Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Picture, Fitzrovia

What lucky, lucky people we are, us Londoners. We have our pick of bright, friendly restaurants, handy for the tube, where we can enjoy exciting food and interesting drinks and for it to cost less than a new pair of jeans. My only worry is that we're in danger of being a bit spoiled. Picture is, objectively, a fantastic place to spend your dinner money, comfortable and easy to enjoy, and serving the kind of acutely seasonally-aware dishes that make you proud to be British. I just hope that all this effort and skill isn't ignored amist the tidal wave of astonishing new places opening across the capital.

To be fair, there was no sign of them being ignored last night. It's a rare thing in fact, in these days of careful table management, to see, at one point, every single seat in the house taken - a lovely thing, however much the kitchen may have been cursing their misfortune. Front of house, though, never missed a beat, and their general amiableness and attention was just one of the things that made the meal so enjoyable.

Firstly, there was the house bread. Whipped butter is on its way to being a cliché now but is never not enjoyable, and the oven-fresh seeded rolls that came with it were faultless, breaking apart with a soft crunch and puff of steam.

Then, the house cocktails, the Bellini (a very reasonable £7) made with proper peach juice, and a gin, grapefruit and basil martini (£8.50) that was ice cold and also completely lovely. Restaurant cocktails are all about the "last mile" - can they get it to you without the egg white froth going flat and the frost leaving the sides of the glass? Picture can.

The tasting menu began with a chilled red pepper soup, a colourful gazpacho-ey thing that reminded we are still in the dying days of summer. I will happily eat factory-made gazpacho from one of those cartons in Spanish supermarkets, so when cold soup is done properly, as here, I have no complaints at all.

The best thing it's possible to do to broccoli (in my own cheerfully clueless opinion) is boil to soften it, then grill it to get a lovely smoky char. Here it came with some soft, citrussy goat's curd and a pleasant arrangement of late summer herbs and tomatoes. Toasted slivers of house bread added a bit of texture.

Pork! A great big slab of it, and if that wasn't enough, some sprigs of bitter endive and a genuinely surprising plum/summer berry sauce. The only thing I could have lived without was the bits of beetroot, but then that's probably just me; I'm not really a fan. It tastes like soil and gives you a hell of a shock in the bathroom if you're not expecting it.

Although my iPhoto didn't exactly help, the next sea bream course didn't look too dissimilar when it arrived - strangely poached-looking, rather devoid of colour and texture. But happily, all the beauty was in the tasting, a lovely flaky bit of perfectly seasoned fish and livened by fennel and a shocking green dill sauce.

By this point the sun had gone down, and what was once a space made bright by a large skylight had now gone all cozy and candlelit. Great if you're on a date, not so great if you're a food blogger attempting to take pictures of your food. So yes the above is aged hangar steak (we were told) with swiss chard, carrot and cumin. Lovely stuff, particularly the beef which was noticeably strong in flavour, but hangar steak is pretty chewy at the best of times, our fancy Laguiole knives hadn't been recently sharpened, and that coupled with the high rims on the bowl it was presented in made sawing up the pieces to eat quite a fierce challenge. Managed it though, in the end.

The best thing about the dessert wasn't the light chocolate mousse, or the lovely fresh blackberries, or even the shards of biscuit, but the "peanut butter cream" which like eating Sun-Pat put through a foam gun.

So. For just over £50/head with more than enough booze, there is very little you could pick fault with from the moment we stepped through the door to the moment we wobbled happily off into the night. And yet perhaps the most notable thing about Picture is that, in 2014, it has to fight to be noticed next to other twinkling stars of London cuisine like the Dairy, Toast, the Clove Club, and so on. If I'm going to be brutally honest, perhaps next to some of these star attractions it does have a bit of a battle on its hands. But I see no reason to assume the competition won't eventually bring benefits to all concerned, especially us lucky Londoners. Us lucky, lucky Londoners.


Picture on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Dysart, Petersham

Richmond is a very posh part of London. It is for this reason I was worried about accepting an invitation to eat there, because as you may have noticed, posh parts of the country and good restaurants do not often mix. When was the last time you had a decent meal in Hampstead, for example, or Chelsea? Or further afield in Beaconsfield or Weybridge? Henley or Harpenden? With very few exceptions (there is Bray, I suppose, though that's largely the work of one man), high property prices and good dinners out don't go together, whilst conversely the parts of town that show up blue on the house price heat maps boast some smashing value restaurants - Camberwell, Peckham, etc.

The only other time I'd been tempted on the 65 bus out to Richmond was when Petersham Nurseries (still the most famous restaurant in these parts) took on a new head chef and invited a bunch of bloggers/journalists to try it out. It wasn't bad, if you don't mind eating a lot of artfully arranged vegetables in a greenhouse, but I am never going to be in the target market for a £20 bowl of salad, nor the £4,000 chest of drawers they saw fit to attempt to flog in the same room, and so I never felt the desperate need to return under my own steam.

The Dysart though is a different prospect entirely. The menu contains a great big list of all my favourite things to eat, from veal sweetbreads to duck for two to crème brûlée; alongside the usual wine matching menu they have an option to try matching beers instead, which is pretty forward-looking; and there's an astonishingly reasonable set menu for around £20/head. It even has its own bus stop. I was convinced.

Of course I didn't actually ask for the £20 menu, I mean I'm not travelling an hour out of my comfort zone to do things by halves, so obviously we had the tasting menu, but the point is the £20 menu is an option, should you want it.

A tray of neatly lined-up nibbles kicked things off - from memory a little cheese/tomato biscuit, a deep-fried porky nugget topped with chilli, a surprising mint/lemon/polenta cube (refreshing and smooth) and (celestial fanfare) scallop nigiri topped with freshly shaved summer truffle. No prizes for guessing which my favourite was.

Next, bread (yes bread, that's a photo of some bread, just go with it), and this was really something. A soda bread of sorts, we were told, but I've never had soda bread quite like this, with a dark, biscuit-y crust encasing a moist, cakey inside. We did our best to leave some to accompany the next couple of courses but after barely a few seconds our resolve crumbled and we polished it off.

Charred mackerel with braised daikon, ginger and champagne married a lovely technique (I have never not enjoyed a soft piece of mackerel fillet with a smoky, crispy skin) with some clever Asian flavours. It was very pretty, too - just imagine something approaching the opposite of how my photography makes it look.

Local cep mushrooms were the main ingredient in this risotto of sorts, packing some deep, foresty flavours and bound with a silky sauce that I think might have involved chicken. It was very well presented, and miniature sprigs of "golden" oregano added a remarkably intense herby note, but it was all let down slightly by very underdone rice - not just slightly al dente but pretty crunchy. Still, you can see where they were going with it, and the rich flavours were enough to make up for the technical error.

Wild sea bass, crispy skin, bright white flaky flesh, everything as it should be, came in a very interesting "spiced curry leaf sauce", shocking deep green with a dense, earthy texture. Bok choi and kohlrabi kept the Asian fusion theme going, and it all added up to a hugely enjoyable dish, hard to fault at all.

The next course, beef in miso mustard sauce, was nothing if not experimental. Individually, all the elements were very impressive; a pink fillet of fine aged beef; a sticky, shiny puck of slow-roasted cheaper cut; swirls and curls of colourful heritage carrots. But though I loved the miso mustard sauce in of itself, it was way too powerful for the beef, and completely smothered the delicate meat with a blanket of vinegar and umami. But then having said that, I still enjoyed both the beef and the sauce, just not on the same forkful. Perhaps it would have worked better with a stronger, gamier protein like venison - who knows. Still, you have to admire their imagination.

Local damsons with peaches were full of colour and the joys of summer, even if my photo makes it look like something left over from a surgical procedure. Damsons, like gooseberries or elderberries, can't be intensively farmed, so it's always worth choosing them if you see them on a menu.

Desserts made sure the meal ended on a high - or rather, two highs. Valrhona chocolate and praline bar with miso salted caramel ice cream, well, you can imagine how good that was. The raspberries lined up neatly on top had a brilliant flavour, probably grown locally, and the chocolate "bar" was much lighter than it looked, containing a mousse-like, nutty interior. And pineapple and brown butter financier was hot straight out of the oven, golden crunchy brown on the outside and soft and moist inside. Blobs of cardamom jam added that Asian twist, as the miso did with the chocolate dessert.

