Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Star Inn at Harome, Yorkshire


Though I'm sure this part of the world has its charms at any time of the year and whatever the weather, I've been fortunate enough to experience perfect summer sun each time I've had cause to travel to Yorkshire. For the Black Swan our meal was preceded by a stroll through the surrounding valleys, spotting a few of the animals that were to appear on our plates that evening. And in Leeds a couple of years later, though most of the day was spent on a train or in that strange dining room on the top floor of a clothes shop, we did have time for a pint outside Whitelock's before the journey home, soaking up the rays as we debated the merits or otherwise of our lunch.


And so too last weekend, where a long-awaited tasting menu at Yorkshire super-gastropub The Star Inn at Harome happened to coincide with the hottest April day for 70 years, a fact not lost on the hungry group of people (myself included) climbing the huge hill to Wombleton on our way to lunch. But there's nothing like a long walk up a hill in 27C to work up an appetite, and once walking boots had been swapped for high heels (not mine) and a bottle of fizzy rosé opened in the Star's back garden, we were ready to get stuck in.


First of the courses was a baked oyster covered in shaved (though strangely not melted - I think the cheese was grated over the already-baked oyster) Parmesan and a kind of wild garlic pesto. I've never not preferred a raw oyster to a cooked one, but this was still very nice, using good lean oysters and just the right amount of cheese and garlic to season them.


Next, one of my favourite things in the whole world - beef consommé - here poured into a bowl containing fresh horseradish, pickled beetroot and charred miniature onions. The vegetables were well chosen and well cooked, but of course we were mainly here for one thing, and that was a big Bovril-y hit of glossy beef soup, which was everything I needed it to be.


Another cracking dish was this of octopus, tender and touched with a slight char from the coals, in a rich, pitch-black Venere risotto, dotted with cavolo nero from the garden, dill, nasturtium, lovage, chorizo and who knows what else. In fact if I was going to pick fault I'd say we could have done with losing a few ingredients (particulary the raw lovage which tends to beat everything its put up against to oblivion) as there was more than enough to enjoy in the octopus and risotto alone, but I suppose there's no point having a kitchen garden if you don't use it.


Then two foie gras dishes arrived simultaneously, our lovely waiter (more on whom later) happy to swap out a couple of the "signature Star Inn" foie, black pudding and apple for something from the shorter Garden menu which sounded more intriguing. And yes, although the signature "posh full English" (if you like) was immensely enjoyable, not least because the foie dissolved in the mouth like meaty butter and the sugar-coated apple was a perfect foil for it, the simpler yet slightly more experimental pairing of foie with warm spiced pineapple and cool cep ice cream was even more successful, garnering universal praise from our table.


Mains weren't disappointing exactly, just not quite up to the standard of what had come before. Turbot was lacking a bit in flavour (I'm told the older, larger animals taste better so this could have been a young-un), and an "oyster velouté" was subdued to the point of invisibility, although a cute little "wild garlic butter pie" it came with was warm and comforting.


And a slightly mealy venison loin played second fiddle to a braised faggot, plump with tasty offal, which really should have been the star of the show, especially once drenched in a sauce of fermented black garlic. Now I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had a really good venison dish - it always seems to be a bit of a characterless protein, despite 'game' being my favourite category of food overall - so maybe this was just a personal thing and someone else would have found far more to rave about.


Despite the odd mis-step, though, we were enjoying ourselves, and in an effort to make the lunch stretch as far as possible into the afternoon (and also because we like cheese), availed ourselves of the cheeseboard. Don't ask me to remember everything that arrived (the matching wine measures were extremely generous) but Yorkshire Blue and Stinking Bishop were as good as they usually are, and all served at a perfect temperature.


I'm willing to believe there are people in the world who would not enjoy a Pontefract Cake Soufflé with salted caramel sauce and banana ice cream, but I am certainly not one of those people, and I thought the combination of the sweet banana and faintly bitter liquorice in the soufflé was seriously impressive, an experiment that very much worked. I am told, though I didn't try it myself, that the other dessert, "Whipped Brillat-Saverin with Flavours of Yorkshire Curd Tart" was equally experimental but less successful, although full marks for imagination. (I accidentally took a photo when my camera was on the table, but I quite like the effect so I've left it in)


Moving from our cosy little private dining room (the Star is full of cosy little nooks, as building that have been around for about 700 years generally do) back out to the glorious sun of the garden, the afternoon soon dissolved, as it generally tends to do with this particular bunch of people, into spirit-soaked, alcoholic oblivion. I notice from the itemised bill that one of us was the lucky recipient of a £26 shot of 15yo Glenfarclas while two others had to make do with a £6 Kilchoman Sanaig apiece, and did somewhat less well out of the equally-shared bill. And I have no idea who ordered the Mini Cheddars. Still, the point is, a marvellous time was had by all, thanks in no small part as well to our fantastic Spanish (I think) waiter who was a model of his profession and coped with every one of our increasingly lively requests with charm, knowledge and more than a little patience.


In the grand scheme of things, perhaps The Star Inn isn't quite up there with the very best country restaurants I've been lucky enough to visit over the last few years. You've probably come to the same conclusion yourself by this point. But at £120/head for a full afternoon of fun, seven courses and enough quality booze to knock an elephant out, it's certainly good value and I'd be very surprised indeed if you booked a meal here and didn't have just as much fun as we did, booze or no booze, sun or no sun.

8/10

We stayed at Plumpton Court which was great value, very comfortable and did have a well-stocked bar before we arrived. I'm sure they'll have restocked by the time you get there, though.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Colony Grill Room, Mayfair


My evening at the Colony Grill Room, the restaurant at the swanky Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, did not begin well. Being a few minutes early (I'm always early) and soaking wet thanks to the weather being very April, I thought I'd pass the time by taking a few shots of the grand entrance hallway, which leads through the American Bar towards the restaurant at the back. Now I admit, thanks to the weather, I was looking even more scruffy and unsuitable than usual but I was still taken aback by the speed and ferocity of hotel concierge's reaction to my clicking.


"Sir! No photos. You can't take photos of the guests."

"I honestly wasn't, I'm just taking some of this hallway here, you can't make out any faces."

"No, you can't take photos. People come here for a reason."

I wasn't sure what he meant by that. I should hope they did come here for a reason, and weren't just lost on the way to Debenhams. "Well, I'm here for a reason - you invited me to review your restaurant."

"No photos in the lobby."


Anyway, their place, their rules, though you'd wonder how a 5-star hotel in London survives at all with a no-photo rule in their lobby in the age of Instagram. If we follow even a handful of the same people, I'm sure your feed will be just as heavily populated with the gleaming black & white Claridge's foyer, or that grand marble staircase at the Rosewood. Isn't showing off on social media what hotel lobbies are for?


Fortunately, once seated in a plush booth in the Colony Grill Room, things were slightly less fraught. Oysters may not be the fiercest test of a restaurants skill set, but they were lean and sprightly things, the Carlingford Lough and the smaller Claires both carefully opened and in good condition. I wasn't entirely sure what to do with a few slices of buttered wholemeal Hovis (or similar) they came with, though. House bread (nice crunchy rolls) had already been served. Perhaps someone can enlighten me?


Lobster bisque next, and a very decent example of its kind it was too. Fresh lobster meat and seafood-friendly herbs and veg (chives amongst others) were prettily arranged in the bottom of the bowl before the thick soup was poured on top. To be brutally honest (and this is after all why you're here) I've had more spectacularly-flavoured bisques elsewhere, but even a fairly humdrum lobster bisque is usually worth the effort, and this was far better than humdrum.


A friend's fried artichokes were enjoyable in pretty much the same way - not spectacular, nothing fancy, timed to just have a bit of crunch on the edges and dressed with a sharp salsa verde, they were familiar and gently rewarding without rewriting any artichoke rulebooks.


