Monday, 31 December 2012

Hawksmoor Air Street

Hawksmoor Air Street interior from www.
I love steak. If in the final hours prior to my expiring I retain any capacity to choose and masticate then I am certain to include a great big slab of beef, bleu, in my last meal. But I very rarely order it in restaurants, or go to steakhouses, because of what is known in my family as The Pam Principle™. 

My mother, Pam, never orders in a restaurant anything which she might reasonably expect to make at home, believing that it's wasteful to pay someone to do something you can do yourself. I have an excellent local butcher (Moen & Son of Clapham, if you're interested) and a heavy griddle pan, and as such I cook steak - really, really good steak - exactly how I like it, often and well.

As a result, the crop of high-end steakhouses that have exploded onto the London restaurant scene over the last few years have largely passed me by; sure I've heard of the big players - Goodman and Hawksmoor being the Titans of the genre - and had good times at steak specialists 34 and CUT at 45 Park Lane, but as a general rule I've abided by The Pam Principle and enjoyed my sirloin strictly chez moi for no more than about a tenner a time, including service (of course I tip myself - doesn't everyone?) 

A perfect dry Martini at Hawksmoor Air Street Something piqued my interest however about Hawksmoor Air Street, the latest and largest opening from partners Will Beckett and Huw Gott. It's the first of their restaurants to focus on fish as well as flesh, bringing in esteemed seafood specialist Mitch Tonks to curate the crustacea; 2012 has very much been the year of restaurants doing only one thing, well so I was curious to see if Hawksmoor could pull off doing two. 

The answer (for the impatient among you who like to skip to the last page of a book first) is yes, although the main courses dinner date David and I tried were actually the least exciting part of an overall extremely good meal. Char-grilling lent my 'Hawksmoor Cut' turbot - a thick lateral tranche served on the bone - a wonderful subtle smokiness, but the same savour was a little overwhelming on David's slightly-too-chewy 600g bone-in sirloin. Both were good, but only as good as you'd expect at Hawksmoor's prices.

What we really enjoyed were the supporting elements, the accompanying bits and pieces that distinguish Hawksmoor Air Street from its competitors. Cocktails - from a list divided up by suitability to the time of day, and a real joy to read - were ace, from a perfect dry Martini to an after-dinner Buttered Old-Fashioned using bourbon stirred patiently with clarified butter to produce a rich post-prandial soother. Wines were chosen for us from the reasonable-enough selection on offer by the glass, the house Grenache proving particularly fine for £6.

A pre-starters dish of seasonal pickles - which on our visit included mushrooms, carrot and cauliflower as well as an egg, but changes - was sensational, each ingredient pickled in different vinegars and spices creating complex layers of flavour. Sides were unusually good, too; Jansson's Temptation, a Swedish potato gratin with anchovies, worked well with both the steak and the turbot, as did a light, fresh dish of spinach tossed with lemon and garlic in which every component could be discerned. Starters were one hit, one miss; David's roast scallops were terrific, three fat succulent specimens served on the shell with white port and garlic, but my potted beef and bacon with Yorkshires suffered from the puddings being slightly toasted and bitter.

We went a bit salt caramel crazy for dessert; a peanut butter shortbread with salt caramel ice-cream was astonishing (although surely anything which combines peanut butter and salt caramel has got to be A Good Thing), as were three salt caramel 'Rolos', larger than Nestlé's finest and easily ten times as tasty although I'll be interested to see how long the Swiss confectioner's IP lawyers let Hawksmoor keep calling them that for.

Interior detail of Hawksmoor Air Street by Niamh Shields
Interior detail of Hawksmoor Air Street
by Niamh Shields
The room  - a 235-seater first-floor behemoth overlooking Regent Street - is attractive, decorated in clubby dark wood, parquet and green leather with some beautiful stained glass and salvaged Art Deco light fittings, but too huge properly to appreciate. It's also very loud; perhaps unsurprisingly the vast majority of tables were taken by all-male groups bellowing at each other over their bone-in prime rib.

