Tuesday 26 April 2011

Chabrot Bistrot d'Amis, Knightsbridge

Had my meal at Chabrot Bistrot d'Amis in Knightsbridge been anything less than brilliant, I wouldn't be writing this post. Not because I only report on the very good or very bad places - although based on the last few months posts I could see why you may suspect that - but because, thanks to a combination of a very "atmospherically"-lit first floor dining room and the dark, narrow alleyway location, none of my photos turned out. But we had such a good time, and were so thoroughly impressed by the food and hospitality of this brand new eatery, that I thought it was worth risking a few words despite the lack of illustration, and let's face it, if you came here looking for decent photos in the first place, you were only ever going to be disappointed.

That's not to say the food at Chabrot isn't photogenic, though. It was all perfectly well presented in that rustic French bistro style, the bright colours and textures of a painstakingly-prepared broad bean and sheep's cheese salad making me wish I'd visited at lunch time or brought one of those fancy SLRs that can do long-exposure shots in low light. And it wasn't let down by the taste, the cheese in particular having a very interesting texture somewhere between cottage cheese and egg white omelette, seasoned perfectly. A bowl of near-perfect whitebait was also excellent, somehow remaining crispy and greaseless right down to the very last morsel, and was a very generous portion too.

The standout amongst the starters, though, was a warm duck liver pate with Comté gougère. The pate itself was lovely and rich, showcasing the distinctive taste and texture of duck liver without being dry or bitter, and it was served with a huge fresh Yorkshire Pudding (sorry, "gougère") which pulled apart very satisfyingly into soft and crunchy pieces to scoop up the duck. I didn't detect much of the advertised cheese, although had it not been advertised at all I wouldn't have missed it, so perhaps I shouldn't complain. This was a great dish, and how ironic that the best Yorkshire Pudding (sort of) I've eaten in London was cooked by a Frenchman and served in a bistro.

Mains were equally impressive. A fillet of hake was cooked perfectly and slid apart into bright white flakes with the slightest pressure; Veal was light and soft and dressed with enough fresh herbs and seasoning to compliment and not overwhelm this most delicate of cuts; and best of all was an impossibly tender slice of medium-rare skirt steak, the flavour of which could only have come from London's finest (and most expensive) artisan butchers, O'Sheas, just down the road. Even the house chips, if perhaps not quite up there with the best the city has to offer, did their job as well as could be reasonably expected.

If I was picking holes, I could probably say that the dessert menu was slightly less tempting than the savoury courses, although that could just be because we were so stuffed by the time it came round to making a decision. Instead of a dessert course proper, then, we opted for a couple of "coffee gourmand", coffee accompanied by three portions of superb mini dessert, a dense chocolate pudding coated in sesame seeds, a soft sponge cake of some kind, and a brilliant crispy, sticky canele.

Most impressive of all, considering the quality of food and ingredients and the premium location (just opposite Harvey Nicks, a stone's throw away from the Mandarin Oriental and within spitting distance of Harrods), was the bill. The hake and the skirt steak were daily specials up on the chalkboard that came as part of a "Formule Bistro", each including the coffee gourmand AND a glass of (excellent) wine for a frankly bargainous £17.50. And even with another 50cl carafe of Picpoul de Pinet and a sweet Muscat to finish, the total only approached £40/head thanks to my insistence on breaking the "Formule" and going freelance on the A La Carte. The service could do with a bit of a polish, perhaps - our otherwise pleasant waiter was largely unintelligible and only after persuading him to repeat himself, slowly, and several times, did we finally understand the complexities of the "Formule" option - but it was more amusing than annoying, and didn't spoil anything about the evening.

It goes without saying that in this part of town, serviced by a steady stream of undemanding and credulous tourists, where nowhere must have to try very hard to do well, it is all the more heroic that Bistrot Chabrot is serving such excellent stuff at such relatively low prices. It's not a budget option, by any means, but the quality of food here compares favourably with almost any other French restaurant outside of a very few multi-starred top end, and is certainly better than many more expensive places I can think of. You'll have to take my word, then, and this time, thanks to the lack of photography, only my word, that Chabrot Bistrot d'Amis is worth a visit by anyone with even a passing interest in classic French bistro food. A lovely little place.


