Friday, 24 July 2015
I've had the good fortune to eat some very, very good Indian subcontinent food recently. But then, eating good Indian food in London is not difficult. Even before the latest wave of culinary fireworks lit by the Sethi family (Trishna, Gymkhana, the upcoming Hoppers) we had things pretty good - an embarrassment of riches in Tooting for Sri Lankan and South Indian, Southall for Punjabi (not least of which is the brilliant, er, Brilliant), the Pakistani grills of Whitechapel spearheaded by the venerable Tayyabs; we are, for want of a better word, spoiled.
In the context of such staggeringly high standards at the very top, then, it's easy to become blasé about achievements just a little further down the league. It's not Masala Grill's fault that it operates in a city where Gymkhana exists, or where Tayyabs' lamb chops are £6 for 4. Not everywhere has to be a groundbreaking reinvention of Raj-era cuisine, or London's best value tandoori grill. There is room for everyone, and we should be hugging ourselves with glee that we have the freedom to be so choosy at all. So with all that in mind, here's Masala Grill, brand new on the King's Road in Chelsea.
From outside, the building looks not dissimilar from a suburban dentists - that bland, boxy architectural style that was popular in the 80s doesn't really lend itself well to the restaurant aesthetic. But inside, they've made the most of the (huge) space with lots of nice Indian furniture and indoor plants, and right at the back there's a bright conservatory bit that's a very pleasant spot to hang out. Which is just as well because my friend was an hour late thanks to a bit of a miscommunication on the address and I had plenty of time to take it all in.
I like how posh Indian restaurants do mini pappadoms for snacking. I wasn't particularly blown away by the chutneys they came with - all a bit underpowered and Chelsea-safe - but they passed the time, a syrupy lime pickle, a soggy coriander-based one and a decent mango chutney.
Dahi puri were nice and fresh and the addition of pomegranete seeds to the usual tamarind/chickpea/yoghurt mix actually worked rather well. It desperately needed a bit more chilli, but as this was a feature of most of the dishes at Masala Grill I can only imagine they were playing it safe for the local audience rather than it being any kind of mistake. I do think, though, that anywhere attempting to tailor their product too much to what they think people like rather than just making the kind of food they want or like themselves are starting on the backfoot. I'm sure the people of Chelsea can take a bit of chilli just as well as the rest of us.
Crispy fried squid had a nice delicate texture and were completely grease-free but - you guessed it - needed a bit more chilli to make them good as opposed to just interesting. The little deep-fried (curry?) leaves that were sprinkled on top were great fun though, with the way they dissolved in the mouth.
On to the mains, and there was very little to complain about, even if at the same time there was little to scream from the rooftops about either. King prawns in a gentle tomato cream sauce were huge, bouncy and numerous, but then you'd hope they'd be at least that for £23 a bowlful. A yellow dal tadka had a good earthy flavour but the consistency was a bit thin; I like my dal to be nice and thick at eating temperature, not just when they cool down a bit. Saag paneer had the opposite problem - a good firm texture with none of the obvious sogginess that often afflicts spinach dishes, but with a sadly unremarkable bland taste.
Lamb chops very nearly made the whole trip worthwhile by themselves. Thickly coated in one of those brilliantly beguiling Punjabi spice mixes (garam masala and who knows what else), soft and juicy inside and - unlike much of what else we ate - with a good kick of chilli, they were everything I'd hoped they'd be. A dip of some sort of cooling mint/yoghurt dip would have been nice instead of a clump of sweet-dressed salad, but otherwise these were very enjoyable.
And the point is, I did enjoy my meal at the Masala Grill because, all said and done, it's hard not to enjoy food like this, fresh and colourful and served with a huge amount of charm. It's not their fault that this particular spoiled food blogger has found better value elsewhere in the capital, and the people who eat at Masala Grill won't - and shouldn't - care about that either. The prices reflect the area, the level of service and the setting, and judging by the crowds packed into the place on a hot Wednesday night in July, there are more than enough people around to appreciate that.
