Monday, 10 December 2018

The Duke of Richmond, Hackney

Though the Duke of Richmond weren't to know it, the success or failure of our entire evening at this handsome new(ish) gastropub in Hackney rested on one dish. Fairly or unfairly (alright then, unfairly, really), the moment I spotted "Cornish crab butty" on the bar menu I knew two things. One, that it had to be absolutely the very first thing I ordered and two, that if it didn't live up to my unreasonably high expecations then no matter how good anything else was I would probably end up sulking into my Old Fashioned.

So let's start with that crab butty. A very healthy amount of crab, heavy on the brown meat which is always a delight, is presented with a few sprigs of samphire inside a very impressive brioche-scone style bun which is gently sweet and firm without being chewy. But the real genius is the addition of some skin-on fries into the mix, which bulked it out into something far more substantial without, crucially, losing any of the impact of the crab. It was all very clever stuff, and that rarest of things - a genuinely new way of making a crab sandwich.

With that unofficial test out of the way, we were free to relax and enjoy the rest of our dinner, and by golly enjoy it we did. Birthday (not mine, this time) gatherings are always a good excuse to bed in and graze the furthest reaches of a restaurant menu, and with a good 8-10 of us occupying an, er, increasingly raucous corner of the Richmond over a period of about four hours, it's safe to say that between us we covered most of it. Unfortunately, due to the fact that we polished off almost as many bottles of wine as we did dishes per person, my recollection of a lot of what happened is a bit... patchy. Still, I'll do my best.

I remember the cheese well enough. A supremely classy selection from Neal's Yard, here we have (from the bottom, clockwise) Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire (as good as ever), Tymsboro goat's cheese (citrussy and salty), Gubbeen (another old favourite, a washed-rind Irish) and finally Sparkenhoe, a rare example of an unpasteurised blue. They came with a very generous amount of home made fennel seed crackers which were almost as much fun as the cheese itself, and something called "orchard jelly" which I didn't try. But it looked nice enough and I didn't hear anyone else complaining.

I felt like we got quite a lot of partridge[*see footnote] for £17; for some reason I remember these birds being on the small side but this one felt like about the size of a grouse, which meant there was plenty of it, with its deep red flesh and gently browned, salty skin, to go round. It went down very well. Also popular was a neat block of chestnut stuffing it came with, all nice and crunchy on the outside, and duck fat potatoes performed their own role admirably. If I was going to change anything it would be the sauce, which was a little bit thin and wine-y for my tastes, but this was a minor niggle.

I think this was the wild mushroom, celeriac and spinach pie, which if you ignore the whole pie/casserole debate for the moment (die-hard pie enthusiasts, pie-hards if you like, will try and tell you that a stew in a ceramic dish with a pastry lid is not a pie, but a casserole) definitely looked the part. I didn't get to try any of it, but I did steal a few very envious glances at the obscene amount of black truffle shaved over the truffle mash, and from what I can gather it was all very impressive stuff. It certainly didn't last long.

Now, I'll be the first to admit I've been a bit spoiled for steak in recent weeks; it's an unlucky restaurant indeed that becomes my first steak experience after back-to-back Etxebarri and Bar Nestor. So yes I'm afraid this Côte de Boeuf, generously proportioned and expertly cooked though it certainly was, just didn't have the texture or depth of flavour of the very best txuleton. Still, it easily fed three people with room to spare, so for £60 it was a pretty good deal. It came with more good fries and a nice herby bearnaise.

I have a vague memory of a sort of nice moussey dessert which must have been this involving "caramelized whisky oranges", which sounds so good I'm a bit annoyed I can't remember more about it. But I think that's all the detail you're going to get out of me on this meal. God knows how we managed to get through so much wine; clearly people from other tables were ordering bottles on our bill - that's the only explanation I can think of which doesn't paint us as some kind of state-school Bullingdon Club reprobates so that's the explanation I'm sticking with. I intend to launch a full enquiry to get to the bottom of the matter, like Trump did when he lost the popular vote.

