Friday, 9 March 2018

Minnow, Clapham Common

It stands to reason, or it should come as no surprise to learn, that the best and the worst restaurant reviews are the easiest to write. Plenty of examples of both can be found on this blog, from the jaw-dropping perfection of the reborn Roganic and rural idyll of the Parkers Arms to the filth-strewn dining hall of JRC Global BUffet and the cynically grim Playboy Club, all those reviews pretty much just fell onto the page. This dish was fantastic, this was terrible; here we had the time of our lives, here we sulked home poor and depressed. Easy.

More difficult is anything that falls inbetween those two extremes. When the food, for no very obvious reason, is just a bit... dull. Somewhere you end up not hating it but not loving it either, and leave with a vague sense of disappointment. Somewhere that you'd not rush to return to, but that if you heard someone else enjoying it a lot more, you wouldn't be surprised either. Finding anything insightful to say about places in this category can be torture; and what's worse is that there are so bloody many of them.

But there is a category of restaurant even more troubling than that. The only places more difficult to write up than the mediocre or unmemorable is the mediocre or unmemorable where everyone involved is so unbelievably nice and friendly and enthusiastic that the idea of not being able to reward their efforts with a glowing review makes me genuinely queasy.

Here we go anyway. On paper, Minnow is doing everything right. It's a cosy, comfortable little bistro on the edge of Clapham Common, a few doors down from the Dairy, serving a short, attractive menu of seasonal British dishes for a sensible amount of money. Yes, it's the kind of thing you may have seen before but London will never have enough friendly, independent restaurants serving seasonal food - this is what we're rightly famous for, and from St. John to Quality Chop House to, well, the Dairy - and each new addition to the fold is to be welcomed, regardless of how successfully it turns out. God knows it's hard enough opening any restaurant these days.

I so wanted Minnow to be good. I live about 20 minutes' walk away, for one thing. But from the first bite of ho-hum house sourdough weirdly served with whipped butter and drizzled with olive oil, it was clear we were going to have very different ideas about what made a good dinner.

Oysters were cool and fresh and contained plenty of brine, but the mignionette alongside was weirdly sweet and not acidic enough and just didn't work at all. For a second oyster I asked for a slice of lemon instead, which they provided happily and quickly, which somehow just made me feel more guilty.

An unordered extra snack of crisp fried kale and sugared nuts was probably the nicest single thing we ate all evening, all colour and crunch and plenty of seasoning. I love what baking/frying does to kale, but then I like raw kale too - especially the way the frills in the leaves hold sauces and dressings.

I therefore wasn't too distressed to see yet more crisp fried kale appear alongside some scallops in my starter proper, but it did make me think, if they knew the starter I'd ordered came with kale, why give me extra kale as a snack as well? Perhaps because the kale was the most interesting bit of the scallop dish, the seafood being underseasoned and the bacon jam tasting weirdly not much of bacon at all, but more like a strange, cold, onion chutney.

A generous mound of soft, lovely white crab meat was enough to redeem another starter, although it came hiding under a soft cracker thing which defied reason or explanation. The provided dressing was thick with dark soy and far too powerful, and was largely avoided.

Cassoulet should be a thick, salty jumble of sausage and beans and meat and herbs, generous of form and flavour. I'm afraid the version at Minnow was a seriously wan affair, the confit rabbit tasting of cotton wool, the sauce tasting of little more than tinned bean juice, and the handful of tiny pieces of sausage doing nothing to season or excite. I'm afraid this was a seriously disappointing dish, made more disappointing by the rememberance of cassoulets past.

Hake was better, thanks to a beautifully cooked bit of fish with a nice crisp skin, although the less said about the strange pool of insipid blitzed greenery it sat in the better. "Parsley broth" sounds like it could be nice, doesn't it? This didn't taste much of parsley, and wasn't much of a broth.

Sides didn't impress either, sadly. Chips were soggy and orange (cooked too slowly? Who knows) and the truffle flavour largely absent. Cabbage in anchovy butter seemed to be missing the anchovy element, too, seemingly consisting of little more than charred cabbage absolutely drenched in butter way past the point of edibility.

Normally after a succession of such underwhelming dishes we would cut our losses and leave, but everyone from the chefs in the open kitchen to the amenable serving staff were all just so bloody nice that I was desperate to find something to be positive about other than the crisp kale. Unfortunately, coffee creme caramel wasn't set, and lemon curd sandwiched inbetween two discs of shortbread was absolutely no more than the sum of its parts. Even the (raspberry?) sorbet seemed subdued. So that was that. We paid up and left.

So look, I'm really sorry, Minnow, really I am. Maybe it isn't you, maybe it's me. Maybe I ordered badly or you were having an off day, or I just don't "get" what you're trying to do. But you or I can't escape the fact that a few doors down the Dairy is doing this kind of thing at a whole other level of ability and finesse, and are charging very similar prices for doing so. And next time I'm in Clapham Common, hungry for seasonal Modern British food and £80 in my pocket, it's the Dairy that will be getting my hard earned, not their neighbour, no matter how friendly the welcome will no doubt be. In the end, glittering service, and crisp kale, can only get you so far.


Monday, 26 February 2018

You Decide 2018

Doesn't time fly? It seems like only yesterday I was sitting down to a £7 carvery in South Croydon, eyeing the mystery meats under the hot lamps suspiciously and expecting the worst, certain that it would all, as these public votes usually do, end in tears.

And yet, as you might remember, Toby Carvery was actually perfectly fine - not anywhere I'd rush to revisit but the food was edible, it was certainly cheap, and the service was - incredibly - better than many £100/head restaurants in central London I've been to.

The point is, these public vote restaurants don't necessarily have to be complete torture. If you enjoyed reading about a not-entirely-terrible all-you-can-eat carvery in Croydon then imagine how much more entertaining and rewarding a review of Sat Bains, or Le Gavroche, or Raby Hunt would be! You'd like to read about those, too, wouldn't you? Wouldn't you? Please?

Rules, as ever:

1. I can't have reviewed 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.

Voting closes 5pm on Thursday; I think 3 days is long enough to gather a representative sample size.

Wish me luck...

EDIT: Well, I know I said Thursday (I actually meant Tuesday) but the longer I left it the further Gino D'Acampo extended his lead, so let's not prolong the agony. The concourse at Euston station (Christ) can soon expect from me and the person responsible for this place entering the race in the first place. Ciao.

Monday, 19 February 2018

The Fordwich Arms, Canterbury

In common with most people with a regular exposure to it, I have a love-hate relationship with our nation's rail network. I love nothing more than jumping on an intercity of a weekend and travelling up North, sailing over a Victorian viaduct in a single-carriage Pacer on the way to an undiscovered part of the country and visiting an idyllic country gastropub. I even quite enjoy the inevitable 3 hours at a rain-battered station in a field for the one train a day back to London; it's all part of the adventure.

Unfortunately, I also have to commute, so I see our overstretched, overpriced transport system at its worst as well. And so although I do enjoy travelling by train, it helps to keep a certain reserve of stoicism to hand for when events, to put it politely, go tits up. And so it was on Saturday on the 1h45m journey from Charing Cross to Sturry where our 8-car Southeastern train had not a single functioning toilet, something that became a rather more pressing issue once we'd polished off the bottle of cava we'd brought along for the ride. We hopped painfully into the Fordwich Arms with mere moments to spare.

You'll be pleased to hear, then, that lunch at this handsome 1920s brick building is absolutely worth any amount of pain to get there. From start to finish, from the first nibble of cruditées to the final flourish of dessert, this is a restaurant that beams with energy and talent, and with the generosity of spirit to serve food that wouldn't be in the least out of place in the most heavily gilded and tableclothed temples of fine dining at prices that make you seriously worry for the future legitimacy of the business.

But let's leave the number-crunching to them; we're here to enjoy ourselves. Like lots of great restaurants, the menu reads so well it's almost impossible to make a sensible decision about what to order, so you'll probably end up doing what we did and consuming one of everything from the snack menu. Oysters arrived first, lean and cool and with a good chunky mignonette.

Foie gras doughnuts, fresh from the oven, exploded into a kind of warm foie bisque in the mouth, an absolutely heavenly experience.

These pretty things contained a silky-smooth tarama, a slice of pickle, and were topped with Caviar farmed from British sturgeon so you can imagine how completely addictive they were. I think given a table full of these or the foie gras dumplings I don't think I could have stopped until I'd put myself in hospital.

More tarama - or rather oak-smoked cod's roe - came with a selection of lively, and artfully arranged, garden vegetables. Though the roe was lovely - perfectly seasoned and full of seafood flavour - the real stars of this dish were the veg, which somehow tasted better than any radish, carrot and endive I've had the pleasure of trying in a long while.

Westcombe Cheddar tartlets had that same perfect temperature of the foie - warm, but not piping hot, and dissolved in the mouth into a divine cheesey soup. And again, left alone in a room full of these I would not have emerged with a fully functioning set of organs.

We were also brought a mini selection of house-cured meats, which could easily hold up against any top-quality Italian produce you could name.

By this point, it was abundently clear we were in safe hands, and we would be able to relax and let the rest of the afternoon sail by in serene, Sancerre-soaked bliss. A starter of chicken, artichoke and goat's curd was a stunning thing, meaty and fresh, smooth and crunchy in all the right places and presented with an artist's eye.

Confit potato didn't quite live up to the standards set by the Quality Chop House version - what on God's green earth would? - but did still impress with a clever light buttermilk dressing and some nice smoky charred spring onion.

Crab with pickled cucumber and sea herbs was essentially faultless - just the right amount of brown meat to enrich the white, seasoned well and topped with salty seaside greens, it was as elegant as it was rewarding.

Mains continued the theme. Dexter beef, tender and medium-rare and with a subtle aged flavour that added interest without overwhelming funkiness, came with sticks of celeriac and gravy- (sorry, "beef jus"-) soaked spinach.

And suckling pig had some pieces of belly presented with puréed carrot and prune, whilst in a separate copper pan two pieces of unbelievably lovely somethingorother, skin as delicate as rice paper, flesh inside soft and powerfully flavoured, sat on a bed of smoked hay. It was enough to send us all giddy.

Desserts I can only assume tasted as good as they look from my photos, because I'm afraid we were all a bit hysterical by this point, from the sheer overwhelming quality of the food mainly but, yes, also more than a little drunk. I seem to remember my brioche being soaked in something boozy, but that could just as well have been me. And I'm pretty sure the "Fordwich snickers" (lower case 's', in case the Mars lawyers start taking notice) went down well too, with its irresistable combination of caramel, chocolate and praline.

Before we rolled out into the crisp Kentish air, an insanely reasonable £87/head lighter each for what had been by anyone's standards a magnificent display of Modern British sourcing and technique, I couldn't resist asking head chef Dan Smith, who had emerged briefly from the kitchen, how he manages to achieve all these frills and fireworks at such relatively low price points. It seems largely to be a concession to grumpy locals who flooded Tripadvisor with comments in the vein of "what happened to my £9.50 roast" and "no more jacket potatoes, just overpriced fancy dinner". It's difficult enough launching a new restaurant these days, with food inflation and staffing shortages to deal with, but to be risking all that only to find yourself fighting to convince the very people you need to keep your business afloat must have been particularly depressing.

Look, I love an unreconstructed spit-and-sawdust pub every bit as much I'm sure as your average Fordwich local. I can particularly recommend the lovely Unicorn, 5 min from Canterbury West station, for a quick pint of Kentish Pip cider while you're waiting for the convenience(s)-free train back to London. Fordwich Arms has a bar area, and nice open log fires and a beer garden but no, it's not serving fish and chips and burgers and bloody burritos because it's not a "normal" pub - it's unashamedly and undeniably a fine dining pub, and that every boozer in Britain has to do exactly the same thing and please exactly the same set of people is neither practical nor desirable.

So with any luck over time the Kentish locals will realise what an utter gem they have on their doorstep and will realise they can still go a thousand other places for their sub-£10 roasts and salt and vinegar crisps if that's what they want. What's so much rarer is food as remarkable as served at the Fordwich Arms, easily one of the most exciting new openings of the last few years and, for more regular readers of this blog, yet another reason to get on the train from London. I hope yours has toilets.


Wednesday, 14 February 2018

United Chip, Clerkenwell

Being a fish and chip fan in London is hard, and you become wearily used to disappointment. Soggy old fish kept warm for too long in hot cabinets, batter too thick, batter too thin, chips too skinny, chips too fat, and the worst crime of all, the one truly unforgivable fish and chip violation, crushed minted garden peas instead of mushy peas. You're more likely than not to suffer one of the above list in your search for a decent fix in London, and the chances of you finding anything as good as even the most second-tier chippie up in Southport, or Blackpool, or Whitby, are pretty much nil.

So I was visiting United Chip more out of hope than expectation. I was also desperately trying to keep an open mind after a press release boasting an interior of "millennial pinks and soft greys... that linger in the memory" and of putting a "unique spin on a tired concept". Listen, mate, fish and chips is not a "tired concept". It's just that nobody south of Watford knows what the bloody hell they're doing with it. What we're waiting for isn't to match our dinner with craft beer in a "contemporary and vibrant" space but for someone - anyone - within Zone 6 to just do it properly for once.

How annoying, then, that United Chip turned out to be really rather good. Not the Swan Southport good, not Senior's Blackpool good, but good, and in London, quite frankly I'll take good. Yes, there are annoyances; the communal seating, the soundtrack of Morrissey's most recent "obnoxious dickhead" period, the fact that all the food is served in takeaway pizza boxes whether you're eating in or not. But they appear to know what makes good fish and chips, and how to achieve it, which puts them head and shoulders above most anywhere else in town.

It's also pretty good value. A "small" cod and chips is £7.50, and it really isn't that small at all. The fish was cooked perfectly, in a crisp, delicate batter and boasted lovely bright white, flaky flesh. Chips had a good crunch and were nice and soft inside, and despite being piled up inside a cardboard box managed to keep their texture 'till the last one was hoovered up. Doused in salt and malt vinegar, this was more than acceptable F&C work.

So, a "unique spin on a tired concept"? Not really. This was very solidly traditional fish and chips, done well, albeit served in a self-consciously "branded" room alongside craft beers and a selection of silly sauces. It won't be anyone's nirvana, least of all those lucky enough to pay regular visits up north, but it's guaranteed to be better than your local London pub's version, and possibly even cheaper, too. Oh, and the mushy peas? I'm afraid I didn't try them, but am assured they're proper, and don't involve garden peas or mint or crushed anything. And that alone gives me reason to return.


Friday, 9 February 2018

Roganic, Marylebone

After another ho-hum meal recently at somewhere that receives nothing but unqualified praise from almost everyone else that eats there (no, I won't name it, at least not today), it got me thinking about how there's a certain element of subjectivity implicit in almost every restarant recommendation, no matter how enthusiastically offered.

We are all of us different, and have different priorities when it comes to spending our money on dinner, and as much as anywhere can be stress-tested and fine-tuned to be as close to the ultimate dining experience as possible, the fact is no one place can please everyone. I'm thinking of a friend I confidently packed off to Quality Chop House only to have them moan about the uncomfortable seating and "weird chips" (I mean, honestly), or even my own experience as seemingly the only sentient being in town not to fall completely in love with Black Axe Mangal. Such is life's rich tapestry.

So this post comes with a disclaimer. I make no secret of the fact that this kind of food happens to chime exactly with what I'm looking for from a meal, and Simon Rogan's style of cooking is everything I find exciting and rewarding about eating out. I was always going to like the latest incarnation of Roganic, and trying to pretend it's any kind of surprise that I'm now gushing about one of the best meals I've ever eaten in London would be disengenuous at best.

But I'm equally convinced there are countless others out that will find Roganic every bit as thrilling as I did. Trying to describe it in too terrestrial a way threatens to spoil some of the magic; "local and seasonal" is too glib - everyone from your local pub to the contestants on Masterchef are cooking local, seasonal food these days. Rogan's cooking is like eating the seasons themselves, like going on a country walk and plucking fruit and berries from the trees, albeit fruit and berries in the form of exquisitely crafted preserved raspberry mini-tartlets dusted with beetroot powder (above).

It's the kind of food that no matter how dazzling the technique or unusual the ingredient (there's nobody more likely to introduce you to an obscure unpronouncable herb or foraged berry than Rogan), the results always make absolute sense, and flatter your expectations of what good food is even if you don't entirely understand how. Obviously flavour comes first - he wouldn't be much of a chef if it didn't - but it's more than that, it's a complete mastery of what people will expect from a meal like this, but then with something else, a touch of extra fairy dust. Like with these little parcels of beef wrapped in pickled kohlrabi, beautiful and bite-sized, which deliver a kind of Asian-influenced tartare effect before an astonishing woodsmoke flavour appears and lifts the whole thing to another level entirely.

A bowl of fermented cabbage kombucha managed to walk that clever line between sweetness, bitterness and vegetal flavour. It not only performed its advertised role as a palate cleanser admirably, but managed also to beguile with a further set of mysterious aromatics, tantalisingly just out of reach of identification, but delightful nontheless.

Next a dish wholly unsatisfactorily described as a "mushroom broth". I mean, technically it was a mushroom broth, insofar as it contained a broth made out of mushrooms, but of course this being Roganic it was a bewilderingly complex liquid, dark with countless enigmatic herbs and essences, with a smoked quail's yolk underneath round it out with an irresistable layer of silky dairy.

If ever a vegetable has the power to carry a main course without having you pining wistfully for protein it's salt-baked celeriac, which even in lesser hands is a dense, richly flavoured root - a highlight of dining in the winter months. Needless to say, Roganic's version is exemplary, matched with a light sauce made I think from whey, and with crunchy grains and crisp-fried enoki mushrooms for texture.

You'll have probably got the gist of the story by now. Everything Roganic do is technically impressive, immaculately presented and - most importantly - profoundly rewarding, not just enjoyable but offering an extra quantity of intellectual stimulation. Fresh crab meat, fluffy and sweet, came on a bed of smoky grilled cabbage and topped with translucent slivers of crisp chicken skin, all of which combined like God's own surf and turf. This, though, was then dressed with a light sauce made out of ramsons (preserved wild garlic) - that all-important sprinking of fairy dust.

Hay-aged duck is, just as in the mothership l'Enclume, the centerpiece of the meal at Roganic. Boasting a stunning intense flavour highlighted by a judicious selection of preserved roots and berries, I was willing to overlook the slight disappointment of a rather flabby skin and make the most of the fireworks elsewhere, not least an impossibly smooth celeriac purée.

In most restaurants, a pre-dessert would be welcome but forgettable, something for you to push about while the kitchen plated the puddings. This, a sorbet made from yellow beetroot and buttermilk, was a talking point in itself, packed full of mysterious citrus notes (no idea) and dressed with something called oxalis. That cute little wooden bowl was left absolutely clean.

This abstract arrangement of what they called "burned milk" (presumably a kind of custard spread out and baked into crisps but good lord, don't ask me) came perched upon the most insanely rich ice cream/frozen yoghurt and surrounded by at least blackcurrant but also another syrup of luminescent green who-knows-what. One of the hallmarks of a Rogan dish is how they'll often look as dazzlingly beautiful after you've finished eating them, the dabs and swirls of irridescent colour, than before you take your first bite.

There was no sense that the petit fours had been given any less thought and care. Jasmine may sound like a strange flavour to add to fudge, until you try it and realise that it's exactly what fudge has been missing all these years. And don't ask me to relay precisely what was inside these little chocolate swirls - possibly some kind of nut mousse, maybe nougat - but, of course, they were also brilliant.

When all is said and done, posts like these are hardly going to change anyone's minds. Those who fell in love with Roganic as I did when it exploded onto the scene back in 2011 will have already put a mark in their diary to visit the new incarnation, and will no doubt have visited l'Enclume as many times as their bank balance would allow in the meantime. Similarly, those friends (I use the term loosely) who dismissed Roganic as pretentious overpriced nonsense back then still won't be convinced by any of my adoration and will be quite happy continuing to ignore it. More fool them.

But for those lucky enough to be tuned-in on the Rogan wavelength, wow - wow you're in for a treat. Because this, essentially, is why we choose to spend our money eating out; to be dazzled, to be entertained, to be utterly charmed by a team of people who give the impression their entire purpose on this planet is to make you happy. From top to bottom, across every inch of this charming Marylebone location, it is as close to perfect as I can imagine a restaurant can be. Welcome back, Roganic.