Wednesday, 28 December 2011

My Top 5 Restaurants of 2011


I was flattered to be asked recently to name my top five restaurants of 2011 for a feature on Toptable, the restaurant booking site. In a year where there have been a few brilliant restaurant meals, many memorable ones and a couple of complete turkeys it was quite a challenge to pick just five favourites, but these are the ones that eventually made the list. My comments as published on Toptable are in italics and, as I'm not constrained by word count here, I've elaborated on why I chose these five (OK, six) out of all the places I've eaten at in 2011.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Ida, Queen's Park

One of my dear late father's favourite aphorisms - which I always thought of, fondly, as his statements of the bleeding obvious - was to say to anyone who complained that they couldn't find something, "You always find it in the last place you look!" It never occurred to him that this was the case because having found something you cease to look for it, but I loved him too much to point this out.

Now, as my brace of regular readers will know, my pal Michael Ford and I have had a few hits and misses in our search for a restaurant that caters just as well to his vegetarian lacto-free diet as to my 'if it baas, moos or oinks, kill it, heat it, sauce it and serve it' approach to eating. But would you believe it, my dear old dad was right after all because it looks like we've found it in the last place we looked - right on newly-moved-to-London Michael's doorstep.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Banana Tree, Soho


I had to admire the chutzpah of the marketing guy who sent me, unsolicited, a pretty-generous gift voucher to spend at the newly-opened Soho branch of growing Indochine canteen chain Banana Tree. "We would like to invite you personally to come and try out our new restaurant in Soho!" went the accompanying email; "If you like us, blog it! - if you hate us - let us know, as we are all about improvement and value all opinions, especially yours."

Flattery will get you everywhere with me, and where it doesn't get you bribery usually will, so an offer comprising both was always going to be pretty compelling. If I felt the slightest hint of righteous indignation at so flagrant an attempt to curry my favour, it was swiftly dispelled by the mischievous knowledge that even if I did love the place I didn't have to write about it, and if I hated the place, I didn't have to not write about it - the very opposite of their desired outcomes and 
more fool them for sending out money willy-nilly. Talk about sticking it to the (marketing) man.

But such an expensive and potentially risky marketing strategy must have been backed up by as much confidence in the product as money in the budget and sure enough, Banana Tree was, well, pretty top banana. Conscious that readers might not take me at my word knowing that my presence there had essentially been bought, I took along my pal Nicola who, as a director of  a high-end hotel and restaurant group knows her stuff and would, I knew, not hold back with her opinions good or bad. Guess what? She loved the place too.


Sunday, 6 November 2011

Manson, Fulham

The late comedy genius Bob Monkhouse used to do a wonderful line about people's insistence on asking him to tell them a joke just because he was a comedian. "I don't really mind," Bob would say, "but they wouldn't do it to any other profession. I mean, If I said I was a gynaecologist, would they ask me to have a look at the wife?"

I feel for Bob. As a restaurant blogger - some would even say 'food writer' - I'm frequently asked "What's your favourite restaurant?" or increasingly, "Who's your favourite chef?" with the expectation that I'll have an immediate and definitive answer. Which I don't.

The first one isn't too tricky; I have several favourite restaurants depending on my mood so I'll just pick whichever one I'm feeling most favourably disposed towards at the time. But the second one always stumps me, because I'm not really into chefs. I'm aware of them, sure, and could name a few (and a few I fancy - I'm looking lustily at you, Tom Oldroyd), but I don't really have favourites. I'm much more interested in restaurateurs, the characters behind the places I love to eat in - the Richard Carings, Henry Dimblebys and Russell Normans of the world - than in the men and women putting the food on my plate.

That could all change however on the strength of the absolutely flawless game feast I recently enjoyed at Manson on Fulham Road, prepared by their newly-arrived head chef Alan Stewart. Those of you who care about such things will no doubt be impressed to know that Alan's CV includes stints at Chez Bruce - consistently voted one of London's favourite restaurants in every poll that allows Joe Public a say, and very near the top of my 'must-go' list - and the swishy Launceston Place. All I care about is the fact that he's responsible for one of the best and most memorable meals I've had in many years.


Saturday, 5 November 2011

Cicheti - Telegraph Online

I've recently started contributing to the London pages of Telegraph Online, and following a few words in a piece on London's most stylish bars and joint top-billing with another writer in a 'debate' on whether we'd pay £250 for a meal at The French Laundry at Harrods (I wouldn't, since you're wondering), my first solo outing appeared last month. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the arduous research that went into it...

Cecconi's first introduced cicheti to London
While some mass-market fashion brands tread a very thin line between ‘referencing’ big-name designers and flagrantly copying them, it’s an accepted principle that trends eventually filter down from haute couture to the high street.
But when the huge Italian restaurant chain Zizzi announced recently that it was introducing a cicheti menu, it was the first time, to my knowledge, that the equivalent had happened in food: a trend transitioning from the capital’s chicest tables to some of its cheapest.
Although any dish smaller than a traditional starter is nowadays erroneously and annoyingly described as ‘tapas’, cicheti actually are Italy’s, or more specifically Venice’s, answer to Iberia’s beloved bar snacks. Served in backstreet bàcari for around €1 apiece, cicheti are small savoury mouthfuls intended to be ordered one-by-one, either by pointing at the desired item in a glass cabinet on the bar or by helping oneself from a tray passed around by the owner.
Cicheti were introduced to London by Cecconi’s, the venerable and perennially fashionable Italian restaurant in Mayfair, and for many years this was the only place they could be enjoyed in the capital. Here, still the most elegant location in which to sample cicheti, a traditional selection - chicken liver crostini, meatballs in tomato sauce - is served in grand surroundings at far-from-traditional prices ranging from £3-£8 per portion.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Bread Street Kitchen, St Paul's

Say what you like about Gordon Ramsay - and boy oh boy, people do - but while he's had a few hits and misses in recent years, and been in the public eye more for his extra-culinary activities than for anything he's done at a stove, his roll-call of restaurants and protégés is undeniably impressive.
His flagship Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea remains one of just four in the UK to hold three Michelin stars and he retains one star at both Petrus and Maze. Meanwhile, chefs who came to prominence under Ramsay - Angela Hartnett, Marcus Wareing, Mark Sargeant and Jason Atherton - have harvested stars and critical acclaim in their own rights and whatever the degree of acrimony with which they might have parted ways with Gordon, none of them denies his influence.
Mindful perhaps of the restaurant-going (and wider) public's ambivalence to their nominal figurehead, Gordon Ramsay Holdings seem to have played down his involvement in Bread Street Kitchen. His name is nowhere to be found on any of the branding or menus, and unlike all of his other restaurants, BSK has its own website (the others just have sub-sections on www.gordonramsay.com) which tellingly describes the new venture as being 'from the team at Gordon Ramsay Restaurants' rather than from the man himself. No matter; there's plenty to recommend about the place
whoever's name is - or indeed, is not - above the door.

