Thursday, 28 April 2016
There are certain neighbourhoods that have taken a long time to shake off their reputation for bad food. At one time Covent Garden was the culinary wasteland, full of gimmicky tourist traps and Bella Pastas and not much else, where you'd end up by accident, never on purpose, poking glumly at a pasta penne while someone bellowed opera at you. Now, we have 10 Cases, Flesh & Buns, Hawksmoor, Opera Tavern, 32 Great Queen Street and - coming soon - Margot from ex-Bar Boulud Paulo de Tarso, surely definitive proof that this area has Arrived.
Could there ever be hope for Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly? The restauarants in this part of town aren't just lazy and cynical, they're actively evil. Rainforest Café have been flogging their £15 quesadillas and frozen burgers for nearly two decades, surviving on an endless stream of frazzled parents and desperate lost tourists who recognise the brand name from back home. And let's not forget Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a restaurant launched entirely on the back of a minor plot point in a terrible movie most of whose target customers were too young to see when it was last in theaters. It's shit, but then you probably don't need me to tell you that.
But what's this? Cafe Monico, brand-spanking-new from the Soho House group, nestled inbetween the all-you-can-eat dross and theme restaurants of Shaftesbury Avenue, threatens to actually make a trip to this part of town worthwhile. I'm neither young, attractive nor moneyed enough to make the most of a Soho House membership but I do know that Chicken Shop is one of my go-to places for rotisserie bird, and Dean St Townhouse do cracking cocktails. So hopes were high for this new place, even if, by the standards of the area, it will probably only need to not poison me to be better than the standards of the competition.
They've done a great job on the interior, with a grand central island bar downstairs overlooked by a plush balcony dining area above. The years of experience in creating a comfortable-but-not-intimidatingly-lavish atmosphere in places like Dean St Townhouse have clearly been put to use here; it's a very pleasant place to sit and eat.
Unfortunately, first impressions of the food weren't so positive. Ordering native oysters and then being brought rocks could be dismissed as early days confusion, but how many people would this incorrect order have had to go past to arrive at the table? I can't tell you whether they just misheard me or made a mistake in selection as I didn't see the bill on this occasion, but it does make you wonder. Still, even these rocks were nice, with a good sharp mignionette dressing.
Slightly more worrying was the "Parmesan custard with anchovy toast", a sure sign of Rowley Leigh's involvement in the design if not execution of the menu. When I've had this dish in the past, most notably at Leigh's Café Anglais in Bayswater, it's been a delicate pot of fluffy cheese custard accompanied with a neat stack of golden-brown toasted anchovy sandwiches. I've posted what they should look like above. What arrived at Café Monico (beneath) was the custard, which looked OK at first before you broke the surface to reveal a sad, split mixture beneath with a texture not dissimilar to scrambled eggs. And what on earth was happening with the "toast" I have no idea - this strange, chewy flat pancake with more in common with a doughy paratha than toasted white bread, and with not a trace of anchovy. Rowley - head back to Shaftesbury Avenue. Your work here is not yet done.
Happily, better things were to follow. Salmon carpaccio with chilli was fresh and attractive, not shy with the chillies and, studded with capers and dill and goodness knows what else, much fun to eat.
And both mains on my first visit were great successes, first this guinea fowl with morels which boasted a lovely golden brown crisp skin and plenty of funghi...
...and this Dover Sole which was abosolutely perfectly cooked - not a hint of either gelatinous undercooked or mushy overcooking - dressed in brown butter and a joy to eat to the last meaty, bright white bite.
Partly because the first visit was a PR invite and partly because I still couldn't make my mind up about the place, I made a return trip a week or two later. On this occasion I played it a bit safer with the menu, and was rewarded with a more consistent experience, so perhaps safe is the way to go at Cafe Monico. A French Onion soup was a fine example, vaguely wine-y and with a good rich broth.
And though I didn't get a chance to try it, this beef carpaccio disappeared very quickly, so I imagine it tasted as good as it looked.
Steak was a cheap cut I think but I was given the correct tools to work my way through this tough but richly flavoured slab of cow, and it was hardly a chore to eat. The Bearnaise had a bit of an unpleasant crust, but between the nicely seasoned and crisp fries and the juicy steak, there was plenty else to enjoy.
