Tuesday, 8 December 2009

HIX, Soho

Regular readers - and there are literally ones of them - of this blog will know that I am a great admirer of uber-chef and fellow Dorset boy Mark Hix. I've eaten at most of the restaurants with which he has been associated over the years, including actually being cooked for by the man himself in the days when he could be found knife-wielding at The Ivy, and weekly devour his column in Saturday's Independent, often trying my hand - to mixed degrees of success - at his always innovative recipes. 

I treat as authoritative his articles on ingredients, farming, fishing, provenance and locality, and have learnt a great deal on each of these from him; it is no exaggeration to say that Mark Hix's cooking and writing have shaped the way I eat today, my food tastes, likes and dislikes. Years ago, when I threw up a Hix signature dish at Rivington Grill (through, naturally, no fault of the chef's own), it felt akin to blasphemy.

I'd been excited about the prospect of eating at HIX (block capitals seems to be the accepted rendering of the name) for ages, ever since noticing by chance, walking down Brewer Street, that the site of Gary Yau's short lived haute-Japanese Aaya had been reborn as part of the burgeoning Hix empire (there are another two restaurants bearing his name, one in London, one in Lyme Regis in Dorset, as well as a consultancy gig at Brown's Hotel
). Alas for me, the opening up of HIX coincided with my opening up by a surgeon, and the dreary recuperation diet I was put on precluded any fancy-pants restauranting for a few weeks. 

I could only read, weep and salivate as reviewer after reviewer got in there first, almost all agreeing (with the notable exception of Metro's Marina O'Loughlin, who I greatly admire) that Mark had pulled off the unthinkable and opened a surefire success of a restaurant in the middle of The Worst Recession In Living Memory (TM). But, as one day surely shall the economy, I recovered, and when it came to deciding where to have a celebratory lunch there was only one choice. My glamorous friend Nina, over on business from Bermuda and no stranger to fine dining, was my lunch companion.

So that I can focus on all the good bits about HIX - and there are many - let me begin by getting a handful of really quite minor but collectively significant gripes out of the way. Firstly, booking a table at HIX was not an all-together painless experience. Three attempts to get through were aborted due to unacceptable times waiting for the call to be answered, and when I did get through I was spoken to, if not with disdain, then not with the degree of warmth which one might hope for from a person one has been kept waiting for the privilege of speaking to. It's also not nice to be told that your table - booked for 12.30 - will be needed back after two hours; I am unlikely to
want to linger for two hours over lunch, but if I am, are you really expecting to be fully-booked at 2.30 on a Monday, Mark? Really? It just felt unnecessary and ground my gears. 

Then there's the menu. For the most part it's in plain enough English - 'Atlantic prawn cocktail', 'Devilled lamb's kidneys on toast' and so on - but there's also an awful lot that needs deciphering and I thought we'd done away with that when we all started calling creme brulee burnt cream. Serious foodies - and readers of Mark's Independent column - will be fluent in the language of crubeens, cod's tongues (which, nota bene, are not exactly the tongues of cod) and slip soles, but I suspect that many diners are not and may not care to have to ask the staff to have to explain quite so much of the menu to them. I don't for a second doubt that the delightful staff would take great pleasure in doing so, but it just seems a little bit cliquey, a little bit insular, a little cleverer than thou. 

Last of the niggles is that unlike almost all other restaurants playing at this level of the game, HIX lacked anyone discernibly in charge; several (lovely) ladies welcomed us at the door and waved us off, and there were a number of suited chaps of both sexes wandering, unsmiling I noted, around the dining room ostensibly overseeing things, but if there was a maitre(sse) d' on the premises I failed to spot him. Maybe it's a deliberate thing, part of the studied informality which typified the service, but personally I like at some point during my three courses to receive a fleeting visit from someone high up in the honcho stakes just to check that I am a happy chappy; a little bit of extra love over and above the waiter's customary 'Is everything OK?'-type enquiry.

Venting over, I can now unleash the praise,and the hitherto identified quibbles notwithstanding, HIX is really very good indeed. Really, seriously good. Even the front
door is good, a Brobdingnagean slab of heavy dark wood which it took all my not-insubstantial weight to open; it's foreboding and inviting at the same time, hinting at decadence and maybe danger within. The interior's a hit too, a very New Yorky, mostly white, high-ceilinged space decorated sparsely but modishly with mobiles (not phones, though that would be fun, but the suspended variety) designed by Hix's big name artist pals.

Tables, bare wood with sturdy but comfortable leather seats, are generously spaced out around the L-shaped room and I honestly couldn't spot what I would class as a 'bad' table. Once seated, water (in fun pub counter whisky jugs) and bread - a whole, home-baked mini-loaf of it - are brought swiftly before, in another Big Apple-style gesture, the day's cuts of steak are paraded on a butcher's block at your tableside. As well as being a nice bit of salesmanship - the sight of the 1KG Porterhouse is truly mouth-watering - it's helpful to have the three cuts on offer explained, although I was a bit baffled by the surely oxymoronic 'fillet served on the bone'.

The menu, even with its scattering of obscurities, reads wonderfully; it's comfortingly similar to that at Rivington Grill - even the font is almost identical - and only slightly dearer, so the soups, salads and traiteur-type meat-treat starters are around the £8-£9 mark while mains are in the range of £14-£21 unless of course you're minded to have that Porterhouse steak at £65 for two. Contrary to what one might infer from the reverence afforded to beef, the menu is actually slightly fish-biased and this being a Hix restaurant the emphasis is on sustainability, with gurnard, silver mullet and haddock all making an appearance (although how Mark squares serving only the 'tongues' of cod, and not the rest, I'm not sure; nose-to-tailfin eating this ain't). 

Nina and I both started with soup, she the pumpkin with sage and chestnuts and game with soft poached egg for me. Both were very good, Nina's was full of flavour, brightly coloured and packed with fragrant sage, and mine was a heart-warming and filling, if slightly over-salted bowl of rich, creamy broth packed with shreds of partridge and tasty mallard.

To follow, Nina chose the beef flank, porter and oyster pie - OK yes, down the pub it would be called steak and ale pie but this is HIX, sweetie - a dark, rich stew of fibrous, tender meat in thick gravy under a golden, crackling crust topped with a solitary gratinated oyster. The lonely bivalve, whilst as bracingly fresh as being knocked off your feet by a morning wave, seemed somewhat surplus to requirements; the pie itself disappeared to approving noises from across the table.

I opted for the flat-iron steak (a thick cut from the shoulder, similar in texture to onglet) with baked bone marrow. This was the star dish of the meal, the tender steak chargrilled to black on the outside but still yielding and rare in the middle, and full of barbecue flavour. The accompanying bone marrow - one of my absolutely favourite things - was mashed up with herbs and seasoning and served piled back into a shin bone, split down the middle and hollowed out. It was a carnivore's delight, almost primal in conception but resolutely modern in delivery. A nice touch was its being presented with three mustards to choose from, English, wholegrain and - my favourite, Tewkesbury, somewhat like Dijon but cut with horseradish for extra bite. I loved it all. 

The only flat note food-wise was a side of chips, which were just, well, extremely ordinary chips. There simply wasn't room for dessert; portions at HIX are fairly huge and it's all too good to leave even a scrap of. Wanting to at least try something from the puddings list we ordered 'Julian Temperley's cider brandy & Venezuela black truffles', and a more intense whack of pure cocoa flavour has seldom passed my lips. Diners with room for more can choose from a very British selection including rice pudding, Bakewell tart and berry posset.

