Monday, 27 June 2022

The Lanesborough Grill, Belgravia


One of the side effects of writing a restaurant blog for as long as I have, aside from an ever-increasing waistline, is that you often end up revisiting the same sites as they go through various different incarnations. I first visited the grand dining hall of the Lanesborough hotel all the way back in 2011 when it went by the name Apsley's and was serving (despite the very English name) a pricey - even for 2011 - menu of Italian fine dining. I remember one of the starters arriving on nine separate plates, but not much else, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

After that it became Celeste, where the vast space became increasingly untroubled by customers and earned the nickname Marie Celeste. I remember being one of two tables taken on a Saturday lunchtime, eating another fairly unmemorable lunch of posh Italian dishes. Celeste wasn't a bad restaurant as such, and it is certainly true that finding the right kind of operation to sit comfortably in a 5-star hotel is no easy task, but I don't think I've ever really been delighted to pay over £30 for a plate of pasta regardless of how plush the carpets are.

Anyway it's third time lucky for the Lanesborough - at least I imagine they hope it is - with their flagship restaurant now being called the Lanesborough Grill. As the name suggests, the new menu has much more in common with the grand old tradition of London hotel restaurants (think the Dorchester or the Ritz) than the pretensions of Italian fine dining, and although it's certainly not cheap, starters of £20-ish and mains of £40-ish mean that your final bill will be less disastrous than if you had the full Antipasti - Primi - Secondi - Dulci palava.


The house bread at the Lanesborough is extremely good, a quartered sourdough bun served with a generous puck of salted butter. It's details like this that separate the good from the best of fine dining kitchens, and while the ability to bake bread this good may be increasingly common it's never a trivial thing to achieve.


Octopus was very nicely grilled, with crispy bits of charred tentacle contrasting nicely with the meaty, tender flesh inside. The seafood came arranged inside a kind of chunky salad of Jersey potatoes and sea kale, a remarkably successful pairing. Best of all though was a white almond 'gazpacho' serving as a sauce, bringing a touch of Mediterranean flair to the plate.


Orkney scallop was, in its favour, vast - a ludicrously outsized example whose shell must have been the size of a kitchen table. I still maintain that a cooked scallop is generally nicer to eat than raw, and this was very much raw, dressed simply in tomato and rapeseed oil, but it was clearly an excellent specimen and they'd obviously decided to mess about with it too much would have a detrimental effect. Not my dish, but I didn't hear any complaints.


Next a little interstatial course of buttermilk-fried quail, the coating puffed up with I think rice or oats to great effect. It came on a bed of mushrooms and spring onions and one of those lovely dark green vegetal oils, and was a lovely, earthy counterpoint to the quail.


We hardly needed any more carbs given the main course was going to be a giant pie, but I was intrigued by the idea of hash browns with cheese and so wanted to see what would turn up. These neat little cubes of fried potato had a lovely crunch but added to the usual diced potato filling was a delirious slick of melted goat's cheese, an idea so simple and yet so good I'm surprised I've not stumbled upon it before.


But yes if a menu contains beef Wellington, I'm going to need a very good reason not to order it, and so with no such reasons obvious, order it I did. Presented whole and sliced theatrically tableside, it was an extremely good example of its kind, with beef cooked to medium rare, and a pastry casing not too think or soggy. The sauce was a lovely salty, glossy creation that tasted like it had taken someone a good deal of time and care to get right, and with the Wellington itself came a nice meaty slice of hen-of-the-woods mushroom, another thing I always look for on menus when the season's right. As a nicely generous touch they left us the largely meat-free 'ends' of the Wellingdon, but by this point thanks to over-feeding on that excellent bread and the irresistable cheesey hash browns, we were in no position to make any use of them. Still, nice touch.


Desserts were geometrically beautiful and enormous fun to eat, in the finest London 5-star hotel restaurant tradition. Glazed caramel white chocolate with Poire William was every bit as good as that sounds, with some excellent texture contrasts. And a little brioche pudding flavoured with "burnt orange purée" was also superb, its "milk ice cream" rich and smooth and buttery.


As I mention above, I was no fan of Apsley's or Celeste and accepted an invite to the latest incarnation more in hope than expectation. But the new "posh British" menu sits far, far better in this lovely room than the fussy, faintly pretentious Italian concept it replaces. No, it's not quite the Ritz, but then where is - I enjoyed my meal here far more than for example the Foyer restaurant at Claridge's which is probably its closest competitor. Sometimes, you just want to sit down in gloriously upholstered surroundings and order three courses of skilful, attractive takes on the classics, which is exactly what the Lanesborough Grill delivers in spades. Let's hope this version finds an audience and outlasts both of its predecessors and more.

8/10

I was invited to the Lanesborough Grill and didn't see a bill. Expect to pay about £100/head with a couple of glasses of wine.

Wednesday, 8 June 2022

The Crab House Café, Weymouth


You could be forgiven for assuming as an island nation surrounded by fertile, seafood-rich waters that there should be any number of unpretentious little places lining the UK coast to sell such produce simply, and if not cheaply (live seafood will never again be cheap) then at least without the frills and premiums of full restaurant dining.


The reality of a successful seafood bar on a majority of British seaside towns has proved rather elusive. The relative inflation of live seafood over the last hundred years or so, which has lifted the oyster and crab (and before that the lobster) out of the realms of humble peasant food and onto the tiered platters of fine dining restaurants has meant that while Victorian seaside resorts like Blackpool or Brighton used to be lined with such unpretentious spots, these days very few remain, and ones that do are more likely to be serving plastic-wrapped fish sticks and farmed frozen prawns from Thailand than local dressed crab or live oysters.

All of which means, when you do come across a place serving locally caught live (or at least very-recently-live) seasonal seafood without fuss or fanfare alongside portions of chips and crisp white wines then it's a cause for genuine celebration. The Crab House Café, a few minutes' drive outside of Weymouth at a place called Wyke overlooking Chesil Beach, is nothing short of the holy grail for the shellfish-obsessed. There's a decently attractive (and priced) year-round menu of staples such as monkfish tail and sea bass, all of which I'm sure is lovely but nothing you can't get in most restaurants worth their salt in the UK. No, what you really want is the smaller list of daily specials, containing on this occasion such rareties as megrim sole and roasted ray wing, and the even more exclusive crab menu, offering various different ways of enjoying whole local brown and spider crab. With hammers.


We allowed ourselves a brief distraction before the main business of smashing apart giant local crabs with DIY hardware. Firstly, oysters, lean and lovely with all the usual trimmings (mignionette, tabasco, lemon juice), radishes - from their garden apparently - sprinkled with salt and great dipped in butter, and our favourite of the snacks, "fish crackling", a kind of whole dried fish jerky which rather than being chewy or unpleasantly boney was incredibly easy to eat - you literally munch through the whole fish, head, tail and all, like a hungry seal - and packed full of umami flavour.


The crabs, arriving next after the oysters etc. had been polished off (service at the Crab House is spot-on, and everything was very sensibly paced) did not disappoint. The local seasonal spider crabs, their bristly legs containing satisfying tubes of sweet flesh, were a relative steal at £23 a pop, especially as spider crabs are a fairly rare sight in the UK and earn quite the premium on the continent. I also liked the way they'd turned the head shell into a vessel for a kind of chilli & chilli dip, brown meat not really being a thing in spider crabs.


Conversely, I've paid a lot less than £34 for a whole brown crab in the past, although I appreciate every part of the crab-catching business has got more expensive since I was last lucky enough to dig into one (Margate at the Buoy and Oyster in 2019 since you ask, where they were £15). This bulky specimen arrived with a variety of interesting parephenalia to make the disassembling and consuming of it easier, not to mention a great deal of fun, including various kind of pickers and crackers and, as mentioned before, a standard-sized carpentry hammer. I was in the middle of enthusiastically and noisily scattering bits of crab all around the room when I was politely informed it might be an idea to put the claws inside the provided plastic bag first before getting all smash-y.


We very much enjoyed a side of plump asparagus in good sharp hollandaise, and were having so much fun that we even found room for a couple of scoops of local ice cream, honeycomb and chocolate flavours. Oh and the wine was lovely too, a bottle of Albarino for £32.50 which is about right really. You'll notice none of this stuff is bargain basement but it is all of unmistakably high quality - not just the seafood itself which was impeccable of course, but also the sides, the service and the place itself which managed to feel like an unpretentious crab shack while having big nicely spaced out tables and smart toilets.


The bill came to £130 for two, which is pretty much what this kind of stuff costs these days unless you're really lucky. And we didn't mind paying it at all because the whole experience from start to finish was so enjoyable, from the first slurp of the oyster to the final trip to the bathroom to wash the crab viscera off my forearms. Soon enough we were pootling back into town for the rail replacement bus service (it being a Sunday in Britain) thinking about how twice in two days this unlikely corner of the southern coast had served up two of the most interesting - and diverse - meals of recent weeks.


Of course, two decent restaurants within ten minutes of each other does not signal some radical renaissance of the local dining scene, and I appreciate that being treated to one of said meals as well as a quaint B&B with a sea view does skew the experience somewhat. But as I always end up repeating ad nauseum on these pages, you can't fake good food, or good service, and you certainly can't beat attacking a giant brown crab with a hammer with a view of Chesil Beach. If you have even a passing interest in fresh British seafood, you'll find a happy home at the Crab House Café.

8/10

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Catch at the Old Fish Market, Weymouth


When you think about it, it makes sense on many levels to open a high-end tasting-menu-only fish restaurant in Weymouth. Firstly and most obviously, this section of the Dorset coast is where much of the best seafood in the country comes from anyway, and how better to enjoy it than via the smallest amount of food miles possible. Secondly, freed of luxe or city centre locations and the costs associated with that, what could easily be a £150+ tasting menu in some five star country hotel or Mayfair joint comes in at an extremely reasonable £75, punchy compared to most local competition perhaps but not unheard of.


But another reason that Catch couldn't open anywhere but here is that the completely charming Weymouth harbourside feels part of a healthy, working fishing community, and to have this wonderful showcase for all their hard work right next to where the dayboats unload their catch must be a source of constant pride. At least, it really should be. Catch have two such boats, parked right outside the restaurant, that supply the kitchens daily with whatever's good on the day.


The strictly day-by-day supply of fish and seafood means two things - one, that the tasting menu changes so much over the course of the week that it's better not to examine it too closely before your visit as half of the dishes could have been swapped out for something else by the time you sit down to dinner. It also requires a supremely nimble and able kitchen, to pivot from skate wing to gurnard, from lobster to spider crab, from cockles to mussels, from one day to the next, while still producing a coherent succession of dishes and a satisfying overall experience. Which Catch very much is.


Sea bass was so lightly "cured" that it was essentially sashimi, and absolutely all the better for it. It came with a vibrant arrangement of pea mousse and broth, studded with pea shoots and little blobs of mayonnaise, which complimented the fish without letting its delicate sweet flavour get swamped. Very tasteful, very intelligent, very enjoyable indeed.


Trout tartlets involved more chunks of sweet raw fish but also roe, which burst in the mouth alongside the crunch of the delicate pastry casings and along with a cured trout mousse made for a delightful variety of textures. There were little blobs of something citrussy amongst the fish (which they probably did explain to us but I've since completely forgotten) and lemon zest and wild flowers to complete the picture.


Crab came in two stages, an idea so perfect for a seafood-focussed menu I'm surprised I'd not come across it before. First we were served a neat disc of white crab meat, with pickled grapes - a very clever idea - and sea herbs, around which was poured a very attractive two-tone sauce of white garlic and something green, perhaps nasturtium oil.


Then part 2, nice bouncy home made spaghetti bound with a sauce of brown crab meat, silky and salty and full of complex earthy flavour.


Next the fish course, on this occasion gurnard landed by their dayboats and tasting essentially perfect - meaty and firm like monkfish tail but with an even more interesting almost buttery flavour. As if that wasn't enough, it came with asparagus - because whenever you can serve British asparagus, you definitely should - and an incredible "chicken butter" sauce which I think I may have finished off with my fingers. Sorry.


And then to prove that Catch can cook red meat just as well as fish, a piece of local venison, seared to rare, with a little medallion of roast turnip and finished with one of those glossy, cheff-y jus.


Desserts were equally impressive. Firstly "tea, honey, mint" which involved a mint granita, a tea ice cream and a very neat honeycomb of some kind of biscuit, and then a little slice of sponge topped with a lemon ice cream studded with szechuan peppers and some macerated strawberries. Next to that was poured a lovely thick strawberry sauce the colour of a stop sign.

And just like that, a world-class seafood restaurant has hauled ashore in Weymouth. And if you're wondering how such an "unlikely" town could have landed such a great place, or if you're anything like my colleague who grew up round there and couldn't believe I'd even entertain the idea of spending a weekend surrounded by its slightly faded Victorian charm (and believe me, those aren't the words he used), well you just haven't been paying attention.


I will always have a soft spot for the richness and variety of restaurants in London, and I don't see myself tiring of the place any time soon. But the fact is, every time I make the journey out to Kent, or Lancashire, or Northumberland, or Cornwall, or more recently Wales and now Dorset, I eat better and better. Rather than attempting to recreate a little slice of Marylebone in the sticks to give the locals a taste of what the're missing back where things matter, restaurants like Catch (see also the lovely Parkers Arms in Bowland, or the Tolcarne Inn in Penzance) have built themselves around the local fishing and farming infrastructure and are uniquely placed to make the absolute best of it all. Judging by the fact every table was taken the night we visited, it's already the hottest ticket in town. And that makes absolute sense to me.

10/10

I was invited to Catch and didn't see a bill, but with wines you're probably looking at £120/head + service to make the most of it. We stayed at the Gresham Hotel, which was absolutely lovely and I slept like a log, although the matching wines might have helped. Trains are direct from Waterloo and take about 3 hours, so it pays to make a weekend of it, especially if that means you can visit the Crab House Café in Wyke for Sunday lunch before the train home.

EDIT: I've been told that the tasting menu is Saturday night only, rest of time it's a very attractive seafood selection. It's all on their website anyway.