Friday, 10 September 2021

The Ethical Butcher at the Spurstowe Arms, London Fields

Time, they say, is the great healer, and it seems that's just as true of Covid time as it ever was. Yes, the long, cold months of the last lockdown were thoroughly miserable to live through, even to those who made it through relatively unscathed to the other side, but as the days since we emerged blinking back into the sunlight have turned into weeks and then months, it feels like the odd precious highlight - an escape to the countryside, a Zoom-set pub quiz, a delivery meal - shine that little bit brighter than the abject fear, repetition and drudgery that surrounded them.

One such rare highlight was a package from the Ethical Butcher, a company that's made its name with a completely uncompromising attitude to the meat they sell, a product of sustainable, regenerative agriculture that also (either by sheer coincidence or as a direct result of the care taken to produce it) tastes incredible. I remember the aroma that filled the room when I opened the box up, not the usual butchers stale meat smell (although there's a part of me has a soft spot for that too) but of farmland, wild meadows and open countryside. All meat tastes, and smells, of the life it's lived - and if that's been a good life, that information is generously passed on.

When I received an invite to try the Ethical Butcher's residence at the Spurstowe Arms, then, I jumped at the chance - and not just because the place is a short walk from where I'm living at the moment. It's a lovely old pub, the Spurstowe - original high-ceiling Victorian bar, nice little beer garden out back, picnic tables on the street - and having some elevated, sustainable food to go with your pint of IPA would make an unbeatable combination.

And it started very well. Their regenerative agriculture charcuterie selection, salami and Cerrunos ham, were about as good as you can get anywhere - particularly the salami which had a lovely complex flavour and a texture just the right side of firm. Even some of the bits outside of the Butcher's control were worth talking about - excellent pickled chillies which despite their fierce heat we couldn't stop eating, and some nice salty olives - but I'm afraid I'm not sure we needed the very ordinary cold toast sprinkled with salt and olive oil. Without those, the dish would have been better.

I've had a lot of tomato salads, and not many of them have been very good - I think the mistake is thinking that any tomato grown in the UK has the potential to be better than those from the Med, and that really just isn't the case. These, though, from West Sussex, were superb - an incredibly deep flavour and complemented very well by a simple dressing of walnut oil and balsamic.

So far so good, and the good news about the mains is that you could tell immediately that this was very, very good meat. They arrived on the table with that familiar smell of pasture and meadow, together with a strong beefy note of aged cow. And they tasted almost as good as that smell indicated despite, sadly, both being rather overcooked. Bavette should really only be served rare, which I did ask for, but it arrived medium-well. Thanks to the fine raw product it had no hint of chewiness or dryness, and cut remarkably like fillet, but yes it would have been nice to try it a bit bloodier as it would have been even more impressive.

Similarly the burger would have been that much nicer with a bit of pink inside, but was still an excellent example of its kind, with good crunchy salad elements, a sharp homemade relish and what tasted like proper (ie. properly rubbish) American burger cheese though I'm sure there was more to it than that. The strong, dark crust on the beef itself and the nice loose ground hinted at what could have been if it had just been cooked a little hotter for a bit less, but hey, it was still worth the effort.

Overall, though, the sheer quality of the Ethical Butcher's product shone through the odd mistake from the kitchen, and this was still a good showcase for their product. And of course, if you don't trust the Spurstowe to keep an eye on the clock I can thoroughly, wholeheartedly recommend their meat boxes - particularly now it's barbeque season - where you can try their lamb chops, steaks, burgers and so on in the comfort of your own house/garden and if you overcook it you only have yourself to blame. Besides, a week or so after my meal at the Spurstowe, it's not the mistakes I remember, but the charcuterie, that amazing tomato salad and the incredible smell of aged beef filling the room. Oh, and the cat which sat at our table. Time, you see - the great healer.


I paid for the Ethical Butcher's meat box myself, but the meal above was an invite and I didn't see a bill.

Wednesday, 8 September 2021

Nama, Liverpool

If you visited a restaurant in a hideous soulless shopping mall, were told half the menu was unavailable and was forced to order the other half using a criminally un- user-friendly app seemingly designed specifically to be as upsetting as possible, well, you'd be forgiven for not having a very good time.

All these things are true about Nama, a new venture in the GPO food hall in Liverpool, which at first glance appears to have almost nothing going for it at all. If I was in the mood for elevated Japanese cuisine then I'd quite like a seat at a sushi bar in a quiet wood-panelled room, not an echoey corner of a space shared with people snaffling chicken burgers and milkshakes. I'd want to order my food from a friendly and capable member of staff, not a disastrously buggy app which managed to lose my entire order three times as soon as it got to the payment stage. And I'd expect a restaurant giving itself the description "tuna and wagyu" to have at least some wagyu on offer - I mean, come on.

And yet! And yet. Despite everything, despite all of this, Nama turned out to be one of the most exciting and memorable meals I've been privileged enough to enjoy in the last twelve months. It succeeds not because of its location, or the atmosphere, and certainly not that bloody app, but because the food they're making is astonishingly, blindingly good and at prices that make you wonder how on earth they're turning a profit.

These are Sicilian red prawns, plump and deliriously sweet little things, dressed in a lime & ginger ponzu and assisted by a kick of jalapeno. Finished with a few drops of lime oil and topped with wasabi - real wasabi, shaved fresh off the root - this was a sophisticated and classy dish combining the finest European ingredients with top Japanese cheffy skill. They cost £9, and were worth at least three times that. After finishing them off, we ordered another plate.

Stone bass, from Cornwall, rested in a lemongrass and yuzu ponzu, topped with more of that fresh wasabi and sprinkled with nori seaweed. The fish was beautifully sliced and arranged, the dressing expertly judged and the overall effect a masterclass in sushi work.

Salmon, Scottish, was very simply presented to allow the supremely impressive raw ingredient to shine. It was dressed only with a few sprinkles of sesame seed and chives, but with a bit of magic added from a brushing with 20-year-old tare sauce. This was £8.50, in case you thought £9 for the prawns was pushing it a bit.

Next, tuna tartare, from Japanese yellowfin this time, prettily arranged on a bed of koshihikari rice which was fluffy and body-temperature, as is correct, and as is wonderful. At certain moments the reality of eating this incredible food in such odd surroundings, with my fellow diners seemingly completely oblivious to the existence of a world-class Japanese restaurant in their midst, threatened to derail the mood. But the food was always good enough to compensate.

There was another dish of I think tuna I have a photo of here, but can't place it on the rather incomplete online menu. Whatever - rest assured it was as impressive and as great value as everything else, worth making the journey to this odd corner of a shopping mall in Liverpool many times over.

Of course, I need to go back to Nama, not least to try the Wagyu from Gunma prefecture which I was reliably informed would be appearing in a week or two (and by all accounts did, and was also wonderful according to a well-placed source) but also to double-check this amazing place ever existed in such an unlikely circumstance in the first place and wasn't just part of some wasabi-induced fever-dream. The GPO food hall I'm sure has its fans, and I'm sure Jailbird chicken and Patty B's burgers are perfectly decent, but to stumble across Nama felt a bit like the (possibly apocryphal) story of a couple of holidaymakers who obliviously thought they'd check out this restaurant they happened to drive past on the Costa Brava called El Bulli, just 5 minutes after a vanishingly rare cancellation at the most sought-after reservation in the world. Nama shouldn't be here, and yet it is.

And while it is, I suggest very strongly you go and eat there. Rarely has Japanese Izakaya food shined so brightly as in this unlikely spot in the North of England, and who knows what kind of prospect it has having to fight for attention next to the coffee shops and ice cream parlours of the GPO food hall. Even with that half-missing menu, and shonky apps, it is a reason in itself to visit Liverpool, and I can only assume by the time the word spreads, it will be even better. What a strange, unlikely place. But still, what a place.


Friday, 3 September 2021

Bandra Bhai, Fitzrovia

I don't know why I don't review more bars on this blog. Some of my happiest moments have been in places like Rules or Bar Termini or Swift or Scout, game-changing world-class establishments where if you leave without having had the time of your life and spent a fortune well, you're doing something wrong. London is packed full of great bars, with almost every part of town hosting at least one chance to get hold of a good martini, but the very best bars exist in their own rarefied space, a magical blend of bartender skill, twinkling clandestine atmosphere and the low, contented buzz of a group of people having a lovely time.

A good part of the magic of a great bar, then, and crucial to the correct "buzz", is being that sweet spot of not too busy (involving booking way in advance or - bleugh - queuing) or being funereally deathly quiet, which is equally undesirable. A bar is more than the staff and the cocktail list - it's also the people that choose to drink there, and in what numbers. Given that these are early days for Bandra Bhai, and the word is only beginning to spread, the healthy number of fellow cocktail fans in the plush downstairs space (underneath hip Indian restaurant du jour Pali Hill) points to the fact that already Fitzrovia has another hit on its hands, and that before too long it could be pretty oversubscribed. For now though, it's ours to enjoy in its current relaxed and inviting form, a comfortable and serene place to enjoy cracking cocktails, and tastefully done Indian small plates.

Before the food, though, cocktails. This is a Rajdoot Martini, an very imaginative blend of gin, samphire-infused vodka (yes please) and something called Cocchi Americano which I'd not crossed paths with before so let me hand you over to Wikipedia - "Cocchi Americano (pronounced: /ˈkɔkki ameriˈkano/) is a quinine-flavored aperitif wine produced by Giulio Cocchi Spumanti in the Asti province of Italy.". So now you know. The Martini was superb by the way, fragrant and sophisticated with the samphire just a gentle seawater backnote instead of being aggressively fishy (thank god).

I will never not love a cocktail served in a metal pineapple, and the "Gaba Singh Side-Hustle" was not only visually arresting but, thanks to the time-honoured combination of cognac and pineapple, a treat for all the senses. It's probably worth addressing the fact that £16.50 is a little toppy for a fruit cocktail but personally I'd pay an extra £5 for the metal pineapple.

Though it's perfectly acceptable to come to Bandra Bhai just for drinks, and there's nothing wrong with that, it would perhaps be a shame not to try at least a couple of the dishes of elevated Mumbai cuisine from the kitchens on the ground floor. So firstly these Mangalore buns, lovely and soft and steamy which came alongside a fantastically rich mixture of spiced crab meat. Whether this was what you're supposed to do or not, I made a hole in the bun and filled it with crab, and then devoured it in a couple of quick bites before the whole construct fell apart. It was great.

And of course we were duty-bound to order lamb chops, gorgeously crisped up on the grill, soaked in a beguiling spice marinade and served with a smooth coriander chutney. Absolutely wonderful things as, yes, you might expect for £20 for two but hey, they aren't pretending to be a cheap chop house. This is high-end stuff, unapologetically so.

As with any cocktail bar - at least, any good cocktail bar - the final bill will align in direct proportion to the amount of fun you're having, so expect to be charged accordingly if you skip out of the place high on life (and pineapple cognac). But as I said, this is exactly how it should be, and if you factor in the experienced bar staff, the friendly front of house and the extremely comfortable surroundings, well, this is what I consider getting your money's worth. You can certainly pay a lot more for a lot less. This lot above (had we not been on an invite) would have come to about £70 including service, so £35pp, if not quite a bargain then certainly more than reasonable.

And although it is early days, already Bandra Bhai has the feel of a settled and mature bar hosting what felt like a cast of regulars, a genuinely exciting new addition to Fitzrovia (a place not exactly brimming with smart cocktail options). The Indian theme, used intelligently and judiciously, adds a certain 'lean' to the drinks list in the same way as Kwānt on Heddon St does for African - fitting the mood of the building without being clunky or clichéd. All in all, it's a very smart little operation which I hope to visit again as soon as time will allow. Long live the metal pineapple.


I was invited to Bandra Bhai and didn't see a bill.