Monday, 3 August 2020

The Gallivant, Camber Sands

A few weeks after restaurants and pubs started reopening in earnest, the novelty of going out and have a professional chef cook meals for me is still nowhere near wearing off. Maybe - hopefully - it never will. I like to think I never exactly took the hospitality industry for granted - it's given me way too much joy over the years for that - but over the last few months I've watched in awe as restaurants I already held in high regard pivoted to delivery, delis, home kits and YouTube instructional videos with enthusiasm and creativity, finding a myriad of new ways of sharing their talent with a covid-battered country.

You'll no doubt all have your own lockdown favourites but I should make special mention of the Belzan/Madre team in Liverpool whose home meal kits were a real treat, Passyunk Avenue in London whose clear instructions managed to guide even this rubbish cook towards excellent buffalo wings & Philly cheese steaks, the Ethical Butcher, who delivered just about the best steak I've ever eaten in my life, and Clays Hyderabadi Kitchen who were kind enough to gift me enough excellent curry to sink a battleship. Oh and Bombay Bustle, the highest of high-end Indian delivery services but for a special occasion, absolutely worth the money and then some.

But as I say, it's nice to be back eating food where the only instructions are to sanitise your hands before sitting down, and to follow the one-way system to the toilets. The Gallivant is a tranquil, sun-kissed beachside hotel just a few minutes out of the pretty medieval town of Rye, and as well as being a rather nice place to stay (as I discovered back in 2014) in recent years they've spent a lot of energy upping their food game, recently hiring a new head chef Jamie Guy and stripping back what was a rather large and unweildy menu into a short, tasteful selection of local seasonal produce.

These are whelk fritters, and were lovely, which is more than I can say for normal raw whelks, the horrible snotty little things. Here, they had sensibly been transformed beyond all recognition into a soft mixture and deep-fried, a bit like seafood satay, and presented with a nice tangy tartare.

Courgettes came both green, sliced thin, and yellow, roasted as chunks. Sat on a bed of nice oily home made hummus they were a colourful and wholesome starter, making the most of local ingredients and would have lit up the room with the joys of summer even if it had been bucketing down, I'm sure.

Only slightly less successful was another starter of gem lettuce, which was crunchy and fresh enough but I'm afraid seemed to have no sign of the advertised Kent Blue cheese at all. And while baby gem covered in buttermilk, parmesan and chives is perfectly nice to eat, it really could have done with some big chunks of tangy blue cheese to lift it. Just some would have been nice.

There's a little section for sandwiches on the Gallivant lunch menu, which is a lovely unpretentious touch and will suit anyone not willing to commit to a full 3-course menu of a lunchtime. This is a "crispy plaice" sandwich, the fish being moist and crunchy in all the right places and a great sandwich ingredient - think posh fish fingers. But better still was a pile of what I can only describe as 'ribbon fries', a worryingly addictive invention somewhere between pommes soufflé and a cornershop snack, which demands you throw great fistfuls of it down your throat until they're all gone and then wish you had some more. I'm usually pretty terrible at food trend predictions, but I'll be very surprised if you don't start seeing these at your favourite local gastropub some time soon.

You'd hope a restaurant sat right on the beach would know how to cook a bit of fish, but quite how stunningly realised and executed this dish was came as a delightful shock. It was, in every way, the perfect fish dish. Not only was the skin on the bream crisp and delicate, and the flesh moist and timed perfectly, but the Mediterranean tomato sauce (a kind of panzanella) underneath, studded with crunchy sourdough croutons and fresh herbs, was a riot of flavour and colour, worth the price of admission even if it hadn't been topped with such blindingly good seafood.

So there we have it - a charming little operation altogether, striking exactly the right balance between smart and unpretentious, that would be a highpoint of any day trip to East Sussex. The bill for 3 people came to a very reasonable £87.75 including service charge, although I should point out that 3 glasses of excellent English sparkling (from Oxney organic vineyard just up the road) did very kindly not appear on the bill, so that would have bumped the cost up a bit. Even so, it's hardly an amount of money you'd begrudge paying to sit in this garden in the sun and eat whelk fritters, ribbon fries and sea bream. In fact, I'd go back the very next chance I get.


Thursday, 30 July 2020

Randall & Aubin, Soho

I hesitate to call Randall & Aubin an 'institution' because I get the impression the word is too often rolled out to describe anywhere whose glory days are behind it but which survives through a combination of brand awareness and dewey-eyed nostalgia. But in these Troubled Times ((c) every press release for the last 4 months), well, maybe we need a few more institutions. For a long time, Kettner's in Soho was an institution, as in the pizzas were a bit rubbish but it was easy to find, but people loved it, and when it was revamped into a fancy member's club and the restaurant doubled its prices, well, a bit of the shine went. Let's face it, a lot of the shine went.

