Friday, 18 August 2023

The Silver Birch, Chiswick

It's a pleasant novelty to, for once, not be opening a post about an excellent neighbourhood restaurant without a resigned grump about the lack of such places in my own particular neighbourhood. Until recently, my fellow SW11 residents had very little to be proud of (and even less so since the wonderful Mien Tay changed ownership, although mercifully so far this doesn't seem to have knocked standards too much), but with the arrival of Ploussard we have been gifted the holy grail of local dining - affordable, seasonal, consistent, and fun. I booked a return more or less as soon as I'd finished my first meal there.

And so to Chiswick, where the lucky locals of this leafy (and commendably cyclist-friendly) part of town have a genuine gem on their hands. The Silver Birch is not brand new, but had the awful initial bad luck of opening between Covid lockdowns in 2020, and by all accounts struggled to find an audience in a time when most people were afraid to leave their front doors never mind sit indoors in a small high street restaurant. But now, with a new head chef (Nathan Cornwall, ex- of the Barn at Moor Hall), a superb new front of house (our waitress introduced herself as Yas) and an ambitious (and yes, slightly more expensive) menu, this is a restaurant supremely confident of its place in the world.

Given that all the items that caught our eye from the a la carte made up the tasting menu, the tasting menu seemed the obvious choice. A few years ago £90 would have marked you out as being at the finer end of fine dining, but these days, just as Thursday is the new Friday, £90 is the new £50. It began with "snacks", cured trout and seaweed tart which had a lovely balance between the seafood and earthy vegetal pureé underneath (plus topped with salmon roe, which I always love), a cute little blue cheese paste sandwiched between delicate parmesan crackers, and my personal favourite pig's head fritters, joyous little parcels of soft, rich pork inside crisp fried breadcrumbs.

The focal point of the next course was some quite excellent sourdough focaccia, with a delightful delicate salty crust and gently sticky crumb. With that, whipped lovage butter provided in such generous amounts that required you put a quite thick layer on the bread to use it up. And you won't hear anyone complaining about that. But the fun didn't end there - there was also a cute little bowl of smoked bacon mousse with pea veloute, colourful and exquisitely constructed. None of the above would look out of place in a restaurant with multiple Michelin stars.

If you look closely at this tartare you may notice that the beef itself is quite light thanks to quite extensive marbling. This is ex-dairy cattle beef, full of flavour and full of yielding, luscious fat, and complimented perfectly by crunchy fresh discs of kohlrabi, cournichon, wee little nasturtium leaves and little blobs of mustard and vegetable pureé of some kind, maybe the advertised sea herbs. For more texture, there was a few shards of house cracker which had herbs baked into them. Every inch of this dish, indeed everything up to this point as well, was considered and carefully crafted, with a strong set of cooking skills put to great use.

Isle of Wight tomatoes, beautifully presented, skinless and sweet and perfectly seasoned, came with a tomato consommé so good it was worth the trip to Chiswick all by itself. If I'm going to be brutally honest it didn't need the pickled artichoke, which was perfectly nice but a bit of a distraction from the tomatoes, and I'm pretty sure I didn't detect any of the advertised pickled cucumber, but what the hell - that wonderful consommé, and the tomatoes, were all I needed.

A huge, bright chunk of Shetland cod came next, expertly cooked (as you might hope and expect) and breaking into nice defined flakes. But we've all had nice cod before, and you may have even had a courgette flower stuffed with scallop mousse, which came alongside it. What really set this dish apart was a thing called "tartare roe sauce", which was a kind of vinaigrette studded with two different types of roe, which sang with seafood and summer flavours. It was one of those sauces that tasted effortlessly good, and yet you know it took a lot of skill to get right.

There are two types of people, one that can read "Cornish lamb, wild garlic, crispy sweetbread, girolles" and think they want to eat that more than anything else in the world right now, and those that don't. I'm one of the former. The lamb was cooked to pink, the sweetbread was coated in another delicate breadcrumb crust (see also: the pig's head snack), and between them nestled girolles, braised shallot, peas and leaves of wild garlic. And of course, it was all soaked in one of those salty, meaty lamb reductions that only the very best places do well. As a climax to the savoury courses, you could not have asked for more.

But even after all that, the desserts still wowed. I'm slightly allergic to raw cherries, so Silver Birch very kindly subsituted that dish out for some equally wonderful (I'm sure) strawberries, with a rich and zingy strawberry sorbet and bound together with "elderflower cream cheese", a very nice invention.

The final dessert was a brown butter chocolate delice, with milk sorbet and caramelised white chocolate, and despite having polished off seven courses by this point, and fed 6 very generously portioned matching wines, it's still burned into my memory as the most beguiling balance of chocolate and dairy, with texture provided both by a lovely fresh milk sorbet and a quiff of spun sugar on top. It, too, was demolished.

What's interesting about tastings like this, and the Silver Birch in particular, is that you could, at first glance, think that you've seen this kind of thing before. Looking at just the basics of the menu - canapes, bread, snack, veg course, fish course, meat course, dessert 1, dessert 2 - it's a structure that informs more or less any modern British tasting menu, a format repeated up and down the country.

What sets the Silver Birch apart from the 2023 restaurant pack isn't that they're revolutionising the way we eat out, or inventing challenging new flavour pairings or wacky techniques, but instead carefully examining every element of what makes a menu like this work, from the choice of ingredients to the accessible presentation to the skill and detail in all of the sauces and dressings and elements, and making each one absolutely the best it can possibly be. It's an obvious way to win the game, and yet one that very few places have the intelligence and skill to pull off.

So yes, the Silver Birch is quite brilliant. The point off full marks is just for the slightly less than exciting choice of fish (I'd seen John Dory and Dover Sole served in that same dish on social media that same week, but maybe that just serves me right for setting my expectations based on social media), but really there was very little else to complain about. As neighbourhood restaurants go, in fact as any restaurants go, it's right up with the best of them. I'm sure it will do very well indeed.


The food at the Silver Birch was comped, but we paid for our wines.

Monday, 7 August 2023

Archway, Battersea Park

Firstly, I have a confession to make. Many years ago I was very kindly treated to lunch at the River Café in Hammersmith, and I didn't like it. I think I was mainly intimidated - by the well-heeled crowd, the scale and the power of that vast dining room and open kitchen, and yes, by the prices, astronomical figures seemingly chosen only to be as shocking as possible to anyone who wasn't a multi-millionare. I gave it a rather grumpy review, then vowed never to return.

Years later, though, I did go back. The River Cafe staff are given very generous discounts from time to time, and encouraged to bring along anyone they want to share the fun. So, curious to see if they - or indeed I - had changed over the years, I found myself taking an afternoon off and joining a staffer friend for lunch.

And I had the time of my life. Everything was briliant, from the atmosphere in that cavernous room to the friendly but extremely capable staff to the exquisitely tasteful and seasonal wood-grilled Italian food, it seemed to be the kind of place where it would be impossible not to enjoy yourself unless you had a giant wood-fired chip on your shoulder, and I felt incredibly stupid for having denied myself it all these years. And if you're thinking "well, he would like it as he wasn't paying", guess what - as soon as that lunch was over I made myself another booking in a couple of weeks' time and paid in full. And I had the time of my life all over again.

So what's all this got to do with Archway? Well, most obviously, it was set up by ex-River Cafe staff, and if nothing else the Hammersmith place has a fantastic track record of sending out its alumni to propagate fantastic pasta around the country. We have them to thank for such names as Sonny Stores in Bristol, Trullo in Islington, and the sadly-departed Zucca in Bermondsey, although we do also have them to blame for Jamie Oliver so the less said about that the better. Anyway, now SW11 has its own little slice of Tuscany-on-the-Thames, and on a wet Wednesday evening I headed down an unlikely dark alleyway underneath Battersea Park station to see if it could carry on the noble tradition.

From an attractively short and straightforward menu, first to arrive were flatbreads, fresh out of a wood-fired oven, one topped with leeks soaked in "brown crab meat butter" (that's poetry right there) and another with gorgonzola, figs and honey. In both, the bread was the star - full of life and crunch and comfort - and though I obviously preferred the one topped with "brown crab meat butter" (I mean, duh), they were both very impressive bits of baking. A good start.

But it was with the arrival of the first pasta dish that Archway really flexed its River Café muscles. Cavatelli with beef ragu was - and I'm not using these words lightly - completely and utterly perfect. Perfect pasta with a perfect bite, a perfect tomato-red wine sauce studded with rich ground beef, perfectly seasoned, perfectly served. Yes, you'd hope a modern Italian restaurant with such a pedigree should be able to knock out a decent bowl of pasta but this was clearly a world class bit of cooking, astonishingly good.

Equally good - and so yes, perfect again - was pappardelle with mushrooms, brown butter and sage, another heavenly combination of bouncy fresh ribbons of pasta, seasonal funghi and heady herbs all soaked in a silky buttery sauce. As a not-very-good cook myself, and particularly when it comes to fresh pasta, I find it hard to pinpoint exactly what sets the good pasta restaurants apart from the great, apart from the fact that some make me pleasantly surprised, and some make me with giddy with utter joy. Archway fits in the latter group.

Fregola "risotto" (fregola are little balls of pasta a bit like tapioca, but nicer obviously) was the base for a selection of fresh clams and mussels studded with just enough chilli to provide and nice buzz above the seafood. There's something incredibly satisfying about eating a forkful of fregola soaked in salty seafood broth, lighter than a risotto but packing the same flavour punch. Dangerously moreish.

As possibly one of the finest pasta restaurants in the country, you really don't need another reason to visit the place. But I'm happy to report that a giant butterflied mackerel was a great demonstration of Archway's skill with grilled fish. The mackerel itself was immaculate, with a dark, crisp skin holding a good amount of fat next to soft and perfectly-timed flesh, and though it would have been nice to have crunchy cubes of toast instead of soggy tomato-bread, the "panzanella" salad dressing was otherwise very nice.

Desserts were generous of portion and of flavour. The strawberry creme brulee was my own favourite, topped with chunks of steeped berries so full of summer colour they practically glowed. And although to this day we couldn't quite decide every ingredient that formed the "torta della nonna" (and completely forgot to ask at the time), the custard filling was expertly balanced by a nice delicate pastry crust. And that's probably all you need to know.

In the interests of this post not turning into a completely two-dimensional gush-fest, I feel duty-bound to point out two things I didn't quite get at Archway. Firstly, the wine list is presented in a font so miniscule, and the lighting in the room was so "romantic", that nobody on our table could read it, so we ended up just pointing at a price and hoping for the best. Fortunately, the Archway's choice of house white is as tasteful as the rest of their operation, so all ended well. Secondly, there are two identical unmarked doors off the main dining room; one leads to the toilets, the other to a store cupboard and office. So there's a potential problem there.

But I am nitpicking, and the fact is there's very little to fault about Archway. Service was friendly and enthusiastic, the room is nicely proportioned (although I think some would find the tables a little too close together, depending on your elbow-room requirements) and the vast open kitchen, stretching back three times as far as the dining room is long, as far as I could gather, is a wonderful focal point and endlessly entertaining as you watch bits and pieces being moved in and out of the wood ovens and grills. And at £64pp it's even at the lower end of the London 2023 restaurant budget spectrum. But never mind all that - just go and eat the pasta. Everything else is a footnote.


