27 January 2011

Feinschmecker, Oslo - Restaurant Review

Feinschmecker is perhaps Oslo's oldest of old school restaurants. Located in the elegant Frogner area of Oslo, it has been a regular fixture of loose-jowled businessmen and Hyacinth Bucket types for 20 years. I must have passed by this restaurant hundreds of times on my way to and from work, but even though it has held a Michelin star for 19 consecutive years, I had never been tempted to stop by and try its mix of French and Scandinavian cooking. By day it just looked so stuffy and uninviting. Enough was enough I thought! And, following a glowing review in Norway's leading broadsheet paper, Aftenposten, I decided to put my prejudice to one side and give it a go. And do you know what? It wasn't half bad at all. In fact, it was pretty darn good.

The restaurant is co-owned and run by Norwegian chef Lars Erik Underthun, who was the first of many Norwegian chefs to ascend the podium of the prestigious world chef championship, the Bocuse d'Or, winning a silver medal in 1991. Underthun's history is an interesting one; starting out in the humdrum world of hotel catering, he became a member of Norway's national golf team in 1985, before opening up Feinschmecker in 1990, his first stand-alone restaurant venture, gaining a coveted Michelin star just one year later.

Mrs. Nibbler and I were welcomed in from the cold, snowy street to a warm dining room buzzing with pre-Christmas cheer and excitement. Our coats were taken and we were shown to our seats. Looking around I realised that the interior of the restaurant should probably be consigned to some sort of time capsule, for it must have seemed dated even when the restaurant first opened in 1990. Peach coloured walls, chairs upholstered in crimson and sage green fabric, and brass light fittings completed the Berni Inn look. I suspect that without the full complement of diners to liven things up, this restaurant might feel a touch staid. The fact that, without exception, every male diner was wearing a dark suit and tie didn't help to shake off the sense of formality. At 35, Mrs. Nibbler and I were probably the youngest people in the room by a good 10 years. But I needn't have worried; from the outset, service was friendly and welcoming. Soon, glasses of Blanc de Blancs Champagne were offered and we immediately began to relax.

Feinschmecker offers a traditional à la carte menu, with seafood-heavy starters at the NKr 250 ($43/€32), mains at NKr 390 ($67/€50), and desserts at NKr 170 ($29/€22) – pricey, but in-line with other Oslo restaurants of this calibre. However, at NKr 1,075 ($186/€137) for eight courses, the "Classic Feinschmecker" tasting menu makes much more sense, and this is what Mrs. Nibbler and I went for, minus the cheese course (I've yet to have an interesting cheese course in Norway). We also opted for a reduced matching wine menu and let the sommelier pick three or four glasses of wine to go with our meal. I wish I could remember what we were served (I'm terrible at remembering wines) but suffice it to say each wine was excellent and perfectly matched with the food.

To start things off, an amuse bouche of cauliflower purée and Swedish caviar was served in a small kilner jar. Cauliflower is a surprisingly difficult vegetable to cook and turn into something exciting. It's just so dreadfully dull – the Al Gore of the brassica world. I mean how many times have you looked at a menu and thought, "Oooh, look! They have cauliflower." This little dish was a good attempt at elevating this sober vegetable into something with a bit more joie de vivre. A light cauliflower purée was served with a neat dollop of bright orange caviar. The light, and somewhat bland, purée was lifted by the vibrant tang from salty pearls of roe. The only disappointment was the telltale farty whiff of overcooked cauliflower. Perhaps this was a dish designed to go easy on the dentures of the restaurant's key demographic? This was an okay, if mundane, start to the meal.

The first course in earnest was foie gras au tourchon served with tomato compôte and toasted brioche. This is a classic preparation of foie gras, where the liver is lightly cured in salt, rolled into a tight cylinder and poached. The end result is a luxurious and smooth pâté-like foie gras that can be spread on toasted brioche. the foie gras was deliciously creamy, but unfortunately the brioche was somewhat stale, while the accompanying tomato compôte was cloyingly sweet and one-dimensional.

