Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Mount Street Deli

As the regular reader - go on dear, wave so we can all see you - of this blog will know, I'm a huge fan of, and something of a pro bono brand ambassador for, Caprice Holdings. Until very recently I'd never found a restaurant I liked more than The Ivy; the place which stole its place in my heart, though only by a very narrow margin, was its stable-mate Dean Street Townhouse. There's nowhere in town I trust more to look after my precious mother than J. Sheekey, and I return time and time (and time) again for gossipy, glamorous nights at Rivington Grill. My affection for the company was further cemented last year by their generous support of an event I organised for my beloved Crusaid.

You can imagine then that I was rather excited to hear that the group has opened its first retail outlet in the form of The Mount Street Deli, just opposite another of the jewels in its crown, Scott's. I was asked along as a guest, on the second day of opening, to sample some of the products on offer, and from what I saw (and tasted), Caprice have another hit on their hands.

For the uninitiated, Mount Street is a very elegant thoroughfare (albeit currently blighted by seemingly incessant roadworks) running from Park Lane to Grosvenor Square. Always popular with the extremely well-heeled residents of Mayfair for its galleries, restaurants and specialist shops - gunmaker Purdey occupies a corner plot across from haute china supplier Thomas Goode - in recent years Mount Street has become synonymous with luxury fashion and is now home to many of London's highest-end boutiques, attracting wealthy local and international shoppers. The Mount Street Deli brings something genuinely new and completely suited to the mix - a delicatessen-cum-cafe stocking produce of sufficiently impeccable quality as to appeal to the street's very discerning clientele.

The food offering falls into two main categories, each of which has clearly been very thoroughly thought through. The eat-in offering - there's seating for 16 inside and 8 on a cute terrace - majors on fresh, home-made, seasonal and organic cafe staples, mostly British but including some smashing Italian salumi alongside menu favourites from some of Caprice Holdings' restaurants. The take-away selection is focused on the ne plus ultra of ready meals; dishes prepared in the kitchens of and usually only served in the members-only environs of the private clubs in the Birley Group, itself now a part of Caprice. There's also a lovingly sourced and carefully edited selection of preserves, chutneys, breads and confectionery ideal for giving as gifts or impressing dinner party guests.

From the cold counter I tried a variety of treats including plump, nutty jewelled cous cous, a few slices of silky salami and moreish mortadella, a mighty fine sausage roll (which I'll admit I would have preferred hot) and some lovely plump, briny olives which would have been perfect had they come wrapped in a vodka Martini. The hot dish of the day was a boldly savoury beef hot pot of which every spoonful spoke of slow, patient stewing, stirring and seasoning. A selection plate from the afternoon tea and puddings menu enabled me to sample the Deli's carrot cake, chocolate brownie and millionaire's shortbread out of which not just the latter will delight the area's super-rich.

The faultlessly enthusiastic manager Hannah Gutteridge is very proud of her coffee and an accompanying latte was excellent. What I really would have liked was a glass of wine; alas for the time being at least The Mount Street Deli is unlicensed meaning one can only browse and possibly take away the interesting and very reasonably priced wines on offer (a 1997 Pauillac at £75 caught my dipsomaniac eye). Although that remained on the shelf, I did leave with an armful of some of the quirkier goodies from the deli section including  a star anise and pink peppercorn mustard from Henshelwoods and some addictive chocolate lime biscuits from Island Bakery Organics.

Overall, I liked The Mount Street Deli  as much as I like its sister restaurants and bars and will definitely be back both to eat in - especially when the veal ravioli from Daphne's is on the menu - and to pick up some of what must be the poshest ready meals in London. The ultimate seal of approval however comes not from me but from the wonderful, elegant American lady who struck up conversation with me over coffee. Lucky (and, clearly, wealthy) enough to live 'just over the road' from The Mount Street Deli, she had already taken home dinner from it on day one and was now back on day two for coffee, a bite to eat and to meet her equally elegant husband. That the locals have taken the place so enthusiastically to their hearts before the paint is barely dry is a sure sign that Caprice Holdings have, yet again, got it absolutely right.

