Tuesday 25 January 2022

Kudu Grill, Nunhead

I imagine everyone has their own idea of a perfect Saturday. Mine goes a little bit something like the following: Meet up with friends slightly too early in a half-empty pub, go on to lunch somewhere interesting, go back to slightly busier pub and then depending on how things pan out find somewhere for a cocktail.

This is how things went last Saturday, and though every stage was a joy (there really is nothing better than a half-empty pub on a weekend morning, just ask Anthony Bourdain) the highlight of the day was, as expected, a long and lavish lunch at Kudu Grill, the latest branch of South London's favourite South African themed restaurants from chef Patrick Williams (previously of the Dairy family of restaurants, another set of people who know their stuff) and Amy Corbin (yes, that one).

Set behind the discreetly darkened windows of an old Truman pub on Nunhead Lane, inside is stylishly appointed - I particularly liked the chairs - and filled with happy chatter. As you might expect from a front of house with such pedigree, everything on that side of things went perfectly from the moment we stepped inside to the moment we left. I have no doubt that the Covid- and Brexit- related staffing issues are painfully real for those responsible for managing them, but I can only say from personal experience that, quite honestly, I can't remember the last time I had a bad time with service in London. That so many front of house teams can still shine so brightly with everything else that's going on is nothing short of a miracle.

Anyway to the food. 'Snacks' are charged extra on top of the (very reasonable) £28 set menu, a very clever ruse because they all sound so attractive you're immediately tempted to order all of them. Firstly, Irish rocks dressed in a fantastic tomato dashi and topped with salmon roe, making a beautiful case for letting a kitchen's imagination run wild on the dressing of oysters.

Biltong was decent - probably not the very best I've had but certainly enjoyable. I just wish I'd been able to taste more (or indeed any) of the advertised "Kalahari" spices, and a giant lump of inedible solid fat (that's it on the left there) probably should have been removed from the bowl before it reached our table. Still, no regrets.

The potato flatbread has, I'm reliably informed, already become a bit of a must-order item at Kudu Grill. Warm from the oven, and neatly divided into quarters, it arrives coated in a healthy amount of wild garlic dressing and draped in lardo. Each one of these things would have been notable enough by themselves, but together they were knockout, a bread course of the very highest level.

I found the grilled prawns a bit perplexing. The peri peri butter dressing was very nice, kind of a South African buffalo sauce, and in theory a great match with BBQ-grilled prawns. However the idea of splitting them down the back to devein but keeping the shells on seemed particularly un-user friendly, creating a far bigger mess than necessary, and added to this they were quite overcooked meaning the dry, woody flesh was incredibly difficult to separate from the carapace. Once we'd eventually managed to finish them I was absolutely coated in bright orange sauce up to my elbows, and deciding that the postage stamp-sized bit of wet wipe they'd helpfully given us (no finger bowl) wasn't quite up to the task, squelched off to the gents to wash up.

Steak tartare was much easier to eat, and in fact much more accomplished generally. It had a lovely gentle chilli note (presumably from the Harissa) and the crispy shallots sprinkled liberally on top added a nice amount of crunch (even if my friend thought it was a bit like eating a smashed up packet of ready salted crisps).

Of course, when it came to main courses there could only ever be one winner. Or rather, two in this case because each of us couldn't bring ourselves to order anything else even for the sake of variety. So, two pork chops it was, beautifully charred from the grill but still moist and bouncy inside, and coated with a liberal amount of "monkey gland sauce", another South African speciality apparently containing over 60 ingredients best described as a kind of a BBQ chutney... thing. Very nice, anyway.

Finally, a word on the sides. "Beef fat crispy fingerlings" were lovely things indeed, seriously crunchy on the outside and smooth as purée inside. By this point we were absolutely stuffed but it's a testament to their overall desirability that I still managed to squeeze a terrifying amount of it down.

And this is charred baby gem lettuce with lemon sesame dressing, another very successful product of the live fire theme.

The bill, with plenty of booze and all those extras and sides, came to £70 each, which I consider to be something approaching a bargain. Certainly in that plush room and cossetted by excellent service it felt like somewhere that could be charging a lot more, a little slice of luxury in a part of town rapidly getting more than its fair share of great places to eat and drink. To highlight this point, in fact, after bouncing happily out of Kudu Grill we bounced over to their sister cocktail bar Smokey Kudu under the railway arches at Queens Road Peckham and enjoyed a very sophisticated cocktail served by yet more brilliantly efficient front of house. As I say, it was a Good Day.

With the dark days of lockdowns stretching wretchedly into the increasingly distant past, you'd think that soon enough the fact of being able to eat and drink out again, and to experience the whole glorious business of talented people doing things they love, would return to become the norm, just another thing to eventually take for granted. But part of me hopes that the horrid memory of having to do without these places just holds on a little bit longer, in order to fully appreciate how wonderful it is to have them back. Happy 2022.


Tuesday 11 January 2022

Restaurant of the Year 2020/2021 - Mangal 2, Dalston

Apologies - yet again - for the lack of recent activity on the blog. I kept December deliberately quiet because I couldn't afford to test positive before flying to California to spend Christmas with my family, and so the diary was pretty empty. Once safely in the US I made the absolute most of it though, and managed amongst the various different festivities to make it to Carlsbad at to Jeune et Jolie, the first genuinely world-class restaurant I've found in that part of the world that isn't Mexican or Japanese. I will eventually get around to writing that up. But first, I have two years' worth of restaurants to wade through.

Yes I find myself in January 2022 having to pick a winner from two full covid-blighted years of home deliveries, shivery outdoor openings and nervous indoor socially-distanced dinners. Fortunately thanks to so many months of lockdowns, the total number of places to choose from adds up to only about the same number as in one normal year, but the timescales involved make objectively choosing a winner across 24 months of activity (or rather lack of it) rather tricky. How can I objectively compare a fading memory of a wonderful Madre in Liverpool back in January 2020 to an astonishing lunch at Tallow in Kent which burns bright from a couple of weeks ago? I can only try. In these strange times, nobody can seriously expect any more than that.

Best restaurant home kit runner up - Burger & Lobster

I have my own particular set of criteria for restaurant home kits, namely if in my cackhanded way I can manage to create something even vaguely resembling the offering from the actual restaurant, then this minor miracle should be applauded. The Burger & Lobster home kit is not only a pretty reasonable price (£34 for two, making it a few quid cheaper than eating in the restaurant in normal times) but the instructions so clear and idiot-proof that I managed to create an attractive warm, buttery lobster roll in hardly more time than it took to unwrap the packaging. Throughly recommended, and still available online.

Best restaurant home kit winner - Parkers Arms

It's more or less a given these days that everything this team turns their attention to ends up a knockout success. Their (lockdown only, and sporadic at that) Chinese New Year home kit was a riot of fun and flavour, definitively Chinese spicing and technique married with foraged Lancashire funghi and hedgerow fruit, and absolutely one of the highlights of lockdown 2021. In a different non-Covid timeline this could easily have been winning best restaurant overall, but thanks to two separate cancelled trips with my extended Californian family, sadly was not to be. However, with naive optimism we have rebooked for a third time in June 2022. Here's hoping.

Best Liverpool restaurant runner up - Madre

A return trip to Madre last summer reminded me that these guys are still serving vibrant, exciting Mexican food that's far better than you've any right to expect in the middle of Tourist Liverpool with its gangs of stag and hen do's in matching t-shirts and inflatable sex dolls. To this often rowdy crowd the staff seem to somehow always be attentive and always pleasant, with food brought on time and never any waits for drinks. It's an enormously satisfying operation, and still my favourite place for Mexican food outside of the Americas. Their margaritas are cracking, too.

Best Liverpool restaurant winner - Nama

I spent my evening at Nama blinking in disbelief that high-end Japanese food was being served in a location so completely inappropriate for the cause. I have nothing against shopping malls, or associated food courts, but to be sat in wipe-clean canteen surrounded by people eating fried chicken and milkshakes while being served dish after dish of stunning quality seafood, meticulously presented and for seriously reasonable amounts of money created a cognitive dissonance so severe I began to think I was part of some elaborate reality TV scam. But I'm happy to report that whatever you think of the venue (and I'm reliably informed they won't be at the GPO food court forever), the food is so good as to transport you to a tranquil raked zen garden in Kyoto after your very first bite of red prawns dressed in a lime & ginger ponzu.

Best UK (non-London) restaurant runner up - littlefrench, Bristol

Perhaps it was just the utter joy of seeing friends and travelling again, of being served intelligent bistro food in the warm spring air, or maybe it was the bottle of pet nat we'd consumed at 10am on the train there. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things. But I loved littlefrench, its attractive menu of seasonal loveliness and the opportunity to share a whacking great turbot between four people. It seems like a lifetime ago now, August 2020, when we assumed it was all over...

Best UK (non-London) restaurant winner - Tallow, Kent

I'm trying very hard to distinguish recent memory from lasting memory, but looking back over the Tallow post from last month I'm increasingly convinced that this was no fluke, and despite being the very last notable meal out of 2021 it was still one of the best of the last 24 months. Whatever atmosphere and old English charm has been lost in the move from the ancient Compasses pub in Crundale has been made up for in spades by even more elevated gastropub cooking (which I'm going to have to find a name for, maybe "gastropub+"?) in the vein of the always sensational Fordwich Arms, which only doesn't make the list this year because the menu was about 80% the same as the previous visit. Still, if it ain't broke and all that.

Best London restaurant runner up - Temaki, Brixton

It's not often a restaurant comes along that completely changes the way you think about a cuisine, but Temaki have done to, er, temaki (that's sushi rice rapped in nori and topped with raw fish) what the Meatwagon did for burgers, or Hawksmoor for steak. In a cool, pleasant corner of Brixton Market, friendly and easygoing staff serve an omakase-style procession of bitesize delicacies, hand-made to order with lovely warm, fluffy rice and an interesting and insanely reasonably priced (the cheapest set is £17) set of toppings including smoked eel and the ever lovely otoro (fatty tuna). Add in a good selection of sake and some Japanese-tinted cocktails (e.g. yuzu negroni) and you have yourself all the ingredients for a fine evening out.

Best London restaurant winner, and best restaurant overall - Mangal II

It's hard to overstate the vast risk the Dirik brothers took in reinventing their family restaurant on Kingsland Road. In the face of committed local opposition (just read their Tripadvisor reviews... in fact don't, that website is poison) they nevertheless quite reasonably decided that Dalston wasn't short of cheap and cheerful ocakbasi grills, but what it and the wider city didn't yet have was an intelligent and modern take on Turkish food, blending new Nordic techniques with the very best British ingredients (such as Matt Chatfield's astonishing cull yaw, above) and yet recognisably Turkish dishes (kofte, shish, manti, etc.).

Mangal 2 would have been the favourite contender for restaurant of the year even if it had opened on Shoreditch's Great Eastern Street with a flashy tiled frontage, a single-word Nordic/Turkish name (maybe "Køfte") and a moody lighting scheme. But to do all they've done in the same no-nonsense dining room that used to serve pink tarama with flatbread out of a packet (look I can enjoy that stuff as much as anyone, but you know) and - most of all - to run the risk of antagonising artist regulars Gilbert & George, is an act of profound culinary bravery that deserves to be rewarded. And so rewarding, in my own small way, I am. Well done those guys. Well done indeed.

As for 2022, all we can hope is that it's not as profoundly distressing as the previous 2 years, but given I've been saying that for 3 years now I'd better hold my tongue. God knows it's been hard to stay positive at times, and we've been given 150,000 reasons (and counting) not to, but London and the UK is, despite everything, still going, and restaurants are somehow still open, and I can only plead with you to go and visit them, and drink in your local pub, the very second you feel able to do so. Because life without pubs and restaurants, well remember what that was like? Didn't it completely fucking suck?

A happy new year, then, and best wishes for 2022. If it helps cheer you up, I'm doing my first public vote in 2 years next month and the chances of my being sent to Saltbae's place in Kensington is about 99.9%. So that's something to look forward to (for you, at least). Until then, have a very big glass of sherry, dust off those "going out" shoes, and to quote General Melchett from Blackadder, "If nothing else works, a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through." Cheers.