Wednesday 19 December 2007

Scott's, Mayfair

Mayfair - playground of the rich and famous. Or more accurately last night, just the rich, as the celebrity-spotting opportunities were unfortunately nil despite very frequent and obvious glances around the room to see if anyone worth noticing had wandered in. Sarah Ferguson and her kids were here a couple of days ago apparently, so maybe I was just unlucky, but I'd have liked to have taken away with me an anecdote or two about bumping into Kevin Spacey or picking up Kylie Minogue's napkin, as well as the memory of a very very good dinner. I didn't even get to take any photos, so for the first time in its short history this blog is text-only. This is a real shame as seafood is the most photogenic of all foodstuffs, but as I whipped my trusty cameraphone out our waiter couldn't have looked more shocked if I'd unholstered a pistol.

"Sorry you can't take photos in here," he said. And that was that. I suppose I could have sneaked in a couple when his back was turned but as I was with company and not paying for the meal I didn't want to risk any more embarassment. So you'll have to take my word for it that the menu was exhaustive and mouthwatering, the food perfectly presented and the decor sufficiently sumptuous.

We had decided upon sharing a "Seafood platter for two, £28". The waitress decided that this would be too much and instead suggested a seafood platter for one, to share. Which begs the question - if the seafood platter for two is too big for two, why not just make it smaller, and similarly if the seafood platter for one is too big for one, why not call it the seafood platter for two? On the itemised bill this eventually appered as "Seafood platter for 1, £28". Something fishy going on there, in more ways than one. But quibbles about the pricing aside, this was a spectacular huge tray of oysters, whelks, clams, cockles, langoustine and prawns, with a huge half a crab in the middle. All of it was at the very least well cooked; the crab meat was creamy and delicious, the whelks meaty and fresh, the langoustine plump and juicy. Only slight disappointment were the prawns which weren't anything out of the ordinary but never mind. Oh and I can't vouch for the oysters either as after a couple of near-death experiences I've decided I'm allergic to them and won't risk it again. But they didn't go to waste so I'm guessing they were good as well.

My main was a Dover Sole Meuniere, and was heart-stoppingly superb. Maybe Dover Sole is always as good, I can't remember the last time I had it, but this was rich and meaty, packed with flavour and presented with unapologetic simplicity - just the fish itself, on the bone, on a plate. Lifting the lovely solid flesh off the bone was an absolute joy, and I felt a tremendous sense of loss once I was finally just left with the cartoon cliche head and tail. Not cheap of course - this was about £28 from memory - but worth every penny I (ahem) didn't pay for it.

So after a final furtive glance around the room to check I hadn't missed the arrival of a royal entourage or hip hop star, we stepped back out into the cold London night and it was all over. I can't pretend I'm not lucky to have been treated to such an extravagant meal, and I fully admit this may have clouded my judgement somewhat. But I do know that the food at Scott's was cooked expertly, the setting was as glamorous as you'd expect in this part of town, and I'm pretty sure I'd have very little to complain about if I went again under my own steam. Which I fully intend to do.


Scott's on Urbanspoon

Friday 14 December 2007

Menu for Hope 2007

As someone who only gives monthly to Oxfam so he can blank the chuggers on Moorgate with a clear conscience, I can't pretend to be the most charitable person in London. But there are people in the world who really do have a selfless desire to make the world a better place, and for this we should all be thankful. Specifically, we should first be thankful and then we should give generously to Menu For Hope, brainchild of the prolific and well-respected US blogger Pim of Chez Pim and her UK representative Jeanne at Cook Sister.

The idea is that food lovers from all over the place offer up prizes to be won, and you buy electronic raffle tickets through the website. There is some fantastic stuff available this year including a meal at Heston Blumenthal's pub in Bray, a personal foodie tour of London, and even a chance to accompany Observer food critic Jay Rayner on one of his future restaurant visits.

So go ahead and see what takes your fancy - it's all for a good cause.

Then make your donation here - making sure to enter the code for the prize you want in your comments.

Good luck!

Thursday 13 December 2007

The Big Easy Crabshack, Chelsea

Last week I was dragged on an office party to what was billed as a "Medieval Banquet" in St. Katherine's Dock, in a deafening basement full of a good few hundred inebriated staff from every other company across London with a management too tight to pay for a decent Christmas meal. Served by Polish staff dressed up to look like 17th century prostitutes, forced to do humiliating co-ordinated dances in between serving what can only loosely be described as food, it was like going back 20 years to a time before gastropubs, organics and enlightened British cooking to the days when corporate diners were happy to put up with cold dry salmon, tinned soup and fatty boiled chicken just so long as there was enough free booze in front of them. The general air of holiday camp awfulness was further reinforced by a "host" playing Henry VIII who looked remarkably mediterranean for a famous redhead, and a stage-school wannabe Anne Boleyn who sung medieval classics like Simon & Garfunkel over the PA while second-rate "entertainers" threw skittles around and forced Brian from Accounts to put a dress on so everyone could laugh and take pictures. I've still not quite recovered.

However, much as it pains me to say it after that experience, there is occasionally a place for themed restaurants. There's nothing wrong with some crazy crap on the walls, waiting staff in silly costumes and silly puns on the restaurant's name on menu items as long as - and this is of course very important - as long as the food is up to scratch. The Big Easy Crabshack on King's Road certainly has a very impressive menu, boasting such premium (at least in these parts) items as Atlantic King Crab, Lobster, Clam Bake, Tiger Prawns (sorry "Shrimp") and Oysters. What a shame then, that on eating it was all just a little disappointing.

It all started well, with a bowl of Buffalo Chicken Wings which were at least as good if not better than those served at Bodean's just over the river. The only complaint was that there wasn't quite enough sauce and the dip was I think just craime fraiche and not as interesting as the blue cheese stuff from their rival.

Mains were nothing if not generous, with two whole racks of pork ribs served with nice enough BBQ beans, half a sweetcorn and an actually very nice indeed home made (I presume) coleslaw. But the ribs themselves were fairly tasteless, again pretty dry thanks to a combination of overcooking and lack of sauce, and quite a chore to get through once I'd finished off one rack. To be fair however, a companion's jumbo shrimp were moist and gorgeously cooked and served with home made nachos which you don't see very often. How they'd manage to overcook the ribs, which they must do every serving hour of every day, and get the prawns so right (not easy when you're grilling them) I have no idea, but there it is.

We had also ordered a side of stuffed jalapeno peppers on the back of a positive memory of a similar thing from North America. Here they were dripping in fat and unsatisfyingly soggy throughout - most of them got left I think.

The bill came to about £25 a head and was I suppose good value for money considering the location (our fellow diners were an unlikely mix of big-haired Sloaney couples and kids parties) and the amount of food served. But I can still unhesitatingly recommend Bodean's Grill above the Big Easy - Bodean's may have a smaller menu and a much more limited selection of expensive seafood, but what it does it does very well, and their pulled pork is worth a visit alone.


Big Easy on Urbanspoon

Monday 10 December 2007

Cheese of the month - Saint Félicien

This month at Hamish Johnston a cow's milk cheese called Saint Félicien caught my eye, presented as it was in a little pottery ramekin and raising hopes it may be too dangerously pungent to be served in anything less than quarter-inch thick ceramic. On tasting however it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. It was certainly very creamy (60% fat I'm told) and incredibly salty so if you were planning on committing suicide via a massive coronary event a few of these should really do the trick. But there wasn't really much else to the taste and I can think of a number of far more pleasurable ways of performing Death By Cheese - drowning in a tub of Epoisses for example, or stabbing yourself in the neck with a slice of sharpened parmesan.

Still, if you like your cheeses soft and creamy and don't mind waking up in the middle of the following night feeling like every ounce of moisture has been sucked from your body by a lactic vampire, you can probably do worse. But of course you can also do a lot, lot better.


Thursday 6 December 2007

Tas Firin Ocakbasi Grill, Shoreditch

Like a moth drawn to a flame, I am genetically pre-programmed to try anywhere serving obscure ethnic cuisine with a silly name, even if said food turns out to be quite inedible and there's a very good reason for its obscurity. I have no idea how to pronounce Ocakbasi, but as far as I can tell from a quick Google it just means 'Turkish grill'. So, essentially a kebab shop then? It's amazing isn't it, how pretention to some sort of trendy "next big thing" can draw rave reviews of even the most mundane place from people desperate to say they were first to discover it. People like me, for example.

The decor treads a fine line between odd and very odd, with pictures of happy Turkish peasants on the wall next to a bizarre tiki-hut bar which is too small to sit at but dominates a good third of the tiny restaurant. There is also an impressive-looking wood-fired oven which looked to be in constant use over the course of our meal and yet all the bread we were served was cold and fairly bland so God knows where the fresh stuff was going.

Being just the two of us yesterday lunchtime, and attempting to get as much of an idea as possible of the skills of the kitchen, we chose a selection of hot starters (lamb livers, hummous, calamari, halloumi) and one chicken shish to see if their grilling was up to much. Livers were tasty but just on the wrong side of dry and had been cooked too long for my liking. They also arrived almost immediately so clearly had been prepared well in advance. The calamari were pretty bad too - greasy and unpleasant batter but the squid inside at least wasn't too rubbery. Halloumi was just as you'd expect - in fact we saw him opening the packet of the bog standard stuff you can get at ASDA. It was nice of course, but Halloumi is always nice isn't it?

Perhaps most disappointing though was the chicken shish kebab, which was mundanely spiced and a little on the dry side. Not exactly bad, just very boring, and again no better than anything you could get at any 2am kebab shop, never mind somewhere claiming to be a specialist grill house. The accompanying veg was equally uninspriring, although the rice was nice and buttery. Hummous was hummous - uniformly pallid and unlikely to have been made in house.

The one saving grace, I suppose, was that it was fairly inexpensive. Just over £20 for all that food, and the portions were nothing if not generous, so if you just want to fill a hole and aren't that bothered about quality then why not give it a go. Just don't expect to be blown away - despite the fancy subtitle, Tas Firin is just another standard kebab shop.


Tas Firin on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 4 December 2007

The Great Eastern Dining Rooms, Shoreditch

Don't think for a moment that I am not eternally grateful that Tayyabs exists. I consider it one of the greatest blessings of my life that I can eat such superb food in welcoming surroundings for an almost derisory amount of money, and each repeat experience makes the 8/10 score I gave it on my first visit somewhat churlish. There is, however, a downside to being so terribly spoiled and that is that after every meal anywhere else you end up looking at the bill and thinking "I could have had two meals at Tayyabs for that", and chances are they wouldn't have been half as good. And the Great Eastern Dining Rooms is not even anywhere near half as good.

The room was completely empty when we sat down at a table (inexplicably covered with both a linen tablecloth and a paper cloth on top of that) near the window at around midday, and we were quickly told that the kitchen didn't open until 12:15. An odd time to open a kitchen, you might think, but I am nothing if not patient so we spent a quarter of an hour looking up the unfamiliar ingredients in the glossary at the back of the menu - a nice touch. However at 12:15 there was still no sign of our waitress. There were plenty of other staff racing around with bags of ice and buckets of food but all did a very good job of ignoring our table and I eventually had to walk up to the bar and wave someone over myself.

We ordered the last 5 items on the Dim Sum section, so prawn dumplings, chilli salt squid, pork belly, spare ribs and lamb cheung fun. Barely ten minutes later the food started arriving - and most of it was lukewarm. Now as we were the first customers I can be fairly certain that these dishes weren't someone else's rejects, and in this day and age I would hope they weren't cooked yesterday and reheated. But God knows how else they managed to get them cooked and left around to cool down in under ten minutes - maybe I'd rather remain ignorant. The chilli salt squid was good - slightly better than the kind of thing you find elsewhere, and the lamb inside the cheung fun didn't taste of a great deal although the sauce was nice. Prawn dumplings were fluffy and tasty, the sauce over the ribs was rich and meaty, and the pork belly had the potential to be very good as the meat had a good flavour and was prettily presented. But having gone cold somewhere along the line, what should have been a crispy pig skin had gone chewy and separated from the softer meat beneath. A shame, if nothing else. I should also mention that while the main meat dishes all arrived suspiciously quickly and more or less together, a side order of bak choi took another half an hour. Half an hour(!) to cook a few green leaves and 10 minutes for pork belly. The mind boggles.

