Tuesday, 30 August 2016
The idea for the Dimanche Poulet at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught came out of one of the side-effects of having your fine dining restaurant hosted inside a 5-star hotel. If you're a standalone operation like Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road or Five Fields, then you have the freedom to open Monday-Friday only and give yourselves a couple of days of well-needed rest on the weekend. And nobody at all will blame you for doing so. But hotel guests need feeding on weekends too, and refusing to do anything as ordinary (or, let's face it, English) as a usual Sunday roast, Darroze decided what she'd do is introduce Londoners to the joys of Landes chicken from her homeland of south west France.
The roast chicken itself, then, is the centrepiece of the meal and we'll get to that soon. What makes Dimanche Poulet a real experience is the dozen or so elements - canapés, consommés and various bitesize bits of loveliness - that utilise the other parts of the bird and also showcase other ingredients from France. First to arrive was Bigorre ham, moist slivers of top-quality pig sliced dramatically tableside using a very shiny and expensive-looking contraption, draped seductively over sticks of breadcrumbed cheese, and a few pea shoots.
Alongside the ham, a cute teapot of "gazpacho", tomato consommé poured into ceramic shot glasses containing tiny cubes of summer veg. A good clean flavour from the consommé and a marvellous presentational flair (inside the teapot were floating red and yellow cherry tomatoes, very pretty) meant this was great fun to eat.
And finally in the trilogy of amuses (bear in mind we haven't even got to course one of the lunch menu yet) these cones of smoked mackerel paté topped with dill purée. As the only bit of seafood in the whole menu they stood up very well, a rich savoury mackerel flavour balanced with a metallic, bright-green herb, a delicate pastry cone giving way to soft seafood filling.
House bread was described as "French country" and was pretty much perfect in its own right, moist crumb bound by a good solid crust. But with it was this tower of flavoured butter - chilli as well as various other spices I believe - and made a pretty much perfect bread even better. Which was as much of a relief as a delight as I have to say the colour of it reminded me of a tikka-flavoured cheddar I was unfortunate enough to suffer a few years back.
Next the first named course, and I have a feeling "L'oeuf coque directement sorti du cul de la poule" means something a bit rude in French so I'll leave it untranslated. All you really need to know was that it was a golden hen's egg filled with a surprisingly powerful Parmesan mousse - an almost blue-cheese taste - bits of smoky Alsace bacon and a good amount of lovely smooth yolk. Unlike so many of the egg yolk dishes you'll see in London these days, there was no silly slow-cooking going on to get a strange fudgy texture; this was commendably un-messed-about with.
My favourite bit of the whole meal came next - a wonderfully deep and complex chicken consommé, poured over teeny ravioli containing more of that Bigorre ham, some cutely balled vegetables and - the killer ingredient - toasted chunks of that country bread which soaked up the consommé brilliantly and meant every bite released a mouthful of rich chicken soup. And this would all have been lovely enough but we were instructed to leave a bit of the consommé at the bottom of our bowls and soon a waiter added to it a shot of armagnac, turning it into a kind of hot chicken cocktail, heady and decadent.
So yes, my favourite course wasn't the showpiece roast chicken. It was very nice, don't get me wrong, but perhaps the World's Best Roast Chicken I'd invented in my head could never hope to live up to anything that actually is able to exist in the real world. Carved expertly tableside and presented alongside a selection of geometric nibbles including a "boudin blanc" of white mousse and Scotch quail's egg surrounded by herby chicken meat, it certainly looked the part. But the breast meat was unfortunately a tad dry, and the skin a little too flaky and insubstantial (and verging on burned) for it to really steal the show.
A taco made with the confit leg meat had an interesting Hoi-sin-style sauce, topped with pickled veg. Again, it was fairly enjoyable but stood out as being rather homestyle and clunky amidst the gastronomic fireworks that preceded it. Or maybe I'm just a taco snob, which is probably more likely.
Desserts were very French. Ille Flottante took me back to childhood memories of holidays on the continent, with a good light ille topped with silver leaf, looking very pretty. However I did think the flottante (yes I know it doesn't really work but you know what I mean) was less like crème Anglaise and more like single cream, which was weird. Crème caramel was just the right side of eggy, with an even consistency and subtle caramel topping. I completely forgot to take a picture of it though, sorry.
And, after a Madeleine or two each, we were done. Reading the last few paragraphs you may feel like I'm winding up towards a fairly low score so it's worth stressing that plenty enough went right in the meal to ensure we felt like we'd got our money's worth and then some. Yes, I wasn't quite as bowled over by the chicken breast as I hoped I'd be and the desserts were more satisfying than spectacular, but in the context of things like the consommé with Armagnac and the parmesan golden egg and the incredible house bread and butter, not to mention literally perfect service and one of London's most luxuriously comfortable dining rooms, £95 for two people is an absolute steal.
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Friday, 19 August 2016
Perhaps, if it wasn't for Kimchigate, I would have enjoyed my dinner at On Café a lot more. Often when a meal is teetering on the edge of success or failure it only takes one moment to make the difference; an unexpectedly lovely dish to settle the nerves and highlight a kitchen's true talents, or a single jarring mis-step so catastrophic that nothing else can redeem it.
