Wednesday, 20 August 2014
The way things normally work on this blog, more through neccessity than anthing else, is that I visit a restaurant once, then write it up. I'd love to be able to exhaustively work through a menu before making up my mind, or visit at different times of the week to assess the different service shifts, but as you can hopefully appreciate, I have neither the time nor the money to report on anything other than a single, initial visit. If you want expert analysis, try the New York Times.
Now you may think that's unfair, but I can honestly count on one hand the times, in over 8 years and 500 blog posts, that I've really wanted to drastically revise a score after a second visit. Tayyabs would get more than the 8/10 I settled on after somehow failing to order the tinda masala way back in 2007, and perhaps I was a bit easy on Ping Pong given the much better, and much cheaper, dim sum restaurants I've been lucky enough to eat at since. But generally it's surprising how little a repeat visit changes much.
So you'll just have to take my word that although I've stopped by at Racine semi-regularly over the last few years, and have had ample time to question and revise any snap judgments I may have made on the first visit, my opinion of the place has hardly altered since I first set through the door one cold winter's day back in (I think) 2009. Namely, it's a lovely little restaurant serving very nice food and I like it very much.
And here's why. Firstly, there's a menu of regional French dishes with phrases like "Deep fried snails & bacon" (above), "Calf's brain with capers", and "Pâté de foie de volaille" used with appealing confidence, it's enough to make you want to drape a string of onions round your neck, wear a beret and scoff the lot.
There's also that soft, dark room, white tablecloths and cozy bench seating in the traditional Parisian bistro style, and immaculately-appointed staff that glide about with surprising ease considering how closely packed some of the seating is.
But most of all, there is the grouse. Every year, as soon as the season starts, restaurants in London fall over themselves to be the first, the cheapest or make the most innovative use of this wonderful game bird. Gymkhana tandoori spice it, the Lockhart deep-fry it, the Ledbury hay-smoke it, more than one Modern British restaurant sous-vide and daintily joint it into geometric shapes and drizzle jus around it. And good luck to them all. But there's only one way to enjoy grouse as far as I'm concerned, and that's roasted, sat on toast spread with paté, and accompanied by chips, game and bread sauces. And there's nowhere does that better than Racine.
I feel the same way about people who don't like grouse as I do those who say they don't like pongy cheese or caviar. I'm not contemptuous, I do sympathise; I can completely understand where they're coming from - these are strong flavours, deep, funky, grown-up flavours that sail perilously close to tasting of things that you'd normally cross the street to avoid, never mind eat. But if you can get past that, there's something deeply rewarding about eating something that tastes of where it came from; of wet moorland, heather, summer berries and yes, of dead animal. This is not a sanitised, abstract lump of protein bred in a cage and carefully carved free of personality. Roast grouse forces you confront the realities of your dinner - it lived, it flew, it was shot, it died, and here we are.
Of course, there are always other reasons to eat at Racine, such as the aforementioned deep-fried snails and bacon, accompanied by poached duck egg and leeks. I also tried a bit of someone's light prawn and crab cocktail (very good) and even a fairly humdrum-sounding goat's cheese and tomato salad (above) was made more interesting by some very good tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. I have also, in the past, enjoyed some wonderful steaks (the current offering is a côte de boeuf for two with Béarnaise sauce for £52, which I happen to think is pretty good value) and I have a lot of time for their signature garlic and saffron mousse with mussels, something which sounds pretty odd on paper but always impresses.
I'll forgive them the 14.5% service charge which seems a bit cheeky in a city more used to 12.5%, and for their perhaps slightly underwhelming dessert offerings (somewhere this French should be doing tarte tatin, surely?) because they also do a £17.50 lunch special (hangar steak, Béarnaise, chips and a glass of wine - bargain) and said 14.5% service is admittedly excellent. But mainly, I'll keep going back to Racine for the grouse. Some things you just don't mess with.
Tuesday, 19 August 2014
After Arabica reminded me just how good food from the Levant could be, even if it was at the expense of that month's salary, I was in the mood for a nice big Lebanese lunch where portions weren't measured by the teaspoon and where I might feel I'd got my money's worth.
Most Lebanese (I realise there's a bit of crossover with various different countries' cuisines - Syrian, Israeli, Palestinian, but I'm going to stick with calling it Lebanese because I don't know any better) food I've tried has all been of a solid minimum standard; maybe Middle Eastern chefs are all trained very well, or maybe it's just difficult to mess up hummus and tabouleh. Either way, while the service in a number of flashy Edgware Road Maroush joints has been less than brilliant (I've walked out before eating anything more than once), what's on the plate, when it finally arrives, is generally hard to fault.
So what happens when decent, fresh Lebanese food is served with a smile, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg? Well, you have a bloody good time, that's what happens. And so it is at Dalila, latest occupant of one of those Sites of Death that appear to host a different restaurant every year (even I've reviewed the building twice before; once as the Food Room and once as Tom Ilic) but who deserve to stick around because everything they do is well worth the money they're asking.
"Hummus Beiruty" contained chili and garlic and was impossible not to like, especially scooped up in the fresh house flatbreads. Even the nibbles had a bit of extra something to them, powerfully-flavoured olives spiked with pickles and fresh parsley.
Foul Moudamas is not a name that crosses the language barrier very successfully, but was the very opposite of foul, being piping hot beans served in a salty, citrusy olive oil mixture.
Lamb kebbeh (four for £5.50, now that's value) were also fresh out of the fryer and packed full of dense, almost offaly mince.
Tabouleh works and fails on the strength of the freshness of its ingredients, and again here we were in safe hands - crunchy, bright-green, freshly-shredded parsley studded with onions and cracked wheat.
You'll notice my descriptions of the dishes we had at Dalila are rather sparse; the fact is, much like the best Italian restaurants, the serving of lovely fresh ingredients as simply as possible leaves you with a fantastic meal but very little detail to obsess over. Which can only be a good thing. Here are slices of kellaj cheese, flatbreads stuffed with halloumi, red chilli and thyme.
The marinade on these grilled chicken wings was quite something - complex and herby, held together by a healthy glaze of lemon juice. There was a bright-white garlic dip to accompany them, all of it just threatening to tip over into overseasoning but not quite.
Samke harra was charcoal-grilled white fish in a tomato/pepper sauce, and I'm afraid as I didn't get to try any of it I'm not going to be of much use to you describing what it was like. There was none of it left by the end of the meal though so it was probably as good as everything else.
In all frank, objective honesty Dalila isn't the very best Middle Eastern restaurant I've ever been to; that is still the brilliant Al Waha, whose menu of sweetbreads, raw lamb and batrakh (fish roe) is just that more exciting and exotic. But one man's "safe" is another man's "reliable" and by not reinventing the wheel and serving familiar Lebanese favourites with such easy charm (our waiter didn't exactly have a difficult job serving us, the only customers midday on Sunday, but he was still exceptional) they will, I hope, make a success of this tricky location and become a new local favourite. And I say that with only the most selfish of intentions - it's ten minutes' walk from my house. My, my, my, Dalila.
Friday, 15 August 2014
So, you're a restaurateur and you want to open a burger bar. Well, of course you do - everyone does; even the really useless ones are making a fortune, and the good ones have them queueing down the street. You could just pick a name off the shelf like "burger bones" or "dirty patty", put together a selection of craft beer and salads for the non-meat-eaters, sit back and watch the money roll in.
But where's the fun in that? No, what you need is a USP, a reason for people to talk about your burger bar over any other. You could try and make the best burger in London, but let's face it, you're never going to beat MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun on the food front so that's a non-starter.
"I know!" said the Rossopomodoro managers, who are bankrolling this new burger operation because, well, they can - "How about we have people order off iPads placed on each table? It'll mean we'll need fewer staff, any wrong items will be the customers' fault, and it'll give the kiddies something to play with between screaming and throwing their food on the floor".
"Brilliant! Let's do it."
