Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The French, Manchester

Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough will know that I consider Simon Rogan to be one of the most talented chefs working in Britain today, and that my meal at l'Enclume is unlikely to be superceded any time soon as the best meal I've ever eaten. I realise labelling anything the "best" is fraught with problems, especially with anything so subjective as restaurants, but much as I try to avoid quixotic praise, the more I think about that afternoon in Cartmel, in that bright conservatory overlooking the garden, the more I realise how special it was. Sixteen courses of love and joy, and edible pebbles. What more could you want?

It is probably due in part, then, to this hopeless fanboyism that I and a friend were invited up to Manchester last weekend to sample his latest ventures (more on his more informal spot, Mr Cooper's House and Garden, from Lizzie in due course) at the Midland hotel. The chances of my not having a great time at a Simon Rogan restaurant are so slim that the PR powers that be clearly decided that it was worth putting us up in this swankiest of city centre hotels and letting us loose on a ten-course tasting menu, for which we are of course very grateful. So after a morning swim in the basement pool and a brief wander around Manchester in the rain (I believe this is Manchester's default weather setting), we settled in for the midday sitting.

Much like the way things kicked off at l'Enclume, the dazzling selection of amuses that preceed the menu proper at the French are each mini works of art. Crispy kale, chicken skin and horseradish bore a certain resemblance to a similar creation at l'Enclume but substituting the cracker for a sheet of crispy kale was a stroke of genius, and having it all dissolve in your mouth into a riot of animal fat and cream was quite the sensation. Cute little crab and sorrel canapés, too, played with contrasting textures thanks to a crunchy, puffy base laced with seaweed (I think). And 'Rye, mustard and linseeds', spiked with pickled red cabbage, was fresh and invigorating, the seeds toasted just to release a bit of smoke and oil. The only not-entirely-successful item was a black pudding and sage croquette thing which should have been right up my alley but turned out to be rather bland and pappy. Or maybe it was just suffering in contrast to everything else.

Plenty to discuss, then, and we hadn't even reached course one. That arrived next in a little stoneware pot, and consisted of two impossibly sweet new potatoes covered in a rich cheddar sauce. Toasted bread added crunch, and chives colour. It was all very comforting and autumnal, a cheese and potato pie gone posh.

"Grilled radish, leek and watercress" doesn't sound like the most amazingly interesting dish, does it? Except there is nobody who can do vegetables like Simon Rogan, and thanks to a range of techniques and some incredibly fresh ingredients, it was an absolute dazzler. A young leek, gently charred and tasting of wood smoke, was draped around a couple of pieces of rich, salty ham in an ever-so-slightly gelatinous sauce studded with mustard seeds. A fresh radish on top added a bitter crunch to compliment the salt and soft notes elsewhere, and another type of cooked radish was so sweet and smoky and had a flavour so arresting it could have won Best In Show on its own.

And so, just as had happened at l'Enclume, that course kicked off a run of five that could each barely be faulted. Take each of these ingredients in isolation and tell me you don't want to smother yourself in them - mushroom broth, salt-baked swede, smoked yolk, truffles. Now imagine all forming part of one extraordinary dish, rich and soothing, like wrapping yourself in a blanket in front of a log fire in an old thatched cottage.

Then the ox in coal oil dish, much discussed by others as a highlight of their meal at the French but supremely impressive even despite all the hype. On the one level, it's a steak tartare, prettied up with neat little balls of kohlrabi and toasted pumpkin seeds. But the coal oil adds a bewildering extra dimension, the flavour of a charcoal-charred steak without the char.

Caramelised cabbage - ah, you had me at "caramelised cabbage" - scallops, herbs and smoked roe had the trademark Rogan way with smoke and vegetables, with some lovely sweet little Scottish scallops boasting a golden brown crust. I wish I'd known that the roe was quite so punchy before I downed a whole puck of it in one, though - it was so powerfully salty my squeal of surprise turned heads from more than one neighbouring table.

Next was one of Rogan's famous salad explosions, consisting of at least fifty or so separate elements and presumably having taken some poor bugger the best part of the day to put together. I won't even begin to remember everything that went into it, but it was great fun to work our way through, and was interesting seeing how it had evolved from a similar dish I tried at the Electrolux Cube when he was cooking there last year. Just as pretty, though.

Plaice with carrots was a dainty arrangement of bright-white, superbly-timed fish and carrots done caramelised/roasted and as a little purée. Whether it was because it was towards the end of the savoury dishes by this point or just my delicate stomach, I'm afraid neither of us really much enjoyed the deep-fried nugget of bone marrow that topped the fish; it was rich to the point of defeating. Nevertheless, it's always nice when a top chef turns his hand to a fish like plaice - you rarely see it looking and tasting this good.

Middlewhite pork belly was just about the nicest bit of pork I've enjoyed in a very long time, the flesh hammy and bouncy and edged with a thin layer of golden crackling. The accompanying veg - blewits, turnip and mugwort - had the added benefit of sounding like something from Hogwarts' Advanced Potions class as well as tasting earthy and mysterious. A pork jus poured on top made some popcorn crackle like breakfast cereal.

Apples, woodruff (wiki here, I had no idea either), sweet cheese and hazelnut was a pleasant if unspectacular introduction to the sweet courses. Even here, though, despite rather muted flavours, there was some interesting technical skill on display in the form of some nitro-frozen, apple-flavoured meringue things which completely disappeared in the mouth like cold candy floss.

Then a marvellous course consisting of toasted oats, raspberries and hyssop where the fruit had been teased into a thin sheet of translucent raspberry-flavoured candy, and the medicinal, minty hyssop came in the form of a crumbled sorbet. As you may have noticed by this point, there's always plenty going on in terms of technique, but never at the expense of enjoyment.

It was all, of course, as it was always likely to be, a joy. Opening Manchester's first fine-dining restaurant in its most grand and classical old dining halls is a pretty serious achievement in itself, but to do so while sacrificing so little of the charm, inventiveness and fanatical devotion to detail that made l'Enclume so special has not just created the first high-end restaurant in Manchester worth visiting, but another regional destination restaurant, a jewel in the crown of the north that deserves to draw in visitors from all over the country.

I hesitate to mention the dreaded M-word but enough people have made comments to the effect of "if it's so good, why didn't it get a Michelin star", and enough Mancunian pride has been hurt by the omission in this year's guide that it probably deserves addressing. Firstly, and most importantly, Michelin are an ignorant bunch of foam-frotting dinosaurs who wouldn't recognise a good meal if it was tied to a brick and flung in their faces. The briefest of glances at the awards as they currently stand nationwide reveal no obvious pattern other than that if you are connected in some way to a famous name treading water in the Michelin comfort zone (Ducasse, Gagnaire, Robuchon) or are at least serving the kind of dishes they recognise from other restaurants they've awarded (the Greenhouse, Gordon Ramsay, Le Champignon Sauvage) then you are likely to do well. Other than that, you may as well be pulling names out of a hat. The dreadful Ametsa gets a star and not the Clove Club? The gimmick-fountain that is Bo London is awarded, and not the refined, innovative Kitchen Table? It's a crapshoot, in all senses of the word.

So the fact that l'Enclume is "deserving" of two stars and the French not even one says nothing - absolutely nothing - about the quality of the food at either restaurant but everything about how risk-averse, unpredictable and utterly irrelevant the Michelin guide is. Simon Rogan's crafted, intelligently seasonal, creative dishes in the heart of this grand old hotel may not have been deemed as good as somewhere in Mayfair charging £80 for an edible used condom but nobody - not him, and certainly not you - need to worry about that. One day the Michelin guide will be a forgotten relic of a time when the wrong people valued the wrong things about eating out and we will laugh about how chefs would drive themselves loopy to win their favour. Until then, just know this - there are few better restaurants than the French.


I was invited to the Midland to review the French

The French by Simon Rogan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

You Me House, New Malden

Compared to other SE Asian cuisines, Korean is strangely overlooked in this town, for some reason. Chinese is effortlessly well represented at the top (Hutong, Min Jiang) and the bottom (Silk Road, Chilli Cool) ends of the budget, you'll never want for a good Vietnamese meal if you're anywhere near Battersea or Hackney, and every high street in town has a Thai restaurant despite the fact none of them are much good. But while there are a couple of Korean restaurants lurking around Zone 1 (Kimchee, Asadal, Koba), they had, for presumably very understandable reasons of rent and overheads, been tame and rather overpriced, and with indifferent service borne of the kind of location that gets a healthy tourist footfall.

