Friday, 19 August 2016

On Café, Clapham Common

Perhaps, if it wasn't for Kimchigate, I would have enjoyed my dinner at On Café a lot more. Often when a meal is teetering on the edge of success or failure it only takes one moment to make the difference; an unexpectedly lovely dish to settle the nerves and highlight a kitchen's true talents, or a single jarring mis-step so catastrophic that nothing else can redeem it.

Unfortunately for On Café, however strong their talents are in other areas, their deal-breaking dish was the very first thing to arrive on the table, and I'm afraid from the moment I realised this strange bowl of raw vegetables plonked down in front of me was supposed to be "kimchi", I completely lost faith in them to do anything else. This is not kimchi. This is, as you can probably see, chopped raw cabbage and onion, bound together with one of those sweet chilli sauces you can get from the shelves at Asda. Serve this to any Korean as "kimchi" and you'd be in severe danger of sparking an international incident.

With that in mind, no matter what else On Café did they would have an almost impossible task to win my favour back, which is a shame because service was charming, the prices pretty low (BYO helped) and most of the dim sum weren't too bad. Least favourite (I'll start with that first in the interests of a more positive narrative) were some Thai Green Curry salmon dumplings which tasted mainly of soggy poached salmon and not much else.

Har Gau were fine, held together well and had plenty of bouncy prawn and leek filling. I could have brightenend them up a bit had we been given some of the usual dim sum chilli sauce but what looked like chilli sauce was actually a bland blitzed tomato/pepper mixture, like gazpacho. Which was odd. However the house chilli oil was very nice, with plenty of crunchy bits, so that came in handy.

Kudos for On Café for even attempting Xiao Long Bao, which plenty of larger dim sum operations consider beyond their skill set. Admittedly there was not a huge amount of soup inside, and not a particularly powerful flavour from the duck filling, but the casings had a good bite and they were very prettily made with that delicate knot on top.

Siu Mai were quite "sausagey" for want of a better word - dense and salty - but still pleasant enough once dunked in the chilli oil.

And finally wild mushroom bao, probably my favourite of the lot, big, bright white pillows of savoury bao containing a softly sweet mushroom filling.

Sadly the relative appeal of the bao was tempered by the appearance of this "Kimchi chicken fried rice", ordered before we were fully aware of their loose definition of "kimchi", which turned out to be a plate of anaemic chicken, soggy pieces of cucumber and the occasional bit of boiled vegetable with no trace of anything pickled or fermented or even the tiniest amount of chilli.

There's perhaps an argument to be made that On Cafés strengths lie in the patisserie section, and I did enjoy my raspberry éclair which had a lovely strong filling and was presented well. A salted caramel tart was equally competent; less so a tiramisu which didn't taste of much more than whipped cream. And I could help noticing that they'd left the pith on some mandarin segments in their "Citrus Delight", which I'm fairly sure would have you docked some points in Great British Bake Off.

I'd had On Café on my radar since this review in the Observer a few weeks back, where ironically Jay Rayner worries about the "Observer effect" of a positive review forcing a small restaurant operation to buckle under the strain of newfound popularity. I can't say for certain that's what's happened here; but if I am one of the "dribbling, hungry people" to turn a once-good restaurant into a bad one I can only apologise, and if it's any help from now on I'll get my dim sum from Dragon Castle, my patisserie from Paul, and my kimchi from, well, anywhere else.


Not much chance of On Café making the app, but fortunately there are some pretty good alternatives in Clapham...

On Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Cure & Cut, Covent Garden

After noticing, once again, that the average length of the posts on this blog seems to be creeping up, I'm going to make a renewed effort to do a few single-dish or sandwich bar reviews. Takeaways and casual lunchtime spots are just as much a part of the fabric of London's food culture as any Michelin-starred tasting menu, and deserve just as much attention. Well, the good ones do, at least.

Unfortunately, though I was hoping that I'd be able to bring you news of a great new pastrami joint in Covent Garden, the reality of Cure & Cut on Monmouth Street didn't quite live up to expectations. But before I get to the details, a little lesson in How Not To Soft Launch Your Restaurant.

I first attempted lunch at Cure & Cut at midday on Friday last week, only to reach the front of the queue to discover a) They'd run out of pastrami and b) Even if they hadn't, the 50% off food offer they'd been advertising on Twitter applied to everything apart from the pastrami. Guys, I can get sweet potato salad and crispy kale anywhere; I've come to you for some nice salt beef. But then I suspect you knew that, didn't you.

