Wednesday, 12 March 2014
For a long time, I dismissed afternoon tea as a twee, anachronistic routine laid on purely for day-trippers and tourists. I was in no rush to drop half a ton on some cold sandwiches and cakes, and I saw little to recommend spending an afternoon in a stuffy hotel foyer surrounded by loud Texans in ill-fitting house jackets. Real Londoners, I thought, should avoid it in the same way we'd avoid the changing of the guard or Portobello Road on Saturdays - let's leave afternoon tea for the tourists, and cut our own crusts off some Boots Meal Deal sandwiches if we felt so inclined and head down the pub.
In most cases, too, I still think I'm right - there are way too many places doing this kind of thing pretty half-heartedly (think bought-in sandwiches and cakes and packet jams) just so some timid out-of-towners can tick it off their "things to do" list, and none of them are cheap. They all suffer from that depressingly common affliction of anywhere popular with tourists - like Leicester Square restaurants and Madame Tussaud's, if you're going to be full anyway, why bother being good?
So it's all the more impressive that despite all the reverse-snobbery and emotional baggage I took with me to Claridge's of a Sunday afternoon for a friend's birthday, I managed not only to enjoy a few hours of the most wonderful gastronomic theatre, but left with my mind completely changed about the ceremony of afternoon tea itself.
That ceremony begins the moment you step through the handsome revolving door from Brook Street, onto the gleaming black and white marble floor, and up to the twinkly foyer restaurant. It's a building to take your breath away - luxurious, certainly, but refined and elegant in a way that nowhere else could dream of matching. Not even its closest rivals, the Dorchester or the Connaught or (arguably) the Savoy can manage this kind of effortless, stately glamour; even the odd modernist touches, such as the vast Dale Chihuly glass chandelier coiling out from the middle of the foyer ceiling, only seem to compliment the art deco twirls and flourishes and the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The word "timeless" almost only tells half the story - Claridge's seems to exist in an entire enchanting, glittering dimension of its own.
In this room, in this hotel, attention to detail is everything. And so, with the arrival of crustless finger sandwiches on a classic Limousin porcelain, anything even slightly out of place would have raised a (polite, gently disapproving) eyebrow. But the sandwiches were seemingly cut with a razor blade and ruler in immaculate rows, accompanied by delicate gougeres which dissolved into cheesy savouriness the second they hit the tongue. Sandwich flavours were traditional, but with the occasional unexpected twist. Smoked salmon, for example, was pressed not next to normal dairy but "shrimp butter" and samphire, adding an extra seafoody dimension, and roast chicken tasted of the highest quality bird and a mysterious note of tarragon.
Once the savouries had disappeared, they were replaced (gracefully, almost invisibly) with mini scones, home made jam and quite honestly the best clotted cream I've ever tasted in my life. Dense without being cloying, tasting of farm-freshness and as bright as the driven snow, it was magical stuff, and we still talk about it. It would almost - no, it would, definitely - be worth going back just for that.
And nothing so simple as "cakes" to follow the scones, either. No, instead here are four examples of the finest French patisserie, including a cherry cake with a handsome flourish of carved chocolate on top, an eclair with a gentle pear flavour, and a kind of blackcurrant medallion with an elaborate topping of soft meringue. Again, not a berry, base or button out of place. Some of us couldn't finish them (not me of course, but I was sure to cast a disapproving glance at those in question), and they were boxed up and tied with ribbons to take home.
Teas are by expert tea-lady Henrietta Lovell, the house champagne is Laurent Perrier (of which we took full advantage), and on the way out you're encouraged to fill your own bags of Victoriana confectionary for the journey home. Everything gleams with care and attention; you can't - you literally are unable to - fault any of it, from start to finish.
Well, almost everything. For as much fun and joy as afternoon tea at Claridge's undoubtedly is, blimey do you pay for it. The advertised £50 a head is just the start - with service, champagne and God knows what else (I don't think they even include tax as part of the inital £50 but I could be wrong, annoyingly I forgot to take a picture of the bill) you'll probably not get away with much less than £80 per person. And I'm not so much of a hopeless Claridge's fan to understand that is way, way more than what most people want or are able to spend on tea and cakes.