Anyway, long story short is you don't need to spend anywhere near the £561.94 our table did at the Duke of Richmond to have a good time. It's a fantastic restaurant, led by a fantastic and intelligent kitchen (Tom Oldroyd now splits his time between here and his eponymous restaurant on Upper Street, which is also well worth a visit), and Hackney is very lucky indeed to have it. I'll almost certainly be back, and almost certainly will not drink as much and remember much more about the meal. Maybe. Possibly. I'll try, at least.


*On the subject of partridge, thank you very much to Eat Wild and the Wild Game company for a pack of frozen partridge breasts they kindly sent me home with after an event hosted by Nigel Haworth in October. Read more about the campaign here

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Chicken Shop, Holborn

It occurred to me the other day that a good number of the "wishlist" dishes or cuisines I've griped about not having access to in London over the years have, gradually, one-by-one, been ticked off. For a while it was burgers, where years of crushed hopes and disappointment were finally answered in a little white van in Peckham and since then we've had more than enough decent options. Then attention turned to Mexican food where following a disastrous false start at a grotty US chain, suddenly like the buses Breddos and El Pastor opened in the same month, and now I don't need to wait for a twice-yearly trip to Southern California to get my taco fix.

So what's left? Well, I enjoyed trying the Salvadorian cuisine of San Francisco, with their pupusa and curtido, although perhaps not quite enough to start a campaign, and besides the chances of us being able to scrape together enough El Salvadorians in London to run a lemonade stall never mind a full restaurant are slim to none. The generally lacklustre offering of Greek food is perhaps harder to excuse - there's a pretty healthy Greek community in London and yet if the best it can come up with is Lemonia, something's gone wrong somewhere. I've had high hopes for a few places not least the relaunched Real Greek and they've all come up short so here's hoping some budding entrepreneur fills this gap in the market in the near future.

But there's one thing I've been desperately searching for almost for the entire time I've lived in London, which despite certain steps in the right direction has remained stubbornly just out of grasp, and that's Mediterranean rotisserie chicken. In Catalonia, every small town boasts at least one (in fact usually two or three) pollo a l'ast peddler, with banks of stainless steel spits full of birds, rubbed with obscene amounts of salt and herbs, slowly bronzing away. For the best results, and at the best places, you put your name down earlier in the day and turn up just as they're cooked, to whisk it home to eat with pan con tomate and salad, but even lesser pollo a l'ast from tourist spots near the beach can be well worth the effort. In Barcelona, as you might imagine in the regional capital, the humble roadside rotisserie chicken as been given the full posh treatment in places like Chez Coco but even here the concept is the same - plump birds rubbed with salt, lemon, thyme and bay, served with a salad or patatas fritas. Wonderfully simple, and simply wonderful.

Now, I should say in case you think this post is building up to something, Chicken Shop is not the answer to all our (ok, my) rotisserie chicken dreams. It's great, and I love it, but there's not the same depth and agression in the seasoning, or crunch in the skin. Perhaps I'm on a hiding to nothing expecting a chain of London restaurants to be able to exactly recreate the experience of a trip to Kan Kilis in l'Escala of a hot summer afternoon but even so I'm holding out hope that one day someone will get their act together.

In the meantime, anyway, Chicken Shop is very good. The seasoning, though not particularly complex, is still fairly robust - mainly lemon and salt which means the skin has a good colour and citrus tang. The flesh is - remarkably - never in the least bit dry, a result I believe of a day of marination and some fiendish steaming process, which means that yes some of the fire and flavour of the Spanish style is lost but hey, at least on quiet days you don't run the risk of recreating the National Lampoon's Christmas dinner scene. It's not perfect, but it is the best rotisserie chicken in London, by quite some stretch, which is of course to be much applauded.

On top of this, the crinkle-cut chips are great, the sauces are fantastic (particularly the chilli which is great to dip chips into), and they do a genuinely lovely butter lettuce and avocado salad, not to mention a great big apple pie and ice cream for £6. Oh yes that's the other thing worth pointing out about Chicken Shop - it's cheap; a whole chicken for £19 and on weekday lunches you can get a quarter chicken and chips for £8.50. For Holborn (my usual haunt), this puts it in direct competition with Chicken Cottage over the road. And I know which one of those is more deserving of your lunch money.

