Thursday, 30 January 2014
Apologies for the sense of deja vu as I report on yet another underwhelming rotisserie joint in East London but really, this is getting quite silly now. Why is it seemingly beyond the grasp of intelligent people to charge a normal amount for a nice slow-roast chicken, with a golden, crisp skin and flesh neither too dry nor too flabby, with a couple of well-chosen sides and a wine list that doesn't scream "we saw you coming"? I can do a decent roast chicken - me! - and I once tried to reheat a tin of beans in the microwave. It can't be that difficult, surely?
To be completely fair, none of the food at Bones was terrible - we ate most of it, didn't send any of it back, and it did at least look better than our lunch at Clutch (despite my photos threatening to prove otherwise). And, inevitably, it will do well - it's got an absolute prime corner position right near Shoreditch High Street, and the smart, low-lit interior is comfortable (if a little... familiar, more on which later) enough to attract just the kind of people they're after.
But the sheer, breathtaking lack of ambition of the place. Even the name - Fay Maschler pointed out on Wednesday the number of new places that seem to have no loftier goal than to become one of a crowd of similarly-monikered comfort food outlets, a lazy attempt to ride this latest fad while it has the attention of the moneyed youth. And while we're on the subject, why "bones"? Bone Daddies was the first I'm aware of to use it, and that makes sense because pork bones are an integral part of their tonkotsu broth. But in a chicken restaurant, the bones are the only bit you don't eat. It brings to mind leftovers, discarded Chicken Cottage boxes in the street, greying trash pecked at by feral pigeons.
First to arrive was a teeny bowl of fried broad beans, I'd estimate maximum 50g for £3.50. Brindisa sells 125g for £1.50. So that's quite a markup.
Starters were next, and portion size aside, were quite good. Chicken livers were plump and juicy, coated in an interesting sherry & paprika sauce, and a teeny but nicely-dressed salad. Artichoke hearts were nicely roasted and had a good flavour, but neither of us tasted a trace of the advertised paprika or truffle in the accompanying garlic mayonnaise. Or garlic, for that matter. Wouldn't have the paprika at least given it just a teeny bit of colour? This was bright, Hellmann's-white.
The main event, chicken was... fine. An incredibly powerful lemon marinade did at least give the skin some crunch, and though the flesh was chewy and dripping with grease it was at least not dry. But here's a thing - we saw the rotisserie itself at the back of the kitchen, with a couple of whole, pale yellow birds rotating slowly for all to see. But the chicken presented to us, weirdly identically portioned into two metal bowls (oh yes, metal bowls - no trend-jumping points dropped there) was dark brown and showed absolutely no trace of being recently jointed - it looked for all the world like they'd removed the chicken from the spit, jointed it and THEN finished the pieces off in a hotter conventional oven. I'm not saying that this is what they did do, just that it looked a hell of a lot like they did.
Rotisserie potatoes looked the part but could have done with a bit more crunch. Fries were good.
So. There are two ways of going about doing rotisserie chicken well, and evidence shows neither are beyond the wit of man. On the one hand, you can keep things simple and snappy and start a proto-chain, where you charge under £10 for chicken and chips and either have the turnover to prevent the birds from hanging around on the grill too long (Chicken Shop) or you come up with some clever brining menthod to keep them moist and lovely for longer (Clockjack Oven). On the other hand, you can go unashamedly high-end and charge a premium for lovingly-cared for chicken, roasted just-so and presented with a selection of fautless sides, and nobody will have cause to complain about that, either (Le Coq).
Bones' problem is that they are at the price point of Le Coq (literally - £17 for 2 courses, another indication of their lack of imagination) but the presentation and quality of the chicken feels more like sub-Chicken Shop, where a half chicken is only £8.50 and where, with a few mates last month, we spent a little under £15 each for everything on the menu and a heck of a lot of house wine. The bill for two at Bones was £54 with no alcohol (or at least it will be from next week when soft launch is over) and the cheapest wine is £20+ a bottle.
But actually, my main beef with Bones (as it were) isn't the price, or the wine list, or the service (which was actually rather lovely) or even the food, which was serviceable if forgettable. It's that everything about the place is calculated to ride as many London restaurant trends as possible for the least possible effort, a lazy clone of a number of other places, from the name to the decor to the menu structure, doing just enough to not get sued but absolutely nothing more. That may say more about this own particular trend-jaded food blogger than whether or not it will succeed as a business - as I say, I'm sure it will do well. But that doesn't mean I can't be a bit depressed about it.