And so it came to pass that I and a friend were sat in the corner of the kitchen department of the Oxford Street John Lewis, having the operation of the Ham Holy Burger iPad app explained to us at great length by a member of staff who, had he not been saddled with such a task, may have been making himself useful with such old-fashioned pursuits as, oh, I don't know, asking us what we wanted to eat then bringing it.
Eventually he left us to it, and we half-heartedly browsed the list of house burgers. The standard "Holyburger" comes with cucumber, no pickles, and no cheese, but would have to do as a control variable. We also ordered a "Youthburger", in which, to test the "substitutions" option on the app, we had swapped out the dreaded rocket for lettuce. A glass of wine, a bottle of Italian craft beer, all fairly straightforward to add to the bill as well. Until we realised we'd like a couple of glasses of tapwater, at which point the shortcomings of a fully electronic ordering system became apparent - water wasn't on the menu.
Staff weren't hard to get hold of, and we didn't stay waterless for long, but it does beg the question, if the iPad doesn't solve any problem that needs solving, in fact if in most cases it made the ordering process more long-winded, what's the bloody point? What are you really achieving?
Anyway, the food. "Fries chips"[sic] were, in fact, what us British call crisps, something perhaps would have been clearer if we'd asked for "chips" from a human as opposed to an iPad app written by an Italian. They were OK, served with a watery tomato dip and some commodity mayonnaise, but not exactly a bargain for £4.
Burgers were, well, fine if you'd set your expecations sufficiently low, which by this point we very much had. The Holyburger was underseasoned, underpowered and desperately needed both pickles to cut through the sweet bun and some cheese to season the meat, but it was nicely pink and easy enough to eat even if once you had done it completely removed itself from the memory banks.
The Youthburger (I think that's what it was anyway; the menu exists in various different forms across the website, app and in print) was very slightly more flavoursome thanks to some salty slivers of fried parmesan and cured ham, but still suffered from that same problem of being a collection of "gourmet" Italian ingredients coerced into a format that didn't do any of them justice. I can sort of see what they were trying to do; the crispy cheese trying to add texture as well as flavour; the ham standing in for bacon; but it just didn't work. Attempting to re-invent the burger from the top down with silly rustic ingredients is what got us into this whole horrible "gourmet burger" mess in the first place. The most successful burgers, such as MeatLiquor or Patty & Bun, work because they stick with what makes a good burger (seared beef, melty cheese, pickles, ketchup, mustard) and try and make the best version of that they possibly can. Simply emptying the contents of an Italian deli into a brioche bun is somehow simultaneously an insult to Italian and American food cultures.
You can't pay the bill via the iPad app. Perhaps that's the idea eventually but for now we had to do it the old fashioned, tried and tested way, and were presented with a piece of paper with what we'd ordered listed on it (just over £40). You wonder whether whoever's idea it was to do away with the nice, friendly human touch really had the customer's best interests in mind - service is just as much a part of any dining experience as the food; having a room full of iPads with the stated intention of making Ham Holy Burger as impersonal and depressing as possible says very worrying things about your attitude to hospitality.
So I protested in the most obvious way I could think of. I took a photo of myself, set it as the background wallpaper, and then password protected the iPad so they couldn't change it. That'll teach them.
Friday, 8 August 2014
Surely, I thought, surely I couldn't score the full set with my meals in Dorset/Somerset. I was due at least one dud, one hapless gastropub serving frozen fishcakes and Argentinian steak; at least one sweet vodka cocktail served on the rocks in a martini glass; a cheeseboard boasting Port Salut, Edam and a cheddar studded with dried apricots. I mean I'd travelled all this way to have my prejudices about provincial restaurants confirmed so I could write the usual sighing, smug, faintly patronising London-centric post about how this part of the West Country was "well on its way" to being a foodie destination but "not quite there yet". Wouldn't somewhere give me what I wanted?
The Old Spot was my last shot, and all the pieces were in place. A high street restaurant in a pretty old honeypot town is a classic location for a mediocre tourist trap, and that's exactly what I expected to find here in the shadow of Wells cathedral. Outside, this ancient building was characterful and welcoming; inside, it had been carefully stripped of most of the period charm and felt a bit like when they carve out some ancient Tudor building in Chester for a depressing new branch of Zizzi's. "Aha, I've got their number" I thought. "Bring me your laminated menu and a large glass of Pinot Grigio and let's get this over with".
Except those stubborn people at the Old Spot refused to play ball. Our welcome was charming and personable but also sharply efficient, a level of practised confidence about every movement they made. The menu wasn't laminated, or boring, or confused; it contained 15 carefully-chosen crowd-pleasing modern British/European dishes, making a decision about which to go for rather difficult. And the wine list, dotted with charming informal notes, contained some genuinely surprising options for pre- and post- dinner drinks, such as local apple brandy, Eau de Vie, sherries and Pineau des Charantes. Bella Italia this was not.
And then the food arrived, and that was it - I was defeated. It was, all of it, quite lovely, not least the house bread from master boulanger Bertinet in Bath, an attention to detail that informed every part of the food offering at the Old Spot.
Fish hors d'ouevres was springy pickled onion, a wonderful rich tarama-style roe paste, a croquette of some sort (OK so there was a fish cake, but it wasn't frozen) and a little beetroot chutney thing. All fresh, interesting, enjoyable.
But while the fish starter had been solid and very pleasant rather than anything extraordinary, Gazpacho was a supreme example, and a delight to eat. The tomato mixture was a deep orange, with a flavour that matched, rich and ripe and hot with garlic. Texture came from delicate chunks of lightly fried bread, neither tooth-breaking nor soggy but perfectly in-between. And finally, colourful chunks of cucumber, shallots and torn herbs, no element overpowering, and not an ingredient too far or too few.
Fillet of salmon came with a golden crusty skin, faintly oily, flaky flesh and a shrimp-caper-butter sauce that contained all the correct features (salt, fat, sugar) to compliment this, the third beautifully-cooked bit of fish in as many days. Even something as ordinary as boiled spinach seemed better than usual; probably because it was soaked in shrimp butter.
Lovely tender slices of lamb leg, all pink and bordered with crunchy ribbons of fat, sat upon couscous studded with Merguez sausages and blobs of hot harissa. As with the other dishes, there was nothing here going to win any awards for innovation, or wild liberties taken with flash ingredients, just nice fresh food, cooked well, served with the minimum of fuss by people who knew what they were doing. And sometimes, that's more than enough.
The second crème brûlée of the weekend, vanilla cream under a satisfying toffee crust, provided a full stop to this, the final meal of the weekend and with heavy hearts (though that may have just been indigestion) we traipsed back to the hotel to pick up our bags and headed back to Yeovil Junction station. Much like that glorious weekend in Cornwall, the restaurants and hotels in Dorset and Somerset had dazzled with their generosity, amazed with their skill and pretty much smashed apart any lazy preconception I care to held about extra-M25 dining. But unlike the 7-hour travel commitment to get to Cornwall, Yeovil Junction and the glorious Little Barwick house is 2 1/2 hours from Battersea. The West Country, you have done yourselves proud. Now, where's next?
We were guests of The Old Spot restaurant, 12 Sadler St, Wells, Somerset BA5 2SE. We travelled to Yeovil Junction with South West Trains. For the best offers go to www.southwesttrains.co.uk. (Most) photos by Hannah.
Wednesday, 6 August 2014
Running a restaurant, I imagine (and I'm not exactly talking from a position of much authority) involves mastering a difficult and delicate equilibrium in a number of competing factors. Cost/quality of ingredients, number/experience of staff, markups, number of dishes offered, reservations policy, décor, even opening hours - get anything too far wrong and you'll lose money no matter how noble your intentions and no matter how good the food is coming out of your kitchens. Even thinking about how difficult it must be getting the balance right makes me shudder. I could never be a restuarateur; I don't have the patience, the energy or the way with people. No, I'd much rather sit at home bitching about someone else getting it slightly wrong, given the option.