And also from the lunch menu, pork belly, which also disappeared with few - in fact no - complaints.
Had my second visit involved as many mistakes and disappointments as the first - and even on the first visit there weren't that many - then perhaps I still wouldn't have made my mind up about Cafe Monico. But what I mainly remember from my lunches there aren't the missing native oysters or the custard paratha but the smart service, lovely room and menu of comfort food bistro classics that I would happily order from again and again. And given that there still really aren't that many sure-thing crowdpleasing bistros in this part of town - in fact, given that there aren't really any (Zedel aside) - I can see myself eating here quite a bit. And if I ever order that parmesan custard again, I'll let you know how it goes.
I went once as a guest to Café Monico and once on my own dollar. They probably haven't quite done enough to get into the next version of the app, but you can certainly do far worse on the Shaftesbury Avenue. Meanwhile, see where else is good.
Monday, 25 April 2016
Restaurants are not like laundrettes. This may seem obvious, even if you've not ever attempted to order a beetroot salad in a Happy Clean, and you may not think the disimilarity of restaurants and laundrettes to be worthy of pointing out. But I'm trying to make a laboured and only vaguely relevant point here, so bear with me. The point is, open a laundrette too close to another laundrette and one will steal business from the other, threatening the viability of both and dividing the customer base. After all, you only need to do your laundry once (unless you've been having a lot of beetroot salads) and you're just going to pick the one laundrette. But once an area becomes known for its lively dining scene, the wider availability of dining options draws in greater numbers of potential customers and, faced with a number of good restaurants, people will just eat out more, not divide a finite number of meals amongst all available restaurants.
So when an area - in this case the stockbroker belt on the Thames near Maidenhead - becomes internationally famous thanks to the efforts of the Roux brothers (the Waterside Inn) and Heston Blumenthal (The Fat Duck), then it proves demand for that kind of thing in the area, and before you know it you have places like the Hand and Flowers (Marlow, by Tom Kerridge, where if you've ever managed to get a booking for Sunday lunch you're a better man than me) and the Royal Oak in Paley Street, where I enjoyed a near-faultless lunch on Saturday.
The attention to detail at the Royal Oak is impressive, and evident in the quality of the smallest snack right through to the most lavish of the main courses. The bread, made in house, included a wonderful fluffy bun spiked with Marmite, and some delicate flatbread that managed to pack in a huge amount of flavour as well as being as delicate and rich as filo pastry.
Spiced aubergine hummus is the kind of thing that when presented as part of a 'Middle Eastern Sharing Platter' in your local high street bar would be like eating wet cement. Here, though, it was fresh and satisfying, the spiced aubergine sitting like a kind of light jam on top of a chunky (and perfectly seasoned) hummus.
A Scotch egg was good too, perhaps a bit stingy to use a quail's instead of hen's egg but we liked the herby sausage meat and the yolk was runny so you couldn't complain about much else.
Dishes like this wild garlic soup are why I eat out. Sharply seasonal ingredients, classical techniques used to great effect, clever touches of texture from (I think) some slivers of pastry or cracker, all combining to produce a deeply satisfying and perfectly balanced starter. And isn't it just beautiful, with its little buds of wild garlic flowers peeking out like snowdrops in a Spring forest floor.
Smoked herring raviolo was also superb, a soft and springy parcel of pasta containing a moist seafood filling (strange how so many ravioli at even quite good restaurants can containg horrid mealy, dry fillings; not so here), all topped with one of those chefy frothy cream sauces and a pleasingly punchy dollop of chilli jam. It brought to mind Philip Howard's "crab lasagne with basil cappucino" at the now sadly missed Square in Mayfair; I'm sure the Royal Oak would be happy with this comparison, as indeed they should be.
Mains were every bit as enjoyable as the starters, if - if I'm being brutal - perhaps just a tad on the safer side. My own Iberico pork chop was cooked to just pink, a golden-brown, butter-basted exterior containing a soft and giving flesh. Sprouting broccoli and celeriac purée soaked up one of those glossy meaty sauces you'd be happy just drinking pints of on their own, and some sort of herb and chopped pickle dressing added notes of acidity. Just brilliant.
