Monday, 18 March 2019

Stem, Mayfair

It's so easy to get used to certain status quos in the London restaurant world that when something finally comes along to challenge them, it takes a little while to recognise. The settled fact was that whatever you were used to paying elsewhere in London for food and drink, to do the same in Mayfair, whether in a fancy hotel or independent restaurant, would cost you that much extra. The quality of the offering may not be significantly better (or indeed could be somewhat worse) but because people were used to paying more, places somehow got away with it. I've been guilty myself in the past of excusing anywhere charging too much as "expected for the area". The Mayfair Premium. Annoying, but what could you do?

Stem is proof it doesn't have to be this way. Seconds from Oxford Circus tube and right in the heart of Mayfair, this is the exception that proves the rule. Their evening 9-course tasting menu, full of technical prowess and seasonal joy, is £60 (that's £7.50 a dish once you add on service), the kind of price point you'd be lucky to find in any rural gastropub never mind somewhere in W1. And none of this comes at the expense of nice plush surroundings (Stem is very well designed, with plenty of space between tables) or sparkling service, led at time of eating by YBF nominee Emma Underwood ex- of Burnt Truffle and Where The Light Gets In. It's Mayfair with a Clerkenwell bill.

The style of food will be familiar to anyone who's tried Chef Mark Jarvis' cooking at Anglo, although it's important to point out that there are no "signature dishes" or familiar flourishes - Stem is entirely its own animal. We began with trout tartare topped with pickled carrots, on a bed of what I think they said was dill crème fraîche.

The only element of any dish I could find fault with was these gougères on the left. Heavy and rather sweet thanks to an allium stuffing, they badly missed the Comté cheese hit of versions I've had elsewhere, and were just not worth the effort. Perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so disappointed had I not had seriously good gougères before; maybe if they'd been sold as 'onion buns' they'd have got away with it. But as gougères they fell flat. Sourdough was good though - made in house - as was some nice salty butter.

There was a time when I would immediately dismiss any cooked oyster dish as unneccesary cowardice. I think it's down to certain places being unable or unwilling to unable to handle the storing, shucking and presentation of live oysters, instead falling back on the safer baking option, or it could just be blind prejudice on my part. Either way, over the last few years I've been offered cooked, poached and pickled oysters in so many different and exciting ways (The black pepper pickle versions at St Leonard's are a particular highlight) that my prejudice has disappeared entirely. These, served in a kind of nasturtium oil butter and topped with a crisp leaf of cabbage, were absolutely beautiful.

Next some very good potatoes and steamed leeks with a generous topping of incredibly powerful truffle, apparently from somewhere in Catalonia. The main ingredients were as nicely seasoned and vibrant as you'd want, but the real star here was the truffle which was so moist and dark with flavour it could have been picked out of the ground that very morning.

Cornish cod - well seasoned, with good defined flakes and nicely browned on top - came in various vivid shades of green (perhaps more nasturtium or even parsley oil) and a very interesting sauce made from white beans. I absolutely love dishes like this, with quite a bit of interesting textures and colours going on but with the main ingredient still the standout item.

Next some plump, bright green potato gnocchi, in an interesting and inventive mix of nuts and vegetables - crumbly, toasted cashews, pickled romanesco cauliflower and lovage oil. I would swear the gnocchi had been filled with parmesan cheese or suchlike but if they hadn't and this was indeed a vegan dish, then full marks for not making me miss dairy at all. Very clever stuff.

Beef tartare, pickled cucumber and king oyster (mushroom) wasn't anywhere near as weird as it sounds; just imagine chunks of bone marrow instead of oyster mushroom, capers instead of pickled cucumber and you have yourself a fairly traditional tartare recipe. It came with delicate slivers of marmite cracker - made using yesterday's bread, I think they said - which were as tasty as they were environmentally thoughtful.

