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

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Tonkotsu, Soho

Artist's impression of Tonkotsu, Soho from
It's the smell that gets you first. Rounding the corner of Old Compton Street into Dean Street, the intense, rich aroma emanating from Tonkotsu like a vapour grabs you in its tractor beam, winds its way into your dilated nostrils and demands that, like a Bisto Kid, you track this heaven scent to its source.

That source, it transpires, is the vast vats of pork-bone stock which simmer away for up to eighteen hours and then, with the addition of noodles and toppings, become the tonkotsu ramen from which this jaw-droppingly good Soho newcomer takes its name. Still relatively unheard of in London, ramen bars are ubiquitous in Japan, where ramen has the same quick, cheap, feed-me-now status as fried chicken does here. Now the owners of the estimable Tsuru Sushi have decided it's the capital's turn for some top notch noodle action.

Tonkotsu's 'part-Japanese, part neo-industrial'  interior. Photo by Senthil Sukumaran
Tonkotsu's interior. Photo:  Senthil Sukumaran
As is the law for any Soho opening these days, Tonkotsu is a no-reservations affair, but spread over two floors so as to provide a decent chance of getting a table without too long a wait. The decor's part traditional  Japanese - stripped wood, silk wall hangings - and part neo-industrial, with reclaimed school dining room chairs at the bare refectory tables and an imposing caged spiral staircase linking the floors.

The menu, concise as a haiku, offers three varieties of ramen alongside a handful of simple sides and gyoza. These crimped dumplings, hand-made daily, are a triumph; usually offered either steamed or fried, here they are first steamed to cook the super-fresh fillings - pork, prawn and pork or shitake and bamboo shoot- before being flash-fried to give a golden colour, slight crunch and savoury flavour to the wrapper. 

Sides, too, show attention to detail. Chicken kara age - Japan's rather more civilised take on fried chicken - sees chunks of tasty thigh marinated in soy, ginger and garlic before being dusted in flour and deep-fried; the resulting nuggets are moist, tender and so packed with flavour as to not need the accompanying dipping sauce. A deceptively simple salad of spinach and bean sprouts benefits from its nutty, viscous sesame oil dressing coating each leaf, making the overall flavour smoky rather than bland.

But the best part of all is, of course, the ramen itself. I tried the Tonkotsu, which adds to a generous bowl of that sumptuous broth thin noodles, belly pork, a seasoned egg - sunshine-gold yolk still slightly oozing - bean sprouts and spring onions, and Alyn had the Tokyo Spicy, much the same but using pulled chilli pork and thicker noodles. Both dishes had in common an incredible consistency; the labour- and time-intensive cooking of the stock, during which the collagen in the pork bones breaks down, results in a creaminess almost like a velouté.

Tokyo Spicy ramen at Tonkotsu, Soho.
Each of us preferred our own choice, Alyn liking the only-slight extra heat of the Tokyo Spicy while I liked the restraint of the Tonkotsu, but agreed that both bowlfuls put anything we'd had before in the shade. Slurping, Japanese-style is encouraged; we didn't need any.

The concise drinks list might confuse some customers, focusing as it does on British craft beers, sake and whiskies. There are a couple of big-name Japanese beers (Asahi, Sapporo) that diners will recognise but other than those it's pot luck as far as liquid refreshment goes; even the soft drinks eschew the familiar, including 'Dalston Cola' which we didn't try but the gents on the table next to us abandoned after one sip.  Still, all credit to Tonkotsu for being as innovative with their drinks as with their food.

Pricing is reasonable especially considering the quality; ramen dishes (as well as the two we tried there's a veggie option using miso broth) are £9 or £11, gyoza £5 for five and side orders all about a fiver. With drinks and service, a meal for two will work out at about £25 a head, a pit-stop lunch for one of ramen and a drink closer to £15, putting Tonkotsu firmly in the affordable category.

Tonkotsu continues the trend in London for restaurants doing only one thing but doing it exceptionally well and in that respect is a very welcome addition. If, as I expect it will, it starts a new trend for ramen-ya, then we can only hope that they'll be nearly as good as this.

Tonkotsu, 63 Dean Street, London W1D 4QG Tel: 020 7437 0071

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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