Friday, 29 June 2012
Wimbledon used to be the place that restaurants went to die. It's strange how the smartest areas of town seem to suffer from a dearth of decent eating options; look at Hampstead, for example, with its couple of half-assed gastropubs and a Gaucho Grill, or Knightsbridge & West Brompton where people go to see and be seen eating salad. You'd think that where the disposable income goes, good food would inevitably follow but the opposite seems to be the case; where times are hard, and incomes low, restaurants fall over each other to offer great value and a great time. In areas that they don't have to try to turn a profit, well, they don't.
Thank heavens, then, that Wimbledon finally has a restaurant worth the trek to SW19. I don't mean Sticks'n'Sushi of course, oh no - that wouldn't be worth anyone's Zone 3 Oystercard supplement. I mean the Lawn Bistro, up the hill in Wimbledon Village, which opened a few months ago and is serving classy, starry dishes for a very reasonable amount of money and which I enjoyed very much. I may one day get around to reviewing it, but in the meantime Hugh Wright has, as usual, said everything worth saying about the place on his blog and I urge you to go read it.
Anyway, to Sticks'n'Sushi. The ninth in a chain, though the first in London (all previous branches are in Copenhagen), it presumably has plans to expand even further so quite why they've chosen Wimbledon for their flagship is unclear. Perhaps it has something to do with the huge space required for their "concept" - a massive open kitchen consisting of rows of gleaming workstations and looking like the set of Iron Chef. It's certainly impressive, and the rest of the room is attractive in a sort of chainy way even if it did remind me rather disturbingly of the inside of Fire & Stone in Covent Garden.
But my heart sank when I saw the "menu". Rather than have anything so pedestrian as a sheet of paper with available dishes listed on it, Sticks'n'Sushi prefers you rifle through a glossy catalogue of artfully photographed seafood, with barely more than a couple of dishes per double-page for extra annoyance, and the odd box of smug 'sustainability' guff. Even more incredibly, there are two of these catalogues, one containing A La Carte and the other a number of suggested "meals" with irritating names like "Salmon, duck and his friends" and "Mixed emotions". It's almost impossible to settle upon anything though because by the time you've reached the last page of this Littlewoods Catalogue of Food you've completely forgotten what came first. It's pointless, and annoying, and so in a desperate attempt to cobble together some kind of variety between the two of us we ordered a few bits of sashimi and a few yakitori and hoped for the best.
The food, on the whole, wasn't all that bad. Some "blini" (not very Japanese I know, but they were a special suggested by our waiter and rather than to have to plough through that menu again we agreed to have them) were on the bland side but still had enough nice fresh fish and crab to be worth the effort. Sashimi (tuna, salmon and yellowfish) was nicely presented on a pile of ice but were only middling-quality as you can probably tell by the rather mean strips of fat in the salmon. And beef tataki threw some interesting textures together, and was particularly enjoyable dipped in the goma dressing it came with, but was fairly low quality cow.
Elsewhere, "ebi bites" (deep fried prawn things in batter) were soft and greasy and drowning in mayonnaise, tuna yakitori was overcooked to dry grey, and chicken tebasaki (wings) managed somehow to be bland despite being incredibly overseasoned. Nothing was hideous, or even inedible, and I can think of certain things I would even like to try again amongst the whole load of stuff that I certainly wouldn't, but overall this was mediocre Japanese food, all style and no substance, glossily presented but lacking heart.
Which is what you might expect from a chain, and it's still not the worst Japanese food I've eaten in London (Yo! Sushi has few rivals in that department), so why is there no chance of hell I'd ever go back to Sticks'n'Sushi? One reason and one reason only - the stupidly high prices. Our meal, with a couple of cocktails and a £20 half (half!) bottle of sake came to £112.16. Luckily for us (if not them), this was a PR invite, but this is about as much as you'd pay in Roka on Charlotte Street, where the flashy presentations are matched by real skill at the stove, or even at Sushi of Shiori where £50/head will buy you two hours in the company of London's most talented Japanese chef. It's cheaper than Umu perhaps, or Yashin, but for heaven's sake this is a chain with chain ambitions, not a boutique omakase sushi bar. It's simply not worth this amount of money.
