Thursday, 11 August 2016
Scarfe's Bar, Holborn
A few things caught my eye about the new Scarfe's Bar menu at Rosewood London, amidst the many handfuls of press releases that drop into my inbox every day. Firstly, and fairly unusually for a 5-star hotel bar menu, it was entirely Indian, full of things like pani puri and lamb chops and Keralan curry, all very tempting if you're anything like me but perhaps not quite the kind of thing usually pitched to the international business travellers and families of American tourists that normally occupy these places. I wonder what a jetlagged conference attendee would make of it, wandering in bamboozled between presentations for anything so familiar as a burger or steak & chips.
Also, the Rosewood happens to be about two doors down from the office, and so the chance of another decent Indian spread being a possible contender for my lunch money was a very tempting prospect indeed. In the past few years, if you've been following this blog you'll be very aware, the Holborn/Covent Garden area has gone from a complete restaurant desert to boasting a fair few genuine gems, and since Dishoom hit on their own particular winning formula it seems Londoners have swiftly come around to the idea that Indian food, with its small sharing plates and fast service, (see also Talli Joe) is the ideal work lunch option.
Scarfe's Bar is a pretty bloody great work lunch option, and yes I know I was invited and they were probably trying a bit harder than usual on a press visit (though I'm 100% convinced bar manager Giovanni Spezziga would make anyone's visit a joy), but there are some things - certainly the stunning décor, almost definitely food of this quality - that you just can't simply turn on when there's a chance there may be a review in it. Sat in a plush, soft-furnished booth, surrounded by the marble columns and polished wood of this extremely grand (and expensively refurbished) hotel, our lunch began with "Tangy potato, semolina shell, cumin cooler", a Westernised name for what was an extremely authentic South Indian snack - pani puri. They were the best of their kind I'd had since the version at Gymkhana, if you've ever been to Gymkhana you'll know that's the very highest of high praise.
Hog jowl and grean pea "patties" with tamarind dip - samosa-style things only with a slightly more doughy pastry - had a fantastic dense, spicy flavour and were nice and moist.
This bowl contained a huge number of moist, plump langoustine tails in a gentle creamy curry sauce which on first taste seemed quite bland but as the flavours developed managed to evolve into something quite complex and enjoyable. This is the kind of dish it's very difficult to get right - if the sauce isn't properly balanced or if the seafood isn't treated well it can be a complete disaster, but fortunately we were in safe hands. Definitely one to recommend.
As was this chicken tikka, unbelievably moist and with a smoky touch from the tandoor, soaked in a fragrant saffron and mace marinade. Combined with the bright green coriander chutney it was the absolute best any bit of chicken tikka from an Indian restaurant could be - as you might expect from a head chef (Palash Mitra) ex- of the venerated Cinnamon Club in Westminster.
The only slight mis-step in the meal was this duck masala omelette which was a bit large for a starter and looked a bit clumsily thrown-together. I'm never going to be 100% on board with the idea of a large slice of cold avocado sat on top of hot edamame beans either, but I believe the omelette itself was interestingly spiced and had plenty of duck so that's something.
But really I'll forgive them not everything being perfect when the things that are good are so very good. Butter chicken was the finest I've had the good fortune to eat in a very long time, more chunks of that perfectly moist and charcoal-fringed bird with every possible flavour point in the sauce - dairy, tomato, spicing - balanced to perfection. This was world class butter chicken.
And the other main was hardly less accomplished. Great big chunks of light, bouncy paneer, gently crisped on the edges and drizzled with ghee, made for the kind of paneer experience I'd almost forgotten existed. It was enough to remind us that the stuff isn't just a vehicle for sauce, but done properly has a rich, rewarding joy all of its own. The thick, almost chocolatey daal it came with was just a lovely bonus.
As an Indian restaurant, it could perhaps be argued that despite their very obvious skills in the kitchen the menu at Scarfe's Bar is playing it safe. There are plenty of Indian dishes familiar to Londoners, some of the more unusual items (e.g. the pani puri) have been explained long-hand so as not to confuse any conference gerbils, and in fact should any of said conference gerbils really object to some of the best Indian food you can eat in WC1 then there's even a club sandwich on offer, albeit one made with chicken tikka and masala fries.
But this stuff isn't being served in Wembley or Southall - even though it would stand up there amidst the competition perfectly well. It's instead arriving at a confident £19 for 2 courses, 30 seconds walk from Holborn tube, and as such is a remarkably brave and unusual choice for Rosewood who presumably could have made a very nice profit serving the usual crowdpleasing salads and fries and relied on the undemanding business crowd to lap it up. They haven't done that, and their actions are a statement of intent and challenge to anywhere else thinking that hotel bar menus are just something to soak up the booze on the expense account. I hope it does very well; other hotel chains would do well to watch closely.
I was invited to Rosewood London. Scarfe's Bar stands a very good chance of being in the next version of the app, but meantime see where else is good in Holborn.