Monday 28 February 2022

The Princess of Shoreditch, Shoreditch

My first job in London after moving down in 2003 was in a small basement office on Wilson Street near Finsbury Square. On my first day, a Friday, the boss announced at 1pm that everyone would be going to the pub for lunch, where he ordered, over the next couple of hours, a good few pints of lager each and plates of chips. At some point mid-afternoon he half-heartedly suggested we return back to the office, where we drunkenly squinted at our screens for about 30 minutes until he decided, at 4pm, it was hometime. This, I thought at the time, was the kind of work attitude I could get behind.

That pub, our office local for many years, was the Princess in Shoreditch - even then, I think my memory serves me well enough to say, making a name for itself serving elevated gastropub food. Today, the place at first glance looks very similar to how it did almost 20 years ago, although I don't remember them serving Shoreditch Old Fashioneds (coffee-infused Buffalo Trace, Angostura, orange) in 2003. Downstairs the menu is of attractive, keenly-priced gastropub stuff like crab cocktail and beef wellington, and I'm sure it's very lovely. But on the first floor, reached via a precipitous spiral staircase, some real magic is happening.

Upstairs at the Princess of Shoreditch is where they serve their tasting menu - think the full Moor Hall experience to downstairs' The Barn. It is one of the capital's more ambitious menus, a £75 set composed of 11 individual dishes beginning with "Snacks", dainty little toasted cheese finger sandwiches, artichokes topped with crab, and clever salmon truffle things encased in a delicate layer of some kind of solid fat topped with chervil, which melted in the mouth quite wonderfully. The snacks were in fact quite reminiscent of those at the sadly-departed Greenhouse Mayfair, another place that liked to stretch its muscles in these kinds of cheffy directions.

Bread was a sourdough, a brioche, and - my favourite - salty seeded crackers which were worryingly easy to eat. There were two types of butter, too (no self-respecting restaurant can serve any less these days), one very potently truffled and another simply whipped.

Of all the dishes, though by no means a disappointment, "Sweet onion" is the only one I could really think could be improved. All the flavours were slightly muted, not least the onion soup itself which needed a lot more kick, and I could have also done with more of a hit from the little blobs of Keen's cheddar mixture dotted around inside the bowl. However - and it's a big however - this course arrived with little homemade potato chips, salt and vinegar-flavoured with - incredibly - a single sprig of chervil somehow incased within each one, like a prehistoric fern preserved inside a sliver of amber. I don't know how difficult these are to make, but I'm going to assume it's not easy, as I've never seen anyone else even attempt it. So full marks for invention and technique there.

Next, gurnard, perfectly cooked with a nice crisp skin and meaty, fatty flesh, on a bed of vegetable "risotto". The "risotto", in fact, managed to be a more accomplished bit of cooking than an actual Italian risotto I was served in Verona the week after, although in the interests of saving Italian blushes I think the Italian risotto was a timing mistake rather than a conscious choice.

Next, chervil chips aside, my favourite course - a single giant raviolo containing lamb shoulder, squash and goat's curd, and topped with pine nut and sage breadcrumbs. Its relatively simple (although perfectly attractive) appearance belied a deep, rich flavour of herbs and lamb, and it came surrounded by a thick, glossy lamb jus, also a top bit of technique as these kind of things can quite easily be too salty, too fatty or too bland. Not this one though, it was perfect.

Salt aged duck had a wonderful flavor and an even better texture, meltingly tender and with a carefully rendered skin. A potato terrine was a thoughtful and tasteful accompaniment, ditto a little blob of pickled plum, and a braised artichoke. The fact salt aged duck was served on a tasting menu and wasn't my favourite thing is far more an indication of how blindingly good most of the rest of it was, rather than any failing with the duck.

It's a strange thing that's happened in recent years, almost certainly connected to my increasing age, that whenever I get a tasting menu I'm disappointed when I'm only served one dessert instead of at least two. It seems rather unbalanced to have 8 savoury courses and only 1 sweet, so it was nice to see blood orange with a fantastic treacle sponge...

...followed by an arrangement of forced Yorkshire rhubarb, some stewed to a lovely firm texture and some I think freeze-dried, that also did very wonderful things with white chocolate and fennel.

This being an invite (thank you Tonic PR) I didn't see a bill but with a normal(!) amount of wine and service I estimate the price per head to be about £150. And as this is a tasting menu in London - and a bloody brilliant one at that - that is, in my opinion, right in the sweet spot. I would, in short, have in other circumstances happily paid for it, and I imagine - in fact I know - I'm not the only one.

At the end of the meal as we wiped up the last traces of white chocolate mousse with our fingers (nb. I saw "we"; this could just have been me) chef Ruth Hansom appeared for a brief chat about dinner and to apologise for the emptiness of the dining room of a cold Wednesday evening ("suits me just fine" I replied). I was going to mention about the Princess being my local back in 2003 until I realised she would have been about 6 years old at the time, so rather than embarrass anyone (not least me) and sensing she'd very much prefer to be back in the kitchen than making small talk with a slightly pissed blogger, I thanked her profusely and set off into the night.

The Princess of Shoreditch is, of course, and is hopefully obvious from the above, a brilliant little restaurant. But that all that ambitious, technically groundbreaking food should have been designed and created by someone still in the early stages of her career, is a rare and unusual thing. Most chefs spend their whole lives trying to get to the level she seems to have just been born with, although of course some of that is an illusion - she worked with John Williams at the Ritz (at the same age, I think, that I was still doing my paper round), probably the best introduction to fine dining any young chef would have been able to receive. What's amazing is that her food will only get better from here. Definitely one to watch.


I was invited by Frances Cottrell-Duffield of Tonic, and didn't see a bill. Sorry about the photos, blogging in winter is a pain.

Tuesday 15 February 2022

12 Apostoli, Verona

I feel sorry for people who go on holiday for reasons other than eating and drinking. What a pain it must be, worrying about what the weather's doing or how busy the pool is or how much equipment to haul down the beach in 35 degrees celcius, when the rest of us can travel in the bargainous off-seasons and be untroubled by throngs of tourists as we hop from bar to restaurant to bar.

So if you have no interest in the beach, and would rather sell a kidney than fight through hordes of sweaty holidaymakers on the hottest days of the year, I can thoroughly recommend Northern Italy in winter. Thanks to a combination of still-fierce Covid restrictions (you need to wear a mask to even walk down the street in Veneto, which is a bit of an irritation even if you're sympathetic with the general thrust of the thinking behind it) and the usual seasonal drop in footfall, the streets of Verona were pleasingly tranquil, and its bars and restaurants, though largely open and operating normal hours, comfortably rather than overly populated.

There was a special kind of privilege, then, being two out of a total of four diners booked into 12 Apostoli on a cold Tuesday night in February. Knowing an entire Michelin-starred kitchen brigade and front of house would be prepping, cooking and serving for just two tables all evening brought with it a kind of extra responsibility as a diner. All these people, dedicated to making your evening special, coming into work knowing they'd not turn a profit that evening but deciding to do it anyway, it was all rather humbling.

I'll forgive them, then, the slightly wince-inducing decision to call their spread of exquisite appetisers "Snack Instagrammabili". They were lovely things, all of them, from the fluffly cheese croquette that brought to mind a posh Cheeto, to the meaty, umami-rich Cantabrian sardine on toast and the dainty little bowl of onion consommé, and the suggestion they'd been put together just to look good on social media did them, nor the food, any favours. Having said that, here I am taking photos of them and sharing them on social media so I suppose I'm in no position to moan.

An example of how Japanese techniques are quietly influencing many fine dining menus all across the globe, this gorgeous bowl of "chawanmushi" (savoury custard) topped with smoked fish and salmon roe, ate every bit as well as it looked. It was so good, in fact, that we probably need to find a better way of describing fish custard to people, because if you're put off by the name you really are missing out.

Fried skate fritter was one of the first actual courses on the tasting menu, daintily done and with a good meaty filling of fresh fish, served with something they called "herring mayonnaise". It's easy to be skeptical about pushing too many different fish elements into the same dish, but this worked brilliantly, the mayonnaise just lifted by a subtle spritz of the sea.

In the next dish, a jerusalem artichoke foam - ethereally light with an earthy, rounded flavour - covered a few select cubes of cotechino, a large, loose-textured sausage that requires boiling for several hours. To be completely honest there was something about the lack of variety in the textures here that threw me somewhat, despite the flavours and seasoning being spot-on, but my dining companion thought this dish was wonderful so there's a second opinion for you.

As you might have hoped for a fine dining restaurant in the north of Italy - I certainly bloody did - the bread course was absolutely stunning. Served alongside literally faultless sourdough, the kind of thing you worry about filling up on but then do anyway because it's so irresistable, was a fiery olive oil of clearly exceptional quality (exclusively served at this restaurant, we were told), some super whipped butter and - my favourite - "salsa verde", an entirely unseasoned (and all the more beguiling for it) blend of herbs and vegetables, dark green and intensely vegetal. This bread course is a reason to visit 12 Apostoli by itself.

I have been served lobster and licorice before - in a restaurant on lake Como in fact - so clearly it's a bit of a fine-dining speciality of the area. But whereas previously the combination was bewildering and jarring and faintly disgusting (and far, far more expensive, but that's Como for you), here the licorice just subtly lifted the seafood flavours and didn't distract from the generous chunks of fresh lobster. I should point out, though, that the risotto rice was undercooked and crunchy, which isn't really a great look for an Italian restaurant at any level never mind one with a reputation such as 12 Apostoli's.

"Acqua, farina e salsa segreta" probably sounds better in the native Italian than "Water, flour and secret sauce" but turned out to be a very enjoyable arrangement of braised snails, puntarelle hearts and fusilli with "vizcaina" - a Spanish style sauce with chillies and tomato. Maintaining a strictly seasonal menu in the depths of winter can be a challenge for some kitchens, but making use of unusual (to me at least) elements like snail help keep the interest levels up even when the variety of ingredients is curtailed.

I love sweetbreads even when less carefully cooked, but here, accompanied by an intense beetroot purée and a glossy, richly truffle-y Perigord jus, they were given the opportunity to absolutely shine. The offal itself, golden brown and crisp on the outside, bouncy and moist within, was glorious of course, but equally worth the price of admission was that jus, a masterclass in classical technique and exactly the kind of thing you go to places like this (and pay prices like this) to enjoy.

Dessert was an attractive modernist arrangement of candied pineapple cubes, saffron ice cream and shards of "marron glacé" (candied chestnuts) which by sheer coincidence that very morning I'd been watching people on Veneto television collect from the forest floor as part of a local news segment. They looked delicious simply roasted and eaten there and then, but in 12 Apostoli, given the haute cuisine treatment, they added a lovely seasonal toasty texture to the final course.

Final, that is, apart these pretty petit fours, which included a chocolate truffle and soft passionfruit meringue, all as attractive and intelligent and exact as most of what had come before. Not wanting the evening to end too quickly (though I imagine the staff had their eye on a rare early night, not that they were unprofessional enough to show it) we ended the meal with a glass of distillato - the generic name borne of the fact grappa must be made to a very specific method, and this backyard potion was a bit too under the radar for that. Great stuff though, and sent us back off into the chilly Verona streets with an even warmer glow than we had already.

It should be of no surprise that ingredients of this quality, cooking of such technical skill (risotto aside), and all the other trimmings and frills of world-class restaurant dining, don't come cheap. But really, £200/head (the total was €475 for two) including plenty of wine is pretty much the dead centre of what you should be prepared to pay for this kind of thing, across most of the European continent at least, and we had absolutely no complaints on that front at all. It's a simple transaction - you get what you pay for.

And what we got, in the end, was an effortlessly enjoyable evening in probably the best restaurant in town, and a further shining example of the versatility and generosity of Italian cuisine. For further examples from a part of the world that boasts a different delightful speciality every ten minutes' drive in any direction, watch this space, but it's no great spoiler to say that I didn't have a single bad, or even unmemorable, meal in my entire 7 day stay. And that, my friends, is what good holidays are made of. Who on earth needs beaches?


Thursday 10 February 2022

Bar Shu, Soho

In a part of central London where restaurant sites seem to change hands every few months, Bar Shu is a pleasingly permanent fixture. In fact this was one of the first places I ever reviewed on the blog, all the way back in 2007, and it seems that even as a newcomer to fiercely authentic Sichuan cuisine (as I was back then) I was quietly impressed.

In the years since, I've been fortunate enough to enjoy some fantastic Sichuan meals in London, from Lewisham to Bloomsbury to Camberwell, and though I can't pretend to have anything near a full grasp of its nuances and varieties (there are a breathtaking number of regional variations within the vast Sichuan province itself) I do at least know vaguely what to expect, and can order a plate of pock-marked old-woman's beancurd without chuckling.

Even so, the power and intensity of authentic Sichuan cooking still has the potential to take you by surprise. Even the table snacks at Bar Shu, peanuts dressed in a remarkable chilli/Sichuan pepper powder, are painfully addictive, tasering your mouth with metallic zing whilst also teasing with salt and umami. It's quite the rush.

"Mouthwatering" Sichuan chicken was precisely that, a riot of flavour and intense chilli heat that battered all of the senses at once. Part of the joy of Sichuan food, at least real Sichuan food, is that the sheer complexity of the way the different elements are balanced together is key to its success - you're never quite sure exactly where the sour, sweet, salty etc. components are coming from but you know it works, and you know you want more of it.

Pickled veg were nicely done, with a good balance of vinegar and sugar, something to cool the palate in between mouthfuls of fiery mouthwatering chicken.

Cloud ear fungus is always a must-order dish, and was very well done here with plenty of powerful seasoning and nice big stalks of crunchy coriander. If you've not yet had the pleasure of trying this stuff, try and imagine slightly gelatinous weirdly fleshy mushrooms. In fact don't imagine that, I'm making them sound horrible when actually they're lovely. Just try it, you won't regret it.

Sichuan cuisine boasts a huge number of different, interesting ways with offal, and this classic dish - "man and wife offal slices" had a variety of the more unusual parts of a cow (including, but probably not limited to, tripe and lung) dressed in another wonderfully complex, powerfully flavoured sauce.

For a bit of variety, and with a vague nod to health, a plate of morning glory was bouncy and fresh and - like everything else - perfectly cooked and seasoned. I don't think I've ever had a truly disappointing vegetable dish in a Sichuan restaurant; they always seem to get this kind of thing exactly right.

Of course we also had to order the aformentioned pock-marked old woman's beancurd and completely wonderful it was too, the tofu being incredibly light and the sauce rich and packed full of flavour. I appreciate I'm being a bit thin on the details when it comes to describing these dishes but even accounting for my staggering ignorance of one of the world's great cuisines, there's something about Sichuan food, as I said earlier, that almost defies description. There's a lot going on, and attempting to cover it all in a few sentences seems almost reductive.

We finished with a Bar Shu classic - whole sea bass in chilli oil - which despite its size and presumably the challenges it presents to cook, was actually perfectly timed, the flesh coming away from the bones in nice clean white chunks. A real showstopper of a presentation, too, guaranteed to turn heads.

As this was a hashtag invite, we didn't see a bill, however in the interests of fairness it's probably worth pointing out that Bar Shu is no budget affair. If you're used to paying low prices for your Sichuan food in London's outer boroughs then the prices here (our meal would have come to about £125 with a couple of beers) may raise some eyebrows. But having said that, this is Soho, and in this smart room populated by attentive, pleasant staff it feels entirely reasonable to pay a little premium.

And as I said, the food is of such a high standard you're not going to regret opening up your wallet a bit and making the most of it. The typically giant Sichuanese menu contains some real gems, a chance to sample defiantly authentic regional Chinese food right in the middle of Theatreland. While many of its neighbours have come and gone over the years, Bar Shu has seen little reason to change its winning formula and has come out of the other end of the Covid pandemic as confidently (and as popular) as ever. Long may it continue.


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