Friday, 22 July 2016
No matter how many great restaurants open up in the many far-flung corners of the country, no matter how many times the national newspapers make a concerted effort to review sites in Manchester, Leeds and York, no matter how many places in Cornwall or the Lakes or the Scottish Highlands win Michelin stars or find themselves in the upper reaches of so many "best restaurant" lists, there's still a huge temptation to regard London as the last word in dining and epicentre of restaurant culture and anywhere decent in the provinces as a blip, a one-off, impressive maybe but unusual, nothing more.
And I'm as guilty as anyone - still patronisingly surprised, after all these years, when anywhere north of Watford is any good at all, despite the fact I make a habit of casting my net wide in search for blogging material. Should we really be that incredulous that L'Enclume is as good as it is, given it has access to such extraordinary local Lake District produce? Or that the Black Swan serves world-class cuisine, most of it plucked out of the surrounding lush North Yorkshire countryside? Northerners eat too! Who knew.
But I think what helps us Londoners feel so irritatingly superior is the perceived lack of a healthy "middle ground" dining scene outside of the M25. Yes, places like L'Enclume and the Black Swan are completely wonderful but a good restaurant culture consists of more than the occasional £150/head temple of gastronomy and a high street full of Zizzi and Pizza Express and Ask. What's so good about London isn't just Fera at Claridge's and the Ledbury but the ground occupied by Quality Chop House, the Draper's Arms, Smoking Goat, Hoppers and Bao - those places where you can enjoy exciting food for about £40-45 a head with a bottle of wine. Where would we be without them?
Burnt Truffle in Heswall is chef/owner Gary Usher's answer to the question of good, mid-range, local restaurants in the North West. And I'm trying hard to contain my more superlative instincts because the fact that there is finally somewhere worth eating in Heswall (Heswall!), shouldn't mean I judge them any differently than I would anywhere of a similar budget in London. So I'm going to very soberly and objectively explain why everyone living anywhere near this lovely little place should be feeling very pleased with themselves indeed.
Burnt Truffle make their own sourdough bread. This in itself is noteworthy. Drizzled with olive oil and paired with whipped walnut butter, though, it becomes a very special thing, impossible to not overfeed on while it exists on the table.
My own was - fortunately - my favourite of the starters, but then I would say that. Robustly seasoned raw tuna, dressed with cooling white radish and a couple of pretty slices of fried lotus root, and with a slick of lovely powerful avocado/sesame purée (mayonnaise perhaps), this was fun, confident cooking despite being the kind of thing that could go hideously wrong in less than fully competent hands.
Cured duck ham (I assume they'd cured it themselves; it had a nice bite) with roasted beets, ginger and orange was similarly attractive, with a zing of good fresh summer ingredients.
Only the gazpacho wasn't quite up to the task, unfortunately, tasting of little more than blitzed red peppers. The basil "sorbet" had melted into a small puddle and though the black olives were a nice touch, there weren't enough of them to season the large amount of dull pepper mixture. Still, it wasn't inedible and was eaten.
All three main courses were great, though. Jacob's Ladder (beef rib), slow-cooked to gooey, tender perfection, dressed in the most fantastic reduced beef stock (I presume) jus, with some nicely textured chunky chips and a blob of addictive onion purée. The kind of beef rib dish that you wish you were given every time you ordered a beef rib dish but only very occasionally are.
Tender just-pink slices of Barbary duck breast, with some gently Asian-influenced veg and another one of those beautiful sticky reduced sauces. And those cute little balls are made of potato, unannounced on the menu and a lovely little extra flourish.
You'll be able to see how well they'd crisped up the crust on this piece of blackened cod, and with the bright white flesh still flaking wonderfully underneath, an exact bit of cooking. But it sat on top of a clear fish consommée of some kind that would have been worth the price of admission by itself, clear and clean and spiked with samphire and summer greens.
Hot chocolate pudding with popcorn ice cream was as good as it sounded on paper. Unusual ice creams and sorbets being a bit of a theme at Burnt Truffle, and each dessert came with a different flavour - a small detail perhaps in the grand scheme of things but you definitely got the impression they were going to significant extra effort, as opposed to if they'd just put a blob of vanilla on everything like some places would have done.
