Tuesday 28 May 2019

The Small Holding, Kent

The rise of the rural farm/gastropub has been one of the more notable food stories from the last few years. When once it would have been enough to namecheck your butcher or fishmonger, or make some vague promise to "work with local suppliers", perhaps growing a handful of herbs in a windowpot if you felt particularly Felicity Kendall about things, these days if you're not raising your own chickens, keeping your own honeybees and up at dawn foraging for wood sorrel and wild garlic then you really need to pull your socks up. You mean you buy in your edible flowers? Must do better, darling.

The Small Holding in Kent, then, is right on the cutting edge of this do-everything, holistic approach to fine dining (I'm not sure how they feel about the fine dining label, but I think anywhere serving a 9+ course tasting menu, albeit at the relatively barganous £50/pop, is fine dining) and the sheer effort to which they've gone to produce absolutely as much as they possibly can, is pretty impressive. In a relatively small patch of land are squeezed polytunnels of tomato plants, sweetcorn and strawberries, raised beds of fennel, carrots and radish, cauliflower, cabbages and chives, neat rows of broad beans and garden peas growing up bamboo supports and alongside all the vegetables a large chicken and duck enclosure, and a pig pen occupied by half a dozen rare breed Berkshire pigs. On top of this, we were taken just outside the grounds of the restaurant itself to see where wild strawberries, edible thistles, and a dozen other bits and pieces that would find their way into our lunch, grew in hedgerows on the edge of a small wood.

It's an idyylic spot, of course, lush and green and absolutely ideal for an operation like this, and it's tempting to think that you could just pull stuff out of the ground, shake off the soil and serve it and you'd win a couple of AA rosettes by default. But though this stripped-back approach may have some fans amongst chefs with regard to prep time, fortunately Will Devlin the head chef at the Small Holding has done his time at Michelin-starred central London hotel restaurants and with the Gordon Ramsey group at Pétrus, and knows exactly the best way of presenting the bounty on his doorstep.

Lunch began with a few nibbles on the terrace, including a couple of radishes that we literally saw being pulled out of the ground a few moments before they arrived trimmed and washed and sat in a little herb mayonnaise. So perhaps there is a place for the ultra-stripped-back approach after all. They were lovely little things - crunchy and with a sweet, cucumber-y flavour in place of the usual pepperiness.

Pork gyoza were nicely crisp and dry, and contained a good amount of pork. Something stopped me from asking if this was from one of the same pigs we could see happily truffling through the mud at the end of the allotments. Perhaps just in that moment I'd rather not have known.

And these were incredible - a citrussy, fluffy goat's cheese inside a delicate beetroot meringue casing, which dissolved in the mouth and released a beautiful hit of vegetable and dairy all in one go. I know beetroot and goat's cheese is a pretty tried and tested combination, but there's no point denying yourself such treats just because they're familiar. I mean I'm quite familiar with cheese on toast, too, but I'm not about to get bored of it any time soon.

Normally when running through a tasting menu like this I try and point out which elements are grown by the restaurant and which are bought-in, but at the Small Holding it's easier to do the opposite. So from this mini hot dog of caramelised carrot and kimchi, I assume only the miso was sourced elsewhere. But who knows, given their attention to detail elsewhere it wouldn't surprise me at all if they fermented their own soy beans. Very good it was anyway, meaty and rich with a nice note of chilli.

Asparagus from a farm up the road came pressed inbetween punchy slices of a local Camembert-style cheese, and were draped in translucent slivers of lardo. Very fine ingredients indeed, and topped with some wild garlic flowers, sweet and allium-y rather than overwhelmingly garlicky.

The next course was a bit of an experiment, and I don't think was part of the usual menu. This was not, as it first appeared, a slab of foie gras but something called "Foie Royale", developed in Amsterdam to be a cruelty-free alternative to foie. It still contains real goose, but the fat and normal (ie. non-artificially fattened) liver are pressed together under high pressure to create something if not quite exactly like the real thing then close enough to perform as a perfectly adequate cruelty-free option. I think Will just had some in and wanted to know what we thought of it, and it was nice enough although I think if I wanted an alternative to foie gras I'd be more inclined to go down the chicken liver parfait route. Still, it was interesting, and the beetroot purée and fresh yoghurt it came with were both excellent.

Next a beautiful slab of halibut we'd seen be delivered earlier that day, with a lovely golden crust, surrounded by various peas and herbs. All I ask with dishes like this is that the fish is seasoned properly and not overcooked, and that's not always a given. This was immaculately treated.

