Sunday, 19 May 2013

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

It started with a sandwich. 

So impressed was I with an extremely tasty and unexpectedly cheap prawn baguette from Harrods Sandwich Counter that, when I got home, I decided to start a food blog. I already had a blog - in the classic, now-almost-obsolete mould of the straightforward online diary - but it had become neglected and I had felt for a while that it was time to focus on one subject; I just wasn't sure which one. That baguette was my light-bulb moment.

I've always loved eating out. As a child [screen fades to denote misty-eyed reminiscence of idyllic, bucolic Dorset childhood] 'eating out' meant very occasional family trips to the pub; I remember thick, sugary tomato soup, probably Heinz, big slabs of paté served with toasted brown bread and foil-wrapped pats of butter, and gammon steaks with chips, peas and pineapple - a meal that I would, and do, still happily order anywhere I see it.

As I got older, into my teens, eating out became something I did with friends, from birthday meals at Beefeater (one chap who ordered his ice-cream 'Chocolate no nuts' rather too enthusiastically was lumbered with that as a nickname for many years - kids can be so cruel) to more sophisticated group outings to La Lupa, a family-owned Italian restaurant where we first tried breadsticks and, if ordered with sufficient confidence by the boy with the deepest voice - which wasn't me, not then - you could get wine.

And then - after a long summer spent working as a host at Chiquito's, whence began a love which endures to this day for tacky Tex-Mex and frozen Margaritas with heavily-salted rims - I went to uni, and London, and a whole new world (albeit a far, far smaller one than today's) of culinary possibility opened up to me. I remember still my first visits to a smart new place called Wagamama where they didn't take bookings (fancy that!) and served big bowls of soup noodles called ramen (it'll never catch on); to Yo! Sushi, and Atlantic Bar & Grill, and - oh, the glamour! - to Quaglino's.

So I've always loved eating out. And I've always loved writing. So writing about eating out - making one new hobby from two existing ones - was, as a contestant on The Apprentice might put it, a no-brainer win-win. I've done it for nearly four years now, and I think I've done OK at it. But now it's time to stop.

Because I have, as some of you will know, landed a rather fantastic job with a restaurant group, doing their communications - social media, copywriting, press, PR, all things that I have developed an expertise in as a direct but I can honestly say unintentional consequence of starting this blog. The poacher has turned gamekeeper; I've gone over, as more than one restaurant PR has put it, to the Dark Side. Entirely organically, two of my great passions, eating and writing about it, have become my living, and I couldn't be happier.

Which means that, for now at least, it's time to say goodbye to blogging. I certainly won't stop writing, and I most definitely won't stop eating out, good heavens no, I just won't be doing one about the other on this platform. You'll still be able to hear my views on restaurants and the industry on Twitter - God, just try shutting me up on there - and of course face-to-face. And I'm sure there'll still be occasional posts on here about anywhere that particular blows me away, and non-food topics including another passion of mine, travel - something I recently dipped a toe into to an encouragingly positive reception.

Blogging about restaurants is a very different game now from what it was when I started in 2009. It's been fun - huge, crazy, booze-fuelled, stomach-distending fun - but this feels like a good time to get out. I have my views - oh boy do I have my views - on the ethics of restaurant blogging, on who's worth reading and who isn't, on the cynical manipulation of SEO and how businesses confuse readership with influence, on freebies...but those are for another time.

For now I would just like to say, thank you for reading (and for reading this far), for commenting, for challenging me, for sharing, and au revoir. I hope it's been for you even 12.5% of the pleasure it's been for me.

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 6 May 2013

McQueen

Ordinarily, a glitzy bar-cum-restaurant-cum-nightclub like McQueen in Shoreditch isn't the kind of place you'd find me having dinner. Aimed squarely at the kind of high-spending, hard-living City geezers 'n' gals who like their spirits premium, house happy and ropes velvet, it's somewhere I've always given a wide berth, even though I used to work just round the corner.

But then a few weeks ago at a networking event (yes, people do still go to those, or at least I do; they're like LinkedIn, but with wine) I met McQueen's very charming Marketing & PR Manager who, doing what good Marketing & PR Managers do when they scent someone who writes about restaurants, invited me in to try theirs. My kind of place or not, it would have been churlish to refuse, especially when it transpired that we had a mutual friend who would make the perfect dinner date.

Not realising that the restaurant has its own entrance on Tabernacle Street, we entered through the bar which, on a Thursday night, was - as I believe the kids say these days - going off. The decor, which carries through to the restaurant, is a bit blingy but perfectly inoffensive - parquet floors, Chesterfield sofas, slate walls, gilt-framed black-and-white pictures of the venue's inspiration, the eternally-cool Steve McQueen - and succeeds in making the space feel razzy without tipping over into tacky. The louche, sexily-lit room would, my pal Nic and I agreed, be ideal for a date, perhaps with someone who wasn't publicly your partner.

