Monday, 22 October 2018

Kym's, Bloomberg Arcade

It seems I'm not the only one that's been waiting - with an expectation bordering on feverish - for Kym's, the new restaurant from restaurateur-chef Andrew Wong. During the course of dinner there last week I lost count of the number of people trying their luck as a walk-in. Again and again, every few seconds, for the whole two hours or so we were there, various groups of rather well dressed people (this is the City after all) would approach the front desk, look longingly around the room, and then be sent dejectedly back out into the rainy London streets, tail between their legs. It was enough to make someone who had secured his booking a few days before the inevitable slew of 5 star reviews quite pleased with himself (that would be me, then) - sometimes it pays to be a restaurant obsessive.

So Kym's is the hottest ticket in town, but this was always likely to be the case. A Wong in Victoria is many people's favourite Chinese restaurant, pretty much the only good reason to travel to that part of town if you don't have tickets to see Wicked, but in that functional (albeit friendly) little space, the food did the talking. In Bloomberg Arcade, Wong's team have installed themselves in one of those flashy split-level City spaces typical of these kinds of new builds, a grand central staircase circling a huge fake sakura tree and various attractively spotlit tables, so here there's even more to get excited about. The food could even take a bit of a back seat, and the place would still be rammed.

Of course, there's no sign of the food being anything less than as exquisitely thoughtful and well-rendered as in Victoria, so you can relax on that front as well. But first, a citrus cocktail involving a pleasing buzz of sichuan peppercorns, which glowed wonderfully under the house lights. Sorry to bang on about the lighting so much - it really won't be that much of an issue for most diners, but if you're taking photos of your food it really makes a difference.

I mean just look at these pork skewers. See how the light plays on their delicately-chargrilled flesh. See the interplay of highlights and shadow. See the inviting bowl of sweet peanut dip floating just out of focus. Oh and yes, they tasted great, too.

Silken tofu is exactly the kind of thing I want to eat when I go to a restaurant like this, something so far removed from your standard Chinese offering that it was still a topic of conversation an hour after we'd paid up and left. No description I could offer could do it justice, but try and imagine neat little cubes of the finest tofu - "silken" really is the perfect adjective - in a complex mix of sesame seeds, crispy shallots and spring onions, all bathed in rich dark soy. This was so good - so fantastically good - that we ordered spoons to scoop out every last bit of the sauce that was left at the bottom of the bowl. Kym's style themselves as a "roasting" concept restaurant, so it was a delightful surprise that the first vegetarian dish impressed as much as this.

A spring roll was very good - I particularly liked the flourish of the delicate extra rice cracker casing on the outside. If I'm being brutally honest, even the country's finest spring roll can only, in the end, be a spring roll, but I've no doubt this had just as much care and effort lavished on it as everything else on the menu.

"Three treasure" is a selection of three different roast meats - chicken, pork belly and Iberico char sui - and is another example of how Andrew Wong can lift already an even pretty complex set of techniques performed on premium products to another level. If you've had better Chinese roast chicken than this anywhere - gently soy-marinated thigh with a skin of golden, melting perfection - well I need to know about it, because I have a new obsession. Similarly, pork belly had the most impossibly delicate puffed skin, just thick enough to crunch but not chewy, with a bright-white and bouncy flesh, and Iberico char sui was glazed with- well, I can't even begin to guess, possibly honey, possibly spiced sugar, but enough to make you want to order the whole thing again as soon as it was over.

We didn't do that, though, because we had this to eat next - chicken chop, breadcrumbed and fried in the Taiwanese style, cleverly done and not too thick or greasy, with an interesting mix of deep-fried and fresh herbs on top. You get the strong impression that even with the more straightforward items - the spring roll, the chicken chop - that these are the absolute best they can be, and that any vague sense of disappointment from not enjoying a tender fried piece of breadcrumbed chicken breast is entirely the fault of the diner, not the restaurant.

