Monday, 17 October 2016
They're like the buses, these 10/10 restaurants; you wait six months for one, and then two come along at once. And actually, Kiln probably has more in common with the previously reviewed Chick'n'Sours that you first might think. Both a based around an idiosyncratic Western-leaning vision of Asian food, sensitively adopting cooking techniques and flavour profiles for a local audience, keeping everything that makes the original cusine so special while making the most of available ingredients. Both keep turnover high and costs down, meaning you can eat plenty of food for not much money, even if at busy times you might have to wait for the privilege. And both, crucially, are about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
The attention to detail is, at first, overwhelming. If you're lucky enough to grab a spot near the roaring heat of the charcoal-fired kitchens (no gas or electricity here) you can see first-hand the complex series of techniques that goes into every dish at Kiln, whether it's the seasoning and re-seasoning of pork belly and short rib before they're carefully sliced and handed further up the line for saucing and plating, or the timing required to get the exquisitely delicate lamb cumin skewers so that the cubes of flesh are bouncy and just-pink, and the fat just hot enough to bind them together.
Perhaps it's best to ignore the somersaults going on in the kitchens best you can and just enjoy the food, because there's more than enough circus on the plate to keep anyone entertained. This was an early favourite of mine, langoustines (3 of them for £8.80, take that River Café), blanched and cured in citrus in such a way as to keep the flesh plump and plentiful while avoiding the gloopy translucence of completely raw shellfish. Fragrant, fresh and colourful, there's barely a better langoustine dish in London.
Also from the seafood section (the menu reads with the stark beauty of a haiku) is "Mackerel dry red curry", tender fillets of fresh Cornish fish dressed in a complex series of herbs (dill and lemongrass, and probably much else), chillies and with a dense, rich spice mix clinging to it all like a winter blanket.
Dishes come and go based on availability of ingredients, as they very much should, but this welcome unpredictability understandably affects the seafood dishes more than the red meat. On an early preview I enjoyed steamed hake, its bright white flesh gleaming under a coating of lime leaves, sat in a clear, precise fish broth that could have been the highlight of any meal by itself. A week or so later it had been replaced by a stunning gurnard curry, crisp skin binding a thick tranch of moist flesh, cooked to perfection, in a sauce of ginger stems, lemongrass and dill.
Kiln would be the first to admit they're not aiming for strict authenticity, but dishes such as Tamworth pork belly with long pepper taste very much like the kind of thing you'd be served roadside in Northern Thailand, in terms both of its sinus-blasting heat and deeply satisfying flavour profile. Those are the pork belly pieces you see being chargrilled to order in the open kitchens; nothing hangs around for more than a few seconds. The immediacy of it all is impressive, and the results are breathtaking.
Clay pot baked glass noodles has the winning combination of pork and brown crab meat, a theatrical presentation (guests are required to 'mix up' the ingredients themselves), and that same exhausting attention to detail that informs everything else Kiln do - the little dip on the side (sharp and herby and shocking green) is made every twenty minutes throughout service. Also, this huge pot of noodles, top quality pork and seafood comes in at £4.75, which seems almost unfairly cheap.
Look, the point is, everything is good. Everything. Even the sides, where something coyly described as a "mushroom salad" turned out to have a heady, meaty flavour so bafflingly rich and complex you'd swear it contained at least some animal protein. But no, just oyster mushrooms and girolles, bound with lime juice and soy and fresh herbs. I'd call it a must-order, but that wouldn't really help distinguish it from the rest of the food, so what's the point.
I'm not the first to fall head-over-heels in love with Kiln, and I certainly won't be the last. On Friday the wait for a table at about 6:15 was 1 1/2 hours, and I fear this is where I may lose a few of you. But like any of even the most super-popular no-reservations places, if you time your arrival well enough (midday or 5pm Mon-Sat or a weird "shoulder hour" like 4pm on a Sunday) you won't have to wait too long, and you won't even have to stand in line; they'll take your number and call you when your table's ready as you enjoy a pint in a nearby pub. And anyway, I'm not about to apologise for one of the best restaurants in the entire city being popular, and for that matter, neither should they. Kiln is a marvel - a true one-off - and deserves every last man, woman and child of the vast crowds that are already flocking its way.
Kiln will be in the next version of the app. Most of the photos above were taken on the preview night, but I have been back since on my own dollar hence the bill.
