Tuesday 31 May 2016

Frenchie, Covent Garden

Last week, impulsively and recklessly and almost certainly against medical advice, I had two quite different (and not insubstantial) French meals in the space of a single day. The evening dinner was at Club Gascon in Smithfield market, and I'm afraid was not my kind of thing at all - a fussy and emotionless series of provincial Michelin-baiting French dishes, authentic insofar as the last time I ate in a Michelin-starred provincial French restaurant it was every bit as fussy and emotionless and this, but still not an experience I enjoyed. I won't go into too many details, but briefly though the house bread and a couple of the seafood courses were fine, a pile of weak tomato mush balanced on a complely impractically-designed silver spoon does not make for a particularly inspiring start to a meal, and dessert of apricots and almond ice cream came scattered with garden peas. No, I don't know why either. Pictures are here if you want to see for yourself.

But while Club Gascon shows the influence of Michelin at its most invidious, perhaps there is still a place in our fair city for high-end French gastronomy that has ambition for Red Guide accolades without losing sight of what tastes good. Step forward Frenchie, the London outpost of a wildly popular Parisian bistro run (this is getting complicated now) by someone who used to work with Jamie Oliver at his Fifteen restaurant. Could they pull off the treble of being French, Fine Dining and fun?

Well, by and large, yes they can. The menu, at lunchtime at least, is accessible and unpretentious, not exactly bargain basement but with the option of having two courses for £24.50 instead of three for £28, and with a tempting list of Modern European dishes that make obvious use of top UK ingredients such as Clarence Court eggs and Cornish pollock. Service was enthusiastic and friendly, and the room unexpectedly beautiful (I've seen pictures of the Paris place, it looks like a branch of Pret), with a grand marble-topped bar backdropped with glittering rows of interesting spirits.

And, as you might hope if not always expect in this part of town, the food pretty much lived up to the promise of the room. Perhaps a warm bacon scone is a bit of a strange thing to start a meal with but it came highly recommended and was very nice indeed, moist inside and with a lovely tacky glaze, paired with some Cornish clotted cream.

Starter proper was a burrata of sorts, generous in size and flavour, with a fantastically powerful pea pesto and soft summer herbs. I nearly broke my back teeth on some brick-strong toasted bread of some kind, but even despite that I could enjoy it so it must have been good.

My main was only slightly less impressive; a good big fillet of pollock with a good, dry, crisp skin made up for vaguely lacklustre chunks of vegetables and succulent greenery. A frothy foam tied it all together (there's that Michelin star in the bag, then) and a few leaves of lemon verbena added a nice citrus note. Obviously pollock is never going to be the most interesting fish in the world but it's sustainable and looks the part and it was at least cooked well.

This being lunchtime, and mindful of the eight or so courses I had looming in the evening, I skipped dessert. And perhaps £31 is quite a chunk to pay for two and a bit courses and no booze but I was still quite impressed by Frenchie - they're doing far, far more things right than they're doing wrong, and I'll probably go back, if only to remind myself that French food isn't all about star-chasing and stuffiness.

Speaking of which, later that day a friend texted me a link to a tweet by a certain Twitter account tied to our tyre-making friends:

At first, my reaction - like your own I'm sure - was "how embarrassing, what an idiot". But after a few moments I remembered a man dining alone near me at the bar at Frenchie, smartly dressed in a suit and staring disapprovingly as I took a couple of photos on my compact camera. This being Covent Garden I was hardly the only person taking photos of my lunch but there was something about the way I was being noticed that made me even more keen to pay up and get out.

Now, perhaps I'm being hugely paranoid and the Michelin account was talking about a completely different "fairly well-known food blogger" out for lunch in central London that day. But even so, it surely says far more about the extra-large portion of triple-cooked chips on Michelin's shoulder that they should see fit to project such behaviour and sneer disapprovingly about it while staying suspiciously silent on location and detail. In short, it seems to be a bit, well, made up, doesn't it?

Anyway, next time I book lunch (anonymously in this case, at least until my credit card came out) I'll be sure to try not to offend any Michelin inspectors picking their way glumly through yet another free meal and leave the the matter with Gary Usher, owner of Sticky Truffle bistro in Chester, who articulates my thoughts far better than I ever could:


Frenchie  Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Portland, Fitzrovia

People often ask me for restaurant recommendations. This is fine; telling people where to eat is, after all, what I do. And though the existence of my app (still only £2.99 from the App Store) has helped this process immesurably, and guided thousands (probably) of people towards thousands of lovely meals, occasionally the set of criteria I am given creates an impossible task.

"We want somewhere super cheap", they'll say, "but serving great food. And we want to be able to book." And whilst such places theoretically exist, I'm afraid that after ten years living and dining in the capital I can state fairly confidently there aren't many of them. The battle between these three competing factors, of budget, quality and speed (ie. not having to queue) is one that every potential London diner has to grapple with, and there really aren't any easy answers. The dilemma is summed up quite neatly with this graphic a friend found on Instagram the other day:

A photo posted by @topshelfextracts on

You want exciting food for not much money? Then get in the queue at Tayyabs or Bao. Don't want to queue? Fine, feel free to book a table at Gymkhana or Kitty Fisher's, but you'll pay for it. And if you're really not that bothered about quality but just want somewhere cheap and quick? Burger King awaits your custom. I'm generalising hugely, of course, but hopefully you get my point.