Unfortunately for On Café, however strong their talents are in other areas, their deal-breaking dish was the very first thing to arrive on the table, and I'm afraid from the moment I realised this strange bowl of raw vegetables plonked down in front of me was supposed to be "kimchi", I completely lost faith in them to do anything else. This is not kimchi. This is, as you can probably see, chopped raw cabbage and onion, bound together with one of those sweet chilli sauces you can get from the shelves at Asda. Serve this to any Korean as "kimchi" and you'd be in severe danger of sparking an international incident.
With that in mind, no matter what else On Café did they would have an almost impossible task to win my favour back, which is a shame because service was charming, the prices pretty low (BYO helped) and most of the dim sum weren't too bad. Least favourite (I'll start with that first in the interests of a more positive narrative) were some Thai Green Curry salmon dumplings which tasted mainly of soggy poached salmon and not much else.
Har Gau were fine, held together well and had plenty of bouncy prawn and leek filling. I could have brightenend them up a bit had we been given some of the usual dim sum chilli sauce but what looked like chilli sauce was actually a bland blitzed tomato/pepper mixture, like gazpacho. Which was odd. However the house chilli oil was very nice, with plenty of crunchy bits, so that came in handy.
Kudos for On Café for even attempting Xiao Long Bao, which plenty of larger dim sum operations consider beyond their skill set. Admittedly there was not a huge amount of soup inside, and not a particularly powerful flavour from the duck filling, but the casings had a good bite and they were very prettily made with that delicate knot on top.
Siu Mai were quite "sausagey" for want of a better word - dense and salty - but still pleasant enough once dunked in the chilli oil.
And finally wild mushroom bao, probably my favourite of the lot, big, bright white pillows of savoury bao containing a softly sweet mushroom filling.
Sadly the relative appeal of the bao was tempered by the appearance of this "Kimchi chicken fried rice", ordered before we were fully aware of their loose definition of "kimchi", which turned out to be a plate of anaemic chicken, soggy pieces of cucumber and the occasional bit of boiled vegetable with no trace of anything pickled or fermented or even the tiniest amount of chilli.
There's perhaps an argument to be made that On Cafés strengths lie in the patisserie section, and I did enjoy my raspberry éclair which had a lovely strong filling and was presented well. A salted caramel tart was equally competent; less so a tiramisu which didn't taste of much more than whipped cream. And I couldn't help noticing that they'd left the pith on some mandarin segments in their "Citrus Delight", which I'm fairly sure would have you docked some points in Great British Bake Off.
I'd had On Café on my radar since this review in the Observer a few weeks back, where ironically Jay Rayner worries about the "Observer effect" of a positive review forcing a small restaurant operation to buckle under the strain of newfound popularity. I can't say for certain that's what's happened here; but if I am one of the "dribbling, hungry people" to turn a once-good restaurant into a bad one I can only apologise, and if it's any help from now on I'll get my dim sum from Dragon Castle, my patisserie from Paul, and my kimchi from, well, anywhere else.
Not much chance of On Café making the app, but fortunately there are some pretty good alternatives in Clapham...
Wednesday, 17 August 2016
After noticing, once again, that the average length of the posts on this blog seems to be creeping up, I'm going to make a renewed effort to do a few single-dish or sandwich bar reviews. Takeaways and casual lunchtime spots are just as much a part of the fabric of London's food culture as any Michelin-starred tasting menu, and deserve just as much attention. Well, the good ones do, at least.
Unfortunately, though I was hoping that I'd be able to bring you news of a great new pastrami joint in Covent Garden, the reality of Cure & Cut on Monmouth Street didn't quite live up to expectations. But before I get to the details, a little lesson in How Not To Soft Launch Your Restaurant.
I first attempted lunch at Cure & Cut at midday on Friday last week, only to reach the front of the queue to discover a) They'd run out of pastrami and b) Even if they hadn't, the 50% off food offer they'd been advertising on Twitter applied to everything apart from the pastrami. Guys, I can get sweet potato salad and crispy kale anywhere; I've come to you for some nice salt beef. But then I suspect you knew that, didn't you.
Anyway, promotional cynicism aside, the product still wasn't that much to shout about. The beef didn't have much flavour, and was quite dry and chewy; it was impossible to take a bite out of the (faintly stale) rye bread without it drawing all the filling back out in one go, which is a Major Sandwich Annoyance. The Reuben was better, as the bland beef was masked by some nice melted cheese, mustard and zingy sauerkraut, and the toasted bread meant you didn't notice it was slightly stale, but it still managed to be fairly underwhelming, certainly not worth the queue. Tongue and Brisket on Leather Lane is probably my favourite in central (where I've never had to queue); and of course on Brick Lane you can get a beigel packed full of the good stuff, all soft and melty with fat, for £4. I'm comparing apples with oranges in terms of property rent, I know, but if all I can think about when eating a sandwich is how much better and cheaper I can get the same thing elsewhere, then someone's doing something wrong.
