Wednesday 29 April 2015

Bó Drake, Soho

The idea of a Korean BBQ restaurant is one I can entirely get behind. There are very few ways of slow-smoking tender cuts of short rib and brisket that don't make me want to throw money at them, and though I'm a relative newcomer to the delights of Korean food (try Jingogae in New Malden, it's ace) I know enough about bubbly fried chicken wings and crunchy, fizzy kimchee to get very excited about anywhere with ambitions to combine the two.

Bó Drake is doing many things right on paper. Literally, in fact - the menu reads incredibly well, with various BBQ standards (pulled pork, ribs, etc) treated to exciting and unfamiliar (at least to me) Korean flavours and all very keenly priced. If the place were to be measured on its menu alone, it would score top marks; it reminded me very much of Smoking Goat's - concise, elegant, and daring you to order every damn thing.

But a meal last night proved only that the more enticing your menu, the more distressing it is when dishes turn that don't live up to expectations. And not just the food - doesn't a drink involving Campari, gin, antica formula, orange marmalade (actually it was "marmelade" on the menu but I'll let that slip) and popcorn syrup sound nice? And at only £7.50, almost a bargain. This is what turned up:

How on God's green earth anyone decided serving a cocktail in a Kilner jar with the lid still attached would ever be a good idea is beyond me. I presumed I was supposed to mix the teaspoon of marmalade into the drink, so I did, but this only meant the tiny black straws - my one available method of getting the liquid out of the jar into my mouth without making of a complete tit of myself - quickly clogged up. In the end I just about managed to get it drunk after furiously mixing the marmalade in as finely as possible using the spoon to mash up the big chunks; it tasted of little more than Campari, bitter and boring. "Luscious spices" (ordered because they'd run out of watermelon for the "Watermelon Soju Tinny", dread to think what that came in) was better though, fresh and sprightly and - crucially - served in a normal highball glass.

The food itself wasn't awful, just not particularly memorable given the expectations raised by the Korean BBQ concept. Bo ssäm when served at Momofuku in New York is a whole BBQ pork shoulder accompanied by oysters, rice, lettuce, kimchi and dipping sauces. You could see they'd tried to do something similar here, but the pork itself was pappy and bland, with no nice crunchy "burnt ends", and the kimchi too lacked chilli or flavour or something. I liked the spicy BBQ sauce though, and the spring onion oil.

Kalbi short ribs were seasoned well but were slightly tough and lifeless, like they'd been stood around a bit too long. I'd like more crunch and fire from the grill, and for them to have been even a little bit pink inside.

Crispy squid were also a bit room temperature and chewy, though the ginger & lime aioli they were came with was lovely. Am I wrong to expect a little more than this from a thrusting new Korean BBQ restaurant in Soho? Crispy squid is all very well and good, but hardly revolutionary.

Panfried cauliflower was even more confusing. You'd think they might have tried coal-roasting a whole head of cauliflower as is becoming quite trendy, or at least present them with a bit more rustic flair. These tiny bits of timidly cooked veg arrived twee-ly arranged on top of some soily mushroom paste, in between discs of radish, all of it looking so exact and self-conscious it was like a refugee from a vegetarian restaurant trying for Michelin stars instead of anything involving BBQ. Or Korea, for that matter.

Lamb cutlets were tender and cooked perfectly pink, so that was something, but again a tendency to frilly presentation meant any texture they ever had from a charcoal grill was hidden beneath a (admittedly rather nice) pear sauce and so it all came across a bit provincial high street. Where was the confidence, the ambition? Where was London 2015?

In the end though, I didn't leave angry, just disappointed. The £30/head bill was almost exactly what I expected to pay, the food though never exciting was never less than edible, and nothing (apart from a couple of bits of cauliflower) was wasted. But I got the impression that this was an operation too worried about scaring potential customers away to really challenge the way people in London think about Korean food. Perhaps a Korean Smoking Goat was expecting too much but it's certainly true that the boys on Denmark St genuinely relaunched Thai food on the capital, and wouldn't it have been great if Bó Drake could have done the same? Or at least tried to? Instead, we have a slightly awkward prod at low-n-slow American BBQ with Korean sauces which never really does justice to either. So, the Korean standard-bearer torch in central London remains unclaimed, for now. Meantime, we'll always have New Malden.


