Thursday, 16 August 2018

The Freemasons at Wiswell, Bowland


I know I end up saying this whenever I write up anywhere in the countryside but good lord, Lancashire really is a beautiful part of the world. An hour's drive out of Manchester or Liverpool you are plunged into rolling hills, narrow lanes and picture-book stone-built villages like Whalley, Waddington and Ribchester, each boasting at least one gorgeous old pub with a verdant beer garden, and with miles of tranquil footpaths connecting them all. It would be easy to have a very pleasant time here even if all said pubs were serving was frozen scampi and Carling, and indeed many of them do. But on top of everything else, this neck of the woods is also home to places like the Inn at Whitewell, the White Swan at Fence, and the Parkers Arms, serving some of the very finest food in the entire country.


Another proud member of the Lancashire foodie elite is the Freemasons, tucked away up a narrow alley on the top of a hill in the achingly pretty village of Wiswell. It had been on my wishlist since it started appearing on the Morning Advertiser's Top 50 Gastropubs list, but when it broke the top 10 I decided it was finally time to go to Bowland for dinner and not go to the Parkers Arms again, a difficult decision made over many weeks that left me genuinely traumatised. Even as we headed towards Wiswell on that Saturday morning I was seeing if I could invent reasons to divert to Newton after for a summer berry pie or marmalade ice cream. Which I realise doesn't display much confidence in the Freemasons, I just really really like the Parkers.


Anyway, I needn't have worried. The Freemasons was well worth the trip on its own, and left us with a smile on our faces despite the efforts of a large, noisy group of bellowing imbeciles to derail it all. I should have said something when they pointed us towards what would otherwise have been a lovely window nook corner table, because even at that stage they were making enough noise to be heard from the street. But as the lunch wore on and the amount of beer consumed increased, we gave up attempting to hold a normal conversation and resorted to the occasional shriek of "this is nice" above the cacophony from next door. I've had more relaxing lunches.


Objectively, though, and ignoring the idiots for now, the food at the Freemasons is pretty impressive stuff. Pea soup, emerald green and combined with a rich cheddar fondue, was the perfect way to start a lunch, with texture provided by what I think were little bits of puffed wheat. I always think a soup is a good test of a kitchen's skills; technique, seasoning and stock work all need to be on-point and if you slip up on any of them you'll end up with a bit of a mess. This was great, though.


Flame-grilled mackerel had a fantastic dark crisp skin, smokey from the grill, with a colourful mint dressing and neat cubes of cucumber. The standout element of this dish however wasn't the fish itself, or the mint dressing, but a quenelle of horseradish ice cream, smooth and peppery and quite the most enjoyable thing involving horseradish I can remember eating in a long time.


Courgette flower filled with shellfish was another clever showcase of a range of tricky techniques, the flower encased in a transucently thin tempura batter, and the shellfish mixture fresh and full of flavour. I'm still not 100% convinced of the wisdom of adding strawberry to the sauce vierge, which seemed an experiment too far, but I'll forgive them that as everything else about it was so nice.


Duck leg and anchovy is a marriage that's always going to work, and piled up with summer herbs, pickled radishes, fresh peach and a lovely zingy plum sauce, this was about as good a way of eating roast duck and anchovy as you could imagine. Working within the confines of a gastropub style of presentation - ie. no cylinders, no tuilles, no foams or smears, just ingredients presented and dressed simply - the Freemasons makes everything look easy, though one taste of the plum sauce or that pea soup is enough to demonstrate that a huge amount of work and technical expertise goes into some elements of the dishes.


Haddock, the fillet coated in breadcrumbs as a large flat "fish finger", came with more colourful summer veg including an almost neon yellow lemon oil. Again, everything here was cleverly done and colourful, the fish flaky and fresh and the vegetable accompaniments chosen well.