But what tea and cakes. And yes it's a lot of money but I honestly enjoyed this more than I've enjoyed many £80 dinners at restaurants elsewhere. The cliché about afternoon tea is that the sandwiches and cakes aren't really the point, that it's more about the formalities and traditions and stealing glances at old Mayfair ladies with big hair than the food. This, in many lesser places, is certainly true. But along with all that, serenaded by piano and cello and in the most beautiful dining room in London, at Claridge's you also get food and drink of purest gold. Surely that's worth paying for, once in a while?
Thanks Hannah and Alison for some photos.
Thursday, 6 March 2014
Much as I'm tempted to describe West London restaurant and foodie gastrotemple Hedone as "polarising", it's increasingly clear I'm just going to have to admit that when I have one opinion and the rest of the bloody world has another, that's not "polarising". That's just me being wrong. I didn't hate Hedone at all, but for the astonishing price and next to the tidal wave of hype from some of the biggest names in food in the capital, I just couldn't see what the fuss was about. But fine, OK, whatever. you win. Hedone is God's own diner and serving a poached onion on a plate is a work of genius. See? No egos here.
But what do you do, as a Michelin-starred chef behind one of the most critically-lauded restaurants in town, when you get tired of being associated only with the foams and frills of fine dining and want to see if your meticulous (/dangerously obsessive/emperor's new clothes - delete as appropriate) approach to ingredients works in a less formal environment? And also, what if you don't want the expectations and hype behind your flagship kitchen to cloud customer's experience in the new place, where after all you aren't pushing for the same levels of international haute-cuisine? Well, you go undercover.
The rumours of a "big name" chef casting his eye over the menu at Soho wine bar Antidote had swirled around Twitter and the blogosphere for a week or two, but it was only when one bright spark spotted a pear and cevennes onion gratin on the chalkboard menu that the pieces seemed to fall into place. We are, of course, talking about Mikael Jonsson of Hedone, and exactly how his influence breaks down is yet to be revealed completely, but we do know he is involved, and his new menu forms part of a wider refurb and revamp of this pretty little spot tucked around the back of Carnaby Street.
Of course, I had to try the aformentioned pear and cevennes onion gratin, and as the most Hedone-like thing on the menu, again I was underwhelmed. The crust on top was golden brown and gently salty, and the sprigs of greenery had a lovely sharp dressing, but beneath this was a bland, semolina-like mush of diced vegetables, with very little to recommend it.
But from here on, Antidote got better and better. Salt marsh lamb shoulder was beautifully cooked, and though weird at first the seaweed purée beneath actually worked well once the shock wore off, seasoning the meat with a deep, mysterious brine.
Cheeses were perfectly kept and very well chosen. I tried a 2-year aged gruyere, which was quite salty but had a lovely smooth texture and plenty of nutty alpine charm. And a Camembert packed a great big punch of farmy goodness, and was so moreish that I timidly nibbled around the skin before finally giving up and ate that, too. But better even than the cheeses was the house bread, with a delicate crust and a bouncy, moist crumb, so fresh and light that whoever's making bread at Antidote (and it is all made in-house) should be very pleased with themselves indeed.
And it's a gorgeous room, and the staff were charming and helpful and couldn't do enough for me, and there's even a quiet little outside terrace for when the weather improves or if you fancy a cheeky smoke. It's not even that expensive, although I imagine with a bigger appetite and a keener eye for the wine list (largely natural, I'm told, and with some real bargains though don't quote me on that) you could drop a good deal more than the £31.50 I managed on this lunch. For central, though, and considering the obvious effort that's gone into the food, I'd still call it value. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the experience at Antidote is that, cevenne onion obsession aside, it's almost as different to Hedone as you could imagine. In fact, you could say, it's the anti- oh, I see what they did there.
Tuesday, 25 February 2014
The first thing you notice about Berners Tavern, and the last thing, and in fact all you notice for much of what happens inbetween, is That Room. Part palace ballroom, part Paris Salon, this lavish space, with its lofty carved ceiling, three-story illuminated bar and walls appointed with a bewildering number and variety of framed paintings, photographs and mirrors, could easily be the most impressive in town. It's like eating in the Halls of Versaille.
Unsurprisingly, then, the food has a hard time living up to it all. Not that any of it is bad, it's just rather unambitious; at the best of times, a menu of smoked salmon & watercress, steak and chips, and venison with pickled cabbage is hardly likely to be burned indelibly into the memory, but in this fantastic space it seems doubly timid, a collection of crowdpleasing British clichés at expense-account prices, served to a crowd so dazzled by their surroundings they will hopefully somehow be convinced £20 for fish and chips is value.
