Thursday, 11 July 2019

l'Ortolan, Reading

There are some restaurants that exist outside of the usual fads and trends of modern dining, that confidently serve the same food, to the same guests (if not at the same price), that they've done for generations. The most famous examples are places like Rules, or Simpson's on the Strand, where you've been able to sit down to a roast grouse or beef Wellington since shortly before the Napoleonic Wars kicked off; both come recommended (particularly Rules, which has a lovely bar). But there are other time-capsule delights dotted around the capital if you're prepared to look for them - any number of jellied eel emporiums whose signature offering boasts a recipe stretching back to the 19th century, or the pink palace Oslo Court which as far as anyone can tell hasn't changed its menu since the early 70s ("Pink grapefruit segments" / "Coquille St. Jacques" / "Steak Diane"). Sniff at these joints as anachronisms at your peril - once they're gone, that's another priceless piece of London food history lost forever.

L'Ortolan, tucked into the Berkshire countryside somewhere outside Reading, has an equally distinguished background and solemn abiding respect for its chosen period in the gastronomic timeline - namely, the early 90s. It's a fascinating period in the UK's culinary history, where Jamie Oliver's rustic Italian revolution was barely a glint in a TV producer's eye, most top restaurants cooked French haute cuisine (with only a passing nod to the seasons, and with most ingredients flown across the channel), and Gary Rhodes, Marco Pierre White etc. had just kicked off the age of the celebrity chef. Skills acquired in the grand dining institutions of France were in the next few years to transform the British dining scene into something recognisably of our shores, but not quite yet. For now, posh food was French and French alone. At l'Ortolan, the mercurial John Burton Race was in charge, and the odd touch of nasturtium or wasabi aside I'm sure would recognise a lot of what's still served today. Steak tartare, lamb rump with rosemary jus, strawberry and vanilla parfait - this is a menu that knows its audience, and is proud of its place in history.

As well it should be, because the food, though admittedly no longer cutting edge, satisfies and delights when it needs to, and is still worth the effort. We had snacks and cocktails in the garden, little crackers topped with cream cheese, pickled cucumber and salmon roe which had a lovely freshness of texture and taste, and mushroom arancini balls, greaseless and comforting. Cocktails were a bit on the warm side, and the martini in particular had a strange artificial lemony taste (?) but thanks to a nice sunny day and a very pleasant garden, were still enjoyed.

Inside, l'Ortolan impressed further with a nice plush (and very 90s) dining room, and their house bread - particularly an extremely edible sourdough with a parmesan crust. I'm not entirely convinced of the wisdom of serving a pre-starter consisting of 90% of the same ingredients as the salmon roe snack from the garden, but hey, their place their rules, and the puffed fish skin was fun.

First course proper was a colourful gazpacho, poured over a goat's cheese mousse and studded with basil leaves, olive crumb and that 90s classic, sun-dried tomatoes. It was very good - gently hot with garlic and using quality tomatoes - and felt perfect for such a sunny day, even eaten inside.

Steak tartare, neatly arranged on an oblong piece of toast and presented alongside confit yolk, was similarly enjoyable, if not exactly earth-shatteringly brilliant. I'm very sorry to all you beef tartare fans out there, but I've rarely discovered an example of this dish that was any better than "good". Now, the Bob Bob Cité version topped with caviar, on the other hand...

I just adored this lamb main course. If there's one reason you'd head to a place like this to see how people did fine dining 25 years ago it's to revel in things like perfectly-pink lamb chops, ultra-smooth pea purées and geometrically neat confit potatoes, all draped in a glossy, salty, herb-infused jus. There's much of what restaurants did in the 90s I don't miss, but it takes a lot of very specific skills to turn out a plate of food like this, and it's a real shame such technique and stubbornly silver-service presentation is as rare as it is. This lamb was worth the journey alone.

I didn't hear quite so many expressions of rapture coming out of my friend who'd ordered the pea risotto, but I blame her for ordering the pea risotto. I mean, how good can a pea risotto really be? How good could any risotto really be? There, that's the Italians annoyed again.

l'Ortolan boast a proper old-school cheese trolley, with some fine examples of British (mainly) and French (a couple) cheeses. Here, at least, is one example of modernity - I imagine the idea of serving British cheese back in the early 90s would have been given very short shrift. All in great condition and generously portioned out, that very lively looking washed-rind orange one in the middle was our favourite, tasting quite like an Epoisses. Sorry, I didn't write down the name, but hopefully someone can ID it.

