Thursday, 12 January 2017
You'll often hear the word "authentic" used as a badge of honour for (I hate the phrase but I can't think of anything better right now) ethnic restaurants in London and the UK. "Authentic", we're to assume, is shorthand for "just like they do it back in Mumbai", or Bangkok, or Mexico City, or wherever cuisine originated from, as if the only valid aim for any non-English restaurant is to replicate exactly the experience of eating thousands of miles away, with the exception - we would hope - of being allowed to pay in the local currency.
Of course, this ideal is neither practically possible, nor even particularly desirable, because what diners in London expect from an evening out is rarely going to align with the expectations of a diner anywhere else. I mean, it's hard enough translating a restaurant concept from Manchester to London in terms of style and levels of service, portion sizes and so on, and that's barely a few hundred miles. What hope would a Bangkok street stall have if they tried to lift their entire operation wholesale halfway across the world and drop it on Coldharbour Lane? Even if you secured replacement supply chains, obtained local health & safety certification, trained local staff (or found somewhere for your immigrant staff to live) and so on, what if the miserable London climate meant your dumpling dough didn't rise properly? Or your idiosyncratic queuing system leaves local Londoners baffled? And - perhaps most importantly of all - what on earth do you charge?
So if true authenticity is a fiction, all we can hope for is that the very best of our immigrant cuisines can master the practicalities of operating a restaurant in the UK without sacrificing too much of the spark and spirit of the homeland. And though I have a grudging respect for anywhere going to the effort of importing, at great expense, rice from Kyoto for their sushi bar or a particular type of tomatillo that only grows in the foothills of the Popocatépetl mountains for their taco joint, what I appreciate far more is a sensitive treatment of local ingredients to imported techniques, and not having to worry about whether or not service is included.
With that in mind, Kricket is probably as authentic an Indian restaurant you'd ever want, if by "authentic" you mean "great fun and great value". In this bright and buzzy room with its attractive open kitchen and cozy booths they serve a menu of interesting Indian dishes (and spicy cocktails such as this "Old Narangi" pictured involving cardamom-infused bourbon) for a very reasonable amount of money and in that particular London 2017 "small plates" vibe.
Bhel puri is a bowl of rice crispies in tamarind sauce and yoghurt, a familiar staple of South Indian cooking that was done very well here. There's not much you need to do to bhel puri really but chunks of raw mango were an interesting addition, giving the thing a certain extra freshness and vibrancy.
It's impossible to compare Kricket's "Grilled Lasooni Langoustine" with the langoustine dish at Kiln - in fact if I didn't know better I'd say they were both from the same supplier - but I was just as taken with the earthy, chargrilled treatment of the little beasties at Kricket as I was with the cured, chilli-spiked method at Kiln. Both I'd happily order again, even bearing in mind that with premium seafood you necessarily don't get a great deal of meat for your money.
The most universally admired dish on our table at Kricket was the "Kichri" (kedgeree), a fantastically powerful mixture of smoked fish and egg with a genius addition of pickled cauliflower adding acidity and crunch. If Kricket ever start doing breakfast or brunch, this will be their signature dish, a clever and skillful illustration of where Kricket's strengths lie.
Butter garlic crab is a dish I was lucky enough to previously try in their shipping container home at Pop in Brixton, and I'm happy to say it's every bit as good here, a generous mound of white meat bound with garlic, herbs and dairy. Oh and if you're disappointed by the lack of poppadums as a snack item (as I was), then you'll take some comfort from the fact they come as a vehicle for the crab. But really, Kricket, allow us to order poppadums as a snack please. Everyone likes poppadums.
Keralan fried chicken comes crisply fried with a delicate thin coating and a really impressive - and colourful - curry leaf mayonnaise. I always enjoy fried chicken where the emphasis is on the chicken itself and the coating takes a second seat; Tonkotsu have the same approach to their kara-age and that's a must order for me too. If you want your chicken to be surrounded in an inch-thick cement of grease and bread then fine, but to me it suggests a worrying lack of confidence in the product within.
Both breads were fantastic - light and bubbly, one of them seasoned with masala spices and one slick with bone marrow and cep mushrooms. Even the fanciest Indian restaurants can occasionally slip up on the bread course, or try and cut corners by making them in advance, so it was great to see the bread here being as good as it could be.
Duck leg "kathi" was sort of an Indian sausage roll - in fact that was almost exactly what it was, except with nicely spiced duck meat instead of the usual pork. It was also every bit as enjoyable as a good sausage roll, which of course puts it firmly in the "must order" category. It came with a peanut sauce a bit like a satay dip, and some nice sweet pickled cucumber.
And finally, "lamb haleem", rather unappetisingly described as lamb porridge by the staff but which nevertheless turned out to be a soft, savoury stew, rich in fat and flavour, and bearing certain comparisions to the Tayyabs' dry meat. Which as anyone who's ever had Tayyabs' dry meat will tell you, is praise indeed.
I say "finally", but actually there was one more course - "Jaggery Treacle Tart" - that my friends managed to order and eat while I was distracted chatting to owner Will downstairs so its delights will have to remain unknown to this blog for now. They said they enjoyed it, though, so I'm very happy for them.
With regards to service I should probably say that while generally pleasant it suffered from an over-keenness to chuck everything out and clear it away as fast as possible (I think all the above was sent and in about 30 minutes flat), which has the (unintended I'm sure) side-effect of making one feel rather unwelcome. Also, there was one particular member of staff to whom I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume had been given some very bad news before service that evening began, which surely accounted for the fact she treated the whole business of bringing things to our table as a giant inconvenience.
But, despite these things, and the not insubstantial bill (for 3 people, 3 cocktails and a bottle of wine, £45 a head), I had a blast at Kricket. In the fine recent tradition of London-Asian small plates it holds its head up very well next to the likes of Kiln and Hoppers, and perhaps while not quite in the league of those megastars it certainly punches above its weight; an attractive, youthful place that treats good local ingredients to an Indian aesthetic, producing dishes generous of heart and flavour that you'll want to go back and try again and again. So let's leave it to others to worry about nebulous notions of authenticity - it's a slippery slope to nowhere good. Instead, just enjoy Kricket for what it is, yet another fantastic place to eat out in London.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
I've long been a fan of the Galvin bros' flagship Windows restaurant, at the top of the Hilton Park Lane, and have had many wonderful meals there over the years. It's top-end dining at the top of the world, and you pay for it, but if you come away with anything other than a fierce desire to go back and do it all again as soon as possible then you've got a heart of stone.
But if I'm brutally honest, and that's hopefully why you're here, I've never had a completely knockout dinner at any of the Galvins' more "accessible" lower-budget joints, such as the Bistro de Luxe or La Chapelle. Objectively I know they're very decent places that many of my friends hold in extremely high regard, it's just for whatever reason I find it quite difficult to get too excited about French classics like escargots or crème brulée and would rather pay the extra to do full haute cuisine or tighten the purse strings and drop in somewhere like Zédel where they do regional French for about £20 a head. Which leaves more left over to spend on wine.
The good thing about the Galvin brand though is that they are always evolving. Even Windows, under the regime of its new Korean-born chef Joo Won, has started moving in more interesting Asian-fusion directions and a recent meal involved kimchi and bulgogi and all sorts of K-buzzwords to fantastic effect. And I've heard great things about the new Galvin HOP, Café a Vin as was, which has drawn itself a madly eccentric menu of burgers, pork chops and hot dogs, US/UK comfort food staples given a French aesthetic. So it was clearly time to give a Galvin other than Windows a try. And with that in mind I'm very glad I accepted an invite to the Athentaeum hotel in Mayfair and to Galvin at the Athenaeum.
But before dinner, drinks; excellent gin martinis in their ground floor which, thanks to giant floor-to-ceiling windows framing a living tropical wall, was like drinking in a giant vivarium. I can't say a great deal more about a martini in a hotel bar, but as martinis in hotel bars go, this was one of the good ones.
Relocated in the restaurant now, and you can tell a lot about a place from its bread offering. The bread at Athanaeum, just like I've enjoyed at Windows in the past, is this plaited baguette (it probably has a fancy boulangerie name but I don't know it) which breaks apart into lovely warm chunks just begging to be covered in salted butter.
First of the starters was a huge and unapologetically French slab of foie gras, wrapped in a clever ring of spiced bread and served with a kind of alcohol-poached apple segment topped with toasted walnuts, and dollops of cherry purée. And it was immensely enjoyable, with loads of flavour and not suffering from any hint of "fridge chill" which can spoil many a foie gras experience.
And this was a beautifully rich seafood soup, light and frothy and perfectly seasoned, presented with separate little pots of croutons, grated gruyere and rouille. Whether it's the miserable London winter weather or the fact that a soup is quite a good test of a kitchen's attention to detail, I seem to have been ordering a lot of soup in restaurants recently. And this was a fine example.
I make no apologies for ordering a burger for my main course. Years after the burger craze "hit", and certainly a long time after a good burger was a novelty in London I am still happily ordering them because they just hit every pleasure point I need in a single item of food - salt, fat, texture, and a great big oozing mound of bloody loose beef. The Galvin burger, which they've practised at the bar at Windows and refined at the Hop place in Spitalfields, is a genuinely lovely thing, perfect ratios of salad, beef and bread, and with a layer of good French cheese (possibly Comté but don't quote me on that).
But if you still insist on turning your nose up at burgers, then how about bolstering your bourgeois credentials with this - a neat pot of cassoulet, which had been "poshed up" by cooking duck breast to pink separately then arranging it on top of the bean mixture. It, too, was a comforting yet thoughtful bit of cooking, and further evidence that the Galvins can not only come up with a good recipe but crucially also hire the right people to replicate it as their business expands.
The meal ended with this Ille Flottante (sorry, "Floating Island" - see also "Caramelised apple tart" instead of "tarte tatin" as the Galvin menu writers attempt to stay French without being alienating) which packed a good hit of vanilla and chunks of caramelised (I think) chestnut studded in the Crème Anglaise. Sorry, "custard".
So despite my initial misgivings about any Galvin that doesn't involve being on the 28th floor of a Hilton, we thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this meal (including the service from our Londoner waitress, which was charming). What's interesting is that in their efforts to create a kind of hybrid French-English hotel restaurant, which in lesser hands would have ended up with a weak approximation of both and probably disappointing lovers of both French and English food simultaneously, they've almost accidentally ended up with quite an exciting third way. The idea of French cooking techniques being applied to English ingredients is hardly new, but that's not the only thing going on here. Dishes like the foie gras and the Ille Flottante (despite the Anglicised name) are recognisably French, and the burger and presumably things like the sticky toffee pudding are fairly solidly English, but they sit together on this menu quite happily because it's probably only in a hotel restaurant situation you'd be allowed to cherry pick the best of both and still come away with a coherent menu.
And since you didn't ask, the room for the night which was also kindly gifted as part of the review package was very nice too, on the 6th floor with views of Green Park. It's a strange thing, spending a night in a five star hotel in your own home town, but I can't pretend it wasn't great fun being a tourist for the night, checking in luggage, strolling down for dinner and then instead of rolling onto a bus for the journey to Battersea, heading for a night walk around Mayfair, taking in the lights of Piccadilly and shouting "You fools! You Goddamn fools!" at the queues outside the Hard Rock Café next door. Gives a whole new perspective on things, and a whole new set of reasons to fall in love with London all over again.
I was invited to eat, and stay, at the Athenaeum.
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
The North West of England has, scattered around its greenest and most pleasant parts, from the Trough of Bowland to the Yorkshire Dales, from Cumbria to Pendle Hill, some of the very best places to eat in the entire country. While the big cities struggle with form and format, lurching nervously from lazy pastiche of the latest London trends to overblown, overpriced Michelin-bait, the country pubs of Lancashire and Yorkshire quietly get on without fuss or fanfare, doing what they've always done, lovely people serving lovely food in lovely surroundings.
It was at a recent lunch to publicise this fact (in Central London of all places) that I came across the Cartford Inn, who served a dish of Fleetwood hake and Morecambe Bay shrimp as part of a Who's Who of fine Lancastrian restaurants, including the Parkers Arms in Newton-in-Bowland and the Freemason's at Wiswell. It was more than enough to have me googling where on earth Cartford was and planning a little trip there over Xmas with my parents from our base in Liverpool.
And, overall, I'm glad we did, although perhaps the place I'd invented in my head thanks to the association with the the best of the Forest of Bowland would never sit well the reality of a large family pub just off the M55 near Poulton-le-Fylde. Because first of all, unlike some of its colleagues at that press event in London, the Cartford Inn does not sit in the breathtaking countryside of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but in the rather more bleak and geographically mundane marshlands east of Blackpool, and the view from the dining room was not of rolling Ribble Valley hills but of an out-of-season caravan park and a silted river.
Still, that's hardly their fault, and all would be well if the food was up to scratch. Things started brightly, with a pretty plate of smoked Mallard breast, powerfully seasoned and not too smoky, with a crisp fried heart and a few dollops of seasonal veg. The flesh of the duck was perfectly pink and moist, and there seemed a good amount of it for the £8 asking price, so I had few complaints here.
Smoked "pink shrimps" (big enough to earn the name "prawns", really) were juicy and plentiful, served with saffron aioli. One thing you can usually rely upon in Northern pubs (even if it's sometimes the only thing) is portion size, and so it proved at the Cartford Inn. Most of them were carrying eggs too, which was a nice little caviar-y bonus. So far so good.
Mains, unfortunately, were a little less exciting. "Braised, roast and confit local rabbit" tagliatelle was a vast mound of meat and pasta, which on the face of it sounds like it might be fun, but you have to be very careful with rabbit to stop it turning dry and chewy and I'm afraid the Cartford Inn were only partially successful on this front. The confit leg was OK but the ballotines of breast (I think) were pretty inpenetrable. Also this was a ludicrously massive portion - what you see in the photo was just one layer of meat & salad and hid enough (decent) pasta to sink a battleship. Full marks for generosity, less for execution.
My oxtail pud was good. Not great, not Hind's Head faultless-perfect-brilliant, just good. There wasn't quite enough gravy inside or out, the mash was a bit dull and the accompanying vegetables a bit over, but it was still comforting and wintery and packed with filling.
I'll admit that once seeing this weird thing arrive at the table the last thing I wanted to do was sample it. So I can't tell you what "Cornbread eggy bread, smoky spicy beans, watercress" tasted like, only that dad ate all of it without too much complaint, even the weird anaemic-looking beans. Mind you, he cooks roast potatoes in coconut oil because he thinks it's healthier so I wouldn't invest too much in his opinion.
Up until this point, service had been friendly and attentive in that easy Lancastrian style, and although the food hadn't been stellar we were still enjoying our lunch thanks to some very reasonable wines and the cosetting of amiable staff. However, as the place filled up it seemed our little table in the corner fell down their list of priorities, and by the time the main courses were cleared, it dropped away completely. We sat for about a half hour waiting for someone to even offer us the dessert menu never mind another glass of wine, before eventually giving up and paying at the till at the way out.
A disappointing end, then, to what could have been a fairly decent lunch. True, the food is hardly in the same league as some of the very best of the North West gastro-titans but neither is it anywhere near the bottom of the league either, and with a bit more of an effort on service I could have given it a much less qualified endorsement. As it is, I'll leave it to you to decide whether it's worth the trip to this bleakish spot on the River Wyre when the same distance the other side of the M6 are some genuinely notable restaurants for pretty much the same money. With much nicer views. Still, it's better than most places in Liverpool.
Friday, 6 January 2017
There's nothing a restaurant blogger likes more than a clear narrative. And by that I don't just mean the clear triumphs or a complete disasters of places that I can happily praise to high heaven or thoroughly trash - that goes without saying. I'm talking also about anywhere that operates on a consistent decent level under difficult circumstances, or perhaps somewhere that despite its huge budget and palatial surroundings is churning out substandard product. It's strangely satisfying as a critic to spot where the problems lie or to recognise real effort and report accordingly. Makes my "job" (such as it is) a lot easier.
But sometimes, a restaurant just doesn't play by the rules. After my first visit to Jamavar, a lavishly appointed spot on Mount Street in Mayfair, I was more than sure I knew exactly all I needed to know. After a warm welcome and having been settled on a plush leather banquette, a dainty arrangement of crisp snacks arrived, cones of spicy baked poppadums, mini chickpea poppadums, and crisp-fried plantain. With them, a selection of chutneys - refreshing coriander, rich mango and a tomato-chilli. Just the kind of start you need in a high-end Indian restaurant, everything wonderfully seasoned and perfectly-pitched.
Next, "crispy guineafowl malligai" which is still the greatest thing I've known happen to guineafowl (ordinarily not a particularly interesting beast). With an addictive dry-crunch coating containing soft, expertly spiced morsels of game, this was a completely wonderful bit of cooking, like the best spicy chicken nuggets in the world. Topped with a cooling dollop of mango "pachadi" and a very interesting dry cherry-shaped chilli of some kind, it satisfied on every conceivable level.
If you try only one fish dish at Jamavar - hell, if you have only one fish dish anywhere this year - make sure it's the stone bass tikka. Timed with NASA-like precision to be just-cooked but without a hint of dryness, coated in a dreamily complex set of spices and matched with a chilli-spiked avocado dressing, I will stake my reputation (such as it is) on the fact that there can hardly be a better fish dish in town right now. And yes, I am including my previous favourite the Hariyali Sea Bream at Trishna (at the time not uncoincidentally cooked by the current Jamavar head chef, Rohit Ghai, although the recipe was of course a Karam Sethi original) in that assessment. It is a complete knockout and you should go and order it as soon as you possibly can.
As if all that wasn't enough, Jamavar's black dhal is yet another work of art, a creation so dense and multifaceted in flavour, almost chocolately in its intensity, that to sample it is to fall deeply in love. At the risk of repeating myself, I would be very surprised indeed if you managed to eat a better dhal in a restaurant in London than this.
So, I had my story. Despite a minor service niggle - the menu had been printed with a second 'small plates' page instead of main courses causing a bit of confusion at first - and what is by most standards quite a whacking price point (the 3 courses above with no drink or bread came to just under £50), this was a clear 9/10 restaurant, confident and mature Indian cooking in surroundings that make sense of the budget. A great restaurant.
But partially because I worry about writing up a restaurant based on only 3 dishes and partly because I just loved it so much I wanted to return as soon as possible, the next day I was back. And almost from the first moment, things started go to skewiff. Firstly, despite a completely empty dining room at the stroke of midday, I was told they needed my table back by 1:30pm. This would never have been an issue had they not mentioned it, as I only ever have an hour for lunch, but someone had clearly decided they'd rather make me feel slightly unwelcome than just manage table allocations a bit better. But fine, their place, their rules. And if it was a bit of a surprise to see that the issue with the double-printed menu pages still hadn't been fixed, it was more perplexing to have the staff arguing quite vociferously amongst themselves as to whose fault this was, within easy earshot, after I'd pointed it out.
I would necessarily expect the £25 lunch menu to involve cheaper ingredients and perhaps less elaborate techniques. This is after all what lunch menus are for. But the first dish, a kind of pork terrine with quail's egg was quite clumsily executed, the pork being almost inedibly salty and the strange balancing-act presentation looking a bit naff.
Fortunately the lamb seekh kebab up next was much better, soft and gently spiced and while perhaps a bit more anaemic-looking than some of the best examples in town (*cough* Tayyabs *cough*), but still enjoyable. The cold, unseasoned bean salad didn't do much for it, though.
Butter chicken suffered from a slightly thin flavour and slightly dry pieces of chicken. It wasn't a complete disaster by any means, just wasn't that much better than any butter chicken you'd pick up from a high street Indian, and at these prices I think I'm right to expect a bit more.
Aloo was decent, but the dhungar dhal was a bit underpowered, certainly not a patch on the black dhal from the day before. Again, all these things are surely consequences of the cheaper lunch menu but were still quite disappointing given the fireworks the same kitchen seemed capable of elsewhere.
All of which conspired to leave my so-called "story" in a bit of a state. I couldn't rave about the place, nor dismiss it, nor even come up with any sensible theories as to why this lunch menu was so clumsy even despite its cheaper price point, while the highlights of the a la carte were out of this world good. It just didn't make much sense, especially as that stone bass tikka is actually available on the lunch menu as a main.
Even a third visit (evening so too dark for photos), this time under invitation of the head chef and an opportunity to try a great deal more of the ALC offerings, didn't help settle the matter because now we were back to Jamavar Mode A - dazzling cooking and exquisite presentation, in particular a shami kebab in a thick, dark sauce that brought to mind fine oxtail soup, and a Bengali fish dish which showed yet more supremely skillful ways with seafood.
But you know what, it's hard not to give Jamavar the benefit of the doubt. The fact is, anywhere capable of dishes like the guinea fowl, or the stone bass tikka, or the black dhal, needs all the praise it can get, and even if you went there on the back of this post and ordered those three things, paying through the nose for them from the a la carte menu, I doubt you'd feel it was a wasted journey. OK so, some of the lunch menu items could do with a bit of tweaking, and yes the staff could do with a couple of pointers but it is after all early days, and there was enough technique and ability demonstrated overall that indicates this is a restaurant going places. So instead of a rave, or a rant, or any kind of coherant narrative, I'm just going to tell you to order those dishes I liked, avoid the ones I didn't, and see if you don't have a jolly good time yourself.
I paid for my first two visits, then was largely comped on the third.