Tuesday 27 October 2009

Cheese of the Month - Redesdale

In common, I'm sure, with many other borderline-autistic foodies, I obsessively crave the new, the rare and the unique. In restaurants I will gravitate towards the more unusual ingredients and preparations, in bars I will order a pint of whichever looks the most likely to be shocking and/or disgusting, and I very rarely say no to any mysterious dark spirit placed in front of me at the end of a long night. These compulsions frequently end in disaster, of course, but that's not the point - for every deep-fried bull's testicle or raw rabbits brains there's that tantalising chance I may discover something really wonderful. And even if I don't, at least I can say I ate raw brains. Breaks the ice at parties.

When it comes to cheese, though, something rather strange has happened - I have become a creature of habit. After spending a couple of years working my way around the spread at Hamish Johnson, I seem to have whittled down my preferences to the same 3 or 4 usual suspects that I pick up nearly every time I visit - an Epoisses, a Roquefort, a Spanish goat's and perhaps some sort of hard Spanish mountain cheese. I know I like them, they work together well on a cheeseboard and I'm never disappointed. It's all rather tragically predictable. So last week, mindful of the effort I usually make to "eat local", especially regarding beef, I made the conscious decision to purchase a board of 100% British cheeses to accompany an autumn barbecue. And amongst them was a lovely little sheep's cheese called Redesdale.

Having already selected a soft, washed-rind cheese (what else but Stinking Bishop) and a creamy Stilton (Cropwell Bishop, review coming soon), I was after something harder and cleaner of texture to provide a happy medium between the other two. The staff at Hamish Johnston first steered me towards something called Berkswell, from Warwickshire, but I wasn't that impressed - it was quite bland and needed something to lift it above its straightforward texture. But Redesdale, from Northumberland Cheeses, was much more interesting. Just the right side of waxy, with a nice acidy tang to balance the dense, sweet flesh, it was impossibly easy to eat. I think it took the four of us barely ten minutes to cut it right back to the rind.

Thanks to a quick Google, I can report that Mark Robertson has been making Redesdale at his farm in the Rede Valley since 1984, and over the years it's gathered quite a collection of prizes. All richly deserved, of course, and as I've mentioned it was definitely a hit on my cheeseboard, but I have two issues with Northumberland Cheeses. Firstly all their offerings seem to be pasteurised, which probably makes them easier to deal with (and export) but I've begun to really notice the lack of that deep, farmy flavour from a pasteurised product. I'd really like to try an unpasteurised Redesdale - I'm sure it would be even nicer. Secondly, and less forgiveably, they in common with some other otherwise reputable small-scale producers, seem to have a bizarre compulsion to bring out special "flavoured" editions of their flagship product. As well as displaying a worrying lack of confidence in the cheese itself, it reeks of lazy opportunism to add (bleugh) apricot or (aargh) garlic instead of expanding your range in more inventive ways. After all, why go to the expense and effort of creating a new cheese if you can just chop up some cherries into the one you've already got?

That minor rant aside, there's no reason why anyone wouldn't enjoy the unblemished and un-meddled-with Redesdale sheep's cheese. Ignoring for a moment any of the more esoteric varieties from Northumberland Cheeses, this definitely stands up in its own right as an interesting and moreish member of a cheeseboard. I do warn you though, if I ever see a kiwi-flavoured Stinking Bishop or a galangal-infused Stichelton, I'm starting a campaign.


Friday 16 October 2009

Polpo, Soho

Purely in terms of a concept perfectly pitched to the jaded, trend-chasing diners of London, Polpo appears to have everything going for it. You've tried tapas before, sure, haven't we all. But what's this - Italian "tapas", based on a Venetian bacaro - bitesize (often literally) portions of Italian food, each little more than a couple of quid and presented with a shockingly reasonable Italian wine list. The room is romantically lit (ie. you can barely see your hand in front of your face) but whereas in other restaurants this only serves to annoy, in Polpo it seems to fit with the clandestine Venetian style, like you've discovered a hidden gem of a bar near St. Mark's Square. You almost expect to hear the gentle lapping of the canals beneath the buzz of the crowd. Polpo has everything going for it, then. Everything that is, apart from the food.

