Thursday, 30 August 2012

Gyms Kitchen, Leyton

Exterior of Gyms Kitchen, Leyton
Updated, April 2013 What a difference six months make. Matthew, my friend who took me along on the visit I wrote about below, implored me to come back and give Gyms Kitchen (still no apostrophe...) a second chance, assuring me that the place was much changed, and improved since last August.

How right he was. The decor - which I didn't even mention first time around, feeling that I'd given the place enough of a kicking for the food, but had really not liked - has been softened, with rustic wood panels covering the once-bare walls and saloon doors hiding the formerly visible kitchen and dishwash area.

A much-extended and redesigned menu stays true to the healthy-eating vision (which, do remember, was one of the things I genuinely admired about the place first time round) but offers greater variety - even puddings! - and ordering from it felt much more enjoyable and less of an exercise in parsimony. 

But the biggest and most pleasant surprise was the food itself. Butterfly chicken breast and grilled tuna steak from the grill were adeptly cooked and subtly flavoured with home-made marinades, and beautifully plated on distinctive but unfussy flatware. Sides of asparagus and halloumi (grilled, of course) were well-seasoned and bulked out with crisp, fresh salad. And we very much enjoyed dessert of banana & chocolate protein pancakes with peanut butter and honey - that's pretty much all of my favourite things on one plate there.

Noticeably, the clientele now better reflects the owners' original vision too; the strapping chaps occupying the other tables were remarkably easy on the eye. And those 'eminently threesomeable' waiters? As hot as ever, I'm glad to report.

When somewhere takes as much notice of early criticism as Gyms Kitchen clearly have, and improve this much, I'm very happy to eat my words. And I'd be very happy to eat there, again.

Gyms Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Original Post

Call me old-fashioned - Lord knows I've been called far worse - but I find the current trend for and obsession with 'dirty' food really rather disgusting. Table manners have gone out the window, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the popularity of street food means there are no tables to need manners for. 

If I read one more breathless paean to a burger whose 'bloody juices run down my face and through my fingers' or another review of a barbecue gaff serving up 'melting fatty piggy gorgeousness', written by an apparently sane and presumably not-raised-by-wolves adult now gone feral, I shall probably give up reading (and possibly writing) about food altogether. Enough is enough.

By the Law of Opposites then I should be very excited about a restaurant like Gyms Kitchen, proudly 'serving fresh, healthy grilled meats and vegetables' - the polar opposite of all the triple-deep-fried, lard-basted, confited, hickory-dipped nonsense I find so unappealing. Except that Gyms Kitchen (I've checked, no apostrophe) is not the kind of restaurant it's possible to get excited about, unless you are the kind of serious gym-goer at whom it is aimed, the kind of muscle-bound, mahogany-stained body-builder who sees food as fuel and fat and carbs as the enemy. Which I am not, and don't.

Interior of Gyms Kitchen, LeytonTo be fair, I only came to be at Gyms Kitchen through necessity; I was due to cook dinner for a friend who has just moved in nearby but a botched delivery meant that not only did we not have a table to eat off or chairs to sit on, but no crockery or pots or pans either. He'd had breakfast at Gyms Kitchen and enjoyed it so suggested we try it for dinner, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't hope that a place with the slogan 'Eat Clean...Train Dirty' would be heaving with hunks.

Disappointingly, with the exception of the present writer and a brace of eminently threesomeable waiters, the clientèle on the night of our visit was entirely hunk-free, consisting of a large family group and a solo lady diner none of whom appeared to be on their way either to or from the gym. Nor did they strike me as the kind of customer who was overly concerned by the calorie, fat, carb and protein content of their food as listed for every dish on the menu

More than likely they were attracted by what I could see as being Gyms Kitchen's wider selling-points, namely convenience and value for money; certainly there was no faulting the portion size of our - huge - grilled lamb wraps for the price, £6 or £8 with the addition of a side order. 

Less attractive though was the actual food itself; huge wholemeal wraps had the texture and consistency of linoleum and the meat within was tasty but tough - I suspect grilled at high heat straight from the refrigerator without time for proper resting  - and in places pure gristle. Side dishes of spicy rice and chargrilled asparagus were just that. There were, unsurprisingly, no puddings, nor any booze, with its evil carbs and empty calories; instead diners can choose from protein shakes (oh God), low-fat smoothies with an optional scoop of protein powder (shoot me now) or a virtuous range of soft drinks. Coffees are, of course 'all served with skimmed milk' as if you'd dare order anything else.

