Monday 26 March 2007

Bar Shu, Soho

I'd been meaning to visit this place for a little while. Rumours had it that it was one of very few 'authentic' Szechuan restaurants in the UK with - shock horror! - the same menu for westerners and Chinese alike. Quite why it has taken until 2007 for Chinese restaurateurs to realise that most Londoners are quite capable of eating Szechuan cuisine without projectile vomiting over fellow diners Little Britain-style is a mystery to me. This in a city that allows the existence of Angus Steakhouses and that strange salty custard you get with your nachos in the cinema; we've had worse, believe me.

So I was looking forward to going because I knew it was going to be different. Just how different didn't become obvious until we were presented with the menus, boasting such delicacies as "Man and wife offal slices" (mmm!), "Pock-marked Old Woman's beancurd" (easy on the pockmark please waiter!) and "Exotic frog jelly stewed with papaya" (don't fob me off with standard frog!). Yes I know it's easy to take the mick out of translated menus, but these really were special and genuinely a million miles away from your standard local Chinese. Perhaps slightly worrying, however, was the inclusion of Shark's Fin Soup - I'm not sure of the sourcing of Bar Shu's shark's fin but I have a sneaking suspicion it's morally, if not legally, questionable, even if at £68 a pop we were in no danger of trying it.

As appetisers we ordered "Numbing-and-hot dried beef" and "Preserved duck eggs with green peppers". The eggs tasted just like standard pickled eggs, which was a slight disappointment because I had read they were supposed to taste very odd, like blue cheese. Thinking about it though, if they had tasted like blue cheese it may have been a taste sensation too far so perhaps it's for the best. The beef was very tasty, sweet and crispy with a good healthy dose of the Szechuan peppers, which up to this point I'd never tried and - wow - I was stunned. After a couple of spoonfuls my mouth felt as if it had been sprayed with anaesthetic, and was tingling like I'd been chowing down on an electric fence. Quite an extraordinary sensation, I can't believe this stuff isn't more popular.

Main courses were (sorry I forget the exact description) some sort of duck on the bone with a gelatinous vegetable, which tasted quite like a Thai curry, and "Shell-on prawns with pickled red chillies". The prawns were lovely and fresh, served with enough chilli to blow up Parliament, and with another healthy dose of the Szechuan peppers. By this point our mandibles were so numbed with the pepper we were having trouble talking - I was worried if it didn't wear off that we'd have to hail a cab home sounding like the Elephant Man, which I'm guessing isn't easy.

Anyway with sides of Chinese broccoli and a bit of rice, we were done, and when the feeling returned to our faces we ordered the bill. Now, it wasn't that cheap (£40-odd each), but for the experience of trying something so excitingly different it was really worth it. I suppose for a truly spartan Szechuan experience you could buy a bag of peppers and do handfuls of them at home, but I don't recommend this unless you're in a safe environment and with friends.

On our way home we popped into the Match Bar for a couple of expertly made cocktails. I just want to say a couple of words on the Match Bar as it's London's original 'affordable' cocktail venue and over the ten or so years I've been coming down the Big Smoke they've never been anything other than consistently superb. Do yourself a favour and order that big red Match Spring Punch, it's incredibly good.

Bar Shu 7/10
Match Bar 8/10

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Wednesday 21 March 2007

The Phoenix, Victoria

Before anyone leaves any snide comments, yes I know I've been eating out a lot recently. It's partly that I want to get this blog off to a good start with a few varied reviews, partly that this particular pub is very close to where I work and seemed a shame not to pop in, but mainly because I'm a restaurant junkie. I was also aware that despite the recent refurbishment, The Phoenix had been getting nothing better than average feedback. But I would rather discover a new mediocre place than revisit a sure-thing. Maybe on a subconcious level I crave disappointment - if I go to Gordon Ramsays expecting it to be good, and it is good, then of course I'm happy but it's not a surprise. If I go to McDonalds expecting crap and get crap, I'm still happy. No surprises. But if I visit a new gastropub run by the same people that own the superb Builders Arms in Chelsea, with a head chef previously of Soho House (New York), and I expect it to be good and it's mediocre, then oh! what bittersweet satisfaction.

So, lucky me, The Phoenix turned out to be quite spectacularly mediocre. I should have noticed the warning signs, though: a cramped dining area squeezed like an afterthought into the corner of a huge, boistrous, smoky pub. A menu consisting of the most bog standard pub fare imaginable (burger and chips, feta salad, etc). Misspelling of the word 'shepherd' in 'Shephard's Pie'. It didn't look promising. But I was determined to give them the benefit of the doubt until the food arrived. Plus the waitress who seated me was very friendly and efficient and gave me free olives.

My starter was listed as 'Phoenix prawn cocktail'. Now, call me crazy, but I was under the impression that if you put your establishment's name on a dish then you're signaling it out to be something special. I had in mind the Langtry Prawn Cockail at the Cadogan hotel in Chelsea, who do a very tasty dish inspired by the 70s classic but updated with marie-rose ice-cream and deep-fried shrimp. But this was the most unbelievably dull dish you can imagine - just precooked prawns drowned in shop-bought mayonnaise, on shredded iceberg lettuce. That's it. What exactly makes the difference between a 'Phoenix' prawn cocktail and a normal prawn cocktail, I wonder? Perhaps only the audacity to charge £7 for it, because I could have knocked this up myself in 5 minutes and it would have cost me about 50p. Shockingly bad.

The main course would have been the aforementioned 'Shephard's Pie' except we were told they were sold out. Not being particularly inspired by anything else more interesting on the menu, I plumped for the beef burger and chips, which, to be fair, was reasonably tasty. They'd cooked the meat to the desired medium-rare, which always brings a smile to my face, and the chips looked home-made in the Canadian homefries style - ie. skins on. But a companion's risotto tasted very odd, and had an anaemic-looking slab of slimy poached salmon slapped on top of it.

The bill came to about £30 each, including a few glasses of Sauvignon Blanc and a discount on the uneaten risotto, which I suppose isn't unreasonable, but you really can do much better in this price range. My advice to the Phoenix is to scrap the poky dining area, stick to selling vast quantities of Stella to the local post-work crowd, and send your chef back off to NYC's Soho House where maybe his mediocrity was more celebrated.


Phoenix on Urbanspoon

Sunday 18 March 2007

Bacchus, Hoxton

There are few things more exciting than to go to a restaurant and find something on the menu you've not seen before. Whether an unfamiliar ingredient, an unusual combination of flavours or even a standard dish prepared in a different way, I am always thankful for the existence of restaurants and chefs that are prepared to be brave and try something new. In recent years, Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck and Ferran Adria's El Bulli have become world-renowned for their deconstructive approach to cuisine, and challenge diners to experience flavour combinations that would traditionally seem bizarre or unpalatable - for example Snail Porridge or Bacon and Egg ice-cream. It's not for everyone, I imagine, this kind of food, but the worst you can say about it is that it is genuinely inventive.

Having said all that, unless you really are at the top of your game as a chef, just throwing together random ingredients on a plate and calling it 'molecular gastronomy' isn't going to work, and at the back of my mind there was the worry that at Bacchus I could end up eating something out of a Mike Leigh film.

Thankfully, the chefs at Bacchus know exactly what they're doing, which is just as well, as when presented with the menu I probably recognised only about 50% of the ingredients. Hon shimeki, dashi, eringe, milk yuba roll, pate de brique - these all just from the six starters - and I don't think I was alone in my bemusement as one of the waitresses first questions was "Is there anything about the menu I can explain for you?". Clearly she had seen the look on my face on others before.

The first thing we did order was a couple of house cocktails - from the list of just three - and which turned out to be very interesting. My "Bacchus Bloody Marvellous" was a herby, lighter take on a bloody mary, the only problem being a strange slimy piece of spring onion "garnish" which hung limply off the edge of the glass like a garden slug making a bid for freedom. Not very attractive.

After trying the tasty house bread with some very nice salty butter, an amuse-bouche of (I think I remember correctly) some sort of pork ravioli with a quince jus arrived. I loved it but I think some of my fellow diners weren't too sure.

My starter was described as "Rabbit mousse, potato leaves, cherries, hazlenuts, sprouts", but despite that long list the first thing that I noticed was the garnish of several pansy leaves. Very colourful, and actually the first time I'd seen these being used in a restaurant, despite occasionally spotting them on sale in Fresh & Wild for the dinner party set of Battersea. Perhaps when it's cold outside they scatter them in the garden and pretend it's spring. Anyway, the rabbit was less of a mousse than a pate, but had a lovely texture to contrast with the crunchy leaves, and the accompanying cherries were just bitter enough to complement the creamy rabbit perfectly. A great little dish with only a small amount more style than substance.

Next up was "Sesame crusted squab, cured fois gras, berries, milk skin", and was a fantastic dish. I am a big fois gras fan, and just a slab of this on a plate would alone be enough to send me into rapture (indeed the Greenhouse in Mayfair does exactly that), but here the delicate little circles of perfectly cooked fois were sandwiched inbetween crunchy flakes of sugar and salt which cracked delightfully as you bit into them. The pigeon was very rare, with the crunchy sesame coating giving up its flavours as you went for the tender meat beneath. I also think I noticed a very subtle base of bitter dark chocolate, which may have been just an extra flavour too much, but this was a minor downside to an otherwise superb plate of food. A New Zealand Pinot Noir washed it all down very nicely.

With the first two courses as spectacular as those, we could hardly resist a dessert, and indeed my "Polenta cake, mascarpone, orange granita, rosemary, cinnamon" was so delicious I completely forgot to take a picture of it.

Still, as you can see, I did enjoy it. That plate had a pattern on it when it arrived.

Service thoughout was as good as you can expect in any mid-range restaurant, and they also get extra points for a no-smoking rule. However this created one aspect of the place we didn't like - that every 5 minutes one cigarette-starved diner would get up for a smoke outside, allowing the chilly London air to blow in through the open door. Also, towards the end of the evening the noise levels in the echoey room rose to quite uncomfortable levels, not helped by the powerful sound system blasting out house music over the general din.

So a few minor niggles aside, this certainly was food worth making the journey across London for. The bill came to about the same as that at the Greyhound the other night (who should hang their heads in shame for charging so much for such mediocrity) and included a healthy amount of booze. All in all, this was exciting, theatrical cooking and proof that you don't need the budget of Heston Blumenthal to create genuinely innovative cuisine.


Bacchus on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 14 March 2007

The Greyhound, Battersea

I was reading an article in the Guardian the other day about the word "meh". Apparently it's "sweeping the internet", and although I seem to remember first hearing it from Seinfeld, the general consensus is it started life on an episode of The Simpsons. Either way, the peak in the use of this word coincides very neatly with my visit to The Greyhound in Battersea, handily giving me an opportunity to sum up my meal in three letters.


OK maybe that's too much of an easy way out. I at least owe it to myself to say more about a place I've visited 3 times in the past year or two, and which requires quite a bit of effort to get to at all. It's tucked away in a forgotten corner of Battersea (I'm tempted to say the dodgy end, but then I am biased, living at the other end) and so far off the beaten track I imagine nobody would bother at all had it not been listed in the Michelin for the last couple of years.

On previous visits I seem to remember large square plates decorated with a bizarre arrangement of salad clumps, thinly sliced somethingorothers and swirly, pretentious squirts of sauce. They do still do the coffee-flavoured butter (tastes as you might imagine - very weird), but the other more frilly tendencies seem to have been toned down, and presentation now seems to be more towards the normal gastropub style - ie. meat, mash, sauce, rocket salad. Which isn't a bad thing of course, unless you charge over the odds for it, and in this case over the odds is £27 for two average courses.

My starter was a lovely big chunk of "house" smoked salmon (I hope they didn't fish it out of the Thames), a smaller piece of smoked eel (which I'd never had before but tasted nice enough, like smoked mackerel), a dollop of dill crème fraîche and an actually rather tasty green salad. It was worth it for the thick-cut smoked salmon which you don't see very often, and I was rather happy with this course, although my companion's asparagus and poached-egg thingy was declared "tasteless", and that is fairly inexcusable.

Now you can't really mess up duck breast too much as long as you don't overcook it, and this was tasty enough, with a nice orangey sauce and accompanied by crispy pancetta and caramelised red onions. However the duck skin was wobbly and colourless rather than firm and crispy, and our other main, the venison, was strangely bland. Not very nice at all.

Perhaps I would be kinder on The Greyhound if you couldn't get much better food for much less just down the road at the Fox and Hounds. The F&H is my local, and their duck breast main is a hundred times better than this one. And they don't mess about with coffee-flavoured butter. But I'm going to keep quiet about the Fox for now as I will do it justice with a proper visit sometime soon.

Our bill, for - as I say - two very average courses and a couple of glasses of wine, came to £95. That's way over the odds for cooking of this standard and although the service was charming and the surroundings very pleasant, it just wasn't worth it. I've given the Greyhound the benefit of the doubt one too many times, and I don't think I'll bother again. Quite why the Michelin boys keep rating the place is beyond me - they'd do much better popping down the road to the Fox. Then again, maybe if they did, my local would suddenly double the prices and wheel out the coffee butter.


P.S. Apologies for the very poor pictures. It seems my cameraphone was affected by the general atmosphere of "mehness" too.

