Tuesday, 16 February 2016
When I was a child, we often visited the Costa Brava for family holidays. In the very early days, we drove the entire way from Liverpool, chundering our way over the English channel on P&O Ferries and staying overnight in cheap autoroute motels. The journey was long, and boring, and expensive, but there was no other option - flights were £250/person and we didn't know anyone who could afford that kind of luxury.
Then seemingly almost overnight, budget airlines arrived, and we had at least the option of being herded onto a 2-hour Ryanair 737 flight instead of spending two days in the Mitsubishi Space Wagon. Yes, Ryanair was unreliable and uncomfortable, the staff about as personable as prison guards and the baggage allowance rules seemingly plucked from thin air for every journey, but it was cheap, and quick, and meant we could usually enjoy two extra days by the pool instead of sat in the back of the car listening to Pop Hits for Kids.
I said usually. Usually things went more or less to plan but every now and again, thanks to the wilfully "knife-edge" way the Ryanair schedules were set up, and because the slightest disruption to any flight would cause the entire network to spiral out of control for days on end, there inevitably were delays. This was bad enough on the outgoing journey; Liverpool Airport, even after its refurb and expansion was hardly a scintillating environment in which to spend 5 hours twiddling your thumbs. But if the delay happened on the journey home it meant killing time at Girona airport, a tiny, charmless building hastily constructed for the nascent seasonal trade in the 1960s and utterly unable to cope with the vast numbers of holidaymakers suddenly descending on it thanks to Michael O'Leary's aggressive business model.
There is an aim to all this preamble; please bear with me. The point is, a delay at Girona airport in the 1990s meant sitting in an over-airconditioned strip-lit box with inadquate toilet facilities, fighting for a table (if you were blessed by the gods), a hard plastic seat (if you were very lucky) or even just a space of cold floor on which to sit carefully watching your luggage, surrounded by screaming kids and their frazzled parents, glumly deciding whether to get another overpriced packet of ready salted Lays or risk a mystery meat sandwich from the Duty Free. Ironically for somewhere ostensibly built to service the leisure industry, it was the single most depressing spot on planet earth, a grim, soul-sucking and inhuman place, every corner of which seemingly designed specifically to be as upsetting as possible.
JRC Global Buffet makes Girona Airport after a 5-hour delay seem like afternoon tea at Claridge's. Alarm bells were ringing as soon as we reached the corner of this windswept car park in a retail park in Croydon and realised we had to pay in full (£20 per head) before we'd even been seated, never mind seen the food on offer. Scary signs in the reception area/new inmates' holding cell shout about "NO REFUNDS!" and "NO ENTRY WITHOUT ADMISSION TOKEN!" - it doesn't really feel like they have much confidence in the product they offer, or, for that matter, the behaviour of their customers.
Once inside the vast dining room, sat amongst the scattered tables and filthy, food-strewn floor, it becomes painfully obvious why. Perhaps the very concept of an all-you-can-eat buffet necessarily encourages waste and excess, but I have been to other examples here and abroad and with a little care and attention they can feel like just another equally valid way of serving people their dinner. I particularly remember one I visited a few years ago in Nantucket which offered fresh oysters and king crab legs from a raw bar, and a station with a man making omelettes to order. Here, in this wipe-clean departure gate with its banks of processed brownfood and bowls of lurid thin liquid, there was no incentive to behave, no effort on display to appreciate. You're expected to pile your plates high with shit you don't want and aren't expected to eat, wildly differing cuisines churned out by the same anonymous suppliers, reheated without thought and scooped up or abandoned without care.
Of course, of course, all the food tasted diabolical. How could it not? Chicken tikka pieces, apparently cooked in a real tandoor yet somehow also dry on the inside and wet on the outside with no sign of char, were the first thing I ate. Then an item of "dim sum", probably made a very long way away a very long time ago, squishy and salty in the mouth like congealed sputum. Onion bhajis, burning with a heat of way too much chilli powder and not much of anything else, a lamb kebab like pressed sawdust, a single cocktail sausage I picked up resembling something attached to a baboon at Southport Zoo from a particularly distressing childhood memory. All of it sweating away under the hot lamps, waiting to be picked up, picked at, then chucked away.
And yet, it was rammed. At 6:30pm on a Monday night. As was Frankie & Benny's next door, a different branch of which I visited in similar circumstances two years ago. So obviously there are forces at work here of which I am wholly unaware. I know I speak from the privilege of 10 years writing about food and from my central London bubble but surely I am not that divorced from the reality of what people choose to do for dinner? Why are people spending £20 each to eat food they could reheat themselves from the freezer section at Iceland for a few pence? I just don't know, it's as simple as that. I have no theories. I don't know why JRC Global Buffet has any customers.
If you must know, there was more food. Frozen chips, a gloopy beef stir fry with another bafflingly huge amount of chilli, a spoonful of that crispy seaweed you get from Chinese restaurants which I normally quite like in a guilty kind of way but here was just greasy, soggy and unseasoned. My friend had picked herself an equally bizarre selection involving noodles and paella, because that's what you do, and then while poking halfheartedly at a glass full of Angel Delight and cold jelly said "this is the worst place I've ever been to". I couldn't help but agree.
Usually after a terrible restaurant experience I can laugh about it. At Bubba Gump's last year, and in fact even after Frankie & Benny's the year before after the main trauma had worn off, it was kind of a relief to get it over with and chalk it up to experience. These yearly public vote destinations are really supposed to just be a bit of fun, shining a critical light on the kind of restaurants that would - quite rightly in most cases - often be ignored by snooty restaurant bloggers like me. I realise there's a kind of sick pleasure to be had in reading about someone else's bad experiences, and usually I'm happy to oblige.
But JRC Global Buffet is a special kind of awful. It's deliberately awful. The business minds behind it know exactly what they're doing, serving processed crap to a captive crowd of retail park shoppers, and they're getting away with it because somehow they've found enough people whose expecations of eating out are literally no more than to eat shit food until they're sick. And the longer it exists and - I can hardly believe how depressing this is - actually expands across the UK (watch out Swindon, they're coming for you next) we are all the poorer, and all the good-hearted people who run good restaurants and serve fantastic fresh food with care and love have to try that bit harder to convince the country that eating out is not just an exercise in filling your gut but can actually be one of the most rewarding experiences it's possible to have.
Anyway I'm going to stop talking about it now because I have no desire to revisit one more second of my time in JRC Global Buffet. I hate it, and it's evil and nobody should ever eat there ever again. There's your review. Now I'm off to shower in bleach.
Thursday, 11 February 2016
Fair play to chef Yoshihiro Murata, the decorated (at least in his native Japan) name behind Tokimeite. After the near-universal chorus of derision that greeted the opening of Chrysan back in 2012, which sat empty of customers for six months before quietly closing, you'd think he would have had enough of those fickle, ungrateful Londoners and slunk off back to Japan to enjoy his seven Michelin stars around people that properly appreciated his efforts. But no, here he is again, this time attached to a striking new space on Conduit Street which looks like it's had just as much money lavished on it as the ill-fated Chrysan. Will the mistakes of old be learned? Could Tokemeite be the "contemporary Japanese dining experience" that we've all been waiting for?
Well, in a word, no. Bafflingly, Tokimeite seems to fall into many of the same traps that befell Chrysan, from the overly large and unfocussed menu, to the mad pricing and poor execution of Japanese staple dishes. There were problems with more or less everything I ate on a recent lunch, such that pointing it all out runs the risk of turning this blog post into a relentless list of complaints. But hey ho, why break the habit of a lifetime, here goes anyway.
