Wednesday, 30 September 2015
One of the handier aspects of writing about a place with a short menu is that I don't have to feel guilty about passing judgment after only trying one or two dishes. Not that I often feel guilty about passing judgment on a place after only trying one or two dishes of course (it would be a pretty thin blog otherwise), but I just feel marginally more confident about the whole thing when those one or two dishes constitute 90% of the menu. Writing about, for example, burger bars or ramen joints is very straightforward - ramen good? Good restaurant. Ramen bad? Bad restaurant. Easy.
In an ideal world and with an unlimited budget, though, repeat visits would be made even if just to try the same item again for consistency. On my first trip to Tongue & Brisket, the salt beef was dry and dense, with odd lumps of gristle and a distinctly amateurish chewiness. The bread was good and I enjoyed the (albeit room temperature) fish balls but I was in no hurry to go back given there are 2 other salt beef places on Leather Lane alone after my custom.
But thanks to a couple of people telling me I must have been unlucky, I did go back, and on a second visit my salt beef on rye was pretty much perfect - moist, firm without being chewy, not too salty or too lean, a supreme example and for a very reasonable amount of money. Not Brick Lane Beigel Bake cheap, obviously, but not Brass Rail Selfridge's expensive either, a happy middle ground of £7.20 for plenty of the good stuff and some proper fresh rye bread. I'd have preferred they used French's instead of the strong English mustard but I'm probably on my own on this, at least in this part of town where a steady line of East End boys and black cab drivers queued up from midday for their hot sandwiches. I didn't see any of them ordering French's.
I went back one more time, just to make sure. This time, I went for tongue, which had the same clever way with the brining but a slightly less well-defined and mushier texture; not completely unpleasant but just not quite as bouncy as the salt beef. Still a great flavour though and good salt levels. The house pickles had, if anything, improved even more, nailing the sugar/salt/vinegar balance expertly and was a very generous portion for your £1.
Which just goes to show you that no matter how many times you tell yourself that it shouldn't ever really be possible to order badly in a good restaurant, and that 99% of the time one visit is all you really need, and all that most people make anyway before making up their own minds, a repeat visit can, on occasion, have its place. On my most recent visit to Tongue & Brisket, on a whim I tried their chicken noodle soup. It was absolutely beautiful, with a good, deep flavour of proper chicken stock made with real care and attention, a fine chicken consommé that wouldn't be out of place in any posh restaurant. And it had taken three visits to even realise they sold it. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere.
Monday, 28 September 2015
When Lima took the city (and critics) by storm three years ago, it was taken as proof that Peruvian cuisine (and by extension, South American, although you don't hear many people talking about Uruguayan or Chilean cuisine for some reason) had come of age in London. Yes, we'd seen seabass ceviche and 100-ways-with-potato before but usually in the form of a street food van or humble pisco bar; this was unmistakeably, unapologetic Peruvian Fine Dining, and very impressive it all was too; sure, you paid for it, but happily, and then you went back for more. I did, anyway.
Since then, while it's probably true to say that Londoners have got more used to the idea of Peruvian food, it's not yet a full blown love affair. A hundred Lima-lites have not followed in Lima's wake. Pisco bars are still a novelty. And I've seen the odd ceviche being sold from the South Bank or in Shoreditch they've generally been something to do with Martin Morales, whose slowly growing empire (which started with Ceviche in Soho) is still doing most of the PR work for Peruvian food. It's still early days.
And just over a year ago, Lima Floral opened in a lovely bright spot near Cambridge Circus to prove that we are still not anywhere near Peruvian saturation point in London, and that the astonishing success of the Fitzrovia joint (they have a Michelin star now, and everything) wasn't a fluke. I've been twice for lunch at Floral, and both times the meal began with some colourful cornbread studded with chia seeds, dipped in a refreshingly garlicky yoghurt dip. Well, it beats stale focaccia and olive oil.
Much of the Lima/Floral offering still involves marinated raw seafood. Salmon with sea asparagus and beetroot was colourful, artistically presented and seasoned beautifully, an intelligent plate of high-end restaurant food that still felt recognisably South American. I'm still not 100% on board with the idea of cold mashed potato (or whatever it was under that salmon; tasted like potato at least) but otherwise this was very enjoyable.