So though the wait goes on for the truly authentic Catalan experience, perhaps forever, us Londoners really should be grateful for Nick Jones, whose attention to detail and sense of style and occasion made Soho House such a runaway success and which make Chicken Shop such a friendly and reliable little spot to have a chicken dinner.


Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Bar Néstor, San Sebastián

If I were to follow properly in the footsteps of the countless food bloggers and writers that have beaten a path to San Sebastián's old town before, by rights this would be a multi-part post covering a good selection of the best pinxo bars, from the mini hamburguesas of Fuego Negro through a plate of Tigress mussels at La Mejillonera and finishing with cheesecake at La Viña. And indeed we did visit all those places and very good they were too (if occasionally quite stressful; more on which later) but of all the brilliant, bustling and boisterous spots in town, none served food quite as brilliant, or was quite as bustling and boisterous, as Bar Néstor. So I'm going to tell you all about how no trip to Donostia is complete without a meal here, and how it represents everything that is wonderful about this part of the world.

The first thing any self-respecting food nerd has to do on arrival in San Sebastián is poke your head through the window of the then-shuttered Néstor at midday sharp (experience suggests the Northern Spanish are much, much better at timekeeping than their Southern countrymen) and put your name down for the tortilla. If that sounds a bit of an odd arrangement, well I suppose it is, but it's borne of the fact that they only make two of the things a day, each divided strictly into no more than seven portions, and if you just rock up expecting a slice without being on The List, as a group of rather dejected Japanese men did the way we were there, well, you're going to be disappointed. The act of your name being called out and then being handed a plate of warm tortilla (a warm, deeply comforting arrangement of potato, caramelised onions and egg just exactly halfway between runny and set) over the heads and dismayed gazes of those less fortunate is, I imagine, how wars have started.

But the tortilla is only the beginning of the true Néstor experience. Next, there's the matter of the beef. The txuleton of the Basque region is rightly famous - usually ex-dairy, deeply marbled, aged a couple of weeks (not often much more than that) and cut into obscenely thick chops almost as high as they are wide, you're not short of options even in the square-km San Sebastián old town; Gandarias would have been a good comparison piece on the steak had they not been closed for holidays. Sad face.

Even so, it's hard to imagine anywhere serving beef much better than Néstor's. Having been lucky enough to bump into a group of fellow Londoners we'd met in the tortilla queue earlier, we conspired to select a vast 1.5kg chunk of cow which was whipped away for a brief grilling over coals and returned not too much later cooked rare and covered in a good healthy layer of salt. It was, as you can probably guess just from the picture, a truly remarkable thing, with a powerful taste and only enough aged funk to provide interest, not to distract. Despite its size and the fact one of our party was pregnant and therefore couldn't even touch it, the poor thing, it disappeared in a matter of minutes.

But I think even if you weren't eating raw beef, or drinking the txakoli or beer served by the effortlessly charming and attentive staff, you'd still have a blast at Bar Néstor; in fact it's close to impossible not to. True, we were lucky with our prior knowledge of the tortilla ordering system and the fact we fluked a corner table to enjoy it all on, but it's worth noting that the group of Japanese men who missed out on the tortilla also missed out on a txuleton (you have to be pretty smart to snag one of those too) but still hung around most of the afternoon (only occasionally stealing pained glances at our food), such is the joyful atmosphere in the place. It's the very essence of the San Sebastián experience - unbelievably good food, reasonably priced, served with a smile. With or without the smug bonus of having prepared properly.

Later that day we were to visit the aformentioned Mejillonera, and La Viña's cheesecake, and countless other places I only vaguely remember through a fug of Estrella and table wine, and though the food was never less than enjoyable - excellent, even - I was variously shouted at for not paying while ordering, attempting to pay while ordering, asking what these pickles were, standing in the wrong place, thinking 'xampi' meant langoustine and wasn't short for 'xampignon' (mushroom) and so on and so forth and it's safe to say that by the end of the evening I was looking forward to sitting in a darkened room somewhere and listening to whale song. Maybe I'm just getting old.

