Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Coastal Foraging with Craig Evans, Pembrokeshire

I can't imagine any holiday or short break of any kind that doesn't in some way revolve around food, but this trip to Pembrokeshire was a little unusual. Instead of hanging the weekend around a Top 50 Gastropub or high-profile foodie favourite, our signature Saturday night meal would be something of an unknown quantity, at a boutique hotel in the pretty coastal town of Newport, reviewed well for its rooms and location but with very little to go on when it came to the food. My interest had been piqued by the existence of a kitchen garden, various mentions of foraging on the menu and the fact they ran their own smokehouse, but more than that, I was in the dark. To be honest, it could have gone either way.

So as insurance against a potentially disappointing dinner, we had organised what would surely be the runaway highlight of this weekend, and indeed would turn out to be most probably the highlight of the rest of the year - an afternoon seafood foraging with YouTube star Craig Evans. For those of you who don't know, Craig has built up a dedicated following for his short videos of himself hauling a bewildering variety of shellfish and crustacea out of the Pembrokeshire coastal sands. The video in particular that got me hooked involved Craig, up to his neck in murky tidal water, fishing around with his bare hands in a terrifying dark crevasse, before triumphantly swinging around and belting the camera with a giant blue lobster. Free lobster! It's the foodie's dream.

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Foraging! With @coastal_foraging_with_craig

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Off we went, then, to a secret location near Carmarthen Bay (Craig, quite understandably, guards his favourite spots quite closely) to meet the man himself, another dedicated foraging fan, and his handsome dog Llew, a golden retriever with a gentle personality and a pull on the leash like a grizzly bear. First stop, to make the most of the extreme low tide, was an area of mussel beds beneath a promentary, where a good haul of plump shellfish were frantically wrestled from the rocks and bagged up in the 15 or so minutes we had before the tide started to creep back in.

Next, a walk along the beach to raid the cockle beds, a much more leisurely and almost theraputic persuit. You drag your fingers through the sand a few inches from the surface, and before long begin to bump up against the cockles, sturdy little things about an inch across. With a trained eye (ie. Craig's) you can dig up a couple of dozen every minute, although even I managed enough to dress a bowl of vongole. In the same fertile area of the bay, though, lurk some real monsters - soft-shelled clams, the size of your fist, which live about a foot under the surface. Grabbing one of these guys is a case of looking for a tell-tale circular depression in the sand and scooping away the top layer. If you are rewarded with a squirt of water (as the clam's siphon is retracted), then this spot is occupied. Then it's just a case of digging, and digging, and digging until you reach far enough down to carefully (their shells are fragile, and a broken shell means an inedible clam) bring the thing to the surface.

Before long we had more than enough to feed our party, so we headed to the back of the bay, where fresh running water made the cleaning of the haul easier, and lit the "Solva Stove" (Swedish candle), a clever bit of engineering which heats up a pan of fresh seafood just long enough to cook it before collapsing sustainably and environmentally into carbon. And of course, it all tasted wonderful. With no seasoning other than the animals themselves, we each enjoyed a bowl of richly-flavoured broth, studded with sweet cockles, miniature shrimp (that Craig had found the same morning), wild garlic (ditto) fleshy mussels and, on the side, carefully filleted portions of soft-shelled clam, meaty like squid. We ate our bowls of seafood, surely the freshest and most satisfyingly procured lunch it's possible to imagine, sat on the rocks in the bright Pembrokeshire sunshine. Then, when the final bits of clam had been handed out, we cleared up, headed back up the cliffs and left hardly a trace we'd ever been there at all.

Almost as soon as it was over I wanted to head back down to the beach and start the hunt for more clams, but who knows if my foraging skills will stay with me. Maybe it's like when you help with cooking a meal with a very talented cook friend, and by the end of it start to think you've got the hang of it, but the next time you attempt anything on your own it's a disaster. Or maybe that's just me. But even if the skills don't stick, and I never haul another half-kilo clam out of the ground with my bare hands again in my life, what an experience, what a day and what an incredible education on the bounty of our shores. I'll never look at our coast in the same way again - what once were barren stretches of sand and inhospitable rocks, I'll now see for what they really are. Lunch.


Bit silly to score a foraging course the same way I would a restaurant, but look, I've gone and done it anyway. Craig refused payment for the foraging afternoon even though we were more than willing to pay, so I suppose this is a kind of invite. So I mention it just for full transparency. Book your own course, year round on his website (he has customers from all over the world). Oh, and finally, to read a much better and more thorough interview with Craig get yourself a copy of Pit Magazine issue 6. A little plug for my mate's mag, there. For the meal at Llys Meddyg, watch this space...

Monday, 14 October 2019

Mei Ume at the Four Seasons, Tower Hill

Mei Ume is a Chinese and Japanese restaurant and not, they are at pains to point out, a Chinese-Japanese restaurant. There's no pan-Asian stir-frys, no Sino-Japanese fusion food, no crab & sweetcorn ramen or crispy duck sushi. Instead, Chinese and Japanese dishes sit alongside each other, not in separate sections of the menu but listed within similar categories, so you get, for example, prawn crackers listed right next to edamame beans in the snacks, and "Stir fried lobster tail with ginger and spring onion" next to "Wagyu beef teppanyaki with ponzu and miso dressing" in the Signature section. It's a conceit that still may have purists thinking twice, especially in these days of ultra-regional specialisation in Chinese and Japanese food, and you'd be forgiven for questioning whether the same kitchen could - or even should - be attempting all this at once.

At least, until you eat the food in question, at which point all of these questions of authenticity immediately fade into insignificance. Because whether you stick to the Chinese dishes or order only Japanese, or concoct yourself a weird geographically confused combination of the both (as we ended up doing), you're very likely to enjoy every last bit of your dinner at Mei Ume. The reason is in no small part due to an innovative dual-head-chef system, with one person experienced in the Cantonese traditions, and a sushi master trained in Japan overseeing that side of things. All of the dishes therefore have that all-important chime of authenticity, despite the two cuisines existing on the same menu.

And they've also got themselves a very competent cocktail person, based on these welcome drinks - a Sakura Spritz made with gin, cherry and yuzu juice, and a Geisha Martini, dry and perfumed with an elegent hint of sansho pepper.

It's surely the case that the best way of enjoying sushi - proper, high-end sushi - is to sit down at the bar at somewhere like Cubé or Tetsu and ask for omakase. There's something immediate and charming about having your food prepared in front of your very eyes, and having such control over the experience as a customer - deciding whether to have a second round of sashimi before moving on to the nigiri, for example - is empowering and actually quite thrilling. That said, given the limitations of the standard dining room format at Mei Ume, their sushi offering is astonishingly good. Sashimi of the finest otoro (meat from the belly of the tuna, rich with fat) and blindingly fresh, buttery mackerel were served prettily arranged alongside wonderful soft eel, sea-spritzed uni (sea urchin) and aburi (blowtorched) salmon nigiri, each boasting absolutely unimpeachable, body temperature rice. Only a rather sad pile of fake wasabi - coloured horseradish, as opposed to the real wasabi root which they really should be offering at this price point - let the side down slightly.

We let Mei Ume decide in which order to bring the rather eclectic set of items we'd ordered, and so next to arrive was their signature Peking duck, as deeply bronzed (and no less attractive) as George Hamilton, fanned out beneath a dainty clump of cabbage and herbs. It arrived alongside the familiar array of Peking duck kit - pancakes in a steamer, julienned cucumber and spring onion, hoi sin sauce - but also a bowl of plum jam, which was a nice touch. Really, though, this was all about the duck - and my God, what duck. That gorgeous skin, as delicate as the finest French pastry, rested on a layer of fat which dissolved in the mouth into rich duck soup, and left you to marvel at the texture of the flesh, just blushed pink (though by no means rare - the Chinese seldom serve duck rare), soft and yielding but with just enough of a chew to bring a smile to the face. I made a pancake out of a couple of slices as I was expected to do, but very soon ended up eating the duck on its own, to be able to simply marvel at it without the distraction of vegetables and sauces. I've had a few Peking ducks in my time, but this was an absolute world-beater.

If the rest of the evening paled in comparison somwhat to That Duck, well, that's hardly much of a criticism. Kung Pao chicken had an elegant set of flavours, with sweetness, sourness and chilli heat in perfect balance, and macadamia nuts added a nice bit of crunch. The chicken itself was perhaps very slightly on the dry side, but with so much else to enjoy it didn't matter too much.

Gai lan was perfectly cooked, with a great crunch and seasoned well by a silky ginger sauce. There's only so much to say about a plate of gai lan, but as plates of gai lan go, this was a good one.

And finally green beans with minced pork, the use of Iberico pig adding an extra depth to this classic dish. Very nice indeed, vibrantly flavoured and extremely enjoyable, but to be honest I was still thinking about That Duck.

As should be apparent by now, judging solely by the quality of the food offered, there is very little to criticise about Mei Ume. Hopping between Japanese and Chinese food from one course to the next has the potential to turn into a car crash, but by virtue of everything being done to such a high standard, and with each cuisine treated with such skill and respect, it all comes together marvellously. Service is attentive and knowledgable, and it's a beautiful room to enjoy it all in - the hotel (the Four Seasons) is the ex headquarters of the Port of London Authority, and is all high ceilings and Beaux Arts architectural flourishes, accented with Japanese and Chinese murals and details.

But there is the little matter of the cost. I was invited to Mei Ume, and though I'm sure I'd have appreciated the food just as much if I was covering it myself, the bill in question would have come to £261.56 (assuming 12.5% service) for two, not an every day expense. But you know what, £130 per person for a table in a five star hotel, plenty of booze, some of the finest sushi in town and the best Peking duck in the whole bloody world (probably) is most certainly not an unreasonable amount of money, and if you were in the mood (and budget) for a celebration, I imagine this would suit pretty well. Plus, they do a Saturday lunch menu for £25 which includes a glass of sparkling sake, and though it doesn't feature any of the pricier bits of sushi, you do get some salmon & avocado hosomaki (with that same fantastic rice) and some dim sum, so you can experience the whole Chinese-Japanese dichotomy in the same lovely surroundings for the price of an IMAX cinema ticket.

Not a fusion restaurant, then, but really two restaurants from two different corners of the world that happen to occupy the same few hundred square feet of hotel, Mei Ume is somehow not the confusion the concept threatens to be, but is in fact a remarkably versatile operation. You could settle in for a Cantonese feast, construct yourself an omakase-style sushi experience, spend a week's wages on dinner or lunch on a budget, and whatever you end up with is likely to be at least worth the money you pay for it. Which is by no means a given in five star London hotels, let me tell you. I would happily go back, and pay. Anything to have another go at That Duck.


I was invited to Mei Ume and didn't pay

Monday, 30 September 2019

Loyal Tavern, Bermondsey

Though I would never suggest any restaurant creates anything solely for its Instagram appeal - that way madness lies - it's true (albeit faintly regrettable) that the existence of one or two talking-point dishes, able to make the rounds on social media in opening week, is a good way of getting your PR campaign off to a flying start. At the Loyal Tavern, Tom Cenci's expertly-pitched and supremely enjoyable new bistro in Bermondsey, there's an item towards the top of the menu that immediately catches the eye.

"Chicken skin crackling, hot sauce, blue cheese dressing.... £3". True, the rest of the menu reads pretty bloody well as well, with lovely things like slow-cooked pigs cheeks and gurnard in crab bisque being offered for really quite reasonable amounts of money, but it's that chicken skin crackling that will first grab your attention, and will almost certainly (unless you're vegetarian, or mad) be the first thing you order.

And you absolutely should, because it's brilliant. The crackling itself is neither too greasy or too hard, but in a perfect sweet spot that dissolved gracefully in the mouth, releasing a powerful chicken flavour which stood up very well to the hot sauce (Frank's?) they were doused in, and a light scattering of - of all things - chopped dill on top added a lovely herby note. The dip beneath was thick, cooling and creamy, with enough blue cheese for you to notice it but not enough to be unpleasantly salty or funky. This £3 snack is, essentially, one of London's best buffalo wings, without really being a buffalo wing at all.

I appear to have written three paragraphs on a £3 bar snack. Sorry, these things happen when I get carried away. You should know there are plenty of other things to get excited about on the Loyal Tavern menu. Like this grilled flatbread, baked to order, which comes with what the menu said was "chicken fat butter" but looked a lot like crumbled chicken skin to me (and is absolutely none the worse for that).

And don't forget the bar offering, which is as mature and elegant as anywhere in town. This is a basil daquiri - simple, beautiful, dangerously easy to drink.

Some dishes, I'm sure Tom won't mind me saying, are related to the kind of thing Duck and Waffle were turning out, although I don't remember their grilled mackerel ever being as soft and crunchy and moreish as this. Topped with a layer of pickled apples draped over confidently charred skin, they were great fun, and looked - and tasted - like they should cost a lot more than £5.50. For all its undoubted pleasures, Duck & Waffle was never what you'd call great value.

Venison tartare, thickly chopped and nicely seasoned, came topped with sprout leaves full of miso mayo, a clever little touch which not only added crunch but an interesting extra umami hit. Attractive looking thing, too, isn't it?

Main courses were, if I'm going to be absolutely brutal (and I imagine that's why you're here in the first place), slightly less impressive than the starters and snacks, but still immensely enjoyable in a rustic kind of way. My lamb - pink, juicy, with a good fatty crust and perfectly seasoned, came on a bed of marrowfat peas and a lot of creamy mustard dressing, the texture of which was a little lumpy thanks to rogue bits of pea but had a nice flavour.

And buttermilk-poached cod looked a little unsettling, but was beautifully cooked to ever-so-slightly-under, and the nduja and white bean stew had bags of Mediterranean flavour. Also, £15 for a lot of cod. I realise mentioning the prices in the first couple of weeks of a new opening is asking for trouble, but I have to assume for the purposes of a review that they're at least vaguely indicative of how they're going to stay. Even if they clocked up by a quid or two each in a month or two, we're still talking about a fairly lower-to-mid-range budget.

I'm hoping that these Stinking Bishop fondant potatoes find a permanent place on the menu - they were a chalkboard special on the night I visited - because they deserve one. I should have taken a video of my cutting through the crisp, golden brown exterior to release the gooey melted cheese inside, but I'm afraid I was too busy salivating, so you'll have to imagine just how great they were. Or, you know, go to the Loyal Tavern and order them yourself, quick smart.

There were also desserts. Pistachio ice cream was silky-smooth, and the macerated cherries packed a punch. Less successful was a banana bread, which seemed a bit dry and had pointlessly been scattered with rock-hard raw coffee beans, but it hardly spoiled the evening. From the buffalo chicken skins onwards, and for most of the rest of it, Loyal Tavern was a blast.

It always miffs me as a Battersea resident that a few neighbourhoods - Bermondsey, Camberwell, Tooting - seem to have a huge and varied selection of great places on their doorstep and it's taken my local, the Fox & Hounds (on Latchmere Road) 15 years to learn how to make triple-cooked chips. I try not to take it personally, but guys - Bermondsey did not need Loyal Tavern. It has Pizarro and José and Casse Croute and Flour & Grape already, and all these places are by themselves a reason to stay on the 188 bus from Holborn. But OK, fine, well done you, and yes, I suppose I will have to get used to travelling, for those fondant potatoes, for a cosy booth in this extraordinarily well-designed and welcoming room, and most importantly - of course - for those buffalo chicken skins. I'd travel to the moon and back for those.


I was invited to Loyal Tavern and didn't see a bill.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Vijaya Krishna, Tooting

Over the last few weeks, have been running a series of 'best value' guides to different areas of London. Exhaustively researched and containing all sorts of insights into the history of various different ethnic cuisines in London, it made me realise two things - one, that despite the best efforts of Brexit and national populism to ruin it all, I still live in the most dynamic and varied food city in the world, and two, that I've explored a shamefully tiny percentage of it.

Such ignorance is nobody's fault but my own, and I would hope that even when making embarrassing errors in posts about modern British, Italian or Spanish restaurants, cuisines that just through sheer weight of exposure I'm relatively familiar with, there's enough elsewhere to enjoy. But when it comes to many minority cuisines, and Sri Lankan/South Indian food in particular, my entire database of past experience consists of a couple of (admittedly excellent) meals at Apollo Banana Leaf and the lunchtime special at Hoppers, and so in critiquing a Sri Lankan restaurant's output, I'm well out of my comfort zone.

Of course this lack of experience would be a bit of an issue even if I loved a particular place - I didn't know what the hell was going on with most of what I was served at ABL, but I knew I liked it - but when a meal falls short, I'm on very shaky ground indeed. Is it even fair to criticise dishes based on sheer personal preference alone, without any way of referencing how they "should" have been served? What if a Sri Lankan restaurant blogger went to Rambla and marked down their (perfect, in this blogger's opinion) gazpacho because it came served cold? Maybe they would have preferred it hot; maybe it even would have been better hot (however unlikely that seems); but does knowing that traditionally gazpacho is served cold a precursor to qualified criticism? Or does anything go in restaurant reviewing on the internet?

Anyway, all the above is permission to take anything that follows in the totally subjective and largely uninformed manner in which it was written, and that however unimpressed I was with Vijaya Krishna, there's every chance if you went you'd have a great time. A maxim which applies to all the posts on this blog, come to think of it.

Cashew nut 'pakoda' were nice enough but I wouldn't really call them a 'starter', more of a bar snack. Half the portion size, and half the price, they'd be worth nibbling on while perusing the menu but I didn't detect any of the advertised curry leaves, chilli or ginger - and I don't think I'd order them again.

'Puri' must mean a very different thing in some parts of South Asia than others because I was expecting little golfball sized spheres of pastry containing chickpeas and tamarind water to pour into them. Instead, this arrived - a kind of wholewheat bread sandwich containing a small amount of decent, if hardly earth-shattering, prawn curry. I didn't hate it, but I just really like the other kind of puri, so I couldn't help being a bit disappointed. Which is hardly their fault, but still.

I very often order butter chicken to assess the skills of a South Asian kitchen because a) I love the stuff, and b) I've had so many over the years I can generally use it as a control variable. Vijaya's was fine, but the bits of chicken were a little dry, and the sauce just didn't have the depth of flavour of other versions. If you're interested, the absolute pinnacle of the butter chicken craft is served by Jamavar in Mayfair - hardly the same budget I know, but worth splurging on if you want to know exactly how good this ostensibly simple dish can get.

We were advised to order the Cochin prawn curry as a house speciality, but I can't say it deserved the title of a signature dish. Prawns were nice and plump and moist, and there were plenty of them, but the sauce was fairly generic and about 5 minutes after we'd eaten it I'd pretty much forgotten it ever existed.

Chicken '65 had a great flavour - much like Apollo Banana Leaf's - but were cut a little small and were dry and stringy, which APL's never are. Much like what had come before, it wasn't awful, not inedible, just dull and a little careless. Plus, not a huge portion for £7.90, it has to be said.

Fortunately, we were able to end on a high, because Vijaya Krishna's paratha is absolutely glorious. An utterly addictive texture, with folds of delicate crispness enveloping silky soft pastry, it was also buttery and rich enough to satisfy on every level. A very very impressive bit of work, and really the only thing approaching a must-order.

But you know what, no harm done. haven't got round to South London in their cheap eats guides just yet, so I'm very interested to see which of the Tooting stalwarts make the list. I've heard very good things about an Afghanistani grill house called Namak Mandi, and I do hope that Apollo Banana Leaf gets a mention, but if this meal has taught me anything is that even the most-recommended restaurants need the right audience, and perhaps the joy of these lists is merely to introduce people to new places and let them decide for themselves if they work for them. I probably won't go back to Vijaya Krishna, not with so many other options in the area, but I definitely am glad I've been. And sometimes, that'll do.


Friday, 13 September 2019

The Opera Tavern, Covent Garden

There are a few restaurants - increasingly few - that despite at least one very pleasant meals at, I've for whatever reason never got around to writing up. My 40th birthday last November was an excuse to plug a few of the more glaring gaps (many thanks the Guinea Grill and Chez Bruce for countless good times), but to anywhere else I love that still remains unblogged I can only apologise and say that I'll hope to get round to it eventually. Promise.

So consider this post a very long-delayed response to so many very brilliant meals over many years at the Opera Tavern. This Italian-Spanish bistro, part of the very commendable Salt Yard group, arrived in Covent Garden at a time when decent Covent Garden dining spots were pretty few and far between. It immediately made a name for itself by offering what soon became its signature dish, a mini Iberico pork and foie gras burger, a revelation at a time when the Meatwagon's #meateasy popup in New Cross had only just got going, and Londoners had only just started discovering the joys of rare meat in a bun.

Weirdly - and slightly disappointingly - that Iberico burger appears to no longer feature on the Opera Tavern menu, at least not at time of press, but then perhaps that's for the best. These things are generally better in our memories than revisited, and there's every chance it would pale in comparison today to offerings from Bleecker burger or Zephyr in Peckham. Or maybe not. I suppose we'll never know.

What I do know is that there's still more than enough reasons to visit the Opera Tavern, burger or no burger, beginning with their excellent - I mean seriously excellent - jamon & manchego croquetas. These beautiful little mouthfuls of gooey bechamel spiked with top Iberico ham, glued into place with silky-smooth aioli, are alongside José Pizarro's, pretty much the best in town, and a must-order even if popping in briefly for no more else than a glass of cold sherry. Opera Tavern is competing in this year's "Croqueta challenge" taking place at sister restaurant Ember Yard, and on the basis of this, they stand a good chance of coming back with a (croqueta-shaped) trophy.

Padrón peppers, I realise aren't the most demanding dish a tapas restaurant could produce (even I've never managed to balls them up, and I once tried frying potatoes in a ceramic tray on the hob; it didn't end well), but are I think an essential part of any Spanish meal nonetheless. These were, as expected, all salty and crunchy in the right places but also contained a surprising number of quite spicy ones. Someone once told me that the percentage of hot padróns in any given batch is depending on the time of year - more in the summer, fewer in the winter; I'm not sure how true that is but I'm going to believe it until someone gives me a better explanation.

If I missed the nostalgic hit of the Iberico pork burger, this plate of smoky chargrilled chorizo took me right back to my first few months as a food blogger all the way back in 2007, waiting shivering in the line at Borough Market for a Brindisa chorizo roll. Here it came on a bed of chunky hummus, topped with sundried tomatoes and paprika-spiked chickpeas, and was as comforting and addictive as ever. Tapas - and Spanish food generally, outside of the most falutin' of 3* gastro-temples - is often defined by being stripped-back and simple, but there was actually quite a bit going on in this dish. It still worked, though.

Patatas bravas, invitingly golden brown but not over-crisp, arrived dusted with paprika salt and with a little pot of romesco (I think, or tomato - sorry I wasn't really paying attention I was too busy wolfing them down) sauce to dip them in. As an aside, this was a vegan dish, and like all the best vegan dishes (in fact the only good vegan dishes), it just happened to be vegan to begin with rather than being a bastardised version of something else with the dairy taken out.

Next, a wonderfully colourful tomato salad, involving huge sliced bull tomatoes, smaller cherry tomatoes, a lot of salt and good olive oil, and little sprigs of micro basil. I don't blame British restaurants for using home-grown tomatoes, or the best of the Isle of Wight which I often see mentioned on menus, but the simple truth is tomatoes grow best where there's lots of sun and very little rain, and the best tomatoes are Italian, or Spanish, and I'm going to make the most of them before Brexit kicks in and they cost £10 each.

Last of the small plates were these very deftly-fried courgette flowers stuffed with Monte Enebro goats cheese and drizzled in honey. Another Spanish classic, done brilliantly, perfectly balanced vegetal bitterness with sweet honey and rich dairy, satisfying in every way. They'd be a must-order, too, if there weren't so many other must-orders.

But speaking of must-orders, we had been invited here on this occasion for a reason. The "Sharing plate of Iberico pork" is 300g of the very finest black-leg pig, roasted to such a gasp-inducing softness of texture the only way I can describe it is that it's like the slow-roast duck they do at very top Chinese restaurants like Park Chinois, where the little slices of meat just seem to dissolve on the tongue. It came with little blobs of pepper sauce, and a kind of chutney, but really this was all about the stunning main ingredient - £30 for what is surely, by some distance, the finest pork dish in London. And if you don't agree, you haven't had it yet, simple as that.

So after all these years, the Opera Tavern - stately, seasoned, sensational - is still, in 2019, the pride of Covent Garden. Sorry - to them, mainly - that it's taken me so long to put my thoughts down but better late than never, and anyway I'm convinced that their food will have found even more fans in the next decade than the last, with or without the odd gushing blog post. A confident, mature operation that barely puts a foot wrong from the menu to the service to the polished surroundings, it is as close as this part of town gets to a Sure Thing - a crowdpleaser, reliably great at what they do. And there's hardly any greater compliment than that.


The above meal, and the incredible pork platter, were comped, but I have paid for dinner at the OT about 10-15 times over the last decade, and will do many years into the future.