Things continued in this vein, pretty much. I don't want to sound like I'm being down on the food at all - it was all objectively perfectly decent stuff, better than your average hotel restaurant and not ludicrously priced considering the location. But I got the same feeling here as I did at most other Corbin & King places, that the food is playing second-fiddle to the swish surroundings and sense of occasion, and that myself and the other diners that evening (mainly older couples and the odd celeb - Marc Almond was on the next table) weren't that interested in having their culinary boundaries pushed. This was calf's liver and bacon, the liver cooked nicely medium-rare and bacon nice and crisp, and was polished off quite happily.


The reason I was here was to try the grilled cheese sandwich - apparently it was National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, and I was told they were particularly proud of their version. I have to say, having tried it, it didn't really do much for me. Perhaps the grated cheddar was deliberately undercooked and chalky - it still looked grated - and perhaps the rather timid colour on the bread was a reaction to the demands of the elderly clientele, but if you're going to go down the American comfort food route you need to commit to it in full, with huge mounds of oozing plastic cheese, crisped up and burned at the edges. Chips were good though, so I'll give them that.


And soon enough desserts were here to lift our spirits. Baked Alaska, flambéed dramatically tableside in kirsch, would have been a bit more enjoyable had the centre not been absolutely rock-solid, although the flavour, once it had been chipped off and sampled, was good.


The Colony had one final trick up its sleeve, though. "Fruit sorbet", ordered mainly because dessert was part of the deal and hardly out of hunger, was quite unexpectedly the most powerfully-flavoured and impressive bit of sorbet work I've had in many years. In fact the last time I can recall sorbet this good it was at Little Barwick House all the way back in 2014, and that I still think about it to this day shows how good that one was. So whoever made the version at the Colony should be very pleased with themselves indeed - give yourself an icy pat on the back.


In the end, I can pick fault with the food as much as I want (and I do want) but as I mentioned before, a slightly less-than-perfect cheese toastie and a less-than-spectacular lobster soup will be of supreme unimportance to the average punter at the Colony Grill. I'm not their target market and that's fine, I can live with that - I wouldn't rush back to the Delaunay or the Wolseley either, other Corbin & King flagships (though of course Zedel is almost perfect, the exception to the rule). But it's clear that what they do very well is own and operate grand, romantic restaurants with an exquisite sense of style and occasion, and they do that very well indeed. Corbin & King are, undoubtedly, fantastic restaurateurs. There's every chance you will love a meal there. Just don't take any photos.

7/10

I was invited to the Colony Grill Room. I know, there's been a bit of a run of invites lately, I'll try and make sure I pay for the next one and do it properly.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Freak Scene, Soho


In a city as large and diverse as London, with a population eager and willing to spend their money on whatever latest food obsession flares up, whether it's pasta or burgers or steamed Taiwanese buns, it's perhaps surprising that genuine blue-sky experimentation, no-holds-barred eccentricity, sheer boggle-eyed madness, is still a relatively rare thing. Yes, in these uncertain times you can understand why familiar comfort food would be an easier sell to investors than anything too, well, weird, but as Londoners avant-garde experimentation and counter-culturalism forms part of our very identity. So why not restaurants? How many places can you point to that are genuinely unleashed, and where nothing has come between the practicalities of running a profit and the sheer unrestrained bedlam of an unconventional chef's raw ideas?


To find the shortest journey between the blueprint and the result, and where the product available to buy is as close as possible to whatever crazy concept the creators first came up with, it's a good idea to turn to street food and popups. Only in the anything-goes environment of the popup, where the stakes are low and failure very much is an option, would anyone discover there was a market for blobs of water thickened with agar, or a pitch-black grilled cheese sandwich made with charcoal bread and Ilchester black cheddar (coloured with carob, apparently). These things are just as likely to leave you with permanent psychological damage than going back for more, but how nice that we live in a city where they're allowed to exist?


One look at the Freak Scene menu and you can see why this place started life as a popup. I can't think of many investors that would be happy to rent a prime central Soho location (where Barrafina used to be, no less) and turn it over to a group of people serving "Caramalised[sic] Foie Gras Lettuce Cups" and "Salmon sashimi 'Pizza' with truffle-ponzu", but it's thanks to the popularity and success of a stint in Farringdon that they now find themselves here at their first proper permanent site, with a mandate to be every bit as unhinged now as they were then.


The first thing that arrived - "Miso Grilled Black Cod Tacos with Sushi Rice and Scorched Red Chilli Salsa" - was an early indication that the needle would be set firmly on "WTF" for at least some of the evening. Individual elements of the dish were fantastic - bubbly-crisp taco casings, top quality miso-glazed black cod (as you might imagine from the man who spent years as the head chef at Nobu), fluffy room-temperature sushi rice you'd be delighted to be served elsewhere under a slice of raw fish. Together, the textures fought rather than complimented each other - particularly the soft fish next to the rice which made them both feel disconcertingly under-cooked - but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find enough to enjoy. Even just for the novelty factor.


Chilli Crab and Avocado Wonton 'Bombs' were relatively more normal insofar as crab and avocado is a tried-and-tested combo that you'd have to really go out of your way to mess up, and the little crisp parcels actually made a perfect delivery system; you just ate them with your fingers like you would cheese on a cracker. Spritzed with fresh lime juice and spiked with red chilli, there was plenty of crab and plenty of flavour, a bit of Asian-fusion fun.


The house chips were intriguingly subtitled "A Thousand Leaves", and turned out to be a kind of Quality Chop layered confit style, and incredibly moreish. I would have preferred a thicker jalapeno mayo - it was a bit difficult to get any kind of coating on the potato which was frustrating - but even so, a lot of work had gone into these and it's basically impossible not to enjoy sticks of flaky potato cake.


Hangar steak tataki salad was the least crazy of the dishes, and probably the most enjoyable. With soft strips of rare-seared beef, coriander, lettuce pomegranate seeds and crisp garlic flakes all soaked in a wonderfully sharp dressing ("onion ponzu" on the menu but I imagine that's not the half of it), it had all the fire and flavour of something from the kitchens at Kiln or Smoking Goat, and as anyone who's been to those places will tell you, that's quite the compliment.


But soon enough we were back in Bonkersville. I think the best way of describing my reaction to it is this: While I do like the fact I live in a city so experimental and diverse a restaurant feels able to sell a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves, and I'm glad that someone somewhere feels that a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves is something that should be served, I'm afraid I am not the target audience for a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves. I just think hot pig and cold seafood should be kept a certain distance from each other. They shouldn't touch.


Finally, and somewhat in contrast to the rather bijou portion sizes up until this point, "Chicken-fried chicken" was a huge leg and thigh portion sat on top of a pile of nuts in a soy-based sauce, and we struggled to finish it. Not because it was inedible, though parts were a bit cotton-woolly (they'd used some kind of double-cooking method, first confit-ing then frying, which I think reduced the moisture content somewhat) but just because there was so much of it. As with much of what had come before, it danced a fine line between exciting and baffling, between experimental and just plain odd, and we found ourselves veering between enjoyment and uncertainty with each mouthful.


But isn't that the point of operations like this? Wouldn't the world be a boring place if there weren't chefs like Scott Hallsworth willing to throw every trick up his sleeve at once into one of the most wilfully esoteric and barmy menus in town, and to hell with what people think? And because of this approach, and even despite it, you'd still have to have a heart of stone not to get something out of Freak Scene - for every challenge like hot pork and cold mussels there's crab wontons or beef tataki salad to retreat back into and calm the nerves. It's all part of the fun.

So although I definitely had issues with Freak Scene, and you're more than likely to have the same, like the raindrop cake or the black cheese toastie surely we can at least be glad this odd little operation exists. A singular vision from an eccentric and fun-loving team, its arrival on Frith Street makes London a more bizarre, and more exciting place, qualities in these uncertain times that are, sadly, increasingly hard to come by. It's not perfect, but it is unique. And more than enough to be proud of.

7/10

I was invited to Freak Scene and didn't see a bill, but a bit of maths tells me it would have been about £40/head with a bottle of wine.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Masala Zone, Soho


Thanks to its conspicuous street-level floor-to-ceiling windows, and central-Soho location, the Marshall Street Masala Zone has been a part of most Londoners' conciousness since it opened in 2001. You won't have missed it if you've ever trotted into town to dinner from Oxford Circus, seemingly always busy no matter what time of day or night, and no doubt you've also seen their posters on the tube escalators advertising curry and rice with a beer or wine for a set price.


So, flashy tourist-trap locations? Posters on the tube? It's no wonder this scenester blogger stayed well clear of Masala Zone. As any self-respecting foodie knows very well, no restaurant within walking distance of Argyll Street that advertises on public transport will be worth anywhere near the prices they charge. No, best leave it for the gullible passing trade and undemanding tourists. All the more space in the queue at Bao for us.


Needless to say, I was completely wrong about Masala Zone. And the fact it took something as credibility-denting as an invite from a PR company to change my mind is just that much more garam masala in the wound. True, the prices are area-appropriate, and there are probably more atmospheric places to eat than a golfish tank squeezed under a hideous faceless concrete estate (the Barbican this ain't), but there's no denying the food here is thoughtfully designed and confidently delivered modern Indian cooking that you'd have to be a real curmugeon - or contrary foodster - not to appreciate.


Of course, if you are one of the aformentioned insufferables, you will no doubt be able to gleefully point out all the places that do all the things that Masala Zone do but slightly better. Yes, scattering the tomato and onion salad over poppadums doesn't achieve much more than soggy poppadums, and probably is a bad idea. Yes, the coriander chutney at Gymkhana is much more powerfully-flavoured. True, the pao bread buns at Bombay Bustle are fluffier and glossier. But all of these things were still polished off with ease - they were still way better than "good enough".


Plus, plenty of the menu at Masala Zone genuinely was amongst the best of its kind I've come across in town. Gol guppa could definitely give the Gymkhana versions a run for their money, the delicate pastry casings holding their shape no matter how much fragrant tamarind water our greedy selves decided to load into them.


And this sprouted lentil salad (vegan, would you believe) contained an intelligent balance of soft and crisp, and plenty of sharp dressing to compliment the pulses. Presented in a precarious tower, it collapsed entertainingly with the prod of a fork, revealing further ingredients such as chopped tomato and coriander.


From the smaller dishes, only Chicken 65 really suffered in comparison to versions elsewhere. Here it was a bit sad, tough and underseasoned, lacking the vibrancy and fire of the dish served at (say) Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting. Still, it wasn't inedible, and itself disappeared soon enough.


Far more consistent - and impressive - were the larger dishes. "Idiappam Seafood Biryani" was a kind of Indian fideuà, plump prawns and squid nestling in a bed of thin rice noodles, lightly doused in an irresistably rich coconut curry sauce, which bound it all together without going sloppy. It was very impressive stuff, and unusual enough that I can't remember seeing anything like it before on an Indian restaurant menu. So full marks for that, too.


The mixed grill (usually chicken tikka, lamb seekh kebabs and lamb chops, as here) is a good control variable for any kitchen with a tandoor, and I'm please to report Masala Zone batted way above the national average with confident spicing, aggressive grilling (meaning the morsels of chicken were just touched with carbon enough to provide a slight crunch) and deliriously bouncy seekh kebabs packing serious chilli heat.


And I should also pay tribute to the Alleppey prawn curry, apparently a Masala Zone classic which matched more fresh prawns with a deeply rewarding coconut/turmeric sauce. This again wouldn't be out of place in any high-end Indian restaurant in town, with luxurious spicing and pinpoint seasoning.


So, consider me schooled. While it's true that thanks to their West End pricing, laminated menus and Aberdeen Angus décor the Masala Zone may scream "tourist trap" to anyone who didn't know better, there's genuine creativity and talent behind the cooking here, and anyone who dismissed it out of hand (that would be me, then) for so long missed out on some very decent Indian meals in a part of town where such things are in desperately short supply. And if some of the sting in the tail has been removed by my not having to pay, then I can only say I'd more than likely go back, and recommend it to others if they were in the area and in the market for some puri and a mixed grill. Clearly they've been doing something right all these years, and deserve to do so for many years more. Long live Masala Zone.

7/10

I was invited to Masala Zone, and didn't pay. The above was for 4 people and probably would have come to about £45 ish a head had we seen a bill.