Portland is a restaurant unashamedly in the "not cheap" section of the above graph, and there's nothing wrong with that providing you have the requisite "Great" food to go with your bookable ("Fast") tables. The problem in this case is that despite the food often being imaginative, and occasionally memorable (albeit in some cases entirely for the wrong reasons) I couldn't find enough to enjoy about it overall to justify the "not cheap" prices. But let's start at the beginning.

I believe this was described by our (very efficient and attentive) waiter as some kind of cod brandade, although it didn't have the taste or texture of any brandade I'd ever eaten before. Shiny and slimy, with the strange uniform texture of melted blancmange, it had no discernible fish flavour and in fact little flavour of any kind at all. The home made potato crisps were nice though.

House "miso" sourdough and whipped whey butter was almost the highlight of the entire meal. Apparently until very recently Portland bought their bread in; the current offering is the result of many months of testing and refining their own recipe. And it really shows - I've barely had a better loaf anywhere in the UK; perhaps only Hedone in London and the Baltic Bakehouse in Liverpool have a comparable mastery over the sourdough form. I won't go so far as to say that it alone made the entire trip worthwhile, but it certainly made a lot of what else that happened a lot more palatable.

"White truffle and Gruyere macarons" was the first worrying indication that Portland are happy to play fast and loose with accepted notions of savoury and sweet. Because whilst warm melted Gruyere and white truffle is very much a marriage made in heaven, slapping them inside a sweet macaron and calling it a "snack" doesn't do much for me other than make me call into question the chef's mental health.

Fortunately, chicken skins with liver parfait were much more straightforward and infinitely more enjoyable, smooth and delicately crunchy in all the right places and with the addition of pickled grapes helping to ensure the various forms of chicken fat didn't get too one-note. Nice presentation, too.

Squid toast with brown crab and pickled green asparagus performed the remarkable task of taking two famously powerful seafood flavours - crab and squid - and somehow combining them into a dish that tastes very definitely of neither. And though there's nothing wrong with asparagus and mayonnaise on toast as such, I can't be blamed for expecting something more.

A similar lack of the good stuff plagued this next course of lobster, red miso and daikon, in which a thick roll of pungent daikon completely overwhelmed a hilariously miniscule portion of crustacean. I realise this dish is only £4 on the A La Carte menu and was never likely to involve a lot of lobster, but it would have been nice to taste some.

And yet this dish, of halibut and leek with toasted hazelnuts, came as a reminder that not all of Portland's talents are aimed in the wrong direction. The combination of the beautiful meaty tranche of perfectly cooked fish, the creamy leek sauce and the crunchy toasted nuts was utterly irresistible, a classic set of flavours - dairy, leeks, fish - that have always worked together and always will. If only a bit more of the menu had the nerve to be this familiar.

Then we were back in Weirdsville with a whole enoki mushroom, its tentacles writhing and slipping in the mouth like a terrifying deep sea creature, topped with leaves of purple wood sorrel. You may have noticed that at this stage fully three of the dishes had come topped with a layer of wood sorrel. I'm not sure why.

Arctic char (a fish; no, I'd never heard of it either) was, like the halibut before it, beautifully cooked and perfectly complimented by some broad beans and a rich mussel sauce. Maybe it didn't quite need the chunk of pungent turnip but it was still a lovely thing, fresh and vibrant and seasonal. Clearly Portland's strengths lie in their treatment of large chunks of white fish.

The Challans duck itself here was fine; not swoon-inducingly amazing, just fine. It could have done with a bit more seasoning but the flesh was nice and pink and the skin had been rendered nicely to leave not too much fat. Other than that though, there wasn't much on the plate of interest - blobs of Roscoff onion purée was rather too sweet and cloying for my liking, and the sauce that should have tied it all together was far too thin - in texture and flavour - to do its job properly.

The other main course, monkfish with sprouting broccoli, went down much better. Fish perfectly cooked and seasoned, sprouting broccoli adding earth and crunch, and a little blob of seaweed purée tasting pleasantly of the sea. Another good fish course.

And then. And then we were served strawberries, meringue and avocado. That's not a typo - it hasn't been autocorrected from apple or apricot. Someone at Portland thought putting strawberries, shards of meringue and bleedin' avocado in the same bowl would make for a quirky and enjoyable dessert. Well, they were wrong. It was like finding the remnant's of yesterday's Mexican dinner buried under an Eton Mess and was entirely repulsive. In the name of God, Portland, why?

So, up and down, then. I can't deny that amidst the eccentricities and mis-steps and downright avocado-shaped pratfalls there were a number of interesting bits and pieces. But it's also hard to escape the harsh truth that for this kind of money (we spent £235 between three people and hardly had much booze) there are more reliably enjoyable places; places that favour flavour over experimentation and where you're very unlikely to be served broccoli spongecake or, I don't know, pea and mince trifle. So thank you for a deeply unpredictable albeit entertaining evening, Portland, but in the end you weren't my cup of tea.


Portland Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday 12 May 2016

Café Murano, St. James

London has never been and most likely will never be the kind of place where you can simply walk into the nearest restaurant and expect to be served an enjoyable and fairly-priced meal. Handled correctly, this city can be a foodie paradise, but it's always going to be lots of other things as well - a tourist hotspot, a center of commerce and finance, home to nine million people of all different preferences and persuasions - and not everyone has the same priorities (or standards) when it comes to eating out. For everywhere selling great food for a reasonable price there are a dozen Frankie & Bennys, Cafe Rouges and Garfunkels waiting to chew up and spit out anyone foolish enough not to have done their restaurant homework. It is easy to eat well in London, but it's not always obvious.

In a town so liberally strewn with potential traps and pitfalls, then, a little knowledge goes a long way, and finding myself in St James of a weekday evening, hungry and slightly out of my comfort zone (St James is out of most people's comfort zone I imagine, unless you happen to be one of the cast of Made in Chelsea and/or a minor royal) I fired up the app to see what was going on. The Ritz - well, possibly if someone paid off my mortgage for me before my next credit card bill arrives but that seemed less than likely; Gymkhana - tempting, but again hardly a budget option and I was planning on taking the parents there next week anyway; and Kitty Fishers - bit of a walk with no guarantee this wildly popular spot would have any room for us anyway once we got there. So, what to do? It was then I realised I was stood fiddling with my iPhone outside Café Murano, which had plenty of room at the bar, and deciding I'd rather spend the rest of the night actually eating rather than deciding where to eat, went inside.

And I'm very glad I did, because what a lovely place this is, comfortable and friendly thanks to an attractive long bar and charming front of house who put us very much in the mood for enjoying ourselves even before the Aperitivo di Maggio (Bobby's gin, Pimm's, grapefruit juice, sage & orange bitters) arrived. And needless to say, once they had arrived we enjoyed ourselves a whole lot more.

House focaccia, pleasantly moist and tacky was the next sign that we were in safe hands. I always appreciate when restaurants go the extra mile to bake their own bread, even when the results are less than brilliant; this was top stuff though, with the perfect texture for soaking up the excellent peppery olive oil it was served with.

A plate of salami also demonstrated some intelligent purchasing decisions. So often in London, Italian food is a poor facsimile of the original, with all the form and colour of the real thing but none of the flavour. You will, I'm sure, have seen a charcuterie board like this in umpteen "Italian" restaurants in town, looking fine until you try some of it and are rewarded with the taste of cold fat and slimy supermarket ham. Not so here - this was top pig product, moist salami and lovely thick curls of marbled (speck? [edit: I'm reliably informed it's coppa]) ham. And the carta di musica (love that name) wasn't just there for texture, being gently seasoned and with a nice flavour.

Asparagus, Parma ham and parmesan is a familiar combination of ingredients, but Italian food is all about familiarity - the trick is in the use of the very best ingredients, and combining them sensitively. In this case, crunchy, glossy asparagus, more excellent ham and generous shavings of good parmesan.

"Spring Minestrone" is about as good as vegan food gets - that is to say, expertly balanced and seasoned, with notes of fresh spring herbs, but just missing that extra depth of flavour you'd get from animal stock. Perhaps criticising minestrone soup for being minestrone soup is a stupid thing to do, but it occurred to me as I was eating it so I'm mentioning it to you now. I still liked it.

I ordered "Tagliolini, sprouting broccoli, lemon & homemade ricotta" with the glorious memory of a recent lunch at Padella in mind, where fresh pasta, lemon and ricotta were combined to knockout effect. I still enjoyed the Tagliolini at Café Murano - the pasta itself was particularly nice, all bouncy and firm and full of life - even if overall the dish didn't have quite as much going for it as the other place. The ricotta was a little sloppy and the seasoning slightly subdued, but there are still worse ways of spending your money than on a plate of nice fresh home made pasta.

Pitch-black squid ink cavatelli, with clams, Datterini tomatoes and samphire was more impressive, a dish that could have been airlifted from Sicily it felt so authentically vibrant. Imported Italian tomatoes were also used in a side salad, flecked with crunchy sea salt and drizzled with Balsamic vinegar. All of it the kind of thing you'd happily order again and again.

As I've said, London may never be the kind of town where you can pick a restaurant at random and be entitled to expect a great meal. But sometimes, when I find myself chancing upon an unassuming Italian bistro in St James (albeit one with a bit of a pedigree) it feels like every day we're getting a step closer to that ideal. There are loads of great places to eat out in London, and despite all the rubbish and tourist traps and ripoff joints there are just enough spots like Café Murano to remind us that, all said and done, we have it pretty good here. Don't you agree?


Café  Murano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato