Wednesday 28 March 2018

Gino D'Acampo's My Restaurant, Euston

On a wet weekday evening on the mezzanine level of Euston station, I and my dining companion are perhaps the only two people that are there only to eat. Ordinarily, the customer base of Gino D'Acampo's My Restaurant would consist of frazzled parents and their kids, intercity commuters and the odd hen party, all nervously guarding their luggage while Virgin Trains pick up the biggest chunks from the floor of the 18:47 departure to Glasgow Central. Nobody chooses to spend their evening at Euston, or any departure hall for that matter, from Gatwick Airport to Victoria Coach Station. Which is generally why they're amongst the most depressing places on the planet.

It's this atmosphere of collective anxiety and gloom that My Restaurant has its work cut out to battle against, and under the harsh Network Rail strip-lighting and to the accompaniment of delayed departure announcements and grim security warnings, there's only so far a jaunty colour scheme and comfy booths will get you. So, perhaps taking a cue from its famously ebullient celebrity owner, front of house are the most insanely overenthusiastic and excitable bunch of people I've come across since the affected theme-park bonhomie of the Hard Rock Café, all young Italian men with giant haircuts flamboyantly flapping their dishclothes around and shouting at each other. Halfway through our meal, one whose shift was ending (and who had already thrown a hoodie over his work jumper) insisted on shaking our hands and curtseying (at least I think that's what it was) before heading downstairs for the tube. It was all quite overwhelming.

Typically, of course, I'd find service at this level of rabid fervour utterly insufferable, and indeed there were a couple of moments I wanted to climb into my glass of Chardonnay and die. But you know what, they meant well. And if they feel the need to engage grumpy food bloggers in banter, even said food blogger made it as clear as he possibly could that he'd rather pull his fingernails out than put up with one more second of it, then I suppose they need something to distract themselves from the reality of working in a train station restaurant.

Anyway, I imagine you'll want to know what the food is like, and on this front - initially - everything went exactly according to plan. Which is to say a sharing platter of charcuterie and bread called somewhat optimistically "Fantastico" contained, for a whacking £24.75, stale old slices of grim supermarket hams, soggy foccacia, bendy grissini and the very worst pesto either of us had come across in our lives, looking and tasting like pond scum. Weirdly, the hams were only stale and dry in parts, and the grissini only chewy at one end, which suggests that the problem may be more storage than sourcing. But it was clear none of it should have been served, and was worth nowhere near the prices being charged.

So far, so predictable. Nobody would expect me to have anything even approaching a nice time at any of the public vote restaurants, and suffering through a board of stale salami while an extravagant Italian performs tricks with cutlery is presumably exactly the kind of thing you came here to read. We awaited our main courses with the familiar gut-punch of dread and hopelessness. Things weren't going well.

And then something very strange happened. A £31 fillet steak in green peppercorn sauce arrived, just two pieces of meat neatly arranged on a plate, with no fripperies and no frills, looking like something you might actually want to eat. I cut into one of the pieces to reveal medium-rare, tender flesh, bleeding in the same way you might expect a perfectly good, perfectly cooked bit of beef to bleed. It tasted, if not like the greatest bit of protein I've ever had access to, then certainly better than I've been asked to eat at far more expensive places, places with tablecloths and cloakrooms and toiliets you don't have to pay 30p to use.

More astonishingly, and yet more confusingly, my friend's crab linguini was actually, well, good. Expertly cooked pasta with plenty of bite and bounce, a good, well-seasoned sauce containing lots of fresh ingredients, a bit heavy on the garlic perhaps but not disastrously so, and loads of sweet white crab meat. Surely the crab wouldn't have been picked on site and was probably frozen, but there's no harm in using pre-prepared seafood, and to pair it with such skill with just the right amount of everything else, and season it fautlessly, requires someone in the kitchen to know exactly what they're doing.

We ate our main courses slowly, and in silence. Like a special effects sequence from a pretentious food documentary, the crowds around us jittered and blurred and spun around in hyperspeed as our little table became the calm, focussed centre of the world. As the last forkful of crab-flecked pasta, and the last morsel of tender fillet steak disappeared from our plates, we came to in an empty dining room, all travellers having left for destinations up the country, and with only a skeleton staff to cheerily wave us goodbye into the dark, rainy night.

So yes, there were mistakes made that should be unforgivable. Nobody should be charging any amount, least of all the price of a ticket to Birmingham, for stale prosciutto and bad pesto, and even the good food was too expensive. The service needs to be dialled several notches back from hysterical, and it will never be particularly pleasant to eat your dinner in a train station departure lounge. All these things are undoubtedly marks against Gino D'Acampo's My Restaurant.

