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.


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.


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.


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