Friday 26 April 2019

Simpson's in the Strand, Covent Garden

A few weeks ago, during a surprisingly in-depth discussion about crab bisque (what do you mean you've never had an in-depth discussion about crab bisque), someone mentioned that famed Covent Garden seafood spot J Sheekey's had a version on the menu for a very reasonable £9. So one lunchtime soon after I found myself in the corner of the plush dining room, beneath a photo of Dame Judi Dench, tucking into a very accomplished bisque, involving huge chunks of crab in a rich, thick broth. With mounds of fresh baguette to mop up the dregs (which they offered to replenish twice), cosseted by service from surely one of the most practiced front of house in town, and ice water to drink, the entire bill, even including a £2.50 cover charge, came to £15.

And it got me thinking. How many restaurants in London do we dismiss as "expensive" or "special occasion only" where it's actually possible to sneak in for a single starter or a lunchtime special and leave with a bill of about the same size as a cinema ticket? How about settling into a booth at Bob Bob Ricard and having an Egg St Petersburg (£8.50)? Or a pea & mint soup in the shining surroundings of the Holborn Dining Room (£9)? Or even a hot dog and french fries (£7.50) in the ultra-lux Delaunay in Aldwych? The service, the surroundings and the nice soft towels in the toilets are the same whether you're spending £300 on caviar and draining the top end of the wine list or just having a bowl of soup, and why shouldn't they be? There's no minimum spend.

So I knew Simpson's was going to be expensive, that much I was prepared for. I had hatched a plan to share oysters as a starter, share a main and order chips to fill up on, which should give us a fair idea of the kind of thing Simpson's is about without having to take out a 2nd mortgage. It's a grand old dining room attached to the Savoy Hotel, and the markups were always going to be a bit punchy, but surely there's a way of negotiating a budget option?

Well, we tried. Admittedly we didn't try very hard with the oysters, as we decided to go for the natives (£30 for six, about as much as I've ever paid for oysters anywhere), but it was coming to the end of the season and I was worried this would be my last chance until next year so decided to push the boat out. They were nice big healthy specimens but rather disconcertingly room temperature as they'd been served on pebbles instead of ice. We survived this time, but ever since a distressing incident with a room temperature oyster a few years back which incapacitated me for 24h I've tended to be a bit wary if my seafood feels like it's been treated less than optimally.

They very kindly offered to split a single Beef Welllington portion (£42) into two, and I'm glad they did because I think eating twice this amount would have been quite tricky. The Wellington was great - perfectly medium rare inside and with a delicate surrounding of mushroom duxelle and thin, crisp pastry. A little potato fondant thing was fine if fairly ordinary, and some roast veg did the job. But one of the joys of having Beef Wellington is soaking the thing in sauce, and the peppercorn sauce here was pretty bad - bland and unsatisfying and tasting of little more than thickened cream.

Chips were good, though, as you might expect for £5 - triple-cooked to golden brown and crunchy, very much in the Hawksmoor style which if you've ever been there you'll know is a recommendation...

...and for dessert we fell back on the 'free' petits fours, chocolate mint things like a kind of reimagined After Eight. Which were very nice as well.

So, we'd shared a starter, shared a main and skipped dessert, so how on earth did the spend per head still manage to come to £73? A little matter of a ludicrously-priced wine list. If it's true that there's no minimum spend on the food (sort of - it was very nice of them to split the Wellington and they do a cauliflower soup for £11 if you want to play the Cheap Lunch In A Posh Restaurant game) then unfortunately the same can't be said of the booze, where the cheapest - that's the cheapest bottle on the entire list is £48. If even the Ledbury can start its list at £33, then there's no excuse for anywhere else trying it on - when a £16 glass of rosé fizz starts looking like the cheapest pairing with oysters, you know you're in trouble. I realise complaining about the price of booze in one of the most prestigious addresses in London is a bit pointless, but it really took the shine off what would have otherwise been a very enjoyable dinner. And there's just no need for it.

Otherwise, there's plenty to like about Simpson's in the Strand. Yes, it's a ludicrous throwback to a different time (including the clientele - we were the youngest people in there by about 20 years and I was born when John Lennon was still alive) and to take full advantage of every section of the menu would cost a small fortune, but that is, essentially, why people come to these places. To sit in a lovely room, be served by lovely staff, and eat your way through a menu that, despite the odd nod to modernity, hasn't really changed much in the last 100 years. And if that sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, well then help yourself.