Tuesday, 25 July 2023

Kachori, Elephant and Castle

There's a lot to be said about the redevelopment/regeneration/whitewashing (delete as applicable) of Elephant and Castle, and I am singularly unqualified to say it. I'm not trying to avoid the issue (honest), but am very aware that having nothing invested in the old place and being hardly a frequent visitor, I just don't know whether the old 60s shopping centre was worth saving or whether the new public spaces, footpaths, cycleways and - yes - fancy bars and restaurants are a net benefit to the community. All I will say is that they wanted to knock the Barbican down, too, in the 80s - and just look at it now.

Anyway it's hardly Kachori's fault that they are where they are. Like a number of interesting, independent businesses here and in Vauxhall they're taking advantage of artificially low rates while the residential properties above and around are on the market, until such a time they're all sold and Kachori and the like can be kicked out to make way for a branch of Zizzi's or Wagamama. At least, I'm assuming that's the plan.

But although it's very easy to be cynical about the area as a whole, the experience at Kachori is so utterly charming you can easily put aside worries about gentrification and the eviction of traditional communities while you nibble on your mini poppadums and house chutneys. The people involved are ex-Gymkhana which comes across very clearly in the DNA of the menu, and the quality of the food and drink offering - this is all brilliant stuff, at prices that reflect the ambition of the kitchen without being unreasonable.

Guinea fowl tikka is the second superb guinea fowl dish I have been lucky enough to try this month, the other being a classic French version at the Beehive in Berkshire. Maybe it's just very easy to make this bird sing, or maybe - and more likely - they were just two very good restaurants. Beneath a deep, rich spice mix was a wonderfully soft and moreish boned leg, with just the right level of fat and a gentle charring from the tandoor. Great stuff.

"Bikaneri raj Kachori" was a single giant puri filled with tamarind and yoghurt and bung beans, and scattered with pomegranete seeds and pea shoots. Breaking it apart into bitesize chunks proved a rather difficult - and messy - task, but we were rewarded with a lovely fresh starter full of crunch and colour, well worth the effort.

Lamb chops - I am duty-bound to order lamb chops in any Indian restaurant - were also pretty much perfect, with another deliriously good spice mix and a nice crunchy char from the grill. They also, crucially, had a bit of a bite - I don't mind the super-soft cut-with-a-spoon texture that some places offer, I just think I want my lamb to fight back a bit. Makes the whole experience a lot more fun.

"Lahshuni Jheenga" was a dish of three shell-on king prawns, crisped up on the grill but with a nice firm texture, served with a refreshing avocado raita thing. And OK yes, £20 is a lot to pay for three prawns, but they were good, and good seafood is never cheap.

Naans, as you might hope for an expect somewhere like this, were tip-top too, all bubbly and bouncy with a delicate pastry-like texture. They were very useful for mopping up the leftover sauce from an excellent butter chicken dish, which used thigh meat instead of the more usual breast for a more interesting bite.

Service - with the usual caveats applying about service on invites - didn't put a foot wrong, and managed to be attentive as well as enthusiastic about the food and drinks they were offering. It also, impressively, didn't slow down as the room filled up - as by the end of our dinner every single table in the room was taken. Not bad, really, for a new restaurant in a reshuffled part of town. Oh and this is a chai masala creme brulee with summer fruits, and a lovely little thing it was too.

So whether you let the Elephant in the room (or in this case, the room in the Elephant) steer your judgement or not, in the end, objectively, Kachori is a very good restaurant, and if I'm here to do only one job it's to report that. An ambitious, regional Indian menu from ex-Gymkhana was always going to impress, but we should never lose sight of the fact that just because they make it look easy, doesn't mean it's necessarily a done deal. I enjoyed Kachori very much, and I can see myself going back. Maybe I'm part of the problem.


I was invited to Kachori and didn't see a bill. Expect to pay about £70/head with cocktails and wine.

