Wednesday, 10 April 2019

Shikumen, Shepherd's Bush

I often think the most difficult thing to do in the world of restaurants is occupy the middle ground. If you're either a no-holds-barred Mayfair fine dining palace of splurge, or alternatively an ultra-low-budget dining hall in the New Cross, your audiences know exactly what to expect (and what they might expect to pay) and you've got no further explaining to do. But a mid-range restaurant will have to persuade a more moneyed clientele that the dip in prices and décor is still made up for in competent food, and that the budget diner will find enough above their usual spend per head to consider the odd indulgence.

It's a balancing act, one fraught with danger, but get it right and your middle-ground restaurant stands a chance of beating both the high- and low- end joints at their own game. And here to make the case for friendly, dependable mid-range Chinese is Shikumen in Shepherd's Bush, where you'll spend neither a pittance or an arm and a leg but stand a very good chance of coming away with one of the most rewarding Cantonese dining experiences in town.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Har gau were sticky and plump, with plenty of prawn filling and piping hot. Dipped in the house flaked chilli oil or hot sauce (both are great) this was top dumpling work.

Turnip puffs were an interesting delicate cone shape (and therefore less overwhelmingly carb-y than they can be)...

...cheung fun were excellent, both the crunchy dough stick variety and the prawn and bean curd, both of which impressed in different ways with their textures and strong flavours. I'm yet to discover a way of eating these slippery little fellas with chopsticks that doesn't involve abject humiliation on my part, but fortunately thanks to my friend being half an hour late and it being towards the end of service, not many people were around to witness it.

Oddly the only element of the dim sum that didn't completely win us over were the Xiao Long Bao. They were admittedly cleverly and precisely made little things, with a good amount of soupy filling and delicate casings, but the flavours veered between self-consciously wacky - cheese, or squid ink - and ever-so-slightly-too-plain pork. Still worth ordering, but not quite up to the level of the Din Tai Fung crab & pork.

But hold your presses everyone, because Shikumen are about far more than dim sum. I've been lucky enough to have fairly high-end roast Peking duck at various places in town - Hutong's was good though I've not been for years, as was Gold Mine in Bayswater. But this here was on another level - skin so light and delicately treated it just dissolved in the mouth, and neat slices of tender flesh that had a awe-inspiring balance of fresh game and soft fat. It was utterly lovely, so much so that rather than assembling the flesh inside steamed pancakes and dressing with hoi sin like we were supposed to, I ended up just eating the meat by itself, revelling in the complexity of taste and texture. If there's a better roast duck in London I'll be very surprised.

The joy of the duck didn't end with the pancake course, either, or the first few slices of golden skin dipped in sugar. After we'd had our fill of the former, two bowls of opaque duck soup were brought out, studded with spring onions and thickened with soy milk, which drew yet another bewilderingly complex set of flavours and textures from the bird. If you should ever go to Shikumen - and you very much should - to leave without ordering the duck would be a mistake on the level of going to Flatiron and ordering a salad.

So, for excellent dim sum and a truly world class roast duck, paying £45 a head including service and a couple of beers sounds like something approaching a bargain. If treading the middle ground of any particular cuisine's offering is difficult - and it undoubtedly is - it only means that when it does go right, it goes very right and we end up blessed with an operation like Shikumen who can hardly be faulted at all, treated either as an occasional special occasion or your new neighbourhood go-to Cantonese diner. But however you choose to approach Shikumen, I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I did. Oh, and order the duck.


We were invited to Shikumen and though this time we did SEE the bill, we didn't pay it.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Henrietta Bistro, Covent Garden

To be completely honest, Henrietta wasn't our first choice restaurant for this particular evening. We had first tried our luck at Flatiron next door, only to be told the wait, on a cold Thursday night, was two hours. Next we tried Din Tai Fung, which would have been my third visit in the space of a week (very happily so), only to find out that would be an hour or so as well. So we split the distance, and tried our luck at Henrietta, where fortunately they managed to find room for the two of us on a large table near the kitchens usually reserved for parties of six or more. The front of house's accommodating nature, especially given the previous knockbacks, came as a very welcome relief; even if the food had only been OK, we still would have been pretty happy.

In the end, the food was largely much better than OK - not perfect across the board, but thoughtful, and attractive, and generally pretty good value. In case you weren't aware, Henrietta began life as the second solo venture for chef Ollie Dabbous, and by all accounts did more than enough to occupy his time before the vast, flashy Hide opened on Piccadilly. These days by all accounts he's not involved, but it's hard to shake the feeling that these precise, attractive dishes owe more than a little debt to his style (described as "game-changing" back in the day by Fay Maschler) even if the ingredients are now more solidly Mediterranean than Modern British.

By accident rather than design (we ordered fairly quickly, still mildly frazzled from being knocked back at FlatIron and DTF), we ended up with three raw meat dishes. Best of the bunch was the tuna tartare, topped with a generous amount of truffle, and bound with an umami-rich tahini dressing. There was more main ingredient than you had any right to expect for £14, and full marks too for using real winter truffle instead of the tasteless cheaper variety.

Beef tartare came in a little canopy of sliced raw mushroom, if I'm being brutal probably more about aesthetics than taste, but still enjoyable enough. The beef was enhanced with a few chunks of anchovy - always a nice match - and was certainly amongst the better raw beef dishes I've been served in recent months. Also, at £10, one of the best value.

Unfortunately, octopus carpaccio was not a success. Completely devoid of seasoning and flavour, it was like eating a plate of soggy tissue paper - even little blobs of puréed avocado managed to be utterly without personality. Also, isn't it funny/annoying that whenever restaurants season their food perfectly there's always redundant salt & pepper shakers on the table, but whenever you're in desperate need to add your own seasoning they're nowhere to be seen? With a bit of table salt this may have been somewhat salvaged - without, it was a chore.

So Henrietta Bistro aren't perfect. But how many places are? And one dish wasn't enough to spoil our evening, especially when we could fill up on an absolutely superb sticky sourdough spread with espelette (chilli) butter. If I was a professional critic I'd probably have made an effort to discover whether they make the bread in-house or get it in from somewhere like E5 bakehouse or Hedone, but all you need to know is that it was very good.

The unreconstructed reverse-snob in me couldn't help finishing the meal on burger and chips, and I'm very glad I did. Powerfully-flavoured Basque beef blended with txistorra (a kind of chorizo) was exactly medium-rare and wonderfully juicy, and the soft cheese they'd used had both enough funk to match the beef and a great melted texture. It's true that I'd still rather it all came in a normal seeded burger bun than a floury English muffin (not sure of the thinking behind that) but it was still a very nice thing for £10.

Chips were basically perfect. Golden brown (ignore my useless iPhone photography), crunchy outside and creamy within, seasoned perfectly and with a good, rich potato flavour dusted only gently with dried rosemary, they instantly go near the top of my personal best chips in London list, alongside Hawksmoor's triple cooked and the beef dripping chips at Blacklock. It would be worth coming to Henrietta Bistro for these alone - these are seriously destination chips.

A couple of things I wouldn't order again, and many things I very much would, still adds up to a meal worth talking about. With a glass of wine the bill came to £68 for two, which is essentially right in the sweet spot of what you'd expect to pay for food like this, and is hardly unreasonable. True, it was our third choice out of three restaurants that evening, and probably deserves to be, but in a road containing so many big-hitters (please do go to Flatiron and Din Tai Fung, they're great) that they can still hold their head high in such company is much to be applauded. On another cold Thursday evening with my first choices oversubscribed, I could easily find myself back. That said, if I was in the mood for some chips, I wouldn't try anywhere else first at all.


Apologies for the bad photos - it was dark in there, and I didn't have my Big Camera.

Friday, 29 March 2019

The Swan, Bampton, Devon

Dinner two of our little weekend jaunt to Devon took place at the Swan, in Bampton. Where the Mason's Arms had been unapologetically high-end, with its Michelin star and petits fours, set in an idyllic thatched cottage miles from anywhere, Bampton is a more normal (albeit quite pretty) functioning Devonshire town, with a butchers, greengrocers and fish & chip shop, and acccordingly, the Swan itself is a friendly and unpretentious little spot. Though not as ridiculously beautiful as the Mason's (I'm sure they won't mind me saying), it's still an attractive place to be. And as for the contrast in styles, think of the difference between the Freemasons at Wiswell (experimental, innovative modern cuisine) and the Parker's Arms (traditional pub food done incredibly well) and you're not far off.

After an expertly-constructed Negroni (my control variable, and I have to say the Swan's was slightly better than the Mason's) the first snack was a scotch egg. The Swan are participating in next month's Scotch Egg Challenge at the Canonbury, and based on this example I'm pretty sure they stand a good chance of winning. With a good crunch from the breadcrumbs, a meat layer (involving Bury black pudding) which was thick enough to provide texture but not to be cloying, and an absolutely perfectly timed egg with a lovely runny bright orange yolk from local chickens, this was basically unimprovable in any area. Oh, and a cracking home made piccallilli too. Results will be declared on 10th April; expect to hear their name mentioned.

We ordered a few things from the bar snacks menu as starters, firstly these plump prawns in a nice greaseless batter, and homemade mayo...

...a very generous bowl of hummus, where the slight disappointment of being served slightly dry flatbread was made up for a genuinely lovely chunky hummus, all buttery and salty and full of flavour. This 'snack', costing £2.95, could have fed about 6 people.

You have to love anywhere going to the effort of pickling their own herrings. These were healthy, robust things - "chewy" sounds like too much of a criticism, they just had a good solid texture and a lovely sweet/sour brine. Pickled onions and capers added a bit more texture, and were also lovely.

Best of the mains was this cod, a brilliant bit of seafood cooking boasting a crisp skin, bright white flesh falling into defined flakes. The fish itself was more than enough to justify the price tag, but topped with potted shrimp and surrounded by artichoke purée and artichoke crisps, not to mention some sea herbs, there were all kinds of colours, flavours and textures to enjoy. This is one of those dishes so thoughtfully constructed and perfectly executed you'd hardly want for another way of serving cod, anywhere.

A shame, then, that the other mains fell a bit flat. "Massaman vegetarian curry" was an odd name to give to a bowl of ratatouille and noodles. I supposed there's nothing to stop them serving ratatouille and noodles, but had "ratatouille and noodles" been on the menu, the chances of us ordering it would have been pretty small. Without a discernable trace of any of the usual massaman ingredients (chilli, fish sauce, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shrimp paste etc. etc.) it was a bland, and deeply weird main course.

Two-thirds - specifically the top two thirds - of my steak & kidney suet pudding was lovely. A nice soft suet casing, rich in fat and flavour, huge chunks of kidneys and slow-cooked beef shin inside, in a rustic thin gravy, powerfully flavoured and seasoned, there was nothing not to enjoy. Until you reached the bottom-third, where for whatever reason the beef and kidneys turned into bullets and the suet went the texture of cement. So yes, a shame, but clearly from the flavour and texture of the majority of the thing, had it not been overcooked at the bottom it would have been a very nice steak & kidney pudding indeed.

But! We didn't stay disappointed for long. A dessert of treacle tart was sublime - just the right balance of sponge and sugar, not too dense or insubstantial, and a delicate pastry crust just holding the whole thing together. And with it, clotted cream ice cream with a fantastic smooth texture and rich dairy flavour, every bit the perfect foil for the tart. This would make a fine addition to any top gastropub dessert offering.

So I can't be too hard on the Swan, despite a couple of slip-ups. This is, after all, a proper community pub, popular and rightly so with locals and tourists, serving an accessible and unaffected menu of pub favourites and for a very reasonable amount of money. True, it didn't quite do enough to get itself into the very top tier of my own personal top 50, and I'd like to have seen a few more local game options (there's a specialist game butcher just around the corner) and shellfish (even just a plate of oysters) but I'm not about to tell a Bampton pub that I know their audience better than they do. Oh, and the upstairs rooms are spacious, well-specced and come with free sweets, and I've not slept better in a strange bed for a long time. And when it was time to leave, I wish I didn't have to. And I suppose that tells you all you need to know.


Wednesday, 27 March 2019

The Masons Arms, Devon

Quite apart from the quality of the food served, or the level of service offered by the front of house, I sometimes think when writing up rural gastropubs I should have a separate score, or at least apply a heavy weighting, to anywhere occupying a particularly charming ancient building. Obviously, having dinner in a low-beamed 13th century coaching inn doesn't automatically make everything else wonderful, but I can promise you that if everything else isn't wonderful, a log fire, tiny lead-lined windows, stone-flagged floors and wobbly narrow passageways make the whole experience a lot more bearable.

So upon entering the Masons Arms, an 800-year-old gastropub tucked away on the outskirts of Exmoor, it's immediately clear that, whatever else happened that evening, the prospect of being able to debrief afterwards in what is by some distance one of the most enchantingly pretty snugs I've had the pleasure of encountering in some years certainly helped cushion the uncertainty of how dinner may turn out. The place is beautiful - an almost exaggerated fairytale ideal of what an old country pub should be, like something out of a Tolkein novel.

In the end anyway, we needn't have worried about dinner. Head chef Mark Dodson learned his trade working with Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, and though it's probably fair to say that multi-starred Gallic style has become less trendy in recent years, there's still no good reason to dismiss it out of hand - when the French do food well, they do it very well indeed. Dinner began in the aforementioned cozy bar with a couple of classy nibbles - tuna tartare on cucumber with a lovely note of toasted sesame oil, and a supremely light chicken liver parfait on fried bread.

In the main dining room (spacious, pleasant and with a celestial scene painted on the ceiling) it continued. House breads were a decent sourdough (I think I've been a bit spoiled when it comes to sourdough) and a nice warm granary bun, whose delicate crust cracked to reveal a nice soft, warm crumb. We appreciated the choice of butter or oil/balsamic, too.

Often the most impressive dishes take a simple premise - in this case, a tomato soup - and through application of classical techniques turn it into something quite special. The best way of describing it - and I hope they don't take this as a criticism, because it isn't - is as a kind of turbocharged Heinz Cream of Tomato, with an incredible depth of flavour and a distinct-but-not-overpowering hit of garlic.

Apologies for the terrible photo of this beetroot arancini dish - it was a lot better than I've made it look. The slicks and blobs of beetroot (including an interesting tube of pickled white beetroot) were very nice, and combined with a horseradish cream it had all the best flavours of early spring. But the real stars, are you might imagine, were the arancini themselves - thick with salty cheese and delicately crisp on the outside.

I'm yet to come across a combination of guinea fowl and morels that I don't like, and this, accompanied by sweet roast fennel and a very clever portion of mousse inside a fragile breadcrumbed cylinder, which was great fun. If I'm going to be brutal, the guinea fowl itself was just slightly on the dry side - not enough to spoil it, but enough to notice. Still, the cream sauce was lovely, with the morels bursting in the mouth quite addictively, and I still polished it all off.

Scallops (a starter ordered as a main) were perfectly cooked, with a delicate golden crust, and sat in a rich brown bisque. They came with a couple of cute breadcrumbed squid rings, and studded into the bisque were a handful of fregola, adding a bit of texture and heft. This was a delightful seafood starter, exactly the kind of thing you hope for from a chef trained in the classical disciplines, top ingredients married to perfect execution. And disastrously represented thanks to my terrible photography.

Halibut was less successful. Rather underpowered and underseasoned, it didn't really live up to its price tag, and felt very odd next to everything that had come before. In fact, it was the only genuinly disappointing dish of the whole meal. I won't dwell on it - there's not much more to say, for one thing - but you do wonder how they managed to slip up on this one where most other areas seasoning had been spot-on.

Anyway, the good news is desserts were brilliant. First, rhubarb three ways - a vibrant jelly, an incredible rhubarb-spiked crème brûlée, and an ideal soufflé, light and fluffy and with a perfect rise, without a hint of greasiness. Some good pastry work going on at the Masons.

This pineapple and rub shortbread affair impressed as well. Rum and pineapple are always a good match, but stacking into a kind of cakey millefuille lent an extra layer of buttery goodness. Plus one of those ultra-smooth and creamy ice creams on the side.

Coffee came with a selection of chocolatey nibbles which I completely forgot to take a photo of. Sorry. But they were nice. And pretty generous of them to bring out petits fours for three, really, considering only one of us had coffee.

And generosity - of spirit and soul - is really what makes a restaurant like this. Yes, I can pick fault with seasoning and timing here and there, but ultimately we enjoyed a big warm hug of a meal, as cozy and enjoyable as time spent in their quaint front bar, all helped by incredibly friendly and engaged front of house staff (led by Sarah Dodson herself) who are clearly loving serving the food just as much as customers love eating it. I should probably say that our bill was smaller than average thanks to one of us ordering just mains and dessert, and another having two starters, but even so you can pay far more for far worse. Far worse. So if you're ever in the area and you're in the mood for a classy dinner served with an extra helping of charm, the Masons Arms comes thoroughly recommended. Or you could just come for a pint in the front bar and pretend you're a hobbit on the way to Mordor. Both sound like fun to me.