The Mount Street Deli, 100 Mount Street, London W1K 2TG Tel: 020 7499 6843

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Late last Wednesday, when I got home from dinner at the recently opened Bar Boulud, I tweeted: "So underwhelmed by Bar Boulud that I'll need a serious mainline fix from my enthusiasm dealer before I can even think about writing it up." This was no exaggeration; bar the ever-effervescent and aesthetically-delightful company of my strapping Welsh pal Will, my evening at New York superchef Daniel Boulud's new 'informal' restaurant had delivered so little to be excited about that I genuinely wondered if I would ever be sufficiently arsed to put fingertips to keyboard. I certainly couldn't be bothered to take any photos hence this post being illustrated with my favourite picture of Will from our trip to Madrid last year.

To preface, particularly for those who don't follow restaurant and catering news with the slavish devotion of the blogosphere and Twitterati, 2010 is to be the year of the superchef hotel restaurant. Riding the crest of a wave which started last year with the arrival (albeit in name only) of Heinz Beck at
Apsleys, 2010 has already seen Bruno Loubet launch his insanely successful eponymous Bistro at The Zetter and, just a few weeks ago, the opening of Bar Boulud, the London off-shoot of thrice-Michelin-starred Daniel Boulud's New York gaff of the same name. Treats still to come include Heston Bloomineck's first London restaurant (which like Bar Boulud will be at the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park) and perhaps most excitingly of all, Pierre Koffmann's return to The Berkeley. By Autumn you'll be hard pressed to find a fine diner in the capital which doesn't have a three-star chef's name above the door.

You'd expect then that with a big-name chef patron, a five-star-deluxe location and a track record of success in the bear pit which is the NYC restaurant trade, Bar Boulud would be something pretty bloody special. Alas, your expectations would be for naught, because the actual product is pretty mediocre. 

First - and worst - of all, there's the quite spectacularly unattractive room. The floor, chairs, tables, bar and panelling are all made of the same harsh, hard wood in the same harsh, hard shade. There are accents here and there of a deep terracotta-ish red, offset by rendered walls painted the colour familiar to tenants everywhere as 'landlord beige' and adorned with bought-in-bulk generic black and white photography. The overall effect, I put it to Will, was of the breakfast room in a Thistle hotel; Will, who was a high-up with the chain for eight long years, concurred. I provide here an interior shot of the Thistle Hotel Cheltenham as my Exhibit A and invite anyone who has been or might go to Bar Boulud to spot the difference

Menu-wise, Bar Boulud offers a wide and appealingly described range of brasserie fare; a long-ish list of charcuterie options is joined by a selection of sausages, soups and salads in portions geared towards sharing. If you're after something more substantial there are burgers (apparently a Boulud speciality) and 'plats de resistance', a rather grand name for fish and meat main courses which include classics like coq au vin and steak frites. So far, so Cafe Rouge.

While deciding what to have we sampled a couple of cocktails, neither of which bowled us over. My Negroni was insipid - too much sweet vermouth possibly - and Will's Cosmopolitan (Who dear? Gay dear? Us dear?) was just silly, poured at the table from a miniature pitcher, into a cocktail glass containing a giant ice ball, in which were encased rose petals which perfumed the drink as the ice melted. Sometimes cocktail theatre can be fun, sometimes it's just naff; the latter was the case here, made worse by the fact that rose petals have no place in a Cosmopolitan.

We ordered a selection of dishes to share, a small charcuterie platter, a tourte de canard (duck terrine in pastry), boudin blanc with truffle mash and cervelas de Lyon, one of the day's specials described as pork sausage baked in brioche - I envisioned a high-end pork pie. Additionally I ordered chilled pea soup with baby carrot for no better reason than that I love chilled soups.