Mrs. Nibbler is not a fan of foie gras, so had asked for this course to be substituted. She definitely got the better deal as she was served a truly beautiful plate of glistening langoustine tails that had been roasted and served with dill mousseline, pumpkin purée, and shellfish sauce. I managed to sneak a bite with my "look-isn't-that-Jude-Law-sitting-over-there" trick (works every time) and marvelled at the stunningly fresh taste of the langoustine. The shellfish sauce had a majestically rich and sweet intensity, while the pumpkin purée gave comforting earthy warmth to the dish – what a magnificent plate of food!

The next course was a roasted scallop from Frøya, a tiny island on the West Coast of Norway. This was served with parsnip "crème" and pancetta. The plump scallop was beautifully roasted, leaving it with a crisp crust that yielded to a soft, barely cooked centre, and was topped with some sevruga caviar. It was a joy to eat; so fresh and exciting, and a real showcase for Norwegian seafood.

For the next course we were served fillet of Arctic char that had been very lightly poached and was accompanied by more of the Swedish caviar, an apple beurre blanc sauce, and thin slices of fennel. Again, the sheer quality of the seafood was outstanding, and it had been cooked with the gentlest of touches, leaving it soft and moist and flaking at the slightest prod of the fork. A close relative of salmon and trout, char has a mild fattiness that was well-matched by the sharp beurre blanc. This was a simple, but sublime dish.

A soup course followed, and a bowl containing a thick piece of Norwegian king crab leg and sautéed mushrooms was placed before us. The waitress then proceeded to pour a lobster velouté over the whole ensemble. Heavenly sweet seafood aromas enveloped the table, and it was love at first sip. The velouté had such a deep and rich lobster taste that only lots of lobsters and lots of reducing can achieve. Its consistency was velvety smooth and decadently creamy. The crab was tender and sweet and, unusually, was somewhat of a sideshow compared to the glory of the velouté. I want to bathe in this soup.

A little palate cleanser of passion fruit sabayon with blood orange and ruby port sauce was tart and refreshing and not too sweet.

The main meat course was expertly prepared, but was easily the weakest dish of the meal. Roasted duck breast was cooked a pleasing shade of pink, and came served with potato purée, parsley root, and Jerez sauce. Although this was a well-executed dish, it was all just a bit 'meh'. There was nothing exciting and nothing inspiring about it. Meat. And. Potatoes. This is such a common theme for main courses in Norwegian restaurants, almost as though a Norwegian doesn't feel properly fed unless they've had a good chunk of meat, potatoes, and sauce. Not that there's anything wrong in wanting meat and potatoes, but I'd like to see something more interesting served.

For dessert, raspberries and raspberry sauce had been covered in sabayon and lightly grilled, the whole thing topped with a scoop of pistachio ice cream. This was a good, if unspectacular dish. I'm not such a big fan of cooked berries, preferring them to be plump and fresh and not seeping any of their precious juices. I'd also question the wisdom of serving raspberries in the middle of winter; surely something more seasonal would have been a nicer touch? The pistachio ice cream was sensational though creamy, rich and packing a fragrantly nutty taste.

To go with our coffee we were served petit fours that were elegantly presented on a circle of slate. These were: salted butter caramels that had been dusted with coconut; mini chocolate and almond tarts; chocolate chip cookies; and chocolate, orange and marzipan truffles. These were all fine. However, and this was a real revelation for me, the real star was a little innocuous kilner jar of candied black olives. This was the first time I've seen anything like this and I marvelled at the simple genius of it. Small black olives had been pitted and slightly dried, and their fruity umami-packed flavour was transformed by the addition of sugar. As addictive as crack, our fingers were soon scrambling round the bottom of the jar to pluck out the very last one.

Feinschmecker is unashamedly traditional. If you're after modern and innovative cuisine you won't find it here. However, the overall execution of the dishes, the quality of the ingredients used, and the absolute attention to detail by the front-of-house team was supremely impressive. I enjoyed a truly splendid meal at Feinschmecker, although that had as much to do with the company I was with, the wonderfully warm atmosphere, and the faultless service, as it did with the actual food. But isn't that the whole point of going out to eat – to enjoy yourself? And besides, isn't it nice to take a break from all the liquid nitrogen, the 'food-in-five-textures', and the spherifications that seem to have become de rigueur in the world's high-end restaurants? If you're looking for a memorable dining experience in Oslo, then look beyond Feinschmecker's old school cuisine and dated interior and give this grand old dame of Oslo's restaurants a try.

Update (14.03.2012): In the 2012 Michelin Guide, Feinschmecker lost its Michelin star which it had held for 19 consecutive years.

Food:         8 / 10
Service:     10 / 10
Ambiance:  8 / 10

Balchens gate 5
0265 Oslo
Tel: +47 22 12 93 80

19 January 2011

L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London - Review

So where do I begin? To say that Joël Robuchon knows how to run a restaurant is a bit of an understatement – the man holds 24 Michelin stars for crying out loud! He is culinary royalty across three continents. Last spring, I enjoyed a wonderful meal at Robuchon’s two-Michelin starred restaurant in Monaco, and I had craved more of his Asian influenced French cooking ever since. So it was on a chilly January day that I found myself gravitating to part of the Robuchon stellar constellation: L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London.

Of Robuchon’s 12-restaurant empire, only four are fully fledged starched white tablecloth affairs (Macau, Las Vegas, Monaco, and Tokyo). The rest are more informal dining spaces, which is not at all to say that the food is of a lower standard. Instead, the more casual Atelier (French for ‘workshop’) concepts are designed to be more laid back and accessible, allowing you to watch as the chefs grill, chop, and tweeze your meal right in front of you.

I’m usually too self-conscious to eat alone at high-end restaurants, but on this day I made a rare exception. So with a lunchtime table for one booked and my copy of The Economist in hand (I wonder if there are any solo diners that don't bring reading material with them), I arrived at this Robuchon outpost in the heart of London’s Covent Garden, which is run by the capable chef, Olivier Limousin. The restaurant has three levels, and I had booked a table in the ground floor L’Atelier. The other two floors contain a bar and a slightly more traditional dining room. Fortunately the layout of the ground floor restaurant lends itself to lone dining perfectly. In line with Robuchon’s fascination for all things Japanese, the restaurant is dominated by an open-plan kitchen surrounded by a sushi bar-style counter in Indian rosewood, which is where I was seated. There are other, free-standing, tables that are also elevated, giving the restaurant a more relaxed feel. The décor, though, is straight out of the 1980’s with bold shades of red and black dominating. The lighting inside was very dim, creating quite a sultry atmosphere, even at 1pm on a Wednesday. All in all, a very pleasant place to while away the afternoon.

The menu here is one of those irritating things that doesn’t list separate starters or mains. Instead there are smaller and larger portions, and you are left to decipher which is which by price alone, which is no easy task – is a £39 egg and caviar dish bigger or smaller than a £36 plate of langoustine? I decided to make things easier and opted for the nine-course menu découverte at £125.

To begin, an amuse bouche of “royale” of foie gras with port wine reduction and Parmesan foam woke up the palate with a bang. This was a great combination of silky smooth foie gras mousse, salty cheese and an intense sweet and sour port wine hit. I had begun my excellent meal at Robuchon in Monaco in an almost identical fashion, except then the port reduction was replaced by a layer of salted caramel, so this was a pleasingly familiar start to the meal.
Another old friend from my Monaco experience (and one of my highlights of 2010) was next, and this was simply titled “Le Caviar”. A caviar tin was placed in front of me and I watched as the waiter lifted the lid to reveal what looked like a tin full of Oscietra caviar. Of course, I already knew the punchline to this piece of culinary humour, and dug my mother of pearl spoon in to reveal a layer of intense lobster jelly and crab in fennel cream below the fish eggs. It was a beautiful mix of flavours, although I felt the execution of this dish was a touch better in Monaco.

Next was a salad of chicory, Fuji apples, and black Perigord truffles. This dish was full of clean and fresh flavours. The sweet acidity of the apples and vinaigrette dressing were well paired with the bitterness of the chicory leaves. The only let down was that there was not much flavour coming through from the truffles – quite a tough thing to achieve I would have thought.
A soup course was next, and what a bowl of soup it was! Butternut squash velouté sounded a tad tame when I first read it on the menu, but how wrong I was. I watched as a chef ladled thick and vibrantly orange soup into a bowl and then lovingly garnished it with small juice-filled segments of pink grapefruit, slivers of orange peel, coriander seeds, toasted pumpkin seeds, ground cardamom, coriander cress, and golden croutons. Wow! The soup had an earthy sweetness to it that was transformed by the freshness of the orange peel and grapefruit. The cardamom and coriander seeds gave a hint of winter spiciness and the toasted pumpkin seeds and croutons added a welcome bit of texture. This was one of the absolute highlights of the meal and every spoonful was slowly savoured.
A slab of seared duck foie gras was next, which arrived perfectly cooked with a good savoury crust and meltingly soft centre. Its richness was offset by a mix of grapefruit, apple and maple syrup, which provided the sweetness and acidity that foie gras needs.
This was followed by a fish course, and in a change to what was billed on the menu I was served a beautiful dish of grilled sea bass and Scottish langoustine tail served with clams and artichoke. This was another stand-out dish; the sea bass was perfectly cooked and the langoustine was impossibly sweet.
The main meat course followed and this was another Robuchon classic. Confit of quail’s leg and foie gras stuffed quail breast had been grilled and slicked with a soy and honey glaze. This was served with a dollop of black truffle mashed potatoes, and a little pile of dill and chervil. I am getting hungry just writing this as this was yet another delightful dish. The quail was cooked to perfection – so juicy and soft. I mean how can you complain when you have foie gras and truffles on the same plate? As if this wasn’t decadent enough, a small cocotte was served on the side containing Robuchon’s infamous and impossibly rich mashed potatoes. Rumoured to be a blend of equal parts of potatoes and butter, I could feel my arteries thicken in anticipation of the first bite. It was sensational.

Desserts, although good, were a little more muted. Yuzu ice cream covered in popping candy-studded white chocolate was a fun little number. The citrus notes of the yuzu making this quite a refreshing dessert.
Finally, a beautiful looking dessert consisting of layers of Manjari chocolate mousse, white chocolate ice cream, and chocolate biscuit crumbs. Sitting atop the serving bowl was a thin circle of chocolate. I'm not a huge fan of chocolate-based desserts in general, but this was fine, if a little ordinary.
Service throughout the meal was friendly and efficient, and the sommelier picked out two wonderful glasses of wine to go with my lunch: a young Austrian Grüner Veltliner went really well with the first courses, while a fruit-packed and spicy Argentinean Enamore was perfectly matched with the quail.

L'Atelier seems to be a somewhat forgotten gem in the London dining scene. Perhaps its informality is off-putting to people about to spend a good wad of cash on a meal. But although the atmosphere is relaxed, don't forget that this place still holds two Michelin stars, one of only eight such restaurants in the capital, and the level of cooking here is monumentally good (Update 26/09/13: In the 2014 edition of the Michelin Guide it was announced that L'Atelier had lost its second star). I'll definitely be back for more as there was so much on the menu I wanted to try. Although maybe next time I'll bring a friend to share the experience with, as a meal at L'Atelier is just too good to keep to myself.

Food:          9 / 10
Service:       8 / 10
Ambiance:   8 / 10

13-15 West Street
London WC2H 9NE
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 7010 8600
L'Atelier on Urbanspoon
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16 January 2011

Yashin Sushi, London – Restaurant Review

I'm back! Firstly, a somewhat belated Happy New Year. The holiday season always seems to be so hectic, leaving me in desperate need of another holiday to recover, and this year was no exception. Christmas was spent in Mrs. Nibbler's hometown of Lillehammer. For the New Year festivities we rented a little house on the beach in Whitstable with friends, followed by two weeks in my beloved London. While we were away, Oslo seems to have been blanketed with more than a liberal dose of snow. I would say it's quite charming (and it is really) but I'm a touch concerned that our impending house-move next week might be affected, mainly due to the movers' insistence that they use a crane to remove our belongings from the apartment, rather than carry them down two flights of stairs. Oh well, we shall see. In the meantime, though, a serious backlog of blog posts has been building up. So without further ado I thought I'd start the New Year with a look at Yashin Sushi, which at the moment is probably serving some of London's best sushi.

Yashin Sushi is London's latest high-end sushi restaurant. It is the brainchild of two experienced itamae: Yasuhiro Mineno (ex-head chef of the now defunct Ubon restaurant) and Shinya Ikeda (ex-chef at Yumi). Although it opened at the end of October 2010, Yashin has already been causing quite a stir among London's sushi lovers. So, when I was in London recently, Mrs. Nibbler and I decided to go there for dinner with a couple of friends who used to live in Tokyo.

On entering the smallish restaurant, the first thing you're aware of is the long sushi bar and the rather fetching glazed Victorian-style tiles. Behind the sushi counter, in bold blue neon, was a sign saying "Without Soy Sauce", swiftly followed with the subscript, "but if you want to". On seeing this I instantly fell in love with the place, as it reminded me of some of the more memorable sushi experiences I had in Tokyo, where the itamae would lovingly brush the sushi with the optimal amount of soy sauce. To then go and dip the thing in a great big lake of wasabi-laden soy sauce, as we uncouth gaijin are apt to do, would have been a terrible insult to the chef.

As we were a group of four, we were seated in the downstairs section to give us more space (sitting four abreast at the sushi counter would have been a bit odd). Unfortunately, this meant we missed out on watching our sushi being expertly crafted – a big part of the sushi experience for me. However, the downstairs space was lovely and intimate, which was only slightly let down by the cheesy 'Euro chill-out' soundtrack playing over the speakers.

The menu at Yashin is fairly straightforward; there is a selection of smaller dishes, such as salads and carpaccios, while the main courses consist of three omakase menus of 8, 11, or 15 pieces of sushi (£30, £45, and £60 respectively).
To begin with we were offered a plate of amuse bouches, from which we were to select one piece each. I chose a wonderful piece of fatty and sweet unagi (eel). I think the other choices were octopus and scallop but I can't quite remember.
While we looked at the menus we ordered some edamame (£3.80) that was served warm with yuzu salt and grated yuzu rind – we dipped the pods in the salt and sucked out the beans inside. Edamame has to be one of my all-time favourite snacks, and these were delicious.
I decided to go for the 15-piece omakase menu, but we started off with a few smaller dishes for us to share. First up was Goma Ae (£5.80) – vegetables in a sesame sauce. Carrots, green beans, courgettes, asparagus, figs and other goodies were smothered in a thick sesame paste sauce. The vegetables were fresh and crisp, and the accompanying sweet and nutty sauce went really well with them.
Next was wagyu beef carpaccio with wasabi sauce (£13.50). Thin slivers of wagyu beef were spread on a plate and dressed with a zingy wasabi sauce and garlic chips. A great dish, although the wagyu beef was not quite as tender as I've had in the past.
I adore soft shell crab, and at Yashin they serve it deep-fried in a salad with mizuna leaves and tosazu vinegar dressing (£8.40). Tosazu is a rice-wine vinegar flavoured with soy sauce, konbu, bonito flakes, and a touch of sugar to balance the flavours. This was a truly delicious dish, but I would have liked to have seen a bit more crab at this price point.
A simple green salad (£6.40) was next. There's not a huge amount to say about a green salad really. It was a salad, it was green, and it was fine. I particularly liked the zesty (ponzu?) dressing that came with it.
Kaizuka Sumiso (£6.60) – mixed shellfish salad with potatoes and miso vinegar dressing was next, and very decent it was too.
The next dish to arrive was a bowl of Yose tofu (£6.20) – handmade Japanese tofu. We all had a spoonful and were stunned into silence. I can honestly say this was perhaps the finest tofu I have ever tasted. Served still warm, and barely set, it came with grated wasabi and diced tosazu jelly, whose tart acidity was a perfect complement to the clean and fresh flavour of the tofu. Within seconds, we had scraped the bowl clean, and promptly called the waiter over to order another one. Heavenly!
Miso soup (£2.50) was then served in dainty tea cups and was packed with tiny flavoursome mushrooms.
As Mrs. Nibbler isn't too much of a fan of nigiri (I know, I know) she opted for a sashimi platter (£25) that arrived literally looking like a beautiful sculpture. Expertly cut pieces of o-toro, wagyu beef, and scallop, among others, were presented resting on crushed ice in a lacquered bowl. I wasn't allowed to try any and, judging by Mrs. Nibbler's smiles, she enjoyed it immensely.
The sushi omakase menu is served in two parts. First to arrive was a beautiful arrangement of eight nigiri sushi. These were (from top left in the photo):
  • Madai (sea bream), slicked with soy sauce and sprinkled with tiny balls of rice cracker
  • In a nod to Nobu's famous yellowtail sashimi there was hamachi (yellowtail) served with a thin sliver of jalapeño
  • Chu-toro (medium-fatty tuna) lightly grilled and sprinkled with sea salt
  • Maguro (tuna) with kisame (fresh) wasabi
  • Hirame (turbot) with chopped spring onion
  • Ebi (prawn), lightly grilled and served with salt and a touch of foie gras
  • Sake (salmon), lightly grilled and topped with ponzu jelly
  • Suzuki (sea bass)
The nigiri were just incredible and so intelligently put together. The fish was exquisitely fresh, and each piece was a well-crafted and well-thought out masterpiece. The various toppings (with the exception of the spring onion on the hirame that was way too overpowering) all added a fascinating extra dimension, in taste as well as texture. The light grilling (by blow-torch) of some of the nigiri gave a lovely hint of fire and smoke and transformed the character of the fish, turning the well-known, like salmon and tuna, into something novel and exciting. The rice was perfect too. One of the real revelations of eating sushi in Japan was the sheer quality of the rice, and at Yashin their rice was spot on – perfectly seasoned with vinegar and served with a touch of residual warmth. I also loved the gari (pickled ginger), instead of the usual thin slices, here at Yashin they pickle their own and serve it in great big chunks, which leaves much of the spicy ginger flavour intact.