Actually 'doors' would be more accurate, as this is a huge site spread over two floors of One New Change, a new shopping mall seconds from St Paul's Cathedral. Restaurant designer du jour Russell Sage, responsible for several of Ramsay's more recent openings as well as The Zetter Townhouse and newcomer The Balcon, has created a fantastic space that's part school science lab - an abundance of anglepoise lamps, brass microscopes and large communal tables that resemble dissection benches - and part meat-packing warehouse with exposed ventilation ducts, overhead gangways (one housing a 'wine balcony') and tiled floors and service counters.

Despite the laboratory-ish vibe to the place there's nothing experimental about the confusingly-laid-out menu, which offers an unintimidating range of grills, fish and pasta dishes alongside a selection of seafood and cured meats from the 'Raw Bar' (let's ignore for a moment that cooked food served cold doesn't technically count as 'raw').
Between our group - a half-dozen or so bloggers invited along to try out BSK by the company - we tried a broad cross-section of the dishes on offer and for the most-part, it was pretty good. My starter of king crab and apple cocktail with pink peppercorns 
was prettily retro in appearance but tasted more of its sweet dressing and the fruit than crab, and was steeply priced at £15. Better value - indeed, just better - were five oysters with cucumber and chive vinaigrette at £12.50.
Ceps on toast with a poached egg looked lovely, especially as the bright gold yolk oozed out over the mushrooms, but was bland, while crisp pig's head - actually croquettes - with green chilli mayonnaise promised much but under-delivered. Best of the starters by some way was baked Orkney scallops with treacle-cured bacon and bittercress, satisfyingly huge and beautifully sweet.
Main courses were more consistent. Poussin, in fact one-and-a-half chargrilled birds, was a popular order and proved worthwhile. Roasted grouse with (raw) ceps and watercress was a beginner's bird, lacking the pungency of a really well-hung specimen and somewhat overpowered by the garlic crouton it was served on, but nonetheless discernibly good game. Plump steamed bass with its unusual accompaniments of smoked aubergine and roasted pumpkin was the stand-out dish.
Best of our three courses for my (hypothetical) money was dessert. Chocolate tart with salt caramel ice cream and honeycomb was absolutely fantastic, the 
viscous, just-warm filling contrasting nicely with the ice cream's salty coldness and the sweet crunch of honeycomb. Pineapple carpaccio (eventually this insistence on calling anything thinly-sliced 'carpaccio' will wane, but not for now it seems) was a pleasingly delicate palate cleanser, while both a sticky orange and polenta cake and homely rice pudding with jam proved more substantial and comforting.

Also impressive were the cocktails; Bread Street Kitchen has poached a bar manager from The Sanderson and it shows in the obvious care lavished not just on preparation but also on presentation - witness a gin-based 'Smoking Bombay' (no Gordon's here, ho ho) served in a pewter coupe spewing dry-ice as it's brought to the table. The wine list is, if unexciting, at least fairly priced, and there's plenty by the glass and half-bottle although this being the high-spending, hard-living City I don't imagine there'll be much call for either.
All-in-all, Bread Street Kitchen is a pretty impressive package. The food's good - not amazing, but nor is it trying to be, the prices while high - three courses, drinks and service will easily reach £50-ish - won't bother the target customer (younger, not-quite-so-stratospherically-salaried City suits) and the design really is great fun. I can't ever see it becoming a destination in its own right like some of Ramsay's higher-end restaurants, but as a local place for local (business-)people it will, deservedly I'd say, do very well indeed. Stage 1 of Gordon's rehabilitation? DONE.
Bread Street Kitchen, 10 Bread Street, London EC4M 9AB Tel: 020 3030 4050 http://www.breadstreetkitchen.com
Bread Street Kitchen on Urbanspoon
I was a guest of Bread Street Kitchen on this visit.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Fornata, Soho

As a supercar-obsessed teenager, I subscribed for a few years in the late 1980s to CAR Magazine. My favourite section, moreso even than the road-tests of said gloriously vulgar vehicles - Ferrari F40 vs. Porsche 959, anyone? - was the buyers' guide, 'The Good, The Bad & The Ugly'. As well as listing the essential specs of every make and model of new car, it gave succinct summaries of reasons for and against buying them which were often exceptionally caustic and extremely funny.

Nowhere was this better demonstrated than in their assessment of the Polish-built FSO 125P, a vehicle for which the writers exhibited particular disdain
. As if the specs didn't speak for themselves - top speed 93mph, 0-60 in 14.4 seconds - Car brilliantly summarised it thus: 'For: Quad headlamps. Against: Everything aft.' There was one, fairly inconsequential positive thing to say about this turkey of a motor, but nothing else, at all. And the reason I take you on this automotive trip down memory lane is because that's exactly how I'd sum up Fornata.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

CUT at 45 Park Lane

45 Park Lane, the new super-duper-deluxe boutique hotel from the Dorchester Collection, stands out from its grand but characterless neighbours like a particularly stylish sore thumb. The beautiful art deco-style building, its name picked out in two-foot high neon yellow letters, looks as if it has been transplanted lock, stock and curvaceous chrome-embellished frontage from Miami Beach, bringing a splash of colourful, youthful glamour to London's five-star strip.