So you probably don't want to eat at Bó Drake. But where else is good round there? Why not download my app and find out? Still only £2.99

Bó Drake on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Blacklock, Soho

I quite like the idea of a subterranean, clandestine chop joint (that's chop joint, not clip joint - although there's plenty of those in Soho) but there's a fine line between inconspicuous and totally bloody invisible. I spent a good ten minutes micro-adjusting my position on the little red pin where Google Maps told me I should be, completely failing to see which anonymous black door might contain a restaurant and it was only when a friend of mine appeared from one after an early lunch I noticed a tiny handwritten sign, ink on cardboard, taped to a back wall - BLACKLOCK. So, this was the place, after all.

Inside, and down some stairs, things get more familiar. Soho basements often have a wonderful way of twisting a restaurant into strange shapes - claustrophobic narrow corridors, nooks and crannies (think Pitt Cue, or Pizza Pilgrims) - and Blacklock makes the most of theirs, with a collection of tables on different levels, a cute bar in one corner and an open kitchen at the back. There's even some natural light on some attractive whitewashed-brick snugs on one side, where you can look up and watch people walk to and fro on the pavements above. Handy for photographs, too, obviously.

The menu style is in some debt - I'm sure they won't mind me saying - to fellow meat-specialists Pitt Cue, with a short list of house specials and some sides, but actually the brains behind Blacklock come from the Hawksmoor stable, and their chefs did some chop shop prep at the Air Street branch.

Given that pedigree, then, it's probably not surprising the main event at Blacklock - the chops - are absolutely stunning. On two visits I tried the beef, lamb and pork versions and they could hardly be faulted, being perfectly seasoned and expertly timed on the charcoal grill to get a delicate dark crust and flesh so tender it dissolved in the mouth. It's hard to pick a favourite of the three but perhaps if I had to go back for only one I'd choose the pork, if only because pork chops are so often badly done elsewhere; to have them cooked as perfectly as this (yes I am using that word) is a unique treat.

Of course, some of the hard work is done even before Blacklock spark up the coals - all meat is from exemplary Cornish butchers Warrens, an operation I've been entirely obsessed with ever since a steak at the Clove Club they supplied a few years back. These days, they're a little more widely spread (try the Adam & Eve pub in Homerton, or the brand new Newman Arms in Fitzrovia) but the product shows no sign of flagging.

So far so good, then, and if you like chops, clearly this is your place. As for the rest of the menu, it's best described as split into "grilled vegetables", so things like "charred courgettes and chicory" or "barbequed baby gems" which are in of themselves nice but tend to be overwhelm with carbon taken with everything else, and a couple of pleasant salads - "kale and parmesan" on my first visit and a pretty fennel and radish affair on my 2nd, both of which complimented the meats much better.

The only real problem I encountered was the bread. What I really wanted was something soft and absorbent to soak up the plateful of salty meat juices that had run out of the chops. "Charcoal-grilled flat bread", though, for some reason arrived completely soaked in oil, meaning it was no good either to wipe my plate clean with or as a companion to the rest of the food. And also tasted pretty horrid.

But these are minor things. If nothing else, Blacklock are willing to experiment - on my first visit starters were cute little discs of Peter's Yard crispbread topped with scrambled egg and anchovies. The next time, they were somewhat less successfully experimenting with grizly blobs of cold dripping topped with prosciutto... well, you have to admire their imagination.

Mistakes, though, are expected - in fact it would be more worrying if everything was perfect in the opening couple of months than if they weren't. What's more important than the detail is that somehow, it works - it feels like it belongs here, in this quirky dark basement, with its no-nonsense grilled meats and trendy-friendly-beardy staff. And despite having lost a brothel to gain it (as they themselves cheerfully point out), the opening of Blacklock feels like we've somehow gained more Soho than - as is becoming depressingly common - lost another chunk. So, well done them.


Blacklock full? Belly empty? Download Where to Eat London 2015 and you won't stay hungry for long.

Blacklock on Urbanspoon

Friday 24 April 2015

La Régalade Saint Honoré, Paris

Delighted though I was to accept the invitation to a couple of days in Paris from the lovely people at the Office du Tourisme, there's always the worry that restaurants picked by a however well-meaning PR team wouldn't tally precisely with a tragically-obsessed restaurant geek (me) would pick for themselves (myself). I had never heard of La Regalade, or its Saint Honoré sister, and while a brief glance at the menu did admittedly look promising, I had convinced myself to see the trip mainly as a chance to travel business class on the Eurostar to stay in a lovely hotel near the Champs Elysees, and for mealtimes to be an unexpected bonus.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried; La Régalade ticked so many of my foodie buttons I could have chosen it myself, and in fact might do if I get the chance again. Rustic regional French food, cooked unpretentiously but with care, served speedily and for a relative bargain of €34, it reminded me very much of the casual-fine-dining Modern British spots we have in London, and indeed is responsible for a new wave of democratic (ie. affordable) dining trend across Paris. Admittedly, our menu on this visit was a PR-driven expansion of the usual offering (usually just 3 courses) but still should give you an idea of the kind of thing to expect.

One of Régalade's little quirks is that all customers receive as part of the set menu package a generous pot of house pickles (cauliflower, fennel, gherkins, things like that) and a vast terrine for the table to share. Both were incredibly good, the pickles with a good sour/sweet balance and decent crunch, and the terrine being one of those chunky country-style ones, seasoned well and packed with big chunks of pig. I wondered what would happen if you overindulged on these and the house bread and then decided against eating anything else; would they still charge you €34? Probably. This is Paris, after all.

Fortunately I managed to restrain myself on the charcuterie and tucked in eagerly to the first course, new season asparagus (from Provence) with a sauce made of aged Comté, morels and Jura wine. There is hardly anythin more deliciously, ideally French than this heavenly combination of ingredients, and I had made the effort to come to Paris for this one dish it wouldn't have been a wasted journey. The asparagus were huge, bright green affairs, charred from a grill and with an incredible flavour, and the frills and folds of the morels soaked up so much of the cheese & wine sauce each burst in the mouth like little parcels of rich mushroom soup. Brilliant stuff.

Roasted cod (from Brittany), with a delicate pea sauce. I don't know whether cod & peas was an ironic nod to their English guests, but these famous flavours are always complimentary and here, boosted by a nice crisp skin and bright-white flaky flesh, were better than ever. Much like the restaurants it reminds me of in London (Picture, the Dairy, etc) the style is stripped-back rather than basic, with just enough technique to make the ingredients shine without being inaccessible.

Veal from Correze came as a delicate pink fillet (I think) and another collection of slower-cooked meat wrapped up into a kind of faggot. Both were superb, the fillet cutting like butter, a reduced veal stock sauce coating it all with glossy richness, and a bright swoop of (from memory, sorry one of these days I honestly will start taking notes) celeriac mash providing some notes of the earth.

Desserts were, much like their London counterparts if I'm going to be honest (at least before the arrival of Kira Ghidoni at the Manor, Clapham), a little dissapointing. Some citrus fruits topped with a chocolate sorbet and some little cubes of citronella jelly, it was all perfectly decent but hardly up to the standard of what had come before.

And I'm assured La Régalade are "famous" for their soufflé, a little baffling judging by this clumsy thing pretending to have something to do with Grand Marnier but tasting like nothing more than verticle scrambled eggs. It looked the part - which I suppose is half the battle - but the lumpy, grainy texture did nothing for me.

But the final courses notwithstanding, La Regelade is still a very accomplished little place. As a reminder that France still has some of the finest ingredients in the world within its borders, and that they still know how to make the very best of them, €34 is a very decent price to pay. And for the swathe of "Bistronomy" restaurants it's inspired across town (read a bit more here, but basically La Régalade did for Paris what the gastropubs did for London) - Paris should be thoroughly grateful.


I was invited to La Regalade as part of a bloggers/press trip to Paris. We travelled by Eurostar and stayed at the 5 star Napoleon hotel, as if you couldn't find us insufferable enough. If all this talk of lovely food cooked well has made you wonder where's good a little closer to home, you can do far worse than downloading my app.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Delancey & Co, Fitzrovia

With my usual route to work disrupted due to a large chunk of central London spontaneously bursting into flames a few weeks back, I've had to get used to a slightly longer commute in the morning. So instead of taking the bus up Kingsway, surely one of the least inspiring roads in Britain, passing on the left Eat, Costa, Subway, Wasabi, Pret, Café Rouge, Caffe Nero, Starbucks, another Subway, another Eat and finally emerging at Holborn station bus stop wanting to emigrate to anywhere that doesn't think cheese and mayonnaise is an acceptable sandwich filling and doesn't need my first name to sell me a bottle of orange juice, I instead take a stroll through Covent Garden.

Covent Garden, it's true, still has its fair share of dreadful tourist-bait grothouses, but dotted amongst them are gems such as the Opera Tavern, Mishkin's, 10 Cases and the ever-wonderful Kanada-Ya. There's also exciting new indoor food market Startisans, which during the week showcases a variety of interesting stalls and on Friday becomes a mini beer (and mead) festival hosting some of London's newest producers. The point is, look even slightly off the beaten track in London and you will invariably find something interesting going on - all any of us often need is a little push in the right direction, be that a block-wide underground electrical fire or even (ahem) a handy app.

So yesterday morning I was winding my way up Catherine Street and noticed a little place calling itself a "Smart Burger and Vodka House". It seems their claimed USP is to be able to match burgers with vodka, and indeed the short menu of all-bases-covered sandwiches (a normal burger, a fish burger, a chicken burger, a vegan burger) each comes with a short list of suggested vodkas. Lemon, saffron and horseradish to go with a cod burger, for example, or cranberry, lemon or mint flavours to go with the vegan. "What an interesting idea," I thought, "just what we've all been waiting for."

Actually, I didn't think that at all. Of course I didn't. No, what I actually thought was, "the very last thing that's going to make me feel happy about having to eat a grilled courgette and pumpkin purée 'burger' is the thought of having to wash it down with a shot of Toilet Duck-infused petrol." So, shaking my head at the seemingly endless ways dollar-eyed restaurateurs will conjure up to squeeze the last drops of bloody juice out of London's burger obsession, I walked away. And instead of a rant about Smart© (their copyright symbol, not mine) Burgers and tarragon vodka, I'm here to tell you about Delancey & Co.

Ironically, there isn't too much to say about Delancey & Co because it's really just a little sandwich shop on Goodge St selling salt beef, turkey and smoked salmon sandwiches in a couple of different breads with a couple of different toppings for not very much money. In New York it would hardly register as anything worth noticing at all, but here in London we've still not quite got past the stage of a New York-style deli being a wonderful novelty, and for that reason Delancey & Co deserves a lot more attention.

A salt beef sandwich on marbled rye was a doorstop-sized beauty, filled with an over-generous amount of meat and loosened with Swiss cheese. The most important ingredient here is clearly the beef, and it was of superb quality, with ribbons of translucent fat woven through the pink flesh and cut into satisfying thick slices. The cheese had been melted on with a blowtorch, a nice time-saving feature, and American mustard added an extra layer of authenticity. My only minor niggle was that the top slice of bread was slightly stale on one side; a shame as the attention to detail shown else where couldn't be faulted. Let's hope these are starting-months niggles.

Friends I was with had similar ingredients inside a Challah roll, which by all accounts was even more successful, firstly not being stale (which helped) but also having a lovely soft brioche-y sweetness which was even more evocatively Old Americana. House pickles were also fantastic, coming in home-cured 'Sweet'n'Sour' and 'Salty' variations a cut above what you might expect from most other sandwich shops in town.

OK so, it is "just" a sandwich shop and yes, salt beef in rye is hardly a concept unknown in the Western world. But people doing this kind of thing this well are still very few and far between - I could point to the Brass Rail in Selfridge's (good but expensive), the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (good and cheap but on Brick Lane), Tongue & Brisket on Leather Lane (decent but inconsistent) but even doubling the number of purveyors of lovely fresh salt beef in rye bread would I'm sure still not meet demand. At least, it shouldn't do. Salt Beef sandwiches are a wonderful thing, and deserve to be obsessed over just as much as any burger. Having said that, if it ever gets to the stage someone opens a salt beef sandwich and vodka matching bar, I'm emigrating.


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Delancey & Co on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 14 April 2015

The Black Swan at Oldstead, North Yorkshire

Whichever far-flung corner of the UK I happen to visit in pursuit of dinner, it seems I am cursed to immediately fall in love with the place and start planning an early retirement. First there was Cornwall, whose surreal beauty was backdrop to world-class restaurants such as Paul Ainsworth in Padstow, and where every inch of the county seemed to host some passionate producer or unique food story. Next came a trip to Devon and Somerset, which in the soft heat of late summer was like taking part in some glamorous Merchant Ivory production, only one with wifi and impeccably-kept cheese. And now the latest object of my obsession is the North York Moors.

It's a beautiful part of the country, but as you will have noticed following this blog over the years, there are many beautiful parts of the country. What took me by surprise in this particular spot (the very far South West of the North York Moors national park, near Coxwold and Byland Abbey) was just how alive and verdant it all seemed, even in very early spring. There was so much chattering and chirping wildlife following us around it was like rolling through a safari park - pheasants, partridges, hares, rabbits and stoats ducked around our feet (and, occasionally more worrying, the wheels of our car) while wood pigeons, herons and colourful finches played overhead. All of which conspired to make me very happy, but also very hungry - how many species would make their way onto that evening's menu? Plenty, I hoped.

Dinner began with a kale martini. This stood every chance of being pretty revolting, but was actually incredibly successful, just the right side of sweet and savoury with a flavour that was best described as "vegetal" than overly cabbagey. An incredible colour too; it looked and tasted like distilled Yorkshire spring.

First of the snacks, served in the cozy downstairs bar, was a cracker somehow made out of dried artichoke, topped with something creamy possibly also involving artichokes and then a little neat square of vinegary jelly. It's the kind of thing that's impossible not to love, and not just because I'd been looking forward to dinner so much I could have probably quite happily eaten a coaster.

Bright pink cubes of moist ox tongue, rested on blobs of mustard cream and delicate pressed linseed crackers. Sort of like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich. Salty and fatty and soft and crunchy and colourful.

This cute little fellow was a ball of smoked eel and pork, bread-crumbed and deep-fried like arancini, and served on a very interesting stone pedestal. While I remember in fact, all of the stunning Black Swan crockery is handmade just for the restaurant by a potter from York called Jane Schaffer, a lovely - and local - touch.

In more attractive handmade stoneware came duck broth, a gorgeously rich and satisfying thing, perhaps a tad overseasoned but still hugely enjoyable. That next to it is a sort of duck samosa with some shoots of new-growth chard straight out of the restaurant's kitchen garden.

Resettled upstairs in the main dining room - a low-ceilinged, ancient old space with stone-flagged floors and antique furniture; basically everything you want from a country pub restaurant - the mains began to arrive. First was a kind of spelt risotto, flavoured with lovage and trompette mushrooms, and topped with a couple of perfectly-poached quail's eggs. More of that great deep seasonal green colour as well, the kind you only get from the very healthiest and freshest vegetables. If you were desperate to pick fault you could possibly argue it was, like the duck broth, a bit salty, but not so much that it was a problem. Oh and the house bread, little sourdough buns, were great, and came with an astonishing velvetty goat's curd.

This vast scallop was apparently still happily sat at the bottom of the Scottish ocean in the early hours of that very morning. Their fish people rush them down to order in a van every day, and it really shows - I'd go so far as to say it's the best scallop I've ever had in my life. It was perfectly cooked of course, slightly transluscent inside and with a delicate golden crust, but this wasn't just a case of good technique; this was simply a stunning bit of seafood. With it was some bits of chopped squid and samphire and a clever big clear cracker thing apparently made out of samphire somehow, but really this was all about that scallop.

Local (of course) lamb, with some nasturtium leaves from the garden, and some cute little cylinders of browned white radish. The meat, it almost goes without saying, was treated faultlessly, and a light mint yoghurt sauce it rested on made the pink meat feel even more intensely gamey. As well as all that though, this dish was paired with a Portuguese red which was so memorable - all spicy and glossy and comforting - I'm going to type out exactly what it says on my printed menu here so you can search it out yourself - "Meandro do Vale Meao, Quinta do Vale Mea 2010".

The vegetarian main course option is worth a mention too - some locally-foraged wild mushrooms including Hen of the Woods, which tastes so like chicken I wonder if you'd ever miss the real thing if you were lucky enough to have access to such things on a regular basis.

"Lolipops" the next course was called, for obvious reasons. The genius in this course was how the flavours gradually transitioned from savoury (cep mushroom and white chocolate) on the right, via fennel root and elderberry in the middle to sweet (rosemary and apple on the left), bridging the gap between main courses and dessert. This is a kitchen in supreme command of the experience it is giving to diners.

The dessert itself, a geometrically-exact cylinder of lemon and sheep's milk ice cream topped with pine sorbet, was a mini work of art and a revelatory combination of flavours at once. And if that wasn't enough, the Black Swan went all Fat Duck on us, with a pine-scented cloud of CO2 being spectacularly unleashed from a contraption in the middle of the table. Matched with the food was a Douglas Fir Sour, almost more impressive than the dessert itself, rejuvenating and soothing with its cream/sour balance.

Petits fours (petit fours? petits four? Excuse my French) rounded things off nicely - those chocolate blocks are salted caramel truffles.

The Black Swan is, as I hope I've made pretty clear, a near-faultless restaurant that could hold its head high in any company, with service and style that would turn heads no matter where it set up shop. But a fundamental part of its success is that, just like Simon Rogan's l'Enclume in Cumbria, or Stephen Harris' Sportsman in Kent, instead of looking abroad, making the most of what they can get their hands of and ending up with that bland foie-gras-and-beef-fillet international geographically-vague type of fine dining, the menu is designed (odd element of seafood aside) precisely around what this tiny corner of the North York Moors is best at, and they've set themselves the task of getting better and better at serving that. And so what you end up with is not only a bloody good dinner but something unmistakeably of Yorkshire, that could literally exist nowhere else in the world.

It was as we traipsed through a nearby wood earlier that afternoon to work up an appetite, passing through narrow green lanes heady with wild garlic and being bleated at by new-born lambs in rolling blustery fields, that I began to wonder whether this isn't just the future of high-end gastronomy but all food; not in some hippy food-miles save-the-planet way but just for the straightforward delight in knowing exactly why your dinner exists and the sheer smug pleasure in knowing you're making the most of it. And after a meal at the Black Swan that evening, I was almost convinced - in this most remote part of England, where mobile phones are useless and taxis cost £40/mile, I've never felt the distance between production and consumption be so tantalisingly - and wonderfully - short.


In the hopefully not-too-distant future I may be able to share with you a Where to Eat Yorkshire app. Meantime, if you're in London, why not use Where to Eat London to pick a dinner spot? Guaranteed only the very best restaurants in London.

The Black Swan, Oldstead on Urbanspoon