First to disappoint were the arancini, deep-fried risotto balls. Bland in colour and taste, these weren't so much under seasoned as completely un-seasoned, and were like eating wet plaster of Paris. My crostini of chicken livers was just a slice of toasted baguette with what for all the world could pass as a supermarket paté - uniformly smooth, timid of flavour. And I wasn't just unlucky - the other crostini had similarly poor feedback from my friends at the table last night, a "horrible" cheap black olive in particular spoiling an otherwise OK salt fish and polenta offering.

The larger dishes were similarly cack-handed. Octopus salad had the opposite problem of the arancini, being unpleasantly salty; pork belly with raddicchio and hazelnuts had some fine flavours but the inedibly chewy rind on the meat itself was distracting; slow-roast duck with tomatoes was boring, under seasoned yet again and with none of the flavoursome fat that duck can offer; only a dish of cuttlefish cooked in ink was worth the asking price - rich in flavour and balanced with a pleasant tang of the sea.

By this point we were becoming thoroughly dispirited but ploughed on gamely through another handful of boring dishes. Mussels and clams were yet again under seasoned, not very fresh, and a good half of the mussels were closed (albeit smashed apart). Turnip tops flavoured with chilli and garlic were not bad I suppose but at nearly £5 for the bit of the turnip (hardly an expensive vegetable anyway) you normally throw away is extracting the Michael somewhat. And I have here in my notes "Fennel, bobby beans, cobnuts" but can't for the life of me remember eating it. Which probably tells you all you need to know.

What's even more frustrating about my meal last night was how much I was looking forward to it, based on the opinion of many people whose opinions I implicitly trust. It's baffling - perhaps last night the usual chef was ill or otherwise unavailable, as I came away with the distinct impression nobody was tasting any of the food leaving the kitchens - nearly everything was incorrectly seasoned. But still, part of me really wants Polpo to work. Despite everything, it's still a gorgeous little spot for a very reasonably priced drink, and the service and welcome from all the staff was perfectly friendly and professional. Sort out the problems in the kitchen and you're onto a winner. Until then, I'm staying away.


Polpo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 14 October 2009

Brindisa Ham School, Borough Market

Like all the best delicatessens and food shops, the smell of Brindisa's Borough Market outpost is exciting, unmistakeable and arresting. From the impressive rack of cured legs of Spanish ham that crown the carvery emerges a rich, earthy scent of forest mushrooms, wet oak and, of course, the thing that gives these extraordinary animals their unique flavour - acorn. It's a smell that defines Spanish food in the same way that the musk of grease and batter from a chippie does for England or the sweet waft of freshly-baked croissants from a village bakery does for France. It's an evocative and emotional smell, and I don't care if you've never been to Spain or even tasted any cured Spanish ham, you can't fail to be moved by it.

I was in Borough market on a cold dark evening as a guinea pig for Brindisa's new "Ham School" venture. The idea is you pay £65 for an evening tasting, talking about and even having a go at carving some of the world's finest cured pork product, all overseen by Alberto Ambler, the assistant manager. Helping him and providing a live demonstration of how it all should be done was Zac Fingal-Rock Innes, Brindisa's own "Master Carver", who I can personally vouch is incredibly good at his job despite the rather worrying bandage he was sporting on his right hand.

But first, the tasting. Four different hams were presented, ranging from what was modestly described as an 'entry-level' bit of pig, the 14-month cured Jamón de Monroyo Reserva from Aragón. More chewy and less 'melty' than the more expensive varieties, it was nevertheless sweet and moreish, with a subtle nuttiness.

The Jabu Recebo from Huelva was cured for far longer - 2 to 3 years - and therefore had a much more concentrated hit of those earthy forest flavours. It also had a much softer texture, the fat melting in the mouth and combining with the firmer red flesh beautifully. You could immediately tell how the ageing process improves the meat.

My favourite ham of all, the Jamón de la Dehesa de Extremadura Bellota D.O.P., to give it its full title (though referred to by the staff as "The Dehesa"), was just about as perfect a piece of meat as I've ever had the pleasure of eating. It has an unbelievably concentrated and complex flavour, verging on sour, with a deep marmite-y richness and is delightfully melty on the tongue. This was overwhelmingly the most popular ham amongst the other lucky souls invited that evening, and notice also the D.O.P. in the title there - this protects under European law every stage of the production and is the top guarantee of excellence in Iberico hams.