But partly due to the wine - we had quite a bit of it, more for insurance reasons than anything else - but mostly because there are some people in the kitchens of this strange goldfish tank of a space overlooking the station concourse that are clearly taking pride in what they do - we left without the expected fug of queasiness and resentment, but with something almost approaching happiness. A first, after so many years, from a You Decide restaurant. So thank you, the voting public, for this one; I imagine next year I'll be back to visiting car parks in Croydon and rage-tweeting about brownfood, but for this brief moment all I have is gratitude. Gino D'Acampo's My Restaurant isn't bad at all.


Tuesday 27 March 2018

Zip Bab, Bloomsbury

I get used to moaning about the lack of decent quick, takeaway-friendly options in Holborn/Bloomsbury because that happens to be the corner of the city in which I spend most of my time during the week, but then perhaps there's no utterly ideal London neighbourhood for work lunches. Soho probably comes closest, but even there the queues at the good places mean you spend most of your time standing in the rain instead of eating, and you'll still pay for the privilege. Though I wouldn't trade my daily commute on South West Trains, shonky and stressful as it is, for the pressure-cooker Seoul Metro, I do wish I had the choice of a thousand spare seats at a good noodle bar for lunch like the lucky workers of Korea. I'd actually look forward to lunches like that.

So I strongly considered keeping Zip Bab to myself. I should say from the start that I have never been to Korea, and the entirity of my knowledge of Korean food is gleaned from a couple of meals in New Malden (Jin Go Gae is excellent) and the odd popup by Gizzi Erskine. This, I know, is not any kind of position to be credibly ruling on the authenticity or otherwise of anywhere calling itself Korean. But as far as I ever have an intuition for these kinds of things, Zip Bab feels authentic, and the food feels like the kind of thing hungry Koreans would snaffle down of a lunchtime, and I'm worried that once the word gets out it will turn into another Kanada-Ya - impossibly busy, a theoretical restaurant, just a memory of noodles past.

In the meantime, though, I'm determined to make the most of it. Excuse the range in quality of photos - I only had my big camera on one of my three visits - but hopefully they're enough to demonstrate that whatever it is that Zip Bab are doing, they're doing it very well indeed. My first lunch involved a bit of a mistake on my part - I really wanted the luminous orange Korean fried chicken, in that addictive sweet chilli sauce, as proudly displayed on the window menu. Unfortunately I wasn't paying attention properly and accidentally ended up with "soy chicken", the same big, strong wings and crunchy batter but a different finish. They were still lovely things though, and not much of a downgrade.

Also on that first visit, and not pictured, was a bowl of sweet and sour pork on rice noodles which verged on familiar to this Englishman but was incredibly easy to enjoy nontheless. And in a strange way, though I have no evidence at all to back this up, I can imagine Korean people eating it of a lunchtime, alongside a little bowl of their very decent house kimchi. So I will continue to imagine that.

Despite the food on day one being very good if not spectacular, enthusiastic and charming service and the certainty I'd not yet seen the best of the place necessitated a return visit, and it was here that the fireworks really started to fly. Zip Bab do a small number of "set" lunches, where you pick a main and are given a selection of salads and sauces to go with it. I'm afraid I can't remember how this was listed on their menu, but a quick Google for "Korean lettuce wrap set" reveals it could be something called ssam and I'd advise you to look for that name if you ever fancy a visit. Because it was great - lovely soft pieces of pork, joined with a heavily dressed green salad, topped with a fantastic chilli-miso sauce (also available in bottles on each table), and wrapped in butter lettuce, sort of like a green taco. Enormous fun and quite unlike anything else I've ever had for lunch in Bloomsbury.

By this point, Zip Bab had me sold, so I could hardly not return a couple of days later to sample the original flavour KFC I'd missed out on the first time. It was, as I suspected it would be, lovely - generous of flavour and portion size, with a great sweet/sour chilli dressing and piping hot straight from the fryer. This is the quintissential Korean comfort food, and admittedly it wouldn't say much about a Korean restaurant if they couldn't get this right, but it was still a joy to get up to my elbows in sauce and embarrass my lunch companion. They provided a couple of hot towels, but I was so coated in the stuff I had to get up and rinse off in the bathroom before facing the world again.

And, needless to say, I'll be back again and again, at least until the rest of the city catches on and they're queuing down the street. I spot yet more unusual things on the extended menu, such as a "spicy whelk salad", which sounds like it could be interesting, and I bet their bibimbap is worth the price of admission, but perhaps I'll never need anything more than a portion of sticky, spicy wings, rice and a small bowl of kimchi, and a quiet table in the corner to cover myself in it all. Work lunchers of Bloomsbury, I can only apologise in advance.


Friday 9 March 2018

Minnow, Clapham Common

It stands to reason, or it should come as no surprise to learn, that the best and the worst restaurant reviews are the easiest to write. Plenty of examples of both can be found on this blog, from the jaw-dropping perfection of the reborn Roganic and rural idyll of the Parkers Arms to the filth-strewn dining hall of JRC Global BUffet and the cynically grim Playboy Club, all those reviews pretty much just fell onto the page. This dish was fantastic, this was terrible; here we had the time of our lives, here we sulked home poor and depressed. Easy.

