Wednesday, 16 June 2021

The Kentish Hare, Tonbridge

The Kentish countryside, it's not in the least bit controversial to point out, is host to a collection of the most exquisitely beautiful and notable pubs in the country. You've heard me bang on about the Fordwich Arms on these pages before at length, and the Sportsman up on the north coast is an equally important point of foodie pilgrimage, but alongside those big names there are places like the Duck Inn or the Compasses, quietly and confidently brilliant (so I'm reliably told; they're still on my to-do list), each more then worth the rather painful journey from central London.

Because yes, unless you're lucky enough to be a resident of Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells or Faversham, a lot of these destination gastropubs really are that and then some - the Fordwich takes me 2 hours door to door, the Sportsman some fraction less than that but still quite a commitment for a single day - and though I'll happily make the journey (I'd find a way of getting to the Fordwich if it was on an island 200 miles into the North Sea) it is nice occasionally to be picked up at the station by a friend after a very respectable 40 minute train journey, and be driven into the rolling countryside for lunch. And thus I found myself at the Kentish Hare.

At a table in the neat, well-proportioned pub gardens we were given a menu full of things you'd want to eat, at prices that seemed more than reasonable. Of course given my inevitable compulsion to order the most 'extra' items on any given menu, I ended up paying not only a £5 substitute for Devon crab as a starter, but also £10 extra for Alyesbury duck for main. And I have absolutely no regrets at all.

The crab, sweet and fresh, was presented on a bed of densely flavoured salsa verde, the salty vegetal flavours a perfect marriage for the seafood, and with some tastefully chosen sea vegetables, sea purslane I think at least. As an introduction to the way the Kentish Hare go about their business - stylish, intelligent, attractive - you couldn't have asked for more.

Mains kept up similarly high standards. Lamb was fashioned into a kind of single giant faggot, bronzed casing containing moist slow-cooked shoulder meat. Beneath, something I only need to describe as "clotted cream potato" for you to get an idea of how wonderful it was. I think if our lunch had consisted of nothing but a bucket of clotted cream potato each and a spoon, we still would have come away happy. Vibrant broad beans and hispi cabbage, and a dousing of glossy lamb just, completed the picture.

Middlewhite pork came as geometrically exact slabs of belly, flesh bright white and with a delicate, crisp crackling, and a kind of sausage made out of who knows what other parts of the animal. With another glossy jus, and a scattering of morels, it was another almost perfect dish.

Of course, my duck was the best, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? The animal itself had been cooked to pink and yielding, with a delicate thin layer of nicely rendered fat under a golden brown, honey-glazed skin. There was an Asian lean on the vegetable side of things, with some braised pak choi lending a lovely bitter note, and some dense, meaty "maitake" (hen of the woods) mushrooms, always a treat to see in a restaurant. I loved every bit of it.

I honestly can't tell you why we didn't stay for dessert; perhaps the options (sticky toffee pudding, crème brûlée, ice cream and sorbets) weren't particularly inspiring or perhaps we had just eaten our own bodyweight in clotted cream potato (the pork and the duck each came with about half a kilo of the stuff on the side) and thought we'd better quickly remove ourselves to a safe environment before slipping fully into a carb-enduced coma. I'm sure they would have been just as wonderful as the savouries though.

With a bottle of Simpson's sparkling wine (at £36 for a bottle which I'm sure is about £28 retail, so an absolute steal) and a couple of extra bits and pieces (warm chorizo makes a lovely pre-lunch snack) the bill came to just over £50 each with service - service, by the way, which coped incredibly well with the odd operating environment of half-inside half-outside, and deserved every bit of their 12.5%. This is, I'm sure I don't need to point out given the standard of food above, great value for money.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a designated driver picking you up from the station, the 6 minute cab from Tonbridge costs a few quid (in fact you could probably walk it in under an hour if you're that way inclined), and services run direct from London Bridge all day. The point is, there's no excuse not to go to the Kentish Hare at all if you're after a heavenly taste of the Kentish countryside without breaking the bank or spending all day on a train. And if that won't convince you, nothing will.


Monday, 14 June 2021

The Foyer & Reading Room at Claridge's, Mayfair

There's a strange kind of light in the Claridge's Foyer restaurant, a sort of otherworldly greenish hue that appears to have no obvious source. There's green detailing in the carpets and and upholstery but certainly not so much that it could create such an odd effect, and examination of the table lamps and ceiling lights positioned around the room appear to just be the normal shade of electric yellow. It's not an unpleasant experience sat in here - far from it - but the soft furnishings and tinkle of the grand piano combined with the bizarre green fug combines to create a slightly out-of-body experience, like you're living in a flashback sequence from an old VHS movie.

