Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire

Whichever far-flung corner of the UK I happen to visit in pursuit of dinner, it seems I am cursed to immediately fall in love with the place and start planning an early retirement. First there was Cornwall, whose surreal beauty was backdrop to world-class restaurants such as Paul Ainsworth in Padstow, and where every inch of the county seemed to host some passionate producer or unique food story. Next came a trip to Devon and Somerset, which in the soft heat of late summer was like taking part in some glamorous Merchant Ivory production, only one with wifi and impeccably-kept cheese. And now the latest object of my obsession is the North York Moors.

It's a beautiful part of the country, but as you will have noticed following this blog over the years, there are many beautiful parts of the country. What took me by surprise in this particular spot (the very far South West of the North York Moors national park, near Coxwold and Byland Abbey) was just how alive and verdant it all seemed, even in very early spring. There was so much chattering and chirping wildlife following us around it was like rolling through a safari park - pheasants, partridges, hares, rabbits and stoats ducked around our feet (and, occasionally more worrying, the wheels of our car) while wood pigeons, herons and colourful finches played overhead. All of which conspired to make me very happy, but also very hungry - how many species would make their way onto that evening's menu? Plenty, I hoped.

Dinner began with a kale martini. This stood every chance of being pretty revolting, but was actually incredibly successful, just the right side of sweet and savoury with a flavour that was best described as "vegetal" than overly cabbagey. An incredible colour too; it looked and tasted like distilled Yorkshire spring.

First of the snacks, served in the cozy downstairs bar, was a cracker somehow made out of dried artichoke, topped with something creamy possibly also involving artichokes and then a little neat square of vinegary jelly. It's the kind of thing that's impossible not to love, and not just because I'd been looking forward to dinner so much I could have probably quite happily eaten a coaster.

Bright pink cubes of moist ox tongue, rested on blobs of mustard cream and delicate pressed linseed crackers. Sort of like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich. Salty and fatty and soft and crunchy and colourful.

This cute little fellow was a ball of smoked eel and pork, bread-crumbed and deep-fried like arancini, and served on a very interesting stone pedestal. While I remember in fact, all of the stunning Black Swan crockery is handmade just for the restaurant by a potter from York called Jane Schaffer, a lovely - and local - touch.

In more attractive handmade stoneware came duck broth, a gorgeously rich and satisfying thing, perhaps a tad overseasoned but still hugely enjoyable. That next to it is a sort of duck samosa with some shoots of new-growth chard straight out of the restaurant's kitchen garden.

Resettled upstairs in the main dining room - a low-ceilinged, ancient old space with stone-flagged floors and antique furniture; basically everything you want from a country pub restaurant - the mains began to arrive. First was a kind of spelt risotto, flavoured with lovage and trompette mushrooms, and topped with a couple of perfectly-poached quail's eggs. More of that great deep seasonal green colour as well, the kind you only get from the very healthiest and freshest vegetables. If you were desperate to pick fault you could possibly argue it was, like the duck broth, a bit salty, but not so much that it was a problem. Oh and the house bread, little sourdough buns, were great, and came with an astonishing velvetty goat's curd.

This vast scallop was apparently still happily sat at the bottom of the Scottish ocean in the early hours of that very morning. Their fish people rush them down to order in a van every day, and it really shows - I'd go so far as to say it's the best scallop I've ever had in my life. It was perfectly cooked of course, slightly transluscent inside and with a delicate golden crust, but this wasn't just a case of good technique; this was simply a stunning bit of seafood. With it was some bits of chopped squid and samphire and a clever big clear cracker thing apparently made out of samphire somehow, but really this was all about that scallop.

Local (of course) lamb, with some nasturtium leaves from the garden, and some cute little cylinders of browned white radish. The meat, it almost goes without saying, was treated faultlessly, and a light mint yoghurt sauce it rested on made the pink meat feel even more intensely gamey. As well as all that though, this dish was paired with a Portuguese red which was so memorable - all spicy and glossy and comforting - I'm going to type out exactly what it says on my printed menu here so you can search it out yourself - "Meandro do Vale Meao, Quinta do Vale Mea 2010".

The vegetarian main course option is worth a mention too - some locally-foraged wild mushrooms including Hen of the Woods, which tastes so like chicken I wonder if you'd ever miss the real thing if you were lucky enough to have access to such things on a regular basis.

"Lolipops" the next course was called, for obvious reasons. The genius in this course was how the flavours gradually transitioned from savoury (cep mushroom and white chocolate) on the right, via fennel root and elderberry in the middle to sweet (rosemary and apple on the left), bridging the gap between main courses and dessert. This is a kitchen in supreme command of the experience it is giving to diners.

The dessert itself, a geometrically-exact cylinder of lemon and sheep's milk ice cream topped with pine sorbet, was a mini work of art and a revelatory combination of flavours at once. And if that wasn't enough, the Black Swan went all Fat Duck on us, with a pine-scented cloud of CO2 being spectacularly unleashed from a contraption in the middle of the table. Matched with the food was a Douglas Fir Sour, almost more impressive than the dessert itself, rejuvenating and soothing with its cream/sour balance.

Petits fours (petit fours? petits four? Excuse my French) rounded things off nicely - those chocolate blocks are salted caramel truffles.

The Black Swan is, as I hope I've made pretty clear, a near-faultless restaurant that could hold its head high in any company, with service and style that would turn heads no matter where it set up shop. But a fundamental part of its success is that, just like Simon Rogan's l'Enclume in Cumbria, or Stephen Harris' Sportsman in Kent, instead of looking abroad, making the most of what they can get their hands of and ending up with that bland foie-gras-and-beef-fillet international geographically-vague type of fine dining, the menu is designed (odd element of seafood aside) precisely around what this tiny corner of the North York Moors is best at, and they've set themselves the task of getting better and better at serving that. And so what you end up with is not only a bloody good dinner but something unmistakeably of Yorkshire, that could literally exist nowhere else in the world.

It was as we traipsed through a nearby wood earlier that afternoon to work up an appetite, passing through narrow green lanes heady with wild garlic and being bleated at by new-born lambs in rolling blustery fields, that I began to wonder whether this isn't just the future of high-end gastronomy but all food; not in some hippy food-miles save-the-planet way but just for the straightforward delight in knowing exactly why your dinner exists and the sheer smug pleasure in knowing you're making the most of it. And after a meal at the Black Swan that evening, I was almost convinced - in this most remote part of England, where mobile phones are useless and taxis cost £40/mile, I've never felt the distance between production and consumption be so tantalisingly - and wonderfully - short.


In the hopefully not-too-distant future I may be able to share with you a Where to Eat Yorkshire app. Meantime, if you're in London, why not use Where to Eat London to pick a dinner spot? Guaranteed only the very best restaurants in London.

The Black Swan, Oldstead on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Bao, Soho

A reliable feature of the very best restaurants is when you first glance at the menu and want to order every single last thing. Perhaps only at Lockhart, in recent memory, have I seen a menu so comprehensively attractive as that at Bao, whose expertly-pitched offerings of Taiwanese appetisers and steamed buns, paired with a short list of interesting beers, ciders and sake, contains absolutely no filler, no token vegetarian options or timid crowdpleasing carbohydrates. It is a love letter to food, or perhaps more specifically a love letter to foodies - pig blood cake, trotter nuggets, eryngii mushroom with century egg, guinea fowl Chi Shiang rice; bold and brilliant, flattering its audience with unusual ingredients and daring you to try something new.

Unlike the Lockhart, though, where to satisfy your desire to try the whole menu you'd need a party of at least 8, at Bao the dishes are so keenly priced and the portion sizes so sensible that just two people could almost work their way through the whole lot. I didn't quite - sadly - manage this last night but it's only a matter of time before I do, because believe me, this isn't the kind of place you visit just once.

Ordering is done via putting numbers next to a little printout of the menu, "like in Argos" as my friend pointed out. This means that if you're in a rush and want to order everything at once you can, or if you want to split up your meal into stages you can just come back and order more later. It's a good system. We started with eryngii mushroom with century egg, wich punched way above its weight with a rich umami hit of soy and mushroom, the chunks of jellied egg filling out the flavour and texture. This remained one of our favourite dishes of the night, and not just because (well, at least not only because) we were so ravenously hungry when it arrived.

