Monday, 27 March 2023

Toba, St James

It's a strange part of town, is St James. Essentially a lesser-known southern extension of Mayfair, it's barely a half mile square and yet contains quite a high density of fancy hotels (Duke's, the Stafford, the Ritz), private members' clubs and the odd royal palace. Whereas some aspects of Mayfair come across as brash or showy (it is home to Sexy Fish, after all), St James is old money - genteel, refined, that little bit more exclusive.

It's a surprise, then, to find Toba in the space recently vacated by Ikoyi. Ikoyi, you may or may not know, had 2 Michelin stars and served a £300 tasting menu - pricey by anyone's standards but sort of fitting for St James. Toba is hardly a budget joint - where is these days? - but is definitely a more affordable affair than the previous residents.

All of which would amount to nothing if the food wasn't up to scratch, but it's a pleasure to report that everything we tried at Toba wasn't just unique for London - as far as I know, at least - but was absolutely wonderful. I'm no expert on Indonesian cuisine (despite having lived there for a few months back in the early noughties, long story) but it's fair to say that we have hardly been blessed with many such places. With parallels with Malaysian food, it is nonetheless its own beast, and if there's a better showcase for this kind of stuff anywhere in the country I'll be very surprised indeed.

We started with "Indonesian" prawn crackers - though apart from their relative small size and slightly increased density from your local Chinese version, they were very familiar territory. However they were great dipped in the trio of house sambal - shrimp, Balinese style and torch ginger, the latter I'm told being a very rare sight on these shores.

Another trio next, this time three flavours of deep-fried fritters. These kind of things can, in lesser kitchens, often suffer from being greasy or hard work - just think how many terrible cheap fish cakes you've suffered from a mediocre Thai restaurant. These were utterly perfect - greaseless and moreish, with a nice hot chilli oil dip to compliment the fried food. The corn in particular was a highlight, with a lovely soft, bubbly texture.

However, if anything the mains were even better. First, rendang, provided in several cubes of slow-cooked beef so ridiculously tender they were bordering on ethereal, dissolving in the mouth into pure essence of beef. Now, you may notice this isn't a huge amount of food for your £16.50 but if portion control is helping them run a business, and serve rendang this blindingly good, then I'm all in favour. Rich, complex and intelligently created, I can't imagine there's a better rendang anywhere outside of Java.

If you think you like the sound of "Deep fried chicken wings tossed with salted egg yolk, chilli and curry leaves", well then join the club - and if anything the reality was even better than the promise on paper. Great big healthy, meaty wings were soaked in a buttery, creamy coating that despite containing all the advertised bits and pieces, somehow was still so much greater than the sum of its parts. I'd say the egg salted chicken wings and the rendang are must-order items at Toba but I have a feeling there's plenty else on that menu with the potential to delight as well. It's just that kind of place.

Filling up on a bowl of fragrant yellow rice (very good, of course) and accompanied by a bottle of Italian white (£30, the wine list being one area at least where you don't feel pressure on the budget), the final bill came to just under £50 a person. And yes, it's a lot for what is essentially street food, and comparisons could possibly be made - I hope they won't mind me saying - with the Melaysian food served at Mambow in Peckham Rye, but in fact Mambow isn't that much cheaper anyway. Both are very good, and each come highly recommended.

So why not Indonesian, and why not, after all, St James? Who cares where they are if the food is as good as this? Populated by friendly, keen staff (which you'd hope for given the 15% service charge) this smart little place is about to make London fall in love with Indonesian food, and if that comes with a bit of a St James premium then so be it. Good things are worth paying for.


Wednesday, 22 March 2023

Zapote, Shoreditch

One of the best things about being in San Diego twice a year (apart from the zoo... and seeing the family of course) is its proximity to the Mexican border and to Tijuana. Mexico's second largest city is home to a breathtaking variety of restaurants at all price points, from humble roadside birria stands to multi-starred fine dining joints, and everything in between. This is a part of the world that knows how to eat, and eats well.

On a recent trip I found myself in the smart Colonia Cacho neighbourhood in the shadow of the giant Grand Hotel Tijuana, and at restaurant Oryx, a dynamic little operation headed (on the food side of things at least) by Ruffo Ibarra, who's spent some time in Michelin starred joints througout Europe as well as, more recently, local hero Javier Plascencia's restaurant Romesco in Bonito. We ate grilled octopus with corn crackling and habenero ash, horse mackerel tiradito, and black tacos with sole, beetroot mayonnaise and pickled cabbage, and left with a bill of about half what you might expect to pay in the US. Or at least, we would have done had we not 'discovered' the speakeasy cocktail bar at the back and ordered a few drinks there before the Uber back to the border.

Sitting down in the spacious, serene dining room at Zapote in Shoreditch (some of you may recognise the space previously occupied by St Leonard's, and Eyre Brothers before that), and glancing through the menu printed on charmingly ruffled recycled paper, I began to feel the warm embrace of familiarity. The dishes (if not quite the prices, but I don't think you can complain much about those either in London in 2023) seem lifted straight out of a modern, high-end Tijuana restaurant like Oryx, with top British ingredients treated to a variety of Nouvelle-Mexican preparations. In short, there wasn't a single thing I didn't want to eat, which is a situation as exciting as it is terrifying. What if we missed something wonderful?

In the end, and after much deliberation, we ended with what we hoped would be a representative selection of haute-Baja cuisine, beginning (of course) with tortilla chips and guacamole. The guacamole was blindingly good, smooth and creamy and zinging with lime, but the chips (sorry, totopos) were notable too, with a nice thick crunch and gentle dusting of salt.

Whitebait tostada were every bit as much fun as we hoped they'd be, the little beasties fried to greaseless perfection, spritzed with lime and with a couple of slices of chili to perk them up. Also lovely was the garlic mayonnaise underneath, never a bad match with fried fish.

But things were about to get kicked into another gear. Seabass aguachile with pickled fennel, dill and cucamelon took me right back to the tiradito at Oryx, with huge fresh chunks of raw fish sat in a deliriously moreish dressing of salt, lime and chili. To get a raw fish dish this good in Mexico would still be an impressive achiement - to have it served on a cold, wet night in Shoreditch is nothing short of a miracle.

At this point, Zapote had done more than enough to reassure we were in safe hands, and from here on the arrival of each new dish was met with wide-eyed eagerness. Secreto skewers came as dainty chunks of meltingly tender pork, given a robust grilling over coals to get some nice dark crunchy patches, and served with more lovely guacamole studded with dainty pieces of chicharrones.

Neat little squares of chicken thighs, boasting a delicate crisp skin and soft flesh, were accompanied by a mole sauce apparently made with peanuts. I'm not much of a mole expert - or much of a fan of it either usually, come to that - but as a dark, chocolatey foil to the poultry this worked very well.

Beef tartare had a great balance between funky aged beef and something citrussy - possibly lime but not just lime - mixed in to great effect. Yes, admittedly, I wished they'd given me an actual complete roast bone marrow instead of three chunks of marrow inside a fake (or at least re-usable) bone, but once it was all mixed in together the effect was the same. £7, too, for ingredients like this is pretty good value.

And finally, crab and black bean pozole which had loads of fresh white crab meat and a very attractive preparation even if one of the ingredients - some kind of pulse I couldn't identify, not the black bean but something else - had a rather offputting texture. There's a chance this could have been a very authentic ingredient imported from Mexico but hadn't made the journey very well. Either way, there was more than enough to enjoy elsewhere.

I realise I should at least try to separate my delight at having finally found a proper top-end Baja-style restaurant in London from the objective experience of eating here. I know I love this stuff, and I can vouch for its authenticity (as much as a Mexican restaurant in London can ever be truly authentic) but will anyone who isn't an aguachile and bone marrow taco enthusiast find as much to love? Am I just blinded by the novelty, over the reality?

Well, I've thought about it, and have decided no - it's not just the novelty and it's not just that this is one of my favourite cuisines. Zapote is, objectively, an extremely impressive restaurant, serving interesting ingredients in intelligent and exciting ways, for really not very much money. Anyone, I'm sure, would enjoy a meal here, from a few snacks at the bar (I've just spotted oxtail quesadilla on the bar menu, so I'll have to go back for those) with a well-made cocktail to a full a la carte in the main dining room and petits fours (fudge and passionfruit jelly bites, amazing things), cosseted by capable staff and matched with an geographically liberal wine list. It's all just... great. It really is. And a hell of a lot cheaper than a flight to Tijuana.


I was invited to Zapote and didn't see a bill. After some brief calculations though I think the bill would have come to about £75pp, which sounds about right for this quality. Suspiciously good exterior and charcoal range photos by Sim Canetty-Clarke, all the other rubbish ones are by me.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Papi, London Fields

"We'll need your table back in an hour and a half, is that OK?"

Well, I suppose it'll have to be, but it would have been nice to have been told this while booking, or even to mention it on the website, so we could have prepared ourselves a bit better. I always book tables in "normal" (ie not tasting menu) restaurants on the tacit understanding that 2 hours is about right to get most of what you need done without being made to feel you've either overstayed your welcome or been rushed. One and a half hours is, as we descovered at Papi, not enough time, and to have the next party of four stand by the front door and watch silently as you finish your dessert is extremely uncomfortable indeed.

Still, there's a lot to like about Papi. It's one of those places where you want to order everything on the menu, and as the menu isn't that huge, if you take a couple of friends along you probably can. We started with Cantabrian anchovies which were very nice and meaty and salty, next to a few colourful strips of sweet Corno peppers, all drenched in decent olive oil.

Next a pretty little row of sliced raw bream, where I didn't detect any of the advertised wasabi but did enjoy a nicely sharp tosazu (dashi vinegar) dressing, topped with cod's roe. A rather bijou portion for £13 perhaps but I'm on a hiding to nothing bringing up portion sizes and prices these days - yes, everything's getting more expensive and nobody (apart from Salt Bae and that kebab place in Croydon) is making money out of restaurants so we may as well just get used to it.

Oysters came incased in some kind of deep-fried veg parcel, and topped with buckthorn chutney and lardo. The textures were the best thing about this, the crunch of the veg next to the silky lardo and smooth buckthorn, with the oysters only very-so-slightly overwhelmed by everything else going on. Still, very enjoyable.

In the next dish, the main ingredient - a kind of Thai-style smoked rabbit sausage - was absolutely superb, definitely worth the money they're asking for it and clearly made with a lot of care and skill. Unfortunately the bitter leaves it came with were a little bit floppy and sad, and it desperately needed some kind of dipping sauce to accompany it, although a squeeze of lemon helped. I have spotted on Instagram that since our visit they have started serving the sausage with a sauce, so either they've taken feedback on this or just forgot to add it on our visit.

Prawn 'farcelette' had a fantastic clear dulce (seaweed) broth and a good bouncy texture inside, although in the end the flavour of the seafood was a little subdued.

Steamed pollock was much more interesting - a bright, chunky bit of fish draped in salty sea vegetables and dressed in another fantastically enjoyable sharp/sweet sauce. I just wish there was a bit more than a mouthful of it for £18, but I said I wouldn't complain about prices or portion sizes so I won't.

In a mainly modern British menu with Asian influences the 'cheeseburger tartare' was a bit of an outlier. But their place, their rules, and it was still definitely worth the order. The tartare was nicely seasoned and of a good chunky texture, topped with a dark orange egg yolk, and greaseless, crucnhy chips were a pleasant bonus. I think the "cheese" element came from the mayonnaise on top somehow, although it didn't register much with me. Still enjoyed it though.

Desserts were, as I mentioned, eaten in the final few seconds we had on the table before being turfed out, so that they managed to impress so completely is probably testament to their quality. Burnt Honey custard with ginger and rhubarb is a tried and tested combo, and didn't disappoint here, the (presumably forced) rhubarb being a particular highlight. But even better was something called "fairy breads" (appearing mysteriously as "fire and waffles" on the bill, a soft spongecake with an addictive crust) and Vacherin ice cream, nowhere near as it sounds with the stinky cheese just providing an extra creamy, farmy note. Very impressive stuff.

So yes, we'd have liked a little more of the food for the money, and we'd have liked more time to enjoy it in, but overall for £66 a head with a bottle and a half of wine this is actually still something approaching value. With a couple of bits and pieces refined and practiced (it's still early days over in Papiland) this could easily, by the time you visit, be one of the very best places in East London to eat. And East London, as this Battersea resident must report through grilled teeth, is not short of great places to eat. Already it's serving very interesting, thoughful food (efficiently and with a smile, despite the time constraints) and is worth a visit. And I can only see it getting better.


Papi's lovely PR people have got in touch to say there was a messup with the bookings system the week I visited, which has now been fixed, and all bookings are now 2 hours long. So that's a good reason to revisit.

Thursday, 9 March 2023

The Square Peg, Tunbridge Wells

There was an opinion that did the rounds a few years ago, that any restaurant critic needs to have spent at least some time in a professional kitchen or front of house to be able to pass judgement on anywhere charging the public for dinner. Personally, I think that's rubbish, but then I would say that given I've never spent any time in a professional kitchen and am pretty sure if ever given front of house duties I'd end up accidentally setting something on fire.

In fact, if anything, I think it works the other way - having little to no clue what magic happens behind the scenes before my food arrives I'm that much in awe of anyone who can do it at all. I will never know how Quality Chop House gets its whipped cod's roe so fluffy and smooth, how Sola manages to great its impossibly dainty little gougère to explode with flavour in the mouth, how the Parkers Arms do... well pretty much any of it. And I don't really want to know - just let me enjoy my time in your restaurant without fretting over how early in the morning someone had to get up to start prepping those crab.

All I do know is that good food takes skill, effort and very often many hands on deck to produce, and that the smaller the kitchen team the more wondrous it is to a pleb like me that they can produce world-class food. Consider, then, the kitchen "team" at the Square Peg in Tunbridge Wells, which consists of head chef Rob Marshall and... that's it. It would be a minor miracle to produce anything edible for a room full of hungry Kentish diners with a kitchen head count of one, so the fact the food here is so accomplished is a genuinely impressive achievement.

House sourdough is - of course - baked on site every day, and boasts a winning combination of satisfyingly crunchy crust and a soft, squishy, almost cakey interior. I don't know whether Rob has a background in baking or whether he's just stumbled upon this recipe, but this is a sourdough that stands out from the crowd, even with the seemingly ubiquitous nature of decent sourdough these days. Three different whipped butters (salted, onion and another I've forgotten, sorry) were the icing on the cakey sourdough.

Oysters were cutely presented in a "Korma, wild rice and mango chutney" dressing, a flavour bomb of curry, citrus and umami notes that satisfied immediately and completely. If I'm to be brutally critical, the relatively gentle flavour of the oyster itself was slightly overwhelmed by the curry mixture, but when it tasted as good as this it was difficult to find anything to moan about for too long.

Underneath a gently poached egg sat some cubes of celeriac and pancetta, an intelligent combination by itself but lifted by some chunks of smoked haddock. This was another incredibly satisfying dish, skilfull without being tricksy, intelligent while still very easily enjoyed.

Next, a neat fillet of meaty hake, topped with a layer of ribbons of buttered leeks, then a crown of salty puffed fish skin. But the highlight of this dish was the dense, sweet crab bisque underneath, the kind of thing that illustrates my earlier point perfectly - I don't know what tortuous procedure went into the making of this bisque, how long it took to make or how difficult the technique was to perfect. All I know is that I absolutely loved it, from the first incredulous sip to the final sweep of the fingers (sorry).

There's a teensy bit of me that wishes I hadn't spotted last week's menu on the way into Square Peg because I was really still hoping they were serving mallard for the main meat course. There's nothing wrong with fallow deer - certainly not how it was treated here, with two dainty medallions of loin draped with kale soaked with one of those lovely rich reduced sauces - but I can get venison most places these days. It's the more unusual bits of game that make a meal that much more special. Still, with a side of pie made out of venison offal, you can hardly say they (or rather he) hadn't put the effort in here.

First dessert was this beautiful little stack of some kind of clever raspberry biscuit stuffed with raspberry cream, a little shortbread biscuit on top of that, what I think were a couple of cubes of ginger and then finally a blob of smooth ice cream. It was all lovely, of course, but the effort that had gone into every element made my head spin. There was a lot going on for a full pastry section to cope with, never mind one man on his own with five savoury courses behind him.

It is for this reason that I don't begrudge too much the time it takes to serve it all, which combined with a strict start point of 7:30 meant that by 10pm us Londoners had to skip the final dessert and race across town for the last train home. But I'm reliably informed this is something that they're working on, and there's every chance by the time you take your seat at the Square Peg - and I very much recommend that you do - events will be that much more punctual.

Either way, we could hardly call it a wasted evening. Even without the final course (which I later discovered with some dismay was a banana soufflé, one of my favourite desserts in the world) this was clearly a menu worth travelling for, and too good to be reserved for those local to west Kent. Without wanting to labour the point, this kind of food - modern, seasonal, British, technically impressive yet hearty and enjoyable - would be the pride of any kitchen in the country, never mind one with a headcount of one, and supported by a very capable front of staff adds up to a very impressive little operation indeed. I'll be back. Not least for the soufflé.


I was invited to the Square Peg and didn't see a bill, but the tasting menu is £79 and matching wines £49. Sorry for grainy photos, it's dark in there.

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

The Fat Crab, Clapham

One of the best things about being a food blogger in London, and especially as one that has been going as bloody long as I have, is that you generally get to see each of the great global cuisines, or at least global restaurant styles, tackled increasingly successfully. There's Padella nailing pasta, for example, after years of places serving overcooked mush; the Meatwagon finally showing the UK what a proper West Coast burger looked like; Hawksmoor proving that it is, after all, possible to run a top-end US steakhouse using the best British beef. All of the elements on my personal wish list have been more or less ticked off over the years, most recently Tacos Padre and their brilliantly authentic Baja fish tacos.

But there's one style of cuisine, a personal favourite of mine, that we have so far been missing in the capital. The Southern American boil is an ostensibly straightforward, rustic affair - mixed seafood, seasoned (usually with Old Bay but sometimes house spices) and boiled in a plastic bag with potatoes, sausages and corn, opened theaterically directly onto your tabletop and to which you tuck in (suitably bibbed up of course) with your bare hands. It's great fun, and though I've never been to the Southern States I've been told the Crab Hut mini-chain, based in San Diego, is a very authentic reproduction. I loved it, anyway.

On paper, Fat Crab is doing nearly everything right. Of course, the prices are necessarily higher than they are in Louisiana, but you should not be paying bargain prices for things like lobster, crab or crayfish under any circumstances. It seems to wear its authenticity lightly at first, but despite offering langoustine and Norwegian snow crab the method and the approach seems very Southern, with everything cooked in plastic bags and with a customisable level of spiciness in the seasoning.

Things started well enough. Fried Baby Rice Crab is not something I've seen out of North America (and yes I am aware they're all over SE Asia too), so was a delight to be able to try them in London for the first time, the experience of crunching down on an entire deep-fried crab not to be missed (honestly). They arrived smartly, were piping hot, seasoned correctly and great fun to eat. And they were the very last thing that went right in the entire lunch.

I thought it was a good sign that the crayfish (sorry, craw fish) had 'Seasonal' stamped next to them on the menu - surely they would be boiled from live, like in the States? Well, no. Clearly these had been cooked, and frozen, a long while ago, then reheated for far too long, their sad, squishy shells only reluctantly giving up woody, tasteless flesh. The house hot sauce tasted - bizarrely - lovely, buttery and lemony and with a nice cajun kick, but the thin liquid sat in a pool at the bottom of the bag and didn't work as a seasoning at all, just as a kind of dip.

"Local" brown crab (from Dorset actually, which is the kind of definition of "local" that only makes sense in the USA) was a little better, the claws plump and the body containing plenty of lovely soft brown meat. And the clams we had optioned into the mix were tasty too - the shells caught plenty of the house seasoning and survived the reboiling process much better than everything else.

But unfortunately, with the mains we were served frozen fries. And I don't mean they were previously frozen fries served hot, I mean they literally arrived frozen, frosty to the touch. We sent them back, and then eventually once we had finished off the crab and clams and however much more of the mushy crayfish we could stomach, they came back. They were fine.

It should be no surprise, given everything that happened, that I'm not going to recommend the Fat Crab. But what's frustrating is that beneath the incompetent service (at one point they left a bottle of warm, cork-sealed wine on the table for a good 10 minutes with no way of us getting into it), the shoddy cooking and the weird cramped surroundings (there's nowhere near enough room to properly empty the bags out, US-style, so you end up picking food out of the plastic a morsel at a time, like a packet of crisps) there's the germ of a real Southern US concept, albeit one they're quite a way away from realising. All they need to do is improve every aspect of the restaurant experience they offer, and they'd be on to a winner! There's my advice for them.

Anyway onwards and upwards, and the search for a proper seafoid boil most definitely goes on. Perhaps someone can persuade Bea Vo of Stax Diner to relaunch the crayfish boils she did a few years ago under the arches at Borough, using lovely live crayfish from Crayfish Bob. They were great fun. But maybe the logistics of running a crayfish restaurant in the UK are just too prohibitive, and we just need to travel 4000 miles for our boils? I hope I'm proved wrong.

You'll notice they didn't take the frozen fries off the bill - disappointing, perhaps, but not surprising. We paid the £122 for a rather stressful and unrewarding lunch and went off to drown our sorrows in the Fox & Hounds, where there was a lot more table room and a lot less frozen food. Maybe one day, I will sit down to a steaming bag of crab and crayfish and cajun fries and tuck my bib in and spend a happy hour tearing apart perfectly cooked seafood and ending up covered in crab meat and clam juice and walk away from the experience happy, but this day is not that day. And until that day, you'll be best advised to avoid the Fat Crab.