Monday 23 July 2018

Bright, Hackney

As much as I am very happy to travel quite significant distances in search of a good meal, as the geographic spread of restaurants on this blog will hopefully indicate, I do sometimes wish there was a bit more going on in my own neck of the woods. Battersea, and the Lavender Hill / Northcote Road area in particular, is a weird wasteland of family-friendly coffee shops and tired throwbacks, with only the Vietnamese restaurant Mien Tay, and Donna Margherita (if you stick to the pizzas), worth visiting out of a good thirty or forty licensed establishments. Considering the number of people who live in the area, a good chunk of whom would surely pay good money for a decent feed, the absence of anywhere offering a decent product is baffling. And yes, I know about Wright Bros and Tonkotsu in Battersea Power Station but that's so far from Clapham Junction it may as well be Vauxhall.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation I began my journey from SW11 to E8 on Saturday. Surely to goodness Hackney already has more than enough amazing restaurants? The single stretch of bus route from Old Street took me past the Clove Club, Sagar & Wilde, Morito, The Marksman and The Laughing Heart before dropping me outside Mare St Market, a huge and heavenly air-conditioned collective of bars and restaurants and record shops and much else besides which has just opened as if Hackneyites didn't already have enough to shout about. It would simply not be fair if Bright was good too. I didn't need yet another reason to make that bloody trek across town.

Of course, inevitably, Bright is not just good but brilliant, a shining new jewel in the crown of East End dining and more than enough reason to make a hideous hour-plus-long journey in the baking heat. A journey, by the way, which is instantly forgotten as soon as you plonk yourself down at the beautiful wooden bar and are presented with a cold glass of crisp Provence rosé. There's no (obvious) air conditioning at Bright, but huge floor to ceiling window doors at either end of the room provide a lovely natural breeze, and as long as you're not at the picnic tables out front in the sun (or indeed in the rain, hard as that is to imagine at the moment), you should find the setting every bit as charming as we did.

What separates a good from a great restaurant is not always obvious, or even quantifiable, but as good an early indicator as any is probably a menu that contains rare or unusual ingredients or dishes. Whether through lack of imagination or in an attempt to find as broad a customer base as possible, restaurant menus often tend to follow a certain formula - starters of steak tartare, burrata, mains of onglet and fries, sea bass, desserts of pannacotta, sorbet. And often there's nothing wrong with that; not everywhere has to reinvent the wheel. But when did you last see 'Scarlet prawns' on a menu? Perhaps only at top-tier Spanish restaurant Barrafina where they're slightly bigger and called Carabineros, so full marks to Bright for seeking them out, cooking them utterly perfectly so that the tail meat is bouncy and moist and the heads full of that extraordinary salty bisque so complex and rewarding it's hard to believe it could just be found inside the animal as-is.

Katsu, that is breaded and deep-fried pork (usually, or sometimes chicken) sandwiches have started cropping up all over London in recent weeks. I made a trip to Brixton to try Nanban's version, and very good it was too, available takeaway only served from a separate hatch around the side of the building in case you want to go and sample it yourself. The Bright sando is easily as enjoyable, with fluffy soft white bread cradling tender pork, a sharp tamarind dressing and that all important crunch of fried breadcrumbs.

It was Tomos Parry's restaurant Brat, above Smoking Goat on Shoreditch High Street, that introduced London to the Elkano-inspired charcoal-roasted turbot on the bone, and indeed you should definitely go to Brat if you get a chance - that's another restaurant which goes out of its way to find unusual seafood like spider crabs and john dory. But here's the thing, and I hope I'm still welcome in Shoreditch after this comment, but I actually prefer the turbot at Bright. With a glorious crisped-up skin that held an obscene amount of liquid fat, and boasting a blinding white flesh, this was an absolutely magical bit of fish, the result of top-end ingredients treated in exactly the right way. Incredible.

Quail wasn't quite as transformative an experience to eat, but then that's hardly much of a criticism. It was still a lovely bit of bird, robustly seasoned and glazed with garum - a fermented fish sauce favoured by the Romans - and gently pink inside. It's tempting to summarise Bright's cooking style as that Modern British restaurant cliché "good ingredients, simply prepared" and it's true that there aren't a bewildering array of techniques on display here. But there's nothing straightforward about cooking turbot as well as that, or managing to get those prawns to the absolute best state they could be. Simple does not mean easy.