I thought the "ceviche mixto" would be a good way of sampling a variety of Floral's way with seafood in one dish, and there was certainly a generous amount in this £12 starter; a huge chunk of tuna, a big lump of octopus, a square of sea bream. The disconcertingly orange sweet potato purée tasted snotty and odd, but there was just about enough other good things going on - including some of those toasted cancha corn kernels which I always love - that it was easily ignored. Most importantly, the tiger's milk marinade was so good - salty and fresh and acidic - I ended up drinking it straight out of the bowl. I have no shame when it comes to leftover sauce, I'm afraid.
Mains, across both lunches, were somewhat less impressive. The slow-cooked shoulder with dried potato and Amazonian Cashew had some lovely rich meaty flavours in the sauces - and was again seasoned perfectly - but sadly the meat was a little woolly and dry in places.
"Chicken Alto Andes" suffered from the opposite problem - beautifully moist and looking the part but oddly devoid of flavour. Perhaps, noticing the blackened skin I was expecting it to taste char-grilled or thickened with exotic spices; in the end the only part of the dish that really tasted of anything was the dried pepper sauce which was lifted slightly by a hint of chilli. And it seems a bit pointless to get worked up about the seasonality of asparagus in September when 90% of the rest of the menu had been flown halfway across the world as well. So I won't.
Reading back the above it seems I gave the impression I had a much worse time at Lima Floral than I actually did. Yes, there were mistakes, or bits that weren't brilliant, but this is still a vibrant and exciting - at least for now - restaurant which also - again, at least for now - is doing things you can't find anywhere else in London. For this reason alone, the sheer novelty factor, it deserves a look-in. If it had been a little bit cheaper (like streetfood tends to be) or a little bit better (like the mothership Lima) then its score would have been higher, but I still don't regret spending my money there (about £25 for lunch, rising to about £50 I'd say for dinner) and you can do a lot worse in Covent Garden. And plus, as I say, it's still early days...
Tuesday, 8 September 2015
It makes sense that a restaurant built around the concept of extreme specialisation, that focuses on just one or two dishes and nothing else, fails or succeeds on the basis of those one or two dishes being any good. When it works, specialisation allows a kitchen to focus on refining and improving the food to the point where you end up with something as glorious as Kanada-Ya's tonkotsu ramen, or the lobster roll from Burger & Lobster. When it doesn't, you end up with any number of lazy burger joints that have no greater ambition than to copy what someone else is doing only worse and for more money. And God knows we've got enough of those already.
Lurra, it should be made clear, is not an extreme specialisation restaurant. There's a decent, medium-sized menu of attractive Basque dishes, a wine list, nicely spaced tables in a clean and bright room, everything you might expect from the team behind Donostia over the road which is another very nice mid-range Spanish restaurant. And yet if you followed the buildup to Lurra's opening over the last few weeks on Twitter you'd be forgiven for thinking that they just sold one dish - steak - because that seemed to be all everyone talked about. Not just any steak of course, 14-year Rubia Gallega "Galician Blond" Prime Rib, grade 9 at £65/kilo, but steak all the same.
Now, the last thing I want to be is deliberately controversial, but I may as well get this out of the way - I didn't think much of That Steak. It looked the part, smelled great, and was cooked perfectly, but this was definitely a cow that had lived a life - the texture ranged from chewy to "shoe leather" and there was only the faintest hint of the deep, minerally beefy loveliness that I've had from, say, Hereford cattle from Goodman, or even the best USDA. Having said that though, I've eaten enough steaks in my life to know that they vary wildly from animal to animal - even from the same farmer from the same herd - and so I'm quite prepared to admit that I've been unlucky.
And anyway it doesn't matter, because - as I say - Lurra is not an extreme specialisation restaurant; there's plenty of other lovely things to eat. We started with two types of fried peppers, juicy, chunky Gernika and some spicy lean Guindilla, each named after the town in the Basque country where they come from. They disappeared completely over the course of the meal, my own favourite being the Guindilla which a gentle citrus flavour as well as more of a chilli kick.
Cobia is apparently a type of fish from South America, and its firm, buttery flesh was very well served in this tartare, seasoned by salty trout caviar. In fact this was almost our favourite dish of the evening. Who needs beef?
Heritage tomato salad has almost become a cliché in London but I will never get tired of it as long as the tomatoes look at taste this good, coated in a lovely salty dressing.
Fries were OK - the strange orange colour was hopefully mainly from the paprika and not from them soaking up too much cold oil, but the aioli was good. I don't think I've ever had brilliant chips in a Spanish restaurant, so to that end I suppose they were quite authentic.
2 red mullet for £7 is a pretty good deal I think, simply fried and presented with a little house tartare sauce. There was none of that offputting 'fishyness' that you sometimes get from mullet, and the flesh inside the crisp skin was solid and bright white.
A bottle of Portuguese white had its desired effect by this point, and not wanting the evening to end we started on desserts. Which, somewhat surprisingly for a Spanish restaurant, were both superb. House ice cream came in two flavours, a dark and juicy blackberry and an earthy, creamy walnut which were both hugely enjoyable.
And chocolate fondant doesn't sound like the most 2015 of restaurant desserts but it was seriously good. Perfectly gooey inside with bags of chocolate flavour, it was so addictive it was only the shame of having left so much of the beef (it's OK, they bagged it up for me to take home) that stopped us ordering another.
So, who cares about beef? Yes, Lurra did probably need at least one tentpole dish to get the sad foodies talking (that would be me, then) but you'd be doing them a great injustice to focus on that at the expense of the rest of the menu, which is exciting, cooked incredibly well and for not a huge amount of money. The bill came to just under £120 but would have been a bit more representative (and sensible) had we left the £26 steak off and just focussed on the seafood. Speaking of which, they do a whole grilled turbot for £60/kilo. Maybe next time...
This is a part of town blessed with great restaurants. Use my app to find them all!
Monday, 7 September 2015
Most of the time, a good restaurant is not a surprise. When the team behind Trishna opened Gymkhana, the chances were always high it was going to be another complete knockout of a place, and indeed it was. When the annoyingly talented Robin Gill, chef of the Dairy, opened the Manor and then Paradise Garage, that both of these new restaurants also turned out to be serving some of the best Modern British food in the capital, we were impressed, grateful, even, but not shocked. And even when Tom Harris, Michelin-starred chef of St John Hotel and then 1 Leicester Street moved East to open the Marksman, well, quite how brilliant it was raised plenty of eyebrows, but he'd hardly gone from a standing start. The guy had form.
But just occasionally, a restaurant appears in this city that despite no obvious pedigree and with very little fanfare, manages to completely and utterly knock for six. That's not to say that the team behind The Cornwall Project aren't incredibly good at what they do, but in previous locations (for example at the Adam & Eve in Homerton) they've made a name serving up enjoyable, solid dishes using good Cornish ingredients for not much money. But now, at the Newman Arms, they've somehow stumbled upon a chef, Eryk Bautista, whose blinding talent matched with the UK's finest produce has, almost instantly, created a real superstar food destination.
I've made two pilgrimages to the Newman Arms, the first a few weeks back on a mini press invite organised by the head of the Cornwall Project, Matt Chatfield. Despite being open barely a few days and with the paint drying on the walls, the food was still spectacular; I got the distinct impression (I'm sure he won't mind me saying) that even Matt couldn't believe his luck. Above is strips of mackerel with delicate house fermented gherkin and bright white fresh almonds, a work of art on a plate that made the absolute best of the finest Cornish fish.
White beetroot, with that same subtle touch on the pickling, came with toasted hazelnuts and melted blue cheese - Worksop is apparently what Stichelton becomes when it's allowed to ripen even more than usual. But almost the most impressive thing about this dish were the powerfully sharp (white) currants, which matched so well with the cheese it's a wonder you don't see the combination more often. Maybe we will, now.
Short rib had a marvellous loose texture and that dense, rich hit of the finest grass-fed Warrens beef. What at first glance looked like breadcrumbs sprinkled on top turned out to be somehow made of bone marrow, so added yet more animal flavour as well as a clever bit of texture. And I know it's only a little thing, but not only were the green beans perfectly cooked (possibly poached in stock, they had so much flavour), but I particularly liked the way they'd been wound into a little coil for extra presentational flair.
The same stripped-back style of presentation was also used to great effect in this lamb dish; just two generous, pink slabs of lamb separated by a vibrant seaweed sauce and salt-baked turnips. Not an ingredient too many and no sign of frilly or frothy cheffy affectation, just perfectly cooked meat & veg, lifted by a remarkable visual elegance.
Similarly this turbot, a gorgeously browned exterior containing bright-white super-fresh dayboat flesh inside. Draped artfully next to it, a whole baby fennel plant, the root sweet and soft, the head crisp and dry. Without the very best ingredients, this dish could have been disappointing, but I don't think I've ever had a better tasting turbot. Someone once told me that some fish, such as turbot, is actually better being left for a few days before eating; something to do with allowing the flesh to firm up. I asked Matt about this theory. "That sounds like something someone who couldn't get hold of day boat turbot would say" he replied.
Desserts at the Newman Arms generally consist of some kind of cake and their home made ice cream, sweet and soft and darkened with massive amounts of real vanilla. Above is a cherry & almond cake from a few weeks back, but on a more recent lunch I had a stunning blackcurrant and beetroot affair, equally pretty and equally glorious.
On the same return trip I started with this colourful plate of duck hearts and pickled baby beets, and was lucky enough to try their prototype steak & kidney pie. And yes, they know it's not a proper pie if it doesn't have a base. They're working on this. But it already tastes incredible, the parsley sauce and buttery mash also being about as good as you could want.
But the fact the work-in-progress pie was one of the few examples of dishes that could be improved just shows kind of standard at which the Newman Arms is already operating. Good ingredients treated well is hardly a groundbreaking formula for a successful restaurant and like other popular, ingredients-led gastropubs such as the Drapers Arms or the Marksman, the Newman Arms proves again that if you start with good produce and get hold of some good chefs, you're onto a winner. But only very once in a while do you have the perfect marriage of the UK's very finest ingredients fresh from Cornwall and a kitchen team uniquely skilled to make the very most of them. Whether by design or by accident, this lovely old pub is one of the very best places to eat in London right now. And it's only going to get better.
The Newman Arms will definitely be in the next version of the app. Meanwhile, see where else is good. My first meal was by kind invite of the Cornwall Project.
Wednesday, 2 September 2015
I hesitate to make any grand statements about the health of anywhere's restaurant scene based on a four-day trip and a handful of meals but, well, that's all I've ever done, and despite trying my absolute best to sample the latest and greatest of what New York City had to offer, just like in all my previous trips to this fine city, somehow in 2015, for the first time, I left rather underwhelmed. I'm not about to pull a Tanya Gold - nothing was a complete disaster and there's every chance I was just a bit unlucky - but I remember the days when this city was the alpha leader of restaurant dining, untouchable from bottom to top, and to find myself even a teeny bit disappointed after a meal is not an emotion I'm used to associating with the place.
But let's start at the start. The first morning I wanted a bagel for breakfast, somewhere handy from the Williamsburg AirBnB we were staying in. The Bagel Store had a big queue - a good sign - but it seemed most people were queuing not for bagels but for something called a "cragel", some odd hybrid of a croissant and a bagel presumably dreamt up on the back of the vicious cronut phase that swept through the town a few years back. I tried a salted butter cragel; it was a bit stale and greasy and I wish I'd ordered something else. Staff looked a bit harried though so maybe they were having a bad day.
For lunch, surely nothing could go wrong in a highly-regarded steakhouse in Midtown? I mean, surely this is what New York does best, right? Except from the very first moment I stepped through the doors of Wolfgang's on Park Avenue, I could tell something was up; there was none of that incredible beefy steakhouse aroma that hits you when you enter the doors of Peter Luger's, or our own Goodman in London. And then once seated by a slightly frosty front of house (a steakhouse cliché but one I am usually happy to put up with) even at head height the trays of beef travelling past to other tables suffered from the same odd absence of beefiness. Not a good sign.
And so my fears were realised - a vast, tender slab of $50 USDA porterhouse, cooked accurately medium-rare and finished with melted butter, that tasted of absolutely nothing whatsoever. "Steakhouse fries" were dry and soily and the house red was only OK, but I knew not to expect top-notch sides in a traditional steakhouse. All I did want was for the main event to be worth the (not insignificant) amount of money they were charging, and this really wasn't. And before anyone says "well what did you expect from USDA beef", I've had plenty of USDA steaks in my time - not least at Luger's - and they've generally been a good deal better than this.
That night we attempted to get into St Anselm (1 hour wait) Maison Premiere (2 hour wait) and Fette Sau (1 1/2 hour wait) and ended up in a little dive bar called DuMont Burger eating buffalo wings. Which, actually, was rather lovely.
The next day we found ourselves in Midtown again and what felt like the only place open for brunch, Sarge's Deli. And again, I'd have been happy to overlook the staff that treated us like an inconvenience had my matzo ball soup not come out of a packet and the rye bread on my pastrami sandwich not been so stale I'm convinced it must have been yesterday's.
So as you might imagine, a lot was riding on our second bash at Maison Premiere that night. This time we did make it in, deciding to take no chances and eat at 5pm (the one benefit of jetlag is you're hungry at weird times), and fortunately the service here was much better, being very accommodating of our strange eating time (technically the kitchen hadn't opened yet). The food, too, was just about worth the effort - a vast selection of east and west coast oysters yielded some dinky little things called Ninigret Cup from Rhode Island which were lean and minerally and sharp as a tack.
House bread was excellent, which was just as well as it came with fully three out of four of the main courses we chose. Why bring us a $4 portion of unordered house bread knowing the amount of bread we'd unknowingly already ordered with the other dishes? Oh well, I'm sure they had their reasons. A seafood selection of mussels "vichyssoise" with bacon and potato "pearls" were very clever French classics in miniature, and sea urchin's always a showstopper. Salt cod brandade and "warm olives" (?) were only OK but they were nothing if not filling thanks to all that bloody bread.
On the last day, burdened by our luggage on the way to Newark (which staff coped beautifully with), we'd booked the Four Horsemen, a bright and clean little spot that had been recommended numerous times from various corners. And indeed it was lovely, at least some of it was. American "Prosciutto" was every bit as good as the real thing, moist and delicate and not in the least bit dry. Country terrine had a great chunky texture and the pickled green tomatoes were a perfect accompaniment, even better than the more traditional (at least in France) cournichons.
Beef tartare with sesame cracker was visually striking and the textures worked well, there just wasn't a huge amount of flavour from the beef, or anything else on the plate for that matter. And fried potatoes with aioli weren't anything different from those available in any Spanish tapas bar, except of course for the $10 price tag for a bowl of potato and mayo.
Romano beans with dry aged beef [mince] was a slightly confused jumble of textures and flavours that perhaps would have worked OK as a salad or side but had little recommend it as a main course. And finally pepper fritters with thyme and honey were just weird, like the soggy desserts you might get at the end of a cheap Chinese meal except with a faintly distressing savoury pepper taste when you bit into them. Not very pleasant.
And with that, we were headed back off across the Atlantic. Hopefully you can see that we did at least try, and my gripes with any of the places we visited on our admittedly rather brief stay were justified. And as I say, we could have just been unlucky and caught some of them on a bad day, or just inadvertently ordered badly but the New York I remember isn't anywhere you could have ordered that badly, at least not with the amount of nerdy time and research I tend to put into figuring out where my next meal is coming from. So I'll put it down to experience and, as promised, not make any grand generalisations about the state of East Coast dining. All I will say is, it's good to be home.
Bagel Store 5/10
DuMont Burger 7/10
Sarge's Deli 6/10
Maison Premiere 7/10
Four Horsemen 7/10