Thursday, 27 October 2011

Amici Miei, Shoreditch

A good, reliable delivery pizza place is a rare and precious thing. Everyone has their own particular favourite, although it seems certain areas of London are better served than others. Where I am in Battersea, for example, I get to choose between Basilico (I only ever order the one thing - the funghi au truffle, pricey at £15 for 13" perhaps but worth every penny) and Firezza, who do these huge metre-long affairs which are great for drunken parties. Over in Shoreditch though, aside from the usual nationwide crap (anyone who's favourite delivery pizza is Dominos needs to take a long, hard look at themselves) there were slim pickings for pizza fans, and so when Due Sardi opened a few months back I started getting excited texts from a friend who lives over there, raving not just about the pizzas but also their selection of takeaway pasta dishes. Due Sardi has obviously been welcomed with open arms by greedy Shoreditchites, as they seem to have scraped together the cash to buy the shop next door and convert it into Amici Miei, an utterly brilliant local Italian restaurant.

In an early effort to keep this post from getting embarrassingly gushy, I will start with the pizzas, which ironically given the way these guys made their name, aren't the best things they do. They're very good of course, just not perfect, let down mainly by the base which isn't quite as rich and bubbly as those from class-leaders Franco Manca. But base issues aside, my Speck pizza (£10.75) was still hugely enjoyable, topped with a good thick layer of gooey mozzarella, a generous coating of salty speck and some powerfully flavoured cherry tomatoes. I read somewhere about Due Sardi getting a lot of their ingredients shipped over from Sardinia, and whether true or not the flavours all certainly feel very authentic.

The Amici Miei burrata is a huge gorgeous fluffy thing, the inside creamy enough to still retain some shape when cut. It's presented on a bed of cold sliced aubergine studded with powerful (presumably home made) basil pesto, and it's all seasoned just so the fresh cheese is still the most important element. At £6 this was one of the more pricey starters, I'm assuming due largely to the stunning burrata itself, but even so £6 is very good value for ingredients of this quality.

And then, joy of joys, the greatest pork chop I've ever tasted in my life. Firstly, it was perfectly cooked, with crunchy charred fat on the outside and just pink around the bone within. It was also clearly an incredibly good bit of pig, the porkiness and thick ribbons of fat reminding me of the version at Dinner, although here it was a frankly ludicrous £10 instead of the £28 they charge at Heston's place. And if this huge chunk of heavenly meat wasn't enough, it came served with the most silky, buttery potatoes you can imagine, a generous handful of sage infusing both the vegetables and the meat with the wonderful aromas of a Mediterranean afternoon. It was a dish so astonishing it was almost as if it transported us to another place and time; it was only after I got home I realised I had sage butter all over my jeans.

See, I told you I would get gushy. And yes, I've only been once so maybe I should offer the possibility we accidentally struck absolute solid gold on our first visit and return trips will fail to recreate that initial dizzying high. But I know for a fact there is some serious talent at work in the kitchens of Amici Miei, nurtured by owners who know London just as well as they know Italy - if we have Zucca and Trullo to thank for this new wave of world class Italian restaurants at bargain basement prices then we also have to thank people like Amici Miei for taking that torch and running with it. It was relatively quiet there last night; perhaps the awful weather kept customers away, or word of this astonishing new restaurant is yet to leave the environs of Kingsland Road. But it will, and soon. So go now, and go often.


Amici Miei on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Admiral Codrington, Chelsea

The Admiral Codrington, or "Ad Cod" if you're feeling particularly insufferable, is a pub so smart the only way it can still, with a straight face, be called a pub is because it's in Chelsea. Locals probably come here to slum it, but to your average Londoner gazing upon the substantial dark wood bar, expensive lotions and hand towels in the gleaming conveniences, not to mention the "dining area" with its white tablecloths and Reidel wine glasses, this is a restaurant, albeit a restaurant that has Kronenburg on tap. But who cares about fixtures and fittings; I was here for one reason only, tipped off by a number of fellow burger fanatics on Twitter and eager to see what all the fuss was about.