The charcuterie is made in-house to specifications laid down by Parisian master charcutier Gilles Verot and I thought it rather grand that rather than have the charcuterie bought in, Boulud had had a charcutier brought in. Particularly enjoyable on the platter were slow-cooked beef cheek which had an intense, almost curried flavour and a terrine of pulled (sort of braised) rabbit. Accompanying pickles were lively and piquant. Less impressive were the various hams and meats, which were indistinguishable from anything one could buy in a half-decent deli.

Our tourte de canard was very good, layering gutsy pressed duck, abundant nuggets of goose foie gras (their foie gras is all goose - I checked) and sticky, squishy figs, the whole encased in a deliciously sweet, glazed pastry. Boudin blanc was also a pleaser, the sausage's delicate smoothness of texture belying its concentrated pork flavour; the truffle mash it nestled on was rich, buttery and utterly luxurious. My chilled pea soup, listed as also incorporating rosemary cream, did not taste of the herb at all but was tasty and primaveral, providing a welcome cleansing contrast to the salinity of the charcuterie. The worst dish by far was the
cervelas de Lyon which consisted of dense sausage-meat - "Is this Spam?" I wondered more than once - within claggy, dry brioche which stuck in the throat. Removing  the bread rendered it barely more edible.

Although we were fairly full, we decided not to order desserts less from being full than for lack of any interest. A combination of the ugly room and far too formal service - from far too many staff - had made it impossible to relax all the time we were there and we just wanted to get the hell out. Our bill, including a glass of wine each (Will's a Sancerre, mine a lovely, light Irancy, at about a tenner apiece) and 12.5% service came to £104 which we both clutched our pearls at; individual plate prices don't raise eyebrows in isolation but boy do they add up. As we left, Daniel Boulud himself was working the room, but neither he nor any of his copious staff felt it necessary to thank us or wish us goodbye.

I'd struggle to recommend anything about Bar Boulud though damn it I have been racking my brains to try. Sure there's the good quality of the charcuterie but anywhere can sell someone else's established product. Otherwise I really don't see anything special about Bar Boulud to make up for the awful design, the dull stiffness of the ambience and the 'so what?' OK-ness of the food offering.

Perhaps it will make a nice breakfast room.

Bar Boulud, Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA Tel: 020 7201 3899 

Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Randall & Aubin, Soho

In her remarkable self-help book ‘Dare To Be You’, psychologist Dr Cecilia d’Felice sets out an easy, accessible eight-step approach to reducing stress, living well and achieving lasting happiness best summed up as common sense backed up by professional eminence and personal experience. The book recommends that we nurture good friendships, lay off artificial stimulants (whether legal or illegal – Dr d’Felice is no moraliser) although a little booze is allowed, and follow an ‘Emotional Well-being Diet’ which separates foods into mood lifters or lowerers and encourages abundance of the former and avoidance of the latter. Combine all three -  great friends, moderate liquor and some uplifting food – and you have a sure-fire recipe for happiness on your hands.

That certainly proved to be the case last week when I enjoyed a fantastic dinner at Randall & Aubin in Soho with two very dear friends of mine, none other than the aforementioned Dr Cecilia d’Felice and her teacher fiancé Dick. Although my friendship with them is one I have taken care to nurture, my long-standing acquaintance with Randall & Aubin is one that I have egregiously neglected of late so I was delighted when Cecilia and Dick suggested it for dinner one evening after we’d been a for a couple of cocktails (non-alcoholic in the case of Cecilia who practises what she teaches).

Randall & Aubin occupies the largely unchanged premises of a turn-of-the-twentieth century butcher’s shop, and were it not for the abundant displays of crustacea and neon ‘Fruits de mer’ signs in the windows it would be easy to walk past without realising that this is a restaurant. Those that do venture inside however are rewarded with a beautiful interior of black and white tiles, globe lamps, camp-as-tits chandeliers and a scattering of mirrorballs; as one might deduce from this and from the restaurant’s heart-of-Soho location, R&A is very popular with a gay clientele. Messrs Randall and Aubin may have stocked the primest meat in their day but it’s as nothing compared to the bodies on some of the boys who line up of an evening to bagsy a prime window seat.

