Friday 6 December 2013

Chicken Shop, Tooting

Already home to London’s most enviable collection of South Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants (you can’t go far wrong with any of them but Apollo Banana Leaf and Jaffna House are my pick of the bunch), the arrival of Chicken Shop on the High Street is yet another reason to travel to Tooting for dinner. The first branch, up in Kentish Town, has had them queuing down the street at times, although given the competition in that area perhaps that’s not surprising. More unclear is how the concept will go down in a part of London not exactly crying out for more dining options.

Anyway, here it is, and very decent it is too. This isn’t going to be a huge post - there’s only so much you can write about a restaurant with one menu item - but then Chicken Shop isn’t a place that really needs all that much publicity anyway; nearly every table was taken on an opening weekday evening at 6:30pm. Five of us sat at the bar - the only space left - and ordered “two chickens and all the sides twice”.

Not pictured is a nice enough coleslaw and an actually very nice indeed lettuce and avocado salad which was dressed and seasoned faultlessly. Apologies for the lack of photos but it was pretty dark in there and anyway, I’m sure you can imagine what coleslaw and a green salad look like.

The main event is, of course, the chicken and for just £14.50 for an entire bird I can forgive them it tasting slightly low-rent, and even for overcooking it in parts. It was, in the end, a very acceptable bit of bird, with some good charring from the rotisserie, and we all enjoyed it, even more when coated in one of the two house hot sauces. They were so good in fact that I would have happily paid for a jar to take home if they were for sale.

So, helped along by efficient service, some crinkle-cut chips and a couple of jugs of house red, a good time was had by all. There’s nothing to swoon over at Chicken Shop - it’s a solid, friendly place doing one thing and doing it well enough - but even so, in a city where plenty of people manage to get chicken so horribly wrong, even this modest achievement is to be admired. And for a bill of £15 a head, there’s really not much you can moan about. So I won’t.


Chicken Shop on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Tozi, Victoria

We started, as you often do, with a selection of house breads. In most Italian restaurants in London - probably in most Italian restaurants in Italy, although I can't pretend to have been to an exhaustive number of them - the house bread is the first thing that passes your lips. It is a barometer for what is to come, an early indication of whether the people responsible for your pending meal really have a grip on what they're doing and if their attention to detail reaches into every corner of what they do.

I don't think I've ever had a faultless selection of house breads from an Italian restaurant. They're not very often awful, just usually some combination of stale, soggy, underseasoned, overseasoned, cold or otherwise mediocre. Maybe they're going for quantity over quality - why offer just one house bread done incredibly well and warmed to order (they probably think) instead of five or six forgettable options in different sizes and shapes? Surely that's what the public want?

Well, it's not what I want. I'd take a single solitary square of good, bouncy, fresh focaccia over any number of regional Italian specialities made with any less than someone's full attention, and I'm sure plenty of other people would too. I only mention any of this because the bread at Tozi was alternately cold, soggy, underseasoned and underwhelming and set, for better or for worse, the tone for a meal which while having some merits, involved too many unforced errors for it to be quite worth the money.

I liked the idea of the barrel-aged house Negroni, for example, poured theatrically tableside, but I got the feeling it wasn't quite as strong as one you'd normally get from the bar. And if it was, then there was something else missing - not as bitter, not as punchy. Not as good. The house martini, though, was excellent, so that made up for it, and each were served pretty smartly by friendly staff who rushed about with commendable energy.

But I wish we'd been told that the soft-shelled crab formed part of the fritto misto while ordering both. I like soft-shelled crab a lot, but we didn't need more than one load of it. And the seafood itself, whilst perfectly dry-fried and of decent quality, was a rather miserly portion for £13.50 when you bear in mind that Polpo's is at least twice this amount for £9, and just as accomplished.

The "Grand selection of cured meats and cheeses" wasn't quite as grand as we'd hoped, including some pretty bog-standard cuts of Parma ham, mortadella and salami, nice enough but very familiar to anyone who's ever eaten Italian meats, and some fridge-fresh chunks of blue goat's, a cheddar-a-like aged in grapes and something that had the taste and texture of a crumbly pecorino, none of which set the pulse racing. For £18.50, is it too much to hope the cheeses be served at room temperature?