The menu (as well as the a la carte there are good value express lunch and early evening set menus) is unthreatening stuff - salads, bistro classics and a few grills - at not-too-terrible prices; starters are around the £8 mark and mains, except for steaks, all under £20. We kicked off with a couple of well-made cocktails and some courgette fritters, pleasingly thick wedges in a crunchy, salty crumb.

Nic's starter, a salad of carpaccio-thin slices of pretty candy beetroot with red apple and pepper cress in a lemon and herb dressing, was lovely to look at and fresh and clean on the palate, if a little bland. Mine, three plump, sweet scallops 
topped with crumblingly-crisp streaky bacon and served on a cauliflower puree given a kick with white pepper, was much livelier.

Poor Nic didn't do too well with her main course, a very ordinary veggie burger which - horrors - wasn't cooked all the way through and was served on an only-partially-defrosted bun. The dual shame of this was that, having chosen to serve such a humdrum vegetarian option in the first place, the kitchen couldn't at least do it well. They redeemed themselves with my monkfish, a good firm fillet served on soft, silky buttered leeks with smoky griddled razor clams, although it was rather heavy-handedly salted.

Desserts, fortunately, were spot on. Ginger pannacotta with honeyed madeleines was a very happy marriage of tastes and textures, while a classic hot chocolate fondant was as good an example as I've encountered anywhere. Coffee, too often an over-priced afterthought, was of a high standard, as was service which was nicely paced and unpressured with none of the forced formality or up-selling that I might have expected of such a 'see-and-be-seen' location.

All-in-all, bar that very poor veggie burger, McQueen was better than I thought it would be. My perhaps prejudiced expectation of venues like this is that they'll be more style than substance, the food and beverage offering secondary to loud music and a late licence in attracting customers; not so here. Not only did I enjoy McQueen despite it not being somewhere I'd usually go; I'd go so far as to say that I'd happily go back.

McQueen, 51-56 Tabernacle Street, London EC2A 4AA Tel: 020 7036 9229 www.mcqueen-shoreditch.co.uk

McQueen on Urbanspoon  Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Brigade Bar & Bistro

At risk of being accused of platitudinous middle-class hand-wringing - the dreaded #firstworldproblems - I've been thinking a lot lately about the ethics of eating out.

This week The Trussell Trust announced the biggest ever annual increase in use of its UK foodbanks, just as many London foodies were getting in a tizz over yet another new restaurant where the cheapest option is a £45, six-course tasting menu. Some of us are agonising over whether to go for  6 or 10 courses at lunch; some of us are agonising over whether we will eat at all today. 
Never, that I can recall in my lifetime, has the gulf between 'haves' and 'have-nots' seemed so painfully wide.

But I'm not about to say that eating out, and enjoying it, is wrong, or immoral; it'd be vastly over-simplifying matters, not to mention hypocritical of me, to say that because some people can't afford to eat, those who can should feel bad about it. What I would say however is that where an opportunity presents itself to support disadvantaged people while stuffing our faces, it is - I think - incumbent on us, at least occasionally, to take it.

Brigade Bar & Bistro, on Tooley Street, presents just such an opportunity. A social enterprise offering six-month apprenticeships to people who have experienced or are at risk of homelessness, Brigade supports the Beyond Food Foundation which helps apprentices into careers in catering and hospitality. It's a similar principle to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen - which celebrates ten years in business this year - but, lacking as high-profile a figurehead as the ubiquitous Jamie O, is rather less well-known.

To deal first with the only thing I really couldn't bring myself to love about Brigade, the dining room is not going to win any design awards any time soon. Although the room has as its focal point a fashionable open kitchen, the decor is harsh and dated with cream pleather chairs and fake flowers doing nothing to diminish the impression of having walked into a suburban budget hotel with airs, not a smart modern restaurant in an increasingly-happening part of London. It's noisy too; the shrieks of a large group ricocheting off every hard surface made it at times hard to hear or think on my visit. The rest of the building, which houses private dining and meeting rooms, a cookery school and offices is, by contrast, rather chic.

Fortunately that's where the gripes end because the food - which is, ultimately, what it's all about - is very good, and certainly well above the standard one might expect from a brigade of mostly chefs-in-training. Bar a couple of minor, and in the circumstances excusable, glitches, old school-friend David and I each enjoyed three pretty much perfect courses.

