Thursday 27 April 2023

Ploussard, Battersea

As much as I complained on these pages that all the exciting new restaurants were opening up not handily close to where I live in SW11, but in far-flung places like Dalston or Shoreditch or Highgate, part of me still hoped that something would eventually come along to prove me wrong. And so it happens that in Battersea, not on the restaurant desert of Lavender Hill but close enough on Battersea Rise, I learned of a new place called Ploussard whose menu was full of the kind of exciting things you'd want to eat any day of the week, at prices that seem to have ignored the last couple of years of rampant inflation.

It really is a thing of beauty, is the Ploussard menu. Boasting an irresistable combination of fresh shellfish, seasonal favourites like asparagus, and the odd nod to the continent with things like paté en croute, most items are around the £5-£15 mark with only a course of beef in green peppercorn sauce cracking £25. This being an invite, we didn't see a bill, but having totted up our order post-event I can tell you that the total for two would have been around £100 with plenty of booze - pretty decent value for 2018 never mind 2023. Of course, there's always the risk that after the traditional "review period" is over these will start to creep up, but still, it's worth mentioning.

That booze, by the way, came first in the form of a "Meadow & sorrel martini", ticking all the required foraging boxes whilst still being a very clean, crisp version of a gin martini. It was lovely, making me want to go back and try their other house cocktail "Sage negroni" at some point, assuming it's available (the menu changes daily).

Whipped smoked cod's roe with squid ink crackers was another early indicator that there's some serious skill in the kitchen at Ploussard. I've had pretty flat and underwhelming versions of dishes of this type at Michelin-starred joints in central London (recently, too) but this was literally perfect, the cod's roe being supremely smooth and packed full of flavour, and the crackers crisp, salty and greaseless.

"Lincolnshire poacher eclairs" were on the menu, and so obviously were ordered. They were very clever little things indeed, with loads of lovely salty cheese filling and a nice delicate choux casing, and were great fun to eat. I've also had pretty ropey gougere at fancy central London joints recently, so I know how difficult these are to get right. They had got these right.

Asparagus were giant, robust UK versions - none of your limp Peruvian imports here thank you - with a lovely flavour and paired with a nice tart sauce gribiche which had been topped with toasted walnuts for a bit of extra texture.

Even better, though - impossible though it seems - was a "Lamb and anchovy crumpet". A tried and tested flavour combination perhaps, but lifted to new levels here thanks to plenty of minced lamb soaked in lamb jus and with the anchovy coming - I think - in the form of a kind of emulsion spread on top. Sliced like a pie you had a good amount of the anchovy-spread lamb and a home made crumpet, crunchy on the outside and bubbly within. It was glorious.

By the time the beef arrived, we had polished off quite a bit of food, and it could have been for this reason only that it was the only dish that didn't completely dazzle. Don't get me wrong, it was still impressive, with thick slices of pink beef slightly lacking in char, but with nicely charred vegetables all soaked in a salty peppercorn sauce. It was just "very good", though, whilst everything else had been "blinding".

"Rhubarb and custard" came in the form of a rhubarb compote sitting underneath a swirl of whipped custard cream, topped with a perfect rhubarb sorbet and some nice broken biscuits. The custard just dissolved in the mouth and the sorbet had just the right balance of tart and sweetness. In short, another masterclass.

I used to worry that I would score places a point of two higher if they were walkable from my house because of the joy of not having to navigate the London transport network after dinner. My memories of the meal wouldn't be tainted by the grim trudge through Victoria station at 9pm to discover half the trains were cancelled, or that the 344 bus was randomly terminating at Bank. I tried not to let these things affect me, but who knows.

Ploussard, though, doesn't need that boost. Hell, it doesn't even need me - every table was taken, some more than once, on the night I visited barely a week or two after opening, each available dining spot occupied largely (presumably) by locals like me who couldn't quite believe their luck. A neighbourhood restaurant, exciting, modern, seasonal, good value and with smart service? In Battersea? Whatever next.


I was invited to Ploussard and didn't see a bill. As I point out above though, expect to pay about £50/head.

Thursday 13 April 2023

Nord, Liverpool

In a town that already plays host to wonderful places like Wreckfish and Manifest, you'd think that the opening of another reasonably-priced, seasonal modern British restaurant in the centre of Liverpool would be a shoo-in for success. With demand already proven for this kind of thing, and as far as I can tell (given the popularity of such places) nowhere near sated, early menus leaked on Instagram pointed towards exactly the kind of thing that would do well here. Foraged herbs and veg? Check. Daily changing seafood selection? Check. Local suppliers name-checked? Check.

And yet there's something about the scale of ambition at Nord that makes you stop for a second even if you are more or less prepared for what's in store. The Plaza is a giant 12-story building, twice as long as it is tall, that takes up an entire block in the financial quarter. Nord itself is reached through two sets of revolving doors that open onto a smart mid-century-modern inspired atrium shared with, to one side, a bright coffee shop and to the other a shared office space with living wall and comfortable low furniture. Ahead is Nord itself, easily one of the biggest restaurant spaces in town, a spacious and sensitively lit area reaching from a grand island bar back towards an open kitchen. Whatever happens here needs to live up to the promise of the environment, and more.

By and large, fortunately, it does. These are very early days for Nord, who opened their doors barely a week or two ago, and so we ran into some issues regarding service and logistics that I'm sure will be easily ironed out over the coming weeks and months. Something they don't need to improve though are these gougères made with Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese which had a supremely light choux casing containing a gloriously warm and smooth cheese filling. I also loved how instead of dusting them with the usual grated parmesan, they'd used more baked and crumbled Lancashire cheese.

Crab toast contained a generous amount of the good stuff, bound with a delicate touch of sour cream and topped with fennel tops. What would have been nice here, true of most cold seafood dishes, is a wedge of lemon to squeeze on top, but there was still enough to enjoy otherwise. The toasted brioche was very decent, too.

Truffle and kelp butter appeared to not contain any truffle (misleading menu descriptions were a bit of a theme of this meal) and, at first glance, only a disappointingly tiny amount of seaweed until you realised that each one of those little pieces of kelp packed a hugely satisfying, ocean-spritzed punch. And the bread itself was marvellous - straight out of the oven with naan-like charred bubbles on the outside and soft within.

A little like the crab, I think the seabass crudo needed some acid - even just an accompanying wedge of lime would have been enough to balance it - but the fish was obviously high quality and I even liked the "potato taco" standing in for the usual corn tortillas. One tweak away from excellence is still to be admired.

Cod "Kiev" (although I think it's better to say "Kyiv" these days) was very nicely constructed, a giant fillet of fish in a dark breadcrumb crust which opened to spill a healthy (or rather, acceptably unhealthy) amount of garlic butter onto the plate. Fun to eat, and this time we were supplied with a required wedge of lemon, but the cod itself just needed a slightly more aggressive seasoning. Again, just slightly short of perfection.

The first thing you might notice about this "asparagus & morels" dish is the distinct lack of morels. I did point this out (as kindly as I could) to our waitress who returned with the information that the mushroom guy had today, for reasons best known to himself, delivered wild - seemingly a mix of girolles and chanterelles - instead. Which is fine, I suppose, I just think it would have been nice to know this before we ordered. Anyway, aside from the asparagus being suspiciously thin for seasonal English varieties, they still had a good flavour and the butter sauce they came with was absolutely fantastic. I will forgive most things if they're soaked in that fluffy butter sauce.

What appeared on the menu as "Almond & brown butter biscuits" appeared at first glance to be Madeleines, but they had a crunch and depth of flavour somewhere delightfully in between. We loved these... whatever they were, anyway - straight out of the oven and filling the room with a freshly baked biscuit aroma.

And finally rhubarb sorbet and vanilla ice creme, a tried and true combination which worked particularly well here thanks to a deep, strong rhubarb flavour in the sorbet and a lovely buttery vanilla ice cream. In fact, I would put the house ice cream on the 'must order' list if you ever make the trip yourself.

Service was, as to be expected a couple of weeks after opening, still slightly unsure of itself. There was a bit of confusion over the correct type of glass to use for cava at one point, and I'm not sure it's a great idea to fill said glasses with crushed ice before serving - nobody really wants diluted fizz. But it was all done with charm and enthusiasm and no harm was done.

So yes, it isn't perfect - yet. But what's interesting is not what went wrong - largely very easily fixed things like seasoning and the odd wedge of citrus, and a slightly more experienced front of house - but what went right in the technique required to make those gougères, or the sauce with the asparagus. At its core there's a very impressive set of skills in the kitchen here, just needing a bit more time and space to be allowed to settle in and shine. By the time of my next trip up north, I expect you'll be hearing a lot more about Nord.


Wednesday 12 April 2023

The White Horse, Churton

Churton is not a place you're supposed to have heard of, so don't feel bad if you haven't. Unlike its larger, and lets face it more attractive, neighbour Farndon with its pretty medieval half-timbered cottages and 14th century church tower, or Tattenhall to the east, another quaint self-contained little community with village grocers, butchers and tea rooms, Churton is (or at least was) just somewhere on the way to somewhere else, another hamlet stitched into the patchwork of the pleasant, gently rolling Cheshire countryside.

The White Horse, Churton's only pub - in fact, pretty much Churton's only building of note at all - is a well-proportioned 1920s red brick structure that, along with so many community pubs up and down the country, found itself boarded up and up for sale in 2019, just the latest victim of the public's shift away from communal eating and drinking and towards supermarket booze and takeaways. And if you've kept your eyes open in the last few years - particularly since the pandemic - you will know that, tragically, they weren't the only ones.

Has Gary Usher's Sticky Walnut group found some secret magic formula uniquely capable of turning an abandoned, unloved local back into the vibrant centre of the community it once was? On the face of it, the "formula" is pretty straightforward - serve lovely homemade food for not much money, fill the place with smiling staff that look like they're having the time of their lives, and make sure there's nice clean toilets. When you lay it out like that, I mean, it doesn't look like rocket science.

Of course, there's more to it than that. But first, the food. Whitebait were giant chunky things, closer to mini sardines than the usual baitfish, which had been very cleverly fried to grease-free perfection, served alongside a generous mound of parsley and lemon mayonnaise. By using larger animals you really got a bigger hit of the fish flavour, which can often otherwise be overwhelmed by batter and grease. These were very good indeed.

One of the White Horse's "tricks", if you can call it that, is to have some menu items deliberately to snare the odd offal obsessive like me, whilst still sitting happily amongst more straightforward pub fare. This is slow braised pigs trotters, a more deliriously moreish concoction of piggy flavour and soft fat I've hardly had anywhere outside of specialist BBQ joints in the US, served with a creamy, rich piccalilli so good we suggested to the waitress they should sell it in jars. She said she'd pass the message on.

Ricotta, beetroot and spicy harissa pumpkin seeds does admittedly sound like the kind of thing you'd default to to keep the veggies happy, but I tried a bit and it was very nice despite the fact I'm not its target audience.

Soup of the day was another classic veggie option - cream of cauliflower - but was so impressive with its bold seasoning and loose, silky texture it will be first to be ordered on a return visit (assuming its on). There is something especially heartwarming about a kitchen that takes the time to perfect something as straightforward as a cauliflower soup - get the details right, and everything else follows.

For my own main, inevitably, I went for faggots. Arriving under a mound of salsa verde and fried shallots, the main events themselves were not immediately obvious, but a bit of digging revealed three balls of lamb mince with a lovely loose texture that brought to mind one of Islington butcher Turner and George's "blue label" aged beef burgers. But instead of beef, the flavour here was a rich, gamey mix of offal and herbs, absolutely irresistible. Oh, and I almost forgot - the buttery, smooth mash underneath and lamb gravy were superb, too.

King prawns were huge, plump things with a lovely bite and in a very generous pool of garlic chilli butter. It was about this time we'd realised we'd ordered lots of dishes that involved bread - completely our fault of course, but worth bearing in mind for if you plan a trip yourself.

Fish fingers on toast was another very generous mound of fish for £7.50, all crunchy and soft in the right places and with a nicely seasoned layer of crushed peas underneath. I might have to give them the benefit of the doubt that they'd forgotten to provide a wedge of lemon, because it really needed a bit of acidity, but we managed to get hold of some Sarson's which did the trick.

Oh, and "skinny" fries were just normal chip size really - I think the distinction here is because the Sticky group's style of normal chips are giant wedges. All very nicely done of course, and I'm not about to get into an argument about proper chip size, it's just something to be aware of.

Finally, we just managed to squeeze in a portion of the Sticky group's famous honeycomb ice cream between the three of us. The ice cream was as good as ever, but of course most of the joy of this dish is smashing apart the giant slab of honeycomb it comes with. We may have made a bit of a mess doing this. Sorry.

As I said, none of this really is rocket science. I'd like to believe - and I have to cling on to this idea for my own sanity's sake - that if you run a nice friendly pub serving home made food for reasonable prices, it will, no matter where it is, find an audience. True, the White Horse has the advantage of Gary Usher's extraordinary ability to harness crowdsourcing fever on Twitter, and that the place is so immediately, obviously successful is partly due to that, but all that Kickstarter cash really does is get you out of the gate. From then on, you need to be good enough to get people booking return visits.

And as you might have gathered by now, the White Horse does that and more. It's the kind of place that every community up and down the country must wish they had on their doorstep, somewhere you can drop in for a pint of beer (hot tip: the front saloon is not bookable, and was empty for most of our lunch, so try your luck there if you can't get a table in the main restaurant. Oh, and there's a terrace for sunny days) and bowl of whitebait or sit down at the back on a large table and go full Sunday roast. It is, in short, the pub we all deserve. So don't stop now, Mr Usher, you're on a roll.


