Thursday, 4 February 2016
Haven't the last 12 months just flown by? It's time once again to put myself in your hands as I open another reader's poll to determine the subject of a forthcoming blog post. With trips Frankie & Benny's, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and the Rainforest Café all distant (though still traumatic) memories, there is some comfort in that at least I won't be going back to any of those. But we all know there's probably far worse out there, and if anyone can uncover a real dining catastrophe, it's you horrible lot.
Of course, you could just send me somewhere nice like Le Gavroche, but then who am I kidding.
The rules again:
1. I can't have been to the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)
2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)
3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.
4. Buy my app (it's not a condition for voting but you should anyway)
Tuesday, 2 February 2016
To be fair to the team behind Noble Rot, they tried to keep if not schtum then at least sotto voce the involvement of chef Stephen Harris. This was not billed anywhere official as The Sportsman in London. Harris was merely a consultant on the menu, and manning the stoves on a daily basis would be Paul Weaver, admittedly ex-Sportsman but also having experience of the nose-to-tail aesthetic of St John Bread & Wine, and very much his own person. Noble Rot would be "Franglish", they said - British ingredients presented in a French bistro style. Definitely not the Sportsman v2. No no no.
But then the mere mention of "slipsole" on a preview menu was enough to prompt fevered speculation. Of all the dishes served in that windswept spot on the north Kent coast, it's the "Slipsole with seaweed butter" that's come to represent everything that's pure and good about Harris' cooking. Delicate but meaty fillet of sole drenched in a sauce made from seaweed gathered from the beach, seasoned with sea salt made from water carried out of the ocean by hand. Dare we expect this level of ultra-seasonal, haute-British cooking in Bloomsbury? Would we be disappointed if it wasn't?
In the end, what Noble Rot have done is very clever. Those knowing nothing about the pedigree of the kitchen will enjoy a sophisticated yet accessible menu of seasonal British ingredients, well worth the money they're charging and alongside a wine list that's every bit as intelligently considered as the food. But what about those people expecting the Sportsman in London? Well, they won't be disappointed either, because Noble Rot is such a good restaurant that any lingering doubts will fade as soon as the food starts arriving. Oh, and they even serve slipsole.
First things first, though, and the house bread at Noble Rot is up there with the very best in town. This is because they get some of it from the Antidote/Hedone people, who are almost as famous for their obsessive attention to making the very best bread as they are about, well, pretty much everything else they do. There's no finer way of starting a meal than with a bread course like this, soft soda next to sticky sourdough and moist, cakey foccacia. All gorgeous. I do think it's a bit strange when places serve focaccia with butter but that's a minor niggle.
Native oysters from (where else) Whitstable, and lovely they were too, minerally and fresh and lean. Not massively cheap at £3.50 a pop but then natives never are, and it's always a good sign to see them on a restaurant menu. Means a place knows what it's doing.
A plate of Iberico ham next, just because it's on the menu and if you don't always order Iberico ham whenever you see it you're a stronger person than me. It was in perfect condition, and every sliver of that warm, nutty, rich meat with its ribbons of fat dissolved on the tongue like butter.
And so, the slipsole. In a nod to the location instead of seaweed they'd used "smoked" butter, an equally clever and visually arresting way of making the most of this astonishing fish. Just like when I had it in Whitstable the flesh was bright white and lifted off the bone in satisfying clean chunks, and the dressing added an intriguing spicy note. Perhaps it goes without saying that the seaweed version in the Sportsman is slightly better but that is there and this is here and you'd have a heart of stone to whinge about this superb dish for £8 in central London.
"Burrata, pumpkin & hazelnuts" almost, but not quite, made me enjoy pumpkin. The burrata was gooey and bright tasting, and the nuts had a lovely toasted flavour and fragile texture, but pumpkin is still a bit of a characterless vegetable as far as I'm concerned. Still, this wasn't my dish and the person who ordered it loved it, so what do I know. Or care.
This was halibut braised in "oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru". If I was a proper food writer I'd make at least some effort to find out what the hell this means, but I'm not, so all I can tell you is it was a lovely meaty chunk of moist halibut in a wine/butter sauce with some new potatoes. Certainly on the more straightforward side of food presentation and not a great deal going on texture-wise but the fish was lovely and it went down very well with the parties who ordered it.
Whole roast quail with bacon, chestnuts and cavolo nero was far more my kind of thing. The bird was cooked pink inside, with a fantastic dark skin holding bags of salty flavour. The rinkles of the cavolo nero worked like a sponge so that every bite gave up a satisfying amount of gamey gravy. Chestnuts were horrid little nuggets of soily blandness like they usually are, but were easily avoided. A comforting, seasonal dish.
Desserts were a game of two halves. On the one hand, a not-very-good-really egg tart which though edible didn't have the depth of flavour or structural integrity (I mean to say it was a bit runny and the crust was too thick) of masterful versions elsewhere in the capital such as the one at the Marksman. I know this makes me sound a bit spoiled but the egg tart game has upped so much in recent times that substandard ones really do stand out. The clementine sorbet didn't do anything for it either.
But on the other hand, a really good cheeseboard, with (from wobbly memory, we'd had a bit of wine by this point) a stinky Livarot, a good creamy Comté and a blue, all room temperature and in perfect condition.
So it seems the strengths at Noble Rot, and they have some very notable strengths, are in sourcing impeccable ingredients, from oysters to cheese, and serving them at the absolute best they can be. And the savoury courses generally were worth the journey, not least that slipsole which is still able to shine despite not having the benefit of its seaside context.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the wine. Noble Rot have consistently described themselves in the press as a wine bar first, and to this end the wine list - not excessively long but full of interesting options - will I'm sure keep oenophiles happy as Larry. For those of you (myself included) who don't take a professional-level interest in that side of things, there's the fun of ordering a bottle of £20 white and knowing that if it's on the list, it's likely to be pretty good. I spotted a few other tables who were as happy working their way through the wine list as we were working our way through the food menu, and I'm sure Noble Rot are happy playing to either role.
So I'll leave it up to you whether you treat Noble Rot as an exciting new wine bar that happens to serve excellent food, or a modern British-French bistro that serves some of our island's greatest ingredients with the minimum of faff and fuss. Either way, you should find a lot to like in this charming mid-range (you're probably looking at £40-£50 a head) spot on Lamb's Conduit St, and I can see myself returning quite a bit, not least because it's 8 minutes walk from the office. It's a hugely enjoyable addition to the area, and to London.
Noble Rot didn't quite make it into the app this year, but to see what else is in the area try the brand new Where to Eat in London 2016. Also, apologies for the photos. It's dark in there.
Monday, 1 February 2016
I'm very pleased to announce that the 2016 version of my Where to Eat in London app is now available from the iTunes app store! Grab it here:
Where to Eat in London 2016
Anyone familiar with the 2015 version will know pretty much what to expect - 100 restaurants that I consider to be the very best in town, each with a review written specifically for the app. And if this all this is new to you, it won't be long before you're discovering new places and ticking off your 'visited' list with the best of them. It's very easy to use.
Such is the pace of change in the past 12 months that at least 20% of the entries are brand new for 2016. I'll leave you to discover which ones they are, but anyone following these pages probably won't be very surprised to see certain Kingsland Road chicken joints and Sri-Lankan Soho curry houses making an appearance.
And with the total number of restaurants being still just 100, that of course means there have been a few culled from the list. Most are simply closures; Zucca, Fino, Garufin, Koya, all decent restaurants that didn't make it through the maelstrom of activity that was London 2015. It's been a funny old year.
And there's still no Android version I'm afraid - at least, not yet. Complicated economic reasons but boiling down to the fact that the extra development costs for Android aren't worth it for the potential returns. But if the iOS version does well enough then the publishers will consider developing one - so watch this space.
Anyway I hope you enjoy it, and as ever, if you like it and find it useful, or even if you download it just for the reviews (plenty of reading material there for your £2.99, I'm sure you'll agree), please do leave a report on iTunes. It all helps.
Meantime, happy downloading and happy eating!
Wednesday, 27 January 2016
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but in 2011 I spent two mad, fun-filled weeks in Japan. I loved every minute of the time I spent in this most beautiful and endlessly hospitable of countries, which I'm sure will surprise nobody who's ever been there themselves. And it will also come as no surprise that I ate many wonderful things there too, from delicate tempura to okonomiyaki, from rich ramen to takoyaki, multi-course Zen Buddhist menus and seafood banquets hung above mountain streams, it was the trip of a lifetime.
