Friday, 26 July 2013

Hutong at the Shard, London Bridge

A few weeks ago, after a very nice meal at Elliot's in Borough Market with a friend (you should go, it's great), we decided it would be a good idea to check out Oblix, the bar/restaurant on the 32nd floor of the Shard, for a nightcap. Up we went, expecting it to be pretty busy on a Friday night but still hoping for a quiet corner to stand and sip a cold martini.

What we found, instead, was a piercingly loud space containing too much bar and not enough elbow room, with a good chunk of the place given up to a stage for an irritating jazz band (who also blocked one of the best windows) and warm martinis that cost too much money. We didn't try the food, but by the looks of the plates coming out of the kitchen we weren't missing much; just bland crowd-pleasing international things like fishcakes and Caesar salad, served with ruthless efficiency by willowy Eastern Europeans with nice hair.

In short, Oblix is everything you might expect from a Tall Restaurant. Food that's just good enough, drinks churned out without enough time for the details, but who cares - just look at the view. Hutong, upstairs on the 33rd, could have done exactly that. The restaurants in London's most famous new building were always going to be oversubscribed, and the temptation must have been huge to go for the same undemanding crowd of city boys and tourists with tame, toned-down menus of familiar favourites and watch the cash roll in.

That they haven't is both a surprise and a delight. Anywhere in town, Hutong would be an exciting new place to eat, serving interesting Northern Chinese dishes of confident spicing and immaculate presentation. It's a style of food that has hitherto stubbornly refused to be "poshed up" - Gourmet San and Silk Road may be wonderful places, not to mention great value, but you wouldn't want to know their Scores on the Doors. Hutong has the confidence to do Chinese Fine Dining without toning down or taming any of the things that make this kind of food so special in the first place.

So it's about time I told you about it. Dim sum, gleaming like soft gemstones, were the first things to arrive. My favourite was the prawn dumpling flavoured with rosé champagne, with multicoloured herbs and vegetables inside a translucent casing, but they were all good, and even better dipped in an uncompromisingly hot chilli oil. At £15, this isn't ever likely to compete with your favourite local dim sum on price, but is seriously impressive otherwise.

Next, one of the house signature dishes - roast Peking duck pancakes. The duck is carefully carved tableside into neat rows of crispy skin and moist, seasoned flesh, and is surely up there with the very best to be found in London. It's a strange experience, wrapping up a little parcel of hoi sin, cucumber and spring rolls, as you might have done at any high street Chinese restaurant in any small town in the UK, and yet being rewarded with a taste that is at once comfortingly familiar and strikingly enhanced. This is a superb dish, and at £30 for more than enough for two people, one of the admittedly few items on the menu that could be described as something approaching a bargain.

Sichuan chicken was crispy chunks of moist bird in so much Sichuan pepper it could be used as crowd control. I loved it, the numbing heat, the texture, the colour, but particularly the thought of some suit ordering his usual no. 93 from the local takeaway and being presented with this bowl of fireworks.

Dan dan noodles weren't quite as spicy (it was somewhat of a relief to find out), but impressed nonetheless with their silky texture and soft peanut sauce. By this stage we were incredibly full, so it's only thanks to the fact they were so good that we saw the bottom of the bowl.

As you might expect, Hutong is not a cheap restaurant. There are plenty of other places in town where you can pick up Ma Po tofu and dim sum for a pittance, so don't go to Hutong and start moaning that you're just paying for the view - you really aren't. As much attention has been paid to the stunning interiors (check out those loos), the menu, the drinks (there's a very interesting Chinese-inspired cocktail list which I can also thoroughly recommend) and the friendly and attentive service as the food, and as you can hopefully gather by now, the food is very good indeed. So you pay for it.

And not everything on the menu is as successful as that you see above. Occasionally Hutong's confidence in extreme flavours produces some odd results, like a very bitter raw scallop and pomelo starter I tried on the press preview night, or cold razor clams loaded with so much garlic they make your eyes water.

But I'd still rather suffer the occasional noble failure than spend my money anywhere aiming to be nothing more than adequate, or anywhere content with leaning on the crutch of the location to compensate for food that, at ground level, wouldn't earn a second glance. The achievement at Hutong is that everything is in place for a fantastic night out even before you factor in the view. And watching the sun set over Hampstead on a warm summer's evening as you tuck into your second glass of white, well, that's just a wonderful bonus.


Hutong at the Shard on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

The Dining Room at the Playboy Club, Mayfair

Having now discovered that the Playboy Club is a grim, soul-throttling throwback of a place, populated (I use the word loosely) by old perverts with more money than sense, it's difficult to cast my mind back to the time before I sat down to eat there when my hopes were still high. But you have to take my word on this, they were. I knew more or less what to expect - girls in silly costumes, high prices, glitzy Vegas interiors - but people whose opinion I trusted really liked the food, and though the chances of me ever risking my own paycheque on the place were fairly low, the point of these PR invites is often nothing more than to tempt press and bloggers to anywhere not on the usual London foodie list.

As a friend and I soon realised, however, the Playboy Club restaurant is not on any foodie list because it doesn't deserve to be. If I was a gambler, well, there's a casino. If I had £10k burning a hole in my pocket and wanted a bit of theatre, there's the cabaret nightclub Baroque downstairs. But why would anyone, short of those too trapped in addiction to leave the building between blackjack deals, choose to spend such a ludicrous amount of money on such mediocre food?

If there's one small droplet of hope to be squeezed out of our experience last night, it's thanks to the extremely pleasant service from our waitress, who at least gave the whole thing a human face, and was (a relief for all of us I'm sure) not forced to wear a bunny costume. I'll give her the benefit of the doubt, too, and assume that it was management's idea to proffer a bottle of chardonnay the moment we sat down instead of letting us loose on the wine list ("If they look like they might fleece us on the seafood", I can imagine the staff meeting going, "just make damn sure they drink nothing but the house white").

Appetisers were, in decreasing order of edibility, a £15 shrimp cocktail in a martini glass containing crunchy fridge-cold seafood drowning in sickly sweet sauce; completely bizarre beef "bulgogi" buns, tasting rather less of the advertised kimchi and rather more of gristly beef, mayonnaise, avocado and insipid tomato - imagine if you'd taken the filling from a Pret sandwich and put it inside a Korean steamed bun; and half a dozen spatting rock oysters ("natives" on the menu), swollen with shellfish spunk, which even the most casual of glances from the kitchen would have declared unfit to serve.

While the horror of the starters was still sinking in, a glass tray arrived with a little chunk of Forman's smoked salmon on it. The salmon itself would have been fine - not Frank Hederman good, but fine - had the super-chilled glass not begun to ice up the base of it, although I think amongst all the dishes this was the only one we managed to finish, so it can't have been too much of an issue.

Of the mains, Dover Sole was the least terrifying, but we did think it slightly odd that it was presented first with its head, tail and skin already removed, taken away for deboning, then brought back looking pretty much identical a few minutes later. The flesh was nice and firm, though, and though it could have taken a touch more salt, it wasn't bad at all.

The basic "Hef burger" is £40. I think that's worth repeating. This burger - beef and salad in a bun, with chips - is £40. Cheese (gruyere) is £1.50 extra, bacon an extra £2. Should you want to load it with, say, a bit of avocado (£2) or chipotle chilli (£3) you could, once service is added, be staring down the barrel of £55, which would be an extraordinary amount to pay for even the greatest burger in the world.

Now, I hardly need to say, the Hef burger is not the greatest burger in the world. It's probably not even the best burger at the Playboy club. The Chilean wagyu used for the patty was way too fatty and rich, the texture of jelly (stored ready-seasoned perhaps) and hadn't been seared properly so had little char or colour. The gruyere cheese very soon solidified like candle wax around the beef, and was cold and chalky. And the bun, oversweet and as dry as camping bed foam, was no better than anything you could pick up from your local supermarket. Add in a slick of mayonnaise, another watery slice of tomato and some canteen lettuce and you have yourself one of London's great ripoff dishes.

OK, so. The Hef burger, the bunnies, the black marble, the high-roller cocktail list with the £500 Negroni made from 60-year-old vermouth, none of these are really things I'd ordinarily spend my time worrying about. I am clearly not the target audience for the product that the Playboy Club is offering, and maybe the kind of people that would find the idea of the above attractive (based on the sample last night, blowsy old men and groups of Chinese gambling addicts, and not too many of either of those) will happily chuck £50 at a burger and don't care you can get something many times better around the corner at Goodman for £15.