I'm afraid the brilliance of the Dehesa rather pulled the rug from under what Brindisa presumably lined up to be the star of the show - the Joselito Gran Reserva Bellota from Salamanca. Still excellent of course, it probably just had too subtle a mix of flavours to win over my battered, unsophisticated palette. By this time, too, the generous measures of fine La Gitana manzanilla were kicking in and possibly clouding the judgement somewhat. I have written on my rather wobbly tasting notes "Complex, balanced, smooth, woody". Let's leave it at that.

A couple more sherries later Zac bravely offered to show us how to show us how to prepare and carve a brand new leg of ham. The leg was screwed into a large scary-looking wooden brace and the excess fat trimmed off. Next, delicate thin slices of were sliced off horizontally, just a few inches at a time, using a long and thin (and frighteningly sharp) knife. It didn't look easy. But fortified by La Gitana and comforted to some degree by the thick chain mail gloves offered, I dove in.

It was incredibly satisfying to produce these delicate slices of juicy ham, and though my efforts were obviously nowhere near as beautifully produced as Zac's, it was nevertheless great fun to feel such a creative connection between yourself, the animal and the delicious end product. I'm guessing it tasted better for having just been carved too, for although this was merely a 'starter ham' (they weren't stupid enough to let us hack apart a Gran Reserva), I happily wolfed down the slices as soon as the chain mail gloves were off.

Anyone not gluttonous enough to finish off their hand-carved ham seconds after carving (that would be me, then) had it wrapped up and packed off at home time, so none went to waste. Educational, entertaining and enormous fun, I can't think of anyone that wouldn't enjoy an evening talking about and carving the finest hams in the world (well OK, maybe vegetarians, but they don't deserve to enjoy their evenings anyway). Brindisa Ham School is running every month beginning on 5th November, and comes thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday 13 October 2009

Pierre Koffman's Restaurant on the Roof, Selfridges

I'm not normally one to dash to restaurants in their first weeks of opening, but if you want a meal at the Restaurant on the Roof you don't really have much of a choice. Pierre Koffman is cooking here for just less than a month, and the news of his return to the stove after so many years away was greeted with feverish delight and the swift snapping-up of tables by London foodies. But no 'bedding-in' period, no settling down of service, no soft-opening - just 3 Michelin Star food, at £75 a head, from day one. From a temporary kitchen, and with a temporary front-of-house team. Ambitious doesn't even begin to describe it. Could it even be done?

For a time, it seemed my fears were well-founded. Reports from guests in the first week complained of indifferent service, hour-long waits between courses, and uninteresting food. One particular sticking point seemed to be the production or otherwise of the petits fours - the fury unleashed on Twitter when it became apparent some people had received them with their coffees and some hadn't was terrible to behold. But forewarned is forearmed, and I made my way past the statuesque blonde guarding the special Pierre Koffman lift (opposite the Chanel perfumes) vowing to make damn sure I got my petits fours.

Whichever design team is behind the Restaurant on the Roof (and one eagle-eyed member of our party spotted the same antler chandelier used at the Reindeer popup a year or two ago) certainly know how to impress. Down a long, softly-lit corridor lined with white chiffon you go, into a large reception area populated by a mysterious porcelain statue, up some stairs into a baroque-themed bar/waiting area and finally the restaurant itself, a vast white marquee with walls gently shimmering against the late evening London breeze. We were greeted by none other than Claire Koffman, partner of chef, who confessed to being baffled by the "huge number" of young people she'd seen sporting oversized cameras. How times have changed since La Tante Claire....

And so to the food. An amuse of pig's head and celeriac was a dreamy combination of glistening, salty pork and creamy vegetable, perfectly seasoned and bursting with fresh flavours. If this was a sign of things to come, we were in for a treat.

My starter was a special made by Bruno Loubet, Koffman's aide in the kitchens that day. A langoustine bisque, swirled with cream and topped with fresh herbs it definitely looked the part, and brought a heavenly seafood aroma to the table. It also tasted superb, with a silky smooth texture and lovely deep prawniness. Other starters were equally fantastic, such as an earthy bone marrow and snail and a semi-ironic lobster and avocado cocktail.

I have to admit to my heart sinking slightly when my main course of duck arrived. Could they not have found a better way of presenting this dish? It all looked a bit thrown together, with a confusion of sauces and haphazard scattering of weirdly-cut vegetables. Fortunately it tasted a lot better than it looked, the meat being cooked perfectly medium-rare and with an impressive crispy skin. Best of the other main courses on our table wasn't (shock horror!) the Famous Pig's Trotter (though I did try some and you can see what all the fuss is about) but instead a hare cooked three ways - braised shoulder, pan-fried breast and what was presumably the 'other bits of hare' pressed into a terrine. It reminded me, with its bold game-yness, of the Rules grouse. And there can be no higher praise than that.

I think I must have been so bowled over by my dessert of Pain Perdu that I forgot to take a picture of it, so you'll have to take my word that it was perfectly well presented. But the taste was extraordinary - gorgeous flaky pastry and impossibly light eggy filling, and served with a scoop of perfect coconut ice cream. I almost couldn't believe how good this deceptively simple dessert was. Beautiful. Most desserts around the table were equally stunning, particularly a pistachio soufflé, but I was unimpressed that none of the cheeses on the cheese course (£5 supplement) were British, and they had gone with a rather prosaic selection of Roquefort, Epoisses, Camembert and the like. Fine, but not really worth the supplement, and the Epoisses looked like it could have done with being a bit more room temperature.

And that was that, a thoroughly accomplished and enjoyable meal and a rather magical evening. We experienced none of the service issues that seemed to have plagued others, and yes, we even received a pretty tray of petits fours in a timely fashion. This doesn't, sadly, appear to be the experience of everyone in the room that evening, more of which I'm sure you'll hear about in the usual places. But I can only report on what happened on our table (the presence of a Guardian journalist perhaps swinging events in our favour), and we honestly had no complaints. If you're lucky enough to have bagged a spot at the Restaurant on the Roof then you should be looking forward to your meal enormously. Just make sure you get your petits fours.


Pierre Koffmann - Restaurant on the Roof on Urbanspoon

Monday 12 October 2009

Bibendum Wine

A few years ago, when I had just moved down to London and was looking for ways to integrate myself into urban high society and shed my provincial skin, I considered going on a wine tasting course. The world of wine and wine appreciation had always seemed glamorous and enigmatic, and the ability of the BBC Food and Drink team to rattle off the name, year and producer of a particular bottle just from a single flamboyant slurp seemed like the kind of party trick I could make use of. After a cursory Google of potential courses though, the idea seemed less appealing - I was worried about the kind of people such a scheme may attract, the £100+ cost seemed a lot for an unknown quantity, and also - mainly - I was petrified of my appalling knowledge of wine becoming public knowledge.

But the idea stayed with me, as did the desire to learn more about this mysterious world. Even without any specialised knowledge of grape varieties or vintage years, a good bottle of wine is still a good bottle of wine, and I made a concerted effort to recognise and remember the ones that brought particular pleasure - a bottle of oaky, smoky '03 Argentinian Mendoza Chardonnay with a starter at the Capital restaurant, a glass of fruity Burgundy with my pigeon at the Square.

Fast forward to a couple of years and a food blog later, and it seems that the decision not to blow a ton on a private wine tasting was, fortunately, the right one. My association with Bibendum, a smart and savvy wine merchants who organise many of their events and tastings via New Media, thus attracting a diverse crowd of bloggers and tweeters, had led me to bunk off work and head to the Saatchi gallery in Chelsea for a full day of wine-related fun. I took part in the world's first live Twitter wine tasting, decided my favourite wine in the world was a Coleccion Vivanco Quatro Varietales 2006, and ended up somewhere around dinnertime in the Champagne room drinking glasses of pink Krug. It was an incredibly fun day, and a fantastic introduction to so many different styles of wines I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to try.

