Tuesday 29 June 2021

INO Gastrobar, Soho

All the game-changing restaurants in recent London history have a certain thing in common. Watever culinary fireworks or technical expertise are on display over the course of the menu at large, there's usually one "wow" moment that grabs the imagination and writes the headlines, a single dish (or combination of dishes) that stands as a flagship symbol of everything the restaurant is about. Think about the West Coast burger aesthetic demonstrated by MeatLiquor's Dead Hippy, or the East-meets-West fusion genius of Dishoom's bacon naan. These things have rightly gone down in London food history, but crucially still stand as shorthand for the restaurant, encapsulated in one dish. They're also, most importantly, still on the menus to this day.

I got as far as the very first dish at INO Gastrobar when I began to get that long-forgotten feeling of being a part of something rather special. There have been plenty of exciting new restaurants in the last year or two - astonishingly, considering that most will have been closed for a good proportion of that and those that have opened are struggling with Covid-necessary social distancing, temporary shutdowns and Brexit-forced supply line issues - but through all this somehow the creative food types of the city still manage to adapt and improve, and take the restaurant experience to new and exciting places. And there are few places as exciting, right now, as INO Gastrobar.

The dish in question, by the way, is this. Called "Kakavia", it's part deeply flavoured, extravagantly buttery fish broth, part serving of top-quality seabass (I think) sashimi, and you are instructed to dip the raw fish into the soup one bit at a time, before finally polishing off the rest of the liquid with one satisfying gulp. It's obviously brilliant, both imaginitive and genuinely (at least to London eyes) innovative but also, despite the 'sashimi' element presentation, recognisably Greek, a deconstruction of a traditional fisherman's soup still holding true to the flavour profile of the inspiration whilst pushing in exciting new directions. This is how you should start any meal at INO Gastrobar.

From here on, it was clear that everything that came out of the kitchens would be exquisitely presented, and full of summer joy. Perhaps it was a little bit unimaginitive to go with two dishes both using the catch of the day, but this carpaccio was absolutely worth an order, with nice big thick slices of raw fish and topped with "Greek salad aromas", little chunks of feta, neatly sliced cherry tomato and dried oregano.

The house bread was "hand-stretched" pitta, a neat little thing with a nice smoky crust, seasoned with herbs and salt. It's strange - and often frustrating - that restaurants still regard breadmaking as some kind of ancilliary activity when it's something they'll be serving to 90% of their customers. I'm thinking particularly of even the most well-regarded ocakbasi in town that all get their cardboardy flatbread from the same supplier. But anyway, this was very good.

Tarama was superb, an arrangement of piped star shapes topped with salty bottarga and a slow-cooked yolk to bind it all together. With the warm pitta bread it made an irresistable combination, the roe soaking into the soft of the bread like fishy butter. It didn't last long.

Next a kind of broad bean mousse thing (sorry I'm pretty sure that's right) studded with an interesting collection of miniature onions (again...), various herbs and - wonderfully - chunks of chargrilled eel. Eel is a fish you rarely see outside of specialist Japanese and Chinese restaurants, so to see it presented like this, with confidence and care, in a Mediterranean context is quite thrilling. The "fava stifado" and the onions were lovely, definitely, but the star of this show was the eel, and as soon as it was finished I wanted to order it all over again.

Charred okra, tomato and feta was a little bonus from the kitchen and though perfectly pleasant, didn't really dazzle in the way that everything else had up to this point. You can't really go wrong with feta and tomatoes, but there's not really too much to get excited about here either. Still, appreciate the effort.

Seftalies were much more my kind of thing. Minced beef kebabs wrapped in caul, I had previously only read about these things in publications such as Pit Magazine and by chefs like Big Has so was delighted to finally get to sample them. They didn't disappoint - the beef was loose and richly flavoured, and a deft touch on the grill had got them bronzed without being charred, just the right texture.

The only dish I wouldn't order again is the "funky burger". It didn't really fit well on the menu, it was way too small a mouthful of food for £6, and - most importantly - it just didn't taste of much, not in the least bit "funky" and with a strange sausagey texture suggested it had been seasoned a while ago and left to sit.

But let's not dwell on that because "wild mushrooms" was yet another absolute triumph. Hen of the woods is one of the more remarkable foraged fungi available on these isles - dense and meaty, with a satisfying squeaky "bite", if it's not one of your favourite wild ingredients then you haven't tried it, simple as that. Here the natural faintly chicken-y flavour of the mushrooms were lifted by a lemon and oregano dressing, which gave the whole thing an entirely new dimension. This is a restaurant that knows good ingredients, and how to treat them.