But I'd go back to Néstor in a heartbeat, and let's face it, despite the stress I'd go back to every other place we visited too because getting a bit knocked around is all part of the authentic pinxos experience. To eat like this, at these prices (our entire bill at Néstor, including all the booze, an incredible tomato salad and plates of "angry" (padrón) peppers came to just over €90 which is crazy value), I think is worth a bit of discomfort - it really is as good as everyone says. I'm just kicking myself it's taken me until my 40th birthday to find this out.


I didn't trust myself tearing around the old town with my big camera, so thanks to @hollowlegs and @foodstories variously for the above pictures.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Asador Etxebarri, Spain

On the face of it, the restaurants that form the 50 Best list (have a gander here) are a satisfyingly diverse bunch. From the nostalgia-driven Modern Italian of Osteria Francescana, to the jungle-foraged idiosyncrasy of Lima's Central and the international freewheeling experimentation of 11 Madison Park, no one style or set of flavours is more likely to make the list than another. Whatever you think of the inclusions (and exclusions) there's no denying it does a pretty good job of representing the world's culinary inclinations in all their variety, or at least the inclinations of those people with sufficient disposable income to blow €300 on dinner.

But having been lucky enough to patronise a few of the Best over the years, I've realised that aside from what comes out of the kitchen, these destination restaurants do have something in common, and that's a tangible sense of drama and suspense. Whether simply from the expectation of diners that what's coming is likely to be amongst the Best meals of their lives (or at least they hope it will), or through deliberate actions of the restaurant itself (I'm thinking of El Bulli where the front gates were theatrically swung open no earlier than 7:30 on the dot, Wonka-style), these places all conjure an atmosphere of almost febrile anticipation, the sense that whatever happens over the next few hours it will be nothing less than significant.

So it is at Etxebarri. After handing over your coats and bags to someone suitably smiley, you're ushered into an upstairs anteroom, and drink excellent champagne from Zalto glasses whilst a real wood fire (a subtle tribute to what's going on in the kitchen below) burns in the corner. Here, the waiting, the atmosphere of nervous expectancy, creates a kind of gentle hysteria, as you slowly realise that the moment that you've been planning and plotting for the last seven months (I don't imagine many people attempt a walk-in), through booked flights, hours pouring over PDFs of Spanish train timetables, the price of taxis from Durango and back, whether to go for the cheaper AirBnB a bit of a walk from the action or one bang in the middle of the old town, all this has funnelled into these few hours in a converted farmhouse in the mountains of Northern Spain. It all hangs on this one experience. What if it all goes wrong?

And then, with the first canapé, a bowl of mushroom consommé spiked with yuzu, an inkling that perhaps you're in safe hands after all. As the first morsel of food in a significant tasting menu, this little guy had a lot riding on it, but it performed marvellously, with a deep mushroom flavour combining remarkably well with the sharper yuzu. Pretty bowl, too.

Also fantastic were these anchovy toasts, substantial and glossy with a light herb dressing of some kind. They were apparently cured in-house in salt barrels, and had a denser fish flavour (and less of a mouth-aching dose of salt) than others I've tried. Clearly this is a kitchen that obsesses over the details whenever it can.

Last of the pre-show canapés were this cute mini sandwiches with house chorizo. Now, I can see what they were trying to do here - recreate the famous Basque bocadillo in miniature form - but hand on heart I think I'd have just preferred a plate of the chorizo on its own, as it was incredibly good.

After these, we moved through to the main dining room (nicely minimalist but not austere, with well-spaced tables and breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains) for the menu proper. First to arrive was a big chunk of bread. The interesting thing about restaurants in this region (it was the same at Etxanobe the day before) is that you're given when you sit down a big chunk of bread but with no butter or anything to do with it or dip it in, and it stays next to you, like a pet rock, for the entire meal. The Etxebarri bread was enjoyable - a kind of crusty sourdough baguette affair, with a good dense crumb - but it didn't really have much of a purpose, other than scatter crumbs around the table when you tried to nibble a bit.