I have no intrinsic objection to the idea of 'Mussel Miso soup', which comes as standard with all of the lunchtime bento box deals. Done well it probably could be a very nice starter, it just seems a bit odd to make it the default starter for all the boxes, including the vegetable ones. Or maybe the mussels are just a way of distracting punters from the fact that the miso broth itself is incredibly dull; no better in fact than the one from Pret that costs about £1.50. This was £8 as a standalone dish.
Nigiri was poor. All the fish looked lifeless and waxy, sloppily cut and sloppily presented. A salmon roe piece had fallen apart and the nori wrapping welded to the bottom of the bowl before it had arrived at the table, but nobody from the kitchens or front of house thought it might have been an idea to re-do it. Raw squid can often be chewy, so that was no surprise, but I didn't expect a slice of what I assume was sea bream to be equally leathery. Most unforgiveably of all, though, all the rice was fridge-cold. This was sushi seemingly prepared by people with no aptitude or enthusiasm for the job, and made for a rather depressing eating experience.
Tempura was better, at least the batter was delicate and relatively greaseless, and all the vegetables had a nice bite. The dipping sauce it came with might as well have been tap water for all the flavour it had, and £16 is a fairly astonishing price to pay for some fried veg and a couple of prawns but at least we did eat it without much complaint.
"Wagyu walnut rice" also came with the bento boxes, although oddly we only received one bowl of it instead of two of everything else. But we didn't feel like chasing for a second portion after trying some of it; a sad, sweaty bowl of almost wholly tasteless rice and nuts, topped with a teaspoon of grey mince. If this was your introduction to "Wagyu" beef then you'd quite rightly wonder what all the fuss was about. Another example of how the word "Wagyu" has about as much meaning as "craft" or "artisan" these days.
Pork ribs came in two flavours, one bland but doused in enough Sichuan pepper to make your mouth taste of metal, and one slightly more acceptable but very sweet in some kind of honey sesame glaze. Both had quite chewy flesh - these had not been treated to anything approaching low'n'slow - and hadn't been sliced up, that job for some reason left for us. They were £16. There was also a bizarre tower of potato salad, which I didn't take a picture of, that was so icy cold it was almost frozen, about 2 tablespoons worth for £5.
It's tempting to blame at least some of the problems with Tokimeite on the fact that they're trying to cover too many different Japanese cooking styles at once. In Japan, there are sushi restaurants and there are tempura restaurants and there are yakitori restaurants, each allowing for ultra-specialisation in their chosen field with often dazzling results. Perhaps Tokimeite had already lost the battle when they tried to put tempura, sushi and Wagyu steaks on the same menu to try and please as many potential customers at once from the same kitchen, Jack of many trades, itamae of none. But then you realise that Roka do exactly that to great effect; their sushi, and their chargrilled meats, and their tempura, is all top-notch. Not Japanese top-notch perhaps, but certainly worth the money.
No, Tokimeite disappoints not just because the menu is large and unfocussed but also because even if it wasn't, that even if they did just focus on sushi or tempura or those ludicrously-priced Wagyu steaks (£100 for 200g? Jog on, mate) you get the distinct impression they'd somehow be just as careless, confusing and overpriced. And so for all the same reasons that did for Chrysan, I fear that Tokimeite, too, is not long for this world. Maybe it will be third time lucky for Yoshihiro Murata? I'm sure I'll never know.
Tokimeite didn't make the cut. But where else in Mayfair did? Why not download my app to find out?
Thursday, 4 February 2016
Haven't the last 12 months just flown by? It's time once again to put myself in your hands as I open another reader's poll to determine the subject of a forthcoming blog post. With trips Frankie & Benny's, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company and the Rainforest Café all distant (though still traumatic) memories, there is some comfort in that at least I won't be going back to any of those. But we all know there's probably far worse out there, and if anyone can uncover a real dining catastrophe, it's you horrible lot.
Of course, you could just send me somewhere nice like Le Gavroche, but then who am I kidding.
The rules again:
1. I can't have been to the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)
2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)
3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.
4. Buy my app (it's not a condition for voting but you should anyway)
Edit: Well, even a split vote couldn't stop the runaway leader JRC Global Buffet, Croydon. I see trams in my future.
Tuesday, 2 February 2016
To be fair to the team behind Noble Rot, they tried to keep if not schtum then at least sotto voce the involvement of chef Stephen Harris. This was not billed anywhere official as The Sportsman in London. Harris was merely a consultant on the menu, and manning the stoves on a daily basis would be Paul Weaver, admittedly ex-Sportsman but also having experience of the nose-to-tail aesthetic of St John Bread & Wine, and very much his own person. Noble Rot would be "Franglish", they said - British ingredients presented in a French bistro style. Definitely not the Sportsman v2. No no no.
But then the mere mention of "slipsole" on a preview menu was enough to prompt fevered speculation. Of all the dishes served in that windswept spot on the north Kent coast, it's the "Slipsole with seaweed butter" that's come to represent everything that's pure and good about Harris' cooking. Delicate but meaty fillet of sole drenched in a sauce made from seaweed gathered from the beach, seasoned with sea salt made from water carried out of the ocean by hand. Dare we expect this level of ultra-seasonal, haute-British cooking in Bloomsbury? Would we be disappointed if it wasn't?
In the end, what Noble Rot have done is very clever. Those knowing nothing about the pedigree of the kitchen will enjoy a sophisticated yet accessible menu of seasonal British ingredients, well worth the money they're charging and alongside a wine list that's every bit as intelligently considered as the food. But what about those people expecting the Sportsman in London? Well, they won't be disappointed either, because Noble Rot is such a good restaurant that any lingering doubts will fade as soon as the food starts arriving. Oh, and they even serve slipsole.
First things first, though, and the house bread at Noble Rot is up there with the very best in town. This is because they get some of it from the Antidote/Hedone people, who are almost as famous for their obsessive attention to making the very best bread as they are about, well, pretty much everything else they do. There's no finer way of starting a meal than with a bread course like this, soft soda next to sticky sourdough and moist, cakey foccacia. All gorgeous. I do think it's a bit strange when places serve focaccia with butter but that's a minor niggle.
Native oysters from (where else) Whitstable, and lovely they were too, minerally and fresh and lean. Not massively cheap at £3.50 a pop but then natives never are, and it's always a good sign to see them on a restaurant menu. Means a place knows what it's doing.
A plate of Iberico ham next, just because it's on the menu and if you don't always order Iberico ham whenever you see it you're a stronger person than me. It was in perfect condition, and every sliver of that warm, nutty, rich meat with its ribbons of fat dissolved on the tongue like butter.
And so, the slipsole. In a nod to the location instead of seaweed they'd used "smoked" butter, an equally clever and visually arresting way of making the most of this astonishing fish. Just like when I had it in Whitstable the flesh was bright white and lifted off the bone in satisfying clean chunks, and the dressing added an intriguing spicy note. Perhaps it goes without saying that the seaweed version in the Sportsman is slightly better but that is there and this is here and you'd have a heart of stone to whinge about this superb dish for £8 in central London.
"Burrata, pumpkin & hazelnuts" almost, but not quite, made me enjoy pumpkin. The burrata was gooey and bright tasting, and the nuts had a lovely toasted flavour and fragile texture, but pumpkin is still a bit of a characterless vegetable as far as I'm concerned. Still, this wasn't my dish and the person who ordered it loved it, so what do I know. Or care.
This was halibut braised in "oxidised 1998 Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru". If I was a proper food writer I'd make at least some effort to find out what the hell this means, but I'm not, so all I can tell you is it was a lovely meaty chunk of moist halibut in a wine/butter sauce with some new potatoes. Certainly on the more straightforward side of food presentation and not a great deal going on texture-wise but the fish was lovely and it went down very well with the parties who ordered it.
Whole roast quail with bacon, chestnuts and cavolo nero was far more my kind of thing. The bird was cooked pink inside, with a fantastic dark skin holding bags of salty flavour. The rinkles of the cavolo nero worked like a sponge so that every bite gave up a satisfying amount of gamey gravy. Chestnuts were horrid little nuggets of soily blandness like they usually are, but were easily avoided. A comforting, seasonal dish.
Desserts were a game of two halves. On the one hand, a not-very-good-really egg tart which though edible didn't have the depth of flavour or structural integrity (I mean to say it was a bit runny and the crust was too thick) of masterful versions elsewhere in the capital such as the one at the Marksman. I know this makes me sound a bit spoiled but the egg tart game has upped so much in recent times that substandard ones really do stand out. The clementine sorbet didn't do anything for it either.
But on the other hand, a really good cheeseboard, with (from wobbly memory, we'd had a bit of wine by this point) a stinky Livarot, a good creamy Comté and a blue, all room temperature and in perfect condition.
So it seems the strengths at Noble Rot, and they have some very notable strengths, are in sourcing impeccable ingredients, from oysters to cheese, and serving them at the absolute best they can be. And the savoury courses generally were worth the journey, not least that slipsole which is still able to shine despite not having the benefit of its seaside context.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the wine. Noble Rot have consistently described themselves in the press as a wine bar first, and to this end the wine list - not excessively long but full of interesting options - will I'm sure keep oenophiles happy as Larry. For those of you (myself included) who don't take a professional-level interest in that side of things, there's the fun of ordering a bottle of £20 white and knowing that if it's on the list, it's likely to be pretty good. I spotted a few other tables who were as happy working their way through the wine list as we were working our way through the food menu, and I'm sure Noble Rot are happy playing to either role.
So I'll leave it up to you whether you treat Noble Rot as an exciting new wine bar that happens to serve excellent food, or a modern British-French bistro that serves some of our island's greatest ingredients with the minimum of faff and fuss. Either way, you should find a lot to like in this charming mid-range (you're probably looking at £40-£50 a head) spot on Lamb's Conduit St, and I can see myself returning quite a bit, not least because it's 8 minutes walk from the office. It's a hugely enjoyable addition to the area, and to London.
Noble Rot didn't quite make it into the app this year, but to see what else is in the area try the brand new Where to Eat in London 2016. Also, apologies for the photos. It's dark in there.
Monday, 1 February 2016
I'm very pleased to announce that the 2016 version of my Where to Eat in London app is now available from the iTunes app store! Grab it here:
Where to Eat in London 2016
Anyone familiar with the 2015 version will know pretty much what to expect - 100 restaurants that I consider to be the very best in town, each with a review written specifically for the app. And if this all this is new to you, it won't be long before you're discovering new places and ticking off your 'visited' list with the best of them. It's very easy to use.
Such is the pace of change in the past 12 months that at least 20% of the entries are brand new for 2016. I'll leave you to discover which ones they are, but anyone following these pages probably won't be very surprised to see certain Kingsland Road chicken joints and Sri-Lankan Soho curry houses making an appearance.
And with the total number of restaurants being still just 100, that of course means there have been a few culled from the list. Most are simply closures; Zucca, Fino, Garufin, Koya, all decent restaurants that didn't make it through the maelstrom of activity that was London 2015. It's been a funny old year.
And there's still no Android version I'm afraid - at least, not yet. Complicated economic reasons but boiling down to the fact that the extra development costs for Android aren't worth it for the potential returns. But if the iOS version does well enough then the publishers will consider developing one - so watch this space.
Anyway I hope you enjoy it, and as ever, if you like it and find it useful, or even if you download it just for the reviews (plenty of reading material there for your £2.99, I'm sure you'll agree), please do leave a report on iTunes. It all helps.
Meantime, happy downloading and happy eating!