Tuesday 25 February 2014

Berners Tavern, Fitzrovia

The first thing you notice about Berners Tavern, and the last thing, and in fact all you notice for much of what happens inbetween, is That Room. Part palace ballroom, part Paris Salon, this lavish space, with its lofty carved ceiling, three-story illuminated bar and walls appointed with a bewildering number and variety of framed paintings, photographs and mirrors, could easily be the most impressive in town. It's like eating in the Halls of Versaille.

Unsurprisingly, then, the food has a hard time living up to it all. Not that any of it is bad, it's just rather unambitious; at the best of times, a menu of smoked salmon & watercress, steak and chips, and venison with pickled cabbage is hardly likely to be burned indelibly into the memory, but in this fantastic space it seems doubly timid, a collection of crowdpleasing British clichés at expense-account prices, served to a crowd so dazzled by their surroundings they will hopefully somehow be convinced £20 for fish and chips is value.

OK, perhaps I'm being unfair. Most of the food was well executed and not all of it was wildly expensive. A starter, for example, of crispy lamb breast and pumpkin served with a side pan of pecorino fregola and lamb marrow crumble had loads going on for £8, some good hearty winter flavours and a pleasing to and fro of crunch and soft. "Egg, Ham and Peas" was less successful thanks to a strangely watery (in both senses - underflavoured and undercooked) egg, and the "mushy peas" were, needless to say, nothing of the sort, just bland crushed garden peas mixed with slightly too much mint. But it looked the part, and the crunchy slivers of ham were pleasant.

An inbetween course of scallop ceviche arrived next, and for the most part was welcome, though I think if I'd actually ordered it from the menu I would have been rather put out that the scallops were so lightly "ceviche"d that they tasted completely raw and slimy. There was a fantastic chilli and lime sorbet in the middle though which made up for it.

Mains were, in a similar vein to the starters, familiar but satisfying. Venison was politely pink and served with a little fondant potato and roast carrot as well as the aforementioned pickled cabbage (stop me if you need a chance to catch your breath after that radical pairing of ingredients). And a ribeye, missing the char you would have got from a charcoal grill but nevertheless timed well, was surprisingly good beef - "Devon Ruby Red" apparently. Oversized duck fat chips, peppercorn sauce (I could have specified Bearnaise, but not both - perhaps they were worried the excitement would have been too much for me), a little pot of green salad, all present and correct. We ate it all, and we did enjoy it, so you know, no real complaints. Just a bit... hotel brasserie.

All of which makes what happened next with the desserts even more of a surprise. They were, well, quite brilliant. Calvados and apple éclair had a good firm pastry encasing lovely fresh Devon cream, with a ever-so-subtle tang of alcohol and some rich slivers of poached apple. The salted caramel ice cream it came with was all kinds of great, a little icy bomb of flavour.

And "rhubarb and custard", new on the menu we were told, was that rarest of things - a fresh take on an old classic that wasn't just different for the sake of it. The rhubarb itself had an impressively strong, sweet flavour - perhaps they were those ones forced to grow in the dark at the bidding of their cruel rhubarb masters. And studded amongst the smooth vanilla custard were these little nuggets of salty cake of some kind. Flapjack? Brownie? All I can tell you that it worked really well; our waiter asked for feedback and all I could suggest was not to change a thing.

So yes, desserts were worth the journey and then some. And service couldn't be faulted either - dishes arrived at a perfect pace and all the staff were as impressive and well-turned-out as their surroundings. But after all said and done, with a solid but unspectacular starter and main course each and a couple of sides, and even despite the lovely desserts (only one of which appeared on the bill), the total still came to £111. With no alcohol. And I'm sorry but that's a lot, no matter how nice the view is.


Berners Tavern on Urbanspoon

Thursday 20 February 2014

Trishna, Marylebone

From the ridiculous to the sublime. After the intense suffering caused by an evening in Surrey Quays at Frankie & Benny's, I felt entitled to some kind of compensation. So when an invitation to try the revamped Trishna landed in my inbox, any fleeting worries about blogger ethics were quietly batted aside - I don't care if you think I'm irreversibly compromising my integrity, I deserve this.

So, all the usual caveats apply to a press invite meal - the service was probably a bit more attentive, we had the best table in the house, and I can't ignore the possibility (however unlikely) that the kitchen paid a bit of extra attention to plating and pacing. All that said, though, there are certain things you just can't fake, no matter how hard you try, and I am convinced that the astonishing series of dishes produced at Trishna would have been just as impressive on any other evening, for any other lucky customer.

The fireworks started from the very first moment - you know you're onto something special when even the pappadum/chutney snacks make your head spin. All were impressive in different ways; there was one studded with dried shrimp, and a mango with I think nigella seeds, but the bright green coriander and chilli was just extraordinary, fresh and exotic and utterly addictive.

This is fried baby squid (described by our waiter in Spanish - chiperones - which I thought was a nice touch) in a kind of tamarind-based batter, with fresh samphire. The textures were great, the batter being crisp, without a trace of grease, and the spicing never overwhelmed the seafood.

Have you ever heard of any food stuff with as much potential as "lobster samosa"? It didn't disappoint - packed full of bouncy lobster meat, in a delicate pastry crust, on top of a gently-spiced chutney.

A miniature soft-shelled crab, in a light batter, was posed in such a way that looked like it could have scuttled back off to the beach any moment. It came with a quenelle of what I can only describe as crab bacalao, a rich, fluffy paté that packed an incredible flavour that punched well above its ethereal lightness.

And from here on, things went from excellent to world-class thanks to a series of the best seafood and fish dishes I've ever had the pleasure of eating. First, a vast scallop, its meaty goodness enhanced by a bright green layer of some kind of basil marinade. It was perched on a bed of a very clever chickpea mixture, some fried to a crunch and some soft and spiced, creating some really interesting textures.

Trishna is, quite rightly, famous for its way with seafood but there is one in particular - this Hariyali bream - which has become their signature dish. Another shocking green sauce (coriander and chilli) neatly encased a remarkably dense, meaty flesh, perfectly cooked and with a delicate trace of the tandoor coals. The kind of food you never want to end - this was quite honestly unbeatable stuff.

Salmon tikka was, impossibly, even more impressive. The spicing, just like the dishes that came before it, was expertly judged, but the way they'd managed to get a lovely smoky char on the outside and yet keep the flesh inside flaky, pink perfection was something to behold. Most restaurants I know couldn't manage this kind of timing armed with a sous-vide machine and a blowtorch; that the chef had done this in a tandoor was simply incredible. We were in awe.

I could go on. An aromatic biryani, a bowl of charred and chillified okra, a wonderfully complex chicken drumstick coconut curry, a clever beetroot salad with curry leaf. All lovely, it goes without saying, but it's clear that it is the fish dishes, which most other Indian restaurants in town do so half-heartedly even if they attempt them at all, of which Trishna should be most proud. It can't be easy, matching Indian spices and chilli heat with the fresh, delicate flavours of seafood without compromising either; Trishna, like the best of those accomplished in any particular field, make the near-impossible seem like child's play, and together with sparkling service, a gold standard wine list (we tried some very interesting Balkans by the glass) and an airy, attractive room of mirrors and dark wood panelling, well, you have all the ingredients of a faultless night out.

And given that I couldn't really fault anything about Trishna, it's going to have to get top marks. Yes, I was invited and yes, feel free to dismiss all of the above as so much PR smoke and artfully-distressed mirrors. But you'd be making a huge mistake; I'll say again, an operation like this you just can't fake - there is heart here, and intelligence, and real, honest-to-goodness, gobsmacking talent from everyone involved with the place. Trishna is the real deal.


I was invited to review Trishna

Trishna on Urbanspoon

Monday 17 February 2014

Frankie & Benny's, Surrey Quays

Whingeing on Twitter the other day about my upcoming trip to Frankie & Benny's, about the vast, lowest-common-denominator menu, the depressing locations (F&B's one stipulation for site acquisition appears to be "windswept car park"), the extreme unlikeliness of my being able to enjoy an evening there, I was - inevitably - accused of being a snob. And though I admit there have been times when such accusations had some merit (I can't pretend my views on Spanish charcuterie or the correct composition of a cheeseboard are going to win me "dinner party guest of the year" any time soon), I'm afraid with regards specifically to this chain of restaurants, I don't believe the charge sticks.

The point is, there is such a thing as bad food. Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese is better than a slice of processed Kraft. A 28-day-aged Ginger Pig grass-fed sirloin steak is better than a vac-packed lump of beet-red supermarket protein flown halfway across the world. A bottle of Brewdog Punk IPA is a better drink than a pint of sugary Foster's lager. It's not snobbishness that makes us choose the better product, it's because the better product is objectively that. It seems to be a phenomenon specific to the food and drink world that anyone going out of their way to do anything better is labelled an elitist twerp, whereas spending £150 on a nice pair of shoes rather than just wrapping a couple of Tesco bags around your feet is plain common sense.

So I say this without prejudice, honestly and from the heart - Frankie & Benny's is a terrible, terrible restaurant. The "concept", weakly supported by a selection of framed image library photos of baseball players and east coast gangsters eating spaghetti, is 50s New York Italian American, although of course this is entirely fictional - the chain was invented, and is owned and operated by British company The Restaurant Group PLC, who also have under their belt such premium brands as Garfunkel's, curse of anyone stuck for any extended period of time at Gatwick South Terminal, and Chiquito, where there's every chance you may have been dragged to if Brenda from HR left it too late to organise anything better for the office Christmas party.

The one thing I was expecting to be able to say about the food was that, despite everything, at least it wasn't very expensive. But actually, I don't consider £5.95 for four flabby, oven-reheated chicken wings to be value at all. Meatliquor manage three times the amount for £6.50, and furthermore their blue cheese dip doesn't taste like discount mayonnaise that's been left at the back of a hot cupboard for six weeks - a revolting combination of slimy, salty and distressingly funky. And £5.75 for three limp halves of scooped-out jacket potato, dressed (badly, and a long time ago, then frozen) with a bizarrely flavourless mixture of sweaty bacon and mild cheddar, well that's not value either. Because it's one thing charging nearly £6 for what is essentially a byproduct of another dish, sprinkling some cheese and bacon on top and sticking it under the grill, but how little faith would you need to have in your kitchen staff to have these things arriving pre-prepped and frozen? It's cheese and bacon on potato. If you think the margin for error is too much to risk someone making them from scratch, what on earth do you think chefs are even for?

Next, a few pellets of brownfood scampi rattling around on a large plate next to a mean handful of frozen chips, a pointless clump of watercress, a tiny wedge of lime (?) and a pot of Heinz tartare. £11.95. I am not so much of a snob that I can't enjoy some "scampi" (just processed seafood, of course, nothing to do with actual langoustine tails) once in a while but this was a long way from being £12 worth of food - it looked like a child's portion. But while the "scampi" were at least edible, a special place in hell is reserved for whoever thought this "Chicken Caesar Salad" was fit to serve. Chicken so dry it had to be torn apart into sinewy, grainy clumps, perched awkwardly on top of a thin layer of shredded iceberg, diced tomato and two or three pickled anchovies under a couple of money shots of cheap mayo. No croutons, no texture, no love. It was like eating the colour grey.

It was all enough to send a couple of people who had made a special journey to this awful place quite loopy, so we coped with it in a way familiar to anyone either stuck for hours at Gatwick South Terminal or trapped for an evening at a nightmarish office Christmas party - we got drunk. Very drunk. Firstly on a bottle of house Merlot which tasted not entirely dissimilar to Windowlene, then a Pinot Noir which was marginally better but still felt flat and dead in the mouth, like all the life had been squeezed out of it long before it reached the table. But, they did the job required. I can't remember much of the journey home but I do know I woke up in the morning with a cracking hangover and a receipt for £70.70 stuck to my face.

OK, so without the booze the bill for two would have been a rather more reasonable £35 ish, and they didn't automatically add on 12.5% making the friendly if slightly haphazard service (uber attentive one second before great long periods of time left to your own devices) a bonus as well. But it's still not cheap, and I can come up with a list of a hundred better places to spend this money on dinner in London, food cooked with skill by people who care, where the only thing that comes out of the freezer is the ice cubes for your water, and where the generosity of spirit is such that you want to spend all night there, instead of creeping back onto the overground and getting the hell home before you suffer permanent psychological damage.

There will still, after all I've said or could ever say, be people trying to defend not just Frankie & Benny's but all of these kind of chain retail park restaurants. They'll say they have a job to do, that most people don't want "fancy" food, or a wine list, or slick service. They'll say the fact they are busy and making a profit is proof that there's a gap in the market to fill, and however cynically or cackhandedly they are meeting that demand. Who am I to criticise where a large chunk of the British population choose to spend their birthdays (three on Wednesday, based on the enforced PA-system singalong that kept blasting out) and anniversaries - what harm does it really do?

It is a question that the restaurant "snobs" like myself have to answer on a regular basis. Point out anywhere serving dreadful frozen garbage at a 500% markup and you're somehow spitting on anyone who's ever ordered anything from their laminated menus and walked away not wanting to kill themselves. Suggesting that the men (of course, it's all men) responsible for it are keeping an entire battery and intensive rearing farming industry in the black and you're a conspiracy theorist. Say that these places exploit the low expectations of British diners for vast profit and that's patronising and arrogant. We can't win. Just like the tweedy twat who gave me the whole depressing "food is fuel" speech before driving off in a brand new BMW in a pub in Surrey a few years ago, it's an affliction of the food & drinks world that we are allowed far fewer extravagances before being labelled as superior as almost any other industry I can think of.

So I'm sorry - again - if this sounds like some privileged Londoner sneering at the eating habits of the rest of the country but there is such a thing as bad food. Frankie & Benny's can not be defended as "good for a chain". It's not "fun". It's not "reliable". It's not "unpretentious", or "fine", or "solid". It is objectively, deeply cynical, godawful shite, for which in the not-too-distant future a great number of people will be called to answer their crimes. In the meantime, please God, just stay away.


Frankie & Benny's on Urbanspoon

Friday 7 February 2014

You Decide 2014

It's that time again, the one brief moment in the year when I give up trying to convince people I deliberately go to bad restaurants just to give them a bad review (I don't honestly!) and give you, the reader, the opportunity to do exactly that instead.

There was a time, back in the hopelessly naive early days of this blog, when I thought that if I opened my next review location to public poll I may get a chance to visit such places as Le Gavroche, Alyn Williams at the Westbury and a handful of undiscovered local gems lovingly unearthed by my loyal readership. Five minutes after the poll launched and the Rainforest Café leapt eagerly to the top of the voting tree I realised exactly the kind of hideous mistake I'd made.

But there's no denying that there is a certain curiosity to discover what goes on inside a certain subset of West End tourist trap hell holes, chain dives and Christmas Pizza venues, and given I would never voluntarily spend my hard-earned on a meal I knew with all but complete certainty I will hate, this yearly public vote gives a handy opportunity to get all your sadistic blogger-bashing in one easy click.

Just a couple of obvious rules:

1. I can't have been to the restaurant before (have a quick Google if you're unsure)

2. It has to be either in London or easily accessible from London (the Beijing Penis Restaurant was a very funny choice, yes, well done, but I'm hardly likely to go there)

3. Please check the restaurant you want to vote for hasn't already been added before you add it yourself - we wouldn't want to split that crucial Planet Hollywood vote, would we?

Anyway, knock yourselves out you horrible lot. My fate is in your hands.

A couple of people have said they can't see the embedded poll above. In that case, try clicking HERE for a link to the standalone poll.

EDIT: OK the public have spoken. Frankie & Benny's it is. Wish me luck.