Lemon millefuille was lovely, rich custard spiked with real vanilla and presented with a blob of intense summer berry couli. I couldn't work out how exactly the "meringues sorbet" featured - it could have been that thing on top but it was surprisingly warm for a sorbet. Either way, it was still a very enjoyable dessert.
You can tell a lot about a place from their cheeseboard. This quartet of (left to right) Tomme Brulée (lightly blowtorched to give the frills a bit of a crisp, a nice touch), Flower Marie, Montbriac goat's and a pungent, softly oozing slice of Soumaintain is a masterful selection and didn't leave you wanting for anything, not even a blue. Yes, it's sometimes fun to pick your own choice from a cheese trolley but then when you're in safe hands (only when you're in safe hands) it's nice to have a selection brought to you. This was a very good cheeseboard.
With a bottle of good Douro and a glass of prosecco, the bill came to £126.50 - that's £42 for three courses each made with love and care and skill, and served with astonishing attention and flair considering service wasn't even added onto the bill. So we happily paid the usual percentage and went merrily on our way.
It shouldn't really matter that Burnt Truffle is in Heswall; it's a restaurant that could hold its head up anywhere, and clearly there's no reason why residents of the Wirral shouldn't eat every bit as well as anywhere else. But right now, in 2016, places like this in the quiet suburban corners of the UK the are still a rarity and until there's a Burnt Truffle in every high street (and Usher has plans in motion to this very end - his third restaurant Hispi opens soon in Didsbury, let's hope it's the third of many) I think I'm still allowed to get excited about them. One day, maybe Burnt Truffle will be just another great place to eat in the North West. Until then, it's a unique, and wonderful, anomaly.
Until there's a Liverpool version of the app, see where's good in London
Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Finding a place to eat for my one free evening in Bristol during Grillstock weekend is a task that gets more difficult every year. Always spoiled for choice for a good dinner, recently the explosion of exciting and interesting restaurants has meant making an almost impossible choice between the frills and flourishes of Casamia or the Mediterranean-British rustic stylings of Bell's Diner; the hearty gastropubbery of the Pony and Trap, or the clean lines and lyrical ingredients of Birch. All these places, I've heard from those in absolutely the best positions to know (start with Dan or Fiona at the very least) are worth your pocket money and then some - and at various different price brackets. This isn't somewhere with a couple of ludicrous wallet-busting fayne dayning £150/head Michelin star-traps and nothing else much more than a Gregg's (naming no names, Other Cities). Bristol really knows how to eat.
So that we ended up in Wallfish was the result of careful deliberation and much soul-searching. Prior to a weekend of eating nothing but smoked pork, beef and chicken we thought seafood seemed the obvious way to go. There was also the obvious draw of eating in the site once occupied by Keith Floyd's Bistro, a man - and a restaurant - as much a core part of the culinary education of this country as almost anyone else you can think of. And finally, well, the menu looked nice. Which would have swung it fairly decisively in the absence of the first two factors anyway, to be honest.
So in we went, and after some decent house bread and butter - in fact, if I'm going to be honest, quite a while after - "snacks" arrived, first some "crispy cockles". Nicely dry-fried out and moist within, they had a delicate sweet flavour and were cleverly seasoned with cumin and fennel. They went down pretty well.
A selection of oysters also arrived and soon after disappeared but were slightly less enjoyable thanks to being worryingly room temperature. Interminable waits between courses would be a bit of a theme of the evening, which could possibly be blamed on the tiny kitchen being quite overworked of a Friday night but still isn't really much of an excuse; Wallfish is hardly a massive place, half of downstairs was empty, and room temperature oysters and various other things (coming up) seem to point to more general organisational issues than just your usual backlog.
Still, that said, when dishes were good they were very good. Spears of asparagus dressed with white crab meat, lots of lovely fresh tarragon and a perfectly poached egg was a seamless marriage of intelligent menu writing and solid delivery. And a good eye for presentation too.
A couple of plump langoustine tails on a bacon, orange and pea mixture was also a vaguely familiar combination of ingredients with just that slight twist - orange instead of lemon - of a kitchen trying to do something a bit different, which is generally welcome (within reason).
I didn't get to try the octopus, but I didn't hear any complaints. Charred to a crisp exterior and presented with shocking violet potato mash and a green sauce, it was finished with those remarkable things - oyster leaves. If you've never tried mertensia maritima, you may find it hard to believe a bit of green vegetation can actually taste like oyster, but honestly, it really does. Extraordinary stuff.
Getting a whole Devon crab for £15 strikes this Londoner as excellent value, and however much of a bargain the Bristolians think they're getting they can hardly have much of an issue with the execution, at least not with the perfectly cooked beast itself. House mayonnaise was a bit thick and over-emulsified but at least they'd made the effort to make their own.
Then for my own main course I had a mainly raw lobster. Two things may be running through your mind on hearing this news. Firstly, you may be thinking "it doesn't look that raw" to which I can only reply that no, the tail itself didn't at first, covered in samphire and butter dressing but believe me, once the first morsel of transluscent, mushy flesh peeled from the shell and entered my mouth I realised that I was indeed eating a fairly raw lobster. It was even more obvious in the claw (which you can probably even see for yourself - aren't cooked lobsters usually red?) where the meat, which usually slides out as a whole piece if the cooking process has gone well, clung stubbornly to the carapace and would only tear out in small, blobby, lukewarm chunks.
Secondly, you may be wondering why I didn't send it back. Ordinarily I probably would have done, but thanks to the aformentioned hefty delays between courses it was getting pretty late, and I didn't want to make everyone else wait another God-knows-how-long (if a raw one took 45 minutes, how long would a cooked one take?) while they fixed the problem. So I just picked the samphire and the butter sauce from around it and filled up on bread.
So a couple of OK dishes, a few very good ones, and one complete disaster. Not a ringing endorsement for a restaurant under normal circumstances but oddly, my overall impressions a while after leaving Wallfish were bordering on positive. Waiting staff were attentive and probably couldn't have done much about the speed the kitchens were working at even if they wanted to; the wine list was interesting; and £50 a head for quite a bit of seafood (edible or no) is perfectly acceptable, really. I probably won't be going back to Wallfish, at least not with the competition as strong as it is in a place like Bristol, but there's still a lot of potential there. Maybe they just need someone like Keith Floyd to kick them into shape.
There's no Bristol app - yet - but search for where's good for seafood in London right here
Tuesday, 5 July 2016
The best sushi experience I've have ever had in London remains Tetsu in Clerkenwell. I might as well get that out of the way first, because comparisons are inevitable and because anyone who will accept nothing less than the finest Japanese food this city has to offer is still better served putting Tetsu on speed dial and smashing the hell out of it for weeks on end in the one in a million chance you may eventually score a space. Hey, if you want the best, you gotta queue with the rest.
But for the majority of us, and if your idea of an enjoyable sushi experience doesn't begin with hours every day for weeks on end listening to an engaged signal (at least, for now), well, let me tell you about a little place in South Wimbledon. Nestled amidst the kebab shops and fried chicken joints and car repair shops of this - and I'm choosing my words carefully here - rather unreconstructed area of South London is the clean lines and orchids of Takahashi, looking like a painted geisha girl hanging around with chimney sweeps. This not a part of town you'd ordinarily expect to find anything worth eating at all, never mind a £75 tasting menu, and yet here it is anyway, doing very well for itself too judging by the numbers packed in on a recent Friday.
The first thing we ate were edamame beans - this is a wholly unremarkable thing to report but I'm doing so just for the sake of completeness. They tasted like any other edamame beans you've ever eaten.
The meal proper kicked off with this stunning sea bream tataki, fish with an almost glass-like translucency resting in a pool of (ponzu? yuzu?) dressing so perfectly balanced between citrus bitterness and seafoody softness that I couldn't stop myself from drinking the leftovers directly from the plate. The attention to detail in the presentation - neat blobs of caviar, chilli chutney and micro herbs - as well as the quality of the main ingredient (tender but with a seductive bite) produced what is surely one of the most perfect seafood dishes I've ever been lucky enough to be served. Already the journey to South Wimbledon had been rewarded, and then some.
Then a bowl of geometrically-precise portobello mushroom segments, each topped with a slice of green chilli and truffle paste, floating in a piping hot thin oil of some kind. The temptation to dig in before the dish had cooled to anywhere near approaching an edible temperature was too great, and I'm afraid I managed to burn my mouth a bit, but it was still worth it. Mushroom, truffle, chilli. What's not to like?
Miso soup was rich and salty, and studded with mini sweetcorn chunks, an idea I would have told you couldn't possibly be an improvement on any standard miso soup but somehow worked rather well. I do run out of things to say about miso soup because, well, it's never really terrible anywhere is it, but there you go.
In a traditional sushi bar setup of stools in front of a counter with the nigiri assembled by hand for each customer, the painting of the nikiri sauce (a mixture of soy, mirin, saké and dashi) on top before presentation would have been the job of the sushi master. At Takahashi there's no bar, so customers are each provided with a bowl of nikiri and a mini paint brush, to perform this vital final stage yourself just before eating and to save the rice going soggy. It's the kind of attention to detail that informs so much of what Takahashi do.
Of course it would all be for nought if the nigiri itself was no good, but these were absolutely wonderful examples of the craft, with stunning quality seafood (the first time I've ever had raw squid worth bothering with, for one thing) draped over fluffy, body-temperature rice. Yes, thanks to the table service a couple of them had started to lose a tiny bit of their warmth by the time we got around to eating them (a pure nigiri experience will always require counter service and for each morsel to be prepared and eaten one at a time) but this was still by anyone's standards superb quality sushi.
Black cod and miso will be a dish familiar to many, and though I've enjoyed slightly better versions elsewhere (the one at Asakusa in Mornington Crescent is great, and surprisingly good value) this was still fun, with plenty of sweet umami and nice thick skin.
I'm afraid this Wagyu dish was the first real dud. I've never been a fan of Wagyu - if I want beef that tastes of nothing much more than fat, I'll just eat beef fat and save the extra few quid, thanks very much - and the uninteresting sweet sauce it came in was never going to help matters. Add to the plate a weirdly wilted and wrinkly collection of vegetables (white asparagus, broccoli, some kind of spinach) and you have a pretty uninspiring plate of food, all the more confusing given what had come before.
And similarly desserts - perhaps this was just a reaction to the fact that so many of the other dishes had been so good, but I do not come to a Japanese restaurant for a clumsy crème brûlée and bland, pasty cheesecake and I was pretty nonplussed by these fairly lazy offerings. Also, whereas we each had an identical dish each for all previous courses, these came as one cheesecake and one crème brûlée, to share. Which was a bit odd.
So it's a shame that a couple of the final courses at Takahashi weren't great, but if you don't go for the tasting menu and instead construct yourself a meal based around the stunning nigiri and seafood courses you could almost definitely walk away with one of the finest Japanese meals it's possible to have in London. Yes, Tetsu is better but Tetsu is so impossibly difficult to book it's almost a theoretical restaurant these days, available only to Amex Centurian cardholders and friends of the chef. Takahashi does so many things right - so very right, that the relatively high bill (written out longhand for each customer, including such exhausting details as the full address and VAT number; will someone please buy Takahashi a printer?) and location are mere inconveniences, and at least you stand a snowball's chance in hell of getting in.
And for that reason and the nigiri, and that sea bream, and for all the other wonderful things I'm sure will be coming out of the kitchens at Takahashi in the coming months, you should get yourself down to South Wimbledon. Restaurants as good as this don't come around very often.
Takahashi stands a very good chance of being in the next version of the app. See where else is good.
Friday, 1 July 2016
The last post on this blog was about Dickie Fitz, an Australasian bistro in Fitzrovia that managed to be both hugely entertaining and genuinely innovative, serving a style of Asian-Western fusion food that has rarely been seen in the capital before. I would have enjoyed my meal there even if I was already familiar with things like "short soup" and "baked eggplant with tofu and miso" but the quality of the cooking combined with the thrill of discovering something new made it all that much more memorable. There's nothing nicer than being surprised.
Actually there is one thing nicer than being surprised - being surprised again. I freely admit that when I booked Duende I wasn't expecting much more than another post-José tapas joint, plates of silky Iberico ham, sherry, blistered Padron peppers in a little terracotta bowl and perhaps some nice grilled meats. I'd heard good things on the grapevine, but this was after all still Covent Garden, an area of town where the unofficial motto for restaurants has traditionally been "if you can make a fortune being shit, why bother being good?". I chose it as a venue for a quiet family dinner, smug in the knowledge I knew exactly what was coming. Oh yeah, Spanish restaurants in London? I've got their number.
Of course, and by now you'll know where this is going, I was completely and utterly wrong about Duende. Things started familiarly enough in the form of a gazpacho soup, though even this stalwart was a top example, fresh pea shoots and crunchy radish livening a thick, umami-rich tomato base, gently toasted croutons providing more texture and a lick of oil. If it didn't taste so lovely I perhaps would have been a bit irritated by the wacky upended wineglass presentation, but as it is I'll let it slide.
"Galician Seaweed Salad" came rolled up like sushi, beautifully presented with evenly-rolled sliced avocado containing a good amount of crunchy seaweed. With vegetarian dishes like this - in fact in all dishes, but particularly vegetarian ones - the difference between success and failure is little more than proper seasoning; this dish was expertly put together and full of flavour.
Duende's croquettas involved aubergine and goat's cheese, and I was worried would be a bit slimy. But the aubergine was more of a taste than a texture, thankfully, and the cheese bound it all together and seasoned it beautifully.
Galician beef fillet (if you ever see Galician beef on a menu, order it) came with pickled mushrooms, roast hazelnut and a light truffley dressing and was also lovely. The menu described the meat itself as "cured" though I didn't detect much of that, just the smooth, soft flavour of good raw cow.
I don't envy whoever's job it was to painstakingly bone and "lollipop" these quail but I was very happy to enjoy the fruits of their labours, wrapped in Iberica pancetta and dipped in a treacly reduced Pedro Ximinez sauce.
I used to be dead set against fried oysters, thinking it was a waste to ruin the delicate flavour of these special beasties inside a thick batter. However, I've since realised there's nothing "delicate" about the flavour of oyster at all, and if anything the deep frying enhances the seafood tang and turns the experience of eating them into something else entirely. Sherry and wild almonds were a very clever foil to the shellfish, and a little blob of caviar finished them off perfectly.
Crispy prawns were probably my least favourite of the Duende dishes, partly because they were a bit bland and oily, and partly because even if they hadn't have been, and had been seasoned and fried a bit better, I still wasn't sure how something looking like it had been lifted from the freezers at Iceland should fit onto a Modern Spanish menu. Still, it was at least a talking point.
We ended on a high, though. "Poached duck egg" was a heavenly mixture of smooth-as-silk mashed potato, truffle and just-so egg, the runny yolk combining with the buttery potato and soaking into the grilled bread underneath. It didn't look like much - even my new camera struggled to define any distinguishing features - but I loved every bit of it, right down to the last velvety drop.
One final trick Duende has up its sleeve is that for all this food and a glass of wine per person the bill came to £120, which I know is a bit much to be described as 'modest' but is incredibly good value considering the Herculean effort that went into some of the dishes. Oh, and that total also includes £11 of lamb chops that I forgot to take a photo of and didn't get to eat; I didn't hear any complaints though.
It's heartening that in 2016, with pressure from investors to find a bandwagon and get on it, to laminate your menu and look for a second site, there is still room - and a market (the place was rammed, though it is only tiny) - for a wilfully offbeat experiment like Duende, beating to the rhythm of their own drums and to hell with what anyone else is doing. That it's sat slap-bang in Covent Garden and not in some converted bag shop in Haggerston is all the more impressive, and the fact it's just over the road from the very antithesis of independence and hospitality, the dreadful novelty office party venue Fire and Stone, is the icing on the cake. If you've been searching for some good news recently, and I don't blame you if you have, look no further than the happy, contented customers of 16 Maiden Lane. Where there's Iberico ham and croquettas, there's hope.
Duende may well be in the next version of the app. See what else is in Covent Garden, and elsewhere, here.