And this magnificent thing, a juicy fillet of the finest grass-fed beef, prepared in that classically impressive French style, with spinach and chips and a lovely tangy Béarnaise. I'm sure I don't need to tell you that the meat was bullseye-accurate medium rare, or that the chips were a textbook example of how to make chips, or that another dose of a silky-smooth meat jus, studded with roast shallots and mushrooms, tied the whole thing together beautifully. It tasted every bit as good as the above photo makes it look.
Desserts were confidently uncomplicated and straightforwardly enjoyable. My treacle tart with milk ice cream was exactly that, no more and no less, but I really do not want any more than a warm treacle tart topped with an ice cream as loose as the driven snow and I loved every bit of it.
Similarly this take on the "Snicker" chocolate bar, involving caramel, chocolate and a peanut ice cream which is a list of components that will never not produce the desired effect.
I'm on slightly tricky ground when it comes to assessing the value of the Royal Oak because on this occasion we didn't pay - I tagged along with a friend who'd been invited and the bill was taken care of. But if you consider that 3 courses are £30, sides are £3-£4 and many of the wines are available by the glass and I honestly don't think the price per head would have stretched much north of £50 had we been paying. And I don't know about you, but for cooking of this standard, even factoring in the £11.50 train journey from Paddington and the £10 taxi each way from Maidenhead station, is still a pretty good deal. In a part of the country not short of excellent places to eat, the Royal Oak Paley Street holds its own and then some, a cosy and welcoming little place serving food that's impossible not to love. Yet another reason for a weekend trip west, I'd say.
We were guests of the Royal Oak Paley Street. My app doesn't stretch that far west yet, but before your next trip out of town, why not see what's a bit closer to home?
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Considering my first trip to Copenhagen hadn't quite fulfilled its promise of giving me the greatest meal of my life, it's perhaps odd that my first reaction on arriving back in London was to plan a return to the Danish capital. Partly it was because That Meal at Noma had been such an event, taking up so much of the weekend mentally and physically, that I felt I hadn't really made the most of the Copenhagen restaurant scene and wanted to see what else was out there.
But I also knew that I liked Copenhagen and that even if it turned out that, after all, New Nordic cuisine wasn't entirely my bag, this was still a fantastic city to visit; clean, comfortable and friendly, and thanks to Norwegian Air (returns £55 and free in-flight Wifi) and AirBnB (a genuinely lovely flat in Freidricksberg for £23 a head per night), inexpensive to boot. The number of organic bakeries, craft breweries, natural wine bars and house charcuterie options pointed to the fact that there's far more to this town than small-plates tasting menus in converted warehouses on the waterfront.
And to prove that point, for Saturday lunch we had booked a small plates tasting menu in a converted warehouse on the waterfront. To be fair, it's more or less impossible to escape Rene Redzepi's influence in this town; I lost count of the amount of times I read "ex-Noma" on a restaurant's menu or website, to the extent it became a kind of running joke. But Amass was to be my last deliberate go at this kind of thing, and if I still left this meal with more questions than answers, desperate for a kebab and with a renewed hatred of lovage, well, at least I could say I gave it my best shot.
The first thing to do, in this stunning cavernous room with its grand views of the Refshaleøn wetlands, is to order a drink. The barrel-aged Negroni is something almost approaching a cliché in trendy London circles (they do a very good one at Pidgin a restaurant you should visit as soon as you possibly can for that reason and so many others), but this version was superbly balanced and incredibly good, and tasted even better whilst nosing around their kitchen garden in the springtime sun.
Back inside, and without much fanfare or overture - in fact without even so much as a bowl of nuts, never mind the series of exquisite snacks that are presented to introduce the tasting menu at, say, Fera at Claridge's - the lunch began. First up, a bowl of silky smooth chicken liver parfait topped with "Seville orange skin" and dusted with black pepper. A tried and tested flavour combination, and one used to great effect here; in fact the paté itself was right up there with the classic Heston Blumenthal "Meat Fruit" at Dinner.
