Tuesday 28 August 2018

Laksamania, Fitzrovia

Summer must be a difficult time for soup-based restaurants. Their job is to persuade the general London public that what they really want for lunch during a record-breaking heatwave is to sit down in a darkened room to a huge, steaming bowl of hot liquid and not, I don't know, go for a bit of sushi and an ice cream in the park. For my own part, I'm quite happy to eat weather-inappropriate meals as long as the air conditioning is strong enough (I had a steak & kidney pudding at Holborn Dining Room when it was 32degC outside) but would I queue up for ramen at Kanada-Ya, or chicken noodle soup at Tongue & Brisket, if it was cracking the flags? Probably not.

So despite recommendations coming in thick and fast for Laksamania over the last few weeks, I couldn't really entertain the idea of eating there until the temperature fell to something below "existential global climate crisis" levels. Fortunately some time during the middle of August the heavens opened, and I trudged through a downpour to Newman Street, where a healthy mix of tourists and local workers had sheltered from the unfamiliar - though most welcome - weather.

The problem with reviewing ultra-specialist, one-dish restaurants isn't so much that it's unfair to draw conclusions about a place based on one menu item - I can hardly do much else - but that the resulting blog post feels a bit thin. But then perhaps not every post needs to be a dozen paragraphs musing on the infinite complexities of life; this is a laksa restaurant, serving laksa, and I think as long as I tell you what the laksa is like I could consider it Job Done.

So yes, the laksa is good. I went for the Ipoh (a city in northwest Malaysia) variation, which had a good satisfying thickness, plenty of fresh seafood, robust slices of salty roast pork and (because why the hell not) half a boiled egg. In the grand scheme of things I would say it's better than the version they serve at Rasa Sayang in Chinatown, though £5 more than that, but not quite as good as the Khow Suey in Gymkhana, and I know that's Burmese and not Malaysian but it's a fairly similar concept. Also, the Gymkhana one comes as part of a £40 lunch so you'd expect that to have a bit more about it. A more obvious a hit of sambal (I think that's how they make it) in the Laksamania version and you would have had a lot more reason to recommend it, but it's still a pretty decent way of spending your lunch money in Fitzrovia.

And so I didn't have to base a whole review on just one bowl of food, I ordered a few sticks of chicken satay, which arrived in a heavenly cloud of charcoal smoke with a good peanut dip. So no problems there either. And service was utterly charming, attentive and friendly and happy to let some tables to linger and chat while bringing out my own food at the same time as the bill, as requested. The "VIP discount", by the way, was the 50% off food soft launch offer, a complete surprise but good for them.

As the nights close in and the temperatures drop further, there's every chance Laksamania will find a healthy local audience, although it should be noted this is a tricky part of town. Just further up Newman Street is a site which used to be the excellent Newman Street Tavern, turned into the very good indeed Dickie Fitz and is now in the process of being converted into a Mr Fogg cocktail bar, so nothing's guaranteed. But they're doing what they do well, and with heart, and probably deserve more than a shortish blog post by someone who has hardly a second clue about Malaysian food and a brutal score out of ten. So why not just go and try it for yourself?


Friday 17 August 2018

The Packhorse Inn, Little Longstone

It's all very easy to swan around the country, as I am wont to do, visiting high-profile ubergastropubs and Michelin-starred tasting menus, and declare self-confidently that British food is the best in the world. I do, for the record, think that British food is the best in the world, but then I go out of my way to target the ubergastropubs and Michelin-starred tasting menus and do my best do avoid anywhere serving chicken pesto panini from a laminated menu. The measure of a proper healthy food culture isn't - always - what's going on at the top end, but the kind of experience you have at your local pub or high street bistro, and the brutal truth is, in this country traditionally much pub food, and most high street bistro food was - and largely still is - not putting too fine a point on it, shit.

But recently I've noticed a few interesting developments. On a weekend break in Canterbury a few months ago, having been spoiled rotten in the Corner House on a Sunday afternoon, we braced ourselves for the inevitable laminated panini menu on a Monday evening with half of the city - including the lovely Goods Shed - closed. And yet the pub we found ourselves in purely because we liked the look of it from the outside, the Thomas Becket, turned out made their own pies, and very nice they were too.

And a couple of weeks ago in Wiltshire, attracted partly by the medieval charm of Shaftesbury's King Alfred's Kitchen and partly because it was bucketing down, and expecting nothing more exciting on offer than some microwaved scones, we were unexpectly served a truly exceptional Bakewell pudding and a stunning treacle tart, made fresh (so we were told) every morning in house. It's worth noting that neither of these places would be on any foodie lists, and barely make a song and dance about their food offering themselves, but are just quietly getting on with serving good, fresh produce with a minimum of fuss. Perhaps I'm imagining things, but I get the feeling it's getting increasingly easy to find places making an effort with their menus, and increasingly rare to be subjected to laminated menu panini.

So to the Peak District and another pub that you probably won't have heard of - the Packhorse Inn, in Little Longstone. Pubs like this - quaint, ancient, dark and cosy - are the single most important reason I couldn't live in any other country (well, that and Bovril) and I would have been more than happy sheltering from the driving rain in their stone-flagged front room even if the food had been, well, laminated menu panini. But what was this? A chalkboard menu with things like "wood pigeon pie", "dressed crab" and "raspberry and almond tart"? Local cheeseboard? Local butchers and bakers name checked? Someone here was trying.

And it was all worth the effort. Dressed crab - probably bought in from a local fishmonger but there's absolutely nothing wrong with that (have you ever tried dressing your own crab? Really not worth the hassle) - had a good amount of brown meat in it and a nice dollop of house mayonnaise spiked with paprika. It was absolutely the kind of thing you want to be given when asking for dressed crab, and well worth a paltry £6.50. I mean, the ones from Waitrose bulked up with egg are £4.

Wood pigeon pie - well of course we ordered that - was quite unneccessarily lovely. Inside a puff pastry casing lay some tender, medium-rare slices of seared pigeon breast, bound with a thick, meaty sauce. There was something vaguely artificial about the texture and Heinz-y taste of the sauce, but rather than being offputting it just gave it the tinge of nostalgia, and anyway I'm pretty sure they weren't using granules. £6 this was, for a proper homemade game pie.

Whitebait were also beyond reproach, a good amount of tiddlers, lightly breaded and enjoyably crunchy, with a chunky tartare dip. I realise it's difficult to mess up whitebait, but still.

The rabbit pie was a thing of beauty. A homemade pastry casing (so we were told), buttery and light, containing a rich, creamy filling with lots of chunks of rabbit. With this, some superb chippy-style chips - because all pies are better with chips - and a thick gravy - because all chips are better with gravy.

Lamb rump with ratatouille and red lentils was nice enough, though possibly not quite up to the standard of the pies. The topping of rocket was the first thing to get my back up, though I suppose they weren't to know I despise the stuff with every inch of my being. But ratatouille is never a particularly inspiring thing when not applied to Disney movies, and lentils can do one as well. However, the lamb was tender, it was all seasoned well, and the person who ordered it had no complaints so let's just leave it at that.

Three huge, excellent local sausages (from New Close Farm, about 10 min drive away) on a mountain of mash was my own main course, and very pleased I was with it too. Like the rabbit pie it was soaked in a straightforwardly enjoyable thick gravy, and a load of peas, and if you can't enjoy sausage, mash, gravy and peas then there's something seriously wrong with you.

Somehow we found room for the aformentioned raspberry and almond tart, homemade (of course) and served alongside Bradwell (10 min drive away) ice cream. And yes, I know not everything local is guaranteed to be wonderful, but anywhere going out of their way to not use the usual Brakes Bros. type suppliers at least has their heart in the right place, and should be recognised.

A lot to like, then, and not much to fault at all. Oh, a side of vegetables was pretty ordinary - slightly overcooked and unseasoned - but that was hardly about to ruin our day. The Packhorse were turning away group after group of ramblers and locals during the course of our lunch and you don't have to be a genius to see why - the food, the setting, the charming service, and the local Thornbridge beers all added up to what for many people will be the platonic ideal of a country pub. True, the food isn't spectacularly world-changing, but it's at the level every pub should at least be - comforting, well-priced, served with heart. In its own way, I enjoyed my lunch at the Packhorse more than many other more elaborate - and more expensive - restaurants, and I've had a lot of elaborate, expensive meals recently. Sometimes I like elaborate and expensive. And other times, I will sit in the Packhorse with a pint and a pie, while the rain hammers down outside.


Thursday 16 August 2018

The Freemasons at Wiswell, Bowland

I know I end up saying this whenever I write up anywhere in the countryside but good lord, Lancashire really is a beautiful part of the world. An hour's drive out of Manchester or Liverpool you are plunged into rolling hills, narrow lanes and picture-book stone-built villages like Whalley, Waddington and Ribchester, each boasting at least one gorgeous old pub with a verdant beer garden, and with miles of tranquil footpaths connecting them all. It would be easy to have a very pleasant time here even if all said pubs were serving was frozen scampi and Carling, and indeed many of them do. But on top of everything else, this neck of the woods is also home to places like the Inn at Whitewell, the White Swan at Fence, and the Parkers Arms, serving some of the very finest food in the entire country.

Another proud member of the Lancashire foodie elite is the Freemasons, tucked away up a narrow alley on the top of a hill in the achingly pretty village of Wiswell. It had been on my wishlist since it started appearing on the Morning Advertiser's Top 50 Gastropubs list, but when it broke the top 10 I decided it was finally time to go to Bowland for dinner and not go to the Parkers Arms again, a difficult decision made over many weeks that left me genuinely traumatised. Even as we headed towards Wiswell on that Saturday morning I was seeing if I could invent reasons to divert to Newton after for a summer berry pie or marmalade ice cream. Which I realise doesn't display much confidence in the Freemasons, I just really really like the Parkers.

Anyway, I needn't have worried. The Freemasons was well worth the trip on its own, and left us with a smile on our faces despite the efforts of a large, noisy group of bellowing imbeciles to derail it all. I should have said something when they pointed us towards what would otherwise have been a lovely window nook corner table, because even at that stage they were making enough noise to be heard from the street. But as the lunch wore on and the amount of beer consumed increased, we gave up attempting to hold a normal conversation and resorted to the occasional shriek of "this is nice" above the cacophony from next door. I've had more relaxing lunches.

Objectively, though, and ignoring the idiots for now, the food at the Freemasons is pretty impressive stuff. Pea soup, emerald green and combined with a rich cheddar fondue, was the perfect way to start a lunch, with texture provided by what I think were little bits of puffed wheat. I always think a soup is a good test of a kitchen's skills; technique, seasoning and stock work all need to be on-point and if you slip up on any of them you'll end up with a bit of a mess. This was great, though.

Flame-grilled mackerel had a fantastic dark crisp skin, smokey from the grill, with a colourful mint dressing and neat cubes of cucumber. The standout element of this dish however wasn't the fish itself, or the mint dressing, but a quenelle of horseradish ice cream, smooth and peppery and quite the most enjoyable thing involving horseradish I can remember eating in a long time.

Courgette flower filled with shellfish was another clever showcase of a range of tricky techniques, the flower encased in a transucently thin tempura batter, and the shellfish mixture fresh and full of flavour. I'm still not 100% convinced of the wisdom of adding strawberry to the sauce vierge, which seemed an experiment too far, but I'll forgive them that as everything else about it was so nice.

Duck leg and anchovy is a marriage that's always going to work, and piled up with summer herbs, pickled radishes, fresh peach and a lovely zingy plum sauce, this was about as good a way of eating roast duck and anchovy as you could imagine. Working within the confines of a gastropub style of presentation - ie. no cylinders, no tuilles, no foams or smears, just ingredients presented and dressed simply - the Freemasons makes everything look easy, though one taste of the plum sauce or that pea soup is enough to demonstrate that a huge amount of work and technical expertise goes into some elements of the dishes.

Haddock, the fillet coated in breadcrumbs as a large flat "fish finger", came with more colourful summer veg including an almost neon yellow lemon oil. Again, everything here was cleverly done and colourful, the fish flaky and fresh and the vegetable accompaniments chosen well.

On paper, "Suckling pig pie baked in brioche, XO sauce, buttered Jersey Royals" looks like the kind of dish that could change lives. And when it arrived, glossy and gleaming on the table and soaked in a dark, thick sauce, I was absolutely expecting it to be the highlight of the entire meal, if not the entire month. How odd then, that it ended up being a bit of a letdown; the sauce had a great texture but a strange slightly funky pig-offal taste, sweet, bland and unbalanced; the brioche was strangely crumbly and dry, despite being soaked in the sauce; and inside was a weirdly unseasoned and unsatisfying mixture of lukewarm chunks of black pudding and pig paste. Look, I'm sorry, really I am - I wanted to be able to tell you the Freemasons suckling pig brioche pie was brilliant every bit as much as you wanted to hear it, but it just wasn't to be. Most frustratingly of all, I can't really put my finger on why - it just seemed to be missing something. It lacked soul, if that makes sense. It doesn't makes sense, really, does it. Made a good Instagram post though, so there is that.

Desserts got things back on track. Double cream ice cream with summer fruit did everything you'd hope it would - we particularly enjoyed a layer of strawberry mousse underneath a neatly constructed millefeuille, and it's surely impossible to not fall in love with "double cream ice cream".

A peach, poached in sweet Pedro Ximenez cherry, was an absolute revelation - I honestly didn't think peaches could taste this good. The sherry sweetened the fruit, obviously, but the slight alcohol tang added a beguilingly heady extra set of flavours itself, the overall effect best described as a kind of vegan rum baba. Oh, and next to it, a shockingly red raspberry sorbet, as good as I've had since my first trip to Little Barwick House all those years ago.

Only a treacle tart was a bit disappointing, being quite heavy on the oats and quite short on, well, the treacle. Ice cream was good though, and we liked the little blobs of summer berry coulis.

And all said and done, there were far more things that were impressive, and enjoyable about the Freemasons than disappointing. And I can't take more than a couple of points off for the suckling pig pie and the treacle tart because it's clear that this is a kitchen that is trying very, very hard to add value and excitement into everything they do, to the extent of offering all this food at a bargainous £27.50/head. With a couple of glasses of wine the bill came to £103.95 for three - good honest Northern value for money - and having to suffer the roaring of a pissed-up table of morons seemed, once we'd settled up and had a nice settling stroll around Wiswell, a pretty small price to pay. Hand on heart, it's the Parkers Arms that's more likely to get my return custom, but there's clearly room - and demand - for seasonal gastropub cooking in all corners of Bowland, something we should all - locals and visiting London types alike - be very pleased about indeed.


Wednesday 15 August 2018

Röski, Liverpool

Though it may be a city of cultural trailblazers in many ways - music, sport, fashion (sort of) - it's fair to say that when it comes to eating out, Liverpool has always been in the shadow not only of the capital but even other regional cities such as Manchester or Birmingham. Perhaps the lack of flagship food markets is to blame - the famous Bury market has been supplying Manchester with black pudding and much else besides for hundreds of years, and Birminham's Bull Ring indoor market has been doing the same for lucky Brummies. Liverpool has some excellent producers, such as the award-winning Edge Butchers and of course the peerless Baltic Bakehouse, and you can occasionally catch the odd farmers market in Woolton Village if you're lucky, but is it the lack of a single, centralised market, to champion local produce and act as a catalyst for a vibrant food culture, that has held Liverpool back?

Well, whatever the reason, Liverpool has been left with quite a bit of catching up to do, and it was really only with the opening of Lunya, which capitalised on the city's ever-growing links with Spain (thank you Ryanair) and more recently Gary Usher's Wreckfish, that the shoots of a genuine, grown-up dining culture have emerged. Obviously we can't really call it a foodie's paradise until we have a few more healthy mid-range bistros and wood-fired pizza specialists (or even a decent Chinese - the world's oldest Chinatown and not a single decent Chinese restaurant? Something's not adding up there) but look, it's a start, and we've all got to start somewhere.

So it was Liverpool's fledgling interest in good food that Masterchef: The Professionals winner Anton Piotrowski and friends hoped to tap into to fund their kickstarter project back in 2017. If it worked for Gary Usher (and it did, five times now and counting) for his mid-range bistros, surely there would be enough Scousers with the desire and the money to see a real high-end, seasonal, British, tasting menu restaurant set up shop in town? Well, sadly (at the time) despite plenty of eager backers (not least yours truly) they didn't quite reach their target, but it seems enough of a potential market was proved to attract backing from elsewhere, and now, in one of those gorgeous Georgian buildings that Liverpool does so well (and Rodney Street does in particular) is Röski. And it's great. And you should go immediately.

OK, I suppose you'll be wanting to know the reasons why it's great, won't you? Well how about this, a homemade crumpet, its dark, crunchy base rising to fluffy white, topped with curried Southport potted shrimp and a sprig of woodruff. I'm always going to enjoy a shrimp crumpet, but soaking it in beef fat instead of the usual butter was a touch of perverted genius, and a cracking way to kick off a tasting menu.

The next course was apparently a deconstructed "Scouse" (lamb stew) involving a treacly morsel of slow-cooked lamb, caramelised carrots, and a generous topping of summer black truffle. Alongside one of those glossy reduced sauces the best restaurants do so well, it was an absolute joy to eat, certainly more notable than any "authentic" Scouse dish you may have tried, which is generally a thin mystery meat stew (here's Paul O'Grady's version with Oxo cubes and Worcester sauce). "Authentic" Scouse probably doesn't deserve to stand as shorthand for an entire city. This dish certainly does.

Next, another off-menu extra, a "tribute", we were told, to the late-night noodle shop. Now, all sorts of alarm bells usually start ringing when fine dining restaurants ironically re-imagine low-budget Asian dishes, but by virtue of the fact this tasted absolutely nothing like ramen, or anything even vaguely Asian, it was hugely enjoyable - a kind of thick, rich lamb noodle soup studded with summer herbs and a poached quails egg.

That a dish called simply "radishes" would turn out to be the highlight of a 14-course tasting menu is partly testament to the quality of the main product, cutely grabbed from the chef's dad's allotment, but also because said radishes, plump and pretty though they were, were coated in a ludicrously rich and glossy sauce made from lamb fat. And I love radish, but I also love lamb fat. Anyway these were fantastic, and topped with a few springs of mint flower turned it into a kind of mini Sunday roast.

Next was a kind of truffled custard thing and though in the past I have fallen in love with various combinations of truffle and custard (I'm thinking particularly of Simon Rogan's crisp roast salad at Fera) there was something not quite right about this one. Perhaps it was a little too lukewarm, or maybe not enough flavour in the custard, but it left me a little cold. However my friend loved it, so maybe this was just me.

Curried crab was superb - bags of flavour in the crab mixture, and with three delicate slivers of puffed wheat and "poppadum" providing a nice texture contrast. One of the criticisms of Röski that have filtered into my conscience over the last few months (I try and avoid reading reviews of places I haven't been to yet, not so much to keep my judgement clear but so I don't accidentally start re-using phrases and people accuse me of plagiarism; I don't have much of an imagination) is that the dishes are fussy and over-complicated. Well, there wasn't a bit of that going on in this meal - most dishes consisted of one main ingredient and two or three accompaniments to provide colour or texture, and all of it clear, concise and precise.

"Chip shop" was - inevitably - a miniaturised fish supper, with a teeny portion of battered haddock, a single bronzed, slow-cooked slice of potato, a dollop of pea purée and - the clever bit - a dusting of vinegar powder. It was ultimately more technically impressive than massively rewarding but hey, if Röski want to show off their skills then who am I to stop them? Also - again - my friend said this was one of his favourite courses so there's subjectivity playing a part too.

The next course boasted a lovely bit of guinea fowl, tender and powerfully flavoured, topped with neat scales of miniature courgette and a little dollop of what I think was more pea purée. Oh, and another beautiful glossy sauce which would have been worth the price of admission alone.

"Meat & Tatties" was a cute little pie of what I think was sticky beef shin, topped with potato foam (at least I assume that's how the 'tatties' were involved) and an intriguing slice of smoked eel. Like everything that had come before it was pretty as a picture, and although there was perhaps a bit more going on here than in the other courses, still boasted a clean, satisfyingly straighforward set of (great) surf & turf flavours that flattered the palate.

More colourful and precise cooking followed with this slab of bright pink Welsh wagyu beef, sat in yet another wonderful sauce and with a little bit of braised mushroom and some kind of summer berry chutney (I think). The beef was obviously the main event, with a gentle crust from some very accurate timing and bags of beefy flavour, but again the accompaniments were masterful, with one of those bright green oils (parsley?) with which Simon Rogan made his name.

The transition from savoury to sweet courses began with this beetroot cake, warm from the oven, topped with shaved cheddar. These half-and-half dishes often run the risk of being a bit disconcerting, but this was genuinely impressive, and the generous mound of decent cheese made me feel a little less guilty about not paying the £10 cheeseboard supplement (which I'm sure would have been lovely).

"Builders tea ice cream" came topped with candy floss, because why not, and had a nice smooth texture. I realise that when you pony up this amount of money (£75 plus service) for dinner you'd expect quite a high standard of product in return, but it was still a delight to note the mastery of all these different techniques and textures, put to such impressive use. It's not easy, half the stuff Röski are doing here, but like so many great restaurants they make it all seem so effortless.

There was one final flourish - strawberries, strawberry ice cream and honeycomb, presented while a bowl of dry ice mixed with summer herbs turned the table into a fragrant bubbling cloud - but, once every last drop of strawberry liqueur and crumb of warm madeleine had disappeared, we were done.

A few years ago, the idea of anywhere in the center of Liverpool being ranked amongst the best restaurants in the country seemed absurd. And yes, it's frustrating that it's taken so long because, judging not only by the response to the only-just-missed Kickstarter but the fact that every single table was taken at Röski on the night I visited, the people of Liverpool love a good Modern British tasting menu as much as anywhere else in the country. But in stark contrast to the bizarre Art School just around the corner, which could have been parachuted into any major city to chase the accolade of "X's first Michelin star", Röski really feels like it belongs here. Not just because you look out over the gorgeous terraces of Rodney street, but because the menu feels - is - local, and service is both charmingly Scouse and also supremely efficient, something that has barely ever happened before in the history of the city.

So yes, all of the above twaddle serves to reinforce that one simple point I made earlier; Röski is great and you should go immediately. If you like anything about eating out in this country - seasonal, sensitively constructed tasting menus of local produce, sparkling service, interesting wines - then this place will charm your socks off. Already within nudging distance of perfection, by the time I return - and I fully intend to do exactly that, as soon as possible - it will probably be even better, this modest spot on Rodney Street showing the world exactly how it's done. Food as the latest great Merseyside cultural export. Why the hell not?


We paid for the food but whether due to a belated Kickstarter thank-you or general blogger privilege, the wines were unexpectedly comped. Which was nice of them.