Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Manteca, Shoreditch


You may notice a rather dramatic improvement in the quality of photography on this blog post compared to the usual. There's a very simple reason for this - they're not mine. I visited Manteca last week not on a PR invite but as part of a work business lunch, which although meant we got to try a wide selection of dishes from this brilliant new restaurant, it also unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) meant I felt a bit too self-conscious to do the usual antisocial snapping. So credit for the pictures illustrating this post goes to a combination of Anton Rodriguez (the food) and Mariell Lind Hansen (interiors) via the Manteca PR Nancy Brownlow, so thanks v much to all those people.


Anyway, the food at Manteca deserves better than my meagre artistic efforts. This is a seriously impressive, important restaurant working at the top of its game, and their fresh take on modern Italian food is so good as to be something approaching a game-changer in the capital. I know, I know - you've probably heard all this before. And I admit I have been equally breathless about places like Padella and Bancone in the past, when they were the bright new things. But Manteca, honestly, is another level above.

At first glance, of course, it just looks like another Italian restaurant. The menu has the odd eyebrow-raising ingredient here and there (including gazpacho on an otherwise staunchly Italian menu) but with its arrangements of small plates, pasta dishes and larger sharing items it's very much in the mold of places that have graced the capital since forever. You may think we've all been here before. So did I. And then the food arrived.


Focaccia is made in the bakery downstairs all through service - none of your yesterdays bread served here thank you very much. It's gorgeous - of course it is - drizzled with olive oil and with just exactly the right amount of salt. That's it on the right there, next to a plate of cured meats we didn't order. Looking at that though I'm kind of wishing we had.


A salad of lovely soft, sweet, room temperature (strange how rare this is, and it makes all the difference) tomatoes came dressed with bottarga, a genius move which gave a lovely additional texture as well as adding an extra hit of umami.


Ricotta is apparently made in-house, and it shows through a fantastic fluffy mouthfeel and dairy freshness. It comes under a blanket of breadcrumbs, roast peach, fresh mint and chilli, a riot of colour and flavour that generously outpaces its modest £8.50 price point.

Seabass crudo came as a few elegantly sliced bits of fish under a dainty dressing of cucumber, fennel and lemon juice, easily as classy and attractive as anything from a top Japanese restaurant. I have no photo of this I'm afraid, but please take my word for it, it was beautiful inside and out.

Also not pictured is "venison fritti", a giant (singular, despite the name) cylinder of slow-roasted venison (haunch I assume) encased in a delicate breadcrumb. Not only did I not get a picture of this but I didn't even get to try it - but I have it on good authority it was "delicious". So delicious in fact it disappeared before it reached my end of the table, but I'm not bitter honestly.

I always order gazpacho when I see it on a menu. There are a million different ways of constructing this cold summer soup, with almost as many ingredients to decide whether or not to include, but I personally always look for a version with a good strong hit of garlic. This was exactly that, the allium burning the tongue with each sip. Great stuff.

Then, we tried all four pasta dishes and spent the next fifteen minutes or so arguing about which one was the best. Was it the rigatoni in the shocking forest green kale sauce, which felt like it was boosting your life expectancy with every bite? Or perhaps the thick strands of tonnarelli soaked in a "brown crab cacio e pepe" so rich and beguiling it was like taking a morning swim in the Mediterranean? How about the shapely fazzoletti in a dense duck ragu crunchy with breadcrumbs and high with red wine, worth the journey all by itself? Or even the mortadella campanelle, thickened with parmesan cream? We couldn't decide - they were all essentially perfect, each individually the best pasta I've ever eaten in London, and together a kind of masterclass in the art of pasta. Truly extraordinary.

Manteca hardly needed to do anything else after the pasta courses to convince us that something very special indeed was going on here, but Creedy Carver duck breast, fanned out in neat pink slices and served alongside an incredible sausage made with (presumably amongst other things) duck offal was just yet another reason to fall in love with the place. If you are desperate for something negative to lay on Menteca then perhaps the pink fir potatoes weren't anything much more than nice, but then I'm not a huge potato fan anyway so there's every possibility you'd fall in love with these, too.


We drank Chin Chin Vinho Verde during the meal, then shots of Fernet with our dessert doughnuts ("zeppole") and raspberry cream. The bill, which also included a cocktail each (I can recommend the Calabrian Buck with brandy and amaro) came to £65 each and I can tell you I've spent an awful lot more for an awful lot worse. This is a mid-range Italian restaurant operating at world-class levels, with sparkling service and a bright, bustling atmosphere only adding to the overall levels of awesomeness.


So yes, I loved Manteca. It's not even 9 months since the shift from Heddon Street popup to the current Shoreditch location and it's already settled into its role as one of the best Italians in London. I realise claims like that are hard to quantify and can be less than useful. What I can promise you is that I've not had a better Italian meal for a long time, perhaps ever, and I'm as sure as it's possible to be that if you went you'd feel the same, too. In fact, Manteca may be the only Italian restaurant you'll ever need.

10/10

Tuesday, 6 September 2022

Wyatt & Jones, Broadstairs


Compared to some of the places I've visited in Kent over the years, Wyatt & Jones is a relatively easy expedition. Despite being the best part of two hours' journey from Victoria, it's neither buried deep in the single-lane-road countryside (the Compasses) or in a suburb of Tunbridge Wells stubbornly unserved by public transport (Tallow), so all that extra money you've saved on deeply unreliable local taxis can go towards your restaurant bill.


Not that Wyatt & Jones is particularly spendy. I'd estimate that had we been paying the bill per head would have come to about £70, deeply reasonable for anywhere serving food of this standard never mind a restaurant in the centre of one of the prettiest and busiest coastal Kentish towns. Broadstairs is - you'll know if you've been - a fantastic place to spend a hot summers day, and a window table at Wyatt & Jones offers the most beautiful (not to mention entertaining when trying to guess which hapless tourist is going to have their ice cream nicked next by a seagull) view over the beach and harbour to accompany your tasteful selection of BSP (British Small Plates).


We began with chargrilled sourdough dipped in hot potted shrimp butter, and if there's any better start to a meal with a sea view then I want to know about it. The bread was toasted only to give it a slight crust - fortunately inside it was soft and squishy enough to soak up an obscene amount of salty shrimp butter with each dip - and the little shrimp were bouncy and fresh.


Oysters (Jersey rocks) were served in two ways - one 'au naturel' although accompanied by a quite impressive house sriracha, and one with 'Hogwash' dressing, jalapeno and mirin. In both cases the oysters themselves were stellar - generously proportioned but lean and minerally, with a lovely sweet aftertaste. And while the natural serving were easily enjoyable, the Japanese flavours of the 'Hogwash' made even more of the oysters, to great effect. Time was I would have always chosen oysters un-mucked-about with; lately I've had more fun with inventive house dressings.


Tuna tartare came as three generous mounds of sesame-slicked raw tuna beneath shiso leaves. You pick up the leaf like a kind of upside-down taco, and eat the tartare by hand, the shiso and spices provided in just the right strength to not overwhelm the seafood.


Smoked eel croquettes were cute bitesize spheres of heavenly thick, eel-spiked bechamel which disappeared in record time. It's worth noting that not only was all the food at Wyatt & Jones seasoned perfectly and texturally just-so (nothing dry or overcooked, nothing underdone) but every technique, whether it was a rich bechamel or the occasional bit of deep frying, was pulled off perfectly. It was all just so easy to enjoy.


Dorset crab tostada, not content with having a lovely amount of white crab meat next to neat dollops of avocado purée and mayonnaise, but was topped with a half a battered soft-shelled crab to add extra texture and seafood punch. It worked brilliantly, a familiar set of flavours perhaps but in my experience a set of techniques not at all trivial to get right.


Scarlet prawns made up for their being from Argentina (I suppose any seafood restaurants need to be a bit flexible with their sourcing these days) by being dressed in Kentish rapeseed oil and cooked so perfectly the tail flesh lifted out in one satisfying chunk. Also, I realise frozen prawns are always going to be a less expensive option than fresh, but I think £10 for two giant specimens cooked this well and dressed so elegantly is an absolute bargain.


Final dish of the savouries was a giant mangalitza pork chop, cooked to very slightly pink next to the bone and with the little elements of fat crisped up nicely alongside. The mustard butter and taragon dressing was a delight, and the giant blackberries were fun, but this was really all about the mangalitza, king of the piggies and treated to a basically perfect grilling.


Alongside the pork, a side of 'layered crispy potatoes', an impressive bit of spudwork you've probably spotted in some form or other if you've been eating out in the UK in the last few years. Whilst not quite as spectacular as the version at Quality Chop House, it still had a very satifying flake to it, and the aioli was pleasingly powerful.


It's impossible not to enjoy freshly fried doughnuts, and even without the house Nutella (sorry, chocolate and hazelnut sauce) these were crunchy on the outside and soft within, and utterly charming. The sauce, though, made the whole thing all that more decadent.


