Monday, 26 November 2007

Foliage, Knightsbridge

There was a time when hotel restaurants in London had a deservedly appalling reputation. Even the flashiest hotels seemed to not consider having a decent restaurant to be a prority, so you ended up with bland, corporate rooms serving bland, corporate food to bland, corporate diners. Nowadays, a great number of the Michelin-starred establishments in London are affiliated with hotels, although very often this affiliation stretches no further than the hiring of the floorspace - Claridges Bar, for example, cannot transfer your tab to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant only a few steps away. "They are totally separate institutions," a waiter told me at the time. So with the new Ducasse at the Dorchester doing its best to turn back the image of London hotel restaurants twenty years (just read the reviews), I am eternally grateful for Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, which is probably the best food I've eaten all year.

Notice I was careful to say the "food" was the best I've had all year in that last paragraph. For unfortunately although the operation in the kitchen was as polished and brilliant as I've almost ever seen, the youthful front of house seemed inexperienced and out of place for a restaurant tipped for a 2nd Michelin Star next year. To mention just a few specifics - we waited a good 15 minutes before even been offered drinks or given the menu, and nobody greeted us as we were seated. There was very often a long wait between courses, and our 4-course menu took from 7:30pm until nearly 11pm to get through. And one of the waitresses repeatedly referred to one of my male friends as "she", although to be fair I often make that mistake too.

But in the context of the food at Foliage, all of these things blend into insignificance. Nibbles of spectacular strands of herby breadsticks came with a creamy cheese and onion dip and a startling smokey aubergine mousse, which was commendably experimental but so smokey it was a bit like eating coal. Even so, most seemed to enjoy it.

Next was a pre-starter of tomato mousse and crab meat, which despite being composed of very similar ingredients as the hideous concoction at Trinity, managed to get the balance of flavours just right and was a light and fluffy palatte cleanser with fantastically fresh crab meat. By this point I was already convinced of the skills of the kitchen, and just had my fingers crossed the standards would continue.

Sweetbreads with polenta didn't disappoint. I have ranted before about polenta, how it's literally one of the cheapest things to buy wholesale and every restaurant in London seems to be playing some sort of game to see how much they can get away charging for it. But this was a really lovely plate of food; the sweetbreads were moist and tasty and the polenta made a perfect accompaniment. However what I really noticed about this dish were the tiny bits of green leaf, a flavour I could not place but so fresh and strong they provided a taste hit in themselves as well as adding colour. They looked like mini sprigs of coriander but I'm pretty sure they weren't. Could they have been mustard shoots?

The seafood course was another astonishing success. Sorry about the poor photo but I was probably overwhelmed by the gorgeous smells rising from my plate and couldn't hold my hands still. Absolutely perfectly cooked scallops with one or two tiny cep mushrooms bursting with flavour, sitting on top of the most cauliflowery cauliflower puree I've ever known. Like the preceeding course, each element of the dish was perfectly prepared and served in a way so as to complement the others exactly. It's incredibly satisfying to be able to identify each component ingredient and yet to have them work together so well.

But just as I was gearing myself to declare this the best food of my entire life, I'm afraid Foliage slipped up a bit with my beef main. The presentation, the preparation and the execution of this plate of food was as faultless as the others, but somehow the beef itself was completely bland and tasted of nothing. A huge disappointment, as with better meat this would have been a sublime dish; as it was, it was only just good.

Before the dessert came a little palette cleanser of grapefruit foamy thing. Sorry I can't go into more detail, I'd had a few glasses of wine by this point, the waitress' accent was very strong and she'd just called my mate "she" again so I was probably stifling chuckles.

I noticed that "Calvados Souffle" with Sea Salt Caramel sounded remarkably similar to the excellent dessert I'd had at Pearl a few weeks ago, and thought that if those flavours worked so well together Foliage couldn't go far wrong either. As it turned out, this dessert turned out to be even better than that at Pearl, being both beautiful to look at and technically expert in execution. A good souffle is not an easy thing to pull off, but I can honestly say the flavours in each (lamentably brief) mouthful were breathtaking. And look at that sorbet - the waitress specifically mentioned that we were supposed to eat it, as she'd had a few diners thinking it was so perfect it must be artificial. I don't doubt her.

After a few best-forgotten chocolate experiments (chocolate, balasmic vinegar and salt? Er, no thanks) we finally persuaded them to bring us the bill, of which my share was £135. Not cheap of course, but this included a couple of the cocktails from the bar and enough wine so really wasn't too bad. And problems with service aside there wasn't a diner on my table of six that was anything less than very impressed with their meal. I've been to a few of these Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide and despite the usually high standards you tend to see the same ingredients and cooking techniques trotted out again and again. Not a bad thing, but you often get the impression the kitchen are aiming over your head to the Michelin judges - it can feel impersonal. This however is precise, direct cooking, somehow both haute cuisine and refreshingly unpretentious, and you leave with the impression that Foliage is genuinely trying to appeal directly to you, allowing you the privilege of understanding and relating to the ingredients on your plate while at the same time serving them in a way that surpasses your expectations. In short, Foliage is special.


Foliage on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The Anchor and Hope, Southwark

The Anchor and Hope has a lot of good things going for it, but the seating arrangements aren't one of them. There's a no booking policy, so the best places are dealt out on a first-come first-served basis. This means that if you are a couple there's a very good chance that after one of the two (!) tables for two are taken you will be sat antisocially close to good number of complete strangers on a large table by the kitchen while the waiting staff and diners on their way to the toilets periodically elbow you in the back of the head. This is the second time this year I've tried to eat at the Anchor & Hope; last time we could only stand the physical assault for five minutes - just long enough to try the bread and butter - then gave up and scurried off into the night. Still, free bread, can't complain.

This time, things went a great deal better. We had a nice quiet table for two in the corner, the back of our heads remained mercifully elbow-free throughout the evening, and most importantly we felt comfortable enough to stay long enough to sample the food, which turned out to be very good indeed. Just look at this menu:

Snails, tripe, quince, pheasant, partridge, hazelnuts, chestnuts and beetroot. It's a foodie's wet dream of perfectly pitched seasonal dishes, the odd eyebrow-raising unusual ingredient and heartwarming wintery goodness. It's the kind of food that wraps you up in a nice blanket in front of the fire when it's snowy outside. I wanted to try literally everything on this menu, and by the end of the evening it almost felt like I had, but in the end plumped for the pot-roast partridge with cabbage, bacon and chestnuts.

Truth be told the meat on the partridge was a little dry, but the surrounding broth was comforting, and the flavour of the caramelised onions and bacon strong and satisfying. With plenty of stock to smother the partridge meat this plate of food disappeared very quickly. The kind of thing I could eat every day as it felt incredibly hearty and healthy as well as tasty, partridge meat being pretty lean. This could not be said of a companion's lamb and beans dish, which was thick with cream but just as tasty.

Next I ordered the buttermilk pudding, which turned out to be an Anglicised panacotta with an accompaniment of sweet oranges, heady with alcohol. There were quite a few pips in the orange which I suppose would put some people off but I thought it added to the rustic charm of the dish. The buttermilk itself was just right - fluffy and not too sweet. However although tasty a companion's "Flourless chocolate cake" was incredibly dense and it was a bit of a struggle to get through it. Perhaps it was missing an ingredient... something that would lighten it a bit... oh yes, flour.

I know from experience we were lucky to get a comfortable corner table, and a majority of diners here will have to put up with a rather less than perfect environment to eat their food. But if this is the business model at the Anchor and Hope then good luck to them - it's clearly a very successful one, and goes to show that for many Londoners the environment comes secondary to the food. And quite right too.


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Friday, 16 November 2007

Hawksmoor, Shoreditch

It ought to be a cause of national shame that despite having some of the best small producers and fishing grounds in the world, British and Irish produce is generally ignored by our own restaurants and supermarkets. The finest fresh lobster and langoustine from the south coast, Welsh lamb and Scottish pedigree cattle are sold abroad, earning French and Spanish chefs the reputation for gastronomic excellence off the back of our own home-grown talent. Thankfully in recent years there has been a bit of a fightback, as interest in locally-sourced ingredients has increased and more restaurants and supermarkets (especially Waitrose, who deserve a special mention for their 'Local foods' section) are confident enough in their customers to market British food properly. But we are nowhere near equilibrium, and I still find it shocking that some uniformly beet-red slabs of 2nd-grade beef flown halfway across the world are regarded as the best you can eat in London.

So like a guardian angel sent from heaven to fight for British food on earth (or at least in our nation's capital) comes Hawskmoor on Commercial Road. All their meat is from a company called Ginger Pig, who regular Borough-market goers will recognise from their stall there. The menu is smallish - just a few different cuts of beef, a lamb and pork cut or two, and a scattering of sides. And it's not cheap either, my 600g sirloin coming in at a whopping £26.50. But if there's one thing that's self-evident as you cut through the charred crispy flesh into the rich, moist pink inside, is that it's worth every penny. There is simply nowhere else in the capital - nowhere in Europe I would hazard a guess - that has steaks of such stunning high quality, cooked perfectly. They are huge things too, thick with ribbons of fat that provide flavour and texture, almost a meal in themselves, but you'd be foolish not to try some of Hawskmoor's excellent side dishes, such as the rich garlicky spinach and the creamiest baked sweet potato you will ever have. Unfortunately this lunchtime the chips weren't up to the usual high standard - they tasted a bit dry - but this is not the norm based on numerous previous visits. Also the service can be hit and miss - one time we waited a whole hour before the food started to arrive, which was blamed on the macaroni cheese taking too long to make. Why they didn't have "up to an hour waiting time" stamped next to this item in the menu wasn't clear.

As if Hawksmoor wasn't happy enough with serving superb steaks, they also have a fantastic bar with a list of heritage cocktails that you will find nowhere else. My "Daiquiri No.2" was apparently one of Ernest Hemingway's favourites, although to be fair I've heard this about most cocktails. Boasting that your particular drink was favoured by Cuba's most famous alcoholic is a bit like saying you are attractive enough to sleep with Russell Brand. He wasn't that fussy, believe me.

I am told that even the non-meaty items on the menu such as the scallops and swordfish are worth having, so clearly there is talent in the kitchen beyond timing a 2-inch thick rib-eye to medium-rare. But it is the steaks that keep people coming back here. Knowledgeably sourced, perfectly cooked and honestly presented, there is no doubt that Hawksmoor serves the best steaks this side of the Atlantic.


Hawksmoor on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Kastoori, Tooting

Here's a sweeping statement to pointlessly antagonise a great many people - vegetarians in the UK, on the whole, do not really like food. At least that is the impression I often get. I'm not talking about those who just avoid red meats, or even those who eat a wide variety of fish and seafood but avoid game and poultry. These are moral or ethical decisions and are often perfectly sensible - I mean even I have "issues" with fois gras and veal although not quite enough to stop me ordering them at every opportunity. Strict vegetarians - those who fill their miserable empty days with salads and nut roasts and bloody Quinoa - these are people who see food only as a necessary evil. The kind of people who love the attention they get being able to grumble about the poor choice at whatever restaurant they happen to have been tricked into going to, and then proceed to pick at their meal half-heartedly all evening while muttering about their waistline. Stick-thin health freaks who survive on wheatgrass smoothies and wear their vegetarianism as a self-righteous badge of clean living, and yet have to supplement their apparently perfect diet with artificial protein pills and vitamins. Vegetarians do not, on the whole, like food. Anyone who really enjoyed eating would stay away from wheatgrass, for a start. And don't even get me started on vegans.

So much the same can usually be said of vegetarian restaurants. First of all, there aren't that many of them, as most British vegetarians would rather stay at home with a pack of Linda McCartney sausages than be seen to eat in a public place. And secondly, they are usually glorified health food shops with a self-service counter groaning with soggy cous cous salads and cowpats of spinach quiche, with the same odd smell of ludicrously expensive dietary supplements, fennel seeds and sadness.

Kastoori is different. You know it's different because when you sit down at a table in what is at first glance a bog-standard local curry house, you are presented with a menu which contains none of the usual suspects of high-street dining - Masala, Korma, Vindaloo, etc. Instead you notice exotic ingredients like green bananas, dosas and puris, each with a short description of the flavours involved and perhaps a short explanation of the history of the dish. Many are family heirlooms, carried over from their roots as forced exiles of Idi Amin's Uganda and mixed with further influences from their native Gujurat. What you don't notice is the lack of meat.

We started with what is fast becoming a locally famous house speciality - Dahi Puri. Described on the menu as "Taste bombs", they were bite-sized crispy pastry casings with a chick-pea, spiced potato and yoghurt sauce inside. You are told to eat them in one go - it gets very messy otherwise - and as the flavours dissolve in your mouth I defy you not to close your eyes and moan with delight. They are simply incredible.

After we'd come under fire from a couple more taste bombs each (sorry), the mains arrived - a thick aubergine curry containing huge black chillis and plenty of coriander, (not always available - this is one of the rotating daily specials), panir cheese stuffed with mint and coriander in a lovely creamy sauce, and a Dosa so big it actually overhung both sides of our table, served with a rich coconut chutney. All of it was nothing less than excellent, especially the Dosa which had a quite unexpected vinegary/herby taste and despite its generous size disappeared very quickly. I'm no expert on Gujurati cuisine but I know practiced, expert cooking when I see it, and Kastoori has yet to disappoint on that front.

As if vegetarians needed anything more to be self-righteous about, they also have one of the most exciting restaurants in South London to call their own. But let's not do Kastoori a disservice by calling it vegetarian. It is a brilliant restaurant by any standards.


Kastoori on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Canteen, Spitalfields Market

Looking for something to break the tedium of sandwich bar lunches in the City, today I wandered a little further down Commercial Road and stumbled across a row of interesting looking dining spots in Spitalfields Market. Choosing one completely at random - Canteen - I sat down in front of a refreshingly British looking menu populated with the likes of potted shrimps, gammon and potatoes, and Arbroath Smokie. The room was done up in the hideous Wagamama style of long bench seating, although unlike Wagamamas the staff weren't quite so keen to force you to sit cheek to jowl with as many other diners as possible, so I managed to keep a healthy distance from the Nathan Barley-esque advertising execs braying loudly over their Macbooks about their new pitch for JD Sports at the other end of the table.

Starter of Pea and Ham Soup was actually pretty good. There was plenty of it, and it did taste satisfyingly home made, although the accompanying bread was slightly stale, and it would have been nice to have some chunks of ham in the soup itself just to break up the texture a bit - but even so, not bad for £4.50.

I have written before about the curse of the foodie to always go for the most bizarre item on the menu, and so for my next course I chose Devilled Kidneys. I'd never had them before and they sounded like a nice traditional dish - very pre-war, offal, I tend to think. I am always open-minded about food - any dish would have to be pretty unusual if not actually dangerous to make me think twice about wolfing it down. But having been presented with a plate piled high with wobbling offal which smelt of urine, well, I must admit I was staring defeat in the face. You know when you go to the zoo in winter, and all the African animals have been keeping warm inside for weeks and the smell of camel urine and straw burns your nose as you enter the enclosure? That, on a plate, with toast.

If this is what they're supposed to taste like then I'm not surprised you don't see them on menus more often. And if they're not supposed to taste like this - and if anyone out there can enlighten me either way, please feel free - then someone should tell Canteen because, quite frankly, they were revolting.

Devilled Kidneys aside (which is where I left them), I am actually very much in favour of what Canteen is trying to do. Very reasonably priced, unapologetically British food, served informally and with charm. But to serve up a dish which is actually so bad it's inedible is pretty much a black mark against any place, no matter how good their intentions are. I can't recommend Canteen I'm afraid, but I'm optimistic about their future.


Canteen on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 November 2007

Cheese of the month - Epoisses "Berthault"

The problem, and it's a major problem, that lovers of fantastically smelly cheeses have, is how to store them without offending your housemates or ruining every item of permeable food in your fridge. Stinking Bishop (reviewed in July) is certainly a pungent cheese but fortunately is sensibly shaped and can be safely wrapped in cling film and sealed inside tupperware to limit the effects of the vapours. No such luck with Epoisses, which is always served in a 2-inch high wooden pot, too big for any tupperware I have and totally impossible to make airtight. So consider the sacrifice I had to make for this review, that in order to complete a quick tasting on Saturday night I have for around 7 days to put up with Epoisses-flavoured orange juice, Epoisses flavoured milk with my Golden Grahams in the morning (not as bad as you might think actually) and an eye-watering haze of Epoisses that rises from my kitchen up the stairs to my bedroom every time I open my fridge door. My housemates, fortunately, are currently out of the country.

Is it worth the antisocial effects? In the main, yes. The cheese we bought (from Hamish Johnston on Northcote Road as usual) was as runny as any Epoisses I've ever tried, and this was straight out of the fridge. Allowed to warm up slightly it became almost liquid, and transferring any to a cracker was a very messy operation. Fortunately the taste was as good as you might expect. Salty and rich, with a complex earthy flavour and not unpleasantly sulphurous, in common with Stinking Bishop it is the smell that affects you more than the flavour in the mouth, but this is not a bad thing. My only gripe really was the extreme runniness, which was a bit weird and didn't sit very well with the hard orange crust.

I am now doing my best to eat great spoonfuls of Epoisses every evening, to try and get through it before my house is sealed off and raided by the counter-terrorism squad. Next time I'm going to try something a little more mainstream, but I can still recommend Epoisses Berthault as an exciting cheese for those who like to be challenged by unique flavours and strong odours. Just don't expect to get the same reaction from all your friends.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Salt Beef Beigels, Brick Lane

Hello and welcome to my latest obsession - The Brick Lane Salt Beef Beigel. I feel the same way about these little beauties as I did when I first realised that the outwardly boring little pub at the end of my road actually turned out some of the best food in South West London - namely joy at the discovery, tinged with regret that it had taken me so long to make the effort to do so. God knows how many times I'd wasted the chance to try one whilst trooping up and down Brick Lane, dodging the hawkers for mediocre curry houses. A friend suggested the other day that if Boris Johnston added to his mayoral manifesto that every crappy curry house on Brick Lane had to by law post a sign on their front door reading "Just Go To Tayyabs", then even he'd vote for him.

Anyway, what's so special about salt beef? It's a fair question, and one I have asked myself until recently. It doesn't sound particularly appetising does it, salty beef. But try and imagine half a dozen generous slabs of juicy pink flesh, tasty rather than overly salty, bursting out of a georgeously soft fresh beigel (they churn them out at an incredible rate, so they will generally be very fresh), zinging with fiery English mustard and with a couple of gherkins on the side. There is a satisfying 'squeak' as you bite through the bread into the meat, from the unique texture of the preserved beef, and the fat in the meat oozes flavour.

Needless to say, there are numerous outlets in London purporting to sell 'salt beef sandwiches' that are actually just depressing mass-produced 'beef ham' and nothing like the real thing. Don't be fooled. In my (incredibly limited) experience, as well as Brick Lane the Brass Rail bar in Selfridge's Food Hall also does some great (if overpriced) salt beef, and I'm sure many people will have their own favourites.

Brick Lane is about 15 minutes walk from my workplace; the chances of me making it through the winter without a cardiac episode are diminishing rapidly. But damn it, the salt beef beigels are cheap, gorgeous and uniquely London. They are almost worth dying for.


Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Donna Margherita, Battersea

Just in case I wasn't getting smug enough with the two excellent restaurants either end of my road (The Fox and Hounds and The Food Room), word on the street (well OK, on the internet) had it that some of the best pizzas to be had in London came out of an unassuming local Italian restaurant on busy Lavender Hill. I don't know if it's even possible to have a truly great pizza, a foodstuff which is after all only tomato and cheese on bread, and I suppose the best I usually hope for is that it isn't too oily and isn't too expensive. So once I found out that there was a chance I may have been missing out on a good thing, I eagerly made my way to Donna Margherita.

Unfortunately, I needn't have worried. Though not exactly bad, my pizza - a Diavola - was just very dull, the kind of thing you could get in more or less any bog standard Italian restaurant in the capital. The dough was slightly tough, but with the odd crispy burned bubble to give a pleasant bit of texture. The fresh basil was a nice touch, and the chilli oil wasn't too overpowering and overall the mixture had just the right balance of sweet tomato and salty cheese. More than once I've been served a pizza so groaning with cheese it was like eating a huge flat fondue, so in this respect I suppose they're doing something right. Overall though, the effect was desperately underwhelming. We had been told to order the garlic bread, so we did, and this was nice enough with little crispy bits of fried rosemary and basil on top, albeit with the same tough dough. I wasn't exactly in raptures.

I only wish I could have said the same about my companion's meal, but his seafood pizza was not just disappointing in flavour but an actual health and safety hazard. You see, the chefs in their wisdom thought it would be a nice presentational flourish to keep the mussels in their shells as a topping on the pizza. And indeed at first glance it did look quite impressive, arranged as they were amongst squid tentacles and a scattering of shredded basil. But under the fierce heat of the pizza oven the mussel shells had burned and splintered alarmingly, so much so that every mouthful of pizza required a careful dissection in case any of the razor sharp fragments made their way into your mouth and shredded your gums. Less a meal and more a culinary minefield, I'm afraid the question of whether he could recommend Donna Margherita pizzas was answered with a definite "Dear God, no".

However, all is not lost. Just a couple of doors down from Donna Margherita on Lavender Hill is a little takeaway place called Basilico. There's no eat-in option but they do deliver, and having sampled a few items on their menu there is only one I keep coming back to - the Pizza Funghi au Truffle, topped with generous amounts of lovely big salami and drizzled with truffle oil. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say it was great, but it is certainly very good, and with very little danger of physical injury. Basilico has 5 branches scattered around London, and the Pizza Funghi au Truffle in particular comes highly recommended.

Donna Margherita 4/10
Basilico 7/10

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