Wednesday 24 April 2019

Kutir, Chelsea

Like most residents of the UK, I used to have a very fixed idea of what an Indian restaurant was. Our nearest curry house growing up occupied a charming old schoolhouse in Formby Village - it's called Hilal Balti House now but chances are in the 80s and 90s it was maybe called Indian Spice or the Taj Mahal or something equally generic. The experience of eating there - well, I'm sure I hardly need to tell you. Paper napkins and floral wallpaper; papadums and chutneys; Korma, Rogan Josh, Vindaloo - the staples of any British high street Indian restaurant, reliable, inexpensive, and in its own way quite wonderful. I'm sure even back in those days there were more exciting mixed grills and Punjabi specials being served to the immigrant communities of Bradford and Burley but for the rest of us, this was a curry, and a curry was this.

Many years after I moved to London I still thought Brick Lane was about as good as it got. I wouldn't have known it's common for many different restaurant fronts to use a shared kitchen at the back, and that some of the Scores on the Doors would be as rare as Michelin stars, but I probably wouldn't have cared even if I did. The same comfort and familiarity of every single Indian (/Bangladeshi/Pakistani) restaurant in the country found an equally captive audience here, amongst the touts and Cash 'n' Carrys of E1.

But before long, my narrow world expanded. Not just thanks to Lahore Kebab House and Tayyabs in Whitechapel, fiercely authentic Pakistani grill houses that I've already banged on about far too much on this blog, but at the top end too, specifically Trishna in Marylebone which opened my eyes as to what fireworks were possible when top ingredients were treated to fiercely intelligent subcontinental cooking. It was literally life-changing food, the kind of thing I didn't even know was possible, and I made a special note of head chef Rohit Ghai in case he popped up anywhere else. And pop up he did. Long story short, Ghai's career since Trishna is basically a list of all my favourite high-end Indian restaurants in London - Gymkhana, Jamavar, Bombay Bustle, and now, Kutir. And there's an argument - a strong argument - that Kutir is perhaps his greatest achievement to date.

At first glance, it's all very Chelsea. The handsome townhouse, the sparkling service, the plush (and nicely spaced) tables. You expect to open the menu and be confronted with the kind of prices that make your mouth go dry but instead - starters average £10-12, mains £16-18, desserts £5-6. It's all incredibly reasonable, and as anyone who's ever eaten there will tell you, Chelsea is not often that.

Another thing that's very un-Chelsea about Kutir is a determination not to reduce the spicing levels. Even a pretty tray of amuses packed a punch - I think a little pastry cylinder of crab and coriander, and neat balls of mushroom croquettes, but don't quote me as they weren't on the menu - a fantastic intro to all that Kutir are about.

Similarly, "Aloo Tikki - Honey Yoghurt' was a fiercely chillified arrangement of potato, tamarind and mint chutney which like all the best Indian vegetarian food was such a riot of texture and colour the lack of a central lump of protein was a complete non-issue.

Lamb chops, vast, plump things cooked to a perfect soft pink inside, used the tandoor sensitively enough to retain moisture but with enough heat to produce a few delightful crunchy spots. The meat was clearly high quality - not overwhelmingly gamey but with a lovely soft, lamb-y profile - but Ghai's tikka spicing is next-level, an utter masterclass in balance and power. Right up there with the very best high-end lamb chops you're ever likely to come across.

"Dhokla - Apple" was another bewilderingly complex, and equally rewarding, vegetarian dish. Gram flour cake - sharp and spicy - was surrounded by various early spring vegetables such as radish and beetroot, and sweetened with honey.

And this, what is fast becoming a Kutir signature dish - (excellent) naan bread topped with shredded roast quail, scrambled egg and real black truffle, an unusual combination of flavours and textures on paper but which we demolished seconds after the first bite. It's notable how Kutir plays with the expectations and demands of the Chelsea audience, with its veggie-friendly options and premium ingredients, while at the same time retaining all of the charm and authenticity of Indian cuisine. It's a tricky balancing act that they've got spot-on.

Sea bass, a nice neat fillet with a good crisp skin, came resting in a tomato and coconut curry so rich and satisfying even if the dish had consisted of nothing but that, it would have still been worth the £16. Also, one of the best things about any Indian Subcontinent restaurant, at any budget, is that leftovers eaten after the event sometimes even better than they did on the day. Kutir are happy to package up anything you can't finish, and I thoroughly recommend you do so if you managed to over-order like we did.

Duck korma suffered only slightly from a rather unappealing dump of sauce on top - strange where everything else had looked so immaculate. However it's a pleasure to report the duck itself was incredible - soft, gently spiced and full of flavour, with a side of pickled swede being the accompaniment we didn't know we wanted but now can hardly imagine duck with anything else.

The final savoury course was jackfruit 'kofta' - marvellously meaty and greaseless - in another knockout curry sauce studded with spinach. Snazzy presentation too, under a pastry arch.

