Thursday, 19 January 2017
The last time I visited a Park Lane restaurant and ate a burger costing over £25 it did not end well. The evening a friend and I spent in the Playboy Club, where we tried their miserable food and tried our best to keep it down, is still a topic of conversation all these years later, a shared moment of dining horror that has hardly lessened from the passage of time. The experience was so grim that I avoided "posh" burgers for a good while after, until I eventually realised it wasn't wagyu beef and truffle mayo I didn't like, it was cynical pricing and restaurants housed in hideous soul-crushing temples of misogyny. And fortunately, hideous soul-crushing temples of misogyny are fairly easily avoided. So with the trauma of the "Hef burger" now little more than a distinctly unpleasant memory, I booked for the signature offering at CUT at 45 Park Lane, hoping it would redeem the reputation of posh burgers everywhere.
The best place to start looking for a premium burger is, and has always been, the steakhouse. It makes sense that anywhere specialising in the sourcing and searing of beef would be able to easily turn their hand to mincing said beef and serving it in a seeded bun, and it further makes sense that the very best steakhouses - Goodman and Hawksmoor in London, Peter Luger's and the Strip House in New York City - with access to the best beef money could buy, would serve the very best burgers. And so it seemed likely that CUT at 45 Park Lane, with its moneyed clientele and focus on stunning imported USDA, would have as good a shot at the title as anyone.
Often a steakhouse burger is little more than a patty of ground beef in a bun - no salad, no cheese, often not even a slick of mayo or sauce. Peter Luger's go down this route, the confidence in their product bordering on arrogance, but when you have access to the best cow this particular food blogger has ever tasted, well, that confidence seems perfectly well-placed. It's fair to say that CUT are not a "no frills" operation, not by a long way. Even before the main course arrives diners are treated to some superb bubbly cheese straws, fantastic fluffy warm cheese gougère (perhaps on loan from the Alain Ducasse operation next door) and beautiful fresh pretzel bread which were so good I ate two of the tasty little buggers before I'd even finished my martini.
But you won't be here to read about pretzels or martinis. What about the burger? Well, overall this was an extremely enjoyable - if not flawless - meat sandwich. The beef itself, in using a Wagyu blend, had it seemed to me sacrificed a little of the flavour of the British and Irish grass-fed breeds for that lovely loose crumbly flesh, rich with marbled fat. Using Black Angus in the mix as well is presumably an effort to reintroduce a bit of funky taste, but I think it could have taken more of this, and less of the Wagyu. Still, what do I know. The tomato was (surprisingly) good even if the lettuce was a bit nothing-y, and the garlic mayo was a fantastic light texture even if there was ever so slightly too much of it.
I liked the poppyseed bun a lot, and it held together remarkably well considering everything that was going on inside. Personally I'm not a usually a fan of marmalades or chutneys in burgers (with the notable exception of bacon jam on very rare occasions) and I could have done without the "shallot-jalapeno marmalade" here, but Ogleshield cheese is, if you're absolutely determined not to use American processed, a very good option as Hawksmoor (and, since them, many others) will tell you, and still retains a good soft consistency even as it cools. Unlike, for example, cheddar. Never use cheddar in burgers. Never.
Service, as you might expect in this poshest of posh steakhouses, was immaculate, and is perhaps partly responsible for the fact I enjoyed the overall experience of eating at CUT more than I objectively appreciated the charms of the burger itself. I'd like to go back, in fact, to try some of the very attractive looking steaks presented as part of the CUT experience (whether or not you're too much of a cheapskate to "just" have a burger and a martini and get the bus home) and see if I don't bankrupt myself.
Because no, CUT is not cheap. It's not even "a bit punchy". It is gold-star, fully-paid-up, certificate-of-authenticity expensive, where a burger and fries a drink ended up costing £50. Is it really worth that kind of money? Well, no. But is anything? Perhaps there's never any justification for spending such numbers on food, but I'm not about to let silly things like logic and rationality get in the way of a good eat, and neither should you. After all, it could be worse - at least it's not the Playboy Club.
