Tuesday, 24 August 2010
I'm sure there are restaurants that have a straightforward, charitable reason for putting out 50% off deals on Toptable. I'm sure there are plenty of sadly overlooked but nevertheless lovely restaurants, serving fabulous food, which find themselves in a position to lay on a very generous discount, keeping regular clientele happy and drumming up a bit of extra interest from those on a slightly tighter budget. This is how special offer menus should work, and I'm absolutely confident this is exactly what happens. Sometimes. Except in my experience, the Toptable 50% off food offer serves only as a rather handy indicator of which restaurants to diligently avoid. I've never seen St John offer a Toptable discount, or Rules, or The Square or Le Gavroche. Places that are booked up for months in advance based on word of mouth alone, places that serve exquisite food in sumptuous surroundings, places where you would happily pay full price anyway because you get real value for money even without a special offer, these places don't need Toptable. Tiger Tiger, Navajo Joe's, Gilgamesh, Mango Tree; these are the restaurants that need Toptable - get enough clueless walk-ins paying double what the ingredients are worth and fill up the other tables with "special" offers which actually just reflect the true cost of the meal and make people think they're getting a bargain. Sorry if this all sounds unbelievably cynical but I'm yet to see much to convince me otherwise.
Incognico, then, in case you had missed the point of that introduction, is a "Toptable" restaurant. And it would therefore ordinarily be somewhere I'd avoid, except last night I met a friend who was using up her points on not just a 50% off meal but a completely free meal, and wondered if I wanted to join her. As is often the case with these deals, she was given a shorter 'discount' menu on a small piece of paper and I the full foie-gras-and-fillet-steak affair. Apart from this distinction, and in all fairness to the staff at Incognico, service was as friendly and attentive as you could ask for anywhere, despite us only drinking tap water all evening, and it was just a shame that in the end the food confirmed all my deepest suspicions.
At a whacking £17.50 for a starter portion, I don't think I'm unreasonable in expecting a slightly prettier plate of food than this. Admittedly, some of the mess was mine, as I forgot to take a picture before greedily shovelling in the first couple of mouthfuls, but it honestly wasn't that much more attractive when it arrived. It didn't taste that good either. A couple of lobes of chunkily chopped foie were doused in a sickly sweet orange sauce, too one-dimensional to be interesting, and not citrusy enough to make wading through all that wobbly fat comfortable. There were no texture contrasts to speak of - why no lovely crispy coating on the foie, for a start? - and barely two mouthfuls in I felt queasy. For the rest of the evening the thick fat coated my lips like Vaseline.
Main course of duck breast and pommes duchesse were barely any better. Nicely pink duck breast was weirdly cut into cubes slightly too large to be edible, and in the absence of a serrated knife I spent far too long slowly sawing each cube into a more manageable size. The potato fondant stuff was fine, but the sauce tasted overpoweringly of honey and very little else, meaning, in common with the starter, the whole thing was sickly sweet. Hardly a particularly accomplished dish, and at just under £20, overpriced. In case you were wondering, my companion's "free" dishes were of a similar standard, an "OK" starter of grilled mackerel followed by a "dry and tasteless" portion of pork belly.
We skipped desserts, partly because the Toptable deal only covered two courses and partly (mainly) because we just didn't want to eat any more of their food. The best thing I can say about the place is that at least it was all was cooked fresh and to order and that the food was some approximation to French bistro cooking, albeit a rather incompetent approximation. But there was no way I can say my two wobbly, saccharine courses were worth the best part of £50, and my friend felt hard done by even though she didn't pay a penny towards hers. You live and learn, though, and if nothing else the experience has reminded us how useful the Toptable website can be, if not quite in the way they intended. Next time you have your sights set on a restaurant, have a quick check to see if they're running any offers. And if they are, eat somewhere else.
Monday, 16 August 2010
"The act of going to a restaurant when you know it's going to be shit," advised Robin Majumdar, one half of the Dos Hermanos blogging crew and someone with more than his fair share of shit restaurant meals behind him, "palls really quickly, believe me."
In all honesty, I could have predicted I wasn't about to have the meal of my life at the Aberdeen Angus Steak House on Coventry Street on Friday. But my reasons for visiting the restaurant chain with the worst reputation amongst not just regular restaurant goers but Londoners in general, were slightly more complex. Will I deny that a teeny part of me was secretly, gleefully looking forward to laying into it post-mortem? No, I won't. I'm only human (and a blogger). But my expectations regarding what I might find actually lay somewhere between a Beefeater and a Bernie Inn - I wasn't expecting gourmet food, nor particularly good quality meat, but surely there was some reason the places are packed to the rafters every night, that they have become a feature of the London West End landscape as clichéd as discount theatre ticket booths and street caricaturists, that they are one of a tiny handful of restaurant chains (along with Pizza Express and very little else) to have survived more or less unchanged since the 1960s? If - and it was a big if - they served half-decent food, for not too much money, and the whole experience wasn't completely awful, then that would make sense. If not... a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, as Churchill possibly would have said; I owed it to myself and, without sounding too arrogant, to London, to find out just what went on behind those shiny red doors.
Lots of staff. That's the first thing you notice - not the crumbling 70s décor, the interrogation-room lighting or the piercing cacophony; lots of staff - smart blond women with Bluetooth earpieces that herd new arrivals around with military precision ("How many people? Three people. THREE PEOPLE!") and dozens of black-clad waiters seemingly taking part in some kind of unofficial speed service competition. I saw one guy literally run to a table to deposit the bill; clearly this is either a restaurant that believes turnover is king, or the manic service is a necessary method of getting people out of the door before they have a chance to complain about the food. Because the food served at Aberdeen Angus is by some distance some of the worst I've ever paid for in this country. Brace yourself for the gory details.
The prawn cocktail arrived with the charming introduction "That one's his", barked from one waiter to another and with a helpful point in my direction, all without making eye contact. Isn't it a picture? A huge mound of prawns in an alarmingly orange, sickly sweet sauce on a bed of wilted green lettuce. Perhaps, if I'm going to be excessively kind, not completely disgusting but gloopy and overwhelmingly dull and at £6.15 an unforgiveable rip-off. And I got off lightly. A friend's chicken wings, with their wobbly skins and sugary "BBQ" sauce were evidently straight from the microwave, again not totally revolting but about 50p worth of ingredients marked up to the best part of £6. Worst of all though was a 'Skewer of char grilled prawns', containing five miniscule prawns overcooked so badly they were literally crunchy all the way through, and tasted of plastic. Bloody awful.
We picked at our starters in disbelief for a few minutes before abandoning most of it half-eaten, interrupted only briefly by a rather distracted member of staff dropping a bowl of greasy fries into the middle of the table with the announcement "chips!" and then scurrying off. I think they were meant for another table, but we shrugged our shoulders and tried a couple anyway. They tasted of old oil and were overcooked into crunchy, floury tubes.
Mains arrived barely a couple of minutes later, while our discarded starters still lay on the table in front of us. This didn't seem to faze the staff, who held the tray of steaks over our heads while someone wordlessly removed the barely-touched Death By Prawns and replaced them with three deceptively normal-looking steaks. But the deception didn't last long. The best you could say about my rib eye was that it had probably come from a real cow. But it was watery, overcooked (more medium than medium-rare), under seasoned and dreadfully bland, the kind of desperately poor quality beef I didn't even know you could still even buy for mincemeat, let alone serve as a steak with a straight face. I didn't even have the worst one either - that accolade goes to my companion's rump steak, which was bitter, livery and tough, and with a distressing funky aroma which I couldn't quite place. Or maybe I just didn't want to. Accompanying "béarnaise" was like sweet cat's vomit, artificially thickened and sugary with a chemical sheen, fries were cold and chewy with the same gag-inducing stench of old oil, and mushrooms had come out of a tin.
"It would be funny if it wasn't so upsetting," said Dave Strauss, restaurant manager of Goodman steak restaurant in Mayfair, who had foolishly agreed to join me and @jezmd for the evening. "I could understand if the place was empty, but look!" We gazed out on the cavernous 1st floor dining room, every single table taken and a good few startled tourists literally queuing on the stairs. The whole scene was violently, stomach-churningly depressing. Tables of Russian families with young children, older American couples with their "fanny packs" and Zagat's guides, the occasional group of Japanese teenagers snapping each other with their futuristic mobile phones and smiling at the knowledge that British food is every bit as bad as they had been warned. And they'll all go home and tell their friends that London was such good fun but you were right about the food and so expensive too and for the rest of the trip we just went to McDonalds. I wanted to take them all by the hand and show them Polpo or Koya or Bob Bob Ricard or - God - ANYWHERE else and prove just how unrepresentative this diabolical place was of London food. But what can you do. We asked for the bill - £37 each with just two beers, the final, stinging slap in the face, and left.
