Monday, 13 May 2019

Acadia, Chicago

There is a restaurant in Chicago, where it's very difficult to secure a reservation, named a single word beginning with 'A', serving an eclectic modern American tasting menu and which has been showered with Michelin stars and countless other accolades since it opened.

You can see the joke I'm limping towards, I'm sure, so I won't labour the point. In the world of international jet-set fine dining, Grant Achatz's Alinea is Chicago, and Chicago is Alinea, and whenever I mentioned I was taking a weekend trip to the Windy City, the natural assumption was that I'd booked myself in there. I did try, of course, and put my name down on the standby list, but to be honest I wasn't completely distraught it didn't happen this time. Firstly, because thanks to an absolutely wonderful few days in this fantastic city, I knew with utter certainty I'd be back. And secondly, because the full-whack tasting menu at Alinea is $400 without tax and service, and paying over $700/head on dinner is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of spend I'd need a good few years to prepare myself for.

So hardly a budget option itself, next to that Acadia's $200/head menu looks like something approaching a bargain. And it's hard to imagine the welcome into this spacious, luxuriously-appointed dining room could be bettered anywhere else in town. Bundling in wet and shivering from the snowstorm outside (Chicago's weather is completely mad) I joined a room full of immaculately turned out front of house staff and blindingly attractive and well-dressed guests feeling like I'd somewhat underestimated the effort Chicagoans put into evening wear. These people know how to impress.

And though there was plenty to gawp at in the room, what turned up on the table gave it more than a run for its money. First, after a nice cold glass of Franciacorta, were these little corn puffs containing pickled anchovy and "ramp" pesto, which is I believe a North Americanism for wild garlic. Prettily constructed, with a nice set of contrasting textures, only a vaguely underpowered anchovy let it down - perhaps I'm spoiled with the ones Brindisa import into London. Still, not bad.

"Herbed waffle with honey butter" was really no more than the sum of its parts, and if I'm going to be completely brutal, a bit pointless. Everyone knows what waffle and butter tastes like, and to present it as a canapé in a setting like this just seemed clumsy. It wasn't even a particularly good waffle, being a bit chewy and cold.

Better - much better - was this little arrangement of real caviar and jerusalem artichoke purée (they call them sunchokes there apparently), in a sauce of "infused whey" which was almost impossible to describe but was kind of umami-rich and silky without being overwhelmingly cheesey. A set of flavours I've never had the pleasure of having together before, and a genuinely intelligent and innovative idea, this was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to discover at Acadia.

Shima aji (mackerel) came next, fatty and fresh under its Japanese-style glaze, its rich flavour profile bolstered by a slice of foie gras and filled out by warm, fluffy rice. I've enjoyed the combination of fatty fish, foie gras and rice on a number of occasions - eel works as well - and this was another reminder that when it comes to seafood, the Japanese know a thing or two.

I absolutely adored the next course, an intensely-flavoured shrimp dumpling thing speared onto a sprig of rosemary, over a chilled mushroom and dashi broth. It was another example of how the best of Japanese fine dining can be both sophisticated and accessible, complex yet beguiling, all at once - it flatters you with technique and intricate flavours whilst still being hugely enjoyable to eat.

"Penobscot Bay lobster" (Maine, where much of the US' lobster comes from) had fairly subtle flavour and a texture just ever-so-slightly the wrong side of chewy, but still went down well enough. Part of me wishes it had come in a bowl which would have held the sauce a bit better - spread out over a flat plate it looked a bit lost, and cold - but I'm sure they knew what they were doing.

The next course turned back to France for inspiration. Chicken heart, snails and morel mushrooms were laid across a stick of fried bread, above a nice powerful chicken broth. All of it very tastefully done and hard to criticise too harshly except perhaps I'm used to the fire and flavour of grilled chicken hearts over the poached used here, and just missing that extra touch of charcoal-fired magic. Again though, it was 99% of the way there.

Cobia - a species of fish new to me but also known as 'black kingfish', 'black salmon' or 'ling' according to Google - arrived as geometric square with a lovely golden crust on top and bright white flesh inside. My menu tells me this came with kohlrabi and squid ink, although these elements clearly didn't make much of an impact - all I remember is that the fish itself was incredibly salty, strange as everything else had been seasoned immaculately. Even so, and very conscious of the fact I have been moaning about minor niggles here far more than they affected us on the night, it was still an enjoyable bit of fish.

Next dish had rather a lot going on, so I'll list the description in full - "Bonemarrow custard, peekytoe crab, veal cheek, sunflower seed". That's offal, shellfish and red meat all in one dish, and yes it did take a bit of getting used to. I'm wary of suggesting with too straight a face any way a two-Michelin-starred restaurant could improve one of their dishes, but the lack of a binding sauce meant that the individual parts fought with more than complimented each other, and a sweet brioche bun filled with some kind of truffle aioli served on the side didn't really add to the cohesiveness. Again, I didn't hate it - far from it - but it was just less than satisfying.

I don't want to unfairly generalise about the baking culture of a country of 330m people, and yes I am aware of Tartine in San Francisco and various other excellent craft bakeries dotted around the country, but by-and-large, bread in America is terrible. So it was a very nice surprise indeed to find that Acadia bake the best rosemary and potato sourdough I've had the pleasure of sampling there OR back home - with a delicate dark crust and sticky crumb, it was absolutely a match to anything served in Europe. The wholewheat sourdough was only slightly less successful, and one of the butters was quite vegetal and strange, but whoever's in charge of bread at Acadia can give themselves a pat on the back. I Will say though, that with one further savoury course to go, it was a bit of a strange point in the meal to serve it. It would have been very handy indeed for soaking up leftover sauces earlier in the evening.

So yes, one final savoury course, and it was lamb - a meat much rarer in North America than elsewhere, perhaps going some way to account for the fact it didn't have much flavour. Rather anaemic looking and desperately in need of a bit of crisp and colour from a grill, it didn't really do much for me, and I found much more to appreciate in the charred lettuce by its side.

First dessert was durian ice cream (not pictured, sorry - above was coconut ice cream pre dessert which was perfectly nice). Now, I don't know if you're aware, but durian is famously one of the most foul-smelling fruits on the planet, usually banned from hotel lobbies and other public spaces in the countries where its grown. And yet fans of the fruit, if they're to be believed (and I have my doubts) say that the flesh, if you ignore the aroma, is sweet and caramely. Well, I'm afraid this ice cream tasted like durian smells, of rotten flesh and disease, and lingered on the breath for the rest of the evening. Maybe it is possible to make a durian ice cream that doesn't make me want to hurl it to the other side of the room, but this wasn't it.

Anything from this point on was tainted by the lingering stench of durian, so do bear that in mind when assessing my reaction to it. Lychee-sakura raindrop cake was, like all raindrop cakes, utterly pointless, tasting only very marginally of lychee, nowhere near sweet enough, and with an unpleasant too-solid texture.

Guava and black sesame gateau was much more pleasant, with what looked at first glance like meringue slices actually turning out to be frozen Greek yoghurt - a lovely culinary joke - although the black sesame base itself was a bit cloying.

Finally, fig and cascara hot chocolate, just a really nice cup of hot chocolate really - I didn't taste much in the way of coffee but then I'm not a coffee drinker anyway. Over some very prettily marbled salted caramel truffles, we paid the bill - a touch over $300 each, which seemed more than fair, and before long we were struggling back to Ravenswood in the snow in an Uber.

Before I got going on the above review, I was pretty sure I was going to settle on a score of 8/10 for Acadia. Though I had niggles here and there with the savoury courses, overall I did find more to like than dislike about the food, and matched with the usual glowing North American service and in that beautiful room full of beautiful people, it all seemed to write the story of a thoroughly enjoyable fine dining experience.

But then as I thought more and more about what we'd been given, away from the cosy haze of the matching wines, particularly the desserts which were very up and down, it became clear that there was slightly too much to criticise to qualify for the Premier League, and so 7/10, objectively, feels more appropriate. And I don't know of any chef ever happy with a 7/10, especially one operating at this level, so apologies to everyone involved for being the bearer of bad news. All that said, I don't regret a single moment of the evening, or a single dollar spent, and I'm sure even far more expensive restaurants also with a name beginning with 'A' are equally likely to have off-days. And if they do, you'll read it here first.


Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Le Gavroche, Mayfair

Well, who'd have thought it? After 8 years of public votes, and 7 trips to restaurants varying in quality between dreadful and downright dangerous, for whatever reason in 2019 you lot picked as a review subject not an all-you-can-eat buffet in Croydon or a Piccadilly Circus themed tourist trap but a famous old dame of Mayfair dining. Le Gavroche has been doing its thing since 1967 and has remained under the stewardship of the same family - the Rouxs, first Albert now Michel Jr - the entire time. In a city where chefs are lucky to last a couple of years in a particular location, it's quite the feat.

So, it's old, and it's traditional, and it's expensive. These things I knew about Le Gavroche before setting foot in the place, and were expected - in fact, I'd have been disappointed if it hadn't have been these things. As to the quality of the food served, that was more of an unknown. I had detected more than a hint of archness, of knowing smiles and raised-eyebrows, from a section those who had cast their vote for the place. After 7 years of dreadful meals inflicted by those who wanted to see me suffer for my art, had a majority of my readership really had a change of heart and starting dabbling in altruism? Something seemed... fishy.

It all started well enough, though. It's impossible not to be charmed by the welcome at Le Gavroche. Staff are clearly well-practised and while the style is slick and professional, it's also friendly and personable - a tricky balance to pull off. The menus, at least the A La Carte, was somewhat less friendly - overwhelmingly French and ludicrously priced (£68 for a starter of stuffed artichoke, anyone?), it seemed the only way of spending anything less than a crippling amount was to confine yourself to the "Business Lunch", served weekday lunchtimes only and the reason I'd have to take a half day off from work (did I mention I suffer for my art?). For your £74 you get three courses, a half bottle of wine per person, plus a few bits and pieces. If the food had been decent, it could have been, well, if not exactly a bargain then at least A Good Lunch In Mayfair.

I said "if". First to arrive were canapés, one a little pastry casing containing curried cabbage topped with bresaola, which tasted of wet vegetables, and another which if it wasn't Philadelphia on toast, they've wasted some effort in the kitchen to end up with something tasting exactly like Philadelphia on toast. Sure, canapés aren't everything, and it's not like anyone's going to sit down to these and then head home, but seriously, guys. Seriously? As an introduction to 2-Michelin-starred Mayfair dining, I've had more impressive nibbles at my nan's.

There was another extra, apparently "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". I say "apparently" because, much like the canapés, it was so completely unremarkable more or less any trace of the taste of it had been wiped from my brain before I hit the tube home, and a couple of days later after staring at the photo for a good few minutes and grilling the person I went to lunch with - who also had no clue what it was - I ended up emailing Le Gav bookings to see if they could help out. So yeah, "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". Ham on toast, basically. Something else my nan used to do quite well.

This is pumpkin soup with pumpkin biscuits, or rather "Velouté de Potimarron et petit sable", which was fine as pumpkin soups go but hardly earth-shattering and not even able to boast the super-fluffy texture of the finest veloutés I've been served by other top French restaurants. If I had been served this in a local pub I'd have been quite happy, but here?

Beef tartare was solid, perhaps a bit mayonnaise-y but easily enjoyed, except I really don't understand why they decided to confit the egg yolk. Part of the joy of a beef tartare is smushing the runny yolk into the mince and making it all even more rich and silky. Here, the yolk was the texture of spreadable cheese and didn't really combine very well.

As I'd heard so much about the Gavroche triple-cheese soufflé beforehand, we'd asked if we could add it in as an extra course. We were happy to pay for this privilege, but the staff (did I mention how lovely the FOH are?) decided not to charge us in the end, which was a very kind gesture. And happily, the soufflé itself was my favourite course of all, some very clever cheffy techniques creating what can best be described as a cheese-flavoured cloud, albeit a cloud so deceptively rich and filling it gave the impression if you threw it into water it would sink. Still, great fun.

My main course was herb-roast chicken with potato and asparagus. Much like the soup, if you'd have been served it in a gastropub for about £20 you couldn't complain much - the potatoes were a bit chewy and the sauce could have been a bit more substantial - but this is surely some way short of what you might expect to be served anywhere showered in Michelin stars. It's some way short of what I expected to be served, at the very least. Meat and two veg, chicken and gravy.

I'm being snarky, I know - but how much of the above would you place in the repertoire of a £100/head Mayfair fine dining establishment, and how much would look right at home on the menu of a mid-range London gastropub? Picking an example completely at random, the Drapers Arms in Islington has served a very good beef tartare in the past, know how to knock up a good soup and I'm fairly sure would consider cream cheese on toast far too common for their elegant local audience. And there's probably an argument to be made that they deserve a Michelin star on a good day but they'd be the first to tell you they're not exactly playing the same game as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal or the Ledbury.

I promise I won't go too down the Michelin rant path, but there's a point worth making here. Time and time again, Michelin have demonstrated that the one thing they seem to value above all other aspects of a restaurant experience is not the food on the plate or value for money, but fancy surroundings and a name they recognise above the door. I can't knock any contribution the Roux family have made to the culinary progress of our nation, but Le Gavroche is just not comparable to the best of the rest London has to offer, and in fact is barely better than most 1 stars. And though I've never been there myself, I'm reliably informed that the idea Michel Roux Sr's Waterside Inn deserves the top 3 stars is, in a word, laughable. At the risk of repeating myself, it frustrates me no end how much these accolades mean to chefs and restaurateurs when the criteria for handing them out is so backward.

Anyway back to Mayfair. A friend's beef shin (I think) looked the part and was declared "very nice", so let's assume everything was OK there. Not exactly a scintillating presentation, but fine.

The Le Gavroche cheese board is rightly famous, and I can only imagine the kind of waves it would have made back in the day when the only product you could pick up from an English cheese shop was Red Leicester and Cheddar. These days of course, there are many boards that will give it a run for its money, not least Medlar in Chelsea and of course my beloved Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, but this was still an excellent selection, all kept perfectly and, in keeping with the excellent service, offered in generous amounts.

The main thing I remember about this rhubarb-based dessert was that the choux bun on the left there tasted of absolutely nothing - not sugar, not fruit, not pastry, not anything. Which is quite an achievement for an item presumably containing at least some of those things. I think the sorbet on the right was better, but I mean by this point I'd just completely lost interest - I'd decided around the point of the canapés that Le Gavroche wasn't for me, and nothing since had convinced me otherwise.

The bill came to £91/head. Yes, you can pay more in Mayfair - and you can pay a lot more at Le Gavroche - but I could hardly hold much of the above as an incentive to take out a second mortgage and go crazy on the full A La Carte. Perhaps, out of everything, the soufflé hinted most towards the kind of thing those early Michelin inspectors fell for, and I'm more than happy for even the most religiously traditional French food to be held up alongside the best of Modern British, at whatever the price point. I just don't think, in 2019, that Le Gavroche is where you should start.

Anyway, I should end this post on a high note. Despite its flaws, lunch at Le Gavroche is by far the most pleasant public vote outing I've experienced, and I wish to extend a big "thank you" to everyone who voted for it above anywhere else touristy, terrible or seedy. In the end, it was a more a lesson in how messed up the Michelin award system is than anything else, but none the less interesting for that, and hey, no regrets. I doubt I'll be back, and I can't exactly enthusiastically suggest anyone else does either, but as a reminder of London's culinary journey, and for that sterling service, perhaps there should remain a place in the world for the old girl. The past, as they say, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.


Sorry about the terrible photos - it was incredibly dark in there, and after a couple of attempts with my big camera, I realised it wasn't working and switched to my iPhone.

Friday, 26 April 2019

Simpson's in the Strand, Covent Garden

A few weeks ago, during a surprisingly in-depth discussion about crab bisque (what do you mean you've never had an in-depth discussion about crab bisque), someone mentioned that famed Covent Garden seafood spot J Sheekey's had a version on the menu for a very reasonable £9. So one lunchtime soon after I found myself in the corner of the plush dining room, beneath a photo of Dame Judi Dench, tucking into a very accomplished bisque, involving huge chunks of crab in a rich, thick broth. With mounds of fresh baguette to mop up the dregs (which they offered to replenish twice), cosseted by service from surely one of the most practiced front of house in town, and ice water to drink, the entire bill, even including a £2.50 cover charge, came to £15.

And it got me thinking. How many restaurants in London do we dismiss as "expensive" or "special occasion only" where it's actually possible to sneak in for a single starter or a lunchtime special and leave with a bill of about the same size as a cinema ticket? How about settling into a booth at Bob Bob Ricard and having an Egg St Petersburg (£8.50)? Or a pea & mint soup in the shining surroundings of the Holborn Dining Room (£9)? Or even a hot dog and french fries (£7.50) in the ultra-lux Delaunay in Aldwych? The service, the surroundings and the nice soft towels in the toilets are the same whether you're spending £300 on caviar and draining the top end of the wine list or just having a bowl of soup, and why shouldn't they be? There's no minimum spend.

So I knew Simpson's was going to be expensive, that much I was prepared for. I had hatched a plan to share oysters as a starter, share a main and order chips to fill up on, which should give us a fair idea of the kind of thing Simpson's is about without having to take out a 2nd mortgage. It's a grand old dining room attached to the Savoy Hotel, and the markups were always going to be a bit punchy, but surely there's a way of negotiating a budget option?

Well, we tried. Admittedly we didn't try very hard with the oysters, as we decided to go for the natives (£30 for six, about as much as I've ever paid for oysters anywhere), but it was coming to the end of the season and I was worried this would be my last chance until next year so decided to push the boat out. They were nice big healthy specimens but rather disconcertingly room temperature as they'd been served on pebbles instead of ice. We survived this time, but ever since a distressing incident with a room temperature oyster a few years back which incapacitated me for 24h I've tended to be a bit wary if my seafood feels like it's been treated less than optimally.

They very kindly offered to split a single Beef Welllington portion (£42) into two, and I'm glad they did because I think eating twice this amount would have been quite tricky. The Wellington was great - perfectly medium rare inside and with a delicate surrounding of mushroom duxelle and thin, crisp pastry. A little potato fondant thing was fine if fairly ordinary, and some roast veg did the job. But one of the joys of having Beef Wellington is soaking the thing in sauce, and the peppercorn sauce here was pretty bad - bland and unsatisfying and tasting of little more than thickened cream.

Chips were good, though, as you might expect for £5 - triple-cooked to golden brown and crunchy, very much in the Hawksmoor style which if you've ever been there you'll know is a recommendation...

...and for dessert we fell back on the 'free' petits fours, chocolate mint things like a kind of reimagined After Eight. Which were very nice as well.

So, we'd shared a starter, shared a main and skipped dessert, so how on earth did the spend per head still manage to come to £73? A little matter of a ludicrously-priced wine list. If it's true that there's no minimum spend on the food (sort of - it was very nice of them to split the Wellington and they do a cauliflower soup for £11 if you want to play the Cheap Lunch In A Posh Restaurant game) then unfortunately the same can't be said of the booze, where the cheapest - that's the cheapest bottle on the entire list is £48. If even the Ledbury can start its list at £33, then there's no excuse for anywhere else trying it on - when a £16 glass of rosé fizz starts looking like the cheapest pairing with oysters, you know you're in trouble. I realise complaining about the price of booze in one of the most prestigious addresses in London is a bit pointless, but it really took the shine off what would have otherwise been a very enjoyable dinner. And there's just no need for it.

Otherwise, there's plenty to like about Simpson's in the Strand. Yes, it's a ludicrous throwback to a different time (including the clientele - we were the youngest people in there by about 20 years and I was born when John Lennon was still alive) and to take full advantage of every section of the menu would cost a small fortune, but that is, essentially, why people come to these places. To sit in a lovely room, be served by lovely staff, and eat your way through a menu that, despite the odd nod to modernity, hasn't really changed much in the last 100 years. And if that sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, well then help yourself.