Tuesday 28 November 2023

Cord, Fleet Street

Basil Fawlty:
Are you dining here tonight, here in this unfashionable dump?

Mr. Johnson:
I wasn't planning to.

Basil Fawlty:
No, not really your scene is it?

Mr. Johnson:
I thought I'd try somewhere in town. Anywhere you recommend?

Basil Fawlty:
Well, what sort of food were you thinking of... fruit or...?

Mr. Johnson:
Anywhere they do French food?

Basil Fawlty:
Yes, France I believe. They seem to like it there, and the swim would certainly sharpen your appetite. You'd better hurry, the tide leaves in six minutes.

I make no apologies for starting by quoting the greatest sitcom of all time - in fact I probably should do it more often - but I couldn't think of a better way of illustrating the fact that back in the dark days of the 70s, when British food was largely brown Windsor soup, lamb casserole and gralefrit, we idolised the food of France, where they did things properly. Whipped into shape back in the 19th century by towering figures like Escoffier, French cuisine was disciplined, classy and intelligent while we were none of these things, and it was hardly surprising that for most of the last century, posh food meant French food.

Fortunately, British cuisine can now hold its head up and is quite rightfully now considered amongst the worlds finest, but the fact remains that the French got there first, and at its best l'haute cuisine still has the capacity to stun, bewilder and delight. In London specifically I'm thinking of places like Les 110 de Taillevent or Otto's, where they do everything by the classical book - vol-au-vents, Canard à la Presse, Tournedos Rossini - to superb effect. And now (at least since summer last year), there's restaurant Cord on Fleet Street, serving food so unashamedly, strictly French it should arrive from the kitchen accompanied by a brass band playing La Marseillaise.

French haute cuisine of course isn't just about your three courses but the extra bits of service and flair that frame the evening into something even more special. I'm thinking of things like this dainty cup of cep mushroom velouté, an amuse bouche of precisely the correct seasonality and form, which displayed the skill of the kitchen - the broth was superbly light and buttery, packing a great mushroom flavour - as well as an indication that Cord know exactly what time of year it is (not always a given in every top-end London restaurant, let me tell you), and exactly how to make the most of what's available. Cord are so proud of this dish, in fact, that they attempted to serve it again about 5 minutes after we'd finished the first - a charming little trip up that just made me like them more (we politely refused, though it took quite a bit of will power).

All the house bread was fantastic, but our favourite - inevitably - was a kind of pastry bun thing kind of halfway between a croissant and brioche. It was so distressingly moreish I literally had to move my side plate to the other end of the table to stop myself picking at it throughout the meal, and the accompanying butters - one salted, one parsley and escargot (topped with an actual snail!), did nothing to help with that dilemma.

The a la carte proper began, for me at least, with this lobster and sea urchin raviolo, a combination of skills and techniques that would send any lesser kitchen running in terror, but was absolutely beautifully done here. From the dainty but firm pasta to the perfect balance of flavours in the mixture (just enough sea urchin to provide a spritz of the seaside without overwhelming) to a rich lobster bisque, creamy and salty and seafoody, this was a world class example of the best French cooking. Had each element of this dish been less than brilliant, the whole house of cards would have come crashing down, but as I said, they know what they're doing at Cord. Masterful stuff.

Lamb sweetbreads were equally classy, glazed with late autumn herbs (chervil, sorrel, cobnuts) and served with a glossy, rich veal jus and what I think was a supremely smooth parsnip purée. One of the criticisms levelled at top-end French food is that it can be overly fussy, with too many pointless frills and textures vying for attention. This of course is not necessarily true, as demonstrated by this starkly beautiful dish, where the main ingredient is highlighted and enhanced by some extremely tasteful sauces and sides, and yet still feels as French as anything.

It's true to say, however, that there was quite a lot going on with my main course, a chicken supreme stuffed with black truffle presented with such straight, geometric exactness it was faintly exhausting to imagine the amount of work that might have gone into it. And again, all this visual flair would have been for nothing had it not impressed otherwise, but the chicken breast was beautifully tender, the black truffle mixture was rich and comforting, and the foie gras sauce impressed just as much with its buttery meatiness as the lobster bisque had with its rich seafood. Also, alongside the main tranche of chicken and truffle came a selection of winter veg in various forms that brought all sorts of colour and texture. So yes, at the Frenchier-end of French food, but all the better for it, in my opinion.

A nice bright-white fillet of brill, topped with various seaside succulents and served on a bed of coco beans, mussels and champagne velouté, also boasted a variety of clever techniques (I do love a split sauce) but made sure the main ingredient was cooked just-so, and everything else just helped make the most of it. Each time a new dish arrived with yet another fantastic sauce, it was an excuse to soak it up with more superb house bread, which just made you enjoy the experience even more.

"Black forest" was a kind of deconstructed schwarzwälder käsekuchen, with a white chocolate cheesecake base, cheery sorbet, a booze-soaked real cherry and a large fake cherry made out of kirsch mousse. Like everything that had come before, it was a great concept thoughfully and intelligently realised, with every element complimenting the whole perfectly. Oh, and some micro herbs and flowers which cleverly echoed an autumn forest floor.

Pistachio soufflé was another masterclass, but then that should hardly be a surprise by now. The soufflé held its shape well, the texture was smooth and satisfying without being too eggy, and the pistachio ice cream had a lovely strength of nutty flavour.

Two things to mention before we finish. Firstly, the prices - yes, I know. French haute cuisine has never, and will never be cheap, and with starters costing as much as you might expect to pay for mains in any given gastropub, you'd better hope they'd be worth the outlay. And I realise this is an invite (I realise I've been on a lot of invites recently; it's just the way it's worked out, honestly, there's no grand plan) and I didn't have to deal with the full weight of the bill, I still know value when I see it, and you can definitely pay more for worse at lots of different 5* hotel restaurants I can think of. Naming no names (DM me for details).

Secondly, Cord is a play on words of sorts, coming as it does from the Cordon Bleu group, with test kitchens and private dining events downstairs separate from their main campus in Bloomsbury. But I am assured (and I did ask) that both front of house and kitchen are selected purely based on ability, and trainees occasionally do a day or two here as part of their course, the core staff come from far and wide. And it really shows - apart from the incident with the double velouté, everything was on point and attended to, and everything from timing to execution was fairly close to faultless. Staff, in fact, seemed to be enjoying themselves just as much as we were, and why shouldn't they?

So yes, unfashionable as it has occasionally been to say so, French fine dining has never really gone away, it just needed the right opportunity to shine. Cord is that opportunity and then some, a reminder that when done well, there's no such thing as bad cuisine, just bad restaurants. That in 2023, over a century since London started falling in love with this kind of thing, it's still finding new opportunities to endear itself to the city. Now, isn't it about time we started doing the same for Paris?


I was invited to Cord and didn't see a bill. If you fancy grabbing a table yourself - and I very much suggest you do - use this link so they know you came from here. I don't get any reward, it'll just give me a bit of bragging power.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Little Cellars, Camberwell

Having enjoyed the original Peckham Cellars very much, I eagerly jumped on a very kind invitation to their new Camberwell offshoot. Little Cellars is aptly named - there's a couple of high tables for 6 in the middle of the room and 8 lower seats arranged looking out of the two downstairs windows - and I'm afraid when I saw how closely to each other complete strangers were expected to sit, my heart did sink a bit. But whatever you might think about communal seating, it's really the only way a venue this size is going to make any money without charging double for the menu, and actually in the end we were perfectly happy occupying a couple of seats at the end of a row, looking out onto Camberwell High Street.

The menu at Little Cellars is, much like its sister restaurant, an unbeatable mix of small plates served at very reasonable prices, and the occasional eye-catching premium larger dish for those who fancy splashing out. So, for example, we have these lovely cheddar beignets, hot out of the fryer, a crisp, greaseless crust giving way to an ethereally light, fluffy cheesey interior. This is a bit of pastry work worthy of the very best restaurants in town, and in fact were a lot nicer than the Comté gougères I had at a recent meal in Claridge's lobby restaurant. Yeah, I'm name-dropping. Get over it.

Charcuterie - all Italian - were of excellent quality and, at £10, a pretty generous portion for the money.

Terrine was way bigger than you had any right to expect for a measly £8, with plenty of interesting textures including just enough fat to loosen it in a very appealing way. If I'm going to be brutal, there wasn't quite enough salt in the mix, and as always seems to be the case, the restaurants that season all their dishes perfectly have salt and pepper on the table that you never use, and whenever you need extra seasoning there's none available. Still, this was still a very good terrine (and plenty of cornichons too).

But a dish that needed no extra seasoning - and in fact was unimprovable in every way - was the beef bourguignon. I'm always wary about ordering classic French dishes in British restaurants, because it's a style of cuisine that leaves absolutely no wiggle room. It has to be made perfectly, down to the last detail, or the whole house of cards comes falling down. This dish was absolutely perfect, from the tender chunks of melting beef shin, to the glazed baby carrots and shallots, to the thick, beefy red wine sauce studded with bacon. Underneath it all, a supremely smooth and buttery mash that, on its own as a side, would have been worth the trip to Camberwell alone. So now, one of my favourite dishes in London is served (sometimes, at least) in a little neighbourhood restaurant in Camberwell. I did not see that one coming.

