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.


Tuesday 24 October 2017

Darbaar, Liverpool Street

There is, apparently, a long history of game cookery in India. I was told this at dinner at Gymkhana a few years back and was quite surprised at the time, but when you think about it I suppose it makes sense. Rich English colonialists swanning about as if they owned the place (well, they kind of did) needed something to fill the long hours between drinking tea and oppressing the natives, and introduced grouse and pheasant to shoot. Eventually these new flavours were incorporated into local cooking traditions and we end up with things like "grouse pepper fry" and "wild muntjac biryani".

Or so the story goes. To be honest, there's very little about this kind of thing on Google, but even if the history of British game in India is at least somewhat fancified or embellished, the fact is powerful flavours like grouse and pigeon do stand up incredibly well to Indian spicing, and a game menu at an Indian restaurant, as proven without a doubt by Gymkhana, makes perfect sense.

And so to Darbaar, fancy restaurant in the City of London where I enthusiastically accepted an invite to see their take on the subject. And fancy is the word, too - it's a large, impressive space, romantically-lit and staffed by more than enough capable staff, with large open kitchens where you can see almost everything that goes on in the preparation of your dinner.

The first bits to arrive were mini poppadums - a huge, generous amount in a large basket (other posh Indians take note; I shouldn't have to pester a member of staff to bring me 6 at a time), with some decent chutneys. No, they weren't quite as brilliant as the versions at Trishna or Jamavar - I could have done with at least one nice, hot mixed pickle - but still did the job.

First course proper was this - a skewer of "masala game fritters", breadcrumbed spheres of minced meat, on a beetroot chutney. They were lovely things indeed, the delicate, crisp crust giving way to dense grouse, pigeon and partridge offal, robustly spiced and full of flavour.

Next, "Hunter-style partridge with glazed pear" involved a deftly-grilled breast of partridge, coated in a good thick layer of wonderfully complex tandoori spices, with a kind of battered/confit effect done on the leg and finished with a slice of sweet poached pear. Another thoroughly satisfying dish, with a masterful command of spicing and texture, it made the most of this interesting game bird without drowning it in seasoning.

Between this and the main course arrived this mango sorbet. Nice - very nice in fact - but a slightly odd palate cleanser between two savoury dishes. I'd have preferred it as a pre-dessert, I think, but perhaps they know what they're doing as I was more than ready for some more protein after I'd knocked it back.

I can't remember when I've had a more rewarding venison dish in recent years than this "Rajasthani-spiced" version, beautifully tender and touched with just enough soola (fennel, cumin, coriander, cardamon, peppercorns, onion, garlic and ghee according to Google) spices to bring out the flavour of the wild animal. And if that wasn't enough, it arrived on a bed of charred green veg soaked in ghee and who knows what else, that were worth the price of admission alone.

With the main courses, a little matter of a bowl of bewilderingly lovely black daal, right up there with the best I've found in town, and some nice bubbly naans to soak it all up. Even a mediocre black daal can keep my attention; the best examples, such as those made at Trishna, and Gymkhana, and Jamavar, and this one at Darbaar, are seared into my memories forever. Dense, buttery, chocolatey, silky, there are hardly enough adjectives in the world to adequately convey the character of a truly exceptional black daal; they are the absolute pinnacle of Indian cooking and I love them with a passion.

But not just because of the black daal, although that would have been more than enough, I thoroughly enjoyed Darbaar. Even a slightly humdrum carrot cake dessert wasn't enough to spoil my evening, because when was the last time you really enjoyed a dessert in an Indian restaurant anyway? The savoury courses alone proved that this glamorous spot in the Square Mile deserves to be spoken about alongside the best Indian joints in town, and even after the game season dries up I'm absolutely confident it will still be worth the (not insubstantial, admittedly) contents of your wallet. Anyway, if you're worried about spending too much, just go in and order the black daal. You'll still leave happy.


