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.

9/10

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.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Pilgrim, Liverpool


At the risk of reducing a long-lasting inter-city rivalry down to a few trite observations, Liverpool, around 30 years ago, used to lag behind Manchester on three factors, each in its own way equally important to the self-respect of any Northern city. Firstly, shopping. I have very vivid memories of the gulf in quality between the rather depressed high streets of Liverpool, Church St and Bold St, and the flashy King St in Manchester and Kendall's department store with its car parks full of BMWs and Mercedes. Then there was the football - after a long period of dominance in the 70s and 80s which saw Liverpool and (occasionally) Everton trading places in the top spot, by the time Manchester's Class of '92 got into their stride it was all about them, and Liverpool (or Everton) never got a look in again. And then there was the food. Now, admittedly food in Manchester in the 90s was still Quite Bad but they at least had Simply Heathcote's and a Brasserie Blanc back when they were actually half decent, while nobody would eat out in Liverpool at all if they could help it.


These days, Liverpool has the L1 shopping district, which has been enough of a reason for Mancunians to make the journey west to do their own shopping, and Liverpool FC have made a very promising start to the football season. But my own particular focus has been what's happened to the food. You'll know about Roski, and Wreckfish, and Maray and every other answer Liverpool has to Manchester's increasingly brilliant dining scene. It's important not to overstate the case here - Manchester still has the edge - but the historic rivalries that have inspired so much healthy competition over the years have created a culture of risk-taking and innovation in both cities, with Liverpool very nearly now catching up.


The latest example of this is Pilgrim, an exciting new operation occupying the first floor of the Duke Street Food Market. This beautifully renovated (if somewhat noisy) food hall used to be partly grotty old warehouse and partly a 24h discount off license catering largely to clubbers at kicking-out time. The format of the downstairs food hall will be well known to anyone who's been to any of the Market Halls or Kerb streetfood venues, but of course what Liverpool can offer over any such venues in London is a chunk of spectacular 19th century industrial architecture to enjoy it all in, the vast skylit atrium and grid of suspended lighting lending the place a genuinely theatrical atmosphere. And, by happy coincidence, great lighting for photos, which is rather handy if you write a blog.


Also helpful if you write a blog is that there's plenty to talk about regarding Pilgrim's menu. Nominally the "theme" is of the food of North-West Spain, on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostella, except it seemed at first that strict authenticity has made way for a kind of Galician-influenced Modern British style, with the odd Spanish ingredient (Morcilla, Pluma Iberica) served alongside more local seasonal vegetables (Jersey Royals). It all works though, thanks to the exquisite taste of the menu, which doesn't list a single thing you wouldn't want to eat, and - more importantly - because damn, Pilgrim can cook.


House bread is a kind of sourdough I think - bravely made on site (brave because Baltic Bakehouse is just round the corner and Liverpool knows good bread) but it acquitted itself well enough. Better was the smoked butter, which was so addictive we could have polished off about three times the amount that came on the plate.


Artichokes had a pleasingly stripped-back style, were all smoky and crunchy from the grill, and the saffron aioli had a lovely balanced flavour even if we could have done with a bit more of it. I don't think Pilgrim are deliberately stingy on their butter or sauce portions, but when things are this nice you just want a lot more of them.


Potato "terrina" with cured yolk next - egg and chips. And it was brilliant. The potato had been thinly-sliced, confit'd and fried to golden brown, and the egg, such a dark shade of orange it was almost scarlet red, had a wonderfully-judged texture just the right side of fudgy (as in, only very slightly fudgy). Add in some green beans, crunchy and vibrant, and you have a vegetarian Galician-British dish that hits every single pleasure point.


Less veggie-friendly but no less impressive was morcilla, black pudding filled out with rice that had a wonderful soft texture and deep, earthy flavour. With it came buttery girolle mushrooms, tender pieces of braised leeks and a handful of toasted almonds, a medley of textures, colours and seasonal flavours that stood up so well that the vegetarians on the table left me to the morcilla and enjoyed a very lovely veggie dish without it.


Everything Pilgrim serve is in some way noteworthy, and as you'll have noticed by now, most of it is brilliant, but this dish of "Fire-pit seasonal vegetables" probably deserves a blog post all to itself. I've had roast vegetable dishes before, some very good indeed, but none have had the sheer depth and richness of flavour of the examples on this plate. After polishing them off in a bit of a daze, we asked where these incredible specimen - fennel, potato, some roasted red peppers, nothing particularly unusual - had come from and were surprised to hear they'd been imported from Galicia. Which whatever you think about the food miles involved, makes a very good case indeed for the produce of NW Spain. I mean these were seriously impressive veg.


Also from Galicia was a few slices of Chuleta steak, "fillet" it said on the menu but the texture was more like bavette (and of course none the worse for that, I love bavette). Being the only red meat eater on the table that day there was only so much of the main courses I could manage by myself - I would love to have tried the Iberico pork, maybe another day - but by this point, Pilgrim had done more than enough to convince us that this was one of the most exciting restaurants to ever open in the city.


So, on a high and sure we were in safe hands, we went for a brace of desserts. "St. James Tart" (Tarta de Santiago) was a cute little spongecake served with alcohol-soaked cherries and ginger cake (I think) crumbs...


...and the daily special dessert, roast peach, all caramelised from the grill, served with an excellent house ice cream.


The bill, with a bottle of wine and a glass of sticky to go with the desserts, came to £32.90 a head. A huge amount of very good food, served by extremely capable people (you hardly had to look up at all to get what you needed - staff appeared to be everywhere at all times), for another almost obscenely small amount of money. I mean, even if you factor in Advance Return tickets from Euston and a night in an AirBnB, that still sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

And Pilgrim is worth making a journey for and then some. Absolutely everything that's exciting and life-affirming about paying other people to cook your dinner all wrapped up in a bright, breezy, friendly package, it deserves to be in the Liverpool must-do Premier League alongside the Albert Dock and the tour of the Beatles' homes. After so many years of not quite making a coherent case for itself, all of a sudden Liverpool's food and drink options (side note: please try Bunch, Liverpool's first all-natural wine bar, on Berry St for an aperitif) are something the city can be genuinely proud of. We've never had it so good.

9/10

Friday, 30 August 2019

Chef's Table, Chester


I don't know when it was exactly that London lost its monopoly of great places to eat in the UK. As with so many things, change is gradual - perhaps when l'Enclume won the Good Food Guide's Best Restaurant award back in 2012 it signalled a certain shift away from the capital, but then the odd fine dining establishment has always existed nestled in well-heeled countryside - the Manoir aux Quatre Saison in Oxfordshire, for example, or Gidleigh Park in Devon. L'Enclume was different, of course, because it made more of the bounty of its location and its partly foraged, rustic-yet-refined menu was genuinely groundbreaking, but even so, back then London was usually still where you first went to open a serious restaurant.


So what changed? Well, rents didn't help - to turn a profit owner/operators have had to really think hard about their margins and the creep out of zones 1 and 2 into newly be-restauranted areas like Lewisham and Leyton is well documented, but then when have London rents ever not been an issue? The grabby mitts of the Shaftesbury Estate have been around much longer ago than 2012. And Brexit has surely made a lot of the people who might be cooking and serving your dinner feel like they might be better off in a non-racist country that isn't about to detonate 40 years worth of trading networks for no good reason, but show me any member of the hospitality industry that's ever found hiring staff easy and I'll show you a liar. Brexit was, is, and always will be, a disaster, but restaurants have shuttered for want of decent personnel well before 2016.


The simple reality is, London restaurants got more boring - becoming increasingly gimmicky and superficial, relying on (that awful word) Instagrammable signature dishes and unusual interiors - at the same time as independent gastropubs and high street bistros came to realise that the availability of top producers and a nearby field full of wood sorrel is something very few places near a tube stop could use to their advantage. This is, of course, a brutal generalisation - there are still great restaurants in London, but a vast majority of the most exciting meals I've had in the last few years have been in locations up and down the country, far outside the M25, serving food with the kind of immediacy and honesty that you rarely see in the big smoke.


And so to Chester, where a little high street bistro called Chef's Table is serving fantastic food, with a smile, at prices that would make a London restaurateur weep. First of the 'snacks' were these frog's legs, cutely trimmed into mini drumsticks, breadcrumbed and fried, and resting in a thick pea soup. They were lovely, every bit of them, the peas having an incredible flavour (they own a kitchen garden not far out of town, apparently) and the protein full of tasty fat without being greasy.


And further evidence that Chef's Table aren't afraid to offer unusual ingredients, a lamb's tongue "yakitori", bronzed with ponzu and accompanied by a colourful coleslaw of pickled cabbages, carrots, and sesame oil. Asian seasonings and sauces abount on the Chef's Table menu, but are never clumsy or jarring - this is a kitchen in supreme command of its influences.