Aberdeen Angus is a restaurant that doesn't deserve to exist. I'm guessing it has probably done more damage to our culinary reputation than the BSE crisis, foot and mouth and salmonella outbreak combined and yet there it still is, squatting on the corner of some of the most famous and well-trodden streets in the capital, luring in unsuspecting visitors and spitting them out with cynical efficiency, their opinion of British food set back another 30 years. It's infuriating that this disgraceful process is allowed to continue and that nobody has attempted to do anything about it - surely the enforced closure of all of London's Aberdeen Steakhouses would be a cheap and extremely effective method of boosting our international standing and we could recall Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver from America. Win-win.
Foul, expensive food, served incompetently in dreadful surroundings, Aberdeen Angus is a restaurant with no redeeming features. But then I imagine most of you suspected that already; the really nasty surprise on Friday was just how bad, not just passively mediocre but actively wicked their modus operandi is, and just how successful they are at exploiting naive tourists and passing trade for the maximum possible financial gain for the minimum possible effort. It is the working embodiment of everything that is shallow and cynical and just plain mean about the way that London treats its guests, and if you have a hospitable bone in your body you will do everything in your power to make sure the word reaches every corner of the globe. People of London, people of Britain, people of the world - never ever eat at Aberdeen Angus.
Wednesday, 11 August 2010
The evening had hardly got off to an auspicious start. Forced to leave our cosy, dry table at the Mucky Pup (aptly named as it seemed home to every noisy dog in North London) in search of sustenance, we set out on the trail of somewhere called the Sultan Ahmet, reportedly one of the oldest Turkish restaurants in London and purveyors of top charcoal-grilled kebabs. At least, that was the plan. The heavens opened, the Sultan Ahmet was closed for Ramadan, and not wanting to walk any further in the rain, we sploshed on to an Eritrean place literally next door. Bitter experience has taught me that very few places chosen on availability alone and without prior research end up being any good, and so it was a very dubious, not to mention hungry and wet, group of people that sat down in Zigni House last night.
My only other experience of Eritrean food was in Asmara in Brixton a year or two back. It was nice enough, from memory; I remember leaving happy and sated and financially not hugely worse off, but it's fair to say I haven't been itching to go back. None of the different stews seemed particularly interesting or distinct, and all just merged together into one homogonous brown paste - literally, in fact, once they'd all been dumped on the same huge tray of injera. So my hopes weren't sky high for Zigni House, particularly once we'd negotiated the rather listless front of house and found a table in the empty dining room. But things started looking up once the food arrived.
Starters of timtimo rolls and kategna were excellent. The rolls were soft and sour and contained a lovely dense filling of lentils, sort of a thick Eritrean dhal. And the kategna turned out to be delicate crispy squares of fried injera sprinkled with chilli powder - whether it was the ghee or the bread I'm not sure, but these tasted rather like crunchy slices of cheese on toast. Which of course can never be a bad thing.
For mains, and mindful of the homogonous brown paste we accidentally ended up with at Asmara, we made a conscious decision to order a selection of the most diverse-sounding dishes on the menu. What arrived was Quanta Fit-Fit, a delicious concoction consisting of dried beef cooked in the house chilli sauce and mixed up with a few pieces of the ubiquitous injera; Dulet - powerfully flavoured lamb tripe mixed with garlic, chilli and fresh herbs; Zil-Zil - tough but tasty biltong-like strips of blackened cured beef shoulder in a drier spicy paste; and a side portion of the house yogurt, presumably home made because it was as light and fresh as whipped cream and tasted divine. It was all incredibly good, and disappeared in record time, even necessitating an extra order of injera as there was so much of it to scoop up.
There were some issues with Zigni House, I suppose. Service was slow and reclusive - just one guy who spent most of his time hiding out of sight in the bar and had there been more than two tables occupied all evening I imagine he would have struggled. And we had to switch tables after the attractive-looking more informal sofa and raffia pedestal arrangements turned out to be painful and impractical to eat at. But other than that, I can't see why any patient person wouldn't enjoy a meal here - even the vegetarian options looked interesting and judging by the lentil starter I'm sure would have tasted great. Towards the end of our meal (which came to a very reasonable £20 or so a head including a bottle of wine between three), we were engaged in conversation by the fiercely knowledgeable owner Tsige Haile, who I have learned since is considered somewhat of an authority on Eritrean food and a celebrity chef in her native country. We gave our honest and gushing feedback on the meal and she seemed pleased enough, as you might expect. Our unplanned visit, salvaged from the jaws of disaster, turned out to be a minor triumph.
Apologies for the dreadful pictures. I think my hands were covered in Zigni sauce and I couldn't hold my iPhone still
Thursday, 5 August 2010
So, we've done Zucca, we've done Trullo. Each, in their own way, brilliant crowd- (and critic-) pleasing local Italian restaurants that punch well above their weight for their price point and together form almost a statement of intent regarding the direction that Italian cuisine can, and should, take in the capital. But what of anywhere else? Bloggers, and the network of similarly-minded foodies on Twitter, have a distinct pattern of behaviour - good places are highlighted and obsessed over weeks before they open (and occasionally even after), bad places are gleefully and publicly trashed, and everywhere falling between these two extremes is comprehensively ignored. For Sichuan you go to Chilli Cool, for burgers you go to Byron, for steak, Hawksmoor or Goodman. Anywhere else might as well not even exist, unless of course you're Cantina Laredo or Guerilla Burgers in which case we'll quite happily line up and give you a thousand reasons why you shouldn't go. It may not be fair, it may not even be particularly helpful, but that's just the way it works.
So, then, what of the hundreds of other mid-range Italian restaurants quietly peddling their wares in forgotten corners of the capital? One of them is Osteria dell'Angolo in Westminster, inside which I and Carla of BribedWithFood (who lived for many years in Italy and knows her stuff) found ourselves sheltering from the rain last night. We were there on recommendation of a number of ex-pats who spoke of an authentic vibe, friendly (and 100% Italian) staff and a mouth-watering menu of modern Italian food. I'm not sure quite how 'hotel breakfast bar' translates into an authentic Italian restaurant vibe, but Carla assured me that it felt true enough for her, and I can certainly vouch for the friendliness of the staff - if not always their competency (we noticed a diner across from us having to ask twice to be brought cutlery, as his food sat slowly cooling on the table in front of him). As for the food...
Unfortunately we got off to a bit of a bad start. Amuses consisted of a couple of smoked salmon and peppered cream cheese crostini, which would have been pleasant enough (if dull) if they hadn't been served on stale cold bread that crumbled unpleasantly in the mouth. How difficult would it have been to toast some fresh bread to order - surely it would have taken seconds? These had been kept refrigerated and tasted of laziness.
The house bread selection was much better. Foccacia in particular was moist and dense and with a lovely golden crust. A cheesy roll of some sort was studded with caraway seeds and went down very well. Even the cracker thingies (yes alright, Carla told me their proper name but I'd had a couple of glasses of wine) tasted delicate and fresh. Ironically, if we'd have just been presented with the bread basket and they'd left out the amuses altogether, we would have felt better off.
Starters were pretty good. A classic beef carpaccio with parmesan shavings definitely had a ring of the safe and familiar to it, but was no less tasty for that - the parmesan was nicely aged and the beef perfectly seasoned, although it probably wouldn't otherwise have been the most flavoursome meat. Octopus was better, with sweet and tender slices of seafood and some delicate slightly pickled veg.
In true Italian multi-course style, we split up the starters and mains with a single dish of squid-ink gnocci, which were fantastic. Dense parcels of heavily squiddy gnocchi sat in a silky sea-bass and bean sauce, garnished with a few broad beans. There was absolutely nothing not to like, and mopping up the rich sauce with the little spongey gnocchi was a delight.
Mains were more of a mixed bag. Carla's tuna looked like it could have done with more vigorous searing on the outside, but was nevertheless cooked properly medium and tasted fine. But I'm afraid my 'crusted veal' (kind of mini schnitzels) were soggy and tasted overwhelmingly of oil despite the presence of what would otherwise probably have been an interesting mix of herbs in the breadcrumbs. They were served on a bed of boiled celery and surrounded by some miniscule slices of spring onion and a thick, sweet jus which didn't cut through the greasy veal pieces at all. I left most of it.
Too full for dessert we ordered the bill, which with a bottle of white and a coffee came to £110 including service. It's more or less what we expected, and a few months ago I would have probably given it a point or two higher and praised their authentic dishes and not stratospheric cost, but what a difference two trailblazing new restaurants and the power of collective foodie opinion can make. Osteria dell'Angolo is not, by a long way, a bad restaurant, and I know plenty of people - normal, well-balanced people who just go out expecting nothing more than a nice meal and don't obsess over the latest restaurant openings like their lives depended on it - who would have a thoroughly decent evening here. Sadly, I am not one of those people. I can't help the fact I've been to Trullo and Zucca and know that there's better out there, and for less. I also can't help the fact that I know, heart of hearts, that I wouldn't ever make the effort to go back to Osteria dell'Angolo. I know that these are more my problems than theirs, and I'm pretty sure they'll continue to make a fine living serving nice, normal Italian food to nice, normal people and the world will carry on turning. For us obsessive types though, Osteria dell'Angolo is not good enough to be noticed, and not bad enough to be noticed. Sorry, but that's just the way it works.
Tuesday, 3 August 2010
One of the great ethnic food styles of London, I've never had an ocakbasi (translating as far as I can tell as simply 'charcoal grill') that's been anything less than decent, and they have the potential to be very good indeed. Yet bizarrely, they also seem to be one of the most overlooked cuisines in the capital, certainly next to Chinese or Vietnamese or Indian/Pakistani. At the risk of sounding patronising, I can't help feeling they often only have themselves to blame - I've known many a very impressive ocakbasi grill (characterised by their huge extractor hoods) hiding towards the back of the restaurant, while pride of place in the shop window goes to two columns of sweaty doner meat and a tray of deep-fried chicken. It's hardly the best way to attract passing trade, but then again, perhaps it's all deliberate, meaning only those with an insatiable desire for food adventure, or sufficiently clued-up locals, are deemed suitable to sample the proper food. And it was thanks partly to a very clued-up local and my own mindlessly optimistic attitude towards London restaurants that I found myself in Mangal 2 in Dalston last night, sampling some very proper food indeed.
The first real test of any ocakbasi is the house bread. I've mentioned before I find it surprising that considering almost every single Turkish restaurant in London has a big wood fired oven and makes its own bread, how little of it is any good. Before Mangal 2, my favourite Turkish bread came out of the ovens at Meze Mangal in New Cross; now, Mangal 2 has taken that crown. This stuff was marvellous - piping hot, delicately crusted outside and gently billowy within, it was gently seasoned and had an addictive butteryness that's so often missing from Turkish bread in London. Mangal 2 give you a huge basket of the stuff without even charging for it, which is straight out of the "how to win favour with Cheese and Biscuits" instruction manual and should be applauded.
I'll continue with the menu items that didn't impress too much. Most disappointingly of all, the house hummus was rather lumpy, which would have been forgivable in itself if it hadn't also tasted strangely old and mouldy - not very pleasant. Also the Lahmacun (a kind of Turkish pizza) needed something to lift it out of the ordinary - it was bland and slightly underseasoned and although perfectly edible wasn't anything I'd rush to order again.
But now the good news. Sucuk, Turkish beef sausages, looked like something out of a tin from the 1950s but tasted lovely - spicy and dense and with a good texture of real beef that belied their processed appearance; a plate of six chicken wings were crispy from the grill, moist inside and with a subtle piquant marinade; and a few slices of halloumi were nicely browned and served with a couple of good crispy pickles to cut through the grease. All the hot dishes were served, too, on a mixture of fresh leaves and grilled vegetables, which I thought was an excellent idea - lettuce is better fresh, onion is nice grilled, so why not serve them together?
All these dishes, you may have noticed, were starter portions. If there's only two of you, it's a great way to sample as much of the menu as possible without getting hugely stuffed, and is a technique I often employ to good effect in Vietnamese restaurants (where in fact I've found the starters are often more interesting the mains anyway). Somehow though, we still rolled out of Mangal 2 last night completely full, and having spent close to a pittance - about £12 each, even including service which, by the way, was smart and friendly. I'm not going to pretend that Mangal 2 is the greatest Turkish restaurant in London, or even that it's worth a special journey, but it is perhaps time that some of the many solid, dependable local ocakbasi places got the attention they deserve. So next time you're walking past your nearest kebab shop, try to look past the doner meat and the greasy chicken pieces and see if there's a huge, gleaming copper extractor hood lurking further inside. If there is, you may have just discovered your new favourite local restaurant. You're welcome.