Next, a huge meaty scallop in yellow bean garlic sauce. Perfectly cooked with a lovely golden crust yet just-so inside, it was clearly a very high quality bit of seafood, treated very well. But the yellow bean sauce was a revelation - distantly familiar from Chinese takeaways past, yet luxurious and refined. It had a marvellous smoky, silky texture and really enhanced the seafood.

Not for Bao anything as humdrum as fried potato. Sweet potato chips were best described as tempura, with a light white batter on each neat little stick of vegetable, and dressed with a soft, fruity 'plum pickle salt'.

You'd expect the buns themselves, which after all made Bao their enviable name on the street food scene, to be worth the trip alone. My own "classic" was every bit as good as I remember from Kerb at the Bussey building in Peckham, and all the better in fact for not having to eat them standing up with a on open bottle of beer in my shirt pocket.

And I didn't get to try the vegetarian daikon option but from what I can gather, that was pretty bloody impressive too. In fact I'm told that the daikon bun is their best seller so far. I'll just have to go back and see what the fuss is about.

40-day aged rump cap from Warrens butchers in Cornwall (the very best butchers in the country, in case you hadn't heard of them) was never likely to disappoint. But dressed in a special aged white soy sauce imported specially from Taiwan, it was lifted onto another level, the fat from the beef combining with soy to produce a particularly astonishing flavour. Describing exactly why the effect was so impressive may be beyond me, but it was as if the soy made the beef more beefy, highlighting yet refining all of the funky notes from the meat.

Aubergine, served with wonton had a great spicy flavour but there's something about the texture of aubergine that I find a bit disorienting. Still, the wontons were fun and it was at least something I'd not had before.

Desserts were no kind of afterthought. Peanut milk was a refreshing shot of, well, peanutty milk, a bit like the bottom of a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes but absolutely non the worse for that.

And Fried Horlicks ice cream bao? Gorgeous smooth, malty ice cream inside what if I didn't know better I would assume to be a kind of doughnut/brioche hybrid but was - I'm told - some kind of fried version of the normal steamed bao buns. Very clever stuff, either way - another highlight amongst highlights.

We had two beers each, three authentically-inoffensive Taiwan beers and one from Austria just to see what the difference was. Objectively the Austrian beer was better, but weirdly the more bland Taiwan style worked better with the food. I'm sure that was entirely deliberate.

Service was never less than brilliant but there did seem to be more than enough staff for the tiny room. Our seat at the bar gave us the opportunity to engage with the guy serving up sake in little metal teapots and made it incredibly easy to set our own pace through the menu. Maybe if you were sat on a bench near the kitchen or next to the loos you wouldn't think the room was quite so comfortable, but for £30 a head for such creative and exciting food that is largely unique in the capital, I'd put up with far worse.

The only niggling worry is that Bao is already looking like it may be a victim of its own success. Last night, on opening night no less, the queue stretched down the street. So space at this bright and bold little spot on Lexington Street may always be as rare as guinea fowl teeth. But surely - surely you're used to this kind of thing by now. Get there early, and get there soon. Bao is an absolute cracker.


Beaten by the queues at Bao and want to know where else is good? Where to Eat London 2015, my guide to only the very best restaurants London has to offer, is available on the App Store right now for £2.99. Photos by Hannah.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Where to Eat in London 2015 - the app!

A break from the usual programming today at Cheese and Biscuits, as I'm very pleased to finally announce the release of Where to Eat in London 2015, an app I've been working on for the last few months with the very talented people at Blue Crow Media. If you want to just dive in and have a look yourself, the link to the App Store is here (it's only £2.99):

Where to Eat in London 2015

For a long time I resisted the idea of producing a printed guide, as the resources required to come up with anything useful were a little beyond the capabilities of a hobbyist blogger. But an app is a different matter - it's (relatively) easily updated and managed, and doesn't have to pretend to be as comprehensive (or as objective) as other guides; it is, essentially, just my opinion on where's good to eat. But chances are if you've been regularly reading this blog then you'll know if your tastes align with my own, and if so you should find it rather useful.

