Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Laughing Heart, Hackney

First of all, apologies for the drop in usual photographic standards on this post. This meal at Laughing Heart was completely impromptu, the result of there being nothing on TV on a Sunday night during a trip to see a friend in Shoreditch, and I didn't have my Big Camera. So if the food looks a bit less appealing than it would do normally I can only apologise (to them and you), but on the other hand my mate didn't have to put up with my taking ten or fifteen shots of every dish with my noisy compact, so you know, he was happy.

It is quite extraordinary to see the way this part of town has developed over the last few years. What was once a bleak and rather grotty thoroughfare to somewhere else now plays host to a number of seriously good food and drink options, with wine bar Sagar & Wilde stood next to Morito, just down the road from super gastropub the Marksman. The Laughing Heart, then, slots comfortably in to a mature and dynamic restaurant scene, with a local audience quite used to all this small plates and seasonal palava, thankyouverymuch. On Sunday evening, the place was buzzing - if not at capacity - with lucky Hackneyites making the most of the latest lovely thing to land on their doorstep.

Oysters X.O. were the first to arrive. You'll notice that a lot of the items on the Laughing Heart menu are Chinese-inspired; I'm not sure whether this is a permanent direction or just something they'd put on for Chinese New Year. Either way someone in the kitchens has a real affinity for this kind of thing as the balance of dressing, herbs and seafood was spot on, ginger and spring onions and presumably soy and vinegar sitting very nicely with the plump winter bivalves.

I like to think I can divide the population into two categories - those who are unable to read "Brown crab butter" and not order it immediately, and those who will live a sad and empty life devoid of fun or meaning. I am in the former. It was wonderful; fluffy and smooth and rich with seafood like a fine, buttery taramasalata, and has by all accounts already become somewhat of a signature offering. The sourdough it came with was also fantastic, as you might expect given there's quite the choice of top bakeries in these parts.

Next, dumplings, and very good dumplings too, with great delicate casings and lovely vibrant fillings. My favourite was pork and fennel, which had a particularly impressive aromatic kick. As I said, someone at Laughing Heart really knows their Chinese food discipline, and isn't afraid to show it off on a menu that's otherwise solidly Modern European. Ordinarily I'd probably say something about geographic vagueness, but I mean, what the hell, life's too short.

With beef in herb butter and fried potatoes were were firmly back on British soil, and by using 9-year-old ex-dairy cattle they were pushing all the on-trend butchery buttons too. The beef was tender and had a decent flavour, though was by no means knockout; I like a bit more of a chargrilled crust on my steaks, though that may just be a personal thing. The accompanying potatoes were less easy to love, a strange mangled shape and not tasting of a great deal.

But overall, it was a very pleasant meal for a very decent amount of money, and we left happy. The strange hybrid Chinese-Gastropub menu could have very well been a disaster in lesser hands, and while it's true the dishes tended to sit alongside each other rather than combining into some kind of coherent concept, the fact is it was all done so well you could hardly moan too much. To paraphrase Joey from Friends, "Sourdough and brown crab butter? Good. Game & foie gras terrine? Good. Dim sum dumplings? Good!."

So if it seems extraordinary how much Hackney has changed in recent years, surely more extraordinary is that the pace of innovation and invention in the restaurant industry seems only to accelerate. Laughing Heart is an energetic little place with a singularly eccentric vision of what it means to eat out, and yet by the standards of what we've come to expect in London, it feels neither forced nor particularly unusual. A Chinese-European gastropub. Why the hell not.


The Laughing Heart Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

El Pastor, London Bridge

Timing, as they say, is everything. Had El Pastor opened even just a few months earlier than it did, further back in 2016, it would have been heralded as the saviour of Mexican cuisine in London, a slick, satisfying operation which finally showed what anyone who'd ever eaten proper Mexican food had been tiresomely banging on about for all these years (that would be me then), forever to wrestle away this most wonderful and sophisticated of cuisines from the greasy clutches of the Tex-Mex chains.

Unfortunately for them - and by "them" I mean the Hart Bros, the brains behing Barrafina and Quo Vadis - the opening of this shiny spot in Borough Market coincided with not just one but two or three other top-drawer Mexican operations that also landed towards the end of 2016, and what would have been a full-on, focussed love affair mere months earlier was, in the end, diluted with a little more, well, reality. Reviews were positive, but not glowing, and I wonder whether for restaurateurs so used to unqualified praise for their Spanish concept (again, guilty), for London not to be bowled over by El Pastor may have come as somewhat of a disappointment.

But all restaurants must be placed in context, and I could no more ignore the existence of Breddos while reviewing El Pastor than I could ignore Barrafina while assessing José Pizarro or La Tasca(!) or anywhere else. And although El Pastor is clearly a very good restaurant, objectively serving very nice, authentic Mexican food for not a great deal of money, in an exciting "industrial chic" space, and however annoying it is to all of the people that have so obviously put so much hard work into the place, I'm just going to sit here and tell you why I liked Breddos more.

Firstly, the salsas. One of the utter joys in eating in Mexico is that no two restaurants will make salsa tasting the same. I don't just mean variations the levels of heat or that some offer green instead of red. I mean that the house salsa offered for dipping your nachos in when you sit down can be a kaleidoscope of variations from smokey to sugary, savoury to salty, vegetal and chunky to a processed, refined sheen. You never know what you're going to get, and it's enormous fun. El Pastor's selection is of a fairly workaday tomato/coriander chunky affair, a hot habanero (presumably) that was my favourite, and a tomatillo which needed a bit more something. Seasoning, perhaps, or fresh herbs. I'm sure I don't know. But I do know that it pales in comparison to the vibrant and full-flavoured verde at Breddos.

Next, the tortillas. This being London 2017 it almost goes without saying that El Pastor grind, mixamatosis (sorry, nixtamalise) and press their own tortillas, and in fact you can see the whole process happening in the mezzanine level towards the back of the main room. On the face of it, they're doing everything right, including using a rare strain of maize rescued from near-extinction by an artisan producer somewhere in Mexico (apparently). So why do I find the end product a little dry and bland, and not quite as bouncy and full of flavour as the Other Guys?

To assemble your taco you take some of the pork filling - the El Pastor itself - a nice moist pile of slow-cooked pig, a few of the pork scratchings (sorry chicharrón), a bit of salsa, a scattering of fresh coriander, then fold it up and wolf it down. This is why most people will be coming here, and quite rightly too, as it's definitely a top bit of taco work, each element considered, refined and intelligently sourced. Whether you're more of a DIY enthusiast or prefer your taco coming already assembled and dressed, well, that will ultimately be down to personal choice, but I don't like to be left in charge of balancing ingredients and dressings in a cuisine I'm not an expert in. I don't even much like being left in charge of dressing my own salad. But even so, this was a good taco.

There were, despite my grumblings, some very impressive things on the menu at El Pastor. Tuna tartare was a generous pile of fresh tuna bound with a complex chile-sesame paste; easily enjoyed.

Chicken tacos, rubbed in adobo, were nice and moist and full of flavour, hard to find fault with.

And short-rib, also precisely cooked and prepared, equally difficult to complain about. It was all very confident, mature, clearly well researched, and well executed. There was nothing wrong with any of it.

Maybe, in the end, whether you're a Breddos or El Pastor person comes down to your position on the thorny question of authenticity. Do you value as close adherence as possible to the traditional methods of the cuisine in question, possibly at the expense of surprise and running the risk that some ingredients will necessarily be different (inferior) to those in the motherland? Or do you take the personality and main techniques of Mexican food but apply it to masa-fried chicken, Cornish mackerel and Iberico pork and the rest and see what sticks? Which of these scenarios would you be more happy with?

Or maybe that argument is completely reductive, I don't know what I'm talking about and El Pastor, and Breddos, and (for all I know) Corazon and the rest are each perfectly good restaurants all worth your money and I should just shut up and enjoy the fact that we have any decent tacos in London at all. Yes, do you know what, I'll do that.


We were spotted by the PR and this meal was comped.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Burger at CUT at 45 Park Lane, Mayfair

The last time I visited a Park Lane restaurant and ate a burger costing over £25 it did not end well. The evening a friend and I spent in the Playboy Club, where we tried their miserable food and tried our best to keep it down, is still a topic of conversation all these years later, a shared moment of dining horror that has hardly lessened from the passage of time. The experience was so grim that I avoided "posh" burgers for a good while after, until I eventually realised it wasn't wagyu beef and truffle mayo I didn't like, it was cynical pricing and restaurants housed in hideous soul-crushing temples of misogyny. And fortunately, hideous soul-crushing temples of misogyny are fairly easily avoided. So with the trauma of the "Hef burger" now little more than a distinctly unpleasant memory, I booked for the signature offering at CUT at 45 Park Lane, hoping it would redeem the reputation of posh burgers everywhere.

The best place to start looking for a premium burger is, and has always been, the steakhouse. It makes sense that anywhere specialising in the sourcing and searing of beef would be able to easily turn their hand to mincing said beef and serving it in a seeded bun, and it further makes sense that the very best steakhouses - Goodman and Hawksmoor in London, Peter Luger's and the Strip House in New York City - with access to the best beef money could buy, would serve the very best burgers. And so it seemed likely that CUT at 45 Park Lane, with its moneyed clientele and focus on stunning imported USDA, would have as good a shot at the title as anyone.

Often a steakhouse burger is little more than a patty of ground beef in a bun - no salad, no cheese, often not even a slick of mayo or sauce. Peter Luger's go down this route, the confidence in their product bordering on arrogance, but when you have access to the best cow this particular food blogger has ever tasted, well, that confidence seems perfectly well-placed. It's fair to say that CUT are not a "no frills" operation, not by a long way. Even before the main course arrives diners are treated to some superb bubbly cheese straws, fantastic fluffy warm cheese gougère (perhaps on loan from the Alain Ducasse operation next door) and beautiful fresh pretzel bread which were so good I ate two of the tasty little buggers before I'd even finished my martini.

But you won't be here to read about pretzels or martinis. What about the burger? Well, overall this was an extremely enjoyable - if not flawless - meat sandwich. The beef itself, in using a Wagyu blend, had it seemed to me sacrificed a little of the flavour of the British and Irish grass-fed breeds for that lovely loose crumbly flesh, rich with marbled fat. Using Black Angus in the mix as well is presumably an effort to reintroduce a bit of funky taste, but I think it could have taken more of this, and less of the Wagyu. Still, what do I know. The tomato was (surprisingly) good even if the lettuce was a bit nothing-y, and the garlic mayo was a fantastic light texture even if there was ever so slightly too much of it.

I liked the poppyseed bun a lot, and it held together remarkably well considering everything that was going on inside. Personally I'm not a usually a fan of marmalades or chutneys in burgers (with the notable exception of bacon jam on very rare occasions) and I could have done without the "shallot-jalapeno marmalade" here, but Ogleshield cheese is, if you're absolutely determined not to use American processed, a very good option as Hawksmoor (and, since them, many others) will tell you, and still retains a good soft consistency even as it cools. Unlike, for example, cheddar. Never use cheddar in burgers. Never.

Service, as you might expect in this poshest of posh steakhouses, was immaculate, and is perhaps partly responsible for the fact I enjoyed the overall experience of eating at CUT more than I objectively appreciated the charms of the burger itself. I'd like to go back, in fact, to try some of the very attractive looking steaks presented as part of the CUT experience (whether or not you're too much of a cheapskate to "just" have a burger and a martini and get the bus home) and see if I don't bankrupt myself.

Because no, CUT is not cheap. It's not even "a bit punchy". It is gold-star, fully-paid-up, certificate-of-authenticity expensive, where a burger and fries a drink ended up costing £50. Is it really worth that kind of money? Well, no. But is anything? Perhaps there's never any justification for spending such numbers on food, but I'm not about to let silly things like logic and rationality get in the way of a good eat, and neither should you. After all, it could be worse - at least it's not the Playboy Club.


Cut at 45 Park Lane Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Flora Indica, Earl's Court

We're constantly being told that 2017 is the Year of the Taco, and while I'm obviously delighted with this development, especially if it means more places like Breddos opening, it seems to me that a bigger story is what's happening to Indian food in the capital. It may not be just coincidence that January has already seen me post on two separate and equally exciting (in their own way) Indian restaurants; first the high-end Jamavar with its elegant and sophisticated take on the classics, then Kricket with its innovative English-Indian small plates concept.

