Wednesday 14 August 2013

Tartufo, Belgravia

As much as I enjoy squeezing onto the end of a hard wooden bench eating food off a paper plate - and I do enjoy this very much, otherwise I wouldn't get much out of the very excellent Kerb streetfood events - occasionally it is nice to be pampered. Pampered with soft carpets, white tablecloths, white hand towels in the bathrooms, napkins that are magically folded the moment you step up from your table, and a lighting scheme that makes everyone and everything glow with celestial light. And also, it goes without saying, sparkling service and the kind of food that wants to make you pitch up and stay the night. That kind of pampered.

The trick is finding a restaurant that has the whole package, as in, all the trimmings of fine dinings but also fantastic food worth the price being asked for it. There are plenty of chic, celebrity-soaked haunts in Kensington and Knightsbridge that have some of the above - I'm thinking particularly of Cassis, an artfully-designed space on the Brompton Road that is very impressive until you try to eat anything, or The Collection, mercifully trading no longer, whose vast black marble bar and mezzanine dining room compensated for overpriced, oversalted pub grub.

But to have plush décor, world-class service, great food and a bill that doesn't threaten to reacquaint you with your meal as soon as you set eyes on it, that is a rare thing indeed. So thank the dining gods (and one in particular, Alexis Gauthier) for Tartufo, a basement restaurant just off Sloane Square which is so utterly charming in almost every respect that it's like being hugged by a giant, white-linen-wrapped old friend.

A meal like this starts, not with the first bite, but with a greeting, and in that respect Tartufo are doing everything right. Staff are so well-drilled, pleasant and efficient that they could have all been working there for years, and yet astonishingly Tartufo is barely a few weeks old. I assume this, again, is the influence of mastership restaurant Gauthier which has very much had time to settle into its spot in Soho and from where presumably some of the team have graduated.

Better remember the dazzling greeting than the first bite, too, as unfortunately a mini cheese and tomato amuse was disconcertingly icy-fridge-fresh. We were the first people to sit down that evening, though, and a few minutes early at that, so perhaps we'd caught them unawares. And furthermore, from that point onwards, Tartufo hardly put a foot wrong.

"Kentish courgettes & peas" turned out to be a kind of vegetable barley risotto, and as anyone who's ever eaten at Gauthier will tell you, if there's one thing these guys can do it's a risotto. Fresh and summery, with a great big hit of fresh peas, this was a fine dish, and a very generous portion; it's a good job my friend had me to help her with it. I didn't hear any word of a thank-you though - so ungrateful some people.

Pasta dishes were even better. Wild rocket & lovage ravioli, despite possibly suffering from a few extra seconds in the pan than completely necessary, were dressed in one of those heavenly veal stock reductions that make me want to glance furtively around the room before mopping it up with my fingers. And just look at the truffle on the walnut and mascarpone tortelli - a generosity that belies the £10/course price point and then some. The smell, as you might imagine, was something else, and infused the dining room at various points in the evening as it arrived in front of other lucky customers.

The quality didn't let up much for the mains. Breast of guinea fowl had a perfectly moist flesh and a lovely crispy skin, and to that end they've already achieved more than 99% of places in town can manage. But add a bed of buttered kale, some silky girolles and another one of those stunning reduced sauces, and you have one of those plates of food you want to eat again and again.

Similarly, a generous number of sliced neck of lamb, pink inside with a good crust, rested on a bed of gently cheesy parmesan gratin, and alongside a cute little pot of garlic & parsley Jerseys. If I didn't know better I'd say they'd probably used the same thyme-infused veal jus as for the pasta dish, but picking apart a £10 dish of this quality seems deeply unfair. It was still licked clean.

"Dark chocolate crunch" is Tartufo's variation of the Gauthier/Roussillon/Alain Ducasse Louis XV dessert, and with a pedigree like this it couldn't go far wrong. The biscuit base a bit more firm than I'd like perhaps (requiring both arms to saw through it) but a lovely balanced flavour, and the accompanying lemon ice cream offset the main event perfectly. It was hard to capture on camera, but it was also topped with a spun-sugar "needle" that reached a good twelve inches into the air, which was great fun to snap apart and eat.

