Tuesday 7 December 2021

Tallow, Southborough

The Twenty Six was a restaurant in Southborough near Tunbridge Wells. I know only two things about it, based on reports from locals - firstly, it served a fairly undemanding all day / brunchy-type menu for not a huge amount of money, and secondly that it was generally impossible to get a table there. It's a constant mystery to me how some places with seemingly not a great deal going for them end up so popular - I mean look at bloody Breakfast Club - and, more tragically, how so many great places fail to find an audience.

Twenty Six is now gone, and in its place is objectively one of the best restaurants in Kent. I feel fairly confident making this announcement because firstly, I've eaten there, and secondly the pedigree of the team is unassailable. Rob and Donna Taylor previously ran the amazing Compasses Inn, Crundale and though I do miss the atmosphere of that ancient pub buried deep in the Kentish countryside, at Tallow the skill and ambition of the food served is raised another few notches. It is, already, inevitably, impossible to get a table there. But being the hopeless nerd I am, I had booked before the electronic ink on the first press release was dry, and so here we were sheltering from the rain on a Saturday lunchtime, about to be treated to a lunch of the very gods (treated as in they served it to us and it was a treat, we still paid).

Firstly, I want all restaurants to ask themselves a question. That question is, "Are you serving warm croissant with chicken liver parfait for your bread course, and if not when are you going to start?". It seems obvious that silky-smooth liver parfait, easily Quality Chop House standard, paired with a crackly, buttery cruffin would always end up being the bread course to end all bread courses, and so why haven't I ever had it before? Maybe we just needed Tallow to show us the way. Anyway, you saw it here first.

Next nibble was crispy pig (head?) with black garlic. Though Tallow have by no means gone Full Fordwich, the appearance of little unannounced extras like this is certainly a step towards the Gastropub Plus category. Very nice they were too, richly flavoured and greaselessly fried, with the black garlic rounding out the flavours nicely.

This was either very, very good pigeon or the Tallow kitchen have stumbled across a way of cooking the bird so impressively that I don't think I've enjoyed it more anywhere. In fact, it's most likely both. Beautifully pink and so tender you could cut it with a spoon (I didn't, though, you'll be pleased to hear), it also came with a delicately crisp, salty skin that you'd struggle to imagine could be improved at all. With it, cute little balls of pickled cucumber, miso mayonnaise, and a thick, rich game jus which of course I wound up scooping up with my fingers. Literally perfect.

This was wagyu beef risotto, not on the menu but a trail dish for the December menu which was going on the week after our lunch. Coated in a liberal amount of truffle, it was both densely flavoured and incredibly light and easy to eat, not an easy task for a risotto let me tell you.

I barely need to tell you how good the hake was - I mean bloody hell, just look at it. Not only was the fish itself perfect (there's that word again) but it came with cute little potato balls which were marvellous fun to eat, as well as a seafood/stout sauce spiked with mussels which provided seasoning and extra tastes of the sea. The best places make this kind of dish look easy - why wouldn't you want a flaky, bright-white flesh alongside a crisp, salty skin? It seems so obvious - but they really, really aren't.

I'll be the first to admit roasted squash isn't really my thing, but I should point out that my friends said it was one of the best things about the entire lunch, so I'd take their word over mine if you are a bigger fan of the evil orange things than me. Truffled mac and cheese really is my kind of thing though, and I demolished as much of this as I could before other greedy forks did.

Use the word 'barbecued' in a dish description and you'd better fulfil that promise. Fortunately this tender slip of ribeye announced its arrival under a delirious cloud of charcoal smoke, and tasted of the very finest grass-fed cow. That was in fact all I tried - this was someone else's main - but I'm pretty sure everything else on that plate was great too.

Of course, not wanting the lunch to end, we moved on to desserts. After being so cruelly denied a tarte tatin at the Loch and the Tyne last month, I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. I can't imagine, either, this wonderful thing, golden and glistening in all its glory, could be any worse than the version in Old Windsor. Probably better, in fact, no offense Adam Handling. Sadly, I didn't get to try any chocolate financier, but look, you can see how this meal is playing out. It's hardly likely to be horrible is it?

I make no apologies for gushing about Tallow. It really is that good, the kind of place you'd want to revisit as much as humanly possible, a magic combination of all the things that make a restaurant experience glow, from glorious food to pleasant, airy surroundings and a front of house you'd happily invite to your wedding. There isn't a thing you could criticise about the place - even the bill, which even though we went a bit mad on dessert wine still came in at £80/head which was a good two hours of brilliant fun and well worth the cost. And for all those reasons, ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves another perfect score. 2021 goes out on a high.


Thursday 2 December 2021

Sonny Stores, Bristol

Trips away from home have taken on a certain extra wide-eyed, frantic edge since the beginning of the pandemic, a nerve-shattering combination of not knowing how long these freedoms will last and a disbelief we've even been allowed out at all. In Bristol for my birthday weekend I felt a particular obligation to fill each day with as many bars, and restaurants, and activities as possible and so within 5 minutes after we'd arrived at Temple Meads we'd checked in at the Hilton Garden Inn (£50/night, clean, lovely staff, very highly recommended) and flagged an Uber to take us to Southville and lunch.

Sonny Stores feels, at first, like an unlikely location for a dynamic young modern Italian restaurant, tucked away at the end of a quiet terraced street and with only residential buildings visible in every direction. In fact, its isolation is somewhat of an illusion - bustling North Street with its shops, restaurants and breweries is barely a few steps away, and besides, Bristol isn't exactly the biggest city in the world. One of the joys of spending a weekend here is that you can essentially walk everywhere, and there are some fantastic pedestrianised routes through places like the Christmas Steps and Clifton which really show off the place to stunning effect.

The Sonny Stores cocktail list is short and - with one bizarre exception - traditional. The list is on a small chalkboard and read (from memory) something like "Negroni / Aperol Spritz / Bellini / Spaggly Waggly". Of course, we had to ask, and it turns out a "Spaggly Waggly" is a "supercharged Negroni" which of course made us want to order it even more. And very nice it was too, with a dash of (presumably) prosecco sitting very comfortably beside the usual vermouth, Campari and gin.

Very soon after arrived a little bonus unordered nibble of fried polenta, all soft and light and lovely. As an introduction to the way they do things at Sonny Stores it was very impressive - good ingredients treated well, straightforward without being simple (as anyone who's ever had horrid crumbly mealy polenta before will attest). *SEE EDIT

Sweetbreads came draped in lardo, because... well, because everything about the idea of sweetbreads draped in lardo is brilliant. Some chicory - sorry, tardivo - shoots added a bit of vegetal bitterness, and a delicate buttery dressing tied it all together. Like polenta, sweetbreads aren't always the most cooperative things when it comes to getting a good texture, but these were absolutely perfect, crisp and golden brown on the outside and soft inside.

A pizzetta arrived next, obscenely inflated around a central reservoir of Reblochon-a-like Rollright cheese and studded with shallots (I think), guanciale and rosemary. There was a lot going on here, but it all worked thanks to a genuinely great pizza base and - again - absolutely top-notch ingredients.

Paying someone to open a can of anchovies for you is a situation that I know some struggle with, but then the same people are often quite happy to order wine in a restaurant and I can't really see a difference. There's only a problem if it's bad wine - or bad anchovies - but these were of course excellent, firm and meaty in good oil.

Cuttlefish, served in their own (I assume) ink with braised fennel and gremolata brought not only a riot of herby, salty flavour but also the joy of seeing your friends tongues turn black as the afternoon wore on. We should all be eating more cuttlefish, too - it's one of the best types of seafood in terms of sustainability and it tastes great. Well, it tastes great when it's cooked by Sonny Stores, at least.

And so to pasta, and given the pedigree of the kitchen (ex- River Café chef Pegs Quinn) you'd expect their work on this front to be world-class too. And cavolo nero pappardelle certainly were, gently al-dente, soaked in butter and richly flavoured with a generous topping of pecorino. At £15 for not a huge amount you could sense the influence of the River Café in another way, but this was still a lovely thing and definitely worth the outlay.

Unfortunately, pork agnoli were not quite so enjoyable thanks to some catastrophic overseasoning. The pasta was still excellent, and 'nutmeg butter' lived up to the billing and then some, but the pork filling was so salty it just made the whole business a bit painful, a shame given how everything preceeding it had been spot-on. A mis-step then, but not enough to derail the entire meal.

In fact we were so confident the agnoli was no more than a blip that we ordered both desserts (along with, ahem, a round of Fernet Branca). Tiramisu was ethereally light and delicately coffee-fied, and so easy to eat you could practically inhale it.

And a chocolate cake was straightforwardly excellent, gooey but still holding an attractive shape, and cooled with crème fraîche.

Though it's fair to say I raised an eyebrow at the prices of the pasta dishes, the fact our huge, hugely boozy and hugely enjoyable lunch came to just over £50/head in my opinion puts it firmly in bargain territory. I pretty sure you'd pay more at my favourite London pasta joint Bancone (though not much more) and if this was the River Café itself... well, let's not even imagine. These last couple of years have been traumatic enough.

In a weekend full of good food, good booze and various other not entirely unrelated incidents (well done the staff at Bristol Royal Infirmary A&E who managed to patch up a broken foot in just over an hour on a Monday morning) this lunch at Sonny Stores stands as a shining example of the best of Bristol's restaurant scene and I couldn't have imagined a better birthday lunch. While not absolutely perfect, it overwhelmingly impressed in so many areas (service was also fantastic) and for such a reasonable amount of money that it goes right to the top of my list of favourite restaurants in the city. And next time I'm in town, whenever that may be (and who knows anything any more), I will be returning.


EDIT: These were in fact not polenta but chickpea pancakes, which explains why they were better than the usual polenta...

Monday 15 November 2021

Koya Ko, Broadway Market

Much as I will always have a soft spot for Koya (and specifically their new Broadway Market spot Koya Ko), there are certain aspects of an evening there that, well, let's just say need addressing.

The first thing is the strangely opaque (and I don't just mean the colour of the miso broth) way dishes are described on the menu. I would say quite an important thing to know when ordering a bowl of noodles is not only whether a dish is hot or cold (this is illustrated, and so fine) but also crucially whether it comes as a soup or not. This is not, for some bizarre reason, mentioned, and so requires you asking the (admittedly friendly and patient) person taking the order about each dish in turn to find out whether it's just a plate of noodles or a big gorgeous heartwarming noodle soup. Particularly at this time of year, I will always want a broth. And while 'Tempura' does, 'Triple Pickle' doesn't. 'Kaiso Classic' does but 'Saucy' doesn't.

Fortunately, everything we ended up with was wonderful. But before I get to that, my second niggle. The place is tiny, with tables set at rather Covid-unfriendly elbow-clashing intervals and with sometimes a queue to order taking up any remaining space in the middle of the room. True you can eat outside, but that's becoming increasingly impossible, and you can take away, but if you want to enjoy your dinner hot and presented as beautifully as they do in the restaurant itself, you'll really want to eat in. And because this is Broadway Market you'll be sharing that steamy, noisy space with giant child's buggies, which have to be bumped down a set of narrow stairs on the way in and then somehow be parked up in a room barely big enough to hold the furniture it already has. Let me be very clear, kids in restaurants is not the problem here, it's that some spaces are just not designed for it however much they wish they were.

But forget about all that because just look at this food. Firstly the prawn tempura which came adorned with a single absolutely massive prawn in a fantastic batter which started off crisp and light then generally became a soft, fluffy element of the soup itself. The broth was clean and clear, seasoned subtly but not overwhelmingly salty, and of course the udon noodles were supremely good, probably the best you can get in London. At least, if there are any better around, I haven't found them yet.

To circumvent the issue of 'Triple Pickle' not being a soup, we ordered a 'Plain' udon in broth, and a side of pickles. Both were fantastic, particularly the daikon which had a really addictively pongy - in a good way - funk.

And this is 'Kaiso Classic', four types of seaweed adorning another winning arrangement of slippery, meaty udon noodles and warming soup. Into this we cracked a 'Tamago', not the kind of sweet omelette thing you see in sushi places but a single whole egg very cleverly (and presumably very slowly) poached in its own shell. The white was wobbly and soft, the yolk runny, and it combined brilliantly with the noodles.

With a couple of green teas and a (very nice) house lemonade, the bill came to about £15 a head, which I hardly need to point out for food of this quality and consistency, and sheer technical ability, one of the great food bargains of London. It's a victim of its own success perhaps but that was always likely to be the case in this part of town, and I should point out in the interests of fairness that a solo repeat visit at lunchtime was a much more sedate and comfortable affair, sat at the bar chugging back a pork and miso bowl with seasonal greens (that would be lots and lots of watercress then) before heading off happy and full.

And look if you don't like queuing or noise or elbows, there's always the Soho branch, which is still brilliant and has a slightly more expanded and ambitious menu with ingredients like duck and beef tendon to dazzle and delight. There's also a branch in the Bloomberg Arcade and I've never been but you know what, that's probably pretty amazing too. Koya are one of London's real gems, food of thoughtfulness and invention and skill served for a ludicrously small amount of money, and if that makes them ludicrously oversubscribed too well, that's just the price we'll have to pay. And I'd pay it happily, over and over again.


Thursday 4 November 2021

Fatt Pundit, Covent Garden

The clocks have gone back, and with them the last opportunity to have dinner in the daylight until well into 2022. For most normal people, eating in low light isn't much of an issue - in fact in some parts of the world (hello New York City) the attitude seems to be that the more difficult it is to see your dinner, the better it must be - but it does make my job as a food blogger that bit more challenging when I'm singing the praises of dishes that look on the blog like something from the pages of an old medical textbook.

So I did my very best in Photoshop with the collection of murky shots I came back with from Fatt Pundit, but you're just going to have to take my word for it that it all tasted much better than my terrible photos would suggest, and that if you're relatively new to Indo-Chinese cuisine (as I was) then you can hardly do any better than beginning your journey here.

First, a little backstory. The Hakka people have a history of migration - sadly not always of their own choice - across China, South East Asia and the rest of the world. We were told that there were quite large populations in Kolkata at one time, until the Sino-Indian war in the 60s forced them out and a fair number settled further south in places like Kerala and Goa. Each time they moved they absorbed some element of the local cuisine, whether it's the use of tikka spicing from the north, or the coconut sauces from the coastal south. The Indo-Chinese staple "momo" are essentially dim sum dumplings with things like spiced goat stew (above) or chicken taking the place of minced pork & prawn, with a choice of dips - an earthy sesame, and a tomato and chilli. Oh, and they're absolutely bloody great, with good firm pastry work containing a deliriously rich and satisfying filling.

"Crackling spinach" was spinach treated to a chaat-style dressing of yoghurt, tamarind and pomegranete seeds. At first it seemed like an intimidating mound of food until you realise the spinach had been baked crisp (think crispy kale) and so it was all delightfully light and easy to eat.

Salt and pepper okra was next, neat little things delicately and greaselessly fried, coated in a worryingly addictive seasoning and served alongside one of those brilliant coriander chutneys that only the very best kitchens get right. This was another good illustration, too, of how the Indo-Chinese thing works - recognisably Indian ingredients treated to traditionally Chinese techniques - producing something genuinely new (to me at least) and exciting.

Bombay chilli (I hope they don't mind me correcting their spelling, I assumed 'Bombay chilly' was a typo) prawns took the fusion brief and pushed it even further. Plump, perfectly cooked prawns came with a glossy sauce presumably containing corn starch and soy but definitely spiked with Sichuan peppers, had all the initial appearances of a solidly Chinese dish. But somehow, this was not simply a Sichuan sauce, it had a definite seam of Indian spices running through and between the Chinese elements, and it all added up to an incredibly complex experience.

