Friday, 30 March 2012

Vanilla Black, Chancery Lane

Yes, it's true. I, Chris Pople, being of sound mind and acting of my own free will, paid for a meal in a restaurant that deliberately offers no meat or fish of any kind. And you may not be completely surprised to learn I absolutely hated it, but hold your horses for a second because this is not (for once) simply reactionary prejudice. I did not go to Vanilla Black expecting to hate it; the venue was a suggestion from a close friend who for various laudable reasons was trying to cut down on her intake of animal product and was curious to know what a "high-end" vegetarian restaurant was like (as indeed was I). And I had heard good things, from sources I trust, and was reasonably convinced this was the one least likely to disappoint amongst the all-veggie joints in London. More importantly, the reason why our evening was so miserable was not at all because the menu suffered from a lack of protein; it was just because the dishes were hugely ill-judged and incompetently prepared, the prices were sky high, and the service was some of the worst I've encountered in recent years.

But let's begin at the beginning. The greeting from the door staff was prompt, if a little cold, but perhaps I'm only finding fault now in the light of what happened later in the evening - it was probably fine. They also gave us a choice of tables, which is always appreciated, but for some reason none of them looked particularly inviting. The room is rather harsh and functional - think Roganic but bigger - and much as I love the food from our friends in Marylebone I'm sure they'd be the first to agree they're not about to win any interior design awards. So far so unpromising.

We sat down around 6:55 and were shortly given a choice of dull house bread (one white roll, one seeded, each dry and crumbly and faintly unpleasant) and a menu. Balking slightly at the prices - £26 for two courses is quite a lot for any restaurant, never mind one that must make more of a profit on their raw ingredients than most - we decided to go for just a main course and a dessert, as common sense would indicate that as most desserts are vegetarian anyway, these should be their strongest suit. We ordered around 7pm. Take a note of that time, because it is significant.

At 7:15pm, an appetiser arrived, described as something like "sour apple and yoghurt". It tasted of old apple sauce, the kind you'd have with your pork chop, and yoghurt, and was unpleasant. I finished mine because I was starving hungry, but my friend took one tiny mouthful and left the rest. For the next 25 minutes - yes, nearly half an hour - we nibbled on the dry bread and tried to keep our spirits up with a bottle of expensive wine (£30 for a New Zealand chardonnay which admittedly wasn't the cheapest on the list but there were only a couple of bottles under £25), but we were fighting a losing battle. Staff rushed to and fro, but empty wine glasses were ignored and no mention was made of the wait. Food appeared and disappeared, none of it for us.

At 7:40pm, the main courses finally turned up. I wish I could tell you they were worth waiting for, but my ash-baked celeriac was a sad, pale imitation of the majestic Roganic version. Although the bits of celeriac were fine, and seasoned well, they was surrounded by chewy sprigs of boiled broccoli and chunks of bland "curd" (imagine supermarket feta, only not as interesting), and nothing was even lukewarm. My friend's "poached organic hen's egg" was at least hot, as was the strange cakey soufflé thing it came with (presumably the "Ribblesdale pudding") but there was absolutely nothing here to get excited about, and a good amount of wobbly, watery undercooked egg white was left untouched.

Forty minutes later, at 8:20pm, we were brought our desserts. I don't know if Vanilla Black normally operate at a rate of one dish an hour, but I'm afraid that's not quite fast enough for a couple of people who are hoping to get dinner finished before the last tube home. While the main courses had been disappointing, however, the desserts were truly revolting. My friend's "cheesecake" was nothing of the sort, and whilst I imagine there is a germ of a good idea in "banana and thyme bread", the reality of bitter chunks of thyme studded in sweet banana cake was just all kinds of hideous.

But nothing could prepare us for my own choice, "Iced Malt and Burnt Orange Marshmallow Muscovado Sugar Meringue and Parsnip Purée". I don't know how I missed the parsnip when ordering it - I suppose I liked the sound of 'burnt orange marshmallow' and stopped reading after that - and there is an argument that I only have myself to blame for ordering a dessert with parsnips in it and then moaning about being given a dessert with parsnips in it. But for the love of God, Vanilla Black, why!? Did anyone even try this dish before putting it on the menu? Did anyone even consider that putting parsnip mash next to marshmallows on a plate and charging people for it was even a teeny bit of an odd idea? There is just no reason, no explanation, no excuse for this bloody awful plate of food - without the parsnip it would have been a sickly, one-dimensional arrangement of various forms of sugar, but with that dollop of root vegetable purée it became a colossal, horrible mistake.

So I hope you see what I'm getting at. Nothing about Vanilla Black is worth bothering with; not the elusive, cold service (there was even quite a wait involved in paying up at the end and getting the hell out of there), not the stupidly high prices, and certainly not the random-chucking-together-of-wildly-incompatible-foodstuffs-on-a-plate they called the food. But the crucial thing to remember is that none of these issues are anything to do with the fact that they don't serve meat. I know I can be a bit of a steak and burger obsessive but I am just as much of a fan of Tayyabs' tinda masala or Silk Road's hand torn cabbage or Chilli Cool's smacked cucumber, all great dishes not because they do or don't contain meat but because they are just great. The vegetarian gimmick at Vanilla Black is just a distraction from the real problem, that they serve bad food, and take way too long to do so. I only wish it hadn't cost me £45 a head to find that out.


Vanilla Black on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Ceviche, Soho

My friend who came with me to Ceviche said that the food there is "nothing like anything I had in Peru". This, apparently, is a good thing. I'm sure a poor backpacker doesn't see the very best of a country's cuisine but his over-riding memories of mealtimes were of the same bland mush trotted out at whichever restaurant he happened to choose, washed down with enough Pisco Sours to make you not care. In a moment of misplaced bravado one night he tried the "national dish" - deep-fried guinea pig or cuy. What arrived was an oblong lump of batter with a pair of sharp incisor teeth protruding alarmingly from the front. The meat was greasy and tough, "like how you might imagine a deep-fried rat might taste", which I suppose isn't that far from the truth.

Fortunately, there was no cuy on the menu at Ceviche. There are, though, Pisco Sours - in many variations. They were all new to me, even the classic, but once I got over the alarming amount of egg white, which frothed up the alcohol into a kind of uncooked meringue, I decided I was a fan. Better still was something called Pasión de Ceviche, containing honey and passion fruit and making a sophisticated, smooth drink out of what is presumably quite an unruly base spirit. The bar staff at Ceviche are as pleasant as you could want and the bar itself is a very attractive place to spend the early evening, all shiny surfaces and mirrors. By the time we decamped to the restaurant at the back, then, we were really enjoying ourselves.

I'm not setting this story up for a dramatic fall - we did continue to enjoy ourselves for the remainder of the evening - it's just that not all of the food lived up to the initial exciting, exotic South American promise made by the bar. First to arrive were the titular Ceviches, a sea bass version, which was possibly just slightly on the sour side for my tastes but nevertheless powerfully flavoured with chilli and crunchy red onions, and one with various bits of seafood, best of which were a couple of juicy prawns. There is little not to like about marinated raw fish in lime and coriander, and we devoured them with gusto, but at £7 each for a couple of teeny plates of food, it didn't really feel like value.

And neither did two skewers of grilled steak, not just because you got so little food for your £7.50 but because they were so imperceptibly gently marinated they may as well just have been completely undressed. They were timed well to slightly pink inside, but the meat itself wasn't particularly high quality - rather livery and mealy - and the overall effect was a bit dispiriting. We really enjoyed the spicy mayo sauce (using a kind of chilli called rocoto) that came with them, though.

Something called choclo had a fantastic flavour, buttery and rich and spiked with fresh cheese and more red onion, but was £3.75 for a thin, 3 inch wide corn cake. And a small bowl of rice topped with a confit duck thigh (and yet more red onion) was admittedly wonderfully done, the duck being tender and full of flavour, and the rice nicely seasoned, but this was barely a starter sized portion for a whopping £9.80.

Apart from the steak, then, the food at Ceviche is good. Service was pitch-perfect too, not too friendly and not too stuffy, all young and enthusiastic and trendily-attired in that New Soho informal way pioneered by Polpo and Spuntino. And perhaps we're partly to blame for letting our new-found Pisco Sour obsession inflate the bill (we had 4 of the damn things, and they're £5.50 a pop) but at nearly £70 for really not that much food, this is not a restaurant that either produces anything with enough of a wow factor to justify the prices, or serves decent enough stuff at a price point low enough to make you feel good about it. It's an enjoyable enough spot to while away an evening, but given the astonishing level of the competition in Soho (the wonderful Koya is literally opposite), I can't see anyone returning once the initial novelty of being able to say "let's pop out for a Peruvian" has worn off. My advice: go early evening for a Pisco Sour and a bowl of cancha (crunchy fried corn) and then eat somewhere else. You won't be short of options.


Ceviche on Urbanspoon

Monday, 26 March 2012

Cheese of the Month - Vacherin Mont d'Or

Sometimes it can be irritating when the taste of a foodstuff fails to live up to its aroma. Coffee is often the biggest offender in this regard - the smell of fresh coffee is one of life's great pleasures, all roasty and chocolatey and lovely, and yet (in my very limited experience; I've not touched the stuff for many years thanks to a caffeine allergy) in the mouth it has a horrible habit of turning into bitter swampwater. Some cheeses, too, have a bark bigger than their bite - Epoisses is generally quite a mild-tasting cheese, creamy and mildly funky in its unpasteurised way but nothing anything like the extraordinary smell of a properly aged specimen would indicate.

It is to the benefit of humanity as a species, however, that this Vacherin Mont d'Or doesn't taste like it smells, because the odour is just atrocious. Past merely funky, it has the deep, soily, ammonia-rich stink of a rotting corpse, as offensively rank as almost anything else I've ever known in my life. It was so powerful, after just a couple of hours in the fridge it had started attacking everything I'd stored in there - through triple and quadruple-wrapped clingfilm the smell permeated leftover bacon, lettuce, orange juice and milk. I'd know from my bedroom whenever my flatmate opened the fridge because five minutes later the chemical bomb would hit, having travelled up a flight of stairs and through a closed door. It is a smell that, if encountered in nature, would suggest some kind of terminal disease, and yet in my geeky cheese-loving way I find myself fascinated by it, simultaneously repulsed and attracted.

Fortunately, oh so fortunately, the taste is something else entirely. In true stinky washed-rind soft-cheese fashion, it is creamy and salty and ever-so-slightly sweet, a gloriously well-balanced flavour and dangerously addictive. The unpasteurised milk means that a trace (though only a trace thank God) of the aforementioned soily ammonia travels through to the flesh, adding extra farmy complexity, and the texture at room temperature is just runny enough to require the use of a spoon but not so liquid that it doesn't hold some shape on a plate. Scooping great big wobbly mounds of it onto crackers and devouring them whole is an unadulterated joy.

I'm told that production of Vacherin Mont d'Or runs only until 15th March, which means that this very special cheese won't be gracing your local cheesemonger with its stench for much longer. It may also explain why the one I had was quite so pongy, as presumably earlier in the season the noxious chemicals in the flesh aren't quite so, er, lively. But actually, part of the fun - and it is great fun - of having a Vacherin in the house is that you are constantly reminded of its presence; it's sort of like taking temporary care of a neighbour's flatulent pet - it's a commitment undertaken to a living, breathing organism. If you can handle it, and if you have suitably understanding co-habitors, the rewards are potentially immense.


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Rainforest Café, Piccadilly

Here's a question for any of you that might call yourselves Londoners: Have you ever been to Buckingham Palace? I don't mean cycled past it on the way to work or seen it blur past from the back of a black cab at midnight; I mean actually stood outside those gates, watched the changing of the guard, asked a stranger to take a photo of yourself grinning like an idiot and throwing a double "peace" sign. No? What about Madame Tussauds or the London Planetarium? The London Dungeon? Have you ever sat on one of those big lions in Trafalgar Square or congregated around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus?

I have never done any of these things. I can tell you the best place to grab a cocktail in Shoreditch or the quickest way of getting from Holborn to Victoria in rush hour (walk down to Temple and get the District Line; the queues to get into Holborn station are crazy now they've shut down one of the Piccadilly Line escalators) but I live my life so far removed from "tourist" London that the two may as well be in a different continent. If you live here, you will avoid the Big Sights partly because they're so bloody expensive (each of the paying attractions above is likely to set you back at least £20) but partly because you just think, well, they're always there, I'll get round to them eventually. And somehow you never do. There is London and there is Tourist London and never the twain shall meet.

The Rainforest Café sits in the very money-grabbing, souvenir-pushing, cynical heart of Tourist London, physically (it's right underneath the Trocadero, steps away from Piccadilly Circus) as well as metaphorically. At least at the otherwise execrable Hard Rock Café you are only strongly encouraged to wait for your table in the gift shop next door; here you must navigate vast piles of lurid furry toys and tubs of bouncy balls and oversized pencils before you even get so far as the bar. The bar, by the way, contains only nailed-down plastic stools shaped into the bottom half of different animals and are rigidly contoured so you are forced to sit in a particular direction - the effect of which is a winning combination of both humiliating and uncomfortable, though still not quite as humiliating and uncomfortable as paying £7.50 for a sickeningly sweet Margarita containing premade sour mix.

It's probably about time I spoke about the décor. Whilst most "themed" restaurants are content with a bit of vaguely appropriate tat on the walls and dressing their staff up in silly costumes, the Rainforest Café resembles the queuing area of a 20-year-old family-friendly ride at a faded seaside resort, complete with animatronic animals, sound effects, water features and various misshapen fiberglass sculptures attempting to mimic tree trunks and rock formations. At one time, presumably not long after it opened all the way back in 1994, I imagine it would have looked, if not attractive in the traditional sense, then at least impressive - animatronic gorillas don't come cheap, and neither do aquariums or fake waterfalls. Now, though, the plastic foliage hanging from the ceiling is grey with 18 years of accumulated dust, a good number of the oversized butterflies have stopped flapping their wings, and the water features emit a strange, sad smell of chlorine and school showers.

Of the food, I wish it had either been a lot better, so that I would have felt more comfortable about the bill, or a lot worse, so that I could have at least had more fun writing it up. As it is, most was just very standard Brakes Bros commodity reheat-and-forget things like chicken wings and burgers, none of it inedible but none of it anywhere near worth the money. The best was my steak, which as you can probably tell even from my rubbish photo, was precisely medium-rare with a good crust, well seasoned and a nice thick slab of decent enough cow. Fries were just oven chips with an odd taste, and all the salads seemed to have been "dressed" in nothing more than BBQ sauce, but the beef itself was fine and I even didn't mind the packet peppercorn goo. £22, mind.

By way of a contrast, the worst dish that arrived at our table was a "Mexican Quesadilla", at £14.95 probably the most expensive cheese and bean wrap in the country, no better than anything you could pick up from Pret for a couple of quid and tasting of wallpaper paste in between two pieces of cardboard. And a lamb shank (£16.95) was yet more frozen meat, slow cooked for aeons just so people can say the meat "fell off the bone" as if that's anything to be pleased about.

But the Rainforest Café, I hear you say, isn't for me. It's all very well sitting there taking pictures and moaning about the wipe-clean tablecloths but surely the real test of a theme restaurant is if its real target audience - children - enjoy it. And indeed the happy gaggle of under-12s we brought along last night certainly seemed to enjoy themselves at the time, colouring in their menus and racing around the robo-Gorillas and fish tanks between courses. But once it was all over and we had escaped the fake thunderstorms and furry toys, even these impressionable young minds couldn't stay convinced with the food - ribs were "good but not chewy enough", in "way too much BBQ sauce, which was too sweet". Jelly (desserts were included in the £12 kids menu, about the only thing at Rainforest Café that even nodded towards good value) was "too sweet and too thick", and the vanilla ice cream on top was "horrid". Burgers were better ("I like burgers") and there weren't as many complaints about the Sundaes as the jelly, but even so, I got the very strong impression they'd have been just as happy if not happier at McDonalds, which wouldn't have cost £200 for 3 and 4 halves.

Ah yes, the bill. The food was poor and expensive but the real sting in the tail of last night was some truly eye-watering mark-ups on alcohol. A teeny 125ml glass of watery house chardonnay was £5, and a bottle of 3.8% Carlsberg was an incredible £4.50 - that's more than the cost of a pint of export-strength lager even from a West End pub. And perhaps we could have gone a little easier on the booze but you try having a meal in the middle of a dusty fiberglass rainforest and see how long you can last before gasping for a drink. Each of the adults had one main course, shared a portion of mediocre chicken wings and had 4 drinks each and managed to spend £50 a head. As we paid up and left, I couldn't help noticing how the shrieks and hoots of recorded jungle noises increasingly sounded like jeers and mocking laughter.

This is an Olympic year - it is not just depressing but potentially incredibly damaging that, with the world's spotlight on London, places like this continue to trade. I know I'm repeating myself and I know we've been here before, God knows I've shouted myself hoarse about Aberdeen Angus and Hard Rock Café and they're both still making a killing so you may ask what's the point in getting worked up about it again. The fact is though, along with every other sentient being that takes the slightest bit of pride in the city he's chosen to call his home, I care about what our guests think of our food, and I want as many people as possible to eat well. And Rainforest Café and their ilk are nothing more than vast confidence tricks specifically tailored towards naive visitors who haven't the energy or the resources or confidence to go anywhere else. I'm one of the lucky ones - I crossed over to Tourist London for one evening, hated it, and scurried quickly back. But what if Tourist London was all you ever saw? Can we really blame the UK's poor reputation for food on lazy tourists, or is this like blaming landmine victims for not looking where they're walking?

I don't really know what the solution is. Short of standing outside the Rainforest Café with a sandwich board reading "Go Somewhere Else", we can't stop the uninformed spending their money there, just as we can't stop people going to see films starring Matthew McConaughey or voting Conservative. In a free country and a free economy, people are free to make a living ripping other people off - always have, always will. But it doesn't mean we have to like it, and it doesn't mean we shouldn't scream from the highest rooftops when we see such things going on. So this is my rooftop and, Rainforest Café, consider yourself well and truly screamed at.


Many thanks to Esme (12) and Elia (10) (and father Osh), and Mathilde (7) and Fred (11) (and father Bob) for subjecting themselves to Death By Fiberglass.

Rainforest Cafe on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Jamie's Italian, Westfield Stratford City

With many of the best new restaurants in London not taking reservations, the grumbling of discontent amongst people who prefer to eat their dinner on a guaranteed table at a guaranteed time (and of course I can appreciate where they're coming from) grows ever louder. A few years back it was only fast food joints or tourist traps like the Hard Rock Café that didn't take bookings, and nobody gave a damn about those. But since the influx of no-bookings restaurants that served food people actually wanted to eat (a group that essentially contains all the current rock gods of London dining - the Polpo group, Burger & Lobster, Pitt Cue, MeatLiquor, etc.), the question of To Queue Or Not To Queue has split opinion quite dramatically.

Needless to say, I am a tragic restaurant geek that will happily queue for hours in the freezing cold for the best St. Louis ribs in town, but I still have some tricks to make my chances as good as possible. One of them is to hit what industry types refer to as the "shoulder hours" - the gap in between lunch and dinner around 3-5pm, where the stragglers for lunch have yet to properly overlap with the early birds for the evening. Also, if you can bear to wait that long, even the legendary queues at MeatLiquor tend to calm down by about 9:30/10pm ish, so that's another period you're quite likely to score a walk-in. Possibly. Alright, maybe not on a Friday. Or Saturday.

The point is, I know how frustrating it is to not know when you're going to eat or where - or even if - you're going to sit, and I've heard all the arguments about how the system is all about convenience for the restaurant and not the consumer, and how it tends to create a transitory atmosphere of people who got lucky rather than a steady culture of friendly regulars. But the fact is, a no-bookings policy coupled with a reliable stream of punters allows a restaurant to charge less for better ingredients, and if the upshot is that you can eat an entire steamed lobster with chips and a salad in the middle of Mayfair for £20, well, I'll grin and bear it. And judging by the massive popularity of many of these places, so can many others.

But what if somewhere makes you queue for half an hour and then still serves overpriced, mediocre rubbish in a charmless corner of a shopping centre in Stratford? You probably won't believe me if you've read my post on Barbecoa but I really wanted to like Jamie's Italian; the guy knows good food when he sees it, and coupled with all the willing investors he must surely be able to magic up with an internationally famous profile like that, you'd think he'd be able to hit all the bases of decent Italian home cooking and use economies of scale to get hold of decent ingredients. Instead, he seems to have created a slightly more expensive version of Zizzi's, and as anyone who's ever been to Zizzi's will tell you, this is not a good thing.

In the interests of fairness, I should say that the drinks from the bartenders at Jamie's Italian Westfield Stratford were pretty decent. My Negroni was tiny and warm but had all the proper ingredients in proper proportions, and my friend's Florence Fizz, containing shocking pink pomegranate juice, was just about refreshing enough to justify the £6.25 price tag. Also they seem to have constructed themselves a worthwhile wine list by most chain Italian standards, the house chardonnay from Puglia being unexpectedly lovely for a paltry £15.85. I still would have quite liked to have been brought the actual bottle though, rather than have it from a big glass vase - not that I don't trust them, of course...

But, oh dear, the food. Sirloin steak, ordered medium, came disastrously overcooked to well done and was a laborious task to eat. This is a shame because I have a feeling, based on rolling a piece of leathery beef around my mouth for a minute or two, that the raw product wasn't bad at all - and it was at least seasoned well. Accompanying "funky" chips (kill me now) were diabolical - soggy and bland and a strange orange hue that brought to mind deep-fried slugs, they were the kind of thing that made you angry anyone even considered them worth sending out of the kitchen. My Turkey Milanese did at least arrive with a faint hint of truffle, albeit far less than the picture below would indicate as the fungus itself was pretty cardboardy, but the turkey was nothing more than a huge sponge of bland meat transporting (I'm guessing) about two litres of cooking oil. The best thing about this plate of food was the fried egg, and even that wasn't very nice.

It's a good job we drank more than is usually wise of a Saturday lunchtime because without the calming effect of the alcohol I'm not sure I would have left with my sanity. And before you say anything no, we didn't complain - just think of all the reasons you've ever had for not complaining about a mediocre meal, and pick one; we were trying to enjoy ourselves, we didn't want to make a fuss, we wanted to just get out of there and go home. And get out of there we eventually did (attracting the waitress being a surprisingly hard task in a restaurant so full of staff), £60 lighter and each of us - I from the turkey, my friend from her soggy chips, and both of us from the overwhelming stench of ripoff - really quite queasy.

There's a good way and a bad way of going about treating paying customers if you run a no-bookings policy. Either queue 'em up and pack 'em in but give those lucky enough to reach the front of the line mind-blowingly good food at stupidly low prices (see paragraph two), or use your high profile and backlog of good will to charge a huge number of people way over the odds for crappy food. As much as I'd kept an open mind for my meal on Saturday, and as much as I'd love to say that here was a new chain that could finally lift high street dining in Britain above its current desperately poor level, it was very soon obvious that instead of something that will beat the groaning corpse of Zizzi's, Ask and Carluccio's into the ground where they belong, the Jamie's Italian model is actually just more of the same - commodity ingredients, cooked badly, served for the highest possible profit. How thoroughly depressing.


Jamie's Italian (Westfield)  on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 March 2012

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - The Burgers of San Diego

There's a very widely-read blog called A Hamburger Today, all about - you guessed it - burgers. It's an offshoot of the hugely popular US website Serious Eats and as you might expect largely focusses on that part of the world (with the occasional foray abroad to the usual suspects), but it is nevertheless an interesting and pleasingly unpretentious bulletin of what's new in the burger world. AHT is just as likely to cover the revamp of the Carl's Jr. chicken burger as a gourmet $25 offering from a top restaurant, and clearly makes an effort, geographically speaking and budget-wise, to be as inclusive as possible. But very early on I couldn't help noticing how many top-rated burgers of all shapes and sizes and prices came from one place - San Diego. I took with me on my latest trip a wishlist of over 15, which for a stay lasting only 14 days is, you will appreciate, rather ambitious. And of course I didn't get to try all of them but like the fearless gastro-tourist I am I bloody well did my best.

Perhaps the first thing I should point out is that, contrary to any hugely overinflated expectations I may have had about "San Diego, Burger Mecca", not every last one I ate was worth the effort. It seemed that the more we spent, the fancier the surroundings and the more slick the service, the poorer the sandwich, a fact illustrated most neatly by an evening meal in Avenue 5, Banker's Hill where everyone on our table enjoyed a perfectly pleasant meal apart from those unlucky enough to order the cold, tough, overcooked, tasteless house burger. Which was only me, of course. But I'm not going to dwell on those that didn't make the cut; instead, here are my top 5 burgers of San Diego.

5. Miho Gastro Truck

It shouldn't be a surprise that in a city, or at the very least a state, that has a good case for claiming to be the birthplace of the street food revolution, food trucks are still the first place to go for something lovingly crafted and determinedly unique. Miho Gastro Truck do a range of gourmet sandwiches using premium ingredients popular with their well-heeled and well-fed following, such as the extraordinary buttermilk fried chicken and biscuit sandwich (above) and a lamb burger (more unusual perhaps in the states who don't eat anywhere near as much lamb as we do). But the vaguely Europeanised MGT burger, with its grass-fed beef, black pepper and truffle aioli and caramelized onion, is a thing of rare beauty. The preseasoned beef (I think) created a denser patty than you'd otherwise find but the sweet brioche held together well and I could even ignore the pesky addition of rocket - it made sense in the context of everything else. MGT also do a burger containing candied bacon. Catch 'em while you can.

Various locations in San Diego - check the website for more details

Miho Gastrotruck (Mobile) on Urbanspoon

4. Neighborhood Bar

The menu at the Neighborhood Bar is a thing of wonder to an American food junkie like me. It's no word of a lie to say I wanted to order every last thing off it, from the bacon-wrapped mini hot dogs to the braised beef ribs to the grilled cheese salad. Hell, I'd even quite like to try the veggie bean burger with Swiss cheese. But on our visit we managed to whittle down our choices to a heaving pile of pasilla chilli cheese fries, a ridiculous looking thing called the Local Animal (a Polish sausage soaked in pulled pork and gravy with a fried egg on top - every bit as filthy as it sounds) and, of course, the Neighborhood Burger. Simple and satisfying, it contained just three fillings - caramelized onion, gruyere cheese (always a good choice for a gourmet burger cheese I find) and pepper greens for colour and crunch. The bun was a kind of sourdough mix of some kind, robust and full of flavour, but the real star was the beef, confidently medium-rare and boasting that addictive buttery minerality of USDA.

Neighborhood on Urbanspoon

3. Waterfront Bar & Grill

A glorious, unreconstructed dive bar in Little Italy, I fell in love with the Waterfront the moment I walked through the doors. Noisy, dark and full of grimy nooks and crannies, the food is perfectly in character with the surroundings, being unapologetically junky and all the better for it. Starting with a portion of Buffalo Chicken Wings (crunchy, zingy, perfect) I soon got to work on the Waterfront Bacon, a glossy mound of medium rare beef, crispy bacon and neon-yellow American cheese. Excellent pickles, salad on the side and the crunchiest fries in Southern California just sealed the deal. A hoot, and actually the closest thing in style I ate during my trip to the MeatLiquor burger.

Waterfront Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

2. In'n'Out

Well, it had to feature somewhere. There's always the worry when you try and revisit a great lunch that it will fail to live up to the time-gilded memories, but it's testament to the extraordinary quality and consistency of In'n'Out that a Double Double with fries and a root beer was just as brilliant in 2012 as 2010. In many ways In'n'Out is a kind of objective ideal of a cheese burger - enjoyable, familiar and reassuring while also superbly fresh (you can easily watch the whole process whilst you wait for your food - I bet you don't know many fast food joints in the UK that peel and chip their own potatoes) and, of course, delicious. The real revelation this time though was rediscovering the fries - golden brown, crunchy outside and soft within, they had the most incredibly potatoey flavour. I have simply never had better potato chips anywhere else.

In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

1. Carnitas Snack Shack

Picking a winner amongst competition like this was never likely to be straightforward, but the monumental Shack burger has posed a completely unexpected problem - namely, I know in my heart it's my favourite, I know it's better than any other burger I ate in San Diego, but I have no idea why. On first glance it is nothing extraordinary; a heavily poppyseeded bun, lettuce, cheddar, tomato, beef. But strange and wonderful things happen when you bite into it. Firstly, you will notice that the beef is powerfully flavoured (grass fed I believe, an increasingly common specification in the "gourmet" end of San Diego burgers) and cooked cleverly to a juicy pink despite being quite wide and not too thick (anyone can cook a burger the size and shape of a baseball to pink). Then you will notice the addition of a thin slick of bacon jam just underneath the top bun, which much like the candied bacon in the Miho burger adds a sweet and savoury seasoning and an extra tranche of flavour. And then - and I can hardly believe I'm saying this - the tomato. The juiciest, tastiest, most tomato-ey tomato I've ever tried in a burger, traffic-light red and oozing heavenly umami, it was as unexpected as it was brilliant. It's possible the bacon jam enhanced the tomato in some strange way, or maybe it was some kind of rare breed heirloom vegetable ripened under the bright California sun and picked during a full moon. I just don't know. And anyway it's not just the tomato that made this special - although I've done my best to try and figure it out, I still don't really know why the Carnitas burger was so good. It just was. Perhaps that's all that matters.

Carnitas' Snack Shack on Urbanspoon

I'm tempted to end on a somewhat controversial note. I ate incredibly well in San Diego for not very much money, the sun shone, the fresh IPAs flowed freely and every minute was a blast. But if - only if - I am to focus my attention for a second purely on the burgers, I reach the inescapable conclusion that actually, ignoring the higher prices and the weather and the Piccadilly Line, the best of London really can hold its own nowadays with the best of Southern California. There are many more worse meals to be had generally in the UK than in the easygoing service culture of the USA but when passionate, talented people hunker down and make good food, be it in WC1 or 92104, geography becomes irrelevant. So I'm going to just come out and say it, and of course I'm hopelessly biased, but the best I've ever eaten is still the MeatLiquor Bacon Cheeseburger. But perhaps a return trip to San Diego and a 2nd trip to Hodad's is in order. Just to be 100% sure, you understand.