Colombia

Donde Carlos, 143 Goldhawk Rd, London W12 8EN

10 September 2015

Donde Carlos (presumably named for the Colombian version of Where’s Wally?) certainly looks the part when we first arrive: a menu packed with exotic sounding dishes, Latin American music playing on the PA, sport on a big telly in the corner, basic furniture and a conservatory-style frontage (not unlike the earlier Bolivian example). Initial excitement is suppressed a little when we realise that availability is very much dependent on the day of the week. There’s a whole tapas menu that is only served on a Friday, and several other dishes that are only available on Saturday or Sunday. In addition, there’s no Colombian beer available, forcing Steve to drink Corona. And they’ve run out of soup. However, none of this really matters since there’s plenty else on offer, and Joe & Sophie go straight for the Rafejo, a sort of fruity shandy made from beer mixed with a fizzy pop not unlike Irn Bru.

We start with a couple of beef empanadas – and all are agreed that these are the best examples of their type that we have ever tasted. Delicious shredded beef filling in a wonderfully crispy fried pastry case, served with a fabulous herb & chilli salsa. Things are off to a world-beating start already.

The Best Empanada

The Best Empanada

For main, Joe and Steve both go for the Bandeja Paisa, a combination of all the Colombian foods in one massive meal. This was also available in a “mini” version, which would have definitely been more than enough food, and we knew it. But no, we had to go for the full-sized version, which neither of us were then able to finish. It was good though – a big mess of fried kidney beans, rice with a fried egg on top, pork belly strips, great sheets of fried beef fillet, Colombian chorizo and fried plantain.

Chuleta de cerdo (front), Bandeja paisa (back), Joe (further back)

Sophie, meanwhile had a more sensible Chuleta de Cerdo: pork escalopes fried in breadcrumbs, served with chips, rice and plantain. The chuletas seemed to have the salsa cooked into the breadcrumb coating, making them particularly delicious.

For pudding, we shared two dishes – black figs steeped in a syrup and served stuffed with dulce de leche, and a sort of dry curd cheese, also served with dulce de leche. The figs were amazing, not really in need of any help from the dulce, while the cheese was a bit weird, with a texture not unlike white bread and not really helped by its sweet companion.

Figs with dulce de leche

Figs with dulce de leche

Pretty good food overall, and it all felt thoroughly authentic throughout. When we phoned to book a table, they answered in Spanish, and there were small-ads in Spanish and advertisements for currency exchange pinned to the walls. This sort of place is really what the Foods of the World exercise is all about.

Scores

Atmosphere 4/5; Food 3.5/5

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China

Hunan, 51 Pimlico Rd, London SW1W 8NE

29 August 2015

Pork and mushroom soup

Pork and mushroom soup

China. A rare treat for us mouthful of earth eaters. For once we had the prospect of an unprecedented amount of choice of where we could snap up our Chinese eating experience. So we took a slightly different approach with this restaurant choice – rather than simply, can we find a restaurant, any restaurant, to eat this food at, we went for where can we eat the BEST Chinese food in London.

There is of course, an unlimited range of possibilities. There’s a Chinese takeaway on every London high street, village and next to every underground or bus station. There are also the streets of London’s China town – a wealth of Chinese supermarkets, dim-sum dineries and tempting restaurants nestled between Leicester Square and Soho. These are streets we’d all dined at many a time and always have the same dilemma – which one to pick? Which is the best restaurant in China town, do you go for a safe choice you’ve tried before or try somewhere new with the possibility that it could be even better? After much research Joe settled on Hunan – off the beaten track, well-away from China town and a pricey choice but one we thought would be well worth it.

You arrive, having walked through a luxurious part of Belgravia to a rather unassuming white doorway which ushers onto a narrow passageway looking not unlike the hallway of someone’s house. This feeling stays with you as you take the first door on the left into what looks suspiciously like someone’s front room. That, however, is where the comparison ends. Once settled into your seat amongst the throng of other excited-looking customers you begin to appreciate the seamlessness of a high-end restaurant. Plush white table cloths and napkins, beautiful glassware and cutlery and the genteel hum of happy dining. We’re given a menu which tells us that there is no menu – you simply choose vegetarian or non-vegetarian and then are presented with 16-20 small dishes in small clusters, each more interesting and unusual than the next.

Because of the lack of menu I’ve given an account of the dishes we ate largely based on what ingredients were in them. These descriptions don’t give full justice to the complexity of the dishes but they give you a flavour for the make-up of the meal.

Prawns stuffed with spinach and battered green beans

Prawns stuffed with spinach and battered green beans

The first dish to be presented to us was an individual delicate silky dumping, filled with pork in a warm sloop of soy-flavoured broth. For several courses this remained my favourite morsel. Next came a pork and mushroom soup. More a stew than a soup, this beautifully presented wooden beaker contained a floating cylinder of mushroomy-porky goodness floating in a broth filled with spring onion and soy. I still haven’t worked out how this feat was achieved but I was mesmerised by it throughout consumption. A lettuce roll of minced chicken followed, reminding me of a similar dish I’d eaten in Hong Kong as a child, alongside crispy green beans in a tempura-like batter and the plumpest king prawns, stuffed with spinach.

Lemon chicken and chilli squid – two takeaway favourites were fresh, tangy and delicious, nothing like the gloopy takeaway fare. Prawn toast made an appearance, looking and tasting unrecognisable – delicate prawn pate shaped into cylinders and rolled in crispy breadcrumbs. Even more unusual was a plate of sliced ox tongue and thinly carpaccio-ed duck with a red bean sauce.

'Spinach rolls' - this description does not get even close to how delicious these were

‘Spinach rolls’ – this description does not get even close to how delicious these were

Sesame-encrusted and sat in a sweet red sauce, a dish rather unglamorously described by our waitress as ‘spinach rolls’ quickly overtook the pork dumpling for me as the stand-out dish of the meal, with crispy lamb fairly close behind.

When we all thought we couldn’t eat another delicately-prepared morsel our waitress asked us whether we would prefer duck or seabass. Having seen the eponimous crispy duck with pancakes being served on a neighbouring table we opted for the seabass. Less than 10 minutes later a whole baked seabass was whisked onto our table. The glistening flesh falling off the bone, we somehow made space to pick it clean, even managing to polish off a plate of apple and banana toffee fritters with ice cream afterwards. Well, you’ve got to have the full experience.

My favourites were the pork and mushroom soup and spinach rolls. Joe and Steve were big fans of the pork char sui buns, which are I can safely say, the best char sui buns I’ve ever eaten. Chicken in lettuce was also a big hit. Not everything was universally loved – I wasn’t a massive fan of the lamb and celery – but put together the menu was fantastic. Everything was unusual and authentic and felt genuinely different. And all three of us made it through 19 dishes despite having had our three course Chilean meal for lunch.

Miles away from the Chinese takeaway you can find on every London street.

Pork char sui bun

Pork char sui bun

Minced chicken wrapped in lettuce

Minced chicken wrapped in lettuce

Our menu

Shanghai soup and pork dumpling
Pork and mushroom soup
Chicken in lettuce
Crispy beans
Prawns stuffed with spinach
Lemon chicken
Ox Tongue
Spinach rolls
Duck with red bean sauce
Chilli squid
Chicken rolls with asparagus
Steamed scallops and cucumber
Beef and morning glory
Crispy lamb
Prawn toasts
Lamb and celery
Pork char sui buns
Seabass
Apple and banana toffee fritters

Prawn toast

Prawn toast

Scores

Food: 4.5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Chile

Rica Rica, 15 Whitcomb Street, WC2H 7HA

29 July 2015

IMG_2569

The Cornish pasty of the New World

Chile. Chile, Chile, Chile. Chile. Sounds like a fantastic place to visit on a gap year doesn’t it? And then, the food reminding us of happier days in warmer climes as it does, why not open a pop-up restaurant serving authentic street food, like a less ambitious Wahaca. That, presumably, was exactly what the owner/occupiers of Rica Rica, ‘London’s Only Chilean Restaurant’*, thought, and indeed, did.

We first headed over to Rica Rica in mid-July. “First headed there?” I hear you mutter, “so you went back? It’s that good?”. No. In fact Rica Rica is not open when you think it is. It sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t. It transpires that you should follow them on social media in case of ‘we didn’t make it out of bed today, lol!’ updates. If you’ve got other plans; if you’ve taken a guest to enjoy the food with you; if you’re eating your way through world cuisine in alphabetical order and you’ve already got a Chinese meal booked in for that very evening, then Rica Rica is a dangerous choice.

Rica Rica: 'open'

Rica Rica: ‘open’

We stared blankly at the opening hours on the door. We double checked our watches. We marvelled at the cognitive dissonance brought on by being both right (in that the restaurant should’ve been open), and wrong (in that it was locked and deserted). We cancelled our plans for the evening, and rearranged.

Our second visit to Rica Rica was in late July – our first and probably last ever ‘super Wednesday’ – when we dared to take on two foods of the world in a single day: Chilean lunch, Chinese dinner. To put that in perspective, there are only three meals available in a given day, and one of them is breakfast, which barely counts. Our waistlines and wallets were in for a pounding.

Like any good restaurant, Rica Rica was open as per advertised, and so in we went. The atmosphere was pleasant enough, with a few nods to Chile and the street-food vibe that is achieved with beaten furniture and orders taken by a semi-open kitchen. There was a relatively small lunchtime crowd, but service was a bit slow nonetheless, with a team of two doing all of the cooking and serving. The menu was refreshingly short, so we could try everything on offer, though it was a shame the only drinks available on the day were cans of Ting. I like Ting, and I’m sure you like Ting, but Chilean it ain’t.

We started with a couple of empanadas, the pastry parcels ubiquitous across South America. It has been interesting to compare the different national takes on a snack that can be mouth-wateringly good (see our Colombia post). These Chilean versions were quite pastry-heavy, but the filling of the first was a nice combination of beef, onions, and cumin; the second, vegetarian iteration, had lentils, sweet potato and spinach. The latter filling was more interesting, as it tasted less like a Cornish pasty of the New World. They both contained merkén, a smoked chilli, though this was somewhat lost in the mix. Pretty good, if not much of an eye-opener.

IMG_2571

So far, sopaipillas

Next came Beef and chicken sopaipillas, and these pumpkin dough mini-pancakes were really the stars of the show. I was particularly fond of the spicy chicken offering, with succulent, smoky marinated meat paired with fresh avocado and tangy salsa. The pan fried steak alternative brought similar flavours, but with slightly less depth than the chicken. Delicious, and we’d have eaten more of each if we didn’t have so much eating to do later that day.

We were warming to Rica Rica, only to be betrayed by the non-availability of avocado ice-cream, which looked an interesting option on the short list of dessert offerings. Those offerings were on a chalk board, one of nature’s most-easily updated information points. No matter though, we went for the other option: sweet sopaipillas. Well, we’d established that we liked sopaipillas, so what harm could it do? These were miniature versions, topped with salted manjar (dulce de leche, as far as we could tell), mint and strawberries. A simple but enjoyable combination.

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Mini-sops.

I vowed to go back one day and try the avocado ice-cream, but never did, which just goes to show that, like opening hours, we all make promises we can’t keep. We enjoyed at least one new foodstuff from Chile in the form of sopaipillas, and we were left with the sense that Chilean food could be elevated to the same prominence other South American cuisines have achieved over here. The ingredients are all there, even if Rica Rica only offers a taste of their potential.

‘London’s Only Chilean Restaurant’?

Food: 3.5

Atmosphere: 3

* El Vergel in Southwark serves predominantly Chilean food, so would probably dispute this claim.