Tuesday 26 May 2009

Sushi Say, Willesden Green

It began, as these things often do, with a challenge. I had never had a sushi meal in London to match the places I'd visited in Boston or New York, and was doubtful there was anywhere that could impress for a reasonable amount of money (so that's Sake No Hana and Umu out, then). Suggestions came in, amongst them Sushi Say in Willesden Green, a long-time local favourite with some rave reviews, and I was optimistic. Optimistic enough, too, to battle from SW11 to NW2 on a bank holiday weekend where every other tube line was out and those dreaded words "bus replacement" featured heavily. I arrived after a 105 minute journey, hoping to God it was worth it.

Sushi Say does, admittedly, look the part. It's a small room, with a ten-seater sushi bar, a handful of tables and a cute corner section where it looks like you're expected to sit cross-legged and eat from a communal table. It looks like the perfect setting for a very authentic sushi experience, which is a shame because after ten minutes I was just on the verge of walking out. Let me explain.

I arrived at 1pm to an empty restaurant, and not unreasonably sat down at the bar. Immediately a waitress rushed over and told me that they don't use the bar at lunchtimes, and moved me to one of the tables. Fine - their place, their rules. But no sooner had I been shown the menu than a family turned up, sat down at the bar, and were served. I stared at them in disbelief for a little while, and then called the waitress over.

"Excuse me, can I sit at the bar, please?"

"Sorry, no - we don't use the bar at lunchtimes."

I glanced over at the family sat at the bar, chatting happily to the chef. Then I turned back to my waitress. A few moments passed before the penny seemed to drop.

"I will ask."

She scurried off. Many more minutes passed, punctuated by bursts of contented laughter from the bar and plates of hot food being passed between chef and grateful customers. Eventually, I tucked the menu under my arm and grabbed my glass of Kirin and went and sat down at the bar. I had barely been sat for ten seconds when the waitress reappeared to repeat her earlier assertion that the bar is "not used at lunchtimes. You must sit back down at the table."

Again, I gestured towards the not insignificant number of people sat to my left who seemed in exception to this particular rule.


"They want to talk to the chef."

"Well, so do I."

"They are special friends of the chef."

"Well, I'd like the chance to meet..." Another standoff. We held each other's gaze for a few significant seconds, but I got the impression the weight of opinion was against me. I looked towards the chef, who also met my gaze impassively.

"Fine..." It was no good. I shambled back to my table with my beer and menus.

From that point on, if the food had been a 3 Michelin-star tour-de-force of Japanese regional cookery it still would have tasted of defeat. To try and be objective for a second, it probably wasn't too bad. The soft-shelled crab tempura were moist and cooked with skill, the squid well seasoned and the Uni nigiri were, if not very fresh, then at least unusual enough to be noteworthy. My Maze Chirashi lunch bowl consisted of some very flavoursome tuna and a generous scattering of roe. It was all fine, but it wasn't worth either the trek up from South London or the emotional battering I received when I got there. As I left, leaving no tip, they were all smiles. "Thank you! Come again!". Maybe it happens a lot - maybe they consider the discriminatory service something to be proud of. Or maybe you think I'm just a bitter jealous blogger who has ideas above his station. Maybe you're right.

Tonight, to wash away the memory of Sushi Say forever, I am taking some friends to Tayyabs. It will be half the price, twice as good, and because we know the chef now we can get in without queuing and get to sit at a special table. Some of you may consider that hypocrisy. I just think you're jealous....


Sushi-Say on Urbanspoon

Monday 18 May 2009

Byron Hamburgers, Chelsea

There has been much discussion and interest recently, on the internet and elsewhere, about whether or not food bloggers should subscribe to a Code of Ethics or suchlike when reviewing restaurants. The discussion was brought to my attention first by this site from the US, which has drawn up an incredibly pompous list of bullet points including such gems as "We will visit a restaurant more than once (more than twice, if possible) before passing a final judgment" (Oh really? Who's paying?) and "We will sample the full range of items on menu." (Remember to bring Mr. Creosote along with you). My initial reaction to this list was to draw up my own, containing just one guideline - "Nobody's paying you for it, and nobody's forced to read it, so do what the hell you want". However, despite my huge reservations concerning this particular site, the issue of bloggers remaining independent and impartial with regards to the places they eat in, particularly now our influence (and, to some extent, notoriety) is on the rise and the number of PR events and "tastings" we are invited to attend increases, is probably one worth addressing.