For such ingredients, and the knowledge to make the most of them, you of course do pay. But with 4 glasses of wine between 2 people, a negroni, more than enough bewilderingly good food, a final price including (brilliant) service of £65pp is not anywhere near unreasonable. In fact, looking at the bill again now, I'd say I would have paid a lot more for that meal and it still would have felt like value. The amount of effort, and style, and skill that had gone into all the dishes was quite something to behold.

Halfway through the dinner it suddenly occurred to me where that weird niggling feeling was coming from as I tucked into the Kakavia earlier. It was that the fish broth, refined and complex and beautiful in its own way, reminded me of the beef soup at Bao back in the day, itself a minor work of art. Back then, in 2015, I'd suspected that this buzzy new restaurant was about to change everything about the way we thought about Taiwanese food, and in the end it sort of did. Here on Newburgh Street, with its similar attitude to sourcing and meticulous presentation of small plates for not very much money, INO Gastrobar is about to do the same for Greek. And it's about bloody time.


Tuesday 22 June 2021

The Italian Greyhound, Marylebone

In a handsome old building in Marylebone, life in post-covid Britain appears to be creeping back to normal. Staff scoot about in smart uniforms, the tinkle of fine glassware fills the air, and a relieved and deeply grateful public (which would include me) are settling back into a routine that God Knows I hope won't hit a brick wall again.

I had a hugely enjoyable evening at the Italian Greyhound in Marylebone - it's early days for the new kitchen, nobody running a hospitality venue is having a particularly relaxing time of it at the moment, and the quality of the ingredients and technique on display was well worth shouting about. And if everything arrived with at least two or three - sometimes more - bits and pieces too many, which tended to distract from what would otherwise been an even more impressive display of Italian classics, well, who cares. I'm still out and about and eating.

Having said all that, I actually thought the cocktails on offer had been modified from the classics for the better - putting oregano in a Negroni is a very clever move, the flavour of the herb combining incredibly well with the other bitters and aromatics. Similarly a 'Smoked Negroni' worked incredibly well, not too bonfire-y and nicely presented. Pretty big measures on both, too.

I can see the way their mind was working, providing a medley of summer herbs and veg alongside a burrata, but I think you probably needed either asparagus or broad beans, not both, and perhaps the asparagus would have been nicer just presented as whole stalks rather than chopped up into bits and doused in oil and red pepper. But you know what, these were still good ingredients cooked well, and it all got polished off.

Smoked yellowfin tuna was a revelation - I believe they smoke it themselves, and the salty, earthy flavour of the fish itself combined with a luxurious texture was like a cross between the finest carpaccio and top-end smoked salmon. The caperberries were lovely too actually although I think it would have fared just as well without the cress or celery. Definitely on the must-order list though, no question.

Octopus, tender and nicely seasoned, came with daintily-peeled cherry tomatoes and celery leaves, and I do appreciate the effort to use every bit of the vegetables across a variety of dishes. This star of this dish though wasn't the celery, or the octopus, but some cubes of potato which were just about the sweetest and softest little bombs of flavour I can remember any potato ever being. I was so impressed, I asked what they were and was told a special name which I have since completely forgotten. Sorry. I bet if you asked them they'd tell you, though.

Onto the pasta dishes, and I imagine you know the drill by now. The pasta was fantastic, just the right side of al-dente and a joy to eat. Similarly the slow-cooked lamb (shoulder I think) was full of flavour and not a hint of chewiness, it just dissolved in the mouth. And there they could have stopped and had an absolute winner, except instead they decided to cover it all with breadcrumbs and herbs which, you know, weren't horrible just a bit distracting and pointless.

Even more "busy" was ricotta ravioli which as well as containing more beautifully done pasta, all silky and buttery and with a fantastic bite, had a ratatouille tipped on top of it, courgettes and tomatoes and pine nuts. Without the ratatouille this would have been one of the great London ravioli dishes - in fact, look it was one of the great London ravioli dishes, if you ignored the ratatouille.

Last of the savouries was a superbly cooked fillet of sea bream, skin nice and crisp and flesh inside just-so, a work of art by itself that didn't at all need the "aquapezzo" (lit. crazy water) broth underneath. I am not such an extremist that I would recommend they serve the fish literally on a plate with nothing else, but the aquapezzo was rather bland and the textures rather confused the experience of eating the fish.

