Tuesday 31 May 2022

Catch at the Old Fish Market, Weymouth

When you think about it, it makes sense on many levels to open a high-end tasting-menu-only fish restaurant in Weymouth. Firstly and most obviously, this section of the Dorset coast is where much of the best seafood in the country comes from anyway, and how better to enjoy it than via the smallest amount of food miles possible. Secondly, freed of luxe or city centre locations and the costs associated with that, what could easily be a £150+ tasting menu in some five star country hotel or Mayfair joint comes in at an extremely reasonable £75, punchy compared to most local competition perhaps but not unheard of.

But another reason that Catch couldn't open anywhere but here is that the completely charming Weymouth harbourside feels part of a healthy, working fishing community, and to have this wonderful showcase for all their hard work right next to where the dayboats unload their catch must be a source of constant pride. At least, it really should be. Catch have two such boats, parked right outside the restaurant, that supply the kitchens daily with whatever's good on the day.

The strictly day-by-day supply of fish and seafood means two things - one, that the tasting menu changes so much over the course of the week that it's better not to examine it too closely before your visit as half of the dishes could have been swapped out for something else by the time you sit down to dinner. It also requires a supremely nimble and able kitchen, to pivot from skate wing to gurnard, from lobster to spider crab, from cockles to mussels, from one day to the next, while still producing a coherent succession of dishes and a satisfying overall experience. Which Catch very much is.

Sea bass was so lightly "cured" that it was essentially sashimi, and absolutely all the better for it. It came with a vibrant arrangement of pea mousse and broth, studded with pea shoots and little blobs of mayonnaise, which complimented the fish without letting its delicate sweet flavour get swamped. Very tasteful, very intelligent, very enjoyable indeed.

Trout tartlets involved more chunks of sweet raw fish but also roe, which burst in the mouth alongside the crunch of the delicate pastry casings and along with a cured trout mousse made for a delightful variety of textures. There were little blobs of something citrussy amongst the fish (which they probably did explain to us but I've since completely forgotten) and lemon zest and wild flowers to complete the picture.

Crab came in two stages, an idea so perfect for a seafood-focussed menu I'm surprised I'd not come across it before. First we were served a neat disc of white crab meat, with pickled grapes - a very clever idea - and sea herbs, around which was poured a very attractive two-tone sauce of white garlic and something green, perhaps nasturtium oil.

Then part 2, nice bouncy home made spaghetti bound with a sauce of brown crab meat, silky and salty and full of complex earthy flavour.

Next the fish course, on this occasion gurnard landed by their dayboats and tasting essentially perfect - meaty and firm like monkfish tail but with an even more interesting almost buttery flavour. As if that wasn't enough, it came with asparagus - because whenever you can serve British asparagus, you definitely should - and an incredible "chicken butter" sauce which I think I may have finished off with my fingers. Sorry.

And then to prove that Catch can cook red meat just as well as fish, a piece of local venison, seared to rare, with a little medallion of roast turnip and finished with one of those glossy, cheff-y jus.

Desserts were equally impressive. Firstly "tea, honey, mint" which involved a mint granita, a tea ice cream and a very neat honeycomb of some kind of biscuit, and then a little slice of sponge topped with a lemon ice cream studded with szechuan peppers and some macerated strawberries. Next to that was poured a lovely thick strawberry sauce the colour of a stop sign.

And just like that, a world-class seafood restaurant has hauled ashore in Weymouth. And if you're wondering how such an "unlikely" town could have landed such a great place, or if you're anything like my colleague who grew up round there and couldn't believe I'd even entertain the idea of spending a weekend surrounded by its slightly faded Victorian charm (and believe me, those aren't the words he used), well you just haven't been paying attention.

I will always have a soft spot for the richness and variety of restaurants in London, and I don't see myself tiring of the place any time soon. But the fact is, every time I make the journey out to Kent, or Lancashire, or Northumberland, or Cornwall, or more recently Wales and now Dorset, I eat better and better. Rather than attempting to recreate a little slice of Marylebone in the sticks to give the locals a taste of what the're missing back where things matter, restaurants like Catch (see also the lovely Parkers Arms in Bowland, or the Tolcarne Inn in Penzance) have built themselves around the local fishing and farming infrastructure and are uniquely placed to make the absolute best of it all. Judging by the fact every table was taken the night we visited, it's already the hottest ticket in town. And that makes absolute sense to me.


I was invited to Catch and didn't see a bill, but with wines you're probably looking at £120/head + service to make the most of it. We stayed at the Gresham Hotel, which was absolutely lovely and I slept like a log, although the matching wines might have helped. Trains are direct from Waterloo and take about 3 hours, so it pays to make a weekend of it, especially if that means you can visit the Crab House Café in Wyke for Sunday lunch before the train home.

