Wednesday, 15 May 2013
It's always sad when a good restaurant dies, but when said restaurant bears the hallowed St John name, the soul-searching is that much more intense. Back in late 2012, when it was revealed that their 3rd outpost would be just off Leicester Square, the news was met with widespread approval; anywhere even half-decent to eat in that part of town is welcome, and what better people to wow the tourists with British cuisine than those who kicked the whole thing off? And when the operation stuttered, stalled and finally collapsed, it's a testament to the goodwill heaped upon the St John brand that people pointed the finger of blame at the area, the building, the clientèle, anything but the business itself.
The unfortunate truth is, though, that the St John thing was never going to work in a poky Georgian townhouse in W1. The cathedral-like atmosphere and whitewashed walls of the ex-smokehouse in Smithfield was - is - a unique and precious gift and eating there is as much about the building as the food. The team did their best to impose that famously minimalist décor on a building that was singularly ill-equipped to cope with it, but it never worked. The restaurant was echoey and impersonal, the hotel rooms boxy and noisy, and the upstairs bar had all the personality of a dentist's waiting room.
And yet, thanks to the priceless pedigree of the Henderson/Gulliver partnership, the food at St John Chinatown was always worth any other discomforts. In the dying days of the previous administration I went in one lunchtime for a plate of snails, duck hearts and lovage, which was lovely enough to distract me from the fact I could hear every word of the conversation on the table next to mine. The good news is that same chef - Tom Harris - is still manning the stoves, only now his food gets served in a room you actually want to be in.
Cockles and Jersey Royals in a saffron/tomato broth was a bowl of joy for £8, and was as good an advertisment for the St John school of cooking as you could wish for. Congratulations are in order, too, for managing to source the most freakishly massive cockles I've ever seen - each was the size of an oyster and packed loads of flavour.
Razor clams would have perhaps been nicer warm, but they were otherwise very good, a minimalist salad of tomatoes and dill highlighting the main ingredient without overwhelming it. Nice to not have a big sack of clam guts to eat around as well, which happens far too often for my liking (hang your head, 10 Greek Street).
Lamb sweetbreads are the kind of things that make me go all wobbly with delight even when only modestly prepared, but here, resting on a bed of artichokes and celery and glazed with a rich, sticky sauce that only the very best chefs can pull off without making treacle, they were nothing short of perfect. If you ever make the trip to 1 Leicester Street yourself, and I strongly suggest you do, you should order the sweetbreads. And thence if you ever go back, you should order them again.
Monkfish and anchovy may have approached the levels of the sweetbreads, too, had they not been unfortunately overcooked and dry. The spice coating on the fish was good, though, and there was an interesting interplay of textures with the breadcrumbs and the crunchy (and slightly scary sounding) "rape greens".
So while not perfect - and how many places are? - 1 Leicester Street has, with the use of skilful remodelling and with the retention of its highly skilled chef, morphed from a Formica'd, clinical space serving nice food to somewhere you could happily spend all day in, munching on oysters and white wine and generally just enjoying life. Oh, and that awful upstairs bar, forever to be filed under "what were they thinking?" in the Big Book of Restaurant Design Car Crashes, is now cozy and stylish, with a kind of 60s James Bond vibe and a counter you can actually sit at. It is a proper, grown-up restaurant, comfortable and confident and gimmick-free. This one's going to stick around.
Friday, 10 May 2013
Objectively, Salon - ostensibly a showcase restaurant for the products sold at the Cannon & Cannon deli - are a very solid little operation serving decent British (or largely British) food in an airy room above Brixton Market and are charging very little money for it. It's possibly unfortunate for them that I made my second trip to Broadway Market and to Sabel this Sunday just gone, who are doing this thing that much better (in fact probably better than anyone else), but if you find yourself near Electric Avenue with £15 burning a hole in your pocket you can certainly do much worse.
N'duja croquettes were an attractive golden brown, had a nice crunch and came perched on blobs of ketchup and surrounded by leaves of chicory. I'd have liked a bit more of a kick from the n'duja, and there was something about the ketchup that felt a bit... low-rent, but I was happy enough to eat them. Which I guess is the point.
Welsh Rarebit was a bit wrong, though - a thick, disconcertingly brown gunk laid on brown bread, grilled too timidly to have any of that nice golden crust you get on a good bit of rarebit (see: St John, Farringdon). Pickled walnuts were a nice touch, but there's only so much bitterly beer-y, salty mixture the consistency of snot you can eat before feeling a bit queasy. We didn't finish it.
Dexter beef - they didn't specify the cut but I'm guessing onglet - had plenty of flavour and was cooked well if you ignore the fact it didn't have a char. It's probably a bit mean criticising a restaurant like this for not having a charcoal grill, as often it's a licensing/extraction issue and out of their hands, but there has never been a bit of beef in the history of the world that isn't better cooked over coals. Still, not bad.
Suffolk chorizo with Jersey Royals was nice too, and oddly enough suffered from the opposite problem as the beef as there was way too much of it all - mainly potato. The chorizo had plenty of punch and bite, and the potatoes were little bouncy balls of flavour, but my friend pointed out that leaving those furry leaves on the radishes has way more benefit to visual aesthetics than taste, and there was quite a bit of salty butter swimming about underneath it all.
Still, all said and done, it was a hearty old lunch for £15 a head and we'd had a nice time. It's great fun, too, looking out over the market while you eat, where, as anyone who's ever been to Brixton Market will know, entertainment in various forms is never in short supply. A marvellously gooey rye, baked fresh that morning, was way better than you usually get as a house bread and, slathered in salty butter, made a fantastic appetiser. So Salon are doing enough right that the odd misstep doesn't matter so much. On the days I don't fancy trekking over to Broadway Market, I will be back.
Tuesday, 7 May 2013
"You should write it up," my flatmate said, after I'd spent the whole evening moaning about how much better José would have been for the same price, "because it's a nice, normal restaurant that nice, normal people go to. Not everyone spends every waking hour scouring geeky food websites or travelling to Hendon to spend two hours queuing for a cheeseburger. Normal people eat at places like this."
There is always room for a middle ground, and of course not every Spanish restaurant has to be - or can be - as good as José. But is it my "job" (such as it is) to make excuses for somewhere I know is charging too much for food that might have been impressive ten years ago, or brutally point out a short list of alternatives in town where you'll have a better time? However much of a smug, spoiled, elitist twerp it makes me sound.
Anyway, if I was worried about coming across as a smug, spoiled, elitist twerp I would have given up on this food blog a long time ago, so here goes. Rosita is the sister restaurant to Lola Rojo, also on Northcote Road and where I'd had a very passable but - again - slightly overpriced and uninspiring meal a few years back and never really felt compelled to go back. The USP of Rosita is that is it is nothing so humdrum as a tapas bar - it is a "sherry bar", which as we all know is far more trendy these days and has the added benefit of not actually requiring you to do anything differently other than put the words "sherry bar" above the door.
Dressed crab was decent, and although padded out with egg and bread it was almost worth the £7.50. Didn't feel massively Spanish, though, just like the filling from a crab, egg and cress sandwich put in a shell. "Rositas" were more interesting, little bitesize rolls of toasted bread filled with, in this case, a well-seasoned tuna tartar and one with duck egg and sprouts; they were fun to eat, but still felt like wedding buffet canapés masquerading as tapas.
Grilled King Prawns did at least look authentically Spanish, but suffered from having been slightly undercooked and were a bit gloopy inside - this despite the legs on the poor things being so fiercely cremated they had mostly fallen off. I wonder if this is because of the use of a Josper grill, which may get a nice darkened crust on your medium-rare beef steak but is perhaps too difficult to control on tiny delicate bits of seafood.
The biggest knowing sigh of the evening was reserved for this plate of Iberico Jamon de Belotta, which bore about as much resemblance to the silky slivers of acorn-fed loveliness available at José as a packet of Frazzles. Tough and curly as dry wood shavings, they were an £11.50 waste of time. And "cod churros with green olives" were just bizarre - the chewy sticks of "churros" tasted of nothing more than batter, and the green olives came in the form of an inedibly salty foam that the churros were planted into. It didn't work. They were £6.50.
