Wednesday 25 September 2013

Gymkhana, Mayfair

When was the last time you saw a section headed "game" on an Indian restaurant menu? I certainly never have, and yet Karam Sethi, head chef at Gymkhana, isn't your average Indian chef. His last restaurant Trishna, in Marylebone, stood out not just for the stunning food but for the occasional willingness to pair Indian flavours with very traditional British ingredients. Nominally sister restaurant to its namesake in Mumbai, which specialises in seafood, Trishna London did indeed do a range of incredible seafood dishes (memory of the green chilli and coriander sea bream in particular still makes my heart skip a beat) but it was when Sethi played with guinea fowl or grouse or venison that the truly extraordinary things happened.

It makes sense, then, that no longer tied to the seafood theme and given free reign to design the kind of menu he wants to cook, the food at Gymkhana would be a notch above the already very good (and Michelin-starred) Trishna. Quite how good Gymkhana is, though, came as quite a shock even to this particular fan of his previous work - it may even turn out to be, and I don't make this kind of superlative claim lightly, one of the best Indian restaurants in London.

Firstly, it's quite a beautifully designed place, Upstairs is an airy, high-ceilinged bar and restaurant bringing to mind a gentleman's club in old Bombay. Downstairs is dark and cozy, all dark wood panelling and leather-upholstered booths, with various clandestine nooks and crannies that make you want to hunker down and spend the night. Staff were, as you might expect for an opening, trying extra hard to impress, but needless to say this doesn't always mean the best results - fortunately, front of house at Gymkhana absolutely never put a foot even slightly wrong; it was quite the best display of effortless, charming service that I can remember.

And the food - oh my lord, the food. After three different types of pappadum-style snacks (one made with potato, one chickpea, I forget the other) and three different house chutneys to dip them in (one with chilli and dried prawns was my favourite) arrived this plate of 'gol guppas', things I'd known as 'dahi-puri' when I used to order them in Kastoori in Tooting. Pastry casings filled with potato and vegetables, you pour a kind of cumin-infused liquid into the hole at the top, then quickly drop the whole thing into your mouth before it collapses. The mixture dissolves in your mouth into an Indian vegetable soup, and is quite something, crunchy and chilled and refreshing.

South Indian fried chicken wings came cleverly butchered into handy meat lollipops, and were expertly moist inside and crunchy out. I would have happily eaten a bucket of them, except I know how much we'd ordered so managed to just stick to three.

Potato chat with chickpeas and tamarind was one of those vegetarian dishes India does so well - great mix of textures and balance of heat and cool, and we particularly enjoyed the bits of crunchy fried potato (perhaps because they reminded us of chips). Not pictured here (I wouldn't want to frighten you) is a wonderful rich black lentil dhal we tried, and a portion of peppercorn grouse and green beans, all dark and earthy and mysterious.

Then it was time for the mains, and out came two dishes that represent exactly why Gymkhana is worth your time and money. The Trishna sea bream dish I spoke about earlier, perfectly cooked and delicately dressed in bright green coriander and chilli, Indian fine-dining that sacrifices none of the spice or colour. And breast of guinea fowl, powerfully spiced and all crunchy and smoky from the tandoor, also essentially another faultless bit of cooking. If you weren't planning your return trip to Gymkhana up until this point, you certainly would be now. I know I was.

The drinks list is lavished with the same attention to detail as the food and service. A "Flutterby" Lassi was yoghurt-based and laced with absinthe - recognisably Indian flavours but served up in an interesting new context. Ditto the house punches, which arrive in beautiful copper and pewter tableware and ask that you mix the ingredients together yourself to your liking. Which is great fun.

In the interests of balance, I should point out a couple of things I could fault at Gymkhana. One, the spelling of 'Tequilla'(sic) on the drinks menu, and two, the fact that downstairs the lighting is set at a very un- blogger-friendly levels. Very few of my photos came out, so I'm relying on some press shots from their PR company and whichever other's subjects are at least recognisably organic in origin. But really, who cares about spelling when the food is this good, and I imagine the lack of people taking photos of their dinner would be an extra incentive to visit for most of the population. Prices are reasonable for Mayfair (£5-£10 small plates, £10-£20 larger) and the toilets are very smart. There is really very little to fault, and you will love it, I guarantee.


I was invited to review Gymkhana

Gymkhana on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Ostuni, Queen's Park

Some of you may remember (or in fact may still be using, despite TfL's lawyers' best efforts) my restaurant tube map, which replaced the station names with my pick of the dining options within walking distance of that stop. I'm sure it won't surprise you to learn that I didn't actually visit every restaurant before making the decision to include it - I've neither the time, the money or the capacity for really desperately shit restaurants (I'm looking at you, Docklands Light Railway) to do that - but instead, where I hadn't been in person, made a sort of best-guess choice based on a mixture of Urbanspoon/SquareMeal score, blog posts and national critic reviews.

Most of the time it seems to have worked. Restaurants that I've visited since the decision to include them on the map have usually if not been brilliant then at least been serviceably good - Diwana Bhel Poori (Euston), for example is a friendly, and very cheap, option for South Indian food, and Atari-Ya (South Hampstead) does pretty decent sushi. But while it's nice not to have to swap out a particular recommendation after a visit, (good) places I've actually been to will always take precedent over (good) places I haven't. And so, with deep apologies to the Salusbury pub, who have done absolutely nothing to warrant losing their position, we have a brand new Queen's Park - Puglian restaurant Ostuni.

The meal started with a selection of cheese and charcuterie, all very good. The caciocavallo and caciotta fresca cheeses were simple in style but had a nice fresh tang, and an blob of fresh mozzarella was almost burrata-like in its creaminess.

Capocollo and salami from Martina Franca were extremely impressive as well, blushed bright pink, wonderfully moist and perfectly seasoned. I usually enjoy even pretty mediocre salami, so you can imagine how quickly I managed to polish off these beauties (very).

Fritto misto (mixed fried seafood) suffered mainly in comparison to the quite honestly faultless version served at Polpo Covent Garden, but it still wasn't too bad - the batter could have done with being a bit crispier, and it was a pretty measly portion, but it was still fresh and tasty.

The main event (the Puglian mixed grill - sorry for the useless photo, completely forgot to snap it when it was all intact) was much better. The sausage had a LOT of fennel seeds in, and I preferred the bombette classica (sort of pork and cheese balls) to the deep-fried, breadcrumbed bombette saporita, the latter of which being rather greasy, but it all had bags of flavour and some fegatino (calves liver, pancetta and parsley) were genuinely excellent - not a hint of the dryness that grilled liver sometimes has. An accompanying acquasale salad was lovely too, containing bits of baked bread like a sort of mini Tuscan panzanella (though don't let the fiercely regional Ostuni hear you calling it that).

Good, sometimes great, food, then, that doesn't cost the earth. Why only 7/10? One reason only - service. Halfway through our meal we noticed some live lobsters being brought to a table near us for inspection, and yet we didn't see anything involving lobster on the menu. It turned out these were a "special" that our waiter neglected to tell us about, quite annoying considering we would have (cost permitting) considered ordering it. And although it started sprightly enough, as the place filled up it got increasingly impossible to attract anyone's attention; we never got to see the dessert menu and the process of ordering the bill was painfully longwinded.

In a strange way, though, the service, combined with the specifically-regional food and the endearing Mediterranean holiday décor, only served to make the experience at Ostuni seem all that more authentic. While the waits were annoying at the time, my memories of the meal are largely positive, and so it's still a very easy restaurant to recommend. So apologies again, the Salusbury, but maybe I'll visit you one day and you can have your spot back. Until then, welcome to Queens Park, Ostuni. And to everyone else, watch this space for the new non-copyrighted version of the map (coming soon)...


Ostuni on Urbanspoon

Thursday 19 September 2013

Jubo, Shoreditch

Bizarrely, not to mention wholly unforgiveably, this is only the second time I've written about a Korean restaurant on this blog. I have been to a few over the years, but the reason for the reluctance to write them up is that, while experiences at places like Asadal (Holborn) and Koba (Fitzrovia) have been decent enough, I was keeping my powder dry for a trip to New Malden, London's own Koreatown, where I'm told the real benchmark restaurants reside.

I will, eventually, get there, but in the meantime this is Jubo, somewhere I feel slightly more comfortable talking about as it's not a full-blown authentic Korean restaurant but something in the New York/Korean style attached to the Bedroom Bar in Shoreditch. The short menu has an attractive smattering of Koreatown staples, such as the all-important crispy fried chicken and trendy Bulgogi pork buns, and as the drinks list is powered by the guys next door you can order a range of grown-up cocktails to go with it. We started with a Hoxton Fizz, (vodka, apple, mint and elderflower) on the 2-1 happy hour offer, and very nice it was too.

The food was less impressive than the drinks, but then perhaps that's entirely deliberate. The Bedroom Bar is primarily a cocktail bar (and comedy club) and the deep-fried comfort food from the Jubo team is familiar and accessible, with no nasty surprises, so that the cocktails remain the main event. The 'hot' chicken wings and strips, for example, deep-fried to astonishing crunchiness, were only very mildly spicy, and the kimchi only very slightly pungent - as an introduction to New York Korean it did a job, but I can't be the only one hoping for a bit more fireworks.

One slight worry was the quality of the chicken. I found quite a bit of dark brown matter (presumably - hopefully - blood) around the bone, as if the carcass hadn't been prepared properly. There's no sign of the words 'free range' on the menu or the website, so I can only assume these are pretty sorry, cheap animals - brave to serve in Shoreditch in 2013, and a bit cheeky, too, when you're charging £8 for four wings.

The pork bulgogi buns were fine, but at the risk of sounding like a stuck record the ones from Yum Bun are tastier (the Jubo bun was stale at the edges, and the pork was on the dry side), almost half the price, and only 5 mins walk away at the Rotary Bar near Old Street, so you're better off just getting your fix there. The pickles were good though, a gently sweet, aromatic pink turnip thing and some interesting mushrooms, tasting pleasantly home made.

Perhaps I'm nitpicking. Nothing was inedible, the prices weren't astronomical and the service was friendly and efficient. I'm just not entirely sure whether I'll be back. It's not like Shoreditch is lacking in dinner options (they're not open for lunch, a strange decision with so many offices around), or good bars for that matter, or even good bars serving Korean food (see above). Jubo will, and does, have its fans, so I am happy to leave it to them. Next stop, New Malden.


I was invited to review Jubo

Jubo on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Tibits, Piccadilly

Wandering aimlessly around Piccadilly a few weeks back (everyone in Piccadilly is wandering around aimlessly; nobody goes there on purpose. Why would you?) I happened upon a row of bars and restaurants that even for this deeply unambitious area of town looked particularly unappealing. Heddon Street has, at one end, one of those "ice bars" where you put on a silly fur coat and drink hugely marked-up frozen vodka in a big freezer, at the other a gloomy corporate brasserie seemingly transplanted from somewhere awful like Epsom where hen and office parties drink pints of Stella and shout at each other in the dark, and in between a collection of family-friendly Italians where you can eat Spaghetti Bolognese for £15, all very thinly populated by bewildered tourists.

All except one, that is. Vegetarian restaurant Tibits was - and is - doing a roaring trade, every table taken inside and out, with a healthy queue of punters at the bar and many more encircling the large central buffet. The contrast between here and the other joints on Heddon Street was so marked that it made me wonder if it could be the first non-Indian vegetarian restaurant worth bothering with, so this week I returned with a friend to see what all the fuss was about.

Well, you can colour me baffled. You would hope that, in 2013 and in London, paying over the odds to throw together on one plate various bits of badly-cooked food of wildly differing geographical origins wouldn't be a concept with much appeal. But the staggering number of people willing to do exactly that is proof, if nothing else, that just when you think you know London's restaurant-going public, they'll pull the rug out from under your feet.

