Monday 24 September 2007

Cheese of the Month - Rocamadour "La Borie D'Imbert"

In Rocamadour, France, you are often served a portion of the local goats cheese as a course by itself, between starters and main. Literally just a cheese on a plate, no grapes, crackers, bread, anything else. It displays a very high confidence in the quality of the product to offer it up this way, and though it was a few years ago now I travelled to those parts I remember enjoying it immensely.

Therefore I was very grateful when certain members of my family (sadly not me) returned from a trip to France with a tupperware box containing two portions of this delicacy. I appreciate their efforts even more considering the smell that box must have produced during the long journey from central France - two days in the back of the car with a box of cheese would have tested most people's olfactory endurance to the limit.

It is with great regret therefore that I have to say that the cheeses weren't up to much. How else you could have transported a cheese from France in a car I'm not sure, but my guess is that they got too warm at some stage. And perhaps the presentation was a factor too - in a Rocamadour restaurant they would have been pristine, perfectly circular medallions of cheese, and I'm afraid to say that the same cheese having been chucked around in the back of a Toyota for two days then scraped onto a cheeseboard in South London had lost some of its visual impact (see pictures). Although reasonably salty, the taste was quite bland, despite being kept for long enough at room temperature, and the texture just the wrong side of too runny. There was no unpleasant sulpuric taste but none of that rich nuttiness you'd associate with a good runny goat's cheese either.

What a shame then - to make amends I will go to Hamish Johnston and try a Rocamadour that has been treated a little better. I can assure you that when these little things are on form, there is no nicer goats cheese.

The Hoxton Grille, Shoreditch

I've often remarked upon my cameraphone's unique ability to judge quality through the level of focus it applies to pictures, so there is only one image I need to show you today to sum up my feelings towards the Hoxton Grille:

Yes, the Hoxton Grille was pretty bad. And this is a shame because I actually wanted it to be good and went in with quite an open mind. Service was good enough too, although the place was nearly empty so allowing us to choose where we wanted to sit probably wasn't too much of an imposition. And we were also (initially) impressed by the budget pre-7pm menu, which had a choice of 7 dishes from the main menu for half price.

But oh dear, the food. The two of us ordered rump steak, one with peppercorn sauce and the other with bernaise. Of the two, the bernaise was the better - the peppercorn just tasted like slightly peppery milk, a horrible thin concoction. The steaks were cooked to the required medium-rare but were anaemic looking things, tough and stringy and quite a battle to eat, even with steak knives. Is it really that hard to cook a good steak? There must be more to it than I understand because of all the steaks I've ever had in London, only those at Hawksmoor and Santa Maria del Sur have been any good. Even my own Fox & Hounds can't really pull off a good rib eye. I have a sneaking suspicion it's all to do with the sourcing of the meat, and to make a profit on anything less than a £18 steak you have to sacrifice quality somewhere down the line. Hawskmoor steaks are expensive - about £18 for the rump from memory, much more for the sirloin - but they are drop dead gorgeous things and never disappoint. Is it really worth boasting a £7 steak and chips on your menu if it tastes bloody awful?

We paid up and left, the modest bill going some way to offset the disappointment. When I got home my sister had made chocolate covered strawberries, and the bitter memory of the Hoxton Grille faded away for good.


P.S. I have just gone through this post correcting the spelling of "Grille". A ridiculous bit of Hoxtony pretention but I suppose it's their call.

Hoxton Grille on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 19 September 2007


A friend challenged me the other day on the huge amounts of money I was (in her view) throwing down the drain visiting restaurants, writing about them, and getting absolutely nothing from anybody in return.

"Well, I get some nice meals", I said.

"Not all the time. Sometimes you get a really bad meal, and you still have to pay for it. Why don't you find a more profitable hobby?"

"Hobbies aren't supposed to be profitable," I replied. "They're supposed to be expensive, pointless and socially damaging. You bankrupt yourself, waste countless hours blogging about restaurants you'll never visit again, and alienate and bemuse your friends.... No offense."