But don't worry Wimbledon, you still have the Lawn Bistro. And don't worry the rest of London, because there's no need to travel to SW19 for good sushi, you can go to anywhere above as well as Asakusa in Mornington Crescent or Ten Ten Tei in Soho. And for great yakitori, as well as Roka there's the wonderful Bincho on Old Compton Street, which regularly offers a thrilling range of things on sticks for very little money indeed. I'm not sure what it says about the standard (and cost) of food available in Cophenhagen that SnS is so wildly popular over there, but we have no need for another mediocre Japanese chain over here thank you very much. One is more than enough.
I was invited to Sticks'n'Sushi
Tuesday, 19 June 2012
It was an evening that started out with such promise. Finding myself with an hour to kill before a 7pm reservation at Fifteen, I took the opportunity to check out Nightjar, a cocktail bar (or I think we're supposed to call them "speakeasies" these days for some bloody reason, like we’re going through our own pretend prohibition) hidden away between two shabby cafés just a little further down City Road. Down a stairway so dark I had to feel for each step, into an even darker room lit by little more than a couple of candles and the soft glow of customer iPhone screens, is a glittering bar stocked with a bewildering variety of alcohol, and two or three (probably - it was hard to tell through the murk) rooms of low tables and soft furnishings. It's certainly, once your eyes adjust, a lovely space to sit in, but all this would of course count for nothing if the drinks didn't match the drapes.
If I'm going to be brutally honest, although perfectly good, the actual liquid element of the drinks wasn't really any better than you can get in most of the new wave of London cocktail bars (Hawksmoor, Callooh Callay, Purl, etc.) - definitely enjoyable, just nothing out of the ordinary. What sets Nightjar apart is the giddily inventive presentations - a concoction involving cheddar-flavoured bourbon (my compulsion to order the oddest thing on any given menu kicking in as ever) was presented not only with a lump of cheddar on a stick but with the base of the glass coated in gently smouldering lavender. Yes, as in actually on fire. Similarly, a drink called "cold beef", with beef consommé, gin and marrow-washed Noilly Prat tasted, well, OK I guess but came topped with a teeny tray of beef jerky and with the stem of the glass threaded through with a boiled quail's egg.
These are gimmicks, of course they are, but they're the best kind of gimmick - fun and exciting and enough to make you want to order every single drink on the menu just to see what crazy bits and pieces will turn up. I've heard they do a drink called a Boxcar that actually comes in a box, and another presented with a neat half-shell of Cadbury's Mini Eggs. I had a blast at Nightjar and can't wait to go back and see what else they come up with. I left on a high. And then I went to Fifteen.
Is it mean to bash a restaurant that is also a charity? Unethical perhaps? The good intentions that launched Fifteen all those years ago are still present in some form or other - the website still boasts of the "apprentice scheme" that takes, er, 18 (not 15 for some reason any more) disadvantaged 18-24 year-olds from the Greater London area and attempts to teach them to cook. Of course, it's by no means the only charity restaurant in London - there's the Waterhouse in Shoreditch for example, or Abbevilles in Clapham, run by the First Step Trust, but it's still a laudable motive, and one that should be mentioned because if nothing else, someone somewhere at Fifteen is trying to do right.
But here's the thing - charity considerations aside, Fifteen is a rip-off. A watery saddle of lamb, the flesh having a good tender texture but surrounded by a thick, rubbery strip of inedible skin (and not at all 'crispy' as our waiter insisted), sat on top of a bed of crumbly overcooked beans and was completely dull. It cost an incredible £24. A Sicilian Fisherman's Stew had a single big langoustine on top which presumably was the reason they felt they could charge an astonishing £28 for an otherwise very mediocre bowl of tomatoes and cheap fish (mackerel, pollock, mussels etc). And a burrata and peach salad contained way too many sickly sweet chunks of peach and not nearly enough nice toasted hazelnuts, the burrata itself having all the flavour of a wet blanket. Starters were paired with a glass of room temperature white wine which no self-respecting wine waiter should have allowed to happen, although a pinot noir I had with the lamb was better.
There were a couple of things I liked. The house bread was dry and flavourless but it was presented with a great peppery olive oil, so perhaps it was only supposed to be a vehicle for that. And a cheese course was very good indeed - Montgomery Cheddar, Colton Basset stilton and an only-very-slightly-too-sweaty-but-still-wonderful unpasteurised St James which always goes down well. I even really liked the house limoncello, and a "margarita" they made with it involving tequila and (very clever this) a slice of fresh sharp chilli. If straws had been on the menu, I'd have been clutching at them.
To answer my own question though, no, I don't think I need to go any easier on a restaurant which happens to also run a youth apprentice scheme than I would to anywhere else charging me for dinner. And I'll tell you what's unethical - not a food blogger whinging about his meal, but a restaurant hiding behind a celebrity name and do-gooding credentials as a cover for serving hugely overpriced mediocrity to credulous tourists. Also, on that point, yes I know my track record with the Oliver empire isn't exactly stellar, and you may wonder what I was doing attempting to complete the set (Barbecoa, Jamie's Italian, Union Jacks and now this) when chances are I knew what was coming, but it wasn't my choice and anyway I was curious. I still didn't expect it to be quite as cynical as it turned out to be.
Ah well, onwards and upwards. I'm done with the Oliver brand now, and it's somewhat of a relief. Lovely man and golden-hearted philanthropist I've no doubt he is, but every time I've eaten in anywhere he's put his name to I've hated it, so it's probably about time I stopped giving them the benefit of the doubt. It's not like there aren't alternatives, and it's not as if anything I say will make the blindest bit of difference anyway to the kinds of people who will flock to eat at anywhere with that nice man off the telly's name over the front door. If it's all the same to you, I'll just eat somewhere else in the future, and make a donation to a homeless charity. A similarly ethical result, and without having to spend a small fortune on crappy Italian food.
Sorry about the lack of illustration, the theme of the evening was mainly "too dark for my iPhone", though let's be honest, you never came here for stunning food photography.
Tuesday, 12 June 2012
Time Out recently released a list of the "top 100 dishes in London". It's an interesting read even if (in fact, as ever with these lists, particularly if) you don't agree with every choice, but if nothing else just goes to show the astonishing diversity of dining out in the capital; you can question the quality of food here if you like, but there's absolutely no arguing with the variety. Anyway, amongst the lobster rolls and salt beef beigels and lamb chops is the Duck Egg Tart from Medlar, an artistic arrangement of moist, sautéed duck hearts and crunchy lardons orbiting a perfectly spherical duck egg on a thin layer of puff pastry. I had it for my starter on Saturday evening, and it's absolutely lovely - a supremely accomplished mixture of textures and hearty (sorry) flavours, the kind of thing that on most other restaurant menus would be an obvious highlight.
Except, the meal we enjoyed at Medlar was just so good in every respect that even this astonishingly good dish wasn't the best thing we ate. Perhaps its inclusion on the Time Out list is because it appears more regularly than other dishes on a menu that is admirably and flexibly seasonal. Perhaps - and I have to acknowledge this possibility, even though it pains me to do so - we just struck gold with our other choices and the duck egg tart is usually the best thing they do. Or maybe - and I like to think this is the case - everything Medlar ever do is just so brilliant that picking a best dish to feature on a Time Out article was just a case of sticking a pin in the menu and submitting that.
