Monday, 30 January 2023

Jacuzzi, Kensington


If you've been to Gloria, or Circo Popular, or Ave Mario, you'll know the drill by now. Big Mamma group restaurants are ludicrous, overblown chintz-fests where decent if overpriced food plays second fiddle to people watching and celeb-spotting. And don't get me wrong, there's absolutely nothing wrong with this occasionally - hell, even I got into the Ivy once - you just have to know what you're getting yourself into, because after being squeezed onto a tiny table and served food that would cost half the price anywhere else, you'd better hope there's a celeb or two to gawk at to make the whole experience worth your while.


Fortunately for us, Nick Cave was sat at the next table but one on Thursday night, so we had that box ticked from the get-go. It was somewhat of a surprise to notice he'd been sat at a very poky table for two in the same "Siberia", the third floor dining room next to the toilets - it's hard to believe even the youngest member of staff wouldn't notice Nick-bloody-Cave, looking more like Nick Cave than Nick Cave has ever Nick Caved, stalking into your restaurant, even if you'd never caught him on Jools Holland. Maybe they just have so many celebs going through their doors he doesn't even count as A-list any more.


The food, if you care (and I'm not sure they do), is fine. Least successful was crudo di gambero rosso whose main ingredient, usually one of the sweetest and most delightful Mediterranean residents, was served in three mushy dollops, drowned out by a fiercely sharp citrussy dressing. We couldn't detect any of the advertised 'bisque reduction', either, and as seafood bisque is one of my favourite things in the world maybe I'm more annoyed about this than anything else.


Crocchette di vitello tonnato could have been disgusting (much like the parent dish itself) but actually as veal-rich breadcrumbed croquettes topped with a gently tuna-y sauce they were perfectly pleasant. Giant capers are always fun, too.


Bresaola grissini were also edible. I mean it's hard to completely cock up the wrapping of charcuterie around breadsticks, and they didn't, so well done them. Probably they could have done with a bit more lime zest but in all honesty I'm just trying to find more words to say about meat wrapped around breadsticks. They existed. We ate them.


We both enjoyed the truffled spaghetti - at first. You'd have to be a real sourpuss not to enjoy at least some amount proper home-made and nicely al-dente spaghetti soaked in truffle-cream sauce, topped with yet more black truffle. The problem is after a couple of mouthfuls it all becomes a bit, well, much and about half the amount would have been more than enough. Fair play to them for the generous portions, though, I'm sure it would delight some quarters.


And speaking of generous, veal alla Milanese was so ludicrously massive that we managed barely 20% of it before handing the rest to friends of ours (not Nick Cave, even though he looked like he could do with fattening up a bit) who happened to be sat on the next table. It was actually pretty decent, and I'm sure the portion sizes are part of the whole Bacchanalic vibe, but there's really only so much deep-fried veal I really want to eat even at the best of times.


The bill, with a soft-launch 50% off food discount (with a bottle of wine and including an endive salad I have no memory of ordering or eating), came to £102.11, so would have been more like £200+ in normal times. And you know, perhaps £100 is the going rate these days for the possibility of gawking an A-lister and sitting in a room decorated with underwear, and perhaps I'm not exactly their target market (in fact I'm definitely not), but as a food blogger it is my duty to inform you that you can eat much better elsewhere for much less. But then, I expect you knew that already.

So, and to repeat, Jacuzzi is not really about the food. Some of it works, and some of it doesn't, and it's all too expensive, but none of that matters. Like Sexy Fish or the Ivy before it or even Bacchanalia from Richard Caring with its dedicated grape-feeder (yes, really), there are some places that exist outside of the usual norms and rules of restaurant dining, that will remain packed night-after-night while people like me scratch their heads and wonder what we're not getting. In fact, why not go, you may have the night of your life. You're welcome to it. I'll be in the pub.

6/10

During the soft-launch period, which I think might have ended already, food was 50% off.

Tuesday, 24 January 2023

Maresco, Soho


Shall we get the inevitable comparisons out of the way first? Yes, there's more than a little influence from the Hart Bros' Barrafina group of restaurants on display here at Maresco, a bright and bustling new arrival on the streets of Soho. There's a raw bar groaning with oysters, razor clams and mussels, the best seats are at the bar, and there are almost as many staff manning the open kitchen as there are customers, at least at the beginning of the evening before the room filled up. And of course, the shortish pan-Spanish menu is tastefully and attractively written, good British Isles ingredients jostling with to Iberian treats of various kinds. There's a lot to like.