But I've got a job to do here, and it's to ask anyone who isn't an affluent, lecherous moron to leave the Playboy Club to those most likely to appreciate it, and spend your money elsewhere. We eventually left that deserted restaurant, swatting away the fruit flies which plagued our table, through the room of grim-faced men (and it was all men) chucking their money at women dressed as animals, sick from the food, the atmosphere, the sheer ugly vulgarity of it all, and emerged gasping onto the streets of Mayfair as if we'd escaped some hideous Dantean nightmare. I hope, I hope with every inch of my soul, that I'll never have cause to go back.


I was invited to review the Dining Room at the Playboy Club

The Dining Room at the Playboy Club on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 July 2013

The Dairy, Clapham Common

It makes sense to describe Clapham Common as an "unlikely" location for an impressive new restaurant, but actually, all the ingredients are in place (attractive parkside location, moneyed local population, good transport links) for a slew of decent places to eat. So it shouldn't be an unlikely area at all. But for whatever reason, it is. Trinity aside (which has never been my favourite place but is at least trying), every licensed establishment within spitting distance of the tube station is either a godawful loud chain in the All Bar One mold, a dodgy sports pub, or one of those worthy cafés where you pay £5 for someone to mix some cucumber chunks into cous-cous.

So the Dairy doesn't have to try to hard to succeed. Next to the competition, even if it had been only halfway decent it would outclass everything else in the area. But the meal I and a friend enjoyed on Saturday lunchtime showcased what is surely some of the very best food in the whole city, possibly even the country, so much so that labelling it "good for Clapham" is undeservedly cruel.

Having decided on the tasting menu with matching wines (which saves having to actually make the effort to think for ourselves) the first item to arrive was a kind of mini falafel with tahini paste and an incredibly powerful spring of fresh mint. Most herbs and some vegetables, we were told, are grown on their rooftop garden; it's hard to believe you'd get flavour from mint like this unless it had very recently been in the ground.

Potted salmon had a bit of a Scandinavian feel despite the Guinness soda bread it came with. Fresh dill and summer vegetables combined with sweet-cured smoked salmon, bringing to mind a sort of tinned Gravadlax. Cute presentation, too.

Chorizo and squid Scotch egg may sound odd, but these individual flavours remained distinct without being in competition, and with not too much of either to overwhelm the dainty soft quails egg yolk inside. An experiment that could, let's be honest, have gone horribly wrong, and yet we both loved it.

The "charcuterie" course was more proof the Dairy aren't afraid of pushing things in interesting new directions. Salami and n'duja were both good, but the real surprise here was something called 'smoked bone marrow butter'. I don't know whether this was just the wrong side of too smokey, or needed more bonemarrow, or perhaps something called "smoked bone marrow butter" couldn't hope to live up to the heavenly product we'd invented in our own minds before trying it, but something about it just didn't quite sit right. Mind you, we still licked that stone clean so it can't have been that bad.

"Fresh peas, celery, mint and fried bread" is, and I'm hesitant to use such hyperbole but I've had a good think and I've convinced myself it's justified, probably one of the top three nicest things I've eaten so far in 2013. Full of the joys of summer, it was refreshing and invigorating and with a flavour profile so heavenly I couldn't imagine any peas and celery and mint tasting any better anywhere, even at the Ledbury who have been playing with textures in this style for a while (and where, presumably, the Dairy chef must have trained at some point). Beautiful to look at and masterful in terms of the number of techniques used to stunning effect (the savoury sorbet, the rich mousse), this satisfied on every level.

A monkfish dish, though slightly on the salty side for me, was still impressive thanks to lovely moist fish (sous-vided, my much more knowledgable friend guessed) and gently pickled veg. I'll be honest, I was still thinking about the pea and celery dish at this point.

Smoked cod with heritage tomatoes was, again, as much fun to look at as eat - I particularly liked the thin slice of huge tomato underneath it all, which had a lovely firm texture. I don't think it needed quite as much mayonnaise as was provided, but then I'm not the world's biggest mayonnaise fan and my friend polished it all off quite happily.