A few other points while I have your attention:

1. As I say, it's not supposed to be comprehensive. There are just 100 restaurants listed in the app that I consider to be as close to a guarantee of a good meal out as it's possible to find in London. If your favourite isn't listed, then I can only apologise, but then again, if you know about it anyway, why do you need the app to tell you about it?

2. During the beta testing, I used it "in field" a few times, and it was (even if I do say so myself) incredibly useful. There was the time it rescued an evening with a few friends after a rather anticlimactic press dinner near Marble Arch by directing us to Roti Chai just round the corner. Or when the Holborn fire forced a change of evening plan and we ended up in Great Queen Street. Chances are it will find something worth visiting wherever in London you happen to be.

3. Each of the 100 restaurants have a 200-word review, written (or largely rewritten) entirely just for the app. So even if you think all my choices are rubbish and the app is completely useless, you could at least entertain yourself with those.

4. Finally, although this wasn't my deliberate intention when drawing up the initial 100, we seem to have ended up with a remarkably diverse set of restaurants in the app. From budget to fine dining, Thai to Tonkotsu, Tayyabs to Trullo, there really should be something here for every niche interest. And for that I only have to thank London itself, for being one of the most consistently rewarding places to eat out in the whole world.

Oh one more thing - apparently the first few reviews that come in to Apple are incredibly important. So if you could throw a few 5*s my way, it would be much appreciated, and would help make the 2016 edition even better.

Anyway, that's enough from me. Enjoy the app, let me know what you think, and the next post here will be a restaurant review. And a bloody good one at that - watch this space.

As of 2pm on 7th April we are officially no.1 Bestselling Food & Drink app on the iTunes store! Thanks to everyone who has downloaded.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Beijing Dumpling, Soho

Eating out as disastrously regularly as I do, I am often accused of asking "higher standards" of restaurants than your average punter. Usually when I am accused of this, it just means that the person making the accusation has a different view of a restaurant than my own, so perhaps "average punter" is shorthand for "me". Anyway, that aside, I still don't think the charge sticks - yes I eat out far more than is healthy or necessary, but that doesn't mean my objective standards are higher, it just means that I have a slightly more comprehensive overview of what constitutes value in a meal out. They may be queueing down Shaftesbury Avenue in depressing numbers to pay £18 for commodity steak frites at Jamies Diner, but how many would be there if they know Zedel Brasserie were doing much better just around the corner for £9? Actually, don't answer that, I don't want to know.

The point is, it is possible to enjoy a vast range of standards in food and service as long as you feel like you're getting your money's worth, and you aren't aware of anywhere doing the same thing either better for the same price, or the same for cheaper. To this end, it's possible I enjoyed my lunch at Beijing Dumpling far more than the friend I ate it with because what I know about the restaurants and food of Chinatown would make a very small slogan inside a fortune cookie, and my friend (Lizzie Mabbott) has written a book on the subject.

So on this occasion (in common with most others), I was playing "average punter" to Lizzie's expert, and happy for once to put aside all thoughts of whether better was available elsewhere for less, I actually really rather enjoyed myself. As the name suggests, dumplings are the thing here, made fresh and by hand in the window of the premises, and available in a variety of styles. First up were the mythical Xiao Long Bao, rarely seen outside the best Chinese restaurants because, not to put too fine a point on it, they're an absolute bastard to make. Each lovingly-wrapped dumpling contains a portion of pork filling and - the clever bit - is itself swimming in a measure of rich stock, meaning the method of negotiating this delicate bag of boiling hot liquid from the steamer to your mouth without it either exploding down your top or dealing third-degree burns takes almost as much skill as that required to construct it in the first place. Lizzie thought the pastry casing was a bit clumsy and thick, and there wasn't enough liquid. I got soup all down my top.

Cucumber salad came in a silky sesame/garlic dressing and was just the thing to help cool burning tongues. It was chopped up and dressed fresh to order, we watched them do it from our table, a detail that surely didn't hurt the flavour.

