Wednesday 30 October 2019

CoCo Ichibanya, Covent Garden

Over the years I've tried a few times to boost the number of shorter, single-item reviews on this blog, but for whatever reason - guilt of judging a place from only one dish, the worry that anything less than a 1800-word treatise on the state of the world making it look like I'm being lazy - there's not many made it through the decision-making stage. But I'm going to write about CoCo Ichibanya based on one plate of food that took about 10 minutes to eat one Wednesday lunchtime because this one dish is, after all, what they're famous for the world over, and because it's really rather good and deserves as many people talking about it as possible.

On a trip to Japan in 2011, our little group was drawn into the Kyoto (I think it was) branch of CoCo by the Westerner-friendly pictorial menus and decently fast-food prices. I remember it being a fairly brief, but nonetheless pleasant experience, and the name stuck with me for the rest of the trip as a place to get reliably good katsu and where I could point at what I wanted on a menu rather than attempting a challenging combination of phrasebook research and full-body mime. It was a lot easier ordering chicken than pork, let me tell you.

In London, fortunately, the language barrier is no longer an issue, though staff are no less friendly and well-drilled. There are some cosy booths - always, absolutely the best type of restaurant seating - but as a solo diner I was led towards a row of window stools, which were nonetheless nicely spaced and pretty comfortable. This ain't no Kanada-Ya St Giles where you run the risk of jabbing a stranger in the ribs whenever you try and scoop up some noodles.

To be perfectly honest, I knew what I was going to order before I stepped through the door, but a quick flick through the menu revealed a surprising number of customisation options for your curry which I don't remember from Japan. There's all sorts of bizarre extras - cheese, kimchi, natto, omelette - and if you're in the mood you can have a whole hamburger patty plonked on top of your katsu, both things to be soaked in curry sauce of course. Resisting the temptation to order a sausage and eggplant curry with added calamari rings and clams, or pay a £3 premium for an extra half a kilo of rice, I settled for the rather more sane control option of pork katsu.

And it was, despite the journey of 6,000 miles and eight years, still worth cooing over. Breaded pork cutlet was greaseless and a nice firm texture, not dry or chewy but with just enough of a bite to keep its shape. The rice was fluffy and light, cleverly holding together even when used to sponge up the gravy, really the ideal texture. And the 'Level 2' chilli level spicing was just - only just, mind you - the right side of bearable, cleaning the sinuses and warming the cockles on this dreary London October day. I dread to think what 'Level 5' (the maximum chilli factor) is like, they must have to have St John's Ambulance waiting in the wings like they used to do at the Grillstock Chilli Eating Competitions in Bristol.

The bill came to £15.98 including service charge, and was worth every penny. Yeah it's a couple of quid more than the anaemic Wagamama version - fine if you're stuck at Heathrow T5 but hardly worth bothering with otherwise - and those cardboard pots they keep warm in the cabinets at Wasabi all day, but as far as I'm concerned you get exactly what you pay for, which is one of London's better (if not actually the best, though I'm no expert) katsu curries, straightforward, attractive and authentic. I arrived for a very early lunch (as I am wont to do), but by the time I left, there was a queue outside. As there should be. Welcome to London, CoCo Ichibanya. I think you'll like it here.


Monday 28 October 2019

Kahani, Chelsea

The cliché, repeated often enough that it's usually accepted as fact, is that the more well off a suburb of London is, the less likely you are to find anything good there to eat. Hampstead, Holland Park, St John's Wood, these are lovely areas to visit (I particularly recommend a walking tour of the Beatles locations in St John's Wood as I did a couple of weekends back), but once you start feeling the pangs of hunger you're better off jumping on a bus and eating somewhere else.

