Thursday, 29 October 2015

Hoppers, Soho

The Sethi family's first restaurant in London was Trishna, in Marylebone. It's a great restaurant, Indian fine dining that isn't just about serving the same old curry house classics with while tablecloths and a wine list, but reinventing the cuisine from the ground up with superb ingredients, luxurious spicing and a staggering attention to detail. It's still one of my favourite places to eat out, and in fact I've got a big table booked for my birthday next month.

Next, along with Sandia Chang and James Knappett they opened Bubbledogs, a hot dogs and grower champagne concept that seems like a ludicrous idea before you're sat there eating great hot dogs and drinking grower champagne and then it all makes sense. It's still hugely popular. And soon after the Kitchen Table opened out back, 19 seats arranged around an open kitchen serving a seasonal tasting menu which won a Michelin star last year.

Then came Gymkhana in Mayfair, which was greeted like the second coming by London's critics and bloggers (myself included). And quite rightly too, because it's utterly brilliant. That, too, won a Michelin star. Then came Lyle's, where head chef James Lowe serves his St. John-inspired menu of modern British food, full of personality and punch and in one of London's lovelier dining rooms. And you'll know about Bao, their next project, which introduced London to the wonders of Taiwanese buns and still has them queuing down Lexington Street all day every day. Because it is also brilliant.

The latest project from the Sethis is Hoppers, and it's rubbish. Only joking, it's brilliant, just like all the others, and not just brilliant but unique and stylish and innovative and all the other hallmarks of a venture from the family with the Midas touch. The theme this time is Sri Lankan, a cuisine Londoners may have come across in certain spots in Tooting (Jaffna House is good) but is still fairly unknown to most people. Hoppers does it so well that it makes you wonder why nobody has tried to do this kind of thing to Sri Lankan food before, but then that's the genius of the Sethis, to reinvent a cuisine for modern audiences, keeping the traditional core flavours and techniques but creating something genuinely new and exciting.

Every corner of the menu is a surprise and a delight. "Cashew, cassava & ash plantain fry" is nuts and crisped vegetables dusted with a disastrously addictive powerful chilli powder, with a separate chilli sauce for dipping. The heat has you gasping but the flavour has you coming back for more.

Bonemarrow "Varuval" came with a special tool for scraping out the tender marrow from the cute little bones, in a sauce so complex and richly enjoyable it would have been a reason to visit by itself. To soak it up, a fresh roti, flaky and buttery like a savoury croissant, which of course we fought over before ordering another one (at a pathetic £1.25 each, I suggest you do the same). And a little bowl of chicken heart "chukka" had more dense, powerful spicing to compliment the gloriously tender chunks of offal.

There's nothing about "hot butter devilled shrimps" that doesn't scream "eat me", and this was another stunning dish, huge bouncy prawns wrapped in a silky sauce spiked with chilli, curry leaves and pickled green peppercorn.

And still the best was yet to come. The house signature dish is of course the hopper, a bowl-shaped dosa-type pancake thing which for an extra 50p comes with a soft-yolked egg baked into it. With this we chose the guinea fowl "kari" (Tamil for "curry"), beautifully moist and tender drumsticks in another knockout sauce that I'd walk through fire to eat again.

Better even than that though was the black pork kari, chunks of pork so tender they almost dissolve in the mouth, in a thick, sticky sauce that brought to mind the Tayyabs' "dry meat". It's hard to imagine there's a better way of spending £5.50 in London right now; this was a world class curry, almost impossibly good.

It's impossible, too, to overstate just how much of an achievement Hoppers is for everyone involved. As an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine, it could very easily kickstart a city-wide obsession to rival the burger or BBQ craze. As the latest jewel in the crown of the Sethi empire it proves that these extraordinary people, far from running out of ideas six restaurants in are actually becoming bolder and more innovative, and have another well-deserved hit on their hands.

But more important than all that, Hoppers is just a fantastic place to sit and have your dinner. A beautiful room staffed by people whose genuine enthusiasm for their product shows with every interaction, and a menu so comprehensively enticing it makes you want to order and eat everything on it again and again and again. Nothing about my meal there could be faulted, and so all I can do is award it full marks, and urge you to go and try it yourself as soon as you possibly can. The only remaining question is, what even more wonderful thing could the Sethis possibly come up with next?


Hoppers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 26 October 2015

Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - Jersey (part 2)

Day two of our Great Jersey Adventure hinged around lunch at Mark Jordan at the Beach, the informal bistro sister restaurant to the fancypants Ocean at the Atlantic. But before we got that far, we had an appointment with some Jersey cows (and their owners) at Manor Farm (yes, another different Manor Farm; for such a small island they have a remarkable lack of imagination when it comes to naming).

Jersey is rightly famous for its dairy produce, and Jersey cattle produce a rich, luxuriant milk, but unfortunately the island can no more escape the EU-wide milk crisis than anywhere else these days and so Julia and Darren Quenault, like so many others in this troubled industry, are gamely diversifying. The wonderful beef from my starter at Ocean the day before was theirs, so too a brie from the restaurant's cheeseboard. Cheese making is a common, and laudable, way of making more money from milk - you may remember I reported a similar story from the Cornish Blue people last year - it's not easy, and the equipment is expensive, but you can sell a handmade soft cheese for a lot more than the milk used to make it, and that's how you survive.

As well as the cheese, the Quenaults keep a remarkable variety of rare breed chickens, pigs and quail and sell most of the products of which in their farm shop, all ways of making what was once a thriving dairy industry (the number of dairy farms on Jersey has gone from over 200 to around 20 in the last few years) pay for itself. Maybe one day people will be persuaded that shelling out more than a handful of pence for a pint of milk is a perfectly reasonable state of affairs; until then, places like Manor Farm will continue to live by their wits.

On a brighter note, an industry that doesn't show any signs of struggling on Jersey is eating out. Though never the most reliable indication of quality the fact there are four Michelin stars on the island is at least a sign of maturity, and with so much incredible seafood so readily available, anywhere with views of the sea, the ability to shuck an oyster and serve a nice chilled Picpoul is off to a running start. Mark Jordan at the Beach has a lovely seafront spot and a menu that includes most of the Jersey Food Greatest Hits, including some lovely pickled anchovies that came with this tray of nibbles.

Jersey scallops, I can happily report, are some of the finest I've ever tried. It probably helps they were cooked perfectly, with a delicate golden crust and just-done inside, but the flesh was so sweet and fresh the only scallops I've ever had that have come close were some tiny Queenies from Nantucket many years ago. They were served on a bed of earthy stewed oxtail and dressed with pea shoots and purée, and surrounded by one of those thick reduced sauces that makes you want to scoop up every last sticky, marmitey drop.

Lobster (local Jersey lobster obviously) and prawn cocktail had huge generous chunks of fresh seafood in it, and the usual thick Marie Rose sauce had been replaced here with an "espuma", kind of a light frothy mousse. It worked very well, a comfort food classic lifted by just the right amount of cheffy trickery.

My only mistake of the meal, of the whole weekend really (when it came to food at least) was ordering the burger. Part of me knew it wasn't going to be my kind of thing, and so when it did arrive with its stupid big Jenga chips, fried egg and cakey brioche bun, my heart sank. It wasn't awful, just not really any different than any other bistro burger, despite quite nice beef and the addition of a lump of foie gras. This is a restaurant, and a part of the world, that specialises in seafood; the burger is on the menu because it has to be. I should have known better.

As if to prove my point, plaice with caper, prawn and cockle butter was great, with little bits of croutons for texture and showcasing a nice big bit of fresh white fish.

Desserts were good too. Raspberry cheesecake came with one of those powerful concentrated sorbets, as bright as neon, that the best pastry chefs do so well.

And this soufflé was just perfect, bags of zingy passionfruit flavour and not either too insubstantial or too eggy, a soufflé masterclass.

We walked off our lunch at the famous Jersey Zoo (sorry, Durrell Wildlife Park; people are very nervous about the word "zoo" these days), and then once closing time there approached, headed back to the Atlantic for our last gasp attempt to keep the holiday (sorry, "press trip") going with a spot of afternoon tea. And that was pretty much that. Two and a bit days in the Channel Islands, a part of the world that had hitherto been a bit of a Bergerac-themed mystery, and now I felt very much at home amongst the narrow lanes and expansive beaches, the sea spray and the seafood. It was all just so easy and comfortable, a little holiday island in the sun just half an hour from Gatwick. And it comes thoroughly recommended.

