Wednesday, 30 March 2016
"Would you like to sit at the bar or at a table at the back? I should warn you, there are lots of children."
Claire Roberson, charmingly laid-back front of house at the Camberwell Arms, whom I first met when she was one half of the now sadly missed Mayfields in Hackney (though it's hard to be sad for too long when you realise its replacement is the exquisite Pidgin), knows that sitting amidst the bedlam of a family restaurant in South London on a bank holiday weekend is not to everyone's tastes. But this is the new reality of Camberwell in 2016, gentrified if not quite yet genteel, with its gastropubs and artisan pizza joints and buggy-friendly table spacings. A lot has changed in a very short space of time.
I would have quite happily sat at the bar, actually, were it not for the fact the lighting was slightly better at the back. Yes, I'm one of those people now, very much enjoying the novelty of my photos no longer looking like medical waste, and happy to make life for my dining companions even more difficult if there's a chance of getting a good Flickr album out of it. Plus the children seemed fairly well behaved anyway, so that's win-win as far as I was concerned.
As well as boasting favourable lighting conditions, the Camberwell Arms - you may have heard - also serves some excellent food. These sweetbreads for example, simply and confidently presented, lightly breadcrumbed and laid on top of a zingy wild garlic and hazelnut pesto. Sweetbreads (along with pigeon, and oysters) are one of my Must Order items when I see them on a menu, and I'm happy to say these stood up next to the best of them.
Even more exciting though was this courgette and yoghurt soup with brown butter, an unpromising label for a surprisingly leftfield dish. Thick and cheesy, studded with what I think were chunks of pickled courgettes, the best way I can describe it is to say it was a bit like eating a bowl of cheese and pickle sandwich soup. And I suppose whether you'd like it depends on how much you like cheese and pickle sandwiches. I happen to like cheese and pickle sandwiches a lot.
The smoky pieces of charcoal-roasted squid in this main course had two major things going for them. Firstly, they had all the textural benefits of being sensitively barbequed, with crunchy bits of thin tentacle and lovely large chunks of tender flesh. Secondly, they were all doused in a beautiful green coriander and almond sauce, which created a vaguely South Indian effect. Clever stuff, and a generous portion too.
Not being able to resist yet more offal, I asked for the "ox heart kebab" for a main, a clever take on the kind of thing top kebab merchants FM Mangal (just over the road) are famous for. Despite a couple of inedibly gristly spots in the heart, the rest of it was - like the squid - irresistably smoky from the grill, and the yoghurt and chilli sauces both did their jobs well. I should say the "fleatbread" was a bit soggy and scone-y for my liking, but still had a nice flavour. And it's always nice to see any kitchen trying something a bit risky.
Clearly we weren't going to end such a nice meal prematurely, and so on to desserts. The first was an Easter special, hot cross bun with Seville marmalade ice cream, a densely sticky and sugary bun containing near-perfect house ice cream.
And apricot jam ice cream was also very accomplished, not a trace of ice crystal and studded with chunks of jammy fruit. I always appreciate when places go to the effort of making their own ice cream - the results are invariably lovely.
"Invariably lovely", in fact, is quite a good way of describing Camberwell Arms as a whole. This grand old building is that rarest of things, a proper gastropub in the most traditional Eagle Farringdon sense of the word, just as happy to serve you a £3.90 pint of Brockley Pale Ale while you read the newspaper at the front bar, as wowing with a great value Mediterranean-British menu at the tables at the back. On top of all that, you can even reserve so you don't even have to worry about getting in line. Camberwell is very lucky to have its food, its service and its lovely diffuse sky-lighting. I highly recommend a visit, and bringing a camera.
The Camberwell Arms stands a very good chance of being in the next version of the app. But if you're in the area, see how remarkably diverse are Camberwell's dining options by using my app.
Monday, 21 March 2016
It was while drooling over the fantastic menu at Lobos Tapas in Borough Market I realised that, just maybe, I am a massive hypocrite. If this had been an Italian restaurant, and a menu full of Italian staples such as beef carpaccio with parmesan and rocket, burrata with basil, wild boar pappardelle, etc and so on then I would be the first to criticise their lack of imagination and the identikit Italian Restaurant Clichés and condemn the whole operation as dull and derivative.
But because this is a Spanish restaurant, and because I like things like Padron Peppers, Pan Con Tomate, Iberico ham and Patatas Bravas and would be disappointed not to see them on a Spanish restaurant menu, instead of criticising Lobos' lack of imagination I will praise their drive for authenticity, and say how happy I am to see all my favourite Spanish dishes listed so comprehensively, and priced so well. Does that make me a hypocrite? Or are Spanish restaurant clichés just a whole lot more exciting than Italian restaurant clichés? Perhaps that's an argument for another time.
All that matters here and now is that Lobos, in this charming split-level space tucked beneath a railway arch in Borough Market, have since opening just 8 months ago firmly established themselves as one of the few genuine top-flight Spanish restaurants in London. Have another look at that menu - is there a single thing on it you don't want to eat? Does the idea of ham, chorizo and smoked bacon croquetas fill you with joy? Can you barely wait to get stuck into a tray of expertly hand-carved Iberico ham? Do the words "Iberico pork selection" make your heart all a-flutter? Well then, join the club.
Pan con tomate was the first to arrive, and was about a perfect a version as you could wish for. With just the right balance of tomato, oil and salt (lots of lesser tapas joints load the bread high with chopped tomato; that is not the point of this dish) spread on soft ciabatta, it was the kind of thing that reassured you that you were in safe hands. If you can get pan con tomate this right, the rest of the meal is a sure thing.
As indeed it was. You rarely see a better example of the ham carver's art than this - a neat grid of exquisitely thin morsels, each containing a nearly exact ratio of transluscent moist flesh and white fat. I held one up to the light so you can see how gloriously well it had been carved. And the beauty wasn't skin deep either - it had the deepest, richest nutty flavour of the very best Iberico ham.
Croquettas were smaller than I was expecting, and more numerous, but were otherwise still very enjoyable - little crunchy flavour bombs. If I'm being extra brutal I probably prefer the larger versions from the José Pizarro locations, whose fillings are a little more smooth and refined and casings that bit thinner and more delicate, but we still happily ate them all. How can you not enjoy deep-fried breaded parcels of ham and cheese? You can't, unless there's something very wrong with you.
Secreto Iberico (not that secreto any more but still a relative rarity) was impossible also not to love, chunks of tender pork glistening with fat and bursting with that incredible deep flavour. Accompanying it was a pile of house potato crisps doused in a powerful bright green garlic salsa which tingled addictively in the mouth. It's hard to explain to the unitiated just how much greater Iberico pork is than most if not all other types of pork. Mangalitza and Middlewhite and Old Spot all have their place and can be lovely, but proper Iberico ham from the Dehesas of Western Spain is just on another level entirely.
The only slight disappointment as far as I'm concerned was a green salad, which had quite a bitter dressing and had packed far too many layers of uninspiring and underseasoned raw courgette and lettuce into a small serving tray. In their defence, I will say that from many years of visiting Spain on holiday green salads are most definitely not this nation's speciality, and to that extent this was probably a fairly authentic Spanish green salad. Also my friend quite liked it so maybe it just wasn't for me.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Lobos, given that it's a tiny specialist restaurant in London in 2016, is that you can reserve a table. And what lovely tables, too - cute 2-seater booths done in red leather, served by enthusiastic staff (the owners are ex-Brindisa apparently) who know everything there is to know about Spanish food. True, you may have seen menus like this before if you've visited certain spots in Bermondsey and elsewhere, but who is ever going to get bored of this stuff when it's done so well?
Certainly not me. I will be going back to Lobos as many times as I can to work my way through the rest of the menu, because food like this and menus like this are to be heralded regardless of any notions of authenticity or how many other places in town are selling croquettas or padron peppers or any of the rest of it. Good food is good food, simple as. And the food at Lobos is very good indeed.
Lobos is very likely to be in the next version of the app. Meanwhile if you're in London Bridge area and Lobos is full, use my app to see where else is good. Oh and before you say anything yes, I have a new camera. Still getting to know it but it's still a step up on the iPhone I think you'll agree.
Wednesday, 16 March 2016
One of the few strong memories I have of my first year in London all those years ago (specifically 2003) was a visit to the original Pharmacy in West London. By that time, it's fair to say it was somewhat past its best - having been open 5 years, the once spotless perspex cabinets of artfully arranged drugs had gone a bit scuffed and warped, a good few boxes of the "drugs" themselves had gone missing (I was never quite sure if they were real or not), and the whole atmosphere and attitude of the staff had that kind of general torpor of an operation having long lost its raison d'être. And yet even by that stage you could see that the idea of marrying modern art and fine dining - a baton picked up by places like Sketch in Mayfair in subsequent years - was not entirely without merit. Pharmacy may have always been more influential than enjoyable, but you could say the same for most art. And plenty of restaurants too, for that matter.
So I was hoping that catching the relaunched Pharmacy2 - a Damian Hirst/Mark Hix collaboration - in its opening weeks I might be able to see what I missed in the first few years of the original spot, where the great and good of London's creative industries gathered to- well, do whatever they did (don't ask me) and where the paparazzi camped outside every night hoping to grab a pic of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson arm-in-arm with Liam Gallagher (look I'm on really shaky ground when trying to talk about celebrity culture so please just bear with me). But what would I find in the grand new building near Waterloo?
The answer to your first question, then, is no, I didn't see any celebrities. At least, I don't think I did. As I have mentioned, this really isn't my area of expertise and unless someone's been on Saturday Kitchen or is a Hollywood A-lister, I'm not very likely to notice. What I did find, though, and much more importantly, is a beautiful room full of enthusiastic staff, and - ironically for the pedigree of the place - a superbly accessible and unpretentious dinner menu.
First, to go with an excellent martini, some snacks. "Crispy prawn kale hearts" were wonderfully brittle, shattering in the mouth to a vegetal/seafood explosion and commendably greaseless.
Cuttlefish "croquettes" were actually more like arancini (presumably thanks to bits of chopped cuttlefish) but had a good rich squiddy flavour and crisp crust.
I loved my starter of "Brik a l'oeuf de canard with rose harissa", partly because it was genuinely something I'd not seen before but mainly because it was a really clever and delicate bit of cooking. The thin, buttery pastry, crisp and golden on the edges held a central pocket of deep orange egg yolk, and the dollop of spicy harissa matched it beautifully.
My friend had the prawn cocktail, which I think she said was "nice". The horseradish-spiked Marie Rose was slightly discombobulating but there were plenty of big fat fresh prawns in there and it looked the part.
There was a clear winner in the mains as well. My own duck curry was perfectly fine, enjoyable even, with its little multipart presentation and ironic curry-house copper hot plate. Perhaps the flavour of the dish itself paled slightly in comparison to another recent ironic curry-house tribute dish at the Marksman in Hoxton (never mind any actual Indian restaurant duck curry, but let's not go there), and the wild rice was a bit dry, but I still happily polished it off.
But my friend's chilli crab linguine, which I'm happy to say I got to try a bit of, was astonishingly good. Pasta as vibrant and bouncy and fresh as I've tried for a long time (which includes some fairly high-end Italian restaurants), glossy with a complex yet perfectly balanced seafood sauce, and topped with a good dollop of fresh white crab meat, this was a pretty much unimprovable dish, and worth the journey all by itself. Whoever's responsible for pasta at Pharmacy2 should be thoroughly pleased with themselves.
Mini desserts, at £4 each, were objectively only just worth the effort but we were having so much fun by this point (aided it has to be said with a £40 bottle of Albarino which is a little more extravagant than I'd usually allow on a Thursday night) we didn't feel like going home. My own favourite was the poached rhubarb with ice cream supposedly involving saffron but (perhaps thankfully) we didn't detect much of that. But the others, a rich chocolate mousse and a pineapple upside down cake looking a bit like a canelle, were decent too.
I have to ask myself whether I'm being kind on Pharmacy2 because my expectations were, well if not low then at least realistic. The original Pharmacy was never really about the food (certainly not towards the end at least) and the grim history of celebrity restaurant endorsements contains far more Fashion Cafés and Planet Hollywoods than anywhere you'd actually choose to eat with a straight face.
But there's no trick here, no need for a sprinkling of celebrity dust to distract from mediocre food or sniffy service. Without the YBA associations Pharmacy2 would still be a comfortable and friendly place to enjoy an interesting menu of crowd-pleasing dishes. The walls of medical branding and pill-shaped stools just adds - well, I don't know what it adds. Who cares? Just save up and enjoy it.
There's a good chance Pharmacy2 may be in the next version of the app. But if you can't grab a table here, see what else is in the area.