EDIT: I've been told that the tasting menu is Saturday night only, rest of time it's a very attractive seafood selection. It's all on their website anyway.

Friday 27 May 2022

Sarap, Mayfair

After so many *cough* (nearly 20) *cough* years living here, and nearly as many *cough* (15) *cough* writing about restaurants, it is surely something close to a miracle that London can still spring on me a genuinely new and exciting way of thinking about a particular cuisine. Filipino is one of the Cinderella foods of London - largely unsung and overlooked in the conversation about where to spend your dinner money, at least outside of a group of enthusiasts and expats, there are nevertheless a number of places doing great things. For a handy rundown of the best spots (as well as a neat summary of what Filipino Cuisine even means), I point you towards the Eater list, always a reliable place for discovering new places and/or plugging in woeful gaps in food knowledge (delete as appropriate).

I hope I'm not making too bold an assumption here but Sarap appears to be doing for the intricacies and varieties of Filipino food as Kiln does for Northern Thailand, or Lahpet for Burmese. It's a well-worn path, and one London absolutely excels at, to take authentic ingredients and traditional techniques and apply them to a modern, accessible and - dare I say it - trendy central London aesthetic. The genius of places like this - at least for the largely unitiated like myself - is that is that it doesn't matter if you know nothing about bagoong or isanal or calamansi, because the menu is shaped into a familiar arrangement of snacks, starters and mains and so you know vaguely how to order even if exactly what's going to arrive is a delightful surprise.

I was never not going to order the langoustine, and it's a pleasure to see so many of these thrusting young international bistro type places featuring their own take on the North Atlantic shellfish (see also: Kiln). At Sarap they serve theirs with aged beef fat (I mean why the hell not) and 'bagoong XO', bagoong being a fermented shrimp paste that features quite heavily in Filipino cuisine. The dressing was lovely of course, slick and satisfying with its gentle smokey beefiness and umami-rich oil, but it's worth also pointing out the langoustine itself had been timed perfectly to sweet and firm, without a hint of that mushiness or wooliness that can so easily creep in if you're not careful.

House pickles were great, especially the soft-boiled (and ever-so-gently pickled) quail's egg, an unexpectedly lovely addition which I will be looking out for on pickle selections from now onwards.

It was with the arrival of the Ensaladang Talong, though, that we realised that everything we were going to be served at Sarap would not only be exciting and unique, but thoroughly rewarding to eat. On a layer of smoked aubergine, sort of like a baba ganoush but thinner and sharper, sat a single plump slice of dark-red heritage tomato. This was topped with crumbled, salted duck egg, which not only added seasoning to the tomato and aubergine, but an extra note of creamy dairy. I don't know if the salted duck egg is a traditional Filipino thing, or something invented entirely from scratch at Heddon Street, but I do know I've not had anything like the combination before and I loved it.

I do know that pork is a mainstay of the Filipino feast and it would be a very strange thing indeed if Sarap hadn't featured it on the menu somewhere. But instead of anything as usual as roast suckling, the signature pig dish at Sarap is painstakingly boned and rolled trotter stuffed with rice and roasted to an irresistable crisp skin, the kind of thing that must involve a hundred different techniques to go exactly right at once. Sliced into neat rounds and dropped into a lovely sharp dipping sauce, this remarkable dish hit all the different pleasure points of texture and flavour contrasts, the filling of silky rice sitting next to crunchy pork rind like a kind of extra-meaty arancino, and it blew our little minds. An absolute must-order amongst must-orders.

Poussin Inasal (Inasal being a particular marinade involving lemongrass, ginger, garlic, you name it) arrived perfectly tender with a nice dark chargrilled skin, and a lick of calamansi for extra citrus. One of the more straightforward things on the Sarap menu, it still impressed with its beautifully tender flesh - and how often can you say that about restaurant chicken - and beguiling mix of herbs and spices in the marinade.

Not content with everything else, Sarap are also brilliant at cooking fish. This is turbot, neatly filleted and full of flavour, in a superb sour tomato broth studded with clams and sea vegetables.

Java Rice was ordered simply on the promise of 'mangalitsa fat', and boy it did not disappoint. On top of a mound of plump rice spiked with pickled peppers was a medallion of pork fat mixed with wild garlic. We were instructed to smush (their words) the fat into the rice so everything is coated in the herby gloss, the result being a kind of fat-washed paella (sorry just couldn't think of a better description). And yes, it was fantastic.

Not wanting the evening to end, we ordered both desserts. Burnt cassava cheesecake was our favourite, presented with macapuno (a kind of coconut as far as I can gather) whipped cream and some kind of dark green oil, maybe nasturtium. Suman, steamed glutinous rice, was interesting alright but there's something about the texture of the sticky, jellified rice that was a bit hard to get on with. But I'm sure that's just a personal thing and plenty of other people would love it.

