Monday, 28 September 2020

The Gurnard's Head, Zennor


The Gurnard's Head, sat high above the rugged north Cornwall coast amidst towering abandoned tin mines and dramatic moorland, is nothing if not a welcome sight for weary hikers on the South West Coastal Path, as well anyone taking the somewhat less strenuous approach (I'm not apologising for this) of having a bit of a lie-in and driving up from Penzance just in time for lunch service. However you get there, though, it seems the days of being able to just rock up uninvited and order a steak & chips are long gone - the Gurnard's Head is one of the most popular gastropubs in Cornwall even off season, and with domestic tourism booming, snagging a table is a case of getting extremely lucky, or (our approach) booking many months in advance.


With social distancing, too, there are even fewer precious tables to choose from, and so we felt very privileged indeed to be settling into a cozy corner in this lovely old building while the weather outside, which had all morning threatened to do something awful, finally broke into a dark, sustained downpour. If it hadn't been bucketing down perhaps some of the people trying their luck with a walk-in could have braved a picnic table outside; as it was, I overheard more than one group of rain-soaked hopefuls being gently let down by the front of house. We watched them with some measure of sympathy as they squelched away, before tucking into some warm sodabread and salted butter.


It was very nice sodabread though, and so was this plate of tempura PSB and goat's curd, which had a nice greaseless fry, a good fluffy, citrussy curd and a very clever touch of smoked almonds which added crunch as well as a touch of the embers.


Warm grilled sardines, meticulously filleted so that they could be eaten without the usual subsequent 10 minutes of picking pin bones out of your teeth, came draped over sourdough bread and with a little last gasp of summer, a tomato and basil salad. And it was a very nice salad of course, but the star of the show were the sardines - superbly fresh and with a good firm flesh, with a gentle crisp skin from the grill, and seasoned perfectly. Cornwall really is the place to go for fish, it seems.


After the best part of two days enjoying the best fish in the country, though, a part of me just wanted to be deliberately contrary, so for a main I chose rump steak. And though the steak was nice - pink and tender and with a decent flavour - the star of this plate of food was the sauce, a thick, glossy reduction which clung to the folds of the sprigs of kale and made it all great fun to eat. Also good was a blue cheese mousse, which added a nice hit of salty dairy.


Oh and chips were fantastic - each of them crunchy outside and soft within, with loads of lovely crispy bits at the end to gobble up.


Given we'd taken it a bit easy on the savouries, we felt justified in ordering two desserts - firstly this excellent sticky toffee pudding topped with a huge mound of clotted cream, which obviously went down very well...


...and a chocolate creameaux with coffee and dulce de leche which I had a bit less of an interest in (I tend to avoid coffee) but seemed perfectly nice to me.


The bill came to £23pp, which seems astonishingly cheap on the face of it but bear in mind we'd ordered two starters as mains and weren't drinking, unless you count a glass of local cider brandy that I ordered on a whim before the desserts. They don't automatically add service on either, so you can add on a few quid for that, but even so this not an expensive place, and the extremely attentive staff earned every bit of the tip they didn't ask for. In these large, well-spaced dining rooms every table was taken and quite rightly so - this is a justifiably famous pub.


It's easy to forget, as we gobbled and chatted our way through a happy lunch at the Gurnard's Head, that this is still a deeply uncertain and frankly terrifying time for anyone attempting to make money out of the business of cooking food and selling it to people. Since our return to the real world, the government has introduced at 10pm curfew, a completely bizarre political gesture which won't save many people from getting Covid who wouldn't have got it anyway, but will definitely further cripple the finances of pubs, bars and restaurants who have just seen another 30% disappear from their bottom lines. So book early, and book often, and enjoy yourself, and let's all just try and get through the next few months without going completely mad, because that seems to be just about the only strategy that stands a chance of working at the moment. And you can do worse, if you're in the area, than with a meal at this windswept spot on the Cornish coast, somewhere expertly placed to help you forget about the rest of the world, at least just for a while.

8/10

Friday, 25 September 2020

The Tolcarne Inn, Newlyn


In an ideal world, you'd quite rightly expect the seafood served in a fishing village to be more notable than, say, that served further inland, or in a major capital city. Most fish and seafood (by no means all, but most) is at its best when as fresh as possible, and the closer you are to the source, the more rewarding your fish dinner is likely to be.


You'd hope, then, that a gastropub installed right in the busy fishing port of Newlyn in Cornwall, alongside fishmongers, fish warehouses and the Newlyn Fish Market itself, would have a significant head start over its more landlocked rivals. The Tolcarne Inn, a charming 18th century building sat right on the harbour, constructs its menus around the finest fish they can get their hands on that day, and this being Newlyn, that's some of the best fish in the country, if not in fact the world. Trout, sardines, gurnard, ray, hake, plaice, halibut and of course fresh oysters from Porthilly turn the business of choosing what to eat into a slightly distressing game of "what would I least hate to not try", it really is a menu out of a fish-lover's dreams.


Quite how blindingly good the seafood was that we were served at the Tolcarne though, came as a surprise even if you had pretty high expectations already, which we certainly did. Right off the bat, with the arrival of the Porthilly oysters, it was clear something very special indeed was going on. Lean and clean, expertly opened with not a trace of shell grit, and with the bodies of the oysters lying plump and proud in their shells, these were literally faultless, pretty much the best oysters I've had in a very long time.


From here on, every bit of seafood served by the Tolcarne was some kind of exaggeratedly perfect version of itself, as if all our lives we'd never really had the real deal and our eyes had finally been opened. Gurnard came as a thick slab of blinding white meat, topped with a dark, crisp skin, on a bed of puy lentils and scattered with fried Jerusalem artichokes. It was, it goes without saying, the best gurnard I've ever had the pleasure of eating, and therefore completely worth the price of entry even if - and this is a criticism that can be levelled at some other of the dishes at Tolcarne Inn - it could have done with an ingredient or two less accompanying it. With fish this good, you really don't need any distractions.


No such criticism could be levelled at the chalk stream trout tartare, which was unfussily presented alongside some samphire and pickles and absolutely sung with autumnnal joy. The pickled kohlrabi was particularly good.


Now I have nothing against crispy leeks, or cavolo nero, or summer truffle purée, and certainly not chicken wing, I just wonder if the best way of showcasing a world-class fillet of halibut is to hide it at the bottom of a bowl and pile all of the above on top. Individually, it was all very well done (apart from the purée whch was a bit grainy, but not troublingly so) - and needless to say the halibut was absolutely perfect - I just don't think this dish needed quite so much going on. There's a lot to be said for the Hawksmoor approach of serving fish like they serve steak - cooked well but presented starkly alone on a plate, and with accompaniments such as chips served separately. I suppose what I'm saying is I'd quite like the Tolcarne Inn halibut with chips.


Plaice, then, yet again the finest example any of us had ever tried, the flesh lifting off the bone in meaty, satisfying chunks and having a fantastic rich flavour, which didn't really need more than one (if any) of the accompanying potatoes, beetroot and half a pound of hazelnuts. That plaice, though, blimey.


Finally hake, another completely faultless example of its kind, which because it was place on top of its accompanying squash, beans, confit tomato and anchovy rather than underneath, came across as far less fussy. Also the preserved lemon dressing was genuinely lovely and not superfluous at all, and really brought out the best in the fish.


The bill, with a bottle of wine, came to £41pp, which is certainly towards the lower end of what you'd expect to pay for a whole plaice, a chunk of halibut, fresh oysters and the like anywhere in the country never mind London. And I've never had seafood as good as this in London, at any price. And if I sound like I'm picking up on a few faults above, then please bear in mind that this is all in the context of literally the best series of fresh fish and seafood I can remember eating in a long time.

Above all else, the Tolcarne Inn is blessed with world class ingredients and a kitchen that can cook them perfectly, and for this reason I can do nothing but recommend the place. My own desire to streamline the presentation and accompaniments a bit is nothing more than personal preference - there's every chance other happy customers would appreciate the effort gone into all the dishes and would regard a simple presentation as a bit of a swizz. Either way, who cares what I think anyway - we had a great time, service was lovely, and I now have a new benchmark to measure any future fish restaurant against. Not bad for an evening's work.

8/10

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Townsend, Whitechapel


Choosing what to eat at Townsend at first seems like a completely impossible job. Not because the menu is too big or confusing or the dishes are unappealing - quite the opposite. It's a list of items so beautifully realised, so charmingly described and so starkly irresistable that even the token vegetarian options, such as they are, seem to beg to be eaten. I mean just take the top five lines:


Bread & butter
Pickled mussels and cockles
Bacon scones with goats curd and chives
Pheasant rillettes, pickled walnut
Fried Wensleydale, heather honey and smoked chilli


Nothing that isn't thoughtful, seasonal and delightful - and absolutely nothing you wouldn't want to order. In the end, using a selection method akin to pinning the menu to the wall and throwing darts at it blindfolded, we ended up first being presented with the bacon scones, topped with fluffy curd and sprinkled with chives. The soft, warm scone alongside the cooling curd made a great combination, and a great start.


Also from what I'm calling the 'snacks' section were these fritters of Wensleydale cheese, topped with an unbeatable combination of honey and chilli. Inside, they were gooey and salty, and way too easy to wolf down.


Following my usual compulsion to order offal whenever I see it, my own starter was curried sweetbreads - or rather sweetbread, it being one massive organ sliced in half, exposing a tender, bright-white interior. I loved everything about this dish, not just the main ingredient but the accompaniment of buttery burnt onions, cauliflower and yoghurt which added all kinds of interesting contrasts. Very clever stuff.


Potato dumplings - just dense enough to provide a bit of bite, but not enough to sit heavy on the stomach - came with a lovely seafood broth and topped with a scattering of brown shrimp. Like everything else, it was poised, considered and very tastefully done, a showcasing of seasonal British cooking in an accessible way. We were really enjoying ourselves by this point - can you tell?


And that was even before the arrival of one more thing guaranteed to bring a smile to my face - game. Pigeon, neatly filleted into two breast portions, skins dark and salty, flesh pink and juicy as it absolutely should be, on top of some nice crunchy leeks and one of those deep, rich restaurant-y sauces that probably took someone a day or two to make. The ease in which Townsend go about things, the extremely reasonable prices and the unpretentious presentations bely a genuinely profound knowledge of technique and mastery of flavours - this is serious food, albeit food that impresses with flavour and joy rather than expensive ingredients and unneccessary frills.


Oh almost forgot - we also ordered a plate of mince and onions, because why the hell wouldn't you. It arrived on a giant mound of mashed potato, "potato" in this case being shorthand for "potato-flavoured butter", an altogether more attractive proposition. Somehow, we managed to finish it.


Having feasted on six dishes between two people, I'm afraid we didn't have room for dessert, but I've every confidence their "spiced treacle and ginger cake" is worth ordering, and cheeses come from Neal's Yard so they'll be great too. Anyway, look, I'm sure you don't need any more details. Townsend is doing more or less everything right for a restaurant in 2020, and now they've opened up again post lockdown (at least "for now", the usual caveat in these uncertain times), you should hurry down to Whitechapel and make the most of it. God knows, you deserve it.

9/10

I was invited to Townsend all the way back in the Before Times, and didn't see a bill. Reckon with a bottle of wine the bill would have been something like £50pp, and we had a LOT of food

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

From the archive: Cub, Hoxton

Sadly, Cub didn't survive the Coronavirus closures and is no longer with us. The below is presented for historical interest...

It takes a lot to surprise the average restaurant-going Londoner - this is, after all, a city that has a café entirely devoted to breakfast cereal, and another where you dine in the pitch black - but Cub on Hoxton Street, the latest from Ryan Chetiyawardana of top-tier cocktail bar Dandelyan, is that rarest of things - a genuinely unique and innovative way of looking at the business of eating and drinking.


The idea driving the project is the concept of waste, but if that sounds a bit unappetising then let us explain. The whole place, from the furniture and tableware all the way down to the tasting menu itself, is - wherever possible - recycled or reappropriated, from tables made out of yoghurt pots (really), plates made from compressed plastic bags and light fittings from recycled cardboard.


Which all sounds like it could end up looking like a bit of a car crash (or at least a junkyard) but in reality the space is beautiful - clean and bright with mid-century-modern swoops and cozy yellow leather booths. Unfortunately, as this is London, space is at a bit of a premium, and so you may be asked to share one of the forementioned cozy booths with strangers you wouldn't ordinarily like to be cozy with. We recommend making sure of your allotted seats before you get there, to avoid any awkward surprises.


Because there really is a lot to enjoy, not least, thanks to the pedigree of the owners, on the cocktail list. A £5 gin martini is necessarily a smaller measure than you'd get in your favourite hotel bar but is impeccably made and is the ideal palate cleanser. The drinks menu as a whole is an interesting read - if you aren't tempted by entries such as "Ardbeg / Blackcurrant / Camparisoda[sic]" or "Sherried Whiskey / Pickled Plum / Banana-fermented carrot" then they do more "normal" things like beer and wine, although we did note the only champagne appeared to be Krug at a rather un-Hoxton-y £32 a glass.

br> But most will be here for the "set menu", and this is where things get really interesting. Neither a bar which does a bit of food nor a restaurant that serves drinks, both gastronomy and mixology are given equal weight at Cub, an idea that, now we've had the chance to experience it, makes perfect sense in a "why has nobody else thought of doing this" kind of way. For example, some stages of the menu are purely food, such as a chicken consommé made with waste chicken bones from other restaurants (good restaurants, we were assured, and good chicken - which came as somewhat of a relief).