Instead of the sweet desserts, which didn't really seem too exciting - I find panna cotta to be a dessert served by restaurants that don't like desserts - we had a cheese course. For £10 (there's that value again) we were served immaculately kept room-temperature Langres (always a winner), St Maure (a fruity and firm goat's) and - best of them all - Bleu de Causses. This is a cheese, rarely seen in the UK, matured in caves in the Roquefort style not in Roquefort but in the Gorges du Tarn, a magical part of the world where medieval villages cling to the side of precipitous stone cliffs while birds of prey soar and call overhead. If you ever get a chance to try Bleu de Causses - or indeed travel to the Gorges du Tarn - you should absolutely take it.

This was an invite, so we didn't see the bill, but I worked out with a couple of negronis to start and a couple of glasses of wine the bill would have come to about £50pp, which is a real bargain relative to what you might expect to pay for food of this standard somewhere more central. And yes, I had a couple of minor faults to point out but then that's just in the interests of documenting a more fully rounded experience - I still bounced away from the place high on the memory of that beef bourguignon and the cheeses.

We finished, and in fact began, our evening over the road at a charming - and rightly popular - little wine bar called Veraison wines, where the enthusiastic staff offered to keep a bottle of wine in the fridge between aperitifs and post-dinner. Already a fantastic place to eat and drink - I'm sure you already all know about Silk Road, Camberwell Arms, Forza Win, Stormbird, Theo's and the Crooked Well - Little Cellars is yet another reason to take the 171 bus from Elephant (or however you choose to travel, other transportation methods are available) and deserves to bring a whole new set of food lovers to the area. Now if you could please open in Battersea, you'd have my eternal gratitude.


I was invited to Little Cellars and didn't see a bill. Apologies - again - for the poor photos, I'm still on iPhone backup.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

The Devonshire, Soho

There's no avoiding the fact, and there's no point dancing around it. There's no need for lengthy, thoughtful or measured arguments; no sense in analysing the details. There needs to be no slow and steady building of a case, culminating in a grand and weighty conclusion. The truth is so stark and self-evident that I may as well just state it up front and let you get on with your day: The Devonshire in Soho is probably the best pub in London, and possibly even the country.

That there's a new gastropub worth visiting in London, a city which - with one or two notable exceptions - has hitherto hardly been blessed with many classics in the genre - is remarkable in itself. Most places find proximity to local suppliers and lower Not London rents to be crucial factors in their success, which is why despite the capital being home to 9 million people it is rather unrepresented on the reliable Top 50 list, with only one spot in the top 10. The Devonshire would unquestionably be one of the best gastropubs in the country if it had popped up in Devon or Lancashire or rural Kent. That it exists steps away from Piccadilly Circus, in a corner of Soho so soaked with potential customers it could (like every other pub in Soho) have offered frozen Brakes Brothers pub favourites from a laminated menu jauntily decorated with the British flag and still made a killing, is a miracle. Well, it's the first miracle.

The reason it's not just good but brilliant, comes from an almost superheroic attention to detail. Let's start at the "pub" section downstairs, which is cozy and comfortable in the finest pub tradition, with snugs behind the bar and what they're calling a "family room" at the back where Irish musicians gather on Tuesdays. There's a wide - and interesting - selection of beers including craft stars Verdant and Deya, but there's also the small matter of - their words - the Best Pint Of Guinness In London, a claim which, based on my own observations, very much seems backed up by the evidence. And yes, it's already crazily popular, but - at least in my experience - bar staff are so practiced and efficient that you won't have to wait more than a couple of minutes to get served. Miracle number two.

Miracle number three is at work in the restaurant upstairs. Ashley Palmer-Watts - yes that one - works an open grill at one end of the room. Beside him, members of his kitchen brigade gingerly feed lumps of oak wood into a terrifying flame-belching furnace, in a manner that suggests if they didn't, the whole range would roar its disapproval, tear itself away from the wall and roam the streets of Soho looking for sustenance. According to Palmer-Watts, cooking on embers is difficult - "which is probably why almost nobody does it", but is worth it because of the extra flavour the oak embers impart on the food.

And my lord, what food. Perhaps you might expect a man who once held three Michelin stars to know his way around a kitchen, but I can tell you from experience that there's no guarantee the skills required in a world famous fine dining restaurant translate comfortably to a pub grill. But Palmer-Watts looks not just comfortable here but positively beaming, happily chatting with customers, bouncing from grill to grill with enthusiasm and grace. And as I'm about to explain, every bit of that enthusiasm and personality sings from every dish on the menu at the Devonshire.

We start, though, with bread. And if you thought that the Devonshire might go down a tried-and-trusted route like sourdough, then you haven't been paying attention. What we have here is glazed brioche, baked throughout the day so that every batch is warm out of the oven. My favourite San Diego steakhouse Cowboy Star is famous for their brioch-y buns, and I've spoken at length in the past about how good they are. These are better. They are salty on the outside, golden brown and glowing, and inside so stretchy and moreish you want to eat another one (spread with the room-temperature butter) as soon as you've finished your first. This is a world class bread course.

So the rest of the food? Obviously, it's all brilliant too. Scallops were giant sweet things, seared to a lovely crust, dressed in an interesting bacon-vinegar dressing which sounds a bit basic while I type it out but was actually probably the best scallop dish I've had ever. You'll be hearing me say "best ever" a lot in this post. I'm sorry if it gets boring.

I'm going to talk about the rest of the food before I come back to the langoustines - I'll explain why later. This is a stunningly good, dry-aged chunk of fillet steak, with a fantastic salty crust on the outside but inside tender and medium-rare and wonderful. It was presented with a peppercorn sauce which at first seemed quite thin, but then you realise it's supposed to be used as a kind of vinaigrette, sparingly and carefully, like a kind of French chimichurri. Used in small amounts it complimented the beef perfectly. And I never want normal peppercorn sauce again.

Duck fat chips were crunchy and addictive, definitely worth an order. I mean, of course they are.

And this giant Iberico chop, timed to just pink in the middle, which melted in the mouth like porky heaven. These pigs are apparently from Ledbury chef Brett Graham's own farm, because I suppose if you have a chance to source your pork from one of the most celebrated chefs in the country, you just do. Nothing - and I do mean nothing - on the menu at the Devonshire is anything less than exceptional, a supreme achievement in sourcing, managing and cooking that shows every stage of the process and every person involved knows exactly what they're doing.

But the langoustine. Oh, the langoustine. I'm sure if I tell you that these are the best langoustine I've ever had in my life you have an inclination to think I'm overstating. I know I'm prone to exaggeration, I realise that, it's an issue. But I have eaten langoustine all over the UK and the world, and you have to believe me, these are the best langoustine I've ever had in my life. They start with the very best product - Loch Fyne beasties, sweet and fresh. That would be enough already. But then they glaze them with an emulsion that's made of "langoustine butter, prawn stock, cream mayonnaise, lemon juice and white soy" (again thank you Hotdinners) which somehow ends up tasting many, many times greater than the sum of its parts. Salty, buttery, spritzed with citrus, brushed with wood smoke, these were langoustine designed to ruin all other langoustine. Breathtakingly good.

We ended with a chocolate mousse with boozy cherries, and a Grand Marnier soufflé, theatrically flambéed tableside. With a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream dropped on top, it was both a dramatic and fitting end to a wonderful meal, but also a nod to the fine dining traditions where the head chef made his name. And you haven't lived until you've greedily scooped up the very last morsels of pudding soaked in orange brandy.

It's barely a couple of weeks since the Devonshire opened its doors, and yet it already feels settled and timeless, a grand old lady of London pubs. Partly that is of course because it occupies a handsome and lovingly restored Victorian building, although how much of the interior is original and how much a very tasteful recreation and reinvention perhaps only the owners will know. Those owners, by the way, are Oisin Rogers (formerly of the Guinea Grill) and Charlie Carroll (of the amazing Flatiron chain) and they have a bit of experience in running fantastic pubs and serving fantastic food respectively, so there was a large part of me expecting to be impressed. But just how stunning every aspect of the Devonshire is completely blindsided me. I've been boring everyone I met since with stories of that bread, and those langoustine, and, well, everything else about the place. I'm booked to go back in a couple of weeks, and if it hadn't been completely booked solid I would have gone earlier.

I'll stop now; if you aren't convinced by this point the Devonshire is worth your time, then you never will be. Every moment spent thinking and talking about the place is time better spent going there and enjoying it, and I suggest you do exactly that as soon as you can. If you want to know just how good a pub and kitchen can be, look no further than the corner of Denman and Sherwood streets, and this towering achievement in hospitality. I'll see you there.


I was invited to the Devonshire for the above meal, but I have been back a couple of times on my own dollar and am booked for another visit in a couple of weeks' time. Apologies for the terrible photos, my main camera has died and the above - aside from the exterior, which I grabbed from the Devonshire website - were taken with my iPhone.

