Friday, 14 November 2014
Smoking Goat serves some of the best Thai food you will eat outside of Thailand. I needed to say this up front, and I've deliberately put it in italics because all said and done it's the most important thing about the place. So please bear this crucial fact in mind as you read through the rest of this post, because if it weren't for the food, the wonderful, wonderful food, the following paragraphs would be not much more than extended rant about, well, let's see now...
Firstly, it is noisy. Very, very noisy. Hard surfaces and a low ceiling create the kind of acoustics that encourages everyone in the room to shout just that little bit louder than everyone else, and despite sitting barely two inches away from my friend that night (I'm coming to the seating arrangements, bear with me) we each had to bellow into each other's faces to be understood. On top of that, a powerful sound system supported by two huge speakers near the front door add to the general cacaophony with some bass-heavy dance music. We asked them to turn them down a couple of times during the evening, but they somehow always crept back up again in volume.
So, the seating arrangements. It's a tiny restaurant, which is fine, and tables are very close together, which is also understandable, but there are just so many little standing-room-only drinks perches around the room that when they're all being used (which they generally are within two minutes of the place opening) getting to the toilet and back is like a Crystal Maze puzzle - "I'll stand here so you can get past, now you stand there, good now I'll move into the space left by him", and so on. Also the bench seating along one wall is a plank of solid, uncushioned wood about six inches wide, the kind of thing you might expect to find in a Victorian workhouse or a particularly "character-building" boarding school. It's second only to the booths at Quality Chop House in terms of excruciating agony, and that's saying something.
And finally, they don't take reservations. And under normal circumstances that wouldn't bother me in the slightest - I'm always banging on about eating at midday or 6pm where you can generally snag a spot at even the most oversubscribed places - except that the kitchen at Smoking Goat doesn't open until 7pm, so from 5:30 ish onwards the room is full of people sipping beer and twiddling their thumbs until they can order the Whole Cornish Crab or the lamb ribs or whatever. It's completely counterproductive - those queuing outside (or where it extends slightly inside) know they have to wait until everyone already seated has finished and paid up, and those inside have no intention of leaving until they've ordered the crab. Sure you can eat oysters and chicken wings before that, but you'd be an idiot to have lucked out on a table at Smoking Goat and not waited to order something more substantial.
Anyway so those are all the reasons why you might not want to bother going to Smoking Goat. And here are all the reasons why you absolutely must. Oysters, at an incredible £1 each come with a sharp nam jim (dipping sauce), sweet and vinegary and a perfect foil for the salty bivalves. Fish sauce wings, £6 for four, moist and crunchy in all the right places, in an incredible fragrant marinade, are now coming in a close second for my favourite way of having chicken wings, and believe me I love buffalo wings a LOT so this is high praise. Both of these items can be ordered all afternoon from the bar menu, so if you're happy sipping craft beer and eating your bodyweight in oysters and wings, perhaps you don't need to wait until 7pm at all.
But then again, perhaps you should. The main draw from the menu proper is of course the whole Cornish chilli crab, liberally dressed with herbs, palm sugar & fresh coconut cream. The shell is only weakly cracked, so you will definitely need the extra tools they give you, claw breakers and pickers, because most of the sweet white meat is quite hard to get at. But it's worth every sauce-splattered, hot, dark, noisy, painful minute. If there's one dish that's going to make you forget where you are and transport you to a seafood shack on the white beach at Ko Chang, it's this. Already one of London's signature dishes, the Smoking Goat Chilli Crab is an instant classic.
Other main courses are hardly less accomplished, though. Coal-roast hand-dived scallop with nam yum (lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chilli according to a quick Google) is a huge, fresh, meaty thing with a smoky crust and a generous roe. Like a lot of Thai food it's superficially straightforward in terms of ingredients but the balance of sweet/sour/smoky/chilli is absolutely spot-on; these guys really know what they're doing.
I was expecting the slow roast duck legs to be stringy and collapse-y, like you might find in French stews or or Chinese pancakes. But these were moist and firm, with a sweet, crunchy glaze and a charming multicoloured dip of pickled kumquats and who knows what else.
