Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Romesco, San Diego

Back in what has firmly become my second city and home-from-home, San Diego, and a belated write-up of what is fast becoming my favourite restaurant there - Romesco, in Bonita. You may remember me waxing lyrical about the extraordinary Mision 19 in Tijuana last year, a world-class celebration of the finest Mexican food (and believe me, the competition in that category is quite fierce) from chef Javier Plascencia. Romesco actually predates the Tijuana joint by a few years, but is still the only Plascencia place in USA - all the rest are in his home town - so for Californians wanting to try innovative and exemplary Mexican food without negotiating a border crossing, it's a great place to start.

Which is odd, because on paper (literally, I mean the menu), Romesco is doing a lot of things very wrong. It calls its food Mexican-Spanish (or even "Mexiterranean", would you believe it), but has a vast, rambling list of dishes encompassing Greek salads, lasagne, risotto, tapas, tacos and steaks enough to strike the fear of God into anyone who's ever suffered at the hand of so many other unfortunate "fusion" restaurants. I'm usually the first to ridicule anywhere that claims it can cook, say, Malaysian, Thai and Chinese food to a competent level in the same kitchen but those cuisines at least all share the same subcontinent; how on earth would Mexican-Spanish be any more successful?

The answer, to everyone's great relief, not least my own, is a whole lot. Romesco dismisses worries about the oddness of its concept and geographical fuzziness with food that, sampled over two visits and at least two dozen dishes, is rarely less than stellar. Perhaps this success is down to the wise decision to largely keep the Spanish and Mexican elements (and American, and Greek, and Italian, and so on) distinct but separate, rather than attempting too many linguini tacos or chicken mole paellas. So despite being somewhat experimental, a tamarind margherita, for example, is unmistakeably Mexican - and very nice.

House bread (a French baguette, just in case they hadn't quite covered every single country in the world just yet) went remarkably well with pickled garlic (Lebanese? Syrian?), bouncy and crunchy and bright.

OK so maybe some dishes are literally Mexican-Spanish fusion after all. "Grandma's Tacos de Fideo" (I hope she doesn't want them back) were made with that noodly stuff the Catalans use, and also included Spanish chorizo, a rarity in this part of the world more used to the chilli paste (think Mexican n'duja). And very nice they were too.

Even better were the beef cheek tacos - no fancy fusion business here, just a great big glistening load of heavenly-rich beef, and a steamer full of those fresh masa flour casings that make Californians go all wobbly and sing the Star Spangled Banner.

Croquettas were, if we're going to be brutal, perhaps not quite as impressive as examples I've tried in London - using Cheddar cheese can't have helped - but a fluffy aioli perked them up a bit, and they were still enjoyed.

And then. And. Then.

And then the bone marrow sope.

Try and imagine - you won't be able to, but try - three golden brown, piping hot cylinders of roast bone containing a marrow so unbelievably smooth and rich and intense it was like eating the result of an experiment designed to distil the very best beef on the planet into a single mouthful. Each perched on a neat little circle of crisp cornmeal, and topped with a sprig of greaselessly deep-fried curly parsley, delicate enough to collapse into essence after little more than a hard stare.

We're not done yet. Next imagine a little bowl of chile de arbol sauce, with the haunting flavour of wood fires and citrus, presented alongside. Next to that, another bowl of what Romesco coyingly refer to as "beef glaze" but which goes nowhere near describing the wonder, the utter life-changing glory of this, God's own demiglace, a silky, heady reduction of red wine and beef stock so extraordinary simply knowing it exists makes me feel infinitely better about the state of humanity.

Then imagine combining all of the above and enjoying it as a single, divine entity. A symphony of animal and vegetable, taste and texture. Impossibly good.

Sorry I think I lost myself for a second there, but if there's one dish that was worth travelling 5,000 miles for it's that bone marrow sope, and I'm going to make it my mission to eat it on every future trip to San Diego.

Prawns - sorry, shrimp - in garlic butter were authentically Spanish, and perfectly cooked so as to retain a good firm texture. And even the desserts didn't disappoint, fluffy fresh churros served with a good homemade ice cream and creamy dulce de leche dip.

What else? Oh, the service - this, too, was something special, our waiter on our most recent visit (I'll namecheck - he was called Alfonso) a relaxed, seasoned career professional of a kind that exist hardly anywhere else in the world. And the icing on the churros was the bill - with the wine list being half price on Wednesdays we got a whole bottle of Californian Pinot Noir for about a tenner.

Looking back at the Romesco menu even now, after two trips, I still can't quite understand how it all works. This bonkers collection of influences and inspirations should have been, and heaven knows usually is, a disaster. Javier Plascencia is a supreme chef, of course, but being a skill in the kitchen is one thing; making a success out of a fideua taco is quite another.

But, in the end, who cares how it works. You need to know only this - it does work, and it's good value, and the staff are lovely and it's all just... just really, really good. Sorry, I've run out of words. I was thinking about the bone marrow sope again.


Romesco Baja Med Bistro on Urbanspoon

My flights to San Diego were very kindly provided by British Airways. Prices start around £717 return.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Hibiscus, Mayfair

I've been sitting on this post for a couple of weeks, mainly because I've been too busy enjoying myself in California (more on which soon) but partly also because I thought it might be an idea to let the whole blaggergate thing die down before posting a long and gushing post on a free meal in one of the best restaurants in town.

I don't really have anything to add to much that's already been said on the whole sordid affair, but briefly, while posting (accidentally) the mobile phone number of a blogger on Twitter was unadvisable (although having admitted their mistake the retweeters in question still haven't had their accounts reinstated, which is insane), the act of soliciting a free meal in return for a positive review (as the blogger in question unquestionably did) is well worth highlighting, and is the kind of ethically bankrupt thing previously mainly only print journalists had been guilty of. So let's not have one idiot give anyone the excuse to drag us down to their level, eh bloggers?

You'll excuse my ironic tone, but really, the furore over the fact that some crappy food bloggers are now joining their crappy print cousins in offering positive reviews in return for free meals is not one that should take anyone by surprise. I grew up in Liverpool, where our local rag the Echo regularly ran an "everything is awesome" column where even the most diabolically bad restaurant would be given a po-facedly upbeat writeup in return for a boozy jolly for their journalists. National restaurant critics, lucky enough to be paid for their meals AND their words, can claim, if they want, that a bloggers opinion on a meal is "worthless" if it's comped (as one of them recently did) but surely the point is just to be honest, no matter who paid the bill?

Anyway, whether you consider this post and the opinions contained within to be "worthless", or whether based on past form you can see it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference, well, I hope it at least provides a brief distraction.

Of course, it would have been a lot handier for me, if not for them, if my meal at Hibiscus had been anything less than blindingly, unassailably brilliant. Then at least I could look like I had my critical head on in the face of such PR generosity. But no, from the word go this meal was one of the most enjoyable in recent memory. It began, after some pretty little textural amuses and some fluffy, cheesy gougere, with a seemingly innocuous basket of house bread.

From the first bite, something was different about this bread. A crust like the finest French pastry, delicate and flaky with only enough strength to make each bite the greatest of rewards, it held a softly-sticky, gently-vinegared crumb that I can barely imagine being better. To cut a long story short, it was perfect. As well as that, it was strangely familiar. I asked whether Hibiscus make their own bread.

"No, the chef gets it made by a friend of his" was the first, rather cryptic response. But when the chef himself appeared to do a start-of-evening meet-and-greet, I took the opportunity to dig a little deeper. "It's from Hedone", he said, and then the pieces fell together. Hedone are in collaboration with Antidote, where I'd had equally stunning bread a week previously. I've learned since they're going to start selling it direct to the public; if it's £50/loaf (which wouldn't surprise me if it's anything to with Hedone) it would still be a bargain.

So, still cooing over the house bread, we began the tasting menu proper with "Chestnut mushroom, coconut & curry 'en cocotte'", and if you think that sounds a bit weird, you're not wrong. The mushrooms were clearly of high quality, but didn't sit well, in my opinion, with the strangely bitter coconut froth above. Still, I'm prepared to believe this could be a personal thing, and as a palate cleanser it may have had a different job to do than simply be blandly enjoyable.

Fresh crab and white turnip had marvellous sweet crab (the attention to ingredient quality at Hibiscus is obvious even to a pleb like me) and the little blobs of smoked olive oil cream were a lovely counterpoint.

