Thursday, 30 July 2015

Som Saa, London Fields

For years, I thought I didn't like Thai food. Greasy spring rolls, rubbery chicken satays in a sickly orange sauce, soggy Pad Thai bulked out with a murky mix of frozen vegetables; at best it was boring, at worst that special kind of sweet, mushy blandness that speaks of a long time left in the freezer. And then I went to Thailand on holiday, and realised that I didn't dislike Thai food, I just disliked Thai food in the UK, which at the time (and until fairly recently) was about as close to the real thing as a Harvester is to the Hind's Head.

Why the discrepancy? The same old issues that held back food in this country for so long - lack of ambition, low expectations from the public in general, and the fact that so many considered eating out a wild extravagance held only for the most special occasions, forcing restaurants to eke through empty weekdays occasionally chipping stuff out of the freezer when needed, and hoping to shift enough Blue Nun on Friday night to make the whole enterprise worthwhile. In much of the country, this is still sadly the case - the demand just isn't there, and with very few notable exceptions, small town restaurants are pretty dire. Hell, even Liverpool struggles, and there's over two million people live there.

What any cuisine needs to be at its best, then, is an open-minded customer base, access to good fresh ingredients, and a restaurant that can make the numbers work. The problem that most Asian food, and Thai food specifically has, is that when you've had the best Pad Thai of your life from a back street in Chang Mai and it costs 40p, persuading the same people back in London that their equally tasty version is worth £10 is a bit of an ask. But if anyone can persuade London that good Thai food is worth shelling out a bit extra for, it's Som Saa.

That's not to say Som Saa is expensive; quite the opposite. It's actually incredibly good value compared to the dross trotted out in the name of Thai food in most of the capital (hang your head in shame, Thai Square) - perhaps too good value, and I'll come back to that later. There are some snacks for £3-4, various bits of grilled meats with dipping sauces for £6-7, and a couple of sharing plates that go up to £14. By anyone's standards, this is a keenly priced restaurant. What makes it an extraordinary restaurant is that the dishes produced are innovative and unusual at any price point; this is Thai food like you've never seen before, full of colour and vibrancy, authentic where it counts but making exciting use of premium British ingredients alongside Thai staples. It is, in short, the best Thai restaurant I've ever been to outside Thailand.

This is jan naem, a fermented pork snack that they apparently make by secreting bits of it away in the hottest corners of the railway arch the restaurant currently calls its home. It's sharp and fresh, quite unlike any other pork dish I've ever tasted, the acidity turning the generous slabs of pig into something approaching pickled but actually way more complex and rewarding than that.

Beef in betel leaf is something you may have seen before at one of the (many decent) Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road, and they were every bit as good here, with that familiar soft beef filling and topped with crunchy peanuts. The chilli/vinegar dip was not only familiar in flavour to the kind of thing you get in SE Asia but the pink bowl it came in was a lovely little nod to streetfood tableware as well.

This is one of the "snacks", pla bon dtaeng mor, strips of watermelon with an interesting smoked fish powder and crunchy fried shallots. Like the jan naem, I've never had anything like it before although it did remind me slightly of the very clever chilli watermelon salad at Chick'n'Sours - that same addictive mix of fresh fruit and Scoville heat that simultaneously burns and soothes.

Som tam was arguably one of the more familiar Thai dishes on the menu at Som Saa, but was done with such style that it still managed to feel completely new. Fresh and vibrant, and another great use of that "roadside pastel" tableware. I'm convinced there is no cuisine that does salads better than Thai food - the care and attention given to the play of textures and chilli in the vegetarian dishes is never less than equal that of the protein.

Excuse my attempt at an arty Instagram-style shot - that on the right is gai yang grilled chicken leg with dipping sauce. I find the different styles of butchery in world cuisine fascinating. Usually in Western cuisine a chicken will be neatly jointed into drumstick, thigh and wing, and you work your portion control around that. In Carribbean (jerk) and SE Asian food though, a sharp cleaver cuts the chicken up into equal sizes regardless of the part of the animal - it's quicker and easier to prepare, and produces bits easier for dipping.

The star dish was always likely to be this seabass nam dtok pla thort, because I can't think of a single meal that wouldn't be improved by an entire deep-fried fish to share. Isn't it magnificent? And it tasted just as good as it looked, the rich, herby dressing hitting all of those amazing Thai food pleasure points - sweet, hot, sour, crunch.

There was a pork belly curry, thick and velvety, that I forgot to take a picture of, and a very interesting smoked fish relish with dipping vegetables that I did. But by this point I imagine you'll need no further evidence that Som Saa is a restaurant at the very top of its tree. It's Thai food that successfully demonstrates everything that makes this cuisine so special at some incredibly generous prices.

So where do we go from here? Because as they'll tell you themselves, Som Saa is only in this space temporarily and needs to move to a situation, and setting that will go the distance. Shared tables and a streetfood vibe are fine when you're finding your feet and building an audience, but Andy Oliver's astonishing food deserves more - a room and an atmosphere that reflect the days of backbreaking prep that goes into each dish (days of pickling, crushing, chopping and fermenting, if rumours are to be believed; they work all week but are only open to the public Thursday-Sunday). So bizarrely for a restaurant blogger and happy customer, I think Som Saa v2 should charge more. Not tablecloths and silver service but we need to demonstrate that people are willing to pay that bit extra when the results more than justify it. With a bit of extra spend per head, this stunningly talented bunch of people can really go places. The future is bright.


We were spotted and had a couple of extra dishes brought out for free, but I think the bill per head would have been about £25-£30 otherwise including a bottle of lovely Picpoul

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Friday, 24 July 2015

Masala Grill, Chelsea

I've had the good fortune to eat some very, very good Indian subcontinent food recently. But then, eating good Indian food in London is not difficult. Even before the latest wave of culinary fireworks lit by the Sethi family (Trishna, Gymkhana, the upcoming Hoppers) we had things pretty good - an embarrassment of riches in Tooting for Sri Lankan and South Indian, Southall for Punjabi (not least of which is the brilliant, er, Brilliant), the Pakistani grills of Whitechapel spearheaded by the venerable Tayyabs; we are, for want of a better word, spoiled.

In the context of such staggeringly high standards at the very top, then, it's easy to become blasé about achievements just a little further down the league. It's not Masala Grill's fault that it operates in a city where Gymkhana exists, or where Tayyabs' lamb chops are £6 for 4. Not everywhere has to be a groundbreaking reinvention of Raj-era cuisine, or London's best value tandoori grill. There is room for everyone, and we should be hugging ourselves with glee that we have the freedom to be so choosy at all. So with all that in mind, here's Masala Grill, brand new on the King's Road in Chelsea.

From outside, the building looks not dissimilar from a suburban dentists - that bland, boxy architectural style that was popular in the 80s doesn't really lend itself well to the restaurant aesthetic. But inside, they've made the most of the (huge) space with lots of nice Indian furniture and indoor plants, and right at the back there's a bright conservatory bit that's a very pleasant spot to hang out. Which is just as well because my friend was an hour late thanks to a bit of a miscommunication on the address and I had plenty of time to take it all in.

I like how posh Indian restaurants do mini pappadoms for snacking. I wasn't particularly blown away by the chutneys they came with - all a bit underpowered and Chelsea-safe - but they passed the time, a syrupy lime pickle, a soggy coriander-based one and a decent mango chutney.

Dahi puri were nice and fresh and the addition of pomegranete seeds to the usual tamarind/chickpea/yoghurt mix actually worked rather well. It desperately needed a bit more chilli, but as this was a feature of most of the dishes at Masala Grill I can only imagine they were playing it safe for the local audience rather than it being any kind of mistake. I do think, though, that anywhere attempting to tailor their product too much to what they think people like rather than just making the kind of food they want or like themselves are starting on the backfoot. I'm sure the people of Chelsea can take a bit of chilli just as well as the rest of us.

Crispy fried squid had a nice delicate texture and were completely grease-free but - you guessed it - needed a bit more chilli to make them good as opposed to just interesting. The little deep-fried (curry?) leaves that were sprinkled on top were great fun though, with the way they dissolved in the mouth.

On to the mains, and there was very little to complain about, even if at the same time there was little to scream from the rooftops about either. King prawns in a gentle tomato cream sauce were huge, bouncy and numerous, but then you'd hope they'd be at least that for £23 a bowlful. A yellow dal tadka had a good earthy flavour but the consistency was a bit thin; I like my dal to be nice and thick at eating temperature, not just when they cool down a bit. Saag paneer had the opposite problem - a good firm texture with none of the obvious sogginess that often afflicts spinach dishes, but with a sadly unremarkable bland taste.