Chelsea used to be firmly in the "too posh for dinner" category (notwithstanding the existence of Medlar, which is, and always was, brilliant) but interestingly, and quite happily as far as I'm concerned as I live only a short bus ride away, the area around Sloane Square seems to have become a bit of a center for high-end Indian food. Kutir took over from the old Vijay Bhatia site (itself rather highly regarded back in the day, so I'm told), and is worth a trip to the area alone, especially given its incredibly reasonal (for Chelsea) prices and special game menus. And a short walk the other side of Sloane Square is Kahani, where I enjoyed an absolutely wonderful series of dishes last week.

I nearly described Kahani as "new" in that last paragraph, but apparently it's been open since 2018. I guess that's the point of these invites, to reintroduce the public - or at least a dedicated handful of overeager restaurants spods like me - to somewhere that for whatever reason has slipped off the radar. Or even to remind people that it is worth travelling to Chelsea for dinner after all. And in the case of Kahani, it really, really is.

There's been a worrying trend in some high-end Indian subcontinent restaurants to steer away from the traditional pre-order snack of poppadums and chutneys, and to consder them somehow a bit lowbrow. There's a part of me sympathises - if you are charging £100 instead of £20 for their dinner, you want to end up with as little about the expensive experience that's in common with the budget option as possible, otherwise people are going to wonder where the money's gone. But the thing is, authenticity and sophistication be damned, I love poppadums and chutneys and consider any meal that doesn't start with them a wasted opportunity. Plus, if Jamavar can do a classy version, with interesting chutneys and cute little cone-shaped poppadums and fried plantain chips, there's no excuse for anyone else not to make the effort. These were perfectly nice, though the chutneys all tasted rather similar, and I missed a coriander and chilli version.

Cocktails were great fun - just the right side of eccentric to be interesting, and well-constructed enough to taste worth the money being asked. The "Chacotic" was particularly good, a barrel-aged negroni spiked with woodsmoke, which filled the air with intoxicating autumn aromas.

Spiced chickpeas were colourful, involved plenty of interesting textures, and was impossible not to enjoy. The match of chickpea with tamarind has plenty of precedent in Indian food - I will never forget the late, lamented Kastoori in Tooting's pani puri, which were always a must-order - but sometimes the classic combos are classic for a reason.

"Black chicken" was, well, certainly as described, darkened with a thick coating of roasted spices and absorbing so much light my photo has them looking like lumps of charcoal. Fortunately though, that's where the similarity ends, as they were beautifully tender and boasting deliriously complex spicing.

One of the signs a restaurant knows what it's doing when it comes to seafood is that no matter how large or unweildly the animal in question, the kitchen will always have it turn out soft and moist to the very last inch. These smoked malabar prawns were great big chunky things but the meat fell satisfyingly out of the shell in one piece, and the spice mix made the most of the flesh without overwhelming or fighting it. Very nicely done.

Guinea fowl tikka were similarly sensitively cooked, with a good texture (not always a given with guinea fowl, whose leanness can foil even in the best kitchens) and addictive cream-tomato sauce.

And last of the grilled items, lamb chops - more complex spicing, and top-quality meat touched with a gentle crust but which inside was pink and meltingly tender. All of the these dishes had been so good we'd had no trouble in hoovering them all up but I think by the time the last of the lamb chops had gone to the great tandoor in the sky, our capacity to carry on was being somewhat challenged.

Sensing our valiant struggles, Kahani did what every Indian restaurant worth its salt would do to a reviewer, and decided to bring all of the rest of the menu at once. So, here's a giant slow-cooked lamb shank about the size of my head, which had a fantastic firm texture and came soaked in a sauce that would have been worth the journey all by itself. I think I managed about a teaspoon's worth of it.

Also, chicken "Makhani", yet more beautifully cooked cubes of chicken in a tomato-cream sauce, so good that the fact I was utterly unable to fit more than a single forkful in my mouth was a matter of profound despair.

Jeera aloo, a marvellous soft spiced potato side that was fragrant and comforting and precisely spiced, was another reason to curse my inadequate appetite.

Bread was nice, too, of course, fluffy and buttery and light. I don't think I managed any of this, just stared at it wistfully until it was time to clear up and leave.

