Thursday, 20 September 2012
If there's any lingering doubts over the massive influence street food has had on the way we eat in London, just consider two of the city's most popular new restaurants.
Pitt Cue and MeatLiquor both started life as mobile vans, building up a loyal following partly through judicious use of social media but mainly by being damned good at what they do. Once they realised there's only so much money you can make from a car park in Herne Hill or under a railway bridge on the South Bank, each secured a West-End location and (despite the usual grumblings of "selling-out" from self-important food snobs who can't understand why anyone would do anything as mainstream as try and make a decent living out of their talents instead of toiling for a pittance for eternity) success was secured.
MeatLiquor are now about to open their third bricks-and-mortar site near Hoxton Square, and Pitt Cue were named Best New Restaurant by Zagat.
And so, hot on the heels of those street food champions comes Slider Bar, by Lucky Chip, who paid their dues at Netil Market in Hackney where I caught up with them late last year, and more recently at a residency at the Sebright Arms pub, somewhere I haven't had the pleasure of visiting but have heard nothing but good things.
Slider Bar is a collaboration of sorts with the Player in Soho, a well-respected cocktail bar which up until now wasn't known for its food offering. If you're wondering how a 3rd-party burger van can just "slot into" an established bar and start selling food, well, you're not the only one, and the confusing number of menus on each table downstairs on Broadwick St hints at a rather uneasy partnership. The Player has their own little book of cocktails, but then Slider Bar have some on their menu too, presumably made by the same barman but who knows - I was on the wagon this weekday lunchtime but I wonder how they divide the profits when you order from both menus at once.
Anyway, let's not worry about how Lucky Chip and the Player have built their partnership model, what's important is the food, and fortunately they are doing almost everything right in this regard. For £10 I got to choose two different sliders (mini burgers, and yes I know the big is-it-a-slider-or-isn't-it debate and quite frankly I don't care, if they want to call them sliders they can) and have them served with a bijou portion of fries and a pot of aioli spiked with cayenne pepper.
Just one thing stood between the mini "El Chappo" burger and greatness, and that was the choice of bacon. The only suitable bacon in a burger is streaky; this is not a point of debate, this is a simple fact. So a thick, gammony slab of back bacon did no favours for this otherwise delicately constructed little sandwich and could have easily spelled disaster. Fortunately, thanks to some gorgeous aged beef paired with strong (and properly melted) blue cheese, a lovely sweet bun and just the right amount of salad, it was still hugely enjoyable.
A classic cheeseburger was ordered mainly as a control variable, but still had plenty going for it. Shredded lettuce and sliced pickles both win points in my "how to do burger" checklist, and that same aged beef soaked in plastic yellow cheese was a pleasingly familiar combination.
Fries were delicate little things, air-light but full of potato flavour from leaving their skins on. I enjoyed the aioli, too, which is just as well as I'd ordered chipotle mayo. Service is still a bit ropey, as you might expect in the first few weeks of the operation; my waiter gets full marks for enthusiasm (and volume, you could hear him from Soho Square) but rather less for knowledge - I overheard him describing wasabi to someone on the next table as "a kind of cabbage". Still, who cares about vegetables anyway.
With a kind of pink grapefruit virgin cocktail and a bowl of candyfloss sundae as a dessert (nice enough this, a bit Mr Whippy for £4.50 but came with loads of crunchy bits and pieces of puffed sugar and toffee) the bill came to just over £21 - pretty much what you might expect these days, not a bargain but not anything approaching unreasonable either. I imagine you can fair tear through the budget if you go for the drinks though; I already have my eye on the "boilermaker" section of the Player menu which pairs craft beers with shots of interesting spirits, and most of those are pushing £15.
