Tuesday 25 May 2010

Cheese of the Month - Taleggio "La Baita"

Over the past few months I had found myself buying the same three or four cheeses on every single journey to the cheese shop. There's nothing wrong with that I suppose, they're good cheeses, together they make a good, varied cheeseboard, and I'm never disappointed. They are, in case you're wondering, Comté, Valencay goat's, Stinking Bishop and Roquefort - from blue to pungent, soft to firm, cow's to goat's, all bases covered. A good, solid cheeseboard. Something for everyone. But this week I thought it was time to bring a new contender into rotation, and so substituting out the Stinking Bishop (which to be fair only ever I was really crazy about and always seemed to be the one with the most left after guests had gone) I settled on a Taleggio called La Baita.

Most information about this cheese on the internet appears to be in Italian, so you have Google Translate to thank (and possibly blame) for the following. It's DOP designated, which if you trust the Italian government means it's been through a "scrupulous quality process that assesses thoroughly the quality", or if you don't means precisely nothing. It's made from pasturised cow's milk, which means it will last longer in the fridge but not have that extra layer of fresh farmy complexity that marks out the best soft cheeses. And it comes from a breathtakingly picturesque part of Lombardy called the Taleggio Valley, which has been mapped by Google Streeview if you want some serious landscape envy.

And it tastes really lovely. Once you peel off the annoying bits of paper you can appreciate the crumbly salty crust, covering a thin layer of almost liquid flesh just beneath. The main part of the cheese is firm enough to give bite but not soft enough to run, and has an interesting sweet and salty flavour with just the right level of pungent aroma. The layer of liquid beneath the crust apparently means that the cheese is correctly matured, and so it's all the more impressive that the main part of the flesh remained nicely firm - it's a well-made cheese, in other words, with all textures, flavours and aromas nicely balanced. I enjoyed it very much, almost enough for it to earn a permanent place on my cheeseboard. That is, until the next new favourite soft cheese comes along. Call me fickle, or call me open-minded.


Wednesday 19 May 2010

Zucca, Bermondsey

It's been a long, long time since I've had an Italian meal as good as the one I was served at Zucca last night. Years, in fact. One of the many benefits of running a food blog is that all of my significant meals are documented and time stamped in obsessive detail, and so I can therefore reveal that the last Italian meal I ate in London that I really thought was worthy of the price paid was all the way back in April 2008, at Zafferano in Belgravia. The difference at Zafferano, however, was that those two delicious but teeny courses, no alcohol and tap water came to £40 a head - quality, in Belgravia, comes at a price. Not so in Bermondsey - look at these numbers:

Not a starter over £4, no mains over £13, and a sumptuous list of seasonal Italian ingredients that are enough to make your head spin. All good meals start with a good menu, and this one read like a dream - smoked eel, rabbit, sea bream, halibut, octopus, it was enough to make me want to order all of it, but decided a more sensible option was to share three antipasti, a bowl of pasta and a main between the two of us.

The only dish I wasn't head over heels in love with was the 'Zucca' fritti - fried pumpkin sticks, which although competently fried and with a light enough batter, just weren't interesting enough to sustain more than a couple of mouthfuls without feeling slightly queasy. I'm quite willing to admit this may just be a personal aversion to deep-fried, battered vegetables (I'm not too keen on tempura either) and my friend quite liked them, so they were probably fine. Buffalo mozzarella and radicchio though, was fantastic - fluffy, fresh mozzarella, seasoned and drizzled with excellent oil, sat on top of a layer of bitter grilled radicchio, producing addictive texture and flavour contrasts.

Even better was a rabbit, pancetta and hazelnut salad, where each element of this superficially simple dish was prepared to absolute perfection. Crunchy, freshly-toasted hazelnuts hid amongst beautifully dressed rocket and endive leaves, and topped with pieces of the most unbelievably juicy rabbit meat. Star of the show, though, were tiny crispy slivers of pancetta, which seasoned the dish and added that all-important 'porkiness'. I'm still slightly stunned that my favourite dish in any restaurant was a salad, but believe me, this was no ordinary salad.

That the asparagus fettucine didn't quite live up to the galactic heights of the rabbit salad is not much of a criticism. Fresh al-dente pasta and dainty strips of asparagus still made a hugely enjoyable plate of food, but by this time I had been spoiled by that amazing pancetta and was craving it like a drug. It is true, as any Sichuan restaurant will tell you, that there aren't many things that can't be improved by the addition of pork.

The veal chop at Zucca is fast becoming their signature dish, and is remarkable not only for its tender flesh and zingy lemon dressing but also for its value - to serve this large chunk of veal (what amounted in fact to a veal T-bone) on a generous bed of perfectly seasoned spinach for less than £13 is an absolute steal. I wonder what it would have been like with some pancetta on top? It's almost too wonderful to think about.

