Monday 30 September 2019

Loyal Tavern, Bermondsey

Though I would never suggest any restaurant creates anything solely for its Instagram appeal - that way madness lies - it's true (albeit faintly regrettable) that the existence of one or two talking-point dishes, able to make the rounds on social media in opening week, is a good way of getting your PR campaign off to a flying start. At the Loyal Tavern, Tom Cenci's expertly-pitched and supremely enjoyable new bistro in Bermondsey, there's an item towards the top of the menu that immediately catches the eye.

"Chicken skin crackling, hot sauce, blue cheese dressing.... £3". True, the rest of the menu reads pretty bloody well as well, with lovely things like slow-cooked pigs cheeks and gurnard in crab bisque being offered for really quite reasonable amounts of money, but it's that chicken skin crackling that will first grab your attention, and will almost certainly (unless you're vegetarian, or mad) be the first thing you order.

And you absolutely should, because it's brilliant. The crackling itself is neither too greasy or too hard, but in a perfect sweet spot that dissolved gracefully in the mouth, releasing a powerful chicken flavour which stood up very well to the hot sauce (Frank's?) they were doused in, and a light scattering of - of all things - chopped dill on top added a lovely herby note. The dip beneath was thick, cooling and creamy, with enough blue cheese for you to notice it but not enough to be unpleasantly salty or funky. This £3 snack is, essentially, one of London's best buffalo wings, without really being a buffalo wing at all.

I appear to have written three paragraphs on a £3 bar snack. Sorry, these things happen when I get carried away. You should know there are plenty of other things to get excited about on the Loyal Tavern menu. Like this grilled flatbread, baked to order, which comes with what the menu said was "chicken fat butter" but looked a lot like crumbled chicken skin to me (and is absolutely none the worse for that).

And don't forget the bar offering, which is as mature and elegant as anywhere in town. This is a basil daquiri - simple, beautiful, dangerously easy to drink.

Some dishes, I'm sure Tom won't mind me saying, are related to the kind of thing Duck and Waffle were turning out, although I don't remember their grilled mackerel ever being as soft and crunchy and moreish as this. Topped with a layer of pickled apples draped over confidently charred skin, they were great fun, and looked - and tasted - like they should cost a lot more than £5.50. For all its undoubted pleasures, Duck & Waffle was never what you'd call great value.

Venison tartare, thickly chopped and nicely seasoned, came topped with sprout leaves full of miso mayo, a clever little touch which not only added crunch but an interesting extra umami hit. Attractive looking thing, too, isn't it?

Main courses were, if I'm going to be absolutely brutal (and I imagine that's why you're here in the first place), slightly less impressive than the starters and snacks, but still immensely enjoyable in a rustic kind of way. My lamb - pink, juicy, with a good fatty crust and perfectly seasoned, came on a bed of marrowfat peas and a lot of creamy mustard dressing, the texture of which was a little lumpy thanks to rogue bits of pea but had a nice flavour.

And buttermilk-poached cod looked a little unsettling, but was beautifully cooked to ever-so-slightly-under, and the nduja and white bean stew had bags of Mediterranean flavour. Also, £15 for a lot of cod. I realise mentioning the prices in the first couple of weeks of a new opening is asking for trouble, but I have to assume for the purposes of a review that they're at least vaguely indicative of how they're going to stay. Even if they clocked up by a quid or two each in a month or two, we're still talking about a fairly lower-to-mid-range budget.

I'm hoping that these Stinking Bishop fondant potatoes find a permanent place on the menu - they were a chalkboard special on the night I visited - because they deserve one. I should have taken a video of my cutting through the crisp, golden brown exterior to release the gooey melted cheese inside, but I'm afraid I was too busy salivating, so you'll have to imagine just how great they were. Or, you know, go to the Loyal Tavern and order them yourself, quick smart.

There were also desserts. Pistachio ice cream was silky-smooth, and the macerated cherries packed a punch. Less successful was a banana bread, which seemed a bit dry and had pointlessly been scattered with rock-hard raw coffee beans, but it hardly spoiled the evening. From the buffalo chicken skins onwards, and for most of the rest of it, Loyal Tavern was a blast.

It always miffs me as a Battersea resident that a few neighbourhoods - Bermondsey, Camberwell, Tooting - seem to have a huge and varied selection of great places on their doorstep and it's taken my local, the Fox & Hounds (on Latchmere Road) 15 years to learn how to make triple-cooked chips. I try not to take it personally, but guys - Bermondsey did not need Loyal Tavern. It has Pizarro and José and Casse Croute and Flour & Grape already, and all these places are by themselves a reason to stay on the 188 bus from Holborn. But OK, fine, well done you, and yes, I suppose I will have to get used to travelling, for those fondant potatoes, for a cosy booth in this extraordinarily well-designed and welcoming room, and most importantly - of course - for those buffalo chicken skins. I'd travel to the moon and back for those.


I was invited to Loyal Tavern and didn't see a bill.

Wednesday 18 September 2019

Vijaya Krishna, Tooting

Over the last few weeks, have been running a series of 'best value' guides to different areas of London. Exhaustively researched and containing all sorts of insights into the history of various different ethnic cuisines in London, it made me realise two things - one, that despite the best efforts of Brexit and national populism to ruin it all, I still live in the most dynamic and varied food city in the world, and two, that I've explored a shamefully tiny percentage of it.

Such ignorance is nobody's fault but my own, and I would hope that even when making embarrassing errors in posts about modern British, Italian or Spanish restaurants, cuisines that just through sheer weight of exposure I'm relatively familiar with, there's enough elsewhere to enjoy. But when it comes to many minority cuisines, and Sri Lankan/South Indian food in particular, my entire database of past experience consists of a couple of (admittedly excellent) meals at Apollo Banana Leaf and the lunchtime special at Hoppers, and so in critiquing a Sri Lankan restaurant's output, I'm well out of my comfort zone.

Of course this lack of experience would be a bit of an issue even if I loved a particular place - I didn't know what the hell was going on with most of what I was served at ABL, but I knew I liked it - but when a meal falls short, I'm on very shaky ground indeed. Is it even fair to criticise dishes based on sheer personal preference alone, without any way of referencing how they "should" have been served? What if a Sri Lankan restaurant blogger went to Rambla and marked down their (perfect, in this blogger's opinion) gazpacho because it came served cold? Maybe they would have preferred it hot; maybe it even would have been better hot (however unlikely that seems); but does knowing that traditionally gazpacho is served cold a precursor to qualified criticism? Or does anything go in restaurant reviewing on the internet?

Anyway, all the above is permission to take anything that follows in the totally subjective and largely uninformed manner in which it was written, and that however unimpressed I was with Vijaya Krishna, there's every chance if you went you'd have a great time. A maxim which applies to all the posts on this blog, come to think of it.

Cashew nut 'pakoda' were nice enough but I wouldn't really call them a 'starter', more of a bar snack. Half the portion size, and half the price, they'd be worth nibbling on while perusing the menu but I didn't detect any of the advertised curry leaves, chilli or ginger - and I don't think I'd order them again.

'Puri' must mean a very different thing in some parts of South Asia than others because I was expecting little golfball sized spheres of pastry containing chickpeas and tamarind water to pour into them. Instead, this arrived - a kind of wholewheat bread sandwich containing a small amount of decent, if hardly earth-shattering, prawn curry. I didn't hate it, but I just really like the other kind of puri, so I couldn't help being a bit disappointed. Which is hardly their fault, but still.

I very often order butter chicken to assess the skills of a South Asian kitchen because a) I love the stuff, and b) I've had so many over the years I can generally use it as a control variable. Vijaya's was fine, but the bits of chicken were a little dry, and the sauce just didn't have the depth of flavour of other versions. If you're interested, the absolute pinnacle of the butter chicken craft is served by Jamavar in Mayfair - hardly the same budget I know, but worth splurging on if you want to know exactly how good this ostensibly simple dish can get.

We were advised to order the Cochin prawn curry as a house speciality, but I can't say it deserved the title of a signature dish. Prawns were nice and plump and moist, and there were plenty of them, but the sauce was fairly generic and about 5 minutes after we'd eaten it I'd pretty much forgotten it ever existed.

Chicken '65 had a great flavour - much like Apollo Banana Leaf's - but were cut a little small and were dry and stringy, which APL's never are. Much like what had come before, it wasn't awful, not inedible, just dull and a little careless. Plus, not a huge portion for £7.90, it has to be said.

