Thursday 29 June 2017

Cowboy Star, San Diego

Surely one of the most glorious incarnations of the restaurant, if you are a normal functioning human and enjoy the consumption of red meat and powerful cocktails, is the US Steakhouse. The first place to go looking for these of course has always been, and remains, New York; in a city that knows how to eat better than almost anywhere else, and with a long and happy history of all the ancillary things that make a good steakhouse (slick, old-timey service, plush leather banquettes and the reasonable assumption that steaks should only be served in sizes of "half a cow" upwards), the examples there are the best in the world, and are rightly world famous - Luger's, Keens, the Old Homestead; names steeped in tradition and romance, bastions of civility and luxury in a fast-changing world.

But while New York set the template on how to serve steak, they don't have the monopoly on steak itself, and so it stands to reason that wherever people care about dry-aged, premium cow, and wherever the supply of such will allow it, you will find restaurants taking the cue from the big apple. Some areas take longer than others to catch up - London took its sweet time but now we have Goodman and Hawksmoor and Gillray's and so things are a lot better than they used to be - but with Southern California not being the first place that comes to mind when you think of steak, San Diego's steakhouse culture only really kicked into first gear with the opening in 2008 of Cowboy Star. Fortunately for San Diegans, Cowboy Star is pretty much the only steakhouse you'd ever need anyway.

Décor is a clever fusion of New York tradition - leather booths, open kitchen, nice white tablecloths - and California style (plenty of woodwork and nice high "warehouse-y" ceilings). It feels as serious as it should do for a place charging $50 a main, but with an easy atmosphere thanks to inordinately friendly and capable service (not nearly as much as a given as it once was in the US) matched with that ever-present bright Californian sun.

Everything we had was great. This may not make for a particularly inspiring read, but it is undoubtedly true, especially regarding the gin martini which was served ice cold in a frozen glass and met every single criteria of the perfect martini. There's absolutely no better way of beginning a steak dinner than with a dry martini, but there's always the danger that a lesser example (warm or watery or containing shards of ice) can spoil things. Nothing to worry about on that front at Cowboy Star though.

The Steakhouse Burger is often an institution in itself; think of the Luger's stripped-back version with its huge ball of funky aged mince, or the Hawksmoor (UK) take which was the first time most Londoners (this one included) had any clue how good a burger could be. This isn't the "Ultimate", Cowboy Star's signature burger (which would have been my own choice), but in fact the lunch special "Bison burger" - leaner, gamier and served with roasted chillies. The meat had an incredible depth of flavour and was as loose and juicy as only the very most expertly built burgers can be, the white "cheddar" (I use the word loosely) binding it all together well and the bun having a great taste as well as holding together well. Nice fries too - fluffy inside and with a gentle crunch, rather like In'N'Out's.

I was that close to ordering a $65 bone-in 45-day aged ribeye for my own main but in the end common sense prevailed and I settled (!) for a $50 T-bone. This was a beautiful bit of meat and had been cooked incredibly well, with a nice defined "crust" with no burning or bitterness and a nice smooth pink interior. It was also nice to see such a varied list of steaks on offer - sourced mainly from the US from various ranches in California, Wyoming or Washington state, but also some luxurious Hokkaido Wagyu for a whacking $100 for 8oz. Which I'm sure is quite the thing - they let us gawp at it even if we didn't quite have the pockets for it (that's it on the left):

Steakhouse desserts are notoriously variable, and usually variations on the theme of cheesecake and ice cream, but at Cowboy Star were well worth the effort. Bread and butter pudding was a vast slab of a thing, golden-browned with a sugar crust and topped with rich chocolate ice cream, unsophisticated perhaps but undeniably enjoyable...

...while this strawberry chiffon cake was a far more "cheffy" affair, involving powerfully-flavoured strawberries teased into all kinds of interesting shapes and textures, topped off with a particularly lovely sour cream sorbet.

Understandably - and quite rightly - the T-bone formed the largest part of the bill, but was still pretty good value considering the quality of the offering, and didn't feel like a liberty. And actually $138.36 (once you've added on the practically more-or-less-compulsory 20% service charge) is a pretty reasonable figure to pay for a meal like this, especially as I say given the brilliant service (full disclosure: they comped me a martini, which may have been something to do with seeing me take photos, but may just be because they're like that) and whole silver-service steakhouse vibe.

So despite not being in New York, or even anywhere particularly notable for its beef production, Cowboy Star succeeds on every measurable criteria of a steakhouse and then some by just following the New York template as closely as makes sense in Southern California. I'm worried that this post is going to come across as too relentlessly gushy, as puffy as that strawberry meringue, but sometimes there is such a thing as a restaurant doing almost everything right, and it's probably better I just admit as much rather than inventing fault where there is none. I loved Cowboy Star, and if you are one of those fully-functioning humans I mentioned earlier, you will too.


Cowboy Star Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday 12 June 2017

Bite Me Burgers, Holborn

Cha Chaan Teng is a huge, ugly basement restaurant off huge, ugly Kingsway in Covent Garden, which - as far as I can tell - has remained relatively unbothered by paying customers since it opened in September last year. I didn't like it much then, and a quick glance at their menu today reveals hardly enough to have changed to make me think it would be worth another try now, and yet I found myself venturing down that garish staircase once again thanks to a residency (sorry "pop-up") by Bite Me burgers, who have set up shop in Cha Chaan Teng's small kitchen (yes, CCT had two kitchens; we don't know why).

Bite Me are from Australia, joining a list of restaurants that have made the jump across from the Southern Hemisphere as long as... actually, now I come to think of it, are there any? Is Bill's Australian? If it is, I'm not surprised you don't hear many Aussies bragging about it; my friend once had a lunch at Bill's in Richmond so bad she left in tears. So if there's no great tradition of Australian restaurant concepts expanding to the UK, it's a brave soul indeed - in this case chef Adam Rawson - who would attempt such a coals-to-Newcastle move as starting up a burger chain. We are, as even the most oblivious must have noticed by now, sort of "OK for burgers" as a city.

For Bite Me to even get noticed at all, then, they'd have to be something pretty special. Surprisingly - and I genuinely was surprised - the burgers themselves, slider-size little things, pretty as a picture and sold in sets of 3, 4 or 12, have immediately found a space in my top 5 burgers in the city. They're great. Unfortunately for Bite Me, sharing a space with Cha Chaan Teng means not only that they're served in a room with as much charm and sophistication as a branch of Foxtons, but that they're also at the whim of CCT's seating policy. Those spacious, leather-backed booths at the sides? Not for you, my friend - you'll be seated on a ricketty plastic table for two in the middle of the room, while all the good tables remain resolutely empty for the duration of your meal.

But enough moaning about seating arrangements; Bite Me do takeout anyway, and Lincoln's Inn Field is just around the corner. No, what's really important are the burgers, and it turns out that Adam Rawson, along with MeatLiquor, and Bleecker, and Burgerac, and perhaps only a handful of other people in the country, knows exactly what makes a good burger and exactly how to transfer that knowledge into a cracking end product. The beef, aged and fluffy of texture (I'm guessing from never being frozen) brings to mind Nathan Mills' work for Bleecker, which of course is about as big a compliment as you can pay to, well, mince. The short list of varietals - one with bacon, one with shredded lettuce and a "Big Mac"-style sauce - is exquisitely well-chosen and tastefully done; I'll even allow them a "Hawaiian" option with pineapple in because even this was pleasant and oddly comforting rather than deliberately quirky for the sake of quirk. And even a lamb burger, spiked with blue cheese and jalapeno, boasted powerfully fresh products and satisfied on every level.

Chips were skin-on, which is faintly annoying, but had a good crunch and were well seasoned (Himalayan salt, apparently, if you think that makes a difference). And I didn't try the chicken burger, or duck and truffle, or even a milkshake but I very strongly suspect these are all as superbly well-researched and expertly-executed as everything else I did try. As I say, this is an operation that knows what it's doing.

So, who knew a brand-new burger concept, from Australia of all places, would have the power to rise to the top of the burger tree in 2017? The only dark cloud on the horizon is that with it being so close to work, and so eminently suitable for takeout, my burger consumption could end up even further off the scale than it already is. Perhaps I could ask them to limit their sales to me, like the arrangements problem gamblers make with Casinos. One set of four a month, that should be my limit. Or maybe 3 every week? Come on, I can take it. I can stop any time I like.


