Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Paradise, Soho

Though it's sad to a certain degree when any restaurant closes - you have to feel for the staff and management of even the most mediocre high street chain even if you weren't a fan - it's fair to say some losses hit way harder than others. Back in 2019, even before Covid ravaged our shores, Spuntino, the New York-Italian cocktail bar and comfort food joint, closed its doors and overnight I lost a friendly regular pre- and post- dinner spot, somewhere guaranteed to make me happy and where I have loads of great memories. Their truffled egg toast, egg & anchovy soldiers and negronis will live long in legend. RIP.

But! What have we here? In the revamped Spuntino site - think more cosy booths and a much smaller central bar - is Paradise, still achingly hip and staffed by capable friendly people (and still doing great cocktails) but the cuisine on offer is now, in their words, "contemporary Sri-Lankan". "Contemporary", inevitably, translates as "smaller portions and higher prices" but look, this is Soho, not Tooting High Street, and with food this vibrant and exciting it still seems like value to me.

Three half-langoustine for example, for £8, is pretty much what you'd pay at Kiln, who have done for "contemporary" Thai what Paradise are doing for Sri Lankan. Here they came served in a remarkably punchy Ceylonese dressing and a lovely smooth, sweet mango dip. The papaya and palm heart salad on the side was crunchy and fresh, and a welcome balm from the fire of the langoustine dressing.

Everything arrived in one go, normally not much of a problem but I do wish they'd brought out these mangalitza skewers a bit earlier as they were rather cold. That aside, they tasted great, containing a perfect balance of flesh and fat, and soaked in a deep, rich tamarind sauce. Oh, and sorry about the photos. It was very dark in there and my camera is still rubbish.

Normally I wouldn't bother mentioning a side of boiled rice but there was something extra about this muthu samba stuff, incredibly light and soft, the grains being smally and fluffy and round. 'Muthu' apparently translates to 'pearl', which makes sense.

Aubergine and jaggery moju was a generous pile of sticky-spiced veg with a mild chilli kick - milder than the langoustine at least - and with a interesting variety of ingredients and textures. I particularly liked the chew on the large green chilli, which had been blackened over coals I think.

Not pictured is a bowl of huge devilled prawns, their sauce a happy marriage of chilli, tomato, spices and who knows what else, the kind of thing it probably takes a long time and a lot of experience to perfect. Interestingly, we were instructed to try eating these whole, as in shell-on and with heads, but we soon decided that wasn't going to work. Deep-fried shrimps perhaps you can gulp down whole, but not the thick, chewy carapaces of giant prawns. So instead we tore the shells off with our bare hands and had to go to the bathroom to wash ourselves clean before carrying on with the meal.

Finally, egg hopper with an asparagus and tomato sambol. Bringing a much-needed dairy cleanness to a meal that had been otherwise quite spice-heavy and dense, this had a perfectly timed gooey yolk and the sambol was nice and fresh.

So, RIP Spuntino, long live Paradise I say. It is faintly terrifying how easily London restaurants - even the very good ones - can fail, and though I'm sure I don't know the whole backstory on the Troubled Polpo Group (as it is seemingly compulsarily referred to in the press) I do know I still miss Spuntino like I miss anywhere that's been such an integral part of the London food scene for so long. But I also know that I love Paradise, and even if it doesn't become a new regular haunt I'll know that the legacy of Spuntino - cool, exciting, unique - lives on in its new South Asian cousin.


Thursday, 27 May 2021

Cin Cin, Fitzrovia

Although we're still a long way from being back to normal, certain signs abound that the Old Order is restoring itself. I managed to get a walk-in at my local pub yesterday, for example. I can no longer get a seat on the tube between Victoria and Oxford Circus in the rush hour. And recently, I received an invite to a brand new bistro in Fitzrovia serving a very attractive-looking menu of Italian small plates. Nature is healing.

Cin Cin began life in Brighton, and in fact have two locations down there at time of press. The formula (not rocket science, just good food served smartly for not very much money) has proven so successful that they've now taken over the site of what used to be Bonnie Gull Fitzrovia, somewhere that used to be worth patronising for cheap oysters and fizz between the hours of 4 and 6pm, but in all honesty not much good for anything else apart from that. The bijou spot seems a lot happier in its new skin, menu full of the kind of stuff you'd eat any day of the week, and served by staff seemingly delighted to have the opportunity to do so. And after the year we've had, who can blame them?

The evening began with a little bowl of those giant green buttery olives, and a big chunk of focaccia with accompanying olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip - always a welcome sight. I mean, yes, you'll have been served these kind of things in countless Italian restaurants before but who cares? They're still great.