Occasionally though, there are perks. Last night I was invited to a screening of Pixar's latest film Ratatouille with a group of London food bloggers led by the esteemed Silverbrow. Being a bit new to the blogging game I was first of all pathetically grateful to have been invited and turned up far too early, and also incredibly nervous. But everyone was very nice, it was very much fun putting faces to names (or anonymous nom de plume) and we got free drinks.

The film itself was a stunning achievement in animation and storytelling and a delight to watch from start to finish. Being a Pixar film (tick) starring a talking animal (tick) about haute cuisine (tick tick tick) I knew I'd enjoy it, but even so I was blown away by the sheer flourishing joy of the visuals. The sequence where our rodent hero first guides his voluntary human puppet (long story) around the kitchen to prepare his signature soup was a masterpiece of visual comedy.

I was worried that after the rather so-so "Cars" that Pixar might have lost their touch, so this was a welcome return to form. Ratatouille is everything you'd want from a family film, and I can recommend it wholeheartedly. It's released in the UK 12th October.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

The Fox, Shoreditch

I'm not sure whether it's a good or bad thing that The Fox in Shoreditch is a very good place to eat. On the one hand the food is accomplished, the service sprightly and friendly, and the atmosphere is pubby and informal. On the other hand, I work just above it, and being that this is my 5th day in the job and I've already cracked and had a meal there doesn't bode well for my ability to resist repeat journeys throughout the rest of the year. I only hope my body and bank account can cope with it.

Fortunately, thanks to the incredibly reasonably priced lunchtime menu, maybe my bank account will not suffer too much after all. To start, I had a red onion and red wine soup, a bit sweet but otherwise good and served with crispy bread coated with parmesan. Towards the bottom of the bowl I bit down on a whole black peppercorn which was probably a mistake but really improved the flavour of the soup - perhaps it just needed more pepper to balance the sugar from the onions. Otherwise, nicely done.

Then, a herby pork chop, grilled with rosemary and seved on top of "greens" (chard I think) and lentils. The chard was crispy but slightly underseasoned, the lentils were so-so and the pork ever so slightly dry, but the flavour from the fat and the rosemary were brilliant.

The best was to come though - all this good food, served efficiently and with grace, came to less than £15. The house bread is worth a mention too, served in a very generous portion considering I was on my own, and with smooth unsalted butter. Good stuff.

I imagine I will be back reasonably soon, if only to try the Lobster and Chips (£18) which was begging to be eaten but I couldn't really justify of a random Tuesday lunchtime. That's more of a Friday dish I think. Here's to next Friday...


Fox Dining Room on Urbanspoon

Lahore Kebab House, Whitechapel

I popped into this place last Wednesday evening because it's near to my new place of work and I'd heard positive feedback from various sources. It's tucked away on a particularly ugly stretch of Commercial Road but had a healthy number of diners when we arrived at 6pm so word has obviously gotten around.

I got the impression that this is slightly closer to a standard curry house than Tayyabs - for a start the poppadums were fully deep-fried and came with the traditional mango chutney and yoghurt sauce. However I did notice they were deep-fried very recently and still had a film of oil on the edges, which was nice, and the yoghurt sauce was slightly spiced, which added a bit of an edge to it.

Our starter really was exceptional - tikka lamb chops which were moist on the inside and covered in great tikka spiced just right. I would have been happy with plate after plate of these and was very sad to see them go - I half thought about ordering some more but decided against it.

The mains were more standard. Chicken Karahi was tasty enough but the meat was a bit dry; similarly the lamb curry was chewy and in both dishes there seemed to be a very mean amount of meat - just 5 or 6 pieces in a big bowl of sauce. Then again it was still a cut above your average curry house (and no more expensive) so no major complaints.

However, the crowning glory of the whole meal, the star of the show, was the garlic naan - unexpectedly lovely and with an amazing flavour. I don't know how they did it, but the toasted garlic tasted of almonds and were delightfully crunchy on the bite and melted in the mouth. We immediately ordered another once the first had gone.

I'd heard many negative reports of the service but we didn't notice anything too untoward ourselves, although we did have to ask for a mango lassie a few times before it arrived. If I'm paying less than £15 a head for a meal and the service is anything better than completely incompetent I don't think you have too much to moan about.

One final point of interest - despite calling itself a Kebab House, I'm not sure I noticed any kebab on the menu? Or maybe the greatness of the lamb tikka overshadowed all the other starters. Anyway, there you go - for a good cheap eat the Lahore ticks most of the right boxes, although I would still say Tayyabs is a more impressive experience overall.


P.S. I've just noticed how the pic of the main is slightly fuzzy whilst the courses I liked (the garlic naan and the chops) are again perfectly in focus. I honestly don't do this deliberately guys, I just appear to have a sentient cameraphone.

Lahore Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Friday 14 September 2007

Barrafina, Soho

There tends to be a pattern when new styles of cuisine are introduced to this country. The pioneer restaurants will be toned down, tame versions of the originals, designed to appeal to the masses; think Pizza Express in the 60s or Yo! Sushi in the 90s. Nothing too weird, nothing too offensive to the timid British palette, but due mainly to the novelty factor they are wild successes, at least for the first few years. Then once the novelty wears off, a new wave of more adventurous outlets open that offer something more closely approximating the "authentic" taste from abroad. So then you start noticing things like octopus or squid in your nigiri, or fresh basil and real buffalo mozzerella on your pizza. I'm generalising of course, but with passing time it seems diners, having gotten over the original shock factor and bragging rights of trying something new, will demand a more genuine experience. At least, snobs like me do.

There is sometimes a "Stage 3": Having mastered the said style of cuisine, some brave restauranteurs will take it one step further, and you end up with bizarre fusions like French-Japanese or Afghan-Ethopian. Most of these are hideous, so it's generally in the what I like to call "Stage 2" restaurants are you most likely to get a good meal. So where La Tasca bravely brought spanish tapas to an anonymous shopping mall near you, Barrafina in Soho ups the ante by actually trying to do it well.

However, this is London, and there are certain conditions. Tapas in Spain (at least outside the tourist areas of Catalonia) are little plates of bitesize morsels (chorizo, bread & tomato, croquettas, etc.) that are placed on your drink for free (yes, free!) whenever you order. In Barrafina, you pay £7 for a tiny plate of skewered quail and then have to cough up another £5 for a glass of Manzanilla sherry. Still, you'd think I'd be used to it by now.

Moaning aside, Barrafina was actually a reasonably enjoyable way to spend an evening. Looking less inside like an authentic tapas bar than a 1950s American diner, there were a dozen or so red leather stools alongside a gleaming chrome bar. The food (at least most of it) was cooked on a hot plate just behind the bar in full view of the diners, which was great fun to watch. Serving staff and kitchen staff all wore the same white outfits and moved around in the same space so you actually felt quite involved in the whole process. We randomly picked a few things from the menu and sat back and watched as they were cooked in front of us.

First to arrive was Pan amb Tomate (tomato bread), which was actually as good as I've had in Spain. Tomato flesh on crunchy bread spiced with raw garlic, it is admittedly a difficult thing to get wrong but even so was very nice. A board of sliced chorizo appeared next, which were only OK but swiftly followed with sweet and succulent whole prawns cooked in salt, the best of all the dishes we tried. The special tomato salad was full of flavour but hugely overseasoned - it was crunchy with salt. I saw the chef loading it with the stuff as I was sat about 3 foot away whilst the dish was being prepared, and I probably should have said something at the time, but never mind. Next, a couple of roast quail were tasty and succulent but with quite a layer of fat and again overseasoned. The accompanying aioli was delicious however, and we kept it back to dip our pimientos in. Finally, a dish of lamb cutlets was well cooked and presented, although I'm not sure how closely this fits the "tapas" brief.

The bill, with a couple of glasses of sherry and some nice Catalan red wine, came to £70 for two. This is a lot for tapas (I can only imagine the amount of food you'd have if you spent £70 in a tapas bar in Madrid), but not a lot for London to be honest. And we did have plenty to eat and drink. So I can recommend Barrafina - they're doing the best they can providing food such as this in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and they do it with a certain amount of style.


Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Thursday 6 September 2007

Chez Bruce, Wandsworth

With more awards and accolades than you can shake a stick at, most recently London's Favourite Restaurant in Harden's Guide, Chez Bruce in Wandsworth is celebrating its umpteenth year as a destination restaurant, yet unbelievably still has only one Michelin Star. I've given up trying to work out what those Michelin people are on about these days - it was bad enough they rate dross like the Greyhound and Butcher and Grill in Battersea good enough to include and the Fox and Hounds not, but when a restaurant as polished and accomplished as Chez Bruce gets less than a top rating, they must be on a different planet.

So yes, I had a good meal at Chez Bruce. A quite brilliant meal in fact, as close to perfect across all categories as it's possible to get without it being one of those dreams where you wake up and find yourself hungrily chewing the corner of the pillow. After a slightly late start due to one of our party being stuck in traffic, just long enough to sample a glass of house champagne, we made our choices from the menu whilst munching down some of the best bread I've ever eaten - Poilane I was told - with superb butter. Staff balanced the service just right - not too intrusive but there when you needed them - and the wine selections made throughout the evening were very good.

The only thing I would say is that the room was quite dark, a little on the stuffy side and slightly cramped so I occasionally got an elbow in the back of the head when the table behind were being served. But I'm nit-picking - for food of this standard I would have put up with much worse.

My starter of "Hot calf's brain and ham hock terrine with sauce gribiche, crisp potatoes and red wine" obviously caught my eye on the menu straight away. Always a sucker for exotic ingredients I am sometimes let down by the end product, but not so here - the meat was tender and tasty with a lovely little breaded nugget of what I think was more brain on top (so rich it was like fois gras). Accompanying was a little fried quails egg (OK slightly passe these days but I thought it was great), a superb red wine reduction and gorgeous crispy potatoes. A riot of colour, texture and flavour this was an absolute triumph of a dish and I would have it again and again if i could. Great stuff.

Next up, "Boned, stuffed quail with salad paysanne, shallot puree, calf's sweetbread and roasting juices". Interestingly (and delightfully), this dish was served on two plates: One, a moreish salad of fresh bacon and roasted veg (an unusual combination to be honest, but made for great texture contrasts) topped with a piece of sweetbread; the other a meticulously boned quail (kudos to the kitchen for such a skilled task) served on a lentilly red wine sauce and cooked to perfection. The flavours were rich and satisfying, the portion very generous and the crispy fried potato on top a further experiment with texture. You would not want more from any main course.

Finally, and only just unable to quite live up to the lofty heights of the previous courses, was "Orange and saffron panna cotta with bitter orange sorbet, olive oil, lemon and honey". My only other experience with olive oil used as a dessert with a disaster - a watermelon and olive oil palette cleanser I had been served in Claude Bosi's Hibiscus restaurant in Ludlow. Then it was salty and weird, a flavour clash that had everyone at the table even unable to take a second bite. Here though, the oil was the subtlest of overtones to a zingy and fresh fruit dessert, spiced with alcohol and tasting of summer. Topped with crispy chocolate lattice - those textures again - it melted in the mouth and rounded off the evening very well.

Had I had the appetite of a sumo wrestler I might have been tempted to try the impressive-looking cheesecourse. As it was however, despite being stuffed to the gills and thus probably physically unable to even get a small goat's cheese medallion down my neck, there's always the residual guilt of paying for cheeses I could pick up myself from Hamish Johnston for a fraction of the price (and would taste no different), so I passed.

The bill came to around £70 - I wouldn't have felt cheated if I'd paid twice that, as I would have done in Pied a Terre or The Square. So then, brilliant value, top notch cooking and a thoroughly enjoyable evening out. Plus the G1 bus whisked me home from just outside the restaurant to my front doorstep. What isn't there to like about Chez Bruce?


Chez Bruce on Urbanspoon