Thursday 14 December 2017

Restaurant of the Year 2017 - The Holborn Dining Room

Well, we survived. This time in 2016 I was typing with trembling fingers in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump, unsure of what it meant for the health of the UK's restaurant industry and the continued survival of the human species generally. I still don't know exactly how things will play out (if you do, for the love of God let someone in authority know), but though I still do occasionally wake up screaming at night, cutting the TV news out of my morning routine and blocking anyone with a flag next to their name on Twitter has helped with the panic attacks. I can thoroughly recommend doing both.

And to be fair, so far - so far - life appears to continue somewhat as normal. From the pace, and quality, of new restaurants appearing over the last twelve months you wouldn't know Armageddon in any form looms in the next couple of years, and whether this is simply rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic or a genuine belief amongst restaurateurs that things will indeed be OK In The End, well, the effect is the same - lots of genuinely brilliant places to eat, in London and all up and down the country. So, without further ado...

Best Newcomer (London) - Xu

A huge amount of competition for Best Newcomer this year - again - so I've decided to split the category into inside and outside the M25. Runner-up mentions must go to Jamavar, a swanky restaurant in Mayfair which continues to push the possibilities of high-end Indian cuisine and serves food of such exquisite flavour and precision that it almost makes you forget the prices you're paying for it. Also, just nipping in at the end of 2017 is Parsons, which manages to be some kind of platonic ideal of the seafood restaurant. Great ingredients, treated well, served at a decent mark-up. Nothing much not to love.

But overall, the best new restaurant needs not to merely be good, but groundbreaking. Xu serves the kind of food I'd not seen before in London - high-end Taiwanese - and is as good as ambassador for it as you can possibly imagine. Flavours are bold, but balanced, and full of interesting twists and turns; presentations are as careful and geometric as architecture, colourful and clever; and you'll enjoy it all in a cosy, clubby space that makes the most of its small Chinatown footprint. I'm baffled that not everyone loves the place; maybe they just don't deserve to be happy.

Best Newcomer (outside London) - Where The Light Gets In

If someone had told me when I was growing up in North Merseyside/West Lancashire - a part of the country that could charitably be described as "beige" - that there would one day exist there a Michelin-starred fine dining modern British restaurant in the l'Enclume vein, set in acres of kitchen gardens and with its own cheese and charcuterie rooms, I'd have assumed you were as detatched from reality and sense as the customers I regularly served at the Ormskirk Abbey National during my teens. But there Moor Hall is anyway, and I somewhat suspect despite its location rather than because of it, it's utterly wonderful.

But wonderful though Moor Hall is, there's a bright little spot in Stockport that somehow managed to upstage even that temple of gastronomic achievement. Where The Light Gets In is everything that's good, and decent, and rewarding about eating out in this country, all in one beautiful package. The food served is exciting and technically proficient without being difficult; they wear their environmental waste-free credentials on their sleeves without being preachy or - crucially - without the product suffering at all, in fact if anything it seems to make more sense that certain ingredients crop up in various different forms throughout the menu. But mainly it's just impossible to sit down for dinner here and not have the time of your life.

Best Restaurant 2017 - The Holborn Dining Rooms

First, some runners up. I split the newcomers category into London/Outside London mainly because I wanted the excuse to list more places, but in all honesty there's no point any longer in pretending that Not London needs any kind of advantage any more. Anyone who's ever eaten at any of the restaurants immediately above, or at the glorious Parkers Arms serving ingredients gathered from the surrounding fields, or the Rat Inn with their giant, generous hug of a menu of seasonal beauty, or indeed the magical Coomebshead Farm with its mangalitza pigs and rural idyll, will conclude that these are just as deserving of national attention as anywhere down south. We are all the richer for their existence, but residents of Lancashire and Northumberland and Cornwall in particular should be intensely proud of these gems on their doorstep.

And so too at l'Enclume, which is still the standard-bearer of modern British food, and where far from settling for their two Michelin stars and international fame have expanded their test kitchen Aulis into London, expanded their horticulture and animal husbandry operations up in Cartmel, and drawn up plans to have a kind of California-style outdoor BBQ operation in the middle of their farm (can you imagine how much fun that will be).