Of course, there was the odd challenge as well. The Japanese seem very fond of savoury jellies, which tended to spring up unnanounced in certain more high-end kaiseki menus, often hidden under innocuous-looking vegetables for extra shock factor. I don't dislike savoury jellies per se, it's just I know where I stand with a bit of aspic in a pork pie. The strange, murky lumps of snot wrapped in cabbage given to me in a restaurant in Kyoto, not so much. And if I never again have to eat cod's sperm, or raw squid guts, or bitter deep-fried river fish tasting of soil and bones, it will still be too soon. I skipped into Japan as a fearless food adventurer. I left, chastened and discombobulated, craving anything so familiar as a burger and chips. It's no wonder Noma did so well over there.
Tim Anderson is a man who understands all the things that makes Japanese food so dynamic and rewarding, but crucially also how to harness the best features of the cuisine and repackage it for a London audience. That's not to say the food in Nanban is a tame or watered-down version of Japanese food, such as you might find in a ready-meal or some high-street friendly chain; it's far more complex than that. It's regional Japanese cuisine (in this case from the south of the country, where Anderson has spent most of his time) melded intelligently with modern London, producing a result at once completely unique and - more importantly - great to eat.
Take for example this dish, "Electric Eel", smoked eel with sansho pepper, something called "prickly oil", apple, cucumber and daikon. Smoked eel is one of those ingredients that will be familiar to the Japanese but also many diners of London restaurants - I've had it a the Dairy as well as the Ledbury in the last year at least. With it is sansho pepper, a punchy spice from Japan's Kochi Prefecture, providing the 'electricity' of tongue-tingling heat but also a cute nod to Brixton's Electric Avenue, just round the corner. And on top of all this clever Japanese-Brixton fusion is the fact that it tastes fantastic, from the soft smoky eel to the sharp/sweet cucumber and the texture of fried noodles on top. It's way more than a nifty idea.
Also this, "Curry Goat Tsukumen", a deep bowl of richly meaty ramen (including half a salty, gooey onsen egg), and a separate plate of dipping noodles. There's nothing not to love here, from the complex curry notes of the broth to the bouncy yellow egg noodles to dip in it. Also of note were two sticks of Scotch Bonnet-infused bamboo shoots, eye-wateringly hot and addictively moreish. Just as with the eel dish, the fusion of Japan and Carribbean South London produced a genuinely exciting and unique result. Oh and that plate of spaghetti towards the back? "Mentaiko" pasta, similar to bottarga (fish roe), salty and satisfying with a poached egg on top ready to dispatch a dose of runny yolk once broken with chopsticks. Another work of breathless invention.
There's even a burger, a big heaving juicy thing with gochujang sauce, pork belly and tea egg mayo - so far so Asian - but quite rightly served with plasticky American cheese, who as anyone who knows burgers will tell you is still the best way of doing things. If it ain't broke.
I'll talk about one more thing - "horumon yaki", briefly described as pig tripe in miso but involving a good half dozen other bits that I'd only get wrong if I tried to explain in full. All you need to know is that this startling side dish was another impressive display of Anderson's skill, matching nose-to-tail butchery with a fearless miscellany of pickle, colour and crunch.
Just as much thought has gone into the drinks list, which also cleverly continues the fusion theme. Anderson has collaborated with various local breweries to produce delights such as the 'Brew By Numbers 01/14', a Saison with matcha, honey and lemon, and the lovely 'Pressure Drop' wheat IPA flavoured with yuzu and grapefruit. The care and thought that has gone into everything at Nanban is obvious.
As a restaurant blogger I'm perhaps more inclined towards the new and innovative than the tried and tested, and to that end I shouldn't be too surprised that reviews of Nanban from other corners haven't been wholly positive. Depending on your state of mind I suppose the relentless invention can easily be interpreted as wacky-for-the-sake-of-it gimmickry, and with the chilli levels, seasoning and flavours so often dialled up to 11, you're going to lose some people along the way.