Mark Jordan at the Beach 7/10 Afternoon tea at the Atlantic Hotel 7/10

Our stay at the Atlantic Hotel and lunch at Mark Jordan at the Beach restaurant provided by the Atlantic Hotel. Flights and car hire provided by VisitJersey, oh who also gave us a pass for the zoo, sorry Wildlife Park, although we quite happily paid for afternoon tea ourselves.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Shotgun, Soho

When was it, do you think, that pulled pork jumped the shark? When it began appearing on every lazy pub menu in London? When Eat started selling a pulled pork bun (that tastes, since you ask, of wet cotton wool soaked in vinegar)? Or how about now, that McDonalds (I shit you not) are selling a pulled pork wrap? At some point, it went from an interesting soul food novelty made with care and attention by the likes of Pitt Cue Co., to a handy way of charging credulous trend-chasers, bored of burgers, £15 for cheap, mushy, overcooked pork shoulder.

So I thought I was so over pulled pork. I'd wince when I saw it on menus, moan about it on Twitter, and generally avoid it like the plague. And yet it took a fantastic competition BBQ pork round at Grillstock Walthamstow back in September to remind me that, actually, when it's done well, with good pig and with the correct rub and by someone that knows their way around a proper hot smoker, it really can be worth the effort. And so it is at Shotgun, a brand-spanking-new restaurant from the very talented team behind Lockhart in Marylebone, where pulled pork is given the care and attention it deserves, and the results are extraordinary.

The attention to detail at Shotgun borders somewhat on the obsessive. A chalkboard on the all lists not anything as ordinary as daily specials or lunch offers, but what specific kind of wood chips they were using to smoke with that day (a mix of apple and cherry on my last visit, apparently). The meat itself is sourced from wherever is best for the purpose, so we have black-legged chicken from Norfolk, duck breast from SW France, Iberico ribs from the West of Spain, and the world's finest brisket beef, USDA from America. Each supplier was (I'm told) settled on after extensive taste testing, but is not set in stone - they can change from day to day, depending on what's best for purpose.

And the results speak for themselves. The pulled pork (or Boston Butt if you prefer) is moist and tender, with the occasional crunch of rendered fat and with a beguiling spice mix that lingers beautifully after each bite. It's good enough to banish the memory of any nasty cheap version from your local Wetherspoons forever - or at least until you're trapped in Gatwick North terminal again forced to order another one. The USDA brisket is so unbelievably tender with its rich seams of fat and sticky sweet bark that it's closer to the texture of finest salt beef than the shoe leather that passes as brisket in most London BBQ joints. And the belly bacon that also comes as part of the £12 combo plate melts in the mouth, with a clear pork flavour sweetened by another delicate glaze. It's all very, very good.

But don't ignore the starters. Devilled eggs are as good here as in the Lockhart, fresh and light and presented on a bed of puffed pork skin (think piggy rice crispies) too good to leave as mere garnish (so I didn't). And you may argue that pimento cheese is just chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers. Which it is. But if you don't enjoy chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers then there's just absolutely no hope for you because chilli cheese spread on Ritz crackers is one of the greatest things in the world. So there.

On a second visit, I tried the ox tongue with oyster mayo sandwich, and if there are any weaknesses to be found at Shotgun its in their experimental takes on the Southern US style sandwiches. Because beef and oyster mayo is a lovely thing when the Clove Club or the Ocean restaurant in Jersey do it, it just becomes faintly distressing in a soft potato roll covered in fried onions. Such unusual flavour combinations need just the right balance, a balance that's going to be impossible to achieve in a sandwich no matter how good you are.

So Shotgun isn't perfect. Their BBQ baked beans were bullet-like in a thin sauce, albeit one with a good flavour, and sweet potato "fondant" was sickly sweet (though to be honest I wouldn't have ordered it at all had I known "potato" meant "sweet potato", the horrid orange bastard things that should be BANNED) but another side of cheesy baked potato purée was just lovely - a comfort food mash, way too addictive - and even with the dishes that didn't work you could still see what they were trying to achieve; I have every faith they'll eventually get there, too.

I loved Shotgun, as you'll have probably guessed by now; the food is mainly superb, the attention to detail occasionally startling, and service, headed by Jon Cannon ex- of l'Enclume, Roganic and Restaurant Story, is faultless. But as well as being enjoyable in its own right, Shotgun is important, because it reminds us there's more to Southern US soul food than cheap chain pub ripoffs or fried chicken, and that low'n'slow BBQ can be just as subtle, skilled and rewarding as any branch of haute cuisine. Brad McDonald, smoker-in-chief, and everyone at Shotgun, thank you for saving London from bad pulled pork.


Shotgun is going in the 2016 version of the app. I know this because I've already written it. Meantime, see where else is good in Soho.

Shotgun Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - Jersey (part 1)

I had a plan to head this post with an aerial shot of Jersey taken from the plane, like in the Bergerac titles. As it's October our early evening flight arrived in the dark, and actually just as well as it was a naff idea in the first place, but it did get me thinking - how is it a 1980s mediocre detective series is still the most famous thing about Jersey? John Nettles is collecting his pension and his 1947 Triumph Roadster is probably long since sold for scrap, but mention Jersey to most people over the age of 30 and they'll be able to sing you the opening notes of that theme tune as if it was yesterday. Whether you want them to or not, in fact, I've discovered.

But of course that's the point of PR invites such as this; to raise the profile of Jersey as a food and drink destination, or even just to remind us it exists at all. Because is it turns out, Jersey really makes the ideal weekend break. Flights are cheap and regular (and only half an hour from Gatwick), the airport is tiny so you can be out and picking up your hire car minutes after landing, and because traffic isn't an issue (and once you also realise that there are about 3 postcodes for the whole island and so using them to navigate in Google Maps is a recipe for disaster), getting around is a breeze.

The first night's meal was a sandwich and a bottle of wine from room service, because why the hell not. It arrived quickly and was very nice, just like pretty much everything else for the rest of our stay at the Atlantic Hotel. With an outdoor pool surrounded by palm trees and expansive views of the ocean, it's a corner of Jersey that could be St Tropez as much as it could the Channel Islands, were it not for details like red postboxes on the narrow lanes and British-style number plates on the cars.

But we weren't in Jersey to sit around the pool soaking up the autumn sun, we had potatoes to see. The next morning, after managing to get completely befuddled by Google Maps and caught up in a car rally (don't ask) we eventually arrived, late and a bit fraught, at Manor Farm. Didier and Christine Hellio at Manor Farm are involved with the 2nd most famous thing about Jersey after John Nettles - the Jersey Royal potato, and supply most of the UK's big supermarkets. This time of year is called the "seeding" - the first growth spuds have their shoots removed and then are sorted by size, by hand, and placed upright in wooden trays. This means (somehow) that when they re-shoot there are more shoots, more resulting plants and therefore in the end more potatoes. Those sorting and de-shooting them potatoes can expect to be paid £55 per 100 full boxes. For the purposes of a photo opportunity I had a go, carefully arranging them upright as I'd seen the farm workers do. On my way out of the barn I looked back and saw someone take my attempts out of the box and do them again, properly.

The 3rd most famous thing about Jersey (at least to anyone into their food) is Jersey Rock oysters, and so the next stop on our itinerary was Faulkner's Fisheries. Jersey's coast is riddled with old WWII bunkers, many still standing and derelict but some repurposed for happier times. Shaun Faulkner used to play in this particular building as a child (very dangerous apparently; two children died in the 1960s when they accidentally disturbed a cannister of mustard gas) but in the late 80s began renovating it and installing tanks for lobster and crab. Now, seawater is pumped in and oxygenated and the crustaceans live a charmed life while they wait for the pot, either on the premises or in houses and restaurants across the island.

We had a play with a couple of live lobsters from the tanks (females have larger bodies but males have larger claws, and getting the rubber bands on them without losing a finger takes a bit of practice) and toured the various nooks and crannies of this strange building - the ammo room is now lobster tanks, the gun room an office which still has a narrow window for pointing a machine gun through - then ate a couple of oysters (not Jersey Rocks ironically, but gigas from Normandy) in the sun. We could have easily stayed for a fresh seafood BBQ - the menu read like a dream - but alas we had a Michelin-starred lunch to get to. Curse our rotten luck.

Ocean, the restaurant at the Atlantic Hotel, is bright and comfortable but unashamedly fine dining. The trend in London may be towards bare tables and beards but there's none of that here; surfaces are covered in white cloth, chairs are plush and comfortable, and the staff smartly dressed. One man's "old fashioned" is another man's "traditional" but I think there's room in the world for all styles; I certainly couldn't care less as long as the food's good.

And the good news is that the food at Ocean is excellent, starting with this "margarita" amuse, a lime foam over jelly. A perfect palate cleanser and nice clean monochrome colour scheme.

But things really kicked into a different gear for the starters. This beef tartare with oyster and foie gras mousse was all kinds of wonderful, a riot of colour and texture and flavour, each element individually impressive but all of them combining to create something really special. The surf and turf thing has been done many times before, and in fact I've even had raw beef and oysters before (at the Clove Club, I think) but the addition of foie and just the pitch-perfect balance of ingredients made a truly memorable dish.

The other starter was hardly less impressive - a meaty, juicy chunk of local lobster, topped with French caviar, and some expertly crisp and dry pieces of lobster tempura. Also interesting were some prettily variagated micro watercress leaves, which I'd not come across before.

A pigeon main came as breast fillet and leg, and with a few extra bits of chargrilled offal (heart, kidney etc) under a glass dome filled with hay smoke. The presentation was incredibly similar to the way the Ledbury present their game dishes, and I enjoyed it just as much here as in Notting Hill, the pigeon meat being bouncy and tender, and the thick game jus as rich as Marmite. I wasn't entirely convinced by the addition of a baby sweetcorn, but this is a minor niggle.

A vast, bright white chunk of Jersey sole was the other main, on a bed of Jersey crab-crushed Jersey potatoes. The fish itself was slightly overcooked, but still had a great flavour and it was great to see so many bits of local produce on one plate. Looks good too, doesn't it?

Before dessert, cheese, and a very fine cheeseboard indeed including a load of personal favourites including Vacherin goat's and a reed-wrapped Livarot. Oddly, the Comté in the middle there wasn't the finest example of its kind, being a bit young and bland, and I'm afraid the local Jersey cheeses didn't quite stand up to the French varieties. But it's early days yet for the Jersey artisan cheese industry and they need all the encouragement they can get, so it was still nice to see them.

This pre-dessert of mango and passionfruit reminded me of a peach "soup" I had at a restaurant in the Costa Brava called La Llar many years ago. Different ingredients, obviously, but the same concentrated flavour of tropical fruit, here livened with a smooth mango sorbet and a couple of dots of meringue for texture. Very enjoyable.

Moist pistachio olive oil cake with some shocking green crumbs of something-clever-but-I-don't-know-what done to pistachio, an incredibly smooth chocolate "crème" and black cherry granité. There's not much not to like about chocolate, pistachio and cherry, and as with all the other courses a range of clever techniques added texture.

Equally good was glazed banana with vanilla cream, which again took an impressive range of techniques to a tried-and-tested flavour combination. Particularly good was the caramel ice cream which was so smooth and rich it was like eating cold clotted cream. Which is, I'm sure you'll agree, a Good Thing. I'll even forgive them the use of a square glass plate.

After lunch, stuffed and a little tipsy from a range of matching wines, we thought it would be a good idea to walk to Ouaisné Bay which Google Maps said was a half hour traipse. And indeed it was, although unfortunately it wasn't clever enough to direct us to the many footpaths (I've since discovered) that cover the island and so instead we spent a rather alarming 30 minutes nearly getting run over trying to navigate some tiny narrow road lanes.

But dinner at the Oyster Box was worth the peril involved in getting there - a whole fresh crab and chips, and a lovely view over the bay. Which, in its own completely different way, was every bit as enjoyable as the Michelin-starred high-falutin' meal we'd demolished a few hours previously. What's so good about Jersey is that you can do both of these things, and everything's so close to everything else it's all that bit easier. We didn't walk back though - we got a taxi. Google Maps can do one.

Ocean 9/10
Oyster Box 8/10

Our stay at the Atlantic Hotel and lunch at Ocean restaurant provided by the Atlantic Hotel. Flights and car hire provided by VisitJersey, who've just launched this nifty interactive video campaign called Escape to Jersey, have a go, it's fun. Rubbish photos by me, good photos by Helen