Thursday, 20 December 2012

Garufin, Holborn

It's taken me a while to come round to the Argentinian approach to beef. An enthusiastic consumer of the dry-aged, US/European varieties, charcoal-grilled to perfection in London's best steakhouses (take a bow, Goodman and Hawksmoor), my experience of anything calling itself Argentinian was limited to chain pub steaks and the overpriced and mediocre Gaucho Grill. And so you can see why it was easier to think "Argentinian = cheap = bad" than entertain the idea that perhaps just because the cheapest steaks available in the UK were from Argentina, those were the ones most likely to be bought by the UK's worst restaurants.

But then, a couple of years back, I was invited to a friend's birthday meal in a little place near the Emirates stadium called Garufa, and halfway through a few hundred grams of ribeye that for once wasn't lowest-common-denominator menu filler, I finally started to understand what the deal was. Argentinian beef - good Argentinian beef - is lean and robust, with a gentle gamey flavour and very little of the buttery, minerally notes that characterised the dry-aged US and European cuts. If it helps, think of it as venison - the fresher the better, salted and seared over a parrilla, perfectly matched with a glass of Malbec. It's so different from traditional Western steakhouse steak it may as well come from a different animal, and once you release yourself from the idea that to be good a steak has to be cuttable with a butter knife and contain ribbons of yellow fat, there's plenty to enjoy.

Of course, you'll also need to find somewhere good to eat it. Garufin is to Garufa what Barrafina is to Fino, or Morito to Moro. Thanks to good pedigree and a light application of tasteful on-trend restaurant design (bare brick walls, uncomfortable seating, small plates, you know the drill) it manages to be buzzier, cheaper and more fun than the original, and is my new favourite work lunch spot. Providing you go easy on the booze you can walk away from a very decent meal for less than £20, and although the steaks are the real focus, there are enough interesting Argentinian specialities elsewhere on the menu to keep even the most demanding colleagues happy.

You know a place is going to be good when even something as simple as a tomato salad manages to impress. Crunchy and well-seasoned, underlined with a lovely smoked pepper sauce, the "Mixta" stands as proof that when restaurants get the basics right, it's that much easier for everything else to fall into place. Similarly, you may think it's not too difficult to mess up cheese croquettas, but numerous distressing experiences in lesser tapas bars across the city say otherwise; here a delicate crust contained strong provolone and the occasional toasted peanut, each sat on a light citrus dressing.

"Rescoldo" was perhaps the only dish I've tried at Garufin that I can't recommend. Consisting of slimy, underseasoned vegetables (some powerfully smoked) topped with a congealed slab of provolone, it was unbalanced and quite unpleasant, and though I can kind of see what they were getting at (a sort of Argentinian ratatouille) it needs a bit of a rethink. Their empanadas, though, were wonderful - particularly the spicy tripe & ox cheek one, a fluffy, crisp coating containing rich offal.

But to the main events. At £14.50, the "Lomo & caracu" is the single most expensive item on the menu, but fortunately was everything I was hoping it would be, a perfectly-seared chunk of tender fillet steak boasting that gentle gamey freshness, and marrow presented in a bisected bone for you to scoop out and eat with it. It's a lot for not a great deal of food, but if you ever needed convincing of the merits of Argentinian beef, it's a great place to start. And some Iberico pork, seared to medium and resting on a bed of creamy sweetcorn salsa, came with a black pudding croquetta - handily negating the need for me to order a separate side of black pudding croquettas. Because there was no way I was going to go to a restaurant serving black pudding croquettas and not order some black pudding croquettas.

The one dessert I've tried - cutely described as Dulche de Leche "Served in all its ways" was another heady helping of South American comfort food. I particularly liked the slices of banana with a DdL crust, and the excellent ice cream.

The fact that Garufin is less than 30 seconds walk from the office is, of course, a huge bonus to the restaurant desert that is Holborn/Bloomsbury and massively good news to me personally. But I'm sure that were it the other end of a 30 minute tube ride I would have been equally impressed by the cooking, the relentlessly friendly staff and the atmosphere of this welcoming little place. They are one of the first restaurants that really have a chance of convincing Londoners there's more to Argentinian beef - and Argentinian cuisine in general - than watery sirloin served at a 300% markup in the dark (yes I'm moaning about Gaucho again), but let's hope they won't be the last. If they can turn a die-hard dry-aged steak snob like me, they can turn anyone.