Service was good if at times a little disjointed, but it jarred that in these grand surroundings the clothing worn by the staff was mostly the type of jeans-and-check-shirt combo that even local boozers would consider too casual. I found an interview with Will Beckett in which he explains that staff are allowed to wear their own clothes as it makes them happier and therefore able to deliver better service. Well sorry Will, but if I'm handing over forty quid for a bit of turbot I think I'd rather it be served by someone in a nice starched apron, thanks.

Hawksmoor Air Street is a glamorous place serving some pretty good, and at times very good food (I'd go back for a cocktail or two and those pickles alone) but didn't wow this diner enough to question the validity of The Pam Principle. Fortunately for its owners however, not everyone's mother knows best.

Hawksmoor Air Street, 5A Air Street, London W1J 0AD Tel: 020 7406 3980

I was a guest of Hawksmoor Air Street on this occasion

Hawksmoor  on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 24 December 2012


Wishbone, Brixton by Hugh Wright
Back in August when I wrote a piece for The Telegraph about the emerging trend for up-market chicken shops, I felt safe in including Wishbone in Brixton even though it hadn't opened yet. 

For one thing, I'd been to a menu-testing (yes, I know, it's a hard life) at co-owner Scott Collins' MEATLiquor earlier in the year and thought everything was pretty much spot on, and figured that if the food was as good as it was in beta it would only get better with time.

For another, whatever your feelings might be on the burger cult that has had London in its sweaty clutches for the last eighteen months or so, there's no denying that Collins is a canny businessman who seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to peddling nouveau junk food, so why shouldn't his fried chicken joint be as big a smash as his burger bars? Combine all this with the fact that his partner in this venture is all-round food know-it-all and social media darling William Leigh, and surely you have the recipe for a finger-lickin' success?

The menu at Wishbone, Brixton. Photo by Hugh Wright
Well, yes. You do. Wishbone, in Brixton Market - the covered grid of avenues which together with adjacent Brixton Village has stolen Bermondsey Street's crown as the capital's hippest restaurant strip - is just great. Split over two colourfully-decorated floors, Wishbone pays knowing homage to south London's myriad jerk chicken shops without resorting to patronising pastiche.

The menu is concise but offers enough choice to allow for variety on repeat visits (which, having been once, I imagine most folk will want to make). The free-range fried chicken, using Cotswold Whites from Aubrey Allen, is served as a quarter, half or in a sandwich and if the meat is slightly dry, it's made up for by exceptional flavour - actually of chicken, imagine that! - and a deliciously crunchy, oil-less batter.

Wings and thighs come with a variety of imaginative toppings; I have become dangerously hooked on the Thai thighs, boned, rolled and battered before being tossed in a tamarind dressing and topped with mint leaves, red chilli and crisp shallots. Buffalo wings are worth ordering for the accompanying sauce, studded with chunks of blue cheese, alone. Sides can be hit-and-miss; black-eyed pea salad and potato salad both proved bland, but deep fried mac 'n' cheese - because how else do you improve cheesy pasta if not by dipping it in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it, right? - is a thing of evil genius.

What I most like about Wishbone however, even more than the food, is the attention to detail. Even something as simple as a can of pop is served with care - chic glasswear, ample crystal clear ice-cubes, a neatly-cut slice of lemon - by unfailingly enthusiastic staff who manage to pull off the very rare feat of being extremely cool but not too much so for school. 

Moreish, fruity hot sauce and lip-smacking chilli vinegar are provided on every bright formica table along with eminently-practical wet-wipes for the inevitable sticky fingers. Price-wise Wishbone is fantastic value - a vast quarter chicken is just £5.50, sides all £2.50-£4.50 - and if I have one complaint it is that portions are so large that even, say, a quarter chicken and a portion of thighs is too much food for one person. Perfect for sharing though, so just take a friend or two.

I wasn't alone in spotting that chicken would be one of 2012's big food trends, but I'm glad that my early faith in Wishbone has paid off. This is fun, fantastic funky chicken - and worryingly for my waistline, only a leisurely fifteen minute stroll from my flat. I can't be the only resident of SW9 who's counting their clucky stars.

Wishbone, Unit 12 Market Row, Brixton Market, London SW9 8PR Tel: 020 7274 0939

Wishbone on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Edwin's French Wine Bar & Restaurant

Interior of Edwin's French Restaurant & Wine Bar
You have to admire - or envy - Edwin Chan. After a long and incredibly successful career in advertising, culminating in his founding his own global agency, Chan handed over the day-to-day running of the business to his partners and decided to pursue his passions of French food and wine. This saw him open an eponymous brasserie and wine bar in Lyon in 2007 and in October of this year, one in London.

The choice of Shoreditch as a location is an interesting one; although not quite as painfully trendy as in its Nathan Barley hey-day, the still-hip axis of Great Eastern Street and Curtain Road wouldn't seem ideally suited to somewhere priding itself on its traditionalism, as Edwin's does. But not everyone in EC2 wants to eat Peruvian-Japanese fusion atop a skyscraper, or vertically-roasted chicken under a giant Damien Hirst vitrine, so actually Chan could well be on to something.

Chef Jeremy Huguet's menu is a simple affair; nothing on it will be unfamiliar to even the most conservative diner. A three-course prix-fixe is offered at both lunch and dinner for an eminently reasonable £20, although with prices of only £6-£9 for starters, all mains around £15 and desserts no more than £6, three courses won't come to much more than that a la carte.

My fashion buyer pal James started with a plate of charcuterie (the rabbit terrine he'd initially wanted being unavailable) which was fine, as you'd expect a plate of Bayonne ham and salami to be. My escalope of foie gras with figs and raspberry coulis was excellent, seared to a crust on the outside and trembling within.

For our main course we both chose onglet, or hanger steak, presented sliced and with rather too many sauté potatoes. It tasted lovely but in both effort and presentation fell firmly into the 'I could (and do) make this at home' camp, which I think is taking simplicity just a step too far. A plate of cheeses, including a delightfully pongy Coulommiers and a sweet, nutty Tomme, rounded things off perfectly.

Chan personally curates and imports the wine list, which changes frequently. None of it is cheap, starting at £20 a bottle, but can be relied on to be good (and good value); our Haute Cote de Beaune was light but warming. Service, from an all-French staff, was entirely faultless.

Example wine list for Edwin's French Restaurant & Wine Bar
Any restaurant, anywhere, serving good if unexceptional food at fair prices complemented by a strong and interesting wine list should do well; one with someone as passionate as Edwin Chan behind it, moreso. But Edwin's will, I think, struggle to achieve true popularity unless more is done to make it somewhere you really want to eat, rather than just being somewhere there's no really good reason not to eat.

The room, for example, is basic almost to the point of harshness, with aggressive fluorescent lighting; a restaurant - unless famed for its ascetic aesthetic, such as St. John - with no candles, no ornamentation, borders on the unwelcoming. From outside, too, Edwin's lacks warmth, retaining the unappealing doors and canopy of the backstreet trattoria it previously was. It's one thing to be a labour of love, quite another to actually feel like it to the customer.

Edwin, from a conversation I had with him after our dinner, appears confident that the restaurant and wine bar he's put his name to will do just fine without such finessing. I might not share his confidence, but I hope nonetheless that that proves to be the case. 

Edwin's French Wine Bar & Restaurant, 18 Phipp Street, London EC2A 4NU Tel: 020 7739 4443 

I was invited to review Edwin's

Edwin's French Wine Bar and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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 Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Mele e Pere

The neon sign and display of glass apples and pears at Mele e Pere, Soho
I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the brainstorming session where they came up with the name Mele e Pere. "Well it's going to be an Italian restaurant, so let's give it an Italian name!" some young marketing wonk with heavy-rimmed glasses and a choppy hairdo would have intoned with the gravity usually reserved for decoding the human genome. 

"Yah," Livia the intern would have continued, "but maybe something a little...ironic?" thereby at least justifying the lunch money she'd later go and spend on Marlboro Lights. 

"Uh, now guys, I'm thinking waaaay outside my Dr Dre Beats Audio Boombox on this," Zander the 'Ideas Furnace' would volunteer, "but hear what I'm saying, si? Well it's Italian. And its down some stairs. And what could be more ironic, y'know, than Cockney rhyming slang - but in Italian? Apples and pears, stairs. Mele e Pere - stair-ay!" At which point, and following a brief awe-struck silence, everyone would applaud before adjourning to the John Snow for celebratory Staropramens all round.

And so it came to pass that Mele e Pere was rendered in neon in the tricolore of the Italian flag, appended to the front of the building (a corner plot on busy Brewer Street) and the windows filled with a Damien Hirst-ish installation of beautiful Murano glass apples and pears. So far so conceptual. Except that if you didn't know what was behind the name and very elegant facade you'd walk straight past, thinking that it was...well, some sort of Soho creative agency.

Photo by Michael Ford
In fact, down the mele e pere is a very decent restaurant, serving modern, unpretentious Italian food. A large chic bar area gives onto an arched dining room decorated in fashionable low-key neutrals, sultrily-lit by wall-mounted anglepoise lamps. Underground spaces can feel dingy and cold; this room is neither.

My vegetarian guest, uber-blogger Michael Ford, struggled to find much that was meat-free on the menu but that was about our only complaint. While waiting for our starters we tried Mele e Pere's home-made vermouth - a citrusy white and sharper rosso - which at £4 for a generous measure made for a perfect aperitif. Michael started with maltagliati - 'misshapen' - pasta with walnut pesto, chilli and garlic, which was excellent, as was my thick soup of chestnut, curly kale and white beans which put me in mind of a breadless ribollita. A generous sprinkling of Pecorino Romano added welcome tang. 

Potato gnocchi - Michael had again to order from the pasta section for his main course for want of other options - were an exercise in luxurious simplicity, drizzled in white truffle oil and stirred through with shavings of slightly dry but nonetheless discernibly fungal Italian black truffle. My roasted wild duck was served alluringly pink and was deliciously tender, quince puree bringing a nice acidity to the plate. A side order - one of any from the menu is included in the price of mains, giving a flexibility of choice I'd like to see catch on elsewhere - of broccoli with chilli and almonds was good if a little cold.

The bar at Mele e Pere, Soho
To finish we shared some Fontal and Gorgonzola cheese, served with mostarda di frutta - candied fruit in a mustard syrup, a delicious cross between chutney and piccalilli. Had space allowed we could've chosen from a short list of classic puds - tiramisu, pannacotta - or Mele e Pere's home-made ice-creams and sorbets, which given the quality of everything else we ate I'm sure would have been splendid.

The wine list is almost exclusively Italian and quirkily categorised under headings such as 'The Jewels In The Crown', 'The Aromatics' and 'Gems From All Over The Boot'. Our bottle of Pignataro Montepulciano d'Abruzzo delivered a lot of fruit and flavour for £25; the list starts as low as £16.50 and there's plenty of choice by the glass and half-bottle too. Thought's also been given to cocktails and digestifs; drink is clearly taken as seriously as the food although working through too much of any of it might make the return ascent of the mele e pere rather tricky.

So bang slap in the middle of Soho there's a smart restaurant serving honest, unfussy Italian food and interesting drinks at fair prices - you just need to know that it's there, and now you do. One of the categories on the wine list is 'Hidden Treasures'; it's a category Mele e Pere falls into itself. 

Mele e Pere, 46 Brewer Street, London W1F 9TF Tel: 020 7096 2096

I was invited to review Mele e Pere

Mele e Pere on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

 Posted by +Hugh Wright
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