Such a glamorous destination needs a restaurant to match and boy, has it got it in CUT by Wolfgang Puck, the first European opening from the eponymous Austrian-American megachef. Puck's vastly successful empire runs the gamut from fine dining to fast food (at Wolfgang Puck-branded Express outlets in airports and department stores) and CUT, his high-end steakhouse brand, sits firmly at the top of the scale.

Although it's a grand, dramatic room - all high ceilings, swagged curtains and Damien Hirst circle paintings - CUT is actually smaller than it seems, a floor-to-ceiling mirror at its far end giving the illusion of a much longer space. For somewhere so new and opulent it feels surprisingly intimate and warm, the quirky soundtrack of eighties soft rock - yes really - creating an unusual but undeniably buzzy atmosphere. It's an impressive and exciting backdrop for some mostly impressive and exciting food.


Sunday, 2 October 2011

La Brasserie, South Kensington

As we strolled along Brompton Road on our way to dinner, Anders said, "There's a restaurant down here that's always busy whenever I walk past. We should go there some time." By coincidence - I won't say 'as luck would have it' for reasons which will become apparent - said restaurant in fact turned out to be our destination, La Brasserie, so Anders got his wish rather sooner than expected.

La Brasserie has been in business on the same site in Brompton Cross since 1972 and apart from the addition of a cocktail bar in 2010 - apparently the reason why they have started to invite bloggers and press in to write about the place - it doesn't appear to have changed much in that time. The decor is 'clich
éd French brasserie-by-numbers', with red banquettes, checker-board tiles and framed photos of the Eiffel Tower all present and correct. It looks, as Anders observantly put it, like a tourist trap on the Champs Elysées, somewhere designed to reassure unconfident diners that here is somewhere so resolutely and indisputably French that you could not have a Frencher meal anywhere, jamais.

The menu is almost comedically francais too. Ask any mildy xenophobic granddad what he thinks French people eat and he'll rattle off a list including frogs' legs, snails, onion soup, boeuf bourguignon and steak-frites and all of these are indeed available at La Brasserie. In fact apart from the decor and the menu, the only thing that does appear to have changed since the 1970s is the prices, of which some, even in SW3 on what must be an incredibly expensive site, left us rather a bout de souffle.

I started with cuisses de grenouilles persillade, frog's legs cooked in white wine, garlic and parsley, while Anders decided to try the onion soup. Both arrived unnervingly quickly - within just a few minutes of ordering  - and the intense heat radiating from Anders' soup bowl did nothing to dispel the suspicion that it had recently emerged from the microwave. When eventually cool enough to try, it was thin and salty, with no real onion punch and none of the depth and sweetness good onion soup obtains from slow, patient cooking. Anders gave up on it after only a few spoonfuls. The frog's legs smelled and tasted overwhelmingly of garlic; they were nice enough, and tender, but the meat had no discernible flavour of its own.

For our main courses we unthinkingly ordered two variations of essentially much the same dish, in Anders' case the hamburger Holstein -  'chopped steak topped with fried egg, anchovies & capers, frites' - and for me steak tartare, which when done really well (as in proficiently, not 'well', or even 'medium' for that matter, that would be silly) is one of my very favourite dishes.

Alas this was not one of those occasions. What came to the table was so unattractive, so sad and sorry-looking on the plate, that I broke my own rule and took a picture of it, just in case words failed me and I was unable accurately to convey how appalled I was at the green gunge-strewn patty of machine-chopped beef which appeared before me, a black olive plonked on top, two tiny cornichons and two wedges of hard, fridge-cold tomato added as garnish before the whole ugly affair was scattered as an after-thought with parsley.

What even  was that green gloop? The recipe includes gherkins and capers and I gamely - and charitably - trusted that somehow in the food processor these had pureed and coagulated in the mix. 
I must say it didn't taste anything like as bad as it looked - it was well-seasoned and used good-quality beef - but I still couldn't forgive what had been done to it. Anders' burger - essentially the same thing, cooked - was fine. Not great, but fine. The accompanying frites were bog-standard catering chips, and none the worse for that, but not what you'd expect with dishes costing £17 (the burger) or £20 (the tartare).

In for a centime in for a franc, we gamely pushed through to desserts and oh, how I wish we hadn't. Tarte tatin, a forlorn, dark, compacted looking thing, consisted of sharp, mushy fruit (putatively apple) on a soggy base, served with a scoop of ice-cream - the only properly edible thing on the plate. It was actively unpleasant, also microwaved, and more than two thirds of it was left untouched. Anders' ginger 
crème brulée was OK, a good creamy filling under a nicely crunchy topping.

No-one noticed or seemed at all concerned that many of our dishes returned to the kitchen less than half-eaten, but then service throughout the evening was - with the exception of the friendly if oddly nervy cocktail barman -  at worst brusque, at best nonchalant, so it came as no surprise that no questions were asked as to our (dis)satisfaction. And for this, a discretionary 13.5% service - yes thirteen-and-a-half percent - is added to your bill.

Whatever I might say about La Brasserie, it will have no effect on its ongoing popularity. A restaurant that has been in business for nigh-on forty years and is, as Anders has witnessed, always busy, does not need good reviews to continue to thrive nor will it suffer from bad ones. It is, effectively, criticism proof. A waitress could slap Fay Maschler with a mouldering ham and there'd still be a 45 minute wait for a table come Friday night while tables stand empty at the superior, and slightly cheaper, Aubaine two doors down.

La Brasserie isn't meant to be a destination for great (or even good) food. It exists for unimaginative wealthy locals and shoppers (and celebrities - Felicity Kendal was there on the night we visited, the most exciting thing about the whole experience) who value familiarity and stability over quality and value for money. "Darling," Anders said consolingly as I wailed uncomprehendingly into the night, "these people are not price-point conscious!"

No, no; I should say they are not.