OK, perhaps I'm being unfair. Most of the food was well executed and not all of it was wildly expensive. A starter, for example, of crispy lamb breast and pumpkin served with a side pan of pecorino fregola and lamb marrow crumble had loads going on for £8, some good hearty winter flavours and a pleasing to and fro of crunch and soft. "Egg, Ham and Peas" was less successful thanks to a strangely watery (in both senses - underflavoured and undercooked) egg, and the "mushy peas" were, needless to say, nothing of the sort, just bland crushed garden peas mixed with slightly too much mint. But it looked the part, and the crunchy slivers of ham were pleasant.
An inbetween course of scallop ceviche arrived next, and for the most part was welcome, though I think if I'd actually ordered it from the menu I would have been rather put out that the scallops were so lightly "ceviche"d that they tasted completely raw and slimy. There was a fantastic chilli and lime sorbet in the middle though which made up for it.
Mains were, in a similar vein to the starters, familiar but satisfying. Venison was politely pink and served with a little fondant potato and roast carrot as well as the aforementioned pickled cabbage (stop me if you need a chance to catch your breath after that radical pairing of ingredients). And a ribeye, missing the char you would have got from a charcoal grill but nevertheless timed well, was surprisingly good beef - "Devon Ruby Red" apparently. Oversized duck fat chips, peppercorn sauce (I could have specified Bearnaise, but not both - perhaps they were worried the excitement would have been too much for me), a little pot of green salad, all present and correct. We ate it all, and we did enjoy it, so you know, no real complaints. Just a bit... hotel brasserie.
All of which makes what happened next with the desserts even more of a surprise. They were, well, quite brilliant. Calvados and apple éclair had a good firm pastry encasing lovely fresh Devon cream, with a ever-so-subtle tang of alcohol and some rich slivers of poached apple. The salted caramel ice cream it came with was all kinds of great, a little icy bomb of flavour.
And "rhubarb and custard", new on the menu we were told, was that rarest of things - a fresh take on an old classic that wasn't just different for the sake of it. The rhubarb itself had an impressively strong, sweet flavour - perhaps they were those ones forced to grow in the dark at the bidding of their cruel rhubarb masters. And studded amongst the smooth vanilla custard were these little nuggets of salty cake of some kind. Flapjack? Brownie? All I can tell you that it worked really well; our waiter asked for feedback and all I could suggest was not to change a thing.
So yes, desserts were worth the journey and then some. And service couldn't be faulted either - dishes arrived at a perfect pace and all the staff were as impressive and well-turned-out as their surroundings. But after all said and done, with a solid but unspectacular starter and main course each and a couple of sides, and even despite the lovely desserts (only one of which appeared on the bill), the total still came to £111. With no alcohol. And I'm sorry but that's a lot, no matter how nice the view is.
Thursday, 20 February 2014
From the ridiculous to the sublime. After the intense suffering caused by an evening in Surrey Quays at Frankie & Benny's, I felt entitled to some kind of compensation. So when an invitation to try the revamped Trishna landed in my inbox, any fleeting worries about blogger ethics were quietly batted aside - I don't care if you think I'm irreversibly compromising my integrity, I deserve this.
So, all the usual caveats apply to a press invite meal - the service was probably a bit more attentive, we had the best table in the house, and I can't ignore the possibility (however unlikely) that the kitchen paid a bit of extra attention to plating and pacing. All that said, though, there are certain things you just can't fake, no matter how hard you try, and I am convinced that the astonishing series of dishes produced at Trishna would have been just as impressive on any other evening, for any other lucky customer.
The fireworks started from the very first moment - you know you're onto something special when even the pappadum/chutney snacks make your head spin. All were impressive in different ways; there was one studded with dried shrimp, and a mango with I think nigella seeds, but the bright green coriander and chilli was just extraordinary, fresh and exotic and utterly addictive.
This is fried baby squid (described by our waiter in Spanish - chiperones - which I thought was a nice touch) in a kind of tamarind-based batter, with fresh samphire. The textures were great, the batter being crisp, without a trace of grease, and the spicing never overwhelmed the seafood.
Have you ever heard of any food stuff with as much potential as "lobster samosa"? It didn't disappoint - packed full of bouncy lobster meat, in a delicate pastry crust, on top of a gently-spiced chutney.