Garufín on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Skylon, Southbank

Since the Pitt Cue van shut up shop for the winter, and ignoring the temporary Electrolux marketing campaign perched on top of the Festival Hall, there has been nowhere good to eat on the South Bank. "But what about Skylon?" I hear some of you say. OK, let me rephrase that... nope, sorry, there is still nowhere good to eat on the South Bank.

Oh, it's OK I guess, in a beige, Michelin-frotting, tourist-baiting kind of way. It's just that in a year when London's restaurants have, at all levels, proved themselves once and for all to be the envy of the world, Skylon feels tired and dull, a 90s throwback of obsequious service and soft furnishings that has survived, it seems, purely thanks to a nice (but by no means knockout) view of the Thames and a never-ending supply of sufficiently moneyed overseas visitors.

Perhaps the Grill area would have been less painful than the formal restaurant; it certainly would have been cheaper. But sadly last night this had already hit its quota and so, telling ourselves it was Christmas and pay-day and "Christ, it can't be that bad can it", we shuffled over to the fayn dayning (© Marina O'Loughlin) side of the room.

Call me spoiled, call me hopelessly ungrateful and out of touch, call me a whingeing little good-for-nothing who should stick to reviewing burgers (see the comments on blog posts passim for more suggestions in this vein) but every next word of the Skylon menu made me sigh a little harder. It's a list of dishes expertly designed by someone who knows exactly what London diners wanted fifteen years ago - Beetroot/ Salmon/ Crab/ Scallops for starters, Halibut/ Salmon/ Duck/ Chateaubriand for mains, Panacotta/ Chocolate fondant/ Crepes Suzetes[sic]/ Cheese (£7 supplement, 'natch) for desserts. And at £45 for three courses, it's pushing towards what you might expect to pay in (to pick a few), Racine, Medlar and Bistrot Bruno Loubet, all of whom have more style and panache in their coatroom tags than Skylon have in their entire offering.

"Canapés", an outside-catering standard mini quiche and some kind of duck paté on toast, arrived carelessly arranged and while my friend was in the loo. Then before we'd had a chance to try either of them, the starters, too, arrived - mine a well-timed and nicely seasoned portion of room-temperature quail accompanied by pellets of dry couscous and a tiny dollop of yoghurt. It needed a sauce, but it also needed to be a few degrees hotter and not looking like it had been hanging around for twenty minutes. My friend's crab was heavy on soily brown meat and as a result tasted cheap, like something out of a jar of Shipham's.

With the assumption that you couldn't cock up a chateaubriand too badly we'd ordered this to share, and in fact it wasn't bad - nicely medium-rare with a decent crust and seasoned well. The potato & ceps fondant was very rich but reasonably enjoyable in a sloppy, mushroomy kind of way and the Madeira jus showed someone in the kitchen knew what they were doing, but the beef wasn't of particularly high quality and we found ourselves relying too much on accompanying veg (salsify and shallots amongst others) to pep it up. There was a whacking £12 supplement for it, too.

Although the cheese trolley looked promising from a distance, ultimately the idea of getting the hell out of there proved more inciting than the chance Skylon may redeem themselves in the final hour, so we paid up - £78 a head with one glass of house champagne each and a bottle of one of the cheapest wines on the list. It was, like the Oxo tower just further down the river, a complete waste of time and money, an anachronistic bear-trap of a place hoovering up Southbank revellers while their guard is down after too many cups of Christmas Market Glühwein. Well, at least that was my mistake. But it won't be one I'll make again.


Spot the odd photo out - my own shots in the dark restaurant came out so universally badly that I thought a sneaky press shot might be OK just this once.

Skylon on Urbanspoon

Monday, 17 December 2012

MeatMission, Shoreditch

The Meatwagon started it all off, then MeatEasy kicked it up into the stratosphere. I can hardly believe the date on my post about the place was only 12th January 2011 - so much has happened since then to Yianni and Scott and their merry band of burgerettes it feels like those boozy, grease-stained nights in New Cross happened a lifetime ago - but it was at MeatEasy that the gamble paid off, that London finally fell for the charms of the Dead Hippie and Chilli Cheese Fries and Bingo Wings, and the template was set.

Granted, MeatLiquor doesn't require the same kind of effort to get to as SE14, but it is hardly conspicuous with its anonymous frontage, tinted windows and position under an ugly car park tucked around the back of Debenhams. If it wasn't for the queues that regularly trail up Wellbeck St, in fact, you'd assume it was either abandoned, or a strip club, or both. For one of London's most popular restaurants, it's trying very hard not to be noticed - which of course is all part of the game. MeatEasy proved that having a bit of swagger, treating customers if not badly then certainly with irreverence, making them work just that little bit harder for their dinner, all these things helped create that aura of a place confident of its own importance and confidence in their ability to show you a good time. You may not like it, but by God it works, and no matter how many people grumble about it you can guarantee they'll be joining the back of that queue eventually.

MeatMission, then, arrives at a time when London pretty much knows what to expect from a Meat[wagon] restaurant. We know we won't be able to book a table (sort of - groups of 6 can book at certain times); we know pretty young waitresses will serve expertly-constructed US-inspired comfort food alongside punchy cocktails; we know there will be loud rock music and tinted windows and paper towels on every table. We know we will probably have to queue. None of these things will be a surprise. And yet MeatMission is a surprise, thanks partly to an expanded menu featuring an appearance of one of the best things I've had the pleasure of eating in a very long time, and an interior design that is genuinely impressive without resorting to any dive bar clichés.

If you're lucky enough to bag yourself a spot in one of the raised booths on the edge of the large dining room, you will have a commanding view not only of the incredible stained glass ceiling above but the rows of diners in the "bear pit" beneath. Original stone plaques of religious texts (this is a former Christian mission - hence the name) are sensitively restored in situ, and next door a slightly smaller room is decorated with more urban art, this time illuminated glass panels of strange hybrid creatures. I was never really a fan of the aggressive graffiti at MeatLiquor but here it's all a lot more easy and stylish, though I can't help feeling having the toilets downstairs and not at the top of the frightening spiral staircase overlooking the main atrium is a missed opportunity. I'd love to see people negotiating that after a few Peckham Negronis.

And the food. All the classics are here, and are better than ever - particularly the bacon cheeseburger which had a very generous layer of that crispy pressed bacon arrangement last night. Fries, too, seem to have overcome early inconsistencies at MeatLiquor to become some of the best of their kind in the city; just as well when they find their way into so many of the dishes in the 'Onna Plate' section of the menu. The £9 'Chilli Garbage Plate', I'm fairly sure, could feed six people.

But the star of the new dishes is something called Monkey Fingers. Battered, deep-fried strips of tender chicken soaked in buffalo sauce and served with a blue cheese dip, they are every bit as addictive as the classic MeatLiquor Bingo Wings but the lack of a bone to contend with means they are better value, and even more filthy fun to eat. One of my strongest memories of the launch night (although that's not saying much, given the amount of booze they were chucking at us) was waitresses carrying around canapé trays loaded with Currywurst and Greek Salad skewers and a sad patch of orange sauce where the Monkey Fingers used to be. They are my new obsession, and are only available in Shoreditch.

The booze menu is a riot as well. The Pinot Grinchio is a cocktail made with white wine, apple juice and God knows what else, served with an edible candy cane for extra seasonal jollity. An impressive rack of beer taps at the back of the bar serve a determinedly non-craft selection of decent ales, and there's a wonderfully profane wine list if you want to go down that route. No element of food or drink or service is over-thought or intrusively "cool", but the attitude is infectious - fun without being gimmicky, relaxed without being slapdash, with confidence just the right side of arrogance.

So yes, I liked it. And, I'm certain, so will you. After all the wannabes, proto-chains and imitators to follow in their wake, and God knows there's been enough of them, there still is nowhere that does this kind of thing better.


MeatMission on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

John Salt, Islington

Back in April, I went to a brand-new restaurant in Fitzrovia called Dabbous. I had a lovely lunch with three friends, paid a very reasonable amount of money for it, and left very happy indeed. For some months since I raved about it any chance I could get and it wasn't long before I returned with a different group of people eager to fall in love with the place all over again.

That didn't happen. Instead, this happened. The wonderful cold allium dish from April had been replaced by a slice of ordinary tomato in a sweet consommé of some kind. The coddled egg had gone from being a beguiling, rich mixture of smoke and herbs to a nothing much more than thin scrambled egg. And the Iberico pork tasted of nothing, the acorn dressing that worked so well the first time now reminding me of cheap satay sauce. Bits and pieces of it were still enjoyable (the house bread was still excellent) but how to explain such a different meal? I couldn't honestly put my hand on my heart and say that any of the dishes I'd enjoyed the first time and now didn't were objectively any different this time at all. Either they'd changed, or I had. And I have absolutely no way of knowing which.

And it's this mysterious, intangible variation in the restaurant experience from one day to the next that makes writing about these places so difficult. Every fibre of my being tells me that upstairs at John Salt is the most exciting, innovative and enjoyable place to have dinner in London right now, and yet I'm worried if I go out of my way to say so, I'll be on the receiving end of a dozen disgruntled comments at the end of the month when for whatever bloody reason various other people are disappointed by it. But for the sake of argument I'm going to ignore that possibility for now, and hope that just for once I may have got this one right.

Given a notable recent trend for hacking tube maps (and I plead guilty myself in that regard), the minimalist menu upstairs at John Salt is very "now", with the option of a £56 4-course 'Central Line' (actually 7 if you include the extra bits and pieces) or the full 12-course 'Piccadilly Line' if you have £85 burning a hole in your pocket and feel like travelling all the way to a culinary Cockfosters.

The terse descriptions on the menu/map, though, seriously undersell the amount of detail in the dishes themselves. 'Nibbles', for example, was a tray containing five different elements including a sort of slow-cooked beef croquette speared on an egg whisk, a lemon curd-like substance sprinkled with nuts (slightly unusual amongst savoury items I suppose but there it was anyway) and a incredibly lovely dashi soup poured from a miniature teapot. I know enough about Ben Spalding that anything described as 'nibbles' would never have been a bowl of Twiglets but these were beyond the call of duty.

House bread normally isn't worthy of a course to itself on a menu, but house bread is rarely as good as this. The in-house baker Fanny came out to explain what we were being given, my favourite being a little muffin-shaped red wine bread with a fantastic crust. More impressive still was the gluten-free option served to my dining companion that evening who said it was the best gluten-free bread he'd ever had - not exactly a crowded field, admittedly, but still nice to hear. And even the butter was special - from Norway I believe, served as it arrived as well as soured and whipped with sugar.

I didn't "get" the inspiration for Chicken on a Brick until a couple of days after my meal at John Salt when someone explained that Conran Shops used to sell something called 'Chicken in a brick', a sort of big ceramic roasting chamber. Anyway you didn't need to be in on the joke to enjoy this fresh chicken liver paté spread on top of solid, sticky caramel. We were told to "lick the brick". I didn't need telling twice.

Maple-smoked wild salmon was very good, the salmon itself not being overwhelmed by the maple flavour and having a great healthy, solid texture of wild animal.

I completely forgot to take a photo of the dish called "salad" but as you can see from the quality of the other photos, you're not missing much. Imagine a painfully pretty arc of a bewildering number - over 50 in all - of vegetables, some foraged, some pickled, some preserved, some cooked. They left us with the full list (colour-coded according to preparation method) and I think I noticed about 1/10 of them while eating, but it was great fun. Can Roca in Girona used to do a dessert called 'Anarchy' which contained 50 different elements; this may have been a savoury tribute to that or their own invention entirely.

"Beef heel" was a stonking dish, a lump of gooey slow-cooked cow dressed with button mushrooms, matchstick root vegetables of some kind and little mounds of buttery kale. The sauce was an un-filtered dollop of the cooking sauce from the beef, and the little bits of crispy fat and crunchy herbs from the beef seasoning were a great addition to the mix. Perhaps the most traditional dish in terms of flavour combinations but little tricks with texture and form turned it into something special.

"Cucumber and peanut butter" did, fair play to them, taste of exactly that, and it's a combination that while genuinely innovative I'm not sure I'd rush to try again. My companion loved it though so there's every chance you will too.

As the final dessert I was served this absolutely incredible yoghurty thing which I completely forgot to take any notes for and can't elaborate on at all other to say it was a) yoghurty and b) incredible. AA Gill eat your heart out.

And other than a final little chocolate petit four, that was it. I've wittered on long enough and by now you will have realised that John Salt is already one of my highlights of 2012, but two final things remain to be said:

Firstly, the staff at were all, with no exceptions, some of the best front of house (even when they were in fact, back of house… job roles are somewhat blurred in this place) I've encountered anywhere. You can dismiss it as a gimmick if you like but having the pleasant, passionate person who put together the 50-element salad come out and explain the reasoning behind it before you tuck in is a privilege and a joy.

