Friday, 26 February 2010

Ed's Easy Diner, Soho

The screaming, day-glo Ed's Easy Diner sits at one end of Old Compton Street, its juvenile décor rather out of kilter with the very adult bars and restaurants in the immediate area. Don't get me wrong - there's always a place in the world for a neon rocket, and it's hard not to be a little bit charmed by the sheer audacity of this chrome-plated Liberace of a restaurant, but it's hard to avoid the sense of superficiality. Trying too hard. A bit too Westfield and not enough Selfridges. Contrast, for example, with the grittily authentic Lucky 7s on Westbourne Park Road - it is possible to do real US diner without resorting to cliché, although I am really only talking about interiors. The food is another thing entirely.

Things started well. A generously proportioned and silkily rich Vanilla Malt was a real treat - certainly much better than the offering in Guerilla Burgers a couple of days previously, and malts are still a rarity in London. I half-heartedly flicked through the "50s Rock 'n' Roll" jukebox containing such Golden-Era classics as Celebration by Kool and the Gang and Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

Both the burger and the accompanying chilli cheese fries, though, were dire. The beef tasted cheap and processed, a very strange uniformly jellified texture that took me back to school canteen burgers, and despite asking how I liked it cooked (I said Medium) was cooked right through to the middle with no sign of pink at all. Having said that, I have a horrible feeling this patty would have been gray even when raw so perhaps it's for the best. Offering American cheese should be applauded, but this was awful plasticky UK Kraftalike and not the real thing at all. It was bland and stubbornly unmelted, like a sheet of cling film between the meat and the salad. The bun was fine by the way, if a little dry.

Just as bad were the "fries" - not French Fries at all but frozen pre-cut chips also resembling something you may have once been served with your lasagne at school. They were topped with admittedly rather nice chilli and some more of that bland cheese, but were still bitterly disappointing. And this small bowl of cheap frozen chips was £4.15 - almost as much as the burger itself. I pecked at them briefly but sent most back uneaten, muttering something about not being very hungry. "Ooh, you naughty boy!" scolded my waiter - I suppose it must help to have a sense of humour when you're serving food like this on a regular basis.

"If you can find a better diner, eat there!" is the rather belligerent tagline on the Ed's website. They probably meant it as a confident guarantee of quality, but the fact is that there really aren't many other US-style diners in London, and most of the ones that do exist aren't very good, and so you end up reading it as "We may be crap, but we're as good as you're going to get." Ed's may be the only diner in the village, but that's no excuse for mediocrity, and welcoming and hilariously camp service doesn't make up for dreadful, overpriced (all pictured, plus service, came to £17) food. I wanted to like Ed's, God knows at least they're trying, in their own cack-handed way, to be authentic, but penny-pinching and an eye on that inevitable "rollout" has sucked any life out of what decent ideas ever existed, and what you are left with is a vacuous, strutting "concept" signifying nothing. Thoroughly not recommended.

2/10 (for the malt)

Ed's Easy Diner on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Guerilla Burgers, Marylebone

The first time word started circulating on the Twittersphere that a new, independent burger bar was opening in London, serving "authentic West-Coast" American-style burgers, I was mildly ecstatic. I realise that in London the bar is set pretty low for quality burgers, and I was probably being hopelessly naive to assume that anywhere would open to challenge the prevailing mediocre orthodoxy, but I did, I admit, allow myself a short period of frantic optimism. My God, imagine if somewhere actually got it right? Brioche buns, multiple thin beef pattys, Kraft cheese, crispy bacon? How wonderful would that be? I dared to believe.

And then, as so often happens, the inevitable hammer of reality falls and shatters my fragile dreams. Press pictures appeared on Facebook of what looked depressingly like a pub house burger accompanied by lurid crinkle-cut chips. Floury, brittle white buns sat atop cheddar cheese, and there was even a hideous rabbit-food concoction to keep the vegetarians happy, as if vegetarians are ever going to be happy about anything that doesn't involve lentils and homeopathy. The disappointment was like being kicked in the gut, and yet to avoid accusations of being closed-minded and unnecessarily dismissive of a restaurant which had, to be fair, not even opened yet, I decided I would probably have to go anyway. After a few days wait to give them a chance to bed in, I slunk along to Guerilla Burgers on James Street.

It's a nice enough room, airy and bright and decorated with ironic food-based revolutionary slogans ("Power to the patty" and so on). Service, too, was eager and smiley, all tasks performed with the minimum of fuss and in a timely fashion, although being the only person in the restaurant at midday I suppose this could be expected. In the interests of fairness, I decided to order their plain burger and a small side of fries, thinking that any major issues would be more apparent in their basic product than anything involving (bleugh) cottage cheese or (barf) avocado (I'm not making this up - they do a burger with avocado, cottage cheese AND coleslaw in it. It's insultingly called the "LA" burger).

The Oreo milkshake was straightforward but pleasant - I'm not a huge milkshake expert but I didn't have any major issues here. I suppose it could have been thicker and icier but perhaps this was just a different way of doing things. Only with the arrival of the burger itself did events take a serious downturn. First of all, that bloody bun. It would be bad enough if they had just stuck with the floury buns from the Facebook photos, inauthentic and dull though they are. But instead, my patty came inside what looked like a sourdough muffin that someone had spilled Bran Flakes on. It was chewy and dense, fighting with and providing no sweet counterpoint to the (admittedly rather nicely cooked and seasoned) beef. Pickles looked like they had been sliced quite a long time previously, and were shrivelled and chewy. Salad was a salad.

The problems didn't end with the burger, either. Crinkle-cut fries, having a much larger surface area than normal fries, tend to soak up a great deal of whatever they're cooked in - this means that they have the potential to be nice and crispy and full of flavour, but they require good fat. These tasted strongly of cheap cooking oil, and despite having a nice texture inside and out weren't pleasant to eat. I was glad I only ordered a small portion.

I wouldn't have a problem with any of this - well, as much of a problem at least - if I wasn't led to believe from early press activity that Guerilla Burgers would be attempting to serve "authentic, West Coast" burgers. Have they ever been to Los Angeles, I wonder? Or perhaps it's a case of some Giraffe executive (the owners) going to In'n'Out during a Californian holiday, deciding there's a market for them in London (there is), then on return realising you can't get any of the ingredients in the UK and having to compromise in almost every department.

Simon Majumdar, one half of the Dos Hermanos blogging crew, has a little tradition when faced with yet another mediocre London burger - he finishes the review with a shot of a double chilli cheeseburger from Marty's, his favourite Californian burger spot. That simple juxtaposition of the Real Thing next to whichever poor UK imitation he had tried that week says more than any accompanying text ever could. And so, in tribute, I shall do the same. Guerilla Burgers, that pictured above is not a burger. This is a burger:

(Hodad's single bacon cheeseburger, $6.25)


Guerilla Burgers on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 February 2010

Merchants, Liverpool

Many restaurants in Liverpool suffer from what I like to call 'Tall Building Syndrome'. Not many of them are very tall though, so perhaps this requires further explanation. It was Andy Hayler, I believe, who noted the tendency for the quality of food to decline in direct proportion to altitude - so taking the most extreme example of airline meals, served at 35,000ft and usually inedible, down to revolving restaurants and the like who rely on stunning views to distract from the horrors on the table, right down to basement gastronomic palaces such as Le Gavroche and The Greenhouse who seem to be trying extra hard with their cuisine to make up for the lack of natural light. The point is, there's a tendency for restaurants with huge natural advantages in either views or décor or location to not try very hard when it comes to the food on the table, and in Liverpool, blessed with a stunning collection of some of the most beautiful buildings in the world, the temptation is that much stronger to lavish attention on the surroundings and not on the kitchen. This phenomenon is particularly apparent in the Albert Dock, a Grade I listed, sensitively restored waterfront complex containing an immodest collection of the very worst restaurants in the city.

Housed in the achingly beautiful old North and South Wales Bank (b. 1868), under cathedral-high ornately carved ceilings supported by Greco-Roman columns, there was every chance Merchants would suffer from Tall Building Syndrome and then some. My hopes weren't raised by a look at the menu, which has that provincial tendency to try and be all things to all people - fish & chips, beef & udon noodles and pasta penne jostled uncomfortably on the same page. Given my low expectations, therefore, it's possible I ordered 'safe', my desire for a passable meal overriding any critic's desire to give the kitchen a thorough workout. But I almost certainly needn't have worried - the food at Merchants was not only delicious, perfectly cooked and served promptly, it also came with a charming dose of Scouse humour and personality.

Take my starter of Eggs Benedict, for example. None of your boring wafer-thin watery ham here, instead two gorgeous crispy slices of streaky bacon, two superbly timed poached eggs and a silky coating of excellent Hollandaise. And as if that wasn't enough, Merchants surrounded this pretty pile with a ring of their own homemade brown sauce, containing happy chunks of pickles.

A main course of lamb cutlets was equally accomplished. Not a huge amount of meat, perhaps, but perfectly medium-rare lamb dressed in a rich, caper-laden jus and with both a "potato fondant" (kind of a creamy mini potato pie) and a coarse carrot and turnip mash. It also came with a miniature haggis, which I suppose could be accused of being a bit pointless but I don't care because it tasted great. Haggis is always great.

I don't blame anyone who instinctively recoils at the sound of an 'Everton mint crème brûlée'. Classic dishes are very rarely improved by tampering - certainly even more rarely by the addition of synthetic mint for the purposes of a football-related culinary joke. But whether it was the wine or the company or the dazzling surroundings, I really rather enjoyed this dish. Of course it wasn't the greatest crème brûlée in the world, the top was a little unevenly caramelised and raspberries are hardly seasonal in mid-February, but you at least have to admire them for having a go.

After the meal we decamped to the bar area for a final test - to see whether they could also do a good cocktail. My Old Fashioned was lovingly (and lengthily) prepared the correct way, the bourbon (Old Woodford in this case) added bit by bit and crushed into the fresh orange rind. And that old Match Bar staple the Bramble was also dished out with aplomb, drizzled with Crème de Mûre. The barman really knew his stuff - to the extent that when he overheard me drunkenly attributing the Bramble cocktail to Dale deGroff, chimed in "it was Dick Bradsell actually". And he was quite right, of course. So well done to him, and well done to Merchants for breaking the curse of the Tall Building Syndrome - that the food lived up to the surroundings is as much as you need to know.


Merchants Bar and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

L'Art du Fromage, Chelsea

I arrived at l'Art du Fromage, thanks to a combination of the dismal weather and the fact that London Transport falls completely to pieces at the drop of a broken umbrella, completely and utterly drenched to the bone. The long walk from Sloane Square in the rain was miserable but at least necessitated a walking pace that got me to the restaurant 30 minutes early, and my first instinct was to find a nearby pub to drip-dry in. In this strange, lonely hinterland between Chelsea and Fulham however, opposite the derelict and appropriately-titled World's End pub, there really is nothing but bookmakers and windswept concrete estates. So instead I squelched into the restaurant alone, leaving a pathetic wet trail between the door and my table at the back of the room. Fair play to the staff who, if they were concerned that this bedraggled figure was lost on the way to the homeless shelter, didn't show it.

L'Art du Fromage is clearly an excellent, and unique (at least in London), concept for a restaurant. For those of us that look forward to the cheese course as the highlight of a meal (and why wouldn't you?), the prospect of an entire evening constructed from such delights as Munster, Comté and Bleu d'Auvergne was pretty exciting. By the time my flatmate had arrived I had already mapped out the three courses I wanted, ordered a bottle of sweet Gewurtstraminer to go with them, and dribbled slightly onto the menu. I was ready.

First to arrive was a little amuse of chicken liver paté and what they called a "cheese marshmallow" but tasted a bit like halloumi - perhaps it was. One of these arrived when I was on my own, then when there were two of us another two arrived... leaving three in total between the two of us. Generous I suppose, but a bit strange.

My starter was three neat medallions of foie gras terrine, interspersed with rods of ginger biscuit, slices of apple and radish, and spicy chutney. Also scattered on the plate were some edible flowers, which is perhaps pushing the pretentious button slightly but they did look pretty. Not the greatest foie I've ever tasted but the textures were superb and it made a perfectly decent starter.

The Main Event was a Fondue "Savoyarde", a mixture of Emmenthal, Comté and Beaufort cheeses presented theatrically with a flaming dose of kirsch liqueur (to "aid digestion" as the waiter rather graphically put it). The bread was nicely toasted, only occasionally falling apart in the mixture, and the flavours of the cheeses really did create an interesting cocktail. There was a slight tendency for the mixture to separate towards the end but if anything this just made it more of a hilarious challenge to keep a nice blob of cheese on the end of your skewer. It seems silly to criticise a fondue for being "just a fondue" and I won't, but even if it was nothing more than a big bowl of melted cheese and white wine, that's still good isn't it?

Desserts were very French, and very good. Crème brûlée, although not up to the mark of the Chez Bruce effort I'd tried a couple of years ago, was rich and creamy and served with not only a nice vanilla ice-cream but some gorgeous homemade lemon curd. And the Ille Flotante was ethereally light, sat on top of a good Crème Anglaise and enhanced by what I think was a swirl of some sort of fruit syrup. No complaints from anyone on our table.

So with all this at least good and occasionally wonderful food, with sparkling service and the benefit of novelty, why only 7/10? A couple of things. Firstly, the room is very, very strange. It's tiny - five tables from memory, all for 2 people, so that makes a maximum occupation at any one time of TEN(!) people. There were three members of waiting staff and presumably at least one more person in the kitchen, so this is a customer-staff ratio that even the top 3* Michelin restaurants would be proud of. But despite this, the huge blank walls and tomblike arrangement create a weirdly soul-less and echoey space and although the staff did their best I never really felt comfortable. Secondly, the prices - and I know this is Chelsea but only just - are perhaps slightly on the high side. Artisan cheese is never cheap, but at £33 for a hardly huge fondue for two and a rather pricey wine list our bill last night, bearing in mind we only had one starter, was £89.

A final warning. The light in the gents works on a motion detector that seems to be trained only on the door and not where, without going into too much detail, you would normally expect to spend most of your time in a public toilet. I was unexpectedly plunged into pitch darkness barely 30 seconds into doing my business, and found that making wild flapping gestures with my free arm didn't manage to activate a motion sensor the other side of a brick wall, but did give me a bruised wrist after making contact with a light fitting. Thank goodness for my iPhone, whose electronic display prevented further trauma and led me safely back into the light. If you can avoid similar injuries, and don't mind paying slightly over the odds for what is still a pretty decent evening, then why not pop into L'Art du Fromage. An evening of cheese-based overindulgence awaits.


L'Art du Fromage on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Martin Miller's Gin Masterclass and Hereford Road, Notting Hill

Tucked away behind a discreet red door just off Westbourne Grove is an eccentric boutique hotel called the Miller's Residence. It was here, amongst the assorted jumble and frilly antiques that seemed to cover every inch of space in this bizarre building, that I and Lizzie of Hollow Legs fame had been invited to the Martin Miller's Gin Masterclass, hosted by Craig Harper. Over a fascinating evening we learned all about the history of the martini, tested out various historic recipes (some containing exotic ingredients like absinthe and Peychaud's bitters) and had a very amusing question and answer session, uncovering such facts as the reason for the Angostura Bitters' oversized label (apparently an early mistake, never corrected) and how much vermouth Churchill liked in his martini (none). The two hours seemed to fly by, and it was only when we tumbled down the plush carpeted stairs back onto the wet London streets that the effect of all those icy martinis became suddenly and painfully apparent. We were hungry, and needed feeding. Fast.

Lucky for us, the Miller's Residence was just a few doors up from Hereford Road, a restaurant with a great press and even better pedigree (the head chef is ex-St. John) that seems to have slipped off the radar recently but I was nevertheless very interested to try out. The influence of the mothership is apparent first in the minimalist, brightly-lit interior and then in the bold and thoroughly British menu - potted pork, smoked eel, lemon sole, game pie were offered alongside a commendably long desserts list, and all priced very reasonably. I doubt there are many gastropubs or restaurants of any quality in London that offer a main course for £10, for example, albeit a vegetarian one.

The problem with setting yourself up as a St. John clone, however, is that the cooking has a lot to live up to. My black pudding and fried egg was very nice, the pudding itself wonderfully seasoned if a bit soggy and the fried egg... well, it was a fried egg. But Lizzie's "salt beef" was a complete and utter disaster - I'll leave it to her to describe just how bad it was, but suffice to say even the sight of it was depressing.

Trying to forget about the starters, we ploughed on to the mains, which fortunately were better. My lemon sole was beautifully cooked and seasoned, with a great crispy skin and tender, buttery flesh. It's a feature of St. John dishes that they are simply presented to allow the important ingredients to feature front of stage, and this can only really work with very, very good ingredients. This was a marvellous piece of fish, and enormous fun to eat. It also, essentially by complete fluke, went pretty well with a fresh, acidic Beaujolais "Les Tours Montmelas 2007" which I'd chosen for the starters. Who knew.

And so, passing on dessert because we were stuffed and it was getting fairly late, we were done. One complete disaster aside, the cooking at Hereford Road is pretty decent, especially within the price range. And this is more of an observation than a complaint, but the bright, immaculately appointed room, posh cutlery and numerous smart waiting staff sat at very obvious odds with the gastropub menu - still, if they can sell at these prices and turn a profit, then good luck to them. They also seemed just as happy serving me, gin-soaked in my jeans and trainers, as they were the other suited and booted customers of W2, although that may have been more down to the presence of Lizzie, who was, as ever, smart enough for the both of us.

The Gintelligensia Gin Masterclasses can be booked for the measly fee of £10 by emailing Martin Miller's Gin on For your money not only you get a fascinating evening and a number of excellent cocktails, you also get a doggie bag containing a £22 bottle of Miller's gin, so you'd be absolutely insane not to give it a try, if not just to start up some sort of gin resale business. And you can probably do worse than soaking up your Martinez with a meal at Hereford Road afterwards. Just avoid the salt beef.

Hereford Road 7/10

Hereford Road on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 February 2010

Vintage Vodka Tasting at Bob Bob Ricard, Soho

This is not going to be a long post. I'd love to give you the usual blow-by-blow account of the more than a dozen small dishes we were served at Bob Bob Ricard on Friday, a thoughtful and precise analysis of the mix of flavours and ingredients, and a concise rundown of the styles and influences of this unique Russian-British restaurant. I'd love to talk about the charming, bloody-minded drive of our hosts Leonid and Richard, who have against all odds (and, let's face it, all notions of common sense) opened a huge, lavishly fitted-out restaurant and private member's bar, looking like a cross between the Moulin Rouge and an opium den, in the tail-end of the biggest recession to hit this country since the 1930s. I'd love to tell you about all of it. I can't do that though, because after the sixth icy-cold shot of vintage vodka matched with a pot of Cold River caviar, I had lost my notes, forgotten my name, and begun taking a surprising number of photographs that looked like this:

So thanks to the exceptional and (at the time) welcome generosity of Bob Bob Ricard, I have no real way of knowing exactly what went on for a good proportion of the evening, but certain highlights swim through the murky vodka-laced haze. Ox tongue in aspic, with horseradish cream, was the first item to arrive, so that's a relatively clear memory. The instructions were to get a forkful of food ready, down the vodka in one (this a Kauffman 2006) and then follow it up with the mouthful of food. Somehow I was distracted when this was being announced, however, and looked up halfway through a mouthful of the aspic to find everyone else on the table waiting for me, poised ready with a vodka in one hand and a dainty portion of food in the other.


Leonid explained again, slowly, as if to a child. "You have to drink the vodka first."

"Mmm! ... Shorry."

And it was downhill from there. A Russian Premium Standard Platinum vodka was matched with tiny slivers of pickled herring that I can only semi-confidently relate thanks to the illiterate notes on my iPhone and the word "LOVELY!!!" enthused beside it. Boiled quails eggs topped with salmon roe and an incredibly sharp cured fish of some sort were also exciting enough to punch through the alcoholic fog, matched according to my notes with something called a "russan sndrd imp -- SMOOTH!!!!". Presumably it was another vodka.

After that, the notes dry up and the evening is surrendered to the vodka gods. What in the end amounted to a Russian "tapas" tasting menu and matching vodkas swam by in a giggly, messy miasma, a total of at least twelve (probably many more) plates of food each matched with yet another icy shot of premium vintage vodka. According to Leonid, the point of vodka is to be as tasteless and smooth as possible, so as to give you a nice alcoholic buzz without distracting from the food. After the 10th shot of vodka I think I could have been run over by the number 12 bus without being distracted by it, so he's clearly onto something. Oh - one more dish has just occurred to me; a simply stunning bowl of pork dumplings in a cream and white wine sauce, which I will just have to go back and revisit with eyes that can focus correctly. I have a half-formed memory of me stuffing one into the mouth of a terrified woman I'd met barely half an hour previously, screaming "TRY THIS!" with fanatical zeal.

I'm pretty sure, in fact I'm almost certain, that I would have enjoyed the food and the evening at Bob Bob Ricard even if I hadn't have been force-fed nearly a bottle of premium vintage vodka, but unfortunately there's no real way of knowing this until I make a return visit. So until I do, make what you will of the above or go and try out Bob Bob Ricard for yourself. I can heartily recommend it. At least, I think I can.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon