Tuesday 27 June 2023

Bossa, Marylebone

I don't know whether it's by design or sheer accident that Bossa, a brand new Brazilian restaurant from chef Alberto Landgraf, has landed right next door to the Brazilian embassy. But it felt very appropriate walking under a giant Brazilian flag up to the front steps of Bossa - who knows, perhaps Vere St is on its way to becoming a new Little Brazil.

Inside, it's smart and comfortable in the modern London style, with a good mix of booths and views of the open kitchen. I can probably be accused of taking interior design for granted - it's not really my area of expertise - but there are clearly a lot of very good restaurant designers working in the city at the moment.

Now, hands up - I've never really tried high-end Brazilian food before. The country itself regularly features on the top fine dining lists and there are 16 Michelin stars in Rio alone, but so far London hasn't been host to too many in the category, the 2-Michelin starred Da Terra being the one notable exception to the rule. There used to be a Japanese-Brazilian fusion place called Sushinho on the Kings Road but I was never too tempted to try it and then it closed. Maybe it was brilliant (there's a long tradition of that style of food, called Nikkei, in South America) but something tells me it wasn't.

Anyway, events began with a very nicely made Caipirinha and Mojito, and some good focaccia and olive oil. The bar is very well appointed at Bossa and staffed by clearly very capable mixerinhos (as I imagine they're called back in Brazil) so I thoroughly recommend making use of their services.

Roasted bone marrow was nice in of itself, with a good flavour and plenty of the good stuff, but I had a bit of an issue with the strange texture of the tapioca pancake things it came with - not a million miles away from like eating cork coasters. But I am nothing if not keen to try new things, and this was certainly different. The cashew dip was good too.

Beef tartare was very nicely seasoned, pickled and spiced and contained a very generous shaving of truffle. We liked the little bits of crunch too - toasted oats perhaps although I couldn't swear to that. It's not a very purist attitude but I always think beef tartare benefits from an element of crunch.

Pork belly was a huge lump of nicely cooked meat with a thick, bubbly rind (as you might expect for £38, but more on the value side of things later) with a satisfying sauce they called 'feijoada broth'. Feijoada is a black bean stew so presumably this was black beans cooked in pork stock, or something like that. Either way, was very nice.

The second main was, we were told, their house speciality. Seafood Moqueca is a stew apparently originating in Bahia and was very decent, with plenty of big chunks of meat and a nice tomato/coconut flavour to the sauce. Whether you think it's worth paying £49 for a fairly small bowl of seafood stew and rice, well, you'll have to decide on that yourself.

OK so, we may as well pause to address the elephant in the room - Bossa is not a cheap place. And I appreciate all of the things that make running a restaurant in London 2023 so ruinously expensive, from energy costs to staff to the price of ingredients, which have all shot up and continue to reach skyward in the last year or so. But even so, at its best Bossa is cooking hearty, unelaborate but enjoyable food - rich stews and big slabs of pork and the like - and to be charging almost exactly for 3 courses what Alex Dilling asks at the Cafe Royal for his food of exquisite beauty and two Michelin star service experience, well it all feels a bit unearned. Alberto Landgraf may have two stars back home, but there's a certain arrogance in assuming you can get away with £90/head for 3 courses in a brand new place.

Anyway, their restaurant, their pricing structure. Of the two desserts, a lineup of sorbets - the first two made from exotic fruits I have no chance of remembering, but the last being strawberry and rhubarb - were the easiest to enjoy, summery and well made.

But I'm afraid I didn't enjoy the other dessert at all - tonka bean flan was a bit like chawanmushi, and that bit of it was fine, but for some reason it was paired with a "jam" made from something called cupuaçu. Apparently it's the national fruit of Brazil, and I hope I don't cause an international incident by saying this, but it was so ludicrously sour it was beyond inedible. Perhaps they'd forgot to put the sugar in that day, or maybe I'm just particularly sensitive to cupuaçu, but I really struggled with this.

