Friday, 21 September 2018

The Hero of Maida, Maida Vale

Usually I write up my restaurant visits in chronological order, for my own sanity more than anything else, but given the most significant meal following that rather disappointing dinner on the Walworth Road was (spoiler alert) another rather disappointing dinner on the Walworth Road, for the sake of variety I'm instead going to skip forward a few days to Maida Vale and the latest and greatest Henry Harris gastropub The Hero of Maida.

As much as anything in the restaurant world is a sure-thing, the ability of Harris and his business partner James McCulloch to aquire, beautifully renovate and reinvigorate handsome old London pubs is something approaching a given. I have not stopped raving about the Coach in Clerkenwell to anyone who would listen (and many who won't) since I first went back in February, and countless lunches there since (it's quite handy for the office) have done nothing to dissuade me that this is one of the absolute best way of spending your dinner money. I loved the food at Racine in Knightsbridge when Harris was cooking there, but it was quite pricey and the room a bit frilly and old-school. The Coach took all that was good about Racine - namely, the kind of classy French/British game and seafood cooking that you'd travel continents to eat - and served it in a no-nonsense (albeit smartly dressed) Clerkenwell boozer where you could just as happily drop in for a pint as you could sit down to a lavish multi-course spread and finish up with a nice Armagnac by the fire. I love the Coach. I love it.

And I love the Hero of Maida too, so much so that following a blindingly good evening there as a guest when it first opened I wasted very little time in organising a return visit, in game season. Because of all my happy memories of Racine, it's trips in late summer and happy evenings picking at the bones of a roast grouse that have brought me the most joy. These guys really know how to cook a grouse.

But first, a little starter of colourful seasonal veg, beets and squash and rocket pesto, with sourdough croutons for a bit of crunch and all seasoned beautifully. The lighter beetroot (I think it was) underneath had been sliced thin and soaked in oil like a carpaccio, and that and the pesto, with its punch of garlic, brought to mind the late Mediterranean summer. You really couldn't ask for much more from a salad.

Mains were all, also, essentially unimprovable. The rabbit dish from the Coach also makes an appearance at the Hero, and is just as wonderful here, without a hint of dryness (quite an achievement if past experiences with restaurant rabbit are anything to go by), hung with smoke from the grill, and topped with shards of Alsace bacon so fragile and translucent it's like eating pressed bacon floss. Served on a plate of silky smooth mustard sauce, it's a masterclass in French cooking, yet somehow far more at home here reinvented as a £16 gastropub main than something from a stuffy Parisian bistro.

Devilled kidneys is traditionally a more solidly British affair, but even here some fancy French techniques (particularly a very nice pommes purée) have been put to judicious use to give the whole thing a bit more oomph. Between this and the Guinea Grill's version of the dish on toast, I doubt I could choose a favourite, but when why should anyone have to choose? You should make it your mission to try both.

And then of course, there's the grouse. To say I'm obsessed with these funky little game birds is an understatement - I will never pass on an opportunity to eat them, and no matter what the presentation, from the Parkers Arms version served off-the-bone and dressed in local blackberries, to the Holborn Dining Room's beautiful grouse pithivier, if you're serving, I'm buying. But hand on heart, if I had to just eat one style of grouse for the rest of my life, it would be as above - with delicate golden game crisps, on toast soaked in foie gras, alongside bread sauce and salty, rich armagnac jus. The flesh of the bird was soft and gently pink, and with that ever-so-slightly bitter taste of fresh moorland and heather. It was worth the journey by itself - in fact it justified the existence of the whole restaurant by itself.

On this occasion, we didn't have dessert, but I know from the Coach that Harris puts just as much effort into the pastry section as he does the savouries. Instead, we paid up - the bill inflated slightly by the £31 grouse but overall not an unreasonable amount of money for such quality - and jumped on the bus home.

It's inevitable given how brilliantly things have gone so far - though should be no less of an astonishing achievement nonetheless - that Harris & McCulloch already have their sights on a fourth branch of their... I hate calling it a chain but I suppose that's what it is now, albeit an extremely high-end one. Yes the next in the chain is to be the Harlot in Chiswick, of which details at the moment are scarce but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess they'll serve high-end British/French gastropub cuisine in a lovely room, and it will be just as much fun as all the others. It's nothing short of incredible what these people are doing; ask anyone in the business and they'll tell you running one top gastropub is a constant battle, never mind four of the damn things at once. But if anyone can, these guys can. And we are all the richer for their efforts.