Fortunately, we were able to end on a high, because Vijaya Krishna's paratha is absolutely glorious. An utterly addictive texture, with folds of delicate crispness enveloping silky soft pastry, it was also buttery and rich enough to satisfy on every level. A very very impressive bit of work, and really the only thing approaching a must-order.

But you know what, no harm done. haven't got round to South London in their cheap eats guides just yet, so I'm very interested to see which of the Tooting stalwarts make the list. I've heard very good things about an Afghanistani grill house called Namak Mandi, and I do hope that Apollo Banana Leaf gets a mention, but if this meal has taught me anything is that even the most-recommended restaurants need the right audience, and perhaps the joy of these lists is merely to introduce people to new places and let them decide for themselves if they work for them. I probably won't go back to Vijaya Krishna, not with so many other options in the area, but I definitely am glad I've been. And sometimes, that'll do.


Friday 13 September 2019

The Opera Tavern, Covent Garden

There are a few restaurants - increasingly few - that despite at least one very pleasant meals at, I've for whatever reason never got around to writing up. My 40th birthday last November was an excuse to plug a few of the more glaring gaps (many thanks the Guinea Grill and Chez Bruce for countless good times), but to anywhere else I love that still remains unblogged I can only apologise and say that I'll hope to get round to it eventually. Promise.

So consider this post a very long-delayed response to so many very brilliant meals over many years at the Opera Tavern. This Italian-Spanish bistro, part of the very commendable Salt Yard group, arrived in Covent Garden at a time when decent Covent Garden dining spots were pretty few and far between. It immediately made a name for itself by offering what soon became its signature dish, a mini Iberico pork and foie gras burger, a revelation at a time when the Meatwagon's #meateasy popup in New Cross had only just got going, and Londoners had only just started discovering the joys of rare meat in a bun.

Weirdly - and slightly disappointingly - that Iberico burger appears to no longer feature on the Opera Tavern menu, at least not at time of press, but then perhaps that's for the best. These things are generally better in our memories than revisited, and there's every chance it would pale in comparison today to offerings from Bleecker burger or Zephyr in Peckham. Or maybe not. I suppose we'll never know.

What I do know is that there's still more than enough reasons to visit the Opera Tavern, burger or no burger, beginning with their excellent - I mean seriously excellent - jamon & manchego croquetas. These beautiful little mouthfuls of gooey bechamel spiked with top Iberico ham, glued into place with silky-smooth aioli, are alongside José Pizarro's, pretty much the best in town, and a must-order even if popping in briefly for no more else than a glass of cold sherry. Opera Tavern is competing in this year's "Croqueta challenge" taking place at sister restaurant Ember Yard, and on the basis of this, they stand a good chance of coming back with a (croqueta-shaped) trophy.

Padrón peppers, I realise aren't the most demanding dish a tapas restaurant could produce (even I've never managed to balls them up, and I once tried frying potatoes in a ceramic tray on the hob; it didn't end well), but are I think an essential part of any Spanish meal nonetheless. These were, as expected, all salty and crunchy in the right places but also contained a surprising number of quite spicy ones. Someone once told me that the percentage of hot padróns in any given batch is depending on the time of year - more in the summer, fewer in the winter; I'm not sure how true that is but I'm going to believe it until someone gives me a better explanation.

If I missed the nostalgic hit of the Iberico pork burger, this plate of smoky chargrilled chorizo took me right back to my first few months as a food blogger all the way back in 2007, waiting shivering in the line at Borough Market for a Brindisa chorizo roll. Here it came on a bed of chunky hummus, topped with sundried tomatoes and paprika-spiked chickpeas, and was as comforting and addictive as ever. Tapas - and Spanish food generally, outside of the most falutin' of 3* gastro-temples - is often defined by being stripped-back and simple, but there was actually quite a bit going on in this dish. It still worked, though.

Patatas bravas, invitingly golden brown but not over-crisp, arrived dusted with paprika salt and with a little pot of romesco (I think, or tomato - sorry I wasn't really paying attention I was too busy wolfing them down) sauce to dip them in. As an aside, this was a vegan dish, and like all the best vegan dishes (in fact the only good vegan dishes), it just happened to be vegan to begin with rather than being a bastardised version of something else with the dairy taken out.

Next, a wonderfully colourful tomato salad, involving huge sliced bull tomatoes, smaller cherry tomatoes, a lot of salt and good olive oil, and little sprigs of micro basil. I don't blame British restaurants for using home-grown tomatoes, or the best of the Isle of Wight which I often see mentioned on menus, but the simple truth is tomatoes grow best where there's lots of sun and very little rain, and the best tomatoes are Italian, or Spanish, and I'm going to make the most of them before Brexit kicks in and they cost £10 each.

Last of the small plates were these very deftly-fried courgette flowers stuffed with Monte Enebro goats cheese and drizzled in honey. Another Spanish classic, done brilliantly, perfectly balanced vegetal bitterness with sweet honey and rich dairy, satisfying in every way. They'd be a must-order, too, if there weren't so many other must-orders.

But speaking of must-orders, we had been invited here on this occasion for a reason. The "Sharing plate of Iberico pork" is 300g of the very finest black-leg pig, roasted to such a gasp-inducing softness of texture the only way I can describe it is that it's like the slow-roast duck they do at very top Chinese restaurants like Park Chinois, where the little slices of meat just seem to dissolve on the tongue. It came with little blobs of pepper sauce, and a kind of chutney, but really this was all about the stunning main ingredient - £30 for what is surely, by some distance, the finest pork dish in London. And if you don't agree, you haven't had it yet, simple as that.

So after all these years, the Opera Tavern - stately, seasoned, sensational - is still, in 2019, the pride of Covent Garden. Sorry - to them, mainly - that it's taken me so long to put my thoughts down but better late than never, and anyway I'm convinced that their food will have found even more fans in the next decade than the last, with or without the odd gushing blog post. A confident, mature operation that barely puts a foot wrong from the menu to the service to the polished surroundings, it is as close as this part of town gets to a Sure Thing - a crowdpleaser, reliably great at what they do. And there's hardly any greater compliment than that.


The above meal, and the incredible pork platter, were comped, but I have paid for dinner at the OT about 10-15 times over the last decade, and will do many years into the future.

Tuesday 3 September 2019

Pilgrim, Liverpool

At the risk of reducing a long-lasting inter-city rivalry down to a few trite observations, Liverpool, around 30 years ago, used to lag behind Manchester on three factors, each in its own way equally important to the self-respect of any Northern city. Firstly, shopping. I have very vivid memories of the gulf in quality between the rather depressed high streets of Liverpool, Church St and Bold St, and the flashy King St in Manchester and Kendall's department store with its car parks full of BMWs and Mercedes. Then there was the football - after a long period of dominance in the 70s and 80s which saw Liverpool and (occasionally) Everton trading places in the top spot, by the time Manchester's Class of '92 got into their stride it was all about them, and Liverpool (or Everton) never got a look in again. And then there was the food. Now, admittedly food in Manchester in the 90s was still Quite Bad but they at least had Simply Heathcote's and a Brasserie Blanc back when they were actually half decent, while nobody would eat out in Liverpool at all if they could help it.

These days, Liverpool has the L1 shopping district, which has been enough of a reason for Mancunians to make the journey west to do their own shopping, and Liverpool FC have made a very promising start to the football season. But my own particular focus has been what's happened to the food. You'll know about Roski, and Wreckfish, and Maray and every other answer Liverpool has to Manchester's increasingly brilliant dining scene. It's important not to overstate the case here - Manchester still has the edge - but the historic rivalries that have inspired so much healthy competition over the years have created a culture of risk-taking and innovation in both cities, with Liverpool very nearly now catching up.

The latest example of this is Pilgrim, an exciting new operation occupying the first floor of the Duke Street Food Market. This beautifully renovated (if somewhat noisy) food hall used to be partly grotty old warehouse and partly a 24h discount off license catering largely to clubbers at kicking-out time. The format of the downstairs food hall will be well known to anyone who's been to any of the Market Halls or Kerb streetfood venues, but of course what Liverpool can offer over any such venues in London is a chunk of spectacular 19th century industrial architecture to enjoy it all in, the vast skylit atrium and grid of suspended lighting lending the place a genuinely theatrical atmosphere. And, by happy coincidence, great lighting for photos, which is rather handy if you write a blog.

Also helpful if you write a blog is that there's plenty to talk about regarding Pilgrim's menu. Nominally the "theme" is of the food of North-West Spain, on the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostella, except it seemed at first that strict authenticity has made way for a kind of Galician-influenced Modern British style, with the odd Spanish ingredient (Morcilla, Pluma Iberica) served alongside more local seasonal vegetables (Jersey Royals). It all works though, thanks to the exquisite taste of the menu, which doesn't list a single thing you wouldn't want to eat, and - more importantly - because damn, Pilgrim can cook.

House bread is a kind of sourdough I think - bravely made on site (brave because Baltic Bakehouse is just round the corner and Liverpool knows good bread) but it acquitted itself well enough. Better was the smoked butter, which was so addictive we could have polished off about three times the amount that came on the plate.

Artichokes had a pleasingly stripped-back style, were all smoky and crunchy from the grill, and the saffron aioli had a lovely balanced flavour even if we could have done with a bit more of it. I don't think Pilgrim are deliberately stingy on their butter or sauce portions, but when things are this nice you just want a lot more of them.

Potato "terrina" with cured yolk next - egg and chips. And it was brilliant. The potato had been thinly-sliced, confit'd and fried to golden brown, and the egg, such a dark shade of orange it was almost scarlet red, had a wonderfully-judged texture just the right side of fudgy (as in, only very slightly fudgy). Add in some green beans, crunchy and vibrant, and you have a vegetarian Galician-British dish that hits every single pleasure point.

Less veggie-friendly but no less impressive was morcilla, black pudding filled out with rice that had a wonderful soft texture and deep, earthy flavour. With it came buttery girolle mushrooms, tender pieces of braised leeks and a handful of toasted almonds, a medley of textures, colours and seasonal flavours that stood up so well that the vegetarians on the table left me to the morcilla and enjoyed a very lovely veggie dish without it.

Everything Pilgrim serve is in some way noteworthy, and as you'll have noticed by now, most of it is brilliant, but this dish of "Fire-pit seasonal vegetables" probably deserves a blog post all to itself. I've had roast vegetable dishes before, some very good indeed, but none have had the sheer depth and richness of flavour of the examples on this plate. After polishing them off in a bit of a daze, we asked where these incredible specimen - fennel, potato, some roasted red peppers, nothing particularly unusual - had come from and were surprised to hear they'd been imported from Galicia. Which whatever you think about the food miles involved, makes a very good case indeed for the produce of NW Spain. I mean these were seriously impressive veg.

Also from Galicia was a few slices of Chuleta steak, "fillet" it said on the menu but the texture was more like bavette (and of course none the worse for that, I love bavette). Being the only red meat eater on the table that day there was only so much of the main courses I could manage by myself - I would love to have tried the Iberico pork, maybe another day - but by this point, Pilgrim had done more than enough to convince us that this was one of the most exciting restaurants to ever open in the city.

So, on a high and sure we were in safe hands, we went for a brace of desserts. "St. James Tart" (Tarta de Santiago) was a cute little spongecake served with alcohol-soaked cherries and ginger cake (I think) crumbs...

...and the daily special dessert, roast peach, all caramelised from the grill, served with an excellent house ice cream.

The bill, with a bottle of wine and a glass of sticky to go with the desserts, came to £32.90 a head. A huge amount of very good food, served by extremely capable people (you hardly had to look up at all to get what you needed - staff appeared to be everywhere at all times), for another almost obscenely small amount of money. I mean, even if you factor in Advance Return tickets from Euston and a night in an AirBnB, that still sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

And Pilgrim is worth making a journey for and then some. Absolutely everything that's exciting and life-affirming about paying other people to cook your dinner all wrapped up in a bright, breezy, friendly package, it deserves to be in the Liverpool must-do Premier League alongside the Albert Dock and the tour of the Beatles' homes. After so many years of not quite making a coherent case for itself, all of a sudden Liverpool's food and drink options (side note: please try Bunch, Liverpool's first all-natural wine bar, on Berry St for an aperitif) are something the city can be genuinely proud of. We've never had it so good.