Scallop sashimi (sorry, "carpaccio") with thinly-sliced black radish (translucent and with a soft crunch to contrast the scallops) was another masterclass in sourcing, the scallops having bags of flavour and immaculately presented. Highlight of this dish though were the neat blobs of truffle & walnut oil, which added a luxurious extra level of flavour. I think it was with this dish that we were given these sort of prawn cracker things made out of scallops (scallop crackers?) which I wasn't a huge fan of, but you have to admire their technique.

Two meaty asparagus tips next, coated in toasted hazelnuts and resting on another healthy dose of black truffle. A joyful mix of textures, and who doesn't love truffle, but still the main draw were the asparagus, an incredible deep green colour (not that you can tell from my photos, but that goes without saying) and not a hint of stringiness.

While I consider most of what goes on in high-end kitchens to be nothing short of black magic, there's a certain extra quotient of awe reserved for those who can turn their hand with equal skill to fish as they do to, say, meat or vegetables. A properly cooked steak or jerusalem artichoke can be a thing of beauty, sure, but there is something wonderfully disorenting about a fish steak that has been cooked in such a way as to highlight those mysterious, almost alien, ocean flavours. This halibut, immaculately timed and attractively sat amidst an ocean-metaphor of frothy sauce, had exactly that effect - it was like setting off on a sea voyage from the comfort of your Mayfair restaurant table.

Look at the profile of that duck - even my photography has failed to dampen its magnificence. A dark, salty crust, a not-too-thick layer of melting fat, and a bouncy, pink flesh that cut like butter. Roast tardivo (radicchio to you and me) provided bitterness, a blog of beetroot earthiness, and eel an interesting extra salty/smoky note. Great stuff.

An apple, celeriac & chestnut pre-dessert, much like the mushroom & coconut thing earlier, made up for in innovation and ability to discombobulate what it lacked in straightforward pleasure. Sometimes, a dish becomes a talking point for reasons other than plain solid technique - whether polarising or disorienting or shocking, there are different ways to impress.

The final dish, a chocolate tart, was perhaps the only dish that could be accused of being slightly unambitious. It was very good, don't get me wrong, but it's hardly the kind of thing that sits comfortably next to the shooting stars and fireworks that had come before. The only nod to the range of meticulously-sourced ingredients from the other dishes was an ice cream made from "Indonesian Basil", but I can't honestly say I could tell the difference. That all said, it disappeared in seconds and I loved it. So maybe I'll just shut up and stop complaining.

Right then, so, how did I do? Did any of the above look like it had come out of the local Frankie & Benny's (my photography notwithstanding) and I'm being especially nice about it because I got it for free? Am I capable of separating the business of who pays the bill from the skill of the chef in the kitchen? Have I completely wasted my time and yours? Well, if I have, at least it didn't cost either of us anything. And regardless of my defense of the practice of accepting comped meals (not asking for them in return for a positive review, which is obviously not on) I still will continue to keep a lid on the number of freebies I do write up, just because things are generally more interesting that way.

Meantime, the only other thing I have to say is, stick with the opinions of a blogger or critic you trust, disregard anyone, paid or unpaid, that doesn't declare when something has been given for free, and - oh yes - go and book a meal at Hibiscus. It's really rather good.


I was invited to review Hibiscus, so there.

Hibiscus on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Nopi, Soho

There's a lot of love for Yotam Ottolenghi, for his Middle Eastern/Eastern Mediterranean fusion cooking, his mini chain of upmarket delis, and for his best-selling range of cookery books. In a city plagued by "me too" copycats and bandwagon-jumpers (seriously, can we stop with the dirty diner joints now? Even I'm bored by them) Ottolenghi stands as a rare example of a style and philosophy of food that is both unique and worldly. Healthy-food, rather than healthfood - all freshness and light and with exotic things like freekeh and pickled kohlrabi, not vegetarian but vegetable-focussed, it's genuinely revolutionary - you can see why it's been so popular.

It just never really interested me. I'd see the queues snaking out of the Ottolenghi shops in calculatedly upmarket areas of town like Notting Hill or Belgravia and the first thing I'd think wasn't "that salad looks like an interesting and colourful take on near-Middle Eastern cuisine" but "that is an awful lot to pay for rabbit food". A "small" selection of three salads from the Islington branch, for example, is £11.50, and these may contain nothing more exotic than broccoli, green beans and mixed peppers. I could understand the popularity, I just could not myself get excited about salad.