"Marinda" tomatoes (from Sicily, I sagely-inform-and-definitely-didn't-just-Google) came simply dressed in a white wine vinaigrette and more than lived up to the stark presentation. They were lovely, sweet and savoury, bringing to mind the tomato salad at Bar Nestor in San Sebastian which of course is the international gold standard of tomato salads.

A twist on truffled burrata, at Cin Cin they serve the cheese itself topped only with toasted breadcrumbs for a bit of texture, with the truffle flavour brought by prosciutto ham, itself laced with a healthy amount of the good stuff. Beneath was a "pesto rosso", presumably made with red pepper instead of the usual basil leaves, which had a nice clean sweetness to it, and finally a split spring of asparagus because why not, it's the season after all. There is a slight trend at Cin Cin to lean towards perhaps one or two superfluous elements on each plate, but when the ingredients are as good as this you can hardly complain much.

In lesser hands, arancini can be rather dense and unrewarding, heavy on the rice and light on flavour or interest. Cin Cin have quite rightly decided to go in the opposite direction - their crab arancino contains a generous amount of crab, and loads of rich, gloopy dairy, but very little rice, and is in fact best described more as a kind of giant seafood croquette than your traditional rice balls. This was my favourite dish out of everything we were served this evening - I am an absolute sucker for crab at the best of times, and croquettes for that matter, and as if the arancino wasn't enough by itself (and it absolutely was) it came sat on a bed of richly-flavoured basil purée which contrasted the main event perfectly.

Pea tortelloni were beautifully made little things, with silky fresh pasta and a nice smooth liquid inside. The sauce was buttery and satisfying, and although it could have done with perhaps a bit more seasoning, it was still a good sauce. I would argue, though, that it didn't really need either the shoots of onion, which didn't taste of a great deal, or the chunks of mortadella, which were just a distraction. Under normal circumstances I love mortadella, and onion for that matter, but I'm convinced this would have been a more elegant dish had it just been pasta, sauce, and a few peas. Less is more.

Gnocchi with courgette flowers was more stripped back, and that much more elegant visually as a result, although it's worth repeating that both main courses were equally enjoyable to eat. These gnocchi were apparently gluten-free, although you wouldn't know it to taste them, and the cacio e pepe sauce was nicely cheesey and peppery.

The main savoury course was monkfish tail, a lovely bit of fish very much of the same standard as the stunning halibut I was served at the Pack Horse, packed full of flavour and meaty texture. The accessories I was somewhat less enthusiastic about - some of the white beans were a bit on the hard side, and I'm not sure sultanas are really ever a great match with fish - but hey, it all made for an interesting enough experience and all got polished off.

The meal ended with a bang, though, with a magnificent warm rice tart, oozing with personality, and a blood orange sorbet which was packed full of summer citrus flavour.

So as I hope you'll have concluded yourself by this point, there is far, far more to enjoy about Cin Cin than there is to criticise. The odd (very) minor niggle aside, this was a confident, clever dinner by a kitchen that understands the rules of Italian cooking but isn't in thrall to them. It's impossible to imagine you wouldn't enjoy a meal here in this bright, airy spot (in fact there's plenty of outside space too if that suits) populated by friendly, professional people, especially once you factor in the very reasonable cost - £45 for 5 courses puts it safely in the Tasting Menu Bargains of London category. I enjoyed it very much. Isn't it nice to be able to eat in restaurants again?


I was invited to Cin Cin and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

The Pack Horse, Hayfield

I don't know if there's anything I could say that would seem suitable for this occasion. How on earth do you strike the correct balance between celebrational and sombre, full of relief and gratitude for having made it through the last few months, whilst at the same time acknowledging the countless number that haven't been so lucky, and for the countless more that feel in no way inclined to celebrate. Yes, being able to get back into restaurants again is lovely, but you can't shake the knowledge that we've been here before, and though it feels like a lifetime and a half ago, we thought we were out of the woods then, too.

So I'm not going to even try. Like most people I wish the last four months hadn't happened, and so I will pretend they haven't and just barrel straight on into a review of a lovely gastropub in the Peak District because look, what on earth else is there to do?

Hayfield is an astonishingly pretty old mill town, its elegant grey-brick buildings rising out from the banks of the river all the way up the steep sides of the Sett Valley. In many other parts of the country, in fact in many other parts of the Peak District, it would be insufferably twee and touristy, bloated with fudge shops, postcard-sellers and tearooms. But Hayfield remains resolutely unpretentious and no-nonsense, a proper little community where normal life goes on largely unaffected by the beauty all around.

