Friday 29 March 2019

The Swan, Bampton, Devon

Dinner two of our little weekend jaunt to Devon took place at the Swan, in Bampton. Where the Mason's Arms had been unapologetically high-end, with its Michelin star and petits fours, set in an idyllic thatched cottage miles from anywhere, Bampton is a more normal (albeit quite pretty) functioning Devonshire town, with a butchers, greengrocers and fish & chip shop, and acccordingly, the Swan itself is a friendly and unpretentious little spot. Though not as ridiculously beautiful as the Mason's (I'm sure they won't mind me saying), it's still an attractive place to be. And as for the contrast in styles, think of the difference between the Freemasons at Wiswell (experimental, innovative modern cuisine) and the Parker's Arms (traditional pub food done incredibly well) and you're not far off.

After an expertly-constructed Negroni (my control variable, and I have to say the Swan's was slightly better than the Mason's) the first snack was a scotch egg. The Swan are participating in next month's Scotch Egg Challenge at the Canonbury, and based on this example I'm pretty sure they stand a good chance of winning. With a good crunch from the breadcrumbs, a meat layer (involving Bury black pudding) which was thick enough to provide texture but not to be cloying, and an absolutely perfectly timed egg with a lovely runny bright orange yolk from local chickens, this was basically unimprovable in any area. Oh, and a cracking home made piccallilli too. Results will be declared on 10th April; expect to hear their name mentioned.

We ordered a few things from the bar snacks menu as starters, firstly these plump prawns in a nice greaseless batter, and homemade mayo...

...a very generous bowl of hummus, where the slight disappointment of being served slightly dry flatbread was made up for a genuinely lovely chunky hummus, all buttery and salty and full of flavour. This 'snack', costing £2.95, could have fed about 6 people.

You have to love anywhere going to the effort of pickling their own herrings. These were healthy, robust things - "chewy" sounds like too much of a criticism, they just had a good solid texture and a lovely sweet/sour brine. Pickled onions and capers added a bit more texture, and were also lovely.

Best of the mains was this cod, a brilliant bit of seafood cooking boasting a crisp skin, bright white flesh falling into defined flakes. The fish itself was more than enough to justify the price tag, but topped with potted shrimp and surrounded by artichoke purée and artichoke crisps, not to mention some sea herbs, there were all kinds of colours, flavours and textures to enjoy. This is one of those dishes so thoughtfully constructed and perfectly executed you'd hardly want for another way of serving cod, anywhere.

A shame, then, that the other mains fell a bit flat. "Massaman vegetarian curry" was an odd name to give to a bowl of ratatouille and noodles. I supposed there's nothing to stop them serving ratatouille and noodles, but had "ratatouille and noodles" been on the menu, the chances of us ordering it would have been pretty small. Without a discernable trace of any of the usual massaman ingredients (chilli, fish sauce, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shrimp paste etc. etc.) it was a bland, and deeply weird main course.

Two-thirds - specifically the top two thirds - of my steak & kidney suet pudding was lovely. A nice soft suet casing, rich in fat and flavour, huge chunks of kidneys and slow-cooked beef shin inside, in a rustic thin gravy, powerfully flavoured and seasoned, there was nothing not to enjoy. Until you reached the bottom-third, where for whatever reason the beef and kidneys turned into bullets and the suet went the texture of cement. So yes, a shame, but clearly from the flavour and texture of the majority of the thing, had it not been overcooked at the bottom it would have been a very nice steak & kidney pudding indeed.

But! We didn't stay disappointed for long. A dessert of treacle tart was sublime - just the right balance of sponge and sugar, not too dense or insubstantial, and a delicate pastry crust just holding the whole thing together. And with it, clotted cream ice cream with a fantastic smooth texture and rich dairy flavour, every bit the perfect foil for the tart. This would make a fine addition to any top gastropub dessert offering.