So, I'll say again, Tartufo is the complete package. Not only do you get all the pampering you might expect from the basement restaurant of a smart hotel in Belgravia, but the food is unpretentious and accessible whilst still being deeply impressive and, the real achievement in an area of town where it's still way too easy to make a living fleecing credulous Sloanes & celebs, remarkably good value. Next week there's every chance I'll be happily eating ribs off a paper plate on a wooden bench in Peckham. But whenever I feel the need for a bit of plush love, I'll be heading over to 11 Cadogan Gardens.


Tartufo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Cookhouse Joe, Soho

One of the more distasteful things about the way the London restaurant arena operates - and despite the occasional whinge (like this one), there are still more reasons to be positive than not - is the relentless inevitability that as soon as a popular restaurant or style of eatery establishes itself, there will be a good half dozen or so weak, cynical clones attempting to cash in on its success.

The frightening number of sub-par burger places trying to mop up the dregs from the MeatLiquor crowds, or the nationwide sandwich chain that added a pulled pork bun to its shelves (for shame) in a pitiful attempt to grab a bit of the Pitt Cue custom, are proof that for every innovator, every creative force, everyone wanting to genuinely and honestly make nice food to make other people happy, there's a group of suits with a chequebook and the moral code of a tarantula ready to leap in and laminate some menus the second they see a queue forming.

The Next Big Thing, kicked off by Chicken Shop in Kentish Town and followed swiftly by Clockjack Oven in Soho, is rotisserie chicken. And why not, because rotisserie chicken, done well, is a very wonderful thing indeed. One of my happiest memories from childhood holidays in the Costa Brava is queueing up for a plump bird fresh off the spit from a roadside stall, skin darkened with Mediterranean herbs and crunchy with salt, accompanied by a portion of frozen chips. There are logistical reasons why this setup isn't quite right for London - at least not just yet; they dry out pretty quickly unless they're snapped up just when ready, so in Spain you book your chicken and turn up at your allotted time, something which would take the patience of a saint to organise in central London.

But I can dream, can't I? And anyway there are still ways around the problem, such as Clockjack Oven's brining method, which means they stay lovely and moist and firm for longer, or the turnover thanks to the hordes of hungry North Londoners piling through the doors at Chicken Shop, meaning nothing hangs around for long. Street stalls are a good bet, too, as they get through their stock pretty sharpish - see if you can't catch Spit and Roast at a market near you soon. Rotisserie chicken is yet to reach its zenith in London; imagine - just imagine - if one day a temple to spit-roast chicken such as Barcelona's Chez Coco opened here, serving golden-browned pollo in plush surroundings, but in the meantime, if you need a roast chicken fix, there are options.

What you shouldn't do is go to Cookhouse Joe. At first glance, it looks like a bargain; enough of a bargain in fact to tempt not just myself but a healthy crowd of Soho diners through the doors of a weekday lunchtime. For £6, you are offered a half of a free-range chicken, with fries and either salad or corn or coleslaw, a price point which gives even Nando's (£10 for the same) a run for its money. We ordered at the bar, and then waited on the artfully mismatched furniture for our order to arrive. Half a chicken, plus chips, AND corn, for £6. That should be enough to set the alarm bells ringing - which corners are being cut, here? How can they make the numbers work on a meal deal that's about 60% the price of an international chain?

We soon found out. The chicken itself was pretty much inedible - overcooked to the consistency of wet cotton wool, the flesh dripping off the bone in sad, slimy chunks. A salty brown skin stretched over the cadaver, the texture of used bandages and with an unnerving taste of cheap stock cube. It was, in all ways, repellent.

Sides were easier to eat, but then probably so were the napkins. I finished most of my dry fries not because they were any good but because I was hungry and they were just about edible where the chicken was not, although a very weird yoghurt mint dip thing remained largely untouched. Coleslaw was just moist cabbage, unseasoned and unloved.