Randall & Aubin, though, has changed very little about the way they do things in the last 30 odd years, and why would they? Sure, the old pandemic has meant a bit of extra attention to social distancing, hand sanitiser on arrival, condiments and cutlery provided only as needed, and some lovely new tables outside, but all these things are to be expected anywhere these days. Where it matters - the food, the service, the atmosphere of this little Soho jewel box of a restaurant - R&A is as charming and rewarding as ever.

If you've ever been to Randall & Aubin then most likely you're already a fan and won't need any persuading to go back. But in case you're unaware, we're talking about a seafood bar in the Parisian pavement bistro vein - think huge trays of enticing crustacea on ice, rather uncomfortable high stool seating (much alleviated by the new outside tables) and smart staff dressed in black & white. There's a decently-priced wine list, a selection of the kind of seafood greatest hits that would keep every fruits de mer fan happy, and a couple of half-hearted meat options which I'm sure nobody ever orders. Everything, in other words, you'd hope to see at a place like this.

They have one final job to do, then, in order to match the promise of the setup, and that's to serve it all correctly, and happily they can do that and more. Here's a plate of native oysters, lean and robust, on a cute miniature ice tray presumably only ever used on those rare occasions they're asked to serve such a pathetic number of oysters. Look, I was just worried I wouldn't be able to try all the things I wanted to try, that's all.

I should point out that it was their idea to offer a little tin of caviar to go with the oysters, not mine, and I'm afraid if someone offers me caviar I consider it the height of inpoliteness not to accept. I'm glad I'm not sorry I did, either.

Dressed crab was fantastic - plenty of good, earthy brown meat to go with the white, and generally a very generous amount of both. I ate most of this with a little squeeze of lemon, then made the rest into a sandwich with the very nice house sourdough and salted butter.

Langoustine are the ultimate test of a seafood restaurant's prowess. I've paid a lot of money in very highly-regarded places for woody, pappy or mushy langoustine, a result of bad timing, pre-cooking, freezing or a combination of all three. And it's true that even here, a dedicated seafood restaurant in the center of London, I didn't consider success to be a given. Anyway, I needn't have worried. They were blindingly good - timed perfectly, with bouncy, sweet flesh and complimented very well by a garlic-parsley-butter dressing. Oh, and fries were great too, because langoustine and fries is definitely a thing. Or at least, definitely should be.

As with any seafood dinner - any good one, anyway - you should expect to pay a good amount for it. There's no such thing as a farmed langoustine, or a bargain-basement fresh oyster (or if there is, you definitely shouldn't be eating it) and the practicalities of getting these tasty little buggers out of the sea and onto your plate mean that there most likely never will be. But in the grand scheme of things, Randall & Aubin is pretty decent value - the giant blowout seafood platter is under £50 a head, and oysters work out at about £2.33 if you get a dozen - not quite the cheapest in town, but nowhere near the priciest.

So I left very happy indeed. And now that Randall & Aubin are back open and firing on all cylinders again, you could do a lot worse than make a booking yourself. Poised conveniently to make the most of a pedestrianised Soho as well as the slow return of the public to central London, I can think of very few better ways to celebrate the return of the New Normal as a seafood feast at a restaurant specialising in seafood feasts, and one so very accomplished at serving them. Langoustine, dressed crab, and oysters are back on the menu. Thank God for that.


I was invited to R&A aaaaall the way back in February, but thought it was a bit pointless posting about it until lockdown was lifted. I didn't see a bill, and in fact some of the items I ordered are no longer on the (seasonal) menu, but I imagine the above with a couple of glasses of wine would have cost about £70pp.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Mei Mei Bā, Borough Market

Right then. Where was I?

Last thing I remember it was late March, I was getting ready to head to Cornwall for a long-awaited long weekend, much like we used to back in the Before Times. Then as the date of the trip grew closer, world events grew increasingly fraught. Non-essential trips cancelled, restaurants and hotels shut down for the foreseeable, an entire population asked to shelter indoors and hope for the best against an invisible enemy that, through the sheer chaos of symptoms (or, more worryingly, occasional complete lack thereof), seemed impossible to predict much less contain. For four months, life became an exercise in hanging on, of existing, and of living with the guilt that so many countless others - an unimaginable amount - wouldn't be so lucky.