Pre-dessert was a pleasant but largely unremarkable chocolate cake with ice cream, which we happily ate and then completely forgot about. If I didn't have photographic evidence of its existence I would have forgotten to mention it at all, in fact, but then maybe that's the point of pre-desserts.

My own dessert proper, various different ways with strawberry including a neat cube of vanilla parfait coated in dried strawberry powder, had a lot going on but all of it good, from the smooth and powerfully-flavoured sorbet to the jewel-like slices of compressed fruit. I enjoyed every bit of it, particularly the flourish of a bright-green spun-sugar "stalk" making the parfait look like part of a surrealist fruit salad.

Sadly raspberry parfait, despite looking the part, suffered from a very crumbly, crystalline inside from being (presumably) kept too cold for too long. If there's one thing that's improved the lot of the pastry chef since the 90s, it's the invention of the Pacojet, which would have been very usefully employed here.

But you know what, such slips were hardly about to spoil our lunch, and I still left the place very happy that l'Ortolan exists and is still doing its thing far its rapt local (and, er somewhat senior - we were the youngest people in the room by about 30 years) audience, informality and rustic stoneware and foraged apple marigold be damned. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" is not a phrase you often hear about the restaurant industry, with its constant reinventions and relaunches designed to keep your business featured on Instagram feeds (or if you prefer the 90s equivalent, the papers). But l'Ortolan hit upon a successful formula 25 years ago and see no good reason to change it. And neither, for that matter, do I. Let's hope in another quarter century, Brexit and global climate catastrophe allowing, I can make a return trip as one of the oldest people in that dining room, and enjoy those wonderful lamb chops all over again.


I was invited to l'Ortolan to try their weekend lunch menu, so only paid for cocktails and calvados.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Inver, Loch Fyne

There is an awful lot to like about Inver. I thought I'd better say that up front, because, in the end, with so many different bits to cover and with the negatives easier (and, let's face it, more entertaining) to write about than the positives, I'm afraid this post may end up looking like one big whinge. But the point is, I don't regret booking a weekend here, we didn't have an awful time, and it was almost worth the journey itself (very pleasant actually; a flight to Glasgow and then an hour and a half's drive) just to gaze out over Loch Fyne of an evening with a glass of Caol Isla in my hand, as the sillouette of Castle Lachlan broods across the bay.

That whisky on the terrace was just the first night though. On the second evening, thanks to a combination of rain showers and a biblical plague of miniscule biting culicoides impunctatus (midges), the terrace, and the lovely highland outdoors more generally, was out of bounds, and the only way to appreciate the stunning vistas were via the relative safety - if not comfort - of our own personal hot boxes- sorry, bothies.

Look, I'm sure for much of the year the bothy concept works marvellously well. These super-insulated eco-lodges with their floor-to-ceiling windows and large en-suite bathrooms are clearly lovely places in which to hole up when it's blowing a blizzard outside, and only an idiot would build any kind of accommodation in this part of the world without making pretty damn sure they were winter-ready. The problem is that Scotland has summers too, and when it's 26C during the day, the bothies (we discovered) soak up the sun like tropical greenhouses, and thanks to the aforementioned plague of midges keeping either the front door or the bathroom window open just isn't an option. Why don't Inver fit mosquito screens over their windows and/or doors? Why don't they even have standing fans to use in the rooms? Well, you'll have to ask them. All I can tell you is that across two nights we had the choice of sleeping or being bitten alive, and in the end settled for a rather unpleasant combination of both.

But anyway, dinner. Snacks are taken in the bar, and got things off to a very promising start. There was a kind of cockles en gélée thing, featuring plump little beasties in a take on the East End classic eel jelly...

...cute litte carrots with spectacular plumes of leaves attached came with a lovely salty tarama, topped with thyme buds which gave it an interesting extra colour (flavour-wise)...

...asparagus mousse, perhaps a little underpowered but clean and fresh tasting and served on cute wooden spoons...

...and the most successful of all, these wild mushroom and parmesan tarts which had a fantastic funky, earthy flavour and dissolved beautifully in the mouth. These were a set of snacks, perfectly pitched, tastefully presented, showcasing a mastery of different cooking techniques and with top-quality ingredients, that you'd be happy to be served at any Modern British fine dining restaurant in the country. I was utterly convinced, after these, that we'd made the right decision coming to Inver.