So I can't be too hard on the Swan, despite a couple of slip-ups. This is, after all, a proper community pub, popular and rightly so with locals and tourists, serving an accessible and unaffected menu of pub favourites and for a very reasonable amount of money. True, it didn't quite do enough to get itself into the very top tier of my own personal top 50, and I'd like to have seen a few more local game options (there's a specialist game butcher just around the corner) and shellfish (even just a plate of oysters) but I'm not about to tell a Bampton pub that I know their audience better than they do. Oh, and the upstairs rooms are spacious, well-specced and come with free sweets, and I've not slept better in a strange bed for a long time. And when it was time to leave, I wish I didn't have to. And I suppose that tells you all you need to know.


Wednesday 27 March 2019

The Masons Arms, Devon

Quite apart from the quality of the food served, or the level of service offered by the front of house, I sometimes think when writing up rural gastropubs I should have a separate score, or at least apply a heavy weighting, to anywhere occupying a particularly charming ancient building. Obviously, having dinner in a low-beamed 13th century coaching inn doesn't automatically make everything else wonderful, but I can promise you that if everything else isn't wonderful, a log fire, tiny lead-lined windows, stone-flagged floors and wobbly narrow passageways make the whole experience a lot more bearable.

So upon entering the Masons Arms, an 800-year-old gastropub tucked away on the outskirts of Exmoor, it's immediately clear that, whatever else happened that evening, the prospect of being able to debrief afterwards in what is by some distance one of the most enchantingly pretty snugs I've had the pleasure of encountering in some years certainly helped cushion the uncertainty of how dinner may turn out. The place is beautiful - an almost exaggerated fairytale ideal of what an old country pub should be, like something out of a Tolkein novel.

In the end anyway, we needn't have worried about dinner. Head chef Mark Dodson learned his trade working with Michel Roux at the Waterside Inn, and though it's probably fair to say that multi-starred Gallic style has become less trendy in recent years, there's still no good reason to dismiss it out of hand - when the French do food well, they do it very well indeed. Dinner began in the aforementioned cozy bar with a couple of classy nibbles - tuna tartare on cucumber with a lovely note of toasted sesame oil, and a supremely light chicken liver parfait on fried bread.

In the main dining room (spacious, pleasant and with a celestial scene painted on the ceiling) it continued. House breads were a decent sourdough (I think I've been a bit spoiled when it comes to sourdough) and a nice warm granary bun, whose delicate crust cracked to reveal a nice soft, warm crumb. We appreciated the choice of butter or oil/balsamic, too.

Often the most impressive dishes take a simple premise - in this case, a tomato soup - and through application of classical techniques turn it into something quite special. The best way of describing it - and I hope they don't take this as a criticism, because it isn't - is as a kind of turbocharged Heinz Cream of Tomato, with an incredible depth of flavour and a distinct-but-not-overpowering hit of garlic.

Apologies for the terrible photo of this beetroot arancini dish - it was a lot better than I've made it look. The slicks and blobs of beetroot (including an interesting tube of pickled white beetroot) were very nice, and combined with a horseradish cream it had all the best flavours of early spring. But the real stars, are you might imagine, were the arancini themselves - thick with salty cheese and delicately crisp on the outside.

I'm yet to come across a combination of guinea fowl and morels that I don't like, and this, accompanied by sweet roast fennel and a very clever portion of mousse inside a fragile breadcrumbed cylinder, which was great fun. If I'm going to be brutal, the guinea fowl itself was just slightly on the dry side - not enough to spoil it, but enough to notice. Still, the cream sauce was lovely, with the morels bursting in the mouth quite addictively, and I still polished it all off.

Scallops (a starter ordered as a main) were perfectly cooked, with a delicate golden crust, and sat in a rich brown bisque. They came with a couple of cute breadcrumbed squid rings, and studded into the bisque were a handful of fregola, adding a bit of texture and heft. This was a delightful seafood starter, exactly the kind of thing you hope for from a chef trained in the classical disciplines, top ingredients married to perfect execution. And disastrously represented thanks to my terrible photography.

Halibut was less successful. Rather underpowered and underseasoned, it didn't really live up to its price tag, and felt very odd next to everything that had come before. In fact, it was the only genuinly disappointing dish of the whole meal. I won't dwell on it - there's not much more to say, for one thing - but you do wonder how they managed to slip up on this one where most other areas seasoning had been spot-on.

Anyway, the good news is desserts were brilliant. First, rhubarb three ways - a vibrant jelly, an incredible rhubarb-spiked crème brûlée, and an ideal soufflé, light and fluffy and with a perfect rise, without a hint of greasiness. Some good pastry work going on at the Masons.

This pineapple and rub shortbread affair impressed as well. Rum and pineapple are always a good match, but stacking into a kind of cakey millefuille lent an extra layer of buttery goodness. Plus one of those ultra-smooth and creamy ice creams on the side.

Coffee came with a selection of chocolatey nibbles which I completely forgot to take a photo of. Sorry. But they were nice. And pretty generous of them to bring out petits fours for three, really, considering only one of us had coffee.

And generosity - of spirit and soul - is really what makes a restaurant like this. Yes, I can pick fault with seasoning and timing here and there, but ultimately we enjoyed a big warm hug of a meal, as cozy and enjoyable as time spent in their quaint front bar, all helped by incredibly friendly and engaged front of house staff (led by Sarah Dodson herself) who are clearly loving serving the food just as much as customers love eating it. I should probably say that our bill was smaller than average thanks to one of us ordering just mains and dessert, and another having two starters, but even so you can pay far more for far worse. Far worse. So if you're ever in the area and you're in the mood for a classy dinner served with an extra helping of charm, the Masons Arms comes thoroughly recommended. Or you could just come for a pint in the front bar and pretend you're a hobbit on the way to Mordor. Both sound like fun to me.


Tuesday 26 March 2019

Din Tai Fung, Covent Garden

There was a time, back when blogging was young and Twitter just a twinkle in a racist's eye, that when a new restaurant opened there would be a kind of competitive dash to be the first to review it. This wasn't just for bragging rights (although clearly that was a large part of it) - the first reviews ended up higher on the search engine results, and being early meant you had the whole internet hanging on your every word for at least as long as it took other bloggers and the print press to catch up. Even now, a decade on, some of the blogs of places I've visited while the paint was still drying still feature on the front page of Google.

But after a while, you begin to prioritise a nice evening over soft-launch pricing and bragging rights, and soon realise that there is far more to be gained in waiting a few weeks for service to settle and for the kitchen to get into the swing of things before turning up with your camera. This is especially true of international dumplings sensation Din Tai Fung, which was prohibitively oversubscribed for the first few weeks while the Instagram crowd got their fix and yet now, four months on, I and a friend were able to wander in off the street at 2pm on a Wednesday lunchtime and be seated straight away. Which immediately put us in the mood to enjoy ourselves.

And enjoy ourselves we very much did. Look, perhaps I know very little about most of the food I critique on a regular basis, and even less about Chinese food in particular, but it seems to me that DTF have, in much the same way as Shake Shack have done for burgers, absolutely cracked the art of the mid-range International Chinese chain. I love Shake Shack, but is it the very best burger in town? Probably not - Bleecker have a bit more soul, and are that bit cheaper, and there's still nothing to beat the MeatLiquor's bacon cheeseburger when it's on form. But I find myself a regular customer of Shake Shack because I know exactly what I'm going to get each time, even if that comes at a cost. There are better Chinese restaurants than Din Tai Fung. There are cheaper Chinese restaurants, more innovative and exciting Chinese restaurants. But for sheer consistency at a level that most customers would be more than happy to settle at, Din Tai Fung is a genuinely remarkable operation.

From the "cold" section of the menu (you order using pencil and paper, and food is brought as soon as it's ready, which in most cases is "immediately") this is drunken chicken, neatly sliced into strips of lovely wobbly skin and tender flesh. I love how so much Chinese food subverts your expectations of the best ways of serving particular ingredients - the concept of cold poached chicken seems it would always lose out to a nice piece of fried or roasted, until you try it and it seems like the nicest, most natural thing in the world. Sure, it could have done with a bit more seasoning, a bit more soul, but it was still hugely enjoyable.

String beans were the kind of vegetable dish only the Chinese could get so good - by virtue of being fried in animal fat and covered in minced pork and dried shrimp. We polished off every last trace of it, picking off the final chunks of crunchy pork bits one by one with our chopsticks.

Sichuan noodles, neatly rolled into a dark, oily sauce, came topped with prawn dumplings and made another dish that though difficult to love, was impossible not to enjoy. Yes, it missed some of the fire and flavour of the Sichuan dishes at Jin Li, or some of the best examples at Silk Road, but this was a generous pile of excellent fresh noodles and fluffy dumplings, and if the worst you can say about it was that it was a bit polite, well, that's hardly in the end much of a criticism.

The main event at Din Tai Fung is of course the famous Xao Long Bao, painstakingly crafted soup dumplings that you gingerly transfer from the steamer to your mouth without hopefully either splitting the delicate casing and losing some of the soup, or alternatively attempting the process too early and giving yourself third degree burns. Get the timings right though, and you're rewarded with a wonderful burst of pork stock and a mouthful of mince dumpling, and a very clear illustration of why people flock to these restaurants the world over. Again, I'll caveat the above with the fact that I've had slightly better XLB elsewhere - most recently at Dumplings N More in Hillcrest in San Diego whose stock had more flavour, and I'm reliably informed Dumplings Legend do a very good version here in London - but at £10.50 for 8 pieces, considering the work that's gone into them and how easy it surely is to cock them up, these are very fine XLB indeed.

So there it is. Colour me impressed. I went into Din Tai Fung with an open mind, as I always try to do, but I do admit there was a part of me worried that this latest branch of an ever-growing international chain could easily be a rollout by the numbers, yet another bunch of faceless corporate types taking London for a ride. It could, let's face it, have been the Chinese Planet Hollywood. Instead it's a delight to report that from the friendly, attentive service, to the attractive and, yes, authentic menu, to the extremely precise levels of quality control, Din Tai Fung is a textbook example of how this kind of thing should be done, and London is all the better for its arrival. And, as it's within 10 minutes walking distance of the office, and the queues seem to be a thing of the past, I can see myself being a regular. The best things come to those who wait.


Thursday 21 March 2019

Thunderbird, Brixton

Although the lineup is constantly changing, there's always more than one reason to visit Brixton's Market Row. Salon has been South London's favourite brunch spot for a number of years now, the original Franco Manca is still the best (and most popular), and if Nanban isn't the absolute best way to do fusion Japanese cooking then I don't know what is. Try their goat ramen, it'll change your life.

Latest to join this hallowed company is Thunderbird, following the solid London tradition of graduating from streetfood stars to this, their first bricks-and-mortar restaurant. I was always likely to visit, as the search for buffalo wings is a kind of mini obsession of mine, but an invite from a PR company gave me the nudge I needed and so one cold February evening I found myself in this brightly coloured and rather noisy space, blinking incredulously at the idea of "Salted caramel chicken wings".

But more on those later. Firstly let's talk about the Thunderbird Buffalo wings, or rather "Chipuffalo" as they call them as the sauce somewhat non-traditionally involves chipotle. The good news is that they're doing almost everything right in this regard. The sauce is spicy and buttery, and despite the fact I didn't detect much in the way of chipotle this is probably for the best. The blue cheese "dip" was in fact not the usual thin ranch dressing but instead a solid paste, seemingly little other than pure blue cheese - again, hardly traditional but I had no complaints. But the real star was the chicken itself, delightfully crunchy on the outside and without a hint of dryness or overcooking inside, they were about as good as you could possibly want - the natural result, I'm sure, of a great deal of experimentation and tweaking of recipe and method over quite a bit of time.

The only element of the order I didn't much enjoy was the pickled celery. There's something about the way sticks of celery go when pickled that makes them rather rubbery and difficult to eat, which is why you usually find them cut into small slices. Anyway, why bother pickling it at all? A stick of fresh celery would make much more sense. Still, a minor quibble overall, and not enough to stop Thunderbird's "Chipuffalo" easily competing with some of the best in town (if you get a chance, check out Sticky Wings, Chick'n'Sours and Orange Buffalo).

I also enjoyed the "Thunderbun", which in contrast to the mile-high superburgers that seem to be the norm these days, was instead the perfect height for eating, a compact little thing with a good chicken-sauce ratio and a lovely soft bun (by Millers) in the potato roll style.

Chips were fine. It goes without saying that they pale in comparison to places like Chick'n'Sours, who cook theirs in beef dripping, but they still did a decent enough job, dusted with cajun spicing and dressed in "Awesome Sauce" (mayo-based, same as used in the bun).

Salted Caramel Chicken Wings, were, as you might be forgiven to expect, horrid. Part of me admires, in a twisted way, that this car-crash of an idea got all the way from the drawing block to the printed menu without anyone saying "what the hell are you thinking" - in a largely identikit trend-chasing world we could do with a few more completely batshit ideas to spice things up a bit. But yeah, full marks for originality, zero marks for execution. Sweet and weird and completely wrong.

But look, there's a slim chance - a very slim chance, but still a chance - that salted caramel chicken wings are to somebody's taste out there, and anyway it's not like anyone's forcing you to order them. And with the Buffalo - sorry, Chipuffalo - wings and the Thunderbun there's still plenty else to enjoy, so much so that a couple of weeks later I snuck back in on my own dollar to check that they were as good as the first time. And they were. So welcome to Brixton, Thunderbird - it looks like you'll fit right in. Salted caramel wings and all.


My first visit to Thunderbird was on the house, then I paid myself for a return trip.

Monday 18 March 2019

Stem, Mayfair

It's so easy to get used to certain status quos in the London restaurant world that when something finally comes along to challenge them, it takes a little while to recognise. The settled fact was that whatever you were used to paying elsewhere in London for food and drink, to do the same in Mayfair, whether in a fancy hotel or independent restaurant, would cost you that much extra. The quality of the offering may not be significantly better (or indeed could be somewhat worse) but because people were used to paying more, places somehow got away with it. I've been guilty myself in the past of excusing anywhere charging too much as "expected for the area". The Mayfair Premium. Annoying, but what could you do?

Stem is proof it doesn't have to be this way. Seconds from Oxford Circus tube and right in the heart of Mayfair, this is the exception that proves the rule. Their evening 9-course tasting menu, full of technical prowess and seasonal joy, is £60 (that's £7.50 a dish once you add on service), the kind of price point you'd be lucky to find in any rural gastropub never mind somewhere in W1. And none of this comes at the expense of nice plush surroundings (Stem is very well designed, with plenty of space between tables) or sparkling service, led at time of eating by YBF nominee Emma Underwood ex- of Burnt Truffle and Where The Light Gets In. It's Mayfair with a Clerkenwell bill.

The style of food will be familiar to anyone who's tried Chef Mark Jarvis' cooking at Anglo, although it's important to point out that there are no "signature dishes" or familiar flourishes - Stem is entirely its own animal. We began with trout tartare topped with pickled carrots, on a bed of what I think they said was dill crème fraîche.

The only element of any dish I could find fault with was these gougères on the left. Heavy and rather sweet thanks to an allium stuffing, they badly missed the Comté cheese hit of versions I've had elsewhere, and were just not worth the effort. Perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so disappointed had I not had seriously good gougères before; maybe if they'd been sold as 'onion buns' they'd have got away with it. But as gougères they fell flat. Sourdough was good though - made in house - as was some nice salty butter.