A small portion of wings, ordered in a happier time before the mains arrived, was lazy beyond belief, just plain chicken, presumably pre-cooked somewhere then "finished off" ("finished off seemingly code for "burned in parts") on a grill. These, too, resisted any attempts to enjoy them. Where was the flavour, the spicy marinade, the selection of dipping sauces? Had they not eaten out in another London chicken restaurant in the last few years? Was any of it taste-tested? Where had it all gone so wrong?

It's worth making the point that I do not hate Cookhouse Joe because it's a proto-chain. Clockjack Oven is, demonstrably, a proto-chain but I liked their chicken, I liked their chips and although the pisspoor drinks list and stupid t-shirt slogans are annoying, they are not enough to spoil the experience of eating there. I hate Cookhouse Joe because they have one job - to serve roast chicken - and they are absolutely no good at it at all. And with the competition improving all the time, there is no point in valuable Soho retail space being wasted on such a half-arsed facsimile. Jog on, Joe.


Cookhouse Joe on Urbanspoon

Monday 12 August 2013

Toast, East Dulwich

Consider the monumental achievement of opening a great new restaurant in London. Think of the time it would take to find skilled young chefs willing to work all the hours of the day for very little money, the expense of hiring an exciting interior designer, the time recruiting competent, energetic serving staff, finding suppliers, dealing with wine merchants, and the management ability required to hold all the above in some kind of tenuous harmony through those shaky first few weeks. Think of the sheer, backbreaking stress of it all.

Then imagine doing it again. And again, and again. Each new opening requires another herculean burst of recruitment, management and toil, and yet something about what you're doing works and you find yourself running four restaurants that are not just successful, but popular and incredibly well-regarded critically, with a string of glowing reviews, awards and accolades that are the envy of your peers.

We should be eternally grateful for Ed Wilson and Oli Barker, the management team behind what is surely the most accomplished handful of neighbourhood restaurants in town - Terroirs, Brawn, Soif, Green Man and French Horn, each unassuming and smart and friendly, serving great food at a very reasonable prices, and yet each with its own distinct character and focus (Terroirs vaguely Parisian, Soif influenced by the Loire Valley, and so on). In an impressive reversal of the usual turn of events when a restaurant empire starts expanding, each new Wilson/Barker outpost seems to be better than the previous, and to that end my favourite, until recently, was the Green Man and French Horn (or as it has become known by a worrying number of people, the Horny Green Frenchman) in Covent Garden, a better place to while away the hours sipping cloudy natural whites and knocking back oysters I'm sure doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Certainly nowhere else in Covent Garden.

But, continuing the improbable trend, the latest opening is even better. Toast (a stupid name, crowdsourced on the East Dulwich Forum so that'll teach them) is on the site of the old (and much missed) Green and Blue wine bar, and has retained much of the same layout as well as the "wine shop" idea of allowing people to take away a bottle at retail price. What has changed, and changed beyond all recognition, is the food, and it's this that really deserves your attention. I won't exhaustively describe everything we ate, but the following should be enough to make up your mind whether you need to visit or not (hint: you do).

Charcuterie, an important part of the other Wilson/Barker restaurant offerings, is again imployed here, albeit just the two items - a nice firm saucisse seche and a lovely peppery Tuscan salame. House bread, again never an afterthought in the other places, is also good, especially with a great big load of soft salty butter on top.

And before we get started on the menu proper, the chef brought out a little Japanese-inspired dish he'd been working on, monkfish livers and marrow with a sort of soy dip. I hope it gets through the trial stage and becomes a permanent fixture, because it was very nice indeed - the liver was firm and gently fishy without being unpleasant, and the little blobs of marrow jelly brought to mind the very traditional London staple of jellied eels.

