Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Art School, Liverpool

I'll let you into a little secret. Up until a few years ago, I operated a system on this blog I called 'Liverpool scoring'. Unwilling, due to residual Scouse pride, of being quite as brutal about places in my home town as those in the capital, I'd generally bump up the mark out of ten in Liverpool restaurant posts by a point or two - not enough to completely alter the thrust of the review, but just enough to take out a bit of the bite. I stopped doing this in 2012ish when I realised firstly that to be kinder on anywhere than it deserves is as patronising as it is unhelpful, and secondly that not many people cared about the scores anyway. Still don't, in fact.

But even though I no longer make quantatitive concessions for the North-South divide, whenever I eat out in Liverpool I really really want it to be good. Well, I do anywhere - with occasional notable exceptions I don't ever go anywhere expecting a bad time - but in Liverpool I'm far more likely to overlook snags in service or the food because I want to encourage anywhere that isn't a godawful chain in the L1 complex or an all-you-can-eat buffet on Berry St to up their game; I'm convinced Liverpool can do just as well as anywhere else, it just needs a better PR campaign. And it needs a few more 60 Hope Streets, a few more Clove Hitches, a few more decent, unpretentious dinner spots where you can have a bottle of craft beer, a couple of courses of fresh seasonal food and leave with a bill of less than £25 a head.

What it doesn't need is the Art School. And here are just a few of the reasons why.

Browsing the menu online before our evening booking, as he often does, my dad noticed that the more reasonable-sounding £29 3-course prix fixe menu is only available until 6:15 in the evening, and from then on it's the eyebrow-raising £69 Menu Excellence or the where-have-my-eyebrows-gone £89 full tasting. Our initial booking at 6:30 would have meant a bill for three, in a brand new and entirely untested restaurant (at the time at least; reviews have since appeared) of at least £250 with a glass or two of wine. Ouch. And so in somewhat of a panic we called up and moved our table forward.

Now, their restaurant, their rules of course, and they moved the table with no fuss, but why force every punter who sits down post 6:15 of a weekday evening (an odd time, for a start) to pay more than, well, pretty much every restaurant I can think of outside the very high end in Mayfair or the West End? This is not mere ambition, this is arrogance - prices like this should be earned, not part of your launch offering. The Fat Duck didn't open with a £250 tasting menu; it worked its way up from £25 a head, earning loyalty and respect and accolades by understanding its customers and bringing them along for the ride. If a brand new restaurant had opened in Bray in 1995 charging £250 for snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream they would have been quite rightly laughed out of town.

Anyway, to the food at Art School. An amuse of mushroom soup with goats cheese cracker thing was pleasant, but then it's difficult not to enjoy mushroom soup. It was a bit thick and not particularly refined, but the mushroom flavour was good and powerful and the texture of the crunchy cheese underneath was interesting. It reminded me of a very nice homemade mushroom soup I had in a cafe in Bradford once years ago. What it didn't remind me of was anything expensive.

House bread was good - we liked the herby focaccia which had a good chewy consistency, and the little brown rolls were piping hot.

Twice-baked souffle of wild mushrooms and Barkham Blue cheese was nothing if not a perfectly enjoyable little puck of warm fluffy cheese and mushroom. A solid bit of cooking that performed its job well.

Better was a lovely pink breast of pigeon which had a fantastic flavour - from Northop apparently so livin' must be good for wood pigeons in North Wales. It was presented on an unremarkable watery "risotto" of beetroot and shallots but really this was all about the bird, perfectly cooked pink and full of rich gamey juices.

My own game terrine - an off-menu special - sadly had much less to recommend it. Unseasoned, bland and fridge-cold, it wasn't particularly pleasant to eat, and the weird satellites of spherical veg weren't enough of a distraction.

Mains, then, and again the best was the game - pheasant, again from Northop, with Cavollo[sic] Nero and trompette mushrooms. The breast was, against all expectations I'll admit, moist and seasoned well; apparently it had been briefly brined before cooking. But the confit leg was pretty disgusting, dry and sinewy, and difficult to eat.

Salt baked celeriac with Jerusalem artichokes was a pretty arrangement of seasonal veg, and had all sorts of different textures in play as well as a good spear of char-grilled chicory for smoke and that distinctive bitter flavour. There wasn't a great deal of celeriac involved, but what there was was nice.

