Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Portland, Fitzrovia

People often ask me for restaurant recommendations. This is fine; telling people where to eat is, after all, what I do. And though the existence of my app (still only £2.99 from the App Store) has helped this process immesurably, and guided thousands (probably) of people towards thousands of lovely meals, occasionally the set of criteria I am given creates an impossible task.

"We want somewhere super cheap", they'll say, "but serving great food. And we want to be able to book." And whilst such places theoretically exist, I'm afraid that after ten years living and dining in the capital I can state fairly confidently there aren't many of them. The battle between these three competing factors, of budget, quality and speed (ie. not having to queue) is one that every potential London diner has to grapple with, and there really aren't any easy answers. The dilemma is summed up quite neatly with this graphic a friend found on Instagram the other day:

A photo posted by @topshelfextracts on

You want exciting food for not much money? Then get in the queue at Tayyabs or Bao. Don't want to queue? Fine, feel free to book a table at Gymkhana or Kitty Fisher's, but you'll pay for it. And if you're really not that bothered about quality but just want somewhere cheap and quick? Burger King awaits your custom. I'm generalising hugely, of course, but hopefully you get my point.

Portland is a restaurant unashamedly in the "not cheap" section of the above graph, and there's nothing wrong with that providing you have the requisite "Great" food to go with your bookable ("Fast") tables. The problem in this case is that despite the food often being imaginative, and occasionally memorable (albeit in some cases entirely for the wrong reasons) I couldn't find enough to enjoy about it overall to justify the "not cheap" prices. But let's start at the beginning.

I believe this was described by our (very efficient and attentive) waiter as some kind of cod brandade, although it didn't have the taste or texture of any brandade I'd ever eaten before. Shiny and slimy, with the strange uniform texture of melted blancmange, it had no discernible fish flavour and in fact little flavour of any kind at all. The home made potato crisps were nice though.

House "miso" sourdough and whipped whey butter was almost the highlight of the entire meal. Apparently until very recently Portland bought their bread in; the current offering is the result of many months of testing and refining their own recipe. And it really shows - I've barely had a better loaf anywhere in the UK; perhaps only Hedone in London and the Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool have a comparable mastery over the sourdough form. I won't go so far as to say that it alone made the entire trip worthwhile, but it certainly made a lot of what else that happened a lot more palatable.

"White truffle and Gruyere macarons" was the first worrying indication that Portland are happy to play fast and loose with accepted notions of savoury and sweet. Because whilst warm melted Gruyere and white truffle is very much a marriage made in heaven, slapping them inside a sweet macaron and calling it a "snack" doesn't do much for me other than make me call into question the chef's mental health.

Fortunately, chicken skins with liver parfait were much more straightforward and infinitely more enjoyable, smooth and delicately crunchy in all the right places and with the addition of pickled grapes helping to ensure the various forms of chicken fat didn't get too one-note. Nice presentation, too.

Squid toast with brown crab and pickled green asparagus performed the remarkable task of taking two famously powerful seafood flavours - crab and squid - and somehow combining them into a dish that tastes very definitely of neither. And though there's nothing wrong with asparagus and mayonnaise on toast as such, I can't be blamed for expecting something more.

A similar lack of the good stuff plagued this next course of lobster, red miso and daikon, in which a thick roll of pungent daikon completely overwhelmed a hilariously miniscule portion of crustacean. I realise this dish is only £4 on the A La Carte menu and was never likely to involve a lot of lobster, but it would have been nice to taste some.

And yet this dish, of halibut and leek with toasted hazelnuts, came as a reminder that not all of Portland's talents are aimed in the wrong direction. The combination of the beautiful meaty tranche of perfectly cooked fish, the creamy leek sauce and the crunchy toasted nuts was utterly irresistible, a classic set of flavours - dairy, leeks, fish - that have always worked together and always will. If only a bit more of the menu had the nerve to be this familiar.

Then we were back in Weirdsville with a whole enoki mushroom, its tentacles writhing and slipping in the mouth like a terrifying deep sea creature, topped with leaves of purple wood sorrel. You may have noticed that at this stage fully three of the dishes had come topped with a layer of wood sorrel. I'm not sure why.