I should point out that excellent front of house at Kahani, enthusiastic and attentive and determined to kill us as they were, tried very hard to persuade us to have a dessert. Each. We declined, as apologetically as we could through the pain and promised to come back and try them at some point soon, perhaps with the English rugby team in tow, or at the very least a hungry dog.

Anyway, you'll be pleased to know none of that food went to waste. Kahani happily provide takeout bags, and that incredible lamb shank, the chicken makhani, the potatoes and the bread made a supremely enjoyable buffet lunch the next day. Indian food usually reheats superbly, high-end Indian food doubly so, and Kahani's is no exception. So if you do over-order, a very real possibility given a menu that reads this well even if you're not being treated, or if the front of house sweet-talk you into ordering an entire roast sheep on top of the hardly modest selection you'd hitherto come up with, remember that they may not necessarily, despite first appearances, be trying to kill you. They may just want to make sure you have enough in for lunch the next day.

That's Kahani, then - an excellent addition to the Sloaney neighbourhood, and another high-end Indian restaurant very much worth visiting. Even if Chelsea never quite becomes a destination dining area, there's increasingly enough to recommend it as a diversion, and perhaps that'll do for now. After all, even Shoreditch had to start somewhere.


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

Thursday 24 October 2019

Wreckfish, Liverpool

The key to a successful local restaurant, he says almost as if he has a clue what he's talking about, is to allow a certain degree of flexibility in ordering. If you want your place to become a regular's regular, you need to take into account the different reason people eat out, and the range of budgets different diners have. This doesn't (necessarily) mean a large menu with lots of options because that too often ends up stretching a kitchen's skills too thinly and running the risk of some ingredients hanging around in storage for longer than they should. Instead, let people have the option of piling on starters, mains, a huge sharing steak for two, desserts and a cheeseboard, with fizz to start and port to end, if they like, on some occasions. But also allow for a less extravagant meal another night, with a selection of more modest ingredients served for an attractive amount of money at quieter times.

Wreckfish, as you might expect from a group that know exactly how to run a local restaurant, covers every one of these eventualities with taste and style. There's the A La Carte menu, offered all day long, with 8 starters and 8 mains that run the full gamut of dietary demands from game and charcuterie through to seafood and even vegan. There's a brunch/breakfast menu, which I am yet to try but judging by the tables taken on Saturday morning is clearly doing something right. There's a Sunday lunch menu which offers the usual roasts alongside a few refugees from the ALC, and there's what we dropped in for at 6:30pm on a Monday, the early evening set menu.

Does this look like a dish from a £22 3-course menu to you? A neat square of mackerel fillet, blowtorched to a crisp skin and served with neat blobs of yoghurt, cubes of poached apple, a disc of kohlrabi sprinkled with an incredibly addictive seed and spice mix, and all those geometric shapes framed by two jagged pieces of cracker. A masterclass in presentation, which of course would mean nothing if it didn't taste that good but the veg and dairy made a brilliant combination, the mix of textures were spot on, and the mackerel was nice and fatty even if it probably didn't quite need the amount of salt they'd piled on top of it.

Ox tongue, served in neat rows and drizzled with olive oil like beefy anchovies, had a fantastic flavour and none of that grainy toughness you sometimes get with this kind of offal. Celeriac remoulade was nice and herby and fresh, and spears of gherkin provided a touch of sweetness and acidity. None of these ingredients are expensive, you'll notice - just presented and treated as if they are. And that's the kind of attitude I like.

Carrot and caraway soup arrived piping hot, as indeed it should, except thanks to a combination of the thick ceramic bowl it was in, and the dense texture of the broth itself, managed to stay too hot to eat for about 20 minutes. When it did finally settle down we were able to appreciate the fragrant effect the caraway had on the carrot, which was even better soaked into some of the supplied foccacia. All the Elite Bistros do very nice focaccia.