On paper, "Suckling pig pie baked in brioche, XO sauce, buttered Jersey Royals" looks like the kind of dish that could change lives. And when it arrived, glossy and gleaming on the table and soaked in a dark, thick sauce, I was absolutely expecting it to be the highlight of the entire meal, if not the entire month. How odd then, that it ended up being a bit of a letdown; the sauce had a great texture but a strange slightly funky pig-offal taste, sweet, bland and unbalanced; the brioche was strangely crumbly and dry, despite being soaked in the sauce; and inside was a weirdly unseasoned and unsatisfying mixture of lukewarm chunks of black pudding and pig paste. Look, I'm sorry, really I am - I wanted to be able to tell you the Freemasons suckling pig brioche pie was brilliant every bit as much as you wanted to hear it, but it just wasn't to be. Most frustratingly of all, I can't really put my finger on why - it just seemed to be missing something. It lacked soul, if that makes sense. It doesn't makes sense, really, does it. Made a good Instagram post though, so there is that.


Desserts got things back on track. Double cream ice cream with summer fruit did everything you'd hope it would - we particularly enjoyed a layer of strawberry mousse underneath a neatly constructed millefeuille, and it's surely impossible to not fall in love with "double cream ice cream".


A peach, poached in sweet Pedro Ximenez cherry, was an absolute revelation - I honestly didn't think peaches could taste this good. The sherry sweetened the fruit, obviously, but the slight alcohol tang added a beguilingly heady extra set of flavours itself, the overall effect best described as a kind of vegan rum baba. Oh, and next to it, a shockingly red raspberry sorbet, as good as I've had since my first trip to Little Barwick House all those years ago.


Only a treacle tart was a bit disappointing, being quite heavy on the oats and quite short on, well, the treacle. Ice cream was good though, and we liked the little blobs of summer berry coulis.


And all said and done, there were far more things that were impressive, and enjoyable about the Freemasons than disappointing. And I can't take more than a couple of points off for the suckling pig pie and the treacle tart because it's clear that this is a kitchen that is trying very, very hard to add value and excitement into everything they do, to the extent of offering all this food at a bargainous £27.50/head. With a couple of glasses of wine the bill came to £103.95 for three - good honest Northern value for money - and having to suffer the roaring of a pissed-up table of morons seemed, once we'd settled up and had a nice settling stroll around Wiswell, a pretty small price to pay. Hand on heart, it's the Parkers Arms that's more likely to get my return custom, but there's clearly room - and demand - for seasonal gastropub cooking in all corners of Bowland, something we should all - locals and visiting London types alike - be very pleased about indeed.

8/10

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Röski, Liverpool


Though it may be a city of cultural trailblazers in many ways - music, sport, fashion (sort of) - it's fair to say that when it comes to eating out, Liverpool has always been in the shadow not only of the capital but even other regional cities such as Manchester or Birmingham. Perhaps the lack of flagship food markets is to blame - the famous Bury market has been supplying Manchester with black pudding and much else besides for hundreds of years, and Birminham's Bull Ring indoor market has been doing the same for lucky Brummies. Liverpool has some excellent producers, such as the award-winning Edge Butchers and of course the peerless Baltic Bakehouse, and you can occasionally catch the odd farmers market in Woolton Village if you're lucky, but is it the lack of a single, centralised market, to champion local produce and act as a catalyst for a vibrant food culture, that has held Liverpool back?


Well, whatever the reason, Liverpool has been left with quite a bit of catching up to do, and it was really only with the opening of Lunya, which capitalised on the city's ever-growing links with Spain (thank you Ryanair) and more recently Gary Usher's Wreckfish, that the shoots of a genuine, grown-up dining culture have emerged. Obviously we can't really call it a foodie's paradise until we have a few more healthy mid-range bistros and wood-fired pizza specialists (or even a decent Chinese - the world's oldest Chinatown and not a single decent Chinese restaurant? Something's not adding up there) but look, it's a start, and we've all got to start somewhere.


So it was Liverpool's fledgling interest in good food that Masterchef: The Professionals winner Anton Piotrowski and friends hoped to tap into to fund their kickstarter project back in 2017. If it worked for Gary Usher (and it did, five times now and counting) for his mid-range bistros, surely there would be enough Scousers with the desire and the money to see a real high-end, seasonal, British, tasting menu restaurant set up shop in town? Well, sadly (at the time) despite plenty of eager backers (not least yours truly) they didn't quite reach their target, but it seems enough of a potential market was proved to attract backing from elsewhere, and now, in one of those gorgeous Georgian buildings that Liverpool does so well (and Rodney Street does in particular) is Röski. And it's great. And you should go immediately.


OK, I suppose you'll be wanting to know the reasons why it's great, won't you? Well how about this, a homemade crumpet, its dark, crunchy base rising to fluffy white, topped with curried Southport potted shrimp and a sprig of woodruff. I'm always going to enjoy a shrimp crumpet, but soaking it in beef fat instead of the usual butter was a touch of perverted genius, and a cracking way to kick off a tasting menu.


The next course was apparently a deconstructed "Scouse" (lamb stew) involving a treacly morsel of slow-cooked lamb, caramelised carrots, and a generous topping of summer black truffle. Alongside one of those glossy reduced sauces the best restaurants do so well, it was an absolute joy to eat, certainly more notable than any "authentic" Scouse dish you may have tried, which is generally a thin mystery meat stew (here's Paul O'Grady's version with Oxo cubes and Worcester sauce). "Authentic" Scouse probably doesn't deserve to stand as shorthand for an entire city. This dish certainly does.


Next, another off-menu extra, a "tribute", we were told, to the late-night noodle shop. Now, all sorts of alarm bells usually start ringing when fine dining restaurants ironically re-imagine low-budget Asian dishes, but by virtue of the fact this tasted absolutely nothing like ramen, or anything even vaguely Asian, it was hugely enjoyable - a kind of thick, rich lamb noodle soup studded with summer herbs and a poached quails egg.


That a dish called simply "radishes" would turn out to be the highlight of a 14-course tasting menu is partly testament to the quality of the main product, cutely grabbed from the chef's dad's allotment, but also because said radishes, plump and pretty though they were, were coated in a ludicrously rich and glossy sauce made from lamb fat. And I love radish, but I also love lamb fat. Anyway these were fantastic, and topped with a few springs of mint flower turned it into a kind of mini Sunday roast.


Next was a kind of truffled custard thing and though in the past I have fallen in love with various combinations of truffle and custard (I'm thinking particularly of Simon Rogan's crisp roast salad at Fera) there was something not quite right about this one. Perhaps it was a little too lukewarm, or maybe not enough flavour in the custard, but it left me a little cold. However my friend loved it, so maybe this was just me.


Curried crab was superb - bags of flavour in the crab mixture, and with three delicate slivers of puffed wheat and "poppadum" providing a nice texture contrast. One of the criticisms of Röski that have filtered into my conscience over the last few months (I try and avoid reading reviews of places I haven't been to yet, not so much to keep my judgement clear but so I don't accidentally start re-using phrases and people accuse me of plagiarism; I don't have much of an imagination) is that the dishes are fussy and over-complicated. Well, there wasn't a bit of that going on in this meal - most dishes consisted of one main ingredient and two or three accompaniments to provide colour or texture, and all of it clear, concise and precise.


"Chip shop" was - inevitably - a miniaturised fish supper, with a teeny portion of battered haddock, a single bronzed, slow-cooked slice of potato, a dollop of pea purée and - the clever bit - a dusting of vinegar powder. It was ultimately more technically impressive than massively rewarding but hey, if Röski want to show off their skills then who am I to stop them? Also - again - my friend said this was one of his favourite courses so there's subjectivity playing a part too.


The next course boasted a lovely bit of guinea fowl, tender and powerfully flavoured, topped with neat scales of miniature courgette and a little dollop of what I think was more pea purée. Oh, and another beautiful glossy sauce which would have been worth the price of admission alone.


"Meat & Tatties" was a cute little pie of what I think was sticky beef shin, topped with potato foam (at least I assume that's how the 'tatties' were involved) and an intriguing slice of smoked eel. Like everything that had come before it was pretty as a picture, and although there was perhaps a bit more going on here than in the other courses, still boasted a clean, satisfyingly straighforward set of (great) surf & turf flavours that flattered the palate.


More colourful and precise cooking followed with this slab of bright pink Welsh wagyu beef, sat in yet another wonderful sauce and with a little bit of braised mushroom and some kind of summer berry chutney (I think). The beef was obviously the main event, with a gentle crust from some very accurate timing and bags of beefy flavour, but again the accompaniments were masterful, with one of those bright green oils (parsley?) with which Simon Rogan made his name.


The transition from savoury to sweet courses began with this beetroot cake, warm from the oven, topped with shaved cheddar. These half-and-half dishes often run the risk of being a bit disconcerting, but this was genuinely impressive, and the generous mound of decent cheese made me feel a little less guilty about not paying the £10 cheeseboard supplement (which I'm sure would have been lovely).


"Builders tea ice cream" came topped with candy floss, because why not, and had a nice smooth texture. I realise that when you pony up this amount of money (£75 plus service) for dinner you'd expect quite a high standard of product in return, but it was still a delight to note the mastery of all these different techniques and textures, put to such impressive use. It's not easy, half the stuff Röski are doing here, but like so many great restaurants they make it all seem so effortless.


There was one final flourish - strawberries, strawberry ice cream and honeycomb, presented while a bowl of dry ice mixed with summer herbs turned the table into a fragrant bubbling cloud - but, once every last drop of strawberry liqueur and crumb of warm madeleine had disappeared, we were done.


A few years ago, the idea of anywhere in the center of Liverpool being ranked amongst the best restaurants in the country seemed absurd. And yes, it's frustrating that it's taken so long because, judging not only by the response to the only-just-missed Kickstarter but the fact that every single table was taken at Röski on the night I visited, the people of Liverpool love a good Modern British tasting menu as much as anywhere else in the country. But in stark contrast to the bizarre Art School just around the corner, which could have been parachuted into any major city to chase the accolade of "X's first Michelin star", Röski really feels like it belongs here. Not just because you look out over the gorgeous terraces of Rodney street, but because the menu feels - is - local, and service is both charmingly Scouse and also supremely efficient, something that has barely ever happened before in the history of the city.


So yes, all of the above twaddle serves to reinforce that one simple point I made earlier; Röski is great and you should go immediately. If you like anything about eating out in this country - seasonal, sensitively constructed tasting menus of local produce, sparkling service, interesting wines - then this place will charm your socks off. Already within nudging distance of perfection, by the time I return - and I fully intend to do exactly that, as soon as possible - it will probably be even better, this modest spot on Rodney Street showing the world exactly how it's done. Food as the latest great Merseyside cultural export. Why the hell not?

9/10

We paid for the food but whether due to a belated Kickstarter thank-you or general blogger privilege, the wines were unexpectedly comped. Which was nice of them.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

Hana, Battersea


One of the many enduring mysteries of London dining, alongside the baffling popularity of the Breakfast Club and why hand wash and moisturiser are always presented in identical-looking containers, is why there seem to be so few genuinely excellent Korean restaurants. Much as I sort of enjoyed Asadal in Holborn, Assa in Soho and a couple of places in New Malden (I had a lovely meal at Jin Go Gae but it was a press dinner so not very representative), none have really blown me away and hardly any have warranted a return visit. Most of the Korean restaurants I've come across in London so far have been at best solid, with very similar, somewhat unambitious menus that never really offer great value for money. It speaks volumes that the best of the bunch is probably Zip Bab, which gets a pass for the decent price points and friendly service, even if it's a bit like eating in a doctor's surgery waiting room.


What Korean food needs is perhaps what Silk Road does for Chinese food or Kanada-Ya does for Japanese - ultra specialisation on either one dish or one specific region. A restaurant that unapologetically offers a focussed, coherent vision of what the best Korean food should be, and pours its energies into making that one thing (or one style) as exciting as possible, without sacrificing anything to any notion of what London is "ready for" or what is least likely to offend. If London is anything it's a city of risk-takers, and - so far - Korean restaurateurs are yet to take advantage of that.


If it sounds like I'm building up to announce the discovery of a Korean Bao or Hoppers, well, I'm not. Sorry. Hana is fine in the way that most Korean restaurants in London are at least fine but it suffers from the same lack of ambition as so many others, and barely stands out from the crowd even on Battersea Rise, a road which contains such joys as "Café Rouge with a GCSE" Côte, dull-as-dishwater pan-Asian chain Banana Tree, and, yes, bloody Breakfast Club.


I was pleasantly surprised at first to see that Hana offer three different types of kimchee. I'm reliably informed (though have never been myself) that in Korea the best establishments offer a huge variety, with each restaurant fiercely proud - and protective - of its own particular way with fermented pickled cabbage. The standard kimchee at Hana was decent, though would have benefitted from a bit more of a chilli kick, but the "Kkak Du Gi" (radish) was pretty bland and uninspiring and the "Ohi kimchee" (cucumber) had a rather offputting fizz to it. Perhaps this was deliberate, and I'm showing my Korean food ignorance here, but it spoke of something less "fermented" than simply "gone off".


"Hana Sticky Chicken" should have been wonderful. In fact I don't know how you manage to cook fried chicken in a soy/chilli sauce and not have it be wonderful, but Hana managed it, ending up with a sweet, bland dressing that had plenty of empty chilli heat with none of the flavour. One day a dish called "sticky chicken" will end up tasting as good as it looks on paper, but this wasn't it.


Continuing the theme, "Soontofu Jigae" should be a rich, beguiling seafood soup/stew, powerfully seasoned with anchovy stock and packed full of interesting shellfish. How on earth this ended up with all the personality of tap water is a complete mystery - like Liberace's front room it had plenty of colour and no taste.


I should point out in fairness that my companion said she enjoyed her chicken bibimbap very much, and polished off most of it. But the one bit of cubed chicken breast I tried was unpleasantly dry, and I'm not sure in what reality cheap chicken, rice and chopped veg should cost £10.95. Even Asadal only charge £8.50 for theirs and they have Holborn rents to contend with.


Service eventually settled down but started weirdly. Two members of staff, chatting at the bar, saw me furiously signalling for a beer but instead of coming over themselves waited until a third person appeared from the back and got them to see what I wanted. At first I thought this was because those first couple of people weren't serving staff, but then one of them later brought me my Soontofu Jigae. So I don't know what was going on there, other than me feeling like I was a bit of an inconvenience.

It's doubly frustrating that Hana wasn't the Korean restaurant I'd been waiting for, not just because it's within walking distance of my house (though this in itself should have set alarm bells ringing; nothing good ever happens in Clapham Junction) but because I know Korean food can be so good. Ask anyone who's ever eaten in Korea, and they'll tell you the street food markets and Buddhist temple restaurants and seolleongtang (beef bone soup from an ancient recipe) stalls of Seoul are the stuff of dreams. The best KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) I've come across in London was a short-lived collaboration between Gizzi Erskine and the Soho branch of Tonkotsu, and lovely though it was, it's a pretty clear sign that the Korean foodies of London need to seriously up their game. Come on guys, we're ready for you.

5/10

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

The Ninth, Fitzrovia


For as long as I've been writing this blog, and a good deal of time before that as well, major life landmarks - birthdays, house moves, graduations, separations and reunions - have been celebrated with a hearty meal. Depending on circumstance and budget these have been anything from a mixed grill at Tayyabs to a 3 Michelin-starred tasting menu on the Costa Brava but they all have one thing in common; out of the ridiculous number of different restaurants I visit in any given year I can only find time to revisit the very best, and so it's world-beating spots like Quality Chop House, Trishna and Goodman that I will gather my nearest and dearest to enjoy/suffer with me.

Ten years ago, when I was turning thirty, my favourite high-end restaurant was Pearl, in the Renaissance Chancery Court hotel in Holborn. You may be more familiar with the site now as being occupied by the Holborn Dining Room, and the Rosewood hotel, but back then this grand space was home to chef Jun Tanaka who served a Mediterranean menu of reimagined classics like ratatouille and leek terrine alongside delicate handmade pasta and fancy schmancy desserts. It was all thrilling stuff, and made a fantastic birthday venue - slick service, a great cheeseboard, and nice toilets.


Subject to the usual drifts and currents of the London restaurant world, Pearl eventually closed, and Jun Tanaka became better known for a street food venture called Street Kitchen which dotted about the place during the London Restaurant Festival, and of course his regular appearances on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen. Then finally in 2016, he got back in a real kitchen and opened the Ninth on Charlotte Street. Which brings us to today.

There are plenty of things about the way Tanaka is going about things at the Ninth that I remember from all those years ago in Holborn. There's the confident pasta section, involving ingredients you'd actually want to eat like langoustine and rabbit. There's the attitude of things like sea bass with Datterini tomatoes and cockles, or veal tongue tonnato, playing with Italian traditions but very much in his own style. But most importantly, there's that sense of excitement and fun, in everything from the food to the service, that just makes you want to work through every item on the menu and then come back for more.


We started with oysters, because we could, and everytime we can start with oysters, we do. They were lean and fresh, with an interesting vaguely Asian ginger vinaigrette, and though they didn't really need the crisp shallots on top it didn't do any harm either.


Flamed mackerel also had an international feel - dill, cucumbers and capers are recognisably Northern European but the way the fish was presented, sliced into bitesize strips and with a spatula to serve, felt like the kind of thing they'd do in Chinatown. It tasted great as well, the mackerel being just smoked enough from the grill and the flesh irresistibly plump.


Equally great was beef cheek with oxtail consommé, the beef so tender and ribboned with fat it was almost sausagey, and the consommé rich and complex, speaking of a broad knowledge of classical French techniques learned from people like Marco Pierre White and Phil Howard. Even the most skilled home cook would struggle to make a consommé like this; and why would you bother with all that anyway when there's someone ready to make it for you for a nominal £11.50 fee?


From here on, with Tanaka's authority over fine dining firmly re-established, the Ninth could do little wrong. The pasta courses were mini symphonies of flavour, firstly agnolotti of rabbit with livers (is there any more beautiful phrase than "rabbit with livers"?), studded with girolles and boasting pasta so silky and smooth it was almost ethereal.


Similarly these striking parcels of langoustine, jet-black with (presumably) squid ink and slick with a deeply satisfying Datterini tomato sauce. I don't care how spoiled you are for great pasta after braving the queues at Padella or the noisy tables at Fat Tony's, great pasta is great pasta and is always enough to make me smile.


Main course was a whole grilled seabass, skin crisp and flesh moist, surrounded by more of those punchy Datterini and a liberal scattering of plump cockles. Tanaka's background in classical techniques was again on show here, the dressing on the seabass in its own way just as impressive as the earlier beef consommé but a completely different style performing a completely different function. I guess the French do know something about food, after all.


Had the meal ended there the Ninth would have been heading for something approaching a perfect score, and yet sadly just a couple of sides and a dessert weren't quite up to the standard of what had come before. I still can't quite believe something called "Black truffle polenta, Comté and egg yolk" could somehow conspire to be disappointing but this needed a lot more cheese, a lot more truffle, a lot more flavour...


...pickled baby artichokes were nothing more than fine, with even the shaved parmesan being oddly muted...


...and most oddly of all, a tarte tatin was slightly sour and underpowered, needing far more sugar to reach that heavenly caramelised taste of the finest examples. Perhaps this was a deliberate decision by the Ninth; all I can say is I like my tarte tatins to contain so much sugar I'm at risk of getting Type 2 diabetes just being in the same room as one, and this was... well, it was disappointing to say the least. Looked pretty enough, though.


And all said and done, the odd mis-step aside (and I realise for tarte tatin fans one of those was quite a large mis-step), there's more than enough reason to spend your dinner money at the Ninth. As he did in Pearl a decade ago, Jun Tanaka infuses his menus with so much love, so many intriguing ingredients and impressive techniques, that it's almost impossible there won't be something on the menu that would have the same effect on you that the beef cheek consommé or the flame-grilled mackerel had on us. Namely, that as soon as it was all done, we wanted to come back as soon as possible and do it all again. And there's hardly any higher compliment than that.

8/10

I was invited to the Ninth and didn't see a bill. From a quick calculation it would have come to about £80/head including more than enough booze.