Wednesday, 21 July 2010

J. Sheekey

J. Sheekey, the fish and seafood specialist hidden just off St Martin's Lane, is the equally successful but never-quite-as-famous sibling of Scott's in Mayfair; Maggie Gyllenhaal to Scott's' Jake. It's also one of my absolutely favourite restaurants of all time, ever. 

From my first visit about eight years ago with my then boyfriend to last night's brief but wonderful visit with my gorgeous friend Caroline, it's never disappointed, and while the prices might occasionally cause a sharp intake of breath - I'm still in therapy from the time I blithely said to mum 'Now don't worry about the prices, you just order what you like' only for her to 'like' half a lobster and the roasted mixed shellfish -  there are some comparative bargains to be had.

During July and August, if you eat pre-theatre as Caroline and I did - Sheekey's is perfectly located for it - their superlative fish and chips and a glass of house wine can be had for just £15.75, about the same as at Brown's just across the courtyard except at Brown's there isn't a top-hatted doorman to greet you. From the a la carte menu, the justifiably famous fish pie is a very reasonable £13.50 and is pleasingly biased towards the piscine side of the filling/topping axis. At weekends, there's a set lunch menu offering three courses for a very fair £25.50.

What I'd really recommend however is that you save Sheekey's for those special occasions - anniversaries, birthdays, BAFTA wins - when you or whoever's paying feel inclined to blow the budget and you can indulge yourself in the full array of sparklingly fresh oysters, perfect crustacea and finest fish caught that day, along with a bottle or two from the excellent and not-too-terrfiyingly-priced wine list

As well as superb food you'll enjoy superlative service, handsome decor and, if star spotting's your thing, no doubt a glimpse of a theatrical dame or motion picture knight or two. Booking's a bugger but worth persevering at; if you can't stand the struggle the more informal Oyster Bar next door doesn't require (but accepts) reservations and keeps some seats free for walk-ins.

The smart wood panelling, contemporary art and black and white photos of stage and screen stars through the ages make Sheekey's a very grown-up place (although children are welcome I've never seen any) and if there's anything to criticise about it - and I really do struggle to think of anything - it's that the atmosphere might at times feel a little too hushed and the general ambience a little too formal for some tastes. While there's always a sense of celebration in the air here, as a venue it's neither suited to nor intended for boisterous parties or casual dining; it's a serious place serving serious food, and photography - of others or of one's meal - would be as welcome as a bone in the filleted Dover sole.

Other restaurants might be more fun, or creative, or accessible than J. Sheekey, but very few indeed are actually better. I hope that you'll try it, and that when you do you'll love it as much as Maggie loves Jake.

J. Sheekey, 28-32 St. Martin's Court, London WC2N 4AL Tel: 020 7240 2565 

J Sheekey on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Trullo, Highbury

Notwithstanding the three-figure pocket money, sumptuous homes, elite private education, Porsche for your seventeenth birthday and winters in Zermatt, it can't be easy being the child of a famous parent.  Follow mum or dad into the trade in which they made their very bankable name (Rufus Wainwright say, or Michael Douglas) and you will forever be compared to them, and find your family labelled a 'dynasty' as if your achievements derive only from your DNA and not any actual effort. 

Plough a different furrow - viz, Stella McCartney - and unkind souls will say that you only got where you are because of your famous name, which is deeply insulting not just to you but also to your fans or, in Stella's case, customers, as it implies that ladies only buy your exquisitely cut jump-suits because your dad co-wrote 'Eleanor Rigby'. 

It must then be doubly hard when both parents are very famous indeed; from expensive cradle to cosseted adolescence the burden of society's expectation weighs upon your honey-hued, Ralph Lauren-clad shoulders as the gossip mags wait to see whether you'll take after mum (step forward Georgia May Jagger) or dad (take a bow, Sean Lennon). Jordan Frieda, son of pop legend/gay icon Lulu and hairdresser extraordinaire/global haircare deity John Frieda, has done neither and, after a creditable stab at acting during which he most notably played Prince William - a man who also knows a thing or two about having famous folks - has opened Trullo, a perfectly nice little neighbourhood Italian in Highbury.

There's not a great deal of information on Trullo's website but from what I can gather someone who's involved in the project (possibly Frieda himself) has worked at River Cafe in the past and Trullo seeks to emulate, if not actually replicate, Ruth Rogers' and the late Rose Gray's simple cooking of excellent produce to authentically Italian methods. They're certainly not replicating the River Cafe's notoriously nosebleed-inducing prices; everything on the succinct, daily-changing menu is very reasonable and most wonderfully of all, no bottle on the all-Italian wine list is marked up by more than a tenner, a pricing model which must have other, greedier restaurateurs quaking in their boots.

If you're wondering what I was doing so far from home, in the noisy environs of Highbury Corner, the answer is that I'd arranged to dine once again with the delectable James Ramsden and we wanted to try somewhere new to both of us, which isn't easy when you eat out as much as we do. Trullo had blipped quietly on the outer circles of both our radars and with the added selling point that it's basically at the end of James's road, we booked ourselves in. 

Good job we did too, because even on a Tuesday night the place was packed, with hopeful walk-ins prepared to queue. This must be down to some seriously good PR or wildfire word-of-mouth, because from the outside Trullo's not an immediate draw; its midnight blue exterior and discreet half curtains are rather foreboding.