At least there was more than enough to enjoy elsewhere. Chef Victor Arguinzoniz makes his own mozzarella from his own buffalo (I think they said) and it was an absolutely beautiful thing, soft and sweet with (for a mozarella) an incredible depth of flavour. Presented alongside this were three sticks of goat's butter which we were specifically instructed to eat by themselves and not (as you may be forgiven for assuming) spread on the bread. These were nice and farmy and fresh and, well, goaty.

Cockles - vibrant, plump little things - came in a delicate white bean and miso broth and managed to strike exactly the right balance between seafood tang and earthy stock.

The mini scallops from Etxanobe (zamburiñas according to a commenter on that post) made an appearance here too, sweet and juicy and sitting in an absolutely gorgeous seaweed sauce which we took great delight in scooping into our mouths after devouring the seafood. Like everything else on the menu, they were cooked over coals, but the genius of Etxebarri is that the woodsmoke notes are only ever a background flavour, a kind of framing of the main ingredients, rather than being overwhelming or the mean feature. This means for more subtle flavours like the cockles the smoke sits back, but for more robust and sweeter protein such as the scallops the smoke is slightly more pronounced. It's very clever stuff.

These beautiful creatures are local prawns, and would have been the greatest prawns I've ever tasted in my life were it not for a dish at El Bulli (sorry) 9 years ago which I presume used the same species. Anyway yes, they were superb - sweet, perfectly cooked to a gentle bounce without a hint of woodiness - and with that all-important lick of solid fuel. As a further example of the kind of detail that goes into the food here, we were told that the chef uses different types of wood for different dishes, depending on the flavour the smoke imparts.

One of these giant red prawns (from Palamós, on the Catalonian coast) would have been more than generous, but Etxebarri gave us two each to get stuck into. The body had that same sweet, smoky flavour as the local variety but being bigger there was far more delicious seafoody "bisque" in the heads, which I'm afraid we ended up sucking up quite noisily. Still, we did at least notice some other people doing it so we weren't the only ostentatious food wankers in the room.

Baby squid was another expert bit of grilling, presented on a slick of its own ink and arriving with that ever-present waft of woodsmoke. I feel like I'm running out of things to say about yet another nice bit of seafood on a plate. In many other restaurants I'd be able to at least talk about a sauce or accompanying vegetables but that's not the Etxebarri way - every dish is thoughtful and precise but absolutely stripped back to the literal main ingredient itself.

Perhaps our least favourite course, in fact the only thing even coming close to a 'dud', was this "cod kokotxa & pil-pil". Feeling desperately out of place amongst the robust grilling and fire-touched protein elsewhere, this sad, soggy lump of mystery fried fish would have been odd enough by itself, but presented with a slick of a mayonnaise-type sauce with all the personality of wallpaper paste, it was remarkably unsettling. However, in the interests of balance and given the not insignificant possibility I'm too much of a pleb to appreciate the complexities of what Etxebarri were trying to do here, I should probably point out that a group of people we met at Bar Nestor in town on Saturday (more on that later of course) thought this was a very clever play on the gelatinous texture of kokotxa and really enjoyed it. So take your pick.

You'd have to be a pretty odd individual not to enjoy scrambled egg and wild mushroom with a load of white truffle shaved on top, and every bit of this dish, from the silky smooth egg which was barely one moment away from raw yolk, to the punchy foraged fungi and the generous pile of heady truffle, was a laser-guided assault on all my pleasure points. This was utterly wonderful in every way, and very Etxebarri - good ingredients treated well, licked with smoke and presented with an almost flattering simplicity.

The smoke levels were turned up a notch for the next course of aubergine and mushroom. We were to come across king bolete (not to mention the cantharellus of the previous dish) in the markets of San Sebastian the day after, so it seems this is a good time of year for foraged fungi. Vegetarians wouldn't be the most obvious target audience for Etxebarri (in fact you'd be a bit of an idiot to try) but you certainly didn't miss the meat in this dish.