Veal ravioli was pleasant enough, £6.75 for three pieces seeming almost a bargain in comparison with what had preceeded, but still had us hoping for more. The sauce was quite thick and salty, the pasta a bit crunchy in parts. Not enough to completely spoil the enjoyment of it, just to bring a faint sense of disappointment.

We probably could have gone easier on the booze (it was a Friday), so I'll put that aside for now, and report only that without alcohol the bill would have come to £55 for two for what amounted to a plate of cold meats and cheese, a fritto misto and three veal ravioli. And that all would be well and good if any of it had been better than just "fine", but we hardly had anything that you couldn't sit down in any number of Italian restaurants in London and order more or less the exact same thing for the exact same price or less.

So maybe my problem isn't with Tozi at all. Maybe it's that Italian food in London generally seems increasingly prescribed. There seems to be this very strict formula - the same dishes offered in exactly the same way, the same ingredients treated identically, even the same price ranges, and a distinct unwillingness to stick your head above the parapet and do something different.

When places do offer a more interesting product - Trullo and Zucca come to mind, and to some extent Tinello although they are constrained by the part of town in which they operate - the results are often extraordinary. So why then can I pick up a wild boar ragu, crab linguine, aubergine parmigiana and so on and so forth from so many identikit Italians in a town where, for so many other cuisines, experimentation is welcomed with open arms? I'm not sure I know the answer. I do know that I'm getting a teensy bit bored of it all, however much of a horrible spoiled food blogger brat that makes me sound...

EDIT: Someone's been in touch to point out that I don't mean ALL Italian restaurants, just the mid-range sit-down trattoria/cicchetti places like the above. We are spoiled for good pizzerias in London, and people like Forza Win put on fantastic popup Italian events that are nothing like anyone else is doing.


Tozi on Urbanspoon

Monday 2 December 2013

Clutch, Shoreditch

There used to be two pubs, each the kind of place where the England rhetoric put up in the windows veered just the wrong side of provocative and where if you weren’t accompanied by a dangerous dog you were very much in the minority.

One, on Hackney Road, was called the British Lion, which, when the BNP voter base dwindled sufficiently, closed down, remained derelict for a year or two then triumphantly opened as fancy wine bar Sager and Wilde. That’s gentrification for you, and whatever your feelings on the myriad of changes the East End of London has been through in the last few years, I’m afraid I do not miss The British Lion. Partly because I am not the target demographic for a far-right drinking den on Hackney Road but mainly because Sager and Wilde is so bloody good.

The other pub, The Ravenscroft, was never quite as openly belligerent as the British Lion, but still had the kind of atmosphere that created a metaphorical ‘needle slipping off the record’ sound as soon as you stepped through the door. Or maybe that was just me. Either way, it was hardly a friendly place, and when it too finally succumbed to the creeping gentrification from nearby Columbia Road and was billed to reopen as a “guilt-free, ethical fried chicken” joint (at least according to a press release so full of chicken and egg puns it put me off my lunch) then despite some doubts I prepared to welcome it.

Clutch makes one long for the days of warm pints of flat Fosters, sticky carpets and tacit aggression. There is so much wrong here it’s hard to know where to start, but the first thing you’ll notice is the service, shared between three people who seemed to find the whole business of ‘finding out what people want to eat then bringing it’ to be a challenge on the level of completing a PhD.

There was one woman, young and blonde and apologetic, who said she could take our drinks order but not food because “she didn’t know the menu well enough yet”. You’d think five minutes reading the thing would be an easy remedy for that, but anyway, her call. After far too long trying to attract someone else’s attention, a slightly more senior Irish woman appeared who went through the motions for a few seconds before literally losing interest between mains and sides and went off for a far more interesting chat with a male colleague. Then said male colleague came over a few minutes later and started the whole process again.

But if the service was traumatic, it had nothing on the food. Best of the two mains was a roast of sorts, consisting of a teaspoon of mash, two (!!) minuscule roast potatoes, what tasted suspiciously like packet stuffing, what tasted even more suspiciously like frozen Yorkshire pudding, and a quarter of roast chicken hacked into pieces and turned inside out like something from a Ridley Scott film. That picture is exactly how it was presented. This was £14.

But oh God, the “fried chicken”. A picture tells a thousand words (even one of my pictures) so I’ll give you a few seconds to take in the full horror of the “peanut chilli crust half bucket” before coming back to this post. Are you finished? Have you washed your teeth? Right, I’ll continue. It was, as you can probably see, burnt, and not just by a bit - the dried chilli was black and acrid, the peanuts huge and distracting, each forming part of a crust so thick and bitter and unpleasant it beggared belief anyone - the chef, the staff, anyone - would have considered it fit to serve.

Inside the ‘Ferrero Roche’ crust (as some wag pointed out when I shared my lunch on Twitter) was some slimy poached chicken but getting to it involved so much digging I soon gave up after unwrapping just one piece of thigh. Even more distressing was the fact the chicken itself - and this applied to the roast too - was actually of fairly good quality, which possibly went some way to explain why three bits of it came to £11.

A £4 bowl of very mayonnaise-y coleslaw (from a section headed “Sloppy Sides”) was eaten because it was edible, and for that we were most grateful, but if I’m paying £11 for three bits of chicken, even if they had been any good, is it too much to expect dipping sauces (sorry, “Dippety Dips”) to be free? Here, a small pot of “roasted garlic & creme fraiche” cost £2, and would have been another £2 if we’d had a small bowl of the “citric curd” as well. On second thoughts, perhaps it’s for the best we didn’t.

We ordered the bill, it came, it was wrong, we sent it back. It came back again, it was still wrong but this time in our favour so we shrugged and paid it. Even the two mains on their own, though, came to a total of £25 without service - this is not a cheap place. So it’s hard, really, to see why anyone should bother eating at Clutch. It’s expensive, the food is objectively not good (and repeated on me throughout the night), the service makes you feel like an inconvenience and there are better places (this is East London remember) within a minute’s walk. Come back, the Ravenscroft pub - all is forgiven.


Clutch on Urbanspoon

Monday 25 November 2013

Five Guys, Covent Garden

It was billed as the "burger wars". Two behemoths of US burger culture, Five Guys and Shake Shack, were opening their first London branches within a few days of each other, and for while it seemed it was all any food blogger or restaurant critic was talking about. Would you go for the small-town, mass-market appeal of Five Guys, with their generous portions and limitless toppings? Or the refined, big-city chic Shake Shack, each sandwich a mini work of art and accompanied by an oh-so-clever selection of trendy London craft beers and Paul A Young chocolates? We went, we queued, we ate. At the time, it was Shake Shack that seemed to be winning the battle for hearts and minds but as with so many of these things, once the initial hype died down we all snuck back off to MeatLiquor and Patty & Bun and left them to it. I don't know about you, but I've not returned to Shake Shack and never even made it to Five Guys London in the first place.

So I was in Covent Garden one lunchtime looking for Christmas presents and avoiding the chuggers and I noticed Five Guys, shining pristine bright red and white like a hospital emergency room made out of Lego, totally unmistakable and unmistakably totally deserted. Finally, I thought, here was my chance to try their flagship offering without the prejudice of a three-hour wait clouding the results, and I wandered inside.

The welcome was friendly, the choices to be made fairly simple. I'd been warned the 'normal' burger was enough for a party of six, so stuck to the 'little cheeseburger' with 'little fries' and 'little drink', the ordering of which was faintly emasculating but when it arrived turned out to be plenty big enough. The only thing 'little' about the portion of fries, for example, was the ridiculous tiny cup they filled up to the brim before pouring a good half pound of overfill into the bottom of the brown takeaway bag. As to why, your guess is as good as mine. But they tasted pretty good - thank you "Guy Poskitt farm - UK" where apparently they were from that day.

I noticed something, too, while I was waiting for my Five Guys order to be delivered. Around the room hang quotes and reviews from esteemed Stateside publications like the New York and Los Angeles Times, full of praise for their product, as you might expect from the home of the cheeseburger, but in words that veer worryingly close to hyperbolic cult-like fervour. But where were the UK reviews? Not a single one visible anywhere on the walls, and only one, a blogger, quoted very briefly as part of an electronic slideshow on the back of the tills. Even the most mediocre burger joint can usually find at least a blogger or two to quote on their stationery - are things really that bad, six months after a launch that was reported on the national news, that only one critic in town has anything positive to say?

