Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Barbecoa, St Pauls

Before we begin, a disclaimer of sorts. I was originally booked into Barbecoa, Saint Jamie's latest vanity project (I think I'm allowed to be rude and call it a vanity project if he never cooks there, aren't I?) a couple of weeks back. But the day before I was due to visit, a very nice woman called up and said would I consider shifting my booking back a bit in return for 50% off the bill? Common sense prevailed over any geeky blogger desire to get my review out before anyone else's, and I agreed. It turns out that, unhappy with shaky service in the first few days and the subsequent slew of mediocre reviews, the brains behind Barbecoa (reportedly Oliver himself but who knows) decided to slow things down a bit, call it a soft opening, and try and get everything, in the words of their PR people, "perfect". Which all sounds very sensible.

Except, despite the extra two weeks bedding-in period, my meal last night wasn't perfect. In fact, in the end, it was pretty damn far from perfect, despite excellent service and a very assured front of house who are presumably the only people to have really benefitted from the delay. A cheery welcome, friendly banter and a charming waitress got everything off to the right track, and believe it or not, and I can see why you may not, both I and my companion last night were very much looking forward to our dinner. For a couple of hopeless carnivores like us, a restaurant themed around the proper application of fire to protein sounded like heaven - the one thing that London desperately needs is somewhere that even vaguely mimics the best American BBQ; properly cooked ribs, pulled pork, corn bread, slaw - great meat, roasted over charcoal. Imagine if somewhere, finally, got it right? We were nothing if not hopeful. Until the food arrived.

The house bread was the first depressing indication things weren't going quite to plan. Served weirdly (and very annoyingly) threaded onto a wooden spike were a dense, unseasoned pumpernickel, a similarly dull sourdough, a rather nice garlic bread and a very good indeed flatbread (naan?) of some kind. Not all awful, but inconsistent, and the butter was unsalted and boring. And if you're going to call something "Amazing pickled vegetables" then they better had be, not just overwhelmingly sour and soggy.

Baby back ribs were when things really went downhill. Over-marinated, sickly sweet outside and dry within, with no discernable porky flavour, these were hardly any better than anything you could get from TGI Fridays. Without knowing exactly what went into their preparation I can only say that they certainly tasted pre-cooked then reheated over the grill, and if they weren't then they wasted their time. One day someone in this country will decide that having stringy meat fall limply off soft bones isn't the sole aim when preparing baby back ribs, but we're not there yet. A terrible disappointment. Hardly any better was a starter of "crispy" (their words, definitely not ours) pig's cheek, which was lukewarm, grey and flavourless.

The theme continued with the mains. For £30 you might expect a 400g bone-in strip steak to be at least biting at the heels of the offerings from Goodman and Hawksmoor, but this, despite being nicely charred and looking the part, was underseasoned, dry and dreadfully bland. A pub steak masquerading as a premium offering, the poor quality of the beef was shocking - you can call me spoiled if you like, but I am only spoiled by much better meat from much better restaurants, and the best advice I can offer Barbecoa is to go and have a steak at one of these other places and work out what they're doing wrong. Because this really was awful. Pulled pork was OK, I suppose - rather sweet, not very porky, just about edible, but accompanying corn bread was distressingly oily and mealy.

With a bottle of Languedoc Syrah (£21) and a beer, the bill for two before discount came to £114, and even with 50% off I couldn't help feeling robbed. I'd hesitate to dismiss the whole operation, as the front of house staff were really doing a great job and can't be held responsible for sourcing decisions made further up the chain, but I left Barbecoa with the impression that this was cheap food, cooked easily, marked up for a credulous city crowd, and served with the ever-present crutch of Oliver's popular branding. That the end product tasted no better than anything from a nationwide chain is perhaps even deliberate - the ground floor is taken up by a Jamie Oliver merchandise store, the kind of thing you see attached to a Hard Rock Café or Planet Hollywood, and both his and Adam "who?" Perry Lang's cookbooks are available on the restaurant menu if you're desperate to recreate the soul-less corporate food in the comfort of your own home. As for me, I'm happy not to have a reason to visit One New Change again, which after all is a horrible mini-Westfield, charmless and ugly and irritating, and (as I spotted on the way out) the prospect of yet another knock-off celebrity cash-in (opening Spring 2011) will not change my mind. God help us.