A generously proportioned cube of tonkatsu, full of melty fatty pork and dressed in more of that zingy ponzu - just enough to offset the pork but not enough to set your teeth on edge - was one of those things that you wish you could eat forever, free-flowing arteries be damned. Those on the top, by the way, aren't strings of saffron but finely-chopped smoked chilli, which was a clever little touch.


Kitchen Garden Salad was quite breathtakingly pretty, a medley of miniature vegetables and shoots all woven in and out of each other, with croutons for texture and bound with a large poached duck egg. It was all good but I was particularly taken with a bit of what I think was turnip pickled in beetroot juice for colour, a little nod to Middle Eastern comfort food.


Chef's Table put just as much emphasis on vegan dishes as non-vegan, with a whole separate plant-based menu to choose from. This is, in fact, how all restaurants should approach veganism - as you're probably more than aware, simply removing dairy from a vegetarian dish is a surefire way to end up with something inedibly bland. This mushroom and avocado crostini didn't suffer at all from lack of animal product - mushrooms cooked in oil provided an earthy, meaty base note while whipped avocado played the role of mayonnaise admirably. And although I didn't order it (obviously), I would happily have eaten it, which tells you all you need to know.


Given that everything that had come before it was so artful and precise, the vegan main - a huge falafel burger and chips - came as a bit of a shock. I suppose we only had ourselves to blame in ordering a burger and underestimating the generosity of Northern restaurant kitchens, but nice though it was there's only so much falafel and bread you can wade through before waving the little white flag. That said, the romesco sauce was cracking, and the triple cooked chips utterly brilliant - golden brown and crunchy on the outside, and creamy within.


My own main was chicken, and though beautifully presented with a nice golden brown skin, it was rather underseasoned and strangely unsatisfying, which was a shame. But I loved the stuffed courgette flower, and the girolle mushrooms, and the sharp saffron-spiked hollandaise sauce, so all was not lost at all.


A second vegan main of pea and lovage risotto got us back on track though. Full of late summer colour and enhanced with something called "tomato essence", much like the crostini the lack of dairy was a complete non-issue, and unlike the falafel burger the portion size was spot-on. And isn't it a pretty thing?


Desserts were highlights of a meal not short on highlights. A raspberry a white chocolate delice, sat in a fruit syrup, had a beautifully balanced flavour, and a sorbet made with anise hyssop was soft and smooth.


And finally honey and lavender steamed pudding is absolutely the best thing to happen to honey and lavender, so rich and comforting it drew gasps from all at the table. It was topped with "apple crumble ice cream", which is probably the best thing to happen to apple crumble as well. Just brilliant.


The bill, with plenty of booze but without service which they didn't even ask for, came to £40 a head, which I hardly need to point out is pretty astonishing value considering the amount of thought and care that had gone into the dishes. True, I had my issues with a couple of bits and pieces but it's worth stressing that, cosseted by attentive and knowledgeable staff in that cosy little room, we left Chef's Table with our spirits in the clouds. Very, very few restaurants are quite this joyful an experience, and quite so easy to enjoy.

So, another point for the North West, and yet another fantastic restaurant Not In London. I can unhesistatingly recommend a meal here in much the same way I can unhesitatingly recommend the Parkers Arms or indeed Sticky Walnut just around the corner - in short, if you don't enjoy Chef's Table then eating out just isn't for you. They are absolutely nailing on the head everything that makes a good restaurant, and most of what makes a great one, and is a reason to visit Chester all by itself. Lucky, lucky Chester.

9/10

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Wynyard Hall, Teesside


Strolling through the vast walled gardens attached to Wynyard Hall, with its acres and acres of bedding groaning with all kinds of very healthy looking fruit and veg stretching almost as far as the eye could see, I naturally assumed that a large proportion of the produce would be offered in the garden shop or sold to a number of local restaurants. There seemed to be enough growing to singlehandedly feed most of Darlington - I mean just look at the scale of the place from space - and even though the hotel itself is hardly a small operation - everything about Wynyard is exaggeratedly grand and imposing - it seemed unlikely they'd need quite this amount of onions, kale, carrots etc. just for themselves.


So that night, settling down for dinner in a dining room so vast the ceiling seemed to be above the cloud layer, I brought up the subject with one of the very affable front of house. What happens to all the fruit and veg the restaurant doesn't use?

"Oh, we use pretty much all of it," came the reply, "there's very few bits left over for the shop."