Lamb chops very nearly made the whole trip worthwhile by themselves. Thickly coated in one of those brilliantly beguiling Punjabi spice mixes (garam masala and who knows what else), soft and juicy inside and - unlike much of what else we ate - with a good kick of chilli, they were everything I'd hoped they'd be. A dip of some sort of cooling mint/yoghurt dip would have been nice instead of a clump of sweet-dressed salad, but otherwise these were very enjoyable.

And the point is, I did enjoy my meal at the Masala Grill because, all said and done, it's hard not to enjoy food like this, fresh and colourful and served with a huge amount of charm. It's not their fault that this particular spoiled food blogger has found better value elsewhere in the capital, and the people who eat at Masala Grill won't - and shouldn't - care about that either. The prices reflect the area, the level of service and the setting, and judging by the crowds packed into the place on a hot Wednesday night in July, there are more than enough people around to appreciate that.


I was invited to Masala Grill

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Monday, 20 July 2015

The Ritz Restaurant, Piccadilly

For over a hundred years the Ritz has stood in its commanding position on the corner of Green Park, famous throughout the world as the last word in opulence and luxury. And despite my own occasional weakness for a bit of glitz and glamour, I had never been, partly because I'd heard very little about the food in the Ritz Restaurant (and as most food bloggers eventually learn "nothing heard" usually means "nothing good") but mainly because they insist on male patrons wearing a jacket and tie, and I wasn't entirely sure my mismatched "Granddad's funeral" outfit wouldn't make look like a bit of a tit. I quite like to feel comfortable during dinner, not like I'm being interviewed. Yes, funerals and interviews, the only other times I've worn a tie.

So what changed? Well I would have been quite happily carrying on with my life and not worrying about wearing a tie if it weren't for something that rolled past my Twitter feed one evening called pommes soufflées. Just when you think you know everything there is to do to a potato comes this extraordinary technique, involving twice-fried discs of precisely-measured spud that inflate into neat little crunchy pillows of golden-brown loveliness. And in that moment, I knew I had to have them. And given that the Ritz was one of only two restaurants in town they were available (the other being Otto's, very highly regarded but a similar price point and if I'm paying this amount for dinner, I want to sit near things made of gold), I made a reservation, dusted off my tie, grabbed a mate and headed off to Piccadilly.

The vast global influence of the Ritz's own particular style of gold-drenched Baroque sumptuousness is, at first, its own worst enemy. Having seen so many cheap copies of the ornate gold fittings and velvet drapes and plush carpets in, I don't know, Vegas casinos or ironic Shoreditch nightclubs, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that here, finally, is the real thing. The cutlery really is solid silver, the statues covered in real gold. This is what real luxury looks like, and matched with smart waiters in tail suits (in various hues denoting job title and/or seniority, I imagine), the effect is quite overwhelming. And, it has to be said, pretty intimidating at first until the service relaxes you and the food arrives and you really start to enjoy yourself.

Because it's very, very easy to enjoy yourself at the Ritz. It's not just that the food is fantastic; I'll come to that in a bit. It's that almost as much fun can be had from just letting the whole theatre of being in the place sweep over you - like anywhere in such a setting that's doing its job properly, you are made to feel like a star in your own personal theatre production. But at the Ritz, they've been doing it for so much longer than everywhere else, and with such high production values, the effect is all the more thrilling.

But anyway, the food. Amuses were, from left to right, some kind of seafood cream cracker that looked quite like an Oreo, a delicate sugar tube of rich liver mousse, and - the runaway favourite - an extraordinary citrus meringue containing a light salmon mousse topped with roe. And look at the tray they were served on, and the gleaming butter dish in the background...

...and the silver basket of just-so melba toast, and the little silver chalice of sea salt. There was so much expensive tableware present at any given point it began to resemble the interiors department at Harrod's.

