Ciampini, Rome

Ciampini, in the Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, (there is also a second outlet near the Spanish Steps) is more of an all-day café that serves gelato than a specialist gelataria. It does, nonetheless, have a reputation for serving some of the best gelato in Rome, so on my recent trip to the Italian capital, I had to give it a try.

Hazelnut, Pistachio, Coconut gelato

Almost all the seating at Ciampini is outdoors, which, thanks to some unseasonably warm weather in February, was fine, and even allowed for a spot of people-watching in what is one of Rome’s most fashionable squares lined with a host of designer boutiques. Service was abrupt, but tolerable because of the quality of the ice cream. I had the old favourites Hazelnut, Pistachio, and a wildcard – Coconut. The coconut was a mistake, but the other two flavours were great. The pistachio taste did not come through quite as strongly here as it did at Giolitti but the gelato was both creamier and smoother in texture.

In a nutshell…
Excellent gelato. The rest of the menu is said to be good too.

8/10

Ciampini
Piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina, 29 - 00186, Roma
+39 06 6876606
Average price: €7 (for ice cream)

Il Matriciano, Rome

Ristorante Il Matriciano is supposed to be a beacon of authenticity, serving traditional Roman fare amongst a sea of tourist-trap restaurants by St. Peter’s. It is even said to attract ministers and cardinals from the nearby Vatican. Seemed like the perfect place for lunch after our visit to the capital of the Holy See.

Bucatini alla Matriciana - Hollow Spaghetti “Matriciana style”, with a tomato, bacon and basil sauce.

The speciality of the house is Bucatini alla Matriciana - Hollow Spaghetti “Matriciana style”, with a tomato, bacon and basil sauce. It was terrible – some of the spaghetti was so badly undercooked it was almost rock hard, and the sauce looked and tasted worse than the pasta sauce you get at the supermarket.

Abbachio Al Forno con Patate – Roast baby lamb with potatoes

My main course of Abbachio Al Forno con Patate – Roast baby lamb with potatoes was much better – quite good in fact – a classic, rustic dish; the lamb moist and tender - but it couldn’t come close to making up for the spaghetti.

In a nutshell…
On the basis of the spaghetti, stay well clear. On the basis of the roast lamb, worth a visit if in the vicinity.

4/10

Il Matriciano
Via dei Gracchi, 55 - 00192, Roma
+39 06 3212327
Average price: €35

Grand Imperial, London

Grand Imperial clearly has big ambitions. The £2 million spent on refurbishing the space it inhabits within the Grosvenor Hotel right next to Victoria Station would attest to that, as would the blurb on its website proclaiming itself a “unique restaurant that offers exquisite cuisine for the discerning gourmand” and “a truly outstanding dining experience in the heart of London”. With statements like that, Grand Imperial had much to live up to.

The restaurant attempts to project an air of opulence, but doesn’t quite succeed – the impressive high ceilings offset by the eyesore that is the large (empty at the time of our visit) fish tanks that greet you at the entrance; the fine china that adorn the tables cancelled out by the large marble columns, presumably part of the building’s structure, that looked completely out of sync with the rest of the décor. It was an unconvincing start.

Salmon Yu Shang

The menu was fairly extensive, but contained nothing especially exciting or out of the ordinary. As it was Chinese New Year, and we were celebrating with old friends, we began with Salmon Yu Shang. “Yu Shang” is a dish popular in Malaysia and Singapore and served only during Chinese New Year – the best way to describe it is probably as a raw fish salad which everyone tosses at the table whilst uttering good wishes for the year ahead. It’s an interactive dish, and a bit of fun, but also makes for a good appetiser. This version was average at best – the salmon was not the freshest, and the sauce insufficient at first (we asked for more) and lacking in flavour.

Next was classic Roasted Peking Duck. Whilst the pancake was thin and of a good texture, the duck skin felt stale and ‘tired’, like it had been reheated a number of times. The second serving of the Peking duck dish – Spicy Minced Duck with Lettuce Wrap was passable, but nothing to write home about.

Roasted Peking Duck

Perennial favourite Lobster Noodles with Ginger and Spring Onion was awful. The lobster was badly overcooked and the noodles were hard, almost al dente – perhaps this was an attempt to be different, perhaps this was simply unintentionally undercooked; either way it was bad. In addition, the sauce was too bland and overall the dish lacked the depth of flavour it should usually have. Considering that this is a dish so many restaurants in London do so well, Grand Imperial’s dire rendition was especially lamentable.

