Monday, 31 December 2012

Hawksmoor Air Street

Hawksmoor Air Street interior from www.
I love steak. If in the final hours prior to my expiring I retain any capacity to choose and masticate then I am certain to include a great big slab of beef, bleu, in my last meal. But I very rarely order it in restaurants, or go to steakhouses, because of what is known in my family as The Pam Principle™. 

My mother, Pam, never orders in a restaurant anything which she might reasonably expect to make at home, believing that it's wasteful to pay someone to do something you can do yourself. I have an excellent local butcher (Moen & Son of Clapham, if you're interested) and a heavy griddle pan, and as such I cook steak - really, really good steak - exactly how I like it, often and well.

As a result, the crop of high-end steakhouses that have exploded onto the London restaurant scene over the last few years have largely passed me by; sure I've heard of the big players - Goodman and Hawksmoor being the Titans of the genre - and had good times at steak specialists 34 and CUT at 45 Park Lane, but as a general rule I've abided by The Pam Principle and enjoyed my sirloin strictly chez moi for no more than about a tenner a time, including service (of course I tip myself - doesn't everyone?) 

A perfect dry Martini at Hawksmoor Air Street Something piqued my interest however about Hawksmoor Air Street, the latest and largest opening from partners Will Beckett and Huw Gott. It's the first of their restaurants to focus on fish as well as flesh, bringing in esteemed seafood specialist Mitch Tonks to curate the crustacea; 2012 has very much been the year of restaurants doing only one thing, well so I was curious to see if Hawksmoor could pull off doing two. 

The answer (for the impatient among you who like to skip to the last page of a book first) is yes, although the main courses dinner date David and I tried were actually the least exciting part of an overall extremely good meal. Char-grilling lent my 'Hawksmoor Cut' turbot - a thick lateral tranche served on the bone - a wonderful subtle smokiness, but the same savour was a little overwhelming on David's slightly-too-chewy 600g bone-in sirloin. Both were good, but only as good as you'd expect at Hawksmoor's prices.

What we really enjoyed were the supporting elements, the accompanying bits and pieces that distinguish Hawksmoor Air Street from its competitors. Cocktails - from a list divided up by suitability to the time of day, and a real joy to read - were ace, from a perfect dry Martini to an after-dinner Buttered Old-Fashioned using bourbon stirred patiently with clarified butter to produce a rich post-prandial soother. Wines were chosen for us from the reasonable-enough selection on offer by the glass, the house Grenache proving particularly fine for £6.

A pre-starters dish of seasonal pickles - which on our visit included mushrooms, carrot and cauliflower as well as an egg, but changes - was sensational, each ingredient pickled in different vinegars and spices creating complex layers of flavour. Sides were unusually good, too; Jansson's Temptation, a Swedish potato gratin with anchovies, worked well with both the steak and the turbot, as did a light, fresh dish of spinach tossed with lemon and garlic in which every component could be discerned. Starters were one hit, one miss; David's roast scallops were terrific, three fat succulent specimens served on the shell with white port and garlic, but my potted beef and bacon with Yorkshires suffered from the puddings being slightly toasted and bitter.

We went a bit salt caramel crazy for dessert; a peanut butter shortbread with salt caramel ice-cream was astonishing (although surely anything which combines peanut butter and salt caramel has got to be A Good Thing), as were three salt caramel 'Rolos', larger than Nestlé's finest and easily ten times as tasty although I'll be interested to see how long the Swiss confectioner's IP lawyers let Hawksmoor keep calling them that for.

Interior detail of Hawksmoor Air Street by Niamh Shields
Interior detail of Hawksmoor Air Street
by Niamh Shields
The room  - a 235-seater first-floor behemoth overlooking Regent Street - is attractive, decorated in clubby dark wood, parquet and green leather with some beautiful stained glass and salvaged Art Deco light fittings, but too huge properly to appreciate. It's also very loud; perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority of tables were taken by all-male groups bellowing at each other over their bone-in prime rib.

Service was good if at times a little disjointed, but it jarred that in these grand surroundings the clothing worn by the staff was mostly the type of jeans-and-check-shirt combo that even local boozers would consider too casual. I found an interview with Will Beckett in which he explains that staff are allowed to wear their own clothes as it makes them happier and therefore able to deliver better service. Well sorry Will, but if I'm handing over forty quid for a bit of turbot I think I'd rather it be served by someone in a nice starched apron, thanks.