Desserts had the same stripped-back confidence of the savoury courses. "Chocolate, coriander seed & sea salt" was three large pieces of good dark chocolate, seemingly shaped on a crinkled up baking sheet, with an interesting added floral note from somewhere.

And "amazake" (a drink made from fermented rice, like sake but lower alcohol) ice cream with sour cherries was the perfect summer dessert, good soft ice cream boasting clean, precise flavours.

So congratulations - again - Hackney, you lucky, lucky bastards. You didn't need yet another thrilling, dynamic modern restaurant on your doorstep but you've got one anyway, and if it means lazy Battersea-based food bloggers have to suffer the indignities of superheated Routemasters and ten stops on the Northern Line to reach it well, quite frankly that's their problem. And you know what, I will be making that journey again, even if it's 32C and the heating on the top deck is stuck to "on", because if this is the way restaurants in London are heading, with elegant wine lists and dishes of stark, simple beauty, then we have an awful lot to look forward to. The future's Bright.


Tuesday 17 July 2018

Jöro, Sheffield

Before it comes to the stage of trying the food at Jöro, you'd be forgiven for assuming that a certain Place In Copenhagen features as a significant influence on the way they go about things here in Sheffield. There's the name, of course - Old Norse for 'earth' and pronounced 'yoro' which as a nice ring to it and looks suitably Nordic written down with its umlaut. And then there's the building itself - is there anything more thrustingly modern than a converted shipping container? It's beautifully done, too, without a bad table in the house, each well-spaced and sensitively lit, bringing to mind the industrial aesthetic of another Copenhagen institution Amass. So far, so familiar.

And yet to dismiss Jöro as a Yorkshire Noma is to do it a great disservice. And not only because I thought Noma was far too pleased with its mastery of odd techniques to remember to actually give people a good time (I had a far more enjoyable lunch at Jöro), but because really, superficialities aside, Jöro is very much its own animal, taking just as many cues from Asian, and even traditional Yorkshire, cuisine than anything Scandi.

There's also the question of cost. Our evening began with an apology from front of house - one of the courses out of the tasting menu wasn't available, so instead of the usual 8 for £45, they could offer us 7 for £40. By anyone's standards, a 7-course tasting menu for £40, with a matching wine/cocktail option for an extra £35, is still an utter bargain, and would have been worth the trip up to Sheffield even if the kitchen had been less than competent and the advertised 7 courses been the sum total of the food offered.

Of course, this being Yorkshire where the compulsion to overfeed runs deep in genetic makeup of its people (I should know, my grandmother's family owned a fish and chip shop in Wombwell), Jöro aren't about to let you get away with just eating seven courses. Fully three sets of nibbles preceded the "first" course, a lovely linseed cracker dotted with blobs of cream cheese and beetroot...

...a mouthful of warm black pudding topped with apple sauce, rich and comforting...

...and a completely stunning duck croquette, managing to pack more flavour into this tiny cube of breaded, fried meat than almost any similar nibble I've had the good fortune to try for as long as I can remember. With a deep, almost sour game flavour and perhaps a touch of something alcoholic, it was a seriously impressive bit of work.

First course proper was a pretty 'tomato tartare' showcasing powerful San Marzano tomatoes and fresh summer herbs to great effect. Matched with this was Jöro's take on a Bloody Mary, a tomato consommé and vodka mixture that had an even more overwhelmingly "tomatoey" hit than the food. I don't care how jaded or cynical you try to be, there is no way a glass of clear liquid tasting like the world's finest Bloody Mary isn't going to make you gasp. It certainly did me.

Given that everything else from the kitchens at Jöro was so accomplished, it was very odd - not to mention a bit of a surprise - that the bread was so disappointing. Pappy and dry, it wasn't stale as such - at least I don't think that was the issue - it was just nowhere near as good as it should have been. There must be better bakeries out there - I've heard good things about Forge on Abbeydale Rd - so let's hope the house bread offering gets a makeover some time soon.

Anyway we were soon back on track with the scallops. With neat discs of seafood dressed speckled with vibrant parsley oil, and sprinkled with horseradish and samphire, it was as pretty as it was deceptively complex, all the various summer herbs and dressings combining in such a way as to not have any one stand out but allowing the scallop - cured in elderflower vinegar, which just removed the 'flabbiness' of raw scallop without destroying the freshness - to still be the main flavour.

