Wednesday 28 July 2010

Curry Capital (delivery), Shoreditch

No matter how many miles you would happily travel for a good meal, how close your house or flat is to your favourite local restaurant or how good you are at whipping up a hearty dinner for ten in seconds flat, sometimes there's absolutely nothing better than kicking back in your own front room on a Saturday evening and tucking into a takeaway curry. When I first moved to London, I made a concerted effort to try all the local delivery places at least once so that if the opportunity arose I wouldn't inflict visiting friends and family with oily kebabs and soggy naans and send them back up North muttering about the standard of London food. A good, reliable delivery place is a valuable thing, as indispensible as a decent local minicab or a 24-hour off-licence in its contributions to a happy night in, and with that in mind I'd like to introduce you to the finest delivery service in East London - Curry Capital.

As with most of these places, the menu from Curry Capital is a mixture of familiar curry house favourites and the odd house speciality. It reads, let's be honest, like it could belong on any high street in the country, not just London, and is hardly the kind of thing to set pulses racing. But its strength isn't in the ambition of its Indian-Bangladeshi cuisine or the application of unusual techniques and ingredients - it's just that the main dishes from here are as good as I've had even in the best Indian restaurants in town, with a level of spicing and use of brilliant fresh ingredients that only seem to improve each time we make an order.

One item we never do without is the Lamb Xacuti. "Award winning" it's described on the menu, and we'll have to give them the benefit of the doubt, because it really is stunning. Tender strips of slow-cooked lamb rest in a thick spicy paste, slightly oiler than the Tayyabs dry meat perhaps but with almost the same level of meaty intensity. This week we also tried something called 'Kathmandu delicacy chicken', containing impossibly moist and tasty strips of grilled chicken in a fiery tomato/chilli sauce, as addictive and delicious as you could imagine. As if that wasn't enough, a starter portion of 'Mitah Changri' - tender king prawns in a sauce containing honey and fresh lime, amongst I'm sure many other things - was also superb, benefitting from wonderful fresh ingredients and a masterful command of spicing.

I should point out that I've never eaten in at their restaurant on Brick Lane - despite the excellent food coming out of their kitchens, that address is anathema to any self-respecting Londoner; if I'm going to leave the house for a meal I'll just keep walking to Whitechapel. But for those of you lucky enough to live within delivery distance I can only suggest next time you're in the mood for a lazy evening of curry-based indulgence and don't fancy leaving the flat, give them a call. And if you're reading this thinking "my favourite place looks better than that" then let me know and I'll give it a try - if it turns out you're right I'll be forever indebted. But after years of systematic testing of London's food delivery options, I can confidently say that operations like Curry Capital don't come along very often, and I consider myself its most loyal, and happiest, customer.


Curry Capital on Urbanspoon

Friday 23 July 2010

Trullo, Islington

Well blow me down, but if London doesn't seem to be all of a sudden getting the hang of Italian restaurants. First Zucca, an astonishing eatery in Bermondsey (of all places) which blazed a trail for fresh, affordable food and proved that the only options for Italians in London didn't have to be (heave) Zizzi's or (ouch) Aspley's. And now Trullo graces another otherwise unloved area of town with its stunningly tasty food at very reasonable prices, setting up shop just off Highbury Corner. I may not be the first to discover Trullo - as ever, that accolade goes to the always on-the-ball Majumdar brothers - but I left last night, after a delightful meal, its latest devotee.

Prices on the concise Trullo menu aren't quite as low as they were at Zucca, but then the opening £4 starters in Bermondsey didn't last long anyway - recent visitors have discovered everything bumped up a bit. Even here though, you could hardly complain. Starters and the pasta courses came in around £6-£7, and main courses £14-£15; good, solid mid-range restaurant prices and nothing to immediately either raise the hackles or raise suspicions. I did think "chorizo and Padron peppers" wasn't exactly the most Italian sounding dish in the world, but then let's not forget we're sat next to a busy high street in N1 and not in a remote farmhouse in Puglia. Strict authenticity can take a back seat to a bloody good meal, in my opinion.

The chorizo and padron peppers dish was accompanied by some juicy slices of ox heart, and was splendid. The heart was tender (a notable achievement) and had just the right level of offal tang; chorizo was as good as chorizo is, and oozed with salty red oil with every bite; the only slight disappointment was that none of the padron peppers were hot, but they couldn't have done anything about that. But even this dish paled into comparison to my companion's "Braised cuttlefish with Datterini tomatoes and basil", which was by some way the tastiest squid recipe I've had anywhere in... well, I don't know how long. Gorgeous tender pieces of squid nestled in a heady, herby vegetable sauce which complimented and accented the seafood without masking it. Lovely.

The next food to arrive on our table should have been the ravioli, but due to a mix-up in the kitchens (partly due to the no-show of the fish man and my request that we'd prefer to have the brown shrimp taglierini if he ever did arrive) we briefly had our main courses shown to us, then whipped away when we pointed out they were getting ahead of themselves. When the ravioli did turn up though, they were fantastic - salty, glossy, al dente and as addictive as crack cocaine. I could have eaten far too many of these than is good for me, and I'm almost sad I didn't. My favourite dish of them all.

So at this point, the restaurant has already made an error in bringing out our main courses too early. What's the best course of action from here on in? Throw away a perfectly good piece of quality Dorset lamb rump, or stick it under a hot lamp and hope they finish their ravioli quick-smart? I only had a brief glance at my plate the first time, but I'm pretty sure it was the same piece of meat that arrived back at the table ten or so minutes later, with either a new portion or the same reheated chickpeas, and so my lamb was disappointingly overcooked and tough. My friend's pork belly fared better, being moist and tasty and presented with some excellent artichoke hearts, but the crackling had gone chewy - a shame, as fresh from the kitchen both of these dishes would, I'm sure, have been perfect. If I'm wrong on the whole returning-the-same-dishes business then I can only apologise, but the evidence seems stacked in my favour.

But despite this momentary lapse, I still found enough about to love about Trullo to make my dinner last night one of the highlights of recent months. In fact, were it not for the main courses I would put it on a par with Zucca, and there's every chance that if you made the journey up to Highbury yourselves you would enjoy a meal every bit as colourful, imaginative and agreeable as anywhere else in the city. So I will forgive them the reheated lamb and the soggy crackling and just remember the (mmm) ox heart and the (gasp) cuttlefish and the (swoon) ravioli, and declare that Trullo is the kind of restaurant that every neighbourhood deserves. Even if that neighbourhood is in North London.


Trullo on Urbanspoon

Friday 16 July 2010

Dishoom, Covent Garden

Last night, as I shuffled down St Martins Lane on my way to dinner, I couldn't help casting a glance towards Cantina Laredo. Everything looked the same as my previous visit - the phalanx of superfluous staff huddled around the entrance, the hotel buffet décor, the tourist clientele. A table of middle-aged women were watching in rapt silence as a portion of £7 guacamole was prepared table-side, each with a slowly melting margarita in hand. To be fair, they looked like they were enjoying themselves, and for a second I doubted myself - am I so much of a foodie snob that my own idea of what constitutes a good meal is so far out of step with normality I expect perfection from restaurants that can't be expected to provide it? But then I thought of Mien Tay and Bob Bob Ricard and Rules and Tayyabs and then realised, no, it's not me, it's them. Cantina Laredo are just a bit crap.

Fortunately, a furtive glance through the front windows was as close as I got to Cantina Laredo, as I was on my way to Dishoom, another brand-new restaurant in Covent Garden which had enjoyed a very successful launch campaign. Billing itself as "London's first Bombay Café", it's certainly a lovely room, with high ceilings and art-deco fittings, and even at 6pm there was a great buzz about the place. The staff, too, looked the part in their smart monochrome outfits and were certainly friendly, but were manically over-attentive, which created some bizarre and often hilarious moments throughout the evening. More on that anon.

There's a really interesting drinks menu at Dishoom, including a G&T infused with Indian tea and a mojito involving cardamom and cloves. My pomegranate and sweet chilli martini was delicious, thick with tropical flavours and a perfectly judged chilli hit; I enjoyed it so much I ordered two. The house crisps too were brilliant, sprinkled with a red powder that tasted of citrus and chilli and deftly fried with no unpleasant flavour of cooking oil (take note Gauthier). It all would have made a perfect start to the meal, had I not been interrupted every ten seconds by a barrage of questions -

"Can I get you some more crisps?"
"No thanks I haven't finished these yet."
"Would you like another drink?"
"I haven't finished this one yet."
"Have you decided what you want to eat?"
"I've only just sat down!"

Even more irritating were the tiny thimble-sized glasses of tap water which required a refill every thirty seconds; after half a dozen refills my waitress (understandably perhaps) asked if I would like a jug of water on the table. This sounded like a very sensible option until I realised they wanted paying for it. "It costs a pound, and 20p goes to a water charity in India." "Where does the other 80p go?" I asked, admittedly rather sarcastically. She grinned awkwardly for a few seconds until I put her out of her misery - "I think I'll stick with tap, thanks".

Eventually, if largely just to stem the constant requests, we ordered some food - a couple of starters, a couple of items from the grill, the house black dhal and a small selection of bread. And about a minute later, it all arrived. At once. The speed was simply astonishing; anywhere less salubrious I would assume it would have been hanging around under a hot lamp but no, this was all just cooked very, very quickly to order and arrived piping hot. Impressive stuff, if a little overwhelming.

The calamari were pretty good - interesting sweet spicing, moist tender flesh and - delightfully - including the crispy tentacles as well as the more usual body meat. They were slightly too greasy for my liking but my dinner companion didn't have an issue with them so that's probably just me. The house dahl was delicious, thicker than most dahls perhaps but none the worse for that, and if the worst thing I can say about the chilli cheese toast was that it tasted like a nice bit of cheese on toast then I suppose it can't have been bad. Probably not very Indian though, I don't think.

The grilled items were tasty if not spectacular. Chicken tikka was moist and with lovely crunchy bits of char on the outside, but the spicing was a bit tame and sweet. Similarly, lamb chops were impressively charred and nicely pink and moist inside, but neither the meat or the marinade was particularly flavourful. It's impossible not to compare any South Asian lamb chops with those at Tayyabs, and although these clearly used better meat (I'm sometimes not even sure the lamb chops at Tayyabs are anything you could technically describe as lamb) I would take those scraggy-looking but powerfully spiced offerings over these any day. The bread's better at Tayyabs too, although I did quite like the Dishoom roti.

No word of a lie, by about 6:20, 20 minutes after we'd sat down, 15 minutes after we'd ordered and about 14 minutes after the food arrived, we were done. I can eat pretty quickly at the best of times (years of practice, you see) but here it was a frantic rush to taste as much as you could before it all went cold, which would have been ideal if we were off to see a play (the pre-theatre crowd could do far worse than eat at Dishoom) but as we weren't seemed a bit of a shame. Still, the food was fresh, attractive and very reasonably priced - our bill came to about £50 for two with quite a lot of food and three alcoholic drinks - and in Covent Garden that puts it head and shoulders above most anywhere else.

Cutely, and possibly in a nod to the original Bombay cafés, Dishoom bring the bill to your table in a little metal cup with a bell in the base, with the instruction to "ring the bell when you're ready to pay". I put my credit card in the cup, and looked up. From the other end of the room, a young waitress caught my eye with a terrified, rigid stare. I stared back, assuming eventually the penny would drop and she'd come over and let me pay, but no - she stayed quite still, occasionally casting darting glances around the room to the other staff, as if waiting for permission to move. Eventually, I realised the poor girl had been instructed not to do anything unless the proper procedures were followed, and once I dutifully rung the bell cup, she raced over with an expression somewhere between gratitude and relief.

In the starkest possible contrast to the place a couple of doors down, and despite the bonkers service, I left Dishoom happy. The food wasn't the best thing about my meal, but it's honest, interesting and fresh enough to stand out amongst most of the dross in the area, and is well worth the very reasonable prices they charge. Of course you can get better Indian food elsewhere, but it's still a lot better than it needs to be considering the number of hungry, clueless tourists that will wander over from Leicester Square, and anywhere better than it needs to be is good enough in my book. It's a restaurant with a character and style all of its own, with heart and energy and not a £7 guacamole in sight. I'm sure it will do very well.


Dishoom on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Beer & Cheese Tasting at the White Horse, Parsons Green

Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough will have noticed that I don't really talk about wine very much. At first it was because I decided I didn't know enough about it to make any salient points, and so I just kept quiet rather than run the risk of embarrassing myself. Following that, there was a period of time where I made a conscious effort to learn more and write more about wine, and I can't thank enough wine lovers like Robert Macintosh of Wine Conversation and Dan and Gareth of Bibendum who have gamely and enthusiastically organised some wonderful events and tastings for food bloggers in the face of what must have been a frustratingly slow and amateurish response (although I'm talking mainly about myself here).

But more recently, after three years of food blogging and genuinely often trying my best to get more involved in wine appreciation, even going so far as to book myself on a long weekend in Lisbon for the European Wine Blogger's Conference, wine has again somewhat fallen off the radar. I'm still an enthusiastic (some would say far too enthusiastic) consumer of fermented grape juice, but when it comes to finding anything interesting enough to say about it without resorting to blogger clichés like "this course went well washed down with a glass of Chateau Lafite '95", then I'm afraid I'm stumped. I like drinking wine, I just find it a struggle to write about, and when writing is a struggle it's usually a sign my heart's not in it.

Perhaps, though, all this time I've been focussing my energies in the wrong direction. I've long been a big fan of proper craft beers, and one of my most enjoyable days out of 2008 was to Beer Exposed in Islington, and in particular a guided tour through the styles, ingredients and processes that make good beer by writer and beer consultant Pete Brown. For some reason, compared with wine, tasting beers seems natural and comfortable - the different styles of beer are distinct and familiar, the flavours bold and unique, and the sheer contrast between the various different things we call "beer" is likely unmatched in any other food or beverage. You may think that Hoegaarden is pushing the boundaries of what you might reasonably expect when you order a pint, but just wait until you try Sam Adams' Utopias, a 27% ABV treacle-thick concoction tasting of chocolate and port which comes in a copper kettle and with a suggested retail price of US$150.

So when I was invited to a beer and cheese tasting at the White Horse in Parsons Green last night, hosted by author, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery and all-round food and drink expert Garrett Oliver, I barely needed to give it a second thought. Oliver is an engaging public speaker and frighteningly knowledgeable about his chosen subjects, and when he talks about the need to put proper craft beer on an equal footing with wine in homes and restaurants, it's hard to disagree with him. In a room full of beer producers, bloggers, enthusiasts and reps I suppose it's easy to get away with the claim that "beer is a more diverse product than wine" (who knows what the reaction to that statement would have been in a room full of wine lovers) but even so, the way Oliver speaks about beer he makes that conclusion seem obvious.

If the cheeses last night played second fiddle to the stunning range of beers, I suppose that's understandable considering the main focus of the evening. A pleasant if otherwise unremarkable goat's cheese (Rosary) was tested with a Brooklyn Sorachi Ace Ale (7.6%, named after the hop used), the tangy citrus elements of the beer matched the fresh goat's cheese very well. Some bright white slices of Brillat-Savarin, a cheese even Wikipedia says matches better with beer than wine, was paired with the lovely Belgian-style Brooklyn Local 1 (9%) - hoppy and yeasty and a great drink. And Hereford Hop, a semi-hard cheese made by the same producer as Stinking Bishop (Charles Martell of Dymock) has its rind flavoured with local hops and so is a natural match for some tasty Brooklyn Lager (5.2%).

It's no coincidence that my favourite cheese of all was the only unpasteurised example we tried last night. If you instinctively think cheddar is a dull workaday cheese that doesn't deserve a place on a high-end cheeseboard, then I urge you to try Montgomery's Cheddar, nutty and rich and with that all-important and so sadly rare unpasteurised farmy, grassy freshness. The grassy notes of the cheese were again complimented with the Brooklyn East India Pale Ale (6.8%), less hoppy and citrusy and more earthy than the other beers, and with a fantastic complex aftertaste. My favourite beer all night however was the Black Chocolate Stout (10.1%), an extraordinarily flavoursome beer in the Imperial Stout style which tasted of Christmas dried fruits, malts and yes, bitter dark chocolate. Heavenly.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening, then, and one which got me thinking. Why don't more restaurants in London have craft beers on their menus specifically selected to match the food? Some do, of course - Viajante paired one of their courses with a lovely sour cherry beer, and I believe Bar Boulud has an extensive Belgian beer list, mainly due to the insistence of beer-loving Daniel Boulud himself, but they are still very much a rarity. If beer can be as exciting and complimentary to food as the examples we tried last night, is it simply an image problem? Is it just that wine has better PR? And why do I find talking and writing about beer (even if my efforts are still more enthusiastic than enlightening) so much easier than wine? Is it purely an aversion to the often rather elitist and inpenetrable world of wine appreciation, despite the efforts of wine advocates mentioned above, or could it be - could it even be - that beer is simply a more interesting drink? I'll leave that thought with you.

I was invited to the Brooklyn Brewery beer & cheese tasting by R&R.

Monday 12 July 2010

Gauthier, Soho

One of the many great things about the Ledbury (yes I know I'm slightly obsessed with the place and do keep going on about it but bear with me) is that despite the fancy-pants multiple-Michelin-starred food and gleaming service you never feel like you're trespassing in a hallowed temple of gastronomy; eating in the buzzy, spacious room and dealing with the affable staff is easy and comfortable, and the emphasis seems to be on having a good time rather than silently noting the chef's plating skills. It may seem like an obvious goal for a restaurant to create an atmosphere which if not exactly informal then is at least relaxed, but I'm often surprised how even rather mediocre restaurants seem to want to flatter their chef's ego by turning the experience front of house into a solemn, stately parade. It's quite old fashioned, and of course completely counter-productive.

It's frustrating, then, and not a little puzzling, that Alexis Gauthier has decided the best way to enjoy his (often very nice indeed) food is in a silent and stuffy space with all the atmosphere of an awkward afternoon's tea in a rich relative's front room. That the tables were quite close together is understandable in such an odd building never designed to be a restaurant, but that I could hear every single word of every other diner's conversation all evening is less excusable. I'm not the world's biggest fan of piped music but if the alternative is having to be careful every time I put down my bread knife in case the 'ting' of contact with the tableware turned angry heads from the other tables, then I say bring on the muzak. In self-conscious whispers, and mainly to avoid broadcasting our food preferences to the entire room, I and my dinner date ordered four courses of the chef's choosing and hoped that none of it would be too noisy.

The amuses were a mixed bunch. Discs of melon wrapped with Parma ham were pleasant if a bit too knowingly 80s, and mini bruschetta were fine. But some (I think) chickpea 'chips' reeked of horrible old oil, and it was only as these were placed on the table that I realised it was the same smell that permeated the hallway and stairs of the restaurant. Smelling of a high street chippy isn't the greatest start for a restaurant aiming for the heights of gastronomy.

This teeny pile of fresh crab meat and beetroot purée topped with wild mushrooms and nuts was pretty good, and to be fair a generous second extra course on only the £45 four-course menu. At this point though, I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Fortunately that creeping doubt was answered with the arrival of these lovely scallops, crunchy outside and juicy within, showcasing expert timing and a pleasant and unpretentious presentation. I loved the scattering of buttery girolles mushrooms, and a couple of streaks of some kind of tangy pesto added balance as well as colour. It's the kind of dish that on some level you expect from restaurants like this, but was none the worse for that.

Standards continued their upward curve with the arrival of this gorgeous summer truffle risotto. A generous layer of shaved fungus covered a prudent portion of creamy rice and the whole thing was steeped in some kind of pork jus. Like the Chinese Sichuanese, Gauthier have sensibly decided there are few dishes that can't be improved with the addition of pig, and though I suppose it could be considered unusual to add pork to what would otherwise be a classic vegetarian truffle risotto, there were no complaints from me.

Roasted Guinea Fowl in a Pot (to give it its full title) doesn't sound like the most interesting concept, and the way it had been dumped on the plate was rustic bordering on careless, but the flavours in the lovely moist meat and rich silky sauce were wonderful. If was going to pick holes I suppose I could say that a crispy skin on the bird would have been nice, but then that's probably counter to the traditional French pot-roasting method and I didn't miss it that much anyway. The kind of dish that reminds you just how good French food can be.

Pre-dessert was some kind of summer berry compote. In case you're wondering, it arrived just like this, with a berry stain up the side and looking like someone's leftovers. Tasted OK though.

Dessert was the biggest disappointment of the evening, not because it was the worst tasting (not much could top those awful chickpea chips) but because the Louis XV is a signature dish of Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and has been hyped from various quarters as the greatest chocolate pudding on the planet. Don't get me wrong, it was perfectly fine, but it mostly just tasted of cold chocolate fondant, and the base was so tough I had to use both hands and drive my spoon down with all my weight just to cut into it. Either I'm missing something critical or the pastry chef was having an off night, but I wasn't at all impressed.

While not groundbreaking in style or content, there's no doubt that Gauthier is a worthy addition to the motley collection of bars and restaurants of Soho, and it would be very mean to dismiss the food there based just on the rather staid and uncomfortable atmosphere in its upstairs dining room. But the hushed reverence asked of its diners combined with the competent but hardly ambitious menu speaks of a restaurant which exists largely to please the inspectors from Michelin - and by proxy the ego of its head chef - rather than the average punter. In my geeky foodie way I've ticked off Gauthier from the list, had a decent enough meal and didn't spend a fortune, so I don't have too many complaints. However, I equally can't see myself hurrying to return, and perhaps that tells you everything you need to know.


EDIT: It has come to my attention (thank you @marinametro and @applelisafood) that the risotto actually came with chicken jus and not pork. Apologies for this error, but I still think it would have been even better with pork, so my point kind of still stands...

Gauthier Soho on Urbanspoon

Friday 9 July 2010

Asakusa, Camden

Asakusa, where have you been all my life? Three and a half years, 235 blog posts and over 200000 words; why has it taken this long? A few reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, I'd never heard of it. Secondly, it's in Camden, and as any Londoner knows, the number of places worth visiting in Camden can be counted on one hand. Thirdly, my experiences of Japanese food in London, and sushi in particular, has veered between "not bad" and "pretty awful", and there's only so many overhyped, overpriced and overcrowded sushi joints you can visit without eventually coming to the conclusion that London just can't do this stuff very well. So to be fair, I wasn't really looking for Asakusa, but thanks to the intervention of a friendly foodie who insisted I travel all the way up to Mornington Crescent on a baking hot Thursday evening, that's where I found myself. And, my God, was it ever worth it.

It's the least likely setting so far for this kind of food. In a creaky old tudor-style building that looks like it once housed either a "Mamma Mia" raffia-covered-Chianti-bottle Italian or a sex shop, are squeezed a handful of tiny tables, a miniscule bar area and, down some stairs towards the back, a sushi kitchen surrounded by a half dozen stools. A number of electric fans did their best against the raging heat, but really there are more pleasant spaces in which to eat your dinner. On the Northern Line in midsummer during rush hour, for example, or in the rhino enclosure at London Zoo. But Asakusa isn't trying to impress with its decor; it lets the food do the talking.

Edamame were subtly salted and extremely consistent - there wasn't a hard or mushy bean in the whole bowl. A fan of superbly-timed and tender beef fillet came with a selection of toppings (ginger, garlic, tomato) and a sharp dipping sauce, and a scallop sashimi was attractively presented in a half-shell and was very fresh. Best of the starters though were these piping hot balls of fried octopus - Takoyaki - served with an amazing okonomiyaki sauce; something I'd never tried before and will henceforth seek out on any future visit to a Japanese restaurant. I just doubt they'll be this good anywhere else.

Hotate sashimi was stunning. Yellowfin tuna, mackerel, salmon and white tuna, it goes without saying that it was all incredibly fresh, but this had something extra - a deep, rich meatiness and heady notes of ocean spray; it was up there with some of the finest fish I've ever eaten. At the same time, a plate of black cod and miso turned up, a dish which Roka did very well but here was even better AND cheaper. It had a sweet crispy skin and delicate white flesh which flaked off perfectly with the barest of prods with my chopsticks.

These skewers of honey-glazed (I think) hatsu chicken hearts were tender and tasty, like miniature chipolatas but with extra bite. And as if all that food wasn't enough, a large plate of more standard sushi arrived, including some shiitake mushroom rolls and nigiri which we struggled to finish. It's worth pointing out, too, that despite the familiar appearance the rice was warm and soft and obviously freshly made to order, unlike some I've had in even quite smart Japanese places.

If you're thinking all that sounds like a lot of food, then you'd be right. And given the time and care that went into its preparation, and the consistently high quality of all the ingredients, you'd be forgiven for assuming the bill would also be astronomical; certainly, ordering a similar selection of items from Roka on Charlotte Street would cost you upwards of £150. Here at Asakusa, our bill, including a large sake and bottomless green tea, came to just under £60 - an absolute steal, and although the surroundings and atmosphere leave a little to be desired in relation to places like Roka, the cheeriness of the staff and the level of service never faltered. Asakusa is a gem of a restaurant, and I promise never to write off Japanese food in London ever again.


Asakusa on Urbanspoon

Thursday 8 July 2010

Cantina Laredo, Covent Garden

I suggest you start where I did - staring open-mouthed and incredulous at the Cantina Laredo menu. There's my rather dismal shot from last night, or click here to see it in crisp, shocking PDF. Just look at those prices. £13.25 for a pepper stuffed with cheese, £11.95 for a cranberry pecan salad, £7 - SEVEN POUNDS! - for some guacamole. This wasn't just bold pricing, not merely eyebrow-raising pricing. This was full-on, wallet-raping, slap-in-the-face pricing, as ludicrously bold as London has rarely seen, especially in the middle of a recession and especially for Mexican food, not exactly famous for its high mark-ups. That menu became a source of fascination; I'd find myself scouring it for hours on end, uncovering ever more outrageous items to gleefully share with my friends - "Mushroom enchilada, £13.95!" - but mainly wondering what on earth they could put in that guacamole to make it worth just short of seven full English pounds. Did it come with a diamond ring and a foot massage?

So it's fair to say that Cantina Laredo and I got off to a bad start. Regarding many things, I can be open-minded (stop sniggering), but at the merest hint of a rip-off, the walls go up. And so I would have been happy to carry on snorting at the online menu - "Cheese enchilada, £13.95!" - and the sad stories of naive couples somehow spending £85 on three dishes and a bottle of house red, except for the brave new world of Twitter and Cantina Laredo's switched-on PR team, who invited me and a friend to come and swallow our pride with a mouthful of guacamole and a house margherita. "What the heck," I thought, "I'm never going to go if I have to pay myself, and who knows - it might be amazing". Not £85 for two amazing, perhaps, but who knows.

There are a LOT of staff at Cantina Laredo. There are three people whose job, as far as I could tell, is to stand outside saying hello to passersby, and two more inside the entrance saying hello to arriving customers. They didn't move from those spots the whole time we were there, they are just hello people. That's their job. I might offer my services one evening; I consider myself supremely gifted at standing still and saying hello, and I bet they get a healthy wage judging by the mark-up on that guacamole.

Oh yes, the guacamole. We had to order it really, didn't we? Sure enough, it is made fresh and it is (just about) big enough for two as a small starter. Part of your £7 goes on the theatrics of constructing it before your eyes at the table, a nice enough touch and one often used to great effect (see the ash-baked celeriac at the Ledbury), but I couldn't help thinking the whole operation just served to remind you how basic the ingredients are and how easy the recipe is. Our waitress helpfully reminded us of this, in fact - "See how simple it is!" she beamed as she squeezed the £7 lime into the £7 avocado. "You could make this at home!". Yes alright love, don't rub it in. You're right - I could do, and it would cost about 50p. It tasted nice, by the way - no worse than guacamole I've had from Chilango or Daddy Donkey, but certainly no better either.

With the guac we each had a house margherita (£9.50), one frozen, one on the rocks. The frozen was declared "good" by my companion Carla of Bribed With Food, and she's from Panama so she should know. Mine really wasn't. I'm firmly of the belief that a drink on the rocks should be served in a rocks glass; here a couple of ice cubes floated on top of sweet, rather warm liquid in a thick kitsch martini glass. And if you're going to salt the rim of the glass, why also provide a straw? It was a clumsy, amateurish drink and not worth anywhere near the £9.95 I didn't pay for it.

In all fairness, my main course of Camaron Poblano Asada had a wonderful aroma and the beef itself tasted almost as good as I've had outside of the top London steakhouses. In itself, this is quite an achievement and is worth mentioning. The rest of the dish was pleasant if unspectacular - the rice was nicely spiced but sautéed veg were so-so, and I counted a total of three small prawns hidden amongst the (tasteless) cheese and chimichurri filling. Am I wrong to expect something a little more from a dish costing £19? To put this into context, eight whole courses of exquisitely presented food at Viajante costs £25. This dish looks like it was slapped onto the plate at a school canteen.

Carla's Enchiladas Veracruz used nice fresh tortillas and came with a genuinely good tomatillo sauce as well as the same rice and veg mix as my beef. But the chicken inside the wraps was overcooked and dry - an unforgiveable mistake - and at the back of your mind there's always that question of value. Was this plate of cheap ingredients really worth £13? Did they use Label Anglais chicken and heirloom tomatoes? Pretty unlikely I'd say.

This was how my flan arrived - as if someone had taken a bite out of the front of it and accompanied by a shrivelled up wedge of orange. It tasted fine, but it was just a flan, the kind of which is trotted out on every €10 tourist menu in Spain, and was hardly worth a fiver. Carla's strawberries and cinnamon crisp thingies (OK, OK - Strawberry Buñuelos) were better, but still fairly dull. I'm pretty sure they bought in that vanilla ice cream too, although I could be wrong.

Service was enthusiastic but... slightly odd. After the initial maelstrom of being helloed by about ninety different people it calmed down slightly, but there was always that dreaded "How is everything?" after you'd taken the first bite of each dish, and the very American plastic smiles and forced bonhomie soon grated. At one point a particularly keen server approached our table and gushed "Is everything delicious for you?", a leading question if ever I heard one. The thing is, none of the food was actively disgusting or cooked badly (apart from the chicken) or even anything less than tasty, it just wasn't worth anywhere near the prices they're charging.

Out of morbid fascination I asked for the bill to be totted up at the end. For our 2 1/2 course meal and three drinks (I had a glass of Italian red with my beef) it came to £80, an astronomical amount for some home-style food. If our meal had been half the price, it would just about have been worth it - there's nothing not to enjoy about Mexican cuisine when it's competently cooked and served with a smile. But £80 for two comes with a weight of expectation regarding presentation, ingredients and atmosphere that really wasn't in evidence last night. So instead of throwing your money at Cantina Laredo, just do what I do - have a good old chuckle at the menu, and those prices, and spend your money elsewhere.


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