Anyway, promotional cynicism aside, the product still wasn't that much to shout about. The beef didn't have much flavour, and was quite dry and chewy; it was impossible to take a bite out of the (faintly stale) rye bread without it drawing all the filling back out in one go, which is a Major Sandwich Annoyance. The Reuben was better, as the bland beef was masked by some nice melted cheese, mustard and zingy sauerkraut, and the toasted bread meant you didn't notice it was slightly stale, but it still managed to be fairly underwhelming, certainly not worth the queue. Tongue and Brisket on Leather Lane is probably my favourite in central (where I've never had to queue); and of course on Brick Lane you can get a beigel packed full of the good stuff, all soft and melty with fat, for £4. I'm comparing apples with oranges in terms of property rent, I know, but if all I can think about when eating a sandwich is how much better and cheaper I can get the same thing elsewhere, then someone's doing something wrong.

Oh, and the crispy kale? It was fine. But I'm sure you won't need telling you're better off getting it from Whole Foods, where you won't need to queue and they probably won't run out of anything just as you reach the counter. Right, that's enough of my whining. Onwards and upwards.


Not much chance of Cure & Cut making the app, but Covent Garden is a hotbed of alternatives.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Shawarma Bar, Exmouth Market

There's a little Lebanese restaurant near the office in Holborn that does a very smart trade serving lamb & chicken shawarma (sliced off a vertical spit), meshwi (cubed, grilled over coals) and kofte (minced and grilled) wraps to a lunchtime work crowd. The wraps themselves can be good, but they have an annoying habit of preparing a huge pile of the ones they think they'll sell in advance of the lunchtime rush, meaning that if you go in any time between 12:30 and 2pm they'll invariably reach for one off the cold pre-prepared pile, give it a quick blast in the sandwich press and then hand it to you. But, if you ask for a fresh one (yes, I am that person) they will (after a bit of huffing and puffing) usually shave you off some fresh shawarma and you can enjoy a half-decent kebab; not brilliant, but better than anything from Pret next door.

But it got me thinking; what if someone did this kind of thing properly? Quality slow-cooked lamb shoulder, seasoned and spiced to perfection, home-made pickles, house chilli sauce, proper fluffy fresh bread, all made to order? If even a fairly thrown-together lamb kebab can satisfy (even when not eaten at 3am after chucking-out time), surely one made with skill and attention would be a revelation? And it is with this in mind, I'm sure, that Shawarma Bar was born.

If anyone knows how to make a success of Middle Eastern comfort food it's the team behind Berber & Q, whose cavernous restaurant in Haggerston served me some of the most exciting dishes of 2015, and who, along with places like the Palomar, spearheaded London's newfound enthusiasm for this kind of cuisine. But it wasn't so much their ways with grilled meats as the exciting variety and quality of their vegetable offering that made more of an impact - their grilled cauliflower dressed in tahini and pomegranate seeds was an instant star dish, and house hummus showed you just how vital and vibrant this Levantine staple can be when made by someone who both knows and cares what they're doing.

It's no surprise, then, that it's the side dishes, the details, that turn Shawarma Bar from being a very good kebab shop into something rather special. House pickles, for example, showed the full range from soft and sweet (carrots) to sharp and sour (onions), with soft gherkins, black olives and crunchy cabbage providing support. There was even a slice of shocking dyed purple turnip, something I really miss when it's not there despite it not being the most natural looking thing on earth.

Mesabaha was - and there's no other word for it - wonderful, a perfect marriage of silky smooth tahini and juicy chickpeas, studded with some kind of chilli chutney which added both heat (though not too much) and a supremely addictive citrussy tang. The chollah it came with was soft and gently toasted over coals, and though perhaps not quite as brilliant as the Palomar's version (not quite as sweet or fluffy) it did a great job at scooping up the chickpeas. Nobody should go to Shawarma Bar and not order the Mesabaha.

This bowl of Mejaderah contained fragrant spicy rice, crisply dry-fried onions and lentils, and was a comforting and interesting side dish showcasing - again - Shawarma Bar's mastery of texture and seasoning. Maybe if you're very well travelled or an aficionado of Levantine cooking in London you may have come across something like this before, but for many people (myself included) dishes like these are still a delightful novelty. And hugely enjoyable to eat, too, of course.

