Monday, 23 January 2012

Mishkin's, WC2

Photos throughout by Paul Winch-Furness
For anyone operating a restaurant specialising in the cuisine of a particular country or culture, being considered 'authentic' by experts and ex-pats can be both a blessing and a burden. While a reputation for the truest tapas, realest rendang or most verisimilitudinous Vietnamese usually results in a clamour for tables and healthy profits, get things wrong and your faux French or ersatz Asian will make you the object of every food snob's opprobrium.

Only a restaurateur with the supreme confidence and chutzpah of Russell Norman would dare to open a restaurant as wilfully, joyously inauthentic as Mishkin's, described on its website as
 'a kind-of Jewish deli with cocktails'. Even as I write this, I can't help but wonder if from conception to delivery Norman wasn't chuckling knowingly to himself at the froth some critics would work themselves up into at just how un-kosher the place is, not only in the sense of the food not adhering properly to kashrut  - there's a pork hotdog on the menu for G_d's sake - but also in the liberties it takes with Jewish culinary tradition.

I make no claims to any level of expertise in this area (hell, in any area) so I really can't tell you if the matzo balls are dense (or light) enough, if the salt beef has enough (or too much, or too little) fat, or if the oxtail cholent needs more or less seasoning. But to judge the food 
qua Jewish food is to completely miss the point of Mishkin's, the point made by that all-important 'kind-of': this isn't meant be an authentic Jewish deli, this is Norman's own playful take on one - and oy is it fun.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Le Relais de Venise 'L'Entrecôte'

Living, as we are privileged to do, in a democracy, choice is held to be totemic of everything that is good in our society. Who we vote for, where we live, what we do for a living, who we have sex with - or not - are all inviolably our choices; their protection is enshrined in law and if we should ever feel that our freedoms are being restricted we have the choice to take to the streets, airwaves or ballot box to make our dissatisfaction known.

Trying to get through to my broadband provider just after Christmas however, to berate them for the fact that, yet again, I had no service, I came to think that choice was perhaps not such a great thing. "OK, " the recorded woman said in a nasal drone that made me want to kill someone and then myself, "you now have five choices..." I listened and pressed the appropriate button. "OK, you now have five choices" she repeated; "No!" screamed I, "I have just made my choice, were you not listening?" But it transpired that these were in fact five more choices; I made mine and waited to be connected to a human being. 

 "OK, you now have five choices..." "WHAT?!" I blustered, "but madame you have already given me five choices, and then another five; what could I possibly want with five more? What could anyone want with fully fifteen choices, when all I want is to speak to one customer 'service' operative and get my broadband fixed pronto?" My blustering was for naught; I had to make a choice - had to - or I would never be afforded the privilege of speaking to one of their highly-skilled 'people' - so highly-skilled that for me to be put through to precisely the right one necessitated the navigation of fifteen choices. I made my choice and waited, all the while eyeing up my living room window and wondering whether throwing myself from it would bring a swift and merciful death or merely cripple me.

With this trauma still indelibly fresh in my mind, I approached lunch at Le Relais de Venise 'L'Entrecote' with an enthusiasm that might be surprising to anyone who has read the to-say-the-least mixed reviews that have preceded this one. The reason you see is that, at L'Entrecôte, there is absolutely no choice at all.

Although a menu displayed by the door cheerfully announces that 'Today' one can have steak 'with its famous sauce, French fries and green salad with walnuts', that is in fact all you can have, any day of the year, and it's this formula that is strictly adhered to at Le Relais de Venise's handful of sites around the world. Black and white-uniformed waitresses ask how you would like your steak cooked (and then scribble this on the paper tablecloth) and take drinks orders from an ultra-concise six bin wine list, but that's where your choices end.

Even how I'd ended up somewhere about which everything shrieks 'Tourist Trap! Avoid!', comes back to choice, or rather lack of it; my lunch date Scott had wanted to take me somewhere else in his Marylebone neighbourhood for a post-Christmas, pre-New Year catch-up, but like in so many other villages, pretty much everywhere was shut. So L'Entrecôte and its entrecôte were our only choices.

And do you know what? It was fine. Not the best steak I've ever had, nor the best chips and definitely not the best (or most exciting) salad, but very far from the worst and, at £21 for the whole lot including a same-quantity-again second serving of steak-frites, indisputably good value. The 'famous sauce', the exact composition of which excites nerds the world over as much as the exact make-up of The Colonel's eleven herbs and spices or the recipe for Coca-Cola, was really rather tasty, creamy and heavy on herbs like a slightly tart pesto.

A half-bottle of house Bordeaux was perfectly drinkable, and 
at eight quid brought a very pleasant, filling two course lunch for two, with seconds, to just £50 pre-tip. While I wouldn't race back to L'Entrecôte I certainly wouldn't avoid it, and nor it would seem would the moneyed Russian/Arab clientele who, Scott tells me, pack the place out even on days when other choices are available.

To finish off my broadband saga: eventually - after a quarter of an hour on hold during which I was invited to choose which of four genres of tinny piped music I would most like to endure, which struck me as being akin to asking an extraordinarily rendered innocent whether he'd prefer water-boarding or sleep deprivation - I got through to a real-live person who, unable to fix things remotely, booked an engineer's visit.

When she said "Would you like to choose a time-slot?" all I could think was that if only the clever people behind Le Relais de Venise ran call centres, the world would be an altogether happier place.

Le Relais de Venise '
L'Entrecôte', 120 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2QG Tel: 020 7486 0878 

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon

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Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Sumosan, Mayfair

Coming on for two-and-half-years ago, in one of my very first blog posts, I stated with the sniffy hubris of a know-it-all newcomer that the subject, Automat, occupied 'the site of Oliver Peyton's late, unlamented Coast'. I thought it sounded terribly clever to be so in-the-know, and it's an affectation that's stayed with me down the years - most of my posts make some reference to where a restaurant is (over and above its London district) and what if anything it used to be.

Thank goodness then that the three or so readers I had back in 2009 either didn't notice or knew even less than I thought I did about restaurant premises, because blow me down if I didn't realise, upon arriving for a dinner date at Sumosan, that it in fact 
occupies 'the site of Oliver Peyton's late, unlamented Coast' and that Automat was, and always had been, on the next street along. Whoops.

Sumosan opened on said vacated site in 2002, a London outpost of a small chain with established branches in Moscow and Kiev. Despite never attracting nearby Nobu's level of fame (or notoriety - to the best of my knowledge no love-children have been conceived on the stairs) Sumosan has obviously been doing something right, as on the evidence of my visit business would appear to be booming. It will come as no surprise, given the Russian backing and super-prime Mayfair location, that Sumosan is aimed squarely at the kind of customer for whom recession only affects the hairline, and on a freezing winter night the huge main dining room and smaller downstairs bar were packed.

To anyone acquainted with London's (or indeed Moscow's) higher-end Japanese restaurants, the menu at Sumosan will be familiar fare; superior sushi and sashimi are offered alongside a lengthy selection of mostly fish dishes, all using only the finest produce at prices to match. I was fortunate to be dining as a guest of the restaurant so was able to order just about everything that appealed; had I not been, prices starting at a fiver for a simple bowl of miso soup would have had me fluttering my eyelashes at the nearest thick-necked, expensively-suited Russkie in the hope of his picking up the bill.

Our tastebuds awakened by a glass of bubbly, aforementioned miso and some salty, warm edamame, we started with some perfect rock shrimp tempura, served with a creamy, spicy dipping sauce, and heady, delicate yellowtail sashimi with truffle.

Lobster salad was as beautiful to eat as to look at; chunks of claw meat in a sweet citrusy dressing came encased in frilly green leaves, the whole assemblage forming a pretty green sphere like a 1950s swimming cap.

Kaiso (seaweed) salad with peanut was fabulous, a rich, nutty palate cleanser to prepare us for silken scallop and sublime toro sashimi. Tuna and truffle California rolls were a decadent take on perhaps the most ubiquitous of sushi dishes. The night's revelation came in the form of red sea urchin roe served in the shell, the top sliced off like an aquatic boiled egg. Quite unlike anything I can remember tasting - 
smooth, creamy, slightly nutty but with a definite whack of the sea, for once I could see why this particular delicacy is so highly prized.

We finished with a trio of hot dishes which delivered two hits and the night's only miss. Black cod in miso - street food in Japan but the pricy signature of any western restaurant with an eye to the Rising Sun - was amazingly good: sticky and rich, texturally firm enough to pick up with chopsticks but then collapsing almost to syrup in the mouth. Sweet shrimp, served in cute little nuggets just begging to be picked up by fingers and popped in the mouth, was like delicious savoury popcorn. The one slightly duff dish was vegetable tempura; it was fine, with good crunch to both batter and veg, but bland in comparison to everything else and not even enlivened by the accompanying dipping sauce.

I'd love to be able to tell you what we drank, but all I remember is that there were two bottles of it (which possibly explains my amnesia), it was a buttery white - a Meursault? - chosen for us by the chatty, approachable sommelier and very nice indeed.

I'd also love to be able to tell you what this all cost, but in a move perhaps intended to not put people off coming, or simply in recognition of the fact that Sumosan's core customer isn't all that worried about money, there are no prices on the rather clunky corporate website. My guess would be about £100-a-head; four dishes less than we greedily had and just the one bottle of wine would halve that, and you'd still be in for a treat.

The decor's rather dated - I'm not sure it's had more than an occasional lick of paint since 2002 - but everything else about Sumosan is excellent and I highly recommend a visit. When it opened - on, let's not forget, the site of Oliver Peyton's late, unlamented Coast - one critic wondered if Sumosan would last 'a couple of years'. Well pass the chopsticks someone, because nearly ten years later, she needs to eat her words.

Sumosan, 26B Albemarle Street, London W1S 4HY Tel: 020 7495 5999 

Sumosan on Urbanspoon

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