Thursday, 10 March 2016
It's all too easy to lump in Pitt Cue with the myriad of other no-reservations, Southern USA BBQ restaurants that sprung up in the capital half a decade ago. It's true they were masters of the low'n'slow style, famous for their giant, treacly beef short ribs and delicate smoked chicken wings, and yes, it's also true that their tiny Soho premises and bourbon-based cocktail list was the template for a city-wide BBQ boom. They were, unquestionably, hugely influential - and hugely popular. "Pitt Queue" was the nickname given as the crowds snaked down Newburgh Street.
But the fact is, Pitt Cue was always a lot more than a BBQ joint. Tom Adams may be at the top of his game when it comes to putting flame to delicacies such as Dexter beef or Mangalitza pork, but his time working with Jeremy Lee has given his food a lightness and intelligence that always set him apart from the Smoke Shops and Grill Stacks and countless other rib-peddlers in London.
All this is plainly evident at the brand-spanking new Pitt Cue premises in Devonshire Square, where the run of a vast kitchen and some seriously impressive charcoal ranges looking like something from a medieval torture dungeon has allowed Adams to create a menu so comprehensively attractive that choosing from it isn't so much a case of picking which dishes you think you'll like the most than deciding which few would be the least traumatic to leave out. The only way of leaving Pitt Cue without a serious attack of the FOMOs is to book a nice big table and order the whole damn lot. Maybe twice. Sadly, there were just the two of us on my most recent visit and so what follows is the best two very greedy people could manage in one sitting.
"Potato cakes" from the Snacks menu were batons of pressed slices of potato, presented with a dipping sauce which I think may have contained some kind of fish roe. Reminiscent of the confit potato at Quality Chop, with an irresistable combination of golden crunch and soft filling, they were impossible not to love.
Oysters (rocks from Cornwall) came with a little dollop of house kimchi, not enough to overpower the shellfish but with enough of a pickle/chilli kick to turn it all into a fresh and exciting new thing entirely. It was a kind of turbocharged version of putting Tabasco on oysters, and I love Tabasco on oysters.
"Eel broth & bacon" was a beautiful (you'll have to take my word for it) bowl of seafood consommé dotted with pickled celery and gorgeous toasted walnuts. It was the best soup I have had the pleasure of eating in years, but as if that wasn't enough, it came with a slice of toasted sourdough draped with slivers of silky ham which added another meaty, fatty element.
"Dripping bread" was a loaf of dense, syrupy malt bread soaked in beef fat, and of course was brilliant. I'm not entirely sure it needed the extra serving of butter, but somehow we still ended up using it so maybe it did. Pitt Cue have obviously spent a lot of time on their bread offering, really making the most of the extra oven space since the move. There were a few different kinds on offer and all were world class.
"Dexter & Ogleshield sausage" was another supremely succesful marriage of excellent ingredients. The beef, firstly, was incredible stuff, with the flavour of fine aged steak but with a lovely loose texture, and the funky cheese brought out the best in the beef in the same way as Ogleshield does in the Hawksmoor burger. In fact, this dish could best be described as a steakhouse burger without the bun, topped with some delicate pickled veg.
The only main course we could find room for was a Mangalitza pork loin, a dictionary-thick slab of meat, firm of flesh and juicy with generous ribbons of soft fat, dressed with caramelised onions. Like everything that had come before it, it was a combination of impeccable sourcing and intelligent cooking that informs everything Pitt Cue do.
Ah, but we could hardly leave without ordering a portion of the legendary Pitt Cue bone marrow and mushroom mash, which was every bit as wonderful as I remember from Soho with its fluffy buttered potato and swirls of meaty jus. It may be unfair to single out this side as a signature dish when everything else had been so good, but there does seem to be something particularly special about this mash, judging by the numbers of people swooning over it on social media.
I've been focussing on the food, because that's what I do, but everything else about the place is clever and considered. The decor, while not making for great blog photos (to say the least) is classy and understated, the service is faultless, cocktails from co-founder Jamie Berger are still great (and still include Picklebacks) and the wine list managed by Crispin Sugden formerly of Goodman and Beast has loads of interesting (if occasionally punchy) options by the glass. We spent £100 between the two of us but without a couple of £15 glasses of wine the bill would have been more like £25 a head. You can even reserve a table so you don't even need to worry about getting there early to queue up. In short, there's really nothing to criticise at all - already firmly settled and confident in its new skin, it may just be the ideal London restaurant. What are you still doing here? Quick, book now.