Even the desserts impressed. A lemon tart was as lemony and tarty as you'd want, with a nice firm pastry, and a panacotta was flavoured with some kind of fruit we were told was related to the apricot. It tasted like apricot. It was nice.

So then, the gauntlet has been thrown. From this moment on, it is no longer acceptable to charge £10 for a bowl of spaghetti in tomato sauce, £5 for some greasy microwaved mushrooms or £17 for cheap steak in mass-produced black pepper sauce. Likewise, we also no longer have to pay £40+ a head for excellent, fresh Italian produce cooked with care and served with a smile. Zucca is two fingers up to any cynical restaurateur who ever thought that making a quick buck out of marking up dirt-cheap ingredients and flogging it to clueless tourists was all that London deserved, or anyone else who thought that just because you're serving something better than Bella Pasta you could charge people as much as you like. I have seen the way and its name is Zucca. The revolution starts here.


Zucca on Urbanspoon

Monday 17 May 2010

Koya, Soho

I've given up on sushi in London. I've tried, honestly I've tried - this isn't a decision I've reached based on a handful of trips to Itsu and a pre-flight binge at Yo! Gatwick Airport. I've been all over the place - to Tsuru in Southwark, Ten Ten Tei in Soho, even travelled to Willesden Green, for goodness' sake - nobody should ever have to do that. The Willesden trip was to try Sushi Say, in case you're wondering, a restaurant which stands head and shoulders above its competition only because its competition is Willesden Green. I sat in the wrong seat and was shouted at. I won't be back.

The irony is, of course, that some of my favourite food in London is Japanese, it just isn't sushi. Roka, on Charlotte Street, serves a delicious selection of charcoal-grilled meats, not to mention their famous black cod and miso, and is a lovely place to while away a lunchtime. The bento boxes from the Tokyo Diner in Soho are also pretty reliable (particularly the chicken katsu), and you have to love anywhere that asks - nay, demands - that you don't leave a tip. But like so many things, in London we like our sushi shrink-wrapped, mass-produced and inoffensively familiar. The fact that the best sashimi I've had in this country formed part of a course at the Fat Duck is hardly a glowing endorsement of a vibrant UK sushi scene. And don't even get me started on M&S and their bloody cooked tuna rolls.

It is thanks, therefore, to the seemingly endless and fascinating variations of Japanese cuisine that we don't just have dismal London sushi to judge it on. Latest to cause a stir in the capital is Koya, which takes niche specialisation to a new level by focusing just on udon noodle - those thick, silky noodles which you may think you've had at Wagamamas, but really, you haven't. The Koya udon are made by hand (or rather by foot, by the traditional method), and are served hot or cold with a short but sweet selection of toppings - tempura, beef, chicken, etc.

To share as a mini starter we ordered a few slices of roast duck, which was served room temperature in a light soy dressing and spring onions, and a very powerful (presumably home-made) mustard. A delicate, finely balanced little plate of food which showcased the slices of moist pink duck very well.

For mains we ordered one each of the 'Hiya-Atsu', cold udon with a hot broth. My beef broth was superb, the largely transparent liquid belying an extraordinary depth of flavour. On top we each cracked a fresh cold poached egg ("onsen tamago"), a clever little thing traditionally cooked in hot springs to get a soft white but a slightly set yolk. The real star though was the udon, which for want of a better word were simply incredibly 'noodle-y', with delivered rich, fresh ingredients and an incredible texture, slippery on the outside and meaty within. I made a hell of a mess transferring the cold noodles into the bowl of broth, but it was all part of the fun - they didn't last long. A friend's pork and miso was similarly inspired, although she made far less of a mess of the table with her udon. I think she just wasn't trying hard enough.

Koya is already popular with the diners of Soho, and you can see why. Attractive, unpretentious and with an accessible but pleasingly authentic vibe, it was packed on Friday lunchtime and we even had to wait ten minutes or so for a table for two to become available. Starting with some premium ingredients (special flour is imported from Japan, as well as some bits to make the dashi), it's the extra value in the care and attention that really shows, and our hearty, healthy lunch was worth every penny of the measly £13 or so it cost us each. Well done Koya, then, for showing London how good Japanese street food should be done, and for not charging an arm and a leg for the privilege. Who needs sushi, anyway?