As I mention, food blogging is a hobby, and we are free, for the most part, from the ethical issues that may affect some paid journalists and food writers when posting. But this doesn't of course mean that we are somehow more impartial than the Jay Rayners or Matthew Normans. In fact, it is just as likely to work the other way - if Jay Rayner got taken out for a slap-up meal at a new restaurant, given a tour of the kitchens and plied with free booze and then had the bill comped at the end, and subsequently gave it 10/10 in the next Sunday's Observer, chances are he would be rumbled quickly and his readership would quite rightly be outraged. But if I was put in the same situation, given my largely anonymous public profile and much smaller but more targeted readership, there's every chance I would get away with it, and a glowing post on my website would stand for eternity, cropping up on Google Searches and social networking sites and more than repaying said institution's outlay on buttering up (if you'll excuse the expression) a pathetically grateful foodie for an evening.

I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that because it's so much easier for food bloggers to appear impartial, the temptation is that much greater not to be. And whether it's Australian bloggers being asked to go undercover and big up cat food, or the cult of celebrity blinding one hapless forum moderator to mediocre pizza, temptation is everywhere. So in fairness to foodethics.wordpress.com, although I could pick apart the hideous flaws in much of what they've written and have great fun into the bargain, instead I'll just repeat the one point that I believe they have spot on:

  • If we receive an item for free or if we are recognized during our reviewing process, we will mention so in our review.

And with that in mind, let me tell you about a lovely evening I had eating free food at Byron Hamburger on Kings Road.

Tom Byng, the manager of Byron, had invited a small group of eager foodies along to their Chelsea branch to sample their menu and chat about burgers. The Quest for the Best Burger in London had brought me far and wide, but it's surprising it had taken so long to get here - after all, they are proud winners of the 2009 Observer Food Monthly Awards (Best Cheap Eat) and are the only really decent competitor to Haché in this price bracket. The Hawksmoor burger may be a work of genius, but at £15 it's a work of genius that comes with a corresponding price tag - the Byron burgers range from just under £6 to £8 for one with cheese and bacon, and so you can get away with a whole meal for around £10.

Much like the aforementioned Mr. Creosote, except of a much slimmer build, Tom started off the evening by instructing the waitress to bring us "one of everything". So along with our burgers arrived such treats as delicious Cerignola olives, a very impressive Caesar salad and a lovely pot of macaroni cheese, which at £2.75 was a very generous portion and counts as a bit of a bargain in my book.

All of which would have been to naught if the burgers were no good, but fortunately a great deal of care and attention has gone into the patty side of things too. Tom explained that they didn't have the luxury of resources to throw into burger production that places like Hawksmoor did, and so their formula for a successful restaurant was to carefully and intelligently source good beef (the precise mixture of rump, chuck and brisket is ground into patties at a special butchers off-site but still in London and then shipped to the restaurants) but keep the cooking method as easy and possible. I've made clear before my thoughts on Aberdeen Angus beef in steaks (mass-produced, inoffensive but dull), but it makes perfect sense to use a reliable breed in burgers to maintain consistency across a small chain of restaurants.

And these burgers were very good - cooked perfectly, dripping gorgeous bloody juices and not too thick. My one complaint was with the bread, which although apparently delivered daily by a small East-End baker, was too heavily floured and dry for my liking. It came, as well, with a lovely sweet and crunchy pickle (quite an interesting idea leaving it up to the customer whether to pop it in the bun or eat it separately) and good tangy cheese. My favourite of the array of sauces was the spicy BBQ sauce, which had a great note of liquid smoke and fresh tang of vinegar. They apparently make it themselves - it's not bought in. And you can tell.

After working our way through literally the whole menu, we reached the desserts, and found a little room to try an impressive Knickerbocker Glory, complete with Cherry On Top. I should probably also mention the wines, which are organised on the stripped-down menu into categories such as "Good", "Better" and "Best" and included a lovely Californian Pinot Noir called Jargon, and if beer's more your thing, they sell the peerless Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. The one section of the menu I didn't get a try of was the milkshakes - they do one with Oreo biscuits in for £3.75, so that has to be worth a pop.

I honestly believe that anyone would enjoy the burgers at Byron. Whether it's better than Haché, well, I'll leave that particular can of worms alone for now, but suffice to say I can think of worse burgers to be had in London for £10 and no better ones. So yes, it was a free meal and I'm bound to be quite well disposed to it after a chat with the owner and a bottle of Californian red, but, well, at least I've been honest and told you. My Food Ethics, for the moment, remain untarnished.


Byron on Urbanspoon

Friday 15 May 2009

Eating Eurovision - Finland

If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it either. In the basement of the Finnish Church in South East London, literally directly beneath the altar, is a sauna. A neat little changing area with pegs for clothes leads off a small shower room, and next door to that behind a pine door is a sauna. It wouldn't be at all out of place in a gym, perhaps even a posh hotel or country club, but it's probably fair to say it's the last thing this Englishman expected to find attached to a place of worship. I persuaded my guide Asko (Customer Service Manager of the Finnish Church in London) to give me a small tour of the facilities of this handsome 1950s building after I'd sampled a few Scandinavian delicacies from the small shop and cafeteria on the ground floor, although even at this stage I got the feeling he'd noticed I was itching to take pictures of the sauna. "Unfortunately I haven't brought my swimming trunks", I quipped. "Finnish people always sauna in the nude!" he beamed back.

Anyway, to the food. The Finnish Church imports a surprisingly large variety of frozen and non-perishable produce from the homeland, much of which was excitingly unfamiliar to me. There was a particularly impressive range of salmiakki, best translated as "salty liquorish", which in fact contains no salt but instead a relatively large amount of ammonium chloride. If you think that sounds unappetising, you're not too far from the truth. I bought a packet and have just tried a couple now - try and imagine the burn of concentrated liquorish mixed with peppermint and salt, in tablet form. They love it over there, Asko assured me. Also on display were a range of Finnish mustard (Auran) to go with the Finnish sausages, which you can grill on the BBQ or boil like hot dogs. I may fire up the BBQ tomorrow and report back on those, but this is what they look like in the freezer:

Also in the freezer section were a variety of Finnish berries, including one called Lingonberry, again completely unfamiliar to me. They look, and taste according to Asko, rather like cranberries, and go very well with the contents of the adjacent freezer - reindeer. Yes, that reindeer - Rudolph and his pals, although if it helps to de-anthropomorphise you can refer to it as caribou. Fry it up with a little water, Asko suggested, and serve with mashed potatoes. I may just do that, although it would perhaps be appropriate to wait until Christmas...

The cafeteria of the Finnish Church serves hot and cold Finnish delicacies, pastries and drinks. Asko recommended something called a Karelian pie, which is a kind of savoury rice pudding surrounded in a rye/wheat mix pastry, topped with egg butter. It was quite lovely - the rice and pastry wasn't anywhere near as weird as I thought it would be, and the egg butter (basically just seasoned hard-boiled egg mixed with butter) was superb.

For a main course, I opted for a plate of fried Baltic herring fillets, served with mash and boiled carrot & swedes. This was hearty, comforting food - uncomplicated in the way that national dishes often are, but full of flavour and texture contrasts. I ate my lunch, washed down with a couple of glasses of homemade lemonade, at a table to the back of the nave of the church itself, surrounded by a good number of healthy looking twentysomething Finns in bright blue SUOMI T-shirts. There are rooms in the building that young Finns working or studying in London can hire out for not much money, and by the looks of things the arrangement is quite popular. It's an attractive, airy building, recently refurbished, and really quite architecturally impressive from some angles (ie. not from outside), so I can see why it would be a desirable option if you were new to the city. Plus, how many youth hostels in London do you know that can boast fresh rice pasties, cinnamon buns and a sauna?

So with my paper Suomi bag filled with frozen treats, I thanked Asko for his time and toddled off back to Canada Water tube. Thanks to Andrew Webb and an idea scribbled on the back of a beermat one evening in central London, I had discovered a community and cuisine I knew next to nothing about previously, and had a hugely enjoyable afternoon into the bargain. At the risk of repeating myself, bear in mind on Saturday night when you're watching the hysterical camp of the Eurovision contest itself, that although the politics may be depressing and the music for the most part dreadful, true cultural identity and pride in that identity can still be found in our national cuisines. And if I was Finnish, given the choice between that Karelian pie and the truly awful song they've submitted this year, I know which one I'd most want to be associated with.

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Eating breakfast or dinner
Or snack lunch in the hall
Finland, Finland, Finland
Finland has it all

You're so sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad

"Finland", Monty Python's Flying Circus

Eating Eurovision main site

Saturday 9 May 2009

Chilli Cool, Bloomsbury

I have been a fan of Szechuan cuisine since my visit to Bar Shu all the way back in March 2007, and yet for some reason hadn't had the opportunity to follow up the experience until a couple of weeks ago. The novelty of the new was enough to make me overlook some of the more lackluster parts of the meal in Soho, but what was good was very good indeed, and the memory of the first hit of those Szechuan peppers will stay with me forever. Chilli Cool (stupid name I know - apparently it sounds a lot nicer in Mandarin) sits just a few doors down from the Black Books bookshop in Bloomsbury, and by all accounts is cheaper, better and more authentic - largely, I'm guessing, because it's not in Soho.

The menu is excitingly offal-heavy. Along with Szechuan classics like "man and wife offal slices" and "devil-exploded kidneys" were a range of dishes involving every part of pig and cow, charmingly literally translated with no concessions to delicate English ears. "Beef slices and ox tripe in chilli oil" was packed full of flavour and with cleverly and tenderly cooked tripe giving a gelatinous contrast to the rougher beef slices. And by far my favourite plate of food was a superb "hot and crispy pigs intestines", which instead of gloopy chitterlings was in fact varying in texture between moist parcels of pork fat encased in crispy membrane, to crunchy nuggets of pork scratching, all doused in a fiery pepper and chilli sauce. You didn't know exactly what kind of meat you'd got until it was in your mouth and it was either crunchily dissolving or melting with fat - great fun.

Along with some raw shredded potato, which were nice enough, arrived a huge hot pot of grouper fish and chilli, the fish being cooked perfectly and the broth spicy and rich. It's not for the faint-hearted, this food - the spicing is aggressive, the flavours occasionally overwhelming and the cuts of meat uncompromisingly bold and unusual. But it is a style of cuisine that we deserve to see a lot more of, because when it's done well, as at Chilli Cool, the results are spectacular. The only thing I can't recommend about Chilli Cool, which won't surprise anyone who's ever eaten at a Chinese restaurant in London, is the service. After repeatedly asking for the bill I resorted to standing over the guys at the till until they typed our menu out and gave me the receipt. It was wrong.

Eventually we did manage to sort out the bill, which came to just less than £20 each with plenty of alcohol - pretty much a bargain. Sloppy service has become just as much of the experience in Chinese restaurants as the old-woman's pock-marked bean curd, so it was hardly commented upon that evening by anyone in our party. Certainly judging by the lack of empty tables and the buzzy atmosphere of a restaurant that is confidently and consistently churning out some of the best Szechuan food in London, nobody else cares either.


Chilli Cool on Urbanspoon

Friday 1 May 2009

The Establishment, Battersea

I was deliriously excited when I saw The Establishment, the gastropub in Parson's Green, had opened a branch on Battersea Rise, not five minute's walk from my house. Deliriously excited because if there's one thing this area needs it's somewhere decent to eat - if your best local restaurant (notwithstanding the excellent Donna Margherita of course) is a Strada then something needs to change. And also because when I visited the Parson's Green branch last year I enjoyed very much - I was served a nicely made martini and a lovely pork dish and left a very happy chappy indeed.

I don't know whether it's pandering to a different locale or just a desire for a change of direction from the guys behind The Establishment, but whereas the menu at Parson's Green was firmly British gastropub, in Battersea they seem to want to be known as a steakhouse, with a special box on the menu listing the cuts of beef (sirloin, T-bone, etc. and whole rib for 2) and proudly proclaiming the 45-day dry-aged product. Well, good luck to them, but I was pessimistic. I have yet to find anywhere in the UK other than Hawksmoor that really do the US-style steakhouse concept any justice. Good quality meat is simply not produced on the scale and to the same level of consistency here as over the pond, illustrated by a recent hugely enjoyable evening at Hawksmoor laid on for food bloggers where we got to try 17(!!) different cuts of steak from all over the country, and where out of only 2 or 3 really good cuts my favourite turned out to be the one they had on their menu already. Those guys know what they're doing.

But more on the beef later. First of all I had a small bowl of shrimp (the British type, as in tiny prawn) and potato salad. The potato was lovely and fresh and the salad was dressed well, but the shrimp tasted of nothing - a real shame. My dining companion that evening, none other than author and food blogger Simon Majumdar of Dos Hermanos, did much better with his Chicken Liver & foie gras parfait, which had a lovely light texture, deep flavour and served correctly at room temperature.

For the main course, I thought it would be fun to have a whole 26oz rib between the two of us, and we ordered it rare. The breed used at The Establishment in Battersea is Aberdeen Angus. There is a very good reason for this - it's consistent in terms of quality, reasonably priced and the supply is plentiful. Unfortunately it doesn't have a great deal of flavour, and although the meat that arrived was cooked very well, with good seasoning and a nice crispy char from a hot grill, the flesh inside was watery and tasteless. It was also very sloppily presented. Compare this similar cut from the Horseshoe in Hampstead Heath last year:

...to that offered at the Establishment:

It's a terrible photo (it was almost pitch black in there) but you can hopefully see what I'm getting at.

I know it seems like I'm whingeing (because I am), but if anything the mediocre beef was just a vindication of my prejudices rather than a shock or disappointment. Aberdeen Angus is a perfectly good breed for burgers or pub steaks, but I have a distinct feeling the choice of that breed was made for commercial and practical reasons rather than flavour. If you have that little faith in your public that you think people won't pay more than £15 for a sirloin and don't know any better, then fine, see how you get on. But thank God there are places in London where flavour, courtesy of gorgeous dry-aged Longhorn cattle, comes first. Listen to me - I'm turning into a beef geek. Hawksmoor, I blame you.


The Establishment on Urbanspoon