Friday, 15 June 2018

St. Leonard's, Shoreditch

Looking back over the God knows how many years I've been writing this blog, it seems that my most breathlessly enthusiastic and hyperbolic reviews have been of places that are about more than just great food. Great food is obviously a given - this is after all why you're here - but it's the stories that often turn a great experience into a special one. I'm thinking of Yianni's journey from flipping the best burgers in Britain to opening the industry-altering #meateasy popup in New Cross, the discovery deep in the rolling Lancashire countryside of two women running the platonic ideal of a food pub, or when some Italian food enthusiasts decided to open a tiny no-reservations pasta bar in Borough and it ended up being exactly what thousands of Londoners had been waiting for. It's these stories, the unusual or surprising circumstances leading up to the creation of fantastic food, that lift the whole experience into something else.

The conception of St. Leonards (that sounds like a Catholic order) has, it must be said, very little of the unusual or shocking. It is the simple story of some extremely talented people who, with one popular and successful restaurant - Brunswick House - already under their belts, decide to open another one. They find a medium-sized site recently vacated by the Spanish restaurant Eyre Bros and open it out into a bright, clean space; they hire a phalanx of charming and dedicated front of house staff dressed in smart monochrome to work the floor; and they kit out a vast kitchen with a centrepiece wood- and charcoal-fired hearth, over which hang various tantalising cuts of beef on the bone and tuna collar. And then, finally, they serve some of the most exciting and innovative food London has ever seen.

OK, so, maybe St. Leonards is special after all. Restaurants like this do not come around very often, and nor do they happen by accident. Jackson Boxer and Andrew Clarke have pooled their considerable experience into a menu of such stark, beguiling beauty that if you took it to an open mic poetry night you could read it top to bottom and receive a standing ovation. Certain phrases attack the senses even if you're not exactly sure what they imply - "soy butter", "buckthorn mollases", "tuna bone caramel", "XO crumb", and the less the menu explains, the greater is the desire to discover them for yourself.

Attention to detail - precise, exquisite attention to detail - is everywhere, even when a dish is literally no more than a product of clever sourcing, such as this Noir de Bigorre ham, sliced to order into soft, salty, nutty folds. Noir de Bigorre ham has apparently been produced in the countryside around Lourdes for longer than the Iberico pigs from Spain, and though nothing is likely to beat a top bit of Belotta to my heart any time soon, this certainly gave it a run for its money.

If you're anything like me you will fiercely resist anyone mucking about too much with oysters, and though I have enjoyed the odd baked bivalve in my time - most recently at the short-lived offshoot of Mien Tay Mrs Le's - usually I want nothing more than a squeeze of lemon. But here are St Leonard's dressed Lindisfarne to completely change everyone's mind on the subject. Wild black pepper infused pickling liquor (I mean try not loving that concept, I dare you) and pickled garlic scapes complimented and elevated the lean oyster flesh to create an extraordinary mouthful of fresh, briney sweetness. I never want oysters any other way again.

Then, a cherrystone clam, its shell shining blue like fine Wedgewood pottery, dressed in a smoky, earthy Sichuan peppercorn oil and topped with daintily chopped spring onions. All St Leonard's strengths were on display in this one bit of seafood - the playful use of Asian spices, the interesting and rarely-seen main ingredient, the beautiful and precise presentation.

Some neat oblongs of mackerel next, their silvery skins glittering beneath dandelion stalks. Underneath, a layer of dense, umami-rich soy dressing - "soy butter" - which I did my best to mop up with the mackerel before finally resorting to using my fingers. I didn't care if anyone was watching.

"Chawanmushi" is apparently a kind of savoury custard, here combined with foie gras for extra levels of meaty decadence. On top sat a few pieces of smoked eel - always impossible not to love - and crunchy pieces of pork skin. So foie gras, smoked eel and pork scratching. Together. Yes, it was brilliant.

Sweet baby onions, charred on the hearth, would have been a decent little snack even of themselves, and actually quite similar to a course at famous Scandi weeds-and-pickles restaurant Noma I had a couple of years back. But here they came on something called "tuna bone caramel", which I can best describe as possibly the greatest fish-based sauce you'll ever taste in your life. God knows how many laborious techniques go into its production, or how many grinding man hours, but the result is a thick, dark sauce somewhere between bagna cauda and treacle, so dangerously addictive it should come with a parental advisory sticker.

There are few things more reliably rewarding than a bit of charcoal-grilled bavette, even when not particularly good quality beef. Of course St Leonard's use the best beef they can get their hands on - from Swaledale of Skipton - and so the result is a tender, powerfully-flavoured dish, overhung with woodsmoke and topped with grated cured bonemarrow for bonus beef.