La Brasserie, 272 Brompton Road, London SW3 2AW Tel: 020 7581 3089 http://www.labrasserielondon.com

La Brasserie on Urbanspoon


I was invited to eat at La Brasserie free of charge by their PR company

Friday, 23 September 2011

Roganic

Photography throughout courtesy of www.paulwf.co.uk
Although fully aware that in doing so I am laying myself open to accusations of being an oral examiner of equine gifts, I must admit that I initially declined a very kind friend's invitation to dinner at Roganic. For one thing, I hated the name, a vain, corny play on proprietor Simon Rogan's, to the same irrational extent to which I hate buskers and people who own folding bicycles. For another, I was put off by the cost - £55 for six courses or £80 for ten before even a drop of liquor passes the lips might not shock these days what with the cost of eating out in London soaring to record levels, but it still isn't exactly what I'd call affordable.

I was further turned off by the fact that Roganic is cringeingly styled as an 'extended pop-up' - Rogan having taken a two-year lease on a vacant site on Blandford Street in Marylebone - which irritated me even more than pop-ups do in general; part of the joy for me in eating out often is the sense that I will from time to time come across somewhere so good that I will want to go back again and again, and pop-ups are anathematic to this. Finally, I was afflicted by early-onset review fatigue; with everyone being served exactly the same dishes, within about a fortnight of Roganic opening I was so fed up of reading only subtly different takes on identical meals that the last thing I wanted to do was eat there myself.

Never one to take no for an answer however, my particularly persuasive pal Paul Winch-Furness crossed off all my objections (apart from to the name, which even I was able to see was not reason in itself to boycott somewhere): Cost? I'm paying, he said. Pop-up? That's as may be agreed Paul, but if you like it you can go back a few times in the space of two years, and if you really like it you can always visit its parent restaurant, L'Enclume in Cumbria. As for repetitious reviews, Paul pointed out that the week he had in mind to go would coincide with the first change to the menu since Roganic opened in early July. How could I say no?

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Jose, Bermondsey

I've never been particularly superstitious, but I did reach a point recently where I wondered if I was fated never to make it to Jose, a new tapas bar in Bermondsey from the eponymous Mr Pizarro.

First I had to miss out on being a friend's plus-one to the opening party when a course of medication I'd started caused some unpleasant and unpredictable side-effects including spontaneously passing out - never a good look when you're trying to network over patatas bravas. Then a scheduled dinner date with two pals had to be called off when first one cancelled because both his kids had the lurgy, and then the other because he had it. Jose seemed by all accounts to be under a bit of a jinx.

But thank goodness the jinx broke and, third time lucky, I finally got to experience Jose; I'm pleased to report that it was worth the wait. It's by no means original - great tapas and sherry bars are springing up all over town at a very pleasing rate  - but Jose is more than just a great tapas bar, it's a great restaurant full stop, turning out some of the best food I've had 
of any type, anywhere, recently.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

@SIAM, Soho

The @ symbol (or to give it its proper name, the 'at symbol') has had a number of uses in its 111-year lifetime. Originally conceived as accounting shorthand for 'at the rate of', with the arrival of email in the 1990s the humble @ came into worldwide(web) usage as an integral part of every email address. Since 2006 however, the sign has acquired a new prominence as the opening character of every Twitter username; other means of communication are old hat - these days Twitter is where it's @.

Don't go looking for smart new Thai restaurant
 @SIAM on Twitter though; the username does exist, but it's not them - in fact it's one of the thousands of dormant accounts which include, frustratingly, @hughwright, an Evangelical Christian in the US who's not tweeted since May last year. And not that you would, but don't go looking for it in Siam either - you'd have a job to, as no such place exists, the Kingdom of Siam having become Thailand for good in 1949. Do however go looking for it on Frith Street, slap-bang in the heart of Soho, where you will find it, especially if what you're looking for is some really very good Thai food at not-too-hideous prices.

I'll say now for the avoidance of doubt that when I say 'really very good' I only mean in my self-confessed inexpert opinion; whilst I absolutely love Thai food, I can't pretend to know a very great deal about it. When I was invited along to experience @SIAM (something else I'll make clear now for the avoidance of doubt) I did think about being a bit mean and taking my Thai friend so that he could be the judge of authenticity. Realising however that that would just make me look and sound like an arse, I instead invited my lovely friend Greg, whose expertise is as non-existent as mine. Both of us know what we like and what tastes good however, and I base this post entirely therefore on the degree to which we enjoyed what we ate.

Seated at a slightly-cramped-but-great-for-people-watching window table, we ordered a selection of vegetarian and fish dishes, Greg being one of those poor misguided souls who has forsworn the consumption of lovely meat. First came some gorgeous corn fritters, deep fried kernels bound in a red curry-scented batter served with 'aromatic syrup', a sticky, sweet chilli dip. Tom kha goong - a rich, sweet and sour coconut milk-based soup containing fat prawns - was creamy, zesty and luxurious, the lemongrass within not over-powering the other flavours.

Next we enjoyed Pla Hoi Shell, seared scallops served in a cleverly-spiced dressing with enough heat to exhilarate without masking the sweetness of the flesh. Shards of crisp green apple on top added a pleasantly contrasting texture. Also very clever was a dish of steamed sea bass with chilli, served with braised lettuce in a salty, citrusy broth consisting of lime, fish sauce and sugar - a textbook example of umami. Soft-shell crab, bathed in a sticky sauce ('a light chilli jam' according to the menu) was excellent too, none of its flavour lost in the frying process and complemented by a crisp, bright salad.

Perhaps surprisingly, the only duff dish of the night was that most ubiquitous of Thai specialities, green curry; for many diners this would be the default choice, hence our ordering it to see if it passed muster. As it was, it was disappointingly bland, with no discernible taste of the advertised sweet basil, but perhaps this was due to the presence of tofu, which as we all know exists only to stop vegetarians dying from protein deficiency. Or perhaps it was just that everything else had been so exciting and complex that our palates, already dancing with so many joyful flavours, could no longer discern or appreciate subtlety.

Washed down with a bottle  - OK I'll confess, two - of a peachy, floral Gavi di Gavi, it was an excellent meal which had we not been guests of the restaurant would have come in at about £50 a head, or without the wine about £30 - great value for such high quality in the heart of the West End. It was made even nicer by very pleasant surroundings - the room, although basic, has been carefully designed with some attractive touches including a huge, ornate Buddha  - and attentive, nothing's-too-much-trouble service from which every table was benefitting.

I can't let it pass without comment that, for a restaurant with such an apparently contemporary name, the very use of the @ symbol suggesting that here is a business that is embracing the digital age, their website - every modern business's shop-window on the world - is fairly terrible. Music blares unwarned and unwanted from the speakers the moment one lands on the homepage, typos abound ('comtemporary' anyone?), navigability is next-to-non-existent and there are even factual inaccuracies - sorry, @SIAM, but you are not 'The only Thai restaurant in Soho', not by a long shot. Such inadequacies don't do what is in fact a very good little restaurant justice.

This notwithstanding, I'd certainly encourage any fan of Thai food, or indeed of good food generally, to give it a go. But by-pass the website, and head straight for the restaurant itself; if you don't enjoy it, I'll eat my h@.

@SIAM, 48 Frith Street, London W1D 4SF Tel: 020 7494 4511 http://www.atsiam.co.uk (though as above, I wouldn't bother if you value having normal blood pressure)




@Siam on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Brawn

The last few weeks have not, for me at least, been a very happy time in which to be a restaurant blogger. Criticism of the activity - as if all those doing it form some homogenised entity all writing for the same reasons and to the same ends - has become increasingly vocal and, at times, personal. Calls for bloggers to 'learn to write like journalists' and adopt journalistic standards (an oxymoron some might say in the light of recent scandals) have been hailed as A Good Thing, ignoring the fact that being paid to write for a newspaper or website is quite different from setting up a blog and writing, unpaid, for fun.

When bloggers  - certain bloggers - responded by introducing a table of disclosures '[placing] us at the leading edge of blog transparency', the clear implication being that anyone who didn't follow suit must be a deceitful bounder, I felt that the very heart of my hobby had been ripped out and that it was becoming more of a chore than a pastime.  The almost-final straw came when an article slating restaurant bloggers appeared in a respected publication, written by someone not only who I knew and liked but who had also been my host at a free event for bloggers some months ago. Et tu, Brute? 
I thought, and started very seriously to question whether the game was worth the candle.

And then I went for lunch at Brawn, and in the space of a couple of hours of near-perfect food, fantastic wines and the most exquisite company, I was reminded why it is that I do this. Not for freebies - though I won't deny they're a nice, occasional bonus - nor for any perceived credit for being the first through the door of a new restaurant to write about it, even if my hastily-written 'review' is so poorly constructed as to be barely intelligible. No, I do this because eating out, when it's as good as this, is so bloody pleasurable that to then relive it through writing about it - even if no-one reads the result - is almost as joyous as having the physical experience all over again.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Quaglino's, St James's

Quaglino's in St James's was imbued with an indelible glamour the moment when, in an early episode of Absolutely Fabulous, Patsy set out to Eddy their itinerary for the day as:

"...a little mosey down Bond Street, a little sniff around Gucci, sidle up to Ralph Lauren, pass through Browns and on to Quag's for a light lunch."

Patsy's choice of lunch spot was understandable; in its Nineties heyday, under Sir Terence Conran's ownership, Quaglino's was about as fashionable as restaurants got. It will come as no surprise that it was the first place I rushed to eat at when I moved to London in 1994 and loved it.

These days, Quaglino's is part of the vast D & D London restaurant empire and is, if not exactly unfashionable, unlikely to figure on many a Londoner's must-go list. This is, I have to say, a terrible shame, as it's still, well, absolutely fabulous.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Opera Tavern, Covent Garden

Recent raves on this site about The Fat Delicatessen and Capote y Toros will have left readers in no doubt as to my fondness for tapas, and ever since Opera Tavern in Covent Garden opened to almost universal acclaim last year I've been meaning to get along to sample its take on small-plates. So when my lovely friend and sometime dining buddy Will treated us to tickets to see Butley at the Duchess Theatre just a few metres away, Opera Tavern was the obvious choice for our pre-theatre dinner.

The imposing battleship-grey building on Catherine Street offers two dining areas, a buzzy informal ground floor bar and a more restrained first floor dining room. We were seated in the latter, and although very attractive - high-ceilinged, with a fabulous chandelier and some striking art - it felt a little awkward to be eating an essentially casual cuisine in such smart surroundings.

Opera Tavern's website describes their offering as 'Italian and Spanish-influenced tapas' - the latter part of that description surely something of a truism - and this translates into a menu split roughly 50/50 into traditional Iberian specialities and more modern small dishes using fashionable ingredients. It's an attractive proposition, offering plenty to appeal to the casual diner as well as excite the more adventurous eater.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Galoupet, Knightsbridge

Firstly, a public apology: when our waitress told us straight-faced that Galoupet's offering of small plates to share was a 'unique concept', I laughed out loud and reeled off a list of other places where this could be done, like the worst kind of restaurant-collecting tosser. It was an awful, Onanistic thing to do and I wouldn't for a second have blamed her if she'd tipped my (superb) Pink Basiltini cocktail over my head and had me thrown out. That she didn't, and in fact proceeded to provide unfailingly polite and enthusiastic service for the rest of the night, is to her enormous credit. Mea maxima culpa.

Whether it's entirely unique or not, the menu 'concept' (why does everywhere have to have a 'concept' nowadays?) at Galoupet - a new wine bar/restaurant/shop on Beauchamp Place from the Chateau of the same name - is a very appealing one. Fifteen dishes, most available in a small or large size, are offered in a simple list, in the order in which the kitchen thinks they are likely to be most enjoyed - so salads come first, followed by fish, finishing with some meat dishes.

For every dish there's a suggested wine pairing, served in a 125ml measure, this large variety of by-the-glass options made possible by the use of Enomatic wine storage machines. You don't have to have the suggested wine; the intriguing list offers another twenty or so varieties, including (of course) those from the Galoupet estate itself. The flexibility is there to order lots of small plates to share, each with a different wine, or stick to a conventional starter-main-dessert-and-bottle-of-wine-between-us configuration.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Scott's, Mayfair

When a couple of weeks ago my super-posh gal pal Alexandra purred "Let me take you for dinner at Scott's" it was, I can safely say, the most exciting invitation I'd received since 1995, when a particularly stellar pop star I'd met at a party asked me back to his hotel room. I accepted both offers, and each resulted in my having a fabulous tale to tell, but this blog being about restaurants I'm afraid the only episode you'll be hearing about here is the fancy fish supper.