Press photo taken from the restaurant's own website

Chabrot Bistrot d'Amis on Urbanspoon

Thursday 14 April 2011

Le Wei Xiang, Lewisham

There was a time when I would think less of Chinese restaurants that offered separate, safe, "Western" menus alongside more authentic "Chinese" versions. It seemed like a bit of a cop-out to try and be all things to all people, and as far as I could see if the day-trippers and tourists of London couldn't stomach a bit of chilli and pig intestine, they didn't deserve to eat out at all. Of course, what I had forgotten in my naively idealistic way, was that these restaurants aren't charities or amateur supper clubs, they're businesses, and a "dual menu" system is in fact a neat means of making a decent living out of timid gweilos who won't touch anything more adventurous than special fried rice, while still allowing the chefs to stretch their culinary muscles for anyone brave or, er, Chinese enough to appreciate it.

Of course, if anywhere is going to have a two-menu system, then it goes without saying that the menu that gets used should be entirely the choice of the customer, and not the restaurant. Many Londoners have distressing stories of arguments with belligerent staff in Chinatown who refuse to produce the "Chinese" menu for anyone who doesn't look "Chinese" enough, and react with ill-concealed amusement or horror when you attempt to order anything vaguely interesting. This isn't just a case of arrogant foodies throwing their weight around (though I imagine there is often an element of that), and I appreciate that staff have a duty to inform customers, in as friendly a way as possible, if what they've ordered is very spicy or contains partially-developed duck foetus, but eating out should be all about conviviality and being at ease with your surroundings, and not feeling like there's some extra special club you're not allowed to be a member of.

In short, then, every Chinese restaurant should do what Le Wei Xiang does - have all the boring chicken & sweetcorn soups and sweet & sour pork balls at the start of the menu, and then three pages in under the bold heading "GENUINE CHINESE TASTES", all the good stuff. I'm not going to make the mistake of pretending I know exactly what cuisine is served here, it looks vaguely Sichuan to me but I've been very wrong about these things in the past, so I will just say that with dishes like "Shredded pig's ear in chilli oil", not to mention "Blood curd, pig bowel, ox tripe, ham and veg with dried chilli and chinese spices", it's definitely authentic to somewhere.

In the main, the food was very good indeed. Of the smaller cold dishes, the deceptively simple "Cucumber in chilli oil" was sweet and spicy, with texture provided by a sprinkling of sesame seeds over the bouncy vegetable; "Bean curd and preserved duck egg" was swimming in a sauce rather too salty and heavy on the soy for me, although the egg itself was packed with savoury flavour; but my favourite was "Shredded potato mixed with garlic", laced with a dose of Sichuan pepper so substantial it was like swilling your mouth out with garlicky anaesthetic.

I couldn't understand why a restaurant capable of producing such a heavenly seabass hot pot, moist chunks of bright white flesh in a deeply flavoured mixed vegetable and chilli broth, also somehow produced the most disappointing dish of the evening - "Pig blood curd and bean curd soup". A few measly pieces of completely tasteless red jelly floated in a wallpaper paste of bland, cornflour-thickened water with some lumps of tofu and, unlike the seabass which was eagerly devoured in a matter of minutes (even more impressive considering its generous size), it remained nearly completely untouched throughout the meal.

"Fried aubergine with minced pork in soy sauce" was nice enough but the topping tasted slightly artificial somehow, like something out of a packet although based on the generally high level of attention elsewhere I'm fairly sure it wasn't. Better was a plate of crispy pork and veg with dried chilli, which although not comparing well with a similar thing from Ba Shan, was nevertheless very tasty. And a special mention too should go to Le Wei Xiang's lamb skewers, which were piping hot, perfectly charcoal-grilled and with a complex spicy marinade that even improved on the already impressive offering from Silk Road in Camberwell.

It was a meal, then, of enough highs to make you glad you'd made the journey (the lamb skewers, the seabass hot pot, the shredded potato), and not enough lows to make you regret the very reasonable (£20-a-head ish with a couple of beers each and a LOT of food) bill. It's not the best Sichuan in London (if indeed it even is Sichuan) and the location on a rather gritty high street in Lewisham is probably not going to tempt many people outside of the immediate area. But if you are lucky enough to be a local, just consider how many deprived parts of the city can't boast a friendly, cheap place in which to while away an evening guzzling Tsingtao and snaffling lamb skewers. People of Lewisham, consider yourself envied.


