Tuesday 28 May 2013

SushiSamba, Bishopsgate

A meal at the Heron Tower always gets off to the best possible start, thanks to a thrilling journey up the Fastest Lift in Europe(TM). Unlike my first white-knuckled ride up to Duck & Waffle a year ago, I am now able, thanks to far more return trips than are good for my liver or my wallet, to have my eyes open for the entire thing. But the novelty never wears off - it's an extraordinary thing, being rocketed up into the sky, ears popping and stomach churning, and is no less spectacular on a Saturday lunchtime spending hours watching the trains snake in and out of Liverpool Street station, than an evening with London's glittering skyline providing the backdrop to your bag of pig's ears and yuzu gin and tonic.

So far though, the only floor I'd spent any time on was the 40th, in the bar and the restaurant of Duck & Waffle. SushiSamba, its South American sister downstairs, never felt like my kind of place; perhaps I had, unfairly, visions of the superficial, celeb-chasing likes of Nobu and Sake No Hana, and considered it a useful "filter" to prevent that kind of crowd creeping up to where the real magic happened. But also, I'd seen the prices, and I'd read the reviews, and if I'm going to spend that much on a meal I wanted to make sure I might get something more in return than some faintly ill-conceived sushi-tacos and a nice view.

But SushiSamba now has a new chef, and in an effort to persuade us that there's life outside the 40th floor, the kind people who do their PR sent myself and three friends to see what he was up to. And from the very first mouthful of the very first thing we tried, as London's summer squall raged outside (the SushiSamba terrace was, sadly but understandably, out of bounds that evening), we were impressed. Well, at least, I was.

Amuse of salmon tartare and yuzu caviar (I'm guessing but I don't think I'm far off the truth) was aggressively seasoned, so much so that a starter-sized portion of the same mixture would probably have proved too much. But one mouthful managed to stay just the right side of overwhelming, and a little box of runner beans in a lovely, bright, light tempura batter were complemented perfectly by a fluffy truffle dip.

Wagyu beef gyoza were similarly accomplished, packed full of juicy, crumbly beef and with a good crunch on the casing. There were five of them, making sharing between a table of four rather difficult, but somehow we managed. Most of the dishes, in fact, came in 3s, 5s or 7s, meaning there was a lot of improvised chopstick-sawing going on.

Trio of ceviche didn't display anything as stellar as I'd eaten at Lima, but comparing just one dish to London's best ceviche restaurant is unfair. They were fine - the seabass one being the best, with the strongest leche de tigre (literally "tiger's milk", the base marinade of any good ceviche) but they all seemed a bit subdued, and a horrible cold, chewy lump of squid on top of the seabass didn't do anyone any favours.

I don't remember much about the tuna tataki, so it was probably perfectly edible and yet not outstanding. Looks pretty though doesn't it.

This "wagyu tataki" was great - a little fan of pink beef underneath an obscene (in a good way) slab of wobbly seared foie gras, and a quail's egg on top. Bags of flavour, each element perfectly timed, and an example of how to make foie gras work with Asian food (as opposed to sticking it on top of sushi rice, which is a bloody awful idea).

You may want to make sure you're sat down before I hit you with the next course, because I have something quite shocking to reveal. This is, I think, unless I'm missing some ingredient in the sauce there, an entirely vegan dish. And not only did I enjoy it immensely, but it may even have been my favourite dish of all. And it's vegan. Not even vegetarian - vegan. Perhaps I'm more of a sucker for presentation than I thought, because it is stunning isn't it, like four miniature herb gardens sprouting next to a lily pond. But no - it did taste as good as it looked, herby and fresh, and incredibly skilfully done.

By way of extreme contrast, the next couple of dishes were entirely meaty. Flank steak was nicely chewy and rare, although the herby coating was rather nondescript. Lovely pink lamb chops, though, in an umami-rich red miso paste, were much better.