Ironically - and wonderfully - when it comes to desserts the Italian Greyhound have decided simplest is best. Cherry and almond tart was a fine old thing, boasting a nice crunch and with a soft sugary filling of plenty of cherries. And a raspberry & prosecco sorbet just let its ingredients absolutely sing - no weird dressing, no confusion of flavours, just two blobs of pure summer loveliness. Where was this judiciousness in the savoury courses?

It sounds like I've been moaning a lot, and I have I suppose, but sometimes it's just easier to cover everything (in the correct spirit in which it is intended) than to attempt to sugar-coat the sorbet. As you can see from the score below, I had a nice time at the Italian Greyhound, and I do recommended it, I just wish they'd have a bit more confidence in their incredibly good pasta and raw ingredients and give them a bit more space to shine in their own right. On the other hand, you could go and decide all the dishes are perfect and you like it just how it is. All opinions are available.


I was invited to the Italian Greyhound and didn't see a bill. Imagine with wine/cocktails you should expect to pay about £50/head, which is about right for somewhere this smart in Marylebone. EDIT: It's occurred to me that the first paragraph way way too harsh considering everything that followed, so I've tweaked it a bit.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

The Kentish Hare, Tonbridge

The Kentish countryside, it's not in the least bit controversial to point out, is host to a collection of the most exquisitely beautiful and notable pubs in the country. You've heard me bang on about the Fordwich Arms on these pages before at length, and the Sportsman up on the north coast is an equally important point of foodie pilgrimage, but alongside those big names there are places like the Duck Inn or the Compasses, quietly and confidently brilliant (so I'm reliably told; they're still on my to-do list), each more then worth the rather painful journey from central London.

Because yes, unless you're lucky enough to be a resident of Canterbury or Tunbridge Wells or Faversham, a lot of these destination gastropubs really are that and then some - the Fordwich takes me 2 hours door to door, the Sportsman some fraction less than that but still quite a commitment for a single day - and though I'll happily make the journey (I'd find a way of getting to the Fordwich if it was on an island 200 miles into the North Sea) it is nice occasionally to be picked up at the station by a friend after a very respectable 40 minute train journey, and be driven into the rolling countryside for lunch. And thus I found myself at the Kentish Hare.

At a table in the neat, well-proportioned pub gardens we were given a menu full of things you'd want to eat, at prices that seemed more than reasonable. Of course given my inevitable compulsion to order the most 'extra' items on any given menu, I ended up paying not only a £5 substitute for Devon crab as a starter, but also £10 extra for Alyesbury duck for main. And I have absolutely no regrets at all.

The crab, sweet and fresh, was presented on a bed of densely flavoured salsa verde, the salty vegetal flavours a perfect marriage for the seafood, and with some tastefully chosen sea vegetables, sea purslane I think at least. As an introduction to the way the Kentish Hare go about their business - stylish, intelligent, attractive - you couldn't have asked for more.

Mains kept up similarly high standards. Lamb was fashioned into a kind of single giant faggot, bronzed casing containing moist slow-cooked shoulder meat. Beneath, something I only need to describe as "clotted cream potato" for you to get an idea of how wonderful it was. I think if our lunch had consisted of nothing but a bucket of clotted cream potato each and a spoon, we still would have come away happy. Vibrant broad beans and hispi cabbage, and a dousing of glossy lamb just, completed the picture.

Middlewhite pork came as geometrically exact slabs of belly, flesh bright white and with a delicate, crisp crackling, and a kind of sausage made out of who knows what other parts of the animal. With another glossy jus, and a scattering of morels, it was another almost perfect dish.

Of course, my duck was the best, but then I would say that, wouldn't I? The animal itself had been cooked to pink and yielding, with a delicate thin layer of nicely rendered fat under a golden brown, honey-glazed skin. There was an Asian lean on the vegetable side of things, with some braised pak choi lending a lovely bitter note, and some dense, meaty "maitake" (hen of the woods) mushrooms, always a treat to see in a restaurant. I loved every bit of it.

I honestly can't tell you why we didn't stay for dessert; perhaps the options (sticky toffee pudding, crème brûlée, ice cream and sorbets) weren't particularly inspiring or perhaps we had just eaten our own bodyweight in clotted cream potato (the pork and the duck each came with about half a kilo of the stuff on the side) and thought we'd better quickly remove ourselves to a safe environment before slipping fully into a carb-enduced coma. I'm sure they would have been just as wonderful as the savouries though.

With a bottle of Simpson's sparkling wine (at £36 for a bottle which I'm sure is about £28 retail, so an absolute steal) and a couple of extra bits and pieces (warm chorizo makes a lovely pre-lunch snack) the bill came to just over £50 each with service - service, by the way, which coped incredibly well with the odd operating environment of half-inside half-outside, and deserved every bit of their 12.5%. This is, I'm sure I don't need to point out given the standard of food above, great value for money.

If you aren't lucky enough to have a designated driver picking you up from the station, the 6 minute cab from Tonbridge costs a few quid (in fact you could probably walk it in under an hour if you're that way inclined), and services run direct from London Bridge all day. The point is, there's no excuse not to go to the Kentish Hare at all if you're after a heavenly taste of the Kentish countryside without breaking the bank or spending all day on a train. And if that won't convince you, nothing will.


Monday 14 June 2021

The Foyer & Reading Room at Claridge's, Mayfair

There's a strange kind of light in the Claridge's Foyer restaurant, a sort of otherworldly greenish hue that appears to have no obvious source. There's green detailing in the carpets and and upholstery but certainly not so much that it could create such an odd effect, and examination of the table lamps and ceiling lights positioned around the room appear to just be the normal shade of electric yellow. It's not an unpleasant experience sat in here - far from it - but the soft furnishings and tinkle of the grand piano combined with the bizarre green fug combines to create a slightly out-of-body experience, like you're living in a flashback sequence from an old VHS movie.

In this rarefied if rather discombobulating space, impeccably smart staff seem to fade entirely in and out of existence as and when required - if you need your glass refilling they are there and in the blink of an eye, and then a moment later gone again, leaving you the space to yourself. You should expect a front-of-house of this standard at places (and prices) like these but even so, experiencing international-level service first-hand is never anything less than a thrill, and watching how they dealt with the odd issue that cropped up during the dinner was a masterclass in grace and efficiency.

And yes, I had a couple of issues with my dinner at the Foyer but it's important that all these niggles come in the context of a serious restaurant serving serious food at serious prices, and I'm only pointing them out in the spirit of completeness and the fact that really, at this level, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect something approaching perfection from your dinner.

Speaking of perfection though, the house bread was exactly that - an absolutely stonking sourdough with a moist, warm, tacky interior and a delicate thin crust. How much better to be served a generous chunk of this beautiful rustic creation than some frou-frou cones of ciabatta or oil-soggy foccacia. Full marks for technique and sensibility.

How odd, then, that a kichen that at first seemed so fully in control of its baking abilities should produce these rather lacklustre gougere. They weren't awful, just disappointing - cold, slightly chewy pastry containing a mealy filling of very little flavour, and a world apart from the stunning versions served at the Ritz. And I'm allowed to compare Claridge's with the Ritz, surely?

Lobster bisque needed a bit more salt and a lot more seafood flavour - it could have passed as a tomato soup were it not for the chunks of lobster floating around in it - but I'm still easily able to enjoy a slightly-seafoody tomato soup, and the tortellini were marvellously delicate and light. But again, for comparison, try the version at Sheekey's - much more my kind of thing.

I didn't get to try any of the steak tartare but it certainly looked the part, and the person whose dish it was had ordered it before, so that sounds like a recommendation to me. Like the use of variagated leaves, too.

Tuna tartare was a hugely generous portion, particularly regarding the tuna which arrived in inch-thick cubes piled high over thinly-sliced heritage tomatoes in a nice sharp dressing. OK, this is not the most radical combination of ingredients in the world but a hotel restaurant, even one as illustrious as Claridge's Foyer, isn't about shocking with unusual techniques or flavours (you can leave that to Davis & Brook next door) but serving familiar things as well as they can be served. And I would say the tuna tartare fit that bill.

Rack of lamb was so cleanly, precisely cooked to a uniform pink that they gleamed on the plate, bathed in their own crimson light in contrast to the irridescent glow of the peas and broad beans beneath. And they came with a little jug of dangerously addictive glossy lamb jus, with a texture cleverly thick enough to cling seductively to the meat even when piping hot.

Beef fillet was - eventually - similarly well-received, but I'm afraid they needed a two runs to get this right. The first example, ordered medium-rare, arrived cooked to grey all the way to the centre, an unforgiveable error for your average high street steakhouse never mind a leading hotel of the world. But hey, these things happen to the best of us, and the staff were so apologetic and made things right so comprehensively that it was almost worth the initial disappointment just to see a world-class front of house flex its hospitality muscles. It was replaced, taken off the bill, and all the sides it was ordered with replaced too, so that they didn't go cold. Top work.

All the sides - and boy did we go for it on this front - were perfect. Mashed potato was correctly 90% butter, dauphinoise had a lovely balance between dairy and starch and a golden crust on top like a creme brulée, and chips were crunchy and moreish in the steakhouse style.

I was kicking myself I didn't have room for dessert, but all those various forms of carbohydrates defeated us, and so we filled the time with a digestif instead - in this case a couple of espresso martinis and a Manhattan. The bar work at Claridge's is, as you might rightly expect, some of the best in town, and it's not for no reason they're already back operating at capacity, their clientele (which included me earlier on that evening) spilling over not only onto the new outdoor terrace but to the bar area of Davis and Brook. It is genuinely heartwarming to see them back, and so popular.

As for the Foyer restaurant, well, I had a lovely evening and more than enough went right to make the journey worthwhile, but for an establishment that so often strives for perfection in everything they do, and usually succeeds, it felt like a step behind the rest of their offerings. Compared to the cocktail bars and even the afternoon tea served in the same room (which, by the way, is utter perfection from start to finish), it just wasn't quite there.

But anyway, it's still great to be out and about, and lovely to see the old girl lit up and full of happy punters again. A visit to Claridge's is still, as it ever was, a privilege, and I will be back as soon and as often as my wallet will allow.


Wednesday 2 June 2021

Paradise, Soho

Though it's sad to a certain degree when any restaurant closes - you have to feel for the staff and management of even the most mediocre high street chain even if you weren't a fan - it's fair to say some losses hit way harder than others. Back in 2019, even before Covid ravaged our shores, Spuntino, the New York-Italian cocktail bar and comfort food joint, closed its doors and overnight I lost a friendly regular pre- and post- dinner spot, somewhere guaranteed to make me happy and where I have loads of great memories. Their truffled egg toast, egg & anchovy soldiers and negronis will live long in legend. RIP.

But! What have we here? In the revamped Spuntino site - think more cosy booths and a much smaller central bar - is Paradise, still achingly hip and staffed by capable friendly people (and still doing great cocktails) but the cuisine on offer is now, in their words, "contemporary Sri-Lankan". "Contemporary", inevitably, translates as "smaller portions and higher prices" but look, this is Soho, not Tooting High Street, and with food this vibrant and exciting it still seems like value to me.

Three half-langoustine for example, for £8, is pretty much what you'd pay at Kiln, who have done for "contemporary" Thai what Paradise are doing for Sri Lankan. Here they came served in a remarkably punchy Ceylonese dressing and a lovely smooth, sweet mango dip. The papaya and palm heart salad on the side was crunchy and fresh, and a welcome balm from the fire of the langoustine dressing.

Everything arrived in one go, normally not much of a problem but I do wish they'd brought out these mangalitza skewers a bit earlier as they were rather cold. That aside, they tasted great, containing a perfect balance of flesh and fat, and soaked in a deep, rich tamarind sauce. Oh, and sorry about the photos. It was very dark in there and my camera is still rubbish.

Normally I wouldn't bother mentioning a side of boiled rice but there was something extra about this muthu samba stuff, incredibly light and soft, the grains being smally and fluffy and round. 'Muthu' apparently translates to 'pearl', which makes sense.

Aubergine and jaggery moju was a generous pile of sticky-spiced veg with a mild chilli kick - milder than the langoustine at least - and with a interesting variety of ingredients and textures. I particularly liked the chew on the large green chilli, which had been blackened over coals I think.

Not pictured is a bowl of huge devilled prawns, their sauce a happy marriage of chilli, tomato, spices and who knows what else, the kind of thing it probably takes a long time and a lot of experience to perfect. Interestingly, we were instructed to try eating these whole, as in shell-on and with heads, but we soon decided that wasn't going to work. Deep-fried shrimps perhaps you can gulp down whole, but not the thick, chewy carapaces of giant prawns. So instead we tore the shells off with our bare hands and had to go to the bathroom to wash ourselves clean before carrying on with the meal.

Finally, egg hopper with an asparagus and tomato sambol. Bringing a much-needed dairy cleanness to a meal that had been otherwise quite spice-heavy and dense, this had a perfectly timed gooey yolk and the sambol was nice and fresh.

So, RIP Spuntino, long live Paradise I say. It is faintly terrifying how easily London restaurants - even the very good ones - can fail, and though I'm sure I don't know the whole backstory on the Troubled Polpo Group (as it is seemingly compulsarily referred to in the press) I do know I still miss Spuntino like I miss anywhere that's been such an integral part of the London food scene for so long. But I also know that I love Paradise, and even if it doesn't become a new regular haunt I'll know that the legacy of Spuntino - cool, exciting, unique - lives on in its new South Asian cousin.