Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Luca, Clerkenwell

In an ideal world, you’d visit any restaurant completely blind, with no preconceptions about the ability of those involved, no knowledge of the background of the chefs or the experience of the front of house, and not the slightest clue who’s bankrolling the place, and who stands to win or lose from its success. Then, you’d go in, have your dinner, pay your money, and make an entirely objective appraisal of the experience, all the better to relate to others they should make the trip themselves. Or not, as the case may be.

Unfortunately, this is not an ideal world. Even if I wasn’t a desperately tragic restaurant geek (which I very much am), scouring the print reviews and pages of Hotdinners every five minutes to see if that Belgian seawater-dough taco place I had my eye on had opened yet, it would be impossible to avoid every nugget of information about a new opening, whether it’s a new project from an existing high-profile chef, or the first bricks-and-mortar restaurant from a street food star. Expectations and preconceptions, whether you like it or not, will affect our impressions of a place well before we step through the front door. That’s just the way things are.

So I will probably completely fail to be level-leaded and objective about Luca, a new modern Italian restaurant on St John St, because I know full well – as you probably do too – that it’s being operated by the team behind the trail-blazingly creative Clove Club in Shoreditch, Michelin-starred 26th Best Restaurant In The World, and comes with a weight of expectation so heavy it could drown them in their own sparkling water before we’d got as far as the starters.

Before we get to the starters, though, nibbles. These are “parmesan fries”, a description that undersells them hugely, as instead of the expected bowl of chips and cheese we have these gorgeous things, tubes of fluffy parmesan mousse, delicately crusted on the outside and dusted with paprika, like savoury churros. These are a must-order item at Luca, genuinely exciting and innovative in exactly the kind of way – for better or worse – I was expecting from the Clove Club team.

From here on, though, events conspired to be a little – though only a little – more ordinary. “Sea Robin crudo”, a very pleasant arrangement of fish carpaccio sweetened with clementines and drizzled with olive oil, the kind of thing you’ve eaten before if you’ve ever been to a smart modern Italian restaurant in London (both Café Monico on Shaftesbury Avenue and Bernardi’s in Marylebone do something similar, if perhaps not quite as refined). Sea Robin, by the way, is another name for gurnard, a pseudonym I like to think they’re using so I can call the dish “RobinSea Crudo” in my mind. Yes, I’m sure that’s why they did it.

“Preserved peppers, air dried bonito and spinach” was a plate of cold red peppers and floppy spinach whose charms I’m afraid were completely lost on me. There wasn’t enough salty bonito (or the bonito wasn’t salty enough) to lift the bland peppers, and though the spinach had a nice enough flavour it still ended up all tasting like leftover ratatouille. And I don’t really even much like hot ratatouille.

I’d heard a lot (probably too much) about the “grouse ravioli”, and its famed “potato and whisky” sauce, so the fact I’d allowed myself to get excited about it probably contributes in no small part to the fact I found it faintly disappointing. The grouse itself came in the form of a mousse stuffing in the ravioli – fine, but pretty underpowered and the kind of thing that makes you wish for a thicker, darker, slow-cooked ragu-style, one with a bit more punch. The potato sauce tasted mainly of butter, and I didn’t detect any whisky at all, and though none of these things are exactly disqualifying for a pasta dish, they didn’t make for a particularly memorable experience, either.

The other pasta dish, spaghettini with shrimp and mace butter was, admittedly, lovely. Bouncy fresh pasta with an intense, briny, seafoody sauce, it was a perfect example of its kind, disarmingly familiar but beautifully rich and elegant. We’ve been a bit spoiled for pasta in London in recent times, especially with Padella in Borough Market doing what they do so extraordinarily well, so it speaks volumes this spaghettini was still a topic of conversation days later.

My own main of beef rump stuffed with pancetta was straightforwardly enjoyable, nothing groundbreaking and perhaps a teeny bit on the stingy side in terms of portion size but still attractive and seasoned nicely. It’s difficult to say anything too negative about beef and pancetta presented with green veg and one of those nice sticky reduced sauces, especially when it’s cooked as well as this, and so I won’t. I mean, I enjoyed it. Really.

A monkfish dish continued the theme – decent ingredients, cooked well – and was similarly hard to criticise even at the same time there was little to set the pulse racing either. Nothing was overcooked, or undercooked, or underseasoned, or cold (when it shouldn’t be) or warm (when it shouldn’t be). It was all, objectively, very decent food.

And look, maybe that’s all fine. Not every meal needs to reinvent the wheel or gun for a place in the Top 50 Best Restaurants list and the vast majority of people who eat at Luca will appreciate it very well for what it is – a solid, mid-range modern Italian restaurant in Clerkenwell, where you can book a table for 4 and be served by very pleasant and well-groomed staff and where tables have pretty cutlery and house bread comes with nice grassy olive oil.

The issue is, at the risk of repeating myself, a restaurant by the Clove Club comes with expectations. There’s absolutely nothing to stop these supremely talented guys from opening a solid mid-range Italian restaurant, there’s no good reason they shouldn’t, and that’s exactly what they’ve done. It’s not astonishing value in the Padella vein and neither is it a ripoff like the River Café. It’s just a good restaurant. It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I can’t be happy with that.

So perhaps the best advice I can give you is to take the above, and the score below, in the context of a person who's enjoyed some meals at Clove Club – and at the various incarnations before that, at the 10 Bells and so on – that have been very close to life-changing, and probably wouldn’t have been happy with anything less than that from Luca, either. And if you disagree with my scoring a place down for familiarity or safety or lack of ambition, I’ll only say that I scored the original Clove Club way, way up for risk-taking, innovation and ambition by the bucketful, as well. These things are important. Well, they are to me, at least. The rest of you can make your own minds up.


Monday, 5 December 2016

#PowerOfFrozen at Iceland Foods

Though I’ve never held any grand ambitions to make a living out of this food blogging lark, I can’t deny it’s nice to be occasionally asked to do bits and pieces of paid work. Usually these come in the form of a paragraph or two for a newspaper on whatever the latest food trend to catch the eye of the food editors, and other times it’s something more interesting like this little online project about Secrets of London (have a look in the East section for my bit) which gives me a chance to think about my city in new and interesting ways. And tell you where to have dinner too, obviously.

But generally these things are few and far between. Paid food writing is really not a growth business; newspapers seem to be looking for excuses to reduce their paid staff not add to them, and for that reason I feel increasingly fortunate as time goes on I have this blog, where I can write what I want, go where I want (sort of) and enjoy the occasional financial bonus even if most of the rest of the time my list of outgoings vs incomings would leave any freelance accountant running screaming for the hills.

It was with that in mind, then, that I eagerly accepted an invitation to Iceland. No, not the country, although I would eagerly accept an invitation there, too (if anyone from the Iceland Tourism Board is paying attention). Instead, the arguably less glamorous environs of Deeside Industrial Park, and the Iceland Foods HQ where myself and a group of other blogger types were hosted in their swanky new test kitchens and, as is the way with these things, learned how frozen foods were the best, Iceland in particular is the best at frozen foods, and that anyone still wasting their time making fresh mashed potato deserves to be laughed at by the Smash Aliens on that advert from the 80s.

I’m being disingenuous of course. Being a PR-led day at a supermarket chain HQ, yes there was an aspect of the hard sell to it, but it was still genuinely interesting to hear about which foods are generally previously frozen even if they’re sold as fresh, from prawns and deep-sea fish and seafood (e.g squid) to plenty of butchers cuts of meat. And pizza – usually that “fresh” ready-made pizza was just defrosted at some point before you saw it, and even if the base dough is fresh there’s every chance the toppings (salami, cheese and tomatoes) have all been frozen at some stage before being assembled. It was a good day for food conspiracy theorists. And it made me think about the amount of times I’d castigated a restaurant for using what tasted like “frozen” prawns to discover that nearly every other prawn I’d ever eaten out (aside from a very few expensive carabinero here and there) were previously frozen as well.

And speaking of prawns, as part of a multi-course lunch showcasing the best of Iceland’s premium foods offering (helped, it must be said, by the fact it was cooked by very experienced Iceland head chef Neil Nugent) we were introduced to these beautiful things – Argentinian Rosso prawns, plump and moist and certainly no worse off for having been previously frozen, the perfect showcase for the Iceland's skill set. Perhaps the lesson to be learned, as with most things, is to buy frozen food when the freezing process has no detrimental effect, and avoid it when it does. Lobster, for example, I always thing goes all chewy and horrible after being frozen, but weirdly King Crab tasted just as good defrosted from the freezer at Whole Foods on a recent trip to the US as they did fresh out of the tanks at Beast. Sorry, Beast, but ‘tis true.

