Thursday 17 December 2020

Rochelle Canteen, Shoreditch

Well, here we are again. Another brief gasp of freedom after another lockdown, another frantic opportunity to have as many meals out as possible before kitchens evolve back into makeshift field canteens, another half-assed set of contradictory measures that scapegoat restaurants, pubs and bars for a disease that is overwhelmingly and proveably transmitted mainly in schools, universities and care homes. The latest slice of nonsense is the Tier 2 "substantial meal" rule, meaning that to enjoy even so much as a half pint in your local you must order with it, well, nobody's quite sure - anything has been suggested from a £3 hot dog to a £25 steak and chips minimum.

It's hard to even know where to start with explaining just how unfair, unworkable and completely counterproductive this idea is. Firstly and most obviously, as mentioned above, there's no solid definition of what "substantial" means, so venues have been left to their own devices to decide how to enforce it. Some pub chains have insisted on at least a dish from the Mains section of the menu with each drink, a couple of places have brought in a special menu with things like £3 hot dogs to try and help keep the cost down. At least one pub I know of has a £2/head 'substantial meal' charge and will dump a large bowl of instant noodles on your table to accompany your entire night out. It's up to you whether you eat it or not.

The massive effect on food waste, is of course, the first obscenity. A walk through the open-air pubs and bars of Borough Market last week revealed groups of people sat next to giant piles of untouched boxes of food that they'd been forced to order with their mulled ciders, with no intention of being eaten. On top of this, the many drinks-led venus in London - and I'm not just talking about the pubs but also cocktail bars, craft beer tap houses, wine bars and the like - are having to choose between finding something - anything - to serve as food or to stay shut completely. Sitting outside, alone, in a beer garden, nowhere near any other human and being told you can't have a pint of IPA unless you order a burger to go with it is utter madness. None of it makes sense.

So for drinks-led pubs and bars the situation is critical. For restaurants, it's merely really, really bad. Nobody is having a great time of things in Lockdown Land but if you were lucky enough to be placed in Tier 2 or lower, have a nice garden to expand into, and - most importantly - are serving some of the best food in town, then you have a better chance than most of scraping through until the end of all this. And I am optimistic as it's possible to be about anywhere these days, about Rochelle Canteen.

Alongside a negroni - this was my very last lunch before Lockdown 2, but every meal out these days has a kind of desperate, end-of-days feel to it, as if it may all at any moment be suddenly swiped from under your nose like a stolen sausage from a naughty puppy, so I think starting each one with a strong cocktail is absolutely critical - we ordered most of the snacks including these neat little salt cod fritters, and a pork and rabbit terrine. Best of all of the snacks though was something described in that typical spartan St John way as "anchovy toast" but which turned out to be a gloriously salty and silky-smooth fish paste, mousse-like in its texture and utterly addictive. We had two of these - enough for half a slice each - but immediately wish we'd ordered many, many more.

Mussels were nice and plump and very enjoyable, but of course the main point of ordering mussels is to end up with a wine-y, seafood-y broth to dip sourdough into, and so that's what we did.

There was never any chance of my not ordering the only game bird on the menu, and the mallard was everything I needed it to be - tender enough but with a decent bite, skin beautifully bronzed and all of it sat on a mash that's best described as potato-flavoured butter. Perhaps I would have liked a somewhat more substantial sauce than the watery stock that surrounded it, but this is a minor niggle. It was still great.

I didn't manage to sample any of the roast pork before it all disappeared, but it looks decent enough doesn't it? Particularly that crackling which looks so light and brittle even looking at the photo I can clearly imagine the sound it makes when bitten into. Quite jealous I didn't, in fact.

Onglet had been simply prepared and simply presented, but by virtue of an excellent raw ingredient and the brave (and correct) decision to hold it for barely a passing moment over a heat source, it arrived addictively chewy and gloriously bloody. It's not a beginner's steak is onglet, it requires an honest appraisal of the relationship between man and cow, and a bit more effort in the eating, but is ultimately so much more rewarding than many much more expensive cuts.

Partly because we were enjoying ourselves so much, and also (mainly) because this was going to be our last lunch out in who knows how long and we wanted to squeeze every last drop out of it, we ordered the cheese course (two different cheddar-alikes which made up for lack of variety with a very decent taste and texture each), and a lemon pudding. And a chocolate pot. And a cheesecake. Oh, and a glass of Sauternes and two double calvados. And we regretted none of it.

It's about this time of year that normally I'd be thinking about which place to make my Restaurant of the Year. With a full four months where every food outlet in the country was closed, and with restaurants being very different places even when they were able to open, the decision has been made extra fraught this year; it seems a bit pointless to point anywhere out for particular praise when even simply surviving is an epic achievement. As I type this, London is back into Tier 3 - effectively lockdown - but with the vaccine not just theoretically "on its way" any more but actually already innoculating over 140,000 people there really is an end to all this in sight. And when we're allowed out again to eat and drink and be merry, it will be to places like Rochelle Canteen that will be waiting to welcome you, with a negroni, anchovy on toast and some potato-flavoured butter. Not long now, I promise.


Monday 2 November 2020

Chishuru, Brixton

A car park in Peckham. A concrete forecourt in Old Street. The back of a Piaggio Ape 3 wheeler van on Berwick Street. Some of our most beloved restaurants and food heroes made their first tentative steps to fame and fortune from some of the most unlikely corners of the capital, and in the most unlikely ways. It's almost impossible of course to know which startups and street stalls will eventually go big (or even global - RIP Meatliquor Singapore) but it seems London is good at nurturing food talent, and Londoners are good at spotting it - if you're good at what you do, there's a good chance you'll do well.

So there's a chance - an increasingly vanishing chance, but a chance nontheless - that Adejoké "Joké" Bakare's stunning modern West African food, served in her little corner of Brixton's Market Row, without pretention or fanfare, will not get the attention it deserves. But if I know London like I think I do, a city of impeccable taste and experiment still, despite everything that's been thrown at it recently, then you'll be hearing a lot about Chishuru over the coming weeks and months. And here's why...

This is "Ekuru", the first of countless reasons to visit Chishuru. A kind of vegetable mousse made by steaming certain kinds of peas - black-eyed peas amongst them our waitress said although she appeared almost as mystified by the dish as we were - it seemed impossible that it didn't contain any egg, as the texture was so firm yet light, and yet no, we were assured that it was entirely vegan. Topped with a pumpkin seed pesto, it also came alongside a dollop of the coyly named "Scotch Bonnet Sauce", a mixture so beguiling and complex with its battle of chilli and citrus that we fought over the very last drop of it.

Cassava fritters were crisp and greaseless, more than worth the effort by themselves. But they came with an extraordinary coconut and lime chutney which turned it into something else entirely, the match of root vegetable and coconut suddenly feeling like the most natural thing in the world.

Chicken "sweetbreads" were various bits of offal, a mixture of soft and crunchy and fatty but all grilled precisely so and topped with another masterclass in chilli/citrus saucing. All through the meal at Chishuru were little surprising flavour notes here and there - an unusual herb perhaps, or a texture - but there was nothing deliberately weird, nothing so crass as a texture or taste introduced just to shock. It was all, if not the definition of comfort food by most measures, definitely comforting food. Refined, and easily enjoyable.

Goat "ayamase" had shades of a top Malaysian rendang, with huge chunks of meltingly soft goat meat, slow-cooked into a rich spicy green pepper sauce. On its own it was the kind of thing you could eat bowl after bowl of and not get bored, but with the "Attasi" rice (made with various types of beans, and topped with colourful pickled peppers) to add a bit of starch it went down even easier.

Bavette suya was the last of the mains, pink strips of genuinely good beef (tender, but with a nice chew) dressed with a myriad of dried herbs that managed to showcase the protein without being the least bit either bland, or overseasoned. The beef was so impressive, in fact, we asked where they'd got it from, expecting to be told some artisan grass-fed herd out in the West Country, but apparently it's just from one of the butchers on Electric Avenue. Which as well as making a nice bit of symbiosis with local businesses, just goes to show you don't need blindingly expensive raw ingredients if you have a bit of skill with the seasoning.