I don't think the same dip or sauce is used twice. Lamb ribs are basted with fermented shrimp, chilli and palm sugar, and are served with a kind of sweet chilli dip (though obviously a million miles away from any sweet chilli you may have had squirted around a salad from Thai Square; this was sharp, fresh and incredibly moreish). The flesh from the ribs tore off in thick, satisfying chunks, and had that funky, deep flavour of clearly top quality lamb.
House som tam (green papaya salad) is another minor classic, and comes with all the mains. It's packed with flavour and heat - surprisingly so, in fact, given the chilli levels elsewhere stop thankfully somewhat short of authentic - and is a multicoloured, multitextured joy.
What else? Ah yes, wines and beers are far from an afterthought. The rare and brilliant Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is available in 750ml measures, and the wine list, curated by the omnipresent Zeren Wilson, offered a sweet German Riesling to go with our crab and scallops, and a lovely (and very reasonably priced) glass of natural prosecco to go with, well, more or less everything else.
As I arranged my coat and jumper around myself to cushion against the harsh bench seating, and while yelling conversation at my friend between mouthfuls of chilli crab, I wondered whether there was an easier way of doing all this. If I was a millionaire, maybe I could get someone to queue up and order for me, then as soon as it arrives courier it to my house where I could demolish the crab using a salad bowl as a finger wash and finish with fish sauce wings in front of the X Factor. Or maybe I could wear earplugs and they could have a separate queue for the seats that aren't a medieval torture device, like for people who queue separately for the front of the Nemesis at Alton Towers.
But even as I emerged, sweating, crab-stained and deaf onto Denmark Street after my meal at Smoking Goat that night, I knew with almost absolute certainty that I'd be back. Food like this, especially in London where you can count the number of decent Thai restaurants on one hand, is a rare and precious thing, and though everything that doesn't involve filling your face with smoked lamb and scallops is a test of almost every faculty I possess, what's coming out of that tiny, smoke-filled kitchen is enough to make me forgive almost anything. Uncompromising, infuriating and brilliant, Smoking Goat is a one-off.
I was invited to the opening night of Smoking Goat, then went back under my own steam for more, the glutton for punishment I am. I'm reliably informed they are hoping to open the kitchen earlier in the evening, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Thursday, 13 November 2014
"I find your review way out of kilter with the meals I have eaten there, as well as several friends. Maybe they did have a bad day. Why not try again?"
This appeared below my post on A Wong from April last year, based on a visit shortly after it opened. In itself, comments like this are not unusual - you're never going to get a complete consensus about a restaurant (not even Tayyabs) and under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged my shoulders, carried on and never gone back to A Wong. Each to their own, no harm done, let's move on.
Except in the 18 months since my visit, the one thing London hasn't done is move on from A Wong. What was once a murmur of happy contentment from early adopters has turned into a roar of overt approval, from critics, foodies, close friends, basically anyone ever taking the time to eat there. But chief amongst these influencers, as far as I'm concerned, is wine expert and general restaurant spod (I'm sure he won't mind me saying) Zeren Wilson, whose instagram feed from countless dinners there is as good an advertisement for the place than pretty much anything else.
So finally this week, breathlessly expectant along with my five other dining companions (all the better to cover more of the vast menu), I returned to A Wong. And with any luck over the next few paragraphs I'll give you some of the reasons why it's pretty much the best Chinese restaurant in London.
Of course, most of those reasons are the food. It's all about the details, such as these two different types of chilli oil, one with tofu and one with some kind of seafood I think. To dip in them, house prawn crackers like nothing you've seen before, studded with interesting spices, topped with finely-diced cubes of astonishing pickled vegetables. Pickled vegetables are something that A Wong does very, very well indeed.
Such as these batons of pickled cucumber, slicked with sugar and chilli and (I think) soy.
Two whole, soft, sweet steamed Scottish langoustines which would have been swoon-worthy enough even if they hadn't been a bargainous £3 each. You can barely find them much cheaper wholesale, and even if you did, would you be able to cook and present them as well as this? I doubt it.
These miraculous dumplings, Shanghai steamed with ginger vinegar, contain - it hardly seems possible - a pork soup, which releases its complex, fragrant flavour once you've carefully hoisted them out of the steamer (hint: use the spoon) and burst them in your mouth. Alongside, as part of the dim sum trio, are these prawn and porky things each topped with a square of crackling and more pickled veg, and prawn dumplings coated in a clever vinegar-citrus froth which rushed through the sinuses like Vicks Vaporub. Could these really have been the same items I dismissed so easily as "frothy spittle" back in April?