In this rarefied if rather discombobulating space, impeccably smart staff seem to fade entirely in and out of existence as and when required - if you need your glass refilling they are there and in the blink of an eye, and then a moment later gone again, leaving you the space to yourself. You should expect a front-of-house of this standard at places (and prices) like these but even so, experiencing international-level service first-hand is never anything less than a thrill, and watching how they dealt with the odd issue that cropped up during the dinner was a masterclass in grace and efficiency.

And yes, I had a couple of issues with my dinner at the Foyer but it's important that all these niggles come in the context of a serious restaurant serving serious food at serious prices, and I'm only pointing them out in the spirit of completeness and the fact that really, at this level, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect something approaching perfection from your dinner.

Speaking of perfection though, the house bread was exactly that - an absolutely stonking sourdough with a moist, warm, tacky interior and a delicate thin crust. How much better to be served a generous chunk of this beautiful rustic creation than some frou-frou cones of ciabatta or oil-soggy foccacia. Full marks for technique and sensibility.

How odd, then, that a kichen that at first seemed so fully in control of its baking abilities should produce these rather lacklustre gougere. They weren't awful, just disappointing - cold, slightly chewy pastry containing a mealy filling of very little flavour, and a world apart from the stunning versions served at the Ritz. And I'm allowed to compare Claridge's with the Ritz, surely?

Lobster bisque needed a bit more salt and a lot more seafood flavour - it could have passed as a tomato soup were it not for the chunks of lobster floating around in it - but I'm still easily able to enjoy a slightly-seafoody tomato soup, and the tortellini were marvellously delicate and light. But again, for comparison, try the version at Sheekey's - much more my kind of thing.

I didn't get to try any of the steak tartare but it certainly looked the part, and the person whose dish it was had ordered it before, so that sounds like a recommendation to me. Like the use of variagated leaves, too.

Tuna tartare was a hugely generous portion, particularly regarding the tuna which arrived in inch-thick cubes piled high over thinly-sliced heritage tomatoes in a nice sharp dressing. OK, this is not the most radical combination of ingredients in the world but a hotel restaurant, even one as illustrious as Claridge's Foyer, isn't about shocking with unusual techniques or flavours (you can leave that to Davis & Brook next door) but serving familiar things as well as they can be served. And I would say the tuna tartare fit that bill.

Rack of lamb was so cleanly, precisely cooked to a uniform pink that they gleamed on the plate, bathed in their own crimson light in contrast to the irridescent glow of the peas and broad beans beneath. And they came with a little jug of dangerously addictive glossy lamb jus, with a texture cleverly thick enough to cling seductively to the meat even when piping hot.

Beef fillet was - eventually - similarly well-received, but I'm afraid they needed a two runs to get this right. The first example, ordered medium-rare, arrived cooked to grey all the way to the centre, an unforgiveable error for your average high street steakhouse never mind a leading hotel of the world. But hey, these things happen to the best of us, and the staff were so apologetic and made things right so comprehensively that it was almost worth the initial disappointment just to see a world-class front of house flex its hospitality muscles. It was replaced, taken off the bill, and all the sides it was ordered with replaced too, so that they didn't go cold. Top work.

All the sides - and boy did we go for it on this front - were perfect. Mashed potato was correctly 90% butter, dauphinoise had a lovely balance between dairy and starch and a golden crust on top like a creme brulée, and chips were crunchy and moreish in the steakhouse style.

I was kicking myself I didn't have room for dessert, but all those various forms of carbohydrates defeated us, and so we filled the time with a digestif instead - in this case a couple of espresso martinis and a Manhattan. The bar work at Claridge's is, as you might rightly expect, some of the best in town, and it's not for no reason they're already back operating at capacity, their clientele (which included me earlier on that evening) spilling over not only onto the new outdoor terrace but to the bar area of Davis and Brook. It is genuinely heartwarming to see them back, and so popular.

As for the Foyer restaurant, well, I had a lovely evening and more than enough went right to make the journey worthwhile, but for an establishment that so often strives for perfection in everything they do, and usually succeeds, it felt like a step behind the rest of their offerings. Compared to the cocktail bars and even the afternoon tea served in the same room (which, by the way, is utter perfection from start to finish), it just wasn't quite there.

But anyway, it's still great to be out and about, and lovely to see the old girl lit up and full of happy punters again. A visit to Claridge's is still, as it ever was, a privilege, and I will be back as soon and as often as my wallet will allow.


Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Paradise, Soho

Though it's sad to a certain degree when any restaurant closes - you have to feel for the staff and management of even the most mediocre high street chain even if you weren't a fan - it's fair to say some losses hit way harder than others. Back in 2019, even before Covid ravaged our shores, Spuntino, the New York-Italian cocktail bar and comfort food joint, closed its doors and overnight I lost a friendly regular pre- and post- dinner spot, somewhere guaranteed to make me happy and where I have loads of great memories. Their truffled egg toast, egg & anchovy soldiers and negronis will live long in legend. RIP.

But! What have we here? In the revamped Spuntino site - think more cosy booths and a much smaller central bar - is Paradise, still achingly hip and staffed by capable friendly people (and still doing great cocktails) but the cuisine on offer is now, in their words, "contemporary Sri-Lankan". "Contemporary", inevitably, translates as "smaller portions and higher prices" but look, this is Soho, not Tooting High Street, and with food this vibrant and exciting it still seems like value to me.

Three half-langoustine for example, for £8, is pretty much what you'd pay at Kiln, who have done for "contemporary" Thai what Paradise are doing for Sri Lankan. Here they came served in a remarkably punchy Ceylonese dressing and a lovely smooth, sweet mango dip. The papaya and palm heart salad on the side was crunchy and fresh, and a welcome balm from the fire of the langoustine dressing.

Everything arrived in one go, normally not much of a problem but I do wish they'd brought out these mangalitza skewers a bit earlier as they were rather cold. That aside, they tasted great, containing a perfect balance of flesh and fat, and soaked in a deep, rich tamarind sauce. Oh, and sorry about the photos. It was very dark in there and my camera is still rubbish.

Normally I wouldn't bother mentioning a side of boiled rice but there was something extra about this muthu samba stuff, incredibly light and soft, the grains being smally and fluffy and round. 'Muthu' apparently translates to 'pearl', which makes sense.

Aubergine and jaggery moju was a generous pile of sticky-spiced veg with a mild chilli kick - milder than the langoustine at least - and with a interesting variety of ingredients and textures. I particularly liked the chew on the large green chilli, which had been blackened over coals I think.

Not pictured is a bowl of huge devilled prawns, their sauce a happy marriage of chilli, tomato, spices and who knows what else, the kind of thing it probably takes a long time and a lot of experience to perfect. Interestingly, we were instructed to try eating these whole, as in shell-on and with heads, but we soon decided that wasn't going to work. Deep-fried shrimps perhaps you can gulp down whole, but not the thick, chewy carapaces of giant prawns. So instead we tore the shells off with our bare hands and had to go to the bathroom to wash ourselves clean before carrying on with the meal.

Finally, egg hopper with an asparagus and tomato sambol. Bringing a much-needed dairy cleanness to a meal that had been otherwise quite spice-heavy and dense, this had a perfectly timed gooey yolk and the sambol was nice and fresh.

So, RIP Spuntino, long live Paradise I say. It is faintly terrifying how easily London restaurants - even the very good ones - can fail, and though I'm sure I don't know the whole backstory on the Troubled Polpo Group (as it is seemingly compulsarily referred to in the press) I do know I still miss Spuntino like I miss anywhere that's been such an integral part of the London food scene for so long. But I also know that I love Paradise, and even if it doesn't become a new regular haunt I'll know that the legacy of Spuntino - cool, exciting, unique - lives on in its new South Asian cousin.


Thursday, 27 May 2021

Cin Cin, Fitzrovia

Although we're still a long way from being back to normal, certain signs abound that the Old Order is restoring itself. I managed to get a walk-in at my local pub yesterday, for example. I can no longer get a seat on the tube between Victoria and Oxford Circus in the rush hour. And recently, I received an invite to a brand new bistro in Fitzrovia serving a very attractive-looking menu of Italian small plates. Nature is healing.

Cin Cin began life in Brighton, and in fact have two locations down there at time of press. The formula (not rocket science, just good food served smartly for not very much money) has proven so successful that they've now taken over the site of what used to be Bonnie Gull Fitzrovia, somewhere that used to be worth patronising for cheap oysters and fizz between the hours of 4 and 6pm, but in all honesty not much good for anything else apart from that. The bijou spot seems a lot happier in its new skin, menu full of the kind of stuff you'd eat any day of the week, and served by staff seemingly delighted to have the opportunity to do so. And after the year we've had, who can blame them?

The evening began with a little bowl of those giant green buttery olives, and a big chunk of focaccia with accompanying olive oil/balsamic vinegar dip - always a welcome sight. I mean, yes, you'll have been served these kind of things in countless Italian restaurants before but who cares? They're still great.

"Marinda" tomatoes (from Sicily, I sagely-inform-and-definitely-didn't-just-Google) came simply dressed in a white wine vinaigrette and more than lived up to the stark presentation. They were lovely, sweet and savoury, bringing to mind the tomato salad at Bar Nestor in San Sebastian which of course is the international gold standard of tomato salads.

A twist on truffled burrata, at Cin Cin they serve the cheese itself topped only with toasted breadcrumbs for a bit of texture, with the truffle flavour brought by prosciutto ham, itself laced with a healthy amount of the good stuff. Beneath was a "pesto rosso", presumably made with red pepper instead of the usual basil leaves, which had a nice clean sweetness to it, and finally a split spring of asparagus because why not, it's the season after all. There is a slight trend at Cin Cin to lean towards perhaps one or two superfluous elements on each plate, but when the ingredients are as good as this you can hardly complain much.

In lesser hands, arancini can be rather dense and unrewarding, heavy on the rice and light on flavour or interest. Cin Cin have quite rightly decided to go in the opposite direction - their crab arancino contains a generous amount of crab, and loads of rich, gloopy dairy, but very little rice, and is in fact best described more as a kind of giant seafood croquette than your traditional rice balls. This was my favourite dish out of everything we were served this evening - I am an absolute sucker for crab at the best of times, and croquettes for that matter, and as if the arancino wasn't enough by itself (and it absolutely was) it came sat on a bed of richly-flavoured basil purée which contrasted the main event perfectly.

Pea tortelloni were beautifully made little things, with silky fresh pasta and a nice smooth liquid inside. The sauce was buttery and satisfying, and although it could have done with perhaps a bit more seasoning, it was still a good sauce. I would argue, though, that it didn't really need either the shoots of onion, which didn't taste of a great deal, or the chunks of mortadella, which were just a distraction. Under normal circumstances I love mortadella, and onion for that matter, but I'm convinced this would have been a more elegant dish had it just been pasta, sauce, and a few peas. Less is more.

Gnocchi with courgette flowers was more stripped back, and that much more elegant visually as a result, although it's worth repeating that both main courses were equally enjoyable to eat. These gnocchi were apparently gluten-free, although you wouldn't know it to taste them, and the cacio e pepe sauce was nicely cheesey and peppery.

The main savoury course was monkfish tail, a lovely bit of fish very much of the same standard as the stunning halibut I was served at the Pack Horse, packed full of flavour and meaty texture. The accessories I was somewhat less enthusiastic about - some of the white beans were a bit on the hard side, and I'm not sure sultanas are really ever a great match with fish - but hey, it all made for an interesting enough experience and all got polished off.

The meal ended with a bang, though, with a magnificent warm rice tart, oozing with personality, and a blood orange sorbet which was packed full of summer citrus flavour.

So as I hope you'll have concluded yourself by this point, there is far, far more to enjoy about Cin Cin than there is to criticise. The odd (very) minor niggle aside, this was a confident, clever dinner by a kitchen that understands the rules of Italian cooking but isn't in thrall to them. It's impossible to imagine you wouldn't enjoy a meal here in this bright, airy spot (in fact there's plenty of outside space too if that suits) populated by friendly, professional people, especially once you factor in the very reasonable cost - £45 for 5 courses puts it safely in the Tasting Menu Bargains of London category. I enjoyed it very much. Isn't it nice to be able to eat in restaurants again?


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

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

The Pack Horse, Hayfield

I don't know if there's anything I could say that would seem suitable for this occasion. How on earth do you strike the correct balance between celebrational and sombre, full of relief and gratitude for having made it through the last few months, whilst at the same time acknowledging the countless number that haven't been so lucky, and for the countless more that feel in no way inclined to celebrate. Yes, being able to get back into restaurants again is lovely, but you can't shake the knowledge that we've been here before, and though it feels like a lifetime and a half ago, we thought we were out of the woods then, too.

So I'm not going to even try. Like most people I wish the last four months hadn't happened, and so I will pretend they haven't and just barrel straight on into a review of a lovely gastropub in the Peak District because look, what on earth else is there to do?

Hayfield is an astonishingly pretty old mill town, its elegant grey-brick buildings rising out from the banks of the river all the way up the steep sides of the Sett Valley. In many other parts of the country, in fact in many other parts of the Peak District, it would be insufferably twee and touristy, bloated with fudge shops, postcard-sellers and tearooms. But Hayfield remains resolutely unpretentious and no-nonsense, a proper little community where normal life goes on largely unaffected by the beauty all around.

