Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Mexicali Soho

As an American living in London, I was very excited (to say the least) when I heard there was a Tex-Mex burrito shop in Soho. I’ve been (many times), and it is good. It is as close as I have experienced in London to my beloved Anna’s Taqueria in Boston, and the ubiquitous Chipotle. Mexicali's Berwick Street shop is bustling at lunchtime with their simple menu of burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and nachos.

Overall, they serve a solid steak burrito. They are hearty, filled with beans, rice, meat, guac (+50p), and sour cream (+50p).

But they do fall a bit short. It is kind of clear from the size of their tortilla steamers that their tortillas just won’t live up. The steamers only fit about 3/4ths of the tortilla in them. This means that they don’t have the amazing (almost uncanny) elasticity of a tortilla at a premium burrito shop, and are a bit dry on the edges. You also only get one choice of beans, and generally, the food doesn’t seem as fresh or home made as even the most mass-produced burrito chains (like Chipotle) in the US, where the meat is cooked on open grills right in front of you.

The burritos are a bit pricey starting at over £5, and all the extras cost, well, extra. They are served with chips and an unlimited amount of hot sauce, much appreciated by the avid burrito fan.

The casual format in Soho is much different than their restaurant format in Notting Hill (which I have not tested).

Overall, as an American in London, I am very happy to have Mexicali (Soho) in town. It is also obviously a popular joint, with a line out the door every lunchtime. When you are craving a solid burrito - filling, spicy, and nostalgic – this is the place to go in London. But burrito connoseiurs beware, don’t spend £500 on a flight to London to check out how the Brits manage to do a burrito, as it will disappoint.

Category: Dining
Expectation: Indulgent takeaway
Satisfaction: 4 out of 5

Friday, June 20, 2008

Taste of London 2008

I spent an absolutely wonderful day on Thursday at the 2008 Taste of London in Regents Park. It was an excellent event, with some excellent restaurants, plenty of eager exhibitors, and tutorials on wine and food. I had some fantastic dishes as far as my £20 (crowns) could get me.

Most notably was a melt-in-your-mouth teriyaki scallop dish from Sumosan. This giant and perfectly cooked scallop came hand delivered from the chef on its shell, coated with a balanced and not-too-sweet teriyaki sauce with some shitake and enoki mushrooms, and fried leek. Washed down with a free shot of Sake, it was delicious and worth the entire trip to the festival. It is also hard to believe that they were so perfectly cooked when serving in such bulk. Their salmon and avocado roll covered in roe was also delectable. Does Sumosan mean heaven in Japanese?

The parmesan custard with anchovy toasts from the new Le Café Anglais in Whiteleys Shopping Centre in Bayswater was zing zing delicious! Salty, cheesy, salty, cheesy, salty, cheesy. Excellent! Just too small, I WANTED MORE!

Also delicious were the grilled lamb cutlets from Tamarind that were flavoured with chili, lime, and garlic. The two bite-sized lamb cutlets were very good and well spiced. The cubes of kingfish in a tomato curry (Meen Kozhambu) was good, but just a regular curry dish in the end.

The pork sandwich (pretentiously titled on the menu “roast middle white pig sandwich”), from Antony Worrall Thompson’s Notting Grill, was good, but small, a little sweet (with the apple chili jelly), and nothing special. The brownie was also good, but about the same caliber as a Starbucks brownie. I was hoping for a bit more from the celebrity chef I watched religiously on Saturday Kitchen a few years ago as he whipped up classic British comfort food.

And the braised brisket dish from Kai Mayfair (Chinese) was too sweet. It is really strange to have braised brisket (the hearty image of barbeque brisket lured me in) in such a sweet Chinese sauce. Kind of gross really, especially on top of that spongy bun(???).

On exhibitors, the Gaymers Cider booth was much appreciated, and the Bordeaux Tourist Board booth with about 20 free wines to taste is a must.

Though we had a great time and an excellent day out, we were a bit disappointed actually by the Taste of London. My idea of a “Taste of” festival is a city street event, open to the public (free of charge) with all the city’s restaurants and eateries selling their best dishes at promotional prices. This was a far far cry from that. The tickets were expensive and the food from the restaurants was way overpriced. My miniature pork sandwich from Notting Grill was £8, which is probably as much or more than the full sized version goes for in the actual restaurant. The cheapest menu items at any restaurant were £6. I was, and am, actually flabbergasted by the prices. With the amount of sponsors that the event attracted, you would think admission would be free. And the restaurants, they should be trying to attract customers by giving them samples at reasonable prices. I don’t know who made out like a bandit in this equation, but someone is laughing all the way to the bank.

It was also frustrating that we walked around Regents Park for an hour before finding the festival, as there were absolutely no signs in the park hinting at its location (and I am not a novice to this park). And another thing, while I am on the negatives, the Spanish Wine Tutorial is a waste as they just walk you through the 6 worst tasting Spanish wines available at the supermarket. If choosing between this and the BBC Good Food Show, I take the Good Food Show any day.

Enjoy the Taste of London, but next time I will be writing about the Taste of CINCINNATI!!! Cincy here we come!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Guinea Grill

As you walk through the doors of the dining room, escorted by the finest of English waiters from yesteryear, you pass at the entrance an enticing glass case filled with gargantuan prawns and beautiful salmon fillets, behind which the chef is grilling thick juicy steaks. But don’t be fooled, despite this tremendous choice of fine surf and turf, there is only one thing that you can order on your first trip (or 10 trips, or maybe ever) to the Guinea Grill – one of their famous steak pies.

I sat down with my friends in this classic oak-paneled dining room and when asked for our order it was 7 steak and mushroom pies, and 1 steak and kidney pie. Simple. Of course this is not your average ‘pie and a pint’ type of place – all tables in this small dining room reserved in advance by well-to-do business men from the boutique investment firms of neighboring Berkeley Square. The pies are a hefty £12.50, and a minimum food spend of £17.50 per person requires you to at least supplement those pies with some of the side dishes. We all made it out of there for £28 per person, steep, but worth every penny.

The pies are the best you’ll ever have, and have won many awards including pie of the century which just sounds awesome. They come in a glass dish (not sealed in a pastry), with a seasoned and toasted bready crust on top. The large chunks of beef taste like they have been slow roasted for days, while still retaining some pinkness, flaking with a fork, and practically melting in your mouth. The sauce is incredibly thick and rich, with a fullness undoubtedly from a hefty pour of red wine.

The sides are also good, but more just to get some greens with the massive helping of meat. I recommend the potatoes dauphinoise (cheesy and decadent) and the creamed spinach.

The service is old school English, from the hotel-like usher at the door, to the side dishes individually spooned onto all of the plates, the selection of mustards offered with the pie (I recommend the brown grainy one), and the funny gelatinous sweets offered with coffee.

And while most patrons will be sipping fine Bordeaux wines, this is actually a Young’s Pub, so you can wash the pie down with a fitting pint of Young’s Special Bitter (or two).

A treat in more ways than one, this place is an absolute must if you are in London for a Friday lunch.

Category: Dining
Expectation: Best steak pie in the world
Satisfaction: 5 out of 5

Category: Drinking
Expectation: Beer
Satisfaction: 4 out of 5
- Youngs ales, plus some lagers. Small bar, but nice alleyway outside in front for pints after work on a summer evening. Good wine selection in the dining room.