We were only just getting started. "Honey roasted foie gras with candied pork jerky and pomelo" looked almost like a Simon Rogan presentation in its thick earthenware bowl and use of form and texture, but no clever technique came at the expense of taste. The foie was declared by more than one of our group to be the best they'd ever eaten, and it's testament to the quality of yet more amazing vegetable pickling that the neat curls of carrot brought just as many gasps. This was clearly world class stuff.
Even the nominally "straightforward" dishes still impressed. Singapore noodles had a lovely deep flavour from a clever "shellfish vinaigrette" and little bits of crunch on top for texture. And barbecued lamb chops, coated in a spice mix that would be the envy of any Whitechapel grill, came with a chilli and pomegranate salad, shades of the Indian subcontinent.
And the desserts! An afterthought in most Chinese restaurants, but here a chilli roasted pineapple with Sichuan pepper ice cream came topped with an impossibly light ball of marshmallow of some kind, and "tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel" was pure theatre, a sphere of chocolate collapsing dramatically into a sweet, rich puddle of banana and nuts as sauce was poured on top. Both technically impressive, and a joy to eat.
There isn't sadly enough time to go into detail about just how the food at A Wong is unlike anything else I've tried, and I'm sure I possess very few of the skills to sufficiently explain why even if there was, but hopefully you can see by this point that it's the kind of place that attacks preconceptions about Chinese food from all sides, and combines clever technique and cutting-edge gastronomic theatre to present a version of the cuisine that's occasionally shocking (some Sichuan-spiced beef left us gasping for air), occasionally challenging ("Smoked duck and jellyfish and pork crackling salad") but always, always great fun.
As for what's happened between my first visit and now, who knows. Perhaps they did have a rare "off day" that some have suggested. Maybe I accidentally chose all the dishes that have benefitted from tweaking and improvement over the last 18 months. Perhaps - and I have to allow for this possibility - perhaps I was just plain wrong. But really, it doesn't matter what happened the first time, because all that matters is what's happening now. If there's a single more innovative, exciting and enjoyable way to enjoy Chinese food in London I'd be very surprised indeed.
Huge thanks to Grant Hawthorne for organising such a brilliant evening, and to Adrian, John, Dave and Julie for being such great company. For yet more photos of yet more of the menu we ordered that night, here's a Flickr set.
Thursday, 30 October 2014
There was a time, back in the dim and distant past, when I was rather sniffy about high-end Indian food. It started, I think, with a rather unsatisfying experience at Benares in Mayfair, where I had a couple of little bowls of curry, some quite nice chicken tikka, and some mini poppadums and was charged about £45. Then not so long after I went to a blogger's dinner at Tamarind, which though better in terms of variety still felt a bit half-hearted, shackled (I thought) by the constraints of Michelin-starred dining when Indian food should be all about fire, spice and immediacy.
The thing is, I have a feeling that both of the above - Benares and Tamarind - were even at the time much better than I gave them credit for. Being a hopeless devotee of noisy canteen restaurants like Tayyabs, Lahore and Mirch Masala, I probably regarded the soft furnishings and silver service of the high-end as missing some vital element of heart and passion, as if whatever it is that makes Indian food so good couldn't possibly thrive next to fine wines and tablecloths.
Which is of course, not only completely wrong but slightly patronising. The French can have Arpege as well as their local bistros, the British can have Fera and a pie and mash shop happily co-existing. So why can't Indian/Pakistani food be just as much about tasting menus and fine dining as it is about queueing in Whitechapel for a mixed grill?
The only worry is that with new kids on the block Gymkhana and Trishna stealing all the awards, press and limelight, stalwarts like Westminster's Cinnamon Club can too easily be overlooked. But I am pleased to report that every table in this beautiful old library was taken on Tuesday night, and for good reason too - the food, every bit of it, from start to end, was absolutely superb.