Any even mildly curious diner could find more than enough to enjoy in Sarap, with its tastefully constructed plates of attractive ingredients, and it should easily find an audience in this part of town. But for anyone looking for something genuinely new and innovative, or for anyone who thinks London has lost its ability, post-pandemic, to take some risks and bring an often-overlooked cuisine on a new and exciting journey, Sarap is a true marvel, a unique and intelligent take on modern Filipino food that's never anything less than thrilling. I hope it has many, many bagoong-laced days ahead of it.


I was invited to Sarap and didn't see a bill, but would have been about £60/head I think

Wednesday 25 May 2022

Maison François, St James

I've lost count of the number of times I've moaned on this blog about not being offered tap water in restaurants, but last week in St James, weirdly and uniquely, we had the opposite problem. For whatever reason, and I'm sure they have theirs, Maison François only offer sparkling mineral water, not still. Ordinarily I'd applaud a restaurant that refused to profiteer on bottled water but for once to specifically ask for it and be denied felt like a bit of a snub. I don't know, maybe I'm getting old.

Anyway, turns out there was more than the unavailability of bottled water to grind my gears at Maison François, despite things starting sprightly enough with a charming welcome and a nice table in the plush, gently-lit dining room. The menu is archly French Bistro, and of course there's nothing wrong with that, albeit with a slightly bizarre habit of translating every other word so you end up with things like "Truite de rivère, watercress velouté, broad beans" or "Seasonal greens - beurre asiatique, amandes or lemon, olive oil". I'm being snippy, of course, but it's the kind of stuff that, done well, you'd quite happily lose a few hours to, working your way through the different patés and salades and legumes. I had high hopes. Until the food arrived.

It's not that the sweetbreads were inedible so much as just spectacularly unimpressive, bland underseasoned protein swabbed with a sickly sweet dressing. I generally order sweetbreads - in fact any offal really - if I see it on a menu so have been lucky enough to be served some really great examples recently (take a bow, Parillan Borough Market with your lovely chargrilled versions spritzed with lemon juice) but this was just not good, a mediocre raw ingredient not treated very well.

Better was a paté en croute, which had a good mix of different meats amongst nice chunks of soft fat, and a very decent layer of dark, rich jelly on top. True, the version at the Rosewood is slightly better, but then most things they do at the Rosewood are at least slightly better than anyone else's (apart from their burger, but that's a story for another time). It was still a very nice paté en croute.

Bigorre ham was just a case of arranging a product on a plate then dumping some celeriac in the middle of it, but it went down pretty well, given you can't really muck up the serving of ham very much. £19 for a few slices of bog-standard prosciutto (yes, I hear your outrage, France, but you have to come to terms with the fact that Bigorre will never be Iberico) is way too much of course, but then this is St James.

Mains continued the theme of being not quite good enough. Pork chop was timed well, to just very slightly pink inside, but the sauce ("moutarde") was too thin and sharp, and didn't really help.

Quarter of a roast chicken was on the menu as coming with "fines herbes" but I swear it was exactly the same sauce that came with the pork. Had it had been a nice sauce that wouldn't be a problem of course, other than being a bit lazy, but the same thin wine-y astringency worked equally badly with the chicken.

Halibut was overcooked, but even if it hadn't been this tiny portion for £38 accompanied by a charred lemon and a dollop of bland blitzed herbs was hardly likely to ever set pulses racing. Mashed potato needed more butter and more salt, again for a supreme example see the Rosewood.

There was little chance the famed Maison François dessert trolley would save the evening given how disappointing everything had been up to that point, but quite how ordinary the pastries were still came as a miserable surprise. Tarte Bourdaloue was the best of them, having a nice flavour despite being a bit soggy, but the Paris Brest was genuinely wrong, chewy and stale where it should be crisp and light, although the hazelnut filling was OK. At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, the version at the Rosewood is much, much better. Also, while the idea of a dessert trolley is a good one, in practice there really isn't enough room to wheel it round the tables, and there was generally a queue of people waiting around it to either visit the bathroom or return to their table, having to watch solemnly as someone self-consciously selected their pudding.

The bill came to £330 for three people, which is too much. And yes, this is St James and we had a couple of cocktails but the fact is there are lots of places in town doing this kind of thing much better - even Zedel is more accomplished and you'd struggle to push the bill there to over £50pp, and then in the same price range as Maison are places like the Wolseley or Bellanger, each in prime locations of course and offering a much more enticing experience for the money.

It just seems that Maison François really doesn't have much going for it, when you consider how much further your money will go elsewhere. I'd have liked nothing better than to praise yet another top-drawer bistro in London - you can certainly not have too many of them - but by failing to deliver on even its own modest ambitions for traditional gallic cuisine and compared to all those other places doing the same thing and more - I've even had better food at a branch of Côte - then it really doesn't add up to a place worth bothering with. So I suggest you don't.


Exterior photo courtesy of Guild of Saint Luke architects

Tuesday 10 May 2022

Kolamba, Soho

I was convinced I had been before to the building that Kolamba occupies. Home to a constantly shifting and evolving - for better or for worse - row of shops and restaurants, Kingly St is one of those places that even if you're a regular Soho wanderer you will always spot a new addition or somewhere with "Coming soon!" on the hoarding, and you never really know what's going to happen next.

In fact, I hadn't ever been here before - for some reason I thought it was where short-lived but much-loved BBQ spot Shotgun once stood, but a look on Google Streetview reveals that was a few doors down. And I'm afraid I avoided the site when it was seafood proto-chain Claw, mainly because - and correct me if I'm being unreasonable here - I tend to think anywhere naming itself after a part of a crab, and using a crab as its logo, should serve at least some fresh crab* (the only thing they had on offer when I peered at the menu was soft-shelled crab, which doesn't count).

Anyway to Kolamba, an altogether more enticing prospect, the latest smart, mid-range Sri Lankan restaurant (after Hoppers, and Paradise, and probably loads more I'm unaware of) to bless central London. And the evening got off to a cracking (pun intended) start with some tastefully bijou pappadums and some superbly balanced chutneys, one date and lime with a brilliant sour/chilli note, and one "Malay Pickle", earthier and sweeter. There seems to be an endless capacity for the Indian subcondinent to dazzle with the inventiveness and variety of their pickled goods.

Hot Butter cuttlefish consisted of nicely bouncy little parcels of squid in a bubbly coating, doused in chilli and nestled amongst various fried vegetables. A "bar-room classic" so the menu says, and who am I to argue - I can not think of a single table in any pub in the UK that wouldn't look better with this colourful little dish served alongside a nice cold pint.

Black pepper prawn fry were equally enjoyable, but would have been completely useless as a bar snack thanks to the utter mess you have to make of yourself to eat them. I actually made an elbows-forward trip to the bathroom sink to clean myself up twice in the few minutes or so it took to eat these tasty little fellas, such was the ability of that rich, dark sauce to attach itself to my forearms.

Cashew Fry was only slightly underwhelming thanks to needing a bit of extra crunch from the nuts themselves. Perhaps this was entirely deliberate, and if so I'm not going to argue, but I always prefer cashews with a crunch rather than a chew, and I probably always will. And although the caramelised onions they came in with were nice, as was the beguiling spice mix, this was essentially a bowl of onions and nuts for £10.

More interesting was a Seeni Sambol, a dark, salty and umami-packed dish of onion and dried Maldive fish, with a flavour profile utterly impossible not to fall in love with.

Price, though, is something I'm going to have to start being a bit more reasonable about when it comes to judging restaurant menus. Not so long ago, a dish of 4 prawns for £20 would have had me whingeing too, but given what I know about how restaurant profits work (which is very little, but bear with me) they're almost certainly charging what they need to given the cost of ingredients, energy, staff, you bloody name it these days.

This is Jaggery Beef, a Sri Lankan staple which involves cheaper cuts of beef slow-cooked in a variety of different herbs, spices and vegetables with coconut milk and "jaggery", some kind of unrefined sugar I think but for which a brief Google is a bit inconclusive. It was fantastic though, with large, wobbly chunks of jellified fat which dissolved in the mouth.

It was almost worth ordering the tomato sambol for the resulting photo, which was so vibrantly colourful it almost gleamed like a light source in that dark Soho basement. It wasn't just about looks though - the mix of tomatoes, green chilli and lime is a reliable one, and we happily polished this off.

Finally, the house string hoppers, lovely in every way, from the bouncy fresh noodles to the tasteful bowls of coconut milk curry and fluffy Pol Sambol, a great (and - relatively - inexpensive) way of padding out your appetite at the end of the meal and ensuring we wobbled off into the Soho night nicely sated.

With food this good, you'd find it very difficult to not have a great night at Kolamba but in the interests of managing expectations we did think the tables uncomfortably close together, and a bit too small for the amount of space-hungry dishes that tend to arrive all at once. Not a dealbreaker, of course, just worth mentioning. And you'll have to decide for yourself, too, whether this objectively good but determinedly unfussy menu is worth paying the Soho premium for if you live a little closer to Harrow (Gana, Palm Beach) or Tooting (Apollo Banana Leaf, Jaffna House). Though I expect these days those aren't as cheap as they used to be, either.

Anyway there's plenty to love at Kolamba and not much to dislike, and its arrival in London is very much welcome. For as long as this city continues to play host to such a startling variety of cuisines and cultures, it will continue to produce restaurants like this, serving South Asian staples with the odd local twist, in smart and friendly surroundings, with attentive and pleasant staff. And really, what more could you want from a night out?


*Although a glance at a more recent menu online suggests they've fixed that particular supply problem.

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