Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - New York City 2015

I hesitate to make any grand statements about the health of anywhere's restaurant scene based on a four-day trip and a handful of meals but, well, that's all I've ever done, and despite trying my absolute best to sample the latest and greatest of what New York City had to offer, just like in all my previous trips to this fine city, somehow in 2015, for the first time, I left rather underwhelmed. I'm not about to pull a Tanya Gold - nothing was a complete disaster and there's every chance I was just a bit unlucky - but I remember the days when this city was the alpha leader of restaurant dining, untouchable from bottom to top, and to find myself even a teeny bit disappointed after a meal is not an emotion I'm used to associating with the place.

But let's start at the start. The first morning I wanted a bagel for breakfast, somewhere handy from the Williamsburg AirBnB we were staying in. The Bagel Store had a big queue - a good sign - but it seemed most people were queuing not for bagels but for something called a "cragel", some odd hybrid of a croissant and a bagel presumably dreamt up on the back of the vicious cronut phase that swept through the town a few years back. I tried a salted butter cragel; it was a bit stale and greasy and I wish I'd ordered something else. Staff looked a bit harried though so maybe they were having a bad day.

For lunch, surely nothing could go wrong in a highly-regarded steakhouse in Midtown? I mean, surely this is what New York does best, right? Except from the very first moment I stepped through the doors of Wolfgang's on Park Avenue, I could tell something was up; there was none of that incredible beefy steakhouse aroma that hits you when you enter the doors of Peter Luger's, or our own Goodman in London. And then once seated by a slightly frosty front of house (a steakhouse cliché but one I am usually happy to put up with) even at head height the trays of beef travelling past to other tables suffered from the same odd absence of beefiness. Not a good sign.

And so my fears were realised - a vast, tender slab of $50 USDA porterhouse, cooked accurately medium-rare and finished with melted butter, that tasted of absolutely nothing whatsoever. "Steakhouse fries" were dry and soily and the house red was only OK, but I knew not to expect top-notch sides in a traditional steakhouse. All I did want was for the main event to be worth the (not insignificant) amount of money they were charging, and this really wasn't. And before anyone says "well what did you expect from USDA beef", I've had plenty of USDA steaks in my time - not least at Luger's - and they've generally been a good deal better than this.

That night we attempted to get into St Anselm (1 hour wait) Maison Premiere (2 hour wait) and Fette Sau (1 1/2 hour wait) and ended up in a little dive bar called DuMont Burger eating buffalo wings. Which, actually, was rather lovely.

The next day we found ourselves in Midtown again and what felt like the only place open for brunch, Sarge's Deli. And again, I'd have been happy to overlook the staff that treated us like an inconvenience had my matzo ball soup not come out of a packet and the rye bread on my pastrami sandwich not been so stale I'm convinced it must have been yesterday's.

So as you might imagine, a lot was riding on our second bash at Maison Premiere that night. This time we did make it in, deciding to take no chances and eat at 5pm (the one benefit of jetlag is you're hungry at weird times), and fortunately the service here was much better, being very accommodating of our strange eating time (technically the kitchen hadn't opened yet). The food, too, was just about worth the effort - a vast selection of east and west coast oysters yielded some dinky little things called Ninigret Cup from Rhode Island which were lean and minerally and sharp as a tack.

House bread was excellent, which was just as well as it came with fully three out of four of the main courses we chose. Why bring us a $4 portion of unordered house bread knowing the amount of bread we'd unknowingly already ordered with the other dishes? Oh well, I'm sure they had their reasons. A seafood selection of mussels "vichyssoise" with bacon and potato "pearls" were very clever French classics in miniature, and sea urchin's always a showstopper. Salt cod brandade and "warm olives" (?) were only OK but they were nothing if not filling thanks to all that bloody bread.

On the last day, burdened by our luggage on the way to Newark (which staff coped beautifully with), we'd booked the Four Horsemen, a bright and clean little spot that had been recommended numerous times from various corners. And indeed it was lovely, at least some of it was. American "Prosciutto" was every bit as good as the real thing, moist and delicate and not in the least bit dry. Country terrine had a great chunky texture and the pickled green tomatoes were a perfect accompaniment, even better than the more traditional (at least in France) cournichons.

Beef tartare with sesame cracker was visually striking and the textures worked well, there just wasn't a huge amount of flavour from the beef, or anything else on the plate for that matter. And fried potatoes with aioli weren't anything different from those available in any Spanish tapas bar, except of course for the $10 price tag for a bowl of potato and mayo.

