Friday, 16 September 2016
First (at least that's as far back as my knowledge goes) was Wabi, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar that served pretty decent food considering its large and unfocussed menu, and whose vast basement dining room lay largely empty and untroubled by paying guests before it quietly shut a year or so later.
Next we had Rocket, a pizza bar that attempted to make a success of the site by going full "Covent Garden" - boring semolina-flour pizzas at a chunky markup aimed at tourists that had got lost on the way to the British Museum - in an attempt to make the numbers work. I always think their first mistake was calling a pizza joint "rocket", surely the most uninspired of all pizza toppings. But anyway, it didn't work, and quietly also closed after about a year.
So now we have Cha Chaan Teng, and well, you can't fault their ambition. The concept is, as far as I'm aware, a new one in London; if they do exist anywhere here already they've certainly slipped under my radar. My Chinese/English friend tells me that In Hong Kong they're a cheap and cheerful café serving an eclectic mix of Western/Chinese hybrid dishes, think scrambled egg sandwiches, instant noodles and pork chops, that kind of thing. But most importantly, they're inexpensive, informal, and open very long hours. The kind of place London could really do with, in fact.
Cha Chaan Teng on Kingsway is, it will probably be no surprise to discover, none of those things. The expensively-refurbished basement dining room is your standard central London refit, a number of leather booths flanking a, shall we say, optimistic number of tables and chairs in the center (and, bizarrely, a single lonely table for two plonked in the entrance hall upstairs). Their attempt at "informality" appears to have been to instruct staff to sit down at customers' tables to take their order (good lord), a move even famously best-friend-and-waiter TGI Friday's would consider a tad intrusive. And as for value...
Here's a plate of (on the left) sweet & sour chicken bao, fine if a little one-dimensional, and (on the right) a spam burger whose roll was rather less "crusty" than "inpenetrably chewy". Both, you'll notice, were stuffed with a large amount of dry pea shoots, which had the simultaneous effect of making them far more boring and difficult to eat had they just left the pea shoots out entirely.
"Layered lemongrass chicken skewers with almond & cashew dipping sauce" rather oversold the reality of a couple of innoffensive bits of chicken covered in the kind of satay sauce you'll recognise if you've ever bought one of those microwave ready meals from Tesco. "That sauce is brilliant," a member of staff offered as she passed the table, pointing at the little tin pot in front of me. I'm glad someone was impressed by it.
The buns and chicken had been about £5 a piece, overpriced perhaps but not incredibly so. But sweet & sour pork shoulder was £12.50, and this is where CCT really started to lose me. If it had been a nice plate of sweet & sour pork then £12.50 would have still been far too much but I could have at least enjoyed it on some level. But the addition of a huge amount of crackling, perhaps in an effort to add texture, I'm not sure, just meant the dish was overwhelmingly greasy. Perhaps a crumbling of crackling on top would have had the desired effect without turning the stomach, but I suppose I'll never know.
Finally, "Popcorn chilli beef" was an ironic takeaway cardboard box of crumbled beef and green chilli, and was probably the least weird and therefore most enjoyable thing I'd eaten. But by this point, it was too little, too late.
In that tragic foodie way, I still allow myself to get quite excited when anywhere that looks like it may be doing something a bit different hits the streets of the city. We have to encourage the risk-takers and the trend-setters because it is these people who have made London the place it is today, people like Russell Norman of Polpo or the Sethi family who revolutionised Sri Lankan food at Hoppers or Taiwanese at Bao. I wish Cha Chaan Teng had been better so I could have heralded the Next Big Thing and discovered a new obsession with Western/Chinese comfort food. As it is, like the fickle thing I am, I'll instead completely forget about the place until one day in the near future when I notice its windows whitewashed and interior darkened, ready to transform once again.
Not much chance of Cha Chaan Teng being in the next version of the app, but there's plenty else round these parts.