Secondly, it's hard in a few short paragraphs to emphasise just how much fun it all is - we've heard promises before about 'haute cuisine but without the attitude', 'fine dining in trainers', and so on but it seemed to me that Ben Spalding has hit upon a genuinely new way of doing things here - with so much going on and with so much blurring of the lines between waiter and chef, you feel like you're part of some community, a culinary interactive theatre where each actor plays an equally important part and wants nothing more than for you to enjoy yourself. Viajante may claim they were the first in London to have the chefs come out and present their dishes but I always felt they did so under duress; at John Salt they bound out with a huge smile on their face, eloquently and clearly explain the deal then leave you to enjoy it. It's all quite wonderful.

To return to the opening theme, John Salt is already suffering from the Dabbous Effect in one regard - it's increasingly difficult to get a table. But I'm confident this time that the Emperor has all his clothes, hype played no significant part in anything I rated about the meal, and if you manage to get yourself a booking at you will enjoy it all just as much as I did. And if I'm wrong and you hate it, well, then I know nothing about such things after all. But at least it was fun while it lasted.


John Salt on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 5 December 2012, Soho

Pity the poor vowel. One minute London can't get enough of you (Mamounia, Kua 'Aina, er... Umu?), the next you find yourself at the wrong end of restaurant naming trends and you're dropped like last season's truffles. Smart Piccadilly bar DSTRKT was one of the first to go 100% consonant, then followed STK (a "female-friendly" steakhouse whatever the hell that means) in Aldwych, and now we have BRGR in Soho, joining an increasingly competitive (to say the least) market for gourmet burgers.

It's easy to eyeroll and grumble about yet another new burger place but actually, unless you're one of those tedious contrarians who will deny yourself any number of nice meals for fear of having anything so traumatic as the same opinion as someone else, who cares how many burger bars, or chicken shops, or ramen joints we end up with as long as they're good. And it's perhaps because so many new restaurants in London have been so astonishingly good in recent months that I'm afraid BRGR's offering seems a bit... crap.

That's not to say there aren't things to like about the place. Only Soho restaurants can get away with squeezing so many tables into such a small room (or rather rooms - there are two), but the low ceilings and open kitchen create a nice bustling atmosphere and the staff are all as cheery and smiley as you'd hope for in a business in its first full week of trading. I perched on a stool in the window and ordered from the depressingly large menu. And it wasn't long before my "6oz Gourmet Signature BRGR" arrived.

This strange, flat thing, looking like it had accidentally been sat on, cost £9.85 if you include the gruyère cheese and jalapeño options (the basic burger comes without cheese). The meat was cooked precisely medium-rare but was surprisingly bland considering this was supposedly the premium blend, and though the cheese was properly melted it didn't taste of anything more than supermarket cheddar. The bun was good though, a glazed, gently-sweet brioche that held firm to the last bite.

Onion rings, though, were a disaster. They tasted of nothing, and when I say nothing I mean absolutely nothing - they were completely devoid of any organic flavour whatsoever, like rings of baked sand. The little cheese dip they arrived with was inoffensive - it at least felt like it had come from planet earth - but nothing could have made those rings worth eating. They would have been expensive at any price but at £3.95 they were an insult, and an Oreo milkshake also for £3.95 was fine but about half the size of the one that Byron charge the same for.

As the second cynical, lazy proto-chain attempting to ride London's current food obsessions to success I've had the misfortune of eating at in the space of a month, I hope that BRGR isn't around for too much longer; I hope it fails. But the rules that govern which restaurants do well and which don't are far too complex for an armchair pundit like me to predict. Look at poor old North Road, which this week went into administration despite the kind of critical reception many places would kill for, and St John Hotel which seems to be struggling not long after winning a Michelin star itself. So who knows if BRGR will survive. All I can tell you is there are better burgers to eat within spitting distance, and if BRGR think they deserve a spot in amongst the likes of MeatLiquor, Patty & Bun, Lucky Chip et all, they're out of their FCKNG minds.


BRGR Co.  on Urbanspoon

Someone has pointed out that the onion rings are £2.95 on the bill, not £3.95 as they were on the menu. Either way, that's either £2.95 or £3.95 too much.