on all the TVs. It's incredibly weird on it's surface - why in the name of God is there an international chain restaurant based off of a one-off film that, while very successful, isn't much of a cultural touchstone outside of the phrase 'Run Forrest, Run!'

Even that...I mean, I'm kind of old, but I've got to imagine in about 10 years people in their 20s aren't going to be saying that to each other...right? So Bubba Gump Shrimp will remain, and the references will all be lost. Seriously though, Forrest Gump never...opened a restaurant in the movie, right? Now granted, I've mostly only memorized the first hour, so I thought what happened was that they bought a shrimping boat?

Listen though, I'll buy any gimmick if it means you load my plate up with coconut shrimp. It's surprising to hear European waiters ask me what the name of Forrest's best friend was, and even more surprising when every single person in uniform that we passed on the way to-and-fro the table said "Hello, how are you? Are you hungry?" It's really endearing, I know the exact style of service they're going for but it's so foreign for European waiters that they don't have the 'natural' scripted feel yet. I'm sure it'll get better, or it will just slowly devolve into traditional UK service - which I'm fine with, actually.

So we ate lots of shrimp that night - and drank very fun novelty drinks that were well-balanced & tasty if you like fruity boozy ones! You also get to take home some of the glasses but you may have to ask as the waiters seemed slightly confused about which ones left the restaurant and which ones stayed behind. Just ask if you think your drink came with the glass, because while ours did say that on the menu the waitress seemed pretty certain it didn't. Again, not quite hitting the mark on the machine that is American chain restaurant service, but they'll get there.

Onto the food! We ordered the shrimp macaroni & cheese as an appetizer to split - it's definitely a big enough portion for two, and could conceivably be a decent main for one. Very cheesy with breadcrumbs on top, it's creamy, chewy, and crunchy all in one. There were also quite a few li'l shrimps in there, enough that I didn't feel like it was being at all cheap.

I ordered, of course, the coconut shrimp. Bubba Gump is like, the only place in London that serves coconut shrimp so for that alone they will have my loyalty forever. Big shapely shrimps, with a coconut infused batter and a mysterious sweet & sour sauce known only as 'Cajun Marmalade', It's delicious, and if you've never had coconut shrimp here's your chance...and it's good. It's just as good as it is in Japan & the USA, the batter perhaps a bit 'looser' off the shrimp, but I think that had more to do with this being an opening weekend than any sort of recipe change. If you go in a couple weeks, at a less busy time, I bet the shrimp is just as it is in America. Which is to say, super delicious. Obviously the portion sizes are smaller than in the US (or may I add, in the Japanese locations - also huge portions there) and it's more expensive...but hey, get out of the UK if you want to eat gigantic plates full of meat & cheese for cheap.

As far as drinks go, I got the Louisiana Lemonade with strawberries, and it was nicely tart & sweet with basically no rummy taste. It did have a boozy feeling, however - a great choice for people who want to get a little buzz on without tasting alcohol...AKA, me.

 My husband got the peach iced tea drink, which was served in a very weird Mason jar with a stem. It tasted stronger, but was still quite nice with a delicate peach taste indeed. If you want a stronger or more classy drink, you might just want to skip going to a novelty shrimp restaurant imported from the USA, haha.

The desserts left something to be desired, I think. They didn't bring over the Cookie Sundae from what I could see, which is a big half-baked 'skillet cookie' with ice cream & whipped cream on it. Really nice, I'm surprised it isn't here. Hell, maybe it's illegal to serve that much saturated fat at once in the UK.

 I also get the feeling that the strawberry shortcake on offer wouldn't be in the traditional Southern style of a (US) biscuit base, and would instead be the bastardized Yankee version with angel food cake, or more likely here, sponge cake. Either way, pah...make it a biscuit or get outta town. We didn't bother getting any of them, but we were also very full - odds are good the desserts are an after-thought because so few people will end up ordering them as they are definitely big portions, especially for the UK.

Don't go if you want a classy night out in London, or if you are really snarky & cynical about servers who pretend to/do care about their jobs, or if you maybe have a great fear of restaurants with lots of Americana bric-a-brac on the walls. If you're happy to just eat some tasty shrimp & enjoy pleasant service this would be a good choice. Just don't compare the menu prices to the US locations, and you'll have a fun time.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Collective Dairy, Spiced Pumpkin Yogurt

Everybody knows Americans love pumpkin spice. This is just the first news article I could find, but I don't need to be the one to tell you that you can get pumpkin beer, pumpkin candles, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin English muffins, pumpkin cream cheese, and pumpkin whipped cream in basically every single grocery store in the USA. In the four years I've lived in the UK, it's been one of the main things I've missed - Halloween and autumn are just not nearly as celebrated here, and why? Why? WHY? 
Even though Halloween isn't as big of a deal, it still doesn't explain the lack of pumpkin spice. If an entire nation is into it, you've got, got to presume it's good, right? Then why do I still hear English people scoff at the PSL in Starbucks? Guys, guys. Get on it. Millions upon millions of Americans & Canadians cannot be wrong.

 Everybody else is getting it! Japan likes pumpkin, and...well, presumably maybe also other places. Anyway, all that being said, things are getting better. For one, when I first moved here the Pumpkin Spice Latte was naught but a dream. It's been available for the past couple years now, and shows no signs of going away. To my English brothers & sisters out there, thank you for giving it a shot - your bravery has been rewarded by a sweet, spicy, milky dream. My fellow ex-pat Americans, we can consider this one a win. We're still working on free refills, Trader Joe's, & cheap gas. Fight the good fight.

Fighting alongside me is the fine folks of The Collective Dairy - I've seen them a bit before, and I liked their marketing. Big hearty tubs of yogurt with nice typeface, but unfortunately none of the flavors really appealed to me - not enough for an enormous tub of yogurt that only I will eat, at least. When I read that they were releasing a Pumpkin Spice (or rather, 'Spiced Pumpkin') all that changed.

Not only is it pumpkin spice, they even went so far as to make the tub Halloween-y. Thank you, Collective Dairy, for bringing some very unexpected spooky mirth to the yogurt aisle.

It's a full fat yogurt (but not made with cream), so it's nice and thick with just a hint of tang. Really, a nice top drawer yogurt - the kind that you can eat plain and feel satisfied due to the thickness & taste.

The true reason it's brilliant though is the spiced pumpkin swirl. I didn't know what to expect given the UK's 'meh' relationship with pumpkin spice, so I approached with caution. I was wrong to doubt, because this would be a great example of pumpkin spice yogurt in America - and that's saying something coming from an American who was an early adopter of the pumpkin spice phenomenon.

If you've ever tried Trader Joe's Pumpkin Butter, it's almost identical. So, spicy, sweet, with just a tiny nearly citrus edge. Basically, it's delicious pumpkin pie filling, thinned out, ginger'd up, and put into a yogurt. It's great.

I never come across yogurts and think to myself "That would make a good dessert." My husband is a fan of the whipping cream yogurts that often carry dessert-like flavors & calories, but to me they're always just a let-down. I mean, end of the day, it's yogurt, right? This yogurt changes things. I'd consider this a great dessert, an amazing breakfast, or a delicious lunch. I'd eat it all day, and stare lovingly at the jack-o-lantern and bats that dance alongside the container. Smooth move, The Collective Dairy.