Friday, 14 October 2016
It's fair to say that the last time I was invited to one of these all-in-one entertainment/restaurant/bar venues, it didn't go too well. Circus is (or rather was, I've never been tempted to go back for obvious reasons) a cabaret and dining joint in Covent Garden firmly aimed at bridge-and-tunnel birthdays and hen parties, where vaguely pan-Asian dishes, looking a lot better on paper than they taste in real life, are served, occasionally interrupted by an annoying thumping soundtrack and bit of half-hearted hoop-spinning. It was all a bit... tacky.
The problem is there's a fine line between a classy cabaret venue and a tacky "theme restaurant" and that difference is measured in everything from the décor to the service and yes - the food and drink. On the first measure, the décor, Quaglino's is knockout. Guests enter via a plush and glamorously-lit bar with panoramic views over the vast basement dining hall and stage. After a martini or two, you then descend a sweeping staircase to the restaurant level, where tables are sensitively individually spotlit and surround another huge central backlit bar. It's a beautiful space, and in great nick (unlike Circus), Art Deco lines and styles but with enough soft furnishings to make it feel intimate.
Then there's the service, and yes they knew I was reviewing and I shouldn't dwell too much on this but we didn't want for anything, and managed that clever thing of fussing just enough at the start when drinks and food needed ordering, then fading completely into the background once the conversation started flowing.
But I imagine most of you are here to learn about the food, and I suppose I should come straight out and say that, served without the service and trappings of this incredible space, some of Quaglino's' crowdpleasing vaguely European dishes may struggle to make themselves heard. That's not to say anything we ate wasn't enjoyable, but only that it was solid, dependable stuff, cooked competently, raised to greatness largely by virtue of the context in which it was served.
So autumn squash velouté, a rich thick broth (not very velouté-y really), cooled with chunks of goat's curd, was a decent starter, seasoned well and with texture provided by toasted pumpkin seeds, but hardly an earth-shattering arrangement of ingredients. It soon disappeared though, the bowl wiped clean with some warm house baguette.
Venison tartare with oyster emulsion was, despite my caveats, a dish that could hold its head in any context, with bags of gamey flavour and just a teasing hint of seafood in the "oyster emulsion" holding it together. I've long been of the opinion that venison makes a much better steak tartare than beef, and though I can hear the howls of protest from tartare purists already, I suspect at the back of their minds they all know I'm right as well.
I had tagliatelle with peas (lots of peas... I mean a serious amount of peas... like "we have to get rid of more of these peas or they'll go off" amount of peas) and a generous coating of black truffle, and I polished it all off quite happily. No, the pasta wasn't Padella-good but Padella don't have nice Art Deco lampshades and live entertainment do they? So there.
Confit duck leg I didn't try, but as far as I can gather it went down quite well and didn't suffer too badly from dryness that can affect this kind of thing. And don't worry, it was served with a (good) sauce, I just didn't take a picture of that. I think we also ordered fries but I didn't get a photo of those, either. Look, we were just enjoying ourselves, OK? There was a woman singing cabaret versions of modern pop songs, I was a martini down and someone had given me a very nice glass of pinot noir. That's basically all I need for a perfect evening.
Desserts were suitably friendly. I had a creme brulee which had a nice delicate crust and good creamy vanilla-speckled filling, and we also had a very decent cheeseboard with an ash-covered goat's, a very dense and salty blue and a creamy Brie (which may in fact have been Tunworth). All a good temperature. And a good portion size. All good, in fact.
You'd have to be a really sour cynical type not to be swept away with the theatre of an evening at Quaglino's, and believe me, I would have counted myself firmly in that group before my dinner there. Yes, I was invited, but had we gone and paid for it ourselves even with a martini I don't think the bill would have crept much over £50 a head; the menu we ate was £30 with a glass of fizz, something approaching a bargain for this part of town never mind somewhere with live entertainment and fancy loos. Sometimes, and I'm getting a twitch in one side at the thought of even typing this, sometimes food isn't everything, it's the whole package that matters. And there are fewer fancier packages than Quaglino's.
I was invited to Quaglino's.
Thursday, 13 October 2016
Shortly after I moved to the area over a decade ago I began working my way through the many restaurants of Lavender Hill, Battersea Rise and Northcote Road. At that time I was optimistic I'd find at least one or two worth a repeat visit, either a Thai place whose fishcakes didn't look entirely like they'd been chipped out of the freezer, or perhaps an Indian whose chicken tikka masala didn't taste like it had been made in a factory in Luton a number of weeks previously.
After perhaps a dozen or so increasingly depressing dinners, I realised that was not going to happen. Aside from a vaguely interesting meal at a place called Cinnamon Cay (long since closed) whose USP was shipping in unusual bush meat from around the world (crocodile tastes a bit like a cross between tuna and chicken, FYI) this corner of London, despite each boasting a huge number of restaurants, is not a gourmet destination.
Admittedly, since those dark days, things have improved... slightly. Mien Tay (Vietnamese) is great if you avoid the generic Chinese dishes, ignore the haphazard service and don't mind eating in a sauna. Soif is a fantastic natural wine bar serving great food, and there's also Dip & Flip who have quite rightly decided the only thing that can improve a cheeseburger is to soak it in gravy. But other than that... pickings are slim. There's nowhere else out of the vast numbers of licensed establishments in the area that I'd recommend, and a good few I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy.
So all Bababoom really needed to do to stand out from its neighbours was to not be very crap. And to that end, with the bar set sufficiently low, I suppose what they've achieved could be judged as some kind of success. It's not awful. Certainly not awful were these whitebait, sprinkled with dukkah, which had no bitterness and no hint of grease.
Praiseworthy also is their house flatbread, moist and bouncy, with some lovely bubbles of crunchy char where it's caught in the oven. Unfortunately the hummus starter it arrived with was far less enjoyable, its seemingly entirely unseasoned flavour and weird ultra-smooth texture bringing to mind wall filler. Adding salt from the table helped, though.
Similar problems with seasoning plagued the mains. Beef adana could probably have been OK - not great, but OK - if they'd decided to risk a teeny bit of salt. I appreciate their concern for my blood pressure but on balance I'll take being able to taste my dinner over any long-term health benefits. The gently pickled veg and za'atar-spiced tomatoes were at least fresh and colourful, but still a bit wishy-washy.
Lamb shoulder was better, but still underwhelming. A step up from the usual high street kebab, sure, but not nearly enough to have me rushing back. The meat itself was a bit soggy and beige - I searched hopefully for some crunchy bits but didn't find any - although it was at least seasoned better than the beef so tasted of something.
"Smashed" aubergine needed more smoke from the grill and, yes, more seasoning. Cold aubergine treads a fine line between edible and phlegmy at the best of times, and I'm afraid here tipped just slightly uncomfortably over into the latter. Yes, it was colourful and all the ingredients were fresh, but someone needs to be tasting this stuff as well as just dressing it for presentation. It was curiously lifeless and flat.
Service was pleasant, better when offering to tailor a house lemonade to desired sweetness levels, less so when forgetting to fetch a beer ordered with it. And it's an attractive enough space, exposed brickwork and open kitchen in that style that appears to be everywhere these days. But the reality is, in common with so many of its neighbours, I just can't find enough about the place to justify the effort of going there, and barely a few days after my visit I find the experience is already fading into black and white. By the standards of the area, this is still arguably an improvement. But I'm afraid if Bababoom wanted to revolutionise Middle Eastern comfort food and be the Shawarma Bar of SW11, then, well, they've got a long way to go.
Not much chance of Bababoom getting in the app. But see where else is good.
Tuesday, 11 October 2016
"It has runaway success written all over it," I said about the original Chick'n'Sours in Kingsland Road, and with my predictions being so very rarely correct I hope you'll indulge me this opportunity to brag just a little about getting this one bang-on. With their unique and timely vision of Asian-influenced US comfort food this lively little spot in Dalston caught the public's imagination - and appetite - from day one, and in retrospect it was inevitable they'd want to open a 2nd branch at some point.
And ordinarily I'd wish them well and leave them to it; I rarely make an effort to review multiple branches from the same team because, well, usually I've said everything that needed to be said the first time around, and however welcome it would be to have a Chick'n'Sours on every street corner (and that would be very welcome indeed), hopefully all the same reasons for visiting would apply each time. There's no need to labour the point.
Except here we are, and I am going to the labour the point about Chick'n'Sours, not least because there's more than enough new and improved here in Covent Garden to fill the pages of another blog post but because also, even if the menu, the quality of the food and the style in which it is served was a complete carbon copy of the Kingsland Road original, I'd still feel duty bound to tell you about it for one simple reason - Chick'n'Sours... is... brilliant.
Let's start with a new entry in the Covent Garden menu - an irresistable snack called Mexi-nese Nachos. Corn chips soaked in a rich cheese sauce, looser than melted American and with more flavour though don't ask me how, studded with warm bacon bits and "Chengdu chicken" (crunchy skin I think but don't quote me), all topped with some fantastic crisp kimchee and green chilli. Nachos have been reimagined and reinvented so many times in so many dive bars it's a miracle C'n'S have come up with something original at all, least of all something that could very well spoil every other plate of nachos you've ever eaten in your life. A must order.
A must order too are the disco wings, available in a variety of different treatments. Pictured are the 'hot', best described as a vinegar-chilli Buffalo-style sauce, but with extra levels of deeply satisfying umami flavour, the bubbly crust of the wings holding so much of the sauce that biting into each one was a gloriously messy affair. They are the best chicken wings I've ever found in London, combining great quality, meaty chicken with supremely addictive coating and sauce. And that's even before they're introduced to the cooling, creamy St Agur dip.
I worry I'm sounding a bit like a press release, but Chick'n'Sours is one of those places that makes advocates of us all. The house pickles are a colourful selection of Asian-fringed flavours, sweet and sour, from soft chunks of cucumber to squishy cabbage. The pickling is clearly finely honed, a process presumably evolved from the very earliest days in Haggerston, and before that when head chef Carl Clarke was organising Korean popups around town.
Smacked ("Hunan-style") cucumbers, soaked in sesame oil and with a healthy slick of chilli, also satisfied on every level. It seems to be a Sichuan (or at least vaguely Southern Chinese) trick to combine something cooling (cucumbers) with chilli heat, to end up with an addictive contrast of pain and pleasure in every mouthful.
That same contrast is what makes the famous pickled watermelon side so good, a stalwart from Kingsland Road we couldn't help ordering again, refreshing chunks of fresh watermelon that soothe at first before the tingle of chilli kicks in a few seconds later. It's all enormous fun.
Finally, coriander and sesame chicken tenders, doing that same extraordinary balancing act of crunchy, moist, soft, sharp, sweet, you name it. Exciting, innovative comfort food that you'd happily order again and again.
All this is, in short, why I pay other people to make food for me. I said that "in retrospect" it was inevitable that Chick'n'Sours would want to open a second branch but actually, back in May 2015 you can't really blame them for just hoping they'd make it through to Christmas and that they'd find a sensible way of managing the queues. It's only with the passage of time we can appreciate the place for what it was - a genuine game-changer that found a way of reinvigorating the US comfort food trend with exciting Asian flavours and deserved every bit of the "runaway success" (© Cheese and Biscuits 2015) that came their way. And judging by the full house at 12:30 on a Monday lunchtime, this may just be the beginning. Chick'n'Sours is brilliant.
No chance this gem is being left off the next version of the app. Meantime see where else is good.
Wednesday, 5 October 2016
Phil Howard has a lot to answer for. It was in his previous restaurant The Square, at some point in the summer of 2003, that I sat down with a friend and enjoyed a meal that utterly changed the way I thought about the business of eating out. I'd had good meals up to that point, true, though mainly on holiday in France and in that Bib Gourmandparent-friendly French regional style, but this was something else - cooking of stunning precision, exotic ingredients teased into geometric forms, service and surroundings of otherworldly luxury. Here, amongst the soft furnishings and modern art of a restaurant in Mayfair, eating Devon crab lasagne with basil cappucino, was when I realised just how good food could be.
So he's to be thanked, or blamed (depending on your point of view) for the fact you're reading this food blog 13 years later and, directly and indirectly, for a legion of chefs, restaurants and food fanatics that have crossed the doors of that Mayfair institution during Howard's tenure. He was - is - a giant of the industry, a "chef's chef" (to use the rather tired phrase) who never missed a shift in his kitchen, was a mentor to countless numbers of young hopefuls, and held onto two Michelin stars longer than most enjoy entire careers.
But times change and with the Square losing a star*[see comments] and some of its elitist luster we end up at at Elystan Street, where like so many Michelin-starred chefs of his generation, Howard's attempting to "go informal", with looser, more rustic presentations, more relaxed service, and - needless to say - no tablecloths.