Bite Me are in 50% off soft-launch mode at the moment, hence the tiny bill.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Red Rooster, Shoreditch

Please don't think that this review is the result of the fact I've not had a truly terrible meal for a while and I'm short on some kind of slating quota. I never want to have bad meals - nobody does. Quite the opposite; I spend most of my life trying - with considerable success, considering the numbers involved - to avoid them. But no matter how cautious and vigilant, you only need to let your guard down for a second to be in trouble. A bad meal is always out there somewhere; they creep upon you, stalk you like jungle cats, getting closer and closer as you wait naive and oblivious until at the last moment they strike, and you can only struggle helplessly as they tear at your soul and your wallet.

The problem with a lot of bad restaurants is that while seemingly caring little about what ends up on the plate they often manage to scrape together enough money - somehow - to employ people who can write a good menu. And the Red Rooster menu reads well - well enough, clearly, for one to assume a decent dinner there wasn't outside the realms of possibility. An interesting international melange of influences, ceviche, gravlax and fried chicken sat beside jerk pork, clam chowder and a cheeseburger - London has seen Southern US soul food before (most recently and most successfully at the late, lamented Lockhart and Shotgun) but this seemed something genuinely new, reflecting the fascinating (and well worth reading up on) background of head chef Marcus Samuelsson. The point is, we thought it was going to be good. Otherwise why bother?

Worried by the potential size of the £58 main course we had our eyes on (more on that later) we decided to share a starter of what we'd been led to believe was a Red Rooster classic - fried chicken and waffles. What arrived was a small, butterflied thigh piece, topped with chilli sauce and pickle, on top of maple waffle. The chicken itself wasn't bad, just boring - watery and plain and desperately needing more spice and seasoning. The waffle was cold and chewy but otherwise OK with a nice maltiness, and the chilli - sorry, Rooster - sauce was best described as "wet". Pickle was bizarrely good, though, so there is that.

OK, so far so bland. The "famous" Red Rooster fried chicken wasn't even the best in the East of London (certainly not with Chick'n'Sours a short bus ride away) never mind the Western Hemisphere. So perhaps the main course would redeem the place? Well, no. No, it really wouldn't. For an astronomical £58 you get three "bonemarrow" dumplings which tasted of little more than suet, a strange bed of frozen [SEE EDIT BELOW] peas, corn and chopped asparagus, and on top a two-bone piece of beef (very) short rib, I'm guessing no more than 400g or so including the bones.

We dutifully carved our miniature rib roast into two, and tried it. It was chewy from not having been cooked long enough, but to be honest I don't mind a bit of bite from a rib roast. What I do mind is paying £58 for a piece of beef so completely underseasoned - literally not a hint of salt - and underpowered that it hardly could pass as beef at all; this was a desperately poor quality bit of cow. If you had been presented with this strange pan full of frozen veg and mystery meat at a dinner party, you'd dutifully eat it, murmur quiet appreciations and quietly decide never to return, but to be asked to pay £58 for it in a hotel restaurant in Shoreditch is insane. This apparently is their signature dish, the name "Obama ribs" reflecting some kind of connection with the ex-president from which he'd be best advised to distance himself.

In a desperate effort to claw some positives from the evening I should point out that the house aquavit that came with the bill was very decent, all staff were lovely and smiley, and our waitress in particular seemed to genuinely be interested in learning that £58 is quite a lot to pay for a couple of mouthfuls of beef. And though the table they had initially given us was terrifyingly close to a live band, they quickly and happily reseated us in the conservatory when requested. But really, these are things that we should be taking for granted in a London restaurant in 2017; I'm doing them a favour for even pointing it out.

We noted with some alarm that another of the main courses - a whole fried chicken (£55!) - comes to the table adorned with a lit firework. Had our dinner been better - a lot better - this could perhaps be appreciated as a bit of naff but guiltily enjoyable theatre, a gimmick but not without its charms. However in the context of our dreadful evening, it felt like a distraction technique - that they hoped somehow people would put up with paying astronomical prices for clumsily presented, sloppily cooked food as long as was camouflaged by enough TGI Friday's flair. Well, it may have worked in Harlem but I'm afraid this is London, and up with this kind of shit we will not put. Red Rooster doesn't deserve this prestigious spot on Curtain Road and I hope this vast space is very soon put to better use. I wonder if Chick'n'Sours are looking to expand?


[EDIT: I've been assured by the PR that the peas were in fact fresh, not frozen. I'm sure I'm no expert but my friend with whom I ate the above meal still swears they were frozen. Take your pick.]

Thursday 1 June 2017

Summers, Kilburn

Pop quiz! What do the following restaurants have in common:

Hereford Road
Anchor and Hope
32 Great Queen Street
The Canton Arms
The Camberwell Arms
The Marksman
...and possibly a great many more that I can't quite bring to mind at the moment?

The answer is, as well as being fine ways to while away a lunchtime, they all have direct links to St. John, surely one of the most important and influential restaurants to have ever existed in the capital. Alumni of this hallowed, whitewashed spot in Farringdon have spread far and wide through London and beyond, taking with them a passion for seasonal British produce, the desire to fill their menus with unusual cuts of offal and game (the "nose-to-tail" philosophy), and - perhaps more importantly than anything else - a cool confidence in stripped-back, no-nonsense presentation which informs just as much the attitude of the front of house as anything on the plate.

It seems extraordinary not only that one restaurant has so many direct descendants but that so many of them - in fact pretty much all you'd care to mention - are so incredibly good. Look back on the blog for reviews of any in that list above and you'll find places of class and charm, serving seasonal modern British food that has come to define what it means to eat out in London in these past 10-15 or so bewildering, game-changing years.

Perhaps, then, knowing that head chef Ruairidh (pronounced "Rory") Summers, who has leant his surname to this charmingly bare-bones operation above an Irish pub on Kilburn High St, was previously sous at St John Bread and Wine in Spitalfields is enough of a qualification in of itself. He's ex- St. John, so of course it's going to be good. What else do you need to know? Just get yourself a booking, hop on the Jubilee line and enjoy an evening of bright, seasonal modern British food. It's that simple.

Well, OK, if you insist, some highlights. We ate the entire menu so maybe I won't go into exhaustive detail on every dish, but I'll point out some of the must-order items, beginning with the house pickles, colourful and crisp with a perfect sweet-sour balance.

Cod's roe and radishes on toast, smooth as silk with bags of salty seafood flavour.

If I was to make one criticism of these asparagus it would be that the Ogleshield cheese hadn't quite been given enough heat on top; it would have been nice to have them draped in gooey melted cheese. However the spears themselves were wonderfully cooked - ever-so-slightly charred and with a good bite - and the layer of toasted pine nuts added a lovely malty note.

Ox heart, perfectly seasoned and tender, draped over a few pieces of artichoke hearts and dressed with green herbs, is the kind of dish that would make Fergus Henderson himself proud. These announced their arrival on the table with a heady aroma of grilled cow, the kind of thing you'd only normally experience in a top steakhouse, and even then not very often.

All the food at Summers is, as inspired by St John, unpretentious and accessible, but not to be confused with "simple". "It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!", Dolly Parton famously said, and it surely takes a huge amount of skill and experience to know what to meddle with and what to leave well alone, to know how to do just enough to let the ingredients sing. This piece of hake was a fish masterclass; a delicate, golden brown skin, a dense, meaty flesh of bright white. It speaks of someone who knows exactly what to do to a good piece of fish but also what not to do, and just leave it there, beaming and brilliant on a bed of foraged seaside succulents.

Desserts are a side of the menu that I'm assured will get more attention and menu space as Summers settles into its space, but even now are off to a fantastic start. Egg tart with rhubarb was a typically St. John and solidly traditional pud, the body-temperature custard framed by a delicate biscuit crust, and the poached rhubarb presented in cute square chunks.

But even better was the strawberry ice cream, a more impressive example I've not found in many years here or abroad. The flavour was so astonishingly concentrated, the hit of jammy summer fruit so overwhelming, that it tasted something close to a sorbet, only a sorbet with that extra luxurious layer of soft, buttery dairy. The last time I ate something as affecting as this was a raspberry sorbet at Little Barwick House in Somerset, and that's probably no coincidence - there, too, was a singularly talented chef making the absolute most of peak summer fruit. Quite a thing. Quite a thing indeed.

With each new exciting opening by a St John alumnus (I've written about two now in the last couple of months) there's the hint of a temptation to get blasé about these things; that as each next corner of our city gets its own delightful little gastropub to call its own that we run the risk of getting used to the idea. Well, good. We should be getting used to the idea. Each corner of London, from Lewisham to Kilburn, from Islington to Stockwell, deserves a Summers - there should be one in every postcode, one pitstop on every commute home from work, somewhere to drink nice wine and enjoy good food and prove that London is the greatest food city on earth, like we always knew it was. And for all this, we have St. John to thank.


I was invited to Summers and didn't pay