That's not to say everything about the evening was perfect, however. Staff were a little thinly spread, and flagging them down for drinks was occasionally tricky. Martinis used room-temperature glass, meaning by the time they'd got to the table they were approaching lukewarm, and I think even though we were happy to plough our way through the £75 tasting menu (it was a Tuesday after all) it would have been nice for them to bring naan breads and chutneys without us asking.
But all the niggles were answered with things like this - king scallops with cauliflower and sumac couscous, perfectly crusted and packed full of flavour, texture provided by crumbly veg and a lovely dollop of sweet chutney.
And this - a moist, charcoal-grilled partridge breast, with a fresh raita and some expertly dressed salad. When the dishes first appeared your first reaction is one of slight disappointment; presentations seem dated and lazy, just thrown on a plate then sent out. But the flavours and techniques make up for it in spades - these are top ingredients treated with care and with a masterfully subtle command of spicing.
How else, for example, would you explain how a cube of chickpea with coriander chutney and spiced yoghurt was almost the highlight of the entire meal? Beguiling flavours and wonderful textures creating a single exquisite mouthful of joy. "I could eat about thirty of these I think" my friend said, as we were polishing up the leftover spiced yoghurt with our fingers.
King prawns with shallot raita again looked like nothing much special on the plate, but had been grilled to perfection, containing moist bouncy flesh and a deep, earthy spice mix.
A palate-cleanser of mint and lime sorbet (no complaints) came before a fillet of sea bass, a good crunchy skin covering soft, moist flesh. Underneath, curried chickpea and chorizo was like a fine, slow-cooked Indian cassoulet. Technically precise, but also packed with a balance of flavour that meant you never wanted it to end.
Roast venison with black stone flower and onion reduction combined classical French techniques with a few slices of perfectly moist deer loin, and some crunchy bits and pieces of root vegetables. Of all the dishes this was perhaps the most straightforward, but was still nearly impossible to fault - if you can't enjoy pink venison, roast potatoes and a thick reduced onion sauce, then there's surely something wrong with you.
I'm not entirely sure how to describe this - it was sort of a cross between yoghurt and cream, but was quite grainy in texture. In fact I didn't like it much, although the rice crispies were quite nice.
This sticky toffee pudding - sorry, spiced apple pudding - was more like it though, caramely and rich with a nice rich cinnamon ice cream on a little circle of brandy snap. I've never really had a dessert worth writing home about in an Indian restaurant, so the fact they've decided to go down the traditional English pudding route is understandable. I loved it.
And I loved much of the rest of it. OK, asking for bread was a bit annoying and I could have done with a colder martini but when you leave a restaurant grinning from ear to ear and determined to do it all again the first chance you get, you know you're onto a good thing. £115+service is not a trivial amount to spend on dinner, not by a long shot, but if you consider it's 10+ courses with about 8 glasses of wine, well, it's not really a ripoff either. This fine old institution is just a new set of tableware and a glass freezer away from being unassailable. Or perhaps the 90s stylings are part of its charm. Either way, here's to another 10 years.
I wasn't invited to the Cinnamon Club but for various reasons we didn't end up paying . Mentioning it here in the interests of full disclosure anyway.
Friday, 24 October 2014
The last few years have not been kind on high-end French dining. Thanks partly to an explosion in demand for budget American comfort food (MeatLiquor, Patty & Bun, Chicken Shop) and a determined democratisation of the mid-range elsewhere (Zédel Brasserie, Zucca, Bone Daddies, you name a cuisine, you can eat it in this city for about £20/head), all of a sudden places like Petrus, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay and (yes) Marcus at the Berkeley hotel seem part of an older, fussier, elitist tranche of expense-account sinkholes, not irrelevant as such but not exactly London 2014.
So not to take their increasing marginalisation sitting down, Gordon Ramsay Group opens the Kitchens (Bread Street Kitchen, and the forthcoming Heddon St Kichen) and Marcus Wareing opens the Gilbert Scott, each an attempt to win a slice of the casual dining middle ground. I say casual, but really these places are only casual in comparison to the multi-Michelin-starred flagships - the bill at Bread Street kitchen can easily top £50/head, and the Gilbert Scott is even more arch, albeit serving interesting British staples in the stunning surroundings of the St Pancras Hotel. I quite liked the Gilbert Scott, but still very much got the impression that Wareing's heart really wasn't into steak and chips, or charred butternut squash for that matter.