Ironically given my rant last week about dual menus, the Admiral Codrington's is an odd split of standard gastropub fare on the left (crab linguini, burrata and heritage tomatoes, fish and chips) and an exciting list of Jack O'Sheas steaks and gourmet burgers on the right. I wouldn't have ordinarily felt compelled to deviate from my incurable red meat addiction but a small bowl of comped chilli salt squid (yes, full disclosure time - we'd had a bit of a chat on Twitter beforehand and they did know I was coming) showed at least that they know how to deal with seafood too - these were fried crunchy golden brown and really rather good. Pork scratchings were only slightly less than perfect because the scratchings themselves were cold and the apple sauce was warm - I'd have preferred it the other way round.

At £15 the 8oz house cheeseburger is confidently pitched alongside London's other market-leading offerings from Hawksmoor and Goodman, and as such has a lot to live up to. Fortunately, and surprisingly for something coming out of the kitchens of a Sloaney gastropub and not a dedicated steakhouse, it is absolutely brilliant. A glossy brioche bun, lightly toasted, holds a generous thick beef patty (aged, though they don't say for how long) topped with cheddar and resting on a layer of sliced tomato and mayo-loosened salad. Sliced pickles add that all important tang and extra texture, but the real star here is the meat itself which while cooked perfectly medium still managed to have a wonderful crunchy crust - a feat none of the other £10+ burgers in London have managed. I do have issues with the use of cheddar - the chef told me he'd like to try an American cheese version but is worried how the regulars would react (sod 'em, I say), but it was at least all melted properly and not, like the version at Honest Burgers, cold and claggy.

The special on the menu on Saturday was a chilli cheeseburger topped with chipotle-braised ox cheek, Monterey Jack and chilli slaw. If you think that sounds like there's a lot going on, you're not wrong - I would really liked to have tried some of those elements, particularly the braised ox cheek, outside of the burger as a dish in their own right, as I wasn't completely sold on the idea of combining them all inside a sesame bun. Having said that though, it was all undeniably very tasty, and in fact my friend said she preferred it to the house cheeseburger, so this is probably just a case of me being an unreconstructed burger snob rather than the idea as a whole not working. Also, and impressively, this burger was ordered medium rare and arrived just so, the centre of the beef that extra bit more purple.

The Admiral Codrington burgers are a real find, and even in this "gourmet" price category represent pretty good value for money when you consider the quality of the meat and the fact they come with lovely crispy chips. I'm not going to get carried away and herald London's new wave of world class burgers because let's face it, three in the city over £10 worth eating is hardly Mission Accomplished - we're not yet New York. But that a talented chef with a love of proper American food has been given a bit of room to age his own beef (I'd love to go back to the Admiral for a steak) and make burgers how he thinks they should be made is perhaps just yet another sign things are moving in the right direction. And for that, we can all be thankful.


Admiral Codrington on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Kaosarn, Brixton

On my way home from a pleasant, cheap but ultimately disappointing meal at Kaosarn I texted a friend, sympathising with her similar experience a few weeks back. "Did you ask for authentic spicing?" she replied, and immediately a conversation we'd had around that time came flooding back - namely that Kaosarn will up the heat to face-burningly authentic levels if - and crucially only if - you ask. Naturally, I was annoyed I'd forgotten this bit of advice but annoyed not just with myself - why is getting more authentic (and by all accounts better) spicing incumbent upon the customer to happen to know to ask for it? Why didn't our waitress, when we'd made our selections, pro-actively offer at least the option of the hot stuff?

Having to go through hoops to get better food from restaurants reluctant to serve the "authentic" dishes to anyone who looks Western (or otherwise) enough not to appreciate it is a depressing feature of dining out in London, and yet it doesn't need to be like this. Many decent Chinese restaurants for example, if they're really so sure that a good chunk of their customers wouldn't be able to cope with Sichuan peppercorns or crispy pig's intestines, have a section of the menu for timid gweilos and a section with all the good stuff. It shouldn't be a battle, or segregation based on insider knowledge, all we need is all our options presented to us so we can make an informed decision.

Anyway, we forgot to ask for authentic spicing, and so everything we ate at Kaosarn is in the context of being more Western-friendly than we would have otherwise liked. But even so, a small bowl of larb was so stunningly flavoured with kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce (I think) and rich minced pork that you hardly noticed the tame levels of chilli at all. This dish encapsulates everything I love about Thai food - fresh and colourful, with great texture contrasts and a complex mix of powerful flavours that still somehow managed to stay clean and refined. A triumph, it's just a shame that nothing else we tried lived up to it.

