Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Goods Shed, Canterbury


Nine times out of ten if you asked any dedicated foodie scenester waiting at platform 13 at St Pancras late morning for the Javelin train where they were headed for lunch, they'd give the same answer - The Sportsman. Stephen Harris' pub on the coast near Faversham has over the last few years become something approaching a restaurant mecca; strictly seasonal food, cooked with care and presented with style, it is the platonic ideal of the gastropub and one dish in particular - slipsole in seaweed butter - is the star of a thousand Instagrams. You should go, as well, if you haven't yet. It's bloody fantastic.


But on this particular Saturday morning, we'd decided to give another star of Kent a try. Canterbury is worth visiting even if you weren't very hungry (I particularly recommend a walk around St. Martin's church, built an astonishing 1,400 years ago and still standing), but we had a reservation at the Good's Shed, handily located right next to the station so as not to lose valuable eating and drinking time.


Opened as an indoor farmers' market back in 2002, the Goods Shed has avoided the pitfalls of so many of these kinds of places by actually feeling like a real, normal, every day food market instead of one of those middle-class theme parks selling hand-painted tableware and bowls of olives. The restaurant, occupying a bright mezzanine level overlooking the bustle of the market below, feels similarly grounded, boasting huge wooden tables generously spaced apart, and is the kind of place you'd happily spend an entire afternoon.


So we did. Lunch began with weeny soft-boiled quail's eggs dipped in an interesting salt/spice mix containing dried chilli and fennel seeds.


House bread - foccacia I think - was nice and salty and came with a bright, creamy butter. It was also free, which was a nice touch.


Mussels in a white wine, cream and tarragon sauce is a time-honoured recipe and one that still has the ability to soothe, comfort and satisfy. Perhaps there was a tad too much garlic into the mix, but that could just be a matter of personal taste.


Artichoke broth was, for what I'm guessing was a completely vegan dish, fairly impressive. Of course, as a committed meat-eater it goes without saying I would have preferred a chicken stock base, but the huge chunks of artichoke had a nice bite and the rest of the veg had bags of flavour.


A third starter had huge, soft chunks of slow-cooked ox cheek, but the surprise star of this dish were the carrots, which were startlingly sweet and densely-flavoured. Clearly the Goods Shed benefits hugely from its trade with local farmers - the range and quality of produce both in the restaurant and on the shelves below is really something.


But while the starters had been decent, the mains were genuinely excellent. My own guinea fowl boasted a beautiful golden, herb-enriched crust and a cider sauce with a perfect balance of alcholic tang and meaty richness. The slices of black pudding were a bit odd - quite sour and with a strange uniform texture - but the Lyonnaise potatoes were soft and creamy, leaves of chard soaked up that sweet/sour cider sauce like a sponge, and the bird itself was bright and bouncy.


The only notable problem with this lamb main was simply that there was too much of it. There were so many generous slabs of lamb, and they were so expertly rendered with their perfect pink flesh and salt/herb crust, that it felt criminal leaving any. A barley, grilled courgette and herb salad underneath made further excellent use of market vegetables, and aioli was light and sharp.


The last of the mains, hake with fish croquette and clams, showed more technical expertise - look at the crisp skin on that fish, and the beautiful bright-white flesh - and more judicious use of seasonal vegetables (chard again). You could hardly want for a better way to eat hake.


The dessert menu at the Goods Shed reads like a dream - a poem of seasonal fruits and luxurious sweet continental wines. Unfortunately the first item from it that arrived was a rather mundane cheeseboard; a couple of OK blues and a soft goat's that I'm pretty sure you can buy at Tesco's. Still, the fruit bread and chutney was nice. Why the cheese selection was so half-hearted I can't work out, especially as there's what looks like a pretty competent cheesemakers (Cheese Makers of Canterbury) set up in the very same room.


Fortunately, the desserts more than made up for the disappointing cheese. Gooseberry and custard tart was a thing of intense joy, an ethereally-light custard cradling tangy stewed gooseberry. On the side, unpasteurised creme fraiche, rich in dairy with a faintly earthy, smoky note, a perfect foil to the fruit.


Raspberry sorbet was everything you'd hope for - powerfully fruity yet perfectly balanced, like eating summer itself...


...burnt milk ice-cream was similarly beautiful in its own way, richly creamy and silky smooth...

...and finally chocolate mousse was so light and fluffy it was practically thick chocolate milkshake, studded with fresh raspberries.


So, not all journeys to Kent need to end at the Sportsman. The Goods Shed almost makes as good a case for a day out in Canterbury as to Faversham, and though obviously not quite on a par with Stephen Harris' place - where is? - this charming building, bristling with activity and wonderful produce, is a triumph for all kinds of different reasons at once. The restaurant is a hymn to seasonal British food, cooking Kent's finest produce sensitively and generously, serving it with charm and style, and anything you particularly fall in love with during lunch you can pick up in the market below and take home with you. Enjoying yourself here, if you have a heart and an appetite, is something approaching an absolute certainty. I'd say that was worth jumping on the Javelin for, don't you?

8/10

Goods Shed Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Pipe and Glass, Yorkshire


Nestled in a sleepy East Yorkshire hamlet, surrounded by acres of beautiful countryside, and blessed with a kitchen garden groaning with vegetables, berries and herbs, the Pipe and Glass would seem, on the face of it, to have everything going for it. And it's certainly the case that its achievements, such as they are, have hardly gone unrewarded - there's the Michelin star (held for the last 7 years running), the AA rosettes, the regular top-ten placing on top gastropub lists. My enjoying a meal there was, as far as it's generally possible to be, a Sure Thing - occasionally Michelin can be wrong, occasionally these top gastropub lists can be nonsense, but for everyone to be wrong at once would require quite the conspiracy.


And yet here we are. It's not that I hated my meal at the Pipe and Glass - I enjoyed bits of it very much - but there wasn't quite enough of it going right to settle the nerves and too many things to grumble about to ignore. The Curate's Egg analogy doesn't really apply to restaurants - it is, after all, possible for a single dish to be a complete disaster without ruining the whole meal - so for an evening in a critically-lauded gastropub in an idyllic part of the country to go badly (or at least worse-than-average) requires problems in a variety of areas.


Beginning with service in the bar. Given there were a grand total of two parties in the room, you would have thought the whole business of asking what we wanted then bringing it wouldn't have been beyond the abilities of the person assigned to the task. But maybe our waiter was having a bad day, or maybe he just didn't want to be there, because we spent a very long time waiting to be offered anything, and managed to get hold of a round of drinks just seconds before a different member of staff came over to usher us to our table before we'd managed to take a single sip. Nibbles did appear, though - watermelon and feta kebabs, covered in sesame seeds. They were nice enough.


We'd ordered food with the drinks, and were somewhat surprised to be presented with our starters less than a minute after taking our table in the dining room. Being given food too quickly isn't usually too much of a problem - I'd rather that than have to wait - but nobody likes to feel rushed. My own was a rather bizarre arrangement of sliced pickled carrots - rolled and balanced upright like orange chimneys - in between slivers of crab crackers, on a bed of white crab meat, herbs, flowers and God knows what else. The issues with this dish applied to a large number of the dishes we ate - way too many ingredients, a naff presentation involving too many showoffy techniques, leading to a confusing, unbalanced whole. The pickles were all you could really taste, the crab meat was buried, and it was covered in so many random bits and pieces from the garden (fennel tops, coriander, flowers) that it just looked ridiculous.

I'm afraid my pictures of the other starters didn't come out - it was dark on that side on the table - but all suffered from the same glut of ingredients and confusion of flavours. "Courgette three ways" came with so many flowers and sprigs of herbs and blobs of this and that (plus a deep-fried whole egg with its own ceramic bird foot stand) the main ingredient was completely lost, and "Marinaded Heritage tomato, avocado and burrata" was (thanks largely to a "spiced gazpacho granita" hiding somewhere underneath) cold, wet, and boring.


House bread came in two forms, one of which was tomato and lovage, and both were fine if a little insubstantial in texture.


My main contained turbot, red pepper relish, fennel croquette, lobster, dill oil, lobster bisque, more fennel, fennel tops and the kitchen sink (probably). Frustratingly, some of the individual bits were generally cooked quite well - the turbot was lovely - but the fennel was presumably chosen because they had it, not because it ate well (it was chewy), the red pepper relish battered everything, particurly the subtle-to-the-point-of-non-existent bisque - into submission, and the fennel croquette added nothing other than another level of textural confusion.

Other mains fared slightly better. Again, no photos sorry but "Breast of free-range chicken, tarragon forcemeat, summer truffled peas, gem lettuce, girolle mushrooms and crispy pancetta" got a pass thanks to a fantastic brined flavour in the chicken and bags of fresh summer truffle, and "Yorkshire gin and beetroot-cured sea trout, pickled cucumber, nasturtiums, lindisfarne oyster fritter" involved a genuinely interesting way with cured trout and a lovely fried oyster, even if it - again - could have done with having a few ingredients culled.


So far so bewildering, and it's safe to say once the main courses were cleared away we were wondering what could possibly be in store for dessert. Maybe some attempt at Can Roca's famous "Anarchy 2003" dessert involving 50 or more separate elements? I'm happy to report, though, that my "Raspberry and pistachio delice" with raspberry sorbet and aerated white chocolate was cleanly presented, clear in form and function and tasted great - presumably in part thanks to the use of some fresh garden raspberries we'd seen growing out back.


