Monday 23 April 2012

Michael Caines at ABode, Manchester

"Food in Manchester", I was informed shortly after I stepped off platform six at Piccadilly station, "is two years behind London". I know that by repeating such a sweeping statement I will immediately alienate a good number of Mancunians, but I mention it only because the first notable thing I saw on a stroll through the Northern Quarter was a huge queue for a trendy, underground six-week burger popup. In a quite marvellous bit of serendipity, Saturday 21st April was the last day of the first stage (there will certainly be more) of Almost Famous burgers, Manchester's answer to #meateasy, and it was on this same day in 2011 that year-long New Cross popup shut its doors.

People throw words like "influential" around far too easily sometimes, but in all honesty can there be any food outlet that has left its mark on as many places in recent years as Meatwagon/MeatLiquor? I sometimes wonder if messrs Papoutsis and Collins (MeatLiquor owners) feel proud that so many restaurants have found their back-to-basics all-American style so appealing (and profitable), or miffed they aren't able to charge some kind of royalty fee every time they see another butter-fried chilli burger appear on a menu. And yes I know the pedants will try and argue that in fact they themselves only "copied" more famous US burger joints like Hodad's (CA) and Bobcat Bite (AZ) but that's not the point - it was Meatwagon that did the leg work, did the travelling, researched the recipes and - most crucially - painstakingly sourced UK equivalent ingredients before anyone else. It's also probably the reason why they're still the best (prove me wrong, I dare you).

But this post isn't - for once - about burgers. We did briefly consider a trip to Almost Famous, but one look at the queue snaking down the road in the torrential Manchester rain (it seems this part of the world only has two types of weather - drizzle, or downpour) and we felt glad we'd made a booking at somewhere a bit more sedate. In the dimly-lit basement of the ABode hotel, then, is restaurant Michael Caines, high-end in the classically-trained French style, with ambitious prices to match the ambitious cooking served by almost as many staff as there were customers. Sadly, with regards to service at least, quantity did not on this occasion equal quality, but more on that later.

The food itself, and this is really what it's all about, is hard to fault. An amuse of salmon sashimi topped with a very good radish and subtle apple sauce was colourful and brilliantly fresh. House bread was good too, warm and crusty and if not baked in house then baked somewhere nearby that cared.

ABode let me swap the first course off the tasting menu (lamb sweetbreads) into the A La Carte as a starter. This was very nice of them of course, but what was even better was when the bill arrived they'd only charged me for the cheapest (vegetarian) ALC starter. Anyway the sweetbreads were just perfect - good crust on them, rich and smooth inside, and presented in a meaty/buttery sauce with the odd crunchy radish providing more texture. A friend's quail "salad" contained expertly pink and moist game with some nice gummy gnocchi, although I'm afraid the egg introduced by our waiter as "poached" was nothing of the sort - it was hard boiled. Still, only a minor criticism really.

Mains were equally accomplished, in terms of skill and ingredients at least. I ate a tender, pink lamb chop with one of those wonderful reduced sauces that the French can do so well and a crispy, fluffy potato fondant topped with some kind of tomato salsa. And my friend's duck was nice and pink and crusty with an interesting black pudding sauce and roasted onions. We just wish both had been a bit hotter - by the time I got round to the stage of attacking the potato fondant, it had nearly gone cold, and the duck fat had started to congeal unpleasantly.

Cold food sometimes points to issues with service, and I'm afraid it was in this department that ABode didn't quite live up to the promise of the prices they charge. This was particularly evident when it came to the cheese course, where our admittedly enthusiastic waitress responded "well, they're all delicious" when asked which were available, before realising we weren't likely to settle for that and scurrying off to find a list. Sharpham was listed as washed rind (it's not) and when challenged on this point they responded "it's washed with water, so you can't taste it". I know it's easy for me to fire smug questions at people on a minimum wage in a cheap bid for blogging material, but there's no shame in saying "I don't know", and if I'm paying £120 for dinner it's quite nice to know where your money is going.

Yes, the cost. The prices at ABode are bold for anywhere in the UK, and if any of the above seems like I'm nit picking then it's only because at this level, you need to fight for value. Despite the cheese incident, service elsewhere was generally very good, particularly a sommelier who suggested a £32 Valpolicella that turned out to be one of the best things I've drunk in weeks, but the food was only just worth those eye-watering numbers and had we had just that little bit more to complain about in any department, I would have felt the faint sting of ripoff. But no, we enjoyed our meal; when the food was good it was very good indeed, and even when the service was a bit wobbly it was always charming. ABode isn't perfect, but in a town where you can eat wasabi prawn pizza (Fire and Stone idiocy isn't confined to Covent Garden, it seems), you can definitely do far worse. So, after all is said and done and paid through the nose for, is Michael Caines at ABode worth it? Yeah, why not.


Michael Caines Restaurant at Abode on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Dabbous, Fitzrovia

Is there ever anything inevitable about the success of a restaurant? Reflecting after the fact, it's tempting to declare places like Pitt Cue or MeatLiquor or Burger & Lobster were always destined to be wildly popular; after all, who wouldn't think somewhere serving burgers, buffalo wings and cocktails until 1am would draw the crowds? Why on earth wouldn't the promise of a tray of sticky St Louis Ribs and a pickleback get them queuing round the block? An entire steamed lobster for twenty quid? In Mayfair? Good luck getting a table there. But of course, we know all this now - how easy it is to forget the huge gamble the people behind these culinary megastars took, and how it just as easily could have ended differently. Just ask poor old Bjorn van der Horst, whose restaurant Eastside Inn served great food, garnered a handful of fantastic reviews, and closed in just over a year. That's life, and that's the fickle London public for you.

So you may look at Dabbous, at the supremely accomplished food coming out of the kitchens, the trendy industrial interiors, the polished (if slightly odd - more on which later) service, the central location, and think its wild success was a sure thing. Perhaps it was. But quite how much this particular restaurant has caught Londoners' imaginations must have taken even them by surprise. Tables at Dabbous are now backed up until October - that's six months booked solid - and a dinner reservation has taken on the rarefied air of a winning lottery ticket. It's the real-life 2012 equivalent of the mythically exclusive, fictional Dorsia in Bret Easton Ellis' novel American Psycho, except with smaller mobile phones. And perhaps not quite so much graphic, cold-blooded murder.

The Dabbous tasting menu consists of seven courses at a shockingly reasonable £49 (plus £9 if you want cheese). They also offer matched wines starting at £35 a head - also very reasonable - except they did themselves a bit of an injustice when one of our party wanted to push the boat out and have a selection of something a bit more pricey. The sommelier, a rather severe and taciturn individual, refused to serve different wines to just one person and so we all ended up having the £35 option. Surely it wouldn't have been that much of a hardship to be a bit more flexible on this? The wines were all served by the glass anyway, and it's not like the friend concerned wasn't willing to pay the extra. A minor niggle all things considered, but it did seem a bit odd.

The first course, after some decent house bread served in a paper bag for some reason, was a plate of asparagus, mayonnaise and hazelnuts. There was no cutlery, and you were encouraged to dip the asparagus tips first in the tangy mayonnaise and then coat it in roasted hazelnuts. It was all perfectly decent - just as you might expect of asparagus and earthy fresh rapeseed oil mayonnaise, but was only that - decent. Plus I'd have liked it to be my decision whether or not to get my fingers dirty (fingerbowls were provided, but that's not the point).

The next dish, however, was absolutely stunning. "Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion" sounds dangerously vegan on paper, but the flavours they had coaxed out of these seemingly innocuous ingredients - two types of onion, some kind of clear vegetable consommé and spots of basil oil - was just breathtaking. It's a very pretentious "foodie" thing to bang on about umami but this had it in spades - a deep, rich, satisfying savouryness that gave your tastebuds a big warm hug, and an absolutely masterful command of technique that produced something almost magical. Sorry if I'm getting carried away, but I don't think I've enjoyed a plate of food as much as this in many years. It was also, if I can be momentarily cheeky, a million times better than anything Hedone can do with an onion. There, I've said it.

"Coddled" (what a lovely word) egg was up next, and is best described as God's own scrambled egg. The egg itself (one of those fancy rare breed ones I should imagine) provided a powerful base, but the real fireworks came with the addition of earthy wild mushrooms and a hint of fireplace from the smoked butter. As well as tasting so good we couldn't stop giggling, it was very prettily presented in a half-shell nestled in hay and coloured by a few teeny bits of chopped chives. Dabbous had most definitely hit its stride, and we were helpless to resist.

A pristine wedge of monkfish, as meaty and flavoursome as any beefsteak, came dressed with some subtly dressed greens and a slice of beetroot. Again, this was masterful cooking - the monkfish in particular having not a trace of dryness in the flesh and rolled in a spice mix of some kind that seasoned the protein without masking its natural flavour. More giggles and groans of pleasure, more plates licked clean.

This is a piece of Iberico pork. I'll give you a second to stare in disbelief at the picture for a little while. Yes, I know José in Bermondsey do rare strips of the World's Finest Ingredient(TM) but I've never seen pig looking anything like this - precisely rested and blushed like the finest lamb fillet, and served on top of a vaguely Asian-inspired sweet sauce that contained (cleverly) some of the acorns that these majestic beasts feast on during their privileged lifetimes. A neat dollop of pickled apples on the side finished off yet another brilliant course.

The cheese course, consisting of only British Isles specimens, was also very well done. Lancashire bomber lived up to its name with a salty, cheesy explosion of taste, and a perfectly kept goats cheese was creamy and nutty without a hint of chalkiness. That on the side was some kind of pickled pear I think.

Not being the world's greatest lovage fan (I once made myself sick eating from the lovage plant that grew in our back garden up in Liverpool and I've not been able to stomach the stuff since) I'm not sure I can objectively rate this bowl of "Iced Lovage", but I'm afraid it didn't do much for me. As someone pointed out on Twitter, it's a bit like lovage-flavoured toothpaste, and I think I prefer Colgate. However, my friends polished theirs off.

Photos of the Dabbous chocolate ganache didn't come out, but the presentation was equally as arty as the other courses - a neat square of chocolate, a dollop of utterly brilliant sheep's milk ice cream and a pile of clever basil 'moss', all of which were lovely. I just wonder whether a painterly swirl of pungent sweet dill sauce really added anything - this was a touch of the dreaded savoury dessert (he says retching at the thought of Tom Aikens' beetroot meringue and Vanilla Black's parsnip marshmallows) and was best avoided. Which indeed I did.

But as with any experimental restaurant, you put up with the odd bum note if the highlights are worth the effort. And believe me when I tell you, the highlights of this meal - every course from the coddled egg to the Iberico pork inclusive - rank up there with anything else you can pay for in London. As you may have picked up by now, I loved Dabbous; even though not everything was perfect the best bits were worth a six month wait and then some. Which is just as well, because when you book a table yourself - and you should, and you will - that's how long it'll be before you sit down and eat. Don't worry though, it's worth the wait. I bet the food at Dorsia wasn't as good as this.


Dabbous on Urbanspoon

Monday 16 April 2012

Union Jacks, St Giles

While there were many things wrong with Jamie's Italian, at least the concept was sound. It was the Oliver Empire attempt at a nationwide family-friendly Italian chain in the Carluccio's mold, and though I'd personally rather eat at Pizza Hut (particularly now they've launched a new hot-dog stuffed-crust pizza - mmm) the rate at which Jamie's Italians are now multiplying around the UK means there is definitely still a demand for this kind of thing. In short, a celebrity name above the door can only get you so far - Jamie's Italians have a sense of purpose and a clear sense of identity and these have contributed to its success despite the rather rubbish food.

But what on earth is he up to with Union Jacks? There's a little introduction insert in the menu. "At Union Jacks, we want to take you on a journey of discovery through Britain", it begins, "and reintroduce you to familiar flavours cooked and presented the Union Jacks way." This is all very well, and there's a lot to be said for anywhere that wants to take the use of British ingredients seriously, but as far as I can make out, their radical idea is to take a random collection of famous names - Cropwell Bishop Stilton, Worcestershire sauce, pickled onion, and slap them on top of a cheap pizza base. Except they don't call them pizzas, they call them "flats". Not a pizza, not a pide or some other kind of Middle-Eastern flatbread, but a brand new Great British creation exclusively available at a Union Jacks near you now, and literally nowhere else at any time in history. To launch not just a new restaurant chain but to also single-handedly try to create a new style of cuisine, well, the man has ambition, I'll give him that.

Again, all of which would be fine if all those fancy ingredients weren't all used in such odd ways. Take the "Red Ox", a thin layer of slow-cooked (and fairly decent) oxtail alongside some mushy oniony gloop of some kind, bashed into meek submission by shockingly orange blobs of powerful unpasteurised Sparkenhoe Red Leicester and then finished off with a kilo of watercress. The cardboardy base splintered and snapped when I tried to pick up a slice to eat, and the mix of strong cheese, funky horseradish and bitter greens just made a giant, confusing and faintly disgusting mess. Yes the bread itself was poor and tasteless but it wasn't otherwise cooked badly - these ingredients were just simply never meant to exist together as pizza toppings. Which is presumably why they never ever have anywhere else before.

Still hungry after abandoning great swathes of dry crust from my "flat", I gave Union Jacks a chance to redeem themselves with dessert - a "Retro Arctic Roll". I'm fairly sure when I had Arctic Rolls at the school canteen they didn't come with a fresh summer berry compôte so perhaps the "retro" just means they'd kept it in the freezer longer - that would explain the very crumbly sponge at least. Otherwise this was a very ordinary thing, just about worth £4.50 but hardly worth going back for.

Many of the problems with Union Jacks come from the same place that made Jamie Oliver's other heavily-publicised restaurant Barbecoa so disappointing. Not knowing whether it wanted to be an authentic American BBQ joint or a modern international restaurant showcasing British ingredients, Barbecoa fell awkwardly between these two competing philosophies and never really excelled at anything. The food there was expensive, geographically vague and ultimately mediocre despite the phalanx of chefs having access to a huge open-plan kitchen with as many different types of ovens as anyone could want (or need). Union Jacks have access to some fantastic local produce that we should be very rightly proud of, but dumping them all on a pizza base and calling it cooking is most definitely not the future. At least, I bloody well hope it isn't.


Union Jack's on Urbanspoon

Friday 13 April 2012

Pizza Pilgrims and Banh Mi 11, Berwick St, Soho

Berwick Street market in Soho is barely a few months old but the careful selection of fresh greengrocers and hot food stalls gives it the atmosphere of a much more established arrangement. Of course, it is helped by the atmosphere of Soho itself, the stalls nestled in between trendy artisan coffee shops like Foxcroft & Ginger and Flat White, as well as the more, er, "traditional" sex shops and suspiciously threadbare "modelling" agencies. I love Soho - always have - and I hardly needed another reason to toddle down from Holborn on my lunch hour. But the combination of the buzz and shabby glamour of this part of town and some utterly brilliant new ways of spending your £5 lunch money is now even more difficult to resist.

I may be the last blogger on earth to write about Pizza Pilgrims, but before you cry hype-fatigue (and I know there's plenty of you just love being the first to do that), remember only this - they really are that good. I sometimes think pizza is the most abused foodstuff in the capital, and while there have always been a tiny handful of places doing it well (Donna Margherita in Battersea, Franco Manca in Brixton, Due Sardi in Shoreditch), it seems these are a drop in the ocean next to chains like Zizzi's (whose pizzas taste like ketchup smeared on cardboard) and depressing novelty hen-party joints like Fire and Stone.

There's no chicken tikka or Thai green curry abominations at Pizza Pilgrims though, thank God. All their pizzas are made to order, and for the most part are remarkably simple constructions - a smear of San Marzano tomato purée, a few chunks of silky mozzarella, a few leaves of basil. They have the odd special topping, such as n’duja or salami, but the key to their extraordinary good flavour (and believe me, they taste as good as you could possibly hope for) is a solid foundation of great base ingredients, and a stonkingly hot oven housed in the back of a tiny van that looks like it's made of Lego. At £5 for a single portion (I'm guessing about 10", but don't quote me on that), they are also remarkably good value, which would explain the 40 minute queue on my first visit, but I believe this was unusual - outside peak times they can bash them out in a couple of minutes. And anyway, food like this is always worth waiting for.

Just a bit further up the road are old Broadway Market favourites Banh Mi 11. Regulars of their Hackney spot will understand already what all the fuss is about, but for the uninitiated these are doing for the titular Vietnamese sanger what Pizza Pilgrims are doing for pizzas. Into a golden warm baguette is stuffed carrot & radish pickle, cucumber, a handful of fresh coriander, lovely toasted peanuts and crispy dried shallots. Next you choose between a variety of droolsome protein options (I went for "Imperial BBQ" - hot pork marinated in caramel and lemongrass, according to their website) and then the whole lot is covered in a few dollops of fresh green chilli sauce of some kind and a generous slick of Sriracha.

Of course, it's brilliant - the fresh pickles and fragrant herbs lift the rich pork fat, the baguette gives just the right amount of resistance, neither crumbling apart nor giving your jaw too much of a workout, and the texture of the toasted peanuts and Sriracha is an utter joy. There is barely a single element of this sandwich you could change to improve it - the mark of a truly exceptional piece of work - and I can't praise it highly enough.

God knows it's not hard to find reasons to be depressed about the state of British food, many of them documented in miserable detail on these pages, but on the streets of Soho on a sunny afternoon as I tucked into yet another lovingly-crafted and great value lunch, it occurred to me that actually there are far more reasons to be hopeful. The food stalls of Berwick Street have already started spilling over into the top end of Rupert Street, serving Indian dhaals and Ghanaian wraps and fierce-looking Thai curries. Elsewhere in town, too, thanks to the raging success of the Eat.St collective, exciting new street food stalls are met with delirious enthusiasm, and the more popular protagonists have become minor celebrities. There will always be crappy laminated chains peddling gross profits and "black pepper, sir?" but it's becoming increasingly easy to ignore them. And for that we should be truly thankful.

Pizza Pilgrims 9/10
Banh Mi 11 9/10

EDIT: Although Berwick St Market is of course centuries old, I had assumed that the hot food bit was new. Not so, according to David the Pedant, because Freebird burritos have been there for at least 5 years. Shows you how much I know.

Pizza Pilgrims on Urbanspoon
Bánhmì11 on Urbanspoon

Thursday 5 April 2012

The 10 Cases, Covent Garden

I knew I was going to like The 10 Cases, newish (but not actually that new; it has apparently been open nearly a year) wine bar and bistro in Covent Garden, the moment they served me my first drink. I knew this because, unlike some of the smartest joints in town that sell wine by the glass, when I ordered 125ml of Chardonnay the nice man behind the counter simply put a glass in front of me and poured what looked like the right amount straight out of the bottle. I don't know when the rest of town is going to cotton on to the fact that measuring out wine into metal cylinders looks amateurish and miserly (and with who knows what effect on the taste of the wine), but thank Bacchus for anywhere that treats their bar staff and their customers like adults.

The wine, a 2010 L'Ocre Rouge in case that means anything to you, was fantastic - salty and complex and very unlike your usual buttery Chardonnays. I'm making a special effort to mention it despite my obvious lack of expertise in this area because clearly a lot of trouble has gone into creating a very interesting (not to mention pretty affordable) list and with every single option also available by the glass, working your way through it is a hugely attractive option.

But the wine isn't the only thing to get excited about at 10 Cases. The food - advertised around the room on chalk boards, some crossed off even quite early in the evening, a measure of the popularity of this pretty little space - reads like a Francophile's dream. Words like foie gras and beef get multiple uses; the cheeseboard includes such superstars as Langres and St Marcellin; and an "Aperitif" section contains fully 9 different ways of snacking, including potted crab and roasted garlic. I started with a £4 order of saucisson, presented with crunchy mini gherkins which offset the silky fat of the pork very nicely.

Sometimes the only thing that separates a good restaurant from a great one is attention to detail. House bread, for example - I don't know if 10 Cases bake their own, but it certainly tasted that way, the sliced baguette being warm and crusty and soft and utterly irresistible, especially when topped with half a sachet of (soft and room temperature - take note Other Restaurants) President butter. You can get decent baguette in lots of places; bread like this is a rare treat.

For some reason I was expecting foie gras en cocotte to be a kind of foie gras Wellington, but I think I was getting mixed up with en croute. Anyway, what arrived was a little ceramic pot containing a generous slab of seared liver, topped with a poached egg. It's perhaps a dish that in lesser hands could have been a bit sickly, but we found the mix of rich meaty foie and silky yolk dangerously addictive - and a nice crust on the foie meant the textures didn't get muddied.

Bacon egg and pork cheek "salad" is my kind of "salad" - ie. one that is largely made up of massive bits of pig. The bacon was more akin to expensive pancetta, and had a superb flavour, as did the dark slab of pork cheek (hidden under all that bacon) which split apart into moist chunks under the slightest pressure from a spoon. A poached egg lubricated it all, and the odd crouton gave crunch. This huge bowl of food disappeared in frantic, hungry seconds.

On the one hand, trout, spinach and potatoes isn't an earth-shatteringly innovative dish but when the everyday is done as well as this, you can't really complain. The skin on the fish was crispy and greaseless, the potatoes soft and buttery, and the spinach smooth and well seasoned. If I'm going to nit pick I suppose the huge chunk of garlic butter on the top was overkill; it was so massive it didn't have a chance to melt and so remained stubbornly solid after the rest of the food was polished off. But a small portion of fried octopus (£4 and from the "Aperitif" menu but easily big enough for a starter) was just gorgeous - crunchy and soft in all the right places, and coated in a rich herby, buttery dressing.

So let's just consider what we have here. A friendly, attractive little spot in central London, serving interesting wines and great food, at reasonable prices (our bill came to £67 for two with plenty of vino) and with a smile. The wine bar/bistro concept is hardly new; I can think of a dozen similar places within walking distance, many of them very good. But there is something about The 10 Cases - passion? Spirit? Perhaps just good old fashioned attention to detail and a healthy desire to offer a good product - that sets it above the crowd. If you want this kind of thing, and unless you're a vegetarian I can't think of a single good reason why you wouldn't, there really isn't anywhere that does it much better. Well done 10 Cases. Very well done indeed.


The 10 Cases on Urbanspoon