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
There are precious few restaurants that have a menu so comprehensively well drawn-up that you would be happy eating every single item from it. This is because most restaurants, like most people, aren't good at everything and tend to focus on their strengths while producing a couple of token offerings for minority interests (usually vegetarians or other niche dietary requirements). Hence the burger bars with the tragic lentil alternative, or the fish & chip restaurant doing frozen burgers to keep fussy non-fish-eaters happy. It's simple economics - you've less of a chance of a vegan vetoing a birthday trip to your favourite tapas joint if they are able to order at least something, and though you can't please everyone all of the time, there's at least a possibility you could stop them banging on about the rights of the unborn chicken foetus for five bloody minutes while you have your croquettas. And while you do, the restaurant in question is making money.
Sometimes though it's nice to come across a menu in which no dish appears to be a half-hearted niche-interest offering, and everything sounds as good as everything else. It's nice, because you know instantly this is the kind of place that is doing nothing but what they're good at, and if they're not good at whatever it is floats your particular boat, then you're better off elsewhere. But it's also nice because it gave me and a few friends the chance to order, Mr. Creosote-style "the lot, twice" without a second thought, safe in the knowledge that we wouldn't be presented with anything that wasn't exactly the kind of thing Lockhart wanted to make.
What the Lockhart want to make, then, is American food with a Southern states lean, but using British ingredients and with a certain added British refinement in service and atmosphere. If that seems a bit mean to the Southern US then I don't mean it to be, just that Marylebone is not Louisiana, and you ignore local interests at your peril. Simply copying exactly a restaurant from somewhere else is not a commendable insistence on authenticity, it's a theme park.
First to arrive, while we were still in the downstairs bar, was something called a "muffaletta" which I'm afraid hadn't crossed my consciousness before but which apparently originated in New Orleans and contained layers of mortadella, salami, mozzarella and all sorts, alongside mixed pickled veg. The effect was just as good as you might think layer upon layer of ham, cheese and pickle would be, but it was still remarkably light for what looked like something you could have used to prop open your front door. I think most of it disappeared pretty quickly. Read sandwich expert Helen Graves' writeup of it here, and have a go making it yourself from a recipe in her book.
Upstairs for the full menu, and the real fireworks. Just a few highlights, to save space and because these are the only photos that were even close to publishable. Buttermilk wedge salad was a huge, crunchy pile of comfort and colour, bacon and egg and lettuce bound together with a gorgeous creamy dressing. Shrimp and grits were super, too - perfectly timed prawns (not something many places can manage) on a seasoned bed of rich polenta.
Stuffed quail was a lovely thing, its crisp, golden brown skin holding moist flesh largely unencumbered by bones (well done whoever's tedious job that was), on a bed of creamed cabbage. Saddle of venison, again perfectly cooked, came with a little quenelle of roast apple sauce, and one of those thick, cheffy gravies that makes you want to lick your plate clean. I licked my plate clean.
Another stunning bit of food was a ribeye of beef for two, which served to remind that there are other ways of doing justice to top-end cow without cremating it in a Josper. Gently browned, with a powerful grass-fed flavour, it was quite the best bit of beef I've enjoyed since my last trip to Goodman, and and anyone who's ever been to Goodman will tell you, there are few higher compliments than that. No photo of the beef though I'm afraid. Well, there is but I won't let you see it for fear of retribution. Oh, I almost forgot the fried chicken - also great, even though my photo of it looked like something being removed from an operating theatre.
So, as you can gather, there are lots of reasons to like the Lockhart. Not just the food, not just the whole "we like it so you should too" attitude to the menu, but the uniqueness of the whole concept - Southern US grace matched with central London style. There are, God knows, so many American diner and BBQ shack concepts flooding the city at the moment and to do exactly that again would have made perfect business sense. But the Lockhart is, confidently, brilliantly, its own animal, a fusion of London and New Orleans, and a perfectly charming place to spend an evening. I thoroughly recommend it - just don't bring a vegetarian.
Monday, 20 January 2014
From the top deck of the bus at Vauxhall this weekend I noticed a large electronic billboard advertising what seemed like some horrid new reality TV show. "StEaX and the City", you would be forgiven for assuming, involves couples competing against each other in a series of increasingly difficult steak-related challenges for the chance to have sex in a box in a TV studio. Except, it isn't. It's actually the name of a "American themed steakhouse fusion with Japanese kitchen", with a name apparently chosen by a guy who likes to be known as the "wacky one" in the office. God save us from other people's idea of comedy.
But if "S***X and the City" (sorry I can't even bring myself to type it out in full) makes you want to cleave your own head in with a meat tenderiser, it takes a special kind of courage (or complete naive obliviousness) to open a restaurant whose name brings to mind feminine hygiene. "Do you fancy a Korean tonight?" "No thanks darling, I'm On The Bab. I'll just have some cheese on toast then finish off that box of Thorntons in front of Downton Abbey." Which is a shame, because the food at this tiny little Old Street restaurant certainly deserves better than the name it's been given, and deserves to do rather well.
Negatives (name aside) first. As I say, it's a tiny little place and they've crammed a greedy number of tables in - the functional decor and rotating cabinet of bulgogi buns behind the counter add to the Seoul street food vibe, but knocking elbows with your fellow diners is never going to be a wholly enjoyable experience however authentic it is. And considering how seemingly authentic the menu and everything else was, it was a surprise to discover the beef buns themselves were the biggest disappointment of the evening - soggy and impractically large and containing a filling of bland beef stew, rather like the one of those Old El Paso beef fajita mixes.
Fortunately, everything else was much better. House kimchi was good - only mildly spicy and mildly fermented, but crunchy and colourful and presented in a little metal lidded jar. I'm told that it's normal in Korea to be offered a selection of kimchi in restaurants so diners can choose between different levels of fermentation and heat; it would be nice to have that option somewhere here too. Maybe one day. That next to the kimchi is pa jeon, spring onion & seafood pancakes, soft and satisfying and greaseless.
Our favourite dish was kimchi bokeum bab, described as "bacon paella" (what's not to like) with a fried egg on top. It was rich and salty while not being too heavy, and a decent amount of it for £7.50. The house fried chicken was also a good example of East Asian comfort food, although they could have done with taking more care on the butchery - I found a few bits of chicken bone marrow and gristle, which wasn't particularly fun.
But, at £20 a head for a whole lot of food, most of which was pretty good, we didn't leave hungry or disappointed. Sure, I have a strong feeling this isn't the best that the Korean peninsula has to offer, but it's early days, not just for On The Bab but for Korean food in London generally. One day someone will do for this cuisine what Gymkhana has done for Indian, or Hawksmoor did for the American steakhouse. In the meantime, you can do worse than pop in for a kimchi, cheese & egg omelette and a beer at On The Bab. It could be your monthly treat.
Thursday, 16 January 2014
There's a new restaurant opened on Shoreditch High Street. It's not selling "dirty" anything, it's not a pop-up and they aren't committing any crimes against chicken, so for these things alone we should be grateful. It's the second restaurant from Peruvian chef Martin Morales, whose first spot in Soho I quite enjoyed, and although I'm afraid it suffered slightly in comparison when Lima opened a few months later, he still deserves full marks for steering clear of bandwagons and doing his own thing while so many others are falling over themselves to just be another comfort food cash-in. Ceviche was - still is - a quirky, interesting little place that introduces Londoners to the delights of Pisco Sours and Tiger's Milk and its success was well deserved.
Andina is largely more of the same, although perhaps with a more Shoreditch-y focus on the lighter side of things (salads, ceviche, smoothies, quinoa... lots of quinoa) than the meat-loving Soho crowds were after. The weekend brunch menu we tried had "breakfast" and "eggs" sections, with a number of starter-sized things under the heading "street" alongside the important ceviches. Three of us got to try quite a range of dishes, none of them being overfacingly large, although it should be pointed out that with many "small plates" menus, the bill has a tendency to creep north of comfortable once it's all added up.
Star of the show were, as you might have expected, the ceviches. We tried two; the Sato with trout and pecan nuts, sharp and refreshing and with plenty of juicy fish; and the Siwichi, seabass with sweet half-spheres of goldenberry (physalis) and raw onion. You can't really go wrong with ceviche here or in Soho, it's Morales' strongest suit and quite rightly so.
Tamalito was a kind of mini quinoa tamale stuffed with cheese and was a nice bit of filler, if a bit teeny for the asking price of £5.50. Prawn chupe was more generous in spirit and flavour, containing more quinoa, nice big juicy prawns and with a good, strong seafood kick.
