Friday, 29 May 2015
As East London gentrifies and rents go up, the innovators and risk-takers get pushed further out into the suburbs. Only a few years ago Shoreditch was the buzzing heart of the London restaurant revolution, where the Young Turks served modern British tasting menus in a speakeasy above a Spitalfields pub and Abiye Cole sold his Big Apple Hot Dogs outside the fire station on Old Street. Now, Big Apple are a feature of menus across the capital and Isaac McHale has a Michelin star.
And I'm a huge fan of both and good luck to them of course, but while Shoreditch settles into its role as the New Soho, something stirs in Haggerston. In a old railway arch (the East London trendy restaurant venue du jour), candle-lit and cacophonic, is Berber & Q, who at first glance are ticking so many off the hipster-restaurant checklist (men with fancy facial hair shaking cocktails, craft beer, sharing plates) it threatens to collapse into parody. But fortunately, the food they're serving is anything but clichéd; in fact I'd go so far as to say it's the most exciting new restaurant since you could get a pint on Curtain Road for under £4.50. Which was a very long time ago.
Without wanting to trivialise the extraordinary work of the kitchen staff at Berber & Q, an easy shortcut to describe what they're doing is probably a "Lebanese Smoking Goat". Which is to say they've taken all the best flavours and spices of a certain cuisine (in this case Middle Eastern/North African) and matched it with modern low'n'slow smoking techniques and an energetic youthful service. A good example of this is the short-rib, meltingly tender like the finest Pitt Cue examples yet boosted by a date syrup glaze which lends the whole thing an extra level of exotic Eastern promise.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. First came a beautiful plate of chunky house hummus, studded with marinated chickpeas and pine nuts and dressed with half a soft(ish) boiled egg. Alongside that, creme fraiche with harissa oil and crushed tomato. Familiar ingredients perhaps to anyone with a passing interest in Middle Eastern food, but as you can hopefully see even from my rubbish iPhone pictures, there's a certain rustic style and confidence here you don't find in your average Edgware Road joint. Oh and the house pitta is fresh from the oven, soft and thick and instantly making a complete mockery of anywhere serving those horrid dry flat-pack things that smell of glue.
From here on, we moved from the (relative) light of the bar area to a dark table by the wall, with a predictable spike in the hideousness of my photography, so please just imagine these dark splodges look like food. Smoked beans, lamb neck and crisp onion had that dense, oily meatiness of a kind of Boston baked beans, only one from the Levant. With the fireworks elsewhere on the menu this is a dish that runs the risk of being forgotten, but everything that's good about Berber & Q go about things is present in this little bowl of smoked beans and silky, fatty lamb. It was glorious.
Grilled asparagus with mustard seeds were good as you might expect, only is seared into my memory for re-introducing me to toum, a startling garlic sauce so strong it burned like chilli in the mouth. And like the best chilli sauces, it was incredibly addictive; I'd like to apologise now to my Uber driver that night, the journey to Battersea can't have been pleasant.
Blackened aubergine "salad" was a single (large) aubergine, halved and grilled, and dressed with garlic yoghurt, tomato pulp and fresh herbs. I usually hate aubergine but even I could appreciate this.
Highlight of all the excellent vegetable dishes though was the cauliflower. Berber & Q keep theirs in a rack above the main charcoal grill so that the smoke and flavour from whatever's being cooked below infuses into the vegetables above. Roasted to the point of crunchy & carbonised, then dressed with a myriad of exotic herbs and spices including pomegranete seeds, flowers and tahini, this was probably my favourite dish of all, and this on a menu that contains chicken wings.
Oh yes, almost forgot, the meat. All of the "meat" section of the menu is presented on one tray, alongside spiced salt, harissa, pickles and all sorts of extra grilled vegetables and fresh herbs. For the pulled lamb (Mechoui) we were instructed to wrap up the meat in a lettuce leaf with some salt and harissa, and very good it was too. Harissa chicken wings were plump and had a fantastic crisp skin, but seemed to suffer from weak bones - I found more than one that had shattered, revealing unpleasant brown marrow.
Oddly though, for a (sort of) BBQ restaurant, and even more oddly for a Middle Eastern joint, the meat wasn't really the main event. Far more exciting to me were the salads and grilled vegetables that seemed to be firing off in even more exciting and unexpected places with each new dish that arrived. The short ribs and wings were excellent, no doubt, but thanks to Pitt Cue and Smokehouse we've already seen those. What we've not seen - at least I haven't - is a menu that treats vegetables with equal, in fact you could argue more, reverence, to the extent that if the meat section was removed entirely (lovely though they are) I doubt you'd miss them at all.
There's plenty more to talk about - I've only mentioned about half the menu, and haven't even touched on the cocktails - but you will have seen where this is going so I'll let you discover the rest yourself. Because if there's one thing you need to do it's get in the 'Q at Berber; food like this can be enjoyed by anyone and deserves to be eaten by everyone. It's a confident rebuttal to anyone who's dared say they were tired of London's restaurants, their lack of originality, their lack of confidence. I've seen the future, and it's blackened over charcoal and doused in toum and hiding in a dark railway arch in Haggerston.
I was invited to Berber & Q initially, but liked it so much I went back the very next day and paid for it. Hence the bill from day 2 (above) not matching the dishes we ate on day 1. Anyway who cares, just go, you'll love it. And if the queue's too big, use my app to find somewhere else amazing.
Wednesday, 27 May 2015
Despite coming from a family of visual artists, I do not have much of an aesthetic eye; most art in galleries is lost on me, and I've never knowingly gone out of my way to offer an opinion one way or another on a paint scheme or wallpaper print or any of those other things that people seem spend inexplicably vast chunks of their lives fretting endlessly over instead of just getting on with important things like eating.
So probably because of this missing part of my brain, when it comes to tall buildings, I'm very rarely offended. I liked the Gherkin, but then so does everyone; it's a wonderful thing, soft and organic (and ever-so-slightly risqué), an instant comfortable classic of the London skyline since it opened a decade ago. And I also liked the Shard - bold, futuristic, vaguely terrifying, following you around London like the Mona Lisa's eyes, wherever you happen to be and whether you like it or not. And now, at the risk of sounding like a complete pleb, I even quite like the Walkie Talkie. I like the way it defies gravity, splaying out ridiculously towards the top, and I like the idea of a sky garden, something I'd been patiently waiting for since seeing Empire Strikes Back as a kid.
Mainly, though, I like the Walkie Talkie because its flagship restaurant, Fenchurch Bar & Grill, housed in a cosy pod overlooking the bustle of the sky garden itself, is really rather lovely indeed. I don't know why I should continue to be surprised when restaurants in skyscrapers turn out to be good; since Galvin @ Windows, Hutong, Duck & Waffle and Sushisamba, the Curse of the Tall Restaurant has surely long been broken. And here is another to count amongst that number, where slick service and impressive food are accompanied with views that would be a reason to visit alone.
Given what followed, I'll forgive them the first mis-step of a bland amuse. But then given what followed, that they saw fit to serve it makes even less sense. A teeny pot of decent truffled goat's thing is one thing - ordinary but pleasant - but why serve it with horrible unseasoned, fridge-cold, mushy carrots? Anyway, moving on.
From a pretty tempting 'Vegetarian' menu came "Asparagus, crispy egg, hollandaise", pretty as a picture (though what would I know) and full of the joys of early summer. The grilled asparagus stalks came in green and white varieties, and the egg had been perfectly poached. More than that you could hardly ask for, but some little bits of toasted seeds provided crunch. Even the watercress draped on top (which I'd usually dismiss as unneccessary) was, like the staff, immaculately dressed.
The only real problem with the Tartare of Mackerel (with cockles, sea herbs & oyster cream) was that if something is presented in a scallop shell, I'd generally expect it to contain at least some scallop. But that aside, it was a super little seafood starter, the smooth mackerel and sweet flavour bombs of cockles combining to marvellous effect. Not a vast amount of food for £11 perhaps, but balanced and easily enjoyed.
Whole Dover Sole, dressed in seaweed (I think) butter, brown shrimps & samphire was literally faultless. The bright-white meat lifted off the bone in huge, solid chunks, the shrimps & samphire made tasteful extra notes of the sea, and even the price - £36 - seems incredibly reasonable when you consider Scott's in Mayfair do the same for £50 and the only view you'll have there is the back of some C-lister's head. This one dish makes about as good a case for making a booking in the Sky Garden as I can think of, it really was quite something.
The steak, sadly, didn't quite live up to the fish. Though accurately cooked, I'm always going to miss the thick dark crust of meat cooked with a bit more intensity - in a Josper grill, for example, or even just over coals. If Fenchurch are using such a grill then they need to be a bit more brave with the temperatures. It had a decent flavour, but the texture was a bit sad and flabby. Having said that, a mini pot of truffle macaroni cheese was good enough to have me groaning out loud quite embarrassingly, and the bone marrow sauce was top notch as well.
Little did we know, however, that best was yet to come. Both of the desserts at Fenchurch were exceptional; the work of a supremely talented pastry chef who (we later discovered) used to work for Simon Rogan at Fera. But even Rogan would have his work cut out to top first this, a "Caramelised chocolate puff pastry" where the finest cocoa, banana and passionfruit were combined to dazzling effect...
...and then "Strawberry doughnuts, buttermilk, lime ice cream & honeycomb", a tempting enough description but which goes hardly any way at all to describe the joy of the colours, flavours and textures of this dessert. I can barely remember a better end to a meal, which I realise may sound like hyberbole due to the relatively "familiar" ingredients but the care given to each element, the balance of citrus, sugar and dairy, shows the hand of a true expert.
In fact, before I do spill over into embarrassing babble, perhaps I should stop. Obviously, I had a great time up at the top of the Walkie Talkie, but as with any of these invites, I've since had to stop and consider if I'd being paying for it myself, would I have been quite so enthusiastic. I'm kicking myself for not asking for a "fake bill", but I think with the wine we had (and I do recommend asking the sommelier for advice, who was a delight) could have pushed the bill to about £100/head. But you know what, I would have paid it and I will go back and I'm entirely convinced Fenchurch is great. Painting, sculpture, skyscrapers, get someone else's opinion. But I'm pretty sure I know a good restaurant when I see one.
Photos by Hannah. I was invited to review Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill. There's every chance this restaurant will make the next version of the app. Meantime, if you haven't yet, download it yourself to find other amazing places to eat in London.
Wednesday, 20 May 2015
As I mentioned in the other recent Paris post, there is always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in leaving the choosing of a restaurant in someone else's hands. Deciding where I'm going to eat is, after all, an activity that occupies 90% of my time (the rest of the time I'm actually eating, or asleep) and I consider myself, after all these years, to be quite good at it. It's one of my core skills, a key bullet point on my CV. "• Can choose a restaurant and not very often get it wrong."
And Rech was perhaps more of a risk than most, partly because it was a Michelin-starred seafood restaurant in Paris (the kind of place if I was spending my own money I'd avoid like the plague; I mean I like seafood but I also like not being bankrupt) but mainly because my only other experience of an Alain Ducasse restaurant didn't end well. To put it mildly.
Things started slowly. You shouldn't expect too much from cold amuses maybe but then, if they're not going to dazzle or excite, what's the point anyway? Starting off a fancy seafood meal with a teeny bowl of chopped sardine served with a small amount of cold seafood jelly (disconcertingly void of flavour, and welded to the glass as if it had been in situ for quite some time) doesn't perform any function other than to demonstrate you're not quite sure where your strengths lie.
Similarly sliced asparagus with seabass, I mean, it was fine but I would have felt much better about the meal as a whole had these first two courses been omitted. They both had that fridge-fresh, slightly confused aroma and sad, settled appearance of something having been plated a long time ago.
Fortunately, things picked up a bit. It's impossible not to be impressed by a vast platter of fruits de mer and this was as impressive as they come, with prawns, langoustine, rock oysters, brown shrimp, (tiny voice) whelks (I hate whelks) and some clams or cockles. Dipped in fresh mayonnaise and spritzed with lemon, it was all (whelks aside, I mean come on, they taste like snot) very good.
After we'd polished off as much of the seafood as we possibly could (I seem to remember there were a lot of whelks left over) the next course appeared, a signature Ducasse cocotte containing huge chunks of sweet Brittany lobster on a bed of some kind of grain - spelt? Lobster bisque was poured on top to liven it up a bit, but this was still a strangely unsatisfying dish, the spelt not really making a very good companion to the seafood, and it all a bit underseasoned. The lobster was good, but would have been even better presented in its shell as part of the previous course than dumped on hot porridge.
But then somewhat confusingly, the next dish, brill with morels, was really nice. Meaty, bright white fish and a pile of new season morels in one of those classical French cream sauces you'd almost forgotten existed amidst all the purées and foams of new-wave cooking. And like at La Regalade, I loved the way the morels soaked up so much sauce in their nooks and crannies that when you bit into them they exploded in the mouth.
The cheese course was just one type of Camembert, which could have been a bit disappointing for a cheese addict like me if a) we hadn't had so much cheese the rest of the trip I ran the risk of developing some sort of condition and b) it wasn't the single greatest Camembert I've ever tasted in my life. Which it absolutely was. I can tell you it was made in a town called Failaise in Normandy, and I can tell you it was aged in Paris for 22 days by master fromager Marie-Anne Cantin. But what I can't express in this post is just how deep and rich the aroma was, wet grass mixed with the monkey house at the zoo, combined with a beautiful complex flavour that ran and ran without being overwhelming or succumbing to harsh sulphur like so many old Bries and Camembers do. In a city with so many wonderful cheese shops (the next day we visited Fromagerie Laurent Dubois, where I would have spent the entire weekend if they'd let me), and a country with such an astonishing number of wonderful cheeses, to stand out takes supreme skill. This was a Camembert to rule them all.
Fruit salad is never likely to set pulses racing but was pleasant enough, with some pistachio ice cream, candied pistachios and mini meringues for colour and texture. And after that was their "famous" (their words, not mine) XL éclair, an impressive bit of pastrywork stuffed with chocolate ice cream. It, too, did its job well enough.
Perhaps the point of these press events isn't that everything is to any particular individual's taste, particularly not a restaurant snob like me whose back was up as soon as I heard the name Alain Ducasse and saw they were charging €76 for five courses. But in the end, even objectively I have to conclude that the food is not as good as that at the cosy little bistro we were taken to the day before, who even managed to squeeze in premium ingredients like asparagus and morels for a little under half the price as Le Rech.
It's a strange position to be in, after having studiously avoided Alain Ducasse restaurants for five years, finally being persuaded to try one again and being disappointed - again. Like the meal at the Dorchester back in 2010, none of it was horrible, it just wasn't worth the money, and while my emotions of having eaten for free at this one in Paris is of mild guilt (or is that gout, it's hard to tell these days), if I'd had to pay for it myself I would have not been happy at all. So I can't really recommend it to you, either. Go get your Camembert from Cantin direct, get your éclairs from your favourite local patisserie, and try this Timeout list for some cheap'n'cheerful seafood options. And what you save on lunch at Le Rech you can spend on a round of Pastis after dinner. Doesn't that sound like a lot more fun?
I was a guest at Le Rech as part of an organised press trip. Tickets were provided by Eurostar and included Business Premier meals by Raymond Blanc. Until we come up with a Paris version, download my app for the top 100 restaurants in London.
Tuesday, 12 May 2015
It has taken me a long time to get around to eating Stevie Parle's food, or at least making a proper meal of it. Waaay back in the day a group of bloggers were invited to the Dock Kitchen by the Observer, and I think I liked most of what we ate, but it was a joint thing with Thomasina Miers and wasn't really reviewable. Then more recently I went back for a special offal evening curated by Anissa Helou, which was lovely but again not a Parle menu. And I believe the food at his 2nd restaurant Rotorino is very good, except thanks to the involvement of Jonathan Downey (see paragraph 11), I couldn't go there either.
Which brings us to Craft, not involving anyone likely to send the boys round (I'm assured), and brand-spanking new just next to the O2. But don't let the location put you off; it's a beautiful building despite the main view being of London's biggest white elephant- sorry, dome, and it's so far removed from the truly diabolical collection of what I can only loosely call restaurants inside the main building (Frankie & Benny's, Garfunkel's, Las Iguanas, Harvester; it's like satan himself created a food court) it's a beacon of warmth and hope in this otherwise fairly depressing corner of town.
Things got off to a great start with the house breads. Most restaurants would have been more than satisfied to serve a fantastic moist sourdough alone, but Craft trumped that with a quite wonderful flatbread, piping hot straight out of the tandoor oven; like a naan only more delicate, less greasy. This was as moreish as almost any house bread I've had in recent weeks, really was top stuff.
The rest of the menu certainly had its highlights, but confusion reigned initially over the difference between a "snack" and a "starter" as neither on paper nor in reality was it very clear the difference. For example, this generous - and incredibly lovely - savoury scone topped with a superbly light duck liver paté and damsons is apparently a "snack" and costs a very reasonable £4.50. I wonder how many langoustine you get for your £20 from the "starter" menu? I'll probably never know.
So back to the "snacks" and this is Pigeon Pie, for £7.50 containing a huge slab of pink breast meat, bursting with flavour, encased in golden pastry lattice. In terms of the technique and ingredients it could hardly be faulted, but on a point of practicality I really needed a sharper knife to cut through it - even the finest pigeon breast is hardly going to cut with a spoon.
I mention the prices so far because it's at this point the whole "value for money" waters started to get a little more muddied. First up, Ross chicken, broth, curd dumplings, wild garlic (wait I'm not done yet), kombucha egg, pork scratchings (still not done), and pickled alexander (OK I'm done). I'm sure a huge amount of work went into this rather experimental fusion of cuisines, but it all ended up being a bit Kitchen Sink. Which is a shame because the chicken itself was gorgeous, plump and juicy and with a subtle smoke from the open grill. It didn't need much of the rest of it, in fact I'd argue hardly any of it, even the (rather nice) broth; just give me this chicken with a bit of green and some potatoes and you'd be staring down the barrel of a perfect plate of food. And £24?
Beef was also of very good quality, but at £32 for three small pieces is even further away from value. The lovage dressing was clever, I could see what they were trying to do, highlighting the minerally notes of the beef with this metallic-tasting herb, but it still was slightly more confusing than enjoyable, and I'm afraid I didn't enjoy the lumpy bonemarrow "bread sauce" at all; it was cold, gloopy and weirdly tasteless.
A £4 bowl of leaves was never going to set the world alight, and indeed didn't, but could have been at least a bit more memorable with extra dressing and more vigorous seasoning. "Fireplace Potatoes" were great though, with a delicate crunch outside and as creamy as the finest mash within.
With two cokes and two small glasses of 5.5% mead for extra hipster points, the bill came to £102.38. Now, I think that's too much, especially given we didn't even have desserts (or technically starters either, for that matter). But on the other hand, despite some wobbles, there were some genuinely memorable dishes, and this is at least food which is trying something new, has its heart in the right place, and I'm absolutely sure isn't cynically charging way more to customers than the ingredients cost to buy and cook. Certainly not once you factor in the lavish kitchen with its tandoor ovens and charcoal spits.
So what can be done? Buy cheaper meat? Buy in cheap bread? Employ fewer staff (I have one suggestion for the cull, after being constantly interrupted by inane chat throughout the evening)? No, none of these things, I'm sure. If this is how much this kind of thing costs then fine, good luck to them, and I hope they find enough people willing to pay it. And within reason I'd count myself amongst that number; by the standards of London 2015 this is still a dynamic, beautiful and eminently enjoyable restaurant. And let's face it, by the standards of the immediate area, it's a bloody Godsend.
Stuck for dinner ideas in London? Where to Eat London is £2.99, available from all good iTunes stores.