Friday, 10 February 2012

Karpo, Kings Cross

A couple of weeks after suffering at the hands of a huge, geographically vague menu at Cha Cha Moon, here we are in a brand new restaurant in Kings Cross that has exactly the same problem. Look at the size of it - Brunch, Lunch, Larder, Hot Starters, Wood-fired Oven, Not Wood-fired Oven (weirdly), Puddings, Ices, it goes on and on and on. And I can see why they wouldn't want to lump quite so many items under anything so prosaic as "Starters" and "Mains" but how the hell am I supposed to know which of "Speck & pickled quince" or "Vegetables a la grecque" - both filed under "Larder" - are big enough for a starter without guessing based on their price?

Karpo is also billed as an American-style diner, but despite the appearance of a burger, "Shrimp & grits" and a Macaroni cheese, the rest of the dishes seem to hail from more or less anywhere. There's risotto with buffalo mozzarella, sourdough toast with Gentleman's Relish, a fish taco (lunchtime only) and Omelette Arnold Bennett (for breakfast). It is usually a good idea to be wary of anywhere trying to master too many cuisines under one roof, so first impressions of Karpo, not helped by the strangely soulless décor (complete with walls of plastic ivy), are not great. In that case, why did I end up enjoying myself so much?

Perhaps because, unlike Cha Cha Moon, the food at Karpo is worth the effort. The menu may be confusing and way too big but everything we ate was at least good, and occasionally very good. A trio of things on sourdough toast - whipped lardo, white bean purée and aforementioned "Gentleman's relish" (not out of a little white tub but made in-house) were all lovely - bursting with flavour and freshness. Speck with pickled quince was only adequate - I always think restaurants have something to hide when they serve their supposedly premium ham with fancy distractions - but was at least a generous portion for your £7 and disappeared quickly.

"Southern-fried quail" was as good as you'd hope, remarkably moist inside for what can be a dry bird and cleverly butchered so as to remove all but the biggest bones and sinew. It came with an astonishingly good celeriac slaw which cut through the ever-so-slightly-too-greasy quail and the breadcrumb coating on the meat contained a very commendable go at the familiar Southern-Fried mix of herbs and spices. I'd like to see the range of deep-fried poultry at Karpo expanded, based on this example.

The one main-sized dish we tried, a hanger steak with bone marrow and shallots, was also very decent. Seared deftly to rare and enhanced rather than swamped by the addition of rich marrow and caramelised roast shallots, it wasn't perhaps the hugest portion for £15 but you couldn't fault anything else about it. Boston Baked Beans were more generously pitched at £3.5 for a fairly large bowl and were just as rich and satisfying as the ones I'd ordered from a BBQ place in Boston a couple of years back, so no complaints there either. And Hasselback potatoes were a more interesting alternative to roasties and had a great flavour.

I wish we'd had more room to try some of the more interesting baked goods (Karpo do Macaroons as well as Eccles cakes and fresh cookies) but we just about managed to squeeze in a small bowl of assorted ices; all very good but I was particularly taken by a shocking pink rhubarb sorbet which is my hot tip if you go to yourself and fancy a dessert.

There will be those who find it easier to find fault with Karpo than I do; it's hardly a budget option, I've mentioned my issues with the overlong menu and the unfriendly décor, and indeed my friend wasn't taken at all - "like eating in a shopping centre" she said. But if you choose wisely enough (and make the most of the lovely staff to help you on this front), enjoy the great wine list with its healthy number of rare biodynamic and organic options (we had some lovely examples by the glass but don't expect me to tell you which - one was an Alsace Riesling I think) and start with a cold martini, there's a very good chance you'll come away happy.


Karpo on Urbanspoon

I was invited to review Karpo

EDIT: I'm reliably informed that Karpo actually contains real ivy, not fake. Happy to put the record straight on this!

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Roux at the Landau, Marylebone

Who'd be a chef? The long hours of backbreaking toil for next to no money, the abuse, the heat, the stress. I've often heard it said of food bloggers and restaurant reviewers that they all-too-easily criticise a meal without knowing the effort that goes into it, but actually if most of us really truly understood the herculean energy behind even a half-decent meal out, we'd just feel too guilty to enjoy any of it never mind write an honest review.

I was reminded of this while reading Alex Watts' hugely entertaining book Down And Out In Padstow And London, and in particular the chapter at the Fat Duck where he describes spending days on end painstakingly removing the individual cells from grapefruit flesh using tweezers. The grapefruit cells formed just a small part of a salmon and liquorish dish, which I vaguely remember hoovering up as part of my tasting menu a year or two ago without giving them even a second glance. Had I known then what I know now I would have not only have appreciated them a whole lot more, or at least noticed them for God's sake, but also asked to give the poor commis chef lumbered with this frankly ludicrous task a big hug.

Of course, I blame Michelin (well, it saves time). It's thanks to their spoddy obsession with technique and classical presentation that many chefs feel they have to put themselves through 12-16 hour days of absolute hell turning vegetables into neat little cylinders and creating mind-bogglingly complex sauces from twelve different types of stock. I've heard stories (from Alex's book, and elsewhere) about chefs being physically unable to eat the kind of food they produce because the association with the backbreaking toil is so traumatising. To those people working their way through Michelin-starred hotel restaurants that really are cooking the kind of food they want to cook and want to eat, good luck to you. To the rest, you have my deepest, heartfelt sympathies.

Which brings us to Roux at the Landau. In the light of the above, I'd like to say to the overworked, traumatised phalanx of underappreciated chefs working in the kitchens at the Langham hotel that I'm desperately sorry I didn't enjoy the food more than I did. I'm sorry I thought the taramasalata that came with the house chips was too salty, I'm sorry I couldn't help noticing the limp sprig of tarragon slowly wilting into the overheated plate with the scallop, and I'm sorry I thought the Iberico pork chop tasted as bland and watery as any supermarket pig. I really am so very, very sorry.

It wasn't all bad, though. The scallop itself, despite being presented strangely and slightly underseasoned, was huge and had a lovely fresh, sweet flavour. My starter of "Venison and foie gras Chausson" was actually just a posh mini venison pie, and had a commendably powerful gamey flavour and aroma; it came with a madeira jus which probably took someone weeks to make and was silky and rich as only the best classical French cooking can be. And while my rhubarb panacotta was perfectly pleasant, we were particularly impressed with two delicate sticks of salty, buttery pastry placed on top - hugely addictive.

But I can't ignore that awful pork, so insipid I'd question whether the producer should even be allowed to describe it as Iberico. And neither my friend's Pot au Feu containing chewy, dry beef and so lacking in taste she found herself grinding salt over it in an attempt to find something to enjoy. It was all presented immaculately and I'm sure took years of experience and days of preparation, but it all was curiously missing some vital element - heart? Passion? It's easy to sail dangerously close to pretention when talking about a plate of food as "passionate" but it all seemed a bit hotel-restaurant Michelin-by-the-books - solid, professional, dull.

It doesn't have to be like this. Some people are lucky enough to not only cook the kind of food they want to cook, but cook the kind of food they want to eat - take the boys at Pitt Cue for example, banging out sticky trays of meltingly tender St Louis ribs and heavenly burnt-end mash from a tiny kitchen in Soho. Classically trained in a number of high-profile and high-price-tag restaurants, they have found huge success in homestyle American BBQ because this is what they want to do. And it's not just the trendy low-budget places; I have enjoyed every single thing I've ever eaten at Racine in Knightsbridge probably because the menu is a hymn to one man's (head chef Henry Harris) lifelong love of bourgeois French cooking.

So I don't blame the chefs at Roux at the Landau. They are doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances and couldn't really have done any better. Partly I blame the stultifying atmosphere of a hotel restaurant, and the timid adherence to the expectations of fusty regulars - like the old chap on the table behind us who turned up for dinner alone and so drunk he could barely string an order together for his poor waiter. And partly I blame the whole Roux estate who are attempting to farm out this anonymous hotel-friendly cuisine all over London (see also Parliament Square) in an effort to be the next Ducasse or Ramsay (as if the world needs yet another one of either of those). But mainly, I blame the passion-clogging, soul-destroying, talent-robbing Michelin Guide.


Roux at The Landau on Urbanspoon

Murky, shonky pictures of the food are mine; nice bright interior shot courtesy of Fluid London. I was invited to Roux at the Landau, but prices are here

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

You Decide!

This could either be a lot of fun or massively backfire. In a rare outbreak of democracy at Cheese and Biscuits, I've decided to throw open the venue of an upcoming post (most likely in late March) to the public. So please vote for whichever London eatery you'd most like to see on these pages (I'm already anticipating plenty of "ironic" support for Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Café), and may the best, or worst, restaurant win.

Click here to vote

Friday, 3 February 2012

Léon de Bruxelles, Covent Garden

I really like the idea of a Belgian moules frites restaurant. I'm sure a good moules frites restaurant would be a wonderful thing - after all, I like mussels and I like chips and I'm very much on board with the concept of combining both in one meal. Unfortunately, whilst we can probably all agree that the idea of moules frites is a Good Thing, for some reason the reality of actually eating the stuff in London has proved remarkably elusive. Belgo used to be good, at one time, before the original owners left and their replacements devoted their energies to expanding the chain rather than serving good food. And you can certainly order mussels and chips in various bistros in the smarter areas of town if you feel like throwing money at the problem, but what we are missing is a dedicated moules frites specialist, informal and not too expensive, where you can drink strong Belgian beer and splatter yourself with seafood gunk and still walk away with change from £20.

At first glance, brand-new Léon de Bruxelles on Cambridge Circus seems like it might fit the bill. It's informal, bright, attractive, populated by pleasant staff and boasting a clear and reasonably concise menu. True, £14 for a bowl of mussels and chips isn't the world's greatest bargain, but for this month only there's 50% off the mussels dishes (why just this month I'm not sure, but I guess that's up to them) and if they taste good enough then even full price they'd be worth a punt. I sat down with high hopes, assuming that a dedicated moules frites restaurant stood more of a chance of getting it right than anywhere else, and ordered the "Léon mussels".

The bread was good, I suppose. A nice crusty French baguette with a moist inside, it almost definitely wasn't made in house and would be completely unremarkable in the context of almost anywhere else but as the rest of the food at Léon de Bruxelles was so mediocre it's only really the bread that I remember as having any flavour. The chips, were example, were awful - bland, floury tubes of empty carbohydrate, like oven chips only not as dynamic or noteworthy. They were totally unseasoned, too, which I realise is only a case of having to grind your own salt on, but does indicate a lack of attention to detail.

Worse, though, was the bowl of "Léon mussels". Fresh, plump and generously numerous mussels were tragically abused by a thin white liquid so insipid it tasted of nothing more than skimmed milk. There was the odd chunk of boiled celery knocking about but I didn't detect any shallot, and ploughing through the huge bowl was a grim, entirely unrewarding slog. In an effort to make the poor wee blighters taste of something - anything - I tried adding my own salt, but only ended up with salty milk and mussels. This was a very poor dish, one that wouldn't have survived even the briefest of taste tests from someone in the kitchen; I can only assume nobody bothered. That, or Léon de Bruxelles really did mean to serve hot mussels and milk, and neither scenario puts them in a very good light.

There is also the matter of the beer. Given the astonishing variety and quality of beers from Belgium, I can think of no reason other than naked, exploitative profit-mongering that Léon de Bruxelles would unironically place Stella Artois next to Duvel on the menu, and grace it with an entirely fictitious tasting note. I guess "Malty with a pronounced hoppy bitterness" is nicer to read than "all the flavour of heavily diluted cat's piss" but it doesn't make it any more true.

A mild saving grace came in the form of the bill, which was only £7 thanks to the half-price offer and my decision to drink tap water. But from the end of the month that bowl of mussels a la dishwater will be a sickening £14, and will have graduated from disappointing-but-cheap to a genuine good old-fashioned Covent Garden rip-off. If Léon de Bruxelles want to be the Garfunkels of moules frites then good luck to them, but it doesn't mean I have to like it. Perhaps it's not worth getting worked up about - after all this is only another superficial, overpriced tourist-trap in a prime location, hardly the first of its kind and almost definitely not the last. But it's also another chance for our visitors to have their prejudices confirmed about food in the capital, and I really just wish it wasn't there.


Léon de Bruxelles on Urbanspoon