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.

Monday 25 October 2021

Flor, Borough Market

Lunch on Saturday was that rarest and most brilliant of things - a completely unplanned, spur-of-the-moment decision that turned out to be one of the best meals of the year. This hardly ever happens. Mainly this is because I like to plan my weeks (and weekends) with some level of guarantee to avoid disappointment and I don't really do spur-of-the-moment unless something has gone rather askew. In this case, what I thought was a booking somewhere in SE1 turned out, well, not to be, and so faced with the bewildering number of options in Borough Market we literally just walked into the nearest place that looked like it had space. And lucky for us, it did.

An old warehouse converted into a dramatic triple-level dining room, with iron spiral staircases linking the floors, you need a bit of a head for heights to move comfortably between your table and the (surprisingly large and well-appointed) bathroom they've somehow built into the rafters at Flor. It's all beautiful though - the brick walls and antique pulleys and gears feel like a proper part of old Borough, and although the tables are fairly close together it still feels spacious and comfortable thanks to the high ceilings.

Just as tasteful as the interior is the menu, a short, sweet list of seasonal goodies at pretty reasonable price points. You can see the familial connection to Lyle's, but whilst the Shoreditch place is more solidly (if not tradionally) British, Flor has the odd touch of Korean & Japanese, and is (whisper it) a little more affordable. The attention to detail and flair for presentation is still very much in evidence though - take this beautiful bowl of oysters "dongchimi", fresh shellfish in a clear broth dotted with oil and spiked with little strips of pickle. The flavours were clear and clean, no one element fighting with another and none allowed to dominate, and combined with a mastery of technique (the broth was a particularly impressive bit of work) made up for a supremely impressive dish. It was a theme that was to continue.

Beetroot and feta tart was, if I'm going to be brutal, about the only thing on the Flor menu that had a touch of the safe about it. It was very good, don't get me wrong, with a delicate pastry base and nice fermented plum chutney, it was just the kind of thing you might be able to get hold of at any decent gastropub, and stood in contrast to the invention and bravery shown elsewhere on the menu.

Mackerel was much more like it. The fish, first of all, was perfect - a crisp, dry skin that held together a fillet of beautifully soft and sweet flesh oozing with fatty flavours. But it came with a delicate pear and fennel chutney that complimented the mackerel in an interesting more subtle way than the more usual contrast of citrus. Like the oysters, it was technically impressive but also willing to experiment with flavour profiles in a way that you didn't quite expect. Clever stuff.

Salt & pepper squid - greaseless and irresistably crunchy and soft in all the right places - came with a lovely light aioli and pickled (I think) jalapenos, and if you can't enjoy the combination of deep-fried seafood, mayonnaise and pickled chilli there's something wrong with you. Plenty of black pepper too, which punched almost as much mouth-burning heat as the chilli.

It's a compulsion of mine, and not one that I'm entirely proud of, to order the most bizarre or challenging item on any given menu just so I can say I've done it. So of course, the moment I saw Flor were serving brains, they went right to the top of the list. The brains themselves, lightly and skilfully tempura'd, were the best example of their kind I've ever had, although that being said they were still brains, and will by themselves only appeal to the most ardent offal fan, or anyone else who finds idea of eating disconcertingly meaty cottage cheese appealing. The broth they came in though was superb, as were the collection of wild mushrooms and seaweed that dressed the bowl, and special mention too to neat little quarter-slices of migawaya mandarins, a really clever little touch. There was a lot going on in this dish, but like everything before it no one element overwhelmed or muddied the flavours. Everything was clean, precise and incredibly enjoyable.

A highlight in a lunch full of highlights, smoked eel rice was soft, salty, umami-rich and so dangerously addictive I think we could have polished off three or four of these even on stomachs full of mackerel and brains. Whereas some previous dishes had played around with subtle flavours and impressed with delicate textures to great effect, here they'd just gone full-throttle on flavour, focussing on the eel as the main ingredient with bergamot cutting through the grease. And my god it worked.

We were hardly likely to cut short a lunch this good, so ordered not only the cheese course, but both desserts. The cheese, I'm sorry to say, was a little bit of a disappointment, tasting very young and bland and with none of the little calcium lactate crystals you should get in aged Comté. Had Flor been sold a dud? Even if so, you'd hope someone in the kitchen, who had been in such command of flavour elsewhere, would have sampled the batch and realised it wasn't really good enough to serve. Very odd.

Fortunately the desserts were super. Plum & hazelnut merveilleux was a lovely light moussey type thing coated in toasted nuts, containing a core of marvellous (pun intended) plum jam....

...and this is a profiterole containing sweetcorn ice cream, coffee-flavoured toffee and - a stroke of genius - a single shiso leaf which added character and crunch to an otherwise classically recognisable dessert.

