Sunday, 27 May 2012


When, just a couple of weeks after Dabbous opened earlier this year, the Evening Standard's Fay Maschler - the doyenne of restaurant reviewers - gave it an almost-unprecedented five stars, the effect was instantaneous. Word spread like wildfire (après Fay, le déluge) and by the end of the week rumours abounded that the next available table at Dabbous was sometime in early 2013. 

As I found out, this wasn't strictly true - and the fairly fundamental flaws, as I see them, in Dabbous's approach to managing reservations are something I'll come to later - but the undeniably huge impact that review had on Dabbous's early success surely must silence those people, mostly restaurant bloggers, who say that the traditional print-media restaurant critic is headed the same way as the dinosaurs.

Dabbous's corner site on Whitfield Street, parallel to foodie enclave Charlotte Street, is currently blighted by scaffolding, although stepping through the huge oxidised metal door into the grungy, industrial interior I found myself wondering if the scaffolding wasn't in fact part of the design. I loved the room, finding it ultra-modern without any hint of pretension, but diners more accustomed to the plush, beige comfort of traditional high-end restaurants are in for a shock.

My lunch date James Ramsden had already eaten at Dabbous, and it was his plaintive comments on Twitter about how much he longed to go back if only he could get a table that prompted me to invite him along. We were given three menus to choose from, the a la carte, an eight-course tasting menu (available, as is usual, only for the whole table) and the set lunch menu, offering two choices for each course for just £21 for three courses or £24 for four. Wanting to try as much as possible we ordered the latter, giving us eight different dishes to share - a better option than the tasting menu which would have limited us to having the same for each course.

The first courses appeared while we were still sipping our (excellent) pre-lunch Negronis and scoffing the baked-daily rye bread,  which comes to the table in a date-stamped paper bag along with nearly-melting homemade butter. Any annoyance I might have felt at not being allowed to finish our cocktails before our food arrived quickly disappeared at my first taste of 'peas and mint', far and away one of the most astonishing dishes I can remember eating anywhere. 

A chilled, minted pea puree was interlaced with pea shoots and shelled peas, a split-open pod lying across the middle offering up its plump contents, and beside it a small mound of vividly green mint granita. The intensity of colour was matched by purity of flavour; peas have never tasted more like peas, mint never mintier. The mixed alliums - red and white onion, so I did wonder why they couldn't have just been described as such - were also wonderful, poached to translucence and swimming in an incredible consommé-like liquid that, finally, showed me what is truly meant by umami.

Next came fish. Charred organic salmon with marjoram, samphire and muscatel grapes was good but there was a slight acidity somewhere that, while not overpowering as such, somehow managed to drown out the very quiet flavour of the fish. Much better was grilled wild ling - a lovely fat fillet of this firm white fish - with beetroot, watercress stems and iodized sour cream, which looked as beautiful on the fork with its tricolore of hues as it tasted, the salty tang of the sour cream and the earthiness of the beetroot combining with the subtly-smoky ling.

Our meat courses, too, were brilliant. Barbecued lamb shoulder was so sweet and pure-tasting that it was almost possible to discern the milk the little bleater had been fed on. Runner beans, given a new depth of flavour from char-grilling, and lesser calamint - a relation of mint but with much lighter flavour - were clever accompaniments. Homemade black pudding, topped with a coarse, sweet mango chutney and a fried egg might have seemed out of place on a lunch menu but was stupidly delicious; at risk of my being forever banished to Pseuds' Corner I can only describe the pudding as moelleux, a lovely French word for which there is no direct English translation but approximately means sublimely soft, gooey and sticky - which it was.

The only small disappointments of the meal came with our fourth course. Not knowing how similar lovage was to celery, which I am allergic to, I was unable to try the iced lovage but felt that, in any case, this was the kind of insubstantial palate cleanser that is usually offered free and certainly not as a course in its own right. Our 'artisanal cheeses from the British isles' - the only dish on the set lunch menu to attract a supplement (£5) were wonderful, especially a spreadably soft Crozier Blue, but were served in such minuscule quantities that I felt the supplement to be entirely unjustified even at these great prices. I couldn't complain though about the chunk of caramelised baked apple that stood in here for quince jelly; it was lovely.

Feeling that, apart from service from James's doppelgänger Gabriel our meal had lacked something sweet, we ordered a custard cream pie and were rewarded with a glorious cornet of cracking crisp pastry filled with layers of salt-caramel, butterscotch and whipped cream. It was splendid, so much so that I wondered why it wasn't being offered instead of the iced lovage. Still, at just a fiver it didn't add much to our bill and was oh-so worth it.

Despite the great value of the set lunch, our bill soared to about £65 a head with the addition of our aperitifs, a carafe each of Viognier and Malbec from the superb and very reasonable list, a glass apiece of Churchill's 10 Year Tawny Port and 12.5% service. It still felt like a very fair price for what was, I have to say even knowing how hyperbolic it might sound, one of the most exceptionally conceived, cooked and presented meals I've ever eaten. I liked Dabbous so much that before I left, I did something I only ever do very rarely, and booked to come back.

Yes, you heard right, I booked to come back. And not in February 2013, or at a weirdly early or late time, but for lunch in the last week of August, admittedly some way off but soon enough for my liking. Because believe it or not, you can get a table at Dabbous if you're able to be flexible and can get through on the phone or, if you live in or are visiting London, drop in during opening hours and ask. 

The difficulty in getting a table, and this really should be addressed, isn't that there aren't any, but that Dabbous haven't quite got to grips with how to handle the demand. Tables aren't being turned, which meant that when I arrived for our 12.45 booking only one other table was occupied and many didn't finally fill up until their booked time of 2pm. Diners desperate to eat at Dabbous would, I am absolutely certain, have no problem with being offered a midday lunch slot on the condition that they vacated the table by 2 o'clock, but instead tables are standing empty. 

Also, Dabbous isn't a tiny place with only a handful of tables; downstairs there's a huge bar, bigger than the restaurant itself, which throughout our visit had only one customer. Surely that could, indeed should, be being used as additional capacity? It might be argued that the kitchen couldn't cope with the extra covers but based on our experience, I don't believe that. You don't need to be Fay Maschler to recognise that Ollie Dabbous, the man in charge and whose name is above the door, is clearly something of a genius, producing the most innovative, exciting and inspiring food in London right now. I'm sure that, for the sake of the frustrated many who've yet to make even their first booking, he could do it just a bit faster, and more.

Dabbous, 39 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2SF Tel: 020 7323 1544

Readers who enjoy food photos can find everything we ate in glorious pictures over on Rachel Khoo's blog, if so inclined. 

More Reviews:

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 14 May 2012

Cinnamon Soho

One of the very first restaurants I wrote about when I started this blog was The Cinnamon Club, chef Vivek Singh's magnificent haute Indian in Westminster. Since then I've eaten out countless times and that meal still stands out in my mind as being one of the best.

Expectations were understandably high then when I went along to try out Cinnamon Soho, the second, newly-opened casual offshoot of the SW1 original (the first, which I've not been to, is Cinnamon Kitchen in the City). As he'd been my date for that first memorable meal at The Cinnamon Club, best friend Anders was the obvious and only choice to come with me.

Located in a somewhat dark, fairly bland but inoffensive two-floor site on Kingly Street, home to both the estimable Wright Bros and execrable Fornata among others, Cinnamon Soho isn't without competition for the stomachs and wallets of the price- and quality-conscious diners it's aiming to attract. Based on what we ate, Vivek Singh isn't taking the competition lightly, because there's some seriously brilliant food coming out of the kitchen.

Refreshingly at a time when most new openings offer 'small plates' or some other portions 'concept', the menu at Cinnamon Soho offers starters, mains and desserts as well as a section of kichri - biryani-type dishes - and pies. There are also sections headed All Day, comprising lighter snacks and sandwiches, and All Balls! - why the exclamation mark I've no idea! - five varieties of spherical savouries served individually or as a selection.

We ordered the latter to share while deciding what to order but it was so large - two each of five balls, each served with a complementary sauce or relish - that it sufficed as a starter in itself. All but one  - slightly pappy beef shammi kebabs - were excellent, particularly light, fragrant crab cakes and clever meat-free Bangla Scotch eggs, a spicy vegetable mix replacing the more usual pork.

Anders' main course - smoked saddle of Cumbrian lamb with a spiced onion sauce - was typical of several items on the menu, British dishes given a modern Indian twist through spicing and saucing (elsewhere on the menu there's curried cullen skink and Roganjosh [sic] shepherd's pie). Prettily plated, sliced and fanned out alongside a timbale of rice, the lamb was beautifully tender and expertly spiced, the subtle smoking of the lamb flattered by the depth of the soubise.

Keralan fish curry is one of my favourite Indian dishes so I was excited to see it reinterpreted here as a seafood pie. The curry - silky, creamy, spicy and tamarind-tangy - was wonderful and the crisp puffed-pastry lid, studded with cumin seeds, served perfectly as an alternative to bread for mopping up the sauce. We also tried a couple of sides, a fairly ordinary potato paratha and some tasty Masala mash.

Indian desserts are known for often being face-pain-inducingly sweet, but Cinnamon Soho's managed to induce only pleasure. Carrot halwa was served as four small slices of neatly-rolled confectionery with a scoop of cinnamon ice-cream, and while certainly sugary it wasn't oppressively so. Lassi panna cotta had a cleansingly off-sour flavour and bouncy texture, tamarind-glazed figs adding zest.

In addition to a couple of very fine cocktails - an elderflower-scented Garden Mojito for Anders and a Manhattan-ish Orange Julep for me - we drank a bottle of light, peppery Tour de Pins Grenache from the mostly Old World list which offers plenty of choice under £30, a restrained approach to pricing which applies equally to the food, with mains peaking at £17.

Service was as polished and professional as one would expect from an offshoot of The Cinnamon Club, but at times verged on the over-formal; Cinnamon Soho is meant to be a more casual, accessible restaurant than its grand sibling and to achieve that, front of house needs to loosen up a bit - perhaps ditching the starchy waistcoat-and-trousers uniform for jeans and t-shirts would be a start. 

There's also a bit of an identity crisis in the way food and drink is presented, in that just about every current cliché  - cocktails in jam jars, starters on slates, oven-baked dishes brought to table in their own Staub pans - has been picked up, rather than the restaurant finding a direction of its own that's as innovative as the food. These, though, are the gripes of a restaurant train-spotter; most people eating out less often - which let's face it, is most people - would be very unlikely to find these as roll-your-eyes tiresome as I did.

If the restaurant as a whole then is not quite, yet, the sum of its parts, it's at least starting on a very firm footing, getting the two crucial elements of food quality and value-for-money pretty much spot on. If the room and service can be lightened up and at least some of the more hackneyed presentation habits done away with, then Cinnamon Soho could stand to be as good a restaurant, in its own very different way, as The Cinnamon Club itself.

Cinnamon Soho, 5 Kingly Street, London W1B 5PF Tel: 020 7437 1664 

I was invited to review Cinnamon Soho

Cinnamon Soho on Urbanspoon

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 Posted by +Hugh Wright

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The Delaunay

From the reverence afforded in some quarters to restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, you'd think that they'd done far more for London's dining scene than open one successful restaurant - The Wolseley - in the past ten years. But up until late 2011, when The Delaunay opened on Aldwych, that was indeed the sum of their achievements, St Alban - an ill-fated attempt to replicate The Ivy, which they once owned - having lasted barely three years.

By the end of 2012 however, you'll barely be able to turn around in central London without finding yourself near a Corbin & King-owned restaurant, as in addition to The Wolseley and The Delaunay plans are already well underway for the openings of Brasserie Zedel off Piccadilly and Cafe Colbert on the former Oriel site on Sloane Square. With a hotel due to open in 2014, a chain, albeit a rather grand one, is being forged.

Unsurprisingly, for their first post-St Alban outing Corbin and King have chosen to stick to the same schtick as The Wolseley; The Delaunay, too, is 'an all-day cafe-restaurant in the grand European style'.  This means a large room given an opulent makeover by interiors legend David Collins to look like it's always been there - acres of marble and antiqued, rather than antique, mirrors abound - while the lengthy menu of brasserie staples is almost indistinguishable, in content and typography, from The Wolseley's.

If the overall effect is somewhat ersatz, it doesn't prevent The Delaunay from being an absolutely lovely place to be. I'd booked in for dinner with two friends and fellow Mitford sisters obsessives for the latest of our occasional 'fan club' outings, whereby we convene somewhere glamorous of which we think Nancy Mitford would have approved and read selected favourite passages from her and her sisters' writings to each other (sorry, but if you wanted someone who does butch things in his spare time you are reading completely the wrong blog). The Delaunay was a perfect choice; we couldn't have had a nicer time.

Having booked only a day before we were denied a table in the main dining room but were perfectly happy with our table in the adjacent Salon. While some diners seated here might consider it to be second-class accommodation compared to first next door, we certainly didn't feel at all hard done by and service couldn't have been better - friendly but nicely formal, presided over by general manager Sebastian Fogg, a man so dapper and cosmopolitan in his three-piece suit that I refuse to believe he isn't descended from Phileas.

Food was uniformly good; not at all exciting, but then grand European café food isn't meant to be. My starter of steak tartare was silky and well-spiced, although I missed being asked how spicy I like it or being offered condiments to tweak it to my taste, as usually happens elsewhere. The Client's liverwurst with pickled walnuts and toasted rye bread was an elegant Teutonic take on paté on toast.

For main courses, Karin and I ordered from the 'Wieners' section of the menu that offers a brace of five slightly different sausages, or your choice of any two, garnished with sauerkraut and potato salad for only about a tenner. I no longer remember which we had - I was too busy declaiming Deborah Devonshire to take notes - but I know that we very much enjoyed everything and remarked on what good value it was. The Client was similarly enthusiastic about his fish 'n' chips (naturally rather more grandly styled as 'goujons of plaice' and served with a dainty muslin-wrapped lemon half, but undeniably fish 'n' chips).

As is often the case, the best course was dessert. Pudding is a big deal at The Delaunay, with an entire third of the menu being dedicated to Desserts - ice cream, fruit salad, mousses - Patisserie from an alluring display and Coupes, wonderful ice cream sundaes. The Client chose the refreshing Seville, consisting of blood orange sorbet with orange compote, while I went for the boozy Highland - whisky and coffee ice creams, laced with ginger and topped with whipped cream. Both were delicious, retro and fun - words which pretty much sum up The Delaunay itself.

Pricing is reasonable; a couple of bottles of Gruner-Veltliner, after-dinner drinks and service pushed the bill up to about £40 each though you could easily get away with a main course and a glass of wine for around half that. The atmosphere is lively, The Delaunay's location on the edge of Theatreland ensuring  a steady flow of customers throughout the evening, with speculative walk-ins arriving even as we were leaving - clearly not put off by the very stern doorman whose unwelcoming stiffness was the only real duff note of the evening.

The Delaunay is very much a branch of The Wolseley - its name, like its sibling's, taken from a vintage car, as is [Brasserie] Zedel's - but if its deep-pocketed investors' backing is conditional on a manifesto of 'If it ain't broke don't fix it' no-one can blame them for that. Whether London's appetite for the format will be enough to sustain another (and another) in a similar mould remains to be seen but for now, The Delaunay looks guaranteed to give Messrs Corbin and King a long-awaited second success.

The Delaunay, 55 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BB Tel: 020 7499 8558

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Square Meal 

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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