Other sides included glazed plantain - nice, but as the chicken sweetbreads came with plantain as well we were a little plaintained-out, and a green leaf salad which I can imagine some people wanting around to counteract the densely meaty other dishes but which I couldn't really find much of a call for. Next time I think I'll just have another bowl of the Ayamase.

We'd pretty much made up our minds that Chishuru was one of the most exciting new restaurants in London as soon as the Ekuru arrived; everything that came after that was just a case of having our decision confirmed. Dishes of warmth and personality, matched equally by their skill and invention, by a singularly impressive young talent, well situations like this do not come along very often. It's just sheer bad luck that Bakare's career is beginning in the middle of a global pandemic, but I've every confidence that it will outlast it easily and go on to thrive. For £50 a head (we had a bottle of the Mestizaje which was the most expensive red on the list, but it was lovely and comes highly recommended) you too can have a small part in that journey, and in a few years time, you can say, you were there when it all started. One to most definitely watch.


Thursday 29 October 2020

The Brilliant, Southall

Those familiar with the richness and quality of the Punjabi restaurants in Southall may feel it's a bit of a wasted opportunity on my part to have travelled to the area just three times in a decade only to revisit the same place twice. I don't have a great excuse really; I'd love to try one of the Punjabi pubs - the Prince of Wales maybe, or the Sportsman - or sample the jalebi from Jalebi Junction, but I found myself back at the Brilliant thanks to a combination of near-constant praise from others, a few people on Twitter suggesting the place after a disappointing meal at Gifto's Lahore and, yes, a PR invite which meant that even if things didn't go well at least I'd only have to finance the service charge.

There's also the non-trivial factor of the journey home to Battersea taking an hour and a half. I don't mind travelling for a good meal, but I would have been a very unhappy chappy indeed if I'd ended up on TFL rail at 10pm after another experience like that at Gifto's. I needed a sure thing, and fortunately from the moment I stepped through the door of the Brilliant (half an hour early because I misremembered the journey being 90 minutes from the office, not 60) everything went swimmingly. Tables nicely spaced, other diners chatting happily in their bubbles, and a pint of ice-cold Kingfisher to welcome me in from the rain.

With three kinds of poppadums (baked, spicy and fried) the Brilliant offer a range of house chutneys and pickles, all home made (as you might reasonably expect) but also in some cases quite unlike any you might find elsewhere. Pickled carrots, for example, in a kind of earthy, nutty herb mix I couldn't quite place but which worked incredibly well. And a super-sharp lime pickle, the limes with a similar refreshing texture to preserved lemons, and dangerously addictive.

And from there on, you really couldn't fault anything about the Brilliant at all. These chops, which I seem to remember being vaguely disappointed by a decade ago, were vibrantly spiced, nicely charred and absolutely dissolved in the mouth into fatty, lamb-y heaven.

The Brilliant "butter chicken" is, like a lot of the things they do, a twist on the classic. Served unsauced, and on the bone, it had all the spice and complex flavours of the usual version but the stark presentation seemed to concentrate attention on the chicken itself, which (being on the bone) was beautifully tender and incredibly moreish.

Seekh kebabs were similarly accomplished, nicely browned from the grill but soft and sausage-y inside, boasting a powerful chilli kick and plenty of flavour. It's only when trying the 'mixed grill' stalwarts from a restaurant that really knows what they're doing that you realise how badly some other places have been getting it wrong. I shudder at the memory of the tubes of blitzed sawdust that are passed off as seekh kebabs in some places.

Papri chaat was a little wetter than normal - that's a lot of yoghurt - but no less tasty, containing nice crunchy chickpeas alongside pomegranete seeds for extra texture, and lovely sweet tamarind.

After troughing our way through so many starters (you really need a large group to make the most of dinner at the Brilliant - damn you, Tier 2) we only really had room for one main, and that task fell to the famous house Methi Chicken, a dark, complex sauce containing chunks of tender grilled chicken. Again, you will have seen dishes like this in restaurants across the capital, but the finest versions, like this, sing to a wonderful tune of their own.

There was, though, just about room to squeeze in a tarka dal, which balanced the usual dense butteriness with a nice hit of chilli and went down very well. Also a special mention to the Brilliant house breads, one a lacha paratha which was fatty and crunchy like the finest patisserie, and also a roomali roti (literally "handkerchief bread"), whose soft, stretchy rolls were perfect for mopping up the last of the Methi Chicken sauce.