Suckling pig, objectively decently cooked and attractively presented, just unfortunately wasn't quite what we needed at this stage in a tasting menu and we found the layers of fat hard to enjoy in contrast to the supremely light and fresh courses that preceded it. What did go down well though was a little bundle of cavolo nero which tasted like something plucked from the garden of Eden. Or the rooftop allotment. One or the other.

A little pre-dessert of light yoghurty mousse of some sort with sweet celery sorbet (I'm struggling because it's not on the menu, and the very generous matching wines were really kicking in by this point) brought us back to summer though, with yet more impressive displays of texture and form.

Final proper course was strawberries with vanilla whey and rolled oats, perfectly enjoyable but in comparison to much of what had come before, pretty forgettable. And I'd be tempted to conclude that the Dairy's strengths lie in savoury courses - particularly vegetables - were it not for a completely extraordinary set of petits fours that followed.

Very often just something to nibble on while you pay the bill, even at the the Dairy's spiritual home the Ledbury (I'm going to look like an idiot if, in fact, it turns out they have never had anything to do with the place) they are just a couple of bits of cold fruit jelly in a tin lined with cocoa nibs. Here we had a hot, fresh doughnut rolled in hibiscus sugar, some wonderfully buttery thin shortbread, and a truly astonishing citrus jelly coated in that sour powder you get on Haribo sweets.

So for cooking of nothing often less than sheer, blinding virtuosity, ingredients that make you wonder why we were ever jealous of Spain or Italy or France, and for pitch-perfect service of warmth and efficiency, the Dairy is a truly remarkable new restaurant. It seems churlish to point out that in terms of seating you are given a not particularly appealing choice between the cave-like rear (dark and hot) and the high-school stools near the front (lighter, and cooler, but ouch - bring a cushion). These are things that can be fixed, and will probably matter less anyway as the seasons move on.

All you really need to know is that if you have even the most passing interest in finding out what the very best local culinary talent is doing right now, for not very much money, then you need to make a booking at the Dairy. It is what every British restaurant should be.


The Dairy on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Slabs, Marylebone

Slabs is not a bad restaurant. I thought I'd get that out of the way before we go any further, because I have a feeling that once I get stuck into the details, it's going to seem like there are more problems with the place than there really are. But actually, in the grand scheme of things, Slabs is fine. Not great, not even particularly good, but certainly not bad. Just... fine.

Unfortunately for Slabs, though, we're at the stage where "just fine" just doesn't cut it. Maybe five or six years ago, before a strange, dingy little spot above an unreconstructed boozer in New Cross set the template for a burger empire, before Pitt Cue fired up their smoker, even before Hawksmoor had thrown the first inch-thick slab of Yorkshire longhorn onto the coals at Spitalfields, before all this perhaps Slabs would have felt like an adventure. Perhaps. But now, in 2013, with Patty & Bun to one side and MeatLiquor on the other, it all just seems a bit pointless.

Especially when you consider the prices. Sure, the basic beef burger is "only" £6.95, same as a MeatLiquor green chilli cheeseburger, but add cheese (£1.50), bacon (another £1.50) and a pot of blue cheese sauce (yet another £1.50) and you're staring down the barrel of the best part of £15 with service. Pictured above is the basic offering customised with two types of cheese and fried onions, and though pretty enough is not what you could call a bargain. The bland beef was overcooked to grey, and the blue cheese sauce tasted of little more than double cream.

The "Spanish burger", at a rather more punchy £13.95, was at least nice and pink inside, but had a strange, dense, bitty texture with no chorizo tang at all. And although the idea of topping a chorizo burger with manchego has a certain geographical appeal, the reality is that 30 seconds after arriving on the table, said cheese has turned into a thick, cold layer of plastic that was nothing more than an irritation. The crispy Serrano ham and aioli were both very welcome though, so it wasn't a complete disaster.

Chips came in two formats - 'Skinny French Fries' (decent if unspectacular French bistro-style frites, rather than the thinner American style) and 'Thick Hand Cut Triple Cooked Chips' which had a good taste and crunch but were let down by being floury and pappy inside. I believe a lot of restaurants are struggling with the quality of potatoes this year though, so I won't mark them down too harshly for that.