Tuesday, 17 January 2017
We're constantly being told that 2017 is the Year of the Taco, and while I'm obviously delighted with this development, especially if it means more places like Breddos opening, it seems to me that a bigger story is what's happening to Indian food in the capital. It may not be just coincidence that January has already seen me post on two separate and equally exciting (in their own way) Indian restaurants; first the high-end Jamavar with its elegant and sophisticated take on the classics, then Kricket with its innovative English-Indian small plates concept.
And now here's Flora Indica, a restaurant that defies easy explanation but for the sake of categorisation you may as well think of as "Experimental Indian". They describe themselves as "one-of-a-kind" and they're not wrong - the menu is a barrage of Indian words and unusual ingredients that, as it turns out, are only intermittently useful at predicting the food that eventually arrives at the table. But despite the almost wilfully obscure nature of the concept, I can't deny that things like "Green Banana Kali Mirch | Banana Chips | Smoked Garlic Yoghurt" or "Venison Gilafi Sheek | Coriander Chilli Sauce | Spiced Fig" do sound exciting as well as weird, and if you never quite know what you're ordering, well, perhaps that's entirely deliberate.
Plus, I don't think it's possible to order badly at Flora Indica; every single one of the fourteen or so (savoury) dishes we tried were at least good and at best brilliant. Unfortunately for them, a restaurant is more than just the food, and I'll get to the issues with service and value in a bit, but meantime have a look at this "Baby Bitter Gourd Tak a Tak", which was a very cleverly balanced dish, the slight bitterness of the vegetable offset by a sweet pumpkin soup.
Achari Tender Broccoli also went down well, in a mildly sharp and spicy dressing and dash of sour cream. You may think that's not a huge amount of food for £5, just five small twigs of broccoli, but at the time it didn't seem so much of an issue, probably because they tasted so good.
We'd ordered these "poppadums" as we sat down, but they only appeared with the rest of the starters as someone apparently forgot to put the order through. Interesting things though, apparently puffed cassava with a little pot of house bitter pickle.
Naan with hemp seeds and Red Leicester cheese was excellent, the kind of British-Indian fusion I can very much get behind. It would have been more enjoyable without our overly familiar waiter interrupting with unneccessary chat ("So how was your weekend, guys?") but perhaps he was just embarrassed about having forgotten to put the poppadum order through and was overcompensating.
Opening weeks jitters could also account for the bizarre decision to fill a vacuum wine cooler almost to the brim with ice then precariously balance a bottle of wine on top of it, an arrangement that had no more effect on the temperature of the wine than not using the cooler at all.
Still, amidst the warm wine and the annoying interruptions, we still had the food, albeit not much of it. "Malwani Prawn" (3 of) were beautifully bouncy, dressed in a gentle spiced chutney and topped with mooli spaghetti.
Pulled Gressingham duck came in the form of a neat little tower of chilli-spiked meat, topped with a gram flour "cheela" (pancake) and a dollop of coconut chutney. This, too, was a genuinely lovely and intelligent bit of cooking.
Salmon trout was timed perfectly to just-pink inside, and had a wonderful flavour. £8 got us just about enough for a single mouthful, but again it was hard to be disappointed with anything other than the amount of it.
Sweetbread "shikampuri" (kind of a fish cake/kebab hybrid) was another brave experiment that completely worked. A lurid pink, earthy beetroot sauce complimented the offal notes of the kebab very well, and almost made you forget you were paying the best part of a tenner for a few grams of food.
I don't mean to labour the point about the portion sizes, but the fact the food was all so good just made you want even more of it, and though getting to try more of the menu was hardly a hardship on the one hand, we were very aware of the costs mounting up. Even the dishes from the "curries" section of the menu, with their heftier price points, contained only a smidgen more product, but again what was there was stunning. This chicken tikka came in a sauce best described as Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup made by God himself, so incredibly rich and packed full of flavour you could hardly imagine it being improved upon at all.
And this rogan josh, three or four pieces of beautifully tender lamb in another exquisitely constructed sauce, almost chocolately in its intensity. Also pictured, a black dhal which though not quite as perfect as the version at Jamavar, still did its job well, and a butter naan, light and bubbly.
So yes, someone at Flora Indica knows how to cook. And I'll gloss over the slightly more mundane desserts - I don't think I've ever had a very good dessert in an Indian restaurant (sorry) - because what came before was so enjoyable. Above is some kind of beetroot pudding which I'd rather forget about, and I believe we also had something involving pineapple.
The bill came to just under £50 a head, which I guess isn't a vast amount of money but it's still enough to put things like the dodgy service and small portions in a slightly more critical light. Only just enough though, because as I hope I've made clear, this is some of the most exciting and innovative Indian food London has to offer, and if you're any less of a grumpy misanthrope than me (which would be just about everyone I think) you may find a chatty waiter the least of your worries. Or, indeed, a vacuum cooler full of ice. Flora Indica has, despite its flaws, plenty to recommend it.
Thursday, 12 January 2017
You'll often hear the word "authentic" used as a badge of honour for (I hate the phrase but I can't think of anything better right now) ethnic restaurants in London and the UK. "Authentic", we're to assume, is shorthand for "just like they do it back in Mumbai", or Bangkok, or Mexico City, or wherever cuisine originated from, as if the only valid aim for any non-English restaurant is to replicate exactly the experience of eating thousands of miles away, with the exception - we would hope - of being allowed to pay in the local currency.
Of course, this ideal is neither practically possible, nor even particularly desirable, because what diners in London expect from an evening out is rarely going to align with the expectations of a diner anywhere else. I mean, it's hard enough translating a restaurant concept from Manchester to London in terms of style and levels of service, portion sizes and so on, and that's barely a few hundred miles. What hope would a Bangkok street stall have if they tried to lift their entire operation wholesale halfway across the world and drop it on Coldharbour Lane? Even if you secured replacement supply chains, obtained local health & safety certification, trained local staff (or found somewhere for your immigrant staff to live) and so on, what if the miserable London climate meant your dumpling dough didn't rise properly? Or your idiosyncratic queuing system leaves local Londoners baffled? And - perhaps most importantly of all - what on earth do you charge?
So if true authenticity is a fiction, all we can hope for is that the very best of our immigrant cuisines can master the practicalities of operating a restaurant in the UK without sacrificing too much of the spark and spirit of the homeland. And though I have a grudging respect for anywhere going to the effort of importing, at great expense, rice from Kyoto for their sushi bar or a particular type of tomatillo that only grows in the foothills of the Popocatépetl mountains for their taco joint, what I appreciate far more is a sensitive treatment of local ingredients to imported techniques, and not having to worry about whether or not service is included.
With that in mind, Kricket is probably as authentic an Indian restaurant you'd ever want, if by "authentic" you mean "great fun and great value". In this bright and buzzy room with its attractive open kitchen and cozy booths they serve a menu of interesting Indian dishes (and spicy cocktails such as this "Old Narangi" pictured involving cardamom-infused bourbon) for a very reasonable amount of money and in that particular London 2017 "small plates" vibe.
Bhel puri is a bowl of rice crispies in tamarind sauce and yoghurt, a familiar staple of South Indian cooking that was done very well here. There's not much you need to do to bhel puri really but chunks of raw mango were an interesting addition, giving the thing a certain extra freshness and vibrancy.
It's impossible to compare Kricket's "Grilled Lasooni Langoustine" with the langoustine dish at Kiln - in fact if I didn't know better I'd say they were both from the same supplier - but I was just as taken with the earthy, chargrilled treatment of the little beasties at Kricket as I was with the cured, chilli-spiked method at Kiln. Both I'd happily order again, even bearing in mind that with premium seafood you necessarily don't get a great deal of meat for your money.
The most universally admired dish on our table at Kricket was the "Kichri" (kedgeree), a fantastically powerful mixture of smoked fish and egg with a genius addition of pickled cauliflower adding acidity and crunch. If Kricket ever start doing breakfast or brunch, this will be their signature dish, a clever and skillful illustration of where Kricket's strengths lie.
Butter garlic crab is a dish I was lucky enough to previously try in their shipping container home at Pop in Brixton, and I'm happy to say it's every bit as good here, a generous mound of white meat bound with garlic, herbs and dairy. Oh and if you're disappointed by the lack of poppadums as a snack item (as I was), then you'll take some comfort from the fact they come as a vehicle for the crab. But really, Kricket, allow us to order poppadums as a snack please. Everyone likes poppadums.
Keralan fried chicken comes crisply fried with a delicate thin coating and a really impressive - and colourful - curry leaf mayonnaise. I always enjoy fried chicken where the emphasis is on the chicken itself and the coating takes a second seat; Tonkotsu have the same approach to their kara-age and that's a must order for me too. If you want your chicken to be surrounded in an inch-thick cement of grease and bread then fine, but to me it suggests a worrying lack of confidence in the product within.
Both breads were fantastic - light and bubbly, one of them seasoned with masala spices and one slick with bone marrow and cep mushrooms. Even the fanciest Indian restaurants can occasionally slip up on the bread course, or try and cut corners by making them in advance, so it was great to see the bread here being as good as it could be.
Duck leg "kathi" was sort of an Indian sausage roll - in fact that was almost exactly what it was, except with nicely spiced duck meat instead of the usual pork. It was also every bit as enjoyable as a good sausage roll, which of course puts it firmly in the "must order" category. It came with a peanut sauce a bit like a satay dip, and some nice sweet pickled cucumber.
And finally, "lamb haleem", rather unappetisingly described as lamb porridge by the staff but which nevertheless turned out to be a soft, savoury stew, rich in fat and flavour, and bearing certain comparisions to the Tayyabs' dry meat. Which as anyone who's ever had Tayyabs' dry meat will tell you, is praise indeed.
I say "finally", but actually there was one more course - "Jaggery Treacle Tart" - that my friends managed to order and eat while I was distracted chatting to owner Will downstairs so its delights will have to remain unknown to this blog for now. They said they enjoyed it, though, so I'm very happy for them.
With regards to service I should probably say that while generally pleasant it suffered from an over-keenness to chuck everything out and clear it away as fast as possible (I think all the above was sent and in about 30 minutes flat), which has the (unintended I'm sure) side-effect of making one feel rather unwelcome. Also, there was one particular member of staff to whom I'll give the benefit of the doubt and assume had been given some very bad news before service that evening began, which surely accounted for the fact she treated the whole business of bringing things to our table as a giant inconvenience.
But, despite these things, and the not insubstantial bill (for 3 people, 3 cocktails and a bottle of wine, £45 a head), I had a blast at Kricket. In the fine recent tradition of London-Asian small plates it holds its head up very well next to the likes of Kiln and Hoppers, and perhaps while not quite in the league of those megastars it certainly punches above its weight; an attractive, youthful place that treats good local ingredients to an Indian aesthetic, producing dishes generous of heart and flavour that you'll want to go back and try again and again. So let's leave it to others to worry about nebulous notions of authenticity - it's a slippery slope to nowhere good. Instead, just enjoy Kricket for what it is, yet another fantastic place to eat out in London.
Wednesday, 11 January 2017
I've long been a fan of the Galvin bros' flagship Windows restaurant, at the top of the Hilton Park Lane, and have had many wonderful meals there over the years. It's top-end dining at the top of the world, and you pay for it, but if you come away with anything other than a fierce desire to go back and do it all again as soon as possible then you've got a heart of stone.
But if I'm brutally honest, and that's hopefully why you're here, I've never had a completely knockout dinner at any of the Galvins' more "accessible" lower-budget joints, such as the Bistro de Luxe or La Chapelle. Objectively I know they're very decent places that many of my friends hold in extremely high regard, it's just for whatever reason I find it quite difficult to get too excited about French classics like escargots or crème brulée and would rather pay the extra to do full haute cuisine or tighten the purse strings and drop in somewhere like Zédel where they do regional French for about £20 a head. Which leaves more left over to spend on wine.
The good thing about the Galvin brand though is that they are always evolving. Even Windows, under the regime of its new Korean-born chef Joo Won, has started moving in more interesting Asian-fusion directions and a recent meal involved kimchi and bulgogi and all sorts of K-buzzwords to fantastic effect. And I've heard great things about the new Galvin HOP, Café a Vin as was, which has drawn itself a madly eccentric menu of burgers, pork chops and hot dogs, US/UK comfort food staples given a French aesthetic. So it was clearly time to give a Galvin other than Windows a try. And with that in mind I'm very glad I accepted an invite to the Athentaeum hotel in Mayfair and to Galvin at the Athenaeum.