Every bit of the Tidbits experience seems designed to irritate. Firstly, you need to find yourself a table, which given the crowds I've already mentioned, isn't easy. Then in order to actually eat you need to get up and leave your table, and as there are no front of house staff to speak of (save a couple of bartender/cashiers and the occasional person refilling the buffet) the only way of guaranteeing your spot won't be stolen by someone else is to leave a bag or item of clothing draped over your chair. Fine if you have something suitable, not really very handy if it's midsummer and you're travelling light.

Then the food. Never has London's current trend for uber-specialisation in restaurants (rotisserie chicken, burgers, steak) been shown in a better light than by a buffet containing a massive variety of dishes with absolutely nothing in common other than their ineptitude. Initially seduced by the sound of the jalapeño poppers (breaded, deep-fried chillis stuffed with cheese) and the novelty of being able to load as much guacamole as I wanted onto my plate, I realised I'd painted myself into a Tex-Mex corner and found little else suitable to accompany them other than some potato wedges and a couple of onion rings.

But I was hardly any better off after my attempts at geographical consistency than those fellow diners loading up their plates with sushi rice, pasta penne and poppadums - none of it was any good. Once we'd queued for the weigh-in and paid (it's all sold by weight, regardless of the dish) and struggled back to our table, tasting revealed bland, mushy Iceland freezer brownfood jalapeño poppers, overcooked onion rings you could have used as plumbing, truly awful commodity guacamole that betrayed only a fleeting relationship with avocado, and some unnervingly crunchy kidney beans.

Speaking of crunchy, a friend's potato gratin was undercooked and inedible, and some creamed spinach was seemingly completely unseasoned. So the problems with the food went deeper than mere incoherence - there were actual mistakes being made and some of this stuff should never have left the kitchen. It's not even that cheap - each of our hardly generous dinners cost the best part of £20 once we'd added wine, a sum that would have got you a couple of lovely courses of Venetian seafood at Polpo on Beak St, a few minutes walk away.

And yet, the place was rammed. Not just with naive tourists either - I saw groups of work colleagues, couples on dates, families with small children. Queuing up to get in, queuing up to load their plates with quiche and moussaka and Thai vegetable curry (together), then queueing to pay. Tibits is little better than a hospital canteen with an alcohol license but it wasn't just turning over, it was popular. It makes absolutely no sense at all. So before I give myself a migraine trying to get my head round it, I'm going to stop talking about it and go and do something else. Then maybe I'll have a little lie down.


tibits on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Pollen Street Social, Mayfair

While nobody has ever come to this blog for the visuals, and I imagine there's more than a few deliberately avoid it for the same reason, it would have been silly of me to reject a chance to improve my photography skills when given the opportunity. And so a few days ago I attended an iPhone food photography masterclass held at Lima restaurant, in Fitzrovia, eager to see if professional advice could magically transform my, let's face it, grainy, badly-composed shots of mystery lumps of dark matter into something vaguely resembling food.

Lima was presumably chosen quite deliberately for the purpose. The back room is blessed with a vast amount of natural light, and at 6pm the late summer sun was illuminating the already quite pretty plates of food emerging from the kitchens with the kind of soft, diffused glow that food photographers must dream of. So, yes, even I managed to get a few shots that looked like they could grace the pages of a reputable food publication, and enjoyed some very nice food into the bargain.

But the professional (in this case the very able David Griffen's) advice on how to take passable shots of dinner when you're not enjoying a meal in what is essentially a photography studio with dining tables, was a little more involved. "You could use one of these," he told us, brandishing a 12" circular reflector sheet that looked like something you'd see attached to a car in the hard shoulder of a motorway, "and don't be afraid to ask the restaurant to alter the house lights", adding quickly when he spotted our reactions - "maybe only if the restaurant is quiet".

So here we have the problem. I could take better photos of food, but I'm not prepared to make a nuisance of myself or embarrass my dinner date to do so. Many people think taken even quite surruptitious shots of a meal is unforgiveably antisocial - God knows how they'd react if I started brandishing an offset flash and standing on my chair. A polite request for a table near a window and a nice early booking is as far as I'm willing to go in search of a better shot, and if that means that the pages of Cheese and Biscuits are apparently illustrated with slides from a particulaly distressing medical journal, then I'll live with that. It's certainly not put too many people off so far.

With the apology for the terrible food photography you're about to see out of the way, then, I can finally tell you about a meal at Pollen Street Social. With head chef Jason Atherton's attentions torn between the startling number of new places he's overseen in the last couple of years here and abroad (Little Social, Social Eating House, and the upcoming Berners Tavern in London, and a good handful of others in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai) it's all the more impressive he's found time to refurbish and revamp the menu at the Mayfair flagship. This was my first visit, so I can't tell you if the dining room(s) - pleasant and clean if only slightly lacking in character - were an improvement on before or not. Still, it's not a bad place to be for a couple of hours.

Amuses came in a great big box, which was a fun idea, and were largely good. Some powerfully herb-encrusted crackers were our favourite, followed by a cheesy biscuit topped with a kind of tomato-anchovy paste ("it's like a Mini Cheddar" my friend sagely observed). But I'm afraid a lump of pork crackling was so heavily grease-sodden it was like eating an old sponge soaked in cooking oil - not the kind of thing you'd want (or indeed expect) to kick off a meal in such a place.

Starters were, fortunately, much harder to fault. "Pea velouté, pea sorbet, cirtrus crème fraîche" was a beautiful display of summer colour and flavour, and with that irresistable command of contrasting texture that made my dish of the year so far (the pea and celery at Dairy) special. My own quail "brunch" (Atherton has also been known for his playful take on the "Full English Breakfast" in the past) came in a box of hay smoke, with a little brioche topped with a perfect chicken liver parfait and a glorious rich game consommé in a little teacup. It was, all of it, fun and flavoursome, exactly the kind of thing I'd hoped to be eating.

What a shame, then, that two 'extra' courses sent out next served only to demonstrate that not everything from the menu is as successful. I deliberately didn't order the crab salad with pineapple as a starter because it sounded weird, and weird it most definitely turned out to be, sweet and soggy and difficult to enjoy despite a nice presentation. And scallop carpaccio with tiny frozen nuggets of sour pink grapefruit didn't do much for me either, serving only to remind of a similarly underwhelming raw scallop and pomelo starter from Hutong at the Shard a few weeks earlier.

And then, bewilderingly, both main courses were superb. A bright white slab of perfectly-tooked turbot, skin crisped-up just so, resting on earth bulgur wheat and cardamom purée, was nigh-on irreproachable. And my own curried monkfish, moist and meaty and exact, won similar praise. Steer away from crustaceans and towards the fish is my advice - these guys know what to do with the stuff.

"Nuances of red" was attractive alright (you'll have to take my word on that) but there was too much bitterness from a rather unripe pear, and not enough of interest elsewhere. That'll teach me mainly for ordering based on a silly name and not the list of ingredients; I would say I've only got myself to blame but then I don't see why I shouldn't blame Pollen Street Social as well for serving bitter raw pear. Much, much better was "70% chocolate ganache, banana ice cream", a name which goes no way to describe the simply extraordinary 'coral' of banana and chocolate ice cream which formed the bulk of my friend's dessert. As well as tasting incredible, it dissolved in the mouth like cold candyfloss, and was quite unlike anything either of us had ever tried before. And surely they deserve extra marks for that.

So there are, undoubtedly, many reasons to visit Pollen Street Social and many ways of ordering yourself a fantastic meal. But there are also enough duds lurking around that ordering yourself a fantastic meal is by no means a given. And when you factor in the very Mayfair prices (£15-£20 starters, £30-£40 mains), I'm afraid it pushes the overall score to just below what I would consider high praise.

But that said, we did enjoy ourselves. And for every misstep to linger on there was always that pea starter, the hay-smoked quail, the fish main courses and that incredible banana and chocolate ice cream dessert to rest happily in our memories. So I'll have to leave it up to you to decide whether you think Pollen Street Social is worth your own hard-earned. As for me, there's just space to apologise once again for the bloody awful photography, and as the evenings rapidly close in, to warn they're likely to get much worse before they get better. In the words of Ned Stark:


I was invited to the Lima photography masterclass, and to Pollen Street Social

Pollen Street Social on Urbanspoon