Thanks go to Mimi and Charmaine for tips & tipoff.

Le Wei Xiang on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Zeret Kitchen, Camberwell

I hesitate to use the word "ugly" to describe a section of the city that many thousands of people live in and may very well be quite fond of, but my God, Camberwell is not a pretty place. Permanently traffic-clogged and noisy, hemmed in by a number of high-rise tower blocks and those peculiar brutalist Clockwork Orange-style housing estates that seem custom-designed to provide numerous untraceable escape routes for muggers and thieves (at least, in my mind they do), it is the kind of place that doesn't invite you to hang around. And yet, bizarrely, it is the unlikely home to an increasing number of the best budget restaurants in South East London - there's Silk Road, a top notch Xinjiang with its heavenly hand-torn cabbage and tasty pork dumplings, Wuli Wuli, which does pretty much the best Sichuan takeaway money can buy, and even Angels & Gypsies, a Spanish tapas place I'm yet to try but which has a commendably loyal following. And also, ten minutes walk from Camberwell Green and hiding in the windswept forecourt of the most intimidating concrete atrocity you can possibly imagine, there's Zeret Kitchen. "This had better be good", we thought, as we shuffled past iron-shuttered cafes and boarded up shops towards it.

The first thing to settle our nerves was the most unbelievably warm and friendly welcome from a beaming manager, who, ushering us into the empty restaurant, brightly enquired how we had heard about the place. It was a fair question - I don't suppose they get a great deal of passing trade, and most other visitors last night seemed to be grabbing bags of takeaway. We were, in fact, there on the back of several emails my friend had received from readers of her blog; not always an infallible method of discovering great new places perhaps but more often than not, if people go out of their way to email you directly about somewhere, they usually have good reason. The menu was spartan and rather mysteriously short on detail ("strips of beef...in an assortment of herbs and spices") so a brief risk assessment ended with us ordering the £17 special sharing plate for two.

First of all, our host brought out a tray covered theatrically in a large raffia dome, and a side order of about sixteen spoons. Then she scurried off back into the kitchen. After a few moments, curiosity got the better of us and we lifted the edge of the dome just enough to discover that it covered a familiar large base of injera bread - that soft, sour crumpet-like product that forms the base of any Eritrean meal and with which you scoop up using your hands whatever curries or sauces you've ordered to go with it, so nothing yet explained the presence of quite so many spoons. Fortunately all became clear once the meal proper turned up, seven or eight bowls of steaming, colourful delicacies that were carefully each split into two portions at either end of the injera, using a separate spoon for each so as not to muddy the flavours.

Here is where my pathetically meagre knowledge of Eritrean food will fail to accurately convey just why everything we ate at Zeret Kitchen last night was just so mind-blowingly tasty. There was a spicy, dry rub chicken thing, the meat moist & the seasoning complex; there was an astonishing portion of what I want to describe as beef tartare but was, we were assured, not completely raw but actually very lightly fried in what seemed like cardamom; there was a chunk of lamb on the bone, the meat coated in a subtle light dressing of some kind that made you want to gnaw it completely clean; and my favourite of all, a stunning thick chick pea sauce, wonderfully flavoured with smoky, rich spices - it was, my friend pointed out, like a heavenly chip shop curry sauce. This is a good thing. There were others, too many to remember accurately and too complex to convey, but as is the custom, towards the end of the meal they all literally merged into one giant, soggy spicy pancake that we scooped into our faces with merry, messy glee until we could eat no more. There were still plenty of leftovers.

Both of us had eaten Eritrean food before, and it's never been anything less than good. In fact, Zigni House in Islington was previously the favourite, thanks to a particularly lovely Quanta Fit Fit and a similar dose of easy African charm. But here it seemed the whole experience was just turned up a notch, the ingredients more unusual, the execution that much more vibrant and the spicing more aggressive. Some of the flavours were so astonishing we attempted to extract some clues from the manager, who while remaining gracious and charming was nevertheless remarkably guarded when it came to kitchen secrets. "What's the flavour with the beef?" "It's... a blend of different herbs." "Is it cardamom?" "It's various different herbs." We didn't push our luck.