So for the boilermakers, and the burgers, and in fact for pretty much everything else, I will be back to Slider Bar. Soho is hardly short of fantastic ways to empty my wallet but if there's one thing I'm never going to get tired of it's cocktails, craft beer and meat sandwiches to soak them up with. And when there's a Slider Bar, and a MeatLiquor, and a Pitt Cue on every high street in the country, I'm sure I'll still be saying the same thing.
Wednesday, 19 September 2012
When Tonkotsu opened, it was midsummer. Sweating over a bowl of hot noodles was the last thing I felt like doing when it was 26 degrees outside, and it was possibly for this reason I wasn't initially completely won over by the place. There was nothing exactly wrong with anything - the ramen was pleasant enough, the gyoza soft and fresh, the fried chicken (kara age) tasty and crunchy - but it seemed a shadow of the amazing stuff I'd tried in Japan (I know, I know, but it is a factor) and I wasn't desperate to return.
However, more has changed since those opening weeks than the weather. Certainly the fresh autumn chill has made the prospect of a bowl of warming ramen much more enticing, but something else has happened at Tonkotsu - the product itself, based either on early feedback or simply due to a more settled kitchen, has improved noticeably. The fried chicken was more moist, the coating stronger and more satisfyingly tearable. The gyoza, while still not perfect, had a more intensely porky filling and thicker golden crust. And though this time I went for the signature Tonkotsu (pork) ramen and so can't compare it directly to the Tokyo Spicy back in June, it was still a much more richly-flavoured and enjoyable thing, especially when laced with their (also much improved) chilli oil.
So Tonkotsu is now well worth a visit, and not just for the food. Although the 18% Brewdog Tokyo they had on the list in June for a bargainous £12 (it's usually over £10 retail) has sadly (though understandably) disappeared, they still offer a great range of interesting local beers including my beloved Kernel IPA and a few from Beavertown Brewery, Hackney. The room is an attractive place to spend time in, in that stripped-back industrial style that seems to be everywhere all of a sudden, and staff are unfailingly smiley and efficient. I won't even begin to pretend I know much about what makes a "good" or "bad" bowl of ramen, but I do know that £18 seemed a very fair price to pay for a very nice lunch, and Soho is richer for having them.
Tuesday, 18 September 2012
Anyone who's ever moaned about the price of eating out in London, consider this little scenario.
You're in Piccadilly, the heart of rip-off tourist London, a stone's throw from the Rainforest Café and God knows how many branches of Aberdeen Angus, and you're hungry. Finding anywhere worthy of your custom is a struggle in this part of town, but you spot a grand entrance to a new all-day brasserie just off Regent St and, deciding it's either that or something from Pret, you wander inside.
Down a plush staircase and into a vast, bright, high-ceiling room bedecked with marble columns and covered liberally with gold leaf, you are greeted by friendly staff in smart monochrome outfits and shown to a table. From the stubbornly French menu you order the soup du jour and kick back with a large basket of crunchy sliced baguette, salted butter and a jug of tap water. The soup is hot and fresh, hardly the world's greatest show of gastronomic fireworks but pleasant and filling, and you have few complaints.
The bill, including service, comes to £2.50.
Whatever else you think of Brasserie Zedel, and not everything was perfect, not by a long way, you just cannot argue with these prices. I don't know the last time you could eat in London with table service and leave with a bill of under a fiver, but I'm guessing it wasn't in this half-century. To put a menu together of such incredible value, set it in such plush surroundings and still make the numbers work is an achievement of monumental proportions - and all the more surprising that it's the brainchild of Corbin & King, whose other projects the Wolseley and the Delaunay are hardly famous for their egalitarian pricing.
Of course, when I and a couple of friends visited one evening last week, we weren't about to stick to soup and water. It is certainly possible to eat well for a pittance at Zedel, but once you've added in a bottle of Picpoul and a couple of courses, I think a more achievable budget is somewhere around the £20 mark - still good value for this kind of thing, just not quite as hilariously cheap.
