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I review a Soho institution

Saturday, January 19th , 2013

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Vasco and Piero Pavilion is a Soho institution, serving its Umbrian dishes for 32 years. The cooking is simple but careful, shown in the accurately balanced dressing of a starter of tuna and avocado salad. Pasta is mostly made from scratch, and ragu with tagliatelle was the sort of dish that you would be pleased to find emerging from a kitchen in Italy. Desserts were a little less good than the savoury courses, though pleasant enough. The restaurant was packed even on a bitterly cold January weekday, with the dining room squeezing in 65 diners in its main room with more diners in the basement. Don’t expect to stretch out here, as the tables are tiny and the tables as close together as feasible, but service was friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. I can certainly see why it is so successful.

I was so impressed with my first meal at HKK in December that I quickly scheduled a return visit. This time I tried dishes from the vegetarian menu as well as some of the dishes from the set meal (there is no a la carte here, just a tasting menu format). The standard of cooking is remarkably high, and a couple of the dishes seemed to me even a little better than on my previous visit, which may reflect tweaking in the early days. The Peking duck was remarkably good, but so was the extremely delicate selection of dim sum. From the vegetarian dishes, a vegetarian “chicken” dish  (made from tofu) with black pepper sauce and baked in a red onion was extremely impressive, as was an unlikely sounding pairing of warm melon and aubergine. The ingredient quality here is high e.g. a chicken soup dish is made using poulet Bresse, and the lobster dish was as delicately prepared as at any fine French restaurant. Service was also very slick, it transpiring that the waiters are sent on a two-week induction course before being allowed out on the dining room floor. This is an unusually high level of staff investment, and it shows. HKK has really raised the bar for Chinese cooking in London. 

The Harwood Arms is one of my favourite gastropubs. When I went there in the early days you could just breeze on in and get a table, which now requires considerable planning and advanced notice. Its great strength is game, with its co-owner Mike Robinson (of the charming Berkshire pub The Pot Kiln) a keen hunter, and providing some of the game that turns up on the Harwood’s table. True to form, the roe deer this week was excellent, but the rest of the cooking was up to scratch too: cured salmon, very well judged sea bass enjoyable lemon beignets at the end. These days there is an excellent wine list too. The Harwood is actually in between head chefs at the present, but with all the resources of the Ledbury at their disposal (Brett Graham is one of the three co-owners) this didn’t seem an issue or to have any effect on the standard of the cooking.    

Regular readers of this blog will find it no surprise that I returned to Hedone, the west London venture of ex-blogger Mikael Jonsson, awarded its first Michelin star in its first year of opening. The kitchen was on excellent form as it reopened for the new year. The umami flan (a sort of savoury custard made using chicken stock, kombu and bonito) is back on the menu. Also excellent this week were a tender cuttlefish with artichoke and baby sika deer with root vegetables (pictured). Apple millefeuille was excellent, the puff pastry lovely.

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