OK so enough general gushing, some details. Service, from the moment we entered to the moment we left, was utterly perfect. Nothing was too much trouble; a request for a single cheese course shared between three (I've had this refused in other places before) was granted in a flash, and even the presentation of (free, take note Bistro Union) tap water showed meticulous attention to detail, ice and lemon brought in separate containers to leave it up to the customer which to use.
There's the food, too, of course. A Square-style crab raviolo with samphire, brown shrimp and seafood bisque was, if not presented in that exacting Multi-Michelin-starred way, surely still deserving of the same kind of attention for the incredible fresh flavours and skill with pasta. But best of the starters, in a very competitive field remember, was an incredible halibut ceviche, the gently citrusy raw fish providing a base for salty salmon roe, neat swirls of mousse-like avocado and - a stroke of genius - crispy nuggets of tempura squid.
Mains kept up the ferocious level of quality. Artichokes with soft burrata, butter beans and rocket pesto had a great variety of textures, using the same trick as the halibut starter with its topping of tempura. Bream with razor clams was superficially quite a rustic-looking dish before you noticed they'd cooked these delicate thin fillets of bream just so and still managed to get a good crispy skin on (a bit of a bugbear of mine I admit), textures added elsewhere with lovely gummy gnocchi and soft clams. But my own dish of pigeon, girolles and foie gras - is there any more beautiful thing than those three ingredients on one plate? - was world-class. Every single element of it was perfect, from the soft red pigeon to the fluffy potato cakes (sorry, "crepes parmentier") to the liberal scattering of earthy mushrooms, a time-tested combination of ingredients perhaps but one that only works if you know exactly what you're doing. Oh and yes the foie gras was as good as I've had anywhere, creamy and crunchy and dissolving in the mouth like meaty butter. Mmmm, meaty butter.
I'd love to point out something that wasn't perfect, some aspect of the room or food or service that I could attempt to squeeze some criticism out of in the name of balance, but I'm just drawing a complete blank. A cheese course contained seven generous portions of well-kept, well-selected cheeses for a measly £4 supplement between three people and was a joy to work through, particularly a 24-month aged Comté studded with delicate crunchy crystals of calcium lactate, and a wonderfully strong Livarot that tasted of rural France and summer grasses. Desserts (two between three but we were struggling by this point) of a Louis-XV style chocolate pudding topped with gold leaf, and a parkin and roast pineapple that was like sticky toffee pudding, were equally faultless. Sorry, but they were.
Ah! There is one thing I can qualify my embarrassingly effusive praise with, thank God. Medlar is not the cheapest restaurant in town. It shouldn't be of course, not by a long way, but the bill with a bottle and two glasses of the cheapest wine came to £178 for three, so this is not likely to be a regular dining spot to anyone outside of the confines of SW3. But the thing is, I still can't think of a better way of spending £60 on dinner in London, and in 2012, given everything that's happened in the last few years and given the kind of variety of incredible dishes available on that Time Out list, I'm sure you'll appreciate that's quite a thing for a jaded blogger like me to claim. For one of the best meals I've ever enjoyed in the capital, then, and for food and service of purest gold, I give you Medlar of Chelsea. Yet another reason that London is the greatest place to eat out in the world.
Monday, 11 June 2012
"Let me explain the concept at Tex Mex Tapas", the evening will invariably begin. "On this side of the menu are a bewildering number of completely unrelated items that look good value at first until you realise that each is the size of a postage stamp and you'll need about ninety to gather enough food together to form a decent meal. They'll arrive as and when we, the restaurant, decide to send them to you, not in whichever order makes the most culinary sense, and most will be straight out of the fridge as our tiny kitchen could never cope with cooking them all to order. On the other side of the menu are dishes that fall into the more usual starters and mains portions, except you'll have no idea what to order because you won't know how hungry you'll be after filling up on "tapas". Right, still or sparkling?"
No no no no no. Stop that nonsense right now. Tapas is Spanish, and only Spanish, bar food. If you want to come up with some wacky eye-catching concept for your latest restaurant venture then knock yourselves out - you're certainly in the right place in a city that already boasts a dessert restaurant specialising entirely in mango and will soon have somewhere you can go and eat hot dogs paired with champagne - but please, for the love of God, leave tapas alone. Tapas means cold Manzanilla, sliced Iberico ham and saucers of hot croquettas, it does not just mean 'small plates of whichever food you like', and it is certainly not anything so mundane as a 'selection of starters'. José in Bermondsey, Brindisa at Borough Market, Pepito in Kings Cross, these are tapas bars. Tapasia (I can't even type the name without cringing), a place on Old Compton street serving tuna sashimi with foie gras, and lamb cutlets with kimchi, is, clearly, not.
So when we sat down at Bistro Union in Clapham's smart Abbeville Road on Friday, my heart sunk when the words "let me explain our concept to you" and "this side of the menu is sort of English tapas" were uttered by our waitress. Issues with the misappropriation of the word "tapas" aside, I just think if you have to "explain a concept" you have something to hide when it comes to the food, but perhaps that's unfair - I suppose anywhere has a right to try something different. We ordered about 6 or 7 from the "English tapas" menu to share between the 3 of us and a main each, and hoped the self-consciously English menu tasted better than it looked.
In the main, it did. Some of the bar snack things were very nice indeed, such as the 'sausage and sage puffs' which were sort of a savoury wrapped pastry thing containing sausage meat, and anchovy toast which involved Bistro Union's own approximation of Gentleman's Relish anchovy spread. A fish finger sandwich was nice, too, with good texture contrasts and nice light mayonnaise, and the house bread was an interesting sourdough thing involving chunks of apple; not anywhere near as weird as it sounds.
But I'm afraid there were also problems too big to ignore. "Peas in a pod" (£2) was literally just that, a bowl of plain garden peas untreated in any way, fine if you like plain peas but I just wish they'd done something to them to justify me being in a restaurant. New season garlic was another victim of excessive simplification, just a halved roasted garlic served next to a small blob of tasteless goat's curd, neither ingredient shining. And "whelks and pickled shallots" were actively horrible, the seafood having the texture of rubber and no flavour at all, and the pickled shallots doing nothing to ease their passage through the gullet. The whelks were so distressing, in fact, I put out a panicky tweet asking if they really were supposed to taste like that; the general consensus came back that basically, yes, they are. I'm sure I've had them before though, without suffering quite so much of a negative psychological and physiological reaction.
Mains were, on the whole, better. A toad-in-the-hole was, needless to say, nowhere near as good as the Yorkshire pudding my grandma used to make but then we've been over that territory before - it was at least generously proportioned and containing very good Cumberland sausage. A lemon sole was slightly overcooked and swimming in butter but it was a nice fresh bit of fish and accompanying horseradish celeriac was lovely. Best of the bunch was my quail which was crunchy and soft in all the right places and served with a top quality Caesar-salad-a-like using Berkswell goat's cheese instead of parmesan - clever stuff.
Despite the odd horror, then, we actually just about still found enough to enjoy and with a final bill of £31 a head with a glass or two of wine each and a single slice of (unremarkable but not unpleasant) raspberry tart to share, you certainly get a lot for your money. But there was just something about the overall idea of Bistro Union that didn't quite work - from the try-hard ever-so-English menu that seemed to constrain and annoy instead of provide focus, to the oversimplified dishes that were probably aiming for unpretentious but ended up looking spartan and unfinished. There was also the added irritation of a cover charge which 'covered' sparkling water we didn't want and bread we didn't ask for, which automatically loses points around these parts. There's a possibility Bistro Union could evolve into a good neighbourhood restaurant once they abandon the "concept" of "English tapas", loosen up a bit and lose the whelks. Until then, my advice I'm afraid is to stay away.