Thursday 14 June 2007

32 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden

Like a celebrity wearing sunglasses indoors, 32 Great Queen Street likes to think it's something special, from the conspicuously nameless frontage and dark wood panelling. Inside however it's business as usual in the standard gastropub style - bare wood tables, rickety chairs, tumblers instead of wine glasses. It's a recipe that's worked well enough for its sister pubs the Anchor & Hope and Eagle, and judging by the noisy room full of happy customers on the evening we visited, it's got off to a very good start here too.

The first thing I noticed after I'd sat down was that the room appeared to be full of chefs; it was only after a few minutes it dawned on me that the waiting staff all were wearing chef's aprons. I suppose this isn't a big deal but it made me slightly guilty trying to ask for something, as if I wasn't supposed to be bothering them. Still, I soon got over it.

There were all sorts of interesting things on the minimalist menu - brawn, snails, fois gras, artichoke - quite an eclectic selection and it made exciting reading. However the trend towards stripped down descriptions of the items was a bit extreme. I had no idea what the 'Terrine' was a terrine of, or what 'crab on toast' was going to look like, but I suppose the mystery was appealing in a way. In the end I plumped for 'Brawn'.

This looked lovely on the plate, a rustic presentation but just tidy enough, and having had no idea what to expect from the description in the menu I was very pleasantly surprised. The texture of the brawn itself (ironically a kind of terrine) was interesting, with some big chunks of meat held together by a tasty pate, and cutting through the fat was a good sharp spray of mustard vinaigrette. A perfect introduction to something I'd never tried before - subtle, herby and great fresh ingredients.

The main was "Rabbit, snails and Spanish rice", so being the adventurous type I am it was a natural choice. It turned out to be a kind of risotto, bursting with gorgeous flavours and perfectly seasoned. The snails were superb, not drowned by the other ingredients at all, and nice and fleshy. In fact the only thing that stopped this dish short of perfection were a couple of horrible dry pieces of (I think) rabbit liver that I had to leave uneaten. Fair enough to use them in cooking the stock, but they had no place on the plate. Otherwise though, a good, bold main course.

The dessert was another hit - a Muscat Caramel Custard which tasted rich and satisfying, even if it looked a bit saggy on the plate. I had this with a glass of Muscat dessert wine - why not? - but the £10 house white we had been chucking down our necks all evening was also perfectly good.

It was about this time that I began to notice the overwhelming array of aromas filling the room from all the other dishes. Everything smelt incredible, of fresh ingredients and rustic French flavours; every time a waiter rushed past with another serving you could almost see other diner's nostrils flaring. Calm and sophisticated this restaurant is not, but for sheer exhilarating pleasure and market fresh food at very reasonable prices (the bill came to £38 each, including more than enough wine), you can certainly do no better in this part of town.


Great Queen Street on Urbanspoon

Monday 11 June 2007

Santa Maria del Sur, Battersea

Things are definitely on the up in my corner of South West London. Fitting in nicely next to the refined French atmosphere of the Food Room, Queenstown Road now has another quality eatery from a whole different continent. Santa Maria del Sur has one other branch out in Hackney somewhere, and has obviously proved so popular with the 'Enders that now the other side of the river gets a taste too.

We turned up on-spec fairly early - 6:30 or so - and were surprised to discover that they were fully booked for that Friday night. That they managed to fit us in is an indicator of the level of service, and that they were fully booked - well that's always a good sign.

It has traditionally been the case that a quality steak has been very hard to come by in London. I think part of the problem is the cost of the raw ingredients - Hawksmoor in the city do a fantastic aged Longhorn sirloin with triple-cooked chips and as many cocktails as you can fit inside you, but at £30 for the meat alone this is something you really pay through the nose for. Prices at Santa Maria immediately strike you as much more reasonable, £17 for a fillet for example, or £15 for sirloin. Quality steaks will never be cheap in England, but it's nice to find somewhere that treads that tricky middle ground between the very top-end (Hawksmoor, Groucho Grill) and the dross that is Angus Steakhouse. The sight of a miserable German family trapped in the window of a Covent Garden Angus Steakhouse of a Saturday night always turns my stomach. I feel like picketing the entrance sometimes - unwary tourists should not be subjected to that kind of torture.

These steaks however, were very good. Not as completely drop-dead gorgeous as the Hawksmoor (or Peter Luger) specimens, but extremely tasty, cooked to the required medium-rare in all cases, and served with sharp slice of pickled pepper.

Sides included parsley and garlic chips (nice enough, though the chips were a bit dry), and butter beans, which were a real hit with everyone - oily and herby and went very well with the steaks. It was all washed down with an Argentinian (of course) Mendoza which was a fantastic drink.

I should also say that the restaurant itself was decorated in a very comfortable rustic style, the Argentinian staff were charming and added an extra air of authenticity, and service throughout was not only efficient but attentive, friendly and informal - pretty much spot on for this style of place. I feel a bit guilty about denegrating their open kitchen the other day, but I hope they'll forgive me. Santa Maria del Sur is a lovely little restaurant.


