Archive for February, 2010

Umu, Lunch Carte Restaurant Review, February 2010

Posted on: February 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Umu, the elegant, sophisticated restaurant off Berkeley Square, is unique amongst London’s Japanese restaurants for specializing in the cuisine of Kyoto, the ancient imperial capital. Since opening in September 2004, Umu has achieved acclaim for the outstanding quality of its food, the highest distinction coming with a Michelin Star in January 2005.

Located at one end corner of a Mayfair mews and accessed by a narrow lane off Bruton Street, Umu is so secluded and tranquil as to be almost un-noticeable. Its relatively narrow dark glass frontage is masked still further by heavy net curtains, whilst the wenge timber and bronzed finished exterior paneling feature a recessed security pad which is pressed to open a sliding door. All these features exude an air of discrete exclusivity

This feeling is confirmed once inside the restaurant where the opulence of design of Tony Chi has been given full rein: Rich dark wood offset by large mirrors line a high ceilinged room which benefits from subtle spotlighting: An overhead feature of individually crafted and hung pieces of Murano glass adds a very modern note.

Seating for 56 covers is on comfortable coffee leather seats and low backed ebony velvet banquettes. Strangely, the wenge effect tables, arranged in a line opposite the sushi bar, are not as well spaced as one might expect for a restaurant of this quality

General Note: For more information on wenge see:

In line with its name which means “born of nature,” Umu’s dishes exhibit a purity of taste and delicacy of texture befitting their high quality ingredients. Wild fish and shellfish are flown in from the Atlantic, Pacific and Mediterranean. Some of the world’s finest vegetables are sourced from the Kyoto region; where cultivation benefits from fertile soil and fresh, soft water, the latter also being imported for the making of tofu.

Whilst preparation is intensive, cooking of the mainly seasonal ingredients is minimal. Flavourings are limited, and, when spices and herbs are used, they elevate but never overwhelm. Dipping sauces are preferred so that the main ingredients stand out, unadulterated. Low in salt and fat and therefore very healthy, dishes often come with leaves and flowers to heighten their natural element.

Ichiro Kubota’s family background and five years experience at the prestigious Tsuruya restaurant in Kyoto, made him ideally placed for the position of Executive Chef: His menu structure includes both classical and modern elements (a reflection also of his time at Michelin starred kitchens in France.)

In addition to the carte of appetizers, sashimi, sushi and mains, UMU showcases kaiseki menus. Deriving from the early practice of Buddhist monks who put a warm rock (seki) on their stomach to help them resist hunger pains, the word kaiseki refers to cuisine designed to gently satisfy with a series of small tasting dishes. Originally planned as fine-dining for emperors but adapted later for the merchant classes, kaiseki involves a series of carefully designed courses, where flavours, textures and colours are all in harmony and where seasonality and variety of ingredients are paramount

General Note: For more background on kaiseki see:

This is Japanese cuisine at its most refined, necessitating – as with the other dishes – skilled preparation and beautiful artistic presentation. Originally vegetarian in origin, Umu’s modern kaiseki menus include meat and seafood. Just as Kyoto food accommodates all social groups, so UMU’s menu offers humbler but no less delicious dishes of vegetables, rice, miso soup and tofu just as much as luxuries such as lobster and Wagyu beef.

An inspection meal saw dishes chosen from the carte, beginning with three appetizers.

Chu toro salad comprised a tartare of tuna back and belly, mixed with pear to offset the richness of tuna belly, and bound with quail’s egg. Lotus roots, balsamic oil, black sesame seeds, Japanese pickles and cashew nuts added contrasting colour and texture that enhanced the dish. Delicate shrimp marinated in sweet vinegar and soya came with a luxurious garnish of sake jelly and caviar which added the correct savoury note.

A more robust dish saw grilled aubergine, Shigiyaki style, topped with minced quail and duck, leek and sweet red pepper.

The next course was a chef’s sashimi selection of striped and flat amberjack, mackerel, salmon, tuna belly and sea bass, all with their distinct tastes. The near transparent slices of clean tasting sea bass, to be dipped in ponzu, provided a contrast to the dense textured, oily mackerel and salmon.