Inside, it's groovy and modern but extremely noisy and with a slight air of the unfinished; display shelves run around the walls but display next to nothing, and the smell lingers of the battleship-gray paint on the vertiginous stairs down to the lavs. The menu borders on the combative - it takes a certain amount of proprietorial chutzpah to have veal, lamb sweetbreads and two fish dishes as the only main courses - and staff appear to have been briefed to expect customer confusion given that we were asked, twice, if we had any questions (to which I responded mischievously by asking, 'What sort of questions do you expect?').

Starters were fine. Grilled ox heart with horseradish creme fraiche was an unfussy plateful of thin, nicely chewy slices of smoky bovine ticker, while James's Heritage tomato and mussel soup was a satisfying bowlful of good-if-not-great mussels atop robust chunks of toms of every colour - more a stew than a soup. We shared a pasta dish of stracci with green beans, pesto and black olives which was unremarkable, the only real interest coming from the fun, irregularly-shaped pieces 'scratched' from a sheet of pasta. I had to ask James if the pesto, which didn't taste super-fresh, might have come from a jar; he thought not but we agreed that it tasted like it might have come from a good deli. This is not praise.

Mains were a lot better and my lamb sweetbreads with broad beans, summer carrots, pancetta and borlotti beans was particularly belting (though, memo to the menu writer, having borlotti beans as one of only two side dishes on offer when they already feature on a main course is not a good sales ploy). James's veal saltimbocca with baked radicchio was also molto bene and jumped appropriately in the mouth; thicker slices of veal might have been nice but there was plenty of it, and the crisp baked leaves were a tasty touch. 

The only real let-downs were the desserts; cherry ripple ice cream was bland and a grilled white peach with mascarpone and Amaretto was pleasant enough but carried no trace of the almond flavour one would expect from its extended bath in the liqueur. They rounded off the meal well enough but added nothing to it.

From that altruistically priced wine list we chose a Nero d'Avola at a bargainous £16; it was a great bottle for the money, bursting with black fruit and mellow sweetness. Adding three courses each, the shared pasta dish, aperitifs and digestifs (yes I know it was a schoolnight but I still made it to school today, so there) we still only managed to rack up a bill of £84; even with a tenner added on for service - entirely voluntarily, no discretionary 12.5% nonsense here - we felt like we'd had very good value indeed if not the most amazing meal of our lives. Service was fast, friendly and mostly relaxed, delivered by delightful staff wearing smiles suggesting that no-one involved in the business can quite believe their luck.

Jordan Frieda - and his less-recognisably-nomenclatured partners - are certainly onto a winner here; once the initial buzz has died down I can see Trullo fulfilling its aspiration of being a good, perhaps the best, restaurant in an affluent, eats-out-a-lot neighbourhood. Personally, I liked it well enough but didn't make me wanna shout.

Trullo, 300 - 302 St Paul’s Road, London N1 2LH tel: 020 7226 2733

Trullo on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 12 July 2010

Hoxton Grill, Shoreditch

I seldom (though by no means never) write about breakfast. When it comes to your wakey wakey eggs 'n' bacey there's really very little that separates the fantastically good from the dreadfully bad and even the most talented of writers - which I naturally do not pretend to be - would have a hard job of making something as quotidian as, say, boiled eggs and soldiers sound exciting (Nigel Slater's tear-jerking food memoir Toast being a notable, must-read exception). That said, I think it's important to recognise places that do what they do well, and Hoxton Grill does an extremely decent breakfast.

Located in the lobby of the ultra-hip Hoxton Hotel on Great Eastern Street, Hoxton Grill is an all-day affair opening at dawn's crack for brekkie and closing only when the last hotel resident or asymmetrically-coiffed visitor has disappeared into the night. It's visually appealing with ample red leather banquettes (echoing its first-cousin-once-removed, Dean Street Townhouse), dark wood furniture and the bare brick walls considered de rigeur for this part of town. The breakfast menu reflects the style of the lunch and dinner offerings, namely familiar Brit and European staples done stylishly and well at premium but still good-value prices.

On the first of two recent visits, both with my sister (who, incidentally, makes a Full English of such stupendous quality that any restaurant would be proud to serve it) I tried the eggs Benedict royale, which were excellent - good eggs and muffins, lovely sharp Hollandaise and ample butter-soft slices of delicious salmon. On visit two, needing something salty and substantial to counter an unexpectedly severe hangover, I wolfed down a plateful of superb corned beef hash, using the superfluous but very welcome toast it came with to make a sandwich of the accompanying fried egg. Sis on both occasions ordered and enjoyed creamy scrambled eggs on toast with bacon, declaring it all good except, first time around, for the unnecessary sprinkling of chives (which she likes about as much as Reeves & Mortimer's mate Les).

Service is efficient, fast and nicely formal, respecting the likelihood that valuable business might be being conducted over the granola and fruit platters. It's a nice contrast to the forced over-mateyness which blights so many of the area's eating spots. The price reflects the quality, location and attention to detail - tea is served in smart individual silver pots with strainers, juices are freshly squeezed from primo fruits - but is far from expensive; on both occasions our bill came to about £12 each including food, tea, juice and 12.5% service.

My time with my sister is limited and therefore precious; our breakfast get-togethers came about as a way of making sure we see each other on her increasingly less frequent days working in London. It follows that where we spend that time has to be somewhere a little special, that adds a sense of occasion to the otherwise fairly mundane practice of breaking our fast. After several trials and errors, I do believe we've found it.

Hoxton Grill, 81 Great Eastern Street, London EC2A 3HU Tel: 020 7739 9111 Hoxton Grille on Urbanspoon
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