To start, David chose Wiltshire venison carpaccio, each deep red petal carved carefully to a uniform thinness and served with aged Old Winchester cheese, a clever British substitution for the usual Parmesan. My sardine tart, from the daily specials, was beautifully presented, two plump glistening silver fillets framed by puff pastry. The fish tasted deliciously fresh, its natural oiliness balanced by the crispness of the pastry.

David's main course of pan-fried lemon sole was, as my sardines had been, impeccably good fish, firm textured but delicate, although the lemon butter it was served in didn't taste of lemon at all and could have used a more generous whack of citrus. My chicken mousse-stuffed breast of guinea fowl was excellent, the mousse sufficiently boldly-flavoured as to  not be overwhelmed by the game. Guinea fowl is all too often overcooked to dryness; not so here. 

Sides were interesting but needed tweaking; deep-fried broccoli with a small bowl of rustic tomato and white bean stew was tasty stuff, notwithstanding slightly clumpy batter on the broccoli, but was such a huge serving that it would have been better offered as a starter than a side-order - a surfeit of food can be as bad as a lack. Roasted beetroot, cumin seeds and honey meanwhile used lovely earthy beets but I couldn't detect any cumin, by taste or sight, leading me to wonder if it had been left out altogether.

Desserts were a highlight. Caramelised apple tart - tarte aux pommes a l'alsacienne in anywhere less proudly flying the flag for all things British than Brigade - with Calvados ice-cream was a textbook assembly of thinly-sliced apple fanned around a crisp, fine base, while white chocolate and raspberry crème brûlée was luxuriously unctuous without being overly rich.

Helped by the fact that service was faultlessly polished and polite and despite the decor and noise, David and I thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The food was mostly very impressive, if in places lacking nuance and finesse - the unlemony lemon butter, the missing cumin - which can of course be excused knowing that the chefs here are learning on the job and will only do so by making mistakes. That said, the pricing at Brigade is pretty punchy with starters at £5.95-£10.50, mains at £14.95-£28.50 and desserts £5.50-£7.95, so one might not unreasonably expect (even) better. David felt that I was being harsh on this point and that if the money spent at Brigade is going to support good work - which it plainly is - then the pricing was justified.

Which brings us neatly back to my original point, and the one that I would ask you to take a moment to reflect on, namely that while there is of course no reason for us to stop going out and having lovely expensive meals just because 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2012-13, wouldn't it be great if, just occasionally, we could find a way of doing it that benefits others? Thanks to Brigade, we can.

Brigade, The Fire Station, 139 Tooley Street, London SE1 2HZ Tel: 0844 346 1225 www.thebrigade.co.uk

Brigade Bar & Bistro on Urbanspoon

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Another very worthwhile campaign I'm supporting:



Posted by +Hugh Wright

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Nuremberg - A City Guide

Indelibly associated with the Reichsparteitag - Nuremberg Rallies - and the trials held there after World War II, Nuremberg in 2013 is a city mindful of its sombre role in history but not defined by it. Earlier this year I travelled to Nuremberg as a guest of the city’s bi-annual Fashion Days festival and found a forward-looking city rich with some of Germany’s best museums, delicious food, colourful markets and lively nightlife, making it the perfect destination for a stylish alternative city break.

A (handsome, nearly-shirtless...) model at Fashion Days
A (handsome, nearly-shirtless...) model at Fashion Days
About Fashion Days: A three-day extravaganza taking place in spring and autumn, Fashion Days brings together Nuremberg’s top designer and high street stores as well as labels from further afield for a roster of runway shows, pop-up boutiques, networking and glamorous after-parties. 

Taking a different theme each time - March 2013’s event was cleverly and meticulously styled to pay homage to London’s fashion scene - Fashion Days makes the kind of shows usually only accessible to industry insiders available to all, brilliantly democratising and demystifying fashion without stripping away any of the elegance. 

I fell hard for the edgy street style and pimped tailoring shown by department store WÖHRL’s concept line U-eins and the beautifully-tailored avant-garde collection by CHANG13.

Where to stay: The slick, modern Novina Hotel in the nearby town of Herzogenaurach makes an ideal base for a weekend in Nuremberg. As the official team hotel of German premiership team FC Nuremberg, the Novina has a sports theme throughout, not to mention a well-equipped spa and gym where you may find yourself working out next to a Bavarian Beckham. 

Novina Hotel Herzogenaurach Herzo-Base photo by Hugh Wright
Novina Hotel Herzogenaurach Herzo-Base
The immaculate bedrooms have flatscreen TVs, Nespresso machines and free cabled WLAN internet access; wifi is charged at a reasonable €4,95 per 24 hours. Breakfast is included in the room-rate and is a splendid, ample buffet of regional, continental and cooked dishes.

