Monday 25 November 2019

Master Wei, Bloomsbury

Another day, another unlikely back alley in Bloomsbury, another cracking little noodle place. For this one I have not only - again - a review in the Guardian to thank for pointing me in its direction, but also certain Twitter users who saw my delight in other local noodle shops and thought I'd like to add another to the list. And I very much did like.

Master Wei is by the same people as Xi'an Impression, a similarly no-nonsense little operation up next to the Emirates stadium and which has its own intensely loyal fan base. Like there, the food at Master Wei is notionally from Xi'an in central China, so big bowls of hand-pulled "biang biang" (pronounced, I discovered, pretty much as it's spelled) noodles, various other ways with hot-and-numbing spices, and interesting bits and pieces of street food such as their take on a "beef burger", a soft bao bun with a spiced beef mince patty.

So far though, across two trips, I've stuck mainly to the noodles, although that didn't stop me trying a small plate of cold shredded chicken with spicy sauce. It's not the most visually arresting plate of food you're ever likely to see in your life, but boy does it pack a punch of flavour - sweet and sour and soft, with an oily, chillified sauce that was so moreish I ended up scooping out the dregs with a spoon.

But the star of any meal at Master Wei's will be the hand-pulled "biang biang" noodles. Almost impossible to eat without making a complete tit of yourself (I may be projecting here), the noodles themselves are thick and healthy looking things, charmingly irregularly shaped and with an immensely pleasing, firm bite. Draped in chilli oil and woven in with a few bits of bok choi, they would have been more than worth the effort even without generous chunks of beef, which managed to be soft and full of flavour without being stringy or dry. Quite the achievement.

There was a different style of noodles to go with the minced pork and veg in this dish - thinner, rounder "hand-pulled" noodles which had all the same vitality and bounce but were a damn sight easier to roll onto the chopsticks to eat. The pork was coated in a dark, sticky, treacle-y sauce, perhaps more towards the kind of thing you'd expect from a Cantonese rather than Xi'an restaurant but I'm sure I'm no expert - it was still lovely.

Finally, Xinjiang style chicken noodles, the pieces of poultry "butchered" in that technically they were no longer part of a chicken but without much in the way of jointing or aesthetical considerations. I didn't mind, though, as the flesh was nice and tender, the noodles (biang biang again) were still hearty and comforting and the broth, this time a more soupy affair with chunks of potato and chilli floating about, was complex and rewarding right to the last drop.

I've never had to wait for a table at Master Wei, but I think I've been lucky (and I don't mind eating early if there's nice noodles to be had). Staff (efficiently, if a bit stoney-faced) can re-jig tables to suit the walk-in parties but I have seen groups sat shivering in the cold outside, especially towards 1pm. But why wouldn't you expect to wait a bit, or be a bit flexible with your lunchtimes, for food this good? Certainly the Chinese students of nearby UCL and LSE, who I'm guessing we have to thank for the demand that keeps Master Wei in business, know they've got a good thing going here and pack the place out every day, without fail. And though the bill isn't bargain-basement, it seems very reasonable. You do, after all, get plenty of biang biang for the buck.


Thursday 21 November 2019

Norma, Fitzrovia

As much as you can ever be sure about these things, I was sure I would enjoy Norma. So sure that I booked a table for the day of my birthday. So sure that I invited 5 of my closest friends (6 if you count the baby) to enjoy it with me. Convinced that so many positive reviews couldn't all be wrong, and the necessity of making a 5:45pm reservation on a Wednesday night indicating that so many members of the public couldn't be wrong, either. So sure, as I bounded into this beautifully decorated space on Charlotte Street, with its spotlit booths and gleaming crudo bar that absolutely everything would, this particular evening, go my way.

We started, because it was my birthday, with cocktails. My own, called "The Bronte Pistachio", came served, for reasons only known to them, in a bowl, meaning that instead of picking it up to drink you leant over the table and sucked it up with a straw. It tasted fine, a bit subdued and with quite a few shards of ice floating around in it suggesting that someone behind the bar hadn't used the correct filter, but you know, fine. A friend's "Alchemist" was sweet and bland, needing a lot more of the advertised lemon. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the food arrived.

We balked slightly at the £4.50 each price tag on Norma's West Mersea oysters (they weren't even natives), and the rather left-field dressing (salted capers and fennel oil?) but nothing was going to stop me ordering oysters on my birthday so I brushed such concerns aside and ordered them. As soon as the first one slipped onto my tongue, I wish I hadn't. Adding salted capers to already incredibly salty oysters is an idea every bit as stupid as it sounds, and the fennel oil only served to make this festival of saline ever so slightly bitter and vegetal. These were genuinely unpleasant. But I was still sure everything would be fine as soon as the snacks arrived.

For a tantalisingly brief moment, everything was. Red prawns, surely one of the world's greatest seafoods, came dressed with a remarkably unobtrusive rosemary and orange dressing, and were every bit as sweet and soft and lovely as only the freshest examples can be.

Anchovies were decent, not the very best I've had even this month being a bit mealy in texture, but still ate pretty well and looked the part.

Spaghettini fritters were crunchy and gooey in all the right places, and came with a seriously addictive parmesan (I think) based dip which complimented them beautifully. True, it's probably not easy to mess up the deep-frying of balls of pasta and subsequent grilling with cheese, but even so, these were very fine things indeed, properly comforting comfort food.

And I don't think I've had a better cod's roe since Quality Chop House, and as anyone who's ever tried their version will tell you, that's high praise indeed. It was so silky smooth and packed full of flavour that all 6 of us fought to polish it off, but because it was my birthday I won the battle for the second helping. So would everything be alright in the end?

In a word, no. The red prawns, the spaghettini and the cod's roe were merely a brief tick up from the downward trajectory, and with the arrival of the giant saffron arancini (singular, so surely 'arancino'?), we were once again hurtling towards earth. In the same way as some people can't eat coriander because it tastes like soap, I have a weird immunity to the taste of saffron - no matter how much there is, I can't taste it. So for a full appraisal of this antipasto I will refer you to my dining companions, every last one of whom declared this dish "way, way too saffrony and pretty disgusting" whereas I just found it cloying and bland. So there you go.

Vitello tonnato needs to be made exceptionally well, with exceptional ingredients, to stop it being anything more than a plate of cold meat and mayo, and this was nothing more than that. The overwhelming effect was cold dairy (we found no trace of smoked eel), the veal only announcing its presence via being rather chewy and difficult to eat. Not fun.

It was about this stage in the evening that all the odd flavour combinations littering the menu at Norma, that seemed so quirky and intriguing while we were ordering, returned to show their true horrific forms. Strozzapreti would presumably have been quite nice with a simple tomato ragu, but Norma decided to add orange(?) and fresh mint(??) to theirs, the end result tasting a bit like a plate of party lasagne that someone had accidentally spilled a cocktail over.

Ravioli were unpleasantly hard, underseasoned and underflavoured, and the huge chunks of soggy broccoli they came with just looked - however unfairly - like an attempt to bulk out the main ingredient with something cheaper. Also, each of these hardly vast mountains of pasta were £16, punchy even by central London standards (a similar amount of the wonderful Spicy Pork & N’duja Mafalde at Bancone costs £11).

More out of hope than expectation, we ordered desserts. Mine was a fairly decent brioche bun (could have done with being a bit sweeter and less chewy, but fine) with a nice smooth salted caramel ice cream. Weirdly considering the rather meagre portion sizes elsewhere this was actually a bit too big, and even with a bit of help it didn't all get eaten.

But I fared a lot better than those who ordered the cannoli. A dreadful hush descended on our table as these were sampled, as we tried to work out exactly what we were eating. Bizarrely, inexplicably, they tasted of exactly nothing - not cream, not pastry, not sugar - just a complete absence of form and flavour, like tubes of Polyfilla wrapped in stale bread. Those with more knowledge of pastry work than me (hardly a high bar) suggested perhaps they'd used cornflour to thicken them artificially, but I can only offer this as (someone else's) educated guess. Whatever the reason, quite how anyone thought these things were good enough to serve was beyond any of us.

