Monday, 25 November 2013
It was billed as the "burger wars". Two behemoths of US burger culture, Five Guys and Shake Shack, were opening their first London branches within a few days of each other, and for while it seemed it was all any food blogger or restaurant critic was talking about. Would you go for the small-town, mass-market appeal of Five Guys, with their generous portions and limitless toppings? Or the refined, big-city chic Shake Shack, each sandwich a mini work of art and accompanied by an oh-so-clever selection of trendy London craft beers and Paul A Young chocolates? We went, we queued, we ate. At the time, it was Shake Shack that seemed to be winning the battle for hearts and minds but as with so many of these things, once the initial hype died down we all snuck back off to MeatLiquor and Patty & Bun and left them to it. I don't know about you, but I've not returned to Shake Shack and never even made it to Five Guys London in the first place.
So I was in Covent Garden one lunchtime looking for Christmas presents and avoiding the chuggers and I noticed Five Guys, shining pristine bright red and white like a hospital emergency room made out of Lego, totally unmistakable and unmistakably totally deserted. Finally, I thought, here was my chance to try their flagship offering without the prejudice of a three-hour wait clouding the results, and I wandered inside.
The welcome was friendly, the choices to be made fairly simple. I'd been warned the 'normal' burger was enough for a party of six, so stuck to the 'little cheeseburger' with 'little fries' and 'little drink', the ordering of which was faintly emasculating but when it arrived turned out to be plenty big enough. The only thing 'little' about the portion of fries, for example, was the ridiculous tiny cup they filled up to the brim before pouring a good half pound of overfill into the bottom of the brown takeaway bag. As to why, your guess is as good as mine. But they tasted pretty good - thank you "Guy Poskitt farm - UK" where apparently they were from that day.
I noticed something, too, while I was waiting for my Five Guys order to be delivered. Around the room hang quotes and reviews from esteemed Stateside publications like the New York and Los Angeles Times, full of praise for their product, as you might expect from the home of the cheeseburger, but in words that veer worryingly close to hyperbolic cult-like fervour. But where were the UK reviews? Not a single one visible anywhere on the walls, and only one, a blogger, quoted very briefly as part of an electronic slideshow on the back of the tills. Even the most mediocre burger joint can usually find at least a blogger or two to quote on their stationery - are things really that bad, six months after a launch that was reported on the national news, that only one critic in town has anything positive to say?
The burger was, as others will no doubt have told you long before now, a pretty nondescript affair. The beef had no discernible flavour and was cooked through to dry grey. The plastic cheese did its job servicably well, and I didn't hate the heavily seeded bun even though, crumpled and somewhat deflated, it didn't look particularly appetising. But it was all instantly forgettable, and for over £10 for the whole lot including a drink from one of those machines that pretend to offer thousands of different flavours but somehow always leave you with the exact same chemical-infused fizz no matter what you choose, it was too expensive.
"Instantly forgettable". Perhaps that explains it. Barely six months on, it's terribly obvious that, aside from a few timid American tourists, the crowds have turned their backs on Five Guys and (from what I gather) Shake Shack as well. I can't help thinking that these huge operations just sat on their hands for too long, waiting for the right moment to strike, and by the time they'd decided to finally grace us with their presence, safe in the knowledge that they were what London had been waiting for, we'd quietly created a healthy selection of world-class burgers of our own, thankyouverymuch.
Schadenfreude, you say? Well, you can hardly blame us. It's never nice to see a good business failing, never mind two, but the acres of empty, roped-off queuing areas at both Five Guys and Shake Shack just point towards not only a massive over-confidence in your own product but a rather arrogant attitude to the reception they were expecting from a city already hardly struggling for a way to enjoy minced beef and cheese inside a semi-brioche bun. Cheeseburger and fries? Hot dogs? Buffalo wings? Nah, you're alright America, we're good, thanks. What else you got?
Thursday, 21 November 2013
I'd like to know why it took until 2013 for London restaurants to work out how to cook chicken properly. This is, after all, a skill possessed by the most reluctant of weekend chefs - even me, and I can overcook a pot noodle. But how many times have you sat down for half a bird in your local pub only to be presented with a dried-up old carcass with a texture like damp loft insulation, the flesh peeling off the bones in sweaty, claggy clumps? How many hotel restaurants have proudly unveiled a 'supreme' from beneath a silver dome and for it to taste like it's been crumbling under a hot lamp for the best part of a fortnight? I've eaten drumsticks that have been left on the barbeque coals for hours longer than they should have been and they've still been juicy and tender (albeit beneath a half-inch of carbon). Something about the processes required in a professional kitchen and the demands of service conspire to make chicken in a restaurant, almost invariably, a colossal disappointment.
So it's worth repeating a couple of the places that are Doing Roast Chicken Right. There is Clockjack Oven in Soho, a proto-chain yes and unashamedly so, but where each piece of spit-roasted poultry is bouncy and juicy and seasoned to perfection. The chips are some of the best in town, too, and although some aspects of the experience could be improved (the drinks list still reads like a wet Monday) you can't fail to enjoy their main product. And who could forget Chicken Shop, currently pride of Kentish Town but shortly to open in Tooting, where for very little money you can eat some lovely crispy-skinned bird with a side of crinkle-cut chips. It's places like these that make you wonder what the hell everyone else is finding so difficult.
And now there is Le Coq, in Islington, a sign that perhaps, oh God please, London finally has a grip on this thing. They may bristle with the comparisons with the rather more downmarket examples above - Le Coq is a classy, independent venture with a proper drinks offering and a weekly-changing menu of interesting starters and sides - but they still form part of that exclusive group of restaurants that somehow have managed to serve roast chicken without completely coq-ing it up (sorry).