But though I try and sympathise as much as I can with those with the difficult job of running a successful restaurant, it's still deeply frustrating seeing somewhere like Arabica, which hits the nail on the head in so many different ways, tripping up so dramatically in one regard it threatens to derail the whole operation. It's frustrating because I wanted to enjoy Arabica, and there are some astonishingly talented people working there, and they so nearly had it right.
Let's start with the good news, and there is plenty of that. This attractive, airy space in Borough Market has been designed by someone who knows exactly what they're doing. There's a good mix between casual spots at the bar, taller tables next to cantilevered patio doors, well-spaced tables in the main room and a couple of cozy booths; something for everyone in other words. Staff are pleasant, attentive and know the menu well. And the vast menu reads like a dream - there are Levantine favourites like fattoush, kibbeh and falafel, but also more unusual options like pickled sardines (in fact there's a whole raw/cured section), frog legs and beef & bone marrow kofta.
So far, so good. I would, I think, have happily eaten everything on offer but advised to choose 3 dishes each (this seems to be the Thing these days) we ended up with six spread across as many different categories as we could, and some house pickles.
First up was "moutabel". Smoked aubergine and tahini spiked with garlic, it was a thoroughly enjoyable play of gentle smoked vegetables and exotic spicing, and the flatbread it came with was straight out of the clay oven and steaming hot. So, you can't fault their technique. What you can fault is that this miniscule portion, served on one of those 3.5" plates you'd normally use for spent olive stones and containing hardly more than a tablespoon of mixture, was £6. Even the flatbread was barely more than saucer-sized.
House pickles saved on the same sized plate were £3.50 for about ten bits, but were - admittedly - some of the best pickles I've had ever. It's a bit difficult to describe exactly why they were so successful, the best pickles are always something of an enigma, but they had none of that cloying sweetness that you sometimes get from house-made efforts and an arresting zing from - I'm guessing - incredibly good vinegar. They also all had a good firm crunch. Just lovely, and at even £1 less a portion they would have been unimpeachable.
Sardines took the "great food, tiny portions" theme and ran with it even further. For £6.50, again on that 3.5" plate, was three thin half-fillets of sardines, salad and dressing. Again, just wonderful to eat but barely more than a mouthful. And how much really are sardines? It's not like they were dunked in caviar.
Hake "sayadieh" (pan fried with rice and tahini) was really the only dish where the cooking itself could be faulted. The fish was mushy in parts and rather underseasoned, and though the mix of textures was interesting, overall this didn't set the pulse racing. A tenner for a 1.5" square of fillet, too...
While the quail was marked on the menu at £12.50, when the bill arrived it was down as £10 which is at least vaguely approaching value. It was very nice; a rich, crisp skin, moist flesh and I loved the little crunchy bits of fried garlic. But I can't help remembering a similarly lovely chargrilled whole quail at my local Vietnamese Mien Tay for £6.20. I mean it probably wasn't from some smallholding in Norfolk like this one was, but I'm not sure anyone could tell the difference either way.
Chicken wings (four for £7) again moved notionally closer to value without ever quite managing it. The marinade was citrussy and summery, the chicken cooked perfectly with a good crisp skin, and the spiced yoghurt a lovely counterpoint. Perhaps you're paying for the Label Anglais chicken they allegedly use, but again, under all this marinade I doubt a cheaper main ingredient would have really tasted much different.
Finally, "shankleash", a cheese salad with tomato, onion and olive oil, a couple of spoonfuls of which cost £6. I'm sure better people than me could tell the difference between this and any other feta, cherry tomato and onion salad but, well, I couldn't.
In the end, I didn't hate Arabica. It's impossible to hate Lebanese food even when it's only fairly competently made, and in the hands of the clearly very talented kitchen here it very often shines. But I wonder why, when the powers that be decided to spread a tablespoon of smoked aubergine on doll's house tableware and charge £6 for it, nobody felt compelled to say "hang on, do you not think that just looks like an utterly ridiculous amount of food to serve to paying customers?". With a couple of beers and a couple of lemonades the bill came to £72. When I got home, I made myself a toasted cheese sandwich.