Some things, though, Iceland were unable to change my mind on. I still maintain the only acceptable ingredient for chips and fries are never-frozen potatoes, ideally chipped that day, and the addition of some sticks of frozen mashed potato to an otherwise decent dish of lamb chops was very weird, like finishing off a fine aged sirloin steak with some Alphabet Bites. And the less said about the frozen broccoli and watery mini carrots the better; I can understand why I may not be able to source live prawns every day of the week, but I can’t find much of a pressing need to buy frozen broccoli. At least not before the nuclear holocaust really kicks in.

Still, an illuminating day, and one I’m quite happy to give up a rare advertising space for on this blog. Frozen food – and Iceland in particular – have suffered a bit of an image problem in these days of resurgent foodieism (the words “Kerry Katona” still don’t go down very well at the Iceland HQ, judging by the awkward silence that greeted my attempt at humour) but it’s true that whenever passionate, skilled people turn their attention to something, whether it’s the running of a multi-Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair or the logistics of getting Argentinian prawns from the deep sea to your dinner table, the results speak for themselves.

This post was sponsored by Iceland Foods. Obviously.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Smokestak, Shoreditch

It’s tempting to think of Smokestak, a new BBQ and smokehouse in Shoreditch, as being rather late to the game. Haven’t we seen this kind of thing before in London? Didn’t it all start with Pitt Cue all the way back in 2011, who were slow-smoking beef ribs and perfecting bone marrow mash in their little basement shop in Soho after taking the streetfood scene by storm? Or perhaps the real pioneers were Bodean’s, at the time (2002, astonishingly) really the only place you could enjoy such novelties as pulled pork or burnt ends, even if now they’re a sad shadow of their former selves?

Of course, good food is good food and it really shouldn’t matter who was “first”, but it’s an unfortunate fact that it does tend to be the pioneers we notice, and it's the latecomers – no matter how capable or otherwise interesting – that have to fight for their share of the limelight. The situation is hardly helped, either, by the sheer number of bandwagon-jumping copy-merchants that rushed into field as soon as they saw a trend happening, making the job of anyone trying to do this BBQ thing properly that much harder. You can get pulled pork more or less anywhere now, even EAT (don’t, by the way). How to tell the good from the bad?

Well, you could do worse than (ahem) follow a couple of food blogs, and now that you’re here I’d like to tell you that Smokestak is very definitely one of the good guys. A fortune has been spent on vast, scary smoking and grilling equipment from America, the Scandi-cool dining room (all rustic wood surfaces and industrial metal) is hung with clouds of atmospheric meat smoke, and the food produced from their kitchens speaks of expertise and attention to detail that is hardly bettered anywhere else in town.

Most will be ordering the brisket, and as well they should because it’s utterly perfect; soft and juicy with a delicate sweet, sticky crust, a complete brisket masterclass. Here it is in a bun, accompanied by zingy pickled chillies, but you can also order it as a main, a heaving pile of fat-soaked beefy loveliness.

It’s no surprise, either, that the pork rib – thick-cut, glazed with tangy house BBQ sauce and with that dense, solid texture of extremely high quality pig – is also tempting, presented with confident simplicity next to a neat pile of pickled cucumber.

But if you can’t get pork ribs or brisket right as a BBQ joint, you really would be in trouble. These things are excellent, but then you’d bloody well hope they would be. What’s more surprising about Smokestak are the bits and pieces in the rest of the menu, items that forego strict BBQ authenticity and show that their kitchen skills aren’t limited to slow-cooked protein. Above is girolles on beef dripping toast, the mushrooms smoked (of course) and soaked in a fabulously rich and herby meat stock sauce.

And this is a jacket potato, partially hollowed-out (I think) and stuffed with a fluffy sour cream filling before being blowtorched to golden brown on top. Lovely, and what it perhaps lacks in the finesse shown elsewhere on the menu it makes up for in sheer comforting pleasure. It’s also far less difficult to eat than first appearances would suggest, thanks to the lightened filling.

There’s also the matter of dessert, and possibly London’s finest Sticky Toffee Pudding. I’m trying not to sound too much like I’m damning with faint praise – London’s Best Sticky Toffee Pudding is a bit like saying London’s Finest Fish & Chips; it’s the best of a fairly undemanding bunch – but even so, this was very nice, a bit on the polite side compared to the rich, gooey examples up in Cartmel but with an excellent burnt butter ice cream and still very much worth your while.