Maybe I don't need to say anything about the next dish. Maybe all you need is the photo above, for an object as overwhelmingly beautiful as that to do all the talking. Or maybe all you need are the words "monkfish, buckthorn mollases, beach herbs" and you can let your mind fill in the details of the firm, blinding white flesh glazed in sweet syrup, the ethereally light hollandaise underneath, the pile of salty succulents above, plump with freshness and life. As much as any dish at St. Leonard's should be a must-order - and there's some competition for that particular role - I'd wager you'd leave with the greatest regret leaving not having tried this bronzed beauty, an absolute masterclass in fish cooking.

Sorry, perhaps I need a second to compose myself. I should try and offer a bit of balance, some sour lemon to cut through the oozing cheesecake of hyperbole. OK then, here you go - the rhum baba wasn't very good. Dry and woolly, it was certainly soaked with a generous amount of rum but the alcohol could still not prevent the sponge from sticking to the roof of my mouth. So, yeah, St. Leonard's isn't perfect.

But "salt caramel & East India sherry tart with cardamom ice cream" was perfect, displaying a willingness for bold experimentation that had been a feature of the savoury courses. With an expertly-judged smooth, light filling and great soft ice cream, it was everything you'd need in a caramel tart.

I began this post with the desclaimer that St. Leonard's has no intriguing backstory, no rags-to-riches journey from street food to bricks and mortar, no heartwarming reality TV triumph against adversity. For lazy restaurant bloggers and overworked food journalists the lack of a "hook" could mean it doesn't grab the attention - or headlines - as much as other places. It doesn't even have a car lift to accommodate paparazzi-shy celebrities.

But the very fact that St. Leonard's isn't an "accident" or an "experiment", and has no eye-catching gimmicks, could perhaps in the end be the very reason for its success. It exists because certain people want it to exist, and because those same sickeningly talented individuals have nailed, at every turn, everything that makes a restaurant great, while ignoring any irrelevant extra bells and whistles that don't. Make no mistake, there's every bit as much of a revolution going on here as in that strange dark space above a pub in New Cross back in 2011, or at the end of a two-hour queue in Borough, but hiding in plain sight as a "normal" restaurant in Shoreditch means that St. Leonard's stands even more of a chance of knocking you sideways. It certainly did me. And it's only a matter of time before does to you, too.


I visited St. Leonard's at the tail end of soft opening, so received 50% off the bill as you can see above. A more normal price per head would have been about £80.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

The Wellington Arms, Baughurst

The Wellington Arms is not, in my opinion, a gastropub. Yes, I know it's number 33 on the Top 50 Gastropubs list, and is a building that looks quite a lot like a pub, and it has a pubby name. But a dealbreaker in the whole pub/not-a-pub definition, as far as I'm concerned, is whether or not you can turn up without a reservation, sit at the bar and have a pint of beer without committing to a full meal, and if you can't do that, that's not a pub, that's a restaurant.

However. Aside from that one crucial disqualifier, on most other measurable indices the Wellington Arms ticks all the boxes. The menu, for one, is absolutely solid gastropub territory, with perennial favourites like steak and fish and chips sitting beside seasonal delicacies like wood pigeon and rabbit terrine. It reminded me very strongly of the Parkers Arms menu, another exquisitely tasteful and accessible piece of menu work, and in fact despite this corner of the Hampshire/Berkshire border being somewhat more moneyed than Bowland (one couple turned up in a Tesla) the prices are just as reasonable, with starters around £8-£9 and mains largely under £20.

Of course it's one thing writing a pretty menu, quite another delivering on it. Fortunately, the kitchens at the Wellington have more than enough of a grasp of British pub aesthetic and French technique to make good on their promises. Potted crab was pretty much perfect, a teacup filled with spiced crab meat (white and brown) and plenty of butter, with a generous amount of the house sourdough to spread it on.

Westcombe cheddar soufflé was an absolute beauty, a cloud of salty, fluffy dairy that dissolved in the mouth like savoury candy floss. But even more impressive than the soufflé itself was a layer of thin discs of courgette underneath, soaked in a delicate cheese sauce, that added just enough salad to prevent all that dairy becoming overwhelming. It was a seriously good soufflé.

The beer batter on these courgette flowers had a good crunch and a pleasing hoppy flavour of its own, and stands as a good indicator that the Wellington Arms fish and chips would have had plenty to recommend it. Here, though, it was holding in a filling of ricotta and mozzarella, and made a very enjoyable vegetarian starter. I've seen more tempura-like, thinner batters on other courgette flower dishes, but I quite liked the continuity of using the same batter as the fish and chips. Because why not?