We left, £100 each lighter thanks to far more booze than is probably necessary of a Saturday lunchtime, but still having felt we'd had something approaching a bargain given the technical ability on offer and (cheese excepted) level of ingredients. As an impromptu lunch, unplanned and unbooked, it saved our day and we would have been more than happy with anywhere that gave us a table and shelter from the pouring rain. For that alone, we were very much grateful.

But there's something more on offer here than simply a good feed. Flor is, undoubtedly, one of the best restaurants in the capital but whilst some dishes were simply straightforwardly great, such as the salt & pepper squid or the smoked eel rice, occasionally they treat you to a genuinely new way of thinking about or serving an ingredient, a remarkably exciting thing for this jaded food blogger in 2021. Not everything was perfect, but where they flexed their culinary imagination the results were often dazzling, and I'd struggle to think of another kitchen at any price point that could pull together the texures and flavours in the oyster dish, or the brain agedashi. Flor is - comfortably, happily - unique, and uniquely rewarding, a neat distillation of everything that's good about London restaurants, and I loved it.


EDIT: I've been informed that sadly this is the last week of Flor in its current, small plates form! But I'm going to keep a close eye on chef Pam Yung to see where she goes next...

Monday 18 October 2021

Colonel Saab, Holborn

Although you wouldn't know it from reading this blog, about two months ago I decided to end the Covid-era moratorium on bad reviews. Since then, every meal of any significance I've eaten has somehow conspired to be rather good, to the extent that I briefly considered writing up a couple of mediocre experiences from between the lockdowns in 2020 to just add a bit of variety to the archive. In the end, I decided not to do that, partly because any restaurant open between the lockdowns in 2020 was having a pretty horrible time of it, and also well, it seems a bit mean doesn't it. Although on that point, if anyone wants to know where to avoid in the city for a game dinner, message me privately and I'll be happy to clarify.

So yes, here's another lovely meal I had, at the brand new and lavishly appointed (just look at those chandeliers) Colonel Saab in Holborn. When you've been writing a blog as long as I have (nearly 15 years... Christ) you find yourself revisiting the same site a number of times under different guises. Colonel Saab was previously Gezellig (lovely by all accounts but I never managed to organise a visit before it closed), Burger & Lobster (great of course, as ever, but it seems they could never make the numbers work) and before that a strange place doing live jazz and dim sum called Shanghai Blues which was actually rather good if you could avoid the jazz element.

Colonel Saab is high-end Indian, a field less crowded than it used to be thanks to the closure of the very sadly missed Indian Accent but which still includes Jamavar, Bombay Bustle, Kutir, Gymkhana, Trishna and the brand new Manthan I reviewed last week, all of which charge serious (though by no means unreasonable) prices for serious, intelligent Indian food. Now, spoiler alert - Colonel Saab isn't quite up there with the very best of them, but it's still more than worth your time, starting with their grown-up cocktail list. This is a "Turmeric", a Meyer lemon cordial with kombucha and turmeric-infused vodka.

Snacks (poppadums and puffed wheat things) came with two interesting chutneys - one chilli & tomato based, one pineapple. I was a teensy bit disappointed they didn't offer coriander chutney (I can eat that stuff by the bucketful), or some kind of mixed pickle (ditto), but this was still a decent start.

I can't tell you exactly what these were as they arrived as an unannounced little extra, but I think they were baked kale (or spinach) in an earthy spice mix, and remained nicely dry and crunchy to the last bite.

I rarely, if ever, order soup in an Indian restaurant, largely because I'm rarely, if ever, offered it. So I couldn't resist seeing how "Creamy almond soup" manifested itself. It turned out to be a smooth and comforting broth studded with chunks of smoked duck, salty and stupidly moreish, and though perhaps you'd struggle to place it geographically (at least, I would) it was definitely worth an order.

I can't help feeling that if you want to run a good restaurant, your over-arching philosophy should be to examine the way they go about things at grotesque billionaire-baiting PR exercise Nusr Et steakhouse, and then do the absolute opposite. This includes decorating anything (anything savoury at least) with gold leaf. Ignoring that pointless bit of bling, the paneer was lovely, charred from the grill on the outside and with a nice soft texture inside.

"Gutti Vankaya" were baby aubergine, also nicely charred and soft and sweet inside, in another tamarind sauce which went down well.

The Colonel Saab Daal Makhani was a supreme example of its kind, with a deep buttery flavour and those intense, almost chocolately notes added by the slow-cooked lentils. Very glad indeed we ordered this.

Naans were also very good - so good in fact that once we realised how much sauce we had left over in the paneer and aubergine dishes and the daal, we ordered another one. You'd expect somewhere like this to get the bread offering right, but I can tell you from experience it's by no means a given.

I'm going to have to leave on a bit of a down note though - lamb chops were over-salty, anaemic tasting and (weirdly, although it doesn't look like this from my photo) boasting very little char or crunch from the grill. Perhaps I'm a bit demanding when it comes to lamb chops, but this is only thanks to being served impeccable versions at other restaurants. I'm afraid these didn't compare at all.

But overall, there was plenty else to enjoy about Colonel Saab. You could almost certainly, if you avoided the lamb chops (or maybe if you were just luckier than me and they turned up in a slightly less sorry state), construct yourself an extremely pleasant meal in this gorgeous space, and that's something very much to admire. True, it's not quite A-tier alongside the very best high-end Indians in town, despite what their prices may suggest, but there's still some thoughtful, skilled cooking going on that's more than worth a look-in. Whether they settle in and push themselves to the top tier or I'm back reviewing the same space under different management in a year or two, only time will tell - but I genuinely hope it's the former.


I was invited to Colonel Saab and didn't see a bill. I think a reasonable amount to spend would be about £70/head.

Monday 11 October 2021

P Franco, Clapton

It was a warm and pleasant evening in Clapton on Saturday. I know this because for the first 40 minutes at P Franco I was sat on a bench outside waiting for a table to come free, and had it been raining or cold I may not have stuck it out for quite so long. And believe it or not I had it relatively easy - the couple behind us waited well over an hour for their spot, nursing their glasses of chardonnay and watching on patiently as a table of 6 who had been there since god knows when steadfastedly refused to pay up and leave.

This is the problem with P Franco - it is so good, with its extensive wine list and short, attractive menu of seasonal dishes served at extremely reasonable prices, that you do just never want to leave. And with a grand total of 12 seats and no reservations policy, that very soon adds up to a perfect storm of demand far, far outstripping supply. I don't blame that table of 6 for not wanting to leave, not at all - but it does make the place incredibly difficult to recommend at normal mealtimes if the promise of a feed, however good, comes with a lead time the length of a Hollywood movie.

So what kind of food will the residents of Clapton (and elsewhere) wait so very long for? Well, things like this chicken liver toast topped with pickled blackberries, two generous portions for £10 containing ethereally light parfait and excellent lightly toasted house sourdough. Dishes like this are the reason I eat out - even the most accomplished home cook would struggle with the techniques required to produce a texture like that in a chicken liver paté, and why bother anyway when someone would make them for you for a tenner?

Just as extraordinary were these raw beef and mustard leaf wraps, the beef tasting incredible (supplied by Warren's of Cornwall, like much of the best stuff is) and the leaves acting as a nice salady vehicle for the beef as well as providing a good hit of mustard. In contrast to the cheffy chicken liver toasts, this was more of an assembly of top-tier, tastefully chosen ingredients but still with the same kind of value - just £9 for these.

Next, neat cubes of chicken thigh, skins on, crisp and golden brown, came arranged on a bed of swiss chard and all soaked in an intense, salty chicken broth. In the centre of the bowl was an egg yolk to add even more richness and texture and a handful of girolles brought a certain buttery earthiness, but really this was all about the broth, one of those complex, concentrated liquids that probably took a lot of time and a lot of very good chicken to make. If you brave the wait yourself and find yourself with a table at P Franco, I recommend you get this dish along with a portion of the house bread - you're really not going to want to miss sweeping up the very last drops of broth with some nice sourdough.

And finally, mussel, squid and crab tagliolini boasted good firm pasta, plenty of nice fresh seafood and a buttery/citrus sauce that would have been worth the price of admission by itself. At £17 this was the priciest individual dish on the menu, but was still some way off what you'd expect to pay at even a rather modest local Italian restaurant; I shudder to think what they'd want for it at the River Café.

But of course, you can book the River Café, and although that doesn't quite justify the prices there it does mean your evening out is guaranteed a certain degree of stability. P Franco serves some of the best food in East London alongside one of the best collection of wines, staff are efficient and personable and the bill at the end of it all will most likely come as rather a nice surprise (ours came to £110 for two people, but we had, er, rather a lot of wine). All these things are certainly true. But you'll have to wait for it, and as autumn turns into winter the idea of sitting sipping on chardonnay in the freezing cold for as long as it takes for a space inside to come free looks increasingly unattractive.

Oh well, I suppose there are worst things than queuing for dinner, and in the case of P Franco, it most definitely is worth the investment. Certainly, once we'd paid up and skipped happily home it was the cosy embrace of the food and service that lingered in the memory, not the uncomfortable wait to get it. Whatever your feelings on no reservations policies, on every other aspect of the restaurant business P Franco are playing an absolute blinder, and eating there - once you finally manage to eat there - is a profound joy. Good things come to those who wait.


Thursday 7 October 2021

Manthan, Mayfair

Having followed chef Rohit Ghai's trajectory through London's very finest high-end Indian restaurants with intense interest, from Jamavar to Bombay Bustle to Kutir, it's fair to say that when I received an invite to his latest venture Manthan in Mayfair, I replied so quickly the PR in charge probably thought it was an out of office. In his time in charge of the aforementioned places he has probably done more than any other individual to introduce me (and many others) to the bewildering variety and sheer potential of top ingredients treated to intelligent Indian techniques.

A slightly tricky side effect to all this invention and artisinal detail, for this food blogger at least, is that figuring out what's going on in some of his extraordinary complex dishes, and subsequently writing about them, becomes an impossible task. Take these, for example, something called "Ram Laddoo". I know from reading the menu they are little bitesize spheres of fried lentils, and I can tell you they were lovely and moist and moreish, topped with pickled raddish and surrounded by a fantastic coriander chutney, but if you want any more detail, well, I'm afraid you're going to have to look elsewhere.

Buttermilk chicken skins, though, was slightly more familiar territory. Of course I couldn't tell you what into the spice mix other than pink peppercorn, curry leaf and ginger (thank you Mr. Menu) but I can tell you that they were so ridiculously addictive, greaseless and crunchy on the outside and soft within, they all disappeared in a matter of seconds.

Ghai has a particular skill with fish and "Sekwa" was three fillets of whitefish, each with a lovely crisp skin, in a spicy tomato sauce studded with sharp purple pickled onions. Anywhere else this would be a standout dish, but here it was merely another thing to coo and gurgle over before the next wonderful thing arrived.

...which were these jackfruit tacos. Now, you can believe me or not, but we didn't see a menu until halfway through the dinner (Ghai had offered on arrival to send out his favourite dishes as a kind of blind tasting, and who was I to argue with that) and I swear that when we were eating these we assumed they were pulled pork or lamb, so completely meat-like were the fatty, richly flavoured fillings. To later discover they were in fact spiced jackfruit did set off a certain amount of panicked soul-searching. If vegetarian food can taste so convincingly meaty, what's the future of actual meat? I should add, though, that although available in vegan form I believe the taco "shells" themselves involved dairy of some kind, so... phew. To be quite honest.

Fortunately, shami kebab was very definitely real meat - goat, in fact, in a thick, dark sauce of beguiling complexity and served with - hooray! - a portion of roast bone marrow. Together with a soft and flaky bundle of roti it was another completely unassailable match of flavour and technique, the soft pieces of goat melting in the mouth, loosened by the marrow.

Finally, "Osso bucco" bookended the mains, another fabulously dark and rich sauce containing slow-stewed lamb on the bone, served with a bowl of "risotto" - spicy wet rice flavoured with who knows what (curry leaf, Jaffna spices - menu). Both the lamb and the rice were of course great, but somehow even more interesting were little pancake things (I know, I know) which had an extraordinary flavour, smooth and buttery and meaty.

To describe this dessert, I am having to enlist the help of Google. That sphere on top of is the "gulab jamun", a kind of syrup-soaked spongecake (look I'm sorry if that's wrong, but I'm doing my best) and it sat on top of "srikhand", sweet strained yoghurt. Underneath that was more laddoo, here providing a protein-rich base for the dessert rather than a savoury starter. Look the point is it was all very nice, that's all you need to know.

And finally, without wanting us to leave without being completely discombobulated, we were presented with kheer ("a sweet dish and a type of wet pudding popular in the Indian subcontinent, usually made by boiling milk, sugar or jaggery, and rice") spiced with garlic, slightly although not completely as weird as it sounds, and in a very pretty little pastry casing. And I don't know about you but I'd rather be challenged than mollycoddled when it comes to rice-based desserts.

I really do apologise for my embarrassing lack of Indian food knowledge, I only hope that, as in certain other areas of my life, what I lack on detail I more than make up for in enthusiasm. The fact is, though I completely fail to do justice to the amount of effort and culinary knowledge that clearly goes into it, the results at Manthan speak for themselves - this is genuinely spectacular Indian cooking by a kitchen at the top of its game, and though I wasn't paying on this occasion, given the glittering Mayfair location the prices are pretty fair. No one dish is over £20, and you could expect to leave with a bill of around £70 a head with a couple of glasses of wine and/or a custard-based digestif.

And while Manthan is the latest and most attention-grabbing restaurant in his empire, I should remind you that Jamavar, Bombay Bustle and Kutir in Chelsea still exist and are all still brilliant. In fact next week Kutir are launching a game menu and if you're like me and will order anything with feathers that's been shot out of the sky, that's more than a reason to revisit. But mainly, just rejoice that you can eat food as good as this anywhere, and more to the point in these strange times, you can eat anywhere at all. If you want to celebrate a return to normality with some of the best Indian food in the capital, you can do hardly any better than a meal at Manthan.


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