Tuesday, 18 July 2023

AngloThai at Outcrop, the Strand

Part of the vast, shiny new 180 Strand development, AngloThai at Outcrop is an entirely outside - albeit thankfully mainly covered - restaurant designed to make the most of the summer months. Unfortunately on Friday the weather was a bit more traditionally Anglo than Thai, bucketting down with rain and temperatures in the teens. Still, there is a certain cozy appeal to the space, attractively decorated with plenty of green and rows of growing herbs, even if I did get completely lost on the way and ended up having to enter rather dramatically through a fire exit (with the permission of the nice staff).

I was never going to dislike AngloThai. I've had a keen interest in John Chantarasak & Diz West's husband and wife operation for many years, and was very pleased when they announced they'd - finally - found a permanent home. But as we all know, the restaurant industry is completely broken, their deal fell through, and they found themselves hosting yet another popup in this new Soho House building, albeit a popup that will last a few months instead of the usual couple of days.

Alongside a couple of welcome cocktails - Tomato Top Negroni was lovely, a kind of half-negroni half-Bloody Mary, Crop Circle Cooler could have done with a bit less of the elderflower cordial in it as it was rather sweet, but still drinkable - we had Carlingford oysters dressed in a chilli and sea buckthorn mixture which was incredibly clever. Chilli and citrus always work well with seafood (at least, I can't think of any instance when they don't) so this was a great start.

A couple of bits of pieces of blogger-bonus extras appeared throughout the evening. This is flatbread with shrimp paste butter and Cornish shellfish, more on the Anglo side of things than the Thai you could argue but none the worse for that, with nice fluffy fresh bread and plenty of nice fresh seafood.

Things kicked into the next gear with the arrival of an utterly wonderful hot & sour turbot bone broth, the liquid containing both a generous amount of mussels and some hen of the woods mushrooms alongside good knows what else. The seafood and vegetables were very good, but really this was all about that broth, a perfect balance of chilli and sour notes and something I could have devoured pint after pint of.

Equally impressive in a totally different way were violet artichoke tempura with yellow soybean and sugarcane vinegar. The "tempura" was quite different from the Japanese style, almost like fried pastry, or string hopper. The flavour of the artichoke inside shone, and the clever gels and sauces dotted on the top presumably were the soybean and vinegar elements. It all combined to be soft, crunchy, sharp, soft, sweet, sour all at once and alongside the broth I would consider this dish a must-order.

Only slightly less successful in my opinion was the venison tartare, which seemed like it needed a lot more of the advertised scallop roe chilli jam and makrut lime to balance the rather bland protein. Or maybe it just wasn't for me; I'm a bit fussy about tartare.

It's unusual for me to order a large sharing dish for a main - it does, after all, mean I have one less dish to talk about - but we definitely didn't regret this giant half chicken with palm sugar glaze, cooked to a nice golden skin and beautifully moist inside, and going excellently with a rather addictive soybean and elderflower dipping sauce. On the side, a nice Thai salad of julienned veg with hazelnuts, and a very meaty bowl of spelt with cured beef heart and long pepper which nearly finished us off.

But the promise of dessert proved too great since we were enjoying ourselves so much, and both were briliant - a tea burnt cream and summer berries creme brulee thingy, and a marvellously smooth and refreshing fig leaf sorbet which came with a mandala-shaped coconut ash cracker in which they'd cleverly managed to get blobs of caramel inside the folds of the biscuit.

The bill came to just over £90pp, basically the new normal for central London dining, and certainly bang on what was reasonable for cooking of this style and imagination. Look, I was never going to dislike AngloThai and I didn't, but there's a certain extra heartwarming pleasure in seeing these guys back where they belong serving Thai food made with British ingredients and a well-chosen wine list (Diz) to a room of happy punters, and served by a front of house team whipped into shape by Clove Club boys Johnny Smith and Daniel Willis no less. I really hope they do find a permanent space sooner rather than later. But in the meantime, AngloThai at the Outcrop is here, and it's great, and if you have any even passing interest in what happens when the finish British ingredients are treated to intelligent Thai techniques, look no further.