Anything you don't quite have space for the Brilliant will happily box up and let you take home, so we toddled out into the wet Southall streets laden with leftover lamb chops, tarka dal and plenty of that lovely roti. The next evening, the reheated leftovers were somehow even better than I remembered on the night - this kind of stuff really travels incredibly well. So if you're still nervous about dining out, or indeed if you're a local and want to make use of the place when the inevitable second national lockdown hits, I can't recommend their takeout service enough.

Yes, it's all a bit up in the air at the moment isn't it. Eating out in late 2020 in the UK is both an exercise in wilful denial and making the most of it while you can - looking at upcoming events in my restaurant-spod diary I wonder how many I'll be able to make, and how many will have to be parked for happier times. Who knows. In the meantime I'm going to carry on as if the world as we know it isn't collapsing around our ears, and hope that if we do all have to put our lives on hold, for however long, when all these dark days become a distant memory and we re-emerge blinking into the sunlight there'll still be restaurants like the Brilliant to welcome us back. That's something to look forward to, isn't it?


I was invited to the Brilliant and didn't see a bill, but prices are online and I estimate our dinner for 2 would have been about £70 without booze, which isn't bad really is it.

Monday 26 October 2020

The Harwood Arms, Fulham

I last, and first, visited the Harwood Arms over a decade ago, at a time when Scotch Eggs (that's posh runny-yolk Scotch Eggs, not the little breadcrumbed rubber balls you get in the picnic section at Asda which was all we'd known previously) were becoming a delightful and exciting novelty in London gastropubs. The life of a noughties food blogger involved a lot of chasing around town for the latest greatest food thing, and though it seems rather pathetic and shallow now, it was great fun at the time. It probably seemed quite pathetic and shallow to lots of people at the time, too, actually, but that didn't stop us.

Anyway the Harwood Arms became known for its venison Scotch egg, a concept that had my name written all over it, so dutifully trotted down to Fulham to check it out one cold February evening. I loved it, of course - even then it was something approaching London food folklore, attracting awards and column inches from all over - and so it's a pleasure to report that in 2020 the Harwood are still right on top of their Scotch egg game. There's more venison meat than there used to be - this can only be a good thing - and it now comes with a little pot of tamarind (I think?) mustard sauce, but otherwise it was every bit as good as I remember, the platonic ideal of the posh bar snack.

But sorry, I'm getting ahead of myself. I should probably start by telling you what is different about a meal in the Harwood Arms in 2020. There's the Covid thing, of course, which means staff wear plastic visors and there's bottles of hand sanitiser everywhere, but the tables I think were fairly well spaced out beforehand, and doesn't seem to have affected the happy atmosphere inside. Back in the day, half of the pub really was a drinking pub - they even used to do a quiz on Tuesday nights - but that has long since been abandoned and now the whole building is a restaurant and only a restaurant. I understand the reasons for doing this of course, I just think calling it a gastropub these days is stretching the term a bit.

And one more minor criticism to get out of the way - the Harwood arms say they have a "focus on game and wild food", which is great, but we're right in the middle of game season at the moment, the specialist butchers (the ones that I've seen anyway) groaning with pheasant and partridge and grouse and mallard, and yet the only vaguely gamey thing on their menu is venison. And I like venison - who doesn't? - but this still felt like a bit of a missed opportunity. I will counter that though by saying that there's every chance in these fraught times that the Harwood have decided the risk of putting on unusual game on the menu and not having people order it is too much to take, and there's only nerdy foodies like me that really miss it.

Anyway, that's as much as I have to say about the Harwood Arms that isn't unqualified praise. From the moment their house soda bread arrived, flavoured with Guinness and treacle and boasting a wonderful biscuitty crust, we knew things would turn out alright in the end. A nice salty whipped butter just demanded you slather about obscene amounts of it, turning an already dangerously addictive bread into an exercise in almost tortuous self-denial.