Sushi, came in two selections. Modern versions matched eel with garlic and parsley, and blue crab with pine nuts and garlic. Served warm to enhance their flavour, these innovative combinations showed how attempts at fusion can be successful. Hotati, (diver scallop), akami (tuna back), and salmon aburi, (seared salmon) represented more classical sushi offerings. For both types, rice vinegar and mirin used in the cooking of the rice helped to provide the correct balance of moisture and lightness,

A popular main course of grilled skill fish teriyaki, perfectly timed to retain succulence, with citrus flavoured grated radish and fresh wasabi was a delightful balance of savoury and sweet, soft and crunchy

Grade six Wagyu beef in a hoba leaf, arrived on its own boxed grill, enabling the diner to cook the meat to their liking. Famed for its rich taste and melting texture, the beef did not disappoint and provided a fitting climax to the meal.

The limited dessert menu makes the most of oriental ingredients such as white miso, green tea, and fresh fruit. Although not the highlight of the meal, competently executed western style chocolate fondant and chestnut Mont Blanc were paired with white miso ice cream and mandarin and mango sorbet respectively.

The sake list is extensive, the best in the Europe with over 160 different types.

General Note: For background information on sake see:

The wine list also offers a comprehensive choice of over 800 bins. This is to be expected of a Marlon Abela owned establishment, given that his other Michelin restaurant, the Greenhouse, has the finest and most extensive cellar in the capital. UMU’s charming and attentive assistant head sommelier, Arthur de Gaulejac, was on hand to give essential guidance. The flight of two sakes, Riesling and red Burgundy chosen to accompany the dishes proved to be a master class in food and wine pairing.

Service is knowledgeable and quietly efficient. In particular, the European waiting staff is adept in describing the multi- component Japanese dishes. Overall, Umu runs like a well oiled machine, but one with personality and allure. This is more likely to be in evidence in the more relaxed atmosphere of the evenings rather than the formality of lunch service

Much has been written about Umu’s prices which are, admittedly, steep. Kaiseki menus range from £65 to £135, and main dishes from £14 to £57, the latter being for “Grade 9” wagyu beef

General Note: For an explanation of the wagyu beef grading system see:

and for a general overview of wagyu beef see:

Sushi is priced per piece, peaking at £8. However, these need to viewed in the context of superb ingredients – often imported because they are the best – skilled labour intensive preparation, and highly professional service. The weekday set lunch, based on a Bento box formula and including soup and dessert, is more affordable, whilst the carte and Kaiseki menus should be reserved for special occasions. Quality has always come at a price, but it is one that many diners – and not just corporate ones – consider well worth paying.

Sketch Lecture Room & Library Review (February 2010)

Posted on: February 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

The Grade II listed building at 9 Conduit Street in Mayfair, is the home of Sketch, the concept of which is relatively new to the British hospitality industry. Sketch promotes itself as a “lieu,” an all-day “drop in” complex of several parts, where guests can appreciate food, art and music. Whether in the Parlour (tea room), the Glade (bar and night club), the Gallery bistro or the fine dining Lecture Room and Library, they can be guaranteed an experience which will engage all their senses.

Opened in 2002, Sketch is the vision of Algerian born Mourad Mazouz, owner of Momo, and the French master chef Pierre Gagnaire. At seemingly endless expense, the Georgian house, once the showroom of Christian Dior, has been renovated and decorated by Mazouz along with a notable Parisian sculptor. Signature pieces by other international designers are also in evidence, whilst the imaginative menus have been created by Pierre Gagnaire.

The handsome three storey exterior, with classic Georgian sash windows, belies the spacious and highly modern interior that exudes cutting edge style and glamour. Of particular note are the walls of The Gallery which feature a moving frieze of projected video art accompanied by pulsating music.

Ascending the marble staircase and escorted by a charming meet and greet, front of house, maitre d’Hotel, one’s gaze is captured by an arresting crystal female mannequin, reportedly costing £100,000 together with a relatively evocative and bohemian aroma.

The culmination of this interrogation of the first four senses is the maitre d’ ceremoniously opening the dark wood double- doors to reveal the grandeur of the Lecture Room, surely one of the most sumptuous dining rooms in London.

