Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Meat is Murder (Tasty, Tasty Murder)

The Guardian's Word of Mouth comment section, like many popular topical internet message boards that allow the rationally-challenged to hold forth on issues way outside of their sphere of understanding, is a hotbed of vitriol and hyperbole. I should know, I'm a frequent contributor myself. And given the nature of the passions on both sides, it's perhaps not surprising that the issues surrounding the dispatch and preparation of animals for consumption should be a regular flashpoint. But it has been increasingly alarming just how far vegetarians (for it is mainly vegetarians, and their even more rabid cousins, the vegans) will go to find offense. I can just about understand how people who choose not to eat meat would be squeamish towards the slaughter and butchery of a cute little baby cow or a fluffy wild bunny, but when the cooking and eating of snails and crabs becomes an issue for the Animal Rights League you know all sense of perspective has gone completely out of the window. Take this gem, which appeared beneath Tim Hayward's excellent Giant African Land Snail adventure:

They're responsive, emotional and very sweet creatures. You can tell if they're in a "good mood" by how much they let you handle them, when they're very "happy" you can stroke them down their back and they move their eyestalks in happiness


Award winning writer? Was it a nice big heavy award that he can murder more things with?

It's. A. Snail. If you think a 5-inch gastropod is responsive and emotional, you should meet my ex-girlfriend. Convincing yourself you're receiving valuable feedback from an animal whose two main functions on this planet are to move very slowly and eat lettuce is desperately worrying - do you think maybe you're confusing "the moving of the eyestalks in happiness" with "the being of a snail"? Just a thought.

What's irritating, however, is that chefs and foodies are willing to make concessions to these sentimental extremists by going through ludicrous preparatory hoops to convince them that the animals in question have been "ethically" killed. Take crabs, for example. Essentially a nervous system in a shell, with what can only be loosely described as a "brain" so small you can barely see it, there's no more reason why you should care if a crab is "ethically" put to rest (whatever that means) than the troublesome ants nest in your back garden or the cockroach in your bread bin. And after all, edible snails and crabs can also be considered vermin in most cases. But in countless recipes on the web and in timid populist celebrity chef books, we are advised to put the animals in the freezer for half an hour to slow its metabolism down, then "ethically" jab a sharp knife in between its eyes to mangle its brain. Similarly for lobster - a sharp stab through the head is apparently the preferred method here, because if you omitted this pointless stage between the catching and the eating, PETA would bash your front door in and set fire to your children.

But I think I know why - jealousy. Given that we don't (generally) eat ants or beetles or mice or rats, the veggies are quite happy to turn a blind eye to pest control. But once they see us taking pleasure from eating something, suddenly the rules change and we're cruel and bloodthirsty carnivores who are only eating crabs and snails to make them mad. And if we are determined to eat the defenceless little things then the least we can do is feel guilty about it and be very sorry and admit we're just following a sordid and shameful urge for live flesh and don't deserve to enjoy it.

Well, the fightback starts here. We can concede, as omnivores, that an animal with big brown eyes and hooves should be treated with respect during its final moments, given that its brain is just about big enough to make such an effort worthwhile. But there's no way on earth we should feel guilty about the passing of crustaceans and molluscs and gastropods. Next time you get hold of a nice fresh lobster or Dorset brown crab, make sure it's still alive and kicking when you drop it into the pot. It won't make the blindest bit of difference to you or the animal, but it will serve the very important purpose of pissing the vegetarians off.

Edit: Photo courtesy of The Springfield Files

Monday, 13 July 2009

Roka, Fitzrovia

Roka is a Robata-yaki restaurant. No, I didn't know what it meant either - it turns out that it stands for the large charcoal grill in the centre of the room - the Robata - and the food cooked on it. Sort of a Japanese barbecue pit, only with sushi on the side instead of cornbread and grits, it attracted my interest because there's very few things I won't eat that have been cooked on a charcoal grill (to be fair, there are very few things I won't eat full stop, except perhaps raw rabbit brains, which is a shame because I'm apparently going to be served them in El Bulli in September... wish me luck).

We began with the obligitory bowl of edamame, which were a very good example of their kind - in fact probably the best I've had. Buttery and moist inside, salted evenly throughout and packed with flavour. Super.

Next arrived a very attractive plate of sashimi, with the even slices of raw fish arranged around a spectacular mountain of solid ice. The fish itself was fine - no more but certainly no less tasty than that I've had elsewhere - but it was the presentation that won here. Maybe that's the point of sashimi after all.

Next began arriving the hot dishes. My least favourite was first - a tray of grilled aubergine. It occurred to me as I was working my way through the soggy pieces of vegetable that perhaps I just don't like aubergine, and indeed I can't think of many times I've really been wowed by what is essentially a big tasteless bag of mushy grey flesh. Perhaps one day I'll be proved wrong, but in the meantime, I Don't Like Aubergine. There, I've said it.

Then, to save the day, a great dish of grilled chicken wings, coated I think in some sort of honey and soy sauce and sesame seeds, and a little wooden spoon of sea salt by the side. There was nothing subtle about the flavours here, but the crispy sugar from the honey, the sea salt and the chicken fat combined to produce a wonderful feast for every part of your palette. This was food from heaven's own barbecue - bold and brilliant.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, the black cod arrived. At £20 a plate, this had a lot to live up to, but boy did it. A sweet crust of honey and spices broke to reveal the most incredibly meaty, flavoursome flesh and gorgeous crispy skin underneath. Served prettily inside a dried leaf and with a stick of what looked and tasted like pickled lemongrass, the fact that it was actually very slightly overcooked at the edges did nothing to distract from the extraordinarily rich flavour of the fish and masterful use of spices. Worth every bit of its £20 price tag, this is the first fish dish I've had in a very long time that I never wanted to end. I've been dreaming about it ever since.

Along with impeccable and genuinely friendly service and a light and informal room (we bundled in wearing jeans and t-shirts and laden with John Lewis shopping bags but didn't feel out of place), you'd be nit picking to find anything to fault about Roka at all. Apart from the odd extravagant option (and if that black cod is any indication, these are pricey for a reason) it is all very reasonably priced, presented with flair bordering on artistry, and yet with the most important thing - the flavour - still taking centre stage. I'll even do them a favour and ignore the dish I didn't like - after all, they weren't to know I Don't Like Aubergine.


Roka on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 July 2009

Galvin at Windows, Park Lane (revisited)

I can't remember who it was, but somebody once explained to me their theory of the relationship between the quality of a meal and the altitude it is served at. Apparently, so the theory goes, you will have a worse meal the higher up you go. So starting in your Michelin-starred basement restaurants like The Greenhouse, Hakkasan and Le Gavroche, where the atmosphere is hushed and exclusive and the food divine, all the way up to the most extreme example - airline food - microwaved, over-salted slop eaten with your neighbours elbows jabbing into your ribs. And somewhere in the middle we have the "revolving restaurant" category, reliant largely on the tourist trade and unimaginative soppy couples after a nice view, serving overpriced, mediocre food. I'm thinking particularly of the Oxo Tower restaurant and the Coq d'Argent - awful places which if they didn't have the added value of a sweeping backdrop would have closed years ago.

But like all good theories, it's the exceptions that prove the rule. And although Galvin at Windows, perched high atop of the 28-storey Hyde Park Hilton on Park Lane, would no doubt do very well fleecing its well-heeled clientele with a "never mind the food, check out the view" attitude, they have thankfully decided to go down a much different route. The meal I had last night (sorry no photo of the menu, but I had this one) was not only presented in front of a vista that stretched from Wembley Stadium to Hampstead Heath but consisted of some of the most accomplished dishes I'd eaten for many months.

Let's start with the bread, which came in two variations - a wholemeal and a white olive bread. A slightly chewy crust on the white perhaps but a good flavour, and the butter was lovely and spreadable.

Amuse of tomato gelée did its job perfectly well. The tomato flavours were fresh and the gelée was actually a very good texture - not too off-puttingly solid but thick enough to scoop onto the spoon. Young basil leaves provided colour and a nice Italian flavour combination. Pretty little thing, isn't it?

My starter was a slab of seared Landes foie gras sat on top of a soft gingerbread biscuit and surrounded by semi-dried grapes and a kind of honey jus. The best foie gras recipes never muck about with the liver too much, and this was true to that form, being just interesting enough to be worth its paycheck while still allowing the rich, creamy foie to star. It's also, as you can just about tell from the picture, a hugely generous portion for a starter, and my waiter was kind enough during ordering to point out that the beef also comes with more foie and did I want to reconsider? Of course I didn't.

Once I'd polished off the cruelly inflated goose organ, another unannounced mini course arrived, of Mesclun (baby leaf) salad, balsamic and goats cheese. This was my least favourite course, which although perfectly pleasant in a salady kind of way didn't really have anything to lift it out of the mundane. The baby leaves were just that, and the goats cheese seemed a bit timid. I fully admit I'm not really a salad person, though, so maybe if all you're used to is lentils and quiche then this you'd probably think this was brilliant.

The main course finally arrived in the form of a cute little pink medallion of beef fillet, a slow-roasted portion of fatty rib topped with another generous slab of foie gras, and a colourful selection of caramelised roasted veg. And you could hardly fault any of it. The beef was cooked perfectly, the fillet well-seasoned and smooth in texture and the rib section meltingly tender with its slivers of juicy fat. Vegetables were bitesize examples of perfect French cooking, each a self-contained, juicy canapé and great fun to eat. I have, admittedly, tasted better beef - but then the fillet steak is never really just about the raw flavour, particularly not in French cooking, and it still tasted great.

Sadly, we didn't have room for desserts, but that didn't stop various final petits fours arriving, including a juicy raspberry chocolate, very fruity strawberry marshmallows and a startling little sphere of crispy salty caramel with a liquid centre. We ate them as the sun was setting over the Wembley Stadium arch.

You'd have to be very, very unlucky not to enjoy an evening at Galvin. This is a mature, confident kitchen serving Michelin-star standard food, and has even improved since my last visit in 2007. That it was totally booked up on a Thursday night in the middle of a recession is not really a mystery - what is a mystery is why the Espoir (rising star) I spoke about in the 2007 review has not yet come good. From what I can gather, the food is definitely up to scratch - at least as good as that served at Chez Bruce, for example. But then, who cares what Michelin think these days - increasingly not anyone who's opinions I trust. All you need to know is that the the service and the food at Galvin @ Windows is as good as you can hope for in this price bracket (it's not cheap - £58 for three courses), and you can certainly do a lot worse. Oh yes - and the view's not bad either.


Galvin at Windows on Urbanspoon

Friday, 3 July 2009

The Well, Clerkenwell

I couldn't wait another 24 hours to erase the memory of the hideous Hat and Feathers lunch (otherwise known as Burgergate) and so today put my faith in the Well, a gastropub-cum-bistro-cum-somethingorother on St John Street. Many years ago I had a couple of quite delicious dinners here, one of which memorably involved half a grilled rabbit and seared foie gras, washed down by some really innovative cocktails. The cocktail list seems to have survived, boasting some interesting ingredients and something called an Oyster Shot(?) but the menu was a bit dispiriting. It's not that I have anything in particular against fish cakes, goat's cheese tart, sausage and mash or steak and chips, it just seems to show a distinct lack of ambition to put them all together on one menu and call it a gastropub. Still, benefit of the doubt and all that. I ordered the burger.

Byron and Haché don't have much to worry about just yet. The beef was rather taste and textureless, albeit nicely moist. The (Applewood smoked) cheddar worked well with the charred beef, and the pickles were great. I never understand why some places feel the need to drop a green leaf salad into a burger, as it all just wilts into a big soggy mess - this doesn't happen with a slice of tomato or fresh onion for example - but there it was anyway. The fries were just how I like them, crunchy and thin and generous of portion, and even a side order of coleslaw was fresh and homemade, if slightly pointless. I have to say though, that while I can see what they are trying to do with the bun - it was nice and sweet and correctly toasted with its golden crust dotted with sesame seeds - I'm afraid the bread was quite stale and even the toasting had not prevented the base from being chewy and dry. Barely two bites in the bread had begun to split down the middle and I very soon had to abandon the hands method and use a knife and fork. A shame because there aren't enough burgers in London that use a nice sweet brioche bun - neither Haché or Byron, despite their expertise in all the other relevant areas, have got this right in my opinion.

As I was brandishing my iPhone to take the shot above, I heard a gasp of "He's taking photos!" from a member of staff nearby. I looked up just in time to see three of them dive behind a basket of fruit on the bar and conduct a very hastily convened staff meeting in furtive whispers. Seconds later, the manageress reappeared from behind the fruit, straightened her skirt and approached my little table, asking "Is everything OK?" with - I don't think I'm being too arrogant to say - perhaps a slight note of apprehension. "Fine, thanks!" I cheerily replied, being basically a bit of a coward and anyway it wasn't THAT bad. She seemed happy with that and scurried off again. Service from then on was if not exactly better (and to be fair to them, it had been perfectly good up to that point anyway) then perhaps more... intense. I made a mental note to be more surreptitious with my photo taking in the future, especially when dining on my own.

The "rumbled" incident aside, I left The Well with the distinct impression of a place resting on its laurels. Certainly, although there are many things to like about an informal, attractive room selling oysters and good cocktails, the food seems increasingly like an afterthought and it's hard to see how today's kitchen could produce another grilled rabbit and foie gras main course like they did 3 or 4 years ago. If they are happy to slide into anonymity, then of course that's their choice, and if they're still making money I can see why they might not care. But there are simply too many other excellent options in this part of town to warrant complacency for any length of time. Aiming for "just good enough" is just not good enough. You wait and see.


Well on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The Hat and Feathers, Clerkenwell

Never let it be said I don't give restaurants a fair hearing. I am open-minded, even of temperament and balanced of judgement. I will gather all available information, weigh up the pros and cons and deliver an objective verdict which meticulously details the relevant points, whether good or bad. Usually. It's just that some places don't deserve a fair hearing. They need abusing, locking up and shutting down. They need barricading, quarantining and fire-bombing. They need 100ft-high billboards with giant spot lit lettering, carried over London by a phalanx of helicopters, reading "NEVER EVER HAVE LUNCH AT THE HAT AND FEATHERS". Ahem.

It may seem like I'm over-reacting, but picture the scene. Beer garden at the aforementioned Hat and Feathers pub in Clerkenwell, on a blazing hot summer's day. "Chef", sweating profusely onto the gas grille, has just produced what looks like a large grey turd from a shelf behind the counter and is pressing it into the heat. On closer inspection, the turd turns out to be a pre-cooked beefburger, solid with cold, congealed fat. After about three minutes of this activity, long enough to turn the outside black but presumably to still have a nice dense heart of lukewarm grease within, he proudly places the meat into a cold burger bun and pops a nice cold slice of Kraft cheese on top. A side order of undressed salad completes the dish.

I watched this horror unfold open-mouthed. Fortunately - oh, so fortunately - I had not yet selected my own food, so was able to cross the turdburger off the mental list and opted instead for "beef skewers". Ordering was another exercise in the bizarre and unpleasant. Approaching the bar, I couldn't help noticing the waitress had something in her mouth, and was staring wide-eyed at me as I advanced. Just as I began to speak, she reeled over and spat whatever it was (I'd really rather not ever know) into the nearest bin, then bounced back upright, saliva dribbling down her chin like an eager basset hound. It was, to say the least, off-putting, but I mumbled my order and escaped back to the beer garden before she turned into a werewolf.

The beef skewers were tiny, chewy and accompanied by a desperately depressing unseasoned green salad and bought-in pitta bread. With no accompanying sauce or moisture of any kind, it was a chore to eat even this meagre amount of food. Even worse though was a side order of chips, anaemic and flabby and reeking of old oil, the nastiest I think I've ever been served in London. A friend's salmon steak was tasteless, tiny, shrivelled and dripping in oil, and even came with a sneering £2 supplement.

And there we have probably the most awful lunch I've had anywhere for a very long time. If I was feeling even slightly charitable I suppose I could point out that £10 is not very much to spend on lunch, and the option of a beer garden will be attractive to some. But if any restaurant cares so little about their customers that they're shamelessly serving REHEATED BURGERS under the pretext of a "credit crunch" menu, then I don't have to be in the least bit generous in return. The Hat and Feathers is a cynical, incompetent establishment serving - almost literally - shit food. Please do yourself and the world a favour, and never ever go.


Hat & Feathers on Urbanspoon