Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Tayyabs, Whitechapel

Two things are guaranteed to happen whenever I post about Tayyabs on social media. Firstly you get the usual fanboys, of which I count myself a very loyal member, who confess their undying love of seekh kebabs and lamb chops and chicken tikka, and can't wait to head back to Fieldgate St and try it all again. Secondly, without fail, there is another equally vocal group of Tayyabs skeptics, who claim variously that it's not as good as it used to be, it's too big, too noisy, the prices have gone up and "you should really try [Needoo/Lahore Kebab House/Mirch Masala/Insert Your Favourite Pakistani Grill House Here] who are definitely where it's at these days".

There's no denying Tayyabs has changed - a lot - over the years. What used to be a single room café set up in an old shop to serve the local Pakistani workers in the 1970s has expanded into four floors of noisy, frenetic restaurant, overhung with onion smoke from the skillets of mixed grills flying around the place, carried by a small army of smart waiters in black. Almost every table was taken on a wet Tuesday evening, families with toddlers, raucous work parties with their carrier bags full of beer from Tesco's down the road, and even the odd food blogger annoying his companion by taking photos of the food with his big camera.

But has the food offering really changed noticeably over the last few years, as some claim? Well, the first thing to note is that, like most restaurants - in fact like any restaurant that has its food made fresh by a changing brigade of chefs - variations will always occur in dishes, even ones that have been made hundreds of thousands of times by the same kitchen. For example, sometimes the seekh kebabs are more spicy sometimes less so; sometimes the lamb chops are a deep paprika red and sometimes a lighter yellow of yoghurt and garam masala. Sometimes the tinda masala is more buttery, sometimes it has more of a bitter (though never unpleasantly so) note of burned onions; sometimes the dry meat contains huge chunks of lamb bound with paste, other times it's something more approaching a standard, albeit dense, curry. These variations are why I love Tayyabs, and they're what keep me coming back, because there's always that chance a dish may be even better than the version you fell in love with all those years ago.

Take my most recent meal, for example. The seekh kebabs were sausagey and moist, not as spicy as they have been but full of flavour. Lamb chops were on the reddish end of the spectrum, densely flavoured and with the ribbons of fat along the bone as deliriously moreish as ever. And the chicken, glossy with tikka spice, were little bundles of joy.

But the tinda masala (pumpkin curry) neatly justified my faith in the place. Put simply, it was the best I've ever known it taste, and believe me I've eaten a lot of tinda masalas over the years. A deeply complex and satisfying paste of spiced butter, with notes of toasted seeds and caramelised onion, bound huge bulbs of pumpkin so tender they completely dissolved in the mouth, creating a dish that is, in its own way, completely unique in London and worth the trip to Whitechapel alone. It's also worth noting that although Tayyabs is Instagram-famous for its mixed grills, you could come here, order the tinda and veggie samosas and tadka daal and naan bread and have a very bloody good vegetarian (though not vegan - this stuff is ghee-tastic) dinner.

Look, I realise I'm not going to change anyone's mind about Tayyabs, and nor do I really want to - as one of the most consistently oversubscribed restaurants in the whole of London, with queues regularly snaking down the street on a Thursday and Friday evenings even despite the vast numbers of tables inside these days, they're certainly not desperate for the extra publicity and yes, as so many of you so bloody regularly point out, there are plenty of other places to get lamb chops in Whitechapel alone. But I don't care. You can keep your pretenders because I will remain a Tayyabs loyalist and for as long as I have a craving for lamb chops and dry meat, and I'm guessing that will be for a very long time to come. It's not perfect, but it's mine, and for introducing myself and so many others to the joys of Pakistani food, it is forever guaranteed a place in my restaurant hall of fame.


Tuesday, 6 November 2018

The Guinea Grill, Mayfair

For much the same reason I wouldn't write a blisteringly-objective 1,000-word critique of a friend's dinner party, I've never been comfortable posting about restaurants where I'm friendly with the owners. And because most of the people I'm friendly with are at least as enthusiastic about eating out as I am (it forms the basis of most of my relationships these days), the restaurants they run tend to be amongst the best in London, and it's sometimes a shame that I've never found a way of featuring them on the blog.

But this is Fortieth Birthday Month, normal rules don't apply (I've decided), and so I'm going to tell you about the Guinea Grill because it really is a very special and deserves to be talked about even in such a hopelessly compromised and completely-not-objective-at-all manner as this.

Though the sign out front reads 'EST. 1675', the story of the Guinea we know today really begins in the aftermath of WWII. US generals and assorted diplomatic staff stationed at the Grosvenor Square embassy just around the corner (though not the imposing modernist building that now takes up the entire Western edge of the square; that wasn't finished until the 60s) and who regularly drank in the Guinea were pining for the dictionary-thick bone-in steaks from back home. British restaurant culture, hardly anything to shout about before the war, had taken a bit of a beating thanks to the Nazis, and even the top hotels at the time such as the Ritz or the Dorchester served food best described as boiled, and bland.

So the enterprising landlord of the Guinea had an idea. If he could get hold of a whole side of a cow, could the Yanks pay him enough to make the whole highly illegal process of bribing Scottish cattle farmers and smuggling the animal down into London during rationing worthwhile? Well yes, they could (turns out winning a war is quite lucrative), and on certain nights the front windows of the Guinea were tightly shuttered and guests took turns solemnly marking with a pencil on the carcass their desired cut. Then, over a charcoal pit in the back yard the steaks - properly seasoned and charred to medium-rare, just like in the mid-west - were enjoyed alongside enough claret to sink a battleship. Thus, 50+ years before Hawksmoor set up shop, London had its first US-style steakhouse.

Fortunately the landlord of the Guinea today, Oisin Rogers, who I first got to know when he ran the ramshackle, rollicking Ship pub in Wandsworth, doesn't have to bribe anyone to get hold of good steak - these days, it's all above board. But in most other measurable criteria the place has changed very little in the last half a century. The A La Carte menu boasts steakhouse classics such as prawn cocktail and oysters to start, and sticky toffee pudding for dessert, and it's all enjoyed in the same clubby, wood-panelled rooms with their cosy nooks and corners in which the US embassy staff roamed all those years ago.

Even better though than the main restaurant A La Carte is, in my opinion, the Guinea's bar menu. Printed on cute retro beer mats it includes such timeless joys as steak & kidney pie, devilled kidneys and grilled lamb chops, all of which - and I have close and repeated knowledge of them - are brilliant. You'll have to fight for a table in the front bar area - I've never known the Guinea to be quiet, even 6pm on a Monday evening - but to be rewarded with a golden bronzed pie in a paper ruff, its suet lid lifting to reveal chunks of tender offal and slow-cooked shin in a thick, rich red wine gravy, well, you'd wait a lifetime.

But that's not to say it's some kind of English Heritage themed restaurant, a slave to the past. Where it counts, notably the levels of service and the techniques in some of the more elaborate dishes, are very much 21st century. A few weeks ago I tried a roast grouse dish that arrived with a little offal toast and pan of smooth bread sauce, each element of which any fine dining restaurant in town would have been proud to send out. Ditto a cute fillet of salmon, skin crisp and flesh just-done, on dill crème fraîche and seasonal veg - this is as serious a kitchen as it needs to be.

There are many ways to enjoy the Guinea - as a smart restaurant, a cosy drinking den, a live music venue (Oisin hosts Irish music nights on the occasional Tuesday, where it's even more rammed in there than usual) and yes, as a fascinating slice of London history, a place of tradition and legacy but which still holds its head high amongst the fads and foams of London fine dining. But whichever of these Guinea Grills is your Guinea Grill, and however you choose to enjoy it, spare a thought for those hungry Americans sneaking into the back yard of a darkened pub in amongst the ruins of post-war Mayfair half a century ago, and of the wily landlord handing out the pencils.


This is this bit where I usually say whether I've paid for the above or not, and over the years it's fair to say I have paid for very little of what I've eaten at the Guinea. I would, though, quite happily.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Wing Stop, Covent Garden

I have moaned before about the lack of Buffalo wing options in London, in fact I've moaned quite a lot, so by rights I should have been pleased at the news that huge American chain Wing Stop had landed in Cambridge Circus. Americans invented Buffalo wings (in, er, Buffalo, NY) and though there are mediocre examples available on both sides of the pond it's fair to say that the average American is more clear what they expect when ordering the things - namely, jointed chicken wings (no tips), fried then covered in a sauce of 50% hot sauce (by default Frank's Red Hot) and 50% butter, served with a blue cheese dip and somtimes little sticks of celery and carrot. It's not a complicated dish, but variations in the quality of the chicken, the style of hot sauce and - with the most potential for disaster - the blue cheese dip means that truly excellent Buffalo wings do not come along very often. And don't get me started on the crimes committed in the name of Buffalo Wings in most pubs in London.

So I really wanted to love Wing Stop. Despite the tourist-trap location, the overlarge menu that didn't once mention the word "Buffalo", and through an ordering process that involved waiting patiently while the entire, seemingly completely foreign concept of choosing what to eat and then paying for it was slowly explained to the people in front of us, I managed to keep a tight hold of my optimism. Even when presented with a bill for £14.30 for 8 wings, fries and a drink and was encouraged to mill around aimlessly waiting for my buzzer to go, even through all that I thought it still might be worth the effort.

It wasn't. Most importantly, in fact really the only important thing all said and done, the wings were poor - tiny, gnarly, feeble little bits of bird, flesh stained black and bones exposed, clearly from animals that had not had a good time on this planet. The sauce they were in was decent, enough of a kick of chilli and nice and glossy with butter, but this did not make up for the chicken at all. For a while I attempted to eat around the dark sloppy patches of seeping hemoglobin (a common side effect of using frozen chicken, but let's leave it at that), and to avoid the crunchiest bits of overcooked cartilage but eventually I got to the point where it just wasn't worth wasting the calories. Fries had skins on - because which multinational fast food chain has time to peel potatoes these days? - and were seasoned with sugar. No, I don't know why either.

Oh, weirdly though, the blue cheese dip was lovely. And I like the fact they have those multi-flavour drinks machines so you can order a pint of half-and-half caffeine-free peach-flavour Diet Coke and lime tango, if you feel the need. But there are far better, far cheaper ways to get your wings fix in town - Meatliquor do a giant pile of them for about £8, and there's good old Sticky Wings on Brick Lane doing 11 excellent wings, with fries and a dip, for a tenner. Did Wing Stop do their market research do you think? Did they buggery.

Anyway let's not dwell on it. Life's too short for bad wings. Next time I want to spend £14.30 on lunch on a giant American chain in Covent Garden I'll go to Shake Shack over the road, who - and I really mean this - are excellent. Get the double cheeseburger with bacon and all the salad, or the Shack Burger. In fact get whatever you want. Just don't go to Wing Stop.


I didn't have my Big Camera with me for this lunch. It's not a deliberate ploy to make the wings look bad, though, they really were that terrible.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Chez Bruce, Wandsworth Common

Though I had no knowledge of this the first time I set foot in Chez Bruce over a decade ago, this modest spot in Wandsworth (very much not the dodgy end, Love Actually fans) overlooking the common was once home to one of the most revolutionary and influential restaurants ever to exist in London. Between 1987 and 1993, with a young Marco Pierre White in the kitchen heading a team that included Gordon Ramsay and Philip Howard, Harvey's changed the face of British food, taking instruction from traditional French fine dining (White himself trained with Pierre Koffmann), and using the best of British produce but sending it in all kinds of fantastical directions. For those lucky enough to have eaten there, 30 years on it still remains the ultimate expression of modern fine dining, and the masterwork of a singular mercurial talent who after a few more years and three Michelin stars, to the lasting dismay of many, retreated into television appearances, chain steakhouses and endorsements for instant stock cubes, never to cook in anger again.

Bruce Poole, then, had a bit of an act to follow when he took over the site in 1995. Sensibly, Chez Bruce never pretended to be a successor to Harvey's, although I'm sure that didn't stop a few people turning up expecting to be able to order "Tagliatelle and oysters" or "Crackling Pyramide" in the first few months. Instead, CB became what we now call a "local restaurant" - a pretty high-end local restaurant admittedly but one with an eye primarily on winning the hearts of the residents of Wandsworth and Battersea rather than international food snobs or Michelin inspectors. It did win a star of course, but you never got the impression that was the point of the place.

And it's a pleasure to report that all these years later, Chez Bruce is still one of my favourite restaurants in London. On the face of it, it's not a restaurant doing anything particularly extraordinary; it's not particularly cheap, although as ever go weekday lunchtime and you'll pay significantly less than you will of an evening. The dining areas are comfortable and well-appointed, although some tables are better than others; the weird upstairs attic room upstairs has a particular chill of Siberia about it (figuratively, not literally). And the menu could be accused of playing it somewhat safe - in the middle of game season there was no sign of teal, grouse or mallard, just a hare tagliatelle starter and venison main, and venison doesn't really count as game at all in my book.

But. Within this framework of an accessible, happy local restaurant Chez Bruce absolutely shines. Dishes that sound faintly unambitious on paper such as the above "Rare-grilled salmon with citrus salsa, black rice, avocado and mint" are transformed into a deeply rewarding play of colours and textures, the chilled avocado something approaching a guacamole ice cream, the salmon itself buttery and fresh and glazed with lime.

