Monday, 26 April 2010

Andrew Edmunds, Soho

The discreet exterior of Andrew Edmunds, Soho
Years ago, when I was rather less worldly-wise than today, I remember being terribly impressed when Toptable launched a service it grandly called 'Book The Unbookables'. The premise was that Toptable's crack team of bookers would obtain for us mere mortals a table at any one of a number of ultra-exclusive restaurants to which, a reverent Joe Public was steered to believe, they had some sort of magical hotline number.

A few years on, when for a time I held one of those invitation-only charge cards which entitle one to the services of a 24-hour concierge wherever one may be in the world and a foot massage on your birthday, I was similarly impressed by the facility to have a table booked for me at restaurants boasting any number of stars, rosettes or hats, across continents and time-zones, simply by placing a call to a friendly, insomniac team in a Brighton call centre.

These days, Toptable has ceased offering to book the unbookables for us, and the adamantium card has gone back because astonishingly sensibly for me, I realised that the Croesus complex a limitless credit limit engenders in one is neither healthy nor fiscally sustainable. And yet, despite having once been so impressed by both, I miss neither, for the simple reason that I know now that there is no such thing as an 'unbookable' restaurant, merely ones with more people answering the phones, or more clued-up at managing a reservation system, than others. If you can be bothered to persist, and can be flexible with timings, you can get a table anywhere in town, on any night of the week. Unless, that is, the restaurant in question does not take bookings, in which case it is quite literally 'unbookable'.

Such is the case with Polpo, the restaurant I'd intended to take my best friend Andrew to for a birthday dinner last week but which was already full with a '45 minutes, maybe an hour' wait even at 7.15ish on a Thursday. I won't labour the point any further than I already have but suffice it to say that I'm just not interested enough in trying anywhere to wait that long, at least not without a proper waiting area to kill my time in. I'm emphatically not criticising the restaurant for it; if they're that full, that early then I sincerely wish them the very best of luck, I just won't be rushing back myself.

Andrew Edmunds, the nearby restaurant we took ourselves off to instead, only takes bookings a week in advance which although a bit of a bugger if you want to be sure of getting a table for a birthday or Valentine's, strikes me as being a very democratic way of doing things. I've been many a time before and always loved the place, and Andrew had heard my ravings but never had the pleasure, so we took our chances on getting a walk-in and were delighted to find that a table was available if only for the next hour-and-a-bit.

Split over two floors, Andrew Edmunds is known for packing in tables and while some diners find that this makes for a romantic, intimate air, others just find it horribly cramped. We were taken down the rickety stairs to the gorgeous, candle-lit, crepuscular basement which I prefer by a whisker to the even more cheek-by-jowl dining room on the ground floor.

Andrew and I liked the look of everything on that evening's menu; it changes every day but as usual offered around six choices for each course, plus a couple of blackboard specials for mains. The cuisine at Andrew Edmunds is mostly Mediterranean, with a bias to French and with the odd British staple thrown in for good measure. It's unfrightening, unpretentious stuff with just enough flair to excite the more demanding foodie, and all very keenly priced. Starters start at just £3.25 for soup and don't stray much north of £7 (dressed crab's the dearest at £8.75), and there are no mains over £16.

To kick off, Andrew chose king scallop ceviche with avocado puree and I opted for smoked eel with apple and beetroot salad and horseradish creme fraiche. The ceviche was terrific, super-fresh (as of course it should be) and packing just enough citrus kick as to not overpower the delicacy of the scallops. It came with a fairly abundant herb salad, punchily dressed, which along with the rich smoothness of the avocado puree created a perfect balance of flavours and textures. Andrew, being a musical sort, called it 'symphonic', which I mentally noted as being rather a good description to steal for this post. My eel dish was another cracker, the unexpected sweetness of the apple bringing interest to the classic taste combination of smoke, earthiness and heat.

Our main courses were equally successful. Andrew's roast pork fillet with a wild mushroom and porcini risotto had the potential to be overwhelmingly rich, especially given the addition of some heady truffle oil, but an accompanying watercress and pinenut salad brought levity and equilibrium. My sea bass fillet with potato and poppy seed cake and crab, fennel and tomato salad was equally expert, the unusual spud 'n' seed galette working nicely with the sweet firm fish and crunchy, punchy salad.

A bottle of a wonderful Schloss Lieser 2005 Riesling, chosen from Andrew Edmunds' excellent mostly Old World list was so zestily fruity it felt effervescent on the tongue. Had we not had to give the table back we would no doubt have also enjoyed a glass or two of something sticky from the long and bargain-laden sweet wine and port selection. Service, from the absolutely delightful, polite and ruggedly handsome Connor, was spot on, and the enthusiasm and warmth of the staff members we met on our way in and out was palpable. Our bill including service came to £72, which sat very comfortably on the price-quality axis.

There's really nothing to fault about Andrew Edmunds. Sure, the closeness of the tables is a love-it-or-loathe-it eccentricity, but its these eccentricities which give the place its particular charm. By the time we'd finished dinner I was in a buoyant mood and the earlier disappointment of not getting in at Polpo had entirely given way to delight that, as a result, I had been driven back into the arms of an old friend. I got to spend time with two of my favourite Andrews that night and concluded that having the odd 'unbookable' restaurant in town might not be such a bad thing after all.

Andrew Edmunds, 46 Lexington Street, London W1F 0LW Tel: 020 7437 5708 No website. 