The next course kept up the high standard of raw product, but there's part of me wishes the chicken had been as warm as the egg yolk on top, rather than quite chilly. Still, it all had a great flavour, and I loved the wild garlic pesto.

Spelt bread belied its rather unassuming appearance to have a quite brilliant texture and taste - "spongey" isn't often used as a positive adjective but I mean it as a compliment here, as the crumb had a structure at once dense and supremely easy to eat. With it were chicken skin butter, and if you can eat chicken skin butter without enjoying it there's something wrong with you, and - somehow even more impressive - a wild garlic version which was, like the flowers on the asparagus course, sweet and vegetal instead of overtly garlicky.

Well into the main courses now, and I could see what they were trying to do with this slow-cooked pork jowl and white beans, it just didn't have quite the depth of flavour to lift it above merely "decent". There was nothing particularly wrong with any part of it - the pork was nice and moist, the beans soft and pleasant, but the sauce was a bit thin and it needed a more concentrated stock to really make it shine.

But we were soon back on track with this hogget, presented as a pink fillet and braised shoulder (I think, or leg) which had all of the concentration of flavour missing from the pork, and then some. This dish made the most of a clearly wonderful main ingredient (from a farm down the road, as if you even had to ask) by treating it to one of those lovely split sauces the best restaurants do so well, and some foraged cabbage-style plant (your guess is as good as mine) for iron. Absolutely brilliant, every bit of it.

Desserts began with a beetroot ice cream topped with ants, and in case you're one of those people still on the fence on the whole issue of edible insects, let me assure you that these made a very positive case. The acid (formic, I believe) in their abdomens provides an acid hit somewhere between lemon juice and the stuff that makes Haribo's sour, and if you've ever polished off a whole pack of those in one afternoon (don't deny it), you'll know how addictive that can be.

The main dessert was a strawberry sorbet with some macerated strawberries. All fresh out of the garden, all very lovely, but the way they'd done the sorbet deserves a special mention, as it was studded with some kind of wheat or oat that meant every mouthful turned into a kind of strawberry-flavoured paste in the mouth. I thought the effect was quite enjoyable, but in the interests of balance I should point out that my lunch companion really didn't get on with this texture experiment at all. Full marks for trying something new, though.

After some local blue cheese and a selection of petits fours, that was it, and even if you remove the foie gras dish from the above which as I said I think was extra, that's still a huge amount of incredibly good food for £50 a head. Even the cheese is included in that, which seems more than generous to me. In fact we were enjoying ourselves so much that despite the restaurant very kindly covering the cost of the food, and taking the time to give us a tour of the gardens and foraging routes (they do a foraging course/lunch experience for £145/person), we still managed to rack up a booze bill of £100/head. But hey, you know, no regrets.

On the train back to London, as the effects of the glass of local brandy wore off, I tried to think objectively about where the Small Holding fits in amongst the many kitchen gardens and gastropubs that are springing up around the country, each striving to offer a more intensely local, strictly seasonal experience. The idea of starting a farm just to supply one restaurant is possibly not new, and of course there have always been the Manoirs and Moor Halls with millions to throw at a walled garden with team of full-time gardeners to keep it all running, but the ambition and attitude of the Small Holding does genuinely feel like something new, a self-contained virtuous circle of excellent produce turning into top-quality dishes, all organic and self-sustaining, with wild plants and herbs growing alongside cultivated vegetables, with nothing to decide what makes it onto the menu other than what's the absolute best on the day. I wonder if one day there'll be a backlash against all this, and the trendiest new opening of 2021 will be a city-centre gilded palace serving nothing but tinned Spam, but until then it's places like the Small Holding I'm going to look for inspiration, the true future of regenerative agriculture and farm-to-table eating, and a bloody good feed into the bargain.


We were invited to the Small Holding and didn't pay for the food, but covered drinks ourselves.

Wednesday 22 May 2019

STK, Aldwych

There are lots of rubbish steakhouses in London. One of my earliest posts was of an evening at Angus Steakhouse on Coventry Street, where I suspected I was going to have a terrible time and absolutely did, but in the end of course what I or any of the readers of my blog thought about the food at that awful place was of profound insignificance. Nine years on, Angus Steakhouse, and Steak & Co., and Black and Blue, and countless other terrible tourist dive steakhouses are still with us because they don't need anything so frivolous as good food, and good reviews, to make money. They just need a highly visible West End location, a huge number of visitors naive enough to be shaken down for their tourist dollar at least once, and a gross profit per dish that would make a 5-star hotel room service menu look like a school canteen.

Yes, there are a lot of rubbish steakhouses in London, and there always will be. STK, though, is not one of them. However much it looks at first glance like a Croydon nightclub (disclaimer: I have never been to a nightclub in Croydon, but I strongly suspect a lot of them look like STK), and however much they may court the Instagram crowd in the manner of places like Sketch with their signature lighting schemes and plush décor, where it matters the food offering is considered, classy, and generally worth the money being asked for it. Which is definitely not true of Sketch, take it from me.

Anyway, to STK. The first thing I do in any steakhouse, and I recommend you do the same - it's a great control variable, is order a martini. This came in a frozen glass (tick), with a twist (tick), was not too dry (tick) and was made with Bombay Sapphire (IMMEDIATE FAIL AND DISQUALIFICATION). In a world where Beefeater exists, I will never understand why anyone's house pour should be Bombay Sapphire - it's horrid stuff. Nevertheless, it was a cold martini, so there was still something to enjoy.

The house bread at STK is this bizarre thing. It's a large brioche bun, topped with blue cheese butter, alongside a little pot of bright green chimmichurri. None of it should work together, or ever has worked together historically as far as I know, and yet, you know what, it was quite nice. Sweet brioche, salty blue cheese butter, and a little dipping pot of herb and garlic. Yeah, it's weird dipping bread and butter into oil, and there was quite a lot of different flavours going on, but none of them were jarring. And how much more interesting, in the end, than the usual white roll.

But I imagine you'll be wanting to know what the steaks were like. First up, my Dedham Vale sirloin (dry aged to 28 days apparently, which I always think is the right amount of time to dry age steak). If you're used to the super-charred Basque style then the appearance of this rather timidly-grilled specimen may come as somewhat of a disappointment. However, through pinpoint seasoning and by virtue of the fact the steak itself was clearly high quality - powerfully flavoured and with a texture just the right side of tender - that I polished the whole thing off incredibly easily. Which anyone who knows me will tell you, is a rare thing indeed. The less said about a horrid "peppercorn sauce" that tasted of sugared wallpaper paste the better, although the red wine jus was quite nice.

USDA fillet came topped with a mushroom, because you could, and why the hell not, and was similarly seasoned and cooked perfectly accurately. As expected, and desired, the USDA steak was more about buttery mouthfeel and that addictive melty texture than the more distinct flavour of grass-fed cow, but this was still a Nice Steak. You'd hope so, too, for £39 for 200g of it, but that's USDA for you. The Dedham Vale was £26, which is fantastic value and the one I'd go for if I was to return.

Sides also acquitted themselves admirably. Mac & cheese was full of the good stuff, and with a lovely golden brown crust of grilled cheese on top. To be perfectly honest I barely had a taste of this before it disappeared, but I suppose that just shows you how good it was.

Fries were great, which is always a relief - crisp and dry and nicely seasoned. And broccoli with chilli, pine nuts and pecorino was classic combo done very well. So no complaints there, either.

It feels like damning with faint praise to say STK could have been a lot worse, but I don't mean that in a cynical way. A flashy imported US chain self-consciously occupying a prominent West End location, with an equal emphasis on clubbing and cocktails than steaks and service, it could so easily have been an utter car crash, falling inbetween two conflicting priorities and pleasing nobody. That even I, a cynical steak-obsessed food blogger with an aversion to late nights and loud music so extreme I come out in hives if I'm not in bed by 10pm, managed to enjoy my evening here is a testament to, despite appearances, a kitchen team that by and large know what they're doing and service (with the usual caveat that they knew I was reviewing) that didn't put a foot wrong. Swap out the Bombay Sapphire from the martinis and rework that peppercorn sauce and I'd find even more to like. But even in its current form, STK is quite the thing.

Postscript: As I occasionally try to do on the back of a comped invite, I went back to STK for lunch to sample a bit more of the menu, in this case hoping to try their burger. Steakhouse burgers are usually fantastic things - in good steakhouses at least - using the cheaper cuts of the dry-aged animals available on the full steak menu to make a luxurious high-end sandwich. As it turns out, though, STK do not do a burger, despite what their lunch menu from January would have you believe. So I ended up with a couple of wagyu sliders, which were fine, but not at all what I was after. So I'm afraid as a steakhouse that doesn't do a steakhouse burger, they lose a point. Service was still efficient, except the bill came not only with a space for extra service to be added (despite it being included already), but the card machine tried the same trick as well. And to that I ask - for the occasional numpty you manage to con out of an extra tip or two, is it really worth the aggro caused to all your other customers? Or indeed, another dropped point in a review...


I was invited for the main meal at STK and didn't see a bill, but paid for the sliders at lunchtime myself.

Monday 13 May 2019

Acadia, Chicago

There is a restaurant in Chicago, where it's very difficult to secure a reservation, named a single word beginning with 'A', serving an eclectic modern American tasting menu and which has been showered with Michelin stars and countless other accolades since it opened.

You can see the joke I'm limping towards, I'm sure, so I won't labour the point. In the world of international jet-set fine dining, Grant Achatz's Alinea is Chicago, and Chicago is Alinea, and whenever I mentioned I was taking a weekend trip to the Windy City, the natural assumption was that I'd booked myself in there. I did try, of course, and put my name down on the standby list, but to be honest I wasn't completely distraught it didn't happen this time. Firstly, because thanks to an absolutely wonderful few days in this fantastic city, I knew with utter certainty I'd be back. And secondly, because the full-whack tasting menu at Alinea is $400 without tax and service, and paying over $700/head on dinner is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of spend I'd need a good few years to prepare myself for.

So hardly a budget option itself, next to that Acadia's $200/head menu looks like something approaching a bargain. And it's hard to imagine the welcome into this spacious, luxuriously-appointed dining room could be bettered anywhere else in town. Bundling in wet and shivering from the snowstorm outside (Chicago's weather is completely mad) I joined a room full of immaculately turned out front of house staff and blindingly attractive and well-dressed guests feeling like I'd somewhat underestimated the effort Chicagoans put into evening wear. These people know how to impress.

And though there was plenty to gawp at in the room, what turned up on the table gave it more than a run for its money. First, after a nice cold glass of Franciacorta, were these little corn puffs containing pickled anchovy and "ramp" pesto, which is I believe a North Americanism for wild garlic. Prettily constructed, with a nice set of contrasting textures, only a vaguely underpowered anchovy let it down - perhaps I'm spoiled with the ones Brindisa import into London. Still, not bad.

"Herbed waffle with honey butter" was really no more than the sum of its parts, and if I'm going to be completely brutal, a bit pointless. Everyone knows what waffle and butter tastes like, and to present it as a canapé in a setting like this just seemed clumsy. It wasn't even a particularly good waffle, being a bit chewy and cold.

Better - much better - was this little arrangement of real caviar and jerusalem artichoke purée (they call them sunchokes there apparently), in a sauce of "infused whey" which was almost impossible to describe but was kind of umami-rich and silky without being overwhelmingly cheesey. A set of flavours I've never had the pleasure of having together before, and a genuinely intelligent and innovative idea, this was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to discover at Acadia.

Shima aji (mackerel) came next, fatty and fresh under its Japanese-style glaze, its rich flavour profile bolstered by a slice of foie gras and filled out by warm, fluffy rice. I've enjoyed the combination of fatty fish, foie gras and rice on a number of occasions - eel works as well - and this was another reminder that when it comes to seafood, the Japanese know a thing or two.

I absolutely adored the next course, an intensely-flavoured shrimp dumpling thing speared onto a sprig of rosemary, over a chilled mushroom and dashi broth. It was another example of how the best of Japanese fine dining can be both sophisticated and accessible, complex yet beguiling, all at once - it flatters you with technique and intricate flavours whilst still being hugely enjoyable to eat.

"Penobscot Bay lobster" (Maine, where much of the US' lobster comes from) had fairly subtle flavour and a texture just ever-so-slightly the wrong side of chewy, but still went down well enough. Part of me wishes it had come in a bowl which would have held the sauce a bit better - spread out over a flat plate it looked a bit lost, and cold - but I'm sure they knew what they were doing.

The next course turned back to France for inspiration. Chicken heart, snails and morel mushrooms were laid across a stick of fried bread, above a nice powerful chicken broth. All of it very tastefully done and hard to criticise too harshly except perhaps I'm used to the fire and flavour of grilled chicken hearts over the poached used here, and just missing that extra touch of charcoal-fired magic. Again though, it was 99% of the way there.

Cobia - a species of fish new to me but also known as 'black kingfish', 'black salmon' or 'ling' according to Google - arrived as geometric square with a lovely golden crust on top and bright white flesh inside. My menu tells me this came with kohlrabi and squid ink, although these elements clearly didn't make much of an impact - all I remember is that the fish itself was incredibly salty, strange as everything else had been seasoned immaculately. Even so, and very conscious of the fact I have been moaning about minor niggles here far more than they affected us on the night, it was still an enjoyable bit of fish.

Next dish had rather a lot going on, so I'll list the description in full - "Bonemarrow custard, peekytoe crab, veal cheek, sunflower seed". That's offal, shellfish and red meat all in one dish, and yes it did take a bit of getting used to. I'm wary of suggesting with too straight a face any way a two-Michelin-starred restaurant could improve one of their dishes, but the lack of a binding sauce meant that the individual parts fought with more than complimented each other, and a sweet brioche bun filled with some kind of truffle aioli served on the side didn't really add to the cohesiveness. Again, I didn't hate it - far from it - but it was just less than satisfying.

I don't want to unfairly generalise about the baking culture of a country of 330m people, and yes I am aware of Tartine in San Francisco and various other excellent craft bakeries dotted around the country, but by-and-large, bread in America is terrible. So it was a very nice surprise indeed to find that Acadia bake the best rosemary and potato sourdough I've had the pleasure of sampling there OR back home - with a delicate dark crust and sticky crumb, it was absolutely a match to anything served in Europe. The wholewheat sourdough was only slightly less successful, and one of the butters was quite vegetal and strange, but whoever's in charge of bread at Acadia can give themselves a pat on the back. I Will say though, that with one further savoury course to go, it was a bit of a strange point in the meal to serve it. It would have been very handy indeed for soaking up leftover sauces earlier in the evening.

So yes, one final savoury course, and it was lamb - a meat much rarer in North America than elsewhere, perhaps going some way to account for the fact it didn't have much flavour. Rather anaemic looking and desperately in need of a bit of crisp and colour from a grill, it didn't really do much for me, and I found much more to appreciate in the charred lettuce by its side.

First dessert was durian ice cream (not pictured, sorry - above was coconut ice cream pre dessert which was perfectly nice). Now, I don't know if you're aware, but durian is famously one of the most foul-smelling fruits on the planet, usually banned from hotel lobbies and other public spaces in the countries where its grown. And yet fans of the fruit, if they're to be believed (and I have my doubts) say that the flesh, if you ignore the aroma, is sweet and caramely. Well, I'm afraid this ice cream tasted like durian smells, of rotten flesh and disease, and lingered on the breath for the rest of the evening. Maybe it is possible to make a durian ice cream that doesn't make me want to hurl it to the other side of the room, but this wasn't it.

Anything from this point on was tainted by the lingering stench of durian, so do bear that in mind when assessing my reaction to it. Lychee-sakura raindrop cake was, like all raindrop cakes, utterly pointless, tasting only very marginally of lychee, nowhere near sweet enough, and with an unpleasant too-solid texture.

Guava and black sesame gateau was much more pleasant, with what looked at first glance like meringue slices actually turning out to be frozen Greek yoghurt - a lovely culinary joke - although the black sesame base itself was a bit cloying.

Finally, fig and cascara hot chocolate, just a really nice cup of hot chocolate really - I didn't taste much in the way of coffee but then I'm not a coffee drinker anyway. Over some very prettily marbled salted caramel truffles, we paid the bill - a touch over $300 each, which seemed more than fair, and before long we were struggling back to Ravenswood in the snow in an Uber.

Before I got going on the above review, I was pretty sure I was going to settle on a score of 8/10 for Acadia. Though I had niggles here and there with the savoury courses, overall I did find more to like than dislike about the food, and matched with the usual glowing North American service and in that beautiful room full of beautiful people, it all seemed to write the story of a thoroughly enjoyable fine dining experience.

But then as I thought more and more about what we'd been given, away from the cosy haze of the matching wines, particularly the desserts which were very up and down, it became clear that there was slightly too much to criticise to qualify for the Premier League, and so 7/10, objectively, feels more appropriate. And I don't know of any chef ever happy with a 7/10, especially one operating at this level, so apologies to everyone involved for being the bearer of bad news. All that said, I don't regret a single moment of the evening, or a single dollar spent, and I'm sure even far more expensive restaurants also with a name beginning with 'A' are equally likely to have off-days. And if they do, you'll read it here first.