Lobster Noodles with Ginger and Spring Onion

The dishes we had with rice were no improvement. Sautéed Scallops & Mushrooms with Asparagus tasted of nothing. Treasure Golden Bowl, a special Chinese New Year dish, was marginally better but that’s not saying much. Sautéed Chicken with Sweet Basil Chilli & Spring Onion in Stoneware had a bit more flavour to it but again nothing special. The vegetable dish was a heap of boiled spinach topped with shredded dry scallop and some non-descript sauce. Braised Eggs Noodles with Golden Mushroom and Conpoy completed the ensemble of woefully insipid dishes.

We had two desserts, Ginger Tea with Glutinous Rice Dumpling and Pan-fried Traditional “nian gao” or “New Year Cake”. The glutinous rice dumplings were fine; everything else, unsurprisingly, poor, entirely in keeping with the rest of the meal. Service too was substandard – the waitress kept spilling tea over us (neglecting to apologise). And just when we thought it was all over, the restaurant had one final insult for us – the bill for 9 people worked out to be over £55 each.Walk into any random Chinese restaurant in Queensway or Chinatown and it is more than likely that you will eat better, and an absolute certainty that you will eat cheaper. A “unique restaurant” this certainly was – uniquely bad. Especially given its huge ambitions, bold claims and prices to match, Grand Imperial is laughably inept.

In a nutshell…
Horrible. The setting wasn’t too bad, and certainly much better than your average Chinese restaurant, but that really is an irrelevance when the cooking is this incompetent.

1/10

Grand Imperial
101 Buckingham Palace Road, London, SW1W 0SJ
+44 (0)2078218898
Average Price: £40-£50

Grand Imperial on Urbanspoon

La Montecarlo, Rome

La Montecarlo

Don’t be put off by the menus in multiple languages, La Montecarlo more than lives up to its billing as a simple, no-frills venue near popular Piazza Navona serving up some of the best pizzas in Rome - at bargain prices. We started with a plate of Mixed Frieds (sharing one portion amongst three) – deep fried breaded or battered zucchini flower, potato croquette, ascolane stuffed olives and suppli (rice balls with tomato sauce), along with a serving of Little Fried Mozzarella. All of it was quite nice, the zucchini flower and stuffed olives the best, even if it wasn’t something I would choose to eat on any kind of a regular basis.

Mixed Frieds, Little Fried Mozzarella

For the main event, I ordered a Montecarlo, a wood oven baked, thin and crusty Roman-style (as opposed to the thicker, softer, Napoli-style) pizza topped with sausage, olives, onion, peppers, artichokes, egg and mushroom. It was yummy. In hindsight, I probably should have gone for a pizza with fewer toppings, or even just the standard margherita – the multitude of toppings on my pizza left the crust a little soggy and made me feel like I had missed out slightly on the complete crisp-crust Rome-style pizza experience. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed my pizza very much.

Montecarlo

In a nutshell…
The perfect place for a quick bite – convenient location, friendly and fast service, very good local-style pizzas, low prices.

8/10

La Montecarlo
Vicolo Savelli, 13, Roma
+39 06 6861877
Average price: €10-€15

Giolitti, Rome

Giolitti

Founded in 1900, Giolitti is the oldest ice cream parlour in Rome, and still considered one of the best. The original shop (Giolitti now has a second branch in the EUR district) is centrally located, right next to the Chamber of Deputies of the Italian Parliament, and the perfect venue for a pit-stop after our visit to the nearby Pantheon.

Hazelnut, Tiramisu gelato

I ordered three flavours – Hazelnut, Pistachio and Tiramisu and only received two, the hazelnut conspicuously missing, but didn’t make a fuss – the poor waiter was clearly trying his best and still managed to do everything with a smile despite being hugely overburdened.

The gelato was good, really good. It was delightfully smooth and creamy, with the strong taste of the pistachio coming through especially well. A nice touch was serving us water with the ice cream, without us having to ask.

In a nutshell…
Justifiably rated as one of the best gelateria in Rome.

8/10

Giolitti al Vicario
Via Uffici del Vicario, 40 – 00186, Roma
+39 06 6991243
Average price: €7

Quinzi & Gabrieli, Rome

Gran crudo di mare Quinzi & Gabrielin - a selection of raw fish

Just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon, Quinzi & Gabrieli is generally acknowledged to be one of the two best seafood restaurants in Rome (the other being La Rosetta). Despite its high prices, the atmosphere here is casual and relaxed rather than stuffy – service is a perfect combination of friendly and formal; while the rooms are well-lit (a little too harshly for my liking) and decorated with hand-painted murals.

We left the menu for the evening entirely in the hands of our waiter who recommended the Gran crudo di mare Quinzi & Gabrieli - a selection of raw fish, to start; followed by Straccetti di seppia con carciofi croccanti e menta - Cuttlefishes with crunchy artichokes and mint, and Moscardini alla “Diavola” - “Devilled” baby octopus; and then the Linguine di Gragnano all’aragosta sarda - Linguine from Gragnano with rock lobster; all, we were assured, specialities of the house. He offered to split two portions of each dish amongst the three of us, and also suggested we refrain from ordering a main course until we finished the linguine – sound advice indeed as the appetisers and primi proved to be plenty.

Despite only being 2 servings, the raw fish platter was huge. Simply prepared, it featured raw cuttlefish, salmon, tuna, scampi, and two types of prawns doused in olive oil. The seafood was fresh, as it had to be in a preparation like this, and the dish was a reasonable success – the sweetness of both kinds of prawns especially standing out, even if all the olive oil started to get a bit too much towards the end.

Straccetti di seppia con carciofi croccanti e menta - Cuttlefishes with crunchy artichokes and mint and Moscardini alla “Diavola” - “Devilled” baby octopus

The cuttlefish with artichokes and mint, and the baby octopus, were also pretty good. The former, though not my favourite dish, and most certainly not by favourite ingredients, was an interesting combination that worked. The baby octopus, sautéed with tomatoes and olive oil, had stronger, if more common flavours, and was also quite nice. Again however, both were qualified rather than resounding successes.

Linguine di Gragnano all’aragosta sarda - Linguine from Gragnano with rock lobster

The lobster linguine, on the other hand, was absolutely sensational. The linguine was cooked to a perfect al dente, the lobster fresh and succulent, and the tomato-based sauce just right – light, tangy, delicious – I’m salivating just thinking about it. This was not a particularly unique or complex dish, but it was done better here than at any other place I have ever had it. It was wonderful.

We finished with two desserts – Shriciolate di Millefoglie Quinzi & Gabrieli - Quinzi & Gabrieli Millefoglie and Semifreddo al croccantino - Caramel Hazelnut Parfait, when we again returned to the theme of solid rather than spectacular successes. Both desserts included raw apple, which I felt was a bit out of place. The Millefoglie dish was very creatively presented though, in the shape of a fish.

Shriciolate di Millefoglie Quinzi & Gabrieli - Quinzi & Gabrieli Millefoglie

In a nutshell…
Pretty good. I did not get a chance to eat at La Rosetta so I cannot comment on which of the two is better, but Quinzi & Gabrieli was certainly good enough for me to see why it is in the argument for best seafood restaurant in Rome. Most of the dishes were good rather than great, but the sensational Linguine di Gragnano all’aragosta sarda will live long in the memory. Prices are high, but at least servings are sizeable.

7.5/10

Quinzi & Gabrieli
Via delle Coppelle, 5/6  - 00186, Roma
+39 06 6879389
Average Price: €80-€100

Yashin, London

My expectations for Yashin were sky high. No more than 3 months old, it has received almost universal acclaim; every review I’ve read already proclaiming it one of the two best sushi restaurants in London. On top of that, it is just 10 minutes walk from my flat. I really, really wanted to love it. Sadly, I didn’t.