The drinks menu at Gyms Kitchen, Leyton
If I didn't enjoy Gyms Kitchen - and I'm sorry to say that with the exception of the company, I didn't - it could be said in their defence that I'm so far off their target customer that I was never going to. And it should also be said in fairness to them that even though it's not my cup of whey powder, their concept is at least thoroughly thought through and honest in its intentions, and I'd like it to do well.

Were it in Soho, say - the spiritual stomping ground of the gay (and they are mostly gay) gym-obsessed body-dysmorphics who absolutely love this kind of thing, Gyms Kitchen would be doing a roaring trade, but it isn't - it's at the top end of Leyton High Road, an odd choice of area to test out a concept which, the website admits, the owners hope will be the model for a franchise. As it is, all the available spots in Soho have been taken up by the kind of dirty-fried-street food pedlars that Gyms Kitchen is anathema to. For the time being, Gyms Kitchen will have to try even harder than they train to make eating clean as appealing as eating dirty.

Gyms Kitchen, 388-392 High Road, Leyton, London E10 6QE Tel: 020 8988 6362

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Reform Social & Grill, Marylebone

About three or four years ago, restaurants offering robust, butch British fare in clubby surroundings (gentlemen's rather than night) were the height of fashion, Dean Street Townhouse being the first and I would still argue the best of the bunch. It was a fashion I was very happy with, this being exactly the kind of food I like to eat and the kind of place I like to eat it in.

Fashions change however, with each new restaurant opening now seemingly contending to be more niche and novel than the last, so just as I was thinking we'd all moved on to places serving only hot dogs and champagne or authentic pork-bone ramenit came as a not-unpleasant surprise to hear about somewhere as resolutely - one might say wilfully - old-school as Reform Social & Grill.

Located in the Mandeville Hotel in Marylebone, Reform consists of a bar area (the Social) serving some pretty spot-on cocktails - they got my vodka Martini exactly right - and the Grill, a large room which with its bare-wood floors, dark Edwardian colour palette and studded leather banquettes and booths is attractive but almost oppressively masculine. On the night Alyn and I visited we were the only diners for almost the entire evening, word having clearly not yet spread that Marylebone, an area well-served for high-end eating establishments but less so for good everyday options, now has exactly that.

I always enjoy being faced with a menu I find it hard to choose from due to liking the sound of everything, and that was certainly the case here. The starter I eventually settled on, St George mushrooms on toast with a poached egg, was exactly the kind of comforting savoury I enjoy at home, while Alyn's pheasant Scotch egg with mayonnaise managed to be an imaginative, tasty reboot of a dish which appears in myriad variants on almost every pub/grill/bistro menu these days - no mean feat.

For main courses we both ordered from the Charcoal Grill selection. Alyn's 300g rib eye steak - great beef, its origins surprisingly unidentified given the menu writer's attention to provenance elsewhere - was huge and very tender, served on the bone with obscenely moreish chips sprinkled in smoked Cornish salt. I pigged (and cowed, and lambed) out on an exemplary mixed grill of English rose veal, a lamb chop, chipolatas, black pudding (Ramsey's, whoever he is), roasted bone marrow and a veal Scotch egg, all of unimpeachable quality and beautifully cooked. If that sounds gut-busting, it wasn't, the quantum of everything being just enough to appreciate and sate but not to overwhelm. 

If the inclusion on the menu of both Desserts and Puddings seems affected, it only reflects an attention to the semantics of sweets, the  desserts being various sugary afters and puddings proper steamed mounds of Billy Bunterish nostalgia. Alyn's Bakewell pudding with raspberry preserve came with a generous Cornishware jug of custard and disappeared before I could taste it; apparently it was excellent. So too was my Reform trifle, cleverly - and fashionably - substituting sticky PX for the usual sherry, mascarpone for whipped cream and pistachios for almonds. It was the kind of dish I wish was served everywhere, but because it isn't will return here for.

As well as a glass each of a wonderful orange Muscat with our puds we chose a bottle of a complex rosé Malbec, one of few new world bottles on a mostly old world list interesting for its inclusion of familiar grapes from lesser-known vineyards, accessibly-priced.