Monday 10 April 2023

Nessa, Soho

Looking over the confidently international menu at Nessa the other evening, it occurred to me that it's been a while since I've had a moan about anywhere being 'inauthentic'. For all the years that we British were insecure about our place in the culinary world, and those years were many, we worked ourselves to the bone to be more French than the French, more Italian than the Italians, more fiercely Spanish than anything you could reasonably be expected to find in Spain. How dare anyone come to our shores and think we didn't take our food seriously? Look at what we can do!

Nowadays, though you certainly still find restaurants that stick religiously to their regional remits (just look at the success of Bouchon Racine), it seems like more places are willing to just do what comes naturally, peppering their menus from influences from all across the globe. Look at the menu at Papi, for example, or (the sadly departed, though hopefully soon-to-return) Bright. Not British, not Asian, not French or Italian, just a list of dishes you immediately want to eat, using the best ingredients available. All of a sudden, it seems obvious that this is the future.

Nessa, then, is not to be tied down to any particular cuisine. It dances through Italian, French, American and British, constructing a menu of attractive and accessible comfort foods that rarely - if ever - conform to anything so dull as tradition but still impress nonetheless. These are cheese and onion croquettes, piping hot from the fryer, on a bed of 'grape mustard mayo' which provided the perfect accompaniment.

Panzanella made great use of those juicy, sweet (and often eye-wateringly expensive) winter tomatoes, with (as is traditional) croutons to provide crunch but also (as isn't) slices of jalapeño chilli and pomegranate seeds because, well, why not.

Spelt risotto was constructed and seasoned perfectly, with that lovely loose bubbly texture of spelt bound with a shocking green wild garlic. They'd apparently used the excellent Montgomery's cheddar in the mix too, so it had a lovely rich farmy flavour in the background. We all loved this, and I'm not normally a risotto fan.

Leeks were charred in the wood-fired oven then presented on a bed of "almond ricotta", something that deserves to take off. Salsa verde added some acidity, and some pieces of caramelised pecans some extra nutty/sweet/crunchy notes. Again, this went down very well.

The black pudding brioche has become a bit of an Instagram hit, and very nice it was too - think gala pie, only with black pudding instead of egg and brioche instead of sausage and pastry. Actually, don't think of it like that, that doesn't help at all, it's nothing like a gala pie. Anyway the pudding itself was nice and crumbly and rich, and the "brown butter noisette" was a kind of thin, stock-y gravy.

House bread was soda with whipped butter, just what was required.

If I'm going to be brutal, the Caesar was a bit thick on rich, cheesy sauce and a bit light on everything else - maybe it needed more of a salty kick from anchovies to fight the sauce, or more mustard somewhere. I'm not sure. Still, not bad.

Chicken "Cordon Bleu", a respectful nod to an institution that's trained up many a British chef over the years and is still going strong, was exactly as the recipe intended, with moist breast meat folded around bacon, all coated in breadcrumbs and sat in a nice salty jus. Monksbeard was added probably to stop the whole thing being a bit culinary school, but was very welcome.

Steak tartare was impeccably done - there was just the right amount of dressing and herbs folded into the meat, but the dry aged beef shone above the other ingredients, with a fantastic funky taste and addictively loose texture. Look at the colour of that truffled confit egg too.

Finally amongst the savouries, a giant monkfish tail on the bone, perfectly cooked and topped with chopped pickles and chives. Everyone on the table took turns lifting great chunks of bright white meat from the bones until every trace of flesh had disappeared. Plenty of it, too, for £35.

Desserts were unpretentiously presented, but very well done. We particularly enjoyed the bay leaf custard that came with the gooseberry jam roly poly, but also, how nice to see gooseberry on a menu?

And finally baked Alaska, with bright pink poached rhubarb surrounding a blowtorched mound of meringue coating a portion of (gorgeous) gingerbread ice cream. Whenever I order baked Alaska I am duty bound to point out how easy chefs have it in professional kitchens being able to use a blowtorch the exterior without worrying about melting the ice cream. My grandma had to do this dish with nothing more than a very hot oven and perfect timing. She always managed it though.

Yes, we did have a lot of food - and certainly enough wine - but the bill only came to just over £64 each, which is pretty good really. Service was attentive and pleasant, and it's a very nice room to be in, with its views of the busy open kitchen and comfy plush furnishings. I did get lost on the way back from the toilet at one point, but it's a bit of a maze down there, and they're desperately missing a 'Back to the restaurant' sign or two. Something to work on, anyway.

Overall, though, Nessa is serving nice food for not much money, and you can't ask much more than that. I'm only docking a couple of points because in my nerdy blogger way I'd quite like to have seen a bit more unusual offaly bits or rarer seafood available - the list of dishes is, necessarily I would assume, familiar bordering on safe. But when it's all done as well as this, who cares? Sometimes you just want to be rewarded, not challenged. And when you do, Nessa will be waiting for you.