With an ornate high domed ceiling and walls decorated with horizontal panels of different shades of yellow and brown, the immediate feeling is one of light and warmth. Two seemingly blank canvases on opposite walls are, when one looks closely, very faint portraits of a child’s face – the latest genre by a Chinese artist. Large, well spaced round tables with starched linen and velvet armchairs give luxury and comfort. Extra decadence is provided by plush carpet of orange, red and cream, whilst the mirrored dividing wall and hanging oriental pendant lamps give more light and colour.

However, the real star of the Lecture Room and library is the food created by the three Michelin starred Pierre Gagnaire, who was overseeing the kitchen – run by Jean-Denis Le Bras – on the day of our visit. With the white, wispy hair and beard of a wizard, he conjures up magical dishes of great complexity and elegance.

His innovative “New French” food experiments with an array of textures and flavours, whilst retaining balance and harmony. Sometimes unusual ingredients are used: consider, for instance, the Epine Vinette and Lardo di Colonnata which garnished a crustacean course of the tasting menu.

There are also elements of gently restrained fusion cooking. Whether on the carte or the lunchtime menu rapide, each dish often comprises at least three elements which arrive in separate designer plates or bowls. This is highly inventive, labour intensive food, reflecting the endless creativity and generosity of spirit of its creator.

The dining experience begins with an array of canapes, tiny creations which could be a meal in themselves for those on a diet! Tuna cream with cumin bread were amongst the delightful morsels which certainly whetted the appetite for more. A variety of breads, including white baguette, chestnut and milk brioche, came with seaweed or unsalted butter.

The tasting menu featured three outstanding courses of seafood. A dish of red mullet fillet and rillettes was garnished with beer-marinated turnip carpaccio, and braised beetroot, giving a crisp bite against the soft fish. The Vadouvan spicing complemented the robust flavour of the mullet without overwhelming it

The next course of brown crab – featuring only the delicate white meat – arrived with pan fried langoustine, both items revealing an exquisite sweetness and delicacy that only comes with the freshest of shellfish. (see top of page)

A rich foie gras terrine was offset by a red pepper and chorizo ice cream that produced a sensation of taste and temperature. Gingerbread added a mildly spicy element that worked well with the sauce Bigarade

Scallops, seared to give a caramelised crust and perfectly timed to a medium rare, sat on a vibrant green jus flecked with baby leek and salsify. Visually stunning, this was another wholly satisfying, indulgent dish.

Champagne granita with angostura bitters provided a refreshing if alcoholic interval before the meat course.

Venison came in two forms: a generous portion of saddle, cooked pink, and a rich daube of the shoulder, with great depth of flavour. The only discordant note was the accompanying red cabbage which proved a little too astringent. Nevertheless, the quince paste, onion cream and red wine jelly rescued the dish from being too imbalanced.

The cheese course of Roquefort terrine with Brittany sable and lemon wurtz was totally successful in balancing salty, sour and sweet tastes in a rich but light creation. The addition of tiny pieces of green peppers and other garnishes added textural complexity to this exciting new dish.

Pierre Gagnaire’s Grand Dessert offered a combination of elements, all of which demonstrated refined skills of the pastry section. Once again, experimentation with ingredients was seen in an offering of spiced jelly with lassi and cardamom.

More conventional but perfectly executed items were pear sorbet and coffee ice cream covered with crisp dark chocolate Other aspects of dining in the Lecture Room are excellent.

The service is utterly professional, with impeccable attention to detail. The team operates like a well oiled machine, but one with a genuine human desire to please. In the meet, greet and departure; in the serving and removal of plates; in the knowledgeable way they helped with menu explanations; in their guidance on the order to eat the array of small dishes; and in the serving and topping up of drinks, the staff proved masters of their craft. They combine efficiency, helpfulness and discretion without being obtrusive.

The wine list is, predictably, formidable, with prices to match. Bordeaux & Burgundy dominate, but it is also strong on Champagne. The outstanding sommelier, Fred Brugues, is able to discuss wine choices with consummate ease, showing a passion and understanding that excites the listener.

Prices in the Lecture Room are steep, but this is no ordinary restaurant but one of exceptional qualities which merit expenditure worthy of a special occasion. In 2005 the Lecture Room was ranked as the 18th best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine and in 2008 it won the 2007-08 AA Wine Award for England. At present, it holds one Michelin star, but clearly has the potential to gain more.

Las Vegas, Pierre Gagnaire at Twist, Review February 2010

Posted on: February 10th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Competition at the highest level of fine dining has intensified in Las Vegas. Pierre Gagnaire, chef patron of his eponymous Michelin three starred restaurant in Paris, has opened Twist, his only venture in the United States. He joins Alain Ducasse of Mix (in The Hotel), Guy Savoy (at Caesar’s Palace), and Joel Robuchon (at the MGM Grand), hoping to emulate their success.

Twist is located in the Mandarin Oriental tower, part of the $8.5 billion CityCentre development of hotels, residences, shopping, entertainment and restaurants. With contemporary design and opulent finishes, it provides a perfect casino-free backdrop of high end luxury in a prime site on the southern part of the Strip.

Sandwiched between the hotel below and residences above, Twist is located on the twenty third floor Sky Lobby. The seventy two cover restaurant has been imaginatively designed by Adam Tihany in colours of silver, grey and purple, with white cracked egg shell walls. Overhead lighting comprises over three hundred suspended illuminated spheres which actually shake gently on a windy day! Of particular note is the suspended wine loft, reached by a dramatic glass staircase. With double height twenty foot windows and split level seating, every table commands an excellent view of the glittering Las Vegas skyline. A sound proofed glass panel on the upper level gives a clear view of the kitchen, ideal for discerning foodies.

Led by Chef de Cuisine Pascal Sanchez, who previously worked at Gagnaire’s London restaurant Sketch, the kitchen functions with the precision and timing of a well oiled machine, producing complex recipes with consummate ease.

Food at Twist bears the inimitable Gagnaire trademarks. Each course is composed of multiple elements, presented separately in dishes of varying shapes and sizes. Endless creativity is shown in daring combinations, often in a French fusion style, that surprise and delight in their balance of tastes, textures and temperatures. Moreover, adaption to the native cuisine is in evidence, showing versatility in the use of regional ingredients and dishes.

The “Spirit” tasting menu is the best way to enjoy the embarrassment of riches that Twist has to offer. It is also the only way of enjoying a dish that helped to establish Gagnaire’s reputation – Langoustine Five Ways.

Six canapés included a simple tuna cream dip of velvety smoothness with ultra light Japanese rice crackers. Pecorino soufflé with Spinach veloute added savoury tones, whilst toasted almond sable gave a muted sweetness. Avocado jelly was rich and refreshing.

A first course of seared scallop, foie gras and squab breast was served cold which enhanced the rich sweet and savoury flavours. A black olive gelee added greater depth, whilst a sake–apple marmalade spiked with pomegranate seeds gave contrasting fruitiness and texture.

The marriage of the sea and earth was seen in a dish of John Dory fillet poached in Malabar black pepper to produce a gentle spiciness. The firm white fish against the creamy earthiness of cannelloni beans and clams in a Marin veloute gave balance of flavour and textual contrast. An added dimension – perhaps one element too far – was given by a “crunchy sauce” of grapefruit and tomato, which the diner was instructed to stir into the dish.

Langoustine Five Ways, to be eaten in a directed order, saw the crustacean seared, grilled and rendered into mousseline, tartar and gelee forms. The medium rare cooking of the hot versions retained their succulence and sweetness. Adaptations to the American palate were seen in garnishes of TTB sauce and creamy avocado with the grilled, and Iberico ham and bell pepper with the seared. Sherry Manzanilla gave the delicate mousseline a spirited boost whilst the tartar, garnished with turnip slices marinated in campari, made for a herby taste sensation. However, the most accomplished item was the gelee, a sublime essence made even more intense by the addition of lobster coral.

Compared with this tour de force, the meat course – after an over complex palate cleanser of grapefruit granite, rhubarb mousse, pineapple, cucumber, tomato and kirsch – came as something of an anti climax. Nevertheless, the prime sirloin, smoked before being grilled, was juicy and well flavoured. The garnish of stewed rhubarb and celery proved a piquant foil to the deep, rich bordelaise sauce. Accompaniments of bolognaise and carpaccio showed skill in varied preparations of beef, whilst grilled zucchini, broccoli salad and egg mimosa added typical American touches to this well balanced course.

The meal ended with a masterly demonstration of the skills of the pastry section. The Grand Dessert featured five items of seasonal fruits, vegetables, sweets and chocolate, revealing excellent technique in the making of sorbet, granite, ice cream, parfait, sable biscuit, meringue, ganache and coulis. The two outstanding items were the cooling Cachaca granite with cucumber marmalade and diced green apple, and the exquisitely rich chocolate ganache with ginger and ice cream, garnished with gold leaf.

Incidentals were also given care and attention to detail. Three breads – molasses, rye and French baguette – served with unsalted and seaweed butter, were of outstanding quality. Petit fours included innovative flash frozen citrus meringue sticks and peanut sables.

Wine pairing with the meal showed the refined skills of sommelier Julie Lin. Riesling, Rheingau 2007, with its lively citrus tones, was a perfect match for the rich first course of scallop and foie gras. Similarly, the choice of “Divine Droplets” sake and a Pio Cesare, Barolo 2006 with the sirloin, proved fitting accompaniments for the langoustine and sirloin respectively. Highly professional service was overseen by the charming Restaurant Director, Josef Wagner. His assistants were interested, friendly and informative, without being obtrusive. Their attentive but relaxed approach put diners at their ease and helped to give the restaurant a pleasing buzz of excitement and enjoyment.

Completed at breakneck speed, at a cost $7 million for an opening in December 2009, Twist has already made a strong impression on the Las Vegas gourmet scene. Its home in the Mandarin Oriental is a distinguished luxury brand location for its sophisticated cuisine. This is not a restaurant for the faint hearted, either in its eclectic combinations of ingredients or its pricing structure, which reflects its excellent quality. Consistency in all aspects of cooking and service over time are essential pre-requisites for success, but the early signs are most promising, auguring well for the future. Overall, it is highly likely that Twist will follow in the footsteps of Gagnaire’s other restaurants in Paris, London, Tokyo and Hong Kong in gaining Michelin star recognition. It certainly deserves it.

Chef Interview: Pierre Gagnaire (February 2010)

Posted on: February 9th, 2010 by Simon Carter & Daniel Darwood

Pierre Gagnaire

Pierre Gagnaire (left) was born on 9th April 1950. Once considered by some as an iconoclastic trail blazing chef, this long standing holder (since 1993) of the coveted three Michelin Stars (spanning restaurants in St Etienne and Paris) cuts a respectful and respected figure in equal measure.

The Pierre Gagnaire website states ‘tourné vers demain mais soucieux d’hier’ meaning facing the future while respecting the past; a statement which gives a far more appropriate perspective of the contribution of this near legendary culinary genius.

Now with leading restaurant concerns across many countries and several continents, Pierre Gagnaire spoke with enthusiasm and flair as he sat down with Simon Carter and Daniel Darwood of fine-dining-guide to discuss his past, present and future.

Interview took place at Sketch Restaurant, London during February 2010.

Tell us about Sketch Restaurant in London?

So, Sketch opened in 2002. We have been here eight years and it is always changing. People may be surprised – it is a different kind of place, perhaps unique in London. This may be a positive reflection of the ‘spirit’ of London – I love the English spirit, sense of style and occasion and indeed met my wife in London (she had been living here many years).

My passion for this place, my passion for this city and my passion for the mentality and spirit of London comes from the joy of London being so different in Europe and probably the world – for example were Sketch just a nightclub or lounge it may not work but the mix of things – the giving of quality food; with the fun, fashion, sexiness, excitement and diversity is perhaps a positive reflection of all these great qualities of London. And that is why it works.

My business partner (Mourad Mazouz) and I look to achieve a quality experience for people in this kind of environment, with increasingly the food becoming more and more important: just today I have been working with the kitchen team on the menu; ensuring details are correct; the right dishes, the seasonality of the menu and the quality of produce and so on. So we are always taking care on the details to make sure we bring the best possible, consistent experience to our customers. Amongst all things the watchword is quality.

Would the Sketch concept work in Paris, for example?

Paris is very different, the culture and style is much more conservative and this is reflected in, for example, the make up of top end restaurants. In a way there is much more freedom in London to express yourself and be accepted in society and perhaps more – be part of a fashion or a ‘scene’ – this is something I applaud loudly about the culture in London.