I was invited to Masala Grill
Monday, 20 July 2015
For over a hundred years the Ritz has stood in its commanding position on the corner of Green Park, famous throughout the world as the last word in opulence and luxury. And despite my own occasional weakness for a bit of glitz and glamour, I had never been, partly because I'd heard very little about the food in the Ritz Restaurant (and as most food bloggers eventually learn "nothing heard" usually means "nothing good") but mainly because they insist on male patrons wearing a jacket and tie, and I wasn't entirely sure my mismatched "Granddad's funeral" outfit wouldn't make look like a bit of a tit. I quite like to feel comfortable during dinner, not like I'm being interviewed. Yes, funerals and interviews, the only other times I've worn a tie.
So what changed? Well I would have been quite happily carrying on with my life and not worrying about wearing a tie if it weren't for something that rolled past my Twitter feed one evening called pommes soufflées. Just when you think you know everything there is to do to a potato comes this extraordinary technique, involving twice-fried discs of precisely-measured spud that inflate into neat little crunchy pillows of golden-brown loveliness. And in that moment, I knew I had to have them. And given that the Ritz was one of only two restaurants in town they were available (the other being Otto's, very highly regarded but a similar price point and if I'm paying this amount for dinner, I want to sit near things made of gold), I made a reservation, dusted off my tie, grabbed a mate and headed off to Piccadilly.
The vast global influence of the Ritz's own particular style of gold-drenched Baroque sumptuousness is, at first, its own worst enemy. Having seen so many cheap copies of the ornate gold fittings and velvet drapes and plush carpets in, I don't know, Vegas casinos or ironic Shoreditch nightclubs, it takes a while to adjust to the fact that here, finally, is the real thing. The cutlery really is solid silver, the statues covered in real gold. This is what real luxury looks like, and matched with smart waiters in tail suits (in various hues denoting job title and/or seniority, I imagine), the effect is quite overwhelming. And, it has to be said, pretty intimidating at first until the service relaxes you and the food arrives and you really start to enjoy yourself.
Because it's very, very easy to enjoy yourself at the Ritz. It's not just that the food is fantastic; I'll come to that in a bit. It's that almost as much fun can be had from just letting the whole theatre of being in the place sweep over you - like anywhere in such a setting that's doing its job properly, you are made to feel like a star in your own personal theatre production. But at the Ritz, they've been doing it for so much longer than everywhere else, and with such high production values, the effect is all the more thrilling.
But anyway, the food. Amuses were, from left to right, some kind of seafood cream cracker that looked quite like an Oreo, a delicate sugar tube of rich liver mousse, and - the runaway favourite - an extraordinary citrus meringue containing a light salmon mousse topped with roe. And look at the tray they were served on, and the gleaming butter dish in the background...
...and the silver basket of just-so melba toast, and the little silver chalice of sea salt. There was so much expensive tableware present at any given point it began to resemble the interiors department at Harrod's.
Of course the real show was yet to begin. Terrine of goose liver, with spiced pineapple and gingerbread was the kind of exquisitely geometric dish that you only see in places where the number of available hands in the kitchen isn't an issue. So precise and cleanly-colourful it could have gone one a pedestal at the Tate, and yet the taste as just as impressive - a silky-smooth mousse, faintly peppery gingerbread, and beside it a neat row of alternating cubes of jelly and biscuit. Topped with gold leaf, naturally, just in case the volume of elemental metals on show threatened to dip below that of a South African deep mine.
The other starter was, as is clear even from my photography, every bit as painstakingly pretty. Fresh crab (all white meat of course, no expense spared there) in a shiny green jellified roll containing cucumber and avocado (a classic combination that was probably invented here for all I know) and a side blob of various colours and textures topped with caviar. As with the terrine, it all looked so obviously hard work with all of its precisely-placed blobs and clever techniques, smashing it apart with a fork felt like a slap in the face to a hundred commis chefs.
Beef Wellington can't be the easiest thing to organise in a restaurant environment - they ask you to order it 40 minutes in advance, but it's hard to figure out how even this lead-in is enough time to get the fillet perfectly medium-rare and with a good golden brown pastry. Still, they do - just about. The one blip in otherwise perfect service during the evening was that my female friend was given the two smaller, more cooked end pieces and I (being the red-blooded male in an ill-fitting tie) got the nicer, more tender, and larger, central sections. As soon as our waiter's back was turned we evened out the portions ourselves, but this was a rather presumptious mistake to be made at this level.
Despite all that the Wellington was, though, a superb bit of cooking, with shaved truffle and a core of foie gras lifting this traditional English grand-hotel staple into the heights of international gastronomy. The pommes soufflés, as well, were everything I'd hoped they'd be, and even more exciting once I'd realised you could make a hole in one side and fill them full of gravy, like beefy dahi puri.
If the starters looked too good to eat, the desserts were difficult to even look at without imagining with a shudder the countless man-hours devoted to their creation. Wild strawberries with white chocolate and verbena was a delicate cylinder of chocolate, coloured pink as well as white, containing a light mousse studded with various strawberry textures, topped with a neat layer of the berries themselves and then on top of that a smooth strawberry sorbet. And a ring of spun sugar. And some neat dots of strawberry purée. And who knows what else.
Elderflower with champagne and raspberry took a more modernist approach, with various neat circles of raspberry and elderflower mousses, jellies, crumbles and creams. Sorry about my murky photo, but by this point the house lights had been dimmed and the entertainment had begun, first a pianist and then a quartet doing old jazz classics. Such scenes have probably happened at the Ritz for the best part of the last 100 years, the acoustics finely-tuned to allow for a general buzz of conversation alongside the live music. It was all very impressive.
So it is for this reason only that the Ritz doesn't get full marks. Yes the food is exceptional, the service (mainly) perfect, and all the extra frills and gold-plated accoutrements (petits fours were faultless as well) adding up to an experience hardly like any other, lavish and otherworldly. But it impresses with technique rather than generosity, it's exact as opposed to beautiful, polished rather than friendly. It's great fun, but it lacks something - not soul, because I can't describe it as soulless, that would be unfair. It's just that by the time the bill arrived (£255 with one bottle of that cheapest wine and a couple of glasses of dessert) there was a very tiny niggling feeling of having been taken advantage of. But you know what, I'd still save up again to go back. I might even buy a new tie.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
The gentrification of Shoreditch is now so advanced and so final that even those that still privately bemoan the disappearance of the old working-men's clubs, the spit-and-sawdust pubs, laundrettes and pound shops, have stopped commenting on it in public. That battle has been lost. This is now a place of wine bars, speakeasies, popups and street food, £5 a pint and £40 a head, the new shorthand for London itself, beards the new bearskin, tattoos the new Tower Bridge.
And I'm torn myself, for though of course I hate to see any part of our collective heritage priced out and forgotten, the problem with the kind of people who are setting up shop in this part of town lately is that so many of them are annoyingly good. Sagar and Wilde, for example, is exactly the kind of wine bar that every oenophile wants on their doorstep, an intimate and comfortable place staffed by helpful and passionate staff. It replaced a pub called the British Lion which was very popular with skinhead BNP supporters and had more regular visits from the local constabulary than brewery vans. Perhaps it is a shame that the "old" Shoreditch has disappeared, but I am not a racist, I am a glutton, which is an altogether more acceptable 21st century sin, and the new Shoreditch is far more my kind of scene.
The Marksman, just a few steps down the street from Sagar & Wilde, has, too, been modernised. Exactly how different it is from its previous incarnation I can't tell you because I've never been inside before, but I get the impression they're trying to make the change as painless and subtle as possible for all concerned. It's all very tastefully done and it definitely still feels like a cosy boozer, with wobbly furniture, bar stools and even a group of burly old boys occupying their corner of the room as they presumably have for many years previously. But look a little closer and the signs are there - table service, craft beers, and an intriguing new menu. Things are afoot.
Two freshly-shucked rock oysters, dressed with apple and pickled elderberries, just the thing for a warm summer's evening. I liked how they were balanced on top of their own shell lids, I liked how the oyster meat was loosened and I liked how the gentle acidic/floral notes that had been added to the minerally shellfish.
And I liked absolutely everything else. In fact I can't remember the last time I've enjoyed a more comprehensively perfect menu. A sign of a good restaurant is that the food you order you enjoy, and you're happy to pay for it, and want to go back once it's all over. Surely a sign of a perfect restaurant is that choosing between salt hake & potato rissoles, devilled crab on toast or beef & barley bun is just an exercise in satisficing, and that picking a dish at random would have yielded similarly stunning results. This is the beef bun by the way, a sweet, soft sphere containing the finest loose-meat pie filling, accompanied by an ethereally light horseradish cream. You could work for a thousand years and not be able to improve it, a thing of exquisite beauty.
Similarly devilled crab on toast. I've had devilled crab on toast before, very nice crab on toast too. But this was devilled crab on toast made by someone who finally knows what devilled crab on toast should be. Thin bread, just soaking enough of the juices without being collapsey, topped with an oil-flecked "mayo" so light it's almost a foam, and of course plenty of fresh white crab meat, fresh herbs and chilli. Perfect.
Megrim sole was gently butter-browned, the flesh cooked so well it lifted off in huge, bright-white, meaty chunks. The sharp & seasalty salad it came with was a colourful balance to the buttery fish, and was itself impressive enough to be a talking point. I wonder if anything could be improved about this plate of food, and I suspect not. It was, again, perfect.
As for the other main, curried kid with sourdough roti, well, what would you improve about a vast haunch of slow-cooked goat, dressed in thick curry oils and spices so that each last square inch of this beautiful piece of meat was seasoned flawlessly? Or a clever sourdough flatbread topped with a clear tomato jam, a nod to a curry house naan but something much more delicate and sophisticated? Nothing, that's what. This was, again, perfect.
I'd heard rumours of the brown butter & honey tart on the Twitter grapevine but still nothing could prepare us for the reality of a thin pastry base supporting a custard/honey mixture so precisely on the edge of collapse that the whole thing dissolved in the mouth like butter-honey candy floss. It was, of course, perfect.
And a chocolate ganache, smooth as silk, with a malt ice cream and surrounded by (I think) booze-soaked, slightly dried cherries, little chewy flavour bombs, topped with bits of cherry-sugar crackling. Which bit of that doesn't sound great? What would you add or remove? Nothing? No, me neither.
What the Marksman deserves to be - and what I sincerely hope it remains - is a perfect example of how a traditional East End boozer can be revamped and reimagined for a younger and more food-savvy audience without sacrificing any of the features that made it a pub (as opposed to a restaurant, or bar) in the first place. If you can keep the old boys at the bar happy, whilst serving magnificent, innovative dishes alongside a carefully-chosen wine list, then you have walked that line perfectly and deserve to do very well. Meanwhile, no matter what the future holds, know only this - that there are few better places to eat and drink in town, and you'd have to have a heart of stone not to completely fall in love with the place. The perfect pub? Probably. The perfect score? Why not.
The Marksman will be in the next version of the app. But if you can't get a table, try my app for other options in the area.
Monday, 29 June 2015
On the first evening of a weekend out of London, lulled into a false sense of security by the general comfortable loveliness of the Cotswolds, I broke my own golden rule - "do your research". Perhaps in Madrid, or Istanbul, or Bangkok you can wander travel-sore and weary from your hotel/AirBnB/tastefully-restored-14th-century-farmhouse (delete as appropriate) to the nearest bar and be happy with the results, but this has never been true of the UK and definitely isn't true of Shipton-under-Wychwood. The pub we found ourselves in on Friday night was certainly handy, being barely 50ft from the front door of our accommodation, but the expensive frozen rubbish they served, reluctantly and only vaguely in relation to what was ordered, was a timely reminder that good food is never guaranteed no matter now nice and low and oak-beamed your ceilings are. Lesson, for the umpteenth time, learned.
So Saturday lunchtime had a lot riding on it, but from the very first moment it was clear the Kingham Plough, a brisk 5-mile walk away across some of the more spectacularly lovely scenery this country has to offer, was altogether a far more worthwhile affair. In the tradition of fine old country gastropubs there is an a la carte menu, with starters around £11 and mains around £25 geared towards the kind of budget you find in these parts. But far more exciting was a truly vast "snacks" menu, ranging from Scotch quails eggs to a steak & ale pie, and covering pretty much any item you'd ever wanted to see on a pub bar menu inbetween. George Orwell's perfect pub The Moon Under Water may not have ever existed, but had he been alive today this would be his point 6 met entirely, surely as perfect a pub snack menu as anyone's ever written.
Writing it is one thing though, making a reality of it quite another, but it's my pleasure to report that the Plough walks the walk just as well as it writes a menu. It's the little things you notice first - house "cereal" bread (not entirely sure of the definition, maybe they meant the bran flakes on the crust) came warm from the oven and accompanied by Holmleigh Dairy butter, which was so rich and orange it looked like a slab of Red Leicester. This is a part of the world obsessed with dairy - Stinking Bishop, Barkham Blue, Berkswell and the various lovely goat's products from Brockhall Farm are all not a million miles away, and in fact Kingham itself, a tiny village home to no more than a couple of hundred people, has its own artisan cheese maker Rodger Crudge. Oh, and the Plough has a milk vending machine in its beer garden. For emergencies, like.
Prawns in a branded Hook Norton pintglass were lovely and sweet, with an aioli just garlicky enough. Pork pie was a perfectly formed little thing, generously filled with plenty of pig and summer herbs. I'd have preferred piccalilly to the "ploughman's pickle" it came with (actually more of a chutney), similarly the "homemade ketchup" presented alongside the otherwise stunning sausage roll. Homemade ketchup falls into the same category as homemade brown sauce or homemade hot buffalo wing sauce - it's an awful lot of effort to put into something that will end up still tasting worse than the stuff you can buy off the shelf. So why bother?
Mushrooms and snails on toast was perhaps the most universally admired of the snack dishes - there's something so incredibly right about the marriage of snails and mushrooms; flora and fauna that shared an environment in nature and now share a plate. "Soily" is usually used as an insult when used about food, but the more benign "earthy" doesn't cut it in this situation either - the combination of bread, butter, snails, mushrooms, thyme, was like eating a salty slice of the rolling Oxfordshire countryside. Perfectly balanced, and addictively packed with flavour.
Cotswold Rarebit was another pleasant twist on a classic - a thick mixture of what were (presumably local) cheeses mixed in with (presumably also local) beer. Thicker and less potently alcoholic as some rarebits I've tried, it was still very easy to enjoy. So too were some simple grilled asparagus stalks, dipped into a pot of hollandaise.
Lamb shoulder bun with cucumber & mint relish could probably be accused of being the most left-field, rather knowingly trendy whilst everything else had been so tastefully traditional, but was a hugely generous portion for £6.50 and came in their own glossy house baked buns. And for the sake of curiosity we even tried a couple of dishes from the a la carte, a wonderful chargrilled Cornish mackerel fillet, with various foraged sea vegetables and an impeccably balanced oyster mayonnaise, and a moist, complex Chicken Wellington. This is obviously a kitchen very happy operating at any budget.
The success of the mackerel made us think that there was more on the a la carte worth investigating, so to save any tricky um-ing and ah-ing we just decided to order everything under desserts. And boy am I glad we did, because whoever's on pastry at the Plough is doing a quite remarkable job. House ice creams, made with the same Guernsey cattle milk from the nearby vending machine, were just about as perfect as it's possible for ice cream to be, rich and velvety with not a hint of crunch and in a variety of powerful, seasonal flavours.
Elderflower and goat's curd cheesecake was also very top-end stuff, and wouldn't be out of place on any Michelin-starred menu. The citrussy notes of goat's curd and elderflower are a perfect match, and I liked the clever little jelly they'd managed to get to set on top of the cake.
Dark chocolate & cherry Arctic Roll was a dense and exotic play on techniques and texture, and though chocolate and cherry is hardly a groundbreaking idea, it worked because every element was as good as it can be. The roll itself was particularly interesting, as when you cut a slice with your knife it briefly revealed a shiny frozen interior that changed to dark and matte before your eyes, like in those old school science videos of anonymous lab technicians cutting through a block of pure sodium.
And then the best soufflé I can remember eating in a very long time. Neither too eggy or too light, not too sweet or too greasy, it was an utter strawberry soufflé masterclass, completely unimprovable. Everyone on the table agreed that in a meal of many contenders, this was the winning dish, something that you could have paid €50 for in a 3 star Parisian hotel restauarant and still been happy. So not bad, really, for £9.
In many ways, I'm glad we had that awful first meal on the Friday. I wasn't glad at the time, of course, I wished we'd run a mile in the opposite direction, but now I've put a bit of distance between myself and leathery steak and rancid onion rings I can appreciate that if nothing else, we should never take good food for granted. We may never be a country where the minimum standard is anything more than mediocre - we'll never have the tapas bars of Madrid or the street stalls of Bangkok, and crappy frozen chain pub food may always be a stick for lazy tourists to beat us with. But for a country that for so long could offer nothing more than crappy frozen food to suddenly be home to artisan cheese makers, passionate producers, local breweries and even the odd restaurant as good as the Plough, well, to be honest, that'll do for now. And just think where we can go from here.
Photos by Hannah