Santa Maria Del Sur on Urbanspoon

Thursday 7 June 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - El Moli de L'Escala

It's a very strange phenomenon - hitherto also demonstrated on my review of the Greyhound - that somehow a mediocre dining experience seems to affect the ability of my cameraphone to focus. It's almost as if the lens is trying to shield me from the full horror of the meal, and allow me to forget. So apologies in advance for the quality of the shots for this blog entry, and further apologies on behalf of El Moli de L'Escala for the quality of the food itself.

El Moli ranks itself amongst some other reasonably good restaurants in the area as a member of the Nou Cuina group. As I've previously mentioned, the Nou Cuina has yet to be explained to me in full, but if nothing else it's perhaps indicative of a new-found confidence in Catalan cuisine and a desire to create a recognisable brand to the wider world. On the basis of my meal here however, they've got an uphill struggle.

One thing this restaurant does have going for it is a great setting. As the name suggests, it's an old converted mill, and the lovely vaulted room we ate in had bags of character, even if it was a bit echoey on a quiet weekday night out of season. The bread rolls presented were nice and fluffy and warm too, if a little uninteresting, and the olives were OK. In fact I probably should have made more of the bread and olives because they were the last edible items presented to me that evening.

Things went rapidly downhill with the arrival of my scallops starter. Looking and tasting like something straight out of a Mike Leigh film, this was a hideously amateurish attempt at fine dining. Tasteless, dry scallops (probably frozen) smothered in parmesan cheese and - I kid you not - chocolate sauce. Cheese and chocolate together, mmm! Hands down the most disgusting thing I've ever been asked to eat, and that includes cheese and onion flavoured microchips I found in the freezer once at university.

The next course - if you can call it that - was a miniscule portion of bland chicken satays, not actually disgusting but very very dull. Some sort of cheese sauce I think, with that sprinkling of dried herbs on top some pubs do to try and make it looks like they've been to chef school.

We didn't even have a dessert. Paying up as fast as possible (it wasn't even that cheap, about €40 each I seem to remember, including wine) we scurried out into the night, vowing never to return. An embarassing gamble that didn't pay off - unlike the previous night's meal at Els Pescadors - it's even more shocking to discover that El Moli is actually in the Michelin guide with one knife and fork. I don't know how they justify that, because I'm pretty sure even in season the useless cooking would make a hash of much fresher ingredients. Still, you live and learn.


Wednesday 6 June 2007

Cheese and Biscuits on tour - Els Pescadors, L'Escala

You can do very well and very badly in the Costa Brava with regards to eating out. There's certainly no shortage of choice in most of the coastal resorts, but separating the good from the ok from the very very poor is a full-time job. And what makes this job more frustrating is that between the always good and the always crap are a huge amount of places which depending on the season, availability of fresh fish and the whims and fads of the management can sometimes be excellent and sometimes shocking. This makes recommending anywhere unreservedly a bit of a minefield - however, I suppose there's always a certain amount of luck involved with a good meal, so I shouldn't get too depressed about it.

Family-run restaurant Els Pescadors has been a feature of the seafront at L'Escala certainly since I've been visiting in the mid-80s, but it seems that I only have a good meal there every other visit. Fortunately this time, on an occasion where I'd brought two friends and my restaurant-finding reputation was on the line, we just about managed to get away with an enjoyable evening. On arrival we were presented with a small plate of bread and anchovies - the local speciality, quite different from the horrible salty little things you get in Pizza Express. These are larger, oily rather than salty, and very very nice. The best way I've had them is on top of slightly toasted stale baguette, rubbed with garlic and tomato, but weirdly you hardly ever get them like that in the restaurants - usually, as here, it's just tomato.

As a shared starter we ordered the "recommended" sampler of four different types of seafood and a glass of house cava. This one dish saved the whole meal from being a disappointment. Calamari were nice and fluffy, the clams had a great garlic-wine aroma, the little croquettes were very well made and were a good example of this local speciality, and the spectacular spiney sea snails tasted as good as they looked.

The mains were nearly as good. Mussels were nice and fresh but lacking a bit in the flavour of the sauce. The less said about my veal the better (clearly straight out of the freezer, pretty horrible), but the paella was a hit. Huge langoustines, as well as octopus, clams and mussels were found in amongst the gooey rice - a good paella is a voyage of discovery, and this was no exception.

So not a bad evening out, a good seafood dinner let down only by a plate of inedible veal and a few sloppy mistakes here and there. Els Pescadors is actually in the Michelin with a two knife and fork rating - I'm not sure this is entirely justified based on my visits, but perhaps the Michelin guys are just a bit cleverer with their ordering. The tank of live lobster and crab in the window of the restaurant demonstrates that it is possible to have a very decadent meal here if you want to splash out, but for mere mortals the chances are success are a bit thinner. Still, if it's true that you're only as good as your last meal, then I can't be too hard on Els Pescadors.