Monday 24 August 2020

littlefrench, Bristol

At 1pm on Saturday, Littlefrench was empty. Normally this would be cause for some alarm - nowhere's having a great time of it in Covidworld but you'd hope Bristol's most highly-regarded neighbourhood bistro would be able reel in the punters even in the middle of a pandemic - but we soon discovered there was no need to panic on their behalf. On making ourselves known to reception, we were led out of the front of the restaurant, down an almost invisible gap between it and the church next door, and into a large and tranquil courtyard sheltered from the elements by a network of canopies. Littlefrench has, seizing on the availability of such a useful plot of land right next door, gone alfresco, and for as long as the temperatures hold you can enjoy a socially-distanced lunch in the open air. Which is all rather lovely.

Lovely, too, is the product on offer, an attractive and tastefully constructed menu of familiar favourites such as onglet & fries, and rather more leftfield things like offal or shellfish, enough to satisfy all levels of the food-obsessed and at immensely reasonable prices. They also do a bottle of Louis Roederer Brut for £57.50, a champagne which is £37.84 retail, so it seems generosity isn't limited to the food.

Oysters were slightly the wrong side of creamy for my liking, but then it's that time of year so comes with the territory. The good news is they were huge things, and the pickled shallots scattered on top were exactly the right kind of accompaniment, cutting through the fat and adding a bit of colour.

Pigeon was saved bravely rare, and had a good, deep gamey flavour. But even better was a celeriac remoulade, which was sharp and creamy and salty, studded with wholegrain mustard and capers, and would have absolutely been worth ordering on its own.

I was also lucky enough to try one of these grilled scallops, which were steeped in "Sauternes butter" (as good as it sounds) and sprinkled with chives. These "Queenie" scallops are smaller than the usual kind, and seem to have a more concentrated, sweeter flavour. There's something oddly satisfying about eating a scallop out of its own shell, as well.

Another starter was crab and warm potato salad, which I didn't try, but I did hear it being described as "great", so I'll go on the record with that. Looks pretty, too, doesn't it?

For a shared main, we'd decided to order a whole turbot, and blimey it did not disappoint. The flesh lifted off the bone in large, satisfying, bright-white chunks, it was all perfectly seasoned, and accompanying sautéed potatoes and spinach were spot-on. We also ordered a separate side of fries, because I liked the idea of turbot & chips, and some green beans with hazelnuts, which were as tasty as they were squeaky (very). There really was nothing on the table less than great, and along with the charming service it all added up to a very pleasant afternoon.

We were enjoying ourselves so much, in fact, that we ended up finishing the meal not only with a cheesecourse (a Roquefort-style blue being the highlight of that) but also two prune & armagnac tarts, "matched" with a double measure of the same armagnac. Only quite rarely these days do I find myself ordering desserts and cheese - which shows you how much Littlefrench had won us over. We never wanted it to end.

Inevitably though, sadly, it did end, and with a bill of £73pp. Now clearly this is not an everyday spend, but considering the sheer amount of food we'd ordered, and booze (including champagne and cocktails) and that it was of such an incredibly high standard, I'm going to call it a bargain. Littlefrench have the attitude (and price point) of an unassuming local restaurant, and indeed the locals of Westbury Park should be giddy with delight they have such a place on their doorstep. But that a group of spoiled Londoners made a special journey for a weekend hooked around lunch here, and left thinking it was worth every penny of the return rail fare and a night's AirBnB, well that should tell you everything you need to know. Quietly ambitious, unassumingly skilled and subtly brilliant, Littlefrench is pretty much everything I want in a restaurant.


Friday 21 August 2020

AngloThai, Dalston

I made a rule a while back never to write up one-off dinners or pop-ups, no matter how successful, because it seemed a bit pointless - not to mention more than a little mean - going into exhaustive detail on an event that by the time it made it to the pages of the blog, had long since happened. And it's true that I'm breaking that rule today - the AngloThai collaboration between John Chantarasak and Lee Westcott occurred a week ago at time of writing, is not planned in the same format again, and I worry that by writing about it I'm only going to make you hideously, wretchedly jealous.

But two points in my defence. Firstly, food as good as this, the kind of wildly inventive and stunningly executed Thai fusion you'd be lucky to find anywhere, never mind a wine bar in Dalston, deserves to be talked about as much as possible. And secondly, although this particular menu, and Lee Westcott's involvement, was a one-off, AngloThai are planning many, many more events in the coming weeks, so there's no need to have too much of a case of the screaming FOMOs.

I will allow myself a bit of gloating, though. Look at this beauty - a Carlingford oyster, dressed in a lovely sharp XO sauce and studded with dainty bits of fermented wild garlic. I think I've come full-circle on cooked oyster now; at one time it was raw or nothing, and putting them anywhere near a heat source was blasphemy. But you know what, oyster is not a shy, retiring flavour, it really can take a bit of dolling up, and poached in its shell over coals and dressed in one of those deep, complex Thai sauces that probably take about 2 days to make, it was a brilliant introduction to the meal.

There was a lot going on in this scallop dish, all of it good. Firstly of course there was the main ingredient itself, sweet and firm and meaty, a fine specimen. It was sat on a bed of miniature garden peas and sorrel, which had the most indescribably vivid flavour not to mention a pitch-perfect balance of summery vegetation and sharp sorrel-y citrus. Then over all that was poured "tom yum", the sweet/sour Thai broth which was clean and complex at once, a genuinely masterful bit of cooking. Then finally, dried scallop roe was shaved over the top, a little extra note of seasoning and colour.

Next arrived a plate of raw beef - Irish sirloin, quite incredibly marbled - dressed in nam prik (Thai chilli sauce), jewel-like ransom capers and herbs (sorrel again I think) from John & Desiree's house in Battersea. Again, there were lots of elements fighting for attention here but through it all stood the beef, dense and rich with ageing, some of the best I've had in a while, and I tried quite a few different butchers through lockdown.

The main course was, to absolutely nobody's disappointment, more beef - specifically bone-in ribeye - expertly charred over the coals, crunchy with salt and char but still melting in the mouth like slow-cooked brisket. It was an incredible thing, tasting and looking the part of the kind of thing you'd spend many times more on in the world's finest steakhouses, and the world's finest steakhouses probably couldn't have come up with a dipping sauce as good as "elderflower fish sauce and Tabasco 'jaew'", sharp and floral and packing a punch of umami, another masterclass in balance and taste.

There was a veggie side, as well - cauliflower, also grilled over the coals, served with brown butter and 'yeast and dried shrimp', a silky, fatty, earthy concoction somewhere between tahini and whipped marmite, studded with tiny little prawns.

Dessert was an appropriately knockout end to a knockout meal. Strawberries - steeped I think, or at least treated somehow to make them extra powerfully-flavoured and sweet - were arranged around a cute little quenelle of frozen yoghurt and something the menu coyly describes as 'rapeseed' but was in fact a fluffy, buttery, salty, moussey thing we lost all capacity to accurately describe and collectively settled on the word "fluff". On that, some leaves of Thai basil - a clever touch - and finally the stroke of genius, a sliver of meringue spiked with Sichuan peppercorns. Absolutely perfect.

You'll notice I haven't attempted to hazard a guess at which dishes, or elements of dishes, were mainly Chantarasak or mainly Westcott. In a way, it hardly matters - it was all wonderful, and both chefs deserve equal, lavish praise. But also, I think even if the labour was divided up so cleanly (and I doubt it was anyway), I still wouldn't know where to identify the fault lines. Both styles merged so well, so seamlessly and to such incredible effect, that it was like eating the menu of one entity, a fine-dining professional using Thai flavour profiles and top British [edit:] and Irish ingredients to stunning effect, with a flawless command of it all. Service, too, managed by Desiree, struck that perfect balance of friendly and (suiting the surroundings) informal, but extremely capable.

So yes, I'm sorry you may not have had the chance to try the above - I feel for you, I really do. But look, have a click on their website, sign up for the newsletter, and keep your eyes peeled on your inbox for future dates. I'm sure you won't have to wait long. And soon enough you'll be settling down to a £50 Thai-UK tasting menu, with some lovely natural wines, and wondering why on earth it had taken you so bloody long.


Monday 17 August 2020

SO|LA, Soho

I was halfway through my evening at Sola (I'm not going to do the SO|LA thing in this post, it would drive me mad), being plied with top ingredients, fed fine wines and cosseted with charming service, that I suddenly remembered that this meal was the result of my annual public vote. Partly I'd forgotten because the vote was so bloody long ago - thank you global pandemic - and usually I try to follow up on the result as soon as possible, to get the whole sorry business out of the way ASAP. But also, having had some of the worst meals of my entire life forced upon me as a result of that vote, it seemed incredibly unlikely that a restaurant as good as Sola - and it's a very good restaurant indeed - should succeed in a competition where previous winners had included an all you can eat buffet, a carvery in suburban Croydon, and a train station pasta chain.

But anyway, here we are and you won't hear me complaining. Sola is the latest venture from the rather dizzying career of chef Victor Garvey, previously of Duende, Encant, Barolo, Rambla - I mean, I've completely lost count but then I imagine so has he. The concept is Californian Fine Dining, not a contradition in terms actually but a nod to the high-end Asian-American restaurants of Los Angeles and the Pacific West Coast more generally. There's a place in La Jolla called George's at the Cove which strikes me as the kind of place Garvey has in mind - tablecloths, tasting menus, and stunning views of the ocean. There's no flocks of pelicans or basking seals in Soho, sadly, and the views of Dean Street are often memorable for the wrong reasons, but in their little section of newly pedestrianised street they've created a little private haven of soft furnishings and greenery, and with the mercury hitting 30C of a Tuesday evening, it was here we settled in.

Four dainty amuses arrived speared into a wooden 3D map of California, which was rather clever. From left to right they were quail egg "Mimosa" (devilled eggs, which I'd last eaten at Juniper & Ivy in downtown San Diego, so that's another tick for authenticity), nori cured salmon, tuna tartare with a generous base of foie gras and loads of truffle on top, and compressed watermelon lime and basil.

Bread next, a foccacia studded with sun dried tomatoes which was excellent, and a whipped butter came topped with loads more shaved truffle, which was also obviously a Good Idea. I judge the success of a bread course in a tasting menu by how much of it I manage to avoid eating before the next dish arrives - this had all been demolished by the time the gazpacho turned up.

Gazpacho, incidentally, that was one of my favourite dishes from two of those previously mentioned restaurants, Encant and Rambla. Garvey has Spanish - or more specifically Catalan - heritage, and here has worked a little taste of Spain in amongst the trip to California. It was a real zinger of a dish, a bright purple beetroot sorbet sitting amongst summer flowers and luminescent cubes of compressed cucumber, before being draped in a robust tomato broth. Every bit of it was brilliant.

From here on, each subsequent savoury dish seemed to not only continue the tasteful and intelligent theme, but somehow kept getting better and better. Torched mackerel, with a deep, rich flavour of the finest quality fish, lay alongside painstakingly-sculptured "flowers" of kohlrabi and watermelon. Then over the top was poured tomato ponzu, an astonishingly flavoured sauce that would have been worth the price of admission by itself.

I'm sure there's a certain amount of sly humour at play in Sola's use of foie gras, given that the actual state of California banned the sale of it between 2015 and 2020. Here a nice solid chunk of it was served with "KPH sauce", named after food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge and containing an addictive blend of Thai-style flavours in a sweet syrup, green mango, peanut and coconut. I'd genuinely never had this kind of flavour combination before; being surprised as well as well-fed is one of the joys of going to restaurants like this.

Next, lobster flambéed on a hot rock tableside, and served literally as is, just the beautifully unadorned tail meat on its own, very Spanish style. OK so admittedly there was also a cute little bowl of wild mushroom agnolotti and roast chard, soon to be soaked in another fantastic clear dashi broth, and that was brilliant too.

A fillet of seabass, skin crisped up beautifully and topped with caviar, arrived sat in a yuzu-spiked foam, into which was poured a stunning seafood bisque. And if you can read that list of ingredients without wanting to dive right in, then there's something definitely wrong with you. Some foraged coastal herbs to add a bit of colour too, which are always welcome.

"Squab" is a word you often see on American menus, but I'm not sure whether it's a materially different bit of game to our own "pigeon" or whether that's just a North American word for the same thing. Anyway its appearance here made perfect sense in the context of a Californian menu, and this was very nicely done with white peach and sand carrot (from Normandy apparently) and finished with another great sauce, this time laced with togarashi (a Japanese spice mix).

As you can probably tell from the above, the savoury courses at Sola are right up there with the city's best; successful, intelligent food that is unashamedly high-end but never anything less than joyful. The desserts were by no means a failure, but just seemed to have slightly less of a touch of magic about them than what had come before. Pistachio semifreddo had a weirdly subdued flavour and strangely unsatisfying pappy texture, and although the scoop of (calamansi?) ice cream was nice, it just seemed like it was doing the same job as the semifreddo.

Chocolate cremeux was various different blobs of chocolate ice cream and mousse, and although perfectly nice again just seemed a bit underthought compared to what had come before. Don't get me wrong, I still polished it off, there just wasn't fireworks.

We managed to end on a high though - Sola's house chocolates are superb, one spiked with wasabi and one contaning a punchy passionfruit jam, all with a delicate chocolate casing. Very much Paul A Young level work, which is high praise indeed I'm sure you'll agree.

The bill came to £180.55 for two but, full disclosure time, it should have been a bit - OK, a lot - more. Once he'd got wind of the public vote result back in March, Garvey in fact offered to comp the entire meal, but in the Covid era it felt wrong to accept so much from an industry that may need all the help it can get in the next few months, so we compromised on paying the prix fixe price for the full California tasting. Without the friends & family discount the bill would probably have come to over £200pp with service and tax included, but you know what, it really did feel like a £200 meal, from the thought and effort that had gone into everything to the beautiful surroundings and attentive service. £200 can get you a lot less in London, I can tell you from experience.

I don't want to break down scores for individual elements of a meal - that way madness lies - so 8/10 really reflects an essentially perfect savoury offering and slightly disappointing desserts. I think if you were more of a dessert person your score would be lower, but the good news is that the pastry section at Sola is being boosted and refined, and there's every chance on your own visit the desserts would be perfect too. And there's only one way of finding that out.


I was kindly given a discounted bill at Sola

Friday 7 August 2020

28 Well Hung, Nunhead

It seems that while parts of Central London still, despite a slew of restaurant and hotels reopening in the past few weeks, resemble something from a low-budget British zombie movie, the suburbs have travelled a slightly quicker path back to normality. With Londoners reluctant to get back on public transport, and many still working full-time from home, the Neighbourhood restaurant or local pub has become the first-choice for an evening out, and - anecdotally at least - some are doing rather well out of it. But whereas in the Before Times a local restaurant would hope to be busy on Friday or Saturday evenings and struggle more earlier in the week, the government's Eat Out to Help Out Scheme now means that Monday to Wednesdays are likely to be slammed, and weekends are quieter. As various restaurateurs have put it, Wednesday is the new Saturday, and Thursday is the new Monday.

So it was on a warm Wednesday evening that I got on the Thameslink to Nunhead, to visit an intriguing little neighbourhood restaurant a few steps from the Old Nun's Head pub. 28 Well Hung (who's that sniggering at the back) specialise in two main areas - high quality, grass-fed meat of various flavours and styles, and organic home-made flatbreads, baked to order on a gas-fired saj. And if there's anything I appreciate in a restaurant, it's high-quality meat and somewhere that bakes their own bread.

"Cull yaw" is a phrase you're going to be hearing a lot of in the near future, if indeed you haven't already. You can read more about these animals, and Matt Chatfield, the farmer who's attempting to reintroduce them to the world in this Vittles article, but briefly they are 8-year-old ewes too old for breeding, and in eating them you're not only enjoying some heavily-marbled, meltingly tender and superbly flavoured meat, but are actually helping suck carbon out of the atmosphere. That's right - cull yaw has a carbon negative effect on the environment. Oh, and the fresh flatbread was, as you might expect, excellent as well - soft and stretchy with a lovely flavour.

I'll start with the good news about the burger first. The beef was good, there was just the right amount of salad and sauce (mayo I think spiked with paprika, though don't quote me on that) and though I worried that the cheddar would be too chalky and strongly-flavoured, in fact it was nice and subtle and had a good gooey texture. But I'm afraid while flatbread has its uses in a variety of dishes, it doesn't quite do the job as a burger bun, making it very difficult to get a bite with all the elements together. In the end I ended up eating it with a knife and fork, which as any burger lover will tell you, is not an ideal outcome.

Onglet could have done with being a little warmer (we really wouldn't have minded if they'd just brought out things as they were ready instead of waiting and delivering everything at once), but still had a good flavour, that all-important onglet-y texture just the right side of chewy, and a very nice herby dressing which really lifted it.

Chips were 'air-fried' using one of those weird machines that health freaks get to convince themselves that a 1% drop in the fat content of their food is somehow the key to a happier life. They were fine - tasted a bit like oven chips - but really, if the rest of the menu is stuffed with dry-aged beef, burgers and cheese I wouldn't see anyone complaining if they'd used beef dripping to cook them, and you'd end up with a much nicer end product. I did like the chimmichurri though.

Staff are still grappling with the complexities of implementing the Eat Out To Help Out discount, and I don't blame them - it must be hard enough serving food in the era of Covid without having to make sure the 50% off only applies to food items and soft drinks, and whether or not to pass on the changes to VAT. Anyway their first go at the bill, above, was wrong, as there were only two of us and only entitled to £10 off each, so the final amount was actually £63.25, a very decent amount for more than enough food and a lovely bottle of tempranillo (actually £33 a bottle). If I was a Nunhead local, I'd be feeling pretty pleased with myself, and indeed every table was taken, inside and in the front and back gardens.

So the slow march back to normality continues. Once the threat of Coronavirus fades we can get back to worrying about our dying planet, and to that end the guys at 28 Well Hung are excellently poised, as a self-styled 'Regenerative Restaurant', to capitalise on the desire to not just have a nice evening out but to do something positive for the environment as well. So good for them, good for Nunhead, and once you've ordered your own portion of the cull yaw, good for you.