Greyhound on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 13 March 2007

The Swan restaurant, Southport

Just in case you thought this was the kind of blog where I'd be visiting Michelin-starred places week after week, here we are at the other end of the gastronomic price range. Fish and chips in the Swan Restaurant, Southport.

The family had been visiting The Swan on and off for the best part of 20-odd years, and it had been open God knows how many before that, but for some reason it's one of those places you just kind of forget exist from time to time. There are plenty more fish & chip shops in the North West and elsewhere that are more famous, and claim fresher fish, more formal service and home-made tartare sauce. But of course that's not really the point of fish & chips. It's not a gourmet experience, it's not supposed to be a life-changing meal or one for the Michelin boys. It's comfort food; unpretentious of course, but not basic, and deceptively difficult to get right - anyone who's had dry chewy fish in soggy batter kept warm for hours under a heat lamp will testify to that. And you'd need a particularly special reason to visit Southport, too, which, and I'm being fair, is otherwise a dump, populated mainly by the elderly, the insane and the elderly insane. I should know, I used to work there. People use the phrase "faded grandeur" to describe Southport quite a lot, probably because it sounds a bit better than "decrepit, lairy hellhole".

Sorry about that, I really shouldn't talk about Southport before my medication. Anyway, this, folks, is the real deal. Fresh market cod covered in a fantastic crispy beer batter, lovely fluffy chips soaked in as much salt and vinegar as my kidneys could stand, with very tasty mushy peas and complimentary thin white sliced bread and butter, for making chip butties. No starter, no dessert, the shortest wine list you're ever likely to see (white, red, rose) and one beer. And of course, stray far from the house specialities (fish, chips, peas... that's it) and you're setting yourself up for disappointment. One diner's half of chicken clearly had been sitting around most of the day, and the gravy was straight out of a packet. But the fish and chips were lovely - really really nice.

And a word about the service - which was charming and efficient and a damn sight better than the last time I tried fish and chips in London (the Fish Club in Battersea, since you ask. Don't go). Even though there were six of us, all the food arrived hot and at the same time, a ten minute wait between ordering and receiving the food was apologised for (!) and we really couldn't complain about anything. The room was clean and comfortable if not particularly attractive, but every table was taken by the time we left, which tells you a lot about a place. Non-smoking, too.

I'm saving the best till last, though - the final bill, including a few mini bottles of house white and a beer, came to £46. For six people. To put that into context, that's less than one third of the price I paid for just my own meal at Ramsay's last week. A full twenty times cheaper. Extraordinarily good value, and probably the best fish and chip bargain in the North West, if not the world. Easily the best reason to visit Southport on a Sunday evening. No wait, the only reason.

Tonight I'm off to the Greyhound in Battersea. If there's fish and chips on the menu, I can guarantee it will be many times more expensive and not nearly as good. But I will dutifully pay through the nose for it then have a good moan on here afterwards. Watch this space.


Friday 2 March 2007

Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, Chelsea

When the nice lady from Ramsays called to confirm the booking last week she asked, "Is it a special occasion?"

"I hope so!" I quipped back, but maybe there was a bad line because she didn't seem to find it as funny as I did. To be fair to her though, dining at Ramsays Royal Hospital Road probably isn't something to be blasé about, as we had been trying to get a reservation at this particular restaurant, on and off, for about 3 years. So you can imagine that, during this time, its status as the pinnacle (or at least one of the pinnacles) of international haute cuisine had been built up in my mind to the extent that if we had arrived to the sound of angels trumpeting and rose petals being strewn in front of us as we got out of the taxi, we probably just would have assumed that this is part of what people had been making such a fuss about over all these years.

The place does make quite an impression as you arrive though - lots of mirrors and glass, lots of staff, and an atmosphere of a kind of hushed awe, almost as if all the other diners couldn't quite believe they'd managed to get a reservation either. It's all quite overwhelming at first, not least because each member of staff seemed to take turns serving everyone - a different person greeted us at the door, said hello inside, took our coats, led us to the table, served an aperitif, gave us menus and took our wine and food orders. That's about 8 or 9 different people to say hello to within 10 minutes of arriving. Perhaps they each just didn't want to be typecast as 'the coat guy' or 'the menu guy', but the effect was quite disconcerting.

Well then, the food. Canapés (sorry about the dark photo, I hadn't quite plucked up the courage to use the flash at this point) were a fois gras and truffle mousse, and a taramasalata with poppy seed crackers and potato crisps. Pretty but nothing extraordinary, which maybe is the point of canapes.

Once we arrived at the table however, things got a lot more interesting. Amuse-bouches consisted of a 'Cornetto' of somethingorother (yes I know I should have taken notes, or at least made an effort to remember, but this is my first blog so be kind), which was lovely, and little cheesey balls covered in breadcrumbs on a green pesto. These were, well, as you would expect - they tasted like cheese and breadcrumbs on pesto, but I don't suppose there's anything wrong with that.

After that, another pre-starter the waiter took great pleasure in describing as a Full English Breakfast. This was quite clever - a bit of lovely spicy sausage meat on a spoon, which after you'd eaten the meat you could use to attack the egg, which was a kind of bacon mousse (I think) on top of lovely creamy scrambled eggs, on top of (a fantastic little surprise) Ramsay's own version of Heinz beans at the bottom of the eggshell. Then that big "bacon" thing which looked impressive but actually just tasted like hard baked bacon rind. You have to admire their ingenuity though.

Finally, the proper starter arrived. This was English snails with vegetables and basil leaves surrounded by celeriac puree and jerusalem artichoke sauce. I've had snails before in various places in Spain and France, usually more out of a sense of "when in Rome" or bravado than actually wanting to eat the things, but these were gorgeous. Earthy and sweet, with a good firm texture and a distinctive taste, and the artichoke sauce worked perfectly. Interesting to note, however, that although this dish was listed unapologetically as "English Snails" on the menu, they still felt the need to describe another dish as "Pied de Cochon". Perhaps the pork wasn't British (I hope not), or perhaps the full horror of Pigs Trotters is too much for delicate British diners just yet (more likely).

Now I have to admit - I always get pigeon when I see it on the menu. I've had it done a few different ways - whole, French rustic style at the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo, or a more fancy interpretation at the Square in Mayfair, and I've never been disappointed. So when I saw it listed at Ramsays (wrapped in fois gras and parma ham) I thought "I always get pigeon, I always like it, but I always get it. I should try something different this time" and found myself ordering the John Dory. A friend got pigeon. When the mains arrived, lovely though the John Dory was (though perhaps a tad on the dry side), all I could do was stare with miserable envy at my dining companion's pigeon. The fish was good though, served on what they called sun-dried tomatoes but actually tasted just like very tasty fresh tomatoes, and cornish crab. With it were two little tortellinis of (I think) caviar, which had the most incredible flavour, and roast fennel. To my companion's credit, he let me taste a bit of his pigeon. It was perfect. I should have had the pigeon.

Pre-dessert a cocktail glass full of some sort of palette cleanser arrived. It was nice - I think - but clearly nothing memorable as I have completely forgotten what was in it. All I remember is that it smelt slightly offputtingly of cottage cheese.

Dessert was apple and champagne sorbet with a very creamy ice-cream and bitter chocolate base. Very tasty - particularly the ice cream which was some of the best I've ever had, almost buttery-rich. Not much else to say about this... sorry I'm sure it's a supreme example of its kind but I've never been much of a pudding person. My companion's Tarte Tatin was incredible though, caramely and decadent with a perfect pastry.

Things ended quite theatrically. A selection of chocolate truffles with a pearly coating (I've had these before at Ramsays Claridges) arrived impaled on a little silver 'tree' and looked very pretty indeed.

Some strawberry ice cream balls covered in white chocolate tasted great, and came in a jar bathed in dry ice spilling over the edges of the container like a special effect from a cheap horror B-movie. And finally turkish delight, which was disconcertingly fluffy, almost to the extent that you couldn't feel it in your fingers, but tasted good.

The damage? £155 each, which obviously is a lot by the standards of your average restaurant but seemed more than reasonable for the effort that had gone into the food. This amount included a fair selection of champagne, wines and dessert wine and we didn't feel like we'd held back on this front, so it all seemed quite fair. It’s also worth pointing out that even though we’d ordered the cheaper(!) £85 a la carte menu rather than the £110 Menu Prestige, if you add up all the amuse-bouches and canapés it comes to about 8 courses. As an extra little treat, we were invited by a very friendly waiter called Bernard to have a quick peek at the kitchen, where GR's executive chef Mark Askew held fort. The kitchen was a lot smaller than I'd expected and there hardly seemed any room for the hundreds of chefs packed in there, but it was fascinating to see them all beavering away. Look out for the Full English Breakfasts being prepared:

And there we have it. Much of the food was cooking of the very highest order, but is it enough to tempt me back in a city that includes so many other great restaurants? And was it really worth a 3-year wait? If nothing else, it's an albatross off my back and at least I can say I finally made it, I finally ate there. But I'm not going to start queuing up again just yet. Meantime, there's an interesting new Steakhouse just opened at the end of my road that needs investigating....


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