Tuesday, 25 April 2017
There's a small (and it has to be said, sadly dwindling) group of restaurants in London which all offer a tasting menu (that is at least 4 courses, plus nibbles) for under £50 at dinner. I'm almost afraid to list them here in case Brexit-fuelled inflation makes a liar of by the time you read this, but at the time of print places like Picture (Marylebone and Fitzrovia), the Dairy in Clapham Common and the Manor just down Clapham High Street can all do a very - VERY - good multi-course dinner for the same price most places charge for lunch, and all come thoroughly recommended.
Hoping to join this exalted company is Anglo, a starkly trendy little spot just off Leather Lane in Farringdon, who are to be commended at the very least for offering an extraordinary amount of courses - ten if you include all the snacks - for £45. By anyone's standards this is a very decent price point, and it's this generosity of spirit - not to mention the lovely front of house - that went some way to cushioning some of the mistakes in the cooking, of which I'm afraid there were more than a couple.
It all started off well enough, though. "Mushroom & cep custard" was an interesting pile of sliced raw mushrooms, dusted with some kind of mushroom powder I think, hiding a little scoop of mushroom cream. With some good powerful flavours going on, and nicely seasoned, this was a great start.
Similarly this "burnt leek tartlet", a supremely delicate puff pastry casing containing a layer of savoury leek powder. I love things like this - a clever cheffy technique used to impressive effect, not just visually impressive but tasting great too, the powder collapsing in the mouth like candy floss into a thick, umami-rich paste.
I loved this, too, a layer of dashi gel resting on top of a few chunks of squid. The gel was just solid enough to hold its shape without being offputting, and the squid had a lovely fresh seafood flavour. Presentation was a bit odd, perhaps - thanks to the dashi being a very similar colour to the ceramic it was served in, it looked like you were being served an empty bowl at first - but still, clever stuff.
Anglo's excellent sourdough is served with something called "yeast butter", which I can best describe as being a bit like a kind of whipped Dairylea. Sorry if that doesn't do it justice, but there it is. London restaurants have had a worrying habit recently of adding ingredients to their bread & butter courses to make them as outrageously moreish as possible - great if you have the space for it, not so great if you don't have the biggest appetite in town and don't want to fill up before the main courses arrive. If you've managed to leave any of the Dairy's bone marrow butter, or the lamb fat-brushed bread at Perilla, then you're a better man than me.
White asparagus with duck egg was decent, but if I'm being brutally honest, not much more than the sum of its parts. I've never completely got the point of white asparagus; I know they go mad for it in France and Spain and I'm sure the very best examples are wonderful, but, well, so far I've always preferred the usual green. It could have all done with a bit more seasoning, too, especially the yolks.
Lack of seasoning was also the main issue afflicting the cod "Wellington". Good on paper perhaps, but a dollop of caviar was nowhere near enough salt to lift this from being a bland lump of watery fish wrapped in slimy seaweed, and I'm afraid it all ended up being rather unpleasant. A shame, really, because at the core of this dish is probably quite a good idea in need of decent execution.
Half of the lamb dish - the pink bit of (I think) roast fillet on the right there hiding beneath a sprig of fennel - was lovely; seasoned well, with a great texture and accompanied by some soft bits of artichoke. Unfortunately also on the same plate was a rock-solid-dry piece of slower-cooked (probably - look I'm just covering my back here) shoulder, underseasoned and borderline inedible. I did eat it, because I was hungry, but it wasn't very nice. There aren't really any good excuses I could come up with why a restaurant in London in 2017 shouldn't be able to properly serve lamb, so I won't try. This shouldn't have happened.
I did enjoy, however, this next course of cheese and onion mixture melting over a slice of house malt loaf, but then show me a person who doesn't like a bit of posh cheese on toast and I'll show you a person who's given up on life. This went down very well.
And then. Lemon curd and horseradish. I'll say that again, in case you think perhaps my spellchecker is playing up. Lemon. And. Horseradish. I don't want to be one of those people who turn their noses up at genuine innovation just because there's an easy amount of outrage to be wrung from it, but really, this use of savoury ingredients in desserts has just gone too far. Lemon curd - sweet, citrussy, soft - does not bloody go with bitter horseradish, it's as simple as that. It was like eating a cake that someone had dropped on the floor in the pub, and was genuinely horrible.
After washing our mouths out with Folle Blanche, we gamely carried on to the next course, chocolate and yoghurt, which was (fortunately) perfectly fine. Nothing groundbreaking or even particularly interesting, but pretty to look at and at least not containing any parsnip or yam or anything.
Then finally, a pressed coil of apple, slightly on the sour side but not overly troublingly so, and a dollop of Earl Grey ice cream which I quite enjoyed in a sort of ash-y kind of way but which my friend really struggled with. Maybe she was still trying to swill the remaining horseradish out of her system.
There was clearly plenty to criticise at Anglo, then, and indeed I have done. It's worth stressing that there was plenty to enjoy too - some courses were clearly worth the asking price, and things like the leek tartlet, the bread course and, well, one half of the lamb dish would be easy enough to recommend by themselves. The problem is that, in the evening at least, it's all or nothing, and I'm afraid to reach these treats you are forced to swallow the medicine of horseradish and lemon, and slimy cod roll, and other oddnesses. It's all a bit uneven, and unnerving.
And it's for this reason I'm afraid I struggle to wholeheartedly recommend Anglo. Their hearts may be in the right place and they may be one of the few restaurants in London offering a tasting menu for under £50, but even at that price I just didn't find enough to enjoy. Of course, if the idea of lemon and horseradish or the rest of it doesn't turn your stomach then there's every chance you could go and have the meal of your life. I'm not here to tell you what you should do, just what I would do. And I can't see myself going back.
Monday, 24 April 2017
To find a location as utterly unlikely for a restaurant as Sparrow, I have to reach far back into the mists of time to when, in a remarkably prescient bit of property development, the old Bethnal Green Town Hall was converted into a 5-star hotel and played host to Nuno Mendes' Viajante. Even now, Cambridge Heath is not an area of town you'd happily stroll around after sunset; back then (this being 2010), it was even more spicy, the route from the station involving a rather intimidating walk past boarded-up car mechanics and a strip club. Actually, I think that might still be there. But now, with Bethnal Green and Paradise Garage to the south, and the Marksman and Morito to the West along Hackney Road, it no longer feels like too much a weird place to go for your dinner.
With that in mind, I have a feeling the brains behind Sparrow know exactly what they're doing. Lewisham may never be the most beautiful borough of London but there are blocks of high-rise residential flats shooting up faster than new season asparagus, and excellent transport links (I'm beginning to sound like a bloody estate agent) mean that even if there isn't anywhere obvious to meet for a pre-dinner drink (though the Wetherspoons does a good selection of craft beers) you can at least have a cocktail in town before jumping on the DLR.
Still, though, it's a bit of a shock to the system when you first see the place. Beneath the brutalist gaze of the Lewisham Shopping Centre, on what is essentially a small part of the A20/A21 gyratory, next to four lanes of traffic, is not where too many people would think of placing a Modern British restaurant, and yet there it is, nervous and trembling as the lorries and buses roll past. Inside, fortunately, is a little less like a bus stop than first appearances would suggest, but the large, unadorned windows offer little shield from the visuals of eating on a slip-road, and, when the front door opens, there's little protection from the audio either.
The food, though, is good. Mushroom and courgette bruchettas are hearty Italianette fare, nicely seasoned and with a bit of goat's cheese on top to lift them.
Brown shrimp and kohlrabi salad was lovely too, colourful and crunchy and with a salty-citrussy dressing that bound it all together beautifully.
Best of the small plates though was soft-boiled eggs with pork and anchovy relish, an incredibly clever and umami-rich little snack that was that rarest of things - genuinely enjoyable and (as far as I know) genuinely innovative, like nothing much I'd tried before. It wasn't just the relish itself that impressed (which was a bit like a chunky bagna cauda) but the quality of the eggs (just look at that yolk) and the little wisps of crispy shallots which added a lovely touch of texture. A perfect little dish, and one that would not be at all out of place on the menu at St John, where the Sparrow team cut their teeth.
I'm not the world's biggest risotto fan (you've cooked some rice, well done) so the fact I enjoyed this next dish as much as I did probably means that anyone pre-disposed to bowls of al-dente rice would be head over heels with it. As, indeed, seemed the rest of my table.