"Fresh cheese, onions, dill", "Crab, broccoli, sorrel", "Raw mackerel, ginger, white soy". Uncomplicated, fresh, colourful, seasonal dishes each, with a confidence in the (top quality) ingredients and none over a tenner. The mackerel was particularly well-received, like something the Clove Club might do.

I can't see this 60-day-aged beef tartare, oyster sauce and kale dish on the menu, so it could have been another preview, but I hope that's not the last we see of it, was silky and richly flavoured, studded with little chunks of fat for extra muscle. "Leek, potatoes, cheddar" was less interesting, and not just beacuse it was vegetarian - there was something a bit school dinners about the flavour combinations, despite the fancy presentation. "Broad bean, grains, onion" was a vegetarian dish that did impress, though - as densely flavoured as any protein.

"Girolles, figs, parsley" was the only dish that was something approaching a disappointment. The delicate, sweet flavour of figs and the earthy notes of the girolles were beaten into submission by a shocking green parsley sauce, leaving nothing but the texture of the fruit & mushrooms, and as you might imagine, texture is neither a fig or a girolle mushroom's strongest card. But two seafood dishes, a monkfish with ground pork and a haddock with fennel and anchovy, each showcased a great technique with the fish, the skin crisped up nicely and the bright-white flesh perfectly moist and flaky.

It was when a superb plate of pink lamb paired with an heirloom tomato and aubergine sauce turned up that what was just so different about this restaurant occurred to me - it seems that finally, at Toast, the shackles of the French Bistro theme have been unlocked, and the latest of the Wilson/Barker is not even pretending, even vaguely, to be French anymore. Toast is resolutely, recognisably Modern British in the Clove Club/Dairy mold, and draws its influence from that new wave of thrusting new London brasseries rather than anywhere on the continent. We surely have a lot to thank our European neighbours for over the years, but really, time doesn't stand still, and French cuisine is no longer the influence it once was, for very good reason (I can't remember the last time I had a meal in France worth shouting about).

So Wilson and Barker, restaurateurs extraordinaire and foodie trailblazers, are, with Toast, simply taking the next logical step. If it made sense in 2008 to base their first restaurant, Terroirs, on the local bistros of Paris, in 2013 it is the ingredients-led, light and seasonal touch of our best local talent that is the greatest inspiration in much the same way. What an exciting time to be a Londoner.


PANICKY EDIT: I'm reliably informed (and who is more reliable than Fay Maschler) that Toast is not literally a Barker/Wilson joint but instead is the brainchild of Eric Narioo of Caves de Pyrene, who are connected but not really the same. Rather than rewrite the entire bloody premise of this post, I thought I'd just quietly point that out here and see if I get away with it. The food's still good, so that's the most important thing in the end, right? *slinks off shamefacedly*

ANOTHER PANICKY EDIT: Now the PR company has got in touch and want me to clarify that the restaurant is in fact a joint venture between (supremely talented) Chef Michael Hazlewood and Manager Alex Thorp. I'd love to completely rewrite the review on this basis, but as I say hopefully all the nice things I've said about the food still stand. And next time I'll not get my news about restaurant openings from Twitter.

Toasted on Urbanspoon

Monday 5 August 2013

Peckham Bazaar, Peckham

With few notable exceptions, if you want to eat great, cheap food in London, you need to travel. Where rents are lower, it makes sense that restaurants can offer better food for less, and any time I've had a sub-£15 meal recently worth shouting about it's been somewhere like Whitechapel, Tooting or Camberwell - Zones 2 and above. Yes, they take a bit longer to get to, but if a handful of extra stops on the tube is all that's stopping you from experiencing the wonder that is a meal at Apollo Banana Leaf, or Silk Road, then you don't deserve to be happy.

And so, ten minutes walk from Peckham Rye overground station, through a quiet housing estate, over the road from a primary school, basically - if we're being honest - in the middle of bloody nowhere, stands Peckham Bazaar, the latest reason to charge up a couple of extra quid on your Oystercard. John Gionleka, who you'll find lost in clouds of charcoal smoke behind the grills, has spent time in the kitchens of two-Michelin-starred the Square, in Mayfair, but has left the fine dining world to cook up food inspired by his native Albania, while making use of the eclectic markets of Peckham (poke your head into Khan's on Peckham Rye if you have time - it's an Aladdin's Cave of unusual foodstuffs, and tat).

In the interests of full disclosure, the team behind Peckham Bazaar are mates of mine, but I'm not doing them a favour with this post. I honestly believe that had I just stumbled upon the place (however unlikely that sounds given the location) I would still be raving about it, so exciting is what's on offer. Take a look at the menu, for one thing:

Is there anything on that blackboard that doesn't scream "eat me!"? And look at the prices too; these aren't starter-sized portions, or small tapas-y sharing plates - you really do get a whole lot of Balkan bang for your buck. We ordered the lot.

Cured egg is John's take on the Chinese century egg, and is gorgeous, well seasoned and gently vinegary with a great soft yolk. White taramasalata is impressive, too, with a more rustic texture and packing far more flavour than anything you might find at your local Greek taverna. But the vegetables weren't sidelined either - nice firm artichokes, carrots and radishes were all seasoned and oiled and treated with the utmost respect. It's a mark of all the Peckham Bazaar dishes, in fact, that sides aren't ever an afterthought - every element is lavished with attention, each vegetable dressed properly. There's no filler.

The menu at Peckham Bazaar reflects largely what meat and veg they've managed to get their hands on at that particular moment in time, and with that in mind it probably doesn't make sense to go into exhaustive detail about how great the octopus was, for example (by golly it was good, seasoned with paprika and crispy from the grill), or how utterly addictive the pomegranate and orange glaze on the quail was (crunchy and sweet, encasing superbly moist bird), because there's every chance that by the time you visit - and you obviously should visit - it may all be different.

Or perhaps it's even a waste of everyone's time to talk about the lamb adana - a huge, grilled chunk of minced lamb meat and spices - resting on a bed of buttery gigante beans, or the inch-thick steak of pork, slow-smoked then finished over coals, so good we ordered a second once the first had disappeared. On the one hand, I feel sorry for you if you go to Peckham Bazaar and any of the above are unavailable. But then, there's every chance they will just be replaced by something equally as stunning.

And in the end, one of the joys of visiting a place like this is not knowing exactly what you'll be eating - there's no signature dish, no laminated menu, no burger or triple-cooked-chips or crowd-pleasing high-profit-margin stalwarts to keep the accountants happy. John is cooking the kind of food he likes to eat, and as has been proved time and time again, this is the one surefire way of making the kind of food other people want to eat too. Trust them, and trust me - this is food that's worth travelling for.


Peckham Bazaar is currently open weekends only, with plans to open weekday evenings as soon as they can. Don't be confused by the "Frog on the Green deli" signs still lurking around the place, they haven't got round to changing all the stationery yet. For more details, check out their website. Many thanks to Magnus and Lizzie for additional photos.

Friday 2 August 2013

Cotidie, Marylebone

I do not have a good track record with high-end Italian restaurants in London, and to that end I suppose accepting an invitation to Cotidie, a smart and unselfconsciously expensive new place on the site of the old Café Luc, carried a certain amount of risk. Experiences at Apsleys, with its seafood starter presented on fully nine different plates, and Theo Randall, where the only things to set the pulse racing were the prices, had gone some way to convince me that the multi-Michelin-star treatment only distracts from the pure, honest joy of Italian food.

Of course, this is unfair, if not also a little patronising. There is no cuisine (within reason) that should be inherently incompatible with the full fine dining treatment, and I have no doubt that such internationally-famous restaurants such as Osteria Francescana in Modena, or Da Vittorio near Milan, fully deserve the acclaim they regularly receive. It's just that, in London, the most successful Italians tend to be mid-priced, ingredients-led little trattorias like Zucca or Trullo, or no-nonsense pizza parlours like Pizza Pilgrims (newly opened on Dean Street - you should go) or Homeslice (on Neals Yard, ditto), and that the more places try and push the average spend per head, the less I tend to enjoy myself.

But here we are anyway, and with my very best open-minded face on, I sat down to see if Cotidie could convince me it is, even if only occasionally, worth paying £20 for a plate of pasta. And indeed we started well enough, with a basket of very good house bread and a little pot of sheep's milk butter, something I'd not tried before and enjoyed very much with its faintly cheesy, salty taste and grainy texture.

Amuse of a kind of raw tuna and artichoke salad was lovely too, fresh and summery and livened by all sorts of clever texture plays (sorbet, jelly, etc). I wasn't entirely sure of all the ingredients, but then neither was our server who instead of going off and checking when asked, opted instead to make up some items off the top of his head that were evidently not anything to do with the dish in front of us. Tasted good, though.

But soon the starters arrived, and all at once I was wondering, again, if the ingredients on my plate really were best served being smeared and foamed and frilled-up, or if it was all just a sleight of hand to justify the prices. Foie gras, for example, had once been a fantastic example of cruelly-inflated goose liver, not a trace of stringiness and perfectly moist, but was unnervingly chilly, and if you can't get the main ingredient served hot I'm afraid all the other elements - lovely sweet fruit, and a scattering of interesting raw nuts - aren't going to make up for it.

Sicilian red prawn tartare was ordered mainly in the hope it could touch the hem of the Bocca di Lupo crudités, and in particular the langoustines which are still alive and kicking in a tray under the bar when you order them. Sadly, it wasn't to be - the raw prawns themselves, despite having a slight sweetness, were mainly notable for their offputting slimy texture, and though the diced scallops underneath were fine, there wasn't enough citrus elsewhere to balance out the seafood, and so the whole thing ended up a rather disappointing sickly mush.

All of which makes the next course all the more surprising. Herb ravioli filled with porcini mushrooms, together with chunks of seared scallops, conspired to be one of the most enjoyable pasta dishes I can remember eating in a very long time. The pasta itself was expertly al-dente, encasing a mushroom filling so rich it could pass for aged beef. The scallops, so forgettable in the starter, had here been treated right - ie. cooked - and were as sweet and tasty as you could ever wish for. The only issue, really, was the twee presentation, perfectly circular ravoli orbiting a pile of toasted breadcrumbs, each leaving a smear of beetroot behind - it looked like a child's painting of the solar system.

Veal fillet was seasoned and seared well, leaving a good centre of raw meat, and I liked the idea of resting it on a lattice of thin sliced courgette to soak up the juices. But I still don't think there's ever been an excuse to use roofing materials in lieu of tableware, and though most of the vegetables were fine, an inedibly firm bit of fennel and some horrible chalky purple potatoes let the side down. Also, it doesn't feel very... Italian, does it?

Pre-dessert of a kind of celery granita was nice enough. I guess you can't expect fireworks from an unannounced extra course, but it felt appropriate for the steamy weather and we polished it off quite happily. Not sure what the intended effect was with the smears on the glass, though - it just looked like they hadn't done the washing-up properly.

Then finally, a hazelnut and mascarpone dessert, very plainly presented in contrast to what had come before, pleasant yet rather unmemorable. I think we also may have knocked back a couple of digestifs, although with no bill to refer to I can't be 100% sure.

It's difficult, then, when so much time and energy has clearly gone into Cotidie, to have to report that the food is just not worth the money they are asking for it. The pasta dish alone is conclusive proof that someone in the kitchen has a great deal of talent at his or her disposal, and I have to allow for the possibility that the menu is hiding equally other impressive gems. But none of that alters the fact that I would not go back to Cotidie if I was paying, and I can't see myself recommending anyone else does, either. There may yet be room in London for a high-end Italian restaurant that justifies the outlay. But while Zucca, Trullo, Tinello, Bocca di Lupo, Tozi and their like are doing better food a lot cheaper, the high-end will need to try a whole lot harder.


I was invited to review Cotidie

Cotidie on Urbanspoon