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 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
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

La Brasserie on Urbanspoon

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