We drank modestly and well; we toasted our reunion and my return to health with a glass apiece of Joseph Perrier (Laurent's younger, cooler brother perhaps?) champagne, louchely served in a retro coupe, and accompanied our food with a 500ml carafe of a smooth, blackcurrant-heavy Barossa Valley Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon chosen from the excellent and reasonably priced list. France is most prevalent but fans of Spain, Italy and the New World won't be disappointed; light drinkers and those on a budget will also welcome the superb selection of wines available by the 175ml glass and carafe. 

Service throughout was generally good, the comfortable informality of the staff never tipping over into over-familiarity, but as the room filled up attentions did seem to divert slightly to other tables and we had to attract our waiter's attention in order to place our dessert order and request the bill. 

All in, the bill came to just over £50 a head which I think will work out as about the going rate here. Downstairs there's a very attractive bar area - all but empty in contrast to the buzzing restaurant but I would imagine it's a very different story by night - and had we had more time before or after lunch I would gladly have stopped in to sample some of the delights on the interestingly compiled cocktail list. There's a separate bar menu and I can easily see this becoming a very fashionable, club-like Soho staple.

HIX may be a new address on the rapidly lengthening list of Soho hot spots but there's nothing really new about it; I mean this to flatter, as HIX is a synthesis of all the very best bits of the restaurants through which Mark Hix has blazed his trail. HIX combines the mystique of The Ivy, the excellence of J. Sheekey and the fashionableness of Rivington Grill, while at the same time being unmistakeably all about Hix; at reception, in the bar and even on the menu you are reminded that the great man, as well as feeding you in his restaurant, can also sell you his books, salad dressings and souvenirs. 

It's a very well-executed enterprise and before long I can absolutely see it taking over from, or at least rivalling, The Ivy and Scott's for sheer cachet. Now that my digestion is fully functional again, and provided I can get through to book my two-hour slot at a table, I intend to revisit HIX as often as I can until the celebs and media barons take over and getting in here becomes as much of a challenge as at those, for now, more famous competitors.

HIX, 66-70 Brewer Street, London W1F 9UP Tel: 020 7292 3518

Hix on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Clubhouse Shoreditch @ The East Room

As of March 2010 The East Room is closed for the foreseeable future due to a devastating fire. Fortunately no-one was hurt but my thoughts go out to the wonderful team there. I hope that their talents find a good home, and quickly - any hospitality venue would be lucky to have an 'East Roomer' on their staff.

As a general rule I don't think it's productive to review the food offerings at members' clubs; existing club members and anyone interested in joining aren't going to be (much) interested in one reviewer's opinion on what the grub's like, and anyone else is not likely to care enough to read about food of which they are unlikely to be able to partake. I have to make an exception however for the outstanding 'pop-up' space at Shoreditch's The East Room, because it's aimed squarely at, and is perfect for, an up-market Christmas party crowd and you, dear reader, might just have the task of organising such a do.

For those unfamiliar with it - and many will be, given its deliberately much lower profile than its flashy, brash competitor Shoreditch House - The East Room is a very elegant, unstuffy, innnovative members' club on Tabernacle Street, on the doorstep of, but not within, the media, creative and fashion hub of Shoreditch. It's part of a small but growing group of members' bars and clubs including Milk & Honey in London and New York, Soho's ace cocktail lounge The Player, and boutique hotel, restaurant and members' bar The Clubhouse in Chamonix. It's upon this latter that The Clubhouse Shoreditch is based, and it's a pretty amazing sight. What is usually a pleasant, well-shaded roof terrace (pictured) - quite the place to not be seen, unlike a certain other, better-known roof terrace up the road - has been magically transformed into a faithful recreation of an Alpine lodge, with wood-burning stoves, an open fire, comfy sofas, a (fairground) helicopter and tongue-and-groove walls. On entry, you're encouraged, though by no means obliged, to shed your shoes and swap them for cosy ski socks, and to take your pick from a selection of apres-ski clothing including scarves and gilets. While the heat of the fires makes the room rather too warm for the winter woolies to be kept on for long, it's a charming and fun touch.

The food on offer has been mainly devised to appeal to groups, as it's envisaged that the space will predominantly be used for parties during the three months of its scheduled existence. In typical East Room style however there's not a satay stick or mini-burger in sight, nor are you going to find traditional turkey 'n' trimmings. Instead, in perfect keeping with the chalet theme, groups can order vast vats of tartiflette (the ambrosial if coronary-inducing marriage of potatoes, cream, cheese, bacon and onions), cheese fondue (for 2-12 people), coq au vin for twenty, daube of beef for 12...the menu reads mouthwateringly and prices, if not valley low are certainly not Alpine high, coming in at about £15 a head for food only. Extras available include salads, starters and sharers, and for occasions when the space is being used as an overflow for the floors below or just by smaller groups, there are dishes suited to 1 or 2 people. From these, we sampled the fabulous three cheese fondue (£30), brought to the bubble in a capacious cauldron at your table and served with copious amounts of bread chunks, radishes, endives and Chantenay carrots; and the charcuterie board (£18), a generous assemblage of ham hock terrine, chicken rillettes, chicken liver parfait, saucisson, Parma ham (particularly good), pickles and bread.

Imagination has clearly gone into the drinks offering too. Grey Goose and Eristoff vodkas are the building blocks for a clever, seasonal cocktail list and also feature in exhibitionist party pleasers including a rehoboam of Grey Goose set in a block of ice at £600 and a vodka luge (price on application!) 88- and 54-pint beer kegs with self-service hand pumps are also available and sure to make any party (and many a party-goer, no doubt) swing. We thoroughly enjoyed, and I can recommend, the vin chaud, otherwise known as mulled wine but hey, this is Chamonix! Served, of course, in half pint tin mugs, the aroma alone bellows 'Christmas'.

The overall experience is, at risk of sounding wanky, really quite magical and a very great deal of thought has obviously gone into designing it. The dressing up, the smells, the decor, the food and the hospitality (provided by The East Room's terrific staff who have mastered the art of being as cool as, but not cooler than, thou, a rare thing indeed in this part of town) all combine to truly transport you to another place; stepping out onto the City Road afterwards gave me new empathy with the Pevensie children. If you're organising a party over the next couple of months - The Clubhouse will disappear, as quickly as it popped up, in February - and want to take your cohort somewhere genuinely fresh, fun and unique, then The Clubhouse Shoreditch surely has to top your list. If not, but you fancy giving it a try, then do try to bag an invitation from a member (thank you, sister, for mine!), or failing that, consider joining yourself; for (final unfavourable comparison with a certain other club, I promise) membership here is open to anyone willing to pay their dues, follow the house rules and 'not act like a wanker'. And that, as a general rule, is the kind of place which deserves to be this favourably reviewed.

The Clubhouse Shoreditch @ The East Room, 2a Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4LU Tel: 07000 847876 http://www.thstrm.com
East Room on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 November 2009


Today, in a flagrant contravention of popular advice, I met one of my idols. Though not, to most, a household name, Virginia Bates - owner of a legendary, eponymous vintage clothing boutique on Portland Road, high priestess of British fashion, fairy godmother to generations of designers (John Galliano is a bosom pal), actress and charity fundraiser - is someone who has always held a certain magic for me; her semi-regular blog postings on vogue.com are a delicious insight into the magical world she inhabits of seemingly endless parties, fundraisers, art happenings and opening nights.

Virginia has been a fixture of the fashionable London scene throughout the last five decades, through the Swinging Sixties and Cool Britannia via the Greed Is Good Eighties to the Credit Crunch Noughties. Virginia is a true one-of-a-kind; inimitable, improbable, unique, the very embodiment of the kind of person that were she not to exist - heaven forfend - we would have to invent her. As will no doubt be clear, I absolutely adore Virginia Bates, and today - thanks to it having transpired that we have a wonderful mutual friend, who set it up - Virginia Bates and I had brunch.

There could only be one venue for this auspicious occasion. Directly opposite Virginia's shop on Portland Road stands Julie's, the famous neighbourhood restaurant beloved of well-heeled locals and visiting A-Listers alike and which has been feeding both all day and night for 40 years. Yes, you read right - four-zero, making it arguably as much of a London institution as Virginia herself; something of a restaurant idol if you like.

It's an incredible place, sprawling out over several floors and multiple rooms, each entirely different from the others, one Moorish in feel, another Balearic, one casual and cafe-ish, another formal and haute; you could breakfast, brunch, lunch, dine and sup here every day for a week and never feel that you were in the same place twice. It wasn't always thus; the original lounge-y basement space which Virginia vividly described for me evoked images of the Kit-Kat Club, presided over as it was by 'a very gay former ballet dancer' and having the feel 'of having accidentally stumbled into someone's living room'. There's still a very homely feel about Julie's today, at least in the part in which we were seated, which I'm sure must contribute in no small part to its local appeal.

One criticism that's been leveled at Julie's by some reviewers is that the pricing of the food bears little relation to the quality and indeed quantity of it, and I must admit that when I looked over the menu online during my preliminary research (yes, I do do my homework believe it or not) the prices struck me as being rather steep. For two very good reasons however I'm not able to contribute to this particular discussion: for one, we ordered from the brunch menu all of which appeared to be fairly priced (for W11 at least) and for another, the bill - whatever it came to I couldn't tell you - was unexpectedly and very generously taken care of by Virginia's (and now, I like to think, my) pal Rod. Pure class.

Everything that came to the table was excellent; my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs was almost as good as I make it at home (in my not-so-humble opinion), the full English being enjoyed by Rod and our gorgeous friend Chris appeared to be all present and correct and very attractively plated, and Virginia thoroughly liked her eggs and bacon. Toast was hot and crispy, butter soft and plentiful, the preserves superb (Bonne Maman no less) and the coffee strong, aromatic and very freshly roasted. Service was quick, courteous and unobtrusive - whether this was because of Virginia's status as local royalty or the norm I'd not know, but I'd err towards the latter.

Most delicious of all however was the conversation; there was so much that I wanted to talk about with Virginia that we were only ever going to make the merest scratch on the surface, but I still enjoyed a good couple of hours of the most wonderful anecdotes, reminiscences and gossip. Madame Bates (as her invitation to the Dior Haute Couture show is invariably engraved) however was not the only fascinating figure at the table; Rod regaled us with accounts of a very high-profile wedding he had attended recently as well as the opening night at Galvin La Chapelle, while Chris had heart-warming tales of his return to good health after a prolonged period otherwise and of a fledgling new romance far sweeter than anything on the pudding menu.

All was rounded off with a trip across the road to the shop, where Virginia relived for us the marvellous story of when she met one of her idols, a certain Miss Barbra Streisand. That meeting, too, ended happily; far from disappointing her, Barbra was everything Virginia had ever wanted her to be and more. I left feeling exactly the same about Virginia.

Dear Reader, I'm sorry; this is a pitiful excuse for a restaurant review. I've told you barely anything about Julie's and far more than you could ever possibly be interested in hearing about what was a very special moment for me but in which you I expect could not fail to be interested less. Of whether Julie's is good or bad, over- or fairly-priced, worth a visit or not, I am probably not qualified to judge. All I can say is this: my experience of Julie's was entirely and only positive, and that it has stayed in business - not to mention in the same hands - for four decades must surely be an indicator that its fans far, far outweigh its vocal online detractors.

Try it for yourself and let me know what you think, and if you happen to pop into the heavenly vintage clothes emporium across the way, tell its gorgeous, vital, effervescent owner that her #1 Fan sends his love.

Julie's Restaurant & Bar, 135 Portland Road, London W11 4LW Tel: 020 7229 8331 http://www.juliesrestaurant.com/

Julie's on Urbanspoon

Friday, 30 October 2009


Gerrard Street, the colourful, noisy thoroughfare which runs the entire length of London's Chinatown, is known and feared in equal measure for its intense concentration of Chinese restaurants, ranging from the deeply authentic to the shamelessly touristy and the cheap 'n' cheerful to painfully pricey. Every Londoner has their favourite (mine's Imperial China, FYI), recommended to friends and tourists with a knowing wink and a tap of the nose to underline how privileged this information is, a falsehood exposed the minute they arrive to find that every table is occupied by diners sent there by someone similarly in the know. Some of the places on the strip have been in business for decades, and alluring tales - probably apocryphal - of outrageously rude service, and secret menus featuring 'proper' Chinese food, only given out on request, ensure that the restaurant industry in this part of town will ride out every economic twist and downturn. What might come as a surprise is that in addition to the dizzying array of Chinese eateries, there's also a smattering of food joints of other origins, and it was to one of these - Japanese, Thai and dim sum specialist Ikkyusan - that my banker pal Patsy took me for dinner last night.

It's a very nice space, a cut above what one might expect in this area; the long ground-floor room is decked out izakaya style with lots of foliage and subtle lighting complementing dark tiling and walls, while upstairs there's an authentic ryokan-style dining room with tatami matting and low-level tables for cross-legged eating. Pats and I being rather larger of frame than your typical Japanese gentlemen went for the western option, and ate downstairs at a traditional table more suited to our heights.

The menu - which in common with even some fairly high-end Oriental places features pictures of the food, rather to my chagrin - is diverse but not to the point of being overwhelming. There's a good choice of sushi and sashimi (prepared before your very eyes at an open sashimi bar at the front of the restaurant), dim sum all day, noodle soups every which way you could possibly wish for and a long list of bento box options. It's from this latter that Patsy and I both chose the delicious sounding Surf 'n' Turf bento, promising tempura prawns and teriyaki beef in addition to the usual white rice, miso soup, salad and pickles for a very reasonable £12.50.

We certainly weren't disappointed; our boxes were huge and made up of excellent component parts. The steak used in the teriyaki was perfectly tender, and the tempura included a generous serving of giant prawns in a light, crackling batter just as it should be. There were some pieces of vegetable tempura added to the mix - a very welcome extra - and the rice and miso were both of good quality. My only minor gripe was that the salad was a bit boring, just lettuce, carrot and sweetcorn rather than the more usual combination of mixed leaves and radish say, but the rest of the box made up for this slight flaw by being so good.

We washed everything down with a bottle of house white - I didn't note the name but recall that it was Italian, dry, not in the least unpleasant and about twelve quid - but could have chosen from a better selection of beers, juices, soft drinks and sakes than I've seen in many other pan-Oriental joints. Our bill for bento boxes, a bottle of wine plus an extra glass for Pats and 12.5% service came to just over £20 a head, which felt about right.

With further research it transpires that Ikkyusan is part of the ever-expanding and well-respected Hi Sushi group of restaurants, which rather explains the better-than-average quality (that said, I was massively underwhelmed at the launch of their recent Covent Garden outpost Hi Sushi Izakaya, so they don't get everything right). Purely because I tend only to go through Chinatown on my way to or from Soho, rather than as a destination in itself, I don't think I'll necessarily be back at Ikkyusan any time soon, but that's certainly not to say that I wouldn't recommend it. In fact, next time you're asked by someone for your insider-knowledge recommendation of where to eat in Chinatown, I'd encourage you to surprise them with your contrariness and send them here.

Ikkyusan, 39 Gerrard Street, London W1D 5QD Tel: 020 7434 0899 http://www.ikkyusan.co.uk/

Ikkyusan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant

Before I launch into what is going to be, let me warn you now, a gushing eulogy to my incredible dining experience at Apsleys, let me first get out of the way my one, solitary gripe: that inelegant, clunking name. Until about four years ago, the restaurant at The Lanesborough Hotel on Hyde Park Corner was known simply as The Conservatory; then, following a tasteful and no doubt very expensive make-over, it was renamed Apsley's in honour of Apsley House, a.k.a. No. 1 London, the one-time residence of the Dukes of Wellington just across the road. In September, it was announced - to great excitement in the foodie community and not least in my small corner of it - that the kitchen was to come under the control of German-born, Italy-based superchef Heinz Beck, holder of three Michelin stars for his restaurant La Pergola in Rome.

Now, you'd think, wouldn't you, that this momentous occasion might merit a change of name to - say - 'Heinz Beck' or perhaps 'Heinz Beck at The Lanesborough'. Losing the Apsleys name would be no great loss; while well-respected and reasonably renowned, scoring fairly highly in (to give just one example) Zagat's 2010 guide, it has always been a stealth-wealth, cognoscenti type destination which could have survived a more radical name change. Even 'Heinz Beck at Apsleys' would trip off the tongue more easily if they really had to keep the name; but no, the powers that be have lumbered this astonishingly brilliant restaurant with an astonishingly dreadful moniker. Which, as this little rant will have made apparent, rather grinds my gears.

Crap name notwithstanding, Apsleys gets absolutely everything else very right indeed. To start with the room, it's a very beautiful space, the soaring glass ceiling adding drama to the luxuriously decorated, two-tiered space, done out in shades of mauve and taupe with plush, swirl-patterned carpet, modernist chandeliers and a mural the length of one wall. It's the polar opposite of many contemporary restaurant interiors with their minimalist, neutral decor and calculated absence of elaboratory flounces, but I liked Apsleys all the more for it; it strikes me that the perfect antidote to the current on-going economic doom and gloom is a little bit of unapologetic, conspicuous luxury, and Apsleys offers an abundance of it.

Another wonderfully old-school aspect of the experience is the service, boasting the highest ratio of waiting staff to tables I've experienced since Gordon Ramsay at Claridge's (of which, while I mention it, note the thoroughly sensible name - but I digress). Many restaurants make the mistake of thinking that having an army of staff will guarantee good service, but fail to train their people to a sufficiently high level and end up oppressing diners with over-attentiveness. Not so at Apsleys, where the battalion of staff from head waiter to junior tray-bearer via a couple of 'ranks' in between, has been drilled to perfection, ensuring that every diner's every need is not only met but also pre-empted, and those little acts that in lesser diners feel like fuss for fussing's sake - re-folding napkins while one's in the lav, topping up wine and water - just happen as if by magic.

Finally, and importantly, the staff have that rare quality of a sense of humour; our waiter played along with my shriek of mock-shock when he announced that 'Ze chef 'as prepared for you a little surprise' and our playful eye-rolling which greeted the detailed introductions and explanations of successive dishes. I don't mind this particular, new-ish quirk to fine dining as long as it genuinely adds something to my knowledge of the dish - here it does - but I nonetheless find it insanely amusing.

Speaking of which, it wasn't just me being amused but also my bouche, which leads me rather neatly to the important matter of what we actually ate, we being myself and my artist pal PV, like me not averse to a swanky dining room and a bit of top quality nosh. First to hit the table was a selection of wonderful freshly baked breads (special mention must go to the pancetta-infused rolls), accompanied by some excellent olive oil and rock salt served in dainty china dishes.

Then, as we sipped a glass of delicious Prosecco, we were presented with chef's aforementioned 'surprise' - not Heinz Beck popping up from beneath the table shouting 'Boo!' but a trio of quirky amuses: a liquorice allsort-sized slice of pepper and aubergine terrine, a melting veal beignet on a wisp of basil cream, and a piquant cube of kumquat jelly. The unlikely combination worked to serve the intended dual purpose of these things, namely to give a taste of what to expect from the meal ahead and to awaken the palate in readiness for it.

Palates awakened we started on our starters; PV had chosen potato cream with slow-cooked egg, while I went for Iberian suckling pig with pomegranate emulsion. Both were superb, PV's rich, thick soup marrying nicely with the almost jelly-like texture of the gently poached egg, the former being gently and ceremoniously poured over the latter at the table. My dish surprised me slightly by being not a simple dish of robustly-flavoured meat as I'd expected but actually a quite delicate salad, the slices of tender, rare meat joined on the plate by a scattering of wild herbs and pomegranate seeds as well as the tart, refreshing emulsion. It worked well, the meat and fruit complementing each other as comfortingly as roast pork and apple sauce but in a much lighter incarnation.

For our main courses we both fancied fish; I chose gilthead sea bream with pepper coulis and cucumber, while PV decided to try the mackerel in filo with olives and celery. Each dish was elegantly and imaginatively presented, the sea bream in angular herb-dusted goujons accompanied by an unexpected (and delicious) panzanella-stuffed pepper, and the mackerel in a long, appealing 'cigar' of crisp pastry. Each dish perfectly represented Beck's description of his style of cooking, 'light cuisine of Mediterranean flavours', bringing together delicately flavoured components in order to produce complex, rewarding layers of taste in each mouthful.

After a short rest we were brought a selection of palate cleansers, as I had fully expected we would be, Chef having already surprised us quite enough for one evening. Chilled mango puree, served in a shot glass with a hemisphere of crystal clear mint jelly on the side, did an excellent job of refreshing the taste buds without entirely obliterating the lingering flavours of what had gone before. What went after however was, for me at least, the real highlight of a meal that had been full of them.

Billed as 'chocolate tart', what I actually received was three mini-desserts; the tart itself, a shallow bowl of crunchy, spiced pastry filled with rich, warm, viscous melted chocolate laced with ginger; a mound of coarse strawberry 'salsa'; and a quenelle of awesome rosemary ice-cream. Each by itself was speech-arrestingly gorgeous, but when combined on the spoon and taken together almost brought tears of joy to my eyes. The only other dish which I can recall having reacted to with anything like this degree of sheer enjoyment was a strawberry souffle at Guillaume at Bennelong (note, again, the name...) in Sydney; this dessert topped even that. PV's pear cake with cinnamon and crunchy amaretti ice-cream was, he told me, extremely good, but I was so carried away with my plate of Manna that at the time it seemed impossible to countenance anything else on the table being in the same league. I am sure that this was unfair of me and that PV should be taken at his word.

Although I'm certain that coffee at Apsleys would be as carefully selected and presented as the food, we agreed that it would spoil rather than complement our state of pleasant satiation; but this wasn't to be the end of our meal. Whether ordering coffee or not, Chef likes to spoil diners one last time with a plate of hand-made chocolates and petits fours, five per person no less, which like everything to leave his kitchen are exquisite - innovative, light, delicious. A little slab of chocolate ganache spiked with popping candy was particularly memorable and fun.

And there I think is a word to sum up the whole experience of dining at Apsleys (now, let's not forget, 'A Heinz Beck Restaurant'); it really is great fun, being treated like royalty in a gorgeous space, enjoying clever, imaginative food served by adept staff who manage to maintain a studied elegance and formality without ever taking themselves too seriously. PV and I left on a real high, both I think aware that we hadn't just had a great meal, we'd had a really great experience.

So many restaurants, or rather restaurateurs, have gone out of business because they have invested more time and energy in gimmickery and spin than they have in getting the basics of food, ambience and service right. In contrast, assuming that the standards we experienced are maintained, I can see Apsleys quickly becoming one of the hottest tables in town and racking up another few Michelin stars for Mr Beck. Who knows, he might even work his magic outside of the kitchen and get them to do something about that damn silly name.

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant, The Lanesborough Hotel, Hyde Park Corner, London SW1X 7TA Tel: 020 7259 5599 http://bit.ly/5giP7

Apsleys: A Heinz Beck Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

twelvepointfivepercent - no more?

I'm absolutely delighted to hear that D&D restaurants, owners of (among many others) my beloved Skylon, have taken the bold and very welcome step of abolishing the addition of a 'discretionary' 12.5% service to bills across all their 20-strong restaurant portfolio. That the move coincides with October 1st's change in the law whereby restaurants will have to pay staff the minimum wage before tips is bound to attract cynical comment. But in my view this makes it an even smarter move on D&D's part, as it throws down the gauntlet to other restaurateurs, be they owners of one or one hundred venues, to admit what diners have known all along but been too polite to challenge: that 'discretionary' service charges are nothing to do with rewarding good service and everything to do with topping up wait staff's meagre salaries.

It remains to be seen whether, and if so how quickly, other restaurants will follow suit, but we can certainly all do our part to ensure they do by plucking up the courage to exercise our discretion not to blindly pay the 12.5% service but instead to ask that it be deducted and tip instead in cash. You can still leave 12.5% - for excellent service you may even want to leave more, for mediocre service, less - but it makes the point that actual 'discretion' means leaving the choice of how much to tip entirely to the customer. Waiting staff shouldn't lose out; they'll be getting paid more anyway (hopefully - of course there will be unscrupulous employers who try to avoid their legal obligations but this is true in any industry) and rather than having their wages topped up by tips, any offering from customers will now be additional to their earnings. The addition of service to bills has never been about ensuring staff get a fair tip or saving customers the hassle of calculating service; it has only ever been about enabling restaurants to reduce their wage bill at their customers' expense and D&D deserve a round of applause for blazing the abolition trail.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Andy Campbell @ 23 Romilly Street

Latest News - January 2010: I was sorry to learn that this restaurant is no longer in businessdue to the closure of the private members club in which it was housed. However, I'm delighted to learn that Andy and Alessandra have taken on the restaurant Stanza nearby and hope to have it up and running by mid-February 2010. Naturally I will be bringing you a review of the new location as soon as possible, and in the meantime I wish Andy & Alessandra the very best of luck settling in at Stanza.

 I'm only too aware of the fact that my reviews of late haven't been about anywhere particularly thrilling; chains, cheap eats and revisits to old haunts don't exactly make for interesting reading (but if you have been reading, thank you nonetheless). So, it's really exciting to be able to write about somewhere new, special and absolutely, flawlessly fabulous. I'm calling it Andy Campbell @ 23 Romilly Street because (statement of the bleeding obvious alert) the chef is Andy Campbell and his restaurant is located at the new-ish private members' club at 23 Romilly Street in Soho. I don't know if that actually is the name; there's no sign, no branding on the menus and certainly no logos anywhere in the place, but this seemingly unintentional anonymity only adds to my delight at having found it, apparently before other food bloggers have got in on the act.

How I found this exquisite jewel of a restaurant is a story in itself. A few months back, after a night at the theatre with Elaine my glamorous fashion designer friend and her really-quite-famous film star boyfriend Jerome, Alyn and I bundled off at Jerome's invitation to his friend Frances's club night for tranvestites, transexuals and friends, called Lola, downstairs at 23 Romilly Street (if you followed all of that sentence and are with me so far, then ten points to you). It was one of those madly wonderful, spontaneous nights where we found ourselves having the time of our lives in a place where we would normally never have gone but afterwards couldn't wait to go back to. Fast forward to last week and we finally found ourselves having arranged to go back, but this time with Alyn fully cross-dressed as his feminine alter-ego Sivade. Now here's a uniquely modern dilemma: where can one go for dinner, and feel comfortable, and not be hassled, with a stunning 6'6" transvestite and a man who can't walk down the street in L.A. without being mobbed by sci-fi fans? The answer, it transpired after some discrete inquiry, is Andy Campbell, handily situated just a couple of flights upstairs from Lola.

OK, I'm doing an A.A. Gill here and going all around the houses without actually saying anything about the restaurant, so let's get down to business. Firstly, the welcome: Alessandra, Andy's partner in life and business, greeted us warmly without so much as a quiver let alone a bat of an eyelid and showed us to our window table in the dark wood-panelled, dimly chandelier-lit room. It's a very attractive, L-shaped space, sumptuously carpeted and adorned with an eclectic range of art from modern abstracts to a marvellous oil of HM The Queen. There are only about half a dozen tables, making this a thoroughly intimate space, and the couple of other tables that were occupied had as diners a very well-known tailor and a similarly celebrated jeweller - as much royalty in Soho as Elizabeth II herself. We ordered cocktails from a long and tempting list, and the long-ish wait for them was fully justified by the knowledge that they had to be fetched from two floors down from the cocktail bar run by world cocktail legend Dick Bradsell. The wait gave us plenty of time to consider the menu, a fairly concise affair with a strong emphasis on modern European cuisine and home manufacture, mostly classic dishes but with one or two genuinely unique home-grown creations.

One such of the latter was my and Elaine's choice of starter. Ask yourself, have you ever had - or ever even thought of wanting - a salad of feta, mint, fennel, strawberries, poppy seeds and lemon oil? No of course you haven't, and why would you? On paper it's an utterly ridiculous, disparate, inharmonious combination which all sounds a bit Celebrity Masterchef. But we went ahead and tried it because, not in spite, of its utter bonkers-ness and were very glad we did, because it was genius. Salty cheese, tangy fruit, punchy fresh herbs and savoury seeds all combined deliciously with the slick of citrus oil to stimulate every taste bud. Less crazy but just as good were Sivade and Jerome's choices of chicken liver parfait - a generous, mousse-y, obviously home-made swirl of it - and Caesar salad, a fresh, unfussy, perfectly-executed example of this too-often bastardised classic.

Mains were similarly super. Elaine, the solitary veggie in the group, loved her goats cheese and red onion tart, chosen from the starters and made up into a main by the addition of some tasty herb salad, while Jerome enjoyed a huge serving of confit chicken leg with dauphinoise potatoes and green beans. I wolfed down my whole baked sea bream with sweet potato and chorizo mash, loving every mouthful of tender white fish and rich, spicy potato, but perhaps the biggest success of all was Sivade's home-made Merguez sausages with cous-cous, a trio of coarse meaty delights atop a mound of light, fruity grains which found favour even though, as the lady herself put it, "I don't usually like cous cous". All of this was served at a leisurely, well-judged pace by the utterly beautiful, husky-voiced Alessandra. My only slight grizzle about the otherwise excellent menu selections available on our visit would be that apart from the decadent (and no doubt delicious) fillet of beef for two at £45, there was no red meat on the menu; I'd have liked to see a steak or maybe lamb choice to complement the fish and poultry options.

By the time we'd enjoyed our cocktails, two courses and a few bottles - was it two? Three? - of a very pleasant French Sauvignon Blanc (at a very reasonable £17 a bottle), time had imperceptibly flown by at such a rate that we had to sacrifice desserts in favour of making it downstairs to Lola before the bar shut. No delay though in awaiting the bill; Alessandra bade us to go on down and said that she would bring us the bill, to which we could add our drinks at Lola and pay all together, another example of the superlative service which typified the evening. As for that bill; well, with all the food, far more drink than was necessary and of course 12.5% service, we escaped for around £40 a head - neither cheap nor expensive, but perfectly reasonable. This was one of those rare restaurant experiences though where, to be honest, the cost was irrelevant; in a time when restaurants come and go at an alarming pace and customer service and innovation have become secondary to profit margins and up-selling, one can't put a price on places like Andy Campbell where everything - food, service, ambience and experience - come together so perfectly and so, well, deliciously.

I started this blog to share my dining experiences with anyone who might be interested, and for my own enjoyment even if no-one else ever read a single word. Finding a gem like this one, and being able to share it with an audience however small, makes the whole endeavour worthwhile.

Details of Stanza, Andy & Alessandra's new restaurant, can be found at http://www.stanzalondon.com/ Andy Campbell at 23 Romilly Street on Urbanspoon

Friday, 11 September 2009

When Restaurants Bite Back

I had one of the most incredible meals of my life at Trattoria San Giacomo in Bellagio, Italy last year. Although I must declare a vested interest in knowing the owners, it's safe to say that this didn't blur or soften my opinions: Aurelio Gandola is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy and if I hadn't loved everything I ate I would have told him so and he would have taken my views on board. But that's not necessary when the food is of such an amazing, elevated standard - I can still remember every mouthful now over a year later, and how many meals can you say that of? I wrote about it here: http://bit.ly/45027a

Understandably then, I was extremely angry to hear that a couple of months back, Aurelio received a very nasty, threatening letter from someone purporting to be an 'Associate Food Editor' of the New York Times. Despite eating every mouthful and paying the bill without demur, a Mr Roy Kaluzshner and his wife considered their meal at Trattoria San Giacomo to be 'the worst of their life' and demanded a refund - on pain of spreading the word far and wide that the restaurant was to be avoided. All over a bill of €18.

Now as I've said, Aurelio is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of guy; he's also - for the record - generous, kind-hearted, decent, and devoted to his family and wife-to-be Sarah. Understandably he wasn't to be intimidated by a 25-year-old idiot Yank who believes that threatening to destroy a small business is an acceptable way of resolving dissatisfaction. He posted the letter, in its entirety, on the restaurant's website - and his own, open letter in response. I reproduce the exchange for you here, and urge you to share it with as many people as you can, other food bloggers, newspapers, websites, Facebook and so on, firstly so that people can see what kind of person Roy Kaluzshner is, and secondly to share this beautiful example of what happens when a restaurant bites back at the critics...

Open letter to my customers

I am writing this open letter in response to a complaint I received on 2nd July 2009 at my trattoria, San Giacomo in Bellagio on Lake Como. On this evening two customers came to my restaurant for dinner. They ordered a pasta of Tagliolini al Missoltino, a dried pasta served with local sundried lakefish and a grilled Lavarello with salad, another lakefish popular for its extremely delicate flavour. The customers finished both plates and after having eaten everything complained that the pasta was overcooked. Unfortunately as the pasta had been eaten I could not comment or taste it, however I did offer a dessert or Limoncello. These were turned down.After having paid the bill the customers left a note on the bottom of the bill: "Worst meal on a 2-week trip to Italy! My wife cried, and she is a chef!"

This reaction seems a little exaggerated but obviously there is little that one can do when the customer finishes the meal, pays the bill and leaves. The customers on the next table read this message and having paid their bill left another one for me. It reads: "The Carbonara was so tasty…my son cried with joy!" The next morning, our dissatisfied customer returned with another, much longer letter. Here is the transcription:

"To the Owner, Manager, Chef:I am writing this letter to you at 11:30pm, 1 hour after leaving your restaurant for THE WORST MEAL OF MY LIFE! My wife and I have been in Italy for the past 2 weeks (and have both been on this Earth for 25 years each), and we have literally never had a more disappointing meal than we had tonight at your restaurant. I have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but the meal actually made my wife cry because she wasn't able to eat it. Granted, she is a chef and has pretty high standards, but even I was disgusted at paying money for the food, and I don't even feel that way about McDonald's, Burger King, or the airplane pasta meal that Delta served me on the flight to Italy. My wife's dish ("homemade Tagliateli [sic] with a fish sauce") was extremely overcooked, had no taste of fish, and was probably not homemade, even though we were told that it was. My dish (fresh fish of the day) was not seasoned or salted at all, and was the most bland and tasteless thing I have tasted in this wonderful country. Even the olive oil was awful, and my wife and I have basically drowned our bread in olive oil at every other restaurant on this trip. The only redeeming qualities of the restaurant were the water, wine, bread, and service. We paid €15 for the wine, €2 for the water, €8 for the pasta and €10 for the fish…and we feel cheated for the €18 we spent on the food. We were even offered a free dessert/limòncelo and declined it because we were so desperate to escape the restaurant for some gelato. Our last night in Lake Como was ruined by your awful meal, and we request that you reimburse us for our food cost (18 euro = $25 us dollars).

You can mail us a check to: [address deleted] If we do not receive the check by July 15th, 2009, we will begin to post honest reviews of the restaurant on every website imaginable. Frommer's, Trip Advisor, Chowhound, Fodders, letsgoitaly.com, etc. We will also write to all the publishers of the major travel books (Rick Steeves, Let's Go: Italy, Lonely Planet, etc), asking them to make sure that future tourists stay away from your restaurant! Not to mention, I am associate Food Editor at the NY Times, and will personally feature your restaurant in the "Tourist Traps: Avoid!" section of the Food Review. With over 1.5 million subscribers, I think it would be safe to say that the word would be out. Please consider my offer, and please improve the quality of your food! Food is a wonderful thing, and should never be served the way it was tonight. I only ate it to make my wife feel better and I regret not walking out after the first bite!

Your customer, Roy Kaluzshner"

I obviously have a copy of the original letter if anybody is interested in seeing it. Now, please let me explain a few things. My restaurant is actually a Trattoria, this is not the same thing. A trattoria serves very simple food that you would find on your plate at home, no fuss, no sauce, just the raw product cooked in the most basic way possible. A dish you could remake at home. Lavarello is a lakefish that is relatively bland compared to seafish, ask any local and they will confirm this. However, Bellagio is on Lake Como and this is a traditional dish that is served in everyone's home and also in nearly every restaurant on the Lake. We grill the fresh fish as it comes and serve it with a salad (no dressing) and leave the olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper on the table for the customer to season as he or she wishes. I serve approximately 150 lavarello a week in my restaurant and my family has done for the past 35 years. This is the first complaint I have received for this particular dish.

At this point I would also like to point out that the olive oil in Italy firstly is not meant to go on the bread, but on the salad. As a consequence of many foreigners "drowning their bread in olive oil" many places now charge a cover charge. Do not be mistaken into thinking that olive oil is cheap because we live in Italy! The fact that many Italians ask me where this oil is produced so that they can buy it says enough to me. Dare I say that Italians may know best on this one? I do not charge a cover charge like most people, the Extra Virgin Olive Oil poured all over the customers' bread is done at my expense not theirs, so if they want a higher quality oil they should look for a "ristorante", not a trattoria. Missoltino on the other hand is a tradition only to Lake Como. The fish is called "agone" and the method of sundrying it in tins for 3 months creates a very salty flavour. It is certainly not a dish we recommend to everyone for its unusual and strong flavour. Actually to most foreign tourists we advise AGAINST it. This is a dish we serve mostly to the locals who are already familiar with the flavour. We serve our Missoltino with fresh tomato and dried tagliolini pasta. Nowhere on the menu does it state that this dish is served with fresh, homemade pasta. It strikes me as strange that the customer's wife who must be a fantastic chef does not know the difference between fresh and dried pasta. If she wanted fresh pasta she could have chosen from many other dishes on offer, like our fresh HOMEMADE fettuccine. Our customer actually removed the pieces of Missoltino and left them on the side of the plate and ate the pasta so the complaint about lack of fish and overcooked pasta simply does not stand. Again, without having been given the chance to taste for myself I do not know for sure. What I do know for sure is that if the pasta was overcooked and the customer had advised one of the waiters, I would have changed it.

How two 25 year olds can teach a trattoria that has been serving its locals for the past 35 years with the same dishes can possibly assume they know better is nothing short of absurd. My trattoria has a capacity of 30 people indoors and 12 outdoors. The next evening I had 29 locals sitting down for dinner. This speaks volumes, far more than two young Americans who think they know the Lake cuisine better than me. My mother is 70 years old and still cooks in the restaurant. I invite any future tourists to come and speak to any of my foreign and local customers to get the real story. I am Italian, from Bellagio and very proud of my work and trattoria. I do not accept lightly this kind of threat/ blackmail and am willing to take this matter further. I will pass on this letter to all of the named websites and guidebooks (the customer by the way has also underestimated these people, Rick Steve for example has eaten in my restaurant so he does not just advise people on hearsay). I will let people judge for themselves. My trattoria has appeared in many newspapers and guidebooks for a good reason. If this customer really is a food critic, I suggest he changes career. Apart from judging a restaurant on just two dishes, it is all too simple to complain and threaten people with no basis just to get a free dinner.

I, just like my customer have never felt the need to write a letter like this before, but this is slander and I will not accept this kind of behaviour and repeat am happy to take this matter further if need be.I thank you for your time reading this letter and any feedback would be most gratefully received. trattoria@bellagio.co.nz

Yours, Aurelio Gandola, Trattoria San Giacomo

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Palm Court Brasserie

Ordinarily, Palm Court Brasserie in Covent Garden isn't the sort of place I'd go. On a touristy street in a touristy part of town, overlooking the busker-infested hell of the Piazza, it's aimed firmly at the visitor who, seeking brasserie staples in nice surroundings at fair-ish prices, hasn't had the good fortune to stumble on a branch of Brown's (more on which topic later). That said, I'll give anywhere a whirl when there's free food on offer and having accrued enough Toptable Rewards points for a free dinner for two, with Palm Court being one of the venues where the offer could be redeemed, Andrew and I decided to give it a shot. My expectations weren't especially high and it's not being deliberately uncharitable to say that my expectations were met.

That's not to say that there's anything at all wrong with Palm Court. Notwithstanding that I was less than impressed when my pointing out that our table was wobblier than a Crossroads set was met with the response 'Yes they're all like that', service was fine, although Andrew had to reassure me that it shouldn't worry me so much that the adjacent table had to wait what seemed like aeons for their main courses, whereas ours appeared mere seconds after our starters had been cleared away. The decor's none too bad either, in a harmless Paris-by-numbers kind of way, although lighting fell on the squinting side of subdued.

As for the food, it was fair-to-middling for the most part; not bad for a freebie but perhaps not the best showcase for what the kitchen can do (which I would have thought to be the reasoning for offering these reward meals - to impress people enough to want to come back, or perhaps I'm oversimplifying things?) Andrew's starter, a Greek-ish salad of feta, tomato and spinach, was fresh and colourful on the plate; mine, a very ordinary, bought-in chicken liver parfait with toasted brioche (chewy) and onion marmalade - about a teaspoon thereof - was alright but certainly didn't justify a £2 supplement. We got luckier with our mains, both opting for braised gammon ham with mash and grain mustard sauce, which was very pleasant if a little more pub-grub than brasserie-fare. Puddings, from the main menu, were good if not great; Andrew's sticky toffee pudding elicited a 'very nice', and my cheese plate was good on choice and quality but let down by no warning being given that the promised quince paste accompaniment - one of my favourite things - had run out.

When the bill came, our one extra course each, bottle of house red, side dish of green beans and 12.5% service had added £20 a head to our starting balance of £0 - quite a hike. Still not too bad for a three course dinner you might say, but ultimately I can't not compare Palm Court Brasserie with the vastly superior Brown's. I've been eating at Brown's rather a lot of late - it's pretty much become my default destination for casual, quality dining - and everything has been consistently excellent (OK, some duff shallot vinegar with my oysters let things down a little bit the other day, if you really want me to get picky). What's even better is that if you register as a 'Friend of Brown's' on their website right now, you can download a reuseable voucher entitling two people to a two course dinner including a bottle of house wine for just £29. Even adding a couple of puds won't push that figure too far north of the £40 we ended up shelling out at Palm Court for an experience that just wasn't as good.

Joe Public however can't seem to get enough of Palm Court Brasserie; whether it's the special offers, or the location, or some seriously good food that just didn't reach our table this time, something brings the punters flocking in - the entire room was completely packed, with vacated tables being reoccupied in rapid succession. And with that level of business, it's clear that the ones really reaping the Rewards here aren't the Toptable faithful, but the people behind Palm Court Brasserie.

Palm Court Brasserie, 39 King Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 8JS tel: 020 7240 2939 www.palmcourtbrasserie.co.uk>Palm Court Brasserie on Urbanspoon

Brown's, 47 Maddox Street, London W1R 9LA and branches. www.browns-restaurants.co.uk

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Feng Sushi

Well my new found love of Ping Pong (see ‘Chains Round-Up’) looks set to be short-lived: wanting a quick bit of sustenance before sitting through two hours of Phèdre at the National Theatre, Simon B and I popped into the South Bank branch only to be told that despite all visual evidence to the contrary (i.e: empty seats aplenty) there would be a wait of half an hour for a table. Not by us there wouldn’t be; neither of us had any intention of risking indigestion with Helen Mirren and Dominic Cooper waiting for us, so off we buggered to Feng Sushi a few doors down and - dreadful name notwithstanding – it wasn’t a bad performance.

It has to be said that for a casual diner – generic modern-Oriental elements including white walls, bare wooden tables and disposable chopsticks all present and correct – the menu struck me as being not only fairly expensive, but also haphazardly priced. The wide but incohesive range of starters, bento boxes and sushi and sashimi in both selections and individual servings roller-coastered from four or five quid to around £20, eschewing the familiar pricing structure of comparable places such as Satsuma and Wagamama where the distance from cheapest to dearest dish is no further than about a fiver.

Stability was better however in the main courses section, where from a short selection all around the £12 mark Simon and I both chose ‘Japanese Fish and Chips’ for £11, three fat goujons of cod tempura served with hand-cut potato and sweet potato chips. It was a hefty portion - never a bad thing in my book – and completely delicious. The full-flavoured cod retained all its firmness under the light crunchy batter and was accompanied perfectly by a generous mound of tasty, chunky chips, sweet chilli dip and Feng Sushi’s own special, herby mayonnaise. It was a clever, well-executed take on a quintessentially British dish, and something I’d definitely go back for.

And speaking of quintessentially British dishes of which I’d most definitely like a large portion, Dominic Cooper as Hippolytus was amazing – brooding, angst-y, strong and – in a little black singlet and army trousers - tastier even than cod tempura.

Feng Sushi, Unit 9, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX and branches tel: 020 7261 0001 http://www.fengsushi.co.uk/

Feng Sushi on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 August 2009


I've long been a lover of Skylon, chef Helena Puolakka's restaurant/grill/bar at the Royal Festival Hall, but so far have only given it the most fleeting of mentions here on twelvepointfivepercent. So I'm very happy to redress that imbalance by telling you about my extremely enjoyable dinner there this week with PJ, my de facto big brother, long-time pal and loyalest confidant.

PJ had snipped a special offer voucher from the Evening Standard promising two courses and a glass of wine for fifteen quid in the informal grill section, and both being well aware of how often such offers can promise more than they deliver,we set ourselves the challenge of seeing how closely we could keep our bill to the offer price.

The 'challenge' started badly - the bar team at Skylon mix such a mean cocktail that I couldn't resist my (usual) very dry Belvedere Martini while PJ slaked his end-of-a-ten-hour-day thirst with a Caipirinha, but these we excluded from the bill as being aperitifs rather than part of dinner. The offer menu was very good; from three choices for each course we opted for gazpacho (me) and chicken foie gras parfait with chutney and brioche toast (PJ) to start followed by, for both of us, confit duck with Puy lentils.

It was all exceptionally good to eat and exceptionally well presented, my gazpacho being a particular highlight garnished with shredded basil and tiny dice - OK, brunoise if you're going to insist on proper foodie terms - of peppers and onion. The accompanying glasses of wine were good and generous; if you bear in mind that a large glass of wine in Skylon is around the £6 mark, it makes the meal an absolute steal at £9 for the two, excellent, courses.

Yes, we strayed slightly from the offer menu, adding a couple of to-be-honest extraneous side dishes (one of honeyed carrots, the other of mixed broad and billy beans, both terrific), but even with those, less the cocktails and plus 12.5% service, we still got away with paying only just north of twenty quid each. Service was typically wonderful (the pointing out of an entirely accidental error on our bill was met with a look of genuine mortification by our lovely waitress), the ambience was buzzing and the company - admittedly not within Skylon's control but entirely within PJ's - was a joy.
I've said it before but I'll say it again for the record: I love Skylon, all of it, from the restaurant to the grill via the bar, and can't recommend it highly enough.

Skylon, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX Tel: 020 7654 7800 www.skylonrestaurant.com

Skylon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chains Round-Up

While chain restaurants aren't necessarily as interesting to read, or indeed write about as other more high-falutin' places, I still believe that if somewhere does something well it's worthy of recognition. So, here's just a brief round-up of a few good chains I've enjoyed eating at recently.

First was Prezzo in Norwich, which Alyn and I popped into for a quick pit-stop supper to line our tummies before a night of heavy revelling to celebrate Norwich's first ever Gay Pride last Saturday. Like the festival itself, the meal surpassed expectations; we shared some excellent calamari fritti, a fresh, crisp mixed salad and a tasty Vesuvio pizza, as spicy as the name suggests (the heat provided by pepperoni and red chillis) without completely blowing the mind like Pizza Express's crazily-hot, similarly volcanically-named Etna. Service was kind and charming, the decor chic and modern, and the bill pleasingly tiny considering the excellent quality.

In much the same vein, and in much the same name, Zizzi in Surbiton delivered a very pleasant casual dinner experience when Andrew and I dropped by this week for a can't-be-arsed-to-cook meal early one evening. Already busy when we arrived, by 8.30 the large, long room was packed to the rafters with suburbanites enjoying, as we were, the generous helpings of imaginative pizzas and pastas. The dough sticks with aioli which we ordered to nibble while waiting for our mains were excellent, salty and pleasingly chewy and especially moreish when dipped in the sweet, punchy aioli. Mains were both good, Andrew's rigatoni pollo e funghi offering up plentiful amounts of both chicken and mushrooms in a good tomato sauce, and my spicy meat calzone - looking for all the world like a giant Cornish pasty - was a delicious, rich parcel of meatballs, bolognese sauce, pepperoni and crunchy green chillis. Although some of the menu descriptions bordered on twee, the wine list impressed me with its concise, helpful descriptions of the mostly Italian wines; our 2006 Rioja Crianza was, as stated, 'filled with fruit and vanilla' and a great robust accompaniment to our hearty, heavy meals.

Finally, and bringing things bang up to date, I enjoyed a very good dim sum lunch with Paulie today at the branch of Ping Pong handily located just seconds from both our offices. My first, and until today only, experience of Ping Pong at another branch had been marred by atrociously slow service, but today's meal had no such problems. After an oddly laborious negotiation process as to where we were going to sit - it took two staff to agree on where the 'nicest' place to sit was - we ordered half a dozen dishes and some green tea, all brought to us quickly by smiling, efficient staff. Our selection of steamed dim sum included prawn and chicken shu mai and pork and chicken and cashew dumplings, all very good, some wonderful seafood sticky rice and a little indulgence of fried duck pancakes which disappeared in seconds. The green tea, made with fresh leaves in a pouch suspended atop tall glasses filled with hot water from a copper kettle, was theatrical in its presentation, delicious and cleansing in taste, but slightly labour intensive to actually drink. The bill for two of us including service was comfortably under £30, although Paulie had to pay this (thanks babe!) because annoyingly - and for a chain, surprisingly - Ping Pong have ceased to accept American Express which was the only card I was carrying.

None of the above were necessarily the most exciting meal I've had recently, but they were all good enough in their own way to earn a recommendation. I'd happily return to any of these restaurants or one of their branches next time I want good, quick, cheap food and can confidently recommend that you consider doing the same.

Prezzo, 2-6 Thorpe Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 1RY and branches. tel: 01603 660404 http://www.prezzoplc.co.uk/

Zizzi, 38 Victoria Road, Surbiton KT6 4JL and branches. tel: 020 8399 4160

Ping Pong, 3 Appold Street, London EC2A 2AF and branches. tel: 020 7422 0780 www.pingpongdimsum.co.uk
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