A miniature soft-shelled crab, in a light batter, was posed in such a way that looked like it could have scuttled back off to the beach any moment. It came with a quenelle of what I can only describe as crab bacalao, a rich, fluffy paté that packed an incredible flavour that punched well above its ethereal lightness.
And from here on, things went from excellent to world-class thanks to a series of the best seafood and fish dishes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. First, a vast scallop, its meaty goodness enhanced by a bright green layer of some kind of basil marinade. It was perched on a bed of a very clever chickpea mixture, some fried to a crunch and some soft and spiced, creating some really interesting textures.
Trishna is, quite rightly, famous for its way with seafood but there is one in particular - this Hariyali bream - which has become their signature dish. Another shocking green sauce (coriander and chilli) neatly encased a remarkably dense, meaty flesh, perfectly cooked and with a delicate trace of the tandoor coals. The kind of food you never want to end - this was quite honestly unbeatable stuff.
Salmon tikka was, impossibly, even more impressive. The spicing, just like the dishes that came before it, was expertly judged, but the way they'd managed to get a lovely smoky char on the outside and yet keep the flesh inside flaky, pink perfection was something to behold. Most restaurants I know couldn't manage this kind of timing armed with a sous-vide machine and a blowtorch; that the chef had done this in a tandoor was simply incredible. We were in awe.
I could go on. An aromatic biryani, a bowl of charred and chillified okra, a wonderfully complex chicken drumstick coconut curry, a clever beetroot salad with curry leaf. All lovely, it goes without saying, but it's clear that it is the fish dishes, which most other Indian restaurants in town do so half-heartedly even if they attempt them at all, of which Trishna should be most proud. It can't be easy, matching Indian spices and chilli heat with the fresh, delicate flavours of seafood without compromising either; Trishna, like the best of those accomplished in any particular field, make the near-impossible seem like child's play, and together with sparkling service, a gold standard wine list (we tried some very interesting Balkans by the glass) and an airy, attractive room of mirrors and dark wood panelling, well, you have all the ingredients of a faultless night out.
And given that I couldn't really fault anything about Trishna, it's going to have to get top marks. Yes, I was invited and yes, feel free to dismiss all of the above as so much PR smoke and artfully-distressed mirrors. But you'd be making a huge mistake; I'll say again, an operation like this you just can't fake - there is heart here, and intelligence, and real, honest-to-goodness, gobsmacking talent from everyone involved with the place. Trishna is the real deal.
I was invited to review Trishna
Monday, 17 February 2014
Whingeing on Twitter the other day about my upcoming trip to Frankie & Benny's, about the vast, lowest-common-denominator menu, the depressing locations (F&B's one stipulation for site acquisition appears to be "windswept car park"), the extreme unlikeliness of my being able to enjoy an evening there, I was - inevitably - accused of being a snob. And though I admit there have been times when such accusations had some merit (I can't pretend my views on Spanish charcuterie or the correct composition of a cheeseboard are going to win me "dinner party guest of the year" any time soon), I'm afraid with regards specifically to this chain of restaurants, I don't believe the charge sticks.
The point is, there is such a thing as bad food. Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese is better than a slice of processed Kraft. A 28-day-aged Ginger Pig grass-fed sirloin steak is better than a vac-packed lump of beet-red supermarket protein flown halfway across the world. A bottle of Brewdog Punk IPA is a better drink than a pint of sugary Foster's lager. It's not snobbishness that makes us choose the better product, it's because the better product is objectively that. It seems to be a phenomenon specific to the food and drink world that anyone going out of their way to do anything better is labelled an elitist twerp, whereas spending £150 on a nice pair of shoes rather than just wrapping a couple of Tesco bags around your feet is plain common sense.
So I say this without prejudice, honestly and from the heart - Frankie & Benny's is a terrible, terrible restaurant. The "concept", weakly supported by a selection of framed image library photos of baseball players and east coast gangsters eating spaghetti, is 50s New York Italian American, although of course this is entirely fictional - the chain was invented, and is owned and operated by British company The Restaurant Group PLC, who also have under their belt such premium brands as Garfunkel's, curse of anyone stuck for any extended period of time at Gatwick South Terminal, and Chiquito, where there's every chance you may have been dragged to if Brenda from HR left it too late to organise anything better for the office Christmas party.
The one thing I was expecting to be able to say about the food was that, despite everything, at least it wasn't very expensive. But actually, I don't consider £5.95 for four flabby, oven-reheated chicken wings to be value at all. Meatliquor manage three times the amount for £6.50, and furthermore their blue cheese dip doesn't taste like discount mayonnaise that's been left at the back of a hot cupboard for six weeks - a revolting combination of slimy, salty and distressingly funky. And £5.75 for three limp halves of scooped-out jacket potato, dressed (badly, and a long time ago, then frozen) with a bizarrely flavourless mixture of sweaty bacon and mild cheddar, well that's not value either. Because it's one thing charging nearly £6 for what is essentially a byproduct of another dish, sprinkling some cheese and bacon on top and sticking it under the grill, but how little faith would you need to have in your kitchen staff to have these things arriving pre-prepped and frozen? It's cheese and bacon on potato. If you think the margin for error is too much to risk someone making them from scratch, what on earth do you think chefs are even for?
Next, a few pellets of brownfood scampi rattling around on a large plate next to a mean handful of frozen chips, a pointless clump of watercress, a tiny wedge of lime (?) and a pot of Heinz tartare. £11.95. I am not so much of a snob that I can't enjoy some "scampi" (just processed seafood, of course, nothing to do with actual langoustine tails) once in a while but this was a long way from being £12 worth of food - it looked like a child's portion. But while the "scampi" were at least edible, a special place in hell is reserved for whoever thought this "Chicken Caesar Salad" was fit to serve. Chicken so dry it had to be torn apart into sinewy, grainy clumps, perched awkwardly on top of a thin layer of shredded iceberg, diced tomato and two or three pickled anchovies under a couple of money shots of cheap mayo. No croutons, no texture, no love. It was like eating the colour grey.
It was all enough to send a couple of people who had made a special journey to this awful place quite loopy, so we coped with it in a way familiar to anyone either stuck for hours at Gatwick South Terminal or trapped for an evening at a nightmarish office Christmas party - we got drunk. Very drunk. Firstly on a bottle of house Merlot which tasted not entirely dissimilar to Windowlene, then a Pinot Noir which was marginally better but still felt flat and dead in the mouth, like all the life had been squeezed out of it long before it reached the table. But, they did the job required. I can't remember much of the journey home but I do know I woke up in the morning with a cracking hangover and a receipt for £70.70 stuck to my face.
OK, so without the booze the bill for two would have been a rather more reasonable £35 ish, and they didn't automatically add on 12.5% making the friendly if slightly haphazard service (uber attentive one second before great long periods of time left to your own devices) a bonus as well. But it's still not cheap, and I can come up with a list of a hundred better places to spend this money on dinner in London, food cooked with skill by people who care, where the only thing that comes out of the freezer is the ice cubes for your water, and where the generosity of spirit is such that you want to spend all night there, instead of creeping back onto the overground and getting the hell home before you suffer permanent psychological damage.
There will still, after all I've said or could ever say, be people trying to defend not just Frankie & Benny's but all of these kind of chain retail park restaurants. They'll say they have a job to do, that most people don't want "fancy" food, or a wine list, or slick service. They'll say the fact they are busy and making a profit is proof that there's a gap in the market to fill, and however cynically or cackhandedly they are meeting that demand. Who am I to criticise where a large chunk of the British population choose to spend their birthdays (three on Wednesday, based on the enforced PA-system singalong that kept blasting out) and anniversaries - what harm does it really do?
It is a question that the restaurant "snobs" like myself have to answer on a regular basis. Point out anywhere serving dreadful frozen garbage at a 500% markup and you're somehow spitting on anyone who's ever ordered anything from their laminated menus and walked away not wanting to kill themselves. Suggesting that the men (of course, it's all men) responsible for it are keeping an entire battery and intensive rearing farming industry in the black and you're a conspiracy theorist. Say that these places exploit the low expectations of British diners for vast profit and that's patronising and arrogant. We can't win. Just like the tweedy twat who gave me the whole depressing "food is fuel" speech before driving off in a brand new BMW in a pub in Surrey a few years ago, it's an affliction of the food & drinks world that we are allowed far fewer extravagances before being labelled as superior as almost any other industry I can think of.
So I'm sorry - again - if this sounds like some privileged Londoner sneering at the eating habits of the rest of the country but there is such a thing as bad food. Frankie & Benny's can not be defended as "good for a chain". It's not "fun". It's not "reliable". It's not "unpretentious", or "fine", or "solid". It is objectively, deeply cynical, godawful shite, for which in the not-too-distant future a great number of people will be called to answer their crimes. In the meantime, please God, just stay away.