With a bottle of the cheapest Manzanilla, the bill came to around £73, so let's return to my original point. For a bill for two of that size in José, or Pizarro, or Tramontana, or Barrafina, or Fino, you would have left having eaten some of the best Spanish food outside of Madrid. The sherry would have been ice cold (Rosita's wasn't), the seafood of the highest quality and grilled to perfection, the Iberico ham expertly carved to translucently thin. If I didn't know any better, I may have not grumbled quite so much about how better I could have spent my money. But I'm afraid I do know better, and I'm not about to make excuses for a restaurant that while not a disaster, in 2013 is simply outshone. And if that makes me a snob, and I'm pretty sure it does, I'll live with that.
Monday, 29 April 2013
I just wish Balthazar had been cheaper, or better. Or both, of course - that would have been nice too - but I still could have lived with either cheaper or better. Because if it was cheaper I could have enjoyed its straightforward French food in the same way as I enjoyed Brasserie Zedel, where you're never likely to have the meal of your life but can generally get away with spending less than £15 for a very passable steak haché, frites and a salad, or if it was better I could have rated it alongside the Wolseley or Delaunay, where you can see where you money goes.
"But it's not about the food" you'll hear people say. "People go to Balthazar for the room and the service and the atmosphere. It's about the experience". Well, I'm all for a nice experience but I'm afraid no matter how great the surroundings and atmosphere, once I've paid £9 for a very ordinary goat's cheese tart I start to enjoy such marginal factors as lighting and nice mosaic floors that much less.
We didn't, thank the heavens, have quite as disastrous an evening as some. Nothing was inedible, we didn't have to send anything back, and we didn't see any cling film. We liked the house bread (particularly the sourdough), the butter was soft, the red leather banquette very comfortable. But even so, Balthazar did not do anywhere near enough to justify the £50 a head bill, or the frankly baffling difficulty of getting a table.
The aformentioned goat's cheese tart suffered from a slightly runny mixture (undercooked perhaps) but was seasoned well and was still just about edible. It came with an underdressed - in fact practically naked - salad and instead of a chutney or something that would have offset the creaminess of the tart, a pile of salty tapenade. None of it was awful, but it was an unsatisfying, worryingly amateurish plate of food for £8.25+service.
Chicken liver & foie gras mousse was better; again basic to the point of homely but with a good rich amount of foie and a lovely smooth texture. This may even have been worth the money we paid for it.
Linguini wasn't a disaster either, although I'd had a much better seafood pasta dish at Osteria Antica on Northcote Road the weekend before, and it cost a fiver less.
You can do a lot worse for £17 elsewhere - in fact you can do a lot worse at Balthazar by the looks of things - than this "bar steak", which had a great charred flavour and was cooked exactly as requested. Chips were a bit strange - oily and orange and so tiny it looked like they had been chipped both horizontally and vertically, and I wasn't too keen on the vinegary bearnaise, but the steak was the main event and it was good. Not very good, not brilliant, but good.
Service veered between over-attentive and bizarrely inept. A request for lemon with our water was met with an astonished look from our first waiter, who scurried off for someone more senior to confirm that actually yes, we did want lemon with our tapwater. A few minutes later, two glasses arrived each with a quarter of fresh lime in. I ordered a Negroni Finis and was brought something that looked suspiciously like a standard Negroni. When I questioned whether this drink really did contain the advertised passionfruit and Byrrh I was told that yes, it did. Fairly sure it didn't. Something called a Big Easy was lovely, thankfully worth every bit of the £12.50.
That the cocktails are worth the investment though is not a surprise - God amongst barmen Brian Silva is responsible for the output of the bar, and even with him not there in person that evening the drinks were great. But you can't just go in for a drink, you need to order food too. And being forced to order, say, a ersatz burger or a £10 plate of uninteresting cheeses just for the license to sit at the bar with a negroni (as I did on two previous occasions) seems terribly unfair, like being forced to order the complete Sky Sports package when all you ever want to watch is the cricket.
So no, I can't recommend Balthazar. There is better food elsewhere, there is cheaper food elsewhere, and there are ways of spending your time and money that will give you a much happier return. We didn't suffer an unmitigated disaster that others did; it just felt anachronistic and awkward, like a 90s-themed restaurant for tourists to go alongside the other novelty cash cow joints of Covent Garden. And I wonder, once the buzz has died down and the tourists and bloggers have each tried it once then got on with their lives, how long it will last.
Thursday, 25 April 2013
Under ordinary circumstances, I would applaud anywhere trying to do something different. God knows London already has enough places whose ambition runs no greater than to do what MeatLiquor/Hawksmoor/Polpo are doing, only with bigger profit margins, and genuine innovation is generally to be welcomed. A Wong are, for better or worse, genuinely innovating, and the meal I had last night was, in all kinds of ways, unlike any I've had before.
But innovation comes with associated risks. It's all very well convincing yourself that what the world is missing is a Surströmming Hot Dog stall or a Polish-Mexican Bistro, but overestimate your customer base's capacity for experimentation and you could be staring down the barrel of humiliating failure.
A Wong is not - quite - a failure. But where it is experimental, those experiments are more likely to shock than delight, and where it is more mainstream, it can't compete on price. Take a dish of "Yunan fried cheese", for example. I use the quotation marks deliberately, as had I not been assured by the menu that this was a regional Chinese delicacy, I would have quite naturally assumed it was a block of halloumi cheese. Because that's literally what it tasted like.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that it was, in fact, a regional Chinese delicacy and not a small slice of the kind of thing you can pick up in Asda, because this may explain why they saw fit to serve it accompanied by a small bowl of salt. Now, I don't know about you, but the first thing that comes to mind when eating some halloumi - sorry, "Yunan fried cheese" - is not "if only I had a small bowl of salt to dip this in". It's "blimey this halloumi is salty". This may be how they do it in the Yunan, but I'm not convinced. Not convinced at all.
At the other end of the experimentation scale is something titled 'Seaweed'. Given the price point - £3 - and the unpredictable nature of offerings elsewhere on the menu, you may be forgiven for expecting a little more than a small pile of the kind of sugary deep-fried cabbage available in every Chinese restaurant in the country. But that's exactly what arrived. Don't get me wrong, I love the stuff, but it's hardly cutting-edge.
Everything else fell somewhere between those two extremes. Chengdu "street soft" (sounds painful) tofu was unremarkable other than the fact it was served in an irritating tiny glass bowl and contained too much soy sauce. Century egg had a really lovely flavour but for some bizarre reason was chopped up into tiny wibbly cubes which made it totally impossible to eat with chopsticks. And "pickled" cucumber were less "pickled" than "covered in sugary soy" but were reasonably pleasant.
Far less edible was Gong Bao chicken which was so utterly drowned in Sichuan peppercorns it was like eating a bowl of liquid mercury. Too often Sichuan dishes are toned down in London but the other extreme is just as unpleasant - this was completely unbalanced and pretty careless. And a small "dim sum" taster showed some skill, I just wish they hadn't seen fit to coat one of the dumplings in a layer of frothy spittle; if they thought it was an improvement, they were wrong.
But there were a couple of dishes that - annoyingly for a food blogger trying to make his mind up one way or other about the place - showed flashes of genius. Steamed-to-perfection seabass spiked with ham was, if you ignored the hideous grease-soaked deep-fried pieces of skin on top, proof that someone in the kitchen knew how to properly treat a piece of premium fish. And razor clams, sweet and fresh and studded with dainty discs of salami, were similarly impressive, and with two large specimens for £5, something approaching value.
So I can't, and I won't, totally write off the place. For one thing, plenty of people whose opinions on restaurants are pretty reliable have nothing but good things to say about it so there's always that chance that I somehow chose the ten worst items on the menu or that the kitchen was having a disastrous off-day. There is that chance. But £40 with a couple of beers each in a soulless, beige room plagued with airflow issues (it was like having dinner in a wind tunnel; I found a terrified child trapped in the corridor to the toilets because they couldn't prize the door open) is not an experience I'm in a hurry to repeat. As fearless experiments go, A Wong had me longing for the mainstream.
Photos by Hollow Legs. This post was sponsored by match.com, although I would not recommend A Wong for a date unless you were trying to let someone down gently.