There was a time when I would immediately dismiss any cooked oyster dish as unneccesary cowardice. I think it's down to certain places being unable or unwilling to unable to handle the storing, shucking and presentation of live oysters, instead falling back on the safer baking option, or it could just be blind prejudice on my part. Either way, over the last few years I've been offered cooked, poached and pickled oysters in so many different and exciting ways (The black pepper pickle versions at St Leonard's are a particular highlight) that my prejudice has disappeared entirely. These, served in a kind of nasturtium oil butter and topped with a crisp leaf of cabbage, were absolutely beautiful.

Next some very good potatoes and steamed leeks with a generous topping of incredibly powerful truffle, apparently from somewhere in Catalonia. The main ingredients were as nicely seasoned and vibrant as you'd want, but the real star here was the truffle which was so moist and dark with flavour it could have been picked out of the ground that very morning.

Cornish cod - well seasoned, with good defined flakes and nicely browned on top - came in various vivid shades of green (perhaps more nasturtium or even parsley oil) and a very interesting sauce made from white beans. I absolutely love dishes like this, with quite a bit of interesting textures and colours going on but with the main ingredient still the standout item.

Next some plump, bright green potato gnocchi, in an interesting and inventive mix of nuts and vegetables - crumbly, toasted cashews, pickled romanesco cauliflower and lovage oil. I would swear the gnocchi had been filled with parmesan cheese or suchlike but if they hadn't and this was indeed a vegan dish, then full marks for not making me miss dairy at all. Very clever stuff.

Beef tartare, pickled cucumber and king oyster (mushroom) wasn't anywhere near as weird as it sounds; just imagine chunks of bone marrow instead of oyster mushroom, capers instead of pickled cucumber and you have yourself a fairly traditional tartare recipe. It came with delicate slivers of marmite cracker - made using yesterday's bread, I think they said - which were as tasty as they were environmentally thoughtful.

Then one of those dishes I always look for on a restaurant menu, and always order if I see it. Roast pigeon, breast tender and with a gently charred skin, leg carefully deboned so you can eat it like a little pink lolipop, it was an absolute masterclass in game cooking and even possibly had the edge on a similar thing I was served at Sat Bains a week or so later. "Burned apple purée" and Tokyo turnip made perfect accompaniments, and then, of course, to finish, a dense, salty game jus which made you want to lick the plate clean. Which I think I pretty much did.

As a palate-cleanser, a sort of lemon and basil foam, which really did reset the tastebuds with its wonderful balance of citrus and herbs. Sometimes, rather than trying to beat people around with silly new flavour combinations for the sake of it, I wish more restaurants should treat these courses as intended - a familiar, calming interlude to prepare for the desserts proper. Who's not going to like lemon and basil foam? Certainly not me.

This was the best sticky toffee pudding I've ever eaten in London. To those of you who have suffered my repeated rants over the years about the sad state of STP work in the capital, this may seem like damning with faint praise. Much like the sorry state of fish and chips down here, I don't honestly know why so many restaurants and pubs manage to mess up this relatively simple dish so comprehensively; lack of confidence in the huge amounts of salt and sugar you need to put in to make a good version, possibly - guys, steamed sponge cake with some caramel sauce on top is not a Sticky Toffee Pudding. This above, so thick and dense it was basically a lump of dates bound with sugar with only a casual nod to sponge, is far more like it, and it came as no surprise that the recipe came from one of the Liverpudlian chefs.

A great way to finish the meal, then, and not much to complain about elsewhere either. Anywhere in town you can eat this well, for this amount of money (admittedly this was an invite from the chef, but it wouldn't have been much more than £100pp even with the booze and extra courses we had), is to be praised, but when I think of the awful dinners I've suffered in this part of town for much more money then Stem - friendly, technically impressive, generous of spirit - really stands out. It's a restaurant that gets almost everything right and almost nothing wrong, and deserves every bit of the success that is surely coming its way.


I was invited to try Stem by the team there, and didn't see a bill.