Scott's usually needs no introduction, but just in case you've been asleep under a rock (or perhaps a rock star) since 2006, it is the jewel in Caprice Holdings' crown, widely regarded as one of London's best restaurants and certainly its most famous - even more so these days than its slightly-faded sister The Ivy. A Mayfair institution throughout the twentieth century, Scott's fell out of fashion and favour at the turn of the millennium until being bought five years ago by Richard Caring, given a sensitive but stunning Martin Brudnizki makeover and transforming, seemingly overnight, into the capital's A-List hangout of choice.

Write off Scott's as a mere celeb canteen though at your peril, for behind the landmark round window and canopied entrance there's a beautiful, brilliant and welcoming restaurant catering to a far more diverse clientele than the paparazzi-populated press would have you believe.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Roger Hickman's Restaurant, Norwich

Norfolk is, egregiously unfairly, probably the most maligned county in Britain. Silly (if not-entirely unamusing) stereotypes abound about the good people of Nelson's County, generally alluding to a lack of intelligence, a fondness for intra-familial relations and a tendency towards eccentric, abnormal behaviour - or, as the medical profession's tongue-in-cheek acronym would have it, NFN: 'Normal For Norfolk'. 

Spend any amount of time there however and you'll discover not only that none of this is true (OK, not entirely true...), but that there is a very great deal more to love about the county than there is to mock. Its towns and city offer all the comfort and amenities of more thriving metropolises without the congestion and crime. Its historic villages are beautiful oases of calm offering a quality of life at least comparable and perhaps superior to, say, the Cotswolds at half the cost. 

And, to get to the point to which you have I expect been urging me to get for two paragraphs now, Norfolk has the most fantastic food scene; artisan producers, rare breed farms, organic grocers and weekend markets mean that whatever outsiders might like to think of the locals, no-one could ever say they're not at the very top of the culinary tree. The wealth of quality food has even spawned a Norfolk Diet movement.

Although I've not eaten at all that many restaurants in my adoptive home county - my family having now all gravitated there from almost-as-roundly-mocked Dorset - I can confidently say that I have not eaten at any better than the Ronsealogically-named Roger Hickman's Restaurant in Norwich. Chef-patron Roger Hickman was head chef under former owner David Adlard and took over the premises when Adlard sold up to found a now hugely-popular cookery school. I ate once at what was then Adlard's with my family a few years ago and remembered having been impressed with the Tom Aikens-esque technique of the chef; that chef was, it transpires, the Aikens-trained Hickman. My mum's recent birthday presented the perfect opportunity to re-visit and see what had changed now that it's Hickman's name out front. 

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Polpo Covent Garden

Since writing this post 'da Polpo' has been re-named 'Polpo Covent Garden'.

In much the same way as people are always 'rushed' to hospital and champagne is always 'quaffed', it's seemingly impossible for Polpo, Russell Norman and Richard Beatty's Beak Street restaurant (as if you didn't know that) to be described as anything other than 'wildly' popular. I should know - mea culpa.

For many restaurateurs, such success would be enough, but there's been no R&R for R&R who, in under two years, have gone on to open Polpetto on Dean Street and Spuntino on Rupert Street, as well as converting what was the private dining room at Polpo into a stylish Campari Bar. The latest addition to their burgeoning empire (do empires ever do anything but 'burgeon'?) is da Polpo in Covent Garden, their first foray outside of Soho.

Despite what the name might suggest, da Polpo is more than just another branch of Polpo, although it's certainly closest to the original site in character and size. Rather, it's a combination of all the best bits of the other restaurants, with a couple of new details added due to popular demand. A 'Greatest Hits of Polpo' if you like, following the difficult third album, with its interminable delays and creative crises, that was Spuntino. So, filament lamps, brown paper menus, maps of Venice and, most importantly, the now-familiar Italian-influenced food are all present and correct, but now bookings are taken into early evening (until 5.30) and there's a table that seats groups of up to twelve. It's the most obviously commercial and, in more ways than one, accessible of the group, and unsurprisingly, it's very, very good.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Watatsumi

I remember with almost Proustian clarity my first taste of Japanese food. It was 1995, and a new bar called Foundation had opened to great fanfare in the basement of Harvey Nichols, replacing the Sloane Rangers' canteen Joe's Cafe. It was a sleek modern space, all black marble floors and glass pillars, with a waterfall running down the full length of the back bar. As well as swanky cocktails, some rather nice wines and a selection of primo cigars - which of course you could smoke indoors, this being more than a decade before the smoking ban - they served yakitori, wooden skewers of char-grilled meat and vegetables in a sticky, moreish marinade.

The smokiness of the meat, the salty-sweet marinade and pungent onions or peppers combined to create a sensation of taste which I now know to be umami but which back in the nineties I just called 'delicious'; whatever it was, from the first little plateful I was hooked and so began a love affair with Japanese food which continues to this day. (Foundation alas is no more; it's now a Wagamama, which seems rather fitting).

You can imagine then that I was rather pleased to be invited along to Watatsumi, a new-ish Japanese restaurant in the Club Quarters Hotel (nope - me neither) on Northumberland Avenue, just off Trafalgar Square. A noble stab has been made at giving the high-ceilinged, columned room a Japanese feel; paper screens zig-zag along one wall and branches of cherry blossom stand in tall thin vases on windowsills, but the overall effect is more Ikea than izikaya.

It's easy to excuse the room however as the food being served therein is really rather good. Setting out 'to show that there is more to Japanese cuisine than raw fish', Watatsumi offers all the familiar staples - sushi, sashimi, tempura and, yes, yakitori - alongside an innovative selection of hot dishes best summed up as western favourites given an eastern flavour. Thus, for example, US or English steaks are served with spicy miso or wasabi sauce, and sea bass ('pan-fried' of course, as if it could be fried in anything else) comes with shiso butter.

