Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Hedone (revisited), Chiswick

For this blog to be any use to anybody - in fact for any restaurant critic, or guide, or Buzzfeed Top Ten Lobster Mac & Cheese list to be even the least bit useful - then we have to assume that there is such thing as an objectively nice place to eat. If we can all agree that eating soil is not fun, and that eating chocolate is, then surely we should also be able, as a species, to draw a fairly solid conclusion about the land inbetween these extremes; we are, after all, most of us after more or less the same thing - a good dinner.

Sometimes, though, I am baffled by restaurants that polarise opinion, both those that I think everyone should love but they don't, and equally those that people fall over themselves to lavish with praise and which leave me completely cold.

Take Hedone, for example, in Chiswick. I first visited five years ago, shortly after it opened, and suffered through an emotionally vacant precession of beige dishes, ostensibly using the finest produce Western Europe can provide and yet each so wanting of texture, colour and fun that I felt my soul shrinking with every passing minute. And yet in the subsequent years a certain devoted subset of Foodie Internet have repeatedly and sincerely praised the food at Hedone as being not just amongst the best in the country but genuinely world class.

They say that chef Mikael Jonsson goes to greater lengths than any other individual to find the very finest ingredients for his menus. They say said ingredients are treated to techniques that both compliment and amplify specific flavour profiles to the greatest possible effect. And they say, over and over again, that if you can't appreciate that this corner of West London is redifining modern gastronomy, that his towering achievement belongs in the history books, then you don't deserve to enjoy eating out at all and you should just stay at home with a Findus pancake thinking very hard about your life. OK, to be fair, they've never actually said anything about Findus pancakes, but the inference is pretty clear.

It's enough to leave a man who spends a good proportion of his time looking for the next big gastronomic high (me) with a severe case of the FOMOs, and so five years almost to the day I made another booking at Hedone, determined - desperate, in fact - to figure out if I really was a hopeless pleb or instead have some kind of tasting menu-based Damascene conversion.

Long story short, turns out I'm still very much a resident of Plebsville; a 2nd meal at Hedone was every bit as bewilderingly dull as the first. An amuse of tomato jelly tasted of... well, tomato jelly on a little biscuit; no more, no less. A dish of scallops and truffles - despite containing two of my favourite ingredients - conspired to be wobbly and thin, like eating something that needed finishing off on the grill. A slab of foie - again, usually something that couldn't fail to lift my spirits - was a big, boring, fatty chore. Nothing was hideous or even that wrong, it was just empty, cold, devoid of form and fun. It was, in short, the very opposite of why I eat out at all; if the best restaurants are life-affirming and generous of soul and spirit, this was dining by numbers, technically correct but emotionally bereft.

I'm not about to tread on the opinions of so many people who clearly - and for their own very good reasons - consider Hedone their Ultimate Restaurant. But it is odd, not to mention deeply frustrating, that I so obviously couldn't get out of Hedone the transcandental experience so many others had, people who I know for a fact have a huge deal of overlap with my own tastes when it comes to most other restaurants in town. In my original review I made the comparison with modern jazz; that somewhere at the back of my mind I knew there must be something in it, but that thing, whatever it was, will likely be forever out of my grasp. To some, John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" is a breathtaking work of staggering genius; to the rest of us it is just arrythmic, dischordant nonsense. I wish I understood it, but I don't.

In many ways of course, whether or not I or anyone else appreciates Hedone is a matter of supreme unimportance. They won't miss me (or many like me) as a customer and I won't miss them. I only mention any of it as a kind of thought experiment - that if it's possible for people to have such wildly different experiences of the same restaurant, in fact even of the same meal (my first visit was on the same table as one of the Hedone superfans I mentioned earlier), what use is restaurant criticism at all? Should I find something else to do with my spare time? In fact, don't answer that.

Anyway, excuse my existential wobble; normal service will be resumed in due course. Perhaps we should take some comfort from the fact that we as people, as diverse and difficult as we are, can find anything in common at all, and that the occasional blip like Hedone is proof of nothing more than our diversity. I will leave the Pride of Chiswick to those better placed to enjoy it, and, as one anonymous commenter on my original review put it, "stick to searching for the perfect burger... and leave [the] real food to the adults". For now, I'll agree to disagree. But by God if anyone starts having a go at Tayyabs, there'll be hell to pay.

6/10 (again)

Hedone Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, 15 May 2017

Tapas Room, Broadway Market Tooting

I've never been short of reasons to visit Tooting; it is, after all, home of my beloved Apollo Banana Leaf, one of London's best (and best value) Sri Lankan restaurants; to Spice Village, the Tayyabs of the South, serving a fantastic menu of authentic Punjabi dishes; and a whole host of other interesting South Indian and Sri Lankan joints all up and down Tooting Road. It's a genuine food destination, and the fact it's only 20 minutes on the 219 bus from my house is, for someone otherwise stuck with the less-than-inspiring selection of restaurants on Lavender Hill (Mien Tay excepted), a real godsend.

But now, Tooting has "gone all Brixton" and the indoor Broadway Market (not to be confused with its namesake in Hackney, or indeed Tooting Market which is also something different) these days plays host to the kind of eclectic group of music stores, bottle shops and counter restaurants that will be very familiar to anyone who's ever wandered through Market Row SW9.

One of the newest arrivals in Broadway is the Tapas Room, a little side project from the Donostia Social Club gang and so already bearing quite a good pedigree. The menu is short - only 3 hot dishes, the rest of it mainly cheese and charcuterie - and simple; there's no leg of jamón ibérico de bellota being carved, for example (there's no room, for a start), and no fancy cuts of presa or secreta seared in a charcoal-fired Josper grill. It's closer, in fact, to the kind of stripped-back tapas bar you might find on the streets of Spain than the big-name flagship London-Spanish restaurants such as José or Barrafina.

And yet, in simplicity there is often great beauty. Pan con tomate is basically the Tapas Room in a single dish - bright and cheery, straightforwardly enjoyable but also clearly with a good knowledge of Spanish food having gone into it, it was the best I've tried since Barrafina, and as anyone who's ever tried that will tell you, that's a hell of a compliment. Everything was right about this - excellent quality tomatoes seasoned with big crystals of sea salt, a faint burn of garlic and - most importantly - lightly toasted ciabatta that's not too chewy. A pan con tomate masterclass.

Chicken liver parfait was also a fine example, with a good smooth, light texture and good rich flavour. It came with a pickled fig - presumably pickled in-house though don't quote me on that - which played the part of the chutney which would usually arrive with a chicken liver parfait.

If I was to criticise any aspect of this combined cheese and charcuterie platter - and I will, because that's why you're here - it would be to say that I do not like to see the cheeses touching each other on a board. Cheese is not like ice cream; you shouldn't be eating any more than one kind in one mouthful, and cross-contamination (especially with stronger cheeses) sullies the experience. That said, they were all good cheeses (Picos blue, a washed-rind manchego and a really lovely soft goats whose name I really should have made a note of), served at the correct temperature and so they just about got away with being stacked up like Jenga blocks. And the sausages were all great - a Catalonian fuet, an Iberico salsichon and Basque chorizo which all packed a huge flavour.

At the risk of repeating myself, both hot dishes were also, well, great. First white asparagus, gently charred on the grill and dressed in a romesco/pesto-style combo with a few toasted almonds on top, it was a perfect showcase for this seasonal delicacy.

And then, best-till-last, a giant slab of soft morcilla, toasted to crunchy on the edges but soft and fluffy inside, with a couple of fried quail's eggs on top like big cartoon eyes. Like everything that had come before, it was expertly constructed and confidently presented, unfussy but eminently enjoyable.

With so many fantastic Spanish restaurants in London at the moment, it's very easy, despite our best intentions, to get a bit blasé when yet another lovely little spot appears serving cheese and charcuterie and fried morcilla with quail's eggs. So it's important to never make the mistake of thinking running a place like this is easy - we just happen to have a huge number of very talented people here at the moment, who are serving some of the best Spanish food outside of Spain (and, let's face it, inside of Spain as well) for a price (under £20 a head for the food above) that only the most miserly would grumble at. Yes, there are fancier, more expensive and more elaborate places to eat Spanish food, but this is a cuisine defined by its sheer variety. Surely there's Tapas Room for everyone?


We were invited to Tapas Room and didn't pay.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Claude Bosi at Bibendum, South Kensington

For what promised to be quite an occasion of a dinner, it's fair to say our evening at Claude Bosi at Bibendum did not get off to a great start. Arriving a few minutes before our allocated 6:30 booking (look, I like to eat early, OK?) the doorman seemed entirely unprepared for the possibility that not every guest will arrive precisely bang-on time, and ordered us into a holding-pen of an empty bar, where we sat cold and ignored as members of the downstairs staff tidied up around us until it was time to try our luck again with Mr Cheery in reception. Perhaps this is just as much Bibendum's fault as the doorman - they really need to work out where to put people who are a bit early, even just a chair in reception or being offered a glass of water or something - but even so, it hardly put us in the mood to enjoy ourselves.

Once upstairs though, safely past the bowler-hatted bouncer, the atmosphere was a lot more convivial. Firstly, and most obviously, it's an absolutely beautiful room, undoubtedly one of London's finest, and sat amongst the deep-blue stained glass windows and plush carpets even the eating of a cheese sandwich would feel like an occasion. Secondly, front of house are, each and every one of them, superb, and headed up by a guy (who's name I forget, sorry) who apparently worked for Sir Terence Conran in the same space when Bibendum first opened in the 1980s. Now that's some pedigree.

We started with cashews with malt vinegar powder. It's a sign of the amount of effort that goes into everything here that a clever cheffy technique was used on something as simple as nuts to go with your aperitif. These were obviously ridiculously addictive and I polished them off in about 30 seconds.

Next, a little bonzai olive tree with a couple of spoons of what looked at first like normal black olives. Of course, they weren't - they were very delicate frozen shells of olive juice, perhaps more impressive than delicious, but impressive nonetheless. I believe the original idea was to have them hanging off the branches of the tree itself, like a similar amuse at Catalonian gastro-temple El Cellar de Can Roca, except in early trials customers attempted to pluck the "olives" off the tree a bit enthusiastically and ended up covering themselves in black olive goo.

Then a little bowl of chicken skins and a sort of miso dip. Can't remember much about these, to be honest, but I can't imagine we left any.

These were gougère, beautifully warm and fluffy, and suitably easy to demolish. I've never met a gougère I didn't like, so they're either fairly easy to get right or only the very best operations even attempt them in the first place. I'm guessing the latter.

Miniature foie gras ice cream cones were next, expertly constructed little things, pretty as you like and dissolving in the mouth with plenty of good meaty flavour.

Next, curried pea and egg, which looked the part and no doubt took quite a lot of doing (there were multiple layers inside, of fudgy yolk, pea purée and fresh whole peas), but in which the addition of coconut rendered the whole thing a bit, well, offputting. For all I know, there is, somewhere out there, some combination of egg, coconut and fresh peas that won't make me wish I hadn't eaten it, but I'm afraid this wasn't it. Still, full marks for experimentation.

Fortunately, bread was on hand to make up for the coconut pea thing, and not just any bread - sourdough supplied by Hedone in Chiswick. It's become the Done Thing to automatically call this the best bread in London, and indeed at one time it may have been - however the competition is such now that I'm pretty sure I know a few other bakeries that could give them a run for their money. It's still great bread though, and the nice soft butter it came with was superb as well (and even better with a bit of salt on top from one of their weighty silver Bibendum cellars).

It's worth noting that at this point, we still had not been served the first of the 7 courses from the tasting menu. Whatever you think about the merits or otherwise of spending £200 on dinner, there's clearly a lot of work at Bibendum gone into providing extra bits and pieces, amuses and nibbles, and the pacing and style of service had been immaculate. I can think of a few restaurants - and one other in South Kensington in particular - where you could spend at least this and have nothing even so much as a chocolate truffle in addition to the three menu dishes you've ordered. Not so here.

So first course proper, then, was crab with elderflower jelly and sea herbs. This was, I don't mind admitting, the first time I've ever eaten crab and elderflower together, and also (not coincidentally) the first time I've eaten crab elderflower jelly. So perhaps my not being completely bowled over with it is partially the shock of the new. It got better as you dug down and the brown meat mixture at the bottom of the bowl became more prominent, but I still struggled to get past the strange floral/seafood combination. Interesting, but perhaps not an experience I'd want to repeat.

Hibiscus had a good line in asparagus dishes, and so it is here in South Kensington, with this thick meaty spear (sorry, I don't know what came over me), with a strip of confit orange peel and what's described on my menu here as "smoked hay hollandaise" but actually tasted more like a kind of thick hazelnut butter. Very nice, anyway, and I also appreciated the Claude Bosi signature knife that came with it.

It was a nice surprise on sampling this scallops with strawberry "sauce vierge" to discover that the scallops were warmed slightly; there's something about fridge-cold scallop that sets my teeth on edge, and yet in most places that's just what you get. It was also nice to discover that the herby, only faintly strawberry-led sauce that covered them was herby and complex; an attractive, and rewarding bit of seafood.

The next course was an absolute cracker - a beautiful bit of sea bream, geometrically exact with razor-sharp edges, sat on a rich morel and tarragon dressing. The fish itself, with its delicate crisp skin and firm flesh, could not be faulted, and the morel sauce was a classical and comfortable combination of flavours and textures. It's dishes like this that make rather a stronger case for tradition than outright experimentation...

Veal sweetbread, beautifully prepared with a thick, dark glaze of black garlic, was another crowdpleaser. Nothing too strange going on here, just a good slab of offal, cooked perfectly, and a pretty selection of mayonnaisey sauces to accompany it.

Then more veal - Limousin I believe, with a bit of pressed cucumber and a nice rich stock-y sauce. I'm always going to be more of a fan of protein that's been thrown on top of charcoal than teased into uniform pinkness in a waterbath, but it was still a very decent bit of baby cow, not earth-shatteringly interesting but very easy to eat.

And finally, a pea and chocolate cake, which sounds on paper like it might be the most disruptively experimentational dish of all and yet - in the face, it has to be said, of my own personal prejudices (I have a long, unhappy history with vegetables in desserts) - it turned out to be completely brilliant. The pea flavour wasn't jarringly savoury at all, it was just a faint sweet vegetal note, and the sugar levels were expertly judged as to make complete sense of it all. If I only had to eat one vegetable-as-dessert for the rest of my life, then it would have to be this one (though it's true there isn't a great deal of competition on that front).

It would have been easier in writing this post to either be able to make some blithe pronouncement to the effect that when Bibendum stuck to classical techniques and traditional flavour combinations then the dishes were more successful, or alternatively that when they had the courage of their convictions and tried something new the results were impressive. In fact, neither of these extremes are true. In end end, some of the experimentation, such as the pea and chocolate tart, was extraordinarily successful and something approaching an instant classic, while others such as the crab and elderflower, fell flat. And similarly, while the sea bream and morel dish used a tried-and-tested flavour profile to great effect, a rather humdrum bit of sous-vided veal didn't do much for me.

So it's hard to know what to say that's going to be any use really, other than it was all a bit uneven - some bits were great, other bits weren't so great, and it was all rather expensive. Actually, that sounds dismissive - it was, as I said previously, thanks to the huge number of extra bits and pieces, not cynically priced - but I don't want to end up having to use the word "uneven" on any dinner costing upwards of £200 a head, no matter how much fun I had at the time. And if someone came to me with £200 burning a hole in their pocket and asked where they should be spending it, I'm not sure Bibendum in its current form would feature very highly up the list.

But there it is, that's what a meal at Bibendum currently looks like and perhaps in the not so distant future I'll have reason to revisit and it will have really found its feet and become one of London's truly great restaurants. Until then, you're probably more likely to see me at the Ledbury or the Clove Club next time I feel like a bit of haute cuisine; it's hardly Bibendum's fault the competition in London is so fierce at the moment. But how lucky we are that it is.


Bibendum Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato