The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
– Marcel Proust
We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
– Anais Nin
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
On my recent trip to London, I was going to be working an arduous trade show, the Farnborough Air Show, and wanted a place to come back to each night that would really be relaxing and stress-free. I hunted carefully, and found this gem of a hotel, 51 Buckingham Gate, and had a wonderful experience there. It is tucked away on a quiet street about 3 blocks southeast of Buckingham Palace. Very near the St. James Underground Station, and cabs are a hail away.
The private courtyard area with fountain is charming, and we would have sat and enjoyed it more, but for the rain during our visit. There are 3 restaurants on site, and the Michelin-starred Quilon gave us dazzling food on our first night in town.
Upon arrival, we were escorted to a reception desk, and seated. No lines, no counters! Treated like honored guests. After the easy registration, my colleague and I were each escorted by butlers to our upgraded suites.
What a suite! Full kitchen, living area, bedroom, and luxurious bathroom. Openable windows to get fresh air.
We had personal notes from the manager, and an array of welcome goodies that included fresh eggs, milk, bread, butter, cereal, fruit, cookies, tea, coffee, chocolates, and more – from Whole Foods. I was able to make myself a hearty breakfast for 4 days with this welcome package. Probably saved me $100 in room service! And, they washed and put away my dishes each day too.
The room was meticulously clean, and furnished with comfortable furniture, luxury linens and towels and every convenience. Need a converter plug? They whisk one up to you. Window stuck open at midnight? Someone is there in an instant with a screwdriver to fix it. The concierge was helpful and efficient. The staff met and exceeded every expectation. Evening turn-down service provided a comfy welcoming bed, fresh towels, and chocolates. The library serves complimentary drinks and snacks every evening, and a cozy breakfast each morning. Room service is quick, complete and accurate.
If I went to London more often, I might hesitate to recommend this place, but only because I’d want to keep it to myself! But I do recommend it. It was half the price of the Marriott Marble Arch, (which I’ve stayed in), and twice as nice. 5-star luxury all the way! Thanks to the entire staff. I will be back!
Viajante in East London seats only about 40 people. The menu is presented after the meal, so you can remember what you had, but you can only choose a tasting menu of 6, 9 or 12 courses (with or without wine pairing). I had eaten here in the summer of 2010, within six months of its opening, but on this most recent visit, it is apparent that 2 years of maturity have enabled them to perfect their craft. Viajante means Traveller in Portugese, and believe me, you will be transported!
The night before our visit, I received a call to confirm. The pleasant woman asked about allergies and preferences, and we had a detailed discussion that would enable my dining companion to enjoy dinner fully – which is the restaurant’s goal. They don’t just want to impress and dazzle you – they want to facilitate an experience that fulfills you, satisfies you and aligns with your needs.
When we arrived at 8 pm, we were lucky enough to be seated at a front table – in full view of the open kitchen. The sights of Viajante are part of the experience. The tiny sauce pots and bottles – sometimes 4 per dish; the tweezers to place tiny garnishes. The calm, professional manner in which Nuno or the expediter of the moment calls out “service!” to signal that dishes are ready to be delivered to a table.
Having ordered 6 courses plus wine pairing, our server told us that it might be 20 minutes until our first paired wine was served, and asked if we wanted something else first to go with the FIVE amuse bouches we’d be having! We ordered Champagne and Chardonnay. Regarding the latter, our server asked “California?” “No, French” I replied. I got a wonderful glass of 2008 Benjamin Leroux Auxey-Duresses, not just an everyday Chardonnay. I looked it up later, and it deserves the several 93 ratings it has received.
Then the Amuse Bouche began:
First, Thai explosion III – a confit of chicken, topped with poached egg, with a wafer of coconut, a wafer of crisped chicken skin, delightfully seasoned, served in a mini paper sack. It was a perfect opener.
Another: potatoes with yeast and powdered black olive! So, the unexpected will be moving us to that altered state of textures and flavors that makes you go HUH! In amazement.
The last Amuse Bouche was a tiny taste of what I’d found to be my favorite item last time I was there: Olive soup. I only wish it had been a bowlful! What intense olive flavor, yet green, fresh and lively.
Then, bread and butter is served. But the bread is individual whole grain baguettes, served with a brown butter, and slices of pan baked nut bread, served with butter with pancetta and powdered smoke. I think this made my eyes roll, and I was resisting that, because I really didn’t want to wear out my eye muscles. Such attention paid to bread!
The first official “course” was The last of the white asparagus with crème fraiche butter. The butter was beyond belief, and it let the asparagus shine. This was served with Brundlmayer “Kamptaler Terassen” Gruner Veltliner, 2010. I love the world view they take for wine pairings. This paired perfectly.
The second course was Crab with egg yolk and rhubarb. A fresh taste of sea and garden made rich with the egg yolk. Paired with Orea Chardonnay 2009, Saar. Not sure I’ve ever had German Chardonnay, and this was great, especially with the food.
Viajante loves to serve fish, and the third course was Bream, with braised, caramelized fennel. We surmised that the exceptional flavor in the fennel was achieved by marinating it after it was cooked, but what do we know – they can achieve flavors here I could never dream of recreating at home. Absolutely delicious, and perfectly paired with Bodegas y Venedos Ponce “Reto” 2011, Manchuela – a dry white made from the Bobal grape, and apparently only available in Spain and the UK.