And like it I did, very much in fact, because it's not difficult to enjoy food like this, especially when served with such style. Oysters from Loch Broom were the first to arrive, dressed in what they called "gaspacho" (presumably something involving garlic and pepper), topped with dill and trout roe. Attempting to posh-up raw oysters can go one of two ways, but these worked beautifully, the flavour of the oysters only being enhanced by the gaspacho. And who doesn't like salty, poppy trout roe?


Razors were, like the oysters, simply but intelligently dressed in garlic, oil and herbs and were marvellous thick, meaty things. I would go so far as to call them a must-order but of course given the nature of raw bars in seafood restaurants, there's no guarantee they'll always be available. So make the most of it when they are.


Chiperones are a long-standing obsession of mine, and I have unfailingly ordered them whenever I see them on a menu ever since childhood holidays in Catalonia back when - ahem - you still paid in pesos. Coated in a delicate thin but crisp batter, and seasoned robustly, they were right up there with the best versions I've tried over the years and I polished off this generous amount in a worryingly short amount of time.


Salmon tartare was ordered not so much for the main ingredient (though the Loch Duart fish was top-notch), but for the accompanying ajoblanco, another thing I would cross continents to eat. Here it was thick and rich and packed full of garlic and almond flavours, another intelligent pairing with seafood.


In another slice of childhood memories, charred leeks in romesco sauce did a very decent job of replicating the Catalan speciality cal├žots, and who knows maybe the real things will appear on the Maresco menu at some point - I believe the season has just started. Toasted almonds provided crunch at the same time as a neat reflection of the romesco sauce, and it was - again - all seasoned beautifully.


Obviously we had to order the presa iberica, which came arranged on top of a hot escalivada (Spanish roasted vegetable dish traditionally made in the embers of the fire). The escalivada was slippery and satisfying, with lots of smokey roast vegetables bound with oil, but of course it was the pork that was the real star here, cooked medium rare and almost dissolving in the mouth it was so tender.


Everything had been so consistently excellent up to this point we didn't hesitate to continue on to desserts, so this is crema Catalana ice cream, lovely and smooth and served with biscuit and crumbs...


...and this is Basque cheesecake, a fine example of its kind with a nice rich texture just the right side of moist.


So, a Barrafina-beater? Why not. Where it could be argued that Barrafina (usually) has a more varied selection of seafood to choose from, you certainly pay for it, while the prices at Maresco (assuming they don't do that annoying thing of getting all the early reviews in before hiking the numbers up) are eminently reasonable. Our decently boozy dinner for two cost about £60pp according to a quick tot up of the menu, which is something approaching a bargain for fresh seafood in cost-of-living-crisis-London in 2023. Add on top of that the pleasure of dining in this lovely room, served by staff so enthusiastic about the menu it's a delight to have a conversation with them about it, and you have all the ingredients for a real Spanish star.

9/10

I was invited to Maresco and didn't see a bill. Apologies for the terrible photos, I'm currently "between cameras".

Sunday, 1 January 2023

Manifest, Liverpool


Some restaurants just make it all look so easy. From the moment you walk into the room to the moment you pay up and leave, everything about the experience at Manifest is just so effortlessly polished, professional and enjoyable, and pitched at such reasonable prices, that it's impossible not to wonder why there can't be a Manifest in every town in the country, in every neighbourhood, on every street corner.


Of course, you don't end up with a restaurant as good as Manifest without a whole lot of people knowing exactly what they're doing, and I'm willing to bet it wasn't exactly a piece of cake to launch an ambitious Modern British bistro at the tail end of a pandemic and shortly after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I bet there were more than a few hairy moments, a few moments of doubt, a nervous rechecking of balance sheets.


But you wouldn't know any of that eating here. The menu is short(ish), 5 starters - sorry, "small plates" and 3 mains ("large plates") and a handful of very tempting snacks. There's nothing wilfully obscure ingredients-wise, or any challenging presentations, just a list of tasteful, seasonal things offered in ways you'd always want to eat, for example these poached oysters (not natives, as the menu promised, but I'll forgive them that) with fennel and cucumber, which had a lovely seafood-vegetal balance.


Also excellent were house crisps, dusted with a salt and vinegar seasoning, very much "still warm" as advertised and therefore even more ludicrously moreish than if they had been presented cold (which still would have been perfectly acceptable). This large bowl lasted about 30 seconds I think.


House bread was good if not brilliant - quite a thick, hard crust and a rather cakey interior - but doused with enough soft salted butter they still did the job.


All of the food at Manifest walks that very difficult line between inventive-without-being-weird and accessible-without-being-boring. Take their steak tartare, for example. The thing itself is conventionally, and classically, perfect - great (ex-dairy) beef chopped into a nice loose texture and studded with shallots and capers, little blobs of mustard mayo, shards of melba toast to provide crunch. All correct, all good. But alongside, an unexpectedly lovely dollop of black garlic emulsion - think aioli but made with smokey black garlic - which brought another note of umami earthiness to the game. Very clever stuff.


There's no universe in which I wouldn't enjoy trout in bisque with lovage and sea vegetables, a dish seemingly constructed from my own personal favourite things involving seafood. But with the fish torched to create a bit of crunch and colour, yet still soft and flakey within, and boasting a bisque so packed full of flavour it would have been worth the price of admission alone, this was an absolutely stunning bit of cooking.


Equally impressive in its own way was this neat lineup of confit beetroot with grapes and toasted hazelnuts. Beetroot wouldn't ever be my first choice of starter, but I tried a bit and it was very good indeed, particularly the horseradish-buttermilk sauce which was another top bit of sauce work.

In fact, while we're on the subject - a word about the sauces at Manifest more generally. Across 5 dishes, starters and mains, I counted at least 9 unique sauces, pestos and emulsions - a pretty notable achievement for any restaurant never mind one at this price point. And even if you put the effort that must have gone into achieving this variety aside, the important thing is they were all expertly done - emulsions were smooth as silk, sauces vibrant and precise, and they were all packed with clear, distinct flavours. There's an awful lot of skill on display here.


The quality and effort levels continued with this, slices of venison loin in a fantastic game jus and kale pesto (yes, that's two separate sauces, working brilliantly together). The venison was faintly mealy of texture but had a great flavour, but the crowning glory was a puff pastry venison pie made I think out of offal, with a beguiling dense, gaminess and lovely loose-mince texture.


All of the desserts were, you will not be surprised to find out, beautifully constructed and hugely enjoyable. A pretty swirl of chocolate mousse came atop a mound of boozy cherries and "cardamom shard", a square of spun sugar.


Treacle tart was fresh out the oven (or at least cleverly warmed) with a quenelle of marvellous gingerbread ice cream and little bits of candied lemon. I'm not entirely sure you should be serving fresh raspberries in December but that's a minor quibble - I loved this dessert.


But best of all, amid fierce competition, was this poached pear in custard. Like much of everything else it was a masterclass in technique and flavour, the custard having a wonderful light, smooth texture and the sorbet, clean and clear and bright, was a great foil for the warm pear.


The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed that the above doesn't quite read like a full 3-course meal for 3 people. In fact, we treated the snacks like a starter and two of us had 'small' plates for their 'mains', which didn't seem to faze the front of house at all and just meant we had more room for warm pear and treacle tarts. And so despite adding in a bottle of cava and a couple of glasses of sweet wine to the mix, our relatively conservative order of savoury courses probably helped shrink the bill to a pretty minuscule £54 per head.


But even if we'd ordered all the snacks, all the desserts and a 'small' and 'main' each I doubt you could have spent more than about £70, and get this - Manifest don't even ask for a service charge. We left one of course, but their leaving even a suggested tip off the bill is just another example of their wonderfully generous and warmhearted attitude which directs everything from the welcome on arrival to this beautifully appointed converted Victorian warehouse, to the skip in your step as you're send on your way.


Manifest would be one of the most notable openings of the last twelve months had it set up shop anywhere in the country, but in Liverpool, where really only the very top-end (Roski, Lerpwl) and budget offerings (Rudy's pizza, Maray) have had any serious competition so far, it slots comfortably alongside the brilliant Wreckfish as another mid-range restaurant doing more or less everything right. I loved every bit of it, and will go back as soon, and as often, as I possibly can.

9/10