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

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 

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

Winter Garden at The Landmark Hotel London on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal 

Posted by +Hugh Wright

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