Hare tagliatelle contained generous chunks of meltingly tender hare in a mixture of bacon, chestnuts and herb-spiked breadcrumbs, adding up to an exquisitely tasteful sample of the season. I may moan about them not having any game birds on the menu, but there aren't many restaurants serving hare either so credit where credit's due.

Prawn and scallop raviolo was similarly faultlessly done, plump with fresh, perfectly seasoned seafood wrapped in buttery, delicate thin pasta, all soaked in a deliriously rich bisque. Three slices of pickled cucumber added a bit of crunch, as did some vivid green samphire perched on top, all balancing and enhancing the main ingredients without being over-fussy or extraneous. This is ostensibly simple food cooked by people who know exactly the best way of going about things, and to enjoy the results of their experience is to experience joy itself.

With that in mind, by the time the main courses arrived (and thanks in no small part to some marvellous matching wines none of which I remembered to write down, sorry wine people) there was nothing to do but succumb completely. Venison came as ruby-red loin, seared and seasoned and so tender you could cut it with a spoon, and an utterly wonderful sweet-glazed sausage which was about the best thing anyone's ever done to the animal since Walt Disney's Bambi. Little pieces of spätzle added a charming dose of carbs, and it was all soaked in a glossy meat jus which I ended up scooping up with my fingers (again, this may have been the wine talking).

Chicken with gnocchi, girolles, Jerusalem artichokes and hazelnuts was every bit as great as that sounds but let's not fall into the trap of assuming that assembly of ingredients will always turn out well. Over the years I've had dry chicken, thin wine-y sauces and pappy gnocchi but here, as with everything else, every element was the absolute best it could be, the chicken in particular having a blinding white moist flesh and fragile, golden brown skin.

A shared almond and quince tart was a fine thing, perhaps needing a bit more quince jam and a bit less frangipan but still successful enough to disappear completely within about 30 seconds. Yoghurt sorbet was sharp enough to cushion the tart without being distracting.

And one shared dessert meant more room for Chez Bruce's signature cheeseboard - not the biggest in London by any means, but about 15-20 examples from Europe and the UK (I'm going to have to get used to making that distinction) selected with the same exquisite taste with which they approach more or less everything else. We tried a 48-month-aged Gouda which was as fragile and salty as the dead sea scrolls, a Guernsey milk soft number made by the same people who make Flower Marie, and a creamy, delicate blue in the Cornish Blue mold (forgive the pun) which I'm afraid I've completely forgotten the name of but just take my word for it, it was great.

But of course it was great, because everything Chez Bruce do is great. Yes, £100 is a lot to shell out for dinner but I can think of a lot of places you can do a lot worse for this kind of money, and not many places you can do better. And as I've said, Chez Bruce isn't trying to reinvent modern gastronomy or become an international foodie frotting-den. Nor is head chef Matt Christmas likely to jack the prices up threefold before burning out and ending up flogging Knorr. It's a restaurant entirely comfortable with its place in the world, this cosy corner of the common where once the eyes of the world were trained and where so much began, now quietly finding a new way to be brilliant. Long may it continue.


Thursday, 25 October 2018

Harry's Bar, Marylebone

In case there was any shred of doubt left that I am not a hopeless restaurant spod, I should tell you I sometimes spend "down time" looking at menus. Not always for places I'm due to visit (in fact not even usually places I'm due to visit - I like to be surprised, or at least not disappointed that something I've set my heart on isn't available when I get there) but for multi-starred gastro-palaces in Paris or the south of France, where punters happily shell out €140 for a starter and the descriptions of the dishes sound like a cross between a haiku and a bad trip ('Lake Geneva trout, lake and forest blend, spruce seasoning and white butter sauce (without butter)'. In the course of my virtual travels I've seen many extraordinary menus and marvelled at some truly astonishing prices, but nowhere has made my jaw hit the floor faster than an ostensibly modest bar on the Grand Canal in Venice, serving a range of familiar Italian trattoria dishes and a few cocktails.

It's not just that the prices at Harry's Bar in Venice are high. It's a tourist town, you'd expect a bit of a premium. It's that the prices are so ludicrously inflated past all sense of reason and decency it's almost like they don't want you to eat there at all. Here's a snapshot @samphiresalsify took in February; tagliarelle with bolognese sauce for €53; Calf's kidneys with saffron risotto for €71; €92 - NINETY TWO EUROS - for scampi which the restaurant proudly declares are probably frozen. Oh, and naturally you pay 10% tax, 12.5% service and a €5 cover charge on top of all this, in case you were worried €92 for some scampi was just a little too affordable.