The problem with serving pies in 2018 you are now automatically pitched against the work of Calum Franklin of Holborn Dining Rooms, and Stosie Madi of the Parkers Arms, who in the last couple of years have redefined how good the humble pie can be, and brought quite dramatically higher expectations down on pies that until recently could have been considered above reproach. It's not that the Wellington Arms venison pot pie is bad, or even not worth the very reasonable £17.75 they're asking for it, it's just you can't imagine the Holborn Dining Rooms or Parkers Arms serving meat just the wrong side of dry, that stuck to the mouth, and in a rather thin, wine-y sauce that needed a bit more beefing up with stock.

Scallops wrapped in pancetta is another familiar gastropub play, and the Wellington are too confident and skillful an operation to serve anything less than a hugely enjoyable version of it. I suppose if you were determined to pick fault you could say that with a dish like this the kitchens are playing it safe somewhat, but then it's almost certainly only tragic saddos like me that could ever be "bored" with scallops wrapped in pancetta, as nobody else had an issue with them.

Perhaps a more reasonable criticism of the place is that despite a large and spectacular kitchen garden, the number of items marked "HG" (Home Grown) on the menu was limited to a few salad leaves and courgettes (plus flowers). Broad beans were apparently not ready yet, which is nobody's fault, but I spotted plenty of plump red strawberries in the garden which featured nowhere on the desserts menu, and things like Jersey Royals and other root vegetables, asparagus, tomatoes and peas were all bought in. Sincere apologies to the Wellington Arms if I'm completely trivialising the difficulties of running a functioning professional kitchen garden, but as one of those hopeless tragic saddos I mentioned earlier my first instinct when given a menu is to pick whatever the restaurant has been able to grow themselves, and on that front it was slim pickings.

But despite this, it was still hard not to be impressed by the sheer hospitality, warmth and professionalism of the Wellington Arms team. Desserts, solid if unspectacular versions of a treacle tart and Eton Mess (the latter using home grown rhubarb at least) would have been much harder to fault had the pacing of the evening and attentiveness of the staff been anything less than perfect the whole evening. And just look at that bill - without the £20 worth of jams and chutneys we took home with us this accomplished and enjoyable meal in charming surroundings came to under £50/head. By anyone's standards, this is a bargain.

So though not in the very top-tier of its ilk, there's still plenty to recommend at the Wellington, and you'd have to be very unlucky indeed to not to come away from a meal here thinking you'd got far more than your money's worth. And it's worth pointing out that the Top 50 Gastropub list that I have been working my way through over the last couple of years, pedantic definition of "gastropub" aside, is yet to really offer up a significant dud. Picking an entry and planning a day or two based around a meal there is a pretty-much-guaranteed way of having a lovely country gastro-break. So, where next?


Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Tadokoro, San Diego

Some of the best food in California is to be found in strip malls. This isn't just my opinion, but the opinion of chef Ludo Lefebvre, who in his Mind of a Chef episode was referring to his own locale of Los Angeles but which applies just as well to its southern cousin. Yes, in San Diego there are plenty of decent ways to spend your dinner dollar downtown, the insanely flashy Born and Raised being the latest and greatest of them (and somewhere I would have positively reviewed already were it not for the fact it's pitch black in there after sunset and none of my photos came out). But if it's not a New York-style steakhouse (above), or boisterously over-designed late-night date venue you're after (e.g. Juniper & Ivy, Kettner Exchange, Craft & Commerce), then you'll need to start looking towards suburbs like Lemon Grove or Kearney Mesa, where the real magic happens.

Over the years I've had charming hand-made dumplings from Tasty Noodle House in Kearney Mesa, table-sized bowls of fragrant Pho from Convoy Noodle House in Chula Vista (there's also, unsurprisingly, one on Convoy), and blindingly fresh fish tacos from TJ's Oyster bar in Bonita, all right at the very top of their respective games when it comes to the cuisines in which they specialise and all installed in unassuming strip malls where the prices are reasonable, service is friendly, and parking dreadful. These unassuming, ugly even, at least from the outside, slices of functional Americana are where frills and flourishes are (excuse the pun) stripped away, leaving the food to do the talking.

At Tadokoro, then, the food very much is the focus, but once you leave the rather workaday environs of this Old Town strip mall behind you and step inside the restaurant, it's clear just as much energy has been expended on the remarkably authentic Japanese interior and warmth of the service as anything that may end up gutted, fileted and served on a plate. It's a tiny place by San Diego standards, with only about 20 seats at tables and a further 9 at the bar. Needless to say, for the true 'omakase' experience it's critical you sit at the latter, where you can watch the bits and pieces of your dinner being assembled right in front of you, not to mention gawp at those destined for fellow diners as well.

One thing I took home from my trip to Japan back in 2012, along with a suitcase full of crazy flavoured noodles, was the sobering realisation that, despite my previous certitude, I was not the fearless food adventurer I thought I was. A salad bowl topped with cod sperm was the first shock to the system, and raw whole baby squid (giblets in situ) a few days later dealt my culinary confidence the mortal blow. Generalising hugely, whilst Japanese food is often intelligent and beautiful, it's not always very accessible, and their fondness both for fish semen as well as bland savoury jellies and bony freshwater fish fried whole along with their soily guts didn't always sit well on a Western palate. On this one, at least.

I had a flashback to the CSI (Cod Sperm Incident) watching our itamae open the biggest oyster I've ever seen in my life (from British Columbia), heave out the contents onto the counter, and slice it up into five pieces for my starter. It sat in front of me, dressed lightly in ginger and ponzu, looking like a bleached placenta, and for a moment I wondered whether I was up to the task. Fortunately - thank God - it tasted sweet and lean, with no hint of the horrid creaminess that can affect these bivalves in certain seasons. If you ever get a chance to try a giant Pacific oyster from British Columbia, take it, is my advice.

With the oyster came monkfish liver, as dense and rich as paté de foie gras, on top of an addictive layer of pickled mushrooms. And next to that, some pieces of conch mollusc, which to be perfectly honest didn't have much of a taste or a particularly pleasant texture (they were rather tough) but hey, at least I can now say I've eaten conch.

So clearly Tadokoro weren't afraid of pushing the timid Western palate, and good for them because over the next 14 or 15 "courses" (most just bite size) I got to try not only some world-class sushi, but a great deal of fish and shellfish I've never even seen on a menu before never mind actually sampled. Such as this local San Diego Bay spotted prawn, which was presented first as part of a sashimi set (antennae and legs still waggling away) alongside otoro (fatty tuna, as good as ever), a scallop from Japan (fine but not spectacular) and curls of "Bigeye" tuna and amberjack (apparently some relative of the sashimi-staple yellowtail).

At the relatively modest price point (for omakase anyway) of $85, it's perhaps unsurprising that some of the courses used cheaper fish, but I still would have much rather the usual black cod miso (of Nobu fame) than the presumably farmed and rather ordinary Chilean seabass used here. Still, it was nice enough, particularly the pickled ginger stem which was as colourful as it was tasty.

I got to try a bit of this tempura roll, which was my dinner companion's main course (I couldn't persuade her to go full omakase, and after the arrival of the giant oyster she was glad she hadn't) and it was packed full of good stuff, including a lovely fresh crab mixture and some of that gorgeous buttery California avocado.

The head and legs of the spotted prawn from the sashimi course now reappeared having been deep fried (you can also ask for it in soup form). Incredibly, aside from the thick carapace the whole of the rest of the animal was now entirely edible; the head had an incredibly complex, ever-so-slightly bitter concentrated seafood flavour, and the legs were like eating tubular prawn crackers. Hugely enjoyable.

Next began a run of the highlight of any omakase experience (at least I think so), the nigiri. I'll save you the exhaustive detail (and not only because I didn't take notes honestly guv) but amongst those pictured above are halibut cured in kelp, a remarkably spicy tuna relative cured in chili (the red one), a fantastic blowtorched mackerel, a sea urchin from Hokkaido (which wasn't actually as nice as the local San Diego ones but I wasn't about to start an argument) and finally a lovely fatty bit of smoked eel.

Towards the end of the meal, while we polished off our sesame ice creams, a whole, bright-red golden eye snapper appeared from the back and was carefully gutted and fileted in the front kitchen. The skill going into the separation of the light pink flesh from the bone was mesmerising to watch, a lovely bit of food theatre in of itself, but also neatly encapsulated just how much skill and effort goes into the food at Tadokoro. For a bill of around $140/head with a decent gutful of sake, this is almost certainly one of the most accomplished sushi restaurants in the city, and has become my new benchmark for the West Coast "omakase" experience.

In fact, it was so good I not only pledged to go back as soon as possible but it also gave me renewed vigor to venture forth on my next trip to the States and see if anywhere else can top it. I've heard good things from the usually reliable Eater (I would say that, as they occasionally pay me for work) about a little place called Sushi Ota in Pacific Beach, which despite a worrying habit of serving cod's sperm is many people's favourite for this kind of thing. They also operate out of a strip mall. I'll keep you posted.