Which, when you think about it, is quite extraordinary in what it implies for any other restaurant with the ambition of growing all of their grocery needs on-site. Wynyard Hall's dining area isn't tiny, but it's not exactly stuffed full of covers - the tables are nicely spaced out and there's plenty of room to move about - but even this medium-sized operation requires a kitchen garden the size of a football pitch to keep it stocked. It's great for them, obviously, that they have the space and the gardening expertise to do it, but I certainly came away with a newfound appreciation for anywhere attempting such an ambitious control of their ingredient offering.


And speaking of which, as you might hope, the ingredients at Wynyard Hall are absolutely blinding. The first bite to eat is this, a little potato that had been in the ground mere hours before, soaked in butter and topped with what I think was a lovage purée. I can honestly say I've hardly eaten a better potato in my life, it was that good, and so from the very first morsel served that evening, it became very clear that all the trouble and effort of the kitchen garden had been absolutely worth it.


In fact the next dish was not just supplied by the garden, it was actively inspired by it. The "Walled Garden Salad" contained a bewildering number of flowers, vegetables and herbs, each treated according to maximising their potential (fennel bulb was braised, I think, while a mini courgette was lightly grilled) and artfully presented. What's the point in having a vast walled garden if you can't show off the results of it, and though it's probably fair to say the kitchen's intervention here was deliberately minimal, the odd blob of clever sorrel mayonnaise and some kind of (quince?) jam added a few reminders that they can be serious and cheffy when they need to be.


Smoked eel had a meaty texture and strong, salty flavour, and came in a lovely subtle fresh pea and milk "soup" which complimented it very well. There's not much else to say about this really - it wasn't uninteresting, but just uncomplicated, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.


Next came a scallop, with another tasty little morsel from the garden (a tiny young shoot of baby gem lettuce) topped with bacon. Bacon and scallop is of course a time-honoured match, but this bit of seafood had been topped with a fiercely sharp citrus glaze, which took a bit of getting used to. Once all the flavours settled down in the mouth, though, it worked rather well. And what a good strong dark crust on the scallop, too, which I always like to see.


The last of the savouries was a lamb chop, meltingly tender and blushed pink, with a number of elements lamb should always come with, namely a mashed potato consisting of mainly butter, some glossy vegetables and herbs, and most importantly of all a thick, dark, glossy sauce to bind it all together. Needless to say, this dish ticked every single one of my personal pleasure points and I completely demolished it - it's essentially all of the reasons I go to restaurants, on one plate. There was even a bonus piece of sweetbread in there, and although I wasn't completely in love with the "molasses butter" it was cooked with, I still ate it quite happily because hey, sweetbread.


"Toffee Apple Parfait" was a delicate little thing, sweet and summery and laced with just enough salt on the pastry to make the tastebuds tingle. In a grand old hotel such as this, afternoon tea is obviously a major part of the experience - most tables on the terrace overlooking the lake were occupied by families tucking into cakes and scones on the Saturday we arrived, and there are fully two (huge, naturally) other rooms inside serving the same - so it's probably no surprise the pastry section know what they're doing.


Finally, a strawberry tart - colourful, seasonal, flatteringly accessible and yet, with its blob of slickly-Pacojetted marscapone ice cream and swoops of gorgeous strawberry jus, clearly the work of a kitchen that has produced many such elegant offerings before. Have you got the picture by now? Wynyard Hall is good.


True, I was hardly likely to travel all the way up to Darlington without being pretty sure I was going to enjoy both dinner and a good night's sleep (the beds are super comfy, by the way, and they give you a little vial of "sleep aid" room spray which I can confirm really works - I slept like a log) but even so, none of this is inevitable. Hotel restaurants, ambitious hotel restaurants like this at least, have a very difficult job to do in keeping your average honeymooner or wedding guest happy whilst also serving the kind of food that gets you noticed on sites like these, and they could have very easily, under a lesser kitchen, fallen awkwardly between two competing philosophies and satisfied nobody.


Instead, Wynyard Hall is that rarest of things - a palatial country hotel set in hundreds of acres of stunning surroundings that doesn't just let the décor do the talking. For your money (and it's not even super expensive, £55 for the tasting menu) you do, admittedly, get quite a bit of jaw-dropping scenery but you also get the kind of ambitious, ingredient-led Modern British food, supported by top suppliers and a record-breaking kitchen garden, that any corner of the country would be exceedingly proud to call their own. And for aiming so high and getting so much of it so right, Wynyard Hall should be very proud indeed.

9/10

I was invited to Wynyard Hall and they wouldn't let me pay for so much as a glass of brandy (though I did offer) so many thanks to them for everything. Lovely people, lovely place.