Saturday, 21 August 2010

Polpetto, Soho

In the 11 months or so since he opened the wildly successful Polpo, an homage to Venetian bacari on Soho's Beak Street, a lot has been said about Russell Norman. He's been described variously as the saviour of a fading Soho, progenitor of the next big thing in restaurants, and simply as a 'legend' in both its traditional and more colloquial senses. All of these may or may not be true, but one thing I can tell you with certainty is that Russell Norman is a gentleman.

When, months ago, I couldn't get in at Polpo and flounced off elsewhere, Russell's classy response was firstly to let me know, helpfully, when the quieter times at Polpo were so that I might better have a chance of getting in, and when that didn't lure me through his doors he promised to get me a table at one of the previews for his new venture, Polpetto, when they happened. True to his word, last night I finally sat down to dinner in one of Mr Norman's restaurants for the first time - and what a fantastic time it was.

Polpetto occupies an unusual site, until recently the quietly famous dining room of 
one of Soho's best-known boozers The French House, but now operating discretely from  - while still sharing an entrance, staircase and loos with - the pub downstairs. In keeping with Norman's love of New York the tiny room has been given a classy refurb in the style of a Keith McNally bistro, although bare brick walls, naked lightbulbs, aged mirrors and red banquettes are now as familiar to Londoners thanks to the likes of Dean Street Townhouse and Hoxton Grill as they are to any Manhattanite. Polpetto manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to a spectacular burnished copper ceiling, shipped over from a salvage yard in Connecticut and installed here for the delight of anyone minded to look up from their plates.

Given the quality of the food being turned out though, looking up from plates might prove difficult. Polpetto follows the same formula (so I'm told...) as its big sister up the road, offering traditional Italian dishes in a variety of sizes all designed for sharing from cicheti - barely bigger than a mouthful, The Boot's answer to Spain's pintxos - via bruschette, to larger plates which could easily serve as a main course for anyone not fond of sharing, or solo diners. Alyn and I tried seven plates which to be honest was about two too many, but didn't regret a single bite.

Anchovy and chickpea crostino was, as Alyn accurately put it, 'like fishy houmous', of a robust 
pâté consistency and ideal for enjoying with a Negroni while we chose what to follow it with. We stuck with breads and tried first a bruschetta topped with stracchino - 'it's like Primula', Russell elucidated - fennel salami and figs, then a cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper pizzetta. Both were lovely, the former rich with oozing cheese and nicely oily salami, the latter  matching sweet pork with tangy peppers to more-ish effect. The bruschetta, I scribbled on my menu 'would make a cracking hangover brunch'.

Next up was our one choice from the 'Fish' section of the menu, in this case crispy soft shell crab in Parmesan batter with fennel salad. This was as amazing as it sounds, the crisp, creamily-dressed fennel providing a cool, smooth counterpoint to the hot, 
crunchy crab. The batter didn't taste much of Parmesan but was none the worse for it. Moving on to 'Meat' we tried three of the five plates on offer, which between them delivered both the stand-out dish of the meal and the only slight let-down. The duffer was osso buco - tender braised veal shank - with saffron risotto which, although comforting to eat and better than OK, was somewhat bland and dulled down rather than enhanced by the so-so risotto.

All was forgiven however with our first mouthful of pigeon saltimbocca which as well as being the best dish we'd tasted that evening was also one of the best I can remember having this year. Fat, bloody breasts of pigeon came wrapped in salty prosciutto, the whole layered with a generous but not excessive scattering of sage. Served on a swirl of creamy white polenta it was a brilliant, imaginative, modern British rendition of an Italian classic. Our other plate, a ham hock and parsley terrina served with a mustardy egg mayonnaise and cute tiny cornichons was also very good; consistency-wise more like rillettes than terrine it was a further example of executive chef Tom Oldroyd's expertise and flair.

Full as I was, I still found room for pud, a magnificent, textbook, very boozy tiramisu pot followed by a thick, strong espresso to snap me back into life from my excess-induced torpor. Throughout the meal we'd enjoyed a bottle of Cortese Volpi 2009, the enthusiastically recommended house white at £15 from a short, thoughtfully-selected list of seven whites, seven reds and one rosé almost all available by the 250ml and 500ml carafe. Lilliputian glasses encourage slow, refined consumption.

Service was fun, informal and fast-paced enough to avoid long waits without ever feeling hurried. With an introductory 50% off the food our bill for seven dishes, one pudding, a bottle of wine, aperitifs, coffee and 12.5% service came to a laughable £54. Even without the discount we'd have got out for under £40 a head and it would have been even less if we'd not been quite so greedy with the ordering.

I still can't get my head around Russell Norman's aversion to taking dinner bookings, so how soon - or whether - I'll be back remains to be seen, but I can say without hesitation that I recommend Polpetto and encourage those without my Geminian hatred of waiting to go, go, go. I did wonder if it was acceptable - nay, gentlemanly - to write about Polpetto when, in Russell's own tweeted words there's still tweaking to be done and hell, it's not even officially open yet. But if it's this bloody good in preview, then it's only going to get even better. The hype might, just for once, be justified.

Polpetto, Upstairs at The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG Tel: 020 7734 1969

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Mr Wu, Chinatown

'All You Can Eat' are easily my four favourite words in the English language. 'Hugh you look fabulous' and 'Cocktails are on me' come close, but it's the invitation - though I'll admit I tend to interpret it more as a challenge than an offer - to scoff as much as my heart desires that excites me every time.

I've enjoyed some exceptionally good all you can eat affairs; particularly memorable binges include a Champagne brunch at the Marriott, Budapest and a ninety minute breakfast blow-out at The Fullerton in Singapore. But, while I'm hardly a food snob at the best of times, put me within a bain marie's throw of an unlimited buffet and any care about the quality of what's on offer pales next to my delight at the quantity - and it's probably for this reason that I really liked Mr Wu.

Londoners will be familiar with the Wu brand even if, as many do, they abjure it as a cheap, base-quality tourist trap to be avoided at all costs. There's a number of branches dotted around central London operating under a variety of names including Mr Wu, MW and in the case of the Shaftesbury Avenue branch I visited, Little Wu, all offering an all you can eat Chinese buffet for next-to-no-money - £6.50 at this particular outlet. 

Although everything about Wu restaurants is designed to discourage lingering - hard wooden benches, fluorescent lighting that would be rejected as too harsh for Abu Ghraib, overpriced drinks - pay your money and you can stay as long as you like and eat as much as you can of the dozen or so stock Chinese and Oriental dishes on offer.

Now I know what you're thinking; food that cheap, in the West End, has to be terrible, right? Well, not entirely. Sure it's not brilliant quality, and much of it is a nuclear orange colour which screams 'Tartrazine!', but most of the dishes available are no worse than you'd get from an OK-if-not-great takeaway and some of it's even rather moreish. Highlights on my visit were char siu pork and satay chicken on skewers, both genuinely delicious and made with meat and poultry of sufficient quality as to withstand slight - only slight - over-cooking, and some juicy, spicy pork balls.

Everything else - including chow mein, beef in black bean sauce, sweet and sour chicken and 'Thai-style' battered prawns - was fine, albeit that the latter might more accurately have been described as 'discernibly prawn-flavoured battered bullets'. A ladle or two of any of the separate sauces - sweet and sour, sweet chilli and sweet peanut (OK, satay) - elevates any of the dishes from 'edible' to 'rather tasty'. 
By the time I'd shovelled down two hefty platefuls I was full, happy and satisfied that I'd had more than good value for my £6.50. 

Or rather, my fiance's £6.50; if you're wondering, perhaps incredulously, what I was doing at Little Wu in the first place, the answer is that my lovely man who doesn't earn very much wanted to treat me to a meal for a change and I knew that at a Wu we could eat, drink and tip for less than I'd usually happily spend on a main course.

Is this great food? Of course not, but it's not as bad as snootier critics might have you believe. Is it authentically Chinese? About as much as Christopher Lee playing Fu Manchu. But it's passable, palatable and pretty good value, and when it comes to bargain all you can eat, that, to be honest, is about all you can ask.

Mr Wu, 64 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LU and branches. Tel: 020 7437 5088. No website. 

Mr Wu on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Racine, Knightsbridge

If the love of money is the root of all evil, then Knightsbridge must be the most evil place on Earth. Everywhere you go in SW1, conspicuous wealth and consumption abound; gaudily customised supercars line the pavements outside the ever-heaving Harrods, all the £30-million plus penthouses have sold out at the new One Hyde Park development, and three-star chefs are falling over themselves to open restaurants in five-star hotels. As if enclosed in a protective, recession-proof bubble, the occupants of Knightsbridge appear oblivious to austerity, be they resident in one of the area's exclusive red brick terraces or visiting for the summer from one or another emirate.

It's only in an area like Knightsbridge that a place like Racine could have 'firmly established itself as a favourite neighbourhood French restaurant' as the website proudly states. Almost anywhere else, chef-proprietor Henry Harris's slick, classic bistro would be considered pricy and posh, to be saved for special occasions, but in relation to most nearby competitors Racine is comparatively inexpensive (though cheap it ain't), and markedly less formal. It's also, deservedly I'd say based on my recent visit, doing a roaring trade.

My lifelong best friend Andrew and I were having dinner to celebrate his recent success in being appointed to a senior sales position at Emporio Armani just up the road (as an alumnus of the label I know first hand just how damn hard it is to even get a foot in the door) and chose Racine on the basis of our having both heard good things about it. In fact, Racine has been on my radar ever since it opened; I was an early adopter of Henry Harris's honest, luxurious cooking when he was at Fifth Floor at Harvey Nichols just round the corner and was immediately interested when he left to set up Racine - I just didn't get round to actually eating there until last week.

Like the area, the food at Racine is very, very rich. Harris appears to hold no truck with modern healthy eating fads; the menu is a delightful list of patés, mousses and remoulades, of roasts and grills and chops. Everything is garnished, sauced or buttered, and served in abundant portions; naturally, I bloody loved it even though I waddled out at the end of our meal and may drop dead of a heart attack before the week's out.

To start with, Andrew had a warm garlic and saffron mousse with mussels and I chose hot foie gras with wilted endive, piment d'Espelette and spiced bread. Andrew's mousse was almost soufflé-light but still very creamy in texture, tasted subtle without being bland and paired nicely with the flavour of the handful of plump, poached mussels surrounding it. My liver was just gorgeous; warm, quivering, unctuous and indulgent, it went beautifully with the nutmeg spiciness of the toast and the slight bitterness of the endive. My palate isn't refined enough to have detected any particular flavour of Espelette pepper, but as the sum of its parts this dish worked very well.

Main courses were equally as good if also rather heavy. As a lover of both offal and blue cheese I was never going to choose anything but the grilled veal kidneys with Roquefort butter, which came served additionally with some velouté-smooth mashed potato. The two fat, silky kidneys were full of flavour, cooked just through to a pale rose and bathed in a good couple of ounces of salty, tangy butter. It was a a terrific combination which given the choice I would probably have preferred without the potato; it was undeniably beautiful mash but just tipped the dish as a whole over into over-richness. Andrew's breast of duck with new season's grelots (baby onions), lovage and a gateau campagnard - a sort of apple-y rosti - was more balanced, the duck almost quackingly pink and the vegetables complementing rather than competing with it.

Determinedly we ploughed on to desserts figuring that we might as well be hanged for un mouton as un agneau. My pot of vanilla cream with Agen prunes was essentially unburnt crème brulée served over fruit in an upright dish, simple but enjoyable and evidently made from only the very creamiest cream, the kind of stuff that looks at extra thick double cream with pity in its eyes. Andrew's pud of choice was even simpler but also even better, vanilla ice cream of exceptional quality - home-made or not we weren't told - with a little jug of preposterously perfect hot Valrhona chocolate sauce.

Fancying a light-ish red wine we drank a very agreeable 2007 Chateau de Tersac, Corbieres which coped well with the succulent textures and flavours of the food and was fairly priced at £21. The wine list is long but undaunting, sub-divided helpfully into 'from Europe' (though by and large this means France) and 'from around the World' and then into by the glass, half bottles and bottles. There's something for every palate and price range although a black mark is awarded for the incessant pouring of it - three waiters in as many minutes had to be told Non, merci until it sank in that we could and wished to do it ourselves. Service was otherwise charming, polite, and well-paced.

Our bill, on which we received a 25% discount thanks to a Toptable offer, came to a very fair £80 and even if we had paid the full whack of £96 I'd have felt we'd got good value for money. My only objection, as much out of principle as confusion, was that Racine charges a lofty 14.5% service, an inexplicable whisker less than the 15% only really charged in the hautest of places but a hefty 2% over the more usual twelve point five. Knightsbridge being Knightsbridge I expect Racine's regular clientele don't bat an eyelid at such piddling sums; to the rest of us however it's an unwelcome extra expense and that's, well, just a bit rich.