My own cod main was not nice. The fish itself did have the beginnings of a nice crisp skin but was spoiled by overcooked fish underneath, tasting sad and soily. It was surrounded by clams in a clumsy thick creamy sauce that drowned the delicate flavour of the seafood entirely, and also by bullet-like barely-cooked Brussels Sprouts, a mistake you'd wince at anywhere never mind somewhere with such ambitious pricing.

Desserts were perhaps the best course of all, which I know isn't saying much but was still welcome. Dainty, light lemon cheesecakes, macarons, a little slice of apple turnover, and a weeny lemon meringue pie - all my favourite desserts in miniature, I very much enjoyed all of these. But it was too little, too late. Art School is not a dessert restaurant, and these bits and pieces were not as cheap as they would have been from even quite a fancy patisserie.

Look, ambition is all well and good. In fact, in most instances it's to be applauded. But Art School's ambitions aren't anyone else's, and I'm pretty sure aren't Liverpool's. They don't seem interested in being a part of a dynamic and expanding local restaurant scene, they seem happy to exist entirely separated from it, a weird international-fine-dining-themed spaceship plonked down from outer space, sponsored by Michelin. The vast numbers of well meaning if nervous staff, the stupid affectation of the doorman in a bowler hat, all these fripperies that Michelin love and drive most normal human beings up the wall.

Ah yes, the M word. And this is really the crux of the problem - Art School have said in the press that they want to win Liverpool's first Michelin star. Not that they want to serve fantastic food with sparkling service. Not even that they want to be Liverpool's first genuinely international standard restaurant that might, somewhere along the way, if they're lucky, win a Michelin star. No, the reason this restaurant exists is to win a Michelin star. And a really depressing possibility is that even if it remains mainly empty night after night (ours was the only table taken for most of the evening), and is ignored or dismissed by most of the city, as long as they at some point win a star then job done. Someone's ticked the box on their CV and can go off and become a consultant to some hotel chain somewhere.

OK, perhaps that's too cynical, even for me. There is a germ of a good restaurant in Art School, hiding amongst the star-frotting pretentions and flappy service - they've found some good suppliers and if they can consistently do justice to them it may occasionally be worth the £29 early evening set menu. But I can't ignore the fact that 15 minutes after we sat down to eat our faintly disappointing mid-priced dinner, Art School is off-limits to anyone not spending £70 a head or more without service or wine. Which is way, way too much for somewhere that appears to struggle with some quite basic concepts, never mind the details. They even managed to spell their own name wrong on the bill. So, spend your money elsewhere. You - and Liverpool - deserve better.


Tickets for my journey to Liverpool this time were very kindly provided by Virgin Trains. The Euston-Lime Street route takes 2h15m on a good day, and tickets are available from £24 if you book far enough in advance. BOOK HERE

.Art School Restaurant on Urbanspoon

You Decide 2015

Well, it's that time of year again and a chance for you all to show your love and appreciation for my blog by deliberately sending me somewhere for a really miserable time. Last year, it was Frankie & Benny's, and I suppose the one tiny glimmer of relief this year is that the same place can't win twice. But never let it be said that London doesn't have more than its fair share of really desperately awful places to eat, so as ever, my fate is in your hands. I mean you could decide to send me to Le Gavroche or Alyn Williams at the Westbury? Wouldn't that be nice for a change? No? Oh, who am I kidding. Do your worst.

The rules are unchanged from last year:

1. I can't have been to the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)

2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London

3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.

EDIT 12:00 on 30/01/15 - votes are closed, and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company is the winner. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rabbit, Chelsea

A quirky Modern British restaurant is probably the last thing you expect to find on the King's Road in Chelsea, but there it is anyway, looking right at home nestled in-between the Sloaney clothing shops and candle emporiums, largely because at first glance it looks like either a Sloaney clothing shop or an overpriced candle emporium. It's only when you look closely, spot the tables and chairs inside and the menu on the door that you realise it's not a rustic interiors shop or a branch of Cath Kidson but a restaurant. Some of the customers look slightly bewildered by the situation too, like they've wandered in looking for a jar of mandarin and cinnamon hand wash and ended up being served dinner.

More remarkably given its location, Rabbit isn't half bad at all. Admittedly for Chelsea, "not half bad" means "isn't ludicrously expensive, and isn't entirely populated by people you'd normally cross the street to avoid.", but at least they're trying. Our dinner started with a plate of pretty "mouthfuls", a brown crab "bomb" with lemon and dulse (some kind of seaweed I believe), really just a crab croquette but pleasant enough; a Woodcock paté, fluffy blobs of super-light game liver on melba toast (really rather good); and a "mushroom marmite eclair" which, well, tasted exactly like it sounds - a mini savoury choux pastry filled with mushroom and Marmite.

Rainbow trout tartare was my favourite of the small plates. The fish itself had a good, firm flesh and none of that offputting slimyness you get from cheaper animals. And the accompanying bits and pieces were certainly colourful, and in the case of blobs of chervil mousse leant a refreshing dairy note, almost like cream cheese, but am I wrong in expecting those little clumps of black blobs to be caviar and not, as it turned out, grape seeds? I'm sure they weren't deliberately setting out to trick anyone with faux caviar, but the dissonance between the salty, fishy flavour I was expecting and the more prosaic reality was quite jarring.

"Sticky spatchcock quail" was slightly disappointing not because there was anything in particular wrong with it (apart from more of that fool's caviar) but because I've been spoiled by better (and cheaper) versions elsewhere - Peckham Bazaar, the Table Café, even my local Vietnamese Mien Tay does a version for £6.50 that somehow manages more fire and spice. The Rabbit's quail (this is getting confusing) wasn't terrible, it just needed a bit more love and seasoning.

"Lamb chips" sounds exciting. "Lamb croquettes" less so, so maybe that's why they went with "chips". Slow-cooked lamb inside a breadcrumb casing, resting on a little puddle of harissa. Again, not bad just not quite what I was expecting. I realise I'm risking sounding like I'm picking fault with everything just for the sake of it, but I think at these prices (those two fingers of lamb were £8) I'm entitled to expect a little more pizazz.

Whilst some of the preceeding courses had been faintly disappointing, though, a truffle and mushroom "ragu" was genuinely wrong, mainly because the truffle - great big awkward slabs of it sliced as thickly as chorizo - tasted of absolutely nothing. There was no aroma, and no flavour; they may as well have shaved on candle wax. And that would have been bad enough if the mushrooms themselves weren't desperately underseasoned and accompanied by way too many deep-fried sage leaves that each held about a tablespoon of cold oil. Chefs - if you find your truffle is old or tasteless or just rubbish, don't shave extra on in an attempt to salvage some flavour, just leave it off completely. Then find a better truffle supplier.

Duck liver came with yet more fool's caviar but by this point we knew not to get our hopes up. What let us down here was the duck itself which was mealy and dry, not a fun thing to eat at all. I knew not to expect anything as wonderfully moist and flavoursome as foie gras from any old duck liver, but even so, this didn't seem worth the while slicing it and putting it on a plate.

Desserts were better. Maple syrup pudding with preserved plum (prune, then?) rum and buttermilk had plenty going for it, not least a big punch of hearty bold flavours which had been missing from so much of what preceeded it. And a tongue-in-cheek take on a Wall's Vienetta was good too, layers of salty caramel in between good soft vanilla ice cream.

But you'll have guessed by now where this is going. Rabbit is not a bad restaurant, not by a long stretch - there is talent in the kitchen and front of house, and the dishes are presented with a clever eye on the latest trends (foraging and all that jazz) and a refreshing lack of cynicism. But even so, there are too many mistakes being made to justify the £140 for two with a few glasses of wine that the bill came to - the competition in London elsewhere is just too strong. Rabbit may be a brave step forward for Chelsea, but I can't make excuses for that when I know that the Dairy is only a ten minute cab ride away. And if I had my time again, it's there I'd be spending my dinner money.


Rabbit on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Chifafa, Clerkenwell

I had heard rumblings of appreciation about Chifafa, about how they were trying to do for the kebab what MeatLiquor did for the burger, about how they were making their own bread, pickling their own vegetables, and generally going about things in a way guaranteed to grab the attention of any overeager foodie (that would be me, then). And so when I made the trip myself and spotted a Big Green Egg lurking in the back of the Chifafa kitchens, I knew I was onto a good thing.

Other than that Egg though (every home should have one) at first glance Chifafa doesn't look that much different from any other lunchtime sandwich shop aimed at local office workers. There's a few tables and chairs, a drinks cabinet, a bar with a few cakes on display, queue and pay one side, pick up the other. The menu is short but attractive in a don't-run-before-you-can-walk kind of a way, with chicken, lamb, veal, falafel and halloumi options each with a slightly customised set of accompaniments and with an option to have a bread-free salad box instead of the usual wrap. So far, so Clerkenwell.

But a lamb wrap was clearly a cut above what you might ordinarily expect from high street kebabbery - tender chunks of marinated meat, with diced salad, a nice sharp tahini yoghurt, mango pickle and - a clever touch - chunks of feta cheese. Yes I could have done with a bit more of a char on the meat (they say the meat is 'finished' on the char-grill but I couldn't detect much sign of that) and £7 is quite a lot to pay for a sandwich, but it did feel like a premium product, thanks also to the fantastic bread which was soft and salty and just chewy enough to be a perfect wrap bread without being tough.

On a second visit, I was hoping for a similarly impressive experience with the veal (£8.40), but sadly it wasn't to be. The meat was, weirdly, and despite being cooked pink, dry and chewy, with no discernible flavour and swamped by a hardly powerful minty tzatziki dressing. Like the lamb there was no crunch or smoke from the grill, which may have improved things slightly, but unlike the lamb the salad and marinade wasn't enough to compensate - I'd asked for 'medium' hot sauce with the lamb and didn't get any chilli kick at all, so I was hoping for a bit more from the "hot" requested with the veal. In the end, I may just as well have not bothered, as I couldn't detect even a hint of a burn.

Perhaps it's still early days. A tweak to the controls of the Big Green Egg, longer contact with a hotter charcoal grill, a more liberal use of chillies, and we could have a real destination lunch spot. Plus, Chifafa has two more tricks up its sleeve - house pickles, which looked a bit washed out but tasted great, with a lively crunch and good balance of vinegar/sugar, and the homemade hummus which is probably the best I've tried in London, and I've been to more Dalston ocakbasi than I care to remember.

So I'll stop whingeing about what I'd like to change and praise instead what we already are lucky enough to have, a friendly, forward-thinking kebab shop on Clerkenwell Road that could very well end up taking a large chunk of my lunch money. And right next to the bus stop, too.


Chifafa on Urbanspoon

Monday, 5 January 2015

Kitty Fisher's, Mayfair

It's Christmas Eve (babe), and having being the only person stupid enough to fight my way into a deserted office to do a final morning of work before the Great Central London Shutdown, I thought I deserved a nice lunch. A little office Christmas party of my own, maybe, where I get to choose the venue, don't have to mark in a shared spreadsheet a preference for "turkey" or "mushroom", and doesn't end with anyone being sick in a bin. Well, that was the plan.

First, the parts of the Cheese and Biscuits Office Christmas party that went to plan:

1) The venue - Kitty Fisher's in Shepherds Market, Mayfair, is a teeny, ramshackle Dickensian spot that couldn't have felt more festive if it were designed by Disney. Downstairs an open kitchen bathes some of the low-ceilinged room in soft fluorescence, and the rest of it flickers with candlelight. Upstairs a small bar and a couple of tables look out over the quaint pedestrianised square as the last remaining Christmas office workers shuffled home. I'd like to say snow was lightly falling and Prime Minister Hugh Grant was rushing across town to chat up his secretary, only he wasn't. Still, you get the picture.

2) The food - everything. Was. Brilliant. OK, perhaps not absolutely every last bit of everything, but enough so that the overall effect was a masterclass in modern British cooking; inspirational, innovative dishes presented with confidence and flair, even more astonishing when you find out the head chef looks young enough to still be at university.

And the parts that didn't go to plan? I'll get to that. First, more on the food.

I didn't have my fancy camera with me, but hopefully even without you'll be able to tell there's something quite special going on at Kitty Fishers. The first dish to arrive was a steak tartare, superb aged beef with a faint horseradish tang and crunchy caraway (I think) seeds. Superficially straightforward but enigmatically greater than the sum of its parts, it was a theme that was to continue throughout the afternoon.

Grilled sourdough with my favourite new thing in the entire world - "burnt onion butter". Bright white whipped butter with a beguiling note of grilled onion, it pains me to say it but it was even greater than the house whipped butter at the Dairy, and that has bloody bone marrow in. The bread was fantastic, lightly oiled and chargrilled to perfection, but this was really all about that butter, a fluffy barbecued cream which dissolved in the mouth leaving only a faint hint of smokey allium.

Any restaurant that has the confidence to serve three warmed fillets of oiled anchovy on a plate and for it not to feel like a scam is clearly ahead of their game. I can't tell you where they were from, or even how much they usually cost (they were off menu and I don't think charged for) but they were lovely, meaty things, not overly salty but with loads of flavour.

Salt hake croquettas with aioli - greaselessly fried, packed full of the good stuff and with a light mayonnaise that wasn't too thick or too garlicky. About as good a plate of saltfish croquettas with aioli as you'd ever want, in other words.

Next the only dish I wasn't mad about but that's probably because I've never been a huge fan of whole chestnuts. I don't mind chestnut stuffing or even (on the one occasion I tried it) chestnut liqueur, but the whole nuts are often quite unpleasantly soily in texture. Festive, though, and plenty of other people seem to like them so I'll give Kitty Fishers the benefit of the doubt.

Burrata, beetroot & clementine quite sensibly gave us a great big wodge of what we really came here for (a vast, loose burrata, strongly seasoned and drizzled with oil) and left the other ingredients to play accompaniment. This was, if I'm being brutal, perhaps the least cutting-edge of the dishes on offer but still managed to impress.

If you were to tell me before my visit to Kitty Fishers that the best bit of a world-famous Galician ex-dairy cow steak dish would be the accompanying potatoes then I'd probably have laughed in your face. But here we were anyway, eating pink fir spuds stuffed with Tunworth cheese and drizzed with homemade mustard dressing and wondering if any potatoes had ever tasted better in the history of planet earth. Try and imagine each as a sort of bitesized raclette, with melted soft cheese, potato and a tang of sweet mustard combining to assault every one of the foodie pleasure points - fat, salt, sugar, carbohydrate.

Oh yes, and the steak wasn't bad either.

There was more. Duck, pink and juicy, with black cabbage, cranberry and chervil root. A red mullet escabeche which managed a bright white, firm flesh next to some expertly grilled skin. Lamb cutlets, yet another example of a masterful use of a direct heat source, with heart & liver presented separately cutely skewered on rosemary stalks. I wish I could go into more detail, only by this stage I'm afraid I was somewhat suffering from the effects of a failure of part 3) of the plan - to stay (relatively) sober.

Whether it was the first couple of glasses of house fizz (why not, it's Christmas) to the endless parade of fantastic wines that kept appearing at the table (why not, it's Christmas), to God knows what happened after around 3pm (why not, it's Christmas), events somehow conspired to ensure the impromptu Cheese and Biscuits Office Christmas party was, in one key area - quantity of alcohol consumed per capita - not too dissimilar to many other such parties happening across the capital. And I can try blaming the restaurant for being so damn good, or even a group of friends who by sheer coincidence were able to join me just after I'd finished my starter, but really the ultimate responsibility lies with me. I am weak, and I got drunk, and I'm not entirely convinced at some point I wasn't sick in a bin.

But even before I lost my critical faculties to the Ghost of Christmas Present, Kitty Fisher's had done enough to convince me that it is one of London's most exciting new restaurants. With an impeccable eye for good ingredients, coupled with command of a range of techniques on hand to make the most of them; a menu that while not anything that can be described as 'budget' (I drunkenly insisted they took £100 from my credit card but I'm sure a more sensible spend per head is about £60) yet is still great value, and service that makes you want to stay the night, it ticks almost every box you could care to think up. I'll be back - hoping they've not run out of the Galician beef, eager to see what other surprises they can come up with, and - with any luck - not quite so drunk.


Kitty Fisher's on Urbanspoon