Desserts weren't quite as innovative or notable as the savouries, but we still polished them off. Mango and passionfruit sorbet were packed with fruity flavours and had a perfect smooth texture...

...and yes, chocolate and banana is hardly a staggeringly unique concept but the banana fritters were crunchy and addictive, and the chocolate had a good balance of sugar, cacao and dairy. Which is all you can ask for, really.

Our bill was slightly reduced thanks to a spot of the old blogger privilege, but as you can see even at full price this would have been a £50/head meal, including a bottle of nice Chardonnay, incredible value for this level of food, and in this part of town.

As much as I ever know how I'm going to react any restaurant on the day, I knew for sure I was going to enjoy Kutir. Rohit Ghai's restaurants have never been anything less than superb, each with their own distinct style (and all coming highly recommended, even now) but always offering the kind of thoughtful, studied take on Indian food that so many places attempt but so few get right. But perhaps due to a greater level of control of the menu after a string of high-profile collaborations, or just simply because practice makes perfect, this seems to be the restaurant that reflects most accurately - and most brilliantly - the style and attitude of cooking he's been pointing towards all along. It may come with somewhat less of the practiced elegance of Gymkhana and the like, but what it lacks in polish it makes up in heart, and it's impossible not to be defeated by its charms. So why resist? Book yourself in - you won't regret it.


I was invited to try Kutir, then liked it so much I went back and paid. All the above happened on my 2nd visit. Sorry for the terrible photos, it's dark in there.

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Shikumen, Shepherd's Bush

I often think the most difficult thing to do in the world of restaurants is occupy the middle ground. If you're either a no-holds-barred Mayfair fine dining palace of splurge, or alternatively an ultra-low-budget dining hall in the New Cross, your audiences know exactly what to expect (and what they might expect to pay) and you've got no further explaining to do. But a mid-range restaurant will have to persuade a more moneyed clientele that the dip in prices and décor is still made up for in competent food, and that the budget diner will find enough above their usual spend per head to consider the odd indulgence.

It's a balancing act, one fraught with danger, but get it right and your middle-ground restaurant stands a chance of beating both the high- and low- end joints at their own game. And here to make the case for friendly, dependable mid-range Chinese is Shikumen in Shepherd's Bush, where you'll spend neither a pittance or an arm and a leg but stand a very good chance of coming away with one of the most rewarding Cantonese dining experiences in town.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Har gau were sticky and plump, with plenty of prawn filling and piping hot. Dipped in the house flaked chilli oil or hot sauce (both are great) this was top dumpling work.

Turnip puffs were an interesting delicate cone shape (and therefore less overwhelmingly carb-y than they can be)...

...cheung fun were excellent, both the crunchy dough stick variety and the prawn and bean curd, both of which impressed in different ways with their textures and strong flavours. I'm yet to discover a way of eating these slippery little fellas with chopsticks that doesn't involve abject humiliation on my part, but fortunately thanks to my friend being half an hour late and it being towards the end of service, not many people were around to witness it.

Oddly the only element of the dim sum that didn't completely win us over were the Xiao Long Bao. They were admittedly cleverly and precisely made little things, with a good amount of soupy filling and delicate casings, but the flavours veered between self-consciously wacky - cheese, or squid ink - and ever-so-slightly-too-plain pork. Still worth ordering, but not quite up to the level of the Din Tai Fung crab & pork.

But hold your presses everyone, because Shikumen are about far more than dim sum. I've been lucky enough to have fairly high-end roast Peking duck at various places in town - Hutong's was good though I've not been for years, as was Gold Mine in Bayswater. But this here was on another level - skin so light and delicately treated it just dissolved in the mouth, and neat slices of tender flesh that had a awe-inspiring balance of fresh game and soft fat. It was utterly lovely, so much so that rather than assembling the flesh inside steamed pancakes and dressing with hoi sin like we were supposed to, I ended up just eating the meat by itself, revelling in the complexity of taste and texture. If there's a better roast duck in London I'll be very surprised.

The joy of the duck didn't end with the pancake course, either, or the first few slices of golden skin dipped in sugar. After we'd had our fill of the former, two bowls of opaque duck soup were brought out, studded with spring onions and thickened with soy milk, which drew yet another bewilderingly complex set of flavours and textures from the bird. If you should ever go to Shikumen - and you very much should - to leave without ordering the duck would be a mistake on the level of going to Flatiron and ordering a salad.