I loved Smokestak, but then I was always very likely to. This is a restaurant that knows its audience, serves them well, and is unlikely to spend its days fretting about its vegetarian offering or whether there’s enough room for high chairs on the weekends. It’s a BBQ joint, and a very good one at that, and if you like things like brisket and ribs and beer served in frozen mugs then this will be your happy place. Judging by numbers filling up the place on a Monday lunchtime just after opening, Shoreditch has already made its verdict.

But let’s not pretend any of this is easy. No, they may not have been the first BBQ joint in town but the fact there are so few of these kinds of places worth your time at all means it joins only a very select group of superbly accomplished restaurants (off the top of my head, Pitt Cue, Shotgun, and er, that’s it) that treat American BBQ with the effort and attention it deserves. And if nothing else it just proves that even after all this time, a new restaurant operating right at the top of its game still has the power to leave this jaded food blogger tripping happily away and grinning ear to ear. So thanks, Smokestak. I owe you one.


Smokestak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - Baja California and the Valle de Guadelupe, Mexico (part 1)

The Valle de Guadalupe is a winemaking area in northern Mexico, about 45 minutes drive from the US border. No, I'd never heard about it either, but then that's hardly surprising given the miniscule profile Mexican wine has in the UK. When was the last time you saw anything from Mexico on a list? A quick CTRL+F of some of the largest lists in London (The Greenhouse, Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Le Gavroche, the Ledbury, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester) unearths not a single bottle from that part of the world. Even Mestizo, London's most notable (and since the sad closure of Santo Remedio, best, though that's not saying much) Mexican restaurant has a grand total of one producer on its menu, L.A Cetto; from the Valle de Guadalupe, yes, but it's still hardly a ringing endorsement.

But then Mexican wine in London suffers from pretty much the same fate as its food - under-represented, under-appreciated, unloved. It's a near-impossible task to convince anyone from the UK brought up on Old El Paso fajitas (shudder), Las Iguanas chain restaurants (heave) and any number of high street burrito joints using those weirdly spunky boil-in-the-bag tortilla casings that Mexico has one of the most dynamic and sophisticated food cultures in the world, and that the dross sullying its fine name on our shores has about as much in common with real Mexican food as a bown of real Japanese ramen does to a Pot Noodle. But you'll have to take my word for it, Mexican food, and particularly the cuisine of Baja California, is endlessly rewarding and generous of spirit, with a style and personality all of its own.

Of course, like any part of the world making a good chunk of its living from tourism (and American tourism at that), there are certain traps - the Leicester and St Mark's Squares of Baja California - where generosity of spirit plays second fiddle to making a quick buck, and where touts roam the streets attempting to snare passing trade with outlandish offers. One of these places is Puerto Nuevo, our choice for a lunch stop on the way to the Valley, and home to Casa de Llangosta.

It wasn't that any of the food at Casa de Llangosta was bad, it just felt a bit polished and production-line, with none of the heart and soul of the food we were to experience for much of the rest of the trip (or indeed had been lucky enough to enjoy in the fabulous taco tour from last year). House clam chowder was decent, and the house salsa punchy and fresh (everywhere in Baja makes their own salsa for dipping tortilla chips, and each are as strikingly different to each other as you can imagine - some thick and earthy, some sharp and light, some mild, some painfully hot), but the main event, spiny lobsters, tasted suspiciously previously-frozen - bland and chewy - and the price per head of $40 for all of the above seemed pretty steep.

Still, no great harm done, and our next stop would soon put things right. We began our wineries tour at Liceaga, a medium-sized operation just off the main road near our AirBnB, whose rosado turned out to be the standout of the 4 or 5 wines that made up the $180 (that's $ for Mexican pesos, not American dollars - same symbol for both, confusingly). Charming service, full-bodied wines and beautiful surroundings would turn out to be a feature of more or less every vineyard in the Valley we visited, and Liceaga set the standard early on with all these things in abundance.

Next was El Cielo, a vast, multi-million-dollar eco-winery and vineyard in the north of the valley, whose 'tastings' began with a tour of the temperature-controlled cellars and a lavishly produced introductory video. Normally I'd shy away from anything so corporate, but it was certainly interesting to see how much money had been ploughed into the Valley in recent years, and you could see where it had all gone - the wines were refined and elegant. A chardonnay was our favourite.

Unbeknownst to us, 2nd November was Mexican Day of the Dead, a day where the cemeteries of Ensenada (the regional capital of sorts) turn into giant carnivals and the whole population turns up to drink and be merry. Sadly, with the populace otherwise engaged there wasn't a huge number of people left to run the restaurants of the Valle de Guadalupe, and having decided against the rather expensive steakhouse attached to El Cielo, we soon realised that, well, there weren't a great deal of other options. Eventually after a rather fraught chase through closed restaurant after closed restaurant as the night closed in, we ended up by the side of the road eating hot dogs from a stall. And whether it was our sheer relief to have found anywhere open, or because the Mexicans generally know how to make the most out of any given foodstuff, or both, these hot dogs were pretty much the best any of us had eaten in our lives. I'm just sad I don't know what they guy selling them was called or even how to find him again. Still here is where he was that night in case you're ever in the area yourself and fancy trying the World's Best Hot Dogs.

Day Two began with a very traditional Mexican breakfast at the charming Casa Lupita, hidden (and I really do mean hidden) in the maze of dust roads surrounding the AirBnB. One of the more astonishing things about the Valle de Guadelupe is that aside from a few vineyards and restaurants positioned on the main strips, everything is tucked away down unlikely potholed backroads, vaguely signposted if you're lucky but more often than not just relying on word of mouth directions. More than once we'd given up on a particular recommendation because the increasingly tiny and cratered tracks couldn't possibly have led to anywhere with a water supply, only to give it another go later and realise that just a few bumpy minutes more we'd turn the corner to a huge, swanky vineyard with gravel drive and pretty outdoor furniture.

Anyway Lupita was great, from the sopes to start to the generous combination plates of chilaquiles rojos, machacha, frijoles and fried potatoes which I think I ate about 10% of before admitting defeat. Everything was fresh, vibrant and generous both in the sense of the spirit of generosity and the more tangible sense of the portion size, and served with an easy charm.

Ensenada is enough of a tourist attraction to have the odd strip of dive bars and shops full of jokey tat, but enough of a living, breathing coastal town to have proper, grown-up restaurants and some interesting parks and museums. The fish market was worth a quick look but seemed a bit depleted, possibly due to the dia de los muertos celebrations the day before, but was on the way to our lunch spot of Muelle 3, a bright seafood bar near the harbour where we ate an interesting ceviche spiked with either soy or Maggie's sauce (we couldn't decide; either way it was very nice) and octopus with huitlacoche.

Back in the Valley again after the Ensenada jaunt, and fortified by a dip in the icy cold AirBnB swimming pool (it's the night-time temperatures that dictate the habitability of the pool, apparently, and night-times in the Valley in November are chilly), we trotted next door to another fantastically swanky vineyard tucked on an unlikely backroad called Tres Valles. Tastings here are held in a kind of treehouse above a carpet of dried grapes, and the vineyard grounds are decorated by huge metal animal sculptures by a local artist. Their wines, again leaning towards powerful reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and Petit Syrah, were silky smooth, and being the only people in the place (again) we had all the time in the world to enjoy them.

We were clearly getting the hang of things now, and in stark contrast to the tribulations of the night before, dinner on day two was booked, recommended, and about as far away from a roadside hot dog stall as you could possibly imagine. Drew Deckman is a decorated American chef who's settled in Baja after various positions in restaurants around the world, and in this exquisite spot overlooking the Mogor vineyard serves exciting modern cuisine using ingredients from their own kitchen gardens, and fish and meat from the wider Baja peninsula.

It's easy to be dazzled by the surroundings at Deckman's even before you get to the food; there is no finer way to end the day than to watch the sun go down over the Valley, watching chefs busy themselves in the open garden kitchen and enjoying wine made from grapes growing on vines literally yards away. But fortunately, the food more than lived up to the incredible setting, from sensitively dressed local oysters, through ox tongue and percebes, grilled valley quail and sweet pickled veg. Only a rather dry pork belly course and the strange compulsion of the staff to rush us through dinner as fast as humanly possible (the whole thing was over in about 20 minutes) took the sheen off slightly. Still, look at that bloody view.

And we were only halfway through. Watch this space for part two.