Monday, 23 February 2009

The Horseshoe, Hampstead

For reasons which will doubtless never be completely explained, the whole of South London is currently suffering from an epidemic of Massive Pointless Holes In The Road. Quite a feat of engineering they are too, so deep you can't see the bottom, supported by huge steel girders and a good twenty foot across. They're a constant source of fascination to the kids in Battersea, who chuck empty cans of Pepsi down them, perhaps to listen for the clang and figure out how deep they are. And I would be quite happy to leave them to it and gaze in similarly bemused admiration at these Massive Holes, where it not for the fact that the London buses, as dangerously unpredictable as wild Roe Deer at the best of times, now finally have a cast-iron excuse to never be anywhere you expect them to be, and getting in and out of SW11 requires persistence, dedication and a true hunter's instinct. I possess none of these qualities, which is why my journey of approximately eight miles to Hampstead on Saturday afternoon took the best part of three hours. Fortunately, it was worth the effort.

The interior of the Horseshoe, by design or accident, brings to mind the minimalist aesthetics of St. John in Clerkenwell. Huge ceilings and whitewashed walls create a lofty and attractive room, but when it's full it does mean there's a bit of a din. The crowd is as well-heeled as you might expect in this part of town, although luckily - and crucially, for anywhere calling itself a gastropub - there were a number of tables of people just taking advantage of the excellent house ales, and they looked quite at home as well. Some very good house bread arrived along with some unsalted butter, and we made our food selections.

I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to scallops. I have never eaten a preparation I enjoyed more than searing in butter, perhaps with a little garlic, and plonked on a plate, and here they were cooked perfectly - crusty on the outside, sweet and juicy within. A smear of bright red beetroot purée added little other than colour (I have always found beetroot to be a singularly unimpressive vegetable in terms of taste - all mouth and no trousers, so to speak) but thanks to the scallops themselves, this was a very successful starter.

For a main course, I took a huge gamble. The daily special was a Beef Forerib for Two (£40), served sliced on a wooden slab and accompanied by a couple of dainty jugs of roasting jus and a bowl each of perhaps the finest chips in London. Doused in vinegar and salt, these chips would be worth a visit to the Horseshoe alone - triple cooked, presumably, in goose fat and cut to just the perfect size (no "chunky chip" nonsense here, nor the fiddly French Fry cut) they were crunchy and tasty and about as perfect a chip as you could imagine. You'll also have to take my word on this because unfortunately the picture didn't turn out for some reason. The beef, out of interest, was OK. Impressive to look at and cooked reasonably well, it was nevertheless rather bland in taste - Hawksmoor don't have much to worry about just yet. On the other hand, they gave us the leftovers and bones to take home with us and I used them to make rather a good beef stock the next day.

Desserts were competent and reasonably enjoyable but the fact I needed the photographic evidence to even remind me what I ate barely 12 hours ago gives you some indication of how memorable. I should also say a word about the service, which was smiley and efficient and I was so impressed with one particular waitress I punched her in the stomach in gratitude. Actually, it didn't quite happen like that. I was putting my coat on after quite a bit of lovely house Chardonnay (Beresford Highwood (2007) Langhorne Creek - "Excellent producer in Langhorne Creek, south of Adelaide" according to Dan from Bibendum, and a steal at £16 a bottle) and with a particularly flamboyant gesture, made in an attempt to get my left arm through the sleeve of my jacket but rather negligently failing to ensure the area behind me was clear in preparation for such a manoeuvre, I somehow made contact with the stomach of a waitress carrying two plates of hot food. To give credit where credit's due, she absorbed the body blow like a prize boxer and with a stifled whimper delivered the food to the customers just behind us and stiffly backed away. I attempted an apology but I get the feeling she was more concerned with getting out of my reach in case I unexpectedly lashed out again, because she avoided eye contact. Can't say I blame her.

Still, taking into consideration all factors - the ambience, the level of cooking, and the ability of the waiting staff to deal with violently drunken customers, the Horseshoe is a real find. It's reasonably priced, has taken all the good things about the St John philosophy on board without being too pretentious about it, and is one of the few places in this part of town where you really get your moneys worth. The only real issue, for those of us not lucky enough to live within spitting distance of NW6, is that bloody journey. On the other hand, it would keep more than an obstacle course of Massive Pointless Holes to keep me away from the Horseshoe.


Horseshoe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Bottega Prelibato, Shoreditch

Another month, and another exclusive for Cheese and Biscuits. Stella Dore is a brand-new (barely two weeks old) Italian deli-cum-Trattoria just off Charlotte Street in trendy Shoreditch, and by the looks of a quick Google, chances are you read about it here first. I'm painfully aware I'm breaking one of my own rules about not visiting restaurants until they've had time to "bed-in" properly, but I'm going to bring this place to your attention because I think it has the potential to be rather good.

Despite the scary-looking metal grille over one of the windows (nothing to do with them apparently), the vibe inside Stella Dore is "Naples meets Shoreditch", with attractive bread and salami displays along one wall coupled with a loungey chillout zone downstairs and Bob Dylan on the stereo. They don't have a licence - yet - but it's BYO and you're about ten steps away from the best wine shop in town (the peerless City Beverage Company) so there's no excuse for not picking up a nice bottle of Sangiovese on your way there.

In true Trattoria style, we weren't shown a menu. Instead, the owner reeled off from memory a selection of antipasti and cold meats, and a selection of one or two pasta dishes. The cold meats arrived first alongside some salty Pecorino and some other smoked cheeses containing pieces of fruit (something I normally hate) and chilli. Most of the cheeses were fine - the chilli perked up what would otherwise have been a rather unremarkable product, and the Pecorino was tasty if a little on the cold side. The meats were excellent however - the Parma ham in particular was aged very well with lovely slightly crusty bits at the edges, and the salamis were as gooey and flavoursome as you could hope for. I still could have done without the fruity cheese though, and the house breads - bought-in, presumably - were slightly stale and nothing special.

A second cold antipasti of miniature stuffed red peppers and artichoke hearts was delicious. Again, how much input Stella Dore had into this dish was debatable, but even so, there is a certain skill in sourcing good prepared pickles (God knows how many kebab shops get it wrong) so some marks for this.

The real mark of an Italian kitchen is in the pasta, and I was delighted to learn that Stella Dore make all their pasta in-house. Two dishes of Fettucini, one with homemade pesto and one with tomato and Italian sausage, were very good - perhaps if not quite up to the standard of those we had in Italy or the Donna Margherita then at least better than anything you would expect to have anywhere else in London. The pesto had nice big flecks of fresh basil and was silky and rich rather than oily (as it should be), and the tomato pasta was creamy and had a good colour to it from the imported Italian tomatoes.

Desserts were so-so. A carrot cake had been left around too long and gone slightly stale, although the flavour otherwise wasn't bad. An apple tart was a bit flaccid and stodgy but was served with a nice cinnamon jam which the front of house were very keen to get us to try. In fact the service from the manager/owner was genial and attentive, but was rather mixed from other members of staff. Still, at two weeks old it's probably a bit too early to be picking holes - they're probably still learning where the glasses are kept.

As a footnote, and a credit to the manager, our lunch ended with a surprise complimentary dish of roasted lamb with a kind of homemade chips. We had arrived too early to have this as a main course option but he'd brought it out at the end just so we could try it - and very good it was too, the lamb being moist and juicy and seasoned well with rosemary. The chips were I think roasted or baked rather than fried, but depending on how these were sold to me (don't call them chips, basically) then I wouldn't be too disappointed.

All in all, Stella Dore is a solid, reasonably authentic Italian eatery which is gamely trying to serve proper food in a hardly favourable economic climate, and in competition with a thousand mediocre high-street "Mamma Mia"s the city over. We had a great deal of food for a little under £15 a head (not even counting the complimentary lamb) and where it mattered it was very tasty. It is a honest, affordable little place and deserves to do very well. Whether it will or not, these days, is impossible to know.


Stella Dore on Urbanspoon

EDIT: Following some very welcome correspondence from both the Stella Dore gallery and the (completely unrelated) new Trattoria next door, I have updated the name of the venue. Apologies to Bottega Prelibato, and thanks for the correction!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Harwood Arms, Fulham

The Harwood Arms, a handsome Victorian pub a stone's throw away from Stanford Bridge in Fulham, is famous for its Scotch Eggs. Not many places are famous for their Scotch Eggs, because not many places do them very well. If all the Scotch Eggs you've ever eaten have been those processed rubber balls you buy in the multipacks at Iceland, I don't blame you if you're wondering what all the fuss is about. By way of an explanation, let me show you this:

Crispy, flaky breadcrumbs cover a whisper-thin layer of spiced Venison meat, which in turn surrounds a perfectly soft-boiled egg. It's a pleasure for all the senses, not to mention a marvel of engineering - how they manage to get the yolk so soft while the white remains firm and the meat not overcooked must be a result of many hours of trial and error. Topped with a light sprinkling of Maldon salt, the Harwood Arms Venison Scotch Egg is worth a trip to Fulham alone, but lucky for me I found the time to sample some of the rest of their menu as well.

My starter of pigs trotters and ears was a bit of a Curate's Scotch Egg. The strips of deep fried ears weren't overly flavoursome but were useful for dipping in the herby tarragon mustard. However the trotter meat on toast was excellent - sausagey and yummy, and ideal with the accompanying expertly-seasoned salad. A good, British starter and a sign of a confident and experimental kitchen. Highlights of the rest of the starters were some huge, meaty oysters and a perfectly decent onion quiche.

Main course was a generous - in fact, slightly overly generous as it turned out as I had to leave some - portion of grilled Ox tongue with a vegetable gratin. The gratin had a good, deep flavour but a rather odd texture - quite thick and gloopy. But the ox tongue was good, well seasoned with attractive grill marks on it and a rich beefy taste like hot pastrami. Again, a solid gastropub dish that had "inspired by St. John" written all over it, and was none the worse for that.

I also shouldn't go any further without mentioning the cute little bags of house bread that we were served. They contained a very nice white bread with a lovely crust, but a truly extraordinary soda bread which they bake in-house. Sweet and moist, with a perfect crust and lovely depth of flavour, it is the best bread I've tried all year and almost the highlight of my entire meal. Spread with the provided salted butter, it's a delicious reminder of the enormous advantage of having a kitchen confident and skilled enough to bake its own bread; it's baffling why even the very top restaurants (the 3-star Gordon Ramsay restaurant for one) sometimes don't bother when the results can be this good.

It was just as we were finishing our main courses that the evening's entertainment began. Tuesday night at the Harwood Arms is Quiz Night, and there was no escaping it even in the restaurant half of the building. Such goings-on probably wouldn't be for everyone, but I found it quite charming that despite the top-end food the atmosphere was still unselfconsciously that of a normal neighbourhood boozer. A normal neighbourhood boozer with homemade Scotch Eggs and the best bread in London. Now that's my kind of place.


Harwood Arms on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 February 2009

Donna Margherita, Battersea - Revisited!

One of the drawbacks of the food blog format - along, to be fair, with any newspaper or magazine restaurant review - is that your public opinion of a restaurant is made once and preserved forever. I have made a conscious decision to never write about the same place twice, the idea being that however lucky or unlucky or misinformed I was on the first visit, a restaurant would only usually have one chance to impress the average punter and a first visit is as close as I'm going to get to a level playing field. That, and because I pay for all the meals out of my own pocket, I just don't have the budget to work my way around the entire menu before forming an opinion.

Therefore, it's not surprising that on occasion I do happen across either a mediocre restaurant that for whatever reason serves an accidental good meal the night of my visit, or of course an otherwise reliably good restaurant that has an off night. What is strange is that looking back over the last two years' worth of reviews how few there are whose scores, with the benefit of hindsight and repeat visits, I would change. Maybe an extra point added or docked here and there - I was a bit mean to Can Roca perhaps, and Laxeiro has disappointed on repeat visits - but overall my system - completely by accident you understand - kind of works. However, there is one review in particular that I can't allow to stay on my conscience. I'm not too big to admit that, back in November of 2007, I was completely wrong about Donna Margherita in Battersea.