Alyn and I ordered a selection of dishes covering most sections of the menu
, starting with some good, prettily-presented sashimi (salmon, tuna and yellow tail) all subtle and smooth and, at £13.50, good value for six pieces. A California roll, from a selection all available as maki (roll) or temaki (hand roll), was excellent, a little loosely packed but of very good flavour and texture, both light and fresh. Watatsumi crispy calamari, deep-fried baby squid dusted with a spice mix, were also splendid, tangy and lip-smacking in that way Nice 'n' Spicy Nik Naks are. This, believe me, is a good thing.

For our main courses we both ordered beef - the prawns and lobster was recommended which of course it would be at £45 a pop - a 250g bavette steak 'marinated in spicy miso and grilled' for Alyn and Fuji burger for me. Alyn's steak was full of flavour and cooked beautifully medium-rare, the best way with bavette, but my 'burger' - actually a bit of a misnomer as what came was two bun-less patties of seasoned beef - was just a little strange. The patties had the same appealing savoury tang as the calamari had had, but the accompaniments - purple potato chips and steamed rice - were fairly bland and didn't add much. We very much enjoyed a flawless dish of vegetable tempura though, and the selection of chilli sauces - sweet, mayo and hot - served with it.

With the exception of mini moshi - lovely sesame or vanilla-flavoured balls of ice-cream coated in pounded sticky rice and served with a shot of lychee liqueur - there was nothing remotely Nipponese about the desserts, and although a cheesecake made with English strawberries on a speculoos base was absolutely gorgeous, I wonder if any restaurant should admit on the menu to using Philadelphia in the recipe.

Overall the meal was very enjoyable and service, for the most part, was good - our waiter was friendly and knowledgeable - but there were a few too many incidences of plates being cleared the second the food on them was finished, wine glasses being topped up after a single sip was taken and once, unforgivably, food being served to an empty seat while Alyn was away from the table, for us to feel completely comfortable. If the staff could just relax a bit, customers will too, and good word-of-mouth, which Watatsumi certainly deserves, should spread - which is vital given that the competition in this touristy part of town consists of the sorts of terrible chain which don't deserve to thrive but, depressingly, do.

I'm not sure that the memory of this Japanese meal will linger as long as that of my first, but it's certainly stayed with me at least a couple of weeks later - not bad as remembrances of dinners past go.

Watatsumi, 7 Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5BY Tel: 020 7036 8520 http://www.watatsumi.co.uk  





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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Trinity, Clapham

For all that this blogging lark is really rather fun as hobbies go, for a number of reasons I don't actually do it very often. Firstly, I don't write about every meal out that I have; I'd be a hypocrite to sneer at those who write up (seemingly) every sandwich or takeaway they eat, given that it was a particularly splendid sandwich counter which inspired my first post, but I don't have the time or inclination to do it myself.

Secondly, while I don't have any hard-and-fast rules to speak of (in blogging as in life...), I generally don't write about meals that fall into certain 'private' categories; I include in this meals with family (with the occasional exception), business lunches and friends' birthday dinners - for this reason, and this alone, a particularly dreadful central London Mexican restaurant can breathe a sigh of relief.

The main reason however is that I'm essentially a creature of habit, and once I find somewhere I like, I go back again and again (and in some cases, again); great for the restaurateur's balance sheet, but not so good for generating new material. I might tweet about how good (or otherwise) a meal at a favourite restaurant was, but I don't 're-review'. Or rather, didn't, until now.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Charlotte's Bistro, W4

Photo: Paul Winch-Furness www.paulwf.co.uk
As well as the many trends in food to have emerged in the last year or so - gourmet Scotch eggs, historic British dishes redux, goat's curd with everything, three-meat blends - something of a fashion has sprung up for giving new restaurants names which don't quite do exactly what they say on the tin.

Thus, Bar Boulud is not a bar but a seriously upscale burger joint, Riding House Cafe (more of which at a later date) isn't a cafe but a buzzy all-day brasserie, and Charlotte's Bistro isn't a bistro but a...well, here's the thing. I'm not quite sure what it is, or rather, what it wants to be. 
Whatever it is, it's very good, with mostly terrific food, a pleasant room, efficient service and a clearly extremely talented - not to mention charming - chef. The problem, if indeed to anyone but me it is one, is that the whole is not quite the cohesive, knock-your-socks-off sum of its parts.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Capote Y Toros, West Brompton

Within a few doors of each other in West Brompton, the leafy little stretch of Old Brompton Road that's posher than nearby Earl's Court but not quite South Kensington proper,the same proprietors operate Cambio de Tercio - reputed to be one of London's best Spanish restaurants - Tendido Cero, a traditional tapas bar, and now Capote y Toros, a ham and sherry bar to which I was invited - you might say 'summoned' - recently by my good pal, Spanish food buff and culinary girl-about-town Rachel McCormack.

Let's just contemplate the beauty of that concept for a moment: a ham and sherry bar. A bar specialising in Spanish ham - the really good stuff, from pigs fed on acorns so that their flesh becomes all fat and nutty and sweet - and sherry, dozens of different varieties of it from the palest dry Fino to treacly dark Pedro Ximenez, as well as an all-Iberian wine list. In addition to the (amazing, silken) jamon, there's a list of about twenty tapas, most of them using sherry as an ingredient. Even in Spain such places aren't all that common, so for one to pop up in London is a rare treat indeed.


Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Fat Delicatessen, Balham

One of the many great things about living in London is that we are absolutely spoiled for wonderful local café/delis, where we can enjoy a quick, delicious snack or light lunch and then, if so minded, buy the ingredients to make it at all over again at home. As well as well-known mini-chains like Ottolenghi, small but flourishing independents populate many of the 'villages' which, cliché would have it, make up our fair capital; locals love to think of each as being their 'little secret'.