And first impressions are good. It's a lovely bright room, clean lines and attractive woodwork, tables and chairs are inviting and comfortable, and house bread is really lovely, a delicate thin crust containing a soft, bouncy crumb. With a glass of house champagne to hand we were more than willing to look past the punchy prices on the dinner menu and enjoy the possibilities of dishes such as "Ravoli of langoustines with barbecue dressing" or "Mousseline of grouse with pearl barley". If this is the brave new direction of Elystan Street, then I'm all in favour.
Starters were, across the board (well, across the three our party ordered), very enjoyable indeed. My own sweetbreads were cooked perfectly, and soaked in one of those brilliant sticky sauces that these haute cuisine kitchens always do so well. "Truffled autumn slaw" didn't have much of a hint of truffle but was rich and smooth and full of interesting textures (including a few sprigs of crunchy deep-fried kale on top) and I loved every bit of it.
Shellfish bisque with potted shrimps on toast was another crowdpleaser, a supremely light and fresh bisque matched with a neat oblong of pressed shrimp and went down very well. And I didn't get to try the salad of roasted vegetables but judging from the noises being made there were no complaints there either, all the more impressive considering this was a vegan dish presumably constructed with its local audience in mind.
So, so far so very, very good. With the starters down we were all relaxed and happy, a bunch of people who had travelled across town and risked quite a bit of money on a brand new restaurant (albeit one with a prestigious pedigree) and were more than pleased with the way things were going. And then.
Then, somehow, Elystan Street seemed to conspire only to disappoint. The grouse itself in my main course had been cooked incredibly well (as you would expect) but had very little of that funky, aged flavour I look for in the best of these birds and the sauce it was dressed in, a thin affair of elderberries and little else, had none of the depth of meaty flavour needed to compliment game. Criticising anything as nebulous as a "lack of depth" in sauces runs the risk of looking like nit-picking, but you go to places like this (at least, I do) for that incredible way with reduced stock sauces you can't get in your usual high street joint. They had nailed the sweetbread sauce completely - why not the grouse?
"Butternut squash", said my friend as she picked through her main, "doesn't go with fish". Unfortunately for her, it had taken her £35 to find this out, and despite a very well cooked bit of john dory and an interesting black rice accompaniment, there just wasn't enough here to enjoy.
And parmesan gnocchi with mushroom purée had the same problem with lack of firepower - not enough flavour in the mushroom, not enough parmesan in the gnocchi, hardly a hint of the advertised truffle. "It's just a bit... boring" was the eventual response. £30 worth of boring.
Yes, the prices. Had the main courses gone better - a lot better - we may have been able to at least accept, if not overlook, the frightening numbers attached to everything at Elystan Street. But as events played out we began to see the lack of bells & whistles - no amuse bouche, no pre-dessert, not so much as a chocolate with the bill - as being rather mean-spirited in the context of an only intermittently enjoyable meal costing £100 a head.
Perhaps on another day, in another place, in another price bracket, I would have been able to enjoy this objectively very decent lemon tart a bit more. Perhaps I only imagined it was ever-so-slightly too sharp because I knew it was £12 and because of what came before. But in any circumstances I would not have enjoyed the accompaniment of a very, er, "goaty" goat's cheese ice cream, which was dungy and distressing next to the clean flavours of the tart. Weird.
I'll avoid piling criticism on criticism and ignore the occasional annoying service niggle (it's early days) and instead praise the excellent no-nonsense sommelier who helped us pick a very decent Italian Pinot, one of the cheapest on the list at £35, which matched well with most of what we ate. But in my experience it's when you even start to notice service niggles that's a sure as indicator as any that the experience has not gone well. We left £100 lighter a person and vaguely aware we'd have been better off at a huge number of other restaurants in town. Which is a shame, for all involved.
Maybe all of the issues at Elystan Street are a result of a classically French-trained chef attempting Modern British Rustic and being caught between a rock and a hard place. It's ironic the last time I ate a 2* chef's food attempting to go "no tablecloths" it was Tom Aikens, in this very building, and that fell similarly short. Perhaps there's just no shame in being haute cuisine if haute cuisine is what you're good at and haute cuisine is what people want. But anyway, I will just go back to reminiscing about Devon crab lasagne and basil cappucino and that restaurant in Mayfair, all those years ago, that changed everything.