Porthilly oyster and English sparkling wine soup was absolutely perfect in every way, a warm "champagne" velouté with an incredible depth of seafood flavour, studded with chopped oysters and with a little quenelle of ice cream floating about inside. The texture and temperature contrasts just magnified the effect of the soup, and proved yet again there's a hundred different ways you can serve oyster and for them to never get boring. The beignet on the side was a little parcel of whole oyster and seaweed, deep-fried like a mini fish and chips, and I'm never going to say no to deep-fried oyster, but really the star of this starter was the soup, a quite extraordinary achievement in every way.

And yet, impossibly, that still was not to be the best of the starters. This, their Jerusalem artichoke and truffle tart, is the most stunning bit of pastry work I've had the pleasure to sample in almost as far back as I remember. In fact, in terms of savoury pastry, it's probably unbeaten. Not only was the mixture powerfully flavoured, with a salty, umami richness that made the most of the unique artichoke flavour while still retaining a soft, light dairy touch, but the base too had a delicate firmness and wholesome butteriness that made you wish it would never end. And then on top of that, pickled trompettes, parmesan and shavings of truffle, all of which only added to the beguiling complexity of it all. A swoop of some kind of mushroom purée just threw a final punch of umami loveliness and completed the utter masterclass.

It's not much of a criticism to say that the mains didn't quite live up to the stellar standards of the starters, but by most other places standards they were still great. Haunch of fallow deer with hen of the woods was attractive, refined and very easily enjoyable, with a sticky, herby sauce that the kale soaked up quite agreeably. I enjoyed it very much.

Monkfish was presented on the bone, golden-bronzed on the outside and lifting off into chunks of fresh, meaty flesh. This by itself would have been worth ordering, but the initially innocuous-looking side of cauliflower turned out was studded with little salty cubes of smoked eel, and all surrounded by a creamy, sherry-spiked sauce. It's these little touches of invention and surprise that really sets the Harwood Arms apart from so many similarly-pitched, and similarly-priced, rivals.

Full disclosure - I didn't really try the truffled parsnip and chestnut loaf but I did sample one of the parsnip crisps it came with, and it was lovely. Being a fully committed meat eater I'm wary of judging wholly vegan versions of classic dishes by my own standards because, as someone who's used to the satisfying "completeness" (for want of a better word) of butter, eggs and cheese, even the very most accomplished vegan alternatives will, for me, always fall short. This doesn't apply, of course, to dishes that are meant to be vegan, such as gazpacho or pan con tomate, but I didn't want to try the Harwood Arms nut loaf and complain it was missing cheese. But I will report that it was eaten without any complaint by the person who ordered it so there you go.

To stick to the £37.50 two-course version of the menu we shared one dessert, and blimey was it good. Pear and caramel trifle with frozen Babycham was as fun to eat as it was to look at, studded with little elements of burnt sugar, sherry-soaked spongecake and a delicate Babycham granita which is almost certainly the only worthwhile thing to ever result from a bottle of Babycham.

A lot has changed about the way Londoners eat over the last ten years, and the sign of a great restaurant is one that keeps to its original remit - refined, inventive gastropub food in a relaxed atmosphere - but constantly upgrades and tweaks its offering to stay relevant as time goes on. No doubt I would have found much to enjoy at the Harwood Arms if they'd served a menu largely unchanged since 2009, but would they still be spoken about as amongst the best in town if they had? Almost certainly not. As much as we may wish it weren't the case, staying still in a London restaurant is the equivalent of pedalling backwards elsewhere - we're a fickle lot, us Londoners. Rest on your laurels and we'll eventually forget you ever existed.

But the Harwood Arms has done way more than survive, first, the evolving attitudes to pub food, and then Covid - it's a restaurant confident and comfortable in its skin, serving a menu at once recognisable but also surprising and imaginative. Correct me if I'm wrong (and I'm sure you will), but I can't think of many £37.50 menus that would serve that oyster soup, or that astonishing artichoke tart, and still make it feel like it was the most natural and easy thing in the world. And yes, I may miss, while the pandemic rages on, a starter of smoked pigeon or roast pheasant for main, but I've every confidence these things will return once nerves settle. In the meantime, there's still a million and one reasons to head for Fulham and to make a booking. You won't regret it.