The burger was, as others will no doubt have told you long before now, a pretty nondescript affair. The beef had no discernible flavour and was cooked through to dry grey. The plastic cheese did its job servicably well, and I didn't hate the heavily seeded bun even though, crumpled and somewhat deflated, it didn't look particularly appetising. But it was all instantly forgettable, and for over £10 for the whole lot including a drink from one of those machines that pretend to offer thousands of different flavours but somehow always leave you with the exact same chemical-infused fizz no matter what you choose, it was too expensive.

"Instantly forgettable". Perhaps that explains it. Barely six months on, it's terribly obvious that, aside from a few timid American tourists, the crowds have turned their backs on Five Guys and (from what I gather) Shake Shack as well. I can't help thinking that these huge operations just sat on their hands for too long, waiting for the right moment to strike, and by the time they'd decided to finally grace us with their presence, safe in the knowledge that they were what London had been waiting for, we'd quietly created a healthy selection of world-class burgers of our own, thankyouverymuch.

Schadenfreude, you say? Well, you can hardly blame us. It's never nice to see a good business failing, never mind two, but the acres of empty, roped-off queuing areas at both Five Guys and Shake Shack just point towards not only a massive over-confidence in your own product but a rather arrogant attitude to the reception they were expecting from a city already hardly struggling for a way to enjoy minced beef and cheese inside a semi-brioche bun. Cheeseburger and fries? Hot dogs? Buffalo wings? Nah, you're alright America, we're good, thanks. What else you got?


Five Guys Burgers & Fries on Urbanspoon

Thursday 21 November 2013

Le Coq, Islington

I'd like to know why it took until 2013 for London restaurants to work out how to cook chicken properly. This is, after all, a skill possessed by the most reluctant of weekend chefs - even me, and I can overcook a pot noodle. But how many times have you sat down for half a bird in your local pub only to be presented with a dried-up old carcass with a texture like damp loft insulation, the flesh peeling off the bones in sweaty, claggy clumps? How many hotel restaurants have proudly unveiled a 'supreme' from beneath a silver dome and for it to taste like it's been crumbling under a hot lamp for the best part of a fortnight? I've eaten drumsticks that have been left on the barbeque coals for hours longer than they should have been and they've still been juicy and tender (albeit beneath a half-inch of carbon). Something about the processes required in a professional kitchen and the demands of service conspire to make chicken in a restaurant, almost invariably, a colossal disappointment.

So it's worth repeating a couple of the places that are Doing Roast Chicken Right. There is Clockjack Oven in Soho, a proto-chain yes and unashamedly so, but where each piece of spit-roasted poultry is bouncy and juicy and seasoned to perfection. The chips are some of the best in town, too, and although some aspects of the experience could be improved (the drinks list still reads like a wet Monday) you can't fail to enjoy their main product. And who could forget Chicken Shop, currently pride of Kentish Town but shortly to open in Tooting, where for very little money you can eat some lovely crispy-skinned bird with a side of crinkle-cut chips. It's places like these that make you wonder what the hell everyone else is finding so difficult.

And now there is Le Coq, in Islington, a sign that perhaps, oh God please, London finally has a grip on this thing. They may bristle with the comparisons with the rather more downmarket examples above - Le Coq is a classy, independent venture with a proper drinks offering and a weekly-changing menu of interesting starters and sides - but they still form part of that exclusive group of restaurants that somehow have managed to serve roast chicken without completely coq-ing it up (sorry).

Starters, despite the obvious (and understandable, as you will see) focus on the main event, were still worth bothering with. A salad of artichokes, capers and parmesan ticked all the flavour profile boxes and we particularly enjoyed the way the artichokes had been grilled to get little crispy bits on the petals. And a 'brown crab rarebit' tasted as odd as it sounded, but after the initial shock of the powerfully seafoody brown-meat had died down it was actually weirdly moreish, the cheese and crab mixture being salty and rich alongside that punch of the sea.

But we - and everyone else in the room for that matter - were here for the chicken, and the chicken we did have. Presented in two parts, the bright white flesh of the breast encased in a golden-brown skin, and the darker meat of the leg stretched out next to it, it was, every last morsel of it, quite beautifully done. The flavour of it, not least, was seriously impressive - perhaps thanks to this particular breed of chicken, perhaps the way they were reared, perhaps the skill of the kitchen at Le Coq. Whatever the reason, I can't think of a better roast chicken to be found in London, and certainly not for a very reasonable £17 for two courses. It came with a colcannon made with yet more artichokes (Jerusalem this time), a side which beats any green salad into a coq'ed hat (please somebody stop me), some excellent tarragon mayonnaise, and a teeny pot of chicken roasting juices which my friend had to stop me drinking like it was soup.

I should also make a special mention of the "rotisserie potatoes", which I like to think were gently cooked in the roasting fat from the chicken, and if they weren't certainly tasted like they were, all soft and glistening and browned with concentrated chicken flavour. Could Le Coq, not content with serving arguable the best roast chicken in London, also be home to the best roasties?

My only regret was not ordering a side of bread to soak up the rest of the juices, so if you make the trip to Islington yourself be sure you don't make the same mistake. Running your fingers feverishly round your plate trying desperately to get a final fix of that sticky chicken stock is not the most edifying way to end a meal, and I can only apologise to those around me for my behaviour last night.

Having completely failed to avoid making any cheap gags at the expense of the name of this restaurant thus far, I don't see why I should stop now, so it just remains for me to say that you really can't help falling in love with Le Coq. The main event is, as I say, impossible to fault, and if everything else had been a disaster it still would have been worth the hour-long Overground trip from Battersea. But add in the expertly-judged sides, the interesting (and resolutely British) starters and the finest roast potatoes in town you have yourself a real gem of a place. In fact they're so good even now, barely weeks after opening, the only question is where they go next. My advice is, don't get Coq'y.


I was invited to review Le Coq

Le Coq on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 13 November 2013

500, Archway

People quite often - and often quite rightly - have a habit of factoring in the ease of getting to a restaurant into their overall appraisal of a place. It makes sense, doesn't it, that you'd be more pleasantly disposed towards somewhere you could reach by foot in five minutes than somewhere objectively better but requiring a horrendous multi-stage tube/bus/tram/rickshaw journey. I think Mien Tay Battersea, for example, is much better than Mien Tay Shoreditch even though both are owned by the same people, have exactly the same menus and serve very similar crowds of youngish middle-class Londoners; I suspect the only actual difference is that one I can wobble home from in under a minute, and one I can't, but I swear the honey-glazed quail is always that much crispier and tastier on Lavender Hill. And that prejudice suits me very well.

I can only assume, therefore, that the well-heeled lot patronising 500 in Archway - every table taken on a cold Monday night in late October - and the hundreds of people leaving positive reviews on sites like London Eating and Urbanspoon must all live within a stone's throw of the place, because I'm afraid this SW11er couldn't find much to enjoy at all.

House bread, often the first bit of food you get to try in any given restaurant and a pretty good barometer of what's to follow, was stale and dull, a few bits of dry tomato bread and a greasy, crumbly foccacia. They had, I think, made it on-site but if you're going to go to that effort, why not wait until a bit later in the day so that it actually shows? Or it could have been leftovers from yesterday. Either way, not good.

We ordered a burrata starter to share, just so we had something to counter the carb-fest to follow, and they do at least get points for dividing it up into two separate plates to save us fighting over the same piece. But this lump of unexciting cheese, with very little creamy burrata filling, was covered with a mound of slimy roast veg smothered in oil, all of which was teeth-achingly chilly. It arrived mere seconds after it had been ordered, obviously straight from the fridge, a brazen display of infuriating laziness.

Against expectations by this stage, the mains were pretty good. My £18 plate of buttered tagliatelle came with so much shaved white truffle it is surely one of the great truffle bargain dishes of London - it is barely cheaper than this wholesale. The truffle wasn't the freshest but had enough of that funky, funghi flavour (sorry) to make it worthwhile and the pasta was bouncy and silky and lubricated with just enough butter without being sickly.

Ravioli came in a generous portion and were at least cooked to the same standard as the tagliatelle, but I'm not entirely convinced the swirls of sweet balsamic improved matters much, or the rather dry pork filling, or for that matter the soggy deep-fried sage dumped on top. But, you know, they were edible, and my friend who had ordered it, and was Italian, said they were better than the ones she'd had at Trullo. Which is an endorsement of sorts.

So our evening at 500 wasn't a complete waste of time. But were it not for the lure of the bargain-basement white truffle and decent pasta, we couldn't have found much home to write home about. Everyone deserves a good neighbourhood restaurant, and yes I know my experience of the place is tainted by the struggle to get back across town to home. My advice though, even if you happen to live in the flat directly above 500 on Holloway Road, is to get on the tube - there's better out there, and some things are worth travelling for.


500 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 30 October 2013

The French, Manchester

Anyone who has been following this blog for long enough will know that I consider Simon Rogan to be one of the most talented chefs working in Britain today, and that my meal at l'Enclume is unlikely to be superceded any time soon as the best meal I've ever eaten. I realise labelling anything the "best" is fraught with problems, especially with anything so subjective as restaurants, but much as I try to avoid quixotic praise, the more I think about that afternoon in Cartmel, in that bright conservatory overlooking the garden, the more I realise how special it was. Sixteen courses of love and joy, and edible pebbles. What more could you want?

It is probably due in part, then, to this hopeless fanboyism that I and a friend were invited up to Manchester last weekend to sample his latest ventures (more on his more informal spot, Mr Cooper's House and Garden, from Lizzie in due course) at the Midland hotel. The chances of my not having a great time at a Simon Rogan restaurant are so slim that the PR powers that be clearly decided that it was worth putting us up in this swankiest of city centre hotels and letting us loose on a ten-course tasting menu, for which we are of course very grateful. So after a morning swim in the basement pool and a brief wander around Manchester in the rain (I believe this is Manchester's default weather setting), we settled in for the midday sitting.

Much like the way things kicked off at l'Enclume, the dazzling selection of amuses that preceed the menu proper at the French are each mini works of art. Crispy kale, chicken skin and horseradish bore a certain resemblance to a similar creation at l'Enclume but substituting the cracker for a sheet of crispy kale was a stroke of genius, and having it all dissolve in your mouth into a riot of animal fat and cream was quite the sensation. Cute little crab and sorrel canapés, too, played with contrasting textures thanks to a crunchy, puffy base laced with seaweed (I think). And 'Rye, mustard and linseeds', spiked with pickled red cabbage, was fresh and invigorating, the seeds toasted just to release a bit of smoke and oil. The only not-entirely-successful item was a black pudding and sage croquette thing which should have been right up my alley but turned out to be rather bland and pappy. Or maybe it was just suffering in contrast to everything else.

Plenty to discuss, then, and we hadn't even reached course one. That arrived next in a little stoneware pot, and consisted of two impossibly sweet new potatoes covered in a rich cheddar sauce. Toasted bread added crunch, and chives colour. It was all very comforting and autumnal, a cheese and potato pie gone posh.

"Grilled radish, leek and watercress" doesn't sound like the most amazingly interesting dish, does it? Except there is nobody who can do vegetables like Simon Rogan, and thanks to a range of techniques and some incredibly fresh ingredients, it was an absolute dazzler. A young leek, gently charred and tasting of wood smoke, was draped around a couple of pieces of rich, salty ham in an ever-so-slightly gelatinous sauce studded with mustard seeds. A fresh radish on top added a bitter crunch to compliment the salt and soft notes elsewhere, and another type of cooked radish was so sweet and smoky and had a flavour so arresting it could have won Best In Show on its own.

And so, just as had happened at l'Enclume, that course kicked off a run of five that could each barely be faulted. Take each of these ingredients in isolation and tell me you don't want to smother yourself in them - mushroom broth, salt-baked swede, smoked yolk, truffles. Now imagine all forming part of one extraordinary dish, rich and soothing, like wrapping yourself in a blanket in front of a log fire in an old thatched cottage.

Then the ox in coal oil dish, much discussed by others as a highlight of their meal at the French but supremely impressive even despite all the hype. On the one level, it's a steak tartare, prettied up with neat little balls of kohlrabi and toasted pumpkin seeds. But the coal oil adds a bewildering extra dimension, the flavour of a charcoal-charred steak without the char.

Caramelised cabbage - ah, you had me at "caramelised cabbage" - scallops, herbs and smoked roe had the trademark Rogan way with smoke and vegetables, with some lovely sweet little Scottish scallops boasting a golden brown crust. I wish I'd known that the roe was quite so punchy before I downed a whole puck of it in one, though - it was so powerfully salty my squeal of surprise turned heads from more than one neighbouring table.

Next was one of Rogan's famous salad explosions, consisting of at least fifty or so separate elements and presumably having taken some poor bugger the best part of the day to put together. I won't even begin to remember everything that went into it, but it was great fun to work our way through, and was interesting seeing how it had evolved from a similar dish I tried at the Electrolux Cube when he was cooking there last year. Just as pretty, though.

Plaice with carrots was a dainty arrangement of bright-white, superbly-timed fish and carrots done caramelised/roasted and as a little purée. Whether it was because it was towards the end of the savoury dishes by this point or just my delicate stomach, I'm afraid neither of us really much enjoyed the deep-fried nugget of bone marrow that topped the fish; it was rich to the point of defeating. Nevertheless, it's always nice when a top chef turns his hand to a fish like plaice - you rarely see it looking and tasting this good.

Middlewhite pork belly was just about the nicest bit of pork I've enjoyed in a very long time, the flesh hammy and bouncy and edged with a thin layer of golden crackling. The accompanying veg - blewits, turnip and mugwort - had the added benefit of sounding like something from Hogwarts' Advanced Potions class as well as tasting earthy and mysterious. A pork jus poured on top made some popcorn crackle like breakfast cereal.

Apples, woodruff (wiki here, I had no idea either), sweet cheese and hazelnut was a pleasant if unspectacular introduction to the sweet courses. Even here, though, despite rather muted flavours, there was some interesting technical skill on display in the form of some nitro-frozen, apple-flavoured meringue things which completely disappeared in the mouth like cold candy floss.

Then a marvellous course consisting of toasted oats, raspberries and hyssop where the fruit had been teased into a thin sheet of translucent raspberry-flavoured candy, and the medicinal, minty hyssop came in the form of a crumbled sorbet. As you may have noticed by this point, there's always plenty going on in terms of technique, but never at the expense of enjoyment.

It was all, of course, as it was always likely to be, a joy. Opening Manchester's first fine-dining restaurant in its most grand and classical old dining halls is a pretty serious achievement in itself, but to do so while sacrificing so little of the charm, inventiveness and fanatical devotion to detail that made l'Enclume so special has not just created the first high-end restaurant in Manchester worth visiting, but another regional destination restaurant, a jewel in the crown of the north that deserves to draw in visitors from all over the country.

I hesitate to mention the dreaded M-word but enough people have made comments to the effect of "if it's so good, why didn't it get a Michelin star", and enough Mancunian pride has been hurt by the omission in this year's guide that it probably deserves addressing. Firstly, and most importantly, Michelin are an ignorant bunch of foam-frotting dinosaurs who wouldn't recognise a good meal if it was tied to a brick and flung in their faces. The briefest of glances at the awards as they currently stand nationwide reveal no obvious pattern other than that if you are connected in some way to a famous name treading water in the Michelin comfort zone (Ducasse, Gagnaire, Robuchon) or are at least serving the kind of dishes they recognise from other restaurants they've awarded (the Greenhouse, Gordon Ramsay, Le Champignon Sauvage) then you are likely to do well. Other than that, you may as well be pulling names out of a hat. The dreadful Ametsa gets a star and not the Clove Club? The gimmick-fountain that is Bo London is awarded, and not the refined, innovative Kitchen Table? It's a crapshoot, in all senses of the word.

So the fact that l'Enclume is "deserving" of two stars and the French not even one says nothing - absolutely nothing - about the quality of the food at either restaurant but everything about how risk-averse, unpredictable and utterly irrelevant the Michelin guide is. Simon Rogan's crafted, intelligently seasonal, creative dishes in the heart of this grand old hotel may not have been deemed as good as somewhere in Mayfair charging £80 for an edible used condom but nobody - not him, and certainly not you - need to worry about that. One day the Michelin guide will be a forgotten relic of a time when the wrong people valued the wrong things about eating out and we will laugh about how chefs would drive themselves loopy to win their favour. Until then, just know this - there are few better restaurants than the French.


I was invited to the Midland to review the French

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