Monday 6 November 2023

The Victoria, Oxshott

More often than not, any given world-class gastropub is a good journey away from London. There are exceptions, of course - the Drapers Arms, the Pelican, and the Baring are all brilliant places to enjoy a pie and a pint within the M25 - but these are rare. Usually, to find that sweet spot between value and quality, comfort and availability, rural charm and culinary excellence, you have to travel. And whether that's a full day's drive to Cornwall or Lancashire, or the 4 hour round trip on Southeastern trains to Fordwich, the inconvenience of the location is offset by the reward at your destination.

The Victoria in Oxshott is good enough to be worth a full transatlantic flight and expensive airport taxi, as I'll explain shortly, but it's a delight to report that this handsome building, a true Surrey neighbourhood pub, is only 30 minutes train ride - and, at the weekends at least, a measly £7 for the round trip - from Clapham Junction. Which, for some people (not least me), puts it closer to their front door than many London food pubs.

And what a pub it is. Our lunch was served on a table for two next to a log fire in the smart - though not tablecloth-y - restaurant section, although it's important to point out that unlike some "gastropubs" there is a whole other half of the building which is drinks and snacks only, served by the same smiling and helpful staff but more than fulfiling its role as a proper pub. Albeit a neighbourhood pub that serves elevated Modern British food like these fried oysters with seaweed mayonnaise, which had a lovely grease-free batter and very addictive texture.

I've got in the habit of ordering soup whenever I see it on a menu, partly because it's getting towards that time of year when being sat inside next to a log fire tucking into a bowl of hot soup just feels absolutely right, but also because actually, something as simple as a soup - in this case leek and potato - is quite a good way of testing whether a kitchen can get the basics right as well as the fancier end of things. And this soup was pretty much perfect - perfectly seasoned, a nice thick satisfying texture and packed full of seasonal flavour. I practically licked the bowl clean.

And speaking of the 'fancier end of things', mushroom parfait matched some very cheffy techniques (such as a beautifully smooth and richly flavoured parfait) with strong presentational skills, slices of raw mushroom arranged delicately around the parfait. Alongside some beautiful, buttery toasted brioche, it was another near-faultless course.

From this point, the Victoria could do no wrong. I was never likely to not enjoy a course of duck breast (pink, sliced) and leg (made into a kind of sausage), especially not when served with lovely soft girolles mushrooms and hay baked carrot. But when a neat little jug of exquisite duck jus was plonked down alongside, I was in my own personal heaven. The extremely clever thing about the Victoria is not that it does fine dining dishes like this so well - well, not just that - but also because it does fish and chips, a burger, and a selection of chargrilled steaks to keep the, let's say, less food-wanker element happy too.

Halibut with courgettes, basil and nori was also good, I'm told, although it had long since disappeared by the time I scooped up the last few bits of duck from my plate, and then, when I thought nobody was looking, pouring the leftover jus straight into my mouth. I'm not exactly proud of that, but I don't regret doing it either.

Desserts kept up the same fierce standards. Banoffee pie soufflé was everything it needed to be and more, big and bold and with a fantastic internal structure - none of that egginess or grease you get with lesser examples. This was served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, an intelligent choice which highlighted the main flavours without adding a confusing extra note.

And Black Forest cake brought to mind the famous Heston Blumenthal version, containing a variety of different textures and techniques, and the "cherry liquor ice cream" delicate and moreish. It's worth repeating that everything was so good, so intelligently presented and skilfully built, that I can confidently predict you can't go wrong at the Victoria. This is an operation working at the very highest levels.

Now, of course, there's the disclaimer that we didn't pay, but as I've repeated ad nauseum on these pages, that just gets you slightly better service, and if you're lucky a nice table next to a log fire - you can't make better food just for the PR invites, it's still the same kitchen. I've totted up roughly what we ordered and it comes to about £152 for food, £50 ish for booze, so it's not exactly a budget offering, but then food like this never comes cheap. If you're heading out for a top gastropub meal these days and hoping to spend under £100/head, you're only likely to be disappointed.

And again, there's the factor of its location. If the Victoria was in Cornwall, or Lancashire, or East Kent, I'd still be singing its praises and recommending you sort yourselves out with a local AirBnB and intercity train. But in Oxshott, 30 min from London on a very cheap South West Trains weekend ticket, the Victoria has all the benefits and charm of a local rural pub, but with no need for the extra expense of a room for the night. It really has everything going for it. And you'd be silly not to take full advantage.


I was invited to the Victoria. Apologies for the lack of photos - the above were salvaged from a friend after my main camera died.