More difficult is anything that falls inbetween those two extremes. When the food, for no very obvious reason, is just a bit... dull. Somewhere you end up not hating it but not loving it either, and leave with a vague sense of disappointment. Somewhere that you'd not rush to return to, but that if you heard someone else enjoying it a lot more, you wouldn't be surprised either. Finding anything insightful to say about places in this category can be torture; and what's worse is that there are so bloody many of them.

But there is a category of restaurant even more troubling than that. The only places more difficult to write up than the mediocre or unmemorable is the mediocre or unmemorable where everyone involved is so unbelievably nice and friendly and enthusiastic that the idea of not being able to reward their efforts with a glowing review makes me genuinely queasy.

Here we go anyway. On paper, Minnow is doing everything right. It's a cosy, comfortable little bistro on the edge of Clapham Common, a few doors down from the Dairy, serving a short, attractive menu of seasonal British dishes for a sensible amount of money. Yes, it's the kind of thing you may have seen before but London will never have enough friendly, independent restaurants serving seasonal food - this is what we're rightly famous for, and from St. John to Quality Chop House to, well, the Dairy - and each new addition to the fold is to be welcomed, regardless of how successfully it turns out. God knows it's hard enough opening any restaurant these days.

I so wanted Minnow to be good. I live about 20 minutes' walk away, for one thing. But from the first bite of ho-hum house sourdough weirdly served with whipped butter and drizzled with olive oil, it was clear we were going to have very different ideas about what made a good dinner.

Oysters were cool and fresh and contained plenty of brine, but the mignionette alongside was weirdly sweet and not acidic enough and just didn't work at all. For a second oyster I asked for a slice of lemon instead, which they provided happily and quickly, which somehow just made me feel more guilty.

An unordered extra snack of crisp fried kale and sugared nuts was probably the nicest single thing we ate all evening, all colour and crunch and plenty of seasoning. I love what baking/frying does to kale, but then I like raw kale too - especially the way the frills in the leaves hold sauces and dressings.

I therefore wasn't too distressed to see yet more crisp fried kale appear alongside some scallops in my starter proper, but it did make me think, if they knew the starter I'd ordered came with kale, why give me extra kale as a snack as well? Perhaps because the kale was the most interesting bit of the scallop dish, the seafood being underseasoned and the bacon jam tasting weirdly not much of bacon at all, but more like a strange, cold, onion chutney.

A generous mound of soft, lovely white crab meat was enough to redeem another starter, although it came hiding under a soft cracker thing which defied reason or explanation. The provided dressing was thick with dark soy and far too powerful, and was largely avoided.

Cassoulet should be a thick, salty jumble of sausage and beans and meat and herbs, generous of form and flavour. I'm afraid the version at Minnow was a seriously wan affair, the confit rabbit tasting of cotton wool, the sauce tasting of little more than tinned bean juice, and the handful of tiny pieces of sausage doing nothing to season or excite. I'm afraid this was a seriously disappointing dish, made more disappointing by the rememberance of cassoulets past.

Hake was better, thanks to a beautifully cooked bit of fish with a nice crisp skin, although the less said about the strange pool of insipid blitzed greenery it sat in the better. "Parsley broth" sounds like it could be nice, doesn't it? This didn't taste much of parsley, and wasn't much of a broth.

Sides didn't impress either, sadly. Chips were soggy and orange (cooked too slowly? Who knows) and the truffle flavour largely absent. Cabbage in anchovy butter seemed to be missing the anchovy element, too, seemingly consisting of little more than charred cabbage absolutely drenched in butter way past the point of edibility.

Normally after a succession of such underwhelming dishes we would cut our losses and leave, but everyone from the chefs in the open kitchen to the amenable serving staff were all just so bloody nice that I was desperate to find something to be positive about other than the crisp kale. Unfortunately, coffee creme caramel wasn't set, and lemon curd sandwiched inbetween two discs of shortbread was absolutely no more than the sum of its parts. Even the (raspberry?) sorbet seemed subdued. So that was that. We paid up and left.

So look, I'm really sorry, Minnow, really I am. Maybe it isn't you, maybe it's me. Maybe I ordered badly or you were having an off day, or I just don't "get" what you're trying to do. But you or I can't escape the fact that a few doors down the Dairy is doing this kind of thing at a whole other level of ability and finesse, and are charging very similar prices for doing so. And next time I'm in Clapham Common, hungry for seasonal Modern British food and £80 in my pocket, it's the Dairy that will be getting my hard earned, not their neighbour, no matter how friendly the welcome will no doubt be. In the end, glittering service, and crisp kale, can only get you so far.