But as much fun as I've had at these places, my overall favourite restaurant of 2017 is closer to home. Closer to home, and closer to work - about 30 seconds walk from the office, in fact. You'll have heard all about Calum Franklin's wonderful pastry work, and I imagine your Instagram feeds have, like mine, been enriched with his mahogany brown pâté en croûtes and gleaming game pithiviers. You probably feel like you know his work inside out, even if you've never been to Holborn. But there are two points worth making while I have your attention.

Firstly, these extraordinary examples of savoury pastry work taste even better than they look - this is by no means a purely visual endeavour. The jelly that binds the meat is packed full of flavour and dissolves in the mouth to silky, porky heaven, and the ingredients (pork, duck, rabbit, whatever he thinks will work) are top notch. Secondly, while it's true that certain hotel staples that lurk on the menu are mainly to keep the tourists happy (the burger is a bit half-hearted), Franklin has gradually been shaping the menu to his own image over the years and there are some real non-pastry gems to be found now as well. Try the lobster thermidor tart, or the octopus, or the elderflower jelly dessert - all of which are outstanding, superb advertisements for British food both in that gleaming dining room and, via Instagram, the wider world.

While the grand Rosewood hotel on High Holborn has, it's true, had a lot of my custom this year because it's so handy, I suppose it could be argued that gave them something of an unfair advantage. On the other hand, the fact I go there so bloody often and have a consistently wonderful time (the staff are so friendly you'll want to invite them home for Christmas) is testament to just how impressive an operation this is. It's the most Cheese and Biscuits stress-tested restaurant in London, and I still look forward to going back every time. So, last year's runner up is this year's winner. And thoroughly deserved, I'm sure you'll agree.

So, where do we go from here? Time was I'd use this opportunity to make some grand prediction about the future of London dining, or what crazy new trend or fusion experiment I hope to see the next time the Just Opened newsletter (subscribe here) drops in my inbox. I have a wishlist of places I need to get round to - Clipstone, Westerns Laundry, even Le Gavroche still eludes me. And I'd like to visit a few more super-gastropubs up in Lancashire; the Freemasons at Wiswell, and the Swan at Fence to name but two.

But you know what? In the current climate I have a horrible feeling planning anything much at all would be tempting fate; I'll settle for continued survival. So I'll just say thanks to all of you for reading, and following, and sharing, and making whatever contribution - large or small - to the joy of eating out in the UK, for however long it may continue. Happy Christmas.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

The Lady Mildmay, Newington Green

Leaping around from one astonishingly brilliant new restaurant to the next, as I'm lucky enough to do as a food blogger, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that actually, London isn't just stuffed to the brim with great restaurants at every conceivable price point. True, we've made huge leaps forward in the quality, number and variety of places to eat in the ten-and-a-bit years I've been writing this blog, but the continued existence (and, *shudder*, growth) of places like Frankie & Benny's or JRC Global Buffet on our nation's high streets is just something that isn't going to change any time soon.

And maybe it doesn't have to. Yes, the residents of Madrid or San Sebastian can point to the fact that you can just duck into the nearest tapas joint and be pretty certain of a decent feed, but what about if you want a pho, or a hot pot, or an egg hopper? I used to get annoyed about the depressing success of awful lowest-common-denominator chain restaurants but perhaps they're nothing more than the price we have to pay for the incredible variety and innovation going on elsewhere.

Also, I can't help noticing that even aside from the usual places that get all the attention, there has been a noticeable improvement in the "average" (I don't mean that to sound disparaging but I suppose it is a bit) local restaurant or pub. Time was, a Sunday roast from anywhere that wasn't a notable gastropub or steakhouse would be a fairly uninspiring combination of boiled veg, packet gravy and overcooked beef, but a more discerning population means everyone's local has to up their Sunday game.

So to the Lady Mildmay in Newington Green, chosen for a friend's birthday lunch and - it's fair to say - not really on the radar of insufferable London food scenesters like me. And OK, it's not the Drapers, it's not Quality Chop, it's not even Blacklock who do an insanely great Sunday roast for £20 and has people falling over themselves for a table. But what it is is a very decent, generously portioned lunch for not a huge amount of money, in a lovely old Victorian pub in a very pretty part of London and I enjoyed it rather a lot.

Best of the roasts we tried was beef rump cap, pink and tender and served with a nice rich gravy. The Yorkshire pud had (I think) been made a little while in the past, and was doing a passable impression of a pud-shaped water biscuit, but it still wasn't horrible. Also say what you like about kale, but those frilly leaves really carry the gravy, and I'd much rather they were on the plate than not.

Cod and mash with leeks and parsley was so old school it could have come from a different century, but was actually cooked very well, with a nice crisp skin and good, defined, bright white flakes of fish. The butter content of the mash could have done with learning something from the French, but this was a minor point. Also, look at the amount of it - plenty for your £15.

Lamb was probably the most disappointing of the roasts, but even that wasn't too bad. I don't like the "pulled" shoulder presentation that seems to have gone around the city lately, and the gravy seemed thinner and less full of flavour than the beef's - the lamb itself was lovely and tender though. There was also chicken (or rather stuffed poussin), which I didn't try, but which seemed to go down well with those that ordered it. Oh, and a really decent cheese course, and some desserts which I completely forgot to take photos of, probably because we were chain-drinking bottles of red and more interested in enjoying ourselves than recording the moment.

Which is what Sundays should be about really - holing up in a handsome Victorian pub in North London while the snow falls outside, getting slowly but surely pissed on Languedoc and delaying the journey home until the Uber surge ends. Professional (ha!) detachment requires I mark our meal based on the objective quality of the meal, and so I will. But as afternoons go, I doubt I've had more fun in months, and I'm almost certain to be back. And in the end, there's hardly any greater compliment than that.


Thursday 7 December 2017

Parsons, Covent Garden

It's about this time of year that I start getting emails from magazines and websites asking for my food predictions for 2018. I have, to this date, never had a single one of my predictions come true, but that doesn't seem to stop people asking; perhaps it's more about testing my imagination than my soothsaying abilities.

Anyway, this year, to avoid the inevitable embarassment of being completely and utterly wrong yet again, I decided to play it safer. With Brexit looming terrifyingly in the distance and London's hospitality industry already in collective terror over whether they'll even have the staff to open next week never mind once half their payroll gets deported, I thought investors would start looking to surer returns on their money, and instead of bankrolling the latest streetfood sensation (be it Korean-Burmese-Eskimo fusion paella or something really stupid) are more likely to want to see 2nd branches of existing successful ventures.

We've already seen the start of this in the city, where the brand-new and ludicrously flashy Bloomberg Arcade contains branches of Caravan, Vinoteca, Bleecker burger, Koya, Homeslice and A Wong; all excellent choices, certainly, but safe choices, proven money-spinners that bring their own audience.

The owners of 10 Cases on Endell Street could have done exactly that with their second restaurant. 10 Cases is, by anyone's standards, a lovely little place, serving rustic French food for not much money alongside a really interesting selection of wines. Another 10 Cases (in fact, "Another 10 Cases" would have been quite a good name) would, I'm sure, have been just as popular, and just as successful.

Instead, just over the road, they've opened Parsons, a seafood restaurant. A very good seafood restaurant. In fact, probably the best seafood restaurant I've had the pleasure of visiting for a very long time, somewhere that approaches the business of serving fish and shellfish alongside an intelligent wine list with such confidence and clarity you wonder why on earth it's taken until 2017 for someone to come up with it.

As with so many great ideas, the premise is shockingly simple - get hold of whatever fish and shellfish is best on the day, serve it simply and without fuss, and for a reasonable markup. This means that expensive stuff like langoustine and lobster is, well, expensive, but that you can also order cheaper fish for about the price of a pint of beer. And, crucially, whether the raw ingredients are premium or not, they're all treated incredibly well.

Take these sardines, £5.50 for the two, simply seasoned and grilled and served with a slice of lemon. The flesh pulled away from the bones beautifully, and had a fantastic meaty, umami-rich flavour. The best grilled sardines take me right back to childhood holidays in Spain, and to Calella de Palafrugell where we'd eat them at whichever beachfront restaurant had a free table. These did exactly that - and for about the same price (in fact probably less).

Langoustine were impeccably done - the warm tail flesh pulling out of the shell in one single bright-white piece, the claw meat soft and impossibly sweet. They came dressed in a yuzu-chilli dressing of some kind which livened the meat without overwhelming it - a nice, intelligent cheffy touch.

I had to order the lobster mash because, well, come on, you have to order something called "lobster mash" at least once in your life, even if just to say you've tried lobster mash. It was, in all honesty, not quite the divine experience I'd built myself up to expect but was very good nontheless, containing vast chunks of bouncy-fresh lobster and silky-smooth potato. Perhaps it just needed a bit more salt, or a greater amount of butter in the mash, but the bowl was still clean when I'd finished.

I appreciate that three dishes isn't a whole lot of evidence to hang an entire restaurant review, but experience tells me that if a place can cook this well once, they can cook it well many more times. And in fact, sneaking glances at dishes going out to other tables I could see that if nothing else the rest of the menu (which includes the odd nod to meat-eaters such as a steak tartare) certainly looks the part.

And you don't need to spend quite as much as I did, either. I notice that an entire crab is available for a measly £12 (cutely, hand-painted illustrations of seafood above the kitchen have prices marked next to them if they're in stock), meaning that at £16 the Parsons crab and chips combo (a control variable dish I've used to test many a seafood restaurant) comes in a whole lot cheaper than most other places in town, if not all of them.

So who knows what 2018 will hold, but whether we end the year on a high, or bartering jewellery for potatoes in Brexit-fueled armageddon, at least we had, for however brief a period, a seafood restaurant in Covent Garden so close to perfect as makes no odds. Hurry up and make the most of it.


Monday 30 October 2017

Pascere, Brighton

As you may have noticed, I'm a hopeless restaurant spod, and in common with many other hopeless restaurant spods my attitude towards any part of the world is inextricably linked with my experience of eating there. I love Bristol, for example, where Bell's Diner and the Lido and of course the annual Grillstock barbeque competition means memories of that beautiful city are always shining gold. I took a while to warm to Manchester (I am from Liverpool after all) but thanks to the French and Manchester House I look forward to trips there now as much as anywhere. Similarly Cornwall, and Yorkshire, and Lancashire, and anywhere that has fed me well - that's more or less all it takes to win me over. I mean, access by train helps but isn't essential.

Brighton, then, after a desperately disappointing meal at the Salt Room, had a lot of work to do. Just as I (perhaps unrealistically) idealise anywhere I've had a great meal, I'm also prone to dismiss anywhere that hasn't impressed, and I was ready to file the seaside town alongside Liverpool (trip to Wreckfish pending) and Winchester in the "must do better" pile.

Fortunately, there is as good reason to jump on the train down south (or in the case of this last weekend, the train then a bloody bus replacement service from Hayward's Heath), and it's a lovely friendly little bistro in the Lanes called Pascere. Small but perfectly formed, Pascere has about 20 seats downstairs and a handful more upstairs where there's an attractive "kitchen table" bar area. As far as I'm concerned, the smaller the restaurant the better - if I barely have to glance up to attract the attention of a member of staff, this is all to the good - and it's to Pascere's credit that tables are still nicely spaced out and the place feels airy and bright.

The menu is short, full of lots of attractive, exciting things that normal people want to eat, and remarkably good value considering the quality - and generosity - of cooking on display. Croquettes feature in a couple of guises, firstly these containing chicken, with a clever chicken 'powder' scattered over the top and a chicken skin mayonnaise beneath. Chicken three-ways, all of them good.

Next stone bass croquettes, strikingly darkened with squid ink with a similarly Vantablack mayo, had a perfect fish-potato mix (as in around 50/50) and also came with a dairy-free tartare of chopped sweet pickles and capers. They were also very nice, although this being 2017 they must suffer the reality of existing in a world where José Pizarro's chicken, and fish, croquettas are also available to buy. Still, at £6.50 for three you could hardly complain too much.

Also from the 'snacks' menu were these beautiful things - Portland crab tarts, containing a huge mound of sweet white crab meat and topped with a kind of bisque-y hollandaise. Another intelligent balance of texture, ingredient and seasoning.

And we hadn't even got to the starters yet. Baby squid suffered a little from overseasoning but was still an impressive bit of work, with a gentle parsley cream binding some noodly thin mushrooms, and topped with a very Rogan-esque (I'm sure they won't mind me saying) squid ink cracker. Underneath it all was a perfect bright green square of something else that tasted vaguely vegetal, but we couldn't work out exactly what it was. Looked nice, though.

Braised ox-cheek next, rolled up inside breadcrumbs, with pickled red cabbage. I think we'd liked to have seen a bit more of the advertised black pudding purée and, after two courses of croquettes, a little less breadcrumb, but this was probably just as much our fault as theirs. The little cubes of ox tongue were lovely, too - bouncy and salty with bags of flavour.

Both mains were more than up to the task. Roast duck, pink and juicy, came with a (-nother) breadcrumbed nugget of richly-flavoured leg meat and various bits of winter veg dressed in a nice dark jus. I'm not a fan of parsnip, so I'll recuse myself from criticising that element of the dish - suffice to say my chef friend loved it.

My own main course was an impossibly vast chunk of ox-cheek, tenderly cooked and beautifully textured, drenched in another addictive Bovril-y sauce and on a bed of pasta so delicate and wisper-thin that the beef seemed to float above it. I'm not ashamed to admit that thanks to the number - and size - of the preceeding courses I didn't quite manage to finish this, but what I ate was beautiful - my favourite in fact of all the dishes at Pascere.

We shared a dessert - a lemongrass mousse affair with mint meringue and passionfruit sorbet which was just as cleverly concieved and executed as everything that had come before. If some of the dishes at Pascere use too many ingredients, as arguably in this dessert and perhaps also the roast duck, it was never at the expense of fun and flavour. I'm looking for things to criticise because, well, that's my job - by anyone's standards these guys certainly know what they're doing.

Perhaps the most notable, and laudable, thing about Pascere is the overwhelming sense that these are a bunch of people with hospitality in their very bones. Yes, there were issues here and there with loading the table with ingredients, and an over-reliance on breadcrumbed nuggets of meat, but they could hardly be accused of laziness, of skimping on portion size or technique, of charging too much for too little. This charming place is doing almost everything that's required of a local restaurant, and much more besides, and deserves all of the praise and custom coming its way. Brighton should be very proud indeed to call it their own.


I was invited to Pascere

Wednesday 25 October 2017

Xu, Chinatown

Trishna, Gymkhana, Hoppers, Bubbledogs, Kitchen Table, Lyle's, Bao. If at least one of those restaurants isn't in your top 5 in London then you almost certainly haven't eaten at them yet, and in fact I'd go further - there will be a number of committed foodies in the capital whose top five spots are all taken by members of the above list. The JKS group is known not just for the astonishing quality of the places they manage but for the sheer variety, running from smart Indian to Sri Lankan via seasonal fine dining and Taiwanese street food. Everything they turn their hand to is in some way notable, unique and brilliant.

They are, in short, some of the finest restaurateurs the city has ever known. The closest contemporary comparison is Alan Yau, who also instinctively "got" what people wanted from a restaurant and had pockets deep enough to make his visions a reality, but there was always a sense, particularly at lower-end concepts like Busaba Eathai but also at flagship Hakkasan and certainly at latest Soho "Chinese gastropub" Duck and Rice that atmosphere and attitude came first, and food (an often distant) second.

Not so with JKS, and certainly not at Xu, where a gloriously opulent interior, all dark carved woods and plush, intimate booths, is merely the perfect setting for some of the most exciting and inventive Chinese/Taiwanese food to ever hit the capital. I'm intensely aware I'm on very shaky ground talking details, as my knowledge of high-end Taiwanese cuisine is only slightly more developed than my understanding of the rules of American Football, but I know good food when I taste it and this "tomato and smoked eel" was great, the soft cubes of fish sharpened by a commendably punchy tomato/chilli sauce, topped with crisp daikon for extra crunch.

Girolles vermicelli was no less interesting for being the vegetarian option, containing a well-seasoned mound of fresh mushies and nice defined glass noodles. I think there were squares of something else in there too - perhaps egg, although don't quote me on that. Look, I did warn you I wouldn't do very well with the descriptions.

The beef in "Numbing beef tendon" was sliced into neat flat circles, covered in Sichuan peppercorn-spiked chilli oil, and topped with various herbs and finely chopped spring onions. At its heart this was a smartened-up version of the "sliced beef in chilli oil" you may have enjoyed in your favourite Sichuan restaurant, only more subtle, more attractive and that much more rewarding.

Between the starters and mains we snuck in a snack from the main menu, "Xian Bing", pastry puffs containing robustly-flavoured pucks of aged pork and accompanied by a saucer of quite lovely vinegar. One of the highlights of a meal at Bao in the early days was a dressing of aged white soy sauce that came with the beef rump cap, and it's clear their attention to detail to sauces has been carried over to Xu. In fact, the sense of every element of every dish having been lovingly crafted and tested to perfection will be familiar to anyone who's ever eaten at Bao.

The only main that didn't completely knock us over was the seabass, so let's start with that. Though cooked perfectly, and certainly a generous portion, there was something surprisingly one-note and - dare I say it - boring about the dressing, both the inoffensive coriander (presumably) side and the sledgehammer punch of the chilli side, most of which we ended up scraping off. Still, as I say, the fish was good, and was all eaten.

Much better was Mapo Tofu, set in a thick, silky layer and dressed with a rich concoction of herbs, greens and spices. Though onstensibly the "vegetarian option", there was absolutely no sense that this dish compromised anything of the punch and power of the meaty dishes; in fact it made a case for being the best dish overall.

Well, perhaps apart from the beef. Oh lordy, the beef. I have to admit to a twinge of disappointment when this dish was placed on the table, as it looked quite far from the immaculately manicured row of sliced cow I'd been led to expect from press releases, and indeed the art on their own website. But that disappointment lasted no longer than the moment I placed one in my mouth. With a delicate crust from the grill, and a meltingly tender flesh blessed with just the right amount of aged funk, this was a supreme bit of beef cooking, impressive at any price point never mind as part of a £20 pre-theatre menu. Whoever their supplier is (I wouldn't be surprised if it's Warrens who they worked with at Bao), they should be very pleased indeed that their product has been given such a glorious showcase.

Desserts continued the theme of exhausting attention to detail at a seriously reasonable price point. "Ma Lai Cake" is a delicate sponge, steamed to order to a beautiful golden dome, alongside two cute pots of condensed milk and orange-spiked butterscotch. Perhaps these are eaten after every dinner in Taiwan, but I'd not seen one before and was delighted.

And it would be easy to raise your eyebrows at the fact that Xu don't make their own ice cream, until you learn that they get theirs from Gelupo Gelato from just around the corner, who make what most consider the best in the capital. Topped with a dense, salty slick of black sesame, this was a clean, clever and beautiful thing.

So yes, of course I loved it. I loved it the moment I walked through the door, through every carefully-considered, intelligently-constructed dish of fire and flavour, and I loved the bill at the end which at £42 a head with plenty to eat and drink is about as close to a bargain as you're going to find in central London these days. No, not everything was perfect, but even the bits I wouldn't order again were clearly made for the right reasons, and could have easily been someone else's favourites.

Another JKS restaurant, another triumph then. It would almost be possible to take umbrage at these irritating over-achievers, with each new venture better than the last and gathering armfuls of awards and accolades as they go. But for birthdays at Trishna, family meals at Gymkhana, drunken evenings at Bubbledogs and happy long lunches perched at the bar at Bao, I feel I owe these people so much of what I've enjoyed about eating out in London over the last decade, and I have nothing but gratitude for their considerable accomplishments. And now there's Xu, just the latest in a long list of reasons why London is safe in their hands.