And so to the main event, the lamb shawarma. Firstly, and most importantly, the meat is lovely, bags of lamby flavour and with all the variation in texture (soft fatty bits, crispy dark bits, smooth meaty bits) that you'd pick for your own kebab if you were there at the spit shaving the meat off yourself. The salad is fresh and crisp, the harissa sauce not too punchy but lending a nice gentle burn, and a generous handful of herbs, crunchy and bright as if they'd been pulled straight out of the ground, added more colour, literally and figuratively. And finally, binding it all together, a good dollop of that beautiful nutty, earthy tahini.

The only thing that wasn't perfect about the shawarma - and I'm sure they have their reasons - was the bread, which was a bit too thick and doughy and meant that every bite was a bit heavy on the bread element. The pitas are flown in from Israel, I was told, and while doing their job well enough I can't help wonder how much nicer they would have been fresh out of the oven, or even cooked that morning somewhere in town. Perhaps that's the plan eventually, but meantime that's the only thing I'd change about what is otherwise pretty close to the best kebab in London.

I'll be going back to Shawarma Bar - of course I will, I work 15 minutes away and it's brilliant - but I feel confident enough to post this review after only two and a half dishes because of their pedigree and because sometimes, the quality of a place is evident just on the first bite. Shawarma Bar takes all the things that made the Haggerston spot great - the skill with grilled meats, the radiant salads, the exotic Middle Eastern herbs and spices - and repackages it for an informal short-stop takeaway crowd in a lovely little room with no communal seating or annoying loud music. It is, essentially, Berber & Q - The Selected Highlights. The Greatest Hits. And I'm predicting massive chart success.


There's every chance Shawarma Bar will be in the next version of the app. Meanwhile, see what I had to say about what else is in the area.

Monday, 15 August 2016

The Forest Side, Grasmere

It was a single meal - a multi-course, expressionist dance of harmony and colour and flavour served at L'Enclume in Cartmel in 2012 which convinced me that modern foraged British food was the future of dining out, and that Simon Rogan was one of the most inventive and exciting chefs working today. And nothing since has changed my mind. Further experiences at the French in Manchester and Fera at Claridge's have merely replaced that initial swooning shock with a kind of awestruck reverie; nothing in five or six meals across those locations has been less than interesting and the the best of it is transcendental, tying together strict seasonality, a botanist's knowledge of the local environment, and - let's not forget this one - a library of classical French techniques to frame those wonderful ingredients with sticky reduced jus and crisp skins and pinpoint-accurate seasoning.

It may have felt revolutionary in 2012 to eat at L'Enclume, but Rogan learned his craft working for people like Marco Pierre White and Jean-Christophe Novelli, who in turn- oh, I can't be bothered to start with the Rock Family Tree; the point is, each chef is part of a chain of talent that stretches back way back when, and each individual uses the tools they were taught to make their own great leap forward once they start out alone in their own kitchens, where before long they become the "establishment" and various young chefs who have toiled 16-hour days podding peas in those kitchens start having some ideas of their own and fly the nest.

So we're getting to the stage now where Simon Rogan, once the hot young revolutionary of the British dining scene, is most definitely the New Establishment (I mean, his restaurant is in Claridge's; there's nowhere more establishment than that), and so for the next leap forward in British food the country looks towards ex- L'Enclume alumni such as Mark Birchall (soon to open Moor Hall near Ormskirk) and Kevin Tickle, who has landed a head chef role in the stunning gothic mansion hotel-restaurant Forest Side in Grasmere.

Much is resting on the success of the Forest Side; if, and it's a big if, Simon Rogan's influence can live outside his own kitchens and inform a new generation of restaurants across the country, then this will be the first great test - a high-end modern British menu, making use of foraged ingredients, nestled in the lush Cumbrian countryside and serving the best the area has to offer, but with Kevin Tickle in charge; related to l'Enclume, but a different blood line. Everything was possible, and it was all very exciting. You can see why I jumped at the chance to travel to Grasmere.

After a couple of "forager's cocktails" and nibbles in the bar (all very plush and impressive; no expense spared on décor that we could tell, and the drinks were all nice twists on classics using local plants), we were moved through to the main restaurant for the show to begin. Snacks appeared, chickpea wafer topped with peas & herbs, a crunchy new potato skin containing onion ash, and a "critter fritter", a deep-fried breadcrumbed cube of squirrel meat (and other bits and pieces I imagine), all nice enough as an introduction. Pretty, clever... but more impressive than enjoyable.

The next amuse was a bowl of fudgey slow-cooked yolk on top of some broad beans and topped with some slivers of "hen of the woods", a mushroom that credulous foodies will try and tell you tastes like chicken but actually tastes quite a bit more like mushroom. Again, it was a clever demonstration of a variety of techniques missing a certain balance (there was a lot of gooey yolk and not enough of anything else) and wasn't hugely memorable.

Bread (wholemeal loaf, fine but I won't judge them too harshly as it seems the bread offering is the last thing to evolve to its final form in a new restaurant) came with fennel butter, a weird enough idea and an oddly divisive flavour to force upon every paying guest, even if it had been seasoned properly. Which it wasn't. So we muched through half a slice each of bland, vaguely aniseedy bread before deciding that we'd much prefer some nice normal salted butter. Even adding salt to the fennel butter would have been nice, but not possible, as there wasn't any on the table.

The next course, heritage tomatoes cooked in elderflower with goat's curd and caviar, came paired with cucumber-flavour soda water made in Hackney. I have various issues with this, which may be easier to express in bullet form:

  • I do not like cucumber soda
  • Even if I did like cucumber soda, I would much prefer my tomato consommé (hardly the world's most unco-operative set of flavours) to be matched with a nice white wine, say a Riesling or something, than just another vegetable ingredient that, if the chef really thought the tomato needed it, would have surely been better off as part of the dish?
  • The soda, presumably constructed by adding cucumber juice to soda water, had been shipped up from a company in Hackney. Maybe I'm unaware of every potential issue surrounding the adding of cucumber to sparkling water, but it seems odd that Forest Side can make their own bread but not their own flavoured water?

All of which would have been less annoying if the consommé had tasted of much, but I'm afraid I didn't think much of the slightly sweet and insipid liquid that coated the bottom of the bowl. Even the caviar seemed subdued.

The next course, in its own way, had just as many issues. Venison "pastrami" wasn't anything of the sort, just slices of cold roast venison with no hint of the bouncy, briney hit of proper pastrami, sat on some pickled veg, blobs of curd-y yoghurt and a few bits of shaved parmesan-style cheese. So far, so meh. But it was "paired" with a gin and tonic elaborately built tableside using more Hackney soda ("Artemesia", your guess is as good as mine), a Hackney*[see edit] gin called "Forest" (Lakeside gin is made a few miles away but isn't good enough apparently) and a sea buckthorne jelly to garnish. Needless to say, the gin & tonic completely battered any flavour in the venison (which wasn't much) into oblivion but actually the sea buckthorne jelly was really lovely, so I'll give them that.

I've only ever been disappointed with one dish in all my visits to Fera, and it involved langoustine, so perhaps there's something about West Coast langoustine that doesn't sit well with me. But I think I mainly didn't like it because it was a strange blobby texture and offputtingly transluscent from being undercooked, and I didn't like any of the rest of the dish either, from the slab of unseasoned "charred" cucumber that didn't look or taste like it had been anywhere near a direct heat, to the chewy strip of home made guanciale on top. My friend, who doesn't eat seafood, had exactly the same dish but with the langoustine and the guanciale(?) removed, so had to made do with a slice of cold cucumber for this course. Oh, and both were paired with an IPA - local, at least, but I was beginning to wonder if we'd ever see another glass of wine.

Courgette was presumably "scorched" in the same way the cucumber in the langoustine dish was "charred", i.e. not very much. And I don't care how much of a fan of vegetables you are, cold courgette is never a nice thing to eat, not even topped with a kind of pumpernickle cracker and surrounded by dots of mint sauce. I can't remember what this was paired with but it sure as hell wasn't wine.

And then just as we were thinking perhaps we should cut our losses and leap on the next train back to Euston, Forest Side went all... well, normal. Nice, even. My fish course was a fabulously cooked slice of halibut, bright white and flaking into clean, defined chunks, with a gorgeous golden brown crust. Served with the good bits of razor clams (no weirdness) and a lovely herby chutney which brought to mind the coriander dressing Trishna serve with their Haryali Sea Bream dish (this is a Good Thing), it was a balanced, complete, mature and hugely enjoyable dish. And - joy of joys - it was paired with a white wine (it'll never catch on), a natural Chablis-style from Burgundy, which complimented the fish perfectly. My seafood-hating friend similarly enjoyed her local hoggett, beautifully pink and rich in aged flavour, paired with a Syrah blend red. Were they messing with us?

Middlewhite pork proved the halibut and hoggett were no fluke. Beautifully moist squares of pig, surrounded by colourful local herbs and flowers, with a couple of sweet and tender artichoke hearts and all bound by that classic Rogan touch, a savoury custard. And on top of all that, it had been dressed with one of those lovely reduced stock sauces, thick and strong like porky honey, which I attempted to scoop every last bit of from my plate before realising I was making a bit of a scene. This dish was paired with a Radikon wine from Slovenia, light and interesting and just what we wanted. Seven courses into a ten-course tasting menu, they were hitting their stride.