There was also an opportunity to try a lovely example of Yorkshire Blue cheese. I don't know whether I've ever really tried one this well kept before or maybe just forgotten, but this was a beautiful thing - soft, creamy, and with just enough blue tang. The fruit loaf it came with was pretty good too.


So yes, there were some things to like, here and there, but in the end our meal at the Pipe and Glass was just not good enough. Service settled down a bit over the course of the evening but they did seem to have an aversion to clearing empty glasses and never really approached an attitude described as "friendly". Dishes were, in the main, ugly, overthought and contained way too many ingredients; it's often said that a great chef will make a dish then remove one element to perfect it - in the case of the Pipe & Glass in most cases they could lose about half. And the same accusation of indecisiveness could be made of the menu as a whole - ten starters, ten mains, seven sides and eight desserts, all quite pricey, attempting to impress with size and spectacle rather than flavour and refinement. It was all just a bit... much.


Still, at least we'll have that dessert. And it would be tragic situation indeed if we were to regret entirely a journey to this most spectacular part of the world and a pretty gastropub with a kitchen garden and (very nice actually) rooms with rainforest showers. It's just that next time, if I'm in East Yorkshire I may find myself returning to the glorious Black Swan in Oldstead, altogether a better way of spending £55 per head on a pub with a kitchen garden. And I recommend you do the same.

6/10

Monday, 17 July 2017

Bell's Diner, Bristol


Whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with basic décor - somewhere fun but functional like the Apollo Banana Leaf, perhaps, or the communal tables and strip-lighting of Silk Road - I think how utterly unimportant things like interior design are, and what a waste of time and money. Just give me a plate of home style cabbage and lamb skewers and who cares how comfy the chairs are or the state the toilets are in. It's all about the food, surely?


And then, whenever I have a great meal at a restaurant with lovely décor, I think how utterly essential the correct ambience is to the overall success of a meal, and how interior design is as crucial as skilled and knowledgable front of house in the resulting level of hospitality.


So the first thing to say about Bell's Diner in Bristol is that it's probably one of the most charming and attractive dining rooms in the city, and given that Bristol is about as charming as attractive as cities can be, that's really saying something. Cozy and ramshackle with that 18th-century pirate vibe that Bristol does so well, the tables are nicely spaced and intelligently located, so that I don't think there's a single one that you wouldn't want to sit at. There's just the right amount of interesting bric-a-brac hung on the walls and filling window spaces, and some lovely touches of vegetation to soften the hard lines. It's not plush - there's no starched tablecloths or hanging chandeliers - but in its own quirky way is just as comfortable a place to settle in and have your dinner as any gilded temple of gastronomy.


Would I be going on about the décor if the food wasn't also up to scratch? Probably not, but it does mean than when the food did start to arrive we were more than in the mood to make the most of it. House pickles had a good crunch and a good balance of sweet & sour, and Iberico salami were soft and salty with a healthy marbling of all-important fat.


This little pot of genius is something called "jamon butter" - soft, gently nutty ham (Iberico again I presume though don't hold me to that) mixed with butter. Spread on the house sourdough it's a fantastic way to kick off a meal, to the extent I'm surprised I've never come across anything like it before. It didn't last long.


Morcilla (black pudding) with chorizo Iberico was another classic Spanish nod; clearly someone in the kitchens at Bell's has an affinity for the Iberian peninsula. Soft, loosely-textured pudding with a nice crust, topped with tangy, oily chorizo, it's hardly a revolutionary combination of ingredients and is one you may have enjoyed before if you've ever eaten at a Spanish restaurant, but that's hardly reason to dismiss it.


Chargrilled prawns with tzatziki were perhaps a touch on the overdone side, but not so much as to render them unenjoyable. At the best of times grilled prawns can be tricky things to get right - undercook and they're gloopy and transluscent, overdo it and they go soily and wooden. Chargrilling adds an extra level of difficulty as if they cook too quickly all you'll end up with is the bitter taste of burned tendril. So all things considered, this was a fairly impressive plate of seafood.


Quail is far more forgiving with the application of direct heat - the chargrilling here had left a lovely dark crust and a slightly pink interior, with a scattering of fresh herbs to lift it. Polenta I can take or leave in most instances, but at least wasn't too much of a distraction here, and the grapes roasted on the vine were a nice touch.


Finally, lamb breast, rolled and (again) carefully chargrilled, dressed in a nice summery, oily dressing of artichokes and broad beans. I love lamb prepared in this way; the contrast between the crunch of the outside and the soft folds inside is quite something when done properly (which it only occasionally is). We ate this with a fruity Turkish red, Pasaeli 6N, recommended by the waitress. In a place like this, you're happy to let the front of house do whatever they think is right.


Bell's Diner is, in most respects, the absolute ideal of what a local restaurant should be. Serving reasonably-priced, competently cooked food in gorgeous surroundings, it somehow feels distinctly Bristol despite the menu being a pan-Mediterranean style that probably could do well anywhere in the country. Maybe it's the décor I mentioned earlier; it feels right, here and now in this pretty corner spot in Montpellier, because it's an integral part of the environment it sits in rather than some alien concept trespassing from somewhere else. It's a Bristol restaurant, and in a city with an already mature and fast-developing dining culture, remains popular even as flashy names from that there London (MeatLiquor just down the road, and Spuntino in the new Whapping Wharf development) scramble for local custom. Of course, any Bristolians knew all this anyway; I hope they won't begrudge me too much for shining another spotlight on it. It really is a very special place.

8/10

Bell's Diner and Bar Rooms Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Oxalis at Platform One, East Dulwich


Whenever I see anyone attempting to dismiss a review of a PR-comped meal as somehow unrepresentative or worthless, I think of the Mitchell and Webb show sketch about the fake moon landings:

"Well, to start with, of course, we'll need to build a massive rocket."

"Why? We're not actually going to the moon. I thought that was the point? Have I got this wrong?"

"We'll need a massive rocket, because the first question people will ask when we show them the footage of the moon will be 'How did you get there?'. So we'll have to say, 'we went in that massive rocket you saw'."

"Hmm, so we're not actually going to make any savings on the cost of a massive rocket?"

"No..."



It's true that if a restaurant knows in advance I'll be reviewing, or even just ups their game when they see a big camera produced, then there's a chance I'll get a better table or won't have to wait as long for my wine glass to be refilled. But really, there are some things you can't fake. A bad kitchen won't suddenly start producing good food as soon as they notice a reviewer in, nor can competent service be magically summoned where no competence exists. Anyone going to the effort of cooking great food and serving it efficiently will be able to do so for everyone, not just the person with the annoying camera or face on a newspaper byline.


With that in mind, I feel more than confident in endorsing Oxalis, who hosted myself and a friend for a couple of very happy hours a few weeks back, and are for the next few months serving one of London's best value tasting menus (£40 for 6 courses) in their home at Platform One on Lordship Lane. First up was a pretty beetroot and goat's cheese starter, with a few gently-pickled onions and some good, earthy dukkah. Not earth-shatteringly innovative, but nice. And there's nothing wrong with nice.


Beef tartare had a good strong flavour and a remarkably light colour - it looked almost like veal. The blobs of yolk dotted around were a nice bit of colour, and the toasted flatbread made a good vehicle for scooping it all up, but the most interesting bit of this dish were the spots of black garlic, which had an intense umami flavour and seasoned the meat superbly. Without the black garlic this would have been a decent tartare; with it, it was memorable.


Egg, bacon and asparagus is, much like the beetroot and goat's cheese, a tried and tested combination, one you'd hardly turn your nose up at but which you may have enjoyed before a number of times. But added to this were small chunks of chicken liver, which lifted it all with an offal richness, plus the bacon was lovely and melty. I think I'd have preferred my asparagus as whole spears instead of chopped up, but this is a minor niggle.


Scallop and chorizo - favourite pairing of the early-rounds Masterchef contestant - was dressed in a nice light hollandaise and used very good, meaty chorizo - at a guess I'd say it was Brindisa, but if it wasn't then it was something to that standard. You'll have noticed by now that all the dishes made use of some very familiar ingredient combinations, and in lesser hands this could have been something to grumble about. But when it's all executed as confidently as this, who cares?


The last of the savoury courses was chicken and the only real - though hardly catastrophic - misstep of the meal. Unfortunately confit chicken needs to be treated very carefully to stop it going dry, and I'm afraid here it was a tad chewy. The grilled baby gem was lovely though, as was a dose of supremely light saffron aioli, and so overall the dish just about got a merit.


Dessert was a hot, fluffy doughnut stuffed with a generous portion of rhubarb coulis, and a nice big slab of powerfully caffeinated semi-freddo. Summer in a dish, and extra points for making use of my favourite fruit. You'd have to do something genuinely disastrous to rhubarb to not make me want to shovel it down by the plateful.

Platform One have hosted a number of exciting foodie ventures over the years, some of which have gone on to notable success. Perilla popped up here a couple of years back, and now have a permanent (and very good) restaurant on Newington Green. And Smoke & Salt who followed them (or did they preceed them? It's all a blur now) have just this month opened in the space vacated by Kricket in the container park Pop Brixton. So whether by luck or design, a stint at this East Dulwich venue seems to be as close to a seal of quality as you're likely to find in London. So, why not make the most of it? They won't be there forever.

8/10

Our meal at Oxalis was comped. Apologies for the less than brilliant photos, I was having camera issues that day.