Since then, Bibendum have run a handful of blogger/Twitter tastings at their headquarters in Primrose Hill and each has been more educational and enjoyable than the last. Usually based on wines from a specific country (Italy, Australia, etc.) the most recent was instead organised by grape variety, and took us on a journey from Chardonnay and White Rhone through Rosé and Pinot Noir to full-bodied reds like Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. Highlights for me included a remarkably grapefruity white Burgundy called "St Romain Clos sous la Chateau Domaine des Forges 2006" which coated the mouth with silky, oaky intensity, and a deeply chocolaty and satisfying Cab Sav/Merlot mix from Bordeaux - "Chateau Cantelys Pessac-Leognan 2004". These also happened to be two of the most expensive bottles on offer that evening - I don't know how I do it.

I wish I could say after all this fantastic, free exposure to the world's finest wines that I could hold my own at a professional tasting but alas, I'm still quite a way off yet. I still stand in awe of the guys at Bibendum who seem to be able to identify almost their entire stock by taste and have an encyclopaedic knowledge of producers, vintages and varietals. But some of it is definitely rubbing off - back in July, a few days after the Italian wine evening up in Primrose Hill, I had dinner at Galvin at Windows on Park Lane. For my beef and foie gras main course I asked the sommelier to bring me a glass of something suitable, and was very pleased with myself when I identified it as a Chianti. Not a clue which Chianti, of course, but a Chianti nonetheless. An email from the sommelier a couple of days later, and it turned out to be a "Chianti Classico Le Trame, Podere Le Boncie, 2005". Well, blow me down, if I hadn't actually learned something. And after all, what use is all this new-found knowledge if you can't use it to impress a date?

Thursday 8 October 2009

Mien Tay, Lavender Hill

You would be forgiven for assuming that out of the huge amount of restaurants on Lavender Hill, at least a handful would be any good. On the short walk from Clapham Junction up to the police station on the corner of Latchmere Road and down again to the intersection with Wandsworth Road you pass a good twenty or so actual sit-down restaurants - I'm not even including the takeaway joints or kebab shops. In the five or six years I've been living in the area, I think I've been to most of them at least once or twice, endlessly, foolishly optimistic that the next may serve a meal even worth paying for, never mind returning to. There's a mind-numbingly dull, sub-Wagamamas sushi joint, a dreadful overpriced "gastropub", two equally awful Thai restaurants, a terrible fish and chip shop, a handful of middle-of-the-road Indians that could have been transplanted from any suburban high street in the country, and even a Nepalese which I'm yet to visit but which in its previous incarnation as a French restaurant once made me wait an hour for my starter and I left without leaving a tip. There's Donna Margherita of course, which is pretty consistent, and I'll admit I've never stepped inside Nancy Lam's Enak Enak, put off largely by the garish twenty-foot-high personality-cult portrait of a grinning Nancy on the side of the building. But really, more is less in this part of the city.

So you'll forgive me for getting ludicrously excited about the arrival of Mien Tay, a proper Vietnamese restaurant which has been wowing the crowds in trendy Shoreditch for a year or two now and which has chosen this cursed stretch of road, amongst the estate agents and two-for-one cocktail bars, for its second branch. Still in soft-opening phase until tomorrow (9th October), the meal we had was discounted by 10% and you can't yet pay by credit card (necessitating a hasty jog down the hill in the rain to the cash point), but judging purely by the standard of the food served, Mien Tay stands head, shoulder and toes over the rest of the dross in the area.

First of the small dishes to arrive was a heavenly honey-glazed quail, rich in sweet spicing and heady notes of garlic and fresh herbs. Perfectly charred and deeply marinated, it was a joy to pull apart and suck at the little limbs with their crispy coating. And it was as pretty as a picture to look at too - even the garnish showing attention to detail, some pickled carrots being sweet and sour in just the right balance.

Tamarind prawns were perfectly juicy and for £6 there were plenty of nice fat crustaceans here, doused in the tangy tamarind sauce. If I was going to be picky, I am still a bit squeamish about these gloopy sauces thickened with (I assume) cornflour, but this is probably just a personal thing. I still ate them all.

Spring rolls were as good as I've had almost anywhere - just crunchy enough, deftly and greaselessly fried, and containing superbly fresh vegetables. And the minced beef parcels in betel leaves were gorgeous, the thin fried leaves breaking to reveal moist and richly beefy mince. Both dishes were again very attractively presented with huge bunches of fresh herbs and mint.

This Bánh xèo crispy pancake was somewhat of a gamble. One of my dining companions last night had recently been in Vietnam, and her favourite dish she ate all trip was a Bánh xèo somewhere in the south, which she spent the rest of the journey trying and failing to match. The unwritten rule is do not try and recreate your favourite holiday dishes at home, as they will invariably be a disappointment. But the example here was declared "not quite as good as the best, but better than all the others". High praise indeed.

The best, however, was yet to come. A rather straightforwardly presented plate of thin fried lamb and onions was so brilliantly spiced and deeply-flavoured it almost ranked up there with any of Tayyabs' best offerings. It seems odd to compare the light, fresh notes of Vietnamese cooking with the dense and meaty Pakistani grill house, but the parallels here were obvious - cheapish meat, albeit cooked intelligently, with such a brilliant command of spicing that the dish is lifted into another stratosphere.

The bill, a paltry £42 which included a bottle of white wine, came with a final unexpected flourish - a segmented half orange. The love, the care and the passion is in the detail, and Mien Tay has enough to satisfy the most jaded Battersea resident. Anywhere else in London Mien Tay would be welcomed with open arms and would deserve to do very well. By the standards of Lavender Hill, it's as if the culinary gods themselves have shined a light from the heavens and blessed SW11 with the restaurant of their dreams. On a damp Wednesday night, with little to no publicity (it has apparently already been open three weeks and yet most of the foodie publications on Twitter were oblivious), it was full by the time we left at 8pm. It won't be long before they'll be queuing out of the door.


Mien Tay on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 6 October 2009

Ping Pong, Soho

Before we go any further, Full Disclosure. I didn't pay for this meal. I was invited by the PR lady to try their new Autumn menu after I made some (unprompted) positive comments about it on Twitter, and of course I was happy to accept. But believe me or not, I have always had a soft spot for Ping Pong. Whether or not the traditionalists like it, dim sum lends itself extraordinarily well to post-pub dining, and although Yauatcha was probably the first place to promote the peculiar idea of serving food when the customers might want to eat it rather than when the restaurant decides is convenient for them, the raft of mini-chains that have followed in its wake (including Dim T) have proved that it's not that peculiar an idea after all.

When you think about it, it's obvious. A group of friends, some more hungry than others, some more drunk than others, some leaving early, some arriving late. Imagine trying to make a booking at a restaurant in Soho last-minute - "Yeah, between two and twenty of us, some not eating, some not drinking either. We'll be there any time in the next four hours." Not going to happen is it. But here stands Ping Pong: vast, reasonably priced and welcoming. Sure, you'll have to queue in busy periods, and it can get quite boisterous later in the evening, but for a reliably fun place to share food, sip fruity cocktails and not completely drain that month's budget, I can hardly think of anywhere more suitable.

We started small, with nibbles of Sichuan pork cracklings (not very Sichuan-y - in fact they tasted just like your average pub pork scratchings, albeit served with a really lovely chilli oil) and tamarind prawn crackers (the tamarind sauce was lovely and sharp, and the crackers themselves looked pleasingly rustic) while we supped on our largely successful house cocktails (my lychee martini was pretty good, although the Earl Grey julep was odd).

Seafood puff was a little low on filling, but what was there was tasty. The mooli and spring onion puff is described on the menu as containing 'a hint of garlic' but was so overwhelmingly garlicky it almost drowned any other flavours. Slices of smoked duck were a bit flabby but full of smoky flavour, and one of the new dishes, 'Beggar's Chicken' looked the part and tasted great with its sharp hoi sin dressing.

I won't detail everything we ate - you've probably had enough of the blow-by-blow style after El Bulli and the Sportsman - but some highlights were the char sui buns, usually a good measure of a dim sum restaurant and which passed that test perfectly, being light and gooey and with a great tasting sweet pork filling. The seafood dumplings also tasted as good as they looked, folded into a cute tortellini shape and stuffed full of sweet prawns and scallops. Unfortunately I didn't think much of the honey-glazed spare ribs, which looked a bit over-marinated and bedraggled, and although the crispy prawn balls looked spectacular in their nest of deep-fried egg pastry, there was simply too much grease for me to wade through to find the prawns.

Desserts, so often an afterthought in Chinese restaurants, were surprisingly good. Admittedly had I been paying I probably would never had ordered them, but the mango pudding was lovely and fresh tasting - straightforward but deliberately so - and the "Ping Pong Delights" (which I'm told are also known as mochi) were great fun, with a spongy pastry coating three radically different flavours of ice cream. We particularly enjoyed the vanilla and mango with a quite unexpected chilli heat. Only the chocolate and wasabi mousse was a bit of a let-down, the fiery horseradish sitting very uneasily with the sweet chocolate.

If you've ever been out in Soho or Oxford Circus and been looking for somewhere to eat, chances are you've already found Ping Pong and none of this is news to you. And in fact they seem to have struck a chord with Londoners at large, judging by the alarming growth rate of what was once a mini-chain - there are now twelve branches. Ping Pong is a fine example of the way London can enthusiastically adopt a cuisine from another country and twist it just subtly enough to meet its own local needs. No, it's not strictly "traditional" to eat dim sum in the evening, but this is after all London, not Hong Kong. We do things differently here.

Ping Pong on Urbanspoon

Monday 5 October 2009

The Sportsman, Seasalter

I got the impression that we'd arrived for our meal at the Sportsman just as this remote spot was on the verge of transitioning from sun-baked and peaceful to windswept and desolate. It was a glorious late summer's day, a warm breeze blew in from the sea and the windows in this effectively but unsentimentally restored old boozer were all wide open. Thanks to various recent reviews the Sportsman still feels like a new find; in fact it's been here since for just over a decade - plenty of time, then, to hone their interior design skills and carefully managed hospitality. We took our seats at a huge rustic table decorated with humorously shaped vegetables, and waited for the show to begin.

Like the devil-may-care, adventurous foodies we are, we asked head honcho Stephen Harris to just serve us a tasting menu of whatever he saw fit. The Sportsman prides itself on serving local, seasonal produce - and when they say local, they really mean it. The salt is from the sea, about 20 steps away, what veg they can't grow in their own gardens is from a farm about 2 minutes up the road, and it's a little unnerving to be eating a perfectly cooked, juicy rack of lamb whilst simultaneously watching its live cousins gambolling in the field over the road. Well, at first perhaps - I soon got over it.

Our first course was a native oyster each (first of the season apparently - they weren't on the chalkboard menu put up for the other punters) with a tiny, spicy button of fried chorizo on top. I don't normally like anything other than a shallot vinaigrette with my oysters, but this was really nice, crunchy for a texture contrast and with a little spicy kick to liven up the briny flesh of the mollusc.

After gobbling down the oysters, a little stone tray of pork scratchings and pickled herrings arrived. The scratchings were mainly crispy but with the odd lovely bit of gooey flesh. They weren't as salty as I was expecting, and were even slightly sweet, but were delicious nonetheless. And the herring came as a little canapé, on a cocktail stick with rye bread, cream cheese and gooseberry jelly. Great to see gooseberry coming back into fashion, and it was a perfect compliment to this fish.

These bijou bowls of poached oysters, Jersey cream and gooseberry granita were delicate and fresh and an interesting flavour combination I've not seen elsewhere. In fact you don't really see many cooked oyster dishes anywhere, which is a shame because these were very tasty.

Slip sole (kind of a small subspecies of sole) poached in seaweed butter was an absolute triumph. I'm a huge sole fan, and the meaty, firm flesh of this little fish was cooked to absolute perfection. Overcooked sole is an absolute disaster (see The Bolingbroke), but it's a real mark of the skill in this kitchen that they can serve up such a (relatively) small cut of flatfish and get every inch of it just right. All of our plates were licked clean to the bone.

The next seafood dish, a crab risotto, was probably the best risotto I've ever eaten in my life. It wasn't just the superbly seasoned mixture, the confidently straightforward presentation or the perfectly-judged portion size. It wasn't even the overwhelmingly intense "crabbiness" of the aroma that seemed to fill the room the moment the bowl was placed down. No, what most impressed me was the way they had used the brown meat to make the rice mixture - the risotto itself - and topped it with a generous portion of the sweet white meat on top. So we had a brown-meat mixture topped with white-meat, cleverly and knowingly recreating a dressed crab in the form of a risotto. This was a multi-Michelin-starred dish masquerading as a gastropub starter, and it was brilliant.

I don't know if it was just that I'd chomped my way through some of the world's finest Iberico ham just a couple of days before at Brindisa's Ham School (more on that to come) - in fact I'm sure it was just that - but I was slightly underwhelmed by the Sportsman's home-cured ham. Quite dry and very salty, it was by their own admission just a way of using up legs of local pork that they couldn't sell for the Sunday roasts, so I probably shouldn't be too harsh. Plus I ate it all. There's always room in the world for more ham product, and you have to admire their thrifty, not to mention environmentally sound, attitude.

This handsome little fillet of tasty turbot sat on top of a stack of boiled greens and was surrounded by a fantastic rich broth of herring roe - the kind you can buy in Tesco's as 'Avruga' or fake caviar. The flavours were strong and satisfying, the meaty turbot sitting perfectly with the salty roe, and it added up to yet another near-perfect dish. We were on a roll.

A couple of fried lamb breast slices in breadcrumbs with a little minty dip were perfectly pleasant, but just served to whet our appetite for the lamb course proper - rack and slow-cooked shoulder with home-grown green beans. The meat on the rack was so tender it pulled off the bone with the barest amount of effort, and the shoulder was crunchy on top and moist within, all you could wish for. It was a deceptively simple preparation that showed off the superb ingredients to their fullest, and was a hit with everyone on our table.

First of the desserts was a little cup of something called 'cake milk' and a lollipop of blackberry granita. It was great to have such a strong hit of blackberry and such a creamy homemade custard, and even this tiny amuse was still impressive.

Apple parfait with caramel, blackberry sorbet and hazelnuts was, I'm afraid, the only dish that really didn't do much for me. It wasn't just that the hazelnuts were a bit soggy (they perhaps needed roasting longer, or at all) or that the blackberry sorbet was very similar to the previous dish. The parfait itself was a strange unpleasantly lumpy texture and didn't have a good enough flavour to overcome this disadvantage - it seemed a bit bitter.

Fortunately the Sportsman didn't end the desserts on a duff note. What arrived next was an impressive tray of five different desserts. From right to left, we have what I think was a rhubarb sorbet with a hilarious dose of popping candy, a chocolate mousse, an absolutely wonderful sharp lemon and raspberry tart, a caramelised plum, and a little block of sponge cake soaked in some kind of subtle walnut liqueur.

It wasn't just the food on the plates that impressed about the Sportsman, however. The wine list, for example, contained such ludicrously low mark-ups that Stephen quietly explained to us that some of the bottles even made them a small loss. We guzzled our way through two bottles of a crisp dry Sauvignon Blanc "Sancerre Clos des Bouffants Domaine Roger Nevau" which according to a quick Google costs £15 retail and for which we paid around £21. This went very well with the oysters and seafood dishes. Similarly, a Bordeaux, "Chateau Forcas Dumont 2003" was barely a 50% markup on retail and its rich, fruity notes went superbly with the lamb dishes. House bread was an outstanding achievement too, with a near-perfect sourdough, a crispy rosemary foccacia and a dense, malty soda bread served with home-churned sea-salted butter. I don't think I've had a better bread selection anywhere in the UK except perhaps the Harwood Arms.

But what was most impressive about the Sportsman, aside from their attention to detail, generosity of spirit and effortlessly charming service, is the fact that at its heart, it's still just a local pub that happens to serve incredible food. Throughout our meal various tired hikers popped in with their rucksacks and sandy boots to down a quick pint of Shepherd's Neame and be on their way. There's a dartboard on the way to the gents, a terrace for drinks if you're not eating, and I don't care how used you are to your individual hand towels and Molton Brown soap, it's hard not to be charmed by the rickety cubicles and push-button hand dryer from its days as a run-down and isolated boozer. The contrast was heartwarmingly evident.

On the journey home that evening, a few spots of rain cooled the air and heralded the start of autumn. I'm not worried for the Sportsman, of course - it's lasted ten years and will last many more, drawing eager punters from near and far. The fact that anyone would make a special journey out to what must be a desperately harsh location once winter has arrived is testament to just how good it is. But it's hard not to just feel a little sad that I've probably eaten my last blackberry granita of 2009. Summer, then. How was it for you? Here's to next year.


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