And now here's Flora Indica, a restaurant that defies easy explanation but for the sake of categorisation you may as well think of as "Experimental Indian". They describe themselves as "one-of-a-kind" and they're not wrong - the menu is a barrage of Indian words and unusual ingredients that, as it turns out, are only intermittently useful at predicting the food that eventually arrives at the table. But despite the almost wilfully obscure nature of the concept, I can't deny that things like "Green Banana Kali Mirch | Banana Chips | Smoked Garlic Yoghurt" or "Venison Gilafi Sheek | Coriander Chilli Sauce | Spiced Fig" do sound exciting as well as weird, and if you never quite know what you're ordering, well, perhaps that's entirely deliberate.

Plus, I don't think it's possible to order badly at Flora Indica; every single one of the fourteen or so (savoury) dishes we tried were at least good and at best brilliant. Unfortunately for them, a restaurant is more than just the food, and I'll get to the issues with service and value in a bit, but meantime have a look at this "Baby Bitter Gourd Tak a Tak", which was a very cleverly balanced dish, the slight bitterness of the vegetable offset by a sweet pumpkin soup.

Achari Tender Broccoli also went down well, in a mildly sharp and spicy dressing and dash of sour cream. You may think that's not a huge amount of food for £5, just five small twigs of broccoli, but at the time it didn't seem so much of an issue, probably because they tasted so good.

We'd ordered these "poppadums" as we sat down, but they only appeared with the rest of the starters as someone apparently forgot to put the order through. Interesting things though, apparently puffed cassava with a little pot of house bitter pickle.

Naan with hemp seeds and Red Leicester cheese was excellent, the kind of British-Indian fusion I can very much get behind. It would have been more enjoyable without our overly familiar waiter interrupting with unneccessary chat ("So how was your weekend, guys?") but perhaps he was just embarrassed about having forgotten to put the poppadum order through and was overcompensating.

Opening weeks jitters could also account for the bizarre decision to fill a vacuum wine cooler almost to the brim with ice then precariously balance a bottle of wine on top of it, an arrangement that had no more effect on the temperature of the wine than not using the cooler at all.

Still, amidst the warm wine and the annoying interruptions, we still had the food, albeit not much of it. "Malwani Prawn" (3 of) were beautifully bouncy, dressed in a gentle spiced chutney and topped with mooli spaghetti.

Pulled Gressingham duck came in the form of a neat little tower of chilli-spiked meat, topped with a gram flour "cheela" (pancake) and a dollop of coconut chutney. This, too, was a genuinely lovely and intelligent bit of cooking.

Salmon trout was timed perfectly to just-pink inside, and had a wonderful flavour. £8 got us just about enough for a single mouthful, but again it was hard to be disappointed with anything other than the amount of it.

Sweetbread "shikampuri" (kind of a fish cake/kebab hybrid) was another brave experiment that completely worked. A lurid pink, earthy beetroot sauce complimented the offal notes of the kebab very well, and almost made you forget you were paying the best part of a tenner for a few grams of food.

I don't mean to labour the point about the portion sizes, but the fact the food was all so good just made you want even more of it, and though getting to try more of the menu was hardly a hardship on the one hand, we were very aware of the costs mounting up. Even the dishes from the "curries" section of the menu, with their heftier price points, contained only a smidgen more product, but again what was there was stunning. This chicken tikka came in a sauce best described as Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup made by God himself, so incredibly rich and packed full of flavour you could hardly imagine it being improved upon at all.

And this rogan josh, three or four pieces of beautifully tender lamb in another exquisitely constructed sauce, almost chocolately in its intensity. Also pictured, a black dhal which though not quite as perfect as the version at Jamavar, still did its job well, and a butter naan, light and bubbly.

So yes, someone at Flora Indica knows how to cook. And I'll gloss over the slightly more mundane desserts - I don't think I've ever had a very good dessert in an Indian restaurant (sorry) - because what came before was so enjoyable. Above is some kind of beetroot pudding which I'd rather forget about, and I believe we also had something involving pineapple.

The bill came to just under £50 a head, which I guess isn't a vast amount of money but it's still enough to put things like the dodgy service and small portions in a slightly more critical light. Only just enough though, because as I hope I've made clear, this is some of the most exciting and innovative Indian food London has to offer, and if you're any less of a grumpy misanthrope than me (which would be just about everyone I think) you may find a chatty waiter the least of your worries. Or, indeed, a vacuum cooler full of ice. Flora Indica has, despite its flaws, plenty to recommend it.


Flora Indica Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato