Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Spuntino, Soho

It will probably come as no surprise - it's certainly never been any great secret - that I have something of a history of addiction. For most of my adolescent and adult life, until only a few years ago, I have at any given point been addicted to something; be it pills, powders, liquor, eating, not eating or sex, I have been there, done that and bought every t-shirt.

Over the last few years though, things have been under control; I won't bore you with the exact whys and wherefores of what I went through but I eventually reached a place where occasional excess is about as bad as it gets. So thanks a great big fat bloody bunch then, Spuntino, for inventing stuffed deep-fried olives, a snack so fiercely moreish that I was hooked from the first bite on my first visit two days after opening and returned twice in the space of a week to gorge on these hot, bitter, salty anchovy-farced pellets of pleasure, laced for all I know with a sprinkling of crack in the crispy crumb encasing them.

The peddler of these narcotic nuggets is of course Russell Norman, the man who brought us Polpo, Polpetto and most recently the Campari Bar, and whose tiny new diner in Soho already has fellow restaurant junkies queuing out the door for their fix. Although unmistakably from the Polpo stable - same reclaimed decor, same gorgeous tattooed staff, lights too low, music too loud, all creating a buzz like no other - the menu is much more Noo Yoiky, Italo-American than the neo-Venetian offering at its sibling sites. Larger snacks - spuntini - replace bite-size cicheti, and diner favourites like mac 'n' cheese, sliders and shoestring fries join a range of Italian-inspired salads and 'Plates' served in actual main course rather than sharing sizes. Polpettino this ain't.

Having never been to the Big Apple - I know, I know, it's on my To Go list - I didn't consider myself qualified to comment on Spuntino's New York credentials, so on my first visit I took along a real live American, Burberry high-up Anthony Garcia-Rios, who straight away pronounced that it was 'totally New York'. The 
loud, louche, sexy atmosphere, the queuing along a wall, cocktail in hand, for a seat ('no telephone, no reservations' barks the ultra-minimal website) and the scrubbed tiles and filament bulbs of the interior are, I'm reliably informed, a little slice of NYC in LDN.

As for the food, we foolishly ordered everything that sounded amazing, which was about half the menu (the rest sounds merely great). This resulted in a sorry surfeit of food and, I must admit, in an initial writing-off of the menu on my part as being too heavy and carb-laden when in fact all that was at fault was our ordering. 

In addition to those evil, enslaving olives we tried lardo and caperberry crostini, a ground beef and bone marrow slider and egg and soldiers before moving on to a selection of larger dishes. The crostini were lovely, the sharp tang of caperberries incising nicely through the unctuousness of cured fat; I've had silkier, sultrier variants elsewhere but that didn't stop me from ordering another round, and some more of those devilishly delicious drupes, on a solo visit two days later.

The slider was a very nice, rich little burger, which is not to damn with faint praise, I'm just not a burger enthusiast. More exciting was the egg and soldiers, a simple soft-boiled egg with the added bonus of a clever faux shell made of crackling, crunchy crumb - tart's comfort food.

Of the larger plates, the absolute stand-out - and a dish I knew I straight away I would order again, and did on visit three - was a courgette, mint and chilli pizzetta which there's no point over-describing; it was just a perfect eight inches of pure pleasure (sorry, sorry, I was sure I was over the sex addiction). Truffled egg toast was fun, a ham-less, gooey croque Madame which, 
mark my words, will  soon be every spendy Soho-dwelling queen's hangover remedy of choice. The only marginally so-what dish of the lot (and what a lot it was) was soft-shell crab with Tabasco aioli, the batter lacking crunch, the aioli punch.

On my next visit with company - this time publishing suprema, exquisitely elegant blogger and fellow good food addict Helen Brocklebank I tried, in addition to a terrific lamb and pickled cucumber slider and a good duck ham, pecorino and mint salad, a couple of Spuntino's deliciously different desserts. Pineapple with liquorice ice cream was a clever combination of sweetness and smoke, and for liquorice-disliking me one of those "I wouldn't normally eat this  but I'll take another spoonful if I must" moments. The by-a-country-mile winner though, and my favourite dish of all three visits bar those frickin' olives, was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the 'bread' in fact thick, salty-sweet peanut butter ice cream encasing fruit-packed raspberry jam, all sprinkled with crushed peanut brittle. It was a super-sweet riot of tastes, textures and temperatures, and I loved it.

There's plenty to choose from drinks-wise; a few wines, a few (artisan) beers, a whole lotta bourbons and a list of classic cocktails, not to mention the extensive list which exists in manager and mixer-in-chief Ajax's head (his naked vodka Martini is among the best anywhere, and a long trail of tearful barmen will tell you how hard I am to please). Service is laid back but sassy ("You didn't ask me how I wanted the steak!" a boor bellowed; "It comes medium rare" the waiter snapped back), the aforementioned atmosphere amazing, the queue an hour long at peak times  - which will be all the time for at least a few weeks but is bound to peter off.

Prices are very fair; Anthony and I paid (OK, Anthony paid) more than strictly necessary, just over £50 a head, but that was for a
lot of food and booze; Helen and I ordered more modestly, drank less but still left replete for under £30 each including 12.5% service.

What can I say? I'm addicted. There's just nothing not to love about the place and there are far more destructive things to be hooked on, but this may yet be the one that breaks me. So if one night you see me slumped begging in the seedy alleyway opposite, take pity and bring me out an order of deep fried olives won't you?

Spuntino, 61 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PW No telephone, no reservations, nothing on the website but it's http://www.spuntino.co.uk if you insist.

All photographs very kindly supplied by, and copyright of, Spuntino. So hands off.

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Gauthier Soho

After the unmitigated disaster of our recent experience at Les Deux Salons, I wanted my next meal with fashion-and-now-food blogger Michael Ford to be really special. In a recent conversation about places with a good reputation for their vegetarian offering - Michael being sadly afflicted by that mercifully rare condition which causes its sufferers to forbid themselves lovely meat - newly-Michelin-starred Gauthier Soho cropped up as being somewhere that we were both keen to try, and although only one indicator of quality, Bibendum's having chosen the restaurant to receive his five-pointed favour was enough to persuade me that this was somewhere we could be guaranteed a good time.

And 'good' it most certainly was, at times very good indeed, but I knew before I'd put down my fork at the end of the seventh course that it was going to be a challenge to write up. For one thing, Michael and I both had the tasting menu and as his was vegetarian and mine wasn't, between us we racked up about a dozen different courses - that's a lot of food requiring a lot of adjectives. Or it would be, if it weren't for the second problem, namely that everything was so uniformly...nice that a dozen synonyms for that would do the job, albeit without making for remotely interesting reading.

But write it up I must, or I would not be a very good blogger (bitch-slap to the first person who says "No change there then") so, it being a very good place to start, let's start at the very beginning. Gauthier Soho occupies a largely-unmodified Georgian townhouse on Romilly Street in Soho, formerly known as the Lindsay House and home to Richard Corrigan's signature restaurant until he decamped to Mayfair a couple of years ago. It's an attractive if impractical space for a restaurant, with no one main dining room but several rooms of various sizes over its three floors. The decor is don't-scare-the-horses luxe; warm neutrals, soft lighting and softer carpets.

The Gauthier of the name is Alexis Gauthier, erstwhile head chef of Michelin-starred Roussillon in Pimlico; in February 2011, barely nine months after it opened, Gauthier Soho won its first star while Roussillon's was taken away. Gauthier describes his style of cooking as 'cuisine by intuition and instinct', proudly relying on his experience and understanding of ingredients and technique rather than recipe books and tradition in order to create his dishes. It's also been described, uglily, as 'vegecentric', meaning that the focus even in meat dishes is on the vegetable.

You'd think then that there'd be more than two vegetarian dishes on the à la carte menu, especially one that is divided into five sections from which diners are invited to choose three, four or the full five plats. On the contrary; it's very meat- and fish-heavy and vegetarians wanting more than two plats are obliged to opt for the seven-course gout du jour. In fairness, that had always been our intention, but it seems rather an odd state of affairs. As indeed is the fact that I've still not told you anything about what we actually ate.

I had foie gras with crisp, thin slices of baked apple (very nice), langoustine with ginger and fennel (happily substituted by the kitchen for the advertised celery, to which - restaurateurs please note, poisoners please don't - I am allergic), black truffle risotto with parmesan and veal jus (very luxurious, quite tasty, but a bit wet), seared rose veal with...I don't remember what, something polenta-y I think (nice, although the searing was more like light cooking, rendering the meat a smidgeon tough) and then rhubarb with rhubarb sorbet (a lovely, zingy, reviving facial slap of a dish) followed by Gauthier's signature Louis XV, a chocolate and wafer confection with a thick, viscous chocolate coating and a shaving of real gold leaf on top. It was, you've guessed it, very...nice, like a Michelin-starred Twix Fino. Cheeses, French bien sur, were terrific.

If I'm not at all enthusiastic about any of this, I'm certainly not critical of it either; there was nothing wrong with any of it, nothing whatsoever, but in seven courses only one mouthful really made me sit up and take notice (the rhubarb) while the rest was just so polite and refined that I found myself wishing that there could be just a little spice here, or allium there, or contrast somewhere to liven things up a bit.

All the niceties of fine dining were present and correct and certainly added value to what, at £68 for seven courses (£60 for the vegetarian version which Michael has eloquently written about here) was certainly excellent value for money. Amuse-bouches were lovely (I particularly liked a truffled quail's egg) as for the most part were the petit-fours, although one bite of an as-bad-as-it-sounds basil truffle had us both screwing up our noses in distaste and leaving the rest.

Inexplicably, there's no matching wine flight available or even suggestions for wines by the glass to accompany the tasting menus and the sommelier wasn't on hand to assist so I had to make a noble stab at choosing something from the lengthy list that would work, or at least not clash, with everything; an Argentina Villa Vieja Viognier at £27 did the job for the savouries while a glass each of Plessis saw us through the desserts. When another table's bottle of wine was erroneously emptied into our glasses - another reason to let diners do it themselves, dear restaurateurs? - another bottle was opened and the exact amount of ours that had been wasted was replaced, then a top up given. Good service recovery, but the initial slip-up isn't the sort of thing you expect at this level.

Other little niggles worthy of note: in what I can only imagine is meant to be a mark of respect to the building's townhouse past, guests have to ring an old-fashioned push doorbell for entry, and the loud peal annoyed the living hell out of me as it went off every few minutes throughout much of the epic four hours that we were there. It would be irritating enough even in a busier, buzzier place, but slight gripe number two is that Gauthier Soho is otherwise strikingly, monastically quiet; I'm not a fan of muzak in restaurants - though who is, for that matter - but because of the mish-mash of small dining spaces no one room can ever build up the elusive atmosphere that makes a restaurant somewhere you enjoy being and would want to return to.

Which leads us to the big question, I suppose, which is would I recommend Gauthier Soho, and indeed I would - my body-double Bibendum rates it worth a visit and so do I, but with some caveats. Come if you want to experience good food, prepared thoughtfully with obvious technical expertise and care, in surroundings well-suited to contemplation, at not excessive prices. But if you're after more of a thrill, something to amaze and delight you and serve up a side order of excitement with your spectacle, then this is probably not the place for you.

My search for somewhere which caters really, truly, exceptionally well for my vegetarian Michael goes on. Suggestions are most warmly invited.

Gauthier Soho, 21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF Tel: 020 7494 3111 http://www.gauthiersoho.co.uk

Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 March 2011


"One hundred pounds?"

"One HUNDRED pounds?"

"ONE HUNDRED pounds?!"

This was the refrain, said with increasing disbelief and at ascending pitch, which for a good few hours after we had spent just shy of that amount on a meagre dinner and one bottle of wine at NOPI, was all my best friend Andrew could say. Nor can I blame him for such vocal incredulity; in (too) many years of eating out I don't think I've ever left a restaurant feeling as thoroughly fleeced as on this occasion, which is a shame as I genuinely believe that NOPI's intentions are far more noble than its approach to pricing.

NOPI - it's a silly neologism denoting 'North Of PIccadilly' - is the first restaurant proper from Yotam Ottolenghi, the deservedly-respected food writer and owner of an eponymous chain of high-end deli-cafés
in some of London's chi-chiest postcodes. To date my only experience of Ottolenghi's food had been a dinner party catered entirely from his vegetarian opus Plenty, and very nice it was too; excitingly vibrant flavours and colours, unusual ingredients (although increasingly less so, such has been Plenty's influence on many home cooks; Ottolenghi has done for pomegranate molasses what Delia did a few years ago for cranberries) and a palpable sense that love and thought had gone into every recipe. My expectations for NOPI then were along the lines of 'Plenty: The Restaurant'; similarly thrilling food served in fabulous surroundings.

The latter expectation was at least met; there's no denying that NOPI is a pretty gorgeous space. Occupying the completely-gutted-and-expensively-refurbished site of what was The Club Bar & Dining on Warwick Street, the design makes clever use of materials, texture and light to create a room that's bracingly modern, welcoming and warm. One long wall is covered with white tiles while the wall facing it is exposed white-painted brick; beautiful brass lamps hang low, diffusing a gentle glow throughout the room and furniture is of a warm, honeyed hue. Downstairs a smaller, more casual dining room accommodates two huge communal tables with a view of the open kitchen, source of the no-more-than-OK food which lets the rest of the experience down.

Divided into 'Veg', 'Fish', 'Meat' and 'Sweets' with between six and eight choices for each, the menu consists entirely of sharing dishes and diners are informed that 'We recommend three savoury dishes per person'. With £10 being the typical dish price and several at £12 I wondered if the 'We' in question was the management of NOPI or of their bank, but obediently we chose six dishes spanning the three savoury sections nonetheless. While we waited, bread was served with olive oil and a whipped beetroot and goats cheese dip, the nice-but-blandness of which was a precursor for everything that followed.

The first couple of dishes to come to the the table were between them the most and least interesting of the six we sampled. 'Beef brisket croquettes, Asian slaw' was three Babybel-sized parcels of yieldingly tender, star anise-spiced meat in a salty, crunchy crumb which we both enjoyed, even though we agreed that the slaw - basically just ribbons of veg - added nothing. 'Green beans, roasted hazelnuts, orange' on the other hand was just plain dull; fridge-cold and with indistinct flavours it might have worked as a side, but as a dish in its own right felt rather pointless.

Our two fish dishes, 'Pan-fried sea bass, turmeric potatoes, rasam' and 'Grilled mackerel, fresh coconut, mint and peanut salad' were good but uninspiring. The sea bass, combined with the potatoes and soupy rasam, was essentially a very mild fish curry, which had I not been spoiled with the mind-bendingly gorgeous fish tikka at Trishna recently I might have found more impressive. I enjoyed the zingy salad with the mackerel because it reminded me of the beautiful lotus stem salad I'd liked so much at Viet Grill, but the mackerel with it was, to be honest, just a nice - and small - bit of mackerel.

'Twice-cooked baby chicken, kaffir lime salt, chilli sauce' was tasty enough but only in the way that a poussin, seasoned generously and whacked under a hot grill, always is. The presentation was poor, the lime salt served in a plastic pot and the chilli sauce no more than a squeeze of Blue Dragon's finest in a glass saucer. This would have been fine if we were paying a fiver in a takeaway rotisserie joint but we weren't - this was a tenner in W1.

The real stinker of the night however was our last dish, 'Baked blu di bufala cheesecake, pickled mushrooms'. It sounded so promising, this savoury cheesecake; I was expecting a clever marriage of salty and sweet, a play on flavours like Nigel Slater's awesome Ploughman's Pie perhaps. What we actually got was a wedge - not a generous one either - of New York-style baked cheesecake which had the taste and texture of a decent blue cheese quiche. And for this - reader, take a moment to absorb this please - we paid twelve pounds. TWELVE pounds! TWELVE POUNDS! Of everything we ate this was the most  overwhelmingly disappointing and egregiously over-priced dish of the lot.

We simply didn't have any enthusiasm for dessert, figuring that if the rest of the menu was this humdrum then puds weren't going to redeem it, so we called for that astonishing bill. In fairness, £25 of the £94 total was a very decent bottle of Mar d'Avall Garnatxa 2009 from the eclectic and interestingly curated list, and we certainly didn't resent the 12.5% service charge as staff had all been efficient and friendly enough. But that still meant that, factoring in service, we paid about £65 for food that really should have cost at least 25% less.

There are some truly lovely things about NOPI in addition to the decor; huge attention has been paid to detail - a gold 'O' motif is repeated across menus and staff uniforms as well as being used for napkin rings and to weight down bills (already heavy enough, surely) - and the ultra-opulent mirrored loos would satisfy a modern-day Marie Antoinette
It's just a shame that the food being served and the prices being charged for it don't do the rest of the venture justice.

Even if the prices dropped - and for NOPI to survive I really think they must - the food isn't good enough to make me recommend the place when within a few minutes walk in either direction Polpetto and Bocca di Lupo are doing the sharing plates thing so much better.
Also nearby is Mark's Bar at Hix to where, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, we adjourned for dessert; for much, much less than one hundred pounds, a piece of fantastic Amedei chocolate tart and a killer cocktail each, served by a hulking Slovak waiter, proved a very effective antidote to our disillusionment.

NOPI, 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE Tel: 020 7494 9584 http://www.nopi-restaurant.com  

Nopi on Urbanspoon
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...