If you think the "El Topo" samba roll sounds odd on paper - that's salmon, jalapeño, shiso leaf melted mozzarella (I know) and crispy onion - then you're not the only one. Ordered out of sheer curiosity it divided our table between those who found it sickly and bizarre (me) and those who loved it (er, everyone else). Still, wouldn't do if we were all the same, as my grandmother says.

I found far more to enjoy in the "Sao Paulo", which was a bonkers selection of pretty much every different type of fish on the menu, all chopped up into little slices with black truffle on top. Fresh fish, not too much warm sticky rice, and an eye for presentation. Nothing to complain about.

Sashimi was not particularly stellar, although by this point it could just be that our appetites were waning - they were probably fine. You might be expected to expect better than fine, though, for £22 for 9 pieces.

And it's the cost that is really the only significant worry when planning a dinner at SushiSamba. Food like this is never cheap, and shouldn't ever be cheap - truffle, foie gras, wagyu beef, sashimi-grade tuna, all these things need paying for. And once the small plates are stacked up and counted (not literally, don't worry - this isn't Yo! Sushi) you could easily find yourself spending more than you expected.

We didn't pay, so you can take this post with a pinch of salt or dismiss it entirely, as is your right. But I asked for the bill at the end anyway just to see what it would have been, and discovered with some surprise that all the above, with plenty of interesting sake and a good few cocktails, came to just under £80 a head. Not cheap, not cheap at all, but I don't think far off value for what had been a very enjoyable meal with one of the best views in London. And so for top quality South-American-Japanese fusion food, served with pride and skill, in London's 2nd-highest dining room, you can't do any better. Yet another reason, if you needed one, to take a trip up the Heron Tower.


SUSHISAMBA London on Urbanspoon
I was invited to review SushiSamba

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Jamie Oliver's Diner, Piccadilly

Taking "inspiration" from an existing successful business is not, in itself, evil. Noting the success of Bubbledogs and the Big Apple Hot Dogs and then opening your own hot dog stall is not evil. Spotting the crowds in MeatLiquor and opening your own burger and cocktail joint is not evil. Being envious of the queues trailing down Beak Street from FlatIron then serving your own version of the dish is not evil. Wanting to get in on the market for slow-cooked BBQ ribs pioneered by Pitt Cue is not evil.

But doing all this at once?

It's not just that Jamie's Diner is cynical. It's not merely that it's an incoherent, paper-thin mess of a place that shouldn't have left the drawing board. It's way more than that. It's a multi-million pound cliché warehouse, a jumble of every single one of London's food fads all piled up on top of each other, each more disastrously "reimagined" than the last.

The menu is bone-jarring, multi-car pile up, so much so that pointing out all its failings would take a short novella never mind a blog post. There's a collection of "starters" of no obvious geographical origin, "cajun" prawns and "sweet potato quesadilla" jostling somewhat uncomfortably next to a Marie Rose prawn cocktail. There's a box of four "Classic Dishes" including a Reuben sandwich, a £15 chicken in a basket (one would hope you get the whole chicken for that; I bet you don't) and the worryingly singular "Giant Spaghetti Meatball".

There's another section for "salads" which has so many eye-twitchingly irritating phrases I got as far as "Super Duper Quinoa Salad" then gave up and moved on. The "Steaks" section has just two choices - a £16.50 "Flat-Iron" (for all its failings, at least Flat Iron Soho's is only £10 with a salad) and a completely bonkers "Rib-eye for two" for £60. There's a section for "waffles" which has only two choices; one with pulled pork and one - I swear I'm not making this up - with smoked salmon and horseradish cottage cheese which must rank with one of the most terrifying ideas anyone in charge of writing a menu has ever had. There's also a box for "burgers" where if you really want to push the boundaries you can specify extra sweetcorn salsa, gruyere cheese and piccalilli for £1 an item.

But if the menu is a car crash, just wait till you get a load of the food. "Guacamole tortilla chips" were notable insofar as they contained no tortilla chips, and very little guacamole, just some salty water biscuits of some kind, slowly dissolving under a pile of tasteless chopped tomatoes. They were served in a sort of bucket thing with a handle which I'm sure someone thought was a good idea.

"Dirty Barbecue Ribs" were burned, so it's hard to objectively rate their "dirty"ness, although if "dirty" means "sickeningly sweet and overcooked" then we're probably halfway there. A pile of chopped carrots and cabbage and who knows what else was entirely unseasoned and served no purpose, although bizarrely shoestring fries were crisp, perfectly seasoned and actually rather nice.

Worse was yet to come, though. "Giant spaghetti meatball" was, in fact, three or four totally normal-sized meatballs of flavourless mystery meat, nestled amongst slimy commodity pasta. They were garnished with sour cream, cheap parmesan and chopped parsley, the latter being all you could taste. "It smells like vomit," my friend pointed out thoughtfully, as she gamely prodded her way through it.

Dear God though, the pulled pork waffles. At first I couldn't remember if I'd ever tasted pulled pork quite this bad, and then it dawned on me - I had. At Jamie Oliver's other restaurant, Barbecoa. A winning combination of dry, sickly sweet and sloppy, their sugared-vinegar runoff had turned the waffles below from what were once presumably very bland but inoffensive carbohydrate into soggy, tooth-softening mush. Awful, and yet some deep-fried chillis, although slightly chewy, were genuinely tasty, with a gentle citrus tang and moderate heat. Which didn't go anywhere near redeeming the dish, just made the whole thing that much more psychologically bewildering.

Staff were enthusiastic - and numerous - but had a slightly eccentric habit of asking how everything was every five minutes, and given the amount of trauma involved in explaining the difference between beer and ginger beer to my eastern European waitress (a lot), I didn't feel like doing anything other than grunt "fine thank you" on each occasion. But what could they have done, anyway? Re-done the 12-hour pulled pork? Re-trained the chefs? Burned ribs aside, none of the food was cooked wrong, it just was wrong.

For all the grumbling about trend-chasing, and there has been a fair amount of grumbling (most of it from me), it's worth pointing out that however unimaginative a concept, when the food is decent, much can be forgiven. Clockjack Oven may have been rushed into field on the back of the success of Chicken Shop, but given that it's also serving lovely moist chicken and crunchy double-cooked chips for less than a tenner, who cares. And although it's tempting to blame MeatLiquor for BRGR, Burger and Shake and who knows how many other bland ripoffs, we can also thank them for Patty & Bun, Honest Burgers and Lucky Chip, all of whom London would be much poorer without.

The food here is terrible, but Jamie's Diner is enraging - apocalyptically, biblically enraging - because it has no ambition greater than to make some easy money off the back of the hard work of others, by scraping every barrel of London's current American comfort food fashions, and to exploit passing tourists and Jamie fans and get them out of the door before they realise they've been scammed. And if anyone else had put their name to this giant con trick, it would be criminal enough. But for Jamie Oliver, who has made a living for years out of telling poor people not to eat burgers, hot dogs and chips only to then charge way over the odds for the same food as soon as he realises there's money to be made, the nerve is astounding.

We are led to believe that Jamie's Diner is a "pop-up". We know this because it says 'POP-UP' on every menu, and it's plastered all over the walls and windows. In fact, the lease on the building is 3 years, which as anyone in the industry will tell you, is a perfectly acceptable period for a restaurant to last. The only way anyone would call their 3-year restaurant a "pop-up" would be if, not content with having ticked off nearly every other London food cliché, they wanted to jump on that bandwagon as well. And the cynicism, the lack of originality, the shallowness, that is all irritating enough. But to perform a volte-face on your own multi-million-pound-earning healthy-eating campaign to make yet more millions? That's shameful.


Jamie Oliver's Diner on Urbanspoon

Monday 20 May 2013

Newman Street Tavern, Fitzrovia

Such is the relentless pace of change - and not just change, progress - of London's restaurants that even that once-great totem of British cuisine, the gastropub, was in danger of looking a bit tired. Many of the old stalwarts (and I won't single any out but if you ever took an interest in eating out in London from around 1995 onwards you'll know which I'm talking about) haven't changed much about the way they're doing things since they first opened, and in the same way as you wouldn't these days consider a Rover Metro a cutting-edge example of automotive design, that non-specifically Mediterranean cous-cous-and-sun-dried-tomatoes gastropub fayre is no longer the advance guard. Once you could pick up a "gastropub" ready meal from Waitrose, the writing was on the chalkboard.

Well, fear not. The times they are a-changing, and like any successful industry, progress is driven by innovation and reinvention. The Newman Street Tavern is, at first glance, just another revamped boozer in Central London serving modern British cuisine, and could have made a very tidy profit just trotting out the usual crowd-pleasers and marking up South African wine. Instead, it quite unexpectedly served me and a couple of friends one of the most interesting and exciting and - crucially - technically impressive meals I can remember eating in W1.

The food NST are cooking isn't, on the face of it, anything completely groundbreaking. It is still Modern British from the St John school, hunks of meat or fish with salad, cottage pie, soups, etc. and so forth. On the one hand it's all quite familiar. But look a bit closer and you'll notice that they aren't playing anything safe - the starters require proper cooking and contain the kinds of words ("wild garlic, "saffron aioli", "cured wild trout") that make you want to bed in and try them all one by one. The mains, too, (token veggie offering aside) use genuinely exciting ingredients like suckling kid and pouting but there are no obvious fillers, no burgers or Caesar salad or anything bulked out with polenta. Yes, there's a steak, and I suppose cottage pie isn't too easy to mess up, but by and large it's a menu that would get anyone - even a shallow, jaded, trend-chasing food blogger like me - salivating.

And it tastes as good as it reads. Crab bisque was packed full of the main ingredient, but still delicate enough to make finishing a bowl of it as easy and pleasurable as drinking a glass of barrel-aged Jura. Devon crab salad (not pictured; I didn't forget but it came out so badly I didn't want to do the chef the disservice of publishing it) again had plenty of crab, but wouldn't have been half as good without a dollop of earthy brown crab mixture by the side. And some "Manilla" (no idea) clams had a good sweet flavour and there were loads of them, although the advertised saffron aioli was subtle bordering on stealthy.

Out of sheer food-bore curiosity I ordered a single gull's egg, having never tried them before and keen to see what all the fuss was about. I hesitate to dismiss them completely as a fad after just the one, but aside from the shocking deep orange colour of the yolk there was nothing out of the ordinary about this at all. Perhaps there are good and bad gull's egg, or perhaps this was the Emperor's New Egg. At £7.50 for a single one, too, I'm not sure I'll bother again.

Mains were all of an equally high quality as the starters. Pork belly came arranged in so much stock it could have been sold as a soup, but fortunately was so intensely, richly flavoured any presentational failings were forgiven. A single large ray wing, as beautifully sculptured as the Sydney Opera House, stood proudly unadorned and the flesh lifted from the cartilage in gleaming white chunks. But best of all (and I would say that as I ordered it) was a combination platter of langoustine and plaice, the plaice in particular tasting better than any fish in recent memory. Yes, the langoustine was a tad under, and the compulsion to dress everything with plain watercress needs a bit of a rethink, but this was still by and large incredibly good stuff.

Desserts - sticky toffee pudding and a rhubarb sorbet - were the only dishes on the menu that leaned slightly towards unimaginative. They weren't bad, but you could tell their energies weren't as focussed on this part of the menu as the savouries. Still, it all got eaten, even if the rather sour sorbet was a bit more of a struggle than the pudding.

Even if Newman Street Tavern represents nothing more than a gradual evolution of the gastropub theme without radically redrawing the map, it's still a fantastic place to have a meal and for not really that much money. But I got the distinct impression that there was more than just a lick of paint and a liberal use of a few seasonal buzzwords on the menu on top of the traditional template. The unapologetically British ingredients, minimalist presentation and unpretentious service are all vaguely familiar to anyone who's eaten at St John Bread & Wine or, say, 32 Great Queen Street but here it was all just that little bit more refined, skilful and - for want of a better word - "modern". And if this is the way things are headed, we've got a whole lot to look forward to.


Newman Street Tavern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 15 May 2013

One Leicester Street, Covent Garden

It's always sad when a good restaurant dies, but when said restaurant bears the hallowed St John name, the soul-searching is that much more intense. Back in late 2012, when it was revealed that their 3rd outpost would be just off Leicester Square, the news was met with widespread approval; anywhere even half-decent to eat in that part of town is welcome, and what better people to wow the tourists with British cuisine than those who kicked the whole thing off? And when the operation stuttered, stalled and finally collapsed, it's a testament to the goodwill heaped upon the St John brand that people pointed the finger of blame at the area, the building, the clientèle, anything but the business itself.

The unfortunate truth is, though, that the St John thing was never going to work in a poky Georgian townhouse in W1. The cathedral-like atmosphere and whitewashed walls of the ex-smokehouse in Smithfield was - is - a unique and precious gift and eating there is as much about the building as the food. The team did their best to impose that famously minimalist décor on a building that was singularly ill-equipped to cope with it, but it never worked. The restaurant was echoey and impersonal, the hotel rooms boxy and noisy, and the upstairs bar had all the personality of a dentist's waiting room.

And yet, thanks to the priceless pedigree of the Henderson/Gulliver partnership, the food at St John Chinatown was always worth any other discomforts. In the dying days of the previous administration I went in one lunchtime for a plate of snails, duck hearts and lovage, which was lovely enough to distract me from the fact I could hear every word of the conversation on the table next to mine. The good news is that same chef - Tom Harris - is still manning the stoves, only now his food gets served in a room you actually want to be in.

Cockles and Jersey Royals in a saffron/tomato broth was a bowl of joy for £8, and was as good an advertisment for the St John school of cooking as you could wish for. Congratulations are in order, too, for managing to source the most freakishly massive cockles I've ever seen - each was the size of an oyster and packed loads of flavour.

Razor clams would have perhaps been nicer warm, but they were otherwise very good, a minimalist salad of tomatoes and dill highlighting the main ingredient without overwhelming it. Nice to not have a big sack of clam guts to eat around as well, which happens far too often for my liking (hang your head, 10 Greek Street).

Lamb sweetbreads are the kind of things that make me go all wobbly with delight even when only modestly prepared, but here, resting on a bed of artichokes and celery and glazed with a rich, sticky sauce that only the very best chefs can pull off without making treacle, they were nothing short of perfect. If you ever make the trip to 1 Leicester Street yourself, and I strongly suggest you do, you should order the sweetbreads. And thence if you ever go back, you should order them again.

Monkfish and anchovy may have approached the levels of the sweetbreads, too, had they not been unfortunately overcooked and dry. The spice coating on the fish was good, though, and there was an interesting interplay of textures with the breadcrumbs and the crunchy (and slightly scary sounding) "rape greens".

So while not perfect - and how many places are? - 1 Leicester Street has, with the use of skilful remodelling and with the retention of its highly skilled chef, morphed from a Formica'd, clinical space serving nice food to somewhere you could happily spend all day in, munching on oysters and white wine and generally just enjoying life. Oh, and that awful upstairs bar, forever to be filed under "what were they thinking?" in the Big Book of Restaurant Design Car Crashes, is now cozy and stylish, with a kind of 60s James Bond vibe and a counter you can actually sit at. It is a proper, grown-up restaurant, comfortable and confident and gimmick-free. This one's going to stick around.


One Leicester Street on Urbanspoon