So, for excellent dim sum and a truly world class roast duck, paying £45 a head including service and a couple of beers sounds like something approaching a bargain. If treading the middle ground of any particular cuisine's offering is difficult - and it undoubtedly is - it only means that when it does go right, it goes very right and we end up blessed with an operation like Shikumen who can hardly be faulted at all, treated either as an occasional special occasion or your new neighbourhood go-to Cantonese diner. But however you choose to approach Shikumen, I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I did. Oh, and order the duck.


We were invited to Shikumen and though this time we did SEE the bill, we didn't pay it.

Tuesday 9 April 2019

Henrietta Bistro, Covent Garden

To be completely honest, Henrietta wasn't our first choice restaurant for this particular evening. We had first tried our luck at Flatiron next door, only to be told the wait, on a cold Thursday night, was two hours. Next we tried Din Tai Fung, which would have been my third visit in the space of a week (very happily so), only to find out that would be an hour or so as well. So we split the distance, and tried our luck at Henrietta, where fortunately they managed to find room for the two of us on a large table near the kitchens usually reserved for parties of six or more. The front of house's accommodating nature, especially given the previous knockbacks, came as a very welcome relief; even if the food had only been OK, we still would have been pretty happy.

In the end, the food was largely much better than OK - not perfect across the board, but thoughtful, and attractive, and generally pretty good value. In case you weren't aware, Henrietta began life as the second solo venture for chef Ollie Dabbous, and by all accounts did more than enough to occupy his time before the vast, flashy Hide opened on Piccadilly. These days by all accounts he's not involved, but it's hard to shake the feeling that these precise, attractive dishes owe more than a little debt to his style (described as "game-changing" back in the day by Fay Maschler) even if the ingredients are now more solidly Mediterranean than Modern British.

By accident rather than design (we ordered fairly quickly, still mildly frazzled from being knocked back at FlatIron and DTF), we ended up with three raw meat dishes. Best of the bunch was the tuna tartare, topped with a generous amount of truffle, and bound with an umami-rich tahini dressing. There was more main ingredient than you had any right to expect for £14, and full marks too for using real winter truffle instead of the tasteless cheaper variety.

Beef tartare came in a little canopy of sliced raw mushroom, if I'm being brutal probably more about aesthetics than taste, but still enjoyable enough. The beef was enhanced with a few chunks of anchovy - always a nice match - and was certainly amongst the better raw beef dishes I've been served in recent months. Also, at £10, one of the best value.

Unfortunately, octopus carpaccio was not a success. Completely devoid of seasoning and flavour, it was like eating a plate of soggy tissue paper - even little blobs of puréed avocado managed to be utterly without personality. Also, isn't it funny/annoying that whenever restaurants season their food perfectly there's always redundant salt & pepper shakers on the table, but whenever you're in desperate need to add your own seasoning they're nowhere to be seen? With a bit of table salt this may have been somewhat salvaged - without, it was a chore.

So Henrietta Bistro aren't perfect. But how many places are? And one dish wasn't enough to spoil our evening, especially when we could fill up on an absolutely superb sticky sourdough spread with espelette (chilli) butter. If I was a professional critic I'd probably have made an effort to discover whether they make the bread in-house or get it in from somewhere like E5 bakehouse or Hedone, but all you need to know is that it was very good.

The unreconstructed reverse-snob in me couldn't help finishing the meal on burger and chips, and I'm very glad I did. Powerfully-flavoured Basque beef blended with txistorra (a kind of chorizo) was exactly medium-rare and wonderfully juicy, and the soft cheese they'd used had both enough funk to match the beef and a great melted texture. It's true that I'd still rather it all came in a normal seeded burger bun than a floury English muffin (not sure of the thinking behind that) but it was still a very nice thing for £10.

Chips were basically perfect. Golden brown (ignore my useless iPhone photography), crunchy outside and creamy within, seasoned perfectly and with a good, rich potato flavour dusted only gently with dried rosemary, they instantly go near the top of my personal best chips in London list, alongside Hawksmoor's triple cooked and the beef dripping chips at Blacklock. It would be worth coming to Henrietta Bistro for these alone - these are seriously destination chips.

A couple of things I wouldn't order again, and many things I very much would, still adds up to a meal worth talking about. With a glass of wine the bill came to £68 for two, which is essentially right in the sweet spot of what you'd expect to pay for food like this, and is hardly unreasonable. True, it was our third choice out of three restaurants that evening, and probably deserves to be, but in a road containing so many big-hitters (please do go to Flatiron and Din Tai Fung, they're great) that they can still hold their head high in such company is much to be applauded. On another cold Thursday evening with my first choices oversubscribed, I could easily find myself back. That said, if I was in the mood for some chips, I wouldn't try anywhere else first at all.


Apologies for the bad photos - it was dark in there, and I didn't have my Big Camera.