Thursday 30 September 2021

Hot4U at the Prince Arthur, Dalston

I try not to let it get to me, but sometimes the fact that all the best restaurants in London seem to be concentrated in the same handful of locations, leaving great swathes of the city with nowhere decent to eat, does seem to be a slight bordering on personal. I normally live in Battersea, which has lovely family-run Mien Tay for Vietnamese and... that's it. Dalston, where I'm temporarily staying while my house is being smashed apart, has the Duke of Richmond, Salvation in Noodles, Pidgin, Bright, Peg, Towpath, Brat, not to mention all the interesting little spots in Netil and Broadway markets AND amazing bakeries like E5 and Pophams. I mean, couldn't just one of them move to SW11? It's so selfish.

Anyway, hot on the heels of the Ethical Butcher at the Spurstowe arms, and as if residents of E8 don't already have enough to be smug about, along comes Hot 4 U's (yes it's a stupid name, just ignore it) residency at the Prince Arthur, literally minutes round the corner, where another lovely old boozer has been given a new lease of life serving inventive modern bistro food. The handwritten menu is a joyfully unpretentious list of interesting things at extremely reasonable prices - oysters for £2.50 a pop, for example, or a burger for £10. Whittling down the list for a dinner for two was less a case of choosing what you'd prefer than deciding which items would be least traumatising to do without, but given that oysters and burgers aren't exactly unheard of in town, we decided instead to try some of the more unusual bits and pieces...

...such as this, dragon cucumber, handsome things dusted with some kind of chilli spice mix and bound by supremely light "whipped cheese", more of a kind of thin yoghurt but which worked really well.

Slices of scallops, either raw or barely cooked, each had a cute little piece of apple perched on top and were marvellously fresh, but the real star of this dish was the sauce underneath which they coyly called "whey" - it was extraordinarily rich and complex, packing a giant umami hit and, with its verdant swirls of bright green and red, beautiful to look at. If the Prince Arthur had served me nothing but a bowl of this I still would have left happy.

I wasn't such a huge fan of the ox tongue but then I believe you can be lucky and unlucky with this particular cut. Unfortunately for the Prince Arthur the last ox tongue I had was in a bagel from Tongue & Brisket on Leather Lane and was marvellously soft and moist; here, it was a little on the dry side with a slightly pappy, mealy texture. The daikon on the side was great though, and little dollops of creme fraiche helped the meat go down a bit easier.

An excellent, smooth tarama came with a generous mound of new potatoes, all glossy and golden, the combination ticking a number of boxes through soft fat and salty roe. I don't know if you've noticed but there seems to be an awful lot of very good tarama on offer around London at the moment, and it's a trend I'm very much in favour of.

Beef tartare was spiked with something called "pinenut xo" which added a nice extra dimension to the raw meat. On top, bonito flakes provided seasoning, and two neat sticks of deep-fried polenta a bit of extra carb and crunch. All very good, and plenty of it too for £12.

We only had room for one dessert. I'm sure the key lime pie would have been lovely, but the promise of tonka bean ice cream with sesame brittle was too enticing, so that's what we ended up with. The ice cream had that ultra silky-smooth texture that means someone really knows their way around a Pacojet, and the sesame crackers were nice and delicately nutty.

We didn't see a bill, but a quick bit of calculation tells me that the total would have, before service, come to £53, which is a great deal for this amount and quality of food. Oh, I should also probably point out that the Prince Arthur do very nice cocktails and have a very decent beer list thanks to a number of entries from 40ft brewery nearby, which is always nice to see. They're also very dog-friendly, meaning on any given night you stand a very good chance of sharing the space - if not your dinner, although that's presumably up to you - with some canines.

In short, there's an awful lot to like about the Hot4U residency, and not very many things to dislike, other than the aformentioned stinging unfairness of a part of the city already blessed with great places to eat has yet another one to call its own. But hey, while I'm a resident of E8 I'm going to put that to the back of my mind and make the most of it, and I very much suggest you do the same and book a table at the Prince Arthur. May you have an evening as good as mine, with craft beer, good food and dogs.


I was invited to the Prince Arthur and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday 28 September 2021

Restaurant Origens at the Rallye Hotel, L'Escala

In a different timeline in a different world, this could have been a review of Bo.Tic, a potentially exciting (and double-Michelin-starred) restaurant in Corçà, one of a number of small towns occupying the land between Girona and the Costa Brava coast. Compared to the medieval beauty of Peratallada, Palau-Sator and the extraordinary Pals with its 10th century watchtowers overlooking the paddy fields, Corçà is, well, if not exactly unremarkable then certainly subdued. Its medieval centre is barely a couple of streets, and there's no dramatic riverfront location - it's essentially a few buildings lining a road to somewhere else - and yet this sleepy little town is host to a restaurant that many (who've been) would consider world class.

Thanks to Covid restrictions keeping half of my family the other side of the world (the half who would happily drive half an hour and drop a ton on lunch at least), Bo.Tic was not on the itinerary this time, but its very existence is further evidence that in this part of the world, everywhere from the flashiest seafront joints to the unlikeliest stops on a dusty road to the middle of nowhere, stand an equal chance of offering up a decent feed. You can still go wrong in Catalonia when it comes to food (or rather service, which is far more often the issue) but in the ten years since my last visit it feels like everyone has upped their game, and wandering around any small - or large - town in between mealtimes is an exercise in gastronomic torture. You just want to eat EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE.

Back in our base in L'Escala, then, a particular new place on the seafront caught my eye. The menu, unusual enough by L'Escala standards and positively mindblowing for this Londoner, contained a list of ingredients that you'd not find in the UK unless you had some serious connections - local anchovies of course, but also red prawns from the Roses bay, suckling lamb from Ripol, and - wonder of wonders - mantis shrimp. And while the A La Carte was keenly priced if not quite bargain-basement, the €25 "Origens" lunch menu, three courses and a glass of wine included, seemed like an absolute steal.

If I told you that the meal began with sardines in tomato sauce, you'd probably wonder why I'd bother travelling 1000 miles for something you could get from the shelves at Tesco's, but of course this is Spain and their technique with canned fish stretches all the way from the supermarket shelf to the heights of Michelin-starred gastronomy. These were pleasantly positioned somewhere between those extremes, the sardines having a nice flavour and bite, and the tomato sauce giving them a bit of a zing.

Of the starters proper, causa limena probably had the least going for it, although it was still nice to see a bit of South American influence creeping into places where traditionally only local cuisines reigned. The prawn and avocado mix on the top was lovely - sharp and sweet and containing lots of juicy prawns bound with a nice light mayonnaise - but I'm afraid there's a very specific amount of cold mashed potato I want to eat, and that amount is zero. Still, it was worth a try.

Scallop and bean salad with Jabugo ham was a very enjoyable experimentation with surf and turf, and despite my love of both seafood and cured pig product almost the most impressive thing here were the buttery, soft white beans which seemed a cut above any I'd tried before. Admittedly, the scallops would have benefitted from a more aggressive sear and were a little on the cold side, but it was still, overall, a very pleasant thing.

Best of the starters though was a quiche, or rather more of a savoury cakey moussey thing, a soft, light filling of spinach and egg bound with a delicate crisp, golden-brown casing. Straightforward ingredients, perhaps, but there was quite the technique on display here because despite the potential to be rather stodgy, it was beautifully light and easy to eat.

This is two fillets of striped red mullet, each boasting a bright, gently oily flesh and a nicely crisp skin. They came dressed with "white garlic cream" which performed its task admirably, and sticks of crisp leek which added a gentle smokiness as well as texture. Technically faultless, elegently proportioned and presented, this was a great showcase for the mullet, a fish which (in the UK at least) doesn't get much love on menus.

For sheer novelty value alone, the mantis shrimp were definitely worth an order. I expected nothing more than different-shaped langoustine, but in fact the flavour of the flesh was more pronounced, sweeter and saltier, albeit much more difficult to eat than their North Atlantic cousins. In the end, having failed miserably to tease the meat out with the end of a fork, I resorted to scooping lengthwise inside the shells with my fingers, which did a much better job tearing holes in my fingers than it did producing a significant amount of mantis meat. No regrets, though, and with the added bonus of a gorgeous thick, dark rice stew studded with red wine-braised cuttlefish and who knows what else, it all added up to a hugely enjoyable experience.

I've had some very good steaks in L'Escala - I shared the story of the 1kg Chuleton on Twitter, and Cal Galan just round the corner also do a great fillet from Girona, so the relatively bland flavour of this "timbale" (not sure of the meaning of that word to be honest, but it was the texture of porridge) came as a bit of a surprise, and a disappointment. But the truffled mash underneath was lovely and rich, and it came with a good sauce, so not all was lost.

All the desserts were very good, starting with this chocolate and almond cake which had irresistable layers of salted caramel woven in between the ganache. Some ice cream on the side would have been nice, but you can't have everything.

Turns out "torrijas" in this context means soft, warm sponge cakes, the sweetness of which (and the caramel mousse on top) balanced with a dollop of fresh, sour mascarpone, a really clever touch.

But my favourite of the desserts was watermelon soup, not just because it had vodka in (though that probably helped) but also thanks to a lovely cherry sorbet it surrounded. Colourful and summery, not to mention completely delightful to eat, it was a fantastic way to finish the lunch.

Whether by accident or design, despite having an extra glass of wine each on top of the included one, these didn't show up on the bill, so this pleasant and inventive three-course lunch came to €25 each precisely, about £22. Which is, I'm sure you'll agree, pretty impressive, even for a part of the world known for value for money when it comes to good food. True there were bits and pieces that weren't perfect but these all came in the context of a perfectly-timed lunch, generous of size and spirit, and when it was all over it was memories of that gorgeous rice, the beatiful mackerel and that watermelon soup we were left with, not to mention that gobsmacking view over the Roses bay, rather than any minor annoyances. Yes, in many ways Origens was a backup "Plan B" meal but had such heart and personality we couldn't fail to enjoy it. Oh and as for Bo.Tic, I've rebooked for June 2022.


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.