In the centre of it all stands the Pack Horse, first and foremost a friendly local but one that also just happens to be serving some of the best food in the area. It's the gleaming ideal of a pub, the kind of place, alongside the Parker's Arms in Lancashire or the Draper's Arms in Islington, that have absolutely nailed-on precisely everything that makes a great pub great, serving exacting, intelligent comfort food whilst also being somewhere you could pop in with your muddy boots and dog after a walk on Kinder reservoir and nurse a pint of mild.

And that's all you need to know, really, except I imagine you're going to want to read a bit of detail out of sheer curiosity. Our evening began with 3 Lindisfarne rock oysters, neatly shucked and presented alongside a nicely sharp mignionette sauce. Funny, isn't it, how most of the best pubs serve fresh oysters, and none of the bad ones do?

Crab came as white meat incorporated into a salad of crisp spring leaves and radish, and as brown meat spread liberally on toast. Both elements were superb but the brown meat on toast was particularly good, full of grungy flavour with the spray of the sea.

A breadcrumbed and fried egg, boasting a marvellously timed and runny yolk, came served on a bed of buttery wild mushrooms and studded with pickled walnut, an unbeatable combination that covered all the pleasure points from rich dairy to hearty fungi.

And Yorkshire asparagus, great big thick things like only the best examples are, served with a silky hollandaise and various toasted seeds and nuts, tasted as good as they looked, a riot of colour, flavour and texture. If sourcing great ingredients is 90% of the battle (and I think it is) then the Pack Horse can count themselves lucky they have this side of things absolutely down pat.

Mains continued in the same vein. If I'm going to be brutally honest, my own selection of hare was a tad on the dry and chewy side, being rather too lean a meat to survive the slow braising method. However, the port, pancetta and mushroom sauce it came in was beautifully rich and glossy, and the mashed potatoes were right up there alongside those served at the Parker's Arms. And if you've ever eaten at the Parker's Arms, you'll know how much of a compliment that is.

Lemon sole, served grilled on the bone, was generously proportioned and beautifully cooked, and worth the price of admission even without the mound of mussels, samphire and sea kale on top. I don't want to get into the whole business of London pricing vs Everywhere Else pricing, but can you imagine anywhere within the M25 serving this huge slab of premium fish for £22? No, neither can I.

Or how about this giant chunk of halibut for £21? Boasting a satisfying meaty texture and with an incredible depth of flavour, it would have been a bargain at twice the price. It was presented with cute little parcels of breadcrumbed and fried oysters, and with a fantastic sauce they called "smoked roe & oyster cream", which was every bit as good as it sounds.

Oh, and a word on the chips - triple cooked, golden-brown and basically perfect, they encapsulate everything that's good about the way the Pack Horse goes about its business. They reminded me very strongly in fact of the ones served at the Parker's Arms, and as I've mentioned before, this is a Good Thing.

The chocolate and hazelnut delice, in fact, was a suggestion that the connection with the place in Newton-in-Bowland was more than just coincidental. I'm reliably informed that the chef at the Pack Horse is - amazingly - entirely self-taught, but perhaps has been inspired by a trip to Lancashire and, entirely reasonably, has decided that the Parker's is as good a template as any to base your gastropub on. Or maybe I'm reading too much into things. Either way, this was an excellent dessert.

As was this, the "summer berry mess" with attractive shards of meringue dusted with some kind of powdered fruit, and plenty of raspberries and strawberries folded into sweet whipped cream.

Every town deserves a Pack Horse, and every pub in the country deserves to be this good, but the fact that places as good as this, mature, respectable operations serving rewarding food at extremely reasonable prices and still be recognisable as a pub, are still so vanishingly rare is not due to lack of demand for them but to how incredibly difficult it is to perform the balancing act of offering elevated gastropub food without alienating your loyal customer base, and pitching prices at somewhat under "fine dining" levels whilst still turning a profit. I don't blame certain "gastropubs" for ditching their walk-in bar and going full restaurant-mode, but if you can't just rock up for a pint and a bowl of chips well, that's not a pub.

The Pack Horse is still, unmistakably, gloriously, a pub. You can sit with a group of mates (Covid caveats apply) and drink pints of local ales, or settle down for a four-course seafood extravaganza bookended by sophisticated herb-infused cocktails, but whichever path you choose you'll be served by the same smiling staff and you'll all be using the same loos. And you will, I'm absolutely sure of it, all be trotting home after your time there wanting to do it all over again, just like I was.