Of course the real show was yet to begin. Terrine of goose liver, with spiced pineapple and gingerbread was the kind of exquisitely geometric dish that you only see in places where the number of available hands in the kitchen isn't an issue. So precise and cleanly-colourful it could have gone one a pedestal at the Tate, and yet the taste as just as impressive - a silky-smooth mousse, faintly peppery gingerbread, and beside it a neat row of alternating cubes of jelly and biscuit. Topped with gold leaf, naturally, just in case the volume of elemental metals on show threatened to dip below that of a South African deep mine.

The other starter was, as is clear even from my photography, every bit as painstakingly pretty. Fresh crab (all white meat of course, no expense spared there) in a shiny green jellified roll containing cucumber and avocado (a classic combination that was probably invented here for all I know) and a side blob of various colours and textures topped with caviar. As with the terrine, it all looked so obviously hard work with all of its precisely-placed blobs and clever techniques, smashing it apart with a fork felt like a slap in the face to a hundred commis chefs.

Beef Wellington can't be the easiest thing to organise in a restaurant environment - they ask you to order it 40 minutes in advance, but it's hard to figure out how even this lead-in is enough time to get the fillet perfectly medium-rare and with a good golden brown pastry. Still, they do - just about. The one blip in otherwise perfect service during the evening was that my female friend was given the two smaller, more cooked end pieces and I (being the red-blooded male in an ill-fitting tie) got the nicer, more tender, and larger, central sections. As soon as our waiter's back was turned we evened out the portions ourselves, but this was a rather presumptious mistake to be made at this level.

Despite all that the Wellington was, though, a superb bit of cooking, with shaved truffle and a core of foie gras lifting this traditional English grand-hotel staple into the heights of international gastronomy. The pommes soufflés, as well, were everything I'd hoped they'd be, and even more exciting once I'd realised you could make a hole in one side and fill them full of gravy, like beefy dahi puri.

If the starters looked too good to eat, the desserts were difficult to even look at without imagining with a shudder the countless man-hours devoted to their creation. Wild strawberries with white chocolate and verbena was a delicate cylinder of chocolate, coloured pink as well as white, containing a light mousse studded with various strawberry textures, topped with a neat layer of the berries themselves and then on top of that a smooth strawberry sorbet. And a ring of spun sugar. And some neat dots of strawberry purée. And who knows what else.

Elderflower with champagne and raspberry took a more modernist approach, with various neat circles of raspberry and elderflower mousses, jellies, crumbles and creams. Sorry about my murky photo, but by this point the house lights had been dimmed and the entertainment had begun, first a pianist and then a quartet doing old jazz classics. Such scenes have probably happened at the Ritz for the best part of the last 100 years, the acoustics finely-tuned to allow for a general buzz of conversation alongside the live music. It was all very impressive.

But then you'd hope so, really, wouldn't you because - and there's no getting around this - the Ritz isn't cheap. Of course food like this shouldn't be cheap, and I wouldn't expect a Beef Wellington of that standard to be anything less than £85 for two, or a crab and avocado starter to be much under £35; all these things make sense to me. What doesn't make as much sense is a wine list where the very cheapest bottle is £50. I don't know much about wine but I do know for certain that starting your list at £50 means you're not even the least bit interested in providing value; you just want to rip people off. And that makes me sad.

So it is for this reason only that the Ritz doesn't get full marks. Yes the food is exceptional, the service (mainly) perfect, and all the extra frills and gold-plated accoutrements (petits fours were faultless as well) adding up to an experience hardly like any other, lavish and otherworldly. But it impresses with technique rather than generosity, it's exact as opposed to beautiful, polished rather than friendly. It's great fun, but it lacks something - not soul, because I can't describe it as soulless, that would be unfair. It's just that by the time the bill arrived (£255 with one bottle of that cheapest wine and a couple of glasses of dessert) there was a very tiny niggling feeling of having been taken advantage of. But you know what, I'd still save up again to go back. I might even buy a new tie.


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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Marksman, Bethnal Green

The gentrification of Shoreditch is now so advanced and so final that even those that still privately bemoan the disappearance of the old working-men's clubs, the spit-and-sawdust pubs, laundrettes and pound shops, have stopped commenting on it in public. That battle has been lost. This is now a place of wine bars, speakeasies, popups and street food, £5 a pint and £40 a head, the new shorthand for London itself, beards the new bearskin, tattoos the new Tower Bridge.

