Tuesday 22 July 2014

Murano, Mayfair

Though I try to write about as wide a variety of restaurants on these pages as I can manage, the unfortunate fact is that, as much as a side effect of PRs doing their job properly as this particular blogger's geeky fondness for the latest and greatest, posts do tend to lean towards newer restaurants. This is inevitable, and not always undesirable - after all, it's probably more useful for people to read a review of a restaurant they've not yet been to than one they already have - but it does mean that I have a short but significant list of very big names that have been around for years that I just have never got around to visiting.

Some of the gaps in my restaurant knowledge border on embarrassing. Perhaps the biggest red mark is Le Gavroche, Mayfair institution and one of the most influential kitchens in London, who have trained and nurtured some of the biggest names in classical French cooking in this country and continues, by all accounts (though obviously not mine, yet) to be a super place to have dinner. And what about Petrus, a commendably long-standing Gordon Ramsay operation about which very few people have a bad word to say, if they have anything to say at all.

One of many Ramsay protégés who stepped out on her own a few years ago and now has her name attached to an enviable collection of restaurants is Angela Hartnett. There's trendy Shoreditch bistro Merchants Tavern getting all the press and the youthful beardy crowd, there's a informal-but-still-quite-posh Harnett Holder & Co at the Lime Wood hotel out in the New Forest, which gathered a good number of positive blog posts when it opened last year. But when was the last time you read a report of her Mayfair flagship, opened six years ago and still going strong, Murano? So here's one.

What do you need to know about Murano? Well, firstly and perhaps most significantly it's in Mayfair and is therefore Not Cheap. Yes, there is a two course weekday lunch for £25 which looked pretty good, but prices for the menu proper start at £50 for two courses from the A La Carte and go all the way up to £85 for a five-course short tasting menu; these are prices with a significant weight of expectation behind them, even for this glitzy part of town.

By and large, though, expectations are fulfilled. Antipasti of (I think) some kind of speck was moist, salty and delicately sliced, and house breads were all fresh and warm paired with lovely grassy olive oil. These are the basics, really, for smart Italian restaurants and you'd expect anywhere charging these prices to have at least a decent bash at them, but it's still nice when it's all done so well.

Lamb breast, sweetbreads, ricotta and peas is always going to be a crowd-pleaser, too, a pile of impossibly light and fluffy ricotta paired with slow-cooked lamb and some of those glossy, cooked-but-firm dressed peas that probably took some poor bastard ages to get right.

A lot of work had clearly gone into the other starter, a meticulously butchered rabbit that came in the form of a boned leg (I think), loin and little pancake-wrap things full of all sorts of other bits. Game chips added crunch, mustard added depth, and some mushrooms and a cheffy rabbit stock reduction added a glossy finish. This is exactly the kind of dish I want to see when I come somewhere like this, you really feel like it has taken someone a lot of time and effort to produce, and is worth the outlay.

Risotto, well, I'm not the world's biggest risotto fan but I can tell you my friend enjoyed it so there you go. Never really got the point of risotto; if you're running a marathon then I'm sure all those carbs are very useful, I just don't see why I'm expected to enjoy any more than a spoonful of savoury rice pudding in any other situation.

I love the things that high-end restaurants can do to chicken. Unlike many other people, I've never really fallen out of love with this most basic of birds; true, given the unspeakable horrors committed in its name in any number of high street fried chicken joints it's understandable many people instinctively steer clear of it, but handled properly it is still an incredibly rewarding beastie. Here, expertly tender breasts with golden crispy skin were arranged amongst earthy morels, soft-boiled breaded quails eggs, white asparagus, little blobs of (I think) chestnut purée, shaved parmesan and all came dressed in another one of those exquisitely silky reduced glazes. Accurate, confident cooking.

Desserts were colourful, summery, and fun. I know that much. Unfortunately I've largely forgotten what exactly they were, but one was some kind of strawberry and white chocolate mousse, I think, and the other one probably involved basil sorbet and apricot. Is it too much of an unfair generalisation to say that desserts are often a bit of an afterthought in high-end Italian restaurants? Yes? Alright, I won't say that, then.

But there you have it, an experience from start to finish almost impossible not to enjoy, from the supremely capable staff to the confident food, dishes of Italian influence using the best of British produce in clear and approachable ways. And given its location, and the clientele I spotted of a weekday lunchtime (over fifties in suits, of both sexes) it could hardly be blamed for doing anything else; this is, after all, a Mayfair restaurant for Mayfair, making a very good living for itself thank you very much.

So it's not Murano's fault I know about Artusi, or Trullo, or Zucca, and they're not to know I preferred my meal on Bellenden Road in Peckham with a bottle of £22 rosé and a plate of roast artichokes in bagna cauda. And I'm sure they couldn't care less that that meal cost fully a third of that price and was, in all honesty, just as impressive in as many ways. Murano doesn't have to care about any of those things, because there will always be people wanting the comfort and security of a nice deep tablecloth and a £45 bottle of Prosecco and don't mind paying for it. And in the end, there's really nothing wrong with that.


I was invited to review Murano

Murano on Urbanspoon

Friday 11 July 2014

The Cheese and Biscuits Google Streetview Restaurant Quiz

Well done (and, equally, massive apologies) to everyone who's had a go at this over the past week or so via Twitter - I wanted to make it a challenge, but didn't realise not everyone was quite so much of a restaurant geek as me and it seems the average score has been somewhere around the 4 or 5 out of 33 mark. Oops.

Anyway this should be more fun - all the answers are below, in alphabetical order, and all you have to do is match the name to the StreetView capture. Alternative spellings are hopefully accounted for, and remember it's the current occupant of the site we want.

Finally, massive thanks go to the very talented Matt Squirrell who set it all up - if you like what you see perhaps you could throw some more work his way - and also congratulations to @patrickji, who was the only person (with only a very little nudge) to get all the answers without help.

If it proves very popular, I might consider doing another one in the future. Meantime, see how you get on:



Casse Croute
Chiltern Firehouse
Dragon Castle
El Bulli
El Celler de Can Roca
Galvin @ Windows
Joe Allen
Le Gavroche
Osteria Francescana
Peckham Bazaar
Pizza Pilgrims
Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
Restaurant Sat Bains
Sid's Café
The Fat Duck
The Greenhouse
The Ledbury
The Square
The Table Café
The Three Chimneys

Thursday 10 July 2014

The Swan, Southport

Today I'm going to do something I have only ever done once before on this blog - re-review a restaurant. Unlike the other time I re-reviewed a place, however, this is not a panicky PR-led excursion on the back of a disastrous first visit. Nor is this even the chance to update a score following a dramatic change in quality or new direction. Quite the opposite; the subject in question has varied very little about the way it goes about things for at least as long as I've been alive, and probably well before that.

No, I'm re-reviewing the Swan, a fish and chip shop in Southport, for two reasons. Firstly, because it's brought me more joy over the years than almost anywhere else I can think of, and this post is an extended "thank you" for countless deeply brilliant dinners from as far back as I can remember. Secondly, and more importantly, it's because as many people as possible from around the world - and specifically London - need to sit down to a plate of haddock and chips at this Merseyside institution and discover exactly how badly wrong they themselves have been getting it so far.

Fish and chips is a simple concept: battered, deep-fried white fish, chips, marrowfat mushy peas. Malt vinegar and salt to finish, and perhaps some ground white pepper if you so wish. But let's not be confusing "simple" with "easy". There's a longish list of "do"s and "don't"s I could rattle off at this point but to save time (and eye-rolling from anyone from North of Watford who consider it all to be bleeding obvious anyway), here are the main irrefutable characteristics of fish & chips:

- Acceptable fish are cod, haddock or plaice. Add whiting or pollack or God knows what else to the menu if you must, but if at least one of cod, haddock or plaice aren't also available, you've fallen at the first hurdle.

- Mushy peas are marrowfat peas, not crushed garden peas, and certainly not minted. If you're very worried about the artifically dyed bright-green mushies, then you can use the less colourful undyed, but if you start dealing with garden peas you deserve to be a laughing stock.

- Chips, not wedges, and not fries. There is a correct size for fish & chip chips, thin enough to give a good bite while not making you feel you're tackling a Sunday roast, but not too thin to soak up too much salt & vinegar. And mess about all you like with beef dripping and triple-cooking by all means, but all I'll say is if the Swan make the best chips in Britain (which they do) using nothing more than vegetable oil, there's no excuse for anyone else reinventing the wheel.

Those are the basics, then, but needless to say there's plenty of room for manoeuvre here and using this simple formula it's still possible to get things badly wrong. Peas aside, for example, the Fish and Chip Shop in Islington did most things right on paper, but still somehow ended up with a ludicrous inflated balloon of pallid batter encasing a tragically overcooked mush of cod inside. And mess up your cooking temperatures and you run the risk of ending up with those horrid, soggy orange chips that make you feel ill just looking at them; cooking the perfect chips is a science all to itself.

For the masterclass, then, we must return to the Swan. Here the chips are never deep golden brown like what seems to be considered "correct" in fancy London restaurants; they are lighter, the larger ones with gentle give rather than an obvious crunch but (if you're lucky) still plenty of the smaller crunchy bits to chase around the plate or bag towards the end of your dinner. The mushy peas are earthy and rich, thick enough to pile up on a chip but not dry or claggy.

The fish itself, bright as the driven snow and with the kind of loose, defined flakes you get from timing the cooking just-so, is encased in a firm but remarkably thin batter that somehow (and there's always a touch of the black magic to the best chip shop fish) manages to retain its deep golden hue and snap right until the final mouthful. The cross-section here shows you just how thin the batter can be; if you have three inches of aggressively crunchy batter to drill through before you reach the fish, it displays a lack of confidence in your frying skills as well as a worrying attitude to your customers' long-term health.

In an ideal world, your friendly waitress would bring a plate of white bread and butter to use making chip butties. Also in an ideal world you'll be eating your food either out of a bag on the seafront or in a room largely unchanged since the 1980s populated by every cross-section of Southport society. You'll probably also want a wall studded with clippings from the local press, and a bill that never exceeds £10/head. In short, in an ideal world you will be eating fish and chips in the Swan, Southport. But hey, we can't all be that fortunate.


Swan Fish & Chips on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Baltic Bakehouse, Liverpool

Think of the Baltic Triangle as Liverpool's Dalston - a previously run-down area of old heavy industry finding new life as an area for creative upstarts and independent restaurants and cafés. Wandering around the area bordered by Wapping/The Strand, Parliament Street and Park Lane/St James St at first nothing seems to have changed much; weeds grow up old brick walls enclosing sleepy timber yards, the skeletal frames of long-since collapsed buildings house that depressingly familiar Liverpool sight, the temporary car park.

But look a little closer, and the signs of a renaissance of sorts are clear enough. On Blundell Street, a handsome old converted warehouse is now artists' studios and the Lantern Theatre, a family run venue, in their words "dedicated to the development and delivery of new talent". Round the corner on Greenland Street is perhaps Liverpool's most wilfully insane food/party venue, Camp and Furnace, who describe themselves as an "indoor festival park". Here you can watch the football on the big screen while eating slow-smoked pork ribs and drinking (at least when I last looked) some colourfully eclectic cocktails (Moroccan lemonade?). And a billion other things as well - the Camp and Furnace guys seem to reinvent themselves every few days.

But to me, the most exciting corner of the Baltic Triangle isn't anything so self-consciously hip as a live music and streetfood venue, or a cutting-edge theatre showing challenging new plays. It's a little café and bakery on Bridgwater Street that does that most old-fashioned of things - makes bread and cakes and sandwiches, and sells them for not very much money to eat on the premises or take away. And that's pretty much all it is.

OK, that's really not all it is, not by a long stretch. Baltic Bakehouse make by far the best bread and cakes in Liverpool, and certainly have a claim on the whole of the North West. The sourdough is a towering achievement, a thin, firm crust containing a ever-so-slightly tacky crumb, full of flavour and an absolute steal at £3.50 a loaf. Price is, unsurprisingly, where the Liverpool Dalston differs substantially from the London Dalston - there's a bakery near Hackney Road that sells a walnut sourdough for £14. And you can guarantee there's plenty of people pay it.

Alongside their signature loaf, Baltic have a rotating menu of guest breads such as Olive Wild (it's got olives in), a wonderful bouncy, moist focaccia with a topping of crunchy baked rosemary, and baguettes that wouldn't be out of place in the finest French boulangerie.

The quality control is high - nothing makes it to the shelves without exhaustive tasting and unless everything is as good as it can possibly be. For this reason, croissants are yet to find a permanent place on the menu as they weren't quite happy with the way they turned out, and it can be frustrating to fall in love with a particular item only for it to disappear for a few weeks for extensive reworking or because oven space is taken up trying new things (*cough* salted caramel chocolate tarts *cough* bring them back you bastards *cough*).

The upside of these high standards, though, is that you can pretty much guarantee anything available on any particular day is going to be absolute knockout. The Chelsea buns are extraordinary, little folded golden brown parcels of butter and cinnamon with a bright white crumb, the best I've ever tried and believe me I've had a few. The custard tarts (sliced or individual) are also wonderful, the custard firm without being eggy, bright-white and with a delicate thin pastry. And the salted caramel chocolate tarts... perhaps it's a good job they're not a permanent feature, I can see myself doing some real damage. I've never had much in the way of willpower.

It is, quite understandably, hugely popular and Saturdays the queues very often trail down the street. But good news for Baltic Bakehouse fans that don't like queueing is that they're currently overseeing the food offering at Hardman St pub the Fly in the Loaf, so you can enjoy your sourdough alongside a huge selection of world beers in one of Liverpool's more attractive old pubs (and there's some competition in that regard).

More than the quality of the product on offer though, is the enormously satisfying situation of a small, independent artisan producer doing what they do, creating their own market for proper organic bread and patisserie in a city yet to fall too far out of love with their nearest branch of Gregg's, and for it to be a complete runaway success. It all goes to show that however dispirited it's possible to get with the state of British food, there are always reasons to be hopeful. And for that, and for Baltic Bakehouse in particular, we should be eternally grateful.


Baltic Bakehouse on Urbanspoon

Monday 7 July 2014

Free State Kitchen, Liverpool

There I was, enjoying the early evening sun in the oasis of calm that is the Free State Kitchen garden, and it made me wonder why there are so few al fresco dining options in Liverpool. There a couple of tables outside Ego on Hope Street, and there's a terrace attached to the disastrous collection of what can only loosely be called restaurants in Liverpool One (Café Rouge, Wagamama, Zizzi's and so on and so forth until you just want to kill everyone in the world), but for a city that boasts so many green spaces, not to mention a multitude of handsome old buildings with gardens in that area between the cathedrals, outside seating is a rarity. And the weather isn't that much worse than London, surely?

Anyway, the scarcity of open-air eating in the city only makes you appreciate that much more anywhere where it is an option, and even if Free State Kitchen had just put some deck chairs in a carpark it would have been a pleasant novelty. But the striking space behind this unassuming Georgian building on Maryland Street is worth the trip on its own; bordered on one side by a vast, ten-story windowless brick wall covered by vines, and on another by the imposing edifice of the rest of the ex-convent (or so I believe) that houses the restaurant, the space in between is a quiet, gently ramshackle green space, decorated with wild flowers and grasses planted in old cooking oil drums, a large vegetable patch (which I'm hoping is used by the restaurant) and a lovely old tree providing shade for a few wooden picnic tables. Oh, and a life-sized statue of Jesus. As you do.

The menu is unfussy, and pleasantly priced. A vast bowl of sweetcorn chowder for £3.50 is the kind of value that you rarely see in that there London, and it stayed piping hot until the very last mouthful thanks to generous chunks of potato.

Buffalo wings were correctly jointed, had a nice crisp coating and a good dollop of sauce, which judging by the colour and the chilli levels had a commendably low ratio of Frank's to butter (though by no means unpleasantly so). The less said about a disastrously thin blue cheese sauce the better - someone needs to go back to school on that one - but at £4.75 for nine wings this was still worth your while.

Burgers are the main event here, and the pescatarian option is something called a "clam sam" - crunchy deep-fried morsels of assorted seafood with a light mayonnaise dressing, in a poppyseed bun. Most likely the seafood was previously frozen, but that only added to the homely, no-nonsense style of the place, and in fact the textures and flavours were pretty good. Excellent fries, too, all crunchy out and creamy-white within.

The "Double French Onion Burger" was very nearly excellent, and clearly the concept is sound - double beef, properly melted Swiss cheese, onions, Dijon mustard (a very under-used burger ingredient I find, it's lovely stuff) and a golden brioche bun which held together very well. But it suffered from a dramatic lack of seasoning - even the cheese seemed entirely flavourless - and the onions needed a much longer association with a heat source before they could be called "caramelised", these weren't anything more interesting than "cooked". Still, good quality beef and more of those fries saved the day.

I forgot to take a photo of the "Herby Chicken Burger" but it looked the part and all disappeared without a complaint, so it can't have been bad. And what's not to love about a drinks list that has an elderflower G&T (Hendricks gin) for £5, glasses of house wine for £3 and bottles of Goose Island for £3.80? Nothing, that's what.

And let's not forget, you're eating all this decent, well-priced food in that lovely garden, the secret sanctuary of L1, at least you are while the weather holds. And even when summer turns to winter or sun turns to rain, you'll still be able to enjoy the service, which is quite extraordinarily good - smart, efficient, friendly - especially for a city that so often struggles with this "final mile" of the restaurant process (I think I've asked for the service charge to be removed more often in Liverpool than anywhere else in the world).

So it's not perfect, but then where is? What it is is comfortable and comforting, and they do what they do well enough for quibbles not to seem to matter much all said and done. Writing these posts it's often too easy to focus on where something has gone wrong and lose sight of the bigger picture, and with that in mind, there's really only one important thing I need to tell you - that after we'd paid the bill and been wished a cheery "goodbye" from the staff, we left happy. And there's hardly any better compliment than that.


Free State Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Thursday 3 July 2014

Ramen Sasuke, Soho

I didn't want to leave that whinge about chicken restaurants as my front page story for long, so today I'm happy to spread much more positive vibes about London dining. The truth is, for all there is to moan about in the lack of originality in some sectors of the London restaurant scene (and there's plenty), innovation isn't hard to find either, and for that reason we can boast some of the very best restaurants in the world.

But it's odd, isn't it, that in some styles of cuisine (largely, but by no means exclusively British and/or modern European) relentless innovation and idiosyncrasies are the sign of Things Being Done Right, in others adherance to form and tradition is seen as a massive benefit rather than a sign you're out of ideas. With most Asian cuisines, here at least, boasting strict authenticity to the way it's done in Beijing, or Seoul, or Tokyo, is a selling point. You wouldn't see anywhere shouting about how their food is "British-style Chinese" or "Westerner-friendly Thai" and yet anywhere daring to serve traditional French food is all too often seen as stuffy and old-fashioned.

Well, I don't make the rules. And given that what I know about the infinite complexities of Japanese cuisine could be written on the back of a Wasabi loyalty card, all I can do is tell you that whether Sasuke offer London's most, or least authentic ramen, or most or least innovative, it is absolutely lovely, not to mention very good value.

The lunch deal involves choosing a ramen of your choice, and getting for £1.50 extra a choice of three sides, and as much rice as you can fill up on after that. Sounds generous, as indeed it is, but if you're anything like me the bottomless bowl of rice is rather surplus to requirements - we could barely finish our noodles.

Extras were good; certainly considering the price. Karaage was bubbly and moist, piping hot and served with a blob of thin mayonnaise. Gyoza also had a good texture, although they didn't seem particularly generously stuffed and I would have liked to have seen 4 instead of 3 on that plate. Still, as I say, you can't really complain for £1.50.

But the ramen is why, before too long, they'll be queueing down the street for Sasuke; by golly it's good. My shoyu style broth (£9.50) came with two huge slabs of chashu pork, which split apart into jellied fat and soft salty flesh at the merest prodding with a pair of chopsticks. The noodles themselves, bouncy and gently coloured, were amongst the best I've tried in my hardly exhaustive sampling of ramen here and in Japan - only Tonkotsu's can compare, and they make their own. Perhaps Sasuke do as well? Also in the bowl was half of one of those salty/creamy eggs (ni-tamago?) so good it made me want to do a Cool Hand Luke job, and a pretty square of nori seaweed which I always tend to think is there more to add colour and geometry than flavour but which I polished off nonetheless.

A friend's spicy miso chashu (£12.40) was a price point above but was so loaded with goodies (pork, noodles, miso, corn, various other vegetables raw and stewed, and a cute little pestle & mortar on the side containing roasted sesame seeds to add as required) that even our combined efforts couldn't make visible the bottom of the bowl. It displayed a deeply complex and addictive creamy broth, hot certainly but not eye-wateringly so, that has taken a true expert's palate to perfect. Very impressive.

And for all this, including a drink each (my orange juice was out of a carton, but that's a minor complaint), the bill was £16 a head including service. So not only is Sasuke serving what is surely some of the best ramen in London, they're doing it cheaper than pretty much everyone else, in a lovely bright clean room and with a smile on their faces. As for authenticity, well, you're asking the wrong person. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if there is, indeed, a correct way of doing ramen, Sasuke have it down pat.


Thanks go to Lizzie for the hot tip on this restaurant, and many others like it. Without her I'd still be thinking Wagamama was the bee's knees.

Sasuke on Urbanspoon