And finally from the smaller plates, fried chicken "tulips" with satay sauce. I'm not sure what was tulip-like about it, it seemed like a normal supreme to me, and the satay sauce was fine, but familiar to the point of ready-meal-sachet. Also, the breadcrumb(?) coating on the chicken needed a lot more seasoning; it was pretty bland, and compared to what had come before, strangely unadventurous. I mean, fried chicken and satay sauce? Who cares?
In fact much the same criticisms - a slightly clumsy approach matched with rather unadventurous ingredients - could be levelled at most of the meaty dishes. There wasn't much wrong with the way this pork belly was cooked - the skin was a bit chewy but seasoned properly, and the flesh was nice and moist - it just felt a bit like the kind of thing you've seen a thousand times before and pubs up and down the country. Harissa is not a particularly inspiring accompaniment either.
"Malt duck" sounded intriguing enough on paper but turned out to be a fairly standard roast leg of duck (not sure what was supposed to be malty about it), with a saggy skin and a couple of bits of braised chicory. Fine, you know, but straightforward bordering on plain.
And there was certainly plenty of this next dish, but again, we couldn't tell what was "bang bang" about it, just that it was a huge lump of underseasoned (and pretty underflavoured) cow that none of us could really be bothered to finish. A couple of sweaty bits of aubergine rolling around the bottom of the bowl weren't enough to distract us, either.
Desserts were fine, but call me a cynical jaded food blogger but when I see panacotta and chocolate cake on a menu it just makes me think that somebody on pastry wants an easy life.
Cheeses were good, though - particularly the Isle of Mull cheddar which had an almost Comté-like complexity of flavour.
OK so, the larger meaty mains and the desserts were a bit disappointing, and I can't give them too much of an easy ride for that - these did, after all, constitute the bulk of the meal. But enough went well with the smaller plates that made me think that if Sparrow concentrate on where their strengths lie - namely lighter dishes where vegetables are the main ingredients - then they'll very soon hit upon a winning formula. The up and downs of this brave new little restaurant are, I'm sure, just teething pains of a kitchen who haven't quite figured out what their audience is, and are trying to be all things to all people. Unfortunately for them, there's no template set for a Modern British restaurant on a dual-carriageway flyover in Lewisham; trailblazing ain't easy.
So I wish them all the best for the next crucial few months, and, simply for having the sheer brass balls to open anything here at all, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt on the final score. No, of course they're not perfect, but there's a very good chance that one day they might be at the very least a great deal better, and for that reason Londoners - and in particular anyone local to this bizarre chunk of concrete jungle in SE13 - have a lot to look forward to.
Our meal at Sparrow was kindly organised by the PR and we didn't pay.
Thursday, 13 April 2017
I have a rule that I only write about one restaurant in a group. Generally, no matter how accomplished the second or third branch is, with so many of the same dishes appearing and very often so many of the same staff being involved in all sites, there just isn't enough new material to cover. For example, all Patty & Bun are good; all Tonkotsu are good; all Wright Bros are good. All Hawksmoor and Goodman are good (man). But despite the odd variation in the menu they're all good because they have a certain core set of dishes they can produce consistently and to a high standard, and that doesn't make for particularly interesting copy.
But sometimes, rules are there to be broken. Sometimes a restaurant group comes along so profoundly different to everything that has come before, so groundbreaking in its approach to the business of eating out, that if they opened a hundred branches serving exactly the same menu I would still find enough new things to say about them in a hundred new blog posts. This has only happened twice in my time living in London. First was the Meatwagon/MeatEasy/MeatLiquor family tree, each stage of which along the way to national domination I covered with ecstatic burger-geek glee because it really was that important - an obsessive knowledge of what makes a good burger, matched with an irresistible funky dive-bar aesthetic and bolshy attitude. MeatLiquor, even its detractors must acknowledge, changed absolutely everything.
And now, there's Bao. I'm not about to make any grand predictions about how influential this pair of cool-as-a-cucumber Taiwanese snack bars will end up being; that's not my job, nor even, at this stage, is it important. But I can tell you that I feel the same about the two branches of Bao as I did about MeatWagon all those years ago - that this is a supremely talented bunch of people with the means to do exactly what they want to do, and a meal there is an experience so utterly and consistently rewarding that if it's not one of your favourite restaurants in London you haven't eaten there yet, simple as that.
The joy of Bao isn't just about the food - these things never are. The clean, modernist lines of the interiors of both branches compliment the exact, unfussy dishes served in them, to the extent that the whole operation - certainly including the smiley staff in their clean white labcoats - feels like a kind of experimental art project. I'm sure things like the "chicken chop with soy cured egg" or "beef cheek and tendon nuggets" would still taste great served under a motorway sliproad, but in these zen-like spaces they really shine.
There is not a single item on the Bao menu that you wouldn't want to eat over and over again until you did yourself an injury, so choosing a lunch for one is pure torture. I'd recommend going with at least one friend, so you can put the little mark in as many boxes on the menu as possible (the Bao ordering system is a little paper form and a pencil, meaning you can keep track of what you've ordered and - more importantly - add to it again and again when you realise what a great time you're having). But most people will probably start with the titular Bao, fluffy little bright-white rice flour buns filled with, alternatively, softly sweet pork belly, beef shortrib, umami-rich blackened cod and a nugget of breadcrumbed daikon which makes about as good a case for the vegetarian option as you could possibly imagine.
In any other restaurant I'd describe "Cep broth, duck breast" as a "must order" except such advice is going to be useless at Bao when everything is brilliant. It is an astonishingly lovely thing though, a salty, earthy mushroom consommé matched with a couple of slices of pink, gamey duck breast, and to miss out on it would be a terrible crime.
Similarly this salad of raw prawn and potato, which is full of surprising colours and textures and seasoned precisely enough that each element presented at its absolute best. I'm not normally a fan of raw prawn, so for me to want to polish off a second plate of this as soon as the first had disappeared is a real achievement.
I can't imagine a situation when you wouldn't want to order this dish of soy-cured pork loin with ginger and chives, either. Beautifully soft and sweet slices of pork, soaked in a gentle soy dressing, it's as blissful to eat as it is attractive to look upon. Another must-order.
Of course, it goes without saying that you can't eat at Bao without trying the fried chicken, one of the few non-Bao items carried over from the Soho menu. A generous supreme of chicken in a glorious bubbly crust, it comes with a remarkable cured egg yolk which acts as a kind of innovative dipping sauce. Whether this is a Taiwanese staple I was hitherto unaware of or whether this was entirely Bao's idea, it's still a very special thing.
Pork "bak kwa" turned out to be three, faintly transluscent geometrically-exact squares of dry-cured pork, served with a fruity chilli dipping sauce. Now, there may be some people out there - members of certain religions perhaps, or the terminally insane - who for whatever reason cannot enjoy squares of sweet-salty cured pork dipped in chilli sauce, but I am certainly not one of them. And so this dish is, also, unmissable.
Even the drinks are borne of true invention and an attention to detail bordering on exhausting. This pretty thing, the "Yakult float", is I think a yuzu mixture topped with a yoghurt mousse squirted out of one of those cheffy squirty canister things (no I don't know what they're called), and feels like it's doing you good as well as tasting great. So you definitely have to order that, too.
Do you really need any more reasons to visit? How about the "crispy cabbage", a brittle leaf of fried greenery with a smooth-as-silk cream dipping sauce, which explodes in the mouth with salt and vegetal flavour. Can you imagine a world in which you went for a meal at Bao and didn't order the crispy cabbage? Could you look your friends in the eye afterwards? Could you learn to live with yourself? No, thought not.
So. If everything is brilliant, as I've said (which it is), then how on earth do you choose what to order? I have no easy answer to that, except to say that in the long run it won't be a problem because I can't see anyone just visiting Bao once. This is a restaurant to worship and obsess over. Its food, unique to this location and so completely unlike anywhere else, is, without exaggeration, something approaching perfect in almost every regard, from quality of ingredients to refinement of presentation. Service is unfailingly warm and attentive, and you enjoy all this in a dining room so beautiful if it were emptied of bars, stools and customers it could be used as an art gallery.
In short, restaurants like this do not come along very often. If I'm right (and I'm usually not), then it's just a matter of time before London goes Bao-mad. It may be copied, parodied or ripped-off. Somewhere called Bun or Boa will open in Soho serving slightly wonky versions of the famous Bao dishes. There will be the inevitable backlash as people too important to queue (pro-tip: you can book downstairs at Fitzrovia) dismiss it all as a stupid hipster fad and pretend they prefer Wagamama. All these things may happen. But there will always be the original and best, doing its thing so well, being brilliant again and again.
You may notice a couple of items on my first visit were comped - that was very kind of them, so I just left an extra big tip instead. I think they deserve it, don't you?
Friday, 7 April 2017
Beware of irony. That's my advice for restaurateurs. Your white-hot idea for a 70s dinner party popup with Babycham to start, or searing "take" on corned beef hash and apple crumble school dinners may have you and your friends splitting their sides, but that joke will never translate to the plate. Food is never funny - surprising and delightful, at its best, yes - but never funny. The only fun anyone's ever going to get from "funny" food is reading about the whole car crash afterwards. And for that, I'll point you towards Marina O'Loughlin's evisceration of Gregg Wallace's catastrophic nostalgia-fest Gregg's Table (RIP), where it turned out that - shockingly - paying restaurant prices for boiled beef and carrots or "canned" fruit salad with Carnation is rather more hilarious in concept than in reality. Beware of irony.
Duck Duck Goose just about avoids the worst pitfalls of the "ironic restaurant" thanks to much of the menu being at least somewhat edible, but the worrying spectre of someone's smirking "take" on high street Cantonese hangs over much of proceedings. I worry, for example, about a dish described as "prawn toast revisited". If I was going to give the DDG guys the benefit of the doubt, I'd say they had simply taken a staple of deep-fried takeaway starters and attempted to upgrade it with proper fresh seafood and cheffy presentation. Fair enough. But then why do I get the impression the dish is more parody than tribute - greasy and thick, with a clumsy tamarind and mayonnaise dressing and mound of annoying unseasoned frisée lettuce dumped on top? I'd almost prefer the time-honoured original.
A trio of condiments further confused matters. A homemade (presumably) "take" (there's that word again) on plum sauce was fine - sweet with a certain tartness - yet hardly much of an improvement over anything out of a bottle. Pickles were little more than cubes of mystery veg in chilli-spiked syrup - again slightly too sweet for my tastes. And miso mustard was fine, but, well, not very Chinese.
All of which would have been fine if the main event - the Duck Duck (no Goose, which is Saturdays only) - had enough to recommend it. Unfortunately (for DDG), good Cantonese roast duck is not a rarity in London, and so a good number of people sitting down to this under-rendered pile of Donald, with its grey flesh and chewy skin, will be thinking about the superlative examples at places such as Gold Mine in Bayswater, where furthermore the bill (no pun intended) will be half the price. Cubes of pork belly alternated between "dry" and "OK", as did char siu, and soaked in the sweet soy dressing it was all faintly enjoyable, but the disparity between the ungainly technique and presentation and the eye-watering price point (£31) was jarring.
As if that wasn't enough, eating someone's ironic idea of Chinese food at Duck Duck Goose also involves suffering under some of the most excruciatingly affected "service" I've ever encountered. Our waiter had the weirdest manner, cracking strange self-conscious jokes with every dish brought, offering dreadful puns and grinning through awkward buffoonery between times, that it became something approaching mild torture. We ended up dreading every encounter, shrinking further into our chairs as yet another embarrassing-uncle-at-a-wedding witticism was offered, so much that the evening ended up an exercise in avoiding any interaction at all. Perhaps we would have stayed for dessert if the idea of ordering it wasn't so terrifying. But then again, perhaps not.
Because even without the gurning service, I don't think I would ever be in danger of going back to Duck Duck Goose. It's not that any of the food was terrible, it's just that it doesn't seem to answer any questions that Londoners could conceivably be asking. If you want duck done well on a budget, there's Gold Mine or Four Seasons or Royal China or a number of other spots in town. If you want Chinese-flavoured street food then get yourself to Kerb and try Sheng High or one of the little noodle stalls in Chinatown. If you do really want to pay over the odds for reimagined, knowing "takes" on traditional Cantonese fare then... well, then there's Duck Duck Goose. But I can't for the life of me imagine why you would.