But you can see where this is going. Nothing to get too worked up about, nothing to write home about. I can't say I'm desperate to try the £20 lobster burger, because for a few quid more I think I'd rather have the one from Bob Bob Ricard, and offering just a tail and claw of North Devon lobster for a whacking £25 seems very mean with Burger & Lobster ten minutes away doing the whole beast for £20. There are chicken wings (of course), a steak (natch) and a token veggie option that steals Byron's idea of swapping beef for portobello mushroom. It's all very... familiar; the menu ticks off all the usual suspects of London/American comfort food dining without doing anything fresh or exciting enough to warrant even a second glance.

So... yeah. I can't honestly think of anything else to say. Staff were very friendly and brought what we ordered, the room had tables and chairs that we could sit on, and the food did not kill us. Slabs serves wholly unoriginal yet inoffensive American burgers etc. for slightly more money than you'd normally expect to pay for this kind of thing, stopping somewhat short of complete ripoff. I have no reason to return, and nobody else has any reason to go in the first place. Ho hum.


Slabs London on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Apollo Banana Leaf, Tooting

Yes, I know I'm late to the game on this one. Whole swathes of curry-loving Tooting residents (I doubt there's any other kind of Tooting resident) will be rolling their eyes at the news that another food blogger has "discovered" the Apollo Banana Leaf, and will be grumbling at the prospect of tables at this tiny little spot on the High Street becoming even more difficult to grab.

But I'm afraid I'm duty bound to spread the word on this restaurant, because it is a rare occasion indeed that you find somewhere serving food of such quality at such bafflingly low prices. I just don't know how they turn a profit. Sure, we're talking cheap ingredients here - mutton, cod, chicken, various South Indian vegetables - but most curry houses charge twice this for commodity vindaloo sauce and a couple of poppadums. Here, everything is rich with lovingly-crafted spicing and careful slow cooking, served with a smile (if not always particularly speedily) and the quiet, unspoken knowledge that they are amongst the very best at what they do.

In true curry house style, we began with fried things. Green banana bhaji and mutton rolls would each have been impressive enough (crispy and perfectly dry-fried - not a hint of grease) had they not been presented with probably the greatest hot sauce I've ever had in my life. Only the fermented salt-chilli "ketchup" from Clove Club comes close, and indeed this was quite similar in taste, expertly balancing salt and vinegar with a powerful chilli hit. Quite brilliant.

Aubergine masala was one of the biggest hits of the night, and one of the few dishes that had no meat or fish in it. Creamy without being bland, and still allowing the fried aubergines to be the main flavour, it was the sort of thing you wish you could eat forever. Done in the same sauce was a just-done fillet of masala cod, possibly the only time in the last couple of years I've had a bit of fish in an Indian restaurant that wasn't overcooked.

But choosing highlights was a difficult job. Seafood string hopper was a sort of South Indian paella, with loads of lovely tender squid nestling amongst crunchy bits. Chicken and Prawn 65 were expertly fried nuggets of shocking purple, crunchy outside and utterly tender within. For a city not exactly short of fried chicken shops, it's surprisingly rare to find anywhere that's found out the secret of doing it properly. It speaks volumes that only the Clove Club's (there's that name again) buttermilk chicken could give this a run for its money.

Only a chicken dosa disappointed slightly, although perhaps this was partly a result of them forgetting a "gravy" that usually appears with this dish according to the regulars I was eating with. But the dosa itself was still tasty, and fortunately there was still a bit of that incredible hot sauce left to dip it in.

Finally, devilled mutton, and further proof of Apollo Banana Leaf's extreme command of spicing and slow-cooking. Comparable in style to the Tayyabs dry meat - and we all know how good that is - shot through with crispy fried curry leaves and onion, each cube of mutton was meltingly tender and generously coated in that thick, dark paste of spicy loveliness. Click on that image above to enlarge, and just look how utterly beautiful it is. And then imagine how good it tastes. Believe me, you're not even close.

Hopefully you'll have made your mind up by this point in the post that Apollo Banana Leaf is a serious restaurant worth anyone's time. But if you're still sitting on the fence, let me give you one final shove. The final bill per head, with everything you see above apart from the wine (ABL is BYO) came to just under £12. Even with the usual 12.5% added on - which they didn't even ask for - it still was only £13. And so, just to thank them for one of the most enjoyable meals we'd had in a very long time, we each happily handed over £15. They deserved it, and so do you. Go as soon as you possibly can.


Apollo Banana Leaf on Urbanspoon