In the centre of it all stands the Pack Horse, first and foremost a friendly local but one that also just happens to be serving some of the best food in the area. It's the gleaming ideal of a pub, the kind of place, alongside the Parker's Arms in Lancashire or the Draper's Arms in Islington, that have absolutely nailed-on precisely everything that makes a great pub great, serving exacting, intelligent comfort food whilst also being somewhere you could pop in with your muddy boots and dog after a walk on Kinder reservoir and nurse a pint of mild.

And that's all you need to know, really, except I imagine you're going to want to read a bit of detail out of sheer curiosity. Our evening began with 3 Lindisfarne rock oysters, neatly shucked and presented alongside a nicely sharp mignionette sauce. Funny, isn't it, how most of the best pubs serve fresh oysters, and none of the bad ones do?

Crab came as white meat incorporated into a salad of crisp spring leaves and radish, and as brown meat spread liberally on toast. Both elements were superb but the brown meat on toast was particularly good, full of grungy flavour with the spray of the sea.

A breadcrumbed and fried egg, boasting a marvellously timed and runny yolk, came served on a bed of buttery wild mushrooms and studded with pickled walnut, an unbeatable combination that covered all the pleasure points from rich dairy to hearty fungi.

And Yorkshire asparagus, great big thick things like only the best examples are, served with a silky hollandaise and various toasted seeds and nuts, tasted as good as they looked, a riot of colour, flavour and texture. If sourcing great ingredients is 90% of the battle (and I think it is) then the Pack Horse can count themselves lucky they have this side of things absolutely down pat.

Mains continued in the same vein. If I'm going to be brutally honest, my own selection of hare was a tad on the dry and chewy side, being rather too lean a meat to survive the slow braising method. However, the port, pancetta and mushroom sauce it came in was beautifully rich and glossy, and the mashed potatoes were right up there alongside those served at the Parker's Arms. And if you've ever eaten at the Parker's Arms, you'll know how much of a compliment that is.

Lemon sole, served grilled on the bone, was generously proportioned and beautifully cooked, and worth the price of admission even without the mound of mussels, samphire and sea kale on top. I don't want to get into the whole business of London pricing vs Everywhere Else pricing, but can you imagine anywhere within the M25 serving this huge slab of premium fish for £22? No, neither can I.

Or how about this giant chunk of halibut for £21? Boasting a satisfying meaty texture and with an incredible depth of flavour, it would have been a bargain at twice the price. It was presented with cute little parcels of breadcrumbed and fried oysters, and with a fantastic sauce they called "smoked roe & oyster cream", which was every bit as good as it sounds.

Oh, and a word on the chips - triple cooked, golden-brown and basically perfect, they encapsulate everything that's good about the way the Pack Horse goes about its business. They reminded me very strongly in fact of the ones served at the Parker's Arms, and as I've mentioned before, this is a Good Thing.

The chocolate and hazelnut delice, in fact, was a suggestion that the connection with the place in Newton-in-Bowland was more than just coincidental. I'm reliably informed that the chef at the Pack Horse is - amazingly - entirely self-taught, but perhaps has been inspired by a trip to Lancashire and, entirely reasonably, has decided that the Parker's is as good a template as any to base your gastropub on. Or maybe I'm reading too much into things. Either way, this was an excellent dessert.

As was this, the "summer berry mess" with attractive shards of meringue dusted with some kind of powdered fruit, and plenty of raspberries and strawberries folded into sweet whipped cream.

Every town deserves a Pack Horse, and every pub in the country deserves to be this good, but the fact that places as good as this, mature, respectable operations serving rewarding food at extremely reasonable prices and still be recognisable as a pub, are still so vanishingly rare is not due to lack of demand for them but to how incredibly difficult it is to perform the balancing act of offering elevated gastropub food without alienating your loyal customer base, and pitching prices at somewhat under "fine dining" levels whilst still turning a profit. I don't blame certain "gastropubs" for ditching their walk-in bar and going full restaurant-mode, but if you can't just rock up for a pint and a bowl of chips well, that's not a pub.

The Pack Horse is still, unmistakably, gloriously, a pub. You can sit with a group of mates (Covid caveats apply) and drink pints of local ales, or settle down for a four-course seafood extravaganza bookended by sophisticated herb-infused cocktails, but whichever path you choose you'll be served by the same smiling staff and you'll all be using the same loos. And you will, I'm absolutely sure of it, all be trotting home after your time there wanting to do it all over again, just like I was.


Thursday, 17 December 2020

Rochelle Canteen, Shoreditch

Well, here we are again. Another brief gasp of freedom after another lockdown, another frantic opportunity to have as many meals out as possible before kitchens evolve back into makeshift field canteens, another half-assed set of contradictory measures that scapegoat restaurants, pubs and bars for a disease that is overwhelmingly and proveably transmitted mainly in schools, universities and care homes. The latest slice of nonsense is the Tier 2 "substantial meal" rule, meaning that to enjoy even so much as a half pint in your local you must order with it, well, nobody's quite sure - anything has been suggested from a £3 hot dog to a £25 steak and chips minimum.

It's hard to even know where to start with explaining just how unfair, unworkable and completely counterproductive this idea is. Firstly and most obviously, as mentioned above, there's no solid definition of what "substantial" means, so venues have been left to their own devices to decide how to enforce it. Some pub chains have insisted on at least a dish from the Mains section of the menu with each drink, a couple of places have brought in a special menu with things like £3 hot dogs to try and help keep the cost down. At least one pub I know of has a £2/head 'substantial meal' charge and will dump a large bowl of instant noodles on your table to accompany your entire night out. It's up to you whether you eat it or not.

The massive effect on food waste, is of course, the first obscenity. A walk through the open-air pubs and bars of Borough Market last week revealed groups of people sat next to giant piles of untouched boxes of food that they'd been forced to order with their mulled ciders, with no intention of being eaten. On top of this, the many drinks-led venus in London - and I'm not just talking about the pubs but also cocktail bars, craft beer tap houses, wine bars and the like - are having to choose between finding something - anything - to serve as food or to stay shut completely. Sitting outside, alone, in a beer garden, nowhere near any other human and being told you can't have a pint of IPA unless you order a burger to go with it is utter madness. None of it makes sense.

So for drinks-led pubs and bars the situation is critical. For restaurants, it's merely really, really bad. Nobody is having a great time of things in Lockdown Land but if you were lucky enough to be placed in Tier 2 or lower, have a nice garden to expand into, and - most importantly - are serving some of the best food in town, then you have a better chance than most of scraping through until the end of all this. And I am optimistic as it's possible to be about anywhere these days, about Rochelle Canteen.

Alongside a negroni - this was my very last lunch before Lockdown 2, but every meal out these days has a kind of desperate, end-of-days feel to it, as if it may all at any moment be suddenly swiped from under your nose like a stolen sausage from a naughty puppy, so I think starting each one with a strong cocktail is absolutely critical - we ordered most of the snacks including these neat little salt cod fritters, and a pork and rabbit terrine. Best of all of the snacks though was something described in that typical spartan St John way as "anchovy toast" but which turned out to be a gloriously salty and silky-smooth fish paste, mousse-like in its texture and utterly addictive. We had two of these - enough for half a slice each - but immediately wish we'd ordered many, many more.

Mussels were nice and plump and very enjoyable, but of course the main point of ordering mussels is to end up with a wine-y, seafood-y broth to dip sourdough into, and so that's what we did.

There was never any chance of my not ordering the only game bird on the menu, and the mallard was everything I needed it to be - tender enough but with a decent bite, skin beautifully bronzed and all of it sat on a mash that's best described as potato-flavoured butter. Perhaps I would have liked a somewhat more substantial sauce than the watery stock that surrounded it, but this is a minor niggle. It was still great.

I didn't manage to sample any of the roast pork before it all disappeared, but it looks decent enough doesn't it? Particularly that crackling which looks so light and brittle even looking at the photo I can clearly imagine the sound it makes when bitten into. Quite jealous I didn't, in fact.

Onglet had been simply prepared and simply presented, but by virtue of an excellent raw ingredient and the brave (and correct) decision to hold it for barely a passing moment over a heat source, it arrived addictively chewy and gloriously bloody. It's not a beginner's steak is onglet, it requires an honest appraisal of the relationship between man and cow, and a bit more effort in the eating, but is ultimately so much more rewarding than many much more expensive cuts.

Partly because we were enjoying ourselves so much, and also (mainly) because this was going to be our last lunch out in who knows how long and we wanted to squeeze every last drop out of it, we ordered the cheese course (two different cheddar-alikes which made up for lack of variety with a very decent taste and texture each), and a lemon pudding. And a chocolate pot. And a cheesecake. Oh, and a glass of Sauternes and two double calvados. And we regretted none of it.

It's about this time of year that normally I'd be thinking about which place to make my Restaurant of the Year. With a full four months where every food outlet in the country was closed, and with restaurants being very different places even when they were able to open, the decision has been made extra fraught this year; it seems a bit pointless to point anywhere out for particular praise when even simply surviving is an epic achievement. As I type this, London is back into Tier 3 - effectively lockdown - but with the vaccine not just theoretically "on its way" any more but actually already innoculating over 140,000 people there really is an end to all this in sight. And when we're allowed out again to eat and drink and be merry, it will be to places like Rochelle Canteen that will be waiting to welcome you, with a negroni, anchovy on toast and some potato-flavoured butter. Not long now, I promise.