Monday, 9 December 2019

The Bull & Bear, Manchester

Bull and Bear is... well, actually, I don't know what it is. I don't even think the Bull & Bear knows what it is. The name suggests a pub, another addition to the North West's phalanx of world-class boozers, except this one is set up in the grand dining hall of the new Stock Exchange hotel, with its soaring ceilings, elaborate plasterwork and plush leather seating, and feels about as much like a normal pub as does the restaurant at Claridge's. There are, admittedly - and hilariously - flatscreen TVs all around the room showing Sky Sports, but none of the seating really face them, the sound is on too low to hear anyway (thank God) and halfway through our lunch the satellite signal failed, so they just started showing powerpoint slides of the hotel rooms upstairs.

If you're wondering what kind of person thinks putting Sky Sports on the walls in the dining room of a five star hotel is a good idea, well the answer is Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs and Winston Zahra, Premier League footballers being about the demographic in the world unable to really enjoy their £9.50 pollock scotch egg without the footie on in the background. The whole venture, in fact, feels very much like Kerridge with his successful restaurant brain on was gamely pulling in one direction while Neville & Co were insisting that the menu should somehow involve a baked potato (£8.50, featuring raw steak; we weren't brave enough to try it), a Caesar salad and pints of lager on tap.

To his credit Kerridge has, thanks to his talent as a chef and experience in the field of fancy hotel restaurants (I believe his place in the Corinthia is lovely), put together a menu that tries its darndest to keep all these separate interests happy, and occasionally succeeds. The aforementioned fish scotch egg is, well, not a vast amount of food for £9.50 but seasoned properly and prettily presented even if the flavour was in the end a bit subdued.

Less successful was this dish they called a "cassoulet" but turned out to be nothing of the sort. There were no chunks of sausage, no tasty slabs of pork skin, no thick, buttery sauce around the beans and in fact if I hadn't have been told it had been cooked with pork fat could have easily assumed it was some kind of vegetarian stew. And there's nothing wrong with a vegetarian stew of course, I just hadn't ordered one, and even if I had the vast amount of truffle dumped on top could not distract from what was a rather ordinary, underseasoned bowl of food, containing strange cubes of pickled something-or-other (apple?) that just made the whole thing taste even more bizarre.

There were occasional glimpses of Kerridge's more celebrated work. Mussels Marinière with Warm Stout was a thick seafood mousse with a lovely deep malty stout flavour, studded with mussels and served with a warm bun similar to soda bread. Putting aside the obvious criticism that this was £11.50 for about three spoonfuls of food, it was declared "really good" and was about the only thing we'd order again if we were to return. Though that's a big "if".

Elsewhere, things continued to disappoint. In no universe I can think of can a single quail stuffed with black pudding cost £17.50, especially not one with dry breast meat, chewy skin (had it been standing around the pass too long?) and containing an unadvertised and unwelcome surprise of a mushy apricot I think it was in the centre, which oozed out as I cut into it like a lanced boil.

Chips were fine. I never really like the chunky wedge shape for my chips (Kerridge's Hand & Flowers in Marlow do dainty little tube-shaped chips, but has decided not to do that here for some reason) and the potato didn't have a great deal of flavour but they were, you know, OK. Plenty of them though (as you'd hope for £5.50), and just as well as even I with my pretty meagre appetite was beginning to panic that a single quail and some weird veg stew wasn't going to keep me going until dinnertime.

"Profiterole" disappointed in a similar way to the "cassoulet", insofar as they weren't really profiterole because they weren't made with choux pastry. Instead, some little pastry casings - brittle and savoury like crackers - were filled with sour vanilla cream and topped with an admittedly lovely caramel-chocolate sauce. They weren't horrible, just a bit like everything else - not quite as advertised, slightly underflavoured, and slightly mean-spirited for the price (£8.50).

It all added up (and thanks to a few glasses of wine it certainly bloody did add up, to around £60/head with service charge) to a very strange experience indeed. If ever world class service was needed to rescue a birthday lunch from the jaws of a mediocre menu it was now, and fortunately a familiar face I recognised from the launch team at Fera, Mayfair back in the day was on hand to ensure everything ran smoothly and our every whim was catered for in good time. Take a bow, that man. But otherwise, a pub that isn't a pub serving overthought and underpowered bistro food in a room that would be plush if it didn't have more 4K capability than the nearest branch of Dixons, does Manchester really need this? Does anywhere?

I guess it could have been worse. The big name chef originally slated to take over the space was Michael O'Hare, and lord knows how his sci-fi experimental Spanish/Japanese alien food would have coped with the expectations of an all-day bistro and the requirement to serve breakfast. Or maybe it would have been brilliant, I guess we'll never know. All I do know is that the Bull & Bear is not the vehicle for Kerridge's undoubted talents it could have been, and I honestly wonder how long his name will stay above the door. For now, put it to the back of your mind - go to Mana, or Sugo Pasta Kitchen, or Kala - and leave alone until they've decided what on earth they want to be. Life's too short for meat-free cassoulet.


Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Betterment at the Biltmore, Mayfair

Given the significant budgets five star hotels in London have access to, the network of connections to the world's best chefs and operational staff, the beautiful (usually) and vast (sometimes) spaces they can dedicate to kitchens and dining halls, it's somewhat surprising how few hotel restaurants turn out to be any good. For every Alyn Williams at the Westbury*, where every course on a recent tasting menu was touched with pure genius, there's a Siren at the Goring, uneven and disorentating. For every Holborn Dining Room, where the staff are the best in town and the pies miniature works of art, there's the ever-changing restaurant at the Sanderson, who don't seem to be able to hang on to a head chef for more than a month, a rudderlessness reflected in their half-assed, dreary menu.

But even if you manage to snag a well-regarded head chef, a beautiful dining room and an association with one of the best hotels in town, success is by no means guaranteed. I may be in the minority (the numbers it does suggest I very much am) but I've never been particularly keen on Berners Tavern, because no room decked out like the Paris Salon is going to distract me from the fact I'm paying £22 for fish and chips with - horror of horrors - crushed garden peas instead of proper mushy. So it's fair to say I didn't have stratospheric expectations for Betterment, Jason Atherton's new project in the Biltmore on Grosvenor Square, which - at first glance - serves a faintly similar menu of international modern hotel favourites.

And yet. And yet. From the moment the house bread at Betterment (I really do not like that name) landed on the table, it was clear that this was going to be a step above the average hotel restaurant experience. Steaming hot, with a firm but yielding crust and served with room-temperature salted butter, this was an unimpeachable bread course, every detail of it correct. And it's that kind of attention to detail - exacting but enjoyable, if occasionally a bit leftfield - that carries through to everything the Betterment produce, to often quite wonderful effect.

For example, on paper, raw langoustine dusted with powdered, dried summer berries sounds like the kind of thing that could very easily sail very close to disgusting, but instead was a delight, the fruit powder serving as a kind of gentle seasoning that still allowed the sweet flesh of the seafood to shine. It was experimental, definitely, and ever-so-slightly wacky perhaps, but still a mature, well-crafted starter that impressed on every level.

Roast scallop came cutely framed by some sliced cep mushrooms, the advertised girolles forming part of a parmesan-seasoned mixture underneath. I didn't get to try any of this myself, as it had disappeared before I'd looked up from my langoustines, but I suppose that only goes to show how good it was.

99.9% of the time, the answer to the question "Should I use rose water in this starter?" is a resounding "Bloody hell no", and yet this neat arrangement of white crab meat, ajo blanco and a generous layer of caviar seemed to weather the intrusion of eu de Old Lady quite well. It probably helped that there was so much caviar (nobody has ever complained about there being too much caviar), and that the crab was lovely and sweet and fresh. And it also probably helped that there was hardly any rose water in it at all. This is a good thing.

In contrast to the other relatively complex starters, king crab was prepared and presented quite simply, cut into bitesize portions and spritzed with yuzu and lime. The best seafood rarely needs much doing to it (take note Norma) and this crab, previously frozen but none the worse for it (king crab freezes very well), was a very fine bit of seafood indeed.

Mains continued the theme of being inventive, attractive, and charmingly eccentric. My own ox cheek tortellini had a good bite - firm but not chewy or hard, the perfect done-ness - a nice rich filling, and the horseradish velouté wasn't the least bit bitter but instead kind of earthy and salty and quite lovely. In lesser hands, this kind of geographic pick'n'mix cuisine, bits from Italy and Japan and France and the US, would be confusing and disappointing, and Lord knows enough hotel bistros are. But it's abundantly clear that not only does Atherton (or whoever) write a good menu but he has assembled an incredibly accomplished kitchen team - lead by Ben Mellor, at least on the night we visited - to make sure it all gleams with style and finesse.

And talking of accomplishments, blimey the chips. I said on the night on the meal on Instagram, belly full of negroni and a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc, that they were the best chips I've ever eaten. Now, sober and less prone to hyperbole, I should probably revise that statement. They are, in fact, definitely the best chips I've ever eaten. Sorry Blacklock, sorry Chik'n'Sour, sorry Hawskmoor - the Bettermore's beef dripping chips were in every way perfect, silky smooth inside with a good crunch on the surface, seasoned sensitively and glowing with colour and flavour, I can't imagine anywhere else beating them, now or ever. True, they were £9 for about 8 of them but if that's the price of perfection, so be it.

A sharing portion of turbot was a glorious thing - meaty and firm in texture with a great taste and nice crisp skin. There would be a lot to be said for turning up at Betterment, ordering this and a few dozen portions of chips and calling it a lunch. I suppose that's the beauty of a menu as intelligently drawn up as this, the flexibility to enjoy your food in a myriad of different ways. Or maybe I'm just fantasising excuses to order a lot, lot more of those chips.

I didn't try the venison, but it looked the part and I didn't hear any complaints. I did get to try some of the onion flower with chive emulsion, presumably a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Outback Steakhouse blooming onion, something that I would ordinarily chide as a bit naff if a) it hadn't been so tasty and b) we weren't all having such a great time.

There was one more dish of a cheesecake that for some reason I only photographed the non-cheesecake part of, which was clever of me, but trust me this again was wonderful. Initial disappointment at being served a 'deconstructed' cake soon turned to delight when it was sampled - a basque-style baked affair this was, incredibly rich and buttery and so fiercely authentic it could have come from the kitchens at La Viña in San Sebastián.

This wasn't an PR-led invite or anything like that but it was a birthday treat, and I didn't see the bill. You can probably work out how much the four of us spent by cross-referencing with the menu but I imagine it wouldn't have been much less than £100 a head, possibly a little more. That is not a cheap dinner, of course, although you can spend a lot more in the area - we all knew what we were letting ourselves in for booking into a five star hotel restaurant in Mayfair. What came as more of a surprise - and delight - was food this playful and full of personality and flavour, top ingredients treated well but without overdue reverence, the kind of thing you rarely see anywhere never minds in a restaurant that needs to keep so many different, and often competing, interests happy. For all my moans and groans about London food recently, there are, after all, still places that dare to be different. Cherish them wherever you find them, and make sure you get yourself down to the Betterment. Even if just for those chips.


*Alyn Williams at the Westbury is, at time of press, Alyn-less. I'm hoping they'll sort something out though because that place really is good.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Master Wei, Bloomsbury

Another day, another unlikely back alley in Bloomsbury, another cracking little noodle place. For this one I have not only - again - a review in the Guardian to thank for pointing me in its direction, but also certain Twitter users who saw my delight in other local noodle shops and thought I'd like to add another to the list. And I very much did like.

Master Wei is by the same people as Xi'an Impression, a similarly no-nonsense little operation up next to the Emirates stadium and which has its own intensely loyal fan base. Like there, the food at Master Wei is notionally from Xi'an in central China, so big bowls of hand-pulled "biang biang" (pronounced, I discovered, pretty much as it's spelled) noodles, various other ways with hot-and-numbing spices, and interesting bits and pieces of street food such as their take on a "beef burger", a soft bao bun with a spiced beef mince patty.

So far though, across two trips, I've stuck mainly to the noodles, although that didn't stop me trying a small plate of cold shredded chicken with spicy sauce. It's not the most visually arresting plate of food you're ever likely to see in your life, but boy does it pack a punch of flavour - sweet and sour and soft, with an oily, chillified sauce that was so moreish I ended up scooping out the dregs with a spoon.

But the star of any meal at Master Wei's will be the hand-pulled "biang biang" noodles. Almost impossible to eat without making a complete tit of yourself (I may be projecting here), the noodles themselves are thick and healthy looking things, charmingly irregularly shaped and with an immensely pleasing, firm bite. Draped in chilli oil and woven in with a few bits of bok choi, they would have been more than worth the effort even without generous chunks of beef, which managed to be soft and full of flavour without being stringy or dry. Quite the achievement.

There was a different style of noodles to go with the minced pork and veg in this dish - thinner, rounder "hand-pulled" noodles which had all the same vitality and bounce but were a damn sight easier to roll onto the chopsticks to eat. The pork was coated in a dark, sticky, treacle-y sauce, perhaps more towards the kind of thing you'd expect from a Cantonese rather than Xi'an restaurant but I'm sure I'm no expert - it was still lovely.

Finally, Xinjiang style chicken noodles, the pieces of poultry "butchered" in that technically they were no longer part of a chicken but without much in the way of jointing or aesthetical considerations. I didn't mind, though, as the flesh was nice and tender, the noodles (biang biang again) were still hearty and comforting and the broth, this time a more soupy affair with chunks of potato and chilli floating about, was complex and rewarding right to the last drop.

I've never had to wait for a table at Master Wei, but I think I've been lucky (and I don't mind eating early if there's nice noodles to be had). Staff (efficiently, if a bit stoney-faced) can re-jig tables to suit the walk-in parties but I have seen groups sat shivering in the cold outside, especially towards 1pm. But why wouldn't you expect to wait a bit, or be a bit flexible with your lunchtimes, for food this good? Certainly the Chinese students of nearby UCL and LSE, who I'm guessing we have to thank for the demand that keeps Master Wei in business, know they've got a good thing going here and pack the place out every day, without fail. And though the bill isn't bargain-basement, it seems very reasonable. You do, after all, get plenty of biang biang for the buck.


Thursday, 21 November 2019

Norma, Fitzrovia

As much as you can ever be sure about these things, I was sure I would enjoy Norma. So sure that I booked a table for the day of my birthday. So sure that I invited 5 of my closest friends (6 if you count the baby) to enjoy it with me. Convinced that so many positive reviews couldn't all be wrong, and the necessity of making a 5:45pm reservation on a Wednesday night indicating that so many members of the public couldn't be wrong, either. So sure, as I bounded into this beautifully decorated space on Charlotte Street, with its spotlit booths and gleaming crudo bar that absolutely everything would, this particular evening, go my way.

We started, because it was my birthday, with cocktails. My own, called "The Bronte Pistachio", came served, for reasons only known to them, in a bowl, meaning that instead of picking it up to drink you leant over the table and sucked it up with a straw. It tasted fine, a bit subdued and with quite a few shards of ice floating around in it suggesting that someone behind the bar hadn't used the correct filter, but you know, fine. A friend's "Alchemist" was sweet and bland, needing a lot more of the advertised lemon. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the food arrived.

We balked slightly at the £4.50 each price tag on Norma's West Mersea oysters (they weren't even natives), and the rather left-field dressing (salted capers and fennel oil?) but nothing was going to stop me ordering oysters on my birthday so I brushed such concerns aside and ordered them. As soon as the first one slipped onto my tongue, I wish I hadn't. Adding salted capers to already incredibly salty oysters is an idea every bit as stupid as it sounds, and the fennel oil only served to make this festival of saline ever so slightly bitter and vegetal. These were genuinely unpleasant. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the snacks arrived.

For a tantalisingly brief moment, everything was. Red prawns, surely one of the world's greatest seafoods, came dressed with a remarkably unobtrusive rosemary and orange dressing, and were every bit as sweet and soft and lovely as only the freshest examples can be.

Anchovies were decent, not the very best I've had even this month being a bit mealy in texture, but still ate pretty well and looked the part.

Spaghettini fritters were crunchy and gooey in all the right places, and came with a seriously addictive parmesan (I think) based dip which complimented them beautifully. True, it's probably not easy to mess up the deep-frying of balls of pasta and subsequent grilling with cheese, but even so, these were very fine things indeed, properly comforting comfort food.

And I don't think I've had a better cod's roe since Quality Chop House, and as anyone who's ever tried their version will tell you, that's high praise indeed. It was so silky smooth and packed full of flavour that all 6 of us fought to polish it off, but because it was my birthday I won the battle for the second helping. So would everything be alright in the end?

In a word, no. The red prawns, the spaghettini and the cod's roe were merely a brief tick up from the downward trajectory, and with the arrival of the giant saffron arancini (singular, so surely 'arancino'?), we were once again hurtling towards earth. In the same way as some people can't eat coriander because it tastes like soap, I have a weird immunity to the taste of saffron - no matter how much there is, I can't taste it. So for a full appraisal of this antipasto I will refer you to my dining companions, every last one of whom declared this dish "way, way too saffrony and pretty disgusting" whereas I just found it cloying and bland. So there you go.

Vitello tonnato needs to be made exceptionally well, with exceptional ingredients, to stop it being anything more than a plate of cold meat and mayo, and this was nothing more than that. The overwhelming effect was cold dairy (we found no trace of smoked eel), the veal only announcing its presence via being rather chewy and difficult to eat. Not fun.

It was about this stage in the evening that all the odd flavour combinations littering the menu at Norma, that seemed so quirky and intriguing while we were ordering, returned to show their true horrific forms. Strozzapreti would presumably have been quite nice with a simple tomato ragu, but Norma decided to add orange(?) and fresh mint(??) to theirs, the end result tasting a bit like a plate of party lasagne that someone had accidentally spilled a cocktail over.

Ravioli were unpleasantly hard, underseasoned and underflavoured, and the huge chunks of soggy broccoli they came with just looked - however unfairly - like an attempt to bulk out the main ingredient with something cheaper. Also, each of these hardly vast mountains of pasta were £16, punchy even by central London standards (a similar amount of the wonderful Spicy Pork & N’duja Mafalde at Bancone costs £11).

More out of hope than expectation, we ordered desserts. Mine was a fairly decent brioche bun (could have done with being a bit sweeter and less chewy, but fine) with a nice smooth salted caramel ice cream. Weirdly considering the rather meagre portion sizes elsewhere this was actually a bit too big, and even with a bit of help it didn't all get eaten.

But I fared a lot better than those who ordered the cannoli. A dreadful hush descended on our table as these were sampled, as we tried to work out exactly what we were eating. Bizarrely, inexplicably, they tasted of exactly nothing - not cream, not pastry, not sugar - just a complete absence of form and flavour, like tubes of Polyfilla wrapped in stale bread. Those with more knowledge of pastry work than me (hardly a high bar) suggested perhaps they'd used cornflour to thicken them artificially, but I can only offer this as (someone else's) educated guess. Whatever the reason, quite how anyone thought these things were good enough to serve was beyond any of us.

I should try and claw back a few positives from what still ended up being an entertaining - if largely for the wrong reasons - birthday dinner. Staff did occasionally forget to fill up glasses and left old glasses hanging around quite long, but overall were attentive and friendly and made the very kind gesture of gifting a bottle of sparkling Falanghina when they saw cards and presents being opened. They were also very accommodating when our party size changed 3 times in the course of the day, and made plenty of space available for a pram, meaning a newborn's sleep-deprived parents managed an evening out in the real world, a rare luxury I'm reliably told.

But overall, I can't think of many nice things to say about the food at Norma, and that is after all the main bloody point of the place. At over £60 each I can think of far better Italian restaurants worth your wages - start at Bancone in Covent Garden, for a start, or perch at the bar in a Barrafina for some top-notch crudo - and all the salivating reviews would have left me genuinely questioning my sanity had I not shared the experience with five other people who can all corroborate the above, including, embarrassingly, an Italian native who I left that cold November night shaking his head sadly and repeating "Why would they put orange and mint in pork pasta? Why?". Why indeed. Why indeed.