Arctic char (a fish; no, I'd never heard of it either) was, like the halibut before it, beautifully cooked and perfectly complimented by some broad beans and a rich mussel sauce. Maybe it didn't quite need the chunk of pungent turnip but it was still a lovely thing, fresh and vibrant and seasonal. Clearly Portland's strengths lie in their treatment of large chunks of white fish.

The Challans duck itself here was fine; not swoon-inducingly amazing, just fine. It could have done with a bit more seasoning but the flesh was nice and pink and the skin had been rendered nicely to leave not too much fat. Other than that though, there wasn't much on the plate of interest - blobs of Roscoff onion purée was rather too sweet and cloying for my liking, and the sauce that should have tied it all together was far too thin - in texture and flavour - to do its job properly.

The other main course, monkfish with sprouting broccoli, went down much better. Fish perfectly cooked and seasoned, sprouting broccoli adding earth and crunch, and a little blob of seaweed purée tasting pleasantly of the sea. Another good fish course.

And then. And then we were served strawberries, meringue and avocado. That's not a typo - it hasn't been autocorrected from apple or apricot. Someone at Portland thought putting strawberries, shards of meringue and bleedin' avocado in the same bowl would make for a quirky and enjoyable dessert. Well, they were wrong. It was like finding the remnant's of yesterday's Mexican dinner buried under an Eton Mess and was entirely repulsive. In the name of God, Portland, why?

So, up and down, then. I can't deny that amidst the eccentricities and mis-steps and downright avocado-shaped pratfalls there were a number of interesting bits and pieces. But it's also hard to escape the harsh truth that for this kind of money (we spent £235 between three people and hardly had much booze) there are more reliably enjoyable places; places that favour flavour over experimentation and where you're very unlikely to be served broccoli spongecake or, I don't know, pea and mince trifle. So thank you for a deeply unpredictable albeit entertaining evening, Portland, but in the end you weren't my cup of tea.


Portland Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Café Murano, St. James

London has never been and most likely will never be the kind of place where you can simply walk into the nearest restaurant and expect to be served an enjoyable and fairly-priced meal. Handled correctly, this city can be a foodie paradise, but it's always going to be lots of other things as well - a tourist hotspot, a center of commerce and finance, home to nine million people of all different preferences and persuasions - and not everyone has the same priorities (or standards) when it comes to eating out. For everywhere selling great food for a reasonable price there are a dozen Frankie & Bennys, Cafe Rouges and Garfunkels waiting to chew up and spit out anyone foolish enough not to have done their restaurant homework. It is easy to eat well in London, but it's not always obvious.

In a town so liberally strewn with potential traps and pitfalls, then, a little knowledge goes a long way, and finding myself in St James of a weekday evening, hungry and slightly out of my comfort zone (St James is out of most people's comfort zone I imagine, unless you happen to be one of the cast of Made in Chelsea and/or a minor royal) I fired up the app to see what was going on. The Ritz - well, possibly if someone paid off my mortgage for me before my next credit card bill arrives but that seemed less than likely; Gymkhana - tempting, but again hardly a budget option and I was planning on taking the parents there next week anyway; and Kitty Fishers - bit of a walk with no guarantee this wildly popular spot would have any room for us anyway once we got there. So, what to do? It was then I realised I was stood fiddling with my iPhone outside Café Murano, which had plenty of room at the bar, and deciding I'd rather spend the rest of the night actually eating rather than deciding where to eat, went inside.

And I'm very glad I did, because what a lovely place this is, comfortable and friendly thanks to an attractive long bar and charming front of house who put us very much in the mood for enjoying ourselves even before the Aperitivo di Maggio (Bobby's gin, Pimm's, grapefruit juice, sage & orange bitters) arrived. And needless to say, once they had arrived we enjoyed ourselves a whole lot more.

House focaccia, pleasantly moist and tacky was the next sign that we were in safe hands. I always appreciate when restaurants go the extra mile to bake their own bread, even when the results are less than brilliant; this was top stuff though, with the perfect texture for soaking up the excellent peppery olive oil it was served with.

A plate of salami also demonstrated some intelligent purchasing decisions. So often in London, Italian food is a poor facsimile of the original, with all the form and colour of the real thing but none of the flavour. You will, I'm sure, have seen a charcuterie board like this in umpteen "Italian" restaurants in town, looking fine until you try some of it and are rewarded with the taste of cold fat and slimy supermarket ham. Not so here - this was top pig product, moist salami and lovely thick curls of marbled (speck? [edit: I'm reliably informed it's coppa]) ham. And the carta di musica (love that name) wasn't just there for texture, being gently seasoned and with a nice flavour.

Asparagus, Parma ham and parmesan is a familiar combination of ingredients, but Italian food is all about familiarity - the trick is in the use of the very best ingredients, and combining them sensitively. In this case, crunchy, glossy asparagus, more excellent ham and generous shavings of good parmesan.

"Spring Minestrone" is about as good as vegan food gets - that is to say, expertly balanced and seasoned, with notes of fresh spring herbs, but just missing that extra depth of flavour you'd get from animal stock. Perhaps criticising minestrone soup for being minestrone soup is a stupid thing to do, but it occurred to me as I was eating it so I'm mentioning it to you now. I still liked it.

I ordered "Tagliolini, sprouting broccoli, lemon & homemade ricotta" with the glorious memory of a recent lunch at Padella in mind, where fresh pasta, lemon and ricotta were combined to knockout effect. I still enjoyed the Tagliolini at Café Murano - the pasta itself was particularly nice, all bouncy and firm and full of life - even if overall the dish didn't have quite as much going for it as the other place. The ricotta was a little sloppy and the seasoning slightly subdued, but there are still worse ways of spending your money than on a plate of nice fresh home made pasta.

Pitch-black squid ink cavatelli, with clams, Datterini tomatoes and samphire was more impressive, a dish that could have been airlifted from Sicily it felt so authentically vibrant. Imported Italian tomatoes were also used in a side salad, flecked with crunchy sea salt and drizzled with Balsamic vinegar. All of it the kind of thing you'd happily order again and again.

As I've said, London may never be the kind of town where you can pick a restaurant at random and be entitled to expect a great meal. But sometimes, when I find myself chancing upon an unassuming Italian bistro in St James (albeit one with a bit of a pedigree) it feels like every day we're getting a step closer to that ideal. There are loads of great places to eat out in London, and despite all the rubbish and tourist traps and ripoff joints there are just enough spots like Café Murano to remind us that, all said and done, we have it pretty good here. Don't you agree?


Café  Murano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Cafe Monico, Piccadilly

There are certain neighbourhoods that have taken a long time to shake off their reputation for bad food. At one time Covent Garden was the culinary wasteland, full of gimmicky tourist traps and Bella Pastas and not much else, where you'd end up by accident, never on purpose, poking glumly at a pasta penne while someone bellowed opera at you. Now, we have 10 Cases, Flesh & Buns, Hawksmoor, Opera Tavern, 32 Great Queen Street and - coming soon - Margot from ex-Bar Boulud Paulo de Tarso, surely definitive proof that this area has Arrived.

Could there ever be hope for Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly? The restauarants in this part of town aren't just lazy and cynical, they're actively evil. Rainforest Café have been flogging their £15 quesadillas and frozen burgers for nearly two decades, surviving on an endless stream of frazzled parents and desperate lost tourists who recognise the brand name from back home. And let's not forget Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a restaurant launched entirely on the back of a minor plot point in a terrible movie most of whose target customers were too young to see when it was last in theaters. It's shit, but then you probably don't need me to tell you that.

But what's this? Cafe Monico, brand-spanking-new from the Soho House group, nestled inbetween the all-you-can-eat dross and theme restaurants of Shaftesbury Avenue, threatens to actually make a trip to this part of town worthwhile. I'm neither young, attractive nor moneyed enough to make the most of a Soho House membership but I do know that Chicken Shop is one of my go-to places for rotisserie bird, and Dean St Townhouse do cracking cocktails. So hopes were high for this new place, even if, by the standards of the area, it will probably only need to not poison me to be better than the standards of the competition.

They've done a great job on the interior, with a grand central island bar downstairs overlooked by a plush balcony dining area above. The years of experience in creating a comfortable-but-not-intimidatingly-lavish atmosphere in places like Dean St Townhouse have clearly been put to use here; it's a very pleasant place to sit and eat.

Unfortunately, first impressions of the food weren't so positive. Ordering native oysters and then being brought rocks could be dismissed as early days confusion, but how many people would this incorrect order have had to go past to arrive at the table? I can't tell you whether they just misheard me or made a mistake in selection as I didn't see the bill on this occasion, but it does make you wonder. Still, even these rocks were nice, with a good sharp mignionette dressing.

Slightly more worrying was the "Parmesan custard with anchovy toast", a sure sign of Rowley Leigh's involvement in the design if not execution of the menu. When I've had this dish in the past, most notably at Leigh's Café Anglais in Bayswater, it's been a delicate pot of fluffy cheese custard accompanied with a neat stack of golden-brown toasted anchovy sandwiches. I've posted what they should look like above. What arrived at Café Monico (beneath) was the custard, which looked OK at first before you broke the surface to reveal a sad, split mixture beneath with a texture not dissimilar to scrambled eggs. And what on earth was happening with the "toast" I have no idea - this strange, chewy flat pancake with more in common with a doughy paratha than toasted white bread, and with not a trace of anchovy. Rowley - head back to Shaftesbury Avenue. Your work here is not yet done.

Happily, better things were to follow. Salmon carpaccio with chilli was fresh and attractive, not shy with the chillies and, studded with capers and dill and goodness knows what else, much fun to eat.

And both mains on my first visit were great successes, first this guinea fowl with morels which boasted a lovely golden brown crisp skin and plenty of funghi...

...and this Dover Sole which was abosolutely perfectly cooked - not a hint of either gelatinous undercooked or mushy overcooking - dressed in brown butter and a joy to eat to the last meaty, bright white bite.

Partly because the first visit was a PR invite and partly because I still couldn't make my mind up about the place, I made a return trip a week or two later. On this occasion I played it a bit safer with the menu, and was rewarded with a more consistent experience, so perhaps safe is the way to go at Cafe Monico. A French Onion soup was a fine example, vaguely wine-y and with a good rich broth.

And though I didn't get a chance to try it, this beef carpaccio disappeared very quickly, so I imagine it tasted as good as it looked.

Steak was a cheap cut I think but I was given the correct tools to work my way through this tough but richly flavoured slab of cow, and it was hardly a chore to eat. The Bearnaise had a bit of an unpleasant crust, but between the nicely seasoned and crisp fries and the juicy steak, there was plenty else to enjoy.

And also from the lunch menu, pork belly, which also disappeared with few - in fact no - complaints.

Had my second visit involved as many mistakes and disappointments as the first - and even on the first visit there weren't that many - then perhaps I still wouldn't have made my mind up about Cafe Monico. But what I mainly remember from my lunches there aren't the missing native oysters or the custard paratha but the smart service, lovely room and menu of comfort food bistro classics that I would happily order from again and again. And given that there still really aren't that many sure-thing crowdpleasing bistros in this part of town - in fact, given that there aren't really any (Zedel aside) - I can see myself eating here quite a bit. And if I ever order that parmesan custard again, I'll let you know how it goes.


I went once as a guest to Café Monico and once on my own dollar. They probably haven't quite done enough to get into the next version of the app, but you can certainly do far worse on the Shaftesbury Avenue. Meanwhile, see where else is good.

Monday, 25 April 2016

The Royal Oak, Paley Street

Restaurants are not like laundrettes. This may seem obvious, even if you've not ever attempted to order a beetroot salad in a Happy Clean, and you may not think the disimilarity of restaurants and laundrettes to be worthy of pointing out. But I'm trying to make a laboured and only vaguely relevant point here, so bear with me. The point is, open a laundrette too close to another laundrette and one will steal business from the other, threatening the viability of both and dividing the customer base. After all, you only need to do your laundry once (unless you've been having a lot of beetroot salads) and you're just going to pick the one laundrette. But once an area becomes known for its lively dining scene, the wider availability of dining options draws in greater numbers of potential customers and, faced with a number of good restaurants, people will just eat out more, not divide a finite number of meals amongst all available restaurants.

So when an area - in this case the stockbroker belt on the Thames near Maidenhead - becomes internationally famous thanks to the efforts of the Roux brothers (the Waterside Inn) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), then it proves demand for that kind of thing in the area, and before you know it you have places like the Hand and Flowers (Marlow, by Tom Kerridge, where if you've ever managed to get a booking for Sunday lunch you're a better man than me) and the Royal Oak in Paley Street, where I enjoyed a near-faultless lunch on Saturday.

The attention to detail at the Royal Oak is impressive, and evident in the quality of the smallest snack right through to the most lavish of the main courses. The bread, made in house, included a wonderful fluffy bun spiked with Marmite, and some delicate flatbread that managed to pack in a huge amount of flavour as well as being as delicate and rich as filo pastry.

Spiced aubergine hummus is the kind of thing that when presented as part of a 'Middle Eastern Sharing Platter' in your local high street bar would be like eating wet cement. Here, though, it was fresh and satisfying, the spiced aubergine sitting like a kind of light jam on top of a chunky (and perfectly seasoned) hummus.

A Scotch egg was good too, perhaps a bit stingy to use a quail's instead of hen's egg but we liked the herby sausage meat and the yolk was runny so you couldn't complain about much else.

Dishes like this wild garlic soup are why I eat out. Sharply seasonal ingredients, classical techniques used to great effect, clever touches of texture from (I think) some slivers of pastry or cracker, all combining to produce a deeply satisfying and perfectly balanced starter. And isn't it just beautiful, with its little buds of wild garlic flowers peeking out like snowdrops in a Spring forest floor.

Smoked herring raviolo was also superb, a soft and springy parcel of pasta containing a moist seafood filling (strange how so many ravioli at even quite good restaurants can containg horrid mealy, dry fillings; not so here), all topped with one of those chefy frothy cream sauces and a pleasingly punchy dollop of chilli jam. It brought to mind Philip Howard's "crab lasagne with basil cappucino" at the now sadly missed Square in Mayfair; I'm sure the Royal Oak would be happy with this comparison, as indeed they should be.

Mains were every bit as enjoyable as the starters, if - if I'm being brutal - perhaps just a tad on the safer side. My own Iberico pork chop was cooked to just pink, a golden-brown, butter-basted exterior containing a soft and giving flesh. Sprouting broccoli and celeriac purée soaked up one of those glossy meaty sauces you'd be happy just drinking pints of on their own, and some sort of herb and chopped pickle dressing added notes of acidity. Just brilliant.

And this magnificent thing, a juicy fillet of the finest grass-fed beef, prepared in that classically impressive French style, with spinach and chips and a lovely tangy Béarnaise. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the meat was bullseye-accurate medium rare, or that the chips were a textbook example of how to make chips, or that another dose of a silky-smooth meat jus, studded with roast shallots and mushrooms, tied the whole thing together beautifully. It tasted every bit as good as the above photo makes it look.

Desserts were confidently uncomplicated and straightforwardly enjoyable. My treacle tart with milk ice cream was exactly that, no more and no less, but I really do not want any more than a warm treacle tart topped with an ice cream as loose as the driven snow and I loved every bit of it.

Similarly this take on the "Snicker" chocolate bar, involving caramel, chocolate and a peanut ice cream which is a list of components that will never not produce the desired effect.

I'm on slightly tricky ground when it comes to assessing the value of the Royal Oak because on this occasion we didn't pay - I tagged along with a friend who'd been invited and the bill was taken care of. But if you consider that 3 courses are £30, sides are £3-£4 and many of the wines are available by the glass and I honestly don't think the price per head would have stretched much north of £50 had we been paying. And I don't know about you, but for cooking of this standard, even factoring in the £11.50 train journey from Paddington and the £10 taxi each way from Maidenhead station, is still a pretty good deal. In a part of the country not short of excellent places to eat, the Royal Oak Paley Street holds its own and then some, a cosy and welcoming little place serving food that's impossible not to love. Yet another reason for a weekend trip west, I'd say.


We were guests of the Royal Oak Paley Street. My app doesn't stretch that far west yet, but before your next trip out of town, why not see what's a bit closer to home?

Royal Oak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato