Monday 29 September 2014

Barrafina, Covent Garden

It was on holiday in Japan a few years ago when I first heard about a strange phenomenon known as Paris Syndrome. To the Japanese, so the story goes, Paris is shorthand for everything attractive about European culture - beautiful buildings, wonderful food, museums, art galleries, shops and cafés, an idealised dreamworld concocted by vivid imaginations and (presumably helped somewhat by the French tourist board) Hollywood movies like Ratatouille or Midnight in Paris. Many Japanese are obsessed with Paris, and hold it as their life's ambition to travel there.

And then they do travel there, and the dissonance between the twinkling fin-de-siècle paradise they'd been led to expect and the reality of actual Paris (dog shit, graffiti, rude waiters, rude shopkeepers, French people generally) causes them to, not to put too fine a point on it, go mad. The Japanese embassy in Paris has a 24h help line for people suffering from this most extreme version of culture shock. It apparently affects a good dozen or so unfortunate people a year; I imagine them wandering bewildered around the piss-stained corridors of the Metro, clutching a Lonely Planet and sobbing.

I experienced a very similar reaction the last time I visited Barcelona. Once we'd negotiated the ludicrous parking arrangements (spaces just about big enough to accommodate a golf cart for €30 an hour), dodged the pickpockets on the Ramblas (a good 90% of the individuals there as far as I could tell), suffered half an hour in the "flagship" department store El Corte Inglés on Plaça de Catalunya (try and imagine a big branch of C&A, only not quite as glamorous or value for money) we collapsed into a restaurant near the Diagonal who charged twice as much for frozen calamari as the menu outside claimed, and didn't even do that without a great deal of huffing and puffing and long periods being deliberately ignored. Where were the friendly tapas joints, the fresh seafood, the classy cocktail bars? I diagnosed myself with Barcelona Syndrome.

There are certain cultures, then, that are much better at selling themselves outside their borders than living up to those expectations domestically. In most of France, for example, the food is just terrible - fridge-fresh patés served on square, glass plates; bland stews of mystery meats with wilted vegetables; desserts of supermarket flan. And in 25 years visiting Catalonia with the family I had perhaps two or three meals I would happily eat again. Most of the time, at best you'd get something scraped out of the freezer from a vast laminated menu; at worst raw chicken, shards of broken glass, fag ash, you name it we saw it.

But perhaps there is a cure for Paris/Barcelona Syndrome - London. The good thing about London's culinary reputation outside our borders is we don't really have one. Ask any Japanese or American what they're expecting from British cuisine and you'll hear words like "fish and chips" or "Shepherds pie" or "spotted dick", and if you set the bar that low anything from a Greene King pub menu to a 4am doner kebab is going to be a welcome surprise. But it's the very fact we don't have much of a food culture of our own (traditionally at least) that allows us the freedom to better re-interpret everyone else's; I doubt there are very few better US-style steakhouses in New York than Goodman, for example, or a better French bistro in Paris than the lovely (and friendly) Zédel in Piccadilly. And I'm willing to bet my right arm that there are no better Barcelona-style tapas bars in Barcelona than the extraordinary Barrafina, in Covent Garden.

Barrafina is apparently inspired by Cal Pep, and full disclosure here, I've never been to Cal Pep. But I have heard reports from various people who used the phrases "hype" and "doesn't live up to" in close proximity, and a quick look through the photos on their site doesn't exactly make me want to leap on the next flight to El Prat airport. But just look at the food from Adelaide St - these crab croquettas had a casing so delicate it split apart with the slightest prod from a fork, revealing a crab filling equally impressing with lightness and depth of flavour.

The carabinero are about the only single prawn you could spend the best part of £20 on and still be happy to pay more. The flesh is sweet and bouncy-white, easily prized from the soft, deep red shell. But the best thing about the carabinero isn't the tail meat but the juices hiding in the head, so intensely evocative of the ocean it's like drinking the finest seafood bisque. It seems almost impossible, in fact, that it hasn't been artifically enhanced with spices or stock but I am assured all they do is grill over charcoal then season with sea salt. Freakishly good.

Even the salads are world-beating. Heritage tomato and fragrant fennel came topped with avocado neither too mushy or too unripe. The tomatoes were stunning, and it's not often you can say that, but fennel is an absolutely perfect match, and the heady mix of fresh herbs (some mini sprigs of basil added another wonderful dimension) was helped on its way by top quality olive oil and a masterful command of seasoning. This was no such thing as "just" a tomato salad.

Gambetas (more prawns) were this time deep-fried (I think, or at least shallow fried) and - unsurprisingly - seasoned and dressed perfectly. With these particular species you can eat the shell on the tail, and so I did, enjoying the different textures and the soft, sweet taste of the sea.

It is true that you can rack up a bill of fairly frightening proportions at the Barrafinas, in fact at any Hart Bros place (they also run Quo Vadis) but that's not technically because anything they do is overpriced. It's simply a direct result of the fact that from the moment you sit down you have such a good time you never want to leave, and will try any trick in the book to prolong the happiness. Another glass of sherry? Another plate of jamon? How about another carabinero? Oh, go on then. In that jewel box of a room, served by knowledgable and obliging staff, the hours - and the wages - just drop away. But it's all worth it. Barrafina - the very finest cure for Barcelona Syndrome.


Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Bleecker St Burger, Old Spitalfields Market

As a sort of comfort food double-bill with the excellent Sticky Wings, I thought I'd put down a few words on the equally excellent Bleecker Burger, veterans (I'm sure they won't mind me saying) of the streetfood scene, who are currently pitching up at Old Spitalfields Market from Wednesday to Sunday.

You'd think after all these years of Burgers In London that there wouldn't be much more to say about the subject. After reading this post you may still think the same. But though we may very well have reached market saturation in many respects, there is equally no reason to ignore, or even loftily dismiss, anyone as accomplished, talented and committed as Bleecker Burgers just because they have a lot more competition these days. So I'm sorry if you're sick of hearing about burgers, but if that's the case a) you really have come to the wrong blog, and b) plenty of people haven't. Including me. So there.

What we have here is the "Bleecker Black". Two medium-rare chunks of lovely, crumbly loose-minced beef, either side of a puck of rich black pudding. Seasoned and softened by a slice of melty yellow cheese, a touch of mild mustard and inside a good firm seeded brioche, this is a burger-lover's burger, the result of a true expert knowledge of what works and what doesn't when it comes to beef in a bun. Contrast, for example, the decision to use black pudding here (a departure from generic norms but one that only makes it burger with a twist, not transforming it into something else) with the bizarre selection of ingredients thrown together by some bandwagon-jumpers who had no interest in burgers at all before they realised there was money to be made. Mentioning no names.

I also tried these Angry Fries - chips (and very good chips at that) soaked in hot sauce (possibly Frank's but don't hold me to that) and a marvellous creamy blue cheese concoction of some kind. After finishing off two rounds of beef and a black pudding I'm afraid I hardly had room for more than a mouthful, but they were still memorable, the blue cheese flavour in particular having none of that disturbing staleness that seems to afflict cheaper versions.

I'd last tried a Bleecker Burger a couple of years ago when street food collective Kerb were still on that gravelled path between Kings Cross station and the canal. I remember being impressed but not besotted; the bun was a bit crumbly and the flavour of the beef a bit thin. But the joy of independent operations like this is that they're free to experiment with their butcher and baker and other suppliers; they aren't forced to nail down a recipe so the "concept" can be inevitably "rolled out". So Bleecker have tweaked their mince ratios, improved their buns, and over time ended up with this, surely one of the best examples in the city. And if you still can't bear to be anything so mainstream as a burger-lover, well, that's just your loss.


Bleecker St. Burger on Urbanspoon

Thursday 18 September 2014

Sticky Wings, Brick Lane

With chicken wings, as with many life experiences, you generally only remember the very worst or the very best. My personal worst is a tie between some sad little pucks of broiler poultry I had at Giraffe offshoot Chooks, which would have been bad enough even if I didn't have to travel all the way to Muswell Hill to find that out, and a box of flabby microwaved greaseballs that came free with my housemate's Domino's pizza one time. Both were not just poor but memorably inept, Chooks being a particularly lazy leap onto the chicken bandwagon, and the Domino's wings came with a vegetarian pizza. Who knows what they were thinking.

As for the best? My opinion is tied there too. On the one hand there are the MeatLiquor Bingo Wings, generous in flavour and portion size, and now served with even more of their lovely chunky blue cheese dip. And there is of course the brilliant Orange Buffalo, who use mango in their sauce and whose blue cheese dip is also worth the trip alone. Both are all the more impressive considering they've sourced or invented their own hot sauces (MeatLiquor's is from somewhere in Peckham, but like everything they do is shrouded in secrecy) - usually any attempt to steer away from the traditional Franks & butter ends in disaster.

But stop the presses, there's a new kid in town. Sticky Wings began life in the wilds of Lewisham but struggled with the lack of passing trade, staff, opening hours, basically everything you might expect when trying to run a restaurant in Lewisham. Now on bustling Brick Lane, they've at least solved the passing trade issue, and have themselves a bright and clean new restaurant in which to serve wings 4 ways, wraps, burgers and a variety of interesting sides.

First things first and if you take only one bit of information away from this post, make sure it's this - the Sticky Wings' American Buffalo wings are about as good an example as I've found anywhere in the world. They're great big healthy-looking things, with thick, strong bones and good, firm, flavoursome flesh. The skin is crisped up perfectly, bubbly and with a great crunch thanks to a deft hand with the fryer. And each are coated with a generous amount of classic Frank's hot sauce cut with butter. Dipped in some of the Sticky Wings blue cheese, they are impossible not to love.

For the sake of completeness, we tried a couple of other options. The boneless wings were in fact not wings but breasts, but were commendably moist and would make a good option for anyone too lazy to eat around the bones. Garlic mushrooms were nice and garlicky, jalapeno balls (the only item they don't make in-house we were told) had a lovely cheesy filling and were just spicy enough, and deep fried corn was dusted in some kind of BBQ rub which worked incredibly well.

We also tried a small portion of the hot chilli wings, their fierce heat generated by pickled ghost chilli amongst other things. Pickling the ghost chilli apparently tames the heat but retains all of the flavour, and it's certainly true they had more than just a dry heat; fresh herbs and spices created a complex and very satisfying effect. I'm glad we only got a small portion though - one was enough to have me reaching for an ice-cold Sam Adams.

There are more reasons to love Sticky Wings that don't have anything to do with the food. Firstly, the owners love to chat, and so service is just as much about welcoming you like an old friend as it is about bringing another round of seriously cold beer. And they won't even let you pay for said service - tips are not encouraged, but if you do insist on leaving something (as we did last night) they get donated to a local children's hospital. So you can enjoy of the best wings in the world whilst doing your bit for a good cause. I doubt anyone will need any more reasons to visit - this place is destined to be a huge hit.


Stickywings on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Picture, Fitzrovia

What lucky, lucky people we are, us Londoners. We have our pick of bright, friendly restaurants, handy for the tube, where we can enjoy exciting food and interesting drinks and for it to cost less than a new pair of jeans. My only worry is that we're in danger of being a bit spoiled. Picture is, objectively, a fantastic place to spend your dinner money, comfortable and easy to enjoy, and serving the kind of acutely seasonally-aware dishes that make you proud to be British. I just hope that all this effort and skill isn't ignored amist the tidal wave of astonishing new places opening across the capital.

To be fair, there was no sign of them being ignored last night. It's a rare thing in fact, in these days of careful table management, to see, at one point, every single seat in the house taken - a lovely thing, however much the kitchen may have been cursing their misfortune. Front of house, though, never missed a beat, and their general amiableness and attention was just one of the things that made the meal so enjoyable.

Firstly, there was the house bread. Whipped butter is on its way to being a cliché now but is never not enjoyable, and the oven-fresh seeded rolls that came with it were faultless, breaking apart with a soft crunch and puff of steam.

Then, the house cocktails, the Bellini (a very reasonable £7) made with proper peach juice, and a gin, grapefruit and basil martini (£8.50) that was ice cold and also completely lovely. Restaurant cocktails are all about the "last mile" - can they get it to you without the egg white froth going flat and the frost leaving the sides of the glass? Picture can.

The tasting menu began with a chilled red pepper soup, a colourful gazpacho-ey thing that reminded we are still in the dying days of summer. I will happily eat factory-made gazpacho from one of those cartons in Spanish supermarkets, so when cold soup is done properly, as here, I have no complaints at all.

The best thing it's possible to do to broccoli (in my own cheerfully clueless opinion) is boil to soften it, then grill it to get a lovely smoky char. Here it came with some soft, citrussy goat's curd and a pleasant arrangement of late summer herbs and tomatoes. Toasted slivers of house bread added a bit of texture.

Pork! A great big slab of it, and if that wasn't enough, some sprigs of bitter endive and a genuinely surprising plum/summer berry sauce. The only thing I could have lived without was the bits of beetroot, but then that's probably just me; I'm not really a fan. It tastes like soil and gives you a hell of a shock in the bathroom if you're not expecting it.

Although my iPhoto didn't exactly help, the next sea bream course didn't look too dissimilar when it arrived - strangely poached-looking, rather devoid of colour and texture. But happily, all the beauty was in the tasting, a lovely flaky bit of perfectly seasoned fish and livened by fennel and a shocking green dill sauce.

By this point the sun had gone down, and what was once a space made bright by a large skylight had now gone all cozy and candlelit. Great if you're on a date, not so great if you're a food blogger attempting to take pictures of your food. So yes the above is aged hangar steak (we were told) with swiss chard, carrot and cumin. Lovely stuff, particularly the beef which was noticeably strong in flavour, but hangar steak is pretty chewy at the best of times, our fancy Laguiole knives hadn't been recently sharpened, and that coupled with the high rims on the bowl it was presented in made sawing up the pieces to eat quite a fierce challenge. Managed it though, in the end.

The best thing about the dessert wasn't the light chocolate mousse, or the lovely fresh blackberries, or even the shards of biscuit, but the "peanut butter cream" which like eating Sun-Pat put through a foam gun.

So. For just over £50/head with more than enough booze, there is very little you could pick fault with from the moment we stepped through the door to the moment we wobbled happily off into the night. And yet perhaps the most notable thing about Picture is that, in 2014, it has to fight to be noticed next to other twinkling stars of London cuisine like the Dairy, Toast, the Clove Club, and so on. If I'm going to be brutally honest, perhaps next to some of these star attractions it does have a bit of a battle on its hands. But I see no reason to assume the competition won't eventually bring benefits to all concerned, especially us lucky Londoners. Us lucky, lucky Londoners.


Picture on Urbanspoon

Thursday 11 September 2014

The Dysart, Petersham

Richmond is a very posh part of London. It is for this reason I was worried about accepting an invitation to eat there, because as you may have noticed, posh parts of the country and good restaurants do not often mix. When was the last time you had a decent meal in Hampstead, for example, or Chelsea? Or further afield in Beaconsfield or Weybridge? Henley or Harpenden? With very few exceptions (there is Bray, I suppose, though that's largely the work of one man), high property prices and good dinners out don't go together, whilst conversely the parts of town that show up blue on the house price heat maps boast some smashing value restaurants - Camberwell, Peckham, etc.

The only other time I'd been tempted on the 65 bus out to Richmond was when Petersham Nurseries (still the most famous restaurant in these parts) took on a new head chef and invited a bunch of bloggers/journalists to try it out. It wasn't bad, if you don't mind eating a lot of artfully arranged vegetables in a greenhouse, but I am never going to be in the target market for a £20 bowl of salad, nor the £4,000 chest of drawers they saw fit to attempt to flog in the same room, and so I never felt the desperate need to return under my own steam.

The Dysart though is a different prospect entirely. The menu contains a great big list of all my favourite things to eat, from veal sweetbreads to duck for two to crème brûlée; alongside the usual wine matching menu they have an option to try matching beers instead, which is pretty forward-looking; and there's an astonishingly reasonable set menu for around £20/head. It even has its own bus stop. I was convinced.

Of course I didn't actually ask for the £20 menu, I mean I'm not travelling an hour out of my comfort zone to do things by halves, so obviously we had the tasting menu, but the point is the £20 menu is an option, should you want it.

A tray of neatly lined-up nibbles kicked things off - from memory a little cheese/tomato biscuit, a deep-fried porky nugget topped with chilli, a surprising mint/lemon/polenta cube (refreshing and smooth) and (celestial fanfare) scallop nigiri topped with freshly shaved summer truffle. No prizes for guessing which my favourite was.

Next, bread (yes bread, that's a photo of some bread, just go with it), and this was really something. A soda bread of sorts, we were told, but I've never had soda bread quite like this, with a dark, biscuit-y crust encasing a moist, cakey inside. We did our best to leave some to accompany the next couple of courses but after barely a few seconds our resolve crumbled and we polished it off.

Charred mackerel with braised daikon, ginger and champagne married a lovely technique (I have never not enjoyed a soft piece of mackerel fillet with a smoky, crispy skin) with some clever Asian flavours. It was very pretty, too - just imagine something approaching the opposite of how my photography makes it look.

Local cep mushrooms were the main ingredient in this risotto of sorts, packing some deep, foresty flavours and bound with a silky sauce that I think might have involved chicken. It was very well presented, and miniature sprigs of "golden" oregano added a remarkably intense herby note, but it was all let down slightly by very underdone rice - not just slightly al dente but pretty crunchy. Still, you can see where they were going with it, and the rich flavours were enough to make up for the technical error.

Wild sea bass, crispy skin, bright white flaky flesh, everything as it should be, came in a very interesting "spiced curry leaf sauce", shocking deep green with a dense, earthy texture. Bok choi and kohlrabi kept the Asian fusion theme going, and it all added up to a hugely enjoyable dish, hard to fault at all.

The next course, beef in miso mustard sauce, was nothing if not experimental. Individually, all the elements were very impressive; a pink fillet of fine aged beef; a sticky, shiny puck of slow-roasted cheaper cut; swirls and curls of colourful heritage carrots. But though I loved the miso mustard sauce in of itself, it was way too powerful for the beef, and completely smothered the delicate meat with a blanket of vinegar and umami. But then having said that, I still enjoyed both the beef and the sauce, just not on the same forkful. Perhaps it would have worked better with a stronger, gamier protein like venison - who knows. Still, you have to admire their imagination.

Local damsons with peaches were full of colour and the joys of summer, even if my photo makes it look like something left over from a surgical procedure. Damsons, like gooseberries or elderberries, can't be intensively farmed, so it's always worth choosing them if you see them on a menu.

Desserts made sure the meal ended on a high - or rather, two highs. Valrhona chocolate and praline bar with miso salted caramel ice cream, well, you can imagine how good that was. The raspberries lined up neatly on top had a brilliant flavour, probably grown locally, and the chocolate "bar" was much lighter than it looked, containing a mousse-like, nutty interior. And pineapple and brown butter financier was hot straight out of the oven, golden crunchy brown on the outside and soft and moist inside. Blobs of cardamom jam added that Asian twist, as the miso did with the chocolate dessert.

As you will have probably concluded by this point, the Dysart is a very good restaurant indeed. Fusion food has the potential to be a muddled disaster in the wrong hands, yet on this menu the odd Japanese touch here and there often only accented and enhanced the modern classical cooking, only occasionally proving a distraction. And then again, even when, as in the beef dish, the Asian seasoning was slightly heavy-handed, it only made an interesting mess, not a complete failure. And while it's easy to pick fault with things like undercooked rice, so many other things went right - and not just right, but stunningly well, that in the end it was impossible not to be utterly charmed with the place. On top of all that, £60 for a tasting menu and £18.50/£22.50 for a set menu is a hugely reasonable sum for cooking at this level. All of a sudden, Zone 4 seems a perfectly reasonable distance to travel for dinner.


I was invited to review the Dysart

Dysart Arms on Urbanspoon