Friday, 26 June 2015

Taste of London 2015 - an overpriced letdown of a festival

The Boy Next Door can be... well, a bit special. An acquired taste, if you will, much like Guinness. Or crystal meth. Sometimes he's so lost in his own world he forgets to eat, even. But when he forgot my birthday in April, I wasn't terribly understanding. 

His birthday came round in June and I was prepared to get back at him (hell hath no fury as a woman without a birthday present!) and my vengeance knew no bounds: for his birthday I took him to London. 

Now, London is a fine city. But as far as cost of (good) living goes, it's in a league of its own. It was bad already when I lived there 10 years a go, but it's only gotten worse since. So, in case you're planning on a London getaway, come up with a budget, then double it, take all your family heirlooms to a pawn shop, sell a few organs in the black market, take out a bank loan and then you just might be able to get something out of the holiday.

We scheduled our trip around Taste of London. With the memory of Taste of Helsinki still fresh on my mind, we hit Regent's Park as soon as we arrived. 

Our press passes saved us £16 each (the entrance). The festival currency here is crown and they were sold in 10-crown-booklets.

Each dish costs between 4-56 crowns, though restaurants also had a so called icon dishes which set you back 10-12 crowns (!)

The line-up consisted of about 50 restaurants, so it was clear there was no way we could eat our way through the whole selection. Some of the restaurants were only there on a specific day, too. So, our original plan was to hit a couple really good restaurants. The choice wasn't easy, but we decided to settle for Michelin-starred L'autre Pied, Theo Randall at The Intercontinental and Michel Roux's Roux at Parliament Square.

We started our feast at L'Autre Pied, where we had Cornish crab, bisque vinaigrette, tomato and parsley oil followed by Roe deer compote with celeriac, juniper and cocoa and finished with their icon dish: Scallop ceviche, cucumber, balsamic, crème fraîche and dill.

The best thing of them all? That shell used for serving the scallop dish. I brought mine with me. I almost foraged the bins for a couple of more. For £10 that would have been reasonable. 

The gloriously sunny summer day along with a couple of cold ones spurred us on to the next stall, Theo Randall. Which featured the man himself. No, no selfies, though.

After all the pigging out of recent times The Boy Next Door had only one wish: no more sturdy dishes like slow cooked pork belly. So, I went for Spedino di Salsiccia (char-grilled Italian sausage with peppers served with cucumber, orzo, dateling tomato and basil salad).

Sausage was good and the salad was nice and summery, too. Up until now we'd been dining in polite silence but now even The Boy Next Door woke up from his thoughts. 

"Compared to that Taste of Helsinki... I mean, this has nothing on that" he pointed slowly. Not a question, just a statement. And right he was. 

The only dish to come even close to impressing with its appearance so far had been the scallop dish but the taste was so bland. The crab dish was... you know, ok, but nothing special. The deer dish had nice pulled pork- doneness (which is always nice) but didn't have much depth of flavour. 

Feeling quite a bit deflated we moved on to Michel Roux, whom, had he been there himself, I would have chained to my phone for the sake of a selfie. But no, no Monsieur Michel. 

Instead there was whiskey. The restaurant had clearly teamed up with Scotland's finest: every single dish featured the stuff one way of another. We had Balvenie and maple glazed pork belly on a brioche bun with hispi salad finished off with a spritz of whiskey and Crab soup with spiced lollipop.

Crab soup showed some effort and its presentation actually had a bit of a wow-factor to it. The taste didn't live up to it though as whiskey was too dominant. Burger was good. Brioche as very good.

Seeing I'm not familiar with London festival I don't know what the deal is. Are all the dishes watered-down versions on the restaurant's expertise? Or does the sheer volume lead to inevitable compromise?

The selection at Taste of Helsinki is excellent, year in year out. Not everything is a hit, but there are definitely more hits than there are misses. And even the misses show some real effort - they really give you an idea of what they do and whether it's worth booking a table there. Here? I wouldn't be tempted to eat at any of the restaurants we tried. 

At this point we just wanted to get rid of the remaining crowns and that we did at Roka and Aqua Kyoto.

At Roka we had Black cod, crab and crayfish dumplings.  And finally we started to see some taste and complexity.

At Aqua Kyoto we had Karage of stuffed chicken wings with spicy ginger lime mitsuba miso. Very good, especially that lovely zingy sauce.

Did not expect to be writing this but... Damn, we have a fine festival back home. The appearance and quality of the dishes that Taste of Helsinki does, that's a celebration of gourmet food. This on the other hand...I don't know what this was supposed to be. 

Like in London in general, there's a lot more ethnic colour at the festival, too. Some of them seemed really, really good, too. 

There were loads of exhibitors and events. In addition to cooking school sessions there were for instance Bloody Mary workshops (£7).

We both found the festival an overpriced letdown. But, having said that, we returned home with a newly found sense of pride. We have a fantastic thing going on here in Helsinki and our restaurants really have it going on.  

Go, Finland! Go, Taste of Helsinki!




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