Friday 28 June 2013

The Fish and Chip Shop, Islington

The cliché is that you can't get decent fish and chips in London. This is, of course, nonsense - Masters Superfish in Waterloo is very good, as is the Golden Hind in Marylebone, and Kerbisher & Malt in Kensington, and I'm told that Poppies (Spitalfields and Camden) are worth a try too. What is true to say, is that for a city this size and given the obvious demand for good fish and chips, there aren't nearly enough places where you can get it. So you can imagine my delight when I learned about The Fish and Chip Shop in Islington, bringing (we were promised) proper battered cod, haddock and plaice to a part of town not hitherto blessed with options in this field. Or in many others, come to that.

It didn't start well. Not realising you could book, we'd turned up earlyish but still the only available space was at the bar, an area of the restaurant designed in such a way - seats too hard, counter too small and too high - not to encourage lingerers. Still, staff were friendly and some powerful, ice cold Beavertown IPA soon appeared and we settled in to browse the vast menu.

First ordered, and first to arrive, were the mysterious "London particular fritters". For whatever reason I had envisaged some kind of crunchy snack made with beer batter, but instead we were presented with three croquettes, generously proportioned and full of a rich pea and ham hock filling. They were nice enough but for £6 not exactly what I would consider a bargain. Compared to what was to follow though, they were positively delightful.

Let's get the Mushy Pea Rant out of the way before we go any further. I understand that for various reasons, none of them good, fish restaurants in London - particularly the snobbier ones although this is not always the case - have a problem with serving proper marrowfat mushy peas. Ignoring for now the question of whether they taste better than garden peas (of course they bloody do) or whether they're more appropriate to serve with fish and chips (of course they bloody are), the fact is, most of the time all you will have available is crushed or whole garden peas. OK, fine, whatever, your funeral.

But if you DO insist on only serving garden peas, DO NOT CALL THEM MUSHY PEAS ON YOUR MENU. Ordering a side of mushy peas and receiving a sad little tin of crushed petits pois is like ordering a lobster sandwich and being given a frozen prawn cocktail. They're not the same thing AT ALL and not only are you possibly in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act (1968), you run a serious risk of demonstrating to your customers that you don't have a bleeding clue what you're doing.

Fish and Chip Shop do not have a bleeding clue what they're doing. Plaice in batter, the one thing as a Fish and Chip Shop you are not allowed to cock up, was a disaster - anaemic, grease-heavy batter stinking of old oil, encasing a fish so overcooked it had lost any bright flakiness it may once have had and was now a mushy, sickening mess. Chips were fine, but were too thin (at least they weren't frites, but proper thick chip shop chips are as integral to the chip shop experience as brown sauce in a bacon sandwich), and curry sauce was too runny despite having a decent flavour.

Lemon sole wasn't quite the tragedy the plaice was, but still was overcooked and had none of that lovely firm texture you should get from sole. Done correctly, you should be able to lift the flesh off the bones in satisfying firm chunks, but this poor beast was closer to mashed potato. The skin was nicely seasoned with tarragon and you could tell that it had once been a good fresh fish, but it was not otherwise enjoyable.

We would have liked to have tried just one "wally" (gherkin) and one pickled onion but were told in no uncertain terms that it was £1 per type of pickle, not £1 for the lot (there was also egg) and so we reluctantly ordered the two portions. What arrived was a plate of three massive gherkins and three huge pickled onions. Why on God's green earth anyone thought forcing three times the amount of required pickles on customers was a good idea I don't know, but there they were anyway, perfectly OK as pickles go but just way too much of them. Would £1 for a gherkin, onion and egg on a single plate really have been that difficult to organise? I can't imagine so.

With a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (annoyingly kept in a non-insulated bucket lined with a couple of inches of crushed ice - great if you like the last half glass of your wine to be ice cold, not great in any other respect) this catalogue of irritations, pains and downright calamaties came to a whopping £90. I realise this is North London, and fish costs more than it did, and all those etched mirrors and carved wooden details have to be paid for somehow, but even if the food had been good, that is still a lot of money. The mistakes with the cooking and mushy pea-gate just added insult to injury.

I have to entertain the idea that perhaps the Fish and Chip Shop had an off night, and that at some other time someone who knows how to operate a fryer may be working in the kitchen. There is that possibility. But I can only speak as I find, and while I do know plenty of people who've really enjoyed their time at the Fish and Chip Shop, I'm afraid I don't have the stomach, or the funds, to give it another go. Not even if they started serving proper mushy peas.


The Fish and Chip Shop on Urbanspoon

EDIT: A friend has swiftly been in touch to inform me that actually, North London has plenty of great places to eat. I'm happy to put the record straight on that. It does, but unfortunately they're all in North London. I am therefore going to start a campaign to get John Salt, the Drapers Arms, Trullo, Assiette Anglais, the Pig and Butcher and Trangallan to move to SW11. That'll teach him.

Elliot's, Borough Market

Elliot's first came to my attention, as is true of far too many places, when I tried their burger. Currently at number 3 in Daniel Young's exhaustively-researched top ten list, it's a work of near-genius, combining heavenly Ginger Pig mince, homemade brioche, beer-braised onions and - fanfare please - Comté, which is, in my underqualified opinion, the perfect gourmet burger cheese. Anywhere that can produce a burger as good as this surely has more tricks up their sleeve, so I made sure to return and try as much of the rest of the menu as my wallet and appetite would allow.

I know I'm late to the party on this one, not least because Elliot's has been open for over a year, but it is a lovely place to eat. Bustling but not too loud, the exposed brickwork and wooden furniture functional but not uncomfortable, it's really settled into this bright little spot in Borough Market and is clearly very popular as a result. Staff, youthful, graceful and smiley, trotted merrily around and were never too difficult to engage, and we never wanted for anything. With a setup as immediately enjoyable as this, the food only needed to be adequate to be worth the money. Happily, it was much better than that.

But first, cocktails. A Bellini and a Negroni were each, as you might have hoped for £8 and £9 respectively, excellent, and highlighted again how accomplished so many restaurant bars in London are becoming. Time was, even in the fanciest of places the most you could expect was a warm gin and tonic, but we're really getting the hang of this kind of thing now.

With Wright Bros just next door, there can't be many people who would come to Elliot's just for the oysters, and it's probably just as well as these were rather dry, slightly too creamy and the mignonette sauce needed a lot more flavour.

But crab on toast was much better, with a very generous amount of the good stuff and a little dollop of some sort of clever brown meat mayonnaise.

"Deep fried lamb's sweetbreads" were ordered mainly out of sheer curiosity; what arrived look quite like a corn dog but was in fact a row of plump sweetbreads threaded onto a rosemary twig, breaded and fried together. It was nice enough, but I still think I'd prefer them all pan-fried and caramelised. Still, marks for originality.

Suckling pig was beautifully moist and with bags of flavour - this was self-evidently a very high quality bit of pork. Barley added a bit of texture and the sweetness of braised heritage carrots complimented the protein - we particularly enjoyed the carrot that could have been a beetroot crossbreed, which was so dark and inky it coloured the plate.

I've had quite a few pigeon dishes recently, because I bloody love pigeon, but sometimes it takes a stripped-back preparation like this to remind me what's so special about this little bird in the first place. Perfectly pink on the bone, with its legs removed and braised separately with lentils, this was simple and satisfying and the kind of thing I could quite happily eat every day until the day I die.

Finally I should say a few words about a side of potatoes, bacon and shallots which may not be the most earth-shatteringly innovative combination of ingredients but boy did it taste good. The potatoes had a lovely golden crust and were all glossy with bacon fat. Marvellous.