French beans would probably have been better enjoyed as a side with the previous courses rather than munched through on their own as we mentally prepared ourselves for dessert. Though perfection is a word that can easily be used to described much of the food, I'm afraid the service was a rather frustrating mixture of completely absent and rather scatty - lamb buns appeared without having been ordered (we even corrected them when they repeated our order at the start of the meal; fat lot of good it seemed to do) and it took about half an hour (!) to be asked if we'd even wanted a drink at the start of the meal. The food was so good this was all almost forgiven, but it's enough to bring the score down a bit.

But I'm sure some of these service niggles will sort themselves out in the fullness of time, and eventually allow the extraordinary food coming out of the kitchens at Kym's to be given the presentation they deserve. Even with a less-than-brilliant table near the front door on the route to the loos, occasionally ignored by staff and missing some of our order, we still had a whale of a time - enough to want to see what they could do with desserts as well. So here is a Hong Kong bun, kind of a less sweet choux pastry affair with a powerfully vanilla-y custard and sweet pineapple chunks...

...and this is glazed summer berries and a sharp, smooth berry sorbet, sat in a fluffy white chocolate mousse.

And it didn't even cost all that much. £66 a head with a bottle of wine and a cocktail each is a desperately reasonable amount of money to spend for food of this standard and in this part of town, and so even with reservations about service, my recommendation of the place is hardly much qualified. In fact, it's no exaggeration to say I want to go immediately back and try all the other menu items that I've seen whizzing past my Instagram feed over the last couple of weeks. Whether I'll get a chance, well that depends on whether interest in the place remains merely "feverish" or rises to "Sushi Tetsu". But you know what, I'm going to have a damn good try.


Monday, 8 October 2018

Hatched, Battersea

You know when you go to a new restaurant within easy walk of your own front door, run by enthusiastic and friendly people, serving a short, attractive menu of seasonal British dishes and you hope with every fibre of your being that it turns out to be good? Hatched (previously, and very briefly called Darwin though don't ask me why it's changed; maybe because there's another restaurant in town called Darwin and they got wind) is, on paper, everything you'd want from a local bistro. Bright and spacious and well-appointed, all it needed to do was serve a half-decent, value-for-money dinner and I'd be something approaching a regular. A decent restaurant in SW11! Finally.

So why did I leave on Friday evening with the very strong impression that Hatched wasn't for me? Well it wasn't for want of trying, from either party. I did desperately want to enjoy the place, and from the warm welcome up until the first bits of food arrived, everything was going swimmingly. I can't remember what occupied the site previously, but you get the impression a lot of money has been spent on giving it clean, Nordic lines and a smart open kitchen, very much home amongst the coffee shops and interior design studios on St John's Hill. Of course, intelligent interior design and nice lighting shouldn't mean everything, they just project a certain confidence in the product on offer, and as anyone will tell you, confidence is attractive.

Unfortunately, there's nothing particularly confident, or intelligent, or attractive, about charging £10 for a bowl of courgetti and cherry tomatoes. OK, so there were trace amounts of white crab meat in here aswell, but it was hardly in abundance, and this bowl, piled clumsily high and lacking in texture, finesse, interest of any kind, more closely resembled something you'd find in a plastic tub at M&S rather than a £10 starter in a Modern British restaurant.

Octopus was better, if that doesn't sound too much like damning with faint praise (it does, doesn't it). The animal itself had been sensitively treated, a nice soft texture in the larger sections and nicely crisped-up tentacles, with a gentle aroma of smoke. But there was something weirdly sweet about the glaze that had been used on it, which the "red pepper chutney" struggled to balance.

My friend's veal was the best of the mains. Much like the crab starter, it wasn't about to win any prizes for presentation (I mean does that look like a £26 plate of food to you, or yesterday's leftovers?) but the veal had loads of flavour and was timed well, and the accompanying veg were nice enough even if they looked like they'd been thrown onto the plate from a distance.

