Aubergine revisited

Saturday, May 16th , 2009

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I used to be a regular at Aubergine, but the last meal I had there was rather lacklustre, and so I was not in a rush to return. It seemed fair to give it another shot, so I returned this week with a food blogger who was keen to try this famous place. Unfortunately I had a similar experience to last time. There were few real errors as such (though finding a pig hair in your pork dish shows a little carelessness in the kitchen), but the dishes seemed merely competent, rather than Michelin star level. Admittedly we had the relatively cheap lunch menu, but using button mushrooms seemed rather mean, as did using thin slices of scallop rather than whole scallops. The objectively best element of the meal was the petit fours, followed by the bread, and that is not really what you expect for a place with this level of ambition. In terms of technique, I found it interesting that the doughnuts at the Harwood Arms a few days early were markedly superior to the beignets I ate at Aubergine. Mr Drabble was in the kitchen (both this time and the last meal) so I cannot even put it down to an absent chef.
Zaika was one of the original up-market Indian restaurants in London that moved perceptions of Indian food beyond the chicken tikka masala and onion bhajis of our high streets. These days transferred to Kensington in larger premises, the décor is smart and the atmosphere lively.  I like the fact that Zaika seem to mostly use better quality ingredients than is common in Indian restaurants, hand-dived scallops on this visit, decent duck on a previous one. On this occasion I enjoyed a biriani prepared in the proper style, with a clay pot covered with a layer of pastry to seal in the flavours; I don’t know why so few Indian restaurants do this. There is even a very respectable wine list.
There are lots of things to like about Launceston Place: its leafy, neighbourhood setting in Kensington, the lack of music, and an ex-head chef from Petrus (Tristan Welch) are certainly all in its favour.   A very enjoyable dish was a pair of quail breasts, flambéed at the table. This particular piece of culinary theatre went out of fashion in the UK many years ago, but I find it fun to watch, and it seems to be more integral to the process than serving something is a cloud of dry ice, which is the more recent trend in some places. More importantly the quail was excellent, as was a lovely rhubarb cheesecake for dessert. Service was charming throughout, from the manageress to the sommelier. The only quibble is the price level, with the wine list in particular having some lovely wines but at a price point that would seem stiff in Mayfair.
The Harwood Arms is, as noted previously, one of the very best gastropubs in London. I have had several meals here now, and the recurring theme is the remarkably good game, shot by the owner; in this case there was a lovely piece of roe deer with beetroot salad and horseradish, the meat having superb taste. Terrine (pcitured) was excellent, and a whole wood pigeon was also clearly free range from the piece of gunshot that was still to be found in the carcass. To finish the doughnuts here are simply superb, appropriate as this is National Doughnut Week (I couldn’t make that up). The signature dish is the venison Scotch egg (pictured), which every carnivore should try: with its liquid egg centre, lovely meat and topping of salt, this redefines the humble picnic snack.
It is always tricky to review restaurants within walking distance of your house, since there is inevitably a tendency to regard these with a certain warm glow of affection that stems from not having to deal with London’s traffic or creaking transport systems. However Tarantella is genuinely a cut above the pizza chains that litter every high street. The restaurant is family-run, the pizza chef is from Naples, and the thin, light crust of the pizza and pleasant toppings are a world apart from the pre-produced pizzas that are used in the chains. Garlic bread is very good and very generous in size, and the Italian waitress is always welcoming.