Sunday, 25 March 2012

East Street

One of the downsides - if you can call it that - to eating out as often as I do is that things that to the occasional diner would be unique and exciting can become ubiquitous and uninspiring. Beetroot and goats' curd, anything in Kilner jars or miniature Staub casseroles, venison tartare; been there, done that, dropped it down every t-shirt.

I've been spoiled, too, when it comes to the food of the Far East, enjoying everything from amazing Vietnamese to terrific Thai and jaw-dropping Japanese without even having to leave London. Better still, I've experienced restaurants that offer a variety of Eastern cuisines under one roof allowing for exploration and experimentation in the course of one meal. 

So, if I didn't find East Street, a recently-opened restaurant on Rathbone Place offering the chance to 'travel across East Asia by plate', particularly exciting, it's through absolutely no fault on their part; I'm just rather better 'travelled' perhaps than their usual target customer.

The name East Street confusingly has nothing to do with the restaurant's location, instead being a reference to the menu's emphasis on the street-food of the (Far) East, or perhaps more abstractly to this being a metaphorical culinary 'street' along which one can meander trying a little bit of Malaysian here, some Singaporean there.

The room's a stunner, and drives the theme home without tipping over into tackiness; authentic (or at least apparently authentic) street signs, posters, handbills and ephemera from the countries whose cuisines are represented hang from the ceiling and cover the walls, while furniture is a bright mismatch of folding tables, picnic chairs and benches just as one might find in, say, a Vietnamese market.

A dozen or so street snacks and small plates are offered instead of starters, and so as to experience as many as possible my dinner date Anders and I ordered a Tampopo Platter consisting of small helpings of six of them. Served attractively on a large slate we enjoyed them all - Thai coconut prawns and corn fritters, Vietnamese summer rolls, gyoza from Japan, Korean bulgogi - strips of marinaded beef - and Malaysian chicken satay served with a good, punchy peanut and chilli dip. I also tried some kimchi to see if I found East Street's any less boring than I always have anywhere else's; I did not. Again, no fault of theirs; I guess pickled cabbage is just pickled cabbage.

For main courses, Anders headed for Thailand while I popped over to Vietnam. Anders' Khao Soi, noodles and chicken breast in a sticky rich red curry sauce had a nice earthy nuttiness to it; the hugeness of the portion could be seen as a good or bad thing depending on appetite. My Gao Xa Xao Ot, a fiery stir-fry of chicken, peppers and carrot was superbly fresh but felt a little generic - the sort of dish I could, and do, make at home. 

We tried two desserts, a ginger crème brûlée which was nicely creamy if not particularly gingery, and some delightful green tea ice cream which tasted pleasingly strongly of the tea and as such proved astringently palate-cleansing after the chilli heat of our main courses. Anders felt that it wasn't as good as Nobu's, but then I don't imagine Nobu's is only £3.85 for two generous scoops. I also enjoyed a Saigon Negroni which substited lighter-than-Campari Aperol and added a slightly overwhelming slug of lychee liqueur to this classic cocktail.

From the short list of astutely-chosen wines - all fragrant whites and peppery reds to marry with the strong flavours of Eastern cuisine - we ordered a New Zealand Gewürztraminer; its soft, honeyed gardenia florality was perfect with our food. That it was poured without our being invited to taste it was the only glitch in otherwise spot-on service of the here's-your-food-now-we'll-leave-you-alone-to-enjoy-it variety.

East Street has much to offer the armchair traveller; it's good fun, good food and good value - our three courses, wine and a few extras would have come to under £70 making it far more affordable than a holiday to any of the countries represented within. I might not be hurrying back myself, but for anyone who's not seen it all before, East Street is definitely a destination worth exploring.

East Street, 3-5 Rathbone Place, London W1T 1HJ Tel: 020 7323 0860 

East Street Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Square Meal
I was invited to review East Street

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dishoom, Covent Garden

'Dishoom' is a wonderful onomatopoeic word derived from Bollywood films and meaning the sound made 'when a hero lands a good punch, or when a bullet flies through the air'. It also, more colloquially, can mean 'mojo' or to bring it right up-to-date, 'swagger'. To say that a man has 'dishoom' is high praise indeed; to name your restaurant such displays a certain elevated confidence.

Fortunately for the three brothers behind Dishoom - 'a Bombay café in London' - it's confidence that has paid off, because this is a very good restaurant indeed, not only delivering excellent food and drink, more of which momentarily, but also fantastic decor, great service and that money-can't-buy element, buzz. 

Part of the shiny St Martin's Courtyard development that is also home to a Jamie's Italian and the universally-derided 'gourmet Mexican' Cantina Laredo, Dishoom is a beautifully-designed space that aims to be an homage to, rather than a direct recreation of, the Irani cafés of Bombay which once numbered in their hundreds but are now an endangered species. There's an excellent post on Dishoom's blog about both the history of the Irani cafés and the design process, but the look is essentially one of slightly haphazard colonial grandeur combining dark wood panelling, trippy patterned floor tiles, multiple hanging lamps, ceiling fans and myriad photos of the owners' family down the generations and Bombay street scenes.

My guest for dinner was Pete Butler, the genius behind last year's phenomenally successful charity effort The Mince Pie Project. As a man who's spent time working in the kitchens of some pretty serious restaurants Pete knows far more about food and technique than I do  - although that's not saying much - which in addition to his abundant charm and flair, not to mention cute dimples, made him the ideal dining companion. We cast a desultory eye over the menu before deciding that the set menu, at £27.50 for seven savoury dishes, a cocktail, dessert and chai was the way to go.

With the cocktail - a punchy chilli chocolate Martini - we enjoyed some paper-thin tangy Café Crisps, then excellent calamari in a zesty, brown-sugar-and-vinegar laced crumb. Bhel, a street food classic incorporating puffed rice and pomegranate, could have been crispier but was tasty nonetheless.

The rest of the food was all brought together to be enjoyed in whatever combination we saw fit. Chicken berry biryani was great, ample chunks of breast combined with aromatic rice and not in the least dry as biryanis can be. Even better was a Malabar Coast prawn curry; not available on the a la carte, it would have been worth ordering the set menu for this rich, sweet dish packed with huge fat prawns alone.

Accompaniments matched the curries for quality. A comforting, creamy house black daal was unrecognisable from the sometimes mealy gloop common to many Indian restaurants, and delicious scooped up with the lavishly buttery garlic naan. Even raita, a simple mix of yoghurt, cucumber and mint, felt expertly done, and delivered a blissful cool contrast to the exhilarating black-pepper-and-chilli heat of an additional order of smoky, spicy lamb chops.

Portions were huge, so we were relieved that desserts were not. Gola ice, shavings from a block of passion fruit and ginger flavoured ice, was a palate-cleansing Indian take on granita, while pistachio kulfi was a super-sweet, if not discernibly pistachioey, posh Mini Milk. The set menu also included a house chai; we upgraded to a couple of boozy variants, the aptly named 'Naughty Chai' with chocolate syrup and bourbon, and a Baileys chai with...well I'm sure you can guess.

The drinks list has as much to appeal as the menu. In addition to chais and a concise well-considered wine list, there's an imaginative, Indian-inspired selection of lassis, coolers and cocktails; purely in the name of research Pete and I worked our way through about half of them including a rum bhang lassi (bhang being an aromatic, aniseedy spice blend), a rose, lychee and raspberry Bollybellini and my favourite, a Bombay Colada featuring herbs and spices in addition to the usual pineapple and coconut.  They were all great fun - increasingly so after the third, or was it fourth? - and very good value at around £6.50.

Service was brisk and super-friendly, if perhaps at times a little overly so - "So you're writing about this? So you're getting everything free? So you'll say nice things right?" was perhaps not the best introduction, but was at least well meant and certainly not grounds to not say nice things. 

My only complaint about Dishoom, and it's a serious one, is that they insist on charging £1 for filtered water, from which, the menu explains, 20p is donated to Plan India to provide clean water in a Bombay slum. I've absolutely no issue with schemes like this in principle - Pizza Express's comparable 25p levy on its Veneziana pizza has raised millions of pounds over the years - but what annoyed me was the question no-one seemed able to answer, namely: what happens to the other 80p? If this is skimmed off as profit - and I don't care how fancy or expensive the filtration process is, that's still almost pure profit - the company is making four times as much money as it gives to charity, and that sucks. Charge 20p, 50p, hell even £1 if you like, but it only means anything if you're giving away 100%.

That aside, Dishoom is a stylish operation and packs as much punch as the sound effect it takes its name from. For a restaurant that is so far the only one of its kind, Pete and I agreed  that the obviously extensive thought that has gone into every part of the package points to this being the template for a chain. Based on our brilliant experience, I couldn't be more pleased if branches of Dishoom were to start cropping up across London like the Irani cafés in Bombay before them.

Dishoom, 12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9FB Tel: 020 7420 9320

Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Square Meal  

I was invited to review Dishoom.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

I'll have what they're having - London's no-choice restaurants

This post was originally published on Telegraph Online

London. Home to the “Mother of all Parliaments”, epicentre of world democracy, the very bedrock of freedom of choice. Except, that is, on its restaurant scene, where menus are emerging offering minimal choice and, in some cases, no choice at all.

First came Le Relais de Venise ‘L’Entrecôte’. One restaurant in Paris has expanded into a global mini-chain, with London branches in Marylebone and The City. Serving only a green salad with walnuts to start, followed by two helpings of steak frites with a special, secret-recipe sauce, the only decision diners at L’Entrecôte face is how they want their steak cooked.

Fittingly enough I visited the Marylebone branch through a lack of choice; finding myself in the area with a friend between Christmas and New Year, L’Entrecôte was about the only restaurant open. Initially wary - L’Entrecôte polarises critical opinion - I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed the experience.

The simple salad, dressed with a bracing mustard vinaigrette, cleansed and awakened the palate, while the steak was tender, the chips hot and crispy and the sauce - a sort of tart pesto - very tasty. It was also excellent value, at £21 for two courses; a regular stream of chauffeur-driven cars dropping off well-dressed families proved that even London’s super-rich like a bargain.

Burger & Lobster in Mayfair is the newest addition to the no-choice scene and it’s been an instant smash. Serving (the clue is in the name) only superlative burgers and whole grilled or steamed lobsters with a side salad and chips, the £20 flat price - exorbitant for a burger but peanuts for crustacea - has seen the restaurant getting through almost two tonnes of lobsters every week since opening at the end of 2011.

As with many recent openings, no reservations are taken and waiting times for one of the high diner-style tables are growing along with the restaurant’s reputation for superb quality - to which I can attest, having tried the lobster both grilled and steamed, as well as the only deviation from whole lobster or burger, a delicious, decadent brioche lobster roll. I was underwhelmed by the burger, finding it somewhat so-what for £20, but with superb cocktails and an excitable egalitarian atmosphere there’s nothing not to love here.

The Pisco Bar at Ceviche from
Ceviche's Pisco Bar by
It’s not just restaurants that are taking choice out of the equation. While some bars might specialise in a particular drink while still offering others - the Campari Bar at Polpo on Beak Street, for example - the Pisco Bar at Martin Morales’ new Peruvian restaurant Ceviche in Soho will serve only the pure grape spirit, in cocktails and fruit- or spice-infused macerados.

Ever the assiduous reporter, I tried a classic Pisco Sour - Pisco, egg white and lime juice - and a Pisco Punch, made with pineapple syrup and grapefruit bitters. Each was excellent, and very different despite using the same base ingredient. I certainly didn’t feel that my freedom of choice had been compromised although my sobriety certainly was; I should perhaps have had rather more of the tasty marinaded dishes from which the restaurant derives its name.

If, as I suspect they do, these no-choice venues signal the start of a trend, it’s one that I’ll be embracing. The sheer range of culinary options available in London is dizzying at the best of times. Far from being a hardship, having a few locales where the decisions have already been taken strikes me as being the ultimate luxury.

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon Burger & Lobster on Urbanspoon Ceviche on Urbanspoon
Posted by +Hugh Wright

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Cantina del Ponte

Until last June, my attitude to children was - how can I put this - less than tolerant. While broadly appreciating the necessity of ensuring the continuation of the human race, I was very much of the view that infants should be neither seen nor heard, packed away to giant boarding-schools-cum-detention centres until the age of sixteen and only released into society when, or indeed if, they could demonstrate sociability, courtesy and calm.

And then, as many readers will know, I became an uncle and fell so besottedly in love with my baby nephew that I went overnight from making Herod seem like a role-model for responsible childcare to being a modern-day male Mary Poppins but with a better holdall. Thus it was that when a press release arrived inviting me to try out D&D London's smart South Bank Italian Cantina del Ponte's new family menu, instead of filing it under 'A' for "Are you out of your tiny mind?" as I would have done pre-unclehood, I accepted on the condition that I could experience it properly - with a child in tow. 
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