Wednesday 21 December 2016

Breddos, Clerkenwell

It was, up until a couple of weeks ago, the one cuisine that this country hadn't yet quite got to grips with. Mexican food in the UK was, for almost as long as I've been alive, only known by way of rotten Tex-Mex brands like Las Iguanas or Chiquito, and those Old El Paso kits from the supermarket that made everything taste exactly the same no matter what ingredients you throw at them. To anyone lucky enough to have tried the real deal in Mexico or Southern California, trying to explain why Mexican food was one of the truly great global cuisines was nigh-on impossible - a bit like trying to extol the virtues of Italian food to someone whose only exposure to it hitherto had been a tin of Heinz ravioli. Not that there's anything wrong with Heinz ravioli of course, but just try telling an Italian that.

But here we are and whatever else 2016 will be remembered for (and don't get me started on that) there is at least one shining beacon of redemption, that Breddos have opened up shop on Goswell Road and finally - finally - decent Mexican cuisine has landed in London.

Everything to enjoy about Breddos is summed up in one dish - their "Baja fish taco", about which I can lavish no higher praise than say it's every bit as good as the ones they serve up at Machatlán Mariscos Chávez in Tijuana - moist, fresh fish, a delicate thin batter, a chilli-mayonnaise dressing and all resting on a simply stunning tortilla, soft and earthy, that speaks of many man-hours of research, training and experimentation. So for most of you, homesick (Baja) Californians in particular, that should be all you need to know - the Breddos fish taco is about as good as fish tacos can get.

But why stop there? Because there's more. Another must-order from the taco section is the masa-fried chicken, which would be a wonderful bit of chicken-craft even without being complimented by that zingy chilli-mayo and the loving embrace of one of Those tortillas.

And the beef short rib, luxuriant and rich, sharpened with something called "lemon onions" and a neat pile of fresh coriander. I have a sneaking suspicion you could pile up much more inferior ingredients than these on Those tortillas and for it to still taste wonderful but that's not to take anything away from the obvious effort and skill that's gone into the toppings.

I should say not all the tacos are wonderful. I didn't much like the sweetbreads, which hadn't been prepped properly and was a bit like chewing on fried testicle (and I should know). But how fantastic they were even attempting a sweetbreads taco - I'm sure, given time, it will be just as good as the rest.

And anyway, that's just the tacos. More delights can be found elsewhere on the menu, for instance this pork chop with grilled spring onions and lime chutney. The meat itself was perfectly seasoned and full of porky juices, but even better than that was working through the meat-soaked onions beneath; I found dangling them into my mouth from above, calçot-style, worked best for this but you may very well have your own, less extravagant, method.

In much the same way as I'll forgive a mis-step on the sweetbread taco, I'll forgive them the sea urchin tostada, which I'm imagining only truly hardcore uni fans will appreciate. I have been known to enjoy sea urchin in the past, but only under very, shall we say, controlled conditions. The bravery of essentially serving it on a cracker, in all its bright orange, fishy funk, is certainly to be commended, I just couldn't bring myself to enjoy it. The octopus one, though, is much nicer. So have that.

Far more accessible, and easily enjoyable, is the Queso Fundido, basically melted cheese with crisps for dipping and so therefore why the hell wouldn't you. The cheese is studded with chorizo, for extra meaty punch, and the "crisps" are actually "nixtamalised potatoes", the same process (don't ask me) that fluffs up the corn tortillas. Nixtamalised potatoes are a fantastic thing, light and potatoey but strong enough to withstand a hefty scoop of melted cheese, which of course is extremely important.

Finally, Breddos do a very decent ceviche, perhaps not as knockout as the ones I've tried over in Baja itself but still well worth the money. It's beautifully presented too, in one of those thick earthenware bowls and dressed with various colourful bits of this and that.

So yes, I enjoyed Breddos and if you've got any sense of fun and adventure, so will you. And in fact, judging by the crowds on all of my visits so far, so is London already - it seems it's not only taco-starved foodies that have been waiting for a decent Mexican joint to open; this is a cuisine whose time has finally come. So for fantastic food, a great time (try the Mezcal) and a bill that won't break the bank, Breddos is to be welcomed with sticky, lime-soaked, open arms. What it represents for the future of Mexican food in London, though, is what's truly exciting.


I was invited to one press dinner at Breddos, but went back twice on my own wallet because I liked it so much.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Merchant's Tavern, Shoreditch

After forgetting Rule No. 1 of Eating Out - "Always make sure the restaurant you like is open, before trying to eat there" (in this case a US joint called TuJacks, which I will certainly try again later) - I found myself stamping out the cold on Curtain Road, checking Twitter and desperately trying to find somewhere else in the area to fill my lunch hour. There were some excellent suggestions - there always are, on Twitter - and yet in my infinite wisdom I decided to ignore all of them and head round the corner to Merchant's Tavern, somewhere that had been vaguely on my radar since opening day all the way back in... well a long time ago, anyway.

I probably should have read something into the fact that none of my followers suggested it when given the opportunity, but then Twitter - and foodies in general... and alright yes, myself included - does have a habit of completely forgetting about anywhere that's been open for more than six months and I did genuinely want to go, given the connections with Angela Hartnett (it's her partner Neil Borthwick who runs the place) and how reliable her places have been in the past. So that was that. Surely it can't be that bad?

Well, no, it wasn't. This is one of those times when a restaurant blogger either needs a place to be more exciting and accomplished, or more of a complete disaster so make a better story to write up. But the sad (for me) fact is, Merchant's Tavern is neither bad restaurant nor a brilliant one; it's just a solid, mid-range, faintly dull way of spending your money on lunch in Shoreditch, certainly no worse than a lot of its neighbours but paling into complete transparency next to world-class joints such as the Clove Club, mere steps away.

Snacks were probably the best parts of the meal. Salt cod beignets were fluffy and fresh, with a lovely clean flavour and seasoned well.

...and although the "Crispy pork, Asian pickles" was a little strange in practical terms as a "snack" - were we supposed to use our hands? Wrap a bit of pickle around a morsel of pork? Scoop as much as we could up with our forks? - the flavours were in fact good, particularly the pickles which had a good balance of sharp and sweet.

But mains were best described as forgettable. My own rump steak was livery and lean, barely better than chain pub standard, with a mash that needed a lot more salt and dairy to be able to describe itself as "creamed" and an annoying clichéd clump of watercress on the side. The flower of Tête de Moine on top of it all was, in of itself, lovely, but only served to highlight the lack of flavour and excitement elsewhere on the plate.

Chicken with almond and herb pesto was better, but suffered from an almost complete lack of seasoning and a lack of some kind of sauce in which to dip the fries. It's strange, I've always thought, how anywhere that can season its food properly always has salt and pepper on the table (that you never need), and anywhere that seasoning is an issue you have to embarrass yourself - and them - asking for it. With a lot of salt the chicken - and my mash - was better, but only better. Still not good.

Possibly if more of what had come before had been more enjoyable we may have had the idea to stick around for desserts; instead we asked for bill with the intention of sneaking out and chalking it all up to experience. But then, quite unexpectedly, we were brought a really lovely dessert anyway, two madeleines by way of petits fours which were fresh and moist and a frustrating indication that someone in the kitchen was paying attention after all.

Looking back now over some of the early reviews from Merchant's Tavern, I wonder if something has been lost over the years. Where was the pig's head "kremeski" with tarragon mayonnaise? Where was the Ogleshield toastie, or the pork neck meal for two? At some point, did they make a conscious decision to roll back into a bog-standard London gastropub or did it happen by accident as the effort involved in being innovative and unique was too much to maintain? Or maybe the Merchant's Tavern was simply never my kind of thing in the first place. Still, I've done it now. Better late than never.


Merchants Tavern Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday 16 December 2016

Restaurant of the Year 2016 - The Quality Chop House

There’s no point avoiding the obvious, so we may as well start with it. For anyone even remotely invested in the business of eating out in this country, anyone who appreciates sparkling service, great food, wonderful cheese, fine wine; anyone who’s involved in the restaurant trade either as a genial host or a grateful guest; certain events of 2016 have conspired to stun, depress and terrify. Looking back over the first few months of the year it seems like a different, kinder world, where even an enforced trip to the JRC Global Buffet in a car park in Croydon seems tinged with the warm glow of pre-apocalyptic naivety. I look back on those miserable plates of deep-fried brownfood eaten in a hospital waiting room with discarded chips trodden into the floor and think “what I wouldn’t give to be back there now”.

Well, not quite. But the whole business does make you look with new eyes upon the restaurants and bars, and food producers and importers of London and elsewhere, anywhere that clever, passionate people are doing the thing that they love and to the benefit of us all, and think that to lose even the tiniest bit of that would be a complete and utter tragedy. And I hope to the very ends of hell that I’m worrying unnecessarily and everything will be OK In The End but it’s going to take an awful lot of good news to stop me waking up screaming in the middle of the night never mind feeling positive again about the future.

So perhaps, in the meantime, before it either is OK In The End or we just start hurtling screaming towards the apocalypse, we should just make the most of what we have. Because what we do have, right now, in December 2016, for however long it lasts, is the most exciting, dynamic, exhilarating and rewarding food and drink scene on the entire planet and I’ve felt uniquely privileged to have been able to make the most of it. Here the places that have in the last twelve months, above all else, made me happy – not to mention relieved – to be alive.

Best Newcomer – Kiln / Padella / Smokestak (tied)

Look, I know it’s a bit of a copout to choose two never mind three equal winners in a single category, but the fact is I could not, even with a gun to my head, choose between these equally technically accomplished and sensationally exciting operations, and so I’m afraid a joint win it is. First to Kiln, who like so many of the very best restaurants, came up with a completely new twist on a familiar cuisine, adding sparkle and invention while keeping all of the flavours and traditions that make Thai food so special. The short, daily-changing menu is packed with unusual ingredients, and the no-reservations turnover means you can enjoy it all for far less money than you might expect.

Turning the same level of passion and skill to Italian food, Padella made London realise that however much we thought we’d had good pasta, up until this shiny, marble-decked spot opened in Borough Market in April, we really, really hadn’t. The whole menu is a joy, as is the experience of ordering it, but you’d have to have a heart made of stone not to fall instantly head-over-heels for the pici cacio & pepe, a minimalist masterpiece of stark, pepper-spiked beauty.

And finally Smokestak, who proved that there’s no style of cuisine that can’t be saved from the dumbing-down effect of chains and supermarket shelves given a true pit-crafter’s eye. Their brisket is the supreme example of its kind, marbled with fat and with a dark, complex bark, and worth the journey alone. But further unusual delights lurk in the rest of the menu, such as the mushrooms on beef dripping toast which is already gathering a fan club of its own.

Best Outside of London – The Royal Oak, Paley St (special mention the Sticky Walnut group)

Outside the “anything-goes” culture of central London (and with a few notable exceptions elsewhere in the country that exist in their own creative bubble), restaurants often have a very difficult job to do in balancing cutting-edge cuisine – and all of the time and effort and expense that entails – with the demands of a local audience. This is why places such as Sticky Truffle in Chester and its sister restaurants in Heswall and Manchester (and soon – joy! – Liverpool) are so crucial for the future dining health of the nation, because they tread that fine line between value, quality and accessibility and prove that when all those things are right, people will pay for it. And so a very honourable mention goes to Gary Usher and his teams up in the North West, from which I hope and expect you’ll be hearing a lot more in the coming months.

But while Sticky Walnut is the local restaurant everyone wishes they had, and could have, the Royal Oak is the kind of place that is necessarily a one-off. Yes, in true local restaurant style the menu is welcoming and accessible, with things like Scotch Eggs and pork chops and triple-cooked chips meaning there are few people with a working digestive system that couldn’t find something to enjoy. But what’s hard to accurately convey using mere blog posts is just how perfect everything is that they set their mind to, from the service, the surroundings of this ancient building in the Berkshire countryside, to – of course – the food, every bit of which you’d happily order again given the first opportunity. Even the journey to get to it (a combination of unreliable trains and rather expensive cabs in most cases) just puts the reward of eating there into sharper relief.

Runner up – the Holborn Dining Rooms

Before you get trapped in a fruitless Google search, let me stop you – I have never given the Holborn Dining Rooms its own blog post. This is a terrible omission, and they certainly more than deserve one, but I do have an excuse. The thing is, the HDR is right next to the office, and rather than make one or two comprehensive visits with my camera like I’d do to most restaurants, I have visited this grand dining room with its phalanx of helpful staff countless times over the last couple of years, from anything so simple as a bowl of soup to the latest and greatest of chef Calum Franklin’s creations.

Because this is no normal hotel restaurant. True, they serve an enticing, elegant menu of modern British dishes, from dressed Cornish crab and native oysters to an award-winning Scotch egg and a rich, buttery chicken & girolles pie. They do all these things with style and a smile, alongside fine wines and (with the help of Scarfe’s Bar next door) a very comprehensive spirit collection. But this is the Rosewood, the classiest of classy five-star hotels, and we’re in the middle of London, so you’d expect them to have spent a bit of money on the place.

What sets the Holborn Dining Rooms apart are the side projects that chef Calum occasionally embarks upon, and announces to the world via his Instagram feed. What first had my jaw dropping to the floor was a grouse pithivier that appeared as an off-menu “special request” in August, and you’ll have to take my word it tasted every bit as good as it looked, complex and powerfully gamey, with a meaty Madeira jus that could bring you to tears. Then, in early December, his Christmas pâté en croûte appeared, a breath-taking work of pastry genius, an entire posh Christmas dinner containing turkey and bacon around a sage and onion stuffing centre, a truly astonishing thing. To do this kind of work under any conditions would be impressive; to fit them around his full-time job as head chef of a busy all-day five-star hotel kitchen is utterly staggering, and deserves every bit of recognition that will surely come his way.

Restaurant of the Year 2016 – The Quality Chop House

Quality Chop House was always in the running for the top prize, as anyone who’s ever eaten there will understand. It is one of London’s leading examples of the restaurant craft, a classy and comfortable spot a few steps away from the foodie hub of Exmouth Market that makes the most of its historic setting and gorgeous period detail (it’s been a restaurant for the best part of 150 years) with warm and attentive service and the kind of menu that you want to take home and frame.

Quality Chop specialise in game, and while supply of the most interesting stuff can be – necessarily – erratic, if you have even the slightest interest in this country’s incredible bounty of feathered food, this should be your first port of call. Woodcock, snipe, mallard, teal, grouse (obviously), diver (a new one on me, pictured above, like mallard but with a more powerful flavour), partridge, pheasant, you name it – if it has a beak and you can eat it, it’s made an appearance on the QCH menu at some point, always cooked perfectly, served with God’s Own chicken liver pâté, bread sauce with delicate, greaseless potato crisps, and various other delightful accompaniments.

Of course, it’s not all about the game. Their seafood is top-notch too, a crab and Jerusalem artichoke dish being particularly knockout on a recent visit, and I’ve heard their white truffle risotto is a thing of wonder. With so much invention and risk-taking going on, it’s inevitable that some dishes will end up noble failures – I still shudder from the memory of a cod chitterlings dish from a couple of years back, though quite why I ordered fish guts and then complained about being given fish guts is perhaps an issue for my therapist. But where else would even attempt a dish this mad? It’s all part of the place’s slightly eccentric English charm.

So far so excellent, and certainly one of London’s greatest restaurants, no question. But why the best? Well perhaps little more than in these deeply troubling times I find myself increasingly looking for restaurants to make me feel settled and welcome as well as serving incredible food, where I can do old fashioned things such as book a table at a particular time, and not have to queue up in the rain or have it wrestled back off me before I’ve finished my post-dessert brandy. Quality Chop is the kind of place where you want to spend all day, but crucially it’s also the kind of place where you can spend all day, working your way through that extraordinary menu, cossetted by fine wines and capable staff and gradually sinking into a boozy afternoon coma as if I were an elderly patient in a nursing home.

As a final example of how highly I regard the place, I took a small group of friends there for my birthday. They had a “game-hung chicken” menu on special that day, which turned out by general consensus to be one of the most brilliant things any of us had eaten this year. Decadent chicken consommé poured into fine china, fluffy bread rolls made with schmaltz, a very clever terrine made with pressed chicken skins topped with a roast heart, it was all utterly brilliant. A highlight of the year. So here is my thank-you, Quality Chop House, and expect to see me darkening your doors many times more over the next 12 months.

Oh, and one more thing. The confit potato. ‘Nuff said.

So that was 2016, and yes, some of it was bone-chillingly terrifying but still, plenty of it was lovely, and always amidst the doom and gloom there are good people doing good things who deserve our appreciation (and custom) more than ever. As long as there are good restaurants there are good times to be had, and I’m buggered if I’m going to let the collapse of liberal western democracy and impending global nuclear war spoil it any time soon. So chin up, best foot forward and until it all collapses around our ears let’s make the most of it. Because when it’s all over and I’m queuing up at the pearly gates the least I want to be able to say is that I had a bloody good dinner.

Monday 12 December 2016

Cheese and Biscuits on Tour - Baja California and the Valle de Guadelupe, Mexico (part 2)

The wineries of Day Three of the Valle de Guadalupe trip conspired to somehow be yet more startling. First of the day (after a brief sidestep to sleepy Guadalupe village to pick up some handmade wooden toys to keep baby Daisy occupied during the forthcoming wine-fest) was Adobe Guadalupe, another outfit specialising mainly in high-end reds hovering around the US$30 mark.

The tasting was relaxed and very enjoyable, and the wines suitably silky smooth, but Adobe is almost as well known in the area for its Aztec horse breeding programme, and its food truck serving interesting Mediterranean-Mexican fusion dishes such as this “Picosito” of beef tongue, prawns and potatoes. Plus even without the gorgeous wines and fine foods, it would be impossible not to enjoy the time spent in this fragrant Mediterranean garden as the horses ran about in the nearby fields.

Decantos Vinicola was perhaps the single most impressive facility of the entire trip, and there was some serious competition on that front. Situated high up on the northern side of the Valle, with extraordinary views over the nearby vineyards and down towards Guadelupe village, this monolithic modernist edifice, with acres of steel and glass contrasting with organic details such as a tasting bar made from varnished driftwood, is a true temple to winemaking. Their claim to fame is that the whole winemaking process is powered by nothing more than gravity, with no mechanical pumping, and so the various stages of the process happen at different elevations. Which I’m sure is all very clever but mainly means you look down on the wine vats from viewing galleries at ground level, turning the whole thing into a special kind of theatre.

Back down the valley and to another modernist masterpiece, Vinos Emeve. So new they were still installing the spot lighting when we arrived, here we eschewed the usual tasting flight and instead ordered two glasses of a Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier blend called Isabella, which had been specifically recommended by the lovely people at Adobe. It was stately and refined, and tasted all the better for the surroundings.

I worry about repeating myself, but in all honesty it felt like each next spot on the trip was more impressive than the last. And if you were ever tempted to take the superb wines, breathtaking views, engaging service and architectural marvels for granted, there’d be some extra wonderful twist around the corner, such as the Conchas de Piedra seafood bar overlooking the Casa de Piedra vineyard. Run by Drew Deckman, the chef whose restaurant we’d eaten at the night before, this beautiful open-plan kitchen and bar was in fact the only place where we tried sparkling wine the whole trip (the very nice and crisp Espuma de Piedra), which is just as well as I can think of nothing better to serve with the selection of Baja oysters that they offer from the daily menu. Oh yes, and the dressed local clam was great, too.

That evening, our dinner was at Finca Altozano, from our favourite Baja chef Javier Plascencia. We’d been to his high-end Tijuana spot Mision 19 a number of times, and never had less than a brilliant time, so we felt in safe hands in this mid-range bar and grill towards the centre of the Valle. The food was – as we’ve come to expect from this man – superb, leaning towards charcoal-roasted meats and fish but always with the Plascencia-style nods to international Meditteranean such as this plate of local mushrooms and a lovely soft baguette. A New York Strip steak was, as you can see, cooked beautifully with a great thick salty char containing soft, pink flesh inside. If you’re ever in this part of the world and have a chance to eat at any of his places (there’s a good number dotted around San Diego and northern Baja), just go for it. You won’t be disappointed.

It was the perfect end to the trip. In fact, it wasn’t quite the end, not yet, but I’m going to call it the end because it was the last place in the Valle de Guadalupe and I’m going to call it the end so we can end on a high note, because after we left the safety of our beloved Valle and returned to the Real World, well, things went downhill slightly.

There’s every chance you’re the kind of person who would take somewhere like Popotla in your stride, laugh off the hustlers and hawkers hassling you into their restaurants, enjoy the ear-splitting din from the enforced “entertainment”, make the most of what was a fairly grim-looking tray of deep-fried mystery seafood, and come away with your sanity intact. But I’m afraid I’m not one of those people. Popotla “Fishing Village” was my own personal nightmare; stressful, garish, smelly and – horror of horrors – cash only, and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was also surprisingly chilly, an unusual dense sea mist shrouding the place in dampness and providing an extra level of creepy end-of-the-pier weirdness. It was about as far from the refined, relaxed Valle de Guadalupe as you could go in the space of an hour, and made the forthcoming 4-hour wait in the Tijuana border crossing seem like a blessed relief in comparison. My advice is do not go to Popotla.

But I said I’d end on a high note and I will. I got the impression that the Valle de Guadalupe is on the cusp of serious international fame, yet we caught it at that magical moment where everything is ready – the stunning wineries, the wonderful restaurants – but is not yet overwhelmed with visitors or the kind of low-rent tourist tat (I’m looking at you, Puerta Nuevo and Popotla) that inevitably come when such fame finally lands. Beautiful, charming and so very easy to enjoy at every moment, it’s the kind of place in which you could easily spend weeks and yet still be discovering brand new vineyards and asadors every day, tucked away from public view on the dusty backroads that snake either side of the valley. It’s a rare and special place, and my only reservation about telling you about it is that I hope it doesn’t change too much when the word gets out. But when has that ever stopped me before?