Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Viajante revisited, Bethnal Green

The words "El Bulli-trained" have been attached to chef Nuno Mendes for as long as he has been working in London. It is a tag that has followed him from the ill-fated but briefly brilliant Bacchus in Hoxton in 2007, to the clandestine Loft supper club the year after (although how accurate a description the word "supper club" is to anywhere charging £100 a head is debatable) and then, from March last year, to Viajante, an ambitious and wilfully idiosyncratic operation in what must be the most unlikely location for a 5-star hotel in London, the old Bethnal Green Town Hall, nestled amongst the kebab shops and strip joints that surround Cambridge Heath station. Having worked at El Bulli is a big deal of course, and whatever you might think of Ferran Adria's tricks and foams you wouldn't deny any chef the opportunity to put it on his or her CV, but even Viajante's own press releases only coyly refer to Mendes doing a "stage" at the eponymous restaurant some time in the 90s, and it is his time with superchefs Wolfgang Puck and Jean-George Vongerichten that seem to have been more a more substantial feature of his culinary education.

Chef back stories are dull, and I only mention the above because however accurate or otherwise "El Bulli-trained" is as a shorthand for Nuno Mendes' cooking style, it is the one that he is, for better or worse, most associated with, and, crucially, the one that is foremost in most diners' minds as they take a seat in the strangely solemn dining room at Viajante. People, I'm guessing, come here for clever twists and techniques, unusual ingredients, an international and ultra-modern menu of shocks and surprises. They also come here for theatre - there's an open kitchen, which judging by the arrangement of tables and chairs in the room is almost literally a substitute stage, and perhaps they also come here to see Mendes himself. There was no sign of him last night, though, and as I stared out from our corner table as a half dozen chefs silently assembled plate after plate of elaborate bijou tasting dishes, I wondered what was supposed to be so entertaining about it. Surely an open kitchen should be full of fire and smoke, frantic activity, blood, sweat and tears. In Viajante, with all the "proper" cooking done in a prep area downstairs, all the show-kitchen chefs have to do is tweezer the prepared elements onto a selection of bizarre tableware and send it out. It all seemed a bit sterile.

But, to the food, and the first couple of amuses were very decent. "Thai Explosion" was a kind of biscuit made with familiarly Thai ingredients such as chicken, lemongrass and coriander, softly sweet and very clever, and "Crab doughnuts" were just that, inventive and very well put together, the kind of thing which in less skilled hands could have been a complete disaster (mmm fishy doughnuts) but here was great fun.

The first disappointment came with the "Bread and butter", a course in its own right thanks to a selection of two house "butter" creations, one involving chicken skin and one darker one allegedly somehow containing black pudding. Despite the bread being fresh and warm, neither of the "butters" really tasted of much other than, well, whipped butter, a particular blow to me as the chicken skin butter was the highlight of my first visit in summer last year. I don't know whether they've changed the recipe or I remember it being better than it was, but having hyped it to my friend it was a bit embarrassing when it turned out to be a bit of a let down.

And talking of let-downs, "Fresh cheese with peas and flowers" was pond water, the "cheese" being little more than thickened, opaque gunk and entirely unseasoned. The peas were nice but no more than that and the flowers made it all look quite pretty, but it was a hugely underwhelming, bafflingly unsuccessful course. It was also far too cold, seemingly straight out of the fridge, lending it a rather soul-less pre-prepared feel. All kinds of wrong.

The two courses "Squid with ink, pickled radishes and sea lettuce" and "White, green and wild asparagus with milk skin" both suffered from the same fridge-fresh temperature issue and both were lacking in flavour and seasoning. You could see what they were trying to do - the ribbon-cut squid in ink matched with fresh pickled radish should have been a home run, and there's not much you can do to asparagus to make them bland, but we could find anything to get excited about. Frosty, literally and metaphorically.

And then, shockingly, a flash of brilliance. "Leek heart with lobster and leek consommé" was astonishingly good, the lobster cooked two separate ways, boiled and I think a ceviche or marinade of some kind, and both deliciously moist and tasty. They came with fantastic charred leek pieces which added a smoky earthy note, and the resulting broth was scooped up with evangelical fervour. A really great dish, although it did occur to me how a kitchen capable of this could have served the peas and flowers thing with a straight face.

"Cod and potatoes with confit egg yolk and saffron" was also excellent. Lovely bright-white flakes of moist cod, a earthy smothering of saffron foam and - best of all - a fudgy, rich egg yolk to coat it all, it was a sort of deconstructed fish pie, at once familiar and unfamiliar.

And then just as we were beginning to think it may have been worth the trek to Bethnal Green after all, "Duck heart and tongue with mushroom floss and spiced broth" brought us crashing back to earth. Although the textures were interesting and the presentation pretty, the flavours were too subdued to be enjoyable, and a lack of seasoning meant all the pieces just merged into one vaguely edible stew. Not disgusting, and not that far off being right, but still wrong.

Even worse was "Pork secretos with artichoke and red wine tapioca", notable at least as the first dish using Iberico pork that I've ever not enjoyed. Simultaneously containing dry flesh and wobbly under-rendered fat, the pig itself was the biggest disappointment but with tough artichokes and a weird smear of underseasoned scarlet porridge to go with it, nothing else on the plate was enjoyable. It was, even taking into account the presentation which had at least been consistent up to this point, a sub-gastropub turn-off.

"Frozen maple with shiso and green apple" wasn't great but was at least interesting, the savoury sorbet working well as a palette cleanser and I liked the sharp shiso and the range of textures in the ice. Then, just in case we weren't discombobulated enough, the first of the desserts proper, "White chocolate with grapefruit and lemon", conspired to be surprisingly good. There was a really interesting blend of textures between the teeny meringue buttons and the soft white chocolate mousse, and the citrusy sauce finished the whole thing off very nicely.

Desserts in fact seemed to be amongst Viajante's strongest cards, the final one "Pickled and raw cucumber with milk sorbet" being just the right side of challenging and containing soft, sharp, crunchy and smooth elements all working in harmony. Pickled cucumber in a dessert, and it was quite nice - who knew?

But despite the odd highlight, I'm afraid the over-riding memory I will take with me from my experience at Viajante is of disappointment. Disappointment for a number of reasons, not least the niggling feeling that it was better the first time, that some of the dishes were so poor, that the room seemed even less conducive to having a relaxing evening. Disappointment that the odd superb dish was enough to remind me that they can produce world-class food when they want to and that I can't just write off it all as overthought nonsense. But mainly disappointment because this largely humdrum meal out in the furthest reaches of the gritty East End cost us, with only one bottle of cheapish Riesling between two and a Kir Royale each, the best part of £250, pitching it into battle with the Ledbury, Le Gavroche and pretty much every other fine dining restaurant in the capital. And based on my experience, it is a battle they are always going to lose.

So it seems, after all, that Viajante may be El Bulli's representative in London. Believe me, this isn't much of a compliment - I won the El Bulli lottery a couple of years back and trotted off to Girona only to suffer a self-important, maddeningly inconsistent meal of salty fruit, raw squid guts and other stomach-churning "experiments" interspersed with the odd edible treat. It was overlong, overwhelming and overpriced, and yet there was enough about it that was thought-provoking and challenging, and just about enough good courses to see what all the fuss was about. On the journey back from Bethnal Green last night I felt a very similar way to how I felt in the car back along those scary coastal roads north of Roses - slightly queasy, slightly confused and ever so slightly ripped off. Viajante is interesting all right, but it's not for me.


Viajante on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Lemonia, Primrose Hill

There is no reason I can think of for why so many Greek restaurants in London should be so very poor. After distressing experiences at two different branches of Real Greek (neither were my choice; was dragged there by friends brandishing 50% off vouchers, presumably the only way they can attract paying customers) followed by a catastrophically awful dinner in Camberwell (I won't mention the name but it's easily Googled if you're desperate to try the greasy supermarket taramasalata and frozen calamari for yourself), I had pretty much given up hope of ever finding anywhere worth my money. Why can Turkey, not a million miles away from Greece geographically or (debatably) culinarily, bless us Londoners with more brilliant little Ocakbasi grills than we could ever want or deserve, and our options for a Greek be either a permanently-discounted chain that sold its heart to investors many years ago or some grotty local Taverna serving mystery meat? It makes no sense.

But being the eternal optimist, and emboldened by a slew of recommendations from Twitter after wondering out loud if I'd ever find a good Greek restaurant in this town, last night I and a friend found ourselves in Lemonia, Primrose Hill. Perhaps, the dodgy reasoning went, if we paid a bit more and tried a long-established and objectively very popular restaurant in a slightly nicer part of town, the chances of being disastrously disappointed would be diminished somewhat. Well, you can't say we didn't try.

I did like one thing at Lemonia, though. The taramasalata, fluffy and bright and actually tasting of nice fresh cod's roe instead of the weird pink goo you find in Tescos (or indeed in Greek restaurants in Camberwell) was fantastic, even very nearly worth the £5 they charge for it. We were happy enough scooping it up with house bread, although for some reason despite asking for just "pitta", we were brought (and charged for) one small portion of decent warm pitta and two large toasted slices of what tasted suspiciously like Sainsbury's sesame loaf, which remained largely untouched.

The other starters were less enjoyable. Tsatziki was warm and unremarkable (and at £4.75 must be at the upper end of what you can pay for a mixture of yoghurt and cucumber) and a couple of parcels of spanakopitta were light on filling and heavy on oil. They also cost £2.50 each, which is surely way too much.

As for the main course, a mixed grill, I have rarely seen a more carelessly presented and unexciting looking plate of food. This is exactly how it arrived - like what might be leftover at a garden party after all the guests had gone home and the barbecue coals had long gone cold. There was a single tiny lamb chop, cooked through to chewy grey, a couple of kebabs of bland lamb chunks and (admittedly surprisingly moist) cubed chicken, and finally a single miniscule blackened sausage rolling around at the side, looking like a burn victim's dismembered digit. Most of it was boring if just about edible, but the sausage was mealy and dry and packed with far too many herbs and vegetables, giving it a horrible sweaty feel in the mouth.

Whether by way of an apology or through sheer incompetence, Lemonia only charged us £9.75 for the mixed grill rather than the listed £14.75, but it still wasn't worth it. And also, ordinarily I'd applaud anywhere only charging a 10% service charge rather than the normal 12.5% but even that seemed over the odds - we had arrived after and were seated next to a very pleasant American family of four who watched bemused as me and my friend ordered our food, finished off our starters, picked at our mains and polished off a bottle of rosé all before their first dishes arrived. I felt their hungry eyes dart over our way as we tucked into the taramasalata but I'm fairly sure hunger gave way to terror once they caught a glimpse of that mixed grill. Even so, if it had been the other way round and we'd waited 25 minutes for our food while the table next door feasted, I would have been furious.

The search goes on, then, I suppose. I still have a handful of recommendations for places in scary locations like Enfield and I'm not about to write off a national cuisine just because their restaurateurs aren't up to the job - otherwise we'd have all given up on Mexican cuisine long before the likes of Wahaca and Buen Provecho showed us how it should be done. But Lemonia's success and longevity is baffling - perhaps there's not much competition in Primrose Hill, perhaps the celebrity factor is drawing in more people to a mediocre local restaurant than would otherwise be the case, or perhaps - and this is the most worrying thought - people think this is just as good as Greek food can be. Well, I am eager and willing to prove them wrong. Watch this space.


Lemonia on Urbanspoon

Friday, 24 June 2011

Rock Lobsta, Shoreditch

Given the huge number of burger trucks, popup restaurants and other temporary and/or mobile outlets swamping London at the moment, it is perhaps inevitable that not all of them will be very good. And ordinarily a mediocre popup wouldn't be worth the effort of a blog post - these things are often small-scale affairs and temporary to the point of fleeting, and to bash one here, especially one that is only going to be around for a long weekend in any case, may seem at best pointless and at worst pointlessly cruel. But my experience at Rock Lobsta last night was just so irritating in almost every respect that out of a sense of duty to anyone out there who may otherwise be tempted to visit this slickly-marketed operation, and in a desperate attempt to persuade the people responsible for it to stop treating street food as a restaurant PR campaign, I thought I'd put a few words down.

Firstly, it's not just the prices that bother me about Rock Lobsta. I was being as realistic as I could about what it's possible to achieve involving fresh seafood on a budget in this country; we are never going to have access to a US$6 lobster roll or the kind of seafood outlets the lucky residents of San Diego enjoy. But I do think that for £15 I'm entitled to something a little more dramatic than a spoonful of bland lobster meat ("natives" I was told but this was hardly the best advertisement for British produce), drowned in cheap commodity mayo and laid inside a dry brioche bun. Accompanying pickles (including samphire) were nice, and there was a handful of salt and vinegar crisps to attempt to cut through all the mayonnaise, but everything had the overwhelming flavour of rip-off.

And it wasn't just the lobster roll itself that stuck in the throat. An £8 plate of crayfish, once you'd pulled them apart and extracted the teeny sliver of meat from the tails, contained just six prawn-sized edible morsels, hardly enough even to taste. They were presented with something they called "saffron mayonnaise" but which tasted remarkably like the cheap stuff that came in the lobster roll only with something that made it go yellow - possibly saffron, who knows. I also ordered a beer, which was £4, and the total should have come to a crazy £27 but for some reason they only charged me £20. Perhaps it was a mistake, perhaps it was just guilt.

Rather embarrassingly I had brought along a couple of friends to suffer the evening with me, one of whom has Coeliac's disease and therefore has to avoid gluten not through any kind of vague holistic reason but because it literally will hospitalise her. We realised the lobster bun itself was no-go but thought maybe some kind of Atkins option would work and asked what went into the rest of it. "It's just lobster" was the stunningly inaccurate response. Er, there's mayonnaise though too, isn't there? What goes into that? "I don't know, it comes in a jar". This painful exchange wasn't made any easier by one of the other chefs uttering very audible "move along now" noises, and so in the end said unfortunate friend left fuming and kept her money, possibly to spend on a three course meal somewhere that cared.

It's worth repeating that if I had paid £15 for a lobster roll and it had been juicy and tasty, with fresh mayonnaise and soft white bread, I wouldn't have been in the least bit put out. The Hawksmoor lobster roll, in fact, is £25 - admittedly it contains a whole lobster but it comes soaked in garlic and hazelnut butter and with proper béarnaise sauce on the side and is really lovely despite carving a hole in your wallet so large you could fall through it. Everything about Rock Lobsta felt shallow, a cleverly-promoted bandwagon-jumping exercise in food PR calculated to stir up interest for the inevitable bricks-and-mortar offering in the near future. And although I'm sure they're not making a fortune, at this stage at least, in the end it just feels like an advertising stunt and not an honest attempt to serve real street food, and that really grates. There may yet be a way of bringing decent lobster rolls to the UK and making the numbers work, of showing love and care to the king of crustaceans and paying more than lip service to the notion of value, but Rock Lobsta, sad to say, ain't it.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

Al Waha, Westbourne Grove

In stark contrast to some other world cuisines I could care to mention (*cough* Mexican *cough* Thai *cough*) it seems there are a lot of very good Lebanese restaurants in London. A casual enquiry on Twitter as to which of them was worth visiting drew a huge list of recommendations from all over the place, along with some remarkably enthusiastic reviews - "Maroush Juice serves the best halloumi in the world"; "Mr Falafel...puts crack in his falafels"; "Levant on Wigmore street - excellent food, swanky restaurant". So, spoiled for choice and fairly confident most of the places on fhe shortlist would have served a decent meal, we in the end booked Al Waha on Westbourne Grove, based on the fact that it was relatively easy for both myself and my dinner date to get home, and that the tips had been ever so slightly more slavering than for anywhere else.

One of the "problems" of crowd sourcing restaurant tips on Twitter is that the experience you end up with is probably quite different to if you'd just wandered in off the street and made the most of anything on the menu you recognised as edible. We turned up at Al Waha with a good half-dozen "must order" items, some of which weren't even on the printed menu, and so there's a possibility our eclectic ordering impressed the kitchen staff into trying that little bit harder (well, you never know), not to mention that the dishes themselves were possibly the cream of what Al Waha can produce. That said, the meal we constructed for ourselves through the power of social media stands up as possibly the best Lebanese food I've ever eaten in the capital; never less than good, and often astonishing.

The first proper dish to arrive was a bowl of Fattoush (£4.50), a vegetable and herb salad livened by crispy slivers of deep-fried pita bread. It is a dish - like most salads - that relies upon absolutely fresh ingredients to be anything more than edible, but fortunately here it was excellent, full of interesting textures and aromatic flavours.

Falafel (£4.50) were, I'm afraid, rather under seasoned and needed either a lot more salt or a lot more of the miserly portion of sesame dressing they arrived with. It's a shame, too, as the timing on the frying was perfect, creating a lovely crust and soft insides. Perhaps an off day on the falafels, but they were still decent enough.

Chicken wings (Jawaneh meshwiyeh) (£5), crisply fried and dressed in a punchy garlic sauce had a great grilled flavour but I just didn't like the way they'd hacked each wing in half across the bone; chicken marrow makes me queasy and anyway, isn't it far more fun when you disassemble a chicken wing yourself than have it hacked apart before you get the chance? Again though, you could pick fault but you could still very easily enjoy.

Things really stepped up a gear with arrival of Kibbeh Nayeh (£10), a simply brilliant dish of raw lamb mixed with crushed wheat and punchy - but balanced - spices. Artfully presented, arranged into bitesize portions and topped with fried onions and what I think was chunks of moist liver, it was a delight to eat, addictively chillified and uniquely Lebanese. Also superb was a dish of Hummous Kawarmah (£6), the house hummous soft and light as whipped cream and topped with chunks of salty lamb and pine nuts.

Sojuk Sadah (£5.50) were one of a couple of types of house spicy sausage, softer in texture than you might expect and packed full of zingy spice. I suppose they could be described as a sort of Lebanese chorizo, with a similar kind of oily fire, and went down a storm. But even better than that, and our favourite dish overall - all the more amazing considering it was just something we'd spotted on the menu and didn't come recommended as such from anyone - were sweetbreads (haliwat) cooked absolutely to crusty, wobbly perfection in a light lemon dressing and surely the bargain of the year at £7.50 a plate. I have rarely, if ever, had sweetbreads cooked this well in some of the top Michelin-starred restaurants in the country; they disappeared in seconds.

I don't know if Al Waha is the "best" (whatever that means) Lebanese restaurant in London. And I'm not going to pretend it was perfect - the Lebanese wine at £13.50 a half bottle was fairly horrible (my friend thought it could have been corked but we gingerly sipped at it anyway) and the annoying cover charge of £1.50 a head seemed to get you little more than a tiny bowl of boring olives and a bizarre basket of raw, undressed vegetables that defied use or explanation (what exactly am I expected to do with a whole spring onion!?). But it is very easy to ignore such niggles when the rest of the meal (and, I should also mention, the friendly and attentive service) was of such a high standard, and more than that, a couple of the dishes - the lamb kibbeh, the sweetbreads - were worth any amount of hardship. Al Waha is a treasure, and I will certainly be back.


Al Waha on Urbanspoon

Monday, 20 June 2011

José, Bermondsey

Someone pointed out on Twitter the other day that with the launch of Bar Pepito, Capote y Toros (review coming soon on London Confidential if they ever get round to launching the site) and now José in Bermondsey, London now has more dedicated ham and sherry bars than Barcelona. Whether or not this is completely accurate - and I think it's probably a bit unfair to Barcelona where ham and sherry isn't really a Catalan thing - it's nevertheless a trend I can thoroughly get behind. In fact, it's surprising it's taken this country so long to wake up to the combination of Iberico ham and cold sherry, as you'd have to be lacking a significant part of your brain (or be a vegetarian, and let's face it that's more or less the same thing) not to enjoy these most wonderful ingredients. Iberico ham, in particular, is a genuine gastronomic wonder; produced correctly and carved properly it has an almost impossibly rich, complex flavour that builds the longer you hold it in your mouth, with notes of forest and moss and the acorns that the pampered black pigs themselves feed on. It's my Desert Island dish, my Death Row meal, my one true food love.

The Iberico ham at José, you'll be pleased to hear, was superb, sliced into translucent strips and arranged carefully on a salad plate for £9. Great value, and value in the most literal sense - this is a world-class product, expensive to produce and requiring specialist skill to present, and alarm bells should ring if it's ever priced at anything less than a premium. We savoured the silken shards of pig in between mouthfuls of the always wonderful La Gitana Manzanilla, the salty sherry matching it perfectly.

If we'd only gone to José to get deliriously happy on Iberico and Manzanilla it still would have been far from a wasted journey, but certain items on the chalkboard menu just sounded too good to miss so despite a large (and expensive and ultimately rather disappointing, more here anon) lunch elsewhere we still found room to squeeze in a plate of croquettas and something called "Pluma Iberica". Firstly, the croquettas were something approaching perfect - a delicate thin crust broke to reveal a soft béchamel filling shot through with dark chunks of more of that brilliant ham, they were as good as any I've had in Spain or anywhere else for that matter. But the Pluma Iberica was truly astonishing. Strips of pork seasoned and seared to rare, they were served simply with a couple of strips of preserved piquillo peppers (try saying that after a bottle of Manzanilla), and tasted, thanks to aggressive seasoning and expert timing on the grill, like the finest aged beef steak, marbled with fat and bursting with flavour. It's a dish rarely seen in this country, presumably because serving pork even pink is a controversial step to some people, never mind as under as this, but I will be eternally grateful for José for having the cojones to put it on the menu here. I still can't stop thinking about it.

Three tapas and a bottle of Manzanilla may seem like a rather flimsy amount of food to base a whole review around but I have every confidence that everything else at José, including the fresh seafood which looked magnificent presented under a glass case in the counter of the bar, would have been equally wonderful had we found room for it. In fact, you don't even have to take my word - see the Dos Hermanos review here, or the gushing reports that are stacking up on London Eating. Or, and this is something you absolutely must do, just go yourself. José is as good a restaurant as you could ever want.


José on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Red Dog Saloon, Hoxton

Timing is everything. You have to feel sorry for the guys at Red Dog Saloon, who battled through a soft opening week blighted by a broken smoker (a not inconsiderable issue for a barbecue restaurant), only to have their limelight stolen away from them by a van parked under Hungerford bridge. A few months back, in fact even a couple of days back, I would have approached Red Dog with only the expectation of something better than what I'd already had in London, and let's face it, that's not setting the bar very high. Yesterday though, as I took planted myself in a spacious booth in the attractively refurbished room in the corner of Hoxton Square (I've never been to an actual Southern USA BBQ joint but I'm willing to gamble that Red Dog does a decent impression), it was, unfortunately for them, with the memory of a stunning lunch at the Pitt Cue Co. as a gastronomic benchmark.

Things did start very well though. I'd be the first to admit that when it comes to buffalo chicken wings, I'm very easily impressed. Or perhaps they're just very easy to get right - I even quite like the version at TGI Friday's (look, you try and find something to eat at Gatwick Airport, OK?), and everything else they serve is completely bloody inedible, so that might tell you something. Either way, these were crispy outside, moist inside and doused in enough of Frank's Hot sauce to make the whole thing very enjoyable indeed. I also liked the blue cheese dip they came with, which was refreshing and salty.

My friend's cheeseburger was good enough to be worth the money, and if that sounds like damning with faint praise then you only have to poke your head out of the door in London and see just how many terrible pub burgers are being pushed on unfortunate punters for £10 or more each. This version, at £7 including fries and beetroot slaw and presented authentically in a greaseproof paper-lined plastic basket, wasn't bad at all - not a Meatwagon beater obviously, but it did at least contain American cheese, the bun was soft and held its shape, and was cooked nicely medium rare. The beef was a bit lacking in flavour - Red Dog use never-frozen chuck but it's not aged, which I think is often the difference between a nice burger and a great burger - but the pickles were good and there was a pleasing absence of any kind of salad; how many times does a great big lump of iceberg lettuce, or, even worse, rocket (bleugh), just make it all more annoying to eat instead of adding anything positive? More often than not, I'd say.

And so to the main event: the BBQ meat. For a place that makes a big show of its "World Championship", "award-winning" smoker, you'd hope that at the very least this area of the menu would be worth the entrance fee. And indeed it was - just about. The pork rib was huge and moist, and did have a nice earthy note of mesquite alongside the mix of spices they'd used for the rub. My only real issue was the lack of texture contrasts, as despite having a good firm flesh (none of that horrible "falling off the bone" nonsense that seems to pass for authentic slow cooking in most restaurants in London serving ribs - I'm looking at you, Hard Rock Café) there was no crust. How much better it would have been with a thick, dark coating of smoky, caramelised goodness - like for example these babies that Simon Majumdar of Dos Hermanos enjoyed on a recent trip to the States.

Chicken was, again, moist and firm and perfectly edible but I do wonder about the logic of slow-smoking chicken at all - surely this isn't an animal that really has enough of a fat content to make slow rendering down over so many hours necessary - a quick blast over the coals would have given a nice crispy skin (sadly missing here) while keeping the flesh inside juicy. I could be being overly critical; this huge plate of food was only £12.50 (well, it would have been had I been paying for it) and it is a better standard of BBQ than I've had anywhere else in the city... with one exception, of course. Don't blame me, then, blame Pitt Cue. As I said, timing is everything.

I am going to struggle to sum up my meal at Red Dog Saloon without sounding either hugely patronising (though that doesn't often stop me) or hugely disappointed, and believe me, I'm not. By the standards of the city, and let's remember it's a very big city, Red Dog does very nearly the best BBQ money can buy - I ate all of it, more or less enjoyed all of it, and I would probably go back. Service was efficient and friendly, the American beer selection is top-notch (Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Brooklyn East IPA and more) and even a margarita was as good as I've had from most places. But it is still, sadly, a BBQ restaurant serving ever-so-slightly dissatisfying BBQ, and though it's not bad, it needs to be better. Perhaps, one day, it will be. Time will tell, and timing, as I said, is everything.


Red Dog Saloon on Urbanspoon

I was invited to review Red Dog Saloon

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Pitt Cue Co., Southbank

Sometimes it feels like when it comes to food (and many other things besides, without going into too much detail), you always want what you can't have. My obsession (I may as well face facts, it is an obsession) with burgers, something I've kept reasonably under control in the last few months but still bubbles just under the surface like a dormant addiction, was borne of a craving for decent US fast food joints like Shake Shack or In'N'Out, coupled with the fact that none such places existed in London. But then before too long came Byron, not perfect but pretty damn good for a chain, serving tasty pink burgers in cool minimalist surroundings, and soon after that the big boys got involved - Hawksmoor and Goodman both serving up their famously brilliant beef inside extensively researched (and thoroughly taste-tested) buns. Then finally, we were granted the Meatwagon, and at long last the very best west-coast US burgers had met their match in the capital. The dream was realised - and how we rejoiced.

So, once the Meatwagon had become my second home and I'd eaten my way through their menu too many times to count, attention drifted onto another staple of US comfort food that was desperately unrepresented in London - BBQ. I used to be a big fan of Bodean's, the mini chain of smokehouses that are scattered around some unlikely locations in London (Clapham, Fulham, and so on) but to say they've gone off the boil in recent years is a bit like saying that Nottingham Forest aren't quite the dominant force in European football they once were. Each subsequent visit was like watching another set of needles fall off a dying Christmas tree, until eventually we are left with a sad, bare shell - the basic structure and purpose of the place is still there, but none of the joy and life. And the less said about Barbecoa the better; I foolishly allowed myself to hope that a restaurant backed by the might of the Jamie Oliver empire may have amounted to little more than a confusing, directionless menu of massively overpriced commodity meat. How wrong I was.

And yet who would have guessed, after all these years, that the holy grail of succulent pulled pork, crispy charred chicken wings and heavenly slow-roasted brisket lay not in a gleaming city-centre 160-cover concept restaurant but in an unassuming food truck parked under Hungerford Bridge on the Southbank? The Pitt Cue Co. is a modest operation at first glance - just three guys dishing out paper boxes of BBQ food to the hungry masses, punctuated by the occasional train rumbling far overhead - but there is enough thought, expertise and painstaking attention to detail gone into every single thing they produce to make the senior management of anywhere else in London foolish enough to claim to serve "authentic" US BBQ break down and weep.

Pulled pork is where this kind of food begins and ends, and Pitt Cue have absolutely nailed their version, with huge, silky chunks of pork, slow-roasted Gloucester Old Spot I believe, impossibly soft and melty and yet - crucially - not unpleasantly greasy. Perhaps this is where lesser versions have been going wrong - you need a big animal with plenty of fat to allow for the slow cooking to loosen and tenderise the flesh without it running horribly stringy, as any number of jaw-achingly tough examples I've suffered elsewhere have demonstrated. God knows how much of a profit they're making on £7 for this clearly top quality protein, not to mention some wonderfully smoky beans and crispy slaw shot through with fresh parsley, but for now let's not worry about such things. The Pitt Cue Co pulled pork is priceless.

Having scoffed the pig in a happy few seconds, I took a portion of chicken wings with me for the walk back to the office. Marinated overnight, skewered on a rotisserie for slow-roasting then finished above direct flames for crisping up, these were also as close to perfect as I can imagine. The marinade was smoky and rich with a complex mixture of herbs and spices that brought to mind a Mediterranean barbecue, and they came not only with more of that lovely slaw but a huge chunk of fresh grilled bread - from Wild Caper bakery in Brixton I was told. The best bit I found was the very tips of the ends of the wings, which had blackened and caramelised into a kind of chicken scratching.

As I was on my own this lunchtime there was only so much I could put back, and I'm afraid I can't tell you about the brisket, though it certainly looked the part, or even the ribs which appear on the menu only from 4pm daily. But on a previous flying visit, too brief to sample food but determined to try something, I ordered a "pickleback" - a chaser of rye whiskey and a shot of home made pickle juice. If you think that sounds challenging or unusual, then you haven't tried it - something about washing back a mouthful of fire water with sharp, softly sugary pickle just absolutely works and is, as far as I'm aware, unique (at least in this country) to this cheerfully experimental and idiosyncratic little venture. It is the pickleback, in fact, which acts as the easiest shorthand to the whole approach that Pitt cue Co. take - fun without being careless, obsessive about the details but not at the expense of taste, everything I ate or drank was perfectly judged and perfectly delicious. Did I mention they sell Brewdog beers by the can? Oh, stop reading and just go. Go now.


Read equally glowing reports of the Pitt Cue Co. here, here and here.