Monday 27 October 2008 chilli cook-off, Islington

I am not, it's fair to say, one of life's natural athletes. I generally do my best to avoid physical exercise unless it's absolutely unavoidable and taking place in the strictly climate-controlled environment of my local gym, and even then my motives for going don't stretch any further than offsetting the guilt of yet another salt beef beigel or Northcote Road sausage roll. Lazy might be an oversimplification; I am, by nature, just not a very competitive person, and I can't pretend I'm going to Fitness First to achieve physical perfection when all I'm actually doing is just enough to stop me dropping dead of a heart attack by the time I'm 30. And no more than that.

One essential part of competition is passion - you need the motivation of a desire to see a decent result, and of course to fuel that motivation you need a genuine interest in a subject. I have no interest in exercise. Food, however, is another matter. And on Saturday in Islington gathered a group of highly motivated foodies allowing their competitive streaks to shine through in a "chilli cook-off", organised by Tipped and held in the pool room of the Mucky Pup pub.

The first thing I noticed was just how varied in style all the different (there were eight in all) chillies were. Some used chunks of stewing steak while others used mince, some had sweetcorn and herbs and vegetables whilst others were no-nonsense meat and tomato with little extra filler. My favourites tended to be not too hot but with a very obviously fatty/beefy hit - I particularly enjoyed one using liquid smoke to evoke genuine USA barbecue flavours.

But the winner, in the end, managed to bring together all the best elements of herby/Mediterranean flavours while letting the good quality meat speak for itself. Step forward Helen of Food Stories, whose submission "El Paso Heart Attack" was the favourite with the voting public. Her reward consisted of little more than a comedy chef's hat and a pat on the back, but of course the real prize was knowing that her product was appreciated by her fellow peers. For everyone else, it was hardly a wasted afternoon sat in a charming old pub drinking free Corona and eating free chilli. Now that's my kind of competition.

Wednesday 22 October 2008

Cheese of the Month - Langres

Much as I like to sample as many different styles as possible for this blog, the fact is that pungent, soft cheeses are what I keep coming back to. Epoisses is an old favourite, Stinking Bishop a regular in my fridge, and now the new kid on the block is Langres from the Champagne-Ardenne region of France.

This particular example was from Whole Foods in Kensington, not really my favourite cheese shop (impressive at first, a more thorough investigation reveals a huge amount of rather boring cheeses, albeit presented quite nicely) but I happened to be in the area. The Langres caught my eye by having a lovely orange washed rind (with Champagne, naturally) and because it looked like it was sagging under the weight of its own ripeness like a little deflated pumpkin. Quite charming.

October is apparently quite late in the season for these cheeses, but the extra ripeness seems only to have improved the flavour and texture. The flesh was just soft enough towards the rind to have that syrupy Epoisses-style mouthfeel but the chalkiness in the centre held it all together enough to be able to serve it in attractive, gloopy wedges. It was, as I'd been let to expect, not quite as powerful as Epoisses but it still had bags of salty, creamy flavour.

The remaining Langres that we didn't manage to finish off on Saturday night now reminds me of its presence every time I open my fridge door, but I'm sure it won't last long. This characterful little cheese will be making a return visit to Battersea in the near future, I'm sure.


Monday 20 October 2008

The Bolingbroke, Battersea

I should really try to stop getting myself all excited when I hear about a new restaurant opening in Battersea. I don't know what it is about this part of town, but for some reason regardless of concept, skill of the chef or the charm of the front of house, as soon as the doors open to a new eatery in SW11 it's like all the life and joy is sucked out and you're left with a hollow shell of a place serving bland, expensive food to undiscerning punters.

Dos Hermanos, that bastion of independent criticism and flawless taste, had already dismissed Broome and Delancey on Battersea Rise, saving me the trouble of blowing £20 on a burger and chips and hammering probably the first nail in the coffin of the latest reincarnation of this site, which seems to have changed hands about 10 times in as many years. But what was this - The Bolingbroke, another new opening on Northcote Road, doesn't get a panning. It's hardly a glowing review, but it sounds solid and interesting enough for a visit and damn it, it's not like we're exactly spoiled for choice around here and if it turns out to be anything less than terrible I'd consider that a win. So, off I went.

First impressions were good - very good, if I'm going to be honest. They have that Prince of Wales Putney vibe, with a slightly rowdy and informal front room and a more traditional restaurant dining room towards the back, with whitewashed brick walls and a chalkboard daily special. And the menu read very well indeed, "Wild bay Devon crab, avocado, baby gem lettuce and deep fried duck egg" sounds almost worth the fee alone, and along with Ox tongue, slow-roasted belly of pork and roasted mallard it ticked all the right boxes in local, seasonal ingredients. If only the success of a restaurant was based on their skill in putting together a menu, the Bolingbroke would be famous the city over.

Starters were where things started going downhill. Ham hock terrine was fridge-fresh and although would have been tasty enough at room temperature just pointed towards sloppy practices in the kitchen. The "signature" duck egg starter was overcooked so that instead of a lovely runny yolk the insides were solid and cloying. My pigeon was cooked nice and rare and the accompanying mushrooms were lovely, but the foie was cold and solid, like a small lump of butter, a waste of such premium ingredients really.

As far as mains go, the only positive thing I can say is that the daily special guinea fowl confit was pretty good and was eaten without complaint. But the two fish dishes ordered that evening (Dover sole and a Halibut steak) ranked with some of the worst I've ever paid for. My Halibut with saffron sauce was overcooked, completely underseasoned and dressed with some entirely tasteless mussels. There was no sign of any saffron in the creamy sauce and the creamed leeks were as bland as only unseasoned, cheap boiled vegetables can be. But worst of all was the Dover Sole. When done well, this is the king of all fish dishes - my Sole at Scott's last year was just superb, with rich meaty flesh easing off the bone in large, satisfying chunks. Here it was overcooked way past the point of obliteration, the skin burned and the flesh a disgusting homogenous paste. Awful.

We did mention our numerous complaints to the waitress when asked, but apart from a smile and a short apology, nothing else was offered in terms of recompense. We had also asked them - twice - to turn down the music blaring out of the speakers just above our heads, but nothing was done about this either, so we had to endure our main courses (themselves being enough punishment you would think) between yelled conversation or in the quiet few seconds between tracks.

The Bolingbroke is not a good restaurant. Perhaps if I'd ordered differently I would have come away with the impression that it was merely mediocre rather than actively bad, but at these prices, and with competition from pubs such as the Prince of Wales and the Establishment only 10 minutes away, there is no excuse for such poor cooking. For all the fanfare and expense lavished on this building, it seems the curse of Battersea dining doesn't look like being broken any time soon.


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Monday 13 October 2008

19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2, Stoke Newington

In the ten or so days since my last review, Iceland has declared itself bankrupt. I was understandably quite pleased when I heard this news - how nice to be spared those gratingly irritating Kerry Katona ads designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator lazy parents who couldn't be bothered doing anything more worthwhile for their offspring than heat up a batch of chicken nuggets and oven chips. Sadly, it wasn't to be - the Iceland going bankrupt was in fact the country, not exactly known for its culinary output and therefore of little interest to me, and the curse of what Andrew at Eyedropper calls "brown food" - sealed plastic packages of greasy processed food - is here to stay. In fact given recent global events the chances are we might be seeing a lot more of Miss Katona and her ilk. For as many Gordon Ramsays and Jamie Olivers there are telling us that it really is easy - and most importantly cheap - to cook fresh, tasty food in your own homes there are as many others who will try to make a living out of convincing the population that all you really need for a balanced diet is a packet of spiced potato wedges and a microwave. And when times are tough and money is tight, I have a feeling that it's easier to make a 99p pack of spring rolls look like the budget option next to the effort of chopping an onion and crushing a garlic. I hope I'm proved wrong, but Mssrs Oliver and Ramsay really do have their work cut out.

It is, I've mentioned before, the restaurants which make you feel like you're getting value for money that will thrive in the current climate, even if it is just a "feeling" rather than a genuine generosity of spirit. The Giaconda wasn't anything more than a competent gastropub serving food at standard prices, but little tricks with the bill and the table charge made you feel much better about parting with your cash. The "trick" employed by the oddly-named 19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2 is far more straightforward - gut-busting portions for not very much money. The menu was also of a generous size - about 8 pages - although closer inspection revealed quite a bit of duplication and nothing really that unique in terms of ingredients or dishes. But Ocakbasi is what it is - tasty, filling comfort food served without pretension, and to this end 19NBC2 fills its remit very well.

19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2 was filling up rapidly when we arrived at about 8:00pm on Saturday night. The crowd was I think a mixture of families, young couples and old Turkish men reading the paper, although it was a bit difficult to tell as the room seemed to be lit only by small tea lights on each table and the focal point of the room - a huge grill near the door - kept the air thick with charcoal smoke and steam.

We started with a huge selection of mixed mezze, most of which was slightly on the dull side but included a nice bean salad, homemade hummus and some cheesy samosa thingies. Hardly mind-blowing but at about £3.50 each we weren't complaining, and there was a lot of it.

My mixed grill was a decent enough example of its type - the highlight being small sections of lamb ribs, an unusual cut for a Western restaurant but juicy and attractively bite-sized. The best you could say about the other bits and pieces was that they were cooked properly and weren't too dry, although I think in most cases I could have done with extra seasoning and/or spicing. The problem with Turkish food, similar to Spanish food, is that it relies upon zingingly fresh ingredients cooked quickly and simply, and if your ingredients aren't quite up to the task, as so often happens in this country, the end product suffers. But it was just what the doctor ordered for a relaxing Saturday evening and I should also mention that the house bread was some of the best of its type I've had in this country, fluffy and rich and - of course - barely minutes out of the oven.

Another nod to authenticity (and our wallets) was the £12 bottle of Turkish wine we had with the meal. There were a few funny faces pulled around the table on first tasting, but I didn't think it was too bad. Given a choice between cutting back on the food or the wine, I would always choose the wine - most restaurants worth their salt wouldn't ever serve anything completely undrinkable, although having said that I know I'm just setting myself up to be proved wrong.

What my visit to 19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2 proved, again, is that the tiniest bit of research can prove the difference between throwing away your precious pennies on somewhere cheap and rubbish and getting real value from a small local restaurant. And what the food we were served that evening proved is that it is possible to create a substantial, tasty meal from budget ingredients in little to no time at all, and without a plastic packet of brown food in sight. Kerry Katona take note.


19 Numara Bos Cirrik II on Urbanspoon

Thursday 2 October 2008

Apsley's, Belgravia

I have, I will admit, not been kind to the Lanesborough in the past. I had a very uncomfortable couple of hours one Saturday afternoon in the Library Bar, being ignored by waiters and being served overpriced mediocre martinis, and it was when I noticed that all the books in the "library" were fake that I decided that this probably wasn't the bar for me. But the fake books were almost a metaphor for the whole building - the Lanesborough is a brand-new London hotel masquerading as a grand-old London hotel (it only opened in 1990) and has created this atmosphere of stately longevity entirely out of nothing. Which is an achievement of sorts, I suppose.

There used to be a restaurant in the Lanesborough called The Conservatory, which many people thought was pretty nice even though it was a bit like eating in The Crystal Maze's Tropical Zone. The plants and flourishes have gone, replaced by cool beige carpets and chintzy sofas, and the new head chef is a chap called Nick Bell, who despite being as British as British can be is cooking "simple, regional, Italian food" (his words) amid the starched tablecloths and sommeliers.

First, the good. The room is grand and airy if only very slightly corporate-diner, and the staff are very, very good at what they do. We never had to ask for anything, they moved at just the right pace and our tapwaters were diligently refilled. My starter of "Lonza" ham (I had to ask) with onions and endive was perfectly good - the sharp endives balanced with the sweet pickled onions but allowing the smooth texture of the ham to show through. And a companion's "Cardoon" soup (a type of artichoke apparently) was declared "very nice", and came with a pesto made from thistle!

Mains were similarly tasty. I had a beautifully cooked piece of salmon with a lovely crispy skin, on top of a smooth, rich balsamic sauce. A great combination of textures and flavours that never overpowered the salmon. "Cotcechino" (it looked like a big meatball made from cured pork) was a robust plate of food and also disappeared without complaints. Desserts were less impressive - mine was a very simple orange sorbet and an iced chocolate sponge was only OK - but they didn't detract from what was in general an honest and flavoursome lunch. So, and I'm sure you've already skimmed down to the bottom of the page to check the score, why only 6/10?

Well, I blame the chef. Not because he can't cook, but because he himself admitted he's serving "simple, regional, Italian food". And if I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I won't go to a 5-star London hotel with white tablecloths, fish knives and more staff than customers. If I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I won't want to pay through the nose for it the most expensive city on earth. In short, if I want "simple, regional, Italian food" I will go to Italy. A quick search on Ryanair brings up a return to Rome (Ciampino) for the grand total (including taxes) of £44.01, just about the price I paid for my lunch at Apsley's. Nick Bell's dishes were authentic and tasty and I could recommend them wholeheartedly if they were not lost amidst the columns and shirt-tails of the Lanesborough - it just didn't sit right.

If Apsley's had gone down the Zafferano route of serving a haute-cuisine Italian-influenced menu, still sourcing the finest Italian produce but making the dishes look like they're worth the china they're served on, then that would have made sense. But the food at Apsley's doesn't step up to the mark demanded of a top London hotel restaurant and ultimately that is what people are shelling out for. I've had people try to convince me that it's the atmosphere and style that your money gets you at hotel restaurants, and that food is secondary. Well, if you are impressed enough by superficialities that you can overlook average food then good luck to you, but if Claridge's (Gordon Ramsay), the Mandarian (Foliage) and the Dorchester (The Grill Room) can host world-class restaurants that feel like they belong in such fine surroundings then I don't see why the Lanesborough can't.


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