So it was during yet another interesting but ultimately disappointing meal at popup Jubo in Shoreditch last month that I and a friend finally vowed to pull our fingers out and make the trip to where we'd constantly been told is the home of authentic Korean cooking in London - New Malden. Actually, as we both live near Clapham Junction, the journey to New Malden station itself was fairly trivial; the problem is that unlike, say, Kingsland Road or Chinatown, the restaurants are spread out over a large, anonymous stretch of South London suburb that makes planning your destination in advance a neccessity. We'd settled on You Me House (either a bad translation or they really do want to sound like a Cbeebies TV show) after a tipoff from a New Malden regular, promising authentic food on a budget.

It started extremely well. The (You Me) house snacks consisted of some crunchy mung beans in a sticky dressing and bean sprouts in sesame oil, and both those and a boldly-spiced, gently fizzy house kimchi were devoured even before any decisions were made about which other food to order. House beer was something called 'Hite' that tasted of precisely nothing, which is probably the point.

Of the main dishes, there were two highlights. Chilli-salted chicken had that knobbly, bubbly coating that all the best Korean chicken does, and the flesh inside was nicely moist. I would have a liked a bit more chilli perhaps, and slightly more acidity in the coating, but it was still a good example of this kind of thing.

Steamed dumplings were huge, soft, doughy affairs, generously stuffed with a pork/herb mixture and full of flavour. The dough, in fact, was so good it was perfectly edible on its own, which is just as well, as after cack-handedly shredding the things apart with a spoon and chopsticks to create chunks small enough to swallow, you tended to end up with either pork, or dough, and only very rarely both.

Other dishes were, if not unsuccessful exactly, then at least slightly more everyday. Bibimbap was perfectly good but the fierce heat of the stone pot overcooked it almost before we'd had a chance to take a bite each. Thin strips of beef rib, too, stood little chance of being tender after 30 seconds on a white-hot iron griddle, but still managed to retain a faint memory of a gentle garlic marinade. Only a beef and noodle dish was a real disappointment, the house-made noodles suffering under the weight of a gloopy black sauce of no discernible flavour.

We had massively over-ordered, and had to take much of the leftovers home in plastic boxes (which they were happy to provide), and so our bill came to a not-insubstantial £56.70 for two. But at a very conservative guess I'd say even half this amount of food would have been enough, and with that in mind I'm pretty sure you could have a very nice meal (dumplings, chicken, kimchee, perhaps some rice) for no more than £15 a head. And for that reason, it's hard to criticise You Me House too much. Service was charming (it's family-run), the place was clean and bright, and with a menu this size it's not hard to imagine I could have ordered much better. So here's to next time.


You-Me on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Mayfields, Hackney

It's not just that a lot of new restaurants have opened in London recently, although those numbers in isolation are still staggering. What's truly impressive is that so many aren't just good, but groundbreaking, serving dishes of supreme skill, sure, but of remarkable ingenuity and with unusual ingredients treated in exciting new ways. Someone recently emailed me asking for my five favourite openings of the past 12 months and narrowing it down to just that many was one of the most difficult exercises I've had to undertake in a long time. Seriously, out of Gymkhana, The Dairy, Toast (East Dulwich), The Clove Club, Peckham Bazaar, Bone Daddies, Hutong, Casse Croute, Smokehouse, One Leicester Street, Newman Street Tavern, Bubbledogs, Duck and Waffle, Sushisamba, and now bloody Mayfields, which five would you choose? It's pretty much impossible.

Yes, Mayfields. It deserves a spot in that hall of champions above for many reasons, but let's start at the beginning. It's a bright, bijou dining space attached to a small kitchen, and if I'm going to be brutal I'd say that some tables are better than others - I certainly wouldn't want to be sat at that one right next to the door once the winter really kicks in, and some of the others are packed pretty close together. But the staff are relentlessly friendly and at least in this small, open space you never have to try hard to attract their attention, so there are benefits.

House bread, fresh sourdough, with a grassy olive oil was very good. It was probably from Bakehouse E5, though I'm happy to be corrected on this.

Seabass ceviche (fantastic fresh fish, gently marinaded) came in a cold watercress soup which had the most extraordinary colour, like dark green ink. The last time I've seen something this colour was a chervil "tea" at El Bulli, but that was disgusting - here it softly enhanced the flavours of the fish without being overwhelming or bitter. Do you hear that, Mayfields? You're better than El Bulli.