Service was courteous and, to our relief bearing in mind the emptiness of the place, not overly-attentive. If staff occasionally lingered longer to chat with us than they might otherwise have done, it couldn't be held against them given the lack of anyone else to distract them.

Dedicated followers of food fashion might consider it a folly for anyone to open a restaurant so far off the zeitgeist, now of all times and in London of all places. Those who care about the more important details however  - that Reform Social & Grill  serves extremely good food at fair prices in a pleasant room where, in another sign that current trends are being eschewed, it is possible to book a table, not that currently at least you would need to - should rejoice.

Reform Social & Grill, Mandeville Place, London W1U 2BE Tel: 020 7224 1624

Reform Social and Grill  on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

 Posted by +Hugh Wright

Thursday, 2 August 2012


Location, location, location are, as every estate agent and Channel 4 property show addict knows, the three critical factors in determining the desirability of a property. The same cannot be said for restaurants, which can thrive in the oddest places - both under and atop multi-storey car-parks, for example - yet fail in seemingly sure-fire sites.

Ora is a fantastic smart Thai restaurant cursed with an abysmal location (location, location).  Little Portland Street is an alleyway in the unlovely area north of Oxford Street that property developers would like us to call Noho. The previous occupant of this site was Annex 3, the short-lived West End off-shoot of Shoreditch favourite Les Trois Garcons.

Ora's owners are clearly unperturbed that the eponymous three boys, with their pedigree, couldn't make a go of it here. Money has been spent to good effect on giving the long, large dining room and adjoining cocktail lounge a sleek, dark, Christian Liaigre-ish makeover, and an elegant interlocking design rather like a curvy Union Jack runs across staff t-shirts, embroidered leather place-mats and menus. There's confidence as well as incense in the air.

The menu offers a mix of the familiar curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes with a selection of Thai specialities, some of them seasonal. Dinner date Frankie and I started with a Spice Market platter of mixed starters, each paired to a home-made dipping sauce. Fish-cakes, chicken satay and prawn tempura were comme il faut, but crisp light calamari with its black pepper dip and a fiery, fragrant som tam papaya salad stood out.

Super soups followed; Frankie's bracing hot and sour tom yung goong used beautifully fresh prawns while my tom kha gai was about as good as this coconut milk, galangal and chicken soup gets, a sprinkling of crispy shallots adding a smoky bass note.

For our main courses Frankie took the safe route of a green chicken curry which was a fine specimen, the flavour deepened and heat tempered by the inclusion of aubergine. My panang neur, slices of beef in a sweetish, rich sauce was beautifully spiced so as to deliver a rolling ever-present heat in the mouth without pain or perspiration. A lovely slippery knot of mushrooms brought welcome earthiness. 

The two real wow-factor dishes of the meal were our desserts. Tub-tim-grob, an iced 'soup' made with coconut milk, shaved ice, water chestnuts, tapioca and jackfruit was successfully both sweet and refreshing, perfect after a rich, spicy meal. Even more unusual was durian ice-cream; unsurprisingly neither of us could guess the flavour but it was pungent, smoky, creamy and completely delicious.

As well as impeccable if at times overly-deferential service, a real highlight of what turned into a long, leisurely evening was exploring the Thai specialities on the drinks list. Starting with cocktails based on Thai spirit Mekhong - somewhere between a whisky and a rum - we moved on to Chang beer, after which we enjoyed Thai wines - who knew? - matched to each course. A light buttery Colombard Malaga, deep Pok Dum Shiraz and a sweet late harvest Chenin Blanc, reminiscent of a Muscat, led us as they would anyone to wonder why the wines of Thailand aren't better known. Fascinating stuff.

Pricing might be a little on the high side relative to portion size - an adjustment to one or other of ten percent down or up would balance things out nicely - but that's really all there is to fault about Ora. The challenge it faces is not in persuading anyone of the quality of the food, drink or service, all of which are above reproach, but simply of getting the word out to enough people who appreciate such things that they are there and that it is worth seeking out their less-than-favourable location, location, location. They are, and it is - now go.

Ora, 6 Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JE Tel: 020 7637 0125

I was invited to review Ora.

Ora Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Square Meal


Posted by +Hugh Wright
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