At just over £50 a head with no dessert and not a vast amount to drink, Elliot's is not a cheap dinner. But the attention paid to ingredients, and service, and wine (the list is chosen by Master of Wine Isabelle Legeron, and is largely if not wholly natural if that kind of thing floats your boat) means that you don't begrudgingly open your wallet. This is the kind of place that shows the tourists of Borough Market what London restaurants are about, as well as reminding locals how good they have it. I have a feeling Elliot's may be around for a very long time.


Elliot's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday 24 June 2013

Grain Store, Kings Cross

As if it wasn't enough to have one beautiful, modern restaurant, Granary Square (Kings Cross), home of Caravan, now has two. The latest, Grain Store, is commendable for two main reasons. Firstly, and most obviously, it's very good; you'd have to be a real curmudgeon not to be impressed by the décor, the food and (to only slightly lesser of an extent) the service in this ambitious new restaurant. Secondly, it's a relief that finally, albeit slowly, London is shifting its focus away from burgers and hot dogs and the other American diner staples and taking inspiration from different and (let's face it) healthier places.

That's not to say Grain Store is derivative, not at all - we tried a huge number of dishes of style, colour and finesse, and aside from the odd Clove-Club/Noma presentation quirk here and there, there was some real innovation going on. I already knew Bruno Loubet was a gifted chef from a visit to his original Bistro in Clerkenwell a few years back. What's interesting about Grain Store is that it's completely unlike his first place in almost every respect. There is no attempt to further the "brand" Loubet here; there are no "signature dishes"; Grain Store is no proto-chain or Loubet-lite in the vein of Brasserie Blanc or Heathcotes. It is just another accomplished, grown-up restaurant which plays to a different set of the chef's strengths and impresses in a whole new set of ways.

Oh, except maybe if you're unlucky. On the long walk to the toilets there is a quite hilariously bad table, with two chairs positioned facing a dark corner of the room. Whoever decided this was a suitable place to plonk paying guests for dinner needs to reassess their restaurant design career. There are also a row of miserable, lonely bar stools right next to the entrance to the bathrooms, where if you were sat you would also quite naturally assume someone hated you. So on booking, just make sure you ask for a table away from the loos, and you'll be fine.

The cocktail list, developed by Tony Conigliaro of Zetter Town House/69 Colebrooke Row fame, is worth a shufty while you're waiting for your table. The innovation applied to the food is paralelled here - and I was a particular fan of the Twinkle, containing vodka, champagne and elderflower cordial. "Butter and hay champagne" just tasted like a glass of champagne though (albeit a nice one), so perhaps some of the staff still aren't fully up to speed.

We went for the five-course tasting menu, because generally five courses that the kitchen itself chooses for you are likely to be the five best they do, plus quite fancied the sound of the pigeon special so ordered that too. First to arrive was a lump of bark covered in pine needles (there's that Clove Club thing I mentioned earlier) topped with two excellent mushroom croquettes, perfectly fried and full of woodland flavour.

Then this, a little flowerpot full of radishes, which you roll in a "cashew and yeast" dip then in something called "olive soil", a pile of dessicated dried black olives. On the same plate were two slices of rye bread covered in seaweed butter and topped with the miracle of biology that is the "oyster leaf", a succulent from coastal areas up north (Scotland I believe) which tastes, however unlikely this sounds, exactly like oyster. Honestly, you should try it. Look at the presentation, too - stunning.

Beetroot, pickles and "goat labneh" (sort of a yoghurt made with goat's milk) continued the theme of visually attractive and summery, as did something with very lightly cured salmon and slices of peach and watermelon. Not a combination I'd tried before, or one I'd expect to work on paper, but there it is anyway, and very nice it was too.

This next course was I think extra to the tasting menu, and something that the kitchen was trying out for the first time. "Lobster and elderflower soup" was rich and gently seafoody, with a base of cool lobster jelly which dissolved in the mouth in the most extraordinary way. In fact, it was so good it didn't really need the chunks of rather tasteless cold lobster floating in it, which only distracted from the smooth textures elsewhere.