Pitt Cue, in its new East London premises, is already in the 2016 version of the app. But if it's booked out one evening (which is more than likely), use it to see what else is in the area.
Thursday, 3 March 2016
Hill & Szrok began life on Broadway Market as a butchers and "cookshop". A cookshop, since you ask, is apparently a 15th century precursor to the restaurant, where you would choose your sausages or pork chops or whatever and, as an alternative to taking them home to your hovel and cooking them yourself, hand them over to be cooked for you and eat it elbow-to-elbow with fellow peasants at a communal table. There seems something very 21st-Century hipster about reviving a 600-year-old dining concept in the East End of London but by all accounts it was a great success. So much so, in fact, that they've expanded (slightly) West to a handsome old building recently vacated by the 3 Crowns near Old Street station.
Inside, the layout hasn't changed much since the 3 Crowns days. There's a pubby bit at the front which catches the post-work crowd (or at least would do if it opened before 6:30pm; maybe that's the plan eventually), a large open kitchen towards the rear and a more restaurant-y dining area with a number of tables charmingly draped with paper tablecloths. The two concessions to the new owners are an impressive glass drying cabinet hung with huge chunks of aged red meat, and - less impressively - a large, marble communal table. It's a beautiful piece of furniture, don't get me wrong, it's just that I put "communal sharing tables" just below "chicken pizza" on my list of Things I Don't Want In A Restaurant. Fortunately, we didn't have to sit at it.
The menu is short, and attractively priced. "Brawn, hazelnuts & prunes" sounded like the kind of thing I may have ordered in my slightly younger and more experimental days, but I've eaten enough wibbly bits of brain to finally decide that, in fact, I just don't like the stuff very much no matter how well it's cooked. So we decided to share the "Drumsticks, peanuts & anchovy", and choose a meaty main each.
The good news in the starter was all down to the sauce, an intriguing mix of seafood and silky, nutty cream that sat halfwhere between a satay sauce and bagna cauda. It was just the right side of unsettling for me; I loved its rich umami hit and the fact that I'd never really had anything like it before. However I should also say that my friend didn't like it at all, so make of that what you will. What we could both agree on though was that the chicken itself was horribly overcooked into a formless mush, meaning all the effort put into the sauce was pretty much wasted.
Ribeye was probably the best of the mains; a tender and beautifully-cooked piece of grass-fed (I assume) beef, perfectly medium-rare and worth every bit of the £16.80 it cost. The horseradish mayo was a bit weird but then horseradish usually is; at least this was otherwise a straightforwardly enjoyable bit of cooking.
Pork fillet was also good, similarly unadventurous but similarly enjoyable - seasoned well, just pink in the middle and showing nice signs of char on the outside. There was plenty of it, too. Perhaps I was expecting a bit more flavour from the pork from an outfit that began life as a butchers but then maybe that's a bit like expecting a builder to have exquisite taste in interior design; they may have all the right tools at their disposal, but making the most of them is another thing entirely.
Wedge salad (sorry, "Iceberg, Stilton & crutons") would have been nicer had the lettuce not been straight out of the chiller, but even then would have paled in comparison to the Masterwork that is the Chick'n'Sours version with its thick St Agur dressing and bits of crispy chicken skin. Maybe it's unfair to compare the two, especially as the Hill & Szrok version is nearly half the price, but I'm just relaying what occurred to me as I worked through the icy cold blandness wishing for something better. Fries were nice and crunchy though, and I even enjoyed their chilli ketchup despite my prejudice about messing with Heinz.
So, not perfect, then, but it would be wrong to say I didn't enjoy my meal at Hill & Szrok, despite the occasional weirdness. And also, £32 is not that much to pay for a two-course dinner and a glass of wine in central London, where you can still throw a similar sum at a steak and chips at any number of pub menus and be served something fairly nasty in return. It may not have made it onto the "Must Visit" list, but it has made it on to the "If You're In The Area And It's Open And You've Not Got Time To Walk To MeatMission" list. And given how often I find myself in that situation, I'll most likely be back.
Hill & Szrok probably won't make it onto the app, but why not have a look what else is in the area? Download Where to Eat in London 2016 today!