Saturday 29 June 2024

Nanyang Blossom, Knightsbridge

For better or worse, every moment spent eating out in London is an education, and on a warm Tuesday evening last week I went to Knightsbridge to learn about Nanyang cuisine. It has a somewhat fluid definition, as these things often do, but generally refers to food from SE China and surrounding areas that have been under varying degrees of Chinese influence for the last few hundred years. So it's Chinese food with Malaysian, Burmese and Vietnamese on the side, with a bit of Indonesian and Filipino thrown in for good measure. And based on dinner at Nanyang Blossom, very nice it is too.

An amuse of marinated cherry tomatoes was a decent enough palate cleanser, although I'm afraid the tomatoes didn't compare very well with ones I'd been lucky enough to have access to in Spain over the last couple of weeks. This is not really anyone's fault - the Spanish tomatoes are amongst the best in the world, and don't travel very well - but these looked the part at least, and they'd gone to the effort of peeling them so they were fun to eat.

A second brief moan before I get onto the good stuff - a cocktail "Nyonya" was not great. Ostensibly containing both rum and tequila alongside cucumber and chilli, a combination of flavours I can very much get behind, it just tasted of nothing but sugared water and was pretty unpleasant. My photo of it didn't come out, though, so this is "Nanyang Blossom", which I didn't try but was apparently quite good. Despite the rather, er, challenging colour scheme.

Fortunately, from here on things took a dramatic turn for the better. This is a cute little basket of chicken rolls, sort of like spring rolls but I think made just from meat - at least, I didn't detect any pastry. They came with a very interesting - and pleasingly chillified - mustard dipping sauce which added personality and fire to the textures from the chicken rolls.

Prawn toast had a clever way of dealing with the rather grey and unappetising colour the prawn element is when you don't use artificial pink colouring (which the cheap stuff always does) - mix it with bright green seaweed. So with a covering of toasted almonds it looked a bit like some kind of pistachio cake, but on tasting was definitely luxurious and beguiling posh prawn toast, bursting with flavour and a range of addictive textures. This one went down very well.

Chicken satays - made with thighs, which as everyone knows is absolutely the best part of a chicken to grill - had a great texture and the satay sauce was beautifully balanced between sweet and savoury. We also hugely enjoyed some little pickled bits on the side - pineapple and cucumber I think amongst other things - alongside the usual peanut sauce.

Seafood fried rice had huge chunks of tender lobster, octopus and prawn touched with wood smoke from the grill, worth ordering by themselves, but the rice beneath was just extraordinary - fragrant and buttery and soft and everything that the best rice should be. They're pretty generous with the portions at Nanyang (as you might expect for Knightsbridge prices) but there was very little left of this by the end of the evening, it was just so easy to eat. A real standout.

Lemongrass chicken was, like all the other grilled items, supremely well done with nice dark crispy details and topped with a tamarind and mango kerisik - a dry toasted coconut condiment with Malaysian origins. Perhaps compared to the wonderful seafood rice this didn't have quite the punch of flavour but it was still very good.

A new dish on that day (we were told), these prawns came both as oatmeal-crust fritters topped in a (slightly sweet for me) curry sauce, and wok-fried in a cute little prawn cracker basket. It's pleasing to note that Nanyang Blossom are willing to keep swapping dishes in and out as the ingredients and seasonal availability change, suggesting that there will be plenty to engage with on repeat visits.

And finally from the savoury courses, lovely bright baby pak choi in a silky garlic-spiked dressing, a fine ingredient at its absolute best.

I liked some elements of the dessert, and not others. A completely unsweetened (as far as I could tell) rice cake topped with something fiercely gelatenous and bright green felt like something that should have been served with a main rather than as a dessert, and a little matcha (?) ball was equally savoury in style. But the crème brûlée underneath was excellent, with a good smoky crisp sugar topping, and I will be the first to admit that textures and flavour profiles of SE Asian restaurant desserts are not often my style. So there's every chance I'm just being picky.

As I said, eating out in London is an education, and Nanyang Blossom is as good as an introduction to this type of food as you could probably want in the city. Alongside Chinatown's YiQi it is a unashamedly mid- to high- end budget operation serving a pan-Asian menu of imaginative, interesting dishes that you will struggle to find anywhere else, or at least done this proficiently anywhere else. Not everything was absolutely perfect - the cocktails needed a bit of work, for a start - but there was enough surprising and delightful in the savoury courses to make the journey - and outlay (about £120/head including wines if we had been paying) - worth the effort. In this part of town, and with enough curiosity about this kind of food, they should do very well.


I was invited to Nanyang Blossom and didn't see a bill, but as above expect to pay about £120pp with drinks.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Pied à Terre, Fitzrovia

Since the closure of Le Gavroche, Pied à Terre is now the London restaurant which has held at least one Michelin star for the longest time. It first won the accolade shortly after it opened back in 1991, a time when fine dining meant French dining, and the term "gastropub" was still a good decade away from meaning anything (if, in fact, it ever did).

Not being a huge restaurant-goer in the early 90s (I was 13), I couldn't tell you exactly what kind of experience a star guaranteed you back then, but I have a feeling it was a lot easier to measure up places against each other when they were all cooking broadly the same kind of food. Nowadays a £5/portion duck rice streetfood stall in Singapore and a €500/head tasting menu joint part-submerged in the Norwegian Fjords both earn the same score, and how on earth you're supposed to compare venues so wildly different in every way is lost on me. And most of the time I very much get the impression it's lost on Michelin, too.

But back to London, and Charlotte Street, and to a smart and serious but friendly and fun (the best places can be all these things at once; they aren't contradictory) restaurant that's been making people happy for the best part of 35 years. Their new head chef is Phil Kearsey, ex- The French Laundry and Waterside Inn and various other top-end joints, and he's making his mark with (amongst other things) things like this fresh oyster dressed with lightly pickled bits and pieces and N25 caviar. As an introduction to a tasting menu you couldn't want for much more.

This is a terrible photo of a very lovely thing called "Eggs Kayianna", usually a rather rustic Greek breakfast dish involving scrambled eggs, tomato and feta cheese. Here it was transformed into a light mousse, which was so ethereal and easy to eat it disappeared in one single mouthful. To be fair, that was also how we were instructed to eat it, I wasn't just showing off.

Last of the welcome snacks were these boned and stuffed chicken wings, beautifully glazed and crisp on the outside and containing a scallop and caviar mixture that complimented the chicken without clashing or overpowering. Very clever stuff.

The arrival of the next dish of British heirloom tomatoes with tomato consommée and bloody mary granita is a good time to point out that as well as the featured omnivorous offering, Pied à Terre also do an equivalent 8 or 10 courses of 100% plant-based food. And though the lure of fresh seafood and duck liver (individually, or indeed combined) is, for me - currently - too great to ignore, this beautiful and powerfully flavoured dish is proof that wonders can be created for a vegan diet too. I particularly loved the consommée, studded with little drops of basil oil and with a stunning depth of flavour.

There was a lot going on in this next dish, so I may as well list it all out in full - Coal roasted Scottish langoustine / La Ratte / English pea / Grapefruit / Basil / Duck Liver Mignonette. And even that wasn't all, as on this particular day it came alongside a fancily trimmed spear of late season asparagus. Fortunately, I can't think of anything that isn't improved by more asparagus, and the rest of it wasn't the least bit confusing or overwhelming - it all made perfect sense, even the cold potato and pea mixture under the (sweet, gently smoky) langos which was a delightful surprise. Only the potato tuile on top could have perhaps done with a redo - it was a little chewy - although perhaps that was deliberate, who knows.

Morels with polenta, chicken skin, jus gras (roasting tin dripping) and sauce vin jaune was another neat summation of why people choose to eat in restaurants. Chicken and morels is a tried and true formula, and would have been worth the effort even without a stunning cream-wine sauce that bound it all together beautifully. Kearsey describes himself first and foremost as a "saucier" and each of the dressings impressed in a completely different way with the passage of each course...

...a case in point being the parsley-Riesling sauce with the next course, which did an incredible job of bringing together battered and fried mussels, bright-white and perfectly cooked monkfish, broad beans and braised fennel into a completely coherent whole while also being good enough to eat on its own. Which I did.

Saddle of lamb, so tender you could cut it with a spoon, but in a good way - it wasn't in the least bit limp or collapsy - is another great example of the kind of result only a professional kitchen, or at least a classically-trained chef, can get so right. Various seasonal veg came in puréed and roasted forms (the latter havingly lovely crispy bits) but again the megastar element was the sauce, a lamb jus split with basil oil, a most wonderful thing indeed.

Somehow I completely forgot to take a photo of the cheese course, so you'll have to imagine what Tomme aux 7 Fleurs (an unpasteurised cow's milk cheese with a crust consisting of seven different varieties of dried flowers) looked like, with its accompanying pickles, grapes and black truffle. What I can show you though is the striking carved tree trunk they used to serve the crackers, an impressive visual flourish.

Mint sorbet with toasted hazelnuts, chocolate and dried "strasberries" (a hybrid strawberry-raspberry which sounds a bit terrifying but tastes a bit like, well, a cross between a strawberry and a raspberry) served as a palate cleanser. I've noticed a lot of high-end places dropping the pre-dessert sorbet lately as being a bit old school, but there's ways of doing it - as here - that can feel contemporary and still perform that important job of resetting your taste buds between a rich lamb jus and a looming strawberry soufflé so that the 2nd half of a meal flows like a joy instead of being an exercise in endurance.

The soufflé, by the way - as if I need to even say - was perfect. A dainty little thing, nicely risen and packed full of strawberry flavour with no hint of excess egginess, it came alongside a shortbread dotted with strawberry purée and a quenelle of vanilla ice cream.

Then finally - two (as you might expect to round off a menu of this ambition) petits fours of sticky dark rum and honey canele, and orange and cardamom fruit jellies.

A meal as good as this, at somewhere as important in the story of London food as Pied à Terre, is lovely in a number of different ways at once. Partly, it's great that a restaurant that means so much to so many people - least of all myself, first visiting in 2003-ish and having my little provincial mind blown by the possibilities of fine dining - can still come up with the goods decades later, delivering mature and technically impressive food (and, lest I forget, wines - including a particularly impressive Hundred Hills Signature Rosé) with the same broad attitude of hospitality that won it fans all those years ago but in a style of a thrusting new restaurant that could have opened this year. To feel so fresh and exciting 35 years on is no mean feat.

But most of all, it's just nice to sit down in a place that's been good (nearly) forever, be as sure as you can that you're going to enjoy yourself, and then do enjoy yourself. There's a huge amount to be said for consistency - restaurants that are up and down (or that lose their chefs every 2nd week) make the job of recommending somewhere to eat a complete minefield. I've lost count of the amount of times I've raved about somewhere only for the owners and kitchen team to have some blazing row a week or two later and for the menu to collapse back into lamination and sadness. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you (and, needless to say, you can afford it) you will enjoy a meal at Pied à Terre. You just will. It's that simple.

Anyway, enough talk. In short, it's my pleasure to report that despite everything, after nearly four decades of changing fortunes, after fires and global pandemics, after almost everything else about the way that Londoners eat has changed almost beyond recognition, Pied à Terre is still a restaurant worth its weight in gold. Here's to another 35 years.


I was invited to Pied à Terre and didn't see a bill. Set menu prices start at £65 and go up to £150 for the full 10-course blowout.