And then we were reseated in the charming, bright dining room, and served a peach melba. It wasn't a peach melba of course, it was heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella ice cream, but because it looked so much like a peach melba, with the thickly-sliced and peeled orange tomatoes very much resembling tinned peaches, and the frozen mozzarella on top looking for all the world like a scoop of vanilla, the disconnect between eating what my eyes and brain told me was a dessert and the strange cold salad my tastebuds were receiving, resulted in a deeply unnerving experience. With tomatoes that looked a little more like tomatoes, and perhaps normal mozzarella instead of frozen, maybe some crunch or other texture to balance it out, this could have perhaps been quite a nice starter, but I'm afraid I didn't enjoy this at all.

Next was cured trout and pickled green strawberries, which suffered from a similar lack of, for want of a better word, textural balance. There was plenty of trout - four or five thick slices of it - and though on one level you have to admire their generosity, there's really only so much cured fish it's comfortable to eat without any carbs or crunch or sauce to make it a bit more interesting. The pickled strawberries were nice enough, but sat alongside rather than complimented the fish, and an advertised "broth" was scarce to the point of invisibility. Again, it was a bit hard to eat.

In the interests of objectivity, I have to ignore both the fact that Friday night's guests at Inver had been served lamb as their main course, and also that I'd heard from various sources, not least a couple of people on the terrace while I was drinking my whisky the day before, that said lamb is world class. I have to ignore this - or at least try - because the crushing disappointment of not being served it is unfair to all concerned. The pork was decent - good, even - with a very tasty little sausage element and some neat slices of just-pink loin, but suffered, like the trout, from a tendency to under-sauce (barely a tiny puddle under the sausage) and accompanying raw greens were clumsy and chewy.

I didn't get to try the fish (halibut) alternative to the pork, but was told it was overcooked to mushy, and there's no excuse for that really. Seems like it came with plenty of sauce though, so that's something.

There was a pre-dessert of an incredibly concentrated summer berry granita over some kind of ice cream, which performed well enough...

...and then dessert proper was this "burnt strawberry & elderflower" tart thing, which had all sorts of different textures and techniques going on (including a lovely custard and I always appreciate a good custard) and a very nice summer fruit sorbet element. It was good, you know. Maybe I'd have appreciated it even more if I'd had a better night's sleep.

But you know, there's always that view. And searching through the rockpools in the bay for crabs and whelks (when the midges aren't biting). And drinking a whisky on the terrace when the sun's out (ditto). Oh, and the breakfasts are lovely. There is, despite my whingeing, a lot to like about Inver - Lord knows enough people have sung its praises that all of the above could be dismissed as an anomaly, an unfortunate by-product of unrealistic expectations, a mini-heatwave and a short supply of lamb. In the end, though, all I can do is report as I find, then slink off back to London ready to whinge about something else. So I think I'll do just that.


Thursday, 4 July 2019

The Oystercatcher, Otter Ferry

Other than automatically assuming the worst about every upcoming meal, which would be a pretty miserable way to live your life even if it was possible (which it isn't), there's really nothing you can do about the power of expectation and/or anticipation to make or break a restaurant experience. This was very neatly illustrated indeed on a recent weekend trip up to Loch Fyne, where one place I was expecting one of the greatest meals of my life fell rather flat, whilst another I had essentially earmarked for nothing more elaborate than a bowl of soup and a pint to cushion the effects of the long journey north turned out to be quite wonderful.

Expectations are nobody's fault really, at least nobody's in particular. Blame, if you like, a number of gushing national reviews and enthusiastic Instagram posts from trusted friends for the disappointing evening, and blame the sheer lack of coverage completely - nothing so much as a mention in a local paper since 2014 - for the surprise hit, but even if Otter Ferry had been showered with slavering reviews, chances are I'd still have been very skeptical of this unassuming lochside pub near a campsite, half an hour's drive from the nearest post office. Places like this - I'd assumed - existed just to satisfy any hikers bored of camping stove beans on toast, or give locals somewhere to head towards on dog walks, not to be a shining ambassador for Argyll seafood. And yet, take a look at this menu:

Is there anything on it you wouldn't eat? Putting aside the worrying fact they consider sweet potato not to be poison (which of course it is), this is a menu that sings - attractive, accessible, full of high-end seafood at surprisingly reasonable prices, and with the odd interesting dash of international flavour, it's the kind of thing you always hope to be handed in any given gastropub but so rarely are. I'm pretty sure I would have been very happy just picking dishes at random, but ask anyone who's ever met me what they think I might order, and they'd say the langoustine and the crab and chips. So just to prove I'm not hopelessly predictable, I ordered the langoustine, followed by the crab and chips.

These absolute beauties, four huge, healthy looking things with claws as big as some entire langoustine themselves, seductively posed over a huge chunk of buttered house bread, were an insane £10.50. Now I don't know the last time you were lucky enough even to be able to order langoustine in a restaurant, even as part of a seafood platter bulked out with horrible things like whelks, but to give you just one London Elite Bubble example, Scott's in Mayfair are currently doing them (subject to availability) at £5.50 a pop (plus £2 cover charge, naturally), and I can't imagine they're any better than these. Landed at Tarbert, the menu said, which is a town on the west of the loch - in fact, the town is so famous for them that another name for langoustine is "Tarbert prawns". I think I might like to visit Tarbert.

Other starters were also impeccable. Grilled sardines were served on more excellent house bread, and draped in a lovely salsa verde. With a delicate crunch on the skin, and the flesh inside dense and meaty and moist, this was a masterclass in sardine cooking, with that same stripped-back St. John feel to presentation.

House gravadlax - generous chunks of thick-cut salmon, in a delicate dill dressing - was similarly tasteful, and another superb advert for the area's produce. And with that, with one round of starters, the Oystercatcher had won three new fans. From here on, we could not only relax but be supremely confident that whatever followed would be as enjoyable and immaculately prepared as anything that had come before.

As indeed it was. Squid salad, the seafood gently charred and overhung with live fire smoke, lay on a bed of Thai salad, with peanuts, coriander, lime and chilli in the mix.

A Scottish classic, Cullen Skink (a seafood chowder usually made with smoked haddock) was perfectly seasoned, full of huge chunks of fish, and as comforting as a soft tartan blanket. The fact it held its searing heat for a good 15 minutes wasn't quite needed on the hottest day of the year (it was 26 degrees celsius, even this far north) but rather too hot than too cold I suppose.

Behold the crab. Crab and chips is one of those unbeatable combinations that ordinarily doesn't really need messing with - just boil it up, hand me the requisite tools and I'll be as happy as Larry. But Oystercatcher serve theirs in a wonderful chilli and ginger sauce, which somehow made the dark head meat even more rich and powerful, and leant the delicate white meat in the legs and claws a deeply addictive aromatic note. Chips were golden brown and crunchy, and perhaps would have been nicer without the skins but that's just a personal bugbear. It was still, for £15, an extravaganza of technique, generosity and superb seafood.

Probably due to seafood-induced delirium, I didn't take a photo of the desserts, but homemade rhubarb sorbet was full of flavour with a charming rustic texture, and though the treacle tart could have done with a lot more of the advertised crème Anglaise (there was barely a squiggle of it, beneath the tart itself), it still was polished off.

With a couple of drinks (you don't want to be driving around these parts with less than full control of your faculties - it's largely single-lane roads with about half as many passing places as would be comfortable) the bill came to £80 for three people, and though some of us had two starters it's still an incredibly reasonable ask for what turned out to be a near-flawless parade of exquisitely prepared and tastefully presented seafood cooking, matched by attentive service and a idyllic, almost dreamlike location. I still, over a week later, still can't believe it happened - we'd ended up here purely because it was the nearest restaurant to where we were staying that wasn't the restaurant where we were staying, and we'd hoped it would be merely passable; in the end it turned out to be good enough to warrant a trip up to Scotland all by itself. Which is just as well, considering what was coming the evening after. Watch this space.


Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Darby's, Battersea

I have been following chef Robin Gill's career with an interest bordering on obsession since a meal at the Dairy all the way back in 2013. Restaurants like the Dairy, and chefs like Gill, tend to invite obsession - his food is an unbeatable combination of exquisitely tasteful and flatteringly accessible, just one case in point being the famous truffled Brie de Meaux on sourdough toast (later Baron Bigod) with rooftop honey, a superficially simple arrangement of ingredients that swiftly became the talk of the town and something approaching a signature dish. For this, and countless other wonderful things, I made the Dairy my restaurant of the year in 2014, and it's absolutely still one of the best tables in town, even as its rustic style and seasonal philosophies have spawned a hundred close imitators.

But despite all this, only a fool would think the success of the Dairy automatically made it some kind of template you could stamp onto anywhere you wanted a nice restaurant. And presumably as well, a project such as Darby's comes with an extra large helping of massive risk - this vast space, with its beef ageing rooms and bakery and huge central bar, positioned in a windswept no-man's-land around the back of the new US embassy and absolutely nowhere you'd stumble across by accident - had the potential on paper of being the biggest white elephant since the Millenium Dome. Would anyone make the effort to find it?

Well yes, they would - and they will - and that's because, somewhow, Gill's technically-brilliant-yet-homely cooking has evolved and expanded quite naturally into this new showroom, and has been joined by a selection of fresh seafood, premium steaks and house charcuterie that help form a menu best described as the Dairy by way of Bentley's.

And much like the Richard Corrigan gaff, it's a good idea to start with oysters. At early evenings, half a dozen and a pint of Guinness is an incredible £10 - surely one of London's great seafood bargains. Any other time expect to pay a slight more realistic £2.75/pop upwards, but these are excellent specimens, shucked to order (not always a given, believe me) and presented with all the trimmings. Oh, and the Guinness is nicely done too.

Gill's love of Spanish and Italian food is given expression in the snacks menu, where gildas (Basque skewers of anchovy and olives) appear alongside truffled arancini (as good as I remember from Sorella) and occasionally off-menu delicacies such as rich, tomato-y tinned mussels and a Mediterranean salad of canned mackerel. Don't worry though, this isn't your John West supermarket mackerel, these are the posh Spanish kind - substantial and rewarding, definitely worth sampling if available, and you won't know unless you ask...

Unsurprisingly for somewhere boasting its own dry ageing room, the steaks at Darby's, from the diminutive Dexter breed, are top notch. Grilled confidently over coals and boasting thick ribbons of funky yellow fat, they are beautiful things indeed, and it's my equal pleasure to report that after some deeply disappointing steak sauces in various places (hang your head, STK), the green peppercorn sauce and bone marrow gravy at Darby's are both essential. So order them both - I did. Also, keep an eye on that ageing room for huge turbot, and later in the year pheasant and grouse and who knows what else.

Darby's even do their own version of the Quality Chop House confit potatoes - here called "crispy beef fat potatoes" - with delicate layers of spud mandolined and pressed back together into a kind of a savoury millefeuille. Order those, too.

If you've ever had the bone marrow agnolotti at the Dairy (and if you haven't, put that right immediately) then you'll know these guys do a good pasta. And so this veal pappardelle was predictably glorious, with a meaty, Marmite-y ragu draped over huge folds of bouncy carbs, the kind of texture you find only from places bothering to make their own pasta from scratch, daily. Which, of course, they do.

I wasn't going to have any dessert (all the above was somehow divvied out between just two of us) but this little sorbet appeared as we asked for the bill, so that was nice of them. It was excellent, as I'm sure are all the desserts based on many years sampling the offerings from the Dairy.

There are two other things worth mentioning while I have your attention. Firstly, front of house is headed by Emma Underwood, formerly of Sticky Walnut, Where the Light Gets In, Stem and basically every not just exciting but groundbreaking new restaurant of the last few years so clearly she knows a good thing when she sees one. Whether you decide to fold yourself into one of Darby's' generously proportioned booths or perch at the bar and pester the chefs with questions about oysters and pasta (no prizes for guessing which of these options I went for), you'll be in exceedingly safe hands. And secondly, having made extensive use of their services at both (full disclosure) the launch party and this particularly booze-soaked Sunday lunch, the guys behind the bar make some brilliant drinks. The martini is served in a frozen glass, for example, which I always find is a sign of somewhere going that extra mile.

So all in all, there's very little not to love about Darby's. From a team with such a proven track record in all their various specialist areas, and given such a (presumably) dream budget to work with, we were always like to end up with somewhere worth lavishing with your dinner money. But as I wobbled home on the 344 bus that sunny Sunday afternoon I realised that very few people other than the Gills (it's a family affair, jointly run with wife Sarah, and with son Ziggy providing additional entertainment) could have taken such an unpromising chunk of this faceless, endless Nine Elms development and given it such heart. And it's that extra sprinkling of pixie dust, that gloss of Irish charm, that turns what could have been a rather obscure Battersea building site into the latest great London food destination.


I went to the Darby's opening party, and as part of general blogger privilege the oysters and a couple of the tinned dishes didn't appear on the bill.