Wednesday, 14 September 2016
If you've ever been lucky enough to spend your evening using little wire fishing nets to scoop beef balls and sliced spam out of a vat of boiling animal stock, you'll know that the Chinese Steamboat, or Hot Pot, is one of the most enjoyable ways of having dinner. But the amount of preparation required, not to mention the large amount of specific kit you need, means it's generally impractical to really make the most of with even two people, never mind the solo diner, and most hot pot joints in London (for example the rather good Little Lamb) are geared towards tables of four upwards. You order what you hope is enough food - huge plates of curled wafer-thin beef, neat rows of raw prawns, as much tofu as you can carry - and dump it all in the broth. Then generally lose a few bits for a half hour and come across a manky overcooked bit of grey matter just as you're ready to pack up and go home. It's all part of the fun.
But a few doors down from Little Lamb is a brand new way of eating hot pot that can cope just as well with the solo diner as the large group. Shuang Shuang, it has to be said, is a very clever concept. The bar that snakes organically around the bright downstairs dining room has, at regular intervals, a sunken receptacle for the traditional hot pot tins, divided into two. So couples can share a single pot, or the solo diner can just have one half to themselves. Running along the top of the bar is a Yo! Sushi-style conveyor belt carrying along little starter-sized portions of the usual hot pot ingredients which you're charged for - again in the Yo! Sushi way - at the end by totting up different coloured empty plates.
The concept, then, has every chance of being a roaring success. The question is whether Shuang Shuang can run the nuts and bolts of the service and other details well enough to make that success happen. And I have to say our evening didn't get off to a fantastic start when we were ignored for a good ten minutes after being seated and forced to watch another party just to our left get seated, served and begin enjoying their dinner before we'd even had an opportunity to gasp for water.
But then we started spotting interesting cold dishes travelling past on the conveyor, and a couple of early choices instantly made up for it. Smacked cucumber and a pig's ear salad were two superbly-constructed Sichuan staples that had just that addictive play of heat, texture and colour that makes food from that part of the world so endlessly rewarding. And at barely a couple of quid each (as far as I can make out; the menu only bears a vague resemblence to the dishes on offer, as do the prices), pretty good value.
For the main event, we decided to split our pot between the "Mala" broth, numbing with a serious amount of Sichuan peppercorns, and the rather more subtle (in fact a bit bland at first) "Black Bird" made from rare breed chicken. Into these we divided beef balls, pork mince, two different types of noodles, and I think a couple of other selections from the travellator, pork & prawn wontons and tofu. And yes, it was all pretty good. These are cheap ingredients of course but after they'd all been bouncing around in the broth for a while they took on that familiar rewarding hot pot flavour, of mystery meat and animal stock, and we had very little cause to complain.
Well, there was one thing. "Wagyu" beef, ordered from our rather elusive waiter, arrived completely frozen solid. I'm not naive enough to think that Japanese Wagyu isn't usually frozen as it travels halfway across the world but I do think if I'm paying £9 for a plate of it in a restaurant in London they could at least bother defrosting it first. It didn't taste that dissimilar to the "normal" conveyor belt beef anyway, once it had been given a few minutes in the hot pot, so maybe that's just nature's way of telling me not to spend money on Wagyu beef in Chinese restaurants.
Anyway, snaggles with service and frozen beef sticks aside, we did enjoy dinner. And if the plan is indeed to roll it out into airport departure lounges and shopping centers up and down the country then, well, I guess it beats Café Rouge. Our bill came to £40.28 for two, which is incredibly reasonable, and given its very handy location and and despite the no-reservations seating policy (which makes sense really) I can certainly see myself popping back. Shuang Shuang deserves all the credit for coming up with a genuinely new way of serving traditional Chinese food in London, and you can't say that very often.
If they manage to squash a few of the early issues, there's a very good chance Shuang Shuang could make it in to the next version of the app. Meanwhile see where else is good in Chinatown.
Thursday, 8 September 2016
For all Chester's undoubted charms - the stunning medieval "rows", the Roman ruins, the zoo with its walk-through bat cave (a particular favourite of mine, that), it's probably fair to say that few people have ever made a special effort to visit this picturesque North West town for the dynamic food scene. OK, so there's the Grosvenor hotel which, over the years, has hosted a succession of high-falutin' chefs and I'm sure is very nice but a quick look at the menu tends to suggest it's the kind of star-chasing fine-dining that you'd find at any number of 5* hotel restaurants rooms up and down the country. Without wanting to denigrate Grosvenor chef Simon Radley's achievements, there's nothing particularly Chester about a £100/head tasting menu of Anjou pigeon with morels, and turbot and artichoke.
No, a healthy food culture is measured not by what's happening amidst the soft furnishings and silver service of a fancy hotel but behind the doors of the high street bistro and until recently, well, pickings here were slim. Chester is a town with no shortage of visiting tourists to fleece and, as has been proven time and time again, when anywhere doesn't have to try hard to make money, there's very few places bother trying at all. McDonald's, Nando's, Pizza Express, Bella Pasta, a smattering of timid pizzerias and a chain steakhouse, if you ignored the half-timbered buildings and low-beamed ceilings you could be in any high street in Britain. So far, so depressing.
But then, along comes Sticky Walnut. By their own admission, they are "just a bistro", an unpretentious, cosy little spot on the wrong side of the tracks (that makes it sound worse than it is; Hoole still a nice, villagey part of town) serving daily specials and crowdpleasing Modern British dishes for not very much money. The concept is hardly revolutionary. But by completely nailing right on the head everything that makes a good local restaurant the team at Sticky Walnut have, almost accidentally, created what for many may just be the ideal restaurant, a perfect combination of intelligent sourcing, careful cooking and beaming service that gets more or less everything right.
House bread is focaccia, beautifully moist and dripping with good olive oil. There's not much more than that to say - as house breads go this was a very good example.
Flamed mackerel, with a lovely crisp skin and moist flesh thanks to some expert timing, came dressed with crumbled black pudding, pickled onions and toasted hazelnuts. It all sat on a smooth and satisfying hazelnut purée which made a clever foil for the oily fish and made for a very satisfying whole.
Dill & coriander-cured salmon came artistically draped with fresh herbs and petals, with focaccia crumb for texture and sour cream to bind it all together. They'd done something clever with bits of cucumber - pressed or cured maybe I'm not sure - but these added a nice savoury note too.
Then beetroot with spiced pumpkin seeds and ricotta, hardly an earth shatteringly unique combination of flavours but done very well, and with some candied walnuts (Sticky Walnuts, if you will) providing sweetness and crunch.
Mains continued the theme, being well crafted and intelligently presented. Sea bream showed another skilled way with fish, getting a good crisp skin without sacrificing any tenderness in the flesh. Flakes of salt cod were also scattered about but almost the most notable thing about this dish was the veg - courgette and fennel with a beautiful smoky char from the grill, and robustly seasoned.
Sweetcorn agnolotti was colourful and inventive, a long way from the usual token veggie dish. The corn itself was nicely grilled, the pasta had a good bite and the tomato consommé swimming around it was clean and precise. Also, some greenery studded around the place turned out to be sweetcorn shoots - and had a delicate, sweet flavour of their own.
Cod was a thing of beauty, a vast bright-white fillet, gently browned on top, sat on a bed of charred spring onions. The Sticky Method appears to largely be to get some straightforwardly enjoyable ingredients, treat them without too much fuss and make sure the accompanying veg is interesting enough in its own right (via the liberal application of direct heat) to not be an irrelevance.
Desserts were no less accomplished or enjoyable. My own honeycomb ice cream was thick and rich, impressive enough without a vast chunk of "honeycomb" (the stuff from the middle of a Crunchie bar) to chomp alongside it.
Damson and tart made the most of its unusual main ingredient with a delicate thin pastry and a smooth, warm filling. Clotted Cream ice cream offset the tart damson jam with rich dairy, and had a nice light texture almost like a mousse.
And chocolate sponge with orange and mascarpone, a winning combination even in lesser hands, was crafted and presented superbly, with the malty notes of a Horlicks ice cream adding extra layers of complexity.
It will be clear from the above that Sticky Walnut aren't in the business of reinventing the role of a neighbourhood restaurant, or pushing the boundaries of gastronomy. Everyone knows what's meant by "local bistro", the template was set years ago, and despite the many horrors carried out in its name up and down the country most people will know exactly what they want - and expect - when sitting down to eat at one. All Sticky Walnut need to do is meet people's expectations on service, value and quality and job done.
But it's the very fact that Sticky Walnut isn't some mindbending revolution in the dining experience that makes it so important. Foodies that scan these pages may dream of a day when every town has a faultless supergastropub like the Hind's Head or the Sportsman to call their own but the reality is that level of fuss and fanfare (not to mention expense) will never find an audience outside of a few obsessives. Here, every bit as much as its sister Burnt Truffle on the Wirral, is the restaurant that could exist in every town, making the most of seasonal local ingredients, serving them with charm and grace, and sending you on your way with change in your pocket and joy in your heart. Sticky Walnut, for all its self-deprecation and modestly-stated ambition, is the future of British dining. Just don't let them hear you saying that.
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Monday, 5 September 2016
I first came across Burger Bear when they were doing their thing in the old Red Market near Old Street. Back then, the "market" was just a gap between two buildings previously used as a car park; traders pitched up with little fanfare (few had anything so fancy as a branded van; most were just foldable gazebos over a hot plate) and sold to the lunchtime crowd, a healthy number of people rain or shine given the huge number of offices in the area.
Even in those days, though, you could tell Burger Bear were going places. Their queue was always that much longer than anyone else's, the buzz about their product that much louder. Though far from the first street trader to bring a genuine American cheeseburger to London (Yianni had most beat by a few years) it was obvious that this was an operation that truly understood exactly what made a great burger, and by golly it showed in their signature Grizzly Bear, loose-mince medium beef bound by plastic cheese, with just a touch of bacon jam and rashers of gloriously crisp streaky bacon. Like most people, from the first bite, I was a fan.
And I'm pleased to report that, all these years later, I still am. Mirroring the way the streetfood scene at large grew up and settled down, Red Market transformed into a vast multi-level venue hosting corporate prosecco bars and charging an entrance fee, and Burger Bear found a permanent site on Stoke Newington High Street and rebranded as Stokey Bears. But despite this transition, their signature offering still has it where it counts; the mince is still medium-rare with a good thick crust from the hot plate, the bacon is still crisp and the yellow cheese still unapologetically holds it all together in its salty, smooth embrace. It is, without doubt, one of London's great burgers.
And there, you may think, the story should end. If you went to Stokey Bears for a burger, ordered a burger and then ate a burger, you would have no cause to complain. But this being London 2016 and because we are told man cannot live by burgers alone (actually you can, I can prove it) the menu has expanded to include other US diner staples such as hot dogs, which we didn't try, and chicken wings, which - unfortunately - we did.
The main problem with the hot wings was that they weren't jointed. If Stokey Bears honestly think hot wings are better served in huge clumsy unjointed portions requiring the diner to tear them apart themselves, then that's their outlook, but to me it just looks like laziness. And it's one thing having them not separated into mid-joint and drumette but the wing tips contain no meat at all and should never be served with buffalo wings. Used for making stock, certainly, or kept on for certain speciality Asian presentations, but never in buffalo wings. On top of that, the sauce was thin and acidic enough to suggest that not nearly enough (or no) butter had been used in its preparation. Blue cheese dip was nice and chunky though, so there is that.
Angry fries weren't quite what I was expecting but were very nice nontheless. Bleecker Burger's version has blue cheese and hot sauce on but here we have French's mustard, some kind of green relish and what I think is The Rib Man's famous Holy Fuck sauce - and as anyone who's ever dipped their fries in Holy Fuck will tell you, this is a very good combination.
OK, so, there was The Incident With The Wings but overall it's hard to stay very upset with Stokey Bears. Staff were friendly and attentive, there's a good selection of local beers on tap (Beavertown Gamma Ray is always enjoyable), and there are loads of cosy booths to gather your friends in and while away the hours. Most people, all said and done, will be coming to this boisterous spot on Stoke Newington High St for a burger, and I can't think of anyone that would come away disappointed on that front. If the wings hint at a certain sloppiness then there's still enough evidence of attention to detail elsewhere to make up for it. I enjoyed Stokey Bears. So should you. Just don't order the wings.