So perhaps making a reservation at his flagship Soho restaurant Nopi was a mistake in the first place. Having established I wasn't really the target market for this particular brand of vegetable-bothering, I could have cut my losses and gone elsewhere - Danish steakhouse MASH are doing a 50% offer on Toptable, and was just around the corner. But I like nothing better than to be proven wrong, and dinner with a vegetarian seemed the ideal opportunity to put my prejudices to the test. Perhaps I'd discover what all the fuss had been about all along.

Long story short, I didn't. In fact, I left Nopi stung by an astonishingly high bill and not feeling that for the outlay I'd really received much in return. The irritations began with the menu, which is arbitrarily divided into "Nibbles", "Mains", "Starters/Dishes to share" (underneath the mains for some bizarre reason) and "sides", yet with no detailed explanations offered by the staff and no real clues elsewhere, we were left to wonder why, for example "Vegetable crudites" was a "nibble" and not a "side", or why "crushed beetroot, date molasses, dukkah" was a vegetable starter but "lavash, spiced carrot, pomegranate, spring onion" was a "nibble".

We did our best. From "nibbles" we had a bowl of nuts for £4 (fine, I suppose, but four quid?) and a few slices of decent prosciutto dressed with pickled peppers. Around about this time, as well, some bread and oil arrived, and though the flavours were good, the bread was turning stale on one side. Given the prices charged elsewhere, it seems like extreme laziness to not slice fresh bread to order.

Four tiny calçots, rather timidly roasted in comparison to the ash-coated, leek-thick Catalan style I'd had before, came with a thin, bland, vaguely mayonnaisey sauce and cost £9.50. Roasted aubergine weren't much better, being unnervingly fridge-cold, and perhaps it's for the best that we couldn't detect any of the advertised vanilla.

My "main", a whole roast poussin, was not terrible. It looked the part, had plenty of flesh (only parts of the breast being slightly dry), and I liked the Vietnamese idea of serving it with lime and flavoured salt. It just wasn't particularly... memorable. The skin was soggy with some kind of molasses marinade, and there was no escaping the cloying sweetness (even the bones were slightly pink with a clearly lengthy marinading process) other than to coat it with lime and salt. Chilli sauce was pretty dull too.

"Persian love rice", the other main, was (you won't be able to tell from my godawful photos) pretty and colourful, and the pickled kohlrabi had a particularly nice flavour. Providing texture was a little pile of lotus root crisps, and next to it a sharp and refreshing "courgette tzatziki". It was a perfectly nice collection of hardly earth-shatteringly dazzling vegetables, which cost £19. And that's too much, as is £5 for a small plate of freekeh with (undetectable) jalapeños - this was in every way like one of those salads you get in the little plastic boxes at M&S.

After all my moaning, I should probably repeat that despite everything I can see why Ottolenghi has his many fans. For restaurant-quality food that feels like it's doing you good, in admittedly impressive surroundings (the toilets are particularly interesting, like peeing in the Hall of Mirrors at your local amusement park) and served by attractive young staff that, in the main, didn't put a foot wrong, you can probably do worse. But our bill, with a couple of cocktails and a bottle of the cheapest wine, came to £132.19. And yes I know central London rents are higher but I also happen to know that at Peckham Bazaar (currently closed for renovation, but back open in April), a much more impressive range of Eastern Mediterranean dishes are being produced for a fraction of the cost. Yes, it's a bit further out of town and you probably won't have John Hurt sitting on the next table (as we did at Nopi). But your experience in every other respect will be infinitely better. So if you're not a diehard Ottolenghi fan, save your pennies for the bus fare and head out to SE15.


NOPI on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Afternoon Tea at Claridge's, Mayfair

For a long time, I dismissed afternoon tea as a twee, anachronistic routine laid on purely for day-trippers and tourists. I was in no rush to drop half a ton on some cold sandwiches and cakes, and I saw little to recommend spending an afternoon in a stuffy hotel foyer surrounded by loud Texans in ill-fitting house jackets. Real Londoners, I thought, should avoid it in the same way we'd avoid the changing of the guard or Portobello Road on Saturdays - let's leave afternoon tea for the tourists, and cut our own crusts off some Boots Meal Deal sandwiches if we felt so inclined and head down the pub.

In most cases, too, I still think I'm right - there are way too many places doing this kind of thing pretty half-heartedly (think bought-in sandwiches and cakes and packet jams) just so some timid out-of-towners can tick it off their "things to do" list, and none of them are cheap. They all suffer from that depressingly common affliction of anywhere popular with tourists - like Leicester Square restaurants and Madame Tussaud's, if you're going to be full anyway, why bother being good?

So it's all the more impressive that despite all the reverse-snobbery and emotional baggage I took with me to Claridge's of a Sunday afternoon for a friend's birthday, I managed not only to enjoy a few hours of the most wonderful gastronomic theatre, but left with my mind completely changed about the ceremony of afternoon tea itself.

That ceremony begins the moment you step through the handsome revolving door from Brook Street, onto the gleaming black and white marble floor, and up to the twinkly foyer restaurant. It's a building to take your breath away - luxurious, certainly, but refined and elegant in a way that nowhere else could dream of matching. Not even its closest rivals, the Dorchester or the Connaught or (arguably) the Savoy can manage this kind of effortless, stately glamour; even the odd modernist touches, such as the vast Dale Chihuly glass chandelier coiling out from the middle of the foyer ceiling, only seem to compliment the art deco twirls and flourishes and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The word "timeless" almost only tells half the story - Claridge's seems to exist in an entire enchanting, glittering dimension of its own.

In this room, in this hotel, attention to detail is everything. And so, with the arrival of crustless finger sandwiches on a classic Limousin porcelain, anything even slightly out of place would have raised a (polite, gently disapproving) eyebrow. But the sandwiches were seemingly cut with a razor blade and ruler in immaculate rows, accompanied by delicate gougeres which dissolved into cheesy savouriness the second they hit the tongue. Sandwich flavours were traditional, but with the occasional unexpected twist. Smoked salmon, for example, was pressed not next to normal dairy but "shrimp butter" and samphire, adding an extra seafoody dimension, and roast chicken tasted of the highest quality bird and a mysterious note of tarragon.

Once the savouries had disappeared, they were replaced (gracefully, almost invisibly) with mini scones, home made jam and quite honestly the best clotted cream I've ever tasted in my life. Dense without being cloying, tasting of farm-freshness and as bright as the driven snow, it was magical stuff, and we still talk about it. It would almost - no, it would, definitely - be worth going back just for that.

And nothing so simple as "cakes" to follow the scones, either. No, instead here are four examples of the finest French patisserie, including a cherry cake with a handsome flourish of carved chocolate on top, an eclair with a gentle pear flavour, and a kind of blackcurrant medallion with an elaborate topping of soft meringue. Again, not a berry, base or button out of place. Some of us couldn't finish them (not me of course, but I was sure to cast a disapproving glance at those in question), and they were boxed up and tied with ribbons to take home.

Teas are by expert tea-lady Henrietta Lovell, the house champagne is Laurent Perrier (of which we took full advantage), and on the way out you're encouraged to fill your own bags of Victoriana confectionary for the journey home. Everything gleams with care and attention; you can't - you literally are unable to - fault any of it, from start to finish.

Well, almost everything. For as much fun and joy as afternoon tea at Claridge's undoubtedly is, blimey do you pay for it. The advertised £50 a head is just the start - with service, champagne and God knows what else (I don't think they even include tax as part of the inital £50 but I could be wrong, annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of the bill) you'll probably not get away with much less than £80 per person. And I'm not so much of a hopeless Claridge's fan to understand that is way, way more than what most people want or are able to spend on tea and cakes.

But what tea and cakes. And yes it's a lot of money but I honestly enjoyed this more than I've enjoyed many £80 dinners at restaurants elsewhere. The cliché about afternoon tea is that the sandwiches and cakes aren't really the point, that it's more about the formalities and traditions and stealing glances at old Mayfair ladies with big hair than the food. This, in many lesser places, is certainly true. But along with all that, serenaded by piano and cello and in the most beautiful dining room in London, at Claridge's you also get food and drink of purest gold. Surely that's worth paying for, once in a while?

Thanks Hannah and Alison for some photos.


Afternoon Tea at Claridge's Hotel on Urbanspoon