Thursday, 21 June 2018

Cornerstone, Hackney Wick

Cornerstone is a Modern British restaurant on the ground floor of one of those utterly charmless new blocks that have sprung up in the East End on the sites of what used to be junk yards or derelict warehouses. This is hardly their fault - these days a London restaurateur must take whatever's available - but it does mean that whoever's doing the interior design has a bit more of an uphill struggle in investing a bit of soul and personality into a dining space. It's not that Cornerstone is ugly, as such (he says diplomatically), it just feels unfinished; the concrete floors aren't quite polished (or even) enough to feel deliberate, and though black curtains cover up the worst of the bare plasterwork on the walls, one whole end of the restaurant is raw MDF painted black.

Usually the amount of effort a place has made on its interiors is of supreme unimportance - one of my favourite restaurants in town is Silk Road, which is like eating in a hospital waiting room - but when my attention starts to wander to my wobbly table, or the fraying raffia on my chair, it's usually a sign that there's not enough happening elsewhere to make up for it. Take the Cornerstone menu, for example. Bream, smoked salmon, cabbage, cod, lamb... I'm acutely aware I sound like a right spoiled, whinging so-and-so pointing this out, but this is Hackney - I'm certainly not the only one - and this is not a particularly inspiring list of main ingredients. I read it a few times before eventually realising there wasn't anything on it I really wanted to eat.

But anyway, we were hardly about to get up and leave, so hoping the £45 'chef's choice' selection would at least be a reliable highlight of what they had to offer, went for that. And in fact, the "Pickled oyster" wasn't half bad, maintaining a nice balance of seafood brine and vegetation, with little chunks of celery providing some nice texture contrasts. Yes, there are better dressed oyster dishes in town - take a bow, St Leonard's - but this was perfectly decent.

Better was bream, apparently marinated overnight in almond milk a bit like a proto-ceviche, topped with tangy blobs of lime pickle and coconut yoghurt. I liked how the fish was presented in clean, defined fillets like sashimi, and the vaguely South American thrust - it was fresh and lively and enjoyable.

Sadly, the bream was to be the highlight of the meal. From here on, nothing much else set the pulse racing or was even particularly memorable. Smoked salmon - sorry, "secret smokehouse salmon" though don't ask me what was secret about it - was fine in the way that good smoked salmon generally is, and I enjoyed the little lumps of vegetable jelly. But even the best smoked salmon will only ever be, well, smoked salmon, and this would never be a good enough reason to travel to Hackney for dinner. The rye crackers were bordering on inedibly hard, too.

Hispi cabbage seemed quite soggy and bland, suffering badly in comparison to the version with 'XO crumb' served at St. Leonard's last week, and in fact also to the version at the wonderful Hispi bistro in Manchester. The smoked cod's roe was good, but I was a bit unsure as to how to combine this with the cabbage, as the roe just slipped off the wet leaves. In the end, I ate each separately.

Lamb "Kiev" was absolutely no more interesting than the kind of thing you'd get in your local pub (they'd probably call it something like a "pulled lamb shoulder croquette"), and though the filling was perfectly fine in a clumsy kind of way, the pickled anchovies were way too sharp to sit well with the lamb (good salted would have been much more preferable), and the pea purée was cold, unseasoned and pretty unpleasant. There's nothing wrong in theory in reinventing the tried-and-tested lamb, anchovy, pea and mint for a hipster crowd, you'll just need to do it a lot better than this to get away with it.

If a competently-cooked bit of cod was the only thing to appear on the next dish, I would have had very few complaints. Never the most trendy of fish, when it's allowed to appear unadorned and unapologetic, seasoned gently and with the flesh sliding into clean, white flakes, it's nevertheless impossible not to enjoy. Unfortunately next to it sat a vast pile of two-dimensional, sour tartare sauce - sorry, "Café de Paris hollandaise" - which was bizarrely misjudged and completely unnecessary.

Cider Braised Cuttlefish was, there's no other word for it, boring. Tasteless chunks of seafood in an insipid sauce, wading through it was a chore, and the "lentil, apple and spring onion" dressing served to do nothing other than add a cloying sweetness to the stew. With no umami-rich seafood flavour, in fact not much flavour of any kind, it was all a bit of a waste of time, really.

Chocolate cake was a chocolate cake, the kind of thing your local pub would do for about £4.50. Look I'm sorry if I'm sounding increasingly grumpy but I can go anywhere in town - anywhere in the country for chocolate cake with cherry and hazelnuts. It's just not good enough for a restaurant charging £80/head with a couple of admittedly very nice wines. Think of what else you can get in East London alone for this amount of money - dinner at Pidgin, or the Marksman, or Brawn, where the menus are gloriously inventive and feature unusual game and shellfish and offal.

So no, I'm afraid I can't really recommend Cornerstone. I've already pointed out a few much better ways of spending your dinner money, but it's probably unfair to assume that every new restaurant in town can leap right into the very top tier alongside places like the above. What I think it is reasonable to expect is a little bit of innovation and risk-taking, a menu you want to devour and explore rather than glumly tolerate, and at least one dish that I'll remember five minutes after jumping on the Overground home. There's every chance that one day Cornerstone could offer all of these things. Until then, I'm staying away.


Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Fat Tony's at Bar Termini Centrale, Bond St

Since the arrival of Padella, the bijou and blindingly popular pasta bar in Borough Market, the race has been on amongst the London restaurant community to emulate its success - or hell, even some of its success - elsewhere in the capital. Results so far, it has to be said, have been mixed. Stevie Parle's Pastaio looked like it might be onto something but could only manage a very weak facsimile of the rightly famous Padella cacio e pepe, and the shared tables are a trial. More recently I bounded enthusiastically into the gleaming new Lina Stores pasta bar on Greek Street, only to be served completely unseasoned tortellini with horrid hard edges.

So why haven't proto-Padellas spread out across London, when clearly the demand is there? Well, I'm guessing because making great pasta - and running a great pasta restaurant - isn't anywhere near as easy as Padella makes it look. It's a difficult, laborious job rolling out fresh pasta every morning before service, and all sorts of factors - not least the space to operate in - need to be just right. And any Italian will tell you there's far, far more skill, time and effort goes into the construction of a truly excellent tomato sauce than your average punter would appreciate. Padella is no accident, it's the result of years of experience (the team behind Trullo in Islington, also excellent) and bloody hard work.

Given, then, that we're probably not going to be exactly spoiled for choice for great pasta any time soon, all the more reason to shout from the rooftops about anywhere offering a genuinely world-class product. So with that in mind, please let me introduce you to Fat Tony's at Bar Termini Centrale, and the best pasta I've ever eaten in London.

It sounds a bit unfair to the scale of what the Bar Termini team have achieved with Fat Tony's to say that quite how brilliant it is came out of the blue. Food this good is always, to some degree, unexpected, no matter how much previous experience is being brought along. If I had been told half the staff of the River Café were working downstairs at this rather functional spot on Duke Street that Tuesday evening I still would have been flabbergasted by the quality of the dishes they were turning out, but from chef James French, someone whose name was completely new to me before the press release landed in my inbox, the shock is all the greater.

I hardly need to say, given Bar Termini's pedigree, that the drink offering is amongst the very finest in the capital. Intelligently conceived and immaculately assembled, the Marsala Martini is a thing of stark, clean beauty, balanced and fresh to taste. And the Bellini, similarly stripped-back to its essentials and bathed in a gentle peach glow, is - I believe - spiked with essence of fresh fruit (one of Tony Conigliaro's signature techniques) for extra zing.

But OK, OK, the food. Burrata arrived first. A giant, beautiful thing draped in olive oil and speckled with black pepper, it cut open under gentle pressure to reveal a filling of soft seasoned cream, being in every way about as good as a burrata you could hope to encounter in this city or any other.

Another starter was wonderful in all kinds of different ways, pieces of expertly-prepared octopus complimented by potato, fresh herbs and a kick of nduja. There are a lot of great octopus dishes in London at the moment - the Holborn Dining Room version is particularly noteworthy, and this stood up to the very best of them.

Fat Tony's pici cacio e pepe is about the only version of this dish that has been anywhere near up to the standard of Padella's, and in fact - whisper it - may even be slightly better. The sauce is that same worryingly addictive emulsion of cheese and butter spiked with black pepper, salty and dense with flavour, and speaks of a kitchen that really knows what its doing. But the pici itself was so bouncy and vibrant it was practically alive, jumping around on the end of the fork like a Star Trek special effect. Sorry if that simile doesn't make them sound particularly appetising, but there it is.

Pappardelle with beef shin ragu is another classic dish where extreme attention to detail is the difference between a soggy plate of nonsense and a journey to pasta heaven. With soft yet firm folds of pasta bound with an unbelievably rich and beefy sauce, this was very much in the latter camp, again - at the risk of repeating myself - right up with the very best versions of this dish I've sampled anywhere, and probably a little better still. It's also worth pointing out that the generous chunks of beef that appeared in the bowl were tender, flavoursome little things that almost deserve a blog post all of their own.

Bucatini is (I discovered) similar to pici but with a hole running through the middle. What this means is that as well as being coated on the outside with the most incredible tomato and guanciale sauce, it bursts in the mouth into even more flavour when you bite into them, which if you've not experienced it before let me tell you is A Very Good Thing.

You'll have got the idea by now. Everything Fat Tony's do is (apart weirdly from the house bread, which was a tad stale, but we could have just been unlucky) worth shouting about; yes the pasta is worth crossing continents for but, as I said before, this is no kind of accident. Everything this team has been involved with, even since way back in the days of 69 Colebrook Row, has been touched with a kind of obsessive perfectionism and now they've turned their attention to pasta it makes sense that they've ended up making the best pasta in London, too. Some people are just that annoyingly good at what they do.

Anyway, for now I'll let you go and discover it for yourself. With its obsessively-perfect rendition of classical Italian cuisine, Fat Tony's is a singular achievement for its owners and a new jewel in the crown of London dining. If you sit down for a meal here and manage to come away even in the least bit disappointed, then I'll shut down the blog, sell my house and go and live on an island somewhere. In fact, they've turned me into such an evangelical that despite this meal beginning with a PR invite, I decided to pay my bill in full so that my message wouldn't be diluted. And the message, in short, is this - go and eat at Fat Tony's. It'll change everything.


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?