After the table had been cleared, we tried in vain for about 15 minutes to attract the attention of a member of staff to ask for the bill, which when it finally did arrive sat for yet another 15 minutes on our table with my credit card perched proudly on top, nobody looking like they were interested in picking it up. I finally had to walk up to the bar to pay, and for the first time in years I asked for the 12.5% to be taken off. Lukewarm food, disinterested staff and inexplicably long waits between courses - these all point to major problems with service, and I felt completely justified withholding it.

What was left of the bill came to around £20 a head. Not an astronomical sum, but in my new foodie currency that makes it 2 Tayyabs, which makes the whole experience hard to justify. Being so close to my place of work I imagine I will be back to the Great Eastern, but next time I will steer clear of the food and stick to the drinks. From the looks of it this lunchtime, that was what everyone else was wisely doing too.


Great Eastern Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Monday 3 December 2007

The Brass Rail, Selfridges Food Hall

There is a theory often put forward by environmental campaigners that tackling road congestion by adding lanes or widening roads is counter-productive, because the volume of traffic actually increases in proportion to the space it is given. Having barely survived a weekend trip to a pedestrianised Oxford Street I can confirm the same is true of pavements and human traffic. I have never seen so many people squeezed onto one road, screaming back and forth in an uncontrolled riot of baby buggies and yellow Selfridges shopping bags.

My bright idea was to attempt lunch in the busiest part of the busiest shop on the busiest shopping street in the country, 3 weeks before Christmas. The Selfridges Food Hall can be crowded at the best of times, but on Saturday it resembled something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting as all of London appeared to have developed a simultaneous compulsion to sample English Stilton and gawp at the lobsters on the fish counter. The queues for all the food outlets were huge at around 1pm, so we decided to try a little bit of Christmas shopping and return when they might have died down. A very difficult hour later we returned gasping and broken to the food hall, having managed only the purchase of a jar of hand wash for our own bathroom in all that time. I don't know how anyone else was doing it, but I could not get comfortable enough to be a consumer in the midst of such chaos. I resolved to buy all my Christmas gifts from the internet, and if I missed the physical abuse of high-street shopping too much I could always punch myself repeatedly in the face with my free hand.

To add insult to very real injury, The Brass Rail turned out to be overpriced and rather mediocre. The salt beef was a little on the dry side but reasonably tasty, and the rye bread was nice and fresh, but the bagels (they spell them the American way here) were dry and £4.50 for half a salt beef bagel is extortionate when you consider a whole one from Brick Lane is about £2.50. Pickles again were OK but 50p each.

Not wishing to take any more chances, we headed for Claridges for dessert. This may seem a little extravagant but given my state of mind at that point I don't think I could have coped with anything less - medicinal purposes, you understand. The £15 "Dessert Bento Box" was a plate of four exquisite little preparations including rice pudding, hazelnut ice cream with some sort of pastry, chocolate and raspberry cake and multicoloured macaroons. We sipped on drinks and melted into the leather armchairs in a quiet corner of the most luxurious hotel in London, and eventually the hidous memory of Oxford Street faded away.

The Brass Rail 4/10
Claridges Bar 9/10

Monday 26 November 2007

Foliage, Knightsbridge

There was a time when hotel restaurants in London had a deservedly appalling reputation. Even the flashiest hotels seemed to not consider having a decent restaurant to be a prority, so you ended up with bland, corporate rooms serving bland, corporate food to bland, corporate diners. Nowadays, a great number of the Michelin-starred establishments in London are affiliated with hotels, although very often this affiliation stretches no further than the hiring of the floorspace - Claridges Bar, for example, cannot transfer your tab to the Gordon Ramsay restaurant only a few steps away. "They are totally separate institutions," a waiter told me at the time. So with the new Ducasse at the Dorchester doing its best to turn back the image of London hotel restaurants twenty years (just read the reviews), I am eternally grateful for Foliage at the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, which is probably the best food I've eaten all year.

Notice I was careful to say the "food" was the best I've had all year in that last paragraph. For unfortunately although the operation in the kitchen was as polished and brilliant as I've almost ever seen, the youthful front of house seemed inexperienced and out of place for a restaurant tipped for a 2nd Michelin Star next year. To mention just a few specifics - we waited a good 15 minutes before even been offered drinks or given the menu, and nobody greeted us as we were seated. There was very often a long wait between courses, and our 4-course menu took from 7:30pm until nearly 11pm to get through. And one of the waitresses repeatedly referred to one of my male friends as "she", although to be fair I often make that mistake too.

But in the context of the food at Foliage, all of these things blend into insignificance. Nibbles of spectacular strands of herby breadsticks came with a creamy cheese and onion dip and a startling smokey aubergine mousse, which was commendably experimental but so smokey it was a bit like eating coal. Even so, most seemed to enjoy it.

Next was a pre-starter of tomato mousse and crab meat, which despite being composed of very similar ingredients as the hideous concoction at Trinity, managed to get the balance of flavours just right and was a light and fluffy palatte cleanser with fantastically fresh crab meat. By this point I was already convinced of the skills of the kitchen, and just had my fingers crossed the standards would continue.

Sweetbreads with polenta didn't disappoint. I have ranted before about polenta, how it's literally one of the cheapest things to buy wholesale and every restaurant in London seems to be playing some sort of game to see how much they can get away charging for it. But this was a really lovely plate of food; the sweetbreads were moist and tasty and the polenta made a perfect accompaniment. However what I really noticed about this dish were the tiny bits of green leaf, a flavour I could not place but so fresh and strong they provided a taste hit in themselves as well as adding colour. They looked like mini sprigs of coriander but I'm pretty sure they weren't. Could they have been mustard shoots?

The seafood course was another astonishing success. Sorry about the poor photo but I was probably overwhelmed by the gorgeous smells rising from my plate and couldn't hold my hands still. Absolutely perfectly cooked scallops with one or two tiny cep mushrooms bursting with flavour, sitting on top of the most cauliflowery cauliflower puree I've ever known. Like the preceeding course, each element of the dish was perfectly prepared and served in a way so as to complement the others exactly. It's incredibly satisfying to be able to identify each component ingredient and yet to have them work together so well.

But just as I was gearing myself to declare this the best food of my entire life, I'm afraid Foliage slipped up a bit with my beef main. The presentation, the preparation and the execution of this plate of food was as faultless as the others, but somehow the beef itself was completely bland and tasted of nothing. A huge disappointment, as with better meat this would have been a sublime dish; as it was, it was only just good.

Before the dessert came a little palette cleanser of grapefruit foamy thing. Sorry I can't go into more detail, I'd had a few glasses of wine by this point, the waitress' accent was very strong and she'd just called my mate "she" again so I was probably stifling chuckles.

I noticed that "Calvados Souffle" with Sea Salt Caramel sounded remarkably similar to the excellent dessert I'd had at Pearl a few weeks ago, and thought that if those flavours worked so well together Foliage couldn't go far wrong either. As it turned out, this dessert turned out to be even better than that at Pearl, being both beautiful to look at and technically expert in execution. A good souffle is not an easy thing to pull off, but I can honestly say the flavours in each (lamentably brief) mouthful were breathtaking. And look at that sorbet - the waitress specifically mentioned that we were supposed to eat it, as she'd had a few diners thinking it was so perfect it must be artificial. I don't doubt her.

After a few best-forgotten chocolate experiments (chocolate, balasmic vinegar and salt? Er, no thanks) we finally persuaded them to bring us the bill, of which my share was £135. Not cheap of course, but this included a couple of the cocktails from the bar and enough wine so really wasn't too bad. And problems with service aside there wasn't a diner on my table of six that was anything less than very impressed with their meal. I've been to a few of these Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide and despite the usually high standards you tend to see the same ingredients and cooking techniques trotted out again and again. Not a bad thing, but you often get the impression the kitchen are aiming over your head to the Michelin judges - it can feel impersonal. This however is precise, direct cooking, somehow both haute cuisine and refreshingly unpretentious, and you leave with the impression that Foliage is genuinely trying to appeal directly to you, allowing you the privilege of understanding and relating to the ingredients on your plate while at the same time serving them in a way that surpasses your expectations. In short, Foliage is special.


Foliage on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 21 November 2007

The Anchor and Hope, Southwark

The Anchor and Hope has a lot of good things going for it, but the seating arrangements aren't one of them. There's a no booking policy, so the best places are dealt out on a first-come first-served basis. This means that if you are a couple there's a very good chance that after one of the two (!) tables for two are taken you will be sat antisocially close to good number of complete strangers on a large table by the kitchen while the waiting staff and diners on their way to the toilets periodically elbow you in the back of the head. This is the second time this year I've tried to eat at the Anchor & Hope; last time we could only stand the physical assault for five minutes - just long enough to try the bread and butter - then gave up and scurried off into the night. Still, free bread, can't complain.

This time, things went a great deal better. We had a nice quiet table for two in the corner, the back of our heads remained mercifully elbow-free throughout the evening, and most importantly we felt comfortable enough to stay long enough to sample the food, which turned out to be very good indeed. Just look at this menu:

Snails, tripe, quince, pheasant, partridge, hazelnuts, chestnuts and beetroot. It's a foodie's wet dream of perfectly pitched seasonal dishes, the odd eyebrow-raising unusual ingredient and heartwarming wintery goodness. It's the kind of food that wraps you up in a nice blanket in front of the fire when it's snowy outside. I wanted to try literally everything on this menu, and by the end of the evening it almost felt like I had, but in the end plumped for the pot-roast partridge with cabbage, bacon and chestnuts.

Truth be told the meat on the partridge was a little dry, but the surrounding broth was comforting, and the flavour of the caramelised onions and bacon strong and satisfying. With plenty of stock to smother the partridge meat this plate of food disappeared very quickly. The kind of thing I could eat every day as it felt incredibly hearty and healthy as well as tasty, partridge meat being pretty lean. This could not be said of a companion's lamb and beans dish, which was thick with cream but just as tasty.

Next I ordered the buttermilk pudding, which turned out to be an Anglicised panacotta with an accompaniment of sweet oranges, heady with alcohol. There were quite a few pips in the orange which I suppose would put some people off but I thought it added to the rustic charm of the dish. The buttermilk itself was just right - fluffy and not too sweet. However although tasty a companion's "Flourless chocolate cake" was incredibly dense and it was a bit of a struggle to get through it. Perhaps it was missing an ingredient... something that would lighten it a bit... oh yes, flour.

I know from experience we were lucky to get a comfortable corner table, and a majority of diners here will have to put up with a rather less than perfect environment to eat their food. But if this is the business model at the Anchor and Hope then good luck to them - it's clearly a very successful one, and goes to show that for many Londoners the environment comes secondary to the food. And quite right too.


Anchor & Hope on Urbanspoon

Friday 16 November 2007

Hawksmoor, Shoreditch

It ought to be a cause of national shame that despite having some of the best small producers and fishing grounds in the world, British and Irish produce is generally ignored by our own restaurants and supermarkets. The finest fresh lobster and langoustine from the south coast, Welsh lamb and Scottish pedigree cattle are sold abroad, earning French and Spanish chefs the reputation for gastronomic excellence off the back of our own home-grown talent. Thankfully in recent years there has been a bit of a fightback, as interest in locally-sourced ingredients has increased and more restaurants and supermarkets (especially Waitrose, who deserve a special mention for their 'Local foods' section) are confident enough in their customers to market British food properly. But we are nowhere near equilibrium, and I still find it shocking that some uniformly beet-red slabs of 2nd-grade beef flown halfway across the world are regarded as the best you can eat in London.

So like a guardian angel sent from heaven to fight for British food on earth (or at least in our nation's capital) comes Hawskmoor on Commercial Road. All their meat is from a company called Ginger Pig, who regular Borough-market goers will recognise from their stall there. The menu is smallish - just a few different cuts of beef, a lamb and pork cut or two, and a scattering of sides. And it's not cheap either, my 600g sirloin coming in at a whopping £26.50. But if there's one thing that's self-evident as you cut through the charred crispy flesh into the rich, moist pink inside, is that it's worth every penny. There is simply nowhere else in the capital - nowhere in Europe I would hazard a guess - that has steaks of such stunning high quality, cooked perfectly. They are huge things too, thick with ribbons of fat that provide flavour and texture, almost a meal in themselves, but you'd be foolish not to try some of Hawskmoor's excellent side dishes, such as the rich garlicky spinach and the creamiest baked sweet potato you will ever have. Unfortunately this lunchtime the chips weren't up to the usual high standard - they tasted a bit dry - but this is not the norm based on numerous previous visits. Also the service can be hit and miss - one time we waited a whole hour before the food started to arrive, which was blamed on the macaroni cheese taking too long to make. Why they didn't have "up to an hour waiting time" stamped next to this item in the menu wasn't clear.

As if Hawksmoor wasn't happy enough with serving superb steaks, they also have a fantastic bar with a list of heritage cocktails that you will find nowhere else. My "Daiquiri No.2" was apparently one of Ernest Hemingway's favourites, although to be fair I've heard this about most cocktails. Boasting that your particular drink was favoured by Cuba's most famous alcoholic is a bit like saying you are attractive enough to sleep with Russell Brand. He wasn't that fussy, believe me.

I am told that even the non-meaty items on the menu such as the scallops and swordfish are worth having, so clearly there is talent in the kitchen beyond timing a 2-inch thick rib-eye to medium-rare. But it is the steaks that keep people coming back here. Knowledgeably sourced, perfectly cooked and honestly presented, there is no doubt that Hawksmoor serves the best steaks this side of the Atlantic.


Hawksmoor on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 14 November 2007

Kastoori, Tooting

Here's a sweeping statement to pointlessly antagonise a great many people - vegetarians in the UK, on the whole, do not really like food. At least that is the impression I often get. I'm not talking about those who just avoid red meats, or even those who eat a wide variety of fish and seafood but avoid game and poultry. These are moral or ethical decisions and are often perfectly sensible - I mean even I have "issues" with fois gras and veal although not quite enough to stop me ordering them at every opportunity. Strict vegetarians - those who fill their miserable empty days with salads and nut roasts and bloody Quinoa - these are people who see food only as a necessary evil. The kind of people who love the attention they get being able to grumble about the poor choice at whatever restaurant they happen to have been tricked into going to, and then proceed to pick at their meal half-heartedly all evening while muttering about their waistline. Stick-thin health freaks who survive on wheatgrass smoothies and wear their vegetarianism as a self-righteous badge of clean living, and yet have to supplement their apparently perfect diet with artificial protein pills and vitamins. Vegetarians do not, on the whole, like food. Anyone who really enjoyed eating would stay away from wheatgrass, for a start. And don't even get me started on vegans.

So much the same can usually be said of vegetarian restaurants. First of all, there aren't that many of them, as most British vegetarians would rather stay at home with a pack of Linda McCartney sausages than be seen to eat in a public place. And secondly, they are usually glorified health food shops with a self-service counter groaning with soggy cous cous salads and cowpats of spinach quiche, with the same odd smell of ludicrously expensive dietary supplements, fennel seeds and sadness.

Kastoori is different. You know it's different because when you sit down at a table in what is at first glance a bog-standard local curry house, you are presented with a menu which contains none of the usual suspects of high-street dining - Masala, Korma, Vindaloo, etc. Instead you notice exotic ingredients like green bananas, dosas and puris, each with a short description of the flavours involved and perhaps a short explanation of the history of the dish. Many are family heirlooms, carried over from their roots as forced exiles of Idi Amin's Uganda and mixed with further influences from their native Gujurat. What you don't notice is the lack of meat.

We started with what is fast becoming a locally famous house speciality - Dahi Puri. Described on the menu as "Taste bombs", they were bite-sized crispy pastry casings with a chick-pea, spiced potato and yoghurt sauce inside. You are told to eat them in one go - it gets very messy otherwise - and as the flavours dissolve in your mouth I defy you not to close your eyes and moan with delight. They are simply incredible.

After we'd come under fire from a couple more taste bombs each (sorry), the mains arrived - a thick aubergine curry containing huge black chillis and plenty of coriander, (not always available - this is one of the rotating daily specials), panir cheese stuffed with mint and coriander in a lovely creamy sauce, and a Dosa so big it actually overhung both sides of our table, served with a rich coconut chutney. All of it was nothing less than excellent, especially the Dosa which had a quite unexpected vinegary/herby taste and despite its generous size disappeared very quickly. I'm no expert on Gujurati cuisine but I know practiced, expert cooking when I see it, and Kastoori has yet to disappoint on that front.

As if vegetarians needed anything more to be self-righteous about, they also have one of the most exciting restaurants in South London to call their own. But let's not do Kastoori a disservice by calling it vegetarian. It is a brilliant restaurant by any standards.


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