Barbecoa on Urbanspoon

Apologies for the lack of photos - it was very dark in there, presumably to shield us from the full horror of the food

Monday, 29 November 2010

Bocca di Lupo, Soho

Is there any other country whose cuisine is so inconsistently represented as Italy? Up until not so long ago I was safe in the knowledge that there was nowhere worth visiting unless you paid through the nose - places like Aspley's in the Lanesborough, or the equally pricey Zafferano. Good restaurants, sure, and probably fairly true to their Italian roots, but a plate of fried gnocchi does not cost £15 in Emilia Romagna. Then along came Zucca, and suddenly the rules changed. Gorgeous, rustic, exciting food, all for around £20 a head. Next, Trullo, doing the same for Highbury and Islington - not perfect perhaps, but head and shoulders above anything you may have otherwise called Italian until fairly recently. And let's not forget the brilliant Polpetto. A few more restaurants like those, a few more meals like those, and we were well on the road to redemption.

Along this road though, which generally followed an upward trend, were a couple of bumps. Osteria dell'Angolo wasn't completely terrible but was everything I might have expected, before the arrival of Zucca et al., from an Italian restaurant in London. Slightly overpriced, slightly underwhelming, slightly rubbish. And a meal at Degò (at the risk of stretching the metaphor somewhat) wasn't so much a bump as a complete car crash - diabolical cooking at an unhealthy premium, disastrous in almost every respect. Amusingly, the PR powers that be behind Degò have decided the best way to spin my less than complimentary review is to criticise the spelling of "focaccia", accuse me of a "lack of professionalism" (guilty) and mobilise their staff and friends to leave delightfully outraged comments, a defensiveness which only serves to underline just how bad the place is.

It turns out, though, that all these ups and downs were merely preparation - groundwork, if you like - for what I decided on Friday is the Italian restaurant in London - Bocca di Lupo. There are plenty of people who will be reading this thinking "What took you so long?", and believe me I'm wondering the same myself; it has certainly had no shortage of positive coverage over the years and nobody I know who's been there has a bad word to say about the place. But better late than never, I suppose, and on a cold evening in late November, I and a couple of friends sat down to what is probably the best Italian meal I've ever eaten in this country.

Over some bright green and juicy Cerignola olives we studied the menu. Good lord, it reads well. Divided into various equally appetising sections such as 'fried', 'roasts', 'pastas & risottos' etc., each dish is marked with the region of Italy it hails from, and most are available in large or small portions. Wanting to sample as much of the menu as we could, we chose a healthy smattering of small dishes, first of which to arrive was a deep-fried artichoke and a plate of fried seafood.

I didn't ask for proof of this on Friday, but I'm told that up until the seafood at Bocca di Lupo is served to customers, much of it is kept alive and swimming in saltwater basins behind the bar. Certainly, I've rarely had more headily fresh and vibrant fried prawns and squid than in this plate of 'fritti', which for only £8.50 contained a generous number of bright red prawns, crispy salty squid and delicate disks of aubergine. Even better though was the artichoke, the deep-frying process rendering otherwise tough leaves edible without losing any of the earthy, tangy notes of artichoke.

A raw radish, celeriac and pecorino salad sounds like it could easily be rather dull, but the top-drawer ingredients and generous application of truffle oil, as well as the many exciting textures from the pomegranate seeds and soft cheese, turned it into something special. And a plate of crudita di mare consisting of raw fish and seafood of various types was simply brilliant - you may have had raw scallops elsewhere previously, and very nice these were too, but the raw langoustine was a revelation - fresh and sweet and enough to make you question why anyone ever cooks langoustine at all.

First of the pasta dishes was a rich pappardelle of ox cheek, beefy and silky in all the right places and using fantastic yellow pasta. Equally superb was an "extremely spicy" (their words, and they weren't far wrong) orecchiette with salami, onion and cherry tomato which blew the winter blues away not only with aggressive levels of chilli but a perfect mix of sweet and soft flavours.

The one "large" (at least in terms of pricing) course we ordered was this cute roast teal, stuffed with sage and thyme leaves, dressed with crispy bacon and beautifully cooked to deep brown, gamey perfection. It was brilliant, as was a side order of puntarelle (a kind of chicory) with anchovy and lemon which, to be fair, didn't meet with universal approval on our table but which I found a pungent, citrusy counterfoil to the rich duck.

Particularly in these days of the proto-chain, the word 'unique' is over-used with regards to restaurants - there are few places which really stand out from the crowd and consistently and successfully dare to do something different. More than anywhere else, Bocca di Lupo reminds me of St John - bold and creative cooking, using interesting ingredients in exciting new ways, on the one hand mindful of the noble traditions of (in this case) Italian cuisine and on the other forging exciting new paths into pastures unknown. It wasn't just that every dish at Bocca di Lupo was tasty and attractive - though they were, and then some - it was more than that, an exhilarating sense of discovery, the sheer joy of tasting dishes the like of which I've had nowhere else in the world, never mind London. Eating here is such an unadulturated delight, each mouthful of each dish triggering gasps and giggles and coos, that almost as soon as it was over I wanted to book myself in and do it all over again. And before long, I can guarantee, I will be doing exactly that. It has taken me an inexcusably long time to visit Bocca di Lupo, but this journey, with all its false starts and wrong turns and glimpsed potential, may have finally reached the promised land.


Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Glasshouse, Kew

The Glasshouse is what I think I'm supposed to call a "local" or "neighbourhood" restaurant, although exactly why this curious title is applied to some places and not others has never really been explained to me. Surely every restaurant is local to somewhere? If you lived in Mayfair you could call Le Gavroche your neighbourhood restaurant, in Chelsea it could be Royal Hospital Road. Why is Chez Bruce (Wandsworth) a local restaurant but not Rules (Covent Garden)? Lamberts (Balham) but not Polpo (Soho)? Anyway, last night I ventured out to Kew, which sounds remote enough to be a challenge but was actually only 20 minutes or so from Clapham Junction and in the end felt surprisingly... what's the word... oh yes, local.

It's a nice little room, bright and airy and evidently very popular. The staff were as numerous as they were pleasant, and despite a couple of issues with timing we couldn't really complain about service at all; the sommelier, in particular, had an infectious enthusiasm for Italian wines and helped choose a very nice Malbec to go with our mains. Before that, though, starters, and a very strange issue with the Glasshouse menu. Reading "Grilled mackerel and miso, oyster dressing, shiso leaf and crispy squid" I immediately thought of the brilliant mackerel dish at the Ledbury, and although I wasn't expecting anywhere near that standard of cooking all the ingredients, at least, were there and I thought it might be worth giving it a go. What arrived was this:

That's grilled mackerel (check) and shiso leaf (check), next to chopped squid (check) in what is best described as a spring roll with a quiff. And there the similarities to the menu description ended. The mackerel was on a bed of creamed cabbage of some sort, and the whole dish was dressed with an incredibly sweet and powerfully orangey sauce, which while by no means unpleasant was still a million miles from what I had been led to expect. By far the dominant flavour was orange, which wasn't even in the description, and there was absolutely no sign of the oyster and miso elements at all. I can't remember the last time I'd noticed such a discrepancy between a menu description and the final dish, but the fish had a nice tasty flesh and the squid was moist and while I'd have liked a crispy skin on the mackerel I still enjoyed it. Odd, though.

Main course was far more predictable, and far more enjoyable. Lovely moist breast fillets of partridge, with a little lollipop of confit leg meat, was dressed with artichokes, crispy bacon bits and chestnuts. Best of all, instead of providing a more traditional side portion, the Glasshouse had somehow cleverly turned the bread sauce into several bite size pockets hidden around the dish, which burst in the mouth to reveal a bready paste inside. Great fun.

I had heard great things about the Glasshouse cheese selection, so instead of a sweet dessert we ordered two cheese courses. My one complaint was that many of the softer cheeses were served far too cold - particularly the Epoisses and the Stinking Bishop which you could cut like cake rather than, as is more normal, being forced to scoop out the flesh with a spoon and catch it briefly on a cracker before it dribbles onto the floor. When they were good though, some of these cheeses were bloody brilliant. There was a "Roquefort"-style blue, made with cow's milk instead of sheep's, which had a lovely balance of creaminess and salt, a number of fantastic goat's whose unpasteurised flesh tasted of farmyards and countryside, but towering over all these simply the most perfect slice of Comté I've ever had in my life. It was rich, powerfully nutty, salty and fresh, in perfect condition and at the perfect temperature, its flesh giving a deep complexity and gently firm bite. Amazing.

Despite the menu lottery, and some cold cheeses, you can see where your £45 goes at the Glasshouse. It's a comfortable and comforting place to spend an evening, the friendly staff and good food combining into a big soft embrace of a restaurant, and it does, at least, deserve both the Michelin star and the custom from happy locals - there's that word again - that has sustained it in this spot for over a decade. I can definitely see myself hopping on the tube here again, and although I'm not quite close enough (or, let's face it, wealthy enough) to call myself a Kew local, well, I can always pretend.


Glasshouse on Urbanspoon

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Fish Place, Battersea

As I've often mentioned on this blog, it's a good idea to be deeply suspicious of anywhere that, for whatever reason, doesn't have to try too hard to attract custom. I'm not just talking about West End tourist traps like Aberdeen Angus or TGI Fridays, either; anywhere that can rely on a captive audience (airport bars, motorway service stations) or a celebrity endorsement (any number of terrible Marco Pierre White joints, and certain Ramsay gaffs) can also easily fall into the trap of convincing themselves popularity = quality. I was reminded of this rule while suffering a truly diabolical novelty Christmas "pizza" at Fire and Stone Covent Garden last week, consisting of a tasteless semolina flour base, salty (possibly packet) gravy replacing tomato sauce, and a number of ill-advised toppings attempting to emulate a roast turkey dinner. I have many issues with restaurants nakedly courting the pissed-up office Christmas party crowd, but this pizza was just so bad, so completely and utterly disastrously ill-advised and cheap tasting, that the fact the room we ate it in was rammed made my stomach heave with sadness even more than the toppings on the pizza. Definitely not recommended.

But for every Fire and Stone or Frankie and Benny's or Garfunkels there are, at the other end of the scale, restaurants not gifted with the capital to afford a prime West End spot but which nonetheless bravely attempt to attract custom by just cooking nice food. Sometimes these brave outposts of quality and value attract hoards of paying customers to their remote, undesirable locations and end up becoming local legends - think Sushi Hiro all the way out in Ealing, or Pearl Liang, tucked beneath a windswept office block somewhere near Paddington. Of course, it doesn't always work - Bacchus was great but the wilds of Hoxton were a step too far for the fine diners of London and it eventually closed - but there is no reason why an odd or slightly remote location cannot still host a popular and decent place to eat.

And then there is the Fish Place. To call this area of Battersea remote would be somewhat of an understatement. It's almost as if they don't want to be found - typing the postcode on their website into Google Maps points you towards a backstreet near Clapham Junction but in actual fact the restaurant is buried inside a desolate riverside development near the London Helipad - handy for international superstars or heads of state perhaps, but not for anyone else. I spent a good ten minutes pacing nervously around deserted, badly lit footpaths until I happened upon a tiny laminated sign pointing me down an unlikely dark alleyway between two buildings. It was quite a relief when I found the front door of the restaurant and settled my nerves with a glass of house white.

It's early days at the Fish Place so to criticise the house bread for being toasted instead of fresh is perhaps a bit harsh, and there was plenty of it. An amuse of scallop ceviche was fantastic though - citrusy and sweet without losing the distinct flavour of raw seafood.

Dorset crab ravioli was even more impressive. Bringing to mind some of the superb seafood pasta dishes at The Square, fresh crab, excellent pasta and a rich herby cream/seafood sauce sat on top of al dente cabbage. I imagine there would be some people not unlucky enough to possess my battered tastebuds that may consider it rather aggressively seasoned - however, I thought it was perfect.

As an experiment to see if the kitchen was as happy with meat as with fish, I ordered venison for my main, which came with very seasonal (and very nice) roast pumpkin and a little fan of some kind of dauphinoise potato. The venison itself, if I'm going to be picky, was perhaps not the gamiest tasting protein I've ever enjoyed, but the flavour of the meat was secondary anyway to a completely brilliant truffle sauce which was just about the best example of its kind I've had in years. I could just not get enough of it. And yes, in case you're wondering, that is a slice of pear providing sweet counterpoint to the other savoury ingredients.

Just before dessert arrived a very sharp palate cleanser of gin and tonic sorbet, headily (and excitingly) alcoholic and so cold it made the spoon stick to my tongue on every bite.

The biscuit and couli and sorbet elements of this blackberry mille-feuille were very good, but I'm afraid the blackberries themselves were rather bland. I'm wondering, in fact, whether raw blackberries could really ever sit well in a dessert on their own, as unlike raspberries or strawberries they don't seem to have the flavour or sweetness to stand out. However, they are at least seasonal and it's all credit to the Fish Place that all the ingredients made perfect sense for late autumn, and the attention to detail (Sainsbury's teabags aside perhaps) I'm sure went a long way to explaining why it all tasted so damn good.

So, some very good food, then. But none of the things that are wrong about the Fish Place have anything to do with the food. The first thing that may dissuade you is the price - at £45 not including service for three courses this is a restaurant in a very odd location with no particular pedigree to speak of that has, from the get-go, priced itself alongside long-established neighbourhood favourites like Chez Bruce or L'Autre Pied. Sure, it's top quality cuisine - Michelin star standard I'd say - but there's a certain arrogance in assuming that people are going to travel here when there are a number of other places offering these prices (and indeed less) for cooking of at least a similar standard.

And then there's the location. Again, I know it's early days, but there were only three tables of two occupied all night, and although the views from the first floor over the docks were pleasant enough, the journey here and the rather stilted atmosphere in the clinical new building were not. I hope there are enough people nearby with £60 a head to spend on good food to keep the Fish Place in business, as it would be a crying shame for cooking of this standard to go unnoticed, but if I live in Battersea and find the reward of eating here only just worth the effort required to find and pay for it, then I wonder how the rest of the capital feels. For now though, I will have faith that excellent food will find an audience no matter how unlikely the location, and wish the Fish Place the very best of luck.


Fish Place on Urbanspoon

I was invited to review the Fish Place

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Hot Stuff, Vauxhall

Every neighbourhood of London deserves a Hot Stuff. It is the kind of idiosyncratic, homely and budget-friendly restaurant that the residents of Vauxhall must be proud to call their local, but then thanks to various glowing reviews in the national press, and of course a smattering of equally positive blog posts its reputation has long since crossed the borders of SW8. In fact, living just ten minutes up the road in Battersea I'm not quite sure why it's taken me this long to pay a visit, but based on the lovely - and incredibly cheap - dinner I enjoyed last night, you can consider me its latest fan.

The tiny dining area of Hot Stuff has two main characteristics - it's noisy, and (at 6pm on a November evening at least) it's dark. Because of the former, it was difficult to hear exactly what our (otherwise charming and efficient) waiter was telling us about our food, and because of the latter, none of my photos came out. Added to this, the done thing at Hot Stuff is to tell them if you have any particular preferences or dislikes or dietary requirements, and they just prepare a selection of dishes they think you'll like, so there was no menu to take a photo of either. My descriptions of the food, therefore, are likely be vague bordering on useless, so perhaps I'll just focus on a few highlights.

Of the starter-style fried items, my absolute favourite was something I think they called Eminem, though I can't be completely sure. It was a flat pancake containing lamb(?) mince, spices and egg, served with a yoghurty sauce, and was a brilliant and surprisingly light combination which displayed (so I was later told) the restaurant's East African heritage. Apparently back home in Kenya these things are often much bigger and form a main course for sharing. Chilli paneer had a good kick of chilli heat and the paneer was nice and solid, although I did find the overall effect rather one-dimensional, especially as I was tipped that this was one of their best dishes. There was also some kind of deep-fried cheese ball served with a tangy sauce that wasn't anywhere near as stodgy as it sounds.

From the mains, I was as surprised as anyone to discover that my favourite dish was a vegetarian marrow curry, which was not only perfectly balanced in terms of spices but also managed to keep marrow as the primary flavour - not always easy with all those different ingredients vying for attention. There was a lovely masala fish, too, in a rich red curry, and a wonderful dish of plump, juicy prawns in a garlicky tomato sauce. The house naan bread was denser and doughier than varieties you will find elsewhere but was seasoned well and mopped up the leftover sauces very competently.

All of the above arrived in good time - not too quickly and not too slow - and this after having made them wait half an hour before ordering due to a delayed member of our party. The flexibility shown by the waiting staff, in fact, was remarkable - as well as our table of 5, there was one table of 4, a couple of 2s and one gigantic row of 18 in the centre of the room, and yet despite what must have been a difficult flow of orders to cope with, you would never have known it from our perspective. And for this brilliant service, on top of all this tasty, ridiculously cheap food, guess how much extra they charged? That's right, nothing - take note Rest of London. The final bill came to around £15 a head, to which we voluntarily, quite happily, added a couple of extra quid. They didn't even charge corkage for our BYO wine.

We spilled out onto the streets of Vauxhall with full bellies, happy hearts and with our wallets barely noticeably lighter, and yet on the bus home the elation of my new discovery was tinged with just a tiny note of frustration. If it really is possible to run a fantastic little place like this in the centre of London, without turning tables like a madman or charging way over the odds, and still turn a profit and have it full of happy punters every night, then why the hell aren't the unloved neighbourhoods of London teeming with restaurants following their lead? Hot Stuff makes it all look so damned easy - great food, low prices, friendly service. Where's the mystery in that formula? Can it really be that hard? Then again, the idea that Hot Stuff could have found investors and trained up more staff and expanded across the capital and chose not to, well, that makes this little spot in South West London all the more precious.


Hot Stuff on Urbanspoon

Before anyone accuses me of breaking the Blogger's Code, yes I did use a flash for that last shot. But I don't think anybody noticed so just keep schtum, OK?

Monday, 8 November 2010

Cheese of the Month - Comté

There was a time when I was patient and tolerant enough to spend my Saturday afternoons at Borough Market. I would happily take twenty minutes shuffling between the hordes of day trippers from the Ginger Pig to Brindisa to the Flour Station, and I remember I actually used to enjoy the experience, if not the often frankly ludicrous prices ("£12 for a jar of capers? I'll take two!"). Now though, whether it's the novelty wearing off after six or seven years living in London, or the fact that most of the people at Borough seem to be more interested in gawping at the artfully arranged produce than actually buying anything, or perhaps a combination of the two, I'm finding my patience rather more stretched. A couple of weeks ago I found myself surrounded by a semicircle of fascinated tourists as I bought some prawns from a fish stall - they seemed genuinely delighted that someone was actually at Borough to buy their dinner, and watched silently as I self-consciously selected a dozen or so Madagascan Kings and fished around in my wallet for change. When the transaction was complete I almost felt like taking a bow. Very bizarre - and faintly depressing.

It has to be noted, however, that part of the reason that Borough is so popular is that, all said and done, there are some very good traders there. Brindisa are the only company that import such a stunning range and quality of Iberico hams, Ginger Pig sell quite simply the best beef in Britain, and I have the Borough Cheese Company to thank for my obsession with Comté cheese, which has been making regular appearances on my cheeseboards since I first tried it on my first ever visit to the market all those years ago.

It's easy to forget that not all interesting, artisan cheese has to blow your tastebuds away with an Epoisses-like power or Roquefort levels of salty intensity. Unlike some of the more pungent or challenging cheeses, I am convinced there isn't a lactose-tolerant person in the world who wouldn't enjoy a good Comté. The flesh is fairly firm, with a pleasant bite to it even when at room temperature, and a wonderful nutty, subtly sweet flavour with all the complexity you'd expect of an unpasteurised product. Although there are slight variations in quality ("grades"), unless the cheese passes a particular taste test it is not allowed, under the French AOC laws (which also specify the type of cow - Monbeliard, seen above - whose milk it uses and the minimum maturation period), to call itself Comté so you can be fairly sure that whenever you do see it for sale it will not disappoint.

The only concern you may rightly have is whether it's worth braving the hordes at Borough to pick some up. Fortunately, it's fairly widely available at decent cheese shops in London (and I've even spotted it in Waitrose) so you shouldn't struggle too much finding some, but the kind people behind a recent PR drive to get Comté more widely known in Britain have recently set up a website listing some stockists. I can also add Hamish Johnston on Northcote Road to that list, who generally have some in. So wherever you find yours, remember to bring it to room temperature first (this applies to most cheese but the subtle nutty flavours of Comté really only work properly when it's warm) and enjoy this accessible artisan product at its very best.


I was sent this sample of Comté to try. The PR company have set up a Facebook fan page so you can even become an virtual "fan" of the cheese from the comfort of your own home.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Wahaca, Covent Garden

It is the Holy Grail for restaurateurs, I'm told, to run a successful business with a no-reservations policy. Anywhere good (and/or popular) enough to have punters happily facing down a 45-minute wait for a table and still recommend it to their mates is in a pretty enviable position, and various recent openings in London (Polpo & Polpetto, Draft House Battersea, Dishoom) seem to indicate this is the direction things are headed. In New York, with their restaurant scene ever so slightly ahead of the curve, this trend is even more evident and Big Apple diners have become quite accustomed to playing the table lottery in the city's hippest (and busiest) dining spots. Whether as a paying customer you think such arrangements are commendably egalitarian or a giant, frustrating pain in the rear end probably depends on how much you like to control the ebb and flow of your evenings. At one time, being the slightly autistic control freak, I despised anywhere that couldn't guarantee I could turn up, sit down and eat at a particular time, but I like to think my attitude has mellowed over the years. After all, it's not the greatest hardship to knock back a pint or two in a Soho bar while waiting for a table to become available, especially if the end reward is a crispy pizzetti and a plate of warm stracchino.

So while I can understand the fact Wahaca doesn't take bookings may deter some (though based on the crowds and the queues last night, they're clearly in the minority), being ten steps away from the finest cocktail bar in London (Rules) meant that our 45-minute wait (after we'd put our names on the waiting list) passed in a cosy, Negroni-sodden blur. And when we returned at our allotted time, the table was ready and waiting for us as expected. Surely this is a far more pleasant experience than trying to book some other fashionable restaurant du jour (I'm looking at you, Deux Salons) and being told they want the spot back in a couple of hours?

But enough obsessing on the technicalities of getting a table, what of the food? Firstly, for a smart, popular spot in the heart of touristy Covent Garden, Wahaca is commendably good value. Between the two of us we ordered a recommended five 'street food' items - perhaps not quite a feast but plenty enough for a pleasant dinner - and a couple of tequila-based cocktails, and the bill came to just over £15 each. My margarita was very good, on the rocks in a thick tumbler and half-and-half salting on the rim, a nice touch, and a longer drink containing orange juice, vanilla and cinnamon was very easy to drink. Also, this being Mexican Day of the Dead, we were brought a couple of extra shots of tequila for free. Which always wins points in my book.

Pork pibil was my favourite of the street food dishes. Moist, spicy pork topped with pickled red onions, they dribbled rich marinade onto the plate as you bit into them, yet kept their shape well enough to remain finger food. Chicken mole was pleasant if slightly tame, yet still streets ahead of the awful (far more expensive) stuff at Cantina Laredo. Two chicken taquitos contained moist chicken and good crispy deep-fried tortilla, a surprisingly decent tomato salsa, and a topping of Lancashire cheese (the menu is studded with these little nods to localism); and chorizo and potato quesadilla, though tasting largely of cheese and not enough of their 'own recipe' Mexican chorizo, was still decent enough. The only dish that didn't work for me was the scarily-titled 'MSC mackerel', which although pretty fresh and with more nice tomato salsa sat on a thick dollop of nasty, cheap-tasting white mayonnaise - I don't know for sure where Wahaca get their mayo from, but if it was homemade, they need to revise their recipe.

It would be easy to complain about the food at Wahaca being a bit "safe", and indeed I found myself dousing some of what we were given last night in hot sauce, but I'd be the first to admit my abused palate isn't representative of the general population and at the very least it was all fresh, tasty, and - most importantly - cheap. I should also put a special mention in for the staff last night as they seemed calm and friendly despite the frantically busy restaurant and we never had to wait too long for anything. A perfectly decent dinner, then, in a perfectly nice restaurant that's obviously popular for a reason. Get in that queue.


Wahaca on Urbanspoon

Monday, 1 November 2010

Quilon, Westminster

My history with what I shall call, for want of a better word, "posh" Indian restaurants has not been entirely happy. I remember being vaguely impressed with Cinnamon Club many years ago, but that was mainly the stunning room (Old Westminster Library) and the fact that every other table contained an MP or two to gawk at. The food at Tamarind was pretty dull and although the service and setting was plush enough it was all very pricey for the fairly standard ingredients, even taking into account the location in the heart of Mayfair. The real low point was Benares, where I paid the best part of £50 for a meal that could have come from almost any high street balti hut, right down to the naans, bowls of bog-standard curry and chicken tikka pieces. None of the above were ever anything less than tasty, but then this kind of thing rarely is anyway, and I'm not paying four times over the going rate for white tablecloths and Molton Brown in the loos if all I'm getting on my plate is another bowl of chicken dansak. So after a while, I gave up and decided that it really wasn't worth paying over £20 a head for Indian food. A massive, ill-researched generalisation perhaps, but that's what this blog is all about.

So despite recommendations, glowing reviews and the fact that I worked about ten steps away from it for the best part of two years, it's taken me this long to visit Quilon. And when I was invited to review the place on Sunday I expected, in all honesty, yet another Posh Indian experience - silver service, white tablecloths, nice toilets, expensive, boring food. But actually, I was only half right. The silver service, the white tablecloths, the little scrapy things which clear the table of crumbs, these were all present and correct. What didn't go to plan was the price, which at £23 for 3 courses was fairly reasonable, and the food, which was utterly delicious.

It was a slow start, though. Mini poppadums were cute I suppose but the supplied tomato and coconut chutneys were rather dull. Much better were the pickles that garnished every table, including some preserved garlic cloves with herbs, and a great red mixed pickle. I didn't really think they needed to bother with the fresh chutneys but then I suppose these fancier places have to cater to a wider range of chilli resistance levels. On a similar note, various items on the menu were starred as being 'spicy' but in fact would best be described as 'mild' compared to more authentic eateries. One such dish was...

...these wonderfully moist fillets of Dakshini pepper chicken which had a brilliantly subtle flavour of green peppercorns and tangy tikka yoghurt dressing underneath. I couldn't decide between these and the masala dosa for my starter so Quilon very kindly brought me half portions of both. The dosa was, in all honesty, not quite as nice as the one at Jaffna House the other night but was still very good, and it was great fun spooning the sauce over the top and making it look like an erupting volcano.

Before the main courses came a warm glass of spicy curried tomato soup of some kind, which I'm going to struggle to do justice to with my perfunctory knowledge of Indian spices but take it from me, it was fantastic. Warming, comforting, fresh and exciting, I think I also detected some earthy notes of potato in there, but I could be wrong.

My main course - "Non-vegetarian catamaran lunch" - was actually several main courses, a kind of a mini tasting menu of South Indian cuisine. There was a piece of tilapia roasted in plantain leaf, subtly spicy and if perhaps slightly overcooked then forgivable thanks to the wonderful flavours in the sauce; a bowl of spinach poriyal had a good mix of textures and fresh ingredients; something called pachadi was a bit like a raita containing crunchy pomegranate seeds and cumin; and a richly flavoured and creamy bowl of mango curry went very well mopped up with an interesting type of bread I'd never seen before - an appam - which looked like an edible bowl with a thick, fluffy centre. Best of all these though was a simply wonderful chicken dish (a masala? I couldn't find it anywhere else on the menu) containing superbly moist pieces of meat and the richest, densest, most addictively flavoured tomato curry sauce I have ever eaten in my life. If I go back to Quilon, and I'm almost certain I will, it will be for this dish above all others. Pretty much perfect.

Dessert came with the lunch menu and was pleasant if unspectacular. The bananas topping the banana pudding were a little flavourless although the rum and raisin ice cream was good. I probably should have just swapped this course out for another bowl of that chicken tomato curry thing.

With a very good sweet mango lassie to start, as well as a bowl of lemon rice and another interesting bread - a paratha - the bill would have still come to under £30 a head which is fantastic value for this range and quality of food. I left Quilon absolutely stuffed and deliriously happy, but more importantly the whole concept of posh Indian restaurants actually started to make sense. At Jaffna House, although the food was delicious and the place charming in its own rustic way, eating in a poky front room off plastic tablecloths and having to ask several times for your drink isn't for everyone. Sometimes it's nice to enjoy slightly grander surroundings, and to be waited on properly, with charming, smart staff who know what they're doing. And for these occasions, if you don't mind paying slightly more, somewhere like Quilon makes perfect sense. It's easy, comfortable, fun, and in its own way, very good value for money. And if it turns out it's the only posh Indian I ever really see the point of, well, I will still be eternally grateful for its existence.


Quilon on Urbanspoon

I was invited to review Quilon