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