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Thursday, 1 September 2016
There's something incredibly attractive, even glamorous, about the Oyster Bar. The idea of being able to rock up (excuse the pun) somewhere, order a plate of fresh oysters, maybe a glass or two of wine (or stout, if you're that way inclined), enjoy these things in an informal setting and be on your way without the subsequent commitment of a three course meal, or (again, if you're lucky) a wallet-busting bill, makes you wonder why there isn't one on every street corner. Surely everyone, barring those of delicate constitutions or the hopelessly seafood-averse, loves oyster bars?
The problem, in this country at least, is historical. Until fairly recently you just did not see decent fresh seafood - oysters, but also crabs, lobster, prawns, langoustine and a whole host of other delicacies - on the menu anywhere outside of the poshest of posh (and French) restaurants, invariably in London. Fish served in UK restaurants, if it wasn't smoked (kippers, cod, mackerel), was frozen - your average high street dining spot simply didn't have the motivation or desire to serve fresh fish, nor the turnover or the expertise to handle it even if they did. The vast majority of the wonderful stuff found swimming around UK shores was loaded straight into vans and packed off to France and Spain, who could boast the demand, and the restaurants.
Part of the story of how this sorry situation was turned around with such dramatic effect was written by people like Rick Stein, one of the first to realise the madness of ignoring the produce on our doorstep and to do something about it in his Seafood Restaurant in Padstow in the 1970s. But each generation makes its own leaps forward, and that Londoners can enjoy fresh oysters, shucked and presented properly, in so many venues in town is largely thanks to the Wright Brothers, who turned their oyster import business into a stall in Borough Market in 2005, and in doing so became the latest in a long line of food heroes (I'm sure Rick Stein would approve of the term) to contribute to London being one of - ok, the - greatest food city on earth.
It will come as no surprise, then, that the seafood served at Wright Brothers South Kensington is immaculate. Cherry-picking my two favourite elements of any fruit de mer - oysters and langoustine - I constructed myself a stripped-back and starkly beautiful tray of seafood heaven; four plump, perky beauties from the North Atlantic, sweet and soft and the finest I've tasted all year (and that includes some fairly notable places), and half a dozen Jersey rocks, minerally and lean with an almost native-like metallic tang. As far as I'm concerned, this is the engame of seafood platters - you can keep your lobster tails, shrimps, whelks (horrid things), mussels and clams; if I could order nothing but langoustine and oysters from a seafood menu for the rest of my days, I'd die a happy man.
Nothing Wright Brothers could do from that seafood onwards could ruin my evening, which was just as well because their fish soup was a bit on the underwhelming side. All the elements were in place, rouille and grated Gruyere on the side, a good dark brown colour and thick consistency to the broth, but it all added up to an oddly muted flavour overall, hinting at something stronger and more powerful but not quite managing it. With a lot of added salt and pepper it was better, but still not great. Strange how even the best places find fish soup quite a challenge.
Roast crab was much more like it though. Hacked apart and dressed in a sticky chilli, coriander and ginger sauce, it had the irresistable one-two punch of vast amounts of plump brown crab and an Asian-influenced sauce which brought to mind Rick Stein's famous Singapore Chilli Crab dish but was somehow more mature and complex. There aren't many dishes that improve on the simple joy of a boiled crab with chips and aioli; this was certainly a contender.
Speaking of which, chips were also great - golden brown and greaseless, with a lovely lemon-tinged aioli neither too stiff or too garlicky, light and incredibly moreish.
Seafood - proper fresh seafood, sourced with care and prepared with skill - will never and should never be "cheap". Sure, you can probably shave a few quid off these numbers if you shop around a bit, but Wright Brothers is many people's go-to oyster bar because they consistently serve a wide range of the very finest shellfish in the country, and they charge exactly the proper amount for it. And they do so in genuinely lovely spaces (the Soho branch is particularly stunning) via staff who know exactly what they're doing. There's not much, in short, they're getting wrong. Now if they could only work on that fish soup...
Wright Brothers stands a good chance of being in the next version of the app. Meantime, see where else is good in South Kensington.