Sea bream, as carefully cooked as the mackerel, with a nice crisp skin, rested on a bed of butternut squash risotto - something I wouldn't choose as an accompaniment myself but the person who ordered it seemed happy enough. Some buttered spinach and a scattering interesting herbs including something called 'sea rosemary' completed the picture, a straightforwardly enjoyable, attractive fish dish.

Even further out of my comfort zone than butternut squash risotto is this vegan favourite, roast cauliflower, but I tried a little bit of it and you know what, it was rather good. If you were a vegan and were used to being served nothing better than a falafel burger on any given night out I imagine you'd enjoy it even more.

Maple glazed "bacon" was in fact a thick square of cured pork belly, nicely treated and attractively presented but just a tad the wrong side of overwhelming. I like pork belly, and bacon, very much, but there's really only so much it's comfortable to eat in one go, and though I appreciated the quality of the pork, and the gribiche, and the broccoli, it was touch and go whether I could finish it at one point. I did, though. I'm good like that.

We had no such issues finishing off the desserts, because they were all brilliant. Salted creme caramel crème brûlée (my bad, thanks commenter Pete) was flattering in its simplicity, just a bowl of vanilla-spiked custard, not too salty, topped with a delicate crust of set sugar.

Poached pear was a very attractive thing, glowing an incredible luminescent yellow and paired (sorry) with a blob of smooth vanilla ice cream and some tangy smushed-up (I believe is the technical term) Sauternes jelly.

And finally, semifreddo, which on account of my aversion to caffeine I didn't try much of other than (obviously) nicking a bite of the honeycomb which I think I might be addicted to.

The total bill came to £88, which is just over £29 a person for three courses and a bottle of wine, pretty astonishing value for an evening meal even if the food had been half as good. And Wreckfish don't even automatically add on a tip - we left one, of course, as service had been absolutely spot-on, but then I don't think I've ever had cause to complain about front of house at any of Sticky Walnut, Burnt Truffle, Hispi or Kala. Maybe Pinion - the only one of the group I'm yet to patronise - is staffed by belligerent ne'er-do-wells, but something tells me it isn't. And something tells me it's going to have to go on the list as well. Meantime, I'm able to chalk up yet another great place to eat in the North West, this handsome building, populated by handsome people serving handsome food, right in the centre of the handsomest city in the country.


Wednesday 23 October 2019

Llys Meddyg, Newport, Pembrokeshire

Although, in the end, our meal at Llys Meddyg turned out to be (spoiler alert) really quite good, it did not get off to the best of starts. It's not that the welcome at their basement bar wasn't warm, or that there was anything to complain about in terms of the comfort of the seating or the volume of the sound system, but when my request for a selection of their advertised 'foraged cocktails' was met with a gasp of "oh God, I'll have to look up the recipes", it seemed to suggest that perhaps bar work wasn't this particular member of staff's strongest skill. I watched with increasing horror as huge copa glasses were filled with vodka, gin and who knows what else (or maybe I just don't want to know), two ice cubes per glass to ensure the temperature of the final mixture was only just under room temperature, and finally a thin scattering of random herbs, lending the unfortunate things the look of something a toddler may proudly present as "tea" after an afternoon playing in the garden. So far, so bad.

But once settled upstairs under the twinkling fairy lights of their tastefully rustic dining room, things started to go a lot better. The menu seemed to involve a great many of my favourite things (crab, pigeon, cockles) and made a point of featuring ingredients smoked in their own back garden smokehouse, which tends to suggest an operation with a certain amount of ambition. House bread was soft and crunchy in all the right places, and (gordal?) olives plump and full of salty flavour.

My own starter of pigeon would have been perfect - literally perfect - if it had just been seasoned a bit - well, a lot - more. Carefully butchered and beautifully timed to pink inside, a bolder hand with the salt would have made the most of its lovely gamey flavour. That said, the parsnip mash was silky smooth, and poached blackberries (presumably from the garden) were another tasteful, and colourful, accompaniment.

The aforementioned house-smoked salmon fortunately did not suffer from lack of seasoning, and came artfully folded around radish, beetroot and toasted hazelnuts. I realise it look a bit anaemic above - this was not the case on the night, it was just very dark in there and my pics have needed a bit of Photoshopping to make them even vaguely usable.

Last of the starters was Solva (a very pretty little fishing village further west towards St Davids) crab, huge mounds of it, fluffy and fresh, studded with pickled kohlrabi and cherry tomatoes. But the highlight of this dish wasn't the crab - lovely though it was - but a little jug of what they called "tomato water", a clear but powerfully flavoured liquid that tasted of summer itself. A truly wonderful thing.

I had my eye on a main of cod and crayfish tails, and seeing that a few bits and pieces on the menu were foraged or home-grown, asked our waitress if the crustacea had been netted locally. She darted off to the kitchen to ask, and came back with the answer that they were from "the North Atlantic". After it was pointed out that crayfish are a freshwater species and if they'd been fished out of the North Atlantic they'd have been very lost indeed, not to mention rather ill, she disappeared again, only to return with the same answer - North Atlantic, specifically "Subarea VI". I half thought about ordering it just to see what on earth would turn up, but in the end my desire for a nice dinner overcame my curiosity and I ended up with the lamb. Much like the pigeon, this otherwise carefully cooked shoulder of lamb would have been faultless if seasoned a bit more boldly. A shame, but there was still plenty to enjoy in the rich, tender meat and foraged sea vegetables (samphire, and sea beet).

If miso carrot, smoked tofu and spiced gnocchi sounds like a rather eccentric collection of ingredients, well, you're not wrong. But actually, other than the fact we didn't quite work out what was "miso" about the carrots (they just tasted of normal roasted carrots), it worked surprisingly well. It probably could have done with losing an ingredient or two, but the gnocchi were well made and toasted peanuts added a nice crunch.

Best of the mains though was sea bass, caught that morning (so we were told) and cooked to absolute perfection, with a gently transluscent centre and delicate crisp skin. A little potato dauphinoise was indulgently creamy, and pickled mustard seeds were an interesting texture, but really this was all about the fish, which was worth the price of admission on its own.

Desserts were a little more uneven. An apple "tarte tatin" had a very thin amount of soggy pastry, and tasted unsatisfyingly savoury. Also, the "crème fraîche" ice cream on top was unpleasantly sour.

Peanut butter parfait was better - you can't really go wrong with peanut butter and banana, and the vanilla ice cream on top was really good. Still, part of me wishes we'd steered away from the desserts and just ordered the Welsh cheeseboard. There are some really good cheeses in Wales.

All in all though, despite Cocktailgate and Crayfishgate and the odd bit of underseasoning, there was still more to enjoy at Llys Meddyg than criticise. It's not a destination restaurant, but isn't really trying to be, it's just a friendly, relaxing place to spend an evening serving local food well enough to easily be worth the money they're charging for it (in this case, £33 a head with a bottle of wine, which is great value I'm sure you'll agree), and, well, sometimes that'll do. We very much enjoyed our weekend in this most beautiful part of the country (Llys Meddyg is a hotel as well, and the rooms are lovely), and will have very fond memories of it. As long as we try and forget those cocktails.


Wednesday 16 October 2019

Coastal Foraging with Craig Evans, Pembrokeshire

I can't imagine any holiday or short break of any kind that doesn't in some way revolve around food, but this trip to Pembrokeshire was a little unusual. Instead of hanging the weekend around a Top 50 Gastropub or high-profile foodie favourite, our signature Saturday night meal would be something of an unknown quantity, at a boutique hotel in the pretty coastal town of Newport, reviewed well for its rooms and location but with very little to go on when it came to the food. My interest had been piqued by the existence of a kitchen garden, various mentions of foraging on the menu and the fact they ran their own smokehouse, but more than that, I was in the dark. To be honest, it could have gone either way.

