Monday, 9 July 2018

Wingmans, Kilburn

There was a time, not so long ago, when we thought we knew burgers. Available on every pub menu in Britain, not to mention all of the familiar international chains on every high street, they were as familiar to the average Briton as fish and chips or bacon sandwiches, a staple of the late-night kebab shop and Saturday afternoon back garden BBQ. Bun, minced beef, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, done. What's the big deal? What's the drama?

It took a wobbly streetfood van in the corner of a car park in Peckham in the summer of 2009 to wake us from our collective delusion. Britain had not, it turned out, actually known burgers. At all. Oh sure, we thought we had - we'd known things that looked like burgers, that had the vague form and texture of burgers, that were labelled as "burgers" on menus. But no, we hadn't ever known real burgers because here Yianni of the Meatwagon finally was to show us how it should be done, and how utterly misguided we were as a nation in thinking those sad, grey little piles of watery mince hiding inside floury bread rolls were anything approaching the real deal. No, the Meatwagon made real burgers, and a nation's eating habits were transformed.

The problem with the state of burgers in the UK pre-Meatwagon was that people thought they were already in their final form and never really put much of an effort into discovering they were wrong. And much can be said about the state of the country's Buffalo wings. Properly done, Buffalo chicken wings - named after the city of Buffalo in upstate New York and nothing to do with bison - are the ultimate American drinking food, the combination of spicy cayenne sauce (usually Frank's) cut with butter, crisp fried wings and fresh chunky blue cheese dip hitting all of the sour/sweet/hot/soft/crunch pleasure points. But order them from the majority of pubs and bars in the UK and you will be presented with chicken that has been any combination of smoked, grilled or baked, covered in anything from BBQ sauce to sweet chilli. And as for a decent blue cheese dip? Well, good luck with that. A trip to the Peckham "WingJam" last week confirmed the sad state of wing affairs in the capital - out of eight or so stalls, only one - from Brother Bird - were any good at all.

There are precious few wing specialists in London - and therefore the UK - offering anything approaching an acceptable product. My previous favourite was Orange Buffalo, who make probably the best blue cheese dip around, but their "Buffalo" sauce, nice though it is, is made using mango and is therefore non-standard. I'm a strong believer that you have to get the basic recipe correct first before experimenting with variations, and was happy to discover Wingmans (stupid name I know - should there be an apostrophe there? Why not Wing men?), newly installed on Kilburn High Road, seem to be playing things fairly straight. Frank's buffalo sauce, celery, blue cheese dip. Hopes were high.

First the good news, and it is very good news. The chicken wings themselves are basically perfect. Large, healthy looking things with a delicate fried crust, the flesh was moist and firm, and the sauce just exactly the right balance of tangy cayenne heat and dairy. Unfortunately (and it's a very big unfortunately) they'd seen fit to offer them with quite the worst "blue cheese" dip I'd come across outside of Domino's pizza, a horrid thin and artificial pile of gloop with no discernible texture and very little taste other than a faint note of chemical grease. The fact the same kitchen could make chicken wings so good and saw no issue in serving them with this travesty of a blue cheese dip is genuinely baffling. What were they thinking?

A couple of days before my trip up to Kilburn I'd found myself in the Temple Brew House, a friendly little spot near the office with an astonishing selection of draught beers. More out of hope than expectation I ordered their "Buffalo wings" and wasn't entirely surprised to discover they were disgusting - soggy, formless little things so overcooked they'd dissolved into mush, in an insipid "Buffalo" sauce that tasted more like Heinz tomato soup than anything involving Frank's Hot Sauce. However, bizarrely, the blue cheese dip they came with was wonderful - fresh and vibrant with huge chunks of blue cheese, it was everything a blue cheese sauce should be. Someone should get these guys together; with the Temple Brew house dip and the Wingmans chicken, they'd have an unbeatable combo. It would be like when Yianni met Scott Collins.

Wingmans (I hate saying that word) also do the usual Asian-influenced variations. Shanghai Oriental was decent, with the same good chicken and addictive crunch of the Buffalo paired with ginger, spring onion and coriander. I've certainly had far worse. And "Jamaican Me Crazy" wings were certainly the advertised "HOT!" although I'd quite liked to have seen scotch bonnet chillis being used instead of red for extra Carribbean authenticity.