Moo ping (grill pork skewers) had a decent sweet marinade and I liked the mix of lean meat and fat, but they needed more crisping up on the outside, perhaps over hotter coals; these were rather uniformly flabby. And a Som Tum Thai papaya salad was overwhelmingly sugary - what both dishes really cried out for was a lot more chilli to balance the sweetness out, but of course, it wasn't to be.

And if not asking how spicy we'd like our food was a service issue, then the same is definitely true of how they allowed us to order two plates of exactly the same dish. Perhaps we should have guessed that Peek Gai Tod and Gai Tod were, in fact, the same thing in two different sizes, but I still don't think we would have minded too much if either of them tasted of much. The chicken itself was moist and well cooked, with a golden, greaseless crunchy skin, but it was desperately bland, with no sign at all of the garlic and pepper that supposedly went into it, and the accompanying sweet chilli dip was - you guessed it - rather heavy on the former and rather lacking on the latter. All dishes also came with a chilli/soy dip which suffered from a similar lack of punch.

There will be people out there, lucky people, who knew about the secret way of ordering the better food and may have had much more enjoyable evening than the one we had last night. But in the end, I can't recommend anything I wasn't offered and didn't eat, and I can't imagine that the majority of punters that turn up at Kaosarn will know about this covert system either. So, despite it being very reasonably priced (our substantial meal came to under £15 a head and we were able to Bring Our Own beers) and perfectly nice in an everyday Thai kind of way, I've still had better elsewhere.


Kaosarn on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 October 2011

The Shellfish Journey, West Sweden

Is it technically still a press trip when it doesn't actually involve any press? There were six of us, amateur bloggers all, invited along to what was billed as a Shellfish Journey (with matching Twitter hashtag #shellfishjourney, 'natch) along Sweden's dramatically beautiful west coast. I remember a few years ago now when I first started getting invited for free meals and blogger events that my extreme gratitude at being asked was always matched with a kind of bafflement that they even considered it worth their while. At least if you invite a paid journalist they have a job to do, a duty to report, almost always a much larger readership. Where's the guarantee a blogger will even bother writing it up at all? These things must be a huge gamble for the organisers; after all you can never be completely certain how things will pan out, and if you think PR companies are taking a risk sending out invites to review a new restaurant, imagine how much is on the line on an all-expenses 3-day jolly to Sweden.

Fortunately, for us and more importantly the kind people of, the trip was an absolute blast. The weather, first of all, was incredibly good, and despite various PR-savvy Swedes informing us, tongue-in-cheek under bright sunshine, that it was "always like this" in mid-October, something about the rather more "broody" shots from previous trips tells me that isn't quite the case. But from a freakishly smooth SAS early morning flight from Heathrow (plus complimentary use of the Heathrow Star Alliance lounge, thankyouverymuch) to a boat trip on the last day which would have been a lot more... challenging if the conditions had been less than perfect, we could thank our lucky stars for benign Nordic weather gods. Well, that or global warming.

First stop on day one was a beautifully restored early 20th century mansion house, now a hotel, on a hill overlooking a lake in the town of Ljungskile. Oddly for the first meal on a "shellfish journey" our lunch was a dish of chicken and girolles mushrooms in an apple sauce (with some kind of alcohol too, perhaps cider) and a lovely sweet root vegetable cake thing. As an introduction to Nordic cuisine it all seemed a bit French, but the accompanying fresh bread rolls and crispbreads were fantastic, as was the butter, and apparently all the ingredients were very local/foraged.

For our first taste of West Sweden's seafood bounty we boarded a small boat in Lysekil (pronounced something like "Lisse-shil" I think) harbour and headed out to where the mussels grow, attached to cross-hatched ropes under large floating tubes. This being quite early in the season, all there was to see on the ropes themselves were the odd tiny juvenile mussel amongst an alarming carpet of strange writhing tiny sea creatures of some kind, but it was all still fascinating stuff. At a wooden hut knocked up on a remote island near the mussel beds we were treated to a moules marinere cooked on a portable gas ring ("here's some we prepared earlier"), along with our first taste of an extraordinary delicacy, the powerfully metallic native oysters. Sat in our hilariously oversized survival suits, eating fresh oysters and sweet mussels and watching the sunset on a remote island miles away from civilisation, it was a magical introduction to the country.

