Monday 31 October 2022

The Audley, Mayfair

I ended up in the Audley, newly refurbished and reimagined gastropub in Mayfair, rather by accident on Saturday, and I'm afraid I didn't set out with my usual forensic (ha!) bloggery attitude to proceedings. I wasn't planning on having lunch out at all, but walking down Mount St on the way to the bus stop on my way from Oxford Circus I realised it was open, blessedly quiet, and absolutely bloody gorgeous. With 20 minutes before the kitchens opened I found myself ordering a Guinness and well, events progressed from there.

I always suspected I'd enjoy the place, ever since I caught a glimpse of an early menu on Instagram somewhere boasting things like smoked eel and horseradish 'toast', or London Particular and sourdough (a kind of pea and ham soup), but seeing it all up close was even more impressive, a menu of stark, poetic perfection in the St John style served at prices that for most places in London would seem very reasonable, never mind just down the road from Claridge's. With the expertly-poured pint of Guinness doing its work, I thought I needed a half dozen oysters, bowl of popcorn cockles, and a London dip beef sandwich.

And do you know what, I did need them. The oysters were expertly opened (no traces of shell), lean and fresh and served with a very nice mignionette. Popcorn cockles were cleanly-fried little nuggets of seafood which sang when doused with loads of Sarson's vinegar. And the London Dip would have been a very nice steak sandwich indeed even served without a pool of salty, rich, intensely flavoured gravy which seemed to grow in flavour with every new morsel of dipped sarnie.

The bill came to £50, which I suppose isn't cheap but then I did order more than enough for 1 person, things like oysters are never (and never should be) cheap and I can confirm it was all worth every penny. So there you go then, a little story of a nice new place to have lunch in Mayfair. Isn't it nice to have nice things?


Wednesday 26 October 2022

Peckham Cellars, Peckham

Though it's always flattering to be invited to try the latest and greatest of London restaurants, and more often than not I'm happy to play a part in the tricky first few weeks of a new operation to help get it off the ground, or to refocus attention on an established place trying a new menu (or whatever), I sometimes get the impression any "help" I can offer in terms of publicity on the blog is rather surplus to requirements. Peckham Cellars, for reasons that will hopefully soon become obvious, is already wildly popular, every table taken on a windswept Wednesday night in October, and they hardly need my increasingly irrelevant voice adding to the crowd.

But here we are, and I'm adding my voice to the crowd anyway because it's an absolute pleasure to report on how good Peckham Cellars is. They seem to have worked out exactly what makes a space like this work, from the attentive and enthusiastic staff dying for you to try their new range of Georgian wines to a bijou but serene kitchen sending out small plate dishes you want to eat over and over again.

These are Aubergine Parmigiana croquetas, delicate and crisp on the outside, held in place with a cracking (and punchy) aioli, and boasting a rich, thick filling easily equal of anything to come out of the top Spanish tapas joints in town. They were so good, in fact, that they made me realise it's not the chunks of Iberico ham I really enjoy in a croqueta, it's a properly constructed bechamel, which hardly needs any gimmick like extra protein at all.

Fried hake came in a whisper-thin batter, which gave a nice golden colour to the skinless fillet as well as holding this sometimes rather unruly textured fish together. Served with a super-smooth chive emulsion as well as a slick of green chilli oil (there aren't many things that can't be improved with a house made chilli oil), it did what all these kind of dishes should do - showcase great British ingredients with the judicious use of clever cheffy techniques.

Enoki mushrooms, deep fried as an entire plate-sized branching tree of funghi, came on a bed of superbly rich and interestingly-spiced porcini mushroom "ketchup", and sprinkled with what I'm assuming is more blended dried porcini mixed with chilli. It all worked incredibly well, yet another vegetarian dish that would have been spoiled by adding or removing anything.

But we did feel we needed to try something that once had a pulse, and so landed this lamb neck with lentils (so a pulse as well as pulses) and salsa verde, which matched an incredibly soft and yielding pink meat with a salty, colourful dressing. Also though one of the most expensive items on the menu at £16, it was a pretty generous portion, easily enough for two.