I should try and claw back a few positives from what still ended up being an entertaining - if largely for the wrong reasons - birthday dinner. Staff did occasionally forget to fill up glasses and left old glasses hanging around quite long, but overall were attentive and friendly and made the very kind gesture of gifting a bottle of sparkling Falanghina when they saw cards and presents being opened. They were also very accommodating when our party size changed 3 times in the course of the day, and made plenty of space available for a pram, meaning a newborn's sleep-deprived parents managed an evening out in the real world, a rare luxury I'm reliably told.

But overall, I can't think of many nice things to say about the food at Norma, and that is after all the main bloody point of the place. At over £60 each I can think of far better Italian restaurants worth your wages - start at Bancone in Covent Garden, for a start, or perch at the bar in a Barrafina for some top-notch crudo - and all the salivating reviews would have left me genuinely questioning my sanity had I not shared the experience with five other people who can all corroborate the above, including, embarrassingly, an Italian native who I left that cold November night shaking his head sadly and repeating "Why would they put orange and mint in pork pasta? Why?". Why indeed. Why indeed.


Thursday 14 November 2019

Allegra, Stratford

You've got to admire a restaurant with ambition, and Allegra is most certainly to be admired. It's in an ambitious (ie. risky) part of town, the somewhat untested waters (restaurant-wise at least) of Stratford, and for most people the first part of their evening will involve a half-mile walk through the grim Westfield Shopping Centre, hardly the kind of atmosphere to get you in the mood for fine dining. It's in an ambitious building, as well - the Stratford hotel, a vast new monolith towering over the old Olympic Park which boasts 145 rooms, a sky terrace and at least 4 bars and restaurants that I could see on my journey from the front door up to the 7th floor. And thanks to head chef Patrick Powell, ex- of Chiltern Firehouse, the food is as ambitious as anywhere in town serving modern, seasonal British food, with interesting seafood and premium meats in a number of eye-catching treatments. It's a menu that reads incredibly well, and sometimes that's half the battle.

Similarly ambitious is the drinks side of things, with an exquisitely tasteful (note: ambitious does not always equal tasteful) cocktail list, and a climate-controlled wine cellar (funny calling a room on the 7th floor of a brand new building a 'cellar' but I can't think of a better word) that they'll very proudly show you around. Incidentally, pictured above is a "Preserved in Time", involving rum, sherry and Cocchi Rosa (a bitter spirit a bit like Campari) infused with orange and plum marmalade, and tasted as elegant and balanced as it looks.

While we were enjoying our cocktails, these snacks appeared, if Instagram is anything to go by already something approaching a signature dish. Choux pastries filled with a smooth, salty chicken liver parfait and dusted with pistachio, they were an unbeatable combination of luxurious paté and light patisserie, attractive and dangerously addictive.

House bread came in two forms - a very decent sourdough (best applied with salted butter) and a genuinely lovely soda bread which we were told to spread with a little bowl of garlic salsa of some kind, which sounds weird now I've written it down but at the time worked rather well. It's getting to the stage where it's dangerously easy to take a good bread course for granted in London restaurants, but it's always a good idea to remember these things are never a given.

I used to be firmly of the opinion that oysters are better off un-messed-about with. A bit of lemon, perhaps, or a dash of tabasco but otherwise please leave unadorned - they're lovely enough things on their own. Over the years, that opinion has been challenged by a variety of very clever and very successful "dressed" versions at places like the sadly departed* [see edit] St Leonard's, who used pickled black pepper and wild garlic to extraordinary effect. Unfortunately, the "lemon ice" which Allegra saw fit to cover their oysters with was a neither clever nor successful idea - sweet lemon sorbet being about as inappropriate dressing for raw oyster as I can imagine. The flavour of the poor bivalves were completely lost, and the sorbet set your teeth on edge. Not fun.

Happily for all concerned, though, the oysters were merely a temporary lapse in judgement, as everything else we were served more than lived up to the hype. These are meticulously boned chicken wings and parmesan gnocchi, neither too firm nor too mushy, all dressed in a lovely autumnal mushroom froth. Classy and technically impressive, with pinpoint seasoning, I can barely think of a better thing to do with chicken and mushroom. Other than perhaps a pie.

Speaking of pies, the other starter was also a knockout. Pithivier, geometrically exact and beautifully bronzed, was stacked full of smoked eel sandwiched in a rich seafood mousse, and served alongside a vivid green garlic-parsley sauce. Like the chicken and gnocchi, this was a masterclass in cheffy technique but also - crucially - supremely enjoyable, comfort food elevated to fine dining. I think we could have polished off about 3 of these each.

For the main, because seafood seemed to feature so prominently on the menu and because really, how many other opportunities do you get to order a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot, we ordered a huge wedge of sake-steamed turbot. And it was fantastic - heady with alcohol but not bitterly so, meaty and dense and full of flavour, and served alongside plates dressed (a genius idea) with shards of crisp chicken skin and ribbons of pickled kohlrabi. With it came a cute little bowl of congee - lovely, but by this point I'm afraid the last thing we wanted to tackle was a thick bowl of savoury rice porridge. I'm sure if I'd had this by itself for lunch another day I would have demolished it.

There is, as we all know, a separate stomach for desserts, and with our valiant efforts to tackle the congee fading into the distant past we first attacked a treacle cake with cranberry jam, a deeply rewarding bit of pastry work that glistened like a sugary jewel...

...and this, a Douglas Fir granité with sour cream ice cream, pretty as a picture and a lighter, more perfumed counterpoint to the treacle tart if somewhat less interesting to eat. In fact in the interest of balance I should say that my dining companion really did not like the granité at all, but maybe she was just jealous of my tart.

Clearly, then, there's very little to criticise in what's coming out of the kitchens at Allegra. This is, objectively, a mature and profoundly capable operation serving the best of Modern British seasonal fine dining, at prices you'd expect to pay for food of this standard and I enjoyed it very much. As I said, it's a restaurant with serious ambition. I just worry whether this ambition is best realised in a rather soulless (it was about 30% capacity that Thursday evening, if that) new build on top of a shopping centre in Stratford. I suppose only time will tell. In the meantime, it comes thoroughly recommended. Just avoid the oysters.


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

EDIT: Apparently St. Leonard's has not closed. No idea where I got that from.

Friday 8 November 2019

Liu Xiaomian at the Jackalope, Marylebone

I may as well come clean - restaurant He and today's review subject weren't picked completely out of the blue. True, they were handy from the office and reasonably priced, but they were also, crucially, well-reviewed by Marina O'Loughlin in the Times, someone who has a fairly unblemished track record of recommending excellent places going all the way back to when she was the Metro's in-house critic. These days, thanks to a paywall and my own lifelong boycott of any Murdoch product (I'm from Liverpool) I only get to read the first couple of paragraphs, but it's usually enough to get the gist of the place. So thank you Marina for another lovely noodley lunch, and may one day your later paragraphs be revealed in full.

Much like He, Liu Xiomian offer a short, attractive menu of regional Chinese specialist dishes, in this case Chongqing, a sprawling province to the south east of Sichuan with whose cuisine it shares much in common - think hot, numbing soups studded with Sichuan peppercorns, and a fondness for hot pot. Your choices at their residence at the Jackalope in Marylebone (a lovely place to pub even if you're not eating) are wheat noodles, or glass noodles with either minced pork or "vegan" (not sure and don't really care), and a separate option of 10 x "numbing pork wonton". I ordered the pork noodles and wonton (spice level "hot"), because why the hell not, and was soon, via a Shake Shack style remote buzzer ordering system, rewarded with two very colourful bowls of Chonqingese loveliness.

I started with the wontons, as they felt like more of a starter. With an almost ethereally-light, silky texture they spoke of a kitchen right on the top of its dumpling game, and were so easy to eat they practically jumped down the gullet. The flavours were balanced and rewarding - a complex broth of chilli oil and spices, enough heat to clear the sinuses but enough pork for it to still be the main ingredient. Yes, they were very good, and I polished them all off in about 30 seconds.