Koya on Urbanspoon

Friday 14 May 2010

The Meatwagon at the Florence, Herne Hill

It was my friend Helen Graves who first brought the mysterious Yianni to the attention of London burger fans. An odd little enterprise, he travels across America for most of the year, collecting recipes, tips and traditions from as many different independent food outlets as he can, and then returns to the UK and attempts to recreate them, not from a permanent shop or even a hired kitchen, but a rickety looking mobile hotplate on wheels called the Meatwagon. The unpredictable nature and location of his appearances, not to mention the slavering reports from those lucky enough to try his Bobcat burger (Bobcat Bite, New Mexico) or the bacon cheeseburger (Hodad's, California) have created a kind of cultish following, one I'm sure that is completely deliberately encouraged by Yianni.

So it was with great anticipation that I arrived at the Florence pub in Herne Hill last night, where a hole had been cut in the garden fencing to allow the hatch from Yianni's van to slot in so neatly it's almost as if he was a permanent feature. Watching Yianni working with a critical eye was the pub dog Barksdale, who seemed to do very well that evening stealing scraps of hot dog and burger from generous drunken revellers. In the end, in fact, the dog did better than most people, as barely an hour after I arrived at 6pm Yianni had already run out of hotdogs. And bacon. And chilli. And then finally, a good hour and a half later, just as we'd managed to extract three plain cheeseburgers and a couple of Philly cheese steaks, those ran out too, leaving a good twenty or thirty people in the queue behind us hungry and really rather annoyed. I slunk past the fuming queue with my bounty and settled quietly in a corner of the pub to see what all the fuss was about.

Heavens above, they were good. Really, really good. Smashed beef patties soaked in slimy Kraft cheese sat inside golden, slightly toasted, soft buns criss-crossed with French's mustard and ketchup. The only token salad was a small handful of chopped iceberg to provide a bit of extra texture, just like you'd find in the States. The authenticity, in fact, was stunning - close your eyes against the grey British sky and you could have been in California, from the water steamed around the hotplate just before serving, to the lovely thick helping of American cheese. I didn't think any burger in the world could have been worth such fuss and wait, but this definitely was, and more. I was instantly and fiercely smitten.

The Philly cheese steak was, if not quite up there next to the burger, very confidently and competently constructed. The moist strips of steak were tender and tasty, and chopped fried vegetables were bound together with yet more lovely yellow "cheese". I've never been to Philadelphia, or for that matter ever had a Philly cheese steak from anywhere else, but given the detail lavished on the burger I'm willing to bet this is a pretty good recreation. It too disappeared in seconds, amongst a chorus of coos and moans.

Given the bother and wait and the fact that most of our original order was substituted, I was definitely not in the mood for charity, and that the Meatwagon burgers completely won me over with the first bite is a testament to Yianni's monumental achievement. His uncompromising attitude towards American tradition coupled with his frustrating stock management just, if anything, make the whole experience that much more authentic - even if the angry groups gathered around his rickety stall as the last Philly steaks went out may not have appreciated it. They can complain all they like, but nobody knows better than Yianni that they will be back, again and again and again. And by God, so will I.


Find out when the Meatwagon is appearing next by visiting his website.

The Florence on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 11 May 2010

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

"Have you ever heard of Daniel Boulud?" I naively asked my friend, a New Yorker. Her snort of disbelief could have been heard across the Atlantic.

"Of course! Daniel Boulud is famous!" she replied, "He's one of the best."

She's right, of course - even his Wikipedia entry describes him as a "famous French chef" - but in that curious way in which the United Kingdom and the US seem to share obsessions with musicians and movie stars but very rarely chefs, he's barely known over here. Despite all the fuss over Jamie Oliver's America in the UK press, I have it on good authority that your average American wouldn't know him from Adam. I kind of envy them.

But if you don't know who Daniel Boulud is yet, you will soon. The opening of Bar Boulud, tucked neatly underneath the grand pile that is the Mandarin Oriental Knightsbridge, is Boulud's first UK restaurant, and has been greeted with the biggest fanfare and whirlwind of frantic blogging since, well the last big new mid-range bistro opening (Bruno Loubet in Clerkenwell). First impressions of the room are pretty good - a faint whiff of new paint still lingers but the low ceilings and open kitchen create an informal and attractive space, and the staff - present in huge numbers - are friendly and eager to please. That is, until they caught sight of a camera.

"Excuse me, sir, are you from a magazine?"

This question wasn't directed at me - I had my usual iPhone. If attractive, properly composed shots of food started appearing on this blog I'd probably give half my readership a coronary. The offending camera, an impressive looking digital SLR, belonged to a friend of mine and had provoked the attention of a nervous senior waiter.

"I will just go and have a word with chef and make sure it's OK for you to take photos."

And so he scurried off. Moments later, he was back.

"It is fine as long as you don't take any pictures of peoples faces."