I was invited to try the game menu at Darbaar.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

Ynyshir, Powys

I am aware that not many of my recent posts have featured restaurants in London. This is probably nothing more than coincidence - I happen to have been on a few short breaks up north and the west country and while there was lucky enough to enjoy some very, very good meals indeed.

However it is worth speculating that perhaps there has been a subtle shift in the foodie power dynamic in this country. Sure, London still gets the glitzy international chefs, the exciting new "concepts", the queues for sharing plates. But in borrowing so eagerly (and, it must be said, so successfully) from the great restaurant cultures of the world it loses a certain geographic authenticity. Other than a couple of pie & mash and salt beef bars grimly hanging on from the 19th century, there's no such thing as a "London" restaurant - for better or worse. Even our best gastropubs seem unsure whether to aim for Michelin stars or spit-and-sawdust rural grit.

And recently it seems it's not just gastropubs that seem "happier" (if that's the right word... it almost certainly isn't) out in the regions than in the capital. The astonishing Where The Light Gets In proved without a glimmer of a doubt that there are few better places to host a multi-course seasonal menu than in a post-industrial northern town. And it would be impossible to run Coombeshead Farm in Fulham or Shoreditch even if you carved the building from its landscape in one go and airlifted it in one piece; these places exist because of where they are, not despite it.

I mention all this because of the strange nagging feeling I had at Ynyshir Hall that this admittedly impressive operation out in the Welsh countryside doesn't have quite the same feeling of "belonging" of other equally ambitious sites I've been lucky enough to visit in the last few years. Partly this is entirely deliberate - head chef Gareth Ward is determinedly not creating Michelin-baiting dishes of stuffy French familiarity, and draws influences from the far east as well as his time at Sat Bains' restaurant in Nottinghamshire, with decidedly eccentric and otherwordly results. This is all perfectly fine and acceptable, and entirely up to them.

But part of me wishes there had been just a bit more Wales on the menu - some salt marsh lamb perhaps (the hotel is right next to a salt marsh), some clever cheffy take on laverbread or rarebit, even something more recognisably British instead of - or even alongside - the procession of undoubtedly clever but unnervingly "international" bits and pieces that formed the tasting menu. That said, you can't argue that it's all interesting stuff. This was "Not French Onion Soup", a bowl of dashi gel, tofu and who knows what else, which was covered in a smooth onion broth.

Duck was next, a sort of sausage-slice of leg meat topped with spring onions, ginger and soy. It wasn't a particularly brilliant idea - the powerful Asian dressing overpowered any subtlety in the duck flesh, if indeed there was any - but went down well enough. My pescatarian friend was subbed in a bit of salmon belly for this dish, which was enjoyable in a fatty way but totally impossible to eat with the supplied surgeon's tools. She ended up gingerly balancing flakes of salmon on the prongs then rushing them up to her mouth before they fell off.

Bread was good, though giving me the choice of miso-spiked butter and a quenelle of wagyu fat meant quite a difficult decision had to be made re: butter/bread ratio per bite. I coped though; I'm good like that.

"Sweet and sour" mackerel was conceivably the kind of dish that would have some people spinning for joy and others rushing for the exit. I'm afraid I was more in the latter camp - a very good bit of Cornish mackerel was drowned in what I've no doubt was an acceptably "fine dining" take on a Chinese classic but I'm afraid to this jaded palate tasted for all the world like the stuff from Man Ho on the high st.

Crab was nicer, more balanced and allowing the excellent buttery crustacean to shine.

Ynyshir were right to call the next dish "Black bean" rather than whatever bit of protein (duck) the black bean was painted on, as the animal itself was totally overwhelmed by an incredibly salty dressing. I didn't hate it, and there's pleasure to be had from most things doused in a nice black bean sauce, but I didn't get a great deal out of it other than high blood pressure.

Fortunately, "Garlic prawn" was much nicer - tender and moist and resting in a subtle bisque. If I'm going to be brutal, I've had better bisques elsewhere - this one was rather heavy on the cream and light on flavour - but the prawn more than made up for it, dressed in just enough wild black garlic to lift it. Very nice.

A decent duck liver (that's foie gras to you) parfait was studded with a bit of apple sauce, and topped with a cracker coated with flakes of what I think they said was eel. The eel didn't really do much, and the foie was verging on bland, but the textures were nice.

The next dish, "Caesar", was - inevitably - a deconstructed Caesar salad consisting of lettuce broth studded with croutons, smoked (I think) chicken, parmesan and theatrically-shaved dried egg yolk. It was pleasant enough, although with these deconstructed dishes, you're often treading a fine line between "enhancing and highlighting the original" and "wishing you were, in fact, eating the original instead".

Similarly, "Chicken curry" was a perfectly decent spoonful of slow-cooked chicken rogan josh (or something), with a bit of puffed rice for crunch and a side serving of a pot of beer with grated lime. This isn't the first time I've been served an ironic curry house course at a tasting menu, and it's certainly not the worst, but skipping from one cuisine to another like this made my head spin.

Oh dear, I know I've been moaning a lot. In truth, we were really enjoying ourselves at the time, thanks to some genuinely lovely (some natural) wines and engaging and enthusiastic service from every member of staff. But it seemed the dishes that I enjoyed worked despite the madcap "kitchen sink" ethic and not because of it. It all needed a bit more grounding - in geography, in technique, in just sitting still for five bloody minutes so I could understand what I was eating and appreciate it properly. It wasn't rushed at all, but the zipping from one wildly different cuisine from one minute to the next meant that not much of it registered above the noise. Which was a shame, considering the amount of work that had clearly gone into it all.

One final savoury course remained - a bit of wagyu rib dressed in dried mushrooms. It was, like much of what had come before, overseasoned and unsettling, wobbly with fat and tasting more of the powerful umami sauce it was doused in than anything that had once been an animal.

I was inwardly praying that the desserts would go for a more conventional approach, but it wasn't to be; "S.T.P", a knowing "take" on a Sticky Toffee Pudding, involved a large, rather mealy mejdool date topped with ice cream and doused in caramel sauce and was cloying and sweet. It goes without saying that I would have much, much preferred a normal sticky toffee pudding.

Cox Apple was much better, poached apples resting on a buttermilk cream and topped with frozen sorrel snow, it had a good balance of textures and the straightforward balance between fruit, dairy and foraged herbs was a blessed relief.

And the final course wasn't too difficult either - a deconstructed (there's that word again) tiramisu, with blobs of coffee and custard pressed under a transparent sheet of sugar, topped with crumbled biscuits. Unlike the S.T.P., this course was probably greater than the sum of its parts and largely survived the deconstruction process. Attractive thing, too.

There was one final flourish - a frozen meringue cooked in liquid nitrogen in the style of the Nitro Green Tea at the Fat Duck, which was fun. It seems a bit cruel comparing this last mouthful to one of the best restaurants in the world, but I remember in Bray the flavours being released by the rapidly warming tea mixture were extraordinary. Here, it was just a bit of frozen meringue.

So, what to make of it all. It's worth pointing out at this stage, after moaning about my fancy dinner in a five star hotel, that plenty of other people - close friends and professionals alike - rate Ynyshir up with some of the best food they've eaten anywhere. And I will concede that a lot of my gripes are simply matters of taste - by course five or six I was desperate for a lamb chop or something involving potato, and whether that makes me a complete pleb or a reverse snob I'll leave for you to decide.

The fact is, I was more unnerved by Ynyshir than I was delighted, and at these prices, I think I deserved a lot more of the latter. But you know what, we had fun, and the room was lovely, and we had a nice walk around the extensive and beautiful grounds in the morning, and it was all still far from a wasted weekend. And if you've been reading my grumpy descriptions and looking at the photos and thinking "you know what, that looks pretty good", there's every chance you could go and have the time of your life. And I suppose there's only one way to find that out.


We had a small press discount on the room but paid for everything else full price. Pictures by Hannah.