Romano beans with dry aged beef [mince] was a slightly confused jumble of textures and flavours that perhaps would have worked OK as a salad or side but had little recommend it as a main course. And finally pepper fritters with thyme and honey were just weird, like the soggy desserts you might get at the end of a cheap Chinese meal except with a faintly distressing savoury pepper taste when you bit into them. Not very pleasant.

And with that, we were headed back off across the Atlantic. Hopefully you can see that we did at least try, and my gripes with any of the places we visited on our admittedly rather brief stay were justified. And as I say, we could have just been unlucky and caught some of them on a bad day, or just inadvertently ordered badly but the New York I remember isn't anywhere you could have ordered that badly, at least not with the amount of nerdy time and research I tend to put into figuring out where my next meal is coming from. So I'll put it down to experience and, as promised, not make any grand generalisations about the state of East Coast dining. All I will say is, it's good to be home.

Bagel Store 5/10

Wolfgang's 5/10

DuMont Burger 7/10

Sarge's Deli 6/10

Maison Premiere 7/10

Four Horsemen 7/10

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Albina, Crosby

In Crosby Village, just north of Liverpool, after a particularly quiet Saturday, restaurant Albina tweeted morosely that they had served just four people that evening and if things didn't improve, they'd have to permanently shut down. It's a story presumably repeated up and down the country - places open and close without much fanfare and with often depressing speed - but the heartwarming way industry people on Twitter rallied round to try and get Albina's booking sheet a bit busier demonstrates just how much sympathy there is for the problems faced by new restaurants, not least of which in this particular case is PR - I'd never heard of the place, despite keeping what I consider to be a less than healthy eye on such things. So given I was passing that way anyway and thanks to a cryptic but positive interjection by Marina O'Loughlin of the Guardian (she has since reviewed it here), we headed off.

Well, Marina wasn't joking. "Eccentric" is generally used to describe a restaurant that has a few stuffed animals on the walls or uses popping candy in the desserts. Albina is so many different kinds of bizarre it's hard to know where to start. On the website they describe themselves as a "journey through British food", which in practice means that all the items on the vast menu have a supposed date of invention; Cumberland sausage roll from 1647 for example, or fish & chips from 1860. But almost as soon as this conceit is introduced it falls apart, because some of the attached dates make absolutely no sense - cornflakes (a quick Wikipedia search tells me) were invented in 1895, so presumably it's only the Scotch Egg part of the Cornflake-crusted Scotch Egg that dates to the advertised 1737. And how on earth is bangers and mash dated to 1915? Have we not had sausages and potato for a few hundred years at least? And did we really only learn how to smoke trout in 1841?

Anyway so there's that. But even without the history lessons, this is still a menu that begs many questions. Potted Southport shrimps and Hereford ribeye steaks are all well and good, but if Chicken Kiev is supposed to be an ironic nod to 70s dinner party food then I'd argue you were sailing dangerously close to parody; the last time someone tried to ironically recreate the food of their childhood the patron was Gregg "lavverly" Wallace and the resulting joy sponge of a restaurant was Gregg's Table. And, again, I'll let Marina remind you how that ended.

What I'm getting at is the whole place is set up to be an epic car crash of a disaster of a place, think The Regret Rien from Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet but with IKEA furniture. Big menus are rarely a good sign, and here there are two of them, split into subsections that make no sense ("Colonial", "Nostalgia", "Signature"), as well as a separate specials board. The historical menu concept doesn't work and they don't stick to it anyway, and the first dish we tried, "Pork dustings, gentleman's relish" was some tooth-shatteringly tough strips of bland pork rind presented with four neat rows of powder vaguely resembling something you might find in a city nightclub toilets.

And yet, inexplicably, from here on the food was really good. Beetroot spelt with Waterloo cheese and horseradish crumble sounds ambitious to a fault, and yet the textures worked well, think baked Brie on toasted oats.

"Chip shop scallops" were two discs of potato, battered and served with cubes of black pudding and a dollop of lemon mayonnaise. The batter was the best thing about this - based on that I bet Albina's fish & chips (1860) is very good - and I liked the addition of pea shoots as a knowing reference to mushy peas. Yes the lemon salt was a bit of a pointless cheffy thing, and no, it's not the prettiest dish in the word but it was still a lot of fun.

Whitebait had just the right amount of batter as well, and the homemade tartare sauce was fresh and had plenty of interesting bits and pieces in it. Perhaps its difficult to really mess up whitebait (I've never had a bad example; maybe I've been lucky) but even so, this was well worth a fiver (or whatever we paid for it, the pricing on the snacks menu is as confusing as everything else).

Veal Wellington was a perfect pink slab of dainty young cow wrapped in glossy puff pastry and presented with attractive colourful veg. In any restaurant this would have been an impressive bit of work, but considering the menu it had been ordered from it was jarringly unexpected. It was also about this time that the Chicken Song started playing on the restaurant's music system, something that would usually have me racing for the door but here just seemed completely appropriate.

"Cardoons" (more than one cardoon? Don't ask me) was a top bit of pastry work, an artichoke tart sat on a bed of buttered greens (kale, spinach, a few other bits and pieces) and studded with house-dried broad beans which once you got past the bullet-like texture were full of flavour. It was lovely. Bizarrely, hysterically lovely.

Complaining about the unskinned broad beans with the chicken faggot seems like a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things but it did only slightly spoil what could have been a perfect dish. Crunchy bacon bits and a smooth pea puree surrounded a large, juicy lump of chicken meat and offal, all coated with a thick layer of glossy chicken jus. I think Bohemian Rhapsody was playing by now, the lavish dynamics of the operatic section eerily reflecting our states of mind.

Desserts consisted first of this, a deconstructed Pimms No.1 Cup with dried and fresh strawberry with strawberry sorbet, cucumber slices and squares of Pimms jelly, summery and colourful and executed very well apart from the jelly itself being a bit too solid...

...and this, an utterly perfect treacle tart, warm and gooey and topped with cold sour cream.

The bill for three people and 4 drinks came to £91.15, incredibly reasonable for the amount and quality of food and yet clearly before the flurry of interest on Twitter and the review in the national press, word was just not getting out, even to restaurant spods like me. Albina definitely won't be the only ambitious (and/or barking mad) local restaurant struggling to make ends meet despite serving decent food, and though admittedly mistakes were being made in some - ok, many - areas (the menu needs to be 1/3 of the size and split into starters mains and dessert) there are few criticisms you could level at the dishes served, which were fresh, interesting and keenly priced.

So maybe it all comes down to PR. Albina is a perfect example of somewhere just needing to be noticed; hopefully from now on will be plain sailing and I wish them all the best, but I wonder if, in the first few months of opening, with the use of a PR agency's services (or, at least, a better one) they needn't have sailed so close to closure in the first place. Yes, as a restaurant blogger who's had more than his fair share of PR-organised freebies over the years perhaps this would be my advice, but if good PR is the difference between success and failure, it seems silly to skimp on it.

Anyway, the word is out now, so all you need to worry about is enjoying it. I've moaned a lot about the stupid menus and the music but if they want to be like that what harm does it really do? The madness is all part of the charm. Towards the end of the meal, staff began to light candles secured somewhat unadvisedly with paper tissues. As they burned down, the tissue inevitably caught fire, and from time to time a shriek would ring out across the dining room as another terrifying column of flame rose up next to a couple trying to have a nice quiet dinner. And yet this was one of the least weird features of a night at Albina, a restaurant, in Crosby Village of all places, like no other.


The app doesn't work in Liverpool - yet. But it has plenty of good suggestions for London

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The Whitebrook, Monmouthshire

Henry Ashby has been a forager for over 50 years, first in his native Yorkshire, later the Scilly Isles and more recently in Monmouthshire. In his own words, he's not a "survivalist" or a "bush crafter" or any such ridiculous macho caricature, he looks only for the very finest wild plants, herbs and funghi and sells them on to only the very finest local restaurants. More specifically, recently he has begun supplying exclusively to the Whitebrook, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms in the Wye Valley, whose menus are a hymn to the local estuaries and ancient woodland and changing seasons.

Wild plants, like restaurants, broadly break down into three categories. Firstly there are the booby traps - deadly species like Ragwort or the Yellow Stain mushroom, outwardly innocuous, perhaps bearing a resemblance to a benign weed or edible funghi, but capable of inflicting severe gastrointestinal upset and even, in extreme cases, death. These are the Hard Rock Cafés or Aberdeen Angus' of the foraging world, to be avoided at all costs, duping unsuspecting foragers in the same way a Leicester Square restaurant will lure in naive tourists, serve them frozen onion rings and broiler ranch chicken and charge them a stomach-churning bill.

Then there are the species that are edible, just not particularly pleasant. Bear Grylls may collect them if he was stuck out in the wilds of the Wye Valley with only a penknife and water purification tablets, in the same way as you'd go to the KFC at Heston Services if you were desperately hungry and it was too late to find anything better, but you wouldn't go back for more without very good reason.

Finally, at the top of the chain, there are the very finest specimens, plants that only grow wild but are at least the equal of any cultivated species in terms of vibrancy of flavour; woodruff, our British vanilla, floral meadowsweet, citrusy wood sorrel. These are your Michelin-starred plants, and are all that Henry is interested in for his clients. And it is these exciting and unusual plants that elevate the tasting menu by chef Chris Harrod at the Whitebrook into something very special indeed.

Chickpea may not sound like the most obvious way to start a British foraged tasting menu but actually these are grown by a local veg supplier and are the first fresh chickpeas I've seen in this country. They came with chicken skin crackers topped with a carrot purée, full of colour and texture. Next to them, cute little cheese crackers topped with nettle purée and wild flowers.

I forgot to write down exactly what this first amuse was, but I think was cubes of bright purple potato on a soft roe of some kind, like a white tarama. Very nice it was, anyway.

The first proper course was local beets with powerful local blackberries and an artistic selection of foraged herbs and flowers. The beetroot & blackberry jus poured on top had the most amazing flavour, not to mention a dark, thick colour like fake blood.

A generous mound of fresh Cornish crab meat, sweet and luxurious, on a layer of bright green mallow "cream" and delicate pickled kohlrabi. Talking point of this dish though were "cucamelons", strange grape-sized vegetables that taste like a cross between cucumber and melon, also grown by the Whitebrook's vegetable people.

Of all the dishes, these dumplings with salt-baked turnip was perhaps the only one that veered somewhat close to disappointing. The Golden Cenarth cheese used was a bit too old and strong and battered the other flavours to a stinky pulp, and though I get the idea of using croutons for texture, they held a bit too much grease and were a bit difficult to enjoy. A noble failure, though - it was at least a dish with ambition.

Fortunately we didn't wobble for long. This beautiful slab of bright-white Cornish turbot is a textbook example of how to cook fish, moist and meaty and sat on top of a silky buttermilk sauce. An array of vivid green, salty estuary plants decorated it, and heritage carrots had so much flavour I think they may have been salt-baked. Or perhaps they were just really good carrots, seasoned perfectly.

Suckling pig came in three styles, a little cube of belly, a tender pink chop on the bone and a neat cylinder of - I think - slow-cooked jowl. It was coated in one of those lovely glossy reduced sauces that the very top restaurants can do so well, as well as - naturally - a smattering of edible plants.

A pre-dessert of blackcurrant and "pineapple weed" (growing rampant in the woods around the restaurant) was a pretty little coil of blackcurrant jelly and cream, sat on a bed of some kind of granita. Also studded into the granita were blackcurrants, each with a powerful concentrated flavour a million miles from the usual supermarket type.

Violet parfait came dressed with some dainty little meringue "twigs" and a blob of lemon thyme sorbet. More texture came in the form of teeny rose jellies and I also - again - admired the Whitebrook's confidence in dressing their dishes with fresh berries, stunningly raw and unadulterated.

Finally here's a cherry and hazelnut cake, with cherry stone ice cream and meadowsweet meringue. Like most of what came before, it was first and foremost an accomplished high-end restaurant dish that satisfied on every level, but the use of unusual foraged ingredients both enhanced the effect of the clever techniques and grounded the flavours in local geography and precise seasonality.

The Whitebrook is a perfect - perhaps unique - collaboration between a master forager with an expert's eye and palate, and a chef whose classical training is put to ideal use with this abundance of dazzling ingredients. Only once previously in the last few years - at the Black Swan in Oldstead - has that crucial final mile between ground and plate seemed so short; here in the Wye Valley you get that same sense of immediacy and vibrancy, that indefinable correctness of eating food (barring a fish or two from Cornwall) exactly in the place it was meant to be eaten.

And even without all that, even if Chris Harrod was flying his vegetables in daily from China and using moon rocks as seasoning, he would still, I'm sure, be able to produce an impressive selection of dishes. With the abundance of riches on his doorstep though, and the skills of Henry Ashby at his disposal, it makes about as good a case for getting on a train out of London for the weekend as anywhere else you'd care to think of. The Whitebrook could exist nowhere else, and eating here is an experience like no other in modern British food.


Photos by Helen. We were invited to the Whitebrook, but the lunch menu is an incredibly reasonable £47, and £35 with some excellent wines paired by GM Andrew, photos of which are here.

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