Hawksmoor Air Street is a glamorous place serving some pretty good, and at times very good food (I'd go back for a cocktail or two and those pickles alone) but didn't wow this diner enough to question the validity of The Pam Principle. Fortunately for its owners however, not everyone's mother knows best.

Hawksmoor Air Street, 5A Air Street, London W1J 0AD Tel: 020 7406 3980

I was a guest of Hawksmoor Air Street on this occasion

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 24 December 2012


Wishbone, Brixton by Hugh Wright
Back in August when I wrote a piece for The Telegraph about the emerging trend for up-market chicken shops, I felt safe in including Wishbone in Brixton even though it hadn't opened yet. 

For one thing, I'd been to a menu-testing (yes, I know, it's a hard life) at co-owner Scott Collins' MEATLiquor earlier in the year and thought everything was pretty much spot on, and figured that if the food was as good as it was in beta it would only get better with time.

For another, whatever your feelings might be on the burger cult that has had London in its sweaty clutches for the last eighteen months or so, there's no denying that Collins is a canny businessman who seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to peddling nouveau junk food, so why shouldn't his fried chicken joint be as big a smash as his burger bars? Combine all this with the fact that his partner in this venture is all-round food know-it-all and social media darling William Leigh, and surely you have the recipe for a finger-lickin' success?

The menu at Wishbone, Brixton. Photo by Hugh Wright
Well, yes. You do. Wishbone, in Brixton Market - the covered grid of avenues which together with adjacent Brixton Village has stolen Bermondsey Street's crown as the capital's hippest restaurant strip - is just great. Split over two colourfully-decorated floors, Wishbone pays knowing homage to south London's myriad jerk chicken shops without resorting to patronising pastiche.

The menu is concise but offers enough choice to allow for variety on repeat visits (which, having been once, I imagine most folk will want to make). The free-range fried chicken, using Cotswold Whites from Aubrey Allen, is served as a quarter, half or in a sandwich and if the meat is slightly dry, it's made up for by exceptional flavour - actually of chicken, imagine that! - and a deliciously crunchy, oil-less batter.

Wings and thighs come with a variety of imaginative toppings; I have become dangerously hooked on the Thai thighs, boned, rolled and battered before being tossed in a tamarind dressing and topped with mint leaves, red chilli and crisp shallots. Buffalo wings are worth ordering for the accompanying sauce, studded with chunks of blue cheese, alone. Sides can be hit-and-miss; black-eyed pea salad and potato salad both proved bland, but deep fried mac 'n' cheese - because how else do you improve cheesy pasta if not by dipping it in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it, right? - is a thing of evil genius.

What I most like about Wishbone however, even more than the food, is the attention to detail. Even something as simple as a can of pop is served with care - chic glasswear, ample crystal clear ice-cubes, a neatly-cut slice of lemon - by unfailingly enthusiastic staff who manage to pull off the very rare feat of being extremely cool but not too much so for school. 

Moreish, fruity hot sauce and lip-smacking chilli vinegar are provided on every bright formica table along with eminently-practical wet-wipes for the inevitable sticky fingers. Price-wise Wishbone is fantastic value - a vast quarter chicken is just £5.50, sides all £2.50-£4.50 - and if I have one complaint it is that portions are so large that even, say, a quarter chicken and a portion of thighs is too much food for one person. Perfect for sharing though, so just take a friend or two.

I wasn't alone in spotting that chicken would be one of 2012's big food trends, but I'm glad that my early faith in Wishbone has paid off. This is fun, fantastic funky chicken - and worryingly for my waistline, only a leisurely fifteen minute stroll from my flat. I can't be the only resident of SW9 who's counting their clucky stars.

Wishbone, Unit 12 Market Row, Brixton Market, London SW9 8PR Tel: 020 7274 0939

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Edwin's French Wine Bar & Restaurant

Interior of Edwin's French Restaurant & Wine Bar
You have to admire - or envy - Edwin Chan. After a long and incredibly successful career in advertising, culminating in his founding his own global agency, Chan handed over the day-to-day running of the business to his partners and decided to pursue his passions of French food and wine. This saw him open an eponymous brasserie and wine bar in Lyon in 2007 and in October of this year, one in London.

The choice of Shoreditch as a location is an interesting one; although not quite as painfully trendy as in its Nathan Barley hey-day, the still-hip axis of Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road wouldn't seem ideally suited to somewhere priding itself on its traditionalism, as Edwin's does. But not everyone in EC2 wants to eat Peruvian-Japanese fusion atop a skyscraper, or vertically-roasted chicken under a giant Damien Hirst vitrine, so actually Chan could well be on to something.

Chef Jeremy Huguet's menu is a simple affair; nothing on it will be unfamiliar to even the most conservative diner. A three-course prix-fixe is offered at both lunch and dinner for an eminently reasonable £20, although with prices of only £6-£9 for starters, all mains around £15 and desserts no more than £6, three courses won't come to much more than that a la carte.

My fashion buyer pal James started with a plate of charcuterie (the rabbit terrine he'd initially wanted being unavailable) which was fine, as you'd expect a plate of Bayonne ham and salami to be. My escalope of foie gras with figs and raspberry coulis was excellent, seared to a crust on the outside and trembling within.

For our main course we both chose onglet, or hanger steak, presented sliced and with rather too many sauté potatoes. It tasted lovely but in both effort and presentation fell firmly into the 'I could (and do) make this at home' camp, which I think is taking simplicity just a step too far. A plate of cheeses, including a delightfully pongy Coulommiers and a sweet, nutty Tomme, rounded things off perfectly.

Chan personally curates and imports the wine list, which changes frequently. None of it is cheap, starting at £20 a bottle, but can be relied on to be good (and good value); our Haute Cote de Beaune was light but warming. Service, from an all-French staff, was entirely faultless.

Example wine list for Edwin's French Restaurant & Wine Bar
Any restaurant, anywhere, serving good if unexceptional food at fair prices complemented by a strong and interesting wine list should do well; one with someone as passionate as Edwin Chan behind it, moreso. But Edwin's will, I think, struggle to achieve true popularity unless more is done to make it somewhere you really want to eat, rather than just being somewhere there's no really good reason not to eat.

The room, for example, is basic almost to the point of harshness, with aggressive fluorescent lighting; a restaurant - unless famed for its ascetic aesthetic, such as St. John - with no candles, no ornamentation, borders on the unwelcoming. From outside, too, Edwin's lacks warmth, retaining the unappealing doors and canopy of the backstreet trattoria it previously was. It's one thing to be a labour of love, quite another to actually feel like it to the customer.

Edwin, from a conversation I had with him after our dinner, appears confident that the restaurant and wine bar he's put his name to will do just fine without such finessing. I might not share his confidence, but I hope nonetheless that that proves to be the case. 

Edwin's French Wine Bar & Restaurant, 18 Phipp Street, London EC2A 4NU Tel: 020 7739 4443 

I was invited to review Edwin's

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 Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Mele e Pere

The neon sign and display of glass apples and pears at Mele e Pere, Soho
I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the brainstorming session where they came up with the name Mele e Pere. "Well it's going to be an Italian restaurant, so let's give it an Italian name!" some young marketing wonk with heavy-rimmed glasses and a choppy hairdo would have intoned with the gravity usually reserved for decoding the human genome. 

"Yah," Livia the intern would have continued, "but maybe something a little...ironic?" thereby at least justifying the lunch money she'd later go and spend on Marlboro Lights. 

"Uh, now guys, I'm thinking waaaay outside my Dr Dre Beats Audio Boombox on this," Zander the 'Ideas Furnace' would volunteer, "but hear what I'm saying, si? Well it's Italian. And its down some stairs. And what could be more ironic, y'know, than Cockney rhyming slang - but in Italian? Apples and pears, stairs. Mele e Pere - stair-ay!" At which point, and following a brief awe-struck silence, everyone would applaud before adjourning to the John Snow for celebratory Staropramens all round.

And so it came to pass that Mele e Pere was rendered in neon in the tricolore of the Italian flag, appended to the front of the building (a corner plot on busy Brewer Street) and the windows filled with a Damien Hirst-ish installation of beautiful Murano glass apples and pears. So far so conceptual. Except that if you didn't know what was behind the name and very elegant facade you'd walk straight past, thinking that it was...well, some sort of Soho creative agency.

Photo by Michael Ford
In fact, down the mele e pere is a very decent restaurant, serving modern, unpretentious Italian food. A large chic bar area gives onto an arched dining room decorated in fashionable low-key neutrals, sultrily-lit by wall-mounted anglepoise lamps. Underground spaces can feel dingy and cold; this room is neither.

My vegetarian guest, uber-blogger Michael Ford, struggled to find much that was meat-free on the menu but that was about our only complaint. While waiting for our starters we tried Mele e Pere's home-made vermouth - a citrusy white and sharper rosso - which at £4 for a generous measure made for a perfect aperitif. Michael started with maltagliati - 'misshapen' - pasta with walnut pesto, chilli and garlic, which was excellent, as was my thick soup of chestnut, curly kale and white beans which put me in mind of a breadless ribollita. A generous sprinkling of Pecorino Romano added welcome tang. 

Potato gnocchi - Michael had again to order from the pasta section for his main course for want of other options - were an exercise in luxurious simplicity, drizzled in white truffle oil and stirred through with shavings of slightly dry but nonetheless discernibly fungal Italian black truffle. My roasted wild duck was served alluringly pink and was deliciously tender, quince puree bringing a nice acidity to the plate. A side order - one of any from the menu is included in the price of mains, giving a flexibility of choice I'd like to see catch on elsewhere - of broccoli with chilli and almonds was good if a little cold.

The bar at Mele e Pere, Soho
To finish we shared some Fontal and Gorgonzola cheese, served with mostarda di frutta - candied fruit in a mustard syrup, a delicious cross between chutney and piccalilli. Had space allowed we could've chosen from a short list of classic puds - tiramisu, pannacotta - or Mele e Pere's home-made ice-creams and sorbets, which given the quality of everything else we ate I'm sure would have been splendid.

The wine list is almost exclusively Italian and quirkily categorised under headings such as 'The Jewels In The Crown', 'The Aromatics' and 'Gems From All Over The Boot'. Our bottle of Pignataro Montepulciano d'Abruzzo delivered a lot of fruit and flavour for £25; the list starts as low as £16.50 and there's plenty of choice by the glass and half-bottle too. Thought's also been given to cocktails and digestifs; drink is clearly taken as seriously as the food although working through too much of any of it might make the return ascent of the mele e pere rather tricky.

So bang slap in the middle of Soho there's a smart restaurant serving honest, unfussy Italian food and interesting drinks at fair prices - you just need to know that it's there, and now you do. One of the categories on the wine list is 'Hidden Treasures'; it's a category Mele e Pere falls into itself. 

Mele e Pere, 46 Brewer Street, London W1F 9TF Tel: 020 7096 2096

I was invited to review Mele e Pere

Mele e Pere on Urbanspoon

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 Posted by +Hugh Wright

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

El Pirata, Mayfair

El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, Mayfair
With the exceptions of 'literally' and 'gourmet', I can think of few words more liberally abused than 'tapas'. With the not-unwelcome advent a few years ago of the 'small plates' concept came an entirely unwelcome side-effect, the rebranding of small plates of any cuisine as 'tapas'. 

Thus we have seen 'Italian tapas' (actually cicheti), 'Asian tapas' (at the appallingly-named Tapasia, among others), even Norfolk tapas (for which I have at least to give the guys at The Pigs 10/10 for originality). When a while ago I received a press release vaunting a restaurant's new 'Spanish tapas' offering my Tautology Klaxon went off so violently that my ears have only just stopped ringing.

So what an abundant pleasure then to discover El Pirata, a sleek and shiny but entirely unponcey tapas bar in, of all places, Mayfair. Pointed in its direction by a pal who works round the corner, dinner date Joe and I spent an extremely enjoyable couple of hours eating great food, drinking nice wine and finishing off with a couple of not-'alf-bad cocktails. 

Unlike the fancier new-wave tapas joints that have cropped up in recent years, there are no surprises on the menu at El Pirata. All the staples are present and correct - Padron peppers, Iberico ham, croquetas, patatas bravas, champiñones al ajillo - along with a few perhaps less familiar but nonetheless resolutely traditional weekly specials. For the indecisive or, if there still are any, the uninitiated, there are a couple of crazy-good-value set menus. Joe and I decided to take the glutton's way and just asked them to keep bringing us food until we either begged them to stop or passed out.

El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, Mayfair
So as we worked our way through a lovely half-bottle of chilled Amontillado 'La Joya' we grazed on bread with good alioli, a plate of extraordinarily silky, sexy Iberico ham, simple chargrilled asparagus and the Russian roulette of tapas, pimientos de Padron (I took the bullet of the hottest of the bunch and the consequent thrilling endorphin rush).

Sherry drained we moved on to a bottle of crisp, grapefruity Inurrieta 'Orchidea' Sauvignon Blanc (El Pirata's wine list, all-Spanish, is tremendous fun and offers something to suit every pocket starting in the very low twenties and peaking at about £70). With it came calamari, on rice blackened with its heady ink, and sizzling prawns al pil-pil, the olive oil, garlic and chilli marinade seeping deep into the heads, making sucking them irresistible.

We finally gave up on savoury courses only having demolished some pork belly, its slight dryness made up for by cracking crackling, chicken and chorizo skewers - again a little dry, but damn tasty - and gorgeously tender pan-fried medallions of steak with a touch of white wine, served alongside creamy, dauphinoise-y potatoes.

I'm glad that we buckled and ordered afters, because the plate of cheeses, including Manchego and Mahon with that wonderful Spanish quince paste membrillo, was terrific. Better yet was a lemon brûlée, combining sorbet and cream fillings under a sugar topping made crunchy - evident in the tell-tale spiral scorch-marks and smoky flavour - with a proper quemador. 

Margaritas at El Pirata Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Down Street, MayfairFor no better reason than that we could, we ended the meal with palate-cleansingly tart Margaritas; we could have chosen a digestif from the remarkable selection of spirits, liqueurs and brandies, arranged on stepped gold shelves climbing up and down the mirrored back of the bar.

There was a last, pleasant, surprise; I knew that the friend who'd recommended El Pirata to me knew the owners, and as such figured that a couple of dishes might not appear on the bill, but in an act of unexpected generosity not only was no bill at all presented but we were forced - forced! - to accept a glass of Pedro Ximenez before we were allowed to leave. Altogether though, with sherry, wine, cocktails and tons of tapas, we'd have been looking at about £45 a head.

Perhaps because of the owners' largesse, or because of the lakes of liquor consumed, or all the fab food we'd had, or as is most likely because of all of the above, we left feeling thoroughly jolly and very favourably disposed towards El Pirata, as seems to be quite widely the case judging by the lively, buzzy crowd packing most of the two floors on our visit.

Literally, gourmet tapas. What's not to love about that?

El Pirata, 5-6 Down Street, London W1J 7AQ Tel: 020 7491 3810

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 4 November 2012


Exterior of Soif, Battersea
It always rather irks me, when reading about a restaurant outside of Zone 1, to see it described condescendingly as a 'good local restaurant', as if to reach it would require a journey worthy of Gulliver and that the preparation of decent food is somehow dependent on the possession of a W1 postcode. 

To those of us who live in Zone 2 (or - horrors - even further afield) it's the central London gaffs that need travelling to; our local restaurants are just our restaurants, ta very much, and many of them are very good indeed.

One such, which I've only just got round to visiting despite the enthusiastic recommendation of others fortunate enough to have it on or near their doorsteps, is Soif in Battersea. The third wine bar and restaurant to open in a group which now numbers four (the others being Terroirs, Brawn and the newly-opened-at-the-time-of-writing Green Man & French Horn), Soif follows broadly the same if-it-ain't-broke don't fix it formula - great produce, rustic dishes, carefully-chosen wines in convivial casual surroundings.

If that sounds like your idea of somewhere fantastic then I'd heartily concur; the slightly bistro-by-numbers interior might feel a little dated but there's nothing not to love about the food. While choosing from the daily-changing menu, chalked up on a large blackboard, three of us grazed on an excellent charcuterie selection - butch rillettes, the fat countered by tiny, mouth-puckeringly sharp cornichons, herby pork terrine and salty, paper-thin salame toscano - and a dish of perfect little leaf-on radishes Peter Rabbit would've risked Mr McGregor's wrath for.

The menu and wines are chalked up on a blackboard at Soif.
The fat, tender chicken livers on toast with anchovy and rosemary butter which two of us chose for our starters were so big on flavour and beautifully balanced that I found myself craving them for breakfast the next day; I'd go so far as to say it was one of the best things I've eaten all year. Steak tartare - simply done, un-fannied about with, a process yellow egg yolk on top ready for smooshing in - was excellent.

Other mains - a nice hunk of roast cod with moreish, Moorish spiced chickpeas and alioli and a blushing pink magret of duck with garlicky sarladaise potatoes - were gutsy and faultless. It was a shame that bavette with duck fat potatoes was only available for two; I fancied red meat but no two of us could agree to have it so I ended up having the steak tartare from the starters, padded out with an exemplary green salad.

Instead of dessert, neither of the only two choices for which appealed, we shared a selection of immaculately kept French cheeses including  Soureliette, a wonderful unpasteurised ewe's milk whose nutty sharpness was the perfect match for a tangy bleu d'Auvergne and smoky Curé Nantais. I often find the prices charged for cheese in restaurants rather hard to fathom; £10 for three decent-sized pieces here seemed about fair.

As you'd expect from a restaurant whose name means 'thirst', drink is taken seriously and Soif's lengthy wine list is big on natural varieties, idiosyncratically categorised. There's a decent selection by the glass and carafe but cheap it ain't, with very few bottles under £25. That said you get what you pay for and our 2011 Roussillon 'Les Foulards Rouges' was, like my fellow diner Rich, full-bodied and bursting with character.

The 'slightly bistro-by-numbers' interior of Soif.
Two bottles of it, aperitifs and service pushed the bill for three up to £183 - just over £60 a head - which took me rather by surprise. The food had been good, and exceptional in places - those chicken livers, my gosh - but that still felt high, especially as similar quantities of even-better food and booze at sibling restaurant Brawn had only come in at about two-thirds that.

No matter; Soif is a very good restaurant and one to which, being lucky enough to be able to call it local literally, I'll be returning. Wherever you live, it's a journey I'd recommend you make, too.

Soif, 27 Battersea Rise, London SW11 1HG Tel: 020 7223 1112 

Soif on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 22 October 2012

Disiac, Soho

Disiac Restaurant, 6 Greek Street, Soho, London
New restaurants open in London at such a whirlwind rate that, if it's not your actual job to do so, it's almost impossible to keep up. I subscribe - as should you, if you have any interest in these things - to Catherine and Gavin Hanly's definitive Hot Dinners e-newsletter, and keep an eye on, among others, the excellent blog of lifestyle concierge company Bon Vivant, but very often even reasonably high-profile openings pass me by.

All this having been said, I was still surprised when a friend who has nothing to do with restaurants professionally or otherwise raved to me about Soho newcomer Disiac, because not only had I not heard about it, apparently no-one else had either - not the newsletters, nor in my 'Food People' column on Twitter, nor even a couple of real-life restaurant critics I asked.

You will, I think, be hearing rather a lot more about Disiac before long however, because having gone along to try it for myself I reckon it's going to be very popular indeed. For one thing it's an absolutely gorgeous little place, with a minimal but luxurious monochrome interior and a variety of flexible dining spaces - see-and-be-seen window seats, tucked-away booths or around the central raw bar and open kitchen. For another, the bar turns out some extremely good - and potent - cocktails at £9 a pop from opening o'clock until gone midnight.

Strozzapretti pasta at Disiac, London
But the real excitement at Disiac lies in the fantastic food, some of the best I've had anywhere in a while. Executive chef Paolo Palmisano and head chef Michele de Rosa (ex-Cecconi's) have put together a mostly Italian menu, divided simply into Starters, Fish & Meat and Pasta & Risotti, all made to order.

My date - rising star of fashion illustration Joe Larkowsky - and I started with some ace bruschetta followed by a beautifully oozing Pugliese burrata, simply drizzled in some very good Spanish olive oil. That same oil, with the addition of just a little lemon and parsley, was used to sauté fat mussels, the resulting rich emulsion coating the bivalves like butter.

A plateau de fruit de mer was for its £32 price - all-in, not per person - absolutely huge and especially generous considering it included half a grilled lobster and a few Colchester rock oysters alongside super-fresh, super-tasty mussels, clams and langoustines, pleasingly chewy chilli-flecked razor clams and sweet, bright Mediterranean prawns. We finished off with two incredible pasta dishes, strozzapretti - thick hand-rolled whorls - tossed with courgettes, cherry tomatoes, bitter wilted radicchio and tangy dolcelatte, and the classic Neapolitan scialatelli alle vongole, short cables of pasta dotted with dinky palourde clams.

The forty-five bin wine-list is strong on champagne and sparklers - accounting for a third of the list - and elsewhere offers an interesting selection of all-Old World whites, reds and rosés, none marked up by more than about 100% on the retail price meaning there are some bargains to be had. A crisp, green Tramin Pinot Bianco was a good match both for the salinity of our seafood and the bigger flavours of the pasta.

Plateau de fruits de mer at Disiac, Soho
So great food, fair pricing, cracking cocktails and a smart space; what's not to love? Nothing that I can see, although Disiac will face some challenges to really establish itself and do as well as I hope it will. Firstly, the slick interior is so the opposite of the current ubiquitous bare brick/exposed lightbulbs fashion that trendier restaurant collectors might unfairly give it a wide berth. 

Also the changing roster of events - a DJ some nights, live jazz others - could put off punters who prefer consistency over variety. Not me, though; I intend to go back, and often, to enjoy more of the brilliance Joe and I experienced on this first night, and suggest that you do too. 

Disiac, ladies and gentlemen - unusually, you heard it here first.

Disiac, 6 Greek Street, London W1D 4ED Tel: 020 7734 3888

Disiac on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Brasserie Zédel

Entrance to Brasserie Zedel on Sherwood Street
Anyone who, like me, was living in London in the 1990s will remember Atlantic Bar & Grill. Owned by the then-coolest cat in town, Oliver Peyton - the Russell Norman of his day, now better known for his role as a judge on Great British Menu - Atlantic, with its snappy bouncers and seemingly untraversable velvet rope, was for a time at least the place to see and be seen, if only you could get in.

It's rather poetic then that in its new incarnation as Brasserie Zédel, what was once London's most exclusive venue is now among its most democratic, offering all-day dining at extremely accessible prices to a staggering 240 covers at a time. Reservations are taken (fancy!) but a substantial proportion of tables are kept for walk-ins meaning that, unlike Atlantic, any and everyone is able to get in.

And get in they must if Rex Restaurant Associates, the Chris Corbin and Jeremy King-helmed investment vehicle behind Zédel  is to make back the fortune that must have been spent on the decor, one of London's most jaw-dropping rooms by a country mile. Shayne Brady, the impishly-handsome head designer at David Collins Studio has turned what was a dark and imposing subterranean space into a light, even dazzling room with acres of pink-hued marble, brass railings and real gold leaf on the capitals atop the room's mighty columns.

Brasserie Zedel's beautiful interior designed by David Collins Studio
As for the pricing, much has been made of how cheap many dishes on Brasserie Zédel's all-French menu are - not least the soupe du jour at a no-it-can't-be £2.25 - but it's not necessarily a cheap restaurant; on my most recent visit, one of several since it opened, four of us clocked up a bill of about £40 a head once a couple of decent bottles of wine had been added to the mix. Rather, it is one offering value for money almost unheard of not just in London's West End but just about anywhere.

Starters start with that soup and peak at £7.75; particularly brilliant are the crème Dubarry - a thick cream of cauliflower soup - and the soupe de poissons at £4.75, almost as good as The Ivy's at two-thirds of the price. Salads, too, impress, particularly endive and roquefort which happily marries the bitterness of chicory to the saltiness of blue cheese.

Of the main courses, even the simplest steak haché - £7.50 on its own or available as part of the £8.75 for two courses or £11.25 for three prix-fixe - is noteworthy, using good beef and enlivened by a perky sauce au poivre. The vast choucroute Alsacienne, £11.75 and a meal in itself, is as delicious a mountain of pickled cabbage and pork as you'll ever find.  

Neon signs point the way to Brasserie Zedel
Desserts continue the theme of being far better than one would expect for the price. I simply can't fault the ile flottante - £2.75! - and even the café gourmand with the prix-fixe is a generous serve, three mini pastries with a cafetiere of decent filter coffee. There's also all manner of ice-cream coupes, sorbets, tarts and cakes, all for under a fiver.

In a restaurant of this size, serving this many people, choreographing service is bound to be a challenge and to date my only real gripes with Brasserie 
Zédel have been around this. Firstly, wherever the kitchen is in this behemoth of a building, it is clearly too far from the dining room to ensure that food arrives piping hot; nothing I have eaten has been much hotter than tepid although it's tasted none the worse for that. 

Also, in the time it takes for plates to arrive at the tables, sauces can congeal; a quick whisk with a fork at the service station before presentation would help no end. Worst of all, on my most recent visit our main courses arrived before we had even finished our starters and rather than being taken away, they were served while one of our party raced under pressure to finish her soup, which is a serious no-no in my book. So it's not perfect, but it's still early days for Brasserie Zédel and with luck and a little more time these glitches should iron out. 

The art deco Bar Americain at Brasserie Zedel

Everything else - the reasonably-priced wine list, the perfect classic cocktails being served in the beautiful Art Deco Bar Americain, the camp coral pink napkins one of which, mea culpa, found its way into my handbag - make this easily one of the most exciting new openings in London this year.

As I write, reservations have just opened for Corbin & King's next project, Cafe Colbert on Sloane Square; with its SW1 location and aristocratic landlord it is unlikely that it will be as democratic as Brasserie 
Zédel.  No matter; for here is a restaurant that in both pricing and geography is truly accessible to anyone - and not a velvet rope in sight.

Brasserie Zédel, 20 Sherwood Street, London W1F 7ED Tel: 020 7734 4888

Brasserie Zedel on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal 


Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 24 September 2012

Tuttons, Covent Garden

The opulent new interior of Tuttons, designed by Russell Sage Studio
Until fairly recently, Covent Garden was something of a culinary wasteland, its restaurant scene not having kept up with an ever-improving retail landscape. Bar one or two decent places - Joe Allen, Clos Maggiore - options for eating out in WC2 were mostly  limited to terrible tourist traps and what might charitably be called 'better chains'.

Then, within a couple of years, a slew of serious restaurants arrived - among them Opera Tavern, Mishkin's and Dishoom, to name just three - and suddenly Covent Garden became as much a destination for food as for fashion. With them came an influx of more discerning - or at least, more demanding - diners, faced with which the area's older businesses have had to adapt or die.

Tuttons, the landmark 'brasserie round the corner', has chosen the former, its owners throwing a presumably huge cheque at a new interior and revamped menu. The room's undeniably very nice to look at  - the work of Russell Stage Studio, responsible for such recent beauties as Zetter Townhouse and The Balcon - and clearly cost a bomb, all heavy dark wood, chunky mirrors, shiny red banquettes and faux-alligator tabletops. Tuttons' menu reads impressively too, offering modern brasserie staples with a heavy emphasis on British produce - four counties are name-checked in the starters section alone. 

The bar at Tuttons, Covent Garden.
It's a shame then that at least based on my recent visit with Anders, the menu is writing cheques that the food can't cash. A starter of 'Honey-rolled beef carpaccio with veal heart dumplings' had leapt at me off the page and wasn't at all bad, the carpaccio silky, the little offal dumplings rich and peppery, but if the 'honey-rolling' was meant to add a sweet counterpoint then it wasn't there. 

Anders' Dorset crab, saltwater prawns and avocado was of unimpeachable freshness and flavour but suffered from poor presentation, the crustacea lying on forlorn iceberg lettuce and salad leaves that spoke of recent extraction from a bag.

Lacklustre leaves also served to spoil the look of my main course of Buckinghamshire veal wrapped in Parma ham (yes, saltimbocca); no-one wants to see a vast clump of slightly-past-its-prime watercress on their plate. Our waiter actually said, "I'm not going to ask how the veal is because it's amazing, right?" Well, wrong, I had to correct him to his evident disappointment; after a jaw-workout-tough first mouthful it improved in both texture and flavour but 'amazing' it was not. I couldn't detect any anchovy in the lemon and anchovy butter, but a fried duck egg on top and some wonderful crispy sage were nice touches. 

Poor Anders' main course, a cauliflower, leek and Montgomery cheddar bake, was no more than fine; the kind of thing one could easily rustle up at home and disappointing for the only vegetarian main course available.

Tuttons deconstructed Kentish raspberry 'cheesecake'
Plates sat for an age uncleared before we moved on to desserts and any hopes of a climactic high-note were to be in vain. Kentish raspberry cheesecake with biscuit crumb  - that 'biscuit crumb' should have rung alarm bells - was an irritating deconstructed affair, a loose frothy quenelle of 'cheesecake' dropped amidst half a crumbled digestive biscuit, the whole drizzled in a cheap-tasting raspberry sauce. Anders's summer pudding trifle used some good fresh fruit but was otherwise unexciting.

My overall impression - gently rebutted by the duty manager whom I put it to - was that here was a menu that had been conceived with good intentions, by a clearly very passionate chef, but which was being delivered without his supervision by a kitchen that was cutting some corners and lacking finesse. Nothing we ate was actually bad, and some dishes - the crab, the veal after the first few mouthfuls - at least tasted very good. But with prices on a par with Dean Street Townhouse, which has clearly been looked to for inspiration both for decor and menu, the whole operation will have to work a lot harder if Tuttons is to establish itself as serious competition for the area's upstart newcomers.

Tuttons, 11/12 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ Tel: 0844 371 2550 

I was invited to review Tuttons. 

Tuttons on Urbanspoon

Square Meal
Posted by +Hugh Wright
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