The second plate of nigiri arrived looking (and tasting) every bit as spectacular as the first. This time we had:
  • Saba (mackerel) topped with kisame wasabi
  • Matsuba kani (snow crab)
  • Uni (sea urchin) served in great big blobs in a nori wrapper topped with wasabi
  • Wagyu beef, lightly seared and sprinkled with salt and pepper
  • Mate Gai (razor clam), also lightly seared and sprinkled with salt and pepper
  • More of the Madai (sea bream) with rice cracker
  • Hirame (turbot), this time served with microgreens
Desserts are typically not a lavish affair in Japanese cuisine, and at Yashin we finished our meal simply with a selection of the four different ice creams on offer, which are served with a small bowl of fruit salad. My mix of sencha (green tea) and goma (black sesame) ice creams was delicious - creamy, but not overly heavy, and packed full of their respective flavours. I managed to sneak a taste of the shiso and yuzu sorbets and can report that they were excellent too, being lighter and zestier than the ice creams.
Yashin's nigiri might not be for sushi purists, but not only are they beautiful, they are also full of exciting flavour combinations. The ingredients used here are impeccably fresh and the sushi is so visually stunning. The other smaller dishes were also of a very high standard. I must admit though, I tend to prefer my sushi to be a bit more traditional (like that I had at Tokyo's sublime Sushi Dai), but there is just so much to love about Yashin that I may have to change my mind about that.

In summary, don't come to Yashin expecting a traditional sushi experience, instead come and be wowed by their flawlessly crafted modern nigiri served in an equally modern dining room. At the moment, Yashin is serving probably some of the best sushi in London, and a trip here should not be missed. I can't wait to return.

Food:         8 / 10
Service:      7 / 10
Ambiance:  7 / 10

1a Argyll Road
London W8 7DB
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0)20 79381 5362
Yashin Sushi on Urbanspoon
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