Seating is on high stools at marble counters running around the perimeter of and criss-crossing the room. No bookings are taken but the wait if any is usually short and in any case flies by given the calibre of the people watching. The all-day and -night menu offers a good selection of steaks, grills and rotisserie (chickens roast tantalizingly on spits in the open kitchen) but the real focus here is firmly on all things aquatic. Whether you like your fish grilled, fried, steamed or roasted, or your crustacea piled high on shaved ice or dressed and added to a salad, you’ll find something to keep you happy at Randall & Aubin.

To kick off, Cecilia and Dick shared a plate of Randall’s crab cakes with lime mayonnaise and I, remembering how much I’d enjoyed it on my all-too-long-ago last visit, chose the prawn and shrimp cocktail. Both were excellent, unfussy interpretations of classic dishes; to my greedy eyes the portion of three quite small crab cakes appeared a little meagre but there were no complaints from across the table. The cocktail, served in a cocktail glass, ably demonstrated the harmony of the friendship between plump sweet shrimps and zingy Marie Rose sauce.

Main courses also brought smiles to our faces. Dick tucked into a rib-eye steak of such a size as to account for both the weekly portions of red meat allowed on the Emotional Well-being Diet and served with chips and truffle-dressed watercress. The bloodily rare chunk Dick offered me to taste was very much to my liking although Dick felt it could have been more tender (something Dr d’Felice would like us all to be towards ourselves). My salad of Devon crab with avocado, shrimp and pimento dressing was luxurious but light, the addition of just a touch of chilli to copious white and brown crab meat giving the whole an enlivening kick. Cecilia, elegant as ever, ordered pan fried king scallops with braised fennel, a happy marriage of the scallops’ bland sweetness with the delicate aniseed notes of the slow-cooked vegetable.

To drink we had a bottle of a very pleasant 2008 Marlborough Riesling, one of only a few New World wines on a mostly European list all at accessible if perhaps slightly over marked-up prices. I wish I could tell you more about it but I was far too distracted singing the praises of ‘Dare To Be You’ to my neighbours at the table (these things happen with communal seating) to take better notice of the wine. Nor can I tell you much about the bill, as this was one of those rare but delightful occasions where I was kindly treated. I would hazard a guess at about £35 a head to include a £1.50 per person cover charge and 12.5% service, more if you were to fancy trying one of the spectacular if expensive sea food platters. Service throughout, provided by a team as handsome as any of the aesthetically-enhanced customers, was friendly, fast and at times edifyingly flirty.

Despite this being my nth visit it was only on spotting a framed press clipping in the loo that I learned that Randall & Aubin is co-owned and run by TV chef Ed Baines, but don’t let that put you off for this is no celeb cook vanity project. This is a well-designed, meticulously thought out, expertly-run enterprise serving unpretentious but elegant food at sensible prices in an egalitarian atmosphere. And that, like having friends as wonderful as Dick & Cecilia to enjoy it with, makes me for one very happy indeed.

Randall & Aubin, 16 Brewer Street, London W1F 0SQ Tel: 020 7287 4447 (No reservations)

Randall & Aubin on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Tokyo Diner, Chinatown

When I decided to start writing this blog and had to come up with a title, I wanted to choose something that was original but not too esoteric and self-explanatory without being trite. Although over time I've found myself wishing that I could have come up with something as brilliant as Thring For Your Supper (now alas soberly renamed 'Oliver Thring') or, my absolute favourite, And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Our Bread, I was and remain very satisfied with TwelvePointFivePercent. 

