This weekend was Taste of London, billed as the world's greatest restaurant festival. 40 of the capital's best (and, in some cases, best known) restaurants served up samples of their food alongside producers, cookery demonstrations and general foodie indulgence. I've never been before but when some friends suggested that we get tickets and pop along on the Saturday night, I couldn't say no.
Foie gras lollipops from the Estrella bar
First off, I should probably deal with the main criticism that I've seen of Taste of London - the cost. The festival runs its own currency (called 'crowns'). The restaurants will only accept crowns although some of the bars and other stalls will accept cash as well. We got VIP tickets through a special deal on the British Airways website - I can't find the email now but I think the tickets were £20 each (rather than £38) and they included £20 worth of crowns as well as access to some special areas and a glass of champagne. In addition, we (my boyfriend and I) bought an extra £40 worth of crowns on the night itself bringing our total spend to £80. It would not be unreasonable for us to spend that on a meal out,and considering we both went away from the event feeling uncomfortably full and didn't even spend all of our crowns (I managed to negotiate a deal at the Paul A Young stall to use up the £15 of crowns that we had left at the end of the evening on champagne truffles...), I don't think it was unreasonable.
A rum punch in the rain from the Taste of Jamaica exhibit
Some of the dishes were expensive - La Gavroche, for example, was selling a lobster and truffle cocktail for 46 crowns (£23) although for that you did get an engraved La Gavroche glass to keep plus I think the swoon-worthy Michel Roux Jr would have served you himself - but most were between 8-14 crowns (£4-7).
Although we had a quick wander round some of the stalls, we were most interested in the restaurants. There were some familiar names - Fino, Asia de Cuba, Gaucho - as well as some restaurants that I was keen to try. All the restaurants offer a choice of 3 of 4 small plates meaning that you can sample offerings from a number of different chefs.
London Fizz - white wine, elderflower liqueur, lychee, lemon and basil
There were some definite themes to the food - lamb seemed to be very popular appearing on a large number of menus. There were also a fair few gourmet burgers, like the foie gras and truffle burger from Club Gascon.
I started with a triple chocolate brownie from fouronine (and scored myself a free Oyster card holder) mainly because it was absolutely pouring with rain at this point and felt that some emergency action was needed to lift my spirits. The brownie could have been a little bit more moist but it was nice to see a neighbourhood restaurant featured at the festival and, should I ever have the occasion to be in Clapham, I will pop in as the staff were so darn friendly.
On a recommendation from one of the stallholders, we also tried the oriental spiced pork ribs from Kai Mayfair, a Michelin-starred Chinese. The pork belly was suitably fatty but as the ribs had been slow cooked for 5 hours, it melted in your mouth. Some friends also tried the prawns in a wasabi mayonnaise and were in raptures. I'm not always that keen on Chinese food but it was nice to try some that was done really well and it did make me think that I should probably try and experiment more.
The next dish I sampled was the white tomato soup from Rhodes 24 which I enjoyed. It has a smooth texture and a fresh tomato taste although I would have preferred a soup with a bit more body. My boyfriend had some slowcooked lamb on mash potato with onion gravy which was fine if a little unexciting.
My favourite dish of the night was from The Cinnamon Club. The Cinnamon Club is one of my parents' favourite restaurants (in fact, on the night in question they were having a meal there) but last time I went, I was disappointed both by the service and the quality of cooking. Did it redeem itself? Most definitely. My roast duck breast was perfectly pink and moist (impressive considering they were mass-catering in a tent in a muddy field) and I loved the spicy korma sauce. Only the knowledge that I was less than halfway round stopped me from going back for a second helping.
By this stage, we were running out of steam slightly so headed to the VIP area to sit down and enjoy a well-earned glass of fizzy. I did manage to squeeze in my second desert of the evening though with a chili and chocolate mess from Launceston Place, a thick chocolate ganache topped with chili sugar and dried raspberries.
So yes, it wasn't a cheap evening out but we managed to happily fill 4 hours with plenty of food-related fun. We tried some delicious dishes - and some not so delicious dishes - and actually got to speak to the people behind them. It might be incredibly commercialised but so long as you go with an open mind and know what to expect, it's a very enjoyable way to spend a soggy Saturday evening. My only regret? That I didn't get to try the Mexican doughnuts from Asia de Cuba...