Friday, 30 May 2014

Cornish Tiger, Battersea

When I first moved to Battersea, I think it was an unpromising-looking Italian called something like Ciao Bella. Shortly thereafter it turned into a burger bar called Tootsies, a very much pre- burger-revolution operation which owed much more of a debt to GBK than Meatwagon. When that folded, we had another stab at Italian with Say Pasta, whose lofty ambitions appeared to be to do what Strada were doing three doors down, only not as well and for more money. That didn't work, of course, so then it became Cucarachas, a Mexican Grill and Cocktail Bar which would have been terrifying enough even if it hadn't been named after insect vermin.

Every neighbourhood has one - that one high-street site that appears to have everything going for it (a great location, massive passing trade, a moneyed local population) and yet changes hands more than a sub-prime mortgage. If I was a superstitious man I'd entertain the idea that 1 Battersea Rise was cursed, but I strongly suspect the reality is rather more mundane - would you choose spend your money on crappy pasta or frozen fajitas over all the other amazing restaurants in London at the moment? No? Well, neither did anyone in Battersea.

Anyway, now we have Cornish Tiger, which on the face of it at least seems to be trying a little harder than its predecessors. The idea, at least I think this what they were going for, is for it to be a little embassy for Cornwall in London, serving Cornish ingredients wherever possible in recognisable ways. There's Cornish beef steaks for example, Cornish octopus "capriccio" [sic] (carpaccio presumably unless they really do mean they've trained their seafood to sing Strauss) and corn-fed Cornish chicken.

Unfortunately, between these pretentions and the practicalities of coming up with a menu people might conceivably want to eat, something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Let's start with the "mackerel tartar", which I can only guess had mackerel in due to the overwhelming flavour being about half a pound of cracked black pepper. But giving them the benefit of the doubt for the second and assuming it did contain at least some mackerel, a) why would you completely drown this delicate and flavoursome fish in a ("Tiger") spice mix so clumsy it should have been called "explosion in ASDA aisle 14", and b) what on earth was a soggy pile of orange and fennel supposed to add?

A "summer salad" was a bit like something you'd get from the cabinets at M&S but at least it didn't taste of a spice cupboard - the "Tiger marinated feta cheese" was seemingly just feta cheese, and the ingredients were fresh. Hardly an inspiring way of spending £7 but there it is anyway.

Veal Scotch egg looks the part (blame my new camera which has the annoying habit of making the most diabolical food look edible) but there was something deeply distressing about how thin, watery and unseasoned the meat was, like Weightwatchers turkey mince. Worse was the "Tiger pickle", presumably some half-assed stab at a piccalilli, which tasted of nothing more than sweet stewed vegetables, like a cold ratatouille. Also, this single Scotch egg cost £10.

So it continued. Sea bass was impressive insofar as the "Tiger spiced crust" could have been wood chip for all the extra flavour it added, although the fish itself wasn't overcooked. Also why place cooked fish on hot boiled potatoes and cold tomatoes?

Lamb was, we were told, "slow-cooked for 72 hours". This could very well be the case. Cornish Tiger could have somehow found a way of cooking lamb rump, in an oven (no sous-vide we were assured), for 3 days, to pink and rubbery. They could have done that. If so, surely they've succeeded where so many others have failed. Or maybe they put the lamb in the oven for 72 hours but only turned it on for the last 15. That's also a possibility. But I think more likely someone was telling porkies and this was just flash seared in a pan. It came with another bonkers mixture of inadvisably spiced vegetables (pea masala, chilli peanut, sour preserved lemon) and cost a whacking £17.

And oh God, the burger. I'll do this quickly and then draw a veil over it because dwelling on it might give me nightmares. Most importantly, the vast sphere of meat was, despite the trolley full of random ("Tiger" again) spices they'd thrown into the mix, bland and pappy, like cheap meatballs from a school canteen. It came with more cold ratatouille, some horrid house pickles which were less pickled than "left to go soggy", and a slice of butter lettuce. The brioche bun was fine in terms of flavour but had dissolved into mush before it got to me partly because it wasn't very sturdy in the first place but mainly because this is a plate of food that had clearly been sitting around for a long time - the slate (!! kill me now) it came on was so hot you couldn't touch it. Oh there were potato wedges too, doused in paprika. Well of course there were.

If we'd arrived curious about this new neighbourhood arrival, then we'd left with more unanswered questions than an Oscar Pistorious trial. Firstly, what on earth was "Tiger" spicing? In the course of our hardly exhaustive selection of dishes it had cropped up 5 or 6 times meaning completely different things. "Tiger" spicing on the mackerel meant a suitcase-full of black pepper. With the Scotch egg it was shorthand for "we don't know how to", as demonstrated in the "we don't know how to" pickle. And what was the Tiger crust on the sea bass - fennel seeds? Cumin? Asbestos? Impossible to say. Maybe "Tiger spicing" is an abstract concept, like if you let a real tiger loose in your kitchen and then scraped up what was on the floor after it had thrashed itself around to death. That would make some sense.

Cornish Tiger is, even compared to the hardly stellar lineup of options on Battersea Rise (the awful Breakfast Club is next door, and the annoying Entree over the road), a terrible way to spend your money and your time. But whereas elsewhere you'd mourn the loss of this prime location to an overpriced and overthought load of nonsense, at least here there's comfort to be had in twiddling your thumbs and waiting for it to inevitably shut down and reopen as something entirely different. Who knows, in a few months it could be the next Soif, the only genuinely respectable joint within about a half mile, and just a few doors down. Time will tell, meanwhile just try and ignore it. It won't be there long.


Cornish Tiger on Urbanspoon

Friday, 23 May 2014

2 Fore Street, Mousehole, and the best of the rest of Cornwall

Here we are then, the last of the Cornwall posts and a fond farewell, for now, to an incredible few days in one of the most consistently rewarding holiday destinations in the world. It speaks volumes that despite the distances travelled and the occasionally atrocious weather (our drive from Bodmin station to Retallack on the first night was particularly memorable, like that scene in Jurassic Park when Nedry's racing for the docks with the stolen embryos, only without quite as many Dilophosaurus), I've done little since being back in London than plan my next visit. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Our last meal was in the charming fishing village of Mousehole, near Penzance, and at a dockside bistro called 2 Fore Street. In common with most other stops made on the trip, we had about half the time needed for a leisurely dinner, but still had a great time, watching the sun set over the harbour and tucking into yet more fantastic local produce.

The menu, setting and even the cooking style reminded me very much of my visit to Margot's in Padstow a couple of years previously. I'm sure neither party would mind me making the comparison; they're both excellent ways to spend a very reasonable amount of money on great food, and for that same reason they're both consistently popular. 2 Fore Street was busy and buzzing as we took our seats.

Home made bread (I assume) came in two varieties, white and brown, and a little pot of oil and balsamic vinegar. I think we required a refill at one point, so it can't have been bad.

Fresh mussels came in a vaguely marinere-y dressing and accompanied by a saffron rouille. The rouille, in particular, was so good the rest of the table fought to mop it up with chips and bread and I'm not sure exactly how much of it managed to survive to be matched with the mussels. Still, you snooze you lose.

Steak was cooked exactly rare as requested, nicely seasoned, had a great minerally flavour (I forget where it was from exactly, but was of course Cornish) and was served with some excellent crisp fries. Perhaps a bit of a safe choice on my behalf, not to mention incongruous in a fishing village, but look, I just really wanted a steak, OK?

There was no time for desserts, or even proper goodbyes, and so I'll take the opportunity now to thank 2 Fore Street not just for the food but for the fact they'd rushed it all through for us so efficiently. Quite an impressive little operation.

But the generosity of everyone we visited on the trip was humbling. Watch out for further reports on the blogosphere from the other lucky members of our group but I'd just like to say a quick thank you to:

Padstow Seafood School, where I learned I was worryingly good at dispatching a live brown crab, and less good at eating a portion of the resulting Singapore Chilli Crab without getting it in my hair. And my clothes. And everybody else's hair and clothes. Sorry about that...

Etherington Meats where head butcher Frank showed us some speed butchery then showed us how to bone and roll a ribeye roasting joint. If you ever have the chance to do a butchery course, jump at it - hilarious fun.

Rocket Gardens, a clever scheme where the experts (them) do the hard work by starting off organic vegetables from seed, then post them to you as seedlings to grow to maturity in your own garden or window box. They also do a mean afternoon tea, though I think that might have just been for us, not part of the mail order offering.

Cornish Sea Salt who showed us how they use some of the cleanest seawater in the UK (off the Lizard peninsula) to produce the finest, flakiest, snow-white sea salt. Lots of trash talking about Maldon Salt too, which was superb.

Visit Cornwall who paid for the hire car with very useful Sat Nav system, without which we would have been a bit, well, buggered. Apart from one memorable occasion in Penzance when it insisted on directing us into the deep-water dock, it worked perfectly.

But most of all thank you to Rosie Halloran of Cornish Sea Salt, who acted as our travel agent, minder, PA, drinking partner and friend during the weekend and who organised this extraordinary trip in her own time and without expectation of anything much in return other than a shout out for her employer and the chance to show off her home county to some very grateful Londoners. And let's face it, if you lived in a place as magical as Cornwall, wouldn't you want to show it off too?

2 Fore Street 8/10

Everyone mentioned above gave us their time and experience for free, so thank you again all.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Chiltern Firehouse, Marylebone

You'd think after all the years I've been blogging about restaurants in London I'd be numb to the glamour and pizzazz that surrounds hot new openings and be able to report dispassionately on the service, the decor and the food anywhere without being affected by trivial things like the celebrity factor or the difficulty of getting a table. The sensible part of me knows that popularity does not make a good restaurant - often the opposite - and if there's one group of people who can't be trusted to frequent anywhere worth my hard-earned it's the kind of international jet-set Made in Chelsea types and soap stars who flock in baffling numbers to places like the Ivy or Cipriani to be charged £30 for a plate of pasta. Not for me. Or so I thought.

But OK, Chiltern Firehouse, you got me. I am beaten. I am putty in your hands. Even before I ate the first bite of the food, I was so caught up with the style and atmosphere of the place I could have been served a pot noodle and glass of Blue Nun for £90 and still never wanted to leave. It is, quite honestly, the most beautiful restaurant in London, inside and out, populated by staff so charming you'd invite them to your wedding and customers so impossibly attractive (present company excepted) I barely had time to pick up my jaw from the floor between each 8ft blonde model type floating past in a backless dress.

Outside is a garden terrace that wouldn't be out of place in a St Tropez beachfront hotel, all smart wicker furniture and artfully-draped wild vegetation. Inside, there's a bar lavishly appointed with marble and vintage mirrors like something airlifted from Versaille, a vast, raised open kitchen where chefs dance around amidst the flame and smoke, and surrounding it terraces of tables, from discreet corner snugs to grand banks of fitted armchairs. "No expense spared" doesn't tell even half the story, the place glows with opulence and charm; it's impossible not to be utterly seduced.

So with everything else going on, who cares about the food, but no - this too played along with the general themes of class and studied decadence. From the "snacks" menu, cauliflower florets, served in a pretty blue bowl alongside a fantastic truffle paste and crisp slivers of deep-fried herbage, was a very clever arrangement of shapes and textures.

Garden peas, served in their pods raw and as a kind of light mousse, draped with shoots and teeny white flowers were rather tricky to eat without cutlery but still satisfied on every other level. Incredible colour on them too.

Chicken "skins" actually had quite a bit of meat on them as well, like a very posh KFC bucket. They came with a luxurious smoky, meaty dip which I somehow managed to pile all of on top of one bit of chicken, then mourned its passing for the remaining portions.

Starters proper kept up the standard. Steak tartare was excellent, with the standard array of accoutrements (shallots, pickles, etc) supplemented by toasted pine nuts and a "Firehouse hot" sauce. The latter came in a very pretty little Alice in Wonderland style jar which was perhaps more stylish than practical - the viscous liquid inside showed no desire to leave through the tiny nozzle, so we didn't get to try very much of it. I'm sure it was lovely, though.

Influences from South America showed in a raw red prawns and vaguely ceviche-y almond milk sauce. Another summery arrangement of veg and flowers, and the prawns themselves had a fantastic flavour and texture; not at all slimy like they can be if not sparklingly fresh. But the real achievement here was the rich, smoky sauce, so beguiling I asked for a spoon to scrape my bowl clean.

Mains were, to be brutal, not quite as impressive as the starters but that's not to say they didn't still make a good accompaniment to the parade of Vogue model types that were gliding around in the background. Ribeye was a nice big slab of good quality meat, but could have done with a bit more cooking to break down the fat (we did ask for it medium). Onion rings were nice though, as were the heritage tomatoes.

And my own Iberico pork suffered only from a sauce containing far too much garlic, which battered pretty much everything else on the plate into meek submission. But the protein itself was tender and richly flavoured, and there was certainly plenty of it.

So much of it, in fact, that we skipped dessert in favour of an early evening nightcap on the terrace. The plan, so we were told, was to eventually serve the full menu out here, but meantime it made a superbly deluxe place to do a bit more ludicrous-people-watching and spin out an evening that neither of us wanted to end in a hurry. There was all just so much... entertainment to be had. From the food, sure, but the theatrics extended to every inch of the place, the amiable staff, the interiors, and of course a clientele like no other I've ever seen. Chiltern Firehouse is a one-off, an incredible achievement on so many fronts, like a vast, multi-million-pound production by an experimental immersive theatre company. It's hardly even anything as humdrum as a restaurant - it's a work of art that serves food.


Chiltern Firehouse on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Beach Bistro at the Gallivant, near Rye

Don't worry - you won't be the only one getting a strong sense of deja vu from this post. Here we are again in Rye, in a well-appointed dining room (again), a very attractive-looking menu (again), eating very accomplished food (again) and - once again - suffering at the hands of some incredibly shaky service. Time was I could forgive almost anything that went belly-up front-of-house as long as what I was asked to eat was up to scratch. But increasingly - perhaps my age, perhaps the fact I've got so used to such good examples in London - I've begun to find bad service more of a worry.

Worrying, for example, in the way this "gin martini" was worrying, although if I hadn't been expected to drink it, I might have found it quite amusing. It is a neat summary of everything it's possible to get wrong about a martini in a single drink. Short of serving it in a dimpled glass and calling it a pint of mild, there's literally nothing else you could do to it that would make it any worse; see the wedge of lemon perched on the side like something Del Boy would make for himself; see the warm glass, the strangely colourful liquid, the two pointless mini straws in case I needed to drink and text at the same time. But the worst thing about it you can't tell from the photo - the taste of it; warm vermouth mainly, but a distressing note of lime cordial (what?) and, more impressively still, hardly a hint of gin. I remember an old episode of Blackadder where Baldrick managed to spell the word "Christmas" without getting a single letter correct.* This was the equivalent, in cocktail form.

Fortunately for them and us, the "martini" represented an early low point in what, by and large, turned out to be an enjoyable meal, but one we enjoyed despite the best efforts of their front of house, not very often thanks to it. Local goat's cheese soufflé didn't need the weird dry salad or sticks of celery (what were we supposed to do with them? Make a fort?) but was otherwise a lovely thing - rich and comforting, like very cheesy mashed potato topped with a Yorkshire pudding.

And seared pigeon, with just enough bite and commendably rare, sat in a light game consomme, in which bobbed about some geometrically-neat diced vegetables, chunks of local black pudding and a soft confit leg. It was a slightly undersized portion where the soufflé had been a bit much, but some portion-swapping soon put that right.

Having decided on the matching wines (saves a lot of messing about, and anyway, surely someone whose job is to match wine with food every day of the year is going to make a better job at it than most customers... well me, at least), I was somewhat surprised to have a glass of white wine brought over ready for my main course of lamb. Thinking this was more likely to be a mistake than the work of a contrary sommelier, I asked our waitress, in the nicest possible way, whether if she was sure I should be having white wine with lamb. "I didn't take the order, darlin'" was the reply.

Now, at the risk of coming over all Basil Fawlty, whose fault was it then? There was me thinking it was the first waiter's fault for not taking my order properly, or the waitress's fault for bringing the wrong glass of wine, but no, apparently it was my fault somehow that the situation had arisen and now I just had to put up with it because she sure as hell wasn't going to do anything about it. No "I'll check" or "let me change it for you", just put up or shut up. Bonkers.

A slightly more competent and less openly miserable member of staff did, though, swap it out and were eventually left to enjoy our main courses in peace. Local salt-marsh lamb (the salt marshes themselves surround the hotel) with buttered mash and truffled green beans may not be the most groundbreaking assembly of ingredients East Sussex has ever seen but it was all technically faultless; tender pink medallions of lamb surrounded by a nice cheffy truffled jus and fresh greens. But by this point we were less forgiving with other lapses of service - long waits to attract anyone's attention, plates not being cleared, that kind of thing. And why had nobody mentioned the specials, which I only happened to notice on a chalkboard on the way back from a visit to the gents? I was still happy with our choices, but still - would have been nice to know about alternatives.

It's just as well, then, that the food was so darned good. The other main course of plaice could not have been treated any better, golden brown but not overcooked, the flesh firm and meaty. As with the lamb, it wasn't radically reinventing anything but was definitely worth £16.50.

And there things would have ended, solidly and respectably and saved really only on the strength of the cooking but nothing much more to write home about, were it not for this wonderful thing, a pear tarte tatin, so good it probably deserves a blog post to itself. To save time I won't do that, but just take my word that every element of it, from the vanilla-rich house ice cream, to the gooey, treacley puff pastry tart itself, was a complete triumph. The kind of thing it's only possible to eat with your eyes closed, moaning softly. I wanted to live in it.

So, as with the George for lunch the same day, we have some very talented chefs indeed whose hard work is being severely undermined by the lack of effort gone into serving it correctly to paying customers. It was annoying enough to see as someone invited to review the place; at least I got to enjoy the food. But if I was putting as much effort in to my job as the kitchen brigade at the Gallivant quite obviously are, to have it all ballsed-up, forgotten and thrown about as badly as this once it left the pass would drive me potty.

But to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they just suffered an off-day. And maybe you'd think any kind of abuse would be worth the chance to try that gorgeous pigeon consomme or God's own tarte tatin. But the thing is, good food is welcome, memorable, glorious even, and bad food is never very often more than regrettable. But while service is, at its best, invisible, bad service is personal. And that's something the Gallivant really need to work on.


*"KWEZNUZ" I think he came up with

I was invited to the Gallivant and the Beach bistro

Beach Bistro on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 May 2014

The George Grill, Rye

The are some incredibly talented people working at the George, a handsome old hotel and bar on the High St in Rye. Whoever designed the menu, for example, knows exactly what they're doing - it's a minor work of art, with a "Crustacea" section with oysters three ways, lobster, and 1/2 pint of prawns for very little money indeed. There are half a dozen starters, half a dozen mains, occasionally namechecking local suppliers and seasonal ingredients, and a "From our Josper charcoal oven" section with keenly-priced steaks from butcher Donald Russell, with chips and bearnaise included. So far, so good.

And whoever's heading up the kitchen brigade, too, should be very pleased with themselves. Without exception, the food we ate, given the prices they charged, could hardly be faulted - good ingredients, treated well, honestly presented. No superfluous trills or frills, no sprigs of parsley finding their way into places they don't belong, just good, no-nonsense, grub.

The problem, for the customer at least, is that progressing from the 'menu' stage to the 'eating' stage involves dealing with a front of house that, while often well-meaning, are clearly still struggling with the whole arse/elbow dichotomy, and which on more than one occasion threatened to derail the whole affair.

But let's start where it matters. Our plan, and I hope you'll agree it wasn't a particularly complex one, was to share 1/4 dozen oysters each as a starter, one portion 'natural' and one 'Rockefeller' (grilled), then I wanted a starter-sized portion of scallops as a main, my friend a half pint of prawns, and a portion of chips to share. Not a vast lunch, admittedly, but we were mindful of a huge dinner we had looming in the Gallivant that evening, and the seafood section of the menu did seem the most appealing.

The first thing we did, though, was order two glasses of prosecco. These were very nice, and only unusual insofar as they were one of the precious few items that appeared on time, and as expected. From here on, things got a bit more... tricky.

Oyster Rockefellers, here, and you may notice there are four of them. Maths was never my favourite subject in school but I still find myself regularly labouring under the misapprehension that a quarter of twelve is three, not four. Still, at least this was an error in our favour, and they were bloody lovely, just the right amount of herby salsa under a gentle baked parmesan crust.

We waited as long as was comfortable for my equivalent "au natural" portion to arrive, but there was still no sign even as we'd given up and shared the Rockefeller between us. As the plate was cleared, I mentioned the mystery of the missing bivalves to our waitress who, to her credit, looked genuinely surprised and offered to find out what had happened. Meantime, our next courses arrived, suspiciously sans chips.

But who needs chips, anyway, with food this good? The 1/2 pint of prawns were presented with a bowl of excellent lemon mayonnaise - aioli seems to be more usual these days but this made a very good case for the traditional British version - and a slab of light, focaccia-like white bread.

Rye Bay Scallops were super, too; I loved the fact they'd left the roe on, I loved the sweet, mildly alcoholic liquor, I loved the nuggets of salty ham, I loved the pile of bright-green wild garlic. I loved all of it. There are surely few better ways of spending £10 than this piping hot bowl of fresh, colourful springtime joy.

At some point, the raw oysters arrived, bumped up in number to a full dozen to apologise for the delay, which was a nice gesture but as my friend doesn't eat them turned my starter-as-was into a bit more of a bushtucker trial than I'd anticipated. Still, with a clever rotation of garnishes (mignionette on one, lemon on the next, tabasco, black pepper, combinations of all of the above) it wasn't too much of a hardship to finish them off. I'm good like that.

The bill arrived with the non-existent chips on. Well, of course it did, but by this point we were past caring, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. Nobody was rude or lazy, just a bit baffled, and very often attitude makes up in spades for the lack of, well, general competence. They were soon removed, albeit with no apology for them having been forgotten about then charged for in the first place, and I'm not sure if the 7.5% service charge is normal or just accurate self-appraisal, but it seemed fair all things considered. Ultimately, we left very happy, and you can't put a price on that. Well, you can - £25 a head - but you know what I mean.


The George on Urbanspoon