Andrew Edmunds on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Byron At The Intrepid Fox, Soho

When Lord Byron - poet, aristocrat, traveller, soldier and politician - died in 1824, his contemporary at Cambridge and lifelong intimate Lord Hobhouse said of him that "No man lived who had such devoted friends." Judging by the praise lavished upon it by critics, bloggers and particularly the Twitterati, it would seem that his namesake chain of upscale burger bars inspires similar heights of fidelity. The enthusiasm generated by this relative newcomer to the ever-expanding gourmet burger market has been almost as frenzied as the 19th century public's reception of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage; burger afficionados go no more a-roving in search of their beef-patty-'n'-bun fix.

And yet, despite my usually being a sucker for good word-of-mouth, until this week I'd not been in the least bit tempted to go, for the very simple reason that I just don't give a toss about burgers. Not that I don't like them - I do, very much, and my home-made ones are my fiancé's very favourite meal - but they're just not something I feel able to muster any excitement for or especial interest in. Sure, I care if I get served a really bad one - burned, or cold, or in a stale bun say - and can appreciate a good one, but beyond that I'm really not greatly fussed about the beef used, or what cheese goes in it, and certainly couldn't fail to be less concerned about whether or not there are seeds on the bun.

Someone however who could and does care, very much, about such things is my friend Frankie, who I meet up with every few months for drinks, dinner and general merriment. Frankie loves a good burger (and indeed has very definite ideas about what distinguishes a good burger from a great one), so when it came to choosing somewhere for our latest nosh-up, and given that our main criteria were somewhere central, informal and cheap and cheerful, Byron sprang quickly to mind from some deep recess of my remembering.

The West End outpost of the six-strong chain takes its extended name from the pub which used to occupy the site, and which was known to taxi drivers and locals alike as 'that Goth pub' after its black-clad, white-complexioned clientele.Why the name of the pub has been retained is anybody's guess, the interior having been so completely reinterpreted as to erase any vestiges of its previous incarnation. The result is a very agreeable space with its exposed brick walls, low-hanging lights and Eames-ish furniture.

When we arrived at about 8.30 almost every table was taken; I didn't like the one we were shown to but within a few minutes of being settled at another (which I did like) we were told that it was needed for a group and asked if we would move downstairs. The sourness of my expression as we gathered our belongings must have spoken volumes, as we were offered free drinks as a sweetener; the prospect of free booze completely mitigated our annoyance.

As it transpired, the downstairs room was, we both agreed, actually the nicer of the two rooms, its white tiling, neon signs and modern, sculpted plastic furniture creating an atmosphere of part-Bond villain's lair, part-Berlin nightclub. The effect was spoiled slightly by its also being used partly as a store-room; stacks of trays of pop are not the most attractive sight. A very attractive sight however was our charming young waiter who was attentive, friendly and efficient, and knowledgeable and passionate about the Byron concept without being at all preachy.

The concept is, as it happens, remarkably simple and unpretentious consisting of just five points: burgers will be good beef, from small (Morayshire) farms, freshly made, cooked medium and served in proper buns. We both ordered the Byron Burger ('dry cure bacon, mature Cheddar, Byron sauce') and a portion each of French fries and courgette fries. Other options include chicken and veggie burgers and a few salads. There's also a selection of desserts but no starters - at all - unless you count 'proper olives ' (as opposed to what, I wondered? 'Pretend' olives? Parvenu olives?) or tortilla chips, which I don't.

Depending on which one of us you ask - and as it's me writing this review, which rather limits your options, I reproduce Frankie's opinion here too - we enjoyed either 'a very nice burger served simply without being three-feet high and held together with a skewer like in some places' or 'a really fantastic burger, 5 out of 5 for everything, absolutely delicious'. No prizes for guessing which of those accounts is Frankie's.  He loved the bun, commenting on its softness and freshness, whereas I just noticed that they were nice and flat and didn't need squashing or cutting. He liked the tasty cheese and crispy bacon, and noticed the crunch of the lettuce and thick-but-not-too-thick slice of tomato; my assessment was less forensic, focusing more on the (admittedly very palatable) whole rather than appraising the composite parts.

Most importantly, my gourmet guest was very impressed by the excellent meat (a blend we were told of chuck, skirt and brisket, which I thought sounded rather like a 60s California boy-band) and how perfectly it was cooked - it was, as promised, cooked medium, beautifully pink, moist and oozing. Neither of us could detect any discernible flavour to the Byron sauce - vaguely tarragon-y, and were those chopped capers I could see? - but it was perfectly pleasant, as was the tangy quarter-gherkin served with each burger.

The fries both French and courgette were good; crispy, hot and abundant if in the case of the courgette fries a little on the oily side. We drank a very nice bottle of South African Chenin Blanc, from a list which offers a choice of 'Good', 'Better', 'Great' and 'Best' at prices ranging from £13.50 to £21.00. There's also a lengthy selection of soft drinks, shakes and beers and ciders.

So, the dinner and the soiree too were done, and the bill - less our side orders, rather than drinks, by way of apology for the earlier table-changing nonsense, plus a coffee and including a definitely well-earned 12.5% service - came to a very fair £18 each. It had been a very enjoyable meal, and was just part of a long boozy evening which began with cocktails at Quintessentially Soho and ended with karaoke in a tacky-but-favourite gay bar. The notoriously high-living Byron himself would probably have liked to have come along for the ride. I'm still no greater a fan of burgers than I was before, and there was certainly no Damascene conversion as one fellow blogger had suggested there might be, but based on my wholly enjoyable experience I'll happily be recommending Byron to my, I hope devoted, friends.

Byron At The Intrepid Fox, 97-99 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UD Tel: 020 7297 9390

Byron on Urbanspoon

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