Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder

Saturday, July 12th , 2008

absinthe 3648 outside-crop-v3.JPG
L’Absinthe (pictured) has a delightful concept, and a rare one in London – a fairly priced wine menu. The list is fairly short and all French, but the list has decent wines with modest mark-ups over retail price; in the cases of the pricier wines, they are sold at retail price. No one is going to argue with that, and the Burgundian owner is witty and charming. The food itself never made it above decent bistro level on our visit, and certainly that is a perfectly acceptable level, with just two chefs serving 60 covers. If only this wine pricing approach would catch on. 
I used to be a regular at Petrus when it was in St James Street, where Marcus Wareing seemed to me to be producing some of the best food in London at that time. I have never been quite as taken with the incarnation at the Berkeley Hotel, which is smarter and more formal. In its favour, even the bargain (and it is a real bargain at £35) lunch menu features fairly costly ingredients like sea bass as well as more profitable pork belly. Nothing was wrong technically – indeed technique in the apricot tarte tatin we tried was faultless, yet I am still not convinced that the cooking has really elevated a notch. Michelin didn’t for some time either, but are now convinced and Petrus has its second star. Maybe an English two star, but how would this fare in Paris? Comparisons with two star places like Les Ambassadeurs or Amphitryon are inconvenient evidence contradicting those who think Michelin applies the same standards everywhere.  I am leaving my score at 7/10 based on this meal.
I was a little nervous about returning to Ambassade de l’Ile after my superb meal there in soft opening a couple of weeks ago. The initial meal was so good that I wondered on reflection whether I had somehow been very lucky, or had got carried away at the surprise at finding serious high end French cooking in London. Fortunately my return visit confirmed that this is a place with real talent. This time we tried a lengthy tasting menu and while, as is inevitable with such things, some dishes were more enjoyable than others (they should drop the veal lollipop nibble), the overall standard was again very high. Again I had one really dazzling experience, this time a ravioli of foie gras with stunning duck and port sauce. Anyone who can make a sauce as perfect as this gets my vote. The kitchen is still settling down, with some variability in standards between the dishes, but make no mistake: this is serious cooking.
Kiasu continues to produce good quality Malaysian food at a very fair price. Beef rendang was rich and sufficiently tender it was falling apart, while a fusion dish of paratha with a satay-influenced curry dipping sauce was unusual and worked well.  This is a simple place that I am pleased to say is full of eager diners. It is a welcome contrast to some of the recent manufactured yet unsatisfying “street food” interpretations by well known chefs (yes Urban Turban, that means you).  
I have written at length about Zafferano  in the past, so suffice it to say that the meal here this week showcased excellent seasonal produce (which is always their great strength) in the form of a lovely salad of peas and broad beans topped with a pecorino crisp.  Wild salmon with spinach and a balsamic dressing was also very tasty, with the dressing carefully balanced and letting the quality of the fish speak for itself. 
A pizza at my local authentic Italian pizzeria Tarantella was very pleasant. 
Next week : the Riviera.