Causas Amantani was ordered mainly out of curiosity, and even after after it had gone we weren't quite sure what to make of it. Cold mashed potato is not something you'd ordinarily rush to eat, and though each colourful cake was topped with some very nicely-cooked seafood (I particularly enjoyed the scallop with a good browned crust) you still ended up having to struggle through quite a bit of chilly spud. If they're going to serve the seafood hot, why not warm the potato as well? Maybe it's some Peruvian thing.
Desserts were good. Our favourite was a lúcuma fruit (no idea) mousse with a biscuit made of yet more quinoa, although the quinoa (I'm not making this up) chocolate brownie was decent too, even if it would have perhaps been better made with, I dunno, flour. It was topped with a quinoa biscuit. Of course it was.
With some interesting smoothies, a house Bloody Mary (made with beetroot and pisco, and probably quinoa) and a little bowl of incredibly moreish Peruvian corn caled cancha (which I don't think had quinoa in but wouldn't swear to it), the bill came to £84.38 for three people. This is a lot for brunch, and although we didn't walk away disappointed by any means, it still wasn't exactly a bargain. But as with Ceviche in Soho, it's an interesting, confidently idiosynractic little restaurant and if you want an introduction to Peruvian food - or are inexplicably addicted to quinoa - you could do much worse than book a table.
Friday, 10 January 2014
I used to travel fairly frequently to the Costa Brava for my holidays - twice a year usually, always to our family's little apartment in L'Escala to revisit the same beaches, the same bars and the same faintly disappointing restaurants. It was never less than fun (and relatively inexpensive), but you would be well advised to set your expectations pretty low before eating anywhere that wasn't Can Roca - in a part of the world popular with undemanding British tourists since the late 70's, nobody was trying too hard to be any good. After a couple of years doing half-hearted roundups on the blog I noticed not much was changing or improving, and I quietly stopped writing about the place.
Something tells me that isn't going to happen in San Diego. Of course it's unfair to compare the restaurants of a major world city to a largely rural area of North-East Spain, but given how us Brits are constantly fed the line that the Catalans spend their mealtimes in idyllic medieval boltholes sipping rosé and eating calçots (which I saw on a menu literally once in 15 years of visits there), while American food is dismissed as processed, unsophisticated junk, the dissonance is still worth addressing. The restaurant scene in San Diego, while certainly having strengths in certain areas, is as dynamic, innovative and value-for-money as almost anywhere you could think of, and the bar and beer scene is world-class.
Anyway, mindful of the fact that regular followers of a London restaurant blog won't necessarily be wildly interested in everything I Did On My Holidays, here's a brief roundup of the highlights of my latest trip:
A brand-new North Park restaurant that does a respectful but still recognisably Californian take on the London gastropub. Above is stuffed pigs trotters, which gives you some clue where they're getting their inspiration from, but the star dish was a brilliant cassoulet using fantastic local sausages and confit duck. A cracking beer list too, but then that goes without saying - just assume for anywhere that isn't a tiny hole-in-the-wall taco joint that the beer list is far and beyond anything you've seen outside the most specialist London outlets.
Mastiff Sausage Company at Thorn St Brewery
The picture above neatly sums up all of San Diego's strengths in one go - a flight of fantastic microbrewery beers, accompanied by some top-flight street food (in this case a snappy bratwurst and homemade pickles) for little over $10.
Porterhouse from Iowa Meats
A slight diversion from the bar/restaurant thing but this piece of meat is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it was bloody delicious - whatever your thoughts on the whole USDA cattle-raising methods, the size of the fillet side of this porterhouse is quite something to someone used to the leaner grass-fed British cuts. But this is also significant as the only purchase made during the trip where the service was less than amazing - in fact, the butcher I was assigned via ticketing system at Iowa Meats was unpleasant, lazy and rude, openly complaining when I asked for a cut of meat not already on the counter before literally wandering off and serving someone else. A similarly incompetent but not quite as openly aggressive colleague finished the job. Still, good steak.
OK I've been here before. But it's still good, using all grass-fed beef, and they do a tuna burger now too.
Lefty's Chicago pizzeria
The pizza pies here are good, and cheap, but I fell in love with the hot dog, served with a mound of pickles and salad in a soft bun.
I'm going to do a more thorough report on the breweries of North Park in due course, but an evening at the stunning Hess brewery can hardly be bettered. You can specify "nitro" (nitrogen) in your beer for extra smoothness (smaller bubbles).
A whisk(e)y bar in humble North Park that wouldn't be out of place in the grandest of Mayfair hotels. The powerful and unique house cocktails are $5 a piece from 6-8pm, but don't leave without trying one of their rare American micro-distillery whiskies (that's whisky, not bourbon). I tried a Balcones Brimstone from Texas, which was smoky like an Austin BBQ rather than a Scottish peat bog. Who knew?
An unreconstructed mom & pop burger bar, and none the worse for it, the menu here is as big as the portions, and the portions are huge. A decent budget burger (American cheese, salad, soft sweet bun and cooked-through beef that did a job) and crinkle cut chips. Some slightly worrying right-wing propaganda on the wall, but it all added to the hillbilly vibe.
If you think the waits for certain popular no-reservation London restaurants are long, then check out the queue for the tacos and tamales at Cuatro Milpas. If I'm going to be brutally honest, I didn't think the menu here was quite as accomplished as my beloved Tacos El Gordo, but they were still very, very good, all tortillas made in-house from an open bakery at the back, and served with a smoky oaxaha (I think) chilli oil sauce. The pineapple Fantas in this picture are because they had "no water". That's a first.
This picture of our Christmas Day cheeseboard is just to prove that the cliché about there being no decent cheese in the USA is increasingly untrue. What's more, some of the best weren't imported - Big Rock is a satisfying, salty blue from Paso Robles that compare well to many good European cheeses. Midnight Moon, though labelled from California, is actually made in Holland. It's good, though.
Point Loma has two main seafood restaurants perched right in the harbour - Point Loma Seafoods is the largest and most famous, but was closed on New Year's Day so we ended up at the rather less impressive but still somewhat decent Mitch's. My shrimp sandwich was pretty good, and it's hard to beat the view, but a tuna melt was pappy and unpleasant. Still, there's always the possibility you can feed the leftovers to the sealions.
This place deserves a full review, but given I am almost definitely going to make a return trip in March, I'll leave it until then. From the same chef that brought us the wonderful Mision 19 (Javier Plascencia), I should have been confident that the food at Romesco would have been stunning. As indeed it was. But large menus still scare me, as do fusion restaurants, and having to pick from a good 100 or so Spanish-Mexican dishes like "fiduea tacos" and "albondigas al chipotle" from this new place in La Bonita just made me wonder if certain cuisines aren't better left unfused. I needn't have worried. The odd misfire aside (croquettas which were more like fishcakes), the food at Romesco is stunning - cochinita pibil yucateca was a rich, glossy pile of slow-cooked pork served with fantastic table sauces inside soft steamed tortillas, and roast bone marrow was like the finest deconstructed beef pie. Not expensive either, considering the swish surroundings and quality of food. As I say, I'll be back.
Another day, another unbelievably classy North Park/Normal Heights bar. The cocktails here, made with house bitters, are as good as you'd ever hope for, the service stellar and the beer selection (predictably) knockout. Even better, although Polite Provisions don't have a kitchen themselves, they share a building with meatball specialists Soda and Swine, where you can soak up the booze with a chorizo chipotle sub and (pictured) dirty fries.
Belching Beaver brewery
Yet another North Park microbrewery that you'd feel blessed to have as your local. The beers are even more experimental here than usual for San Diego (they do one that tastes of peanut butter, and a Milk Stout that's like toast and coffee), and you can again specify a blast of nitro to make it more creamy. Food is supplied by Crazee Burger next door but I'm afraid I wasn't a fan. Strange, isn't it, how the worst burgers photograph so well (see above), while the very best:
If anything, Carnitas has improved from its already impressive position on my last visit. The house burger is still the best in town (quite an achievement in San Diego) but this time we also tried the slow-cooked pork belly, every morsel of which was silky and soft and drenched in a marinade of sweet molasses.
I think I'd better stop there. Apologies to those of you not in the least bit interested in a collection of bars and restaurants 5,000 miles away and rest assured that from a quick glance at the diary there'll be plenty of London things going on in the next few weeks. But if you have the time and the means (British Airways are very good and fly direct from Heathrow for upwards of around £600) there is no reason why anyone who enjoys eating and drinking would not have a ball in San Diego, even if they didn't have the added attraction of a new nephew (say hello to George, above). The only regret you'll have is not staying longer.
I haven't scored anything above as nearly everything would get 8, 9 or 10. Just take your pick