We shared a dessert, a kind of Basque trifle called a Goxua which had alcohol-soaked spongecake and chunks of what I think were toffee, topped with a creme caramel type layer of burnt sugar. We "matched" this with a Last Word dessert cocktail which involved Chartreuse and maraschino (our match, not theirs) which went down better before a mouthful of caramel and cake than after. But still, all great fun.

I'm never at my most comfortable when talking about wines, but I will say that the Listan Blanco "Benji" from Tenerife tasted like nothing I've ever experienced before, the pitch-black volanic soils there responsible, I'm told, for the fact it tasted like burned popcorn. But in a good way. There should be something on the list for everyone, and if that's not enough they sell everything at retail price in a little 'shop' bit alongside the restaurant, so you can take your favourites of the evening home with you. Which I did, of course.

As I've said above, Peckham Cellars don't really need me to tell you they're great - they know they are, and most of South London it seems knows they are, and if you've been already you'll know they are too. But it doesn't do any harm repeating the obvious, and they're going to need all the attention - superfluous or otherwise - they can get in the next few months alongside every other restaurant in the country staring down the barrel of a frankly terrifying set of external pressures. So please do hop on over to SE15 to this friendly, bustling little spot on the Queen's Road (right next to the station, so unusually for this part of town even that isn't an excuse not to go) and make the very most of it. Because who knows what the future might bring.


I was invited to Peckham Cellars and didn't see a bill, but I doubt it would have been much over £40pp even with all the booze we managed to plough through.

Monday 17 October 2022

Black Salt, Sheen

For most restaurants, no matter how lofty their ambitions or discerning the clientele, sheer practical market forces will be the driving force behind at least one or two dishes, whether it's the chic Northern gastropub reluctantly offering fish and chips and a burger alongside their otherwise exquisitely tasteful offering of local game and foraged mushrooms, or the thrusting young modern Sichuan determined to introduce the timid local population to the delights of Old Woman Pock-Marked Beancurd and Man and Wife Offal Slices but can't make the numbers work without adding a few things like Chicken in Black Bean sauce to keep the regulars happy. It's not anyone's fault, it's just how the world works.

But what if I told you that there's a restaurant in Sheen, of all places, that has somehow hit upon a magic formula of serving something for everyone whilst keeping the standard of cooking so high across the board that you can essentially throw a round of darts at the menu from 8ft and still end up with the meal of your life? Where all ingredients, plant or animal, are treated with intelligence and respect they deserve and not a single thing is anything less than essential, never mind tasty?

Now, I have not - yet - tried everything that Black Salt have to offer, but I feel confident in saying you can't go wrong here partly on the basis that when I have asked fans of the place (of which there are many) which are the must-order items, everyone came back with something different, and also because the 8 or 9 items we did order were largely perfect. Starting with this selection of poppadums, so delicate and light that they almost dissolved in the mouth, and three chutneys, all made fresh in-house, from a superb fresh lime pickle to a gorgeously rich and intriguing mango without a hint of that cloying sweetness you get in the mass produced stuff.

As I've said (and I'm likely to say again), not much at Black Salt was less than perfect, but the really astonishing achievement of the place is to elevate the most unlikely and unassuming ingredients - in this case beetroot - to such a level that every dish could call itself a must-order. Inside a beautifully delicate and grease-free breadcrumb casing was a soft, beguilingly spiced filling of beetroot mixture, as rich and rewarding as anything that's ever come out of a fryer. Beside it a neat little squiggle of summer berry chutney, which was just as remarkable in a different way, the kind of clever fruit/savoury sauce that you'd expect from the very finest of fine dining kitchens.

Mixed bhajiya, similarly, got everything right, from the almost honeycomb-fragile texture of the fried vegetables (a balanced mix of kale, spinach, potato and onion, no one element dominating) to the vegetal loveliness of the mint chutney. They really do seem to be masters of texture at Black Salt - the way the fried dishes dance around the mouth is quite something.

Channa papdi chaat had an even more addictive set of textures, from the chunky potato and chickpeas underneath to the crisp of the sev sprinkled on top, through the ribbons of tamarind, coriander and chilli chutneys that bound it all together. There's something extremely satisfying about a dish that cools with yoghurt at the same time as hitting with a punch of chilli, it's a fantastic medley of effects.

You'll notice that we haven't had any meat or seafood yet - don't worry that will come - but it's worth repeating that you really can't go wrong at Black Salt with any dish, and that includes anything marked with a (V) or even, in the case of the beetroot fritter and papads, (VE). Even what would in lesser hands be a throwaway side of spinach boasted a healthy punch of garlic and yet another masterful mix of spices.

But yes, we did order some protein. This is 'best end' lamb chop, and if you're unsure what 'best end' means with regards to lamb, well so was I but I can only assume it means 'ludicrously tender and brilliantly cooked', as that's how it arrived. It had clearly been close to some hot coals, as the odd bit of charring on the bone and edges proved, but the meat was so yielding it felt almost reconstituted, like some kind of Heston Blumenthal experimental lamb made of lamb. Ok, that doesn't make them sound amazing does it, but they honestly were.

Prawns were also - here's that word again - perfect. Cooked to sweetly tender, in a garlic-chilli-tomato sauce that presented the seafood well without dominating, they had more of that delicate charring from the coals and a lovely firm-but-not-chewy bite. Oh and the garlic and tomato chutney they came with was pretty special, too.

If there's one aspect of the offering at Black Salt that's less than stellar, it's perhaps the bread. Having been told the naans were nothing better than OK, we had decided to go for a round of paratha instead. Unfortunately, rather than the delicate folds of swirly pastry we were expecting (and had, unfortunately for Black Salt, been treated to at Hawker's Kitchen in King's Cross a week or so earlier) these were little better than plain flatbreads, stodgy and uninteresting and not very paratha-y at all.

But who cares, because all we really needed was a vehicle to scoop up mouthfuls of their dense, buttery dal makhani, and that was a job even faintly uninteresting paratha could live up to. In fact, perhaps a more pastry-like paratha would have been too rich matched with the dal. Maybe they know what they're doing after all.

Most wines were around the £30 mark, in fact I think there could have been one even cheaper, which is pretty commendable for a London restaurant in 2022. In fact, all the above astonishing food, most of which easily matches the best out of the kitchens at Michelin starred places in Mayfair and Chelsea, came to £34pp, still just under £40 each even with service added on which they didn't even ask for. And much as I love Jamavar, and Kutir and the like, and appreciate that rents in Sheen will not be in the same category as Zone 1, it does beg the question, if you can eat this well for £40pp, why would you ever bother eating anywhere else?

The answer to that hypothetical question, perhaps, comes in the form of a little place in Ewell called Dastaan, sister restaurant to Black Salt, and which is spoken of in hushed tones to those lucky enough to have visited both, as "even better". And if this seems impossible given what you've just read, well I agree, but I am determined to discover the truth for myself as soon as is realistically possible. In the meantime, I will have my memories of Black Salt to love and relive, an unassuming and comfortable little spot on Upper Richmond Road serving some of the best Indian food in the entire country.


Monday 10 October 2022

The Terrace, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

The Terrace restaurant in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight is situated not just handily near the ferry terminal, but literally on top of it, the outside dining area (or Terrace, if you will) regularly enveloped in shade as the giant Lymington ferry pulls alongside. This means that not only is the place very doable as a lunchtime day trip from a large section of the south of England (including - just about - London) but that the very first thing you see as you sail into town are the weather- (and Covid-) friendly dining pods full (and they usually are full) of happy families surrounded by all the signs of a good dinner.

Usually, to just settle on the very first place you see on arrival in a new town is a recipe for disaster, but fortunately I had it on good authority that the kitchens at the Terrace were operating on a level very much above "good for a tourist trap". The menu is devised at least in part by food-writer-turned-cook (or even cook-turned-food-writer) Tom (@eaterwriter) who is as enthusiastic about serving the best of local ingredients in the Modern British Bistro style as he is to ranting on Twitter about the various ills of Tripadvisor.

The menu dances that fine, and often treacherous, line between comforting familiarity and eye-catching food-literacy. Which means you have things like fish and chips, which the restaurant once attempted to take off the menu to a less than appreciative reaction, and the Rowley Leigh-inspired (presumably) hake boudin. Before all that though, house focaccia was sticky and warm and lovely, served with a perfect temperature parsley butter.

"Pan Con Tomate" came as a traffic light of three warm peeled Isle of Wight (obviously) tomatoes on toast, next to a kind of house 'ketchup' making use of the bits of the tomatoes that didn't come on toast, and a fantastic consommé. If ever a vegan dish makes you forget it's vegan, you know you're eating something rather special.

Gurnard came neatly sliced and - I think - preserved somehow, the flesh salty and firm suggesting some kind of smoking process. I could be wrong of course, perhaps it's just been too long since I've eaten gurnard, but there was definitely a hint of something clever done to it. The bisque was earthy and interesting, and a neat stick of toasted bread on top dotted with tapenade and a good garlicky rouille rounded all the flavours off nicely.

Hake boudin didn't disappoint either - a neat little cylinder of fluffy fresh fish mousse, next to a pea purée and lying in a bed of beurre noisette studded with irresistably salty nuggets of fried capers.

In addition to the three ordered starters we were treated to little bloggers' bonus bites of "Crab & Chips", which came in the form of confit potatoes in the Quality Chop House style, topped with a neat mound of fresh white crab meat. You can basically put anything on top of confit potatoes and it will taste great, but it seems to work particularly well with salty seafood, as anyone who's ever tried the caviar variant at QCH will attest. These were equally impressive, with excellent sweet crab and a dainty topping of curried vinaigrette of some kind.

Mains all wowed not just with technique and command of flavour, but almost pathological generosity. I have never seen so many mussels in a serving, and combined with a giant bowl of fries and half a pound of aioli this is surely the best value seafood dish on the island. The mussels themselves are worth a special mention though - huge plump things, full of flavour and silky of texture soaked in a gorgeous white wine and cream sauce, hardly improvable in any way.

Halibut came as another huge slab of bright white, meaty fish, sat in a buttery crab sauce and alongside a large piece of braised fennel. Potatoes were sweet and soft, and an interesting herb mix of chervil and chives added colour and texture as well as zhuzhing up the fish.

You have to be very confident in your own ability in the kitchen to put the words "poached chicken" on a menu and not worry people might imagine the worst. Fortunately, the sherry sauce that this wonderfully tender piece of poultry was bathed in was compellingly alcoholic and gently buttery, a really impressive bit of saucing. Charred corn of course goes very well with chicken, as is mushroom, specifically a slice of crosshatched king oyster, meaty and rich in umami.

It's possibly no surprise given the above we barely had room for desserts but a chocolate and hazelnut delice was notable not only for the generous (there's that word again) layers of caramel and chocolate but for a scoop of ice cream bursting with so many chunks of chocolate and nuts and toffee and who knows what else it was like eating a globe of frozen pick'n'mix. And that is a good thing.

And yes although we only had room for one dessert we were able to squeeze down a Chai White Russian, rather too easily in fact. This was also a very good thing.

The bill came to £41.50 each, which even factoring in a comped round of fizz and a bite of crab on toast is still something approaching a bargain in Cost of Living Crisis Britain. They didn't even add on service automatically, so we rounded to just under £50pp for what had been an exceptionally attentive and confident front of house even considering for the fact that, as I said, they knew we were coming. And really, you can't fake food or service like this, or turn it on when you know you're being reviewed. They really just are this good.

It's fitting that the Terrace restaurant, perched above the ferry terminal, is both the first place you see when you arrive in West Wight and the last place you see when you leave. As an ambassador for the island's hospitality you can barely find a better candidate, a confident little operation that could so easily have sucked up the lazy tourist dollar but has instead decided that in fact, how much better it is to actually be a bit ambitious, even at the risk of the occasional unhinged Tripadvisor review. And good for them.