But if the Gilbert Scott felt a bit like something Wareing thought he should do rather than something he really wanted to do, the menu at Tredwell's is even more knowingly departed from the the brand, being a jumble of hipster ingredient buzzwords (kimchee, chipotle, pulled pork, beef short rib - if it's had an article written about it in the Guardian, it's here) served as "small plates" (but of course) in a variety of inappropriate tableware. Because hey, isn't that what all the cool kids are doing these days?
The concept is self-conscious and vaguely annoying, then, but that wouldn't matter so much if the food had been good. But though (in the main) it was all quite *precisely* cooked, with no glaring errors, at least not in the selection we ordered, there was no sense that this menu was really what anyone - not Marcus, not his executive chefs, not the staff - really wanted to serve. A £4 bowl of dry feta (almost impossible to spear with the little pickers as they just crumbled into ever tinier bits), ordinary olives and teeny bits of sun-dried (or somehow preserved tomatoes) was a bit like something you can get from Waitrose. Clearly someone felt that they had to serve a bowl of olives and feta, so here it inevitably is, but what good did it really do?
Chicken liver mousse I think had been squirted out of one of those foam-gun gadgets, and was prettily folded on top of a layer of bacon jam (+1 hipster points there) inside a kilner jar (+1). The charred sourdough bread it came with was lovely, perfectly moist inside and with strong black grill marks, almost worth ordering the dish just for that, but the mousse was decent too, very light and with a smooth, pleasant flavour.
I'd been told to order the "Smoked sticky chili chicken thigh", and so dutifully did, but couldn't really see what all the fuss was about. The smoking had made the flesh of the chicken quite friable, and the meek flavour of the meat was overwhelmed by a thick, sugary glaze. Unambitious and lazy, it was a bit like something you'd get as part of an 'Asian sharing plate' in a basement Covent Garden nightclub.
Seabass was, against all expectations by this point, perfectly cooked, all the more surprising considering the thinness of the fillets. The carrot purée and lentils it sat on could have done with a bit more seasoning, and I'm not sure why this was best served in a lipped ceramic bowl rather than, oh I don't know, a plate, but at least it had a nice crisp skin and moist white flesh and that's all I ever ask of white fish. £14 though - not the bargain of the century.
There were a couple of sides we ordered mainly out of curiosity. "Cauliflower, sprouts, hazelnuts & Berkswell cheese" should have been lovely, except the vegetables tasted boiled rather than the much more exciting grilled style that's more normal lately (see, some restaurant trends are worth following), the hazelnuts were either very gently toasted or not toasted at all, and the overall effect was, well, like a bowl of cauliflower cheese. Kale slaw was so thinly-seasoned and boring I can hardly remember eating it at all. Fries were good. Yes, I think the fries were good.
With a couple of glasses of the cheapest fizz and a New Fashioned cocktail (which tasted very nice but I always think using dried fruit is a bit lazy) the bill came to £86.06. Which isn't a fortune in the grand scheme of things, but still - for a meal so entirely unambitious and unmemorable it's still £86.06 too much. Everything felt crowdsourced and focus-grouped, the product of market research rather than individual creativity. All head and no heart.
Service was fantastic, and yes I was invited and they knew I was coming but believe me this is still no guarantee; our waiter at Tredwell's was pleasant and charming, a veteran - I got the strong impression - of Wareing's flagship 2* place at the Berkeley where his easy style and attention would compliment any tasting menu perfectly. Serving chicken wings and chips seems rather a waste of his talents, another awkward example of a group of people doing something they think they should.
But look, the point is, there's absolutely no shame in being high-end, if that's where your interests lie. Marcus Wareing is objectively an incredibly talented chef, and his restaurant at the Berkeley is by all accounts, (and even since the self-conscious renaming MARCUS and removal of tablecloths) still a wonderful place to go for a meal. Why not be happy with that? Forcing yourself to go 'down home and dirty', chasing the comfort food dollar in Covent Garden next to Hawksmoor and MeatLiquor is like an eldery uncle wearing his baseball cap on backwards and listening to Taylor Swift. It feels forced, and contrived, and uncomfortable. And I'm afraid I didn't enjoy it very much at all.
I was invited to Tredwell's