And I'm torn myself, for though of course I hate to see any part of our collective heritage priced out and forgotten, the problem with the kind of people who are setting up shop in this part of town lately is that so many of them are annoyingly good. Sagar and Wilde, for example, is exactly the kind of wine bar that every oenophile wants on their doorstep, an intimate and comfortable place staffed by helpful and passionate staff. It replaced a pub called the British Lion which was very popular with skinhead BNP supporters and had more regular visits from the local constabulary than brewery vans. Perhaps it is a shame that the "old" Shoreditch has disappeared, but I am not a racist, I am a glutton, which is an altogether more acceptable 21st century sin, and the new Shoreditch is far more my kind of scene.

The Marksman, just a few steps down the street from Sagar & Wilde, has, too, been modernised. Exactly how different it is from its previous incarnation I can't tell you because I've never been inside before, but I get the impression they're trying to make the change as painless and subtle as possible for all concerned. It's all very tastefully done and it definitely still feels like a cosy boozer, with wobbly furniture, bar stools and even a group of burly old boys occupying their corner of the room as they presumably have for many years previously. But look a little closer and the signs are there - table service, craft beers, and an intriguing new menu. Things are afoot.

Two freshly-shucked rock oysters, dressed with apple and pickled elderberries, just the thing for a warm summer's evening. I liked how they were balanced on top of their own shell lids, I liked how the oyster meat was loosened and I liked how the gentle acidic/floral notes that had been added to the minerally shellfish.

And I liked absolutely everything else. In fact I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed a more comprehensively perfect menu. A sign of a good restaurant is that the food you order you enjoy, and you're happy to pay for it, and want to go back once it's all over. Surely a sign of a perfect restaurant is that choosing between salt hake & potato rissoles, devilled crab on toast or beef & barley bun is just an exercise in satisficing, and that picking a dish at random would have yielded similarly stunning results. This is the beef bun by the way, a sweet, soft sphere containing the finest loose-meat pie filling, accompanied by an ethereally light horseradish cream. You could work for a thousand years and not be able to improve it, a thing of exquisite beauty.

Similarly devilled crab on toast. I've had devilled crab on toast before, very nice crab on toast too. But this was devilled crab on toast made by someone who finally knows what devilled crab on toast should be. Thin bread, just soaking enough of the juices without being collapsey, topped with an oil-flecked "mayo" so light it's almost a foam, and of course plenty of fresh white crab meat, fresh herbs and chilli. Perfect.

Megrim sole was gently butter-browned, the flesh cooked so well it lifted off in huge, bright-white, meaty chunks. The sharp & seasalty salad it came with was a colourful balance to the buttery fish, and was itself impressive enough to be a talking point. I wonder if anything could be improved about this plate of food, and I suspect not. It was, again, perfect.

As for the other main, curried kid with sourdough roti, well, what would you improve about a vast haunch of slow-cooked goat, dressed in thick curry oils and spices so that each last square inch of this beautiful piece of meat was seasoned flawlessly? Or a clever sourdough flatbread topped with a clear tomato jam, a nod to a curry house naan but something much more delicate and sophisticated? Nothing, that's what. This was, again, perfect.

I'd heard rumours of the brown butter & honey tart on the Twitter grapevine but still nothing could prepare us for the reality of a thin pastry base supporting a custard/honey mixture so precisely on the edge of collapse that the whole thing dissolved in the mouth like butter-honey candy floss. It was, of course, perfect.

And a chocolate ganache, smooth as silk, with a malt ice cream and surrounded by (I think) booze-soaked, slightly dried cherries, little chewy flavour bombs, topped with bits of cherry-sugar crackling. Which bit of that doesn't sound great? What would you add or remove? Nothing? No, me neither.

What the Marksman deserves to be - and what I sincerely hope it remains - is a perfect example of how a traditional East End boozer can be revamped and reimagined for a younger and more food-savvy audience without sacrificing any of the features that made it a pub (as opposed to a restaurant, or bar) in the first place. If you can keep the old boys at the bar happy, whilst serving magnificent, innovative dishes alongside a carefully-chosen wine list, then you have walked that line perfectly and deserve to do very well. Meanwhile, no matter what the future holds, know only this - that there are few better places to eat and drink in town, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to completely fall in love with the place. The perfect pub? Probably. The perfect score? Why not.


The Marksman will be in the next version of the app. But if you can't get a table, try my app for other options in the area.

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