Monday, 17 September 2018

Louie Louie, Walworth Road

I should probably say up front, at the start of what will turn out to be a rather mediocre review, that of all the ultra-specialist Japanese restaurant types, I've always found okonomiyaki to be the least engaging. It's not that there's anthing particularly wrong about the combination of shredded cabbage, egg, bacon, mayonnaise and tamarind sauce (and whatever else you may find in there - okonomiyaki literally translating as "how you like"), it's just that I would seek my fill of kaiseki, yakitori, sushi, ramen, udon, soba and a few others, in that order, before I began to harbour a serious desire for cabbage omelette.

"But it's comforting, hangover food," I hear you say, "it's not supposed to be life-changing". Perhaps not. But it seems odd to me that Japan, a country that raises almost every aspect of eating out to an art form, would obsess (and they do obsess, based on the number of okonomiyaki joints I passed in Tokyo when I was there) on something so... well, ordinary.

It's also probably fair to say that to get the "full" okonomiyaki experience you need to be sitting around a hotplate with your dinner cooking in front of you - it's an interactive experience - and for various very sensible reasons this isn't possible at a popup in a café on Walworth Road. So, while the main events cooked backstage we got stuck into some starters, such as this very pleasant arrangement of pickled mushrooms and cucumber....

Fried lotus roots were greaseless and crisp, dressed in seaweed salt...

Japanese "tacos" were a bit wet and bland, but had a decent serving of fresh tuna so weren't a complete waste of time...

...and ssam short rib, Korean interlopers, had a lovely soft texture and plenty of flavour once paired with gochujang.

"Angry wings" were nice enough, certainly pretty heavy on the scotch bonnet, though could have done with a bit of a crisper skin. Also, rocket is the devil. But apart from that, fine.

After that, the okonomiyaki arrived. I have three photos here of the three different styles, but as you can tell, visually they weren't exactly distinctive so I'll leave you to decide which was which because I sure as hell have no idea myself. And it has to be said, they tasted pretty similar to eat too, despite one containing seafood, one involving beef & mustard, and one with pork and kimchi. This is probably largely to do with the fact that 90% of any okonomiyaki is egg and cabbage, dressed in mayo and tamarind sauce, and whatever else you add to the mix tends to get a bit lost. As I have mentioned, they were fine - not inedible, not wrong, just a bit underwhelming. And at £13/£14 a pop, not particularly good value either.

I should point out that by the time we left Louie Louie on that wet Thursday evening, every table in this attractive little space was taken, so there are clearly enough omelette fans in SE17 to make the numbers work - at least for now - and despite my own reservations, for this I'm glad. I may not have been bowled over myself, but anyone trying to do something a bit different, in an area of town that you'd usually only visit on the way to somewhere else, should be applauded. I doubt I'd be back, but if the idea of paying £12 for a cabbage omelette fills your heart with joy, well, you know where to go.


Friday, 14 September 2018

The Wife of Bath, Wye

Wye is a picturesque, peaceful Kentish town of half-timbered cottages and quaint, friendly pubs where you get the strong impression very little, apart perhaps from the addition of the odd Co-op or nail bar, has changed much in the last 500 years. In this bucolic scene, the Wife of Bath, with its handsome Georgian frontage and medieval cottage rooms, looks right at home; as English as mutton pie, as Kentish as hops or gypsy tart. Here, you think, I'll grab a room temperature pint of local IPA, sit by the fire and pick at some rustic local nibbles, and soak up the Best of British.

Well, no. You won't be doing that, because the Wife of Bath's attractive edifice is home not to a traditional country pub, or even anything so 20th century as a wine bar, but in fact a serious, modern Spanish restaurant; two bright, spacious rooms populated by effortlessly attentive staff, serving the kind of high-end Iberian fare you would be more than pleased to pay for in Galicia, never mind in deepest Kent. It's the brainchild of Gordon Ramsay protegée (though don't hold that against him) Mark Sargeant, who bought the place in 2016 following the rampant success of Rocksalt in nearby Folkestone. I didn't make it to Rocksalt myself on this trip, but my parents, who are retired and don't need to schedule their days around office hours, visited on the Friday night and reported back: "lovely fresh seafood with fantastic views", so that sounds like a recommendation to me.

Anyway, the Wife of Bath. Dinner began with a succession of substantial nibbles, first of which a single huge seared scallop, sat in what I think was some kind of pumpkin purée and topped with crisp shallots. You'd have to be dead inside not to enjoy a plump, gently caramelised scallop, sweet and fresh like this, the neon yellow of the sauce contrasting nicely with deep blue ceramic tableware.

Cheese croquettas suffered slightly from underseasoning, but still had plenty of flavour and an irresistable delicate crunchy crust. They came topped with a surprisingly punchy chilli jam, which I like to think came from the farm we drove past on the Saturday that had a giant inflatable chilli parked outside it. Or maybe they just came from their usual Brindisa suppliers. Either way, nice chilli jam.

Chicken wings, meticulously boned, battered and honey-glazed, were a good example of the kind of effort the Wife of Bath put into their food. Presumably it would have been a lot easier to leave the bones in, but these little extra touches are always appreciated. By the customers, at least, if not the kitchen staff...

Starters began with a buttery mound of wild mushrooms, topped with a duck egg, and surrounded by a wall of superior Ortiz anchovies. This was, as you might imagine, great - just the right side of rich, satisfying rather than overwhelming, the anchovies doing their wonderful umami-dense thing.

Baked crab had another surprisingly powerful hit of chilli, a pile of pickled fennel to cut through the sweet seafood, and a couple of slices of excellent house sourdough, so no issues there either. Personally, I'm always slightly happier with cold crab meat than hot - something about the texture of hot crab is slightly unnerving - but it was still very nice.

Beetroot salad is very rarely the most enticing option on a menu, but quite unexpectedly this was a highlight of the starters. Fantastic local beets, of all different shapes and sizes, alongside smoky charcoal-grilled courgettes, were studded with Valdeon, a salty blue cheese, and bouncy broad beans. It added up to the perfect late summer salad, colourful and textural, the kind of thing only the most accomplished and confident kitchens can produce - the Wife of Bath make it look easy.

Had I been eating with a few of my more carnivorous friends the £100 12-years-old Galician sirloin to share would have been a tempting - in fact inevitable - proposition. But with mum & dad largely beef-free these days I was forced to go alone with a plate of boldly pink Iberico pork loin, though believe me it was no hardship. I'm yet to find any part of the famous black-legged pigs I don't love, and this was no exception - unbelievably tender and full of flavour, presented simply with a dollop or two of romesco and some toasted cauliflower as well as more wild mushrooms. It was one of those perfect main course dishes - a supremely good lead ingredient, sensitively presented with flavours and textures to let it be its absolute best.

Wood pigeon, dark and smoked from the grill, had a powerful gamey flavour and the "spiced cherries" were a good foil for the bitter (though not unpleasantly so) meat. I think you either like game or you don't - I know at least one person who, fearless food adventure in most respects, can't go anywhere near a hung grouse or teal, despite mine and others' best efforts to convince her otherwise. Fine, but I consider grouse in particular to be one of the finest foodstuffs on the entire planet, and I can't help feeling she's missing out. Still, all the more for me I suppose - and she is at least saving a bit of money.

"Pea and leek tart" was pretty generously proportioned for a starter ordered as a main, and the Idiazabal cheese used to bind it all together had an incredibly deep flavour. Some of the food at the Wife of Bath is solid, unreconstructed Spanish, but you will notice that much of the menu is a kind of Spanish/gastropub fusion, Brindisa ingredients and the odd technique like romesco to liven up what would otherwise be solid British dishes. This tart is a good example of that fusion style - the kind of thing you might order from a number of country pubs, only using much more interesting Spanish cheese than the usual goats or cheddar.

Pre-dessert was a very clever coconut parfait topped with coriander. Probably not very Spanish - or English for that matter - but very successful, the floral herb really sitting well with the dairy.

I've always said, if you want the measure of a restaurant, try their home made ice cream. Every bit of effort a kitchen puts into its ice cream is obvious in the result, and at the Wife of Bath their version, studded with raisins and soaked in Pedro Ximinez sherry, had a texture so utterly smooth and silky it almost had no texture at all. It just floated into you, a cloud of cream, sugar and sweet alcohol.

And finally, an orange and saffron ice cream sandwich, topped with fresh local raspberries and micro basil. Another top bit of ice cream work, this also cleverly fused the British and the Spanish to great effect.