That evening, dinner was a seafood buffet at an atmospheric little restaurant in Lysekil old town called Ferdinand's. We were told it can generally only be booked by groups tied into a Sweden tour package, and mindful of the kind of "restaurants" you're lumbered with in the UK if you go for a hotel tie-in (50% off at next door's Harvester, or perhaps if you're very lucky a Groupon voucher for Pizza Express) it's fair to say my expectations weren't high. But the quality of the food and generosity of spirit was stunning. Huge trays of dill-softened gravadlax and fresh salads, hot rolls and more of that lovely salty crispbread, and - most importantly - as many fat langoustine and sweet crab claws as my freebie-loving face could fit. Bed that night was the eclectic Strandfickomo Hotel, clean and comfortable and good Wi-Fi coverage (gold dust to a Twitter-obsessed loser like me) but with an interesting approach to interior design. Some of our group shared their rooms with creepy dead sailors belongings and a disembodied Victorian nightgown; I think I got off lightly just having this staring at me as I tried to nod off:

Wasting no time the next day we were bussed off to Stromstad and from there a short ferry ride to the Koster islands, home to (be still my beating heart) the Lobster Safari. No cars are allowed on Koster; instead, residents (of which there are a few hundred permanent) and tourists (hundreds of thousands in the summer months) get around either on pushbikes or these strange machines that look like the flat trolleys at Homebase welded to the back end of a scooter. They looked fun, and are just the right size for hauling around big boxes of lobster and crab - handy that. Before the lobster, though, a tour of the island by bike, and lunch at a rustic farm/cafe in the centre of the island called the Koster Gardens. The food here was obsessively local - every ingredient in our lunch was either grown on the farm itself or, in the case of a handful of edible flowers, an hours boat ride away. It was very interesting to see how fierce localism (horrible word but I can't think of a better one) isn't particular to middle-class Tom and Barbara types in the UK - indeed, the locavore (ugh) has their own temple in Scandinavia, just further south in Copenhagen in the form of Noma. Personally, I don't think you're betraying any very important foodie ideals by having a bit of Irish beef or Spanish anchovy every now and again but hey, each to their own.

Due to a two-metre swell out in the open ocean where the lobster pots were, our hosts quite rightly concluded our weak city-dwelling stomachs couldn't deal with quite that much reality of a Saturday afternoon and after a pleasant pootle around calmer waters in a fishing boat came back to Koster to gawp at a few boxes of lobster braver people had caught earlier in the day. They were lively beasts, flicking and wriggling in a way you hardly ever see even from the freshest examples to reach London, and included a huge 50-year-old mammoth beast of about two kilos - not great for eating perhaps but fascinating to see.

So what did they taste like? Back at the hotel, later that evening, we were treated to a lobster menu, beginning with a gorgeous silky lobster bisque and generously followed up with a whole beast each. They were, if perhaps not any better than examples from Scotland or Canada, at least as good, although I'm not entirely sure their method of cooking them in 800g of salt per 20 litres of water was entirely necessary - they turned out quite on the salty side. The Swedes have a habit of serving their seafood with cheese, which took a bit of getting used to but actually is no more strange than lobster thermidor when you think about it. I wasn't that keen on the cumin flavoured cheese though, which brought back terrifying memories of Cheddar Tikka Masala.

