Monday 30 July 2012

l'Enclume, Cumbria

For many years, the cliff-top road to El Bulli was uneven, unpaved and, frankly, terrifying. Difficult enough even today despite clear road markings and that thick black tarmac the Europeans seem to do so well, for all the time Ferran Adria was collecting his stars his guests (not to mention countless Michelin inspectors) were required to pass this rally trial of a journey before they were allowed to sit down to dinner.

Of course, it was entirely deliberate. The bumpy journey around the coast, that half-hour spent bracing for every pothole, hoping to God you weren't about to hit a stray rock and career off into the Bay of Rosas, was all part of the adventure, the idea presumably being that the harder you had to try to get to a restaurant, the more likely you were to make the most of it once you got there. Whatever you thought of his food (and I didn't think much), Adria is nothing if not a showman, and understands that anticipation and the sense of achievement of having "arrived" (all coupled with the desperate unlikelihood of securing a reservation in the first place of course) is absolutely the best way of ensuring your guests are in the best possible frame of mind to be entertained.

On a smaller scale, building any mini break or long journey around a single meal goes some way to generating that sense of anticipation. Admittedly, Cartmel isn't quite as far-flung as Cala Montjoi, and turning left off the A590 isn't as spectacular as navigating a precipitous coastal road 200 metres above the Mediterranean sea, but the idea is the same - you're making a journey for your dinner, you are removing yourself from your daily patterns and routines and embarking on an adventure. We essentially weren't travelling up to the Lake District for any other reason than to eat at l'Enclume, and so the journey, indeed the whole trip, became part of the meal. And it follows, of course, that had the meal been disappointing, so would the trip.

Fortunately, Saturday evening in l'Enclume turned out to be one of the greatest meals I've ever had in my life. I have been thinking hard (usually a mistake) about whether if I'd just got the tube to Mayfair and had the same food and service would I still be in such raptures; on the one hand it doesn't matter I suppose as it's just pointless speculation, but are all truly great meals just as much a product of build-up and state-of-mind and surroundings as they are of skill in the kitchen? Is l'Enclume really serving the best food in Britain or was it simply a result of a "holiday mode" mental state and a pretty sunlit garden next to a babbling brook? See if you can help me decide.

From an array of amuses that arrived more or less together, the least impressive was actually the only thing in the whole evening I recognised from the l'Enclume sister restaurant in London, Roganic. "Cream cheese wafers" were as pretty as an entry in the Chelsea Flower Show but tasted only "very good". Smoked eel cooked in ham fat tasted every bit as good as that combination sounds, "Celery and apple and pickled beetroot", a substitution for my red-meat-avoiding father was a little explosion of fresh summer produce, and "peas and beef tongue" suffered only slightly from underseasoning but nevertheless was great fun to eat thanks to a range of interesting textures.

Out in front, though, was something called "Oyster pebbles"; supremely delicate apple meringue filled with oyster cream which dissolved into heavenly fresh seafood in the mouth, accompanied by extraordinary things called "oyster leaves" - look like weeds, taste like oyster. Really.

First proper course was an achingly pretty arrangement of sliced kohlrabi, puffed wild rice and what looked like a bright yellow quails egg but what was actually cod & sage cream set inside a gel of some kind. L'Enclume is not averse to using the odd bit of scientific trickery, it seems, but only sparingly, and always to great effect. Some powerfully-flavoured pieces of tomato added extra umami, although if you are (understandably) wincing at the unironic use of the word "umami" in a restaurant review, feel free to substitute it for "tomatoey flavour".

I should probably pause to make a special mention of the house bread. There were three kinds - a pumpernickel, an onion whole-wheat of some kind and a white flavoured with summer herbs, and were so good with the bright-white salted house butter it was a constant struggle to stop working your way through them. They were fresh out of the oven, with perfect crusts and soft moist inside, and I have not had better house bread anywhere apart from sister restaurant Roganic. Alaine Ducasse once said, when confronted with a criticism that his house bread was cold, that he didn't want people to "fill up" before the proper food started arriving. Well, Ducasse is a fool and l'Enclume is proof that a tray of the greatest bread in Britain only adds to the enjoyment of a meal. We do have some self-control, you know.

Westcombe [Cheddar] dumplings in onion broth, marjoram and broad beans was nothing short of sensational. The flavour from the dumplings was as good as you might expect from this magisterial unpasteurised product, but the syrupy onion broth paired with tiny leaves of intense marjoram turned the whole thing into a sort of God's Own French Onion soup.

I have long suspected that venison makes a better tartare than beef, and nothing on this plate was about to change my mind. Studded with delicate tiny cubes of capers and dressed with fennel shoots, the venison still managed to be the star of the show despite jewelled pockets of sugared fennel bursting on the tongue and providing wildly inventive seasoning and texture.

Scallops (usefully described as "sea scallops" on the menu, marking them apart from the tasteless land-dwelling variety you see so many of these days, as someone sarkily pointed out on Twitter) came dressed with a sharp strawberry sauce, crunchy grilled cauliflower and a selection of foraged coastal herbs that seasoned with intense sea-salt flavours. There was also a little dollop of what I think was some kind of hazelnut purée, and a scattering of puffed oats.

We were fortunate enough to eat at l'Enclume on the same day as their restaurant farm had pulled up its first harvest potatoes. These innocent looking tubers managed to punch through as a main ingredient despite being served with citrusy Nasturtium leaves and delicate slivers of chicken skin, and were as rich - and enjoyable - as any protein.

Next, a disc of charred cucumber and some kind of crispy shoot of broccoli was scattered with local shrimp and a blackberry oil dressing. The shrimp, as you might hope, were the talking point - sweet and juicy and almost unnaturally powerful in flavour, but the same attention to detail and artistic sensibility had been applied to everything else on the plate.

I'm going to just take a moment here and say that those previous five courses, from the onion broth to the local bay shrimps, constitutes the most consistently brilliant run of dishes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. Inevitably any meal has highlights, but it's very rare indeed to see so many side-by-side that are as good as can possibly be, that each impress in every way just as much as the one before, and that maintain such a stunning level of precision and skill. These dishes are side one of Van Morrison's Moondance, the first ten minutes of Disney/Pixar's Up - crafted, expertly judged, perfect.

That the next course didn't quite live up to the previous giddying highs is not that much of a criticism. Local bass was full of fresh flavour and cooked to just translucent, but the topping of shockingly fishy cockles on top dominated far too much, and rather threw the whole thing out of kilter. We also had to Google what a "chenopodium" was (looks like mint, tastes of salad).

We were, though, right back on top of the mountain with this suckling pig. Dressed with yellow beans and wood sorrel, the crackling took the form of piggy popcorn, presumably dried and deep-fried pieces of pig skin. The pork itself was unbelievably tender and moist, and I'm afraid I rather embarrassed myself by sweeping up every last remnant of the sauce with my fingers, it was that addictive.

Cheeses were all British Isles and largely very good although in all honesty I was a bit underwhelmed by a couple of the soft goat's. In principle I applaud the idea of extending the fiercly localist principles of l'Enclume to the cheeseboard, I just think - and believe me it pains me to say this - that sometimes the French do certain types of cheese better. At least, for now.

Iced chamomile, spruce, celery and black pepper was a palate-cleanser but memorable enough in its own right. Chamomile is an interesting flavour and, in common with pretty much everything else we at at l'Enclume, the combination of these ingredients wasn't something I'd ever had before.

"Cumbrian slate" was in fact two portions of summer berry jelly dusted and shaped to look like lumps of rock. Lemon verbena were placed like shoots of ferns growing in between the rocks, and the apple and gooseberries were freeze-dried and aerated somehow into little moss-like sponges. Clever stuff, and of course, very tasty.

There's not much not to like about the combination of cherries, hazelnut and cider, and yet another supreme command of texture and technique made this something special. I particularly liked the hazelnut, which was whipped into a kind of light mousse.

Finally, journey's end. Oatmeal stout, blackberry, malt and plum was a sandwich of light malty mousse topped with blackberries and served alongside a little cup of plum sauce. We'd had fully fifteen courses before it, and yet it still disappeared with relish and enthusiasm.

So what do you think? To return to an earlier point, running back through the l'Enclume menu now I can't imagine the setting and state of mind had much to do with the fact we enjoyed ourselves so much; it was simply that presentation, ingredients, attention to detail and monumental effort had produced a dinner that stood apart from pretty much anything else we'd ever eaten.

No element of any dish was superfluous, no fancy cheffy technique was either overused or there simply to hollowly impress at the expense of culinary sense. The food was never obscure or superior; where it was challenging it only ever delighted and surprised, never confused; where it used foraged or unusual ingredients they always worked better than any conceivable alternative, and were not just present to prove a point on sustainability. The service was professional and knowledgeable but never aloof, the timing between courses always just right - the first few dishes appearing swiftly in sympathy with our empty stomachs, then slowing down as the meal wore on. Yes, there were a couple of things we enjoyed less but these weren't jarring errors, just differences of opinion perhaps, and I suppose £89 a head isn't an everyday spend but is still perfectly within the bounds of acceptability for this level of cooking.

I'm not the first person to rave about l'Enclume and I certainly won't be the last. And I won't insult their kitchen by labelling anyone a "genius"; that word has lost all meaning after being thrown at anyone who's ever lifted a knife and who very rarely deserves it - certainly not Ferran Adria who I've always considered to be more PT Barnum than Pablo Picasso. So the greatest compliment I can give Simon Rogan and Mark Birchall and the phalanx of talent behind the stoves in the old Smithy in Cartmel is that I don't think there is any more exciting, innovative, joyful and miraculous restaurant in Britain. L'Enclume is an open-hearted and masterful celebration of everything that's great about modern British food, and you should go as soon as you possibly can.


L'Enclume on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Rita's Bar and Dining, Dalston

Bacon peanut brittle; Pancetta & anchovy wedge; Fish taco; Ox-heart taco; Ginger & soy hot wings, pickles; Chicken roll; Patty melt; Smoked pork & duck heart baked beans; fries. The menu at Rita's Bar & Dining is not so much as if someone had asked me what 15 or so of my favourite things in the world were to eat and then written them down, no, it's more than that. It's as if someone somehow knew what my deepest subconscious foodie desires were and constructed a list of ingredients combined in such a way as to make me wobble with joy. I want this menu read out at my funeral; I want to spray-paint it onto the side of my house; I want to take it home to meet my parents.

Yes, I liked the menu. And I only have my pathetic Saturday evening post-pub appetite to blame for the fact we didn't order the whole lot, so sadly this post will just have to serve as a short teaser of the delights awaiting visitors to Rita's. But based on the handful of dishes we tried, this unlikely spot in the furthest reaches of Dalston will have them queuing down Stoke Newington Road much in the manner of other North-American inspired smash hits across the capital. It really is that good.

I will begin with the only thing that could have been improved - Ginger & soy hot wings had a lovely aromatic flavour but were a little too flabby; perhaps the oil they were fried in wasn't hot enough, or perhaps they weren't deep-fried at all. But accompanying pickles were excellent in that sweet, soft style of US BBQ.

Rita's serve the finest tacos I've eaten this side of the pond, and if that isn't perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay, you'll just have to take my word for it that they tasted every bit as good as you could hope. The fish, crispy and fresh and livened by colourful crunchy pickles and herbs, came on a stunningly authentic-tasting masa-flour (I presume) tortilla, and a ox-heart version paired the same earthy base with some wonderful gamey notes, the meat itself just chewy enough to be interesting. The offal one in particular, in fact, strongly reminded me of something Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista could have served. How has it taken this long to get tacos right in London?

The Rita's Patty Melt has the potential to be their signature offering, partly - admittedly - for the novelty factor (you must know how these things work by now) but mainly because it tastes so damn good. Dripping with, well, dripping I suppose, and using beef mince with a commendable depth of flavour for something costing only £5 (well aged I'm guessing), this is essentially not much more than a toasted beef and cheese sandwich but absolutely none the worse for that. It's enough to make you want to dig out the Breville and have a go yourself.

The chicken roll (not pictured I'm afraid, we were enjoying ourselves too much by this point) was like a gourmet KFC wrap, served in a brown paper bag for that true High-Streetfood filthy chicken feel, but constructed with care and boasting lovely moist and crunchy chicken. If we are to believe the hype that "good" fried chicken is going to be London's latest street food fad, then this is a good a place as any to start.

OK, I know I'm gushing. This kind of thing just happens to be my personal restaurant heaven, and it maybe won't push everyone's buttons. Dalston is a long way from anywhere, the noise and crowd levels later in the evening do have a habit (so I'm told) of slipping just the wrong side of comfortable, and there was more than the usual element of the braying red-trousered type in attendance the evening we went, in accordance with the oh-so-trendy industrial décor and popup sensibilities.

But if you can't enjoy yourself surrounded by fresh fish tacos and fried chicken and burger sandwiches then you're likely to be missing some vital fun-loving part of your brain, and probably shouldn't be eating out at all. I loved Rita's not just because it's "my kind of thing" but because all the food was just way, way, better, and cheaper, than it needed to be, and everything about the way it was delivered (including the wickedly strong frozen Margaritas - careful with those is my tip) made me smile. And there is no greater compliment than that.


Rita's Bar and Dining on Urbanspoon

Monday 16 July 2012

Lima, Fitzrovia

After a faintly underwhelming evening a couple of months ago at Ceviche, the first of the new-wave Peruvian fusion restaurants to open in London, you can forgive me for not being wildly enthusiastic about trying somewhere else ten minutes walk away that, on the face of it at least, appeared to be doing something remarkably similar. Obviously everywhere should be judged on its own merits, but having arrogantly assumed I'd "done" sea-bass ceviche and Pisco sours and not finding many reasons to believe that Lima wouldn't just be more of the same, I rolled up to Rathbone Place with expectations if not low then certainly 'realistic'.

But by the time I'd finished a Pisco Sour (perhaps slightly better than the Ceviche version, although that was very good too) I began to get the feeling that there was something altogether more accomplished about the way Lima was going about things, compared to their rivals. The basement bar at Lima perhaps doesn't have the same shabby Soho atmosphere, but the staff are engaging and the drinks are prepared smartly, and with skill. Upstairs, the dining room is brightly lit by a large skylight (at least it is in early summer) and a large open kitchen makes a entertaining centerpiece while you wait for your dinner to arrive.

Most importantly, while the food at Ceviche veered from 'disappointing' to 'fine', everything we ate at Lima was astonishingly good. Ordering two varieties of ceviche to start (the menu is only vaguely divided into 'starters' and 'mains' but is fairly easy to figure out), an artichoke version came dressed with "amazon tree tomato" (I think more normally known as tamarillo) sauce, sharp and brightly coloured and a perfect counterfoil to the sweet artichokes. Even more impressive though was a sea-bass ceviche which in contrast to the clumsily oversour version in Soho was gently marinated and allowed the soft flavour of the fish to be the main event, texture provided by some rings of red onion. I could have done without the ugly smear of sweet potato purée around the side of the bowl, but I guess they had their reasons.

Mains were similarly high in wow-factor. Four large chunks of halibut, showing a gentle crust from the grill but still tender and moist, were paired with a sort of smooth peanutty sauce, the contents of which I couldn't even begin to hazard a guess at but take your pick from "huacatay herb, Andean grain, aji mirasol" from the menu. Star of the evening though was a plate of the best suckling pig I can remember being given in London, accompanied by "potato 4000 metres" which tasted less like potato and more like a kind of squash with an incredibly concentrated sweet/savoury flavour. Thanks to a mix of some interesting textures such as sliced white pear and chunks of grilled nuts, this was the kind of thing that makes sense of all the hype about Peruvian fusion food - it really was that good.

It's a sign of a great restaurant that as soon as you've paid up and left you wish you could go back and try everything else you didn't get to shovel down the first time. And I do desperately want to try the "Asparagus Peru" and the "Eco Dried Potato" and the "bay scallops tiraditos". But here's the problem with that - I'll have to get saving. Our bill, with a bottle of the cheapest wine, a beer and a very pleasant pot of "Andean Kiwicha" (sort of a crunchy yoghurty thing topped with the unappetising-sounding "purple corn jelly" but was actually nowhere near as weird as it sounds) came to £100 for two, and was the only slight dampener on what had otherwise been a faultless evening. Perhaps I've been spoiled by no-reservations places like Polpo and Burger & Lobster which can offer top-notch food for less by turning tables ten times of an evening, and I admit it was nice rocking up and saying "table for 2 for Pople, 6:30" instead of "how long's the wait?", but £50 is still a lot of money for 2 1/2 courses and a few drinks.

Also, I wonder how many people will raise their eyebrows at a menu that appears to import much of its contents from a country 6,000 miles away? With every recession-era pointing trend towards local sourcing and recycled napkins, it's very strange to be sat in a restaurant that boasts of just how many food miles (and vertical metres) your dinner has travelled, and asks you to pay a premium for it. Can this be a sustainable arrangement? Should it be?

Despite the nagging environmenal questions though, and the cost, there's still a lot to love about Lima. The food, as I say, is extraordinary not just because London has seen little like it before, but because it is thoughtfully constructed, expertly cooked and tastes incredible. Service was spot on (the Maitre d' has come from Heston Blumenthal's Dinner) and we had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I wish it had been a bit cheaper, but then you can't have everything. So save your pennies, take public transport to offset your carbon emissions, and go and see for yourself.


Lima on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 10 July 2012

10 Greek Street, Soho

There are some people, amongst both bloggers and professional critics, who like playing the role of contrarian. They'll be the first to call out any given foodie trend as having jumped the shark (usually before most of the rest of us have even heard of it), will delight in posting the first negative review of a universally adored restaurant just to see what kind of reaction they can provoke, and will huff and puff and roll their eyes at any indication that anything so utterly tedious as a consensus is forming about where to eat or drink.

Which is all fine, of course - it wouldn't do if we were all the same. And perhaps there is something rather depressingly sheep-like about watching the same group of people falling over each other to lavish praise on the latest burger joint or trendy Dalston roof-top popup; one of the side-effects of there being so many food blogs knocking around these days is that if you are trying to follow them (or, God help you, if you have a professional interest in doing so) you will see the same names and personalities being frothed over again and again. I can see how that might be annoying, even if as one of the people most likely to be doing the frothing (as it were), I'm in no position to judge.

But love it or loathe it, consensus exists for a reason. There may not be any such thing as an objectively perfect place that literally anyone would love, but if somewhere gets a good review in the Metro, or your favourite food blog, or even from your best friend, chances are you're going to like it too. There would be no food blogs or food critics or restaurant guides of any kind if our preferences weren't shared to some degree with other fellow humans; after all, essentially we all want the same things from wherever we decide to spend our dinner money - good food, good value and somewhere nice to enjoy it. Consensus may be boring, it may occasionally be quite irritating, but there's no better way of choosing somewhere to eat.

With all that in mind, then, I was thoroughly expecting to enjoy everything about 10 Greek Street. The consensus (there's that word again) was clear in its favour, from the short list of attractive and accessible dishes, to the bright room populated by obliging staff, to the apparently very reasonable wine list that those more knowledgeable than me about such things (that would be more or less everyone then) declared one of the best in town. So what went wrong?

There was certainly nothing wrong with the house bread, which was very good indeed, particularly a lovely crusty focaccia. This was presented with the glorious words "are you OK with tap water?", and for no supplementary cover charge either, so we were off to a cracking start. But I'm afraid once the food proper started arriving, things went downhill. The razor clams in my starter, for example, each came complete with a huge brown bladder of un-purged fish waste, which was pretty unpleasant. Why they'd gone to all the trouble of properly shelling broad beans but not bothering to remove the gritty sacs of clam guts was a bit of a mystery. I'm all for rustic presentations but I draw the line at being asked to eat shit.

I realise complaining of pork belly being "too fatty" is inviting criticism, but this was hard work to eat. Perhaps a stronger sauce would have made it more palatable, or longer slower cooking to render off more of the wobbly fat, but to be honest I'm not sure. All I know is, the pork was piggy jelly accompanied by half decent vegetables and cost a whacking £19. A friend's ricotta-filled courgette flower was mealy and unsatisfying; no better than the pork although it was £5 cheaper.

With no wine, the bill for two (two courses each) came to £49. Service wasn't included, so we quite happily added on £6; although the food was pretty uneven, we couldn't complain about the front of house. But it was a total that still asked too much for what was pretty sloppy cooking, and I can think of better ways of spending this kind of money on lunch, not least Duck Soup around the corner on Dean Street which has an altogether more skilful set of hands in the kitchen. So, for once on this usually consensus-happy blog, I find myself playing the part of the contrarian. 10 Greek Street has little but praise from anyone I've ever spoken to who's been there, and yet here I am having to leave it a rather mediocre review. Ah well, plenty more clams in the sea.


10 Greek Street on Urbanspoon