Even more startling though was this beautiful puck of white chocolate cheesecake, the delicate shell of which broke to reveal a soft fluffy filling and a layer of sweet mango jam. Again, it was not only sweet and biscuitty in all the right proportions but the technique to produce that cheesecake "truffle" with the mango centre must have taken quite a while to perfect. Impressive stuff.

It is my curse (I know, I know, poor me) that it seems the further away from home I travel (recently Weymouth, and Norfolk not to mention Lancashire, the Peak District and Cornwall) the better experience I have. I won't repeat the tired clichés about Non-London British food finally finding its feet - this happened a good half decade ago, or even more - but I will say that when you can go to a small town and find not just one but two or three very decent places to eat (Wyatt & Jones own the lockdown smash Flotsam & Jetsam next door, and I'm reliably informed that the Table is another Thanet destination restaurant) never mind interesting natural wine bars and local breweries, it all points to a regional food scene rapidly approaching serious maturity.


Wyatt & Jones may have to rely on a steady stream of hungry tourists to fill out the booking sheet in the summer months, but unlike various other seafront places it nevertheless feels like a proper serious restaurant, aware of the responsibility it has to the local community (any Broadstairs local will tell you how chuffed they were to have Flotsam & Jetsom to cater them through the grim lockdown months) as well as to the wider foodie dispora. It is thanks to this rather diverse customer base, then, and not despite it, that it works so well. Anyone could come to this picturesque seafront spot and have a quite wonderful time. I certainly did. And I'm pretty sure so will you.

9/10

I was invited to Wyatt & Jones and didn't see a bill. As mentioned above though, you're probably looking at about £70/head including booze and service.

Monday, 22 August 2022

Mambow, Peckham Rye


The sign of a great restaurant is that they make it look all so easy. When a tiny basement space round the back of Euston station began serving fresh roti and dark, complex mutton curries a few years back, the natural first reaction wasn't "this is great" (at least, it wasn't only that) but more pertinently "why has nobody done this before"? Dainty, flaky roti made to order matched with carefully constructed, wholesome curry, served for barely more than a fiver a pop, it's no wonder they soon had punters queueing down the street, but also scratching their heads as to why there wasn't one of these on every street corner.


Of course, if it was that easy, there would be one on every street corner. An attempt to recreate the success of Roti King in Victoria's Market Halls (Gopal's Corner) never quite reflected the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the original, and feels oddly out of place shoehorned in next to fried chicken and taco stalls. And consider Mandy Yin's Sambal Shiok, serving giant bowls of completely wonderful curry laksa for not very much money up on the Holloway Road. Over the years it's been gathering armfuls of great reviews and nobody who's tried the food has a bad word to say about the place, but an attempt to branch out into nationwide delivery during the pandemic did not survive the Great Reopening. There's clearly a demand for Malaysian food in London, but so far it has not reached critical mass.


Mambow might be about to change all that. I had the same thrill the new as I bit into a piece of lor bak, a kind of loose pork and prawn sausage encased in flaky pastry, as I did the first time I was presented with the bone marrow varuval at Hoppers. Bold, brave and something genuinely new (to me, at least) in the capital, here was an approach that did to Malaysian cuisine what Hoppers did for Sri Lankan - simultaneously honouring traditional flavour profiles and techniques while still feeling like something fresh and modern. Alongside a seriously addictive sweet chilli sauce, this felt like a statement of intent. It felt important.


Achar awak (Nyonya pickles) had a lovely balance of chilli and salt and sour, and though we had every intention of quietly working away at these throughout the whole lunch, I'm afraid they had disappeared before even the lor bak did.


The Hainanese chicken sando is a lunchtime special, and is so good it made me want to find a job in Peckham just so I could go and eat it every day. Weirdly, it's hard to put a finger on exactly why it's so good; like a great cocktail it's one of those strange sitautions where each component works in complete harmony with no one element sticking out or jarring. Certainly no small part of its success is the Frog bakery sourdough, cut just the right thickness to hold it together without it being difficult to take a clean bite. The chicken itself was moist and gently pickled and bound with something called 'chicken fat chili sauce' which definitely sounds like something worth investigating but really, you don't need to know too many more details. Just know that it's great, and a bargain (we easily had enough for two), and you should go at lunchtimes just to order it.


Somehow, Mambow have managed to pull off the holy grail of chicken dishes - to keep the flesh inside firm and moist while maintaining a crisp, salty, crunchy skin at the same time as it all being drenched in a gloriously thick and rich black pepper-curry sauce. It was quite literally perfect in every way, an absolute joy of a dish that would give Mambow another reason to exist even if it was the only thing on the menu.

It was all so good - so easily, unpretentiously enjoyable - that even as we paid the astonishingly reasonable bill (£31.25pp which included a bottle of lovely Gran Cerdo natural white between two, and service) I was having a slight panic that maybe we should have ordered some more to keep the lovely experience rolling on. In the end, common sense prevailed but we had already decided by this point that Mambow was one of the better meals we'd had in 2022 and that we would be back the very next chance we had to hoover up things like the glass noodles with grilled prawns, which were off that day, and the jackfruit curry whose empty tins were upcycled quite heartwarmingly as cutlery holders.

Time will tell whether we are looking at the birth of a new Malaysian streetfood smash hit chain in the style of Hoppers, or if it's just a wonderful one-off. If nothing else, once they get to Mambow No. 5 they at least have a theme tune waiting for them to use. Either way, right here and right now we have plenty to be thankful for, a new star of Nyonya cuisine ready to thrill the jaded appetites of post-pandemic London. And God knows we need a bit of that right now.

9/10

Wednesday, 17 August 2022

Honey & Co, Bloomsbury


On one of the hottest days of the year - and God knows we'd had enough of those - it feels appropriate to eat food from a part of the world a little more used to coping with the heat. The husband and wife team behind Honey & Co are both Israeli by birth, but have honed their skills in various high-end London restaurant kitchens, including (and most influentially) Ottolenghi's NOPI, who's done more than most to introduce the city to the delights of pomegranate molasses and zat'ar than anyone else I can think of.


The thing is, delightful though Ottolenghi's recipes are in the context of a lavish double-spread in the Observer, I wasn't a huge fan of NOPI - the rustic charm that works so well in tender close-up scattered with pomegranate seeds and flat-leaved parsley, served in a restaurant looks a bit, well, lazy - especially considering the rather terrifying prices they charge (£13 for roasted carrot).

The original Honey & Co was an instant London hit because it combined the colourful, veg-forward eastern Mediterranean ingredient base with a more refined, yet still reasonably-priced, restaurant aesthetic. It was food that made you feel good about eating it, full of life and personality and with certain dishes, specifically the taramosalata, becoming must-order classics.


Now shifted to Bloomsbury, in excellent foodie company just over the road from Noble Rot in a nicely refurbished, air-conditioned (thank God) space, it's a delight (not to mention somewhat of a relief) that the tarama has made the journey across town largely intact. It's a really wonderful thing, salty and satisfying, topped with chopped egg and pickles and with a few trout roe to provide a bit of texture. It's still a must-order item and worth the journey alone.


Other dishes were less successful, but we'll come to those later. House pickles were certainly generously proportioned, with a giant pile of funky yellow turnip next to pickled chillies and kalamata olives. Best of all on this plate though was cabbage which had been soaked in some kind of sichuan-style smoked chilli oil, a surprising turn for a Middle Eastern restaurant but one that worked very well.


House bread was, well, fine - the grassy olive oil it came with was certainly more interesting than the bread itself, which was a bit like the kind of thing restaurants used to boast about making themselves before people started making genuinely good sourdough on site. The milk bun was probably the best of them, then the warm pita, and then the slightly disappointing sesame.


I'm still not sure what to make of the prawns and watermelon dish. Somewhere perhaps, in a parallel universe, I can conceive of a watermelon and prawn dish that does work, maybe involving lots of chilli and slicked with oil or butter to counteract the sugary crispness of the melon. But plain (I didn't detect a trace of the advertised lemon or oregano) poached prawns on plain watermelon dressed with plain dry mint leaves and chunks of plain feta was all too...well, plain. A spritz of raw lemon helped spruce it up a bit, but this was still an awkwardly bland dish, not much fun to eat at all.


On the other hand, despite being almost buried under a cupboard's worth of ingredients (cherry tomatoes, pine nuts, breadcrumbs and various herbs) the grilled sardines were absolutely lovely. I could probably have done with a bit more of a charred skin, but the flesh inside was perfectly timed, and pulled away from the bones in a pleasing whole fillet. We should all of us eat more sardines, they're very sustainable as well as being great to eat.


Dessert, when it eventually arrived (staff were struggling towards the end of the evening, although it's probably not a good idea to make too much of this given everything that's going on), was perfectly nice, a dense flourless (I think) chocolate cake packed with various different nuts, and served with a "marzipan sorbet" - actually quite an interesting idea. I'm not sure whose idea it was to put a dry sherry on the dessert menu though; I should have known better than to think an amontillado would go with a chocolate cake but I took a chance and ordered it anyway, and it really didn't.


The bill came to £113 for three people, which I suppose is just about in the ballpark of acceptable. Rampant inflation and soaring energy costs have forced restaurants to make some near impossible decisions re: the price points on their menus, and it would be extremely unreasonable of me to expect dinner in Bloomsbury in 2022 to be the same price as Warren St in 2013. Honey & Co is still at the lower end of the budget for a central London restaurant, a fact reflected in their popularity - every table taken on a Thursday evening.


The fact it didn't quite live up to my expectations, then, is possibly more my fault than theirs. I loved the original Honey & Co, I loved what they were doing and I loved that they loved what they were doing - everything had such heart and personality it was impossible not to be completely smitten. It was always likely that a change of location (and to a much larger location at that) may test the limits of an operation, so maybe we should be thankful that, despite a couple of things not quite going to plan, so much of what they do is still so good. And I've every confidence that given a few more months, they'll be back to their old selves.

6/10

Tuesday, 2 August 2022

The Baring, Islington


You'll often hear it said that while the country as a whole boasts many great gastropubs, London - where by all accounts the movement began in the 90s with the Eagle in Farringdon - doesn't have any. This is not quite true. The Draper's Arms is by anyone's standards a fantastic Pub With Good Food, a place you can just as easily turn up and have a quiet pint at the bar as sit down for a plate of duck hearts and roast grouse, and it's one of my favourite places in the world. But it's still true that for whatever reason (and I'm baffled as to why), the capital can not hold onto the simple notion of a pub and restaurant simultaneously - they tend to either quietly involve into one (the Harwood Arms, now just a restaurant, not a pub) or the other, where a meagre offering of microwaved chicken tenders and curly fries exist only to soak up the alcohol.


The Baring, then, is playing a delightfully old-school game, attempting to serve elevated pub dishes while still retaining the feel of a friendly neighbourhood dog-friendly boozer. It's been given a lick of paint and new upholstery since it traded as the Poet as recently as a few weeks' back, and though the walls and furnishings could do with a few softer elements to lessen the rather echoey soundscape, it's clear some thought has been given to how to be both a restaurant and pub at the same time, with some tables left bare for walk-in drinks, and others set with cutlery and glasses for dinner.


Snacks were familiar on one level, and yet with a touch of the extra. For example a little plate of saucisson from the Basque Pyrenees made from Ibaïama pigs I'd not been familiar with before, which had a lovely dense salty flavour. And not just salted nuts but sugared and salted cashews, like they do at Rules bar, as dangerously addictive here as in Maiden Lane.


I'm going to start the menu proper with my only real moan about the Baring - the way they serve their mackerel starter. When I see 'charred mackerel' on a menu, I don't think I'm out of sorts to expect a freshly torched specimen, with a crisp layer of blackened skin encasing melting fat and firm flesh. For whatever reason, the Baring serve theirs almost cold, with a soft, soggy skin and dressed in a couple of twigs of rather offputtingly slimy succulent. In their favour, the salmorejo (kind of a thicker gazpacho) was absolutely gorgeous and had it been the only thing on the plate ironically would have scored pretty highly. But whether through accident or misguided design, the mackerel was no good. Sorry.


But everything else was great. Skewered quail was perfectly cooked and seasoned, the chilli and yoghurt accompaniments just fresh and hot enough to provide a nice interesting battle for the tastebuds.


Chips - triple-cooked, obviously - were crunchy and soft in all the right places, with lots of lovely bits to fish out from the bottom of the bowl at the end and dip in the provided garlic mayo.


And finally the mains were a masterclass in mature, confident gastropub cooking. Suckling pig loin was a superbly generous portion (so much so we struggled to finish it and then couldn't find room for desserts) in an excellent glossy jus, and the white bean and spring green mixture soaked up the sauce wonderfully.


But even better was lamb, served both as neatly sliced and perfectly cooked rump and a little skewer of kofte, charred to a crisp outside but lovely and moist within. Add to this a homemade babaghanoush which tasted of an autumn log fire, and another one of those marvellous glossy sauces, and you have what is surely the best lamb dish I've eaten so far in 2022. And I don't think there's much chance of it being bettered this year, either.


It seems almost a shame to mark the Baring down after they did so much so right, but there's no avoiding the fact that mackerel dish wasn't very nice, and so this is perhaps a kitchen on the road to perfection rather than with perfection already in its sights. But there's nothing wrong with that - we all have to start somewhere - and I'm sure before too long you could choose from the intelligent and tasteful menu without fear of hitting a dud. Joining a very exclusive list of London gastropubs that still definitely are pubs, the Baring will I'm sure before too long become a reliable staple, and a star of Islington. I wish them all the best.

7/10

I was invited to the Baring and didn't see a bill. Think it would have been about £50pp with booze.