As you will have probably concluded by this point, the Dysart is a very good restaurant indeed. Fusion food has the potential to be a muddled disaster in the wrong hands, yet on this menu the odd Japanese touch here and there often only accented and enhanced the modern classical cooking, only occasionally proving a distraction. And then again, even when, as in the beef dish, the Asian seasoning was slightly heavy-handed, it only made an interesting mess, not a complete failure. And while it's easy to pick fault with things like undercooked rice, so many other things went right - and not just right, but stunningly well, that in the end it was impossible not to be utterly charmed with the place. On top of all that, £60 for a tasting menu and £18.50/£22.50 for a set menu is a hugely reasonable sum for cooking at this level. All of a sudden, Zone 4 seems a perfectly reasonable distance to travel for dinner.


I was invited to review the Dysart

Dysart Arms on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Clove Hitch, Liverpool

Liverpool's restaurant scene continues to improve, taking its own sweet time and in no particular hurry to get anywhere quickly, but even so (and seemingly occasionally only by accident) producing more decent places to eat. Just a couple of doors down from the lovely Side Door (which itself now boasts a more mature, elaborate menu than when I first visited a few years ago) and in a similarly impressive Georgian townhouse on Hope Street, is the brand new(*) Clove Hitch.

Nods to modern dining trends are very much in evidence here, like they are almost everywhere at the moment; there's a bourbon bar downstairs, with a separate menu of burgers and hot dogs, and a long list of European craft beers. It's just something we all have to get used to now - overnight, every bar and restaurant owner in Liverpool decided that they did, after all, want a piece of the London/US dirty food pie and now it's just bloody unavoidable. But despite these affectations, the main part of Clove Hitch is a nice, normal restaurant serving modern British dishes and doing so for a typically Liverpool-modest slice of your wallet.

Scallops with black pudding and cauliflower may sound a bit unambitious but there's a reason these ingredients are so often put together - they taste nice. And yes, OK, they're pretty difficult to mess up, but there's no great shame in that when you're charging prices like this. Smoked chipotle butter added an interesting smoked note and pea shoots took the place of the, er, peas you often see presented with scallops and black pudding. The square plate was a bit weird but only a minor distraction.

Salt & pepper calamari appeared to come not with advertised chimichurri sauce but with the same harissa oil that accompanied the lamb later on, but I have a sneaky feeling harissa would have worked better anyway. They were moist inside and with a gentle crunch, and though again hardly groundbreaking were still perfectly pleasant to eat.

I appear to have not taken a picture of the soup of the day - Stilton and broccoli - but I'm sure you can guess what a bowl of soup looks like and anyway, as it was so dark in there most of my pictures look like something taken at the bottom of the ocean during a thunderstorm. It came with some decent bread which I would have liked to have seen brought to the table a bit earlier, but at least I got to try some.

Aubergine and feta rolls with grilled broccoli and cous cous was a vaguely Eastern Mediterranean thing, nice and summery and some good contrasting textures.

Bloody hell these photos aren't getting any better, are they. This - you'll have to take my word for it - is some grilled, marinated lamb chops with cous cous, mint yoghurt and green beans. Lovely pink lamb, good char on the outside, and the fresh yoghurt matched it perfectly.

And this isn't the Creature from the Black Lagoon but in fact my favourite of the dishes that evening, a wonderful sticky slow-roasted beer-braised beef cheek with buttery wild mushrooms. The sauce it was coated in was one of those treacle-thick reductions that make you want to lick the plate clean. Well it made me want to do that anyway. So I did.

We steered clear of the cheeseboard; although it came from the usually reliable Liverpool Cheese Company the Clove Hitch appear to have gone for a selection of weird flavoured Lancashire and black-pepper-coated creamy goat's that tends to suggest whoever's put together the board isn't really that big a fan of cheese in the first place. So instead we enjoyed a very lovely chocolate & hazelnut tart (with a particularly impressive Frangelico ice cream) and a lemon tart.

The total for three people came to just over £60. The early evening deal included a glass of wine each, and though my fancy London habit of ordering a craft beer bumped up the final total a bit, it was still all an absolute steal considering, well, considering we enjoyed it all. Service was a bit slow but a large office party populating the lower side room probably didn't help on this front, and all said and done we left happy. In a city filling rapidly up with identikit dirty burger joints and lazy Southern Fried Chicken concepts, you can certainly do a lot worse. Even if that's not always stunningly obvious from my godawful photos. Sorry.

(*)I've just been told it's not brand new at all. Sorry.


The Clove Hitch on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Racine Kitchen, Knightsbridge

The way things normally work on this blog, more through neccessity than anthing else, is that I visit a restaurant once, then write it up. I'd love to be able to exhaustively work through a menu before making up my mind, or visit at different times of the week to assess the different service shifts, but as you can hopefully appreciate, I have neither the time nor the money to report on anything other than a single, initial visit. If you want expert analysis, try the New York Times.

Now you may think that's unfair, but I can honestly count on one hand the times, in over 8 years and 500 blog posts, that I've really wanted to drastically revise a score after a second visit. Tayyabs would get more than the 8/10 I settled on after somehow failing to order the tinda masala way back in 2007, and perhaps I was a bit easy on Ping Pong given the much better, and much cheaper, dim sum restaurants I've been lucky enough to eat at since. But generally it's surprising how little a repeat visit changes much.

So you'll just have to take my word that although I've stopped by at Racine semi-regularly over the last few years, and have had ample time to question and revise any snap judgments I may have made on the first visit, my opinion of the place has hardly altered since I first set through the door one cold winter's day back in (I think) 2009. Namely, it's a lovely little restaurant serving very nice food and I like it very much.

And here's why. Firstly, there's a menu of regional French dishes with phrases like "Deep fried snails & bacon" (above), "Calf's brain with capers", and "Pâté de foie de volaille" used with appealing confidence, it's enough to make you want to drape a string of onions round your neck, wear a beret and scoff the lot.

There's also that soft, dark room, white tablecloths and cozy bench seating in the traditional Parisian bistro style, and immaculately-appointed staff that glide about with surprising ease considering how closely packed some of the seating is.

But most of all, there is the grouse. Every year, as soon as the season starts, restaurants in London fall over themselves to be the first, the cheapest or make the most innovative use of this wonderful game bird. Gymkhana tandoori spice it, the Lockhart deep-fry it, the Ledbury hay-smoke it, more than one Modern British restaurant sous-vide and daintily joint it into geometric shapes and drizzle jus around it. And good luck to them all. But there's only one way to enjoy grouse as far as I'm concerned, and that's roasted, sat on toast spread with paté, and accompanied by chips, game and bread sauces. And there's nowhere does that better than Racine.

I feel the same way about people who don't like grouse as I do those who say they don't like pongy cheese or caviar. I'm not contemptuous, I do sympathise; I can completely understand where they're coming from - these are strong flavours, deep, funky, grown-up flavours that sail perilously close to tasting of things that you'd normally cross the street to avoid, never mind eat. But if you can get past that, there's something deeply rewarding about eating something that tastes of where it came from; of wet moorland, heather, summer berries and yes, of dead animal. This is not a sanitised, abstract lump of protein bred in a cage and carefully carved free of personality. Roast grouse forces you confront the realities of your dinner - it lived, it flew, it was shot, it died, and here we are.

Of course, there are always other reasons to eat at Racine, such as the aforementioned deep-fried snails and bacon, accompanied by poached duck egg and leeks. I also tried a bit of someone's light prawn and crab cocktail (very good) and even a fairly humdrum-sounding goat's cheese and tomato salad (above) was made more interesting by some very good tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. I have also, in the past, enjoyed some wonderful steaks (the current offering is a côte de boeuf for two with Béarnaise sauce for £52, which I happen to think is pretty good value) and I have a lot of time for their signature garlic and saffron mousse with mussels, something which sounds pretty odd on paper but always impresses.

I'll forgive them the 14.5% service charge which seems a bit cheeky in a city more used to 12.5%, and for their perhaps slightly underwhelming dessert offerings (somewhere this French should be doing tarte tatin, surely?) because they also do a £17.50 lunch special (hangar steak, Béarnaise, chips and a glass of wine - bargain) and said 14.5% service is admittedly excellent. But mainly, I'll keep going back to Racine for the grouse. Some things you just don't mess with.


Racine on Urbanspoon