I visit Copenhagen

Sunday, August 30th , 2009

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There is a great deal to like about Le Café Anglais.   The room is airy and attractive, with a vaguely art deco feel, not bad considering that until recently it was actually the site of a McDonalds. The menu is lengthy and very attractive, with plenty of things that you would like to eat, and not a single weird foam in sight. The open kitchen has several rotisseries on show, which were put to good effect in cooking my grouse. The only caveat is that the bill can mount up: vegetables are extra, there is an annoying cover charge, and the wine list has only a few wines under £50 and rises steeply in price. The cooking is capable rather than dazzling, and so the only nagging feeling at the end of an enjoyable meal is what else one might have eaten for the same money. Overall, though, this is a very appealing restaurant.
I had another try of what used to me a local regular, now Budsara.  It says a lot about the British public that the previous Thai restaurant on this site (the Thai Bistro) had a fairly basic canteen-style décor with shared tables but excellent food, and was always struggling. By contrast Budsara has a conventional layout and nice décor, but much worse food, and is packed out, even on a Tuesday in August. Fish cakes were poor, greasy and stringy in texture (0/10). Som tam salad was also disappointing, with the shredded papaya tasting none too fresh; it had a decent chilli kick and correctly cooked prawns, but this was a shadow of the som tam that used to be served here in its previous incarnation (0/10). Pad Thai was acceptable (1/10), as was a prawn curry, and here again the prawns were at least properly cooked (1/10). Sea bass with tamarind was deep-fried with no attempt to remove the bones or skin prior to frying (0/10). Service was friendly, though quite why a hot starter came out minutes before a salad is a mystery. There is little here that is objectionable, but this is not a patch on the Thai Bistro in terms of the food.
In a bleak bit of Hounslow is the optimistically named Honeymoon, a South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurant. This is certainly very good value, and the classic South Indian dishes such as uttapham are pleasant, if some way from being the best in London. Based on this meal, it is best not to stray into any of the North Indian dishes on offer.
This week I popped over to Copenhagen, which has been rapidly adding Michelin stars in the last few years. Copenhagen has some fine architecture and pretty botanical gardens, as well as the famous Tivoli gardens pleasure park. We stayed at a very modern “design hotel” Skt Petri, which was in most ways very pleasant but suffered from being populated by extremely good looking, enthusiastic yet remarkably ineffective staff.  The first indication of this was when we checked into our room, much to the surprise of the people who were already staying in that room. The concierge managed to make a restaurant reservation not only for the wrong night, but for a night completely outside the bounds of our stay, and then after I gave him a list of places to try for, booked us into a restaurant that was not one of the several I had asked for – “ah, but it has a Michelin star” he smiled. No, actually it did not.  Even the “design” element can backfire, the shower resembling a Chinese puzzle; I finally gave up and called reception to ask how it worked and the reply “ah yes, many guests have this problem” surely might suggest to the staff that some words of explanation might be in order? Anyway, all mildly irritating rather than anything serious, and the hotel is well situated.
I was able to try four places in my short trip. Bo Bech was solid one star cooking with friendly staff in a distinctly industrial part of the docks area.  Even better was The Paul, a prettily located restaurant directly in the Tivoli Gardens. The cooking uses excellent local ingredients (such as some superb turbot), and the cooking feels distinctly Danish, despite the chef being English. We had a particularly impressive wine pairing with the tasting menu, and the food was at the upper end of one star cooking as far as I was concerned.  
A really nice surprise was Kiin Kiin, a Thai restaurant with some moderns twists to traditional Thai cooking. I am generally pretty sceptical about Michelin’s assessments of oriental restaurants in London, but in this case they were spot on in giving Kiin Kiin a star, just months after it opened. The kitchen is able not only to take staple dishes such as Thai fishcakes and simply execute them much better than other restaurants, but also takes chances with things like frozen green curry in a dish, but rather than just being avant-garde for the sake of it, the experiments that they tried actually worked well from a taste perspective. This is not like Thai food I have eaten in Thailand, but that doesn’t mean that it is a bad thing. The standard of Thai cooking is simply superb here.
As for Noma, this is a restaurant that has gained tremendous plaudits over the last few years. Its young chef is definitely ploughing his own furrow, being very seasonal and using a lot of local ingredients, many of them unfamiliar to those of us not brought up in Denmark. For example there was a beach flower that tasted distinctly of mustard, and I have never eaten musk ox before. We went through an extensive series of dishes, many of which were exceptionally prettily presented and, in general, the kitchen technique was very solid. Yet while there were some very impressive dishes I found several that worked less well for me, and I think that there are some limits in the otherwise commendable approach of using exclusively  local vegetables: there is only so much that you can do with carrots, onions and radishes, and however inventive the cooking it is hard to compete with the dazzling flavours of the vegetables that can be found in the markets of warmer Italy and France. The cooking at Noma is clearly very innovative, and I admire the clarity of vision here, yet I did not personally enjoy the flavours as much as at some other modern restaurants. I suspect this is largely a personal thing, as plenty of people I respect rave about the place. 
In other news, It will be intriguing to see what Heinz Beck can make of Lanesborough restaurant Aspleys. Beck is not leaving Pergola, but he is certainly well qualified to try and sort out this rather tricky site. This has not been a happy year for top foreign chefs running places remotely in London (Andaman saw off Dieter Muller within months, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester has had well-publicised problems, the Connaught is reputedly struggling to fill its dining room), but Heinz is a fine chef and it will be interesting to see whether he can buck the trend.
Finally (hat tip to SG), it seems as that Jean-François Piège has left Les Ambassaadeurs; it is unclear at this point what his new plans or who will take over as head chef.