If I was going to criticise anything it would be the room, which was sadly in keeping with the location and rather chilly in terms of temperature and decor. However, with a bill of £15 a head including a healthy tip and four bottles of Castel lager (Cameroon), there really wasn't much else to complain about, and so we have ended up with yet another 9/10 score. With certain obvious exceptions, there seem to have been a number of very good restaurants cropping up on these pages of late; I'm not moaning of course - it's great fun for me - I just hope that yet more gushing prose doesn't for one second deter anyone from visiting anywhere as good as Zeret Kitchen. However unlikely the location and however scary the journey, believe me, it's all worth it.


Zeret Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday 4 April 2011

What is Michelin good for?

Being neither a journalist paid to provide timely comment on the day's news nor even a particularly motivated blogger at the best of times, I am never very on the ball when it comes to current affairs and this post is a few months too late. Ideally it would have been published on or around 18th January this year, when the 2011 Michelin Guide UK was released, and I could have added my name to the maelstrom of opinion that inevitably greets the yearly arrival of what, for better or for worse, is still the most important food guide in Europe.

In truth though, however I feel about the inclusions and glaring omissions in this year's Michelin, my opinion of the Guide has been on a fairly consistent downward trajectory since the multi-starred joints like Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay at Royal Hospital Road stopped being quasi-fantastical Restaurants of Dreams and I moved to London and actually started eating in them. This is inevitable, of course - not only could anywhere not live up to the Godlike places I'd invented in my head, but a difference of opinion with any guide of any kind is only natural - such is taste and preference and the majestic variety of the human condition.

The problem is that, usually, guides are just that - guides. You can use review sites like London Eating or Square Meal, you can read blogs, scour the weekend papers, buy publications like Harden's or AA, but you will never (unless you are incredibly lucky) find any one source that is a completely infallible indication of a great evening out. There are just too many factors involved, too many variables for a short paragraph on a website or a score out of 5 to take account of. I think the best restaurant in London is Tayyabs but I can't guarantee that you will too. And most sensible people realise this and will not expect too much of anything that attempts to tell you where to have your dinner.

With Michelin, though, it's different. The star awards have become an objective shorthand for achievement. A restaurant, once given the nod, is "Michelin-starred" and can expect a great deal more custom, as well as, of course, the tacit authorisation to bump up its prices by 20%. The chef, too, is one moment an overworked, underpaid kitchen monkey, the next "Michelin Starred Chef", with a pay rise, a range of branded utensils and a senior sous to do all the work maintaining the starred reputation while he or she goes off on a book tour or guest spot at the Ideal Home Exhibition. So, a Michelin award is much more important to anyone in the industry than any other accolade. What, you may be thinking, is the problem here? Perhaps Michelin are just that much better at judging a place than anyone else?

I refer you back to this year's awards. With Michelin seemingly more powerful than they have ever been, and stars so disproportionally valuable in terms of prestige and their affect on the profit margins, there exists a kind of rarefied subset of places that exist purely to please Michelin. This is not news to anyone who has been following such things, but it's particularly sad to see, year after year, just so many dull star-friendly restaurants rewarded for doing pretty much exactly what they know they have to do, with their amuse-bouches, their pre-desserts and their petits fours. Anywhere specifically trying for Michelin stars knows, more or less, the kind of thing expected of them, and although I would never dismiss their achievement as being easy and admittedly you may accidentally create some rather tasty food along the way, I would argue that if your desired end result is to please a Michelin inspector and not a normal punter, this can only be a bad thing.

Take Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester. A more desperately boring, stiff, pompous and ponderous meal I've very rarely suffered, and yet it was just crushingly inevitable they were going to get the top award from Michelin. Who cares that the average diner would be far better served spending their money on a dozen and a half slap-up feasts at the Viet Grill or who knows how many steak and chips at Goodman; Michelin yet again found their own fetishistic preferences offered to them in a kind of culinary fellatio, and were only too happy to provide a happy ending.

I should probably insert a disclaimer at this point. Not only was I just as in thrall to the stars as anyone over the years, entranced in my hopelessly geeky way by the idea that you could measure culinary achievement so accurately, but also there are of course plenty of multi-starred restaurants I really like. The Fat Duck, the Ledbury, the Square; these are all superb places to spend your money and their attractiveness to the dreaded inspectors is no doubt a motivating factor. But I still can't help thinking that mainly they make food for themselves and their customers and the awards in the Guide are a (no doubt welcome) side effect of their innovation and effort, not the be-all and end-all.

Ultimately, Michelin is only, even at its best, a way for a certain handful of very expensive restaurants (and a certain type of stamp-collecting star-chasing gastro-bore) to measure their self-worth, but at its worst is stifling innovation in food, favouring overcomplicated French techniques over any other type of cuisine, and isn't even to the average person - and this is perhaps the most important point of all - a reliable guide on where to eat out any more. Discriminatory, elitist and completely counter-productive, in an ideal world the Red Guide would be just another voice in the crowd, a slightly pitiable elderly uncle still banging on about demi-glace and "Jerusalem artichoke cappuccino with hazelnut foam" while the rest of us just get on with our lives. We're sadly a long way from that situation becoming real, but hopefully, in London of all places, home to the #Meateasy, Keu!, Spuntino, Brawn, Bocca di Lupo, et al, we will find the self-confidence to pursue good food for good food's sake, and not grind all the joy out of eating by fretting about what Michelin might think. There is much, much more to life than a Michelin star.

Friday 1 April 2011

The Hard Rock Cafe, Piccadilly

Last night I went to the Hard Rock Cafe and enjoyed a tasty, reasonably-priced meal served promptly by honest and obliging staff in comfortable surroundings.

Ha ha! April Fool!

Before we go any further though, perhaps I should explain what I was doing there. It all began with an email from their PR people to a friend of mine, inviting her to their famous Piccadilly flagship restaurant. Being of sturdier moral constitution than most, she politely declined but mentioned that a friend of hers would happily whore himself out to any old ethically-bankrupt tourist dive as long as there was a free burger in it (me). For whatever reason (and I'm sure they had theirs), my invitation never arrived, but by now my interest was piqued - I had often pootled past the place on the bus and marvelled at the queues that on summer evenings stretched around the block, and no less than top restaurant critic Charles Campion rated their burger as one of the six best in London. So, I managed to persuade said friend to come with me largely on the promise of a boisterous and tacky but hopefully entertaining evening, and very much assumed we'd find if not the greatest food in London then at least a decent night out.

It may sound like I'm saying all this merely to defend myself against accusations that I've deliberately picked an awful restaurant in order to give it a gleeful battering on the blog. But I can only assure you that honestly, neither of us were expecting anything less than a tasty burger under a case containing Eric Clapton's guitar, and to this day I have never gone anywhere actively hoping for a miserable time. I may be a glutton, but I'm not a masochist, and the abject misery of a bad meal isn't worth any number of extra blog visits.

I'll say this for the Hard Rock Cafe though, it is definitely popular. On arriving at about 6:45pm, we were told by the friendly doorman that it would be up to an hour wait, which, lubricated by if-not-great-then-not-horrible dry martinis in the small terrace out the front, actually went by fairly quickly. I probably shouldn't have looked too closely at the barman's mixing method though; it wasn't so much the fact he chilled the glasses by dumping in then discarding handfuls of ice and soda water - this happens a lot in places short on freezer space - but he then crafted a lemon twist by taking a pre-cut wedge of lemon and ferociously scooping out the flesh from the inside, the end product looking like something fished out from the bins at a tequila bar. It was such a difficult job though and he had taken so long doing it, I didn't really have the heart to say anything.

Before we knew it, the little remote pager thing they'd given us started bleeping and flashing and shaking quite insistently, and we were led inside to a tiny table beneath the bar. The menus were huge, laminated and depressingly familiar in that International American Chain kind of way - think TGI Friday's or Tony Romas - and the first scintilla of doubt had begun to set in, but we'd waited long enough by now and weren't about to go anywhere else, so ordered the LEGENDARY 10 OZ. BURGER and a rack of hickory smoked ribs.

I'll tell you about the ribs first, and briefly, because I've just had my lunch and want to keep it down. Over-marinated, overcooked to oblivion and drowned in a fiercely sweet and vinegar-sharp sauce, they were that rare combination of tasteless and over seasoned, like someone had dunked the Yellow Pages in a bucket of Tesco Value BBQ Sauce. The meat was cardboardy and stringy, of desperately poor quality with no pork flavour whatsoever, and came with an even more hideous side order of what I can only describe as "sugared bean paste". Chips were frozen but if I'm being perfectly honest not completely inedible, and coleslaw was OK, but this was not a pleasant plate of food. It cost SEVENTEEN POUNDS.

And then we have the "LEGENDARY" burger. In many ways of course, being literally the worst burger I've ever eaten in my life, its legend will definitely live on. Where do I start? Perhaps with the onion rings, and a breadcrumb casing that shattered at the slightest touch and left you to fight with a slimy grey tapeworm of chewy onion inside; or perhaps with the buns which were splintered and desiccated, as flavourless and insubstantial as polyester sofa cushion filling. But no, let's talk about the meat itself - grey, crumbly and bitter thanks to disastrous overcooking, accompanied by a square of salty carbon I can only guess had once been streaky bacon, and yet topped incredibly with a sheet of largely cold - and uncooked - cheap cheddar. You have to admire their technique, to produce a beef (presumably) patty so cremated it was like eating coal and yet somehow present it with a rigid slice of cold cheese - the timing involved must have taken years to perfect. It cost FIFTEEN POUNDS.

So, as you might be hoping, we complained. And very shortly the manager - a smart young woman in black trousers (and not the joke-shop "sexy nurse" outfits that the more junior members of staff are forced to wear) turned up. I'm not the best complainer, I tend to get very nervous and worry I might offend someone, but as politely as I could I explained about the overcooked burger and the woody ribs and wondered what the story was. The ribs, we were assured, were bought in raw and smoked in their own smokehouse(!!) in a dry rub marinade for 24 hours, before being finished on the grill and doused in the sauce. We must, of course, give them the benefit of the doubt, and I have no reason to believe she was fibbing on this point at least, but we were still aghast - how could they go to all that effort, their own smoke house for heaven's sake, and end up with something so poor? They could have bought in some Brakes Bros budget cuts and achieved the same effect. On the burger, she was more defensive.

"You should have told your waitress you wanted it more medium."

My heartbeat increased. "She didn't ask!"

"Your waitress tells me she came over and asked you how everything was and you said it was fine."

That was a complete lie. I looked over towards my friend, who was pale with rage. "No, she didn't. In fact we haven't seen her between when she brought the food and now - we had to flag someone else down to complain."

"Well perhaps it just wasn't to your taste."

They'd tried defence, now they were trying condescension. Great.

"This is not just a matter of taste. That burger was burned, and the ribs were horrible."

But we weren't getting anywhere, and by now we were feeling so wound up by the manager's attitude we just wanted to cut and run. She did, as a conciliatory gesture, offer free drinks, but we were definitely not in the mood to hang around and I suggested could she take a round of drinks we'd already had off the bill? "No, we can't do that." Of course. We paid up, £30 each for one of the most miserable experiences in a restaurant I can remember, and left.

When I got back home, emotionally drained and shell-shocked from the evening's events, I loaded up the Hard Rock Cafe's entry on various different aggregate review sites to see if others had had as bad a time as us. It was somewhat of a relief to find that, by and large, they had, but amongst the various 1/10, 2/10 and 3/10 star reviews one in particular caught my eye, a 10/10 score from a name matching the initial PR invite all those weeks back. It's gone now - the as-ever switched-on guys at London Eating have quite rightly taken it down - but I don't know which is more laughable, the idea that someone in PR would use their own real name to shill a client on a review site, or that anyone would ever consider the dross churned out at the Hard Rock Cafe worth shouting about at all. But then, perhaps that's how it survives. It's a vacuous, sneering noise of a place, the worst kind of corporate gastro-swindle, and yet with enough money pumped into falsifying reviews, unfortunate punters will just keep on turning up. Hard Rock Cafe have obviously long since decided, why go to the effort of being good, when some well-placed propaganda will do the job just as well?


Hard Rock Café on Urbanspoon