Racine, 239 Brompton Road, London SW3 2EP Tel: 020 7584 4477 
 Racine on Urbanspoon
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Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Bonnington Cafe, Vauxhall

Atrocious photograph courtesy of R.B. Swift
For a couple of reasons, the validity of which I'll leave it to you to judge, I don't have a very great deal to say about the food at Bonnington Cafe.  First of all there doesn't seem much point, as the menu at this moderately famous, co-operative-run vegetarian restaurant in Vauxhall changes every day depending on which co-op member is taking their turn as chef. Because of this, what was on offer when I visited will bear no resemblance to what might be available should you go - as I hope you will - other than that it will be vegetarian or possibly vegan. Secondly and more typically, is that being BYO, the seven of us who ate there recently brought and drank so much of our own that my memory of what was bought and eaten is slightly impaired.

There's plenty that I can tell you however, most importantly (and I hope usefully) that I liked Bonnington Cafe very much indeed and that it's a terrific little place. What started as a squat cafe in the early 1980s is now a respectable - but not too respectable! - commercial enterprise, funding the work of the local community's Bonnington Centre of which it occupies the ground floor. Gastropubs and brasserie chains everywhere pay designers thousands of pounds to recreate something approximating the decor of Bonnington Cafe, with its mismatched furniture, candles in jam jars and eclectic artwork, but this is the real deal, organic, the product of evolution and hands-on community involvement over many years.

While it might be possible to replicate some of the interior elements, no smart consultancy or marketing wonk could hope to recreate the atmosphere of this place. Being so deeply rooted in the community and true to its co-operative values, Bonnington Cafe welcomes everyone and as a result attracts a very diverse crowd. So, on the night of this visit as well as our table of noisy, expensively dressed thirtysomethings popping champagne corks there was also a group of very intense, patchouli-scented, bindi wearing groovers, a cute couple on a date and a table of arty-looking chaps with immaculately waxed moustaches. Oh, and there was an accordionist playing, not that it was a French-themed evening, just y'know, parce que. It all makes for a very warm, inclusive, comfortable place which more 'professional' restaurants could learn a lot from.

I suppose at this juncture I should say something about the food, or at least what I remember of it. My starter (there are two choices for each course, chalked up on a blackboard) was listed as 'Spanish tapas' and further described by our waitress as being 'sort of nuts, some beans and spices, in like a tomato sauce' which prompted the couple on the next table to chip in "It's nicer than it sounds!" The dish which I received resembled nothing I've eaten on my extensive travels in Spain but was nonetheless a very tasty bowlful, nicely seasoned and very nourishing. The alternative was pea soup; it was a bit heavy on the parsley for my liking (though in fairness, any amount of parsley is too heavy for my liking) but perfectly good as soup goes and an enormous helping too.

For main courses (and this I'm afraid is where the liquor starts to affect my memory) there was a 'Cuban platter' or some sort of pie; I had the former and liked it very much. Along with some spicy, rich veggie mince came some golden savoury rice, along with - oddly I thought, but if it's typically Cuban, mea culpa - a baked banana. It was filling and moreish, the mince as hearty as any meat-based ragu I've tasted. The pie...well whatever it was I know no-one complained about it which gives the chef a perfect 7-out-of-7 for customer satisfaction if not for memorability. For pud there was a choice of chocolate or peanut tart, the latter vegan (I'll take their word for it that the cream-ish swirl it shared plate space with was dairy-free). Both were good, and as with everything cooked with love and served in generous portions for the price.

Ah yes - the price. A final clincher, if you weren't already tempted to give Bonnington Cafe a whirl, is that starters and puds are three quid each and mains are all seven pounds, so a good, filling, ethically-conscious meal can be yours for just £13. In fact not all of us had three courses so the bill for seven of us came to a ridiculous £85; we rounded it up to £100 only to have our gorgeous French waitress run after us as we staggered off into the night crying (assume your best 'Allo 'Allo! accent for this), "You 'ave left faaar too motch monnay!" We very happily told her to keep it.

Bonnington Cafe, 11 Vauxhall Grove, London SW8 1TD Bookings are made directly with the chef; check website for their numbers:  Bonnington Cafe on Urbanspoon
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