With now, finally, a light shining at the end of that long, dark tunnel, and the hope - and it may be little more than a glimmer of hope but it's all we've got and I'm running with it - of the worst being behind us, it feels like you're performing some kind of civic duty to eat and drink out again. Restaurants and bars, still adjusting to the New Normal, crippled by social distancing measures and further battered by a depressing spike in no shows (read more about the #NOMORENOSHOWS campaign here) need our support more than ever, and anyone attempting to launch a brand-new Asian-fusion tasting menu concept at the tail end of a global pandemic deserves all the support they can get.

So Mei Mei Bā, from chef Elizabeth Haigh, whose career I've followed with intense interest since she first won Pidgin a Michelin star all the way back in 2015, is nothing if not ambitious. It's ambitiously - as in, insanely reasonably - priced, £45 for 8 courses putting it in that exclusive and ever-shrinking group of sub-£50 London tasting menus, paid for in full on booking so on the night itself there's little extra to worry about other than the odd beer or cheese course. The matching wines are an equally reasonable £35, all natural and full of personality, generous in number and top quality, thoroughly recommended if you want to make the most of your evening. And the food? Well, it's great, of course.

It all begins with this milk bun, an immediate and comprehensive reassurance you'll be in good hands. A very fine piece of baking, sticky and soft and sweet, presented with a brown butter so light and fluffy that it almost disappears into mist as soon as it's spread. This is topped, because why not, with a sprinkling of caviar salt, Mei Mei having clearly decided that nothing isn't improved by a dollop of caviar. More on that, too, later.

Chicken satays, carefully and precisely cooked over charcoal, had just the right amount of colour and crunch, and came with a lovely chunky peanut sauce. Not perhaps wildly different to any chicken satays you might have had before in a proper restaurant but look, sit me down with chicken satays grilled over coals and I will never not be happy.

Next, Haigh's signature fried chicken with white miso mayo, and optional (HA!) Exmoor caviar. After four months of lockdown the £40 supplement for a 20g tin of real caviar was about as "optional" to this giddy restaurant-starved blogger as the table it was eaten off, so clearly each bit of chicken - crunchy and spicy outside, with bright white, soft flesh underneath - was enjoyed with a generous dollop of black gold. Oh and a special mention for the dark reduced stock sauce lurking at the bottom of the bowl, which added even more chicken-y intensity.

Then something of a palate-cleanser - heritage tomato salad, lifted with fresh basil and a beautifully fragrant "Hainanese chicken vinaigrette", indicative not only of a confident use of fusion flavours but also presumably an efficient desire to put as much of the chicken to use as possible.

Lemon sole, served on the bone which I always think is more fun, came with a sharp tamarind sauce and an unapologetically slimy mound of okra. I am slowly, ever-so-slowly, getting used to the idea of okra naturally having the texture of warm saliva, but I will be the first to admit I'm not quite there yet. So yes, the vegetable element of this dish had me slightly discombobulated. But I still ate it.

I sometimes think that if I just had one faultless pork broth recipe under my belt, I wouldn't feel the need to eat out half as much as I do. Maybe I could just pay for Mei Mei to make me a gallon drum of the stuff, and I could freeze it as required for use throughout the year. It could see me through many a long winter, or even (heaven forbid) another lockdown. What I mean to say, in not so many words, is that Mei Mei's pork broth is brilliant.

White park beef, hung dramatically over charcoal from its own scaffolding in the corner of the kitchen, filled the air with tantalising rich beefy aromas even as we sat down to the bread course. It was finally now time to try it, presented cleanly and simply as two medium slices, generously tipped with fat, in a clear aromatic sauce, and did not disappoint. Some nice grilled peppers, blistered on the coals, added a bit of greenery and smoke.

Alongside the beef it's probably worth mentioning a couple of interesting sides; one endive & parsley salad, soaked in a sweet soy dressing which perfectly balanced the bitter leaves, and "nasi kerabu" - rice coloured sky blue with butterfly pea flower - which I must admit was a first for me.

Dessert was an apple and rhubarb donut thing, fluffy and warm straight out of the fryer, and a dollop of teh tarik ice cream which neatly bookended with the glass of pandan tea we'd been given as an aperitif right at the start of the meal. Like so many good tasting menus, one or two of the same flavours keep cropping up in different forms here and there throughout the evening, which if it helps reduce waste I'm all in favour of. Part of me's quite pleased we only had one go at the okra, though.

Anyone reading this will most likely be wondering about more than just how good the food is, but how safe and "normal" it feels, eating out in these strange times. I was, too, before my dinner at Mei Mei but truth be told, once you're sat there, and had it explained to you to keep your cutlery when sensible and use hand sanitiser on arrival, all the little New Normal details really do fade into insignificance. Admittedly, this is a very good and professional little outfit, and perhaps a visit to Subway or Pizza Express would be a little more fraught, but it's struck me how quickly restaurants and customers alike have adapted and how it's still perfectly possible to have a lovely evening out.

And thank God for that. Because a world without restaurants, without Quality Chop House (open last week), Hawksmoor (gradually opening all sites as we speak), Zedel (open again) and yes Mei Mei and the like is just not a world I'm interested in. Not one bit. And I hesitate to end on too much of a positive note, because there are still plenty of dark clouds on the horizon and I'm way too superstitious to make any grand claims about the future, or even near future. But look, Mei Mei Ba exists and is taking bookings, and that should be enough news to rejoice at for now.

Oh, and that Cornwall trip? Rebooked for the end of September. Anything could happen before then, it's true. But if we haven't got a bit of hope for a good dinner in the near future, what else have we got?


Tuesday, 10 March 2020

Four Legs at the Compton Arms, Islington

The movie critic Mark Kermode says a feature of any good-but-imperfect movie is that once the story and characters start to grip you, the flaws, such as they are, fade into irrelevance. Much the same can be applied to restaurants. You can be annoyed by an arcane booking process, disappointed in your allocated table, put off by the prices, but if the food is good, and the service compliments it, you'll be planning a return trip before you've finished your starters.

But that's only if the food is good. If it isn't, all of those flaws, instead of fading away, become all you can see about a place. It's not like Four Legs at the Compton Arms is a terrible restaurant - objectively it isn't, and some dishes were very nice - but in the end, they didn't do enough to distract from the reality of eating in a dark, noisy, hugely oversubscribed pub in Islington, and I can't really say I enjoyed much about the evening.

Things started promisingly enough. Rock oysters came with a "hot sauce" which was more a kind of chilli oil but which worked very well - I'm a big fan of oyster and chilli, and as long as you have nice fresh oysters there's not much you can do to mess it up.

Also decent was a bowl of cockles and clams, which didn't really need the cubes of bone marrow dotted about but still impressed with a nice lemon/butter sauce that mopped up extremely well with the house bread.

But that was where the good times ended. The biggest disappointment of the evening was the cheeseburger, which supposedly used Dexter beef but still tasted of nothing but warm grease, perhaps because they'd overcooked the two thin patties to grey. They'd used two types of cheese - traditional American processed and some kind of cheddar I think - but they didn't really work with each other and the cheddar-a-like was already solid and chalky by the time it had arrived on the table. The bun was fairly devoid of personality but did at least hold together, which is something, but there were no chips available, and I think if you're selling a burger you need to offer chips. so we attemped to fill the spot with a portion of "fried new potatoes", which were "fried" insofar as they were quite greasy but had no texture or crunch to speak of, and the aioli dumped on top burned with way too much garlic. The burger actually only cost £11 but just served to prove that if the product is subpar, no price point becomes a bargain.

Pollock is a cheap fish, and will never have the taste or texture of cod or haddock, but still deserved a better treatment than this, a bizarre presentation that involved a vaguely currified spinach and pea slop and a clumsy seasoned flatbread. There was actually something faintly enjoyable about the spinach slop, despite it being swimming in oil, but the fish was mealy and dry, and the flatbread - sorry, "fried pizza dough" - was a chore.

All of which would have been distressing enough had it not been served in a tiny, noisy, dark room (hence the terrible photos) on table way too close to the bar, meaning I was eating much of my dinner with my face level with some Islingtonite's arse. To be fair, the other dining space at the back looked a little more bearable, so maybe we were just unlucky, but I do think some places should just find a way of being happy as a bar rather than trying to climb aboard the gastropub bandwagon. Or maybe I'm just getting old and have very little patience for eating overcooked burgers in the dark. More likely that, really.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Despite the odd Compton Arms-shaped blip I've eaten pretty well in the last few weeks, so I'm not about to extrapolate one disappointing evening into wider point about London dining. I didn't like Four Legs, and that's that, no harm done and no need to dwell. There's far more exciting places to write about. Watch this space.


Friday, 6 March 2020

Fenchurch, the City

There are many benefits to spending an extended period in Southern California, not least, for this pasty Londoner, seeing the sun for more than a few minutes a day, but it wreaks havoc on the old blogging schedule. Believe it or not, this visit to the Fenchurch Grill at the top of the Walkie Talkie happened all the way back in August, an invite to investigate the changes made under a new kitchen regime and (from a personal point of view) a chance to see how the plants in the Sky Garden had matured and bedded in over the last 4 years. I'm still slightly obsessed with the whole Sky Garden idea; I grew up on Sci-Fi concepts like Empire Strikes Back's Cloud City and Silent Running, and the idea of a lush temperate rainforest sailing half a mile up above the polluted streets of a city is quite thrilling.

And yes, I know the ol' Talkie has its detractors (blimey does it have its detractors) but this is one of those times when being a complete pleb when it comes to architecture and the visual arts generally has its benefits - however aesthetically bruising buildings like this are to others, I can quite easily enjoy an evening in them, because I like being 50 floors up having a nice dinner in a sky garden. So there.

A dinner, incidentally, which began with a little amuse of cauliflower mousse with hazelnuts and truffle which made a very tasteful and interesting start to proceedings. I always think it's a gamble for kitchens that decide to serve an amuse; get it wrong - too boring, too big, too clumsy - and you're better off just leaping straight into starters, but get it right and it's a nice little overture for the food to come, a dramatic opening fanfare (like the one at the beginning of the Star Wars movies, but tastier).

Starters were equally poised, precise and enjoyable. Quail had been portioned into breast, beautifully tender with a layer of crushed hazelnuts delicately spread on a golden brown, crisp skin, and the confit leg had a great texture, neither too chewy or too dry. Neither of these things are by any means a given when it comes to quail. There's something about the combination of poultry, toasted hazelnuts and cream/white wine sauce that takes me back to childhood - I think my mum used to make something similar, possibly an old Delia Smith recipe - so I found this starter particularly evocative.

Steak tartare rarely survives being buggered about with (technical term) too much, but by virtue of high quality meat, tenderly braised beets and a presentational eye for the colourful and geometrically precise, the other starter was received just as well. It's a good control variable, steak tartare - everyone knows what a good one tastes like in theory, but not very many kitchens can make that theory a successful reality. This more than passed muster.

I was looking forward to my main even more after I discovered how well they'd treated the quail, and yes, this chicken had a similarly lovely crisp, bronzed skin, an invitingly soft flesh and was complimented perfectly by grilled corn, girolles and some salty cubes of pancetta.

The other main was cod & fennel, a tried and tested combo, and was a nicely cooked bit of fish but I do wonder at the logic of putting soggy green leaves (spinach?) on top of what looks like would otherwise have been a nice crisp golden skin, and then putting croutons on top of that. Surely it would have been a better texture - certainly better visually - to leave the cod skin as-is, and put the spinach & breadcrumbs on the side? But there was more than enough to enjoy in the cod itself, and the sides were strong.

To be perfectly honest, I have completely forgotten what these desserts were, which either tells you how much wine I'd drunk by that point, or that they weren't particularly memorable. Anyway they look nice enough don't they? Look, if you want professionalism, buy a paper.

And if all the above doesn't convince you, and you needed any more reasons to visit Fenchurch, consider this. Most nights the queue for the Sky Garden stretches right out of the security area and halfway down Philpot Lane. But a booking at Fenchurch not only guarantees you a lovely Modern British meal with friendly service and cracking views, but the ability to smugly skip the queues for the lift and still leave you with the option of mooching around the Sky Garden before or after dinner. Personally, I'd recommend before, as later in the evening they have DJs playing loud music and it tends to get a bit more full-on, but some of you may not be quite so middle aged.

However you enjoy your visit, Fenchurch stands as yet another nail in the coffin of the old Tall Restaurant Syndrome, which states that the quality of food in a place is inversely proportional to the quality of the view. Not only is the Sky Garden well worth a visit in its own right, but if the dishes here - precise, intelligent, attractive - were served in a nuclear bunker 200 feet underground it would still be worth a wholehearted recommendation. And a wholehearted recommendation is what I'm going to give - after so many years in this lofty space, with presumably all the temptation in the world to serve bland international bistro fare only good enough to keep the tourists happy, Fenchurch continues to improve and now stands as one of the best restaurants in the City.


I was invited to Fenchurch and didn't see a bill, but the above with a glass or two of wine would have come to about £80-£90 per person based on the online menu prices.

EDIT: I am reliably informed (thank you PR) that the desserts were Roasted peach, olive oil biscuit and Wigmore ice cream, and 64% Manjari chocolate, caramelized hazelnut, and cereal milk ice cream.