Next, a generous bowl of spicy chicken dumplings in soup, which wasn't anything much greater than the sum of its parts but still very easy to eat. Well, easier than the Xiao Long Bao anyway.

Perhaps we should have paid closer attention to the use of plurals on the Beijing Dumpling menu but I still don't think anyone would realistically expect "Seafood Supreme Dumpling" to be literally one massive saucer-sized dumpling on its own in a steamer. There it was anyway, like a beached deep-sea creature, and we were baffled as to how to approach eating it. You couldn't chop it in half because you'd lose the soupy insides. You couldn't somehow drain the liquid first without special equipment or perhaps with the use of a straw but thought that might get us thrown out. We half considered forming a makeshift lattice out of four chopsticks and lifting it in a co-ordinated movement onto a separate plate, but eventually decided this too was going to prove impossible. In the end I think we sacrificed some of the liquid and gingerly peeled chunks of it apart using a soup spoon - hardly ideal, but less humiliating than the alternatives. It had a good fresh seafood flavour, you'll be pleased to hear.

The bill came to £37 for two, and at the risk of repeating myself, whether you consider that acceptable depends on how many other better £37 dumpling meals you've had in the centre of London. Speaking purely for myself, in my temporary role as an average punter, it seemed perfectly decent - service could have been a bit better (they seemed to be operating some sort of quota system on ice cubes, strictly one per customer only) but this didn't really spoil anything. Chinatown will most likely never be my comfort zone, but at least now I know where to get some nice, fresh, handmade dumplings. Even if I don't quite yet know how to eat them.


Beijing Dumpling on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Turista Libre Taco Tour, Tijuana

It was never supposed to be the highlight of the entire California trip; just an afternoon pootling around Tijuana trying a few of their best taco stalls and back across the border in time for dinner. The initial plan was to go over under our own steam, pick up a taxi/driver and then tick off a few of the more notable street food places. Oh and perhaps a margarita or two; when in Rome and all that.

But then a little company called Turista Libre came to our attention, and so we thought rather than go through the stress and cost of organising our own lives, we'd hand over the whole messy business to the professionals. Founded by a US journalist who now lives in Tijuana, Turista Libre run various organised tours based on different themes; there's a baseball tour, a craft beer tour, a mega monuments tour, and, enticingly, a taco tour which seemed to have our names written all over it. For $50 a head we were told we would visit a handful of taco places, drink a few beers and take a few photos. Seemed like fun. We got a small handful of names together on Facebook, paid the deposit and put it in the diary.

By the time the day came, there were fully 25 people booked in for the trip. Wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends of friends, babies, dogs (actually no dogs sadly, Keith would have loved it) - of course it's obvious now, with hindsight, that everyone would want to be a part of a taco tour of Tijuana, but the way the group snowballed came as quite a (pleasant) surprise at the time. At one point I had to call up to check how many was too many. "We should be OK," came the answer, "the bus seats 30."

Bus? Ah yes, because what better way to travel in Mexico than genuine decomissioned public transport, which in turn was once itself an American yellow school bus. That's right, exactly like the ones you see on TV. I'm convinced the day wouldn't have been half as much fun without this battered old thing ferrying us around, so much more jolly than some hermetically-sealed limoliner, although admittedly air conditioning would have been nice at some points. Anyway, safely seated (well, seated, at least, and hoping the bus couldn't go fast enough to be a danger), a shot of tequila to the good, we set off for our first stop, Machatlán mariscos chávez.

As recently as 2009 this bustling courtyard and kitchen was a car mechanics. And in fact, take away the mobile grill, drinks cabinets and picnic benches and it could very easily go back to being one - who knows, maybe they're keeping their options open in case the bottom falls out the taco market. Based on their product though, they should have no need to. Bright white, perfectly-cooked chunks of meaty tilapia, each encased in a crunchy, dark-brown batter and bound by a lovely light mayonnaise salsa, these were about as good an example of the form as you could find anywhere in North America. They were churned out to our large and hungry party at such a rate that nobody received any that were anything less than piping hot. A video I took of the chefs looks like it had been speeded up; you'll have to take my word that these guys really are that fast:

Frenetic seafood taco making at Machatlán mariscos chávez

A video posted by Chris Pople (@cpople) on

Next stop, after a short spell back on the bus and some more tequila, was the smoke-filled Las Ahumaderas Tacos El Paisa. We managed to occupy most of the seats inside this atmospheric old place, forcing hungry locals to use the bar that opened onto the street, but I'm sure nobody eating the food here dwelled much on the seating arrangements. The grilled adobada pork tacos here were just astonishing - moist, soft tortillas, freshly-pressed, contained a mixture of richly marinated pig and chunky guacamole (you've not tried guacamole until you've tried it with Californian/Baja-Californian avocadoes, they taste like avocadoes squared). They were served alongside nice fresh radishes and limes, as is usual, but also some lovely grilled spring onion/leek things, sort of like Mexican calçot. I'm sure someone out there can tell me their real name.

On a side note, while not enough to completely sour my memories of Las Ahumaderas, a tricky moment arose when someone gave me a can of Michelada to try. Michelada, in case you weren't aware (I wasn't) is sort of a Bloody Mary, but with beer instead of vodka. It sounds disgusting, because it is disgusting, but while a version made with top ingredients and nice craft beer is discombobulating but almost edible, the unholy version willed into existence by Heineken USA brand Tecate tastes like sweet, beery sick. I honestly don't know if there's a single more revolting canned product in existence, so in the interests of public awareness here's a picture of it so you can avoid it at all costs yourself:

Kids: Just Say No.

Anyway on with the tour. Actually not straight on with the tour. First a few of us raided a local liquor store for beer and aged tequila. Then it was on with the tour. It was about this point, as we lumbered back onto the bus loaded up like pack mules, one by one emptying our substantial haul into the cool box, that I started noticing the first fleeting expressions of concern cross our previously calm host's face. This could be why our next - impromptu - stop was a market, Mercado Hidalgo, a fascinating, sprawling indoor/outdoor place with more than enough going on to distract two dozen gringo from the booze for a few minutes, I'm sure was the plan. Except within about 30 seconds the majority of the party had settled inside a charming little taqueria and ordered a dozen frozen margheritas. Some time later (your guess is as good as mine) I somehow, speaking no Spanish, bought a giant block of queso fresco cheese from a market stall.

The atmosphere on the bus would now best be described as "carnival-like". Details are sketchy but somewhere in Mercado Hidalgo someone had found a stall selling bags of confetti, and was proceeding to turn the inside of the bus into a snow globe. The timing of this latest turn of events was unfortunate, as for reasons best known to Turista Libre our next stop was an unexpectedly smart fine-dining spot called Verde y Crema. Bursting into this clean, zen-like space like a confetti-strewn mobile Oktoberfest, I can still now, even through the fog of alcohol, remember the horrified expressions of the smartly-dressed couples and families who had quietly been enjoying a late lunch. I can tell you, because I have photos, our tacos here involved beetroot, queso fresco and coriander on some kind of dark tortilla and I'm sure they were absolutely as lovely as everything else we ate that day.

Events from here on are probably best left to the tequlia gods. I think there was an ice cream shop, desperately shoehorned in by the organisers in an effort to sober us up and prevent an international incident at the border. Inevitably, some of the group never made it that far, and splintered off to downtown Tijuana to carry on carrying on. I remember getting quite upset a terrified elderly Mexican woman wouldn't join me in the chorus to Let It Be. I remember very carefully putting cheese and tequila through the security x-rays but not picking it up at the other end. I'm pretty sure we brought back more babies than we left with.

I woke up with a hangover of the kind the 21st century has rarely seen, with confetti in places I didn't know I had and a distant unpleasant taste of Michelada in my throat. But despite all this, the one thing I am definitely going to do again the next time I'm in California is a Turista Libre tour of Tijuana. It is pretty much the most fun I've ever had for $50 and has not only reinforced my already all-abiding passion for Mexican cuisine but also opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of Mexico itself, somewhere that hasn't had the greatest press in the last few years but is still friendly, vibrant and easy to love. What a day, what a place.

All those amazing photos by Helen Graves, much obliged