Having said this, of course, I love France, I am French and my own passion, flair, style and interpretations of food have worked well in Paris (where the Pierre Gagnaire restaurant has held three Michelin Stars for many years). And perhaps this success in France could only have been sustained in Paris, because Paris is different again from other parts of the country. (Pierre Gagnaire held three Michelin Stars in St Etienne, France before moving to Paris).

Tell us about your new venture in Las Vegas – Twist at The Mandarin Oriental Hotel?

Yes Las Vegas is a big surprise – some years ago you may have thought that people only come to Vegas to play, to gamble and to eat steak (laughing). There would be no market for fine dining restaurants in this environment. Over the last few years this has been shown not to be the case.

I have worked for myself for thirty-five plus years and over that time have received many Americans in my restaurant (in France). In fact I was known much better in the United States before I was ever known in Britain (that has changed with Sketch and some UK television work).

So after all this time, I was opening my first restaurant in America and signed an agreement to open in Las Vegas. At first I was not sure, but now I am delighted. Twist reflects my spirit, my spirit is there, but the dining hits the right balance between informal/casual and fine dining and that is what is needed in a venue like Las Vegas.

We have been very pleased with the success the restaurant has enjoyed in the early months with positive reviews from the press and from the internet blogging community.

Tell us about some of your other global ventures?

Hong Kong is like two separate cultures and it is complicated to find the right balance to match the differing tastes over there – the restaurant is busy so I’m happy.

Dubai is a very small restaurant – just five tables and eighteen covers. I think of it as a little pearl where we can re-create something of Paris. This is a real top-of-the-range restaurant and it is very special; everything about it is top-end luxury. Funnily enough, most of the customers who go to eat there and write about their experiences are British. There is a strong British contingent and mentality in Dubai.

You know my first venture abroad was Sketch with the Gallery and Lecture Room & Library – I had spent many years before in the kitchen just focused on my plates.

Suddenly there was to be 40 chefs working several hundred covers a day in a new venture. In the weeks leading up to the opening I was terrified. And you know it takes time – time for everything to settle down, time for the restaurant to develop its own identity and time for customers to associate with what the restaurant has to offer.

And again, London is not Hong Kong, Hong Kong is not Tokyo, Tokyo is not Dubai and Dubai is not Las Vegas. So it goes, each venue is different and each is like a pearl where the jewels are of the crown in Paris. My continued focus will be to retain three Michelin Stars in the crown in Paris. Paris is also like the key of my credibility, a key that opens doors to ventures all around the world. I am very lucky that I have my health and a great and growing team around me who make it all possible.

Tell us more about your restaurant in Paris?

Perhaps a difference between Paris and abroad is that in Paris I can express myself on the plate and on the plate without boundaries – in the sense that there is available the finest produce available – fish, meat, vegetables. In addition, this is where I develop and cook my repertoire. When developing menus abroad I have to think in a different way and be more flexible to adapt to the location, maybe I become more conductor than composer abroad although my heart is still always with the cooking.

In Paris, like top end restaurants everywhere, the experience for the customer is about so much more than food – the presentation, the attention to detail, the service, the décor, the atmosphere and so on. This goes right down to how you present the plate to the customer; for instance, many customers do not want a long description of the food, they just want to eat, others like that piece of theatre. So being a special restaurant means you work on all these small details all the time to get the right balance of presentation to your customers.

What do you see as exciting about the future?

We’re opening in Moscow (with the same business partner as in Seoul, Korea) and in St Tropez. At the end of this year we will have ten restaurants around the world and that will be enough. I don’t see us consolidating beyond ten global restaurants.

We are always wondering where Michelin will be around the world as they appear to be expanding into new countries all the time. Of course I would like to retain the three stars in Paris and see one or two establishments retain and gain more stars elsewhere. Michelin has been important to my career and any recognition that comes from them is gratefully received!

And so it was time to leave. Monsieur Gagnaire had displayed a natural charm, a glint in the eye and an effusive nature.

Indeed his natural energies belied his near sixty years. As we retired to the restaurant (Lecture Room and Library, see Review) we were to catch sight of him again; periodically pacing in and out of the dining room, attending to guests, checking carefully on their needs, with beads of sweat falling from his brow to his aprons…a great man…a chef!