Friday, 22 February 2013

The Dead Dolls Club

The Dead Dolls Club, Dalston
Anyone who's had the misfortune to be in my vicinity when I've got on my soapbox about foraging will know that I think it's a bit of a con. Growing up as I did in the Dorset countryside, picking fruit, veg and herbs from the land around you wasn't a skill, it was just something you did, a means to an end, a way of livening up picnics when the limited produce on offer at Mrs Eve's Stores didn't appeal or you fancied something for pudding and you'd missed the ice-cream van's weekly visit.

My other great beef with foraging is that for so many restaurants it is seen as a licence to charge ridiculous prices for something that is, bar the cost of the time spent actually foraging (or 'picking stuff' as I call it), entirely free. On various eighty-quid-a-head-ish tasting menus I've seen 'foraged salads' which diners too rich or stupid or both to realise that the ingredients cost exactly £0.00 wolf down with the gusto they would usually reserve for luxury foodstuffs which, while still swingeingly marked-up, have at least actually cost the restaurant something to buy in the first place.

And yet something grabbed me about the menu at The Dead Dolls Club, a cute little place in Haggerston (it's the new Dalston - possibly) where the food is provided by The Foragers, a collective who, their website says, 'believe in collecting, preserving, and rummaging through hedgerows like a child in a sweet shop, but respectfully and gratefully making something simply found into something spectacular'. Which sounded nice. So taking with me a young East London-dwelling trendy, Matt Bramford, so as not to feel too conspicuous in my late-thirties uncoolness, I went along to see if The Foragers could make me eat my ranty words.

Food & drink at The Dead Dolls Club, Dalston by Matt Bramford
I'll say this much for them: they're certainly turning out some bloody good food. The 'Grazing Menu' of small plates is concise at just seven dishes and three sides, and if what we ate wasn't quite 'spectacular' it was at least near impossible to fault. 

In no particular order we tried marinated wood pigeon breasts, served daringly rare with a moreish, sticky rosehip barbecue sauce; venison Scotch quails' eggs, which if rather heavy on the meat-to-ovum ratio were made with piquant, peppery mince of patently good game; and lovely firm chunks of heady Jerusalem artichoke cleverly paired with a tart herb dressing.

Best of all was air-dried mutton - a sort of glorious ovine jerky - with leeks, hazelnuts and a mercifully-not-overpowering truffle vinaigrette, and thick slices of hedgerow berry-cured trout with wholemeal crisps and punchy wild horseradish. Wild horseradish root, freshly grated, is to the creamed sauce we're used to buying in jars what Iranian caviar is to chip-shop cod roe; related, but immeasurably superior in flavour. It served as a one-ingredient advertisement in favour of foraging.

A dessert of goat's cheese with Hertfordshire honey, fennel and hairy bittercress - a herb I thought sounded like a resident of Middle-earth - was an innovative and successful exercise in using traditionally savoury ingredients in a sweet, although there was an unpleasantly waxy residue of some sort which despite our lovely waitress's protestations to the contrary I remain convinced was, in fact, wax, from the honeycomb which formed part of the dish. Lemon posset with wild crab apple jelly and dried blackberries however was flawless, the blackberries particularly bringing back very happy memories of those childhood Dorset days spent picking stuff.

Matt enjoyed a couple of the incredibly potent cocktails, whimsically named after characters from an imagined country house drama, including The Game Keeper - lager-based with rum, amaretto and Angostura bitters - and a special with violet liqueur and absinthe after which it's a miracle the boy could speak let alone walk. Still off booze, I was thoroughly spoiled with some well-crafted mocktails including one with hibiscus syrup in which a hibiscus flower prettily floated. Glassware, when used, was of the exquisite, heavy, etched crystal variety, although tap water and some cocktails were served to my great chagrin in jam jars - quite the most irritating affectation of the last couple of years and one I can't wait to see the back of.

Goat's cheese with Hertfordshire honey, fennel and hairy bittercress at The Dead Dolls Club
Goat's cheese with honey and fennel by Pete Stean 
If foraged food has struck me as being a bit of a con elsewhere it certainly isn't here, with none of the dishes costing more than £7.50 and those lethal, ample cocktails £9. Combined with very pleasant service and a groovy if rather drafty room, it all made for a very enjoyable evening and one I'd happily repeat. 

I remain of the view that some foragers are leading diners up the garden path, but I like what The Foragers are doing very much. Like hairy bittercress and wild horeseradish, The Dead Dolls Club is worth making the effort to seek out.

The Dead Dolls Club, 428 Kingsland Road, London E8 4AA / @deaddollsclub @weforagers

The Dead Dolls Club on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Shoryu Ramen

Exterior of Shoryu Ramen, 9 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR
I've lost count of the number of places I've walked into recently - shops being by far the worst offenders, but a fair number of restaurants and offices too - where no-one's said "Hello!" or otherwise acknowledged my presence. So the cheery, traditional, "Irasshaimase!"  from the staff and beating of a drum on entering Shoryu, London's latest ramen joint on Lower Regent Street, endeared me to the place before even a mouthful of food passed my lips.

But oh, the's wonderful. Just brilliant. So much so, in fact, that after an impressive first visit I returned twice in the space of a week. The room's nothing special - tightly-packed, functional (trans: hard) seating; bright lights, an apparently Spirographed mural - and the Lower Regent Street location, horrible, but these are minor considerations next to the combined allure of the warmth of welcome and the sheer quality of the ramen.

Shoryu's menu, presented on a clipboard, is much longer than at any of the other ramen-ya that have sprung up around town. The basic Shoryu Ganso tonkotsu is a huge bowlful of rich opaque pork-bone broth to which hosomen noodles, tender barbecue pork, crunchy, woody kikurage fungus, seasoned boiled egg (nitamago), beansprouts, spring onions, pickled ginger (gari) and crisp dried seaweed (nori) are added. Then ingredients are added or subtracted to make different dishes, there are miso and soy broth variants, and all can be tweaked and customised to personal taste. There's a good twenty-odd starters and sides to choose from too. 

Dracula Tonkotsu at Shoryu Ramen, 9 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR
The dish that blew me (and the cobwebs) away on my first visit was Wasabi Tonkotsu, which saw a sinus-purging whack of potent fresh and pickled wasabi added to a gari-free Shoryu Ganso. It was in many ways the perfect meal; lovely to look at, nourishing, complex - each mouthful slightly different in taste and texture from the last - and filling without leaving one bloated. I loved it; food is often fun, sometimes intriguing, but rarely is it genuinely exciting. This was.

A side-order of chicken kara age, chunks of thigh meat lightly-battered and fried, was initially a little bland but came alive with a squeeze of lemon juice and dipping in the accompanying spiced mayonnaise. Although great value for the portion size at £5, there was rather too much of it for one person; solo diners shouldn't have to miss out on trying extras for fear of over-ordering (not, I'll admit, something that often afflicts me, as my waist size will attest).

I enjoyed the kara age again on my second visit, this time in tori kara age men, one of the shiitake and konbu soy broth choices. Although in its non-broth components not dissimilar to the tonkotsu, this was a much lighter, more cleansing affair, slices of gari folded into the noodles adding little depth-charges of flavour. In this setting the fried chicken - as much of it as in the side-order serving - felt rather decadent. I wasn't sure if I liked the roundels of garish pink fishcake, which didn't feel like they quite belonged in this assembly, but I polished the whole lot off just the same.

On a third occasion I took along my BFF Anders and, as confident as I could be that I wouldn't be chatting anyone up later, ordered the Dracula Tonkotsu. Really it should be called anti-Dracula Tonkotsu as it includes mayu - black garlic oil - and garlic chips, caramelised and roasted to take away some of the pungency but none of the warmth of the vampire repellent. Although enjoyable, of the three ramen I'd now tried it was my least favourite, being rather one-note; that much garlic can't not dominate a dish. Still, I'd order it again, if Buffy was having a night off and there was no snogging to be done.

Interior at Shoryu Ramen, 9 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LRAnders's Yuzu Tonkotsu was interesting, the fragrant citrus fruit made into a chutney with chilli and piled high in the centre of the bowl. Its citric acidity, which should in theory have cut through the fattiness of the sliced pork and collagen-rich broth, somehow seemed to sit apart from it, but this sort of experimentation is what makes the food at Shoryu so enticing. A side of pork gyoza were, if not the best of their kind, perfectly fine, but as with the kara age on my previous visit not strictly necessary.

Staff, many of them Japanese, provide service that is briskly efficient while also friendly and very courteous; diners are not hurried or harassed but tables are turned at such a rate as to ensure that the queues which inevitably build up at busy times keep moving along. As well as the lively greeting there are other customer-friendly touches; a complimentary palate-awakener of cabbage dressed in rice wine vinegar is brought with the menu, and the discretionary service charge is a modest 10%.

When somewhere like Shoryu opens that nails its concept so assuredly from the get-go, it's always tempting to believe that the first branch might be the prototype for a chain. If that is the case here, then good; I'd welcome a Shoryu on every corner as warmly as they welcome every customer.

Shoryu Ramen, 9 Lower Regent Street, London SW1Y 4LR

Shoryu on Urbanspoon

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Posted by +Hugh Wright

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Dock Kitchen

Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock, 342/344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 5BU
Few restaurants can boast as impressive a setting as Dock Kitchen. Overlooking the Grand Union Canal, in a smartly restored Victorian wharf, globetrotting chef Stevie Parle's Ladbroke Grove base doubles as a showroom for furniture and lighting designer Tom Dixon, whose studio is downstairs. Restaurant/showroom hybrids might be nothing new - Chair in Westbourne Grove (chairs, obvs) and Firevault in Marylebone (designer fireplaces, believe it or not), both now closed, got there first - but nowhere does it with quite such urbane modernity as here.

Parle has made a name for himself travelling the world, researching and discovering regional techniques and ingredients - nice work if you can get it - and parlaying that into a number of popular books (on sale in the restaurant, natch) and TV series. It was watching the most recent of these, Spice Trip, which led my pal Ian to suggest that we give Dock Kitchen a whirl, his appetite whetted and interest piqued by Stevie's televised adventures. We took mutual friend Anders along on the itself not-insubstantial trek to W10.

Dock Kitchen offers two options at dinner, a set menu changing every ten days or so which showcases a particular region (Old Delhi on the night we visited) and a la carte; we chose the latter. Like Stevie Parle himself the menu roams from country to country, name-checking an unusual spice here, a less-than-familiar vegetable there. If it weren't for the likelihood that, like Ian, most diners will be fans of the chef's programmes and thus know their labneh from their lavash, it could seem wilfully opaque. Instead it reads excitingly and although fairly concise at six choices for each course, is hard to choose the most appealing dishes from.

The open kitchen at Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock, 342/344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 5BU
A pre-starter nibble of tempura sage leaves, drizzled in honey and sprinkled with chilli flakes, were fiendishly moreish, as was a basket of lavash, an unleavened flatbread served hot and charred from the grill. There was more of it with my starter, lusciously fat and bloody chicken livers cooked in seven spice and pomegranate molasses, which I smooshed onto the bread and wolfed down before, mea culpa, the boys could have even a taste.

Ian's starter, listed as 'A piece of Iberico secreto' (a piece of menu writing I found rather affected) was a good tender slice of this pinkest of porks, its delicacy not overwhelmed by grilled leek and pleasantly smoky if rather wet romesco sauce. Anders' cotechino sausage, served as is traditional in some parts of Italy on New Year's Eve - despite it being late January in London - on a bed of lentils, had enough peppery savour to not really need its accompanying mustard fruits and dragoncello sauce. Dragoncello, incidentally, is tarragon; why it wasn't just called that here escapes me.

I won't reproduce the exhaustingly-long twenty-word name of Anders' main course in full, but it was, essentially, a Sri Lankan thali. A very good one, too, albeit one with an occasional whack of such intense heat as to make Anders' eyelids snap back in his head. Ian and I shared lamb biryani (available only for two people or more), cooked in a clay pot sealed with dough to keep moisture and its wonderful aromas in. It was a superb dish, the lamb flakingly tender and so beautifully spiced as to prove without doubt that Stevie knows his stuff. We liked too that it came with dishes of rose petals, almonds and coriander to mix in to taste, bringing a little variety to each mouthful.

Unusual ingredients on display at Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock, 342/344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 5BU
Desserts were pleasant enough if not in the same league as the more complex savoury courses. Ian's pistachio and nutmeg cake with saffron yoghurt was good as cakes go but nothing to get too excited about, and my Seville orange tart, while refreshing after the biryani, was rather too sharp. A pot of poky smoked Sri Lanka tea took the sourness away most agreeably.

The boys' ordering of wine by the glass (still on the wagon, I stuck to the excellent home-made lemonade) pushed our bill including service up to about £53 a head, steep but about the norm for food of this quality and into which clearly a lot of thought and love, not to mention considered sourcing, had gone. Only the biryani, while admittedly splendid, felt over-priced at £35 for two. Service, from a hipsterish brigade of jeans-clad boys and girls, was impeccable.

You enter and leave Dock Kitchen through a mini-grocery store where many of the ingredients championed by Stevie Parle in his programmes and books - as well as the books themselves - are on sale. This rather sums the place up; more than just a restaurant, Dock Kitchen is the shop-window for a clearly very talented cook who, less ostentatiously but no less surely than Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay before him, is fast becoming a one-man industry. And good luck to him with it I say; when food's as exciting and enjoyable as this, the person responsible for it deserves to be shown off.

Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock, 342/344 Ladbroke Grove, London W10 5BU Tel: 020 8962 1610

Dock Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Posted by +Hugh Wright
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