Truffle parmesan fries were good, although leaving the skins on always smacks slightly of laziness. And a bowl of "spicy Korean gochujang and sesame cucumbers" was underpowered, tasting of little more than rubbery cucumber. So yes, the sides need a bit of work.

I don't know how to come to any easy conclusions about a restaurant that can get one half of a dish perfectly right, and another half incredibly wrong. I really want to give 10/10 for the chicken and 1/10 for the blue cheese dip, but that way madness lies so instead I'll just go for a score that vaguely reflects my overall satisfaction with the place; namely, not very satisfied but not completely disappointed either. Plus there's every chance that one day soon Wingmans may realise their blue cheese dip is a disaster and will have another shot at it. Until then, the search for the perfect product goes on. Is anyone out there ready to be the Meatwagon of Buffalo wings?


Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Park Chinois, Mayfair

It's possible, I think, to appreciate the fact that Alan Yau is an extraordinarily successful and talented restaurateur, whilst at the same time not being one hundred percent delighted with the reality of eating in his restaurants. Clearly Wagamama is a long way removed from the concept he originally drew up and is easy to criticise in its current high-streets-and-airport-terminals format, ditto Busaba Eathai, but even the food at flagship Hakkasan left me a bit cold, and I didn't get on with Duck & Rice at all; £12 for Singapore fried noodles? No thanks.

But what all his sites unarguably do have going for them is style. Hakkasan is drop-dead gorgeous. The stained-glass windows and marble fireplaces in Duck & Rice take your breath away. And though it's often hard for restaurant nerds like me to admit it, a million-dollar interior and sparkling service are quite often more than enough in of themselves to create a special sense of occasion and give punters a good time, even if what appears on the table is more ordinary. Everyone has different priorities, and I can't begrudge anyone favouring a bit of razzmatazz and nice expensive handwash in the toilets over groundbreaking cuisine, I'd just be surprised if any of them read this blog.

So in accepting an invitation to Park Chinois I though I knew more or less exactly how the evening would go. Firstly, I knew that the interiors would be impressive, and indeed they were - every inch of the place glitters with opulence, from the intricately-patterned banquettes to the jewel-box bar of crystal and gold. I was also expecting service to be smart and attentive, and that came true too - though we had some issues with their taste in food (more on that later), each member of staff was sharp as a button the whole evening. But I also assumed that the food would end up playing second fiddle to everything else going on, and on that score I'm happy to report I was completely wrong.

Because the food at Park Chinois is, as far as we could tell from our limited sampling of the vast menu, exciting and unusual, unashamedly high-end Chinese food at unashamedly high-end prices, but all presented immaculately and, with very few exceptions, complex and rewarding to eat. The evening meal began, as is encouraged at Park Chinois somewhat counter to how Chinese dining usually works, with "dim sum". All the usual suspects - har gau, siu mai, one green one and one with truffle - and all very good examples of their kind, arriving with a lovely fruity chilli sauce and smoky chilli oil.

Next, steamed egg, a dish I'm reliably informed is pretty difficult to pull off successfully. My friend, who I was eating with that night and who's written a book on the subject (Chinese food, not steamed egg dishes specifically) said this was a very good version, and I'm not about to argue with her. Sprinkled on top were miniature dried 'Sakura shrimp', which added a nice rich seafoody note.

Chicken with Thai basil used clever (and presumably quite difficult, given I've not come across this dish before) cooking techniques on good quality chicken, to great effect. With a delicate, crisp skin and a flesh that seemed almost exaggeratedly packed with flavour - perhaps it had been poached in stock at some point, who knows - it was one of the most enjoyable ways with poulty I'd encountered in a long time.

We'd allowed our waiter to steer us towards the next course, a kind of prawn curry with okra, and I'm afraid this ended up being our least favourite dish of the evening. There was nothing exactly wrong with it, and in fact the prawn itself was very nice, plump and full of flavour, but there wasn't enough of interest in the sauce and, well, okra is okra no matter how much you dress it up. I can't complain too much though - the staff at Park Chinois have a difficult job, guiding a diverse London clientele through this overwhelmingly large and complex menu, and I can't blame them for occasionally playing it safe.

