Monday, 30 January 2023

Jacuzzi, Kensington

If you've been to Gloria, or Circo Popular, or Ave Mario, you'll know the drill by now. Big Mamma group restaurants are ludicrous, overblown chintz-fests where decent if overpriced food plays second fiddle to people watching and celeb-spotting. And don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this occasionally - hell, even I got into the Ivy once - you just have to know what you're getting yourself into, because after being squeezed onto a tiny table and served food that would cost half the price anywhere else, you'd better hope there's a celeb or two to gawk at to make the whole experience worth your while.

Fortunately for us, Nick Cave was sat at the next table but one on Thursday night, so we had that box ticked from the get-go. It was somewhat of a surprise to notice he'd been sat at a very poky table for two in the same "Siberia", the third floor dining room next to the toilets - it's hard to believe even the youngest member of staff wouldn't notice Nick-bloody-Cave, looking more like Nick Cave than Nick Cave has ever Nick Caved, stalking into your restaurant, even if you'd never caught him on Jools Holland. Maybe they just have so many celebs going through their doors he doesn't even count as A-list any more.

The food, if you care (and I'm not sure they do), is fine. Least successful was crudo di gambero rosso whose main ingredient, usually one of the sweetest and most delightful Mediterranean residents, was served in three mushy dollops, drowned out by a fiercely sharp citrussy dressing. We couldn't detect any of the advertised 'bisque reduction', either, and as seafood bisque is one of my favourite things in the world maybe I'm more annoyed about this than anything else.

Crocchette di vitello tonnato could have been disgusting (much like the parent dish itself) but actually as veal-rich breadcrumbed croquettes topped with a gently tuna-y sauce they were perfectly pleasant. Giant capers are always fun, too.

Bresaola grissini were also edible. I mean it's hard to completely cock up the wrapping of charcuterie around breadsticks, and they didn't, so well done them. Probably they could have done with a bit more lime zest but in all honesty I'm just trying to find more words to say about meat wrapped around breadsticks. They existed. We ate them.

We both enjoyed the truffled spaghetti - at first. You'd have to be a real sourpuss not to enjoy at least some amount proper home-made and nicely al-dente spaghetti soaked in truffle-cream sauce, topped with yet more black truffle. The problem is after a couple of mouthfuls it all becomes a bit, well, much and about half the amount would have been more than enough. Fair play to them for the generous portions, though, I'm sure it would delight some quarters.

And speaking of generous, veal alla Milanese was so ludicrously massive that we managed barely 20% of it before handing the rest to friends of ours (not Nick Cave, even though he looked like he could do with fattening up a bit) who happened to be sat on the next table. It was actually pretty decent, and I'm sure the portion sizes are part of the whole Bacchanalic vibe, but there's really only so much deep-fried veal I really want to eat even at the best of times.

The bill, with a soft-launch 50% off food discount (with a bottle of wine and including an endive salad I have no memory of ordering or eating), came to £102.11, so would have been more like £200+ in normal times. And you know, perhaps £100 is the going rate these days for the possibility of gawking an A-lister and sitting in a room decorated with underwear, and perhaps I'm not exactly their target market (in fact I'm definitely not), but as a food blogger it is my duty to inform you that you can eat much better elsewhere for much less. But then, I expect you knew that already.

So, and to repeat, Jacuzzi is not really about the food. Some of it works, and some of it doesn't, and it's all too expensive, but none of that matters. Like Sexy Fish or the Ivy before it or even Bacchanalia from Richard Caring with its dedicated grape-feeder (yes, really), there are some places that exist outside of the usual norms and rules of restaurant dining, that will remain packed night-after-night while people like me scratch their heads and wonder what we're not getting. In fact, why not go, you may have the night of your life. You're welcome to it. I'll be in the pub.


During the soft-launch period, which I think might have ended already, food was 50% off.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Maresco, Soho

Shall we get the inevitable comparisons out of the way first? Yes, there's more than a little influence from the Hart Bros' Barrafina group of restaurants on display here at Maresco, a bright and bustling new arrival on the streets of Soho. There's a raw bar groaning with oysters, razor clams and mussels, the best seats are at the bar, and there are almost as many staff manning the open kitchen as there are customers, at least at the beginning of the evening before the room filled up. And of course, the shortish pan-Spanish menu is tastefully and attractively written, good British Isles ingredients jostling with to Iberian treats of various kinds. There's a lot to like.

And like it I did, very much in fact, because it's not difficult to enjoy food like this, especially when served with such style. Oysters from Loch Broom were the first to arrive, dressed in what they called "gaspacho" (presumably something involving garlic and pepper), topped with dill and trout roe. Attempting to posh-up raw oysters can go one of two ways, but these worked beautifully, the flavour of the oysters only being enhanced by the gaspacho. And who doesn't like salty, poppy trout roe?

Razors were, like the oysters, simply but intelligently dressed in garlic, oil and herbs and were marvellous thick, meaty things. I would go so far as to call them a must-order but of course given the nature of raw bars in seafood restaurants, there's no guarantee they'll always be available. So make the most of it when they are.

Chiperones are a long-standing obsession of mine, and I have unfailingly ordered them whenever I see them on a menu ever since childhood holidays in Catalonia back when - ahem - you still paid in pesos. Coated in a delicate thin but crisp batter, and seasoned robustly, they were right up there with the best versions I've tried over the years and I polished off this generous amount in a worryingly short amount of time.

Salmon tartare was ordered not so much for the main ingredient (though the Loch Duart fish was top-notch), but for the accompanying ajoblanco, another thing I would cross continents to eat. Here it was thick and rich and packed full of garlic and almond flavours, another intelligent pairing with seafood.

In another slice of childhood memories, charred leeks in romesco sauce did a very decent job of replicating the Catalan speciality cal├žots, and who knows maybe the real things will appear on the Maresco menu at some point - I believe the season has just started. Toasted almonds provided crunch at the same time as a neat reflection of the romesco sauce, and it was - again - all seasoned beautifully.

Obviously we had to order the presa iberica, which came arranged on top of a hot escalivada (Spanish roasted vegetable dish traditionally made in the embers of the fire). The escalivada was slippery and satisfying, with lots of smokey roast vegetables bound with oil, but of course it was the pork that was the real star here, cooked medium rare and almost dissolving in the mouth it was so tender.

Everything had been so consistently excellent up to this point we didn't hesitate to continue on to desserts, so this is crema Catalana ice cream, lovely and smooth and served with biscuit and crumbs...

...and this is Basque cheesecake, a fine example of its kind with a nice rich texture just the right side of moist.

So, a Barrafina-beater? Why not. Where it could be argued that Barrafina (usually) has a more varied selection of seafood to choose from, you certainly pay for it, while the prices at Maresco (assuming they don't do that annoying thing of getting all the early reviews in before hiking the numbers up) are eminently reasonable. Our decently boozy dinner for two cost about £60pp according to a quick tot up of the menu, which is something approaching a bargain for fresh seafood in cost-of-living-crisis-London in 2023. Add on top of that the pleasure of dining in this lovely room, served by staff so enthusiastic about the menu it's a delight to have a conversation with them about it, and you have all the ingredients for a real Spanish star.


I was invited to Maresco and didn't see a bill. Apologies for the terrible photos, I'm currently "between cameras".

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Manifest, Liverpool

Some restaurants just make it all look so easy. From the moment you walk into the room to the moment you pay up and leave, everything about the experience at Manifest is just so effortlessly polished, professional and enjoyable, and pitched at such reasonable prices, that it's impossible not to wonder why there can't be a Manifest in every town in the country, in every neighbourhood, on every street corner.

Of course, you don't end up with a restaurant as good as Manifest without a whole lot of people knowing exactly what they're doing, and I'm willing to bet it wasn't exactly a piece of cake to launch an ambitious Modern British bistro at the tail end of a pandemic and shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I bet there were more than a few hairy moments, a few moments of doubt, a nervous rechecking of balance sheets.

But you wouldn't know any of that eating here. The menu is short(ish), 5 starters - sorry, "small plates" and 3 mains ("large plates") and a handful of very tempting snacks. There's nothing wilfully obscure ingredients-wise, or any challenging presentations, just a list of tasteful, seasonal things offered in ways you'd always want to eat, for example these poached oysters (not natives, as the menu promised, but I'll forgive them that) with fennel and cucumber, which had a lovely seafood-vegetal balance.

Also excellent were house crisps, dusted with a salt and vinegar seasoning, very much "still warm" as advertised and therefore even more ludicrously moreish than if they had been presented cold (which still would have been perfectly acceptable). This large bowl lasted about 30 seconds I think.

House bread was good if not brilliant - quite a thick, hard crust and a rather cakey interior - but doused with enough soft salted butter they still did the job.

All of the food at Manifest walks that very difficult line between inventive-without-being-weird and accessible-without-being-boring. Take their steak tartare, for example. The thing itself is conventionally, and classically, perfect - great (ex-dairy) beef chopped into a nice loose texture and studded with shallots and capers, little blobs of mustard mayo, shards of melba toast to provide crunch. All correct, all good. But alongside, an unexpectedly lovely dollop of black garlic emulsion - think aioli but made with smokey black garlic - which brought another note of umami earthiness to the game. Very clever stuff.

There's no universe in which I wouldn't enjoy trout in bisque with lovage and sea vegetables, a dish seemingly constructed from my own personal favourite things involving seafood. But with the fish torched to create a bit of crunch and colour, yet still soft and flakey within, and boasting a bisque so packed full of flavour it would have been worth the price of admission alone, this was an absolutely stunning bit of cooking.

Equally impressive in its own way was this neat lineup of confit beetroot with grapes and toasted hazelnuts. Beetroot wouldn't ever be my first choice of starter, but I tried a bit and it was very good indeed, particularly the horseradish-buttermilk sauce which was another top bit of sauce work.

In fact, while we're on the subject - a word about the sauces at Manifest more generally. Across 5 dishes, starters and mains, I counted at least 9 unique sauces, pestos and emulsions - a pretty notable achievement for any restaurant never mind one at this price point. And even if you put the effort that must have gone into achieving this variety aside, the important thing is they were all expertly done - emulsions were smooth as silk, sauces vibrant and precise, and they were all packed with clear, distinct flavours. There's an awful lot of skill on display here.

The quality and effort levels continued with this, slices of venison loin in a fantastic game jus and kale pesto (yes, that's two separate sauces, working brilliantly together). The venison was faintly mealy of texture but had a great flavour, but the crowning glory was a puff pastry venison pie made I think out of offal, with a beguiling dense, gaminess and lovely loose-mince texture.

All of the desserts were, you will not be surprised to find out, beautifully constructed and hugely enjoyable. A pretty swirl of chocolate mousse came atop a mound of boozy cherries and "cardamom shard", a square of spun sugar.

Treacle tart was fresh out the oven (or at least cleverly warmed) with a quenelle of marvellous gingerbread ice cream and little bits of candied lemon. I'm not entirely sure you should be serving fresh raspberries in December but that's a minor quibble - I loved this dessert.

But best of all, amid fierce competition, was this poached pear in custard. Like much of everything else it was a masterclass in technique and flavour, the custard having a wonderful light, smooth texture and the sorbet, clean and clear and bright, was a great foil for the warm pear.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the above doesn't quite read like a full 3-course meal for 3 people. In fact, we treated the snacks like a starter and two of us had 'small' plates for their 'mains', which didn't seem to faze the front of house at all and just meant we had more room for warm pear and treacle tarts. And so despite adding in a bottle of cava and a couple of glasses of sweet wine to the mix, our relatively conservative order of savoury courses probably helped shrink the bill to a pretty minuscule £54 per head.

But even if we'd ordered all the snacks, all the desserts and a 'small' and 'main' each I doubt you could have spent more than about £70, and get this - Manifest don't even ask for a service charge. We left one of course, but their leaving even a suggested tip off the bill is just another example of their wonderfully generous and warmhearted attitude which directs everything from the welcome on arrival to this beautifully appointed converted Victorian warehouse, to the skip in your step as you're send on your way.

Manifest would be one of the most notable openings of the last twelve months had it set up shop anywhere in the country, but in Liverpool, where really only the very top-end (Roski, Lerpwl) and budget offerings (Rudy's pizza, Maray) have had any serious competition so far, it slots comfortably alongside the brilliant Wreckfish as another mid-range restaurant doing more or less everything right. I loved every bit of it, and will go back as soon, and as often, as I possibly can.


Saturday, 31 December 2022

Restaurant of the Year 2022 - The Bridge Arms, Canterbury

Since the madness of the Covid Times, you may have noticed that the rate of posting on this blog has slowed down a bit. Where I used to try and do 6 or 7 posts a month, and with that obviously stopping completely while there was nothing open to review, I have since found that 2 or 3 entries a month is a more realistic target for the new, more cautious restaurant landscape.

If we ever manage to see the end of the cost of living and energy crises, and confidence returns to restaurateurs and consumers alike, perhaps I'll pick up the pace again but then again, maybe writing up a smaller number of better, more interesting places is altogether a more sensible approach for the medium term.

Anyway, for the reasons I've mentioned, the pool of candidates for my favourites of 2022 is a bit smaller this year, but glancing through the list I can hardly say the quality has dipped. In fact if anything, the standard of food being produced up and down the country seems to be higher than ever, and is all the more remarkable considering the incredibly difficult circumstances in which it is produced. So with a general "thank you" to anywhere that's fed me over the last twelve months, here's a few of the highlights.

Best in London runner up - Bouchon Racine, Farringdon

You're either fans of Henry Harris' food, or you haven't tried it yet, and since the sad closure of Racine all those years ago it feels like nowhere has managed to live up to the gallic-shaped hole it left. Sure, the Coach and Horses (Harris' next venture) was - is - a very fine gastropub, but was hardly exactly unique in the UK, and not quite the perfect vehicle for his talents. Bouchon Racine, in a lovely bright space above the Three Compasses in Farringdon, takes up where Racine left off, yet seems to be charging a whole lot less than was necessary on Brompton Road for the same unapologetically French, exciting and mature food. This is undoubtedly one of the best French restaurants in London and - whisper it - probably a whole lot better than most French restaurants in France, too...

Best in London winner - Manteca, Shoreditch

Manteca is the kind of place that, if you only had the menu to base your opinion on, you'd quite reasonably decide it's just another mid-range Italian-British restaurant to slot in next to Padella and Bancone and various other places doing this kind of thing rather well, and it would be worth a quick bite with friends and nothing more.

You'd be wrong. Manteca certainly has the template and heritage of a number of other modern Italian restaurants from Trullo to Artusi and many more besides, but manages to stand head and shoulders out from the crowd by virtue of being absolutely world-class at everything they do. Focaccia made fresh daily, their own house-cured salami, hand-made pastas and a wonderful way with game (mallard, pheasant and partridge have been spotted in recent weeks), this is, as I said at the time, the only Italian restaurant any Londoner will ever need.

Best outside the UK winner - Cascina della Taverna, Desenzano del Garda

I tried hard - very hard - to separate my giddy enthusiasm at being on holiday in one of the most food-obsessed parts of the Western hemisphere and being taken on a long drive out of town to a family-run restaurant where they cook everything on a giant solid-fuel range, from the sober reality of the dishes served up that night. Was I just high on local wine and happy to be part of this authentic, homely experience, or was the food genuinely that brilliant? In the end, I decided it was the latter. Choose the provenance and style of your steak (some very local, some from as far afield as Ireland or Poland), have them grill it over the wood fire, enjoy it with seasonal veg and perhaps a bit of horse carpaccio, which is generally the thing to do. It's very easy to enjoy yourself in this part of the world, but Cascina della Taverna offers that little extra bit of magic.

Best outside of London runner up - Catch at the Old Fish Market, Weymouth

Despite the obvious benefits of opening a fine-dining seafood restaurant within spitting distance of the fishing boats that supply it, it's strange how few places outside of the most touristy parts of Cornwall and Devon are brave enough to do so. Catch, based in an old warehouse in the pretty medieval harbour of Weymouth in Dorset, is proof that if your ingredients are world class, and there's enough talent in the kitchen to make the most of it, you'll create your own demand and put your town on the culinary map. An impressive little operation indeed.

Best outside of London and overall best of 2022 - The Bridge Arms, Canterbury

Of course, I was always going to enjoy the Bridge. From the same team that brought us the impeccable Fordwich Arms, itself a best restaurant winner back in 2019, they were hardly likely to drop the ball on this their latest project, wrapping up the visually arresting, intelligently constructed food they made a name with in a more family-friendly gastropubby package. But quite how brilliant the Bridge Arms turned out to be was a shock even if as I said, like me, you were more or less expecting to be wildly impressed.

In short, nothing that comes out of the Bridge Arms is less than perfect, whether its throwaway snacks like padron peppers or (a nod to the early Clove Club menus) nuggets of buttermilk fried chicken, to the elaborate techniques and geometrically-precise platings of the larger courses. I mean even the triple-cooked chips come lined up like a regimental drill. This is the kind of restaurant that wows you with style but grips you with substance, the modern lines of the presentation never promising more than the flavour of the top ingredients can deliver. I loved it, and I want to go back as soon as possible, and it's my favourite meal of 2022.

Despite the ongoing issues with, well let's face it, more or less bloody everything, there are nevertheless reasons to be optimistic about 2023. For a start, if restaurants were able to still innovate and impress given everything that's happened over the last twelve months, there's no reason to think they can't continue to do so in the future. Already my diary is filling up (sporadically, and slowly, but surely) with interesting bits and pieces, and there's a very exciting new place in Liverpool that's going to be one of my first reviews of the new year. In the meantime, thanks - again - for reading, and here's to hoping to many, many fine dinners over the next twelve months. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Bouchon Racine, Farringdon

Such is the cyclical nature of these things, trends in food or clothing or plenty of other areas besides will, given long enough, find themselves fading in and out of favour. There was a time, within living memory, when French cuisine was considered the gold standard of achievement in the restaurant world, when Michelin stars were handed out exclusively to places that could demonstrate their ability to construct a decent Tournedos Rossini, and taken back just as quickly if anything on the menu was found to be written in English. There may have been British chefs, and British waiters, and sometimes even British ingredients, but they cooked French food and that was that.

Gradually, beginning most noticeably in the 1980s but accelerating into the 90s and beyond, British cuisine, although very definitely birthed from the French techniques and traditions, began to discover its own identity, and very soon the bright, modern, light flourishes (Rogan et al) or the studied, seasonal rusticism (Henderson) of new wave British cooking all of a sudden made things like Tournedos Rossini look a bit, well, past it. Traditional French restaurant food wasn't suddenly bad, it just looked tired and old fashioned.

It's about time, then, isn't it, for unapologetically French food to make a comeback? Not the heavy, elaborate Escoffier-feasts of the past, not even perhaps Tournedos Rossini, but a style of French cooking that learns from the past while wrapping it up in the kind of experience that makes you want to spend all day there and eat everything on the menu twice. Which brings me on to Bouchon Racine.

First of all, yes I did want to eat everything on the menu twice - even the stuff as a very poor French speaker I initially had to google. But even before making a decision on starters and mains we knew we had to order a plate of Carlingford oysters, absolutely giant things with a clean, minerally taste. This is a great time of year to be eating oysters. They arrived with gordal olives and a deliriously good baguette with salted butter, the suppliers of which had been tapped from Racine's previous Kensington operation back in the day. But more on that side of things later.

Eventually, after much anguishing, I decided I wanted to start the lunch proper with snails, partly because I love snails but also because I can't remember the last time I saw them on a menu. They were fantastic plump, meaty little things in an extremely smooth and enjoyable garlic-butter sauce, sizzling and frothing away straight from the grill.

Other starters were equally brilliant - a steak tartare with a beautifully loose texture studded with capers and shallots...

...Bayonne ham with celeriac remoulade, the celeriac presented in neat little tubes like a vegetable-based bucatini...

...and what was perhaps, amongst some stiff competition, the most exciting and beautiful of the starters, eggs draped in a loose, light "mayonnaise" closer to a Hollandaise and topped with thick, salty cantabrian anchovies.

At this point, Bouchon Racine could have just chucked us the bill and turfed us out onto the street and we would have still considered it a journey worth making, but of course we had more eating to do. Apologies, though, to anyone hoping to see detail on four different main courses because none of us were willing to budge from the main course decision we'd all made as soon as we spotted it on the menu. So behold, four plates of rabbit in mustard sauce. And none of us had any regrets - rabbit with a golden, crisp skin but still boasting juicy flesh right down to the bone, wrapped in bacon (because yes please) and surrounded in a silky, buttery mustard-warmed sauce. Great stuff.

Oh, and creamed spinach with foie gras, because if there's one way of improving creamed spinach it's the addition of foie gras. Look at the colour of it too - like it could replenish your iron levels by just being in the same room.

Desserts were as unapologetically French as everything that had come before. Mont blanc was a giant - and I do mean giant - mound of cream and sweet meringue topped with a bitter walnut paste, which combined to great effect. Tarte vaudoise was a delicate little thing with a rich, buttery flavour that belied its straightforward appearance. And there was of course the famous Racine creme caramel (with added prune), all warm and wobbly and lovely.

The name Racine, though, may not mean much to a lot of you. It was all the way back in 2015 that Henry Harris' flagship operation closed its doors, taking with it a whole generation (or at least blogging generation) of happy memories and steak au poivre dinners, which despite its fans even then felt like the changing of the guard from the French tradition and the refocussing on thrusting young British gastropubs like the Harwood Arms or places like Lyle's which opened around the same time.

But what goes around comes around, and Racine is back, better than ever, and cooking the kind of food you'd wished never went away. Or maybe it never did, and blinded by the new and the fashionable the rotten little trend-chasers like me just never noticed it. Who cares. What matters that it's here now, and it's one of the most exciting and effortlessly enjoyable new (sort of) restaurants in London. Vive la France.


We turned up quite willing to pay in full, but good old Dave Strauss who's leading front of house gave us a little bloggers bonus on some items, so thanks v much to him for that.