It was on viewing the pictures I took of the pizzas we were served on that night that the owner, Gabriele Vitale, knew something was wrong. "Those big black bubbles of burned pizza base," he explained after he invited me back for a second try last week, "they are wrong. There was something wrong with the dough that night - I think it hadn't risen properly. A good pizza dough should have a nice even covering of small black dots. And of course, those mussels should not have been thrown on the pizza until right at the very end. Whoever was in the kitchen that night wasn't up to scratch." I agreed, after a commendably persistent PR campaign from Gabriele, to revisit Donna Margherita and perhaps learn a bit about Neapolitan cuisine in the process.

A cold antipasti selection of roast mushrooms, grilled aubergine, courgette and superb artichoke hearts were served covered in good olive oil and tasted very authentic. Warm antipasti consisted of terracotta bowls of half-and-half aubergine parmigiana and homemade meatballs in tomato sauce and a kind of dark lentil stew and courgettes and bacon. All superb comfort food, full of flavour and served in that traditional Trattoria style.

I was reliably informed that Neapolitan (that is, Campania) cuisine is generally more robust and contains a greater use of seafood than that from Emilia-Romagna. Now that they mentioned it, it occurred to me that we didn't have a single seafood or fish dish the whole weekend in Bologna. Here we were served two stunning plates of seafood - a medley of calamari rings, octopus tentacles and fried prawns, all perfectly fresh and cooked very well, and a very authentic tasting cold octopus salad. Gabriele told me that his English customers are a bit squeamish about the octopus and despite it ticking every box in terms of authenticity and taste, he doesn't shift much of it. Well, more fool them I say.

I will also reserve a special mention for the traditional Neapolitan salad of cherry tomatoes, rocket and buffalo mozzarella, which contained the juiciest, creamiest mozzarella I've ever tasted - including that from Bologna. Gabriele ships it in from Napoli every week and seasons it lightly before serving, and I can't imagine there being a better mozzarella served anywhere else in Europe.

All this was of course just the first act before the arrival of the main courses, starting with a deceptively simple margherita pizza. Made, needless to say, all in house, using Italian ingredients, it was a fine example of its kind and had an expertly balanced measure of the different ingredients, from the sharp tomato sauce to the rich stringy cheese. And, of course, a perfectly risen pizza dough displaying the correct smattering of small black dots. We were also shown the "correct" (I will need third-party verification on this of course, but for now I'm taking Gabriele's word for it) way to eat a Neapolitan pizza - first cutting the pizza into quarters, and then "rolling" each slice into a tube so that all the rich juices are trapped inside while you shovel it into your mouth. Using your hands, naturally.

We were then served two pasta dishes. One, a seafood spaghetti with clams and prawns and heaven knows what else, was as rich and wonderful as any plate of pasta I've ever eaten. The spaghetti was coated in a kind of seafood stock which made it silky in the mouth and the baked cherry tomatoes added another burst of flavour. Amazing stuff.

Also in the pasta department was a very attractive plate of large rigatoni served with a spinach-like vegetable along with various other herbs. Again, homemade egg pasta cooked al-dente and a rich and silky sauce.

Finally, a dense, nutty chocolate cake from Capri served with vanilla ice-cream, and a homemade Tiramisù, which tipped us over from "dangerously stuffed" to "potential hospital admission". But what a way to go.

And so, in a first for Cheese and Biscuits, I am going to re-review a restaurant. I will keep the original post up for historical reasons so that I can't be accused of complete revisionism, but I think its only fair that independent restaurants with a passion for authentic, honest food get all the breaks they can get. Because God knows there are enough people in London that will walk past Donna Margherita on the way to the Pizza Express just down the road, and miss out on one of the finest Italian restaurants in the capital. My original review, made on an off-night albeit with the best of intentions, is wrong. And fortunately, this is one wrong I'm happy and able to put right.


Photos courtesey of Helen Graves at Food Stories. Many thanks.