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.


Thursday 22 October 2020

The Gunton Arms, Norfolk

"Posh pub with rooms & food in deer park" is the short tagline that appears when you plug Gunton Arms into Google Maps, and sounds exciting enough, but the reality of approaching this extraordinary place in person is something else. A short vegetation-canopied walkway from the car park opens dramatically into a giant park populated by groups of red deer, the bucks snorting and bellowing in the late evening sun, and to the right in a separate field a herd of cattle. To the side of the main gravel road through the park stands the pub itself, handsome and stately in traditional Norfolk flint, fenced off to presumably prevent hungry deer wandering in and nibbling guests' dinners. There is a different way the animals might end up inside the pub, but we'll get onto that shortly.

Inside, the magic only intensifies. A maze of low-beamed candle-lit rooms are each decorated with astonishing items of modern art - a Tracey Emin signature neon in one, a Lucian Freud etching in another, a couple of Gilbert & George in the corridor outside the loos. In these Covid-aware times it's more difficult to move around the place and explore the full extent of the collection, which is frustrating, but on balance I think I'd rather I felt safe and looked after of an evening than stumble across a new collection of erotic Japanese photography. Certainly not before I've eaten anyway.

The menu is big, which can be a bad sign, but contains lots of things you'd want to eat, so in the end it's good. There's a load of gastropub classics such as pork belly with apple sauce, or cod, chips and mushy peas, but also a section called "From the Elk Room fire" which has a list of the various animals you may have seen wandering around outside, made into sausages or simply seasoned and grilled over a huge wood fire. From our cozy anteroom, which even with generous spacing between tables we had largely to ourselves that evening, we read the specials board by the light from the fire, and hoped the food could live up to the atmosphere.

It all did. Lamb sweetbreads, a generous amount of them for a starter portion, came with wild mushrooms (presumably found somewhere nearby) and spelt, all bound with an incredibly rich, sticky sauce, the kind of thing that probably took a day or two to make. Unpretentious despite the premium ingredients, and presented with a rustic honesty that just made the whole thing even more irresistable, this was a great start.

Mixed beets with blue cheese and pickled walnuts is perhaps a little more conventional, but more than made up for the established concept with excellent (local obviously) Binham blue cheese, fantastic pickled walnuts (we'd seen wet walnuts at the markets over the previous couple of days in places like Harleston so these could have come from similar batches) and some bold seasoning which lifted the whole thing into something extremely enjoyable.

Duck egg featured on a separate vegetarian menu, and though I didn't get to try it, it looked the part and from what I can gather went down very well indeed. Similarly a red onion tart, which was eagerly devoured but I didn't get to sample, partly because the vegetarian options on any given menu are usually towards the bottom of my list of preferences, but mainly because I was worried I'd need all the space I could get for my...

...giant slab of red deer rump, delightfully charred and smokey from the wood fire, presented Hawksmoor-style, honestly and simply on a plate with a little tub of rowan jelly. The flesh had a gentle, dark crust and inside was perfectly medium-rare, tasting of a live well lived and full of strong, gamey flavour. It was fantastic, but a slightly bittersweet experience as it only made me wonder what the other dishes from the Elk Room could have been like - the venison sausages, for example, or the 28-day hung Aberdeen Angus beef. Maybe one day I'll find out. Meantime, the venison came with goose fat roasties, with a serious crunch and as smooth inside as buttered mash.

Despite all that, we did somehow find room for a treacle tart which was served with clotted cream and what treacle tart isn't made better by being served with clotted cream, I ask you. And to round everything off I should mention the service, which as well as being masked-up and Covid-compliant was also personable, attentive and very pleasant. Easy enough to achieve when we were the only people in the room but still, commendable.

The Gunton Arms is quite unlike any other gastropub I've ever visited, not perhaps measured by kind of food they're offering - the Elk Room dishes apart, this was a well-executed if tried-and-tested gastropub menu - but for the louche, clandestine character which managed to be as comfortable hosting local families and regulars as the (I'm told) occasional aristocrat or rock star that wanders through its doors. It's hard to put your finger on exactly why it's so special - clearly filling any old building with hundreds of thousands of pounds of modern art would not automatically make for success - but however carefully curated the atmosphere, the result is a fairytale ideal of a country pub, filled with intrigue and wonder, that just happens to serve some excellent food into the bargain. Long, in these troubled times, may it thrive.


Monday 19 October 2020

Officina 00, Old Street

I've not been to New York for a few years now, and it's probably not a good idea to go there at all at the moment given that indoor dining is still outlawed, but I seem to remember restaurants there being incredibly dark. More than once I ended up having to illuminate my menu using the torch on my iPhone, and stubbed my toe on someone else's chair feeling out for the route to the bathroom. I appreciate that the clandestine lighting scheme has its fans, and certainly atmosphere is important - more important than I'd care to admit sometimes - but I also reserve the right to fully appreciate what I'm being asked to eat, and not have to stab blindly at a vaguely plate-sized area in front of me in the hope that some of my attempts might return something edible.

It's via the awesome power of Adobe Photoshop, then, that I'm able to show you the rustic visual appeal of the dishes at Officina 00 because once the sun goes down (and the days are only going to get shorter) the candlelit dining room becomes so dim that it's only thanks to one of the Covid safety precautions - online menus on a backlit mobile screen - that I was able to figure out what was on offer at all. The menu in question though, fortunately, is a short and sweet list of tasteful Italian classics in the Padella or Bacone vein. And that I'm risking invoking the name of those two Mediterranean titans shows you that Officina compares pretty well with them indeed.

First though, a white Negroni - that's clear vermouth (Martini bianco) and Italicus liqueur instead of the usual Campari. Were it not for the olive garnish it would look for all the world like a glass of iced water, but it tasted great - if anything, more balanced and less bitter than a "normal" Negroni, and joins the list of great "clear versions of cocktails" alongside Bob Bob Ricard's Clear Bloody Mary and, er, well I'm sure there's another example somewhere.

A single large raviolo, made from good firm (though not overly so) pasta was seasoned with parmesan shavings and broke open delightfully to reveal a soft yolk centre. Sure, in these days of star pasta restaurants and new wave Italian cuisine this could very be the kind of thing you've seen done before, but it's never less than a delight to crack one of these open no matter how many times you have the opportunity to do so.

What's more unusual is seeing home made sausage on an Italian restaurant menu, and these were very fine things, all salty and porky and richly flavoured, arriving with caramelised onions and a white wine and sichuan pepper sauce. It takes a special kind of effort - not to mention skill set - to produce your own sausages, and especially to end up with a product as notable as this. Consider me impressed.

House bread was a nice tacky sourdough with a fantastic dark, brittle crust and came with whipped parmesan butter, which was every bit as enjoyable as you might hope "whipped parmesan butter" might be. And I'm sorry about the photo but it's only now after post-processing I know what they looked like myself.

Not everything was completely perfect. Linguine was underseasoned and quite claggy and dense, and though the clams were nice there weren't quite enough of them. Also, I wonder at the logic of dressing the dish with raw, rather bitter oregano leaves, which were rather odd and distracting. Either fry them in butter first, or just incorporate them into the sauce - either would have been an improvement I think. Still, all said and done this was a portion of fresh pasta and fresh clams, and still got eaten.

More successful was papardelle with porky meatballs, boasting yet more lovely lively pasta and a big dollop of cooling burrata on top. I mean, if you're the kind of person that can't enjoy papardelle in tomato sauce with meatballs, then there's probably no hope for you. I am not, thankfully, one of those people.

Good pasta restaurants, like Padella and Bancone and yes, Officina 00, make it all look so easy. It's "just" pasta, isn't it? Surely nowhere with a license to serve food and a predeliction for Italian classics should be stumped by the requirements of handmade tagliatelle, or the constituent parts of a decent passata. Even if you aren't going to stretch to making your own pork sausage or can't work out how to keep the yolk runny in an egg raviolo, surely the basics are exactly that - basic?

Except, experience suggests, they're anything but. Good pasta bars are still a rarity in London because this stuff is not easy - you have to know exactly what you're doing at every step of the process, and even the most experienced (and certainly the most expensive) places can slip up. Officina 00 is not the perfect pasta restaurant - if such a thing even exists - but by virtue of enthusiasm and effort and a genuinely deep understanding of the food they're serving, is absolutely worth the money they're asking for it and then some. I enjoyed it very much on the night, and now looking back at the lightened photos I'm even more convinced. Go to Officina, and you'll see for yourself. Just bring a torch.


I was invited to Officina 00 and didn't see a bill. Menu is here though, and changes daily.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Sollip, London Bridge

Since I decided, in the spirit of solidarity with a struggling industry, to only write up positive restaurant experiences, I expected that resolve to be tested a lot more than it actually has. In fact, since the beginning of July, only one dinner (out of more than I'm comfortable sharing) was so disastrous a tiny bit of the old me wishes I could have given it a good pummelling on the blog, but in fact even that moment soon passed. Life's too short to dwell on poor meals, especially these days.

The result of this new policy, though, is that recent posts run the risk of being a bit smiley-samey. All I can offer in my defense is that just because I'm not writing up bad or mediocre restaurants, that doesn't mean that I'm being extra kind to the ones I am reviewing - anywhere that's made it onto the blog in the last few weeks really is as good as I say it is, and I'm constantly astonished at how well restaurants are responding to their changing circumstances, not wallowing in self-pity (though that would be more than justified) but innovating and adapting and somehow, through all the madness, serving some of the best food I've eaten at any time. With all that in mind, then, let me tell you about yet another incredible meal I had just the other day at Sollip, a brand-spanking-new restaurant in London Bridge.

I'm generally a bit suspicious of "fusion" restaurants, as for all their laudable ambitions (and the occasional gem), the result is far more often Sushinho than Sushisamba. My suspicion of Sollip's Korean-French concept though, such as it was, lasted exactly as long as it took these gougères to appear. A perfect match of French patisserie and Korean spicing, they were baked perfectly to a soft, cheesey interior and delicate crust, and seasoned with an incredible soy bean/chilli powder which somehow conspired to make these already dangerously addictive little snacks even more irresistable. What a start.

Then, a "gamtae" (seaweed) sandwich, cut with machine-tooled precision, containing a soft, silky filling of briney seaweed and rich Caerphilly. I think they'd fried the bread in butter, too, so the golden sheen on the toast added not just crunch but yet more dairy loveliness. I had never had cheese and seaweed before in the same dish, I don't think, but the match now seems as natural to me as cheese and chive.

You can probably sense where this is going. The food at Sollip is not just exciting and rewarding, but genuinely innovative at every turn while still staying true to the Korean-French mashup concept. It's also beautiful - look at this thing, a daikon radish tarte tatin which had layers of earthy vegetables encased in impossibly delicate layers of glossy pastry. It was accompanied by something called "chilli chive potato cream" and all I can say is I'm glad I didn't know there was a thing in the world called "chilli chive potato cream" before arriving at Sollip because if I did I probably would have had a few sleepless nights obsessing about it. I've had a few since, as well.

Main course was a slab of braised beef short rib, soaked in a complex Korean sauce, shapely and solid on the plate but soft and yielding when sliced. It came alongside and interesting bit of cured cucumber, cooling in the kimchi style, and - a heartstopping moment - a little pot of rice with a knob of truffle butter, releasing flavour and aroma as it melted down. There's only one thing better than buttered rice, it turns out, and that's truffle-buttered rice.

I overheard the table next to mine (don't worry, there was plenty of space between us) asking for an extra sample of the fig from the fig creme brulee, such was its effect on those who tried it. This of course, is an open invitation to return to Sollip and try all of the dishes, not just the fig, that I didn't try the first time. But I can hardly complain the dessert I did order - this perilla (a kind of Korean mint) ice cream - was in any way a disappointment. Side-by-side the oil-based ice cream and granita made an unbeatable combination, apple and dairy and mint oil combining to great effect, with a layer of sesame rice for crunch.

Too often meals that are as controlled and precise visually as the food at Sollip undoubtedly is, you pay the price in flavour. I can think of quite a few restaurants over the years that in aiming for geometric exactness and consistency, in taking too long teasing the ingredients into the required form and shape, some of the immediacy and personality of the ingredients is lost.

Sollip manages to produce food of love and passion at the same time as it looking good enough to hang on the wall, and for that no amount of praise is enough. The gallery-like space and the artful dishes on one level brings to mind other Asian-fusion superstar restaurants like Bao or Xu, and I've no doubt they would be very pleased indeed to be mentioned in that company, as they should be. But Sollip is both a prodigal student of French and Korean cooking traditions, and at the same time a trailblazer in something genuinely new - fusion food that finally lives up to the name, and isn't just an excuse for gimmicks and punning menu items. I do hope I'm not boring you with yet another wildly positive review, but this wasn't going to go any other way. Sollip is brilliant.