Tuesday 10 March 2020

Four Legs at the Compton Arms, Islington

The movie critic Mark Kermode says a feature of any good-but-imperfect movie is that once the story and characters start to grip you, the flaws, such as they are, fade into irrelevance. Much the same can be applied to restaurants. You can be annoyed by an arcane booking process, disappointed in your allocated table, put off by the prices, but if the food is good, and the service compliments it, you'll be planning a return trip before you've finished your starters.

But that's only if the food is good. If it isn't, all of those flaws, instead of fading away, become all you can see about a place. It's not like Four Legs at the Compton Arms is a terrible restaurant - objectively it isn't, and some dishes were very nice - but in the end, they didn't do enough to distract from the reality of eating in a dark, noisy, hugely oversubscribed pub in Islington, and I can't really say I enjoyed much about the evening.

Things started promisingly enough. Rock oysters came with a "hot sauce" which was more a kind of chilli oil but which worked very well - I'm a big fan of oyster and chilli, and as long as you have nice fresh oysters there's not much you can do to mess it up.

Also decent was a bowl of cockles and clams, which didn't really need the cubes of bone marrow dotted about but still impressed with a nice lemon/butter sauce that mopped up extremely well with the house bread.

But that was where the good times ended. The biggest disappointment of the evening was the cheeseburger, which supposedly used Dexter beef but still tasted of nothing but warm grease, perhaps because they'd overcooked the two thin patties to grey. They'd used two types of cheese - traditional American processed and some kind of cheddar I think - but they didn't really work with each other and the cheddar-a-like was already solid and chalky by the time it had arrived on the table. The bun was fairly devoid of personality but did at least hold together, which is something, but there were no chips available, and I think if you're selling a burger you need to offer chips. so we attemped to fill the spot with a portion of "fried new potatoes", which were "fried" insofar as they were quite greasy but had no texture or crunch to speak of, and the aioli dumped on top burned with way too much garlic. The burger actually only cost £11 but just served to prove that if the product is subpar, no price point becomes a bargain.

Pollock is a cheap fish, and will never have the taste or texture of cod or haddock, but still deserved a better treatment than this, a bizarre presentation that involved a vaguely currified spinach and pea slop and a clumsy seasoned flatbread. There was actually something faintly enjoyable about the spinach slop, despite it being swimming in oil, but the fish was mealy and dry, and the flatbread - sorry, "fried pizza dough" - was a chore.

All of which would have been distressing enough had it not been served in a tiny, noisy, dark room (hence the terrible photos) on table way too close to the bar, meaning I was eating much of my dinner with my face level with some Islingtonite's arse. To be fair, the other dining space at the back looked a little more bearable, so maybe we were just unlucky, but I do think some places should just find a way of being happy as a bar rather than trying to climb aboard the gastropub bandwagon. Or maybe I'm just getting old and have very little patience for eating overcooked burgers in the dark. More likely that, really.

Anyway, onwards and upwards. Despite the odd Compton Arms-shaped blip I've eaten pretty well in the last few weeks, so I'm not about to extrapolate one disappointing evening into wider point about London dining. I didn't like Four Legs, and that's that, no harm done and no need to dwell. There's far more exciting places to write about. Watch this space.


Friday 6 March 2020

Fenchurch, the City

There are many benefits to spending an extended period in Southern California, not least, for this pasty Londoner, seeing the sun for more than a few minutes a day, but it wreaks havoc on the old blogging schedule. Believe it or not, this visit to the Fenchurch Grill at the top of the Walkie Talkie happened all the way back in August, an invite to investigate the changes made under a new kitchen regime and (from a personal point of view) a chance to see how the plants in the Sky Garden had matured and bedded in over the last 4 years. I'm still slightly obsessed with the whole Sky Garden idea; I grew up on Sci-Fi concepts like Empire Strikes Back's Cloud City and Silent Running, and the idea of a lush temperate rainforest sailing half a mile up above the polluted streets of a city is quite thrilling.

And yes, I know the ol' Talkie has its detractors (blimey does it have its detractors) but this is one of those times when being a complete pleb when it comes to architecture and the visual arts generally has its benefits - however aesthetically bruising buildings like this are to others, I can quite easily enjoy an evening in them, because I like being 50 floors up having a nice dinner in a sky garden. So there.

A dinner, incidentally, which began with a little amuse of cauliflower mousse with hazelnuts and truffle which made a very tasteful and interesting start to proceedings. I always think it's a gamble for kitchens that decide to serve an amuse; get it wrong - too boring, too big, too clumsy - and you're better off just leaping straight into starters, but get it right and it's a nice little overture for the food to come, a dramatic opening fanfare (like the one at the beginning of the Star Wars movies, but tastier).

Starters were equally poised, precise and enjoyable. Quail had been portioned into breast, beautifully tender with a layer of crushed hazelnuts delicately spread on a golden brown, crisp skin, and the confit leg had a great texture, neither too chewy or too dry. Neither of these things are by any means a given when it comes to quail. There's something about the combination of poultry, toasted hazelnuts and cream/white wine sauce that takes me back to childhood - I think my mum used to make something similar, possibly an old Delia Smith recipe - so I found this starter particularly evocative.

Steak tartare rarely survives being buggered about with (technical term) too much, but by virtue of high quality meat, tenderly braised beets and a presentational eye for the colourful and geometrically precise, the other starter was received just as well. It's a good control variable, steak tartare - everyone knows what a good one tastes like in theory, but not very many kitchens can make that theory a successful reality. This more than passed muster.

I was looking forward to my main even more after I discovered how well they'd treated the quail, and yes, this chicken had a similarly lovely crisp, bronzed skin, an invitingly soft flesh and was complimented perfectly by grilled corn, girolles and some salty cubes of pancetta.

The other main was cod & fennel, a tried and tested combo, and was a nicely cooked bit of fish but I do wonder at the logic of putting soggy green leaves (spinach?) on top of what looks like would otherwise have been a nice crisp golden skin, and then putting croutons on top of that. Surely it would have been a better texture - certainly better visually - to leave the cod skin as-is, and put the spinach & breadcrumbs on the side? But there was more than enough to enjoy in the cod itself, and the sides were strong.

To be perfectly honest, I have completely forgotten what these desserts were, which either tells you how much wine I'd drunk by that point, or that they weren't particularly memorable. Anyway they look nice enough don't they? Look, if you want professionalism, buy a paper.

And if all the above doesn't convince you, and you needed any more reasons to visit Fenchurch, consider this. Most nights the queue for the Sky Garden stretches right out of the security area and halfway down Philpot Lane. But a booking at Fenchurch not only guarantees you a lovely Modern British meal with friendly service and cracking views, but the ability to smugly skip the queues for the lift and still leave you with the option of mooching around the Sky Garden before or after dinner. Personally, I'd recommend before, as later in the evening they have DJs playing loud music and it tends to get a bit more full-on, but some of you may not be quite so middle aged.

However you enjoy your visit, Fenchurch stands as yet another nail in the coffin of the old Tall Restaurant Syndrome, which states that the quality of food in a place is inversely proportional to the quality of the view. Not only is the Sky Garden well worth a visit in its own right, but if the dishes here - precise, intelligent, attractive - were served in a nuclear bunker 200 feet underground it would still be worth a wholehearted recommendation. And a wholehearted recommendation is what I'm going to give - after so many years in this lofty space, with presumably all the temptation in the world to serve bland international bistro fare only good enough to keep the tourists happy, Fenchurch continues to improve and now stands as one of the best restaurants in the City.


I was invited to Fenchurch and didn't see a bill, but the above with a glass or two of wine would have come to about £80-£90 per person based on the online menu prices.

EDIT: I am reliably informed (thank you PR) that the desserts were Roasted peach, olive oil biscuit and Wigmore ice cream, and 64% Manjari chocolate, caramelized hazelnut, and cereal milk ice cream.