Friday, June 16, 2006

I eat London

Had lunch at the Taste of London event in Regent's Park today. It was a beautiful day for it - really sunny and hot. Every London park has its own personality, and Regent's Park is the grandest. It's my favourite. I thought lunch would be more fun and less crowded than dinner.

The idea of the event is to gather together chefs from a variety of London's restaurants in one location - under canvas tents - and they cook and serve sample-size portions of their signature dishes. The punters can walk about, using 'crown' tokens to buy the dishes they fancy. So its a real mix-and-match experience. As Fay Maschler the Evening Standard's restaurant critic put it more elegantly: "The wide range and scope of the restaurants confirm that London is definitively the most diverting city in the world in which to eat out."

I knew it would be fun, but I worried the food would suffer being cooked in quite challenging conditions away from professional kitchens. Among the chefs attending the event are some of London's most celebrated, so reputations were at stake!

I had printed out the menus from the internet previously, and chose items that I definitely wanted. This turned out to be advisable, because choosing on the hoof is difficult, and you could end up with quite random stuff, or miss out on something you'd want more.

I started with grilled scallops with pea puree, pea shoots and mint vinaigrette from Kensington Place

Pretty divine. The fun started with the chef cooking the scallops on the counter in full view, and final presentation happened before your eyes as well. Their scallops seemed very popular, and deservedly so. Perfectly cooked and fresh with peas, puree and mint. Flavours and textures worked brilliantly. Summery and so prettily served: I would rate this as my dish of the day.

Next up was braised pork belly with chick peas and salt cod brandade by Tom Aikens,. Mr Aikens is probably one of the hottest chefs working in London today, so I was delighted to spot him in his chef's outfit working the stand. I didn't snap him, as he has a combustible reputation and didn't dare upset him. His stand was the best presented at the show - really sophisticated and smart, almost completely triumphing over the 'tent' situation.

Again, all the ingredients meshed so well - this was silkily rich and subtle. Perhaps, for the roasting day, a little too rich and subtle - I would so much have preferred to enjoy this in an air-conditioned room!

My plan was to have crispy friend squid from Zuma, but they were experiencing a squid availability problem, so I went off piste and tried Bank's spice encrusted tuna, Israeli cous cous, and Chermoula dressing. This turned out to be a bright, summery dish with big flavours and lovely tuna, just seared and luscous.

Going back to Zuma, the squid was now available and they were handing it out quickly to a crowd of eager eaters. Tender squid, crispy peppery tempura nicely cut with lime rind and sliced green chili. Delicious, and Zuma wins my Most Generous Portion Award too.

Time for dessert: my first choice was vanilla mille feuille with roasted peaches, by Angela Hartnett at the Connaught. Crisp pastry and intensely flavoured roast peach; again beautifully presented. Yum.

Earlier, while I was at Tom Aikens, I saw a woman getting his mango rice with mango parfait and mango mousse - this looked so pretty I had to have one too. A really good desert; I love mango and this was so inventive with the mix of formats and textures.

I still had a few tokens left, so I decided on Roka's strawberry and jasmine flower ice cone. Unfortunately, they had a temporary fridge malfunction so I got a smoothy from Innocent instead.

All in all, I'd say this was a super afternoon out and I'd recommend it to anyone interested in food. By and large, the chefs coped wonderfully away from their kitchens and those I saw seemed to be enjoying the jolly fairground atmosphere. And one covers such wide culinary territory so easily. I'm quite keen on going to Tom Aikens and Angela Hartnett, and the Kensington Place scallops are definitely something worth doing again!

On the way out picked up a welcome bottle of ice-cold water from the flirty boys at M&S. Then staggered homewards.

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