Anyway, the cupuaçu dessert was a rare low point of an otherwise decent - if aggressively priced - meal. As this was an invite we didn't see a bill, but with the cocktails and a glass of wine each I work out it would have been about £145 per person with service added. Quite punchy, in other words. Bossa is a good restaurant, but for that price it really needs to be great. And although none of the dishes apart from the açai thing were actively bad, nothing was really two-Michelin-star level either. Perhaps that's not what they're aiming for, but I'm also afraid that if you put 'two-Michelin-star chef' in your press release, that's what people are going to expect. Certainly at those prices.

I hope they take the above in the constructive spirit it's intended. It's hard being less than positive about anywhere in the current climate, but then they aren't a charity, they're a high-end restaurant in the centre of London and all I can do is compare it to other places at that price point in the local area and it just doesn't quite stand up. Still, there's every room to improve, and refine their offering somewhat, and always hope for the future. For now though, I'd wait.


I was invited to Bossa and didn't see a bill

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Evernight, Battersea

Knowing we would be having dinner at Evernight I thought aperitifs at Homeboy Battersea, just around the corner in the same building, would be a nice way to kick off the evening. I was at Homeboy a couple of years ago just after it had opened, was treated to a very decent burger and ice cold martini and left thinking that, well, perhaps this weird overdeveloped bit of Legoland Embassyville with its floating swimming pools and Thamesview gyms with floor-to-ceiling windows was worth the occasional visit after all. I've always had a soft spot for Darby's, too, also nearby.

But a strange thing happened when I tried to Google the Homeboy location - it kept redirecting me to Homeboy Islington (also worth visiting, on Essex Road), the Battersea branch seemingly wiped from existence. Of course, it turns out it had closed at some point in the recent past, and though it's probably not a good idea to draw too many conclusions about the entire area from the closure of one flagship bar - hospitality is in a very tricky place right now generally - it feels like if this very smart and mature operation couldn't survive more than a couple of years with so much money around (I refer you to that floating swimming pool, and the river view gyms) then maybe the problems run deeper than just knowing your audience.

I hesitate, then, recommending Evernight due to a perverse combination of a) not wanting it to get so oversubscribed that I'll find it impossible to get a tablein the future, and b) worrying that like so many of these flagship openings in new developments, it won't last until the end of the year. For now, though, I'm going to assume neither of these things will happen and instead draw your attention to these lovely and colourful house pickles, a great little palate cleanser we kept coming back to between nibbles of other dishes.

A silky smooth whipped cod's roe spread inside warm brioch-y ageban buns like salty seafood butter, and made another top class snack. It was also noted with some satisfaction that the pickles that came attached to this dish were both (carrot and cucumber) different to those (radish, chilli and celery... I think) that arrived with the separate snack. I always appreciate a lack of overlap.

It was about this time that we bumped into Shaulan Steenson, executive chef at the wonderful Temaki in Brixton, on his way to serve 6 lucky people an omakase menu in the Evernight private dining room. Anyone who's ever been to Temaki will know it's one of the best - and best value - spots for Japanese food in London, and it makes absolute sense that given the opportunity to spread his wings a bit in this exciting new space he's jumped at it. Pictured here is an element of that menu, a stuffed katsu chicken wing - utterly lovely in every way - which he very kindly sent out. Anyway, more details here for those interested.

I didn't really love the scallop sashimi, but was persuaded to risk my own personal aversion to raw scallops because of the rather interesting sounding 'potato dashi'. In the end, this didn't live up to the promise either and what we ended up with was some rather wobbly, cloying raw scallop in a fairly bland and underseasoned sauce. Still, there's every chance a scallop fan would find a lot more to like.

Sake cured trout was much more interesting, the trout itself having a nice earthy taste and broad beans making a much more pleasant accompaniment than the more traditional edamame (come on, you know it's true).