The Kolkata chilli (ditto) chicken did a similar thing for poultry. The chicken was nicely cooked, but this was really all about that glossy corn starch (again, I'm guessing) and this time smoked dark soy sauce spiked with who knows what other north Indian spices, a really exceptional bit of work and a very impressive dish.

Of the mains that we tried, perhaps these lamb chops were the most traditionally Indian overall, but even these came seasoned with "black bean dust" alongside the usual array of tikka spices. And they were absolutely incredible, cut two bone-thick, charred from the tandoor on the outside, pink and soft inside, literally everything you'd want from a portion of lamb chops. Also, a pretty huge portion for £15.50.

If I was to have my time again the only change I'd make was to have these rabbit wonton before the other mains. Unlike the prawns and chicken, and certainly unlike the lamb, the sauce they came with was soft and refined in order (presumably) not to overshadow the delicate gamey flavour of the rabbit. Still lovely, of course, but alongside everything else a bit subdued. Unfortunately, the timing of the dishes is not under your control - like many small plates places the dishes just appear as and when the kitchen decides, and so comes my only real complaint about Fatt Pundit. For a menu of such contrasts, it's a shame you can't either control the order in which dishes appear, and you aren't really given any advice as to what to eat before what. Only a minor niggle, perhaps, but one that makes the experience of eating there just that little less perfect.

We didn't have room for dessert, but we were able to glance at the "Snowflake gelato sizzling brownie" from across the room, and let me tell you I'm definitely leaving space for it next time because it looked - and smelled - spectacular. I've had a soft spot for Snowflake since an ice cream tour of Soho a few years back, so I'm sure this collaboration was successful.

I'm sure there'll be more than a handful of you who will be wondering where on earth I'd been hiding in order for Fatt Pundit to be my first experience of Indo-Chinese cuisine. In fact, none other than Darjeeling Express' Asma Khan used to do Indo-Chinese meals at her supperclub in the days before Chef's Table and visiting Marvel superheroes. What can I say - I should get out more.

But I got there eventually and consider myself a firm fan. Everything we had was carefully cooked and genuinely different, a fusion restaurant where everything, from the menu to the cutlery (brilliantly you're given chopsticks and a knife and fork, depending on which end of Indo-Chinese you feel like leaning towards) made absolute sense. Already on their second branch, the fact they're managing to expand during a pandemic (and chronic Brexit-fuelled staff shortages) speaks to an operation at the very top of its game. Long may it continue.


I was invited to Fatt Pundit and didn't see a bill.

Thursday 28 October 2021

Galvin Bar & Grill at the Kimpton, Bloomsbury

In an ideal world, the grand dining room of a five star hotel in central London would guarantee a wonderful time, a special occasion destination restaurant where you forget your troubles, open your wallet and bathe in the splendour of a world-class hospitality team at the top of their game. The reality is that all too often, bogged down by large, unfocussed menus that try to be all things to all people and that require a kitchen to twist in a hundred different directions at once, hotel restaurants can be remarkably hit and miss. For every Ritz Restaurant (still the absolute peak of hotel dining in the capital) there's somewhere serving a sausagey £25 burger or over-battered fish and chips, and even some of the most respected names can still occasionally get it wrong.

When the Kimpton first opened, their flagship restaurant was the Neptune, somewhere you could order a seafood platter for a pretty-reasonable-actually £38 but which didn't really stand alongside the best places in town and didn't quite set pulses racing. They also committed the unforgivable sin (at least in my opinion) of having shells of interesting creatures like spider crabs and razor clams decorating the raw bar that weren't available to order on the menu. Anyway that's now gone, and in its place in the same glitzy room have arrived the Galvin brothers who know a thing or two about making hotel restaurants work.

And one glance at the menu is enough to reassure that you're in safe hands. The Galvin style is very much "British with a hint of French", meaning things like cottage pie and Dover sole but also their signature Tarte Tatin. Think the Ivy, only good (look, I'm sure you did have a lovely time at the Ivy but I'm also sure it wasn't anything to do with the food). Even house bread is a cut above - this lovely warm sourdough was spiked with Marmite, lending its sticky crumb a pleasant kick of umami.

Crab (from Dorset) came with a neat layer of spiced brown meat on top of a good thick amount of fresh white, and was absolutely everything you'd ever want from a crab starter. And though focussing too much on the prices at a place like this is probably a bad idea overall, I think £16 for this generous amount of hand-picked crab (I even found a teeny bit of shell, so you could tell they'd started with the full animals) isn't bad at all.

In a starter that contains salmon and caviar, why list it on the menu with the title "potato"? Because this was no ordinary potato starter. Even their description of "Warm potato pancake" only goes so far in describing what is one of the more exciting things I've eaten involving the humble spud. More accurately described maybe as a sort of potato mousse, it was so light and fluffy and deliriously richly flavoured that it absolutely lived up to its top billing - the (lovely actually) salmon and caviar and crème fraîche were merely supporting artists to an absolute star of a main ingredient. This was a really exceptional thing, an absolute must-order.

But the fun didn't end there - Dover sole was literally perfect, gently bronzed with butter and with the flesh lifting easily off the bone in solid, meaty fillets. Capers - plenty of them - lightened the load of the butter and there was a torched half of lemon to add any more citrus as required but really you didn't need any distractions from the sole itself, a breathtaking bit of fish.

I'm told the steak offering at Galvin will vary slightly with availability; on this particular evening the only one served on the bone was fillet, so that's the one I had to go for. It may be entirely psychological but I always think steak on the bone is far more interesting with a greater range of textures, and there's a huge amount of fun to be had picking at bones. This particular fillet was - as I'm sure you can tell even from my slightly murky photo - beautifully cooked, with a good dark char and fantastic grass-fed flavour. Accompaniments, including superb fries and a classy béarnaise, were also all faultless.

Tarte tatin, as is usual from a Galvin restaurant, was brilliantly crunchy and sticky and just on the right side of being so sugary you could develop some serious long term condition from taking a second bite. It came with 'clotted cream ice cream' in case you were worried pastry soaked in sugar was a little too worthy.

But best of the desserts was bread and butter pudding "Gary Rhodes", a fitting tribute to the great man as this was just wonderful. Surprisingly easy to eat given the amount of double cream and butter it must contain, with a good amount of vanilla adding an important extra layer of luxury, it was about as far from the a tinned school meal as it was possible to imagine. Genuinely brilliant.

I've been using a lot of superlatives, I know, I'm sorry. The fact is it's so nice to be out somewhere like the Kimpton and eating food like this, that it's hard not to get just a bit carried away. I'll try, though, for the sake of objectivity. Firstly yes, it's pricey - not stupidly so, but £51 is a lot to pay for a 300g steak on the bone, and I think with the obligatory glass of champagne and bottle of wine the bill for two people would be north of £100/head. You can certainly pay the same for worse, but this is not an every day spend. And secondly, and I'm really clutching at straws here thinking of anything that's much of a negative, this huge room does need quite a few people to "come alive", and earlier in the evening with only one or two tables taken it felt a bit soulless. By the time we left though it was buzzing.

And that's really all I have to complain about. Everywhere else where it counts, from the slick service to attractive, accessible menu to the mature, confident dishes themselves, Galvin Bar & Grill delivers in spades, a gleaming, grown-up operation that exudes class and style from the first jolly welcome to the final wave goodbye. Plenty have tried and failed in spaces such as these, but when it works the marriage of glamorous surroundings, attentive front of house and seriously good food is utterly beguiling, enough to make you wonder why there isn't one of these in every 5* in town. The Galvins have hit upon a formula here that puts plenty of other - in fact most other - hotel restaurants to shame, and whats more have the cheek to make the whole thing look easy. It may not, in fact, be easy, but you can let them worry about details like that. All you need to do is bring a wallet and an empty stomach, and they'll take care of the rest.


I was invited to Galvin Bar & Grill and didn't see a bill.