House bread was a fermented potato cake, piping hot from the oven, and an interesting "butter" containing spiced shredded celeriac (yes, really) which was just as strange as it sounds but still rather enjoyable. My nana used to make potato cakes, and had she been using a real wood-fired oven I'm sure they would have turned out just as good as this. I think she used to serve them with margarine and Marmite though, not spiced celeriac butter.
There was a lot to like about this bowl of raw (or at least ceviche-style) pollack, enoki mushrooms and sweet potato in nasturtium vinegar, even if at the same time there was very little to love. Fresh and invigorating, with a clever broth boasting just the right balance of vegetal sweetness and gentle acidity, it tasted like the kind of thing that would bring many positive health benefits. The problem is that I go to restaurants to eat delicious, unhealthy things and feel guilty about it later, not to have my shakras realigned.
Similarly this dish of carrots and salted goats cheese, which was clean and refined and delicate and all the other words you'd hope to have associated with a plate of carrots and salted goats cheese but really, in the end that was all it was. Some carrots (sweet and firm, right on the line between raw and cooked) draped over some citrussy cheese.
A main course of pork neck was far more to my greedy tastes. Slow cooked to a kind of sausagey tenderness and finished with a smoky char from the grill (perhaps the Big Green Egg we saw lurking out back) it was dressed in a "Grilled bitter greens" sauce that tasted so rich with umami I thought they must have added parmesan cheese, like you would in pesto. But no, they insisted there was no cheese involved, just a lot of complex techniques and many different foraged vegetables.
The pescatarian alternative was this pretty pile of flowers and greens, underneath which was a perfectly cooked fillet of Brill. The fish itself had a beautiful meaty texture, and the buttery glaze gave it the appearance and taste of the finest Dover Sole. Which, of course, as anyone who's ever had really good Dover Sole will tell you, means this fish was very good indeed.
Roasted Tea Ice Cream took a bit of getting used to, as the tea they'd chosen to make the ice cream with was so strong and powerfully smoked it was a bit like eating frozen ash. But once the initial shock wore off this was an exciting and unusual dessert, the ice cream being flawlessly smooth and the bits of chewy dried citrus like chunks of Haribo. This is a good thing, in case you weren't sure.
With some (unremarkable and quite dry) "Brown Butter Coffee Cakes" came some blueberry jam, very nice although it really was needed to stop the cakes sticking to the roof of your mouth. "Coffee Graham Cracker" was good though, little square sandwiches of coffee cream topped with (I think) caramel.
From the digestif menu I spotted "Amass Whiskey Cream - ask Dave for %" so obviously had to order it. And boy am I glad I did; it was a gorgeous thing, rich with the three pleasure points of alcohol, cream and whisky, and a luxurious thickness in the mouth. Oh, and Dave said the ABV was "about 40%" so that's good enough for me.
So there we are. A fun afternoon, and a pleasant lunch, just one that was - very much like Noma in fact - technically impressive rather than consistently rewarding. I didn't leave Amass hungry, or even disappointed as such, just with a vague feeling of missing out on what I generally go to restaurants to find - fat and flavour, fun and fireworks. At just over £100 a head (I can't work out the price exactly as we swapped and changed from the tasting options and ended up with something in between the cheapest and 2nd cheapest) it's certainly a lot cheaper than Noma, and to that end if New Nordic is your bag then this, Noma's little brother (they'll probably hate me for saying), would suit you down to your single-herd dry-aged leather boots.
But also much like Noma, there's something about Amass that sticks with you. Whether it's the cheerful enthusiasm of the staff (the sommelier who talked us through a succession of increasingly bonkers natural wines from increasingly huge bottles deserves a special mention), the brutalist cool of the dining room, the theatre of the open kitchen manned by a troupe of chefs with so much facial hair it was like having your lunch cooked by The Cousins Itt. It's undeniably a very, very cool place to eat. And if that's the kind of thing that you want from your restaurants - and there's no reason why it shouldn't be - then you'll have a great time here. Me, I'm still undecided. Maybe I'll go back to Copenhagen one more time to make absolutely sure.
P.S. Buy my app!