Look at the steam rising from this one (my friend says I have it in for the pigs this week)
Another year, another Taste of London in the rain. Must be something about festivals, that they require mud, wellies and waterproofs as proof of concept. There were snatches of sunshine too, though, and the park would become really warm. So the whole thing called for summer dress and slip-ons, spring jacket and cardigan, sunglasses, an umbrella, and an autumn knit rolled up in the back-pack. How to negotiate a food festival in a city centre park (if that city is London).
The Taste of London food and restaurant festival takes place in Regents Park every year. For four days, some of the capital's best restaurants (plus some others) set up temporary kitchens fronted by counters, which are then mobbed by greedy Londoners. Oh yes, the elbows were out today. My Singaporean training stood me in good stead for dealing with kiasus, though, and I weaved in and out like a Mazda on the ECP, finding my way to the front of the herd very quickly.
The front-of-house teams dealt with all of it very well, each in their own way. Asia de Cuba had a thumping stereo going, and the waiters had a little disco between the kitchen and their counter. Small paper plates somehow wound their way from the chef's hands to the customers', following the rhythm of a hip-hop beat. The Hart brothers' trio of Barrafina, Fino and Quo Vadis displayed discipline and focus, yet were as vibrant as their actual restaurants' kitchens. It was order that, to an outsider's eyes, could look deceptively like chaos.
Fino's Head Chef Nieves' supreme concentration
It was exhausting - jostling with other food-mad Londoners, clutching my 'crowns' (pre-paid currency for the day), trying not to get my foot stamped on by a muddy wellie - but it was very, very worth it. There's been a lot of negativity surrounding this year's Taste of London, with many in the Twittersphere complaining about high prices and saying they feel ripped off. I have to say, I don't understand it. For less than the price of dining at the most inexpensive of London's gourmet destinations, we tried tasting plates from more than ten restaurants. And in most cases, the head chef of the restaurant is right there, searing the scallops or carving the suckling pig right before your eyes. There are also large front-of-house teams (all of whom are notably not in their actual restaurants) to service the large crowds. And did I mention the whole shebang is happening in the grounds of a Royal Park in the centre of London? I guess us Londoners share more than just kiasuism with Singaporeans - we also love to complain.
The on-again off-again rain and sunshine meant that my camera spent most of the afternoon safely inside the rain cover. So I don't have that many photos to share with you. But here are my top recommendations for what to try at the Taste of London this year. You can still make it for the evening session tonight (until 9.30pm), and there is a further session tomorrow. Just make sure you and your camera are water-proofed.
1. Fino - Iberian pork 'presa'
The presa (a cut of pork from behind the neck) was simply cooked on the plancha with piquillo peppers, garlic, salt and olive oil. Those few superb ingredients did a lot of work to yield an outstanding taste sensation. This is open southern Spanish countryside, with dramatic mountains and lush olive groves.
2. Kai Mayfair - Barbecued soy and honey marinated lamb
This tender lamb chop was sweet, it was a little fiery, and the sauce of red chillies, shallots, garlic and coriander was unforgettable. It was extremely good, and could have been a joint first with Fino's dish, but there were many ingredients doing work here.
3. The Cinnamon Club - Spice encrusted Gressingham duck breast, Hyderabadi korma sauce
I have many complaints about much of the Indian food in London, but the Cinnamon Club really impressed me with all the dishes we tried. They were subtly spiced, made with quality ingredients, and tasted fresh and healthful. This dish stood out for the perfect sauce to accompany the duck, which is remarkable given that duck isn't a common feature of Indian cuisine.
Barrafina - 5 Jotas Ibérico platter
I do have photos for this one. The meat was succulent, with the right balance of oiliness, and the flavouring and curing had been done well.
5 Jotas Ibérico
The carving is an art too, to yield the right striations
Bocca di Lupo - 3 Fried Balls
I've tried this in the restaurant, and it's excellent. Particularly mind-blowing is the fried whole olive, stuffed with veal and pork. It's juicy, tender and olive-tangy all at once.
The Cinnamon Club - Seared scallops, achari cauliflower purée and stir fried squid
Seared scallops and cauliflower purée can be seen in many places, but the addition of Indian spices and tiny juicy squid rings make this special.
The Cinnamon Club - Bengali spiced vegetable 'chop', beetroot and raisin
A colourful take on the British Raj classic of vegetable chop. Crisp, soft, delicately flavoured.
Refettorio - Crostino with chicken liver and caper paté, topped with black truffle
Refettorio is one of my favourite Italian restaurants. Pity it's so close to where I used to work (ugh). The warm chicken liver and caper paté is spread on toasted corn bread, before the chef himself comes out of the kitchen to shave generous Umbrian black truffle over it.
Launceston Place - Sustainable British fish 'fritto misto' with devilled butter
The name of this dish gives away two current trends in London. (Answers on a postcard, but no prizes.) The fish was fresh, the exterior was crisp without feeling over-fried, and the foamy caper butter complemented it well. The restaurant has promised to send me the recipe to this, so watch this space.
Perching outside, after one of the many showers of the afternoon
There are two dishes which I would avoid. Club Gascon is an excellent restaurant, and they are very good at their foie gras. However, their first-prize-winning foie gras burger was tasteless, which is unbelievable given that it's foie gras! Also, this really isn't something you want to bite into imho (unavoidable in a burger format), because its oils shoot out and spill all over your hand and down your throat. Rhodes 24's white tomato soup is also to be avoided. One of our group remarked that it was like a thinned Campbell's cream soup. Uh oh...
Taste of London
Entrance on the Outer Circle, north of Park Square Gdns (directions on the website are useless)
Still happening on Saturday night until 9.30pm and on Sunday