And all was forgiven once we'd mopped up the last of the next dish, a gloriously messy and powerfully-flavoured thing that paired salty, buttery king crab with an umami-rich black pepper sauce. This is, in essence, what high-end Chinese dining is all about - premium ingredients, treated well, and presented with an unpretentious yet appealing flair.

There's nobody can cook vegetables like the Chinese, and these peas and lotus roots, dressed in a thick, salty dressing, were interesting enough to stand on their own as a main course - indeed the menu has a section called "Tofu and Vegetables" not anything as dismissive as "sides".

On a menu such as Park Chinois', which boasts something called "Large Supreme Fish Maw 5 Head" for an eye-popping £1,100, and goes out of its way to point out that a £110 sea cucumber dish is indeed "for one person", a £35 "carbonara" involving sea urchin and guanciale and made not from spaghetti but from udon noodles seems almost like a reasonable proposition. So of course we had to order it, and, well, it's every bit as odd as it sounds, poached egg and funky sea urchin flesh combining with slimy noodles to produce a kind of fishy "garbage plate", topped with edible flowers because why the hell not I suppose. We ate it. We probably wouldn't go out of our way to do so again.

But part of the fun of eating at Park Chinois is the mad anything-goes approach of the menu and I really wouldn't want to change anything about the way they go about things (not least this apple cheesecake fashioned into the shape of an apple). It's a complete one-off, this place, unlike anything else in London and most probably also the world. Yes, it's crazy expensive but then they're serving crazy expensive ingredients and if you wanted to have a taste of the place without going full 2nd-mortgage-abalone-and-caviar then they do 3 courses at lunchtime for £30. I mean you can have lunch here for £30, that is undoubtedly a fact.

Of course, most Park Chinois guests will not be leaving with a bill of less than £50, or even £100, or even many times that. It's a very special, special occasion restaurant aimed at people that have the means to order caviar and fine wines with a straight face, and a much smaller group of people who will save up for a rare evening of utter decadence and excess. If this sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, then Park Chinois will surely not disappoint; this is most likely the best version of this kind of restaurant - whatever the hell kind of restaurant Park Chinois is - that London has to offer. So go on, treat yourself.


I was invited to Park Chinois and didn't see a bill. I shudder to think how much the above would have cost. Maybe £300 total?

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Cornerstone, Hackney Wick

Cornerstone is a Modern British restaurant on the ground floor of one of those utterly charmless new blocks that have sprung up in the East End on the sites of what used to be junk yards or derelict warehouses. This is hardly their fault - these days a London restaurateur must take whatever's available - but it does mean that whoever's doing the interior design has a bit more of an uphill struggle in investing a bit of soul and personality into a dining space. It's not that Cornerstone is ugly, as such (he says diplomatically), it just feels unfinished; the concrete floors aren't quite polished (or even) enough to feel deliberate, and though black curtains cover up the worst of the bare plasterwork on the walls, one whole end of the restaurant is raw MDF painted black.

Usually the amount of effort a place has made on its interiors is of supreme unimportance - one of my favourite restaurants in town is Silk Road, which is like eating in a hospital waiting room - but when my attention starts to wander to my wobbly table, or the fraying raffia on my chair, it's usually a sign that there's not enough happening elsewhere to make up for it. Take the Cornerstone menu, for example. Bream, smoked salmon, cabbage, cod, lamb... I'm acutely aware I sound like a right spoiled, whinging so-and-so pointing this out, but this is Hackney - I'm certainly not the only one - and this is not a particularly inspiring list of main ingredients. I read it a few times before eventually realising there wasn't anything on it I really wanted to eat.

But anyway, we were hardly about to get up and leave, so hoping the £45 'chef's choice' selection would at least be a reliable highlight of what they had to offer, went for that. And in fact, the "Pickled oyster" wasn't half bad, maintaining a nice balance of seafood brine and vegetation, with little chunks of celery providing some nice texture contrasts. Yes, there are better dressed oyster dishes in town - take a bow, St Leonard's - but this was perfectly decent.

Better was bream, apparently marinated overnight in almond milk a bit like a proto-ceviche, topped with tangy blobs of lime pickle and coconut yoghurt. I liked how the fish was presented in clean, defined fillets like sashimi, and the vaguely South American thrust - it was fresh and lively and enjoyable.

Sadly, the bream was to be the highlight of the meal. From here on, nothing much else set the pulse racing or was even particularly memorable. Smoked salmon - sorry, "secret smokehouse salmon" though don't ask me what was secret about it - was fine in the way that good smoked salmon generally is, and I enjoyed the little lumps of vegetable jelly. But even the best smoked salmon will only ever be, well, smoked salmon, and this would never be a good enough reason to travel to Hackney for dinner. The rye crackers were bordering on inedibly hard, too.

Hispi cabbage seemed quite soggy and bland, suffering badly in comparison to the version with 'XO crumb' served at St. Leonard's last week, and in fact also to the version at the wonderful Hispi bistro in Manchester. The smoked cod's roe was good, but I was a bit unsure as to how to combine this with the cabbage, as the roe just slipped off the wet leaves. In the end, I ate each separately.

Lamb "Kiev" was absolutely no more interesting than the kind of thing you'd get in your local pub (they'd probably call it something like a "pulled lamb shoulder croquette"), and though the filling was perfectly fine in a clumsy kind of way, the pickled anchovies were way too sharp to sit well with the lamb (good salted would have been much more preferable), and the pea purée was cold, unseasoned and pretty unpleasant. There's nothing wrong in theory in reinventing the tried-and-tested lamb, anchovy, pea and mint for a hipster crowd, you'll just need to do it a lot better than this to get away with it.

If a competently-cooked bit of cod was the only thing to appear on the next dish, I would have had very few complaints. Never the most trendy of fish, when it's allowed to appear unadorned and unapologetic, seasoned gently and with the flesh sliding into clean, white flakes, it's nevertheless impossible not to enjoy. Unfortunately next to it sat a vast pile of two-dimensional, sour tartare sauce - sorry, "Café de Paris hollandaise" - which was bizarrely misjudged and completely unnecessary.

Cider Braised Cuttlefish was, there's no other word for it, boring. Tasteless chunks of seafood in an insipid sauce, wading through it was a chore, and the "lentil, apple and spring onion" dressing served to do nothing other than add a cloying sweetness to the stew. With no umami-rich seafood flavour, in fact not much flavour of any kind, it was all a bit of a waste of time, really.

Chocolate cake was a chocolate cake, the kind of thing your local pub would do for about £4.50. Look I'm sorry if I'm sounding increasingly grumpy but I can go anywhere in town - anywhere in the country for chocolate cake with cherry and hazelnuts. It's just not good enough for a restaurant charging £80/head with a couple of admittedly very nice wines. Think of what else you can get in East London alone for this amount of money - dinner at Pidgin, or the Marksman, or Brawn, where the menus are gloriously inventive and feature unusual game and shellfish and offal.

So no, I'm afraid I can't really recommend Cornerstone. I've already pointed out a few much better ways of spending your dinner money, but it's probably unfair to assume that every new restaurant in town can leap right into the very top tier alongside places like the above. What I think it is reasonable to expect is a little bit of innovation and risk-taking, a menu you want to devour and explore rather than glumly tolerate, and at least one dish that I'll remember five minutes after jumping on the Overground home. There's every chance that one day Cornerstone could offer all of these things. Until then, I'm staying away.


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Fat Tony's at Bar Termini Centrale, Bond St

Since the arrival of Padella, the bijou and blindingly popular pasta bar in Borough Market, the race has been on amongst the London restaurant community to emulate its success - or hell, even some of its success - elsewhere in the capital. Results so far, it has to be said, have been mixed. Stevie Parle's Pastaio looked like it might be onto something but could only manage a very weak facsimile of the rightly famous Padella cacio e pepe, and the shared tables are a trial. More recently I bounded enthusiastically into the gleaming new Lina Stores pasta bar on Greek Street, only to be served completely unseasoned tortellini with horrid hard edges.

So why haven't proto-Padellas spread out across London, when clearly the demand is there? Well, I'm guessing because making great pasta - and running a great pasta restaurant - isn't anywhere near as easy as Padella makes it look. It's a difficult, laborious job rolling out fresh pasta every morning before service, and all sorts of factors - not least the space to operate in - need to be just right. And any Italian will tell you there's far, far more skill, time and effort goes into the construction of a truly excellent tomato sauce than your average punter would appreciate. Padella is no accident, it's the result of years of experience (the team behind Trullo in Islington, also excellent) and bloody hard work.

Given, then, that we're probably not going to be exactly spoiled for choice for great pasta any time soon, all the more reason to shout from the rooftops about anywhere offering a genuinely world-class product. So with that in mind, please let me introduce you to Fat Tony's at Bar Termini Centrale, and the best pasta I've ever eaten in London.

It sounds a bit unfair to the scale of what the Bar Termini team have achieved with Fat Tony's to say that quite how brilliant it is came out of the blue. Food this good is always, to some degree, unexpected, no matter how much previous experience is being brought along. If I had been told half the staff of the River Café were working downstairs at this rather functional spot on Duke Street that Tuesday evening I still would have been flabbergasted by the quality of the dishes they were turning out, but from chef James French, someone whose name was completely new to me before the press release landed in my inbox, the shock is all the greater.

I hardly need to say, given Bar Termini's pedigree, that the drink offering is amongst the very finest in the capital. Intelligently conceived and immaculately assembled, the Marsala Martini is a thing of stark, clean beauty, balanced and fresh to taste. And the Bellini, similarly stripped-back to its essentials and bathed in a gentle peach glow, is - I believe - spiked with essence of fresh fruit (one of Tony Conigliaro's signature techniques) for extra zing.

But OK, OK, the food. Burrata arrived first. A giant, beautiful thing draped in olive oil and speckled with black pepper, it cut open under gentle pressure to reveal a filling of soft seasoned cream, being in every way about as good as a burrata you could hope to encounter in this city or any other.

Another starter was wonderful in all kinds of different ways, pieces of expertly-prepared octopus complimented by potato, fresh herbs and a kick of nduja. There are a lot of great octopus dishes in London at the moment - the Holborn Dining Room version is particularly noteworthy, and this stood up to the very best of them.

Fat Tony's pici cacio e pepe is about the only version of this dish that has been anywhere near up to the standard of Padella's, and in fact - whisper it - may even be slightly better. The sauce is that same worryingly addictive emulsion of cheese and butter spiked with black pepper, salty and dense with flavour, and speaks of a kitchen that really knows what its doing. But the pici itself was so bouncy and vibrant it was practically alive, jumping around on the end of the fork like a Star Trek special effect. Sorry if that simile doesn't make them sound particularly appetising, but there it is.

Pappardelle with beef shin ragu is another classic dish where extreme attention to detail is the difference between a soggy plate of nonsense and a journey to pasta heaven. With soft yet firm folds of pasta bound with an unbelievably rich and beefy sauce, this was very much in the latter camp, again - at the risk of repeating myself - right up with the very best versions of this dish I've sampled anywhere, and probably a little better still. It's also worth pointing out that the generous chunks of beef that appeared in the bowl were tender, flavoursome little things that almost deserve a blog post all of their own.

Bucatini is (I discovered) similar to pici but with a hole running through the middle. What this means is that as well as being coated on the outside with the most incredible tomato and guanciale sauce, it bursts in the mouth into even more flavour when you bite into them, which if you've not experienced it before let me tell you is A Very Good Thing.

You'll have got the idea by now. Everything Fat Tony's do is (apart weirdly from the house bread, which was a tad stale, but we could have just been unlucky) worth shouting about; yes the pasta is worth crossing continents for but, as I said before, this is no kind of accident. Everything this team has been involved with, even since way back in the days of 69 Colebrook Row, has been touched with a kind of obsessive perfectionism and now they've turned their attention to pasta it makes sense that they've ended up making the best pasta in London, too. Some people are just that annoyingly good at what they do.

Anyway, for now I'll let you go and discover it for yourself. With its obsessively-perfect rendition of classical Italian cuisine, Fat Tony's is a singular achievement for its owners and a new jewel in the crown of London dining. If you sit down for a meal here and manage to come away even in the least bit disappointed, then I'll shut down the blog, sell my house and go and live on an island somewhere. In fact, they've turned me into such an evangelical that despite this meal beginning with a PR invite, I decided to pay my bill in full so that my message wouldn't be diluted. And the message, in short, is this - go and eat at Fat Tony's. It'll change everything.