Our next fish course was Turbot. For this course, Nuno himself came out with a pot of foam to layer on the fish. The foam was of mussels and cider, both flavors clearly distinguishable. The foam was so perfect, my eyes rolled again. Also perfect was the fish, the veggies alongside, and the Loire wine served with it – Jousset “Premier Rendez-Vous” 2010 Montlouis-sur-Loire, from 40-70 year old vines. A wonderful taste of apple, pear and mineral.
At this point in the meal, we already were blown away. We could have been done and completely satisfied. Then the last of the “main” courses arrived:
Charred pluma with tomatoes and adobo. “Taste the sauce first” says Amanda. It looks like an ordinary broth, but I dip my fork in, and can’t believe a broth could be so powerful. The meat itself had imparted a solid flavor, blended with other balanced spices. Pluma is a juicy cut of Iberico pork, and it was cooked perfectly, served rare, and with intense roasted cherry tomatoes like none I’d ever tasted. All together, this dish was mind-bogglingly good. This was paired with Jean-Louis Tribouley “Les Copines” 2009, Cotes du Roussillon, a blend of Syrah and Grenache.
What could they do for a denouement? The palate cleanser. Pickled and raw cucumber ice, with lemon gelee and milk sorbet. Refreshing, light, yet great flavor. Do you smile when your palate is cleansed? I did!
Nuno personally delivered “Grandma’s ginger cake”, which looks like a normal piece of cake. Only it evaporates into a cloud of flavor in your mouth! It was so light I’d never seen anything like it. With wonderfully developed flavor! Served with a Riesling Spatlese dessert wine.
It may have been at this point that we had a lovely chat with Nuno. He told us about his philosophy – the diner’s experience was the focus, not him showing off. That classical technique was not as important as excitement and delight. He has other projects going on that sound fantastic. I wish I could license him and open a California place just like this!
Then, MILK. A plate of multiply textured whiteness arrives, and we ask “what is it?” The answer is a single word, “Milk.” Said with a slight smirk by our server, who knew just how entranced we were with this experience. Milk in 4 different textures, ever so slight changes in flavor, like 4 people from different countries all speaking French, with slightly different accents. Not rich decadent chocolate, or a buttery tart, both of which would have been too much at this point. Milk. I will never hear that word quite the same again.
Almost as an afterthought, they announce we’ll be getting Petite Fours, and ask if we want coffee with them. No, we don’t want to touch our taste buds with anything pedestrian like coffee at this point. We are drunk on flavor, and don’t want to give up that buzz.
We watch as a container of paste is brought up to the counter, and tiny quenelles of it are spooned into a pot, with liquid nitrogen poured over them. Frozen olive oil caramels. If I could only make these at home. Wonderful. Perfect. There’s more?
Two tiny chocolate truffles are presented. What flavor? Mushroom! I worry that my illusion will be shattered, but then I taste it. Just a tiny taste, for there is a powder under them, and knowing what Viajante does with powdery things, I know I want to dip the next bite in this powder, which tastes like home-made graham cracker, but at that point I couldn’t be sure. All I know is I love mushroom candy, when it is from Viajante.
I’m so glad this was the last meal of this trip to London. Nothing could have topped it. We both agreed, it was the best meal we’d ever eaten.
Do not feel lonely. The entire Universe is inside you. – Rumi
While your blogger has been away in London, Susi has been whipping up some lovely meals at home. Tonight it was pork tenderloin with roasted fennel and sauteed shredded brussel sprouts. The tenderloin was marinated, courtesy of Trader Joes, in a peppercorn and coriander spice mixture (next time Susi will buy the plain tenderloin and will replicate the marinade herself because she found it too salty), seared in a hot skillet and transferred to a 375 degree oven, sealed in foil, where it roasted until the meat thermometer reached 160 degrees (too done; next time 150). Meanwhile the fennel was roasting in the oven (quartered with olive oil, pepper and salt). While the fennel and pork roast in the oven, add more oil to the pan where the pork was seared and add shredded brussel sprouts (Trader Joes did the shredding). After the sprouts brighten, deglaze with balsamic vinegar, saute a little longer, then add water and cover, cooking for five to ten minutes longer.
The perfect drink to accompany: Susi’s “cukojito:” Muddle fresh basil (bushy plants were only 2.99 at TJ’s!) and lime in a glass with ice, add Hendrick’s gin and splenda (or simple syrup if you are not avoiding sugar) and garnish with cucumber sprigs.
Now, why can’t Susi cook like this when I am at home?
In my previous posts about Mark McBagels and Mark McMuffins, I have chronicled the fine art of topping something with ham, eggs avocado, etc. plus cheese on top, and baking it off in the toaster oven, for breakfast.
Now that I’m on a health kick, I had to create a new one: Mark McMushroom, which basically subs a large portobello mushroom for the bagel.
to serve 2:
2 large 4″ portobello mushrooms, cleaned with damp cloth, and with gills scraped out.
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup egg white (equal to 2 egg whites)
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/2 avocado, sliced thin
1/2 Roma tomato, sliced thin
2 thin slices ham
1/3 cup shredded cheese.
Preheat toaster oven to 425.
Lightly rub tops of cleaned mushrooms with tbsp ( or less) olive oil. Salt and pepper the tops. Have all the rest of the ingredients ready at hand, then bake the mushrooms, topside up, for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, lightly scramble the eggs, egg whites and mustard, and cook to just done (don’t overdo it — they are going to bake some more)
Take the mushrooms out, flip them over, and layer: one slice ham, sliced tomato, avocado, scrambled eggs, ground pepper and shredded cheese.
Bake 4-5 minutes or until cheese is melted and starts to brown.
Serve hot. Enjoy!