But before dinner, drinks; excellent gin martinis in their ground floor which, thanks to giant floor-to-ceiling windows framing a living tropical wall, was like drinking in a giant vivarium. I can't say a great deal more about a martini in a hotel bar, but as martinis in hotel bars go, this was one of the good ones.
Relocated in the restaurant now, and you can tell a lot about a place from its bread offering. The bread at Athanaeum, just like I've enjoyed at Windows in the past, is this plaited baguette (it probably has a fancy boulangerie name but I don't know it) which breaks apart into lovely warm chunks just begging to be covered in salted butter.
First of the starters was a huge and unapologetically French slab of foie gras, wrapped in a clever ring of spiced bread and served with a kind of alcohol-poached apple segment topped with toasted walnuts, and dollops of cherry purée. And it was immensely enjoyable, with loads of flavour and not suffering from any hint of "fridge chill" which can spoil many a foie gras experience.
And this was a beautifully rich seafood soup, light and frothy and perfectly seasoned, presented with separate little pots of croutons, grated gruyere and rouille. Whether it's the miserable London winter weather or the fact that a soup is quite a good test of a kitchen's attention to detail, I seem to have been ordering a lot of soup in restaurants recently. And this was a fine example.
I make no apologies for ordering a burger for my main course. Years after the burger craze "hit", and certainly a long time after a good burger was a novelty in London I am still happily ordering them because they just hit every pleasure point I need in a single item of food - salt, fat, texture, and a great big oozing mound of bloody loose beef. The Galvin burger, which they've practised at the bar at Windows and refined at the Hop place in Spitalfields, is a genuinely lovely thing, perfect ratios of salad, beef and bread, and with a layer of good French cheese (possibly Comté but don't quote me on that).
But if you still insist on turning your nose up at burgers, then how about bolstering your bourgeois credentials with this - a neat pot of cassoulet, which had been "poshed up" by cooking duck breast to pink separately then arranging it on top of the bean mixture. It, too, was a comforting yet thoughtful bit of cooking, and further evidence that the Galvins can not only come up with a good recipe but crucially also hire the right people to replicate it as their business expands.
The meal ended with this Ille Flottante (sorry, "Floating Island" - see also "Caramelised apple tart" instead of "tarte tatin" as the Galvin menu writers attempt to stay French without being alienating) which packed a good hit of vanilla and chunks of caramelised (I think) chestnut studded in the Crème Anglaise. Sorry, "custard".
So despite my initial misgivings about any Galvin that doesn't involve being on the 28th floor of a Hilton, we thoroughly enjoyed every bit of this meal (including the service from our Londoner waitress, which was charming). What's interesting is that in their efforts to create a kind of hybrid French-English hotel restaurant, which in lesser hands would have ended up with a weak approximation of both and probably disappointing lovers of both French and English food simultaneously, they've almost accidentally ended up with quite an exciting third way. The idea of French cooking techniques being applied to English ingredients is hardly new, but that's not the only thing going on here. Dishes like the foie gras and the Ille Flottante (despite the Anglicised name) are recognisably French, and the burger and presumably things like the sticky toffee pudding are fairly solidly English, but they sit together on this menu quite happily because it's probably only in a hotel restaurant situation you'd be allowed to cherry pick the best of both and still come away with a coherent menu.
And since you didn't ask, the room for the night which was also kindly gifted as part of the review package was very nice too, on the 6th floor with views of Green Park. It's a strange thing, spending a night in a five star hotel in your own home town, but I can't pretend it wasn't great fun being a tourist for the night, checking in luggage, strolling down for dinner and then instead of rolling onto a bus for the journey to Battersea, heading for a night walk around Mayfair, taking in the lights of Piccadilly and shouting "You fools! You Goddamn fools!" at the queues outside the Hard Rock Café next door. Gives a whole new perspective on things, and a whole new set of reasons to fall in love with London all over again.
I was invited to eat, and stay, at the Athenaeum.