Then one of those dishes I always look for on a restaurant menu, and always order if I see it. Roast pigeon, breast tender and with a gently charred skin, leg carefully deboned so you can eat it like a little pink lolipop, it was an absolute masterclass in game cooking and even possibly had the edge on a similar thing I was served at Sat Bains a week or so later. "Burned apple purée" and Tokyo turnip made perfect accompaniments, and then, of course, to finish, a dense, salty game jus which made you want to lick the plate clean. Which I think I pretty much did.

As a palate-cleanser, a sort of lemon and basil foam, which really did reset the tastebuds with its wonderful balance of citrus and herbs. Sometimes, rather than trying to beat people around with silly new flavour combinations for the sake of it, I wish more restaurants should treat these courses as intended - a familiar, calming interlude to prepare for the desserts proper. Who's not going to like lemon and basil foam? Certainly not me.

This was the best sticky toffee pudding I've ever eaten in London. To those of you who have suffered my repeated rants over the years about the sad state of STP work in the capital, this may seem like damning with faint praise. Much like the sorry state of fish and chips down here, I don't honestly know why so many restaurants and pubs manage to mess up this relatively simple dish so comprehensively; lack of confidence in the huge amounts of salt and sugar you need to put in to make a good version, possibly - guys, steamed sponge cake with some caramel sauce on top is not a Sticky Toffee Pudding. This above, so thick and dense it was basically a lump of dates bound with sugar with only a casual nod to sponge, is far more like it, and it came as no surprise that the recipe came from one of the Liverpudlian chefs.

A great way to finish the meal, then, and not much to complain about elsewhere either. Anywhere in town you can eat this well, for this amount of money (admittedly this was an invite from the chef, but it wouldn't have been much more than £100pp even with the booze and extra courses we had), is to be praised, but when I think of the awful dinners I've suffered in this part of town for much more money then Stem - friendly, technically impressive, generous of spirit - really stands out. It's a restaurant that gets almost everything right and almost nothing wrong, and deserves every bit of the success that is surely coming its way.


I was invited to try Stem by the team there, and didn't see a bill.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham

It's a very good job Sat Bains turned out to be as good as it did, as in the days leading up to this weekend in Nottingham I was increasingly thinking the whole trip was cursed.

It all began a few weeks ago with an invite to the East Midlands on a particular weekend, to a particular restaurant which should - and shall - remain nameless. We'd agreed enthusiastically, only for them to change their minds about the arrangement shortly after we'd spent £205 on train tickets. A few frantic DMs later, I'd managed to secure both an early dinner reservation at Sat Bains (thank you Sat!) and a couple of nights at the Nottingham Hilton (thank you Sophie of Visit Nottinghamshire!) so our non-refundable train tickets wouldn't end up in the bin, so again all seemed fine until 3 days before the trip when both of my parents (who would have been joining me) contracted chest infections. Literally the very last minute before I would have been charged £315 for 3 late cancellations, a friend from London said she could join me, Sat Bains kindly agreed to change the table to a 2, and the weekend was back on. Right up until the very first sip of welcome champagne I was still half expecting to be thwarted by, I don't know, a wolf attack or meteorite strike or something.

But here we were anyway - finally, unbelievably - and even as the leadup to the weekend had been a bit of a roller-coaster, once down an unlikely dirt track next to a flyover (plastered with so many "Restaurant Sat Bains" signs they may as well have added "honestly!" underneath) and inside this warm, welcoming space (it's a bit hard to describe, but with its exposed modern bricks and conservatory it's sort of a cross between a posh private liposuction clinic and a garden centre) the nerves soon settled. The only choices we were asked to make were on the wine - where the sommelier very cleverly advised one bottle of light Hungarian red to go with everything, so much more relaxing and sensible than attempting a half glass per course - and between the mains, pigeon or monkfish. Obviously I went for the pigeon.

Reseated in one of the main dining rooms, on a table cutely lit by a lamp using the menu as a shade, the first snack was a light artichoke velouté, artichoke crisps, nasturtium oil and I think a very light horseradish ice cream. Immediately two things were apparent - firstly that, as you might expect from a restaurant of this reputation, seasoning was utterly spot-on in every department, meaning that exactly one mouthful into this 10+ course dinner I knew I could relax and not worry about any ingredient or finishing sauce or element of any dish to be anything less than the best it could be. Secondly, that in folding a warm velouté over a savoury ice cream and adding various nuts or grains somewhere underneath it all, this is a kitchen supremely confident in its control and mastery of texture (the ice-cream held its shape till the last moment, and the velouté remained warm) and we were in for a night of some serious culinary fireworks.

"Smoked eel", one of the most luxurious and rewarding bits of seafood even just served within two slices of bread, here came topped with a generous layer of truffle, surrounded by a neat border of pickled radish, and finished with a charcoal-grey truffle, seaweed and chicken sauce so mesmerisingly perfect in every way that I've been having regular dreams about it since. Fancy sauces that take days to make and involve a bewildering array of difficult techniques are, after all, why we pay the big bucks in restaurants like these, and you'd expect somewhere with Sat Bains' reputation to be able to perform well on this front. But the sauces here are something else - another level over anything I've tried anywhere else, not just balanced and satisfying but genuinely innovative and experimental.

Another knockout sauce finished the next course, a single bronzed veal sweetbread sat on a bed of soft, earthy lentils and topped with a sharp pickled lemon. The sweetbread itself was perfectly cooked, as you might expect, but again the star of the show was the "sauce Macvin" which somehow matched the traditions of a classical French kitchen with a kind of vinegary black daal. Fusion dishes are rarely very successful, especially when the backgrounds they draw on are so diverse, but this sauce, heady and complex, thrives off its geographical vagueness - and is somehow both Gallic haute cuisine and recognisably Indian.

"From the embers" is one of those ideas so simple and so wonderful you wonder why nobody has done it before. Or maybe they have, and I just didn't know about it, which is more likely. Anyway, this is a single small potato, baked in the embers of a wood fire till creamy on the inside and dark and crunchy on the outside, topped with a generous mound of caviar. Though ostensibly a "simpler" dish, this had much in common with the very first artichoke amuse, insofar as hot potato was sold next to cold caviar, and even sampling both elements simultaneously wasn't confusing or weird, but instead made perfect sense. I suggested to our waiter they should do a scaled-up 'normal size' baked potato with half a pound of caviar on top for the lunch menu, and I was only half joking.

"Sherwood Forest" was various bits and pieces from the local woodland (perhaps even Sherwood Forest itself although that's a ways away) accompanying chunks of venison. Mushrooms and foraged herbs filled out the mix but the most interesting element was a note of pine, which cut through the ragu with a kind of aniseedy freshness. Full of life and flavour, that it was the only one of any of the dishes that felt if not exactly safe then rather familiar, but was no less enjoyable for it.

Salt-baked turnip appeared next, soft and sweet and accompanied by neat little squares of pear and, in these final days before Brexit before they turn into gold dust, wispy-thin slices of Cinco Jotas Iberico ham. It was all bathed in - you guessed it - another incredible sauce, this time coyly referred to as "dashi" but no doubt actually involving a multitude of stocks, oils and techniques.

Earlier in the evening, flushed with the confidence of empty bellies, we had agreed to insert an extra 'bonus' of coddled pheasant's egg, truffle and new season wild garlic in before the main course. Perhaps through the creeping fear of not being able to finish our mains, or just the fact that there's only so blindingly brilliant a coddled egg can be, I'm afraid I wasn't completely sold on this one. It was solid, and gently impressive where everything else had been stunning. Having said that, it's apparently a new dish, and so maybe with the benefit of a few tweaks over the summer it could eventually evolve into something quite special.

Finally it was time for the main, an attractive arrangement of pigeon breast and leg, darkened over a wood grill but still plump and pink inside, served with bitter ears of endive slicked with offal paté, and - of course - a variety of swoops and swirls of nasturtium oil, incredible game jus and vegetable purée. Objectively this was the kind of main course you'd expect to be served at a fine dining restaurant - none the worse for it of course, just perhaps less otherworldly than other parts of the meal. However, completely subjectively, roast pigeon in game jus is absolutely precisely the kind of thing I want to be served at this point in a tasting menu, and so I wolfed it down in seconds.

"Crossover" was a way of introducing the desserts without losing complete sight of the savouries, by offering vegetables teased into the shape of childhood sweet-shop favourites. So on the left, skewers of caramelised carrot dipped in "sherbet dip" (baking soda and sugar), and on the right, sweet tomato crackers that look like jammy dodgers. Not only were these fun, and pretty, but (somewhat against expectation on my behalf, I'll be honest), the sweet-savoury thing actually worked incredibly well, and anticipated what followed beautifully.

I've not had a dessert as good as "Lenton Lane" in a long time. At first glance, aerated chocolate, honeycomb and flavoured meringues are hardly new techniques, even if they are sometimes tricky to pull off, and you may have had something resembling the above at restaurants before. However, while this dish didn't reinvent any wheels, each element, in its own way, defied expectations. The honeycomb was light and firm without dominating, the chocolate ice cream was dense and, well, chocolatey without being too sweet or bitter, but the real star element were the tobacco-infused chunks of aerated chocolate, which had an almost chilli burn and which dissolved in the mouth like pure burny-chocolatey joy.

Second dessert was forced rhubarb from the Yorkshire Triangle, on a smooth ice cream made with Bird's Custard. There's absolutely nothing not to like about rhubarb and custard, and in the same way I love it when posh restaurants make canapés or snacks with Marmite, the addition of a subtle amount of powdered custard to the slickly-Pacojetted (I assume) ice cream here was a touch of genius. They came with some mini doughnuts filled with jam, which of course were also impossible not to love.

Finally, there was a stick of candy floss consisting of all the flavours of a Thai green curry - very Heston (I'm sure they won't mind me saying), playful and whimsical but with a firm grasp of the balance of flavours required in a dessert snack. It was a great way to end the meal, and by the time we'd relocated back into the reception bar for a nightcap and to wait for our Uber (thank God for city dining) it was clear that whatever the bill was, it would have been worth it. Thanks to unspoken blogger privilege or out of sheer sympathy for my initial desperate pleas for a table, they'd charged us the price for the 7-courses and given us the champagne on the house, but even so, this is unquestionably one of the nation's top restaurants, and to get away with less than £200/head is, for as long as it lasts, one of the greatest benefits of eating out in this country. Just try and do the same in Paris without having to mortgage your home, I dare you.

So thanks again Visit Nottinghamshire, which delivered our weekend from the clutches of defeat into the arms of the Hilton hotel and the biggest bed I've ever seen, thank you Shula for dropping everything to get on a train to a part of the country she thought she'd seen the last of when she left university, and of course to Restaurant Sat Bains, for feeding us with such love and generosity that a 3-hour meal felt like three minutes. For a trip that so often came so close to disaster, it couldn't have worked out better.


Two nights in the Hilton Nottingham (right in the centre of it all) were organised by Visit Nottinghamshire. I can recommend a pint in the tudor bar in the Old Bell and using the tram to get there from the train station, which is great fun.

Monday, 25 February 2019

You Decide 2019

It's that time of year again, when all you sadistic bastardslovely people get to decide the subject of an upcoming blog review.

Each year we go through the same rigmarole of my offering a list of restaurants I actually want to go to, which get roundly ignored in favour of a list of absolute shitshows that people have added themselves. But you know what, I am nothing if not an optimist so I'm going to get you started off with a selection of some of the country's best restaurants that I've not yet been to (or not booked in to go to, which is why Sat Bains isn't on the list - I'm going in March) and even if they get ignored at least I can say I tried.

Rules, as ever:

1. I can't have reviewed the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)

2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (I'll get on a train but I'm not flying to Athens)

3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself.

I'll close the voting in 48h, so 2pm on Wednesday. That should be long enough for a representative sample.

EDIT: Cripes, Le Gavroche it is. Thanks to all who voted! Guess I'd better start saving...

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Bonnie Gull, Fitzrovia

There is a way of getting the absolute most out of Bonnie Gull. Between the hours of 4pm and 6pm every day, this friendly little bistro in Fitzrovia (there's also one in Soho) serves glasses of prosecco for £5 and oysters for an incredible £1 each - cheaper than you can get them retail from most fishmongers. It makes it the perfect spot for a bit of classy pre-dinner bubbles and nibbles, and for this extraordinarily generous offer alone they deserve much praise.

Unfortunately, aside from £1 oysters and prosecco, not everything at Bonnie Gull is worth shouting about, but let's start with the positives. Firstly, it's an utterly charming little room, and though perhaps they can be accused of stuffing in slightly more tables than makes for comfortable amounts of personal space, it all seems to fit with the neighbourhood bistro vibe. Service, too, is right on point - friendly and relaxed but efficient and attentive, easily done you could argue, in a room of this size, but very welcome nonetheless.

Oysters - between £3 and £5 each once the happy hour wears off, so not exactly a bargain but within the bounds of acceptability - are expertly shucked, and served absolutely correctly, ie. with a choice of mignonette, lemon and tabasco sauce, all bases covered. Once doused in tabasco, lemon and the like I didn't detect much of a difference between the advertised three varieties of Jersey rock, Maldon rock and Carlingford rock[sic] (did they mean Carlingford Lough?) but they were all lean and fresh and full of seasonal goodness. This really is a very good time of year to be eating oysters.

From then on, well, things were rather more mixed. Sea trout tartare was quite heavy on the mayo and could have done with some more aggressive seasoning, but the soda bread it came with was genuinely brilliant - fresh out of the oven, or at least freshly reheated, soft and sweet and utterly moreish.

Whole bream was sadly overcooked. The flesh inside was mushy and difficult to separate cleanly from the small bones, making eating it more of a chore than you'd hope than when spending £30 on a fish; even a generous pile of crunchy samphire couldn't save it. And the grandly-named "Ratte potatoes with mixed herbs emulsion" were very little more than plain boiled potatoes, with a rather unpleasant floury texture and in dire need of butter or seasoning to liven them up a bit.

We didn't stay for dessert and only had a single £6 glass of prosecco to wash it all down with, but somehow still racked up a bill of £77.50. And that is a lot of money to be paying for school dinner potatoes and overcooked fish. But when I think back to those lovely oysters, and the charming service, it's hard to be completely down on Bonnie Gull. If I'm ever in the Fitzrovia or Soho areas between 4 and 6 I am almost certainly going to be a very happy Happy Hour patron. In the end, of course I can't wholeheartedly recommend a seafood restaurant that can't cook fish very well. But as an oyster and champagne bar, it does very well indeed.


Apologies for the terrible photos - this was an inpromptu dinner and I didn't have my camera with me

Friday, 15 February 2019

Murger HanHan, Piccadilly

After twelve years writing about food in London and elsewhere I occasionally like to flatter myself that there aren't any major world cuisines that remain a complete mystery to me. In a city like this, with a population drawn from every corner of the globe, practically every genre and subgenre of food is catered for in some form or another, and I'm more than happy to jump on the tube the moment I hear rumours of a new one to tick off the list. Surely I've covered more or less everything over the years?

Well, in a word, no. The fact is, I'm constantly reminded just how little of the complexities of world cuisines I've experienced, and how many there are I'm still to be discovered. China alone, a country of one and a half billion people, has (according to this website I just found) eight major distinctive cuisines, and countless local variations, colours and accents, not to mention the infinite varieties borne of bleeding and merging between the regions themselves. X'ian, a city in central China known to most westerners (if it's known at all) as home to the Terracotta Warriors, boasts a population of 12 million people - 4 million more than London. There are probably a thousand different types of X'ianese cuisine, never mind the more general Sichuan supergroup it's part of.

So back in Shaanxi province, there could be a restaurant such as Murger HanHan on every street corner. Maybe you can't move for handmade Biang Biang noodles as thick as a cowboy's belt and twice as long, or spicy murger buns. The residents of Xi'an possibly serve little else. But here in London, I think I'm allowed to say that food like this is a rarity, and is without question one of the most deliriously exciting discoveries I've made (after a couple of mates went first and told me about it) in a very long time.

Needless to say, trying to pretend I've made any kind of "discovery" of Murger HanHan is laughable - for a start, the original site in Euston (called Murger Han) has been open years, and on a Thursday lunchtime, right at doors-open at midday here in Mayfair, nearly every single table in this restaurant was taken, a mix of local workers and curious tourists. Service coped perfectly well with the onslaught - we were seated smartly and orders taken within minutes - although with an attitude to the task best described as "humourless". I know I'm hardly the first person to moan about friendliness of service in Chinese restaurants, but it seems a shame that with them doing almost everything else so right, a bit of time in charm school for the front of house would make all the difference.

Anyway, to the food. First to arrive, and ordered largely for the sheer novelty factor, were these skewers of "surf clams", a bivalve which apparently can be found all the way around British shores but which must generally command a higher price abroad (particularly in Japan, for use in sushi) as I've honestly never seen them on a menu in London. With a soft and meaty texture, and a sweet and fresh taste without a hint of grit or viscera, the experience of eating them was far closer to that of premium seafood such as lobster or langoustine than their closer relatives cockles. And they would have been beautiful enough on their own, I'm sure, but Murger serve them in the most extraordinary sesame and chilli sauce, a perfect foil to the meat. At £3.50/skewer and with a minimum order of 5 (we had 6), these guys aren't cheap, but take it from me, they're worth every penny.

Also brilliant, and completely new to me, was the titular "murger", a kind of loose meat sandwich made with grilled flatbread. The beef mixture was richly spiced with chilli and I'm guessing a bewildering number of Chinese seasonings involving five spice. It wasn't dripping with juices like a normal beefburger, instead it was more like the Tayyabs "dry meat" - not actually dry as such, just dense, and absolutely full of flavour. We noticed from a quick glance around the room that this seems to be the one "must order" item at Murger HanHan; literally every table had one.

Finally, the Biang Biang noodles, and oh boy were they something. They're actually probably best described in the singular, as "noodle"; one vast, thick piece of gluten coiled up in the bowl, delightfully al-dente and almost completely impossible to share - I recommend bringing scissors if you're eating with a friend and want to share. Or just get a bowl each - they're that good you probably won't want to share anyway. Into the mix was a healthy pile of braised pork, all tender and glossy with sauce, some very clever egg which seemed to have somehow been poached in tomato broth, giving it a fantastic depth of flavour, and also some vibrant Chinese greens to provide colour and crunch. Alongside the Kanada-Ya ramen, or the Café East pho, this is surely one of the great London noodle dishes.

We left Murger HanHan on this chilly weekday lunchtime splattered with pork juices, £26 a head down, and very happy indeed. Not just because we'd had a great lunch - though we certainly had that - but also for the reminder that after all this time, and despite all the looming political problems that may well still bite in the coming months, London still has the ability to showcase exciting variations of Chinese food to stunning effect. If this is the way things are going - short menus, strictly regional, uncompromising authenticity - then we have a lot to look forward to. Murger HanHan may prove to be not merely a great restaurant, but a reason to be hopeful about the state of things more generally. Or at the very least, an extremely welcome distraction.