Not even our own? Anyway, that was that. I suppose it makes sense that the only restaurant in years to raise the taking of photos as an issue was one that was not only based very much on an American model, but has also brought a number of its employees over from New York to handle the launch. Blogging is, in common with most things internet-related, far more established and commonplace in the States and the backlash against uppity amateurs arranging complex and time-consuming shots and annoying other diners with powerful flash photography has - quite rightly - begun in earnest. I've done various bits of press defending bloggers' (and diners') rights to take photos of the food that they've paid for, but I think using flash and tripods and demanding special privileges is not only unacceptable but potentially damaging to the currently fairly good relationship between us and restaurants.

There, I've said my bit - now to the food. To share between the three of us we had a small portion of the famous Boulud charcuterie board, containing slices of a number of different terrines and hams, and a boudin blanc on truffled potato. The charcuterie was excellent value, containing premium meats of all kinds and a liberal application of foie gras, and it was hard to fault any of it. Highlights were a herby "pulled rabbit" terrine which had a lovely rosemary hit, and a lamb "tagine" containing a complex spice mix that Tayyabs would have been proud of. The boudin blanc was soft and rich (although I didn't detect much truffle in the truffled potatoes) and even the pickles stood out thanks to their strength of flavour and sweet/vinegar balance.

Three pieces of glistening pork belly arrived "compliments of the chef" while we were tucking into our charcuterie. At first I assumed this was some kind of opening week promotion or it was simply an extra handed out to all diners, but it very soon transpired that someone front of house had Googled my name, found the blog, and now Daniel Boulud himself was sending out dishes he felt we should try. All very flattering of course, but I mention it only as a kind of disclaimer - the service we received is probably not the norm. That said, I'm buggered if I'm going to start booking under a pseudonym.

My main was a roasted chicken breast with wild garlic and artichokes. With great crispy skin and nicely seasonal, this was a comforting and rustic dish of classic French bistro food - the kind you really don't see very much of in London at all. A friend's burger, the Piggie (containing pulled pork), was perfectly proportioned and - take note Grand Union - an ideal size for eating with your hands. The Frenchie burger, though, was on another level. The use of strong Morbier cheese, not an idea I would normally entertain in any burger, actually enhanced the flavour of the aged beef, and wonderful crispy confit pork belly stood in for a bacon slice. It was brilliant, but - full disclosure again - it was on the house, as was another plate of sausage, this time a rich boudin noir. And there's nothing like a freebie to enhance your dining experience.

Boulud himself is, as you might imagine for a man who made his living out of hospitality, charm itself. Appearing at our table a couple of times during the meal, he mentioned he was having "forty or so" chefs over that evening for an opening week party.

"We have quite a guest list. Would you like to see?"

He wasn't kidding. Joel Robuchon, Pierre Hermé, Shane Osborn, Claude Bosi - almost literally every top chef in London and most of Paris. If a bomb had been dropped on Bar Boulud last night we would all be eating Pret sandwiches and McDonalds for the next few years. Heston Blumenthal and Jamie Oliver weren't on the list but were apparently "expected", and although Jason Atherton, Marcus Wareing and Angela Hartnett were coming, there was no sign of Big Sweary himself. I can kind of see why. I briefly thought about sitting out the next couple of hours at the bar to watch the procession of food celebrities arrive, before scaring myself with the realisation I'd even considered it.

We finished with a couple of nice macaroons each (presumably Hermé's work) and asked for the bill. It came to £170 for three, which was pretty good value considering the location and pedigree (we'd had a couple of bottles of wine and some of us had coffee) - Bar Boulud is hardly a budget option but is not charging anywhere near as much as it could for cooking of this standard. The big question mark hanging over the whole evening, though, is would I have felt the same if the eager front of house hadn't Googled me and given us the whole VIP treatment? I'm not delusional enough to think that one bad review on one blog out of hundreds is going to make much of a difference to their bottom line, but clearly someone somewhere thinks its worth their while to 'research' their guests and tailor service accordingly. Last night, I was flattered and pathetically grateful. Once the novelty wears off, I'm not so sure. And how does it reflect on a restaurant if they aren't treating everyone the same?

I suppose the most important thing is the food, and if I was to judge the place just on the quality of the product coming out of their kitchens, then I'd still recommend it. I can try and tell myself I imagined that awkward transition between the suspicious attitude of the staff pre-Googling and the transformation post-Googling, ignore the free dishes and the attentions of the head chef, and after all that the burger and charcuterie selection is still up there with the best of them. Boulud has brought a welcome slice of New York generosity to London, and if that comes with a side order of Yankee-style internet media acumen then perhaps it's just something we'll have to get used to. You certainly won't find many bloggers complaining.


Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Monday 3 May 2010

Grand Union, Brixton

“Try the Grand Union burgers,” someone, I can’t remember who, suggested the other week. Come to think of it, it may have been Grand Union themselves, but as I’ve mentioned, I’m not doing freebies anymore. There’s part of me that wishes I was brazen and morally deficient enough to suck back as many free meals as possible and to hell with the consequences – in fact, there’s quite a large part of me that is – but the exhausted, abused white angel on the other shoulder has just enough influence to render any such invitations sufficiently awkward so as to be no fun at all. So I turned down the offer of a free burger and instead toddled on down to Brixton to try Grand Union with no nervous PR lady hovering in the metaphorical background and no tacit pressure to score up a mediocre meal. Which in this case was just as well.

Leaving the food aside, as a place to sit and drink your weekend away you can do a lot worse than the Grand Union Brixton. On a sunny day particularly, the spectacular and spectacularly huge beer garden must come into its own, but sadly this weekend – a bank holiday weekend, naturally – the hail and high winds ensured the only habitable section of the venue was inside, and it was here I sat, perched on a high stool trying to make sense of the menu.

If choice equaled quality, Grand Union would be onto a winner. There are no fewer than 23 different listed styles of burger, along with a couple of dozen or more starters, salads and ‘lite bites’, so if you woke up one morning with an insatiable craving for a half rack of BBQ ribs followed by a mozzarella and pesto beef burger, this is your place. In the end, although very nearly going for the control variable “Cheese & Bacon” burger, curiosity got the better of me and I decided upon something called “Fired Earth” – chilli spiced beef with peppered cheese, sliced jalapenos, fresh rocket and “secret” spicy sauce.

In retrospect, I suppose I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. I’ve railed against fancy speciality burgers in the past, and you could accuse me of deliberately ordering something I knew would be awful just because it was more fun to write up. But that’s honestly not what happened here – I had (reasonably) high hopes for the GU burger, not least because of a few spots of good press and the fact the places seem to be genuinely popular whenever I’ve wandered past. Plus I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a Tex-Mex burger, providing all the bits work together and it delivers on the promised chilli hit. This is what arrived:

I’ll just give you a few seconds to take that picture in. This is not a practical joke or an April Fool or some kind of industrial sabotage, I promise – it really did look like that. I could have done with something next to it to give you a sense of scale, but hopefully it comes across well enough. From the plate to the top of the bun was about ten inches; this is a ludicrous height and there’s nobody on the planet who could have eaten that with their hands – a disastrous failing for a burger. The thing was so tall it was held together not with a cocktail stick as you sometimes find places doing but with a wooden kebab skewer, and even that only just protruded from the top of the bun. But worse than that, the reason for the crazy dimensions was, as you can probably tell, a half a pound of undressed, slightly wilted rocket crushed into the middle in such catastrophically huge amounts that they may as well have called it a salad and have done with it.

Rocket is, as I’m sure you’re aware, a very strongly-flavoured plant even in small amounts, and if I’d attempted to eat this towering monstrosity as delivered not only would I have needed the jawline of a boa constrictor but I would have tasted nothing but rocket. So in order to get some kind of idea of what the Grand Union burger tastes like when not hidden beneath half a pound of rabbit food, I scooped out the greens and ate it without. To be fair, the burger itself was alright, cooked medium and with a nice crunchy exterior from the grill. Also, the ‘peppered cheese’ was, although not in the least bit peppery as far as I could make out, quite similar to proper US burger cheese and worked pretty well. But the slice of beef tomato was too thick, the buns were too splintery and small, and the ‘secret spicy sauce’ tasted remarkably like normal sweet burger relish – in fact I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what it was. Sliced jalapenos turned out to be identical to those ones you get on your nachos at the cinema, and there was an unpleasant thick layer of cheap mayonnaise beneath the beef that made the bun base greasy and fragile.

At £12.50 with a bowl of (OK) fries, this was not a cheap burger, and unless you have a particular fondness for rocket you can’t say you got your money’s worth. It’s not the worst burger I’ve eaten so far this year – that record is safe for the time being – but it was awkwardly presented, unbalanced and irritating to eat. Everything a good burger shouldn’t be. That this place is so depressingly popular I think says more about London’s astonishingly low expectations of a burger than it does about anything that Grand Union are doing right, and yet again I’m left wondering what’s so difficult about serving a nice bit of beef in between two soft buns and a dill pickle that seems to elude almost every restaurant in London. I mean, excuse the pun, but it’s hardly rocket science.


Grand Union Brixton on Urbanspoon