At other moments, food and drink arrived together. This beautifully colourful bowl contained a gently pickled green tomato, and was presented alongside "Chervil tops / Belvedere / Cider vermouth". The drink was slightly vegetal, and the bowl contained umami-rich tomato and herb liquid, the division of labour producing a deeply satisfying - and legimately groundbreaking - result.


Not all dishes were quite so successful. "Shrooms on shrooms" suffered from containing rather a lot of chewy mushrooms and not much else (well, I suppose they did warn us...), and was fairly uninspiring. And would it have been too carnivorous of me to look for a bit more meat on the menu? They could keep their localvore credentials intact by catching squirrels on London Fields - there's loads of the nasty little things there.


Overall then, Cub had us won over, from the heartfelt and environmentally-friendly inception to the charming and timely delivery. Staff were, to the last man/woman of them, sweet and enthusiastic, eager to explain all the interesting bits and pieces we were being presented with, and clearly very proud of their product. And so they should be - it's not often you get to be a founding member of a new food and drink movement, one that has the potential to change so much about how we approach eating out. In a few years' time, who knows, perhaps we'll all be eating leftover barista whey and cider vermouth.

8/10

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for the now-defunct Just Opened London website. I'm republishing them here for archival purposes. I visited Cub in October 2017.

Monday, 14 September 2020

From the archive: Marcella, Deptford


Despite the wild success of Padella in Borough Market, which proved that people will happily queue up in the rain for hours for a bowl of pasta providing said pasta is fresh, homemade and costs less than the price of a cinema ticket, London still isn't exactly awash with good, cheap pasta restaurants.


Part of this is simply that making good pasta isn't easy - it requires talent, patience and a great deal of experience and no matter how much you're planning on charging, skilled pasta chefs are in short supply.


But part of the problem is also one of logistics - if you're in Soho, or Covent Garden where rents are astronomical, you can't survive as a business charging only £5 for a bowl of homemade pasta, unless you really go bargain basement on the raw ingredients. Which is why there's as many awful branches of Bella Italia or Zizzi as you'd ever want (not that you'd want any), and very few places worth bothering with at all.


So for great pasta, we must look further afield. Deptford, in fact, where the clever guys behind Artusi in Peckham have opened Marcella, a no-nonsense Italian bistro with a daily changing chalkboard menu, and judging by the crowds being turned away at the door on a Thursday night, again have themselves a hit on their hands.


After a Negroni to settle the nerves (anyone who has to regularly use the Cannon Street line for commuting has our eternal sympathies) we tried a few fried gnocchi; perhaps more about the crunchy texture than the less interesting taste they nevertheless went down quite well as a snack.


Fried artichokes, from the delicate outer petals to the soft heart inside, were, despite the fact the denser of the petals retained more cooking fat than we'd ordinarily like, still great fun to eat, especially when dipped in the fluffy aioli.


Pork jowl was a quality bit of pig, with bags of meaty flavour and a good firm bite. But more interesting was the "peach mostardo" it came with, an interesting umami-rich concoction with a pinpoint sweet-savoury balance. Clever stuff.


But of course, really we were here for the pasta, and we're happy to report that this is worth the journey out to SE8 and then some. Speck and marscarpone tortelloni had a marvellous al-dente bite and contained a generous amount of filling.


And courgette, mint and chilli casarecce were full of summer flavours and colours, with just enough chilli heat to enhance the delicate slices of vegetables. But the real star was, again, the pasta itself - rich and silky smooth with an addictive firm texture, there's hardly anywhere doing pasta better - at least, not anywhere you don't have to queue up in the rain for.


By this point, Marcella had won us over completely so the stonking desserts were merely a most welcome bonus. A custard doughnut was warm and fluffy and contained a healthy (or rather, unhealthy) amount of vanilla-spiked custard...


...and a super-smooth ice cream, blitzed in a Pacojet, topped with a superb blackcurrant coulis, was the perfect summer dessert. We polished it off quickly, and easily.


In fact, it's pretty hard to find fault with anything Marcella are doing. Despite being inundated with walk-ins, with some groups taking it upon themselves to squeeze seven people around a table for four (which surely would have had given the kitchen staff kittens) you wouldn't know it from the serene front of house, who were always available, always attentive and always pleasant. As we settled up and left, we overheard someone being told the wait for a table was now 45 minutes - expect this to be the norm once word gets out. So book ahead, grab your Oystercard and bring an appetite. Deptford just raised the game.

9/10

This is one of a series of articles I wrote for the now-defunct Just Opened London website. I'm republishing them here for archival purposes, but most of what I say above I'm sure still applies. I visited Marcella in August 2017.