Herzogenaurach is also home to the massive global headquarters of sportswear Titans adidas and Puma - founded by sibling rivals Adolf (Adi) and Rudolf Dasler respectively - and both companies have factory outlets offering incredible bargains on clothing and footwear. Nike also have an outlet store here - Nike Air sneakers start at about €25 - as does fashion retailer s.Oliver, making this a shoppers’ paradise.

The Dokumentationszentrum at the Nuremberg Rally site. Photo by Hugh Wright
The Dokumentationszentrum
History Lessons: The city of Nuremberg has struck a very intelligent balance with regards to how it marks its unfortunate place in history. 

The structurally-unsound grandstands around the Zeppelinfeld parade ground - including the balcony from which Hitler addressed the hundreds of thousands of Nazi party members massed below - can be freely explored at visitors’ own risk, the city lacking neither the volition nor the €70m required to restore them. The likelihood is that with time they will crumble and disappear - a fitting end one might say. 

Contextual information on the events that took place in the city and how they came about can be found in the admirably dispassionate Dokumentationszentrum, a jagged modern building carved into the former Nazi Congress Hall.

Culture Fix: As the country’s largest museum of cultural history, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum is Germany’s answer to London's V&A. Boasting a delightful, eclectic collection of applied arts, clothing, pottery, furniture and art, the Renaissance and Enlightenment galleries are particularly impressive. The museum is accessed via the incredible Straße der Menschenrechte - Way of Human Rights - lined with thirty pillars each engraved with one of the articles of the European Declaration of Human Rights in a different European language.

An exhibit at the Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg. Photo by Hugh Wright
An exhibit at the Germanischen Nationalmuseum.
Time To Eat: Nuremberg is famous for its finger-sized Nürnberger rostbratwurst sausages and the city’s signature snack is drei im weckla, three bratwurst served in a crusty roll. Available on almost every street corner from kiosks for €1,50-€2,50, a drei makes for a tasty bite at any time of day. 
For something more substantial, head for the sensational Bratwurst Röslein just off the main marketplace at Rathausplatz 6. The world’s biggest bratwurst restaurant (so they say, and who am I to argue?) serves huge platters of bratwurst and other Bavarian specialities such as schäufele - roast cured pork shoulder - with dumplings and sauerkraut. Share a platter (prices start at around €15,00 per person) and you won’t need to eat again all day. Or indeed all weekend.

Finally, no visit to Nuremberg would be complete without a kaffee und kuchen stop at city-centre institution Cafe Beer at Breite Gasse 79. It's easy to see why this sprawling cafe-bakery, with its vast selection of mouth-watering cakes, pastries and chocolates, has been in business since 1879.
Bratwurst Roslein. Photo by Hugh Wright
The world’s biggest bratwurst restaurant, Bratwurst Roslein
Something Sweet: Nuremberg is known for its spicy, squishy lebkuchen - delicious gingerbread especially popular at Christmas but available all year round from the main Hauptmarkt and various stores including perhaps the city’s finest, Lebkuchen Schmidt. Plain, iced, chocolate-coated and shaped varieties are all sold here, in plain packaging or beautifully elaborate tins which make perfect gifts. Around Easter-time Schmidt also stock Osterbrot, a tasty traditional fruit-loaf that is Nuremberg’s version of panettone.

Nuremberg by Night: With a population of just over half a million, Nuremberg is a fairly quiet city by night but that’s not to mean there’s no nightlife. The city has a number of lively bars and clubs, the best of them being bijou boite 360 at Adlerstraße 36. This tiny club offers an ever-changing series of DJ nights and live acts; it’s worth booking a table to be sure of getting in. If you can’t, the much larger and more commercial Goija at Bahnhofstraße 11 is a safe bet, albeit one with a rather more pretentious crowd.

When to go: Other than for Fashion Days (of course!) Nuremberg is especially worth visiting at Christmas (for the spectacular Christmas market), at Easter, and in autumn for the Old Town Festival. Host to many cultural, sporting and trade events throughout the year, flights and hotels are often at a premium so it’s advisable to plan well ahead to ensure that you get the best rates for accommodation and travel.

Getting there: Nuremberg is well served by airlines from the UK. Direct flights are available with airberlin, City Jet and budget airline Ryanair; Lufthansa and Swiss also fly to Nuremberg via their hubs in Frankfurt and Zurich. I flew from London City Airport with Swiss via Zurich; two of my favourite airports and my favourite airline (they give you chocolate during landing, what’s not to love?) ensured an easy and very pleasant journey in little over two hours.
I travelled to Nuremberg as a guest of Fashion Days, who provided my travel and accommodation, but none of the businesses or locations mentioned in this guide have paid or otherwise provided any incentive for inclusion.
Posted by +Hugh Wright

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Balthazar

Balthazar London interior
One question often asked of best-TV-series-ever-made Buffy The Vampire Slayer was how the citizens of Sunnydale, a town unusually prone to attack from vampires, demons and the occasional robot, seemingly experienced collective amnesia after each new massacre. Die-hard fans however know that this was neatly explained very early on (Season 1, Episode 2, 'The Harvest') when Giles - Buffy's 'Watcher', or guardian - tells the Scoobies that, "People have a tendency to rationalise what they can and forget what they can't."

So with Giles' advice in mind I am writing this as quickly as possible - the morning after the horror of the night before - so that if, as I truly hope I shall, I forget everything that I can't rationalise about dinner at Balthazar, there will at least remain some record of it to warn others away from this Hellmouth of a restaurant.

Balthazar, a huge brasserie occupying the site of the old Theatre Museum just off the piazza in Covent Garden, is a near-carbon copy of the original Balthazar in New York. Why it was thought that what London really needed in 2013 was its own branch of a restaurant that was very fashionable when it opened in 1997 but nowadays is, by most accounts, strictly one for 'out-of-towners' is beyond me, but so are cooking rice and why people find Ricky Gervais funny - I don't pretend to understand everything.

I certainly don't understand what all the fuss is about the room at Balthazar, or the fabled 'buzz'; you will recognise the decor immediately if you have ever been somewhere like Bofinger in Paris, or Cafe Rouge. I am about the thousandth person now to compare Balthazar to a Cafe Rouge, but the comparison is inevitable when the shared 'I've-been-designed-to-look-like-I've-always-been-here' ersatzness is so stark. As for the 'buzz', fill a cavernous room with people and blast middle-of-the-road jazz over the speakers and of course they'll raise their voices to be heard. You say 'buzz', I say 'racket', tomato, tomato.

The menu at Balthazar, London
Already at our table when I arrived early for our booking, dinner-date Matthew explained that he had fled the adjacent bar because of over-crowding; an unwelcome import from New York is the notion that herding diners cheek-by-jowl into a holding pen before being allowed to have their dinner builds excitement, a theory as flawed as the belief that administering fear-hormone adrenaline to veal calves before slaughter will make the meat taste better.

To the eating. I cannot rationalise how a restaurant jointly operated by Keith McNally - a man who in countless, angst-soaked pre-opening interviews stressed how much of a 'perfectionist' he is - and Caprice Holdings, a company whose restaurants, almost without exception, I love, could allow such mediocre (and in the case of one dish genuinely inedible) food to be served. 

A basket of bread, from Balthazar's own bakery in Waterloo, had been brought thence so slowly or long ago that it was stale and flavourless. My starter of dressed crab was fine, likewise Matthew's chicken liver and foie gras mousse, although presentation was rather forlorn, my crab on a bed of tired lettuce with a tin pot of entirely superfluous Marie Rose sauce, Matthew's mousse a cone plonked on the plate straight from a catering mould. Accompanying red onion confit at least appeared to have been lovingly spooned from the jar.

But the main courses - oh dear, oh God. I ordered whole grilled dorade with Romesco sauce and herb salad, Matthew steak tartare with a side of frites. The fish had been grilled so long that all moisture had been obliterated, and the lemon and herb filling was so over-powering that the dorade tasted - the one mouthful I had before sending it back - as if it had been marinated in Toilet Duck. It was truly horrible, and swiftly changed for a salad Nicoise, which was OK. Matthew's anaemic, undercooked fries, too, had to be replaced and once done properly were far more enjoyable than his meagre portion of dull, dry tartare.

Unsurprisingly, we had no interest in desserts. Nor did we fancy ordering anything from the cheeseboard our waiter presented; would you want to pay £10.50 for brie or roquefort shown to you sweating under their clingfilm wrappers? I thought not. We did at least enjoy the perfectly pleasant mini cookies that came with our coffees. That at first an espresso was served instead of a macchiato came as no surprise; that our bill, for two courses (my replacement for my awful main course was still charged for), coffee, one cocktail, one glass of wine and service came to £92, did.

To give credit where credit is due, our waiter and most of the staff we came into contact with were delightful, but it is humiliating for them and for Balthazar's owners that an army of floor-walking management - from New York, I'm guessing - are trying to train them on the job. If I felt embarrassed that a manager came to the table with our waiter when he was serving our main courses and hissed, "Position 2 for the fish" out of the side of her mouth, how must he have felt? I have heard rumours of a power-struggle between the New York side of the operation and the London team over how things should be done; I didn't expect to see it played out in front of me table-side.

Never before have I left a busy restaurant - and for reasons that cannot have anything to do with the food or atmosphere Balthazar and its veal-truck bar were packed - so inclined to stand at the door and implore people to go somewhere, anywhere else. The Delaunay is just round the corner and doing the grand brasserie thing a thousand times better; hell, Tuttons bang next door is superior by several powers, and that's saying something. 

Would that London were Sunnydale and Buffy could come along and plunge her stake into the heart of this blood-sucking horror of a restaurant; then it would crumble into dust and, not being able to rationalise the sheer dreadfulness of what we had experienced, we could all just forget it had ever happened.

Balthazar, 4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ Tel: 020 3301 1155 www.balthazarlondon.com

Balthazar on Urbanspoon


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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 31 March 2013

Brasserie Chavot

"I knew you would," a friend replied when I tweeted after dinner about how much I'd loved Brasserie Chavot, "it's very you." And it's true; Eric Chavot's new, eponymous brasserie on Conduit Street is very me, encapsulating pretty much everything I love in a restaurant in one very polished package.

Take the stunner of a room, a long, high-ceilinged space formerly (and briefly) The Gallery at The Westbury, the Mayfair hotel that the restaurant is part of but discrete from. Flatteringly-lit by twinkling chandeliers above a glorious mosaic floor, with a small, chic bar at the front and seafood counter looking onto the kitchen at the back, it's just the kind of room I like, and can't imagine anyone not liking, to eat in; elegant but informal, welcoming and warm.

The menu's right up my street too, the kind that at first glance looks a little 'so what?' because nothing leaps out, until it dawns on you that that's because you'd happily order all of it. There are no alarms and no surprises here, just all your brasserie staples - oysters, parfait, steak tartare - with a couple of modish interlopers like soft-shell crab and ceviche to keep things current.

A party of three - myself and two very elegant femmes d'un certain âge of my acquaintance Lyn and Vicki - we started off with a dozen oysters to share. Advertised as rocks, some appeared to be fines de claires, which I minded a little. If it seems ungrateful of me not to appreciate receiving ostensibly superior oysters to those ordered, let me say in mitigation that I have always preferred the full-on snog-with-tongues of rocks to the refined peck-on-the-cheek of fines de claires, while accepting that there is a time and a place for both. That aside, they were completely delicious and very attractively served, with accompaniments of shallot vinegar in a china oyster shell and crepinette, little patties of peppery veal sausage for crumbling on top. Great value too, at under £2 a piece.

I was a little ambivalent about my starter proper of steak tartare; something of a Tartar when it comes to tartare I was curious to see what 'mustard dressing' might bring to it. The answer was a piquancy - of course - and creaminess that while perfectly pleasant didn't particularly improve on a classic. There was exceptional flavour to the beef mind you (rump from Aubrey Allen, the chef told me later) and it was generous in quantum for £9.50 - Vicki's main course serving at £15 even moreso - although neither size came with anything, no toast, or fries, or salad, which I thought odd.

Lyn's ceviche was unimpeachable, translucent slices of scallops in a beautifully balanced marinade of lime juice and chilli, and we all enjoyed the basket of sourdough bread with its moreish bitter, dark crust. Her main of tiger prawns with chickpeas and chorizo was a hit too, the large prawns split in half and given a smoky char from the Josper grill.

Although I'll admit to having suffered slightly from plate envy, it was quickly dispelled by my own main course of choucroute garnie. Served in a cast-iron casserole dish it was more garnie than choucroute, and none the worse for that, a mini-mountain of pork - belly, back bacon, sausage, shoulder, oh my - concealing a tangle of glossy sauerkraut with a couple of potatoes and carrots thrown in for good measure. In his wonderfully obsessive 1989 essay 'True Choucroute', reproduced in The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten calls choucroute garnie 'a dizzying, almost inconceivable gastronomic summit'; I think he'd approve of this rendition.

Only I had room for dessert, a not unusual state of affairs, and my Mont Blanc was a soothingly light end to a rich, comforting meal. Like the steak tartare, this was Eric Chavot's take on a classic rather than a textbook version of it; I liked the replacement of pureed chestnuts with chestnut parfait and the addition of black-cherry sauce, but purists might not. You'd have to be dead inside not to love the presentation though, in a beautiful heavy-based glass bowl.

Choucroute garnie a l'alsacienne at Brasserie Chavot
With a carafe of Rioja for the ladies, a Virgin Mary for me and service, our bill would have come to about £50 a head, had it not transpired when we asked for it that it had completely unexpectedly 'been taken care of'. I couldn't quite work out exactly why, or by whom, but whoever it was I'm very grateful to them. We'd had a really delightful time and that very pleasant surprise was just the icing on the cake.

Brasserie Chavot is not perfect; there is definitely room for tweaking. Service for example was friendly and unhurried, but a used aperitif glass stood empty on the table until late in the meal, and one main course came a little after the others (which was apologised for, but serving everyone at the same time is fairly basic stuff). These might seem petty quibbles, but like a spot of red wine on a brilliant white tablecloth, little things stand out when everything else is so accomplished.

But as my friend had known I would, I liked Brasserie Chavot; I liked it a hell of a lot. I don't see how anyone could fail to. It's a lovely room to eat in, the food's fantastic, it's very good value for money and it helps that the chef is a real character. Go, be seduced, have fun, then tweet about how much you liked it so I can say, "I knew you would."

Brasserie Chavot, 41 Conduit Street, London W1S 2YF Tel: 020 7078 9577 www.brasseriechavot.com

Brasserie Chavot on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Mr Kong, Chinatown

Restaurants in London's Chinatown, indeed in the Chinatowns of most world cities, tend to fall into one of two broad categories. There are those aimed squarely (one might say cynically) at tourists, of the all-you-can-eat buffet and menus-with-pictures variety, and those intended for Chinese diners, where the food is the real deal but gweilo visitors are positively discouraged and any bold enough to cross the threshold receive the frostiest of welcomes.

What a delight then to find that Mr Kong on Lisle Street, the comparatively quieter thoroughfare parallel to Chinatown's pulsing main artery of Gerrard Street, falls into neither category. Venerable travel agents Cox & Kings, who dispatched me to Mr Kong as part of a wider campaign to encourage holidays to China, describe the country as 'vast and varied', and the same could be said of  Mr Kong's almost bewilderingly-long menu. All the dishes familiar to and favoured by western palates are present and correct, but alongside many of the  less familiar, more challenging choices that a Chinese diner would expect and the more intrepid non-Chinese guest might at least like to try.

My dinner date Alyn being a fairly conservative eater, we side-stepped the likes of braised duck's web with fish lips and played things pretty safe with our ordering, starting with soups - crab and sweetcorn flecked with generous chunks of real crabmeat and a blandly soothing shredded duck broth; crunchy spring rolls with a spicy soy dipping sauce; and grilled pork dumplings, whose juicy, peppery filling made up for slightly claggy casings. 

Next came half a roasted Peking duck served with spring onion, cucumber, pancakes and hoi sin sauce, marinaded, the menu explained, 'in vinegar and honey, then inflated to make the skin tasty and crispy'. You're not wrong, Mr Kong; while the flesh was delicious, the caramel glass-hard skin was the highlight, adding exciting savoury crunch to our pancake parcels.

Had we known - or perhaps been warned - how large the main courses were, we would have ordered only one rather than two, the sheer quantity of food which was brought to the table next proving somewhat daunting. Mongolian crispy lamb was an ample mound of meat, first roasted then shredded and deep-fried to crispen the edges. Instead of pancakes, lettuce leaves were provided as wrappers, along with more hoi sin sauce and a tangy dip made of rice wine, vinegar and sugar with slices of chilli.

The best dish of the meal, not to mention the most enormous and most fun, was a hotpot of curry crab with glass noodles from the Chef's Specials menu. A whole baked crab, the shell cracked and cleaved into about eight large pieces, swam in a deep pan of sweet, mild curry laced with fresh chillis, vegetables and short strands of noodles. As I worked my way through it (Alyn having admitted defeat after the lamb), napkin tucked into collar, occasionally rinsing my sauce-soaked digits in the finger bowl, the debonair manager - the eponymous Mr Kong - placed a fatherly hand on my shoulder and advised, "Patience. For this dish you need patience!" I paused for breath, then redoubled my efforts. It was soon all gone.

Unsurprisingly neither of us had any inclination to order or room for dessert, but had we wanted to we could have chosen from a short list of toffee fruit or, as we heard one table of regulars intriguingly requesting, "Those things that look like lychees but aren't lychees". Instead, once the carnage had been cleared from our table, we were brought a dish of refreshing orange wedges and warmed (not to mention, much-needed) cleansing towels. 

Many of Mr Kong's neighbours are notorious for the rudeness of their staff, but again marking out Mr Kong as different from its Chinatown rivals we found the service to be, if not particularly effusive, then at least courteous, efficient and brisk rather than brusque. The dining room was pleasant enough, too; a little overly bright perhaps, and the furniture chosen more for function than form, but warm, comfortable and tasteful nonetheless.

With a couple of soft drinks and tip, our bill came to £69, which felt like excellent value for the quality and - I'll admit excessive - quantity of food consumed. Around us, smiling faces at every table told tales of similarly-satisfied customers.

Other restaurants might be smarter or more specialised; the presentation of their food might be sharper, their ingredients finer. But taken as a whole, it's hard to imagine there being a safer bet in any Chinatown than Mr Kong, a restaurant in a class of its own.

Mr Kong, 21 Lisle Street, London, WC2H 7BA Tel: 020 7437 7341 http://www.mrkongrestaurant.com 

Mr Kong on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Monday, 18 March 2013

Champagne Brunch at The Landmark

Exterior, The Landmark Hotel, London
For all that it's increasingly hard to make money, let alone a living, out of this food writing lark, it's certainly not without its compensations. An endless whirl of breakfast meetings and cocktail soirees, openings and anniversaries, lunches, launches and good old-fashioned dîners à deux keep one tremendously well-fed and watered while also constituting a pretty enviable social life, with only the prospect of high cholesterol, gout or the dreaded NFI to worry about.

But best of all are the occasional really great commissions that come along, the kind that leave you cackling Muttley-style and wondering aloud "This is work?" as you fire off your invoice. The kind that saw me dispatched recently by les Deux Messieurs, the luxury travel guide for which I am the gloriously-titled Editor-At-Large, to The Landmark Hotel in Marylebone to experience their unlimited Champagne brunch.

Now if you're a pedant like me you'll be asking which it is that's unlimited, the Champagne or the brunch. And like me, you'll be delighted to know that it's both. Served every Sunday afternoon in the Winter Garden restaurant beneath The Landmark's soaring eight-storey atrium, brunch here consists of a vast all-you-can-eat buffet served with free-flowing Drappier Champagne, for £80 a head.

The soaring eight-storey atrium of The Landmark Hotel, London
If, even taking into account the potential for drinking your own body-weight in fizz, that sounds expensive, rest assured that the quality and quantity of the food are commensurate with the price. Table after table groans with freshly-prepared, regularly replenished fare - hot breakfast favourites and an omelette station; salads, sushi and whole sides of smoked and cured salmon; four - four! - roasts with every imaginable trimming and various gravies, and a couple of stir-fries and stews.

Alyn and I went, as should you, with empty stomachs, determined to try as much as we could; I won't exhaust you (or rather, disgrace myself) by itemising absolutely everything we ate. But we especially liked herby, coarse sausages from the full English counter; the fun build-your-own Caesar salad bar; thick ribbons, cut-to-order, of wonderful beetroot-cured salmon; dainty, colourful temaki and nigiri sushi; and beautifully, bleedingly rare beef sirloin, swimming in gravy made with the roasting juices.

The best, however, came last, with the astonishing selection of desserts and patisseries available for afters. Having as sweet a tooth as I do, I was in seventh heaven faced with the stacks of macarons, mousses and possets, the cheesecakes, brûlées and brownies. Little fruit tarts packed with huge, plump blackberries nestling on crème pâtissière and bite-sized squares of passion fruit cheesecake were my particular favourites. Oh and did I mention the white chocolate fountain with fruit skewers for dipping? I might have visited that just a couple of times.

Desserts at Sunday Champagne Brunch at The Landmark Hotel, London
Throughout the afternoon (your table is yours for the whole 12.30-3pm sitting) a pianist and double-bassist entertain with an eclectic medley of music, and if we were surprised at some of the choices -'Suicide Is Painless' and the German national anthem, anyone? - it provided the perfect acoustic backdrop to the satisfied murmur of the guests and frequent popping of Champagne corks.

Unsurprisingly given the price and the setting (The Landmark may not be as grand as some of London's grande dame hotels but is still very obviously five-star) the Sunday Champagne Brunch mostly attracts dolled-up diners celebrating special occasions; when the pianist broke off from 'Single Ladies' to play 'Happy Birthday' more than one table assumed it was for them. But with so many restaurants now pushing how casual they are as a selling-point, it's rather refreshing to find somewhere where Sunday best is still de rigueur.

It's saying something that, having spent a great deal of time lately staying and eating in some very fancy hotels for les Deux Messieurs, this experience genuinely felt like a treat. Nice work, if you can get it. And if not then heck, just treat yourself.

The Landmark London Hotel, 222 Marylebone Road, London NW1 6JQ
020 7631 8000 landmarklondon.co.uk



Winter Garden at The Landmark Hotel London on Urbanspoon 

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Posted by +Hugh Wright


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