Thursday 30 July 2020

Randall & Aubin, Soho

I hesitate to call Randall & Aubin an 'institution' because I get the impression the word is too often rolled out to describe anywhere whose glory days are behind it but which survives through a combination of brand awareness and dewey-eyed nostalgia. But in these Troubled Times ((c) every press release for the last 4 months), well, maybe we need a few more institutions. For a long time, Kettner's in Soho was an institution, as in the pizzas were a bit rubbish but it was easy to find, but people loved it, and when it was revamped into a fancy member's club and the restaurant doubled its prices, well, a bit of the shine went. Let's face it, a lot of the shine went.

Randall & Aubin, though, has changed very little about the way they do things in the last 30 odd years, and why would they? Sure, the old pandemic has meant a bit of extra attention to social distancing, hand sanitiser on arrival, condiments and cutlery provided only as needed, and some lovely new tables outside, but all these things are to be expected anywhere these days. Where it matters - the food, the service, the atmosphere of this little Soho jewel box of a restaurant - R&A is as charming and rewarding as ever.

If you've ever been to Randall & Aubin then most likely you're already a fan and won't need any persuading to go back. But in case you're unaware, we're talking about a seafood bar in the Parisian pavement bistro vein - think huge trays of enticing crustacea on ice, rather uncomfortable high stool seating (much alleviated by the new outside tables) and smart staff dressed in black & white. There's a decently-priced wine list, a selection of the kind of seafood greatest hits that would keep every fruits de mer fan happy, and a couple of half-hearted meat options which I'm sure nobody ever orders. Everything, in other words, you'd hope to see at a place like this.

They have one final job to do, then, in order to match the promise of the setup, and that's to serve it all correctly, and happily they can do that and more. Here's a plate of native oysters, lean and robust, on a cute miniature ice tray presumably only ever used on those rare occasions they're asked to serve such a pathetic number of oysters. Look, I was just worried I wouldn't be able to try all the things I wanted to try, that's all.

I should point out that it was their idea to offer a little tin of caviar to go with the oysters, not mine, and I'm afraid if someone offers me caviar I consider it the height of inpoliteness not to accept. I'm glad I'm not sorry I did, either.

Dressed crab was fantastic - plenty of good, earthy brown meat to go with the white, and generally a very generous amount of both. I ate most of this with a little squeeze of lemon, then made the rest into a sandwich with the very nice house sourdough and salted butter.

Langoustine are the ultimate test of a seafood restaurant's prowess. I've paid a lot of money in very highly-regarded places for woody, pappy or mushy langoustine, a result of bad timing, pre-cooking, freezing or a combination of all three. And it's true that even here, a dedicated seafood restaurant in the center of London, I didn't consider success to be a given. Anyway, I needn't have worried. They were blindingly good - timed perfectly, with bouncy, sweet flesh and complimented very well by a garlic-parsley-butter dressing. Oh, and fries were great too, because langoustine and fries is definitely a thing. Or at least, definitely should be.

As with any seafood dinner - any good one, anyway - you should expect to pay a good amount for it. There's no such thing as a farmed langoustine, or a bargain-basement fresh oyster (or if there is, you definitely shouldn't be eating it) and the practicalities of getting these tasty little buggers out of the sea and onto your plate mean that there most likely never will be. But in the grand scheme of things, Randall & Aubin is pretty decent value - the giant blowout seafood platter is under £50 a head, and oysters work out at about £2.33 if you get a dozen - not quite the cheapest in town, but nowhere near the priciest.

So I left very happy indeed. And now that Randall & Aubin are back open and firing on all cylinders again, you could do a lot worse than make a booking yourself. Poised conveniently to make the most of a pedestrianised Soho as well as the slow return of the public to central London, I can think of very few better ways to celebrate the return of the New Normal as a seafood feast at a restaurant specialising in seafood feasts, and one so very accomplished at serving them. Langoustine, dressed crab, and oysters are back on the menu. Thank God for that.


I was invited to R&A aaaaall the way back in February, but thought it was a bit pointless posting about it until lockdown was lifted. I didn't see a bill, and in fact some of the items I ordered are no longer on the (seasonal) menu, but I imagine the above with a couple of glasses of wine would have cost about £70pp.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Mei Mei Bā, Borough Market

Right then. Where was I?

Last thing I remember it was late March, I was getting ready to head to Cornwall for a long-awaited long weekend, much like we used to back in the Before Times. Then as the date of the trip grew closer, world events grew increasingly fraught. Non-essential trips cancelled, restaurants and hotels shut down for the foreseeable, an entire population asked to shelter indoors and hope for the best against an invisible enemy that, through the sheer chaos of symptoms (or, more worryingly, occasional complete lack thereof), seemed impossible to predict much less contain. For four months, life became an exercise in hanging on, of existing, and of living with the guilt that so many countless others - an unimaginable amount - wouldn't be so lucky.

With now, finally, a light shining at the end of that long, dark tunnel, and the hope - and it may be little more than a glimmer of hope but it's all we've got and I'm running with it - of the worst being behind us, it feels like you're performing some kind of civic duty to eat and drink out again. Restaurants and bars, still adjusting to the New Normal, crippled by social distancing measures and further battered by a depressing spike in no shows (read more about the #NOMORENOSHOWS campaign here) need our support more than ever, and anyone attempting to launch a brand-new Asian-fusion tasting menu concept at the tail end of a global pandemic deserves all the support they can get.

So Mei Mei Bā, from chef Elizabeth Haigh, whose career I've followed with intense interest since she first won Pidgin a Michelin star all the way back in 2015, is nothing if not ambitious. It's ambitiously - as in, insanely reasonably - priced, £45 for 8 courses putting it in that exclusive and ever-shrinking group of sub-£50 London tasting menus, paid for in full on booking so on the night itself there's little extra to worry about other than the odd beer or cheese course. The matching wines are an equally reasonable £35, all natural and full of personality, generous in number and top quality, thoroughly recommended if you want to make the most of your evening. And the food? Well, it's great, of course.

It all begins with this milk bun, an immediate and comprehensive reassurance you'll be in good hands. A very fine piece of baking, sticky and soft and sweet, presented with a brown butter so light and fluffy that it almost disappears into mist as soon as it's spread. This is topped, because why not, with a sprinkling of caviar salt, Mei Mei having clearly decided that nothing isn't improved by a dollop of caviar. More on that, too, later.

Chicken satays, carefully and precisely cooked over charcoal, had just the right amount of colour and crunch, and came with a lovely chunky peanut sauce. Not perhaps wildly different to any chicken satays you might have had before in a proper restaurant but look, sit me down with chicken satays grilled over coals and I will never not be happy.

Next, Haigh's signature fried chicken with white miso mayo, and optional (HA!) Exmoor caviar. After four months of lockdown the £40 supplement for a 20g tin of real caviar was about as "optional" to this giddy restaurant-starved blogger as the table it was eaten off, so clearly each bit of chicken - crunchy and spicy outside, with bright white, soft flesh underneath - was enjoyed with a generous dollop of black gold. Oh and a special mention for the dark reduced stock sauce lurking at the bottom of the bowl, which added even more chicken-y intensity.

Then something of a palate-cleanser - heritage tomato salad, lifted with fresh basil and a beautifully fragrant "Hainanese chicken vinaigrette", indicative not only of a confident use of fusion flavours but also presumably an efficient desire to put as much of the chicken to use as possible.

Lemon sole, served on the bone which I always think is more fun, came with a sharp tamarind sauce and an unapologetically slimy mound of okra. I am slowly, ever-so-slowly, getting used to the idea of okra naturally having the texture of warm saliva, but I will be the first to admit I'm not quite there yet. So yes, the vegetable element of this dish had me slightly discombobulated. But I still ate it.

I sometimes think that if I just had one faultless pork broth recipe under my belt, I wouldn't feel the need to eat out half as much as I do. Maybe I could just pay for Mei Mei to make me a gallon drum of the stuff, and I could freeze it as required for use throughout the year. It could see me through many a long winter, or even (heaven forbid) another lockdown. What I mean to say, in not so many words, is that Mei Mei's pork broth is brilliant.

White park beef, hung dramatically over charcoal from its own scaffolding in the corner of the kitchen, filled the air with tantalising rich beefy aromas even as we sat down to the bread course. It was finally now time to try it, presented cleanly and simply as two medium slices, generously tipped with fat, in a clear aromatic sauce, and did not disappoint. Some nice grilled peppers, blistered on the coals, added a bit of greenery and smoke.

Alongside the beef it's probably worth mentioning a couple of interesting sides; one endive & parsley salad, soaked in a sweet soy dressing which perfectly balanced the bitter leaves, and "nasi kerabu" - rice coloured sky blue with butterfly pea flower - which I must admit was a first for me.

Dessert was an apple and rhubarb donut thing, fluffy and warm straight out of the fryer, and a dollop of teh tarik ice cream which neatly bookended with the glass of pandan tea we'd been given as an aperitif right at the start of the meal. Like so many good tasting menus, one or two of the same flavours keep cropping up in different forms here and there throughout the evening, which if it helps reduce waste I'm all in favour of. Part of me's quite pleased we only had one go at the okra, though.

Anyone reading this will most likely be wondering about more than just how good the food is, but how safe and "normal" it feels, eating out in these strange times. I was, too, before my dinner at Mei Mei but truth be told, once you're sat there, and had it explained to you to keep your cutlery when sensible and use hand sanitiser on arrival, all the little New Normal details really do fade into insignificance. Admittedly, this is a very good and professional little outfit, and perhaps a visit to Subway or Pizza Express would be a little more fraught, but it's struck me how quickly restaurants and customers alike have adapted and how it's still perfectly possible to have a lovely evening out.

And thank God for that. Because a world without restaurants, without Quality Chop House (open last week), Hawksmoor (gradually opening all sites as we speak), Zedel (open again) and yes Mei Mei and the like is just not a world I'm interested in. Not one bit. And I hesitate to end on too much of a positive note, because there are still plenty of dark clouds on the horizon and I'm way too superstitious to make any grand claims about the future, or even near future. But look, Mei Mei Ba exists and is taking bookings, and that should be enough news to rejoice at for now.

Oh, and that Cornwall trip? Rebooked for the end of September. Anything could happen before then, it's true. But if we haven't got a bit of hope for a good dinner in the near future, what else have we got?