Monday, 15 November 2021

Koya Ko, Broadway Market


Much as I will always have a soft spot for Koya (and specifically their new Broadway Market spot Koya Ko), there are certain aspects of an evening there that, well, let's just say need addressing.


The first thing is the strangely opaque (and I don't just mean the colour of the miso broth) way dishes are described on the menu. I would say quite an important thing to know when ordering a bowl of noodles is not only whether a dish is hot or cold (this is illustrated, and so fine) but also crucially whether it comes as a soup or not. This is not, for some bizarre reason, mentioned, and so requires you asking the (admittedly friendly and patient) person taking the order about each dish in turn to find out whether it's just a plate of noodles or a big gorgeous heartwarming noodle soup. Particularly at this time of year, I will always want a broth. And while 'Tempura' does, 'Triple Pickle' doesn't. 'Kaiso Classic' does but 'Saucy' doesn't.

Fortunately, everything we ended up with was wonderful. But before I get to that, my second niggle. The place is tiny, with tables set at rather Covid-unfriendly elbow-clashing intervals and with sometimes a queue to order taking up any remaining space in the middle of the room. True you can eat outside, but that's becoming increasingly impossible, and you can take away, but if you want to enjoy your dinner hot and presented as beautifully as they do in the restaurant itself, you'll really want to eat in. And because this is Broadway Market you'll be sharing that steamy, noisy space with giant child's buggies, which have to be bumped down a set of narrow stairs on the way in and then somehow be parked up in a room barely big enough to hold the furniture it already has. Let me be very clear, kids in restaurants is not the problem here, it's that some spaces are just not designed for it however much they wish they were.


But forget about all that because just look at this food. Firstly the prawn tempura which came adorned with a single absolutely massive prawn in a fantastic batter which started off crisp and light then generally became a soft, fluffy element of the soup itself. The broth was clean and clear, seasoned subtly but not overwhelmingly salty, and of course the udon noodles were supremely good, probably the best you can get in London. At least, if there are any better around, I haven't found them yet.


To circumvent the issue of 'Triple Pickle' not being a soup, we ordered a 'Plain' udon in broth, and a side of pickles. Both were fantastic, particularly the daikon which had a really addictively pongy - in a good way - funk.


And this is 'Kaiso Classic', four types of seaweed adorning another winning arrangement of slippery, meaty udon noodles and warming soup. Into this we cracked a 'Tamago', not the kind of sweet omelette thing you see in sushi places but a single whole egg very cleverly (and presumably very slowly) poached in its own shell. The white was wobbly and soft, the yolk runny, and it combined brilliantly with the noodles.


With a couple of green teas and a (very nice) house lemonade, the bill came to about £15 a head, which I hardly need to point out for food of this quality and consistency, and sheer technical ability, one of the great food bargains of London. It's a victim of its own success perhaps but that was always likely to be the case in this part of town, and I should point out in the interests of fairness that a solo repeat visit at lunchtime was a much more sedate and comfortable affair, sat at the bar chugging back a pork and miso bowl with seasonal greens (that would be lots and lots of watercress then) before heading off happy and full.

And look if you don't like queuing or noise or elbows, there's always the Soho branch, which is still brilliant and has a slightly more expanded and ambitious menu with ingredients like duck and beef tendon to dazzle and delight. There's also a branch in the Bloomberg Arcade and I've never been but you know what, that's probably pretty amazing too. Koya are one of London's real gems, food of thoughtfulness and invention and skill served for a ludicrously small amount of money, and if that makes them ludicrously oversubscribed too well, that's just the price we'll have to pay. And I'd pay it happily, over and over again.

8/10

Thursday, 4 November 2021

Fatt Pundit, Covent Garden


The clocks have gone back, and with them the last opportunity to have dinner in the daylight until well into 2022. For most normal people, eating in low light isn't much of an issue - in fact in some parts of the world (hello New York City) the attitude seems to be that the more difficult it is to see your dinner, the better it must be - but it does make my job as a food blogger that bit more challenging when I'm singing the praises of dishes that look on the blog like something from the pages of an old medical textbook.


So I did my very best in Photoshop with the collection of murky shots I came back with from Fatt Pundit, but you're just going to have to take my word for it that it all tasted much better than my terrible photos would suggest, and that if you're relatively new to Indo-Chinese cuisine (as I was) then you can hardly do any better than beginning your journey here.


First, a little backstory. The Hakka people have a history of migration - sadly not always of their own choice - across China, South East Asia and the rest of the world. We were told that there were quite large populations in Kolkata at one time, until the Sino-Indian war in the 60s forced them out and a fair number settled further south in places like Kerala and Goa. Each time they moved they absorbed some element of the local cuisine, whether it's the use of tikka spicing from the north, or the coconut sauces from the coastal south. The Indo-Chinese staple "momo" are essentially dim sum dumplings with things like spiced goat stew (above) or chicken taking the place of minced pork & prawn, with a choice of dips - an earthy sesame, and a tomato and chilli. Oh, and they're absolutely bloody great, with good firm pastry work containing a deliriously rich and satisfying filling.


"Crackling spinach" was spinach treated to a chaat-style dressing of yoghurt, tamarind and pomegranete seeds. At first it seemed like an intimidating mound of food until you realise the spinach had been baked crisp (think crispy kale) and so it was all delightfully light and easy to eat.


Salt and pepper okra was next, neat little things delicately and greaselessly fried, coated in a worryingly addictive seasoning and served alongside one of those brilliant coriander chutneys that only the very best kitchens get right. This was another good illustration, too, of how the Indo-Chinese thing works - recognisably Indian ingredients treated to traditionally Chinese techniques - producing something genuinely new (to me at least) and exciting.


Bombay chilli (I hope they don't mind me correcting their spelling, I assumed 'Bombay chilly' was a typo) prawns took the fusion brief and pushed it even further. Plump, perfectly cooked prawns came with a glossy sauce presumably containing corn starch and soy but definitely spiked with Sichuan peppers, had all the initial appearances of a solidly Chinese dish. But somehow, this was not simply a Sichuan sauce, it had a definite seam of Indian spices running through and between the Chinese elements, and it all added up to an incredibly complex experience.


The Kolkata chilli (ditto) chicken did a similar thing for poultry. The chicken was nicely cooked, but this was really all about that glossy corn starch (again, I'm guessing) and this time smoked dark soy sauce spiked with who knows what other north Indian spices, a really exceptional bit of work and a very impressive dish.


Of the mains that we tried, perhaps these lamb chops were the most traditionally Indian overall, but even these came seasoned with "black bean dust" alongside the usual array of tikka spices. And they were absolutely incredible, cut two bone-thick, charred from the tandoor on the outside, pink and soft inside, literally everything you'd want from a portion of lamb chops. Also, a pretty huge portion for £15.50.


If I was to have my time again the only change I'd make was to have these rabbit wonton before the other mains. Unlike the prawns and chicken, and certainly unlike the lamb, the sauce they came with was soft and refined in order (presumably) not to overshadow the delicate gamey flavour of the rabbit. Still lovely, of course, but alongside everything else a bit subdued. Unfortunately, the timing of the dishes is not under your control - like many small plates places the dishes just appear as and when the kitchen decides, and so comes my only real complaint about Fatt Pundit. For a menu of such contrasts, it's a shame you can't either control the order in which dishes appear, and you aren't really given any advice as to what to eat before what. Only a minor niggle, perhaps, but one that makes the experience of eating there just that little less perfect.

We didn't have room for dessert, but we were able to glance at the "Snowflake gelato sizzling brownie" from across the room, and let me tell you I'm definitely leaving space for it next time because it looked - and smelled - spectacular. I've had a soft spot for Snowflake since an ice cream tour of Soho a few years back, so I'm sure this collaboration was successful.

I'm sure there'll be more than a handful of you who will be wondering where on earth I'd been hiding in order for Fatt Pundit to be my first experience of Indo-Chinese cuisine. In fact, none other than Darjeeling Express' Asma Khan used to do Indo-Chinese meals at her supperclub in the days before Chef's Table and visiting Marvel superheroes. What can I say - I should get out more.

But I got there eventually and consider myself a firm fan. Everything we had was carefully cooked and genuinely different, a fusion restaurant where everything, from the menu to the cutlery (brilliantly you're given chopsticks and a knife and fork, depending on which end of Indo-Chinese you feel like leaning towards) made absolute sense. Already on their second branch, the fact they're managing to expand during a pandemic (and chronic Brexit-fuelled staff shortages) speaks to an operation at the very top of its game. Long may it continue.

8/10

I was invited to Fatt Pundit and didn't see a bill.

Thursday, 28 October 2021

Galvin Bar & Grill at the Kimpton, Bloomsbury


In an ideal world, the grand dining room of a five star hotel in central London would guarantee a wonderful time, a special occasion destination restaurant where you forget your troubles, open your wallet and bathe in the splendour of a world-class hospitality team at the top of their game. The reality is that all too often, bogged down by large, unfocussed menus that try to be all things to all people and that require a kitchen to twist in a hundred different directions at once, hotel restaurants can be remarkably hit and miss. For every Ritz Restaurant (still the absolute peak of hotel dining in the capital) there's somewhere serving a sausagey £25 burger or over-battered fish and chips, and even some of the most respected names can still occasionally get it wrong.


When the Kimpton first opened, their flagship restaurant was the Neptune, somewhere you could order a seafood platter for a pretty-reasonable-actually £38 but which didn't really stand alongside the best places in town and didn't quite set pulses racing. They also committed the unforgivable sin (at least in my opinion) of having shells of interesting creatures like spider crabs and razor clams decorating the raw bar that weren't available to order on the menu. Anyway that's now gone, and in its place in the same glitzy room have arrived the Galvin brothers who know a thing or two about making hotel restaurants work.


And one glance at the menu is enough to reassure that you're in safe hands. The Galvin style is very much "British with a hint of French", meaning things like cottage pie and Dover sole but also their signature Tarte Tatin. Think the Ivy, only good (look, I'm sure you did have a lovely time at the Ivy but I'm also sure it wasn't anything to do with the food). Even house bread is a cut above - this lovely warm sourdough was spiked with Marmite, lending its sticky crumb a pleasant kick of umami.


Crab (from Dorset) came with a neat layer of spiced brown meat on top of a good thick amount of fresh white, and was absolutely everything you'd ever want from a crab starter. And though focussing too much on the prices at a place like this is probably a bad idea overall, I think £16 for this generous amount of hand-picked crab (I even found a teeny bit of shell, so you could tell they'd started with the full animals) isn't bad at all.


In a starter that contains salmon and caviar, why list it on the menu with the title "potato"? Because this was no ordinary potato starter. Even their description of "Warm potato pancake" only goes so far in describing what is one of the more exciting things I've eaten involving the humble spud. More accurately described maybe as a sort of potato mousse, it was so light and fluffy and deliriously richly flavoured that it absolutely lived up to its top billing - the (lovely actually) salmon and caviar and crème fraîche were merely supporting artists to an absolute star of a main ingredient. This was a really exceptional thing, an absolute must-order.


But the fun didn't end there - Dover sole was literally perfect, gently bronzed with butter and with the flesh lifting easily off the bone in solid, meaty fillets. Capers - plenty of them - lightened the load of the butter and there was a torched half of lemon to add any more citrus as required but really you didn't need any distractions from the sole itself, a breathtaking bit of fish.


I'm told the steak offering at Galvin will vary slightly with availability; on this particular evening the only one served on the bone was fillet, so that's the one I had to go for. It may be entirely psychological but I always think steak on the bone is far more interesting with a greater range of textures, and there's a huge amount of fun to be had picking at bones. This particular fillet was - as I'm sure you can tell even from my slightly murky photo - beautifully cooked, with a good dark char and fantastic grass-fed flavour. Accompaniments, including superb fries and a classy béarnaise, were also all faultless.


Tarte tatin, as is usual from a Galvin restaurant, was brilliantly crunchy and sticky and just on the right side of being so sugary you could develop some serious long term condition from taking a second bite. It came with 'clotted cream ice cream' in case you were worried pastry soaked in sugar was a little too worthy.


But best of the desserts was bread and butter pudding "Gary Rhodes", a fitting tribute to the great man as this was just wonderful. Surprisingly easy to eat given the amount of double cream and butter it must contain, with a good amount of vanilla adding an important extra layer of luxury, it was about as far from the a tinned school meal as it was possible to imagine. Genuinely brilliant.


I've been using a lot of superlatives, I know, I'm sorry. The fact is it's so nice to be out somewhere like the Kimpton and eating food like this, that it's hard not to get just a bit carried away. I'll try, though, for the sake of objectivity. Firstly yes, it's pricey - not stupidly so, but £51 is a lot to pay for a 300g steak on the bone, and I think with the obligatory glass of champagne and bottle of wine the bill for two people would be north of £100/head. You can certainly pay the same for worse, but this is not an every day spend. And secondly, and I'm really clutching at straws here thinking of anything that's much of a negative, this huge room does need quite a few people to "come alive", and earlier in the evening with only one or two tables taken it felt a bit soulless. By the time we left though it was buzzing.


And that's really all I have to complain about. Everywhere else where it counts, from the slick service to attractive, accessible menu to the mature, confident dishes themselves, Galvin Bar & Grill delivers in spades, a gleaming, grown-up operation that exudes class and style from the first jolly welcome to the final wave goodbye. Plenty have tried and failed in spaces such as these, but when it works the marriage of glamorous surroundings, attentive front of house and seriously good food is utterly beguiling, enough to make you wonder why there isn't one of these in every 5* in town. The Galvins have hit upon a formula here that puts plenty of other - in fact most other - hotel restaurants to shame, and whats more have the cheek to make the whole thing look easy. It may not, in fact, be easy, but you can let them worry about details like that. All you need to do is bring a wallet and an empty stomach, and they'll take care of the rest.

9/10

I was invited to Galvin Bar & Grill and didn't see a bill.

Monday, 25 October 2021

Flor, Borough Market


Lunch on Saturday was that rarest and most brilliant of things - a completely unplanned, spur-of-the-moment decision that turned out to be one of the best meals of the year. This hardly ever happens. Mainly this is because I like to plan my weeks (and weekends) with some level of guarantee to avoid disappointment and I don't really do spur-of-the-moment unless something has gone rather askew. In this case, what I thought was a booking somewhere in SE1 turned out, well, not to be, and so faced with the bewildering number of options in Borough Market we literally just walked into the nearest place that looked like it had space. And lucky for us, it did.


An old warehouse converted into a dramatic triple-level dining room, with iron spiral staircases linking the floors, you need a bit of a head for heights to move comfortably between your table and the (surprisingly large and well-appointed) bathroom they've somehow built into the rafters at Flor. It's all beautiful though - the brick walls and antique pulleys and gears feel like a proper part of old Borough, and although the tables are fairly close together it still feels spacious and comfortable thanks to the high ceilings.


Just as tasteful as the interior is the menu, a short, sweet list of seasonal goodies at pretty reasonable price points. You can see the familial connection to Lyle's, but whilst the Shoreditch place is more solidly (if not tradionally) British, Flor has the odd touch of Korean & Japanese, and is (whisper it) a little more affordable. The attention to detail and flair for presentation is still very much in evidence though - take this beautiful bowl of oysters "dongchimi", fresh shellfish in a clear broth dotted with oil and spiked with little strips of pickle. The flavours were clear and clean, no one element fighting with another and none allowed to dominate, and combined with a mastery of technique (the broth was a particularly impressive bit of work) made up for a supremely impressive dish. It was a theme that was to continue.


Beetroot and feta tart was, if I'm going to be brutal, about the only thing on the Flor menu that had a touch of the safe about it. It was very good, don't get me wrong, with a delicate pastry base and nice fermented plum chutney, it was just the kind of thing you might be able to get hold of at any decent gastropub, and stood in contrast to the invention and bravery shown elsewhere on the menu.


Mackerel was much more like it. The fish, first of all, was perfect - a crisp, dry skin that held together a fillet of beautifully soft and sweet flesh oozing with fatty flavours. But it came with a delicate pear and fennel chutney that complimented the mackerel in an interesting more subtle way than the more usual contrast of citrus. Like the oysters, it was technically impressive but also willing to experiment with flavour profiles in a way that you didn't quite expect. Clever stuff.


Salt & pepper squid - greaseless and irresistably crunchy and soft in all the right places - came with a lovely light aioli and pickled (I think) jalapenos, and if you can't enjoy the combination of deep-fried seafood, mayonnaise and pickled chilli there's something wrong with you. Plenty of black pepper too, which punched almost as much mouth-burning heat as the chilli.


It's a compulsion of mine, and not one that I'm entirely proud of, to order the most bizarre or challenging item on any given menu just so I can say I've done it. So of course, the moment I saw Flor were serving brains, they went right to the top of the list. The brains themselves, lightly and skilfully tempura'd, were the best example of their kind I've ever had, although that being said they were still brains, and will by themselves only appeal to the most ardent offal fan, or anyone else who finds idea of eating disconcertingly meaty cottage cheese appealing. The broth they came in though was superb, as were the collection of wild mushrooms and seaweed that dressed the bowl, and special mention too to neat little quarter-slices of migawaya mandarins, a really clever little touch. There was a lot going on in this dish, but like everything before it no one element overwhelmed or muddied the flavours. Everything was clean, precise and incredibly enjoyable.


A highlight in a lunch full of highlights, smoked eel rice was soft, salty, umami-rich and so dangerously addictive I think we could have polished off three or four of these even on stomachs full of mackerel and brains. Whereas some previous dishes had played around with subtle flavours and impressed with delicate textures to great effect, here they'd just gone full-throttle on flavour, focussing on the eel as the main ingredient with bergamot cutting through the grease. And my god it worked.


We were hardly likely to cut short a lunch this good, so ordered not only the cheese course, but both desserts. The cheese, I'm sorry to say, was a little bit of a disappointment, tasting very young and bland and with none of the little calcium lactate crystals you should get in aged Comté. Had Flor been sold a dud? Even if so, you'd hope someone in the kitchen, who had been in such command of flavour elsewhere, would have sampled the batch and realised it wasn't really good enough to serve. Very odd.


Fortunately the desserts were super. Plum & hazelnut merveilleux was a lovely light moussey type thing coated in toasted nuts, containing a core of marvellous (pun intended) plum jam....


...and this is a profiterole containing sweetcorn ice cream, coffee-flavoured toffee and - a stroke of genius - a single shiso leaf which added character and crunch to an otherwise classically recognisable dessert.


We left, £100 each lighter thanks to far more booze than is probably necessary of a Saturday lunchtime, but still having felt we'd had something approaching a bargain given the technical ability on offer and (cheese excepted) level of ingredients. As an impromptu lunch, unplanned and unbooked, it saved our day and we would have been more than happy with anywhere that gave us a table and shelter from the pouring rain. For that alone, we were very much grateful.


But there's something more on offer here than simply a good feed. Flor is, undoubtedly, one of the best restaurants in the capital but whilst some dishes were simply straightforwardly great, such as the salt & pepper squid or the smoked eel rice, occasionally they treat you to a genuinely new way of thinking about or serving an ingredient, a remarkably exciting thing for this jaded food blogger in 2021. Not everything was perfect, but where they flexed their culinary imagination the results were often dazzling, and I'd struggle to think of another kitchen at any price point that could pull together the texures and flavours in the oyster dish, or the brain agedashi. Flor is - comfortably, happily - unique, and uniquely rewarding, a neat distillation of everything that's good about London restaurants, and I loved it.

9/10

EDIT: I've been informed that sadly this is the last week of Flor in its current, small plates form! But I'm going to keep a close eye on chef Pam Yung to see where she goes next...

Monday, 18 October 2021

Colonel Saab, Holborn


Although you wouldn't know it from reading this blog, about two months ago I decided to end the Covid-era moratorium on bad reviews. Since then, every meal of any significance I've eaten has somehow conspired to be rather good, to the extent that I briefly considered writing up a couple of mediocre experiences from between the lockdowns in 2020 to just add a bit of variety to the archive. In the end, I decided not to do that, partly because any restaurant open between the lockdowns in 2020 was having a pretty horrible time of it, and also well, it seems a bit mean doesn't it. Although on that point, if anyone wants to know where to avoid in the city for a game dinner, message me privately and I'll be happy to clarify.


So yes, here's another lovely meal I had, at the brand new and lavishly appointed (just look at those chandeliers) Colonel Saab in Holborn. When you've been writing a blog as long as I have (nearly 15 years... Christ) you find yourself revisiting the same site a number of times under different guises. Colonel Saab was previously Gezellig (lovely by all accounts but I never managed to organise a visit before it closed), Burger & Lobster (great of course, as ever, but it seems they could never make the numbers work) and before that a strange place doing live jazz and dim sum called Shanghai Blues which was actually rather good if you could avoid the jazz element.


Colonel Saab is high-end Indian, a field less crowded than it used to be thanks to the closure of the very sadly missed Indian Accent but which still includes Jamavar, Bombay Bustle, Kutir, Gymkhana, Trishna and the brand new Manthan I reviewed last week, all of which charge serious (though by no means unreasonable) prices for serious, intelligent Indian food. Now, spoiler alert - Colonel Saab isn't quite up there with the very best of them, but it's still more than worth your time, starting with their grown-up cocktail list. This is a "Turmeric", a Meyer lemon cordial with kombucha and turmeric-infused vodka.


Snacks (poppadums and puffed wheat things) came with two interesting chutneys - one chilli & tomato based, one pineapple. I was a teensy bit disappointed they didn't offer coriander chutney (I can eat that stuff by the bucketful), or some kind of mixed pickle (ditto), but this was still a decent start.


I can't tell you exactly what these were as they arrived as an unannounced little extra, but I think they were baked kale (or spinach) in an earthy spice mix, and remained nicely dry and crunchy to the last bite.


I rarely, if ever, order soup in an Indian restaurant, largely because I'm rarely, if ever, offered it. So I couldn't resist seeing how "Creamy almond soup" manifested itself. It turned out to be a smooth and comforting broth studded with chunks of smoked duck, salty and stupidly moreish, and though perhaps you'd struggle to place it geographically (at least, I would) it was definitely worth an order.


I can't help feeling that if you want to run a good restaurant, your over-arching philosophy should be to examine the way they go about things at grotesque billionaire-baiting PR exercise Nusr Et steakhouse, and then do the absolute opposite. This includes decorating anything (anything savoury at least) with gold leaf. Ignoring that pointless bit of bling, the paneer was lovely, charred from the grill on the outside and with a nice soft texture inside.


"Gutti Vankaya" were baby aubergine, also nicely charred and soft and sweet inside, in another tamarind sauce which went down well.


The Colonel Saab Daal Makhani was a supreme example of its kind, with a deep buttery flavour and those intense, almost chocolately notes added by the slow-cooked lentils. Very glad indeed we ordered this.


Naans were also very good - so good in fact that once we realised how much sauce we had left over in the paneer and aubergine dishes and the daal, we ordered another one. You'd expect somewhere like this to get the bread offering right, but I can tell you from experience it's by no means a given.


I'm going to have to leave on a bit of a down note though - lamb chops were over-salty, anaemic tasting and (weirdly, although it doesn't look like this from my photo) boasting very little char or crunch from the grill. Perhaps I'm a bit demanding when it comes to lamb chops, but this is only thanks to being served impeccable versions at other restaurants. I'm afraid these didn't compare at all.

But overall, there was plenty else to enjoy about Colonel Saab. You could almost certainly, if you avoided the lamb chops (or maybe if you were just luckier than me and they turned up in a slightly less sorry state), construct yourself an extremely pleasant meal in this gorgeous space, and that's something very much to admire. True, it's not quite A-tier alongside the very best high-end Indians in town, despite what their prices may suggest, but there's still some thoughtful, skilled cooking going on that's more than worth a look-in. Whether they settle in and push themselves to the top tier or I'm back reviewing the same space under different management in a year or two, only time will tell - but I genuinely hope it's the former.

7/10

I was invited to Colonel Saab and didn't see a bill. I think a reasonable amount to spend would be about £70/head.