Those of you familiar with the latest foodie obsessions will have probably noticed that there's been a lot of attention on Kent in recent times. It all began (probably) with Stephen Harris' the Sportsman, where in making his own seaweed butter and evaporating seawater to make salt, was one of the first pubs to demonstrate that hyper-localism can find an enthusiastic audience. More recently, just down the road at the Fordwich Arms, a different set of enthusiasts have taken the bounty of the Garden of England and run with it, creating a menu of genuinely astonishing class. I can also recommend the Goods Shed and the Corner House, both in Canterbury, where you can get your fill of Kentish goods without breaking the bank.

The Wife of Bath deserves to be spoken about in this exalted company not despite the fact that it's a Spanish restaurant (of sorts) but because it has cleverly combined everything good about the fantastic produce available on their doorstep and the best of a cuisine practiced a thousand miles away. I'm not saying it's ever easy to run a great gastropub anywhere, but it's a model that has been thoroughly tried and tested, and in 2018 is almost (whisper it) becoming a bit of a safe option. Here in Wye, you can eat Iberico pork with local mushrooms, dayboat fish with Spanish anchovies, house sourdough and Spanish Tempranillo, and it all makes absolutely perfect sense. Why shouldn't the best Spanish restaurant in the county be in a sleepy half-timbered medieval town, 2 hours' drive from London? Viva Kent!


I was invited to the Wife of Bath and didn't pay for dinner or accommodation, although we did pay for 2 nights in a different room in the building. Which was lovely, as you can see. Also - check out the insanely low minibar prices.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Laksamania, Fitzrovia

Summer must be a difficult time for soup-based restaurants. Their job is to persuade the general London public that what they really want for lunch during a record-breaking heatwave is to sit down in a darkened room to a huge, steaming bowl of hot liquid and not, I don't know, go for a bit of sushi and an ice cream in the park. For my own part, I'm quite happy to eat weather-inappropriate meals as long as the air conditioning is strong enough (I had a steak & kidney pudding at Holborn Dining Room when it was 32degC outside) but would I queue up for ramen at Kanada-Ya, or chicken noodle soup at Tongue & Brisket, if it was cracking the flags? Probably not.

So despite recommendations coming in thick and fast for Laksamania over the last few weeks, I couldn't really entertain the idea of eating there until the temperature fell to something below "existential global climate crisis" levels. Fortunately some time during the middle of August the heavens opened, and I trudged through a downpour to Newman Street, where a healthy mix of tourists and local workers had sheltered from the unfamiliar - though most welcome - weather.

The problem with reviewing ultra-specialist, one-dish restaurants isn't so much that it's unfair to draw conclusions about a place based on one menu item - I can hardly do much else - but that the resulting blog post feels a bit thin. But then perhaps not every post needs to be a dozen paragraphs musing on the infinite complexities of life; this is a laksa restaurant, serving laksa, and I think as long as I tell you what the laksa is like I could consider it Job Done.

So yes, the laksa is good. I went for the Ipoh (a city in northwest Malaysia) variation, which had a good satisfying thickness, plenty of fresh seafood, robust slices of salty roast pork and (because why the hell not) half a boiled egg. In the grand scheme of things I would say it's better than the version they serve at Rasa Sayang in Chinatown, though £5 more than that, but not quite as good as the Khow Suey in Gymkhana, and I know that's Burmese and not Malaysian but it's a fairly similar concept. Also, the Gymkhana one comes as part of a £40 lunch so you'd expect that to have a bit more about it. A more obvious a hit of sambal (I think that's how they make it) in the Laksamania version and you would have had a lot more reason to recommend it, but it's still a pretty decent way of spending your lunch money in Fitzrovia.

And so I didn't have to base a whole review on just one bowl of food, I ordered a few sticks of chicken satay, which arrived in a heavenly cloud of charcoal smoke with a good peanut dip. So no problems there either. And service was utterly charming, attentive and friendly and happy to let some tables to linger and chat while bringing out my own food at the same time as the bill, as requested. The "VIP discount", by the way, was the 50% off food soft launch offer, a complete surprise but good for them.

As the nights close in and the temperatures drop further, there's every chance Laksamania will find a healthy local audience, although it should be noted this is a tricky part of town. Just further up Newman Street is a site which used to be the excellent Newman Street Tavern, turned into the very good indeed Dickie Fitz and is now in the process of being converted into a Mr Fogg cocktail bar, so nothing's guaranteed. But they're doing what they do well, and with heart, and probably deserve more than a shortish blog post by someone who has hardly a second clue about Malaysian food and a brutal score out of ten. So why not just go and try it for yourself?