Modern, vibrant, buzzy, Yashin feels more like a place you might find in New York rather than on a quiet side road behind the Tesco Metro on Kensington High Street. The contemporary theme extends to the food too - a large neon sign at the back of the sushi counter bearing the phrase ”Without Soy Sauce but if you want to” giving the first indication that this is not going to be a traditional sushi experience.
The menu is centered around 3 omakase (chef's selection) options of 8, 11 or 15 pieces of nigiri sushi, complimented with a number of side dishes. We began with two plates of carpaccio - Tuna with Ponzu Jelly and Wagyu with Wasabi Sauce. They were a pleasant enough start to the meal, even if the two dishes were so similar I could barely tell them apart. This was followed by the most traditional dish of the evening, Yose Tofu with Ponzu Jelly and Kisame Wasabi. From the moment the lid was lifted on this dish, I knew it would be good – the aroma of freshly made tofu emanating from the pot exceeded only by the pureness of the taste. The accompanying ponzu jelly and wasabi helped to accentuate the flavour further and served as perfect accompaniments to the tofu.

Wagyu with Wasabi SauceYose Tofu with Ponzu Jelly and Kisame Wasabi

For the main event, I had to go for the 15-piece omakase, dubbed “The Yashin”. Served over two courses, the plates contained a combination of both fresh, and Yashin’s much talked-about blow torch sushi, each topped with a different garnish. The fish was fresh and of a high quality, and there were a few pieces that stood out – Prawn with Foie Gras, Salmon with Ponzu Jelly, and Crab with Sea Urchin were all very nice. However, overall, the two plates left me rather underwhelmed. I was very much looking forward to trying the blow torch sushi, and the better pieces were indeed of this type, but I was not as taken with it as I hoped I might be. It is a novel concept, and one that I really wish had worked, but it doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. The lack of use of soy sauce also caused a few problems, a number of pieces of the nigiri arriving at the table over-salted by the chefs – and I have a fairly high tolerance for salt.

The "Yashin" Part 1The "Yashin" Part 2

I finished with one serving each of the White Sesame and Sencha Ice Cream. The ice cream had a lovely smooth texture, the green tea version especially outstanding with the pure green tea taste coming through very strongly. This was probably the best green tea ice cream I have had in London. I do have one final gripe, however. The ice cream was served in a leaf wrapped in the shape of a cone, laid sideways on a flat plate. It was a reasonably creative presentation but was exceedingly impractical for ice cream. And in many ways that summed up Yashin – it attempts to be creative, which I applaud, but falls short in its execution.

White Sesame Ice Cream

In a nutshell…
Great atmosphere and setting. Overall quality of the food was good but Yashin does not quite succeed in its attempt to put a creative spin on traditional sushi. Rather expensive for what it is – the 15 piece omakase menu is priced at £60.

6.5/10

Yashin
1a Argyll Road, London, W8 7DB
+44 (0)2079381536
Average Price: £50-£60

Yashin Sushi on Urbanspoon

Gauthier Soho, London

Honey Duck Foie Gras, Cooked & Raw Apples

Helmed by Alexis Gauthier (formerly Chef Patron at 1-star Roussillon), Gauthier Soho opened its doors in May 2010 to a host of positive reviews, and was recently awarded a first Michelin Star in January of this year – no mean feat for a restaurant still so young. Having now eaten there, it is easy to understand why.

Located in a converted town house on Romily Street in Soho, the dining space, spread over two floors, is a little bit cramped and, unsurprisingly, not entirely suited for purpose. The décor too is rather bland and I can see why this aspect of the restaurant has attracted some criticism. Though by no means my favourite dining room, I personally felt the nature of the venue made for a cosy, romantic atmosphere.

Gauthier offers a choice of 3, 4 or 5 à la carte courses, as well as an 8-course tasting menu. Having had to rule out the tasting menu due to a lack of support from my fellow diners I opted, naturally, for 5 courses from the à la carte. Servings were a bit on the small side so I would recommend at least 4 courses for all but the smallest of eaters. I had:

Honey Duck Foie Gras, Cooked & Raw Apples
Black Winter Truffle Risotto
Soft Fillet of Dover Sole, Baby Squid, Garlic & Parsley, Classic Fish Jus
Cuts of Wild Scottish Venison, Williams Pear, Celeriac Cream, Black Winter Truffle
Golden Louis XV

Black Winter Truffle Risotto

The Black Winter Truffle Risotto was undoubtedly the star dish – perfect al dente grains of rice, soaked in a creamy flavourful jus, accented with a generous shaving of fragrant black truffle. It was superb. If the risotto was the headline act, the Golden Louis XV was a very capable co-star. This is Gauthier’s much-praised signature chocolate, hazelnut and praline dessert; an ode to his mentor Alain Ducasse, it was wonderfully and suitably decadent – a chocolate lover’s delight…and I am very much an avowed chocolate lover.

Soft Fillet of Dover Sole, Baby Squid, Garlic & Parsley, Classic Fish JusCuts of Wild Scottish Venison, Williams Pear, Celeriac Cream, Black Winter Truffle

If I was to be critical, I would say that Gauthier could push the envelope a bit more at times. He, for the most part, sticks to classical combinations of ingredients, and produces pleasantly-presented, technically flawless plates of food. However some of these dishes can come across as a little boring as a result, lacking in a certain je ne sais quoi if you like. The veal, another of Gauthier’s signatures, is a case in point. Cooked perfectly, it was good, but unspectacular. Having said that, the meal on the whole was thoroughly enjoyable.

Golden Louis XV

In a nutshell…
Very good. Faultless cooking. A couple of outstanding dishes that would grace any restaurant in the world. Fully deserving of its Michelin star.

8/10

Gauthier Soho
21 Romilly Street, London, W1D 5AF
+44 (0)2074943111
Average price: £50-£60
1 Michelin Star

Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

Hakkasan Mayfair, London

Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey

I’ve always had a bit of a love hate relationship with the original Hakkasan in Hanway Place – loved its food, hated its prices. But it has long been my opinion that it demonstrates a consistently high level of cooking worthy of the Michelin Star it was awarded back in 2003 (and continues to hold to this day). If I had to recommend just one fine dining Chinese restaurant in London to someone, Hakkasan would undoubtedly be it.

Having not been for almost 2 years, we thought it was about time we paid Hakkasan another visit, opting, instead of the original, to give its recently opened second restaurant on Bruton Street in Mayfair a try for Chinese New Year’s eve dinner.

The interior of the new Mayfair restaurant is pretty much identical to the original – dark, mysterious, vibrant – it just exudes cool.

Sesame Prawn Toast with Foie Gras

The starters were very good. Golden Fried Soft Shell Crab with Red Chilli and Curry Leaf was excellent. Sesame Prawn Toast with Foie Gras was a hit too; the unusual combination working surprisingly well. The Jasmine Tea Smoked Ribs also came in on the plus side of the scorecard, albeit with a lower score than the other two starters – it was nice, but nothing special; the Jasmine Tea taste not coming through quite strongly enough.

Golden Fried Soft Shell Crab with Red Chilli and Curry LeafJasmine Tea Smoked Ribs

The main courses were a bit of a mixed bag. Roast Duck with Black Truffles was lovely. Black truffle, you will not be surprised to learn, is an ingredient not commonly used in Chinese cooking. It worked very well here however, making for an unusual, flavourful, outstanding dish. Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne and Chinese Honey was a more familiar combination, but no less successful – this was an excellent version and got my vote for dish of the night. Mongolian Lamb Chops were bland, dry, slightly over-cooked and added nothing to the meal. Roast Chicken with Satay Sauce was a poor recommendation by our waitress – the chicken too similar in taste and texture to the roast duck dish, the overall dish wholly unmemorable.

Roast Duck with Black TrufflesRoast Chicken with Satay Sauce

We added an order of the dim sum platter at the end – Scallop Shumai was good, filled with a succulent juicy prawn and topped with a fresh scallop (although I am partial to the traditional Pork Siu Mai); the Har Gau wrapper was far too thick and certainly fell way below the standard I would expect from an establishment such as this; the Shimeji Dumpling and Chinese Chive Dumpling were more refined versions of something I would get at Ping Pong – and I do not consider Ping Pong to be a good dim sum restaurant.

Dessert was totally not worth our while. We sampled the Chestnut and Blackcurrant Tart, Caramelised White Chocolate Parfait, and Jivara Hazelnut Bomb – all were very average…at best.

In a nutshell…
Middling. Mildly disappointing when compared to what I remember of the original Hakkasan in Fitzrovia. A few good dishes mixed in with a lot of mediocrity and a couple of dishes that fell even below that level.

6.5/10

Hakkasan Mayfair
17 Bruton Street, London, W1J 6QB
+44 (0)2079071888
Average Price: £50-£60

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon
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