Thursday 10 December 2009

The In'N'Out campaign

It's no mystery I suppose that neither Byron, nor Haché, nor Hawksmoor really "get" the genuine American burger. I don't doubt the effort they put into their respective creations - in fact from long chats with both the guys at Byron and Hawksmoor it seems effort and attention to detail is not the issue here. The problem is the whole approach to the concept - this desire to create a "perfect" burger, using the finest ingredients money can buy, and serving it in a swanky designer room with silver cutlery and frosted glasses. If there's one thing I learned about burgers from my various trips to the US it's that, ironically, the best burgers are not perfect. Burgers are a cheap snack, calorific, day-glo, greasy, sweet and salty. They are unashamedly, unmistakeably junk food, and they are all the more delicious for it. Use more expensive cuts of meat, artisan cheese, ciabatta bread and organic tomatoes and what you end up with may very well be more acceptable to the ladies who lunch of Bond Street but you're getting further and further away from what made this classic creation so wonderful in the first place.

I haven't - completely - given up on someone, eventually, getting it right at this side of the pond but given that a few of us burger obsessives spent a whole evening attempting to convince just Byron to use seeded brioche buns, even going so far as to bring some we'd snagged from Burger King just up the road, and they still insist on using floury baps, I can't see change happening any time soon. So what they need - what we all need - is an incentive. And what could be a greater incentive for the burgermeisters of London to up their game than for America's greatest burger chain to open a branch in this city? Show them how it's done, In'N'Out.

I won't go on again about how good In'N'Out are - read my San Diego roundup if you need a reminder - but briefly, the fact they can serve such thoroughly accomplished burgers for $1.99 is little short of a miracle. Now obviously, if In'N'Out were to open a branch in London, that price point may be an issue, but at £1.99 or even £2.99 you'll still be putting the fear of God not only into the gourmet gang but clearly also into Burger King and McDonalds too.

So the campaign starts here. First thing you can do is click here to send a message to the lovely guys at In'N'Out, who will (based on experience) email you almost immediately back with something along the lines of:

Although we are unable to confirm a site in London at this time, In-N-Out Burger® plans on expanding as far as we can, and particularly into areas in which our customers have expressed interest. As such, we are happy to let our Real Estate Department know that you would like us to open an In-N-Out Burger® location in your area.

But with enough people petitioning we can at the very least alert the powers that be to a genuine grass-roots desire to see In'N'Out ply their trade in the UK, and who knows, in a few years time you may be picking up your Double Double from In'N'Out Soho or In'N'Out Waterloo. And wouldn't that be bloody brilliant.

Monday 7 December 2009

Pauillac lamb at Galvin @ Windows

There are some invitations that however high-minded or ethically sensitive you consider yourself as a blogger, you do not turn down. A multiple steak tasting at Hawksmoor, a Brindisa ham carving school and any number of lavish Bibendum sponsored wine events certainly qualify for an immediate "yes", and have subsequently turned out to be every bit as fun as they promised. And so last week when Fred Sirieix, restaurant manager at Galvin @ Windows (Hilton Park Lane), attention drawn presumably by a couple of (completely un-sponsored, I might add) glowing reviews on these pages over the last couple of years, invited me and a couple of lucky others to try some special Pauillac salt marsh lamb that André Garret (head chef) had managed to get hold of, my response was a foregone conclusion.

And speaking of ethical dilemmas, the consumption of suckling lamb is itself a bit of a tricky one. This is, after all, very young lamb, torn away from its mothers teat and mercilessly slaughtered barely before it's had a chance to take its first steps, with a subtle, sweet flavour and meltingly soft pink flesh. I had tried suckling lamb once before, from a tiny little restaurant in Paris called La Cerisaie, and the tender rich flavour of my own slow-braised shoulder in a rich jus took me right back to that meal all those years ago. And although the focus of the evening was the lamb, I should also mention my starter of "salad of salsify & heritage carrots, deep fried duck egg and truffle cream", which was nigh-on-perfect.

Towards the end of the meal Fred, presumably deciding that serving the worlds most exclusive lamb wasn't quite enough of a highlight for one evening, flourished a bottle of Armand de Brignac rosé champagne. This ludicrous bottle of bubbly, its gleaming packaging as flamboyantly flashy as some of its most notable customers (Jay Z is apparently a fan), is sold by the bottle at Galvin for about £600, and here we were knocking it back like it was Ribena. For the record, it was very nice, but am I too much of a pleb for much preferring the vanilla-y, rich Pommery Brut NV we had as an aperitif? Probably I am.

The Pauillac suckling lamb will be on the menu at Galvin @ Windows until the end of January, and as well as the braised shoulder is available as an assiette. The evening dinner menu is £58 and comes highly recommended.

Many thanks to Hollow Legs for letting me nick her photos, battling hardly favourable lighting conditions

Galvin at Windows on Urbanspoon

Thursday 3 December 2009

Rules, Covent Garden (revisited)

I don't often do this. I have done this of course, occasionally, for restaurants which on return visits have proved themselves to have significantly improved, or at least shown that the first was an unfortunate fluke. And I don't subscribe to the (largely American, or at least New York) view that in order to fairly assess a restaurant you have to visit multiple times - nobody (at least nobody normal) obsessively visits a place twenty times just to check if it really is as crap as they think it is. If it's not good they will never go again, and if it is, they'll tell their mates about it. Restaurants are only as good as their last service, and I quite like that control factor - it seems fair and squarely based on the habits of the average punter.

But you'd think with a score of 9/10 there wouldn't be much need to re-review Rules. 9 is as near as dammit, and why not leave it at that - I'm only opening myself to criticism if someone pays a visit on the back of my glowing write-up and then doesn't enjoy every bit of it as much as I did.

Well, two reasons.

Firstly, I wanted to give Rules 10/10 after my first visit but stupidly thought that with El Bulli looming the week after I may need some room to manoeuvre. But as much as I would like to think the scores I give are "absolute", the universe in which the scoring system operates is essentially, necessarily as fickle as my own fads and preferences. "What if I think this restaurant is perfect, and then El Bulli is more perfect?" went the reasoning. It was a mistake to think like this in the first place - there's no shame in flexibility. And anyway who cares, it's not like an angry mob is going to burn my house down if I get it a point or two wrong. Get over yourself, Pople.

Secondly, and most importantly, Rules really is that good. Everything I've ordered and eaten myself, or nicked off someone else's plate over the two visits (possibly around 12-14 dishes in total) have been consistently, giddily delicious. Last weekend I went with a few friends for a birthday meal and tried first the Crisp Wild Rabbit, boasting robust flavours and some fantastic texture contrasts; the Pheasant Pie, a seasonal speciality shot through with earthy morel mushrooms and a tangy white wine sauce; and the Rib of Beef for Two, cooked absolutely perfectly and served with a spectacular 6" high Yorkshire Pudding. And of course, I couldn't resist the opportunity to order the grouse again. I've gone on about this bird far too often already, so I'll just say this - it's probably the best thing I've ever eaten ever in my life. Let's leave it at that.

In the light of the recent "disclosure" controversies, and just to reassure anyone who doubts my own integrity (HA!), you can be sure this isn't any kind of PR-led fluff piece or freebie-fuelled reciprocation, because Rules doesn't employ a PR agency. It doesn't need one. It ticks over very nicely thank you very much, all year, without having to do anything other than carry on doing what they've been doing for the last 200+ years. The reason for Rules' astonishing success and longevity is hardly rocket science - the very best British ingredients, sensitively cooked with a respectful nod to history (it would be too much of a disservice to call the food at Rules "simple", as anyone who has ever tried to roast a grouse themselves and not have it end up inedibly tough will tell you) and with a superb bar upstairs manned by a handful of the best drinks makers in London. The perfect restaurant? As near as dammit.


Rules on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Yalla Yalla, Soho

Being British, and brought up in Liverpool, my cultural reference points for what people have recently taken to calling "Street Food" consisted of the burger van outside the local multiplex and the guy selling roast chestnuts on Church Street. And in case you were wondering, neither of these things are exactly the kind of "concept" you could "roll out" to the discerning patrons of Soho - not before pub chucking out time anyway. But Yalla Yalla purports to be an altogether better class of Street Food - namely Lebanese Street Food, specifically from Beirut - and has gathered a healthy armful of positive reviews since it opened earlier in the year.

On paper, there's everything to like about Yalla Yalla. Independently run by a man and wife team (him from the Lebanon, her from Poland I believe), they serve freshly made authentic Lebanese dishes to a tiny room of barely twenty odd spaces and a queue of hungry local office workers for takeout. The menu is modest but reads well, with staples like Falafel and Baba Gannoush amongst more unusual items such as Lokoz Meshoué (grilled sea bass) and Makalé Samak (deep-fried tiger prawns). They also have, although being lunchtime I didn't sample any, an interesting selection of Lebanese wines and beers. What they don't have, however, based on my lunch here a couple of weeks back, is anything particularly exciting or different enough to make a return journey worthwhile.

Events started well enough, with a couple of pots of very nice pickles and marinated olives. The pickles, in fact, were pretty much the best thing about the whole meal, and this isn't that much of a criticism - I really, really like pickles. But the house hummus, though presented prettily in a swirl of whole chickpeas and coriander, was only good and the pita, though warm and fresh, was under seasoned and fairly dull.

A dish of halloumi was perfectly fine, but I would have preferred more of a crust (in fact, any crust at all) on the cheese. Fresh basil, chopped tomato and cheese is hardly an earth-shattering revolution but, you know, I ate it.

Next, the first real disappointment. These falafel, though freshly made and served with a tangy garlic, yogurt and onion dressing, were woefully under seasoned. It's all very well getting your frying perfectly timed and your ingredients authentically sourced but if you don't put enough salt in they're going to taste like mud. Not very nice at all unfortunately.

A final main course of grilled marinated lamb was also a bit of a letdown. The lamb itself was missing something in terms of spicing and flavour, had no crispy char, and was overcooked to a uniform grey inside and out (though still commendably moist). The lamb pieces were on a bed of vermicelli rice and flatbread, and served with a pleasant enough onion salad, but none of these bits and pieces really sat together very well, particularly not a bowl of incredibly potent garlic "mayonnaise" which had been so over-whisked it had turned into a thick white jelly. It may seem like I'm nitpicking but when you are serving simple dishes you can't afford too many mistakes before the whole house of cards comes falling down. I had a tiny taste of the garlic mayonnaise/jelly and left the rest.

All this, a small handful of not particularly huge, not particularly interesting dishes, came to around £20 a head. A depressingly average price for lunch these days I suppose, but I couldn't help feeling rather hard done by. None of it sparkled, much of it was pretty mediocre and it wasn't even that cheap - we were only drinking tap water after all. There you have it then, hot on the heels of a Venetian bacaro and any number of identikit burrito joints, yet another trendy overpriced ethnic food fad to swallow your money in central London. Aren't we lucky?


Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Needoo Grill, Whitechapel

I don't have a problem with the ex-restaurant manager of Tayyabs setting up his own restaurant. I don't have a problem with the carbon-copy menu, the suspiciously familiar décor, tableware, table setting, water jugs, black-clad waiters, etc. etc.. What does irritate me, however, is its location. 90% of London is crying out for a decent Pakistani grill. Nobody outside of certain parts of Tooting or Southall can get their fix of seekh kebabs or dry meat, and Needoo Grill could have done a public service by bringing their mixed grills to Battersea or East Dulwich or Hampstead or Paddington. Instead, this Tayyabs-clone is parked literally around the corner from the mothership, on New Road - about 30 steps away. So now Whitechapel has Tayyabs, Needoo Grill, Lahore Kebab House AND Mirch Masala, and the rest of London can get stuffed and go to Masala Zone. Thanks very much, Needoo.

You can see their reasoning though. Tayyabs, despite the huge new basement room, is still vastly oversubscribed. I spotted a queue out of the door at 6pm last night, and even if Needoo existed purely as a kind of unofficial Tayyabs overflow, I'm sure it would still make a killing. But what Needoo does not have, so far at least, is any strong case for being destination number one instead of one-and-a-half. Let's begin at the beginning.

House popadums were served with the familiar "ooh wonder where I've seen those before?" array of dips, but had some pleasingly subtle variations. The yoghurt-y mint dip was particularly nice, sweet and fresh with a lovely vinegar kick. The popadums themselves were as you might expect, perfectly good, and only the vegetables were a bit disappointing, the cucumber being a bit old and dry.

The mixed grill certainly looked the part, and the seekh kebabs, at the very least, were as good as any I've tried, moist and lean and packing a decent chilli punch. But the chicken tikka pieces, though spiced perfectly well, were rather dry, and the lamb chops were not in the same league as the Other Place at all, being too sweet and sloppy and missing an extra layer of hot spices. I still wolfed it all down, of course, Tayyabs on a bad day being at least a thousand times better than most other ways to spend your food money in London, but you can clearly see the difference thirty-odd years experience can make.

Karahi chicken was also rather dispiriting - tiny, dry pieces of chicken in a relatively tasty but rather oily sauce - but it arrived with two of the loveliest roti I've ever had the pleasure to eat. Expertly cooked to split-second perfection, with a very healthy pattern of delicate browned bubbles on the surface, these were supremely light, bursting with flavour and with an extraordinary texture contrast between the brittle surface and the doughy insides. I may have issues with the protein at Needoos but someone definitely knows what they're doing in the bread department.

In conclusion, then, what we have here is a perfectly decent, friendly and convenient place to try after the queue for Tayyabs reaches the 45-minute mark, and I didn't begrudge at all one penny of the pathetic £8 or so my meal cost last night. There's a tendency, when faced with the embarrassment of riches that are the grill houses of Whitechapel, to compare one with the other and of course this is fine - a bit of healthy competition is probably why they're all so good in the first place. But it was while tucking into my lamb chops a thought struck me - if this had been served anywhere in London other than Whitechapel, and I didn't have anything better to compare it to, I would have declared it the finest culinary discovery of the decade. In the name of all that is good, and on behalf of the poor deprived residents of Battersea and elsewhere, can one of you lot please consider opening further afield? We're waiting for you, you know.


Needoo Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday 30 November 2009

Cheese and Biscuits On Tour - San Diego

Before I begin a rundown of the food highlights of my recent trip to San Diego, it's probably worth reminding myself to not get too carried away. Yes, I ate very well, in a number of places, most of which were on the "dirt" side of "cheap" and one or two meals (usually involving fried meat patties) rank up there with some of the best food I've ever eaten anywhere. But with the benefit of a glorious climate, some of the friendliest people on the planet and an attitude to service that was never anything less than bend-over-backwards perfect, you tend to come away with a warm happy glow from even the most modest snack. I'm sure after a few weeks of blazing sunshine smiles and fresh seafood sandwiches I'd be craving the London drizzle and a Tayyabs, so take much of the following gushing enthusiasm with a pinch of salt....

The first night, and heavily jetlagged, I found myself in Hodad's, a burger joint in an area of town called Ocean Beach. Nestled amongst the crumbling hippie hostels, cavernous strip-lit surf shops and dive bars, Hodad's has been serving what it modestly calls the best burgers in the world since the late 60s, appropriate as the area itself seems also to have changed very little during the last 40 odd years. Sat in a boisterous, eccentric room with walls plastered in car number plates and with locals queuing patiently outside serenaded by bearded buskers, we tucked into onion rings and bacon cheeseburgers, the former crispy and fresh and towered so high they blocked out the light, the latter, well, just about perfect. The bacon at Hodad's is stripped, boiled then pressed and fried into thin crispy patties which taste almost like ham confit - not just a fantastic concentrated flavour but a lovely range of textures, which sit very well with the soft beef soaked in slimy cheap Kraft cheese. This may seem like a criticism of the cheese - it isn't, as anyone who has ever had a Roquefort or mature cheddar monstrosity from any number of misguided "gourmet" burger joints in the UK will hopefully tell you. Burgers like this, flamboyantly unhealthy, planet-sized, groaning with cheese and salt and grease and beef, could not exist anywhere else in the world. And if they did, they certainly would not cost $6. I was in love.

At the Little Italy Farmer's Market I ate freshly scooped-out uni, bought some of the nicest (and most expensive) tomatoes I've ever known, and gorged on a beef brisket sandwich. It was a good day.

Since trying the USDA steaks at Goodman back in August, I had been understandably eager to try the famous grain-fed beef at what would hopefully be at slightly less of a premium than the examples flown over to Mayfair. However, it seems that good beef is expensive even this close to the source, and these two fine-looking dry-aged rib-eyes, from Iowa Meat Farms, cost nearly $60 - that's almost comparable (thanks to that bloody exchange rate) with that charged at places like Jack O'Shea's in London for their Black Angus. I wish I could tell you that they were worth the money, but I can't - not because they weren't, but because I completely cocked up the cooking procedure and managed to bake them to a uniform grey before I'd had a chance to sear. Blame an oven that falsely reported its own temperature, a steak-cooking method nicked from the Food Channel which was far too fiddly, and me. Mainly blame me. But all was not lost, because in this Land of the Free, Home of the Beef, you don't have to travel miles across town to an artisan butcher, nor pay a small fortune, for some excellent cow. Costco, the wholesalers (sort of a US equivalent of Macro but a thousand times better), sell a huge range of extremely fairly priced steaks and ribs, and not just the cheap cuts either - I bought two USDA prime New York Strips (what I think we would call sirloin) for little more than $20. And this time, ladies and gentlemen, I did those dry-aged beauties proud - cooked perfectly (even if I do say so myself) on a white-hot skillet and a brief spell in a warm oven to rest. They were amongst the very best that steak can be - beefy, metallic, gorgeously shot through with rich fat and with a satisfying thick crust.

Without going into too much detail, other eateries in San Diego and environs worth a mention are:

- Donovan's Steakhouse, which although not up to the standard of Luger's (or even Hawksmoor/Goodman in terms of the steak itself) was nevertheless a hugely enjoyable way to spend my birthday evening, and they can mix a fine martini.

- El Pescador Fish Market in La Jolla, where you point at the bit of fresh fish you like the look of and they stick it in a sandwich for you. Kind of like London's Fishworks, only not crap.

- Mariscos Godoy, in Chula Vista, a completely bonkers Mexican restaurant which served seafood dishes soaked in cheese and cream (what's not to like) while an enthusiastically voluble mariachi band bashed away in the background. In the interests of keeping this post to a vaguely readable length I can't go into everything we ate, but one of the dishes was called a 'crater', and was a kind of thick fish soup served inside a hollowed-out lump of volcanic rock so white-hot that the soup reduced itself over the course of the meal and was still too hot to touch after we'd paid the bill and left. It still wasn't the craziest thing on the menu.

- Encinitas Café (in Encinitas) which for sheer old-world Americana and character is hard to beat. I had bacon and pancakes and poached eggs, washed down with something called a 'malt', which tasted like Horlicks ice-cream.

Amazingly, it took until my final few hours before the flight back from LAX to make it to a branch of the legendary In 'N' Out burger. Not so much a fast food restaurant as a widely established cult, In 'N' Out are famous for two things - being the first drive-thru restaurant to make use of two-way speaker systems for ordering, and for having a 'secret' menu which isn't advertised in store. The 'secret' menu (not so secret really, as it's clearly listed on their official website) has probably helped create an extra frisson of exclusivity around the chain, but really there is no mystery to the overwhelming popularity of In 'N' Out - they are simply very, very good. From a refreshingly tiny 'non-secret' menu I ordered a Double Double (that's two patties, two slices of that lovely slimy Kraft cheese) and fries, while my sister ordered an 'animal style' (some sort of onion and cheese sauce) hamburger. Very much in the (correct) Hodad's style, this was a supremely accomplished burger, generous in portion and flavour. Crunch was provided, rather than the bacon slice at Hodad's, by a slightly extra toasted brioche bun lid, but what this burger did have going for it over Hodad's was the price - a paltry $2.99 for what must be up there with the best burgers in the world. And this from a chain! Quite a large chain too. Is it too much to hope that one day we'll see one of these in London? Of course it is - by the time the In 'N' Out Kings Road opened they'd be forced to add rocket salad and ciabatta buns and low-fat mayonnaise. You're more likely to see a Tayyabs on Manhattan Beach.

Which brings me nicely back to my first paragraph. Yes, San Diego was lovely, and it's hard not to be charmed by such a beautiful county and people as consistently pleasant as their weather, but on my second night back in London, my circadian rhythms still slightly off-kilter, I was invited to the christening of Tayyabs' new basement room. After piles of lamb chops and seekh kebabs, bowlfuls of dry meat and gorgeous chunks of spicy slow-roasted lamb, I was reminded that for the benefit of a better climate or a decent burger there will always be something else I'd have to give up. Cold, wet, noisy and dirty London may be, but there's no place like home. It's good to be back.

Hodad's 9/10
Hodad's on Urbanspoon

Donovan's Steakhouse 7/10
Donovan's Steak & Chop House on Urbanspoon

El Pescador Fish Market 7/10
El Pescador on Urbanspoon

Mariscos Godoy 8/10

Encinitas Café 7/10
Encinitas Cafe on Urbanspoon

In'N'Out 9/10