Thursday, 14 November 2019

Allegra, Stratford

You've got to admire a restaurant with ambition, and Allegra is most certainly to be admired. It's in an ambitious (ie. risky) part of town, the somewhat untested waters (restaurant-wise at least) of Stratford, and for most people the first part of their evening will involve a half-mile walk through the grim Westfield Shopping Centre, hardly the kind of atmosphere to get you in the mood for fine dining. It's in an ambitious building, as well - the Stratford hotel, a vast new monolith towering over the old Olympic Park which boasts 145 rooms, a sky terrace and at least 4 bars and restaurants that I could see on my journey from the front door up to the 7th floor. And thanks to head chef Patrick Powell, ex- of Chiltern Firehouse, the food is as ambitious as anywhere in town serving modern, seasonal British food, with interesting seafood and premium meats in a number of eye-catching treatments. It's a menu that reads incredibly well, and sometimes that's half the battle.

Similarly ambitious is the drinks side of things, with an exquisitely tasteful (note: ambitious does not always equal tasteful) cocktail list, and a climate-controlled wine cellar (funny calling a room on the 7th floor of a brand new building a 'cellar' but I can't think of a better word) that they'll very proudly show you around. Incidentally, pictured above is a "Preserved in Time", involving rum, sherry and Cocchi Rosa (a bitter spirit a bit like Campari) infused with orange and plum marmalade, and tasted as elegant and balanced as it looks.

While we were enjoying our cocktails, these snacks appeared, if Instagram is anything to go by already something approaching a signature dish. Choux pastries filled with a smooth, salty chicken liver parfait and dusted with pistachio, they were an unbeatable combination of luxurious paté and light patisserie, attractive and dangerously addictive.

House bread came in two forms - a very decent sourdough (best applied with salted butter) and a genuinely lovely soda bread which we were told to spread with a little bowl of garlic salsa of some kind, which sounds weird now I've written it down but at the time worked rather well. It's getting to the stage where it's dangerously easy to take a good bread course for granted in London restaurants, but it's always a good idea to remember these things are never a given.

I used to be firmly of the opinion that oysters are better off un-messed-about with. A bit of lemon, perhaps, or a dash of tabasco but otherwise please leave unadorned - they're lovely enough things on their own. Over the years, that opinion has been challenged by a variety of very clever and very successful "dressed" versions at places like the sadly departed* [see edit] St Leonard's, who used pickled black pepper and wild garlic to extraordinary effect. Unfortunately, the "lemon ice" which Allegra saw fit to cover their oysters with was a neither clever nor successful idea - sweet lemon sorbet being about as inappropriate dressing for raw oyster as I can imagine. The flavour of the poor bivalves were completely lost, and the sorbet set your teeth on edge. Not fun.

Happily for all concerned, though, the oysters were merely a temporary lapse in judgement, as everything else we were served more than lived up to the hype. These are meticulously boned chicken wings and parmesan gnocchi, neither too firm nor too mushy, all dressed in a lovely autumnal mushroom froth. Classy and technically impressive, with pinpoint seasoning, I can barely think of a better thing to do with chicken and mushroom. Other than perhaps a pie.

Speaking of pies, the other starter was also a knockout. Pithivier, geometrically exact and beautifully bronzed, was stacked full of smoked eel sandwiched in a rich seafood mousse, and served alongside a vivid green garlic-parsley sauce. Like the chicken and gnocchi, this was a masterclass in cheffy technique but also - crucially - supremely enjoyable, comfort food elevated to fine dining. I think we could have polished off about 3 of these each.

For the main, because seafood seemed to feature so prominently on the menu and because really, how many other opportunities do you get to order a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot, we ordered a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot. And it was fantastic - heady with alcohol but not bitterly so, meaty and dense and full of flavour, and served alongside plates dressed (a genius idea) with shards of crisp chicken skin and ribbons of pickled kohlrabi. With it came a cute little bowl of congee - lovely, but by this point I'm afraid the last thing we wanted to tackle was a thick bowl of savoury rice porridge. I'm sure if I'd had this by itself for lunch another day I would have demolished it.

There is, as we all know, a separate stomach for desserts, and with our valiant efforts to tackle the congee fading into the distant past we first attacked a treacle cake with cranberry jam, a deeply rewarding bit of pastry work that glistened like a sugary jewel...

...and this, a Douglas Fir granité with sour cream ice cream, pretty as a picture and a lighter, more perfumed counterpoint to the treacle tart if somewhat less interesting to eat. In fact in the interest of balance I should say that my dining companion really did not like the granité at all, but maybe she was just jealous of my tart.

Clearly, then, there's very little to criticise in what's coming out of the kitchens at Allegra. This is, objectively, a mature and profoundly capable operation serving the best of Modern British seasonal fine dining, at prices you'd expect to pay for food of this standard and I enjoyed it very much. As I said, it's a restaurant with serious ambition. I just worry whether this ambition is best realised in a rather soulless (it was about 30% capacity that Thursday evening, if that) new build on top of a shopping centre in Stratford. I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, it comes thoroughly recommended. Just avoid the oysters.


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

EDIT: Apparently St. Leonard's has not closed. No idea where I got that from.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Liu Xiaomian at the Jackalope, Marylebone

I may as well come clean - restaurant He and today's review subject weren't picked completely out of the blue. True, they were handy from the office and reasonably priced, but they were also, crucially, well-reviewed by Marina O'Loughlin in the Times, someone who has a fairly unblemished track record of recommending excellent places going all the way back to when she was the Metro's in-house critic. These days, thanks to a paywall and my own lifelong boycott of any Murdoch product (I'm from Liverpool) I only get to read the first couple of paragraphs, but it's usually enough to get the gist of the place. So thank you Marina for another lovely noodley lunch, and may one day your later paragraphs be revealed in full.

Much like He, Liu Xiomian offer a short, attractive menu of regional Chinese specialist dishes, in this case Chongqing, a sprawling province to the south east of Sichuan with whose cuisine it shares much in common - think hot, numbing soups studded with Sichuan peppercorns, and a fondness for hot pot. Your choices at their residence at the Jackalope in Marylebone (a lovely place to pub even if you're not eating) are wheat noodles, or glass noodles with either minced pork or "vegan" (not sure and don't really care), and a separate option of 10 x "numbing pork wonton". I ordered the pork noodles and wonton (spice level "hot"), because why the hell not, and was soon, via a Shake Shack style remote buzzer ordering system, rewarded with two very colourful bowls of Chonqingese loveliness.

I started with the wontons, as they felt like more of a starter. With an almost ethereally-light, silky texture they spoke of a kitchen right on the top of its dumpling game, and were so easy to eat they practically jumped down the gullet. The flavours were balanced and rewarding - a complex broth of chilli oil and spices, enough heat to clear the sinuses but enough pork for it to still be the main ingredient. Yes, they were very good, and I polished them all off in about 30 seconds.

Similarly the wheat noodles, clearly well made and with a good bounce, came topped with a generous amount of minced pork and more of that rich, hot red oily broth. Extra texture in the form of some toasted peanuts floating about amongst it all, a really nice little touch. Perhaps I didn't quite need two full bowls to myself for lunch, but I'm equally sure that just one wouldn't have been enough, so overall I think I played it quite well.

So yes, at £20 (plus £3 for a Sprite) for a noodle lunch this isn't perhaps quite as good value as He, or indeed other noodle joints in Chinatown, and as such loses a point. But even if this isn't an every day lunch spend, it's still exciting, fresh, handmade Chinese regional food, the kind of which you're unlikely to find in many (if any) other places in town, at least until they open their second branch at the Holborn Whippet, even more dangerously close to the office. Pray for me.

There we go, then, another friendly, exciting specialist Asian operation, authentic and honestly realised. God knows there's enough to be terrified of in Brexit Britain, but for as long as London remains open and welcoming to talented food people from all corners of the globe, we may as well make the most of it. I certainly bloody will.


Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Restaurant He, Holborn

I honestly didn't plan it this way, but this and the next post are going to be short-but-sweet companion pieces to the CoCo Ichibanya review, focussing on single-dish, or at least ultra-specialised, Asian food. It's just a byproduct of the way I've been eating out recently - I spot an interesting development on Twitter, or mention in a national review, realise it's only a short walk or hop on the tube from work, and pootle on over there for a weekday lunch. I like to eat early, and so a midday lunch not only satisfies my compulsion to run my daily schedule a good hour and a half before the rest of the city, but also helps beat the queues at the more popular places. See? Win-win.

Anyway, the minimally-named He restaurant on Red Lion Street is apparently a Jiangnanese restaurant, and if all I knew about it before I went was that it was Fuschia Dunlop's favourite cuisine, well, that's only because she's the first result on Google for 'Jiangnanese'. Jiangnan is a province that includes the mega-metropolis Shanghai, so is hardly some rural backwater, and yet even in London, increasingly quite good at regional specialisation, this appears to the only (again, thank you Google) Jiangnanese specialist in the whole of the city.

But there's very little point into going into any more detail on the complexities of Jiangnan, mainly because I know bugger all about it, but also because I went to He just to try their £12 business lunch, and extrapolating any grand points about the benefits of otherwise of the cuisine in general would be futile even if it was fair. So without further ado, this is said menu, served 12-3pm, Monday to Friday:

...and this is what turns up when you choose chef's kimchi, steamed egg custard, chef's vegetables and Nanjing Beef Vermicelli Soup:

Of all the bits, only the kimchi was a little disappointing, being underpowered and weirdly sweet. But the rest was great, from the silky savoury custard, piping hot with a smooth texture and lovely salty soy flavour, to the soup itself, boasting a rich clear broth and plenty of bits of beef (and tendon!) and lots of noodles. Even the "chefs vegetables" were impressive, bright green florets of al-dente broccoli glistening in a salty oyster (I think) sauce, even if the presentation was a bit like a TV dinner.

Look, there's really not much more to say than that, but none of you really came here for detail, did you. I liked He a lot, and given it's about 5 minutes' walk from the office I can see myself making regular use of it. It's a nicely designed room as well, with whitewashed brick walls and nicely spaced tables, and very friendly and helpful service who get an extra point for dealing with the utter arsehole suit in the window who complained when they wouldn't let him swap in a much more expensive main into the lunch menu and still pay £12. That's not how this works, mate. I hope you choke on your vermicelli.

I don't know what we have to thank for the sudden proliferation of interesting Chinese restaurants in town - a sudden proliferation of Chinese students, probably, judging by most of my dining companions that lunchtime - but I'm absolutely delighted it's happening and absolutely determined to make the most of it. To complete this little trilogy, then, in the next few days I'll tell you about another little gem. Isn't this fun?


Wednesday, 30 October 2019

CoCo Ichibanya, Covent Garden

Over the years I've tried a few times to boost the number of shorter, single-item reviews on this blog, but for whatever reason - guilt of judging a place from only one dish, the worry that anything less than a 1800-word treatise on the state of the world making it look like I'm being lazy - there's not many made it through the decision-making stage. But I'm going to write about CoCo Ichibanya based on one plate of food that took about 10 minutes to eat one Wednesday lunchtime because this one dish is, after all, what they're famous for the world over, and because it's really rather good and deserves as many people talking about it as possible.

On a trip to Japan in 2011, our little group was drawn into the Kyoto (I think it was) branch of CoCo by the Westerner-friendly pictorial menus and decently fast-food prices. I remember it being a fairly brief, but nonetheless pleasant experience, and the name stuck with me for the rest of the trip as a place to get reliably good katsu and where I could point at what I wanted on a menu rather than attempting a challenging combination of phrasebook research and full-body mime. It was a lot easier ordering chicken than pork, let me tell you.

In London, fortunately, the language barrier is no longer an issue, though staff are no less friendly and well-drilled. There are some cosy booths - always, absolutely the best type of restaurant seating - but as a solo diner I was led towards a row of window stools, which were nonetheless nicely spaced and pretty comfortable. This ain't no Kanada-Ya St Giles where you run the risk of jabbing a stranger in the ribs whenever you try and scoop up some noodles.

To be perfectly honest, I knew what I was going to order before I stepped through the door, but a quick flick through the menu revealed a surprising number of customisation options for your curry which I don't remember from Japan. There's all sorts of bizarre extras - cheese, kimchi, natto, omelette - and if you're in the mood you can have a whole hamburger patty plonked on top of your katsu, both things to be soaked in curry sauce of course. Resisting the temptation to order a sausage and eggplant curry with added calamari rings and clams, or pay a £3 premium for an extra half a kilo of rice, I settled for the rather more sane control option of pork katsu.

And it was, despite the journey of 6,000 miles and eight years, still worth cooing over. Breaded pork cutlet was greaseless and a nice firm texture, not dry or chewy but with just enough of a bite to keep its shape. The rice was fluffy and light, cleverly holding together even when used to sponge up the gravy, really the ideal texture. And the 'Level 2' chilli level spicing was just - only just, mind you - the right side of bearable, cleaning the sinuses and warming the cockles on this dreary London October day. I dread to think what 'Level 5' (the maximum chilli factor) is like, they must have to have St John's Ambulance waiting in the wings like they used to do at the Grillstock Chilli Eating Competitions in Bristol.

The bill came to £15.98 including service charge, and was worth every penny. Yeah it's a couple of quid more than the anaemic Wagamama version - fine if you're stuck at Heathrow T5 but hardly worth bothering with otherwise - and those cardboard pots they keep warm in the cabinets at Wasabi all day, but as far as I'm concerned you get exactly what you pay for, which is one of London's better (if not actually the best, though I'm no expert) katsu curries, straightforward, attractive and authentic. I arrived for a very early lunch (as I am wont to do), but by the time I left, there was a queue outside. As there should be. Welcome to London, CoCo Ichibanya. I think you'll like it here.


Monday, 28 October 2019

Kahani, Chelsea

The cliché, repeated often enough that it's usually accepted as fact, is that the more well off a suburb of London is, the less likely you are to find anything good there to eat. Hampstead, Holland Park, St John's Wood, these are lovely areas to visit (I particularly recommend a walking tour of the Beatles locations in St John's Wood as I did a couple of weekends back), but once you start feeling the pangs of hunger you're better off jumping on a bus and eating somewhere else.

Chelsea used to be firmly in the "too posh for dinner" category (notwithstanding the existence of Medlar, which is, and always was, brilliant) but interestingly, and quite happily as far as I'm concerned as I live only a short bus ride away, the area around Sloane Square seems to have become a bit of a center for high-end Indian food. Kutir took over from the old Vijay Bhatia site (itself rather highly regarded back in the day, so I'm told), and is worth a trip to the area alone, especially given its incredibly reasonal (for Chelsea) prices and special game menus. And a short walk the other side of Sloane Square is Kahani, where I enjoyed an absolutely wonderful series of dishes last week.

I nearly described Kahani as "new" in that last paragraph, but apparently it's been open since 2018. I guess that's the point of these invites, to reintroduce the public - or at least a dedicated handful of overeager restaurants spods like me - to somewhere that for whatever reason has slipped off the radar. Or even to remind people that it is worth travelling to Chelsea for dinner after all. And in the case of Kahani, it really, really is.

There's been a worrying trend in some high-end Indian subcontinent restaurants to steer away from the traditional pre-order snack of poppadums and chutneys, and to consder them somehow a bit lowbrow. There's a part of me sympathises - if you are charging £100 instead of £20 for their dinner, you want to end up with as little about the expensive experience that's in common with the budget option as possible, otherwise people are going to wonder where the money's gone. But the thing is, authenticity and sophistication be damned, I love poppadums and chutneys and consider any meal that doesn't start with them a wasted opportunity. Plus, if Jamavar can do a classy version, with interesting chutneys and cute little cone-shaped poppadums and fried plantain chips, there's no excuse for anyone else not to make the effort. These were perfectly nice, though the chutneys all tasted rather similar, and I missed a coriander and chilli version.

Cocktails were great fun - just the right side of eccentric to be interesting, and well-constructed enough to taste worth the money being asked. The "Chacotic" was particularly good, a barrel-aged negroni spiked with woodsmoke, which filled the air with intoxicating autumn aromas.

Spiced chickpeas were colourful, involved plenty of interesting textures, and was impossible not to enjoy. The match of chickpea with tamarind has plenty of precedent in Indian food - I will never forget the late, lamented Kastoori in Tooting's pani puri, which were always a must-order - but sometimes the classic combos are classic for a reason.

"Black chicken" was, well, certainly as described, darkened with a thick coating of roasted spices and absorbing so much light my photo has them looking like lumps of charcoal. Fortunately though, that's where the similarity ends, as they were beautifully tender and boasting deliriously complex spicing.

One of the signs a restaurant knows what it's doing when it comes to seafood is that no matter how large or unweildly the animal in question, the kitchen will always have it turn out soft and moist to the very last inch. These smoked malabar prawns were great big chunky things but the meat fell satisfyingly out of the shell in one piece, and the spice mix made the most of the flesh without overwhelming or fighting it. Very nicely done.

Guinea fowl tikka were similarly sensitively cooked, with a good texture (not always a given with guinea fowl, whose leanness can foil even in the best kitchens) and addictive cream-tomato sauce.

And last of the grilled items, lamb chops - more complex spicing, and top-quality meat touched with a gentle crust but which inside was pink and meltingly tender. All of the these dishes had been so good we'd had no trouble in hoovering them all up but I think by the time the last of the lamb chops had gone to the great tandoor in the sky, our capacity to carry on was being somewhat challenged.

Sensing our valiant struggles, Kahani did what every Indian restaurant worth its salt would do to a reviewer, and decided to bring all of the rest of the menu at once. So, here's a giant slow-cooked lamb shank about the size of my head, which had a fantastic firm texture and came soaked in a sauce that would have been worth the journey all by itself. I think I managed about a teaspoon's worth of it.

Also, chicken "Makhani", yet more beautifully cooked cubes of chicken in a tomato-cream sauce, so good that the fact I was utterly unable to fit more than a single forkful in my mouth was a matter of profound dispair.

Jeera aloo, a marvellous soft spiced potato side that was fragrant and comforting and precisely spiced, was another reason to curse my inadequate appetite.

Bread was nice, too, of course, fluffy and buttery and light. I don't think I managed any of this, just stared at it wistfully until it was time to clear up and leave.

I should point out that excellent front of house at Kahani, enthusiastic and attentive and determined to kill us as they were, tried very hard to persuade us to have a dessert. Each. We declined, as apologetically as we could through the pain and promised to come back and try them at some point soon, perhaps with the English rugby team in tow, or at the very least a hungry dog.

Anyway, you'll be pleased to know none of that food went to waste. Kahani happily provide takeout bags, and that incredible lamb shank, the chicken makhani, the potatoes and the bread made a supremely enjoyable buffet lunch the next day. Indian food usually reheats superbly, high-end Indian food doubly so, and Kahani's is no exception. So if you do over-order, a very real possibility given a menu that reads this well even if you're not being treated, or if the front of house sweet-talk you into ordering an entire roast sheep on top of the hardly modest selection you'd hitherto come up with, remember that they may not necessarily, despite first appearances, be trying to kill you. They may just want to make sure you have enough in for lunch the next day.

That's Kahani, then - an excellent addition to the Sloaney neighbourhood, and another high-end Indian restaurant very much worth visiting. Even if Chelsea never quite becomes a destination dining area, there's increasingly enough to recommend it as a diversion, and perhaps that'll do for now. After all, even Shoreditch had to start somewhere.


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

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Wreckfish, Liverpool

The key to a successful local restaurant, he says almost as if he has a clue what he's talking about, is to allow a certain degree of flexibility in ordering. If you want your place to become a regular's regular, you need to take into account the different reason people eat out, and the range of budgets different diners have. This doesn't (necessarily) mean a large menu with lots of options because that too often ends up stretching a kitchen's skills too thinly and running the risk of some ingredients hanging around in storage for longer than they should. Instead, let people have the option of piling on starters, mains, a huge sharing steak for two, desserts and a cheeseboard, with fizz to start and port to end, if they like, on some occasions. But also allow for a less extravagant meal another night, with a selection of more modest ingredients served for an attractive amount of money at quieter times.

Wreckfish, as you might expect from a group that know exactly how to run a local restaurant, covers every one of these eventualities with taste and style. There's the A La Carte menu, offered all day long, with 8 starters and 8 mains that run the full gamut of dietary demands from game and charcuterie through to seafood and even vegan. There's a brunch/breakfast menu, which I am yet to try but judging by the tables taken on Saturday morning is clearly doing something right. There's a Sunday lunch menu which offers the usual roasts alongside a few refugees from the ALC, and there's what we dropped in for at 6:30pm on a Monday, the early evening set menu.

Does this look like a dish from a £22 3-course menu to you? A neat square of mackerel fillet, blowtorched to a crisp skin and served with neat blobs of yoghurt, cubes of poached apple, a disc of kohlrabi sprinkled with an incredibly addictive seed and spice mix, and all those geometric shapes framed by two jagged pieces of cracker. A masterclass in presentation, which of course would mean nothing if it didn't taste that good but the veg and dairy made a brilliant combination, the mix of textures were spot on, and the mackerel was nice and fatty even if it probably didn't quite need the amount of salt they'd piled on top of it.

Ox tongue, served in neat rows and drizzled with olive oil like beefy anchovies, had a fantastic flavour and none of that grainy toughness you sometimes get with this kind of offal. Celeriac remoulade was nice and herby and fresh, and spears of gherkin provided a touch of sweetness and acidity. None of these ingredients are expensive, you'll notice - just presented and treated as if they are. And that's the kind of attitude I like.

Carrot and caraway soup arrived piping hot, as indeed it should, except thanks to a combination of the thick ceramic bowl it was in, and the dense texture of the broth itself, managed to stay too hot to eat for about 20 minutes. When it did finally settle down we were able to appreciate the fragrant effect the caraway had on the carrot, which was even better soaked into some of the supplied foccacia. All the Elite Bistros do very nice focaccia.

Sea bream, as carefully cooked as the mackerel, with a nice crisp skin, rested on a bed of butternut squash risotto - something I wouldn't choose as an accompaniment myself but the person who ordered it seemed happy enough. Some buttered spinach and a scattering interesting herbs including something called 'sea rosemary' completed the picture, a straightforwardly enjoyable, attractive fish dish.

Even further out of my comfort zone than butternut squash risotto is this vegan favourite, roast cauliflower, but I tried a little bit of it and you know what, it was rather good. If you were a vegan and were used to being served nothing better than a falafel burger on any given night out I imagine you'd enjoy it even more.

Maple glazed "bacon" was in fact a thick square of cured pork belly, nicely treated and attractively presented but just a tad the wrong side of overwhelming. I like pork belly, and bacon, very much, but there's really only so much it's comfortable to eat in one go, and though I appreciated the quality of the pork, and the gribiche, and the broccoli, it was touch and go whether I could finish it at one point. I did, though. I'm good like that.

We had no such issues finishing off the desserts, because they were all brilliant. Salted creme caramel crème brûlée (my bad, thanks commenter Pete) was flattering in its simplicity, just a bowl of vanilla-spiked custard, not too salty, topped with a delicate crust of set sugar.

Poached pear was a very attractive thing, glowing an incredible luminescent yellow and paired (sorry) with a blob of smooth vanilla ice cream and some tangy smushed-up (I believe is the technical term) Sauternes jelly.

And finally, semifreddo, which on account of my aversion to caffeine I didn't try much of other than (obviously) nicking a bite of the honeycomb which I think I might be addicted to.

The total bill came to £88, which is just over £29 a person for three courses and a bottle of wine, pretty astonishing value for an evening meal even if the food had been half as good. And Wreckfish don't even automatically add on a tip - we left one, of course, as service had been absolutely spot-on, but then I don't think I've ever had cause to complain about front of house at any of Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle, Hispi or Kala. Maybe Pinion - the only one of the group I'm yet to patronise - is staffed by belligerent ne'er-do-wells, but something tells me it isn't. And something tells me it's going to have to go on the list as well. Meantime, I'm able to chalk up yet another great place to eat in the North West, this handsome building, populated by handsome people serving handsome food, right in the centre of the handsomest city in the country.