Mackerel sashimi and sesame was similarly inventive - and very successful. The toasted seeds and oily fish were actually a really good match, and for £3.50 you got plenty of it.

Duck and pumpkin was nicely seasonal, and prettily presented with some dried citrus and various root vegetables. The duck itself, presumably sous-vided to a perfect pink colour, was seasoned well and had a great texture - you could have almost cut through it with a spoon.

And then the absolute star course, in which every element, flaky white cod, smokey grilled cauli and leeks, some fantastic crispy cabbage of some sort and a marvellous rich olive sauce, combined to produce one of those dishes you will remember for a long, long time. There is some serious talent in the kitchen at Mayfields, and they're not afraid to show it off. This dish, with all its different techniques and ingredients, cost just £10.20. The total bill, with five alcoholic drinks, came to £31/head - they even only added 10% service charge, as if I couldn't have loved them more.

Not so long ago, an opening as profoundly impressive as this would have been the talk of the town. These days, I'm worried their efforts may be lost in the storm of talent that seems to be sweeping every corner of the capital. But given its size and location, perhaps ducking the very brightest glare of the spotlight might do them - and you - a favour. It may just mean you can get a table at a reasonable hour, and that they may avoid the kiss of death of the dreaded Michelin inspectors. Yes, this is yet another astonishing new restaurant for Londoners to get their teeth into. Long may this dazzling trend continue.


Mayfields on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Cheese and Biscuits on tour: Dublin

Apologies for the spate of non-London posts - it just so happens I've had cause to travel about a bit recently, and being the hopeless restaurant spod that I am, even before I have a hotel and flights booked I have decided where I'm going to have dinner. In Paris, Septime and Chateaubriand were "must-visit" restaurants, internationally important and cutting-edge, which no self-respecting blogger could ignore. But for a weekend in Dublin arranged around a friend's wedding, I wanted something simpler, less likely to take up the short time I had there, and - let's face it - cheaper.

In the end, the decision was more or less made for me. Full disclosure time - both the hotel I stayed in (The Clarence), the Liquor Rooms and the Bison Bar are all owned by the same people (not Bono any more thank heavens), who very generously offered to put me up and generally lavish me with the kind of hospitality that everyone in Dublin seems determined to give in spades. Key to my getting involved with these guys in the first place was reading up on the Bison Bar, billed (by themselves, admittedly) as "Ireland's first authentic Texas BBQ" and receiving some pretty positive reviews. Given that there isn't really anywhere even in London yet doing authentic US BBQ (yes I know Pitt Cue are good but it's very much their take on BBQ, not I'm led to believe quite what you'd get in Austin, TX) this was going to be a reason in itself.

But first things first, and late on Friday after a typically traumatic Ryanair flight we were relieved to slip into the velvety red bosom of the Liquor Rooms, underneath the Clarence. Part Parisian boudoir, part bedouin tent, with a number of dark low-ceiling rooms containing cosy snugs and two large marble-clad bars, it's an undeniably classy place, everyone - staff and customers, present company excepted - pleasant and well-dressed. Our spot, in a little cubby-hole created by an extension of the bar, was so comfortable we could have spent the night there, and in fact very nearly did.

Fortunately, it's not all show. The drinks, firstly, were all of very high quality - a martini ice cold, a sidecar expertly balanced. There's an extensive list of house cocktails which I'm sure are all good but once we realised our barman could do the classics so well we hardly felt the need to experiment.

With such lovely surroundings and accomplished drinks, the Liquor Rooms could have just kept the bar snacks to packets of crisps and it would have still been worth spending the evening there. Plenty of otherwise decent bars in London have no kitchen to speak of, or if they do seem content to charge way over the odds for reheated spring rolls or microwaved nachos. So the Liquor Rooms' achievement on the food is all the more impressive - everything we tried wasn't just better than it needed to be for a late-night bar, but genuinely enjoyable, from a generous portion of antipasti containing some nice soft cheeses and folds of Italian hams, to a huge bowl of chicken wings crisped up with a soy dressing. Best of all were some huge chilli/garlic prawns that were cooked to juicy, springy perfection - I'm so used to plasticky, overcooked prawns I'd almost forgotten how good they could be when handled by someone who knows what they're doing. Bar food done well.

I'm acutely aware this post already sounds dangerously advertorial - I almost wish there had been something wrong with the Liquor Rooms so I can salvage some veneer of objectivity. But I'm sure my experience would have been just as positive had I been footing the bill myself, and if I'm ever in Dublin again I'll be back. Given its obvious popularity, plenty of others feel the same.

A mistake a lot of American theme restaurants make is to fill up the walls with Route 66 road signs and quirky neon beer branding and hope the result doesn't look too much like a branch of TGI Friday's (it always does). Bison Bar have, to their credit, kept much of the format of the pub that presumably used to occupy the space, including the handsome old oak bar, and added only select touches of Americana - some imposing taxidermy, and a few amusing saddle-stools. The most atmospheric touch is the all-pervading cloud of smoke emanating from the real smoking cabinets in the kitchen and wafting down the street, which gets you into the mood for a plate of ribs and brisket before you've even stepped through the front door.

Now, I've never been to Texas, so I can't comment on authenticity. Someone once told me that you never have fries with proper Southern BBQ so on this front already more Dublin than Dallas. All I can tell you is that everything, from the beautifully moist smoked chicken, to the grease-less onion rings, to the lean, rich sausage, to the aforementioned fries, was right up there with the best BBQ food I've had the pleasure to eat in my life. Whoever is in charge of the kitchen has clearly both been to a Texas BBQ joint and - crucially - has learned the best way of recreating the experience back home using similar equipment.

Everything was worth the asking price and then some, but I have to put in a special word for the brisket, which was thick and fatty with a fantastic pink crust that made you wish it lasted forever. I have tried the sad, grey slabs of leather that certain London restaurants like to call brisket but this was another species entirely, enough to convert even the most ardent BBQ sceptic. It was so good, in fact, that I wish they'd not put quite as much BBQ sauce on it in my sandwich, as I'd like more of the beef flavour to shine through, but this is a very minor niggle. Coleslaw, smoked beans, dipping sauces, everything else was devoured with pleasure.

Next to the near-faultless food offering was a decent craft beer selection (I had one flavoured with seaweed out of sheer curiosity, though perhaps fortunately I couldn't really taste it) and a short cocktail list - they do a mean whisk(e)y sour. And even the desserts weren't an afterthought - peach cobbler contained a lovely fresh biscuit and I'm still kicking myself I ran out of time the next day to return for the chocolate fudge brownie.

So yes, as freebies go, this weekend was a bit of a success. Accepting such a comprehensive set of comped meals, not to mention a two-night stay in one of the best hotels in town, sounds like the greatest of all blagger perks and of course I'm very grateful for everyone involved for sorting it out. There's nothing more satisfying than being able to report back on a happy experience to those who have gone out of their way to create one, but equally there's nothing more terrifying than the prospect of being the bearer of bad news when things go wrong, so I'm delighted this weekend worked out the way it did. Anyway, navel-gazing aside there's really only one thing you need to know - if you go to the Liquor Rooms or the Bison Bar, you will enjoy yourself.

One last thing and I'll finish, I promise. The wedding, on the Saturday (Congratulations Sarah and Gareth), took place in an idyllic old pub in a ludicrously picturesque spot ten minutes out of Dublin city centre called Strawberry Bed. A welcome of prosecco and Guinness and live Irish music led on to a short, touching ceremony in an upstairs room lit by candles. The wedding banquet, so often a distressing affair involving boiled vegetables and grey roast beef, was here a starter of crab and lobster salad with fresh baked bread, and a main of monkfish fillet wrapped in pancetta. Based on their ability to feed 60 or so people this well in one go, I'm guessing the Angler's Rest would feed an individual in the restaurant downstairs very well indeed. We ate, we laughed, we drank, we got drunk on Mini Guinness (Tia Maria and Baileys), we danced, I don't remember getting home. It doesn't really get much better than that. If this is Ireland, consider me sold.

I was a guest of the the Liquor Rooms, the Bison Bar, and
The Clarence Hotel, 6 – 8 Wellington Quay, Dublin 2, Ireland
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The Liquor Rooms 9/10

The Bison Bar 9/10

Bison Bar on Urbanspoon