But I am convinced that there is something legitimately new and exciting happening at Nanban. This is food the like of which London has not seen before, Japanese fused with Brixton 2016 in a way few others would have the fearlessness and creativity to successfully pull off. And more than that, and more to the point, it's just a great place to go and have your dinner, and for not very much money (our bill was about £30 a head). For fans of Anderson (myself included) who have followed his popups and collaborations across town for many years, Nanban has been a long time coming. But boy, was it worth the wait.
Tuesday, 29 December 2015
The traditional way to start an end-of-year post, based on Cheese & Biscuits past (he says scanning the few previous years' posts in an effort not to repeat himself), is to praise the dynamism and ingenuity of the London restaurant scene, pick out a few notable new entries alongside reliable old stalwarts, and repeat once again that there isn’t another city on earth that can match it for diversity, energy and innovation.
And certainly all these things are still true, and yet in 2015 it all - impossibly - seems to have stepped up another gear again. The old stalwarts are still there, of course; at least, most of them. I’ve had yet more excellent dinners at Bob Bob Ricard, Tayyabs, Silk Road etc. etc and however proud of the pace of change in London we should never become so obsessed with the new and improved that we take for granted the enormous achievement of brilliant consistency. They may make it look easy; don’t be fooled.
But she sheer number and quality of new openings just can’t be ignored. I could list at least 20 restaurants that are not just enjoyable and good value but in some way unique or groundbreaking, and have all opened in the space of the last twelve months. And these just the ones I’ve managed to visit; from what I hear about The Hour Glass, Oldroyd, Shuang Shuang, The Ninth and god knows how many others listed on the Hot Dinners New Openings, this number could be a lot higher.
Perhaps it’s not sustainable. Maybe we’re living in some hyper-inflated, self-obsessed bubble that’s on the verge of bursting, and we’ll look back on these crazy times and wonder how we ever thought it would last. Or maybe - and this is just as likely - we’re still only just getting started. What a thought. Anyway, however impossible a task this is, I’m going to pick out a few highlights amongst highlights and do my best to come up with a favorite...
The “Believe the Hype” award - Kitty Fisher’s
In a Venn diagram of “restaurants serving world-class food” and “celebrity hangouts”, the intersection would not contain very many options. Filter that yet again with “restaurants you won’t need to remortgage your house to be able to pay the bill” and you’re really left with just one. This charming little spot in Shepherd’s Market built up a loyal following in that most old fashioned of ways - no PR, no grand launch party, just serve good food (expertly sourced grilled meat & fish, and the occasional stroke of genius like Burnt Onion Butter), treat each customer like family, and hope it works. And if you’ve been, you’ll know - it really does work.
The “Best outside of London” award - The Black Swan, Oldstead
Quite a few candidates for this category, but I’ve settled on this idyllic spot in the North York Moors because it feels to me like it encapsulates everything a regional restaurant should be. Experimental where it matters, though never at the expense of enjoyment, with a maturity and confidence that comes with this amount of time running a Michelin-starred restaurant, the kitchen team at the Black Swan would I’m sure be a hit wherever in the country they happened to settle. But here, surrounded by the most extraordinary natural larder, they construct a seasonal symphony of the very finest British (or rather Yorkshire) dishes.
The “Fusion Fever” award - Chick’N’Sours
It wasn’t long ago that “fusion” ranked just below “carvery” in the list of restaurant description warning signs. But this isn’t some shallow PR stunt, mashing together wildly inappropriate cooking styles for the sake of a few headlines. It could have been that, quite easily. But in the hands of Carl Clarke we have probably London’s finest fried chicken served alongside a variety of SE Asian salads and sauces that soothe the soul, lift the spirits and make you wonder why nobody’s done this kind of thing before. Oh, and try the wedge salad with crispy chicken skin, it's a knockout.
The “Where Have You Been All My Life” award - Hoppers
Yeah yeah, I know, you’ve probably read a million words on this place already, and know all about the bone marrow varuval with roti like the finest French patisserie, the black pork kari with its dense sticky spicing, the egg hoppers themselves with their gently tangy casings and soft egg base. But beneath the hype and the queues there is no con-trick here; Hoppers is talk of the town because it deserves to be. Sri Lankan food given a Soho makeover from the team that brought you Gymkhana, Trishna, Bao, Lyle’s... and basically every other memorable meal you’ve had in 2015.
The “Will Someone Please Give Her A Restaurant” award - Darjeeling Express
Asma Khan’s popup at the Sun and 13 Cantons in Soho is, at time of writing, still going, and therefore there is still time to get yourself down to enjoy the finest homestyle Indian food ever served in London outside someone’s actual home. The terrifying thought that once her residency is over she may decide to do something else is therefore reason for my plea to her now - please find a way of making this work long term. Because this food is too good to lose even for a day.
The “No Choice, No Problem” award - Pidgin
The relationship of absolute trust between a restaurant serving a no-choice, four course menu and a public willing to pay for it must be profound and unbreakable. But if there’s one chef capable of such unshakable faith it’s Elizabeth Allen, whose flair for modern British food and magical lightness of touch across a multitude of disciplines (fish, game, desserts, you name it) has turned weeny restaurant Pidgin into a destination almost from day one. You go to Pidgin, you put yourself in their hands, and you have the time of your life. It’s that simple.
The Runner Up - Galvin @ Windows
As ever with these kind of things, there’s very little to choose between the winner and runner up, and very little to choose between the runner up and any others in the list above, for that matter. But after having chosen a largely cutting-edge shortlist, and sung the praises from the rooftops of our Modern British talent, the contrarian in me feels duty bound to say that my two meals at Galvin this year, one with the parents in September and one for a friends birthday a couple of weeks ago, were as memorable and accomplished as almost any other meal I’ve had in the last twelve months.
Sure, the Galvin tradition is solidly french, but head chef Joo Won has kept the spirit of the menu that won them the accolades while injecting the odd enticing bit of Asian seasoning, ending up with a menu full of excitement and intrigue. Service, overseen by Fred Sirieix of First Dates fame, is as good as ever, and of course faultless. But Galvin @ Windows is more than just a hospitality show. The food is world class, the attention to detail breathtaking.
The Winner - Newman Arms
There are many things to love about the Newman Arms, from the Dickensian charm of its dining room and downstairs bar, to the lovely thick-crust pies they do on Monday lunchtimes served with buttery mash and fresh parsley sauce, to the astonishing Modern British food cooked up by their superstar chef Eryk Bautista the rest of the week, who seems to have completely bypassed the ‘one to watch’ list and nestled firmly in the ‘one to shortly win every award under the sun’ list. Everything about the Newman Arms is wonderful, and owner Matt Chatfield, whose Cornish connections mean Bautista is never short of the country’s finest ingredients to work with, should be very pleased with himself.
But what lifts the Newman Arms above its many competitors is that it has, over the last few months, turned into somewhat of a testing bed for young talent, hosting popups and special evenings from supper club stars wanting to spread their wings in the capital. Recently I ate lovely home made laksa by the Sambal Shiok guys, matched with Riesling chosen by wine expert Zeren Wilson, a collaboration that would have been hard to envisage least of all organise were it not for the generous intervention of Chatfield. So it’s this sense of community and charity that - much like Islington’s Drapers Arms - mark it out as much more than a (top notch) gastropub. It’s the beating heart of London’s place in the world, and is everything that’s uplifting and gratifying about eating out in the city distilled into one quaint pub in Fitzrovia. It is, in short, my favourite restaurant on 2015, and I look forward to visiting as often as I possibly can in the months to come.
And there’s plenty more to look forward to in the months to come besides, not least the 2016 version of my app which will be out very soon, as well as the usual slew of new openings that will no doubt be jostling for a spot in the 2017 version. I won’t preempt the final 100 now; lord knows enough can happen in a week to make a list obsolete never mind the time it takes to publish a new app, but expect to see most of the above and a few more besides. It’s been a very, very good year, and keeping the app to just 100 entries is a challenge on the level of writing the 100 brand new reviews to go with them. You’ll just have to wait and see for yourself who made the cut.
Anyway, with that I’ll leave you for this year. I hope you had as much fun as I did scooting around the capital for dinner, and if you didn’t then I hope 2016 is more to your taste. There are few better ways to lift the spirits than a glass of wine and a meal out in a great restaurant, and I’m convinced there are no better places in the world to do just that, right now, than London.
Thursday, 17 December 2015
Perhaps it's a good thing I've had a bad meal at a restaurant everyone else seems to love. Consensus is certainly useful, especially when making a guide (or even, hint hint, an app), but runs the risk of getting at best boring, at worst counterproductive. Over the last few months I've barely heard a word against Chick'n'Sours, the Marksman, Hoppers, Bao and the rest and while it's great that these places exist (and are clearly excellent by most standard measures), the overwhelming agreement across online and print media starts to look a bit less like objective appraisal and a bit more like group think. Nowhere, despite my occasional 10/10 score, is *perfect* - a healthy approval rating for even the greatest restaurants in town shouldn't really be over 90%. This is, after all, a democracy, not Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
So here's my attempt to bring down the average on Black Axe Mangal a bit. I wanted to enjoy it of course; that goes for every restaurant I visit. But from the moment I stepped through the door of this self-consciously grungy spot near Highbury & Islington tube it felt like the customer was the least important part of some kind of strange student art project where eye-catching ingredients, ironic blokey cocktails and an insanely loud heavy metal soundtrack took precedence over anything close to hospitality.
But let's start where it matters - the food. Unable to choose between the two £3 snacks, and against, it has to be said, the advice of our waitress, we ordered both. Smoked cod's roe and crisps was pleasant enough, chips clearly home made and the roe with plenty of flavour and nicely seasoned. Salt pollack with crispy pig's skin was less enjoyable - a very greasy slab of puffed skin, so fresh out of the fryer it popped quite painfully in the mouth, with a blob of bacalau (as they'd call it in Catalonia) that didn't really go with the pig and wouldn't combine with the greasy skin even if you wanted it to. And yes, that is a pool of grease you can see at the bottom of the bowl.
"Lamb offal" was a decent piece of fresh flatbread, covered in indeterminate mush of lamb, and beaten into submission by onions, mayonnaise and way too much chilli. Sweet, soggy and way too fiery, it was a bit of a chore to eat.
"Sesame" was more edible, but I've still had way better flatbread from Green Lanes for a lot less. It was hot and fresh and had a decent texture, but was not really any more than that.
"Brussel[sic] sprout, cauliflower & preserved lemon" was just an unseasoned bowl of raw sprouts and cauliflower, dressed with nothing more than lemon juice as far as I can tell. Fine if you're on some kind of raw food diet and allergic to salt and pepper but oddly enough that's not why I'd travelled to a kebab shop in Islington.
I'd wanted to try Mangalitza pork since the boys at Pitt Cue started playing around with it in their place in Soho. In many ways, I wish I'd waited for my first taste - this was just a big slab of chewy meat, dripping with bland fat and pretty unpleasant. It was topped with rock hard sticks of greasy pork fat and a few bits of winter veg. The scallop was hiding underneath somewhere, as if it belonged to a different dish altogether. Not nice.
Finally, the Deep Throater wrap, hilariously stamped with its student-joke name - more decent bread containing a sweet, mushy filling of bland slow-cooked mutton. There was no trace of anchovy, the salty savouriness of which may have lifted it a bit, just an underwhelming faint note of mayonnaise and stewed meat. By this point we'd lost all patience, with the food, the lack of elbow room, the having to scream to be heard above a speaker system set to "fuck the customers, at least the staff are having a good time". We sipped the last of our ironically-decorated cocktails, paid the not insubstantial bill, and left.
Maybe I'm just getting old, I thought to myself, as we rested our ear drums and nerves in the lovely, quiet Canonbury pub just around the corner. Black Axe is clearly popular, there was a queue when we left and every table was taken, and this in a part of town with genuinely excellent competition like Trullo and Le Coq just over the road. Maybe I was missing something, or underestimated the population of hearing-impaired death-metal loving kebab lovers in N1. Maybe I'm just not their target audience.
But then I remembered that Smoking Goat have all the same acoustic, queuing and seating issues as Black Axe but also serve food so good that all those other inconveniences are just that, inconveniences. No, I didn't like Black Axe Mangal because the food wasn't very good. And you can blast your Spotify playlist at me as loud as you can, make me wait for hours in the rain and sit me three inches from a table of ten who've been drinking since midday, but if my dinner's not up to scratch, I won't go back. I won't go back.