Oh, and the crispy kale? It was fine. But I'm sure you won't need telling you're better off getting it from Whole Foods, where you won't need to queue and they probably won't run out of anything just as you reach the counter. Right, that's enough of my whining. Onwards and upwards.
Not much chance of Cure & Cut making the app, but Covent Garden is a hotbed of alternatives.
Tuesday, 16 August 2016
There's a little Lebanese restaurant near the office in Holborn that does a very smart trade serving lamb & chicken shawarma (sliced off a vertical spit), meshwi (cubed, grilled over coals) and kofte (minced and grilled) wraps to a lunchtime work crowd. The wraps themselves can be good, but they have an annoying habit of preparing a huge pile of the ones they think they'll sell in advance of the lunchtime rush, meaning that if you go in any time between 12:30 and 2pm they'll invariably reach for one off the cold pre-prepared pile, give it a quick blast in the sandwich press and then hand it to you. But, if you ask for a fresh one (yes, I am that person) they will (after a bit of huffing and puffing) usually shave you off some fresh shawarma and you can enjoy a half-decent kebab; not brilliant, but better than anything from Pret next door.
But it got me thinking; what if someone did this kind of thing properly? Quality slow-cooked lamb shoulder, seasoned and spiced to perfection, home-made pickles, house chilli sauce, proper fluffy fresh bread, all made to order? If even a fairly thrown-together lamb kebab can satisfy (even when not eaten at 3am after chucking-out time), surely one made with skill and attention would be a revelation? And it is with this in mind, I'm sure, that Shawarma Bar was born.
If anyone knows how to make a success of Middle Eastern comfort food it's the team behind Berber & Q, whose cavernous restaurant in Haggerston served me some of the most exciting dishes of 2015, and who, along with places like the Palomar, spearheaded London's newfound enthusiasm for this kind of cuisine. But it wasn't so much their ways with grilled meats as the exciting variety and quality of their vegetable offering that made more of an impact - their grilled cauliflower dressed in tahini and pomegranate seeds was an instant star dish, and house hummus showed you just how vital and vibrant this Levantine staple can be when made by someone who both knows and cares what they're doing.
It's no surprise, then, that it's the side dishes, the details, that turn Shawarma Bar from being a very good kebab shop into something rather special. House pickles, for example, showed the full range from soft and sweet (carrots) to sharp and sour (onions), with soft gherkins, black olives and crunchy cabbage providing support. There was even a slice of shocking dyed purple turnip, something I really miss when it's not there despite it not being the most natural looking thing on earth.
Mesabaha was - and there's no other word for it - wonderful, a perfect marriage of silky smooth tahini and juicy chickpeas, studded with some kind of chilli chutney which added both heat (though not too much) and a supremely addictive citrussy tang. The chollah it came with was soft and gently toasted over coals, and though perhaps not quite as brilliant as the Palomar's version (not quite as sweet or fluffy) it did a great job at scooping up the chickpeas. Nobody should go to Shawarma Bar and not order the Mesabaha.
This bowl of Mejaderah contained fragrant spicy rice, crisply dry-fried onions and lentils, and was a comforting and interesting side dish showcasing - again - Shawarma Bar's mastery of texture and seasoning. Maybe if you're very well travelled or an aficionado of Levantine cooking in London you may have come across something like this before, but for many people (myself included) dishes like these are still a delightful novelty. And hugely enjoyable to eat, too, of course.
And so to the main event, the lamb shawarma. Firstly, and most importantly, the meat is lovely, bags of lamby flavour and with all the variation in texture (soft fatty bits, crispy dark bits, smooth meaty bits) that you'd pick for your own kebab if you were there at the spit shaving the meat off yourself. The salad is fresh and crisp, the harissa sauce not too punchy but lending a nice gentle burn, and a generous handful of herbs, crunchy and bright as if they'd been pulled straight out of the ground, added more colour, literally and figuratively. And finally, binding it all together, a good dollop of that beautiful nutty, earthy tahini.
The only thing that wasn't perfect about the shawarma - and I'm sure they have their reasons - was the bread, which was a bit too thick and doughy and meant that every bite was a bit heavy on the bread element. The pitas are flown in from Israel, I was told, and while doing their job well enough I can't help wonder how much nicer they would have been fresh out of the oven, or even cooked that morning somewhere in town. Perhaps that's the plan eventually, but meantime that's the only thing I'd change about what is otherwise pretty close to the best kebab in London.
I'll be going back to Shawarma Bar - of course I will, I work 15 minutes away and it's brilliant - but I feel confident enough to post this review after only two and a half dishes because of their pedigree and because sometimes, the quality of a place is evident just on the first bite. Shawarma Bar takes all the things that made the Haggerston spot great - the skill with grilled meats, the radiant salads, the exotic Middle Eastern herbs and spices - and repackages it for an informal short-stop takeaway crowd in a lovely little room with no communal seating or annoying loud music. It is, essentially, Berber & Q - The Selected Highlights. The Greatest Hits. And I'm predicting massive chart success.
There's every chance Shawarma Bar will be in the next version of the app. Meanwhile, see what I had to say about what else is in the area.