The next day, early but not so bright thanks to spending until midnight in the hotel bar the night before drinking £7 beers and watching a middle-aged 3-piece work their way through a repertoire of Bryan Adams and Wham!, we set off for Grebbestad. This is where the Oyster Experience was to take place, which sounded very intriguing, but getting there involved an hour long boat ride over waters that, if they had been any choppier, may have meant a premature end to the gastronomic experience for a few of our party. For whatever reason, and I'm not trying to sound smug here, just stating the facts - I've never had too much of a problem with sea travel, and so I think I probably enjoyed bouncing around in the back of a small boat a bit more than some of my friends. Before long, though, we had arrived at an achingly picturesque seaside shack and were watching our host dredging up fresh oysters from the beds right underneath the building. Following a short demonstration we were even let loose with a shucking knife ourselves, to discover first-hand how opening oysters really isn't as easy as it looks. Having opened a few rocks in Spain a few years back I had nearly convinced myself I might repeat my success, only to "expertly" slice one of the precious, delicious natives almost entirely in half in an effort to get it open. Still tasted nice though, as did the 2nd massive seafood buffet of the trip served in the same shack, consisting of more huge langoustine and fresh brown crab.

A fantastic experience then, from start to end, and one I'm equally flattered and delighted to have been invited on. But let me try for a moment to be objective. There are some things that are irrefutable - West Sweden is a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world, clean and fresh and easy, populated by friendly, helpful (and helpfully English-speaking) people and where, at least from our PR-cossetted experience, the food is fantastic. And I would have no problem recommending anyone go there if - and it's a big if - it wasn't all quite so expensive.

Firstly, the biggest problem for a boozehound like me (and if I know anything about my readership, most of the rest of you too) is that alcohol is astonishingly wallet draining. A beer in the hotel bar - ONE BEER, and not even quite a pint (500ml), was 70 Kroner - about £7 at current exchange rates. Wine was worse, even the cheapest on the list in the lobster restaurant on Sunday being a Jacob's Creek Semillon Chardonnay for £36 - yes, the same as the ones you see in Tescos. And lastly, spirits - a double of something even quite ordinary like Jack Daniels or Beefeater gin will set you back at least £10, and in fact in many places is even more. Alcohol tax rates are set by the Swedish government of course, and are nobody's fault that we met over the weekend, but having to worry quite so much about how much you're spending on everyday holiday activities like eating and drinking really does become an issue. At least, I imagine it would.

Also, the hotel we stayed at in Lysekil, pleasant and clean if ever so slightly Haunted House is currently available on Expedia "from" £181 a night in October. I think there are better deals if you book in advance, but still, not cheap. Better value perhaps is a 3-day lobster experience (a more extended version of the mini preview we had) on South Koster which is £359 per person based on two sharing a room, which includes all meals including the final day's lobster feast. And for £24 the oyster class and tasting at Grebbestad is well worth the money - watching your live lunch being dredged out of the sea and then opening them up yourself with a glass of local porter is unforgettable.

So, blame the Swedish tax system, blame our pathetic currency or simply blame sheer cosmic injustice that this idyllic place is just slightly out of the average-earning Brit's reach. But for die-hard seafood fanatics I can't imagine there are many better places in the world to indulge yourself - the whole trip was almost worth it for a taste of those stunning native oysters, and after all this was always going to be a shellfish journey, not a steak-and-wine journey. It's worth repeating, too, just how utterly, heart-stoppingly attractive it all is, the rugged pristine fjords cut through by sparkling clear waters, the picturebox seaside huts hugging the lichen-covered rocks, and not to mention the abundance of non-edible wildlife - we saw seals, rockpools and jellyfish along with any number of different finches and sea birds. It may come at a price, but West Sweden is a rare and precious part of the world, and I feel utterly privileged to have been.

Photos, apart from Bjorn the Evil Pheasant, courtesy of Food Stories.

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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Roti Chai, Marble Arch

London will never be the kind of city where you can simply wander into the nearest restaurant and be reasonably assured of a good meal; it is not Tokyo, it is not Madrid, and New York too probably has us beat on the Tourist Trap Test. But only the most stubborn nostalgist would argue that things haven't massively improved here recently. Think about it - how many restaurants that have closed over the last few years do you still mourn? Perhaps Eastside Inn, maybe Kastoori. And over the same period, how many new ones could you now not live without? It's impossible to imagine Soho without Spuntino, Hackney without Brawn, Bermondsey without José. While the flashy big-name openings get the international headlines (and yes, the odd blog post), it's too easy to overlook the change happening across the board. Witness, in particular, the revolution that street food vans have brought to budget dining - a few years ago the notion that a world-class West Coast style burger could be purchased from a pub in Peckham for £6 would have been laughable. Now, we're so spoiled that the news of the Meatwagon's first permanent bricks-and-mortar outlet was greeted with something approaching nonchalance.

It's almost as if we've happened upon a culinary identity by completely abandoning any attempts to find one. There isn't, probably never will be, any such thing as a Typical London Restaurant. London doesn't have an equivalent of New York's delis, Madrid's tapas bars, Tokyo's ramen joints. But what it does have is all of those things (or at least will soon have), and more - such an astonishing variety of culinary styles, covering every inch of the globe, enough for you to never tire of eating, or taking, out. Without wanting to sound too trite, London's great strength is in its diversity - you could make a strong case for Madrid being the culinary capital of the world but can you honestly say, hand on heart, that after a few months of trawling the Mercado San Miguel you wouldn't be craving some cumin-spiced lamb chops from Silk Road? Didn't think so.

Roti Chai, a brand-spanking-new Indian restaurant round the back of Marble Arch, is a perfect example of the growing confidence of London's restaurateurs, and by extension its diners. Apparently inspired by the food sold by India's street cart vendors, it offers a variety of interesting snack-size plates at around the £5-£6 mark, many of which will be unfamiliar to anyone used to the traditional line-up of high street curry house clichés. Chicken Lollipops are my favourite - crispy, spicy chicken wings, deep fried with the meat drawn up to one end of the bone (all the better for dipping in the spicy yoghurt sauce), they are one of those dishes that it's just impossible to dislike, ticking every spicy/salty/crunchy/sweet box.

Bun Kebab, too, was a masterful combination of powerful flavours and textures, soft spiced minced lamb inside a glossy white bun, seasoned with pomegranate seeds and spring onions. Best described as a sort of an Indian take on a burger, it's unlike anything I've had before, and if there's one thing guaranteed to raise my spirits its a new way to eat meat in a bun.

Bhel Puri was nicely textured and powerfully tamarind-y, but as a standalone dish it was just a bit too tart to be enjoyable. I would have liked some yoghurt in there to balance out the tamarind, or perhaps it would have worked well with a creamy curry. Even so, for £3.90 it's hard to complain too much.

Chicken Keema Kaleji is an bowl of earthy, thick chunks of chicken livers and seemingly little else. I enjoyed it, the marinade was subtly sweet and the fresh veg on top provided some crunch, but I wasn't quite sure whether the accompanying white bread (same as used in the Bun Kebab) really matched it very well. As a sandwich, a layer of pasty chicken livers inside a burger bun was a bit too dry and cloying - what it really needed was probably some flatbread and a small selection of chutneys. It's possible to order both of those things separately, but I either needed to be told to do so, or it should have been included in the order. Sometimes, I just need telling.

These were more niggles though. In fact, my only major niggle is that for a restaurant specialising in street food, why the formality of starched white napkins and expensive cutlery? I would have much preferred the street food concept to have carried further than the food itself; there isn't even a takeaway option for heaven's sake. How can it pretend to be street food if you can't eat it in the street? Maybe, though, these changes will come - I'm sure Roti Chai could make a killing from al-desko lunchers if they invested in some cardboard boxes and plastic forks.

But what it lacks in certain dishes, Roti Chai makes up for with huge wins in others, married with a clean, bright dining room and good selection of craft beers and cocktails. To say there isn't anything better in the immediate area sounds like damning with faint praise, so I will instead say that for food this interesting, punchy and very reasonably priced you can't do much better outside of Zone 1.

Perhaps it's naive of me to try and extrapolate a grand theory on the state of everything from the fact that some nice interesting restaurants have opened up recently, but even if you do think that London dining in 2011 is beyond help, and certainly a short stroll around Piccadilly Circus or Victoria would certainly do little to convince anyone otherwise (there are still, sadly, areas where the best option is a Pizza Express), you have to at least concede that somewhere like Roti Chai, while not perfect, is at least a symbol of growing ambition and self-assurance. It would have been so easy to open another branch of Zizzi or Pret a Manger in this most visitor-trodden areas of town, but instead we have a bright, buzzy little space where you can pick up some crunchy chicken wings and a bowl of fresh curry and still have change from a tenner. Sometimes, London is a very easy city to love.


Roti Chai on Urbanspoon