Now I don't know what the food is like at Harry's Bar Venice - fairly ordinary by all accounts - but it is a pleasure, not to mention a relief, to report that in Harry's Bar London (no relation, weirdly), newly nestled in amongst a fairly grim selection of tourist cafés and chicken shops on James Street in Marylebone, the food is of a generally high quality and the prices are not only Not Ridiculous but in a couple of cases a genuine bargain. Take this basket of nduja bread, for example - basically an entire pizza sliced up, it costs a teensy £4.95 (plus service, but no tax or cover charge) and could easily make a pretty decent lunch for one. Zédel Brasserie, eat your heart out.

From the 'antipasti' section though it was time to push the boat out a bit. "Harry's Tagliolini" is a decadent merging of truffle, parmesan and cream (oh my!), baked in a little copper pan and flamboyantly slopped onto a plate tableside before being showered in more grated parmesan. With no one element overwhelming another, and with just the right amount of black truffle (which is to say, an absolute shitload), this was a belter of a dish, and although £12.50 is quite a lot, with all that truffle it still felt like value.

We were hardly about to settle for just the one pasta dish though, so next up was this heaving pile of pappardelle al ragú Bolognese which certainly contained plenty of slow-cooked beef even if it could all done with a bit more depth of flavour. Weirdly I don't think salt would have helped here - the ragú itself was just a bit watery and underpowered - but there was still lots to like about the pasta itself and I did polish it off.

Better, in fact much better, in fact very good indeed was the vongole, a gloriously buttery affair containing loads of fresh, plump clams and pasta so slippery and elastic it was almost alive. Lots of pasta restaurants in London attempt vongole. Not many of them are any good. This was.

We were steered towards ordering the veal parmesan not just, it has to be said, by the staff at Harry's Bar, but also friends on Twitter who considered it a highlight of the secondi. And it's probably not anyone's fault, not least the supremely attentive and personable staff at Harry's Bar, that I'm not a huge fan of veal and probably should have stuck to my guns and gone for the truffled chicken as planned. Anyway, the point is, I didn't like it much - veal is a weird, bland meat and coating it in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it just served to highlight its weird, greasy blandness. Not even a very nice tomato dressing could spark much of interest. Still, at least I'll know for next time.

Desserts started off quite normally and pleasantly. Profiteroles had been given the extra zshuzhing of being piped full of milk gelato instead of the usual cream, which was a very nice touch, and the chocolate sauce draped over the top had a lovely glossy finish. Perhaps the extra effort gone into topping each pastry with gold leaf would have been better spent making the pastry itself lighter and a bit less chewy, but this was still a very decent sweet, and well worth anyone's time.

The other dessert was a toadstool. To say it felt a little out of place on what had otherwise been a solidly familiar Italian bistro menu is somewhat of an understatement; it was like sitting down to a meal of mixed grill and tinda masala at Tayyabs and then for dessert being presented with kulfi and bread pudding fashioned into the shape of an enormous pink flamingo. Not unimpressive, not necessarily unwelcome, just very, very weird. Anyway, the toadstool (frozen ricotta, white chocolate and I think some sort of basil sauce) just about lived up to the theatrical visuals, though to be honest I'm not sure whether the ricotta needed more sugar or I'm just put off toadstools for life after reading Stormy Daniels' book.

This was an invite, so we didn't see a bill, but I think with a Bellini, a bottle of nice Barbera and a glass of Tuscan dessert wine I think it would have come to something like £70/head - not exactly cheap but completely acceptable for central London and for service and surroundings like these. Oh yes, the room - you're in the mood to enjoy yourself the moment you step into Harry's Bar; the sensitively-lit tables, dark wood panelling, low ceiling and etched mirrors create a cosseted, clandestine atmosphere, with the noise levels pitched expertly at just loud enough to prevent you from overhearing other people's conversations. It's almost as if the guys who launched the Ivy, Scott's and J Sheekey knew something about how to design a restaurant. Shocking, really.

So yes, another hit for Caprice Holdings and judging by the throngs packed inside and out last night (there are some tables outside perched genuinely distressingly close to the idling minicabs on James Street but I suppose are better than nothing) it's going to do very well indeed. Increasingly it seems as I get older I find things like sparkling service and lovely clubby surroundings can distract from minor off-notes with the food, though no doubt this time next week I'll be back to moaning about places that spend all their money on soft furnishings and have nothing left over for chefs. And what do I know anyway? Just go to Harry's Bar, snuggle into a corner table, order a bottle of red and a plate of pasta. You'll love it. In fact, go crazy - have a toadstool.


I was invited to Harry's Bar and didn't see a bill