So as insurance against a potentially disappointing dinner, we had organised what would surely be the runaway highlight of this weekend, and indeed would turn out to be most probably the highlight of the rest of the year - an afternoon seafood foraging with YouTube star Craig Evans. For those of you who don't know, Craig has built up a dedicated following for his short videos of himself hauling a bewildering variety of shellfish and crustacea out of the Pembrokeshire coastal sands. The video in particular that got me hooked involved Craig, up to his neck in murky tidal water, fishing around with his bare hands in a terrifying dark crevasse, before triumphantly swinging around and belting the camera with a giant blue lobster. Free lobster! It's the foodie's dream.

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Foraging! With @coastal_foraging_with_craig

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Off we went, then, to a secret location near Carmarthen Bay (Craig, quite understandably, guards his favourite spots quite closely) to meet the man himself, another dedicated foraging fan, and his handsome dog Llew, a golden retriever with a gentle personality and a pull on the leash like a grizzly bear. First stop, to make the most of the extreme low tide, was an area of mussel beds beneath a promentary, where a good haul of plump shellfish were frantically wrestled from the rocks and bagged up in the 15 or so minutes we had before the tide started to creep back in.

Next, a walk along the beach to raid the cockle beds, a much more leisurely and almost theraputic persuit. You drag your fingers through the sand a few inches from the surface, and before long begin to bump up against the cockles, sturdy little things about an inch across. With a trained eye (ie. Craig's) you can dig up a couple of dozen every minute, although even I managed enough to dress a bowl of vongole. In the same fertile area of the bay, though, lurk some real monsters - soft-shelled clams, the size of your fist, which live about a foot under the surface. Grabbing one of these guys is a case of looking for a tell-tale circular depression in the sand and scooping away the top layer. If you are rewarded with a squirt of water (as the clam's siphon is retracted), then this spot is occupied. Then it's just a case of digging, and digging, and digging until you reach far enough down to carefully (their shells are fragile, and a broken shell means an inedible clam) bring the thing to the surface.

Before long we had more than enough to feed our party, so we headed to the back of the bay, where fresh running water made the cleaning of the haul easier, and lit the "Solva Stove" (Swedish candle), a clever bit of engineering which heats up a pan of fresh seafood just long enough to cook it before collapsing sustainably and environmentally into carbon. And of course, it all tasted wonderful. With no seasoning other than the animals themselves, we each enjoyed a bowl of richly-flavoured broth, studded with sweet cockles, miniature shrimp (that Craig had found the same morning), wild garlic (ditto) fleshy mussels and, on the side, carefully filleted portions of soft-shelled clam, meaty like squid. We ate our bowls of seafood, surely the freshest and most satisfyingly procured lunch it's possible to imagine, sat on the rocks in the bright Pembrokeshire sunshine. Then, when the final bits of clam had been handed out, we cleared up, headed back up the cliffs and left hardly a trace we'd ever been there at all.

Almost as soon as it was over I wanted to head back down to the beach and start the hunt for more clams, but who knows if my foraging skills will stay with me. Maybe it's like when you help with cooking a meal with a very talented cook friend, and by the end of it start to think you've got the hang of it, but the next time you attempt anything on your own it's a disaster. Or maybe that's just me. But even if the skills don't stick, and I never haul another half-kilo clam out of the ground with my bare hands again in my life, what an experience, what a day and what an incredible education on the bounty of our shores. I'll never look at our coast in the same way again - what once were barren stretches of sand and inhospitable rocks, I'll now see for what they really are. Lunch.


Bit silly to score a foraging course the same way I would a restaurant, but look, I've gone and done it anyway. Craig refused payment for the foraging afternoon even though we were more than willing to pay, so I suppose this is a kind of invite. So I mention it just for full transparency. Book your own course, year round on his website (he has customers from all over the world). Oh, and finally, to read a much better and more thorough interview with Craig get yourself a copy of Pit Magazine issue 6. A little plug for my mate's mag, there. For the meal at Llys Meddyg, watch this space...