REVIEW: Iberia, Caledonian road

Place: Iberia Georgian Restaurant
294-296 Caledonian Road
N1 1BA

I was organising my birthday dinner and wanted to try a place that was unusual, not too spicy and which served a range of vegetarian foods. Iberia fit the bill: I’ve been curious about Georgian food for a while, and this seemed like a good start in a not too out-of-the-way place. It’s tucked away in Caledonian Road, about 15 minutes’ walk from the King’s Cross/St Pancras tube/train station; it’s not the kind of place you’d just stumble upon, and the decor is beautiful and elegant. It’s also extremely small: make a reservation.

Service: Really lovely. From making the reservation to dinner service the staff were attentive and hospitable. Our water glasses were regularly topped up (with free tap water!) and they answered questions about the food, and didn’t laugh too much at our attempts to pronounce the menu items.

If you’re ordering a mix of starters and main courses and want them all to arrive at the same time, do mention it explicitly. Ours arrived separately as the lady serving us thought the table was sharing starters, but actually a friend and I were splitting starters in lieu of a main course, which meant some people waited quite a while for their food.

Food: Delicious and unusual. I split several appetisers with a friend and had a taste of some of the mains. In general Georgian food has lots of walnuts and pomegranate; more Middle Eastern/Mediterranean than Eastern European.

The badrijiani – slices of aubergine slathered in walnut sauce – was a good, fairly well-balanced dish, although because I adore aubergine I wished the slices were a bit thicker. The flavours of creamy aubergine and rich walnut sauce went well together. Amazingly the aubergine wasn’t oily and so the addition of the walnuts didn’t make the dish too greasy.

Evidence of cicaka, lobio, blini (the cigar thing), khachapouri and pkhali

The cicaka – marinated red pepper slices – was good, although it had that vinegary, not-quite-pickled flavour that you get from bottled, preserved peppers. It was good but not outstanding – there were plenty of other more interesting things to try.

The lobio, a bean stew, was robust – the main course was just a bigger version of the appetiser. It was quite filling and richly spiced. I usually dislike red kidney beans but these were good: extremely tender, with soft skins (not tough and leathery), and the strong flavours were warming for the cool night. (And the night was cool, which just seems ridiculously implausible right now).

A spoonful of lobio

There were also blini – not the Russian buckwheat pancakes served with caviar and smetana but crisp, spring-roll like cigars filled with meat. They were good, in the way that a shattering, crisp shell contrasts with the soft filling is always good, and as with all the food offered were wonderfully seasoned.

My stand-out appetiser was, perhaps surprisingly, the pkhali. I say surprisingly because it seems odd that a cold spinach dish could have been so delicious, and yet it was: fragrant and sharp with coriander, with a melting texture. It also looked beautiful, diamonds of emerald green and a scattering of jewel-like pomegranate seeds.

I also had a bite of the soko, tender mushrooms filled with melting cheese, which were delicious and addictive as cheesy mushrooms are.

Of course I had to try the khachapouri, the famous Georgian cheese bread I’ve been dying to try since reading the description thereof in Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’. I accidentally ordered the megruli khachapouri, which is both stuffed and filled with cheese, but a friend ordered the imeruli khachapouri, which was just stuffed. The imeruli version was much better, in my opinion, as you got the contrast of soft, caramelised bread crust (delightfully speckled) and salty, melty cheese. There was less contrast with the megruli version and it was too much like a rich pizza for me – however the people around me who tried it had no complaints!

I had a bite of ostri (beef stew), which was brightly-flavoured. Although I didn’t try the baby potatoes they looked beautiful, tiny and caramelised. I also tried some of the cabbage tolma, which were rich and meaty. The leaves were tender and delicate – it was impressive that they held the filling!

You should bear in mind however that the portions are on the small side; if you want to leave full you should order appetisers and a main, and perhaps a dessert is you’re very hungry.

You can see the menu here.

Verdict: go! try as much as possible!

Do try: the pkhali. I don’t really want to eat spinach another way again.

REVIEW: Dollar Grill, Exmouth Market

Place: Dollar Grills and Martinis
2 Exmouth Market
Nearest Tube: Farringdon

A large group of friends and I went to Dollar Grill in Exmouth Market for a birthday dinner. It was a generally unpretentious place. The thing about Americana in London is that it’s inherently kitschy, and you can’t get away from that.

I really liked the fact that music wasn’t playing – I even commented to a friend on this during the meal – as we could actually hear each other talk, a rarity at places in London.

Service: attentive and generally excellent. The wait staff were friendly and informal, they took our orders quickly, and didn’t seem impatient to chase us out: I didn’t feel rushed. The staff checked that everything was fine and were quick to bring additional items requested like condiments. No complaints, in fact it was flawless (in a casual and relaxed way rather than a fancy fine-dining way) and really made my evening.

Food: my friend Juliet and I split calamari, french fries (they were sadly out of their hand-cut chips) and a goat’s cheese hamburger with slow-roasted tomatoes. She ordered a pear and elderflower martini, but I wasn’t feeling well and settled for a vanilla milkshake. The milkshake was extremely rich – I just about managed to finish half. It was sweet and thick, basically like drinking melted ice cream. I would save this for dessert in the future! They had other flavours too, like Oreo. I later had a sip of Juliet’s cocktail, which was rich and grainy (in a good way) with a true pear flavour. Again it was sweet, but delicious.

We were given complimentary bread and a herb and oil dip before starting the meal proper. They were both absolutely delicious. The bread, thick-cut white, had a fantastic texture, and the oil was flecked with coriander and chilli. It was a very light, flavourless oil, delicately bringing out the taste of the herbs. It may seem a small point but the fact that something free was actually delicious rather than a thoughtlessly offered sop to the masses was really lovely.

The burger arrived, and on the plate it looked a little disappointing: it just sat there alone on its white plate, admittedly piled quite high. It was tasty but overwhelming – I was glad we had chosen to split it. Admittedly it was one of the most luxurious burgers on the menu. There was a lot of goat’s cheese, maybe a little too much, actually. I think the tomato was raw rather than roasted, as well, but the fresh flavour was welcome in this case. If you go for this burger, split it unless you have a large appetite.

The calamari was fine, with that slight characteristic bounciness, although the coating was disappointing. It was too oily and thick for my liking and was soggy rather than light and crisp. I also thought it was a under-seasoned. The lime mayonnaise that came with them was a lovely condiment, though.

The bill was less than £20 for everything (bearing in mind I had split the appetiser and main), and the portions were definitely generous enough. We could even have done without the chips and were I to do it again I would have foregone the milkshake…if only to keep my appetite up, because it was tasty. If only they did half sizes…

Verdict: it’s worth a visit if you want a casual place good for hanging out with friends, where you can actually talk to people, and if you’re up for some hyper-real American kitsch

Photos courtesy Juliet

REVIEW: Yum Cha, Chalk Farm

Place: Yum Cha
27-28 Chalk Farm road
Nearest Tube station: Camden Town

A few friends and I went to Yum Cha to celebrate / commemorate another successful year running our student society. Yum Cha had come highly recommended by word of mouth, and the reviews I checked online were all glowing. All of them repeatedly stated how delicious and authentic the food was. I admit I had high expectations when I went, and was deeply desiring, particularly, pork buns and soup dumplings. (Soup dumplings are really exciting – a thin membrane of a dumpling skin encasing a mouthful of hot soup that explodes into your mouth once you rupture the surprisingly resilient wrapper. The quintessence of fun food!).

We went on a Wednesday evening at 6pm, which meant the dim sum menu had slightly less choice than during the day, but also meant the dim sum was half price! Well, we are students. The photo of the spread below was taken by one of my friends – the lighting wasn’t great but it gives an impression of the atmosphere.

Yum Cha spread

Service: highly variable. When we arrived there was almost nobody else there, so after a bit of back-and-forth between staff about where to seat us, we were brought to a table almost immediately. It took us a while to decide on all the dishes and we ended up writing down the ones we wanted and passing the note to the waitress (as we couldn’t keep track of which dishes we wanted otherwise). Service at this point was attentive and food arrived extremely swiftly after ordering. Later in the evening, the restaurant become extremely busy and unsurprisingly service became more brusque. We had to ask for our bill three times before receiving it, and waited so long to pay by card that we ended up going to the counter rather than remain at our table. The waitress then instructed us to go back to our table as it was too crowded by the counter (in fairness, it was fairly narrow).

Food: the overwhelming impression was that of sweetness. A lot of the dishes had a strong, sweet component – for my taste, too sweet. We ordered the honey-roast pork buns. The bun was deliciously fluffy, not dry at all, but even if it had been a foil for a salty filling, it was slightly too sweet to be a savoury dish. The filling inside was also very sweet, and the flakes of pork were small. In all I felt there wasn’t enough taste or textural contrast in this dish.

The sauce for the chickens’ feet was also sweet, so much so that I didn’t end up eating them, even though I’ve been curious about trying them for a while. They were also garishly orange. The mandarin-glazed ribs were lovely and moist. Obviously with a mandarin sauce they had a sweet edge, but maybe because they were the first thing I ate, it didn’t bother me so much – there seemed to be a balance between moist, rich meat and sweet-tangy glaze.

The soup dumplings were as fun as they always are. I was impressed by the dumpling skin, which despite repeated pokings as I manouevred it out of the steamer basket didn’t break till I bit into it. Excellent!

The salt and pepper squid was delicious – perfect, light, crisp batter, which was a pleasant contrast to the bouncy squid beneath. Saying the squid was a little bouncy or rubbery sounds negative, but it wasn’t chewy, just lightly springy, like al dente pasta can be.

The pig’s ears came sliced into ribbons of cartilage-rippled meat. The first impression was of chilli and spice, followed by an almost too-intense hit of musky porkiness. They were served cold, which I felt was a mistake – I wanted something crisp, shattery and hot, and the coldness didn’t bring out the flavour or texture of the ear in its best light. There was a crunchiness, from the cartilage, but it all felt a bit…clammy. Exactly like chewing on a dead animal’s ear, actually.

The jellyfish with smoked pork knuckle was interesting – crunchy/rubbery/bouncy, not unpleasant, but something I had to get used to. I can’t comment a to the technical qualities of the dish since it was just so strange to me.

I didn’t try the shrimp and scallop dumplings, as I don’t like shrimp, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I also didn’t try the duck tongues.

We finished with the custard dim sum. We ordered one portion each of the fried and steamed versions, to see which ones we like best. Most of us preferred the fried version, and I did too. While the steamed version was soft and fluffy, the texture was too similar and the bun a bit too clammy, cleaving to the palate a bit too much for comfort. The fried version, on the other hand, had a sumptuous, crackling crust to contrast with the fluffy bun and sweet, firm filling. It also seemed a bit less eggy than the steamed version, and I’m not very fond of egginess in desserts. We didn’t try egg tarts as they only serve them at lunch, not dinner.

All in all, this was an extremely cheap dinner (about £10 a head, and we ordered so much food!), and there were some delicious parts. However, I really felt it didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe if my expectations had been lower I would have liked it more. A friend who’d been there before said he felt the food was fresher tasting during the day compared to the evening, which may have played a part. However, ultimately, I’m not compelled to go again to try it out. The food was just too one-dimensional, with too many very sweet components to supposedly savoury dishes, to be satisfying to eat.

Verdict: not worth a repeat visit

Do try: the soup dumplings; salt and pepper squid

Don’t bother: the honey roast pork buns