Starters, despite the obvious (and understandable, as you will see) focus on the main event, were still worth bothering with. A salad of artichokes, capers and parmesan ticked all the flavour profile boxes and we particularly enjoyed the way the artichokes had been grilled to get little crispy bits on the petals. And a 'brown crab rarebit' tasted as odd as it sounded, but after the initial shock of the powerfully seafoody brown-meat had died down it was actually weirdly moreish, the cheese and crab mixture being salty and rich alongside that punch of the sea.
But we - and everyone else in the room for that matter - were here for the chicken, and the chicken we did have. Presented in two parts, the bright white flesh of the breast encased in a golden-brown skin, and the darker meat of the leg stretched out next to it, it was, every last morsel of it, quite beautifully done. The flavour of it, not least, was seriously impressive - perhaps thanks to this particular breed of chicken, perhaps the way they were reared, perhaps the skill of the kitchen at Le Coq. Whatever the reason, I can't think of a better roast chicken to be found in London, and certainly not for a very reasonable £17 for two courses. It came with a colcannon made with yet more artichokes (Jerusalem this time), a side which beats any green salad into a coq'ed hat (please somebody stop me), some excellent tarragon mayonnaise, and a teeny pot of chicken roasting juices which my friend had to stop me drinking like it was soup.
I should also make a special mention of the "rotisserie potatoes", which I like to think were gently cooked in the roasting fat from the chicken, and if they weren't certainly tasted like they were, all soft and glistening and browned with concentrated chicken flavour. Could Le Coq, not content with serving arguable the best roast chicken in London, also be home to the best roasties?
My only regret was not ordering a side of bread to soak up the rest of the juices, so if you make the trip to Islington yourself be sure you don't make the same mistake. Running your fingers feverishly round your plate trying desperately to get a final fix of that sticky chicken stock is not the most edifying way to end a meal, and I can only apologise to those around me for my behaviour last night.
Having completely failed to avoid making any cheap gags at the expense of the name of this restaurant thus far, I don't see why I should stop now, so it just remains for me to say that you really can't help falling in love with Le Coq. The main event is, as I say, impossible to fault, and if everything else had been a disaster it still would have been worth the hour-long Overground trip from Battersea. But add in the expertly-judged sides, the interesting (and resolutely British) starters and the finest roast potatoes in town you have yourself a real gem of a place. In fact they're so good even now, barely weeks after opening, the only question is where they go next. My advice is, don't get Coq'y.
I was invited to review Le Coq
Wednesday, 13 November 2013
People quite often - and often quite rightly - have a habit of factoring in the ease of getting to a restaurant into their overall appraisal of a place. It makes sense, doesn't it, that you'd be more pleasantly disposed towards somewhere you could reach by foot in five minutes than somewhere objectively better but requiring a horrendous multi-stage tube/bus/tram/rickshaw journey. I think Mien Tay Battersea, for example, is much better than Mien Tay Shoreditch even though both are owned by the same people, have exactly the same menus and serve very similar crowds of youngish middle-class Londoners; I suspect the only actual difference is that one I can wobble home from in under a minute, and one I can't, but I swear the honey-glazed quail is always that much crispier and tastier on Lavender Hill. And that prejudice suits me very well.
I can only assume, therefore, that the well-heeled lot patronising 500 in Archway - every table taken on a cold Monday night in late October - and the hundreds of people leaving positive reviews on sites like London Eating and Urbanspoon must all live within a stone's throw of the place, because I'm afraid this SW11er couldn't find much to enjoy at all.
House bread, often the first bit of food you get to try in any given restaurant and a pretty good barometer of what's to follow, was stale and dull, a few bits of dry tomato bread and a greasy, crumbly foccacia. They had, I think, made it on-site but if you're going to go to that effort, why not wait until a bit later in the day so that it actually shows? Or it could have been leftovers from yesterday. Either way, not good.
We ordered a burrata starter to share, just so we had something to counter the carb-fest to follow, and they do at least get points for dividing it up into two separate plates to save us fighting over the same piece. But this lump of unexciting cheese, with very little creamy burrata filling, was covered with a mound of slimy roast veg smothered in oil, all of which was teeth-achingly chilly. It arrived mere seconds after it had been ordered, obviously straight from the fridge, a brazen display of infuriating laziness.
Against expectations by this stage, the mains were pretty good. My £18 plate of buttered tagliatelle came with so much shaved white truffle it is surely one of the great truffle bargain dishes of London - it is barely cheaper than this wholesale. The truffle wasn't the freshest but had enough of that funky, funghi flavour (sorry) to make it worthwhile and the pasta was bouncy and silky and lubricated with just enough butter without being sickly.
Ravioli came in a generous portion and were at least cooked to the same standard as the tagliatelle, but I'm not entirely convinced the swirls of sweet balsamic improved matters much, or the rather dry pork filling, or for that matter the soggy deep-fried sage dumped on top. But, you know, they were edible, and my friend who had ordered it, and was Italian, said they were better than the ones she'd had at Trullo. Which is an endorsement of sorts.
So our evening at 500 wasn't a complete waste of time. But were it not for the lure of the bargain-basement white truffle and decent pasta, we couldn't have found much home to write home about. Everyone deserves a good neighbourhood restaurant, and yes I know my experience of the place is tainted by the struggle to get back across town to home. My advice though, even if you happen to live in the flat directly above 500 on Holloway Road, is to get on the tube - there's better out there, and some things are worth travelling for.