Apologies to the locals of Balham then for blowing wide-open this particular little secret, the absolutely  delectable, worth-the-fare-to-zone-3 Fat Delicatessen. I'd walked past it numerous times on the way to and from visiting a friend who lives round the corner and always meant to go in; having finally done so for a lunch with said friend (let's call him Matthew, as that is in fact his name) and Alyn recently, I'm extremely glad I did.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Criterion Restaurant, Piccadilly

Criterion Restaurant is rather like Narnia. Not only in that you step through unremarkable doors into a realm of almost unbelievable splendour, but also in that however much you might ask around you'll struggle to find anyone who's ever actually been.

For several years a high-profile outpost of Marco Pierre White's in-name-only restaurant stable, after the turban-wearing one's departure Criterion struggled for some time to find an identity for itself and slipped from the culinary radar, sustained I would imagine by special offers and passing trade - of which, on Piccadilly Circus, there must be plenty.

Now however Criterion is seeking to assert its status as a serious food destination and based on the evidence of my recent visit, they certainly mean business. Membership of the Sustainable Restaurant Association asserts their eco-credentials and all the favourite foodie buzzwords - local, seasonal, organic - are present and correct on a menu which majors in best of British with some high-falutin' fine dining touches. Served in what is indisputably one of London's most spectacular dining rooms, a neo-Byzantine orgy of soaring mosaic ceilings embellished with more gilt than Midas' loo, it's an attractive proposition - but does it deliver?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bistro du Vin, Clerkenwell


May 2012 - This restaurant and its sister site in Soho have now closed - they are to become mega-branches of the estimable Burger & Lobster

Asked in a recent interview what makes the perfect restaurant, an eminent and well-loved food writer observed that while good food obviously matters, it's not everything, and that the room, service and atmosphere are just as important. "Very, very few places get the mix exactly right", he sagely added. Although not getting it quite exactly right - yet - Bistro du Vin, the first standalone restaurant from the popular Hotel du Vin chain, is certainly an example of a restaurant that's heading the right way.

On the site of what was once Bjorn van der Horst's hubristic Eastside Inn, Bistro du Vin is the latest big-bucks opening in an area which already boasts, within a few minutes' stroll of each other, culinary genre-definers Bistrot Bruno Loubet, The Modern Pantry, Hix Oyster & Chop House and the daddy of them all, St John. Rather than trying to introduce something modern and fashionable to this already modern and fashionable mix, Bistro du Vin instead offers staunchly traditional bistro grub in stylishly classic surroundings, lubricated by an exciting selection of wines, many by the glass. It does, reassuringly and well, exactly what it says on the tin.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Brunswick House Café, Vauxhall

Brace yourselves dear readers for something of a surprise. You might even want to make sure you have a stiff drink to hand. Ready? OK: I have started going regularly to the gym. Or more specifically, to The Gym, a back-to-basics, no-frills, great value place in my south London neighbourhood where I go once a week in a determined effort to burn off at least one dessert's-worth of the calories which I selflessly consume in the pursuance of producing the present blog.

Even more rewarding however than this expenditure of energy and burning of fat, is that The Gym is a mere lunge from Brunswick House Café, a just-about-faultless little enterprise which is quietly punching above its weight as I try to regulate mine. Brunswick House is a vast Georgian mansion, erstwhile London home of the eponymous Dukes and relic of a bygone age when the hunting grounds for which Vauxhall was famous were deer parks rather than the open-all-hours dance clubs and gay saunas of today. Derelict for many years, Brunswick House is now the London flagship of salvage experts Lassco; once-opulent ballrooms and salons are crammed full of signs, statues, knobs, knockers and bric-à-brac spanning the last two centuries at I Saw You Coming prices.

The café occupies a couple of rooms on the ground floor, including the beautiful ballroom, an Aladdin's cave of columns, chandeliers and concert hall props. As well as a point-and-choose selection of pastries and pies, the daily-changing menu extends to about a dozen simple, modern dishes combining best-of-British ingredients with more Euro-leaning salads and sides. Thus for brunch last Saturday, lucky punters - myself, Alyn and PV The Artist included - were able to choose from dishes as simple and splendid as our order of soft boiled eggs, sea salt and sourdough toast; Blythburgh breakfast slider, duck egg & Emmental biscuit; and confit Old Spot bacon, beaten eggs and apple chutney.

As at another of my favourite places, The Drapers Arms, the minimal menu descriptions are not an affectation but actually tell you everything that will appear on your plate, other than for a little garnish here and there. Simple preparation of obviously top-notch ingredients in imaginative combinations is a formula guaranteed to win me over every time, and my slider was as satisfying and clever a brunch dish as I can remember having. Alyn's boiled eggs were as brilliant as they were basic, their bright daffodil-yellow yolks proclaiming their freshness as they oozed onto the toast. PV's bacon and eggs inspired the most plate envy though; the 'bacon' was more like thick sliced gammon, the 'beaten eggs' a golden galette somewhere between scrambled eggs and omelette.

To accompany the fantastic food there's a lengthy list of heritage cocktails (it was too early for a Sazerac, even for me, but I'll be back of an evening) and all-French wines, none of which is marked up by more than £10. This is a welcome trend which started at Trullo and has evidently spread south of the river, but while this might make for good value on some wines relative to other, grabbier venues, the presence of bottles priced at up to £37, modestly marked-up or not, seems incongruous alongside a food menu on which nothing costs more than £7.20. We just settled for the house white, a Le Lusc Ugni Blanc Colombard 2009 at £15, which was fine for a bottle that we knew had cost only a fiver. The frozen tumblers provided with it were a very nice touch on a day warm enough to allow eating outside on the cute, scruffy terrace.

A brunch dish each for three people, wine and entirely discretionary service came to under £12 each. You'd struggle to pay more for a main and a drink, and could get out for even less; factor in an extra tenner and you could have a cocktail and a pud. Casual and friendly service is provided by a young and enthusiastic staff and the clientele is as eclectic and attractive as the surroundings. Brunswick House Café is, like The Gym and my going to it, fairly new; I have a feeling we'll all work out.

Brunswick House Café, Brunswick House, 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 2LG Tel: 020 7720 2926 http://www.brunswickhousecafe.co.uk  


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