The next course was a bowl of elvers. These were interesting for two reasons. Firstly, they were incredibly tasty little things, almost like buttery spaghetti, each one fresh and slippery and (of course) holding a gentle smokiness. But we couldn't help also notice that this dish was marked on the menu as an 'extra' for a whopping €120. A brief panic set in. Would we be charged an extra €120 a head for this dish? If so, why didn't they ask if we were OK with that first? And if they weren't going to charge us, why list them on the menu for €120? All very mysterious. In the end, they didn't appear on the bill, so perhaps they were some kind of impromptu bonus, but I'd still like to know if anyone else in the room that day were charged extra for them.

Red sea bream (urta) arrived next, cooked whole over charcoal (I probably don't need to keep saying that), filleted tableside and served with a genuinely lovely selection of seasonal veg glossy with butter. I'm not as huge a fan of the gelatinous "kokotxa" style as you might need to be to completely fall for this dish, but there was no denying the depth of flavour and the effort that had gone into it.

I'm worried that I'm going to tell you that this is the greatest bit of beef I've ever eaten in my life, and you're going to read as another one of my bouts of hyperbole, assume I just meant it's "very good" and move on. No. That is not the case. This is the best bit of beef I've ever eaten in my life and if I ever come across a better one anywhere in the remaining years I have on this earth (which won't be too long if I keep eating beef like this) then I will be very surprised indeed. Let me explain - everything about it was perfect. Deeply marbled and meltingly tender inside, it somehow also had the most delicate of dark crusts, thick enough to provide a crunch but not so much to be bitter or carry too much of the flavour of the coals. It had a dense, mineral taste of a life well lived, but was not over-aged or funky – just 3 weeks we were told, compared to certain restaurants that seem to take pride in ageing their beef well past the point of edibility. It was presented simply sliced, not over-rested so the juices were still running, and it was in every way the very best steak can be, possibly can ever be. I will never forget it.

And I'll never forget Etxebarri. Yes, I've found fault with some bits and pieces, but that same atmosphere of feverish anticipation I spoke about earlier carried us through the whole meal, through certain elements we didn't like and worries over €120 elvers, and I wouldn't change any of it for the world. Desserts were just as accomplished as the mains, this ice cream having a fantastic smooth texture and buttery taste, mixing with the metallic tang of beetroot to great effect...

...this little walnut soufflé, tasting of autumn forests and wet leaves...

...and finally this breathtaking cheesecake, so light it practically dissolved in the mouth, poised, balanced and beautiful.

I'll say - again - that we loved our lunch at Etxebarri, and if you've already skipped to the end to read the score and are disappointed it didn't score higher then perhaps a short explanation is in order. The thing is, Extebarri's whole schtick is to take already very good produce, treat them sensitively and present them simply so that nothing distracts from the quality of the raw ingredient. Which is a laudable and perfectly sensible way of going about things but all said and done, it is, to be blunt, just cooking things and putting them on a plate. To pluck an example out of mid-air, lunch at Can Roca involves twice (possibly three times) as many chefs as diners, a bewildering variety of techniques and textures, and a backbreaking amount of prep. And costs an almost identical amount of money (€280 a head including wines, since you ask). So it's not like I didn't love my lunch at Etxebarri, it's just that there was that niggling feeling it wasn't quite value.

Still, I'd like to end this on a high so I'll say that, given the opportunity, I would go back, even for another €280, because there really isn't anywhere else in the world like it. Sitting down to a lunch like this, in a place like this, and to have a succession of stunning plates of unusual seafood - and the World's Greatest Beef - paraded in front of you is to experience joy itself, and is after all these years the reason why I still consider myself extraordinarily fortunate to be able to experience it all. One day, the moment it stops being fun, I'll pack it all in and find something else to do. I'll certainly have more than enough memories to treasure. But until that day, there's more eating to be done.