Similarly barbecued pork neck glazed in some kind of sweet/sour, umami-rich Japanese dressing, its intense flavours cooled by pressed cucumber and texture added with toasted cashews. Japanese flavours featured in several of the courses at Jöro, and although jumping around global cuisines runs the risk of being confusing or disjointed, the sensitive and only occasional use of things like yuzu or dashi at Jöro makes perfect sense. It's also worth pointing out that the wine that this course came matched with, a Riesling I think, very cleverly matched the sugar levels in the pork with just the right amount of sweetness, producing a clean, crisp effect that was quite something.

In this broccoli dish, the vegetable blackened and smokey from the grill, paired with a blob of irresistibly addictive black garlic paste and topped with a generous dusting of very good Vacche Rosse Parmesan. By this point, you'll probably guess, we were having a blast. Inventive, exciting cooking like this, presented with flair and skill by an extremely competent front of house team, doesn't along very often, but the knowledge we were going to be sent home stuffed, drunk and happy for around £70 a head made the whole atmosphere even more giddy. As I scooped up the last of the black garlic I began making plans to rent a flat in Kelham Island and spend long, lazy days in the Fat Cat pub drinking pints of £3.40 local ales.

Next a huge, plump duck breast glazed with local heather honey, with a brilliantly sharp and complex wild blackcurrant sauce, beetroot and al-dente hispi cabbage. If I'm going to be brutal, perhaps not the most flavoursome bird I've ever been asked to eat, but cooked absolutely beautifully and so made up for a little depth of flavour with an utterly charming texture. After the dish was finished, the sauces and oils left on the plate - deep vermilion reds of fruits and meat juices, and emerald green cabbage oils, made the plate resemble a work of modern art.

Pre-dessert (yes, that's the fourth additional 'course' so far for our £40) was a smooth sour cream ice cream topped with summer berries, like a kind of fancy Müller fruit corner. Lovely tableware it came in too, a kind of rough stone bowl softened with frost.

First dessert proper was a brown butter and muscovado parfait on top of what they coyly referred to as 'parkin', a Yorkshire cake that's a kind of soft flapjack. The parfait itself, and the neat spheres of sake-soaked apple on top, were hugely enjoyable and worth the price of admission, but unfortunately the 'parkin' beneath, perhaps because they'd decided to tone down the strong ginger element usually present in parkin, was a bit bland, and the soft texture didn't really sit well. Still, full marks for invention and local colour.

"Yorkshire strawberries and raspberries" turned out to be an incredibly light yoghurt mousse of some kind, studded with dried and frozen fruit and spiked with yuzu. Light, refreshing and summery, it dissolved in the mouth like dairy candy floss, and was another great example of Jöro's mastery of technique. Also, being so insubstantial it was, despite our almost completely sated appetites, incredibly easy to eat, a very welcome thing indeed at this point in the meal.

Incredibly, Jöro decided to gift us with yet one more final flourish - petits fours of summer fruit marshmallows, and very lovely things they were too.

But that, eventually, sadly, was it. The bill, as I keep banging on about, came to £143 total, which included more than enough booze - but the Yorkshire generosity didn't even end at the glasses of Picpoul which our sommellier filled up to about the level of a half pint with a cheeky grin. No, Jöro had one final flourish of northern hospitality up its sleeve - no service charge. So we worked out the usual London % and left it in cash, because they'd earned every last bloody penny.

I don't want to focus too much on the bill though, because I don't want to give the impression that my enjoyment of lunch at Jöro was largely due to the fact I knew I was getting a bargain in contrast to what similar meals would have cost down in Shoreditch or Marylebone. Yes, Jöro is insanely good value - a good 30% less than what they could still charge with a straight face and far less you'd spend at far lesser restaurants, even in Sheffield. But the most important thing about Jöro, in fact the only important thing all said and done, is that they serve some of the finest food in the country, in one of the finest cities in the country, and there's absolutely no way you could eat here and not have the time of your life. So let's just leave it at that.


Monday 9 July 2018

Wingmans, Kilburn

There was a time, not so long ago, when we thought we knew burgers. Available on every pub menu in Britain, not to mention all of the familiar international chains on every high street, they were as familiar to the average Briton as fish and chips or bacon sandwiches, a staple of the late-night kebab shop and Saturday afternoon back garden BBQ. Bun, minced beef, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, done. What's the big deal? What's the drama?

It took a wobbly streetfood van in the corner of a car park in Peckham in the summer of 2009 to wake us from our collective delusion. Britain had not, it turned out, actually known burgers. At all. Oh sure, we thought we had - we'd known things that looked like burgers, that had the vague form and texture of burgers, that were labelled as "burgers" on menus. But no, we hadn't ever known real burgers because here Yianni of the Meatwagon finally was to show us how it should be done, and how utterly misguided we were as a nation in thinking those sad, grey little piles of watery mince hiding inside floury bread rolls were anything approaching the real deal. No, the Meatwagon made real burgers, and a nation's eating habits were transformed.

The problem with the state of burgers in the UK pre-Meatwagon was that people thought they were already in their final form and never really put much of an effort into discovering they were wrong. And much can be said about the state of the country's Buffalo wings. Properly done, Buffalo chicken wings - named after the city of Buffalo in upstate New York and nothing to do with bison - are the ultimate American drinking food, the combination of spicy cayenne sauce (usually Frank's) cut with butter, crisp fried wings and fresh chunky blue cheese dip hitting all of the sour/sweet/hot/soft/crunch pleasure points. But order them from the majority of pubs and bars in the UK and you will be presented with chicken that has been any combination of smoked, grilled or baked, covered in anything from BBQ sauce to sweet chilli. And as for a decent blue cheese dip? Well, good luck with that. A trip to the Peckham "WingJam" last week confirmed the sad state of wing affairs in the capital - out of eight or so stalls, only one - from Brother Bird - were any good at all.

There are precious few wing specialists in London - and therefore the UK - offering anything approaching an acceptable product. My previous favourite was Orange Buffalo, who make probably the best blue cheese dip around, but their "Buffalo" sauce, nice though it is, is made using mango and is therefore non-standard. I'm a strong believer that you have to get the basic recipe correct first before experimenting with variations, and was happy to discover Wingmans (stupid name I know - should there be an apostrophe there? Why not Wing men?), newly installed on Kilburn High Road, seem to be playing things fairly straight. Frank's buffalo sauce, celery, blue cheese dip. Hopes were high.

First the good news, and it is very good news. The chicken wings themselves are basically perfect. Large, healthy looking things with a delicate fried crust, the flesh was moist and firm, and the sauce just exactly the right balance of tangy cayenne heat and dairy. Unfortunately (and it's a very big unfortunately) they'd seen fit to offer them with quite the worst "blue cheese" dip I'd come across outside of Domino's pizza, a horrid thin and artificial pile of gloop with no discernible texture and very little taste other than a faint note of chemical grease. The fact the same kitchen could make chicken wings so good and saw no issue in serving them with this travesty of a blue cheese dip is genuinely baffling. What were they thinking?

A couple of days before my trip up to Kilburn I'd found myself in the Temple Brew House, a friendly little spot near the office with an astonishing selection of draught beers. More out of hope than expectation I ordered their "Buffalo wings" and wasn't entirely surprised to discover they were disgusting - soggy, formless little things so overcooked they'd dissolved into mush, in an insipid "Buffalo" sauce that tasted more like Heinz tomato soup than anything involving Frank's Hot Sauce. However, bizarrely, the blue cheese dip they came with was wonderful - fresh and vibrant with huge chunks of blue cheese, it was everything a blue cheese sauce should be. Someone should get these guys together; with the Temple Brew house dip and the Wingmans chicken, they'd have an unbeatable combo. It would be like when Yianni met Scott Collins.

Wingmans (I hate saying that word) also do the usual Asian-influenced variations. Shanghai Oriental was decent, with the same good chicken and addictive crunch of the Buffalo paired with ginger, spring onion and coriander. I've certainly had far worse. And "Jamaican Me Crazy" wings were certainly the advertised "HOT!" although I'd quite liked to have seen scotch bonnet chillis being used instead of red for extra Carribbean authenticity.

Truffle parmesan fries were good, although leaving the skins on always smacks slightly of laziness. And a bowl of "spicy Korean gochujang and sesame cucumbers" was underpowered, tasting of little more than rubbery cucumber. So yes, the sides need a bit of work.

I don't know how to come to any easy conclusions about a restaurant that can get one half of a dish perfectly right, and another half incredibly wrong. I really want to give 10/10 for the chicken and 1/10 for the blue cheese dip, but that way madness lies so instead I'll just go for a score that vaguely reflects my overall satisfaction with the place; namely, not very satisfied but not completely disappointed either. Plus there's every chance that one day soon Wingmans may realise their blue cheese dip is a disaster and will have another shot at it. Until then, the search for the perfect product goes on. Is anyone out there ready to be the Meatwagon of Buffalo wings?