But the real fireworks were saved for the next course. "Smoked eel, Potato Cake and N25 Caviar" is one of those rare instances where a dish reads like a dream, and still lives up to the promise. Whether the potato cake topped with caviar was a knowing or coincidental nod to the famous Quality Chop House dish is hard to say - the two restaurants couldn't otherwise be more different - but alongside this gorgeous mouthful, which would have been more than worth the price of admission by itself - was two dainty sticks of spring onion (I think - we shared this dish a little unevenly and I didn't try that bit) and a fantastic sweet-glazed geometric portion of meaty smoked eel. You will, if all goes well, be hearing a lot more about this dish in the future.

The savoury courses hadn't finished quite yet though - chawanmushi with morels and wild garlic was another staggeringly inventive and successful fusion dish, marrying foraged British ingredients with high-end Japanese techniques. It's going to be very interesting seeing how the Evernight menu evolves through the seasons as different local ingredients come and go. I wonder if they can be persuaded to do something with grouse in August?

Before the desserts, three cute skewers of grilled mochi, smoked [Lincolnshire] Poacher [cheese] and chilli crisp. Enjoyable, certainly - particularly the fluffy cheese sauce on top - but I'm afraid we were still delirious from the smoked eel and the chawanmushi and I don't remember a great deal about these otherwise. Maybe I'm just not a mochi fan.

Desserts continued mashing together British and Japanese flavours and techniques to the standard of that in the best of the savoury courses. This was a strawberry custard affair topped with shiso granita and I think sake ice cream, and if you can't enjoy those things together on a plate there's really no hope four you at all.

And finally, melon, vanilla and sansho meringue, a supremely light and gently peppery meringue sat in a wonderfully summery melon and vanilla soup.

Now, although the menu looks great value at first glance - and largely is - and we had absolutely no problem with our overall bill, it's fair to say that the dishes are often only mouthfuls and you'll often want to order one each (particularly the chawanmushi and smoked eel, as you won't ever have enough of those). Without a great deal of booze on our visit, and leaving not exactly stuffed, the bill came to £62pp, so you could realistically spend £100pp+ if you end up going for the big ticket items like the 'Turbot, asparagus and Yuzu-shu' (£26) or 'Cornish Lobster, Crab and Ikura Rice Donabe' (£52 for two). Oh, and final moan - the bench seating is way too low down. We asked to be moved to a high table, which was perfect, and though it was very entertaining watching other customers attempt to enjoy their dinner with their chins only just clearing the surface of the tables in front of them, you may not want the same experience yourself.

Overall though, Evernight impresses, delights and excites far more than it needs to. Yes, it's a strange, soulless and windswept part of town which demonstrates everything that's wrong with the London real estate industry, but it would be deeply unfair to blame the team behind Evernight for that. Japanese fusion food, in this city at least, is rarely done as well as this, and I think having to eat it in Nine Elms is a small price to pay for an experience so ultimately rewarding.


Thursday 8 June 2023

The Rose, Deal

A stroll along the High Street in Deal reveals a town very much at the forefront of the wider Kentish food revolution. There seem to be more than the usual number of artisan butchers and fishmongers for what is otherwise a fairly small (albeit very quaint) seaside town. There's a healthy amount of interesting delis with a bewildering range of specialities, from Arno's with their home made tarmasalata and aubergine kasundi (a type of Bengali mustard sauce), to Filberts' fresh game pies and organic sourdough, to the impeccably tasteful cheese selection at the enigmatically-titled No Name Shop. And there are more natural wine bars, microbreweries and, er, whatever it is you call somewhere selling fiercely strong local cider, than you can even count. This is somewhere you can eat and drink well.

At the centre of it all, presiding over the activity below like a stern Victorian schoolmistress in charge of an unruly - if talented - flock, is the Rose, a sturdy, attractively symmetrical building whose fortunes have followed that of Deal itself for the best part of 200 years. In the early days it was one of the smartest joints in town for drinking, dining and smoking (all three were equally important back then) but time eventually took its toll and in the 1980s it slumped back into a more straightforward lager-and-crisps boozer. However, in 2018 it once again became a very comfortable hotel and the downstairs menu revamped under the eye of chef Nuno Mendes.

Now, I am not so naive as to think Mendes has much to do with the cooking day-to-day. I know how these "chef consultant" gigs work - "give them a couple of recipes, take the cash and leave them to it" seems to be how it works most of the time (is that too cynical?) but I like to think there's more than a hint of his inventive flair in the "wild garlic vinegar" dressing which accompanied these fresh Maldon oysters, which seasoned and sharpened the seafood without overwhelming the flavour. Very clever stuff.

But these were merely "snacks". Of the starters proper, all extremely reasonably priced at £11-£12, cured sea bass was the most striking, a colourful arrangement of raw fish and pickled fruit and veg, all complimenting the main ingredient while adding texture and zing. Leaves of sea purslane draped over the top added a sharp note of the sea, but rhubarb and pickled plums were intelligent and exciting additions.

Burrata - perfectly lovely in of itself, was presented alongside what is fast becoming the post-St-John holy trinity of seasonal English vegetables, fresh peas, broad beans and nasturtium. We particularly enjoyed, too, a layer of salty breadcrumbs which soaked up the olive oil to make a kind of rustic crunchy dressing.

Asparagus were covered in a irresistable cheese hollandaise and would have been perfect if they'd stopped there, but I'm afraid the "yeast crisps" dropped on top were chewy and, well, a bit pointless.

Mains followed the theme of being mainly brilliant, but occasionally not. Good news first - roast rack of lamb was a hugely generous portion, cooked nicely pink and accompanied by a wonderfully rich and vibrant mixture of wild garlic, radish and sorrel (and also too, I think, some more chunks of asparagus). There was a lot of fat on the lamb which probably could have survived a judicious trimming, or perhaps a bit more rendering time, but otherwise it was a very pleasant thing indeed.

Is it a bit old fashioned to expect the main ingredient to be visible when a dish arrives on the table? Hake - very nicely cooked, don't get me wrong - was completely buried under a giant mound of wild mushrooms and though it all tasted very nice and the seaweed broth was a particularly interesting side note, there's nothing like seeing a great big gleaming white chunk of fish to get the pulse racing. Other than that, all good.

But unfortunately we found nothing to recommend the 'charred heritage tomatoes' at all. I can understand the necessity of a vegan main on a gastropub menu in 2023, but there are ways of doing these things that don't mean you end up with something tasting like it had come from a plastic pot off the shelves at M&S. Completely devoid of flavour, texture and interest of any kind, this was an entirely pointless concession to vegetarianism that only served to demonstrate that the kitchen had no interest in vegetarianism at all. And I'm afraid these days, that's not good enough.

Desserts, thank god, turned things round again. Rhubarb and frangipane tart was moist and full of summery flavour, and the set cream (sort of like a cross between clotted cream and custard, as far as we could tell) was a very interesting accompaniment.

Ice cream sandwich suffered very slightly from freezer burn, and the biscuits were a little soggy, but it still had a good flavour. Maybe it had just been hanging around in the freezer a bit too long.

And finally chocolate ganache was marvellously gooey and thick - almost like a chocolate fudge - with the 'seaweed caramel' fortunately not tasting of seaweed but instead packing a nice strong punch of butter and sugar.

So yes, there were downs alongside the ups, but overall it's hard to dislike what they're doing at the Rose. One incident aside, where a glass of dessert wine was left tantalisingly just out of reach for almost as long as it took us to polish off our desserts, service was friendly and attentive, and I should also put in a good word for whoever designed the table layout - there was a very pleasant distance between diners and the handsome dining room felt spacious and comfortable.

As the flagship gastropub for a foodie town, the Rose has a lot resting on its solid Victorian shoulders. And much like the town of Deal itself, there's a lot to love if you ignore the odd rough edge, and as long as you're not a vegan you will probably enjoy the Rose very much indeed. With a bill of £63/head, too, not holding back on the booze, it's also very good value - this is very much at the lower end of what you might expect to pay for three courses and wine these days. In a part of the world not short of great places to eat, the Rose more than holds its own. And you can't ask for much more than that.