Now we were on to desserts. Pre-dessert was a bowl of frozen bits and pieces of summer fruits, colourful and vibrant and great fun. I can't begin to describe half the things that went into it (not least because, as a pre-dessert, it wasn't listed on the menu) but I'm sure it was all lovely and seasonal. I think this came paired with a sparkling saké, which I'm only mentioning out of completeness because it didn't really do much for the food.

The first proper dessert was this strawberry mousse thing, which had the most beautiful flavour thanks I think to the use of wild strawberries from the kitchen garden at Forest Side. There were plenty of interesting techniques in play here too, from the crispy meringue-style coating to the cakey crumbs underneath which made it into a kind of deconstructed cheesecake. It was paired with a Sauternes, which brought out the fruity flavours very well. Only joking, it actually came with a strawberry cocktail, which was as pointless as it was annoying.

"Gooseberry, buttermilk and sweet cicely" had an extremely clever "floaty" texture, very difficult to describe but imagine a cross between a foam and a jelly, but smooth and almost impossibly light. The gooseberries packed a punch, like they often do, and buttermilk underneath added a nice dairy richness. This was paired with some non-alcoholic fruit cocktail of some kind I don't even care any more.

Partly because the cheeses from this part of the world are right up there with the best of them, and partly because we needed something to go with the glass of wine we were so craving, we went for the extra cheeseboard. And, unsurprisingly, it was brilliant, a not too large or too small selection of the finest British cheeses, kept perfectly and served generously, from a fresh citrussy goat's to a surprisingly chalky St James which nevertheless had the usual fine flavour. We asked for the red that came with the pork as we'd enjoyed it so much. "Yes, we have a sweet Banyuls to go with the cheese" came the reply, either through misunderstanding or sheer stubbornness. It was OK, but would have gone better with the desserts.

Petits fours, taken in the bar just so we could finally order a normal drink without anyone trying to force a honey-peanut butter stout or sparkling cabbage water on us, were a couple of Turkish delight things using some weird fruit, and a couple of frozen summer berry "rocks" that I remember from all those years ago at L'Enclume. I ate them, very nice (particularly the berry rock which must be a very difficult technique to master), then enjoyed a brandy and tried to work out what the hell just happened over the last few hours.

Some of the reasons I didn't enjoy everything we were given at Forest Side, were maybe just matters of taste, and nobody's fault. I'd rather have wine than sparkline saké, I don't much like cucumber water, and I don't like cold venison (it was 13th August, where was the grouse?), and maybe there are millions of people out there who do. OK fine, fair enough. But even if half of the first few courses just weren't my thing that still leaves half that could have been if they'd have just been treated a bit more carefully, or seasoned a bit better - particularly the fennel butter but also the tomato consommé and the cucumber/langoustine and courgette dishes which a bit of salt may have at least distracted from the reality of eating slabs of cold vegetable.

But on top of all of that we have the fact that when Forest Side put aside cold foraged plankton and matching pansy-water, the results can be very impressive. If I'd have turned up, had the halibut as a starter, the pork as a main then that strawberry dessert, I would have left a very happy chappy indeed. They know how to treat fish and pig, can make a nice reduced sauce, and the pastry section is spot-on. But this isn't a neighbourhood bistro serving 3 courses for £25, it's a £80/head tasting menu that for most people will require a pretty major journey to get to, and there aren't many people going to be happy waiting for 7-courses in before anything more than "OK" hits the table. And I wonder how many of those would be happy paying £60 extra for a bizarre selection of flavoured sodas, beers and juices instead of some nice wines?

I should probably point out that the hotel itself, the vast rooms, the luxurious bathrooms with their rain showers and baths the size of Bournemouth, the stunning location nestled amongst woodland within walking distance of Grasmere, you may consider all these things making the journey for even if you're not a fan of the food detailed above. And I know for a fact Forest Side has plenty of fans; my rather grumpy reaction to it is very much in the minority according to various press reviews I've read. But all I can do is all I ever do, go somewhere once, make a snap judgment and then carry on with my life. And so it is here. My love affair with modern British foraged food remains unshaken; but if I want it, I'll go to Fera.


I was invited to Forest Side. *EDIT: I swear our waiter said the gin was from London but it is in fact from Macclesfield Forest, so apologies to them!