Butternut squash ravioli, and courgette, broad bean & prawn falafel were each very good examples of their type, playing with the form without losing sight of tradition or context. Also I should say a special word about the broad beans which accompanied the falafel because they were probably the best I've ever eaten anywhere, like little sweet flavour bombs.

Corn & quinoa tamale with pork belly and lamb belly on cucumber were each also very good, the pork mixture in the tamale being tender and satisfying, and the lamb belly skewers cooked just-so, like a sort of deconstructed kebab. On a stick.

Pigeon was always likely to be my favourite dish (it usually is, in any given restaurant), but Grain Store gets extra points for cooking it in a very smokey Josper grill to lovely pink (quite an achievement given other recent Josper-related disasters I've suffered) and serving it with an artichoke mousse of some kind served in the shell.

A goat's milk panacotta with candied tomatoes isn't perhaps quite as weird as it sounds, but it was still pretty weird and I certainly preferred the light panacotta itself to the tomato element. Even so, in the context of the amount of dishes we'd tried and the amount of invention going on, one slight dud is pretty good going.

A bottle of Zinfandel and the aforementioned cocktails bumped the bill up to £137 with service, so Grain Store isn't about to win any budget dining awards, but as I've banged on about to tedium in the past, value for money can occur at many different price brackets. And because you can see the effort, skill and love going into the food (literally while you eat - you may have seen open kitchens before but I bet quite as open or dramatic as this), you are guaranteed to walk away happy. Just make sure you're not sat near the loos.


Grain Store on Urbanspoon

Friday 7 June 2013

Camélia, Paris (by Badoit)

There are advantages and disadvantages in unshakeable self-belief. The certainty that you are the best in a particular field surely (I wouldn't know, but I'm guessing) gives you the confidence to push further and in more radical directions than others not blessed with such convictions. For chefs, not normally a group of people known for their insecurities, self-belief allows greater levels of experimentation and risk-taking, but crucially also the ability to convince others along for the ride with you, particularly important if you're leading a large kitchen team and can't realise your vision on your own.

But there's often a fine line between confidence and self-delusion. I wonder whether the same drive and determination that allowed Marco Pierre White to win two Michelin stars in a poky restaurant on Wandsworth Common in the mid 90s, also led him to believe that endorsing a mass-market stock cube would be a positive step forward for his career, and not (as it turns out) an embarrassing blot on the CV of a once-great chef. Or whether the ego and energy that comes with the intergalactic talent of some young chefs in London is also the reason they all-too-easily get the hump and abandon ship when they feel their genius isn't adequately rewarded.

Thierry Marx is an extremely talented chef. There's little doubt of that, or of his CV, which glitters with Michelin stars as far back as 1988. He is currently head chef at not one but two restaurants in the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, the 2-star tasting-menu-only Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx and the "more informal" (these things are all relative) Camélia next door, to which I was very kindly invited along with a couple of other bloggers and journalists earlier this week. We were there as the guests of Badoit sparkling water, a brand well-known on the continent but which is just now making tentative inroads into the UK.

Objectively, and I'm not just saying this because they've just bought me lunch in Paris, Badoit is a very nice product. Naturally carbonated (astonishing as it seems, it actually emerges from the ground already fizzy), not as overwhelmingly bubbly as Perrier or as medicinally-mineralised as Vichy Catalan, it has everything you'd want from a table water, and I can see it doing very well over here. What was more interesting however, to me at least, was how Marx was pushing it as an indispensable kitchen ingredient, with magical properties to speed up the cooking of vegetables while retaining flavour and colour. Lunch at Camélia would prove whether he was on to something.

I don't think, in all my years flouncing around posh restaurants at home and abroad, I've ever seen a more exquisitely presented set of dishes than the starters at Camélia. Try, if you can, to look past my useless food photography skills and imagine how much more impressive they would have been up close. There's the crab in daikon wrap, a cylinder of utter geometric precision, topped with spheres and stalks of pickles like an Ascot ladies' hat. There's a fan of salmon tataki, measured so as to match up in a perfect circle, expertly mimicking the Mandarin hotel's logo. There's an oblong of paté de foie gras, edges and corners sharp enough to have been forged from iron, topped and tailed by shocking red gelée of Garriguette strawberries so correctly cut it resembled something from a fine Parisian patisserie. And there was my lobster dish, with vegetables turned and tweaked and arranged on the plate like some magical miniature forest. Gasps and coos spilled around the table as they arrived, each dish more spectacular than the next.

And then we started eating, and silence slowly descended like a yuzu-infused fog. It wasn't that any of the food was inedible, or even particularly unpleasant, it's just that the taste of any of it couldn't hope to live up to the standards set by the presentation even if it had been near perfect, and near-perfect it most definitely wasn't. The vegetables in my lobster dish were fridge-cold, and brought down the extravagantly-poured bisque to their temperature before I'd taken a second bite. The immaculate-looking gelée under the crab, too, was chilly, and infused with that kind of unpleasant jumble of organic odours spent from too long sat absorbing other members of cold storage.

More generally, though, the complaints were about underseasoning. A foie gras could have been less like window putty with just a touch more salt, ditto a sea bream tartar, ditto the crab, ditto a couple of bright green sticks of asparagus. The lobster, I should say, and despite its faults, was seasoned perfectly, and there was elsewhere enough to enjoy not to make the whole course a waste of time, but it's fair to say we expected more.

Mains, interestingly, flashed more frequently with genius despite having generally a much more subdued presentation. My own pigeon and foie gras was, in all regards, a triumph, each element singing in harmony, from the pink bird to the ethereally-light foie to the stalks of charred white asparagus beneath. And a very sloppy-looking turbot dish was even more impressive, a better bit of fish I doubt I've ever had before in my life, offered Japanese-style with the powerfully-flavoured fin-edge meat separately to marvel at.

But a tranche of "Farmer's" chicken breast was underseasoned, and its relative lack of flavour made the strange gel-like substance it was wrapped in that much more challenging to plough through, despite the confit leg meat being very good indeed. And a huge risotto-stuffed squid body was dense and samey and incredibly hard work, presented with a tentacle that was so stubbornly unyielding (overcooked? Undercooked?) it couldn't even be swallowed.

Later that afternoon, Thierry Marx proudly demonstrated how he cooked the vegetable starter using no seasoning other than Badoit's natural mineral salts. Blanched in the sparkling water for half the amount of time (we were told) that it would normally take to do such things, he then spoke about how the spent asparagus water could be used in other dishes and how as little as possible was wasted. "I give each of my chefs just two bottles each to last them all service" he said, pre-empting anyone who was about to wonder out loud if cooking asparagus in premium sparkling mineral water was why they felt they could charge €34 for two sticks of them.

But you know what those asparagus could have done with? A bit more salt. As could many of the dishes we tried at Camélia, and I can't help wondering whether cooking vegetables in Badoit is really the best use of the product, or just the result of a big-name chef with a sponsorship deal letting his imagination run away with him and nobody having the nerve to tell him that actually, salted tapwater might work better. Still, he seemed happy enough with the result so who am I to judge.

Back in Blighty, and the Badoit bandwagon rolls up to Soho Square next Thursday (13th) lunchtime, where as part of the awareness campaign, M. Marx has designed a menu for a "picnic restaurant" called Badoit Express. Fred Sirieix of Galvin @ Windows is arranging the service, so for that reason alone it's bound to be an enjoyable afternoon, and I look forward to tucking into a nice cold glass of Badoit in the Soho sun (fingers crossed). As for the food, perhaps the more informal environs of a picnic will showcase his talents better than the prim, plain and polished demands of a Michelin-gazing Parisian 5-star hotel restaurant, or perhaps even I'll have some kind of conversion to the benefits of Badoir-bathed asparagus. Just in case though, and I mean no offence to anybody, I may smuggle in a salt shaker.


Lunch at Camélia, plus Eurostar there and back, kindly provided by Badoit & We Are Social