Cod was certainly a generous amount, the flesh beautifully white and collapsing into strong, defined flakes so they clearly know how to cook a bit of fish, even if I'd have liked a bit more crunch from the skin. At least they left the skin on though - far too many places just give up and remove it, which I always think is a bit disappointing. But the brown shrimp it came with were vinegary and distracting - pickled almost - and a couple of bits of roast fennel did not do much to persuade that this plate of food was worth £25. Also, and I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure the same sauce finished both the cod and veal dishes. Which is as weird as it is lazy.

We didn't stay for dessert. Perhaps we didn't quite need to spend £39 on a single bottle of wine, but with no introductory fizz or cocktails, no nibbles, not even a tray of house bread either (which seems particularly mean), the bill came to a painful £62.44/head. At literally half that, it still would have been a faintly disappointing dinner but it would have at least stood a chance of tempting me back at some point in the future. But I'm entitled to expect far better for this kind of money - this is approaching the Chez Bruce price point, a short walk away and far more deserving of your time and cash.

Nobody is as sorry as me that Hatched didn't live up to expectations - I would have loved nothing more than to have a new favourite local to drop into with family and friends, God knows living in Battersea I've waited long enough. But it wasn't to be. SW11 continues to be the place where restaurants go to die, and I'm kicking myself I ever allowed myself to be convinced it would be otherwise. In other, but not entirely unrelated news, a little bird tells me Meatliquor are opening on Northcote Road...


Monday, 1 October 2018

Jidori, Covent Garden

After so long writing about restaurants in London, you get used to the pace of change and ebb and flow of things, and accept that there's no restaurant (with the possible exception of Rules) that will be around forever. Mostly, restaurant closures are sad but understandable, victims of a changing market or a shift in focus from the owners. It's a shame that Typing Room is closing its doors but its time had come, and the knowledge that chef Lee Westcott is heading to Worcestershire to open a very interesting looking place in a fancy country hotel, well that sounds like a step up to me.

Of course some closures are more than welcome. Arguments about blameless staff losing their jobs and the state of the economy generally aside, I'm not going to mourn the collapse of Jamie's Italian or Strada any more than I would the cancellation of Brexit - these were bad chains that served bad food and didn't deserve to survive. In fact if Frankie & Benny's, Garfunkel's, Chiquito, Las Iguanas, Pod, the JRC Global Buffet and the Rainforest Café could also go tits up in the next few months I - and the wider world - would be most grateful.

But just occasionally, a restaurant disappears from London that I really, really miss. Bincho Yakitori used to occupy a cosy little spot on Old Compton Street and served the very best yakitori, up to that point (this was before my trip to Japan), I'd ever had in my life. It was informal, and friendly, and served tasty skewers to grateful Soho lunchers for not very much money but what really impressed me about the place was the willingness to offer bits of a chicken I didn't even know you could eat, such as painstakingly-filleted neck, and cartilage. Sure, this more specialist stuff wasn't for everyone, but for a tragic food spod like me just having the opportunity to try something so unusual was very exciting, especially with the added theatrics of being sat at the bar at the open kitchen, clouds of charcoal smoke filling the air.

The most obvious disadvantage that Jidori has, then, is the lack of an open kitchen and bar. The very best omakase experiences rely on that interaction between you and the chef, the immediacy and honesty of the cooking process and the fact the pacing is entirely guided by how fast you want to eat. The pacing at Jidori was admirable, and there's no faulting the friendliness and competency of the staff, who were assured and confident throughout. But would I have been happier sat at an open kitchen swatting away charcoal smoke than in a rather boxy upstairs room overlooking Catherine Street?

Well yes I would, but I would also happily sit in a cupboard in the dark to eat food this good, starting with crackers of puffed corn and seaweed topped with chunks of raw tuna. Seasoned properly and bound with a nice amount of wasabi mayo, these were easily better than the version served at Louie Louie a couple of weeks ago.

Cold roast aubergine is never going to win any beauty competitions but had a lovely flavour, salty and smokey, and dressed in oil. I should say at this point that yes, I know the photos are terrible. Weirdly it wasn't even that dark in there so I don't know what happened other than given my skill as a photographer it's more incredible that any of my pictures are any good at all than some occasionally look like they were taken underwater.

With the snacks out of the way we were on to the main event - bits of chicken on sticks. Breast first, apparently because the Japanese (quite rightly) are so uninterested in the boring breast meat that they want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. These were tender enough though, dressed in a sake and shiso dressing that just softened the bitterness of the charcoal.

Thigh next, neatly rolled and served next to little bits of spring onion, fattier and therefore more enjoyable than the breast, but with that same crunch and smoke from the coals.

Then wing, carefully threaded on the skewer keeping two bones in, presumably to help keep it from drying out. I can count on one hand the number of times I've had a carefully, expertly deboned chicken wing that's not turned to cotton wool from overcooking. If you're very, very clever about it (and I'm thinking mainly of the Chinese style, deboned then stuffed with prawn mince) then you could end up with something worth eating. But most of the time, you're better off leaving the bones in.

So far, so recognisable. Jidori were hitting us with the familiar parts first, the crowdpleasers. But next came the skin, neatly folded into even rows, gently crisped on the grill and satisfying with bags of flavour. I could be wrong but I don't think this was 100% separated skin, I got the feeling there was a slight amount of flesh there too, to bind it together and stop the whole thing becoming overwhelmingly fatty. Very, very good anyway.

Usually omakase diners have to choose between hearts and liver for the next course - for all their undoubted skill Jidori can't, after all, do much about the composition of a chicken - but with there being four of us we were able to choose both. So here's the liver, soft and yielding and lightly seasoned in some interesting dried herbs...

...and here are the hearts, all bouncy and jolly, with some rolls of crisp bacon to season and contrast. I think heart might be my favourite bit of a chicken overall; the texture is always a delight and the flavour is of rich offal without being bitter or difficult.

Next was what they called 'drumstick', but looked rather more like thigh meat. I think perhaps they'd carefully removed the largest portion of dark meat from the legs and pressed it into shape somehow. Clever stuff.

The next course was more of a surprise - minced chicken skewers, like mini koftas, with a bright egg yolk and soy dressing. We were instructed to whip up the egg and soy into a smooth paste, then dip the mince in before eating. This was great fun, without a hint of the dryness that can affect chicken mince, and very nicely seasoned.

Another unexpected course was this, a bowl containing good soft rice, fresh herbs, some incredibly sour lumps of something citrusy or fruity which I'm going to have to leave unexplained as I can't find anything on Google or the restaurant menu, and all of it in a kind of half chicken consommé half tea broth. If it sounds like there's a lot going on here well you're not wrong, but the flavours all mostly complimented each other (though the citrus element did occasionally threaten to derail things) and I certainly haven't had anything like it before. Also, this was the twelfth individual course of a £30/head tasting menu - extraordinary value for money.

And unbelievably we still weren't done. Coconut water sorbet with elderflower sake was light and refreshing and full of summer flavour, and looked pretty as a picture.

Part of me wonders whether Jidori should charge a little more than the frankly ludicrous £30/head and do the above with some seriously high-end chicken. People are always banging on about those poulet de Bresse that cost £50/pop and I bet if anyone could make the most of them Jidori could. But then, having said that, I once spent £50 on Poulet Dimanche at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught (it's now an eyewatering £90) and the chicken itself was a bit dry and disappointing. So perhaps Jidori do know what they're doing after all.

Anyway, what a way to spend £30. Or rather, what a way to spend £62.50 but there's no need for you to go quite as crazy on the booze as we did. Yep, that's a bottle of wine each. I'm not proud of it. But if you can't spend double the food bill on booze in Covent Garden on a Friday night with a group of old school friends who are all turning 40 in the next few months, well, when can you? The road to my own significant birthday starts now, and Jidori has got it off to a cracking start. Bincho Yakitori is dead*. Long live Jidori.


*Bincho Yakitori is not dead. They moved to Brighton and by all accounts are doing a roaring trade. In fact we tried to get in a few weeks ago and they were full. The bastards.