Similarly the wheat noodles, clearly well made and with a good bounce, came topped with a generous amount of minced pork and more of that rich, hot red oily broth. Extra texture in the form of some toasted peanuts floating about amongst it all, a really nice little touch. Perhaps I didn't quite need two full bowls to myself for lunch, but I'm equally sure that just one wouldn't have been enough, so overall I think I played it quite well.

So yes, at £20 (plus £3 for a Sprite) for a noodle lunch this isn't perhaps quite as good value as He, or indeed other noodle joints in Chinatown, and as such loses a point. But even if this isn't an every day lunch spend, it's still exciting, fresh, handmade Chinese regional food, the kind of which you're unlikely to find in many (if any) other places in town, at least until they open their second branch at the Holborn Whippet, even more dangerously close to the office. Pray for me.

There we go, then, another friendly, exciting specialist Asian operation, authentic and honestly realised. God knows there's enough to be terrified of in Brexit Britain, but for as long as London remains open and welcoming to talented food people from all corners of the globe, we may as well make the most of it. I certainly bloody will.


Wednesday 6 November 2019

Restaurant He, Holborn

I honestly didn't plan it this way, but this and the next post are going to be short-but-sweet companion pieces to the CoCo Ichibanya review, focussing on single-dish, or at least ultra-specialised, Asian food. It's just a byproduct of the way I've been eating out recently - I spot an interesting development on Twitter, or mention in a national review, realise it's only a short walk or hop on the tube from work, and pootle on over there for a weekday lunch. I like to eat early, and so a midday lunch not only satisfies my compulsion to run my daily schedule a good hour and a half before the rest of the city, but also helps beat the queues at the more popular places. See? Win-win.

Anyway, the minimally-named He restaurant on Red Lion Street is apparently a Jiangnanese restaurant, and if all I knew about it before I went was that it was Fuschia Dunlop's favourite cuisine, well, that's only because she's the first result on Google for 'Jiangnanese'. Jiangnan is a province that includes the mega-metropolis Shanghai, so is hardly some rural backwater, and yet even in London, increasingly quite good at regional specialisation, this appears to the only (again, thank you Google) Jiangnanese specialist in the whole of the city.

But there's very little point into going into any more detail on the complexities of Jiangnan, mainly because I know bugger all about it, but also because I went to He just to try their £12 business lunch, and extrapolating any grand points about the benefits of otherwise of the cuisine in general would be futile even if it was fair. So without further ado, this is said menu, served 12-3pm, Monday to Friday:

...and this is what turns up when you choose chef's kimchi, steamed egg custard, chef's vegetables and Nanjing Beef Vermicelli Soup:

Of all the bits, only the kimchi was a little disappointing, being underpowered and weirdly sweet. But the rest was great, from the silky savoury custard, piping hot with a smooth texture and lovely salty soy flavour, to the soup itself, boasting a rich clear broth and plenty of bits of beef (and tendon!) and lots of noodles. Even the "chefs vegetables" were impressive, bright green florets of al-dente broccoli glistening in a salty oyster (I think) sauce, even if the presentation was a bit like a TV dinner.

Look, there's really not much more to say than that, but none of you really came here for detail, did you. I liked He a lot, and given it's about 5 minutes' walk from the office I can see myself making regular use of it. It's a nicely designed room as well, with whitewashed brick walls and nicely spaced tables, and very friendly and helpful service who get an extra point for dealing with the utter arsehole suit in the window who complained when they wouldn't let him swap in a much more expensive main into the lunch menu and still pay £12. That's not how this works, mate. I hope you choke on your vermicelli.

I don't know what we have to thank for the sudden proliferation of interesting Chinese restaurants in town - a sudden proliferation of Chinese students, probably, judging by most of my dining companions that lunchtime - but I'm absolutely delighted it's happening and absolutely determined to make the most of it. To complete this little trilogy, then, in the next few days I'll tell you about another little gem. Isn't this fun?