Of the starters (none over £3), celeriac remoulade was pleasant, vichyssoise was the same after we'd added our own seasoning, and Oeufs durs mayonnaise was actually pretty good, sprinkled with paprika and with nice soft yolks in the eggs.
Mains were a bit more inconsistent - my own steak haché was probably the best of the lot, the mince having a pleasant loose texture and nicely crisped on the outside, although as with the vichyssoise I did have to manually beef up the seasoning, and the fries were pale and flacid. Andouillette is, as I'm sure the more cosmopolitan of you know, a kind of sausage made out of pig's intestines, and however many times I'm assured it's an "acquired taste" and not just some weird practical joke played by French pig farmers, I just can't stand the things. However my friend seemed reasonably happy with his choice - happy as a pig in shit you might say - so no harm done. But I'm afraid a watery prawn cocktail, plucked from the starters, was poor even by £7.75 expectations, and was pushed around the plate a bit before finally being ignored.
The lesson learned is that no matter what you're paying, a bad dish is still a bad dish, and by no means everything on the menu at Zedel is worth paying even a pittance for. But the decent dishes were lifted by the fact we hardly noticed a dent in our wallets, and the good were rendered extraordinary. That steak haché, for example, is available as part of a 2-course menu for £8.75 - admittedly the starter is carottes râpées (chopped carrots) but decent steak & chips for under a tenner even without the token veg would be worth the effort.
If you're looking for immaculately-prepared bourgeois French food, Zedel won't be your first choice. But as a bold experiment in glamorous budget dining for the masses, with enough highlights scattered in amongst the duds to make ordering well at the very least possible, it's worth anyone's while to give it a try. And if the experiment eventually ends in noble failure, at least we could say that for a brief moment in time, it was possible to have lunch in Piccadilly for £2.50. Make the most of it.
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
A trick played by every good pizza restaurant, in fact most restaurants of any kind, is to make the very difficult look very easy. Making a good pizza is not easy, not by a long way; you have to use the correct dough made with the correct type of flour, find top-quality (e.g. San Marzano) tomato purée and proper Italian mozzarella. You need a fiercely hot pizza oven, staff who know how to use it, and management skills to ensure consistent quality.
Watching the chefs at Sacro Cuore, however, you'd be forgiven for assuming that making a good pizza is no more demanding than grilling a slice of cheese on toast. Onto briefly-spun dough goes a layer of tomato sauce and a few chunks of cheese. Depending on the order, further toppings may involve some Neopolitan salami or leaves of fresh basil, before the whole thing is flung to the back of the pizza oven then ignored as long as it takes to prepare another one. Finally, without any obvious help other than the chef's own intuition, a perfectly-timed pizza is retrieved from the oven and makes its way to the table.
Whatever they're doing, it's working. A "Bufalina" (£9.45, tomato sauce, posh buffalo mozzarella and basil with an additional aubergine topping for £1.50) was a faultless demonstration of everything that's good about pizza - fantastic tomatoes and a generous amount of salty, stretchy cheese. "Salsiccia & Friarielli" (£10.45) was a pizza bianca (no tomato sauce) with huge lumps of Neopolitan sausage and mounds of moist friarielli (the Neopolitan name for Rapini) nestling in mozzarella. Both were distinguished by their incredible bases, as rich and enjoyable as any flatbread you've ever had, bubbly and crisped up on top and with the kind of chewy bite that makes you want to keep eating until you can eat no more.
There's a very reasonable (and very Italian) wine list, a short but tempting arrangement of starters such as bruschetta and burrata, and a couple of pleasant salads. Service was a little bit wobbly but nothing that can't be excused from a venue open less than a month, and if this new location doesn't quite have the atmosphere (I'm reliably informed) of the Ealing original (this is the 2nd restaurant from the same team), it makes up for it with attractive carpentry and bright floor-to-ceiling windows. It is a very, very nice place to eat.
Needless to say, if it really was as easy as Sacro Cuore makes it look, our high streets would be populated not by the cream-cracker-blandness of Pizza Express or the shallow-fried nastiness of Pizza Hut but with lovely Neopolitan pizza. That they're not - yet - is of course frustrating, but their slow expansion across London alongside fellow pizza masters Franco Manca is a heart-warming sign that things are improving. And once enough people notice the difference, and proper pizza gets the attention it deserves, I'm sure there'll be no stopping them. Today Kensal Rise, tomorrow the world.
Tuesday, 4 September 2012
What if I told you that there's a new restaurant opened up in Southwark, amidst the chain bars and office blocks in this deeply unpromising part of town, that was serving some of the best Italian food in London? Sounds unlikely, and yet there we were on Friday evening enjoying dish after dish of such delicate, heart-warming quality that I can barely remember having better at hallowed temples of New Wave Italian like Zucca or Trullo. For now, the Table has a profile as low-key as its rather flat name, but if there's one place in town destined to at least match if not eclipse the success of its rivals, it's this one.
First things first, though, and I should mention that I was invited to the Table by their PR people, and so didn't pay for any of it. I know this is of supreme unimportance to most of you, but it is also of extreme importance to some of you, so consider this my Full Disclosure. But my invitation, and this post, is an example of restaurant PR done right - I would never have even heard about the Table otherwise, least of all considered visiting, and now not only do I have a new favourite within walking distance of Waterloo Station but hopefully the handful of people who read this blog will have another place to put on their wish list, as well.
I always think you can tell a lot about a restaurant from the quality of the house bread. I knew I was going to like l'Enclume the moment I clapped eyes on their world class variations on a theme of sourdough, and so too the Table, theirs being a moist, light focaccia and a brilliant flaky cheese pastry thing. There's probably a fancy Italian name for it, feel free to add it into the comments if you know.
Starter of a whole roast quail was difficult to fault. I know the blobs of cheesy polenta look like they've caught a bit, but actually they weren't burned at all, just nicely crunchy. There wasn't too much pancetta on the bird, just enough to season and retain moisture, and the meat of the quail was flavoured brilliantly with Mediterranean herbs. For £8, as well, this was a hugely generous amount of food.
To follow, a massive veal chop, cooked medium-rare, showing a good char from the grill and accompanied by a healthy pile of buttery girolles. Bizarrely though, and somewhat unfortunately, this otherwise wonderful dish was presented with an ugly lump of fridge-solid truffle butter on top, which really didn't do anything for it at all. But yes, ignoring the butter, this was great, and I'm fairly sure such presentational quirks will be ironed out in the fullness of time.
Other dishes ordered by friends that evening were similarly impressive. Particularly good were some plates of tagliatelli, one with chunks of salty bottarga (cured fish roe) and another with porcini and parsley. For a far more expert appraisal of those than I could ever make, visit Helen Graves' report over on her blog. She also has an amusing upskirt shot of my quail, which is well worth a look at.
We soon learned that the quality of food at the Table isn't a fluke - head chef Cinzia Ghignoni has done time at Duck Soup and Angela Hartnett's Murano as well as the aforementioned Zucca, and indeed the style - and pricing - of the menu certainly has precedent. But just like places like Zucca, Trullo, and Tinello, you can eat incredibly well here for not very much money, and is yet more evidence that Italian food in London is reaching something approaching maturity. In this unfashionable end of Southwark, behind the office-block decor, and the humdrum name, lies one of the most exciting Italian restaurants around. Make your reservation now, before the hordes descend.
I was invited to the Table
EDIT: So yes, as many have pointed out, the Table isn't new at all, in fact it doesn't even have new owners. What can I say, I must have been wandering around Southwark for the last six years with my eyes closed. However, it has been refurbished, it does have a (brilliant) new chef and they have also started getting all of their vegetables from the St Mungo's allotments, a charity which helps rehabilitate homeless people. So not only is the food fantastic, you're helping improve society by eating there as well.