Occasionally when I tell people the name, it takes a few seconds for the penny to drop before they chuckle and say, "Oooh, twelve point five percent service!" but just about everyone gets that I took the title from the pretty-much-ubiquitous 'discretionary' service charge which, with the noble exception of the D&D group, just about everywhere whacks onto your bill these days.

Just about everywhere, that is, except for Tokyo Diner, a groovy little Japanese cafe just off Leicester Square, which not only doesn't add service to your bill, or stamp on your bill in red that service is not included, but actively states on it's menu that it won't take tips. Yes, you read that right,
won't take tips.

According to the
menu, 'Paying extra for service is a foreign concept. Since Tokyo Diner first opened in 1992, tips have never been expected or accepted. Any money which is mistakenly left on tables goes to St. Martin-in-the-Fields’ unit for the Homeless.' How brilliant is that? 'Mistakenly left on tables' has to be one of the subtlest pieces of cultural snobbery I've ever encountered, as if to say 'Ha! You English people and your crazy insistence on tipping! You get fleeced for twelve point five percent in most places and in the ones that don't, you feel obliged to leave it anyway! FOOLS!' Next time you're in a Japanese restaurant and service is added or the bill's left open, you might want to bear this in mind when deciding what, if anything, to leave.

The no tipping policy isn't the only endearing thing about Tokyo Diner (to which I was taken by my pal Greg when we were in need of sustenance and a stiff drink after seeing
Debbie Reynolds' slightly surreal one-woman show on Thursday night). It's light, bright and spotlessly clean, with functional wooden bench seating configured in sociable twos, fours and sixes and set with everything one could possibly need including pots of disposable chopsticks, bottles of good soy and ton katsu sauces and a sprinkler of shichimi seasoning. As soon as you're seated, you're brought complimentary green tea and a little dish of rice crackers to graze on while choosing your food. Staff - almost all Japanese, for reasons explained on the quirky website - are enthusiastic, polite and humorous, evidently taking both pleasure and pride in what they're doing.

The menu offers a familiar selection of curries, noodle soups, bento boxes and sushi, all at super-reasonable prices. Should you be feeling particularly hungry (and we were - sitting through two hours of Carrie Fisher anecdotes works up one hell of an appetite), extra rice is offered with any dish completely free of charge - but 'please don't waste it' the menu exhorts. Another example of the restaurant's iron-clad social conscience is that there's no tuna on the menu, and there won't be until Tokyo Diner finds 'a trustworthy sustainable source'. Fortunately neither of us had our heart set on tuna that night and both went for a bento box, Greg's vegetarian, mine ton katsu.

Each was very good, and abundant, Greg's vegetarian option substituting a generous helping of stir-fried mixed vegetables for the crispy-coated pork fillet in mine. Other components were interesting and delicious; as well as a mound of rice we enjoyed pickles, a refreshing, sharp wakame salad, braised aubergine, some butter-soft salmon sashimi in mine and veggie California rolls in Greg's. The resulting whole was, as a good bento box should be, a substantial, balanced meal of complementary flavours and textures, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. Our enjoyment was further enhanced by a bottle of the house white wine, a very drinkable Vin de Pays du Comte Tolosan, strong in Sauvignon Blanc flavour and an incredible bargain at just £6.90. The mark-up on that can't be more than about a token 25% which just makes me like the people behind Tokyo Diner even more.

The bill, for food, that great value wine and absolutely not one single percent service, came to just sixteen quid each and could have been even less if we'd not been so badly in need of liquor. Tokyo Diner shoots right to the top of my list of favourite casual/cheap-eats options; instead of leaving a tip they ask that you 'Please come back and bring your friends' and it's a certainty that I will. I just hope that the no tipping policy doesn't catch on
too widely, else I may find myself once again racking my meagre brains for a new blog title.

Tokyo Diner, 2 Newport Place, London WC2H 7JJ Tel:020 7287 8777 

Tokyo Diner on Urbanspoon 
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